Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Chairman

Sinatra: The Chairman
© 2015 James Kaplan
994 pages

Sinatra: "May I? -- it's your stage, figured I'd ask.."
Dean Martin: "Hey, it's your world! I'm just livin' in it."
(The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands)

In 2010, James Kaplan wrote an eight-hundred page volume about a poor kid from Hoboken, who made it good as a singer, seemed to flame out in the early '40s, and came back with a bang on the silver screen. The kid who was once floored by punches and got back up is now gone, replace by an increasingly wealthy artist-producer who can seemingly get away with anything, and who will remain an icon for the rest of his life, long after  the Beatles and all that follow take over the pop charts.  If The Voice followed 'Frankie' from the gutter to the top, The Chairman  is a chronicle of Sinatra's use and abuse of his cultural and financial power  as the king of entertainment -- for even as his behavior became worse under the influence of constant adulation, his growing wealth and legendary status allowed him to get away with the same behavior that nearly ended young Frankie's career.  This is not a biography for the reader who merely wants to delight in how cool Sinatra was -- there are other books for that --  because the Sinatra here is frequently drunk, ugly, and...well, very un-cool. But Kaplan has produced in these two books a definitive biography,  one that dwells at length on Sinatra's artistry as well as his relationships with others, and the good and bad flow together.  Although its sheer volume nearly exhausted my considerable interest,  at the end I had to count it worth it.

Artistically, Sinatra seems to have peaked in the 1950s:  after that,  both the changing tastes of the music-buying populace,  and Sinatra's growing age and iconic status cut his edge. He never ceased to take music seriously, and after initially dismissing Elvis and the Beatles as so much noise, he would listen to them attentively in hopes of figuring out why kids liked them so much, but movies were a different story.  Sinatra's comeback was based on his outstanding performance in From Here to Eternity, and while there would be a few more stellar roles to come,  after Sinatra gained the wealth and stature to start trying to make his own movies, he would produce films that sold through star power alone.  Sinatra couldn't lose himself in acting the way he did while singing, and as a result a lot of his later movies have characters who are  just Frank Sinatra with a different name; there's no suspension of disbelief.  On the set, Sinatra was increasingly disinclined to heed direction, and produced a lot of films that were panned by critics and lukewarmly attended, but  let him pal around with his buddies.   He remained committed to music, however, and the main reason I kept plugging along was for Kaplan's evaluations of different songs and records; aside from his late Capitol years, when Sinatra was utterly resentful of their refusal to let him go to develop his own label,  Sinatra was a consummate professional about not just singing, but musical performance.  Sinatra didn't just stand in front of a microphone and sing; he played the mic like an instrument, using it to hide his deficiencies and embellish his strengths.  He also experimented with different musical styles, though he was at his happiest giving performances like those of his youth: the singer and a big band behind him, thrilling now grey-haired bobby soxers.

A major part of The Chairman is Sinatra's relationships with others, as Kaplan covers his string of wives, his panel of good and lose friends, and his allies and enemies.  Sinatra liked to have a good time, preferring to stay up all night drinking Jack Daniels with his friends, and he was rarely without female company whether or not he was married at the time. (Sinatra definitely got around,  often seeing several women simultaneously, and apparently without an attempt to be secretive.) Sinatra's serial romances weren't just about having an interesting dinner companion for the evening;  he was ever restless, always looking for someone who could fill a lonely void.  His frequent heartache, particularly the long-burning torch for his second wife Ava, also informed his music, allowing him to sing songs about lost love like no one else.  He was attracted to power and swagger; throughout his life he'd pal around with members of the Mafia, despite being hauled into court several times to be questioned about mob ties.  Sinatra embodied that swagger himself, and without a powerful person to manage him,  he wasn't far from acting out if someone angered him.  (He once drove a golf cart through a casino window after they changed owners and stopped his line of credit.)  The lure of power also brought him to DC,  as he sought the friendship of JFK, and would later schmooze with Governor Ronald Reagan and President Nixon despite being a Democrat. Kennedy, whose own lechery was on par with Sinatra's, was the only person whose fame ever rivaled Sinatra's, but his wife and brother did their best to keep Sinatra away from  Kennedy.  Kaplan also covers the Rat Pack at length, Sinatra's clan of buddies who made films with him and who for a while took over Las Vegas with their shenanigans. While filming Ocean's Eleven, they began disrupting and then taking over each other's shows, to the point that it didn't matter who was booked: Sinatra, Martin,  or Davis. They'd all wind up on stage together, drinking and carrying on. The jokes and act grew old after a while,  but in the early sixties nothing like this had been seen before.

The Chairman covers Sinatra's life at length until the early seventies, when he entered into a "retirement" that was shorter than his marriage to the child-bride Mia Farrow. He came back in less than two years,  and would continue to perform until the 1990s...but this last chapter of  his life is a very small part of the book, and mostly chronicles his friends dying and Sinatra himself growing more tired, until his death in 1998.   Kaplan also includes a touching epilogue about a visit to Sinatra's grave in Cathedral City,  where the larger-than-life singer rests under a very ordinary marker that will probably be completely sun-bleached in another generation. The music, however, will persist.  There many singers who are descended in chaos  after imbibing too much fame and money,  but what they produce overshadows it: that's definitely the case with Sinatra.   He was a complex man who could give to charities lavishly, with complete anonymity, and then cause a public scandal -- but when I listen to something like "Summer Wind",   all of the tabloid  bits are blown away.  The voice takes over, and I can only marvel at the story of this poor kid from the wrong side of the river who became an icon -- and one whose wealth was produced not through dishonest means, like politics and  crime, but through the sheer joy he brought to people who bought his records.  It's a heckuva story, and in Kaplan's version, a heckuva read.

