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If Only He Wasn’t So Proud And She Wasn’t So…Well, You Know

Recently I had an accomplishment that millions more before me have had. I finished reading Pride and Prejudice. Of course, it shouldn’t seem an accomplishment because I like to read, consider myself a writer and the book is a literary classic. But still, it was a little self-challenge met. You see, I’d begun reading it perhaps half a dozen years back and just flat out lost interest by about when we’d be getting to the first commercial if I had been instead watching a film version on TV.

Pride and Prejudice, should you not know (and no shade thrown if you don’t) was an early 19th Century novel by Jane Austen, one of England’s most beloved authors to this day, over 200 years after she died. It’s considered a classic, it’s a part of the base curriculum in quite a few English or Literature courses around the world and has been adapted into several movie versions as well as loosely – very loosely – inspiring quite a few more like Bridget Jones Diary.

I read a number of literary classics during a little phase I went through perhaps twenty years back. Pop music fan I am, the idea came to me when listening to Kate Bush’s brilliant song “Wuthering Heights” and it occurred to me I had no real idea what the book was about. Yet, I reasoned, it must’ve been impressive to inspire young Kate like that. Turns out Miss Bush hadn’t read the book herself when she wrote her song, but I found that out later and in the meantime had read that 19th Century novel (quite liked it) and a few others – Dracula, A Christmas Carol (which I of course knew by way of the movies made of it), Of Mice and Men. It just seemed like something a well-read adult should have done…and good trivia sure to be at least one $300 question answered should I ever make it onto Jeopardy!

Pride and Prejudice, and Austen’s other, well-received but not quite as successful few novels never made my list. But when I met my sweetie, I found it was one of her all-time favorite books and movies as well. So I figured, hey, I should try to read through it to understand it better. By then I’d already seen the glam Hollywood version with lovely Kiera Knightley playing the book’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, and the much longer BBC version with the cute but not known-like-Knightley Jennifer Ehle playing her and the dashing, then young Colin Firth playing the eventual object of her affection , Mr. Darcy. This was my sweetie’s preferred version; she felt it stuck closer to the book.

So, after a few more viewings of the movie and eventually getting a feel for the characters, I dug into the print version and about two weeks later, finished it up. I came away with a bit more appreciation for it and an idea of why it is so well-loved by so many.

So what is the appeal? First, and probably a big part of its enduring nature, it was a feminist manifesto…for the times it was written. While by today’s standards even Elizabeth might seem a little shallow, and her sisters far worse (her father was known to refer to the younger ones as “three of the silliest girls of all of England”), by early-1800s standards she was a real renegade. She was an equal for most men in the room when it came to intelligence and quick thinking and she was determinedly headstrong. She tried to change her dad’s thinking on some family decisions (quite unlike a proper young lady in pre-Victorian England) and had the audacity to turn down an offer of marriage from a respectable man whom she not only didn’t love but thought a bit of a buffoon – Mr. Collins. That drew the ire of her mother, whose chief concern was getting her girls married off. In that day and age, a girl of ordinary standing didn’t say “no” to an offer of marriage from someone who had a job and house. No wonder she appeals to modern women!

At the same time, Austen’s works, this one especially, were quite revolutionary in their treatment of how women were put upon. They were indeed quite truly Second Class Citizens in that day and age. Not only were they not expected to speak up about anything more substantial than dinner or dances, they weren’t allowed by law to inherit property. Hence the major plotline in Pride & Prejudice, the Bennet girls could all be turfed out of their home were they not to marry should their father die. He wasn’t allowed to leave the house and property to them, regardless of his wishes. Austen’s book was a not-so-subtle plea for the equal rights they obviously deserved.

It too was a statement about marriage. It was portrayed as important, life’s goal in fact, but also as something to be decided upon carefully. As mentioned, Elizabeth had the audacity to turn down one man she didn’t care for at all, seeing her own parents as an example of a poor choice. The book (more so than the films) makes it clear her father had grown to despise his wife and chose her originally only for her fleeting good looks. Elizabeth didn’t want to be caught up in a situation like that and demanded a man she could love and feel a mental equal…which she ended up finding in the “Proud” Mr. Darcy. She in turn had the audacity to ignore his family’s demands that she not marry him because they felt her to be below his station in life. This kind of thinking (“my courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me”) would have made a young woman a pariah back then but has become a sort of mantra for today’s women – “Obstinate headstrong girl” appears on many a t-shirt these days, and with good reason.

But perhaps the reason the book remains popular to this day is for two more big reasons – it’s a love story, albeit one that twists and surprises, and those are timeless. But as well, it is a reminder of a different time, a more leisurely one we’d like to think. Time seemed of little concern to Elizabeth or any of her family; they had times for walks, reading books, planning ahead for parties they’d attend. And Austen wrote in such a fashion too; she was in no hurry to get the story to its conclusion, adding rich details and insights into the characters’ minds aplenty. Reading it slowed me down a little; one couldn’t imagine an author today writing this story which clocks in over 300 pages as a book of that length. It could probably be summarized in 20 and should the modern writer attempt to pad it into more than 100, one could imagine editors screaming and throwing it at them. “Nobody has time to read all this!” Indeed, with today’s hectic schedules, overtime at work, and ever-at-hand phones making sure we check in on social media, reading through it does take a bit of commitment. But ultimately, I found one well worth making …much like making a successful marriage. Something Elizabeth would’ve approved of I’m sure.

