Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Book year in review

 I set a new record for books read this past year (60) thanks in large part to nothing better to do. 

It's not something I'm bragging about as much as it's a nice benchmark for years to come and showed me it is possible to adjust my schedule and read at various times of the day rather than just before bed. There are so many books I'd like to read and if I can do a book a week for 10 years, that's over 500 books (according to my Canton High math). That goes a long way toward finishing off the Koontz, Block and Westlake catalogs that I'd like to do.

According to the Haugenometer that ranks books on a 1-10 scale (unlike everybody else's 5-point scale), I had no books hit the 9 mark. I did however have ten hit the 8 mark.

Among them, for book of the year winner I'm going with "When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes" by Lawrence Block. It was the year of Block for me, reading about twenty of his novels, so that's only appropriate.

I sprinkled some nonfiction in this year, including biographies on Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Einstein; also a book on Adolf Eichmann and a book of collected columns by Charles Krauthammer.

All in all, if 2020 was a good year to escape from, I did my best.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Christmas presents, whether they like it or not

 Now that the presents have been opened I can announce The Big Reveal - the books I carefully researched and curated for purchase for my kids and their significant others.

It's a tradition appreciated by some (my daughters) more than others (my son). He'd prefer a box of ammo, but as we say in this house: "You git what you git, so don't have a fit."

For my political daughter I gave political commentator Candace Owens' book: "Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation."

She contends that the Democrat Party has a long history of racism and exposes the ideals that hinder the black community’s ability to rise above poverty, live independent and successful lives, and be an active part of the American Dream. Instead, Owens offers up a different ideology by issuing a challenge: It’s time for a major black exodus. From dependency, from victimhood, from miseducation—and the Democrat Party, which perpetuates all three.

To her boyfriend: Hampson Sides' "Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West."

At the center of this sweeping tale is Kit Carson, the trapper, scout, and soldier whose adventures made him a legend. Sides shows us how this illiterate mountain man understood and respected the Western tribes better than any other American, yet willingly followed orders that would ultimately devastate the Navajo nation. Rich in detail and spanning more than three decades, this is an essential addition to our understanding of how the West was really won.

To my science teacher daughter, who is more of a fiction reader: Oyinkan Braithwaite's "My Sister the Serial Killer."

Korede is bitter. How could she not be? Her sister, Ayoola, is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola's third boyfriend in a row is dead. Korede's practicality is the sisters' saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her "missing" boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit.

For her husband, whose read about 200 books toward his PhD this past year or so, I gave a break. I can't interrupt his studies for some lame book on Aaron Rodgers. So I gave him a t-shirt that says: "I like big books, I cannot lie."

To my son, who fancies himself a chess player and more fancifully enjoys beating his dad at it, I gave: Walter Tevis' "The Queen's Gambit." Now, more than likely, he's going to watch the Netflix miniseries based on the book instead and tell me he read it. But that's something he'll have to live with on his conscience and admit to during his next confession or polygraph.

Eight year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is, until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she’s competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as Beth hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.

For his fiance, I gave two books, because she's my favorite. While they were hunkered down with us for a couple months during the Wuhu shutdown, she knocked off about 20 of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series when she needed a non-thinking break from her epidemiology textbooks. So I gave her the 27th book in that series: Fortune and Glory. Hopefully it eases Kayla's pain in not knowing if Stephanie ends up with Ranger or Morelli.

When Stephanie’s beloved Grandma Mazur's new husband died on their wedding night, the only thing he left her was a beat-up old easy chair…and the keys to a life-changing fortune. But as Stephanie and Grandma Mazur search for Jimmy Rosolli’s treasure, they discover that they’re not the only ones on the hunt. Two dangerous enemies from the past stand in their way—along with a new adversary who’s even more formidable: Gabriela Rose, a dark-eyed beauty from Little Havana with a taste for designer clothes. She’s also a soldier of fortune, a gourmet cook, an expert in firearms and mixed martial arts—and someone who’s about to give Stephanie a real run for her money.

And I gave her a more topical one along her professional tastes: Kate Moore's "The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women."

The incredible true story of the women heroes who were exposed to radium in factories across the U.S. in the early 20th century, and their brave and groundbreaking battle to strengthen workers' rights, even as the fatal poison claimed their own lives.

I hope they enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy giving them. And I don't demand a book report from them (like rumor has I did of my son as a youth), but a text saying "I read the book" is always appreciated it.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Bernie-isms from LB's Burglar books

 There are 11 books in Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series. I finished them all, nine of them in the last two months. They all have the same premise: Bernie the burglar breaks into a place to steal something, runs across a dead body he had nothing to do with, gets arrested for the murder by a cop who knows he didn't do it, then must solve the crime to save his rear end and the theft gets overlooked as long as he shares the proceeds with the cop.

They're predictable, but funny and clever. Sometimes overly clever. But the witty banter and one-liners throughout the books kept me coming back.

Here's a sampling:

The Burglar in the Closet

Describing a cop: "He had bigger shoulders than most people, and very widely spaced eyes, as if while in the womb he'd toyed with the idea of becoming Siamese twins and decided against it at the last minute."

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling

"When you don't know what you're looking for you have a great advantage, because you don't know what you'll find."

On a middle-class neighborhood: "Three out of four houses there contain at least one woman who plays mah-jongg when she's not at a Weight Watchers meeting."

On his friend, a dog-groomer: "She stands five-one in high heels and never wears them, and she's built like a fire hydrant, which is dangerous in her line of work."

"He wore a khaki army shirt, unbuttoned, and beneath it his T-shirt advertised the year's fashionable beer, a South Dakota brand reputedly brewed with organic water."

When a man says: "Ask me anything." He responds: "What's the capital of South Dakota?"

The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza

Bernie's friend Carolyn: "I can resist anything but temptation."

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian

Carolyn on her looming hangover: "Bernie, I got news for you. I'm not gonna be clearheaded in the morning. I'm gonna have a head like a soccer ball that Pele got pissed at."

The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams

Bernie after he quit jogging: "I still wear running shoes - they work just as well at low speeds."

The Burglar In The Library

A murder suspect: "I don't know who picked you to be the head wallaby in this kangaroo court."

The Burglar In The Rye

A suspect: "He was a hall monitor his junior year, did you know that? He was in the Latin Honor Society, he played trombone in the school band. Did you know that?"

Bernie: "I know the capital of South Dakota."

"That's neither here nor there."

Bernie: "It's not here, but I'm pretty sure it's there."

The Burglar On The Prowl

"I don't play cards with men named Doc or eat at places called Mom's."

"The windows on all four floors were darker than a burglar's conscience."

"If there's a way to avoid shaking a hand that's thrust at me, I've yet to figure it out, and I always wind up taking the proffered hand before I have time to wonder whether or not it's something I really want to do."

Carolyn: "Bern who has one drink? It's like one pant or one scissor. They come in pairs. Nobody has just one drink."

The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons

Carolyn: "You've got an alibi but you want to keep it to yourself, and how can it do you any good that way? What is she, Bernie, married? Are you droppin' your load in some other man's Maytag?"

Friday, December 18, 2020

Bags Morton addictions begin at Smashwords - FREE

 The e-book-selling website kicks off its holiday sale today. It's an opportunity for authors to offer their wares at a reduced price. And, man, I couldn't have reduced mine any more without having to pay you to read them. I haven't gotten that desperate for readers yet.

While I first offer my books at Amazon, because that's where something like 75 percent of e-books are purchased, I eventually (after the contract allows) slide all my e-books over to Smashwords. I sell vastly more books on Smashwords than Amazon, which seems odd. But it's probably because that's where I started with my first book. It's where I have my most loyal following, if you'd call it a following. (It's somewhere between David Koresh and Jim Jones.)

And they do a better job of promoting independent authors. Amazon sticks to promoting Koontz and Patterson; and the Haugens of the world are dismissed as mostly an annoyance. 

Smashwords also treats the authors better. For a 2 dollar book, Smashwords keeps about 40 cents, with the rest going to the author. Amazon is about opposite that. So I remain loyal to Smashwords and have sold over 1,200 books there and given away about 5,000 free downloads. Not enough to let me quit my day job but enough to feel appreciated. And you can get them in about all formats, not just for Kindle.

On top of all that craziness, this week I made the second Bags Morton book available on Smashwords. So you can "buy" the first one of the series, Bags of Bodies, and "buy" the second one, Bags of Rock, for the same price. All free! 

