Because I really liked the first two Amos Decker novels by David Baldacci, I pre-ordered the third one from Audible.com. The Fix had a promising premise: A rich and respected defense contractor happens upon a complete stranger at a streetcorner right next to the FBI building, pulls out a pistol, shoots her, and then shoots himself.
Decker happened to witness the actual crime, since he was working at the FBI building at the time, and he can't let go of the investigation into this crime, partly because it's implanted in his memory -- he can't forget anything -- and partly because so many people seem to be anxious to get him off the investigation.
The trouble with downloading the Audible.com recording was that ... it didn't work. I tried it on two different .mp3 players, and I got nothing. Yet when I played the same file in iTunes on my computer, it worked fine.
I was not going to sit at my computer to listen to the book. Listening to audiobooks is all about mobility for me. I listen to books while grocery shopping, driving long distances and short ones, or waiting in line. I don't use up computer time, because then I could be playing Civilization or Ticket to Ride. Come on, I have my priorities.
So I did something radical. I bought the book again as a Kindle ebook and then read it, with my actual eyes, on my Android phone while pretending to try to get some sleep in a hotel room over the weekend.
The first night was fine. I had begun the book on the plane, and then did another ten percent of it before I started dozing off and dropping the phone onto the bed. But the second night, I stayed up three hours and finished it, because there was no falling asleep while reading it. Baldacci did it again -- he made me care. More than any of his other series characters, Baldacci has struck something good with Amos Decker.
So good that I actually read it, eagerly, as text instead of listening to it as an audiobook. So good that it kept me up late when I had my granddaughter's birthday party to attend the next day.
And yes, just in case you thought I might have limits, I'm going to review my granddaughter's fourth birthday.
Memorial Day happened to be the Weekend Of Birthdays (WOB) for the kids in her preschool. So her parents had to keep rescheduling her party so it wouldn't conflict -- and also changing their planned activities. They were going to have a bounce house; but then one of the other parties was going to include a bounce house. Back to the drawing board.
It was not a competition, but the only way to avoid head-to-head comparisons was to make sure the activities and entertainment were different.
So on Yelp they found Mr. Funn - Magician for Kids. You can look him up by googling "Mr. Fun Magician for Kids," because when I tried to look up Mr. Funn, the way he actually spells it, Google corrected me to "Mr. Fun" but then took me to his Yelp site.
He showed up exactly on time. He wasn't pushy or fake. He set up his lectern and began winning the kids over.
In case you didn't know it, four-year-olds are a tough crowd. They are still mastering the English language, they don't get any adult jokes, and very, very few adults have any idea how to entertain them.
Mr. Funn knows exactly how. For example, he takes off his vest, fiddles with it, then puts it back on. Backward. Four-year-olds don't sit back and wait for some dumb joke -- they love catching an adult making a mistake, so they call out to him that he put it on wrong. So he does a little twisty thing and now it's on backward -- and upside down. More howls, more calls from the kids to fix that thing.
Then, shwip-shwop, he slides the upside-down-and-backward vest over his head and now it's on exactly right. He turns to the kids and tells them how he has trouble with that vest. "Have any of you ever put your shirt on backward and somebody had to tell you?"
Boy, those kids had all had that experience! Maybe that morning. And now Mr. Funn owned those kids.
Meanwhile, the parents are in awe. Mr. Funn didn't do any pizzazzy jazz handsy stuff. He just seemed to like the kids, he talked to them like real people, yet he seemed to understand something about what their lives were like.
If you live in the LA area, Mr. Funn charges about fifty dollars more than his competitors, but he delivers. A little Magic, some Balloon Animals, and a lot of quiet charm that wins the children's hearts. I'd be tempted to try to fly him to Greensboro for our next birthday party, but our youngest kid is in her twenties and lives in Washington State anyway. Though I bet he'd be great at my 66th birthday festivities this summer.
It's pure joy to encounter someone who knows how to do his job, loves doing it, and is able to make a living at it. You sometimes pay a little more for the very best. He may well be the best children's magician in the world. Though maybe there's some Sherpa who does children's magic shows uphill of Katmandu. I wouldn't know.
Happy children who are enthralled with a show are, themselves, the best magic trick of all.
Here's my four-year-old granddaughter, who, because she was born in May, I'll refer to as "May." Her fourth birthday was a huge deal to her -- but she had not even a hint of Bridezilla Complex. She made no demands. She was delighted with everything that happened.
