Friday, August 12, 2016

A Well-done Bad Guy

Right now, I'm reading Lisa M. Peppan's Sorry, No Refunds.  This is the second of the series she has named Geaehn Chronicles, telling the story of a magical realm named Gaeah, where mundane folk must contend with magic-users, some benign and some not.  The first in the series is Somewhen Over the Rain Clouds.  In that story, a group of off-duty Seattle cabdrivers get into an accident, and end up in Geaeh.  How they learn to cope in their new home is an engaging story, and of course, sets us up for this continuation of the series.  Tilli Kuru, the first character we meet in this second installment, is definitely not benign. 

I have read only one other book in which the bad guy is the first character we meet.  That book was the first in the Thomas Covenant series, written by Stephen R. Donaldson.  I read -- or, attempted to read -- the first in that series at the end of the 1980s or beginning of the 1990s.  I got only 100 pages into the book, to the part where Thomas Covenant, apparently one terribly messed-up person, rapes a woman who had only been trying to understand and help him.  That was it.  The book went against the wall (yes, I am a book-flinger), and I never darkened Donaldson's pages again. 

But not only was Thomas Covenant a character too rotten for me to ever want anything to do with, Donaldson was a terrible writer, in my rather demanding opinion.  His writing was turgid and repetitive.  He used the phrase "as though" so often, that if I had continued reading his books, and had deposited a nickel in my froggy bank for each time he used that phrase, I could have financed the college education I indulged in from 2007 to 2015, spanning two post-baccalaureate degrees (a double major) and a second master's degree.

How I even slogged through that first 100 pages, I do not know.  I put the book down several times, exasperated by the overblown prose.

Tilli Kuru does something similar to Thomas Covenant.  He is a magic-user of the most destructive and evil kind, one of those called in the realm of Geaeh the Yellow Wiqq.  He has kidnapped an innocent mundane woman, and raped and impregnated her, which was his intent.  He has a special magic, being immune to something which can cause great physical damage to other magic users (nope, not going to tell you what.  Read the book).  Having this immunity gives him great power, and he wants to breed a race of people with this immunity.

Told you he was a rotten person.

The difference is that Lisa handles this aspect very deftly.  In few words, well-chosen, she gets the point across with no ambiguity.  Her writing is clean and spare.  And Tulli Kuru is not psychologically messed up and weak.  He's purely bad, with a dream of power and control, convinced that it is his right to do whatever he wants with lesser mortals to accomplish his nefarious goals.  He isn't a despicable ingrate like Thomas Covenant.  I cannot abide ingrates.  Tulli is just plain bad.  And Lisa gets to the heart of things within the first few pages.  No slogging through 100 pages to find out how rotten the character is.  Bang!  You're there by page 2, and on from that into the story.  That's writing.

Now for the disclaimer:  I have known Lisa M. Peppan as a friend and fellow writer for (mumble, mumble) years.  Let's just say it's been a long, long time.  She has been working on the Geaeh stories for a long time, polishing and massaging.  We are both members of a private online writer's group that has been going since . . . well, since my now middle-aged daughters were in middle school!  Remember the old Bulletin Board Systems (BBS)?  Remember how excited we all were to go from 300 bits per second to a screaming 1200, and then to the incredible 2400?  Yeah, that long ago.

That's bits per second.  Not megabytes.  Bits.  Let that sink in.

Lisa is now nearly through writing the third of the Geaeh Chronicles.  If you're a fan of fantasy, and looking for something to read, buzz on over to and get started.

And now for a little "simple desultory Philippic," to borrow from Simon & Garfunkel:  I supppose I will no longer be reviewing on books by people I know and am friends with on Facebook. has decided that this is a no-no.  They have insulted many of their reviewers, me included, by assuming that we are doing such reviews only to pump up our friends.  They are assuming that we are nothing but simple-minded fawning fangirls and boys, rather than serious readers who appreciate good writing (and don't appreciate bad).  So I will be reviewing books by people I know here on Autobiography of a Bookworm.  Maybe I'll put all my reviews here rather than on Amazon.  Originally, the requirement on Amazon has been that a review should be at least 20 words.  They have not enforced that, and "This is a real good book," the sort of thing I've seen too often over there, just is not a review, by any competent standards.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Has it been Seven Months?

Time flies while we're having fun . . . or not.  Time has certainly flown since I made my last post, talking about the 2016 reading challenge.

I'm still working on Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life.  Well, really, I've been avoiding working on it.

But it's been a productive avoidance. 

