Book Review
No Room for Watermelons
Ron & Lynne Fellowes

nrfw_cvrI don’t recall exactly when or even how I first discovered Ron Fellowes’ blog. It was early on. The trip was just starting and the Old Bloke on a Bike, which is both the name of the blog and Ron’s description of himself, was somewhere in India. I followed him out of India, through Pakistan, and onto Belgium. Just the route was enough to make it an epic journey and that was merely one challenging aspect of a trip few can even imagine let alone consider attempting.

Start with the “old bloke”. It’s an accurate description. Ron was born and raised and is once again living in Australia so is eminently qualified to be called a bloke and, while 68 may not be horribly ancient in these days of increasing lifespans, it is enough to justify being called old. And the bike that the old bloke is on is far older. It was built in 1910 by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. Ron acquired the bike around 1970 though what he actually acquired was a rusty frame and engine of unknown make and vintage. After identifying the motorcycle’s age and origin, Ron told its former owner “I’m riding the bike back to Belgium for its centenary”. Plans to ride a hundred year old motorcycle to a country half a world away might sound like something born in a bet at the end of a night of drinking but Ron was sober and serious. He had four decades to reconsider his boast but he never did. It became a goal and a dream as he slowly turned the Belgium basket case back into a running motorcycle.

Ron didn’t make it for the centenary but it wasn’t his fault. He and wife Lynne were living in Bali at the time where a convoluted and corrupt bureaucracy made it impossible to get the paperwork for the restored motorcycle together in time. Ron adjusted his schedule by two years and he and Lynne moved back to Australia to make it work. Instead of Bali to Belgium in 2010, it would be Kathmandu to Herstal in 2012.

No Room for Watermelons is the story of that 33 week 14606 kilometer trip. In one sense, Ron Fellowes makes the trip solo. Other motorcyclists may ride with him here and there for a few minutes or a few days but he and the old FN, which he calls Effie, are alone for much of the time and it is just the two of them that cover the entire route. But it doesn’t take much study to realize that the trip is very much a team effort. It is Lynne who does most of the planning and travels around on trains and buses sometimes dragging hard to find parts and supplies. And it is Lynne who, via telephone, frequently provides an outlet for a day’s frustration and injects valuable encouragement for the next day. And it is Lynne, the experienced writer, who forms blog posts, and ultimately this book, from Ron’s reports. Both names are on the book not only because both participated in telling the story but because both participated in making the story happen.

It’s a story of sights and people. Yes, there are serious dangers and insane regulations along the way and crippling problems can crop up with the old motorcycle at any time. He is nearly pushed over a cliff by a truck whose driver is completely oblivious to his presence. He learns what having a gun held to your head feels like. He suffers through hours and even days of delays while incompetent and/or corrupt officials shuffle paper. It takes an uncommon amount of ingenuity and every one of the skills learned during a lifelong career as a diesel mechanic to keep Effie operating. But mixed in with that are sights like the Golden Temple of Amritsar in India, Pakistan’s Bolan Pass, or the Bam Citadel in Iran. Modern technology not only provides that invaluable, but not always reliable, link to Lynne, it enables Ron to capture images of these and many other remarkable sights along the way. The book includes over a hundred color photographs to let the reader see a little of what Ron saw. And then there are the people.

Some of the people Ron sees on his trip were already known to him and their meetings were planned well before he left home. Others learn of the trip through the blog and arrange meetings via comments and email. Meeting each of these friends, both old and new, gave Ron’s morale a boost and often included a chance to relax and recover. Assistance with a repair or locating a needed part were also common contributions. These things often came from complete strangers as well and those were possibly even more appreciated. Food, fuel, and shelter were frequently shared and payment refused almost as frequently. Many times Ron could not even say thanks in any words that would be understood but smiles and hand shakes worked. Near the end of the book, Ron and Lynne make this observation: “Yes, there are bullies and thieves, but they are just as often found in boardrooms, offices and in schools as on the highways of Iran and the back roads of Turkey.”

nrfw1Both paperback and electronic versions of No Room for Watermelons are available through Amazon and I suppose that is the quickest and cheapest way to get a copy of this adventure. On the other hand, if you’d like something a little more personal and meaningful, signed copies can be had directly from the author here.

No Room for Watermelons: A man, his 1910 motorcycle and an epic journey across the world, Ron and Lynne Fellowes, High Horse Books, January 28, 2015, hardcover, 9.2 x 6.2 inches, 238 pages, ISBN 978-0646931418

Book Review
Dixie Highway
Tammy Ingram

dhti_cvrWhen I first heard about a forthcoming book titled Dixie Highway. I got kind of excited. I looked forward to having all my questions about the historic highway answered and all the blank spots filled in. Then, as details about the book started to emerge, I began to think it would not tell me anything about the Dixie Highway outside of Dixie; maybe nothing outside of Georgia. Reality, of course, is somewhere in between.