So you might be asking yourself: "Self, has Haugen lost his damn mind?" Maybe so. But I'm about gaining readers, not Benjamins. And there's always the possibility that the third and fourth books of the Bags Morton series will come out in 2021, and you'll be hooked on the Bags books like meth and need to buy more. That's when I'll jack the price up to an entire $1.99 and will be rolling in greenbacks in my bed, laughing like Elon Musk must do every night. Bags, like love, is a drug and you'll be hooked on him and I'll be rich. It's a win-win for everyone.

And they thought I was crazy. Pffft.

All you need to do to begin this addiction is to go HERE and sign up if you haven't already. Download the books with the code, LR74Y, and let the hallucinations begin.

But seriously, kids, don't do drugs, unless they're books. Then do lots of them.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Finished: Block's 'Resume Speed'

 My year of Lawrence Block continued as I finished his novella "Resume Speed." It's a prime example of why you shouldn't avoid novellas. Just because they're short (this one about 100 pages) doesn't mean they can't be quality reads.

This character-driven book follows Bill as he, again, arrives as a drifter in a small town in Montana. Gets a job, meets girl, falls in love with girl, all is good. Or so you'd think.

As many of Block's books do, it features a man with a drinking problem. There are lessons to be learned in the book and questions you will be asking yourself when you finish. What more can you want in a book?

Block is an expert at putting the reader in the mind of the character and how even the small things in his life combine to bring him to a fullness even in a hundred pages. I enjoyed it.

I gave it a 6+ on the 10-point Haugenometer. Goodreaders gave it a 3.8 of 5 and Amazonians a 4.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The annual Haugen Holiday communication

 It's time for the annual Haugen holiday newsletter where I could lie to you about what a wonderful year it's been in our household, where it was all rainbows and unicorns and the dogs pooped cotton candy.

Or it could go like this:

My truck got wrecked but is still drive-able. Both cars sustained several thousands of dollars in hail damage. Four hailstorms messed with the house and garden. I met a couple nice highway patrolmen. 

Nancy and I managed a trip to Florida just before the virus hit and we sneaked away to D.C. to visit Junior a couple months ago. I also made a solo run down to Missouri for a quick visit to my mom's. Otherwise we mostly sat around the house and stared at each other. I got the better end of that deal. We had a houseful for a couple months as kids with Covid-affected jobs found their way home and hung out. We enjoyed that.

I'm winding up my sixteenth year with the senator, about ten years longer than any previous job I had. The Rona played some games with our office but we didn't miss a day serving the fine citizens of West River. My life, to this point, was otherwise mostly unaffected by the plague. I still run, but shorter distances and slower, as my back dictates. The garden sucked this year, as previously outlined in this fine blog. I managed to pop a couple pheasants, wrote a couple books (still awaiting editing by my stellar but underpaid proofreaders) and read a lot. Surprised, with all that, I don't have my own reality TV show.

Nancy's father passed away in February. It was tough, but everybody was able to say their "good-byes" before he died, so that helped. She continues to enjoy her job as chiropractic assistant. She helps a lot of patients and kills a lot of office plants (which is better than the other way around), and has turned into an exercise machine with the gym being next door to her work. She still orders me around a lot, but I'm use to it (and probably need it). She hikes every weekend to find her Zen. Still manages to fit in several trips to "Walgreens" with our eldest daughter.

Speaking of the kids ...

Katie Jo continues to be her usual remarkable self. She's still West River Director for our U.S. Congressman. She also served as his campaign manager. After consulting with a renowned South Dakota historian, I determined she is only the second female campaign manager for a victorious House/Senate candidate in South Dakota history. She continues to see her miner guy from Keystone (not "minor" but "miner" - spelling matters).

Rylee (or Mrs. Kasty, as her students call her) is still enlightening young skulls full of mush in Champaign, Illinois. She added "cross country coach" to her resume this year and had a great first season. She especially enjoyed that she was able to be with some students in person rather than via Zoom. Her best friend from high school moved to Champaign, so that's been fun for her. Her doctoral-student husband Stetson added "professor" to his resume as he taught some freshman classes at the U of I. Their cat is still alive and so are their Packers, but nobody's perfect.

Luke had an eventful year getting tased, pepper sprayed and racing cars at the police academy before making a difficult choice to accept a counter-intelligence position with a defense contractor in northern Virginia. I'd tell you more about it if I understood it but then he'd have to kill me. He seems to have found his niche there. He also "put a ring on it" as Beyonce urged him to do. "It" being a she - college girlfriend Kayla Erickson. A super young lady who fits perfectly in the fam. No wedding plans yet as Covid and the Catholic church haven't got their act together yet.

Stanley turned 11 this month, has slowed down, but still jogs with me and did a great job on our couple pheasant hunts. I fear the next year won't be kind to him (and thus me) but we'll be best buds to the end.

Huckleberry continues to be the ornriest goofball in the family (and that's saying something). His best bud is Nancy - kind of a birds of a feather thing, I suspect.

We consider ourselves blessed to have been healthy this year and don't take it for granted knowing the heartache a lot of people encountered. We also didn't get looted and resisted the urge to do any looting of our own, so we got that going for us. 

Here's hoping your 2021 is spectacular and makes up for whatever 2020 threw at you. Remember (and I just came up with this original saying off the top of my head; think it's kind of catchy): "We're all in this together!" Unless you live more than twenty miles from me; then you're on your own. Good luck.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The Haugens

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Finished: Westlake's "Ordo" and "A Travesty"

 These two novellas by Donald Westlake were first published back in the 1970s but recently republished by Hard Case Crime, an outfit that specializes in the works of crime noir authors, under the title "Double Feature."

It's typical Westlake stuff - meaning they are both excellent. Westlake is unique among writers because you never know what you're going to get from him. There's no set formula. The settings vary from New York to Hollywood. The only thing you know is that they will be clever, without being overly so. He doesn't plop something into the last chapter out of the blue to make things come together. Yet, you never quite see it coming. He writes comedies, soft core erotica, murder mysteries and bungling burglers (ie Dortmunder). All you need to know is if the book is written by Westlake (or any of his plethora of pen names) it will be good.

As Stephen King said: "A book by this guy is cause for happiness."

"A Travesty" was eventually turned into a TV movie starring William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman. It starts with a movie critic who accidentally murders his girlfriend and follows his trail as the detective assigned to the case befriends him. The detective finds that the critic has a knack for solving other murder cases and calls on him often. Eventually, stuff happens as their lives (and the detective's wife) intertwine to bring about the conclusion. I consider it a dark comedy and gave it an 8 on the Haugenometer.

"Ordo" follows a Navy sailor who discovers many years later that his first wife (who was 16 but told him she was 19) has become ... oh, I can't tell you because that's the first surprise in the book and a good one. This is more of a think-piece, not a murder mystery or anything. Just a story full of surprises. I loved it. Gave it an 8-.

Again, I implore you, if you are a fan of fiction or mysteries, don't discount these books because they were written 40 years ago. Westlake is one of the all-time greats and you're missing out if you don't give him a try. You'll be hooked. 

The other great thing is that unlike a John Sandford or Lee Childs or Ted Bell, you don't have to wait around a year for his next book to come out. I've read about 30 by Westlake, and the best news is that I've got another 85 to go. My only fear is I won't live long enough to read them all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Finished Jimmy Stewart bio

 Needed a quick break from Lawrence Block's "Burglar" books so knocked off a biography of Jimmy Stewart by Michael Munn.

As opposed to the John Wayne bio, I haven't seen as many Stewart movies, so Munn's dives into the making of them didn't interest me too much. But I came away from the book feeling like Stewart had lived a gloomy life, when in reality he hadn't. He came across as very introspective and a worrier. Maybe it was just the end of his life that made me feel that way, as he spent it largely as a recluse, with his wife, parents and many friends having passed away.

I was surprised to learn what a horn-dog Stewart was in his single days. He and his best friend, Henry Fonda, roomed together and bedded most of the leading ladies of that time. Despite that, due to their close friendship, rumors abounded that the two were gay. Both denied it and it really bothered Stewart.

Stewart was a war hero. He was also a rat for J. Edgar Hoover as they tried to out commies and the mob from within Hollywood. It seemed to conflict Stewart who was remiss to turn in any of his friends. Most of it was for naught, as the mob had the goods on Hoover, thus he pursued very few of them in court. So Stewart's efforts, and his worry, were mostly wasted.

It was a good read if you're a fan of Turner Classic Movies and that era of film-making. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Not a fan of Dolly's music; but big fan of Dolly

 Dolly Parton seems to be one of the few celebrities who has used her fame and money (lots of it) to influence society without alienating her fans nor offending half the population.

In addition to the millions of books she's given away to children, she also played a tremendously important role in the development of a COVID vaccine (words I never thought I'd write). To my knowledge I've never heard her tell people who to vote for, tell us us which lives matter, nor which guns we should or shouldn't be allowed to own. She's just performed her craft, kept a smile on her face, and used many millions of dollars of her income to make people's lives better.

