Monday, June 23, 2014

Walmart vs. Smith's in Books

Four months ago, Mom and Meridith went for a haircut at a Supercuts in the Eastern Commons shopping center in Henderson, which has the Smith's supermarket as its anchor. So Dad and I decided to go to that Smith's for a few things, and after picking up bagged mixed salad, flour tortillas (for me, because I wanted to see if there was any brand good enough at it. This one was just ok), and juice, Dad went to wherever else he goes in a Smith's, and I went to the books, to see if they had anything interesting.

Books in supermarkets lean toward romance novels in small towns, some sci-fi novels outside of the usual suspects such as Star Trek, and, at least in the West, a good selection of Westerns, namely from William W. Johnstone. And there are mystery novels in sometimes whimsical settings, such as diners, coming mainly from Berkeley Prime Crime and Obsidian.

At this visit to Smith's, I indeed found one mystery novel set in a diner, called A Second Helping of Murder by Christine Wegner, which turned out to have been the second in Wegner's Comfort Food Mystery series, but I was intrigued enough by it that I didn't care that I was starting with the second novel. I wanted to read it, and I bought it, not waiting to see if the Henderson Libraries have a copy, because they usually don't, being a much smaller system than the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. Some titles you can count on being there right away, like the latest, most widely publicized book and DVD releases, but books like this one either enter the system later, or not at all.

Then, about two months ago, before the Smith's on East Sunset Road, also here in Henderson, started undergoing a massive remodel, I went to the book section there and found Murder on Bamboo Lane by Naomi Hirahara, the first in her Officer Ellie Rush Mystery series. While it does take place in Los Angeles, with Ellie patrolling various streets on her bicycle, and while I never want to see Los Angeles again in person after nine too-long years in Southern California, I'm curious to see how it's covered by people who live there, who clearly like it better than I ever did. So I bought this one too.

This is about the average for Smith's: Every couple of months, there's a book that interests me enough to buy it, but never the hardcovers. I won't spend $19 for whatever's on the bestseller list or whatever's been highly publicized. I know that my local library will likely have those books, or chances are that I had already pre-ordered that book on Amazon and it's within an order that includes four or five other books at a shot. Amazon's not bad when you know what you want right away.

Before yesterday's visit to my favorite Walmart in the Eastgate shopping center on Marks Street, yes, also in Henderson, I can't remember the last book I bought there. I always visit every book section, seeing what's new in paperback, always avoiding the hardcovers, and usually walking away with nothing because I don't need the latest Jack Reacher novel or its reprints. That series doesn't intrigue me.

Yet, at that Walmart, I noticed The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson, billed as "The First Novel in the Longmire Mystery Series." I know that the TV series on A&E has been around for a while, but I've never watched it. And I've heard of Longmire, but never pursued the series, because I'm usually busy with other mystery series, such as Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout. But here it was. Here was the chance to see what the Longmire series was about from the start. And $5.99 for a hefty paperback is a pretty good price, a far cry from the bevy of Robyn Carr novels I usually bypass every time. So I bought it, and unlike the previously mentioned mystery novels, which still sit in my stacks unread (but I will read them soon enough), I'm going to start reading this one. The bookmark in the first page is proof of that.

(Looking at the back of both A Second Helping of Murder and Murder on Bamboo Lane, I find that both the Obsidian Mystery and Berkeley Prime Crime labels are run by Penguin. Same company, and it figures that The Cold Dish was published by Penguin too. It seems that the only time I have books from different publishers is when I pre-order them from Amazon. Walmart and Smith's seem to be for Penguin books only.)

Whether Walmart or Smith's is better for books is a draw. Smith's at least stocks more less conventional mysteries, while Walmart sticks to the standards, yet lets one like The Cold Dish into its ranks. I expect that in any couple of months, I'll find another paperback novel that interests me, and it'll either be from Walmart or Smith's yet again. But since I already have two from two different Smith's, I hope Walmart picks up the slack. It's not that I don't have enough books already, or that I don't go to Barnes & Noble whenever the mood strikes (I haven't gone lately, though). But during errands for the other parts of your life, it's good to also take care of the main part of your life.

Monday, June 9, 2014

This Is How You Remind Me of What I Really Am

Songs that call forth certain times, certain places. I have three of them:

Wichita Lineman by Glenn Campbell

Photograph by Nickleback (the only song of theirs I have listened to more than once, and still do)

Set Fire to the Rain by Adele

Wichita Lineman reminds me of Florida, the sonic vibrations in the song meant to evoke wind blowing across wires bringing back those long roads seemingly to nowhere, even though we always knew where we were going there. There was an orange juice stand that I swear was halfway between Pembroke Pines and Naples, where we went sometimes to visit Dad's aunt and uncle. I don't remember the name, but I do remember the free orange juice samples, and the seemingly endless cups available.

I also think of Orlando, those roadside shack tourist attractions, and Old Town in Kissimmee, with that candlemaking shop I always stood inside in awe, watching those candlemakers draw forth colors from that wax that somehow was possible after dipping the wick in those different colors numerous times, carving them, and showing off wax rainbows. I do think about Walt Disney World during this song, and that one trip to Universal Studios in 1994, but mostly, while listening to this song, I think of the land of Florida, what was always there when Walt Disney World couldn't always be there. I remember our backyard in Casselberry, running out there through the patio to see the space shuttle take off, so close that you could see the American flag and "USA" on one of the wings. I remember the large tree in front of our house there that I always thought of building a treehouse in, but that didn't happen, not least because I fell out of that tree once. And there was the basketball hoop at the side of the driveway, the only time I had a basketball hoop of my own, but I don't mind it because I spend more time these days watching basketball than playing it. I was never one of those who went on a tour of the Everglades, but I remember the gnarled branches and the small canal, and the mess of leaves and all that was behind our condominium in Coral Springs, and, when walking to Borders back then, seeing that canal with all of nature around it, the fortunate mess it created and not always by litter.