In the early pages of Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930, Ingram tells of the Good Roads Movement that preceded organizations such as the Dixie Highway Association then talks about the formation of the DHA. Here, even though supportive examples might come from Georgia, Ingram is talking about the entire US or at least the strip of states north of Florida that the Dixie Highway would serve. She paints an appropriately muddy picture of the problems facing farmers and small businesses who needed to transport goods or deliver services. The picture she paints of the various factions involved in solving — or not — those problems is muddy in a different sort of way.

Ingram reminds us that roads, particularly long roads, were not always seen as a good thing. Railroads didn’t want the competition and neither farmers nor working class city folk wanted to pay for roads to be used by the rich and their expensive motorized playthings. , And no one wanted to give up control which, at the start of the twentieth century, was almost all county based and very local. A lot of the story of the Dixie Highway, and every other road of the time, has to do with getting control to units large enough to see that what roads there were did not end at the county or state line.

One way the Dixie Highway Association addressed this was to get state governors involved from the beginning. Ingram identifies and describes the players and chronicles the steps taken as the DHA went from nothing to something in fairly short order.

When the book moves from getting things organized to getting things built, the focus tightens on Georgia. This makes sense from a number of angles. It had more miles of Dixie Highway than any other state and many of the problems encountered in Georgia were the very same problems encountered in every other state. But Georgia had other issues, too, including racial attitudes and political traditions. Ingram discusses these to show the affect they had on building the Dixie Highway and the affect the Dixie Highway had on the south.

Tammy Ingram is a college professor. Her writing is factual and precise in a way that makes the reader feel that it is the well researched truth. It is not without style. While it is somewhat dry, it is not the mechanized recital of facts and statistics that academics sometimes produce and which can induce drowsiness better than any drug. I enjoyed reading Dixie Highway and I learned quite a lot from it.

I couldn’t help noticing that Ingram calls the Dixie Highway and similar roads “marked trails”. It certainly doesn’t affect the value of the book in the slightest and it probably won’t even register with most readers. I’m used to seeing the pre-1926 routes referred to as “named trails” or “named auto trails” to distinguish them from the numbered highways that followed. As I said, most readers probably won’t notice and it really isn’t a problem for those of us who do although I did initially find myself pausing for a second or two whenever I encountered it. I got better.

Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930, Tammy Ingram, The University of North Carolina Press, March 3, 2014, hardcover, 9.2 x 6.2 inches, 272 pages, ISBN 978-1469612980

Book Review
Cincinnatus
Rusty McClure & David Stern

cincinnatus_cvrWhen this blog’s About page mentions reviews, it says they will not include “the latest novel”. When I wrote that, I was probably thinking “any novel”. I don’t read much fiction these days and I did not really expect to be reviewing any. I waited long enough to read this book that it is no longer the latest novel so my claim is still good. So is Cincinnatus.

One day months or maybe years ago, a friend told me about a really good book he had just finished but, when he looked for it to loan to me, it couldn’t be found. Another day months or maybe years ago, I attended a lecture on Powell Crosley given by Rusty McClure, co-author of the non-fiction book Crosley. I had read Crosley; Had actually bought a copy at a signing when it was first published. The lecture was quite interesting and, at its conclusion, everyone was given a paperback copy of Crosley. We were also given a hardback copy of a novel. As I said, I don’t read much fiction and I figured that something someone was giving away copies of wasn’t worth my time to read. I put it in the stack of stuff to be read if I ever get snowed in for three months with no internet connection. Then, on another day just a couple of months ago, my friend once again brought up that book he had mentioned previously. It had been found and he had enjoyed reading it so much that he had read it again. That is not normal behavior for my friend or very many other people. That must be a really good book. Yes I would like to borrow it. Then, as he talked more about the book, I realized it was the very novel that sat at home scorned and unread. I decided to reconsider.

