The Top 10 Books I Hated

This is a different list from the one preceding because these are books I actually finished. Very difficult list to put together, let me tell you, because I rarely finish a book I dislike (see below). Going the distance in these various cases was a function of forcing my way through, either because I had to read it for a class or something or because I maintained expectations all the way to the end. Here, then, in no particular order:

10. Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. I was rather bewildered when I got to the end of it because the book was downright incomprehensible. If I had not seen the Omar Sharif movie, I’d have no idea what was going on, which is saying something because the movie has its own degree of incomprehensibility. I stayed with it because I kept expecting it to turn into the movie and it didn’t. I later found out that I was reading a bad translation, and that a much better translation is now available. I may have to give this another go, then. 

9. Cujo, by Stephen King. Funny how King keeps showing up on my lists of books I didn’t enjoy. I read this expecting something King-like to happen, a psychic kid or a vampire, but a rabid dog as metaphor for punishment of your sins? Oh, please. And now I hear he’s writing a sequel. Oh, please, no.

8. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Terribly written, embarrassingly so, and so obviously a polemic against the Catholic Church that one wonders how it got published. Which I guess is the reason it was published.


7. Practically everything from Dan Simmons. The Terror, Summer of Night, Drood. Yeah, yeah, I know, Hyperion, which I will read one day. And no doubt will get added to this list. Or I will eat crow.

6. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Yes, I know, classic and loved, the absurdities of war and the people who run them. But I’ve got a bit of a problem with this dismissive, smug attitude towards a war that was nothing but godawful and hell on earth and devastating and whose effects still ripple through these days. Ya know, it wasn’t some war for oil or national corporations, it was for the very survival of humanity. And yes, I have no doubt that numerous absurd and downright funny things happened in its course. My dad told me a couple of funny stories about his 9-month trip to Berlin on top of a tank. But to treat the entire thing as just an object of your amusement? No.

5. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. Revisionist crap.  

4. Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom. I saw the movie and ran across the book thereafter and grabbed it with delight and, pitched it across the room with contempt. What a load of unadulterated crap. The title character generates no sympathy or even much interest. Whoever did the screenplay did a much greater service than this POC, and I don’t mean point of contact.

3. The Hobbit, by J R R Tolkien. What? Heresy! But, no, I did not like this novel at all. Not only is it turgid beyond belief, but it is kid’s book turgid. And, yes, yes, I know, it was written as a kid’s book, but no kid on earth would stand for this long-winded convoluted word mess. Its saving grace, of course, is the introduction of Golem and Gandalf but, really, not the best of the group.

2. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. A very long novel about a guy who simply needs to be slapped around for an hour or so. Good Lord, is Ignatius J Reilly obnoxious. Why anyone thinks he is a compelling character, I just can’t say. This is not social commentary as much as a cautionary tale. Which I didn’t need to read.

1. The Firm, by John Grisham. This isn’t a bad novel, it’s just not that good, and overhyped novels and authors irritate me beyond belief. If you can’t live up to your own press, then don’t expect me to bolster your efforts. Besides, I read Scott Turow before I read Grisham and Turow is light years ahead. Grisham is a Turow wannabe. And this novel is a good story wannabe.

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The Top 10 Books I Tossed Across the Room

These are books that didn’t make it past my self-imposed fifty-page rule, sometimes not even past the first paragraph, before turning it into a Frisbee. Not the top ten books that I hated…hmm, sounds like another list… because I’d have to finish them before deciding if they qualify. I might actually like these books, if I can ever bring myself to restart them. Dunno. Not too inclined to take another spoonful of something that was so wretched on first taste.

I’m sure you have your own version of a fifty-page rule because most of you know that most stories don’t get started for awhile. There are exceptions: ‘Call me Ishmael,’ for example, but that’s due to a compelling opening line which Melville followed with a rather compelling situation. Not every book can start that way so you gotta be fair. But if you’re not at least interested by page fifty, then it’s tossable.

There is a category of books tossable almost within the first sentence: the self-published nightmares that are flooding the bookways. You know to what I refer, books that have apparently not been edited nor critiqued by anyone other than the author’s mother, who told her what a great story it was so she bought a $20 cover and threw it up on Amazon and waits to be proclaimed the next Charlotte Bronte. I don’t include any of those. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel. 

Without further ado:

10. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I realize what heresy I speak here, given the immense popularity of this book, but I could not get past the first ten pages, let alone fifty. It was long ago when I tried so I don’t remember much of what I read nor specifically what irritated me, only that I sadi “Oh, brother!” quite a bit. I think that’s due to every single fantasy trope, dressed in Capital Letters, showing up every other sentence or so. I am willing to give this another shot, but not right now. 

9. The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King. This book convinced me that King had decided to stop writing and merely trade on his name, certain his byline was enough to assure best seller lists. I’ve read elsewhere that the good man, himself, regards it as his worst effort, so there is redemption. 

8. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. What a load of pretentious dreck, apparent by page 25 or so. And yes, I fully understand that Pynchon-worship is a mark of heightened intellectual capacity and sophistication, and those who do not like his works are just a bunch of bourgeoise shopkeepers. Okay.

7. Space, by James Michener. I loved Michener’s Centennial, regard it as one of my favorite big books, but this one … oh Lord. Actually got to about page 100 or so before I tossed it. It is so formulaic Michener that I suspect he wrote it in his sleep. 

6. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. I didn’t make it past ten pages. Felt like I was back in middle school.

5. Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. This is a YA book, quite brutal, and filled with so much unbelievable teenage superiority and angst that I felt like I was back in high school. Shudder.

4. The Tank Lords, David Drake. I love space opera and space military stories and Drake is the Stephen King of the genre, at least based on his production. But I could not get into this, at all. Made it to about page fifty. I think. Didn’t like the characters, didn’t like the world building.

3. Wool, by Hugh Howey. I know, I know, this is supposed to be the self-published wunderbuch but I stopped right after Howey killed a character that I really liked. I didn’t like any of the remaining characters, so why bother? Add to that an absolutely baffling world with very few hints of what the devil was going on and, well, frisbee. Admittedly, I went back months later and finished a great majority of the story, although, given the way this book /story/series is published, I have no idea whether I actually finished it or not. Still didn’t like it that much, but I have a better idea of the story and well, okay, it ain’t that bad. But I’m not going back.

2. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. No further comments necessary.

1. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I actually liked this until about page 100, and by then it was so tedious I just put it down and never went back. So not so much a frisbee as a doorstop. I’d be willing to pick it up again one day, if I can remember where I left it.

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Top Ten Best Fantasy Books I’ve Read So Far


I classify ‘fantasy’ in a fairly broad way, summarized by ‘swords and sorcery;’ you know, mythical lands, wizards and goddesses, brawny barbarians, Game of Thrones. But not necessarily all swords and mythical ages; they can be set in contemporary times, can even have scifi and horror mixed in, but the main characteristic is a nonexistent world that may or may not be human but is definitely not alien in the scifi sense. Yeah, I know, that’s pretty loose but it’s like pornography, you know it when you see it.

(Caveat: A lot of my favorite horror or scifi or what-have-you novels could have easily ended up on this list, but I figure if I’ve already placed it under some other heading somewhere else, then it’s cheating to round out another list with something already spoken of. This way I get to have 40 or 50 top ten book favorites, which I guess is cheating, too, but in a good way).

The fantasy books that didn’t make this list could, instead, make my list of Books Tossed Across Rooms … hmm, make a note. Those include lots of best sellers and big names and award winners, lots of which are just crap.  Everything is a Capital Letter or has the Chosen One of the Mysterious Race in the Land of Humbug with Gifts of Humbuggery… you know what I mean. All trope, all checklist, the orphan abused boy or girl who has Powers that will Save the Kingdom. Spare me.

But not these. These are good uns.

10. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. An oldie but a goodie, this remains for me the best fictional treatment of the Arthurian legend ever, which is kind of a nothing statement because aren’t all King Arthur treatments fiction? At least we think they are. Told from Merlin’s perspective, this is the story of Merlin’s youth as the despised illegitimate child of a king and a Celtic princess, and how he discovers the crystal caves where his power develops. First of a four-book series that Stewart wrote covering Arthur.

9. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I know, I know, cheesy writing with female characters right out of a Vallejo painting, but this is still a rousing tale of swashbuckled derring-do and one of those books and series that made me love reading. John Carter, adventurer of Earth becomes, through some odd meditation, an adventurer on Mars, where he fights for every teenage boys’ wildest fantasy, the Princess Deja Thoris. If you can ignore the last thirty years of Martian science, then this is a lot of fun.

8. The Dancers at the End of Time, by Michael Moorcock. Consensus is that this is not fantasy, its scifi, far future scifi at that, and it’s not even one novel but three: An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands, and The End of All Songs. But, to quote the old shibboleth, magic is just technology we do not understand, and Jherek Carnelian, who lives at the end of time, has powerful tech indistinguishable from sorcery. When a time accident throws him into contact with 19th Century beauty, Amelia Underwood, he pursues her across the centuries with devastating and hilarious results. This is not for the faint hearted because those end of time denizens have lost all sense of a moral compass.

7. The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe. Another one easily classified as scifi, and another first book of a series, called The Book of the New Sun, it is set on the planet Urth …hmm. Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers, is banished for violating the overriding principle of his guild: never show mercy.  

6. The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance. Actually a series of related stories more than a novel, and also the first book of the Dying Earth series, these are tales of wizards and warriors at the end of the sun’s cycle. Sort of like the end of time, except it’s merely the end of the earth. There’s only a few thousand people left by then and all of them are desperate to improve their wizardry so they can dominate everyone else, and the occasional alien who shows up. This book was published in 1950 and had a lot of influence on the creators of Dungeons and Dragons. 

5. The Black Company, by Glenn Cook. The Black Company is a mercenary unit consisting of warriors, tech, mech, and wizards, who fight the enemies of the Lady, who may, or may not, be someone worth fighting for. Rollicking adventure that at times is downright hilarious, this is a combination swords and space opera. This is the first of a series, too, all of the follow-on books well worth reading.

4. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. This is Harry Potter for grownups, a very dark, downright terrifying version of the magical world versus us poor muggles. Quentin is a sad sack loser whose innate magical ability gains him an application to study at Brakebills academy of magic. What makes this fantasy instead of standard horror is the existence of a Narnia-like world that turns out more Mordor than anything. There’s a pretty good Netflix series based on it.

3. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. A single-handed revival of the entire fantasy genre, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards are the best troupe of lying, thieving, conning conniving lovable blaggards to have slung a sword or stiletto or magical potion since the Grey Mouser. The insults alone are worth the read. 

