Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bob's Best Books of 2013 - The Top Ten, and Then Some

This is a purely personal list of books that I've read, finished (mostly), and enjoyed during 2013, regardless of publication date.  A more complete catalog of books I've read, along with 1-star to 5-star ratings and occasional capsule reviews, is on my Goodreads.com page.

Now, without further ado...the best of 2013!

1. Fisherman's Beach by George Vukelich (1962)A moving, well-written story of a patriarchal family and way of life in crisis and transition. The Upper Great Lakes setting is visceral and pervasive; the writing is crisp, colorful, and powerful in its simplicity.  Comparable in quality and tone to the German novella, Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse).  I'm astounded that this regional work from the late Wisconsin writer didn't receive wider attention, although an excellent Madison Magazine profile of the author's life and a new edition of his novel may help to rectify that.

2. The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils (2012).  In a year that ended with Nelson Mandela's passing, this suspensefully plotted memoir of a young woman's small-scale, clandestine operations against the South African apartheid regime in the 1960s, in concert with the ANC and other revolutionary elements, serves as a testimony to her pluck, persistence, and resourcefulness under the constant threat of capture and harsh treatment.  Written by her admiring husband following her death, the book also serves as an internal snapshot of the organizational and personal alliances the two of them formed in pursuit of their activities.

3. Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey by Karen Wilkin (2009).  I became aware of cartoonist Edward Gorey, the comically morbid heir to Chas. Addams and progenitor to goth-graphic filmmaker Tim Burton, in the 1970s.  The Loathsome Couple (1977), Gorey's illustrated tale of two macabre anti-heros for whom a mundane life gets worse and worse, was a staple of my personal wry humor collection for years.  Elegant Enigmas is a comprehensive, curated survey of Gorey's masterful career -- although I agree with one commenter who suggested that those wholly unfamiliar with his work check out some of his original storybooks first.

4. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) by John le Carré.  I'm still catching up on the George Smiley series by British espionage master le Carré.  This pair of iconic, acclaimed, literary spy thrillers elevated le Carré from his erstwhile status as part-time mystery writer, whose "detective" happens to be a middle-aged ex-spy, to a recipient of worldwide acclaim as a deep explorer of immorality, deceit, and duplicity by agencies and assassins on an international scale.  His characters' harsh actions are justified, at first, by a sense of patriotic duty.  The further one reads in the Smiley series, however, the harder it is to tell the good guys from the bad.

5. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (2012).  This short book serves a profound, dual purpose: it is a frank, autobiographical documentary of the grinding, mundane realities of the author's diminishing quality of life as his terminal disease (esophageal cancer) overtakes him; and it is a stark defense of his strident, lifelong atheism.  As a mathematics student, I was once taught the value of testing general propositions under extreme conditions.  By examining his own debunking of faith during episodes of his failing health, an extreme condition that leads some to bargain with one or more deities with whom they haven't previously communicated, Hitchens provides the generous gift of transparency to his readers not presently in such dire straits.  He reaffirms his godless philosophy -- to his own satisfaction, at least.

6. A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone (1964).  Must confess, I haven't finished A Hall of Mirrors just yet.  However, any literary debut that uses colorful description, well-drawn characters, and brilliant dialogue to send up both sleazy, fly-by-night rescue mission preachers and rightist media polemicists in its first 120 pages gives me great hope for the remaining 280.  Set in New Orleans, the book is comparable to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (completed 1964; published 1981).  One wonders if Stone and Toole had made each other's acquaintance.

7. Hoot (2002) and Chomp (2012) by Carl Hiaasen.  I've accumulated almost a whole shelf of Carl Hiaasen's comedic, ecologically moralistic novels, now stacked on my overburdened books-to-read bookcase and waiting for a scrap of my attention.  So naturally, rather than start on those, I've been reading his books for kids instead.  Same wackiness, same eco-morals, same sticky come-uppances for the defilers of nature; just a bit quicker to read.  Or, in the case of Chomp, to listen to as an audiobook on an overnight Amtrak trip to Schenectady.  Even Hiaasen himself might not have calculated the comically disruptive effect of the repeatedly spoken character name of "Wahoo" on a railroad passenger and his seatmates.

