Monday, November 12, 2007


Here is where I stand on this topic, I think. I have never seen a better statement on it from my point of view, anyway. I owe this to my daughter Libby, who owns the book and at whose home I read it whilst spending time with her and her family, which at that time did not include Beck. I find it exceedingly beautiful and poignant at the same time. As a writer of sorts, I also find myself feeling impotent, incompetent and pointless in the face of it every time I read it. I think it's that good. It doesn't get any better, actually. Wish the hell I could have written it.

But no . . . Lucky for you . . .


"I don’t know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion. In fact, I don’t know if God even exists, although I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty.

There are some ten thousand extant religious sects—each with its own cosmology, each with its own answer for the meaning of life and death. Most assert that the other 9,999 not only have it completely wrong but are instruments of evil besides. None of the ten thousand has persuaded me to make the requisite leap of faith. In the absence of conviction, I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life. And abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain—which doesn’t strike me as something to lament. Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief.

And if I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: most of us fear death; most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why—which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive."

--Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven
January 2003


I know, I know. First I do one about Writing and here comes Reading. What's next, Arithmetic? Could be. Tell you all about my financial affairs, let you do the numbers. Point is, when people ask what my hobbies are I used to say my work was and that was true. Other than that though, I would also mention camping but most people don't understand that, so when reading was mentioned they always asked what I read.

First of all, I'll read any paperback with a swastika on the cover--WWII is one of my areas of interest and historical expertise, in large part because of my Dad. This has led to my reading a bucketful of trash, of course.

But that aside, for the past twenty-five years or so I have been a big fan of the mystery/police procedural genre, one at which I used to scoff, since I considered it beneath me, intellectual elitist that I was. Before that I was a big fan of the espionage novel because I had been to many of the cities mentioned in them and was reliving my travels with the added frisson (there's another of the words MyPeople overuse, btw, along with palpable--add those to the Writing post, OK?) of violence and sex thrown in. Those latter two items are guaranteed to sell just about anything.

And they do.

Religion: Before we get to my fave genres, though, I need to mention Christopher Hitchens' god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. This is wonderful stuff for us agnostics/atheists. I think I am the former, but the distinctions at times escape me. Christians/Muslims/Jews/Hindus/Buddhists/What-All with stout hearts and any brains left should give this a go. Rob Istad and Erin bought it and I read Erin's copy.

Political Satire: I have read all of Richard Condon, who is now dead. He was most active during the Nixon years, but also skewered Kennedy's irresponsible skirt chasing. The best currently is Christoper Buckley, son of the most articulate conservative alive in the country, and one of the smartest ever, William F. Buckley. Again, I have read everything of Christoper's, the latest of which made me laugh out loud repeatedly while waiting for my left eye to dilate at the optometry office. Boomsday is all the funnier--as are many of his books--because everything in it is true except the characters. This fact also makes them very sad, too, if only because irony is rarely funny. Base: D.C.

Environmental Pit Bulls: Carl Hiassen is an absolute scream, though James W. Hall comes close. Protagonists are absurd, bad guys are taken from developers, governments and corporations everywhere. Alligators and dolphins abound. One pit bull, too. Base: South Florida.

General American Lit: I have read all of John Irving, The World According to Garp and Owen Meany twice. I find his blend of pathos, humor and absurdity utterly fascinating. Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) may be his successor.

Disclaimer: I have read the giants of American lit beginning with Hemingway and Whitman as a sophomore in high school. I have read most of Dickens and Gunter Grass. I could go on. I know good writing, is the point. I will try any author in my genres once. If the writing ain't good, I give up after one book, sometimes after one paragraph. I especially have no interest in someone's Ferragamos, or in women writers whose boyfriends eat sushi and deliver hours of foreplay. Glocks, Sig-Sauers, food and wine are another matter. (I got my concept of half-raw burgers slathered in bleu-cheese, accompanied by fully-raw red wine from Condon in Arigato--writers have a lot of time to cook, as do I, though I don't consider myself a real writer. This was in '75. Talk about ahead of his time! Now those burgers are everywhere.) Please understand that my opinion of what is good comes from experiencing the bad, starting with Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon and What's-Her-Name. The same is true of music and food.