That’s me, what about you? Are there any books you’ve been wanting to dig into but just can’t quite bring yourself to?

A Decade About Nothing

There’s an old Chinese curse that says “may you live in interesting times!”. Well, the 1990s were interesting and I lived through them. They’re now a good ways behind us in the rearview of life, chronologically and culturally. So, no surprise that I enjoyed reading the book entitled The Nineties, A Book (truth in advertising there!) by Chuck Klosterman. But I’m not sure I’d like Mr. Klosterman quite as much.

The ’90s were interesting…just not as interesting as the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or the decades which have come after it. It was all in all, a comparatively docile, almost boring time when, on the grand scale, not a lot happened. There were two minor skirmishes in the Middle East but the Cold War had ended, temporarily as it now would seem, acts of terrorism were generally small, localized and more often than not overseas, putting North American minds at ease. Most economies were doing just fine… at least on our side of the world. Russia was struggling a little, but at least they were peaceful and electing their leaders, so we figured all was dandy in that part of the world. And for people like myself, it was when our generation – Generation X – found a name and its footing in the Grown-up world. Klosterman speaks to all these topics and much more in his book, a decent summation of the 10 years, or 12, we call the ’90s. Wait – I can hear you saying “12? A decade by definition is 10 years!”. True as that might be, Klosterman suggests the “’90s” began in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting Germany and putting a visual to the concept of the “Iron Curtain” dissipating and freedom sweeping former Communist lands. And it ended, he argues, on Sep. 11, 2001, when the carefree days of the ’90s suddenly came crashing to the ground.

Overall, its a nice, nostalgic look back at the decade when people still generally considered a phone something attached to your wall that you called to talk to people on and when you had to be home on Thursday nights to see “Must See TV”, or else… you missed them (unless your VHS was set up and didn’t go on the fritz). No binge watching a whole season on the weekend back then, needless to say.

Which leads to the biggest change-maker of the decade – the internet. Only by 2000, many Americans still couldn’t comprehend how much of a life-changing factor the “World Wide Web” was going to be. But as the author points out, at the time, about half the population didn’t have internet access, or in many cases any interest in obtaining it and those who did probably used AOL and to get there had to listen to half a minute of screeching sounds as their dial-up modem connected. Newspaper readership was still about the same in 2000 as it had been about 30 years prior and Napster was in the process of being shut down but seemed like a college phenomenon to most older people who still bought their music. On CDs – compact disc sales actually peaked in the year 2000, at just under one billion units in the U.S. alone. By 2010, they’d be a quarter of that.

Klosterman looks over the big news events of the ’90s like the brief Gulf War, the “Waco seige” (as someone who knows many people in Waco, I can add that the locals hate that description and almost invariably point out that the compound and the uprising took place some 20 miles away from the city), the Columbine shooting and of course, O.J. Simpson. He has some interesting details and insights into each and lets his opinions show through. He refers to O.J.,like so many of us do, as a killer who got away with it : “two people had been brutally killed by a familiar celebrity.”

And of course he reminds us of Monica Lewinsky and the man who made her a household name, Bill Clinton. He writes a lot about Clinton.

As befitting a book by a Gen X-er about the ’90s, he also looks back at pop culture. How alternative music became the norm. How Seinfeld and Friends ruled the TV world. He disliked both but preferred Seinfeld, it would seem because being a “show about nothing” was different and fit the times. Curiously, he forgets to give a shout-out to the ultimate TV symbol of the times, the Simpsons. To him, it only merited one passing brief mention, in context of a movie it spoofed . He mentions how Titanic succeeded to not only make a profit but become the biggest movie ever at the time, despite long odds against it. He correctly notes that for all the hype about Nirvana, Garth Brooks sold more records that decade than anybody else. In his opinion by taking on the persona of a classic rock macho man, dressed up in a country costume, to replace the aging rockers made redundant by the Seattle grungers.

Which leads to my personal beef with the book. While it’s great Klosterman expresses his own opinions, I find them at times both contradictory and sometimes condescending. He’s the typical hipster art snob in places, the one who thinks that Quentin Tarantino was the only person making worthwhile movies but wasn’t elevated to James Cameron or Steven Spielberg heights because only a tiny handful of people like Quentin and himself were smart enough to understand them. And then he writes as much about Reality Bites as almost any other film or cultural event, but only to detail how it only appealed to us Gen X types because everyone else could see how idiotic the Winona Ryder character was in it. He seems to in places deride Nirvana but then spends three pages praising “Smells like Teen Spirit” suggesting will still be a cultural cornerstone 50 or 100 years from now and that it , and only it, changed the face of popular music. “(it) is not transposable. It had to be this song, delivered by this person.” (Italics his, not mine.) But then he casually suggests in that time period, Pavement might have been the best band in the world, while limiting R.E.M. to a brief passing reference and forgetting about U2 – the biggest touring rock act of the decade – altogether. Such are the contradictions of Klosterman. Which are expanded when looking at politics.

