Far Away and Long Ago by William H. Hudson

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Reading a recent issue of The Smithsonian I read an article on William H. Hudson. I had never heard of him but he was a prolific author and a famous English/Argentine ornithologist who grew up on a plantation in Argentina during the 1840s and 1850s. In the article it talks about his autobiography about his childhood years, Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life. I found it interesting that amid the praise for the book that it was also a text used to teach children in Japan English. I suppose much like Caesar’s Commentaries are used to teach Latin, or was at one time.

I just have to say what a delight the book was. While written when he was 77 and the first draft started when he was fairly ill, it resounds with childhood’s innocence and wonder. I cannot recall a childhood autobiography that I have enjoyed more, although Little Britches  by Ralph Moody comes very close. The book kept reminding me of many things from my childhood which was odd since there is no parallel. It is just that Hudson manages to maintain the joy of discovering new things every day and project it to the reader.

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Growing up on the plains he was a small and shy child, in love with the outdoors and all that lived in it. While birds are clearly his first love, everything in nature seemingly fascinated him, flowers, plants, trees, mammals and so on. Without formal education he learned all about these things and their seasons. I was envious that at 6 he could identify so many birds simply by their call- all I can get right is a crow. One of my favorite stories in the book is how someone told him that if he put salt on a bird’s tale it could not fly. I wonder how old that joke is? The joy of childhood is also revealed in tales about his and his siblings loved how one neighbor laughed and another sang.

His life was anything but ordinary. Having a pony at age 6 and free to roam at will across the pampas by 8. Watching cattle and sheep drives, talking with old gauchos and witnessing them have knife fights. Having the remnants of a defeated army flow by his home. All through the books is a growing love of nature and most specifically birds, slowly at first and then with a growing admiration. His growth into reading and education as well as spirituality, and then subsequently questioning spirituality is very interesting, heartfelt and relatable.

Very rarely does he display cynicism that might have come with age but he does lament the loss of those days, and in part what he decries is the fact that the area where wild animals swarmed and birds flew is now plowed under to make way for corn fields.

One odd note in the book is that he never names his brothers or sisters, or his parents. His father is very rarely mentioned and his mother occasionally. His oldest brother obviously holds a very important position in his life, including a helpful push to be a naturalist, but is unnamed. I wonder why, as it does not sound like he disliked them, but I do get the impression that they were nowhere near as important as seeking a new bird or flower.

I am really looking forward to reading more of his writings. I found it incredibly approachable but I had to continually stop and look up what a bird or a plant looked like. His book about Patagonia particularly interests me.

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes

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Attacking my pile of decade old book purchases I came upon The Crimean War by Orlando Fige and decided that it was time for a change of pace in my reading habits. I am very glad I did so, it was an excellent read and filled in some interesting gaps in my understanding of world politics.

The book starts with a good introduction as to the causes that lead up to the war-the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, Russia’s determination to expand its influence in the Holy Land and Ottoman provinces and most of Europe’s’ distrust of Russia. It was eye opening to learn that in the Holy places in the Near East fights broke out among armed monks and others over which religion would have primacy.flash

Everything I thought that I knew about the Crimean War came from Flashman at the Charge by MacDonald Fraser. Not surprisingly since Fraser also wrote a good deal of history, the parts that he wrote about (aside from Harry Flashman) were very accurate. Included was the incompetence and disagreements of the leaders, the Thin Red Line, and the charges of both the Heavy and Light Brigades. However I had always carried the impression that the English were the primary power fighting and that their allies, primarily France, played a distinctive second fiddle.

Far from the truth. While the English, lead by Prime Minister Palmerston were advocates of a major war against Russian, primarily to defend English trade interests and possessions. However they were not really willing to put the resources into the effort, hoping to get allies to play a major part, which they did. The major victories of the war were achieved by France, and its leader Napoleon III ended up being shown as a shrewd negotiator. The overall ability and competence of the French really surprised me. All I really knew about Napoleon III was his invasion of Mexico and the disastrous war of 1870.

