Saturday, January 19, 2019

Books about making books!

Cover to Cover: Creative Techniques for Making Beautiful Books, Journals & Albums, by Shereen LaPlantz
Innovative Bookbinding: Secret Compartments and Hidden Messages, by Shereen LaPlantz
Bound: Over 20 Artful Handmade Books, by Erica Ekrem

I've been getting a little bit into bookmaking, which has been so much fun.   I've tried out several books on the subject, and here are three I looked at recently.

Cover to Cover is full of great ideas.  It's a very good general book about making books, and covers a lot of the basics.  Shereen LaPlantz seems to have specialized in taking simple ideas and coming up with a zillion ways to implement them in cool ways.  This would be an excellent purchase for somebody like me who wants to try out different things and is not yet very knowledgeable.  (Several of the books I've looked at in the past have turned out not to be very good, so this is a serious recommendation.)  There is also a lot of variety here; you can make a traditional journal with hard covers and a Coptic stitch, or an artistic oddity that could go into an exhibit.  The diagrams are quite good and fairly easy to follow.

Innovative Bookbinding is a reprint of a book that actually had samples of several of the illustrated techniques in it, but of course that made it intensive to produce.  My copy just has photos of those, and is a good deal easier to come by.  It is entirely about secreting small surprises into handmade books, and putting in various sorts of pockets, slots, puzzles, and so on.  I tried some of the techniques and I couldn't get the fancy flexigon right, but I did make a really cool little book and some puzzle samples.  All of the diagrams are hand-drawn, and there are not as many as I would like, but there are enough.   I liked this book very much and plan to go back to it for many ideas.

As far as I can tell, you can't go wrong with a book by Shereen LaPlantz.

Bound is a little different.  It's more about making new books from old -- that is, it has techniques for taking apart an old, worn-out hardback book and using the covers to produce new items.  Or you might like to use an old cigar box, a worn-out sweater, or even some leaves.  There are also some leather projects.  There are some nice ideas for spine stitching  I found this book to be frustratingly short on diagrams and illustrations.  The projects are cool, though also a bit too artsy for my taste. 

I do like to have a lot of diagrams and illustrations.   I always want to see every step and every detail, and I get frustrated when there isn't enough for me to easily grasp what's going on, or if I can't see inside an interesting feature.  And I'm used to sewing instructions that mostly do show everything.  Some of these things are meant more for inspiration than exact copying, and I'm all for that, but I still want to see every little bit!  How else can I know my options?

My main problem with bookmaking is that I like making the books, but I haven't got a lot of ideas about what to put in them.  I would mostly like to make blank books for other people to write in.   While I adore secret compartments in books, you have to put something good in them and I'm never sure what to put.   I need an artistic partner or something.  Or maybe if I keep making little samples, I'll eventually think of things to put in there?

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Secret of Sinharat

The Secret of Sinharat, by Leigh Brackett

Yep, I found another Stark novel!  This short novel takes place on Mars, before the story I first read in Black Amazon of Mars.  (In fact, that novel is also included in this volume, but under a different title, so I read a page or so before figuring it out.)  It's just as adventurous and dramatic as the others. 

Stark has been hired to go to Mars and fight as a mercenary, but his mentor finds him and explains that there's a lot more to the story than his employer has revealed.  He agrees to try to stop the imminent war instead, to spare the many tribes of innocents who will be slaughtered if the plan goes forth.  So Stark joins Delgaun and Kynon, who plan to unite the Drylander tribes of Mars, plunder the richer cities, and then take over the world.  It all seems straightforward enough, but it sure isn't!  This is all part of a deep plot by an ancient and hidden evil.

This was a fun one.  I enjoy Brackett's worlds and peoples!

