Coffee heat rising

One Toke Too Hilarious!

My old friend and former boss Jeff Burger posts this entertaining video at his website. You have got to see it. Lawrence Welk brings us Brewer and Shipley as modern spiritual!

SpringsteenBookYou might enjoy Jeff’s new book, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters (Musicians in Their Own Words), by the way. Jeff has been a reviewer and reporter of popular music for lo! these many decades, and is quite an expert on rock music.

Student paper day…so I don’t expect you’ll hear much more from me till tomorrow. {sigh} Only one more feature-length article and a brite slated to come in from that set. Then…ahhh! A whole summer of peace and quiet.

Joe’s War: Great Book for Veterans and WW II Buffs

My friend Virginia Anders kindly visited this week’s Scottsdale Business Association meeting and delivered a guest presentation about her recently published book. Besides being a pretty interesting lady on her own, Virginia acquired, almost by serendipity, a treasure trove of historic documents written by her father, who was an officer on the U.S.S. Yorktown during World War II. He had written letters home to his wife, Virginia’s mother, almost every day that he was at sea in the Pacific Theater.

Long widowed, the love of his life carried his letters with her until the time came for her to move to a care facility. Virginia, helping her mom divest herself of her belongings and pack what remained, noticed a stack of envelopes sitting atop the trash dumpster, recognized them as her dad’s correspondence, and asked if she could have them—and of course the answer was yes. Virginia rescued the documents two hours before the recycling truck came along.

The pile of letters morphed into a labor of love (literally: no cliché here) for Virginia. To create a book, she transcribed them and then researched the history of the Yorktown. To build context for the correspondence, she interpolated military reports of the Yorktown’s position and activities for the dates her dad, Joe Clifford, wrote his letters.

Men (and the few women) at war were enjoined from sending details of military operations in letters home. To keep the censors from literally cutting (with a razor blade) passages from his correspondence, Virginia’s dad Joe was careful to keep to the daily life on board ship. But he was a natural storyteller, and the result is a vivid revelation of what it was like to live on board a carrier in the middle of a war zone, where kamikazi planes (which Joe coded as “buzzbombs”) targeted American ships and torpedoes were a moment-t0-moment fear.

Virginia published the book through Amazon, making it available in hard copy as well as on Kindle. If you or someone you know is a World War II veteran or an aficionado of WWII history, Joe’s War: His Yorktown Letters Home would make a very fine gift.

Cutting for Stone: A Good Read

Just finished reading Abraham Verghese’s engaging book, Cutting for Stone. It’s one of those novels that pulls you so completely into its world that you feel sorry when it ends.

It’s the story of the orphaned and abandoned twin sons of an Indian nun and an Anglo doctor who grow up as Ethiopians in a charity hospital near Addis Ababa. The main protagonist is forced to flee during a period of civil unrest, goes to medical school in the U.S., and ends up as a respected surgeon, along the way nearly dying when his past comes back to haunt. The novel follows the two boys’ lives—and those of the people around them—from their birth into their adulthood.

The vividly drawn characters, interesting narrative line, and abundant detail create a rich tapestry, so that even when the plot waxes a bit melodramatic, you willingly set aside disbelief. It’s a hefty, solid, and highly enjoyable novel.

Verghese, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, has been compared to Salman Rushdie. Maybe. To my taste, there’s a significant difference: Verghese is crystalline in his clarity. He seems not to be drawn to the postmodernism that makes some of Rushdie’s work inaccessible to the literal of mind. And, it must be said, no one is likely to burn this book in the village square.

Whatever its literary merits (which I think are significant), Cutting for Stone is highly recommended.

College Cooking Crash Course: Superior Christmas Present for Young Adults!

Have you seen what Frugal Scholar has been up to? She and her college-age kids have created a cookbook for young people living in cramped quarters, such as dorm rooms and studio apartments. This bunch does some awesome cooking outside of the dorm room, and so they have some mighty tasty, fast, cheap recipes in their new compendium.

It’s an inspired idea. Combining Frugal’s recent enthusiasm for using the rice cooker as a multi-purpose tool with some original and clever recipes, they’ve come up with a very handy guide for anyone who has to fix meals in limited space. It’s perfect for college kids, for young people starting out in that first, tiny apartment, or for people who spend a lot of evenings in motel rooms when work takes them on the road.

