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T.E. W. (terez93) - Reviews

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13 Ghosts: Strange But True Stories
13 Ghosts: Strange But True Stories
Author: Will Osborne
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 14
Review Date: 6/5/2021


This was one of my first forays into mystery (or horror!) literature when I was a kid. It came from the Scholastic Book Club, probably when I was in seventh grade or so, having been published in 1988, I believe. It's regrettably short, only about 85 pages, and the stories are fascinating, so I would have liked to have had a bit more information about them. Ranging in period from ancient to modern, it offers short vignettes about some well-known encounters with the paranormal. Definitely kid-friendly, but intriguing enough to make even adults want to learn more about each of these fascinating cases.


The Alchemist
The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho, Alan R. Clarke (Translator)
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 41
Review Date: 6/5/2021


Almost as soon as I began reading, the famous Haruki Marukami quote came to mind: âWhatever it is you're seeking won't come in the form you're expecting.â That's true for both the characters in the novel, but it's also true for the novel itself.

Many state here that this much-praised novel is simplistic, and poorly written (which can sometimes be a difficulty with translations), but that's simply not so: it's brilliantly written in that regard. The beauty is in its seeming simplicity, but it is replete with powerful yet subtle messages which have almost universal application. In the same way as the character, the book demands that the reader do a fair bit of the work, in deriving meaning from some quite abstract text. In other words, you have to read between the lines, as it doesn't spell it out for you, but that allows each individual to interject their own personal journey into the story.

On the surface, The Alchemist tells the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy, who experiences a dream, or vision, which prompts him to contemplate selling his flock and leaving his relatively secure life, the only existence he has ever known, to travel across the sea and the vast, unknown desert, to see the Pyramids of Giza. Santiago encounters many people on his journey, which The Divine intends for him to meet, while in search of his own Personal Legend. As in our own lives, those we encounter, seemingly by chance, but perhaps not, affect us, and direct us down a particular path.

The message here is, each person is traveling their own path - curiously, however, most don't know, or acknowledge, that they're on a journey, and that their decisions affect the outcome, as well as the personal journeys of those whom they encounter. Perhaps that's a message to those on that particular life course, a journey of discovery: as the text states, most people have given up, and settle for a life of relative safety, comfort, and ultimately, complacency, until death takes them, and their energies again return to the Universal whole, the Voice of the World.

The Alchemist refers to both the character, the person who has learned the secret of turning physical elements into gold, but it also refers to Santiago, who, through his travels and experiences, learns the secret of transformation, not of lead into gold, but the mundane, into the extraordinary. We can all be an alchemist in that regard: learning the secret of transformation, through study and personal experiences spent in the world, in encountering others, and by learning from our mistakes as well as our triumphs. Santiago, as well as the readers, also learn, at the end of this particular phase of his journey, that things often come full circle, but that we don't or can't appreciate them until we have traveled beyond the confines of the comfortable and familiar. Not until we have traveled the path and learned to listen to the Voice of the World, as well as our inner voice, do we become aware that the treasure that we week often lies right beneath our feet. As with so many other stories: the true value and goal is the journey itself, not the destination.

I won't go so far as to say that it's a life-changing book (maybe life-affirming!), but this beautifully composed, esoteric, cathartic and inspiring work is a definite must-read. What is alchemy, after all: this modern fable tells us that it is simply the process of transforming one element into another. It also assures us that although the path may be difficult, anyone can do that with their life, too, as an act of sheer will and faith. The book is valuable for that reason alone: introspection is its own reward.
------------------NOTABLE PASSAGES---------------

"The famous alchemists... were men who had dedicated their entire lives to the purification of metals in their laboratories; they believed that, if a metal were heated for many years, it would free itself of all its individual properties and what was left would be the Soul of the World. This Soul of the World allowed them to understand anything on the face of the earth, because it was the language with which all things communicated."

"They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves."

The most mundane tasks, when undertaken with positivity and the expectation of goodness, can lead to one's purification and becoming one with the Soul of the World, an understanding of all things, by mastering the one. "The boy thought about the crystal merchant. He had said that it was a good thing for the boy to clean the crystal pieces, so that he could free himself from negative thoughts. The boy was becoming more and more convinced that alchemy could be learned in one's daily life." Even a small piece of this refined material can transform the most common and mundane elements into the rare - pure gold. That's true of the elements of life, as well. That's the point of the book, really: transform one's mundane existence into the expectation of treasure, by refining mundane things, with the proper mentality. Very zen.

"Everyone has his or her own way of learning things... His way isn't the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we're both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that."


America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks
Review Date: 10/10/2019


Am I happy? YOU BETCHA, after reading this book! Finally, a self-book which actually HELPS! 100% SUCCESS RATE!! (see below)

I'm slowly wading through it, but, admittedly, it's taking me some time... 'cause I'm incessantly being interrupted from laughing so hard I can't breathe. Check out this gem:

"I head next door to try out a couple of the 'hosted conversations,' smaller round table discussions, each on a specific theme, with a self-appointed host leading the conversation... The host is an executive coach, and, as he explains to the assembled group, a highly successful man. 'I'm a rock star in my field,' he tells us: 'I've reached a point in my life where I never have to say "I can't afford it."' ...He opens the discussion up to the group. 'What are you all curious to discuss with others to support you in conscious prosperity?'
'I want abundance,' says one of the women, clearly not sold on the idea of scarcity.
'Do you mean money?' I ask her.
'Yes,' she admits. 'But abundance sounds more Buddhist.'
I try another table. At this one the discussion topic sign reads 'The Most Important Principle in Business-I Love You.'
The host is a trim-looking man in his late forties, wearing the name tag Mark. He glances at my own name tag as I sit down.
'Hi Ruth: I love you,' says Mark.
I must look slightly taken aback, so he explains, 'Imagine a world in which every conversation started with "I love you." I go into businesses and run workshops on this principle. I have a hundred percent success rate.'
'At what?' I ask, confused.
'At breaking down barriers around "I love you." Can you imagine a world in which that happened?' he continues. "In which every time the president addressed the American people he started with "I love you"? In which every debate in Congress started with "I love you"? Every conversation in business?'
'Don't you think it might start to lose some of its meaning after a while?' I ask.
'I couldn't disagree more.' The woman sitting on the other side of Mark, who has been quiet up until this point, leaps to his defense. 'Let's not use this precious time for him to have to defend an idea that clearly doesn't need defending.'
Mark looks happy. He and the woman start talking to each other animatedly, and ignoring me. I suspect they no longer love me.
'"I love you'" is a can opener and catalyst,' says Mark. The woman nods enthusiastically. I try to inject myself back into the conversation.
'Is there anyone you don't love?' I ask.
'No,' says Mark. But after a moment's reflection, he reconsiders. 'Well, there are people that I f***ing hate and I wish God would take them. One of them is my business partner. I say to myself several times a day, "I love you."'
I think this might be unplanned, but he recovers his sales spiel quickly.
'Imagine, Ruth, if you started your next business meeting with "I love you." How would your boss feel?'
'I don't have a boss, but if I did, I imagine he or she would probably be a bit uncomfortable if I did that,' I say.
'But that's exactly my point. It's not about him. It's about you.'
'Don't you think that when you say something you should take into account how it will make the other person feel?' I ask.
The women steps in to answer on Mark's behalf, with the slightly pained tone of the enlightened trying not to lose patience with an obvious idiot. 'I just don't see the world that way,' she says. 'I take care of myself; you take care of yourself.'
'What do you do for a living?' I ask her.
'I WORK WITH BUSINESSES TEACHING COMPASSION.'"

PRICELESS!!

