In God’s Country

Robert B. Parker

Often I find myself wondering about the economics of publishing. I’ve had book clubs and book retailers as clients, so I know something about the retail end of the business. What I haven’t a clue about is the author end.

How is it, for example, that a veteran journalist can pen a bestseller and suddenly find themself a millionaire, asked to play in the Artists and Writers Charity Softball Game, while the journeyman author of a well-received mystery series has to turn out a book a year to live an upper-middle-class life?

Mind you, I’ve the problems of neither a millionaire nor a successful mystery writer. But if one were to need an impetus to start such an inquiry one could do worse than Robert B. Parker, the creator of Spenser and a couple of other recurring heroes. Parker was a man famously focused on his writing as a means to provide for his family’s security and comfort. Art be damned, Parker was all about commerce.

From that standpoint, he was no slouch. There are 40 Spenser novels and, though he expanded the stable comparatively late in his career, he had three other series in print as well. Two were outgrowths of the Spenser series. Improbably–and in the opposite order followed by his near contemporary, the great Elmore Leonard–the last series he started was a Western. Essentially, Parker published every 9 months or so.

Robert B. Parker in 2006
I suppose he could pass for an insurance agent if he had to.

I first encountered Parker and Spenser at about the dozenth title in the series. I’d purchased the just-published title, A Catskill Eagle, as a birthday present for my not-yet-affianced girlfriend, only to have the hardback tossed at my head. She didn’t read mysteries, I learned; she read Dick Francis.

So I read it. I can’t say I was hooked or that it stands out as the strongest in the line. But all the elements were present. Spenser is an old school tough guy and former statie who boxed and has the flattened nose to prove it. He sweats at a gym, served in the Korean War and was raised by his father and uncles in a female-free environment. Like many such heroes, Spenser is timeless. If he really had served in Korea and the book takes place in the present at the time it was written, he’d be 70 years old.

Spenser holds none of the scruples of the present or any other moment. Slightly larger than life in every sense, he quotes The Faerie Queen, has an on-going relationship–almost a common-law marriage–with a Jewish psychiatrist and has a sidekick/best friend who is a felonious, former boxer. Hawk is deadly–violence and vengeance wrapped in the toned, sculpted and well-maintained body of a tall black man. Hawk speaks in three modes–laconic, an odd parody of African-American vernacular English and, rarely, standard English.

Robert Urich (r) as Spenser and Avery Brooks as Hawk in ABC’s mid-80s series, Spenser for Hire.

Spenser is also a wise-ass and a man with a code. I’m a sucker for a personal code because I understand the need to do what you must in the way that you must. It helps that there’s a lot of overlap between my personal conception and Spenser’s. I do, however, bear a full moniker. If either Hawk or Spenser has a first name, I’ve never encountered it.

Many of the Spenser novels revolve around Boston, the only other city I’ve ever seriously considered living in or near.  Not this one, though. Here we find Spenser hired to prove a group of ruffians–The Dell–killed a tour operator in Potshot, Arizona. His widow wants justice done to these creeps who terrorize the town and are driving the good people out.

Spenser ventures west to have a look and finds a town full of loonies. The police chief, like the widow Buckman, is a transplant from Los Angeles. There are a couple of those in the town, which also sportsc pocket-lining politicians, shady lawyers, greedy real estate types and taciturn barmen. There are enough over-sexed people running around this part of the Southwest to start another Sandstone

I couldn’t get the images of Toecutter’s gang out of my head while reading about The Dell.

Soon enough, Spenser gets to meet The Delland their leader, Preacher. It’s a bit one-sided as encounters go. The Dell are playing at being tough, Spenser really is. When he drops the biggest, scariest thug in the middle of Main Street, the local gentry come calling, ultimately hiring Spenser to clean out The Dell and return their town to them. The job pays handsomely and Spenser accepts.

What ensues has more in common with the war movies and Westerns I grew up watching with my grandparents than most of the other Spenser titles. If I were making a studio pitch, I’d say, “It’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral meets The Dirty Dozen.” I looked up where this title falls in the Spenser line-up and I should be forgiven for assuming it was near the end. Assembling a band of like-minded criminal brothers–each of whom has had a prior encounter with Spenser–to fight the really bad guys had an almost elegiac feel to it.

The locale, roughly, for the action. I believe the word sere was created to describe this landscape.

I’m not going to say much more about the plot. There are a couple of twists that help maintain interest in the storyline and Spenser bops around the United States like the business development manager of an ERP software firm.

I wonder, though, if Parker’s pace isn’t as tough on his editors as himself. Early on, after Spenser’s first encounter with The Dell, he’s approached by a group of leading citizens. The first words of the chapter are, “The day after my first fight…” yet within a page one of the characters is talking as if the fight had just wrapped up. It’s a minor thing,  but it seems a product of not having enough time to come back for a fresh read.

