My “Mad” Summer, American Presidents, the Sixties & Lisbeth Salander

I have committed the grand faux pas of bloggerdom – dropping off the blogosphere.  I have a good reason – I was a little preoccupied with buying, moving and selling houses along with a multitude of painting and other home improvement projects (at both places simultaneously – what a fun way to spend the Summer!).  Despite all that, I managed to still read some books – here’s the latest…

During June, I must have been coming to the end of my rope waiting for the new season of Mad Men to start.  Coincidentally, I read two books that took place in the Sixties. 

The first was American Adulterer by British author, Jed MercurioMercurio has an interesting history of medical school (which he used to write a BBC drama called Cardiac Arrest), Royal Air Force, and author.  In his third novel, he layered true historical events into the mix that actually taught me a couple of things I didn’t know (such as the events with Cuba that preceded the Cuban Missile Crisis).  I never thought I would finish the book as most of it gave me the creeps when I first started.  Even though we’ve heard or read about John F. Kennedy’s extra-curricular activities, now that we’ve lived through Tiger Woods and crew, it’s not hard to imagine how JFK’s National Enquirer story would play out today.  However, the imagined details of his deteriorating health and how he had to depend on others, such as Jackie, to help him appear vigorous made up for some of the ick factor. 

Next, courtesy of my favorite library, was Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides.  I highly recommend this book – there were so many gems of history – nothing that was ever covered in my high school education, that’s for sure.  Sides is a great storyteller and whether he is narrating in the viewpoint of King or James Earl Ray, the details and language he uses are delicious to read.  Hampton Sides previously wrote one of the best books I have read in my life: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission.  It is about a group of POWs that were held following the Bataan Death March.  If you have loved ones who served, or are currently serving, this is a wonderful tribute to those who give us our freedom every day.  I can bet you won’t be able to get through this book without a lump in your throat or many tears in your eyes.

I wrapped up another good read about a former American president:  Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.  This was another from my wait-listed books at the library and I thought at the time – I’ve got too much going on – I’ll never finish it.  Surprisingly, I sank my teeth into it (wink).  And now I’ve read somewhere that Johnny Depp is attached to the movie!  I’ve yet to verify some of the historical aspects of  Lincoln’s upbringing (not the vampire bit, but some of the parental history).  It was a very good escape read.

Finally, Mad Men is here!  I was so happy to see Joan back in her usual butt-kicking ways this past Sunday.  I read a recent interview with Rich Sommer (Harry Crane) in Minnesota Monthly.  They asked him for a one word hint as to Season 4, his reply “Consequences.”  Sounds great to me!

Now it is August.  The MN State Fair starts in 2 weeks!  I’m in the midst of  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – more on that next time…I have a feeling Lisbeth is about to get out of that hospital bed and kick some serious butt – I can’t wait!

Gotta Love A Girl Named Lionel Shriver

If you are a member of the Sandwich Generation, you might be one of those adults who handle their aging parent’s financial matters.  Writing checks for thousands of dollars every month for long-term care and donut-hole Medicare coverage is not only frustrating, you can’t help but wonder when we get to be that age – how much is this going to cost then?  And what about if you personally experience a medical hardship that isn’t covered by your employer’s health care policy (assuming you are fortunate to have it)?  All of this and more are wrapped up into Lionel Shriver’s recent novel, So Much For That

Shep Knacker previously sold his small business for a cool million.  He continued to work at the business for the new owner in a lesser role as he prepared for his version of The Afterlife, relocating to a cheaper, prettier, warmer destination where he could live his remaining years on a few dollars a day.  One Friday, Shep tells his boss “Adios!” (in not quite such nice terms) and purchases three one-way tickets to Pemba Island, Africa.  Pemba will be the destination of The Afterlife that he can enjoy with his wife and teenage son.

As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” Shep’s wife, Glynnis, returns home that night to disclose that she has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.  The Afterlife, at least this Afterlife, starts to shrivel and die before Shep’s eyes.  Shep has to return to his dreaded job so he can at least get the basic bones of health care coverage for his wife.  One crisis begets another, and soon Shep is not only dealing with his wife’s health crisis, but his father’s as well.