Crosley is a very good book. McClure and Stern are clearly good writers. However, the ability to produce good non-fiction does not always translate to the ability to create good fiction. I was still a little skeptical when I finally wiped the dust off of my copy of Cincinnatus and opened it. After a little back story set in 1938 Florida, the book’s action begins in modern day Columbus, Ohio, and fairly quickly moves to Cincinnati. At first my skepticism had me seeing the use of local names and landmarks in a harsh light. Maybe the authors were trying just a little too hard to convince the reader that they had been to Ohio. Despite my friends recommendation, I found myself wondering if this was like those customized books from Santa Claus that kids like to read because their family’s names are in them. Was this fun for Cincinnatians to read purely because it talked about Cincinnati? But, even as I asked myself that, it became apparent that the answer was no. The adventure was rolling and, while it was nice to know what Cincinnati’s Fountain Square looked like when the plot traveled there, it wasn’t necessary.

Any fears that the novel would drown in Ohio minutiae were unwarranted. The plot visits California, Florida, and a few other places and everywhere the details do what they’re supposed to do — make the story believable. The book is a thriller. Political thriller I’m guessing is the right description. There is ample well researched history and more than a smattering of golf which I’m confident is as well researched and accurate. And there’s some accurate real science and some of the “science fiction” variety that is accurate enough.

The action is almost non-stop and the twists frequent enough that predicting who shoots who is rather fruitless. Maybe my description so far makes the book seem shallow. It isn’t. Now and then the reader might look up from the page for a while to follow some thought on politics, or technology, or religion that the book hatched.

I enjoyed reading Cincinnatus a lot but I don’t expect my fiction/non-fiction ratio to suddenly flip flop. I guess that could change, though, if I could be guaranteed a Camp Washington Chili appearance within the first hundred pages of every novel.

Cincinnatus: The Secret Plot to Save America, Rusty McClure & David Stern, Ternary Publishing, November 1, 2009, 9.2 x 6.2 inches, 523 pages, ISBN 978-0984213207

Book Review
Tibetan Peach Pie
Tom Robbins

tppcvrYes, this is rather mainstream for me. I’m not in the habit of reviewing books that have appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers List. For one thing, it increases the chances of the amateurish nature of my offerings being found out. For another, such reviews are surely unneeded and are destined to have even less value than my reviews of niche releases. But I’ve never let the lack of need deter me from writing and, as for being caught impersonating a reviewer, I’ll take my chances. Just like Tom Robbins did at the Seattle Times.

Although the book’s subtitle is “A True Account of an Imaginative Life”, the back cover announces, in all caps, that “THIS IS NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY”. That is also, with a quieter font, the first sentence inside the book. A paragraph later, Robbins also claims this isn’t a memoir but he doesn’t really stick with it. He does make a pretty good stab at explaining why this isn’t an autobiography plus I visited a couple of websites making their own stabs. The most commonly accepted differences between an autobiography and a memoir seem to be the timeline and degree of fact checking. As for timeline, Tibetan Peach Pie might not start with the author’s birth but it doesn’t miss by much (he is seven or eight months old in the first tale told) and it may not be 100% chronological but it doesn’t miss by much in that regard, either. In terms of fact checking, the whole book does seem to come from Robbins’ memory without much corroboration or documentation which does support the not-autobiography claim. So, if you’ve set your sights on a Tom Robbins autobiography, this isn’t it. But it is as close as you’re likely to get and that is the point of the old Tibetan peach pie story and probably (I’m guessing here) the point of this book’s title.

Tom Robbins is an English wordsmith whose product I might devour for its own sake regardless of content. If Tom Robbins wrote those End User License Agreements for Microsoft or Apple I’m guessing that a few people might actually read them. Tibetan Peach Pie is, of course, infinitely more interesting and readable than an EULA but it’s not quite as interesting and readable as Another Roadside Attraction or Still Life with Woodpecker. At least I’ve serious doubts that it’s that interesting unless you’ve read those and/or other Robbins novel and are already a fan. In fact, Jason Sheean, in his NPR review, suggests that “you gotta really like Tom Robbins to want to read that one”. I basically agree but believe that something similar could be said about every autobiography or almost-autobiography.

Robbins’ life has been interesting as well as imaginative. Tibetan Peach Pie includes stories from his North Carolina beginnings through his Virginia college days and Air Force deployment in Korea to his long time Washington state residency. There are some good stories here. Even a few brushes with danger. As a toddler he almost did himself in by pulling a pot of boiling cocoa from the stove onto his chest. In New York, he recklessly takes the chalk from a gang member marking territory to correct his spelling. As a successful author indulging in adventure travel, he spends a sleepless night in a Timbuktu hotel while a sword wielding local raves outside about a perceived affront involving camel rental.

Most of the stories, however, are about normal everyday impulsive free-spirited goofy behavior that might put his career or relationship, but not his life, at risk. As a starving student he unwittingly ignites a gardener’s rage by chowing down on a prize winning chrysanthemum. At the second meeting of a woman who had stormed out on one of his poetry readings, Robbins blasts her for her rudeness, she proposes marriage, and he accepts. On another adventure outing, this time in Sumatra, he reigns as King of the (former) Cannibals for a day. Like I said, normal, everyday.