As these things go, that’s a minor quibble. To circle back, this isn’t art, it’s entertainment. And as a work of entertainment, it’s worth your time.




Autumn’s Coming in the Air

Labor Day 2019

I first conceived this post on what was meant to be the first of my summer-end outdoor swims.  But the temperature at swim time was 58 degrees (F)  and there are limits to my fortitude.

That bracing change put me in mind of the approaching season, even if the weather, in Continue reading

Blasphemous Rumours

The Feast of Fools
Harvey Cox

Recently,  conservative talk-show host Erick Erickson offered a startling observation during what seems to be an ongoing attack against presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg: “But then he is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.”

I’m neither a regular reader nor listener of Erickson’s, though I’ve seen him quoted. He strikes me as not so Continue reading

Standing on the Front Line

A Son at the Front
(Four Novels of the 1920s, A Library of America Volume)
Edith Wharton

One could argue that World War I was the first modern war. There’s a case to be made for the wars of the mid-19th century, but their horrors seem more of scale. For something never seen before, it’s hard to beat “the war to end all wars.”

Edith Wharton was living in Paris when the war broke out in August 1914. She’d taken up ex-pat status a few years earlier when her marriage deteriorated. Now, she was on Continue reading

Treat Yourself to Some Meat

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
Janet Evanovich

My local library has its own way of celebrating summer: they put out a table of pulpier titles that have been donated and invite patrons to take home a fresh read or two.

Unspoken is a request to just not bring them back. We’ve a small library and, evidently, a big book-buying Continue reading

Parodies and Prophecies

Midsummer 2019

There are any number of things we’re taught as children that we are later asked to revisit, diminish or dismiss. I’d suggest that among these is parody, a genre too easily cast aside.

There’s no good reason why. The word itself has been in the language half a millenium and Shakespeare, just before its first Continue reading

Orange Amber in the Sun

John McPhee

My memory, I fear, is failing.

There was a moment, standing in the book store, the nearby volume clutched in my hand, when I wavered. Hadn’t I read this before? I paged through it once again, nothing seemed familiar. Graphically, it matched the rest Continue reading

Goin’ Down to the Swamp

Tropical Heat
John Lutz

The idea that any man-made object, let alone one made of paper and grease,  could survive the semi-tropical humidity of the Sunshine State for more than three decades seems far-fetched. Luckily, all I asked it to do was endure seven moves within a 50-mile radius.

Why that should be will have to remain a mystery. All I know is that even during the years when the only fiction I Continue reading

I Roam Around, Around, Around

wandering (noun): a going about from place to place

By now I should have this (mis)timing thing licked.  But I don’t, so I am allowing myself the quarterly luxury of sharing some longer pieces found on the web that have captured my attention.

Should any of you care to share your ideas on how to break my logjam, by all means, please post in the comments section. All I ask is that you stay away from programmatic Continue reading

Where is it taking us, what does it mean?

The Meaning of Trump
Brian Francis Culkin

For a wannabe social scientist like me, the Trump years offer seemingly boundless riches. From the President’s personal psychology to political theory and mercantile economics, if he’s tweeting, there’s probably a new avenue to explore.

I try to avoid the more commonly visited precincts. Bob Woodward‘s fly-on-the-wall style doesn’t add much when Continue reading

Schizophrenic Egocentric Paranoiac Primadonna

A Beautiful Mind
Sylvia Nasar

Math can be maddening.

That’s one lesson you might draw from this biography of noted mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. It might even seem of a piece, if you’ve read the biographies of any other major math figure, for instance, Georg Cantor, who has quite a story of his own.

I wonder, though, how many people really read such Continue reading

A Standout, a Whirlwind Wizard

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
J. K. Rowling

Among Harry Potter‘s many acts of wizardry, the most important was that his creator, in setting him loose in the world, ended the fiction drought, at least for me.

That would be the couple of decades or so where I don’t think I read any fiction but mysteries. In the repurposed and reordered words of a literature professor friend (albeit on a separate subject), it was too hard and wasn’t fun anymore.

Then along came Harry, although I was unaware at first. Truth is, I can be pretty oblivious about popular culture and, as a childless 30-something at the time the first novel was published in the US, I was paying even less attention. I probably clued into conversations between parents two or three years later.

That coincided with a lot of life changes including the decision by the then-not-yet-Mrs. AHC to become an elementary schoolteacher. Suddenly, Potter was in the house and I picked up the book in the same cursory way I pick up so many others.

J.K. Rowling
Creator of Harry Potter before the image makeover that accompanied her financial success.

I got hooked.

Now that I’m through reminiscing,  we can get to the book, which I just spent reading aloud with my 8-year old son. His sister, approaching age 11, eschews fantasy, yet many nights found her listening in.  I’ll have to accept some blame for her viewpoint; I’m on record as not being favorably inclined toward the genre myself. What’s so different about Harry?