Each chapter starts with the drastically shrinking investment account balance as Shep spends everything he has to care for his family and cover the costs that his health insurance doesn’t pay for his wife and the gaps that Medicare doesn’t pay for his dad.  Meanwhile the reader is left to ponder “what would I do in this situation?” and “how much would I want someone to spend on me?”

The other Shriver novel I have read and highly recommend is What About Kevin?  It’s about a family dealing with the aftermath of high school violence that was committed by their son.  You’ll either never have children after reading this or give yourself a Parent of the Year Award if you have successfully transitioned your children to adulthood without dealing with this type of issue.

These books are not pleasant reads, but watch your daily cares shrink as you read about other people whose lives you wish never to have.

Closing out the Month of May with Jack Bauer and Lucas Davenport

It was difficult to say good-bye to Jack Bauer last week.  After all, we’ve been together for eight years (actually nine counting the writer’s strike) – longer than most of my relationships anyway.  I’m not sure how well I’ll weather Monday nights next year – I fear a long, cold, depressing winter without the weekly stress relief of watching Jack pummel someone into confessing something week after week.  I wish we had him on Wall Street.  At least I can look forward to the 24 movies.  I’m hoping they’ll be at least 3 hours?  In retrospect – thoughts on some memories of my years with Jack:

1.  Delivering the guy’s head in the bowling bag
2.  Torturing his douchebag brother
3.  Serving his country after 2 years in a Chinese prison
4.  Serving his country as he’s battling drug addiction
5.  Chopping off Chase’s arm with an ax
6.  Aaron
7.  His addiction to whiny blond women – who get whinier when they are either shot or getting shot at (i.e., Audrey, Kim)
8.  President Palmer (the first one)
9.  Peter Weller
10.  The “Dammit Chloe” drinking game

Stay safe, Jack, until next time…

I was very happy to see the new John Sandford book, Storm Prey, on the Dakota County Library “Lucky U” shelf on Thursday.  I was 100 plus on the reserve list and I thought I’d have to break down and buy it for the holiday weekend.  Memorial Day weekend, great weather and Lucas Davenport – does it get any better than that?

Storm Prey has a lot to do about weather, I mean Weather Karkinnen, Lucas’s wife.  I have tolerated Weather in the past.  I realize she is the mother of Lucas’s children, saved his life (at least once that I recall), has settled him down significantly and all, but she is the ball and chain to our old wild boy, Lucas.  I know now when I’m reading a Prey book that the only chick Lucas will be bedding is his wife.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that fact that Lucas is a standup, faithful, family guy – but the only action of that kind is either going to be by the bad guys in the book or, perhaps, by Virgil Flowers (who does make a regular appearance in Storm Prey – yay!).  But Weather holds her own and I can even picture a mean driving scene in Weather’s Audi that would translate well into film.  Our Lucas is steady, focused and still the guy I want on my local, criminal investigation team.  He just needs to go fishing a little bit more in the next book…and bring Virgil too…

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire

I knew a girl many years ago who had a dragon tattoo.  This was before tattooed girls were run of the mill so it was kind of a big deal.  Or maybe it was a big deal because it was quite a large, purple, fire-breathing dragon that started on her left breast and drifted into her shirt.  All I could think at the time was “I wonder how great that will look when she’s 40 … or 60?”

 With that memory lodged in my brain, I wasn’t too enticed to pick up the book, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” when it first came out.  Then my book club selected it for our January discussion.  Luckily, one of our members mentioned to hang in there because it doesn’t get exciting until 40 or so pages into it.  You had to get past all of the Swedish economic intrigue in the early part of the book.  (Yes, I said, Swedish economic intrigue – trust me stay with it.)

 It got exciting alright.  Closer to halfway in the book another tattoo is mentioned.  That’s when Lisbeth Salander, the “Girl” in these books, becomes more than a bit player and is now my female equivalent of Jack Bauer, Mitch Rapp and Lucas Davenport.  This pint-sized, wicked-smart, kick-ass girl would probably open a can of whoop-ass on them too.  Who cares about Swedish economic intrigue?  Hello, Lisbeth!

