About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

Stranger Than, er… , Non-fiction!

As I search for non-fiction books to read, I come across many titles that, while not of interest to me, are unusual, surprising or outlandish. Welcome to the world of: Stranger than, er…, non-fiction!

HairSome titles are certain to raise an eyebrow, pique the interest, even if the topic is not compelling enough to warrant reading the book. Such is the case for Plucked: A History of Hair Removal by Rebecca M. Herzig. Firstly, it never occurred to me that there is a history of hair removal! Reviews tell of clamshell razors (that would mean an actual clamshell, not something shaped like a clamshell) and lye depilatories, leaving me to speculate what other horrific devices and potions have been applied to bodies in pursuitity of less hirsuitity. Also examined are the changes in American culture, moving from the perception of hair removal as savagery, to the perception of female body hair as signs of political extremism, sexual deviance or even mental illness. Heck, I just might be interested enough to pluck this book off the shelf.

WhittlingThe Art of Whittling: Classic Woodworking Projects for Beginners and Hobbyists by Walter L. Faurot
One thing we simply don’t hear enough about these days is whittling. This book, originally published in 1930, contains projects (and here I might note that I never would have conceived that there are whittling projects) such as continuous wooden chains and ships inside bottles. Hey, there are also instructions for making working wooden scissors and entwined hearts! Beards are back, maybe whittling could become the next hipster hobby!

BeanieThe Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonette
I must confess, I never could understand the soaring values of Beanie Babies. The creator of these plush animals became a billionaire, not so much through anything he did as through the feeding frenzy of collectors who saw the toys as their ticket to Easy Street. Stories of people buying tens of thousands of Beanie Babies, and even killing for them, fill this tale of what’s been called the “strangest speculative mania of all time.”

VietNamEating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table by Graham Holliday
When I lived in Malaysia, hawker stalls (food carts sitting along the roadside) became my favorite places to eat. Most foreigners avoided such places, fearing disease or bad food, but I discovered a world of cheap tasty delicacies that define many of my Malaysian memories. In Eating Viet Nam I find a kindred spirit in Graham Holliday, a Brit who moved to Vietnam to teach English but ended up searching for the best street food. The writing is humorous, and I was sold by the line, “As the pig’s uterus landed on the blue plastic table in front of me, I knew I’d made a mistake.”

CowedCowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment by Dennis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes
This book takes the interesting concept of examining whether cows, which are an extremely important currency in the U.S., actually make sense economically. We get cow history, usage, treatment and sustainability. I was hoping for a discussion of methane, but apparently this will have to wait.

In retrospect, I might enjoy reading some or all of these books. I ran across them by perusing the on-order non-fiction titles on the library’s website, and I must say I was amazed at the variety of topics people find worthy of book status. If you’re not a non-fiction reader, challenge yourself to find one title that looks interesting. Oh, and read it. Perhaps you’ll soon find yourself whittling a tool for hair removal that will sell by the billions until you’re rich and can travel to Viet Nam. With your cow. Stranger things have happened.

Failed Fiction Forays

I don’t usually set reading goals, but at the start of this year I felt that I’d fallen into a bit of a rut. A bit of a rut. A bit… (thud!) So I devised what middle management types call soft goals (unless I made this term up), meaning that it’s not so important whether I achieve said objectives. Mostly I’m looking to stretch myself in new literary directions, hence the vague guidelines for choosing reading materials.

Goal number one is to read fiction books written in 2015. Titles tackled so far include:

Pic 1

The problem is, other than The Rosie Effect, none of these books have captured my interest enough to finish reading them. This is a bit unusual for me, to hit so many titles in a row that I put down unfinished. And once again I find myself turning to comfort books: detective pulp, cozy mysteries and nostalgic books I’ve read before. Maybe this makes a strong statement about my current psychological state, but for today let’s just look at the books I have abandoned.

