Thursday, July 11, 2024

So Now I Get It - Hurricane Beryl Teachable Moments


Things I've figured out over the last four days (I'm kind of slow sometimes) being without power following Hurricane Beryl:

  • Even if you prefer cooking on an electric stovetop, there's a huge advantage after a hurricane in having a gas stovetop,
  • Unless you love cold showers and baths, a tankless water heater is not your friend because it requires electricity in order to rapidly superheat water whenever you need hot, or even warm, water,
  • A  built-in home generator is worth its weight in gold if you don't have one when you need it for an extended period, and if you try to order one now, it will literally cost more than the value of a full half-pound of gold (somewhere between $16 and $22 thousand),
  • one kind-hearted neighbor who is willing to share what he has in order to ease your situation is a life-changer. 
From what I understand, the number of people without power in the greater Houston area now totals about 978,000, down from the original number of 2.3 million people without four days ago. Of course, those numbers come from CenterPoint Energy, one of the most inept public utility companies in the nation - whose executives know that when this is all over, an accounting will be demanded by the governor, the mayor, and the Public Utility Commission. 

This has all the makings of a summer that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Look for Me There - Luke Russert


Luke Russert's Look for Me There is, I think, a pretty frank and honest travel book and memoir, and I want to give Russert full credit for that. But in a nutshell, for me it's: not a bad book by an author I am left with mixed feelings about.

Luke Russert is the son of the beloved and universally respected news journalist Tim Russert. Tim Russert, while at work for NBC, died suddenly from a heart attack on June 13, 2008 while Luke (then 22 years old) was traveling in Italy with his mother. By October 2016, Luke himself had been eight years on the NBC career path he began after his father's death. But he was unhappy, unsatisfied, unfulfilled (you can choose the word or right combination of words), and decided to walk away from his job in order to explore the world for himself. 

"What pains me isn't just a latent wanderlust. The last eight years have been such a whirlwind that I've never fully processed my grief for Dad. It's apparent that I've spent so much time honoring his legacy that I've never truly accepted his death. Worse, by honoring that legacy, I have failed to forge my own life. I'm thirty years old and have no idea who I am..."

 So Luke, largely on his mother's dime, begins to travel from country to country as he slowly morphs into an Instagram addict who is only satisfied after he "drops a bomb" on his favorite social media platform. He stops traveling for pleasure and what he can learn about himself and the countries he explores, and begins to imagine that his Instagram followers actually need the content he posts:

"Whereas in the past I may have taken a moment to prep for the day so I could get more out of it, now I'm more focused on just getting it done and taking the needed pictures. Pictures are my muse. They provide content and, on Instagram, give people an idea of what I do. They somehow make me feel that I matter."

 I'm still not sure if Russert is telling me that he understands the shallowness of this admission, or if he's justifying the kind of traveler he soon enough became. Part of the reason that I wonder this is how terribly he resented his mother's attempts to tell him it was time to come home and get on with the rest of his life, to find some purpose in life other than keeping his Instagram followers happy enough to attach little hearts and comments to every picture he posted. 

But here's where it gets tricky. Luke grew up an over-protected son. According to Luke, his father never wanted to take a risk; he never traveled outside the country; he always had a plan for anything that could happen to himself or his family. And Tim expected Luke to live the same way. So did Luke begin his world travels as a way to run from that part of his father's legacy? Does traveling around the world solo make Luke feels as if he's beaten his father at something?

Long after everyone around him sees it, Luke finally does come around to the idea that he is wasting his life:

"What causes me the anxiety that leads to self-medicating? What am I searching for? Why did I feel so empty after living such a full, blessed, and privileged life?...Being part of a legacy also meant I was living in loss. I come to realize that I'm also beset with not only inadequacy but also its sibling - fear of failure - along with a real fear of mortality."

 Wrong as I likely am to be, this is where I end up with what Luke Russert has to say in Look for Me There:

Luke was a young man trying to live up to the expectations of a father he completely admired but to whom he felt that he could never measure up. His answer was to give up and wander the world and life for three years, finally deciding to be more like his mother: "spontaneous, creative, and experimental." 

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. I hope he has his life together now.

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Hurricane Beryl Was another Doozie

Looks like I completely misjudged the impact of Hurricane Beryl on the greater Houston area. Beryl was officially a Category One hurricane when it came through Houston, so I downplayed its impact in my mind only to find that we are going to be feeling the impact of the storm for several more weeks. This one was not so much a rain event as it was a wind event, so there's that.

However, at its peak some 2.3 million people were without power, and around half of those folks are still without power - including my entire part of town. We have had no electricity since 9:15 a.m. Monday, and have been warned that it could be another week before we get it back. I'll leave it up to you guys to imagine what life is like in the high humidity aftermath of about 8 inches of rain and temperatures approaching the mid-nineties. Let's just say it's not pleasant.

