Friday, July 30, 2021

 THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG, Muriel Barbery (from the archives)

This novel, a selection of my reading group, at first put me off. Who wants to read, or in my case listen, to the philosophical ramblings of a 54 year old French concierge and a rich 12 year old suicidal child in a Paris apartment building. But perhaps because I listened to rather than read this book, I soon became engaged with it. On vacation in Paris several years ago, I was also seduced by the setting.

Renee Michel, a fifty-four-year-old woman of humble origins, is concierge in a Parisian apartment building. Renee quit school at age twelve, but throughout her life she has studied philosophy, literature, film and art. She hides her intelligence from the residents of her building. She puts on the mantle of the grumpy, unintelligent concierge for reasons that become clear over time.

Also we hear the diary of Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old who also lives in the apartment building. Like Renee, Paloma pretends to be average so as to be ignored--to be left alone. Paloma plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. She sees no reason to continue life with her rich, uninterested family. If her fate is to become like them, she'd sooner die.

Thus the lives of Renee and Paloma are similar and we wait for them to discover this. We wait for them to find and save each other.

One day, Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman, moves in. Both women find their salvation in his interest in them and eventually each other. They create their own salon.

This book won me over due to the acerbic, uncompromising nature of both women. And yet, beneath their cynicism lie hearts eager to be won. Madame Michel asks herself, "What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?" If only we all could embrace this sentiment.

Again, this is not an easy book to sink into. But don't be put off by her philosophizing. She's worth your perseverance.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: " The Pilgrimage" William Maxwell.


William Keepers Maxwell Jr. (August 16, 1908 – July 31, 2000) was an American editor, novelist, short story writer, essayist, children's author, and memoirist. He served as a fiction editor at The New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. An editor devoted to his writers, Maxwell became a legendary mentor and confidant to many of the most prominent authors of his day. Although best known as an editor, Maxwell was a highly respected and award-winning novelist and short story writer. His stature as a celebrated author has grown in the years following his death. 

"The Pilgrimage" almost certainly is a story based on something experienced or something heard by Maxwell. It gets so much right about tired tourists on the road. The Ormsby's are an American couple touring France. On the way to Paris, they make a detour to find a restaurant that friends have told them about, saying "it was the best dinner they had in their life" How can the couple not have dinner at a place that specialized in truffles and also " deserts made from little balls of various ice cream in a beautiful basket of spun sugar with a spun-sugar bow." 

They drive through village after village and finally come on a place that seems right except the menu has neither of the dishes they are seeking. And neither does another place on the town square. They are completely obsessed with having the things they were told about and act in the way Americans are always accused of acting. 

This is a satirical story, of course, meant to point out the problems with tourists in foreign settings. Maxwell is a master of this sort of story. And I can't say enough about the quality of his novels. especially TIME WILL DARKEN IT, THE FOLDED LEAF and SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW. 


George Kelley 

Richard Robinson 

Jerry House 

Todd Mason

Monday, July 26, 2021

Monday, Monday

I am working with a new computer here and I have not figured everything out yet. So much faster though. 

So happy to see TED LASSO again. And the first episode was just as good as last year's series. It doesn't always work out that way. I am watching the original Belgian version of PROFESSOR T, which is a bit too much MONK for me. I liked MONK, but I don't need another version. The UK one looked worse. 

In the middle of THE BEAST MUST DIE on AMC and too soon to tell but I loved Nicholas Blake books when I read them 50 years ago. Also not sure about WHITE LOTUS yet although the second episode seemed better than the first. 

The movie mentioned above is Hungarian and was so interesting. It is available on several platforms and worth your time if you like a puzzle. 

Lots of horrible rain, really driving downpours and one of them knocked out my cable box. Will Comcast try to charge me to fix/replace it. If they do, goodbye I think. Maybe I can get along with just my Roku and WIFI. 

