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.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Here is the meditative Liszt's Benedition de Dieux.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper LeeFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I went to Books a Million and the salesclerk volunteered information that I had never known. As someone employed by the local university (I'm a musician; I don't teach) I get a discount card for free AND every purchase 20% off. Well, sign me up!

What this mostly means is I get a lot of cheap coffee, but I must admit my book purchasing at BAM has increased. Those wily sales team marketers in BAM administration know what they're doing.

Which is why I bought a book I never would have otherwise. I mean at full price...well, with the twenty percent discount. If I had waited for it to become a best seller, it would have been 40%.

Still, I really could not resist the premise of this book.

Casey Cep researches into a long, forgotten episode in the deep South, made more interesting by the fact the Harper Lee collected thousands of records and notes about it.

In a small Alabama town, the Reverend Willie Maxwell is an itinerant, black preacher. One evening his car breaks down and he calls his wife to pick him up. After telling her neighbor she was off to fetch her husband, she leaves and disappears.

The next day her body is found inside her car. She had been beaten to death.

And the Reverend collects on a substantial amount of life insurance from several insurance companies.

Reverend Maxwell is suspected but nothing is proven and he's acquitted. The prime witness, the next door neighbor recanted her original story about the wife coming over.

And guess who the next Mrs. Maxwell is? The neighbor, whose husband has conveniently died.

Thus starts a series of murders of the Reverend Maxwell's family members, yes, the second wife doesn't last. Her body is found much the same way the first one was. A nephew is killed. A step daughter....all of whom had massive life insurance claims.

Yet every time the Reverend was acquitted. Because of an ambitious lawyer who saw himself as a pioneering Civil Rights attorney. The case against the Reverend was racism..blah, blah, blah. I think the Lawyer, Big Tom was more interested in making a name for himself than protecting the rights of black people. All the murder victims were black. Where was their justice?

The black community held the Reverend in awe and fear, but one man decided that he would take the law into his own hands.

At the funeral of Maxwell's step daughter, another man, Robert Burns, stands up, turns around, and fires point blank at the Reverend, who is dead before he falls out of the pew he was sitting in.

Robert Burns goes to trial and guess who defends him? Big Tom. And how does he defend him? By proving that the man he murdered, Reverend Maxwell, was in fact a cold blooded murderer. Burns gets off with an insanity plea and is a free man a few weeks later as the mental hospital deems him "sane" again.

That is the bare bones of the story. There is a lot I liked and enjoyed reading, with a few, I won't call them complaints, but things I wish were included.

First of all, don't buy this book thinking you're going to get a real life thriller. At this point in time, almost fifty years after the fact, there are few living witnesses of what happened. Most of the people in the book are dead, so Casey Cep did not have a lot to work with.

In order to rectify that, she adds a lot of filler in the form of background information of everything mentioned in the book: the history of life insurance companies, of property domains, the insanity plea, the political career of Big Tom, naturally a bit of the racial tensions in Alabama and finally, a fairly good if cursory biography of Harper Lee, her friendship and work with Truman Capote. She writes almost as much about Lee and Capote's research for his book Cold Blood as she does the trial of Maxwell.

It's like a beef stew with a few ounces of meat suffocated with potatoes and flour and broth.

Now, personally, I found all the background information interesting if not also a bunch of rabbit trails. I wish Cep had been able to find more information about Maxwell than describe in detail her personal speculation about the black communities' superstitions, concerning the Reverend's involvement with VooDoo. First of all, she admits that the black community is "very quiet" about these beliefs, but she is sure they are there.

This is the seventies, not the 19th century. She does not hold a very high view of black people in the south if she thinks they are all crippled with superstitious fear. I mean, I know that movie with Kate Hudson (The Skeleton Key?) depicts black people in New Orleans like that and it's meant to be a compliment, but I think it's condescending.