I also think about The Bubble Room in Captiva, that beautifully-kitschy restaurant with bubbles blowing all around and pop culture memorabilia, the toy train running throughout, and incredible cakes I haven't been able to match either in Southern California or here in Nevada. The list goes on, but Wichita Lineman always brings all of Florida back to me.

Photograph was a coincidence when we first visited the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It was playing on my mp3 player when we were riding up the winding hills to the Library, happy to be away from the nothingness of the Santa Clarita Valley (to do anything interesting there, you have to leave). I was not yet as deep in my love of presidential history, but I was curious to see what a presidential library looked like, what it had about a presidency, and I was especially interested in an entire presidency being summarized in one library. Not every event could be covered at length in the museum, but they made sure Reagan's love of jellybeans was prominently displayed, in the souvenir store in jars you could buy, on the desk in the Oval Office replica, and aboard the old Air Force One.

Photograph is about looking back at the past, wondering if you should have done things differently, and missing all of it. I guess it's the music that gets me thinking about the Reagan Presidential Library, that reaching back, and I think about every single time we've been there. We went once for the museum and the Air Force One exhibit, and every other time, it's always been for the greatest freshly-made potato chips we've ever had at Reagan's Country Cafe, which is one of the two reasons we went back often. The other reason was the view from the South Lawn replica, of those small mountains in the haze, of the building going on in the hills below the Library, unrelated to the Library.

Mostly, whenever I listen to that song, I think of the exhibits in the Library, which are positively primitive compared to the digital upgrades the Library has had, which happened after we moved to Las Vegas. I liked the State Dinners exhibit as it was, the table replica, the place settings, the information about the various State Dinners held in the Reagan White House. I also particularly remember a covered, outdoor exhibit that showed off Nancy Reagan's many dresses, and the fabric and the designs made me wonder how closely she kept tabs on the making of each dress. Probably very closely.

And of course I think about Air Force One because of my love of aviation, walking through the tight quarters of that Boeing 707, marveling at how many hundreds of thousands of miles that plane had traveled, and also looking at the adjacent exhibit diagonal from the plane which tallied up those miles and pointed out exactly where Reagan went in his eight years.

I of course have my opinions about presidents, about their effectiveness as leaders. But for me, a president is a president is a president and they all interest me no matter their political affiliation, no matter what they've done or didn't do for the country. I think the Reagan Library is what set me off on my lifetime goal of visiting every presidential library in the nation. A few years after that first visit, we went to the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, and I marveled at the stark differences between the Nixon Library and the Reagan Library, namely that the Reagan Library had a lot more wealthy donors and was therefore able to create an essentially theatrical experience of Reagan's presidency, whereas because of the shadow that Nixon left under, his library did not have as many wealthy donors, although they were undoubtedly devoted to him, and so there seemed like a more honest assessment of his presidency, or at least one in progress, being that the Watergate exhibit was being torn down to make way for a more straightfoward, non-biased one, which the previous one had been, mounted by Nixon loyalists. There, I liked the exhibit on Pat Nixon, the gifts sent to the Nixons that were in glass cases, the replica of his desk in his New Jersey office, stacked with books (I once e-mailed someone high up in the Nixon Library, asking for a list of the titles that were on Nixon's desk, but I never got an answer back. I was genuinely curious, always interested in what a president reads). I liked the films they showed about Nixon's life, and the low-key feeling of the entire library, that you could explore whatever you wanted, go back to it twice or three times, and you'd have all the time you needed without being prodded by theatrics. There was also the house Nixon was born in, right on the property, as well as the helicopter that Nixon flew off in from the White House lawn during his final morning as president on that day, also the one used for the same scene in Frost/Nixon.

Set Fire to the Rain is the newest addition to my list of reminder songs, and one that seemed fairly obvious from the start. If you walked through our massive mobile home in Las Vegas on an idle Saturday afternoon (so massive that the air conditioning bill was $300 a month and I hesitate to think about what heating costs were during the winter), there was always a radio on in the second living room that we never used extensively, near my parents' bedroom door, and Sunny 106.5 was always the station, which had, and still has, the habit of playing the same songs over and over throughout the day. When Skyfall the latest James Bond movie, was preparing to come out that November, they played Adele's song constantly when it was released, at least 20 times that day.

Now when I hear Set Fire to the Rain, I think about all of Valley Vista All-Age Mobile Home Park. I think about walking our two dogs at night, past that one streetlight that always winked off, the bulb going but no one replacing it until it was nearly time for us to move out and move on. I remember the bushes I always liked, the tall ones that for some reason reminded me of Boulder City and the Boulder City Library, which I always thought about whenever I saw them. I remember the tiny carport we had, when Dad had to stop the PT Cruiser (and then the Toyota Corolla) just before the stairs leading up to the laundry room, which was our entrance, because the car was right there and it wasn't worth walking around to the front door stairway. We'd walk up to the back door, walk through the laundry room, and there was the media room (where we kept the big-screen TV I owned, the DVD player, the VCR, the collection of DVDs, and not much else, not even a chair or a couch. It was easier to sit on the floor), my room, Meridith's room, and to the left was the kitchen, so it was always easy to bring in groceries. Plus, we always stored water bottles on the floor of the laundry room, another reason why it was easier entering that way.

