I moved to Texas from Europe in the late eighties. I didn’t take it well. I thought for sure I was being punished for some unspoken transgression.
Then the bluebonnets bloomed and I knew I had come home.
A journey of self-discovery
I used to be an avid reader, devouring books by the truckload. Classic literature, chic-lit, crime novels, spy thrillers, historical fiction, creative non-fiction, traditional non-fiction – it didn’t matter, I read it all. But in recent years, my appetite has waned.
My problem is two-fold: 1) too much academic reading tends to diminish my desire to read for pleasure; and 2) as my own writing evolves, I find myself increasingly critical of the works I read, and incapable of suffering bad writing for the sake of a story.
That last part makes me feel like a pretentious jerk.
And perhaps I am. But more likely, its just that over the years, my taste in reading material has become more discriminate. I think it’s only natural. I mean, twenty years ago, I drank fruit flavored wine coolers because they tasted like punch and provided a nice little buzz. Today, I have learned to savor and appreciate the bouquet of a full-bodied Cabernet without devolving into a drunken train wreck – usually.
In 2013, I made a point to read more. I participated in author Patricia Burroughs’ Embarrassment of Riches – TBR Challenge. I did fairly well, though about halfway through, I began to turn away from the books I’d been meaning to read, and moved toward new titles. But I read, and that’s all that really matters.
I completed about a two dozen books. Not a huge amount, but it was a decent start. I finished working my way through Daniel Silva’s complete body of work. Some were good, some were not. Against my better judgment, I was suckered into reading Dan Brown’s latest – hated it. I also discovered that I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy’s written work, which was disappointing; and I found the classic Sherlock Holmes adventures to be a bit tedious – also a grave disappointment.
Despite this, there were a handful of titles that I did enjoy – very much, in fact. Here are four that left an impression (in no particular order):
The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J.K. Rowling): At the risk of provoking the wrath of my limited readership, I have a confession: I am not a Potter fan.
I’ll give you a minute to digest that tidbit.
Are we good?
Cuckoo was an impulse buy, picked up at the last-minute while standing in a ridiculous line at my local big box booksellers. I brought it home and did with it what I usually do with such purchases – I put it on my nightstand and left it to collect dust. Two months later, after reading a couple of historical books on religion and ready for a change of pace, I plucked it off the nightstand, wiped away the dust bunnies, and prepared to be underwhelmed.
I confess. I never read the jacket blurb. If I had, I might have delved in sooner. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the main character was a down-on-his-luck gumshoe. I’m a big fan of the whodunit – Edgar Allan Poe, Carolyn Keene, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen (Dannay and Lee). I spent my formative years devouring every such novel I could dig up at my local library. While my friends were reading Sweet Valley High and Beverly Cleary, I was immersed in detective stories.
Needless to say, I was captivated by Galbraith’s (Rowling) Cormoran Strike. There was an old-school feel to him that called to mind Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – smart, capable, a little fucked up. The plot was compelling, the pace typically British – slow but persistent, the conclusion satisfying and not altogether obvious. I was at times irked by Rowling’s general writing style, but it was nothing too traumatic, and easily overlooked by my need to discover the killer.
I am not often surprised by a book, so to that I say: Bravo, J.K. Rowling. Bravo.
I hear there will be a follow-up. I look forward to it.
The English Girl – Daniel Silva: I did not intend to read this novel when it was released last July. As I said above, I’d just spent the better part of six months entrenched in Silva’s work, and was suffering from burnout. I pre-ordered a signed first edition, of course. How could I not? It’s Daniel Silva. Duh. But I did not set out to read it immediately.
Then it was delivered.
I read it over the course of two days and loved it. What struck me about this particular offering was Silva’s move away from the formulaic plot structure that seemed to dominate most of the Allon series. He brought back a key character from early on, Christopher Keller, who first appeared in The English Assassin as a former SIS officer turned contract killer hired to eliminate Gabriel. One of the great things about Silva is his knack for writing bad guys in a sympathetic light – he makes them human. I was intrigued by Keller from the outset, and knew there was a certain depth of character in him begging to be explored.
