Gregory Humphrey’s Second Book Rounding The Curve To Completion

It is one thing to write a series of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, but quite another to fashion them all into a book.  Add into the mix the formatting, frontispiece, photo selections, font style, and the overall dimensions of the project, along with a few months’ hiatus for late fall and holiday enjoyment, and we wind up in January 2023.  Clearly, I do not have the dogged constitution of a writer who knocks out a few thousand words every morning prior to lunch.  

With the New Year underway, I asked the man who formatted my first published work, Walking Up The Ramp, if he might be interested in another project. His response was almost instantaneous and made for smiles at my desk.  “Unequivocally yes”.  While I podcast and record my own History Minutes for YouTube, aligning sentences so that at the end of each page it looks like an adult was in change is simply not my forte. I am most heartened that someone with skills in this type of programming will oversee this aspect of my project.

Final editing is now underway with small details being completed regarding how the book will look and ‘feel’.  My book will be published in time to usher in the new green leaves and colorful blooms of spring.  The book will be available on Amazon.

Letter From Home “Resolution Easily Kept” 1/12/23

I was not sure what to do when the temperature reached 46 degrees at our home on the Madison isthmus Wednesday afternoon. Options seemed to include washing the car, or, given the long-range forecast lacking any real winter weather, laughing over the idea of planting an early crop of lettuce and radishes.  Folks in the Midwest can have such ideas while being fully aware it is tempting the fates when we do. Grandma would say we always pay for nice weather when the calendar tells us what should be piled up at the back door on a January day.

Given it was the day after a colonoscopy I was eating and snacking continuously. While the procedure is, well, what it is, I find the paring back on foods for a couple days in preparation, and basically not eating for the final 24 hours, what allows for this medical necessity to be most dreadful. Though I am a slim-framed guy I am a hearty eater. So rather than giving in to the warm afternoon and doing something productive outside I made a peanut butter sandwich on brioche bread and fulfilled a New Year’s resolution.

I am not one who makes a list of things to achieve at the start of a new calendar. I seem to find it more workable to add a change, here and there, as the months progress.  A few years back, I decided to use the first name of the person while in conversation with the one who bags my groceries, fills my pharmacy order, or walks me through a problem when using a call center. We seem to just look over and beyond all those who make our lives better and I just thought a small personalizing of such encounters would be a good idea.  It was no formal resolution at the start of any year, just a change in behavior at some random point in time.

But this year I did make one resolution. I am going to read some classics that have been either on my bookshelves or my mental list for, well, decades. They certainly merit a read, and yet, the bindings are only looked at as I search out a read.  They might be alphabetically placed alongside the book I do pull out to enjoy but still were never selected.  Until this year.

My top five movies list includes The Godfather and Gone With The Wind.  I know some film snobs can list myriad reasons why the latter is not the gem of Hollywood that I think it to be.  But the feel of the movie and style of films made in that era is remarkable and as such, I have watched it many times.  Mom had Margaret Mitchell’s book in a small bookcase back home, and while I know she started it, it seems she never finished it.

There is no film I have watched more often or loved more completely than Marlon Brando portraying Don Corleone. The texture of the movie along with the music, mood, lighting, and even use of cigarette smoke is masterful from start to finish.  Movie-making at its best. But Mario Puzo’s book was always on a list that never made it to my hands so to turn the pages. 

This New Year started with Puzo finally having his chance. The film faithfully follows the pages, and it was comfortable knowing how the novel would be paced even while fully aware, as an example, that Sonny was going to be brought down in a hail of bullets. Knowing the outcome did not dim the drama or entertaining quality of the book. Late yesterday I finished the book and ordered, via Amazon, the next volume in the series, The Sicilian. (My email alerted me to its arrival by 8 PM today. God, I love technology that allows for this type of near-instant purchasing. ) Very late last night I read the first two chapters of Mitchell’s work.

While I always have a mix of non-fiction and fiction books being bounced around at any given time, I am really desiring to wade deeper into the books that have had a pull on me for (in some cases over 40 years!) and now have been given their release as the new calendar takes hold.  I write all that in the same breath knowing the newly published work by Jefferson Cowle, Freedom’s Dominion is vying for my attention.  The balancing act continues.

Finally, we often hear about what constitutes being rich. There are many ways to define the word, and in my estimation money is by far the least important way to describe it. I contend that having more books we wish to read than what our allotted hours in life allow is one measure of being well-off and fulfilled.  Turning contentedly the last page of a book that had my eye on it for over 40 years was a grand way to move into 2023. There is a true richness in that. Given the weather, the next such book ending may be on the lawn in the sun!

