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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

April Fools?

If only this were an April Fools Day joke.

Sony announced today that some publishers will start naming their own e-book prices tomorrow, April 1. The short version of this announcement is that prices will be going up for e-book consumers, no matter which device they use to read the books.
Sony Corp., the maker of three digital book readers, said several publishers will determine prices on e-books starting tomorrow, a shift from retailers deciding the pricing.

Most e-books sold by Macmillan, a unit of Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH, CBS Corp.’s Simon & Schuster, Lagardere SCA’s Hachette, Pearson Plc’s Penguin and News Corp.’s HarperCollins will cost $12.99 to $14.99, the Tokyo-based company said today in an e-mailed statement. Sony plans to notify its customers of the change in a letter this afternoon, said Dan Walsh, an outside spokesman for the company.
Publishers argue, of course, that they cannot survive by selling their e-books at today's common price of $9.99 and the emergence of Apple's iPad gives them an opportunity to set their own prices rather than have Apple, Sony and Amazon decide what to charge. They contend that selling new e-books at too low a price will cheapen the value of all books in the minds of consumers. Ultimately, this change could work in favor of e-book users if it ensures a steady supply of new e-books and means that publishers will no longer delay certain e-book releases until after the hardcover versions have already been available for several weeks.

I'm still waiting for my letter from Sony...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Apparently Free Speech Is Not for Everyone

I'm going to stray into politics today but it's only because this free speech issue involves a new book and a controversial writer. I find what happened at one Beverly Hills bookstore last night disturbing, especially considering the way that an Ottawa university did the same thing to another conservative speaker just a few days ago. Free speech is apparently not for everyone - just those who shout the loudest and make the biggest fools of themselves (and, yes, I find this kind of behavior disgusting when it comes from either side of political spectrum).

I find this Examiner.com account of the incident embarrassing for the writer who posted it:

Karl Rove was forced to leave his book signing last night after being shouted down by anti-war protesters.

Rove was in Beverly Hills, California promoting his controversial book Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight. Approximately 100 people had paid $40 each to hear Rove speak and then get their copies signed.
[...]
The Former White House chief of staff was berated with comments during his talk that ranged from being called a liar to a war criminal to one woman claiming “The only comfort I take is that you're going to rot in hell."
Stevens-Young pretends to be posting a news piece up to the point where she tries to get cute. I assume she thinks she's preaching to the choir when she says:
Rowe reacted with some sophomoric responses including calling one person a “lunatic” and then ironically stating “they don't believe in First Amendment rights for anyone but themselves.” When it was obvious there were a lot of people who disagreed with him, Rowe ran away before signing any books. Maybe he went to see a movie: Green Zone would have been a good choice.
I don't know why I expected a news item when I decided to click on this link, probably because the article's headline was hidden:
Karl Rove called a war criminal, flees before signing books
Somehow, I doubt that Karl Rove did much fleeing from a bunch of bookstore protesters.

I've never heard of Examiner.com, or Kristy Stevens-Young, the woman who seems to believe that free speech is a one-way street and that she's managing the toll booth, but someone should tell her that she's making a fool of herself. Don't be surprised if she shouts you down, though.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers is Jennifer Mascia’s very personal account of growing up the only child of parents who never saw a law they figured might apply to them. Laws were for suckers – and Johnny and Eleanor Mascia did not consider themselves suckers. Only suckers pay their fair share of income tax or use credit cards with the intention of actually paying off the huge amounts they charge. Only suckers go through life without a spare identity or two for emergencies or with only one social security number. The Mascias knew how to beat the system, so they did it. But, as Jennifer Mascia would learn, there was much more to her family’s criminal lifestyle than credit and tax fraud.

Johnny Mascia, alias Frank Cassese, loved his wife and daughter with a passion. Despite the rather volatile dynamic shared by the family, it would, in fact, be difficult to find three people much more emotionally bound to each other than the Mascias. Jennifer never doubted that her parents loved her, even as the family made sudden moves from New York to Florida, to Houston, and finally on to California where her father built what was, for a time, a successful carpet cleaning business. Eventually, the business would fail and the Mascias would return to New York where it all began.

It is easy for parents, especially those as streetwise as Johnny and Eleanor Mascia, to hide things from their young children. Jennifer, however, because she had vague childhood memories of seeing her father arrested at home and carted off to jail, suspected there was something very different about her father. But, because her mother insisted the arrest was a simple case of mistaken identity and she never felt comfortable confronting her father about it, Jennifer did not learn the truth about his criminal past for several years. And what she eventually learned shocked her.

