The Bookshelf

Review: The Fiery Cross

The Fiery Cross
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was warned ahead of time that The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, would be a bit of a slog, and indeed it was. All of Gabaldon’s books are long, but this one is a real whopper, coming in at 1,443 pages in the mass-market paperback edition; for all that bulk, however, it feels as if very little actually happens to advance the story of Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their increasingly extended family.

Oh, things do happen in the book. Over the two-year span covered by The Fiery Cross, 1770-72, there are a couple weddings; new settlers are welcomed to the fledgling community of Fraser’s Ridge; there’s a murder mystery to solve, and bigger mysteries appear involving a treasure (the so-called “Frenchman’s Gold,” dating back to the failed Jacobite Revolution in Scotland) and an unknown time traveler (recall that Claire, her daughter Briana, and Bree’s husband Roger are all from the 20th century, not the 18th). Jamie and his son-in-law Roger bond through adversity, and Roger’s life and character take a major, traumatic turn. Jamie and Claire encounter a very twisted couple deep in the wilderness who could be characters from an entirely separate, far more Gothic novel. There’s a bear hunt, a near-fatal snake bite, and a hanging. Characters thought lost for good return. And Jamie, as de facto laird of the people living on Fraser’s Ridge, is pressed into forming a militia and marching off to battle against self-styled vigilantes called “the Regulators,” as the first stirrings of the American Revolution make themselves felt. But somehow none of it feels very consequential. It’s almost as if Gabaldon’s fascination with the details of everyday life in this milieu — which had been one of the great strengths of the earlier books — has become a distraction for her. She disappears down rabbit holes and then occasionally thinks, “Oh, I really should throw in some action here.” But my impression is that her heart really wasn’t with the action in this one, and it’s always perfunctory at best. Even the long-awaited confrontation with recurring villain Stephen Bonnet, when it finally arrives, is something of an anti-climax, over and done with quickly so we can get back to domestic matters.

I’ve heard it said that the reason most stories about couples take place either at the beginning or the end of the relationship is because all the stuff in between, when people are just raising kids and building a life together, makes for pretty poor drama. This book is perfect evidence of that, as all the talk of dirty clouts and breastfeeding gets pretty tedious. If I didn’t already have a sizable emotional investment in these characters — if this were my first exposure to the series — I’d be wondering what the hell the big deal is and why these books are so popular. As it is, I’m hanging in there with the series because I do care about Jamie and Claire and Roger and Bree, and because I know the Revolution is coming and things will be getting interesting again. But this book, The Fiery Cross is essentially just filler between points A and B. Recommended for confirmed fans only.

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Review: No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan

No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan
No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan by Shannon Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up in Utah is hard enough when you’re not a member of the culturally predominant Mormon Church. It becomes an order of magnitude more difficult when you are a member but harbor doubts or long for something other than the officially sanctioned LDS lifestyle. In that respect, Shannon Egan’s story is a familiar one. I’ve known many people who experienced similar struggles to find themselves in the face of parental disapproval and an almost overwhelming institutional pressure to conform. Often, as in Shannon’s case, these struggles lead to self-destructive behavior and problems with drugs and/or alcohol. But what makes Shannon’s story unique is what she did to try and escape both her upbringing and her addiction: she took a teaching job in Sudan, a war-torn country about which she knew virtually nothing. As the situation in Sudan deteriorated, a chance encounter led her to a position as a fledgling journalist, and that, in turn, led her to witnessing the horrors of Darfur and a confrontation with her own demons. Even in a land ruled by strict Islamic law, a determined addict can find what she needs…

Shannon Egan is a fine storyteller who reveals herself with vivid imagery and a sometimes painful degree of honesty. Her account of getting lit up on the Sudanese version of bathtub gin — a noxious homebrewed spirit called aragy — and the events that led to the relapse is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read. But there are moments of real beauty in this story, too, as she describes the history, culture, and especially the people of a place few Americans really know anything about. No Tourists Allowed is as much a travelogue and an ethnography as it is a work of memoir, and I found the wide-angle story as fascinating as Shannon’s personal one.

If the book has any flaws, it is in the author’s habit of occasionally slipping into asides filled with the jargon of recovery and advocacy. I understand that’s where Shannon’s mind is these days, as she’s parlayed her own experiences into both a career and a noble cause, but these passages tend to feel like parentheticals that distract from the action of the story she’s telling. The book is powerful enough on its own terms, don’t misunderstand, but I think it could’ve been moreso if she’d stuck to the facts and saved some of the commentary.