This Is How Our Politics Should Feel, Can Yet Feel

House Speaker Nicholas Longworth and husband to Alice Roosevelt Longworth

We have been through a bruising and overly bombastic number of years regarding our politics as the rhetoric and emotions seem always to ramp up, while the joy of the political tug and pull seems to have long faded.  That is why I caught myself the other day as I was doing some housework and just stopped to ponder the excitement I was experiencing about the upcoming voting for a new House speaker.  I was not at all thinking about political parties or policy or any partisan design.

Rather, I was thinking of the real drama that is about to unfold on January 3rd as the House convenes. I stopped in the living room while taking down Christmas decorations and reflected on the way our politics and past elections for speaker have filled wonderfully written volumes on my shelves. The way Alice Roosevelt Longworth viewed the rise of her husband, Nicholas, to the pinnacle of the chamber or how Thomas Reed (from Maine) took the gavel in the Gilded Age. The hard-hitting politics of those times were obviously felt and acted upon, there is no doubt.  But there was also a classy and at times self-imposed restraint on the most outwards of bad behavior.  I like it when politics can make me feel the excitement like the books on my shelves did about the leaders and pols of the past.

Perhaps the one(s) in the hunt for the speaker’s chair and those members who will make or break that dream are nowhere near to the sentiment I feel about the events about to play out in D.C. Tuesday, but I am excited about perhaps a historic outcome.  The dealmaking and promises and personalities involved, and the fact this moment will be told in a three-hundred-page book that will thrill a politico a hundred years from now, easily then allows for the nostalgia from Longworth and Reed to be placed in the larger context.

It is easy to feel partisanship.  Lord, I know that so very well.  But, for some harder-to-explain reason, even going back to my teenage years, there has been an ability to see and thoroughly enjoy politics from the 30,000-foot perspective.  To just enjoy the event, the players, and the moment for what it is….a real and dramatic slice of American history.  

The coffee pot will be brewed for what promises to be the stuff for a grand book for someone’s bookshelves in 2123.

Letter From Home: “Book Guilt” 12/14/22

I have never watched any of the Jason Bourne films from Hollywood. I felt a need to first read the books, knowing that in most cases a film version of printed works is always weak and unsatisfying.  Outside of Gone With The Wind and The Godfather I have regretted how filmmakers have adapted gems of reads into tinsel town fluff. I simply adored Angela’s Ashes, the must-read memoir from Frank McCourt. I found the film version limp and not inspiring. I literally had to get up and leave a coffee shop when reading John Berendt’s Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil as I was unable to stop heartily laughing at page after page of perfectly-styled humor. Is it no wonder the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for four years? The film, however, totally dismissed the magic of the printed pages.

While I have read some of the work by Robert Ludlum and enjoyed it, I have found it impossible to get past the 6th chapter of The Bourne Identity. I can say that even after the second try. Several years ago, I picked the digital copy from my local library and found yet another fistfight and action-packed set of pages just not rewarding. Following the recent midterm elections, I was ready for escapism and while roaming the Libby site decided to give it the old college push and make my way through the book.  I should have been more mindful that when I download the book it opened at the place I had previously stopped reading. Heedless of that glaring red sign I started, like anyone with a touch of OCD, at the beginning. Let’s just say I never made it to the 6th chapter a second time.

I have noticed over the years that while my love of reading has not lessened my desire to have more intricate plots and far less bang-bang and fisticuffs is much more pronounced. That goes for my movie-watching, too.  I love James Bond since the day as a kid he first entered my world via a book. Under the large oak tree on the front lawn, I had experienced Bond as Ian Fleming wished him to be known. This fall we watched one of the last Bond movies to be made and while it was pure adrenaline the smoothness and dapper qualities of the icon were totally missing.  I well understand Bond has ‘evolved’ for contemporary audiences.  But it seems sad to think that most young people will not know the ‘real’ Bond that comes to life in Moonraker.

The tree at the Hancock family home under which, as a boy, I first read Ian Fleming as James Bond came to ‘life’.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth and The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy is perhaps the epitomes of what I consider perfectly crafted tense international dramas. Forsyth is one of my favorite fictional authors, having read each of his works. But I have found over the years the nuanced and evolving plots often missing from mainstream authors, and instead, we are given shootings and then a beat-down and then….

It is difficult for me to not complete a book once I start it, and since I have a strong sense of what I like in a book it is rare that one is discarded.  The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson looked like a good read, but the author had an anti-Muslim bent that soon was demonstrated and the book was tossed. I probably have such let-downs only once every other year. I now find that ability to move away from a bad read more easily done in my life than when I was younger and encountered a less-than-fulfilling book.

My parents did not have a finish everything on your plate policy, but I never recall anyone at our family table ever not finishing a meal. My mom was a really good cook. The grandkids, however, grew up under different roofs and mom gave great allowances for what need not be eaten once on the plate.  As I returned the Bourne digital book back to the library I thought of the words mom would use to let a young one know that eating all the green beans was not necessary to have a slice of pie.

