Monday, July 10, 2017

The Burning Point

The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope, by
Tracy McKay

First, I want to tell you that this is a truly well-written book.  Tracy McKay can write, people.  Even if you're not a parenting/tragedy memoir sort of person, take a look at Tracy's writing, because wow.  (I have a link to the first chapter at the end of the post.)  I am completely unable to tell you how really good this memoir is; it's not sensationalistic or angry, it's just honest and insightful and true.

The Burning Point starts with Tracy's moment of decision, when she knows it is time to get out.  Her husband, once a wonderful and caring man, has been spiraling down in the grip of his drug addiction  long enough, and she takes her three small children and leaves.  From then on, Tracy weaves together the story of how she survived the divorce, poverty, and attendant difficulties with flashback sections of her relationship with her husband.  A few particularly harrowing scenes are written in third person.  And, she also writes some wonderful stuff about her middle child, who has autism, and about his challenges.

Tracy writes with great (and hard-won) insight; anybody could learn some things from her.  The really amazing part, though, is how she writes about her former husband, with no bitterness at all.  Of course she was angry at the time, but she describes that and then how she figured out that she had to forgive if she was going to be the person and the mother she needed to be, not to mention for the sake of her children.  It's pretty stunning.

A few of these scenes were familiar to me from reading them on Tracy's blog back then, which I particularly remember because I had a real-life friend going through a nearly identical situation at the same time.  Just for that, it was nice for me to be able to read the whole story and see her come out the other side, which my friend also did.

I read the whole book in one day, on the Fourth of July, in between other stuff.  Once I started, I couldn't put it down unless I had to.  You can read the first chapter here.  I do advise you to do so, but I also warn you that you will promptly find it necessary to buy the book to find out what happens.  Kindle for choice, because then there's no wait.

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In other news, it seems like my whole state is on fire this week.  We have a wildfire up here that has gotten some homes -- it's nowhere near me; in fact it's the very same area that was evacuated a few months ago when they were afraid the dam's spillway would fail.  They're calling 2017 the year of hell and high water now.  And a week ago, I was in my hometown, enjoying the cool coastal breezes, but now there's an absolutely huge wildfire up in the hills there.  My friend says they can see the flames from town now, and it's snowing ash.  Orchards and ranches are burning.  It's been pretty awful, and there are plenty more wildfires right now.  It's going to be a rough fire year.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Halfway Through 2017: Top Ten

Right about the time that I was packing up my car to hit the road, everybody posted lists of top ten books so far in 2017.  So I'm a little late to the party, but I really have had some great reads in the last few months and I'd like to share them...the trouble being, of course, that it's hard to choose just ten.  In fact, I'm not going to choose ten; I'm jolly well going to choose eleven.  But they're in chronological order, not in order of 'the best' or anything.

1. Eneas, an Old French romance.  Hard to find, but a must for anyone interested in medieval romances, because this is the first time anybody blended adventure with romantic love.  It's the story of Aeneas translated into the French chivalric mode, and it's crammed with wonders too. 
2. When Books Went to War, by Molly Guptill Manning.  I've been lucky to find some great non-fiction reading in the last several months!  This is about how the US got books to its soldiers, who needed them badly.  They loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn best of all!


3. Stasiland, by Anna Funder.  Another great history read, Funder explores the vanished world of East Germany, where every citizen was surveilled.


4. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.  I can't believe I'd never read this jewel of American literature before.  Wow.

5. Bovo-Buch, by Elia Levita Bachur.  Another knightly romance...but this one is Yiddish.  And very fun to read.

6. Germania, by Simon Winder.  A 'wayward' exploration of German history, full of odd bits of treasure.

7. The Biggest Estate on Earth, by Bill Gammage.  An astounding account of how Aborigines managed the entire continent of Australia as a game park.  Plus, many many tree names.




8. The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott.  The story of Jeanie Deans, my new favorite heroine.  Slow start, great novel.


9. Last Things, by Marissa Moss.  A graphic novel of her husband's ALS.  Heartbreaking.


10. Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther.  A farewell to the sane world of pre-WWII England.  I did recently get to watch the movie, which is almost entirely different and takes place during the war, with Dunkirk and bombing and so on.


