Thursday Reviews: Seven Up by Janet Evanovich; Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? by Steven Tyler

Seven Up

Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum returns for what should be an easy apprehension for her. Eddie DeChooch, an elderly, blind and deaf retired hit man has missed his court date. All Stephanie needs to do is bring him in to reschedule. If you’ve been paying attention to Janet Evanovich’s hapless bounty hunter, you know nothing is ever easy for Stephanie. DeChooch is depressed. And slippery. For an old, depressed guy, he gets around pretty good, slipping out a window. And we’re off.

Boyfriend Joe Morelli is furious. Stephanie and Joe are now engaged, but Joe wants no wife of his doing fugitive apprehension. He does, however, want to have a lot of sex with Stephanie. Stephanie’s mom is insistent that there will be a wedding and that it be done right. Oh, and no daughter of hers should be doing fugitive apprehensions. Stephanie has to juggle problems with stoner pal Mooner (who now believes he’s a superhero), two aging mobsters named Benny and Ziggy, the mysterious Ranger (who also wants to have a lot of sex with Stephanie), a lady mud wrestler, DeChooch’s horny son, and crazy old Grandma Mazur.

By itself, Seven Up is a fun, light read. However, the series got tired around #4, and it’s been years since I read a Stephanie Plum novel. It’ll probably be a while before I read another. Funny, but nothing original.

Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?

Steven Tyler

Steven Tyler is a fascinating human being. And he wants you to know all about him.

Then again, you would expect nothing less from Aerosmith’s flamboyant front man. Part beat poetry, part self-aggrandizement, part honest look at a long career in rock and roll, Tyler’s ego and bravado are on full display in this story as he gives you the world according to one Steven Tallarico of Bronx, New York. He makes no apologies for four decades of hedonism or calling out his bandmates. Despite the criticism and smack talk, you can tell Tyler is extremely fond of Joe Perry and Joey Kramer, calling them his “brothers.” He fully admits he is difficult and points out that the lead singer of any band is cursed to be the lightning rod for any controversy.

And yet what makes this memoir go down smoothly is Tyler’s almost beat-poet portrayal of himself as an unreliable narrator. He makes excuses. He makes it obvious he’s making excuses. Because, as he says when explaining how he and Joe Perry look at music when they write, it’s not just the notes. It’s what’s between the notes.

When Do You Write?

Monkey typingThe best time to write is in the morning. Your mind is fresh. It’s quiet. There are few distractions. I can get several pages out quickly without losing focus.

The day job and school have forced me to write in the evening. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The problem here is that the mind, like the body is tired. It’s hard to get the words to come some nights, and I’ve often found myself resigned to just riffing on something I’ll never publish. It used to be that writing at night was ideal. But that was before I was “serious” about writing. I worked two jobs, and sitting at the computer late at night making stuff up was a wonderful way to come down from the day. Since those days, not so much. My night-owl days came to an end probably about a year or two after I married Nita.

Lately, though, I’ve discovered writing at lunchtime has worked wonders. I only get 30-45 minutes of writing time, but I like what I write. I’ve been doing this on days I have class and don’t want to do homework. It’s helped with the progress on Holland Bay. The only thing I fear is someone coming up behind me and wanting to talk about writing. Or some busy-body who likes only certain kinds of stories lecturing me that I shouldn’t write such trash. I try to get a seat in a corner at the back of the breakroom.

If I had time or could get up early enough, I’d go back to writing mornings. As it is, I write mornings on the weekends, before anyone else is up.

The Compleat Kepler: Wring That Neck

cover-smallerWring That Neck

The second Deep Purple album, The Book of Taliesyn, is a weird one. Well, the first three are all psychedelic albums, so they’re all weird. When pulling a title from the song list, I had really only two choices. One was “Kentucky Woman,” which fits fine. I worked close enough to Kentucky at the time to walk across a bridge to it. (And I frequently did.) But this Neil Diamond cover did not inspire anything beyond a rather lame missing person case, so I tossed the idea.