Not to say that no one was superstitious, it just isn't limited to black people. My father grew up in the hills of North Carolina and Virginia and my grandmother and cousins could terrorize me with some of their ghost stories. My cousin Mark would come over and regale me and my sisters with the scariest stories...always at the time he left, we would be shivering under our covers.

But I digress.

As I said, I found all the background information very interesting, if only loosely related to the main plot. I wish there had been more information about the actual murder. More background on the victims as well as the Reverend and his murderer, Burns.

Harper Lee sat in on the trials and took copious notes and then sat on them. Cep speculates as to why the book never materialized.

I wonder as well. How many books are great writers expected to produce? The best did not write more than a few. Some wrote more but many only wrote five or six, and Lee wasn't the only one to write only one.

That must be a lot of pressure for a writer. You finally get a publisher, you turn out to be a cash cow, so now they want lots more of your stuff. But what if you only had one good book in you? Is that so wrong?

The writers that plow them out year in year out, are more on the level of entertainers and I quickly add there is nothing wrong with that. I'm addicted to Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout and Georges Simenon and grateful they wrote so many books for me to enjoy.

But I wonder about myself. I have five books I am currently writing (yes, long story, no pun intended), but do I really have anything else to say?

Well, I have digressed again. I hope that I have given an adequate enough overview to allow those of you reading this review to make an informed decision as to whether this book is your cup of tea, or not, as I am fond of saying.

Speaking of which, my tea is getting cold so I will sign off.

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Sunday, May 26, 2019

No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by Johnny Rotten

Here is the Sex Pistol's performing God Save the Queen.  I would suggest watching the video, because to me, what they do should be classified Performance Art.

Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No DogsRotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by John Lydon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I saw John Lydon on the Conan O'Brian show and was impressed with his thoughtful intelligence. He was also promoting this book, so I bought it.

It is difficult to say whether I gained any insight to the Punk movement of the late seventies. After reading this book I conclude that everyone involved was a bunch of illiterate reprobates who were anti-everything, including each other. The Sex Pistols glorified in their disgusting shenanigans on stage, got lots of trash thrown at them while they were performing and, unsurprisingly imploded without hope of recovery only a couple of years after they began.

Most people who are remotely interested in this genre are familiar with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon and their fast track to perdition, but this book only speaks of them peripherally. I did find it ironic that they all hated Nancy so much because of her aggressive, abrasive and immoral character. Uh, isn't that the embodiment of the Punk movement?

But they also hated her for getting Sid hooked on heroin. I personally think his mother, a heroin addict, and Sid's supplier, had something to do with that, although no doubt, Nancy accelerated Sid's race toward destruction, but the reality is, no one takes you where you don't want to go.

The book is narrated by many people, not just Mr. Lydon, and I will give him credit that he does not censor anyone's commentary, even if it does not put him in a good light.

Finally, I have to say I got tired of reading it, because regardless of what middle schoolers and emotionally immature adults think, dropping the F-bomb every other sentence and describing how you trashed people's houses or how many women you were with, is actually a banal read. I started racing through the last quarter just to finish it.

I have already bought Lydon's second book, Anger is an Energy. He was older when he wrote it. Let's hope he's grown up a little as well.

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh

Here is a great favorite of mine, Glenn Gould, playing Beethoven's Tempest Sonata.  If you want to skip his talking about Beethoven, start at 5 minutes 33 seconds.

Years from now, when I'm gone and my library becomes world famous, my books will become priceless collectors items.  I can imagine the conversations:

"Are you sure this is an authentic Wilfong?"

"Oh yes!  Look at the trademark bird nibbles on the dust jacket."

Officers and GentlemenOfficers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the second in a trilogy about the adventures of Guy Crouchback who, although older than the average soldier, wants to fight for his country.