Nevertheless, this is an engrossing and fast-moving read that plumbs the worst depths of human behavior to come up with a message of hope and resilience. I understand a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to reading it…

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Review: Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn
Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After taking a little break from the Outlander-verse, I’ve jumped back in with the fourth book of the series, which I believe is the longest one yet (and that’s saying something with these massive tomes!) Drums picks up a few months after the events of Voyager, the previous volume, with our time-crossed lovers Jamie and Claire, along with Jamie’s nephew Ian and adopted son Fergus, trying to start a new life for themselves in the colony of North Carolina in the years just prior to the American Revolution. They will face many dangers in this new world, including bears, Indians, disease, scheming family members, the ugly institution of slavery, a murderer, and even a ghost, but it is a chance encounter with a pirate named Stephen Bonnet that will have the greatest impact on their future… and that of their daughter, Brianna, who they think is safe and sound up in the 20th century, but has learned something terrible enough to convince her to risk traveling through time herself… for the sake of her mother and the father she’s never met…

By this point, the series has left its bodice-ripping origins far behind — Drums doesn’t even have much sex in it, compared to the earlier books — and settled into something resembling a cross between a cliffhanger serial and a soap opera. Basically, it’s “one damn thing after another” in a historical setting, and the book strongly reminded me of Michael Mann’s 1992 film version of Last of the Mohicans with its epic sweep and romanticized depiction of 18th century America. As ever, I am deeply impressed with the sense of authenticity and verisimilitude Gabaldon brings to her writing. The settings and the mundane details of life in this period are absolutely convincing, and the characters themselves live and breathe and are as real in my mind as my own relatives. Gabaldon even allows her hero Jamie to be somewhat unlikable for a good portion of the book, and even the dastardly Stephen Bonnet, in the end, reveals an unexpected depth.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a series of books with such a strong female perspective. I don’t mean simply “the female gaze” that objectifies and admires the beauty of Jamie and the other male characters in the way that we’re accustomed to lingering over female beauty, although that’s definitely a noticeable motif in these stories. Rather, I’m talking about the way Gabaldon revels in the earthy, visceral, sometimes unsettling, often mysterious, but always very human flesh-and-blood reality of women’s bodies and women’s lives. I’ve read books by women authors, of course, and about female protagonists, but can’t recall any before that go into the places that Gabaldon deftly journeys. And I have to say, as a man, I wasn’t at all alienated by that perspective, as one might expect; rather, I’m fascinated and at times moved by it. Without making too much out of it, I think these books are giving me a better understanding of what it is to be a woman, and that’s exciting and makes for really damn good reading.

Unfortunately, though, Drums does have a couple of problems. For one thing, it’s difficult to really describe the plot of this one because, frankly, it doesn’t have much of one. Things happen, a lot of things, and the story moves forward, but there’s no clear throughline as in the previous books. It really is just one damn thing after another, and it’s more the reader’s affection for the characters and the world that keep you reading than a tight story. That‘s where I’m getting the soap opera feeling I mentioned.

In addition, Gabaldon allows some of her vivid characters to vanish from the action for long periods. Poor Fergus and his wife Marsali are especially ill treated by Drums; their appearances here are little more than cameos. Of course, Gabaldon’s cast has become sufficiently large that this is probably unavoidable, and one could make the argument that it’s true to life, especially under the primitive conditions of the 1760s when you wouldn’t have frequent contact with friends and relations. But as a modern-day reader who likes these people, it is… frustrating.

Ultimately, though, the story belongs to Jamie and Claire, and it is at its most interesting when the action is centered on them. By the end of Drums, some thirty years have passed since we first met them, and it is to Gabaldon’s great credit that she’s managed to let them age without losing whatever it was that made them seem real and compelling in the first place. Whatever else one may say about this series, it feels like a record of actual lives, and that’s a rare and commendable thing for a writer to have accomplished.

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A Little Reassurance

I recently finished reading Andy Weir‘s The Martian for a second time. Well, to be more precise, I finished it reading it aloud to my lovely Anne, who’d been listening to me rave about how good it is for weeks and finally asked me to read it to her as a bedtime story. (She just had PRK eye surgery, you see, and couldn’t read very well herself for the first little while, and… oh, hell, it’s a thing we do sometimes, okay? I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars to her last year… maybe one of these days, I’ll even do one that has nothing to do with Mars!)