While Dragon Tattoo introduces us to Lisbeth, The Girl Who Played With Fire is all Lisbeth all the time.  This book answers the questions that Dragon raises and, fortunately, minimizes all of the Swedish economic intrigue so prevalent in the first book.  This book you can’t put down and when you read the last page it’ll leave you desperately seeking more Lisbeth.  The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is out May 25th.

 Unfortunately for us Lisbeth fans, her creator, Stieg Larsson passed away soon after delivering the manuscripts that became three best-selling novels.  Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens published an interesting article in December:  http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/12/hitchens-200912.

I was surprised to learn that Sweden had already created a film based on the first book (of which I have not seen).  I suspect that Lisbeth may be a role best cast by our imaginations as no mere mortal that I can think of could fill her tiny motorcycle boots appropriately (although there is a golf club scene in the first book that a bewigged Elin Woods could probably re-enact quite nicely).

Hitchens touches on Larsson’s estate mess that his sudden death sans will leaves and also mentions other Swedish tidbits – who knew those Swedes were so controversial!  It will be interesting to see if another picks up The Girl series and publishes the remaining 7 books that Larsson planned.  If it’s good enough for Jason Bourne, why not for Lisbeth Salander?

How I Spent the Month of March

The blog has been on hiatus.  Or maybe it was just me.  Since I last wrote, I acquired a J.O.B. (super yea!), went on a quick trip to Vegas (double yea!!) and read a few books along the way (a mixed bag, per usual).

The best of the bunch belongs to When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins.  It’s hard to believe that we are celebrating the 50th birthday of 1960.  This book helps fans of Mad Men (who are eagerly waiting for Season 4 and, possibly, the new Mad Men Barbie dolls!) to visit those struggles of being a woman in the early 1960s.  When you could work (or not), what you could wear (or not), what types of jobs you were allowed to hold and who you were allowed to live with or marry (and mostly, not).  As Collins takes us through the next 50 years, we revisit stories about women – some you will know, many you will meet for the first time – and their personal experiences of social change, lawsuits, fashion, and lifestyle choices that give us the many choices we have available to us today.

Unfortunately, the next book does not come with such a strong recommendation.  My book club had chosen Runaway, by Alice Munro.  When we met last week to discuss, it was unanimous – life is far too short to waste on this collection of short stories!  We figured it must have been a crappy year back in 2004 for this book to have been named “Best Book of the Year” by the New York Times Book Review.   My strong recommendation for a short story anthology is to read Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman.

I just finished A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.   This book was not love for me through the initial third of the book, but it grew on me and I’d suggest sticking with it.  If you read Isherwood’s bio on Wikipedia – you will see threads of his personal life story throughout this book.  I will watch the movie when I can rent the DVD from the library.  I already heard that the movie’s ending is different from the book.  This usually keeps me from watching movies that do that out of protest.  How annoying is that?  Your book is good enough to use as a basis for a movie – but we have to fundamentally change it so the audience will “like” it.   However, for this book I can see where the ending for the movie could occur differently so I will reserve final judgment until after I watch it.  I love Colin Firth so they better not screw this up! 

As March comes to a close (and a successfully snow free month at that), I just started to read Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class by Peter T. Kilborn.   So far, I’d say if this type of non-fiction social study interests you and you can get it free from the library – it is an interesting read.

The Real Sopranos Courtesy Of Philip Carlo

I don’t have HBO.  Fortunately, a friend set me up with her DVD collection of The Sopranos.  There is nothing like the opportunity to have your personal TV marathon of Tony and the boys.  Except when Tony Soprano comes calling in your dreams – probably due to witnessing an overabundance of whackings in such a short amount of time.  Even with the nightmares, there comes those times when you miss that TV show.  Wonder how Tony and Carm are doing and what do they think of Jersey Shores anyway?  Is it possible to miss the mafia?

