Monday, April 27, 2015

Black River

Black River, S.M. Hulse’s debut novel, is one of those books that come around every so often to remind me of why I so much enjoy reading and why I am always willing to take a look at debut novels and books by new-to-me authors.  It is that good.  The novel tells the story of Wes and Claire Carver, man and wife, who left Black River eighteen years earlier because of what happened to them in that little Montana town.  Now, Wes is back.  And he really doesn’t want to be there.

For generations, the best paying jobs in Black River have been inside the walls of the local prison.  Many of the prison’s correction officers, in fact, have fathers who themselves once held the same jobs they are working today.  Wes Carver is no exception, but for Wes it all went terribly wrong during a prison riot during which he was taken hostage by a psychopath – and tortured for 39 hours.  Wes, even though he worked at the prison another two years, emerged from that experience a broken man, both physically and mentally.  Then, after a near violent confrontation at the dinner table between Wes and his stepson, he and Claire leave Black River to start a new life for themselves in Spokane, Washington. 

S. M. Hulse
Now Wes has returned to Black River for two very different reasons: to bring Claire’s ashes back to her son and to testify at the parole hearing of the man who almost tortured him to death twenty years earlier.  Finally forced to confront all his old demons (including his relationship with the step-son he has barely spoken to for the past eighteen years), Wes is not having an easy time of it.  Now his friends are starting to wonder which of the two tasks will destroy him first.

Black River, largely told through flashbacks, is filled with interesting characters and plot twists, and its setting is so vividly rendered by Hulse that the reader gets a clear feeling of what life in such a geographically isolated and self-contained location must be like.  This is a place with few secrets, a place where newcomers are not particularly welcome, a place where families have known each other for generations.  And they like it that way. 

No, this is not a perfect novel.  But it is one that I highly recommend, and one that has turned me into an S.M. Hulse fan.  I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

More Sunday Shorts

  • I spent the entire day (from 7:00 a.m. until after 5:00 p.m.) traveling from one ballpark to another and watching my grandson play in three different baseball games, so I haven't read much at all today.  It's on days like this, though, that I really enjoy tucking my Kindle into a pocket and sneaking in some reading during the downtime between games.
  • I'm a bit over halfway through a British novel by Neil Grimmett called The Hoard that has turned into a really dark, almost surreal, thriller about high grade explosives being sold by a group of well placed Brits to any terrorist in the market for such things.  I was a bit slow to warm up to the plot, but now that the characters have been fully developed, I am well and truly hooked and can't wait to see how this one ends.  (I managed to read about 30 more pages of The Hoard today off my Kindle.)
  • I am also about one-third of the way through By Sorrow's River, the third book in Larry McMurty's "Berrybender Narratives," and I'm really enjoying the saga.  I think this series will particularly appeal to female readers because it is filled with so many female characters - some of them British and some of them Indian.  I find myself consistently rooting for the oldest Berrybender daughter, Tasmin, in her quest to carve out a new life for herself and her family, but I have absolutely fallen in love with the two youngest girls.  I don't think I have ever met two more precocious (and literate) little girls than these two in any book I have ever read.  Kate, the four-year-old, is a brilliant little troublemaker I will never forget, and I am fascinated by how much young Mary enjoys stirring things up - and how good she is at it.
  • Is anyone else familiar with "The Berrybender Naratives"?  Have you read any of the books and, if so, what did you think of them?  I need to do a little research to see how well received (or not) these four books were when each was first published.  As a dedicated McMurtry fan, I was aware of them as soon as they were available, but I don't recall them making a very big splash in the book world.
  • My brief reading slump is all over.  I'm enjoying my reading again, and I'm really looking forward to what comes next.  At least for the moment, I seem to be choosing wisely, and as long as that continues, the slump is not likely to return.
  • Now it's on to another week of work, dealing with the insurance adjuster on Tuesday in order to assess the hail damage my wife's car suffered last Sunday evening, and fighting the VA and Treasury's efforts to harass my 93-year-old father to an earlier than necessary death.  It promises to be an interesting week for sure.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Short Story Saturday: Ann Beattie's "The Indian Uprising"

Ann Beattie
While explaining what drove her to write her short story “The Indian Uprising” in the “Contributors’ Notes” of The Best American Short Stories 2014, Ann Beattie remarks, “Is this oblique?”  She is referring to her explanation of the story’s origin, but she could easily have asked the same question about the story itself because there is nothing at all straightforward about “The Indian Uprising,” including its title. 

