Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson

I love twentieth century music and I hope you all will enjoy listening to Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet Op. 43 performed by the Galliard Ensemble.

The Lost WeekendThe Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was quite the eye opener. I have never suffered from alcohol or drug addictions nor have I lived with anyone suffering from this sickness. Sickness it certainly is. How someone arrives at this state, I don't know. I'm sure there are a lot of different causes, both environmental and genetic, but based on this semi-autobiographical account by Charles Jackson, I think that one's mental faculties become seriously impaired.

The Lost Weekend is about one man's nightmarish life. His entire reason to live is to get that next drink. Don Birnam is a writer, we are not informed as to how successful he is. Not very, the reader gathers since he lives with his brother and has no money. What little money he is able to beg, borrow and steal is quickly liquidated, pun intended.

The story takes place in 1936 on the East Side of Manhatten. Don Birnam is sitting in a chair in his brother's apartment. His brother is about to go away for the weekend and he pleads with his brother to come with him. They argue back and forth, but Don is adamant that he is not leaving his chair. His brother finally gives up and leaves.

Thus begins a drinking binge that starts on Friday and doesn't end until the following Tuesday, when his brother returns.

We live inside Don's mind. We know his every thought. We see him lie at the bar, so people will buy him drinks, he lies to the woman at the laundromat who doesn't want to give him money because she knows what he'll do with it, but it's just a loan you see...yeah take it and go away...

We listen to his thoughts as he becomes inebriated and delusional. It's so painful to watch. He takes a taxi to an upscale bar where he drinks himself into believing that he can steal the purse from the woman next to him and get away with it, because he has super powers. He's smarter than everyone else in the whole world. Then the humiliating exposure as the woman and her boyfriend demand the purse back and the bouncer throws him out.

But where can he get the next drink? Where's his money? He has it, then he doesn't have it. Here it is in his coat pocket. Now it's not there. What happened to it? He doesn't know what's going on.

He decides he must sell his typewriter. He carries it blocks and blocks to a pawn shop, but the shop is closed. Why is it closed? He has to carry his typewriter back. It's miserably heavy.

What day is it? Is it still Friday? No it's Saturday.

Then he's in the hospital. How did he end up there? That's right, he fell down the stairs as he was returning to the apartment.

The doctor and nurse treat him and the other patients, it's a ward for drug addicts and alcoholics, like specimens. His head is badly fractured and they want him to stay until he is properly treated, but he refuses. They give him a pain killer which is great! Where can he get more of this stuff? He wheedles the nurse but the nurse won't budge.

He leaves and somehow makes it back home. The phone rings incessantly, probably his brother checking on him, but he won't answer. He doesn't want to speak to anyone or see anyone.

He finds he has to see someone because the woman who has been trying to contact him all weekend finally shows up at his apartment. The janitor has let her in.

She takes him to her house and tries to get him to shower and rest. The next morning when she goes to work, he rifles through her stuff to see if she has any liquor. He finally leaves with her fur coat and goes to hock it.

He was somebody once. Sometimes his thoughts drift to his past. He went to university, taught in university, but somehow he ended up homeless, jobless and obsessing over how to connive another drink.

Charles Jackson wrote this story in 1946. He had a rich source of material to draw on, his own life. He fought his demons for years, but finally, in 1967, in his room in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, he died of alcohol and drug poisoning.

This is a horrible, excruciating and beautifully written book and I highly recommend it.

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This postcard came from China.  I always like to tell my Chinese postcard pals that my son is living there and learning their language.  Derek tells me he is now dreaming in Chinese.

Here is the front so you can see the interesting stamps.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

One of my favorite composers to play.  Here is Robert Schumann's rarely played Gesänge der Frühe, Op.133 performed by the exquisite Mitsuko Uchida.

The Westing GameThe Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read this on the recommendation of someone whose opinion I respect, although I understand that we have different tastes in literature. I like character and plot driven stories, he's more into world building and provocative concepts.