2. Shadow Gate, by Kate Elliott- still my favorite book of her Crossroads trilogy, which I read out of order and grateful that I did because I don’t think I would have got past the first book, Spirit Gate, because it’s fairly standard stuff. But once you get through the first novel of world-building, holy hannah, this is great stuff. Eagle-reeves and Guardians and a horror overtaking the Hundred. And then there’s Mai. 

1. The Fifth Season, by N K Jemison. The first book of the Broken Earth trilogy and the first Jemison I read and one that blew me away and turned me into a Jemison fan. The Stillness is a land ironically named, because it is anything but, threatened by periodic life-ending cataclysms that have to be contained by properly trained mutants called Orogenes. But if an Orogene gets away from the cruelty of the Guardians, then things shake up. Literally.

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Where I Get my Books

I have somewhere between 500- 600 books. I don’t think that’s excessive because those are acquisitions over a 60 year period, if you count the Dr. Seuss I had when I was a kid. I’ve probably lost or tossed an equal number in that same time period, including those same Dr. Seuss which, boy, do I regret now. Five hundred to six hundred is probably the average number of books the average reader has at any given moment. I don‘t have anything to base that on other than my own and friends’ experiences. If you’re up in the 1000 book plus arena then wow, you are a book god and where do you put it all? I have an 1800 square foot house and stack books on top of dresser drawers. Which isn’t good for them. I’d buy more bookshelves but furniture acquisition is exclusively a wife province, and she thinks end tables are far more important. I have enough end tables to complement ten or twenty couches. Maybe I should stack the books there.

I used to buy books on the recommendation of hype/bestseller lists/advertisements, which is all basically hype. After getting burned on a few of those titles (I’m looking at you, Chesapeake), I stopped doing that. I buy/acquire books that (a) have some special interest to me or (b) I know I’ll read again. Or want to read again. Those fall into three general categories:

A. Nostalgia- these are books from my youth or address subjects from my youth and/or lifelong wanderings. A good example is the dreadfully titled The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr, an egregiously racist book about the Civil War written around 1910 that I read when I was in the hospital for a kidney ailment when I was 12 or 13. In 1910. Kidding, it was 1967 or 1968. At the time, the story of a southern orphan who defies his friends and culture to join the Union Army was quite compelling. Today, meh, not so much. All that egregious racism is a bit of a turnoff. But I still read it from time to time. Books set in LA- lower Alabama- or south Jersey are in the same category. Any place, actually, that I have memories of, fond or otherwise. Like anything by Richard Russo.

B. Non-fiction- usually histories, but I do have a couple of Steven Pinker’s because the brain, man, and some physics books because, the universe, man. Associated with those are historical fiction books about the period of interest, like all these Neal Stephenson’s that I have. Nothing like historical fiction to humanize history, although some non-fiction histories are compelling stories in their own right. I also buy books about books.

C. Anthologies- science fiction and fantasy, mostly, but short stories, too, if they cover a period or place of interest. These are collections of the stories I devoured in the 70s and 80s and if I run across a Gardner Dozois or Robert Silverberg compilation somewhere I snatch it right up, first edition, book club edition, reprint, don’t care, I want the stories they carry. I do have some more recent anthologies like ones that Neil Clarke puts out but those are of secondary interest to the classics. I don’t know what it is but newer scifi stories leave me a little cold. They feel like ‘been there, done that,’ although some are pretty good. But I’d rather read Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain for the hundredth time than anything by Ken Liu.

So where do I buy my books? No, not Amazon, not even Barnes and Noble. That’s because they don’t present a challenge. They’re sure things; if you don’t see what you want on the shelf, then ask for it and, presto, book sent to you. How boring. I treat book buying as a treasure hunt, the joy of stumbling across a remembered book or an intriguing story never hoid of before. That’s fun, that’s the rush of book collecting. I look for those hidden nuggets here: 

A. Thrift stores. Yeah, I’m cheap, because spending $30 for a brand new hyped book that the Bryn Mawr graduates living on the west side of New York rave about is like buying a new end table. Besides, you can find out-of-print and first and second editions of some excellent books there. I once found a signed copy of How the Irish Saved Civilization in a Goodwill. A first edition. Man. 

B. Used book stores. Specifically, one, Blue Plate Books in Winchester, VA which I am not allowed to enter because I spend all the end table money there and walk out with about 10-15 books that I now have to find a place to stack. The owner, Pat Saine, has exquisite taste and you are going to find gems here, pure gems. 

C. Yard sales. Meh. Not so much. I’m not a yard sale guy but occasionally am dragooned into driving the van and providing labor for the transfer of end tables from a yard sale back to my house. And if I’ve got to muscle end tables into the living room then, by God, I’m getting a couple of books at the same yard sale to stack on them.

I once went to a book auction, specifically Larry McMurtry’s Last Book Sale in August 2012. I’ve got a fairly detailed blog post about it, if you’re interested. The Last Book Sale | (dustyskull.com)

These are great places for older books and has-beens, so how do I get briefed on new releases and what’s happening now? Best seller lists? God no.

The library, of course.

