Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Fiction Slog

It seems that when you read as much as I do, things tend to run in cycles. I will either hit a string of great reads, fiction and non-fiction alike, or a hit a spate of things that turn into a real slog to try to get through. Lately when it comes to fiction I have hit the slog zone…

The Outsider – Stephen King (Scribner)
In rare sojourn from the familiar confines of small town Maine, Stephen King weaves an interesting plot line into his at once familiar atmosphere of small town Flint City and drops the corpse of an 11 year old boy into the middle of things and stirs with a suspect who is instantly recognizable in the town and King’s prior work. So far, so good right?

The slog starts when King can’t quite manage to avoid letting his politics and correctness start to seep into the pages of The Outsider. While not overtly political, you can’t quite escape the obvious lurking in the story line. When you think about it, like most folks, I turn to King for the pure escape of delving to the twisted mind/world of a true horror master. That pursuit of escape is spoiled by his need to let everyone know where he stands on the political scale.

Sorry, but you’re free to have and express any opinion you’d like, but to have it intrude into your work makes it seem like a lack of self-control. I don’t turn to Stephen King or any other fiction writer to get the low down on where they stand on the issues, I come to entertained and step away from the day to day reality.

The Kremlin Conspiracy – Joel C. Rosenberg (Tyndale House)

Joel Rosenberg is single-handedly responsible for some of the most explosive works of fiction that have a ripped from today’s headlines feel, and in some cases an almost Nostradamus-like ripped from next month’s or next year’s headlines forecasting the future quality.

His latest, The Kremlin Conspiracy unfortunately does quite clear the high bar that his prior outings have set. This one becomes a bit of slog with the multi-stage plotlines and characters not quite matching up. I found that the first third of the book is spent trying to develop the setting and tone and it seems at times like it could have been done with more economy of words and scale and achieved a better outcome.

While the read between the lines and see reality certainly showcases some familiar parallels to real world characters, it tends to come off as predictable and a bit dry, plus I’m not sure the “cliffhanger” ending left me breathlessly awaiting the next installment.

Adjustment Day – Chuck Palahniuk (W.W. Norton)
Chuck Palahniuk is a different kind of cat who dabbles in his own unique brand of twisted fiction. While he has certainly served up some memorable efforts in the past (Fight Club/Choke), I am not quite sure that his latest outing, Adjustment Day quite lives up to his prior billing.

There is something that is overtly familiar about the storyline, a been there done that mix of 1984, Logan’s Run, In Time, and The Purge movies. While he is well known taking his rapier approach to things cultural and societal in nature, with this outing that approach seems to get bogged down by political overtones that creep into these pages.

Okay, we get it; you don’t like where things are or where they may be headed in your estimation, but to have it intrude into your storyline gets a bit exasperating for some of your readers that may come from a different mindset.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Don’t Stop Believin’: The Man, the Band, and the Song that Inspired Generations – Jonathan Cain – (Zondervan)

Full confession up front: before transitioning to talk radio I spent over a decade working as an air personality for a variety of rock radio stations. Much of my time on the air was spent working for tightly formatted and playlisted stations that featured Journey in HEAVY rotation. I was among a legion of folks who disdained the pre-fab corporate rock sound that helped them to sell millions upon millions of records. Granted they had and have a multitude of fans that continue to follow them after decades and decades together. My disdain for the band peaked when my girlfriend at the time, my wife all these years later, and I attended a Journey show (thank God for comp tickets) just so we could see the opening act, Bryan Adams. As we departed the sold out arena we ran into a fellow station employee who was SHOCKED that we were bolting following Adams’ set.

That being said, I have always been a fan of rock bios, so I was interested in getting the insights on the story of one of the men who was responsible for churning out a nearly non-stop parade of hit after hit for Journey, during his stint with Bad English and even for numerous other artists; Jonathan Cain.
Cain’s bio, Don’t Stop Believin’: The Man, the Band, and the Song that Inspired Generations, tracks from his humble roots right through the start of his pursuit of music career and on to the highest reaches of his chosen profession. Along the way he serves up in great detail some of the trials and tribulations of his life, as well as the triumphs and amazing experiences his music afforded him.

He truly was shaped by not only his career path, but his childhood that was impacted by a tragic and horrifying fire at his elementary school that left nearly 100 of his classmates and teachers dead. It’s almost impossible to think that that could not have had an impact that sticks with him through today. As he writes about that event, you can clearly sense the desperation he felt while witnessing the fire escalate and trying to find out if twin girl neighbors/friends were among the dead. They survived and he writes with clarity about the impact that faith had on his thought process at the time.

It is that faith that is clearly articulated throughout the book. That may turn some reader/fans off, but Cain can hardly be accused of postulating or trying to force his faith on others. He also clearly spells of his flaws and failings but, what rock bio doesn’t come without an (un)healthy dose of problems and slip ups along the way? Cain personifies resilience as he takes his challenges head on only to come out the other side seemingly stronger.

