Trebek Trekked Back In Book

Category : “The Answer Is…”

$100 – “Alex Trebek Biography” . A : What is The Answer is… A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sad death of Alex Trebek. So, being a fan of the show he put on the map, Jeopardy, and since he was Canadian like me, with only one degree of separation from me (we had a mutual acquaintance), I figured I’d get his recently-released autobiography and read it.

$200 – “North American Countries”. A: What are the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico. While Mexico doesn’t play much into the story, Trebek is a Canadian who found fame and fortune in the U.S., married an American (“someone who was going to complete me as a human being”) and eventually became an American citizen. The book contains a lot of interesting stories about his childhood and youth in Canada, from his parents – a beer-drinking, cursing father who taught himself English and became a respected cook and his church-going, teatotaller mom who coincidentally had family in the States, which began his love affair with the U.S. – his rather disreputable youth and iffy relationship with school and its authority figures, to a photo of him in a denim jacket and jeans …a “Canadian tuxedo” as he proudly calls it. And about his life in the more populous country to the South, and all the steps along the way to becoming the best-known and respected game show host on TV.

$300 – “Jeopardy” – A: What is the TV show Alex Trebek hosted for over three decades. Given that it was what made him famous, and conversely, a show he made famous and a ratings hit, it’s appropriate he spends a good chunk of the book talking about it. And also, the best-forgotten game shows he had to take part in along the way to get him the spot, which initially was low-paid and low-prestige by comparison. The saving grace of that was that creator Merv Griffin paid little attention to it, allowing Alex and a few writers to basically shape it as they saw fit. We get Trebek’s reflections on his favorite players, not something that happened overnight as he also tells us he really didn’t talk to them much outside of what we saw on the program. He wanted to avoid getting too close to them both to avoid allegations of favoritism, and to emotionally distance himself anyway so as not to be upset when they inevitably lost. However, he did gain a soft spot for contestants like all-time champ Ken Jennings (who is slated to replace Alex when the show resumes next year), Eddie Timanus, a blind contestant, and Cindy Stowell, a multi-game winner who always seemed awkward on camera and a tiny bit “off”… and died before her shows aired. Turns out she was suffering from terminal cancer and very ill while filming, but she kept going… something of a guide for Alex himself a few years later on.

$400 – “Content” – A : What was Alex in 2020. When he wrote the book, he already knew he had cancer and little chance to survive. He speaks poignantly about the ill effects of the cancer as well as the harrowing treatments and how he knew in the end, he was unlikely to prevail. Yet, we also see that at 80, he was fine with it. He felt he’d lived a good, long and blessed life, loved some fine people and been loved in returned. He was remarkably at peace with the idea of this being his last year on Earth, although the pandemic frustrated him. When your days are numbered down to triple digits at best, you want to do all that you can when you feel up to it… and simple joys like going to the movies with his wife and kids had been taken away by Covid.

$500 – “Honestly Fun” – A: What was Alex Trebek. He surprises in the book, largely with his candor. He sometimes swears, he has a fast and sometimes PG sort of sense of humor and he made mistakes along the way, as we all do. He doesn’t shy away from any of those in the book, nor from his political convictions. He says he’s voted for Democrats and Republicans at different times and isn’t partisan, but he also left little doubt whatsoever about his feelings of the White House at the time of his death “If you start off by saying ‘Here’s the way we’re gonna solve it’…and worse if that certainty has no basis in fact and is being pushed by someone who just doesn’t have the mental capacity to adjust, you’re in deep trouble. And that’s what we’re seeing today.”

All that plus his thoughts on sleeping nude, his favorite celebrity fan, comedy parodies of himself and of course, the moustache. The Answer Is… that Trebek’s book is worth reading.

Scrublands Full Of A Lot More Than Just Snakes & ‘Roos

We’ve heard of “whodunnits”, but the most recent book I read is more like a “whydunnit”? Or so it would seem a couple of chapters in, but by the time we finish we’re not quite sure if it was a “whodunnit” mystery, a “why” one, a romance or a rural slice-of-life drama. Murder! Intrigue! Romance! Rural sociology! In the end, Scrublands turns out to be all of the above, making it quite a page-turner.

The 2019 novel was the fiction debut by Aussie journalist Chris Hammer, who seems to have learned how to tell a story well in his line of work. Like “lead with the hook.” He does that in Scrublands, where the most “action” happens in the prologue before chapter one begins. A small town priest gets ready for his Sunday mass and then, seemingly out of the blue, turns into a mass murderer, shooting people in front of his church for no apparent reason.

