Saturday, June 25, 2016

Movies for Readers: American Pastoral

This week's "Movie for Readers" is yet another one based on the great novels from the now-retired pen of Philip Roth: American Pastoral.  The novel, written in 1997, is actually part of what became known as Roth's "American Trilogy"(the other two books are I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The film stars - and is directed by - Ewan McGregor, an interesting choice for this particular role, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Connelly.  It is set to open on October 21, 2016.  For those unfamiliar with the book, it is the story of a very successful man who suddenly finds his life and his family being destroyed by his daughter's political associations.  When she goes on the run, he struggles to figure out the truth of what happened and tries to find her.

Movies for Readers No. 27

Friday, June 24, 2016

Walking Point

Those of us who lived through the Vietnam War era were changed by the experience even if we were never part of the actual fighting in that war ravished country.  This was the war that largely changed the way Americans look at their government and how much, or how little, they trust it to tell them the truth.  The Vietnam War, in fact, divided the country so deeply that fifty years later the two sides still have not completely reconciled their differences. 

Perry Ulander managed to come out Vietnam in one piece, and in Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War, he tells us how he did it.  The memoir begins with the stunned nineteen-year-old Ulander reading a letter from his Uncle Sam directing him to report to Chicago for his pre-induction physical.  It ends more than a year later when a very different Perry Ulander, having just completed a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, is equally stunned to so suddenly find himself back on U.S. soil.  

Perhaps Ulander was more na├»ve than the average male college student of his day, but he seems to have been dangerously uninformed about “this small war” and how it could easily reach out and suck him right into the middle of it.  So, figuring that it “should have been nearly over any day,” he decides to drop out of college with two years of structural engineering study under his belt so that he can “get some on-the-job experience.”  The ever-vigilant U.S. government, of course, has other plans for men like young Ulander.  Ulander as it turns out, is smart enough to see through much of the gung-ho intimidation and brainwashing thrown at him during basic training, and almost as soon as he sets foot in Vietnam he figures out something else: the war he was trained to fight bears little resemblance to the one he is now looking at with his own eyes. 

The men around him, some of them already with more than one tour of duty behind them, consider the army’s “lifers” to be more of a threat to their well being than the North Vietnamese soldiers they are there to fight.  Experienced soldiers immediately begin to mentor the replacement soldiers joining their ranks, a practice that serves both the experienced and the newbies well.  Almost everyone Ulander sees is out of uniform in one way or another: they wear peace symbols, non-regulation sunglasses, scarves and anti-military decorations on their uniforms and helmets.  For emotional support and stress release they look to each other – and to the easily and cheaply obtained marijuana that is always nearby.  Soldiers who do not smoke marijuana are the exception in Ulander’s unit rather than the rule.

Walking Point is filled with memorable stories and real life characters (known only by nicknames) from a war that America would prefer to forget because of how those who survived it were ignored and mistreated when they came home. Thankfully, old soldiers like Perry Ulander are around to keep that from happening.  It is way past time that America’s Vietnam veterans are paid the respect that they deserve for fighting the ill-conceived war they were handed by their elders.  Walking Point should be taught in every high school in America.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Would you shop at an Amazon brick and mortar bookstore?

Amazon Books - Seattle
Would you shop at an Amazon brick and mortar bookstore if there were one within convenient driving distance of you?  It appears that the people of Portland, Oregon, are about to get the chance to make that decision.  If any city in the country might actually shun an Amazon bookstore, it's probably Portland, a city that prides itself on supporting independent retailers and is home to perhaps the largest independent bookstore in the world, Powell's.  (The new store is said to be slated for a Portland suburb called Tigard, Oregon.)

Personally, I would have to take a look at it out of curiosity, if for no other reason - and I'm sure that I'd grab a couple of dozen photos for use here on Book Chase.  But I have a fundamental problem with the idea of Amazon going wholesale into the brick and mortar bookstore business.  I understand that Amazon has every legal right to open up physical bookstores anywhere its management wants to place them.  But, let's face it, Amazon has already pretty much had the impact on used bookstores that Wal-Mart has had on small downtowns all across this country - they are now largely boarded up.  Are we, as consumers - and an economy - really better off as a result?