OK, I'm talking about my husband, but that is beside the point. This book was on his shelf and it looked intriguing so I gave it a shot. There were elements I liked and elements I did not like.

Of course to be fair, it was written for a younger audience, won the Newberry in fact, but I have to chalk up her target audience as another criticism. The plot and cast of characters were quite complicated and I know I would have lost interest in the book at that age. In fact, if I wasn't able to speed read, I would not have gotten through it at my present age.

Plot premise:

Sixteen people have been carefully selected to live in Sunset Towers. It turns out that they are all potential heirs to Sam Westing, a business tycoon who disappeared years ago, but lives on an estate near the Towers. Shortly into the story, Sam is found dead in his house. But he seems to know he would die, furthermore he has left instructions for his heirs to follow in order for them to acquire their share of his fortune.

The kicker: Westing claims he was murdered. By one of them! The first person to discover the culprit will win one hundred million dollars. The heirs are paired up and each pair given a set of clues. Each list of clues are incomplete so they need to find out the other pairs' lists to solve the murder mystery.

What I liked:

It was an intriguing mystery. I wanted to know what was going to happen and that kept me going to the end. And I will say without divulging anything that I found the ending satisfactory. It ended the way I like stories to end, with a resolution, like the "Amen" chord at the end of a hymn.

I also liked that, although the characters started out immensely unlikeable and cardboard thin, they actually started showing other dimensions as the story progressed and as I said, I do like where they all ended up.

OK, criticisms:

I felt the characters were a bit stereotyped and a few of them not very believable. In fact, I wish she had less characters and concentrated more on developing them. Some of them had real potential to be very interesting, but they stop short.

Some of the characters were not very believable. The girl nicknamed Turtle is so immature, she runs around kicking everyone in the shins, that for a good third of the book I thought she was around eight years old. It turns out she's thirteen. Sorry, this book was written in 1978. I was thirteen in 1978. I had hit hormonal adolescence big time. Boys were not yucky they were fascinating and while I had my hopeless crushes, I did not express it by kicking the objects of my desire in the shin.

Also, it was very hard to keep track of who everyone was and what the clues led up to. I found myself backtracking and re-reading pages frequently.

All in all, not a bad read, just not a very good one.

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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Barcelona by Robert Hughes

I have become addicted to a show on Youtube and I cannot stop binge watching it.  It's called "What's My Line?"  John Charles Daly hosts it and there is a panel of  regular celebrities who were quite famous at the time.

What do I like?  How courteous and civil and blessedly free from any kind of political rant the show was.  Their dress and demeanor were classy and, while the mystery guest was normally someone famous,  the other guests were ordinary people with interesting occupations.  Some of them were quite impressive.  There was a quaint elderly lady who looked just like granny from Bugs Bunny who was a tiger trainer.  Another was a woman who was a foreign correspondent, something new at the time.  

They also had one of the Buckingham Palace guards and the inventor of the hula hoop. There was a Navy man who tested parachutes (by jumping out of planes in them!) and an Army man who was a deep sea diver to recover derelict ships.

My favorites were when the mystery guest was Salvador Dali and another time Frank Lloyd Wright.

As for the panel's personal lives?  I looked them all up.  They stayed married to the same person until death parted them.

Sigh...those were happier some respects.  At least in the media. 

And for your listening pleasure:  Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin.

Guell Park
In 2013 I visited Barcelona and left there an adoring admirer of Gaudi, the eccentric architect.  His work mesmerizes me.

Photos from my visit in 2013.

BarcelonaBarcelona by Robert Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was reading other interviews on Amazon and it seems the major complaint was that the book should have been more concise and covered less information about the history of Catalonia. One person was irate that there was no mention of the soccer team.

As for me, I did not think it was too long, I liked the extensive trek through history starting with the earliest records, the different kingdoms, rise and fall of kings, queens, aristocracy and such.