So I spent the afternoon grilling meat before it could go bad from thawing out all at once, and inviting the three grandchildren over to share a big meal toward the end of the day. Until a couple of hours ago, we were completely cut off from the internet, television, email, text, etc. so it felt a little like living in the 1950s. Luckily, a kind neighbor loaned me some kind of battery inverter that should give us about eight hours of just enough power to plug in the fridge, a fan, and the net. When it gets dark, we'll opt for a lamp or two until the thing fizzles, and then we'll try to find a way to recharge the battery in the morning.

So just checking in. Unsure how much I'll be around, but wanted to let everyone know that things are going relatively well considering all the wind damage we had. The eye of the storm went almost exactly over the top of my house, and I'm impressed by what 75-85 mph winds can do. 

I'll check in later...

Sunday, July 07, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (July 8, 2024)

 


As I begin to prepare this update, Hurricane Beryl seems to have finally aimed itself almost directly at the Houston area and should be arriving in another twelve hours or so. That said, this is supposed to be a Category One hurricane, so it probably won't do the kind of damage we've become so accustomed to here in the last few years. My biggest fear at this point is losing power for an extended period of time.

My reading schedule has been a little different than it usually is because of all the driving I've done in the past two weeks. I did manage to finish up one book and read another while on the road: The Big Door Prize by M.O. Walsh and Off the Books by Soma Mei Sheng Frazier. Both books were enjoyable enough, I suppose, but I have mixed feelings about Off the Books. I found Frazier's style a little difficult to get comfortable with, and still haven't figured out how to describe the book accurately. I suspect that a formal review of that one is going to come together rather slowly.

I found this edition of Helen Keller's autobiography in the gift shop of her birthplace and home in Tuscumbia, Alabama last week. I'm one of those more familiar with Keller's girlhood as it was represented in the movies about her life than anything else about her, so it was fascinating to walk the same hallways and see all the rooms that were so important to her during her life - especially I think, the water well pump behind the house where it finally "clicked" that the signs she was feeling in her hand signified the word for "water." I'm curious to see how Keller tells her own story.

The premise of Off the Books is kind of interesting: a recent Dartmouth drop-out comes home to Oakland with not much of a plan for what's next. She finds herself driving a limo for a company that keeps her busy enough until her grandfather buys her a vehicle large enough to cut out the middle man and keep all the cash for herself. After a while, Mei seems to specialize in driving regularly for a cast of shady characters - and then Henry and his huge suitcase come into her world and it all gets even weirder. The writing style is not nearly as interesting as the plot, though, so I'm still digesting my feelings about this one.

Leslie White's Three Years a Traveler is one of those books that seems to have come out of nowhere for me. A few days ago, I had never heard of the book; today, I'm almost done with it and have thoroughly enjoyed accompanying White on her journey of self-discovery as she grieves the loss of both parents to cancer within a few months of each other. White needed a fresh start, and she found one with her decision to purchase an RV and hit the road as a traveling histologist willing to contract her services for a few months at a time in various hospitals all over the U.S.

 I haven't been reading as many books at the same time as I usually do because of my limited reading hours, so I'm wide open to new reading choices for the upcoming days. Here are a few of the ones I'll be choosing from after I finish Three Years a Traveler and Helen Keller's book:


Homegoing is historical fiction covering 300 years of Ghanaian history, and the descendants of Ghanaians who came to America as slaves.


The Dark Wives, scheduled for August 27 publication, is book number 11 in the Vera Stanhope series by Ann Cleeves. I've been holding off on this one, but I feel myself giving in now.



I'm a big fan of the Jane Tennison television shows but I've never read one of Lynda La Plante's Tennison novels. This one kind of fell into my hands recently, and made me wonder what I've been missing.

I'm at least three books behind on reviews I want to write (and hoping that my notes jog my memory in all the right places), so my reading time will still be a little limited this week. Too, it remains to be seen how much disruption the approaching storm will cause. Hurricane Beryl seems very determined to tour the Houston area before she's done, so we'll see how it all turns out. I'm still hoping for a big fizzle from Beryl. Have a great reading week!

Deliverance - James Dickey

 


James Dickey's Deliverance is a remarkable novel. The first time I read it, in mid-1971, I appreciated the novel for its sensationalism and thrilling plot about four city slickers who are forced into a kill-or-be-killed battle of wits and weapons in the Georgia backwoods that will redefine their lives. This second reading of Deliverance, however, has left me thinking about aspects of the novel I barely considered in 1971. Maybe that's because I'm (hopefully) a better reader than I was 53 years ago, but more likely it's simply because I realize now what people (even some of the "good" ones) are capable of doing to each other when they think they can get away with it.

