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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Month

October 2017

What the Hell Did I Just Read

What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror (John Dies at the End), by David Wong

David Wong’s John Dies at the End was one of my favorite books from a couple of years ago, and I was just as happy when he continued the story of David and John in This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.

David continues his story of the evil activities in a town whose name is undisclosed, mostly so David and John can minimize the number of supernatural tourists and people assuming that they can answer their questions about supernatural happenings. This is because John and David have to deal with these things all the time since they were first given a strange, black, and evil liquid that they end up calling “soy sauce” because of its color. After taking it in the first book they were opened to the ongoing world of the supernatural that most people can’t see.

This book opens with John, David, and David’s girlfriend Amy being chased in their car by unnamed people who want the soy sauce. They throw it into the river, though as magical things will do it ends up finding them again.

Meanwhile the police of undisclosed call the pair in to help with the investigation of a missing girl. The police generally have a dislike for John and David because they’ve been involved in every horrible thing that’s happened in the town the past few years. But for some reason the father of the missing girl would rather have John and David investigate than the cops.

The plot, which in all the books is fluid at best, is the least important part. Ever morose and cynical David, the narrator, and one-armed girlfriend Amy (she lost it in an earlier book and now has a mechanical replacement) have a funny relationship. John is just bizarre. An earlier girlfriend asked him his ideal threesome. His answer “Me, Hitler, and Prince. I just watch.” John had a distorted worldview before the soy sauce.

The language is salty, the descriptions hilarious, and the books never slow down for a second. Wong is one of the few writers who makes me laugh out loud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the phenomenal Between the World and Me about the experience of being a black male in America. In this book he collects eight essays written for his blog at The Atlantic, one for each year of the Obama administration.

Though Coates was excited about the election of Obama, and talked with him at White House events, this book isn’t 100% supportive of Obama’s presidency. There are a fair number of African-Americans who feel the same way, from extremes of Cornell West to a milder disappointment from feeling left out of Obama’s agenda. Coates sits somewhere between, with a full understanding that some negatives came from Obama and some came from those who obsessed about him.

From the Obama side, the author includes Obama’s drift to Wall Street interests against what many thought would be more progressive values. Another was the event around the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the first year of the administration. You may remember that Gates, a black man on the Harvard faculty, returned to his Cambridge home and found the front door jammed. He and the driver who took him home tried to lever the door open, neighbors called police about a burglary, police arrived, and Gates was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct on his own porch by Sgt. James Crowley. The event became even more “newsworthy” when Obama, responding to a reporter question, said he thought the police “acted stupidly”. Eventually Obama invited both Gates and Crowley to sit down and have a beer with him on the White House lawn.

Coates points to a negative quirk in Obama’s makeup that allows him to believe that racial issues can be settled over a beer. However, Obama’s statement also caused others to escalate the event. He notes this also happened around the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Early on, the general reaction from left and right was that the shooting of Martin was a travesty. Zimmerman, the shooter, was arrested and it seemed certain that he would do extensive jail time. Then Obama made an extended statement on race including the statement that “if I had a son he’d look a lot like Trayvon.” Suddenly the right did a 180-degree turn on the issue even printing up targets with a black man wearing a hoodie.

Despite Coates’ disappointment with some parts of Obama’s eight years, he also sees that just the presence of Obama in the presidential race caused a fair share of people to express their true feelings about race. He points to Obama’s lower vote count in predominantly white precincts that voted for John Kerry four years earlier.

The title of the book, though it matches his feelings about the disappointments of the Obama years, comes from a statement made by Thomas E. Miller of South Carolina, one of five African-Americans elected to Congress during Reconstruction. The promises of Reconstruction fell apart a short time after Grant left office. By 1895 the South Carolina was making changes to its constitution to restrict voting rights so that the state wouldn’t become “Africanized”. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

 

 

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Crichton

I read this book shortly after it came out in 1975 and decided to give it another read. It’s the third book that Michael Crichton published under his own name, setting it somewhere between Andromeda Strain and Congo.

The book is a fictionalization of an event from 1855 known in the United Kingdom as The Great Gold Robbery. It was an amazingly complicated heist of gold from a moving train. The gold was headed to Crimea to pay soldiers involved in the Crimean War. By the time the train reached Paris it was discovered that the gold had been replaced by lead shot.