When I first read through the series, our kids had yet to be born. Yet I developed this idea that the series presented a great way to teach lessons about reading and language. I can turn anything into hard work if I try, but maybe I’m looking to justify just how much fun these books are. But when young D expressed an interest, I leapt at the opportunity to see if I was right.

Harry Potter Movie poster

Not just a best-selling book, but also a blockbuster movie.

I should say I’m not obsessive enough to have ascertained certain things. Such as whether Rowling had the arc of the series figured out from the beginning. That’s a recurring rumor among the Star Wars crowd, and it would be normal to wonder the same about Potter. I do know that this volume introduces a majority of the characters that will populate the rest of the novels.

At our first encounter with Harry, we already know more about him than he does of himself. That’s because we’ve been treated to a prologue that establishes the frame within which his wizardly life will uncoil. By comparison, all the 11-year old Harry knows is his Diceknsian existence.  An unwanted orphan living with uncaring relatives, Harry’s sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs, dressed in hand-me-downs and final sale remnants.  He functions as a sort of scullery maid/short-order cook. It’s equal parts Cinderella and Oliver Twist.

Then his past intervenes, in the form of a letter, and his world changes. Of course, it’s not that simple. The Dursleys (that’s the family name his mother’s sister, Petunia, took when she married Vernon; they have a son Dudley) at first try to ignore the mail, then run from it. But even a near-Hebridean hideaway can’t ward off the power of the magical world and Harry gets his Get out of Jail Free card in the form of acceptance at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, a sort of enchanted Eton.

Nicolas Flamel, c. 1340–1418
Even real people show up in Potterland.

That’s the good. The bad and the ugly are the same thing, a demonic wizard so terrible none dare utter his name. Except Harry, who, not having been raised among magical types (we’uns, being non-magical, are known as muggles), didn’t get the memo on proper behavior. And no one will question his naming the demon because Voldemort is responsible both for Harry being an orphan and the scar he bears on his forehead from their near-deadly encounter. Harry’s bravery starts with not agreeing to not name his nemesis.

This is a good point to stop for one of those lessons I mentioned. Harry’s story not only fits the good Proppian model, it has all these English overtones. The hero emerging from second class status is right out of the Arthurian legend. There’s that working for Fagin childhood. Hogwarts is itself, a perfectly recognizable British public school.  And then there’s the bad guy’s name. I’m always happy to point out that English is a mash-up of German and French, so how delicious to have a bad guy whose name literally means Flying Death.

Plus, there’s the sorcerer’s stone itself. In this telling, the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is the co-creator of the stone along with Nicolas Flamel. Click on that last link and you’ll quickly find out that a) Flamel really existed and b) is the legendary creator of the philosopher’s stone. As I said, the book is just chock full of things that can help you teach children how to read more actively. (In case you’re wondering, Albus means white and Dumbledore is a bumblee in some English dialect, so there’s your old humming guy, too.)

Even the search for a sorcerer’s stone is rooted in reality. The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

The tale itself is rollicking and sets a pattern that will prevail through the series. The action takes place over the course of a school year, mostly in and around Hogwarts. There is always a new and problematic facuty member. Harry has friends and enemies among both the students and faculty.

I don’t want to give away too much in this plot-driven story, but I will say the climax involves a confrontation between Harry and Voldemort (and that is always going to be the crux of the matter). There are six more books in the series, though, so I’m not really giving anything away if I say Harry survives the encounter. But it’s an action-packed battle and my son didn’t see the secondary (and necessary) bad guy coming. I’m betting Rowling would be delighted by D’s gasp at the revealed identity.

Details in a book or movie should matter, though I often wonder if they enter conciously. As this book ends, Harry awakens in the infirmary, three days after his battle with pure evil.

With a little prodding I eked out one last lesson: my kids quickly identified the other well-known figure who rose on the third day.



A Substitute for Another Guy

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids
Nicholson Baker

“In fact, for me, the whole school year was over.”

That final sentence refers to June 11, 2014, five years ago this coming Tuesday. It’s a bit short of the  actual end of the school year both here and in Maine, where the events recounted take place.

Our raconteur is the novelist, Nicholson Baker. I’ve read Baker before, and enjoy his writing style, deeply detailed as it is. I’ve even enjoyed his obsessions when they are directed at non-fictional subjects.

This time, though, my eternal problem with endings was reinforced by the subject matter. This book didn’t just end. Organized by date, its end coincided with the end of the school year, always a bittersweet event for me. Despite being mostly self-directed in my learning, I need some structure to react to, so July and August always presented a challenge, at least until I discovered taking summer school classes.

Just why a noted, successful writer (whom no one recognizes) felt compelled to undertake a stint of substitute teaching is unclear to me. Early on, he says he “wanted to find out what life in classrooms was really like.” I’m not sure the participant-observer approach is the best way to scratch that itch because, let’s face it, subs don’t do much.

A high school in Maine. I imagine Baker subbed in buildings like this one.

