Tour’s Books Blog

September 13, 2012

Books, Food, Movies, Travel and Other Strange Tales – Part 1

Filed under: Editorial,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 8:15 pm
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Halloween in almost around the corner and that got me to thinking of some of my Halloween costumes.  Most were highly forgettable –  but one year, Mom, in some fit of unusual domesticity, MADE me a pumpkin outfit.  This was something she got out of Woman’s Day or Family Circle or some place like that.  Bright orange cotton with a pumpkin face done in black Mystik tape and drawstrings top and bottom – around the neck and just below the butt.  To round the pumpkin out, it was stuffed with crumpled newspaper and black tights and ballet flats to finish it off.  (Yes, she tried to stick a green thing on my head, but I rebelled.)  Too bad the idiots that designed it left no way to get your hands out.  I had a minor fit and mom finally found a way to sneak my hand out under the bottom edge so I could just barely hold a Halloween bag.  Unfortunately it was one of those paper ones.  It was wet that night, I wore a hole in the bottom and lost most of the money I got and a fair amount of candy.  I was one unhappy camper.  Mom gave up costume making.   She was just not a natural domestic, and like me, lacked the craft gene, though she could embroider fairly well, something I couldn’t do under pain of death.  I sensibly stuck with hobo’s and ghosts there on out and quit using those Halloween bags replacing them with more durable pillowcases.

Somewhere along the line, Halloween stopped being a neighborhood thing and people started driving kids in from other towns and older and older ‘kids’.  Now it’s a huge holiday with Halloween decorations second only to Christmas decorations in sales dollars.  Where once it was just Indian corn on the door and scary hand carved pumpkins with candles in them (remember the smell of burnt pumpkin when the candle was too close to the top?) and MAYBE an old sheet draped to look like a ghost, but that would be considered ‘extreme decorating’ at the time.  Now it’s fake headstones, expensive figures that stand up to 7 feet tall (Where do people store all this crap?), expensive costumes for adults and kids alike, and all these pre-lit fall/Halloween door and planter decorations.   Just go online and look at the Grandin Road catalog or google ‘scary masks’ and check the price ranges – and most of them are intended for adults, not kids.  Some places sell these action displays that run into the THOUSANDS of dollars!  That’s all a bit much for me.  A couple of small pumpkins and a pot of mums seems like enough.

Despite my childhood adoration of Donald Duck and the Witch, I’ve never been one to read real horror stories.  Oh, I do read a few now and then, and the scariest book I ever read was Silence of the Lambs.  I slept with the lights on for weeks – and I was well into my 20’s at the time.  To this day I have NEVER watched that movie and I never will.  Anthony Hopkins scared the hell out of me in the ads.  Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy is more my speed.

Yes, there are certain things that predispose me to watch a movie or read a book and by now we all know my #1 is – it makes me laugh.  That means I’m a sucker for whacked humor, sardonic humor, wise-cracking, you name it.  Yup, I like the early Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner (You haven’t lived until you’ve had a co-worker pick up his bags and move to sit elsewhere in an airport lounge because you’re reading a book titled “Slaves of the Volcano God” complete with lurid cover.), Carl Hiaasen, early Janet Evanovich Plum books, Shelly Laurenston’s Pack and Pride series, Jennifer Crusie – especially Agnes and the Hitman with Bob Mayer, Julie Garwood’s early books, early Elvis Cole books by Robert Crais, Lindsey Davis’ Falco series and John Maddox Roberts SPQR series give humor a historical note.  But none of these are actually humor.  They are all other genres that have a sense of humor woven into the story – and often a main character trait.  In many ways, it’s the unexpected laugh, the unexpected quip for the take-no-shit hero, or just the character interplay in the middle of a drama that makes it all seem more approachable and real.  It’s also why some of my favorite movies are things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, True Lies, Some Like It Hot, and the corny, over-the-top The Great Race (with the BEST pie fight ever filmed – click here) and many others.  And yes, I do own the DVD of Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy and The Great Race.  Just go ahead and laugh and get it out of your systems.

As you might imagine, I also read humor, but not that often.  My favorite humor book is The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy.  It an utterly brilliant bit of tongue-in-cheek look at world history by a man who was a newspaper columnist for years.  I also loved Twisted Tales from Shakespeare and It all Started with Columbus by Richard Armour.  Armour, known for his light verse often published in women’s magazine, was an English professor.  The quality of writing is amazing, but with Armour, the more you know about the subject, the funnier it is.  Rather like ‘inside jokes’, knowing Shakespeare and American History (yes, it pays to be the daughter of a history teacher at times) is a big plus.  Yes, I love absurdest too, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Slaves of the Volcano God, Terry Pratchett’s Disc World books, and so on.  But I don’t read a lot of humor.  Mostly I read other genres that have a humor element.