Robbins’ success is the result of his wonderful word craft but he has seen his share of luck. As a youngster in North Carolina, Robbins won a coveted radio when his was the second raffle ticket drawn. The ticket pulled ahead of his was the only one that had not been sold. As the end of a temporary job at the Seattle Times approached, the paper’s art critic departed and Robbins talked his way into the job. When the assistant arts and entertainment editor also took off, he moved into that position and when the department editor was hospitalized, Robbins found himself reviewing, for a major city newspaper, the first opera and first symphony concert he’d ever attended.  Hey, you can’t make this stuff up. Well, Robbins could but he didn’t. I think.

Tibetan Peach Pie, Tom Robbins, Ecco (May 27, 2014), paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 384 pages, ISBN  978-0062267405

Book Review
Freedom on Both Ends of the Leash
Ara Guregian and Spirit

fobeoth_cvrI really looked forward to the publication of this book. I certainly enjoyed reading it and expect to enjoy reviewing it once I get started but reviewing a book that is near impossible to describe isn’t all that easy. Saying it is the story of a man and dog traveling around the US on a motorcycle isn’t wrong but it sure is incomplete. The man, Ara Gureghian, and the dog, Spirit, have been traveling around the US on a motorcycle since November of 2006 with no plans to stop. I’ve followed their blog since April, 2007, and I have no plans to stop, either. When they started their journey, they were not leaving a home where they planned to someday return. They did acquire some land fairly early on and they do spend winters there but even it is more of a base camp than what most would call a home. From the beginning, Ara had called his online journal The Oasis of My Soul and the ten acres of Texas that his mother bought for him instantly became known as The Oasis. One definition of oasis is “something that provides refuge, relief, or pleasant contrast” and that is something both man and dog needed. Ara had suffered the painful loss of his son and Spirit has suffered abuse from a previous owner. Almost everything — the riding, the writing, the sunrises, the stars, the sunsets — is therapy to some degree but the writing is particularly therapeutic. Ara wrote, and continues to write, his journal for himself. He writes about his travels, his surroundings, and his thoughts. This book is something of a “Reader’s Digest” version of the journal. Neither book nor journal actually tries to be a travel guide or provide insights into living. Nonetheless, they do both.

In an introductory section of Freedom on Both Ends of the Leash called “About Us”, we are told that “This book has no chapters, a continuous life story.” That is one of two big differences, in addition to the major condensing, between the journal and the book. The journal, by its very nature, is broken into pieces clearly marked by dates while the book isn’t broken into pieces at all. In Ara’s words, “There really is no beginning as there will be no end.” The story is told in chronological order but with no artificial breaks or numbers or headings. The other big difference is the photos. Ara started his journey as a very good photographer and developed into an even better one. Journal entries almost always contain several photographs. They typically aren’t directly tied to the text but provide an often stunning view of what Ara was seeing during the time he composed and posted an entry. I believe Ara’s decision not to include any photos in the book is a good one. Trying to do justice to the photos would have really complicated an already complex task and they would not have really illuminated the text in any case.

Ara Guregian was born in France and spent time with relatives in Egypt and other parts of Europe and North Africa. Although he is quite fluent and comfortable with it, English is not Ara’a first language and he is not an English wordsmith whose product one devours for its own sake regardless of content. On the other hand, he can describe a sunset or a valley view in a a way that not only allows you to visualize it but that makes you want to go to that spot and experience it the way he did. That’s impossible, of course. There is too much of Ara in his experiences for anyone to have a shot at duplicating them.

Ara and Spirit cover a lot of territory. There are multiple visits to Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and beyond and between. At one point I thought I would describe their rides as going from here to there without, in many cases, any real idea of where “there” would be. Then, when I really thought about it, I realized that most of their rides were from here to here. It seems as if a majority of their camps are base camps from which they explore the surrounding area extensively by both motorcycle and foot. The exploration is not just to see different things but, perhaps partly because of Ara’s photographer’s eye, to see the same things differently.

Early on I referred to this book as “near impossible to describe” and four paragraphs of not describing it very well bear that out. It’s a little bit Blue Highways and it’s a little bit Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but it is, of course, neither. On the other hand, anyone who enjoyed either or both of those books will most likely enjoy Freedom on Both Ends of the Leash. The book is available from Amazon and other sources at a discount or, for a few dollars more, signed by the authors, through Ara’s Oasis of my Soul website.