Hearing that song, I also think about the few times Meridith and I walked around the entire park, and those days when it was cool enough outside that many mobile home front doors were open, and we passed one mobile home just past the clubhouse, and from inside were these incredible cooking smells, not just of dinner being made, but a history there. It smelled like someone was reaching from deep inside their heart and soul and bringing forth what they remembered fondly, what they wanted to recreate in their kitchen. I was so tempted to tell Mom and Dad that we wouldn't be home for dinner, to try to convince those inside that mobile home to invite us over for dinner. I wanted to taste what they clearly loved so much. There wasn't sauce out of a jar or defrosted meat coming from that kitchen. It all smelled fresh. It smelled like a brown sauce with something else, because a red sauce is noticeable right off, but a brown sauce takes time to understand.

I also think about that one mobile home in the back row, which made up the spine of the park, with all the Western decorations, including defunct kerosene lanterns, vases with steer skulls carved into them, statues of howling coyotes, and those beautiful statues of Indian women with baskets, kneeling at the river. I would have been curious to see how they decorated their home on the inside, but I saw from afar once that the couple who lived there were smokers, and I would have stayed on the outside just to ask. Last we went there, when the entrance gate was open because of a party in the clubhouse, all the Western decorations were gone. Things always change quickly after you leave.

And of course I think about the neighbors, the ones next door who were always loudly repairing air conditioning units (not ones connected to our park), and cars and whatever else their skilled hands could repair, as well as the family of neighbors diagonal from us who were always good for screaming at each other outside, but most of the time inside loudly enough that you could hear it. And also the guy I talked to occasionally who worked, and probably still does, as a custodian at the Thomas & Mack Center. When we were there this most recent time, I was tempted to get out of the car and knock on the door to see if he was available for a few minutes, but I surmised that he was likely sleeping, having to go in later that night. I wanted to see how he was doing, what was going on since he left, but maybe it's better that the past as it was remains that way.

I'm sure I'll have more to write about individual aspects of that mobile home park, and in fact, I should write more here anyway. It's been too long, and I always seem to let this blog go on too long without anything new. But this is a good start, the first inspiration I've had in a long time for this blog. With the latest book review for BookBrowse still to edit, and two books to read and review soon, perhaps it'll light a fire in writing more here. I hope so.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why Nixon?

I've finished reading the exhaustive, the enormously-illuminating, the thoroughly-researched, the continually-fascinating Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage by Will Swift, and I find myself yet again craving more about Richard Nixon. Despite extensive chores still to do today, such as cleaning the mirrors, sinks, and toilets in the two bathrooms of this apartment, and vacuuming in the bathrooms and in my parents' bedroom so their mattress can be turned and their new sheets put on, I put Frost/Nixon, starring Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, in the DVD player to watch for the umpteenth time. I'm also thinking about Oliver Stone's Nixon either after that or in the days to come, since I also have that on DVD. And on hold on my library card is 31 Days: Gerald Ford, The Nixon Pardon, and A Government in Crisis by Barry Werth, to reread, and The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews by James Reston, Jr., whose writing I was in awe of the first time, and a second reading might spur me to order it for my collection afterward. Oh, and I also have the C-SPAN documentary series on DVD about all the presidential libraries, including Nixon's, which I went to once when my family and I existed in Southern California (though we went to the Reagan Presidential Library more often because of the beautiful, expansive view from the replica of the South Lawn, as well as the incredible potato chips made fresh at Reagan's Country Cafe, pretty much the main reason we went there toward the end of our years in Southern California), as well as the American Experience: The Presidents DVD set, which includes a documentary about Nixon.

In my floating book collection (books I haven't read yet that may or may not become part of my permanent collection), I have JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke, and 1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America by David Pietrusza, who makes these historical events come vividly alive again, as if they were happening again.

This past week, I read Eleanor And Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman edited and with commentary by Steve Neal, and I always eye David McCullough's biography of Truman, which sits on the same shelf of the bookcase on the left side of the wall directly next to my reading chair. And of course, Robert Caro's epic look into the life of LBJ prods and pokes at me, while I hate not being in New York City so I can see Bryan Cranston play LBJ in All the Way. Andrew Jackson hangs around the edges, and I would like to know what FDR's presidency was like for him in the middle years, not the famous final ones.

Why is it then that Nixon keeps taking control of my passion for presidential history, even booting out William Howard Taft for a time, even though I want to know if Taft truly did not want to be president and if his wife, Nellie, pushed him into it because she wanted to be First Lady? Why am I consistently fascinated by a dark, shadowy figure who regained some measure of political respect in his later years, with his brilliant foreign policy analysis?

