Monday, March 25, 2013

W12: Roma

It has always been my intention to incorporate some style aspect of the books I get into my reviews so when this week’s Biblio-Mat offering dropped out, I could not have been more excited.  In part because it lets me try something different, but mostly cause I had a lot going on this week and really didn’t have time to plow through another 200 page text.

Not pictured: Taxi Scams and Tourist Overcharging.
Titled Roma – Foro Romana Palatino with the byline of ‘Fotografia ANDERSON’, the book was simply a collection of twenty postcards of the Roman Forum bound between two thin pieces of cardboard by a piece of string. It’s undated but I would guess it was from around the 1950s based on the quality of the images and the printing style.

There’s really not much to say in a review outside of the pictures looking nice so I decided to walk around a ten minute radius of my place and create my own album of postcards, complete with handcrafted binding and perforations for each page (I get carried away easily). Since the Roma book was all images of the Roman Forum ruins decimated by age, I decided to snap pics of the Toronto waterfront marred by new developments. This city seems like it is perpetually in construction mode. 

Had no gold ink so graphite will have to do.

Book rating: 7/10 (Encyclopedia-worthy photos)

Random quote: "Vendesi a li______ senza soprapprezzo" (Stamped on cover, parts of the third word rubbed off...)

Monday, March 18, 2013

W11: Locomotive Management

It was a small thunk this week from the Biblio-Mat, but the spoils were grander than the heavier fare of the last few weeks - a thin text with a heavily textured and embossed hardbound cover in immaculate condition that was just begging for a crayon rubbing.

For size reference only.
While the cover is embossed with “International Library”, the spine itself read “Locomotive Management”. However, the table of contents reveals that this thin text actually contained two separate books in one binding. The first is “Locomotive Management” by A. B. Carson, running at 92 pages, followed by “Heat and Superheaters” by J. W. Harding, at 66 pages. Being printed in 1942, the construction of the book is a work of art in itself. The pages are neatly printed on extremely thin stock (180 pages are less than a centimeter thick), yet the ink does not bleed through. Blue stippled edges and marbled teal inner coversheets add to decadence, but it is the stamped and textured navy blue cover that gives it an air of authority and antiquarian splendor. Being about trains is pretty cool as well.

There are only two times in my life where the notion of locomotives has piqued my interest. Once when I was five and my parents took me on a train ride for the first time and the second when I read Trainspotting in first year university. Having a lack of heroin and incomprehensible words, this book spoke to the five-year-old part of that wonderment.

There are no sections on public toilets in Scotland.
The first book, “Locomotive Management”, went into detail on the care and operation of the various types of steam-powered trains, down to when to stop for water and how to tell if your coal is burning properly. Truth be told, it was so detailed that I could not tell if operators went to school for this or if simply picking up this book is certification enough, as after ninety pages I felt so confident in being able to run a 1930s train that I walked to the roundhouse outside the Steam Whistle brewery to persuade someone to let me try. Turns out most places do indeed require a formal education of sorts and climbing locomotive relics making whistle sounds is also frown down upon.
Okay, I lied. With a cover like that, how could you NOT do a rubbing?
The second part of the book, “Heat and Superheaters”, deals with the more technological advancement of heating steam hotter than regular steam is capable of getting. With detailed diagrams and theory explanation, it convinced me that this was the future. Well, as much as the future in 1942 was going to bring. When the various equations and tables recounting the different properties of steam in different pressures came around, I found my mind wandering a bit to the applications this would have in present day. The conclusion was that if I had access to these superheaters, I would probably be able to steam my vegetables in thirty seconds instead of having to wait the full four minutes on the stove.
More complicated than the actual time tables.
The saving grace in this second book came in two forms. The first being a section breaking down the meaning of heat, which was very interesting as it is something we take for granted that everyone understands yet it isn’t something most people can easily describe. A friend asked me to explain time a few weeks ago and I was at a loss for words as outside it being a dimension, I could only explain it to people who already understood the qualities of time. In the same way, when the book asks what is considered heat, outside a strictly exothermic/endothermic scientific energy explanation I couldn’t think of anything else. Harding delves on this for half a chapter and cements that heat is a relative term that only exists only through comparison to a benchmark, usually our own body temperatures, which fluctuates and is therefore cannot be depended on to describe energy. A most interesting piece of debate that could be argued for or against. The second saving grace was the gatefold drawings. Regular illustrations are interesting, but foldout drawings make my inner five-year-old giddy with delight.

Like a hidden surprise for literary nerds.
Book rating: 9/10 (useful if you ever plan to train-jack a 19th century locomotive)

Random quote: “A blow-off cock is generally located on each side of the firebox, at or near the lowest point of the mud ring, but in some cases one is placed in the center of the mud ring at the front of the firebox.” (Okay, maybe this text does speak a little to the Trainspotting side of my wonderment)

Monday, March 11, 2013

W10: Hold the Line

Vince looked at the machine with a curious smile and welcomed the break from receiving non-fiction books from the Biblio-Mat but this musty youth novel was almost disintegrating in his hands as he picked it up and he wondered if it would hold out for a complete read through. Like the main character, though, it would later prove to be more resilient than it first appeared.