If you're curious, the Los Angeles Times says that the new bookstore would not look much like a traditional bookstore at all:

If Amazon's first store is any indication, the locations in San Diego and Tigard won't look much like regular bookstores. The Seattle store features fewer books than most retailers, with all the books' covers facing out. There are no prices listed on the books; shoppers have to use a scanner or a smartphone app to find out how much each item costs.
The Seattle store also sells electronics, such as Amazon's Kindle e-reader, Fire TV and earbuds.
That last bit about the Amazon store selling electronic gear such as Kindles, however, could be describing any Barnes & Noble location in the country if the word "Nook" were substituted for "Kindle."

So would you support an Amazon bookstore if one were plopped down in your area?  It might be a tougher call than you think.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ink and Bone

Ink and Bone is one of those books that seem to have so much going for it right up front that I couldn’t wait to get started on it.  It combines elements of several genres (mystery, thriller, crime fiction, horror, etc.) and does it in a way that takes each of the various genres seriously enough to keep the story more or less believable no matter how strange some of its paranormal elements eventually become.  But at a point just over half way through, the plot took a twist (exaggerated, I think by a slight style-change decision) that began to frustrate and confuse me.  And even though the book’s ending is a satisfying one, I still wish it had not become so unnecessarily complicated before reaching that point.

Longtime fans of Lisa Unger are likely already to be familiar with Eloise Montgomery, one of the main characters of Ink and Bone because Eloise, a psychic who works closely with a New York state detective to find missing persons, has been featured in several Unger novels and short stories preceding this one.  This time around, Eloise has been joined in The Hollows (a rather quaint upstate New York village) by her twenty-year-old granddaughter, Finley, who seems to share the same psychic skills that have so defined her grandmother’s life.  Finley’s own powers are growing noticeably without her being able to control or understand them, and the young woman has come to her grandmother for help and advice.

Lisa Unger
And, as it turns out, she is exactly where she needs to be.  Little girls and young women have been periodically disappearing (or have otherwise been abused) in The Hollows for a long time – and it is happening again.  One mother, who has been looking for her missing daughter for almost a year, and who refuses to give up hope until a body is found, has finally gotten desperate enough to place her last hopes in Eloise and Private Investigator Jones Cooper even though she is not herself a believer in Eloise’s supposed skills.  But as it turns out, Eloise is not the psychic in the house who can help her.

Ink and Bone has enough of a mystery about it to keep mystery fans turning its pages throughout, and its three main characters are easy ones with which to identify.  Too, it has enough of the elements of a pure horror novel going for it that fans of that genre are sure to remain intrigued.  Unger stumbles a bit, however, by over-complicating the plot to the degree that it becomes difficult to keep up with a multitude of side-characters and how they relate to main plot.  There are so many layers to Ink and Bone that I never did resolve some of them in my mind – and I find that to be frustrating.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Jealous Kind

Thanks to a combination of selective memory, old movies and television shows, and iconic musical memories, we tend to think of the 1950s as a simpler, safer time that went by too quickly.  That’s as true for those of us who actually lived through the decade as it is for those of us who simply wish we had.  Somehow, however, I doubt that Hackberry Holland’s grandson, Aaron Holland Broussard, would agree. 

Aaron, the latest addition to James Lee Burke’s Hackberry Holland family tree series (and the main character and narrator of The Jealous Kind), sees the decade differently from the vantage of his Houston neighborhood.  And all the trouble starts relatively innocently fifty miles from home in the parking lot of a drive-in seafood restaurant near the Galveston beach one night when Aaron, never bashful about speaking out, intervenes in an argument between an older boy and a teenage girl he had never seen up close before that very moment.

As he probably secretly hoped he would, Aaron ends up with the girl, but he also ends up with something else that night: a vicious enemy with connections that can make him wish he had never gotten out of his car that night – Valerie or no Valerie.  Now Aaron is the target of every gangbanger on the streets any time he even approaches Valerie’s neighborhood, and it seems as if she and his best friend Saber are all that even remotely stand between him and the beating of his life.

But then there is a whole lot of Holland blood in this Broussard boy.

James Lee Burke
When he and Saber decide to carry the fight to those threatening them, they trigger a battle that will suck in even the powerful fathers of their young enemies, men at the heart of the criminal boomtowns that Houston and Galveston are fast becoming.  Aaron Broussard is about to learn things about himself and everyone he loves best that no boy should ever have to learn at his age.  He will have to find the courage to live with the type of constant fear that often cripples grown men.  Aaron calls fear like that “a pebble that never leaves your shoe,” but it turn out to be much, much more than that.

The Jealous Kind vividly captures a moment in Houston/Galveston history during which both cities were up for grabs if you were man enough to take them.  As Burke reminds us, Houston was “the murder capital of the world” then and a town called “Cut and Shoot” was just forty miles up the road (it’s still there).  Those were the days. 