The rest of the book isn't as laugh-out-loud funny as this passage, but it's a pretty great exploration of the American concept of Happiness, and our seeming-obsession with how to achieve it, even if the process is making us miserable. Author Ruth Whipmann takes on the various facets of American happiness, from the self-help industry, to happiness in the workplace (or lack thereof), to parenting and misery to Mormonism and the "put-on-a-happy-face" façade of actual happiness (to judge from the number of defectors).

With a sharp wit and enviable insight, RW explores the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness, in life and business. She addresses the multi-billion dollar self-help (so-called) with humor and insight. Indeed, much of the book, which I GREATLY appreciated, demonstrated that, yes, Brits are frequently right when they start off on every journey assuming that everything is rubbish, and this is the most preeminent example. See the passage above: enough said for this topic. LOL

The chapter on parenting and happiness is likewise revealing, and sometimes brutally honest, as it is a forthcoming discussion on the issues surrounding happy kids and parents. Whether having children, as is often claimed, is instrumental for women to be truly happy and fulfilled depends heavily on the individual, as she notes. My favorite passage from this chapter is one of the most profound in the entire book, at least from the perspective of a childless spinster with multiple graduate degrees. It reads: "Most parents would agree that parenthood has opened up an otherwise inaccessible capacity for joy in their lives... No one wants to feel that they have made an irreversible life choice proved empirically to be a one-way ticket to misery. These studies laugh in the face of the eternal social bargain between parents and nonparents: they get freedom, we get joy. They get cocktails, we get meaning. Without the coziness of that emotional certainty, parenthood becomes just guilt and feces."

The chapter on happiness and religiousness centers on the author's time spent with a Mormon family, often cited in studies as the single happiest group in America, in the happiest city in America, Salt Lake City, Utah. It is very shortly clear, however, that not all that glitters is gold, and that LDS adherents face many of the same problems as everyone else, including self-doubt as to their life choices and frequently depression, despite the overwhelming community support they often enjoy that is lacking in other places. Again, I think the lesson is that happiness is such a highly individualized concept that it differs for each person, but "forced happiness," or the demand for outward expression of happiness and contentment is almost ever-present, whether it's at work, at church, or on social media, the subject of the next chapter.

In the same vein, the author explores the outward projection of happiness that Facebook and similar platforms have provided for people, who seemingly also hide behind a veil of happiness and contentment, concealing any unpleasantries behind the idealized photos they frequently post. Her own experiences also highlight the dark side of social media, that is, the tendency to foster an almost addictive desire for validation in the form of likes and comments on postings, which leads to ever greater unhappiness and stress when such feedback is perceived to be lacking. This is a dramatically under-acknowledged source of unhappiness in the modern world, in my opinion, which is why I personally eschew daily social media usage. I think it's most effective when it's used as a kind of an electronic journal that is intended to enhance your life, perhaps affording an opportunity to reflect on the things that you did or thought at a certain time in one's life rather than an outward display of a faux persona intended to impress people.

In sum, this was a very worthwhile book, with many moments of insight and introspection. I don't know if it will actually serve to enhance happiness on a broad scale, but it certainly provides readers with the opportunity to think about their own definition of happiness in a meaningful way.


American Hate: Survivors Speak Out
American Hate: Survivors Speak Out
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.3/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 6/21/2020


If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
-Frederick Douglass

One statement in the first few pages really set the tone of this book, for good or ill: Sethi writes:

"We must begin by acknowledging that this country was built on a hate crime. The Native people of this land were displaced and exterminated to make room for Christians and Europeans."

Different than many of the other books I've read about recent times, this one is a compilation of interviews collected by the editor, who has had his own brushes with discrimination. It chronicles individual stories of a diverse group of people who describe their struggles in living in their own American communities. Nigh on the third decade of the twenty-first century, the realization of how little we've really progressed toward equality, and, more generally, simple respect and a basic sense of civility is disheartening. The book also not only includes the stories of the persons affected, and how hate has impacted their lives and communities, but it also describes the tools used to propagate hate, which increasingly involves social media.

I'm glad I read the stories of the individuals who have been directly affected, but the book was excessively political for my taste. I might have rated it higher had it not really sought to focus specifically on what people believe "Trump" has done to the US. I appreciate that the interviewees describe how things have changed for them, but, to me, most poignantly, the accounts demonstrate how things have NOT really changed all that much, frankly, as most of these brave souls describe discrimination throughout their lives, both in and outside the US. Most also point to gruesome violence in their own homelands as well, which is just another type of hate, something there is globally just too much of.

One interviewee stated their belief that a particular hate group "now act[s] with impunity, and think they have license to hurt others," but this has been much the situation for the history of the US, sadly. I recall with dismay one report which stated that the threats against a black president had increased some (?) 400 percent, which suggests that it isn't really the current administration which is inciting further hate and violence. I remember the climate in the US just after 9/11, which many younger people just *don't*. I think, similarly, a series of world events and terror attacks have affected people's outcome toward certain groups in general, misguided though it may be, so it may well have to do more with world events endlessly paraded and sensationalized by mainstream media rather than a single individual.

For example: the editor states that "boys and men are parroting the President," with the result that one in six girls now complains of being groped in school. There are a couple of ways to conceptualize this statistic, however: I think we also need to look at the incidence of reporting. In an era where kindergartners can sexually harass, the changing definition might have something to do with the dramatic increase. I'm not so certain that this hasn't been the case previously, but it was so much more normalized in the past that no one really thought to report inappropriate touching as sexual assault or harassment.

Example: I've had two friends who experienced what I think would be called today "precocious puberty" in junior high school, and were subjected to what I would legitimately call almost incessant sexual harassment and even occasional assault (i.e., "groping"), but no one at the schools (in two different states, mind you, one of them California, a liberal bastion extraordinaire) took it seriously or really took any action at all, having the attitude that "boys will be boys." One teacher (!) even told my friend that "if you don't let it bother you and they see that it doesn't bother you, they'll stop doing it." Fortunately, I think that this type of attitude has changed, which is the first step to changing attitudes and behavior at large. At least it's now being called out.

As such, I think it's simplistic to blame any one person or group, and we need to look much deeper at the roots of hate, in order to also understand the perspectives of the people who are perpetrating it, to try to avoid more people becoming like them. Sethi likewise argues that the solution must come from the bottom up, rather than the top down in the form of a leader serving as an example, but that wouldn't hurt either: it was discouraging to see the rather laissez-faire attitude of my fellow Americans during the Clinton sex scandal, where a known rapist attained the office of the president and continued to perpetrate misconduct, literally inside the Oval Office, with very few repercussions. Clearly, misconduct among those in high places isn't going to improve for the foreseeable future, but We the People should at this point be able to regulate ourselves, and empathizing with people brave enough to tell their stories is a good way to go about it.


An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Creative Classic Series)
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Creative Classic Series)
Author: Ambrose Bierce
Book Type: Library Binding
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 11/29/2019


This short story took all of about 20 minutes to read in its entirety, but it was such a good story I thought I would give it a go. I admit, I've never heard of Ambrose Bierce, but he seems a master storyteller. Apparently, this one is also quite famous, but I have hitherto been unacquainted with it. Glad that I came across it in the library!

Bierce's personal story is worthy of a novel itself! He is a rather mysterious character. The tenth child in a brood of thirteen, Ambrose (all the kids had names starting with "A") attended the Kentucky Military Institute, and then joined the confederate army as a drummer boy. He was wounded and moved to San Francisco, to be cared for by his brother; it was there he began drawing political cartoons and became a rather well-known figure. He became an associate of writers including Bret Harte and Mark Twain. He married, had a few children, moved to England, and back again, and eventually became an employee of William Randolph Hurst. After some marital and family problems and the death of his two sons, he left California in 1913 on a trip to Mexico... and was never seen or heard from again. Most think that he was killed in the civil conflict of 1914, but no one knows for certain.