I'm probably one of the few who is not a big fan of her music. Her voice grates on me a bit. In her duets and ensembles with other stars her voice dominates rather than enhances. But, I think she's a fabulous person and a great example for other famous rich people to follow. 

Sure, anyone is allowed to voice their opinion, kneel, raise a fist or wear socks with cops dressed as pigs. But they shouldn't whine or act shocked when criticism comes from doing that. Maybe, just maybe, there are better ways to do good, to make a difference, without losing fans, endorsements and even your job. Dolly has pointed the way.

I'm a Kid Rock fan. Not because of his MAGA, Confederate flag waving ways. I was a fan before MAGA and before the Confederate flag became the racist symbol some think it now is. I liked his energy, his music and his concerts. I'm still a fan despite his new shtick. I'm guessing he'd have more fans without it but is probably at a point in his career where he doesn't need them. 

I was a fan of David Letterman before he became political. And I didn't quit his comedy because he became political, but because he became one-sidedly political. I'm a fan of Chris Rock and David Chapelle because they are funny and aren't afraid to skew both sides and the middle. 

Taylor Swift and Kanye West have become political on opposite sides of the spectrum. I don't care because neither one has ever struck me as particularly intelligent or somebody I'd listen to on any subject. It doesn't seem wise for either one as far as branding, marketing or growing their base of fans. But that's their choice. Again, notice, they did this once they became established, not when it actually could have hurt their careers in their infancy. They aren't brave for doing it now; it actually show-cases their cowardice for not doing it earlier.

While there are other athletes and performers who do good without getting political, Nelson Cruz of the Minnesota Twins is one such individual who comes to mind, so many of the ones who spout off their opinions are no wiser than any other man on the street. And their opinions shouldn't be given any more credence than them.

Just do good, lead by example and people will notice - eventually. 

Along those lines but on a different note: We've had all the sports leagues and numerous athletes engaged on the matter of race in America - particularly black athletes, particularly when it comes to concerns about law enforcement. Most of it is symbolic, messages in the end zone, messages on jerseys, taking a knee, etc. Yet there's been very little talk of substantive matters they could take. Again, things that matter, like Dolly has done.

I propose to those athletes a couple things they could do that might actually have an impact:

- Go speak at police academies going on now. Those recruits will be patrolling the streets soon. Tell what it's like to be a black person in America, your fears, what makes you uncomfortable, what makes one disobey an officer's orders, what officers can do better to bridge the divide.

- Go on a ride-along with an officer. Don't go for a 1-hour photo-op at 10 a.m. Ride along on a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift. See what those officers encounter every night, perhaps get an understanding of why they may get jittery and make incorrect split-second decisions. Talk with them. Understanding is a two-way street. After doing a few ride-alongs, maybe players will have a new perspective or new ideas on how officers could approach things differently. Then use your powerful podium to talk about those ideas, with validity and experience now guiding your opinions.

- Use your voice to talk to the youth (of all races). Talk about getting an education, respecting other people. Talk to them about getting involved, going to city council meetings, school board meetings, becoming knowledgeable and perhaps running for office themselves someday. Encourage them to use their voices rather than their drop-kicks or throwing bricks. Talk to them about listening to the cops' directions - don't give cops a reason to suspect the worst of your intentions. Maybe you'll save a life.

- Use your voice to talk to the adults (of all races). Encourage fathers to raise their sons. Encourage people to stay off drugs and alcohol or to get help if needed. To be there for their children. To know their kids' friends and their parents. To know where they are and what they're doing. Take active roles in their lives. Keep them off the streets at night.

- Arrange visits with the decision makers - governors, mayors, police chiefs. Explain to them your concerns and what you've learned. 

- Encourage people to let the facts play out before they take actions that could have dire consequences on them or others. Sometimes, eventually, we find the cops acted justly, other times unjustly. Then use your voices for justice for whatever side was correct. When we blindly assume cops are racists or criminals, we're no better than the bad cops who blindly assume a black kid is criminal. People will notice when you are fair to both sides and your words will have more meaning and validity.

Or, just put a message on your shoes to make it look like you care and made a difference when you actually were just doing it because it was the cool thing to do.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The 2020 garden postmortem

 Per usual I planted my tomato seeds just before St. Patrick's Day, and then all hell broke loose.

The garden was unharmed by the Wuhu Flu, as near as I could tell, but it just as well could have been. It was definitely a down year, maybe the worst since moving here 15 years ago.

It endured three minor hailstorms but then got walloped good by the fourth. A good start on the zucchini season was wiped out as most of the foliage was stripped. The cucumbers bounced back okay, as did the green and hot peppers. Though both would've done better without.

The hail certainly didn't help the tomatoes, lots of broken stems and fruits knocked off; but mostly they suffered from a lack of rain. I maintain you can water to your heart's content, but tomatoes need the nutrients from the sky to really have a banner year. The best tomatoes I had were in containers on my deck that were best protected from the hail.

Then there were the rabbits. They bred like, well, rabbits last spring and held family reunions every weekend in my back yard. My garden is fenced in, but the fencing is 12-15 years old, so they squeezed through and under every nook and cranny they could find to mow down my snow peas and beans and lettuce and kale. I got nothing from those crops. I even had fences within fences and they found a way.

It got so bad the dozen deer who traipse through my yard every night didn't even bother joining in the fray.

The dogs did a number on one rabbit nest - inside my garden! It was like a scene from a horror movie with the mayhem and screaming as the baby rabbits met their demise. It was so bad, I actually helped a couple escape out the fence. Don't ask me why. Guess I'm an old softy.

So this fall I tore out the 200 feet of fence and plan to install three-foot-high rabbit fencing this spring. It's not as tall as the current fence, but I'm more concerned now about rabbits than deer. And, besides, the deer could jump over the four-foot fence when they desired. They just seldom desire. My new neighbor planted forty unprotected 2-to-4-foot-tall Ponderosa pine this fall, so I'm guessing those will keep the deer busy for a while.

I ended up drying plenty of herbs - basil, thyme and oregano - as well as plenty of hot peppers. So that wasn't a total loss.

All in all, it was a lot of work for not much fruits of my labor (canned maybe 30 pints of tomatoes compared to the usual 70). But there's always next year! 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Notes, quotes & antecdotes

** I hit the 50-books-read mark for the year last week. That's way more than the usual 30 or so I read annually. Appears I'll hit the book-a-week mark for 2020. A silver lining of the Wuhu Flu. And, did you know, 2020, of course, technically has 53 weeks? 

** Pictured is my desk and one wall of my office/greenhouse/aquarium room. My refuge.

** My sister texted me the other day and said a person near her in Milbank was selling 25 C.J. Box books for $25. Wondered if I wanted them. I've heard good things about Box but haven't read any. So I told her to buy the Box box. Hope I like them or they'll just take up space I don't have on my bookshelves. Stay tuned.

** Don't dawdle if you're buying books for friends and family this Christmas. Amazon, even with Prime, is getting slower in its old age. I've found much faster results with Ebay. Seems the independent bookstores and private sellers care a little more about customer service.

** Speaking of customer service, I tend to gripe about bad service so let me point out some excellent service I had recently. I was sideswiped by a truck a couple weeks ago (in my old pickup, not the Mustang, thankfully). It was his fault so I had to go through his insurance - Progressive. It was the slickest thing ever. They emailed me a link to an app. I took pictures of the damage with my phone and uploaded them. They called back a couple days later and said they were going to total it. Gave me two options: for them to buy it or give me a check to repair what I wanted. Then they just needed a few more pictures inside and out to get an idea of the overall condition of the vehicle. I had a check deposited within two weeks. 

Along the repair lines, the guys at AB Auto body and A-1 Auto Recyclers were remarkable in their service and putting up with my dumb questions.

Even the cable guy with Midco was great this week. Said he'd be at the house at 9:30. Pulled in the driveway at 9:28. Fixed the cable, answered a few other dumb tech questions I had and was very friendly. 

** I need to pick it up on the book-buying front. I usually get the kids and their significant others a book for Christmas. So far I have two of the six done. It's a little more difficult when I try to tailor the choices to their interests.

** One of those six is my son-in-law who is getting his PhD in history, with emphasis on Native American history, from the University of Illinois. Last summer he was given a list of 150 books he needed to read by yesterday. Today he will be tested on them. Gets the essay test emailed to him at 8:30 a.m. and needs to return it by 4:30. Then he will get another list of 150 for the next go-round. So try picking a book for that kid for Christmas!