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I had forgotten about its successful invasion of Algeria and thus had an experience, battle harden core in its Zouaves. The military had portable canteens, bakeries, well planned out supply logistics and well staffed and intelligently laid out hospitals. The officers lived close to the men and capital punishment was mostly eliminated. Pretty much all of the opposite was true for the English. In combat they made most of the important gains and became the dominate partner in the allies.

The English, seemingly living off their reputation earned in the Napoleonic wars decades earlier, were to put it mildly, a mess. Corporal punishment was very common, the officers were distant from the men, both culturally and physically, living apart and enjoying a much better lifestyle in camp. Planning from the very senior level on down was almost entirely absent.

The Russians were also resting on their Napoleonic laurels and when faced with modern weapons and tactics failed. In part due to the backwardness of the country, couple with an autocratic leader who seemingly acted on a whim at times. Without a thought to the long term impact of his actions.

The Russians one true advantage was a huge numerical advantage, which was greatly offset by poor medical and logistical issues. Their casualties were between 400,000 and 600,00, compared to the English 28,000.  However they developed a method of battlefield triage that helped save lives that went above what Florence Nightingale did on the Allied side.

One issue that I would have liked was both better maps and have them presented throughout the book rather than at the start. It could be difficult to follow combat on specific days. Overall the Crimean War gives a very good overview of the causes of war, how it was fought, and the near term aftermath. It also shows the lasting impact that the war had on European relations that still affect the world today.

Fables of Ismeddin by E.Hoffman Price

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I have a friend who is a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle of writers and after discussing recent books we had read I recommended Karl Wagner to him and his counter recommendation was Edgar Hoffman Price, who had cowritten a story with Lovecraft.

Another Golden Age writer I have never heard of and one that seemed very prolific. I looked at a number of his offerings online and decided on the Fables of Ismeddin MEGAPACK from Amazon. I was a bit worried that the stories might have a strong racist tinge to them as some of Lovecraft’s do. I did not find that to be so. In many of the stories there are no real ‘heros’ in that there is some evil in all, but often it is the westerner that is the worst, such as in Well of the Angels.

There are a number of reoccurring characters and story styles, starting with the title character Ismeddin, a Kurdish holy man that is called a Darvish, an alternate spelling for dervish. Ismeddin is only in about half of the tales but is an interesting character.

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Crafty, devout, wise, versed in ancient lore and an apparent practitioner of magic he is an interesting contradiction. He is also at times a caravan raider, horse thief, guide, advisor to travelers and Amirs as well as a man that deals with the devil. While looking down on the ruling class he often helps them maintain their thrones even when they are obviously cruel and corrupt.

Another reoccurring character is Bint el Hereth or Bint el Kafir, the daughter of Satan, a immortal seductress who entices men to their doom in a way that many men might be willing to follow. You will have to judge for yourself if she is evil or not.

There are a few historical fiction tales and several that does not feature Ismeddin and have westerners as their main focus. At first I was disappointed in this but a number of them are good tales.

I really enjoyed the stories and believe that they aged very well. A couple that stood out for me were Ismeddin and the Holy Carpet and the Girl from Samarcand, for very different reasons. The first shows the cleverness and resourcefulness of Ismeddin, and how quickly he can adjust to unexpected circumstances. The other, almost a ghost story, has a lot to say about day dreaming as well as the importance of hearing an entire conversation.

The stories reminded me in a way of a number of Robert E. Howard’s short stories set in the same area but there are major differences. The first is simply the era. Howard’s tales are mostly around the Crusades while Hoffman’s are primarily around the start of the 20th Century. Another major issue is that the hero in Howard’s stories are all European, while Hoffman’s are Kurds, Persians, Afgans and others from the nations around the Levant.

Hoffman wrote in a number of genres and there is both a Fantasy & Science Fiction as well as a Two Fisted Detective MEGAPACKS available that I will probably invest a buck on in the future. I wonder if his stories in those genres holds up as well?

Warship by Joshua Dalzelle

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After finishing Marines I decided to jump into another of the books I received from Discover Sci-Fi. This one was entitled Warship (Black Fleet Trilogy, Book 1) by Joshua Dalzelle.

