Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Quit: "My Antonia" by Willa Cather

Quit: My Antonia by Willa Cather, 1918, Paper edition from 1977, 0395083567.

I read half this book and nothing happens. Nothing of interest anyway. 10-year-old-ish boy is orphaned and moves from Viriginia to his grandparents in Nebraska. Grandparents are nice and run a successful farm. Boy becomes friends with older Bohemian girl, Antonia, on neighboring farm. And then nothing else happens.

Even the suicide of the Bohemian father is kinda lame. The blizzard is lame. The new pony is lame. Selling the farm and moving into town is lame. It's all lame.The only bright spot is Cather's many descriptions of the terrain, the sky, the weather, the crops. But, unless you are a Nebraskan True Believer in the Church of Cather you're bored fucking solid.

You're bored but unwilling to quit the book because maybe - Maybe - something will happen. You've already dedicated the leisure time after all. But, the book is so boring you keep putting off doing any reading and are barely able to force yourself to open the book. Since you don't much like Nebraska anyway why are you even reading this? You're reminded off all those assholes and their Nebraska Football Will Never Be Beaten, Ever! gloating back in 1999.

The delicious schadenfreude of Nebraska's recent failures are not enough to overcome the lack of substance in this novel.

1. Garber's Honda-Kawasaki looks to still be in business. I took my 1980 Honda CB750C there for service a couple times. They had a 1976 or 1977 CB750F Super Sport there. That would have been a neat bike.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Bound Paper With Words: "The Satanic Mechanic" by Sally Andrew

Bound paper With Words: The Satanic Mechanic by Sally Andrew, 2017, 9780062397690.

Cozy mystery sequel to Recipes for Love and Murder. Someone mentioned to me that they never heard of the cozy genre of mysteries. Here is my definition list:
Woman protagonist either solves or assists in solving murder. Protagonist is not a Police Officer or PI. Protagonist often romantically involved with a male Police Officer or other manly man. Many recipes involved. No guts. No blood. No gore. One or more kooky but friendly characters. One or more threatening characters.

Anyhoo. Tannie Maria is still in her 40s and working for the Klein Karoo Gazette as a advice and cooking columnist. Maria writes advice columns that prescribe recipes to the letter writers. Maria is also coping with the trauma from her now dead husband's verbal, physical, and sexual assaults on Maria.

The most problematic issue in Maria's personal life is that when she starts getting sexually active with her new Police Officer Boyfriend (POB) she has flashbacks to her husband and shoves off POB with a scream. Maria sets out to find counseling. The first counselor tells her to go on a diet - she does sound quite heavy - and take antidepressants and diet pills.

Things are going better at Maria's work and her advice column is very popular. The newspaper's reporter - the entire small town newspaper is staffed by just three people - interviews a Bushmen who just won a big court case against mining concerns. The court victory returns land to the Bushmen. The Bushman is now living under death threats and Maria is fascinated by and completely impressed with the man. When the newspaper staff then travel to another town's local festival they witness the poisoning death of the Bushman and Maria is quite shaken.

Not too much later Maria starts hallucinating a Kudu and wonders if the Kudu is the lingering spirit of the Bushman. Maria, of course, gets involved in the murder investigation. POB gruffly demands she not be involved. Maria joins a casual therapy group run by an auto mechanic who once joined a Satanist Church. Her hallucinations continue. The therapy group is briefly held-up by a trio of Satanists. POB is angry Maria seems to keep walking into danger. Maria bakes lots of food. Maria can only relieve her stress by eating binges. A wacky local character is concerned about rare rabbits. There is another murder and this time it is at the therapy group. POB is even more worried and upset. Are the first murder case and the therapy group murder connected?

Not the kind of book I generally read but I do enjoy the South African setting. The amalgam of different cultures and languages in South Africa is fascinating. Hell, S.A. has 11 official languages. Roger Smith sets his books in the urban crime of Cape Town. Deon Meyer covers both urban and rural. Andrew is focusing on a remote part of the semiarad Karoo. The Karoo region covers a huge chunk of the southwest part of the country.

