Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Devil's Apprentice by Kenneth B. Andersen



Many thanks to both Dave and Kenneth for allowing me to be part of this blog tour. It is a privilege I hardly deserve, and a pleasure to read such a great book! I liked a lot of things about it - it had a novel idea, and it was a fast read with entertaining characters. It has action, humor, and nice tips on how to be evil, if that's your thing. And these all are reasonable things to say in a book review, right? More or less what you would expect? Certainly not "a bunch of snarky bullshit," as my son-in-law Gerry would have you believe. Are you fucking kidding me? This from a guy who didn't know that you can make corned beef hash without just getting it out of a can!

Some people can never get over their jealousy, that's their problem. Even when I did more or less give my consent for Gerry to propose to Rachel (I think my exact words were, "If you're going to do it anyway, then have at it"), he knew he could never really replace me as the top dog in her heart. And living so close just reminds him of his relative unimportance. If it were up to him, they would have moved to some hellhole like Arizona years ago, and I would never get to see my grandkids. And I can tell he's still plotting. Come to think of it, he would have been a much more successful devil's apprentice than that kid, Philip.

My relationship with my father-in-law was not like this. The first time Eleanor brought me home to meet her dad, I challenged him to Indian leg-wrestling. He kicked my ass seven times in a row, but he knew from that point forward that I wasn't afraid of him. And that was important later when I did things he didn't like, which was most of the time. But Gerry is so weak. You should have seen him when he came to ask for some help with a down payment for their house. We had already told Rachel we would give them the money, but when I gave him the line about how money was tighter than I thought these days, I thought he was literally going to cry. Pathetic. I still refer to it as "my house" sometimes just to watch him cringe. So I recommend this book to everyone, but especially to Gerry, who I think will learn some useful life lessons.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Gold Ring: Wall Street's Swindle of the Century and its Most Scandalous Crash - Black Friday, 1869 by Kenneth Ackerman



So I was at my daughter's house last weekend, ostensibly for coffee, although whatever it was she served me came out of this little pod that she popped into some futuristic machine, and on top of that she refused to let me put any whiskey in it, on account of it being 8:30 in the morning, so it goes without saying that we were off to a rough start. She was talking to Tina, my granddaughter, in the next room, and they were discussing Black Friday. "You know about Black Friday, right grandpa?," says Tina. "Of course!," I reply, thinking to myself, "Oh shit, here we go again." After the debacle with the planets, the last thing I wanted was for Tina to have another I Told You So moment, so I excused myself by claiming that I had a pickling emergency to attend to, and I hobbled up to the library and got this book.

In case you were unaware, the story of Black Friday is a couple of rich assholes trying to get richer at everyone else's expense by cornering the gold market on the New York Gold Exchange. The market collapsed and the country was temporarily fucked. Sound familiar? Anyone? Jamie Dimon, perhaps? 150 years later, and it's the same old shit. God Bless America. At least I learned enough to put Tina in her place this time.

Here's the kicker, though. I called her up and asked if she would be kind enough to stop by with a real coffee (made from beans, by a human), and I started talking about what I had learned, and she explained that Black Friday is actually a holiday where - I shit you not - everyone spends the whole day shopping. Can you believe this bullshit? Can anything be less of a holiday than that? Is there a holiday where we spend the day sticking forks in our eyes? Or listening to my son-in-law talk about jazz? No, Gerry, it is not the goddamn notes that he didn't play! Tina talked about going shopping with her mom as if it was a recreational activity! Like fishing! Or drinking!

My philosophy on shopping is that you only go shopping when you know what you need, then you go in and get it, and then you leave. No wandering around like mindless sheep, impulsively buying whatever strikes your fancy, as if money grew on trees or expired if you didn't use it. I think I'm less offended by the idea of some rich asshole trying to steal all my money (looking at you, Bezos) than by a holiday devoted entirely to shopping. So sorry Tina, you may know more about Black Friday than I do, but you get no points for this one.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Hamartia by Raquel Rich


You know, even after everything that happened, I still do love Canada. It's a shame that there seems to be a tacit agreement between my family and the Canadian government that I am no longer allowed in the country. Because I keep finding more things to love - including this young Canadian's riveting debut novel about time travel, soul stealing, and parenthood.

I have talked to you about time travel before, but instead of revisiting my ever-growing list of people to kill and pickle recipes to steal, I want to discuss something else that this book really gets right - deference to authority! The schmuck responsible for everyone's souls dying only gets away with his nefarious deeds because people will basically do anything they're told by someone in a fancy suit. Even I am not immune! Just listen to what happened to me at the dentist!

First, I have to admit that I am no longer in peak physical condition. I have hypertension, bunions, hair loss, a bad eye, a worse eye, chronic osgood-schlatter syndrome, orneriness, sleep problems, pickle breath, arthritis, pumpkin spice allergy, and a wart - and these are just my G-rated symptoms! But I have always been told that I have wonderful teeth. And so I was a little peeved at my last check-up when I was told that there was a cavity developing that I should probably just take care of. Quick and easy, they said. But it's not bothering me at all, I argued. It will, they said. And that was the only verifiably true thing I was told that day.

If only I had read this book before that appointment, I would have told them exactly where to stick their rotating buzzy toothbrushes, but no, I just acquiesced like a good lemming. Predictably, it was a total shitshow. The young dentist (maybe just some kid who happened to be there for take your child to work day?) couldn't get the spacer in (whatever the fuck that is - that's just what they told me later), and he ended up scraping half the enamel off one of my teeth. I will never forget him staring down at me, frantically working this metal thing into my mouth, sweating bullets like the guy in Total Recall who is trying to convince Arnold Schwarzenegger not to shoot him because it's all just a dream. If only. You know, I have sometimes fantasized about living out parts of that movie, but not that part! Or the part where he pulls the giant tracking device out of his nose, for the record.

Anyway - now what have I got? One mangled tooth, with a "successful" filling that creates pain and cold sensitivity where it wasn't before. An angry message threatening a law suit that hasn't been returned. And a breakfast that consists of pickles on one side of my mouth and gin on the other, which is quite inconvenient. But at least I learned something. Which is, never go to the dentist. And also, question authority. And also, I'm sure that they would never do something like this in Canada!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell


I am a big fan of statistical anomalies. When something happens that defies the laws of chance, it temporarily creates in me a false belief that anything can happen, and that there is still a chance that the remainder of my life will not be a combination of meaninglessness and soul-sucking boredom followed by being spoon-fed soup. Of course, that idea is illusory, but on the upside, I do like soup.

