Monday, June 10, 2019

The Library Book by Susan Orlean



This book brought waves of nostalgia as it recalled two of the favorite things of my youth - libraries and setting shit on fire. I thought it was going to be a crime drama, but even better than the story of the arson investigation was the amazing history of the Los Angeles library and the description of the myriad things libraries are up to now. When I was a kid, the library in my town had a single librarian, Mrs. Peters, and she was a force to behold. She was grandmotherly in a way, often giving candy to us kids (as long as we returned our books on time), but if you were too loud, she would smack you on the arm with a long, flat stick that read, "Mama knows." And she sure as hell did. But if you got smacked, you knew you deserved it and you just shut up and moved on. Can you imagine what would happen if one of these snowflake children got hit by a librarian nowadays? Lawsuits, newspapers, insufferable parents bemoaning their poor victimized angel. Give me a god damn break.

The closest anyone got to setting our library on fire was when Eddie Walker tried to smoke a cigarette in the back corner and threw it into a garbage can when Mrs. Peters started walking over. She put the kibosh on that, and I will spare you the description of what she did to him. Looking back on things, I can recognize that Eddie was not a great influence, but we all sure loved him at the time. Mostly because we knew that if we turned up in his backyard after school, he would be burning things. Among things I can recall him lighting on fire are the following: newspapers, homework, piles of leaves, books (sorry Mrs. Peters), pornographic photos, a telephone directory, our math teacher's brassiere (no actual proof of ownership), a flag from an unidentified country (assumed to be an enemy of the US), his report card, the report card of any other kid not too chicken to hide it from his parents, stuffed dolls, electricity bills, his sister's diary (allegedly - we were not allowed to read it due to his concern for her privacy), the carcass of a raccoon, and unopened mail. Good times.

I asked my grandson about the librarian at his school, and he told me that she "gives no fucks." In truth, I have no idea what that even means, but I got the impression that she and I would get along. Of course, I have also heard him use that phrase to describe three other teachers at his school, his friend's mom, the guy behind the cash register at Culver's, a ferret, and himself. I told my daughter that I was concerned about his foul language, and she told me to look in the mirror. I replied that I saw a dapper gentleman who uses curse words sparingly, purposefully, and to convey important and subtle meaning not otherwise available. She said that was bullshit, and I told her I could see that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. She gave me a queer look at that, laughed to herself, and left the room, which I interpreted as an admission of guilt. Another point for me!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Getting By: Understanding Lifelong Depression by Jack Trelance


So I was sitting in my la-z-boy enjoying my ginner (that's what I call it when instead of eating dinner, I just drink gin), when I heard an unfamiliar knock at my door. I was engrossed in this well-written confessional memoir about mental health, which traces the long history of symptoms and treatment of Mr. Trelance. He does well to convey the intensity of his experience without being maudlin, and there was a lot to learn from and to relate to. Thus, I was in no mood to be interrupted, and since I recognize the knock of the few people I would willingly allow into my house, I knew it was a stranger who was about to receive my fury.

It turned out to be a young bubbly do-gooder with a hemp necklace, Birkenstocks, and a clipboard. I've got a couple standard ways of handling people like this. Option 1 is the hard of hearing route. I let them start their spiel and repeatedly say "What was that?" or "Eh?" and see how loud I can get them to talk. Then, when they are inappropriately loud, I yell, "Quit screaming at me, you hooligan!" and I shut the door. Option 2 is the lost my marbles route. I keep saying, "Tell me more!" and encourage them to go on and on about their cause and then hit them with a deadpan "Are you my grandson?" or "Where's my soup?" That usually gets them on to the next house in a hurry, and their reward is having to deal with Margaret and her schnauzer.

But for some reason this time I was off my game. The kid was selling memberships to public television, which is all well and good, and my mind was wandering between the poignant scene in the book I was reading and that time when Fred Rogers went to Congress and convinced some mustachioed doofus not to end the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I thought back momentarily on how my kids used to watch public television all those years ago, and I offhandedly said, "Oh, thanks, but I'm already a member." "Great!" he says, "I can look that up right here." Damn it! What a rookie mistake. Far below my standards. It took him about 9 seconds to look up my address and figure out that I was not a member. But he played it smoothly. "Must have been public radio," he says, chuckling. "Must have been," I reply. But I'm rattled at that point, and I go with the next worst lie possible - "I think I donated at work." "Great!" he says, "Where do you work?" Now I know what I look like, and we both knew I was well past the age of gainful employment. Umm....I'm a greeter at the morgue? Backup cryptkeeper? Model for people learning to paint rhino skin? And it was way too late for the hard of hearing or lost my marbles ruse. This damn hippie was beating me at my own game.