I have taken off the challenge list the following: 

A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.  I have to confess that it wasn't a personal recommendation, but a de facto one, as the book was prominently displayed at the main library in my county.  The book is Notorious RBG: the Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

RBG is awesome!  What a fascinating life, and what a fascinating career in and perspective on the law she has.  The book is unusual among biographies in its format, but I enjoyed the different approach taken by the authors, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik.  I think the approach they selected, and the organization of their material, reflects well the tale of how RBG arrived at a career as a lawyer and became a justice on the Supreme Court.  The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of RBG, her husband, and her colleagues, and there are also brief analyses of some of her important cases and opinions.

In the category of A book published before you were born, I chose one I mentioned in my last post, Historical Sketches of Colonial Florida, by Richard L. Campbell, published in 1892.  A surprise to me was that it was more well-documented than most histories from that era, with a goodly number of footnotes.  The footnotes are not exactly in the format favored by the Chicago Manual of Style, which today's historians use, but they are there, and that is more than can be said for a lot of late 19th and early 20th century histories.

The coverage runs from 1528, and the early explorers, to the early 19th century, to the time when Florida became a territory of the U.S.  Scholarship since has brought out a lot more of the story, of course, and the author, as with those of most national histories published in the U.S. during that time, had an anglocentric slant.  Still, it is an interesting read for those who choose to study colonial Florida.

I have not limited myself to reading books in the categories of the 2016 Reading Challenge, however.

I just finished Rhonda M. Kohl's The Prairie Boys Go to War: the Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865.  I do confess that I would not have read the book had I not been made aware by Ms. Kohl in an e-mail a few years ago that she was depending heavily on diaries and letters written by the soldiers, including the diary and some letters of my great-granduncle Thadeus B. Packard.  (Yes, there's only one d in Thadeus here).  Not only is this a fine regimental history, it is also the most powerful intimate examination I have yet seen of the daily lives of Civil War soldiers.  Those on both sides faced the same difficulties, and Ms. Kohl tells their story, mainly through their own words.  She describes well the diseases that took their toll, the interpersonal difficulties at times, and the sometimes less-than-stellar qualities of the officers who commanded these troops.  Her description of the arrogance and lawlessness of General George Armstrong Custer, whose punishments of misbehaving soldiers were clear violations of military regulations, might make some readers think that he got exactly what he deserved at the Little Big Horn.

I am nearly finished with a delightful history of reference books, You Could Look it Up: the Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, by Jack Lynch, who is now the head of the Department of English at Rutgers University, Newark.  He tells the stories of the devising of some of the world's most famous, at least among scholars, reference books of all time.  In between the chapters where he examines these references in different classes, two at a time, he has what he styles "half-chapters" in some of which are found broader views of reference books in general, and some of which give delightful trivia about the creating of some of these works.  He also answered some questions I had about the reference works I use in my work, those being Spanish dictionaries from the 15th century onward, which have been digitized by the Spanish Royal Academy.  One of them, referred to as the Rosal, for its author, is in handwriting, not printed, from 1611.  From this book, I found out that the reason this dictionary is in script is that this handwritten manuscript is the only copy of this dictionary ever made.  It did not get into print.

On to more reading!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The 2016 Reading Challenge

This comes from the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy. The Reading Challenge asks you to read:

  • a book published this year
  • a book you can read in a day
  • a book you've been meaning to read
  • a book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller
  • a book you should have read in school
  • a book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF
  • a book published before you were born
  • a book that was banned at some point
  • a book you previously abandoned
  • a book you own but have never read
  • a book that intimidates you
  • a book you've already read at least once
I am off to a good start.  Right now, I'm reading a book one of my daughters gave me for Christmas, from my extensive Amazon wish list.  It's The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History.  Technically, I'm no longer a student, since I've finished my late-in-life collegiate studies, having received my Master of Liberal Arts in Florida Studies from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg just this past May.  However, we are all -- or should be -- lifelong students.  And we historians are constant, inveterate, and total students.  I'm enjoying the book.  It has given me information on aspects of history and historical study of which I was unaware.

I am also working on a book that intimidates me.  It is Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life.  It's a theoretical work, and therefore it makes my head hurt.  But I'm slogging through it.  He speaks of everyday practices of everyday people.  I just wish he had used everyday language in which to do it!  I am getting something out of it, but probably not as much as is there, alas.  Highfalutin' language and theory always make my head hurt.

As to a book published this year, I'll have to hunt for one.  A book I can read in a day?  I may have a few of those on my shelves, but not very many.  Maybe one of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books.  I love those.  They're delightful.