By reading Hughes fluid writing, one discovers how the Catalunyans (ibed) or Catalonians view themselves, their fierce pride in their heritage and their language, different from Spanish.

Hughes covers many bases, except, I guess, soccer. We learn of the city's politics, art, language, literature, poetry, and architecture. My hero, Gaudi is honored with the last two chapters, although other architects are also included.

I had seen the Sagrada Familia in art books and it looked like a mud castle someone made on the beach. And then I visited the city and saw it in person. All I can say is that I was mesmerized. There was something spiritually uplifting just by looking at it. For those who don't know (and shame on you if you don't) the Sagrada Familia is Gaudi's masterpiece: a church, it is called a cathedral, although technically it is not a Cathedral because no Bishop presides there, and is still to be finished. The only thing marring this wonder structure are the cranes.

Hughes scoffs at the later architects who have tried to finish Gaudi's work, but I like it, even if there is a noticeable delineation between Gaudi's work and his successors'. There is so much detail and meaningful symbolism.

Hughes scoffs at a lot of things. While I enjoyed the information he provided and felt I learned a lot about Barcelona which increased my appreciation of it, I did not like Hughes' overall tone. He sounded just a little too superior. Turning a clever phrase trumped objective observation.

But, aside from that, readers interested in this remarkable city would do well to read this book.

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For posts on my photo trip through Barcelona you can click on the links below:

Final destination:  Barcelona

Barcelona:  Second Day

Barcelona:  Third Day

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sex Pistols The Inside Story by Fred and Judy Vermorel

Here is Rapsodie Espagnole by one of my favorites, Maurice Ravel, performed by the Montreal Orchestra.

In its atmosphere, the Rapsodie reflects the profound influence of the Spanish musical heritage imparted to Ravel by his Basque mother. As a child, Ravel would listen to his mother sing him folk songs from her country. Later works by Ravel, such as Boléro and the opera L'heure espagnole, also claim similar sources of inspiration. From the blurb on Youtube.

Sex Pistols: The Inside StorySex Pistols: The Inside Story by Fred Vermorel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am fascinated by movements, especially ones that I have heard about, but never really focused on. So this year, almost forty years after the fact, I am reading up on Punk Rock and the movers and shakers who propelled that movement to international attention.

This book is comprised of a diary of Sophie, the Sex Pistol's secretary, and the interviews that Fred Vermorel and his wife Judy conducted with each member of the band as well as people associated with the band.

Some of it was insightful in that it showed how a group of ill-educated, low class punks could become world famous. You get the right promoter behind you and you can go places and it's not wholly due to personal ability in the realm of musical talent, or financial or business knowledge.

Which is probably why when the Pistols disbanded a couple of years later, they did not have much money to their name.

John Lyden, aka Johnny Rotten was able to move on and create his own band and brand of experimental type of music. The rest seemed to sink into anonymity, except for Sid Vicious whose sensational death along with the death of his girl friend, Nancy, has become legendary, in no small part because of the movie made about them.

It fascinates me why so many people flocked to this genre of music. Did it really speak to them? Or was it promoted in such a way that made it appealing and attractive to young people? I'm still trying to discover how it works.

The interviews themselves are not very interesting in my opinion because the young men did not have a whole lot to say for themselves. We learn what they hate and what they're against, but what they stand for or like is unknown. Being reactionary only survives if there's something already established to react against. As their own type of music became popular, they lost their raison d'etre.

I have a few more books about The Sex Pistols and the Punk Rock movement in general. We'll see what they have to say about it all.

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 One of the postcards I received from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace by Robert M. Coates

Here is Jascha Heifetz playing Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 77

My husband got me a present the other day.  We have had to cut down a few of our trees before they fell down due to the tornado winds we've been getting.  I hated to do it, but the limbs were hanging over our neighbors' yards and next door they have five little kids who play outside all the time.  If one of the branches fell on them I would never forgive myself.