I was nearly out of options, and out of pure desperation I just gave an indefinite cry of discomfort, put my hand across my stomach, mumbled "Excuse me," and backed out of the doorway, shutting and locking the door. I was embarrassed at my JV performance, but consoled myself by going back to my book and my gin. But not 5 minutes later, more pounds at the door! I was really going to read the kid the riot act this time, but when I opened the door, it was paramedics! The damn fool thought I was having a heart attack and called an ambulance! Now I was really pissed. I insisted that I was fine, but they made me go through all kinds of tests, and all the while, he was lurking in the background, still thinking he could make the sale! I told one of the beefy medics to thank him for his concern and tell him to move along, and eventually he went. After what seemed like an eternity, the main doc said "Is there anything else we can do for you, sir?" I was truly at a loss for words at that point, and the only reply I could manage was, "Where's my soup?"

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Fire and Blood by George R.R. Martin


This time my daughter has gone too far. But I'll get to that. First, for you new folks, let me introduce myself. To summarize, I am just an old guy who loves books. I read everything - even the crap my son-in-law gives me in his misguided attempts to build a relationship. Jesus, Gerry - give it up. And now I write a blog called An Angry Old Man Reviews Books. It is truth in advertising. Doing this blog was not my idea, and on principle I do not typically like other people's ideas, but I have to reluctantly admit that it has brought me some enjoyment. At least with this, if no one cares what I'm saying, I can't tell in the moment. And as a retired person and a widower, I do have a bit of time on my hands. So that's the prequel on me - on to the Game of Thrones prequel and my daughter's unannounced visit.

My daughter and I have agreed on principle that since I still have four people's worth of stuff in my house, which has only one current occupant, that getting rid of some things makes sense. And I am all for letting the grandkids have old dressers and bookshelves and whatnot, but yesterday Rachel drops by on a lark and says that it is time for me to get rid of my La-Z-Boy recliner. I happened to be in said recliner at the time, finishing Fire and Blood, and was not quite ready to be yanked from the world of fantasy back to the horrid details of reality, but so be it.

Let me emphasize - this is MY chair! It was always known in our house as Dad's Chair, and then Grandpa's Chair. It was in this chair that I read to them as children. It was in this chair that I came up with the recipe for Grandpa's Secret Spicy Pickles, using fatalii peppers, mustard seeds, garlic, and a secret ingredient that I am not about to tell you here. It was in this chair that I read 90% of Fire and Blood (the other 10% was in the bathroom after my son once again chose the wrong Mexican restaurant). So I told her she could basically have anything in the house that she wants but to give it up with the chair. I wanted to tell her that she was conceived in this chair just to make her uncomfortable, but that seemed unnecessarily petty, and she probably remembers that we got it when she was about 8 anyway. But then she told me that my wife Eleanor never liked the chair anyway, and that was when I had had enough. It was Eleanor, after all, who bought me the chair. Or at least, she found the coupon that I used to purchase the chair, which is pretty much the same thing. I admit that she did at times leave furniture catalogs on the bedside table, and she occasionally commented that it didn't match anything else in the house, but it was always with a smile and a nod of understanding. It is, after all, the only piece of furniture I picked out in the entire course of our marriage. So no, I am not getting rid of this chair, no matter what Rachel has to say, and I escorted her from the house making sure she understood the situation perfectly. The book was good.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Song of Kieu by Nguyen Du



I must start by expressing the gratitude I felt to Sarah Wright and Penguin Classics for sending me this new edition of the Vietnamese epic poem, "The Song of Kieu," with lovely translation and introduction by Timothy Allen. This is a new area of literature for me, and I was grateful for the historical context Mr. Allen provided. I found the text to be remarkably readable and lyrical, and I finished it with satisfaction. It stuck with me in the following days, and I was intrigued to learn more about the author and the translator, and that was when I realized what a Trojan horse this gift really was.

