Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

LonesomeDoveI am not the speediest of readers, so it is with some trepidation that will I pick up a 900-plus page book. Especially a book that was the basis for a 1980s TV miniseries. But a friend who is an outstanding writer (of restaurant reviews) told me that Lonesome Dove was his favorite book ever, and that sort of enthusiasm always draws my interest. We had a copy sitting of Lonesome Dove in the house, but even so, it took me a couple years to actually pick up the book.

The reward was my most enjoyable reading in years.  Lonesome Dove is engrossing, surprising, funny, and an unsparing dissection of the masculine mythology of the Old West. I am not a fan of Westerns—this is the first one I’ve read since I was assigned Shane in middle school—and as I began the book I had some leeriness as McMurtry introduced the cast of cowboys, a kindly prostitute who is the most notable female character in the first sections, and a vicious Cherokee outlaw named Blue Duck. Even though the prose was masterful and I was enjoying myself, I also felt the story tended toward an adolescent fantasy early on. I found myself thinking of Charlie Brown—all the characters in the same generation, with no parents above or children below.

But as the book continues and the cattle drive heads north, McMurty turns the fantasy inside out. The central romance bends in an unexpected direction, and characters’ limitations are hammered fiercely, as a story of parenthood moves to the fore.

The book is not without its limitations. But it is also, undoubtedly, time well-spent.


Left Coast Crime: the report

A couple weeks ago I attended Left Coast Crime and enjoyed it very much. If you’re a mystery fan or author I recommend going. One of the many people I met there was Janet Rudolph, who runs a mystery blog. She asked me to contribute a guest post, and I wrote about the convention, concentrating on what I learned from attended the author panels that run throughout the day.

I also participated in my own panel. They say you never learn anything from listening to yourself speak, but after my panel, in which I told stories about cornerback D’Angelo Hall, an NFL/college coach who shall remain nameless on the record, and a couple other sports figures from my out-in-the-field years with Sports Illustrated, I discovered that under stress I will name-drop quite shamelessly.


My schedule for Left Coast Crime

leftcoastcrime-2016-blog-headerGetting excited about the upcoming Left Coast Crime gathering in Phoenix. I will be in attendance. Here’s my schedule thus far:

Thursday, 2/25: Author’s Speed Dating  from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. In which mystery fans move from table to table to hear what authors have to say for themselves. I’ll be talking about HANGMAN’S GAME, and I may also be looking for people to go to the Nets-Suns game that evening.

Friday, 2/26: New Author’s Breakfast, 7:30 a.m. For fans who want to hear from the new kids on the block. (Even if the kids are, say, 47 years old). With the early start time, I am hoping that my body being on East Coast time will provide a crucial advantage.

Saturday, 2/27  The Game of Murder: Sports in Mysteries, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m..  A panel discussion on sports mysteries. I’ll be letting it rip with moderator Robert Rosenwald and authors John Billheimer, Tammy Kaehler, and W. L. Ripley.

When I’m not at these events I’ll be in the audience at as many panels as I can get to, hoping to learn from my fellow authors. Such a great opportunity. Hope to see you there!

Bruce Springsteen, The River Tour


bruce-springsteen-albany-performance-2016-billboard-650In the late 2000s I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert, at the Meadowlands, and one of the guys I was with remarked “I’ve seen Springsteen 34 times and that was by far the worst show I’ve ever seen him do.” Even without that basis for comparison, I knew what he meant. The show started late and was strangely flat, with a set list that was uninspiring across its wide middle. Bad Springsteen shows were not supposed to exist, and yet here I had found one—in New Jersey, no less. (Sports aside: For a while I had a similar problem with Steph Curry, I would go out of my way to watch him and somehow always catch him on an off night). I had been a big Springsteen fan in the 80s without ever making it to a concert. By the 2000s he was fading out of my musical rotation already, and after that show he dropped out completely.
A couple months ago, as a surprise, my fiance bought us tickets to see Springsteen on his current tour, featuring songs of The River. It turned out to be a perfect gift. The performance at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday was the Springsteen show I’d always hoped to see. It was big and fun, and featuring an all-world performer at the controls.
My observations from the show:
—Both Springsteen and his fans have aged a bunch since he first sang, “I had a wife and kids and Baltimore, jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back.” Which didn’t stop a room full of couples in their 40s, 50s, and 60s from belting those lines with Bruce, who was on stage with a band that includes the wife. That moment was the night in a nutshell: the meaning of the songs is what they used to mean. Also, it’s fun to sing along to the oldies.
—I had been a Springsteen fan long enough to have counted many different songs as my “favorite” over the years. The last “favorite,” before I stopped tracking, was Drive All Night. The song is on The River, so I knew I would hear it, but he went big on it, and that was good.
—After Springsteen had played all the songs on The River he went, without intermission, into a general concert, and the second song in that section was Prove it All Night, and Nils Lofgren ripped off a massive guitar solo, the only one of the night. It was great, and I found myself imagining an alternate universe in which the various keyboard and saxophone solos in Springsteen compositions were replaced by guitar solos like this one. I have to say, that alternate universe felt pretty good.
—Random aside: our seats were in the  upper level at Wells Fargo, to the side of the stage, and during those I could look across the arena and see silhouetted figures standing the entry halls to the seating. In one of those halls a larger man stood alone. I became fixated on the idea that it was, or should be, Chris Christie.
—The show ended with a ridiculous barrage of hits, each of which could have closed the show on their own. The sequence went Jungleland-The Rising—Thunder Road—Born to Run—Dancing in the Dark—Rosalita. And then, for good measure, Springsteen covered Shout, introduced the band, and goofed around some. If you didn’t enjoy yourself, it wasn’t because he didn’t try. The show was the longest of this tour, at three hours and twenty-seven minutes.  I appreciated the effort.