Maria's Afrikaans culture is interesting because most of the book's characters have seem to come to grips with the terror of the apartheid regime. The Afrikaans culture also sounds very repressed and conservative. Andrew could not leave her abusive husband because leaving a husband is more of a taboo then admitting to the abuse.

If you like recipes there are about a dozen - Wait, let me check... there are 13 recipes. Plus a glossary for all the African languages and terms.

Damn It, Forgot Another: "The Blood of An Englishman" by James McClure

Damn It, Forgot Another: The Blood of An Englishman by James McClure, 1982 (I think, I did not search too hard), Wisconsin Digital Library audiobook download.

I just learned this novel is the sixth novel in the Kramer and Zondi series. I was searching for novels set in South Africa and this came up on Wisconsin Digital Library. I listened to his back in September or October, 2018. Soho Press does reprints and mentions "absurd humor". Well, I kinda remember that.

What I most paid attention to was the relationships between black and white. I'm still stuck on how the hell people were able to get along under apartheid. In many stories it seems apartheid is just like the weather - it's always there and you have to live under it, rain or shine.

Kramer is an Afrikaans cop. Zondi is his black partner. Both are detectives. There are friendly wisecracks between them that likely wouldn't be approved of now, things like 'black bastard'. And they are not equal partners. Zondi is a smart detective - as is Kramer - but the whites are still in charge and the black cops have to cajole and convince. They cannot order.

Anway. A antiques collector is shot and wounded. Then, a visiting tourist from England is murdered with the same caliber weapon. The press thinks there is a mystery serial shooter. The cops get lots of pressure and pursue a wide ranging investigation to gun shops, gun licensees, gunsmiths, and the lives of both victims. Then a third murder happens and the pressure builds up.

Kramer and Zondi are pulled into the wide ranging investigation but also investigate the death of the Englishman who is a former South African who journed the RAF in WWII. Englishman is back in S.A. for the first time in 40 years to visit his sister. Kramer and Zondi pursue several leads: is there a WWII feud? An girlfriend from Englishman's teen years? Family squabble? A random murder?

There is a sociopathic crook Kramer uses as a informant. (Kramer also forces the small stature crook to sit atop a tall file cabinet until the man talks.) The antiques dealer is skeezy. Dead Englishman was  a bit of a prick at times. There are a few drunks, a link to WWII turncoats, and more.

McClure does a nice job with the book and I enjoyed it quite a bit. A fair bit of humor concerning foolish Police commanders and the relationships among the Police Officers. The plot was well laid out and the many investigative leads keep you guessing.

1. How tough was it to be a fair Police Officer under apartheid? You want to see justice done and bring people to account. But, you are working under the laws of system that is purposefully unfair.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Paperback: "Moffie" by Andre Carl van Der Merwe

Paperback: Moffie by Andre Carl van Der Merwe, c2006 but a 2011 US edition, 9781609450502.

I am not sure how I came across this novel and bought it for work. I've been slowly but steadily reading South African fiction over the past few years but have been limited to crime novels. One of those novelists I read may have pointed to this book, and I then viewed an online author talk by van Der Merwe on YouTube. A author  presentation which I now cannot find. Damn it.

Wait a second... maybe that was a different guy talking on video and he was speaking about the bush wars. Damn it, now I'm not certain. Screw it.  I thought this was a fictionalized war memoir with a subplot of main character Nicholas hiding his gayness.  Nope, it's a fictionalized memoir of growing up gay when everyone else would rather you be dead than gay.  It's a tough way to grow up and things get even worse when Nicholas does his required national service with the Defense Forces and joins the infantry. The infantry is run by nut jobs who think all the black people of Africa are subhuman and out to kill them and that the blacks have joined the communists to enslave everyone that does not get murdered. Jeez, that's some real psychological projection there, fellas.