The city boys are:

  • Ed - an ad agency art director who also serves as Dickey's narrator,
  • Lewis - the muscle-bound self-appointed leader of the group who has supreme confidence in his leadership abilities and physical prowess,
  • Drew - a financial advisor specializing in mutual funds, and
  • Bobby - a sales manager for a soft drink company.
The four men are happy enough with their work, but each of them craves a break in their daily routine, some kind of weekend adventure that will rejuvenate them by for another few months of what their daily lives have become. So when Lewis, who is also a champion archer, hits them with the idea of a canoe trip down a river valley that is about to be dammed up and flooded forever, it doesn't take much prodding to get the other three men to agree to the idea. And despite their complete lack of experience, and not not having a clue about what to expect ahead of them, all goes relatively well the first day.

Nothing, though, could have prepared the group for the violence and death they would face on the morning of the second day when two of them are viciously set upon by two of the scariest predators on the face of the planet: human beings prepared to take everything they own from them, including their sense of dignity and self-worth. Even though what happens in a sudden burst of explosive violence leaves Ed, Lewis, Drew, and Bobby shaken to their core, they know they can't allow the truth of what they did ever to be told - and then they realize that their attackers feel the same. There's only one solution...kill or be killed.

And this is when the novel changes from a thriller into something deeper in which Dickey explores the mind of a good man pushed to the brink, a man who comes to the realization that in order to protect himself, his family, and the only life they have ever known, he is going to have to become a completely different man than the one he believes himself to be. Can he do it? Should he do it? These questions are what make Deliverance so different a novel than the one I first read in 1971.

James Dickey, who died in 1997, was primarily a poet. He was an avid outdoorsman and archer who made his reputation as a National Book Award in Poetry winner and eighteenth United States Poet Laureate in 1966. Ironically enough, he is best known today for his first novel, Deliverance, which was followed by Alnilam in 1987 and To the White Sea in 1993.

Saturday, July 06, 2024

I'm Back - Just in Time for the Storm Watch

Even though it's been only fourteen days, it seems like I've been gone forever. Turns out that reading while wandering the backroads of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (along with a little bit of Tennessee) is not nearly as easy as I hoped it would be - mainly because I was pretty much exhausted by the heat by the end of each day for the entire trip. I am way behind on book reviewing - and the books are growing hazier in my mind by the minute - but I decided to begin with a quick "Hello Post" and a few pictures as I ease myself back into Book Chasing. 

So here are a few pictures that give a taste of what I've been up to for the last two weeks:

One of the 20-or-so murals on buildings in Clarksdale, MS

A view from the side of B.B. King's Gravesite 

The only surviving structure in the Vicksburg Battleground Park

 
Another of the Clarksdale, MS, murals

Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, Ms, site of America's first Memorial Day celebration

"Contraband Camp," Corinth, MS, home of freed slaves during the Civil War

Birthplace of Elvis Presley, Tupelo, MS

Muscle Shoals Studios, AL; toilet Mick Jagger composed "Wild Horses" on 

Hellen Keller home near Muscle Shoals, AL

Louisiana State capitol building, Baton Rouge, LA

View from one side of 27th floor, LA State Capitol

Cathedral in Lafayette, LA

 
500+ year old tree on cathedral grounds

All of these photos should be "clickable" for a larger, more detailed look.

The pictures are kind of all over the map - and so was my wandering. I never had more than a general destination in mind, and usually lost a lot of potential road time in favor of long conversations with the locals. It was a great trip, and it was exactly what I needed at that moment. More later if anyone is interested, but I do promise to get back to book-talk very soon. I've missed all of you, and can't wait to catch up on what everyone has been up to.

...as for Hurricane Beryl, it's looking better for the upper Texas Gulf Coast today. We are likely to get some decent rain, but not the flooding rains we often get - and not a lot of wind.

Monday, June 17, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (June 17, 2024)

 


If the weather holds steady this week, and the potential tropical storm that seems to be developing somewhere around Guatemala doesn't come as far north as the Gulf Coast, I'll be shifting into road trip mode on Saturday morning (the 22nd). That in mind, I'm not sure how much reading I'll be doing, or how much posting, if any. It all depends on the availability of trustworthy wifi connections in the evenings - and how much energy is left in my tank at the end of each day. 

That said, I did finish three books last week (Butterfield 8 by John O'Hara, James by Purcival Everett, and Deliverance by James Dickey), and I have two others in progress to start the new week with (Look for Me There by Luke Russert and The Big Door Prize by M.O. Walsh). As usual, I managed to stray considerably from last week's plan, this time by reading Deliverance sooner than I'd anticipated and by adding The Big Door Prize, a book I had forgotten I even owned before unexpectedly coming across it again one afternoon.

Whether it deserves it or not, Deliverance holds classic status in my mind. James Dickey, a well respected poet, published the novel in 1971 and it was made into a smash hit movie in 1972 starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beaty, and Ronny Cox. It was quite a shocking story for its time, especially when it came to homosexual predatory sexual behavior and preempting violence by killing another before they could harm others. I read the book early on, but that was over fifty years ago so I wanted to see if it is as good as I remembered it to be. It is.