While seemingly identifying himself as a “progressive” rather than even a “liberal” or “Democrat”, he barely disguises his disdain for President Clinton, although he grudgingly admits “the Nineties were a good time to be president and (Clinton) was a good president for good times.” Much of this was due to Clinton’s willingness to compromise to get things done, but more than anything it seemed to revolve around Ms. Lewinsky. He states that a “progressive” a decade or two from now will not be able to comprehend how “slick Willy” could be elected, let alone twice, and worse yet, have been popular! Whether or not you agree with that, or somehow think Arkansas Bill was the very first president to have sex outside of his marriage, it seems incredible that the left-wing Progressive writer in turn had no real complaints about Clinton’s bookends, Presidents Bush 1 and 2. In fact, he didn’t see any differences between George W. and Al Gore, other than people thought Bush wasn’t as condescending and would be nicer to have a beer with. Perhaps correct, but it seems silly to suggest that Bush pushed the same agenda Gore and the Democrats did, and sillier yet to suggest the American public didn’t care at all who won the election and were bored with the recounts and tussle after the 2000 election. He must have been on another planet to have experienced it that way; I was in a different country but saw day after day of stories about the election and the protests about it in the news and how high the fevers ran on both sides.

However, he might be right in suggesting that in the end, the course of the country for the 2000s might not have been as influenced by the “hanging chads” as we thought then. About nine months after Florida was officially called for Bush’s favor, who knows what would have happened had Gore been in the White House. Because then the World Trade Center came crashing down and as Klosterman states, all at once, “the Nineties collapsed with the skyscrapers.”

The Nineties. Sort of a “decade about nothing”…which isn’t such a bad thing we now can see.

A Real Life Jeckyl & Hyde Story, Straight From The Palace

Seems like he’s everywhere these days. But he might not be at Westminster Abbey on May 6 to see his dad officially crowned “King”. Obviously I’m talking about Prince Harry, or perhaps Harry Wales as he might be called now. I just finished reading his memoir, Spare, and my reaction is…complicated. Like Harry. Probably seldom since Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde has there been a story about a character with such opposing sides to him. He’s responsible yet irresponsible, mature at times yet largely immature, fiercely loyal yet disloyal as well, smart but dumb, a conservationist who at times shows little regard for life, a soldier who at times shows little regard for military protocol. One thing about his book – it’s never a dull read.

The book really covers his whole life so far, at least as he remembers it, right up through his grandma Queen Elizabeth’s death last year. For the few who might not know, Harry was the younger son of Prince Charles (now “King” Charles) and Princess Diana. Which set up the two major points which have shaped his life. One, his difficult relationship with his older brother William, compounded by the fact that William would be next in line for the crown after their dad, making him the “heir” and Harry, “the spare”. William seemingly always gets preferential treatment therefore, from better houses to more plum diplomatic assignments on behalf of the country. Two, his difficult relationship with his parents. He adored his mom, but as we know, she died in 1997, when Harry was not yet 13. In contrast, Charles was always distant and rather cold towards Harry, and things didn’t improve when dad took up with his long-time mistress, Camilla.

Given the circumstances of his mother’s death (being in an accident when chased by paparazzi) it’s understandable he has a longstanding, deep dislike for the press and especially their photographers. “Paps” he calls them, when he’s being polite. But while William has avoided major controversies and abuse from the British press, Harry has seemed a magnet for it. Some fair, some not so, but even he admits some of his actions didn’t help his case any. Wearing a Nazi uniform out, even to a costume party, can’t help but draw negative attention to oneself, as he found out bitterly. Even he admits now that was rather boneheaded, though he blames his brother and sister-in-law Kate for encouraging him. Which points to that overall immaturity mentioned before. He’s been portrayed as wild and drugged-out, which he has taken issue with all the while documenting his ongoing use of marijuana (still illegal in the UK) and frequent use of psychedelic drugs – throwing his “friend” Courteney Cox under the bus while doing so – and years of heavy drinking. He was criticized by various press members for joining the Army and going to fight in Afghanistan, which is probably very unwarranted. He seemed to sincerely want to be one of the men and do his country’s bidding. But, he then goes on to detail, “brag” some might say, about how many Taliban he killed over there, which has incited the military brass – that’s not something you talk about – and made him more of a target for terrorists than ever before. This while he goes on to document and complain about the troubles of finding adequate security to protect him and his family. And, as an environmentalist myself, I am in admiration of his work in Africa and hands-on support for animals like Rhinos and elephants… but equally displeased by his love of blood sports, fondness for shooting birds, rabbits and squirrels unchecked and am dumbfounded he seems to think killing off the biggest, strongest deer around is good for nature. Obviously, if trying to hunt to “help” the natural balance, one would cull the smallest, lamest members of the species.