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Deflating the Expanse

About two minutes into season 6 of The Expanse, rumored to be the last and final and never will it come this way again (maybe), I thought, “Did they change writers or something?” Because, about two minutes into it, I thought I was watching the introduction of a 1980s-type cheesy scifi series, with ootzy cutzy precocious kids and darling alien animals cavorting around a near-Eden because, if there’s anything Babylon 5 and Star Trek Next Generation taught us, the future is bright, I gotta wear shades. But, about forty minutes later, I knew what happened: they didn’t change writers, the writers are just tired of it.

How else do you explain such a superficial, out of character, and ultimately dissatisfying end to what I consider the best TV series in all of TV history? And just exactly like other recent epic great series (Lost, Game of Thrones) the last season turns out a sore disappointment.

What’s with you guys?

If you haven’t watched Season 6 yet, then stop reading this, just stop. Because I’m not going to spare you.

 Let’s start with the ootzy cutzy kids. Since they’ve been on Laconia for more than five minutes, I’m sure they’ve been told at least once that (a) this is an alien world (b) the evolution is different than ours and (c) we don’t understand everything that’s here yet, so be careful. Indeed, Mom and Dad say as much when weepy little girl in-desperate-need-of-a-smacking-around tells them she fed earth food to a local animal, killing it. Then the puppies restore it to life. Sinister looking puppies, at that. Something she doesn’t tell her parents. But they’ll find out soon enough.

And what kind of crazy parents let their kids meander through an alien landscape of different evolution and chemical base and unknown puppies? Thinking Child Protective Services needs to get involved here.

So, okay, endure that for a few minutes and, whew, now we’re back into the main story. In which James Holden does something so incredibly stupid that it could only be a plot device. I don’t have any further explanation for his disarming the missile. Even Naomi tells him how stupid that was. Because, really, if your choice is doing the one thing that will so disable and disorganize the Free Navy that they will instantly and immediately no longer be a threat and the war is over and thousands, if not millions, will be saved, or spare your girlfriend’s feelings, what would you do? 

If you say “spare your girlfriend’s feelings,” please stay out of any job or position where fates are in your hands.

And how is it we got into that situation to begin with? I mean, if we were in downtown Mayberry and James and Marco happened to run into each other, that’s one thing, but we’re not in Mayberry, we’re out past the Belt. Awful lot of space out there. Them running into each other is an amazingly fortuitous circumstance.  

As are the Ring Entities. 

And I’m guessing Amos swallowed some wuss pills and is now in touch with his inner little girl. The producers needed him to ‘evolve,’ I suppose, into an early 21st Century ideal man as envisioned by Hollywood and woke culture, instead of remaining the brutalized sociopath seeking redemption that has made him one of the most intriguing and heroic characters in the entire show. I thought revisionism only applied to the past, but, apparently, one can impose present standards on future behaviors, even if it’s at odds with the character that you spent five seasons building. 

Indeed, about the only two characters that remain true to themselves are Drummer and Avasarala. Thank God. Drummer quickly became my favorite character after Detective Miller, and Avasarala, well, she has my undying love. So I’m happy about that.

And I’m happy about other things. The rail gun assault was magnificent (although, personally, I’da just blown Medina Station and the rail gun to bits but, yeah, okay, reasons) and Bobby was badass and humanity is still the collective bag of crapheads they will always be, no matter what miracles are offered. But this was a letdown. Too much left unresolved. Too hurried.

Too tired of it.

If there’s one gigantic piece of evidence that everyone is just tired of this, it’s laying further explanations at the feet of the written source material. Yeah, we know, there’s short stories and remaining novels and the books do this and the books do that but that’s cheating. Media remains within media and you don’t get to reference source material as your escape plan. If you can’t resolve it in your show, then you can’t. But it’s a copout to smugly raise an eyebrow and nod at other info.

So, it ends. Not with a bang. But a whimper.

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The B Team is in Charge

My passport expired. So did my wife’s. Being a savvy computer-literate American, I dutifully downloaded the requisite Department of State forms, filled them out as pdfs, printed them, and then researched methods to obtain requisite passport photos.

I could upload a photo off my phone into some template and then print out the photos, but I didn’t have any photo paper and didn’t want to buy any. No need. All my photos are in the cloud. 

An internet search disclosed the following stores provided on-demand passport photos: Costco, WalGreens, Wal Mart, UPS, CVS, and the US Postal Service…oops, no, USPS used to provide photos but no longer. They will provide a properly addressed envelope to ensure your properly filled out and assembled documents, along with a check, will go to the proper office. The envelope’s free; you still have to pay the postage. Okay, so, get the photos, go to USPS, get the envelope, drop in documents, mail it, mission complete.

The saga begins.

We went to see Spiderman: No Way Home (epic. Just epic) and figured afterwards stop by the local Costco, get the photos. Walked up to the photo desk, “Hi. Like to get some passport photos.”

The guy running the counter looked at us like we’d ordered morphine. “We don’t do passport photos. Haven’t since last February.” And then glared at me like I had ordered morphine.

“According to your website, you do.”

“You believe everything you read on a website?”

Well, no, but one assumes a service offered on a company’s website is one actually provided by said company owning the website. One assumes.

Walgreens was across the street so off we hied. The 8th grade girls running the place assured us they did offer passport photos so one of them snapped pictures of us on a Kodak Instamatic (that’s what it looked like) and uploaded the results to a nifty looking combination-photo-processor and printer. The 8th graders entered their code and entered their code and entered their code and the nifty printer-processor promptly crashed. With no way to make it uncrash. We laughed.

