Category Archives: Book Notes

📖  Not that my opinion carries much clout, but I’ve formulated a 70/30 rule for books.  Fiction or non, no more than 70% of books are worth reading 30% of the way through, and no more than 30% are worth reading 70% of the way through.  The middle 40% is where one must decide, is it time to shelve this thing or am I already too invested?  My follow-up rule is, one is never too invested in a book to stop wasting precious time on it.

🙋🏻‍♂️  It so happens that I’m 45% into Laughing at the Gods: Great Judges and How They Made the Common Law by Allan Hutchinson, and I’ve arrived at that junction: is it worth my while to continue?  Hutchinson first profiles William Murray/Lord Mansfield (who?) of England, followed by John Marshall of the fledgling United States and the legendary Oliver Wendell Holmes (often conflated with his fictional cousin Sherlock Holmes).

Oliver Wendell Holmes was a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years (1902-1932) and is noted for his long service.  (Aside: Clarence Thomas has now served — and has been serviced — for 33 years.)  In May 1927, Holmes and the Court issued the following opinion allowing Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” Virginia woman, to be involuntarily sterilized:

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Again, I learned of this event in a book about judges whom the author, misgivings aside, deems great.  With respect to Laughing at the Gods, I think I’ve read enough.

[Note:  Ms. Buck was in fact sterilized soon after this decision, the first of over 7,000 such procedures performed under Virginia law into the 1970s.  The ruling was never overturned or the law declared unconstitutional, instead there were apologies.]

🎶 If I ever start a wildly-successful rock band, I will not ask my spouse to be part of it… not because she isn’t talented, but because it would forever be a point of contention in social media as to who or what caused our band’s tragic break-up.  We’ve seen that story often enough.

In that light, I think it would be best that my band not become wildly-successful, which is easily accomplished if I don’t start a band at all.  End problem.

👨🏻‍💼 But say I did start a band!  I would name it General Relativity to honor my hero Albert Einstein (and out-rank Sergeant Pepper).  I would be The General, with wild hair, vest and pocket watches, the band’s songwriter and keyboardist.  Lead guitarist would be Darc NRG with M.C. Squared on drums and gravitational waves.  [Nerd jokes.]  “Hize” Heisenberg would be on bass — and though he plays with uncertainty, I would keep him in the band as a matter of principle.  [Another one.]

😡 On the intersection of  Music and Tragic: I wonder if readers of my cohort recall any of the songs in the pre-rap era that were surprisingly violent yet were also pretty much taken in stride at the time.  I’ll let this thought sit a bit before I share my list.

💲  Forbes, the magazine for those who want to own more, publishes an up-to-the-minute list of the richest people in the world and what they are worth.  Surprisingly, the #1 slot is occupied not by an oil sultan but by Bernard Arnault and family ($230 billion).  Arnault is CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the brands that help the rich make the rich feel richer.  Farther down the list at #97 ($18.9 billion) is Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and Co., and enough said about him.  James Dyson, the vacuum whiz, is #232 on the list, having sucked up $9.7 billion from his enterprise.  Donald Trump’s rump, according to Forbes, rests in the 1,254th spot at $2.6 billion.  For now.

💲  The U.S. harbors some 750 billionaires, or one of 350,000 American adults.  For some reason, U.S. billionaires do not distribute themselves equitably among the various states.  Five states — Alabama, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia — together have 7 million adults but zero resident billionaires, or 20-some billionaires shy of expectations for those five states.  Now why would that be?

Could it have something to do with the distance to the nearest Tesla dealer?

💲  U.S. billionaires should do their patriotic duty and move to states like, say, Alabama, to even things up and help struggling businesses like, say, IVF clinics, stay afloat.

🥸 Ranting further on billionaires.  My lib friends might enjoy this article by Nick French, “Don’t Fall for the Myth of the Job Creator.”  It includes this incisive quote by musician and producer Steve Albini:  “Nobody earned a billion dollars.  It’s literally impossible to be paid for work and end up with a billion dollars.  You get a billion dollars by having other people work for it, then taking it.”

📃 My spouse told me last night that if Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) led a church, she would attend every service.  For her, here is a verse from Ferlinghetti’s I Am Waiting (published 1958) that I connect with:

I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again

🦉 Mister Rogers: Dog Person or Cat Person?  Let’s weigh the evidence.  It is known that Fred Rogers had both a dog (Mitzi) and a cat (Sybil) during his lifetime.  On the canine side, Rogers’ show regularly featured Bob Dog, portrayed by local radio talent Bob Trow.  As to felines, there were the puppets Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Stripèd Tiger, Grandpère (another tiger) and Collette (Grandpère’s granddaughter).  So cats win, right?

Not so fast.  Rogers had an aquarium on his set and would feed his dozen or so pet fish at the start of every show.  So that makes him… a Fish Person?

Fred practiced vegetarianism from the 1970s on, saying he didn’t want to eat anything that had a mother.  (This would seem to exclude everything but rocks and Hitler.)  But since his dog and his cat and his fish all ate meat, one wonders how Fred reconciled this and what exactly to call him.  I would say that he ate in the land of make-believe.