Just so you get some idea of who she is, she invited a neighborhood dog to the party. Of course the adult owners could come along and even have refreshments, but it was the dog -- a friendly, happy, patient, curious smallish dog -- who was the guest.
Who does that? Why, May, of course.
She engaged with Mr. Funn, but she was as delighted when he talked to other kids as when he talked to her. And during free play, she was gracious to everybody and patient when things sometimes didn't go her way.
I thought: Wow, my daughter and son-in-law are way better at this child-rearing thing than I was! And then I realized: They probably are, but each child is her (or his) own person. Children aren't created by parents, they're discovered by parents, and what we're finding out is that this four-year-old is a deeply good person.
Then there was her almost-two-year-old younger sister, born in June. Some people advise that you should bring two presents to a child's birthday party: one for the four-year-old birthday child, and a much smaller one for the next younger sibling.
But our granddaughter June was delighted at all the good things happening to her older sister, showed no hint of jealousy, and was easily entertained by any kind adults who showed interest in her.
June, at nearly two, is having a vocabulary explosion. For instance, on the day of the birthday party, she used the word "under" for the first time. She put a toy in a plastic doorway of a play building and said, "Under." She was quite proud of using the word correctly.
And then, to prove she really got it, she ran over to the dining table, threw herself to the floor beneath it, and yelled, "Under!" That's right, June! we shouted back to her. You are definitely under that table.
I had not remembered how happy it made me as a little child, discovering this whole language thing, because my earliest memory is from my third birthday, and I was already speaking like a high school student by then. (Not that high a hurdle, on average.) But seeing how happy it made June to get a new word under her belt made me happy.
Oh, and June doesn't say "uh-huh" or "yeah" or "yup" or any childish or slangy variant. She says a clear and emphatic "yes." We adults are now imitating her by speaking our native language with the same clarity and resoluteness that she brings to that simple affirmative word.
Some of you lucky, lazy grandparents have your grandkids living practically next door. You are so spoiled. You can't possibly know the thrill of seeing them (aside from Facetime) only every six months or so. Yes, you're there to see every step along the way; but you don't get the clarity of seeing just how much progress they've made in six months.
Six months is forever in a child's life. In six adult months, we just do pretty much the same thing over and over. The only real difference is if Christmas comes during that six month period. Whereas in six child months they discover the world and all kinds of cool stuff they can do to it and with it.
Yes, I know that has nothing to do with David Baldacci's novel The Fix. Except that, weirdly enough, it kind of does. But beyond that, I can't say anything about the story because every word I might say would spoil things. You just have to take my word for it that even if you haven't read the two earlier Amos Decker novels (though really, why haven't you? I already told you about them), you can enjoy The Fix and, in my opinion, you probably will.
So we all know about the novel Les Miserables. It came out in French during the American Civil War, and then there was a quickie American edition, and Confederate soldiers, particularly those in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, would carry a few copies and the best reader in each company would read it aloud to the others at night.
They famously (and half-jokingly) mispronounced the title as "Lee's Miserables," but I don't think Victor Hugo would have objected much. Because even though Hugo hated slavery (as all civilized people did by then), Les Miserables was written as a testament about the lives of the poor -- about the value of their lives.
But I had not known that Les Miserables had a first unfinished draft titled La Misere -- so that a novel that began as being "Poverty" or "Suffering" grew up to be called "The Poor" or "The Sufferers." It shifted from an essay-like abstract title to a very personal one.
Hugo was definitely a believer in God; he prayed every day. But he was never baptized a Catholic and never, never went to church. His atheist eldest son railed at him for the falsity of the chapter where the good Abbe rescues Jean Valjean from the consequences of his theft by pretending that he had given him the silver that he stole. "There is no priest in all of France like that one! It's like you're trying to create a good public image for the Church!" But Hugo knew what his novel needed, and if there were no actual exemplars of a priest as Christian as that, then this fictional priest would serve as an example to all the real priests, showing what they ought to be.
Let me tell you a sad personal secret. I read Les Miserables a dozen or so years ago, after listening to the original musical album (in French) and then seeing the English-language stage adaptation in London's West End. And I have to say that every scene that I cared about was in the musical. Everything that wasn't in the musical had been omitted for the very good reason that it was either weirdly unbelievable or completely boring because it didn't amount to anything in the story.
That's because I was trying to read the novel of Jean Valjean, and long before the end of the book it stops being that.
Then, on March 21st, a new book was published called The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables, by David Bellos.
A book about a book that I hadn't really loved? But I was intrigued. I bought it and read it (no audiobook yet, alas) and found it fascinating.