11.  The Accusation, by Bandi.  A collection of short stories smuggled out of North Korea.


There are a bunch of great things I didn't put in, though, like the entire Lord of the Rings cycle and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (I just realized that I meant to!) and Stolen Words, yet another history book about WWII and Jewish literature, and Connie Willis' Crosstalk.  But it's too late now, I have to stop somewhere!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Alamut

Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol

This book has so much backstory and explanation involved that I feel like I'm going to bore you stiff -- except that it's all so interesting!

In the 1930s, Vladimir Bartol wrote this novel, which was a pretty weird novel by the standards of his day and thoroughly annoyed his fellow writers.  Bartol was Slovenian, and the fashion was to write realistic portrayals of the struggles of Slovenians.  It certainly was not to write long, elaborate, highly-researched historical novels set in 11th-century Persia that were in fact kind of allegorical meditations on the rise of fascism across Europe.  But that is what Bartol did, and then he wanted to dedicate his book to Mussolini; but his publisher talked him out of doing such a dangerous thing.  Although nobody quite knew what to do with Alamut at the time, it became a beloved classic to Yugoslavians and then to the rest of Europe, but was only translated into English in 2004.  It even inspired the Assassin's Creed video game series (which I know virtually nothing about).

The historical root of the novel is taken from the life of Hassan-i Sabbah, who really did take over the fortress of Alamut in 1088 and was a famous leader in the Ismaili sect of Islam (a splinter group of Shia).  He trained elite soldiers called Hashshashin, or as you know them, assassins.

OK, now we can get to the actual plot of the novel, which has two main threads.  We have Halima, a young teenage girl sold into slavery and taken to a mysterious, beautiful garden, where she lives with other girls and is rigorously educated.  Then there is Ibn Tahir, a teenage boy whose father orders him to go become a soldier at Alamut; he is educated to be a fedayeen, an elite soldier who will fight for the Ismaili cause (that is, against the Seljuk dynasty in Persia and anybody else their leader Sayyiduna considers an enemy).  Eventually, Sayyiduna's plan becomes clear; he cultivates fanaticism in his soldiers, and feeds them on dreams of attaining Paradise upon death.  He 'proves' the reality of Paradise by allowing a select few achievers to actually visit, aided by careful drugging, where they meet enchanting houris living in a fantastic garden.  Thus the fedayeen become entirely willing to carry out dangerous political assassinations....


All on its own, it's a novel of adventure and pathos, rooted in Persian history.  But really, the reader needs to be thinking about Bartol's world and the rise of several flavors of totalitarianism, the nature of fanaticism in human nature, all sorts of things.   It's quite a novel, and would repay more than one reading.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Mount TBR Checkpoint #2

We're halfway through the year and it's time for another Mount TBR Checkpoint.  I must confess that my TBR pile has not been shrinking lately; I have slowed down and need to get myself together!  I've been focusing more lately on my giant library pile of books for the Reading All Around the World project, but that's no reason not to read some TBRs too!


Bev wants to know two things:

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting adventures you've had along the way.

 
I have made it more than halfway up!  I've read 15 out of my 24 titles, so I have 9 to go.  Considering the size of my pile, I ought to do better than that....
  1.  They Walked Like Men, by Clifford Simak
  2. Dirt, ed. Mindy
  3. The Best of Leigh Brackett
  4. Shakespeare's Planet, by Clifford D. Simak
  5. The Broken Citadel, by Joyce Bellou Gregorian
  6. Castledown, by Joyce Bellou Gregorian
  7. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  8. My Universities, by Maxim Gorky
  9. Germania, by Simon Winder
  10. The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Sir Walter Scott
  11. Storm in the Village, by Miss Read
  12. Further Afield, by Miss Read 
  13. The Lottery, and Adventures of the Demon Lover, by Shirley Jackson 
  14. Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
  15. The Histories, by Herodotus
  16.  