A year passes and a city newspaper sends middle-aged reporter Martin to look around the town and see how it’s coping. When he gets to Riverside, a small town that served as a stop on the highway and not a whole lot else, he finds it’s business as usual… as usual as business is going to be in a town of fewer than 1000 with few viable businesses surrounded by drought-stricken farms. But as he begins talking to the locals, he finds the more interesting story is trying to piece together the “why?”. Why did the relatively popular young priest turn murderous, why did some of his townsfolk get shot while others were spared? And of course, the “whats”. What did his rampage have to do with a couple of other murders nearby, if anything? What were members of a violent bike gang doing spending so much time riding through town? And most of all, what were townsfolk trying to cover up?

The answers to that fill the 300+ page book as Martin deals with the police, Australian feds cuiously interested in the goings-on and a number of local oddballs of questionable character. And, maybe, just maybe falls in love along the way.

It is a complex read at times, in that there are a lot of story arcs intersecting. Most of them eventually tie together satisfactorily and the whole story moves along at a brisk, entertaining pace.

An enjoyable book that resonates very well oceans away from ‘Down Under’… and seems to be begging for movie treatment!

Big Dog In A Small Truck Take On The Huge Land

Recently I read and reviewed Our Towns, a contemporary book documenting a couple’s travels across the U.S. with their stops in a variety of cities and towns. I compared it to a modern Travels with Charley, which made me decide to read that John Steinbeck non-fiction classic. Actually I should say re-read, as I discovered that gem probably close to three decades back when I was going through a period of trying to read classic “literature” and found it a short hop from Steinbeck’s novels to his travelogue.

For those unfamiliar with it, Travels with Charley is an account of a trip around the perimeter (more or less) of the Lower 48 that the celebrated writer took some 60 years ago now. He drove the miles in a pickup with a camper back, with his big poodle, Charley along for companionship. It was eminently interesting and well-written and mixed a yearning look back from the aging writer with glimpses of a marvelous future. Now, it’s more a look back and a measure of how we’ve changed. And how we’ve not.

Some things are indeed changed, and for the better I’d say since 1960. Our idea of “men” has evolved, more in some areas than others, but 1960 Steinbeck was still of the generation that settled differences with fisticuffs, more often than not in a bar, and hunted because there was stuff to kill. He lamented only seeing two fights along the way and packed along a rifle and shotgun, more just to fit in than to utilize them. He seemed to lament that he was tired and didn’t feel like shooting coyotes he saw in the desert, all the while worrying about Charley while in New England, fearing his dog would be shot as soon as it exited his truck by over-zealous gunmen who’d think it a deer. He shares stories of old logs being full of lead and cows being shot by wonderful “outdoorsmen” who assumed them deer. Doubtless we still have deer hunters and hunting season, but it’s encouraging to me that we have somewhat more respect for wildlife – and dogs and livestock – than we did in that day and age.

Another thing John lamented was the disappearing regional dialect and accent. He said upon reaching Montana “here for the first time, I heard a definite regional accent, unaffected by TV-ese.” He feared that the telly would soon wipe out every regional variation in dialect and accent and we’d all be talking like Walter Cronkite or Lucille Ball before long. My sweetie works in Customer Service for a company that operates in about a quarter of the country; she can assure you that just hasn’t happened. Sometimes it’s difficult to know that Cajuns of the backwoods of Louisiana are even speaking English, and there’s no mistaking the Bostonians who drive their cars by turning on the “khakis” or the traditional Bronx cadence from just over a hundred miles away from there. Native Mississippians sound little like native Minnesotans although they’re bound together by one great river. Myself, I’ve been asked where I was from many times when in Atlanta (usually in a friendly but inquisitive manner) and in Texas had one woman suggest “You’re not from here – is that a Chicago accent?” I told her no but not far off… I was from another Great Lakes city. We southern Ontarians don’t think we have accents, but we sound different to those in the Lone Star State, even if we watch Friends and Masked Singer shows together. Steinbeck misread the future on that.

Another difference is not in the story, but the reaction. Steinbeck was amazed at the mobile home parks springing up everywhere, and was in awe of them. It was a new phenomenon which made eminent sense to him. “They are wonderfully-built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, insulated…” and convenient, he figured. “If a plant or factory closes down, you’re not trapped with property you can’t sell…he rents a trucking service and moves on” to the next city with the next batch of jobs waiting. Now, I daresay Steinbeck wasn’t wrong in the convenience or affordability of them, but for better or worse, very few these days share his sunny take on them and the parks they are located in. Ugly it is, but true as well that a good chunk of the country automatically look at the residents not as smart, adaptable people but uneducated, dirty dolts. Why else do we all understand what someone means when they say “trailer trash.”