I very seldom go into "Dollar Stores," but a few weeks ago I popped into one to pick up a small tube of super glue and stumbled upon a shelf with few books on sale for a dollar. The Big Door Prize was the only one that sounded remotely good to me, so I ended up spending a whopping $2, plus tax, on the store visit. It's all about a little town in Louisiana whose grocery store adds a machine charging $2 to sample and interpret the customer's DNA sample to "tell you your life's destiny" and what you are capable of achieving. Now I see that someone turned it into a TV series.

I haven't yet figured out exactly who Luke Russert is. I came into the book with a lot of built-in respect for Luke based simply on how much I admire his father. And during the early chapters, during which Luke recounted the horrible experience of so unexpectedly losing Tim, my respect only increased. But then Luke seemed to go a little overboard on his idea to regroup personally by traveling around the world. Even his mother was concerned about him. Now, I see indications in the chapters that Luke is beginning to figure out that he has an unhealthy addiction to social media, but I'm still unsure whether some of what he is saying is self-directed sarcasm or if I'm giving him more credit than he deserves. Can't wait to find out which it is.

Because I'll be on the road for most of two weeks beginning June 22, I'm hesitant to even guess whether I'll get to any new books the rest of the month or in early July. At the very least, I'll probably keep it to relatively light reading choices, so those dark books I mentioned last week are going to have to wait a bit longer. I'm considering these as carry-alongs for the trip:
A book about a road trip



Another road trip book

I'll also be throwing the latest Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the suitcase in case I only have time to read a few short stories. 

You guys have a great week. It's definitely going to be a busy few days around here while we pack up all the "essentials" for the trip (in my case, that's books; in my grandson's that means music to drive by). 

Sunday, June 16, 2024

James - Purcival Everett

 


 Purcival Everett's James begins as a reimagining of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, told this time through the eyes of the man Huck loves to torment with his practical jokes, Miss Watson's slave Jim. For about half the book, that's exactly what James delivers as readers find themselves immersed in the familiar world created by Twain in his classic novel. That's all interesting and kind of fun, but then Everett abandon's Twain's plotting and completely changes the tone and nature of James. And abandoning what has always seemed to me to be the much weaker half of Twain's novel, along with Twain's farcical tone, and suddenly shifting to a serious and more realistic tone to tell the rest of Jim's story works brilliantly. 

Right from the first page, James promises to be fun, especially for those readers familiar with the Twain novel. 

"Those little bastards were hiding out there, in the tall grass...Those white boys, Huck and Tom, watched me. They were always playing some kind of pretending game where I was either a villain or prey, but certainly their toy...It always pays to give white folks what they want, so I stepped into the yard and called out into the night."

 Jim, who calls himself James and holds night classes to teach the slave children how to speak the Black dialect that white people expect to hear them speak, is almost exactly the opposite of what Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn think he is. Jim, a self-taught reader and philosopher, is every bit as brilliant as the boys believe he is stupid and childlike. That's the plan - and it works really well for Jim and his family right up until the moment that Jim learns he is about to be separated from his wife and daughter by being sold separately to a new owner.

Then all bets are off - and the novel really takes off.

James becomes much darker in tone - and in content - as Jim desperately tries to survive on the run long enough to rescue his wife and daughter from bondage at least long enough for them to make a northward run for freedom together. Jim, with some help from Huck when he needs it most, will still have to risk everything if he is to succeed in his quest to free himself and his family for good. This half of the book also features a "Big Reveal" that although not entirely unexpected at the point it finally arrives, will still delight most readers with its audacity.

James is likely to go down as one of the better known books coming out of 2024, and it will probably be considered for more than one literary prize along the way. I do think it will read differently for readers familiar with Twain's plotting in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than for those who have perhaps not read Twain since they were children. James reminds me a little of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, but I will be surprised if it attains quite the same level of success.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Butterfield 8 - John O'Hara

 

John O'Hara's Butterfield 8 might be a Depression Era novel, but it's not what most readers expect from a novel set in that period. Rather than focusing on the hopelessness of job loss, forced migration, starving families, etc. that so many other novels feature, O'Hara chose to see the Great Depression through the eyes a segment of society so wealthy that life went on for them and their friends largely as it  had before the Depression- despite the pain and suffering all around them. 

The book's main character is Gloria Wandrous, a jaded young woman who is determined to squeeze the most pleasure possible out of every day that she lives. Her face is so well known on the New York City speakeasy circuit by now that she has easy access to the booze inside them and to the rich men who frequent them. If she were honest with herself, Gloria would admit that these men see her as little more than a high-priced call girl, but Gloria Wandrous is seldom so honest with herself. Instead, she considers herself to be more of a consumer than a victim in the relationships she has with the men she meets around town. 

And why not? 