It's got to be the contradictions and the complexities of the man and his presidency, wondering if he was a good president, if he would have been even better had it not been for Watergate? My dad insists that he was a good president, but he just got caught. Well, there was the increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, but I still wonder how much of that was him. I read from conflicting sources that he either spearheaded the legislation for both or that others led the charge for it instead of him, and all he did was blankly sign his name to them. I don't know. Is it even possibly to find the clearest, unvarnished truth about Richard Nixon? Probably not. But in my reading, I would hope to get as close to it as possible, what sounds reasonably certain, and Will Swift comes close in Pat and Dick, particularly in focusing on his and Pat's marriage. I was curious about what their marriage was like when the Checkers speech happened, and Watergate, and his years in political exile. I got my answers to all those questions, seeing a marriage that used to be considered cold and distant, and there were moments like that, but they never lasted long there. There seemed to be a love that didn't need public confirmation, that was content to just be. Of course, I was born during President Reagan's re-election campaign, so these books and those documentaries and the footage to be found online are all I have to learn more about Nixon's life and presidency and post-presidential life. I do have my parents' insight to some degree, but my dad's insight only goes so far, and my mom's insight isn't extensive, being that she wasn't as interested in politics as my dad was at that time, in seeing history being made right then and there.

It's like with Frost/Nixon, which places Nixon (Langella) in the hospital at the time that Gerald Ford pardons him on television. Not true, according to Will Swift, who simply states that "On Sunday morning, September 8 [1974], Pat and Dick drove through Southern California fog on their way to the secluded and lush 220-acre Palm Springs estate of their friends Walter and Lee Annenberg. While they were en route, President Ford addressed the nation on television, announcing he was granting Nixon a full pardon for all offenses he had committed or might have committed during his term in office."

A shot of the Nixons driving to Palm Springs, intercut with a shot of Gerald Ford granting the pardon, then the pardon speech as a voiceover during that shot of the Nixons driving, wouldn't have been as dramatic as Nixon lying in that hospital bed from that attack of phlebitis, slowly opening his eyes as he hears Ford grant him the pardon, as is portrayed in Frost/Nixon. Any historical movie should not be taken as gospel anyway, but should hopefully fuel interest in learning more about the events potrayed. As I read that bit from Swift, I remembered that scene in Frost/Nixon, understood the dramatic license taken, and moved on. To at least understand history, if not convinced that the truth is apparent, you have to read so many different perspectives. And while I strive to read more about Richard Nixon, to understand more about him, to see the extent of the Constitutional peril he brought upon the country, Calvin Coolidge remains ignored. Rutherford B. Hayes finds himself sitting next to Ulysses S. Grant and both are eyeing Coolidge warily in the same ignored space, be it a parlor or a bar or whatever in my imagination. I imagine that people had the same visceral reaction as they watched the Watergate hearings. They were hooked on them, just as I am through all this history of a man who was not easy to know to begin with. The reason I'm so passionate about presidential history is because I want to know how these men handled being in power, suddenly having these great responsibilities thrust upon them, whether through elections or taking over from their mostly-slain predecessors (William Henry Harrison seems to be the sole exception, dying from pneumonia). I've always seen the presidents simply as men in powerful positions. They've obviously changed in many ways by the time they leave office, but they're still like you and me. Still human. Still getting up in the morning like we do. Still getting dressed like we do. Still eating like we do. Who were they before they became president? Who were they after? In the cases of Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and eventually Obama, who are they now? Do they wish they were back in that Oval Office, even those Constitutionally ineligible now? Or are they relieved to be done with all of that, content in their roles as elder statesmen, just like Nixon eventually became?

It all matters to me, and yet, I keep going back to Nixon. Maybe it's trying to understand how he could be so cynical about all the groups and particular people he lambasted in those recordings in the Oval Office, the inherent racism. Where did it all come from? How did the insecurities develop? I know some of it, but I still want to know more. It's not so much a search for the truth about Richard Nixon, without all the competing viewpoints, but more fascination with how it's not easy to really know. One book will say this, and another book will say that, and another book will come far out of left field to presume this. I feel like I should be reading about Bill Clinton's presidency because that's the one I grew up in. I was 5 when George H.W. Bush became president, and then 9 when Bill Clinton took office. Now would be the right time since enough time has passed in order to really consider it from all different angles.

But Nixon remains at the center of my passion for all this. It could also be because he was brilliant, but the insecurities and the nastiness (though mellowed years later) crowded it out. Did one emotion dominate the others for a while? He was known to become depressed at times, so how did it affect him during the presidency? There are so many questions, and not all of them will yield easy answers. I know that for sure. For me, it could be that the search is endlessly interesting. I want to know many presidents' administrations from beginning to end, possibly all of them if I hopefully live long enough (I'm hoping for well over 100 years old), but perhaps I want to start with this one because it was a mysterious administration at the same time. A political monolith, as his handlers tried to present.

So I will watch Frost/Nixon later. Maybe even Nixon to marvel at Anthony Hopkins again. There are still lots more books about Nixon that I haven't read, including his memoirs, so once I get out of the way of Watergate (which seems impossible, but it still confounds me enough that I at least want to understand more the entire arc of it before I move on to earlier events of his presidency, including his attempts to end the Vietnam War) after 31 Days and reading James Reston, Jr's book again, I'll get to those.

Or maybe it should be like a wheel. Spin it and find out which president I should spend time with for a while. Because I have a feeling if I keep this going, I'm never going to get to the others. Not that I haven't read about FDR and Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln and William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the others already, but just like Nixon, I want to know more about them too. I'll extract myself somehow. Eventually.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Passover, Las Vegas Style

(Originally, I was going to call this post "Passover, Nearly Las Vegas Style," since we're in Henderson, and while Sunset Station is a casino, with a buffet, and slot machines, and a comfortably wide bowling alley, we're still in Henderson, even though we're very close to Las Vegas, down the street. But casinos and buffets in this region did start in Las Vegas, so it is Las Vegas Style. No need for me to be pedantic about such a thing. It is what it is and what it always has been.)