** How about that election, huh? I'll go out on a limb and say nobody could guess how I filled out my ballot. It was about the most eclectic one I've ever filled out. Not even sure I could repeat it if I went back in today. I am noticing a lack of #resist and #notmypresident hashtags on Twitter now. Seems #coexist is back in vogue. Funny how that works.

** Seeing a lot of people leaving or threatening to leave Facebook and Twitter because of censorship of the news. I know it's a new world out there and a lot of people get their news on social media. If you're getting your news from Facebook, I think you're making a mistake. Mostly, I'm just on there to sell books and see dog and garden photos, first-day of school pics and photos of my friends' travels. I like my friends, but I don't trust their news judgement. 

For news, I go to a wide variety of sources, none of them Facebook. If the site wants to censor news, it seems a poor business model, but it doesn't affect me. Try reading several news sources, including ones you perceive as having a different political bent from yours, and you might find the truth lies somewhere in the middle. At least you can make up your own mind rather than having it made for you.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

So, yeah, I talked with Lawrence Block!

 I'm not a hero worshiper or deluded by somebody's celebrity status. I don't look to them for advice on my personal life, not even which shoes to wear. Mostly, I do what I want, think with my own brain, wear what I want. Thus I have nobody else to blame for me except me.

I do have people whose skills I admire. Mostly it's people who do things I can't do. Watching a guy run a sub 4-minute mile or with mad skills on the guitar. Great speakers, super intelligent people, craftsmen, etc. I can build a rabbit hutch; but I cannot build a roll-top desk with tiny drawers, intricate etchings and hidden compartments, like the one I have built by my great-uncle Oscar.

You know I am a big fan of Prince. He was a genius beyond just the range of his voice, the ability to expertly play several instruments, but also in his marketing ability and foresight.

In the literary world, my Princes are Mark Twain, Dean Koontz and Lawrence Block. I can write a book; but I can't write a book with the imagination, plot twists and skills of those authors. I'm in awe of them.

So it was with great glee and surprise last night when I had a brief Twitter exchange with Lawrence Block. My wife compared it to Sheldon Cooper playing Words With Friends with his hero Stephen Hawking.

It was a book nerd chatting with his favorite book nerd.

As I've blogged about before, I've noticed that Lawrence (I call him that now) dropped obscure references to South Dakota. Last night while reading one of his "Burglar" books there was another reference to Sioux Falls. On a whim, I decided to check to see if he was on Twitter. I receive his email newsletter, so knew the 82-year-old was at least familiar with some aspect of social media. And, lo and behold, he is, so I followed him and sent him a message, never expecting a response.

I wrote to the longtime New York City resident: "Sir, I've read about 45 of your books and have noticed in several you make passing reference to South Dakota or places in SD. Seldom notice other state's reference. Did you visit or have some other connection? Full disclosure, I'm a 5th-generation SD."

Five minutes later, he responded: "Been there a few times. Ran a 10k in Clark in 1981, a marathon near Rapid City in 2005 or thereabouts. Been to the Corn Palace twice, ditto Rushmore and Crazy Horse. The Badlands. Brookings, twice, and I'd like to get back for another look at the Harvey Dunns. So yeah, I like SD."

That conjured so many questions in my head. First of which: Why the heck were you in Clark? I don't think I've even been there. But I didn't want to be an annoying Sheldon with twenty questions. So I settled for one response.

I wrote back: "Was a kick to see us mentioned. You and Donald Westlake got me through a lot of cold winters. I live about 20 miles from Mt. Rushmore. Thanks for all the great books. Also, I ran the Deadwood Marathon a few years before you. Guess that's the one you ran."

He replied: "Yes! Couldn't remember the name. Point to point, and I think a net downhill."

I'm still feeling a little giddy about corresponding with him in ways most people wouldn't understand. I also feel a little guilty feeling so good about it. Maybe I am a hero worshiper now - of one guy anyway - who took five minutes of his remarkable life to make me feel really good.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Finished: Chris Bohjalian's 'The Double Bind'

 This was a book that's hard to write about without giving away spoilers. It was a bit of a slow read at times but kept me going to see how it ended.

When it did end, particularly the last two pages, I sat stunned and had to ponder things a bit to bring it all together in my head. Then, when I thought I had it all put together, I went to Goodreads to read the reviews and see if I really did have it figured out. I did. 

I saw something coming, but the twist was about five times twistier than I foresaw. It was good, clever, but many of the reviews were scathing. Some people just downright hated it. They were some of the most gruesome reviews I've ever seen. But others loved it. I figure that's a good sign that the author took some risks. When you do that, it's sink or swim with some readers.

A particular one-star review made me laugh:

So I am left wondering: Why is this book all over the front door displays at Barnes & Noble? Probably b/c they are trying to get rid of it.

I gave it a 7+ out of 10 on the Haugenometer. Goodreaders gave it a 3.8 on their 5-point scale, so about on par with me.

Here's a portion of the Goodreads synopsis:

In Chris Bohjalian's astonishing novel, nothing is what it at first seems. Not the bucolic Vermont back roads college sophomore Laurel Estabrook likes to bike. Not the savage assault she suffers toward the end of one of her rides. And certainly not Bobbie Crocker, the elderly man with a history of mental illness whom Laurel comes to know through her work at a Burlington homeless shelter in the years subsequent to the attack.

Bohjalian is the author of "The Flight Attendant," which I really enjoyed. It's been made into a movie coming to HBO starring Kaley Cuoco of "Big Bang Theory" fame. She seems like a good pick for that part, a slutty, alcoholic, flight attendant.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Burglar on the shelf

 After I finish reading Chris Bohjalian's "The Double Blind," I'm going to knock off some burglaries.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Novel notes

 I recently finished Robert Crais' "The Two Minute Rule." It was okay, but not a knockout.

I've read a couple others by Crais and they're kind of in the same boat, okay but nothing to write home about. He's most famous for his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series. This was not one of those. 

The two minute rule refers to the amount of time bank robbers believe they have inside a bank before the coppers arrive. In this one, the main character is recently released from prison (for bank robbery) and on the day of his release learns that his police officer son (who he's never met) was murdered. So he goes about trying to find the killer amid speculation that his kid was a dirty cop. So he wants to find the killer and hopefully clear his son's name to disprove the adage: Like father, like son.

I gave it a 7 on the Haugenometer.

Previously, I read a John Wayne bio. It was good enough that I bought the Jimmy Stewart bio written by the same author Michael Munn. As mentioned before, I don't rate biographies or historical books because they're basically glorified term papers. Congrats on the research skills, but little in regard to imagination.

And before that I read "Devoted" by Dean Koontz. If you like dogs, and I do, you'll like this one. I gave it an 8.

Now I've moved on to a collection of Lawrence Block short stories about my favorite assassin Keller.

I also compiled my Christmas list, if anybody is interested. It's quite the month as four of my favorite authors have new releases in October: Koontz, John Sandford, Lee Child (with brother) and Ted Bell.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Living with your mistakes

 My wife’s most-repeated line to our kids was/is: “Make good choices.”

I wish somebody had told me that when I decided to become a Minnesota Vikings fan. Trouble is I don’t know that I ever made that conscious decision and don’t know how it happened. I’m guessing I started young, well before I had a fully developed brain; because I never would’ve chosen them now.

 I was born into a mixed marriage – my dad a Bears fan and my mom a Vikings fan. There wasn’t any peer pressure either way. I’m guessing I was just like any other son and naturally went with my mom to antagonize my dad.

It could’ve been also because the Vikings games were always televised locally, so I watched them most. We went to Mankato to see their training camp a few times. Or maybe it's because of my Norwegian heritage and it was just a genetic thing.

But here I am 50 years later, having suffered through Drew Pearson pushing off, Super Bowl losses, more crucial missed field goals than a person should endure, and just flat-out chokes and awful performances. The thing is, I don’t know why I even care. It’s so stupid. Yet I do. 

I’ll probably never see a Vikings Super Bowl title. I’m resigned to that. The only thing I could do is to renounce them and declare my allegiance to another team. Then, you know they’d win the Super Bowl the next year. I should do that for all other Viking fans. Take one for the team. But I’m not a band-wagoner.

I’m going to sit on my recliner every Sunday for three hours, enjoy a Minneapolis Miracle type moment every decade or so, but mostly just take my shots like all those bum heavyweights who got thrown in against Muhammad Ali at the end of his career. Thank you, sir, may I have another?

Maybe it’ll count towards the boatload of time I’ve built up in Purgatory. Hello, Satan, I’m a Vikings fan. “Jeesh, buddy, sorry we can’t keep ya now.”

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Some notes, quotes and anecdotes:

*** Wifey and I are watching the Netflix series "Fauda." It's very good - kind of an Israeli "24." Fauda, which means "chaos" in Arabic, was developed by Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz, based on their real-life experiences in the Israel Defense Forces.