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:


 A. Choose two titles from the books you've read so far that have a common link. You decide what the link is--both have strong female lead characters? Each focuses on a diabolical plot to take over the world? Blue covers? About weddings? Find your link and tell us what it is.


Well, I've got two German titles: one about German history by Simon Winder, and one famous German literary work -- Steppenwolf.  


 B. Tell us about a book on the list that was new to you in some way--new author, about a place you've never been, a genre you don't usually read...etc. 


Their Eyes Were Watching God was a new author, and one of the best works of American literature I've ever read.  Definitely on my top ten so far this year!  Now I want to read more Hurston.


 C. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?


My Universities, by Maxim Gorky, is the oldest book on this pile.  I bought the trilogy a good 20 years ago and then didn't get to it.  I'm glad I did, though I really have a hard time connecting this Gorky with the later one; I would like to read more about him in order to understand what his deal was.

Monday, July 3, 2017

I'm back!

I had a fun weekend, hanging out at the beach, attending a wedding reception, and trying (mostly uselessly) to help out with said reception, which was for my friend's daughter.  We also had some exciting moments, like when we were driving down I-5 and got a flat tire.  We managed to pull over okay, but we were at the top of an overpass, on a shoulder that was barely wide enough for the car, with an endless procession of giant semi trucks passing by -- inches away, shaking not only us but the overpass too.  We waited for about an hour before the tow truck came to rescue us.  Hooray for the CHP and AAA!

The view from our car, stranded on an overpass
We visited my home town, or at least, the town where I went to junior high and high school.  My family has long since moved away, but I still have some friends there and I like to go down once a year to see people and hit the beach.  This time, we visited the new branch library.  You should know that when I was a kid, my mom (also a librarian) sometimes worked at the teeny library branch near our house, and just a few years ago, it moved to a lovely new location which is much larger.  Well, I was browsing through the books, and in the YA section, I was amazed to see THESE:


These books (and more of the same series) were on the shelf of the old teeny branch when I was there, 25+ years ago.  They were old and ugly THEN, and effectively turned me off reading the Anne books (until the movie came out and I saw Jonathan Crombie and got my own new paperbacks).  I remember them because they were so awful.  Presumably, the generations of young readers who came after me also didn't want them, because here they are, 47 years old, and still holding together.
 

So, I hope you all had a lovely weekend and will enjoy your fireworks (where applicable), and I'll post again after the holiday.  Oh, and a bonus anniversary: my husband and I got -- unexpectedly -- engaged 22 years ago today, after an Oakland A's game and fireworks show.

Uncle Boris in the Yukon

Uncle Boris in the Yukon: and Other Shaggy Dog Stories, by Daniel Pinkwater

Anybody who has read my blog for more than a couple of minutes probably knows my love of Daniel Pinkwater.  Well, the other day, I was sorting donated books for the library sale (an exercise that will convince anybody that there are way too many books in the world -- unless you collect self-help books from the 80s and microwave cookbooks from the 70s), and this great little book came my way.

It's all about the dogs here; Pinkwater starts off with history, with Uncle Boris.  Boris and his brothers were Polish gangsters, but Boris got the call of the wild north, and off he went to the Yukon, where he had a favorite sled dog.  After that, we get a history of the Pinkwater family dogs, and of young Daniel's childhood too.  Most of the book, though, is dominated by his dogs in adulthood, mostly Malamutes and other tough Northern breeds.  He and his wife also ran a dog-training school and published a book (and their secret for house-training any dog quickly is included here).

I am not a dog person, but these stories are really fun to read and will convince anyone that dogs are great companions.  Also, it's really cheap on Kindle.  If you're prone to getting dogs, beware; you will want a Malamute before you hit page 100. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bai Ganyo

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian, by Aleko Konstantinov

Everybody's doing 2017 halfway posts!  And that sounds like a really fun thing to do, but I'm going out of town for a few days, and rushing around getting ready, so perhaps I'll manage one when I get back.  Meanwhile, imagine me on a beach, and enjoy the single post I'm able to write before I go.