Johnny Mascia had been a petty criminal most of his life, even managing to associate himself at some low level with one of New York’s infamous crime families. He was the kind of drug dealer who found it difficult not to consume the product himself before he sold it. If this were not bad enough, Jennifer’s mother finally admitted to her that Johnny had served 12 years in prison for murder. But even this was not the whole story, and Jennifer would learn that her father was an even more vicious killer than she had first been led to believe. Jennifer was stunned by what she learned about her father’s horrible past, a history everyone else in her extended family already seemed to know. She was equally stunned to learn that, despite knowing everything about her husband, Eleanor Mascia would stay with him during the very years he was committing the worst of his crimes.

Maybe she should not have been so surprised by her mother’s choices, however, because Jennifer is very much her mother’s daughter, as she shows in her own inability to see her parents for what they were: criminals who never repented their crimes. She speaks of their credit and tax fraud as if this is just quirky, humorous behavior on their part, and she never seems to connect the father she loves with the very real depravity of his violent crimes. Jennifer Mascia truly loved, and still loves, her parents and I suspect that she grieves over their loss every day, as she should. She misses the only parents she ever had and that makes perfect sense. I do, though, find it disturbing that Johnny Mascia’s family and friends could justify his murders by telling themselves he killed only lowlife drug dealers who either owed Johnny money or had stolen from him – as if drug dealers obviously deserve to be disposed of this way. Because what, after all, was Johnny Mascia himself but the same kind of lowlife drug dealer he murdered– and much worse? Jennifer Mascia’s story is a fascinating one, just not in the way that I expected it would be when I began reading it.

Because it is packed with detail and even a few “subplots,” Never Tell Our Business to Strangers does not make for easy reading. It is well worth the effort, however, of those wanting insight into the minds of children who experience the kind of upbringing Jennifer Mascia received from her parents. Jennifer Mascia has done well to escape, so successfully, her upbringing and family history and I wish her well.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review copy provided by publisher)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Remarkable Creatures

Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, based on the true story of fossil-finders Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, is a piece of feminist historical fiction that works. Set in the early years of the 19th century, the book is a reminder of how completely women were excluded from the scientific community of the time – regardless of what they might achieve they were unlikely to receive much official credit for their work. It was a time, too, when people still believed that God had created the earth, and human beings, a mere five or six thousand years earlier and any evidence to the contrary was seen as something blasphemous.

Mary Anning’s family was poor and she helped support it by selling “curies” to the tourists who flocked to Lyme Regis every summer. As a child, she learned that she had an eye for spotting the curiosities that littered the beaches near her father’s workshop, and her father encouraged her to spend countless hours there gathering items that could be turned into the cash his family so desperately needed. As a girl, Mary was not quite sure what she was gathering but her unusual talent for spotting the “curies,” combined with her skill in cleaning them up for sale to collectors, brought in enough money to make a real difference for her family.

Elizabeth Philpot moved to Lyme Regis from London with two of her sisters after her brother sold the family home to begin a new life there with his young bride. Elizabeth did not have Mary’s eye for finding them, but she shared her passion for beach fossils and the two, despite their age and class differences, became unlikely friends. They would walk the beaches of Lyme Regis for several years before Mary discovered the fossils that would finally make her somewhat famous within the closed European scientific circle of her day.

Life began to change for Mary after she discovered her first complete “crocodile” fossil. The fossil was so unusual that it attracted the attention of prominent geologists and, when it was suspected that Mary had actually found the remains of a previously unknown species of animal, fossil hunters, wealthy collectors, and scientists began to seek Mary’s help in finding similar fossils of their own to study. Mary never lost her uncanny ability to spot fossils where others walked past them unaware, and she spent the rest of her life adding to science’s understanding of the earth’s past. Some of her discoveries are, in fact, still displayed in London and Paris museums.

Remarkable Creatures, told in chapters alternating the voices of Mary and Elizabeth, focuses on the unusual friendship shared by the two women. As Mary matured, and their age difference became less obvious, their friendship would be tested by jealousy, misunderstanding, and the reluctance of both women to make the simple apology that would have immediately cleared the air between them. Ultimately, though severely threatened, their friendship would survive to the benefit of both women.