A friend of mine originally from Jordan told me it was unfortunately very realistic. So as the first season was winding down (there are 3) I texted him a question regarding a plot twist between two of the Palestinian characters: "Do cousins marry cousins often in the Arab world or is it just in this show?"

He replied with his usual wisdom and wit: "They do. The religion discourages the practice, but the culture embraces it. Two of my sisters are married to their first cousins. I am not."

He's married to a blonde from Nebraska.

*** I don’t know if you read Jason Whitlock or not, but he’s always instigating something and is often awesome. Column today on The Black Trump rips into LeBron James: 

*** Writer Joseph Epstein has a fun essay about fame. Do I have it? Do I need it?

He says:

I also like to think I have passed beyond the fantasy stage in regard to my own writing. When I publish a book, I hope it will sell enough copies to repay my publisher and please my modest number of regular readers (7–8,000 or so). I am pleased by enthusiastic reviews but no longer crushed (ticked maybe, but not crushed) by damning ones. I have ceased accepting occasional offers to do interviews or appear on talk-radio shows. As for offers to give lectures, I set a high fee ($10,000) and write to the people, not all that many, who have made the offer that they are not to worry if they cannot meet it, for I have heard these talks myself and assure them they are worth nowhere near $10,000.

*** Jay Nordlinger writes about Irina Slavina, a Russian journalist. It reminds me of Ace of Spades who, commenting on some journalists self-aggrandizement, wrote something like: "Journalists like to compare themselves to brave firefighters, but you never hear brave firefighters comparing themselves to journalists."

Slavina had written on social media on Thursday that police and federal guards burst into her flat in an early morning raid. She said they were searching for evidence of links to Open Russia, an opposition movement funded by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky that has been ruled undesirable by the authorities, amid allegations that it funded protests in the city.

“I don’t have anything,” said the journalist, adding that police confiscated her notebooks and computer as well as laptops and phones belonging to her and her husband and daughter.

“I have no means of production,” she said.

She set herself on fire in front of police headquarters.

It’s easy to judge such a person, negatively, but most of us have no idea what it’s like to be in her shoes. You may remember what Mohamed Bouazizi said, before setting himself on fire. (He was the fruit vendor in Tunisia, whose death in 2011 set off the Arab Spring.) “How do you expect me to make a living?”

When I hear about people such as Irina Slavina, I also think, “What do we journalists risk here in the Free World? Mean tweets? Nasty ‘comments’? Maybe we don’t get that cable ‘hit’ at 3:11 in the afternoon?” We are so very lucky.

*** This is a very interesting article at RealClearEducation: The Awful Economic Impact of School Closings

The average U.S. K-12 student affected by COVID-19 school closures has a learning loss of one-third to over half a year of schooling. Assuming a one-third year learning loss, the report authors estimate that on average today’s students can expect at least 3% lower lifetime earnings. Longer learning loss makes matters worse. The situation is more severe for students from disadvantaged households.   

*** This writer reviews Joseph Bottum's book "The Decline of the Novel."

O Novel, Where Art Thou?

Friday, October 9, 2020

A couple pet peeves

 One of the things that bothers me about baseball announcers is the same thing that bothers me about political pundits.

For the most part, between every pitch, announcers argue over and try to predict what kind of pitch the pitcher will throw next. "He could go high and inside with a fastball or he could go down and away with a slider. I'd go with the slider." The pitcher throws a curveball. And so it goes 200 times a game. 

I know they feel they have to fill the void between between pitches with noise. They are paid to talk, after all. But it gets old. All they have to do is wait 20 seconds and we'll see what kind of pitch it is. I get doing it once in a while in high-intensity moments, but not all game long. So annoying.

Same with political pundits and polls. We are in the thick of it now. The NBC poll says this, the Marist poll that, the Rasmussen poll says otherwise. And they argue about the make-up of the polls, registered voters or likely voters, plus and minus advantages between political parties, and expectations of how many from various groups will vote. 

Other than to the candidates' campaigns (who have their own polls anyway), as they develop messaging and where to target spending, it doesn't matter. It's just hot air. Because, you know what? In a month we'll know the answer. We'll know who was right, who was wrong.

I get it. Politics is like sports to me too. I like watching the strategies employed. Oftentimes have a preferred team and sometimes not. But this poll thing gets beat to death. Give it a break.

Patience is not an American virtue. But if we wait long enough, we'll have our answers.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

If I write a blog post and then don't hit the "publish" button, is that still blogging?

No, it's not, but I do it a lot. The draft folder is filled with things I wrote but ultimately decided didn't fit the brand of this blog. The brand, loosely determined, is novels I'm reading, novels I'm writing, books in general, and some fluffy personal stuff like dogs, gardening and the wife, to show I'm not a total grumpy recluse. I dabble in a couple other things and have slipped in a political comment or two, but generally try to stay away from that stuff in today's era where many people don't want to read nuance or gray areas. Everything is black and white, Trump or Never Trump, and anything political I write, which is generally done on a whim with little editing, will be taken wrong by some dunderhead looking to get their undies in a bundle.

Besides, I get all the politics I need from my day job, so this is where I try to write about the other stuff in my life. Still, after writing weekly newspaper columns for a couple decades I just can't resist the urge sometimes to vent. I just seldom hit the "publish" button. Someday, when I'm retired, I'll cut loose, probably in a different format or on a separate blog.

This is just a long-winded way of saying I've been blogging, sort of. You just haven't seen much of it.

I've also been reading and writing a lot, since there's not much else to do in Quarantine World.

I have another Mustang Lang novel in the works that features a cattle rancher turned zebra rancher, a murder and a couple Brazilians. But it hit a dead-end.

I have another novel in the works featuring a couple who met during visitation hours at the penitentiary, where they were each visiting their inmate fathers. But it hit a dead-end.

Then there's the one that really channels my inner pervert and features a serial rapist. But it hit a dead-end.

And there's the lady who found a bag full of money and drugs while on a jog and her travails in dealing with that. But it hit you know what.

But a dead-end doesn't mean, they're dead. It just meant I moved on to something else and will return to them when the mood hits.

When blockage does it, I seem to turn to the old faithful: Bags Morton. If you haven't read Bags of Bodies or Bags of Rock, you really should. I enjoy writing them and think you'd enjoy reading them. Since those two, I've finished first drafts of two more Bags books tentatively titled "Bags of Stone" and "Bags of Thermometers." They are fun.

When the opening line is "I walked out of the Moonshine Bar at 11 with a 9" you know you're in for a Bagsian treat. The other begins: "Nobody thinks they’re going to get bonked on the back of the head until it happens." That one draws on the current situation we are in, but with a virus of a different name.

My plan, as of now, to release them separately a few months apart as ebooks. Then, I'm hoping to put all four Bags novellas (about 20k words each) into one paperback edition, so ya'll get your money's worth buying a book. Think I'll call that one "Four Bags" - pretty clever, huh?

As for reading, I'm currently on my 42nd book of the year as I've about knocked out all of Lawrence Block's Scudder series. Hoping to average one book a week this year, far breaking my record, showing that there is a silver lining to this COVID crap.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Averting a smelly situation

 I don't write about wifey much, mostly sticking to books, dogs and things that bug me, but I should.

Here's the kind of person she is:

She knows how much I love my library/office/greenhouse/aquarium room. She's knows I love the solitude in there for one hour a night. She knows I even love the smell of it, particularly the smell of old books. If they could bottle the fragrance into a perfume and she dabbed a bit behind her ears I'd be all over her more than I already am.

As such, she's so thoughtful that even though my room is on the opposite end of the house from the kitchen, when she is frying something odoriferous like bacon or onions she will walk back to my room and close the door to keep the smell from entering. Even a good smell like bacon, you don't want your books smelling like bacon or I'd get hungry ever time I read.

Tonight, while I was out watering the garden, she made shrimp curry, very tasty but also very smelly. When I came in I looked down the hall and yes siree, she had shut the door.

What a gal. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

FInished: 'When the Sacred Ginmill Closes' with a shout-out to Sioux Falls

 Another Lawrence Block novel, and several characters in it, bites the dust.

I like all of LB's books and "When the Sacred Ginmill Closes" was among my favorites of his. This is the sixth in his Matthew Scudder series. He wrote 10 more after this one.

Scudder really hits the booze hard in this one. A funny piece of dialogue was when he and a friend, both heavy boozers, talk about how another friend is an alcoholic but they aren't.