Statistical anomalies even got me to watch the World Series last week! Now you know my feelings about baseball, so it took something special to convince me to waste a whole week of my time that I would have otherwise spent doing absolutely nothing. More than a week, if you count the time they spent on video reviews. He was out, for Christ's sake - just get on with it! Or safe - who fucking cares? It's baseball! The point is, the away team won every game of the World Series. Do you know what the odds of that are? If we assume that the home team has a 5-10% greater likelihood of winning any single game, and I break out my abacus here to compute this, the odds of 7 straight away wins are like who fucking knows? I can't do math like that, but it never happened before, so it can't be that likely. And just imagining 50,000 fans going home unhappy day after day after day tickled my funny bone enough to make it through all the games, with a healthy serving of gin for all the pitching changes. And congratulations to whatever team it was that won - I'm sure that was great for you.

Numbers can definitely be surprising sometimes - like the time I was shocked to discover that many items at Dollar General are priced higher than a dollar! Talk about some bullshit! People are afraid of the truth though. When I picketed Dollar General, did they lower their prices? No, they did not. Did I end up with a ticket for disturbing the peace? Why yes, I did. There is no justice in this world.

Anyway, this book has lots of practical information, like why professional hockey players are all born in January. That's an interesting anomaly, and a fact that is sure to make you popular with the ladies. I particularly liked the part of this book about the 10,000 hour rule, which basically says that it takes 10,000 hours or practice to achieve greatness at something. I don't know if I would have come up with that number, but it does explain why I am now the world's foremost expert at telling my son-in-law what an idiot he is. Jesus, Gerry - look what you turned me into.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Death Among Us by Stephen Bentley et al.


This is a great collection of dark murder mystery stories - just right for the Halloween season. Too much candy, not enough murder - that's the problem with Halloween these days. Anyway, I especially liked the story where the police chase a demented murderer into a cave and they all get eaten by a giant hairy slug-monster. I imagined it like that creature from Stranger Things on steroids. Some scary shit! I could use something like that around here to deal with my neighbor's schnauzer. But you can never find a ravenous, bloodthirsty monster when you need one, can you?

This whole collection got me reminiscing about my childhood because fear played such an integral role in it. I remember lots of scary stories my parents used to tell us. Like the one about don't you dare go near Old Man Palmer's House if you don't want to get kidnapped. Or the one about you had better have all your chores done by the time I get home or I shit you not you will regret it. In retrospect, they seem somewhat less like stories than threats, but there is a blurry line, I suppose.

I'll tell you this - we didn't bat an eye at that kind of thing back then. These days, when all the 9-year-old snowflakes get their mandatory cell phones, they come pre-programmed with the number for Child Protective Services so they can report their parents if they forget to say please when asking them to stop playing video games at midnight. What the hell happened to respect? And Halloween is a perfect example.

When I was a kid, you assembled some kind of costume from what you had around the house and walked up and down the block, collecting a few small pieces of candy and maybe a couple pennies. It was a wholesome community event that brought people together. And now look! If you don't buy an expensive, full body Disney get up, you are the cheapskate parent, and that's if you're lucky. Half the kids out there see Halloween as an excuse to wear the most inappropriate clothing (or lack thereof) that they can find. "Oh bye Mom, I'm going to the party as a sexy clown kitten in a tornado - don't wait up!"

Which is not to mention that it is practically warfare in the streets to obtain insane amounts of candy. When I was still foolish enough to give out candy on Halloween, I would open my door with a bowl and before I could give anything away, I would be practically knocked over by hordes of bloody mutants and sexy fairies ravenously attacking my bowl. And don't even try to set limits on what they can eat, parents, unless you've already deleted that CPS number. Sometimes we have to take it upon ourselves to restore meaning to our societal rituals, so this year I am just going to focus on that feeling of satisfaction I get from that look on a kid's face as you hand him a box of raisins. That, my friends, is the spirit of the season.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Shamus Dust by Janet Roger



There are people out there trying to get me, and you can't convince me otherwise. This suspenseful,  intricate, deftly written murder mystery just reminded me of how far people will go. I couldn't help but relate to our brusque, headstrong hero, Newman. He's the kind of guy who can be a complete jerk but you can't help but love him anyway. I will admit that I have been described that way once or twice. The other shoe is persistently about to drop in this novel, and Newman justifiably seems to believe that there is always someone around the corner with eyes on him. And I can relate to that too! Just listen to what happened to me yesterday.

It started when I went up to the gas station to get some Takis. Have you tried these things? Not as bad as you would think. When you get old enough to count your taste buds one by one, you need something with a little kick. But that is not really the point. When I got home, the little string I leave hanging down over my screen door was INSIDE the door, definitive evidence that an intruder had been present. Since my children have forced me to have a "hidden" key for "safety" reasons, anyone with a metal detector can now break into my home at any time.

I entered my home slowly (admittedly, this is my default setting), and I grabbed the night vision goggles I keep by the door for emergencies and turned off the lights. Unfortunately, it was only 4:00 in the afternoon, so the sunlight made the goggles useless and probably did permanent damage to my bad eye and my less bad eye. There was a smell in the house, not unpleasant, and I could peer into the kitchen enough to see a foreign object on the counter. It was a kind of small, plastic bucket, and a gentle touch told me that it was still warm, indicating that the intruder had only just left, or in fact was still lurking in the shadows! I listened for a few moments but heard nothing. I opened the bucket and saw what appeared to be chicken soup. It looked and smelled delicious, but I am not an idiot. I considered my options.

My first thought was to run some tests, but most of my lab equipment was confiscated after my snake venom experiments. Did you know that you can buy that stuff on the internet? I knew it was shortsighted to have agreed to dismantle the lab, but a plea deal is a plea deal. With no better option coming to mind, I was left with no choice but to dump the entire bucket down the drain as quickly as possible. Nice try, assassins. You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to outsmart me, and today is not your day!