We people who got our vaccines six months ago now have to be careful. It seems to wane about now and several people I know have had breakthrough cases, and not so asymptomatic. B.V. Lawson has had it twice not. Once before and once after the vaccines, despite wearing masks. All of this could have been avoided it everyone had vaxed up. 

No books to report. I pick them  up, read 50 pages and put them down. It is probably just me. 

So what's new with you?

Friday, July 23, 2021

Friday's Forgotten Books: Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg

Richard S. Wheeler was the author of sixty-nine contracted or published novels that largely dealt with the American West. This include historical novels, biographical novels, and traditional western fiction. In recent years he wrote mysteries, including some set in the upper Midwest, under the pseudonym Axel Brand. 
This review is from 2009. Richard Wheeler died a few years back. A lovely man.

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg

I've finished rereading Scott Berg's great biography of Maxwell Perkins, which won the National Book Award in 1978. It is a massive book and took a week to get through. I've often wondered why it is my favorite book, and why I return to it with renewed thirst and joy, every little while.

For a long time, I thought it was because I had been a book editor and found common ground with Perkins. Or perhaps it was because my family is rooted in New England, though I grew up in the Midwest. There was something in Max Perkins' shy, awkward, introspective nature that rang bells in me.

The truth of it is that I have no idea why that book stands above all others in that place of the heart where I build altars. It is largely a description of the way Perkins, a Scribners editor, nurtured several wayward authors and the result was the most sublime period in American literary history. The list of those he encouraged and published is too long for this posting, but they include Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ring Lardner, Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson, John P. Marquand, S. S. Van Dine, Taylor Caldwell, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Alan Paton, and James Jones. No other editor has even come close to discovering and publishing a list like that.

Scott Berg writes tenderly. He had his hands full, because of the acrimony, the disappointments, the bitterness, the craziness, the hurt, that he was chronicling. Somehow Perkins managed to nurture each of his authors, supplied the specific criticisms that lifted their books to new heights, all the while trying to remain anonymous because he felt that editors should not take credit or be known to the public. He often said that a book belongs to the author, and it is the editor's task simply to bring out the best in the author and the book.

This great work by Berg shaped me. It deeply affected how I think about literature. It changed what I aspire to in my writing. I am not the same person I was before this book entered the place of honor on my shelf. I lost my father, whom I loved and admired, when I was young. All those authors he nurtured lost a father when Max Perkins died.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Short Story Wednesday


 (Thanks to Steve O. for the loan of the collection Perchance to Dream)

 "Father, Dear Father," Charles Beaumont

Time is the only thing that really interests Mr. Pollet and not so much what happened in the past or what will happen in the future but how alteration of time will affect  him. He builds a time machine and after many attempts gets it to work and he travels back in time to the days before his conception. His father died when he was four and he is curious to see what would happen if he'd never been born. So he walks the streets of the town of his birth, finds the house he grew up in, and murders his father and nothing changes. Can you guess why? 

This is a bit of a gimmick, but at its short length and nice writing, I think it worked reasonably well. It's all too familiar though to read about a guy whose only interest is in how time affects him. He could travel to any time and witness historic events but he is satisfied with only traveling to a small town in Ohio and murdering a man whose only sin (supposedly) lay in conceiving a son who is a narcissist and a murderer. 

I will be tied up most of the day with various appointments so forgive me if I don't get to look at your choices until tomorrow.

 Jerry House

Kevin Tipple
Steve Lewis


George Kelley 

Richard Robinson

Monday, July 19, 2021

Monday Monday

I watched THE NUTTY PROFESSOR Friday night and I'm sad to admit, I find little to like in this film. My daughter is a Jerry Lewis fan and I'm sorry not to share her enthusiasm. It is possible I was poisoned by my mother who really disliked him and said so many times throughout my childhood. She thought he was making fun of mentally challenged people in almost every film and I have to say it comes off like that to me too. What about you?