This story is one of his darker ones: a southern gentleman stands condemned to be hanged from the bridge he tried to burn down in support of the Confederate states; the rope breaks, and he is able to make his escape and return to his plantation and waiting family... or does he? Written in capable, lush and descriptive 19th century prose, this short story is representative of the type of folk tales that were so popular during that era. Apparently there has been a movie made about this short story.
------------
Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.


Animal Farm (Centennial Edition)
Animal Farm (Centennial Edition)
Author: George Orwell
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 114
Review Date: 7/29/2019


The following constitutes much more a commentary than a review, as this is another book for which is almost impossible to perform the latter. I first read it in part when I was a teenager, as I was kind of fascinated with the Soviet Union, and then Russia, in the wake of the former's collapse, which occurred when I was still a teenager also. I read it with the intent of learning about the Russian Revolution from one of the world's greatest authors, and it didn't disappoint. What I probably like most about satire is that not everything is spelled out for a reader; you have to actually dig a little deeper to find what are essentially hidden messages, what we could call today "Easter eggs." That said, I admit that it was a bit confusing at the time, as I wasn't acquainted with all the key events (the book loosely follows the major players and phases of the Revolution, but doesn't fit exactly) or characters. The major players include:

-OLD MAJOR = probably a mixture of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (AKA Lenin
-NAPOLEON = Stalin (b. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili), a cruel, depspotic figure (I won't call him a leader; kidnapper, hostage-taker, more like) who uses military force to consolidate his power and near-constant subterfuge and propagdanda, with interittent episodes of explosive violence and intimidation to maintain it
-SNOWBALL = the far more eloquent and idealistic Trotsky, a figure most people today have never even heard of, who becomes the scapegoat for the regime's failures and shortcomings, and who is blamed and then blacklisted even from memory
-JONES = the Tsar, but probalby more the idealized figure of a King of All the Russians, who was considered semi-divine, or, by extension, the entire system of the monarchy, rather than the singular individual of Nicholas II
-SQUEALER = the propagandist, who seemingly represents a whole cast of characters and dispersal media for Napoleon's message
-BOXER = the proletariat, working class, who is initially idealistic but ceaselessly exploited for the ends of the elites, too stupid and overworked to understand their own plight, and who are worked to death and then, despite their loyalty, disposed of when they are no longer of any use
-BENJAMIN = the wise but cynical elder who's seemingly seen it all; he refuses to take sides, believing, probably correctly, that nothing really changes; the more things change, the more they stay the same; the only history that hasn't happened yet is the history we don't know
-MOLLIE, the vain, attention-seeking, self-absorbed mare who defects from the farm, as did the minor nobility who fled Russia after the Revolution when it became apparent that their lot had worsened considerably and that they could do better elsewhere and the two figures of
-MR. FREDERICK and MR. PILKINGTON, largely considered to represent Hitler (in the 30s and 40s) and the British/American alliance, respectively.

There are several key morals to this story, and in the interest of time and space here I won't recount all of them. I will simply say this: to me, the most profound message of this book, which differs somewhat from the more famous 1984, is: the tongue is mightier than the sword.

The key theme herein is the power of language, both in its use and misuse, to manipulate potential allies and supporters, and to overcome one's opponent and to silence debate; this book is further support for my attestation that Orwell was a Prophet: the degree to which Orwell (AKA Eric Blair) anticipates the ability of elites to manipulate language to further their agenda and the power of mass media is staggering. I think it's far more applicable in our own time than in his, when mass media was still really in its infancy, and had not yet attained its pervasive intrusion into almost every facet of life. For example, Napoleon can simultaneously use language to manipulate his followers and to silence his dissenters, by spreading false narratives, primarily surrounding the figure of Snowball, who is made a scapegoat for all of Napoleon's own failings, and by tolerating and even encouraging the bleating of the sheeple, I mean sheep, "two legs bad, four legs good," and then "four legs good, two legs better" (which is all the simpletons are able to understand) to silence any dissent, along with the use of jargon which is little understood by the uneducated, unintelligent and overworked masses.

Orwell is one of my favorite authors, a prospect that has disturbed me since childhood. I may have written this elsewhere before, but if there are modern-day prophets, he's one of them. There have been throughout history those people who, for whatever reason, can, simply put, see the future. They somehow can peer through the almost-infinite threads of time and events to see and describe one singularity, and can then espouse and describe the major events along the way with startling accuracy. I have no doubt that many of his predictions will come to pass; the question is simply when, and what comes next.


Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl - The Definitive Edition
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl - The Definitive Edition
Author: Otto M. Frank
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
 26
Review Date: 11/20/2019


"Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a novel about the Secret Annex. The title alone would make people think it was a detective story. Seriously, though, ten years after the war, people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate and what we talked about as Jews in hiding."

And with those words, it came to pass. This diary, rather than a novel, is one of the most important works of the 20th century. That said, I have to confess that it is not a pleasant or pleasurable book to read; at least, it never has been for me. It's just important to bear witness, and to keep close in mind that perhaps ten million people were murdered in about a five-year period by the Nazi regime-each person had a story; this is but one of them. I read this book in high school, of course, but there is a fair bit of additional content in this edition. I understand, however, why some of the content was omitted from the original version, which was compiled and edited by the only survivor of the Annex, Anne's father Otto. It's far more complete and revealing however, but, back to the unpleasant bit, I feel excessively voyeuristic in reading it, despite its significance. These are the writings of a teenage girl, which include her deepest thoughts and secrets, which I don't think she would have revealed to the world even if she had published a book in time.

Ideally, everyone has their own takeaway messages from this remarkable testimony, but there are several themes I think are more prominent in this edition than in the others. First, which often surprises first-time readers, there is not all that much content about the war. Much of the text centers on conflicts between the eight members of the household: Anne and her sister Margot, two years her senior, her parents, the van Dann (Pels) family, and an elderly dentist, Mr. Dussel. Anne vacillates between gratitude for being relatively safe in hiding, when so many others were being slaughtered outside the walls which concealed her family, and abject misery, to the degree that death sometimes seemed a welcome release: at one point, she states, "I've reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, and I can't do anything to change events anyway. I'll just let matters take their course and concentrate on studying and hope that everything will be all right in the end."

Much centers on the great interpersonal conflict, arising from talk about everything, from politics to the work load, to whose turn it is for the bathroom or a particular area of the house, and from practicalities of their meager existence, particularly the hording of precious food items. Anne is constantly at odds with her mother, and some of the material she wrote was harsh sufficient to be left out of the initial edition. They clearly don't have a close relationship, with Anne preferring the company of her father to that of her sister or particularly her mother. It's curious to consider whether they felt the same way when they were separated. The passages which are highly critical of even close family members, indicative of the level of strain the assemblage is subjected to on a daily basis, are particularly difficult to get through, as readers know how the account ends.

Much of the conflict is certainly understandable, if not expected. The confinement is not unlike prison, and Anne frequently laments the inability to go outside, or even to open a window. Detection would mean certain death. Some of my favorite passages articulate this longing: for example, she writes that "the best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with he sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature's beauty and simplicity. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles." Confinement for nearly two years took a heavy toll on the occupants, but Anne was able to find small measure of happiness in her blossoming relationship with the quiet Peter van Pels.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking addition to this volume is the overt sexuality expressed within the pages of her diary, an intimate account which I still felt uncomfortable reading, as I know that Anne wouldn't have wanted people to read some of this content. It seems more than the musings and innocent discoveries of a sheltered teenage girl: for example, Anne writes: "once when I was spending the night at Jacque's [a friend's house], I could no longer restrain my curiosity about her body, which she'd always hidden from me and which I'd never seen... I also had a terrible desire to kiss her, which I did. Every time I see a female nude, such as the Venus in my art history book, I go into eustasy. Sometimes I find hem so exquisite I have to struggle to hold back my tears. If only I had a girlfriend!" The normalcy of exploring one's emerging sexuality and identity was, of course, stunted significantly by the severe isolation, and how her feelings would have developed in time is anyone's guess.