My copy -- it's OK
A much more awesome copy

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Kar Kaballa / Tower of the Medusa

Kar Kaballa, by George Henry Smith / Tower of the Medusa, by Lin Carter

So fun to have an Ace Double title to read for Vintage Sci-Fi January!  It was hard to choose which to read first, but I went with

Kar Kaballa, which was pretty great.  I would happily read the other three books set in this world, but sadly they seem almost impossible to come by.  On Earth's twin world (in another dimension, not on the other side of the Sun), much is the same, yet different.  Our myths are their reality and vice versa; the Annwn Empire, with its capital of Avallon, is not the British Empire, but it was founded by Arthur when he was brought there by Morgan le Fay.  Shakespeare is a folk-figure who is popularly credited with great plays that are actually folktales sprung from the people. 

Annwn is complacent and has paid no attention to the Gogs across the sea, but Dylan MacBride, a Highlander soldier, knows that the Gogs (think Mongolian hordes) are about to invade in huge numbers.  He's desperate to convince someone of the truth, and then he meets this strange man who claims to be from a United States.  He has this machine -- a Gatling gun he wants to sell.  Perhaps together they can save the Annwn Empire from being overrun by the Gogs?

This was a very fun novel that can only be described as swash-buckling, and also kind of presciently steampunky.  Sword fighting!  Airships!  Gryphons!  Evil gods that lurk under volcanos!  Celtic priestesses!  Evil undead minions!

Tower of the Medusa, on the other hand, was dreadful.  An overblown mess, it was at least hilariously badly written and extremely short.  Set a thousand years after the collapse of a great galactic empire, as planets are only just beginning to re-master science, we have Kirin, the greatest thief in the galaxy, hired to steal the Medusa, a weapon which would allow the holder to grab ultimate power.  It's been hidden and fanatically defended by a cult for thousands of years.

No fewer than three people want Kirin to steal the Medusa, which lies beyond a complex and deathly labyrinth.  The mages, who want to destroy it; a witch-queen, who plans to rule, and the Veiled One, the evil manipulator who will simply wait until Kirin gets the device and then grab it.  Here are some samples of the text:

Then they [25 assassins] came at him again, silent and deadly as panthers. His boot-heel caught one full in the belly. The little monster fell backwards in the slop, gagging and spitting. Three more sprang at his throat. One he slew with a swift jabbing blow to the nerve-clump just below the base of the skull behind the ear—a stroke with stiffened fingers he had learned years ago from a Ghadorian nerve killer he met on Shimar in the Dragon Stars.
But more came at him through the mists. He fought them with everything he had. Never had he battled so desperately, not even that time the murderous priests of Zodah trapped him in the act of stealing the tiara of their harlot queen. But the little men with three eyes were the most deadly adversaries he had ever faced. They fought in utter silence with a grace and skill and economy of strength that was astonishing.Then he knew them for what they were—trained killers! Members of the weird assassin cult of Pelizon across the cluster from Zha.
The Death Dwarves!
The picture was now a scene of somber majesty and brooding terrors. No sound accompanied the space-vision, but the imagination of the viewer could almost hear the cold wind that shrieked like a banshee through the fang-sharp needle spires of naked rock that clawed up into the mist-veiled sky. There was a flat and barren plain, an endless desert of dim grey crystals that stretched from world's edge to world's edge. Over all stretched an eternal cloak of phantasmal fog, torn and tattered into a thousand leering faces and weirdly haunting shapes by the howling winds. The shadowy rags of mist streamed in undulant and serpentine tendrils above a titanic structure of dead black stone that loomed against the fog-phantoms like some colossal citadel of demons. The black castle was unthinkably huge, immeasurably aged. A forest of sloping turrets and grotesquely-formed domes, a wilderness of arcades and columns, squat towers and yawning gates like the leering maws of nameless stone monsters. The chill, the eerie cry of endless winds, the haunting air of mouldering decay and aeon-old desolation struck awe into the very roots of Kirin's soul. "That black castle is Djormandark Keep," the Witch Queen murmured at his side.
But he did not need her words to tell him this, for no man could mistake the colossal ebon fortress. Djormandark was one of the enigmas of the Universe, and the very world whereon its titanic ruin reared its cloven, castled crest was known as the Planet of Mystery—dark, legend-fraught Xulthoom, the World of the Hooded Men.
He was incredibly ugly. His mouth was a broad lipless gash and his three eyes were glowing slits filled with evil malignant glitter. His skull-like head was devoid of hirsute adornment.
"Master!" he croaked. The robed figure turned to regard him.
"Speak!" the robed one commanded harshly.
"We have lost contact with Pangoy," the Death Dwarf said. "His receptors went dead in the third quarter of the Hour of the Toad."
 Devoid of hirsute adornment!  The Hour of the Toad!  That's a band name, that is.  I've got to name something the Hour of the Toad.