Enjoying The Unforgotten a lot. Trying not to speed through it too fast and yet not to drag it out either. I have friends that are going to movies but most are not. I would like to see the Anthony Bourdain one but I know he is not to everyone's taste. I always found him interesting and smart although probably not a guy I would like if I knew him.

Reading You, Again although I haven't gotten far. It's got a great premise. I won't spoil it.

Lots of rain here. Friday was horrible. I thought for sure it would surge inside my house. Not having a basement makes it less likely but not having a basement means it would immediately ruin upstairs furniture rather than basement furniture. I certainly wouldn't keep anything in a basement anymore. Attics will be mandatory on houses soon.

So what's up in your neighborhood?

Friday, July 16, 2021

FFB: Brewster, Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka's BREWSTER takes place in the blue-collar town of Brewster, NY in 1968. But 1968 was very different for blue-collar teenagers in a blue-collar town than for those slightly older at that time and of more means. Only gradually does the outer world work its way into the story of four kids in upstate New York.

Its the inner world that Slouka is concerned with here anyway. It's the past, not the present, that has a enormous affect on these lives.

Jon Mosher has always felt like an outsider in his town because of his parents’ roots as German-Jewish émigrés and the accidental death of his older brother. The death of his brother has destroyed his family and especially his mother, who like the mother in ORDINARY PEOPLE seems to hold him responsible for being the one who survived. Spending your life dodging your mother's disdain for you takes its toll.

He begins to run track on his high-school team and becomes friends with Frank Krapinski, a Christian and talented athlete; volatile Ray Cappiciano, who comes to school bearing the bruises of constant fistfights; and Karen Dorsey, who falls for Ray.

Ray’s alcoholic father, a WWII veteran possessed of a raging temper takes an interest in Jon. And Jon's damaged mother has a fondness for Ray, confounding both boys.

The four teens bond in their desire to leave their damaged lives and working class town behind. It is only gradually they see that you can never leave the past behind. This book is especially about the solace, the support, and the gift of friendship and loyalty among teens who feel they are powerless.

This was a hard book to read in many ways and it is certainly more noir than more books touted as noir.  But every moment felt real. Highly recommended. 


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: Balloon Night, Tom Barbash


And you can read it here. 

This is a story I have read many times. Part of its success is the terrific setting, Barbash came up with. It is balloon night on the upperwest side and the story takes place in an apartment on the street where the floats and balloons are prepared for the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. I was in New York and very close to the street in question two years ago, but too timid to venture there alone. And from the story, it looks like the block is pretty well guarded.

Anyway, Timkin and his wife, Amy, give a party on this night every year and so do a lot of the people living on this street. People wander from party to party, getting drunker and drunker as they celebrate the preparations going on below.  This year however, Timkin is alone after a fight with his wife. He doesn't want anyone to know so the party goes on with him fielding questions about where Amy might be. He drifts in and out of his own party, sometimes watching it from the street. At one point a friend says that the only reason Amy married him was for the location of the apartment. 

I guess for a lot of people this story would be like a Seinfeld episode (and there was one about this street) where nothing much happens. But to me, the author gets across both the pomposity, the ennui and the sadness of this man. We never know what his fight was about and yet we know very well. 

Kevin Tipple

Jerry House 


George Kelley 

Richard Robinson 

Todd Mason

Monday, July 12, 2021

Monday, Monday

Wow, this weather is getting on my nerves. Too many days are either too hot or too rainy. And summer is half over with winter weather looming ahead. I booked a cottage in La Jolla for a month. Did I tell you that? Hoping it works out. At least I can cancel until January 1 if circumstances dictate it.

Reading The Damage by Caitlin Wahrer and assorted short stories. 

Hanging onto the last Bosch, I will miss it. Also watching The Great Pottery Throw down, which never fails to relax me. Looking forward to Unforgotten tonight on PBS. And The White Lotus on HBO. 