A followup: This afternoon I received a call from my daughter, who asked if I enjoyed the chicken soup that she made me. I replayed yesterday's events in my head, and I had to admit that this alternative explanation made some sense, although who is to say if she is in cahoots with forces unknown and just checking to see if I was dead yet. I didn't want to outright lie, so I told her that her soup had indeed made quite an impression. Perhaps a missed opportunity on my part, but who is going to complain about a dinner of gin and Takis?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking


I love science. You know why? It helps you make other people look stupid! Doesn't it feel great to drop a load of facts on some guy at a party spouting out about shit he doesn't understand? You know what I'm talking about. And so does my granddaughter Tina, I might add. She knows that there are only a few things in life I can't stand: 1) Sweet pickles (an abomination), 2) Being wrong (this rarely happens, of course), and 3) Being wrong about sweet pickles (not possible). So we have this little game of trying to catch each other making mistakes and teaching each other new things, and books like this come in pretty handy for that. I can pretty much guarantee that Tina knows shit about rifts in the space-time continuum.

But a terrible thing happened. We were having tea and apple tarts (aka gin in a teacup for me) after she got home from school and talking about the universe, and I made mention of the 9 planets and how to remember them with the mnemonic we all learned in grade school - My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles. I have always loved that mnemonic device, for obvious reasons. Only Tina tells me that no, there are only 8 planets. A rookie mistake, I thought, for which I was happy to correct her. But she pulls out some bullshit textbook from school, and lo and behold, someone stole Pluto!

God damn it, scientists! What is wrong with you people? You can't just go around changing the number of planets whenever you want to. What is my eager mother supposed to serve us now - Nectarines? Noodles? Nothing? It just doesn't work any more. Pluto is still out there, and it is the same damn thing it was when I was a kid, only now someone ivory tower nerd wants to redefine what a planet is and isn't? No chance, kid. If you like outer space so much, why don't you do something useful, like get out there and find some aliens. There's no way Stephen Hawking would approve of this bullshit. And you just made me look like a fool in front of my granddaughter!

Do you realize how important science is, and what you have done? How are people supposed to believe you about important things like global warming, nanotechnology, and sharknadoes if you can just change facts in retrospect for your own convenience? This doesn't end here, scientists. I want a written letter of apology that I can show to Tina, or I am joining the Flat Earth Society. I will be waiting.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Institute by Stephen King


My daughter and I are "working on our relationship." She knows how much I love Stephen King because reading about other people's terror and misery gives me a moment of illusory joy thinking that my own life isn't so bad after all. So this book was a kind of peace offering from her. "Working on our relationship" essentially means that she comes over on the weekends, suggests a terrible activity, and instead of telling her where to shove it, I smile and say ok and then have to give up a Saturday's worth of reading to take a crochet class or learn to make bubble tea. Side note - what the fuck is bubble tea?

Anyway, this past weekend was beautiful, and she decided we would take a walk along the bike path near my house. The trees are just starting to turn, and it is still warm, and truth be told, I wasn't having the worst time. Then, out of nowhere, a motorcycle comes flying past us on the path, nearly knocking me straight into a patch of invasive garlic mustard that nobody from the city bothered to eradicate (your tax dollars at work, people). I let out a string of expletives that would make Captain Haddock blush, and demanded that my daughter call the police to have the motorcyclist arrested. She then told me that it was not a motorcycle, but rather - I shit you not - an "electric bicycle."

Are you fucking kidding me? First off, what the hell is an electric bicycle? It looks like a motorcycle, it's fast like a motorcycle, it could have killed me like a motorcycle - seems like a motorcycle to me! The only thing missing is the obnoxious noise, which you might think is an improvement, but at least the noise of a real motorcycle warns you when you're about to get run off the road. These things are silent death machines, presumably lurking around every corner to hunt you down like those damn Prius cars everyone is driving! Only for some reason, they let these "bicycles" on walking paths! I mean - doesn't the entire concept defeat the purpose of a bicycle in the first place? You can't very well say you went for a bike ride if you had an electric motor pushing you the whole time.

This is just another prime example of American laziness. These days, people need everything automatized for them, even their exercise! And every time they make something electric, the new version is leaps and bounds worse than the original. I hereby declare my official opposition to electric bicycles, electric cars, electric stoves, electric fireplaces, electric guitars, electric blankets, the Electric Slide, electric eels, Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth album, the electric chair, and electric toothbrushes. If you want clean teeth, move your damn hands!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui


Let me tell you, some crazy shit can happen in a Nashville bathroom. And sometimes the things that happen in our youth can have lasting effects on us, even if we don't remember all the details. This, as it happens, is a central theme of this beautifully illustrated memoir, as the author takes us through her family history in Vietnam and Malaysia and tries to piece together how her early life experience, and that of her parents, influenced the course of her life. But enough about this wonderful book, because it reminded me about this other story, and I'm sure you're all dying to hear it.

As a young man, I happened to find myself in Nashville on Halloween night. The circumstances of my arrival are inconsequential, but I found myself in a full body cow suit in some honky-tonky bar with a bunch of new "friends." I don't know which bar it was, but there was line dancing involved. And there was a crowd of "cow-girls" there that I was drunk enough to believe were interested in my cow-self.

So a bunch of us were piled into this big booth - me, some cowgirls, a pirate, a rodeo clown, and the man from UNCLE. The whiskey we were drinking was worse than the stuff my buddy was making in a bathtub in the shed behind his barn, but it was better than not drinking whiskey, so there you go. At one point, I got up to relieve myself, and when I returned, I had a story to tell. I was somewhat agitated, almost disturbed, but mostly excited to share some shocking news.

"You will not believe what just happened in the restroom," I told them. "It was profound." I started to tell my story, but just at that moment, another round of shots arrived, and we had no choice but to take care of them in the customary fashion. Then the man from UNCLE said something that offended one of the cowgirls. The rodeo clown came to her defense, and in a matter of seconds the table had erupted into fistacuffs! We were all unceremoniously escorted out of the establishment and thrown into the street, where, being Nashville, it was impossible to tell the real cowboys from the Halloween cowboys.