Even Baker admits his activity was mostly limited to maintaining order and handing out worksheets. Both my children attend elementary school and worksheets are the bane of my existence. I understand the intent is to reinforce skills. I even grant you the notion is not new. I just don’t think they work.

A half century ago we ‘did dittoes‘ which were simply worksheets run off on a duplicating machine with a big A.B. Dick logo on the side. Some teachers called them stencils and, since similar machines were still in use when I entered the workforce, office workers tended to call them mimeos. Picking up dittoes from the office amused the hell out of us Catholic school boys once we had started to build our schoolyard vocabularies. As to the content, beats me and I can remember events from those years in vivid detail.

What’s stuck in my mind about dittoes is that there was so much alcohol in the duplicating fluid you could get drunk off the fumes. A test or worksheet fresh from the office invariably resulted in dozens of youngsters pulling rectangular sheets across their faces and inhaling deeply, as though following a 19th-century deep-breathing regimen. All because a Xerox machine cost so much that no school, and many businesses, couldn’t afford one. (The last workplace I can remember using mimeos was a division of Westinghouse, then a Fortune 500 corporation.)

The technology of my elementary school years: the ditto machine.

You may wonder what dittoes and tipsy students have to do with a serious, 719-page book. Actually, quite a bit because the book amounts to pages of student observations much like my stencil tale, all updated for the 21st century. Depsite all the technology–laptops, iPads, smart boards–kids are still kids and school is still something they have to get through.

Again, that’s something Baker says and, like me, he does it a bit ruefully. That might be the most interesting thing I learned. Baker and I are close in age but our own educations couldn’t be more different. He seems to have taken part in almost every educational experiment being run in the public schools of Monroe County, New York during the 1960s and 70s. I sat in one of 30 or more desks arranged in rows following an approach still used in many parochial schools and found similar rows when I moved along to the local public high school.

And yet he and I both wound up , in his words, “in college where I learned how to write and work hard.” Yet I’m haunted by how much more I could have gotten out of school if I’d been alternately pushed and given freedom instead of being controlled. Perhaps I am an unregimentable personality, but maybe–here’s an idea– teachers can learn from their students. I do, every semester I teach.

There’s a lot more tech in today’s classroom although it seems to be used for entertainment as much as learning.

Baker, the miniaturist, conveys his frustrations, which I’d describe as parallel to mine, rather than similar or the same, through his chosen approach: detailed description. Actually, detailed description might be a misstatement. Detailed transcription might be more accurate because, although the names have been changed, the things the kids say are reported more or less verbatim.

I actually have no basis for making that last claim. The kids voices sound authentic, at least to me. But I’ve spoken before of Baker’s style and how like Shaker furniture it requires stripping all ornamentation to reveal beauty. These kids are maybe a bit too verbally perfect, but I am comfortable with novelistic touches in reportage and non-fiction.

I could demonstrate but, even cleansed of all its “uhms,” “ahs” and “you knows,” kid language isn’t terribly interesting to read. At least not page after page of it and at least not to me. If I were peer-reviewing this as a social science manuscript  I’d suggest paring back and classifying the quotes so the reader can follow the author’s point.

Education really ought to be about the kids. Baker & I agree on that.

Baker, no doubt, would disagree and perhaps he’s right. His method certainly does manage to convey the repetitive and mundane nature of school days including the administrative intrusions and mandates that make a challenging situation farcical at times.

There’s a reason schools are the way they are and I’d send you all off with a reading list that begins with Randall Collins if you’re really interested. Or you can spend, as I did, a semester with Baker and his kids. I’m not sure you’ll come away understanding ‘why’ schools are the way they are. You may, as I did, come away with so many questions about classroom practice that a working teacher flees at the sight of you.  (Whenever I’d start a question, my in-house educator, Mrs. AHC, would utter a prayer aloud that I finish reading the book already.)

Maybe, though, you’ll come away as Baker (I think) and I did,  marveling at the curiosity and inventiveness of children. And loving them for it even as we shuddered at the institutional nuisances thrown at them.






I Can’t Stand Losing You

The Closers
Michael Connelly

Sometimes, I think I’ve forgotten how to read. In reality, though, what I’ve forgotten is how to finish reading.

Especially these days,  when it seems that starting a book is easier than finishing one. A well-informed friend says the inability to focus–always a struggle around here–is Continue reading

Libraries Gave Us Power

Books of College Libraries are Turning into Wallpaper
Dan Cohen at The Atlantic

When you’re a kid everything  you encounter already exists. So, in a weird permutation of object permanence,  it must always have. Looked at like that, even the quite new can seem very old.

My childhood spanned a time when the closer-in suburbs of New York were still growing and things were relatively new.   As Continue reading

Rise Up Singing: A Six Pack and Playlist

Memorial Day 2019

Living in a consumer society, I think, is such an immersive experience that it’s easy to forget holidays have meaning. I enjoy kicking off summer as much as anyone, but I try to remember Memorial Day is really about fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen.