Unfortunately, this has reduced the population of birds in our backyard.  So Josh bought me this cute bird feeder.  At first we saw no birds, but yesterday a bright red Cardinal and a nut hatch came by. Today we have a sparrow.  Yay!

And finally I'm seeing birds visit our bird bath.  Right now a Mockingbird is taking a dip.  He flew away before I was able to take his photo, but I hope you can see the little bird helping himself to seed.

Well, he's gone.  Now two mockingbirds are fighting over it.

The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez TraceThe Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace by Robert M. Coates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Living many years in the South I have developed a taste for Southern novelists and Southern history. I have driven across the Natchez trace, starting in Huntsville, Alabama all the way through to Grenada Mississippi. I have also spent a weekend in Natchez the small town on the border of Mississippi on the river of the same name, across from Vidalia, Louisiana, which has the best barbecue restaurant I have ever before eaten at. If I'm not mistaken, it's called "The Butt Hut". Just FYI, if any of you pass through there.

I am reading through an encyclopedia of Tennessee places, people and history (yes, I read encyclopedias; I'm that sort of nerd). Outlaws came up as well as mention of some books that record their dastardly deeds. This book is one of them.

If nothing else, this book makes the reader appreciate the value of an effective police force. Police forces were non-existent back when our country was just born. And many a psychopathic maniac took advantage of that fact.

As people started traveling out west to stake their claims and try their fortunes in unknown parts, many traveled through the vast forest land that came to be known as the Natchez Trace. There is now a paved highway through the forest, if one would like to drive through. I can say from personal experience that it is worth it.

We like to think of ourselves as civilized, but there was a time when some European settlers could prove themselves as savage as any barbarous murderers of any brutal times past.

These gangs killed to rob, to ravish, and murder, many times just for the sheer pleasure of it. The first known serial killers in America are the Harpe brothers and they kept people from Tennessee to New Orleans in constant terror from 1797 to past the turn of the next century.

Of course, people reach a point where they've had enough and after years of searching and chasing, one Harpe brother's career came to an end when his head was nailed to a tree as a deterrent to other would-be criminals.

His brother ran off and joined another gang and did not meet his just desserts until years later.

Other Outlaws were Samuel Mason, a cowardly ex-soldier, who nevertheless, enjoyed hiding in the woods and surprising isolated travelers, stealing all their possessions and killing them.

The worst, and also the last, was a man named Murrel who was a respected plantation owner in town. He had a wide network that involved the seediest criminals as well as professional bankers and lawyers.

He would "rescue" slaves i.e. steal slaves, promising them freedom and a passage to the north, only to turn around and sell them farther south and west. If he couldn't sell them, he shot the poor deceived slave dead, leaving their weighted bodies in the Mississippi river. I am not going to describe how his gang weighted the bodies.

He and his clan planned a huge uprising where the slaves were to murder their masters and their families and then travel to freedom with Murrel and his clan. Of course Murrel's real purpose was to sell them. Luckily the wife of one planters overheard a couple of slaves talking and got the story out.

One man, Staunton, on his own by becoming perhaps the first undercover detective, joined Murrel's clan, got a list of the members and turned it over to the authorities.

But Murrel knew the law and he had good lawyers. They set out to destroy Staunton's good name and character so he would be thrown out as a witness. It worked in that Staunton's reputation was destroyed, but eventually Murrel was convicted.

As I said, he was the last outlaw gang leader. It was by now the 1850s and things began to change. Townspeople began to understand the need for law enforcement, but also the trace and the surrounding forest became more populated, settled and less isolated. Criminals did not have the invisibility and places to hide as before. No doubt they moved farther west to more desolate areas. Which reminds me that I read a very good history of the Texas Rangers, but that's another book review.

As horrible as their deeds were, these Outlaws were a part of American history and I think it is important to read all aspects of our past: the good, the bad, and the dastardly.

I wonder why Clint Eastwood never made a movie about the outlaws of Natchez Trace? Someone needs to.