Kar Kaballa was a lot of fun.  I would read that again.  Tower of the Medusa was so bad that it was only sort of fun, kind of like The Star Wars Holiday Special.  You think it will be ironically fun, but you're wrong.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Individualism and Economic Order

Individualism and Economic Order, by F. A. Hayek

This is the one book from my TBR Challenge last year that I didn't manage to read, because it is so very daunting.  So I decided it should be my first pick this year!  That way the scariest thing would be over with.  Imagine my dismay and consternation when I actually opened the book and read the words:

...I should in fairness warn the reader that the present volume is not intended for popular consumption.  Only a few of the essays collected here (chaps. i and vi, and possibly iv and v) may in a sense be regarded as supplementary...the rest are definitely addressed to fellow-students and are fairly technical in character.
 Now, I found Hayek's works for laypeople quite difficult enough.  I knew I couldn't wrap my brain around technical essays for fellow economists!   So I decided that I would read the four essays he thought regular people could handle, and call it good.  And indeed I bashed my way through them.  I found out that he was entirely correct to say that everything in those essays is also in The Road to Serfdom; evidently this book is just a technical expansion on that one.  So, don't read this.  Read that.

The essays were about philosophical or societal points: different definitions of 'individualism,' how knowledge works in a society, when and where 'free' enterprise can be free (or not), and various other things I didn't necessarily grasp.

Too high-level and technical for me, but I'm glad I tried.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Happiness Curve

The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch

All through his forties, Jonathan Rauch* was fairly miserable, and he didn't really have a good reason to be.  His career was doing well, he'd accomplished more than he'd dreamed of, his personal life was happy, he was healthy and strong -- and yet he couldn't stop telling himself that he should be doing far better.  He often felt like bolting from his perfectly good career.  Was this a midlife crisis?  Was he just a really ungrateful, terrible person who didn't appreciate his blessings?  The more he scolded himself, the worse he felt.

As a journalist, though, he could find out some things, and in fact he found out quite a bit.  It's quite stunning to me, but it turns out that it is normal to be kind of miserable in your 40s, approximately.  It happens across cultures, in every country.   In fact, it's hard-wired into us and other great apes do it, too.  Of course, our circumstances have a lot to do with it too; we're talking about an aggregate, shadow effect here, a tendency.

In this fascinating book, Rauch unpicks the causes of mid-40s malaise, calling it the U-curve of happiness.  It seems to be part of our brains reprogramming, changing from the ambition and high expectations of early adulthood to a more mellow, accepting, and even altruistic mindset.  American culture tells us that aging is terrible and we can expect to grow steadily unhappier after 45, but in fact it seems that people become, on the whole, happier after 50 -- even in the face of health problems and other life difficulties.  It becomes easier to be grateful and enjoy the moment.

Everybody over 35 should probably read this book, or the article that was its forerunner, or at least find out about it.  In fact, just knowing about the effect is a help, because then you know you're not just a terrible, ungrateful weirdo, or a person who needs to trash everything and escape your ordinary life; you're just going through a natural phase which will eventually end.  And Rauch hopes that we'll develop structures to help people transition, much like how we once assumed that teenagers were just gangly adults, but now have things like high school and a knowledge of adolescent development.

Check this book out from the library for your 40th birthday; you won't be sorry.

Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right.