Frank: The Voice, Jame Kaplan. The first part of this definitive biography, The Voice covers Sinatra's early rise, fall, and rebound, culminating in his award-winning performance in From Here to Eternity

Sunday, January 28, 2018


© 2004 James Dalessandro
368 pages

Turn of the century San Francisco was a notoriously corrupt city, filled with vice from the brothels of the Barbary Coast to the opium dens and sex slaves of Chinatown. 1906 is a political thriller  that brings together two brother-cops and an intrepid lady reporter together as they attempt to throw a spotlight onto the den of scum and villainy that is city hall, exposing a political-criminal cabal controlling the city.   And then...history happens, in the form of an earthquake and a fire that destroy city hall and a lot of the city, pitting the corrupt mayor against a slightly deranged general whose solutions all involve shooting or exploding things.   The novel and title both indicate that this is a novel set amid the chaos of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, but in reality....the quake hits when the book is nearly over,  and it merely serves as a large-scale plot twist.  Because I was reading this solely for the earthquake and fire angle, I wasn't too much interested in the seaside skulduggery -- especially since one of the cops was this irritating college grad who seemed to have majored in precognition, since he keeps telling people all the mistakes they're making, apparently armed with information from the future.  Perhaps he's a time traveler -- he wouldn't be the only one, since another character pines for cars not taking over the street yet, despite their still being rich man's toys in 1906.  devices that couldn't roll a mile without a flat tire.

If the potential reader is interested in the actual disasters, there are a couple of very storied histories -- Dan Kurzman's Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 was the volume that ignited my interest. It bubbles over with anecdotes that really bring the calamity to life.  Less anecdotal, but written by a San Francisco citizen, is Edward F. Dolan's Disaster 1906.

Opera fans may be interested in Enrico Caruso's steady appearances throughout 1906. He no good a-speaka the English, because he's-a Italiano.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Indian in the Cupboard (and Return)

The Indian in the Cupboard
© 1980 Lynne Reid Banks

I had to keep watch in the children's department today, and there bumped into an old friend: Omri, the boy with a seemingly magical cupboard that can turn plastic figures into real, albeit tiny, people.  I can't remember how young I was when I encountered the Indian in the Cupboard series, though I do remember being puzzled as to why the "dollar" signs looked funny (£).   The story begins when Omri receives a plastic figure of an Iroquois warrior and a cupboard for his birthday.   There's no key for the cupboard, but oddly one of Omri's mother's heirloom keys fits the lock perfectly.   When Omri locks the figure up for safekeeping, however, he's astonished to hear yelling and muted scraping from within. Somehow, the toy has come alive.  When Omri is able to talk to the figure -- now a very animated and angry warrior -- he learns that the man is not simply a moving toy, but a real man suddenly ripped from history. The book follows Omri and Little Bear's evolving friendship, as well as the near disaster that ensues once Omri trusts his friend Patrick with the secret.  Oddly enough, the arrival of this tiny figure from the French and Indian Wars is a pivotal experience for Omri, giving him his first taste of responsibility, an opportunity for wrestling with the morality of his own actions. Ultimately he decides that he doesn't have the right to play with lives from history like this, and he and Patrick will send back Little Bear and a few others back closing and locking the cupboard door once again.

I loved this series as a child, and I enjoyed it no less today when I decided to revisit the first two books. I remembered much about the story -- I should, considering how many times I read the first few books --  but was amused by some of the things I'd forgotten.  The memory of the weird dollar signs, for instance -- I didn't realize the book was set in another country back in the day, and there were some jokes that went over my head because 'whiskey' wasn't a word that I had encountered at age seven, or whenever it was that I found these.  What a delight this book was to me back then, already in love with history -- even in fourth grade, my history book was the first one I looked for on the first day of school --- and immediately interested in any notion of toys coming to life. One of my favorite childhood books was Elvira Woodruff's Back in Action,  about a magic kit that brings toys to life and shrinks their owner down to have adventures with them.   This book was genuinely educational, however, as Little Bear behaves nothing like what Omri expects a 'savage' to act like. Through Omri and Little Bear, I learned that there were all kinds of different native Americans, that some lived in longhouses and some in tipis, that they fought each other and fought on different sides against  European powers.  Omri becomes fascinated by Iroquois culture, and when in the sequel his friend makes a churlish remark about  the 'savages',, it is Omri who chides his friend for not knowing what he's talking about.

Return of the Indian is more of an adventure than a moral drama -- Omri brings Little Bear to life again to tell him some good news, and then learns that the warrior's village about to be burned and his friend killed, so Omri tries to figure out a way to help out -- but is still enjoyable.  There's so much to appreciate about these two books, but I suppose the days of children playing with little figurines instead of their parents' phones are passing into memory.

This book appeared in a 2011 Top Ten Tuesday list, "Childhood Favorites".

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

2017's pie

Every year I like to  load up my books-read Excel list, sort it by labels, count everything up, and then make a chart out of it.  Every year's label sets are a little different, aside from old reliables like History and Science.   Historical fiction is safe, too, even though it was waaaaaay down from previous years.  Fiction in general was down, accounting for roughly 25% of what I read. I used Meta-Chart.com instead of Chartgo, and I'm pleased with the result, except for the font size.  Right now to make it readable I've had to expand the chart so that it's clipping into the sidebar.

Just for comparison's sake -- 2017 was my ten-year anniversary, so why not? -- here are some  previous years' pie charts.




2013 (my favorite)


Unfortunately, prior to 2012 I was using photobucket or imageshack to host the graph, so those are kaput.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Truth about Nature

The Truth About Nature:  A Family's Guide to 144 Myths about the Great Outdoors
©  2014 Stacey Torno and Ken Keller
212 pages

Great news, kids. The tyranny of mom is over: no longer do you have to wait 45 minutes after eating to go swimming. Turns out you can wolf down a hot dog mid-stroke and nary a thing will happen, except for maybe a really soggy hot dog bun. Or...an attack by sea gulls.  That misconception and 143 others are debunked in The Truth about Nature,  which collects misinformation about the natural world passed down from one generation to another, alongside columns like "Strange but True", or facts that seem outrageous but which are really truth -- because that's just how nature rolls. I stumbled upon this book at the library and was immediately attracted by the cover. It's written for juvenile audiences, and is written not just to flush out old information but to sharpen scientific appraisal: the authors often charge the reader with evaluating just how they might find out that a particular information is bunk, prompting them to imagine different possibilities and how they might evaluate them  The collected misconceptions themselves range from folk wisdom ("Moss grows on the north side of trees") to entries that I think were just fudged a bit and thrown in. There's a section on how clouds aren't actually white, as they can also be grey -- and sometimes, oak trees don't have acorns, because it's not the right season.  Well...okay, but that doesn't strike me as a "myth" in the same way that "touching a toad will give you warts" does.  At least one debunked fact -- that rabbits are rodents -- was a surprise to me. Turns out they're lagomorphs. Also, they don't eat carrots, but I kind of figured. They also don't sing opera, or foil the engineering schemes of malevolent coyotes.

