Saturday, May 31, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - May 31 - US infantry

Having completed the large batch of American vehicles, the next couple of WW2 projects will be to continue assembling an assortment of German vehicles (mainly basic halftracks and halftrack variants) as well as painting a bunch of US troops. I have a Battlefront US late war infantry platoon (41 figs I think) and 8 anti tank gun crew figs prepped and ready to go.

I am curious to see how this will go. I am not used to painting 15mm figures. They seem awfully tiny when you are used to painting 25mm/28mm. I will need to learn as I go, finding a method and techniques that work for me. I am imagining some base wetbrushing/drybrushing followed by picking out detail, with some washing mixed in there somewhere. We'll see how it goes.
One tiny guy

End of Day update:
So far so good. Painting 15mm figs is definitely different, but I am not finding it difficult to make progress towards an acceptable figure. I'll post some details on how I ended up painting them when I am done, but I am proceeding roughly as I expected I would above. I do find that the only way I can paint these little guys is to take my glasses off because my aging eyes can't seem to focus on something this small as close as I need them to be. Without my glasses, I am blind as a bat...but can now focus on something 12-15 inches away just fine. Bifocals anyone? Sigh.
A bunch of tiny guys - end of Saturday

One test stand (a squad of three figures) is completely done and looks great. The remainder of the 50+ figures are well on the way to being done, and with a bit more time tomorrow I should be able to have these all substantially done. Uniforms have been painted. Most detail has been painted. What remains is to do the flesh areas and then whatever washing needs to be done, along with a little more final detail.

I am very pleased with how this is going (and the fact that I am able to crank out a good number of figures pretty quickly). I have taken a corner of the dining room table as a temporary paint station, and have been wandering in and out and painting in 10-20 minute increments when I can steal a few minutes throughout the day. That might not be the most ideal way to make progress, but I'll take a few moments when I can get them.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

WW2 US Armored Force

One easy way to avoid the question of what dunkelgelb really looks like is to paint US forces instead. We were in and out of the house doing various things over the long holiday weekend, but in moments of down time I was able to make great progress on my small pile of "in process" and "not started yet" US tanks and other vehicles. You can never have too many Shermans, and none of my jeeps and trucks were finished yet...

All of the vehicles shown below had either been assembled and primed olive drab, or were still in their packaging as of Friday. Step 1 was to get everything primed and ready to go so I could paint them in assembly line fashion as much as possible. My intent was to do basic paint jobs, quickly, without lavishing too much attention on them; just get them done to a decent gaming quality.

All of the models are Battlefront Flames of War, and really are exceptional little pieces. Because they are such nice models, I ended up spending more time on them than I had anticipated, but they were well worth the extra effort. The models have a lot of character, with a number of different variants of molded-on stowage, and stowage bits that could be glued on to make each vehicle different. After I got all the basic painting done and began picking out the detail, I began to realize just how much detail there was on these tiny guys. [As an aside, all of these are either cast resin, or resin with some plastic components; none are the newer all-plastic models that they are coming out with now - I also assembled newer FoW kits this weekend with 5 German tanks and 4 German halftracks in all plastic, and they are amazing...]. In addition to the 10 tanks, 6 jeeps, and 8 trucks shown below, I also painted 5 anti-tank guns, but I will photograph them later (when they have crews). 29 vehicles and guns over a 4-day weekend is prodigious painting output for me.

A US armored task force with motorized infantry support and recon elements begins moving out from their rendezvous point in a Norman field:
Armored onslaught

Jeeps for recon and command elements.
Six Jeeps

Light trucks for towing anti-tank guns in towed tank destroyer units, or for miscellaneous transport duties.
Four Dodge 3/4 ton trucks

Heavy trucks for motorized infantry, or for supply hauling duties.
Four 2.5 ton trucks

Early model M4A1 cast hull Shermans with short barreled 75mm guns. These early model Shermans continued to see use until destroyed or rendered mechanically unfit for duty. Many pictures show these old workhorses in action in Germany right up until the end of the war.
Five M4A1 75mm Shermans

Later model M4A3 welded hull Shermans up-gunned with 76mm guns in larger turrets. Much better for facing enemy armor...
Five M4A3 76mm Shermans

The weekend's worth of painting. Lots more vehicle options for Fireball Forward! games now...
The assembled troops

I haven't finished the bases on the jeeps and trucks yet because I haven't decided exactly how I want to do them. Other than that, all these need is a clear coat to protect them.