Some things never change though, one of the big examples in the U.S. being the Texas spirit. Steinbeck says “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is a mindset” and in fact, “a nation” even. He notes the huge state varies from flat farm fields covered in snow in winter in the Panhandle to sandy Gulf beaches and citrus orchards along the Rio Grande… nothing in common but for the energy and bravado of the residents. Not to get him wrong, he says he likes Texas, married a Texan and was treated with fantastic hospitality when in the Lone Star State. He points out at home, Texans tend to be friendly and welcoming, but as soon as they pass by Texarkana or El Paso they feel self-conscious and ill at ease and turn into the loud, boorish Texans of Hollywood stereotypes. Sentiments that seem about as apt today, as I write this from Fixer Upper-land, as they were to him back then.

Sadly some of the worst things Steinbeck documented are still among the truest. He lamented the bland highways, saying one could drive from New York to L.A. without seeing a thing, and that the cities they line are coming to all look the same, with the same chain stores and takeout restaurants. If he thought that then, imagine if he could see it now that McDonald’s have served “billions and billions” and Walmart isn’t just a small town five and dime in the hills of Arkansas!

Perhaps the most glaring example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” though probably makes the book hit many book clubs and reading lists this year again, that being discrimination and racial unrest. He speaks of growing up in a town where there’d only been one Black family, and they were well-liked, hard-working people no one had any grudge against; spoke of being reluctant to even visit the “South” due to their attitudes and hearing time and time again speeches against desegregation and jokes about thinking Charley , his darkish dog, was a “N”word, time and time again before he even left Texas, let alone hit Mississippi and Alabama. He watched in horror as crowds gathered along the street to yell insults at one tiny Black girl being led into a “White” school in New Orleans by federal marshals. Certainly the circumstances have changed and progress has been made, but it’s discouraging so much of the national debate and daily news still revolves around racial problems in the land.

One universal Steinbeck uncovered unintentionally in his wanderings seems the same for any long distance voyager, be they astronauts, merchant marines, Ewan McGregor riding his motorbike across continents or even Dorothy in Oz: the trip that begins a happy adventure becomes a drudgery, a mere race to the finish line in its last miles. Visiting is great, it would seem, but really there is no place like home.

Our Towns – Steinbeck Revisited At 10 000 Feet

My latest read has been Our Towns, a travelogue by James and Deborah Fallows. The 2019 book (a slightly updated version of the original which was released two years prior) owes a lot to a favorite of mine, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. It’s an obvious comparison and one the writers acknowledge early on. Both are essentially diaries of jaunts across the length and breadth of the U.S., stopping along the way to see interesting towns and talk to ordinary people. However, for all the obvious similarities, there are differences aplenty too, most obviously the 50+ years which passed between the two.

While Steinbeck famously traveled in his camper-back pickup truck with his faithful dog, James Fallows travels by air, piloting his own small plane, with his faithful wife and writing partner. That in itself leads to some big differences. For instance, while Steinbeck lamented how (even in the early-’60s) cities and landscapes were all becoming homogenized and similar from the road with lookalike fast food places and strip malls, the Fallows wonder at the differences of the landscape from the air. They simplify, for instance by noting that from a plane, the eastern third of the country is forest, the central part nothing but farm fields and the west all desert and mountain, save for a dense cluster of cities along the California coast. The mode of transport also affected how they encountered the land. Steinbeck, driving his own bed and breakfast could move around freely and quickly and often met memorable people at campsites or along the road; the Fallows usually stayed in hotels in their towns and spent a few days exploring, often on foot, talking to educators and business people as often as not.

The Fallows visit a range of cities and towns ranging from tiny – Eastport, Maine, for example, a fishing town and the easternmost point in the country and closer to Canadian cities like Fredericton than the nearest largish American one – to mid-sized ones like Riverside, California and Charleston, WV, and even a couple of large urban areas like Columbus, Ohio. For good measure they also visit a Prairie nature preserve in Montana and a lake in Texas being rehabilitated largely due to the work of rocker Don Henley. The one common thread is that all of the spots they stop at are areas on the move upward; areas which are getting better whether they were not bad to begin with or written off as almost dead and uninhabitable.

