October 24, 2015

'The Heart Goes Last' - a winner of a novel by Margaret Atwood

WATKINS GLEN, New York - All of Margaret Atwood's books have a certain weirdness about them.

The Heart Goes Last is no exception.

Set in a near semi-dystopian future, it starts out calmly, with a couple living in their car. It's almost pedestrian in the way the tale unfolds. But like all of Atwood's works, you get hooked into the lives of the characters quickly.

A handful pages later, there is no way to put this book down.

The Heart Goes Last critiques how we deal with problems - personal and cultural - in society, today and maybe tomorrow. If there is a tomorrow.

And like most Atwood tomes, the good people and the bad people shift roles back and forth, sometimes several times. It's not hard to follow, or swallow. But when the shifts come, they are unexpected.

The novel takes a dim view of our computerized lives, how easily we can be manipulated by authority, and how in the end, most people opt for safety and security over freedom.

Margaret Atwood
But in the process readers get to meet Marilyn Monroe and Elvis impersonators, criminals, oversexed couples and a charismatic leader named Ed.

Really, his name is Ed. Not grand wizard, just plain old Ed.

The Heart Goes Last is a good read, fast-paced, and offers lots of interesting life lessons/observations and cultural critiques.

It's on the new book shelf at the Watkins Glen Public Library.

October 5, 2015

'The Martian' - a movie for the 21st Century

ACIDALIA PLANITIA, Mars - Okay, a dateline is supposed to be indicative of where the author wrote the story (or in this case blog). But, admittedly, I did not visit this off-planet location, where most of the action in the movie, The Martian takes place.

It's a whopper of an action-packed science fiction tale. But unlike Star Trek or Star Wars, this is based on real NASA-style science with enough special effects and drama to keep you in your seat for the more than 2 hours of running time for this film. 


The basic story and plot is simple enough. If you watch the movie trailer, you will get the drift. Unfortunately, the trailer gives away way too much. But I won't do that here.
Jeff Daniels

What I will say is that this movie is full of humor with the drama. And just when you think it is going to be predictable, it surprises.

The acting by Matt Damon and the balance of cast is superb. You should recognize most of the faces - even Jeff Daniels, who, I swear, is wearing the same suit he did as TV Anchor Will McAvoy on HBO's The Newsroom.

Matt Damon
The timing of the release of the movie at almost the same moment as scientists discovered water on Mars is as creepy as it is uncanny. As teenager I was steeped in novels by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.  I dreamed of being an astronaut and going to Mars. I missed that spaceship a long time ago. 

But perhaps The Martian will help reignite space exploration by the U.S. Certainly the Chinese and other nations are passing us by. Or already have.

Interestingly, the Chinese space program plays a big role in this movie.

Recommended without reservation - a good movie and worth seeing on the big screen.

August 28, 2015

'Where All Light Tends to Go' - a novel about the dark side

WATKINS GLEN, New York - David Joy's first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, races along at times like a detective potboiler, at others it's as descriptive as a novel by veteran novelist James Lee Burke.

Joy has a talent for keeping the reader's pulse pounding while creating vivid scenes that stick in the mind - sometimes in very uncomfortable ways.

His description of country thugs using acid on the face of a tied-up victim comes to mind.

The book takes place in North Carolina, following a high school dropout who is traveling in his father's crime-ridden footsteps. There are fights, drugs, fights over drugs, more drugs, guns and drugs, and enough petty criminality to make many readers turn away from the tale.

But the story was so compelling, turning away was never option for me.

Author David Joy, sporting a North Carolina look

As the final chapters unfold, there are two relatively clear plot lines for the balance of the book. I would not describe either as being potentially happy endings. But it does end (of course) with several twists that kept me on edge right through the final scene.

Don't give up on this book as you read it.

Where All Light Tends to Go is a powerful book that might give you some troubling dreams. But it's worth the read.

And it's on the new book shelf at the Watkins Glen Public Library.

August 25, 2015

Biblio TECH argues how important libraries still are

WATKINS GLEN, New York - John Palfrey's 2015 book, Biblio TECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google is not a page turner in the usual sense.

But Palfrey forcefully refutes the notion that libraries - and librarians - are dinosaurs in the face of Google and Internet search engines.

That point might be obvious to anyone reading a book review like this. But he talks at length about that it's not so obvious, particularly to young people who view libraries as anachronisms and see the libraries they have access to falling apart.