Next...I'm not sure. Although I do have 5 assembled Panzer IV H's and 4 251/1 halftracks to deal with.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Wilmington Blue Rocks

Surprisingly enough to me, the kids decided that they wanted to go to Wilmington to see a Blue Rocks baseball game. The Blue Rocks play class "A" ball in the Carolina league (Kansas City Royals system). The games are always fun, it is a cheap evening, and you get to sit very close to the field.

We went last night, sat 6 rows behind the first base dugout, and had a lot of fun. Whether they are a good team or not, they always seem to lose when we go, but we got lucky and saw a win last night (8-4 over the Frederick Keys, the Orioles minor league team).

As usual with class A baseball, we saw a wide assortment of good plays, bad plays, and everything in between. For the most part, you don't have to be a major league general manager to see that most of these kids have no shot of ever making the major leagues, but they try hard, and it is interesting to try to see who looks like they do have the tools to perhaps make it some day.

The kids asked to go this once, and hopefully they will ask again soon.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Painting Late War German Panzer IV's

The following won't win any awards (unless you are a much much better painter than me), but is a simple straightforward way to get nice results on a non-airbrushed late war German 3 color camouflage scheme.

The basis of any (or most) German armor camo schemes is "dunkelgelb", or "dark yellow". This color has always apparently been a problem for military modelers, as the interpretation of what dunkelgelb means has been tremendously varied, with tones ranging from darker to lighter, more yellow to less so, brownish or not, a tint of green, or orangish, or apparently just about anything else even remotely in this color family. The issue for someone like me, who wants to base coat my models with a spray can, and doesn't have an airbrush (not a functioning one anyway), is that I need to buy something off the shelf that works. You'd think that within this hobby that such a thing would be easy. Well, it's not as easy as you'd think.

For this batch of models, which were primed a couple of days ago and painted today, I used the Plastic Soldier Company's dunkelgelb spray. When purchasing this at the local game store, I was concerned that it seemed way too green, but I have seen a lot of German armor done by Flames of War players at that store that had similar green-tinted base that looked nice, so I figured I'd give it a try.

Stage 1 - Base coating and foundation work:
  1. Prime the models with Plastic Soldier Company dunkelgelb spray. At this point, the models were way too apple/olive green for my taste, so I planned to address this in two ways - dry brushing before any further painting, and an extra dry brush of a light tan color at the very end to knock the colors down more.
  2. Using a large #16 artists shader brush, I dry brushed the models with Americana brand craft paint "celery green", a muted light green, and then a little very light dry brushing with Folk Art brand "camel", a light tan color. Picture #1 shows some models after this step. [although this particular picture may be after the celery but before the camel...]
  3. Citadel "mechanicus standard grey", a dark grey, was then painted on the tracks, the spare road wheel tires (but not all the road wheels), and the commander figures.
  4. A heavy black wash was then given to the tracks, the rear deck engine vents, the road wheels, drive sprockets and all other suspension components, the commander figure, and the gun muzzle. Picture #2 shows the vehicles at the end of this stage.

#1 - Primed and "foundation dry brushed"

#2 - Foundation work done

Stage 2 - Basic camouflage:
  1. For these models, I opted for a very basic squiggle pattern of short thin lines. The red-brown is Citadel's "doombull brown" and the dark green is Citadel's "castellan green". Both of these colors work very well. Picture #3 shows the models after this step. At this point the models look way too bright and clean, and the colors too stark. This is taken care of in the next step.
  2. Dry brush lightly but thoroughly with Folk Art "camel". This serves to knock the colors down and dull everything up quite nicely. It also takes the green down some and adds some tan back into the mix.