We haven't had the full-on, Seder-driven, Haggadah-reading, Why-Is-This-Night-Different-From-All-Other-Nights Passover experience in years. I can't remember the last time we did the Four Questions. But I don't mind that we haven't, because it takes a while. You have to wait and wait and wait and wait before you eat, and yes the history as it is believed is important to me, but I can read about it elsewhere because I want to eat!

That's why I like Thanksgiving. You say a prayer or two, you tell Aunt Gracie to give it a rest for five minutes, and you dig in. Well, we have the same thing coming for Passover the Monday or Tuesday after next. In fact, it was a shock to us to see that our existence is actually acknowledged, after nine years of nothing of the kind in the Santa Clarita Valley in Southern California. A Kosher section in a supermarket, just to see what's around? Are you kidding? You get maybe a shelf, maybe even two shelves if management is feeling generous. Otherwise, you're on your own. Go to Gelson's in Encino. Maybe they'll have more.

We had gone to Sunset Station yesterday afternoon because they're doing a promotion called "$1 Million Scratch and Win." If you earn 300 points on the same day, you receive a scratch card that's guaranteed a winner, for $1,000 cash, up to $100 in free slot play, up to 50,000 points, free buffets, or other prizes. Dad originally thought you only had to walk right in and you'd get one, or maybe he thought that you only had to play a dollar. They may say they love locals, but it's not that easy. It was only when we got there that he found out you had to earn 300 points on the same day. Oh well. Meridith had to go to the bowling alley anyway to see about bowling balls, since she wants one, but hasn't found the right one yet.

We had to go to the Boarding Pass Center, as it's called, for some matter related to our cards, possibly seeing if our address had been changed from the one in Las Vegas to the one in Henderson. I don't know, since I was standing further back, doing what, I don't know. But as we walked by the buffet, we saw a sign for the upcoming Passover buffet, and we were stunned. We had been well ignored in Santa Clarita, so what could we possibly expect from the rest of the West, despite such luminaries as Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson being in this region? It's not so much Las Vegas itself, but our immediately local area that we wondered if there was anything for us, related to us. And there it was. There, on the posted menu, hard-boiled eggs, salmon with figs, matzo ball soup, charoset (a dark fruit-and-nut paste meant to harken back to the mortar our enslaved people used to built the pyramids), beet horseradish, and so much else I've already forgotten. Dad went to the front counter at the buffet to ask the price. $10.80 with a Boarding Pass, the membership card. $20 otherwise. We're bringing our cards with us. And Mom noted that gefilte fish wasn't listed on the board. But maybe that was only part of what will be offered. Maybe gefilte fish will be there. However, it doesn't matter as much because we can always get gefilte fish for ourselves at home (actually, for Mom, Dad and Meridith since I don't like it), and we have to be part of this! I've never really liked the Station casinos because they've always struck me as stingy with generally tight slots even here in Henderson, and Palace Station has the worst buffet in Las Vegas. Granted, we haven't been to every buffet in Las Vegas, but I highly doubt it'll fall lower in the rankings, even though the buffet at Arizona Charlie's is just as bad. While I will never go back to Arizona Charlie's on Boulder Highway, that buffet did have sausage stuffing, which was actually very pleasing, and I won't forget that, whereas the Palace Station buffet had nothing redeeming about it.

You have to drive just a little to get to Sunset Station, but I still consider it part of our community. And we have to support our community, we need to support our community, we want to support our community with what's been offered, because we exist! After all this time, we are acknowledged! And I just hope this Passover buffet is a lot better than Palace Station's buffet. Since they've gone to this length to present this buffet, it means they're making some kind of effort, and I hope it shows. For so long, I've wanted to support a community I can call my own, and with this, and so much else it is, this feels like the one. We already do that with Food 4 Less essentially next door to us, buying one or two things or more every week because we want them to stay open. Not that they're having any trouble staying afloat, what with the parking lot being nearly full every day, but every little bit helps. Even though I don't really like the Station casinos, I like Sunset Station a little more because of this. This means a lot in a time when we're still trying to find our place here. There's progress, and this is a major boost.

Friday, March 21, 2014

An Experiment with a Reading List, Amidst Other Things

Today is my 30th birthday, which, outside of the pursuit of a steady career with a pension that I know is an important component of getting older, means that it's time to write what I really want to write, to pull my future books into the present. I have two immediate ideas for biographies, one about the relatively controversial making of one of the first movies I ever saw, when I was 5 years old, and two ideas for novels. I'm not sure where to begin yet, but I know that the facts I can get for one biography are near me in Boulder City, while seeking more information via e-mail, the only way to do this. I know that just like my first book, some of the research will be monotonous, but the ultimate goal matters most: I want to be published again by the time I'm 35. Originally, I wanted to be published by the time I turned 30, but existing in Southern California didn't inspire any movement toward that goal. Plus, there was the fervent desire to move from there, which, from 2007, took five years. That was also an emotionally taxing time. Here, in Southern Nevada, it's a lot easier to write, to be inspired by what's around me. The Las Vegas Valley doesn't close in around you. It gives you time and space to think about what you want to do, what you want to pursue, what you want to be. We may not have a solid core of community as others know it, but I like that people can simply be here, in any way they wish. And while I still don't like it, I'm gradually getting used to the transience around me. In fact, while a substitute aide at Nate Mack Elementary yesterday, doing recess field duty after my lunchtime, one of the kids I know from my day of being the substitute P.E. aide two weeks ago, came up to me to tell me that he and his parents are moving to Portland, Oregon during spring break.

