A fetching, down-home sampler of newspaper pieces by Houston Chronicle columnist and novelist Hale (Addison, 1979, etc.) that's by turns tart and sweet. Hale has written a column for nearly 45 years; this collection offers some of his best from 1989 to 1996. Reading these short meditations is like settling in with a box of bourbon candy: It's hard to stop with just a few, and if the booze doesn't buzz you, the sugar will. Much here is standard newspaper columnist fare. Topics include dogs, domestic life, human nature, modern times, old ways, and personal observation. One wishes Hale struck out more often for roads less traveled. (Do we really need another comic essay about the malignant sorcery of sock-swallowing washing machines?) But he tackles all with a charming mix of gruff good humor, jaded cynicism, and an affable, live-and-let-live appreciation for folly (his own and others') that's just crotchety enough to be sweet without being saccharine. He also has an appetite for oddballs and reports he was once ""dedicated to seeking out the most outrageous characters hiding in remote places in Texas, and I don't mind saying I did make a noticeable dent in the total."" Madame Z, a retired fortune teller cum card shark, is his enduring favorite. She, Old Friend Morgan, and My Friend Mel are recurring characters and, best of all, good storytellers. Hale displays his own facility with a yarn when indulging in his forte, Texas-size tall tales, the outlandishness of which he divulges with a wink and a nod. As with the best columnists, there's an implied conspiracy between Hale and ""the customers,"" as he calls his readers--a sense that we're all in on the sometimes pleasurable, sometimes rueful joke that is the world. His enthusiasm for life and for old school newspapering after better than four decades is undeniably infectious.