Aleko Konstantinov was a Bulgarian political journalist, and he wrote this comic novel around 1895 (two years before he was assassinated).  As far as I can tell, Bai Ganyo became an instant popular classic and has been a favorite ever since.  It's a collection of stories about Ganyo Balkanski, a seller of rose-oil.

Bai Ganyo is everybody's embarrassing uncle.  He blusters and barges in where he isn't wanted.  He is a master at mooching off anyone and everyone.  He pinches respectable shopgirls and propositions honorable matrons.  He needs to bathe more often, and he's vocal about his suspicions of people who want to steal his rose-oil, but he's kind of lovable -- in an awful way -- anyhow.  The first half of the novel consists of people telling about their run-ins with Bai Ganyo in the capitals of Europe.

The second half, after Bai Ganyo returns home to Bulgaria, takes a darker turn as he gets involved in politics and journalism, rigging elections and bribing people with aplomb.  Konstantinov uses his creation to satirize the thoroughly corrupt Bulgarian political process (Bulgaria was still quite a young country at this time, having previously been part of the Ottoman Empire; Russia helped it gain independence.  So there's a lot about those two powers).

It's an interesting read, with lots about Bulgarians' ideas about themselves and their national character.  I can see how Bai Ganyo became such a popular 'scrappy little guy' character -- a bit like Svejk with the Czechs, I guess.  In fact, in 2003 Konstantinov was put on the 100-lev note, with his masterpiece on the opposite side.
Bai Ganyo has been translated into plenty of European languages, but apparently this is the first time it's appeared in English (to my surprise).  A team of four Slavic translators worked on it together. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Faerie Queene, Book VI, Part I

I'm almost there!  Almost finished!  I'd get finished a lot quicker if I was more on the spot with these posts.  They're so long I tend to put them off.


But now we're on Book VI, which is really pretty strange.  Book V consisted mostly of allegorical versions of recent events in Elizabeth's time, and Book VI kind of goes off the rails.  This is the Book of Courtesye, which Spenser partly defines as the art of appropriate speech (or, you might even say, rhetoric?).  The Knight of Courtesye is Sir Calidore, known by all the court as a naturally gentle knight, mild, gracious, comely, and muscular.  He always knows what to say and loves truth and honesty.  But he is sent off upon his quest without a clue of how to accomplish it.  He wanders aimlessly, confused and overwhelmed by his task...and in the end, his quest is actually undone.  All of the Faerie Queene project seems to unravel under Spenser's embittered pen.

Yeah, OK, it's been a year
Calidore's quest is an exciting one; he is to capture the Blatant Beast, a terrible monster.  Of course, the Blatant Beast is also scandalous, lying rumor -- backbiting, reputation-ruining, evil speaking.  In other words, it is language gone wrong, and Calidore's quest is to redeem language and make it clear, useful, and honest.  It is also an impossible quest, and it takes place in a world that is getting more unreasonable, frightening, and violent.

When we meet Calidore, he already has his quest, and he meets Artegall coming home.  Calidore confesses to Artegall how confused he is, but Artegall is able to comfort him by relating his recent meeting with the Beast.  He then meets a Squire tied to a tree, who tells him about an evil castle that demands a toll: ladies' heads are shaved and knights' beards are pulled off.  Briana (shrill) collects the hair to make a cloak for her lover Crudor.  Maleffort, the seneschal, chased the Squire and his damsel, tied up the Squire, and is now seen dragging the girl away.  Calidore gives chase and kills Maleffort right in his own castle gate.  Briana scolds him, and Calidore returns a speech about civility, which she doesn't buy at all.  (This brings up the perennial question: how can we defend civilization from brutality without becoming brutal ourselves?)  Crudor attacks, and Calidore wins through luck -- not skill.  He makes Crudor promise to marry Briana, which makes her happy, and all is well.