First, some context. When I was courting Eleanor, I had a rival. He was (in my biased opinion) a short, weaselly fellow, but oh, how her parents loved him. He came from an established family that owned a successful glove-making company. He had graduated from an esteemed university (salutatorian) and had the option of taking over the family business or going to any number of corporations who were wooing him. He composed music on the french horn, volunteered for civic organizations, and sang opera. Total schmuck. I, on the other hand, had nothing but my sense of humor, my rakish good looks, and a handful of fantastic heirloom family pickle recipes. Hardly a fair fight. I won, obviously, but I did not emerge unscathed. For years, even after we were married, Eleanor's father had a favorite saying when he disapproved of something I did (which was often). He would grumble, "I don't think Walter would have done that." Fucking Walter. My self-esteem never truly recovered from him. Gets my dander up just thinking about him.

Enter Mr. Timothy Allen. Turns out this guy has been an aid worker in just about every impoverished corner of the earth. He can speak a brazilian different languages (if brazilian was a language, he would speak that too). He is an accomplished poet, wins fancy awards, is a professor at an esteemed university, a family man, and occasionally translates epic Vietnamese poems just for kicks. He is an ubermench! Rumor has it that he may also be ambidextrous, can juggle eggs with his eyes closed, and has a patent for biodegradable straws. And what do I do? I sit around in my lazy-boy, reading and drinking gin, make the occasional batch of pickles, and rant on the internet, which I don't even fully understand. I can hear Walter laughing from his grave (I actually have no idea if he is still alive, but the math is against him).

Then I started getting paranoid. I wanted to write something about how beautiful the translation was, but it occurred to me that I really have no way of judging that. The closest I ever got to translating anything was trying to decipher pictorial instructions for making kim chi, and that ended with a giant hole in my backyard full of rotten cabbage. So no points for me. For all I know, he could have made the whole thing up. I mean, is there really an ancient Vietnamese word that translates as "gobshite"? Seems unlikely. From there I started worrying about all the other things we just take on faith to be true. Do camels with two humps really live longer than camels with one hump? Is Fun Dip actually fun? Is the Earth truly flat? Is sea salt really saltier than regular salt? Does God exist? This list goes on. So, to summarize, great book, and I look forward to talking to you about it when I emerge from my existential crisis.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Overstory by Richard Powers


This book has got a lot about trees, which are things I happen to love. They are strong and durable, provide fruit, shade, and oxygen, and I also love the part of The Lord of the Rings when the Ents beat the crap out of some Orcs. Those were some badass trees. When my kids were young, I taught them all about the different trees in our neighborhood. If you live on the Earth, you should be able to identify the things you share it with, that's what I say. If you can't tell the difference between a birch and a beech, no supper! Oh, relax, snowflakes. These days, kids don't even know trees exist because to see them, they would have to look in the opposite direction from their phones. I bet one out of ten kids at most could even tell you the difference between an oak tree and a maple tree. What the hell is wrong with us? But that is not what I'm angry about today.

I also used to take my kids and their friends camping sometimes. We'd learn about trees, of course, and other aspects of nature, and sometimes I would stretch the truth a little bit - all in good fun of course. One time I hid a pile of Raisinettes in the woods, and then I led them "exploring" and stumbled across my pile. I told them that it was either rabbit poop or fox poop, but that they were hard to tell apart. "Rabbit poop is mushier," I said, "Anyone want to feel?" No takers, so I delicately picked up a Raisinette and rolled it around in my hands. "You can sometimes differentiate by smell," I continued. I got my nose right down in there, much to the children's dismay. They were starting to look a little green, I had to admit, but I wasn't about to stop there. "But to be honest, the only real way to tell rabbit poop from fox poop is by taste." Gasps all around. I pretended not to notice and just started popping the Raisinettes in my mouth, chewing pensively, swishing them back and forth in my cheeks while the kids were audibly gagging. "Oh well," I concluded when the pile was gone, "Still not sure. Shall we continue hiking?" I think my son might have been onto me at that point, but I gave him the look that said if he wanted to be led out of the woods at any point in the near future, he had better keep his mouth shut, and he did. On one camping trip I taught the group of kids about extraterrestrial life and then scared the bejeezus out of them by "discovering" a mannequin wrapped in tin foil. Heh - kids are stupid. But of course some of the parents complained after that one and that was the end of the big group camping trips. Parents are stupid too. But that's not what I'm angry about either.