Now, I've heard of people moving back to the east coast, moving to California, moving to Arizona, but this is the first I've heard of Portland, Oregon. An interesting change from the usual suspects, and from what I've heard of Portland, I think he's going to have a very interesting, creative childhood there.

Anyway, my main reason for this post is not only to say that I intend to continue my "Where Was I When I Read That?" series, but that I'm also going to start a new series, an idea I had this morning, looking at the bottom two shelves of books in my left-side bookcase at the side of my room. It's there that I have Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley, owing to my interest in piano jazz, that will also be a major focus in my life from now on, really all kinds of jazz, but more with the piano and saxophone.

This book was at the top of a list I created in my account on the Henderson Libraries website, which I was originally very much against being changed when they created a new design and system for the website. I thought the previous one, which I've ironically long forgotten, was better and more personal, more community-centered, but this one has worked out just as well. And just like Facebook keeps changing, I simply get used to it.

Before my family and I moved from Las Vegas to Henderson, I created a list in my Goodreads account called "Henderson Library Needs," which included books I had checked out in the Las Vegas-Clark County system, but didn't have a chance to read, though I still wanted to read them. And since the Henderson Libraries also had them, I could read them there, being that where I am in Henderson, I want to support the Henderson Libraries more.

After we moved, and after I got a Henderson library card, I found that I could make lists on this website of anything I wanted, be it books, DVDs, or jazz, though I haven't yet done the latter. And I decided to create a list called "Books to Put on Hold." It started out small, 10, 15 books at a time. Now it has 191 books, starting with Thelonious Monk, starting with the aforementioned book, sitting next to me under Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones, of which I'm on page 127. I deleted that Monk listing after I checked out that book, and so Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music by Thomas Fitterling now graces the top of the list.

A lot of these listings are based on passions of the moment. When Peter O'Toole died, I looked for his two autobiographies and found Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers. That's #6 on this list.

Further down the list is Moneywood: Hollywood in its Last Age of Excess by William Stadiem at #42, which I noticed in February when there was an Oscars-themed book display at the Green Valley Library that I kept restocking as a volunteer. While I don't write movie reviews anymore, I still study movie history. That is an inextricable part of my life.

And so on. Different books based on different interests, and all waiting to be read. Some are a block of related works, such as wildflowers, and others are one-off. And the list will surely grow. But even with that, I want to do something else new for this blog, that of writing about this list as I read either each book or two or more at a shot. I want to see if there is more to this list than just the obvious themes and interests, if they are related to each other more than those. It begins with Robin D.G. Kelley's biography of Monk, and we'll see what emerges as I read them in order. Some of them are also connected in a "Where Was I When I Discovered It?" kind of way, especially when I was a substitute library aide at different elementary schools and spotted some of these books. A few are part of the week that I ran the library at Lewis Rowe Elementary solo. I have plenty of stories about the pleasure of doing that.

Ultimately, I want to see how these books might be connected further. That, I think, will make this a lot of fun. Plus, it'll be a way to keep writing about books during those times that I'm in between book reviews. Not next week, though, since I have to read The Plover by Brian Doyle for an April 1 deadline for BookBrowse, but certainly afterward.

Monday, March 3, 2014

To Finish or Not to Finish?

If you don't like a book, don't finish it. Or skim through the rest to find out what happened for your own edification and then leave it behind forever.

It sounds easy, but not when you're devoted wholeheartedly to a character or a series, like I am to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, that seventh of a ton, orchid-loving, shut-in-by-choice gourmand. Oh, I like Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's legman, well enough, especially his love of milk, and all the stories are always from his perspective (I may be wrong about this, so be gentle if I am), but I love spending time in that Manhattan brownstone with its floors containing Nero Wolfe and Archie's office, Fritz Brenner's holiest-of-holy kitchen, with all the culinary masterpieces that emerge from it; Wolfe's and Archie's bedrooms, and, of course, the plant rooms where the orchids are, where, without fail, with some extreme exceptions (such as gunfire bursting through the plant rooms, decimating them), Wolfe is there from 9-11 a.m. and 4-6 p.m., all of it tended by his gardener, Theodore Horstmann.

I haven't yet read all of Rex Stout's journeys into one of my favorite worlds, nor have I read all of Robert Goldsborough's continuations, taken up 11 years after Stout died. I did read Goldsborough's first continuation, Murder in E Minor, but probably have to reread it again because I don't remember much about it. I do remember that it placed Wolfe and Archie in the 1970s, which was an interesting change. I loved his prequel to the series, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, so I thought I'd have something to look forward to every time Goldsborough has a new Wolfe novel out, although Archie Meets Nero Wolfe was the first one since 1993.

His latest Wolfe novel is called Murder in the Ball Park, and it seems to place Wolfe and Archie quite a while after they first met, which, judging from Wolfe reading Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe, is 1948.

I'm on page 112. I've been on page 112 for the past day and a half, partly because I've been busy with freelance research work, but mostly because every page brings a new frustration. The mystery of who assassinated state senator Orson Milbank during a baseball game at the Polo Grounds does not move along. And by placing this story at a time that I'm sure Stout himself covered feels to me as if Goldsborough, by this act, wants to be considered in the same league as Stout. To me, he isn't. A different author can play with what a previous author has left behind, but with reservations, if that world has been so well-established, as this one was by Stout.