When we first meet Gloria, she is alone in a strange man's apartment after having spent the night with him there while his family is out of the city. After she realizes that her evening dress has been ripped beyond repair in the man's enthusiasm of the previous evening, and that she has nothing else to wear home, Gloria sees that he left her an apologetic note along with sixty dollars to buy a replacement dress (the equivalent of over $1,200 in 2024). That's all fine, but Gloria still has nothing to wear on her way home so she casually covers herself in a $5,000 mink coat belonging to the man's wife before leaving the apartment (the equivalent of  about $103,000 today). It's easy to see why Gloria sees herself as the "consumer" in the transaction.

That's the world Gloria and her lover, Weston Liggett, live in - and they are surrounded by people just like them. Sure, everyone knows someone who has been ruined by the Depression, and they all know the stories about those among them who have decided to take their own lives as a result. But for them, personally, a little belt-tightening is about all that's been required. The more callous among them have even benefitted from buying up the assets of former friends and associates for pennies on the dollar.

But Gloria, by the simple act of stealing one very valuable fur coat, may have just opened a can of worms with the potential to change all of that for her and those closest to her - friend and foe, alike. 

Butterfield 8 is an eyes-wide-open look at wealthy New Yorkers of the day. It strikes me as being every bit as bleak and despairing in its own way as novels that focus on the plight of working class families of the same time period. With one or two exceptions, there's just not a lot to like or respect about Gloria and her hedonistic friends. She might begin as more sympathetic a character than not, but will soon enough reveal her true nature in a racist rant directed at her mother's Black maid. Is Liggett the victim of an undeserved theft, or just a despicable man who deserves exactly what he gets? 

O'Hara's novel had to be much more shocking when published in 1935 than it is today. In it, O'Hara frankly addresses things like lesbianism, abortion, venereal disease, bodily functions, incest, rape, and blatant racism. He refuses to pull his punches. But reading it almost ninety years after its publication through more jaded eyes lessens its impact, and makes it near impossible to be much surprised by anything in it. In one sense, Butterfield 8 has morphed into well written historical fiction, and that's why it still has plenty to say today.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Harbour Street - Ann Cleeves

 

(Not the cover on copy I read, but I much prefer this one.)

Harbour Street is book number six in Ann Cleeves's Vera Stanhope series, and it's a good one. Cleeves sometimes has a tendency to keep her main character behind the curtain until she's fully set up all the side characters and the mystery to be solved (even to approaching the 75-100 page-mark sometimes) but that's not the case with Harbour Street.

The first sentence of the novel is "Joe pushed through the crowd." As in Joe Ashworth, Vera's favorite detective, and Vera herself shows up on page 13 this way:

"Outside there was an enormous woman. She wore a shapeless anorak over a tweeded skirt. A wide face and small brown eyes. Her hair was covered by the anorak hood. On her feet, wellingtons. Her hair and her body were covered in snow...The abominable snow-woman..."

That rather comedic introduction of Vera is so dead-on that series fan will recognize the lonely detective long before Vera opens her mouth to introduce herself. And for me, this series is all about Vera and her evolving relationship with Joe, so this all made for a promising beginning to Harbour Street.

It's the Chrismas season, and Joe and his daughter are in Newcastle doing some relatively last-minute shopping when they notice that one of their fellow passengers has not gotten off the train with everyone else. For good reason. As it turns out, she's been stabbed to death.

Vera feels a little guilty about being so excited to have something interesting to take her mind off the season and her separateness, but soon she and Joe are trying to find out why anyone would have wanted to kill what seems to have been such a well thought of elderly woman like Margaret. Things begin to get complicated when a second woman is found dead in the little Harbour Street community because Vera is convinced from the beginning that the two murders have to be connected. She is not one to believe in coincidences like two murders happening so close together by sheer chance in a neighborhood as small as this one. And, of course, she's right about that.

So she and her crew start digging. And what they discover is going to take some real effort on everyone's part if any of them are going to be home on Christmas day. 

Harbour Street is intertwined with multiple suspects who come and go, and come again, as the investigation unfolds. Longtime fans of the series will already know this, but let me emphasize it for those who may be reading Ann Cleeves for the first time: keep a notepad handy. Jot down the names of side characters and how they relate to one another. Pay particular attention to flashbacks and how they seem to relate to the present day. If you do those things, you will fully appreciate just how intricately plotted an Ann Cleeves mystery always is. And although I've never managed to do it, you will have a good/fair shot at figuring out who the culprit is even before Vera figures it out for herself.

As usual, I enjoyed visiting Vera Stanhope and Joe Ashworth again, and look forward now to reading the few Vera Stanhope books I'm still holding in reserve. 