As the blurb says, he has been ousted from his previous company due to some mishap, of which cause was due to his incompetence, and here he is on a Scottish island, in training with another cast of characters who could pass as Keystone Cops or the police force in Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. It all seems rather funny, until they go to the island of Crete and put their training to practice. Then the butchery of real war pay its toll. Much of this is due to the idiocy of the leadership, making obtuse decisions.

I'm sure that is an accurate description of Waugh's view of war.

The story line, seemed sketchy to me and tended to bounce from character to character. I felt like I was watching a Soap Opera where the scenes and isolated plots of each character, while interesting and funny, had no connecting thread to each other.

The dialogue and the writing was sharp and witty, but overall, I preferred the first book, Men at Arms.

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Saint Thomas Aquinas "The Dumb Ox" by G.K. Chesterton; The Westminster Confession of Faith: a Study Guide by Rowland S. Ward

Here is J. S. Bach: Trio Sonata no. 5 in C Major BWV 529 (Allegro).

Today I am combining a couple of my shorter reviews.  I have a lot of reviews on Goodreads that I need to transfer over to my blog.  I guess I will be busy doing that this week.

Saint Thomas AquinasSaint Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chesterton is always a roller coaster ride to read. I read somewhere that he dictated all of his writing to a secretary with no revising. While this does prove what an amazing genius Chesterton is, it also helps to understand why you feel as though you are racing around inside his head, plucking one idea out of another.

His turns of phrases are fantastical and are so well stated, sometimes hard to understand, but mostly proverbs that leave you thinking, "Yes! That is very true and I never thought about it that way."

While this is a life of Saint Thomas, an actual chronology of the saint's life is quite minimal. What the bulk of substance is about is a critical analysis of St. Thomas' theology compared and contrasted with St. Augustine's and also later Martin Luther's. Mostly, though, it is like all of Chesterton's literary essays, which are a comparative and contrast to the Spirit of the Age, which dares to call itself rational and enlightened.

Chesterton is a Catholic, through and through, and while I don't hold that against him, I must confess I am more in Augustine and Luther's camp than Aquinas'. I would not mind reading another biography or at least a book about Aquinas' doctrines to get a better idea of how well supported his theses are.

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The Westminster Confession Of Faith, A Study Guide: A Verbal Modernisation Of The Text As Adopted By The Church Of Scotland In 1647 With Analysis And CommentaryThe Westminster Confession Of Faith, A Study Guide: A Verbal Modernisation Of The Text As Adopted By The Church Of Scotland In 1647 With Analysis And Commentary by Rowland S. Ward
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For those of us who love to read exactly what particular denominations believe about Systematic Theology, this is a good resource.

This confession details what Orthodox and conservative Presbyterians believe about God, the Bible, and the church. It is includes a thorough statement about every aspect of Christianity. Who is God, what is the Trinity? What is the Bible, is it inerrant etc..what is the church body, what is a Christian and so on.

This edition is also a study guide with expanded explanations of each statement by Rowland S. Ward. I can't say I agree with everything he says, but anyone who would like a deeper knowledge of the Christian faith from a Reformed perspective would find this an excellent resource.

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And, finally, I am trying to improve my language skills by reading the entire Bible in French. There was a cheap download for my Kindle.  I'm up to Numbers.

Until next time:  Adieu!

Monday, May 6, 2019

Roshomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

This is one of my all time favorite Renaissance songs:  

Germanic Lombardy song, L'Amor Dona Ch'lo Te Porto

There seems to be two camps concerning Kindles.  Those that use them and those that wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole.  I must admit when they first came out I was appalled.  The thought of reading one of my glorious books on an electronic device was unthinkable.

Of course I'm conservative about everything.  I only wear clothes as they're going out of style; they're much cheaper that way, for one thing.  They're no longer popular for another.  I hate belonging to a herd.  Maybe I'm arrogant.

But we were speaking of Kindles.  I had always brought my Kindle on overseas trips because it's so much lighter than carrying a suitcase load of books.  There are also a lot of free downloads, which is nice.