I have a number of books I've been meaning to read, and for that I think I'll choose fiction.  I will read my friend Lisa Peppan's Somewhen Over the Rain Clouds.  Maybe tomorrow when I take my sister-in-law to the library I'll ask for a recommendation from the librarian.  I like mysteries, so I'll see what she may have to say of something in that field.  A book I should have read in school.  H'mm.  Heh.  Do I want my professors to possibly see this?  Well . . . Okay, I'll fess up.  Dr. Charles Clossman, now chair of the Department of History at the University of North Florida, forgive me.  I didn't read Jack Temple Kirby's The Mockingbird's Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South in class.  I will read it this year, as part of the challenge.

I have a lot of books published before I was born, even though I was born a long time ago!  They were printing by that time.  Gutenberg showed me an advance copy of his Bible!  Okay, kidding aside, as a historian, I have a lot of old books.  My college housemate (FSU, 1965-66) Judith West sent me a book she had held onto since childhood.  This book was published in 1892, and she thought that, as a Florida historian, I'd be interested.  Indeed I am.  The book is Historical Sketches of Colonial Florida, by Richard L. Campbell.  It deals mainly with what was called West Florida, of which Pensacola was the capital in Spanish times, while my studies are mainly of East Florida, of which St. Augustine was the capital.  However, I can certainly read it for Judith, and in honor of my mother, as both were raised in Pensacola.

I have rather a fetish for reading banned books.  It is a way to thumb my nose at the prudes and arrogant bluenoses who ban them.  I must have a banned book in my collection; at least one.  I will check the American Library Association's website for their banned books list.  The website discusses banned and "challenged" books.  I'm sure I can find something fascinating on their lists.

A book you previously abandoned.  That is a tough one.  Usually, when I abandon a book, it is because I just cannot proceed any further in it, for a variety of reasons.  These are the books that I may feel so disgusted at that I throw them against the wall.  I have done so in the past because of execrable writing, terrible plotting, and disgusting characters.  I will have to work on that one.

A book you own but have never read.  I have a few of those.  I shall just peruse my bookshelves and pick one.  To be announced.  A book you've already read at least once.  Oh, that could be such a pleasure, for I have books that I have so thoroughly enjoyed I have read them again and again.  Thomas P. F. Hoving's The King of the Confessors is probably number one on that list.  It is a wonderful story, full of intrigue, telling how Hoving tracked down the elusive Bury St. Edmonds Cross.  This artifact was lost for many years.  It is an elaborately carved cross and is stunningly beautiful.  I also immensely enjoyed E. J. Priz's Cosa Nosferatu:  Capone.  Ness.  Cthulhu.  Yes, you read that right.  It was such big fun!  (Note that on the website, accessible from the above link, the second quoted review, the one in red letters, is mine!)

So that is the challenge, and how I plan to meet it.  I'll comment on these books as I finish them, and tick them off the list.

Take up the challenge!  Read some good books!  After all, we have the whole year, right?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

This week's reading

I just finished, the other day, a totally fun book!  I like all sorts of history, have been a history buff since I was a kid.  One period I'm totally bonkers about is the 1920s and 1930s.  I also love stories, when they are well done, wherein historical figures are plunked down into fictional situations.

I just read Cosa Nosferatu:  Capone.  Ness.  Cthulhu.

You read that right.  Al Capone the gangster, Eliot Ness the prohibition agent -- and Cthulhu.

Well, the Ancient One himself only has a cameo appearance.  Mainly what we see are a couple of vampires, a bunch of Yig'goltha, and a few shoggoths.  But the mix of the world of prohibition and organized crime with the world of the Old Gods works.  It works because the author, E. J. Priz, did his homework.  All throughout the book, little historical facts about Eliot Ness and Al Capone are woven into the narrative, seamlessly.  And Priz also did his homework on the Cthulhu mythos; he knows his Lovecraft.

I told my daughter about this one, and she ordered a copy for herself.  She then turned me on to another book, Peter David's Artful.  This one does not involve historical characters, but literary ones.  Peter David says we should not bother with whiny little Oliver Twist, who spends a great deal of his time in the Dickens classic being weepy.  Look instead at the Artful Dodger, the young lieutenant to that weasly coach of juvenile delinquents, Fagin.

Fagin's a vampire.

The book shows the Artful Dodger's life after the events of Dickens's Oliver Twist.  I have only read the first chapter so far, and it had me laughing myself silly.  I know I'm going to enjoy this one.