The novel bip-bops back and forth from the army to Nicholas's childhood under an angry father and repressive culture. Nicholas's beloved older brother dies when Nicholas is 5-years-old and Nicholas never gets over the death. Nicholas is an introvert, arty, and not sporty. Three things that mark him as a sissy. Being called sissy is bad enough but the true slur and reputation destroying word is moffie. Moffie means fag. Moffie means outcast. Nicholas's father explicitly says that if Nicholas turned gay he'd disown the boy and let him starve in the street.

Nicholas gets through a rough adolescence in his small, white farming community. He escapes a riot in a nearby black town. He tries to pray away the gay. He joins the Army for national service and his father hopes it will toughen him and make him stop embarrassing his father.  Nicholas goes to the initial training camp which is purposefully brutal and demeaning. He then gets sent to the infantry school where conditions are even worse and one soldier dies of heat stroke and Nicholas's best pal kills himself.

van Der Merwe is half Afrikaans and half English. The novel is set in the late 1970s and only 70 years before this the English and Dutch Afrikaans were working hard to kill one another. During the Boer War thousands of Dutch civilians died from disease after internment in concentration camps. (I often see the phrase "forced internment" and that's just silly. Internment means forced.)  Hard feelings by the Boers remain as the Afrikaans now control S.A. government and the army. That means the Afrikaaners in charge of Nicholas's unit have him and his pals marked for extra harassment.

At one point a couple soldiers are found swapping spit in a darkened building. The sergeants and corporals in charge fill cloth sacks with metal pieces and beat both men. The two soldiers are there for a short time before being sent to the S.A. Army's Ward 22. Ward 22's patients receive the latest treatment in heavy drug doses, aversion therapy, shock treatments, forced boxing smokers, and are locked inside the morgue for 48 hours. Ward 22 is just institutional torture.

With colonial rule slowly receding after across the continent after WWII the S.A. government is dedicated to keeping power. Keeping power means keeping every black or coloured person in control. (Coloured meaning mulatto meaning there-must-be-a-decent-non-racist-one-word-meaning-for-mixed-race.) The Afrikaaners get violent when the colonial powers to the north of S.A. retire from their game of Fuck The Locals, Let's Get Rich and the black Africans start running governments.

Part of that violence involves sending troops north into a twenty year Border War in Angola. The bush war involves killing plenty of Cuban trained SWAPO fighters and any civilians who get in the way. (There seem to be plenty of different views on the Border War. Arguments of "they fought for apartheid" v. "they fought to stop communists".) Nicholas and a good gay pal are sent North and see a small amount of action before both men are wounded when their truck hits a land mine.

Anyhoo. The novel itself was not that compelling to me. The writing style and plotting are not my style. I thought the story dragged at times. I kept waiting for the battle scenes to speed things up. I suppose van Der Merwe kept to reality where most of army life is bullshit and boredom interspersed with terror and war crimes.

I kept with the novel because of van Der Merwe's somewhat unique view on what happened in the late '70s. I've seen a couple documentaries and read articles on the events but none of those were personal experiences or experiences by a gay dude.

Nicholas was in an incredibly repressed culture. Hard core Dutch Reformed ministers. No kissy, no huggy until marriage. Wear black suits to church. Blacks are only valid as servants. Don't leave your husband no matter how much he beats you. Never talk back to your parents.

It is kinda amazing that van Der Merwe survived all this.

1. I was recently looking up the Border War and Bush War. I cannot keep all the wars and conflicts in Southern Africa straight. The end of colonialism brought plenty of death and turmoil.
2. Apartheid ended over 20 years ago so it's easy for me to forget how fucking awful it was.
3. Modern crime novelists I've read - Roger Smith, Deon Meyer - show a great deal of integration of black and white. It's amazing the country did not completely fall apart. I know the economy and crime are rough but there were no mass riots, massacres, and vendettas like other countries. I presume the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was a big part of that success. There was more of a restorative justice aspect to the process.
4. Regarding memoirs about brutal Army training: There sure are a lot of them.
5. There are a few YouTube channels I follow that focus on firearms hobbies. One video was discussing a FN-FAL rifle that was used in the border wars. The rifle was notable because it is a rare import to the U.S. and is absent a lot of manufacturing marks to show it's origin. During the video one former U.S. Army guy says something about the fight against communism in Africa. I cringed at that. I understand what he was saying but I see that fighting being as much about colonialism, proxy wars, and resource wealth fighting for democracy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Ear Sounds: "Saints of the Shadow Bible" by Ian Rankin