The book strays from the actual robbery in several ways, including some name alterations, but is a good piece of fiction. In the book a crook named Edward Pierce, who dresses and sounds like someone from the upper class, organizes the robbery using a variety of people from the “criminal class” of London, some of whom don’t even know the details of the crime is. The main issue to overcome is that the gold will be in a safe that requires four keys to open. So much of the work is a confidence game to get copies of the keys from various bank and train company employees. This includes the romancing of a banker’s daughter and careful timing of the guards at a train station. Crichton explains that this was a time before dynamite, so keyed locks were a definite barrier.

Along with the intricacies of the caper Crichton includes other bits of information from the period. These include the prevalence of prostitutes in Victorian England, the awful boredom of being a Victorian woman, and  the horrors of the Crimean War, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the worst military blunders in history nevertheless honored in poetry.

In some cases it’s a travesty to change history, but Crichton makes the theft far more interesting and intricate than the true robbery. An elegant conman leading a group of specialized thieves is far more interesting than some railway employees planning what was a well-timed robbery. In real life the criminals were caught, tried, and did their time (only after one felt cheated and told the whole story to police). In this book there is a bit of mystery left at the end.

Even after forty years it’s an engaging story and one in which the reader can root for ingenious criminals overcoming some stodgy and hypocritical toffs.

 

 

Queens of the Conquest

Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens Book 1, by Alison Weir

If you’re an English school child, or a college-level history major in the US, you know that in 1066 ce William of Normandy (aka William the Bastard, but not to his face) crossed the English Channel to conquer England and take it from the Anglo-Saxons led by Harold II.  This began the line of the Norman kings and their queens.

The kings get all the ink in history books, but Alison Weir is proposing a four-volume series of histories on the earliest of the English queens, starting here with Matilda of Flanders and the three queens who followed her.

These were queens who went beyond what we normally picture as a life of embroidery, sitting next to the king at banquets, and giving birth to heirs to the throne. Because these Norman kings now had rulership over both sides of the English Channel there was some travel required to supervise both realms. These Norman kings, when leaving to supervise their other properties, would sometimes leave their queens in charge. This would change their status from queen consort to queen regnant. Some of these queens would even take up a sword and lead their troops into battle to support the interests of the king.

Weir follows the lives of these first queens from Matilda of Flanders through Matilda of Scotland (married to Henry I) and Empress Maud and ending with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II and the foundation of the Plantagenet line.

The lives of these women are outlined in the context of their times, which seem to have been filled with constant political turmoil. William the Conqueror wasn’t all that fond of his first son, Robert, but did like his younger son William Rufus. He nearly disinherited Robert but, instead, decided to give Robert rule of Normandy and left William Rufus as the new king of England. This led to a series of civil wars and conflicts that came to their peak in the War of the Roses.

The queens associated with these kings were often intimately involved the in political maneuvering, offering their insights or taking a direct part in the intrigues. Empress Maud, mother of Henry II, even declared herself the first ruling queen (she was the  daughter of Henry I and Matilda, but also widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V). This was disputed but she did live to see her son take the throne as Henry II.

The Normans had a fragile dynasty for the first century or so, trying to lead the English without speaking their language … or wanting to … and regular attempts to steal the crown by children and other relatives. The queens as much as the kings enjoyed the love or hate of their subjects depending on which way political sentiments were flowing.

This is an interesting look into the lives of women who are rarely chronicled. Weir offers her best estimates on the true stories of their lives and reigns, and also offers alternate accounts or stories known to be pure myth. Each of the women comes alive with stories from their earliest years and courtship through their final days.

 

No Coming Back

No Coming Back, by Keith Houghton

Jake Olson was in his teens when he was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Jenna Luckman. Now on parole he returns to his hometown of Harper, Minnesota, to see his sick father and, with luck, solve the murder he never committed.

This is really a pretty dopey book, so I don’t intend to spend much time on it. As an example, Jake gets into town and, what a coincidence, a tree that Jake and friends played around as a kid falls over exposing a skeleton. Nature sure is kind.