All that said, he does make some good points and have some valid reasons to complain. He seems quite concerned about returning soldiers and helping them deal with physical and mental harm they endured overseas, something many a government, the United States included, often seem to ignore. And, many of his good traits deal with his wife, Meghan Markle, who seemingly can’t win for losing with the British tabloids. She has worn clothes picked out for her by the palace and been slut-shamed by the press for them, been reprimanded publicly for getting into a car before Queen Elizabeth when the queen told her to “get in the car”. Curiously, the late Queen is one member of his family he speaks of in good terms and seemed to genuinely love. Meg’s been slammed for her former life as an actress and been slurred because of her mixed racial background. Some of the racism, which he says is far stronger in Jolly Ol’ than in the U.S., or Canada (where she lived seven years) , might be perceived. His mom, Diana was the whitest of women but still got raked over the coals by the tabloids. But some of it is clearcut and vile – there’s no way to put a good spin on a newspaper running a photo of a couple with a chimpanzee and labeling it “royal baby goes home”. No wonder he’s angry. And I would say his loyalty to his wife is one of his best traits, although unfortunately it seems to require casting his family aside to do so. But for that, Charles and William share at least as much blame.

All in all, a complicated man to figure out, but one who has an interesting story to tell. I hope he continues to mature, little by little and can really find his life’s calling. For his many flaws it’s hard not to rather like him, nor to admire his willingness to throw away his royal title and ties.  And after reading the book, one might think that we could also hope his work endures even if his father’s does not. Because Spare is certainly not a great endorsement of the British royalty or the system it comes from.

This Time Machine Serves Coffee

The book I was reading over Christmas was a bit of a departure for me, an impulse buy on a bargain table at the local Barnes & Noble – Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. It’s a relatively short book, a collection of four related short stories. Hey, it was on sale, takes place in a coffee shop and had a bonus cat on the cover, so what’s not to like?

With a name like Kawaguchi, it probably should have occurred to me that it was a Japanese book, translated into English. But in fact it didn’t until I was several pages in, not that it mattered. It came out in Japan in 2015 and was released in the English version in 2020. In between those years it was made into a Japanese film, Cafe Funiculi Funicula, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it adapted into an American flick before long as well. It certainly had a sort of theatrical feel to the story and prose.

One thing I found interesting was the very style of that prose. It was clearly different than what we North Americans have gotten accustomed to reading. A little denser, perhaps, a little more poetic for sure. Even though set in the modern day, there is a distinctly “old”,literary feel to it. Kawaguchi goes to great lengths to describe the characters, and the setting, sparse as most of it is. “He was wearing a navy polo shirt and beige knee-length shorts. It was what he often wore on his days off. It must have been hot outside, as he was fanning himself with his black zippered portfolio…” One imagines most American writers would have described him, if at all like “he was dressed casually and fanning himself.” The effect is both charmingly poetic and yet a bit of a detour to quick consumption of the novel. As are the moderately-long list of characters, with names foreign and often similar-sounding to our ears – Hirai, Kazu, Kohtake, Kei… one can imagine how a Japanese reader reacts to a Western story full of Jordans and Josh’s and Jacksons.

All that noted, the story is still the thing in it, and it is quite a compelling one at that. Without too many spoilers, the setting is a mystical Japanese cafe, a small underground club, run by a small family and close friends. Limited seating, limited menu but a big reputation. It is rumored to be a place where if you ask, you can go back in time! Oh and it has a resident ghost too.

However, it’s not that simple for would-be time-travelers. There are any number of restrictions on their voyages. They can only sit at one seat…which is usually occupied. They only have a short time to spend in the past when they do go…until their coffee gets cold, in fact. And most importantly, whatever they do back in the past, it’s not going to change the present day…which sort of defeats the purpose for most. So, going back three weeks to place a bet on last week’s bowl game won’t add a dollar to your bank account when you return; asking out that girl who might have had a crush on you two years ago brings you back to your same single existence now, should that be the case.

Yet four different travelers, all cafe regulars, choose to do so …and find that even if the here and now looks the same, a different decision in the past can bring them to a better mindset now. Or change the way they will make decisions from today onwards.

As the Christian Science Monitor note, the prose is “uneven and tends to meander” however, it has an “unerring ability to find lasting emotional resonance”.

All in all, it seemed like an enjoyable enough little visit to a foreign city and perhaps, to the Twilight Zone. It also left me pondering if I’d bother trying to revisit the past, if the restrictions placed on it were as set out there? Couldn’t wander around, so there’d be no going to Dallas in November ’63 to try and stop Oswald…or see who really pulled the trigger even. No going to a club in L.A. In 1982 to meet a then-single and unknown Susanna Hoffs before her Bangles became a million-selling band. And even if it seemed like maybe a friend you had a coffee with five years ago had a great idea for a business that you both should have followed up on, going back to the conversation would leave that business unbuilt and you in the job you have today. Is it worth it?

Perhaps. Maybe there’d be time for one more phone call to that parent a few days before they passed away, say the things that were left unsaid. Maybe the guy playing the guitar on stage no one noticed ten years ago is now the next Bob Dylan. Going back there wouldn’t make you his manager or part of his jet-setting entourage now, but might give you a second chance to really pay attention, so today you could say “I remember seeing him when…”.