#3 - After camo but before dry brushing

Stage 3 - Detail work:
  1. Flesh - base color of flesh is painted and then washed with a flesh wash. At this scale, that's all the detail these little guys get. I used an unbranded basic flesh color and whatever Citadel is calling their flesh wash these days. [I still need to go back and pick out a little detail on the commanders after I do a little research to remind myself of what that little bit of detail should be]
  2. Tools and other bits on the tanks are painted brown for wood handles, gun metal metallic for shovel blades, etc.
  3. Tracks, which are a very dark grey at this point (having been heavily washed with black in stage 1), are highlighted by dry brushing the road contact surfaces with a gun metal silver color.
  4. The edges of the tracks (the parts susceptible to rust) are dry brushed with a rusty reddish brown. I used an older Citadel color called "terracottta".
  5. A judicious amount of mud splatter is painted around the road wheels and other suspension parts. If nothing else, this serves to disguise the fact that I only black washed the wheels, and didn't take the time to actually paint all the tiny little rubber road wheel edges black...

The acceptable finished product

I'm not sure I'm 100% thrilled with the end result, but this is the process I used to do three perfectly acceptable Mark IV's in a fairly short period of time today.

The one thing I think I will try next time, way back in step 2 of stage 1 (the foundation dry brushing), is to use a color that is even less green and more yellowy-tan. I am OK with today's result, but not so thrilled that I don't want to continue to tinker with my dunkelgelb just a little. That being said, I have seen a LOT of WW2 German armor painted in this light greenish base, and it does look good.

Product note - These three Panzer IV H's are all-metal Command Decision models from Old Glory (as is the incomplete King Tiger that snuck into one of the pictures). They are decent casts, considering their age, but are nothing like the box of five Flames of War all-plastic Panzer IV H's that I assembled this afternoon. But more on that soon.

Painting Table Saturday - May 24 - Panzers in Normandy

Following up on the great game of Fireball Forward! we had here last weekend, I have had a very strong urge to paint up some WW2 stuff. This is rare, as I really don't enjoy painting 15mm figs very much, and since I don't do it very often, I am not very good at it. The difference in scale makes for a very different kind of painting than the 25mm/28mm figs I am used to, at least in my mind.

Tanks and vehicles, on the other hand, are fun to paint, and can be cranked out to a pretty good level of quality in a reasonable amount of time. Given that these little guys are about an inch and a half long, I am going for a nice level of gaming quality as opposed to teeny works of art. These are generally viewed, en masse, from several feet away, after all.

I will post more on exactly how I did these, but for now I want to get back to the painting table...

The goal of today's hobby time is to turn more of these:
Selections from the lead mountain

Into more of these:
Panzer IV's prowl a Norman road

The Fireball Forward! scenario book on St Lo has been an inspiration, and I need lots more armor and other vehicles of all types.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Justin Hayward Solo Tour - 5/20/14 - Wilmington DE

Tuesday evening was another fabulous Justin Hayward solo show at the World Cafe Live at the Queen in Wilmington. Or perhaps Tuesday (very late) Afternoon if you prefer...

This tour is basically another small batch of shows in support of Justin's 2013 album Spirits of the Western Sky, wedged in between Moody Blues tours. After a Moodies spring tour leg, this show was the sixth in eight days (out of I don't know how many planned in total...). My write up of the August 5, 2013 show is here, and I won't repeat everything that I wrote there, as much/most of the same still applies. This time around we were in the second row of the balcony instead of the first. Brother Dave's Darling Wife and a friend were there again as well.

The backing band this time consisted of only two people, Mike Dawes on acoustic and electric guitars (and percussion on the guitar body), and the hyper-talented Julie Ragins on backing vocals, keyboards (bass parts with the left hand) and percussion. Alan Hewitt, the Moodies keyboard player, was not here this time around. This minimalist setup produced an amazing amount of good clear sound, and everyone sounded terrific.

Same as last time, Mike Dawes opened with a set of four songs by himself, and I was just as amazed this time around. You have to see this guy to believe it... Boogie Shred. And here is 10 minutes of his very first American performance opening for the first Justin show August 2, 2013... I know he did Boogie Shred, The Impossible, and Someone That I Used to Know. I think the fourth song may have been Somewhere Home, but I'm not sure.

