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.

Re-resolution 2014

I don’t make resolutions because I don’t like to fail. And I can guarantee with a fair degree of certainty that I will fail at any given resolution. We don’t choose easy endeavors like, “I will pursue the perfect black lager.” Rather we choose tricky things that will be challenging, feats that might in fact not be doable.

So this year I foolishly made a resolution. In print. Well, in electrons. I publicly proclaimed my intention to read books that I either started but didn’t finish, or checked out but didn’t even begin reading in 2013. This might not sound difficult, but once I put a book down all interest in it vanishes, even if I thoroughly enjoyed the bits that I did read. I’m also extremely picky about what I read at any given moment and so wouldn’t even be tempted by the most fabulous tome ever penned unless struck by the right mood. So this task has actually been a bit formidable.

“And just how is that resolution going?” you might be asking at this point. Well, let me tell you in a word: Not so good. I’ve not read a single book on my list because new (and old) compelling reads keep tempting me. I am the anti-Carol.

Here are a few titles from my resolution list, and their status:

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller – Checked it out again without reading it. Again.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence – Purchased it but have not recommenced reading.

The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine – Have thought very hard about reading it.

3 booksNot a spectacular showing on my part.

However, a new resolution has slowly emerged from the primordial ooze of my brain. In keeping with my mid-life nostalgia crisis, I began rereading Martha GrimesRichard Jury mysteries. The first volume appeared in 1981, my first encounter with Jury was somewhere around 1990 and since then I’ve read all 22 books in the series (with #23 coming out this month). It occurred to me that I’ve never read a lengthy series, in order, in a relatively short period of time, and I felt the siren’s call luring me into another, possibly ill-conceived, resolution.

This time, however, I feel confident that I can fulfill my contract. Grimes’ writing is fabulous, her characters are charming and memorable, and I have the added incentive of wanting to ascertain how the series has evolved.

So let’s meet the cast of characters, shall we?

Chief Inspector, later Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard is a morose character, forever colored by the death of his mother in a London bombing raid, somewhere in his forties, attractive to women but unlucky in love, intelligent, caring and determined to carry out justice.

Sergeant Wiggins is Jury’s constant companion on cases. He is an uncompromising hypochondriac but has a way with servants and ordinary folk, and often uncovers useful tidbits of information.

Melrose Plant is wealthy, brilliant and bored. Jury meets him in the series’ first book, The Man with a Load of Mischief, and thereafter looks for Plant’s keen insight to help solve cases.

Additionally, a cornucopia of quirky characters inhabits both Long Piddleton, the series’ initial crime scene, and the building where Jury lives.

This large cast rotates in different permutations throughout the books, and locales vary significantly from case to case, so Grimes is able to create ample variety in Jury’s world. While there is a bit of formula involved, Grimes’ writing is so wonderful and her characters so interesting that I don’t mind similarities from book to book. Of course, we’ll see how I feel after reading a dozen of them.

Cozy in feel yet dark and often gruesome, veddy British yet penned by an American, this series has hooked me like few others. If you enjoy the genre, check one out and prepare to be dazzled. And be sure to bring a fairy cake for Aunt Agatha.

 

Return of the Grateful Undead

We’ve all seen the sad and scary headlines:

NOW PLAYING AT THE EMERALD QUEEN CASINO, *FILL IN A ONE-HIT-WONDER FROM 20 YEARS AGO*!

Then again, perhaps it isn’t a sad situation; after all, the musicians are doing what they love and making a living at it. But all too often, ahem, mature bands don’t have much gas left in the proverbial tank and their performances, well, tank.

Even scarier is the band that you loved oh-so-many-years-ago coming out with a new album. This is seldom a happy experience. Talents wane, song selection weakens and the rivers of time leave former superstars in stagnant, putrid tributaries.

The reason for this tirade is that a surprising number of bands I listened to 20-30 years ago are now touring and/or making new albums. My automatic reaction upon hearing this is a violent shudder. But much to my surprise, I am discovering some excellent albums being made by these old-timers (i.e. my peers).

OMD EnglishOne case in point is English Electric by synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. I came to know OMD in 1980 with the release of their second album, Organisation. It contains perhaps their best known song, Enola Gay, a catchy foot tapper about dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. I was struck by the song’s beauty, the bittersweet lyrics, and the metamorphosis of a grim topic into a happy dance song. The remainder of the album is highly atmospheric, what some might think of as soundtrack material. As their career progressed, OMD’s music became less ethereal and more dance-oriented and I kind of stopped paying attention.