8. The Third Man by Graham Greene (1948).  Conceived originally as the mere outline for the classic suspense movie of the same name, The Third Man is a detective novella with cinematic detail and more literary exposition than one would expect from a text that the author did not imagine the public would see.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013).  Touting a book by the ever-popular pop-goth fantacist Neil Gaiman feels a bit like following the herd, but in this case it's a genuine recommendation.  Just as portrait artists who work in oils create self-portraits in their own style, Gaiman has created an artful, fictional self-portrait using nonfictional events and settings from his childhood.  The latest output from the groundbreaking graphic novelist known for the Sandman series, Ocean can also be taken as Gaiman's own, personal superhero origins story -- or, more simply, as a narrative answer to the one question that plagues all successful authors: "Where do you get your ideas?"

10. Humor in Craft by Brigitte Martin (2012).  Ever since I saw a talented friend throw and carve a cartoonish firehouse mug on a potter's wheel, with a firehose for a handle, I've been intrigued by the ability of artists to create humorous works of high wit.  Humor in Craft is a collection of such works in multiple media from a cross-cultural perspective.  Only two complaints: I wish some of the photographed exhibits were larger, and I wish certain craft techniques were at least introduced so that readers who take inspiration from the collection might be able to follow in the artists' funny footsteps.

Honorable mention:

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady (1974).  One Man Against the Machine Award.

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsythe (1972).  Suspense with Horrifying Historical Elements Award.

Knots and Crosses (1987), Hide and Seek (1990), Tooth and Nail (1992), A Good Hanging (1992), and Strip Jack (1992) by Ian Rankin.  Bob's Found a New Mystery Series Award.

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith (1992).  Bob's Other Favorite Mystery Series Award. 

Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain by George Mahood (2013).  Light-Hearted Travel E-Book for Settling Down and Trying to Go to Sleep Award.

The Babe and I by Mrs. Babe Ruth (1959).  You May Be Beloved But They Still Won't Make You a Manager Award.

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971).  And You Thought Your Job Was Unfulfilling Award.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Goodreads, and My OneNote Wiki Trick, Part II

[See Part 1, posted Oct. 16, 2012.]

As a bucket load of "Best of 2013" book lists is dumped upon us, the tools I've used to make order from the chaos of infinite possibility have continued to serve me well.  Goodreads, now under the Amazon corporate umbrella, is still my go-to web service for tracking books read, books anticipated, and books flung against the wall in disdain (or, more broadly, set aside).  I still cut-'n'-paste lists of fiction and nonfiction works by my favorite authors from their respective Wikipedia pages into Microsoft OneNote.

What's new is the omnipresence of a smartphone in my pocket (oh, grow up!).  I carry a Motorola Photon 4G (MB855), a nifty, if prior generation Android 2.3 unit on Ting, a low-cost MVNO (mobile service reseller) that completes calls over the Sprint network.  I've loaded the Goodreads Android app onto the phone, which allows me to enter new books and reading updates remotely.

However, for my stubby fingers on a medium-sized smartphone in the dim light of a library or at a yard sale, it's still a nuisance to search the Goodreads app for a complete list of an author's works, such as all books in Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series, especially if I need their chronological order.  I want to know quickly: have I read this particular title by Tom Robbins or Tom Sharpe before?  Do I have a copy at home?  Also, as I mainly use Wifi (free, on Ting) instead of 3G/4G (which costs) for mobile data, how can I access my book lists when I'm out and about, and not near a Wifi hotspot?

The solution I've fastened on is to make small notations in my OneNote author lists, which I use to annotate the cut-'n'-pasted Wikipedia pages.  I'll type "Finished" or "Started" by a title.  If I've already purchased, say, the third-from-now Inspector Rebus novel by Ian Rankin and stockpiled it on my overburdened bookcases at home, I'll mark that title with an 'x'.

Crucially, Microsoft OneNote on my Windows 7 PC can sync data with the OneNote Android app on my Photon 4G.  It takes a bit of set-up, but then it syncs the data via Microsoft SkyDrive whenever I'm near a Wifi hotspot and click on the corresponding OneNote folder on my phone.  Voilà: instant mobile access to my reading lists, want-to-read lists, and notes -- including which books I already own so I don't buy duplicates at the ten-cent sale.

In truth, it's not much different than carrying around a small, paper-based diary or notebook of your reading lists, except the OneNote solution scales and organizes free-form lists with your changing whims.  It would take a long time to write out all the book titles by all your favorite authors by hand instead of utilizing the ol' cut-'n'-paste routine.  Also, books are just one category for which you might like quick, remote access; you may also be interested in carrying pages of your CDs, DVDs, sports tickets, or wine cellar inventory.  Do you want to carry a paper diary for each one?

