Last Update 12/29/20

The Great Lakes by Michele Strutin, Smithsonian, 1996  

A guide to sightseeing in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana. I spent four years in Michigan but never made it to the Upper Peninsula, which looks very attractive in the pictures included here. Lower Michigan, not so much. Ohio does not look impressive, but parts of Indiana are gorgeous. Wisconsin also looks like a nice place to visit. There are a lot more animals depicted here than in other volumes in the series, perhaps a sign of more diversity. I thought the overall quality of the photography was not up to their usual standards. A lot of the pictures seem off center or are of inconsequential subject matter. 12/29/20

The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik, Harper, 2007 

The premise of this very long book is that three events between 1788 and 1800 – the formation of the US, the French Revolution, and the Russo-Turkish War that eventually brought about the downfall of Catherine the Great – were all interrelated. Some but not much of this was new to me – mostly the Russo-Turkish War. I didn’t know John Paul Jones fought for the Russians, for example. The central argument is almost self evidently true and the author supports his thesis more than adequately. The structure of the book is slightly problematic. There are alternating chapters set in each of the three countries, and the constant changes of venue undercut some of the tension as events unfold. This is a long and detailed book - two days reading even for me. 12/24/20

The Northern Rockies by Jeremy & Thomas Schmidt, Smithsonian, 1995  

Mostly a tourist guide to Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. The mountainous regions obviously lend themselves to photography and there are some gorgeous shots in this volume. There is considerably more emphasis on wildlife than in most of the others as well, probably because this is one of the less spoiled areas in the US, at least so far. I have never been in this region, which I suspect that I would find very scenic, but I also suspect that a lot of it is less accessible than it might be elsewhere despite the proliferation of parks and nature preserves. 12/19/20

Bare Bones 4 edited by Peter Enfantino & John Scoleri, Cimarron Street, 2020, $9.95, ISBN 979-8677051968 

This issue has as its major theme three movie monsters, Gorgo, Reptilicus, and Konga, along with the usual array of articles and reviews. There’s a discussion of the films of Val Lewton and the rather enigmatic novels of Harry Stephen Keeler. A few sleazy sex novels are reviewed and David Schow talks about the Twilight Zone. Yours truly has a column retrospectively reviewing some offbeat alien invasion stories. And there’s more. A reliably entertaining and well written magazine. 

The Letters of August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith, edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi, Hippocampus, 2020, $30, ISBN 978-1-61498-222-7

This is a massive collection of correspondence between two of the legendary names in fantastic literature, along with some odds and ends. Some of it is quite trivial and practical – some of it is more interesting. I've been thinking about rereading Smith and this confirmed my interest. I skipped around a lot in this one, finding interesting threads of conversations which I sometimes followed in detail. Most interesting to me were the discussions of particular stories. Assembling this must have been a monumental undertaking – and I’m also surprised that so much of the correspondence survived after the better part of a century. If I hadn’t already decided to reread Smith this year, I might have been prodded into doing it after exploring this volume. 12/15/20

H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to Family and Family Friends, edited by S.T. Joshi & David E. Schultz, Hippocampus, 2020, $30 each for two volumes, ISBN 978-1-61498-247-0 & 078-1-61498301-9   

These two large compendiums contain what the title suggests. HPL wrote copiously even in his casual correspondence. The two cover a large portion of his life and undoubtedly contain lots of little nuggets of interest to scholars. I am not personally that interested in the minutiae of his life, but if I was, these would be highly prized items. The editors have added notes to explain random names or events which might not be clear from context. I only sampled these for an hour or two and my first thought is that the art of correspondence is sadly lost. Despite the personal faults that have sullied his reputation in recent years, Lovecraft was an important writer in the horror genre who must be examined within the context of his time. These two volumes provide a good tool for doing so. 12/7/20

The Southeast by Michele Strutin & Harry Middleton, Smithsonian, 1996 

This volume in a series of guides to parks, etc. covers Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. These are interesting mostly for the color photos of flora, fauna, and geological formations. As you might expect, this volume has a lot of pictures of swamps, which are much more attractive in photographs than one might expect. I hadn’t realized how much of South Carolina is still wilderness. I had never heard of or seen solution pits before, large depressions in rocks caused by lichen rotting away even stone. A lot of the animals pictured in this volume are endangered species. Alabama looks dull but that might be the selection of photographs that is to blame. Florida runs heavily to beach pictures and it is dull for the most part. I lived there for several months. The exception, however, is the Everglades and the Keys, neither of which I visited. 12/2/20

Crossing on Time by David Macaulay, Roaring Brook, 2019    

The author and his family emigrated to the US from the UK in 1957 aboard the United States, a famous ocean liner. This is a profusely illustrated history of the development of steamships in general and that ship in particular. It is still afloat and preserved for historical purposes. Bits and pieces of his own story are blended with the narrative. The illustrations include a very useful guide to the evolution of steam power, and later to the procedures for constructing a ship this massive. Very entertaining and visually impressive. I had the pleasure of attending high school with the author. 11/28/20

