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.

Younger : Redmond Vs Star

My latest reading for the year was an interesting novel – Younger by Pamela Redmond (2019 edition). It’s interesting for two reasons. First, the story itself is intriguing and captivating. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, because it was the foundation of the cult-hit TV show of the same name. Actually, it’s rather interesting for a third reason too… the copy I had was extensively “updated” from the original 2005 version which won Redmond fame and a TV contract, with the characters brought into the here and now with plenty of modern-day references like I-phones and Grindrr apps. (By the way, dear readers no, I don’t have any plans to do the same to my book, Grace, Fully Living to leap Grace ahead two decades.)

The basic premise of the story, both on printed page and on the TV screen, is that a recently-divorced 40-something woman decides to go back to work after spending the past couple of decades at home, being a homemaker and mother to a girl who’s now college-aged and overseas. She finds it difficult to resurrect her once-promising career in publishing, and senses that bosses think her too old and inexperienced to be useful. Enter her best friend, Maggie, an avant garde lesbian artist, who goads and helps her into trying to look, dress and act younger… 26 in fact. With the new attitude, wardrobe and fuzzy resume, she gets back into her old field and finds new romantic interests. Of course, she lives in a constant low-level sense of fear with so much riding on her being assumed to be a perky young Millennial rather than a middle-aged mother.

The show on TV Land is now in its sixth season, with plenty of twists and turns in both her work life and love life. The book however, is narrower in range, covering just the first year she attempts to pull off the “younger” life. It’s one of a number of differences between the two. This part made it all the more interesting to me, as seeing the finished on-screen product, it was cool to see what the writers kept and what they altered from the original template.

*SPOILER ALERTS FOLLOW*

As I said, many things are the same… the basic facts of the heroine, her attempt to pull off being almost 20 years younger, her young love interest in Josh, her picky and prickly boss at the publishing house she goes to work at, her daughter’s mercurial nature and eventual return from charity work overseas, and Maggie. For all the similarities, there are differences aplenty.

Even the names have been changed. Our protagonist we all know as “Liza” on TV is Alice in the book. Her work friend played by Hillary Duff on the show is known as Kelsey there; Lindsay in the book. Other names are altered, although one which isn’t  Charles. The handsome boss on TV is… Mrs. Whitney in the book? Actually, his character doesn’t exist in the novel, with the boss being an aging feminist writer whose only interest in Liza/Alice is her ability to come up with modern covers and prologues for their catalog. Happily for Josh, no rival for the heart of our heroine appears on the pages. Meanwhile, Maggie is obsessed with becoming a mother in the book rather than finding a hot new lover, as the TV version is. Last but not least, her book stint at the publisher is abbreviated rather than years-long and elevated. She does however, find something creative and useful to do after the job in the book. You’ll need to read it to find out what that might be.

In short, the TV show centers largely around the dilemma of Liza needing to choose between the two loves – the age-appropriate (for 26 year old Liza) and fun Josh, or the age-appropriate (for by now close to 50 year-old mom Liza) successful and polite Charles. And, how far Liza and Kelsey can take their own division of the company with its “Millennial” titles.

The book, on the other hand, revolves around the conflict within Alice as to whether or not to follow her heart about Josh, whom she feels deep down too young and too likely to be disappointed in her down the road and the themes of motherhood played up by the ironic contrast between her and Maggie. She has spent much of her life being a mother and suburban housewife and wants to cut loose a bit; Maggie’s spent her life being wild and living the downtown life, now she yearns for something more domesticated white bread and apple pie.

Which version works better?

Both are quite entertaining and at least enthralling enough to keep one turning the pages or turning on the TV week after week. As Redmond says in the epilogue, “when you sell your book to TV or movies, you sell the rights for them to do whatever they want to your characters and stories.” She adds she loves the show and thinks Darren Star has “stayed true to the characters and spirit of the book while making some great additions.” That he has, and necessarily so. If true to her original book, Younger might have made an interesting movie but would never have the legs to run a show with episodes running for years.

All in all, a good enough book which will be all the better for fans of the show.

Introducing Grace, Fully Living

It’s Christmas Eve and thirty-something Grace Tyler just can’t find what she’s looking for… on the store shelves this close to closing time, or in the men in her life. And while it seems like all those close to her have people in their lives to hang stockings with and successes to celebrate tonight, she’s planning to spend her Noel alone. After all, isn’t “alone” just an anagram for “A Noel”? At least it gives her plenty to time to look back over the year. And what a year it has been… misadventures on the ski slopes, the suave, talented yet creepy and threatening photographer, the art gallery parties and the male stripper the gallery’s owner tried to fix her up with. Trips home to see her school BFF’s new business venture , admire her Dad’s growing internet savvyness and try to un-hear her mother’s unwavering criticisms. All that and the driver who couldn’t get over himself, the boss called “Horrors”, the apple of her mother’s eye, namely her day-trading brother Roger and who can forget that unwanted surprise in her toilet one day? Certainly not Grace! And of course, there was Doug… enigmatic Doug, the mysterious northerner she never quite could get out of her mind…nor into her arms. If only her life was more like her “Friends” Monica and Chandler!