Legal Thriller: Only one, folks: Scott Turow. No one else can touch him, including You-Know-Who. Base: Chicago, but he calls it something else.


Espionage: Nelson DeMille (also very funny in his three novels with the protagonist named John), Alan Furst and Robert Littell. The latter two include a lot of historical atmosphere in Europe and Russia. I'm a history buff, so I love that stuff (one of the 'decorations' in my home is a world map). DeMille is one of my all-time favorites, genre notwithstanding.

Cops (or PIs) and Crimmies. These are the ones that give me the most delight, still. I have read some of their stuff twice, actually, in part because I love their writing, in part because I'm getting older and can't remember how the plots came out (let's hear it for Alzheimer's! But like rehearsal, getting there is what's fun, not so much who dunnit or why--there is no why). Also be aware that I have read none of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Shame on me. I may get to them yet.

Ed McBain (Evan Hunter)--the Godfather of the Serial/Ensemble Novel (The TV series Hill Street Blues was modeled after his work). The 87th Precinct series is best read in chronological order, but that is not necessary. Base: NY, but he doesn't say so.

Lawrence Block--the darkest of the bunch, as well as one of the funniest in his Bernie Rodenbarr series. Again, best read in order: Matthew Scudder progresses from big-time boozer to AA member going to meetings five times a week. Girlfriend is a call girl. They go to art exhibitions and ethnic restaurants and make subtle, inexplicit, non-clinical love. The most cynical of the bunch, though--hang on. Base: NY

Michael Connelly--the Harry Bosch series should be read in order. Harry is a renegade: his superiors hate him and fire him and re-hire him. Other books are free-standing. Superb police procedural stuff; great plots. Base: LA, LV. Blood Work takes place in my former home, San Pedro.

James Lee Burke--as pure writer, the one I consider the best, but don't let that stop you. His bad guys are the worst of the bunch, with the possible exception of Block. And Burke's character Dave Robicheaux, along with his psychotic pal, Clint, manage to punch the bad guys out in satisfying fashion ("Book 'em or smoke 'em." WOW!). This is the closest my favorites come to Protagonist-With-Big-Swinging-Dick. Another AA guy, too. Without question the most poetic of the bunch: you can smell the bayou, taste the beignets, see the lightening, and hear the rain on the gallery roof. I re-read many paragraphs, they are so well done. Base: Louisiana; Montana (he spends half the year in each).

T. Jefferson Parker--hard to categorize and no series here; the books are all pretty much stand-alone. His work has most to do with social injustice, corruption, police work, surfing, journalism, and the despoiling of Orange County, California--from orange groves to South Coast Plaza (speaking of which, Parker is to Dean Koontz as Montrachet is to Gallo). The most philosophical of the bunch; I almost cried re-reading Summer of Fear recently. Base: Laguna Beach; Orange County.

Elmore Leonard--along with Ed McBain, the one who inspired them all, particularly in regard to dialogue: he doesn't describe anything, there is no atmosphere aside from the dialogue, in fact, he is the Godfather of Dialogue: You know all you need to know from what the characters say and how they say it. He is a very successful screenwriter, especially as a result of his Western novellas--Hombre one of the earlier, 3:10 to Yuma the latest. (Let me say here that many of these guys have had movies made, but please read the books first. Isn't this always the case?) Base: Detroit; Miami.

Others--Dennis Lehane (Boston), Robert Crais (LA), Donald Westlake, the funniest of this whole crowd (NY, but also Branson, MO!, among others). And a slow, cold salute of my mitten to fellow Minnesotan, John Sandford, whose Prey books have helped me pass many happy motel hours whilst visiting my mom in that state. His character dresses well and drives a Porsche very fast all around Minnesota and Wisconsin, eh. Even in winter.



Whew! There you go, gang. There's really nothing better than a book, whether in a campground, an airport, on a plane or a couch. See why television bores me except for the Hyctomy Channel, sports and documentaries? See why I get to the Y a lot?

You betcha.

Oh. And google any of these folks, of course. I didn't have the energy to tell you everything I know about them. If you have a question about specific books, let me know, I'll respond.