In this novel, Goldsborough plays too fast and loose with how Wolfe and Archie operate, even who they are. I could never imagine Wolfe saying "Egad" in reaction, as he does at the beginning of chapter 14. "Phooey" yes. I've read that and it works. Maybe Wolfe has said "Egad" during Stout's time writing him, but it most likely was smoother than it is here. Also, I love reading Wolfe's speeches to potential murder, or otherwise, suspects for that reason. Goldsborough had a fine handle on it in the prequel, so I don't understand why there's a sudden inability to do it here.

With Wolfe's eating habits, I can accept Georgia ham broiled, as he has for breakfast in bed one morning. but I wince at squash with sour cream and dill and avocado with watercress and black walnut kernels. That seems very un-Wolfe like and certainly un-Fritz like. And it does not at all speak to the enormous love Wolfe has for fine food and the opinions he holds forth on it. It's as if Goldsborough just drops them in to meet what's expected of a Wolfe story, without getting into why.

But once again, it's the snail's pace of the story that nearly kills my interest in this novel. Wolfe and Archie do investigate every angle in every novel and novella and short story, but it is never this slow. There have been novels in Stout's repertoire that have not been entirely up to snuff, but still move along swiftly enough. Here, we meet every possible suspect, each less interesting than the next, including a barely-written mob boss who would have been more fascinating in Wolfe's presence if he and Wolfe had been permitted to have a discussion about their different sides of life, their ways of living. Something like that. Not very long, but Wolfe is worldly, and there would have been a lot of potential in that.

I'm up to the part where the late state senator's lover and former press secretary has decided to run for his vacant seat, and still I crawl through one page and then another. It's not that I feel I'll be doing Wolfe a great disservice if I don't finish this. This is a different Wolfe, a Wolfe that was better in the prequel, and maybe he's just as good in Goldsborough's '70s-set versions. Plus, there's so much talk here between Archie and others, including New York Gazette man and Wolfe resource Lon Cohen, but it's not even entertaining or useful talk. It's just enough to push the story along without feeling, without what usually makes these stories a joy to read. There's not much joy in this one.

Throughout the rest of the day, I'll think about whether to push along, to see it through to the end, or skim. I'm such a fan of this series that in the now-rare times that we go to a buffet in Las Vegas or Henderson, I always order milk to drink, as a salute to Archie Goodwin. I know this is Goldsborough and not Stout here, but Wolfe is still Wolfe to me, despite the "Egad." It's hard to shake off devotion.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Where Was I When I Read That?: Paper Towns by John Green

Dolphins in the desert? Yes. Just like all the residencies of those famous or formerly famous singers who want stability of a sort. A couple months here, a couple months there. A chance not only to remind audiences of who they are and the power they can still bring to their songs, but also to figure out what they want to do next, albums they can record, maybe even a national tour if the ticket sales from their residencies make that seem possible.

The dolphins don't have that kind of option in a residency. They're here to stay, or at least for as long as the Mirage keeps Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat. Because nothing's permanent here. That goes for life itself, of course, but here, things seem to disappear faster. Restaurants open and then close. Two apartments I always saw lights on in at night when I walked the dogs are off. Those people are gone. Even the couple that lived in an upstairs apartment with a perpetually watchful dog at the window, who was here before the holidays, is gone. The blinds of that apartment are open slightly, revealing nothing inside.

That's why here, you hold onto what's permanent to you, what lasts in your mind and your heart, even though it may be gone. Fortunately, Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat has always remained, even before my family and I moved to Las Vegas in September 2012, when we were anticipating moving there and kept up on everything Las Vegas from the Santa Clarita Valley in Southern California. According to, it opened in 1990. I don't know if the dolphins have been there since the beginning, but that's where this story begins.

Before last March 23, my sister's birthday, my mom signed her up for a program at the Dolphin Habitat called Painting with the Dolphins. During our nine years' existence in Southern California, she also swam with the dolphins at Sea World in San Diego. This program was also pricey, but it would be worth it for her since she loves dolphins.

Being that the first hotel we visited in Las Vegas at the start of our first trip in 2007 was the Mirage, home to the Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat, we voted in the 2009 elections in a trailer behind the Mirage. And when American Idol came to the Beatles Love theater at the Mirage for live broadcasts last February, we went to the show featuring performances by the guys competing. So the Mirage has essentially been our home casino, even though we visit sporadically. It made sense not only for Meridith to be able to paint with the dolphins, but for it to be at the Mirage. It's one of many things we know intimately in Las Vegas.

After you pass the ticket booth at the Secret Garden, and before you get to the ticket-taker podium just before the entrance, you walk past a winding garden path, with uniform bushes taller than you. Once you get in, you have the souvenir store right next to you, the public seating for the dolphin shows at the main pool behind you, rising bleachers. Behind that main pool is a holding pool for dolphins in need of care, or baby dolphins not yet ready for public viewing, and in the back, facing the entrance to the Secret Garden, is a second, smaller pool, where the painting sessions are held and where the dolphins are just to play around, to throw balls around and play with other toys they're given. Just after the main pool, across from the snack bar, is a winding path down to the basement area, with large windows where you can watch the dolphins underwater. Every part of this place is interesting, making you wonder not only how they planned this, but how they maintain it in the midst of the desert.

As could be seen in my first entry in this series, about Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, I bring a book with me everywhere. And the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat was no exception. This time, it was Paper Towns by John Green, who I got hooked on after reading The Fault in Our Stars. I haven't read all of his books yet, as I don't like to bombard myself with so many titles from the same author as once. It's why I read the Nero Wolfe series, and the Alphabet Mysteries by Sue Grafton book by book, one at a time from the Green Valley Library. Yes, it would stand to reason that if I like an author enough, I should inhale everything else they have, but there are also other books to read. There's always a mix I have that doesn't favor just one author. Many authors.