Jonathan Rauch is also the author of my Best Book for 2014, Kindly Inquisitors.  Read that too!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

1973 Annual World's Best SF

1973 Annual World's Best SF, ed. by Donald Wollheim

I think this series has been going forever!  I found the 1973 edition, with ten short stories, and about half were by people I'd heard of.  I really picked it up because it had a story by James Tiptree, Jr., and I've been hoping to read her (without any effort on my part, ideally -- no nearby libraries have any of her works and I've pretty much been relying on the donation table for vintage SF anyway, so I just sort books and hope something shows up).  On the whole, the stories were indeed pretty good!  Here are a few I liked:

"Goat Song," by Poul Anderson: long in the future, the world is governed by a god-computer, SUM, whose living representative is a woman rendered immortal.  Once a year people can petition her.  This guy is so sad that his girlfriend is dead, he petitions for her to be resurrected, and it's granted...but he has to walk all the way out without looking back.  Hello, Orpheus!

"The Man Who Walked Home," by the aforementioned Tiptree:  Two perspectives on the same event.  Most people see a monster, for just a moment, once a year, for several hundred years.  The poor monster's perspective is different.

"The Gold at the Starbow's End," by Frederik Pohl:  a starship is sent out to colonize a planet spotted around Centauri (which might be there, or not).  The scientist in charge of the project hopes for great things, but he thought he'd be able to understand them when they came.

"Long Shot," by Vernor Vinge: a long-term space voyage, from the perspective of the ship. 

"Thus Love Betrays Us," by Phyllis MacLennon: stranded on a very alien planet, a botanist befriends a local inhabitant and learn to communicate.  Except that a culture so alien as this -- well, can you ever understand what the other is thinking?

I enjoyed reading them, and most haven't aged badly at all.  I would like to know who W. MacFarlane was.

Saturday, January 12, 2019


Educated: a Memoir, by Tara Westover

I've been hearing about this memoir, but I wasn't going to seek it out.  A friend of mine is visiting and said I should read it, so she lent me her copy...and I was hooked.  I read it in three hours!

Tara Westover was raised in very rural Idaho as part of a survivalist-minded family.  Their dad was convinced that the government, doctors -- well, anything establishment -- was out to get them.  The Ruby Ridge incident convinced him a good deal further.  As is often the case, they got more extreme over time, so that the oldest kids went to public school for a while, but the younger kids did not have birth certificates and never went to school at all.  The mom, who started off a home herbalist, was encouraged (well, pushed) to become a not-quite-illegal midwife and full-time healer.  In theory, the family homeschooled, but the necessity for work overrode most educational pursuits, and after a while they figured as long as you could read, you were fine.  Tara was the youngest of this family.

Westover's dad worked very very hard, mostly in scrap and sometimes in construction.  But the need for money, and it seems his own issues, drove him to cut corners and totally disregard safety.  The whole memoir is thickly strewn with dreadful injuries and car crashes, paired with an utter refusal to go to doctors, take even the mildest pain-killers, or put on seatbelts. 

And then there was the abuse inflicted by one of the older brothers.  Tara recounts her experiences as a teen, but later realized that the other siblings suffered too -- it was just when she was much smaller, and not something she saw herself.  People, it's a horrific account.  But all of this was ignored and smoothed over by a family that was tightly interwoven and dependent on not recognizing reality.

Escape was offered by Tara's older brother Tyler, who was always the bookish one and had insisted on going to college.  He told a sixteen-year-old Tara that she could go to college, too.  BYU would take homeschoolers, so all she had to do was get a 27 on the ACT.  Tara could read very well (having been raised mostly on 19th-century religious texts), but her math was minimal and her science non-existent.  She didn't think she could possibly take the test or go to college, but Tyler helped and she did it.

I guess I can't summarize the whole story for you, but Westover details a long, hard struggle to become educated and extricate herself from the tangled mess of her deeply-loved, incredibly dysfunctional family.  That second one is the harder job.  As Westover moves through BYU, then Cambridge, and then Harvard, she slowly starts to figure out how bad the situation is.  Her dad is getting more erratic (she figures he is probably bipolar) and then is burned in a ghastly accident, which paradoxically launches the family into the essential oils field, where they are now a large business. 