With that, I turned to my bookshelves upstairs and pulled out a volume by David Liss, an author who has never let me down.  A Spectacle of Corruption with my favorite 18th-century Londoner, Benjamin Weaver. Book writing the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

And so it goes.

A Weekend Read Of History And News Reporters, Harold Holzer Delights (Again)

Looking for a weekend read that is timely, filled with history and press relations galore? Governing on the one hand is very important while understanding at the same time the absolute necessity of having a Fourth Estate as the ultimate “guarantor of freedom”.

President George Washington had the nation’s longest honeymoon in the White House, but with his second term the press, in part, turned their ink towards him in ways that stunned and scarred. He mostly stayed above the fray, above the articles, as opposed to how later presidents, who were even more thin-skinned would rebuke reporters and snarl on camera at them, such as with President Richard Nixon. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The press was rash and fresh in 1792 and just as the executive branch took root and gained power and federal reckoning over the decades, so too did the journalism profession mature and strengthen into what can only be correctly termed, as the British do, the Fourth Estate. I am finding the book perfect as I have a long and deep interest in the dual rise of the American presidency and the media that shaped it. As I am reading it I just know that Bill Safire, the wordsmith and media-oriented writer, would thrill to the book. There is no way not to feel drawn back into the time when Abraham Lincoln made use of the new “instant communication” technology of telegraphy. No way not to smile and read on and just warm to the narrative.

If you know Harold Holzer from his Abe Lincoln and Civil War books you are most aware of his keen intellect, a research knack that shows in his works, and a narrative style that draws a reader into the pages. I very much think for the history and media types who are readers of this page The Presidents vs. The Press will be a real delight.

Most Pleased Daniel Silva Landed On My Bookshelves

It was one of those perfect fall weekends in Wisconsin.  I would not have changed one thing about how it played out if given the ability.  Saturday was sunny and warmish for an October day which allowed for a delightful drive to get a carload of squash from a farm market in the country.  The annual trip was made complete with apple cider donuts!  Sunday was perfection with brisk winds ushering in a damp chill which made the warmth of the oven as a Blue Hubbard baked feel like a scene from the cover of an old Saturday Evening Post.

What surrounded all the joys of the weekend, be it cups of afternoon coffee or late-night burrowing under a blanket, was the plotting and pacing of Daniel Silva as he mesmerized me with another in his Gabriel Allon series.  During the pandemic, I reached out on social media to broaden my list of authors who write about espionage and spying along with tense international dramas.  While I always have a few historical or biographical books going at any one time, I also much enjoy the John Le’ Carre type book.  It was from around the nation, and even a kindly lady in Britain, where I came to know ‘new’ authors. I thank them all for the advice, and for being kind not to over-state ‘how could you not have read’ this or that author!

While I have become very engaged with a slew of the authors (as evidenced by my bookshelves) the reading idea that most impacted me with continuous smiles and adrenalin, came from a longtime friend, George Meyer, who also added a strong suggestion. Read Daniel Silva he said, after being somewhat surprised I had not already ventured down that path.  But when you do, read the books in order.  (Being OCD there was no worry about not reading them sequentially.)  What I discovered, by the time the first half of the initial book in the series was completed, regarded how detailed the narrative continued to be concerning the place and feel of locations around the world.  I was sensing the smell of the fog or the way the cobbled steps felt underfoot.  Throw in abundant background and angst with Middle Eastern tensions and religions and I was on Amazon looking for the next several books in the order of their publication.

That was the effect Silva had on me from the start. The evolving nature of the lives of a few characters with the added depth of the past inter-relationships that played out on the pages of history is remarkable. Stepping back and just considering how he places all the people and events into a seamless narrative, but one we do not get to grasp until many of the books are under our belt, proves how epic his original plotting had to be for the series. I always am amused by the way authors plot a book, or better yet, a series. Silva is a master at the craft and one that needs to be experienced by those not having yet had the pleasure of opening one of his works.

Israeli intelligence and the workings of Mossad as it plays out against dastardly international crimes are like headlines ripped from the newspapers. Allon had his start eliminating the killers at the infamous Munich Olympics where Israeli athletes were held hostage and then killed. Leaving the service he slips into the world of being an art restorer, only to be pulled back into intelligence action by one of the most multi-dimensional characters I have found in many a book, Ari Shamron. Real life-spies can not have better stories to tell.

Since 2020 the following authors and series are ones that, after being recommended by others, made a strong impression to now take up space on my bookshelves. (This is why we have larger homes, right? Since the pandemic, James and I act as if our book budget is akin to parts of the U.S. defense appropriations…unlimited and off-budget.)