I’ll tolerate more from an author or a movie that entertains me with a laugh, than I will from one that’s determined ‘meaningful’.  I don’t deal well with unrelenting seriousness, pretentious prose, those tortured soul things or any of that claptrap well.  I get very bored, very fast.  As a result, I skip a lot of authors and movies entirely.  You will NOT catch me reading ANY existential literature.  I absolutely loathed The Scarlet Letter and I’d rip my hair out before I’d read Moby Dick.  Or that hypocritical idiot Charles Dickens.  The three hanky tear-jerkers?  Not here, thank-you.  Tourtured, guilt ridden, angsty heroes?  Nah.  Wise-cracking PI’s with a sardonic wit, now those are welcome.

Yes, I am shallow.  And to some extent predictable, as we all are to those who know us.  But like everyone, I have favorites Like chocolate, really good chocolate.  Dark chocolate Neuhaus truffles are excellent, but I admit, my favorite candy is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – the extra deep ones.  I adore a Grand Cru Chablis, but my favorite drink is Peach Fresca, unless I’m on vacation, then it depends on where I am – anything from wine to fruity rum soaked cocktails.  And now we come to one of my favorite things – vacations and books.  To me, they are inextricably wound together.  I read about places I visit, study up a bit, and use it as an excuse to read more books.

My favorite vacation islands, Sanibel, Captiva, (this is Doc Ford territory, Randy Wayne White’s first book was titled Sanibel Flats and the fourth simply titled Captiva) and and St John, USVI (the perfect place to read Thunder Point by Jack Higgins.).  All time favorite beach is Shoal Bay on Anguilla with Hawksnest Bay on St John a close second.   Both are good for snorkeling, or as a friend puts it, “Go soak your head!”  Vacations in the Keys demand the Alex Rutledge series by Tom Corcoran, and with titles like Bone Island Mambo and Air Dance Iguana, the books are as readable and unique as Key West itself.  James W Hall’s Torn books are another must, though I admit a strong preference for the less well known Corcoran.  Florida’s east coast?  Well Travis McGee of course.  John D MacDonald’s iconic character is neither police not detective, he just does ‘favors’ while living on his house boat, the Busted Flush.  Also recommended are the Max Freeman series by Johnathon King and the Zack Chasteen series by Bob Morris.  And Laurence Shames’ Florida Straits.

Heading to California?  Is there anything better than getting reacquainted with the brilliant Raymond Chandler?  The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Long Goodbye – each a classic and part of an all too short series of Phillip Marlowe books.  You can even enjoy the movies – with Humphrey Bogart being the ONLY actor to play both Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe.  Marlowe, however, was played by several other actors as well – including Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell, and Robert Montgomery.  (Mitchum and Bogart were the two best IMHO.)  Naturally, there is the ultimate wise-cracking detective in Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and his deadly, silent partner, Joe Pike.  A personal favorite is Lullaby Town, which actually takes place mostly in Connecticut and NYC.  (I love it when Pike goes and stands in the driveway doing the ‘tree pose’.)   For a cop buddy tale, try Marshall Karp’s The Rabbit Factory.  Though the subsequent books aren’t as quite good, this first one is great.

Heading to the Southwest?  Tony Hillerman is a must read.  So is Michael McGarrity.   Rick Riordan – who has now turned to young adult fantasy with great success – and made a lot more money than he ever did with his Tres Navarre series, wrote some damn good mysteries.  Texas has a ton of quality authors like D. R. Meredith (her Sheriff Matthews and John Lloyd Branson series were both good), Bill Crider, and the new author Diane Kelly.  New England is owned by Robert B Parker’s Spencer and Jesse Stone, though the grim and dark Dennis Lehane is almost as well known.  Jeremiah Healy is a terrific author often lost in the shuffle.  William G Tapply and his Brady Coyne books are better known, but only to hard core mystery fans and Bruce DeSilva has just broken into the scene with his Providence, RI based Liam Mulligan books.