The downsizing and de-funding of libraries has been one of the great tragedies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the U.S., largely because libraries are sooooo bloody important to democracy. But Palfrey makes a persuasive case on behalf of libraries and explains their changing role well.

Palfrey runs through the history of public libraries, cloud computing, the importance of copyright, and the human networking of librarians - among many other topics.

It's the kind of book in which you can cherry pick sections to study and still get a good overall sense of what he is trying to get across.
John Palfrey

In his concluding chapter, he struck a deep chord with me about the importance of serendipity in the library experience. I picked up his book, along with two others, from a shelf at the Watkins Glen Public Library a few days ago. I would never have picked his book out of some Amazon catalog or stumbled on it while doing some bit of Internet searching.

"For some people, it is impossible to come out of the stacks without armfuls of books, even if they went 
into the stacks seeking just one." (Page 208)

Amen to that, John Palfrey. Amen.

 Biblio TECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google is on the new book/browsing shelf at the Watkins Glen Public Library.

Right where it belongs, unless you check it out to read it.

July 31, 2015

Back to summertime and Seneca Lake living at the VPYC

VALOIS - Adm. Fox and I moved back into the Valois Point Yacht Club clubhouse this morning, greeted by arguably the nicest weather of the summer.

Crimson Tide on her mooring at the VPYC
Not hot, not cold. Clear and sunny.

Even the sailboat Crimson Tide was smiling down on her mooring in front of the dock. I couldn't see the Spirit of Louise pontoon boat. But I know the petrol tank and the beer locker are both ready for a cruise.

Our hiatus living in Watkins Glen and going back and forth to the VPYC while sons Dustin and Dylan - and nephew Alex - were visiting was a nice blend of living arrangements.

It was sad to see them leave, even though there are plans afoot for a late September trip to California.

But for the moment, I am watching to see if the weather forecast holds.

If it does, this weekend and the next two weeks will include a lot of on-the-water time.

July 29, 2015

'The Sixth Extinction' - and guess who is causing it?

WATKINS GLEN, New York - The Sixth Extinction (2014) is about an in-process event on a our planet that likely eventually spells the end of civilization as we know it.

Nice thought for a summer day, right?


It's also attempts to explain earlier mass extinctions, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, perhaps the most familiar of all such events taught in schools.

For the record, what we learned in sixth grade science about that extinction is probably dead-ass wrong.

Amazingly, by the time you are done reading New Yorker magazine writer Elizabeth Kolbert's work, it's  not so frightening. Species - all life - comes and goes in waves on our planet just as it has for the last, oh, half a billion years. And that ebb and flow likely will continue.

This time around, of course, humans are using ever-clever brains to hurry the extinction process along. But if humans are a natural part of earth (and not dropped here via some intergalactic space shuttle), then what's going on - will go on - is really just natural. Right?


The book looks closely at science, some politics, and specific instances in the world, present and past where species have died out. Kolbert explains why frogs are important bellwethers and why big mammals with slow reproductive rates go extinct so fast.

It's a complicated book, but still an easy read for the most part.

And it also has some revelations that are pretty startling. For example, you almost surely have some Neanderthal genes lurking in you. Really.

The Sixth Extinction is well-worth reading and is on the new book shelf at the Watkins Glen Public Library.

July 26, 2015

"The Daylight Marriage" - a troubling family potboiler

WATKINS GLEN, New York - Heidi Pitlor's novel The Daylight Marriage chronicles a troubled marriage that explodes in the early chapters.

But the novel is only partly about the relationship between the wife and husband. It also looks at a teenage daughter, a young son and a community.

The Daylight Marriage is the second book of its type I've picked up recently from the shelf at the Watkins Glen library's browsing section. I'm not sure if there are more of these - or if the writing is so good I can't pass them up.

Maybe both.

Pitlor's book uses the familiar technique of chapters bouncing back and forth between the major characters as they go about their way through the novel. It works well and builds the tension quickly.

The novel becomes a page turner when the wife leaves home one morning after going through a bruising psychological battle with her husband the night before.

Heidi Pitlor
And she stays gone.

The missing wife - and she is missing as in call-the-police missing - sets up a family-community drama that is impossible to look away from. Like a car wreck.

