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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

Today's word is, "sweltering."

S w e l t e r i n g.

Normally our rainiest months are April and May, and by late June we're starting to get into the high dog days of summer and the sort of weather that is punctuated by the occasional extremely violent thunderstorm, but otherwise leaves our lawns scorched brown turf by the end of July and helps the corn dry on the stalk in August and September. This year, however, we are getting somewhat more rain than usual. For example, Friday morning, before I left for work, I accidentally left this flowerpot out on the deck. It was empty when I put it there.

This is what it looks like this morning, with a 12-oz. can of Orange Crush to show scale. That is just the accumulated rainfall from the past 48 hours.

No tornado touchdowns or damaging hail in the immediate area this week, cross fingers, knock on wood, but all the same it's a little exciting when the tornado sirens go off and the EBS advises you to take shelter immediately, as happened Friday night. Saturday morning we emerged to find that we'd lost most of one of the maple trees in the storm, so I spent a good part of yesterday out in the yard with chainsaw, axe, and wheelbarrow, taking down the rest of it and clearing away the debris. I'd like to say that the many long hours of hot, sweaty, filthy and exhausting manual labor were in some way ennobling or invigorating. But I'd be lying.

In last week's column, I wrote about our strawberry patch. This week, instead of the traditional race to get to the ripe strawberries before the birds and garden slugs do, it's become a race to pick them before they turn into mold and slime on the vine. The rain and heat of the past week have turned our strawberry patch into a mat of dense green fungus, and my poor radishes have drowned, although the beans seem to be doing better than usual. The blackberries also seem to be enjoying the weather, and we were out in that part of the garden bright and early this morning, picking handfuls of berries so ripe they practically fell off at a touch. Breakfast this morning was late, but consisted of home-made, whole-grain, organically raised-blackberry muffins, fresh from the oven. (What? What's with all this hippie-speak? I thought this Bethke guy would be eating, oh, plastic and pills washed down with Red Bull, or something.)

Nah. At heart, I'm a gardener. There is something immensely gratifying about bringing food that you have grown yourself straight from the garden to the table. This probably also has something to do with why I find myself re-reading Candide every few years, and finding something new and delightful in it every time.

Recent Reading:
Speaking of reading, since the question has come up, here's what I've been reading lately, in no particular order.

First up, with A Taste of True Blood now on the market, the nice folks at BenBella Books asked me to write up a little something for their website, which necessitated my reading the entire book. It's always awkward reading your own stuff in print, as the Internal Editor is finally and fully unleashed. "You could have phrased this better, and you just missed making a really clever point right there, and as for that—" Aaah, shuddup. The book is good, decently entertaining, and at times surprisingly thoughtful. I liked some of the other essays a lot, and as always there were a couple of head-scratchers, but there were no real "boy, they must have been hard up for filler" moments, which was a relief. Would I recommend buying the book? Only if you're into the core subject matter. But still, I am not unproud of my little contribution to it.

After that, I'll just dive headlong into the unstable and untidy heap of books that have accumulated on the bookshelf next to my desk in the past six months. Oddly enough, looking at this heap, I still complain that I don't get enough time to read.

Cod: A Biography of the fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky. Fascinating combination of history, economics, and ecology. I wish I could get contracts to write books like these.

Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West, by Larry McMurtry. Just what it says. Very good stuff.

A Short History of Financial Euphoria, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Interesting history that falls apart when he tries to apply it to then-contemporary issues in the 1980s.

Pegasus Bridge, by Stephen Ambrose. I remain in awe of real-life heroism. The Longest Day did not do justice to Major John Howard and the men of the Sixth Airborne, and subsequent histories have not served justice to the upper-echelon morons who subsequently squandered the lives of this crack outfit.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. Orwell's first-person account of his experiences fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. If you've ever wondered why the Republicans lost, or how a British Socialist could learn to really hate Communists enough to write Animal Farm and 1984, this is the book to read.

Gunpowder, by Jack Kelly. More than you ever imagined it was possible to know about the history and making of the stuff.