Monday, June 10, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (June 10, 2024)

 


As mentioned in an earlier post, I finally broke down and decided to buy a copy of Percival Everett's James last week. It seemed like I had been waiting forever to get a copy from the library, so once I heard that James might be nominated for the 2024 Booker Prize I decided to go ahead and buy a copy despite my complete lack of bookshelf space. And at about 120 pages into it,  I'm glad I bought it. I finished two books last week (The Humans by Matt Haig and Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves) and I'm about to finish John Ohara's 1935 novel Butterfield 8. So coming into this new week, I plan to finish that one, continue reading James, and make more progress on Look for Me There by Luke Russert. I first came across the Luke Russert book over on Kathy's Reading Matters blog when I spotted this review there. If you want to know more about this one, Kathy's review is a great place to start. 

Luke Russert's father, Tim Russert, was one of the last journalists I trusted to tell me the truth consistently. I was shocked the day that the 58-year old Russert so suddenly died of a heart attack, and I still remember my feeling that a good man had been snatched from the world. I can only imagine how is son felt. Luke's memoir as it's subtitle says is about grieving his father and finding himself. In order to do that, Luke walked away from a news job that confined him to Washington D.C. and began to explore the world - and himself.

I'm almost done with Butterfield 8 now, and I'm still trying to figure out what I think of the novel's main character, Gloria. This is not an exceptionally long novel, but Gloria has been explored so deeply that my opinion of her has run the gamut, everything from admiration of her spirit to disgust at the deeply-seated racism she doesn't even try to hide when she's frustrated or angry at herself. I haven't read very much John O'Hara, so I don't have anything to compare it with, but this snapshot of the Great Depression and how so many wealthy people went on as usual is memorable.

I re-read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a few weeks ago to prepare myself for James. As you probably know, this Percival Everett novel is a retelling of Twain's novel through Jim's eyes (or as he thinks of himself, James). The differences between the two viewpoints are sometimes subtle, but often, especially at first, can be quite jarring. James is quick to point out that he and all the other slaves he knows are basically playing a game of survival with the white people they deal with every day...act dumber than you are and present yourself exactly as whites expect you to be. Even then, James and Huck manage to create a real friendship for themselves, something that surprises both of them.

I'll likely be beginning at least two new ones this week that probably will come from this bunch (unless another surprise book comes from nowhere to haul me in):



 

This last one will be a little hard to stomach if I do get around to it this week. It's not something I would normally read, but I'm intrigued by the opportunity to get inside the head of someone as evil as this woman must have been. I am watching Peacock's series The Tattooist of Auschwitz right now (and have read the novel), but I'm as bewildered as ever by the notion that that kind of thing is even possible. Maybe Mistress of Life and Death has some answers to that question.

I'm also hoping for another big surprise or two to pop up because that often ends up being the best part of my reading week.

(I'm actually writing this early on Sunday afternoon as I prepare to drive the 90 miles to College Station for game two of the Super Regional baseball series between Oregon and Texas A&M. Only the top 16 teams in the country get this far, and if A&M wins today they will be among the eight teams going to Omaha for the 2024 College World Series. I'm excited because tickets to this series are really, really tough to get but my granddaughter gifted me with a pair that she got from the school. I'm, of course, pulling for a win but if A&M loses this one, there will be a winner-take-all game tomorrow night. So...by the time you read this, I'll either be super-excited or extremely nervous. I'm glad I don't know which it turned out to be.)

Enjoy the week, everyone. 

Friday, June 07, 2024

Remarkably Bright Creatures - Shelby Van Pelt / The Humans - Matt Haig

 



So what do Remarkably Bright Creatures and The Humans have in common? Mainly, that they are both very predictable. But both novels are based on clever enough plots that make them kind of hard to resist, so I kept hoping for the best despite feeling pretty certain that I knew exactly where each was heading by somewhere around the halfway points of their storylines. I'm not sorry that I read either of them, but I did end up feeling a bit let down by both books - especially the overhyped (in my opinion) Remarkably Bright Creatures. 

The best thing, by far, about Remarkably Bright Creatures is Marcellus the octopus who introduces himself right at the beginning of the novel on what is his 1,299th day of captivity. Marcellus knows that his days are numbered, and he is determined to make the most of them. That's why the shape-shifting octopus so much enjoys escaping from his aquarium every night when all the tourists are gone. But then one night, Tova Sullivan, the seventy-year-old cleaning lady discovers him on the floor all tangled up in electrical cords and near death. Tova rescues Marcellus, they become fast friends...and the novel begins to morph into just another romantic comedy. Sadly, the best part of the novel is over.

But where Van Pelt really lost me was when she decided that Marcellus, even though he can't speak, has taught himself to read English. He even tries to write at one point. I finished this one only because I was already so far into it.

The Humans, on the other hand, was not much hyped by the publishing media, so I didn't feel all that disappointed by its predictability. In fact, this one reminded me so much of a TV series called Resident Alien that it felt kind of like a comfort read at first. 