Following a 20 minute break (to force a run up of the bar tab I think), Justin came out and played for about 90 minutes, doing 14 songs plus one more for an encore.

Set List: (links are to YouTube videos of the exact performance we saw)
  1. Tuesday Afternoon
  2. It's Up to You
  3. Lovely to See You
  4. In Your Blue Eyes (SofWS)
  5. The Western Sky (SofWS)
  6. I Dreamed Last Night
  7. In the Beginning (SofWS)
  8. One Day, Someday (SofWS)
  9. The Eastern Sun (SofWS)
  10. What You Resist Persists (SofWS)
  11. Your Wildest Dreams
  12. Forever Autumn (as an esoteric aside that Brother Dave might appreciate, the cutaway guitar in this is a James A. Olson handmade custom one of kind, prices starting at $12,000 and going up from there...)
  13. Question
  14. Nights in White Satin
  15. I Know You're Out There Somewhere [Encore]
Someone had posted a set list on SetList from one of the shows a week or so before, and it was exactly this show, but with New Horizons after I Dreamed Last Night. We didn't get New Horizons, which was a mild disappointment, but at least it wasn't I Dreamed Last Night that got dropped. In all of the dozen-plus times I have seen the Moodies or Justin, I had never seen that one live (to my recollection).
It is a beautiful song recorded on the Blue Jays album that Justin did with fellow Moodie John Lodge (while the band was on a multi-year hiatus in the mid 70's). The set list was almost identical to last year's, with only two changes (Land of Make Believe and It's Cold Outside of Your Heart out, and I Dreamed Last Night and What You Resist Persists in).

Anyway...seeing my idol in a small theater setting like this is a slice of heaven. I'd pay the ticket price for Forever Autumn alone. Or any one of a number of other songs for that matter... There is nothing like a small venue like this. Justin was telling stories, interacting with the audience, and seemed to be having a great time. As was I.

Following the show, Julie and Mike were at a table in the lobby signing autographs, so I bought a CD of each of their solo work and had them signed. So in addition to memories, I have some souvenirs (and the CDs are really good too).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fanboy 2014

Happy happy. I am in pre-concert prep mode as my top musical idol, Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, is set to come to the World Cafe Live at the Queen this week, and I will be there (of course). Amp and I saw him at the same place last August (blog post is here), and it was a great little venue to see a show.

It doesn't matter that Justin is closing in on 70 years old. He always puts on a great show, and I relish every chance to see him while he is still touring, whether it be with the Moodies, or in a solo show like this.

I expect that the show will be similar to what we saw last summer, since he is apparently touring with the same three other musicians.

A few clips I have found while doing my "prep work":
Ah, to be young again....

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - May 17 - WW2 odds and ends

OK, boring-est Painting Table update ever... After the terrifically fun Fireball Forward! game we had Friday night, I spent a few hours this weekend digging out and cataloging what I have for 15mm WW2 miniatures.

The answer is...more than I would have guessed, but not much of it properly based or even finished. More so than any other period I seem to have started lots of different sets of figures and vehicles without ever actually having finished much other than figures I have purchased already completed.

So the hobby time this weekend was spent getting everything in one place and assessing, followed by some thinking to come up with a plan of how to tackle some of this backlog. The short answer is to make sure I have modest size German and American forces complete and based for Fireball Forward!. I made good progress toward this today by breaking down some older bases and using the figures on FF! bases. Some very basic work is complete with only the finishing work remaining.

The second priority was to take some of the packs of Battlefront Flames of War figures and prep them for painting. I prepped and primed German infantry, American infantry and American paratroop sets. The next step will be to do some actual painting...

On the short list to complete are:

  • The above mentioned German and American infantry.
  • A handful of American and German antitank guns which have been primed and/or base coated but not finished.
  • Final detail work on 10 Sherman tanks and about 12 American trucks and jeeps that have been partially painted but need detail work to finish them.
That will be a start.