§§  Negotiate (v.)  What spouses do when only one of them wants anchovies on the pizza.  We don’t need to say which one because it’s obvious.  Same with the outcome!

🎹  OK, time to return to those violent Boomer Era songs.  How many do you recall?

  • El Paso – written and recorded by Marty Robbins, 1959. “Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys / Off to my left ride a dozen or more / Shouting and shooting, I can’t let them catch me / I have to make it to Rosa’s back door / Something is dreadfully wrong, for I feel / A deep burning pain in my side / Though I am trying to stay in the saddle / I’m getting weary, unable to ride.”
  • Folsom Prison Blues – written and recorded by Johnny Cash, 1955, 1968 and beyond. “When I was just a baby, my mama told me, Son / Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns / But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”
  • Hey Joe – performed by Jimi Hendrix and many others, written by Billy Roberts, 1962. “Hey Joe, I heard you shot your woman dead / Hey Joe, I heard you shot your woman dead / Yes I did, got both of them lying in that bed.”
  • Run for Your Life – The Beatles, 1965, written by John Lennon. “Let this be a sermon / I mean everything I’ve said / Baby, I’m determined / And I’d rather see you dead / You better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man / That’s the end, little girl.”
  • Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) – Cher, 1966, written by Sonny Bono.  “Bang bang, he shot me down / Bang bang, I hit the ground / Bang bang, that awful sound / Bang bang, my baby shot me down.”

Bang bang, we played with guns, bang, bang, we had some fun, bang bang, desensitized, bang bang, now count the homicides.

🖖  While there is no dearth of reasons for one to feel outrage these days (or any day), it is hard for me to justify spending my time to corral the outrage, and then condense, shape it, and finally express it here in a way that you might want to read, only to make you sigh, “Oh, more of this shit again,” and sending y’all on your way over to Wordle.

And that is why I’m closing this post with something nice to say about (gasp!) Facebook.  My only Facebook friends are my immediate family — and the only reason I visit Facebook is to read their messages or see if they’ve posted something about the grandchildren.

But as of late, Facebook has been populating my newsfeed with topics that I am actually interested in: photos and stories about The Beatles that I’ve never read or seen; same deal with Star Trek; various Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes cartoons; classic comedians like Groucho, Laurel & Hardy… It’s as if some (gasp again!) ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE has somehow gleaned my interests and finally decided that the best way to keep me engaged on Facebook is to show me items that I enjoy!

I am sure that Facebook, besides gathering up tons of info on me as I cruise the web, has developed some algorithm to gauge how much eyeball-time I spend on various posts in my feed in order to offer me more of the same.  I say, I love The Beatles and Calvin & Hobbes, so I’m fine with this.  Facebook, don’t mess with your algorithm again.


* As always, I invite you to explore the links, else I wouldn’t bother to include them.

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A Robert Louis Stevenson card from the Authors gameI learned of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) when I was maybe 9 years old, courtesy of the go-fish card game Authors.  Stevenson’s doleful countenance on the cards made more of an impression on me than did the titles of his works, the most notable of which were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island.  Sadly, the game did not sway me to read his works or, for that matter, any work by any author in the card game’s 11-deity pantheon.*

I bring up Mr. Stevenson now because, recalling him from the Authors game, I decided the other day to look him up in Librivox, an archive of recorded written works in the public domain.  Something I often plug into to fall asleep.

How surprised I was then, as I dialed up Stevenson’s short story Markheim, to find myself captivated by his writing.  The man tells a gripping tale, imbued with a dramatic flair that almost makes the start and finish beside the point.  My follow-up Stevenson selection was The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, an allegory of choice, chance and fate.  This story felt a bit contrived but its telling was just as suspenseful and rich in detail.

I ultimately arrived at the Librivox doorstep of Kidnapped, a novel published by Stevenson in 1886.  The tale is ostensibly about David Balfour, a young and earnest Scotsman who, recently orphaned and seeking to secure his inheritance, is kidnapped by an unscrupulous seaman (aren’t they all!) hired by David’s miserly uncle to make David — and his claim to the family estate — disappear.

But the meat of the story is about David’s post-kidnap adventure and evolving relationship with Alan Breck Stewart, best described in modern terms as a Scot activist/militant.  David meets Alan thanks to a chance collision between his kidnapper’s brig and a smaller boat ferrying Stewart to an unnamed destination.  The collision hurls Stewart onto the bowsprit of the brig, from where he is brought on board and from whence the real action begins.

David and Alan’s relationship is often described as a bromance (Kidnapped was dismissed as a “boy’s story” in Stevenson’s time) but I could make the argument, without authority, that the tale is about the perils, turmoils and vulnerabilities of gay relationships of the era.  It certainly reads as more-than-a-friendship to my 21st-century eyes.