So now it’s 2014, I discover that OMD released a new album in 2010 called History of Modern, I give it a listen (expecting the worst) and I’m sorta blown away. English Electric continues in the same positive vein. OMD is one band that after a long layoff sounds as good as, or better than, ever.

Adam Ant coversAdam and the Ants (or Adam Ant after he dropped the backing band) had a bunch of catchy hits in the early and mid-80s. His seemingly final album, Wonderful, was released in 1995. But 2013 saw the release of Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter. This new album is not as strong as his best work, but for someone who is nearly 60 and has lead a difficult life (being bi-polar and dealing with the effects of medications), his voice is still strong as ever. In Adam’s case, perhaps it’s just nice to see him still trying in the face of adversity.

Pixies coversThe Pixies came on the scene in 1986 with a vengeance, oft-screamed vocals and wild-fuzz guitar intermixed with lovely pure pop ditties. The group stayed together until 1993 with their final album coming in 1991. Although they regrouped in 2004, the band did not release another album until this month, Indie Cindy. It’s a bit kinder and gentler than the Pixies of old, but this is all relative as they still deliver a bundle of whopping hard-edged fun.

Other artists to look for

The Cars broke up in 1988 and reformed in 2010. They released Move Like This in 2011, which went to #7 on the Billboard charts. If you like early Cars albums, you should like this one as well.

JoaCars coversJoan Jett, although never taking a break from performing, had not released an album in seven years until delivering Unvarnished in 2013. This is hard-rocking music, a return to form for Joan and the Blackhearts.

Kate Jett coversKate Bush has continued to release albums over the years, but her last (and only) tour was in 1979. She is finally returning to touring in 2014.

Bush covers

Other new releases that will be appearing in the EPL collection soon:

Devo somethingSomething for Everybody (2010) by Devo. Their first album since 1990 shows a return to this band’s golden days.

 

 

 

Presidents KudosKudos to You! (2014) by The Presidents of the United States of America, their first album since 2008.

 

 

And yet even more new releases worth pursuing:

Ultravox brilliantBrilliant (2012) by Ultravox, their first release since 1994.

 

 

 

 

Magazine NoNo Thyself (2011) by Magazine. This brilliant release is their first since 1981!

 

 

 

De-tech-tives

detechtives

Recently I’ve noticed that television detectives’ detection skills have been replaced by technology. Between cell phones, email, tracking devices and the multitude of cameras that cover every nook and cranny of the earth, it’s nearly impossible for a modern TV criminal to operate in anonymity. This is a strange and drastic change from Dragnet days when phone dialing, ledger collation, footwork and thinking were involved in any arrest.

The YardThe Yard by Alex Grecian
What fascinates me is that, before modern techniques and technologies were created, police could catch criminals at all! In the novel The Yard author Alex Grecian portrays a squalid, horrifying London of 1890 where five-year-old children work dangerous jobs, living conditions for many are abysmal, and human life is held in little regard. Scotland Yard’s murder squad consists of 12 detectives who have roughly 400 murders per year to crack, and after the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 public opinion of the police force’s skills is extremely low. Then the unthinkable occurs. A member of the murder squad, one of the men attempting to keep London safe, is brutally slaughtered. The team’s newest member is put in charge of the investigation, but there seems no hope in unearthing the crime’s perpetrator. Even after the Ripper murders, the idea of killing for pleasure is foreign to the detectives and they don’t know where to begin to find this new type of killer. But with the aid of Dr. Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist (and somewhat of a Sherlockian figure) the squad makes slow progress, although the murders do continue. This is crime solving at its most basic – follow paltry clues, cogitate, and find a killer.

keystone-kops-granger

These 1890’s were a time when it was relatively simple to be a successful murderer. Police had few tools-of-the-trade and criminals were able to easily disappear in obscurity. Here are a few titles that examine various aspects of the infancy of crime fighting.

Devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
While examining the amazing feats that went into constructing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson also describes the activities of H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer who used the draw of the World’s Fair to murder somewhere between 27 and 200 people in relative anonymity. In fact, it wasn’t until he left Chicago, continuing to commit homicides and other crimes, that Holmes was finally arrested in Boston a year later. His Chicago killings, however, remained unknown until the custodian of Holmes’s Chicago murder castle (you’ll have to read the book for those details) tipped off the police and Holmes’s murder victims were found. This true story shows how easy it was to operate as an invisible killer in the days before advanced technologies.