Fireball Forward! - Ukraine 1941

Relatively spur of the moment, Leo and Ryan and I were able to get together for a game of Fireball Forward! last night. Ryan has been dying to play WW2, I loved FF! when Leo and I played it a couple of times last summer, and it had just been generally way too long since we had an actual game of any sort.

Leo had a scenario that he had created, which was adapted from one of the Skirmish books, and he would umpire while Ryan and I played. The scenario was a Russian counterattack against a German defense at a small village and stream crossing. Playing with an umpire is great because everything starts off the table out of sight and is only revealed when spotted (generally when it shoots). The Germans had a couple of infantry platoons, some company weapons assets, a 75mm infantry gun and a pair of 37mm AT guns. I (the Russians) had 4 infantry platoons (in two companies, each with a few company assets), a Kommissar (who proved to be a worthless fraud), and 7 tanks in 3 groups; a T28 (?) in a group by itself, and two groups of 3 BT7's each.

The battlefield ( a nice compact 3' by 4', which is typical for FF games - lots of great action in a small space...), looking at the first picture from the Russian edge, had a cluster of buildings on either side of a stream in the distance. A road went up the middle, with a plowed beet field on the left and a swampy area on the right. The wheat colored rectangle at middle left is a field of high crops which would prove to be the hinge point of the game.

Turn 1 - Russians can opt to bring their infantry on in trucks, which I chose not to do. That would mean an open ground ride right up the middle, and I envisioned a lot of burning trucks and dead guys. I elected for a broad front advance, mostly avoiding the swampy area on my right flank. I should have been more aggressive with my one good tank, which cautiously inched onto the board (and ended up bringing up the rear of my turn 1 advance). The crappy little BT7's advance bravely. And died bravely. The first one got lit up by a flank shot from a 37mm ATG in the swamp. The second one went to face the ATG and died soon after. The second came on and fared little better, with one getting knocked out and another immediately panicking and fleeing the field. I needed to occupy buildings to win, which tanks cannot do, but I had hoped that they would be a little more...less dead less quickly.
Mostly through Turn 1

Turn 2 - As can be seen in the mid-turn picture below, the Russian infantry are advancing through the beet field (bottom of pic) while all the BT7's are either dead of have fled (4 dead, 2 panicked and gone). German infantry (machine guns) have exposed themselves by shooting out of the wheat field, tying up my infantry in the center. 5 out of my 6 infantry units are either on the road or left of it. The one remaining infantry platoon near the swamp will try to take out the 37mm ATG.
During Turn 2

Turn 3 - The last Russian tank (the good one) dies, my armored force having done nothing of consequence, other than to hold the attention of the 3 German guns. The Russian platoon in the swamp got into melee with the ATG and a supporting German infantry platoon, and that series of combats lasted the rest of the game, with the heroic gun crew beating back wave after wave of Russians. As it turns out though, the German infantry would have been better served moving to support the buildings in the center once the tanks were gone. The ATGs had served their purpose and could be left to die.
During Turn 3

Turns 3 and 4 saw a concerted effort by Russian infantry to advance in force through the wheat field, around its flank, and up the road if possible. I was able to run the gauntlet with one squad into the center building near the road, and worked my way around the one behind the flank of the wheat field. I was taking some casualties, but was also inflicting some and slowly clearing out the wheat field itself and chipping away at their supporting units.
During Turn 4

Turn 4 - The Germans were thinned out enough that I was able to use numbers to tie up the remaining Germans while a squad ran across the stream and into the building on the other side (2 victory points). At that point, I had the 4 victory points I would need to win the game after 5 turns (2 VPs for a building on the far side of the stream, and 1 each for two buildings on the near side). A last ditch German counterattack near the end of turn 4 to try to oust me from a building failed, and it was agreed that there was no way the few remaining Germans near the buildings I occupied would be able to push me out.
After Turn 4 (game effectively over)

It was a great game, and a good learning exercise for Ryan and I. We both made some mistakes, and both did some good things. We have a lot to learn about the rules, but that's the fun part. Our dice rolling seemed very particular on both sides. Ryan didn't shoot very well, except when shooting at tanks (which was great), and his morale rolls seemed good when testing under fire, but atrocious when trying to get his troops to enter a melee. On the other side, my firing was pretty good, my morale to enter combats was good, my rallying was OK, but I couldn't pass a morale check when fired on to save my life. It seemed like any time Ryan succeeded in hitting me with a shot, I broke. When in melees themselves, no matter how advantageous the combat for me, I would roll whatever I needed to remain locked in melee until the next turn. Among other things, it is these dice rolling patterns that develop during a game that makes games fun (what?! again?! really?!).