The story begins with a conversation between two unidentified people who do not seem to be much listening to each other.  Instead, each makes his/her point in succession even though the points only occasionally intersect.  But Maude, as it turns out, is pretty much the only one of Frank Chadwick’s former creative writing students who have bothered to stay in touch with him at all through the years. 

The diabetic complications that Frank suffers have made him a man much older than his seventy-one years, and during the celebratory lunch to mark his birthday at a nearby Mexican restaurant, Maud notices that a good bit of blood has seeped through the white sock on Frank’s swollen foot.  In a matter of minutes, Maude has fainted, and is being tended to while Frank is being escorted to the hospital by Savannah, the transgendered receptionist from his apartment building. 

On his way out of the restaurant, Frank loudly announces that he is borrowing one of the sombreros hung on the wall like one borrows “an umbrella” in similar situations.  Someone says, “There might be an Indian uprising if we try to stop him,” and Frank is allowed to go merrily on his way, sombrero and all.  (So the Mexican restaurant diners are the “Indians” ?)

A short while after Frank’s death, Maude decides to write about the experience and her relationship with Frank.  But Maude, a poet, decides that there is no poem to be had from the incident, and decides to try a short story, instead because “a lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love.  It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.”

I realize (and regret) that my thoughts about the story probably include enough information to spoil it for other readers, but that is how mystified I am about this particular Ann Beatty story being chosen for a “Best American Short Story” anthology.  Perhaps it was chosen because its theme is one that intrigues other writers.  But it is all just a little too much “inside baseball” for me, and it left me feeling rather cold towards it. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Colorado's Infamous Highway 287 Book-Dumper Stopped in His Tracks

Mystery solved.

The Case of the Colorado Book-Dumper has been quickly and neatly solved with the culprit being caught in the act of tossing more books out his window on Thursday morning.

According to the Times-Call Local News, the jackass otherwise known as Glenn Pladsen was stopped by a Colorado state trooper as he was throwing six more books onto Highway 287 early that morning.  The man's justification for throwing the books out of his car window are astoundingly stupid:
Pladsen said he works long hours as a technician at RF Concepts LLC and that taking the books to the landfill or Goodwill would mean an extra trip, so he started tossing them out of the window on his way to work.
He added that he has arthritis and couldn't lift the books over his head to throw them into a Dumpster. He has tried to give away the books — which cover a variety of topics and genres — but no one wants them.
"My whole basement is full of books, and I need to get rid of them now," he said. "I'll stop doing what I've been doing, of course."
Well, of course you will, Glenn.  

In addition to denying that not all the books found alongside Highway 287 can be attributed to him, the genius went on to say that:
"I never did it when there were other cars around or in traffic," he said. "I had no idea it was a mystery. I would have stopped a long time ago if I thought anybody cared."
Gotta tell you, Glenn, old buddy that you don't come across here as someone who is even capable of reading a book.   Quit talking, man.  Wow.

Read entire article here        Previous Book Chase posting here

Thursday, April 23, 2015

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England proved to be one of those book titles I could not resist forever.  As an avowed book lover and one who has enjoyed visiting author homes for a long time, I shuddered at the very thought of what might be inside the covers of this one – and what I found was even stranger than I expected it would be.   An Arsonist’s Guide is not for everyone, but if you enjoy books about books and writing, humorous novels combining farce and satire, or characters so unrealistic that they start to seem real to you, you will probably enjoy it. 

Sam Pulsifer, whose father is an editor and whose mother is an English professor, accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson’s historic home.  His parents probably could not visualize a crime more devastating and embarrassing than that one, but it gets worse: the fire also claimed the lives of the two people still inside the old house.  Now, after serving ten years in prison, Sam is returning to Amherst, the scene of his crime, because he has no place else to go.  He just wants to hide while he figures out what to do with the rest of his life.

The past decade has not been kind to Sam’s parents.  His crime and ensuing imprisonment have taken such a toll on his mother and his father, both physically and mentally, that Sam barely recognizes them or their new lifestyle.  But even then, it is only when the historic homes of other famous authors begin to go up in smoke all around New England that Sam understands that his chances of maintaining a low profile while he regroups are gone.   Due to the timing and proximity of the fires, Sam is, of course, the most logical suspect.  He gets it – and he knows that if he doesn’t prove his innocence, he is likely headed back to prison for a long, long time.

The problem is that Sam Pulsifer is a chronic “bungler,” something that was first pointed out rather gleefully to him by a group of white collar criminals he met in prison.  As he moves from one crime scene to the next, interviewing people and observing the physical evidence, managing to implicate himself in one fire after the other, Sam proves their assessment to be an astute one.  He is indeed a “bungler.”