On the face of it I was unsure if I would like it because it sounded so familiar. A disgraced captain, a ship under a cloud, untrustworthy commanding officers, a possible alien foe. Sounds like numerous other space operas such as No Honor in Death.

It started out as I expected but quickly took several surprising turns, but first a bit of background. The time is several centuries in the future and groups of nations have colonized numerous planets and each group has a space fleet, however there has not been an armed conflict for over two centuries. The Seventh Fleet, part of the Terran Confederate Starfleet forces, nicknamed the Black Fleet, is an aging, expensive archaic symbol of the past. As is Earth as the planet Haven is now the center of this alliance, with Earth a backwater.

Enter Captain Jackson Wolfe, looked down on because he is actually from Earth, the commanding officer of the aging destroyer Blue Jacket. The ship has become the depository of a number of troublesome and incompetent sailors in the fleet, but who only make up a percentage of the crew. Sent on a long patrol without the benefit of a proper refit, things change rapidly.

Jackson and the crew of Blue Jacket find a world on their patrol, formerly inhabited now with no cities and no sign of the former habitats on the planet. After that things get much more intense as they run into a giant alien ship.

There was a great deal I liked about the book. While it starts out with some standard Sci-Fi tropes it does a good job developing them. Worn out ship without enough spare parts, untrustworthy crew members, new staff, and contradictory orders, kind of the basic drill for many space operas. But things change, slowly at first and then at an ever increasing pace.

The captain is smart and clever but has his flaws. The other characters ring true with one exception. You see people learning and in some cases expanding with additional responsibility and in one or two becoming craven. The one character that did not ring true to me was Jackson’s commanding officer Admiral Winter, who seemed to have an almost pathological hatred for him that seemed to completely warp her judgment. It might have been nice to know why. Also she documents her dislike in videos and other communications which she must know in a modern electronic age nothing is likely lost.

The pacing was ok, starting slowly as the players and the universe are explained, with a not too onerous data dump. Then as the cruise starts some interesting things come afoot almost as soon as they leave dock. Somewhat changed orders from an interesting source lead to the discovery of the alien ship and the story really picks up speed.

I really liked the portrayal of the alien entity. So often they seem like characters that are just funny looking humans with the same relative technology. This was very different and I will be very interested to see how it and the humans continue to evolve their battle tactics against each other.

I also enjoyed the descriptions of the workings of the Blue Jacket. So often it seems like a ship will just jump from point A to Point B with basically a snap of the fingers. Here components have to be primed and then used in a specific order and it takes a good deal of time. I also enjoyed the battles as the Blue Jacket used a variety of weapons, all of which had strengths and weaknesses in their destructive power, how they could be employed and the distances that they were effective.

As the challenges grow so does the captain, who becomes more creative in his responses and also starts to listen to advice from the staff, some of whom had earlier lost some of his trust. Combat and a determination to prevent the alien from its perceived goal, rather than outright victory drive him.

I did think the finale, which is after the last battle, was pretty predictable, but also very enjoyable. This is a solid space opera and I plan to read the rest of the series in the near future.

The Guggenheim E-Books

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I have always enjoyed museums and visit them whenever I see one. I have visited some interesting ones in the US and abroad including the Carnegie Museum, a great small town one in Roseville, Calif. and the Bread Museum in Ulm, Germany, (one of four bread museums in Germany.)

However what little art history and appreciation that I might have once possessed has long since abandoned me. This is really not an issue when looking at Renaissance, Baroque, Impressionist and many other art movements. It is when I hit the 20th Century that I am at a loss. It never occurs to me when I am at the library or book store to get a basic book that might explain what I am looking at and how art progressed to this point.

Enter the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. I am not sure where I found the link but the museum has a great offer for free e-books on art, and primarily on Modern art. There is little I like better than free books, ok, free anything is pretty great to be honest. More than 200 books and catalogs from shows are available including Picasso and the War Years and a number of books on different stages of Kadinsky’s career.

It is not all modern art as there are books on 5,000 years of Chinese art and the Aztec Empire to name others. As a bonus there is also a link to New York’s Museum of Modern Art that has a digital record of every exhibit held at the museum since 1929 that you can explore online.