The story then follows in which a group of upstanding town citizens spent much of the time while Jake was in high school humping local teens who, you know, were in it for kicks and sexual adventure. Then those guys start dying, Jake gets beat up multiple times, the coincidental skeleton ends up solving an even darker mystery, and the person who has shown no clues ends up being the killer.

Dopey. Free on Kindle Unlimited. It’s not worth the wi-fi download time.

 

 

The Fortunate Pilgrim

The Fortunate Pilgrim, by Mario Puzo

This is the second book written by Mario Puzo. Puzo was working to be a literary writer at the time. He said he was disappointed that he still had to work full time after his first book and then, after this book, had to work two jobs. Somehow The Fortunate Pilgrim managed to leave him in worse financial straits than he was in before its publication. In the book there are sequences in which an older brother of the narrator is hired by a local gangster to collect “dues” from local merchants. His publishers suggested that if he was to build on that idea he might have a more successful book. Thus The Godfather was written.

Puzo said this book changed during its writing. He had started out wanting to write about a brilliant young writer in an Italian family who is never fully appreciated. While some of that feeling still breaks through in the book, the true focus becomes the mother of an Italian family. She leaves her native Sicily for America to marry a man she had never met. That man died on the job, leaving her a widow with children. A second marriage to a long-time bachelor leaves her in a loveless marriage and provides a loveless father to her children. Eventually his insanity leaves her as a single mother a second time.

The book follows this family through deaths and marriages, watching the mother raise a family in inner-city poverty until, after the children are grown, she is able to leave the poor neighborhood for a more comfortable life.

The love and respect Puzo has for the mother comes through clearly, and he said that her protective instincts became part of the model for Don Corleone in The Godfather.

The Puzo/narrator character comes across as an unloved child, as Puzo outlined in his original concept for the novel. It’s a lighter theme in the book, however. What does come through is a vital Italian family that survives several crises without losing its unity and underlying affection for each other. This is sometimes expressed in swats, curses, yelling, and motherly manipulation but the affection is there all the same.

The book has its weaknesses, and I think those who encouraged him to put a different focus in his work had the right idea. The Godfather, particularly the films, had an influence on culture for good or bad in far more powerful ways than this book ever would have.  Both books are rich in characters and are tributes to family survival. Placing that family into a world of crime and Shakespearean intrigue gave the story a vitality that this book never reaches. Still, it’s an interesting book for what it is, a photo of that culture in that time. For fans of Puzo’s later works it also sets an atmosphere for those books and gives a peek at Puzo’s writing in a different context.

 

 

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret, by Kent Hartman

From the time that the Do-Wop and Brill Building sounds of New York filled most radios through the Beatles and the English Invasion, there was a persistent drive in pop music percolating in the Los Angeles area. Some of this was driven by producers like Phil Spector, others by musicians with a unique California perspective like The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.

Riding behind this music was a loose group of studio musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew. Many were extremely inventive musicians in their own right, a few who were working toward their own stardom while others preferred the regular lifestyle and salaries that came from recording jobs in the LA area.

These musicians provided their own musical creativity to everything from recordings by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to massive productions by Phil Spector and albums like Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.

This book reads like an oral history of those rich years, sharing stories from recording sessions along with some gossip by many of the people who were there. Some went on to their own careers. Glen Campbell was one, who worked as a studio guitarist on scores of records as well as Leon Russell who had a phenomenal career (and went on to support and nurture artists like Tom Petty) following his Wrecking Crew days.

The stories here give the artists’ perspectives on what they brought to the recordings. These were guitarists, bass players, drummers, and keyboard artists who would be expected to create the perfect bit of fill at just the right moment. More than that, they were often the recording studio version of several bands, including the first two albums by The Monkees, mostly actors chosen for their TV personas, and groups as well known as The Byrds, where producers convinced the artists that stage performances could be loose but recordings had to be perfect.

Some of the stories are amazing or horrifying … or a bit of both. There’s the story of the multi-talented Jim Gordon, a long time member of The Wrecking Crew who was hired as the drummer for Derek and the Dominoes. Gordon was already suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia when he signed on. The group was looking for a way to round out the sound of the song Layla. Between takes Gordon was at the piano playing a piece he’d been working on that the rest of the group was sure would bring the song to a perfect end. So, with Gordon on piano, they recorded the long piano exit for the song. However, given the drug fest the whole band was on they only recorded one album and never toured. Gordon later, in a drugged and/or schizophrenic state, later drove to his mother’s house and bludgeoned and stabbed her to death. He still resides in a psychiatric facility in California.