In fact, I speculate that the title Kidnapped refers not to David’s confinement on the brig — which comes to an abrupt end via shipwreck — but to the capture of his heart by Alan.  This becomes clear as David, navigating his way back home, struggles to resolve his love for the risky Alan vs. his instinct for self-survival, a conflict which Stevenson casts in ever-sharper contrast as the story hurtles forward.

You will have to read (or listen to) Kidnapped yourself to see if you see what I see.  But in any event, there is more to Robert Louis Stevenson than a card with a mournful face and the titles of some boy’s stories printed on it.  I’m glad I went fishing and discovered him.

Postface… or Perhaps Just Part II

Songwriters Card This got me to thinking that there should be a children’s card game called Songwriters which captures the artistic tastes of its generation (mine) and would be just as dated as Authors was when it was published.  For authenticity, the portraits of the songwriters would have to be just as formal and stiff as in the original game.

My own Songwriters deck would feature 13 of them, like a regular deck of cards.  Here they are, in alphabetical order, along with the songs that would appear on each set of four:

Chuck Berry: No Particular Place to Go, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen.

David BowieSpace Oddity, All the Young Dudes, Young Americans, Changes.

Willie DixonSpoonful, Back Door Man, Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You.

Bob Dylan: Blowin’ in the Wind, Tangled Up in Blue, Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower.

George Harrison: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun, Something, My Sweet Lord.

Eddie Holland: Heat Wave, Stop! In the Name of Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Reach Out I’ll Be There.

Carole KingYou’ve Got a Friend, It’s Too Late, So Far Away, I Feel the Earth Move.

John Lennon: Help!, I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, Imagine.

Paul McCartney: Yesterday, Hey Jude, Blackbird, Maybe I’m Amazed.

Sarah McLachlanAdia, Angel, I Will Remember You, Possession.

Cole Porter: Anything Goes, Just One of Those Things, I Love Paris, Night and Day.

Carly Simon: That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be, Nobody Does It Better, Anticipation, You’re So Vain.

Paul Simon: The Sound of Silence, I Am a Rock, Mrs. Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Brian WilsonGood Vibrations, Surf City, God Only Knows, In My Room.

Neil Young: Down by the River, Heart of Gold, Ohio, Southern Man.

Can someone please produce a set of these cards?  I am dying to ask a fellow player if they have a Hoochie Coochie Man in their hand.


* The Authors pantheon, for the record: Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott (the only woman), Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I remember thinking that Lord was a weird middle name.
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One year ago this week, as it happens, my longtime friend Rob Simbeck had his fifth book, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, published by the University of South Carolina Press.  Five is a goodly number (his fellow Pennsylvanian, ecologist Rachel Carson, only wrote four) but his total count should rightfully include the six books Rob has ghostwritten as well as the eight he has edited.

It was my good fortune to attend college with Rob in the early 1970s.  I can’t recall how we met — we lived in different dorms, had different majors and never took a class together — but one of my earliest memories of our friendship was working with Rob on his psychology class project, “The Freud Game.”  As it turned out, we would spend much Id and Ego time together in our college years.*

I know three people who were English majors: my son, my spouse’s sister-in-law, and Rob. According to Data USA, most English majors become schoolteachers, magistrates, judges, lawyers or legal workers.  The number who make their living as writers or journalists (as I once hoped to be) is fairly small.  But Rob made that tough choice: he focused his talents, he honed his craft.  Rob dedicated himself to dedication.

I don’t review books per se but I won’t hesitate to recommend the ones I like.  As such, I happily endorse Rob’s latest, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, in spite of (or respecting) the fact that it took me months to finish reading it.  Which I must now explain.

In TSWW, Rob organized 36 nature essays, originally written for South Carolina Wildlife magazine, into sections titled Air, Land and Water.  There is a comforting retro feel to this schema, like those white-tablecloth restaurant menus which helpfully sorted  your food choices into “Surf and Turf” or “Farm, Fish and Fowl.”

Rob devotes equal time to each of these categories and to each of the species he writes about, giving the crusty Eastern Oyster (almost) the same love and respect as the pretty Monarch Butterfly.  If the essays in TSWW convey a common message, it would be Rob’s conviction that every lifeform plays an important, but often hidden, role on our planet.  Rob strives to reveal these hidden roles, which I found to be the strength of these essays.

You may ask, if this trove of five-minute essays was so compelling, why did it take me nine months to finish it?  The answer is simple: I read Rob’s book as comfort food; I harbored it for that purpose.  I would pick it up and read an essay or two when I felt the need for that certain kind of connection.  And for me, these essays were best enjoyed when read outside, on quiet mornings.

To dot the i and cross the t here, I must mention a couple of things I learned from TSSW that really surprised me.  First, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are not bass at all, but belong to the sunfish family!  Second, bald eagles are not only hunters but scavengers, which gives them something in common with crows.  Third, earthworms are 82% protein, so no wonder birds love them.  (The other 18%, Rob doesn’t mention but we can imagine.)

Rob, I’m sorry it took a year for me to promote your book.  But I’m more sorry that there remains no more of it for me to read.  Here’s hoping we can get together again soon and talk about your upcoming adventures.


* Mostly Id.

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