In the tradition of Bridget Jones Diary and The Holiday, it’s the story of finding love and finding yourself in the modern world. Join us as we tag along with Grace as she maneuvers her way into a new millennium, and a new life.

Life for the modern single lady isn’t always graceful… but with our heroine, it is Grace…fully living!

I’m pleased to announce my first novel, Grace, Fully Living is finally available! Currently it’s available as an e-book in all popular formats so you can enjoy it on your phone, Kindle, Apple device, Kobo, Sony Reader or even your PC!

Grace, Fully Living as the prologue above suggests, is a lively modern-day rom-com following the adventures of Grace, a single Gen X lady finding her way in a new life and new millennium. I try to bring a sense of fun and hope to a story many of us will find relatable while bringing back memories of our not-too-distant past. Merging the attention to detail and pop culture of Douglas Coupland’s novels with the great romance and lovable heroines of Nora Ephron’s screenplays, Grace will make you laugh and believe in love again. And maybe bang your head on the wall once or twice as well!

Grace, Fully Living is available for download now at many popular retailers including Barnes and Noble, or through the publisher Smashwords.

I hope you enjoy meeting Grace as much as I did bringing her story to you.

No Freaks, No Economics, Just Good Reading

So an update on my year’s reading… not long ago I finished reading the famous (some might say “infamous”) Freakonomics, a 2005 non-fiction work by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Actually, I should say “re-reading” as I read it many years ago when it was on the Current Releases shelf at a library many miles and years away from here now. It was a pleasant reunion for me.

The first thing you should know about Freakonomics is that despite the title, it has very little to do with economics as we know it. In fact, that has been one of the criticisms of the book by the more scholarly types. Noted economist Ariel Rubinstein for instance says “economists like Levitt have swaggered off into other fields” and the book’s “connections to economics, none.” The second thing you should know about it is that this fact makes it eminently readable! The third thing you need to know about the book with the orange-inside-an-apple cover is that it was wildly popular and influential. According to Publisher’s Weekly it was the 9th best-seller of 2005 and #12 again in ’06. It’s sold over 4 million paper copies to date, which if books were rewarded like records, would surely make it multi-platinum.

The fourth thing you need to know is that if you’re interested and haven’t picked up a copy before, skip the next couple of paragraphs which have spoilers!

Levitt, the economist by trade, and Dubner and newspaper journalist combined to put out a book of interesting anecdotes and studies which make us challenge some of our preconceived notions and ways of looking at things. Not unlike Malcolm Gladwell and his books, which I’ve mentioned are big favorites of mine. They show evidence that sumo wrestlers, despite the Japanese emphasis on honor and integrity, frequently “throw” matches to help out friends within the sport, and that teachers will cheat as readily as their students if the kids test scores can influence their own job appraisals. A fast-moving and wide-ranging book, it touches on subjects as disparate as the downfall of the Ku Klux Klan and if Black people name their kids differently than other parts of society, as well as if so what effect that has,  to the structural organization of a drug-dealing street gang. Among the surprising findings there were that at least one large gang they studied had a college-educated, peace-loving, overpaid boss, a board of directors and a ton of poorly-educated, subsistence-wage street operatives who flummuxed the bosses by going rogue and shooting people.

The most controversial , and thus memorable, finding of theirs was that Roe Vs Wade – i.e., easy access to abortion – had more impact on reducing murder and violent crime rates than the effects of putting more police on the streets, longer jail sentences for criminals and a booming economy combined. Their suggestion is that with abortion legal, the majority of women who took advantage of it were likely to be single, poor, young and quite probably dealing with substance abuse issues which would have made them unfit parents and created unsuitable households for kids, who in turn would have a greater probability of turning into criminals when they hit their teen years. Not something popular among a good swath of the public, but an item worthy of revisiting in these times when numerous states are doing their best to outlaw abortion once more – and an interesting example of how the apparently differing objectives of hard-core right wing law and order types may actually align with those of the opposite, left-wing liberal segment of the land.

I loved the book, and highly recommend it to anyone wanting to be surprised, or to simply open their minds to new ways of looking at things.

Part two of the story though, is that I then watched the documentary movie of the same name. I found the DVD Freakonomics in a dollar store discount bin. There was probably a reason it was there. The big problem with Freakonomics, the movie, is that if you’ve read the book, it’s going to be… well, boring. And if you haven’t read the book, a movie with a fruit on the cover and a tie-in to economics isn’t likely to catch your attention.