A surprise in the book was the mention of Sioux Falls. Remember, Block is a New York guy. He's lived his life there, writes from there and most, if not all, of his books are set in NYC. So it was really odd when out of the blue, while describing the waitresses at one bar said: "Waitresses came and went. They got acting jobs or broke up with their boyfriends or got new boyfriends or moved to Los Angeles or went home to Sioux Falls or had a fight with the Dominican kid in the kitchen or got fired for stealing or quit or got pregnant."

Even more odd, this was written in 1986, before Sioux Falls was really on the map at all on the national scene, as far as I remember. So it's curious to me how he name-dropped Sioux Falls.

Oh well, we South Dakotans always seem to have a need for acknowledgement and this works. Mike Miller is from South Dakota! Tom Brokaw! I don't see a lot of other states that do this - this need for recognition - like "Hey, we exist!" But it is what it is, and Sioux Falls is in one of LB's novels. Cool.

UPDATE: So I moved on to LB's next book in the Scudder series "Out On the Cutting Edge." It's copyrighted three years later and, lo and behold, there's more references to South Dakota.

Scudder is on a case and looking for a woman and Block writes:

"Toward the end of July Hoeldtke and his wife and the youngest daughter gassed up one of the Subarus and took a trip, driving up into the Dakotas to spend a week riding horses at a ranch and seeing the Badlands and Mount Rushmore."

And later: "It was possible she'd tried to call while her parents were mounted on horses, or hiking along trails in Wind Cave National Park."

Now it doesn't seem likely that Block just picked up an Atlas and picked South Dakota out of the blue. My guess is he vacationed here in the early 1980s before he wrote and while he was writing "The Ginmill" book and it carried over into the "Edge" book. 

My guess is the New Yorker was smitten by South Dakota, and why wouldn't he be?

By the way, both books were excellent and registered 8+ on the Haugenometer.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Bears, ballots and nut-burgers

I'm not sure why, but I find this story and the response to it very funny: Animal rights group offers $5,000 reward for information on who put 'Trump 2020' sticker on a bear
Black bears will not be voting in the upcoming election, but that's not stopping one bear from unknowingly showing a little support for the incumbent president.

Help Asheville Bears (HAB), an organization in North Carolina, has put out a $5,000 reward to find the person or people responsible for putting a "Trump 2020" sticker on the tracking tag of a black bear. 
"Whoever put these political stickers on these bears is cruel and heartless," HAB wrote in a Facebook post. "HAB and our followers hope to stop and expose you.
While I generally think animal rights groups' hearts are in the right place, they're brains are a bit nutty and their anthropomorphism of animals is over the top.

So, somebody puts a four-inch sticker, not actually on the bear, but on what looks to be a 10-pound rubber tracking collar on a bear and the organization says: "Whoever put these political stickers on these bears is cruel and heartless." I doubt the bear even noticed the .002 ounce sticker, yet these people have no problem with the uncomfortable, itchy tire around his neck. And the ear piercing.

I suspect more of the issue with the sticker is who is on it. If it were a BLM sticker, you wouldn't be reading this story. It'd be a non issue. You might see some "Bears Lives Matter" memes on social media, but there'd be no out-cry and certainly no reward offered. Consistency is not a virtue of 2020.

And then: "HAB and our followers hope to stop and expose you." Yes, the serial sticker putter-onner. We must know where this person lives, where he works and get him fired or push him to suicide. Sticker-putting-onning is a gate-way crime. Next step, raping squirrels and a segment on "Dateline."

What do you think is the real motive here? Do you think they want to expose the evil sticker vandal or the evil Trump voter? What makes these people angrier, the sticker or the person on it?

And the other thing that gets me overall, is just the over-the-top hysteria and lack of relativism in many things going on today. Everything is the worst ever, everyone is a racist or Hitler or the country will never be the same. There's no context, no gray area. It's exemplified by this: "But to put a political sticker on the collar? No words can describe my anger and sadness."

You're so angry you are beyond words? Is this the angriest you've ever been? Up to now you've been angry about things and always found words for them, but this is uncharted territory? Or is your vocabulary limited and many things make you so angry you have no words for them?

I kind of figure after a couple rainfalls or dips in the creek, the old sticker is going to fade and peel off. Or while foraging through garbage cans or sticking his head in the raspberry bushes it'll scratch away. Maybe, just maybe, it's not the worst thing in the world, beyond words, certainly not worth alerting the news media to. Maybe it's no big deal, just a practical joke. Maybe Boo-Boo is a closet Trumpster and slipped it on Yogi the Biden-supporter while he was napping. Everyone knows what a jokester Boo-Boo is. Maybe don't get bent out of shape over everything?

The more important question CNN should be asking is: "Does a bear vote in the woods?"

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Newer doesn't always mean better

I've been on a Lawrence Block kick lately. Actually, as I eye-ball my bookshelves, I've been on an LB kick my entire life. Looks like he ranks as my third most-read author, behind Dean Koontz and John Sandford, with 35 titles to his name.

The three LB books I just finished come on the tail of the four Donald Westlake novels. The two were best buds and wrote a couple books together. I would've loved to have eavesdropped on their coffees together (or more likely whiskeys) as they talked books.

The ones I finished are: "The Topless Tulip Caper" (in which Tulip is a stripper); "Deadly Honeymoon" and "A Stab in the Dark."

These, and Westlake's, are primarily 1970s and 1980s mystery novels, and I strongly encourage people to look beyond the latest Oprah Book Club selections when picking out your next book. These guys wrote for 40-50 years and have won all the big awards. You don't have that kind of longevity without immense talent.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The rare DNF

You never want to see the initials "DNF" after your name, especially if you're a racer, be it running, automobile, horses, skiing or bicyclist. It stands for Did Not Finish.

Throughout my road racing years I am proud to say I never had a DNF. I had race results that could've said: Haugen, Mark, sucked. But never: Haugen, Mark, DNF.

Unfortunately, when I went to file my index card for Chris Bohjalian's book "The Night Strangers" it won't get a numerical rating on the Haugenometer. It will get a DNF and maybe even a "sucked."

I rarely start a book and don't finish. I can only think of one other and that was Jennifer Eagan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Oddly enough, both were highly-touted books. They just weren't for me.

"The Night Strangers" was a New York Times best-seller - not that that holds a lot of oomph for me. I picked it up because Bohjalian wrote "The Flight Attendant" and I really enjoyed that so thought I'd check out some of his other books.

I don't really even know what I didn't like about it. I guess it just dragged and droned. The main character kept having flashbacks to an airplane crash in which he was pilot of the plane. It got old.

Early on I was intrigued because of a unique writing method the author used which I haven't encountered before. He wrote in the second-person, which is rare. When referring to the main character the author would write "you." As in: "You are the pilot ... you see the flock of geese ... you feel them hit the engines ... you hear the engines sputter ... you see the lake ahead ..."

Then he would go back to third-person when talking about the pilot's wife or children.

It was interesting early on, but apparently not interesting enough. I might go back to the book someday, as it will sit on one of my bookshelves taunting me; but I probably won't.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

An author with 19 names

Donald Westlake is one of my favorite authors. He died in 2008 after writing over 100 novels. I've read 32 of them.

The craziest thing about his career is that he also wrote under 18 pseudonyms. 18! He used different names for different genres, in the 1960s some soft-core stuff. Some short stories. Some for science fiction. His best known fake name was Richard Stark under which he wrote the Parker novels.

Recently I read about a four-book series he wrote in the 1980s under the name of Samuel Holt, who was also the name of the main character in the books. I found them on Ebay, as I've pretty much given up on Amazon and their 45-day delivery.

In the fourth book, Westlake wrote an author's note about why he used the fake name. Basically it was because, as he'd become successful and famous as Donald Westlake, times had changed, the business had changed, and he wanted to see if he could have success as an unknown writer. His agent and publisher were sworn to secrecy, and then just when the first book came out the publisher apparently chickened out and announced it was Westlake who wrote the books. So his entire purpose/experiment was blown up. He was pretty peeved about it.

The books are: "One of Us Is Wrong," "I Know a Trick Worth Two of That," "What I Tell You Three Times is False," and "The Fourth Dimension is Death." The first two were pretty good, the third I didn't care for, and the fourth was excellent. He was contracted for the four books, and wrote two more, but was mad at his publisher and didn't release the final two.

In the books, Holt is an actor who hit it big in a television series for five years, got rich, but then was type-cast as a private investigator and never really managed to get any more acting jobs. So of course he ends up getting thrown into situations where he has to basically play the part he played in the television series and be a private detective to solve crimes as they popped up in his life.

It's a good premise, clever, and I'm glad I read them.

For Pete's sake, read some Westlake, or any of his other names. Start with the Dortmunder series of books. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The beat goes on ... for now

So I'm one of those guys now - the one wearing a FitBit on his wrist. Bought it as an early Father's Day present.