Calidore finds the tied-up Squire
Calidore is so charming that nobody notices how clueless he is.  He next meets a youth fighting with a knight, plus there is a lady in soiled clothing.  The youth kills the knight (!) -- he is a handsome youth in green, and explains that he met the knight riding and kicking the lady along the way.  When the youth upbraided the knight for his behavior, the knight attacked.  The lady then explains her story: she and the knight were riding along peacefully enough but, in a glade, met another knight and lady 'sporting' together.  Her knight became jealous, wanted a turn too (!), and attacked the other, unarmed knight. The lady hid, and when she could not be found, the knight became angry and took it out on his own lady by booting her along.  The youth is Tristan; Calidore makes him his squire, and Tristan takes the dead knight's armor and leads the lady away.  Calidore then goes and finds the other unlucky knight, who is only wounded, and they go to the knight's home castle to seek aid.

The castle belongs to Aldus (old knight), father of Aladine, the wounded guy.  The lady who hid from the rotten (and now dead) knight is Priscilla, a guest there; she loves Aladine but her father wants her to marry up, so she is worried that he will discover their tryst.  Priscilla nurses Aladine so well that he awakes, and they ask Calidore for help.  He covers for them by fetching the head and telling an edited version of the story.  Calidore then leaves....only to promptly interrupt two lovers in a glade.  He sits down with them to tell him all about his adventures, which is a little bit tactless.  Serena, the lady, wanders off to look at flowers, and is attacked by the Blatant Beast!  (Wandering around is never a good idea in the Faerie Queene; it implies carelessness.)  Calidore gives chase, whereupon the Beast drops the lady and runs off.  Calidore continues after the Beast...and at this point the story switches to the lover knight, Calepine.  He tends to her and seeks aid; they see a knight and a lady about to ford a river, and he begs for help, but gets only abuse.  Taking Serena (who is bleeding profusely) across alone, he then challenges the rude knight, who simply laughs at him.  They go to the nearest castle, but oh no -- it belongs to the rude knight, Turpine, who refuses them entry (!).  What to do?


As Turpine is chasing Calepine around, a wild man comes by and feels natural pity.  He takes care of Turpine and then takes the lovers to his forest home, where he heals them with herbs.  One day Calepine goes for a walk unarmed (oops) and meets a bear carrying a baby!  He chases, and when the bear rounds on him, he shoves a stone down its throat.  Thus he saves the baby, which is swaddled and unhurt.  Lost, he wanders aimlessly with the baby until he meets Matilda, who sorrows because she and her brave husband Sir Bruin have no child. (This seems suspiciously fairy-tale like to me.)  Calepine hands the baby off and wanders away, hoping to find Serena in the forest.

The wild man can't find Calepine, and Serena is so upset that she's killing herself with woe and bleeding.  (She bleeds a lot.)  She decides to leave on Calepine's horse, so the wild man tries to put on the armor and go with her -- although the sword is missing.  They meet Arthur and Timias (who is friends with Belphoebe again) and we get some news of what they've been up to.  Timias has three great enemies, brothers.  They sent the Beast after Timias, who was in big trouble until Arthur arrived to help and drove the Beast away.  Serena then tells her plight to them; she's getting infected, and Timias is wounded too, so when they all reach a hermit's chapel, they stay there.

Wounds inflicted by the Beast, being infamous accusations, hurt much more than regular wounds.  The hermit has to treat them carefully.  He must cure their infections by teaching them to behave properly, so as not to invite easy slander.  Cured, they leave together, and meet a maiden in a mess.  But now we switch to Arthur and the wild man, who are searching for Calepine.  Instead, they find Turpine's castle standing open.  In a massive fight with the castle folk, the wild man is so enraged that he kills a lot of them, while Arthur chases Turpine right into his lady's chamber, where he is humiliated and loses his knighthood for his awfulness.  The lady is Blandissa, and she gives a peace feast but is in fact all false courtesy.


So that's the story so far, and I'm interested to see where this goes!  What has become of poor lost Calidore?  Who is the messy maiden?  And Spenser is bringing up all sorts of questions and challenges to courtly thought.  The handsome youth is assumed to be noble because he's handsome and nice, but is he?  Does gentle blood really confer generosity and nobility?  The wild man is 'naturally' noble.  There are also questions about truth vs. social ease in Priscilla and Aladine's story; Calidore is courteous and honest, but he lies for them.  Is courtesy really the same thing as honesty?   Oh, so many questions!