While this is intended for younger audiences -- probably late elementary and early middle --  adult readers who are in the mood for some light reading will also find it enjoyable.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Every Man a King

Every Man a King
© 1989 Bill Kauffman
277 pages

Every Man is a King follows the self-destruction and resurrection of one John Huey Long, a rising star in DC’s intellectual establishment who disgraced himself in a heated television interview. Fired and friendless, Ketchum slunk back to the rathole hometown he thought he’d escaped, planning to die – but instead, he found a new life. One part DC satire, one part homage to crappy hometowns, Every Man a King makes for an odd novel. Its mocking of politicians, the media, and pseudo-intellectuals has easy appeal, of course, and one of the characters is winsomely weird. (Imagine Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an obese fop who wears 1940s suits, carries a cane as a transparent affectation, and who is incapable of not sounding like a 19th century dandy.) I liked the general arc of the novel, the tale of a pretentious jerk being taken and realizing there’s more to life than DC power plays, that real people still live in places that don't matter to those in government. And Kauffman should be praised for not making this localist defense sentimental in the least: the town Ketchum returns to has been left behind by everyone else, and most of the people are poor, drunk, and angry instead of poor-but-happy farmers enjoying their simple lives far from the big city blues. Most of the action happens in Ketchum’s heart and mind, though, as he slowly realizes what a empty charade life in DC had been anyway, and what a boob he'd become -- a man corrupting the memory of his populist grandfather, turning the elder into a fount of folksy proverbs just to add a little flavor to his columns.  Life in Batavia is ridiculous, too, but at least it’s real. Even so, a story of largely internal musing doesn’t have a great deal of activity: Ketchum even manages to avoid barfights despite spending most of his time post DC sitting in one. On the whole the novel was too vulgar and too sedentary for my taste.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Snowed in

For the second time in as many months, we've received a hearty dose of snow and ice. This time seems to have been much more disruptive, as roads have been shut down completely. Last month ice wasn't too bad, but this morning even speeds of 10 and 15 MPH were too much for vehicles.  The above shot, borrowed from WVTM's facebook page, is of Interstate 65, south of Alabama's capital city.  This is an eerie sight for me, because this stretch of interstate always has plenty of traffic.  Downtown Selma was deserted as well, with only emergency services and a few reporters gingerly venturing out.   The arrival of the snow and ice coincided magnificently with Martin Luther King day to result in a five-day weekend for many people.  I've been using the time to read, of course, but I also played through Papers Please and have been trying to remember just how I use to beat missions in Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines.   How much of high school did I spend watching German patrols, figuring out the best way to sneak through or neutralize them? Probably too much. 

While I didn't stir today, this was my view shortly before Christmas. My grandmother says she can't remember ever having two snows in one winter -- it's a once every ten years kind of thing this far south.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fares Please!

Fares, Please! A Popular History of Trolleys, Horsecars, Streetcar,s, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways
© 1941, 1960 John Anderson Miller
204 pages

With her high starch collar and her high-topped shoes, 
and her hair piled high above her head
She went to find a jolly hour on the trolley and found my heart instead...
("The Trolley Song", written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. I like Frank Sinatra's version.)

My word, what a charming little book this is. Just look at that cover!  When it was first published, the author could claim with confidence that Americans were the world's greatest users of public transit. A lot has changed in the eighty years since this history's first release, but what a history it covers!  Chiefly focused on the United States (but with healthy mentions of London, Paris, and various other systems across the globe),  Miller begins documenting transit services from the first horse-drawn municipal coaches, to the latest invention of the trolley-bus. His history includes a generous amount of photos, as well as illustrations of different mechanisms -- although it is as it describes itself, a popular history. The emphasis is on the general, how new ideas were put into practice in different cities, and received by the public.  Along the way, readers witness a number of inventions that failed, or ideas that were embraced and then rapidly abandoned.

The story begins in 19th century America,  at the very beginning when New York was swelling with immigrants and needed some practicable means of expansion. The answer came  in a kind of stage coach that ran only in the city, and as the idea of it became popular, specialized carriages were built for the idea. This kind of evolution happens a lot in Fares, Please: an old technology is tweaked a bit to a new purpose, and then later succeeded by something especially built for that purpose. As omnibuses developed their infrastructure -- becoming serious businesses that could afford greater investments -- they began running their carriages on rails instead of the open street.  "Horsecars" were the progenitors of the trolley, but it took time for animal power to yield to mechanical.  Eventually they had to because of urban expansion:  as lines' number and length multiplied, so too did the number of horses required. One New York company had to care for eight thousand horses at its greatest point prior to other means of carriage locomotion.

Eventually other means did take over: cable cars were experimented with, but were relatively expensive and lost ground to electricity after an initial burst of enthusiasm. Some manufacturers experimented with internal-combustion carriages, but electricity -- despite fears of public electrocution -- won out for sheer economy.  (The first internal combustion engines were not, shall we say, energy-efficient.)  As trolleys began taking over more and more of city streets -- say, four lanes of a six-lane road -- the residents of particularly crowded cities like New York toyed with the idea of running the trolleys either under the road or over it. Elevated lines were embraced as being easier than subways, but the public tired of having roaring machines overhead blocking out all the light.   Subways were thus developed in a few cities like New York whose density could afford the expense.