Atlantis by Marjorie Braymer, Atheneum, 1983

Atlantis was first mentioned notably by Plato and has since given rise to numerous legends, theories, and hoaxes. The author provides a summary of much of this but draws no conclusions. The information is useful but I was looking for something that examined things rather more critically. This is really just a popularization and may even have been intended for young adults. 11/20/20

The Northern Plains by Lansing Shepard, Smithsonian, 1996

This volume in their series of guides to natural history covers Minnesota and the Dakotas. The pictures from Minnesota are gorgeous and made me want to visit. North Dakota was a bit too flat for my tastes, although some of the pictures were interesting. South Dakota was much more mountainous than I expected, and has some really remarkable features including an eroded rock formation that is almost a perfect sphere. My one disappointment was that the chapter on caves actually included not a single photograph of a cave, which struck me as very odd. 8/19/20

Power by Michael Korda, Random House, 1975

This is a discussion of what personal power is, how to acquired it, and how to make use of it. I first read this shortly after getting out of the army and used some of the techniques described at my job, and some of them definitely worked. Some of the anecdotes including to illustrate points are priceless. I did find it rather overheated a lot of the time, and oversimplified in some cases as well. Applying some of his analysis to our current political leaders can be enlightening. 7/24/20

A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New Directions, 1968

Starting from San Francisco by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New Directions, 1967

Over All the Obscene Boundaries by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New Directions, 1984

Howl by Allen Ginsberg, New Directions, 1957  

I have read very little poetry in recent years, having drifted away somewhere along the way. The discovery that Ferlinghetti is still alive kept recurring to me so I brought in the three of his collections that I own, plus the only Ginsberg title I ever read.  The first of these is probably his best known title, although it is actually a quote from Henry Miller. I think it’s the best of the three Ferlinghettis. He was also a painter and many of his poems are nicely evoked scenes. “I Am Waiting” is one of my all time favorite poems. The second consists of poems of varying lengths and formats. The most memorable line is “the final war is over again.”  They generally deal with the author’s travels in America. The third book contains several poems set in Paris and Italy, and quite a large proportion deal with romantic love, although as with the others, they are predominantly snapshots of experiences. A few of them are entirely in French. I generally enjoy the shorter ones best but the extended poem about two featherless birds is my favorite in the book. The Ginsberg book was seized as obscene and was the subject of a long trial, which the government ultimately lost. I was not as impressed by Ginsberg, then or now, although the title piece in this collection is very powerful. 6/2/20

The Atlantic Coast & Blue Ridge by John Ross, Smithsonian, 1995  

Another guide whose text is largely devoted to state and national parks, where they are and what facilities they have. The value of the books is that they are prolifically illustrated with full color photographs. When I was a child, my family vacationed in this area one year and I still remember impressive vistas from the Skyline Drive and other areas. There are quite a few mountain landscapes in the book, though not as many as I had expected. There were obviously lots of places in Virginia and Maryland that we did not visit, and except for one short trip to the western part of the state, my only experience of North Carolina has been to drive through it on the interstate. 5/26/20

The Southwest by Jake Page, Smithsonian, 1995 

This is the guide to parks and scenery in Arizona and New Mexico, and you might expect a lot of the gorgeous photographs are of desert scenes. But not as many as you might think. I have limited experience of that area and was surprised at the diversity of environments to be found in a relatively small geographical region. As usual, the text consists mostly of advisories about the parks, but I believe this is the same Jake Page who wrote some alternate history fiction some years ago. 5/19/20

Philip K. Dick edited by David Sandner, McFarland, 2020, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7789-7

I have read so many essays about the work of Philip K. Dick over the years that it seems unlikely anyone will have anything particularly new to say. This is a collection of essays that make the attempt, and a few of them actually did seem quite insightful. The contributors include Tim Powers, Jonathan Lethem, James P. Blaylock, and a couple more familiar names. The discussion of Galactic Pot-Healer I found interesting as I have always considered it one of his least significant efforts. The essays left me with a yearning to find time to fit a re-read of the author into my schedule. 3/31/20

Central Appalachia by Bruce Hopkins, Smithsonian, 1996   

Another in a series of guides to parks that I frankly read mostly for the pictures. This one covers West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee and I have not been to any of the places it covers. For some reason this volume is much more oriented toward animals than has been true in others I have read. The few landscapes did not entice me. I was puzzled at the complete lack of coverage of caverns. The text is competent but not particularly engaging.  3/27/20

The Tragic Thread in Science Fiction by Robert H. Waugh, Hippocampus, 2020, $20, ISBN 978-1-61498-246-3