Freedom on Both ends of the Leash, Ara Gureghian and Spirit, Ara Gureghian (May 26, 2014), paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 216 pages, ISBN  978-0996083706

Music Review
Belle of the Blues
Lisa Biales

belleblues_cvrThey did it again. Co-producers EG Kight and Paul Hornsby captured another set of tracks that feature Lisa’s wonderful voice but don’t short the listener one bit in the sound behind it. Back in 2012, Kight, Hornsby, and Biales hooked up for Just Like Honey which contained some Biales and Kight originals but consisted largely of tunes written by or associated with a number of Biales’ influences. Those influences are not totally ignored here, there’s a tune written by Memphis Minnie and another that Bessie Smith made famous, but Kight wrote or collaborated on seven of the eleven songs on Belle of the Blues.

As they did on on Just Like Honey, Tommy Talton (guitar) and Bill Stewart (drums) appear on every track with Tommy Vickery and Johnny Fountain splitting bass duties to bound out the core trio of backing musicians. This line up is frequently augmented by the likes of Pat Bergeson on harmonica, Ken Wynn on guitar, and Randall Bramlett on organ. Kight adds some vocal and guitar help and Hornsby plays piano on several tracks. Something that I thought a nice touch, although it only shows up in the digital version of the track listing, is the identity of featured musicians in the titles. Examples are “Sad Sad Sunday (Featuring Tommy Talton & Randall Bramblett)” and “Belle of the Blues (Featuring Pat Bergeson)”.

Despite all the talent involved in writing, recording, and playing, this is clearly a Lisa Biales album. Her voice is out front and in control of every song from the sultry “Sad Sad Sunday through the raucous “Bad Girl”. She even takes charge of “Trouble”, a song firmly associated with Kight (she wrote it and made it the title track of a 2000 release) in a way that, while it won’t make you forget EG, will sure make you remember Lisa.


botbcdr1botbcdr2In Nashville, the Long Players exist solely to deliver live performances of entire albums. Individual songs may be rearranged to fit specific performers but when they do an album, they do it all and they do it in the same sequence it once appeared on your turntable. That’s the way I first heard Belle of the Blues. At Friday’s CD release in Oxford, Ohio, Lisa started things off by performing all eleven songs “just like the record”. I believe it was also the official debut of the quartet she’s calling the Belle of the Blues Band and with which she will be preforming other shows in the coming months. I won’t claim that this group (Bill Littleford guitar, Dave Mackey drums, Noah Cope bass, Chuck Wiggins keys) is better than the high powered crew that did the studio version, but I can report that they are mighty good and the performance was not wanting in any way.

botbcdr3A short break followed the album then the group returned to do an assortment of songs from Lisa’s repertoire. One was a Jimi Hendrix tune that Lisa has been performing at least since 2010 when she included it on her Closet Hippie CD. As a result, I got to hear the Little Wing solo performed on accordion for the first time ever. I liked it.

Book Review
Adventures Around Cincinnati
Hoevener & Weeks

Adventures Around Cincinnati coverTwo really big things have happened since I reviewed Terri Weeks ebook, How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips, in February.  One is that we one day had lunch together so I can no longer joke about never having met this fellow traveler in the “neighborhood”.  OK, so maybe that’s not all that big a deal, but the second thing, the release of the second edition of the book Terri co-wrote with Laura Hoevener, certainly is. I mentioned the book, Adventures Around Cincinnati: A Parent’s Guide to Unique and Memorable Places to Explore with your Kids, in that earlier review and pointed to the “Kids” in the subtitle as the reason I was not familiar with it. There is no question that the book is aimed at people with kids but a scan of the list of attractions in the first edition revealed that, just like the list in How to Visit…, most things on it can be enjoyed by us old folks, too. In fact, the majority were attractions that I had visited myself and enjoyed despite being an “adult of long standing”.

The new edition has the same basic structure as the first. The difference is pretty much described by the phrase “More to explore” in a red circle on the new cover so, if you are familiar with the 2011 version, you can stop reading right now and just go ahead and order your copy of the new improved 2014 model.

The bulk of the book — 266 of 336 pages — is devoted to describing more than 120 attractions which is a considerable increase from the “Over 80…” of the first edition. Since the authors report that there are “about 50 new Adventures” this time around, I’m guessing that ten or so have been removed for one reason or another. Of course, in addition to adding a bunch and removing a few, Hoevener and Weeks updated entries as needed. For each attraction, a fixed list of key features is followed by a paragraph or two of descriptive text. Although, as the math shows, the average entry fills a couple of pages, this entry for a railroad museum is otherwise typical.