Most of The Novel of the Century is devoted to the life of Victor Hugo and his process of writing Les Miserables. I had never known that much about Hugo, but it turns out he was active in politics and held high office in one regime or another. But even as he served under a monarchy, he openly supported one of France's many 19th-century revolts.
And when Napoleon III became dictator of France, Hugo -- already a major literary figure in a country that really pays attention to its great writers -- was so outspoken in his criticism that he had to flee the country.
Hugo settled on the then-French-speaking British channel islands, first Jersey and then Guernsey. Since they were under British rule, the islands were a safe haven for him, though Jersey kicked him off after a few months and he had to live on Guernsey for the rest of his exile.
At first he used that time to write a collection of poems that became a bestseller in France, so that Hugo was already a household name among the literate French population. Then he turned back to La Misere, retitled it, and then revised and rewrote and filled in until the book was three bibles thick. There were long essays beginning each of the five volumes, which were mostly pertinent to the French audience. But it was a monster bestseller wherever it was published.
Dictators did not want it published in their country, though. It was many decades before a Russian translation was available, for instance -- though the Russian aristocracy all spoke and read French, so it's extremely doubtful that Les Miserables had not been widely read in Russia. Other countries waited even longer.
The edition that Lee's soldiers carried around had been translated very quickly (but generally very well) -- but all those opening essays were left out, and any references to the evil practice of slavery were omitted. No part of the United States had any sense of obligation to respect foreign copyrights -- American copyrights only existed to protect American authors.
So Charles Dickens, for instance, could only make money from his millions of American readers by coming to America himself to give public readings for a paying audience.
Like pop musicians who have to tour because their audience can get their recordings for free.
So not only were the American editions cut to ribbons, but also Hugo got no royalties from them.
And the things Hugo went through to get an excellent edition published for French readers! First, the book was already under contract to a French publisher, but with Hugo a political exile, there was a real danger that Napoleon III's government would outlaw the first edition, seize it, and destroy it. That would bankrupt the publisher.
But, like other perilous French books, it could be published in Brussels, Belgium, and get smuggled into France, if it had to be.
The maneuvers -- including the debt-financing of the book by the resourceful Belgian publisher -- are really quite exciting to somebody who, like me, has been both a publisher and an author. But because David Bellos writes very clearly and simply, it never has a chance to become tedious.
Having just finished checking over the copy-edit of my most recently-written novel, Children of the Fleet, I read about Hugo's progress from rough draft to typeset book with fascination. There were no copy machines then, and few authors were accomplished typesetters like Mark Twain. Everything flowed from a pen, and Hugo's manuscripts became a jumble of marginal notations, crossings-out, and addition material inserted on extra pages.
This mess was sorted out by his scribes -- at first his wife, who was getting as old as Hugo, of course, and whose eyes eventually gave out -- and then his longtime (and also aging) mistress, who finished producing a fair copy of the manuscript. (The wife knew about her and tolerated her presence on Guernsey, as long as Hugo didn't bring her into the house.)
These pages were then entrusted to the British Post (then the best postal service in the world). The mail boat from the Channel Islands went first to Southampton; then Hugo's pages routed through the British mail system, and finally sent on a different mail boat to Belgium. It could be a week or ten days between finishing the fair copy and its arrival in Belgium.
The process was just the same in the other direction: The Belgian publisher would have his team of typesetters quickly (but accurately!) set everything and then run the galley proofs. It took forever for them to return to Hugo, who then rejected the typesetters' "corrections" as they tried to clean up the low colloquial language that Hugo put into his characters' mouths. It was the first time that a respected writer, in a novel that aimed at greatness, had deliberately used the "bad" French of the lower classes in print.
So there was a lot of back-and-forth -- even as the deadline for publication grew closer and closer. And that deadline could not be postponed, because the loans that financed publication would come due on certain dates and the book had better be out there earning money!
It was; it did. The French publisher, who was bringing out simultaneous editions based on the Belgian publisher's final corrected copy, sold out the first volume in days; as later volumes came out, buyers started lining up on the international release day and the first printing was gone by noon. Not even Dickens could match the fervor with which Les Miserables was received.
And yet I have only touched on a few parts of this wonderful tribute to a truly great work of fiction. The Novel of the Century made me at least understand the many bits of Les Miserables that I had not enjoyed during my naive readings; but even if you haven't read Les Miserables or even heard the music or seen the show or the movies, this is the best book about the writing and publication of a book that I have ever read.