It is impossible to escape the obvious; Cain along with his songwriting partners in Journey have crafted songs that are part of not only the soundtrack of generations, but even a step further, part of the cultural fabic of our life.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Peace Through Strength

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence – Ronan Farrow (W. W. Norton)

President Ronald Reagan famously summed up his foreign policy doctrine by saying that America’s mission was to “nourish and defend freedom and democracy.” He, likely many strong leaders before him, dating back to Roman Emperor, Hadrian in the first century AD had a stated policy of “peace through strength.”  This policy of military might drove Reagan’s naysayers in the Democrat party and the media to the brink of their sanity as they often labeled him a cowboy or much worse. Yet the results speak for themselves with the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and around the globe attests.

Writing for the CATO Institute, Doug Bandow summed it up with the simple line “peace was the end and strength was the means.” Since Reagan, U.S. foreign policy has been a mishmash of failed policies that focused on trying to chit chat, or buy our way to influence around the globe with failings like the Clinton era of having former President Jimmy Carter negotiating a nuclear deal with North Korea, to Clinton’s failure to deal with international terrorists like Osama bin Laden; who famously dubbed the U.S. as a “paper tiger.” George W. Bush couldn't quite wrap his arms around whether or not he wanted to be a nation builder, and don’t even get me started on Barack Obama’s international apology tour and utter failure to deal with American’s held hostage around the globe, best summed up by his trading of five terrorists for an Army deserter. Then there is the debacle of the Iran Nuclear deal.

Apparently in the midst of him being thrust into the global spotlight for his investigative journalism on the sexual harassment/assault/#me too front, journalist Ronan Farrow found time to pull together his thoughts on the demise of American foreign policy in the Trump era in the form of War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Farrow tapped into his time working in various advisory roles in the Obama State Department and offers some interesting insight into the inner workings of the negotiations and process of working with globetrotting ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

I can’t help but think there is an almost childlike quality to liberal’s belief that you can somehow talk and buy your way to peace. While it may be a hard lesson for some, peace is not negotiated, it is won. So-called peace negotiations all too often boil down to battling over the size of the conference table for the peace negotiations (see Viet Nam War.)

For Farrow, much like Mark Twain’s death, the reports of the death of American foreign policy and influence are greatly exaggerated. While Farrow’s colleagues in the media will breathlessly speak of trade wars with China, in their eyes wrongheaded Presidential Tweets about “little rocket man” in North Korea and the utter folly of scrapping the awful Iran Nuclear deal and moving on without our European allies, the ends will be the return of a stronger United States on the international stage and the means will be through a position of strength, not kowtowing to thugs and dictators.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Required Reading for Reporters

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling (Flatiron)

Here is a test: I challenge you to head down to your favorite big box bookstore and take a look around, I will bet that you will no problem finding shelves and shelves of books on the power of positive thought. The challenge is to try to find one, just one book that will help you be better at being negative. Here’s a hint…you won’t find even one, because no one needs a book to tell them how to be negative, because it’s an almost natural inclination.

Dr. Hans Rosling, a medical doctor, professor of international health and regular participant in TED Talks addresses the phenomena of ten instincts he categorizes, that dictate and some cases distort our perspective on the world around us in his new book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

All too often writers or thinkers are describe as influential because they impact what we think; Rosling has really set out to impact or influence how we think. So much of what we are subjected to in the ways of influence is based on the bias of the influencers and it becomes all too often a case of garbage in garbage out. Rosling makes the case that when you are pre-disposed to thinking negatively then that influence will simply reinforce that thought process in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This book should become required reading for anyone who wants to pursue a career in journalism. With the non-stop, 24/7 news cycle, the Twitiots, Facebook and so much more is it any wonder that we have seen the rise of fake news. Often all it takes is a dose of not-so-common sense and critical thought to cut through the bias and raise questions about what is being served up by the influencer class.

Rosling does a great job of dialing down the rhetoric and our natural instincts, to put things into perspective that is free of bias and actually based in fact…or in this case Factfulness.

The Hip. Fully Completely

The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip – Michael Barclay (ECW Press)

I remember the conversation vividly. I wandered into the converted old house on Buffalo’s east side that was home to an independent record promotion company run by friends of mine; my mission was to pick up an arm load of new music to play on my show. Unlike the stereotypical image of slick guys in silk tour jackets, more concerned about money and radio airplay, these guys were old school music fans, who happened to have a company that worked to get records played on the radio. Their track record of “breaking” bands was impressive, as the oversized autographs on the office wall that dated back to 1980 from a little Irish outfit known as U2 can attest.