So I will, on Monday morning,  view the big parade here in town, and do so Continue reading

Blues for Dixie

South to a Very Old Place
Albert Murray

The first time I encountered the idea that prose could mimic music was during my Jack Kerouac obsession. Time and again I’d come across the assertion that his goal was to capture on the page the rhythms, textures and fluidity of a Bop solo.

I didn’t, couldn’t really see it. The jazz I knew was the music of the Swing era, and its purpose was dancing. If I held any opinion about the jazz of the 1950s it was second-hand, acquired from Chuck Berry.

My ignorance and obsession have long since passed. Some days, though, Chuck still seems wise and I have a hard time finding music on the page. When I do, it’s usually in a poem. Prose is not without rhythm and melody, it’s just harder to find, though I count myself a part-time searcher.

If that describes you, and you’d care to take a break from looking, this book offers a perfect example of what the fruits of your search should resemble.

Albert Murray is the real deal. Around here that phrase always means the same thing: a writer of immense talent who has invested time in honing their craft and whose erudition is apparent. That last bit is important because, for me, erudition goes beyond an ability to quote Classics or 19th Century German philosophers at will.

Robert Penn Warren

While either of those examples might impress me, I take an expansive view of knowledge. A student of the streets is no less knowledgeable than a PhD and often in a better position to attest to truth. Nor does a writer need to be deeply immersed in one subject. Synthesis is what really bowls me over again and again.

Allow me to sketch a quick biography of the present author. Born in Mobile County, Alabama, in 1916, Murray was of the same generation as Rosa Parks, born into a segregated society soon after the birth of the NAACP and the death of Booker T. Washington. Murray attended Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated in 1939, where he became lifelong friends with Ralph Ellison.

Murray joined the Army Air Force and served during World War II and remained in the reserves after the war ended. Though he tried to earn his living teaching he returned to active duty in the 1950s and rose to the rank of major before retiring, about the time I was born. He then moved to New York, completed his education with an MA from NYU and took up writing.

Always a music lover, his beat included writing about jazz and he moved in an orbit that included Duke Ellington and Count Basie, whose biography he would later write. The present book emerged from an assignment he accepted from Willie Morris, the legendary editor of Harpers in the 1960s. Morris, a man who brought Mississippi with him when he moved north and who later returned home, had a simple request: Go home to the post-Civil Rights Act South and see what’s really going on.

William ‘Count’ Basie

You and I, faced with such a task, would probably hop in the car or book a flight to Hartsfield. Murray caught the New Haven Railroad and headed further north. It’s really no small act of genius to begin an inspection of the contemporary South with a visit to the precincts of Yale.

But Robert Penn Warren was there ensconced. And what better place to begin than with an apostate apologist for segregation–a man who not only changed his mind but became an advocate for civil rights? That Warren wrote one of the classic novels set in the South–based loosely on one of the South’s real, larger-than-life characters–was icing on the cake.

The book–I’ve no idea if it was ever published as an article or series of articles–reminds me, structurally, of a jazz number. There is a head (the prologue and New Haven section) that sets the theme, and a coda (the New Orleans, Greenville, Memphis section). In between, it’s all riffing, a term I use in the best sense of the word.  For a jazz player, composing riffs and melodies out of raw material is the name of the game.

Murray hits his stride in those middle choruses named Greensboro, Atlanta, Tuskegee and Mobile. The first two represent different battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement. If Greensboro is famous for the sit-ins, Atlanta, home of Morehouse College and Dr. King‘s family, was famously the self-declared ‘City too Busy to Hate.

The John A. Andrews Memorial Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute

Much of the book is dialog, placed in the mouths of locals, some Murray has known since boyhood. The closer he gets to home, the more the words fly, the rhythms pound and the truth flows. I never find it difficult to identify a writer whose background is lower than middle class. You can’t fake your way into the knowledge and trust of people just like you who stayed at home. That the truths revealed may be uncomfortable to those who would establish the proper narrative is part of the fun.

In an epigram, Murray warns us “Not everything in this book is meant to be taken literally” a point he immediately undercuts by saying he has changed names. The best way to convey the language, and the insider honesty, is with an extended quote sure to piss off almost everyone with an ax to grind on the subject of race relations. The speaker is an unidentified Mobile resident who has known Murray since boyhood:

“I’m talking about the goddamn white folks now. They come up and figure out how they can let a lot of loudmouth hustlers in there that don’t belong in there. Because they know good and well these the ones ain’t going to study. So that’s what we got now. We send them up there to learn what them white boys learning about running the goddam world and they up there out marching and wearing all that old three-ring circus stuff and talking about how they got to study about Africa. Now what I say is if that’s all they want to know they ain’t got no business up there. That’s what I say. Because the white man only too glad if they rather learn about Africa instead of how to run the world. I say them Africans already known about Africa, and what good is it doing them?” (pp. 182-183)

I can’t be certain if a transcript or recording of this, or any of the other reported conversation, exists but I don’t think that’s the point. This is Joseph Mitchell reportage and if the truth on the page is a work of artful construction rooted in fact I can live with that.