The other is an instrumental called “Wring That Neck (Hard Road).” Now that could have some interesting possibilities. This is crime, so we can have someone get their neck wrung. For some reason, my mind gravitated toward a chicken getting its neck wrung. I imagined Nick Kepler in tony Pepper Pike standing at the door to a pricey home and holding a shoebox with a freshly dead chicken. Why was Nick at someone’s door offering them a freshly dead chicken?

Let’s go back to The Godfather. In one scene, someone sends Don Corleone a fresh fish wrapped in newspaper. When someone asks what that’s supposed to mean, one of the Corleones says, “Luca Brazi sleeps with the fishes.” That is an awesome and powerful scene, one more powerful, I think, than the severed horse’s head. (Which, incidentally, I think is the funniest scene in the trilogy.) So Nick is bringing back a dead chicken with its neck broken to send a message. Who  sent it and from where? There aren’t a helluva lot of chickens in Cleveland or its suburbs, not until you get out to Medina County, where I grew up.

But Wayne, Ashland, and Holmes County are lousy with chickens, cows, pigs, and horses. I lived in Wayne County for five years and Holmes for six months (the last prompting my escape to Cincinnati in 1991.) The heart of Amish country, which is nowhere near as interesting as they make it sound on Amish Mafia, would be an alien planet to Nick Kepler, who works among the skyscrapers of downtown, plays in rock bands, and likes his cable television. I knew the route Nick would drive in search of a Romeo and Juliet pair of kids, one of whose father does not approve of his little girl dating a working class stiff. I knew the route by heart. If I would stay in Cleveland for any length of time, I would drive I-71 to State Route 83 to get to Holmes County, where my parents spent their final years.

I hate that drive. I knew Nick would like it even less. Yes, there are still dirt roads in Holmes County, many of them without names. Put Nick on a farm, and he’d quickly calculate which was closer – Cleveland or Columbus. (Columbus, actually, especially since I lived in Holmes County.) He is waaaaaay out of his element, and I enjoyed having him crawl to the sheriff for assistance.

The actual sheriff of Holmes County is the ex-brother-in-law of one of my cousins, who is still a friend of the family. I loosely based my fictional sheriff on him. In a way, Holmes County is somewhat like Stephen King’s rural Maine and fictitious Castle Rock. You could very easily put Needful Things‘ Alan Pangborn in that story, and it would still work.

Favorite Bands: Nirvana

Nirvana on MTV's Unplugged

Source: MTV


That pretty much sums up Nirvana and its creative center, Kurt Cobain. If you listen to their music, particularly on Nevermind, their breakout album, you hear lyrics that are personal to the point of being impossible to understand. And yet it worked.

The classic line-up of Nirvana was Cobain, bass player Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, later of the Foo Fighters. Near the end, they added a second guitarist, former Germs guitar player Pat Smear. Nirvana broke out at the dawn of the 1990’s as hair metal was breathing its last. After five years of band after band wanting to be Led Zeppelin or, failing that, a really loud, really high, really oversexed version of Aerosmith, we had a power trio steeped in punk rather than hard rock. And they exploded on MTV hitting you over the head with the sinister “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

This was a new sound. They called it grunge. Not quite punk. Not quite heavy metal. It encompassed bands that didn’t quite fit the heavy metal label, but were too polished to be truly punk. Cynics suggested grunge simply meant “comes from Seattle,” noting the major differences in sound between the city’s three most famous grunge bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. And yet grunge did have a certain vibe to it. It was all organic, guitar-driven, almost completely keyboard free. And the singers did not sound at all like they wanted to be Robert Plant. (For which, one suspects, Plant was probably grateful.)

Nirvana had three hits right off the bat: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” and “In Bloom.” The last showed Nirvana parodying the old Ed Sullivan Show, with People’s Court announcer Doug Llewellyn playing Ed. The video was shot in kinescope with cuts of Nirvana as clean-cut boys, a la Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, intercut with the band in drag getting their Who on by smashing their instruments.