We went to WalMart.

As you know, the electronics section of WalMart is as far from the front doors as possible so, after a thirty minute hike, we got back there. Mind you, this is now about eight in the evening which, of course, makes no difference to the number of customers but has a deleterious effect on the number of Walmart employees manning counters and cash registers. So you can imagine our relief at seeing not one but two persons behind the electronics/passport photo counter: two bearded millennials, one of whom may not actually be of a sex normally associated with beard growing, wearing matching black shirts and pants like members of a cult. “Passport photos, please!” I beamed. My wife beamed, too.

“Oh!” Beard #1 was sorrowful. “We’re contractors, not employees. So we don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“A manager will be here shortly,” Beard #2 replied and then both Beards hied to another section of the counter where they played grabass for about the next ten minutes. I concluded Walmart had contracted them as employee stand-ins.

About fifteen minutes later, a person dressed in WalMart regalia slipped behind the counter and immediately got into a very loud and somewhat intense argument in Spanish with a patron, the gist of which is the patron did not believe a correct discount had been applied and had a much-slapped receipt in hand to prove it. While this was going on, a line formed behind the patron because Lord knows it is a rare sight to find an actual WalMart employee manning a counter after 8 pm. When patron’s complaints were disposed (not to the patron’s satisfaction), the employee began waiting on the line.

My wife can be assertive at times and spoke up at that point, advising the employee we had been waiting for passport photos for, oh, say, twenty minutes. He looked at us and said, “I don’t do those.” Pause. “No one here tonight does those.” The contractors ceased their grabassing for a moment to give us a big smile, then back to grabassing.

We left. Not in the best of moods.

The next day, we went to UPS. UPS, c’mon, it’s UPS. What could go wrong?

No printer paper, that’s what. And no idea when printer paper would be available. But, they were willing to sell me printer paper so I could print my own. That is, if they had any printer paper. Which they didn’t.

CVS, the last great hope.

The first CVS we attempted also did not have printer paper. I’m guessing all the printer paper destined for the Shenandoah Valley is on a ship container off the California coast. But this CVS did have something no other store had: someone willing to help. The manager called around to the other CVS’s until he found one that not only had printer paper but a photo processor that worked, codes and all. It was clear across town, and we tore through badly timed lights, drunk pedestrians, and drivers who obviously had no idea there were other cars on the road and made it. We made it. Got our photos. Hallelujah.

So, warned by the preceding experience, I called the USPS. Or tried to. Apparently, there are several 800 numbers with a required series of public service announcements beseeching you in English and Spanish to watch out for that COVID before you reach a menu that lets you call your local post office, except as soon as I tapped “6,” the designated menu number to retrieve said local phone number, it hung up on me. So I searched the internet for someone who had thoughtfully posted the local number, found it, dialed it… disconnected. Another search for USPS passport offices and, on the fourth menu page, found a local number. Called it. It rang. Someone answered.

“Hi, do I need an appointment to bring in my passport paperwork?”

“Do you have everything?”

“Forms filled out but not signed, old passports, check not filled out. Even got the photos, which, let me tell you, was no easy task.”

“Then you don’t need an appointment. Just come in anytime between 9-5 to pick up the pre-addressed envelope.”

Hallelujah.

So we went between 9-5, no appointment in hand. Our passport office is located out of sight of the main Post Office lobby in an obscure back room set around several corners as far away as is architecturally possible. I’m guessing this is a dexterity, stamina, and logic test to see if you qualify for a passport or not. The four-ton door is another test. I walk in. “Hi, I’m here for a passport envelope!”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“You said I didn’t need one.”

“That may be so in your case, but your showing up here interrupts others who have an appointment so I cannot serve you until the others with appointments are served first.”

“So I needed an appointment?”

“No. You didn’t. You’ll have to wait until those who have an appointment waiting outside the door and who come in one at a time are done.”

“There’s no one waiting outside.” Which was true when I walked in. Apparently they were having trouble with the door and the logic test.

“Fine. Here’s your envelope. I will write on the inside flap everything that needs to go into it. It is already pre-addressed. The fee changed fifteen minutes ago to $160 each, which is different than what it says on the website so good thing you came in, even though you don’t have an appointment because they would have rejected your application.”

“Are there other reasons they will reject our applications?”

“None that you’re allowed to know.”

Okay.

Out the door past the now long line of waiting passport patrons. “You don’t need an appointment” I said to them, “it’s enough that you found your way here.” 

Out to the lobby where, in full view of numerous persons very interested in our old passports, we checked and triple checked and readied the photos for stapling to our applications with four, no more than, and no less than, staples at precisely marked locations with the stapler I had cleverly brought along… but didn’t check if it had staples in it. Borrowed a stapler from a  suspicious clerk, shooed the patrons interested in our old passports away, and then ready to sign. My wife has a purse that doubles as a sleeping bag, but no pens inside it. Paper clips, a translation of Thucydides, playing cards and a portable life raft (in case of flood), but no pens. Black ink only. I had one in the truck, though, went out, got it, shooed away the patrons who were busily copying down our identifying data, signed, stuffed requisite items into envelope, brought envelope with correct check made out to Department of State and our dates of birth, names of great-grandparents, DNA samples, and all the places we had lived over the last forty years listed in the memo block, sealed it in front of the suspicious clerk, paid for it, and sent it off. 