This is the best kind of historical fiction, a book in which the reader can lose himself in an interesting (and nicely recreated) period and, at the same time, learn about two women who left their mark on science when it was near impossible for women to do so. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, in their own way, were as remarkable as the creatures Mary discovered on the isolated English beaches she knew so well.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 14

I've neglected Book Chase this week and that's really starting to bug me. In fact, I can't remember another time that I've gone three straight days without posting here. I have managed to write a couple reviews this week but both are for other sites and I can't use them here until they've been published on those websites. Too, I'm still living at my dad's house so that I can keep a close eye on his recovery from knee-replacement surgery - you can imagine all the little chores that are eating up my spare time because of that.

I have, though, managed to read three books since my last update of the Top 10 lists, so I'll do that this afternoon while the books are fresh on my mind and more easily relatable to the ones already on the list.

This is what the fiction list looks like now after 22 fiction books read:
1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
6. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)
7. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow (novel)
8. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (novel)
9. T Is for Trespass - Sue Grafton (detective fiction)
10. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
Remarkable Creatures enters the list at number 4.

And this is the nonfiction list, a Top 9 at this point because I've only read nine nonfiction titles to date:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
4. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
5. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
6. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
7. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
8. Never Tell Our Business to Strangers - Jennifer Mascia (memoir)
9. Highest Duty - Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (memoir)
Numbers 6 and 8 are additions to the list.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

PW Announces 2009 Bestsellers

From Publishers Weekly comes its list of the bestsellers of 2009:
Hardcover Fiction Sales, 2009

1. The Lost Symbol: A Novel. Dan Brown. Doubleday (5,543,643).
2. *The Associate: A Novel. John Grisham. Doubleday.
3. The Help. Kathryn Stockett. Putnam/Amy Einhorn (1,104,617).
4. I, Alex Cross. James Patterson. Little, Brown (1,040,976).
5. *Ford County. John Grisham. Doubleday.
6. Finger Lickin' Fifteen. Janet Evanovich. St. Martin's (977,178).
7. The Host: A Novel. Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown (912,165).
8. *Under the Dome. Stephen King. Scribner
9. Pirate Latitudes. Michael Crichton. Harper (855,638).
10. Scarpetta. Patricia Cornwell. Putnam (800,000).

Hardcover Nonfiction Sales, 2009

1. Going Rogue: An American Life. Sarah Palin. Harper (2,674,684).
2. Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment. Steve Harvey. Harper (1,735,219).
3. *Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government. Glenn Beck. Threshold.
4. *Liberty & Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto. Mark R. Levin..
5. True Compass: A Memoir. Edward M. Kennedy. Twelve (870,402).
6. Have a Little Faith: A True Story. Mitch Albom. Hyperion (855,843).
7. It's Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God's Favor. Joel Osteen. Free Press.
8. The Last Lecture. Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. Hyperion (610,033).
9. Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books Not Bombs. Greg Mortenson. Viking (515,566).
10. Superfreakonomics. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. William Morrow (487,977).

According to the PW article, e-book sales were not included in these sales figures, so actual total sales might be considerably higher than the numbers shown here. Also, some publishers release sales figures on a confidential basis for ranking purposes only - as you will notice.

I'm a little surprised how far the number one book in both categories is ahead of the rest of the pack, but I'm not real surprised at the two lead titles themselves. I see that I haven't read any of the Fiction Top 10 bestsellers and I doubt seriously that I ever will (just seeing Dan Brown and James Patterson books in the top four fiction bestsellers embarrasses me for this country's reading taste). Of the Nonfiction Top 10, I've read only two.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lies My Mother Never Told Me

Her father is James Jones, the National Book Award winner most famous for From Here to Eternity, the first book of his World War II trilogy that also includes The Thin Red Line and Whistle. Her mother is Gloria Jones, an outrageously full of life woman so beautiful that she was once a Marilyn Monroe stand-in. Like her father, Kaylie Jones is a talented writer and she has spent a lifetime immersed in the literary world. Unfortunately, Jones also shares the alcoholism suffered by both her parents, a problem she addresses frankly in Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir.

Jones begins her story in 1958 when, some seven years after the publication of From Here to Eternity, her father decides he wants to live in Paris for a few years in the manner of some of his literary heroes. In 1960, after her mother has suffered several miscarriages, Kaylie Jones is born there into a fairy tale world marked by all-night parties attended by the famous writers, movie stars, directors, socialites and diplomats her father collects around him. Kaylie will spend her childhood among the likes of William Styron, Richard Wright, Carlos Fuentes, Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Seberg, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut and Willie Morris. It is a world in which the excessive use of alcohol and drugs is seen as part of the creative process, a world in which real men can handle their liquor, and one in which alcoholism is seen as something shameful that happens only to the weaker among them.