Doctor Death:  A Madeleine Karno Mystery (2015) by Lene Kaaberbøl
This book contains a perfect blend of elements I look for in stories: Victorian times, early criminology techniques and a strong female character trying to transcend the role assigned to her. And yet, after about two-thirds of the book, I had no interest in continuing. Perhaps the story itself is not compelling, or a bit confusing, but this is one I really wanted to like but did not. Briefly, Madeleine’s father is a coroner. She assists him but is not allowed to do any of the fun, dirty work that she wants to do. When he’s injured and a murder occurs, she is called upon to do work that would normally fall to father. Finally, she gets a shot at the big league (so to speak). My excitement for the book is rekindling as I type this description, but still I cannot overlook that the story was slow-paced and didn’t seem to move forward.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2015) by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Described as quirky, even “Twin Peaks meets the Brothers Grimm,” by The Telegraph, this book seemed right up my alley. And there were some odd moments that partially fulfilled my need for the bizarre: classic books in the library rewriting themselves until discovery and destruction by the librarian, an incestuous group of authors bound together since childhood who regularly engage each other in a brutal game, and the supernatural disappearance of their mentor (amidst spontaneous localized weather inside of her house). However, the quirkiness was more sparse than expected and I found this to be another book I wanted to like but ultimately did not.

The Last American Vampire (2015) by Seth Grahame-Smith
The concept – vampire mythology mixed with historical events – is a potentially engaging one, but its realization (being interviews with and narratives by the main character done up in a journal/scrapbook fashion) left me cold. Then again, I have a low tolerance for vampires.

Dorothy Parker Drank Here (2015) by Ellen Meister
What if the ghost of Dorothy Parker spent decades haunting the barstools of the Algonquin, waiting for a worthy partner to spend eternity with? Well, what if? I became interested in Dorothy Parker through a historical fiction series set in early Hollywood, so I thought I might enjoy this book as well. Admittedly I’ve not got very far into the book, but on the other hand I don’t feel motivated to continue reading.

So what have I learned from this exercise? I seem to have entered my dotage. Rereading favorite books and sticking with favorite characters is where I’m currently at in the world of fiction. It’s not a bad place, and I’ll continue to try new titles, but for now … what were we talking about?

Historical Photos Come to Life

Brue Building

Amongst the many treasures here at Everett Public Library are the historical digital photo collections maintained by the Northwest History staff. We are currently highlighting the King & Baskerville Studio photos which were taken in a short period in 1892. These amazing pictures offer some insight into what the lay of the land used to be in and around Everett, and what day-to-day life looked like. I would sum up this world with one word: mud.

Historian David Dilgard will make a presentation on this collection, Saturday, May 2 at 2pm in the Main Library Auditorium. This is your opportunity to experience early Everett in a unique and personal manner.

But if you want to sit in your own home and examine early Everett at your leisure, go to the Northwest History digital collections and prepare to be transported to a time when rough and tumble scalawags perambulated wooden planked streets and punched the occasional bovine. And enjoyed it.

Best of the (Half) Decade

Today I saw a list of the top 100 books written in the past half-decade. We were not amused. Items chosen were limited almost exclusively to adult fiction, and the fiction itself seemed to be fairly narrow in scope. So quite obviously it’s time for a better list. Created by me.

Books chosen have all been read by yours truly, which skews the list’s contents, confining it to items I find attractive. Obviously some wonderful books will be absent. But of the 80 or so books written since 2010 that I’ve read, diverse genres including autobiographies, humor, YA, juvenile, graphic novels, mystery, supernatural fiction, travel, historical fiction, and true crime have been explored. Allowing for a potentially well-rounded list.

And now I give you: The Top 13 Books Written Since 2010!

  1. Let’s Pretend this Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (2012) Perhaps the funniest book I’ve ever read. Written by the Bloggess, a woman who recounts pant-wettingly hilarious scenarios whilst openly discussing her severe coping issues, this book is guaranteed to shock, perhaps revolt, and leave you aching from unquenchable laughter.
  1. Insane City by Dave Barry (2013)
    I have a soft spot for ridiculously complex, filled-with-coincidences plots. In a way, it doesn’t even matter what the story is about as long as the screwball comedy aspect is well done. Dave Barry is always enjoyable and this is perhaps his greatest effort. The plot is not even remotely describable in less than 10,000 words, so suffice to say: Florida, wedding, Russian gangsters, angry strippers, and pythons. Standard issue Dave Barry.
  1. At Home by Bill Bryson (2010)
    Bill Bryson has become my guru. Don’t understand science? Read Bryson. Need a better handle on the English language? Bryson. In At Home he explains how dwellings evolved and where names of house parts came from, all while imparting abundant information about western civilization. Funny, understandable, a compelling read.