We should get our new passports sometime in the next two months.

Or, more likely, a rejection. Staples were the wrong size, doncha know.

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The Authors I Always Read

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, which isn’t really all that far back. The earliest memory I have is probably my 4th birthday; I got cupcakes instead of a regular cake and I was not happy about that. I mean, how do you blow out the candles on ten-to-fifteen cupcakes scattered around a kitchen table? It was a rip-off.

But I do remember always having books, from Dr. Seuss to the Happy Hollisters to Doc Savage and beyond. Marvel Comics taught me to read. Or rather, my next-door neighbor did. He was a few years older and a Marvel fanatic and every Saturday back in 1962 we raced up the road to Carl’s Drug store and I’d buy two Marvels and a pack of bubble gum (with the baseball cards inside) for a grand total of 25 cents (my weekly allowance) and then race back home to see what Mr. Fantastic and the Avengers were doing. “What’s that word?” “What’s this word?” and he had me sound it out. By first grade, I was reading at a second grade level. By second, at fifth, and so on. Moms, give your kids comic books.

And yeah, I know, I’ve told this story a thousand times before and do so again to make this point: we lifelong readers develop lifelong attachments to certain authors. I am no exception. These are writers who have proven themselves excellent word slingers. While the list changes every decade or so (or as I find writers I never read before), whenever I stumble across some previously unread book of theirs I reflexively pick it up, even if the plot is somewhat dubious. Based on previous experience, I’m willing to give it a shot.  

In no particular order:

Kate Elliot. I ran across her when I picked up the wrong book, Shadow Gate, the second novel of her Crossroads Trilogy, and it blew me away. I didn’t know what was going on because, second book of a trilogy, but who cared? It was magnificent. So, of course, I grabbed the first book, Spirit Gate, and was not so impressed, which goes to show, you can’t judge a trilogy by its first book. You know why: it’s all character introduction and world building and a lot of that can get tedious. The story usually doesn’t start until the second book and, man, did it. She introduced one of my favorite and memorable characters, Mai, the future princess and queen and badass.

Alastair Reynolds. Probably the best hard-science far-future scifi author out there, although he has tried his hand at a few near-Earth stories, with mixed results. But even his so-called bombs, such as the novel Pushing Ice, are cuts above other authors’ best efforts. Reynolds does not explain his tech or science, but you get enough information from the story and context that you can puzzle out his thinking, even when he writes crazy timelines involving hundreds of thousands of years.

N. K. Jemison. The best fantasy writer working today, bar none, hands down. Her world-building  and plot lines will melt your brains. Often, I don’t get past the first books of most trilogies because they don’t convince me their world is viable. With hers, first sentence of the first book hooks me completely. You have got to read The Broken Earth trilogy. And the Inheritance trilogy. And everything else.

Stephen Hunter. Yeah, yeah, a sparse action writer who can leave you a little frustrated with plot resolutions, but he’s created one of my favorite literary characters: Bob Lee Swagger, aka Bob the Nailer. No, that’s not a sexual reference; Bob earned the nickname for his extraordinary and rather prolific sniping during the Vietnam War. Long after the fall of Saigon, he is still relying on those sniper skills to get him out of trouble.

Scott Lynch. Gentlemen bastards. What more is there to say?

Mary Doria Russell. She has written two of the greatest scifi books ever, The Sparrow, and its sequel, Children of God. Since then, well, she’s had some misses, but I still read everything she does because of those first two. She is definitely all over the place, from Italy in WW2 to the Old West, but that makes me like her even more. She is not typecast. 

Neal Stephenson. Oh, c’mon, the guy is a one-man library, his topics ranging from the Restoration to the cyber future and even alien societies. And he’s going to write everything he knows about the particular topic of the moment so, pack a lunch. He has created one of my other favorite literary characters, Half-cocked Jack and, yes, that is a sexual reference. 

Richard Russo. See? It’s not all scifi and horror. Russo usually writes about places and characters of the Great White North, upstate New York and Vermont and nearbys. I lived up there for a few years and remember it rather fondly, so I’m drawn to his books, like Empire Falls.  I know those people. 

Ann Leckie. Her Imperial Radch is probably the best ongoing scifi series on the market right now and you must scoot yourself over to your nearest book source, be that library or store, and grab the first one. And then the second. And keep going. A starship that is a person. Wow.

These authors are still living and producing, at least, as far as I know. Maybe I’ll do another list of my goto authors no longer with us. We’ll see.

Posted in Merry Marvel Marching Society, Reading itself | Comments Off on The Authors I Always Read

Expanding The Expanse

The Expanse Season 6, the last season, is now available and, in celebration, in anticipation, I started the whole series all over again. Yes, Remember the Cant and Detective Miller, my favorite character of the whole series and I am pledging undying love once more to Shoreh Agdashloo.

This is now my favorite TV series of all time. It just is. And it wins that distinction over some rather stiff competition, ranging from That 70s Show to Episodes. Not that I’m comparing  an intense, scifi special effects show to well written comedies, merely showing where the Expanse fits in my TV Hall of Fame. Hmm. I suppose I should do a TV Hall of Fame post … later, later.