The fabled dolphin jump play.
Flipping through the 235 pages of Hold the Line brought back fond memories for Vince as the 1929 young adult novel by Harold M. Sherman had similar trappings as Fury and the Mustangs, the first book he had ever received from the Biblio-Mat. He was much surprised to find that the dust jacket for this hardcover had held up very well for a book of this age and foxing was quite minor considering the paper quality.

While not being a great fan of spectating the sport of American football, Vince had always enjoyed the stories and films that were centered on it, to the point of watching Gridiron Gang four times in succession while adjusting the acoustics of his new home theatre system. The 1920s vernacular and sentence structure only added to the charm of the situation.

Although not enough as the Rock would have.
Like every sports tale, Hold the Line was no exception to the tried and true story arc of an underdog finding their courage push beyond their limits to win the game that matters most to the team. What was unforeseen to Vince, though, was how little conflict was present. Following the story of Judd Billings, an uncoordinated, shy, runt who was weak at heart on account of being raised by his mother instead of his father (it was the 1920s after all), living in the shadows of his brother Bob, the high school football legend who had recently left for college. Just as Vince begun to wonder at the types of obstacles Judd would have to overcome, he turns into brilliant scholar, learns to be a fearless athlete, becomes the most popular kid at school, and scores the winning touchdown of the big game in the span of 60 pages. Wonders of wonders!

All this, of course, resulted from a letter Judd had received from his brother telling him that the key to success is to simply get better at everything. Feeling a tinge of sentiment and fraternal affection, Vince decided that why he too would send his younger brother a note of support. “Get better at everything. I believe in you, old chap.” he wrote in his electronic mail. “Are you drunk? Dude, it’s only 1 pm…”, his brother replied back. He’ll come around, Vince told himself. He’ll come around.

The rest of the book was entertaining to Vince, but ultimately it lacked the substance he was used to. Judd moves off to college to take his brother’s place on the team and the chapters following the move eschew actual football playing to recount his hijinks as a new student thrown in with the seniors. Unlike most stories about freshmen, though, every chapter has him coming out ahead, down to the hazing rituals that backfire. At the 90 page mark he arrives at college and wins over his new roommate.  On page 110 he is accepted onto the team after showing his kick. At 120 he bests the local tavern’s untamable donkey. 130 shows him out-pranking the team bully. 150 has him rescuing five people from a fire. From that point it started to get far-fetched. If the book was a hundred pages longer, Vince was sure Judd would cure world hunger and colonize the moon.

But could he have remembered Polly's name?
When the book finally moved to the big game, though, Vince found himself entranced as he usually does in these situations. This book was clearly published before the era of losses with heart being considered victories so he knew Judd would prevail. But even though the final college game used the same plot device as the high school game, the ending none the less contained an unexpected twist that carried it beyond what has become the standard Hollywood fare.

Book rating: 8.5/10 (Rudy, this is not. But uplifting nonetheless)

Random quote: “Bully work!” complimented Bob, warmly, “Your first tackle was a peach!”

Monday, March 4, 2013

W9: The Civil Engineer: His Origins

Growing up, my Chinese parents have always ingrained into me that they would support whatever career choice I decided on in life, whether it’s doctor or engineer. This week’s Biblio-Mat book is as close as I will come to fulfilling that.
It has been around the engineered block a few times.
The Civil Engineer: His Origins, by not a single author but a collective (the American Society of Engineers), is not a pretty book. Published in 1970, it looks every bit the part of a late sixties paperback from its low quality microscopic print to the vintage scuffed cover.

True to its title, the book opens with the origin of the word engineer and spends the rest of the 106 pages elaborating on the long prestigious history of the craft. While not bone dry, engineers aren’t really known for their comedic styling, probably because humour and collapsing bridges generally do not go hand in hand. This is quickly reflected in quoting every single modern dictionary’s definition of the word ‘engineer’ in the first chapter. Certain parts, like the explanations of engineering principles are interesting but other sections, such as the six straight pages on the beauty of arches, left much to be desired.
Lesson on arches: they're made of bricks and curve around.
Having lived in more than a few structurally unsound places through my university career and the first few years out of it with a BA in English Lit, I have the utmost respect for engineers but through the book, though, there is an undertone of ostentatiousness where the authors hint at the Society of Engineers being a sort of secret elite organization not unlike the Freemasons or the Stonecutters. Perhaps in the 1970s it may have been seen as such but the continuous name dropping of supposed prestigious members of the society dragged on for much too long.
I now have a wealth of outdated knowledge on surveying tools.
What was also beyond my comprehension was the fact that every third page had footnotes that were half a page long. It was always my assumption that the people who are in charge of keeping city infrastructures standing and functional would be knowledgeable in the area of layouts and space planning. 

An average footnote in this book.
An above average footnote, also in this book.
The illustrations themselves were also placed in awkward positions. The images of surveying tools, for instance, all came before the chapter explaining the tools. Cart before the horse, or in this case, the keystone before the bricks? (There were many many pages on arches.)

Book rating: 6/10 (At least the ancient history portions were interesting)

Random Quote: "I take pleasure in furnishing the best information I have as to the origin of the word 'engineer'"