GETTIN’ BUSY IN HERE (Quarterly Book Report: January through March, 2015)

Okay, I might have to go back to monthly reports. Suddenly I have time to read again…Meanwhile, a quarter’s worth of grab-bag:

Breakheart Pass (Alistair MacLean–1974)


By the seventies, MacLean was transferring his well-honed thriller formula to more and more exotic settings with (according to a consensus of those who plowed through his later novels at least) less and less success. This “western” version is a pretty good one, though. It’s not The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare by any means, but it moves along crisply and builds some real tension and surprise along the way. What you’d expect from an expert romanticist who was tired but not yet quite worn out.

A Game For the Living (Patricia Highsmith–1958)


A bit of a tease–rather like A Tremor of Forgery, the only other Highsmith I’ve read that lacked a distinctly American flavor. Even the Ripley novels, with their European settings, feel like a coming to terms with Highsmith’s homeland but here, the flavor and setting are strictly Mexico.

Still, she knew the place well, and, if you read a line like this, early on…

“Theodore did not want to get into a discussion of the Catholic versus the Protestant conscience or, what was worse, the Catholic conscience versus Ramon’s idea of ‘Existentialist’s conscience,’ which was no conscience at all to Ramon. Just because he did not torture himself, as Ramon did, for having an affair out of wedlock!”

…you might expect a narrative where souls are at stake, if not lives. But it turns out she doesn’t drum up much interest in either. Maybe she needed America and Americans more than she thought.

Anyway the novel is best when it’s searching for the soul of its setting.

“The police arrived, two ordinary policeman in uniform, and in a somewhat bored manner went over the house and listed the items Theodore said were missing and their value. Theodore knew he would never see them again. One almost never saw stolen things again in Mexico, and the POLICIA accepted robberies–little house robberies like this–with a resigned shrug. It was no doubt their conviction that people with so much money ought to be robbed now and then, that it did no harm and did the poor possibly some good. And Theodore, too, felt rather the same way.”

The POLICIA do, of course, investigate a little further than Theodore expects, but only because a murder is involved. As with all her novels, nothing much happens. Even murder feels ordinary. Unlike most of her novels, in this one, the nothingness behind the central murder never quite materializes into that moment of existential dread which was her specialty. What you do get a philosophy of life, which I suspect is pretty close to the author’s own unique combination of not-quite-nihilism and not-quite-not-nihilism:

“If the earth became a hunk of metal, or disintegrated and vanished in particles too small for scientists’ eyes or even their microscopes to find, wasn’t there some beauty in that, beauty in the idea, if nothing else? It seemed quite as beautiful as three billion sweating or freezing human beings creeping around on a globe.”

Highsmith’s basic idea was that murder lay in the hearts of practically everyone–perhaps more deeply in the hearts of the mundane spirits than in anyone else. Since neither of her main characters here ever seems remotely capable of murder and since no one else is developed enough for the reader to have an interest, the dread never comes.

The Dark Lady is always interesting and I always approach her with extra care, but this time she didn’t leave a mark.

Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of The Mamas & The Papas (Matthew Greenwald–2002)


First let me say (and I doubt this was the author’s fault), that this is the most incompetently produced book I’ve ever seen from a reputedly professional publisher. Spelling errors, grammatical glitches and/or malapropisms abound on nearly every page.

That being said, you should still read it if you have any interest in the group or their times. It’s not like there’s a really serious study out there and hearing this basic history in the words of the people who made it is fascinating…not least because you know you can’t trust a single one of them as far as you can throw one of those mountains you can supposedly see from the ocean California is supposed to slide into some day.

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Sharyn McCrumb–1990)


The first McCrumb I’ve read. The mystery/thriller part is standard enough, but the book is immensely valuable for its quietly effective and realistic depiction of small-town America in general and Appalachia in particular, a people and region who are rarely well-served by either fiction or life. On nearly every page you can find a little gem like this:

“Jeff McCullough found out a lot of things just because people stopped him in the street and asked about them, thinking that the local newspaperman would know more about it than they did.”

That’s the life of a small town journalist in thirty-three words and McCrumb offers up a town full of the same.

Naturally, when it came time for somebody to use this general setting for one of those “realistic” television shows that give the intelligentsia such a thrill, they picked Elmore Leonard, who couldn’t tell it from Detroit or Miami, to set the agenda.

Of course they did.

Growing Up Patton (Benjamin Patton with Jennifer Scruby–2012)


Multi-generational memoir from the grandson of the legendary WWII general and son of his highly successful namesake (also a general who served with distinction in Viet Nam). Benjamin Patton picked a different path and became a documentary filmmaker, a journey which led him to, among other things, develop a program where soldiers with PTSD (the kind his grandfather once famously slapped) document their experiences.

It’s not a “gotcha” memoir by any means, though. Rather the opposite. The grandson writes from a perspective of understanding what was valuable about his family’s military tradition and the enormous service both his father and grandfather rendered. Hence, along with stories of the many individuals they impacted, there are reams of good advice from both men, none of which is likely to be heeded by anyone conducting our present or future wars. Too bad. We’ll probably need to relearn the lessons they taught if we ever have to win one again. And we probably won’t.

