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To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel
by Joshua Ferris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.60
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5.0 out of 5 stars Original, Thought Provoking, and Brave, November 4, 2014
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Joshua Ferris was a finalist for the National Book of the Year for his novel, THEN WE CAME TO AN END; he was also a finalist for the Man Booker Award for this effort, TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR.

Ferris is an extremely original writer. It takes a lot of guts to make your main character a dentist. We learn all about the frustrations of the profession. Dr. Paul O’Rourke is a Park Avenue dentist in New York City, but he gets his share of eccentrics. He shows one patient three cavities, but the man decides not to have them filled because they don’t hurt. The man religiously goes to the dentist twice a year, because you’re supposed to.

The fact that O’Rourke is a dentist is almost coincidental. This book is really about identity theft and atheism. O’Rourke is down on social networking, although his receptionist and head hygienist would like him to advertise his practice via Facebook etc. One day Betsy, his crackerjack hygienist, shows him his new Facebook page, congratulating him on coming out of the dark ages. Problem is it’s not him, although the page identifies him as the owner.

Okay, identity theft is a serious problem in our society, but that’s still not what this book is about. O’Rourke is a sad man. He had a serious relationship with his receptionist, Connie, who happened to be an Orthodox Jew, apparently in name only. Paul fell in love with her family, especially Uncle Stuart, a father figure. His own father committed suicide. But Connie wanted kids and Paul didn’t want that responsibility. About the only thing Paul has left, besides his practice, is his love for the Red Sox, but even that is hampered when they actually win the World Series in 2004, after an 86 year lapse. These days they’re more like the hated Yankees, adopting some of their methods, buying free agents etc. It’s more fun to pull for a bunch of loveable screw-ups.

Ferris pulls another switcheroo when whoever is harassing the doctor, begins posting weird comments in his name about an ancient religion that was massacred by the Israelites, the Ulms, whose main theology was “doubt” about the existence of God. Paul establishes an e-mail relationship with the man who’s impersonating him and he meets several other people who are supposedly descended from the Ulms. He becomes so absorbed in the Ulms that his practice begins to suffer. Eventually a woman comes to see him who gives him a detailed genealogy which seems to prove that he was indeed descended from the Ulms. And a antiquities expert finds a copy of their holy book, written in Yiddish.

At one point one of the characters claims atheists and agnostics are the most discriminated against group in America. But that’s not what this book is about; Paul O’Rourke, although he is an atheist, is a searcher, trying to find a place or group to belong to. In most respects we all are.


The Drop
The Drop
by Dennis Lehane
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.73
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4.0 out of 5 stars Tender Murderer?, October 27, 2014
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This review is from: The Drop (Paperback)
Bob Saginowski is an intriguing character. He’s a bartender who works in a “drop” bar where Chechen mobsters deposit their drug, gambling, and prostitution money as a way to avoid the DEA catching them with thousands, if not millions, in cash.

Bob is a lonely guy who doesn’t do well with women; he’s tried church picnics and such, but nothing seems to work. His titular boss, Uncle Marv, orders him to collect the bar tab from a regular from a nearby senior citizens home who nurses a Tom Collins for hours to avoid going back to the home. Bob has saved his money and has no problem paying the tab for the old woman. He also finds a puppy in a garbage can that has been abused and left for dead. The can belongs to a woman named Nadia who teaches Bob how to care for the dog. Bob doesn’t even get mad when the dog craps on his mother’s rug. Nadia has a dirt bag ex-boyfriend who claims the dog is his and he wants it back.

Then there’s a hold up, and Bob blabs to the cops about what one of the guys looked like. Uncle Marv, Bob’s cousin, once ran his own “crew”; Bob was one of the hard guys who worked for Marv. That’s the first indication we get that Bob may not be who we think he is.

Bob goes to church every day; coincidentally the detective investigating the hold-up also attends the same church. There’s an unsolved case. Richie Whelan, a regular at the bar, disappeared, and is presumed dead. Detective Torres, suspects that Bob had something to do with, because he never takes communion. Torres has been demoted from the homicide unit, and he has an extra incentive to solve the case.