A few observations:

  • I love this game system and can't wait to play more. It is fantastic with a referee.
  • This is the first time we had a game of this with vehicles, and it showed. Ryan on the other hand had never played the system at all but did fine.
  • Russians are frustrating in their rigidity. Units activate by random card draws. Unlike the Germans (and the Americans when we played them) who get to choose which unit to activate when one of their cards comes up, the Russians have to splay the specific unit noted on the card. Getting things to occur in the sequence you would hope they would is almost impossible. But the Russians had notorious command issues early on in the war especially, so this felt right.

While the excitement of last night's game is fresh in my mind, I suspect that Paint Table Saturday today will revolve around taking stock of my modest WW2 collection, identifying needs, maybe a little painting and almost certainly some basing of existing infantry, which I am partway through. And maybe a side trip to a shop nearby that stocks the Flames of War miniatures range to pick up a few things...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review - Netherland

Next up on the reading list was one of the books I picked up earlier this year at the Concord Mall's annual book fair; Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (2008, Pantheon Books, 256 pages). This was a PEN/Faulkner winner in 2009.

The New York Times called this "stunning...with echoes of The Great Gatsby" (citing the cover blurb). I'm not sure I see that. This was a very good book, don't get me wrong. But I think Gatsby is one of the greatest books of the 20th century for good reason. This was not on a par with that. Little is. Thematically, I don't really follow the comparisons. The Wikipedia entry on Gatsby says that it "explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval" and is "a cautionary tale on the American Dream." Netherland is not this.

But I digress.

As I try to describe, briefly, what Netherland is, I find that it is not easy to do so. It is the story of a man's personal journey in the wake of a failing (and then resurrected) marriage. Part of the plot revolves around the man's wife fleeing New York city in the aftermath of 9/11, but it is not a 9/11 book. The sport of cricket is peppered throughout the book, but it is not about cricket. The protagonist is a Dutch man who has lived in London and is temporarily in New York, and some of the more prominent supporting cast are immigrants. But it is not really about the immigrant experience. It's not about the American Dream.

It's a great book. About a guy. But I think the literary critics over-think things. "A post-colonial rewriting of The Great Gatsby." "...the most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we've yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell." Hmm. I digress again.

4 stars out of 5. A very good book, and one that I enjoyed immensely. Read it. But it ain't Gatsby. :-)

"...she reaches for my hand and squeezes it. Strange, how such a moment grows in value over a marriage's course. We gratefully pocket each of them, these sidewalk pennies, and run with them to the bank as if creditors were banging on the door. Which they are, one comes to realize." (p. 183)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hiking the Woodlawn Tract - May 4

View across the Brandywine valley
It's fair to say that the Ricketts Glen hiking trip has revved up my interest in getting back out into the woods. I also have a renewed interest in mixing in some geocaching time when I am able. This past Sunday morning was forecast to be a perfect cool spring morning, so I spent about three hours doing some short hikes in the Woodlawn tract near home, with the goal of clearing out a number of "ammo can in the woods" caches that have popped up back there in the few years since I have last done that. This area is very close to home, and all those caches are messing up my "unfound closest to home" map...

I apparently have still not figured out that whole "electronic devices need batteries" thing, so I don't have a hiking track to post, as I had planned. My GPS batteries only lasted about twenty minutes before dying, after which I had to use my phone app for a GPS. Oops.

The day was as nice as forecast. It was great to get out and get some exercise, and the Brandywine River valley is a wonderful spot to do so. I was also successful in finding six caches (all in my top 8 closest to home), and have now re-cleared a nice portion of map in that area. All told, I hiked about 4 miles in three little chunks, with car moves to different parking areas in between. Ideally, I would have made a longer continuous hike, but the way the caches were spread out, and my hope to get as many of them as possible, didn't make that practical for one morning.

