Saturday, January 31, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Race Underground

The Race Underground by Doug Most is an account of the race at the end of the 19th century between Boston and New York to build America's first subway. Actually, the title is somewhat of an exaggeration--it wasn't much of a race, as Boston won it by 7 years (1897 vs. 1904). The real rivalry was between two brothers from Massachusetts who ended becoming the "transit kings" of Boston and New York in the 1870s and 80s and both had visions of building an underground railway. The Boston brother was named Henry Whitney and the New York brother was William Whitney. The NY Whitney is a little better-remembered today, as he gave the money to found New York's Whitney Museum and served as secretary of the navy under President Cleveland.

I am something of a city buff and especially enjoy learning about their histories and their mass transit, so this book really hit a sweet spot with me. (See here for the last city book I reviewed, City of Scoundrels, about Chicago in the 1919.) However, I think most other readers might not get the same enjoyment out of it, unless they have a special interest in the topic area. The main flaw of the book is that there are simply too many people, and they are too hard to tell apart. Both cities had numerous subway boosters, engineers, and financiers who played a critical role in getting their cities' first subway lines built, and Most doesn't want to leave anyone out. He is admirably thorough, but by halfway through the book the sheer number of people to keep track of is quite large. It might have benefited by cutting out a couple of the less important figures.

A second flaw is a lack of maps. I felt this lack again and again, as various figures in the book discussed routing options for subways, or where the surface streets were most crowded, or where the soil was conducive for underground tunneling. Now I have a pretty good mental map of New York, much less so for Boston, and more than once during reading this I took to the internet to figure out just where these people were talking about. The simple addition of a historical map for each city would have made reading far easier--something for Most to consider if there is ever a second edition!

Having said that, I must repeat that I personally really liked the book, and for those who like to learn about subways or urban history this book will likely be up your alley as well. In fact, Most points out that there is a paucity of good sources concerning the early days of the Boston subway, so if you are interested in that, this book is pretty much your only option for a popular history on the subject.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Haunted Horror I haven't written about any comics series I've been reading for a while (I think the last series I mentioned was The Wakehere). Haunted Horror comes out bi-monthly and is one of my favorites. It reprints stories from old fifties comics with titles like Weird Mysteries and Chamber of Chills. These are stories from pre-code comics, meaning before the imposition of the Comics Code in 1954, when far more violence, gore, and sexuality was allowed in comics. There are four to five stories per issue, and usually at least one or two are really good and creepy. Often, though, the stories feel pretty hack-like. Since I imagine the editors are culling the best stories from the old issues, I hate to think what was left on the cutting-room table. That thought brings me to my next entry--

Tales From the Crypt, Vol. 3 This is a hardcover collecting EC's Tales From the Crypt issues 13-18, from 1952-53. EC was the premiere publisher of horror, war, and crime comics during this era. They had the best artists and writers in the industry--legends like Jack Davis, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, Joe Kubert, and on and on--no hackwork here! The Comics Code in 1954 cut out the heart of what EC was doing, and by 1955 they had cancelled practically their whole line. Editor William B. Gaines decided to keep publishing one comic, however, switching over to magazine format to avoid the dictates of the Code, a little humor magazine you may have heard of called Mad.

There are a number of great stories in this volume of Tales of the Crypt, but one sticks out in my mind as especially bizarre and sick (that's good in this case!). Titled "Lower Berth," it tells about a traveling carnival in the old days, one with an especially good sideshow. The stars of this sideshow are Myrna, a real mummified teen-age girl from ancient Egypt, and Enoch, a two-headed inbred hillbilly from the Ozarks who died at sixteen and is kept in a vat of formaldehyde. At each new stop the carnival makes, the owners of these two attractions are in constant competition for better placement and billing. What they don't realize is that their freaky exhibits can see each other from across the midway and are falling in love with each other! I don't want to give away the ending but it's unexpected but appropriate for the nature of the material.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reading Goals for 2015

OK, we've done the writing goals in 2015, let's do the reading goals as well.

I've discussed before that in any given year, I have some general reading goals:
1) a baseball book, during baseball season (in 2014, this was a memoir by Reggie Jackson)
2) a Biblical or religious reading, during Lent (NO! I didn't get to this goal in 2014)
3) at least one historical book (in 2014, this was a biography of Goya)
4) at least one work of "real" literature (in 2014 this was Moby Dick and the Epic of Gilgamesh)
5) at least 2-3 YA novels (yes, various)

This year, I already know that for my Lenten reading, I would like to read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.

For a historical book, I am currently reading The Race Underground, an account of the competition that developed between Boston and New York to build America's first subway at the end of the 19th century.

For my "real" literature book, I'm not sure if this counts, but for many years I've wanted to read T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Again, I'm not sure if this is quite literature, but this might be what I put in the category in 2015.

Not sure of the baseball book, and for the YA novels, I'll pick some up as I spot them, or as my wife recommends one to me.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Writing Goals for 2015

Here are my writing goals for 2015:

1. Work on super-secret project (more details to come in 2015, I hope!)
1a. Polish short story for super-secret project. Already written, but for some reason I just cannot get this thing edited! I really need to work on it.

2. Finish edit of novel manuscript. This is my third novel (current working title: Out of Place), which is in draft form but needs some editing and polishing. I don't think it actually requires that much work--but I do need to sit down with it for a couple months and get it into shape.
2a. Send third novel out to agents.

3. Edit Writers of Chantilly anthology in a more timely fashion than I did with last year's!

EITHER 4a. Edit second novel, and try sending it out to agents again;
OR 4b. Research, begin writing fourth novel. I'm fairly certain what I'm going to write about, just need to get some stuff figured out before I can start.