What better Christmas gift for a young person who’s just flown the nest, or for your soon-to-be high-school graduate looking forward to the first year away from home?

You can get it for the Kindle by ordering here from Amazon, or you can get it direct from Frugal Scholar’s home page or from the College Cooking Crash Course site.

School’s Out! (briefly…)

Yay! It’s spring break! One of the little blandishments of teaching that I’d forgotten about, it having disappeared in a fog of 9-to-5 overwork quite some time ago.

Mountain Laurel in bloom

Remembering it, however, after Departmental Chair kindly gave me three sections to plan for this semester, I set things up so that no student papers would sit on my desk and demand to be read over this lovely 70-degree week. The last raft came in on Wednesday, and I finished reading them and posting grades around 10:30 Thursday night. So…we’re looking at a whole week with no work!

The weather’s incredible and a mountain of household, yard, and computer chores have backed up and demand to be done. So there’ll be plenty to keep me busy over the next seven days. The question, however, is how idleness will play out not now but over the summer, when the community college hires no adjuncts (the plummy summer jobs go to full-timers) and even if they did, Social Security prohibits me from earning any more than a few classes in the spring and fall will pay.

Even though we didn’t work much around the editorial office during the summer, we were employed and I did have to traipse out to the campus several times a week. A lot of that traipsing amounted to time-wasting, but it did at least occupy time, if fruitlessly. Before I took on the administrative job, I always used to teach during the summer. Full-time faculty members earn a percentage of their salary for each summer course, amounting to a nice slab of cash—far more than adjuncts are paid for the same work. It was enough to fund a vacation, if I wanted to travel somewhere, or (more to the point) to cover some new improvement or purchase for the house. That’s where the dollars came from, for example, to buy things like the gorgeous sidebar from Crate & Barrel and the leather sofa and chair in the living room.

Next year, when I can earn as much as anyone will pay me, I may ask for a section or two at the West campus, which pays almost a thousand dollars more than the junior colleges pay. Probably to no avail: the university is hemorrhaging students as it raises tuition and fees while cutting services. The community colleges’ summer enrollment, we were recently told, jumped 17 percent over last year’s, which itself showed a significant rise. Thus it’s unlikely the university will have any summer sections to farm out to adjunct faculty…particularly since the Board of Regents just announced that, as a sop to students and parents enraged by the latest 20 percent (!!) tuition hike, they’re cutting university employees’ salaries by 2.75 percent. To make up for it, everyone will be trying to teach a summer section, and of course there will be far fewer sections to go around.

Mwa ha ha! How glad am I that I’m not working there anymore? Let me count the gladnesses…

At any rate, back on topic after that digression: What to do this summer? I’ve never had an entire summer break with nothing to do—even as a student, I went to summer school. Adding to the problem is that summer weather here is as oppressive as an Upper Peninsula winter. Instead of getting snowbound, though, people get heat-bound: it’s so excruciatingly hot you just don’t want to stick your nose out of the refrigerated cube that is your house.

I’ve thought about shutting the place down and going somewhere else over the summer. In 118-degree heat, it costs so much to run the air-conditioning and water that the cost of decamping to Yarnell probably wouldn’t be that much more than staying here. The problem is, though, that when you have a pool and a bunch of trees and plants, you can’t just shut the place down and walk away. In the summertime, when monsoon winds fill the chlorinated puddle with debris from the devil-pod tree and from every palm tree for miles around, you have to be here to clean the damn thing every day. And anything in a pot that’s not watered first thing each morning is fried by noon.

Back in the day when I was married to the globe-trotting lawyer, never once did we leave town but what we came home to some baroque new mess, crisis, or catastrophe. Yea verily, even before we owned a house with a pool, going out of town simply dictated that some fiasco would happen when we were gone. Dead cats, fires, thieving house-sitters, house-sitter killing himself and three young women in a drunken car crash, painter painting the black cat white, father doing battle with house-sitter’s wannabe burglar boyfriend, dogs retrieved from the kennel sick, ohhhhh god. I got to the point where I just. did. not. want. to. leave. town.

So. My enthusiasm for batting around the countryside all summer is about nil. Some things are worse than being hot.

This leaves: what to do next summer?