That last sentence used the words art and truth and I selected neither lightly. By the time you reach this quote you’ve traveled quite a ways with Murray. Your BS radar would have, should have pinged if you found him less than truthful. Was the above speech excerpt, with its accelerating rhythm and rising frustration, spoken verbatim? I’m not sure it matters because it has the same ring of truth as conversations I hear when I return to the neighborhood of my blue-collar youth.

I can offer no higher accolade than Albert Murray, great American writer.




With a Little Luck

Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis

My son, the budding 8-year old literary critic, has built his evaluative armory on a strong foundation: cover illustrations. He subjects these packaging exercises to analysis–cursory or detailed depending on his mood–and generates more questions about the content than Leslie Fiedler could.

He had a lot of questions about the present volume. Continue reading

Life’s Sweet Promise

Easter/Passover 2019

The last week–with seemingly more stresses, distractions and interruptions, not  to mention conflagrations and reports on investigations–has left less time for the work I write about here.

So I turn to an older tradition, one I’ve been reading about, and hopefully will turn to soon: festivity. Celebration is important to everyone’s soul and it’s important to nurture that part of us.

Two great faith traditions use this time of year to mark the promise of rebirth and renewal. In that spirit, I wish you all the bounties and blessings of the season.


A Building Which is on Fire

Thoughts the morning after the Notre Dame fire

The great world city I know best after my hometown is Paris.  If New York stands a monument to commerce and the ever-changing, Paris stands the same to the eternal and the beautiful.

Notre Dame sits at the center of that city, Continue reading

A Supersonic Honeymoon

The Glimpses of the Moon
(Four Novels of the 1920s, A Library of  America Volume)
Edith Wharton

Come with me to a favorite locale: Wharton country. There’s no reason you’d know that; supporting evidence isn’t exactly abundant.

I may even be overstating the case. A better, though dated, analogy might be a certain type of uptown resident who Continue reading

The Town that Billy Sunday Couldn’t Shut Down

Never a City so Real: A Walk in Chicago
Alex Kotlowitz

Once, in my business travels, I met a man from Chicago. Over the course of a somewhat lopsided conversation he made his love of his home town apparent, finally asking me where I was from.

New York,” I answered, dreading what was about to come. Continue reading

The Story of Outlaw Country in 33 Songs

You didn’t think I’d go missing that easily, did you? Just don’t think I’ve made much progress on my primary assignment. (I did, however, add another volume to the stack, which may not be the optimal way to reduce the size of the task.)

Luckily, my friends at Pitchfork stood ready to help with this recently posted (October 2018) look at the roots of, well, roots music. The story, such as it is, is really a collection Continue reading

But They Don’t Have Cash

Grazing in the Grass

Not so much reading as grazing

Another week, another goal missed. At some point this backlog thing has to work itself out.

In the meantime, there are more than a few  items, published but lacking harder covers, to call to your attention. Given the number of academic papers I’m reading, that could Continue reading

Ever Since I Been Ridin’

A Subway for New York
David Weitzman

I confess. I cheated.

Making little progress on my stacks of reading material, I started in on the children’s novel I’d assigned Miss AHC, telling myself it was a noble effort to Continue reading

Somebody Done Somebody Wrong

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
John Mortimer

You can always tell when I have too much going on because the only books I  finish are lighter fare. That puts you in an enviable position since, unlike Mrs. AHC, you needn’t deal with the stacks of unfinished tomes Continue reading

Call Mr. Lee

Cricklewood Green
Ten Years After

If you’d wanted to, back in the 1960s and 70s, you could listen to all sorts of rock bands that allegedly based their music on the blues. I’ve pretty much convinced myself, if no one else, that the entire Classic Rock canon rests on a misconception that Continue reading

Not the Man I Used to Be

The Talented Mr. Ripley
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Patricia Highsmith

Among my less pleasant quirks is an inability to get unstuck. Sometimes I seize on something about a book or movie that is inconsequential, yet I can’t get past it. All forward motion ceases and the sane among you, which Continue reading

The Future’s so Bright

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties
Paul Collier

Turn with me now to serious things.

For some, the sky is falling, what with talk of 70% marginal tax rates. For others, the glorious socialist future is only a moment away.

Some of us, who can remember when things seemed less anxious, may wonder why there are only two choices. Continue reading

When the Circus Comes to Town

Cheaper by the Dozen
Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Carey Gilbreth

Some folks say making sure your kids grow up with a firm moral center is a parent’s primary job. My mom would’ve said it’s their only job.