Why do I like it so much? Because it’s right up my scifi alley, a near-Earth epic that depicts the unchanging nature of humanity. It’s what used to be called ‘mundane’ science fiction but I’m not really sure that term is used anymore except derisively. I mean, who wants to be mundane? ‘Near-future’ scifi is probably the better term because it deals with events and possibilities of only a few hundred years out and locales within an au or four of Earth. The Expanse opens in the 2300s out past the asteroid belt and moves on from there. And boy does it move.

Rewatching the series, I’d forgotten how extraordinary it is. One of the advantages of old age, I suppose. It is tight and fast and nerve wracking, even the second time around. I mean, I know what’s going to happen when Holden and survivors of the Cant are taken aboard the Donnager, but it’s still nail biting all the way through the Rocinante’s escape. Right now I’m at the spot where Holden finds out Naomi did not destroy the protomolecule. And I know how that’s going to turn out, too. And I know where this whole train goes from there and I’m not sure I liked it. Where it went, I mean.

Because the entire nature and scope of the show changes radically after the remains of Eros lifts from Venus’ surface and creates the gates (and if I’m giving out spoilers, c’mon, these are old shows). I’m not really sure how I feel about that change. One of my scifi tenets is no extraterrestrial life. We are alone in this Universe and, yes, yes, the protomolecule was introduced rather early in the series, negating that principle, but it remained true to other principles in that the conflict was humans against humans with the proto as a tool. Once the molecule took on its own form and existence and revealed its purpose, however, we are no longer near-Earth but galactic. That is the point the show changed course, expanding its scope and turning into space opera or far future scifi. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with space opera or far future scifi, love them both, but that’s not what we signed up for, sort of like John Snow turning out to be the King or Sidney working for the bad guys. It’s a paradigm shift, and pop psychology tells us we don’t like our paradigms shifted. Which is not entirely true; we can tolerate the shifts as long as they are shifted with skill. We’ll miss the old one, but look forward to the new day.

And that’s my stance on this show. Of course I miss the days of the Rocinante desperately trying to prevent war between Earth and Mars, but look at all those gates out there and the worlds calling us. And, yes, it’s not just the protomolecule but whatever destroyed the protomolecule’s makers that is now a worry. Things escalate, concerns get bigger, and maybe that is as good a point as any to let the show drift into its own gate.

Not that Season 6 ends my Expanse addiction. I still have the remaining books to go, the last I read being Nemesis Games, so I’m not done with the crew of the Rocinante by a long shot.

In the meantime, I’ll strap in, hold on, and enjoy what’s left of the ride.

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Duuune

Dune is one of those books you had to read during my high school, along with the Lord of the Rings, the Foundation series, and anything by Herman Hesse, or you just weren’t cool. I was cool, so I read all of them, the most mind-blowing of the group being, of course, Dune. Thank God for the glossary in the back or I would never have made it through.

And being such an epic and hipster-regarded story, it was inevitable that Hollywood would attempt to screen it, with mixed results. The David Lynch version is first to mind, and, as I’ve previously mentioned, really ain’t that bad, and probably should have been the last attempt. But, you know, a big story attracts big attention and that 1984 Dune is a little too campy for modern sensibilities and since the Avengers are dead and Hollywood can’t come up with any other movies worth watching, let’s cull old material. So here comes Denis Villeneuve’s version.

Lots of critics have been saying this is the epic greatest scifi film ever made and you should really see it on Imax and, since it is one of the stories marking my high school coolness, I had somewhat of an obligation. Not on Imax, just your piddlin’ regular Alamo screen and …

Eh.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, it’s the story and the acting is good, the direction is good, the cinematography is good. It’s good. But it ain’t the greatest scifi movie I’ve ever seen. That title still belongs to Blade Runner and Gattaca, sharing first place. This is a ‘me, too’ movie, you know, some director looks back at some other director’s work and wants to join in. Not that I’m so accusing Villeneuve, he shows a genuine respect and love for the source material, but I don’t see what new thing he brought to the table. Usually you expect a different viewpoint or take with a remake or reboot, like, say, the Bene Gessirit being some kind of manipulative, backstabbing bunch of witches (which they are) but you don’t get all those motivations for said backstabbing in this version. Nary a mention of their generations-long genetic and DNA manipulations, which are kinda important here. You don’t get a lot of other context anywhere in this version, either; Villeneuve apparently assumes you know the story. Because I do know the story, I didn’t have a problem. Which means I don’t know if this movie actually fleshes everything out or I’m doing so from prior knowledge.

It’s a dusty film, kind of ironic for something called ‘Dune,’ but a lot of the shots are obscure and distant and gigantic, which is probably why it should be seen on Imax. The CGI is excellent and the scenery is spectacular but, ya know, you expect that these days. The Harkonnens are not Harkonnen enough, IMHO, Lynch’s portrayal being half the fun of his movie. But the Sardaukar are just downright evil, and salute to Villeneuve for the depiction. You really don’t want those guys after you. The Fremen, eh, they’re the Fremen, guys with blue contact lenses pretending to be an oppressed desert race which, why? Guys should get with the program, I mean, my goodness, have you seen what the Imperium offers? Don’t have to live in caves in the desert getting chased by giant worms, ya know.

This, of course, has always been a puzzlement about the story. Yes, yes, need the Fremen to serve as the indigenous natives oppressed-by-civilization trope, but this is the far future, man, and you’d think the Fremen would be happy to secure their own planet in exchange for all the fabulous wealth that the spice provides. Think the Emperor could work out a much better deal with them than with the varying crapheads he has to keep moving in and out of management. But as one who strongly believes that people will remain crapheads forever, no matter how far in the future we go, this aspect of the story fits nicely with my convictions. Still, interested parties should have come to mutual agreements by now.