Alcohol’s destructive influence on the James Jones family is only part of the story. Kaylie, who lost her father when she was 16, promised him on his deathbed that she would make her mother stop drinking, a promise she would find it impossible to keep. The relationship between Kaylie Jones and her mother was so toxic that it would dominate both their lives for decades. According to Kaylie, “…from the moment I was capable of thought, I was certain that something was seriously wrong with me, because I annoyed and bored my mother to distraction, and elicited from her the most soul-shattering cruelty – the kind only a mother can inflict.”

Kaylie, as an adult, finally would reconcile herself to the fact that her mother would never change her behavior or end her dependence on alcohol – and, most importantly, Kaylie would stop blaming herself for her mother’s failures. As she describes in Lies My Mother Never Told Me, Kaylie managed to get her own drinking under control but failed to remove her daughter from Gloria’s influence before Gloria desperately tried to steal her daughter’s love from her. Watching Gloria Jones slip into the helplessness of dementia made terribly worse by her heavy drinking makes for painful reading, but Jones’ writing does not allow the reader to look away from what turns out to be the messy end of her mother’s life.

Fans of American literature, as well as those who enjoy reading frank memoirs of all types, will cherish Lies My Mother Never Told Me. The book is filled with stories about some of the literary greats of the mid-20th century, some flattering and some not so flattering, and Kaylie makes very clear her love and respect for the father she lost at such an early age. Even in death, James Jones set his daughter on a path she might never have found for herself. As she puts it, “It also occurred to me that if my father had lived, I would never have written. His death had broken me, and it was only through reading and writing that I had begun to heal myself.” And now, Kaylie Jones has written a remarkable memoir.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review copy provided by publisher)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tower

Tower, the gritty crime fiction collaboration of authors Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman, is a special little book. Seldom has so much violence, irony, black humor, and sheer atmosphere been packed into only 172 pages. As a longtime fan of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels, I would expect no less from his half of the book, but I was happy to discover that Reed Farrel Coleman's portion of the novel is the perfect compliment to Bruen's segment.

This is the tale of two boyhood friends with everything in common, including distant fathers, weak mothers, and a willingness to do the dirty work for some of Brooklyn's lowest-level wiseguys. Nick is the son of a failed Irish cop now relegated to rent-a-cop duties at the World Trade Center's north tower. Todd, impressed with the fearless rage Nick can summon up when he has to, admits to having had somewhat of a boy-crush on Nick when they were kids. He knows that Nick hates his physically abusive father but, as he sees it, at least Nick's father cares enough about him to hit him.

As young adults, the two manage to get some work from Boyle, a small-timer with a fake Irish brogue who considers himself to be more Irish than the hard-cases who still live in the old country. What makes Boyle particularly dangerous (and successful) is Griffin, the psychopathic enforcer Doyle keeps at his side to make sure the money keeps flowing in his direction.

When things go bad for the boys, one of them gets an offer from the NYC cops and the Feds he can't refuse: save himself, and maybe his buddy, by informing on his crime connections while working undercover as a NYC police detective. Things get interesting when that buddy is ordered to assassinate the new cop in order to prove his worth and loyalty to Boyle and Griffin.

Tower is filled with the raw violence of beatings, shootings, torture and rape. But, believe it or not, this is a love story. Both Nick and Todd manage to find the loves of their lives while simply trying to stay alive long enough to see their next birthdays. And perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tower is how, amidst all the blood and violence, Bruen and Coleman make the reader care about those relationships and how they might end. Despite its over-the-top characters, male and female alike, those who enjoy noir fiction are going to remember Tower for a long time to come. My only complaint with the book (and you knew I had to have one) is with its rather unsurprising and unsatisfying ending. It's not that I saw the book headed to this particular ending before I reached its final few pages but, when I did see where it was headed, I found myself really hoping that I was wrong. Unfortunately, I was not.

Rated at: 4.5 (half a point off for the ending)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cashing in on John Grisham

John Grisham made this announcement on March 16 (from the Washington Post):
Popular legal thriller author John Grisham has broken his holdout against selling his books in an electronic format and will sell all of his 23 titles as e-books, his publisher said on Tuesday.