NYC is the most visited US city and I grew up just 13 miles away, so I did a lot of wandering there as a kid, it’s also crown jewel of the mystery genre, especially for tough guy PI types. police procedural, and borderline horror/mystery.  Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder is an iconic character in the gritty tough guy genre – with titles like 8 Million Ways to Die and A Walk in the Bone Yard.  Andrew Vachss’ Burke series are about as grim and gritty as it gets and F. Paul Wilson puts a horror spin on this with his Repairman Jack series.  But you can find the more lighthearted side in Block’s other popular series, the Bernie Rhodenbarr Burglar books.  Even Tim Cockey took up a pen name and wrote two excellent books set in NYC as Richard Hawke – the Fritz Malone books, both of which are really good reads, though minus the humor of his Hitchcock Sewell books.  And that all time classic, The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett.  By the way, despite the movie series, Hammett wrote just the one book, just as he only wrote one Sam Spade book, The Maltese Falcon.  Go ahead, watch the movies, they’re good!  (Yes, I own them too.)

There must be something in the air in Minnesota, or maybe it;s just those cold winters, but the state produced a remarkable corps of quality mystery writers.  Steve Hamilton, John Sanford, William Kent Krueger, David Housewright and others.  We steam on the streets of New Orleans and bayou country with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux.  We walk in the rain and fog of Seattle with G.M. Ford and J.A. Jance’s J.P Beaumont, or down the mean streets of Detroit with Loren D Estleman’s Amos Walker.

In a way, reading is travel in itself.  Books have the unique ability to transport us to different countries, and different times.  So here’s some recommended reading to enhance vacations outside the usual US/Canada destinations.

Vacations call for something special.  Some a bit more.  And the bigger the trip, the more I read.  Vacations have amazing moments that I’ll always remember.   Japan – Visiting Katsura Imperial Villa in Japan then going for a traditional Japanese lunch at small inn.  Thank heavens we had a translator.  Finding a tiny restaurant down an alley in Kyoto that served the best tempura ever.  Suggested reading, Shogun by James Clavell, the Sano Ichiro books by Laura Joh Rowland.

Egypt – Sitting on the dark top deck of a small Nile steamer where it was pushed into a sandbar for the light, listening to the crew do live entertainment while watching locals sit on the sandbank by a fire enjoying the music, moving away only when the music stopped.  Every time I see Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov and David Niven, the scene where they disembark to visit the temple and people take donkey’s and camels up the hill, was actually shot at that spot by the temple of Kom Ombo, though the rest of the segment was shot at Luxor.  Sitting outside the Mena House in Giza watching the full moon rise over the pyramids than seeing the Sound and Light show sitting near the Sphinx.   Suggested reading, The Lost Pharaohs by Leonard Cottrell, The Egyptian by Mika Waltari, the early Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters.  The suggested movies, The Egyptian, The Ten Commandments, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Death on the Nile – both versions (the Peter Ustinov big budget film and the BBC version with David Suchet).

The UK is the palce I’ve been more than anywhere other than Canada.  I think I’m up to 7 or 8 times.  I can get to London a lot faster than Honolulu.  Going to England for the first time decades ago, I completely enjoyed visiting the Tower of London and seeing the crown jewels (drool).  Seeing Windsor Castle, wandering London, doing the maze at Leeds Castle, FINALLY getting to Stonehenge, standing in Hastings where the couse of England’s history changed when a Norman bastard duke defeated a Saxon King, then going to the beach to see concrete gun bunkers from WWII still pointing at the shores of what was Occupied France.  Sitting in a small inn in Perth, Scotland watching the salmon jump in the river, walking various castles – often being the only one there.  Driving along Loch Ness and seeing the ruins of Urquhart Caste – but not seeing Nessie.  Taking friends to Stratford and walking back to our hotel after a performance Richard II and finding myself the reluctant center of attention as I explained the history around the plot of the play and the War of the Roses.  (See what happens when you read!)  Suggested reading – The History of the Plantagenets by Thomas B Costain (non-fiction and 4 books – The Founding Family, The Magnificent Centuary, The Three Edwards, The Last of the Plantagenets), The Black Rose also by Costain, but a fictional story and a good movie with Tyrone Power, Jack Hawkins, and Orson Wells.  The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, the Barker and Llewelyn series by Will Thomas, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal Sherlock Holmes books.  Nigel Tranter’s The Bruce Trilogy, Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicals (she is amazing), and for a good laugh mixed with history, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books.  Recommended movies – The Lion in Winter, Beckett, The Black Rose, Braveheart, and if you like, any of the Regency books by the Bronte sisters that have been tured into excellent BCC productions and movies.