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Jack the Ripper: A Chilling Insight Into One of the World's Most Infamous Killers by Geoff Barker

Here is Papa Haydn's Piano Sonata in B, no. 47, played by the brilliant Emmanuel Ax.

Jack the Ripper: a chilling insight into one of the world's most infamous killersJack the Ripper: a chilling insight into one of the world's most infamous killers by Geoff Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am writing my own "ghost" story and I mention Jack the Ripper in it. As I was writing, I wondered if my information was accurate. Jack the Ripper is a nefarious legend about a serial killer, his victims were prostitutes but that was as far as my knowledge went. I did not want to include erroneous information in my book, even if it is fiction.

As I was visiting my local bookstore I came across Jack the Ripper: a chilling insight into one of the world's most infamous killers by Geoff Barker. It was on sale for five dollars. Well, who could resist such an enticement? Not me.

This book is good for a number of reasons. It's not very long, imminently readable, and filled with illustrations and photographs, some a bit graphic, so please use discretion. It's not a children's book.

Also, the author is methodically thorough. He starts with the part of Victorian London where the murders took place, giving the reader a history of the neighborhoods and people who populated them. He provides maps to show the neighborhoods and also the scenes of the crime. He also provides information as to where to find those sites today, since some of neighborhoods have changed considerably.

After that we get a couple of pages for each murder victim. There were five that are recorded as positively resembling each other enough to create the conclusion they were done by the same hand.

What's nice is that we get a brief history of each woman. She's not merely a murder statistic, she's a person who has her own history that abruptly stops with her murder.

What all of the women had in common was they were alcoholics that supported themselves through prostitution. What I found interesting is that none of them started out that way. They started out married with children, even coming from working class households. However their alcohol addictions ruined their marriages, caused them to desert husband and children and basically live from one bottle to the other.

The scenario is similar with each case. They spent their money on drink and then couldn't pay for their night's lodgings, so they went out to ply their trade to get enough money to pay for a night's lodging. Little did they know they would not be needing lodgings that night because they would end up at the morgue.

I mention this because I think I tend to think of these women as poor helpless, born into poverty and as a result they took to drink to drown their sorrows, so to speak. This book does not paint that picture at all. They started out well off with a working husband and family and it was the alcohol that caused their degradation into poverty and prostitution, not the other way around.

Barker tells us details of the serial killer by how he killed. It was always with a knife and, well I won't write the details because they're gruesome, but just to say that the method of killing seemed to indicate someone with medical knowledge, which lead some to suspect the murderer was of the medical profession.

However, there are several suspects and this is how Barker rounds up his history. He describes each suspect and why they might be Jack the Ripper. One reason these men are suspected is because they died or ended up in insane asylums, or left the country which would explain why the murders after a couple of months abruptly stopped.

I read this book in one sitting. And, as perverse as it sounds, I'm glad to finally know the facts about this horrible legend.

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A postcard I sent to someone who likes Van Gogh.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis; The Big Knockover : Selected Stories and Short Novels by Dashiell Hammett; The Flemish House by Georges Simenon

While writing these reviews, I have been listening to a collection of Bach Chorales.  If you like Baroque choral works, you will enjoy these.  When Bach wrote these, hymns were limited to Latin chants.  It was considered radical at the time, but Bach took the chorales and put them into the language of the people (in his case, German).  One of my music professors, who was Catholic, said Bach's Chorales stripped away the sense of the mystical away from worship when he did that.  Well, I disagree.  I think, regardless of your personal beliefs, you can enjoy well-written music.

In the photo above you may notice some toy soldiers.  I got these for my birds so they wouldn't chew on my books.  You can see how successful that has been.  Incidentally, I bought some books at the dollar store to give them to chew on.  Naturally, they are in perfect condition.

This is what is happening on my shoulder while I am trying to type.  It's how I divert the little green monster so he doesn't chew on my phone, Kindle or computer.  Or books.

Maybe I should make my own Godzilla movie.  Hercule the Terrible.