Somehow I ended up face-down in a hammock in somebody's yard, and when we all woke up the next morning, we agreed that just waking up was a victory of sorts. Then one of my friends asked me to tell everyone what had happened in the bathroom, and I shit you not, I didn't have a fucking clue. "But it was profound!," they said, so I spent the rest of the day waiting for it to come back to me. But it didn't! And to this day, I still have never remembered. The obvious questions plague me - what happened? Did it change me without my knowing? Is this why I'm so angry? At this point, I am running out of time and willing to try anything -  hypnosis, psilocybin, sensory deprivation chambers. I would look for witnesses, but the time frame suggests that they are probably all dead. If you have suggestions, email me at imnotreallygoingtolistentoyoursuggestions@aol.com.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood


There is no fucking way I am going to buy gas from a gas station that makes you pay for air. Will not happen. Now I will admit that there is some debate in my family as to whether or not I should be driving at all "at my age," but my mind is sharp as an executioner's blade, and if Ms. Atwood can write a book this good at her age, surely I can handle going to HyVee for some Lean Cuisines and Metamucil.

But back to my point. It does not cost a gas station anything to provide air for you to fill your tires. But one after another, they are installing these indecipherable new air machines that cost 3 dollars and flash a bunch of lights at you while you check your tire pressure. And do you know why? Because people like you let them! You just shrug your shoulders, swipe your Kwik Trip reward card (Hey, free 264 oz. soda!), and surrender. You know where this leads, right? To a corporofascist state that will make Gilead look like Disneyland!

We have been here before, people. I can remember a time 30 years ago when I stopped by my son's house to criticize his lawn care and he offered me bottled water. "How can you buy this stuff?!?!," I exclaimed. "If you do that, people will think it is normal!" He assured me that he had gotten it at a conference and that no one would ever think it would be normal to buy the same water you can get for free, and now look at us! A bunch of brainless sheeple buying bottled water every day like our house was on fire. The only legitimate reason to buy bottled water is to smuggle gin into a baseball game. If you put a little hot glue on the cap, you can make it look unopened. But I digress.

The point is, if you think they will stop at air for tires, you are beyond naive. If you legitimize buying air, you will soon be buying the air you breathe. Giant air conglomerates will control the world's oxygen supply, and they will use it to oppress us all just like on Mars in Total Recall. I knew that movie would come true in the end! And so, even though the cruel irony of burning through gas driving across town to buy gas makes me want to stick a fork in my eye, I will keep doing it. For you. For Offred. For the children.

Friday, September 13, 2019

A Different Time by Michael K. Hill


This is a charming love story with the unique twist that the lovers are connected across decades by the quirk of a magical Camcorder. Which rang true to me, because when we got our first Camcorder, it sure as hell felt like magic. And at my age, I am particularly susceptible to a story that messes with the continuum of time, and it got me thinking about all the things I might do if I could go back and have a second go at it.

Now I recognize that it is convention to say that if you could travel in time that you would first go back and kill Hitler. And I do appreciate that, so yes, first I would kill Hitler. Hooray for me! But then, I have quite a list of important things to get done while in possession of time traveling powers. Top of the agenda is to prevent the invention of many things that have done irreparable damage to modern society. These things include Roombas, clothing for dogs, Tickle Me Elmo, buttonfly jeans, the Macarena, pumpkin spice anything, skateboards, sweet pickles, and guns.

It would be tempting to stop there, having virtually saved modern culture. But I am just too altruistic for my own good. So I would go back and eliminate all acts of major injustice in the world. Like that time in 2005 when Pedro Mendes took a shot from midfield in the last minute of the game and Roy Carroll fumbled it over the line, but a goal was not given because referees always cheat for Manchester United and they always will. I would rectify that bullshit. Also, while I'm at it, racism, sexism, homophobia, and global warming. You're welcome.

But, as a romantic at heart, and inspired by this book, I couldn't stop without finding a way to bring together the lovers whom fate or history deprived of their possibilities - those real life Romeos and Juliets who deserve a second chance. I'm thinking about people like Cleopatra and Marc Antony, Heloise and Abelard, John Keats and Fanny Brawne, Lancelot and Guinevere, Harry and Hermione, my son-in-law Gerry and literally any other human being in the world other than my daughter, Donald Trump and a Kraken, and Bette Davis and yours, truly. You get one guess as to whether or not I will be returning to the present.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan


You know what really pisses me off? CLAMS!! For the life of me, I can not figure out what people see in these terrible creatures. Tell me, what is the point of a clam? No, really, I want to know. These ubiquitous little fuckers are ugly, useless, and prone to bring on an existential crisis. I mean it - go open up a clam, take one look and tell me that you still believe in intelligent design. Jesus.

Now that I have that off my chest, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Egan for this book, because he has provided me with a whole list of additional aquatic animals to be angry at. Sea lampreys, quagga mussels, Asian carp, just to name a few. These are some real nefarious little bastards wreaking havoc on our lakes. I happen to live in a Great Lake state, and I am old enough to remember catching lake trout and not ending up with botulism from out of control algae blooms. It was a beautiful time. Never to be seen again, from what I gather.

I kept waiting for the part of the book that would lay bare the evil of clams, but it never came! And that's what really gets me about these sea-weasels - they have everyone fooled. I mean, everyone knows that zebra mussels are demon spawn, but people think clams are so nice! And tasty! And happy! Bullshit! Happy as a clam? What the hell does a clam have to be happy about? It is immobile, repulsive, and eats algae all day. Kind of reminds me of my mother-in-law, especially in her later years (may she rest in peace).

A little while ago, my son and his girlfriend (yes, miraculously, they are still together) invited me to a "clambake." I do not make a habit of accepting invitations from family (or anyone else for that matter), but I was excited about this because I mistakenly thought it was some kind of ritual in which we would get to kill a shit ton of clams. To my chagrin, they were already dead when we got there, and we were supposed to eat them! Can you believe this shit? But there was gin, so it worked out. In summary, great book!



Monday, August 26, 2019

Canada by Mike Myers



Well, I went to Canada and I didn't die. So I would consider this vacation a success. I don't even know exactly where in Canada I was, but the locals appear to subsist entirely on lobsters and potatoes, so I'm sure some geo-nerd out there can figure it out. And there are lots of cliffs that an old man can "accidentally" fall off of, but I kept my distance from my son-in-law Gerry while we were sightseeing, so no worries. I picked up this book to learn about this country before I visited, but it turns out that it was not a reference book or a travel guide, and this Mike Myers isn't even a historian. He did apparently write some pretty funny shit for a TV show once, so it wasn't that bad.