But while the rest of the nation was discovering Nirvana, this was actually the culmination of years as an underground band. Grohl, who by all rights should have disappeared into obscurity after Cobain’s death, was actually the last of a Spinal Tap line of drummers. By the time they released In Utero, they were international stars. Yet Cobain decried the studio trickery on Nevermind done by producer Butch Vig (later of Garbage.) The album was meant to be a rougher, edgier album. Cobain wanted to recapture the early days of the band.

And therein lies their downfall. Cobain did not handle success well and could not combat addictions. Couple that with the way his cryptic lyrics transformed him into a Generation X version of Jim Morrison, and you have a recipe for tragedy. Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994. It was the one time I wondered if MTV’s Kurt Loder would actually lose it on the air. Wife Courtney Love, not exactly a paragon of patience and reserve, lashed out in her statement following her husband’s death. But the fact was the ride was over, and Kurt Cobain had jumped off the bridge to end it.

But for a brief shining moment, Nirvana helped give rock the jolt it so desperately needed at the end of the eighties.

Thursday Reviews: Winter’s End By John Rickards

Winter’s End

John Rickards

Alex Rourke has a good gig. A former FBI agent, he lives in Boston where he plies his skills in a private investigation firm run by another ex-Bureau type. So when the sheriff up in Winter’s End, Maine, calls, he assumes it’s just an old friend looking for some extra help. Winter’s End is Rourke’s hometown.

The problem is a man who was found standing over a naked body in the road with two knives in his hands. He has no record, no fingerprints on file, and refuses to give his real name. Then he seems to know an awful lot about Rourke. Somehow, this is a personal case, the worst kind for an agent, a cop, or even a PI to have. But the John Doe in custody has an agenda. And as Rourke pulls more and more loose threads, he finds the case circling back to him at every turn.

Rickards, an English writer, has a few hiccups writing an American character first person early on. There’s an occasional word choice that doesn’t ring right. But about 1/3 of the way in, he hits his rhythm. The Maine Rickards creates is not quite Stephen King’s Maine, though Winter’s End and Castle Rock are clearly in the same region. There is a all-present logging industry leaving its fingerprint on the area, and a sort of isolation peculiar to the land between southern Maine and the St. Lawrence River up in Canada, like a colder, wetter version of the Pacific Northwest.

The John Doe in custody could easily have veered off into Hannibal Lecter territory, but in the end, he’s not really that smart. He’s just patient and a bit angry. Rourke realizes the murder he was brought in to investigate is the latest event in a chain that began when Rourke was a child.

Remission: Medication

I spent most of last year maintaining a weight between 275 and 280. I wasn’t gaining, but my numbers weren’t improving either. In fact, they were getting worse.

Late last year, my doctor took my blood and dropped the “I” word on me: Insulin. I looked at the reading he had from my previous checkup. The numbers were going down. But they were not good. I had gone from an A1C hemoglobin – a cumulative measure of blood sugar over the past 90 days – of 10.2 to 8.1. 6 is the threshold for diabetes. Soooo… Did I need insulin?

I balked. Insulin is produced in the pancreas, and I clearly was still making insulin. Type 1 diabetics have to have insulin shots. That’s the very definition of Type 1. The body no longer produces any insulin. I had a friend who had this. She described the horrific week she had when she was 11, when they discovered her condition. I have Type 2. There are many causes, but essentially, the body simply becomes resistant to insulin, leaving a lot of sugar in the bloodstream that can’t be absorbed. In my case, it’s because I packed on over 50 pounds from 1997 to 2004, maxing out at 305 pounds. And I don’t show all the weight I gain. That kind of weight makes the fat cells expand, which makes it hard for insulin to deposit sugar.

In short, being a fat ass was killing me. Hence, this feature on the blog.