This gets me to an even 1,100 caches, 999 of which are "traditional" caches. I hope to be able to continue to find a Saturday or Sunday morning here or there where I can take a few hours and get a short hike in without intruding too much on family time. At least before it gets too disgustingly hot and humid.

Getting my legs (and cardio) back in better shape will be useful as well, as the guys have blocked out a 3-4 day trip (destination TBD) in lieu of a bigger trip this year. As of now we have four people committed, and are looking at locations within a maximum drive of around 5 hours. One of the leading contenders at this point is the Monongahela National Forest in northeastern West Virginia, specifically the Spruce Knob area (West Virginia's high point). That suits me fine. I don't have a geocache in West Virginia yet...

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review - St Burl's Obituary

The last of the trio of mini book reviews to catch up on is St Burl's Obituary by Daniel Akst (MacMurray & Beck, 1996, 370 pages). I picked this up cheaply on eBay a while back solely on the strength of it being a 1997 PEN/Faulkner award finalist.

I have had a lot of luck reading my way through the PEN/Faulkner lists (well, not luck I guess since they are award winners and nominees...). This was no exception. It is described as "a rollicking burlesque on death, resurrection, and dinner." I suppose that works. It is the story of an obese man, Burleigh Bennett, whose life revolves around food, and who writes obituaries for a New York City paper. He is a social misfit whose passion is all things food (and wine). One night, there is a gangland slaying of three men in the restaurant of which Burl is a part owner, and Burl sees (and is seen by) the suspected shooter. Burl is expected to eventually testify as the police try to make a case against the crime boss responsible for the hit. Instead, Burl takes a bunch of cash, disappears from his own life, drops off the grid entirely, and makes his way out West.

The resulting tale of travel on the run, binge eating, homelessness, gastric bypass surgery, faked death, assumed identity and lots of other things culminating in a return to New York City make for a fascinating read. I found there to be some far-fetched and head scratching parts that I didn't quite buy into, but it was a compelling book, all the more so because of its unusual nature. I don't think I have read another book quite like this; it was different and refreshing. While I wouldn't go so far as to say it was a great book necessarily, it was a very good book and well worth the time. I have heard it said that there are only five plots in all of literature. If that's true then this was certainly an unusual variant of one of those five.

Another solid 3.5 stars out of 5. Quirky, interesting, and I liked the food parts, being a foodie myself. Leaning close to 4 stars but maybe not quite there. Or maybe. OK, let's call it 4 stars.

As an aside, I liked this book well enough to search out what else Daniel Akst has written since this, published 18 years ago. The answer is...not much of anything from a fiction perspective, although his non-fiction resume is pretty impressive. This is a shame. I'd read another book by him anytime.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book Review - The Burgess Boys

The second book from April to catch up on was Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys (Random House, 2013, 320 pages). I was eager to read this one, as I have enjoyed two of Strout's previous books very much (Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge), and this had a lot of hype following her Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge.

This is the story of a dysfunctional set of siblings, two brothers and a sister, who must band together as best they can when the sister's troubled son gets into some serious trouble. Susan is the sibling who stayed behind in Maine while the two brothers (Jim and Bob) "escaped" as they view it. One is a very successful corporate attorney and one is a Legal Aid attorney, both in New York City. When Susan's son pulls a so-called-prank that turns into a hate crime investigation, the siblings are forced to come to terms with each other and their best they they struggle to help their sister and nephew.

While I did like the book, and it certainly kept my attention, it did leave me wanting more. This was rated as one of the best books of the year in a number of different places, and I am not sure I am in complete agreement with that. It was a good book, well written, but didn't resonate with me the way others have. Perhaps it was that the characters were not overly sympathetic, or that too many things were left unresolved. Or perhaps I was just in the mood for something more uplifting, which this was not.

A solid 3.5 stars out of 5, but not my favorite of Strout's books. It's probably my third favorite out of the three I have read, although still good, and a worthwhile read.