Perhaps most profoundly, the diary speaks to the juxtaposition of the human condition: the great humanity in the face of terrible risk and adversity, in the persons of Bep, Miep, Jan, and the others who concealed this family, at great personal risk, but also the inhumanity inflicted by those around them, both the Nazis and the collaborators, who were encouraged to report any Jews in hiding for a reward. No doubt someone actually did. It's also clear that even as of about 1943, people were well aware that Jews and others were being rounded up and shipped to their deaths; the occupants of the Annex were aware that people were being gassed, and say so. I have no doubt that Anne would have been an accomplished writer, had she survived the war, but the diary in its present form would not have come down to us intact. This remarkable account is, as I stated above, the story of just one person who tragically lost their life during this unprecedented period of history, which constituted some of the darkest days in the history of human civilization.

------------NOTABLE PASSAGES-----------
Margot and I started packing our most important belongings into a schoolbag. The first thing I stuck in was the diary... and some old letters. Preoccupied by the thought of going into hiding, I stuck the craziest things in the bag, but I'm not sorry. Memories mean more to me than dresses.

Fine specimens of humanity, those Germans, and to think I'm actually one of them! No, that's not true; Hitler took away our nationality long ago. And besides, there are no greater enemies on earth than the Germans and the Jews.

We're so fortunate here, away from the turmoil. We wouldn't have to give a moment's thought to all this suffering if it weren't for the fact that we're so worried about those we hold dear, whom we can no longer help. I feel wicked sleeping in a warm bed, while somewhere out there my dearest friends are dropping from exhaustion and being knocked to the ground. I get frightened myself when I think of close friends who are now at the mercy of the cruelest monsters ever to stalk the earth. And all because they're Jews.

When I think about our lives here, I usually come to the conclusion that we live in a paradise compared to Jews who aren't in hiding. All the same, later on, when everything has returned to normal, I'll probably wonder how we, who always lived in such comfortable circumstances, could have "sunk" so low.

I'd like to scream at Mother, Margot, the van Daans, Dussel and Father, too: "Leave me alone; let me have at least one night when I don't cry myself to sleep with my eyes burning and my head pounding. Let me get away, away from everything, away from this world!"

The atmosphere is stifling, sluggish, leaden. Outside, you don't hear a single bird, and a deathly, oppressive silence hangs over the house and clings to me as if it were going to drag me into the deepest regions of the underworld... I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. "Let me out, where there's fresh air and laughter!" a voice within me cries.

I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we're standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter. We're surrounded by darkness and anger, and in our desperate search for a way out, we keep bumping into each other. We look at the fighting down below and the peace and beauty up above. In the meantime, we've been cut off by the dark mass of clouds, so that we can go neither up nor down. It looms before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, "Oh, ring, ring, open wide and let us out!"

Why do I always think and dream the most awful things and want to scream in terror? Because, in spite of everything, I still don't have enough faith in God He's given me so much, which I don't deserve, and yet each day I make so many mistakes! Thinking about the suffering of those you hold dear can reduce you to tears: in fact, you could spend the whole day crying. The most you can do pray for God to perform a miracle and save at least some of them. And I hope I'm doing enough of that!

Whenever you're feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you'll know that you're pure within and will find happiness once more.

When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great; will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I shop so very much, because writing allows me to record everything, all my thoughts, ideals and fantasies.

I don't want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!


Armageddon in Retrospect
Armageddon in Retrospect
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 12
Review Date: 7/29/2019


This collection of short works by Kurt Vonnegut was released on the first anniversary of his death, and includes a poignant, if unconventional tribute, written by his son, the Doctor Vonnegut, who was an author in his own right. This eclectic collection includes letters, speeches and short stories generally centered around the theme of war, hence the title, but the last short story, written from the perspective of the future, bears this title as well.

This collection includes stories with a much more broad time frame than we are used to seeing from KV. It features scenes from the more familiar ones, but also one from a post-Hastings world, in the wake of the Norman conquest of England (the Unicorn Trap), and, as stated, the last one from the future, in a post-Armageddon world where war has taken on a very interesting form (time travel to a devastating battle during WWI). KV once said through one of his characters, "I would have given anything to die in a war that meaningful," and I wonder if he really meant it. As I have stated in other reviews, the trauma of Dresden never left him, but he channeled his clear case of PTS(d) into a prolific body of work which explored the human psyche in the wake of warfare. The message is clear: don't. And, from some things, there is no return. I think KV spent the rest of his life reading of others' experiences to try to comprehend his own.

That said, this volume may not resonate with those unfamiliar with KV's work, but, having quite a few of his novels under my belt, I'm very glad that this unpublished material was made accessible for his fans. The stories are short, but no less profound.

--------Notable Passages--------

In my early-to-mid-twenties he let is slip that he was afraid that therapy might make him normal and well-adjusted, and that would be the end of his writing. I tried to reassure him that psychiatrists weren't nearly that good.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive cts. What they subvert is the notion tht things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. zte world is a slightly different place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that.

If anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal-injection facility, maybe the one at Terre Haute, here is what your last words should be: "This will certainly teach me a lesson."

The physical anthropologists, who had studied human skulls going back thousands of yeras, said we were only supposed to live for thirty-five yeras or so, because that's how long our teeth lasted without modern dentistr. Weren't those the good old days: thirty-five years and we were out of here. Talk about intelligent design! Now all the Baby Boomers who can affod dentistry and health insurnce, poor bastards, are going to live to be a hundred!

My advice to writers just starting out? Don't use semi-colons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college.


The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman
The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman
Author: Andrzej Szczypiorski, Klara Glowczewska (Translator)
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 2/27/2020


This heartbreaking yet moving story takes place primarily between 1942-1943, and recounts a series of tales of Warsaw's inhabitants as they attempt to negotiate their lives during what can be described as no less than the collapse of their civilization. The novel takes the form of a series of seemingly disjointed vignettes, which in actuality are joined by a single thread, in the form of the primary character, which brilliantly demonstrates the interconnectedness of the lives of the inhabitants of a vibrant city, which is in this case methodically dismantled by the forces of evil. As the author states, the Nazi regime is the "triumph of mediocrity," whose proponents have "no special gift except a willingness to unquestioningly follow orders."

The main characters are a teenage boy who becomes infatuated with a young widow, the "beautiful Mrs. Seidenman," who is Jewish, but whose blonde hair and blue eyes make her appear as a Pole. She thus lives, for a time, under false papers, but is recognized and outed to the Gestapo by a fellow Jew who betrays his fellows to their deaths in order to perpetuate his own survival. The story then becomes a race against time to save her, seemingly involving in some way the entire city, or what remains of it.

The novel jumps around from character to character, which also includes a judge (who survives the war) at the mercy of a war profiteer, two young friends, one a Jew, the other Catholic, "equals in every sense except in the eyes of the Nazis," only one of whom survives the cataclysm, to the minor characters, including a prostitute, two talented tailors - one a Jew, another a Pole, neither of which survive the war, to a brilliant Jewish lawyer who attempts to save his young daughter by relinquishing her to a friend.

It also moves back and forth in time, from events such as the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, to the uprising in 1944, and even further into the future, such as the protests in 1970 and the election of a Polish pope in 1978, which likewise demonstrates the interconnectedness and overlapping events in the history of the city, little of which survived the war.