They strive to find the small stories of success in those places, and the reasons why. They find some fundamental similarities, but one isn’t political leanings. They note that they stopped in one of the most Liberal towns in America – Bernie Sanders’ home of Burlington, Vermont – and some in the heart of Republican red America, like Dodge City, Kansas. Surprisingly, the successes are similar, and one is an ability of local leaders to put aside national and partisan politics to work together for local good. Allentown, PA for instance, tends to be Republican but went against all “conservative” practises during the recession of the early-2000s and voted to increase local taxes, enabling continuation of the level of social services and policing as well as spend on redeveloping the downtown area. The counter-intuitive strategy worked.

The Fallows find some common threads in the cities doing well. Among them, a good community college training people in job skills that lead to good paying work in the area, a good public library system, public schools which adapt to local situations (whether it’s having expanded ESL classes in areas with high populations of refugees and immigrants or having local high-tech industries bring in people to help work with the kids on real world projects involving science and technology) , and a dedication to reinvigorating the downtowns , which usually leads to a number of cafes, boutiques and art galleries. Art too, is a common denominator, they find, although they admit neither of them were especially artistic types. Cities which thrive have a lively arts scene, from galleries and wall murals on old buildings to small theatre companies.

All that and beer . Yep, local microbreweries or taprooms were the last common feature they found in almost every city they visited; something that improved civic pride, usually resulted in a popular local gathering place and of course, some fine quaffs as well.

Cheers to that, I say, and cheers to the book which is interesting and makes me interested in seeing places I never would have imagined could be interesting, like Charleston and Dodge City. A book I recommend for anyone as entertainment, and to civic leaders for ideas.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

They say “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But we writers know differently. People do exactly that, so you’d better be able to judge a book by its cover… and quickly.

It’s always been an issue for authors and their publishers. Unless you’re a household name with a stack of New York Times best-sellers to your credit, people will take a quick look at your book in the store and decide from that cover whether it’s worth even picking up to read the slipcover, let alone purchase it. So your book needs to have immediate visual impact, and suggest to the newcomer just what kind of book it is. Take a look at these examples:

sking

Granted, almost everyone who ever sets foot in a Barnes & Noble, and most of those who don’t, know who Stephen King is now. But even if that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination or guesswork to figure out from the cover that this wasn’t going to be a cheery work designed as a lullaby in print! And, since King is so well-known, note how his name takes up about half the cover. When you’re that successful, your name alone will lead to sales.

Contrast that to this one:

egif

Although it would soon be made into a successful movie, when it came out, Emily was an unknown author. But the cover made for a quick suggestion as to what it would be about and its character. We’d have been quite surprised to find it about a deranged super-natural clown, wouldn’t we?

People do judge a book from its cover. It’s always been true but now is more so than ever, as much of the browsing is done online. Now instead of a 7X10” book sitting in front of them, readers make their choice increasingly by looking at a stamp-sized image on a screen. That thumbnail better have something to make them interested right away.

It was a problem confronting me when I put out my debut novel, Grace…fully living. While my dad, ever the cheerleader, would probably have told me to be confident and go the Stephen King route and have my name take up half the front, I realized outside of a few dozen Facebook or Twitter friends and my little circle back home, no one knew me from Adam. Visuals would have to do the selling.

So, I needed something to catch people’s eye, tell them the book was a light-hearted one about a young woman…and be within my relatively small budget. For that, I find Pexels is one of the best sources of stock images.

My first cover, on the initial e-book release, was this:

gracenewsmallcover

The photo was taken by a Toni Cuenca and I loved it. It was bright, it was colorful (even more so after I tweaked it in a photo-editing program), it said “fun.” The model was attractive, and a redhead, as Grace is in the book. I chose bright summery fonts.

I thought it was great, to be honest, but my sweetie didn’t. Now, it is my work and my choice, but it was worth considering. She was a lady of approximately my target audience and she didn’t seem to appreciate the cute girl in a swimsuit. If she didn’t, many other women might not either. Not to mention, it had no direct tie-in to the book other than the redhead and the easy-going feel. And the proof was in the pudding. Initial sales were low to say the least (not that I expected it to be a million seller no matter what was on the cover!)

I put it out last summer, and decided to try and reboot it and spark sales late in the year by putting it out as a “Christmas edition.” It wasn’t altogether too cheesy an idea as the book begins and ends at Christmas. I added in a little bonus content and changed the cover to this one. The image also came from Pexels.

cmaswrapping cover_small

It was cute. My very small focus group of women seemed to prefer it to the first one. It made an appropriate lead into the start of the story… young woman, Christmastime, cold area, looks like she might be happy enough. But for the new cover and few extra pages, it didn’t fly over the internet into a lot of Kindles.