What's really chapping my hide today is what happened in my front yard yesterday. There is a lovely Japanese maple tree that resides between my sidewalk and the street, so technically, on city property. There were city employees out there tapping at it and wielding a truck full of vegetation torture instruments. I asked if something was wrong, if the tree was diseased or something. But they said no, it was just normal maintenance, which turned out to mean that any branch within 30 feet of the ground got maniacally lopped off. I swear those sadistic tree-killers were whooping with joy when they did it, too. Now it's about 60% trunk and looks like a giant purple broccoli. Damn it all.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Godfather by Mario Puzo


I have definitive evidence to suggest that my next-door neighbor Margaret (the one with the schnauzer) and the guy across the street, Darren (I just fell asleep trying to find an adjective to describe his personality) are, as the kids say, in cahoots. I have seen them whispering on multiple occasions, and I doubt they are exchanging pleasantries, because there is nothing pleasant about either of them. I would rather make small talk with Luca Brasi.

It all started over the dandelions. It won't surprise you to learn that I am no fan of dandelions. They are like the sweet pickles of flowers - at first glance they appear enticing, but upon closer inspection, they reveal their sinister nature. Just as sweet pickles offend the very soul of pickling, dandelions seemingly mock the entire panoply of flowers by being beautiful for a day and then undergoing a swan-like metamorphosis in reverse, becoming an insidious, sharp, ugly, expanding blight on the earth. Although perhaps I overstate the point.

In any case, I feel like I have done my due diligence in combating dandelions over the years, although sometimes they do get away from me. It didn't help when my granddaughter Tina told me she would come over and help, and all she did was make a crown out of the yellow ones and blow the white ones all over the yard, setting me back literally years. But look, I was put on this earth to raise kids, not grass, and I don't know how well I did with the former, but it's hard for me to really give a crap about the latter. And I am not about to cover my lawn with chemicals and pollute the whole neighborhood, letting poisons run off into the lake and whatnot, despite the chance that Margaret's schnauzer might come over and become collateral damage. I wouldn't really mind if that happened, but that's not how you should do things. One thing I learned from this book is that if you are going to kill someone, you should do it on principle and with efficiency.

So Darren and Margaret saunter over with their fake smiles and ask about my health and my grandkids, and I can see where this is going. They casually mention that they are treating their lawns and even offered to have "their guy" do mine while he is here. They'll even split the cost! Their theory is something about herd immunity, like measles shots and whatnot, the implication being that by not treating my own lawn, I am ruining theirs. Well, guess what, folks? I have "guys" who do stuff for me too, and you don't want to mess with these people. When I was younger I hung out with this dude called Louie the Elbow, who had two friends named Big Tuna and Mr. Smooches (that moniker was intended to be ironic). Not exactly horse head in the bed types, but at the very least, bullion cube in the shower head types. They would know exactly how to handle his situation, and if Margaret and Darren don't leave me alone, I will go find them in their nursing home, and we will take this shit into our own hands.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari


You can learn a lot about our species by reading this book, but if you need proof that humans are idiots, look no further than the changing of the seasons. People wander about dumbstruck, as if this had never happened before! This week it got warm, because it is spring. And yet it seemed to blow people's minds. "Isn't it amazing," my daughter asked. "Did you see the buds on the trees?" I explained to her that the arrival of spring was not amazing to me, but rather a predictable and inevitable outcome of earth's travels around the sun, and that the buds appeared to be similar to last year's that arrived at more or less the same time. But she just laughed me off. My neighbor Margaret declared - I shit you not - that the sunny day was "literally a miracle." No, Margaret. A miracle would be if you got your Christmas lights down before February or learned how to appropriately use the word "literally." This is just nature.

My son came into my house beaming on Saturday, saying "Spring is here! Do you know what that means?" I began taking guesses. Extra yardwork? The return of mosquitoes? Time to file my taxes? People letting their dogs off leash? Excessive puddles? Migratory birds shitting on my lawn? Creeping charlie? The NHL playoffs? Skateboarders infesting public parks? Stupid people being amazed by natural phenomena? Shockingly, all my guesses were incorrect. "The Gardens are open!," he exclaimed. By this he means the local botanical gardens, in all their pre-blossoming splendor. Sigh.

Where the hell did you all get the idea that old people love botanical gardens? I believe this to be some kind of organized ageist conspiracy. Every time I am there, the whole place is full of geriatrics getting carted around by people who think they get double credit for spending time with grandpa and also doing something unbearably boring. If you think it is tiresome now, do you anticipate that at some point you are going to suddenly love going there? Hell no, Larry. You know how tedious it is. Why don't you drop the facade and just take me to the bar?