The former lawyer, whose best sellers include "The Firm" and "A Time To Kill", had previously held off selling his books electronically, expressing concern that e-books would wipe out traditional book stores and make it harder for new writers to succeed.

But beginning Tuesday, all Grisham's fiction and non-fiction books will be available through e-book retailers, publisher Random House said.
[...]
Popular legal thriller author John Grisham has broken his holdout against selling his books in an electronic format and will sell all of his 23 titles as e-books, his publisher said on Tuesday.

The former lawyer, whose best sellers include "The Firm" and "A Time To Kill", had previously held off selling his books electronically, expressing concern that e-books would wipe out traditional book stores and make it harder for new writers to succeed.

But beginning Tuesday, all Grisham's fiction and non-fiction books will be available through e-book retailers, publisher Random House said.
Proving, I suppose, Mr. Grisham, that one should never say never.

As of Tuesday the new e-books were already being featured on websites for Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Sony. And today I received a targeted email from my friends at Barnes & Noble trying to sell me a Grisham e-book...marketing at the speed of light. That's what it takes to beat the competition in today's market.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Passing It On

Regular readers here will already know how much I love stories like the one I'm featuring here - another one about an avid reader whose memory will be celebrated by future readers thanks to the efforts of someone who loved him.

(Washington Post photo shows Susan Kamins giving books to Gabriela Miner at Whetstone Elementary School.)

This time around, the story comes via The Washington Post:
Even before he could read, Aaron Kamins was fascinated with books. Kamins was 21 when he died of cancer two years ago, and his mother is keeping his memory alive at Whetstone Elementary School by helping spread his love of reading.

Susan Kamins, a kindergarten teacher at the Montgomery Village school, collected more than 600 books and distributed two to every student March 4 in honor of what would have been her son's 23rd birthday.

"I wanted to do something to commemorate him, and he always loved books and reading," said Kamins, of Germantown.
[...]
"It's the best dream come true, because now I have my own Nancy Drew book that I can read whenever I want," said Jeeva Thaivalappil, 10, of Montgomery Village, after carefully choosing her books. Paola Flores, 6, of Montgomery Village, was excited to read her books because "I like to imagine," she said. "You can do anything."
I've probably said it before, but I really can't think of a better tribute to a book lover - or one that will do more practical good. The beauty of something like this is its potential to create a handful of new readers, readers that might have otherwise never existed. Love it...even if their future holds only e-books rather than real ones.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Watchlist: Two Serial Thrillers in One Killer Book

The two “serial thrillers” offered in Watchlist are the product of the collaborative effort of 22 of the finest thriller writers in the world. Among the authors participating in the project are: Linda Barnes, Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline, Erica Spindler, David Hewson and Jeffrey Deaver (who created the basic characters and wrote the first and last chapters of the two novels). The Chopin Manuscript was first offered as an audio book and was named 2008 Audio Book of the year by the Audio Publisher’s Association. Its follow-up, The Copper Bracelet, throws several of the same characters into a new adventure some two years after the conclusion of the first book.

And as bad as The Chopin Manuscript is, The Copper Bracelet is equally as good.

The two books have much in common but one gets the sense that the authors did not really hit their stride with the concept until the second book. The Chopin Manuscript reads less like a cohesive novel than it does a competition among its 15 writers to ensure that their individual chapters contain more outlandish action than the chapter immediately preceding theirs. So little time is spent on character development that the rapid-fire adventure seems to be happening to cartoon characters rather than to real people – and the constant losing-and-regaining of the upper hand plus last second rescues of main characters will test the patience of readers.

The Copper Bracelet, authored by 9 of the first book’s 15 writers, plus 7 new ones, spends more time developing characters and explaining their motivations. As a result, although much of the action in this second book is every bit as wild as that in the first, readers will find it easier to suspend their disbelief because of the emotional attachment they will feel toward this story’s characters, hero and villain, alike.

Harold Middleton, a former military intelligence officer who has more recently functioned as a war-crimes investigator, is the main character in both books. Other recurring characters include Middleton’s daughter Charlotte, a talented young Polish violinist called Felicia Kaminski, and several members of what Middleton calls The Volunteers, a small group of trusted colleagues who help him in his investigations and who are willing to share the violence directed their way by those wanting to stop their snooping. The collection’s finer villains, in particular, Devras Sikari, his son Archer, and their female accomplice, Jana, are reserved for the second book.

