Recent Read: Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters

MockFew novels have proven to be as important and influential as To Kill a Mockingbird, and few films have become just as important as its source material. Tom Santopietro (The Godfather Effect, Sinatra in Hollywood, Becoming Doris Day) is one of the finest pop culture writers working today. In his new book, the author take a deep dive look at the cultural impact of both Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, published in 1960, and the now iconic film released in 1962. Over its more than 50 years existence, To Kill a Mockingbird has been both praised and banned. Criticized and hailed by both liberals and conservatives.

Santopietro paints a detailed look beginning with Harper Lee’s childhood in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama, the inspiration for Maycomb, the fictional town in Lee’s classic. It ends with the publication of Go Tell the Watchman, Lee’s original and extremely different first draft. In between, we get well known and little known details such as Spencer Tracy was originally considered for the role of Atticus Finch. We all know Gregory Peck landed the part in what would turn out to be the role of a lifetime. Who else can be Atticus Finch!

Almost sixty years after its publication, To Kill A Mockingbird remains one of the most read and influential books in America, required reading in many high schools. As relevant today as it was back in the 1960’s. It asks some,hard questions. Can a country that has fought to make the world safe from tyranny and fascism somehow save itself and live up to its potential as a democracy where there is justice and freedom for all. Today, we are failing. As the author  points out, substitute Muslims and Mexicans, along with other South Americans attempting to enter the country, for blacks and you have to asked yourself how much has really changed?

With over 40 million books in print, everyone whether liberal or conservative wants to have an Atticus Finch in his or her life.

 

Recent Read: Old Black Magic

 

Old Black Magic

Back in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was the victim of a massive art thief of 13 works with a worth estimated to be about 500 million dollars. To this day, the thief remains unsolved.

This little hit of history is used as the inspiration for Ace Atkins latest entry in the Spenser series, created by the late Robert B. Parker. Twenty years ago, three pieces, a Picasso sketch, a Goya painting, and the  most important of the group, an El Greco work called The Gentleman in Black, dating back to the late 1500’s were stolen from one of Boston’s top Museums. After so many years, most believe the artwork was sold, probably overseas or maybe even destroyed.

A private investigator by the name of Locke has been on the case all this time with little success in finding the artwork or the thieves. But now Locke is seriously ill, he’s dying and turns to our wise-cracking hero Spenser to continue investigating the case.

Our butt kicking anti-hero with a cause accepts the case for Locke, that and a five million dollar reward. Spenser reviews Locke’s files and with the help of Vinnie Morris, a man whose tendency is to be on the wrong side of the law, the P.I.  begins a long and winding trail in search of the missing artwork.

Spenser is not a man who scares easily, a good thing because he runs across some folks who rather see him dead than find the missing art. The road is murky, but Spenser does what he does best. So does keeper of the flame, author Ace Atkins. He keeps Parker’s voice alive and well in this entertaining entry in the series. My only problem is Spenser’s ace in the hole when trouble comes along, Hawk is missing in action.

 

Recent Read: Nightmare in Pink

pinkIn his second outing, Travis McGee,  John D. McDonald’s beach bum/salvage consultant who take 50% of whatever he recovers for his clients, has left his Florida home base for the asphalt jungle of New York City.

He has come to NYC to help the delectable sister of an old army buddy whose boyfriend was murdered on the city streets in what the police ruled an apparent mugging. While investigating the death, and a bit of romance, we learn the murdered boyfriend was into some shady dealings involving millions of dollars. While investigating,  Travis finds himself drugged, hallucinating and in a horror house  masquerading as a mental institution.

When reading, one has to remember this is 1964, because Travis is the kind of guy who has problems with women working. However, that does not stop our hero from bedding our lady friend  before and after she discovers her now dead boyfriend was not who he said he was. Hey,  someone had to help her recuperate from her melancholy.

While, admittedly I did not care for this book as much as the first book in the series (The Deep Blue Goody-by), and if you can excuse the 60’s sexism, McDonald, still fine tuning his long time anti-hero,  has crafted a strange, off-beat ending that you won’t see coming.

 

 

Recent Read: Born to Run

BorntorunIf you ever had the opportunity to experience the spiritual, soul-stirring, sermon preaching, exhaust filling concerts of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band then you will be right at home with this autobiography. Born to Run is a memoir like no other. Then again, Bruce Springsteen is a rock and roll artist like no other. He has absorbed, inhaled, assimilated, learned, the history of rock, blues, country and soul blending it all with everything in his heart, his mind, his intellect and his spirit. Elvis, The Beatles, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and others were his teachers. He learned well.

While I purchased the eBook version of Springsteen’s tomb of a memoir, it laid there for a while. I finally ended up borrowing an audiobook version from a local library and listened to the more than 18 hours of Springsteen himself telling his story. I wasn’t sorry. Hearing Bruce himself added elements that would have been completely missed in reading the book. His style, his spirit, his cadence, his voice are as important as the written words.