Spinning in his office chair to greet me, my friend Bruce reached down to a stack of albums leaning against his desk and thrust copies of the Tragically Hip’s self-titled debut EP and their first full album Up To Here, into my hands and proclaimed, “you have to hear this, you have to play this.” With that he went to the office stereo system and dropped the needle onto the record and cranked up the volume. I had seen the look on his face before, so I knew this was the real deal. I had the rare opportunity at the time to have a show on a otherwise tightly formatted rock station to pick and choose music I thought was cool and great and give it a spin. Needless to say, the Tragically Hip was both cool and great; it’s no wonder that Buffalo, NY would form a love affair with the band that would that was unmatched outside of their home of Canada.

It was with a mix of love for the band and sadness at the passing of frontman Gord Downie that I approached Michael Barclay’s epic rendering of their history, The Never-Ending Present: the Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, from beginning to end at the all too early age of 53. Barclay utilizes an almost documentarian approach to detailing the band; utterly comprehensive from the band’s formation in Kingston, Ontario and through the evolution of their sound and style serving up insights from studio and the thought processes of the band.

While I tend to avoid the minor details of getting the first guitar/drums/bass and the machinations of how bands came together, Barclay manages to deliver the highlights without dwelling on every broken guitar string along  the way like many biographers. He paints the picture, sets the scene and moves the story forward. While the book is 500 plus pages, it never felt like a door stop like too many overblown tales. Thank God it also avoided the tendency of so many rock bios to wander into the Behind the Music, realm of too many drugs, too many women and too much excess; like I said, The Hip was cool and good.

Barclay does a great job of showcasing the cultural shift and impact the band had on Canada that was like no other band. The fact that my home town of Buffalo got to be like a distant, but loving cousin who was a part of that was not lost on me as I read the book; he managed to tap into the joy that that band brought to so many while never diminishing the impact of the tragic loss of Downie to brain cancer.

While I have moved away for career reasons, I continued to live vicariously through the reporting of my home town newspaper, The Buffalo News, and their reporting on a jam packed video screening of the band’s farewell concert, which I have managed to watch online a couple of times. It seemed somehow fitting that my friend Bruce was quoted via text message by the Buffalo News music critic Jeff Miers, in his obit of Downie, “Gord died last night” for me completing the circle, fully completely.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Who Knew?

Big Whiskey – Carlo DeVito (Cider Mill Press)

While some of the distilleries that pour forth the subject matter behind  the new book, Big Whiskey have long and rich histories, I could only conclude, who knew that the tales behind these storied practitioners of the distilled arts ran so deep.

A few years back I became intrigued by images of bourbon/whiskey drinkers in film and and references made in novels. Thriller master Brad Thor went so far as to compile a blog post detailing a list of his suggestions for serving a flight of bourbon or hosting a home tasting. A beer drinker by choice, I was intrigued enough to try my hand and my taste buds out and branch out into sampling a range of small batch vodkas, and now have moved on to sampling a range of bourbons.

It seemed like a natural step to pair this tasting journey with some new knowledge, hence delving into Big Whiskey. This heavy, dense tome is beautifully illustrated and would make a nice addition to any spirited connoisseur’s bookshelf, looking to expand and engage with their spirit of choice.

DeVito along with managing editor, Richard Thomas and Emily West, a writer for the Tennessean, who covers spirits, business and local news, deliver a very approachable writing style. While it does serve up some insight into the taste palate of the variety of brands and types of whiskey, it doesn’t slide off into the land of the fru-fru, with spice notes and hint of chalk board. Even if you aren’t a participating drinker, the rich and often times colorful history behind these familiar and not so familiar brands make for great stories and a raise a glass to their skillful telling.  

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Hammer Time

Killing Town: The Lost First Mike Hammer Thriller! – Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins – (Titan)

Mickey Spillane said to his wife Jane in his final week of his life “When I’m gone, there’ll be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max. He’ll know what to do.”

The Max in question was veteran thriller writer and Spillane friend and confident Max Allan Collins. With the 100th anniversary of the birth of the wildly prolific and fertile creative mind behind so many of the all time classic of the hard boiled, thriller genre what better time to delve into the stash of manuscript stops and starts, half written, or scribbled ideas the master left behind, to unearth what is plausibly believed to be the first appearance on paper of Mike Hammer.

From that stash, Collins unearthed a few dozen, time yellowed pages that he dates back to the post World War II era and prior to Hammer’s first published appearance, 1947’s; I, The Jury. Once again Spillane’s words proved to be oh so prescient; Max, did know what to do, as he transformed those pages into a celebration of Spillane’s tough guy style and delivered a winning prequel in the form of Killing Town.

Even if you never took the classic 1970s Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course, you will find yourself rattling through this riveting rendering of Hammer, at a breakneck pace. Right from the opening scene with Hammer riding the rails into Killington, Rhode Island in an oh so unique fashion; no not in the bar car, but bumming a ride hanging on underneath the car through to the sticky finish in a fish glue factory, Collins will keep you wondering how Hammer will pull himself out of mess after mess.

Along the way you run across Spillane’s usual suspects; gorgeous and curvy dames, bent and brawling cops and more than a few criminals and crooks. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the master of the forms, 100th Anniversary of his birth.