Then again, maybe just thinking such things can leave us more aware of making better choices today. If a 240 page book can accomplish that, it’s a worthy read in my estimation.

Books : Paul Is Indeed Mr. Everybody

Some time back I sang the praises of libraries here. To me, not only do they allow one to cut back on your expenses a little (obviously, by borrowing rather than buying books and other media) but they also widen my interests considerably, by making me “take chances” on books or records I wouldn’t ordinarily touch. I’ve always been “working class”, so it can be a big deal to put out $15, 20 or more on a book only to find a few dozen pages in it’s boring or unreadable. But, if it’s checked out of the library, all I’m out is an hour or so of time finding that out and a return trip to drop it back. Which leads me to the latest book I read.

Actually two out of the past four or five. Paul Goes Fishing, and its predecessor, Paul Moves Out. They’re graphic novels by Canadian Michel Rabiaglati, a Montreal-born and based graphic artist who began drawing fairly autobiographical accounts of his life about 20 years back. We see his alter-ego Paul growing up and dealing with the struggles of everyday life through the lens of the Canadian (and more specifically Quebec) ’80s and ’90s. “I’m from Montreal and I don’t travel a lot,” he told the Toronto Star, “so my stories are rooted in Quebec… the best way to have international success is to stay local.” Which he does, as well as living up to the famous writing adage “write what you know.” “It’s not pow-pow violence,” he points out, “it’s normal relations…it’s a normal guy. ‘Mr. Everybody’.”

Which is just where the charm of it lies. In Paul Moves Out, the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat event is simply a gay professor hitting on the very straight Paul. We see a snippets of his coming of age, moving away from home, finishing college, getting an apartment with his new girlfriend, babysitting relatives kids. Nothing entirely unique nor thrilling, but thoroughly interesting and story-driven enough to have you rooting for him (and his gal Lucie). In Paul Goes Fishing, he’s a bit older and having a few more adult problems…secretly envying his richer friends, Lucie having difficulty getting pregnant. All while set against the sanguine backdrop of a weekend fishing trip in the country. Again, you’re rooting for them because, as the author says, Paul is “Mr. Everybody.” The illustrations are black-and-white cartoons, realistic enough to be compelling while lacking excessive detail that would be distracting.paul art

The books really speak to me, since Rabiaglati is only a bit older than I am and is depicting growing up in my old homeland, albeit a different section. It’s relatable. Call me crazy but I secretly cheer a little inside to see a little depiction of quintessentially-Canuck things from my youth like Molsons beer or Canadian Tire stores; or that reflect my own life – a picture of a Stranglers album cover at a party he went to, for instance. It puts me in mind of another Canadian author a little – Douglas Coupland. The Generation X guy likewise has fashioned a career, which at its best is merely creating interesting stories about very ordinary and relatable people. Perhaps the somewhat low-key national identity we’re known for helps us excel at noticing interesting little things and eschewing the big, blockbuster blow-’em-ups Hollywood (and much of the rest of the world) seem to fall in love with.

I brought up libraries in the beginning because generally I am not a “comic book” guy. Didn’t read them as a kid basically, so sure not inspired to do so now. I, perhaps unfairly, tend to lump graphic novels in with them. Were it not for one of the “Paul” books being prominently displayed on a front table of my local library years ago, I would never in a thousand years stumbled upon the tales. And would have been a bit poorer for the absence of them. So, two messages to take from that perhaps.

One, to be more open to new experiences…something I admittedly am not great with. But just because I might find Superman or Aquaman ridiculous wastes of time, it’s silly to write off the whole genre of comics and things only remotely like them. And two, stories don’t need a lot of “pow” and flash to be compelling. Mr.Everybody probably leads an interesting life once you stop and consider it all. You and I have stories to tell as interesting as any Caped Crusader. Perhaps not quite as exciting but more compelling, since they’re real.

I’m looking forward to getting the next instalment he wrote. Maybe he and Lucie will have a kid. And I hope the rat doesn’t show back up in their bathroom! One encounter with it is “pow-pow” enough for anybody.

Books : Crawdads Sing A Winning Record

About 20 or 25 years ago, I spent many a night trying to write my first novel. It had quite a bit going on. There was a Generation X-like theme about young people working in “McJobs”, an environmental message, some romance, some intrigue that led to corruption in the corridors of power, even a nod to whispers of terrorism… months before 9/11 as luck (bad) would have it. I say that not to toot my own horn. Although, to my perhaps biased eyes, there were some great passages and wonderfully descriptive bits I came up with, the story itself plodded along with the components not really fully meshing and over 100 pages in, neither I nor any potential reader really had a clue as to where the story was leading. It’s tough to stray outside the boundaries of one specific genre in a book. I say that to preface my latest book read, which somehow does mix together several genres and does it well. No wonder Reese Witherspoon liked Where the Crawdads Sing.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the acclaimed first novel by biologist Delia Owens, whom apparently has written non-fiction about ecology before. It was picked by Reese for her “book club” and quickly rose to #1 on the best-sellers list. It’s being made into a movie which is due to open this summer, and if it holds true to the book, should be a blockbuster. Because while romance stories are common, and murder mystery books are common and historical pieces dealing with the troubles of the American South are common, getting all three in one is not common. Getting all three in an interesting story, downright rare. Plus, it has a modest yet sexy girl the story revolves around. Can’t go wrong there.