I'm sure the narrative from my family will be that I ruined this vacation for everyone, but it really was an honest mistake, and they forced my hand in the first place. We were staying in this big cabin not too far from the beach, and a short walk away (even for me) was this little bench behind some bushes with a great view of the ocean. It was a great reading spot, and I sure as hell didn't want the rest of my family to ruin it for me, so I didn't tell anyone about it. Which, as I later explained, was perfectly within my rights.

Now here's something that really pisses me off about Gerry. Whenever we go on vacation, he will pick up pamphlets from the visitor center and then - I shit you not - expound upon what he just read to the rest of us as if he were an expert on local history. I mean, come on. My son Lawrence is an actual historian, and he can't even button his damn shirts correctly, but he doesn't do shit like that. So when Gerry was on a particularly boring diatribe about the origins of confederation, I slipped out the side door and shuffled down to my bench.

At some point while I was reading, I must have fallen asleep (the book was about Canada, after all), but I think I was vaguely aware of some sort of commotion on the beach. When the police started arriving (in cars, not on horses, and without any funny hats to speak of, disappointingly), I stood up and encountered one of Canada's finest. The conversation went approximately like this:

"So, you're missing, eh?"
"I don't think so," (looking at myself to ascertain that I still exist), "Yup. Still here."
"You might want to tell your family that."
"Oh...Well, since you took the trouble to come out here, I wouldn't want to steal your thunder."
"I see. I'll take care of it then."

And that was the last I heard from him. And that was the nicest thing anyone said to me for the rest of the trip!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain


Today's youth are being corrupted by a host of perverse, corrosive influences - things like strawberry milk, house music, carnival rides that go upside down, and sweet pickles, just to name a few. And I have always counted video games among those destructive forces. I mean, have you even had a conversation with a teenager lately? If you somehow manage to get them to put their phones down for a minute, it's all they talk about!

When I was a kid, we played a game called Tougher, or "Tuffs." Essentially, you took turns punching each other in the chest until one person quit. If you didn't quit, then you were Tuffs. It was a great way to pass the time, built character, and multi-player games required no extra equipment. Nowadays, everyone wants to blow up aliens or monsters or whatever it is, but it's all fake! Instead of getting character, teenagers are getting tendinitis. What a world.

The other day, I was sitting in my front lawn guarding it against my neighbor's schnauzer, who had that look she gets when she's ready to do her business, when I heard the sound of my grandson's skateboard (don't get me started) coming my way. I do appreciate it when he chooses this route home, but I was dismayed to look up and see him 1) on a skateboard, 2) in the street, 3) without a helmet, and 4) LOOKING AT HIS PHONE THE WHOLE TIME! After telling him that the fact that he was still alive was a minor miracle, I demanded that he show me this Fortnite or whatever it was he was playing, but he said that I wasn't ready for Fortnite and offered to show me a different game instead.

Now I don't know what Fortnite is like, but the game he showed me was mind-blowing. It is a kind of wartime simulation, and your job is to defuse a series of bombs before they blow up, killing everyone! I can't even describe the tension as you start looking for bombs. I was sweating terrible old man sweat after only two minutes! There is this grid, and numbers that give you clues about how many bombs are around you, and each time you click on one, you might die! It is called Minesweeper, and I have never done something so intense! The numbers don't really make that much sense, and a bomb could go off any minute! By the time I finished, I was so in need of a gimlet that I made Jackson pour it for me while I tried to slow my breathing down. It took me 624 seconds, but I saved the world! Apparently, there are intermediate and advanced levels as well, but maybe for another day.

There is a truism about war that nothing you can read can really make you understand what it feels like to be there. So we rely on books like this, written with craft, insight, and power to shed a little light on the experience. After reading this book, I felt like I understood the Iraq War in a new way. But thanks to Minesweeper, it's like I was actually there!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood


So yesterday my neighbor, Margaret, accused me of throwing walnuts at her house. Can you believe this shit? I have been accused of many things in my lifetime, including vagary, vulgarity, vacuity, slipping a piece of fake ham onto the buffet at a Golden Corral, lying, cheating, stealing, excessive anger, insufficient anger, an appropriate level of anger directed at the wrong person, hurting my grandson's feelings through excessive pranking, acting my age, not acting my age, smuggling a penguin home from the Shedd Aquarium (that is an urban myth!), farting on purpose, failing to return a library book on time, breaking into the Watergate Hotel, malfeasance, disobedience, moral deviance, sloth, taunting a sloth, and jaywalking. First, I would note that I have a plausible excuse for almost half of those claims! I might also add that none of them are nearly as bad as the things that virtually every character in this book does, so stop looking at me like that.

I demanded to Margaret that she present her evidence that I had thrown the offending walnuts, and she told me that she had seen me do it. So, one point for her. However, one must consider the context! The walnuts are coming from HER tree, dropping onto MY lawn, and my assumption is that this was part of a years-long plan she concocted just to fuck with me. I told her as much, and her defense was that a) she didn't plant the tree (possible, but she looks about 130 years old, and the tree does not, so debatable), b) she can't control nature (didn't see her trying, mind you), and c) my response was still unreasonable and not neighborly. I'll let you be the judge of that.

After all, what does being a good neighbor really mean? Some people, in this book for instance, might try to be a good neighbor by taking in the semi-abandoned child of a pair of derelict drug addicts. Other people, like me, might try to be a good neighbor by teaching someone a lesson about personal responsibility using walnuts. Who can say which is the more noble action? These are the kinds of things philosophers have debated for eternity, and answers are elusive. Not convinced? Fine - then I want you to go google "Trump," read the first article that comes up, and see if you are still mad at me for throwing walnuts.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Golden Monkey by Lance Pototschnik


So now I have a wart. It is truly anyone's guess as to how long it has been there. My granddaughter discovered it while I was trying to bribe her to rub my bunions. Not my most glorious moment. You must realize that I am not even close to flexible enough to get my eyes down near my toes, so the chances of me noticing it on my own were pretty slim. In fact, I can't even say positively that it is a wart. The only diagnostic assessment was my granddaughter yelling, "Oh my God, it's a wart!" She seemed pretty sure though.