The novel's premise is that an alien from far, far away has been sent to Earth with instructions to halt the mathematical breakthrough that a college professor has just made. Humans are considered to be so primitively violent that more sophisticated beings consider them to be "a danger to the cosmos," so dangerous in fact that they will be sacrificed it that is the only way to keep them forever earthbound. 

But - of course - our alien assassin soon begins to understand the real beauty of being human and of being loved and cared for by others, something he has never experienced in his own world. His handlers aren't thrilled by that turn of events, and they try to call him home immediately. Guess what happens? You guessed it.

Both novels have their moments, and they can be fun - but when I can predict every climax resolution in a novel, there's not much reason to keep reading. And that's what happened with these two. 

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Bookstore Tricks

 

I finally found the time and energy to make it out to a couple of bookstores today. There are three good ones relatively near me, but I ran out of time before being able to swing by the indie shop that I like best. I shopped at Barnes & Noble and Half Price Books, and as usual, the experience left me a combination of frustrated, disappointed, and a little bit angry - the exact opposite of how I used to come away from shopping at B&N and Half Price Books not all that long ago. 

First stop was Barnes & Noble, a chain in which I've spent thousands of dollars over the years. Nothing much has changed, really, since my last visit except for the even greater sparsity of customers. Maybe three of us walking the floor and three or four others sitting with coffee and magazines. I did end up buying a copy of James because I'm so tired of waiting for my library copy (I was still number 36 on the waitlist after weeks of waiting). But the letdown in B&N is always the same: no current books on sale to speak of unless you consider $3 off a new hardback to be a game-changer, and absolutely no publisher overstock on sale. So instead of coming away with an armload of books the way I used to (usually for about $50 in total), I carried only my first edition copy of James away and still spent over $30, counting tax and the little magnetic page markers I also bought. 

I should add that I'm not at all a fan of those 3 for the price of 2 or buy one get the second for 50% off "sales" because I often end up buying something I really don't want to read just to get the discounted price on the one or two I did want to read. 

But that's not even the worst of today's visit. I was reminded again of just how poorly the Barnes & Noble "Rewards" program is run. In order to get a ten percent discount via the card B&N issues, a reader has to get ten "stamps" to their account, with each ten dollars spent earning one stamp. I've used the card several times now, and I'm convinced that B&N thinks we are all a bunch of dopes because the stamps are based on the ticket total for "eligible" purchases, whatever the definition of "eligible" is in this case (I do understand why tax should not apply). Every time I've used the card I get peeved because B&N refuses to round up the total spent to the nearest ten dollars that earn a stamp. For instance today, I spent $29 before tax and still was only given credit for two stamps. I figure I've missed out on almost as many credits now as I've earned, and I think that's wrong, if not insulting.

As for Half Price Books, this will be brief. I refuse to sell to Half Price Books anymore because I consider their offers even more insulting than B&N's reward program. Well today I found a book I sold to them a while back (my name is inside this one) for 50 cents marked $7 on the shelf. Honestly, that just made me laugh at myself for being too lazy to have refused the offer and carry those books back out to the car.

But it's not all doom and gloom today. Some of you know that I've been undergoing a lot of medical testing for almost 90 days now. I had another two-hour session yesterday that revealed that he autoimmune disease difficulty I've been having with my eyes has as mysteriously disappeared (at least for the moment) as it mysteriously first appeared early this year. The condition did leave me with what appears to be some permanent damage in the left eye, but the right one is back to normal.  So it's a happy day...and I need to keep reminding myself of just how lucky I am today, B&N and Half Price Books be damned. 

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Small Mercies - Dennis Lehane

 


Mary Pat Fennessy is one of just a handful of fictional characters I will remember forever, a character whose very name will always rekindle the essence of Dennis Lehane's remarkable novel Small Mercies in my mind.

It's 1974. It's Boston. And the city's public schools are about to be desegregated whether anyone in Mary Pat's Irish neighborhood wants them to be desegregated or not. Mary Pat, who has already lost two husbands and her only son, lives in Southie with her daughter Jules, a high school senior. Southie is the only home Mary Pat and Jules have ever known, and both of them understand who really calls the shots in Southie. They know that real power lies in the hands of one or two ruthless Irish mobsters, and anyone who crosses the mob is not likely to live long enough to do it twice. That's just the way it is, and the way it always has been.

Mary Pat is fine with all that - right up until the night that Jules doesn't come home from a date with the young man she considers to be one of Southie's biggest idiots. Mary Pat has already experienced enough loss and tragedy in her life, and she doesn't plan to experience another anytime soon, especially one involving the only child she has left. So, Mary Pat starts doing Mary Pat things, rattling cages, asking those who should have seen Jules last some uncomfortable questions - and slapping them around if she thinks they are lying to her. Then it gets complicated.