Anyhow, the book is still effective even knowing what’s going to happen, and my thoughts on it remain mostly unchanged from my first experience with it. It’s a fantastic survival story and a real page-turner, populated by characters you genuinely like and care about, and I’m certain the movie version is going to kick all kinds of ass, too. But I realized on this go-round that there’s a broad steak of humanism flowing beneath all the surface-level technology and science and adventure, and I think that’s probably a big factor in why I like this novel so much. This is a book that likes people. There’s one passage in particular, from the very end (literally, it’s on the last page), that I found deeply moving and continue to think about even now, weeks after I last closed the cover. It’s especially been on my mind the past few days.

Last week wasn’t one of my better ones. I’ve entered another of those periodic cycles at work when it feels like I’m being ground into a very fine powder between two large, slow-moving stone wheels. One of those cycles when the workflow never slackens and my day ends up being nothing but proofreading and commuting. And then Friday morning, I found myself having one of those debates over minutiae that nobody seems to care about but me, debates that always end with me using words like “asinine” and making the Sideshow Bob mumblety-growl. (In other words, these are debates I lose, due to having very little actual authority in the scheme of things.) And if all that wasn’t bad enough, the Internet last week was thoroughly depressing as well. I came home Friday night feeling about as hollowed out and used up and fed up as I think anybody could. Between getting mowed down at work and the media’s obsession with that obnoxious blowhard Donald fracking Trump and his deliberately inflammatory bullshit statements, I was about ready to walk off into the woods and just forget the whole damn thing we laughingly call civilization because we’ve obviously hit peak asshole and there’s no where to go from here except into the recycle bin.

But then I remembered that passage from The Martian… and I’ll be darned if it didn’t actually lift my spirits. Because I believe those words, or at least I want to. And maybe that’s enough to hold a civilization — or even an individual —  together… that desire to believe in something good.

I can’t imagine anyone not knowing how this book ends, how it has to end, but just in case anyone is concerned about spoilers, I’m going to post the passage I’m discussing below the fold:


Review: The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t generally enjoy so-called “hard” science fiction, i.e., that subcategory of SF that insists upon scientific accuracy and devotes a lot of time to talking about it. Not that I’m not interested in science, of course. But when it comes to fiction, I’m more of a “warp-drive-and-ray-guns” kind of guy. So I consider it quite a noteworthy accomplishment that Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, not only makes descriptions of chemical processes and engineering problems integral to the plot, but downright gripping as well. Weir accomplishes this by telling the story mostly through the first-person voice of Mark Watney, an astronaut who’s been left behind on Mars after an accident that results in his crew mistakenly believing him to be dead. Watney’s a smart guy, but he’s also an incredible smart-ass, and his frequent wisecracks, childish vulgarity, and gallows humor leavens the logical puzzles he needs to work out in order to survive in a place that is utterly inhospitable to life.

This is an incredible adventure tale that reads like a dramatization of real events. But it’s also a richly human story that evokes the fear, wonder, loneliness, courage, nobility, and above all the danger of manned space exploration. And it’s frequently a very funny book as well… I literally laughed out loud a number of times while reading it. (I was especially amused by the running gag involving disco music.) The time setting is somewhat indeterminate — the book never specifies what year it takes place in, but it must be sometime relatively soon, because an important plot point involves the expertise of people who were operating Mars probes in the 1990s, and of course there is the enduring appeal of 1970s pop culture. Also, none of the technology described is terribly futuristic, all of which contributes to a sense that it could be happening right now. Indeed, the descriptions of how a Mars mission could actually, logistically, take place are so convincing that I don’t know why NASA isn’t already doing it as I type this. (Okay, I do know; my point is, the book is eminently plausible.)