So when it came time to actually get a small run of the book printed this year, I wanted a new look for it. The hot chocolate cover wasn’t going to cut it, since it might give a hint that it was a romance or comedy, it screamed “Christmas!” with the image and all that red and green going on. Which might be good come December but is going to torpedo summer sales.

Again I looked at Pexels and found by Thiago Schempler. I liked it for several reasons. It’s simple, it’s sort of upbeat looking and it could easily have been a part of a few scenes in the book. The model looks casual and happy, and her hair obscures her face somewhat, leaving a little room still for the reader to imagine Grace as they like. And it was fairly basic in image and colors…more so after my digital tweaking of it. There was space to add in the title without covering essential parts of the picture and, without too much detail, it translates quite well when reduced to phone thumbnail size.

grace resize cover

It’s not pushed the book onto bestsellers lists or bought me a new Ferrari (not even a diecast one!) yet, but I think it works. And I thought you might like to get a feel for one of the myriad of things that go into being an author besides the “simple” writing a book!

Books About Touchdowns And Touchy Divas

So, if you were wondering, I’ve been trying to keep up on my reading through the past few months, still looking to meet my New Year’s Resolution of reading more books than I did last year (when in turn, I think that was also a resolution for 2019.)

A couple I’ve read recently were classic guilty pleasure “summer reading” titles, both by Emily Giffin. Giffin is by now one of the more established romcom/romance writers around and a longtime fave of my sweetie. My first introduction to her material was through the movie Something Borrowed, a likable little flick starring Ginnifer Goodwin at her cutest, Kate Hudson and a pre-action hero John Krasinski. It (spoiler alerts afoot here!) involves Goodwin and Hudson’s characters, Rachel and Darcy respectively, being childhood friends now turning 30. Darcy is the spoiled, self-centered one engaged to the millionaire blue blood lawyer, Dex, while Rachel is quiet, demure, brainy and seemingly a pushover. As it progresses though, we find Dex and Rachel have loved each other for years and when Darcy has a pre-wedding fling, the other two are thrust into each other’s arms. Meanwhile, Krasinski’s all-seeing, all-wise Ethan is a straight-talking friend to all. It’s fun, it’s lightweight and while not an Oscar contender, there are far worse date-night movies around. The movie actually ends with a scene from a sequel…which for what ever reason, never was shot.

The sequel, Something Blue, follows the same characters, but is told from the point of view of self-centered Darcy who simply can’t believe her meek, plain friend “stole” her guy and overlooks the fact that she too had an affair…with one of her guy’s groomsmen. And that she’s pregnant with twins, a result of said affair. Ethan’s moved to England to work and Darcy decides to go to him to avoid the gossip and stares around the fancy places that were her previous haunts.

Since the movie wasn’t made yet, and now Krasinski is a big-time star, and the young women just aren’t that young anymore, probably never will now, I decided to pick up the book for some light reading and to see what happened to those characters.

I wasn’t necessarily instantly taken by the idea by reading about obnoxious Darcy’s exploits that much, and the first few chapters are only readable because it’s funny how self-absorbed she is. And how I can imagine every one of us has met at least one “Darcy” in real-life! But as the book progresses, Darcy is forced to look in the mirror (she can no longer see her feet by looking down) and grow up a little. By the end, she’s managed to become a likable character and as with most romance books-movies not written by Nicholas Sparks, there’s a pretty happy ending for all.

That led to my sweetie rummaging around in a closet and pulling out another book by Giffin, The One & Only for me to read. This one quickly set the tone as being football-centric, and as a big baseball fan who cares little for the gridiron and Friday Night Lights, I was a bit reluctant to even dig past the first chapter. But I was glad I did, as it ultimately was a pretty good book, more nuanced and thought-provoking in fact than the other two. And as a resident of football-crazy Texas now, I loved picking out the telltale signs of life in King of the Hill-land… Shiner Bock being the go-to beer for locals, the Whataburgers, the October days that still feel like mid-summer in the desert.

While still a romance, The One & Only is more drama than comedy, and could borrow from Law & Order‘s “ripped from the headlines” tagline. Again, spoiler alerts ahead although I will try to limit the detail. The story revolves around a football-crazy stathead girl, Shay. She lives and breathes football (which again, might seem foreign to most of us not born in the southern Plains but rings true here) living in a thinly-disguised version of Waco. Her city, “Walker”, like Waco, is obsessed with college football, has the team colors everywhere in the city, and is home to a “near Ivy League” private religious university which has a powerhouse football team, playing in a stadium on the shores of the Brazos River just south of Dallas and a populace with seems overcome with their despise for the University of Texas team. It’s surprising Walker didn’t have a reality-TV couple making home renovation programs there in the  book.