I balked on the insulin partly from fear and partly from some well-founded reasons. The fear comes from my mother. Very obese when she died, she spent the last decade of her life shooting insulin after every meal. In the back of my mind, that was the start of the downward spiral. Now, my mother had back problems and heart problems that kept her from exercising properly, which might have extended her life another 10-15 years. That’s probably irrational, but there it is. In reality, I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of injecting myself with something my body was not only producing, but that my resistance to it was on the decline.

But being the lazy bastard that I am, I hadn’t been pricking my finger twice a day. You want a blood sugar number between 70 and 120. I was regularly waking up with numbers as high as 180 and coming home from work to 130, 140, even 150. So I started running. And I decided I would do P90X in the spring. And I would not neglect my annual tradition of biking the Little Miami Trail section by section this summer. And I would start counting calories.

This was not a New Year’s resolution. This was a decision to stick around for a long time. My wife bugged me several times, telling me to at least have my life insurance paid up if I didn’t want to stick around. Nita is not the type to want to “change a man.” So if she was bugging me about it, I had to get off my ass. First, I found the right cocktail to swallow twice a day. My doctor started with metformin (which I already took) and a drug called Tradjenta. I added a supplement called Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) that’s been suggested as a means of lowering blood sugar.  The numbers dropped, along with my weight, but not low enough. I was still waking up with high blood sugar. I added chromium supplements, which helped a little, but still didn’t do the trick. So we brought back an early drug called glimiperide.

Boom. Numbers went into the normal range, and, unless I decided to drink a lot, stayed there. (No one wakes up the morning after heavy drinking with normal blood sugar, but usually, that’s the least of your problems by then. I recommend lots of water and scrambled eggs for the hangover.)

After the first of the year, I ramped up my exercise, which I’ll talk about here soon. Coupled with keeping the calories under a set number everyday, I’ve managed to dump 14 pounds from my New Year’s Day weight of 274. The result?

I quit taking Tradjenta (which doesn’t seem to work anyway) and am about to stop metformin altogether. I may even drop a blood pressure medication.

Medications are expensive, especially Tradjenta, which I rely on samples to get. Also, I’ve never been a fan of pumping chemicals in my body, not even for recreation. Caffeine remains my addiction of choice, and alcohol is less and less appealing as I get older. If I can reduce my intake to a mutlivitamin every morning, I’ll be happy.

I’m not done yet. 260 pounds for my age and height is still overweight, but now I’m moderately overweight instead of severely. But I need to keep going.

Besides, I have a goal of running the Pig at 50.

The Compleat Kepler: Just Like Suicide

cover-smallerJust Like Suicide

After I wrote the first three Kepler shorts, I needed a means to come up with more short stories. There is an old writer’s trick of using song titles, place names, works of art, etc. to generate a story idea. I decided to pick a song off every studio album by the band Deep Purple.

“What a minute. ‘Just Like Suicide’ is a Soundgarden song.”

Well, actually, the Soundgarden song is called “Like Suicide.” The title actually comes from the chorus. But I’ll get to that in a moment. I went in order of Deep Purple’s albums, starting with 1969’s Shades of Deep Purple, with their cover of Billy Joe Royal’s “Hush.” Why would a Nick Kepler story be called “Hush”?

These are crime stories, so “Hush” might refer to hush money. What is is someone wants Nick to hush about? What if a client asked to find someone, and Kepler discovered, too late, that the job was a setup for murder? That worked. Who’s hushing him up? How about the dying (if not dead at that point, 2001 or so) Cleveland Mafia family? Naturally, they wouldn’t communicate with him directly. They would use their lawyer. I remembered California Congressman Bob Dornan, the ultraconservative fiery-haired (and fiery tempered) representative from Orange County. Dornan had a flair for the dramatic. And the offensive. I modeled my mob lawyer on him, only I made him about 5-foot-2″. That turned lawyer Virgil Pescik into what Kepler describes as “a mad, grinning gnome.”