Still a lot of unknowns in this story, though. For example, how the hell did it get there? My understanding is that warts are contagious. At least, when Tina was crying and frantically washing her hands, that's what she told me. If that is the case, who would have possibly given it to me? I don't go anywhere. I try to limit my interactions with family, for obvious reasons. I wouldn't ever get close enough to any of my neighbors to allow them to touch me. I seem impervious to something like this. So much so that my assumption is that someone did this to me on purpose. I haven't quite gotten to how or why yet, but I will Miss Marple this shit until I get my revenge.

The next question is, at my age, do I even do anything about it? At my last physical, my doctor said that I would probably live longer if I gave up alcohol, and he had to take two days off to recover from my response. Longer is not always the goal, friends. It is quality of life that matters. And gin for breakfast is high quality. So back off, Dr. Buzzkill, and everyone else too. Tina was in no small hurry to share this story, and the general opinion of the family is to get rid of it. Which may be reason enough to keep it. I certainly didn't expect any sympathy from them, and I was right on that account.

But do you know who I think would be more sympathetic? Lance Pototschnik. This guy seems like a much nicer person than my family. And he has been through the wars as well. Among other things, he has survived a terrible skin disease, Uncontrollable Farting Syndrome, and Aimless Wandering Writer Disorder. And he still seems to have a very positive outlook on life and is able to find humor in painful things and write entertaining stories. He also has a gift for similes. Here's my favorite: "He sounds kind of like Chewbacca if he were really happy to be getting burned alive." I was so intrigued by that description that I found myself trying to recreate that sound. It wasn't easy, but I think I nailed it. The fact that I was practicing in the shower when my son dropped by unannounced for a visit led to an awkward exchange, but at least he didn't notice my wart!

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Legend of Jake Howell by Charles Reap Jr.


This is a charming story about a young boy in 1805 who discovers gold on his family's land. And lo and behold, all of his problems are not solved! It reminded me of something I read about people who win the lottery. Apparently, more often than not they end up worse off than they were before. You know what I think about that? Bullshit! Show me the money, and I will prove that all wrong! If any of you people want to give me $62 million, I promise you that if I can not find a way to make myself happier than I am now, you will never hear from me again. You know what the problem with these lottery winners is? They're too young! If people my age won the lottery, we wouldn't possibly have enough time to screw up our lives the way young winners manage to do.

First things first - as soon as I become a millionaire, I am going to buy the Vlasic pickle company. Not because I want to own it or get free pickles or anything like that - I am going to shut that shit down! No more terrible pickles for America. Honestly, I get more crunch from the month-old celery in my fridge. Which reminds me, why the hell do I still buy celery? And all those sweet pickles? Truly an abomination. We are going to have a ritual destruction of all of them, like they did with all those disco records at baseball stadiums in the late 70s. That's right folks - Americans made musical bonfires because they thought songs like the 'Safety Dance' were the way of the future. And we wonder why the Taliban hates us.

After the great pickle cleanse, I will take my family on a tropical vacation. Not as a favor, really, but more as an act of revenge. After all those vacations where I had to play along and do what everyone else wanted, this vacation will be on my terms. None of the 'local flavor' nonsense my son-in-law is always going on about. Each day we will have a mandatory mah jongg tournament, and I don't give a shit if we happen to be in Tahiti - dinner is at an Italian restaurant and everyone gets fettuccini alfredo. Deal with it, Gerry.

Now don't get me wrong. I will perform many acts of random generosity - as many as it takes to assuage my guilt at being so rich. So there, I'm already more ethical than half the members of Congress. I may also swim in my money like Scrooge McDuck, but that's my business, so stop judging.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Come Back for Me by Heidi Perks



Big thanks to Arrow Publishing and Penguin Books for sending me an ARC of this great summer read. My bunions were really after me last week, and I had shit else to do, so I read it almost in one sitting, as I will explain in a moment. The novel moves quickly, with a plot unpredictable and twisty enough to keep most people off track. I mean, my son-in-law, for instance, won't even be able to tell you who killed whom after he's finished it, but that is admittedly a bit of a hopeless case. I, on the other hand, am a wily son of a bitch and can usually see plot twists a mile away. I know you're not supposed to promote yourself too much in a review, but to quote my second favorite Puerto Rican playwright, "I don't mean to brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish." (Yes, after that debacle, I did actually go see it, and I have to admit that I am a reluctant convert). Anyway, you've got to get up pretty early to sneak a whodunit past me. Remember The Sixth Sense? I was on that shit in scene 2!

Which leads me to another story about sniffing out a nefarious plot. While I was reading this book, really getting into a groove in my la-z-boy, I heard the unmistakable, noxious sound of skateboard wheels. The sound approached my house and then stopped. I looked out my window and briefly saw my grandson's head go past my side window. By the time I lumbered across the room to open the front door, he was gone, with no trace of his villainous deeds. He would later claim that he had seen my rake lying in the driveway and put it away in my garage, but who knows if that is true? After the stinkbugs and everything else, I had cause to assume the worst.

I'll tell you this. I was not going to wait around to let whatever plot he was hatching come to fruition. The best defense is a good offense, that's what I say. So I took action. Jackson has been dating a girl for the last few months, and from what I hear, Rachel isn't too keen on her, so I thought I might make my daughter happy while I got my preemptive revenge. I knew they would be at his friend's graduation party on Saturday, yet another party to which I was not invited. Never mind that I have known that kid literally from the day he was born or the fact that I delivered special birthday pickles to his house on multiple occasions. But I am not bitter. Not in the slightest.

So they're all at the party and what should arrive at the door, but a bouquet of roses addressed to Jackson with a note that says, "Don't worry - our secret is safe with me. Love, X." OK, I kind of wish I had been invited so I could see that shit go down. My granddaughter Tina said it was "epic." I didn't get too many details, but I did have a message from Rachel on my answering machine saying that we had to talk. Calling to thank me, no doubt.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Does It Fart? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence by Dani Rabaiotti and Nick Caruso



First off, this is - I shit you not - an actual goddamn book written by actual scientists. Let that sink for a minute and ruin your day. That's right - while you are out there making peanuts slaving away for that supervisor that always looks at you funny, there are people making a comfortable living trying to figure out if a sea cucumber has an anus (it does). Kind of makes you question your life choices, doesn't it? Stay in school, kids! In my next life, I am going to be a seacucumberanusologist, and I am going to live that shit up.