Shay has an entry level job at the university and a pothead boyfriend, but is friends with people in high places, Texas-style, including the aging football coach at the university and a high-profile pro player for Dallas who’d gone to school in Walker. Suffice to say she’s challenged to leave her comfort zone and apply herself a little and soon she’s got a better job and a chance at a better relationship. In time she’s forced to confront questions about her own loyalty to her school and “BFF” vs. her boyfriend. Not to mention, knowing which beau is best.

Although the story centers around Shay, a relatable enough young 30-something even for those of us who don’t share her passion for all things football, but in doing delves into the psyche of the sport and its stars. It examines recent scandals involving university players being accused of impropriety and team official’s turning a blind eye through a surprisingly thoughtful lens.

If you need a lightweight summer reading escape, Giffin’s Something Borrowed/ Something Blue aren’t half bad choices. If you’re a football fanatic, or want some grit with your love stories, The One & Only might be just that.

Your Summer Reading List Just Grew… ‘Grace…fully living’ Now In Print

Finally something “novel” that’s not a corona virus!

Time out here to blow my own horn a little. My first novel is now available in limited quantities as a softcover book and you can be one of the very first to get it. A perfect light read for the poolside or wherever else you might be spending the holidays!

Order your limited edition copy of Grace…fully living now through Etsy. Under $10 for this year’s hottest, funniest and most hapless new rom-com heroine in print. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll feel good knowing your supporting independent artists like Dave.

Thank you and enjoy!

(PS- be watching for a new site soon featuring Grace…fully living discussions, pictures and more as well as other short stories and related pieces.)

May Hooray 6

If there’s one store I miss going into lately (due to the pandemic restrictions), it would be the city’s Barnes & Noble bookstore. I love books, love magazines, love reading. Checking out an eight-foot section of current best-sellers at Walmart doesn’t quite compare, and while Amazon exceeds the range and breadth of selection a 20 000 square foot brick-and-mortar outlet can provide, it lacks the ambience. It lacks the tactile experience. It lacks $3 cups of coffee! And of course, it doesn’t generally provide the great level of surprise that I get when I go in to a store and see something I’d never heard of on the shelves but can’t live without anymore. I’d wager that about half all the books I’ve bought in the past five years have been ones I’d not heard of and wasn’t looking for until I saw them in the store, started reading the slipcover and was hooked.

Anyway, I’ve been reading a bit more than usual during these times, as I hope many of you have been too. The book I’m just about finished right now is My Squirrel Days by actress Ellie Kemper. Many of you would know her from her role as Erin in The Office, but as an infrequent viewer of that (I liked the limited British series that was adapted for the U.S., back in the day, but somehow never really got into the Steve Carell version) I just knew her name a little and non-specifically, and thought “hey, a redhead and a squirrel on the cover. It doesn’t get much better than that!”

And it is quite good, although not Pulitzer Prize good nor fall on the floor laughing funny. It’s witty at times and a good-natured little memoir of a B-list actress who seems likable enough. But that’s not the point of this. The point is, I was able to pick it up for free. And it doesn’t get much better than that! Frankly, it’s not something I would have bought even if discounted from the $26 cover price, but that’s where today’s topic comes in – Little Free Libraries. I picked it up on a whim at a neighborhood one of those while dropping off a book or two I was done with that might brighten or enlighten someone else’s day.

If you’re not familiar with Little Free Libraries, maybe you should be. The “libraries” are little depositories of books that typically volunteers have on their lawns. The idea is simple. They put up what looks like a large mailbox outside their place. Many go to great lengths to creatively decorate theirs, but even if it’s just a plain wooden box, it still serves the same purpose. People who have books they don’t want or have room for anymore drop them off in them. At the same time, anyone can stop at it and help themselves to a book or two if they want. Like one of those “leave a penny, take a penny” trays at a checkout, only for books. And occasionally magazines or movies as well, I find. Since I started noticing around them in my adopted city a few years ago, I’ve come to visit them fairly regularly, dropping off books I figure more likely to gain dust than my renewed attention in the next few years, and picking up a number of ones I’ve read.

The non-profit that runs the service won a World Literacy Award this year and estimate they have around 100 000 little libraries around the world. I’m aware of six or seven around my county, and doubtless there are quite a few more…and some near you too.