The resilience of its inhabitants is front and center, however, as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the collapse, but the novel also speaks to the disillusionment many survivors felt, as their relief was short lived. The suffocating grip of communism soon replaced what Warsaw's inhabitants had endured under the Nazi regime, which was little improvement.

The novel is actually quite complex, although not lengthy, but it attempts to take on a bit too much, and becomes rather haphazard in the loss of focus. The complexity is highlighted in the characters, most of whom are not what one would typically imagine. They are far from the stereotypical stock characters sometimes seen in holocaust literature; in this case, the author twists our expectations to demonstrate that desperation in extraordinary circumstances can lead anyone to depravity, but it also highlights their heroism and nobility, just not always in the manner expected.

The story initially focuses more on the personal accounts of the characters, any of whom could actually be real people, and may have been. About halfway through, it curiously changes tone to become more "political," concentrating instead on the events which occur in Poland after the war, which could be said to demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit, and the strength to endure whatever comes next, but it devolves a bit for me at that point.

The first half weaves a rich tapestry of details of the lives of the characters and the events they encounter, but the second half, less so. This is still a worthwhile read, however, and is a very moving and personal account, one which speaks of both pride but also disillusionment.


The Beginner's Guide to Heritage Breeds: Rescuing and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry
Review Date: 6/21/2020


As an agricultural and environmental historian, heritage genetics are something of a fascination for me. As a couple of the other reviewers have noted, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in heritage breeds, particularly in light of the farm-to-table movement and sustainable agriculture, which is highly encouraging. Animals with unique characteristics which appeal to individuals with different goals and tastes encourages more small-scale production, as opposed to the limited opportunities of raising commercial improved livestock strains.

The content sacrifices depth for breadth, but it's a good introduction and general information for novice to intermediate breeders, or for someone who wants to learn what's involved. It provides a good overview of both the unique challenges heritage breeders face in a commercial-dominated industry, and a description of the major heritage breeds in the US. It touches on both the breeds of livestock, as well as the practical aspects of management, including how heritage breeds feature into modern farming operations, the "art and science of breeding," and the community involved in the heritage movement. Each of the nine chapters, or at least the broad categories, could (and does) have a book on its own, but it provides some essential basic information for the novice, including which species is right and how to get started. If you're looking for information about animal care and management, however, you will really need to look elsewhere. It would be difficult indeed to include even a general overview of care when so many species are included; as such, there are just some general comments in this book, geared toward the unique aspects of heritage breed management.

My one difficulty was that the arrangement is somewhat haphazard; better organization would make it more accessible. Some of the information is also rather general, but it's definitely intended for a non-specialist. I would definitely recommend it for youth or for persons interested in what is involved in getting started in, especially, small-scale livestock production, geared toward an urban or suburban environment.


Birth of the Firebringer (Firebringer, Bk 1)
Birth of the Firebringer (Firebringer, Bk 1)
Author: Meredith Ann Pierce
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
 10
Review Date: 6/21/2020


Need to do some catch-up, so I'm putting some books on my to-read list which are a bit out of character for me, so to speak. I was going through some old papers recently, and found a box of books I had when I was younger. They almost count as new reads; I haven't read most of them in decades. I also need some lighter material, as what I've been working through over the last month or so has been pretty heavy going.

This definitely counts as something of a flight of fancy! Apparently there are now sequels to this novel, first published in 1985. I think this is one of the first-run paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Club. Can't count how many of those I had at one time, or how many I still have. Having studied Classical mythology for several years, I see how old themes still resonate, and are reinterpreted time and again. In this delightful read, which hearkens back to ancient times, both in the manner of the story and in its vernacular, a young firebrand, literally, in this case, undertakes a quest, an arduous and dangerous pilgrimage with others of his "people," as an initiation into adulthood. It just so happens that the "people" are unicorns, but humans or any of a vast array of other mythical characters could easily be substituted.

The creator of this world is Alma, an omniscient equid of some descript, at least as imagined by her Creation: another case of a god made in man's (or unicorn's) image, a reflection of our own creation mythology. In this richly imagined world, imbued with the forces of nature, there are many elements we would find familiar: warring tribes (griffins, pans, dragons, the treacherous worm-like wyverns, and the unicorns themselves) (species), with their own languages, traditions, conflicts and alliances, fashioned sufficient to serve as metaphor; quests; kings and princes; seers of dreams, magicians and healers, all of which make for a first rate fantasy tale. I don't want to spoil the ending, so I'll just leave off here. This was intended as children's or adolescent literature, I think, but there's definitely sufficient depth and intrigue for an older audience. Short but worthwhile, and I'm considering checking out those later in the sequel.


The Black Death: An Intimate History
The Black Death: An Intimate History
Author: John Hatcher
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.2/5 Stars.
 3
Review Date: 7/29/2019


I've read innumerable books about the Black Death, from just about every perspective and angle imaginable, but I always enjoy those which bring a much-needed personal and intimate view to this tragic area of study. Some scholars have difficulty with this type of history, as, admittedly, a fair amount of it is conjecture, but it imparts a much-needed dimension, and is far more accessible to a more general audience than more academic works with which many people are less familiar and comfortable. It takes the form of a chronological account of the epidemic, which moved across the continent in a slow, unstoppable wave. Some of the most poignant scenes are the accounts of the people/characters who realize that a looming catastrophe is coming, but are seemingly powerless to do anything about it, or to protect themselves or their loved ones. Rather, they stoically await their fate as death closes in on their small village from all sides, like a flood, rendering escape impossible.

This book is a very good introduction to this vital event in world history. Some more in-depth knowledge of the topic would enhance it even more for readers, as there is a minimal amount of background information regarding the plague elsewhere than in England, but that's really the whole point of this work: to focus on one particular area and to provide an in-depth look at how it affected persons spanning the entirety of the social scale, from the wealthiest landowners (who weren't all that wealthy, comparatively, in this case), to the most destitute and landless, whose daily existence was a struggle for survival. When one reads other accounts of the wake of the plague, it becomes more clear and profound just how devastating this event was, and how it shaped the world in which we now live, despite occurring nearly seven centuries ago. This is what many would refer to as "micro" history, rather than macrohistory, of which there are plenty regarding this topic. It's not a novel or historical fiction, which the author eschewed in favor of a more traditional historical narrative, which I think many readers were expecting, but it provides a good balance between illustrating the various characters and the effect this event had on their lives, and providing a fairly thorough account of this specific period in world history.


Bluebeard (Delta Fiction)
Bluebeard (Delta Fiction)
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 47
Review Date: 7/29/2019


The premises of these novels are so ridiculous and absurd, they're genius, and, God, help me, I can't get enough. No one would take this stuff seriously, except, it's Kurt Vonnegut, so, why would you? Enough said. And then some. This particular gem weaves a moroseful tale of woe in the form of a feigned (maybe) autobiography of an Armenian modern artist whose life was ruined, along with his paintings, after an unfortunate turn with newly-developed postwar chemical-based wall paints. The paints destroyed the canvasses they were applied to, along with Rabo's career, constituting, in essence, the acts of a pack of polychromous suicide bombers intent on the destruction of the entire modern art establishment. A-men! Thank you, Sateen Dura-Lux! "The whole planet is now FUBAR with postwar miracles, but, back in the early 1960s, I was one of the first persons to be totally wrecked by one - an acrylic wall-paint whose colors, according to advertisements of the day, would '...outlive the smile on the Mona Lisa.'" Or not.