The end result is that Westover is close with a couple of brothers -- the ones who also left -- but can't contact others.  The remaining family members say she is dangerous and deluded.  The entire memoir is causing a bit of a kerfuffle, as Westover is accused of lying and making up the stories in the book.  I don't really see why she would do that.

Tara's family is LDS, as am I, but I think she is quite correct in trying to emphasize that their religion was not material to the family problems.  Her dad's ideas were clearly based in mental illness and survivalist rhetoric, though of course he picked bits out of their religion to justify his narrative.  He seems to me to have ignored a lot more.  The only thing I would say is that during her time at BYU, Westover seems to have worried that she might have been the only female student around who wanted to go into academics.  I suspect that the difficulties she describes made it hard for her to see the others; I find it quite impossible to believe that that there were no other ambitious female students or  professors.  Tara is my baby sister's age, 15 years younger than I am, and I certainly knew quite a few back when I was a student in the early 90s (even at BYU, which I did not attend).  

It's an excellently-written, gripping, harrowing memoir that deserves the attention it's getting.  My only caveat is to say that if you come from a family with severe mental illness and abuse problems, it will probably be too difficult for you to read.  Everybody else should take a look.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Agricola and Germania

Agricola and Germania, by Tacitus

I've been meaning to read Tacitus (well, the easy bits) for some time, but what kicked me into gear was the book on my shelf all about the influence of Germania on European culture and history.  I am allowed to start reading it after I write this post!

Tacitus is considered the best Roman historian -- at least, he's the best we've got!  We certainly don't have everything he wrote.  Large chunks are missing from one of his longer works.  I read two really short things; a life of Agricola, Tacitus' father-in-law, and this sort of tour of the territory of Germania, which was most of Northern Europe.

The largest part of Agricola's biography covers his time as governor of Roman Britain.  It has a short description of Britannia, and of how Agricola extended Roman rule right up to the Pictish territory; I think this is as far as it ever got, up to the Firth of Forth.  There are famous stories in here.  This is how we know about Boudicca and the Iceni rebellion, and where we hear of the Ninth Legion in border skirmishes (I have really got to read The Eagle of the Ninth).  The account of the occupation of Britannia finishes off with a fiery speech from a Caledonian chieftain to his remaining British allies, Agricola's corresponding speech to his troops, and the ensuing battle, which was a horrible slaughter for the Britons.  Of course, the speech from the chieftain is necessarily fictitious, and it's an eloquent condemnation of Roman brutality and decadence.

Tacitus recounts that after retiring from the British command, Agricola should have been in line for a really important post in Asia or Africa, but the emperor, Domitian, was jealous of Agricola's brilliant career and the general was forced to keep a low profile and refuse the opportunity.  Soon afterwards, he died....of poison?  Tacitus is clearly suspicious but doesn't want to openly accuse any particular person.

Germania is a description of Northern Europe as cold, dreary, and full of trees.  The inhabitants are strong but lazy, virtuous but dim, and tough but uncivilized.  They wear trousers.  They live in tiny scattered villages in houses made of wood (ugh), and have no interest in building cities.  Here we find the sentence that became the seed of 500 years of ugliness and horror:
...I accept the view of those who think that the peoples of Germania have never been tainted by intermarriage with other nations, and stand out as a race distinctive, pure and unique of its kind.
As the footnote points out, Tacitus then goes on to describe the Germanii in exactly the same terms as the Gauls are stereotypically portrayed: red hair, blue eyes, huge of frame, can't stand hard work or heat but good in the cold.  The account is actually short on praise, and where it does laud the Germans it's really to point out flaws in the Roman character; Tacitus contrasts German honesty and virtue with Roman cunning and decadence in order to tell Romans to shape up, not because he thinks the Germans are great.  Northern straightforwardness was held to come with a corresponding lack of intelligence.

And of course, that sentence is also pretty well meaningless.  What does it even mean to be a pure race?  Do we know what Tacitus meant by it, and could he have even said what he meant?.  Are they supposed to have sprung fully-formed from the earth or something?