Now, it is true that long before “Little Free Libraries” there were big free libraries thanks to our municipalities. Obviously they rather dwarf the little ones in selection and orderliness, given that the little ones usually top out at a few dozen books. But the little ones have some things going for them too.

First, as they point out, they’re open 24/7. Rather more convenient to find something to read on a rainy weekend if it’s 11 o’clock at night. And, since you can actually take the books, there’s no deadline on returning them. No late fees should you forget about them. No library cards needed either.

The big thing they have though is proximity and visibility. City libraries are often few and far between, and not always conveniently located for those without cars. The little libraries aim to be right in the neighborhoods people live in and walk (or drive) by every day. That’s especially useful for kids on their way to school and indeed one of the main objectives they have is to get books into the hands of children who don’t have many – or any- at home. Their figures show that academically, children who grow up without books at home lag three years behind children who have well-stocked bookshelves and read frequently at home. They hope to let some of those kids catch up. As well, the little boxes o’books help promote community, with neighbors meeting more neighbors and getting involved in their own neighborhood. All of that seems like good reason to cheer.

So if you’re “Marie Kondo-ing” while waiting out this virus*, you might want to investigate and see if there isn’t a little library near you to drop off the books that are straining your shelves. And who knows – you might even find a fun book about an actress you didn’t know of . And, if you’re very lucky, maybe even her rodent.

 

*it’s of course worth mentioning that it pays to be cautious right now with the corona virus situation. It’s advisable to wear gloves right now if you’re going to use one of the libraries and, of course maintain social distancing if your neighbors are out there too. And as the CDC note that the virus can live for several days on hard surfaces (Healthline say it can survive on paper up to 4 days), currently it might be wise to file away any new acquisition from them for reading a little later on.

Photo – Waco Tribune Herald

This Music-loving Dave Reads About The Other Music-loving Dave…

The art of storytelling is not necessarily a dying art, but is one which is getting a little gray on top and wheezing a little. In the last week or so, I revisited one of its finer recent practicioners, reading Stuart McLean‘s Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. It was the third compilation of his “Vinyl Cafe” stories which he put out with some regularity for over 20 years until his death in 2017.

McLean had decent careers as an English professor, then a news journalist before settling in to become one of Canada’s most beloved media types by telling stories about folks who felt like family. If that sounds a bit familiar to Americans, it probably should. McLean’s often been referred to as “Canada’s Garrison Keillor.” The comparison is obvious, with both telling stories of ordinary small town folk on public radio then publishing them in compilation form. Of course, while Keillor’s stories were set in his fictitious Lake Wobegon and was mainly heard on NPR, McLean’s were set in Toronto. Now, Toronto is anything but a “small town” but it is also a city of neighborhoods, and McLean made us feel like residents of Dave’s little corner of it.

For those unfamiliar, the Vinyl Cafe stories center around Dave, a middle-aged proprietor of a vinyl record store, and his family, wife Morley and two kids. The stories flip back and forth between his record store, his home life and quirky neighbors and the odd reminiscence of his youth in rural Nova Scotia or his career as a rock roadie when young and single.

The stories are generally relatable, sometimes warm, sometimes witty. The term which seems to fit is “gentle humor”. Not many of these stories will make you fall on the floor laughing, but in general they do make you feel like Dave and Morley are family, have you cheering on their little victories and nodding along with their foibles or frustrations of having a teen girl and ‘tween boy to shepherd into adulthood.

The themes are familiar, lower-case ones. Dave’s buddy’s wife doesn’t like him much and doesn’t realize he didn’t go with said buddy on a run to the beer store when she dashes to the kitchen in the nude to get a drink. An old customer comes back to his store after being away for seven years and the most valuable record Dave owned ( a 1930’s 78 by Geechie Wiley) has them reminiscing and catching up on each other’s lives. A stodgy old aunt comes from Britain to visit and go to a Due South fan convention – she’s obsessed with the Canadian Mountie show – but ends up being taken away for an impromptu fling on a little fishing boat. The family decide it would be nice to make each other Christmas presents but find the idea is nicer than the stressful reality of doing so. Nothing earth-shattering but then again, nothing that causes us to have much “suspension of disbelief” nor to flinch or have our hearts miss a beat. No Stephen King scary clowns or rabid dogs in the Vinyl Cafe.