One possibility is to try to wring a book out of Funny about Money. I think there’s more than enough copy to pull together something coherent. If I finish off the “Financial Freedom” series before the semester ends, that can be the core of the thing. Anything that’s vaguely related can serve as support material, and a few entertaining irrelevancies can be thrown in as frills and flounces.

The question remains, though, whether I can sell something that’s already been done. Too many PF bloggers have already taken their (somewhat hackneyed) advice to press. Who is gunna buy a FaM book and how much are they gunna pay up front? I suppose I could go back to William Morrow. But both my agent and my editor there are long gone. No one at that house knows me anymore. And my inclination to seek out another literary agent is about as lively as my inclination to pack up and leave town for the summer.

The ancient book published through Columbia is still selling, though weakly…I might be able to persuade someone there to buy a FaM spin-off. It’s not very academic, though. On the other hand, in these times university presses need to stock their lists with at least a few items that will sell. The recession could work in my favor there.

Another possibility is to try to write a detective novel and peddle it to my favorite client, Poisoned Pen Press. These things are such a hoot! And I know I can write the stuff. I’ve done two novels, neither of which I’ve tried to publish. Though they are unpublishable, they did provide plenty of practice building characters, plots, and scenes. One of them, IMHO, is pretty damned good—certainly better written than some of the stuff I’m seeing.

PPP’s advances are very low: from what I understand, only about $1,000. The way you make money off the things is to get out there and peddle them yourself. Obviously, if I’m teaching classes every day I’m not going to have time to junket around the country signing books and schmoozing with bookstore buyers.

Still, in a Bumhood setting, where we see that we really don’t need extravagant amounts of cash to live quite comfortably, a thousand bucks of money happening is, well—not unacceptable.

Speaking of PPP, just now I’m reading a wonderful thing by a writer named Judy Clemens, The Grim Reaper’s Dance. It’s due out in August. This is an amazing piece of writing! In the first place, Clemens is a fluent and graceful stylist—the astonishing characterization and plotline aside, her prose is a joy to read. And then we have the fantastic magical-realist story…what a tour de force! The conceit that takes this mystery novel way above the level of genre writing is the protagonist’s companion: Death.

Yes. That would be him: the Grim Reaper himself. Our heroine Casey is shadowed by the very Personification, who, materialized in the form of an amusingly creepy eccentric, follows her around and generally watches out for her. Along the way, he collects this and that soul. Visible only to Casey, who herself is pretty postmodern, Death may or may not be a hallucination. That very ambiguity makes the story strangely credible and highly entertaining. It’s a great piece of summer reading—highly recommended!

A third possibility is to volunteer to commit some good works. Trouble is, most everything around here closes during the summer, and so there won’t be much to do. Nor, really, am I fond of working for nothing. I’ve never been much of a joiner, alas.

And finally, there’s the possibility of actually learning something. La Maya is always engaged in one painting class or another; she says her teachers are open to taking on rank amateurs. These cost rather more than I can afford, however.

One of my students teaches piano. Once she’s out of my class, no conflict would be entailed in hiring her to teach me to plunk away. That would be useful for choir: I do need to how to read music a great deal better than I can now.

Or I could take yoga or dancing classes at the community colleges. Tuition is amazingly low for several weeks of entertainment. Who knows? Maybe I could take piano at the college.

Speaking of doing something, it is, I’m afraid, time to get up from the computer and go kill some of the exuberant weeds that are trying to take over the front yard. Onward!

Review: Blue Shoes and Happiness

by Alexander McCall Smith
Random House, Anchor Books
Paperback, $12.95
A taste for literature and a turn for business, united in the same person, never fails to make a great man.

—John Adams to his son John Quincy Adams

Philadelphia, 1777

For quite a while, I’ve wanted to review books for Funny about Money. Thing is, I personally don’t much enjoy the how-to and self-help books other PF bloggers favor. Their authors rarely say anything new, what they do say is often shallow or downright wrong, and the books too often seem to exist primarily to promote the authors’ own wealth-building agenda.

One of Funny’s themes, however, is stress relief and control. No question about it: a good book makes a fine tool for relieving stress. And so that leads us out of the wilderness of self-improvement and into the sylvan glades of…yes! literature. That’s right: things that are actually fun to read.