The Daylight Marriage has a surprise ending, too. It seems obvious in hindsight, but not so much as the final chapters unfolded.

The novel on the new book shelf at the Watkins Glen library.

July 8, 2015

Town of Reading Chair shuts down Crestwood comments

TOWN OF READING, New York - What started as a demonstration of citizen civility and democracy in the parking lot of the Town of Reading Town Hall Wednesday devolved inside when the Town Board chair declared no comments about a controversial project to store 88 million gallons of propane in salt caverns would be allowed.

Press conference outside Reading Town Hall
A crowd of about 40 people,  most of whom were there to comment and/or support the notion that the proposal by Crestwood Midstream of Houston is lunacy, were stunned by the chairman's comments.

Just prior to the meeting, a press conference was held at which citizens outlined their concerns and mentioned two earlier, very civil conversations with the Town Board.

But Wednesday night the balance of the town board members were mute while chairman Marvin Switzer became visibly angry when a member of the Concerned Reading Residents tried to update the board on their activities.

Later in the meeting he read a note handed to him from a resident who asked for him to publicly state his reasons for shutting down public comments. He never said why and stalked out of the room after the meeting. He declined to answer questions from reporters, also.

By the way, the limiting of the comments is illegal... Click here for the LINK that explains why...

And here's a short video with some meeting highlights:

Jill Essbaum's 'Hausfrau' is as fascinating as it is unsettling.

WATKINS GLEN, New York - Jill Alexander's Essbaum's Hausfrau is a book as fascinating as it is unsettling.

Set in Switzerland (Who doesn't love the Swiss?) it details the life of a housewife (thus the title) named Anna who seems to sleepwalk through life with her husband, Bruno Benz.

If he's any relation to the automobile Benz's, it's not apparent. And the primary mode of transportation in the book are trains. Pay attention to the trains. They begin and end the book like, well, bookends.

The Benz family is well off with three children and should, by most measures, be happy. Or at least content. But the family, the friends, the social fabric is harboring a major problem, most of it related to hausfrau Anna.

The book has received mixed reviews, perhaps because of its dreamlike quality. It might also be getting some thumbs-down assessments because Anna has a weakness for men - other than her husband.

A New York Times review by Janet Maslin was particularly savage:

"Here’s a sampling of Ms. Essbaum’s prose, which can have all 
the charm of a sink full of dishwater: “Anna examined herself in the mirror. 
She was neither too tall nor too short, neither too fat nor too thin. Her hair fell in easy but shaggy shoulder-length waves. It was the color of top dirt and it was graying around her forehead (she dyed it). What do they see in me, men? 
She wasn’t being modest. She truly didn’t know.”

The charm of a sink full of dishwater? Kee-rist, Janet Maslin, I would use the paragraph you hate in a creative writing seminar as an example of excellent prose. Perhaps it's because Ms. Essbaum is best known as an award-winning poet, that has Maslin's knickers so twisted.

The unraveling of Anna's life is difficult to watch, but irresistible. Yes, it's exactly like watching a slow-motion train wreck, if I can be allowed to drag out the train metaphor one more time.
Jill Alexander Essbaum

There are also plenty of sometimes unnerving cross-cultural, social, psychological and language-based threads scattered through the book. They keep the plot moving briskly while the reader is lulled into thinking things are not really changing all that much. They are.

An intriguing book worth reading. But if a few sex scenes or issues of adulterous behavior bother you, don't dive into it.

On the bookshelves of the Watkins Glen Public Library. Hausfrau is also available online and in audiobook format.

July 4, 2015

First phase of the VPYC rebuild done - next the bar!

VALOIS, New York - The first bit of rebuilding the Valois Point Yacht Club was completed this afternoon, just ahead of a thunderstorm, if I am reading the weather radar correctly. (Santo Crappo!)

We will have shade
It was just such a thunderstorm last summer that cleaned the VPYC "clubhouse" right off the end of the dock - bar, bar stools, chairs, shade structure - even the owl that was supposed to keep the seagulls from landing on the dock.

He didn't do a very good job. Half the time I looked down from the overlook, a seagull would be sitting on its head.

Tomorrow some barstools, chairs and various summer equipment will be put out for members and guests.

The rebuilding of the bar will take a bit, but hopefully in place by Tuesday afternoon when cousin Kathleen McAvoy arrives for a visit.

Let the summer begin! (Finally...)