Beyond the “gee whiz” factor and old-fashioned NASA can-do spirit, however, the thing that keeps you turning the pages at a breathless pace is Mark Watney himself. His victories and setbacks and the final, last-ditch, edge-of-your-seat attempt at a rescue mission are the stuff of an instant classic. And no doubt this story is going to make a great movie, too; it’s already in the can and coming soon to a theater near you, starring Matt Damon as Watney… a perfect choice, in my opinion…

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Review: Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay

Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay
Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay by Harlan Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is widely regarded as one of the best — if not the best — episode of the original Star Trek series. But as every Trekkie worth his replicator credits knows, the version that got filmed was substantially different from the teleplay that science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison turned in. The notoriously prickly Ellison didn’t take too kindly to being rewritten, and he’s griped for years about how Gene Roddenberry screwed him and his story over, and how much better his version was than the one that viewers saw. Now his original teleplay has been brought to life in a form that gives us an idea of how it might have looked on the small screen if it’d been made the way Ellison wrote it. This graphic novel adaptation, with scripting by brothers Scott and David Tipton and artwork by J.K. Woodward, is an impressive piece of work. Woodward’s art is particularly noteworthy, a highly realistic painted style that captures the likenesses of actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Joan Collins, and Grace Lee Whitney with eerie accuracy. And it’s fascinating to see both the parallels and departures from the more familiar television version of the story. There’s only one problem: I personally don’t think Ellison’s version of the story is better (or even as good as) the revised one.

Oh, his ideas were grander than the revision’s, to be certain. His Guardians of Forever would’ve been much cooler than the “stone donut” the TV producers came up with as a cost-saving substitute, and his story features some poignant moments and themes that arguably shouldn’t have been left out. But Ellison’s teleplay also includes some really hackneyed space pirates, a lot of unnecessary characters (which of course would’ve cost money in the form of additional actors who need to be paid), and some cringe-worthy “far-out” sci-fi jargon that sounds like it came straight out of the rocket-ship movies of the 1950s instead of the more naturalistic style Star Trek was going for in the 1960s.

Also, I was deeply troubled by Ellison’s misunderstanding of the familiar characters. While it was great to see Yeoman Rand do some butt-kicking instead of playing the helpless female she so often was in the TV series, Spock comes across as a condescending, peevish, frankly kind of bitchy antagonist to Kirk. To be fair, Ellison probably wrote this before the series had really nailed down Spock’s characterization, but with the benefit of hindsight, this version of Spock is just flat-out wrong… except in the final scene when he tries to console his heartbroken captain. That scene works beautifully. But in general, Ellison’s teleplay, while entertaining and emotionally effective, feels more like an episode of The Outer Limits (which Ellison also wrote for) than Star Trek. It’s not that it’s bad, because it’s not… it’s very good as a science-fiction story. It’s just not very good Star Trek, if that makes sense.

Still, this graphic novel is well worth checking out for the artwork and the glimpse of what might have been. It includes all the variant covers by Juan Ortiz and Paul Shipper from the single-issue comic run, as well as an afterword that reveals all the “Easter eggs” the writers and artist slipped in. (Watch for an appearance by Ellison himself as “Trooper,” a character I’m deeply ambivalent about, because I don’t think the story needed him — as Ellison has always claimed — but I do like him and his interactions with Kirk.)

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Review: Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War

[Ed. note: I recently joined Goodreads, the social media platform centered around books and reading, in hopes of… I don’t know… recapturing some of the literary mojo I’ve been feeling like I’ve lost, I guess. I’m also a member of a similar online community called LibraryThing, if you’ll recall, but I never could get the hang of the social aspects of that site; I’ve always used it purely as a catalog of my book collection. Goodreads, on the other hand, seems a lot better designed for the way I socialize online these days. (Basically, Goodreads is not a siloed community like LT; you can easily share your Goodreads activity on your Facebook page, if you’re exhibitionistic that way… which, apparently, I am.) I still haven’t quite decided if I like Goodreads, or how much I like it, but if nothing else, it’s providing more inspiration to write reviews than I’ve felt in some time. Goodreads makes it easy to export your reviews to other platforms, too, so as an experiment, I’m going to let it crosspost them here on Simple Tricks. (People who follow me on Facebook will also get links there; sorry, I don’t mean to spam you, I just know there are Loyal Readers here who aren’t on Facebook.) If you want to read my earlier reviews, there’s a link at the bottom of this post. And if you want to follow me on Goodreads, my profile is here. And feel free to let me know if this is interesting content to you, or if you’d rather I knock it off… ]

Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War
Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War by Brandon Jerwa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Continuity in the Highlander franchise is a tricky thing to explain to any but the hardcore fan, so my apologies if the following is as clear as mud: This graphic novel (which collect issues 0-5 of the tie-in comic series by Dynamite Entertainment) takes place shortly after the events of the original Highlander film, but within the timeline of the Highlander TV series, in which the events of the movie were retconned a bit. Which means that Connor MacLeod has defeated the monstrous immortal known as The Kurgan, exactly as seen in the movie, only without winning The Prize… it was just another fight between immortals and not the final battle. Savvy?