Almost as important for me there is a short book, fewer than 50 pages, Elements of Modern Painting, on how to view modern art.  I hope that this will enable me to understand what is going on and that it is not just a black canvas.

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Mark Rothko no. 7 Mixed Media on Canvas

One caveat. The books have flaws from the scanning process. If you are familiar with digital books you might barely notice, but if not be forewarned that there might be odd symbols or space breaks in words. One book that I downloaded Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection: From Picasso to Pollock, appeared to be in some strange foreign language. However the price was right.

Marines: Crimson Worlds I by Jay Allan

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I saw an offer on Twitter for five free Sci-Fi books if I followed Discover Sci-Fi online. How could I pass up a deal like that? Of course one of these days I will sign up for something without reading the TOC and find I just purchased a time share that has a resident elephant.

One of the novels I received was Jay Allan’s Marines:Crimson Worlds I. It takes place a few hundred years in the future where the Earth, after a series of terrible wars the governments have united into seven superpowers that have expanded to the stars and have taken the strife with them.

The book chronicles the rise of Erik Cain, a street punk who becomes the fastest rising Marine of his generation, becoming a brevet general by the end of the book at age 35. While uneducated after 8 years old that is no problem, Marine boot camp is six years long and you receive the equivalent of a masters degree when you leave. Doing extremely well in his first combat assignments, in part by living, he moves up to the Marine equivalent of West Point and of course graduates top of his class. At West Point, AFAIK, everybody comes out a second lieutenant. But not Cain, he is jumped a grade. And so on.

Aside from my snark I did like the book but did not love it. The main character was kind of vanilla and until almost the end there is no other point of view. What I did like was Cain’s thoughts and feelings in combat, and having read a great deal on the topic when I was younger I felt that it really rang true. It was an easy read and at the end there is a section talking about the remaining superpowers. I liked that better than the usual info dump that books often use at some random point to catch you up on the back story. The Marines in part reminded me of the French Foreign Legion who swear fidelity to the legion not to France. The Marines are loyal to the Corp but drawn from and serving the Western Alliance. They have a strong esprit de corps.

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There were a number of issues that annoyed me. The AI and overall computer and communications systems seemed weak. No androids, cyborgs and very little automatic weapons on the ground? A single man is handling tactics of a vast space fleet engaged in combat with another vast space fleet, with minimal computer input? Current jet fighters seem to have better combat computer systems. The evil government is almost clownishly evil.

The book has a cliff hanger almost at the end and then reveals the plotting of the evil government and what it will mean for the troops and colonies in space. There are a few hints dropped in the book about future events, which seems to me that the author thought out the entire series prior to writing. Seeing as it is a nine volume affair that is probably a very good thing. I suspect that I will at least read one more book in the series and then decide if I want to invest the time for the full series

Space Team by Barry J. Hutchison

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Cal Carver is dashingly handsome, clever, witty, resourceful, brave and heroic. Well maybe one of these features at least. But he believes it darn it and he will do what a man needs to do. Cal is the hero, of sorts, in Space Team, a tongue in cheek Sci-Fi book by Barry J. Hutchinson that is the first in a five book series.

Cal is just a low level criminal who has been tossed in a cell with a hardened criminal nicknamed “The Butcher”, a cannibal that has eaten and killed 48 people-some eating starting prior to death apparently. However the book does not dwell on such morbid issues, much. Instead it is the adventures of Cal (originally masquerading as the Butcher) and a team of misfits that Zertex, giant corporation/government, hires to get some damaging footage from a planetary warlord before it starts an interstellar war

The team includes Mizette, a werewolf type who is very much a woman. Mech, a huge cyborg that can go from being a genius to a killing machine with the twist of a dial and who probably goes by the name Mech as his birth name is Cluk Disselpoof.  and Gunso Loren, a Zertex officer who has issues of her own rounds out the team. Oh and a green blob named Splurt that can assume the shape of anything, and its functionality.

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I have read a number of Sci-Fi and fantasy humor books in the past, but I think few have done it as well as Space Crew. The humor always seems fresh, and Hutchison constantly comes up with a line that makes me break out laughing. The closest book I have read that compares is probably Steven Erikson’s Willful Child.