Men-of-War: Life in Nelson's Navy, by Patrick O'Brian. A dandy little handbook to life aboard a warship in the age of fighting sail. This would seem to be the fruits of O'Brian's background research for his Aubrey/Maturhin books.

What They Don't Teach You At Film School, by Camille Landau and Tiare White. You can tell they're filmmakers; the title should be in film school, not at it. But I keep coming back to this one because, while it's ostensibly a book about low-budget film-making, it's really a terrific book about project management, group dynamics, and working effectively with creative people.

Phule's Company, by Robert Asprin. To be honest, I read this one because people kept telling me I was giving Asprin short shrift, and that I really needed to look past the Thieve's World and Myth, Inc. books. So I somehow worked up the determination to get past the cheesy cover art, and—lo and behold, this is a good book. Shame this series never developed a large fan following.

Crewel Lye, by Piers Anthony. To be honest... No, about nine pages in I put this one down and never felt any urge to reopen it. Look for a large pile of used Piers Anthony books to show up behind Door #3 shortly.

Ghost Ship, by Diane Carey. A.k.a., Star Trek: The Next Generation, Book #1. Following on the heels of J. M. Dillard's Bloodthirst, I read this one as research to continue developing my thesis that 95% of so-called hard science fiction is merely horror with sci-fi sets and props. Yup, this one was aptly named, because that's exactly what it is. Geordi LaForge can see dead people, Counselor Troi is making "empathic contacts" with histrionics worthy of any 19th century spirit medium, and Wesley Crusher saves the universe. Feh.

Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman. I can't figure this one out. I thought at first it was supposed to be aimed at the YA market, being a rather good first-person P.O.V. novel about an unwilling teenage girl who ships out with her family to become a Martian colonist, but then it turns very adult. I don't remember Podkayne ever talking about the speed, intensity, or frequency of her lover's orgasms. Maybe that's in the special author's original draft edition.

Currently reading:
Spacepower: What It Means To You, by Donald Cox and Michael Stoiko. Very serious 1958 think-tanky sort of book about the coming Space Age, with lots of charts and graphs and unintentionally hilarious but very expensive color plates depicting hypothetical UN spacecraft. Permanent colonies on Mars by 1995? Oops, missed that one. My biggest problem with this book, as with so many other old hardcovers, is that at some point it was stored in some damp and dark location such as a basement or garage where it was allowed to mildew badly, and it turns out that I am spectacularly allergic to the smell of mildew. So I can only read this book on sunny days when there is a steady breeze, so that I can read it outdoors.

Writing a Book that makes a Difference, by Philip Gerard. A wonderfully inspirational book for writers. My only complaint with this one is that it is so effective, I keep charging off half-cocked and have never actually finished reading it.

The Grand Strategy of The Roman Empire, by Edward N. Luttwak. Absolutely fascinating, but not exactly light reading. It's best taken in small portions, with ample time allowed for digestion before moving on to the next chapter.

Next in the Queue:
The Goblin Reservation, by Clifford D. Simak.

Never Gonna Read It:
The Organ Grinders, by Bill Fitzhugh. Started it; couldn't stay interested in it. The author has quite a rep. Anyone else want to take a whack at it? And while you're at it, to come up with a working thesis as to why this one is marketed as capital-L Literature, not science fiction?

A State of Disobedience, by Tom Kratman, (published August 2005). Free to good home; no time to play.
"Time: The near future. Place: The so-called United States of America. A Body Politic transformed into a bloody stage for partisan revenge and state-controlled terror. One President vying for dictatorial power. One mild-mannered governor determined to stop the madness, yet not sacrifice democracy in the process.

"Like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln before her Juanita Seguin (spoiler: the governor of Texas, not Alaska) is a leader slow to anger. But like them, once pushed to the limit, she is indomitable in her resolve—and relentless in the fight for freedom..."

Okay, who wants this one? Instead of making this a first-seen, first-grabbed proposition, let's make it a bit more interesting. If you think you want this book, post in the Comments your one-paragraph reason for why you should be the person selected to read and possibly review it. The winner will be announced on—oh, Wednesday morning, for a change.

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