Lehane is one of our better writers because he presents an ethical dilemma. Can someone who has committed a horrible crime still be a good person? Can he redeem himself? Robert Browning covered the same territory when he used the term “Tender Murderer” in one of his poems.


The Big Crowd
The Big Crowd
by Kevin Baker
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.64
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4.0 out of 5 stars Big Apple Tour Guide, October 20, 2014
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This review is from: The Big Crowd (Paperback)
Kevin Baker is a historian; hence his reliance on real life characters and fictionalized characters based on real people. That’s the case with Charlie O’Kane, an Irish immigrant who became mayor of New York, who is probably based on William O’Dwyer post WWII mayor who was also an Irish immigrant.

Charlie’s brother Tom is the main character in the novel. He’s an ADA and is trying to get his brother to tell him what really happened when mob witness Abe Reles was thrown or jumped from a safe-house window surrounded by at least a half dozen cops and other mob witnesses. This happened just as Reles, also a member of Murder Incorporated, was ready to testify against Albert Anastasia. Before all the mafia books and movies, I was fascinated with the mob. I remember pictures of Albert riddled with blood stains as he lay in his barber chair, well after the Kefauver investigations.

So then the plot thread is whether Charlie was involved in the Reles incident. Apparently most people thought he was because he wound up in Mexico City, dodging extradition. That’s where the sub plot occurs. You see, Tom is in love with Slim, Charlie’s wife. They’ve been carrying on a lurid affair for years. He can’t keep his hands off her when he sees her again in Mexico. She is loosely based on Pat McCormick, the four time Olympic diver, who was also a bullfighter. Slim is learning how against old tired bulls. Tom also has a girlfriend, fellow ADA, Ellie, who’s almost as beautiful as Slim but much more forgiving. The fool tells her all about Slim.

Mayor LaGuardia pops up for a few paragraphs and one of the major minor characters is Bill McCormack, Mr. Big of the New York City docks. Cardinal Francis Spellman is portrayed as an effeminate fop. We never meet Kefauver or Albert Anastasia, which would have been a treat.

I was first introduced to Kevin Baker when I read SOMETIMES YOU HEAR IT COMING, one of the better fictional baseball books I’ve read. Then I read the first of the City of Fire trilogy: DREAMLAND, about the history of Coney Island. Baker’s scholastic background definitely serves him as a reliable tour guide of the Big Apple.


The Painter: A novel
The Painter: A novel
by Peter Heller
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.78
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4.0 out of 5 stars Tender Murderer, September 30, 2014
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This review is from: The Painter: A novel (Hardcover)
The first Peter Heller novel I read was THE DOG STARS, a dystopia about a blood disease that wipes out the world population, except for a few stragglers here and there. THE PAINTER is entirely different, although quite violent in its own way.

Jim Stegner, the main character, is an artist plagued by the loss of his daughter and a temper that gets the best of him. Prior to her death he shot a suspected pederast who said he wanted to “train” his daughter as a projectionist in his movie theater. Besides art, Jim’s other passion is fly fishing, and that’s what he’s doing when he runs across an “outfitter” who’s beating his horse. This is after his daughter’s death, and in his mind Jim associates the little roan with his daughter. Let’s just say that doesn’t bode well for the outfitter.

The book includes many scenes where Jim is working on a painting. Each chapter heading includes the dimensions and the subject of a new painting. It gets psychological after a while. One focuses on a man digging a grave. That one was unfortunate, because the detective investigating the death of the outfitter sees the painting and immediately makes the connection.

Heller must have great respect for law officers. There are two in the novel, affectionately known as “Sport”, the one above, and “Wheezer,” a really nice guy who’s not in the best of health. Wheezer goes so far as to chart a way out for Jim.

I had a little trouble believing some of the violent incidents in the book, especially the second. There’s another outfitter who happens to be the first one’s brother, and he goes looking for Jim. What happens there is hard to believe. And there’s another relative, a trucker, who stalks Jim after the second brother gets his just desserts. Only this guy is essentially a nice guy, too, who provides the ending for the novel. I liked the way Heller handled the epilogue. It’s hard to believe Jim would actually do what the trucker suggests, considering his obsessions with painting and fly fishing.

I should say something about the women in Jim’s life. He’s been divorced twice, and he is currently having a relationship with his model, Sofia, who makes a move on him. Stephen Lily, Jim’s agent, is also significant in that he has a schizophrenic relationship with Jim’s art. He wants Jim to do commissions, but he also respects his talent.

This is a decent read if you like a theme with your plot. You might be reminded of Robert Browning’s poem where he refers to a “tender murderer”.


The Farm
The Farm
by Tom Rob Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.90
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4.0 out of 5 stars Tom Rob Smith Moves in a Different Direction, September 17, 2014
This review is from: The Farm (Hardcover)
Tom Rob Smith is the author of CHILD 44, one of the better thrillers I’ve ready in recent years. It was about a Russian serial killer, apparently based on a real case. Since then he’s written three more novels, two of them part of the Russian trilogy: THE SECRET SPEECH and AGENT SIX. I read them all.

THE FARM is a departure for Smith in a big way. According to Smith’s bio he has a Swedish mother and a British father. So does Daniel the protagonist of the new novel. Daniel’s parents have retired to a farm in Sweden, and Daniel is searching for a way to tell them that he’s gay, living with his partner, in Mark’s apartment when he receives a phone call from his father. His mother has been released from a mental hospital and is headed his way. She’s been acting strangely for a while, writing nonsense on the walls of the farm house.

During most of the story, we hear Tilde’s side of the story. She has a satchel in which she keeps the evidence of her descent into so-called madness. She’s positive she can convince Daniel that she’s the victim of a conspiracy to shut her up. We discover that his parents had very little money, having lost most of their savings in the recession, making bad real estate investments. The farm was cheap and Tilde had plans to attract tourists with salmon from the river and produce from a huge vegetable garden, but a land-hungry neighbor, Hakan, wants their land, and Chris, her husband, seems inclined to sell it to him for three times what they paid for it. Hakan has an adopted daughter, Mia, whom he adopted from Africa. Tilde believes Mia was a sex slave, and so were other adopted children in the area. She believes Mia was murdered when she threatened to tell the police. Amazingly she believes Chris is part of the sex ring, as is Hakan, the town mayor, a police detective, and the psychiatrist who treated her. Daniel doubts his gentle and kind father could ever change so much in a matter of months.

So . . . we’re left with the question, “Is Tilde telling the truth or is she delusional?” She seems to have all of her ducks in a row. She insists on presenting her evidence chronologically, and she backs her case up with seemingly concrete evidence. Then Chris calls to say he’s coming to London. Tilde has predicted he would.

As a novelist myself, I have to give credit to Smith’s originality; he doesn’t persist in his bread and butter Russian thriller series. This effort is totally original. I also had no idea what was going to happen in the climax. As an inveterate mystery fan, I usually know long before the denouement. I first chose Smith as an alternative to Martin Cruz Smith, as I was a big GORKY PARK fan, and I’ve read all of Cruz’s novels since, but I wasn’t disappointed to see Tom Rob Smith go in a different direction.