Set 1

  1. The World’s Greatest Sleuth by Steve Hockensmith (2010)
    The Holmes on the Range mystery-solving series is durned brilliant. In this installment, the Amlingmeyer brothers travel from their usual Western climes to the 1893 Columbian Exposition and compete with famous detectives in the field of detecting. Murder, of course, ensues. Outstanding evocation of the Chicago fair.
  1. Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2014)
    Of all the autobiography/memoirs I’ve read, this was my favorite. Written in a personable, conversational yet well-crafted style, Ms. Poehler recounts life stories and shares bits of her wise personal philosophy, creating a sort of charming, amusing self-help manual.
  1. Bye Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins (2011)
    Brilliant historical fiction that examines the circumstances of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Through Collins we get to know Marilyn, the powerful people she mingled with, and the potential truths behind her death. After reading this book I was moved to learn more about her life and death, which indicates to me that Collins did a superlative job.

Set 2

  1. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (2011)
    A plane crash, abundant death, struggles to survive, nefarious politicians and Miss Texas all mix poetically in this waggish disembowelment of the beauty pageant industry.
  1. Who Could That Be At This Hour? By Lemony Snicket (2012)
    For a fabulous description of this fabulous book, read Carol’s fabulous post here. I’m not a huge fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I was blown away by this new mysterious series. Written for kids but equally intriguing for adults.
  1. The Rosie Effect by Graeme C. Simsion (2014)
    In this follow up to The Rosie Project, Don and Rosie are married and expecting. Don (who I suspect is on the extremely high-functioning end of the autism spectrum) approaches fatherhood as a problem to be solved, but Rosie is not sure if his lack of emotion will allow him to be a good father. Tension follows, communications break down, and the couple struggles to maintain their couplehood. A powerful, magical romance that shows how people of all kinds can enrich the lives of others.

Set 3

  1. The Yard by Alex Grecian (2012)
    Fascinating fictional look at the beginnings of Scotland Yard, the ridiculous caseload piled on the pitiful handful of detectives, and the ease with which murder could be successfully committed in the 19th century.
  1. The Dangerous Animals Club by Stephen Tobolowsky (2012)
    Stephen Tobolowsky is an incredibly versatile and prolific actor, perhaps most remembered as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day. This memoir tells tales of his intriguing life, but is also filled with philosophical musings and complex ideas. Funny and thought provoking.
  1. Deep Creek by Dana Hand (2010)
    Historical fiction based on a true story. When Chinese gold miners are murdered along the Idaho-Oregon border, white settlers don’t really care. The Sam Yup Company, a powerful Chinese firm, hires a local man to solve the mystery. Elegant, descriptive writing clearly depicts an unjust time.
  1. Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel (2011)
    This is one of the few graphic novels that has truly engaged me, featuring beautiful charcoal drawings and a fantastical tale of love, riverboat travel, and mermaids. Memorable, alluring and ultimately disturbing.

Set 4

So there you have it, 13 books, one for each month of the year! Read, enjoy, enrich and prepare for the next half-decade.

A Stroll Through the Pun Forest or Crime and Pun-ishment

BullwinkleHello poetry lovers. Today’s poem is a pun of stunning disregard for human frailties. It is titled, Names of Hair Salons:

Bangs For The Memories,
     Shear Hostility,
          The Best Little Hair House,
                                             Come Hair;
                              Hairway To Heaven
                                   Babalouise, Bang, Headonizm,
                                        Hair Today,
                                            Curl Up and Dye,
                                                 The Bobshed

But I jest.

It’s been called the lowest form of humor, which is a compliment in this case. Puns are illegal in 37 states (I made that up, but it’s an idea whose time has come), they are frequently annoying, and the people who regale others with punnage seldom bathe (also made up) [it’s TRUE!]. Yet puns are standard fare in the names of both hair salons and cozy mysteries. Why? Is it sadism run amok?