Seeing dragon boat races in Hong Kong in the pouring rain, then 2 days later getting caught in a sudden downpour at the Botanical Gardens and running into the US Consulate for shelter and asking, “What’s the duty on rain?”  Without a missing a beat, the young man’s response was, “10%.”  Landing at night at Kai Tak airport coming in from Thailand and flying low over the harbor thinking, “This is just like the movies!”  Taking the funicular up Victoria Peak and expecting Clark Gable to get on at any moment.  Recommended reading Tai Pan and Nobel House by James Clavell as well as The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett.  Movie – Solider of Fortune with Clark Gable.

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While there will be a part 2, I did want to share this one experience with you.  On September 9, 2001 I arrived at Newark Airport late at night.  We took a strange approach, normally landing patterns come in from the north, but instead we came from the south and we got to see the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers all lit up.  I turned to the young woman next to me and said, “It looks like home.”

Two days later I was at my desk when one of my engineers walked in with a confused look on his face and said, “A plane just flew into one of the Towers.”  I told him the news must be wrong.  I had seen the city just 30 minutes ago and everything looked fine.  I went on the internet and by then, the second plane had hit.  Our building was not that tall, but we could look all the way down the Hudson River Valley to Manhattan.  It was such a glorious day.  I stood there, stunned.  From our angle the two towers sat slightly overlapped, one just in front of the other.  Gleaming columns with a mushroom cloud on top.  I stayed there till they fell and watched the city disappear in a cloud of dust.  Then I went in sent my guys home.  They needed to be with family.

We all remember where we were that day, just as my parents generation remembered where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor.  Some lost family, friends, neighbors.  We all lost a piece of ourselves.  I often think of that young woman sitting next to me on that flight.  Does she remember what would be the last time we’d ever see the Twin Towers?  The last time they’d welcome us?  She seemed so disinterested.

2001 been a hard year for me.  I even had a thallium stress test due to chest pains that wouldn’t quit.  I argued with the doctor about taking time off, knowing the work would just pile up and they’d call me at home every day anyway.  I hadn’t planned to take the rest of my vacation that year, there was too much work.  The nation seemed to be in shock – I found it hard to concentrate.  Finally, I decided I was taking the time owed me and I went to St John, USVI over Thanksgiving.  It was so quiet traveling.  People were afraid to fly.  The folks in St John were grateful to see the people who came.  I was sitting there, enjoying the sun, the sea air, and reading a book when I realized something was different.  It took me some thought to figure out what it was.  For the first time in months I didn’t have any chest pains.  I totally enjoyed that trip.  It was quiet, relaxing, maybe a tad somber, yet I found peace.  It was only in retrospect I knew why.

For years I had wanted to quit and work for myself.  I was offered a promotion and raise to stay – along with promise of change.  I stayed.  Three years later the changes they promised never happened and things got worse, not better, with more work and fewer resources.  But after I got back from St John in early December my guys kept saying how I was so different, mellow, not concerned about things, not as frustrated with management.  I saw my brother at Easter and told him I was thinking of quitting.  Now he’s a very practical and pragmatic guy.  A real, “Suck it up and move on!” type.  He looked at me for a long moment and instead of the argument I expected, all he said was, “Good.  When?”  I said I had a project to finish and his surprising response was, “There’s always another project.  Just do it.”  He understood.  He quit a tenured teaching job to open his own machine shop and never looked back.  I know how much he agonized over doing that.  I was near early retirement age, I had a lot more to lose.

That Monday I walked in and quit.  My last day I saw my family physician and he asked me what was new – he always did.  I told him I had quit and this had been my last day at work.  He stopped, stared at me, then said, “Thank God.  You would have been dead in a year if you hadn’t.  That job was killing you.”  Gee, I could have used that information a little sooner while making my decision!  🙂  Looking back, I knew why I was different when I came back from St John.  I made the decision to quit then.   Life was just too short.

It hasn’t been easy.  Great years, good years, bad years, and now companies unwilling to pay for technical help, willing to risk regulatory and legal problems rather than do what’s needed.  But on mornings like the ones we’ve had this week – beautiful, clear, cool, just like 9-11-01, I know there are worse things, and I know life only gives us so many chances to do what we really want.  And remember what happened in just a few hours on a glorious September day, and I know I’m where I’m meant to be.

Life is short, live well.  Embrace it and enjoy it.  Live each day.  For those of you who lost friends and family that day, or in all the military activity since,  may you find inner peace in life.  Mine came reading a mystery in a rental villa on St John .

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