Lately I've discovering a couple of other perks about my Kindle.  One, gratification is immediate.  I click on the buy link and voila!  The book is in my house.  Secondly,  I don't have to worry about what condition it will be in we it arrives.  I have had a few bad experiences with that.  Some seller's idea of "good" or "like new" condition do not match my own.

Finally, they are considerably cheaper.  I could have bought the complete British Pack of Mystery writers for about a hundred dollars.  Instead I got the complete set for $15.00 or .99 cents each.

Which is why I bought the following book for my Kindle.  It was only $1.99.  I got it immediately and wrote a review before it would have ever been delivered to my door.

I have 437 books on my Kindle.  I could travel around the world comfortably.  Just need to remember the outlet adapter.

Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Collection of short stories by the pre-war Japanese author, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa wrote around 150 short stories before he committed suicide in 1927.

The stories are creepy and eerie, but very well done. Perhaps they are even more beautiful in the original Japanese. Nevertheless, there is something dismal and Sartresque about them. Another descriptive word would be thought-provoking as each tale grapples with evil and the hopelessness of man.

Though the author is from the 20th century, the tales show an medieval, traditional Japan. Maybe Akutagawa saw that this way of life was on the verge of disappearing.

These perhaps were meant to be moral tales, hoping to provoke the readers into recognizing their own guilt and lack of compassion for their fellow man, much like the Indian writer and poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

The first one is probably the most interesting to me. In A Grove, is about a murder with no third person narrator, but several first person narrators. The entire story is through dialogue. Each gives their testimony as to what happened. As each new person gives their version of events, new information is added and enlightens the reader to the actual character of the previous witness. Finally, even the victim gives his testimony through a medium.


Another dark yet provoking tale is Rashomon. A recently fired servant visits a place where unclaimed corpses are dumped. While there he discovers a old woman stealing the hair from the corpses to sell.

He is angry that someone would stoop to desecrating the dead, but the woman insists she must do so to survive. She then claims the dead woman whose hair she is stealing stole fish when she was alive, but she, too, did it only to survive. So is it evil when one is only doing what one is forced to do?

The servant answers her, that if that is the case, he is justified in stealing from her. So he violently takes her clothes from her body and runs off, leaving the old woman naked among the dead.

I think it is a point well taken. When one begins to justify evil, where is the line drawn? It's just a matter of might making right.

The last story, The Dragon, is the most suspenseful. A priest, tired of being mocked and bullied by his community decides to play a practical joke. He sets up a sign next to a lake near his temple that at a certain date, a black dragon that resides at the bottom of the lake will rise to the heavens.

As more and more people read the sign, word gets around and increasing hordes of people from all over Japan start arriving to see the spectacle. The priest begins to feel uneasy. He meant it as a joke so he could laugh at his fellow villagers. Now what will happen when everyone is disappointed?

The ending is not predictable and rather beautiful.

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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins

I must confess that I love a lot of things Russian, even though I have never been to Russia.  My favorite authors are Russian, and so are my favorite ballet choreographers, and of course, composers.  Here's a personal favorite:  Khachaturian's Masquerade Suite.

Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea HotelInside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had read so much about the different people who had lived in the Chelsea Hotel, watched the videos of Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, as much as I could without falling into a boredom induced coma, other videos about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon, Patti Smith... I decided to read a history of the hotel itself.

There is no doubt Sherill Tippins is a good writer. The history from ancient to present flows like oil. We learn of the architects who constructed the hotel in the late 19th century. We learn about the hands who bought and sold the hotel. But mostly we learn about the various famous, and infamous, people who inhabited and co-habited the rooms.

The hotel seemed to be a hub for creative people from the latter decades of the 19th century to the last decades of the 20th. It is still open but closed to all but a few long time residents as new owners have decided to renovate.

The style is Queen Anne, Victorian Gothic, but I also think a dash of Art Deco exists at least in the interior. Just based on the photos I saw.