Adventures Around Cincinnati interior

Attractions are listed alphabetically in four geographic groups. The first, “Central Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky” is centered around downtown Cincinnati. “Greater Cincinnati” includes Cincinnati suburbs and slightly less northern bits of Kentucky. There is a section for “Dayton” and “A Hop, Skip, and a Jump” replaces a section called “Columbus, Lexington, Louisville, and Indianapolis” in the first edition presumably because some of the hops and jumps went beyond those four cities. But even the most remote of the attractions are within a two hour drive of Cincinnati and those are two mini-van hours not two Ferrari hours. Each section begins with a map showing the locations of listed attractions and every listed attraction has been visited by at least one and usually both of the authors.

“Attraction Listings” is the middle of the book’s three major parts. The first part, “Creating Memories with Your Family”, tells how the two authors and mothers hatched the idea of regularly scheduled “adventures” for their families and how they have used it to great advantage for some ten years. Two words struck me as I read this section: “deliberate” and “intentional”. Every one has experienced ad hoc versions of what Terri and Laura call adventures but diving into them deliberately and intentionally on some sort of regular schedule is what has provided real value as a parenting tool. Beyond telling how they have done it, the authors give tips on how others, in different situations, might implement their own system of adventuring. The usefulness of these tips isn’t limited to the Cincinnati area and what is basically this portion of Adventures Around Cincinnati has been made available as a standalone ebook titled Adventures Around You.

The book’s third part, “Planning Help”, makes good on its name by providing help for using the other two parts in planning your own adventures. There are a couple of sample itineraries and some suggestions involving attractions not detailed in the book but the most help, in my opinion, comes from a table of all the attractions that are detailed in the book. It’s something of an index on steroids. The attractions are listed alphabetically along with the page numbers of the full entries then other columns in the table give general locations, identify the attraction type, etc. One column marks free attraction and there really are quite a few of them.

I’ve lived around here long enough and done enough poking that, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve visited the majority of listed attractions. But not all. There are several, like the Rumpke Landfill Tour and the Anthony-Thomas Chocolate Factory Tour, that even this old poker didn’t know about and which will likely be part of my own adventure someday. But the ideal audience for this book is the young Cincinnati area family with one or more curious young ‘uns ready for adventure. Hey, that sounds like my daughter’s family. I’m thinking gift list win.

In addition to being available through Amazon and some area bookstores, signed copies can be purchased directly from the authors.

Adventures Around Cincinnati: A Parent’s Guide to Unique and Memorable Places to Explore with your Kids, Laura Hoevener and Terri Weeks, Hourglass Press; Second edition (March 15, 2014), paperback, 8.5 x 5.6 inches, 336 pages, ISBN 978-0991085408

Book Review
Outside the Wire
Jim Ross

Outside the Wire coverThis book is different. It’s different from what I typically read and it’s different from what Jim Ross typically writes. It is also different from other Vietnam memoirs; at least I think it is. I’ve not read a ton of Vietnam memoirs so I can’t speak to that last point with any authority but I can try to explain why I believe it. In the more than forty years between the events told of in the book and the book’s completion, Ross wrote or co-wrote several other books and developed some formidable writing skills. That’s hardly all he learned, of course, but he somehow manages to keep most of those other things out of this book. In Outside the Wire: Riding with the “Triple Deuce in Vietnam, 1970, Jim Ross tells the story of a twenty year old kid, including the words and thoughts of that kid, with the skill of an accomplished writer and my sense is that that is a rare combination.

Not different is the basic story being told. Thousands of kids got drafted, trained, and sent off to Vietnam to shoot and be shot at. The details vary, of course. In Ross’ case, the shooting started with an M16 then he eventually became the man behind the 50 caliber machine gun mounted atop the armored personnel carrier to which he was assigned. Being shot at started with misdirected cluster bombs fired by US artillery then went on to include grenades, mortars, machine gun fire and other assorted projectiles from the other side. Even when the enemy wasn’t actively sending harmful things their way, the men had plenty to fear from the booby traps and land mines that were left behind.

I recall briefly questioning, early on in my read, how anyone could remember such detail through all those years but I soon realized that these are the sort of details that it is impossible to forget. Ross did some truly heroic things in Vietnam and he tells about them quite matter-of-factly. He also did some rather dumb things and tells about them just as matter-of-factly. That is not to say that the book is only a catalog of facts. Ross is as adept at describing his younger self’s emotions — plenty of fear and anger — as he is at describing the actions of a firefight.