Ear Sounds: Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin, 2013, w

Quick quiz. Who is the biggest a-hole in the Scottish Police? John Rebus. I suppose other readers will argue in Rebus's favor or posit their own favorite from the many Scottish crime novels out there. But, this is my blog.  So shut up.

Rankin retired Rebus a few years before this novel and then brought him back as a retiree working cold cases. Now Rankin has Rebus back on the police department. Rebus is at a lower rank because the department had not open positions for his retired rank.  Rebus doesn't care about rank or approval. He just wants to work the job and solve cases. He'll follow like a bloodhound until he collapses.

Rebus will also drink like a fish and insult like Don Rickles. Which brings me back to the Biggest A-Hole in the Scottish Police. Few people are willing to work with Rebus. He has become a legend within his department but once people get to know him they either get to like him or - most usually - just tolerate him.

Rebus serving under his former partner, Siobhan Clarke, now that she is a Sergeant. Again, Rebus doesn't much care about this but does bristle when a retired pathologist makes a few digs about it. And Rebus is always pushing back against his commanding officers no matter what.

Rebus and Clarke get called to a car wreck. The female college student's wealthy London father has political pull and Rebus and Clarke are there to dot the i and cross the t. Being a particularly suspicious and A-Hole Rebus spies some inconsistencies with the young lady's story and starts asking questions, questions, questions.

Rankin has also come under suspicion over the actions of a detective unit from 30 years ago when Rankin was a freshly minted detective. The unit called themselves The Saints of the Shadow Bible. The Saints broke rules, punched suspects, and made me want to re-watch the Red Riding trilogy.

Anyhoo. Rankin is back up against Inspector Fox - a newer Rankin character - from the Complaints Department as Fox investigates the Saints. Rebus has to stay loyal to his former colleagues and the rule of law. Because, let's be clear, Rebus may be a rule breaker himself and he will push the envelope of acceptable behavior, but he is all about the rule of law and catching those that break it.

1. You know, other reviewers have mentioned how the loss in rank is galling to Rebus. Maybe Rankin is pursuing that part of Rebus but I just never saw Rebus being ticked off over rank. (Or, I completely missed it.) Like I mention above, Rebus doesn't like anyone with a higher rank. He doesn't like anyone he considers incompetent.
2. Rankin was on BBC 6 Music a couple weeks ago plugging his band. Rankin mentioned how Fox and Rebus are quite similar. He retired Rebus and created Fox and now has them working together. They are so alike they initially don't get along but are forming a friendship.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Audiobook: "Rascal" by Sterling North

Audiobook: Rascal by Sterling North, 1963, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

I vaguely recall this book sitting around or being discussed in elementary school. I never read it. I sorta recall the Disney movie on television. I did not watch it.

At work we get occasional mailings from the Sterling North Society promoting his books and home/museum in Edgerton, WI which is about 20-25 miles away. Wait, let me check... 22 miles is most direct route. The Society plugs Rascal in their mailings. I saw the audio and tried it out.

Set exactly 100 years ago from Spring, 1918 to Spring, 1919. North is the youngest of four children and his mother died when Sterling was seven-years-old. His lawyer father often travels and leaves 12-year-old Sterling by himself. Sterling's three siblings are older and have moved away to live their adult lives.