Great Pearl HeistThe Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This non-fiction account of an early 20th-century jewel heist details both the plans of the thieves and the methods used by Scotland Yard to catch them. In addition to being an engaging read, Crosby’s book highlights the importance of this case to the future of British crime fighting.

Poisoner's handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
This entertaining book looks at the careers of New York’s first medical examiner and toxicologist. Surprisingly, these positions didn’t even exist until after World War I. Blum makes a potentially dull topic intriguing and understandable.

police corruption

As police forces moved into the 20th-century, corruption came to be accepted as a normal facet of law enforcement.

Breaking blueBreaking Blue by Timothy Egan
In 1935, during the dust bowl years, a spate of dairy robberies in the Spokane area resulted in the shooting death of Marshal George Conniff. Decades later, Sheriff Tony Bamonte of Pend Oreille County tried to shed light on the robberies and Conniff’s death. Author Timothy Egan paints a vivid picture of Spokane’s dirty underbelly and the role that law enforcement played in these crimes.

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential
This Oscar-winning movie portrays a shady LA police force that is rife with injustice and brutality. At a time when Hollywood was king, justice was elusive (put that on your movie poster!) and criminals often dwelt on both sides of the law.

victorian police

Certainly TV policing has little in common with reality, but then again, reality is far more interesting. So set aside your new-fangled DVDs and give an old-timey police investigatory book a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an appreciation for the accomplishments that were made with minimal means in less-than-hospitable conditions.

Pulp Rock

Once upon a time various musical genres – blues, country, honkytonk, western swing and others – amalgamated into an exciting new sound called rock and roll. The music was edgy, full of vim and vigor, and never boring. As time moved on, corporate lackeys watered down the rock and roll to appeal to a wider fan base and generate taller stacks of money. Later still, rock evolved into a highly orchestrated, squeaky clean entity, in the process losing its edge and becoming, dare I say, boring. Until roughly 1975 when bands such as The Ramones re-introduced the idea of some mates getting together, picking up instruments, throwing together a few chords, and creating exciting sonic art.

However, today’s blog is about pulp fiction. So place your seats in a reclined position as we journey from music, through a metaphorical slipstream, and ultimately land in the works of John D. MacDonald.

Rocket to RussiaThe Ramones, Richard Hell, Dead Boys and others emerged, in great contrast to the highly-produced sounds of Yes and ELP. Gone was the boredom of album-oriented-rock. A new frenzy of emotion leapt from these bands’ ineptitudes, and it became apparent that a satisfying thrill could be obtained listening to music filled with uncertainty; uncertainty if the band would land together on beat one, if the bass player would actually make it through a run, if the blazing guitarist would manage to finish his solo before the vocalist came back in. This was excitement! Disaster might rear its head at any moment, and this created a riveting listening experience.

Exit music, enter literature. There was a time when pulp authors would pump out prose at an alarming rate. The result was similar to my beloved rock and roll: a disaster lay lurking behind every corner. Due to the speed with which they worked, quality within a single book could vary significantly. When prose was bad it was quite bad, but when it was good it was amazing.

And this takes us to John D. MacDonald. He wrote thrillers, what one might loosely think of as private detective stories, often set in Florida, often featuring Travis McGee, a salvage consultant who finds missing things for money. McGee’s character is quite different from the typical private eye, although the morose life-view which permeates the PI genre is an integral part of his persona. What sets MacDonald’s stories apart are, mixed among the mundane and sometimes poorly-written prose, stunning observations presented in vivid wordsmithery.

So rather than reviewing titles or describing plots, I leave you with excerpts that reveal the essence of MacDonald’s writing style.

  • “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.” – from Darker Than Amber
  • “Good old Meyer. He can put a fly into any kind of ointment, a mouse in every birthday cake, a cloud over every picnic. Not out of spite. Not out of contrition or messianic zeal. But out of a happy, single-minded pursuit of truth. He is not to blame that the truth seems to have the smell of decay and an acrid taste these days. He points out that forty thousand particles per cubic centimeter of air over Miami is now called a clear day. He is not complaining about particulate matter. He is merely bemused by the change in standards.” – from The Scarlet Ruse
  • “It is strange how a man, totally naked, feels a little more vulnerable. It seems to be a distraction, an extra area to guard. Cloth is not armor, yet that symbolic protection makes one feel at once a little more logical and competent. Doubtless the hermit crab is filled the strange anxieties during those few moments when, having outgrown one borrowed shell, he locates another and, having sized it carefully with his claws, extracts himself from the old home and inserts himself into the new. The very first evidence of clothing in prehistory is the breechcloth for the male.” – from The Scarlet Ruse
  • “The only thing that prisons demonstrably cure is heterosexuality.” – from The Long Lavender Look
  • “He had detected a certain sensitivity, a capacity for imagination, in the girl in New York. But the years and the roads, the bars and the cars and the beds and the bottles—they all have flinty edges, and they are the cruel upholstery in the dark tunnel down which the soul rolls and tumbles until no more abrasion is possible, until the ultimate hardness is achieved. So here she sat, having achieved the bland defensive heartiness of a ten–dollar whore.” – from Slam the Big Door