Okay, now that’s out of the way… the story begins with Connor abruptly called away from his new bride, Brenda Wyatt, to reunite with two other immortals and an elderly human scientist for a secret mission into the heart of the Soviet Union. Through flashbacks, we learn that the four of them had confronted The Kurgan once before, 20 years earlier, along with an army of genetically engineered cultist warriors who were fanatically loyal to the villainous immortal. They thought they’d defeated the cultists then, but now that Kurgan is dead, they’re back and looking to avenge their old master. They’ve already caused the historic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, and now they have bigger things in mind. They’ve got to be stopped…

Following the resolution of this storyline (comprising issues 0-4), we have a short interlude (issue 5) featuring Connor’s kinsman Duncan MacLeod. Brenda has been injured in a car accident and is in surgery while the two immortal cousins talk, argue, and console one another.

Both stories capture the general tone of the Highlander TV series and are enjoyable, if rather superficial. The villains of “The Coldest War” are never fleshed out in any meaningful way and are merely “the bad guys”; the same with Paul and Tasya, Connor’s immortal comrades. We learn nothing about either of them and have no real emotional connection to them. The elderly mortal in the story, Doctor Volkov, fares a bit better, but only just. Brenda is a virtual non-entity in both stories. On the positive side, however, the writers have a good grip on the voices of the two MacLeods, and it’s easy to imagine the dialogue being spoken by actors Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul.

The artwork by Lee Moder in “The Coldest War” and Kevin Sharpe in “New Years Eve” is hit-and-miss, although I see a better resemblance to the actors in Sharpe’s work. The action is at least easy to follow, which I find is occasionally a problem in modern comics.

Overall, this is a pleasing but not spectacular return to the Highlander universe for fans of the franchise, but I can’t imagine it would make any new fans. I am willing to continue with Volume 2, though, so that’s something…

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Hell Has Frozen Over

If you’ve been online in the past 24 hours, you’ve no doubt seen the news: Author Harper Lee has a new book on the way, a sort-of sequel to her beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird (which, you may recall, I just revisited for the first time since high school), and only the second novel she has ever published. The new book, titled Go Set a Watchman, is set in the 1950s, some 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, and concerns an adult Scout returning to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her father Atticus and “grapple with issues both personal and political.”

The Internet being what it is, the grumbling began immediately, with many people deciding in advance of reading one single word of the new book that it can’t possibly be as good as Mockingbird, or, indeed, any good at all. This morning, I saw that the initial skepticism had already congealed into something far more cynical with the suggestion that there’s something mysterious and unsavory behind this unexpected announcement, namely that an elderly and possibly ailing Lee is being exploited by forces that stand to make a lot of money from a Mockingbird sequel that she, herself, never wanted released. I honestly don’t know that much about Lee or her circumstances, and I sincerely hope the conspiracy theorists are wrong about what’s happening here. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that she is not being exploited and is completely onboard with Watchman being released. If that’s the case, then I find I’m rather enthused about it. Not in an overheated fanboy sort of way, but because (a) the timing of it coming now, just after I re-read the original, is pleasantly coincidental, and (b) I love the idea of lost treasures being rediscovered in metaphorical attics. Blame my romantic nature, I guess. In addition, I always like to see what the fictional characters I like get up to later in their lives — this is a big part of why I can’t condemn the fourth Indiana Jones movie, because I enjoyed seeing my old friends Indy and Marion again. And finally, as a would-be novelist myself, I am intrigued by Watchman‘s relationship to the other book. You see, Watchman was actually Lee’s first attempt — it was written before Mockingbird, and took place roughly in the same time period in which Lee was writing it (as opposed to Mockingbird, which takes place 20 years earlier). Her editor was taken with some flashbacks in the manuscript and suggested Lee write another story about the younger version of Watchman‘s protagonist. (That’s why I referred to this “new” novel as a “sort-of” sequel, because while it technically is a sequel in the sense that its story happens after the familiar one, this story was created first.)