One day Sterling and a pal are going through the woods when they scare an adult raccoon that runs up a tree leaving it's four baby raccoons behind. Being 12-year-olds they think the best solution is to climb the tree, knock the raccoon off, capture it, and reunite it with the baby raccoons. Sterling climbs the tree and the raccoon retreats to the end of a tree limb. Being a 12-year-old Sterling figures to use the saw blade on his pocket knife to cut off the limb and his pal will catch the raccoon, wrap the animal in his coat, and then... something. Who knows what the hell their entire plan was.

The plan, of course, fails. The raccoon falls, runs off, and three baby raccoons follow. Sterling takes the remaining baby raccoon home. Taking a raccoon home is no trouble since his father is often gone and demands little discipline or behavioral standards. Sterling already has a 170lbs St. Bernard, a pet crow, a guppy pond, and two skunks. He's been using the living room as workshop to saw and sand his way to constructing a wooden canoe.

Things happen. The raccoon spends a year growing from a straw fed baby to a 13 pound adult. There are plenty humorous stories and I enjoyed the novel. The raccoon is smart, affectionate, and adventurous. Rascal loves strawberry soda pop and cube sugar. He learns to hunt crawfish. One night he crawls into bed with Sterling after learning how to open the screen door and come inside. At night Sterling will fill en suite bathroom sink basin with water for Rascal to get a drink.

One story I repeated to my half listening children:
Both Sterling's crow and Rascal loved shiny things and would take items and hoard them. The two animals would often fight over objects. Sterling's older sister comes to visit and kicks Sterling out of her old room on the home's first floor. While putting away her belongings Rascal comes wandering into the room and Sister screams and jumps on a chair. Sterling is indignant, "It's rascal's room too!" but loses the fight. Rascal is locked out of the house at night.

One morning Sister goes on a tear looking for her missing engagement ring. She often loses the ring and one time Sterling and his father dug up 85 feet of sewer line before she found the ring in a purse. Sister is greatly upset over the ring and Sterling helps search. Sister is adamant that she took the ring off and set it on the sink of the en suite bathroom. As Sterling helps search he recalls that early that morning he woke to the sound of Rascal and Crow fighting on the porch. The fight ended and Sterling, half asleep, went right back to bed. Sterling realizes he did not lock the door the previous night.

Sterling theorizes that Rascal came inside, avoided Sister asleep in the bed. and went to get a drink from the bathroom sink. Rascal spots the ring on the sink, takes the ring outside, and Crow promptly steals it away. Sterling climbs up to Crow's nest in the neighboring church belfry and finds some missing marbles, a spare Oldsmobile key, and Sister's missing ring. Sister is so happy she lets Sterling keep the canoe in the house.

1. This is one of those Boy On His Own adventure stories where the boy has little supervision or takes off for the woods. Same as Tom Sawyer. Not quite a bildungsroman. the kind of story I enjoyed as a kid and would go, "Oh no! Not that!" when the kid would make a foolish and reckless decision.
2. What is the dad really doing on all these work trips? Avoiding responsibility of Sterling? Drinking? Skirt chasing? Sterling is often lonely while his dad travels as far as Montana.
3. Sterling has many passages about his mother. He seems to crave matronly affection and is happy to receive it from an aunt, teacher, and neighbor.
4. This is a memoir and Sterling writes about lousy behavior of a few adults and one classmate. A neighboring pastor is a prick. His uncle is a bully. His classmate is a bully and prick. This book came out 45 years after the events but the book has a greater impact than any else's stories or memories of those people. Weird how a short kid's story can forever tar a person's name.
5. I should drive over to see the North museum sometime. That'd be a nice bike ride in warm weather.
6. Sterling worries a lot for his brother in France. The brother does not tell them the truth of his extensive combat experience until after the war.

Listened to a book: "Broken Harbor" by Tana French

Listened to a Book: Broken Harbor by Tana French, 2012, Wisconsin Digital Library download.