"She had never seen what she saw now; that her mother's fits of fury had made fury acceptable, that how Susan had been spoken to became the way she spoke to others. Her mother had never said, Susan, I'm sorry, I should not have spoken to you that way. And so years later, speaking that way herself, Susan had never apologized either.

And it was too late. No one wants to believe that something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is." (p. 254)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Book Review - The Son

I have a few thumbnail book reviews to catch up on. Back in early April, I finished Philipp Meyer's second novel, The Son (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2013, 561 pages). I was a huge fan of his first (American Rust, noted here) when I read it back in 2009 (shortly before I began blogging), and thought it was one of the best books I read that year. This was every bit as good if not better, and had an epic scope that his first didn't.

This hefty novel is the story of the McCullough family, and is a tale woven across many generations, beginning in 1849 and ending not many years ago. It begins with the massacre of Eli McCullough's family when he was 13 years old, when Texas was a wild frontier fought over by Texans, Mexicans and various Native American tribes. Eli is carried off by the Comanches and is raised as one of their own. Eventually he breaks from the Comanches, marries, and becomes a cattle rancher. Over the following 150 years, we follow several more generations of McCulloughs as they climb from ranchers to cattle barons to oilmen, becoming some of the richest people in Texas.

The book does a good job of depicting both the romance and the brutality of life on the frontier, and how the history of the family shapes their futures. The narrative takes a little getting used to since the story is told primarily from the perspective of a handful a McCulloughs themselves (although there are a bunch of others thrown in for good measure), and is scattered across the years. It continually jumps back and forth in time, changing year with every switch in narrator. At any given point in the book, the narrator could be any of a handful of people, and the year could be anywhere in that 150 year range. The complete lack of linear progression in telling the story makes it a little confusing at first, but it soon becomes routine. One thing that did help following along was to have marked the page at the front that showed the McCullough family tree...

It is a meticulously constructed novel, and a rewarding read as more and more of the pieces fall into place as the story progresses. A really terrific book. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Geocaching Progress

I'm starting to feel somewhat like a geocacher again. Maybe it's the fact that a long snow-filled winter is over and it's nice to be outside again. And I guess some travel doesn't hurt either, as I have always loved findings caches in new states or counties, or just generally places I haven't been before. I know that part of the reason for my lengthy hiatuses over the last couple of years is that the pursuit of numbers purely for the sake of numbers doesn't hold as much appeal to me if it means running around and finding a bunch of stuff in parking lots and behind stores. Not that I don't still enjoy that from time to time (such as in Reading last Sunday), but within reason. I get much more excited about geocaching somewhere new, as an excuse to go somewhere different, or to find caches as part of a hike or trip. In that respect it seems like my geocaching sensibilities are becoming more like Brother Dave's.

I will chase numbers, but different kinds of numbers.

With that in mind, what little geocaching I have done since August of last year has been limited in quantity but good in quality. Since last updating my stats in August of 2013:

  • 52 new finds, to get to a total of 1092. This includes a 215 day hiatus between September 2013 and April 2014. On the bright side, my 47 caches in April are almost half of last year's total and more than the puny 40 I found in all of 2012. I've only had one other month that big since the Spring of 2011. Wow.
  • These 52 included 1 cool multi-stage cache, 7 virtuals and 3 earth caches. The virtuals and the earth caches were split between Maine, Washington DC and Ricketts Glen State Park in northeastern PA.
  • 1 new state (Maine). Total is now 22.
  • 8 new counties (5 PA, 2 ME, 1 VA). Total is now 84 nationally (out of 3142, yikes), and 26 out of 67 PA counties.
  • Only 1 new calendar date. Sitting at 279 out of 366.

I have no particular short term goals, but there are 10 open calendar dates in May. And earth caches are fun. And there are a few new counties not too horribly far from home. And the guys are discussing potential locations for a 4-day weekend trip sometime in the summer in lieu of a bigger trip this year, so that will likely be in new territory (some destinations in the western PA, northeastern West Virginia, western Maryland, northwestern Virginia area are being considered).

That and clearing out some of these pesky new caches that have appeared close to home should keep me as busy as the mood strikes.