In truth, I don’t expect the new book to be the equal of Mockingbird, for a number of reasons. It’s bound to have a different tone than the original, since it was intended to be a (then) contemporary story and probably lacks the nostalgic filter that overlays Mockingbird. It’s also possible the details of the two stories won’t entirely line up, since Lee might have changed her mind about things as she wrote the second book. And it’s the first novel by a young writer, so it’s possible — likely even — that it will have a lot of rough edges. (The article I read suggests there’s been no revision to smooth over inconsistencies between the two novels, or indeed, any revision at all. What’s being published is what Lee wrote 55 years ago.) But if nothing else, knowing this was the first attempt, I think it’s going to be a fascinating peek into the process that created the classic. In other words, my interest is based on geeky writer stuff…

Go Set a Watchman will be released on July 14, and is already available for preorder on Barnes and Noble’s website.


Neighbors Give In Return

A few weeks ago, I was feeling pretty low. The headlines about Ferguson and Eric Garner and the torture report, all coming so close to each other, followed by the inevitable scrimmage in social media and blog comments — which served as yet another solemn reminder that there are at least two Americas and they don’t quite exist on the same planet — left me utterly heartsick. Beaten down, demoralized, and wondering if a lot of my fundamental beliefs about this country and people in general were completely off-base.

And so it was I found myself standing one afternoon in front of the creaking, overloaded, not-dusted-often-enough shelves that comprise the Bennion Library, trying to decide what to read next. It wasn’t just a question of what I was in the mood for, or what I haven’t read yet. This was one of those cases where I needed to read… something… something that might restore some of my faith in humanity, or at least quell my growing conviction that the whole damn bunch of us deserve whatever’s coming so the cockroaches can have their turn on top of the evolutionary ladder. A mystery or an action-adventure novel wasn’t going to cut it; all too often, those genres are predicated on exactly the sort of inhumanity-to-man I’d had enough of. Similarly, I wasn’t very enthused about any of my sci-fi or Stephen King or Anne Rice books. While they don’t exactly ignore the human condition, they weren’t likely to say the sort of things I was craving to hear. Finally, my gaze fell upon a tattered paperback copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’m not even sure how that one ended up in my collection, to be honest. I read it back in high school, like most people of a certain age, I imagine. (Is this one still assigned to kids, or has it been banished from the curriculum for some ridiculous PC reason?)  I remember experiencing it back then as something I had to endure rather than enjoyed. Like getting a vaccination or eating something that’s good for you. Beyond that, though, the book was just a blur. I couldn’t recall anything about the story or the characters, except a couple names and a scene in a courtroom… details I could have gotten from a blurb in a magazine about the movie version. And yet… at some point, for some reason, I picked up a copy of it… probably for a quarter at a thrift store or a library sale, and likely with intentions of revisiting it someday from an adult’s perspective. But I never got around to actually doing that. The book just ended up on a stack of other literary fiction works that I bought with good intentions but have largely ignored. But now, as my eyes followed the white stress-lines running the length of the book’s spine and took in the lettering of the title, smudged and faded by the sweat of someone else’s hand, some trace memory stirred deep in my mind. Like a vague sensory impression of the perfume your mother wore when you were a child, an elusive feeling more than anything you can really name. And I knew this was the book I needed to read just then.

I like to think I haven’t changed all that much since I was a teenager, that I’m still in touch with the sixteen-year-old boy I used to be, but the truth is… my teenaged self was a dumbass for failing to appreciate this book, because To Kill a Mockingbird is magnificent. First of all, it’s a wonderful evocation of a very specific time and place, namely small-town Alabama in the 1930s. (It occurs to me that part of the problem I had with it back in high school might have been the setting, of which I would have been relatively ignorant then. I know a lot more about the Depression now, and can much better imagine Model As rolling up and down dusty streets, and careworn farmers in overalls and the more well-to-do men in their white shirts and hats.) It’s a charming coming-of-age story — and I’m on record as being a real sucker for those — that realistically captures the essence of the pre-teen protagonist while also conveying a lot of adult truths. It’s unexpectedly funny in places, and the overall tone is warm and humane and just plain decent, which is what I needed. And all this is achieved with plain, unflowery language that simply tells the story. It really is a masterful achievement, and I understand now why so many people name it as their favorite novel.

But it’s the book’s core of decent humanity that really charmed, that soothed my battered soul just when I needed it most. That’s what I was remembering the afternoon I noticed it sitting in my stacks, and that’s what will stay with me after the details fade again (which I know they will; I fear my retention isn’t as good as it used to be, damned middle age!)

I think many people will remember the exchange between Scout, our protagonist, and her father Atticus that comes on the very last page:

“… Atticus, he was real nice… ”


His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.