I've generally turned up my nose at them as I found them a bit pretentious. Like, hey, look at me, I work out and count my steps. Frankly, most people who look at me probably figure I already work out or that I'm malnourished. And, as I've written before, I don't need any help counting my steps.

But, the past couple years I've had a little issue with my ticker. After all the tests were done it was determined I have Premature Arterial Contractions (PAC). I'm told everybody has them; it's just that I had A LOT of them. Basically, the heart skips a beat and then does a double-beat to catch up. It feels like a thud in my chest. It's an electrical thing. The heart muscle is more than fine. So says the doc. I take a half a beta blocker pill a night and the problem went away for the most part.

But it's made me want to keep better track of my heart rate and I finally succumbed to the only thing that could monitor it for me, daily, by the week, by the month.

Turns out I like it, though it's caused its own issues.

For instance, it has a sleep monitor and provides you a sleep rating every morning from 1-100. So far, I hover around the 90 mark, which is good. But, like the other night, I woke up at 3 a.m., staring at the ceiling, solving the world's problems, and then started thinking: "Dang, this is really going to mess up my sleep rating! You better get to sleep! Go to sleep, idiot! Sleep! You're going to hurt your rating!"

Sometimes, being a competitive person is not a virtue. Even competing against yourself or your FitBit.

It's also a bit of a bother when I run. I shouldn't even look at it, but I do. Again, "What? Your heart rate is only 130. You need to pick it up buddy! You aren't pushing yourself hard enough. Get it up to 150!"

I remember when I first had the PAC issue and got it looked it. I was in pretty good running shape. In fact, the only time I felt good was when I was running. The docs got me wired up and put me on a treadmill and wanted me to get my heart rate up to 140. It started as a walk on a low incline. For about five minutes the techs stood staring at the monitor as it sat at 90-100. Then eight minutes. Not much movement. Finally, I told them: "Not to brag, but we're going to be here all day if you don't crank this thing up."

They did, gradually. I guess they've had too many people pass out or go into cardiac arrest. Soon I was sprinting hard and at a 40 degree angle and we hit 140 after 14 minutes. Then I needed to maintain that pace for a minute to get the fluid they'd pumped me with running through the veins. They were impressed, but that was then and this is now, where I run much slower and not nearly as many miles. That's more because of a bad back than a bad heart.

Then there's the corny part of the FitBit, where it emails you badges saying "Congratulations! You made 10,000 steps today!" But, even that isn't bad. At 55 a guy doesn't get a lot of "atta boys!" anymore. So you take 'em where you can get 'em.

I do wish it would give me like a cardiogram of my heartbeat so I can actually see when/if I'm skipping beats rather than just beats per minute, but I think I have to upgrade to a "premium" package for that. Of course.

Still, it's been fun and I enjoy having it. Not being a competitive runner anymore, as if there were any around to run in anyway, it does give me incentive to go harder on my jogs; even if it means that by beating myself and getting first place I also am in last place.

As long as it's still got some Beats Per Minute to read tomorrow, I'll be happy.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Bird watching is for the birds

I'm a lazy, novice bird-watcher and enjoy it.

Lazy, because it's not like I hike around the Black Hills or prairie with binoculars and Nikon camera, craning my neck for the rare Canadian albino warbler nest or crawling on my hands and knees to peek over the hill for a glimpse of a burrowing owl. Lazy, because I hang a couple bird feeders outside my kitchen window, fill them up once in a while and watch the birds while I eat my Mini-Wheats in the morning.

Occasionally, I lift my phone and take a picture of a pretty bird through the dirty window and wonder why National Geographic hasn't called.

Such was the case the other day when I saw a bird I've never seen before or don't remember seeing before. Sure, I could've seen it yesterday and forgotten, but I really don't remember ever seeing this kind of bird in South Dakota or anywhere. Ever.

It was black, with a yellow head. About the size of a blackbird. Real pretty. Kind of regal. Just one. Not in a flock. Didn't seem to have a girlfriend. I'd never seen one before. In fact, I wondered if anyone had ever seen one before. Perhaps I'd discovered a new species. If one does discover a new species, are they like stars where you get to name it? The Haugenbird, maybe. Or the Flying Mark. The Soaring Black Mark, yeah, that's it.

Before calling National Geographic or the CIA or whoever you call with a new discovery, I consulted my handy-dandy "Birds of the Dakotas" book I keep on the end table. My wife thinks it's nerdy, but it sits next to her Soduko book, so let's be real about nerd status in this house.

I like the book because it's so simple an idiot could use it. The birds are organized by color. There's even a color code on the side of the pages. But do I look under yellow or do I look under black?

There was nothing under the yellow pages, so my anticipation grew as to what this black bird with the yellow head might be called, if it had been discovered at all. What would they call such a rare bird? Probably something clever, as ornithologists are very clever people.

I began paging through the black pages. And there I found it, my heart saank. It had been discovered, probably by Lewis or Clark or maybe Custer.

And what unique name did they come up with for this yellow-headed black bird? So many options. Well, the geniuses, named it, get ready for this: the Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Really, buddy? How long did that take you?

My respect for ornithologists just dropped.

I should not have been surprised. After all, these are the same people who named a bird after the baseball team in St. Louis.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Being smart was fun while it lasted

For a couple weeks last month I looked smart.

If you walked into my library/greenhouse/office and looked at my desk you would see I was reading two books: a biography on Albert Einstein and a collection of columns by Charles Krauthammer. Both were deep thinkers and fascinating men. I even felt smarter holding the books.

But if you walked in last week you'd have seen that I returned to dumb old me with a serial killer novel and then a book from the dumbest series of all by Tim Dorsey.

Oh, well, being smart was fun while it lasted.

I enjoyed the Einstein book by Walter Isaacson. While some of it regarding his theory of relativity and other theories was over my head no matter how hard Isaacson tried to dumb it down, Einstein lived a fascinating life. He struggled with his religion, his politics, his wives and his girlfriends. But, hey, haven't we all? He was offered the presidency of Israel, but turned it down because he recognized he wouldn't be good at it.

One of the most interesting things I learned is that when he died his brain was preserved to be studied. But not by just anybody. It was carried around for 43 years by just a regular old shlub of a mortician who sold it off piece by piece with no real rhyme or reason to whom. Some to study, some for the heck of it. Weird.

Krauthammer's book, "The Point of it All," is a collection of his columns he had almost finished compiling before he died. His son finished the project. Charles was also a fascinating man, deep thinker but able to put it in layman's terms. He loved politics, medicine and baseball. It's one of those bathroom-reader type books where you can knock off a column or two while doing your business. And read another couple when you just have a few minutes and don't feel like diving into a novel.

From there I took up "Thirteen" by Steve Cavanagh. I gave it a 7+ on the Haugenometer. It's about a serial killer who works himself onto a jury to convict a guy of his own crime. I liked the clever premise and enjoyed the book.

Lastly, I finished with Dorsey's "The Pope of Palm Springs." I gave it a 5. I've read close to 20 of his books featuring the adventures of Florida whackos Serge and Coleman. They're all pretty much the same and hadn't read one in a couple years. They're Dumb and Dumber go to Florida. I probably won't read any more of them because they're getting so lame and hard to differentiate one from the other; though I'll probably keep buying them to finish off the collection.

So much for being smart, eh?

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Happily waving goodbye to the handshake

You probably need another article about the 'Rona like you need a hole in the head, but I see one positive coming out of this mess and figured I'd take a shot.

It looks like hand-shaking will become a thing of the past. More so in some areas than others. My relatively remote part of the world is slower to change but I'll be happy when it does.

See, I don't like shaking hands. I'm not good at it.

I was raised to give a firm handshake but mess it up half the time. Ideally, you want to go in so the webbing between your thumb and index finger jam into the other guy's webbing between thumb and index finger. But for some reason I miss half the time. Sometimes I end up grabbing the guys thumb or going in between other fingers. I think I'm concentrating on looking them in the eyes while doing it and am not coordinated enough to look one direction and grab something in the other.

Or, some guys go for the bro handshake where you bend elbows and grip around the lower part of the thumb and your four fingers wrap around it. Never shall the two different versions meet. It gets awkward.

And some younger friends opt for that latter method but then pull you in for a man-hug chest-bump type thing. Trouble is, I never know which of the three types of handshake is coming.

Then there's the odd person at church during the "Peace be with you" portion. I go to shake their hand and they pull the "I don't shake hands" crap on you after you've reached out to them and they leave you hanging. It makes me want to wish them something other than peace.

To make me even more skittish about it, there's a fella I run into a couple times a year who lost his thumb years back in a calf-roping mishap. I always forget and go in for a hearty rancher handshake and end up with my hand sliding up to his elbow since there's no thumb there to stop me.

