Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Starfinder by John Marco

At some point I may compile a list of books with talking dragons that I enjoy. There are more than a few, and somehow that strikes me as odd. Dragon stories are fun – that word again; fun, a derivative, I believe, from Old English and meaning to hoax or amuse. Talking dragons. Just typing the words is amusing. Starfinder has a talking dragon in it named Merceron who wears spectacles and reads scholarly books. Merceron is old and he’s smart. John Marco has written a great fantasy novel that young readers and adults can both enjoy. The story is about young Moth who dreams of becoming a Skyknight. When his mentor Leroux dies he asks Moth to take his bird, Lady Esme, to the forbidden land called the Reach to save Lady Esme who is really a beautiful woman trapped in a bird’s body. Unraveling the mystery of Lady Esme with the help of Merceron are the plot’s driving points. John Marco does a wonderful job of world building in this character-driven tale. The Reach is a strange world populated by mermaids and other creatures, including Redeemers, a nasty bunch who work for The Skylords, the group that want the Starfinder which belongs to Moth. The Starfinder is an object that reads data from the constellations like a compass operating as a computer, but its other secrets are unknown to Moth. Credit goes to John Marco for keeping the fires of his fantastic imagination at the level of a blazing inferno. There are many other characters, too, each playing an integral part of the story, Fiona, Skyhigh Coralin, Rendor and his secrets. And dragons. Talking dragons. Starfinder is worth reading for those that enjoy such well-written fantasy tales. Jam-packed with memorable scenes, fascinating characters and an epic quest, this is one of my favorites. Marco leaves it open for a possible sequel. His other great novels include the Bronze Knight books, The Eyes of God, The Devil’s Armor, The Sword of Angels and The Forever Knight. For collectors Starfinder is Daw # 1473. Starfinder is an unforgettable and refreshing fantasy adventure that piles on the action.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Hemingway In Love by A. E. Hotchner

This short but insightful book reminded me of Hemingway’s incredible talent which is constantly being degraded by contemporary critics. I first attempted to read Hemingway in the mid-60s, but I was too young to grasp what I had in my hands. Still, I was intrigued. Hemingway was the guy that wrote books the adults talked about, and I was a classic bookworm kid. Scribners had published a uniform set without a dust jacket but a blue hardback cover with the titles in gold and Hemingway’s name embossed in silver below a silver quill pen. My parents added these to childhood collection with the intention I read them when I reached the point where I felt like I could handle them. They left it up to me. I still own that set of The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I was captivated by Hemingway’s descriptive passages. Hemingway clicked with me in the next decade, before I was eighteen, and Hemingway takes up a lot of space in one of my bookcases today. I like to think the ghost of Hemingway haunts my den at midnight. I can pick up one of his books and I’m in Spain, or Cuba, or Paris. Hotchner’s previous book on his friend, Papa Hemingway, is also recommended reading. One of my prized possessions is Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good written by Hotchner with Paul Newman and signed by both. This is the Easton Press signed and numbered edition published in 2003. Hemingway In Love recounts details about his marriages that Hemingway entrusted to him but Hotchner never published until now. I found nothing scandalous, but I re-discovered Hemingway’s passion for life, and Hotchner’s passion to get the story right makes this a fine book for future Hemingway fans to study. Some of the details are slightly at odds with the accepted facts about Hemingway’s life, especially his romantic feelings toward Hadley Richardson, his first wife, and the destructive affair that destroyed their marriage. This book is at times poignant and fascinating in its emotional power. Scattered throughout the narrative you will find tidbits explaining the origins of various short stories. Included are reminisces of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and many others. Now that I’ve read Hotchner’s book I’m going to re-read a neglected favorite, To Have and Have Not and probably The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Thanks, Hotch, you did this book right. I’m putting it up on that sagging shelf next to A Moveable Feast.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Promise by Robert Crais