Two movies on TV this week. Shiva Baby and a rewatch of Homicide. Criterion has 20 neo-noirs on this month.

I continue to pay too much for cable television. I only use streaming channels almost all of the time so I know I need to cut the cord, but it's complicated, isn't it? I need someone to guide me with the scissors. After going through a lengthy process to install a new modem/router (which Comcast insisted I could easily do--not true at all),  my old computer cannot find the new name and password. Do I buy a new computer or install a Mac of Phil's that is also old and I have never used Macs. Do I stick with Comcast or move over to Wow or At& T? Is there someone you can hire to lead you through this? (I bought a new computer)

In another piece of bad news, my good friend, who was vaccinated with me back in February, has Covid. She got the antibody infusion but still hasn't fully recovered. Less than 1% of the vaccinated have had this happen so what a piece of bad luck. And I know no one more careful than she has been. 

I get hearing aids tomorrow. I hope I can adjust to them. Biden spoke of having cheaper ones available, but my hearing has been waiting too long already for help. The tinnitus is driving me crazy. 

So what's new in your world?

Friday, July 09, 2021


''Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.''

I may have read this book years ago, but with Janet Malcolm's death, I decided to read it again. Or listen to it. Malcolm wrote books on many subject, but this one looks at Joe McGinnis' book about Jeffrey McDonald and the death of his wife and children (FATAL VISION). This was a huge murder case and a very popular look at it. What interests Malcolm is whether or not McGinnis took advantage of his relationship with McDonald and his defense team to crucify him. Or was it something that happened over the course of the case. Was it fraud? Can a journalist be an objective onlooker or is it likely they will either believe too much or not at all. And either position will affect their work. Does a journalist like McGinnis frame the story in a way that will sell books? So many questions to ask here.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "Brownies" Z.Z. Packer

This is another story from the collection above. This one is about a Brownie Troop on an overnight trip. The girls are Black and one of them overhears a White girl from another group referring to them by the "N" word. (Just can't type it). The girls decide they will find the girls from this troop and fight them to regain their self-respect. Of course, when they do the White girls have their own stigma to reckon with. This is a clever story, beautifully written and very surprising. 

If I had one quibble it would be that the girls think and speak more intelligently than I would have at 8 or 9 years old. This is always something of a problem with stories written about children. Do you want to have them speak like children really do or do you want to articulate a more mature thinking process that may come later? I vote for the latter. 

I have my own story about Brownies. Maybe I can try to write it although it certainly can't compare to this excellent one.

Kevin Tipple

Jerry House 


George Kelley

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Friday, July 02, 2021

FFB CANADA, Richard Ford

 CANADA, Richard Ford.

I am a big Richard Ford fan. Loved his trilogy about Frank Bascombe beginning with THE SPORTS WRITER. Love his short stories.

CANADA may be his most brilliant work. It is certainly a sharp turn north. The North American experience, the life on the western plains, has never seemed more eloquent.

Dell and Berner Parsons are fraternal twins being raised in Montana. When things get tight, their parents rob a bank. This information comes from the first lines of the novel.

"First I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed."

And it is this event that drives the first half of the book if not all of it. You may think Dell's parents are kindred souls, but in fact their marriage is awful in the way marriages born of bad decisions were in 1960. But Dell's parents, in a severe economic crisis, rob a bank, and come home to almost immediate imprisonment.

Dell is sent to stay with a remote Canadian relative in Saskatchewan and his sister takes off for virtually the remainder of the novel. Dell is put in the care of Arthur Remlinger, a remote, strange man who basically ignores him with the idea he is teaching him survival skills.

The final part of the book hooks the siblings up fifty years later, but again it is not a happy reunion. These two were doomed from the moment of their birth.

This is a sad book, a strange one. But the experience of Dell is one we want to hear. The writing is exquisite: rough-hewed at times, velvety at others. I highly recommend it to readers who like good writing and are patient with plot.