coversSo climb aboard the non-stop express to MacDonald’s melancholic, intoxicating world. And while you’re there, give Rocket to Russia a spin.

Stranger than Fiction – A Gala for Everyone!

stranger-than-fic-narrow

In the Thursday Next series, author Jasper Fforde has created an alternate Britain where literature plays a prominent role in day to day life. Children swap Henry Fielding bubble gum cards; there’s a branch of the police who deal specifically with literature-related crime; and people change their names and personas to that of their favorite author or literary character.

These people would fit right in the EPL’s upcoming Stranger Than Fiction Pre-Mardi-Gras Gala, 7 p.m. on March 1st at Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt Ave.

Come dressed as your favorite author or character–or just as you are–and enjoy a taste of great food from Everett’s finest restaurants and music by The Wild Snohomians. There will be a no-host bar, and prizes for the best costumes. Tickets will also be available at the door.

So help the library raise money, enjoy good food, spirits and music, and indulge your dress-up proclivities in one fell swoop! Personally, I might dress as Stephen King… Hey, I already am!

Nostalgia, or, Whatever Happened to Beany and Cecil?

I don’t know if it’s a common progression in the first-world aging process, but I seem to have hit the part of life where I crave things from my youth, perhaps to reconnect, perhaps for comfort. In the world of books this translates into re-reading favorites, something I’ve seldom done in the past as I’m always seeking out new treasures. Perchance I’m searching for old friends to see if our relationships have changed. Whatever the reason, I’m firmly entrenched in a tour of previously-read books.

So here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to.

Old FoxThe Old Fox Deceiv’d by Martha Grimes
I think the first mysteries I read were by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, but the first series I really connected with was the Richard Jury mysteries by Martha Grimes. I discovered these books about 25 years ago, and since then I’ve read every Jury title (with a new one due out this June!). The Old Fox Deceiv’d is the second in the series and contains the many elements that I so enjoyed when first encountering Grimes’ writing. Early Jury books often focus on the characters from a small town that Jury’s sometime amateur assistant, Melrose Plant, calls home. These people and their goings-on are at least as interesting as the mysteries themselves. As the series has progressed, the bit players have appeared less and the focus of the mysteries has turned much darker. I still love the books, but I do miss my “friends” from the earlier stories. Anyone who enjoys British cozy mysteries (even though Grimes is from Baltimore) should check out Richard Jury.

Dirk Gently bookDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
On the heels of the fabulous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams introduced a strange detective, Dirk Gently, who appeared in two books. Not as uproariously funny as Hitchhiker’s Guide, these books are still quirky, dry and hilarious.

Dirk Gently DVDThe BBC recently produced a short series based on the character of Dirk Gently, and this inspired me to re-examine the books. I’m not too far into this one yet, but what I have discovered so far is a profound lack of Dirk Gently; it’s taking a while for him to find his way into the story. Whereas Hitchhiker’s Guide is a knee-slap-a-minute, Dirk Gently is a much more, well, gentle and abstract humor. One has to work a bit harder to get one’s money’s worth with Dirk.

TekWarRon Goulart, a writer not widely known, is perhaps one of the most prolific American authors of recent times. I discovered his quirky, humorous sci-fi in high school, and went on to read every title of his I could find. Recently Calling Dr. Patchwork (the first of his books I ever purchased) found its way onto my Kindle. Sadly, I’m not as taken with Goulart’s unique style as I once was, but I am enjoying analyzing his writing techniques (for example, conversations where every single sentence is interrupted by the other participant) to discover tricks I can borrow. While EPL does not have any of his entertaining pulp novels, we do carry books from the TekWar series which were credited to William Shatner but are quite obviously penned by Goulart.