This is a collection of essays dealing science fiction and fantasy writers from various periods in the history of the genre. Each is analyzed from an academic perspective, although for the most part the language is quite accessible to the lay person - not always the case in this kind of book. I found nothing to argue with in any of the essays - which is also unusual - although they varied in interest for me. I have never quite understood the popularity of Olaf Stapledon and David Lindsay. On the other hand, the discussion of Clarke's Childhood's End and the works of James Tiptree and Fritz Leiber contained interesting insights. Other topics include William Gibson, H.P. Lovecraft, and Mervyn Peake. 3/24/20

The Mid-Atlantic States by Eugene Walter, Smithsonian, 1996 

Another Smithsonian guide to flora and fauna in parks around the country. These are of interest primarily because of the beautiful photography, which in this volume includes a number of waterfalls. It covers New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. There is an interesting write up of Presque Isle in Pennsylvania, which I’ve visited a few times. One picture has the World Trade Center in the background, which is kind of eerie. This is meant to be a guide if you plan to travel in the area, so much of the text is otherwise of no interest. 3/18/20

Ghosts of the Quad Cities by Michael McCarty & Mark McLaughlin, Haunted America, 2020, ISBN 978-1-4671-4106-2

Ghosts and hauntings are nonsense, but a lot of people believe in them, or pretend to do so, and there is a lot of interested in haunted places. This slim little book examines some of those rumored places in Davenport and Mettendorf in Iowa, and in Moline and Rock Island in Illinois. There is information about the stories involving each place, and lots of photographs, and some of the stories are actually inherently interesting in themselves. This is also a part of the country I have never visited so I found the occasional bits of local color interesting. You don't have to believe in ghosts to find this entertaining. 3/13/20

Horror Literature from Gothic to Post-Modern edited by Michele Brittany & Nicholas Diak, McFarland, 2020, $45, ISBN 978-1-4766-7488-9

The title of this one is misleading. It would take volumes to discuss that subject. In this case, we just have a collection of unrelated essays about horror fiction drawn from periods as early as the gothic era and as late as the present. There is no unified theme. So there are discussions of Ann Radcliffe, World War Z by Max Brooks, Night of the Living Dead - which is a movie and not literature, and general essays about thematic similarities and other attributes of the genre. A few of the essays are interesting, most only if their subject matter has a particular appeal, and a few are written in such thick academic language that they were almost unintelligible. 3/3/20

The Global Vampire edited by Cait Coker, McFarland, 2020, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7594-7

A collection of essays about the vampire in popular culture. Like most of these collections of academic essays, the writing varies from entertaining to awkward. They are generally more interesting than one might expect, given how much attention has been paid to vampire fiction in recent years, but these are designed to look at how different parts of the world and different cultures treat the phenomenon. The focus is on movies rather than literature, which I found disappointing, and Asian vampirism is not examined in any depth. Worth reading, but perhaps given the price you might urge your local library to acquire it. 2/13/20

Northern New England by W.D. Wetherell, Smithsonian, 1995 

Another guide to fauna and flora, with details about state parks and other scenic areas. This one deals with Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, so I had actually visited some of the places that are mentioned. The color plates are the main attraction as usual, and there are also useful maps and directions, This is more than twenty years old, so some of the information is outdated. For example, they assume that the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire is still there, but it collapsed a couple of years ago. 1/21/20

The Technique of the Mystery Story by Carolyn Wells, 1913

As Wells was embarking on her career as a mystery writer - over eighty novels - she wrote this often interesting discussion of the recent history and various aspects of the mystery story. Even then she was able to identify several elements as overdone - locked rooms, secret passages, etc. - and suggested writers should avoid them in the future. As it happens, she disregarded her own device and these became standard elements in her own detective novels. Some of her observations are amusing - detectives must be from the wealthy, educated class for example. Quite readable, and she mentions a few novels I've added to my want list. 1/16/20

Hitler’s American Friends by Bradley W. Hart, Thomas Dunne, 2018

We tend to forget that there was a good deal of support for Hitler in the US during the 1930s. Antisemitism was rampant and isolationism was a powerful political force. The book examines different aspects of it, including German clubs and organizations, suborned members of Congress who were actually taking money from the German government, business people like Henry Ford who considered himself a personal friend of Hitler, talk show hosts like Father Coughlin, spies and propagandists working out of the German embassy, student protest movements, and so on. There was even an abortive effort backed by some bankers to overthrow Roosevelt’s government and set up a fascist state. Not to mention German attempts to manipulate voters to defeat his bid for re-election. A lot of things in the narrative are very similar to things happening in our political struggles to day, frighteningly so. 1/8/20

The Southern Rockies by Susan Lamb, Smithsonian, 1995  

One of a series of guides to the natural world in selected parts of the US, profusely illustrated with full color photographs and a few drawings, with text describing the wildlife and geographic features. Much of the book is devoted to describing the various national and state parks that you can visit in the area, although the current administration’s plans to sell much of this land to be developed may make some of it outdated.  The text is largely interesting, but sometimes too much of a travel guide and less descriptive. 1/3/20