In summary: Yes, OneNote continues to be an excellent list-keeping tool.  Yes, it's now in my pocket.  And yes, I'm happy to see you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How Many Lanes Must Neil Gaiman Walk Down?

While many readers will take The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a parable for an adult's hazy recollection of the intense feelings and dark fears and fantasies of childhood, a more specific perspective is possible: this is Neil Gaiman's gothic self-portrait, in the sense of a painter who depicts himself looking in a mirror, his bemused image standing out centrally if tentatively, embedded as it is in the composition among his favorite semiotic objects.

Fittingly for a creator and writer of comics, it's also Gaiman's superhero origins story, presenting how a figurative, residual hole in the author's heart from childhood traumatic events has led to his lifelong, genius ability to access his sharp, surrealistic imagination for popular consumption and illumination.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Free Country

Everyone loves a crazy stunt, especially one that's perpetrated and documented by two mostly congenial guys on holiday: in this case, author George Mahood and his cranky friend Ben. Cycling the length of Britain starting without bicycles (to say nothing of money, clothes, food, or a tent) qualifies. Mahood's Free Country is a winning entry in the time-tested "Wry in the Rye" genre, which Jerome K. Jerome founded with his classic, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and to which Bill Bryson contributed, entertaining trail-walking wannabes with A Walk in the Woods.

Reading any two consecutive chapters of these English lads' travelogue will put the most hardened cynic in a cheerful mood. My only complaint is the author's repeatedly mocking his own turns of phrase every tenth sentence or so in a flat-tired attempt at cleverness. Other than that, the chain stays on the metaphorical bicycle, so to speak -- unlike the one on the author's sorry two-wheeler.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bank Shot

This second installment of Donald E. Westlake's "Dortmunder" series combines familiar, bumbling criminals, a reluctant, curmudgeonly mastermind, and oblivious members of the constabulary, to lighthearted comedic effect.  This is a Robert Redford caper movie in novel form, with Bugs Bunny dialogue, only slower and with less Mel Blanc-sy voices; in contrast, however, Robert Redford and Bugs Bunny always come out on top.  Here, you get the feeling after each episode falters that John Dortmunder will invariably be back on his home turf, conning moms and widows out of their tens and twenties in his fallback encyclopedia sales scam, shortly after the big bank job that he and his henchmen have conceived, planned, and taken farcical pains to execute washes away, just out of reach.

The second novel in a series is the hardest, so they say.  Westlake succeeds by reducing the degree of difficulty, relative to the series opener, the serial gem heist caper The Hot Rock, while maintaining the same mad, mad sensibility.  It's a comedy writer's version of productivity growth: the same laughs for a simpler book.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Moose Jaw

Aw, crap.  I had to downgrade this enjoyable nightstand read by Mike Delany from four stars to three stars to protest its hackneyed, supernatural ending.  The occult explanation of events that had been vaguely foretold and lightly foreshadowed was never relinquished, only rationalized.  The characters didn't so much solve the mystery as have the spooky solution revealed unto them. 

Pity, because I'd been engrossed in the adventure.  The novel's first half included several well-written chapters depicting Alaskan outdoorsmanship and backwoods cabin life, among the best I've read.  The third quarter placed the protagonist in more and more danger, but events still lay within the bounds of plausibility.  I was sure that within the denouement we would learn some natural explanation of weird happenings: something in the spring water; some hallucinogenic plant inadvertently consumed; some mental health issue spurring the protagonist's prodigious consumption of alcohol and increasing paranoia.  Some prankster in a bear suit.  Something.

But this magic-laced ending, as ripe as a hunting party after a two-week Alaskan fishing trip?  Aw, crap.

Side note: there's a touch of arrested development in the author's Hefneresque depiction of a relationship with a damsel in distress, a-heh, a-heh.  (Spoiler: goose grease.)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Opening Day - It's Here!

We've raked, burnt firewood, and exchanged gifts.  We've huddled, shoveled, and whined.  We've counted the weeks until Spring Training and the days until the Major League Baseball season starts.

It's here.  It's Opening Day.  The 2013 Milwaukee Brewers are ready to play ball, three miles from our house.