In The English Girl, Silva brings Keller into the fray by forcing Gabriel to elicit the assassin’s help in finding a missing woman for a well-connected friend. It’s a contentious arrangement, and one that rewards the reader with some witty and off the cuff banter. Moreover, he brings to life a certain professional rivalry that highlights their individual strengths by forcing them to work in conjunction with one another in order reach a common goal. It’s fascinating to watch, and really gives this thirteenth Allon novel some meat to go along with the usual potatoes.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan: I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I am not an overtly religious individual. Sure, I was raised in the Catholic church, received all of the necessary education to achieve a certain standing within the Church, but at my core, I lack the deep sense of spirituality required for unconditional faith. That being said – I am drawn to religious history, particularly how it relates to the social, political, and economic development of civilizations.
I stumbled upon Zealot while listening to NPR during an afternoon commute. I was intrigued by the author and found some merit in the premise he presented. I picked up a copy during my next visit to my favorite booksellers – and if truth be told, I believe this to be the visit I also acquired The Cuckoo’s Calling.
There is a certain aura of controversy surrounding the book. The author’s Islamic faith has caused some in the media to question the legitimacy of his claim that Zealot is an unbiased biography of Jesus – the man as he was in first century Palestine, not the revered figure we know from Christianity and the Bible (for a bit of context and a good laugh click here). Given the author’s extensive education and employment history, I am apt to dismiss such questions as right-wing rhetoric. Though, I did have a professor who lectured that there is no such thing as an unbiased retelling of history. As humans our worldview is influenced by emotion, education, and experience, and thereby, naturally skewed.
It’s a valid view, and I think one that holds true with this book. Nonsense aside, I did enjoy the book very much. Vivid in its descriptions, it read like a novel, filled with all those things I love: murder, intrigue, and betrayal. It was well-researched with a clear point of view. If I were to have an issue at all, it would be with Aslan’s dismissal of the Apostle Paul’s importance to the evolution of early Christianity. He tends to lay most of the credit at the feet of James, brother of Jesus.
This would be the point where my own biases come into play.
Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State – Randolph Campbell: When I moved to Texas as a teenager in the late ’80s, I went through a period of culture shock. Texas was unlike anywhere I had ever lived. I often equated it to moving to a foreign country – you might reside within the borders of the United States, but it’s a whole other world down here.
I always wondered why. What gave Texas its tenacity, its iron will, its independent spirit, its unabashed balls of brass?
Last semester, I took a Texas history course, and Gone to Texas was the required reading. Unlike other course readings, this one didn’t have that textbook feel. Campbell’s writing style is easy and fluid, a bit tongue in cheek in places, and at times, ironic. He provided a fantastic survey of the state, spanning more than four and a half centuries – from the first ill-fated Spanish expeditions, to Coronado and La Salle, to the rise of Spanish occupation and the establishment of the first missions, to Mexican independence and Anglo infiltration, to Moses Austin, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and Santa Ana, to the battles of Gonzales, Goliad, the Alamo, and San Jacinto, to the rise of the Republic, Annexation, Secession, and the Civil War, to the age of cattle, the oil boom, and beyond.
Whew. That’s a lot of history.
It was great book, and even though I paid an exorbitant amount of money for it (that’s a blog for another day), I’m glad I read it.
As for Texas, I think John Steinbeck captures the essence of the state best:
“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
A rare thing happened here in my corner of Texas. We were gifted with a mild July. Usually by this point in summer, the dreaded dome of high pressure has firmly planted itself over the region, deftly deflecting any wayward “cold fronts” and pushing the mercury over the century mark. But this year, we have had unseasonably cool temperatures – afternoon highs in the high eighties and low nineties with morning lows in –*gasp*– the sixties.
It was almost like autumn.
So, what do you do when you are treated to fabulous weather in the middle of the summer? Go to the Arboretum and take pictures of bugs, of course.
On a sad note: It seems August will not be unseasonably cool. Today’s high: 103.
Yesterday I took a break from my studies and went on a little excursion with my writing group. We ventured south from our corner of suburbia into an eclectic downtown neighborhood known as Deep Ellum. It has the kind of charm that comes with age -each building has a tale to tell; every face a story.