This is a must-read if there ever was one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Street Books: Providing Books to Those Who Can't Afford Them

Reading is one of the greatest pleasures of life - and no one should be deprived of the opportunity of reading books and discussing them with their fellow readers - even people living on the streets.

And a mobile library called Street Books is on the streets of Portland, Oregon, to make sure that anyone wanting a book to read has one or two of them whenever they want them.  According to OregonLive (and The Orgonian), the five-year-old organization is doing better this year than ever before:
Each summer for the past five years, the small nonprofit has delivered paperbacks to people living on the streets of Portland. Staffers pedal two custom bicycles around the city to spread books and conversation. 
But now, with the number of homeless people in Portland swelling, and with camps increasingly visible, Street Books is growing. 
This summer, its number of paid librarians has doubled, bringing the total to six. Street Books is covering more ground, too.
On a recent Thursday, as Street Books' sixth season of distributing books was beginning, many people were just discovering the mobile library.
Rempe, who's trained as a community psychologist, offered every passerby outside St. Francis a friendly hello and a question: "Looking for something to read?"
She explained the rules to newcomers: Take a book or two. Keep them as long as you need. Come back to the bicycle and return them when you're done. And it's OK if you can't return a book. There are no fines. 
One of the coolest things about this whole project is that even though the librarians don't worry about losing books (and make it clear that it's OK not to return them), most patrons of the little mobile library are determined to return the books so that others can read them, too.  

As Street Books librarian Diana Rempe puts it, "People on the street are complicated, just like the people who live inside."

Friday, June 17, 2016

Youngblood: A Novel

Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood is not the typical war novel spawned by America’s twentieth century wars.  Those typically followed the exploits of a group of American soldiers as they fought their way across enemy territory, all the while taking casualties among the characters dearest to the reader’s heart, until a final victory could be claimed. America doesn’t fight that kind of war anymore, and this is not that kind of novel.  Gallagher’s war takes place in Iraq, one of those countries in which the war is easier to win than the peace.  Gallagher, himself a veteran of the Iraq war, has much to say about what that war was like – and luckily for the rest of us he is such a fine writer/novelist that we can learn much from what he shares with us.

Lieutenant Jack Porter has been in the country long enough to feel frustrated by his mission and to begin doubting that he has the leadership skills called for by his role.  Porter, though, continues to lead daily patrols in search of the hit-and-run Iraqi insurgents who are so good at blending in with Ashuriyah’s civilian population.  The U.S. will soon be withdrawing from Iraq, in effect abandoning it to the very people the country has been fighting, and everyone knows it, including the enemy.  Now Porter’s personal mission is simply to save as many of the lives of his men as possible.  Unfortunately, snipers and those placing explosive devices in the paths of his patrols have the opposite mission: killing as many Americans as they can before the troops leave Iraq. 

Porter’s self-doubts reach a crisis stage when Sergeant Daniel Chambers, an aggressive veteran of several previous tours in Iraq, transfers into his unit.  Chambers is not the kind of soldier who much worries about what any commanding officer thinks of him or his methods, and without consulting Porter, he begins to train the men to fight the war more aggressively than their lieutenant has allowed them to fight it beforehand.  Porter, not wanting to directly challenge his new sergeant, instead starts looking for excuses to transfer Chambers out of his unit.

Matt Gallagher
Porter’s search for dirt on Chambers is the skeleton around which the author frames the rest of the novel.  At times, in fact, Youngblood reads more like a detective story than it does a war novel because when Porter hears rumors that Chambers may be guilty of past war crimes against Iraqi civilians, he begins digging into file archives, interviewing potential crime witnesses, and searching for soldiers who served under Chambers during his previous tours.  What he learns will have repercussions for Porter, Chambers, the men they command, and the Iraqi woman with whom Porter falls in love.

Matt Gallagher’s talent for recreating the atmosphere of a chaotic war-torn country like Iraq makes Youngblood a memorable novel.  He vividly portrays the mad dance for survival that the Iraqi population is involved in because of the multiple, simultaneous wars being fought in their country.  At the same time that Americans are fighting Iraqi insurgents, Iraqis are fighting other Iraqis.   A crossfire is a crossfire, and bombs don’t discriminate between their victims, meaning that women and children are no safer in their homes than men in the streets using automatic weapons and bombs to kill each other are. 

Anyone wanting to learn what fighting an unwinnable war feels like would do well to begin with a novel like Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood.