Sunday, October 25, 2020

When will I learn?

 It doesn’t pay sometimes to re-read books even when those books were penned by a favorite author. 

I am, for example, a huge fan of John Sandford’s writing. It’s quite possible I’ve read every work of fiction he’s published. Sandford is one of those rare authors where I’m even willing to suppress my distaste for crowds and get in line for book signings or a scheduled talk at a book festival. (The Younger Daughter said she didn’t realize authors had groupies until she saw me mesmerized by Sandford at the Tucson Book Festival a couple years ago. She likes Sandford’s books, too, but apparently not quite as much as her mother.)

I like Sandford because besides being a great story teller he gets stuff right. He does actual research. When he describes one of his characters speeding to a crime scene in Minnesota, he’s accurate in how long it takes to get from someplace like Marshall to up by Ely. His descriptions of topography are spot-on, too. No weirdness that can knock you out of being focused on the story to thinking, “What the. . .? That’s would be a 4 hour drive under ideal conditions. Why does the author describe him as doing it in 20 minutes?” I loved Tony Hillerman’s books, but have to admit his compressing a hundred-plus miles on the Navajo nation into trips you could do in no time at all annoyed the crap out of me. Even when a person is reading fiction, the reader wants to the background to feel right.

Which brings me to the latest revelation that one of my idols isn’t perfect. I hit kind of a dry spell for reading material and decided to re-read the first book in Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series, Dark of the Moon. First thing that hits me is a continuity error. I want to know exactly when Virgil’s father switched denominations. In later books in the series, Virgil’s minister father is Lutheran. In Dark of the Moon he’s Presbyterian.

Okay, minor point. As the series progressed Sandford probably unconsciously decided that Lutheran made more sense in thoroughly Scandinavian Minnesota, which we all know is full of Norwegian bachelor farmers and church suppers at which dual purpose Jello molds (if there’s Cool Whip it’s a dessert; if there’s Miracle Whip it’s a salad) dominate the menu. Pastor Flowers is a minor character, a side note in the series overall scheme of things, so Sandford’s copy editor didn’t catch it in subsequent works. No big deal.

And then another character’s name caught my eye, and I cannot unsee it. I have groused in the past about writers and their weirdness in naming their fictional people. Terry Brooks and the Shanarra chronicles full of people who sound like diseases or other health conditions (I’m still surprised none of his characters were named Dysmenorrhea), William Krueger looking at maps of Minnesota and coming up with gems like Marais Grand.

So what did Sandford do? No doubt he was drawing a blank, had another detective he had to slap a name on, and nothing was coming to him. And then he looked down at the keyboard.

Del Capslock.

Okay, so on most keyboards it’s CAPSLK, but we all know what the inspiration was. What can we expect next? Paige Down? Con Troll? 

The mind boggles. . .

Monday, October 12, 2020

Pulitzer Project: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love


I’m a little late in posting this. I read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love not long after we got to Arizona last February. It was another one of the many Pulitzer Prize winning books the L’Anse library did not have in its collection, but, thanks to the wonders of online catalogs, I knew the Safford library had it on the shelves. Not long after we got parked at the Graham County Fairgrounds the Younger Daughter checked the book out for me.

It was an odd book, one of those where it’s a bit tricky trying to do a review. The writing is good, the storyline and characters interesting, but what is it with male authors and their penis fetish? As far as I could tell there was no reason to obsess about the generosity of the main character’s male endowment, the gargantuan size of his trouser snake, the impressive length and girth of the dude’s dick. Nonetheless, every time the man did a mental flashback, whether it was to his carefree days as a young man in Cuba or more recent memories of romantic encounters, the appendage in question crept into the reminiscing. It was distracting. (Note: it also makes it tricky trying to write about it without sliding into using bad puns or snickering about things popping up.)

The plot line of The Mambo Kings follows one man’s life, which as the book begins is apparently ending. Cesar Castillo is in a hotel room, comfortably ensconced with a record player, a stack of vinyl, and a generous supply of booze. It’s not clear at first that he’s come there planning to die as the flashbacks to his past are intercut with his thoughts about the present, but as his story unfolds you can tell he’s not planning to walk out of the hotel again. He’s an old man in poor health, he almost died recently while hospitalized, and he’s been told by his doctor that if he doesn’t stop drinking he will die soon. The booze supply in the hotel room makes it pretty clear he’s decided he’d rather go out pickled than live life as a frail geezer. (Note: He’s not actually terribly old by contemporary standards – early 60s maybe – but a lifetime of partying like a rock star has caught up with him.)

The records he’s brought to play while drinking himself to death are all ones from his glory days as one of the Mambo Kings, the band he and his younger brother, Nestor, formed after arriving in New York from Cuba in the mid-1950’s. They specialized in Cuban music, the songs they had grown up with and ones they composed themselves. The ‘50s were good to them. There were numerous dance clubs featuring live music so musicians could make a decent living. They recorded several albums that sold well, and, at the height of their popularity, they made a guest appearance on I Love Lucy. They played characters who were Cuban friends of Ricky Ricardo (Dezi Arnaz) and performed one of their original songs. Everything was going good for them, but of course it couldn’t last.

There were family tragedies, musical tastes changed so there were fewer and fewer paying gigs, and the Mambo Kings faded into obscurity. A man who once took center stage as a musician finds himself making a living as an apartment building maintenance superintendent. That doesn’t stop him from continuing to party hard and ignore his health – and then it catches up with him.

I have a vague memory of this book helping to revive an interest in Cuban music in the early ‘90s. Or maybe it was the movie. On a personal level, it didn’t inspire me to go searching for mambo music, but then my interest in things Cuban tends to be limited to the sandwich.

So, how would I rate this book and would I recommend it to other readers? I’ll give it an 7 – it’s on the good side of average. I might have been a little more impressed if the author hadn’t kept circling back to the size of Cesar’s cock. The author Oscar Hijuelos is Cuban himself – was he unconsciously trying to assert that Cuban men are especially virile? It was weird.

Despite that weirdness, though, I would recommend the book to other readers. The wordsmithing is good, the story overall is interesting, and, who knows, it may even inspire one to start listening to Tito Puente recordings.

Up next on the list (and I’m not looking forward to it) John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. I found Updike’s Rabbit is Rich sufficiently repellent that I couldn’t finish it. I am not optimistic about the next installment in the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But with the library open again it appears Interlibrary Loan is unavoidable.