Nick, of course, wants nothing to do with the mob, something he fails miserably at in Second Hand Goods. The hit, however, has just enough evidence to implicate Kepler. I didn’t want to have Kepler’s buddy Frank Windsor (whom I hadn’t used in a story yet) to suspect him. So I came up with Bertkowski, Windsor’s obnoxious, mob-obsessed partner. Bertkowski sees an in to crack a major organized crime case. Never mind that Bertkowski is a city homicide cops. He sees himself as Eliot Ness (who once was Cleveland’s safety director). Bertkowski applies the right amount of pressure to Kepler to get him to smoke out the real killers. This leads to a showdown at Cleveland’s Edgewater Park near the abandoned fishing piers.

By the time I finished the story, the title “Hush” no longer worked. Since the hit was made to look like a suicide, I took the Soundgarden title instead. This would happen with later stories, such as “Full Moon Boogie,” “Cold Coked,” and “Roofies.”

Plots With Guns took this one, my second story with them. It had guns all right, including Kepler disarming Pescik only to discover the gun was a rusty Saturday night special.

Favorite Bands: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert, 2013

Photo by Colleen Benelli, used under Creative Commons

In 1992, about a year after I moved to Cincinnati, my brother came down and dropped off a tape. I listened to it during a trip to Gatlinburg, TN. It blew my mind. This band didn’t know what decade they were in. There was seventies funk, modern rap with punk overtones, and throwbacks to psychedelia. And of course, one song was already in heavy rotation on MTV, a gritty, monochrome video version of Salvador Dali on acid set to “Give It Away.”

Oh, my friends, it was the 1990’s for me. The eighties, with their hair metal and synthesizer pop, were dead. Rock had found its mojo again. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers were hosing down the airwaves with that mojo.

The Chilis had been around for a while. I remember hanging out at Medina’s Round Records (two of whose managers I dated. Sweet for an audiophile like me, especially when that netted me floor seats at the 87 Clapton show) and actually being exposed to them a few years earlier. A radically different version of the band had broken through with Mother’s Milk, one of the first albums I’d ever heard where rap was done over rock on purpose. And it sounded natural. I got to hear Mother’s Milk on my twice weekly visits to Round Records. Had I not been on a progressive rock kick at the time, I would have snatched it up then.

The band then consisted of core members Flea on bass and Anthony Keidis on vocal. As detailed in his autobiography Scar Tissue, Keidis came into the band with a history. Son of actor and dope dealer to the rock stars Blackie Dammett, godson of Sonny Bono, Keidis had, by age 15, seen more and done more than Mick and Keith had by 22. He and schoolmate Flea had, by 1988, they had reunited with another schoolmate, Hillel Slovak. Together with drummer Jack Irons (more recently of Pearl Jam), the Peppers broke out of LA with a certain “fuck you” attitude that would not be denied. It didn’t hurt that their early work was produced by George Clinton.

But Slovak wasted away from drug use, and Keidis nearly died by the time Mother’s Milk was recorded. They were in an ever-shifting line-up by then, but the band’s core sound was already in place. Eventually, they hired Chad Smith to take over on drums, and with him, they found a member grounded in reality. The Chili Peppers are not the Chili Peppers without him (and really, only Jack Irons could sit behind that kit if Smith ever leaves.) Chad Smith gets what Flea and Keidis are up to, but it’s also a job to him. He shows up, pours everything he has into his performance, but he leaves it on the stage.

But it was John Frusciante who helped solidify the sound. He came aboard with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which catapulted the band to stardom. Frusciante’s guitar was reminiscent of Slovak’s. It’s that aggressive, high-pitched wail you hear in “Give It Away” and “Suck My Kiss.”

Frusciante left the band in the early nineties, unable to cope with fame. Unlike Keidis, who could manage his drug habits better with each subsequent trip to rehab, Frusciante found himself overwhelmed with no idea how to get clean. The band recruited Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro. Keidis describes him as one of the warmest, most generous guys in rock. Like Keidis and Frusciante, he had some bad habits. Like Keidis, he was able to come back from it to regroup with Jane’s Addiction and form The Panic Channel.