The movie highlights some of the book’s sections, with the authors on screen a fair bit of the time. Both Levitt and Dubner are intelligent and seem nice enough, but neither has that special something that make them rivoting personalities on screen. And the little doodle cartoons and interviews they use to illustrate their points seldom do much to elevate the film. They scan quickly over a lot of material from the book, while spending too much time on the Sumo issue and adding only one new “chapter”, a look at trying to bribe kids to do better in school, which also drags and leaves the question unanswered anyway!

In short – Freakonomics book good, movie not so good and neither has much to do with economics. Which is fine with me, since about all I can really remember from university economics 101 is supply and demand. Which would tell us that with demand for cable TV dropping and supply of competitive options (Roku, streaming services, Netflix etc) increasing, prices should drop. Have you checked your cable bill lately?

So I suggest to Mr. Rubinstein, no the book has nothing to do with economics. But maybe economists should read it anyway, since it guides one to look at the world differently!

Book Suggests We Coddle Our Kids…And Minds A Bit Too Much

One of my resolutions this year is to read more than I read last year. Last year, I read 15 books by my count, so obviously the goal is 16 or better this year. I figure if Dec. 28th rolls around and I’m at 14, it’ll be time to break out Hop on Pop and Green Eggs and Ham. Seriously though, the actual reason isn’t to rack up a score (and if it was, 16 wouldn’t be all that glamorous albeit it could be a lot more than many people do these days), it’s about just reading. Exploring new ideas, be they fiction or non. I’ve always enjoyed reading since I was young; just as with so many of us the “busy-ness” of life makes it harder to put aside a chunk of time to do more than a magazine article at a time.

Anyway, I just finished my second book of ’19, a non-fiction current near-best-seller entitled The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle really caught my eye when browsing the new releases at the store a couple of months back : “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” And the basic premise is just that – that we (Gen X-ers primarily) are raising kids hopelessly incapable of dealing with the real world.

They speculate the problem arises from three great untruths we are somehow brainwashed into believing and teaching the young ones (especially the I-Generation as he calls it, the ones just hitting the colleges in the last year or three). One, that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you weak; two, that they should always trust their gut, so to speak and never, ever doubt what they feel is absolutely right, and three, that the world is a battle between pure good and pure evil. These of course fly in the face of everything science, psychology and what we used to call “good ol’ common sense” have taught us. We know that some problems and adversity will in fact help us think, be more creative and more resilient. We know that sometimes our feelings get in the way of what’s real, create biases and stop us from examining thoughts or people that might possibly conflict with what we want to believe. And we know that the vast majority of us are capable of both good and bad and that few people are purely evil demons out to “get” us. Why then, they wonder, don’t we teach our kids that?

They outline the effects including kids who are immature and have never had their opinions even questioned and feel anyone challenging their thoughts is akin to a physical assailant.

Although they try to cover a broad range of topics – arguably too many – discussing what is wrong with society these days, they do zero in well on some main themes. Our over-protectiveness of kids spurred on by Amber alerts and hysterical media reports about the rare cases of child abduction by a stranger, the pressure on kids to do well and get into prestigious schools, their overuse of computers and phones at expense of making real contacts and real friends. They also venture into the increasingly obvious terrain of how social media is only making us less social and more antagonistic towards anyone who thinks a bit differently than we do.

Their arguments are by and large convincing and their conclusions about the problems – hate speech abounding, colleges eliminating readings and speakers who might be even a wee bit provocative or unpopular from the curriculum, etc – are obvious but need repeating. They see hope for the future with changes coming; I’m not so sure we’ll wean kids off their phones or that social media is going to suddenly enable users to hear, and appreciate all kinds of differing political or social opinions. But I have hope in those who have hope!

The book is a bit dry… it’s in the genre of Malcolm Gladwell but not such a rivoting page turner, but it’s well worth the read. Particularly is you have kids of your own.

I grew up with a mom that I thought was over-protective. But even I spent many a happy afternoon on nice days riding my bike here there and everywhere with school pals, once in awhile played some road hockey in the street if it wasn’t too too cold and walked to school (or rode my bicycle if the weather was good.) Walking to high school was over a half hour each way, and that was cutting across a park and , yes, cutting across a railroad line surruptitiously. To have done it along the actual roadways would have added a good ten minutes or so to each trip,day in day out, snowy or sunny. I grew up fine.

Or at least, grew up physically ok, not obese and not averse to exercise, and although often a bit pissed-off by people whose thinking is quite different than mine, not feeling like I was in physical danger listening to them. And I grew up reading. Books, novels, bios, history and geography texts, magazines, daily newspapers. I still try to do that. So I bid you a good night and for me…

14 to go this year! Don’t be surprised if you see a Cat in the Hat review here come December…