The girl is Kya, a girl who grew into a woman essentially on her own in the marshes of North Carolina after her drunk and abusive father drove the family to abandon the home. She lives near a town, but wants no part of it since they make it clear they want no part of her or her “white trash” type family. She has to fend for herself with only one or two real friends… besides the birds and other animals living around her that she totally connects with.

The second focus of the book is Chase, a few years ahead of Kya’s back story. Chase is one of the town’s popular young men, a star football player as a teen, now a handsome playboy about to take over his family business. We don’t get far into the novel before he turns up dead. Figuring out what happened to him, however, takes much longer. Eventually the two storylines intermingle, rather intriguingly.

Coming from a naturalist writer, it’s no surprise it paints the marshy coastline in wonderful and loving detail. Arguably more of a surprise is how well she captures the different personalities of the people around the area and reflects how some can change and better themselves while others stay stuck in their mental ditches no matter what.

The book wins as a biography of an interesting, albeit fictional person and those whose lives intersect with hers and as a compelling crime story… although we really don’t even know if there was a crime committed. It’s sad in places and uplifting in others. I will say though that to me, the ending wasn’t as good as it could have been. I won’t give it away with spoilers, but if you’re interested, I’ll give you my impression of how it should have played out. To use a sports metaphor Chase might understand, the book is like a pitcher sailing along with a no-hitter into the 9th inning who dishes up one bad pitch that gets hit to the wall for a double. It ruins the no-hitter, but they still win and it’s still impressive. And that’s what Where the Crawdads Sing is – impressive, but just a wee bit shy of perfect. I give it 4.5 flying egrets out of five.

Books : ‘The Midnight Library’, Worth Staying Up Late For

One of everyone’s favorite Christmas movies is It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet if movie-maker Frank Capra and leading man Jimmy Stewart weren’t already stars when it came out back in the 1940’s, they might not have thought life was so wonderful. Initially, the movie flopped. Decades later of course it was resurrected and became a holiday staple and a film that’s sold tons of DVDs and moreover, influenced many people in a positive manner. You never know.

Which is the underlying theme to the latest book I read, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. The novel is currently sitting at #12 on the New York Times best-sellers list, and noteworthily is the oldest, the only one of the top dozen to have come out in 2020. Rightly so. The book has staying power, because it is, first and foremost a good story. Haig managed to take a tablespoon each of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, added in a pinch of a positive mental health info and served it up in a modern-day, social media obsessed setting. The result was tastier than one might imagine.

The Midnight Library, in capsule summary involves the life, and nearly the death, of a 35 year-old woman named Nora. She lives in a run-down British city and feels like her life is worthless, and furthermore, that she’s squandered a number of chances to have the BIG life, the IMPACT life. She could have been an Olympian. Could have been a rock star. And so on. Instead, she’s lonely and unemployed. Through magic, God or some combination of those factors and others beyond explanation, she has a chance to see how her life could have come out… and finds a way into her best possible life. That’s the short description, I’ll put a somewhat more in-depth look at it at the end for those not scared off by “spoilers.”

Although Nora at first seems almost insufferable in her morose nature and self-pity, there is a part of her that I can relate to. A part that I think all of us can. The part that wonders “what if?” She quickly goes through a wide range of personal growths to learn – to really take to heart – that what matters most isn’t what you have done…it’s what you are going to do now. To quote the band Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It.”

After a slightly slow start, as we get to know the depressed lass in the depressed city, the book really picks up and turns into a page-turner. As well as a philosophical contemplation deeper than many so-called “self-help” books.

The Midnight Library. Pick it up some afternoon, and you might just find yourself still reading it at midnight. I give it 4 Dewey Decimal Card Catalogs out of 5. PS – this is a book just ripe for a Hollywood take.

More detailed overview with spoilers:

Nora Seed seems like a loser. That seems harsh, but is reality too. Because Nora seemed like the girl who could have it all. One of the best swimmers in the country. Smart. Curious. A great songwriter and musician. Concerned about the environment. If not centerfold material, plenty pretty enough to turn many a man’s head. Yet we find her depressed and depressing, just fired from her mediocre job in a failing store, with a cat which meets its demise on the road, and one real close friend who lives half a world away. Her brother seems to hate her for breaking up a band they both had been in and she periodically receives texts from the seemingly fine man she dumped days before they were to get married. She’s down enough to consider killing herself, but even her suicide attempt is half-hearted at best.

What it does though, is take her to a mystical place – the Midnight Library. A sort of never-ending library, with only one other person present – the old school librarian she used to play chess with years ago. The books are books of her life. Lives, actually. Each gives her a chance to see how her life would be had she done things differently. Not only see, in fact, but walk into those lives. Suddenly she is married to the man, who runs a charming country pub with her now. Or she studied a bit harder and is now a serious environmental scientist studying melting glaciers in the Arctic. Or she stayed in the band, which has become U2-big…she’s about to step onto stage in front of tens of thousands of Brazilian fans. Or she put her all into swimming and went to the Olympics. Or maybe she’s married to the nice young man down the road who was a bit shy, but also is a hugely successful surgeon whom she has a little daughter with.