It's fascinating as biography, as history, and as literary criticism. All those subjects can sound downright medicinal to people who haven't seen any of them done well. David Bellos has done it well. Do yourself a favor, and entertain and educate yourself by reading a book much shorter than Les Miserables.
Health Care Reform. Those who oppose everything the Republicans propose in their Obamacare "replacement" invariably compare their proposal, not with Obamacare as it actually is, but with Obamacare as Obama promised it would be.
I said when it was first "passed" that once Obamacare was in place, Republicans couldn't repeal it, they had to replace it with something that, unlike Obamacare itself, actually did all the things that we were told Obamacare would do.
Problems that could have been fixed with tort reform and universal catastrophic coverage have now been made far worse, while everyone who ever paid at all is now paying far, far more for markedly worse coverage. That's what Obamacare actually did. But politically, it cannot be rolled back, because the Democrats all whine and howl as if Obamacare had actually delivered on its false promises, and now the Republicans are trying to take it all away.
Ultimately, nothing will "work" except single-payer health care, with all the waiting lines, overcharging the government, driving health-care workers out of the industry, and ever-worse health care that come along with it. The rich will continue to have excellent healthcare, though they'll have to fly to the Bahamas or the Caymans or wherever else the best new hospitals are established. But the middle class will continue to pay -- through taxes or otherwise -- as if they were still getting the best healthcare in the world. But they won't be getting it. Neither will the poor.
Single-payer coverage -- i.e., socialism -- was the Leftist goal all along. Obamacare's failure was designed into it. The law as it now stands is so bad and so expensive and so incompetent that even anti-socialists will heave a sigh of relief when socialized medicine is finally instituted to replace Obamacare -- because the Left will not rest until Obama's combover of a universal healthcare plan is replaced with the toupee of socialized medicine. No Republican Rogaine treatment will be accepted.
Behold the Petulant Left.
When he was first elected, I gave Obama several years without criticizing him, waiting for him to show who he really was and what he would actually do. I gave him a chance to be a better president than I had expected.
But the Left has long since given up on democracy or the constitution. It was the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) that did it. When that ill-conceived, far-too-broad measure failed to win the support of enough states, the Left didn't conclude that they had done a bad job of persuading people -- or that they had done a bad job of writing the amendment.
Instead, they thought having to win broad consensus throughout the United States in order to establish a new, untried "right" was foolish. Instead, they would go first to the courts, and force all those silly people in flyover states to obey their betters.
We saw with the new gay-marriage "right" that this radical redefinition of marriage was attempted first with the courts. Having captured the law schools and the bar association, the Left counted on the appellate courts to redefine marriage by judicial fiat -- and in court after court, it worked. The judges merrily overturned every election in which the people rejected that redefinition -- which was all of them. The people learned their lesson -- when their betters tell them what's going to happen, resistance is futile. The Borg will prevail.
But after the 2016 election, having nominated the most obviously corrupt and arrogant candidate on offer, the Left still cannot conceive that it was their own awful choice, based entirely on the argument that "it's Hillary's turn" or "it's time for a woman," neither of which was even rational, which led to the election of the worst candidate the Republicans could find.
At least, to the Republicans' credit, in almost all their primaries, Trump failed to gain a majority of the Republican vote. Any Democrat would have done better than Hillary.
But the Left can't blame themselves. They have to blame the Russians!
Please keep one thing in mind. The Russians, if they leaked all that anti-Hillary stuff, did not make any of it up. Nobody has seriously advanced the idea that those leaks were lies. All that happened was that the public found out a lot of stuff about Hillary and her campaign that the mainstream media would have left unmentioned if they could.
The public's "right to know," however, ends where conservative administrations and crazy politicians leave off; the public has no right to know the secrets of the Left.
Now, the Left hopes to use judicial process -- investigations, prosecutors, and, eventually, impeachment -- to rid themselves of a "mistake" made by the voters. You know, like Nixon.
But it's not likely to work. First, all the evidence so far suggests that the Russians were not colluding with Trump or his people. Second, the House of Representatives and the Senate are firmly in Republican hands, whereas Nixon faced lopsided Democratic majorities in both houses. The chance of a Trump impeachment is zero, at least until the midterm elections. It would behoove the Left to remember Governor Scott Walker and the failed recall election in Wisconsin.
The Left has no concept of a "loyal opposition." They would rather tear up the government than simply work out compromises with the majority party and do their best for America until the next election. The Left has a right to be in power, and it's obviously ignorance, bigotry, or other evils among the body politic that has led to this gross miscarriage of ... of ... the universal order, to have the Left out of power.