Paper Towns is immediately my kind of novel because it takes place in Central Florida, and being a Florida native, I'm automatically interested in anything to do with Florida. I especially appreciate a novel that can gradually reveal its offerings over a day if necessary, which is the case with many novels I read while I'm out somewhere. That day at the Dolphin Habitat was different, though. We had gotten there earlier because Meridith's time to paint with the dolphins was at 12:30 p.m. There's that and 3:30 p.m., and those are the only times to do so in a given day.

I definitely would not miss what Meridith was experiencing, so the book stayed with me, closed. We went into a small room just off that tiny holding pool for the dolphins, where Meridith and another person got an orientation of what painting with the dolphins would be like. She chose her paints, and I made sure to take lots of photos during the process.

Mom, Dad and I then went to the second pool to grab a spot right at the mini curving wall that surrounds the pool. Those who work for the Dolphin Habitat don't make Painting with Dolphins as much a show as the one in the main pool with leaping dolphins and all of that, but people gather just the same. Not just the families of those painting with the dolphins, but other tourists. It's a nice, curious crowd.

The paintbrushes that the dolphins use are attached to a pacifier that the dolphin holds in its mouth, with the paintbrush sticking out and they move the brush up and down and side to side. Meridith well remembers the name of the dolphin she painted with, but I don't. Cosmo comes to mind, but I think I've just got The Jetsons on the brain, after Cosmo Spacely. I think the dolphin's name was stronger than that.

I had to get as close to Meridith's side as possible because I had the phone camera and wanted to take as many pictures as possible. There was the photo taken of Meridith with the dolphin, as provided by the program, along with the dolphin's painting, but it's always nice to capture the entire experience as it's happening. And Meridith had quite the experience because before they left that room, they had to take off their shoes and socks and roll up their pants before they headed out there. Then at the edge of the pool, Meridith kneeled on a towel, met her dolphin, and the person in charge of that painting session explained to Meridith the dolphin's personality and what it could do in paint, and then the dolphin began painting.

I loved watching this. Meridith, being hugely into dolphins, loved swimming with them in San Diego, and she was a rocket ready to go off at the dolphin painting. Being that close to a dolphin was big enough for her.

Now, since it was her birthday, she could do anything she wanted. And that was most likely the highlight of her entire day. But we ended up spending the entire day at the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, from 11:30 a.m. or so, to when it closed at 5 p.m. We went down to the basement level to look at the dolphins underwater a few times, and visited the Secret Garden with its panthers and leopards, and I think there were either a few monkeys or apes. My only mission for the day was deciding whether or not to buy The Living Sea IMAX film on DVD, upon seeing that it was narrated by Meryl Streep, one of my favorite actresses, with songs and music by Sting, one of my favorite singers. It would seem to be a no-brainer, but the price was $15 or $16, so I needed some time to think about it. It never left my mind, though, throughout most of the day.

What I loved most about the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat was that sense of being nowhere else. Sure, the Mirage hotel loomed above, with the Beatles Love banner, but that didn't matter. There were the trees in the Secret Garden, all the bushes, and low-hanging leaves that made you think you couldn't possibly be in Las Vegas, but were in a truly different world. I'm sure that was the intended effect because it worked on me. Of course I knew that I was in Las Vegas, because I was living there. That's unavoidable. But within the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, I wondered why I would want to be anywhere else. And I didn't mind that we spent the entire day there, because we just sat at one of the tables near the snack bar and in front of the souvenir store for hours. And those hours didn't matter. It was enough to just sit there and relax. And what better place to read Paper Towns by John Green, to get so completely into that Central Florida world, to hope that high school senior Quentin Jacobsen soon finds Margo Roth Spiegelman, his childhood friend and next-door neighbor, who he's been in love with forever. I had always hoped that in some novel, an author would really use Florida, really get into it, and not just reference certain points and move on. John Green is that author. He knows streets and sunsets and buildings in Central Florida. I've always hoped that someone would see poetry in my home state and Green gets it right.

But it's also the circumstances while reading a book, where you are, what you're doing. It was cool on Meridith's birthday, but not too cold. We had jackets with us and had to use them while we were in the shade for a time, facing the second pool, but at that table in front of the souvenir store, no need. And those people working at the Dolphin Habitat really got to know Meridith and us too. They were genuinely surprised that anyone would stay for the entire day because people go to see what they want and then they move on. But when Meridith explained that she really loves dolphins, they understood. It makes no sense to rush when you're a resident, not when a hefty price was paid for Painting with Dolphins. It cost a lot, but it was worth it for her.

And it was one of those days that just made sense. Where else was there to be? Why not really get to know a place? And we did. I got to know every inch of the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, and thinking about Paper Towns today, which inspired this second installment in the series, made me put it on hold on my library card to read it again. Maybe to recapture some of that time, to make more vivid some memories I have of that day, but also to read it to pay close attention to how Green portrays Florida, since I'll be using it for the beginning of one of my novels in time to come.

It could have been Paper Towns itself that also contributed to the effect of the day, and parts of it certainly did, but I think it was the day itself, a day perfect for reading, where you don't have anywhere else to be, where you could do anything you wanted, even mounting an adventure within the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, whatever it may be. But reading and being in those surroundings was enough for me. I hope for more reading days like that one.