My nightmares of Tony Soprano cannot compare to the true nightmares inflicted by the real mafia hitmen portrayed in Philip Carlo’s books.  In The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath, Carlo brings us Tommy “Karate” Pitera, a capo with the Bonanno crime family.  It is estimated that he killed over 50 people and disposed of their bodies after cutting them into pieces – usually in somebody’s bathtub.  While the book is not without gory details and photos, the video on Carlo’s website includes more graphic images than were included in the book.  It is only for adults who can stomach these images.  It also includes interviews with Jim Hunt, the DEA agent who led the investigation into Pitera’s crimes.  Carlo’s website is: http://www.philipcarlo.com/

The first Philip Carlo book I read was titled The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer.  Richard Kuklinski was an independent agent who was hired by five of  New York’s largest syndicates as well as two New Jersey families to whack people.  Kuklinski was said to have murdered over 200 people during his lifetime.  One of his “specialties” was to feed still living victims to rats.  He also would use poisons, such as cyanide, that he either injected or sprayed on his victims.  Kuklinski was the subject of two HBO documentaries (neither of which I have seen).  His story, told very well in The Ice Man, is supposed to be made into a movie starring Mickey Rourke.

Philip Carlo was raised in the Brooklyn area where many of the mafia families lived and worked.  He hails from Bensonhurst – the same neighborhood that brought us Tommy Pitera.  As a teenager, he was shot in the head during a gang fight.  This was the start of Carlo turning his life around, away from the influence of gangs and the mafia and toward his future career as an author.  However, it wasn’t until I viewed Philip Carlo’s website, that I learned of the author’s more recent health struggles with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Despite his health, he is finishing one book and researching another – I can’t wait to read them both!

Still Life With Parrots? Alex and Me (and Chili)

As you get older, you appreciate that you do not have the magic crystal ball to tell you the details of your future.  Knowing your future could cause you undue stress as you try to justify why that particular detail is just not going to work for your life.  Therefore, I’m grateful that I didn’t know 18 months ago that I’d be living with a parrot.

I admit I might have harbored a couple of thoughts that living with a parrot might be a pain in the butt.  This was not based on any real life experience, but just like I don’t want to own a monkey, or a boa constrictor, parrots were not in my horizon.  However, then comes life.  And after years of singledom, a real mate, who has some pretty good qualities… and you like him a lot.  And he comes with a parrot named Chili.  So you give it a try and life brings you some surprises.

Chili is an orange-winged Amazon parrot.  He’s single, early 40s, and pretty low maintenance.  He works out daily and is in very buff condition for his age.  He has a great attitude and starts each morning with a round of positive affirmations that include:

  • Hello!
  • Good Morning!
  • Hi, Chili!
  • I’m a pretty bird!
  • I’m a good boy!
  • I love you!

Chili enjoys music and conversation.  He loves to laugh and he’s a great whistler.  Not only does he communicate with a loud wolf whistle or a “Hey, Baby” when he thinks you look great – but he can also serenade you with various musical snippets from 1970s TV shows such as  The Dukes of Hazzard or Three’s Company.  He can change his voice and sometimes we think he is channeling satellite signals.  That is when he talks a blue streak with a voice that sounds vaguely like the local TV cable station that repeatedly recites wind velocity and other weather conditions for pilots.  This is when you have to listen closely as Chili’s vocabulary skills are at their highest.  The other day in a string of rapid-fire sentences, I did make out “can I call you back” as part of the 3 minute soliloquy.  I have to admit, it tugs at my heart when he says “Hi, Julie.”  My dog can’t do that!

To understand better how these feathered guys can capture your heart, please read Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Dr. Irene M. Pepperberg.  This excellent book captures the life of Alex, an African Grey parrot, who became a media star of Pepperberg’s studies regarding the possibility of animal intellect.  Alex communicated with a vocabulary containing over a hundred words, solved puzzles, simple mathematical equations, and even used painstaking phonetic pronunciation to try and instruct the humans about what he wanted (“I want a nut.  Nnn-uh-tuh”).

Unfortunately, Alex passed away unexpectedly in 2007 at the young age of 31.  I remember hearing the story on National Public Radio and the national news.  The New York Times, Nature, and The Guardian all published articles about Alex.  What I didn’t know was that his obituary was even printed in The Economist  – how cool is that!

Here are links to learn more about Alex and Dr. Pepperberg:

The Alex Foundation:  http://www.alexfoundation.org/index2.html
CNN YouTube video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4gTR4tkvcM
The Economist Obituary:  http://www.economist.com/obituary/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9828615

 Now, I must rejoin Chili, he’s busy completing his Sudoku puzzle…