Ultimately, it was the rate of expansion that  prompted the original omnibuses to make a comeback:  simply put, they were quicker on their feet. Streetcar lines required a lot of capital investment  (rails, lines,  carriages, support vehicles, etc) and careful planning to expand into new area. Bus companies needed vehicles, a little adjustment to the planning, and they were in business.  Ironically,  streetcar companies were some of the first to adopt buses -- either as cheaper ways of providing the same service, or as cost-efficient ways to gather customers in outlying districts to one of the main streetcar lines.  Although buses and private automobiles had gained a lot of ground in recent years,  Miller remains sanguine about mass transit's hopes going into the 1940s, in part because of the sheer demands of space: one lane of streetcars can carry six times as many people as two lanes of cars, and cities simply don't have room for everyone to toodle about in a car.  Miller probably never imagined we'd tried to solve that problem by destroying the city -- knocking down building after building for parking lots, and then creating automobile-oriented sprawl and leave downtown to rot.  We seem to be moving back in the direction of sanity, dreams of computer-controlled instates full of driverless cars not withstanding.

If you can find a copy of this, it's a delightful little history. I've been trying to find something like it for years.  There is nothing quite like a streetcar to make me think of urban America in its adolescence, roaring with energy and changing every day.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City
© 2013 Russell Shorto
369 pages

In the early 14th century, a group of fisher-folk around the Amstel river came together with a dream: to build a place where people could smoke weed and bicycle to their heart's content.  And so they built a dam, and canals, and a town, and they called it Amsterdam. And they all lived happily ever after, except for the people who toked and cycled simultaneously, because they fell into the canals.

...well, okay. Not really. But there were fishermen, and there was a dam.  Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City  reviews the history of the city which took its name from that dam, though it focuses more on Amsterdam's culture of liberality than municipal matters. That culture begins not in the 1960s or even the enlightenment period, but at the very beginning.

Most European cities can point back to a spot of land, the center of the old town, and say "Here is it where it began."  Not so with Amsterdam, which had to be reclaimed from the sea itself, by dredging rivers, redirecting water through canals, building dykes, and driving massive of wood into the Earth to secure a foundation for buildings.  This effort was a joint private-communal affair, as people worked as a corporation to accomplish and maintain projects, but held the results -- the parcels of land raised from the sea--  as private family possessions. Amsterdam's peculiar origins gave the city a unique character, writes Russell Shorto.  It fell outside the feudal system that governed the rest of western Europe, sharply curbing the influence of any native aristocracy, and priming it to reject them totally when cities grew and political authority became a matter of public debate.  The relatively shallow roots of feudalism's cultural authority made it much easier to embrace a  social policy of gedogen -- a game tolerance of difference or vice, so long as it wasn't aggressive.  This tolerance made Amsterdam  a refuge for persecuted minorities (exiled Spanish Jews) and minorities who would love to do the persecuting if the shoe was on the other foot (English Puritans). during the medieval-industrial transition

.Amsterdam's geography meant that it could not be a city with vast estates;  although many of its citizens were staggeringly rich during Amsterdam's golden age, when it was a trading titan that gave its sister-nation England painful competition,  even the wealthy would live in relatively modest townhouses. The broad outlines of Amsterdamer, or at least Dutch, history may be known -- if nothing else, at least the Dutch provinces' early participation in the Protestant movement, and their war of rebellion against the Spanish Hapburgs.  Amsterdam was slow to be caught up in the protestant tide,  as a medieval miracle made it an object of pilgrimages, and made the city as a whole more Catholic -- at least, for a time, before it was quickly supplanted by liberalism. Although the word "liberal" means apparently opposite things on either side of the Atlantic, Shorto holds that both meanings were originally rooted in the supremacy of the individual, and Amsterdam can claim to embody that cause more than any other city.  Compare it to the cradle of Anglo-American democracy, the  home of the House of Commons:  London's streets once fell under the shadow of cathedrals and the Tower; now they falls under skyscrapers.  Amsterdam, however, is a city not of skyscrapers and massive complexes, but of buildings that have remained at the human scale. Its innards, too, have remained human: its streets are dominated by human figures on bicycles, not oversized for speeding automobiles.

Although this is certainly an enjoyable history of Amsterdam's contribution to the human existance,  particularly  on its progress at achieving the golden mean between individual and community life,  those who are curious about Amsterdam's physical expression will probably be a little disappointed. The physical form of the city is covered early on, but after that municipal matters take a distant back seat to the evolving social history. Admittedly, most readers are probably more interested in reading about cars than about canals and such, but I thought it was very odd that Shorto didn't dwell on the rescue of the 'human city' from cars in the 1970s. 

In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, Pete Jordan
The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama. Not one I've read yet, but it's about the Dutch Republic's golden age.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


© 2018 Robert Harris
354 pages

By this time tomorrow, Adolf Hitler could be dead...

The year is 1938, and Europe is again sliding into war -- a war that only one man wants.  The man is Adolf Hitler, who is determined to claim all of Czechoslovakia for the Greater German Reich. He's already annexed Austria, and sent the French running from the Rhineland.   The little Bavarian  has opposition, however: across the Channel, Neville Chamberlain is working around the clock to keep another bloodbath from erupting, and at home a group of  German officers who worry for their nation's future are contemplating a little regime change in Berlin .  A last-minute peace conference with hasty security arrangements  might be just the opportunity

Munich must be one of the most famous conferences in western history, remembered in shame as the time when the West hung Czechoslovakia out to dry, and were rewarded with Hitler's breach of trust when he invaded that country and Poland, anyway.  But a good history teacher, when approaching Munich, will put students in Neville Chamberlain's chair -- a seat from which the future cannot be viewed, a seat that sits in the gloom of memory, the memory of a war that emptied villages and destroyed millions of families not twenty years before. Europe cannot survive another war like that.  Even if the Czechs have to give up their border with Germany, it's not as if Czechoslovakia is a real country, anyway --  diplomats invented it not twenty years ago.  And so while Britain and France resentfully prepare for war just in case things go wrong, Chamberlain works like a dog to find any way to get Hitler to the table. And he does, via an Italian connection.

Robert Harris uses two men to  deliver this four-day drama: the first is Hugh Legat, a man attached to Chamberlain's staff who constantly worries that secret from his past will be unearthed as tensions with Germany grow ever greater. The second is Paul Hartmann, a German functionary who serves Hitler by day and helps plan his death by night. Paul and Hugh were Oxford friends,  and Paul hopes to pass information onto England via Hugh that will ensure that the Allies-in-waiting will call Hitler's bluff. Hartmann wants the war, for if Hitler  takes Germany down that crimson path again, the conspiracy can be justified in giving him the fate that he would inflict on so many others:  death.