And for my work, I'm reading The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork, by Ben Kafka.  He discusses what he sees as the birth of the modern bureaucratic state, and the nature and demands of paperwork.  This is a more general book than I read last week, Kathryn Burns's Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru.  Not sure where this one is going to lead me, as regards the work I'm doing on translating colonial Spanish notarial documents, but we shall see.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What I'm Reading this Week

I have a few books going this week, some for my work and some for leisure reading.

For my work, I'm reading Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru, by Kathryn Burns.  I am doing translations of petitions for permission to get married, filed in colonial Spanish St. Augustine, Florida, between the years 1784 and 1821.  The documents are notarial documents, written by the government notary as part of his duties to keep records of government transactions.  The Spanish, thank the deity, were anal retentive about keeping records of all sorts of events and transactions.

The problem is:  just how reliable are these documents?  How reliable were the notaries?  Spanish notaries in general apparently had pretty bad reputations, being skewered in the picaresque novels of the 16th century, right up until the beginning of the 19th.  So, Burns's work will give me a lens through which to view these St. Augustine notarial documents.

For leisure reading, I'm into a book I bought at the Clay County Library, on the sale books shelf.  It is Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine.  Even my leisure reading is often non-fiction, usually having to do with history.  This one is a corking good sea story.

The book is in two parts.  Part One tells the story of the creation and brief life of the submarine that probably inspired Jules Verne's fictional submarine the Nautilus, and which made naval history.  Unfortunately, it was a death trap.  It sank with all hands twice, and was raised and repaired each time.  In its final excursion, during which it embedded a torpedo in a Union ship's side and blew it up, ended with the little vessel being lost with all hands for over 100 years.

Part Two tells the story of the finding and recovery of the sub.  I have just finished Part One, so I haven't really got into Part Two yet.

Of course, I'm finding the leisure selection easier reading, but Into the Archive is well-written in clear prose, and the subject to me is fascinating.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Two Excellent Storytellers

I'm visiting home for the weekend, and had waiting for me two books by two men I've admired for a long, long time and who turned out to be wonderful storytellers.

The first book is called Forerunners Courageous: Stories of Frontier Florida, written by LeRoy Collins, subject of my last post, and published in 1971.  In the book I mentioned in that post, Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins, Dyckman quotes a poem called "Growing Up," which Collins wrote.  It treats of his youth in Tallahassee, a small Southern town, and how the things he saw around him affected him.  In that poem, we see the seed of the governor and the man he became.  It's a wonderful poem, and I had to read the entire thing, which is why I bought Forerunners Courageous.

I would have to say that Forerunners Courageous is to LeRoy Collins what Profiles in Courage was to John F. Kennedy.  Each book gave a glimpse into the man, into what each valued, the common denominator of which was courage.

Collins's genteel, gentle sense of humor comes through as well, in the parts that are originally his.  Much of the book consists in his retelling of old Florida tales such as the duel between Leigh Read and Augustus Alston, a tragic story of the consequences of taking the law into one's own hands.  But there is a great deal of himself, in his own words and thoughts, in the chapter titled "Reflections of a Part-Time Beachcomber."  That title refers to his summer home on the Gulf of Mexico which, during his governorship, provided a refuge from the towering problems he had to deal with, a place to think and reflect.  The chapter includes the poem, "Growing Up," and prose musings as well.  The last part of the book is devoted to the life and family of one of Florida's territorial governors, Richard Keith Call.  Collins's wife Mary was a Call, a direct descendant of the territorial governor.  The chapter weaves its story within a framework that centers upon The Grove, a mansion in Tallahassee, next door to the present governor's mansion, and which was the seat of the Call family.  In fact, when Collins became governor, the governor's mansion was in such terrible condition that Collins and his family lived at The Grove, which Mary had inherited.  The old governor's mansion was eventually torn down, and a new one built on the same lot.

Reading this book, and having read Dyckman's biography, I am glad that I have admired LeRoy Collins, and glad that I did have that chance on one balmy day in Tallahassee to meet him and talk with him for a brief time.  I like thinking men, and I like LeRoy Collins.

I also like handsome men, and to my eyes one of the handsomest of the 20th century was Robert Stack (though LeRoy Collins was no slouch in that department, either!).  Robert Stack is most famous for being the host of Unsolved Mysteries and also for his role in the 1959-1963 series The Untouchables, in which he portrayed fictional exploits of a very real historical character, Prohibition agent Eliot Ness.    Stack is the author of the autobiography Straight Shooting (1980), a title which refers not only to his direct style of speaking but also to his career as a champion skeet shooter.  He held many records during his lifetime, and taught famous actors such as Clark Gable, how to shoot.