Mom ran a tight ship, behaviorally speaking. Popular culture was particularly suspect and, though we did consume our fair share, the endless reruns of older movies on New York‘s three independent TV stations Continue reading

The Foul Evil Deed I Had Done

The Killer Inside Me
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Jim Thompson

I know when to say “Uncle.” The Library of America (LOA) has beaten me.

Not in any serious way, mind you. But a bruised ego is still a bruised ego and I don’t acknowledge failure easily. Who’d have thought that the Continue reading

Get Your Motor Runnin’

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
Hunter S. Thompson

Before Johnny Depp, before Bill Murray, before Timothy Crouse and before Fear and Loathing, there was a fearless journalist who was one helluva writer.

Though he’ll be remembered, loved or loathed for the self-invented, arguably semi-moronic,  genre of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson was as singular a Continue reading

She’s Just a Crazy Mixed Up Kid

Top Secret Twenty-One
Janet Evanovich

It strikes me as odd that I’ve not picked up one of these silly New Jersey-based crime stories in more than a decade. Time was, reading a volume in this series served as, for me, the print equivalent of reruns on Channel 11. But the tape doesn’t lie and I must have given up Continue reading

Keep Me Warm in December

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

I’m not sure how we got here so quickly, but once again It’s time for the annual listing of the songs from which I borrowed my post titles. There is a Spotify playlist, of course, with a few more holes than I’d care for. (Really, who would have thought The Beatles, The Clash and Gang of Four would be available but not Michelle Shocked or James?)

The music keeps me sane and I hope if you’re interested that you take a listen. If you’re a reader, first of all, thank you, I hope you’ve enjoyed some of what you’ve read here. If this is the place you found or re-encountered a book, author or idea then we are both richer for it.

I hope you enjoy the music. Here’s to better things in 2019.

  1.  These are the Fables—The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema, 2005
  2.  Anchorage–Michelle Shocked, Short, Sharp, Shocked, 1988
  3.  The Fool on the Hill—The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, 1968
  4.  He’s Gone—Grateful Dead, Europe ’72, 1972
  5.  Duke’s Place (C Jam Blues)—Ella Fitzgerald, Ella at Duke’s Place, 1965
  6.  Girl U Want—Devo, Freedom of Choice, 1980
  7.  No More Tears (Enough is Enough)—Barbara Streisand and Donna Summer, 1977
  8.  Seconds—U2, 1983
  9.  Building a Fire—James, 1994
  10.  Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time—Gang of Four, 1981
  11.  Surrey with the Fringe on the Top—Gordon MacRae, 1955
  12.  Ode to Joy—Sir Georg Solit & the LSO, 1990
  13.  Into the Great Wide Open–Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 1991
  14.  He Was the King—Neil Young, 2006
  15.  History Repeating—Propellerheads, 1997
  16.  Mermaid—Train, 2012
  17.  Living through Another Cuba—XTC, 1980
  18.  Holiday—Madonna, 1983
  19.  Down and Out in Paradise, John Mellencamp, 1987
  20.  Ghosts—The Jam, 1982
  21.  When the Cactus is in Bloom—Bill Monroe, 1964
  22.  Rock the Casbah—The Clash, 1982
  23.  It’s Written in the Stars—Paul Weller, 2002
  24.  She’s Leaving Home—The Beatles, 1967
  25.  Trouble—Elvis Presley, 1958
  26.  On Treasure Island, Louis Armstrong, 1936
  27.  Perverted by Language, The Fall, 1983
  28.  She Blinded Me With Science—Thomas Dolby, 1982
  29.  Hanging on the Telephone-Blondie, 1978
  30.  We Can Be Heroes—David Bowie, 1977
  31.  Finest Worksong—R.E.M, 1985
  32.  Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair—Richard & Linda Thompson, 1975
  33.  The Gravity of the Situation—Vic Chestnutt, 1996
  34.  Listen to the Music—The Doobie Brothers, 1974
  35.  Superman—The Kinks, 1979
  36.  For God’s Sake (Give More Power to the People)—The Chi-Lites, 1971
  37.  Easy (Like Sunday Morning)—The Commodores, 1978
  38.  Lost Mind—Mose Allison, 1957
  39.  Tables and Chairs—Andrew Bird, 2005
  40.  It is a Good Day (to Die)—Robbie Robertson, 1994
  41.  Istanbul (Not Constantinople)—They Might Be Giants, 1990
  42.  Jesus is Just Alright—The Doobie Brothers, 1972
  43.  Bad Case of Loving You—Robert Palmer, 1979
  44.  A Certain Girl—Ernie-K-Doe, 1961
  45.  Secret Secrets—Joan Armatrading, 1985
  46.  With a Child’s Heart—Diana Ross & The Supremes, 1969
  47.  Warm in December—Julie London, 1956

With a Child’s Heart

R. J. Palacio

Just how does a grown-ass man find himself laid low by a book written for children, reduced, repeatedly, to puddles? Why is he even reading such a book in the first place?