Organized by my fellow WC-er Bill Chance, the trip was intended to spark our imaginations. You can read about his experience with a recent New Orleans writing marathon [here]. The idea was to walk through the streets, take in the sights, draw inspiration, brainstorm, and then find a comfortable corner to write. We wrote in 20 minute bursts, then shared. I wasn’t big on the sharing part at first, but I warmed up to it. I’m glad I did. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years, its that raw honest feedback is invaluable to a writer.
I haven’t written much fiction since the end of August when I chose to put my WIP aside, and focus on that damn Geology class and lab. Regrettable, but necessary. However, now that the semester is winding down and all I’ve left on my plate are finals, I am itching to get back into the fray. This trip was a good way to kick start the creative juices and reconnect with my old friend, Anna.
Where did she lead me in Deep Ellum? She led me to a crumbling Roman brothel where she met with a drunken ex-KGB operative – her maternal grandfather and the man who murdered her father. She longed to put a bullet in his brain, but instead, she swallowed her dark desires for retribution and asked for his help. I’m not sure how this is going to work out. I like the idea of this man; I like the familial connection; I like the conflict. I wonder how Anna will reconcile her feelings toward her grandfather – will she pity the drunken shell he has become? Will she give into her baser desires and avenge her father’s legacy? Or will she simply take what he can give and walk away?
I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.
Living in Texas, during the month of August, is akin to living on the receiving end of hair dryer – hot, dry, and windy.
Last year was one of the worst summers on record. This year, not so much. We’ve actually seen a good bit of rain with below average temperatures. This week, my daughter and I ventured over to a local nature preserve to enjoy the cool weather and to get a bit of exercise. As you know by now, I don’t go outside without my camera.
During our nature walk, we came across this interesting lizard. And by came across, I mean he darted out of the bushes, bounded off our feet, skittered into the brush, and up a tree.
I’m not going to lie, we squealed like little girls.
This past spring, I discovered the Frisco Heritage Museum in Frisco, Texas. Initially, I went to fulfill an extra credit assignment given by my Western Civilization professor. I was to view the Quanah Parker photo exhibit and answer a series of questions. I did. It was a fascinating lesson in the struggle between the native tribal population in Texas and Oklahoma, and the pioneers who settled the land in the mid-nineteenth century. The photos told of the bloody toll the clash of cultures took on both sides, and chronicled the rise of the last Comanche chief from local tribesman to national statesman.
The museum is also host to a number of other permanent exhibits that highlight the city’s one hundred year history. Who knew that this bustling economic and retail hub was once just a dusty stop on the Shawnee Trail?
To give the visitor a first hand reminder of Frisco’s rich history, the grounds are home to a handful of historical buildings that date back to it’s inception. There’s a train depot – complete with train, the Lebanon Baptist Church, an old windmill, the Crozier-Sickles house, and the Smith-Muse house. They are all wonderfully preserved and give an insightful glimpse into the past.
I’ve been back several times now, camera in hand. This weekend, I stumbled across some photos I took on my last trip. Hope you enjoy.
I had a busy weekend, but I did find the time to step out into the backyard with my camera. Here are a few of the things I saw.
I live in the city. I’m pretty happy here in my concrete jungle surrounded by towering buildings, master plan housing developments, and jammed freeways. But every now and then it’s nice to leave it all behind and go exploring. My mother-in-law lives a couple of hours northwest of Dallas down a dusty farm to market road, in the middle of nowhere. On a recent visit, I brought along my camera.
Cactus in bloom.
Grasshoppers – a real problem for local farmers; cooperative subject matter for me.
I’ll be honest, the Black Widow spiders creeped me out, but not enough to keep me from trying to get just the right shot.
My camera and I – and my family – embraced our inner geek and went to the local Renaissance fair this weekend. As an avid people watcher, I am always intrigued by the array of people who frequent these festivals, and the lengths some of them go to in their costuming.
As usual I took way too many pictures, most of them were terrible and screamed of my inexperience, but here are a few who turned out pretty decent.
The glassblowing demonstration was the highlight of the day for me.
I’m not sure who this guy was supposed to be.
Or him…but he rocked that hat.