But the Peppers wanted Frusciante back. They were able to guide him into rehab, which for Keidis was becoming less and less of a necessity (one trip was triggered by an ER doctor who neglected to tell Keidis a painkiller was opium-based.), and near the end of the nineties, he returned to the fold to do Californication. Meanwhile, Flea had become something of an elder statesman of rock, founding a music academy in LA and working with several charitable trusts.

Their later music is more thoughtful, with Keidis singing instead of rapping. Some of the songs are dark (“Other Side,” “Dani California”) while others recall the sense of fun and defiance of their early (“Around the World”). Frusciante left again in 2010, this time to go solo. In his place, the band recruited Frusciante’s protege and second guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. In 2012, they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joined by Frusciante and Jack Irons, with a moving tribute by Flea to Hillel Slovak. They’d come a long way from the band who had to steal food to survive and got around LA in, among other things, a battered old Studebaker.

Five Years Ago

Nita_picJanuary, 2008 – Nita, a girl I met through standup, posts one of those silly surveys that used to go around on MySpace. (For those of you too young to remember, before we had Facebook, we had MySpace, which was like Facebook, except it hurt your eyes.) This starts a bunch of racy messages going back and forth. I’m separated. I’ve also just broken up with my rebound girlfriend. I think, “I need to meet this girl for drinks. Maybe she knows some ladies she could introduce me to.”* We agree to meet for drinks as soon as we could find a night to do so.

February – The best night we can come up with was Valentine’s Day. I tell her I’m separated, she’s single. Why not let me spoil her for Singles Awareness Day? She accepts. Over the next couple of weeks, we spend a lot of time emailing, IMing, texting (which I hadn’t done a lot of up until I asked her out), and talking on the phone.

February 12 – I get one of those email blasts from FTD. They had a really cool special on a dozen roses, Godiva chocolates, and a stuffed animal. I spend the money.

February 14 – 10:30 AM – I get a phone call at work. I guess the flowers worked.

5PM – In and out of the shower, praying I don’t slice my neck open shaving (which I seem to do on Mondays, before job interviews, and getting ready for weddings, funerals, and public speaking engagements.) Spritz myself with a little bit of Aramis and wonder, “Do women really like this?” (No. But I got a nice umbrella out of it.) Out the door by 6:30.

6:45 – Stop for gas. Call Nita from the car, asking for the most beautiful woman in the world. Yes, that’s lame. She responds that her mom is not there. She is nervous. I don’t admit it, but I am.

7 PM – This is how you know we’re in the 21st century. I pull into the lot, call her, and ask where she is. I’ve never seen her car. She’s never seen mine. I spot her across the parking lot. We walk in together, and the waitress thinks we’ve been together for a while. We have a lovely dinner, splitting a bottle of white Zinfandel (a safe choice when you don’t know your date’s taste in wine.) She kind of looks like Marylin Monroe the way she has her hair done. I can’t believe I’m going out with this girl. She’s got a cute laugh, a beautiful smile, and I admire that she’s fiercely devoted to her son. I knew I’d be dating a lot of single moms if I dove head first into the dating pool. That she required me to respect her time with her son was a good sign. Some women don’t, or men for that matter. We all know them. Kids are impediment to dating and partying, even at our age. So while Nita was taking a chance on this strange man, she was protecting her son at the same time. No, strange man, you don’t come home with me tonight. But I will go out with you again.

February 15 – I violate the rule that says you wait 18 hours to call your date after the first date by calling her as I’m walking to work from the parking garage that morning. She invites me over to the house Friday night after I get done with a standup gig. We agree to go out Saturday night. We haven’t known each other long, and we’ve only had one date, but I’ve fallen very hard for this girl. The feeling is mutual. It takes only four months for go from new couple to newlyweds.

Valentine’s Day, 2008 remains the most important date in my life. Somehow, when I left the restaurant that night, I knew I was going to have a really good second half of my life. I haven’t looked back since.

I love you, Sweet Rose.

*She knows about this. She’s known since the first week we dated.