Brock Clarke
Brock Clarke’s utterly absurd characters and far-fetched plot are a perfect match for the satirical look at life (and the literary lifestyle) that he presents in An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.  Ironically, the book is filled with literary allusions and observations that will be most appreciated by the very folks whose lifestyle is being lampooned.  Clarke has something to say about the complexities of life, love, and marriage, and he says it well.  This may very well be one of those love-it-or-hate-it books with little opinion between the two extremes, but book lovers should give it the shot it deserves.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Trailer of the Week: The Little Prince (movie version)

This may be the first time I've ever used the word "enchanting" in a sentence, but there is no other way to describe this movie trailer.  The Little Prince is not one of my favorite books (I don't think I have ever read it, actually) so I'm speaking here as an adult and not reacting from some long-buried childhood memory:

This movie is enchanting.  Period.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sin Killer Killed My Reading Slump

 I've been edging toward a serious reading slump in the last week or so, one of those periods during which my pace slows down and even choosing the next book becomes a chore.  It seem like that happens to me two or three times a year.  But I always try to keep in mind that it takes only one book to get me jumpstarted and moving again...but what book?

Well, I found it on my own shelves this time around, where it has been patiently waiting to be read since I brought it home in 2002.  It is a Larry McMurtry western called Sin Killer that turned out to be the first of four novels comprising McMurtry's "Berrybender Narratives."  I remember starting this one once before and being pretty much underwhelmed by the characters and plot after wading through roughly its first twenty-five pages.  And that's the way it started out for me again this time.  But then suddenly, the characters all started to fall into place and I felt myself being sucked into the little world in which McMurtry had placed the Berrybender family.

From there, there was no looking back, and I raced through the book in two days.  Sin Killer ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I couldn't wait to start on The Wandering Hill, the next book in the series.  And that's where my "completist gene" paid dividends...all three of the remaining books in the series were right there on the shelf smiling at me because they knew they had me hooked.

I got through the first thirty-five pages this morning, resolving the cliffhanger in the process, and now I'm looking forward to reading the four books in succession.  I can't imagine what it would have been like to wait a year or so for each of the next books in the series to be published one-at-a-time because I'm pretty certain that I would have lost the momentum (and memory of the plot details) necessary to maximize the fun of the Berrybender books.  (I see now that both The Wandering Hill and By Sorrow's River were published in 2003 and Folly and Glory in 2004.)

So...reading slump averted.  Now to see what's happening with the surviving Berrybenders...

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Book of Speculation

Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, is a complicated tale about a family whose women have for generations suffered one of the strangest curses imaginable: they all choose to end their lives by drowning.  An odd thing about the string of deaths is that each of the women, because of her ability to hold her breath for an extraordinary length of time, once made her living as a circus “mermaid.’  But strangest of all is that each of them decides to do the deed on July 24.

Although Simon Watson’s mother is one of these women, he has no idea that she is just the latest in her line to have drowned herself on July 24.  Simon, now a small town librarian, lives alone in the family home in which he cared for his younger sister after the death of their father.  Enola (yes, she is named after the Enola Gay that carried the first atomic bomb to Japan) joined the circus as a Tarot card “seer” six years earlier and seldom makes it home now to see her brother.  Simon’s life has, in fact, become rather dull and routine – but all of that changes on the day in June that he receives an unexpected package in the mail.

An antiquarian book dealer, whom Simon has never heard of, has sent him a 1700s-vintage book because of a reference the dealer found in it to a member of Simon’s family.  The book, which appears to be the logbook of a traveling circus, arouses Simon’s curiosity so intensely that he decides to use all his library skills and connections to research the name found in the book.  And what he finds scares him to death.  Now, with July 24 fast approaching again, Simon’s life has become a race against the clock as he desperately searches for an answer that will keep his sister from becoming the latest victim of the family curse.

Erika Swyler
The Book of Speculation revisits the age-old debate of fate vs. free will.  Is the course of a person’s life governed by fate, or is free will enough to move what appears to be one’s fate in a whole variety of directions?  Simon does not believe that his sister has to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmothers.  But as the days fly by, and the universe begins to conspire against him, he begins to wonder if fate holds all the best cards.

Bottom Line: The Book of Speculation is an intriguing story in which alternating chapters between the past and the present steadily crank up the tension all the way to what proves to be a rousing finish.  It is easy to get lost in this one – and I did.