And I emphasize: these men are first-class WRITERS (with the possible exception of Crais and Sandford, who will nevertheless shorten any plane ride). I don't have time for sloth when it comes to my books--you'd better have both craft and style or you will have no place on my coffee table, my bedstand, or in my briefcase and luggage.

Nossir. Uh-uh.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


I am amazed at how much I used to get done before retirement, given how the days go now. I still get up at 6:30. And of course I now do my own laundry, clean the apartment weekly, have to deal with a financial advisor and medicare, as well as appointments, paperwork and tests for teeth, hair, bod, head, money, death, travel, and auto. I am also amazed at how much Time it takes to process letters of recommendation for former and current students now that I no longer have secretarial help and have to do it all myself. The same is true for email. I also spend more time at the Y than I did when working, too, but I seem to need it more. Groan.

I was reminded of this again recently while spending three days at Miami University in Ohio rehearsing, lecturing off the top of my head, giving a masterclass, having meals with students, eating and drinking with Ethan Sperry and Bill Bausano and their wonderful wives. It was fun; I think I still I have most of the Right Stuff; I was exhausted when I got back home. Time flew and I got more 'done' in three days than I had in all my days combined since returning from steaming hot Korea last August.

Time has been called the thing you can never get more of, unlike things like money. This is a truism that embarrasses me to express in this forum, but it is true, nevertheless. Time for us animals is a non-renewable resource like fossil fuel--only so much of it. It's also like electricity-- can't store it, save it up for a sunny day. You use it and that's that and you hope for more. And if you're smart, you rejoice in it.

But I always thought our perception of its passage was accelerated the busier we are. Not true, I've found. It's 4:30 now and I feel that the day has flown. Everyday does, despite the fact that I am not working. (Oh, and I also read and nap more. Ah, bliss). I do spend much less time on the freeways, which is really nice. So nice that in November, when I go up to see L and L and DaBoys, I will drive instead of fly. I have the time and can go during the week instead of during the Highway Hell that weekends can become on I-5. Air travel takes almost as long, given the ordeal it has become, and I don't have to half undress and be X-rayed before getting into my 4-Runner and hummin' up the highway. (And I can travel with the Leatherman knife that my buddy Dennis got me for my 60th birthday. Actually, it's the Boomer version of the Leatherman (not Leatherperson): has a corkscrew, canape fork and paté knife tucked in there with the sharpest blade in creation, the usual screwdrivers, et. al. I entertained the Chamber Choir on our last several retreats with it, calling it my tres chic pique-nique knife. They howled with delight, but they mainly used it to open wine and beer bottles during the post-retreat party).

But I digress, as usual. Maybe not, though, speaking of retreats. I ran 18 of those at UOP, 10 with the California Choral Company and 11 with USC. That's 39 retreats, beginning in 1973 and stretching to 2006. In the '70's they seemed incredibly short and time flew. The last few with USC seemed to last forever, and it was all I could do to summon the energy to keep those young brains and bodies productive, alert, entertained. (BTW: why is it Mother Nature but Father Time?) And they were very talented and were doing superb music, so that wasn't the problem. The problem was me. I was running out of fossil fuel and electricity in the fullness of Time. Retreats, I'm afraid, are among the 15 things on the list of what I no longer miss since retirement. Things I do miss are only two: rehearsing that chorus regularly and A Place To Go. Those things didn't make time go any faster but they made it fuller.

Maybe I'll volunteer to do some stuff to return this country to sanity, like working for the Edwards campaign or helping the Democratic Party. Maybe they could use my writing skills in some form--I don't want to lick envelopes and sure as hell will not make cold calls.

Something like that would not only pass Time, which I don't really need, but it may help those of us who view society as Us, not Screw-You-Jack-I-Got-Mine--the Weltanschauung of the Neo-Cons and the party that gave us the Great Depression, the Demise of the Middle Class, the Destruction of Labor, the Highest National Debt in the History of the Planet, and George (frat twit) Bush.

Among other things.

To quote Reagan: There he goes again.


Gonna talk to Erin and Ethan now. Stay tuned. And comment, will ya?

There. Like that? Hope my two fans do.