Watchlist transports its readers from Virginia to Washington D.C., Poland, Italy, Pakistan, Kashmir, London and Paris, among other stops, with much violence and nonstop action sure to be had at each location. Despite the unevenness of the two stories, this one will appeal to thriller fans and readers intrigued about the process by which the two books were written. The second book is such a huge improvement over the first, in fact, that I find myself hoping that the authors will collaborate on a third.

Authors of The Chopin Manuscript: Jeffrey Deaver, David Hewson, James Grady, S.J. Rozan, Erica Spindler, John Ramsey Miller, David Corbett, John Gilstrap, Joseph Finder, Jim Fusilli, Peter Spiegelman, Ralph Pezzullo, Lisa Scottoline, P.J. Parrish, Lee Child

Authors of The Copper Bracelet: Jeffrey Deaver, Gayle Lynds, David Hewson, Jim Fusilli, John Gilstrap, Joseph Finder, Lisa Scottoline, David Corbett, Linda Barnes, Jenny Siler, David Liss, P.J. Parish, Brett Battles, Lee Child, Jon Land, James Phelan
(Review copy provided by publisher)

Rated at: 3.0

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 13

I've decided to split my running tabulation of the "Best of 2010" into two lists, one for fiction and one for nonfiction, because I'm a bit surprised at how difficult it has become for me to produce a meaningful, combined list. I am happy to find that my "instant ranking system" produces a truer picture than I've ever been able to come up with at the end of a year's worth of reading, and I think this tweak will help me keep the books in better perspective. I can even see the possiblity of expanding one, or both lists, to a Top 15 later in the year.

This is what the fiction list looks like right now after 21 fiction books read:
1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
5. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)
6. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow (novel)
7. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (novel)
8. T Is for Trespass - Sue Grafton (detective fiction)
9. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
10. Transfer of Power - Vince Flynn (thriller)

And this is the nonfiction list, a Top 7 at this point because I've only read seven nonfiction titles to date:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
4. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
5. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
6. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
7. Highest Duty - Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (memoir)

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Tennis Partner

Dr. Abraham Verghese is going through a difficult time when he meets fourth-year medical student David Smith at his El Paso teaching hospital. Verghese has moved his wife and two young sons to El Paso hoping for a fresh start, but his marriage is already in trouble and he will soon find himself living apart from his wife and boys. Australian David Smith is a Texas Tech student at the El Paso hospital to complete his final year before moving on to the next stage of his medical studies. Smith is going through a difficult time of his own, one that constantly threatens to ruin his life, if not end it entirely.

The two seem destined to hit it off – and, soon, they will be more than teacher and student, they will be close friends. They share two passions in life: medicine and tennis. Smith is good enough to have played the game professionally for a while, and Verghese loves tennis so much that he has been keeping journals about his progress in the sport since he was a boy. Both Verghese and Smith need something to distract them from the stress of their daily lives and the local tennis club becomes their common refuge.

It is only later that Dr. Verghese learns that Smith is in El Paso to repeat his fourth-year studies – and why - and that Smith is very fortunate to have been given a second chance at the process. David Smith is addicted to cocaine and it is destroying him. Despite being subject to random drug testing, regular AA-style meetings, and the monitoring of a sponsor if he is to keep his place in the school, Smith has to struggle mightily every day not to give in to his craving for the drug. That his professional future depends on him remaining sober will not be enough to make it happen.

The Tennis Partner is the story of a unique friendship between two men at a time in their lives when each man is in desperate need of the kind of support that only a close male friend can offer. At the hospital, Dr. Verghese is the teacher and mentor that Smith so badly needs; on the tennis court, Smith is the teacher, Verghese the student. When Dr. Verghese realizes that Smith is relapsing into his addiction, he finds it difficult to decide what his obligations are. Does he respond as Smith’s friend or as his teacher? Do his obligations to the hospital override those he feels toward David as the only friend David Smith seems to have in the world?

Those readers who discovered Abraham Verghese through his wonderful 2009 novel, Cutting for Stone, will already know what a powerful fiction writer the man is. They will be happy to find that he displays the same skill level in 1998’s The Tennis Partner, his second memoir. The tragedy of David Smith’s life provides the focal point of the book but, along the way, Verghese explores topics as varied as fatherhood, marriage, the health care system along the southern U.S. border, friendship, addiction, and loyalty.