However Ericson’s protagonist, Hadrian Sawbuck, is a supremely competent officer while Carver is only supremely confident, but believes that he is equally competent. However there is more to Cal than meets the eye. He is brave, and willing to instantly take steps. Has the ability to think things through, and gets to the obvious issues quickly rather than being distracted by side issues. It is that his mouth runs away from him and he is not as clever as he thinks he is. He likes to poke, poke, poke everybody around him.

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Captain Sternn

I try and avoid mashups when writing about books, you know a blurb that says something like “Gone With the Wind” meets “Aliens.” However Carver seems to be a mix between Captain Sternn from Heavy Metal and Peter MacNicol’s annoying camp councilor in Addams Family Values.

 

There are some reviews out there that compared this to either Terry Pratchett or to Douglas Adams and I don’t really see the comparisons, except that they are all comedies. I really believe that the Space Team stands on its own merits and highly recommend it. How can you not love a book that has an alien made out of stone who likes Dolly Parton, a zombie God, an evil soda company, and a quick guest appearance by Tobey Maguire. Also there are some clever plot twists.

The Edmund Hamilton Megapack: 16 Classic Science Fiction Tales

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I loved pulp science fiction when I was younger. I read Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930’s, edited by Isaac Asimov, as well as several other anthologies from that and subsequent eras in High School.  They had everything a young kid could want, space ships, atomic guns, little green men, monsters with one eye and fifty arms, brave men and women who needed saving.

Nowadays, for the most part, it has changed a lot. The technology is much more advanced, and it seems more reality based. Alien cultures are much more varied and nuanced and in many cases much more frightening than early authors ever imagined. Women are increasingly being portrayed as the star, saving the day for everyone, and for that matter women have become noted authors as well. Reading modern space novels often makes older books seem childish by comparison.

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However a few days ago I was looking at a list of eagerly awaited science fiction books for April on The Verge  and came across an interesting entry. It was about a book entitled Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele. It said it was based on a series of pulp Sci-Fi novels focused on a character named Captain Future primarily authored by Edmond Hamilton, and written with the permission of the Hamilton estate. I had no idea who Edmond Hamilton was, even after reading his bio and with the strong possibility that I could have very well have read him years ago. I went and made my favorite Amazon purchases, a 99 cent MegaPack, this time of his writing.

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Naturally the stories had a very dated feel to them, but some worked and some did not.

In a couple of his stories such as  Door into Infinity and The Legion of Lazarus he uses odd phrasing, as the stories went along his writing seemed to get stronger but he still had the odd turn of phrase. A person that is knocked unconscious is in ‘stygian obscurity” and another person’s hands are “lax in their lap”, another’s eyes were like “burnished crumbs.”

Some of them read like 1950’s sci-fi movie scripts. The City at World’s End about the town sent millions of years into the future due to a super atomic blast certainly did. Afraid of the people from the future (the present really) the simple townspeople are willing to take up weapons in order to protect their way of life, one that is over and the only reason they are alive is because of advanced technology. This is one that did not age well.

Some did, when taken in context. Blasters firing, odd alien parasites, space pirates and ulterior motives in The Stars, My Brothers was good fun although the thought that an heiress would fall for the man that just put her life in deadly peril seems a bit farfetched. But the hero always seems to get the woman in these stories.

I am not sure if the stories in the MegaPack are in the same order in which they were written, but they felt like it. I found the early ones to be far inferior to the later.  The early space stories particularly seemed dated even for the time in which they were written.

The later stories including The Man who Evolved, and Devolution, about where mankind came from, all were very good and I could really seeing them as being forward thinking in their day. He seemed to find his stride in later stories and they were much more readable and interesting, and cover more than just Sci-Fi, such as his The Monster-God of Mamurth that takes place in Africa and The Man who saw the Future that takes place in France and are more fantasy than Sci-Fi.