I’ve heard the usual whiners complaining that this is the Great White Saviour story but that means you didn’t pay attention to the book nor this movie. Clearly stated is that the Bene Gessirit have been sowing tales of the Great White Savior among the Fremen for quite some time now, so it’s not some White Male Patriarchy at work, but Female Witch political intrigue having to do with their manipulation of genetics and their desire to create The One. 

What am I talking about? Read the book. Much will come clear.

And stay tuned for Part 2.

Posted in Those lesser mediums | Comments Off on Duuune

Best 10 Big Books I’ve Read

A guy I know published a book that came in about 650 pages. It did alright. Got good reviews, but didn’t sell. So his agent told him to break it up into two volumes of about 300 pages each and sell it as two books in a series. Why? Because no one today will read a book over 350 pages or so.

Really?

I am quite suspicious of industry experts who make such universal declarations based on polling and focus groups and online forms. Those sources of information are rather suspect because they are limited to the kinds of people who are willing to be polled or participate in focus groups or fill out online forms. You know, people with agendas. Not saying everyone who does this has an agenda, but there are documented things like the Barnum effect and Confirmation Bias and the uncertainty principle. Well, okay, the uncertainty principle doesn’t really apply here, but you get my meaning. So  what does apply? 

Common sense.

I mean, would you rather have the entire story in one volume available for your perusal, or two different volumes published at two different times? At twice the cost. And for those who think a big book is too unwieldy to carry around, I don’t think it adds any weight to your Kindle.

Personally, I love big books, 650-3000 pages and all. If you’re going to read, then read. And here’s some big ‘uns worth reading, in no particular order:

10. Dune, by Frank Herbert. Yeah, yeah, done to death, this one, by TV and movies and hype. Personally I like the Kyle McLaughlin version. Sting wearing a Speedo and wielding a knife while screaming “I will kill him!” is not an image you can easily erase. So a lot of people know the story without reading the book and this is a crime. Yes, the book is hard going, needing a glossary for all of the weird words Herbert invented (Gom jabbar? WTH?) but that’s part of the fun.

9. Shogun, by James Clavell. Another giant novel murdered by mini-series, although a ‘purt good mini with Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune and pillowing, which I will leave for you to discover. The novel is a fictional account, told through the eyes of a shipwrecked English sailor, of the imperial struggles between two dynasties of medieval Japan, the Toranaga and the Ishido clans. It is loosely based on the true story of how the Tokugawa shogunate came to be. Quite loosely. But the court intrigues make Machiavelli look like a choir boy.

8. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. It is rare for me to make a list on which Neal Stephenson doesn’t appear and this is one of his best. A world governed by a monastic community discovers that aliens are orbiting their planet, throwing quite the monkey wrench into their ascetic, technology-adverse, lifestyle. World and universe building by a master of both.

7. Gardens of the Moon, by Steve Erickson. Although this barely qualifies at 650 or so pages, it is an outstanding read, dark and scary and sorcerous and a world you simply don’t want to be a part of. The first of the Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series, it is, in my opinion, the best of them, which is usually the case for first books of series. Right, Gentlemen Bastards?

6. The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. Okay, yeah, Tom Wolfe is one of those elite writers you’re supposed to hold a slightly dismissive attitude towards because his books are so wry and on the nose but this one is magnificent, a downright funny examination of politics and celebrity and the fake reality both inhabit. Sherman McCoy, a Master of the Universe, is undone when he accidentally runs over a would-be mugger while tooling around in his luxury vehicle with his mistress. The ensuing hue and cry was satire in the 80s. Today, it’s documentary.


5. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. A deadpan look at an England where matter-of-fact magicians assist in the Napoleonic Wars and attempt to bring back the old powers, triggering a confrontation with the fairy world. Tinker Bell is not your friend.


4. Lucifer’s Hammer, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. One of the best post-apoc novels to date, a comet strikes the earth, triggering worldwide volcanoes and earthquakes and a nuclear strike because, hey, use ‘em or lose ‘em. Best get that compound prepped and ready.

3. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Oh, c’mon, it’s Gaiman so that’s recommendation enough and you’ve seen the HBO series so you know the story, the twilight of the gods, so to speak. Odin recruits a felon to assist him in an upcoming war with the new gods. What more do you need to know? 

2. Centennial, by James Michener. Yes, I know, you’re not supposed to like Michener because he is so formulaic and his characters are one dimensional and he’s a bit of a propagandist. But this story is epic, covering an area of Colorado that, after 130 million years or so, turns into the Old West town of Centennial. Getting there is half the fun. And it was a pretty good mini series, too.

1. The Parsifal Mosaic, by Robert Ludlum. Before there was Bourne, there was Havelock. This is vintage Ludlum with more assassinations and back stabbing and twists and utter craziness that you can shake a silencer at. Take notes because, hoo boy, there’s a lot of people in this. Michael Havelock, a State department agent, witnesses the murder of his partner and lover, who turns out to be a KGB spy. He quits intel work and is out minding his own business one day when he runs into his not-quite-dead ex-lover and partner. Then the fun begins.  

So, turn off that silly Netflix and settle in for the long haul.

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