“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

But I was more deeply moved by a passage from a few pages earlier, when Scout has just met the mysterious Boo Radley whose presence has hovered like a shadow over the entire story:

Boo and I walked up the steps to the porch. His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.


Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.

“I never saw him again… we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.” Something about that delineates so much of the human experience for me. It’s only after the fact, it seems, that we realize how we failed to be as good as we ought to have been. As good as we wish we were.

I think someday that’s the sentiment that’s going to be applied to this moment of history by the people who are living through it right now. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird did cheer me up… but it also highlighted for me how we’re failing, we Americans, we humans, to be as good to each other, to our neighbors, to the whole damn planet, as we ought to be. And it does make me sad.


2014 Media Wrap-up

Time for our annual tradition here on Simple Tricks of recounting all the films, recorded TV content, books, and live performances I’ve experienced in the last year. As I’ve noted before, I have no idea if anybody else cares in the least about this, or if it’s just an exercise in tedious self-indulgence, but I like to remind myself where I’ve been over the past twelve months. I missed doing it last year due to this blog being out of commission, and the 2012 version was unfortunately one of the entries that evaporated when the blog failed, so I can’t really do much comparison with the previous couple years as I’ve done in the past, but I can at least list the titles and get the numbers.

FYI before we begin: An asterisk [*] before the title indicates something I’ve seen or read before. Bolded items in the home video sections are titles I own on either DVD or BluRay, or in a few cases, VHS tape.

Movies Seen in a Theater

Note: Much of my cinema-going this year was to special engagements of classics. What can I say, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see these films on the big screen, either again or, in many cases, for the first time. And besides, there just weren’t that many new releases that grabbed my attention. I’ll indicate where these screenings took place in brackets [ ] following the titles.

  1. Saving Mr. Banks
  2. American Hustle
  3. * Lawrence of Arabia [Salt Lake Film Society’s “This Is Digital” celebration]
  4. * Chicago [Cinemark Classic Series]
  5. * The Shawshank Redemption [Cinemark Classic Series]
  6. Divergent
  7. Muppets Most Wanted
  8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  9. * The Ten Commandments [Cinemark Classic Series]
  10. * Ben-Hur [Cinemark Classic Series]
  11. * Spartacus [Cinemark Classic Series]
  12. Godzilla (2014)
  13. B.B. King: The Life of Riley
  14. Maleficent
  15. * Saturday Night Fever [Cinemark Classic Series]
  16. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  17. * The Godfather, Part II [Cinemark Classic Series]
  18. Chef
  19. * Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory [Cinemark Classic Series]
  20. * Pretty Woman [Cinemark Classic Series]
  21. * The Breakfast Club [Cinemark Classic Series]
  22. * Monty Python and the Holy Grail [Cinemark Classic Series]
  23. Guardians of the Galaxy
  24. * The Big Lebowski [Cinemark Classic Series]
  25. * Beverly Hills Cop [Cinemark Classic Series]
  26. * Big Trouble in Little China [Salt Lake Film Society’s “Summer Late Nights at the Tower”]
  27. Elvis: That’s the Way It Is [Cinemark Classic Series]
  28. Scarface (1983) [Cinemark Classic Series]
  29. Emulsion
  30. Boyhood
  31. Gone Girl
  32. The Judge
  33. * The Nightmare Before Christmas [Cinemark Classic Series]
  34. Interstellar
  35. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

Movies Seen on Home Video

Note: I used to grit my teeth and suffer through any movie I started, especially if I’d heard a lot of positive word of mouth or critical praise, on the logic that if everyone else thought it was good, then I needed to see it. But I’m getting much less shy in my grumpy middle age about shutting off the things that don’t engage me — life is too damn short, you know? I still don’t do it often, but there were a couple of titles this year I just couldn’t hack; I’ve indicated those with [ABANDONED].