Authors like Mark Twain, Thomas Wolf, Dylan Thomas, and Arthur Miller stayed. The Beatniks Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, Harry Smith and their ilk lived there for a while. In the sixties, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Leonard Cohen were residents. Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgewick made the place famous with their voyeuristic films that last for hours. And hours.

The beginning of the seventies see Robert Mapplethorpe and then girlfriend, Patti Smith, living together, at least until Mapplethorpe decided to "come out" and kick-start his photograph career the old fashioned way by acquiring a rich boyfriend.

The end of the seventies come crashing down for the hotel with death of Nancy Spungeon when she and Sex Pistol's bass player Sid Vicious were staying there. I appreciated the fair way Tippins described that whole chaotic, messy tragedy. How did Vicious murder his girlfriend when he had taken enough Tuinal to put less hardy souls into a coma? And why weren't the others who admitted to entering their hotel room that night, and apparently stole quite a bit of money from Sid, even questioned?

Much of what Tippins says is interesting especially if you like to read about the lives of the above-mentioned people.

However, I did tire of the constant barrage of salacious gossipy details, who was sleeping with whom, especially all the gay sex. It's like the author was trying to titillate the reader. That is not why I wanted to read a history of the hotel.

Although maybe she could hardly avoid it. The hotel sounded more like it was a hospital for drug-crazed socio-paths.

Yet Abby Hoffman, another resident, as well as Arthur Miller and others, felt they had the authority to proclaim judgement on the rest of America and deem them guilty of materialism, capitalism, and the Vietnam War. It became a religion for them. One they worshiped like a group of rabid animals who felt any means necessary justified acts of violence and inciting riots.

I wonder how a group of moral reprobates, living in their own alcohol and drug-riddled enclave, had the temerity to decide what America's problem was and what the solution was. A solution they felt needed to be forced on the people "for their own good".

Sherill Tippins is very much in their camp and cannot help sharing her own political views as to how conservative presidents caused every ill in the U.S. She ignores a lot to make that point.

You will learn more about the people that lived in the hotel than the hotel itself, but, what is a building? If the walls could talk, I'm sure they would have even more shocking things to say than Tippins. As far as it goes, I think Tippins does a fair job giving the walls of Hotel Chelsea a voice.

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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Mid-Century: An Anthology of Distinguished Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Orville Prescott

I've just discovered this composer/cellist and I like his sound.  He combines his classical training with an Indie style.  I hope you enjoy him, too.  This is Methods and The Masses by Tanekobu.

Mid-Century: An Anthology of Distinguished Contemporary American Short StoriesMid-Century: An Anthology of Distinguished Contemporary American Short Stories by Orville Prescott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A collection of a largely unheard of group of authors from the middle of the last century. Some of them deserve to be revived, although good luck finding copies, since most of then are out of print. Most of them are written in a style that dates the story, but some have a sharp style that really draws the reader in and, in the case, of one pokes him in the eye.

I'll mention a couple:

The Day of the Last Rock Fight was written by Joseph Whitehill and I've had a time finding copies of his work. This story is told in the rare second person, with the narrator being an adolescent boy sent to a school for the emotionally disturbed. He has decided to confess what actually happened at a rock fight he was involved in at his former school where a classmate ended up dead. One finishes the story wondering if the narrator is reliable or bonkers.

The Cave by James Michener is a gripping story about a platoon of Navy soldiers and Marines during WWII who are hiding out in a cave on an island in the South Pacific theater. They are listening to a British man on the radio who is giving away the positions of the Japanese planes and battle ships. But who is he? And where is he that he is able to report so accurately the enemies plans and enemies? The story pulls you to the end, which does not spare the horror of war or the fate that can happen to even the bravest.

My favorite was from an author I had never heard of. Her name is Jessamyn West and she was apparently a prolific writer in her time and I was able to find some of her books on Amazon, eBay and even my local library.