Fourth of July Creek: A Novel
Fourth of July Creek: A Novel
by Smith Henderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.07
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5.0 out of 5 stars This Social Worker Needs a Social Worker, September 8, 2014
Who would imagine a social worker would be confronted with shady side of human existence to this extent? The first part of this book is such a downer that you will be tempted to quit reading. Don’t do it. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

Pete Snow is a social worker plying his craft near the Montana Wilderness. In one of the first scenes, he’s called to a local school to deal with a boy loitering the halls, who seems to have come in out of the wild. He’s disheveled and doesn’t smell all that good. This boy is Benjamin Pearl, son of Jeremiah Pearl, a survivalist living in the hills. Pete takes Ben back to his father, and the two soon develop a rather live-and-let-live relationship. Pete sees Ben as a client and occasionally leaves food and clothes where the boy might find them. Jeremiah believes we’re in the end times, and that government script isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Pete is also having problems in his personal relationships; his wife has cheated on him, and he moves out. She moves to Texas, taking their daughter Rachel (who wants to be known as Rose) with them. Rachel soon runs away, and Pete spends the rest of the novel trying to track her down. Pete’s brother Luke has also run afoul of the law, and has jumped his parole. His parole officer thinks Pete knows where he is.

Smith Henderson has a unique style, especially during the Rachel viewpoints. He asks questions, then narrates Rachel’s answers. This is a technique that lots of writers use, asking their characters questions to get to know them, but I’ve never seen one put them in the book in this fashion. It sounds rather like the reader asking the author what’s happening with Rachel.

Rachel has two boyfriends during her escapade; the second one is a street kid named Pomeroy, who dyes his hair black. We get a good look at street life and what kids think they have to do to survive.

FOURTH OF JULY CREEK is a unique perspective on American life. I mean, when the social worker gets drunk, gets in fights, and is accused of harboring a criminal, who can you trust? Not that Pete doesn’t have a good heart. He truly loves his daughter; and he shows Jeremiah Pearl more understanding than he probably deserves.


Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
by John Scalzi
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.48
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2.0 out of 5 stars Science Fiction or Bad Satire?, August 25, 2014
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John Scalzi served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He wrote this novel while he was president. He also worked in some capacity on STARGATE UNIVERSE, a show I’ve never seen. He makes it clear in his acknowledgements that THE CHRONICLES OF THE INTREPID is not based on STARGATE UNIVERSE.

Although I liked Frank Herbert’s DUNE series, Isaac Asimov’s stories, and, of course, Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkein‘s HOBBIT, I’m not a big fan of science fiction or fantasy.

I almost quit reading this one. Apparently it’s supposed to be a satire of the space opera genre, but the only similarity I could find that was fair play was that the walk-ons on those shows are the first to die on away team or during an attack on the ship. You don’t kill off Spock, the captain, Bones or Scotty.

When Andrew Dahl and his fellow new crew members report to the Intrepid, they are perplexed by the tendency of their superiors to hide every time the captain or the science officer appears in their work area. They soon learn that they’re being tipped off by Jenkins, who’s hiding in the walls of the ship where supply carts deliver supplies to various departments. Jenkins has a theory that the new crew members die because this is really a TV show projected into space from another century. Scalzi doesn’t provide any science to justify such a scenario. The closest I could come (not in this book) was the strange theory that we’re holograms; our real selves live on the edge of a black hole. When the characters go back in time, Scalzi uses a previous episode of THE CHRONICLES OF THE INTREPID where the crew flew towards a black hole to time travel. If it works on the show, it should work for Dahl and his compatriots.

Andrew Dahl realizes eventually that he’s now the protagonist of the show. He should’ve been killed or maimed several times, but he always survives. One would think that the ending would feature Dahl. Think again, it’s about one of the other minor characters. Dahl is involved in virtually every plot point in the book. One would think . . . Scalzi also commits another one of my pet peeves as a reader. He adds a rather long acknowledgement where he thanks every one connected with the book except his mother. Apparently it takes a village to write bad science fiction, and he thinks he’s just written WAR AND PEACE.

Almost forgot the Joe Hill blurb. Hill is Stephen King’s son. He actually said, “REDSHIRTS is ruin-your-underwear funny.” The only funny scene I remember is when Maia Duvall, another new crew member, says she owes Dahl a blow job. Dahl thinks she’s serious, but she’s speaking metaphorically about owing him a favor. A really big favor would proceed up the metaphorical sexual ladder. I’m trying not to use the “f” word. I did chuckle at that, but it was one of the only times while reading this book that I was amused or entertained. Skip it.