I’ve read a number of his books (there are around 10 different “Vinyl Cafe” titles, although some of them are essentially “best ofs”) and enjoy them. I like his style, I like the references to my homeland and a city I’ve strolled the streets of and shopped the stores in, and feel no small amount of kinship with a 50-ish year old guy called Dave who loves Blue Jays baseball and mostly, music. However, as I got further into the book, my honest assessment was … “this is OK, but it’s a bit weak for McLean.” To put it into parlance Dave of the store would understand, it’s like a compilation of B-sides. Worthy enough, but not representative of the heights he could attain. No “greatest hits” this one. Until I got to the final short story. “Love Never Ends.”

Love Never Ends” sees Dave take a side seat to his old childhood baseball coach, and wife. It’s astonishing. It’s not one of McLean’s funnier tales, but it may well be his crowning achievement as a writer and a person. It says in about 14 pages as much about the meaning of life and the Human Condition as many philosophers and theologians have been able to deduce in a lifetime of work and pondering.

So the overall review is, a decent enough set of stories, and a pretty good introduction to the Vinyl Cafe for a newcomer, and if you come to it first, you might be pleasantly surprised with other books in the series you read later. If you like Garrison Keillor, you probably will like Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. But if you want to be moved, touched… made to feel, track down the “Love Never Ends” story from it, at a library, online, while sitting in a bookstore. But have a Kleenex ready.

Local Celeb, Universal Messages

I’m walking through this world not in search of a trail to follow but in recognition that the trail is waiting for me to blaze.” Wise words to live by from Clint Harp, in the latest book from my reading list, Handcrafted.

I love nice furniture, but have little interest in the process of how it gets made. Given that, my latest read might have been an odd choice for me, and could’ve been dull as mud. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Handcrafted by Clint Harp is much more than a biography of a carpenter…I’m sure he’d say that the New Testament is much more than a biography of a carpenter as well, so it pays to be curious. Although then again, I doubt Harp would want to compare himself to Jesus in any way.

Harp is the carpenter sidekick of Joanna Gaines on Fixer Upper, and host of his own slightly less well-known show, Wood Work which ran on DIY Network a couple of years back.

I was given the book by someone who knows how much I liked the Fixer Upper show and what the Gaineses- Joanna and Chip – have done for their hometown of Waco. I didn’t grow up in Waco, so it’s hard for me to imagine just how run-down and deserted the downtown was only a couple of decades back. Now, it’s a hot tourist destination (well, not now…thanks Corona Virus!) full of trendy little bistros and clothing stores, a busy renovated theater and crowds of people from all over. Although the success of the university football and ladies basketball teams have helped as had the mere fact the city is about half-way along the highway between the exceptionally fast-growing cities of Dallas and Austin, a great deal of that newfound popularity owes itself to just one thing – Fixer Upper and the charimsatic Gaines family. Their Magnolia companies. renovated some old grain silos downtown, turned it into a store and food truck center and have since opened a bakery and cafe (with plans to add a church, softball field and whole row of new shops soon). It’s been amazing to see the city catch on in the past few years and the likable couple of Joanna and Chip go from being home renovators you’d sometimes glimpse standing outside a construction site to regulars on magazine covers and on TV shows like Today.

They play a huge part in Clint’s book and success too. Clint was the go-to carpenter on the smash reno show, and as a result his own business, Harp Design has become a tourist spot in its own right and he’s hired on a busload of helpers to keep the shop and his resultant store running. But as the book shows, it’s not been an easy road for him, nor a destination he foresaw.

And that’s the interesting part of the book. Clint never aimed to be a professional carpenter as a kid… in fact, for some time he figured maybe he could become a professional musician (and hey, he’s an REM fan apparently…more reason to like him!). He did fine as a high-paid salesman, which was great except he hated the job. Handcrafted outlines just how odd, and difficult a walk for him and his family. Be it God or good luck, Harp’s followed his gut so to speak, and it seems to have turned out quite well. At times when many would turn around and backtrack, he’s pressed onwards. But there’d been arguments along the way and sleepless nights working away to meet deadlines which loomed large. Along the way, he learned how little he knew, an important lesson the wise among us all come to find out sooner or later..

In short, the book shows the value of following one’s goals, and priororitorizing one’s life. An ordinary guy who believed in himself, was lucky to have a wife who did the same and has fumbled on through, not getting sunk by the losses and appreciating the little wins along the way.

I once saw Clint trying on shoes in a local department store, just as Fixer Upper was starting to take off. I recognized him from the show, but didn’t approach him. I rather regret that now. I hope now I’ll have the opportunity again some day. The guy’s wasn’t born with a silver spoon and has a lot of lessons to teach… and hey, two R.E.M. fans are seldom at a loss for conversation!