Someone took his job a tad too seriously…
No Renaissance fair is complete without a good old fashion joust. And what is a joust without a king.
I’m sad this picture didn’t turn out clearer. These woman made my day.
This weekend was gorgeous – warm, sunny, and windless. Springtime perfection. So perfect, in fact, that for the first time in my life I had the desire to be one of those people who plops their kids down in the middle of a field of Texas Bluebonnets and snaps lots and lots of pictures.
Here are some of the results:
I learned this week…
…that “yoga for a grade” is the gift that keeps on giving. I realize that perhaps I am beating a proverbial dead horse with this one, but good grief, in every class something jaw-droppingly fabulous/horrific occurs. I can’t sit idly by and not write about it. So, please, bear with me. The end of the semester will come soon enough.
…that, in keeping with the above theme, my yoga instructor’s idea of a quiz is my worst nightmare. Last week, she gave us a nifty little handout with elementary drawings of various poses and a listing of their correct names. We could expect our first quiz the following week [this week]. Okay. No big deal, after all, this is a “for grade” course. Grades have to come from somewhere. So, on quiz day, she comes in five minutes late, disheveled, and lugging a stack of unorganized copy paper. She proceeds to sit down on the floor, in a graceful position only a seasoned dancer could muster, and pulls out a pair of scissors. We all sat on our mats staring at her, confused by her odd behavior. She didn’t keep us in suspense for long. As she cut a single sheet of paper into thin strips, she leveled the room with a bomb of such magnitude that its reverberation could be felt clear to the Oklahoma state line. Our quiz, it turns out, would not entail a grouping of pictures and a word bank – as so promised. It wouldn’t even have anything to do with the handout she provided to us. No, instead we would be required to demonstrate an assigned pose at the front of the class, with the wall of
shame mirrors at our backs. Holy shit batman, shoot me now. I count myself as one who came out of this horrifying experience largely unscathed. While I did receive the dreaded number one slot, I escaped any real humiliation. My pose was simple – Prayer pose. However, there were those among us who did not fare so well. I feel quite certain the girl who was saddled with the dreaded “happy baby” pose is plotting some fantastic revenge. The glint in her eye at the end of class was downright frightening.
…that today is Dr. Seuss’ birthday. I did know this, but I didn’t remember until I stumbled across the headline on my favorite news outlet’s website. Of course, the headline also asked readers to vote for their top pick of Seuss movies. This kinda irked me. Dr. Seuss wrote books. I think it would be a more interesting poll, and one truer to the memory of Seuss’ legacy, to ask readers to give the name of their favorite book. So, I ask: What is your favorite Dr. Seuss book? Mine is And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.
…that there is a “war on women” brewing in this country. Though, I can’t help but wonder if it is all just an elaborate smoke screen fabricated to distract voters from the fact that none of this country’s politicians – and I mean none of them – know what the heck they are doing.
…that this week the great State of Texas will celebrate 176 years of independence. I’m not a native Texan. I was born in Florida to parents that hail from New England. My father was in the military so I’ve lived in my share of locations – some of them wildly wonderful, some of them not so much. Of them all, Texas is by far the most unique place I’ve ever called home. I didn’t always feel that way, but once the culture shock wore off, I got a whiff of something in the air – something intangible. Something that smelled a lot like pride. There is an independent spirit here that transcends even national patriotism. Don’t get me wrong, Texans have a deep love for their country, they just love their state a smidgen more. It’s an infectious thing. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Well…of course, that is unless the American people jump the shark and elect Newt or Rick to the presidency. If that happens, I’m moving back to Europe. Texas independent spirit and pride be damned.
…that Davy Jones died. I’ve long maintained that the 60s produced some of the greatest Rock & Roll music ever attributed to the genre. I don’t care if you agree with my assessment or not. I know good music when I hear it. Now, I will admit that The Monkeys pale in comparison to say…the Beatles, but they are still relevant to the overall cultural phenomenon of the musical era. Plus, they were just great fun. Davy Jones will be missed.
…and last, but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by this adorable kitty. Is he stuck? Is he stalking you? I don’t know, but I bet if you venture a little closer, you’re sure to find out.
***Big thanks to Bill Chance for providing me with this link:
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