Both friend and foe figure into that fear and anger. Being afraid of and angry at someone who is trying to kill you is pretty easy to understand but the soldiers on the ground also feared that the higher-ups would do something stupid and were justifiably angry when they did. From a four decade distance, it might be tempting to write about anger being directed at the safe-at-home politicians responsible for the war’s existence but that was rarely the case. For the most part, an enlisted grunt was concerned only with the decisions that affected his odds of staying alive for the next hour or day. Blame was rarely directed higher than the platoon leader. It only happened when it seemed that some big shot was padding his resume at their expense. After a particularly costly battle in tight quarters, Ross comments that:

Once again they had proven that mechanized infantry was always good for a sucker punch when shackled by terrain. It was as if we had brought a gun to a knife fight and still lost. Even though they had likely sustained greater loses, the psychological edge was theirs.

Several pages of color photographs help illustrate Ross’ words. These are not the artful photographs Ross fans are used to seeing in books like Route 66 Sightings. These are snapshots of soldiers taken by other soldiers. They no doubt help in visualizing what the words describe but the words need little help. The words paint vivid pictures. They are profane. They are the words soldiers use in profane situations and there is no more profane situation than war.

Ross draws no conclusion and does no preaching. What he does do is bring veteran skills to the telling of a rookie’s story. Well done.

Outside the Wire: Riding with the “Triple Deuce in Vietnam, 1970, Jim Ross, Stackpole Books, February 2013, 9.1 x 6.1 inches, 320 pages, ISBN 978-0811712224

Music Review
Sweatshop Pinata
Dirk Hamilton & The Bluesmen

Sweatshop PinataThe album’s full title is Sweatshop Piñata: Most of the Best of Dirk Hamilton & The Bluesmen. If that means there may someday be another album with the rest of the best of Dirk Hamilton & The Bluesmen, I’m in.

Dirk has a sizable fan base in Italy and has spent part of many summers touring there. For the last few years, he has done that in the company of an Italian band called The Bluesmen. A portion of the 2005 tour was captured and made available as a CD and DVD package titled Sometimes Ya’ Leave the Blues Out on the Road. Now they’ve got a studio album with no road involved at all. That 2005 recording included some Dirk Hamilton compositions, a few covers, and a few tunes that Dirk co-wrote with The Bluesmen’s guitarist, Roberto Formignani. The international collaborations were essentially made up of Hamilton’s lyrics and Formignani’s music. That’s the arrangement on every song on Sweatshop Piñata except two where keyboardist Massimo Mantovani also contributed. This is hardly the first time Dirk has collaborated with others. There are plenty of examples of him co-writing songs with guitarist Don Evans or bassist Eric Westphal. This is, however, the first time he has collaborated on an entire album and it is also the first time he has done an album of all blues.

None of that, of course, keeps Dirk from doing some lyrical ear tickling. On The Collector, one of the most hard core blues tracks on the album, the list of things collected starts with “Mojos, yo-yo’s, maybe butterfly wings”. Two of my favorite lines come from the short and funky “Baby Take A U-ey”. When he asks for rent money, it is because “My bullfrog wouldn’t like it if we had to move again”. Then he warns folks at his funeral not to cry and instructs them to “Just chisel on my tombstone, ‘He came, he sang, he died’”. Unlike some Dirk Hamilton offerings, there is nothing at all political here. There is some social commentary (I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t.) but it all concerns individuals like the aforementioned “collector” or the empty headed target of “Automaton Town”.

Good lyrics and good music deserve good execution and they get it. Formignani’s often biting guitar is up front on almost every track. Mantovani takes the lead a little less often than Formignani but he is never hiding. He makes major contributions to most cuts on piano, organ, or both. He also arranged the horns that appear on several tracks. Roberto Poltronieri (bass) and Roberto Morsiani make up the talented rhythm section.

The mention of horns might make you think this album has a big sound. It does. Instrumentation is an area where there is some real contrast between this and Dirk’s preceding album. That album, solo mono, was a true solo effort with nothing but Dirk’s voice, guitar, and harmonica. Oddly enough, one song appears — and sounds good — on both. Assuming a specific meaning for a Dirk Hamilton lyric is never a safe thing to do so I may be way off on this. On solo mono, “Where are all the Rebels?” has lots of nice guitar work and plenty of harmonica. The harmonica supplies a touch of melancholy. To me, Dirk seems to be mourning the disappearance of those 1970s rebels. The Sweatshop Piñata version is faster. The harmonica and acoustic guitar are still there plus there is an electric guitar with some serious tremolo now and then, driving drums, piano AND organ, and a banjo! This time, I feel like Dirk just might be challenging those vanished rebels to come out and make some noise with him again.