One thing that stand out, and not in a positive way, is how women are portrayed. Just like in movies where they fall when fleeing a slow moving mummy, woman are frail sorts, with the possible exception of the one in Corridors of the Stars. While she is capable of knocking a man out with a single blow, she is also referred to as a ‘piece’ and other derogatory descriptions. That is the one real standout example, but in the rest of the stories the woman always fall for the man, who is always right.

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The odd thing is that one of the reasons that I read the book was to get an idea about the Captain Future books. I guess I should have looked at the synopsis better because there were no short stories in which that character stared. I am always a sucker for serial books such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom and Pellucidar series, or even Doc Savage by Lester Dent et al, I always like them as late night comfort reading when I really do not want to think. After the first few stories I enjoyed the stories and will look for a Captain Future book to see what that is like.

Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee

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I was looking to see when Yoon Ha Lee’s follow-up to Ninefox Gambit was due and found a short story that she wrote called “Extracurricular Activity” that features one of the main characters in Ninefox Gambit, Shuos Jedao.

The events in Extracurricular Activity take places hundreds of years before Ninefox Gambit. For those that have not read the book he was frozen after a long and very successful career as an assassin and then as an innovative general, then he turned psycho.  Here Jedao is a young officer still making a name for himself and he is assigned to capture a lost ship, and rescue the commander, an old friend, and the crew.  He already has a growing reputation as being able to escape sure death and with a mission accomplished in his file. It really humanizes him. In Ninefox Gambit there are some flashbacks to his youth, but they are cut up because of the way that they are discovered. In them he is for the most part cold and distant. In Extracurricular Activities he has a great deal of self confidence, more humor and there is a strong sexual nature to the story as well.

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Two things instantly stood out on reading the story. The bizarre weapons and tactics that are an important part of Ninefox Gambit are almost entirely absent. No turning people into pillars of salt of sheets of glass. No altering formations to become invulnerable to foes weapons. It reads as a good short adventure story. There are still oddities such as a nation that fights duels with custom pathogens.

The second issue is how much smoother the writing seemed to me. Without the odd features, which in truth are what made Ninefox Gambit unique, the story really flowed much better. It is also so much less complex, and I do not think I would enjoy an entire book written like this, but as a short story I think it works just fine. However I expect to the next book tohave a oddly complex plot with even more strange tactics.

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The next installment is entitled “Raven Stratagem” and according to Amazon it is due to be available June 13, 2017 and it looks very interesting.  However Extracurricular Activities is an easy entrance into the world of Ninefox.

Unusual Libraries

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If you like odd and obscure information the Atlas Obscura is the web site, and book, for you.  I avoided for years because I was sure that it was just one of those schlock sites that bait you in on shock headlines and then had very mundane articles that attempted to titillate.

There is some attempt at this at the Atlas, to be sure. The headline on the page I am looking at has an article about how during the siege of 1870 Parisians ate a host of animals from the zoo as well as ones such as cats and rats. However also on that page is articles on the search for Caligula’s pleasure ship, and a free speech issue that oddly enough involves an inflatable Mario plus many more.

A friend is a big fan and sent me a few stories. Then I saw a couple of additional articles that interested me and I started subscribing to its newsletter and now I look forward to the news letter every morning.

What brings me to raise this issue this morning is an article on libraries, but not just everyday libraries. It is about ten of the most unusual lending libraries. You always hear about community lending libraries that might offer garden tools or, well really that is about all I have heard about aside from books.

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Carnegie Library, Braddock, Penn.

I will not go into detail on all of them but they cover everything from seeds and fishing poles to umbrellas. While I knew about Andrew Carnegie and his huge role in the growth of libraries in America, the history of the Carnegie Library in Braddock, Penn. is very interesting. Originally it had not just books but billiard tables, a bathhouse, music hall, pool and bowling alley. It has naturally evolved over the years and now sports a major Art Lending Collection with offerings from local artists.

This type of information might seem useless, and it might be, but it also makes me wonder what is available in my area that I might be interested in. I will look around this afternoon and see; my lawnmower just bit the dust last weekend.

I noticed that book, Atlas Obscura: An Explorers Guide to the Hidden Wonders of the World is a New York Times best seller. I may have to add that to my birthday wish list.

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