Harris succeeds in turning a conference whose consequences are a known fact into a thriller with the potential for upset, and humanizes a figure who -- at least in American histories -- is depicted as something of a boob.  The Chamberlain of Munich is not a quiescent, cowering figure: he's resourceful, obstinate, and determined to deny Hitler the war he wants.  Although Munich suffers slightly from the fact that most people know what happened at the conference, it's still a good thriller, in part because of the espionage and anti-Hitler conspiracy.


  • Fatherland, Robert Harris.  An alt-history detective novel set in a victorious Germany, where Hitler is set to celebrate his 70th birthday by completing the conquest of Russia...but someone is digging up bones from the past. My introduction to Harris, who has kept me reading since 2008.
  • Garden of Beasts, Jefferey Deaver. Another novel set in  prewar Germany, this time during the "Nazi Olympics". 
  • Phillip Kerr's German novels, which always skip around a bit in time but almost always spend time in WW2-era Germany.  Lots of gallows humor, but I have to read him sparingly.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Fools and Mortals

Fools and Mortals
© 2017 Bernard Cornwell
384 pages

Brevity is the soul of wit, so here's an attempt at a quick  review.  Bernard Cornwell usually writes war novels, and he's magnificent at it. But he surely gets tired of it, and every so often he delivers a mystery or something that's not dashing heroics.   Fools and Mortals is such a book,  a celebration of the birth of western theater and of Shakespeare in general. Our main character is Richard Shakespeare, the struggling younger brother of much-hailed William.  In a age where only men acted on stage, Richard's days as an actor are seemingly numbered: he's too old to play most women, as his voice has already broken, but actors abound and male roles are competitive. What's worse, Will seems to be deliberately mocking Richard's desire to be taking seriously: his latest  role is a man...pretending to be a woman, and doing it clumsily.   But now isn't the time for jumping ship: the company is the middle  of rehearsals for a high-profile gig that the Queen might attend, and just showing up at practice gives him a chance to swoon over one of the serving girls.   Besides, he's too poor to take chances on pay:  Richard already has to make ends meet by nicking small articles and selling them on the side. When the company's plays are stolen,   Richard's moody resentment of his brother, not to mention his reputation for having sticky fingers, make him the obvious suspect. To clear his name, save the company's hides, and perhaps nail a proper male role, Richard decides to find out who stole the plays and get them back.

...and he does, within a few pages.  And then he exits , pursued by a bear.  The drama promised on the front cover is only a small, brief episode within the larger story of Shakespeare trying to deliver "A Midsummer's Night's Dream", and finish his script for "Romeo and Juliet". It's not easy, because  secret police keep breaking in to nose around, and why would priest-hunters be bothering an acting company?  Most of the novel's action takes place in and around rehearsals or performances. Cornwell notes in his afterword that the novel is largely a tribute to the men and women of his local acting company, who have given him so many happy evenings.  Fools and Mortals is thus a celebration of the English stage -- a novel that allows readers to experience the England which created and nurtured the likes of Shakespeare. Cornwell's usual strengths are here, in humor and in a few action scenes (I wasn't kidding about the bear),  but the weight of the story is its theatrical setting. I enjoyed it well enough, but I'm a regular patron of my local Shakespeare Festival and am thus an ideal audience for this kind of thing. I particuarly liked the way Cornwell included historical flavor: the inclusion of jigs after performances,  for instance, or the use of period slang.  I'm not sure that those who come to Cornwell for his Sharpes and Uhtreds will necessarily like this one, however, given how different it is from his usual work.

Well, so much for brevity. But Polonius was a rubbish advice-giver, anyway.

Ruled Britannia, another Shakespeare novel. This one is alt-history instead of historical fiction, and has Shakespeare incite  English rebellion against the conquering Spanish empire.
Gallows Thief, Bernard Cornwell. Another non-military work, this one a detective story set in 1817 England.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America
© 2017 Michel Ruhlman
324 pages

Let's go shopping! There's a few errands to take care of first -- an homage to dad, a quick review of the history of grocery stores -- but then, straight to business.  Aisle by aisle, from dried pasta to fresh fish, the way Americans approach food is changing, and Michael Ruhlman's Grocery shows us how, using -- literally -- the neighborhood grocery store, the one just down the block from his childhood home.  Ruhlman has a particular passion for food, one inherited from his father -- a man who genuinely looked forward to his weekly run to the grocery, one who kept journals of the meals he'd entertained company with -- and has turned that into a series of books, including one that took him into chef school.  Here he's spending his time with the twin brothers who run a series of stores that grew out from their father's,  one that has continued to stay on top of modern eating trends.

During Ruhlman's childhood, the grocery store was a place where you bought groceries. Wal-Mart changed that, though, when they invaded the grocery market, and other stores like Target  followed in their wake.  A lot of what a grocery stocks, the stuff in the center aisles, are commodity goods that are the same regardless of where you buy them: a box of Cheerios, say, canned soup, or jar of olives.  The quality doesn't change from store to store, and it's hard for a local grocery to compete with prices against the likes of Wal-Mart, let alone Amazon. Their future will lie in offering high-value goods or culinary experiences that can't be thrown on a truck.   Although Americans cook increasingly less -- Michael Pollan speculates gloomily that the next generation may view food prep as weird and alien to their life as milking a cow or beheading a chicken ---   we're still obsessed with food. Part of this is not a healthy obsession, although "health" is the object:  there is an increasing tendency to view food as medicine, buying it based on its advertised health claims rather than its actual quality.   Neither Ruhlman nor anyone he interviews are impressed with the USDA's track record in declaring foods as "healthy" or unhealthy, having previously damned eggs and butter to the devil's bin.