You may wonder, is there anything actually interesting in this book? Shockingly, yes! Did you know that herring can communicate by farting? If you said yes, you are a liar and I want you off my blog immediately. If you said, no, here's another fun fact for you. A beaded lacewing can kill termites with a chemical fart. Now there's a nice conversation starter for a dinner party. Also, baby koalas eat their mothers' feces, and hyenas eat bones and have white shit. So there you have it.

My grandson gave me this book after a relevant conversation we had at a family dinner. It had something to do with the relationship between age and farting power. I was unable to find any extant research on the topic, but when Metamucil becomes a staple of your diet, what do you expect? I think he did it to shock or embarrass me, but please. The thing about teenagers is that they seem to forget that everyone older than them also used to be a teenager, and the idea that I would blink at a book about farts is ridiculous. And if someone gives me a book, I am going to read it and review it, so here we are.

If you are actually still reading this, I imagine it is because you are waiting for the summary of what farts and what doesn't. So here are a few highlights. Things that don't - jellyfish, anemones, pretty much all birds (though they are featured in the related volume, "Does it shit on your car?"), goldfish, sloths, and clams. Things that do - tortoises, buffalo, unicorns (inferred), pythons, wombats (who cares?), mongooses (not mongeese), geckos, hamsters, and humans, especially if they are familiar with my son-in-law's "authentic muffuletta sandwiches." Damn it Gerry, there is no "authentic" food that includes Oscar Meyer ham. For crying out loud.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Written by Ben Galley


Now be honest - if you were organizing a blog tour, would you allow me to be part of it? Hell no, you wouldn't! You're also a bad liar. I understand that I can occasionally come off as abrasive, and there is a reason why I no longer get invited to dinner parties. Besides half my friends being dead, that is. But someone screwed up and let me in here, and because of that, I got to read this wonderful book! So take that, suckers. And a big thanks to Mr. Galley, who sent me a physical copy because those electronic book machines hurt my bad eye, and also my worse eye. Which is not to mention that I can't figure out how to make them work in the first place. Did it ever occur to you people that some things do not need to be mechanically improved? That perhaps an actual physical book is the pinnacle of reading technology? Damn.

Back to the book, though. Compelling characters, and a sinuous, intriguing plot. The basic gist is that Farden, our tortured hero, instilled with powers through magical tattoos, must use his courage and 'fuck all' attitude, as well as alliances with dragons and vampires, to ferret out a plot from a nefarious and traitorous enemy. No more details, for fear of spoiling, although in fact, there were some eerie parallels to a night in college that I spent half-naked under various bushes on campus, on the run from intergalactic beings bent on condemning me to a life in the salt mines of Xergan. Of course, it turned out that I had accidentally eaten my roommate's chocolate laced with Amazonian frog venom that night, but we worked it all out the next day. I suggested that it shouldn't have been unlabeled in the back corner of the freezer in the first place, but he was unmoved. That is some expensive shit, but we were able to negotiate an appropriate exchange.

Oh, pick your jaw up off the floor, you prudes. Yes, your parents did drugs. We did drugs. Our parents did drugs. All humans did drugs, going all the way back to when people would just dig a hole in the ground and fill it with nectarines and wait for them to rot and then eat rotten nectarines to get high. So get over it. At least when we did drugs, we did things that expanded our mind and brought us closer to god and the universe. Today, kids just sit around vaping marijuana juice, and the only things they get closer to are bags of flaming hot Cheetos and diabetes. So you can add that to the list of things our generation did better than yours. It's a long list, snowflakes!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Pimp My Airship by Maurice Broaddus


What the hell, people? Am I the last person in the goddamn universe to find out about "steampunk?" Even the most ignorant people I know are already up on this. My son-in-law told me that steampunk is "the most honest form of American literature." I mean, Jesus, Gerry, do you even hear yourself when you say shit like that? I swear to God. My grandson apparently went to Halloween last year dressed as a steampunk, and even my granddaughter stopped her conversation with a squirrel long enough to tell me that she thought I would have known about this by now. Well, thanks everyone. You're all a huge help, as always. However, due to the kindness of Lesley Connor over at Apex Publishing, I got to read this steampunk novel, and now I know that I like it! Or at least, I liked this one. Lots of action, witty one-liners, good characters, and some poignant social and political allegory. Still, I have a few questions.

Honestly, I'm not sure I understand what steampunk even is. First off, are we in the past or the future?  I mean, I can read the dates, but still. Second, there is clearly steam everywhere, but where is the punk? I asked my grandson about that, since he is the punk that I know best, and he said that if I couldn't figure it out, then I am more senile than he thought. That stung a bit, but touché, Jackson. Third, why does everyone dress like that? And fourth, if you write a novel but just change the available technology, does that count as a whole new genre? If so, I have a few ideas.

New genre number 1: futuristic space world sagas, except the only way to make fire is by rubbing sticks together. I call it Science Friction™. Now hold up a minute. I don't want to hear any shit from you people about making dad jokes. I was making dad jokes before you were born. I am incapable of shame. New genre number 2: explicit romance novels, only all technology related to sex toys is guarded by a reclusive family of bears. I call it Bearotica™. New genre number 3: Derivative novels from popular fantasy series, only they are all set in Houston in August and there is no air conditioning. I call it Fan Fiction™. I trust that none of these genre names have been taken, and I encourage all you writer types to get started. However, I have trademarked all the names, so you will all owe me big time royalties. It's not too late for me to make my millions!

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?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


Allow me to say a few more words about pickles. My neighbor Margaret took a break from dressing up her schnauzer the other day to share a few words over the fence. I was doing yardwork, of course, and she was apparently waiting for leprechauns or fairies to do hers, but I refrained from pointing out the disheveled appearance of her lawn. Perhaps the arrival of spring made me a bit soft, but I decided to take the chance to make a peace offering in the form of a jar of homemade pickles. The darker (and larger) part of my heart wanted to slip her my famous Mouthburners made with fatalii peppers, but against my better judgment I gave her some perfect garlic dills. She took one bite and said - I shit you not - "Mmmm... Crunchy. Did you use Picklecrisp?"