About the time I'm a total mess on the hand-shaking thing, I run into one of my non-Scandinavian friends. I never know what kind of fancy three-hand-shakes-in-one they're going to pull on me or if they're just going for the straight-up shake. I end up looking like an even whiter white guy as I try to be cool but end up waving my arm around like I've taken a handful of muscle relaxers.

So I'm all about the fist bump now. I just need everybody to get on board with it, because if that goes wrong, uncoordinated me will be punching people in the chest. And that can go wrong in even more ways.

If the fist bump doesn't catch on I'm all for the simple wave or the bow. Just let me know in advance what we're doing because I'm getting a complex about it.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Another life saved

In my free time I run a plant rescue operation out of my home. After my wife brings a plant to the point of death at work, with it walking toward the light (if she happened to provide it any), she brings it home for me to perform CPR.

Latest case in point is this orchid. I have no experience with orchids, but after a quick internet search, I re-potted it in an orchid mix, found the right window, put the humidifier in there a few days and misted it every day. It now has several flowers. They come one at a time up the stem, with more on the way. I'm impressed with how long the flowers stay on. The first is still bright as ever and it appeared a month ago.

Featured are before and current pics.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

'The Monkey's Raincoat' didn't meet expectations

Upon the suggestion of a friend I dove into the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series written by Robert Crais. "The Monkey's Raincoat" is the first book in the series. It was named one of the 100 favorite mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

It wouldn't make the top 100 books I've read in a half century.

Yes, I gave it a 7 on the Haugenometer. Partly because it was a new series and I've been looking for one. And because it wasn't bad and Crais has a unique writing style.

I'll stick with the series but it didn't live up to the hype.

I really get annoyed when writers over-describe things. I don't need three paragraphs telling me what a room looks like, how it's decorated and where the furniture is situated. Crais did that too often.

Also, I get that I'm reading a mystery thriller, but that doesn't mean I want to have to suspend belief at events. Bond is Bond and Odd Thomas is Odd Thomas. I expect them to be over the top at times. But Elvis Cole is a private detective, supposed to be one of the guys. So when he murders a dozen people I expect there to be some legal consequences. Apparently not in California.

On top of it all, I never did get the meaning of the title of the book: The Monkey's Raincoat? I'm sure there's an obvious explanation, but I don't know it.

So I'm quibbling a bit with it, but enjoyed it overall. We'll see how the second book goes and take it from there.

** I also recently finished a nonfiction book, "Eichmann In My Hands." This was a first-hand account from a man, Peter Malkin, who was on the Israeli Mossad team who captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina. He headed up the team and spent many days conversing with him while captive.

As opposed to some biographies I've read, Malkin is very humble throughout. He recognizes his faults, admits to mistakes made in his past and gave good insights into those on his team.

He struggled with Eichmann's personality and thoughts. Eichmann to the end claimed to not hate Jews, said he was only following orders, as if that somehow excused his actions.

It was an interesting read, with only a few discrepancies from what I've read earlier on the saga, but I'll trust Malkin's version since he was there.

** Other books I knocked off recently include:
Daniel Silva's "The Other Woman" - a 6
Craig Johnson's "Spirit of Steamboat" - 6
And three John Sanford books that slipped by me: "The Fool's Run" 6; "The Empress Files" 6; and "Neon Prey" 7.

Next up is Charles Krauthammer's "The Point of It All." Seems an optimist like him might be just the tonic I need during these times.

Some random thoughts from the past few weeks

* I'm sure glad we got our Florida week in just before the Wuhu hit or I'd really be bouncing off the walls. Missin' the salt life.

* It's not the staying home part that bugs me so much. I'm not a party animal or even that much of a social animal any more. It's the fact that it's not an option that bugs me. I liked at least knowing I could go listen to a band on Saturday night, even if half the time I chose not to.

* The other thing that weighs on my mental health a bit is that there's no end date and I know it's impossible to set one. But it would help if I knew that things would return to some semblance of normal on June 1 or August 1. Then I could start checking off the days. The OCD in me likes a plan, some order.

* We've had a houseful the past few weeks: My son (stuck in job search shutdown) and his girlfriend (whose college is shutdown), my Illinois teacher daughter (whose school is shut down) and her professor husband (whose college is shut down). They figured, correctly, that it's more fun to be locked down together than alone.

* I've seen a different side to my daughter when I overhear her on conference calls and Zoom. I never new her as department head or in her teacher capacity and she's impressed me.

* I've talked to friends on the phone more than I have in the past 20 years. That helps. My two best friends from college retired recently. Can't believe my friends are so old.

* Facebook has become almost unbearable. Twitter is okay, but I had to mute a few people for a while. Seems a lot of my social media "friends" are epidemiologists and I didn't even know it. Frankly, if they don't have an MD in front of their name or access to more information than I have, their opinion is being ignored.

* We broke out the ping pong table. My son isn't the push-over he used to be as my eyesight has gotten worse.

* Did people really need videos to show them how to wash their hands? To fold a facemask?

* Why does everyone assume there's going to be a vaccine/cure for this? It's a virus, not bacterial. There's still no vaccine for AIDs or the common cold. Even shots for the flu are a best-guess scenario. Some years they nail it, some years not so much. My degrees in journalism and English qualify me to say I think this is going to be around for years.

* My daughter brought her cat. The cat hates my son and hisses at him like a caged lion. Nobody else, just him.

* I get that some people hate the President and some love him. But that shouldn't mean everything he does is wrong or everything he does is right. Weird that some people feel the need to politicize a pandemic and live with blinders on either way. Playing partisan politics with decisions you make regarding your health doesn't seem wise.

* I appreciate nice people even more than I use to. I have even shorter patience for idiots than I use to.

* My wife makes friends with everyone and became friends with the gal who owns the small gym she worked out at. The gym got shut down by the city, because apparently we don't want people being healthy and better able to fight off the virus. So the owner rented my wife the Cybex bike she used most and we now have it in our basement, which has turned into a small gym itself. Everyone in the house is somewhat of a fitness/weight lifting freak, so you practically need an appointment.

* Trying times reveal true character in people. I've determined I'm even more impatient than I thought, but am making a concerted effort to be less so. "God grant me the serenity ..."

* Funny how quickly times change and the new vocabulary that goes with it. Six weeks ago nobody talked about "social distancing," "six feet," "asymptomatic," "flattening the curve."

* This is no way to live. I get the people protesting shut-downs. I get the people wanting everyone to stay home. I appreciate our governor trying to find that fine line between the two.

* The next time I get beer spilled on me at a concert or baseball game, I'm going to high-five him.

* Thank God for books, dogs, friends, family, health and Menards.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

12 books in 12 weeks

I've been on a bit of a reading frenzy this 2020 and looks like that will continue as there's not a heck of a lot else going on to distract me. It would be nice if the writing bug bit me, but I'm a bit blocked at the moment so I'll keep turning the pages. I doubt I can keep up the book-a-week pace, but we'll see.

I won't give you a review of every book (you're welcome) but here's the list with their Haugenometer rating and a comment or two:

* "As The Crow Flies" by Craig Johnson, 6
* "Deep Freeze" by John Sandord, 7, a Virgil Flowers novel
* "Fear Nothing" by Dean Koontz, 8
* "The Flight Attendant" by Chris Bohjalian, 8, really enjoyed this one by a new author for me.
* "Stolen Prey" by John Sandford, 7+, a Lucas Davenport novel
* "Stick" by Elmore Leonard, 7
* "Dry Bones" by Craig Johnson, 6
* "Blackberry Juice" by Ralph Hamm, 5, a low rating but a thinker and worth a review down the road.
* "Suspect" by Robert Crais, 8+, great book, tear-jerker about a man and his dog, both with PTSD.
* "The New Girl" by Daniel Silva, 7, Silva is always good.
* "Victims" by Jonathan Kellerman, 7-
* "The Nigh Window" by Dean Koontz, 7+, the final in his 5-book Jane Hawk series, after faltering in books 2-4 it ended on a high note.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Going away gift

My friend and coworker of the last 14-plus years, and occasional contributor to this fine blog, Wes Roth, had his last day in the office on Friday as he begins a new career as a pastor.

He presented everyone in the office (4 of us) with a personalized going-away gift.

Mine was an autographed copy of Peter Malkin's book, "Eichmann In My Hands." It was signed by the author, not Eichmann, as ol' Adolf was apparently busy in hell. It's called "a compelling first-person account by the Israeli agent who captured Hitler's chief executioner."

Wes and I share an affinity for the history of Israel, particularly the Mossad. So the gift was very much appreciated and moved to the top of my queue of books to read.