  1. Total Recall (2012)
  2. Halloween III: Season of the Witch
  3. * Raiders of the Lost Ark
  4. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
  5. Where the Buffalo Roam [ABANDONED]
  6. The Wolverine
  7. The Hindenburg
  8. Mary Poppins
  9. After Porn Ends
  10. The Keep
  11. The World’s End
  12. My Favorite Year
  13. * Next of Kin
  14. Appaloosa
  15. Twilight (1998 Paul Newman film, NOT the sparkly vampire thing)
  16. Slap Shot
  17. Brubaker
  18. * Dune
  19. Nobody’s Fool
  20. * Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 theatrical cut)
  21. Citizens Band
  22. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
  23. Joyride (1977)
  24. Man of Steel
  25. * Captain America: The First Avenger
  26. The Way, Way Back
  27. * The Godfather
  28. * The Godfather, Part III
  29. 42
  30. * Caddyshack
  31. * The Big Chill
  32. Downhill Racer
  33. Mr. Moto’s Gamble
  34. Mr. Moto Takes a Chance
  35. Sound City
  36. Behind the Candelabra
  37. We Bought a Zoo
  38. Silver Linings Playbook [ABANDONED]
  39. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
  40. The Legend of Hell House
  41. * Duel
  42. The Town that Dreaded Sundown
  43. Dracula (1979)
  44. Gog
  45. Single White Female
  46. The Dunwich Horror
  47. Re-Animator
  48. * The Sugarland Express
  49. American Hot Wax
  50. Europa Report
  51. * Jaws
  52. Charlie Chan in the Secret Service
  53. Meatballs
  54. Cat People (1982)
  55. Cinerama’s Seven Wonders of the World
  56. * A Christmas Story
  57. * Bad Santa
  58. * The Ref [VHS]
  59. * Guardians of the Galaxy
  60. Bettie Page Reveals All
  61. Space Station 76
  62. * Godzilla (2014)
  63. * Battle Beyond the Stars
  64. * Amadeus (Director’s Cut)

 TV Content Seen on Home Video

  1. Pole to Pole with Michael Palin (complete series)
  2. Babylon 5 (seasons 1 through 4) [VHS]
  3. Babylon 5 (season 5, completing the series)
  4. The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Sixth Season
  5. Trilogy of Terror (TV movie)
  6. Full Circle with Michael Palin (complete series)
  7. Sherlock (season 3)
  8. Himalaya with Michael Palin (complete series)
  9. Sahara with Michael Palin (complete series)
  10. China Beach (season 1)
  11. The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Seventh Season
  12. Stephen Fry in America (complete series)
  13. Babylon 5: In the Beginning (TV movie)
  14. Babylon 5: Thirdspace (TV movie)
  15. Babylon 5: The River of Souls (TV movie)
  16. Babylon 5: A Call to Arms (TV movie)
  17. Crusade: The Complete Series
  18. WKRP in Cincinnati (season 1)

 Books Completed (Fiction)

Note: You’ll notice that I read a whole mess of novels by Clive Cussler this year. I realized at some point that, despite my frequent mentions of his Dirk Pitt adventures, and strong opinions about that character, it had been years, decades even, since I’d read them, and I wondered how well they actually matched my memories of them. So I developed ambitions of doing a novel-by-novel survey of the series, much as Michael May has been doing with Ian Fleming’s Bond series over on his Adventureblog. Well, I read the books (half of them anyway), but didn’t get around to writing the entries. Typical of how the year went with regard to blogging…

  1. Nobody’s Fool — Richard Russo
  2. The Song of Forgotten Stars, Book Two: The Wisdomfold Path (unpublished manuscript) — Kelly Sedinger
  3. * Pacific Vortex! — Clive Cussler
  4. * The Mediterranean Caper — Cussler
  5. * Iceberg — Cussler
  6. * Raise the Titanic! — Cussler
  7. * Vixen 03 — Cussler
  8. * Night Probe! — Cussler
  9. * Deep Six — Cussler
  10. The Master Mind of Mars — Edgar Rice Burroughs
  11. The Star Wars (graphic novel) — J.W. Rinzler (writer) and Mike Mayhew (artist)
  12. Me and Orson Welles — Robert Kaplow
  13. Prince Lestat — Anne Rice

Books Completed (Non-Fiction)

  1. VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave — Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn, with Gavin Edwards
  2. I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution — Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks
  3. What You Want is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and The Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born — Michael Walker

Concerts and Live Theater Events

  1. War Horse [Capitol Theater, 4/24/14]
  2. Def Leppard/KISS [USANA Amphitheater, 6/23/14]
  3. Monty Python Live (Mostly) [Cinemark/Fathom Events live broadcast, 7/20/14]
  4. Wicked [Capitol Theater, 8/24/14]
  5. X-96 Nightmare Before Xmas concert with Billy Idol, Bleachers, and Priory [The Complex, 12/15/14]

And there we are for another misspent year…