I love them all but it’s a fact that some of Dirk’s offerings are a little tough to classify. Not so this one. Sweatshop Piñata is solid mainstream blues. I’ve mentioned that I’ve never seen Dirk live with a full band. My dream is still to see Dirk, Don, Eric, and Tim (a.k.a. The Dirk Hamilton Band) somewhere sometime but seeing a long tall Texan fronting a bunch of Italians at a Mississippi delta blues festival might satisfy me for awhile.

This and other Dirk Hamilton CDs can be purchased here.

My review of solo mono is here.


Technical problems resulted in the posting of this review being delayed one day to a Thursday rather than Wednesday.

Book Review
The Narrow Road
John Jay Abbott

Narrow Road coverThis book could be called a near opposite of the one in my most recent review. That one contained lots of information and was well researched but not so well written. The Narrow Road: An Adventure on the Lincoln Highway tells me little that’s new and involved almost no research but is fairly well written. Yes, I do have variety in my reading.

I’m sure no one will be surprised to read that I sometimes visit Amazon and type “Lincoln Highway” into the search box. I used to do it to see if there was anything new that I hadn’t heard about but recently I’ve been doing it to see where my own book appears. The Narrow Road popped up in the search results and was not only “something new that I hadn’t heard about”, there were similarities between it and my book, By Mopar to the Golden Gate. Abbott’s book was published on December 17, 2013, mine on December 27, and both were travelogues of full length drives of the Lincoln Highway during its centennial year. Abbott lived far from the coasts, in Springfield, Missouri, so that, like me, he had to start his journey with an eastbound drive to New York City and end it with an eastbound drive back home. Beyond that, however, the similarities peter out quickly.

Abbott knew next to nothing about the Lincoln Highway before setting out to drive it. He was between jobs but had a little money in the bank. The recent death of his mother left him with no obligations and a cross country drive seemed like just what he needed. He more or less stumbled on the Lincoln Highway when he started looking for a route to connect the east coast with Route 66 which he knew about not only because of its own fame but because it ran through his home town. I think the coincidence of the Lincoln Highway’s 100 year anniversary and his own opportunity to run free for a bit clinched the decision to follow this newly discovered piece of history. He explains, “I didn’t go with any preconceived ideas. I learned just enough about the route to find my way.”

Amazon’s description of the book includes “…a travel narrative in the tradition of Travels with Charley“. I don’t doubt that’s what Abbott was going for but Steinbeck had a couple of decades of living and a shelf full of best sellers on the forty-three year old so that his “careful reflection and discovery” (also part of the Amazon description) ran a little deeper and carried a little more weight. One bit of discovery that, at least in my opinion, Steinbeck and Abbott share is the discovery that they don’t really like road trips. Neither says this, of course, but neither seems to be having the time of their life during their journey. I reviewed another book in the Travels With Charley tradition, Long Way Home, last year and the writer of that one, Bill Barich, seems to enjoy his trip a lot more than either Abbott or Steinbeck.

Steinbeck had no practical limits on time or money. Barich definitely did. Abbott’s time might not have been limited itself but his clearly restricted budget did certainly limit the amount of time he could spend running around with no income. Restaurants and motels were luxuries. Abbott ate a lot of canned fruit and peanut butter. He camped quite a bit and spent several nights sleeping in the homes of people contacted through a website. Both the camping and the home sharing contributed stories.

When Abbott left home, he was committed not only to the full coast to coast road trip but to producing a book about it. That commitment may have made him a little more observant and definitely kept him on the lookout for subject matter. More than once he noted that an encounter provided “something worth writing about”. Things observed and people encountered are written about and are sometimes used as launch points for essays on whatever enters Abbott’s thoughts at the time. None of the observations are particularly enlightening or the essays especially insightful but I enjoyed them — largely, I think, because they were quite different than my own observations and essays on a very similar trip. I believe this was Abbott’s first big road trip and I suspect part of my enjoyment of the book came from telling myself that some of Abbott’s thoughts were the thoughts of the typical first timer.

In the first paragraph, I described this book as “fairly well written”. I added the “fairly” qualifier because the writing, while extremely literate, has some issues. Or maybe it just has one issue. Abbott doesn’t exactly repeat a thought but neither does he let go of one easily. There were times when the same thought was expressed in so many different ways that I wondered if it might be some sort of writing exercise.

The Narrow Road: An Adventure on the Lincoln Highway, John Jay Abbott, December 17, 2013, Kindle ebook only, 388 KB, ASIN- B00HESQC2G