The fourth of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. There is a definite pattern to each book. The protagonist is a screwed down and serious cop with some past traumatic experiences as a child or teenager. The cops go against everything they were trained or experienced in work so that they act self-destructively during the investigation. They willingly or unknowingly blind themselves to a clear solution because they cannot help but view the current crime and people through the filter of their own past.


Scorcher Kennedy is a bit of a hotshot murder investigator. He is a very "by the books" fella and he has a high clearance rate for his murder cases. Scorcher gets assigned big name cases that hit the press. His latest is a call that sends him to the edge of Dublin (Which I initially typed at 'Budlin') to an unfinished housing development by the sea. Formerly called Broken Harbor the newly named Brianstown is a mix of abandoned construction and shoddily completed single family homes. The estate was in progress and partially populated when the booming Celtic Tiger economy went bust. Of the entire estate only a few homes were completed and still inhabited.

Scorcher brings along newbie detective Richie Curran who is only recently promoted from the uniform division. They arrive to a fresh crime scene with one dead and bloody father and his two smothered young children. The wife was found barely alive with multiple stabs and slashes and evacuated to the hospital.

There is no immediate evidence of a break-in or intruder. The ME says the dead people were killed around 3AM. Most evidence points to a domestic murder-suicide attempt. But, the weapon is completely missing. And there are strange holes busted through the drywall at various parts of the home with video baby monitors aimed at the holes and the attic access. That's kinda odd.

When the cops search the area they find a "sniper's nest" in the abandoned construction behind the victim's home that looks directly into that home's backyard windows. The nest has a sleeping bag, binoculars, and food. Someone had been surveilling - or creeping - the dead family.

Things move on in standard police procedural fashion. Clues don't match up. Dead ends take time. Witnesses don't want to talk. Family members of the victim's and neighbors interfere in police interviews. The crime scene evidence is inconclusive.

OK, that's all standard. So what matters is the characters. Scorcher is a divorced cop with two sisters, a depressed father, and a dead mother who killed herself by walking into the same damn sea off newly named Brianstown. Scorcher and family used to take summertime caravan vacations in Brianstown. Those vacations were the only times his severely depressed mother would be okay. Until their last vacation when she woke in the middle of the night, took the youngest sibling, and walked alone into the ocean. Youngest sibling survived, was found hiding in the sand dunes, and has never spoke about the experience.

After his mother's suicide Scorcher and one sister have been in charge of keeping the family together. Their father falls apart and just watches television and the second surviving sister has developed mental health issues - the same kind as the mother. Scorcher does not want to go back to Broken Harbor/Brianstown and being there messes him up. Scorcher tells the story first person and cannot accept that the surviving victim - the mother - may have murdered her family. Instead, he focuses hard on the guy who was watching them. The guy was an old friend and his behavior does put him smack into a plausible theory of the crime.  That plausible theory does not have much evidence and comes with a obviously false confession.

French is one of those writers who tells a good tale but is also very perceptive about people. Her characters are peppered with details and behaviors. The first person narrations are not unreliable, they are just unaware or unseeing of what is in front of them. So, let's list recap French style things that have been in the four books I've heard.

  • Family trauma.
  • More importantly - childhood or adolescent trauma of the narrator. Dead parents are in three novels.
  • Narrators who deny that their own emotions and history are driving their motivations. 
  • Narrators will acknowledge their own poor behavior and decision making in the past narration (or whatever it is called) but at-the-time they reason away their actions.
  • Narrators are who inherently lonely. 
    • One narrator left a alcoholic and dysfunctional family to leave on his own and thought hit girlfriend left him because of his family. He does not make relationships.
    • One narrator was the sole survivor of a group abduction where the other two children were never seen again. He was sent to boarding school and lost all memory of time before the abduction.
    • This narrator lived in constant worry for his mother's life and he and his sister took over for the mentally absent father and a mentally ill younger sister.
    • One narrator was orphaned in a car wreck where she was the sole survivor and left in the wreck - with her dead parents - for several hours before discovery. Raised by a distant and overwhelmed aunt and uncle.

1. I presume that French is pretty smart.