The Transcriptionist: A Novel
The Transcriptionist: A Novel
by Amy Rowland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.27
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3.0 out of 5 stars All Alone on the 17th Floor, August 14, 2014
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THE TRANSCRIPTIONIST is one weird novel. I’m still not sure what it was about.

Lena, the main character, works at the RECORD, the biggest and most respected newspaper in New York. I guess THE TIMES wouldn’t give Amy Roland permission to use their name, but “the Grey Lady” is mentioned and that’s THE TIMES. Anyway, Lena is the last of the transcriptionists; she takes calls from reporters who need her to type their interviews for them, and e-mail her finished copy back to them and also return the tape of the transcription. The problem is she’s becoming claustrophobic, working on the 17th floor all by herself, just her and a pigeon on the window outside the room, that she talks to occasionally. She has an admirer of sorts, Russell, one of the reporters who calls her Carol. She doesn’t immediately correct him.

Then she meets Arlene Lebow, a blind woman, on the subway; they make a connection, but the next day she reads about the blind woman being eaten by a lion at the zoo. Apparently she swam the moat to commit suicide. This event really depresses Lena. Then the blind woman’s body disappears and Lena sets out to find her.

Lena also has a buddy named Kov who spends all day piecing together tattered versions of a ancient obituaries. He’s not who he seems to be.

Lena is looking for a way to escape her prison on the 17th floor, and she finds it when she clashes with the paper’s star reporter, a foreign correspondent, who sends her an interview about Iraq, then tries to kill it minutes later. Let it suffice to say that Lena doesn’t kill it. It appears in the paper the next day.

Not everybody can get an obituary printed in THE RECORD, at least one written by a reporter, not the normal obituary writer. And that’s Lena’s final gesture at THE RECORD. Guess who it’s for.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 23, 2014 1:07 PM PDT


Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.97
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Forty Miles of Hard Road, August 7, 2014
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I read an article that claimed people who buy CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY barely get beyond twenty pages. I can see why that might be the case. This is one hard read; it took me over a month to read it.

For one thing, Piketty has a favorite formula that he repeats constantly. I don’t have a font that will reproduce it exactly, but basically he’s saying that “the capital/income ratio is equal in the long run to the savings rate divided by the growth rate.” The closest I can get is B = s/g. If the growth rate averages around two percent (Piketty predicts 1.5 for the rest of the 21st century, large fortunes (like the Wall family’s) can average as much as six percent interest each year. They’re worth about 148 billion. Do the math.
Like the aristocrats before the French Revolution (Piketty is a French economist) they don’t have to work, and they can live on the interest. Piketty says this money should be spent on education and the infrastructure rather than just sitting there collecting interest on investments.

Another scary thought is that some countries, like Norway, have federal investment funds with capital on the order of six hundred billion dollars (because of the North Sea oil profits). If they can earn six percent for thirty years, they can start buying up other countries’ wealth in the form of corporations, buildings, raw materials, etc.

Piketty does mention an unfamiliar name he sort of blames for the trickle down philosophy. Simon Kuznets claimed that capital and labor would eventually grow closer together if given enough time. That did happen between the first World War and after the second World War. Piketty calls these wars and the Great Depression “shocks to the system”. Since Reagan and Thatcher started the conservative revolution, capital has been gaining momentum where the lower fifty percent owns virtually nothing.

Okay, we’re expecting Piketty to mention certain economic conditions like the national debt in America and Britain and the EU’s recent financial problems. Remember, he’s French, so he talks about France quite a bit. Turns out they’re pretty darn flush, but have a currency in common without a government. Piketty wants a European Parliament; I guess they have one but it’s kind of a sham. A Parliament could distribute funds and equitable taxes.