The novel is named for Bluebeard, a character who kills all his wives, one after another, in quick succession, after they look into the one room in the castle where they're forbidden to go. Curiosity killed the cat. Think along the lines of that scene in the Beauty and the Beast cartoon, where she goes into the West Wing and finds the enchanted rose, not ending so well. The monstrous betrayal occurs when Marilee and Rabo are caught by his patron and her abusive husband Dan Gregory, whose one request of them was to never go into the Museum of Modern Art; little does he know that they have been betraying him regularly, visiting often the institution which he despises. "I don't give a hoot what pictures you look at... all I asked was that you not pay your respects to an institution which thinks that the smears and spatters and splotches and daubs and dribbles and vomit of lunatics and degenerates and charlatans are great treasures we should all admire... and it's not your going in there which is the most insulting. No, it isn't that. It's how happy you were when you were coming out!"

(Some) joking aside: this is actually quite a complex novel, with multiple threads and layers of meaning. Most of the familiar Vonnegut themes make an appearance, including war, anti-war, death, relationships, especially filial estrangement, which seems another common theme (the same appears in Jailbird), human nature, and, chief among them in this novel, an ardent hatred of modernity (or the pernicious children it spawned) and a palpable distrust of technology. One key passage reads: "the Second World war had many of the promised characterstics of Armageddon, a final war between good and evil, so that nothing would do but that it be followed by miracles. Instant coffee was one. DDT was another. It was going to kill all the bugs, and nearly did. Nuclear energy was going to make electricty so cheap that it might not even be metered. It would also make another war unthinkable. Talk about loaves and fishes! Antibiotics would defeat all diseases. Lazarus would never die: how was that for a scheme to make the Son of God obsolete. Yes, and there were miraculous breakfast foods and would soon be helicopters for every family. There were miraculous new fibers which could be washed in cold water and need no ironing afterwards! Talk about a war well worth fighting!"

On the whole, the central theme of war appears again, and frames the whole of the novel. Rabo was eventually wounded in the war, losing an eye, and early on, KV foreshadows this unavoidable event. In the person of a salty newspaper editor, KV speaks: "just remember that the Europeans around you, who you think are so much more civilized than Americans, are looking forward to just one thing: the time when it will become legal to kill each other and knock everything down again. If I had my way... American geography books would call those European countries by their right names: 'The Syphilis Empire,' 'The Republic of Suicide,' 'Dementia Praecox,' which of course borders on beautiful 'Paranoia.' .... I've spoiled Europe for you, and you haven't even seen it yet."

This view was probably reflective of what KV was experiencing at the time of writing, during the Cold War, which many believed to be yet another Interwar period between impending cataclysms, the next likely to be the final one, unless one counts the possibility of a fourth world war, involving sticks and stones: "That was an ordinary way for a patriotic American to talk back then. It's hard to believe how sick of war we used to be. We used to boast of how small our Army and Navy were, and how little influence generals and admirals had in Washington. We used to call armaments manufactures 'Merchants of Death.' Can you imagine that?"

As a rule, Vonnegut's works extrapolate in genius form the inane, quotidian things that seemingly irk him, but this one accomplishes this feat to a superlative degree. As in his other novels, he characteristically and assiduously dismantles and ultimately annihilates them, hurling such derision at the things he finds bothersome or absurd that they essentially come to nothing. For example, one will, I wager, never again look at modern art the same way, after reading this - Vonnegut's lighthearted yet scathing treatment couched in seemingly-innocuous farce is more impactful than the pedantic scorn of a roomful of pretentious critics. And a lot more clever, too.

I usually do a bit more analysis and less quoting, but this novel in particular had so many relevant passages, it's difficult to pass them up. I admit, I had fun with this one. The following passage summarizes nicely: "She nodded in the direction of the [Jackson] Pollock [painting]. 'All anybody could do with a picture like that is illustrate an advertisement for a hangover remedy or seasick pills.'" Circe's common sense is sagacious, and terrifying. It threatens an entire house-of-cards world and way of life. The reader is left with the question: is her "kitsch" the more banal, or Rabo's pretentious abstract art? Are they both, or is art simply an intangible, its value held solely in the eye of the beholder? Circe comes into his life in an almost supernatural manner, fate and whatnot. And she hates modern art, as did the artist's hyper-realist master, Dan Gregory, who made Rabo recite, "The emperor has no clothes," which has become something of a mantra to those who hate today's modern art. "I want you to say that out loud and with just that degree of conviction... anytime anyone has anything good to say about so-called modern art.... It's the work of swindlers and lunatics and degenerates, and the fact that many people are now taking it seriously proves to me that the world has gone mad. I hope you agree."

This novel is more Dickensian than many of his others. You get the sense that KV sympathizes with several (but, admittedly, not all) of these characters to a far greater degree, especially the embattled, somewhat pathetic protagonist, what with his enigmatic secret entombed in a potato barn, leading some to speculate that this was KV's autobiography of sorts as well (but I think all his novels are, in a way, as they reveal the episodes of his life in a haphazard, schizophrenic arrangement, typical of his style, that readers have to piece together like a jigsaw puzzle before a comprehensive portrait is revealed). Several other novels of his focus on tragedy as well, but this one is particularly heavy, embodied by the suicide victims and even the survivors, including the artist's parents, who escaped the Armenian genocide, but it also speaks strongly to loss: the loss of Rabo's eye, the loss of Dear Edith, and a surfeit of his friends, and even himself, in some respects.

The message here is, I think: survival is a matter of perspective.

-------------- NOTABLE PASSAGES-----------------

Edith, like all great Earth Mothers, was a multitude.

Judging from your pictures, you hate facts like poison.

My own father would have laughed as hard as anybody when my paintings, thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions between the sizing of my canvasses and the acrylic wall-paint and colored tapes I had applied to them, all destroyed themselves. I mean - people who had paid fifteen- or twenty- or even thirty thousand dollars for a picture of mine found themselves gazing at a blank canvas, all ready for a new picture, and ringlets of colored tapes and what looked like moldy Rice Krispies on the floor.

'Never trust a survivor... until you find out what he did to stay alive.'

Nowhere has the number ZERO been of more philosophical value than in the United States.

All that has changed, in my opinion, is that, thanks to television, we can hide a Great Depression. We may even be hiding a Third World War.

Most kids can't afford to go to Harvard to be misinformed.

Life, by definition, is never still. Where is it going? From birth to death, with no stops on the way. Even a picture of a bowl of pears on a checkerboard tablecloth is liquid, if laid on canvas by the brush of a master.

Who is to be more pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?

A lot of people were opposed to it. A lot of people were for it. I myself think about it as little as possible.

One would soon go mad if one took such coincidences too seriously. One might be led to suspect that there were all sorts of things going on in the Universe which he or she did not thoroughly understand.

and, to sum up:

"I think you're talking about TYPING instead of WRITING." -Truman Capote


Bombs Away
Bombs Away
Author: John Steinbeck
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 7/29/2019


This short but impactful book has received rather mixed reviews, in part because of its admittedly somewhat propagandistic nature, but it's an insightful look into one small facet of the war machine crafted by the US during the Second World War, which did nothing less than save the world. If that in itself sounds somewhat propagandistic and excessively laudatory, bear in mind that many of the other accounts of the war I have spent time reading include the works, or perhaps rather, indictments, of authors and survivors such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi.

This is another look at that critical period in history, and how the US viewed its role at the time, through one of the most well-known authors of the era, John Steinbeck. This account almost seems the memoir of what we would today call an imbedded journalist, who experienced a behind-the-scenes view of the training of a bomber crew, specifically that of the B-17s and B-24s, which operated in both the European and Pacific theaters.

I think the most valuable aspect of it is the personal accounts of some of the persons highlighted in their respective roles, such as the navigator, pilot, bombardier, and the gunners. Not only does it provide some detail of military operations, but it also describes the mentality of many in the US, and their experiences immediately preceding the outbreak of the war, coming out of the Great Depression. It's definitely a worthwhile read, if viewed through the lens of both its purpose (which is reasonably still somewhat debated) and the general attitude of the day.