For all that, the best anecdote, concerning the elder Patton, comes early on and confirms everything his admirers and critics ever dreamed or dreaded about him:

“Once when he was rehearsing his young daughter for a horse show, he berated her constantly, criticizing and cussing her, finding everything wrong, her posture, the way she handled her horse, her method of taking the jumps. He finally shouted in anger, ‘Get off that goddamn horse and let me show you how to do it.’ Meekly she climbed down, a chubby twelve-year-old, and he took her place. Resplendent and supremely self-confident in his horsemanship, he prepared to jump. As he spurred toward the obstacle, she was heard to say, ‘Dear God, please let that son of a bitch break his neck.'”

Such is love.

Garnethill (Denise Mina–1998)


A highly praised, 400-page snigger at the expense of rape, incest and abuse victims. It’s dressed up as empathy of course, complete with an improbably off-the-cuff revenge fanstasy and wrapped in a whodunit plot so transparent even I (notoriously bad at the game) guessed who the baddie was. The edition I bought has, as an addenda, a featured interview with the author, who reveals that she loves Glasgow (her adopted home and the novel’s setting) for its poverty and crime. Keeps it real and all.

Let me say that, having just finished her novel, I was not surprised. She does have one moment of honesty at the end of the book when the wee adorable lassies she has so fervently wished us to love and cherish throughout turn out, not as surprisingly as I suspect Mina intended, to be what they would call “pricks.”

In Glasgow slang that’s now apparently the worst thing you can call a woman. Bet you won’t need three guesses to know the worst thing you can call a man. (Hint, it starts with a c.) Ha ha ha. If this really is modern Scotland, I’m glad my ancestors got out.

[NOTE: Besides all that, I finished a Kennedy assassination book which I’m planning to review for BWW shortly. And I’m still pondering how to handle Devin McKinney’s book on the Beatles but I’ll definitely address it further in one venue or the other…I’ll also probably do a separate post on Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, which I’m currently reading and is certainly worth some extra attention…Til then.]


4 thoughts on “GETTIN’ BUSY IN HERE (Quarterly Book Report: January through March, 2015)

  1. Good Golly! Miss Molly! I grew up with George S Patton as my first hero, being a WWII History Buff, at an early age. I have got to find the book, ‘Growing Up Patton’. TYVM!

    • I think you’ll like it very much Clementine…Very much humanizes both the father and the grandfather. A friend gave it to me and I was glad because I probably wouldn’t have heard about it otherwise.


    1. Always enjoy whodunits when I read them, just never get around to reading them. Too much science-fiction on my shelves.

    2. Revisionist rock historians (almost redundant as they all seem interested in interpreting the past in ways that ignores much of the past) ALWAYS overlook how HUGE the Mamas & Papas were. During 1966-67, they were among the top LP sellers in the world, up there with the Beatles, the Monkees, and that other under-appreciated pop phenomenon, Herb Alpert and his bloody ubiquitous brass. For two years, the Mamas & Papas outsold Dylan, Beach Boys, Stones, and everybody else! (And John Phillips was a brilliant songwriter who is as aesthetically and historically under-represented as John Sebastian and Raymond Douglas Davies.)

    3. My Father served under Patton and still sorta idolizes him.

    4. I don’t take seriously any Kennedy book that doesn’t address the missing Mauser. (Read Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63” just because it was about the assassination. Nice fantasy but midway through it I said to my wife, “It reads like King used Norman Mailer and Gerald Posner as his sources. Not a good sign.” King included an afterword—which is highly unusual for a work of fiction—in which he noted OSWALD’S TALE and CASE CLOSED, two of the worst Kennedy books I have read, as his go-to material. Had King left the assassin unidentified and the time-traveler’s obsession unfulfilled, “11/22/63” would have been a more fulfilling read. But as someone once famous once said, “Oh, well . . .”)

    5. OUTLAW BLUES will forever change your view of THE BYRDS’ GREATEST HITS and how to listen to compilation albums . . .

    Sith agus Slainte bah!


    • Well, to take them one at a time…I never read whodunits to find out who done it, which is probably why I’m so bad at predicting who did! In recent years they’ve become more of a venue for covering the ground that used to be reserved for “social” novels. On that scale, the McCrumb is excellent….the Mina I found offensive (which, to offend me, you have to go some).

      I’ve always loved the Mamas and the Papas. They were one of my first “retro” discoveries (circa 1977). But the past few years I’ve become a bit obsessed. I’m not sure any group had it’s finger more firmly on the pulse of what the Sixties were GOING to mean to those of us coming along a little later. The book in question is worthwhile if only for the story of how Michelle confronted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee and basically shamed them into putting them on the ballot (at which point they were immediately voted in). And I certainly echo your love of Mssrs. Sebastian and Davies as well!

      I’ve had King’s book on my short list for a year or so–daunted by the length and the pressure of time….I WAS looking forward to it (lol), but reliance on Mailer and Posner? Well, as you say, that’s not a good sign. (I only made it about half-way through Posner’s book…Haven’t read Mailer’s but I did read his CIA novel, which might be the worst book I’ve ever read by a major writer…bad enough I’ve blocked its title from my memory).

      I’m savoring Paul’s book…and the Byrds Greatest Hits was my introduction to them (I’d never even heard them on the radio), so, yes, I especially treasure that review. And incidentally, I’ve read I don’t know how many on-line interviews with R. Christgau regarding his new memoir and he’s constantly asked what it was like at the beginning of “rock criticism”…and he’s mentioned just about everybody…except he’s conveniently forgotten to mention Paul. At all. So he keeps giving the impression he got there first. Nobody’s called him on it yet. Surprise, surprise!

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