But, need we remind you, besides all the glamor and appeal, each life has its own issues and problems anew. Pubs offer pub-keepers chances to spiral up their drinking and catch the eye of many passing women. Arctic research brings you in contact with more polar bears than fine dining establishments. Being a rock star offers temptations all too enchanting, yet deadly, for many. The grass isn’t always quite as green as it seems on the other side of the fence.

It turns out there’s only one real book for Nora to find a life she’ll find worthwhile and not be full of regrets. The question is will she open it before the library closes?

A Steinbeckian Tale For The Tinder Age

Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love – could be a little tedious to read. Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love and traveling all across the country …that’s something more memorable. And so we have my most recently-read book, Leave Only Footprints, by Conor Knighton.

Knighton managed to blend two parts of latter-day Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and one part male Bridget Jones Diary with quite compelling results. A TV news correspondent called upon sporadically by his network, he found himself dumped by his fiancee. Heartbroken, bored and tired of seeing all the places they used to go to in Phoenix, he decided to take a year off and travel. His plan – visit everyone of the national parks in the country. There are over 50, from Atlantic to Pacific, Maine to California, plus ones above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and out in the lonely ocean in Samoa and the Virgin Islands. Cleverly, he sold his network on the idea of having him do it as a regular segment for their morning or news shows, so as to get a bit of an expense account to cover the thousands of miles by road, air and sea.

He begins the year wanting to see the first sunrise of the year before anyone else, so he visits Acadia National Park, just off the Maine coast on a frigid New Year’s morning. 364 days later he finishes up watching the sun set into the Pacific at the Point Reyes National Seashore (technically not a national park) in California. Along the way he developed a profound and newfound love of his country and its nature, as well as the people who’ve worked to preserve it. He describes all the parks he went to, and adds a little history, but the book moves along swiftly, as he had to himself, not lingering too long on any one site or sight, and introducing us to a range of interesting personnel at the parks. In an unusual but effective writing twist, he avoids making it a chronological recounting of the year, and lumps parks together by “theme.” Crater Lake and Congaree were “mysteries” as I mentioned in the previous blog. Big Bend, on the Tex-mex boundary, and American Samoa, in the middle of the ocean were “borders.” Joshua Tree and Sequoia were among the ones he labeled “trees” for obvious reason. He comes to some great insights, like how many of the people who worked hardest to set up and protect the scenic national parks came from Kansas and other similarly geographically unremarkable places. “If Dorothy had grown up in New York City rather than on the Prairie, Oz may not have looked as spectacular,” he points out. The non-linear approach worked well, keeping us a little off-balance and wondering what would be his next category.

As for love, we never really know if he found it. He used the modern apps to find dates in many cities and described one promising relationship cooked up in the fogs of Washington’s Cascades, but it never seemed to entirely take off. Then there was the nice gal who helped him when his car skidded off the road in Wyoming; he sought her out only to find she was engaged. He does a lot of self-evaluation and personal growing through the year and his recollection of his failed engagement that led to the journey. In one or two places, this side-story became a little distracting and slowing, but all in all, it helped us see him as a human on the road to somewhere… just not somewhere he had mapped out quite yet.

All in all, an interesting and at times endearing look at the United States. I give it 3.5 Smokeys out of 5.

Thankful Thursday XXXVII – Fannie Flagg & The Storytellers

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for storytellers. No, not the used car dealers who assure you that 2003 Mustang was only driven to church on Sunday by a little old lady, but the great ones who write the books and movies we love. Shakespeare was a story-teller. So too Dickens, and Steinbeck and Twain. Even Stephen King. And Fannie Flagg. She came to mind because I just finished reading a book by her, so I’ll rather combine two blogs here and review it.

One of the out of left-field hit movies from the ’90s was Fried Green Tomatoes, a sort of ode to both the Deep South and feminism, starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker. The story revolved around the close friendship of two young women, Idgie and Ruth during the Depression-era South, as told by an elderly relative of Idgie’s decades later. It’s an unusual sort of dramedy, mixing well elements of both humor, sometimes quite dark (ie – the disappearance of Ruth’s violent, abusive husband, which shall we say led to a “tasty” subplot) and tear-jerking drama. Most of it centred around a little diner, the Whistle Stop Cafe, run by the two friends.

Anyway, undoubedly some have wondered what ever happened to those characters; when the film ended, Idgie was still alive and looking after Ruth’s young boy, Buddy Jr., and Evelyn, the middle-aged lady hearing the stories from old Ninny was on her way to a whole career and life makeover. Well, it turns out we now know, thanks to the story’s creator, Fannie Flagg. Last year she published a sequel, The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop. It’s a good, quick read that brings us up to date on all the main characters, through a similar series of present-day events and flashbacks.