My nostalgia has manifested in many other ways, leading me to watch old movies such as Rear Window, Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope and That Touch of Mink. Or to delve into finales and conclusions of TV shows such as The Office and The Mentalist. Pulp readings from young-adult years revisit me, including works of John D. MacDonald and Robert Sheckley. It’s a strange phenomenon, and I’m not enjoying everything of old as much as I once did, but overall the experience is positive.

I’m not sure what the next step or phase of life will be, but I do know that I’m not ready for pants that go halfway up my chest.

Yet.

Ten Books that Impacted my Life

Lately there’s been a post bouncing around Facebook asking people to list 10 favorite books. As an avid reader I gladly offered up a list, with the caveat that if I made the list another day it might consist of entirely different entries.

And now it’s another day, I’ve another list, and it is mostly different. So, more or less in the order I read them, here are 10 books that have impacted my life.

Mixed up filesFrom the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
I discovered this book in fourth grade and was immediately enchanted. A brother and sister run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My imagination was carried away as I pictured the kids exploring the museum after closing time.

Time out of jointTime Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
It is 1959 and the world’s crossword puzzle champion lives an idyllic life. Until one day when he reaches for a light switch that is not there and begins to question all aspects of reality. This book has continued to disturb me for decades, but it also led to a love of the writing of PKD.

HogfatherHogfather by Terry Pratchett
Post-modernism, which I think of as taking something familiar and putting it in a new, unfamiliar context, is something that has long enamored me. Pratchett is a master of taking commonplace fairy tales and folk characters and throwing them into completely sideways situations. Hogfather examines some of those characters (such as the Tooth Fairy) and ponders from whence they came.

Red Mars
Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
I read science fiction almost exclusively for 15 years before Red Mars was written, and even with all of the great books I consumed during that time I never suspected that writing like this could exist. Granted, this is not one of my favorite books and I frequently set it down from boredom whilst reading it, but the sheer immensity of this exhaustive history of a civilization from the future is simply astounding.

Notes from a small islandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Travelers’ Tales India, a book sadly no longer in the EPL collection, introduced me to the magic of travel writing. Notes from a Small Island introduced me to the concept of “some books should not be read in public or I will be labeled a lunatic while laughing maniacally, ending my days in a happy room with soft walls.” Bryson is a master of imparting information while being hysterically funny.
Wodehouse
Anything ever written by P. G. Wodehouse
Screwball comedies offer a literary format which I find quite intriguing. P. G. Wodehouse builds on this framework with the most original use of language I’ve encountered. Even while enjoying the stories, I learned what dialogue could be like in my own writings, and for this I am grateful. Wodehouse is perhaps the most important writing influence on my humble existence.

Eyre affairThe Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Perhaps the cleverest concept I’ve ever run across: In a slightly alternate reality characters in books are sentient, can move between books, and are part of a thriving industry that creates entertainment for those who read. Thursday Next, an actual living person, is able to enter books and influence the activity therein.  Mischief is afoot in Jane Eyre, and Thursday is called to rescue the novel before it’s too late. Fforde’s universe shows me the incredible level of creativity that can be achieved by a writer.

to say nothingTo Say Nothing of the Dog, or, How we Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis
Time travel, comedy, Victorian England, suspense – a perfect mix! One of the funniest books I’ve read mixed with a superior treatment of time travel (my hidden guilty pleasure) and appearances by historical as well as fictional characters (the men from Three Men in a Boat) all create a kaleidoscopic chaos of pure adventure and entertainment.

Madison houseMadison House by Peter Donahue
Photos of Seattle’s Denny Regrade are shocking, looking like scenes from a war-torn distant planet. This historical novel looks at how the regrade affected people living on Seattle’s hills, the corruption that shaped the decision-making process, and the bucolic geography of Seattle at a time when people were scarce. This tale has forever changed the image of Lake Union and the University district that I carry in my mind.

Doomsday bookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis
Glory was the first war movie I ever saw where I felt like I understood how the soldiers felt during battle. Doomsday Book, another Connie Willis time travel story, has a protagonist who accidentally goes to plague times. She ends up in a small village, feverish and incoherent, and is nursed back to health by a local family. Because of the error in the time travel process, she is unable to communicate with her peers and is unsure if she will be able to return to her present. So she becomes a member of the small community and watches people die at a rapid pace. And for the first time I had an inkling of what it would be like to be surrounded by bubonic plague with little hope for salvation.

There you have it, 10 books that have all stuck with me in various ways over the years.

Perhaps you would like to share your list?