It’s an interesting picture of careers rising, stalling, and collapsing over 20 or so years. Some of the stories are interesting, like Frank Sinatra improvising the “doo-be-doo-be-doo” during the second take of Strangers in the Night. Some less-so, like Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas forgetting the lyrics to a song and calling a local music store to dictate the the lyrics over the phone.

It’s an atmosphere, in a digital age where any den or garage can become a recording studio, that will probably never happen again. At the time The Wrecking Crew had competition in other regions, such as the studios at Mussel Shoals and Nashville. One of the book’s more insightful moments comes when actor Richard Harris used some of the musicians to record MacArthur Park, a song originally rejected by radio stations as too long but eventually received extensive radio play. Hartman notes that this song, in some ways, had the musicians writing their own epitaph. As longer songs began to fill the airways the call for studio musicians began to fade, no longer needed to fill the constant market for three-minute classics.

It’s a fun book for anyone raised in that era. Hartman says he still finds out about new recordings backed by Wrecking Crew members through union records of studio sessions. It’s also an interesting look at the rise and fall of musical icons from the heart of the rock-and-roll era.

 

 

Fantasyland

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HIstory, by Kurt Andersen

Kurt Andersen has a belief about America. He believes that too many Americans live in a fantasy land, leading them to make warped decisions and hold to warped ideologies. His book outlines examples from history to make his case.

He begins with the first English to visit the continent, the first landing at Jamestown, Virginia, in what began as James Fort, under the control of the Virginia Company of London. The goal was to find gold that did not exist in the amounts they hoped.

From this he moves to Puritans building their ideal home absent of any dissent, to the mad witch trials, on through religious movements, gold fever, and wars.

Where he lands is a country that still values new versions of snake oil and idolizes permanent youth. A country in which politics is entertainment and entertainment is mind numbing. A country in which conservatives distrust science on evolution and climate change while liberals distrust science on vaccinations and genetically modified foods. A country in which millions of men play fantasy sports and others lose themselves in video games. A country that thrives on what Andersen calls the “fantasy-industrial complex”. A complex that generally nurtures the madness of crowds.

Andersen piles on example after example. Some are well-known bits of history with the author’s own, and sometimes cynical, perspective. Others are less known examples showing that America was always a little haywire but has become incredibly haywire in the past half century.

The author doesn’t really offer any solutions, though a little self-awareness and insight can go a long way toward jumping off the fantasy train.

The book is funny, sharp, and historically accurate and offers a view of American idiosyncrasies that seem familiar but, when stacked with the other examples, can be more than a little depressing and embarrassing. It’s a worthwhile filter through which to observe “youth culture”, economics, and politics in an age where all seem absurd.

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The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story, by Susan Hill

This classically-styled ghost story was first published in October, 2011, and has now been made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Solicitor Arthur Kipps is enjoying an evening at home with his new wife and stepchildren when one of them decides to share ghost stories. When they come around to Arthur he can’t tell his story, because he’s lived a real ghost story that still terrifies him.

Arthur then writes out his tale with true gothic flavor. During his first marriage he was given an assignment by his law firm. He was to travel to a small coastal village called Crythin Gifford. There he’s to settle the estate of an old client of the firm named Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh.

He arrives in the village in time for Drablow’s sparsely attended funeral. While at the graveside he mentions to the local man helping him with the estate work that he saw a woman in black in the cemetery. The local reacts with shock and refuses to tell him any more about the deceased or the woman in black, and none of the other locals offer much information.

He decides to stay in the house at Eel Marsh for a night that will influence his life all the way back to London.

The book has the atmosphere of a book by Brontë or Wilkie Collins, and the same relentless pacing of a Poe story. Something has happened to Arthur’s life that the locals have seen before, but there’s no use getting into details until he’s finished sorting through the dead woman’s papers and headed back home.

Susan Hill knows that with the greatest books of his type the horror is as much about what is kept from view as the things that are described. She’s built an old-fashioned classic with all the gingerbread and stained glass. A fun, brief book and a great one to read aloud.

 

 

 

 

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