Breakfast of Champions
Breakfast of Champions
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
 221
Review Date: 6/5/2021


My favorite GR review of this profound work of whimsy and farce: "A novel is a dead tree with words on it. Breakfast of Champions is a great dead tree with words on it."

Amen. It certainly ain't a waste of dead trees.

The immortal Kurt Vonnegut's seventh novel was a fiftieth-birthday-present-to-self, which is useful to know, as it's written in a style which he himself would like to see, I think, as opposed to his audience, and, I have no doubt, his publishers, as it's also full of his pop-art-style doodles, including the famous " * " one. I'll leave out the translation of that one.

The story herein, replete with the usual Kurt fodder of life, death, sex, war, poverty, industry, and, here, more overtly than in his other novels, racism, chronicles the lives and times of two eccentricities, Dwayne Hoover, a loony Pontiac dealer from Ohio, and the beloved fictional science fiction author, Kilgore Trout, a loony obscure writer who perplexingly achieves the fame which has long eluded him, despite his Isaac-Asimov-like body of work (the latter of which reportedly wrote some 500 novels). Suffice to say, however, the former was certainly NOT based on the latter.

As farcical and fantastical as this novel was, it admittedly wasn't one of my favorite Vonnegut novels. It's an amusing romp through Kurt's head, but it just didn't hit home as some of his other novels have. Perhaps that's due to the general lack of a central theme (other than insanity, it seems), particularity the overarching sense of tragedy and futility which we twisted souls have come to love about Kurt's usual novels. Don't get me wrong: it's definitely worth the read, but it's a bit more lighthearted than the norm, more a crazy-quilt, Jackson-Pollock-esque painting of a novel that meanders all over the place, often into the irreverent, but it's appealing in that it remains ever colorful and full of mystique.

It's also one of the first instances I can recall of Kurt engaging directly with his characters, specifically, the aforementioned Kilgore Trout, who has a Nobel Prize in medicine coming, I'm informed. Maybe the crazy is the point: it is, after all, the story of two thoroughly nutty men whose insanity is compounded by their encounters with each other and the inexplicable circumstances confronting them. That's also something both Kurt and his zany characters have in common.
----------------------------------
"And here, according to Trout, was the reason humans beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: 'Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.'"

"I can't tell if you're serious or not," said the driver.
"I won't know myself until I find out whether life is serious or not," said Trout. "it's dangerous, I know, and it can hurt a lot. That doesn't necessarily mean it's serious, too."

And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic, incidentally,is a close relative of the gunk in Sugar Creek.

And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light.

As three unwavering bands of light, we were simple and separate and beautiful. As machines, we were flabby bags of ancient plumbing and wiring, of rusty hinges and feeble springs. And our interrelationships were Byzantine.


The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine
Review Date: 6/21/2020


Like the history of science, the umbrella under which this genre likewise falls, the history of medicine is a sub-specialty all its own. Many works are rather technical and difficult to access for non-specialists, but this one a fascinating read, comprised of engaging prose and imaginative description. I always appreciate learning how we got from "there" to "here," and this is a particularly striking topic. It's a thorough history of nineteenth-century medicine, as much as the story of one Joseph Lister, not to be confused with another renowned surgeon, Robert Liston, who has a knife named after him (which was mostly famously used by Jack the Ripper, apparently).

I'm something of an admitted Anglophile, and anything Victorian is certain to catch my attention, so this unique study easily caught my eye. A word to the wise, however: the material pulls no punches, and tells it like it is (was), so be prepared to encounter some absolutely gruesome scenes throughout. It's a wonder that anyone emerged alive from their date with the knife in bygone centuries: indeed, many simply didn't. Still more died shortly thereafter from infection, so surviving the surgery certainly didn't mean that someone was going to recover. And, then, there is the, well, just inexplicable: Fitzharris recounts, for example, the story of one of Liston's famous "speed-amputations," whereby he amputated the limb, but also inadvertently cut into one of the attendants, and in his haste to, even slashed the coat of a nearby observer. Reportedly, the patient eventually died of infection, but so did the attendant, after being cut with the knife; the unfortunate observer had apparently died on the spot of a heart attack resulting from the shock of his encounter with Liston's gleaming blade. So, this procedure is apparently the only one in documented history which had a 300% mortality rate!

I think one of the most apt descriptions of the book in general comes from reviewer Erik Larson, who said that the author "becomes our Dante, leading us through the macabre hell of nineteenth-century surgery to tell the story of... the man who solved one of medicine's most daunting and lethal puzzles." Macabre hell is right: eighteenth- and at least early-nineteenth-century medicine, and particularly surgery, was in some ways not even as advanced as that of the ancient world, at least in practice. Some of the flawed Classical paradigms, such as the "humours" theory, were still being promulgated in the nascent medical schools of the day, which were little more than a shop of horrors, where doctors were ill-trained (and, in some cases, since most learning simply occurred via a form of osmosis and observation rather than direct instruction) and rarely taught much of anything.

The story of the main character's life and quest to find a cause and cure for infection is a meandering journey through the medical history of the nineteenth century, the period of luminaries such as Liston, Florence Nightingale, David Livingstone and Louis Pasteur, who developed many of the procedures we take for granted, and not before time: as the author notes, "hospitals were known by the public as 'Houses of Death,'" with few surviving them. The survival rate was much better just about everywhere, including at home, but only the very wealthy could afford house calls. One gangrenous limb could take out an entire floor of patients, such was the lack of sanitation. All that changed, on account of the efforts of a handful of people, which changed the practice of medicine forever.

The book is well-researched, and is comprehensive in its treatment of the subject, but, as above, it's still very accessible to the non-specialist, and would be appropriate for history buffs and those interested in the daily life of this period as well. As much as this period is romanticized, I'm certainly glad that the practice of medicine has changed, at least for most of us!


The Call of the Wild
The Call of the Wild
Author: Jack London
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 6/21/2020


This is another in a box of old books I came across recently, which I haven't read in decades, and I thought I would give them another once-over before I pass them on to new homes for new generations of readers to enjoy. This was also another I purchased from the Scholastic Book Club, although, having read it on several occasions previously, I'm always a little surprised that it's marketed as a book for children. Yes, it's about a dog, sort of, as the people in the lives of Jack London's animal characters are as significant as their four-legged co-stars, but the brutality of much of his writing seems a bit beyond what I would recommend for children.

That said, some of my earliest memories of living in the San Francisco Bay area were of trips to Jack London Square, so it's not surprising that I've read many of his books, even in childhood. Most of the things I read under about age ten were "animal stories" in any event, mostly horse stories, which I still love. London was something of a radical, part of the literary group "The Crowd" in always-hip San Francisco, who, in addition to the more rugged, outdoors-oriented novels that brought him worldwide acclaim, he also wrote several dystopic novels and stories, including The Iron Heel and non-fiction works such as The War of the Classes.

The Call of the Wild, arguably one of his more famous adventure novels (which is somewhat surprising, considering that he became more well-known for his science fiction), started life as a serial published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1903. It was later published in book form, although the book is fairly short. It's since made the rounds on celluloid as well, having endured several theatrical renditions, but none as successful as the novel. London hit upon the idea after spending a year in the Yukon, so he probably witnessed many of the events described in the book first hand, as one who endured the harshness of that unforgiving land, which carried off many soft Southlanders, man and beast. He reportedly stated on one occasion, "it was in the Klondike that I found myself," including at his residence in a temporary encampment where he holed up all winter, reading the likes of Charles Darwin and John Milton. After an illness, however, he decided to return to California, by rafting 2,000 miles down the Yukon River.