Robert Stack likewise reveals his sense of humor in these pages -- a sense of humor a good deal more earthy and bawdy than that of LeRoy Collins!  That sense of humor is more often than not directed at himself, as he tells stories of Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system.  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, second son of a wealthy, socially-prominent family of old Californians.  Many of the lights in the Hollywood firmament were family friends, including Carole Lombard, the beautiful actress who died tragically in an airplane crash.  She was 13-year-old Robert's first crush.

Alex Haley once wrote, "An old person dying is like a library burning."  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, knew many of the famous and not-so-famous, and when he left this life early in this century, he took with him massive volumes of Hollywood lore.  Some of that is preserved in these pages.  He was not an elitist, from what he tells us.  He hung around with mechanics and stablemen and other "common" people, and seems to have gotten along with all of them.  (In that, he reminds me of my husband, who can carry on great conversations with millionaires or mechanics, and have a great time doing it.)

Robert Stack's wife, Rosemarie Bowe, an actress and model, has a chapter in the book as well, and it is as funny and engaging as her husband's chapters are.  Her sense of humor about herself shows that they were a good match for each other.  She was a gorgeous lady, and a very lucky one, from where I'm sitting!  (Though I have my own good luck, too.)

I love books that can make me laugh out loud, or say, "Oh, my gosh!" or even bring a tear.  These two books are lively and full of the love of life, poignant in places, and revealing of two very human and humane men.  They are highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Floridian of His Century

One of the books assigned for the class Florida Politics Since World War II is Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins.

Collins was elected in 1954 in a special election to fill out the term of Governor Dan McCarty, who died in office of a heart attack.  Collins defeated the "Pork Chop Gang" member Charley Johns, who, as president of the state senate, had become acting governor upon McCarty's death.  The "Pork Chop Gang" was a small clique of North Florida rural senators and representatives who held power out of all proportion to their numbers due to a crying need for reapportionment which had gone unheeded for decades.  A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1967 finally resulted in proper apportionment, which eliminated the power of the "Pork Chop Gang" and provided for more equitable and reasonable representation in Florida.

Collins, born and raised in Tallahassee, was raised in the racist, segregationist tradition of the South.  However, he was blessed with a mind and a conscience, and with the ability to examine his beliefs and values, and to change when change was needed.  And it was needed.

Collins won re-election to a full term in 1956, and through his evolving stand on civil rights, calling discrimination an offense to "moral, simple justice," became probably the greatest governor Florida has yet had.  He wanted to be the one to institute the reapportionment mentioned above, but was thwarted by the "Pork Chop Gang."  He also wanted a constitutional revision to update the existing constitution, which dated from 1885, and which was inadequate to the needs of a rapidly-growing Florida.  He did not succeed in either one.  Reapportionment took a federal Supreme Court decision, as mentioned above, and the constitution was not replaced until 1968.

After his term as governor was up, there being term limits in those days which limited a governor to one term, he went on to serve in other ways.  He was able to have that full term after the first two years in which he filled out McCarty's term because of a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that a governor was entitled to a full term.

I met LeRoy Collins one day in Tallahassee, in 1969, when I was an undergraduate at Florida State University.  Three roommates and I, who had been together in another residence, rented an apartment in an old house which had been broken up into apartments.  Our landlady was LeRoy Collins's mother. She was a genteel, gentle lady with impeccable manners to all.  One day, one of my roommates came up the stairs, having been out, and told us that LeRoy Collins was downstairs.  We all tromped down the stairs with, "Oh, Governor Collins.  It's such an honor to meet you."  He smiled broadly, appearing flattered to be the object of attention from such a gaggle of enthusiastic young women.  He shook hands all around, and talked with us for a while, then we tromped back upstairs to leave him with his mother.  We were on a cloud, having met one of Florida's living heroes.

Anyone wanting to read an engaging biography of an engaging man who was in the right place at the right time at an important juncture in this state's and this nation's history could not do better than to read this book.  More radical people could criticize Collins for not having pushed harder, but he was wise in knowing that pushing too hard could have caused more violence than Florida did experience.  His moral leadership made a difference in a number of ways, not least of which was to inspire my generation in Florida much as John F. Kennedy inspired us across the nation.  The stand that LeRoy Collins did make was bold at the time and in the place in which he made it.

He deserves his place in Florida's history.