The first part of the book focuses on his early years growin’ up in a dysfunctional Jersey family: a distant alcoholic father, a loving mother, and poverty. His father’s family had an unspoken history of mental illness. Bruce also discusses his own chronic battles with bouts of depression over the years. It’s all straightforward; not shying away from revealing the bad  and the difficult times in his life. Like all of us, those early years were a vital part in his development and his future. These many years later, his journey has been at times that of a haunted and tortured artist.

For me, the most interesting parts though were when Springsteen dives into his creative process. It’s well known he is a control freak and hates to let go. During his early years, Springsteen was a member a few struggling groups. For a control freak, he had to be in charge. That’s why it evolved into the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Everyone had their say, but Bruce has the final say. His work, always personal, would take on social themes and causes like Vietnam Vets, nuclear energy and always the struggle of the working man, those still searching for their piece of the American pie.

Born to Run is at times heartwarming, heartbreaking, rambling, inspiring and definitely written in the artist’s voice.

 

Recent Read: Don’t Let Go

HarlanHarlan Coben never disappoints. He’s steady Eddie, always there to provide a thrilling ride. Don’t Let Go is a carryover from last year’s Fall Reading list. The book is a lesson in not trusting everything the government tells you, and sometimes even the people you most admire and love.

Napoleon “Nap” Dumas is a New Jersey detective. A recent murder case brings back questions, and memories, about how his twin brother Leo died some 15 years ago. It’s haunted him daily ever since. No one has been able to explain how Leo, and his girlfriend, Diana Sykes, ended up getting killed in front of a railroad train.

The recent murder is that of Pennsylvania police officer Rex Canton, another high school friend of Nap’s, murdered in his car, the fingerprints of Maura Wells, Nap’s high school girlfriend who vanished without a trace the same night Leo and Diana died, are found at the scene. How can that be? Compelled to investigate, he quickly realizes there is a connection even though the deaths are 15 years apart. Leo, Diana, Maura, and Rex were all members of Westbrook High School’s Conspiracy Club. The club members took a particular interest in a nearby secret military facility. What is the connection? Were they all murdered? What is the relationship between the deaths, then and now, and the secret military facility? Don’t Let Go is intense, fast-paced, and suspenseful as layers of lies, secrets, and deceit are slowly revealed.

Recent Read: Kill Devil Falls

Kill Devil Falls

Kill Devil Falls is a town on its final breaths of life. A former mining town whose water has been contaminated; it’s a cold and hostile place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There is no cell phone service, no main roads in or out, and the electrical power is iffy. The town’s main street is loaded with potholes and consists mostly of a lot of empty, dilapidated buildings and trailers. The few folks still living there are a strange collection of oddballs, deviates, and creeps.

Into this hellhole comes U.S. Marshall Helen Morrissey, sent there on a last minute assignment to transport prisoner Rita Crawford, back to Sacramento where she and her boyfriend Lee Larimer have been on a spree of robberies.  One night while on the run, Rita takes the stolen money and high tails it off to Kill Devil Falls leaving Larimer in the wind.  In town, she is apprehended by the local sheriff, Big Ed and his deputy, Teddy, who happens to be his son.

After filling out the required paperwork to transfer Rita into her custody; ready to take her back to Sacramento, Helen discovers her car won’t start. Has it been tampered with? This is just the beginning of a wild ride of terror and death. Rita is the first to die, but far from the last, and Helen soon discovers she’s on her own, isolated, with no one to trust, and fighting to stay alive.

Kill Devil Falls moves at a breathless speed with surprising twists and turns along the way. The author plays it cool with his cast of disturbing in-bred characters. You’re never certain which of them is the crazed psycho killer, or just creepy unscrupulous opportunists trying to get their hands on the money left behind by the late not so lovely Rita.

Recent Read: Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story.

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What I liked best about Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story is how it went beyond the standard “making of” books that have previously come out. Critic Chris Nashawaty spends about a third of the book giving us a history of the rebellious new anti-establishment comedy that was in the air. They came from the Harvard Lampoon, National Lampoon, Chicago’s Second City, and Saturday Night Live. By the time of National Lampoon’s Animal House they all came together, both behind and in front of the camera.

After the success of Animal House, Hollywood was hot for another film from the same sources. The result was a way too long 199-page screenplay by Brian Doyle-Murray, Doug Kenny, and Harold Ramis. The problems only built from there. Filmed in Florida, away from the prying eyes of the studio, first time director, Ramis, co-writers Kenny and Doyle-Murray along with cast members Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield began to improvise. After all, that’s what they did best. Well almost best, What they did best was drugs; pot and cocaine flowed throughout the entire shoot. The set was one big party! According to the author, the only person on the film who was straight was Ted Knight!

Somehow, thanks to the free-flowing improvisational skills of cast members like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and the writers, a disjointed film was made. Many people have complained the film has no plot, and scenes are not connected. They are more like skits. That’s all true, and that is what the studio heads thought after watching the way too long rough cut. They were very nervous. Something needed to be done. That’s when they brought in the gopher!