What most people miss is  that no food is "healthy", Ruhlman writes. Food can be nutritious, but it's only part of a healthy lifestyle. Even if the granola bars people are so increasingly fond of were unequivocally good for them -- and they aren't, really, given the amount of sugars packed in as preservative --  people need varied diets and physical activity to be "healthy".   Still, what the market demands is what it gets: the Heinen brothers visit organic expos and look for genuinely nutritious snacks they can introduce in their stores,  but they're mostly beholden to what people demand...be that Cheerios or free-range lambchops.  Happily, the market in general is shifting to favor organics and local produce, so the absence of spring fruit in winter is no longer a deal breaker for people who visit the store.   Grocery stores are having to go beyond food, too:  the Heinen brothers  have long emphasized  health in the products they stock, and their most recent store (in a renovated Beaux Arts bank) has a restaurant and bar.  This is not not unique to the Heinen brothers, as other chains like Trader Joes have experimented with coffee houses and the like;  from the surviving neighborhood grocers to WalMart,  prepared food is an increasing part of the grocery store's stock in trade. What is unique to the Heinens is that they have a doctor on staff, one who vets the quality of their produce and health departments, and who gives community seminars about food and wellness.

Grocery has a lot of topics thrown in the buggy -- the history of grocery stores,  critiques of our modern diet, insight into the marketing and purchase decisions of grocers --  and some of it may be repetitive if you've been reading an author like Michael Pollan.  The store he chose has a unique character, and I enjoyed learning about the brothers' business and their attempt to contribute to a fresh food culture in their part of Ohio. Also, I have to be a fan of anyone who takes a beautiful but abandoned building and turns it into a community center, at a big risk to themselves.

The Heinen's latest corner grocery, the revived Cleveland Trust building.

Inside the store. The book includes a section on how the brothers had to reconcile its architecture with the unique demands of a grocery store. 


Monday, January 8, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Meant To Read But Didn't Actually

This week the Broke and Bookish are tackling books they meant to read last year, but didn't. Well, so am I.

1. India: A History & China: A History, John Keay

These were on the short list for last year's Asian history review, buuuut I wound up reading about modern China and India instead.  Their time will come.

2. Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How,  Ted Kaczynski

So...early last year Ted Kaczynzki's publishers asked if I would like a free copy of Ted's new book in exchange for a review.   Once I recovered from the sheer weirdness of being asked to review the Unabomber's book, I said...well, sure!  I figure they used Goodreads readers of Ed Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang to find prospective reviewers, since that novel is about eco-bombers.

And er, for the record, I don't endorse sending people bombs in the mail.   It's against the nonaggression principle and everything.  Also, the postage on bombs is through the roof these days.

3. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress,  and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies; Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

This is a Kindle Unlimited book I checked out in..May? June?  Eesh. 

Related: Rise of the Robots,  something still on the "Get around to it" list. Not to mention Nicholas' Carr's The Glass Cage, and a lot of other tech books..

4. The Gulag Archipelago, Volume III

This is the shortest and least depressing volume, which ostensibly would make it the easiest to read.  When its time came around, though, I was trying to make  up for  falling behind in one of my challenges.

5. Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ
and This is Your Brain on Parasites

Both of these were purchased during a science sale for Kindle books, along with Kingpin, I Contain Multitudes,  Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, and Survival of the Sickest. I'm not sure why Kingpin (a book on cybercrime) qualified, but a sale is a sale.

6. The Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution, Frank Dikotter

I kept accidentally alternating books about Soviet misery and Chinese misery and decided "Yep, I am not reading any more Frank Dikotter this year. Too many dead people."

7. The First Family: The Birth of the American Mafia, Mike Dash

I read half of this before the digital loan ended and it went poof.  I'll go after it again.

8. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918, Alexander Watson

I checked this out in October, but there was too much going on, and...well, as with Dikotter I'd just had my share of mass murder for the year. 

9. Bikin' and Brotherhood, David Charles Spurgeon

Bikers are inherently cool, but I'm also interested in gang psychology. The "brotherhood" part of this title keeps me pondering buying this one now or later. So far it keeps getting pushed to "later".

10. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle

This one has been on my "to read eventually" list ever since it came out.   Maybe this will be the year.

Peaceable Kingdoms

Star Trek, The Fall: Peaceable Kingdoms
384 pages
© 2013 Dayton Ward

Nearly two months have passed since the most popular and widely respected president in Federation history was publicly assassinated, but in that time her temporary replacement has not been standing strong, offering a  reassuring presence to a troubled people.  Instead, he's been losing friends and alienating people in a misguided effort to renew the Federation as a galactic superpower. With a declared object of making Starfleet a force to be reckoned with, he has instead begun corrupting it by ignoring the chain of command, creating black-ops squads and playing hell with Starfleet schedules by using them for his off-the-books wetwork. Frustrated and wary of his commander in chief's motives, Fleet Admiral Akaar has recalled Captain Riker, promoted him to admiral, and is relying on him to be the one trustworthy man in his office. Riker has thus become the point man in an effort to find out what el presidente is up to. Together, he, Captain Picard, and their respective crews will unearth a few skeletons and put the Federation to rights again. A tale of action and intrigue, Peaceable Kingdoms takes The Fall out on a good step, if not one as strong as previous titles in the series.

The Enterprise has been hovering out of sight for most of this series, consigned by the president to keep station at Ferenginar. It's an obvious misuse of the Federation flagship and its most seasoned captain, not to mention a fairly crappy place for shore leave. Who wants to take their liberty on a swamp-planet? Now the Big E is entering center stage, however, dispatching Dr. Crusher and a few others on a secret mission to an abandoned world where some secrets are buried, there to follow up on one of Riker's leads. They'l have to contend with the president's schemes, though. A welcome relief here is T'Ryssa Chen, who since the Borg War books has added some humor to the Enterprise . She's an oddly irrepressible half-Vulcan with a smart mouth, who a mellowing Picard tolerates with paternal affection. Given the tension of these books -- what is with that title, anyway? Are we anticipating the fall of the Federation? The Typhon Pact? -- her sass evens things out a bit. The series as a whole has been good about leavening the drama with laughs, though.

Peaceable Kingdoms is an enjoyable end to a great series, and its end is a hopeful one -- assuring readers that after the bloodshed and horror of the Great Borg War, and the constant tension of the Cold War in Space, Starfleet is about to commend another grand era of exploration

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Lessons from a Lemonade Stand

 Lessons from a Lemonade Stand: An Unconventional Guide to Government
© 2017 Connor Boyack
145 pages

Who knew  lemonade was a gateway drug to anarchism?   Beginning with the true story of several girls who were bullied and fined by their local Officer not-so Friendly because they were selling delicious beverages without a permit from the city, Connor Bayack asks readers old and new a question: what does it mean to be lawful? Where do laws come from, and what happens when laws support oppression, or suppress something innocent or even good?   In a short work that draws from Frederic Bastiat, Hannah Arendt, and Monty Python,  Lessons from a Lemonade Stand is an education in law, and rights, as well as an appeal for youngsters to go forth and smash the state.  Or at least, sell lemonade and braid hair without a license.