It seems that the same night that Jules disappeared, a young Black man died inside the neighborhood subway station after being struck by a train - and the cops have reason to believe his death was no accident. Now, for some reason, the cops want to find Jules just as badly as she wants to find her daughter, and Marty Butler, Irish mob boss, is telling Mary Pat to go home and quit asking so many questions - to get on with the rest of her life. Mary Pat, though, is not about to play that game.

"...you can't take everything from someone. You have to leave them something. A crumb. A goldfish. Something to protect. Something to live for. Because if you don't do that, what in God's name do you have left to bargain with?" (Mary Pat to police detective Bobby Coynes)

Mary Pat is going to play her own game, and she's going to make up the rules as she goes along.

True, Small Mercies is a revenge novel, a novel about what one remarkably strong woman is able and willing to do when she's left with nothing to live for. But it's much more than that. Small Mercies is about racism, the deeply embedded kind of racism that becomes so common that it goes unnoticed by those most guilty of it. It's about a woman who only slowly becomes aware of the destructive power of that kind of automatic hatred as she begins to question everything she's ever assumed about herself and those around her. It's the story of a woman who at least begins to sense the truth about the world, but only when it's too late for her to do much about it other than violently strike out at those who have betrayed her.

Small Mercies (the origin of this title will put tears in your eyes) is dark, violent, and sometimes a little difficult to read, but most of all it is powerful. This is not a book readers are going to forget a week after they read it. This one leaves a scar.

Songwriter Kris Kristofferson may have gotten it exactly right when he said "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." I think that Mary Pat Fennessy would be the first to agree. 

Dennis Lehane jacket photo


Monday, June 03, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (June 3, 2024)


 Just as I hoped, Dennis Lehane's Small Mercies ensured that last week ended up being a really good reading week. I've read quite a few Lehane novels now, and this one just might be the best of the lot. But I'll have more to add on Small Mercies later in the week, so enough said for now. The wild card of the week turned out to be the unexpected copy of John O'Hara's Butterfield 8 that came my way. The only other book I finished was Why We Read by Shannon Reed, but I also made some progress on Matt Haig's The Humans and started reading Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves. Oh, and I DNF'd the Bill Mahar book, What This Comedian Said Will Shock You, because it was way more one-sided and biased than advertised.

I've kind of settled into a routine lately of having one physical book, one e-book, and if the right one comes along, maybe one audiobook going at the same time. That's what I'm doing with these three, and as long as the approach continues to work for me, I'll stick with the routine. Not sure what caused me to pull back that way, but it feels comfortable for now. I'm hoping to attack my shelves and Kindle backlist a little more successfully this way, but the only way to make that work for long is to limit temptation by cutting my library visits way back. And that won't be easy.

I'm having fun with The Humans but I can't shake the feeling that it has some kind of mysterious tie to the Resident Alien TV series I watched a while back. The premise of both stories is eerily similar: alien comes to Earth to eliminate mankind because humans have become a threat to the rest of the galaxy all of a sudden, but said alien learns to respect and even love certain humans enough to make the alien question his entire mission. They don't seem to be linked at all, but the similarity between the two is pretty astounding to me.

I noticed John O'Hara's Butterfield 8 was available when I opened the Libby app to return an e-book to my local library. I haven't read much O'Hara, but I do remember that Butterfield 8 was a semi-scandalous Elizabeth Taylor movie back in the day, so the title and cover caught my eye. I never did get around to watching the 1960 movie, but my memories of the publicity it got made me wonder how it could have possibly been written in 1935. I'm about one-third of the way through it now, and I'm finding the novel to be well written and and much more frank than I thought a 1935 novel would be. Still not sure where this one is headed.

Harbour Street is book number six in the Ann Cleeves Vera Stanhope series. I vaguely remembering watching the TV series version of this one a few years ago, but so far that hasn't impacted my reading of Harbour Street at all. I'm only ten percent in, and Cleeves is still in the process of setting up the crime scene and introducing all the players, but this one already seems a little bit easier to get into than some of the earlier books in the series. Maybe it's because Joe is the main character in the first chapter, and Vera in the second. No having to read 75-100 pages before Vera shows up for the first time. That's always a good thing.

Depending on what I finish this week, this is the small pool of books I'm likely to be choosing from for my next reads:




I'm also putting together plans for a ten-day roadtrip beginning on June 22 during which I hope to explore a couple of states with my youngest grandson. I want to introduce him to the history of blues music, Cajun culture, and a Civil War battle site or two, so reading time is going to be limited for the last week of June. Generally, the plan is to explore southwest Louisiana, ending up near Natchez, Mississippi, before heading north up Highway 61 (The Blues Trail), and over to Shiloh Battlefield in southern Tennessee. Then we'll head back down through places like Tupelo and Oxford before circling back through Louisiana and home. I'm familiar with all the stops we will be making, but I hope to lock in for him the same love for road trips that my father passed on to me. 

If you guys have any trip-tips for that part of the country, please let me know. Have a great week!