The Right is still blamed for being violent and dangerous, hate-filled and bigoted. But when the Left flooded the streets with dangerous, hate-filled, violent demonstrators who vowed to destroy Trump, not for anything he had done, but for the crime of not being the corrupt, vain, arrogant elitist that they had nominated, somehow we were all supposed to watch that without losing our belief in the myth that the Left does "peaceful" demonstrations and "civil" disobedience.
How stupid are we, really? Right now the party of violence, hatred, bigotry, pouting, and name-calling is the Democratic Party, and the Left's determination to find a Trump-Russian Leaks connection makes Joe McCarthy's lists of Communist agents in government look rational and orderly.
We are in the 1950s again, only it's the Left that is the angry Establishment seeking to punish anyone who doesn't subscribe to their ideology. It is the Left that boycotts and blackballs noncomformists in and out of Hollywood. The Inquisition is in full swing, and the Left just takes it for granted that anyone who comes under the Inquisition's "impartial" gaze is doomed.
And we can't even wait for some wise person to turn to them and say, "Have you no shame?" Because we already know the answer. They have no shame.
I know four-year-olds who can be reasoned with better than the anti-free-speech forces at American universities, or the take-no-prisoners reporters who hypocritically condemn Trump for "offenses" that were routine procedure in Obama's administration. I watch them on news and commentary programs as they ignore any attempt to engage them in rational argument and simply repeat the party line.
All they want is to punish, punish, punish anyone whose thoughts are not pure -- anyone who does not immediately change all their ideas to conform with each new whim of the radical know-it-all Left.
And those who point out their hypocrisy and inconsistency, their dishonesty and hatred of freedom, their ignorance and bigotry, are simply making themselves future targets of the Inquisition. When it comes to spitefulness, the memory of the Left is long.
I have to alert you to a major change in fine casual dining. McDonald's has finally caught on to how horrible the meatlike stuff inside Chicken McNuggets actually was, and they've revised their whole process.
Don't get me wrong: McNuggets have not become comparable to the delicious pieces of actual chicken breast meat in Chick Fil A nuggets. But they have climbed out of the slough of despond and become edible.
When you go through a McDonald's drive-thru and buy a burger and fries, you can't set the burger down half-eaten -- you're driving! So you don't get to the fries till the burger is gone, and unless you inhaled the burger, the fries are lukewarm at best -- or, more probably, stone cold.
But if you order a burger and a four- or six-piece McNuggets, when you finish the burger the McNuggets are still warm enough to eat.
Since Chick Fil A's use of peanut oil on, like, everything puts the highest-quality fast food out of my reach for, presumably, life, it really does make a difference to me that McNuggets have risen into the realm of edibility.
The website at DudeProducts.com is very candid. "As dudes we are dirty, sweaty, and disgusting umans. Access to a shower is not always a realistic option after every awesom, stanky, or highly questionable situation."
The solution is Quick Dude Shower, a thick moist towelette in a pouch that the guy who should shower but is not going to shower can wipe all over his body to get rid of the stinks and substances that may be clinging to his flesh.
I don't think you'd want to use Quick Dude Shower instead of bathing every day for, like, a month. But having needed to go do stuff, without a chance to shower first, several times since I got my first pack of ten Quick Dude Showers, I can attest that this fragrance-free, aloe-and-vitamin-E moistened towel does exactly what it says it will do. It cleans you up reasonably well.
By way of analogy: If you dig a dirty shirt out of the hamper and try to wear it, it's going to smell like the dirty clothes hamper. But if you hung up that shirt after wearing it, after a couple of days of being aired out, it's pretty much wearable. Every guy knows this.
So ... Quick Dude Shower is the bodily equivalent of the aired-out shirt.
You can buy Quick Dude Shower from the DudeProducts.com site, or on Amazon. You can also purchase something I've needed more than once: Dude Wipes. You go into a public restroom (especially on an airplane or in an airport) and you're supposed to manage your business with thin ribbons of insubstantial "toilet paper" that falls apart in your fingers before you even apply it to the task behind you.
But if you travel with a couple of packets of Dude Wipes, you can enter into those miserable toilety spaces with far more confidence, because you have brought your biodegradable, flushable wipes in with you.
Nuff said. DudeProducts.com has already earned a place in my heart. Guys, don't leave home without it! And, um, don't be shy about using them at home, either.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com
At this time of stay-at-home orders and quarantines, we hope you will enjoy the wonderful writers and artists who contributed to IGMS during its 14-year run.