My Book Pick for Election Season

41RtytNpsfL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Just about every candidate in the race for president has a book they would like you to read—namely, theirs.

My suggestion for one book for people to read during this presidential election season was written by a professor, not a politician. It is called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics. This book, which came out in 2011, is guiding, either directly or indirectly, every campaign out there.

The book is about the science of how people make decisions. When I read it, so much of the logic and rhetoric of political campaigns seemed so much more obvious. There are many examples I could give, but here is one.

Testing has shown that if a person hears something said enough times, it begins to feel like the truth. This happens because of an evolutionary process that harkens back to the hunter-gatherer years. Humans hunted and gathered in areas they knew, because you were less likely to encounter strange animals/people and be killed. In a strange place, who knows what can happen. So familiar = yay! Tests by scientists have shown how quickly people begin to agree with statements they’ve heard repeated multiple times, with no supporting evidence or even evidence to the contrary. The baldest example of this is Donald Trump with repeated promises that his health plan/tax plan/border wall will be fantastic, but every candidate does this in some form. Remember this when you watch the debates and hear the phrases candidates roll out over and over again, in support of themselves or in attacks on opponents.

Read Thinking, Fast and Slow. In so many ways, it will alert you to the games that campaigns play with language.


Left Coast Crime, and Conventions I Have Attended

I will be appearing Left Coast Crime 2016, which takes place in Phoenix on February 24-27. Writers tell me that these events are great fun. If you are able to, please come. I’ll have more details on exactly what I am doing there when I know. It’s the first time I will appearing at a convention of any kind as a participant.

I have been to many conventions, though, through the years. Highlights:

  • 51+QYvtNMhLBaseball card conventions (many, in youth). I would get giddy over these when I was a kid. The conventions were held regularly at the George Washington Motor Lodge in Willow Grove, Pa. I sold most of my collection years, ago, but I still have one album of cards, and one shoebox. I use the shoebox cards as bookmarks. When I start a new book, I reach blindly into the box and pull out a card.I am now reading Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill, and the bookmark is a 1983 Fred Lynn All-Star card. I like having the old cards in my hand, rather than stored out sight, heading sooner or later to the trash.
  • The 1992 Republic National Convention, in Houston. I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri school of journalism, preparing for what I thought would be a career as a political reporter. Among the moments I remember: Sen. Alan Simpson’s advice to me as a young reporter: “Elevate for craft. When reporters don’t do their jobs well, it makes us all look bad.” A Bill Laimbeer sighting; Rush Limbaugh sitting with Barbara Bush, looking like a king; Arnold Schwarzengger’s remarkable ability to completely tune out the throng around him as he roamed the floor with a companion; Also, being on the floor for Pat Buchanan’s speech and thinking that, beyond his acolytes up front, many conventioneers were ignoring him. I didn’t realize until I returned home that for those watching on TV, Buchanan’s speech defined the convention.
  • National Cable Television Association convention in New Orleans. This was in 2000, I think. I was working for a technology magazine called ON, and reporting on a story about the future of television. The convention center was like being inside a giant TV, with each channel having its own booth, many of which were staffed with stars of their shows. In between my important and serious interviews, I posed for photos with the cast of the short-lived show Son of the Beach son-of-the-beach-5517c301d89aeand visited a fledging channel geared toward African-American Christian athletes in the South. In their booth: backers Evander Holyfield, Everson Walls and other name athletes. I don’t know if the channel ever made it to the air, but I still have their giveaway T-shirt.
  • Super Bowl XL. In Detroit. I was part of SI’s coverage team that year, and when you go to one of these things in person you realize you are at a weeklong convention which happens to have a football game at the end. The organizing principle of the convention is, in short, is Stuff Guys Like. Every major men’s magazine hosted a party. So did video game folk. So did a maker of porn videos. Then the Steelers beat Seattle and everyone went home. So it goes.
  • Book Expo America. I have been to a couple of these as a spectator, accompanying my ladyfriend to her panels and appearances. The line I hear over and over: “These used to be better.”