I’d say these are mysteries but that’s not true. The answer to the second question is mundane; to the first Continue reading

By Intelligence You’ve Got to Swear

Thoughts on a Brouhaha in Academia

Casual readers be warned, this is one of those occasional posts about matters of little import to everyday folk. Normally that includes you and me, but in this case I’m invested, for reasons I hope become clear.

Anyone who spends more than a nanosecond on social media (or any Fox outlet for that matter) has no doubt stumbled across some bit of outrage being stoked on a Continue reading

There’s a Certain Girl

Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir
Linda Ronstadt

Mistakes are part of life, so I try to learn from mine.

Take my declarations about genres. Every time I declare I don’t read a particular type of book, I find myself behaving in a contradictory manner.

Consider Exhibit A: biography, a category that includes autobiography and the successful publisher-created Continue reading

Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder

Had I not misread an email notice you’d be reading something else right now.

Leave aside the preconceptions buried in that sentence, though, and turn your attention to this latest instance of what I’m thinking of calling instant publishing.

If that brings to mind the freeze-dried crystals that a college friend ate by the tablespoonful to ward off the Continue reading

Jesus is Just Alright

Miss Gomez and the Brethren
William Trevor

Lost. Once again I am completely lost.

I really hate when that happens.

If you’ve visited before, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered me in my befuddlement. Almost always, the cause is a work of fiction. I always say it’s important to Continue reading

Even Old New York was Once New Amsterdam

New Netherland In a Nutshell: A Concise History of the Dutch
Colony in North America
Firth Haring Fabend

It’s always easy for me, in the months when the year seems to be collapsing in on itself, to recede into a cocoon of learning. I may not much fancy human company, but I never avoid a book.

Not even one as oxymoronically subtitled as this one.

Concise history indeed. The very notion is suspect and the reality is something different altogether. Even Continue reading

Rock the Vote

On the cusp of the 2018 election

I’m very good at miscalculating. So it’s not surprising that with a reawakened client, an assignment to grade, a midterm to draft and too many long books in progress that I’m short a post.

So this week I’ll keep it brief. In the United States we will vote in a new Congress. Whatever your policy views, it’s important to be part of the process and, if you are registered or can still register, vote.

It’s too easy to be cynical. My own politics are too complicated for bumper Continue reading

Raise Your Voice up to the Sky

The Way to Rainy Mountain
N. Scott Momaday

There’s been so much noise lately that I needed a
quiet book.

So I went hunting in the unread stash I keep in my basement, the acquired-but-unread treasures of a life-long booklover. And I found exactly what I was looking for.

Look this book up–on Wikipedia, say, or on a bookseller’s website–and you’ll find a synopsis. Perhaps Continue reading

If We Can Call Them Friends

A Factor of Six (from a Focus Group of One)

Fifteen to one.

That was the sole answer I received when I asked a simple question in a political discussion on Facebook yesterday.

I actually wasn’t looking for a ratio when I Continue reading

Help Me Find My Mind

How the Right Lost It’s Mind
Charles J. Sykes

Stories are powerful. So indulge me in a story.

Once upon a time, I didn’t have a smart phone. I carried a BlackBerry for work, and my trusty flip phone, but I left the iPhones and Androids to others. When asked why, I Continue reading

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Six Easy Pieces
Walter Mosley

Academia and I have a rocky relationship that’s a bit one-sided. I see great potential, often squandered; they don’t pay me much heed at all.

So it should come as no surprise that my academic colleagues look askance at ‘binary thinking.’  I’m a Continue reading

(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People

Ruminations in the wake of Kavanaugh

Photo by Gratisography on

It is done.

Now we must pick up the pieces and move on.  Why, I wonder, add more words at a time when so many seem so set in their beliefs that persuasion has become chimerical?

When faced with despair–and, given the Continue reading

Wish I Could Fly Like Superman

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
Gerard Jones

The fact that I could have found a song lyric about  Superman written in almost any decade from 1940 to the present tells you everything you need to know about the power and persistence of this cartoon/cultural icon. Yet despite its pretensions to helping explain how that Continue reading

Listen to the Music

Best Music Writing 2011
Alex Ross, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor

This is going to be one of those semesters.

We’re only a couple of weeks in and  I’m already so far behind I’m in danger of seeing myself out on my way in.

Luckily, though I hadn’t planned it this way, it turns out that I am prepared for just such a contingency. That Claude S. Fischer book from last month is not the only read-but-not- Continue reading

The Gravity of the Situation

Slapstick (or Lonesome No More)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Now I remember why I stopped.

Reading novels, that is.

You might not know that from the list of books discussed in this space.  But for at least a half decade the only craftsman I trusted with story-telling was Continue reading

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Nelson DeMille

Let me state the obvious: there is no song lyric about Spencerville, at least that I’m aware of. And so I find myself stretching to make a completely unrelated burg serve as a stand-in so I can maintain a conceit about post titles.

Well, I had to fail sometime. And since none of this has Continue reading