It's still freakin' cold.  Doesn't matter.  We've got a roof - eat your heart out, Minnesota!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dr. Koop Speaks Out

[Originally posted October 30, 2009]

President Reagan's Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, M.D., noteworthy for his public health pronouncements based on scientific facts during the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, is now 93 years old. With his penchant for truth-telling, Dr. Koop recently described a troubling aspect of the mindset of Mr. Reagan's largely conservative cabinet in an interview that was printed in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine:

"The attitude of President Ronald Reagan's cabinet was that the kind of people who got AIDS -- promiscuous women, homosexual men, drug addicts, people on heroin -- deserved what they got. Americans hadn't treated prisoners of war as badly." (DAM, Nov/Dec 2009, p. 96).

Dr. Koop is an equal-opportunity critic; in the same interview, he questioned the necessity of President Obama's wholesale reform of America's health care system. Such skepticism -- the laudable practice of looking before one leaps -- is a proper function of conservatism as a countervailing force to ambitious political agendas.

What Dr. Koop's observation about his fellow Reagan Administration political appointees confirms, however, is that the Republicans' attitude toward the defining public health disaster of the 1980s and 1990s was a matter not of principled, conservative caution but of active contempt for certain disfavored segments of citizens. It's a worthy contribution to the historical record from the former official who is still, in some minds, America's Physician.

*  *  *

Epilogue: According to a Dartmouth College statement, "Former Surgeon General of the United States C. Everett Koop ’37, MD, a pioneer in the field of pediatric surgery, a leader in the fight to create a smoke-free nation, and founder of the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, died peacefully at his home in Hanover, N.H. on February 25, 2013. He was 96 years old."

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lyle Overbay: Fan Instructions

As a Milwaukee Brewers fan, it is incumbent upon me to instruct Boston Red Sox fans [ed. update: as of March 26, 2013, New York Yankees fans] [ed. update #2: as of January 20, 2014, the next generation of Brewers fans!] in the proper procedure for welcoming their newly signed free agent, journeyman first baseman and former Brewer Lyle Overbay, to the batter's box for his plate appearances during the upcoming Major League Baseball season.

The Preparation

Step 1: Set beverage in a safe location.
Step 2: Assume an attentive posture, either sitting or standing, depending on the game situation.
Step 2a: If sitting, sit upright and swivel torso slightly in the direction of the batter's box.
Step 2b: If standing, face the batter's box, balanced evenly and comfortably over the soles of both feet in a "ready" position.

The Positioning

[Note:  The following Steps 3 through 9 are performed in rapid succession.  Practice until you have achieved a competent speed and smooth motion.]

Step 3: As Mr. Overbay leaves the on-deck circle, raise arms above head, as if you are signaling a touchdown.
Step 4: Flex the elbows until the fingertips touch.
Step 5: Flex the elbows further, lowering the point of fingertip contact along the vertical axis above the head by approximately 3".
Step 6: Pull elbows back slightly until your arms occupy the same vertical plane as the non-intersected line segment between your ears.
Step 7: Bend the wrists slightly to form a rounded, approximately circular arc from each shoulder to the fingertips.
Step 8: Open mouth into an "O" shape.
Step 9: Take a deep breath.

The Catharsis

Step 10: Sing the poetic word "O" as if it were the first word of the song "America the Beautiful" being sung after midnight in a fraternity basement.
Step 11: Hold the "O" as a whole note for eight measures or until you run out of breath, whichever comes first.
Step 12: Repeat Steps 9 through 11 for the duration of the at-bat or until your neighbors threaten to call the usher, whichever comes first. 

The Denouement

Step 13: Lower arms.
Step 14: If standing, retake your seat.
Step 15: Inform your Beloved Spousal Unit, who did not stand and therefore did not see the play as it transpired, of the outcome of Mr. Overbay's plate appearance so that she may properly enter it in the scorebook.
Step 16: Close mouth before the flies, gnats, and mosquitos sign a lease and take up residence. 

The Epilogue

Step 17: Pick up beverage.

Update: Lyle Overbay was granted a release by the Boston Red Sox on March 26, 2013, making him a free agent.  The instructions presented above remain fully applicable and may be transferred to a new team.
Same Day Double-Update: Doubles hitter and free agent Lyle Overbay was signed by the New York Yankees on the same day that he was released by the Red Sox, following in the footsteps of former Bostonians Babe Ruth and Johnny Damon. My Two Innings looks forward to posting reports of the echoing "O-O-O" calls, if not actual doubles, careening around the Yankee Stadium monuments.
UPDATE: WELCOME BACK TO THE BREWERS!  Milwaukee signed Lyle Overbay to a minor league deal, with an invitation to Spring Training, on January 20, 2014!  A whole new generation of Brewers fans will require instruction in the basics.  "O-O-O-O-OOOOOOO!"


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