Piketty has three solutions to the national debt: Inflation, a tax on capital, and austerity. He says the worst one is austerity. Germany likes this one. Inflation paid off the enormous European debt after World War II, but it can get out of control as it did in Germany after WWI and Black Friday. He much prefers a tax on capital, as much as ten percent on the really rich. He says he’s more interested in transparency than the tax. Too many rich people are hiding their money in tax havens, and there’s a kind of economic war going on in Europe where the smaller countries like Ireland charge much lower corporate taxes. Piketty wants to know who’s got what, and he means everything: money, stocks, real estate etc. This way we could come up with a global plan to deter bubbles, recessions, and depressions.

We’ve been hearing about the Federal Reserve Board lately, mainly because of political campaigns, where libertarians insist it’s more of an evil than a help. Piketty says most rich countries have something similar, if only to deter inflation. We oldies aren’t happy because we aren’t getting any interest on our savings accounts and Certificates of deposit. But they do much more than that. Piketty says it’s impossible to return to the gold standard as it would require yearly discoveries of gold and silver. The reserve board makes loans to banks for one thing, at a very low interest these days, and (this isn’t in the book), but the reserve board takes control of failing banks and makes sure depositors get their money back.

Piketty repeats himself a lot; I think he could’ve written this book in fifty pages, but it’s still in the top ten on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list, which wouldn’t have been the case with a long article. As I’ve said his main recommendation is a tax on capital. Under our present political conditions in America, that’s just not going to happen, but he said there is hope. Who ever thought they’d get a tax on financial transactions? Unfortunately we don’t have one in America, but we pay it when we import products from Europe.


Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel
Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel
by Nickolas Butler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.67
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pickled Egg Prank Doesn't Ring True, July 1, 2014
SHOTGUN LOVESONGS is about friendship in small town Little Wing, Wisconsin.

Four men, Hank, Lee, Kip, and Ronnie have known each other since elementary school. Hank, a farmer, is the only one who stayed. Kip is a stock broker in Chicago; Ronnie was a rodeo rider, until he got hurt during a bar fight; Lee is a world-renowned singer who thinks he’s still in love with Hank’s wife, Beth. A minor character observes that any of the boys could have married Beth as she was really the fifth friend in the group.

Kip decides to upgrade the town mill, which has seen better days; there’s water in the basement along with rats. His vision is a kind of general store with satellite businesses, but he goes overboard, spending too much money with not that much revenue. Kip gets married to a girl named Felicia, but he neglects to invite Ronnie, who’s kind of slow since he hurt his head. Lee goes ballistic, and Kip compounds the sin by inviting the paparazzi; they won’t leave Lee alone. Their friendship seems to be over.

The town of Little Wig will be recognizable to most rural Midwesterners. There’s one of those feed mills about ten miles away from where I live; the town won’t tear it down, despite the fact that there’s nothing in there. You will see one or two in just about every little town in southern Minnesota as that’s prime farm land with soil called “gumbo“. Before the dairy herds expanded, farmers would store their crops in these mills and ship them via the railroad.

Unfortunately Nickolas Butler runs out of gas toward the end. He includes a flashback right before the climax, something you don’t see too often. Lee also tells Hank something about Beth that no guy would ever tell his best friend. Butler must imagine that the reader will understand since Lee’s six month marriage to an actress has gone belly up, and he’s not all there. But still . . . Then there’s the pickled egg interlude. Hank hasn’t been speaking to Lee, and Lee imagines this goofy stunt will bring them closer together, but it sounds more like a fraternity prank than something two grown men would do. There’s just no suspension of disbelief. Pickled eggs are also common to small town bars, at least they once were. I’ve never seen anybody eat one. The impression is that they’ve been in the jar longer than the bar has been open.

Butler does have a facility with description. The guys climb to the top of the mill to watch the sunset, and Lee, the musician, can actually hear the colors, something Kip, the stock broker, can’t understand.

This book is kind of sad in that childhood friends drift away when they marry or move away. These guys (and the gal) are unusual in that they hang together, for the most part, despite the occasional squabble.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 20, 2014 7:50 AM PDT


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