Over the past few months and years, revisiting fiction has given me a great deal of pleasure and, exactly contrary to watching television, has deflected anxiety. What passes for entertainment on TV by and large is a murky flood of violence, lurid voyeurism, and angst. Even the news programs, infotainment that I refuse to honor with the name of news but instead call Play-Nooz (back-formation from Play-Doh), consist almost 100 percent of violence, voyeurism, and angst. So I’ve taken to leaving the television off in the evenings and reading a good book instead. Personal finance hook: no cable bill means big savings for your budget.

My own taste in fiction, and so the kind of thing that will appear in these reviews, runs to the intelligible. While I respect and honor ground-breaking creativity, some of the postmodernists are about as readable as a (mind-numbing!) self-help book. Now that I’m a certified escapee from graduate school, I no longer feel compelled to read things that leave my head spinning. Carlos Fuentes I enjoy; Salman Rushdie gives me vertigo. So, you’re not likely to hear about The Enchantress of Florence here, not anytime soon. Lately my taste has grown so debased I’ve developed a fondness for certain pulp novels: hence my delight at being paid (can you imagine?) to read page proofs for a publisher of mystery stories.

This brings me to my favorite author of mysteries, Alexander McCall Smith, who has produced three series of novels. What I most love about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, among which Blue Shoes and Happiness numbers, is that almost nothing happens in these stories. No murders, no tortures, no kidnappings and cold-sweat searches for missing victims buried in living graves, no rapes, no mutilations. The few deaths that occur take place off-screen. Set in Botswana, the novels trace the lives and doings of Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the highly unlikely but strangely believable Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency; Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, one of Africa’s finest mechanics and owner of the garage on whose premises the detective agency resides; Motholeli and Puso, the two orphans they adopt; Grace Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe’s doughty (not to say “dowdy”) assistant; and their various clients, friends, relatives, and hangers-on. The action unrolls like the plot of a genteel soap opera: slow, elegant, and endlessly entertaining.

The exotic locale allows Smith, who was born in Rhodesia, to tell us about rural lifeways in Africa and the issues currently facing emerging nations on that continent, at the same time addressing what it means to be human. Rra Matekoni (Mma evidently means something like “Ms.” and Rra, “Mr.”) suffers from clinical depression, Mma Ramotswe has survived an abusive marriage, the intelligent Mma Makutsi struggles with her own sweet nerdiness. As these people wend their way along the routes of their lives, we see all the facets of human nature-kindness and cruelty, evil and good, generosity and greed, energy and sloth, moral strength and dissoluteness-revealing themselves in the passing panorama.

The stately pace gives Smith opportunities to display his considerable writing style, especially when the action pauses while the characters take time to contemplate their lives and circumstances. These extraordinary passages will be lost, I expect, in the TV series, soon to spin off the books onto BBC in the United Kingdom and HBO in the United States. Consider, for example:

Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni went home for lunch at Zebra Drive, something they enjoyed doing when work at the garage permitted. Mma Ramotswe liked to lie down for twenty minutes or so after the midday meal. On occasion she would drop off to sleep for a short while, but usually she just read the newspaper or a magazine. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni would not lie down, but liked to walk out in the garden under the shade netting, looking at his vegetables. Although he was a mechanic, like most people in Botswana he was, at heart, a farmer, and he took great pleasure in this small patch of vegetables he coaxed out of the dry soil. One day, when he retired, they would move out to a village, perhaps to Mochudi, and find land to plough and cattle to tend. Then at last there would be time to sit outside on the stoep with Mma Ramotswe and watch the life of the village unfold before them. That would be a good way of spending such days as remained to one; in peace, happy, among the people and cattle of home. It would be good to die among one’s cattle, he thought, with their sweet breath on one’s face and their dark, gentle eyes watching right up to the end of one’s journey, right up to the edge of the river.

We want stress relief? We want a true definition of wealth? Well, there they are.

This lovely, quiet imagery is directly followed by a scene full of tension as a new client appears at the Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency.

In Blue Shoes and Happiness, the people proceed through the small dramas of their lives, revealing their qualities of character along the way. Mma Makutsi finds a lover, though whether she will attain the happiness she has worked so hard to earn seems in question; Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni rescue a foundering soul and end up with an assistant mechanic who wants to be an assistant detective; clients bring tales of rascalry to be cleared up. As in all the Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency stories, little happens and much happens.

It’s in fiction that reality and wisdom reside. We humans explore the truths of our lives in the stories we tell. I’ll take Alexander McCall Smith over Dave Ramsey, any day!