Although Lessons from a Lemonade Stand  is written for teenagers,  the content is by no means juvenile,  exploring as it does the nature of law, rights, and the legitimacy of government. Drawing on Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, Boyack argues that everyone has natural rights which exist regardless of any government or other person’s respect of them, and that natural law exists to protect these rights.  Because the natural law is based on the respect and protection of these rights, laws cannot violate them and retain their own legitimacy.  The same is true for governments, which are organized to protect these rights: its existence is predicated on those rights being respected, and thus it cannot do what is unlawful for the people who created it do.  Legitimacy also requires consent, since the government has no life beyond what its members give it.  There is then a difference between something being bad because it violates  natural rights – theft and murder being the two most obvious --  and something being bad because some entity, be it a gang or a federal regulatory board,  has declared it bad.   Similarly, there is a difference between the natural rights guarding life, liberty, and property, and the statutory  ‘rights' created by governments, which vary widely from place to place and often involve infringing upon the natural rights of others. Having established the difference between violations of the natural vs statutory law, Boyack then reviews a heroes panel of people, many of them young, who have stood for what was ‘right’ against the government’s actions.  They stood in the US, in Germany, in Egypt, in Pakistan – across the world, people recognize that just because the  ‘government’ says something is right doesn’t make it so. Even those with the best of intentions can go dead wrong when they violate the rights of others.

There’s a lot of information compressed in this little book and it’s full of real-world examples that will add a little fire to the blood. I'd never heard of Helmuth Hübener, the youngest boy (17) to ever be sentenced to  death by the 'people's court' in Nazi-controlled Berlin. The moment when a person realizes that truth and right exist independent of authority -- that police, or teachers, or politicians can be absolutely wrong -- is the moment that a person begins their own journey as an independent thinker and human being.  Although I'm in the choir a book like this is preaching to,  I also found its review of law helpful.

Connor Boyack is head of the Libertas Institute, which in Utah exists to fight the lemonade police and others. In addition to organizing legislative challenges to casual tyranny, Boyack also writes children's books about the principles of economics, politics, and liberty. My favorite title is The Tuttle Twins and the Road to Surfdom.  His illustrator is Elijah Stanfield.

From The Tuttle Twins and the Miraculous Pencil, based on Leonard Reed's "I, Pencil".

"Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right". - Henry David Thoreau, "On Resistance to Civil Government"

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Poisoned Chalice

Star Trek the Fall: The Poisoned Chalice
© 2013 James Swallow
395 pages

Without warning or reason, the starship Titan – specialized for deep space exploration – has been recalled and ordered to patrol…Earth. Captain Riker has been promoted to admiral and shoved in an office, while several members of his command crew have disappeared on secret missions that not even the Fleet Admiral knows about. Who’s giving orders around here? It’s a troubled time in the Federation, with one head of state assassinated only weeks before, and the president pro temp acting in ways that make Chancellor Gowron look compassionate and conscientious. More mystery and more stress are not what the Federation needs….but they do make for another great novel in The Fall series.

Schemes are the name of the game here, as everyone is Up to Something. The fleet admiral suspects the president is up to something, Riker suspects the fleet admiral is up to something, and the crews of two starships suspect Riker is up to something. Commanders Tuvok and Nog know they’re both being put up to something, because they and a few other officers have been ordered to the middle of nowhere to meet a group of mercenaries who are obviously up to no good. But what is going on? All these secret goings-on are the ripples around the schemer in chief, President Pro Tempore Ishan Anjar. Anjar was chosen not for manifest competence, but to assure Bajor – in the light of the Federation’s growing ties with Cardassia – that Bajor’s history was not forgotten, and its place is secure. Throughout this series he’s proven himself to be petty, mean, obnoxious, and other sundry adjectives, prolonging crises for political gain. That is coming to a head, however, and things are unraveling.

The Poison Chalice brims over with intrigue and terse conversations, with a healthy bit of action and a little comedy as well. I was spellbound, still enjoying the drama of Starfleet officers wrestling with questions of conscience and duty, and can’t wait to see how this ends. I hope it involves Anjar getting a right sound lecture from Picard.  Or a right sound backhand from Worf -- I'm not particular.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Podcast of the week: Amazon, Google, and Facebook as the new monopolies

Last Monday, EconTalk posted an interview about the 'new monoplies',  in which host Russ Robert spoke with Matt Stoller about the increasing danger of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.  Stoller is of the opinion that three companies are not only so large that they've consumed their respective markets, but they're starting to overshadow political spheres as well.  Roberts was more concerned about the effect that Google and Facebook had on controlling and filtering available information, and asserting that there's never been a better time to be a producer . One vital point that Stoller makes is that these companies have grown so enormously, so quickly, that they're not even aware of everything that's happening under their aegis; he points to the alleged Russian use of facebook to propagate fake news. Another key point is that these companies are increasingly unavoidable; even if someone is an absolute crank who insists on running Tor and using DuckDuckGo as their search engine,  software like Google is used as the basic infrastructure of some institutions: Stoller uses the example of a father who tried to keep his kid off of YouTube, only to be thwarted by the fact that his kid's school used free Chromebooks from Google -- and with those books, Google's services. 

Although Stoller faltered a bit under questioning, the interview came to mind immediately when I read an article from Wired UK that Amazon and Facebook will soon be allowed (in European and UK markets) to conduct inter-personal financial transactions, like a bank.  We're getting closer to The Circle, it seems. The link above directs readers to the episode highlights page, just in case someone is curious but doesn't have time to listen to a hour-long conversation.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Ceremony of Losses

Star Trek the Fall: A Ceremony of Losses
© 2013 David Mack
353 pages
"I'm a ship captain, doctor. Risk is my business."
"...you're an un-armed, one-man freighter."
"Okay, delivering cargo is my business. But I'm trying to diversify."