All this only takes a few pages.  The rest of the very short book is taken up with describing where various tribes live, and any special characteristics they have (one group wears their hair in a different way, one is identified with a tribe that once sacked Rome long ago).

Both of these books are extremely short and easy to read -- together, they take up just about 60 pages in my book -- so they are a good taste of Roman history and literature for the nervous beginner.  Like me!  I'm not bad at Greek literature, but Roman is a whole different kettle of fish as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What If This Were Enough?

Looks beige, is in fact a bit sparkly
What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky writes this kind of oddball advice column, Ask Polly, for the Cut.  At least, I've never read any advice columnist like that before!  I like it a lot, so when she put out a book of essays recently, I picked it up.

I'm kind of mixed on the essays.  Several of them are critiques of pop-culture things -- TV shows and such -- that I have never seen, so it's kind of hard to care about them.  On the other hand, never having seen The Sopranos was not a big barrier to understanding the critique, which was excellent.  And she's usually drawing pointers about the larger American culture, which I do live in, so it's not like they're totally irrelevant...but still, I don't know anything about most current TV shows (by which I mean virtually any TV of the last 15+ years) and I don't feel like I need to.*

When Havrilesky is not writing about TV, which is over half the time, I'm pretty enchanted by her sharp insights and sincere pleas for more sanity in the world.  Her writing is fantastic, and kind of unusual; get used to her voice, and you can spot it anywhere. There's an incredible essay on Shirley Jackson called "Haunted," several on family themes, and just a bunch of neat stuff.

Worth a read, enjoyable, especially if you watch TV.

*I've been known to watch modern TV.  I finally got to Stranger Things and am now waiting for season 3 just like everybody else, even though I nearly quit seven minutes in to the first episode.  And we're currently watching the second season of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the books but is certainly interesting.  

Monday, January 7, 2019

Beyond the Sound of Guns

Anachronistic 1962 cover!
Beyond the Sound of Guns, by Emilie Loring

My brother got me this great little paperback romance novel for Christmas (off his work book-trade table; we don't really buy gifts for adult siblings, just for the kids).  It was published in 1945, but as you see, my copy is from 1962.  The blurb on the back is irresistible:
As the Second World War raged across the world, lovely, raven-haired Kit Marlowe and her brother sought peace and quiet at her brother's Double-H Ranch.  Then war came to this remote cattle country. Enemy agents were stealing the Double-H beeves needed to feed our fighting men. And Kit knew her luck was bad when she stumbled on the identity of the head of the saboteurs, for this fanatical enemy would use any means to silence her forever. Irrevocably trapped, only one man could help her - bold and charming Colonel Rex Danton, the man who had stolen her brother's fiancée - the man she had sworn to hate!
 Cattle-rustling Nazis, who doesn't want to read that?  In true paperback fashion, however, the plot is not really quite like the blurb.  Kit's brother, an ex-Army officer suffering from war trauma, has bought the ranch as his new career and Kit is there to look after him.  An evil, conniving ex-fiancée, dodgy cowhands, an overly-persistent suitor, and many other elements combine to make Kit's life a lot more exciting than she bargained for.  Are escaped German POW's plotting to high-jack (sic!) the Double-H beeves?  No they are not!  That's a cover-up for their much more dastardly plot.

The text is bizarrely educational in spots, citing (for example) the exact number of acres of Wyoming ranch land taken over by the military for training grounds, or what the most important industry for Our Fighting Men is.  There is a lot about Our Fighting Men!  There is also, less surprisingly, a lot about fashion; Kit looks beautiful in everything, and since this is a romance novel, she has WAY more clothes than your average young woman did in 1944.  Otherwise, she is a model young woman who is desperate to help with the war effort, and has to keep reminding herself that the job she's doing is valuable too.

It was an entertaining historical artifact, so I had fun.  Emilie Loring was pretty popular back in the day (so I gather) and it was neat to see what people read for light pleasure back then.