Did I use Picklecrisp? Are you fucking kidding me? Do I look like the kind of person who would use Picklecrisp? In case you were born in a cave and raised by wolves or hipsters, you do not need calcium chloride, or alum for that matter, to make crunchy pickles. You just need to do your homework and take a little time and care. You have to choose the right cucumbers, of course, and not keep them around too long. Make sure to snip off the flower ends promptly, and give them an ice bath for a day or so. Pack them snugly, screw the lid on firmly, but not overtight, and for the love of god, don't process them too long. No chemicals. If you get the details right, the result is heavenly.

And that is why this book is so good. The details are just right. The plot is complex, but everything fits. The bad guys aren't just bad - they are bad for a reason. Even the minor characters have backstories, and they all fit in. Everyone's actions match their motivations, and those are revealed with patience and craft, likely a perfectly fermented pickle. And we all know that there are few things in life better than that. Bravo, señor Zafón. Si pudiera escribir como usted, no tendría que escribir este blog necio.

And one more thing. It isn't always necessary for your pickles to be extra crunchy. If you are brining sour pickles, it's ok if they have a little give to them. Sweet pickles, of course, are an abomination, so if that is what you are after, you should stop reading my blog right now before I completely lose my shit.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Vicious by V.E. Schwab


To call me a superhero may be overstating the case slightly, but I think I did my good deed for the world yesterday. It all started as I was walking out the library with a stack of new books to read. I had made a point of ignoring all my friendly librarian's suggestions because I fear she has a secret agenda (she offers too many romantic novels and self-help books), and I was feeling pretty good. But as I walked out, I observed three young hoodlums seemingly about to engage in fistacuffs! More specifically, it appeared that two of them were about to give the business to the third one, who seemed frail and malnourished, likely because he had spent all his food money on tattoos and piercings. Don't get me wrong - I respect all people's right to self-expression, but hey, you've got to eat!

What happened next must have been influenced in some way by having just read this book. Perhaps it had implanted the idea in my subconscious that ordinary people can have extraordinary powers. Or maybe reading about such blatant villainy triggered my inner justice warrior. But whatever the reason, I knew in that moment that I was not going to let this stand.

When I was younger, this would have been an easy task. I was never a fighter, but I could be imposing when I wanted to. I used to dabble in the martial arts, and I was not without skills. I once attained a brown belt in karate, and I could catch flies with chopsticks (ok, that part isn't true, but I watched The Karate Kid twice, so pretty much the same). It has been a few decades, of course, and I worried that I might be rusty, but this time I would have the advantage of surprise, as the young gentlemen in question didn't even seem to notice my presence.

I took a deep breath in, and I centered my energy. I approached the two aggressors from the side, and I assumed a shiko dachi stance. I was preparing to strike, but unfortunately, my legs had not been in that position in many years and were not ready to cooperate. Before I could unleash a vicious kansetu geri that would have likely destroyed his ACL, I experienced a hamstring cramp like none I have ever had before. I thought perhaps they had an accomplice who had struck me from behind, but as I fell to the ground, I was unquestionably alone.

Still, the move turned out to be quite effective. The young men were distracted from their quarrel and soon all three were helping me to my feet. While none was willing to massage my hamstring, once they had me seated on a bench, they appeared to forget their differences. After a couple of minutes, I thought they were initiating hand-to-hand combat, but it turned out to be a complex "handshake" involving a number of body parts and some simian grunts. It was so elaborate and violent that I briefly questioned whether or not I had read the original situation correctly or if they may have in fact been just greeting each other. But I discarded that notion as implausible and had no choice but to acknowledge that I had truly saved the day. I appreciate your gratitude and ask that you please send pickles in lieu of flowers or thank you cards.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie


Come on people - what's the big deal with vacations? You put all your shit in a suitcase, endure a day of misery and airport food, then unpack and do the exact same things you do at home in a different place. My family dragged me along on their spring break trip, and it was ridiculous. You are supposed to take a vacation from something, like Fortnite (Jackson) or talking about yourself (looking at you, Gerry). Or, at least immerse yourself in the local culture. But my family adamantly refused to let me swim with sharks or enter a wet t-shirt contest, so that was that. Plus, Jackson didn't tell me until we were on our way home that you can use Twitter on phones (It was MADE for phones, he says, but I'm not that stupid), so I couldn't even commiserate with my new blogger friends. But what the hell - I can read almost as well in a beach chair as in my la-z-boy, so that's what I did.

In the lobby of the hotel was a shelf labeled "Beach Reads," and it was generally an insult to both beaches and reading. A half-done coloring book (not even staying within the lines!) was about the most intriguing prospect, until I noticed a slim Agatha Christie mystery tucked away in the corner. I have read a few Christie books and generally enjoyed them, but I never read one featuring Miss Marple, as this one did. It seemed unfair, though, to jump into the middle of a series, so I noted the name of the first Miss Marple mystery from inside the jacket and asked the concierge if they happened to have that book. I don't think he ever read a book in his life, because without a second thought, he was offering me a coupon for 2-for-1 3-liter margaritas at the beachside bar. I mean - why would such a coupon even exist? I understand if you are going to have a fun giant drink with your whole family, but how many people do you need to drink 6 liters of margarita? And if you do drink a 3-liter margarita, do you really think it is the lack of a coupon that will stop you from ordering another? I wish I had thought to ask how much one 3-liter margarita costs, but at least I got directions to a book store.

My son was not too happy about taking me to the book store, and he was less happy when they didn't have the book. Luckily, there was one other book store in town. Unluckily, it also did not have the book. But believe it or not, there are libraries even in shitty tourist towns, and sure enough, Murder at the Vicarage was waiting for me there. Of course, not being a resident, I was not allowed to check the book out. But I was happy to sit there for the afternoon and have Lawrence pick me up later. He was not so happy about it, saying it was "just like me" and storming out of the otherwise unpopulated library. The librarian seemed pleased though - I'm not sure they get too much business there. If you are a librarian, and you are reading this, thank you for your service.

And it was worth it! Usually when I read a book written before I was born, I find that the language has become tired with age, and even the classics have a pace that rivals me lumbering toward the bathroom on taco night. But Christie is so clever, the turns and deceptions so quick, it rivals anything coming out these days in the mystery genre. I read the whole thing in one sitting, went back to the hotel, played nice with the family for the rest of the week and worked on my bitchin' beach tan, which ended up with me resembling a small strawberry ice cream in a wafer cone.