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

To Destroy You Is No Loss

To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family, by Teeda Butt Mam and Joan D. Criddle

I found the follow-up to this memoir, Bamboo and Butterflies, at my library, where it was being weeded because it's falling apart.   Once I figured out that it was a follow-up, I went looking for the first volume, and thus I have my #3 summer read.

Teeda Butt was 15 years old and part of a fairly well-to-do Phnom Penh family when the Khmer Rouge won its war against the Khmer Republic government (which had itself come into power through a coup only five years before).  Everyone was just happy for the war to be over; they figured that China seemed to be doing okay under Communism, so it wouldn't be too much worse than the last few governments.  The Khmer Rouge, however, was run by radicals who planned to remake society entirely.

Phnom Penh was emptied and the people told to leave for ancestral villages.  No supplies were given at all: no water, food, or anything.  Teeda's large family was determined to stay together, and they had stashed food pretty carefully, so they did make it to the village where her father had once been an official.  He was taken away for 're-education.'  The next four years would consist of utter poverty, slave labor, and constant fear, always subject to the Angka Loeu, the High Organization that issued all orders.  Angka was the wall that Pol Pot and his fellow despots hid behind; instead of a cult of personality, like so many Communist regimes have imposed, the Khmer Rouge leaders stayed anonymous, purposely giving an impression of remote mystery.

Teeda's story is spellbinding and terrible.  The whole time, I kept thinking of how the Khmer Rouge illustrated the dangers inherent in radicalism and group-think.  Here you had a group that allowed no disagreement or debate whatsoever, and certainly not any criticism.  In their self-inflicted echo chamber, they imagined a society to fit some very strange ideals, not to fit human beings.  They got away with as much as they did because they cut the whole country off from the outside and used classic tactics to keep their population off-balance, hungry, uncertain, and afraid.  In their madness, they were prepared to murder millions; in fact, they eventually planned to kill everyone who had been over the age of twelve at their victory.

The family story goes up to the invasion by Vietnam, which Cambodians saw as a liberation (albeit one not to be trusted very far) because it freed them from Angka.  Teeda's family walked to Thailand in hopes of crossing the border, which they did -- only to be transported back when the Thai refugee camps overflowed.  So they did it all again, determined to get to America.  Teeda finishes with an account of how all her family members did for the next several years, and it's a dizzying story of hard work and accomplishment.

Every time I read about Cambodia, I realize again how very much worse the Khmer Rouge was than I manage to remember.  (And I just read about Cambodia....).  The scale and nature of this murderous regime is just mind-boggling; in only four years, they managed to murder a good 25% of their own people, probably around two million, but it could be three.  Not wishing to waste bullets, they did it mostly by hand (or by starvation and lack of real medical care).  Everyone was enslaved.  And they destroyed most of the country's material cultural heritage too.  Their attitude was exemplified by the slogan that inspired the book's title: "To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss."

This is a really good memoir of a point in history that everyone ought to know about.  I'll be reading the follow-up soon, too, which is about their adjustment to American life.



Friday, June 16, 2017

The Widow Killer

The Widow Killer, by Pavel Kohout

I've been reading this book forever, or at least that's what it feels like!  Despite being a quite exciting murder mystery/thriller set in Prague at the end of World War II, I had a hard time getting into the story and was very slow about reading it.  It was good, though.

We follow three men: Jan Morava, young Czech detective in occupied Prague, Erwin Buback, disillusioned Gestapo agent, and the murderer himself, who is a serial killer insanely obsessed with widows.  Over the months it takes for the case to unfold, the Russians move ever closer to the city and both Jan and Buback find love.  The killer just finds new victims and drives poor Jan mad with frustration.

It's a long, intricate story and I was glad I read it, slowly though I went.  I partly grabbed the book because of the author; Kohout was a Czech Communist who became a dissident -- a leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, expelled from the Party and the country, and one of the architects of Charta 77, along with  Václav Havel and others.  Kohout is still around today and has written poetry and plays as well as novels.  So I was intrigued by that and wanted to see what he had to say.