We may never know.

Pun also risesPerhaps you’d like to start your voyage with a thorough understanding of just what a pun is all about. Wellsir, I would recommend The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics by John Pollack. Penned by a former Clinton speech writer, the author not only explores the definitions and history of puns, but makes a case that they are significant to the rise of modern culture.

Next we’ll stroll over to the cozy mystery section and discover that puns in titles are completely out of control. There are puns on classic book titles (The Cakes of Wrath; Grapes of Death; Grape Expectations; Grey Expectations), movies  (Nightshade on Elm Street; Bell, Book, and Scandal; Arsenic and Old Puzzles; The Silence of the Llamas), Plays (End me a Tenor), Poems (Murder had a Little Lamb), songs (Bewitched, Bothered, and Biscotti), television (Ghouls Gone Wild), magazines (Deader Homes and Gardens) and musicals (A Little Night Murder).

Mysteries1

Had enough? Too bad. The most egregious offenders are puns based on common phrases. Choose your favorite from the following (the last one being my fave):

Three’s a Shroud          Thread on Arrival                 If Books Could Kill
Meet your Baker        Kill ‘em with Cayenne          Book, Line and Sinker
Hiss and Hers         Going, Going, Ganache      Animal, Vegetable, Murder
Read and Buried           Wined and Died                To Brie or Not to Brie
Skein of the Crime        Mallets Aforethought             Assaulted Pretzel

Mysteries2Cozy mysteries often have a hobby or interest associated with them, like archery or fan dancing. In these examples we have food (The Cakes of Wrath, Grape Expectations, and Kill ‘em with Cayenne to name just a few), bookstores (Book, Line and Sinker and If Books Could Kill), and needlecraft, knitting, crocheting (Skein of the Crime and Thread on Arrival) among others.  Cozies, rather than police procedurals, thrillers or uncozy mysteries, tend to be the books that have bepunned titles.

Eats shootsOf course, many books sport punny titles. One of the best, in my inflated opinion, is Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book on the importance of punctuation (no commas would be a story about a panda, commas tells of a character involved in specific activities)

CalahanSpider Robinson, a most excellent author of science fiction tales, has created a series of stories set in a bar called Callahan’s Place. Its denizens, including extraterrestrials, a talking dog and time travelers, listen to visitor’s stories, offer comments, and generally pollute the atmosphere heavily with puns. I think this series of stories truly gave me an appreciation for the gross art of punnery. Nowadays I find myself engaging in it, often against my will, and I fear that it’s just a short step to miming my incarceration in an invisible cube.

I apologize for this blog, but just like with any disease, it’s good to know your enemy in order to best defeat it. Please don’t judge me.

I Didn’t Expect the Spanish Inquisition!

In one of the greatest Monty Python skits, Cardinal Ximinez of Spain pontificates, “Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms…”

Perhaps this bit of comedy has influenced my books-to-read list. I find myself thinking, “Amongst my reading objectives are forays into such diverse categories as non-fiction and YA, ruthless non-stop reading, an almost fanatical devotion to new books, and snazzy high tops…”

And then I forget everything and read another Perry Mason novel.

Dave BarryBut slowly I am expanding my choice of reading materials. After compiling a list of non-fiction titles I would like to attack, I promptly ignored it and read Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster): Life Lessons and Other Ravings from Dave Barry. By Dave Barry. As I ponder the world of non-fiction, it seems odd that humor is classified as part of it. One can certainly write a true story in a humorous style, but conversely, humor can just be made up stuff. This sometimes bothers me at night, interrupting much-needed sleep, but Dave Barry is funny and seldom bothers me (since the restraining order). And sure, there’s not much new under the sun in his approach to writing, but each of his books makes me laugh out loud, which is no mean feat. This collection of essays, ranging from teenage insecurities that never go away to the stupidity of refrigerating mustard and ketchup, kept me figuratively on the edge of my seat rolling on the floor with laughter, and then signaling for help up off the floor.

TinseltownTinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
I don’t seek out true crime unless it is exceedingly well-written (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote), educational and fascinating (Breaking Blue by Timothy Egan), or both. I chose to read Tinseltown because I’m starry-eyed about early Hollywood, a time when southern California was still a bit rural, when the status of movie stars and the content of movies were being defined. Here we find the true story of the murder of William Desmond Taylor, president of the Motion Pictures Directors Association. Not a household name in this day and age, nor perhaps during his lifetime, but an important person in Hollywood none the less. This tale is as vivid as any well-penned novel, bringing century-old events to life. We learn a tremendous amount of history, of the growth of the film industry, the control that studios exerted over theatres, and the extreme power wielded by Adolph Zukor. And, somewhat surprisingly to me, of the drug and sex-crazed lifestyles of many of the early movie stars, which of course brought backlash from conservative religious groups. Be warned, this crime remains unsolved. I was looking forward to a nice wrap up with the detective in charge solving the crime some 30 years later, but it was not to be. The author does offer a solution, and it is plausible, but it is still guesswork rather than closure. However, that aside, this is one of the most entertaining, educational and enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve ever read!

AtlantisMeet Me in Atlantis: My Quest to Find the 2,500-Year-Old Sunken City by Mark Adams surfaced next on my random unplanned reading list. I have no particular interest in Atlantis, but this book seemed to be about the people who are interested in Atlantis. Now that I’m nearly finished I find that it’s also about theories, possible locations of Atlantis, and whether or not it was a real place. Amazingly, the only ancient reference to Atlantis was an extensive one made by Plato in two of his later works. As a kid watching cartoons, fictional shows and even documentaries, I thought that Atlantis was a widely documented lost continent, even though its authenticity was in doubt. Now I find out it was mentioned by one person in all of antiquity! Adams interviews philosophers, scientists, and Atlantis enthusiasts in an attempt to find out what’s the hubbub, bub? The author seems to vacillate in what he believes as he encounters one plausible theory after another.

After a year trapped in fiction I am excited to re-encounter the world of reality. The breadth of topics is astounding, and if one can find a good writer, learning becomes fun. I’ll be posting more new non-fiction reads as I continue my quest, so stay tuned!

Terry Pratchett Remembered

There are plenty of opportunities to read about his life, so I thought I’d share how Terry (as I called him in my head) affected me.

I was raised on Monty Python. Their brand of humor is somewhat unusual, and when they more or less ceased to function as a group there was a hole in my humor reserves. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered Mr. Pratchett (as he required me to call him), late 80s or early 90s, but I do remember the moment of discovery.

WitchesIt was a day like any other day, except that it was unique, and I was making my weekly pilgrimage to the Everett swap meet. There amongst some books I spied Witches Abroad. The cover art was silly and the book’s description was, well, extremely silly, and I was immediately taken by this post-modern fairy tale and the amazing character of Mistress Granny Weatherwax.

Discworld, where many of his books take place, is sort of a sideways version of Earth, mostly focused on a semi-pre-industrial quasi-Europe. The planet’s inhabitants face the same problems that we do, and Pratchett, amongst non-stop wet-your-pants hilarity, offers precious daubs of wisdom. Describing this fantasy world in brief is just not possible, but it is a place I think of fondly, much as one might of Oz or Hogwarts or… well, nowhere else I can think of.

MonstrousIt would be impossible to choose a favorite, but Monstrous Regiment is a Discworld novel that stuck with me. The general premise is that there’s a war, a girl’s brother goes off and does not return so she impersonates a man and enlists (wait, this is sounding familiar…), her regiment of misfits becomes notorious, and, well, read the book! But amidst all the belly laughs and borrowing from Shakespeare, Pratchett makes deep and insightful points about war. And this sums up his best books: gut-wrenchingly funny and poignantly wise.

I will miss anticipating the latest Discworld novel, but I revel in the knowledge that there are over forty of them to read and read and read again. And so I leave you with the final tweet from Sir Terry Pratchett’s Twitter feed, released after his death.

[Death speaks]: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER,” it stated. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The End.

Terry Pratchett