Now this is a way to start 2018!   When Julian Bashir's vacation is interrupted by a Ferengi delivering a message from an old comrade in hiding, the good doctor has no idea his finest hour is  upon him. He is asked to receive stolen biological data, and from the noise therin produce a pattern that might save a people from extinction.  It won't be easy:  the data is considered highly sensitive by three governments, one of which might kill Bashir for trying to use it, and even if he finds a cure, his career with Starfleet will be over.   Still struggling with his conscience over his actions in a sanctioned but bloody bit of intelligence work (Zero Sum Game), Bashir knows responding to this forlorn plea is both the right thing to do, and an opportunity for personal absolution. If he can obtain the missing pieces and coax some of Starfleet's finest geneticists into helping him, a  people might be saved -- and if it costs him his career, his freedom, or his life, Bashir is determined to deliver.  A Ceremony of Losses is  the best Trek book I've read in years, a thriller that smartly combines political  and personal drama, humor, and action in a tight story full of moral dilemmas.

A little backstory is required to fully enjoy A Ceremony of Losses, but that's to be expected in the third book of a series. The Andorians are an odd species in that they have four sexes, all of which are required to produce a single offspring. Even Treklit published in the Enterprise era hinted that the Andorians were drifting toward extinction, their reproduction woes magnified by a buildup of recessive genes that were causing chronic miscarriages.  Between the Borg War and the ordinary passage of time, the Andorians have come to a crisis point: they'll be extinct in a generation if something isn't done.   In Paths of Disharmony, the revelation that the Federation's ban on genetically engineering sentient lifeforms, and its sequestration of any data that would aide such a project, had hidden information and tools that might be used to help Andoria resulted in that planet -- one of the original founding worlds -- seceding from the Union.   Now, in The Fall, Andoria is under an embargo by the Federation, who suspects its leadership is being manipulated by the Typhon Pact, a confederacy of villains.  The banned information and tools are what Bashir needs, but it will take more minds than his to find a cure, and even when he does the political leadership of both Andor and the Federation are playing games.  Bashir has to find a way to obtain the data and do lab work without triggering any security measures, and once he's exposed he may have to burn a lot of bridges trying to get the results to the right people on Andoria.

One of the greatest aspects of this novel is its persistent moral drama. Bashir and his comrades aren't civilians, they're Starfleet officers who have sworn to obey their orders, even if their orders come from an absolute ass of a president .  Bashir, Captain Ro, Captain Ezri Dax, and others all have to decide how far they can toe the line, and when they'll step over the edge. It makes for fantastic drama because characters readers know and like are working in opposition to one another,  each trying to follow their conscience as best they know how, wrestling with themselves as one another. Creating believable, sustainable drama in this fashion is a lot more challenging than using obvious Bad Guys to provoke the plot, though most of the politicians here are decidedly unsympathetic antagonists.   What makes it even better is that there are real consequences for these characters' decisions: this isn't like one of the shows, where some stern admiral pops on to lecture Kirk or Picard for being naughty, then gamely allows that the results have been worth it.  Some characters will have to face the music with only a clean conscience at their back.

Oh, and this book is only .99 cents on Amazon, along with the other books in The Fall series.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Rooster Bar

The Rooster Bar
© 2017 John Grisham
352 pages

The third year of law school is supposed to be the easiest, but for Todd,  Mark, and Zola...eh, not so much. Their best friend just committed suicide, leaving behind a tangled web of conspiracy on his apartment wall. Zola's Senegalese parents were just picked up by customs for deportation,  the guys' families are likewise unstable, they're all unemployed, and between them they owe over half a million dollars in student loans.   Not that all that debt has given them anything in return:  half of their school's graduates fail the bar exam, a fact they've picked up on much too late. They're all a semester away from graduation, and after that loom the licensing exam and impossible loan payments   With the banks holding all the aces, what's left to do but kick over the table? 

 Todd and Mark have an idea:  stop going to law school, and start going to the courthouse to hustle cases, small fry that they can do cash jobs for, under assumed identities.  With all of the lawyers crawling around DC, like rats in a landfill, who would know they didn't have licenses? They'll use their last student loans as startup money, hit the streets, and see if they can't scrape up a living.  They were headed for bankruptcy anyway, so why not go for broke? The Rooster Bar follows the two guys (and Zola,  who is distracted by her family and dubious about the scheme to the point that she never nets any cases) as they embark on a life of deceit, fraud, and confidence games,  though one of them has a bigger fish in mind. The same company that owns their diploma mill also owns the bank they borrowed the money from, through the usual legal shell game that protects them from antitrust suits.  The guys would love to take vengeance on the racket, not just for ruining their lives but from driving their friend to suicide. Surely there's a way.

Well, yes. It seems implausible, but as Grisham points out in his afterward, he played fast and loose with the facts for the story's sake.  ("Especially the legal stuff,"says he.  That's nice to know when it's a novel about the legal profession.)   Although  this is a fresh story -- and an interesting one, as readers see the characters having to learn the ropes -- the way it develops is not too dissimilar from The Litigators, in that some characters' ambitious idea goes...awry in a Wile E. Coyote fashion. Just like the Coyote, however, repeatedly falling off of cliffs, blowing up bombs next to their heads, and launching themselves into the stratosphere  doesn't stop Todd and Mark from rebounding.

The Rooster Bar is more memorable than The Whistler,  but I'd still put it near the bottom of the second tier, as far as Grisham books go. Good title, though.

Announcing: Peoples of the Americas

In the past few years I've explored the Middle East and Asia; for 2018, I am moving closer to home with "Peoples of the Americas".  With it, I hope to remedy my ignorance of the United States' southern neighbors (save Mexico and Cuba), as well as learn about a few native  American tribes who are a blank to me...the Chinook being one example.

The plan: open the year by visiting a few  Amerindian tribes in North America, move into a treatment of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, and then follow up with histories of various nations in the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America. If time permits, we may even visit that most exotic of American nations, Canada.

Although this, along with the Classics Club, will be my focus this year,  I'm just going to fool around in January and ease into the new year with light reading in the form of Star Trek, books on cities, that kind of thing.