Because my mystery reviews are kind of short, I thought I would publish three of them all in one blog post.

In the FogIn the Fog by Richard Harding Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was really a fun short mystery. A group of men are at the club, you know, back in those days where men had dinner, drinks and cigars at men only locales, at least in England. I don't know if that tradition made it across the pond to here. On the other hand, here in Texas, good old boys and cowboys do enjoy meeting at local diners to just hang out and "chew the fat" as it's called.

As I was saying before I diverted myself, four men are seated around a table, four strangers as it were. One, known only as "the man with a pearl" is talking out loud to himself, but his companions soon join his conversation.

The man's complaint is toward another man who is seated in a comfortable chair in front of the fire and out of hearing. He is engrossed in reading the newspaper.

The man with a pearl laments to his companions at the table that the man yonder is a VIP in Parliament and is trying to get a particular bill passed. The vote will soon arrive and he wished he knew of a way to detain the man in order to keep him from making any influential speeches in Parliament.

One of the other men comment that the man seems to be an avid reader and quite an intellectual. The man with the pearl snorts. No! The man only reads mysteries.

Soon the man in question folds up his paper, puts it under his arm and makes his exit.

As he passes the group at the table, the man with the pearl hails him. The Parliament man says he is in a hurry and cannot stay, but the man with the pearl tells him that he is working on a very serious murder case.

This intrigues the Parliament man (sorry, I don't know what else to call him. Let's say P.M.) and he stays to hear the story.

What happens next is all the men at the table conspire to detain the man so each pick up the thread of the story when the previous man finishes.

Each story is complete in itself and very diverting, as the P.M. also finds and is glued to their every word.

And the ending is one of the best I've read in a long time, but I refuse to say more. Read the story for yourself. I'm sure it's in the public domain. I bought it as a part of the British Mystery Pack for my Kindle.

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The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short NovelsThe Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a group of short stories, the first three connected to each other and longer stories, mostly starring our un-named Continental Operative. Those are my favorite. They have all the ingredients of a great story and I enjoy following the short, heavy-set detective around as he gathers up clues, makes discoveries and finally at the very end, gets the bad guys, although he is also adebt at letting the bad guys get each other. Saves on court costs and taxes.

Some of the stories take place in San Francisco, where the Op is stationed. Some specifically in China Town, one in an island of the coast of San Francisco and a couple away from 'Frisco on a ranch and lawless cowboy town.

If you like mysteries and hard boiled detectives, Hammett is the master and you'll enjoy these stories. The table of contents are:

The Gutting of Couffignal
Fly Paper
The Scorched Face
This King Business
The Gatewood Caper
Dead Yellow Women
Tulip (an unfinished manuscript and rougher in development)
The Big Knockover
$106,000 Blood Money

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The Flemish House (Maigret, #14)The Flemish House by Georges Simenon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another Maigret. What can I say? I cannot stop reading about this Parisian detective.

This particular mystery does not take place in Paris, however, but on the Belgian border in the town called Givet. Maigret is not officially on duty, he only comes because a young woman has specifically asked him to. So while Maigret assists the detective in charge, Monsieur Machere, he insists that he is not responsible for anything.

The woman, Anne, and her family are Flemish and not especially liked by the French inhabitants of Givet. To make matters worse, a young French girl has disappeared. It is feared she has been murdered and the number one suspect is Anne's brother. After all, he has the biggest motive: he got the girl pregnant and he is paying a lot of money every month to support, not only her and the baby, but also the nanny of the little boy, and also her lout of a brother who is constantly demanding more and more money.

But did he? Did anyone else have a motive for killing this girl?

That is what Maigret sets out to discover..

Possible spoiler, read on at your discretion:

My only quibble with the entire book is the lax attitude Maigret seems to have with right and wrong. He seems to think it is not his responsibility to administer justice, even with a murderer, since he is off-duty.

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My small, blue T-Rex would rather nibble on me.