The title of the story is A Little Collar for the Monkey. It is about a selfish, domineering woman who rules her life and the people around her with malicious glee. One reads with dread wondering what is going to happen to her victims, but the ending is not predictable.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Nazi Hunters by Andrew Nagorski

Here is a beautiful Fandanguillo by Joaquin Turina Perez, performed by Julian Bream.  There should be accents on the "i's" but I have no idea how to do that on my computer.

She insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
-Hannah Arendt

The Nazi HuntersThe Nazi Hunters by Andrew Nagorski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a truly fascinating account of a segment of history that gets less attention each year. I think a wonderful movie could be made of this book.

Nagorski starts with the end of WWII and begins with the rounding up of Nazi War criminals. He describes the lawyers, tribunes, and the victims. Last but not least, he describes the defendants and their atrocious acts of cruelty (not for the faint of heart) and their fate. He even gives a brief history of the hangman who served out justice to the defendants who were sentenced to death. Not all of them were.

Still, many Nazis got away. Some of this was because they tribunal judge decided that being a guard, or in some way serving in a concentration camp was not evidence of guilt. This was changed, years later, after most Nazis were dead, to guilt by association. If you were a part of the machine, you were still guilty.

It's interesting the excuses almost all of the criminals caught gave: They were merely following orders and in times of war, one cannot think or question. But that does not explain why some got such sadistic pleasure out of their job, not to mention that there are some things that transcend government orders. There is a higher moral order we must all answer to.

After the initial trials, interest waned in bringing war criminals to justice, mostly because the nations, especially Germany, but also the United States, wanted to put the past behind them. In the United States case, they had become embroiled in the Cold War and their focus had shifted.

But there were individuals that refused to give up the past until all perpetrators had been brought to justice. We learn about Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor and others who at first fought singlehandedly to bring former Nazis to justice. Nagorski does a nice job giving background information of the Nazi criminals and their hunters.

Much of the book runs like a high action movie. The hunt by the Israeli group, the Mossad, after Adolph Eichmann and the "Angel of Death", Josef Mengele keeps the reader in primed suspense. There are others too. Former Nazis running for offices in German Parliment, France, and also the United Nations.

Nagorski also recounts the efforts of Germany to create a gap in their history for their citizens who were born after the war. Thanks to some piercing documentaries made by a couple of German film makers in the seventies, German youth received a shock and awareness of, not only what happened in their country, but also that beloved relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, were a part of this notorious regime.

Hannah Arendt, while covering the Eichmann trial in Israel coined the term, "the banality of evil." She meant that "people who commit acts of evil are not always monsters, sometimes they are bureaucrats."

She asserted "that only good can be radical. Evil can never be radical; it can only be extreme."

"Evil can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people."

Her articles for the New Yorker, which were later compiled into a book (that I just bought and will read soon), caused a lot of controversy among the Jews, who felt she was diminishing the evil work of Hitler and his regime. Arendt was herself a German-Jewish exile.

I think the thought that evil could become normal by average everyday citizens, makes people uncomfortable. But look at what is accepted in our own society. First it was abortion. Now in New York and Virginia, it's infanticide. And people stood up and clapped.

There are heartbreaking stories, one in particular of a Jewish man riding on a train in Germany, chatting amiably with his fellow passengers, everyone friendly. And then the train stops and soldiers take this man away and no one says a word.

My question is would that be any of us? Like watching the child in our school being bullied and we just stand and watch? I remember as I was entering a grocery store I saw a man screaming at his elderly mother. Two elderly woman passed me by. One said, "That's not right." And the other immediately said, "Yeah, but you can't do anything about it," and both walked into the store.

Isn't that most of us? Don't get involved? I did nothing to help the woman that day.

The book brings us almost up to date as to the accomplished work of these hunters and their untiring work to remind people of the past and that there is no statute of limitations on atrocities.

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