Nashawaty gives the readers plenty of juicy, outrageous details and background information to enjoy. However, it wasn’t all fun and games; there is a dark sadness overshadowing it all as we follow the meloncholy road of the comic genius Doug Kenny; his depression and drug use accelerating out of control. Kenny would die in Hawaii just one month after the film was released.

Caddyshack is not as funny as Animal House, the studio at first thought they had a disastrous financial bomb, but it made money, thanks mostly to the performances of Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield. Over the past four decades it has picked up a cult following, and phrases from the film (Be the ball!) have become mantras, at least for golfers.

If you are a die-hard Caddyshack fan, the book is a must, though you may notice that if you own the DVD, some of the information is not all new. If you are not a Caddyshack fan, the book is still a good look at movie-making during those crazy, hazy days.

Recent Read: Strip Tease

StripFlorida is a house of hilarious horrors. Just live here for a while, and you will discover that Carl Hiaasen’s outrageous characters are not that far from the truth. Strip Tease is a wild, murderous trip filled with strippers, unscrupulous lawyers, and crooked, self-serving politicians.

Erin Grant works in a “Gentlemen’s Club.” She needs to raise money to fight a court appeal as she attempts to get back custody of her daughter from her sleazy ex-husband. Hey, don’t be judgmental, everyone has to make a buck the best way they can. The evening activities start out like any other at the club until a drunken party-goer (it’s his bachelor party) jumps up on stage and begins groping one of the dancers. In the audience, that night is Florida Congressman Dave Dilbeck who jumps on stage and start plummeting the drunk with a champagne bottle. Not exactly the best of timing for any politician who should remain in the shadows and unrecognized in this kind of situation. After all, it is an election year. This incident sets off a series of events that include a wild assortment of crazies including political fixers, a wheelchair stealing drug addict ex-husband, scam artists, a variety of roaches, bugs and yogurt, and naturally murder. Despite the odd array of people Carl Hiaasen includes, he makes them believable. Most likely, because it’s set in Florida where a wide assortments of wacky types seem to flock, or maybe it’s the Sunshine State’s overbearing heat that bakes a normal person’s brain. Either way, Hiaasen hilariously captures it all. An entertaining fun read.

 

Recent Read: The Neighbor

The NeighborAs a state, Maine, one of my favorites to visit, has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, yet it is flourishing with writers in the mystery/suspense/crime genre. I am not sure why that is, but author Joseph Souza is one of those authors, and his new thriller may just keep you up way past your bedtime.

Just published, The Neighbor, takes place in Dearborn, Maine and asks: how well do you know your neighbors? How well do they know you, and how well do you know your spouse? If you are like the two narrators in this fast-moving psychological suspense thriller, the answer is probably not as well as you think.

Souza never lets up the pressure leaving you, really forcing you to turn page after page wondering what happens next? What perverse secrets will be revealed? It’s a dark and winding road filled with characters who all have a box full of secrets and lies they are keeping to themselves.

The dual narrators are husband and wife Clay and Leah Daniels, recent transplants to Maine from Seattle. Their neighbors are Clarissa and Russell Gaines, a black couple. Clay has kick-started his dream job of opening up a craft beer brewery. Leah, a stay at home Mom, is hoping for a friendly neighborhood with friends for both of their two kids and herself. Neighbors Clarissa and Russell Gaines have careers at the local university. They are also not very neighborly. Leah finds herself left alone in a deserted, still undeveloped neighborhood. Lonely, Leah starts doing things that good neighbors don’t do. Clay does things a good husband shouldn’t do. In the process, secrets best left hidden for all begin to unravel.

Reading The Neighbor is  like riding a twisty out of control roller coaster that you will not want to get off as you watch everyone’s lives crumble and their dark and haunted pasts all come colliding together.

Recent Read: Early Autumn

EarlyRobert B. Parker was at the top of his game in his early books.  Early Autumn was the 7th in the Spenser series and remains one of his best.

Spenser is hired by the mother of  15 year Paul Giacomin to find her son who has been kidnapped by the father. More out of spite than love. In truth, neither parent wants the teen. The boy seems disinterested in life; he does nothing except look at TV. When asked a question he shrugs. With uncaring parents, Spenser determines that if the boy is to survive in life, he needs to become autonomous: independent, learn how to do things for himself.

Spenser takes the young teen up into the woods of Maine, staying at a cabin owned by Susan Silverman, Spenser’s lady. Here Spenser teaches Paul structure, and how to work with his hands. Spenser tells him he needs to finish what he starts and learn what he is good at doing. It doesn’t matter what you do; you just have to have something in your life that is you.

Spenser meanwhile digs up dirt on the parents. The father is involved with mob figures; the mother sleeps around with men and now has a boyfriend who’d doesn’t want the kid around.

This not the typical Spenser crime novel, though Hawk makes an appearance and when Hawks around people die. And there are plenty of the smart-aleck remarks as you expect from our hero. Still, the story is more about Spenser mentoring the teen boy; teaching him to be self-sufficient, learn to live on his own and wanting something for himself in life. As usual, there are vivid descriptions of New England.