I’ve read all of the Elvis Cole detective novels by Robert Crais. About a year ago he published Suspect, a stand-alone novel featuring police officer Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie. That was a fantastic book. The Promise is another Elvis Cole novel with Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie featured as secondary characters. Joe Pike, Cole’s partner, is also featured in a secondary role. That was a mistake, because Pike should have played a larger role. I enjoyed The Promise and I do recommend it for Robert Crais fans and new readers just discovering his books. By no means is this the best Elvis Cole novel, but it’s still good. The action is toned down quite a bit here, but the suspense level is high throughout. Crais plots a thrilling tale of deceit and loyalty. Cole is hired to find a grief stricken mother, but what he discovers is a plot to contact a terrorist organization that leads him down a deceptive path where motivations and identities are not what they seem. Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie remain enticing characters and it’s obvious we’ll see more of them. Several subplots in this book appear designed to set-up additional stories in the series. These include the villain, Mr. Rollins, and Jon Stone, one of Joe Pike’s talented friends. As such, The Promise feels incomplete to me. If Crais is attempting to set-up a series of connected books featuring a long, complex plot I might suggest he study the now famous “Helen Trilogy” by Preston and Child, and perhaps even study Lester Dent’s Doc Savage page-turning plots. Just a thought. Robert Crais’s books are among the few I purchase in hardcover as I have reached the age where my book budget is planned carefully. The Promise is good, but his next one will determine if I categorize future titles as strictly paperback purchases.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas to All!

Merry Christmas to All!

Ruminations On Christmas Day

I saw a one-click headline the other day where Kim Kardashian announced that she wants to eat her placenta. I doubt that she is conducting an anthropological study on protein and self-cannibalism. In this Orwellian version of our world these one-click headlines are created to induce the masses to spend and spend after our slack-jawed oh-my-god reactions elevate our interest and our blood pressure. From my admittedly limited view, I find Kim Kardashian repugnant, no matter if she wants to eat her placenta or not. Kim Kardashian is living proof that in America someone with a pretty face, no brains, and a professional publicity team working on her behalf can become both famous and filthy rich. Her clothing line and “reality” television show has reaped her millions. Is that the American dream?

I have spent most of my adult life working in the non-clinical sector of the healthcare industry, all while nudging along a modest and generally under-the-radar freelance writing career. I’m one of the lucky ones. The most important thing I have learned about our healthcare system comes from the nursing professionals I have known. This is quite simple: no one should die alone. Life is far too rare, and too precious that we should turn our backs on each other. We should strive for better rehabilitation systems, educational processes to promote literacy, and healthcare initiatives that prolong our quality of life. Even media whores like Kim Kardashian will deserve that level of engagement when her body begins to shut down and she finds herself withering away in a sterile hospital bed with a catheter inserted into her bladder and her diaper is changed three times a day by a nameless caregiver.

Recently, my father’s health problems resulted in the necessity for a stay in a nursing care facility. After a few days of visits, and as the result of observing the daily routine, I initiated the habit of speaking with and acknowledging the other patients. Nursing homes and rehab facilities are not necessarily depressing, although the financial burden they impose on the average family is enormous. I think it all depends on your attitude. Not everyone is as lucky as my father to have regular visitors. These people have nothing to do but sit in their wheelchairs waiting for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or to die, whichever comes first. Because I have been in nursing homes countless times, I am accustomed to the vacant stares, drool speckled chins, and the endless stench of urine and feces. These are things we don’t like talking about. Don’t we all hope to die happily in our own beds one day after a long and healthy life? But it doesn’t work that way for most people. You can kid yourselves all day and say – “That’ll never happen to me!” or “That only happens to other people!” until the day you wake up in a strange room with an overworked and underpaid nursing assistant wiping the feces from your buttocks and trying to make you comfortable.

Eating the placenta is trendy among practitioners of holistic healthcare. It involves freeze-drying the placenta and having it pressed into pill form. I am not aware of any qualified research studies that validate its benefits, but that doesn’t matter. Kim Kardashian only used the topic as a means to generate publicity. She is among the many media whores like Leah Remini who have a publicity machine in place ensuring that their names are on everyone’s lips. These are the types of celebrities who only visit the cancer ward of a children’s hospital after ensuring the media will photograph the event to maximize their publicity impact. 

We are lucky that our healthcare industry exists even with its many flaws. My point is this: Nurses and caregivers are the heart and soul of what this country needs more of, and the problems they face in doing their jobs properly with affordable healthcare for everyone is a far more interesting topic to me than Kim Kardashian eating her placenta. So I engage people in conversation, and they smile. They share a few memories. This is what they want; that personal contact, an acknowledgment that someone sees them. Try it sometime. Suddenly the vacant stares are replaced by a nostalgic memory. Maybe that cancer-stricken woman in the wheelchair will recall her first young love, some handsome beau who taught her how to dance. Maybe she’ll remember Elvis or The Beatles, and she’ll smile talking about the songs and the good times they had. My mother still talks about seeing Frank Sinatra at the Oriental Theater in Chicago in the 40s; and she recalls with clarity seeing Roy Rogers and Trigger on stage for some event. That’s when the timbre of her voice changes, and that’s when I see her happy again.