We find that Evelyn parlayed her Mary Kay sales into a major business career and she’s now a mover and shaker in Birmingham, but a bored one. She once again connects with the family of Idgie and Ruth. While the original mainly centred on those two, this one is seen largely through the scope of Buddy Jr., who’d become a successful veterinarian but is now retired and lonely back in Georgia, and his daughter, Ruthie. Together they become a new sort of family and embark on a “if you build it they will come” sort of project to bring the past into the future.

The chapters are short and fast-paced and the story interesting. Like the first one, it highlights feminism and individuality while throwing some shade on class elitism and other less lovable traits of “Dixie.” With her blend of unusual but likable characters and championing of community and small town life, Flagg is something of a Garrison Keillor of the South…a title people like Evelyn and Ruthie would take as an honor. They might not be Tolstoy or Rushdie, but they know how to tell a story that touches us and characters who stay with us.

From Bugspray Pitch Man To Shaper Of Minds In 430 Pages Or Less

Good is good, bad is bad, black is black and white is white,

But the lines are not that clear to see, try as we might!

So people refuse the gray, and of the good lose sight…

And miss the ways grays bring light and do what is right!

With apologies to the late Theodor Geisel…my latest read is a bio of an American hero who’s fallen on hard-times, image-wise of late – that same Geisel, better known and loved as Dr. Seuss. Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones looks at him in detail, in the good, the bad and the ugly. Actually, like good journalists are often going to do, I daresay Jones does so in a manner that may end up annoying both the left-wing and right-wing segments of his readership. Based on his author photo, he’s young enough to be of the modern politically correct revisionist opinions of history, but he also is evidently full of respect for his subject’s better achievements. His well over 400 pages give us readers an ample understanding of the acclaimed children’s author, warts and all.

Geisel is beloved for creating children’s classics like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. But he didn’t start out trying to change the world – or how kids learned. He grew up in early-20th Century New England, the son of a German immigrant who was a successful brewer, the family running one of Massachusetts most popular beer companies. Which led to two pivotal events in his early life. First, when WWI happened, he felt the sting of discrimination and prejudice, as locals suddenly turned on anyone vaguely German, no matter how well-loved and respected they may have been until then. Secondly, prohibition shortly thereafter caused his family hardship and devestated his family business, embedding in him a deep resentment of government meddling and the sanctimonious types among us.

For a man so intrinsically tied into educating in our minds, Seuss wasn’t all that good a student, although he did earn a degree. He didn’t care much for studying and preferred doodling. This led to his first career, as a successful ad man, back when many newspaper and magazine ads were hand-drawn. At the height of the Great Depression, he got a contract from Flit, a bug-spray company, to do a dozen ads for them at $100 a pop – good money for the age, and for a young man with a new wife. Not very much changed for him, in fact, until WWII came along, and he was drafted… but sent to California to work on films for the troops working under the guidance of Frank Capra. There he began to really understand the power of his cartoons and effective wordplay. Eventually, as we know, he found his way into writing and illustrating children’s books, full of his interesting make-believe characters who seemed every bit as real as, if not more so, than many people, and his clever rhyming prose. Even though he and his first wife Helen never had children, he became more and more impassioned about them being the future and more and more convinced that the conventional reading material for kids turned them off reading rather than encouraged it. He particularly hated the drab, boring “Dick and Jane” readers that most schools used extensively in the junior grades, with their simple but boring as mud sentences like “See Dick run. See Spot. See Dick run with Spot.” It became his passion – obsession even – to write books kids would like to read, learn from and that at their best, make adults stop and think a little too. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Lorax. Horton Hears a Who. After a few semi-popular titles, he finally hit paydirt in the late-’50s with the Cat in the Hat (written with a highly restricted list of words the publisher felt kids could understand) , soon becoming one of America’s best-loved writers, going on to sell over 600 million copies of his 60 or so titles.

Ah yes, but there was the negative to him as well, as many are quick to point out. As most men from his age, he loved his cocktails and nearly chain-smoked, despite a few attempts to quit. Some of his early works depict what now seem like “racist” portrayals of people of foreign cultures and even use words like “Chinamen” which seem less than tactful these days. Jones rakes him over the coals for these offences, but does at least put it in context of the times he grew up in; when the “Orient” was exotic and strange and Black people at home were the subject of many jokes and now-offensive portrayals by Whites in blackface on stage were considered high comedy. He does point out that as time went on, Theodor’s sensibilites changed as well, and notes that while he seemed suspicious of his own German people after the war, he was horrified by the bombing of Japan and went out of his way to get to know Japanese people and befriend them.

Many of my happy memories as a very small child involve having Seuss books read to me. They made me laugh every time, and want to pick up books, want to read them myself. Christmas to this day isn’t really Christmas for this 50-something until I’ve seen the animated TV version of his Grinch. It’s not a far stretch to say that I might not have liked school nearly as much or have been writing books (albeit entirely less successful than Geisel’s) as an adult had I been restricted to the merry adventures of Dick and Jane as a small child. For that, Seuss/Geisel seemed a friend to me. And after 430 pages of his life in print, when we arrive at his passing in 1991, it seemed again like saying goodbye not just to a creative sort, but to someone very close.