If you are a Left Coast Crime regular and see me and think that those used to be better, please wait until I am out of earshot to remark upon it. But I will do whatever I can to make the experience a good one. Thank you.

Natalie Prass, and great shows

Last Wednesday I saw Natalie Prass at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, and she was very good, with the song My Baby Don’t Understand Me a true high point. After the show I realized I’ve seen more great live music in 2015 than I have in a while, and I had the idea to write a blog post about it. Celebrating live music didn’t feel like a political idea at the time, but now it does, after the murder of 89 people at a concert in Paris on Friday

Here’s the best I’ve seen this year, with links to either specific songs or entire shows. If these artists come your way, go see them and enjoy their gifts.

hopalongDavid Garza, Disco Ball World. I saw Garza at the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love in Marfa, Texas. Such a great event. This song got me out of my seat.

Hop Along, Texas Funeral. A Philly band (pictured right) that I had to go to Marfa to discover. My favorite song of theirs is Texas Funeral, and of course they performed it at the Marfa show.

Mexican Institute of Sound: Another Trans-Pecos act. No specific music of theirs to link to, because you really had to be there. I am 47 years old and at midnight I am usually asleep in bed, not pogo-ing under the stars. Great respect for their entertaining frontman/DJ Camilo Lara.

Further Trans-Pecos love for Jenny Lewis, Ben Kweller, Bee Caves, and Langhorne Slim.

Audra McDonald, Stars and the Moon. She’s a wonder of the world. I’m not a huge Broadway guy, but I’ve seen her twice, and in those concerts she repeated only two songs. Stars and the Moon was one of them. It comes from an Off-Broadway show I’ve never heard of, and it perfectly suits her gifts of musical storytelling.

Built to Spill, How Soon is Now. I’ve seen Built to Spill five times now, going back to the late 1990s. This Smiths cover was the perfect vehicle for the sincere intensity Doug Martsch brings to his shows.

New Pornographers. I saw this band for the first time in 2014, and caught them again this year. Despite their awful name, it is my intention to see the New Pornographers every chance I get for the rest of my life. The band is, as Dan Rather might say, tighter than the rusted lug nuts on a ’57 Chevy. For these guys I am providing a link to an entire show.

Thao and The Get Down, Stay Down: I like to get to concerts early enough to see the opening band, because you never know when you’re going to discover someone great. Years ago I saw the Black Keys and came away in love with the opening act, the Heartless Bastards. It happened again before the New Pornographers show, with Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. They gave a headline-quality performance, in large measure because of the stage presence of their lead singer Thao, which only grew stronger as the show went on. Another full performance link, but please, if you can, do yourself a favor and see Thao and all of these great artists live.

Coming Clean, by Kimberly Rae Miller

16218778One of the  benefits of having a ladyfriend with an encyclopedic knowledge of publishing is that she is able to direct me to a book like Coming Clean, by Kimberly Rae Miller. I had been talking to Jen about a writing problem, a character whose background I needed to think out, and she suggested I read this 2013 memoir.

In Coming Clean, Kimberly Rae Miller tells the story of her parents’ hoarding. What’s starting is not so much the scale of their hoarding, but the characters themselves. She portrays her parents not as selfish and neglectful monsters, even as they render home after home unlivable, but as decent people with an uncontrollable. She’s remarkably kind toward them, even as she repeatedly cleans up their house, only to see her parents ruin it again.

Even though hoarding itself will not come up in the book I am writing — a possible sequel to HANGMAN’S GAME that is tentatively titled HANGMAN’S BENDER— the recommendation hit the bulls-eye in its portrait of continuing affection toward those who behave horribly.

The Purification Ceremony, by Mark T. Sullivan

51WKBK1TYGL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_A couple weeks ago my agent sent me a copy of Mark T. Sullivan’s The Purification Ceremony for reasons that became obvious as I plowed into it. The book is a master class in the marriage of suspense and character-driven story telling, the kind that I aimed to do in HANGMAN’S GAME, and that I am now hoping to continue as I work on its sequel, very tentatively titled HANGMAN’S BENDER. The pace that Sullivan maintains as he toggles between live action and looks back into the history of the characters is one I can only hope to emulate.

The Purification Ceremony also has, like HANGMAN’S GAME, a narrator who is a civilian rather than a standard detective. She takes you into the world of elite deer hunters, and then another related world, that of Native American mysticism, all the while coming to terms with the struggles of her life.

If you have writing ambitions in this direction, read The Purification Ceremony.