The primary character is the 140-pound St. Bernard cross, Buck, who was stolen from his owner, Judge Miller, in California's Santa Clara Valley, by the gardener, who sells him to a broker, who first takes him to Seattle and then to the Yukon territory of Canada. Brutalized from the outset, this unfortunate pup shortly learns the law of kill or be killed, and, there's a lot of killing in this story, which is often billed as a children's book, more for the length than the content. There's a veritable parade of characters, both man and dog, in the book, which include Buck's fellow sled dogs, and a succession of owners and drivers. When his last beloved master is killed, Buck heads off into the wild, forsaking human contact forever to take up with a pack of wild wolves. It's narrated from the dog's point of view, though not in the first person, unlike stories such as Black Beauty, another highly successful, realistic portrait of the plight animals in the late 19th century.

Buck was reportedly based on an actual St. Bernard crossbred, owned by friends of London's who lived in Dawson City. There is an actual surviving picture of the dog, taken during London's stay in 1897, so if you're really invested, you can see the real Buck, which is now housed at the Beinecke Library at Yale. Although not one of my favorite adventure stories, it's a quick and entertaining read, although many will doubtlessly find the incessant incidences of animal abuse disheartening.


Casey's Shadow
Casey's Shadow
Author: Burton Wohl
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 6/5/2021


I was just a couple of years old when this book was first published. It may be more well known from the 70s movie of the same title, featuring Walter Matthau, about a hard-luck kid, his ne'er-do-well father, and an orphan colt he raises from birth.

Inside the cover of my edition, which is a first edition, is a stamp which reads "Snooper's Barn" 1101 Garrison Ave., Fort Smith, AR. This old-school used bookstore is one of my dad (and my!) favorite places, and I remember when he came to visit me when I lived there as a kid in the mid-80s, going to this bookstore to browse, and he bought this book for me. I had seen the movie on TV, so I was familiar with it.

It's about a trainer who comes across the opportunity of a lifetime, when his son purchases, on behalf of one of his clients, who is none too thrilled, an old mare bred to a great champion running Quarter Horse. The mare dies giving birth, so his youngest son, Casey, raises the colt. Lloyd's other two sons, Buddy and Randy, make up the family of men, and all are involved in the Quarter Horse industry, barely surviving, until this colt comes along. It had a rather sad, and unsatisfying end for me as a kid, but it also leaves the reader to somewhat write their own ending, and, because of all the misfortunes of the perpetually down-on-their-luck characters, you really find yourself pulling for them.


Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford World's Classics)
Review Date: 7/29/2019


As several other reviewers have noted, this book is a masterpiece of English literature, but it has been sadly overlooked. M.R. James is a savant storyteller: he provides ample opportunity for a reader to employ their imagination, based on their own memories and experiences, while simultaneously weaving a rich tapestry of imagery that transports one to another time in another world. Taking great pains to describe his scenes, he scrupulously constructs a detailed backdrop against which to set his subtle, yet disturbing, tales of the supernatural and bizarre. He celebrates the sublime of the everyday and ordinary (in the author's own mind, as well: he is clearly an avid golf enthusiast!) while suggesting ever so gently that even the mundane can be horrifying, in ways not expected.

I can understand how a handful of reviewers have commented that some of the stories are rather "slow;" to me, however, this method lulls the reader into a sense of (false) security, rendering them unaware that all the while, James is masterfully building momentum, which makes the quotidian all the more horrifying and disturbing. Even a seemingly-innocuous prayer book, along with other familiar, even banal objects, can betray and deceive with terrifying results. I highly recommend this collection to ghost story aficionados who love a good tale well-told. I also think that only a light reworking would render some of these stories into adept screenplays! Enjoy!


Cat's Cradle
Cat's Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 8
Review Date: 11/29/2019


An apocalyptic yarn featuring some of the most profound one-liners that have ever been composed. Plenty more to say about this one, but I gotta make a quick library run before they close... back in a bit.

UPDATE: As much as I love me a good Kurt Vonnegut novel, this wasn't my favorite, although it is for many other reviewers. A novel of unrequited genius, it's still one of his more odd works, and that's really saying something. The message is likewise profound, more than in many of his other works, but it's a bit difficult to dig out, what with the text peppered with odd neologisms attributed to an obscure religion the main protagonist converts to after the end of the world.

The premise is the story of a writer who is researching the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and thus writes to Newt Hoenikker, the son of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and father of the atomic bomb, to get his input on what his father was like and what he remembered on the day the bomb fell and the world changed forever. It's clear that father Felix never really cared for people. The writer travels to Ilium, the town where Felix lived, to tour his lab. It's there he learned of the existence of Ice-9: talk about anthropogenic climate change! This super substance was created to solve the problem of mud on the battlefield; a single drop would solidify the mud (that is, the water), but since such a small amount of it was needed, the writer soon realizes that enough of the mysterious substance existed to freeze all the water on earth. Although its existence is uncertain, Felix divided his supply among his three children shortly before his death. The three ne'er-do-wells dispatched it forthwith, for their own gratification: one son sold it to procure a generalship for himself on the island of San Lorenzo. The daughter traded her supply to secure a marriage to a scientist employed in weapons research, and the third share was stolen from the last son by a spy for the Soviet government.

Hilarity ensues.

Here's where it gets weird. All of San Lorenzo's inhabitants are apparently neophyte adherents of a bizarre new religion, Bokononism, which is essentially the religion of apathy: initially intended to turn it into a utopia, the island and its inhabitants have become so fatalistic that everything ceases to matter at all. It's clear that no amount of economic reform could induce the residents to take up anything; the religion was subsequently outlawed, and its practice was punishable by death, but this, ironically, provided the only real meaning to the lives of the miserable citizens. I won't go through the plot play-by-play, but, in the end, an accident involving a landslide releases the ice-9 into the sea, freezing all the world's water in seconds, a much worse catastrophe that that which befell Hiroshima. Death not by fire, but by ice. Turnabout is fair play, it seems. But, perhaps all is not lost: the ants who learned to thaw water suggest that it's a reversible Armageddon.

This was certainly one of KV's most creative novels, where he seemingly toyed with the idea of the apocalypse, in true Vonnegut fashion, as the inhabitants of San Lorenzo, in a rather haphazard and apathetic manner, which is perhaps the only way to write a book about the end of existence. Notwithstanding the absurdity, to the point of genius, I just couldn't get into the characters of this novel nearly as much as in the others. Notwithstanding, it's full of great one-liners and the cynical farce we've all come to know and love, so it's more than worth the effort spent reading it. My favorite: "I could carve a better man out of a banana!"
----------NOTABLE PASSAGES-------------

Do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamogordo? After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, "Science has now known sin." And do you know what Father said? He said, "What is sin?"

There is love in this world enough for everybody, if people will just look.

If I actually supervised Felix... then I'm ready now to take charge of volcanoes, the tides, and the migrations of birds and lemmings. The man was a force of nature no moral could possibly control.

Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.

The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense.

Those words leapt from the page into my mind, and they were welcome there.

How about miracle drugs? Father enjoys pulling of a miracle now and then.
I'm not a drug salesman. I'm a writer.
What makes you think a writer isn't a drug salesman?
I'll accept that. Guilty as charged.

How does he know what's important? I could carve a better man out of a banana.

People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say.

You want to respond?
I'm not that close to death just now, if you don't mind.

When it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so B. made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.

So I said my goodbye to government.
And I gave my reason:
That a really good religion
Is a form of treason.

My God-life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?
Don't try... just pretend you understand.

Unrelieved villainy just wore him out...

Pay no attention when I laugh... I'm a notorious pervert in that respect.

It posed the question posed by all such stone piles: how had puny men moved stones so big? And, like all such stone piles, it answered the question itself. Dumb terror had moved those stones so big.

When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.

and... finally:
"No damn cat, and no damn cradle."


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