I pay an emotional toll each day watching people I love struggle with health issues. Seeing them decline simultaneously is a challenge and each day I have to remind myself to keep it together. I tell myself: Be like the Man of Steel. Don’t let them see you crumble. But there are good things that I see every day. I have seen the volunteers from The Salvation Army bring smiles to people with their visits and simple gifts. The Salvation Army, incidentally, is the only organized religious charity that pays regular and meaningful visits to nursing homes in McHenry County. The Salvation Army is certainly one of the few organized Christian groups that I respect.

My father dreams of the past, and because of the advanced stage of his Parkinson’s Disease, he often becomes confused. He believes that a blind Italian man has moved in next door and steals cars. He believes that we all live in the same building and just down the hall from each other. He believes that a small group of ragamuffin boys live in our backyard tool shed. He says that they stole his arc welder and other tools. He sometimes asks me for his .45 Colt automatic so he can shoot these “strange animals and snakes” that come through the window every morning (it’s locked in my gun-cabinet). But he also has lucid moments. He recalls with clarity his father’s Catholicism, and his mother’s cold shoulder toward church-going. He recalls his boyhood friend, Harold Wiley, apparently a bit of an oddball, and how he ran his motorcycle into the rear-end of a Chicago squad car and got thrown into the hoosegow. He remembers trying to join the Navy with Harold in 1942 and being rejected because he was thirteen years old. He can also recall his dog tag number from his U.S. Army induction in 1950.

I often engage the staff, too. Their “job” is often more than that, and the better ones know what the word “caregiving” really means. I tell them how much I appreciate their effort, and I am heartbreakingly sincere. Where would we be without them? I love to see them smile. If you read this post, please thank a nurse, or a nursing assistant, or a physical therapist, social worker and food attendant and any other staff. The entire staff of our hospitals and nursing homes are doing the job that many of you don’t want to talk about as you obsess over the latest one-click headline.

It’s Christmas morning and I am leaving in a few moments to go see my father, and then I will go see my mother. I am determined to make someone smile with my bad jokes, and to do whatever I can to help out. For those few of you that actually read this, I wish you peace and prosperity. I wish all of you, peace and love and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, including all of the hateful people on the Internet, and the placenta eating Kim Kardashian, Empress of the Talentless Celebrities, and may joy and happiness follow all of you into the New Year.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Superman The Sunday Pages 1943 -1946

Superman The Sunday Pages 1943 -1946 was published by IDW in 2013, this massive (9 x 12) and beautifully designed book reprints in full color the Superman Sunday pages comic strips from 1943 -1946. This is a must-have for Superman fans. Most of the scripts here were written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel with artwork by Wayne Boring and Jack Burnley. Each of this book’s 178 pages reprints a facsimile of the Sunday pages. This is amazing material, and thumbing through these pages I was again reminded of a now vanished America. This is the original Superman as Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created him, albeit perhaps a slightly refined version from his original appearance just a few years earlier. With a short introduction by Mark Waid, each of these Sunday page entries offers us a glimpse of wartime America, and how Superman worked to inspire and help American servicemen. In these tales, Superman does chores for GIs, flies a father home for the birth of his child, and even bakes a cake. In these earliest stories Superman uncovers Nazi spies and saboteurs while giving all credit to the American Armed Forces.  In strip #197 dated August 8, 1943, Superman tells readers in the final panel: “Our foes are hard and resourceful – but in the army and naval air forces of United Nations, they face a global aggregation of determined fighting men dedicated to one all-important goal: the smashing of the enemy everywhere so that peace and justice will prevail.” By the war’s conclusion the strip re-told Superman’s Kryptonian origin and retells his first adventure where he prevents a lynching. We’re treated to a taste of the science fiction flavor that would creep into the series throughout the 1950s. Also available are the black and white dailies with more scheduled to be reprinted in the future. I’m collecting all of the IDW Superman volumes. The fight for Truth, Justice and the American way is never-ending. These books are wonderful.