Alan Furst

Daniel Silva

David Downing…(two series)…WWI….WWII

David Liss

Olin Steinhauer

Stuart Kaminsky

Andrea Penrose

Thomas Mullen

Conn Iggulden

Gregory Humphrey’s Second Book Moving Along To Completion

When people say off-the-cuff at a barbeque or dinner party, and usually after a couple of beverages, ‘I should write a book’ it sounds as if the experience will be effortless and just smooth sailing with smiles the whole way through from start to finish.  After completing my first book Walking Up The Ramp I am more than able to dispel any fanciful idea that the process is easy or not taxing on the stress level.  Meaningful, yes. Introspective, certainly. Time-consuming, absolutely. Enriching…well, check the many meanings of the word in a dictionary and one will actually fit!

As I am in the final stretch of my second book, knowing full well the lure of the summer sun and warm nights having too easily pulled me from my desk I can say the journey of writing and packaging this effort is well worth my investment of time and resolve.   But the self-imposed deadline for the publication to meet the change of seasons from summer to fall will not be met.  But I do see land ahead! Like any good journey on water, it all gets better when seagulls fly overhead, and I can say that is the case here.

As I ponder this project that started last November, I am reminded of a cartoon that sums up the book-writing experience for folks like me who do not have a New York agent.

Stay tuned for updates, the project will be worth the wait. 

Thank You, David McCullough

American author and historian David McCullough in his writing shed where he still used a 1941 Royal typewriter, at his home in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, USA, 4th February 2002. (Photo by Stephen Rose/Getty Images)

Several years ago, on a summer evening, as the Amtrak train pulled out of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, James and I sat in our sleeper car ready for a trip that would take us overnight to Chicago. It was 2017, and the weight of the outcome of the previous fall’s election was pressing against the contours of our national sense of norms and traditions. In our compartment, as the train trekked towards Pittsburg, over the swaths of America that were like painted vistas as the sun set, we settled back with some books we had purchased on our vacation.  Among them was The American Spirit by David McCullough.  It was subtitled Who We Are and What We Stand For.

The collection of speeches from the famed historian had been released just weeks prior and James was immersed within the pages.  (I had Thomas Fleming’s book on the Founding Fathers as my selection while drinking a cup of coffee from Amtrak’s kitchen car.) We had followed the advice from only a couple of weeks prior upon hearing McCullough, in a wide-ranging interview, and in his usual eloquent way about why people needed to see this country’s national parks and historic sites. He spoke about the need to show young people the wonders of the past. James and I were already months into the planning for such a trip that took us to Washington, D.C., and some sites in the general area. Connecting with the touchstones of the past was exactly the very thing that McCullough urged.

Tonight, America is learning of the death of David McCullough, a man so many truly respected and admired. He was 89 years old.

In 1992, as President George Herbert Walker Bush was campaigning for reelection his Truman-like train came into Plover, Wisconsin with a long blowing of the whistle. It was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin.  Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot. The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book Truman in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948.  In spite of the polls, there were still campaign stops to be made as Bush was working overtime at trying to make his Truman moment come true.

(As a side note my mom and dad attended that rally with me. We arrived very early which allowed us to stand up front near the podium.  It needs to be noted that in 1944 this is where my mother’s family had debarked upon their arrival from Ozone, Arkansas.  It was that tidbit from history and the circle coming around again that would have made McCullough smile.)

Again, that fall in Waukesha I would attend a Bush rally where the candidate alerted the huge turnout that he had read McCullough’s book and he was going to be like the Missourian come Election Night.  That was the trip I was able to shake both George’s and Barbara’s hands.  Again, the historian would have smiled as he knew American values, as expressed by joint efforts to accomplish things, mattered in our system of government; that joint effort starts with listening and respecting each other.

In Washington, it is one thing to see the Lincoln Memorial in daylight, but to stand in the lighted wonder at night and ponder Abe is quite another.  I had found myself talking to many people day after day and asking them their impressions of sites all over the city. As such, I asked a black woman who was, I learned, age 88 what her feelings were about the memorial. It was her first time to see it and being from Jamaica she spoke as one who knew of the power Lincoln’s words gave to those outside this nation. “It is very powerful for everyone,” she said with soft words and dark knowing eyes.

On the backside of the memorial looking out across the Potomac, I spoke to a father and then told his young teenage children about the battle of First Bull Run and how many townspeople took carriages and boxed lunches to watch the battle as many felt the war would be a short term operation.  Hours later the beaten and badly wounded soldiers would be limping or being carried back over the river into Washington.  Some without shoes, others without guns, others without an eye or limb.   It was interesting to see the young look out and hear of the events and perhaps in their mind see history play out.  

I just know Dave McCullough would smile at such a conversation.  It was exactly what he hoped our nation’s citizens would do, and how we might engage with one another. Caring about history, along with our nation’s highest ideals, and the continued desire to reach them is the best way we can remember and honor this man.

Godspeed, David.