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 12


This is starting to get tough. I've read six books since the last time I updated my Best of 2010 list and four of the six are really good. As I start to write this, I'm not even sure how many of them are going to make the list, so let's see where I end up.



The three additions to the list are in bold print.


Top 10 after 28 possibilities:


1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
3. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
4. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
5. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

6. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

7. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1996 memoir)
8. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates - (novel)
9. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees - (detective novel)
10. Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)


Personal Note: I've been spending a huge number of hours sitting with my father, first at the hospital and now in the rehab center, as he recovers from knee replacement surgery. That's caused me to be slow to respond to comments and I apologize for that. I hope to catch up soon.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Samaritan's Secret

Omar Yussef just can’t help himself. His strong belief that evildoers should pay for their crimes has, much to the delight of his 13-year-old granddaughter, turned this aging Palestinian into a reluctant detective. At 57 years of age, and seemingly in poorer shape than most men that age, our U.N. school teacher often finds it difficult to meet the physical demands of his work as an amateur detective but he refuses to let his frailness stop him. When he happens upon a bad situation he might be able to fix, Omar is willing to do battle against the corrupt politicians and murderers of Palestine, be they Hamas or Fatah, if that is what it takes to right a wrong.

The Samaritan’s Secret, the third book in Matt Beynon Rees’ Omar Yussef series, will not disappoint readers who enjoyed the series’ first two books. This time around, Omar has put aside his job teaching history at a Bethlehem United Nations school long enough to come to Nablus with his wife, sons, and granddaughter for the wedding of a young policeman friend. Nablus is home to a 600-strong Samaritan community sitting atop a mountain overlooking the city. The Samaritans, having been persecuted by the Muslim population in the past, have isolated themselves on the mountain for their own safety and to avoid the perpetual conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. But now one of the Samaritans has been murdered and Omar, out of curiosity, tags along when his young policeman friend is called in to investigate the crime.

Omar soon learns that the murder victim, Ishaq, was far from being the typical Samaritan. The young man was, in fact, in charge of the personal finances of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and was with the old president when he died in Paris. Now, some $300 million dollars is missing and it is believed that Ishaq knew where all the money was hidden. Omar’s questions lead him to an American woman representing the World Bank who came to Nablus to meet with Ishaq about the missing money. She tells Omar that, unless the stolen money is found and returned to the proper bank account by the end of the week, the World Bank will cut off all aid to Palestine. Omar realizes what a catastrophe this would be for the Palestinian people and he is determined to find the missing millions before others can steal the money for themselves.

Rees writes solid detective fiction but the real reason I so much enjoy his books is his ability to immerse me deeply into a world I would otherwise never experience. He portrays the daily chaos and violence of Palestine through the eyes of its commons citizens, people simply trying to get on with their everyday lives in a place where keeping their families safe is a constant challenge. Rees vividly portrays the claustrophobic atmosphere created by unpredictable clashes with the Israelis, internal violence between Fatah and Hamas, corrupt politicians using assassination for personal gain, and the inability to leave the territory for a safer location.

Amidst all the violence, Rees shows how people still manage to fall in love, start families, and get on with life. That is the real beauty of the Omar Yussef series.


Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, March 11, 2010

They're Coming to Take You Away

Look out, American readers. Times are tough, taxes can't be raised much higher, and libraries across the land are desperate. Well...some libraries in parts of Colorado are desperate enough to throw your sorry butt in jail if you don't return that DVD you borrowed from them. Remember, the key word is "borrowed." Libraries don't give those things away just because you'd like to have a copy of your own but are too cheap to actually, you know...pay for one.

From ABC News, with Diane Sawyer, comes the story:

The answer from the Colorado State Patrol stunned him. Henson never returned the DVD he'd checked out of the Littleton library, and there was a warrant out for his arrest.

"I was just shocked," he said. "I was like 'What? I've got a what now?'"

After spending eight hours in a county jail, during which time he was fingerprinted, photographed and booked, Henson's father bailed him out. He had tried calling his mother for help, but she didn't seem to believe him, telling Henson there was no "book police."
[...]
City spokeswoman Kelli Narde said Littleton lost $7,800 in lost library materials in 2009, including Henson's DVD. They issued 81 summonses for failure to return library materials, she said. "And 80 of them were resolved without a problem."

The warrant Henson was brought in on in January was actually for failure to appear. The town claimed it sent numerous bills, notices, a summons and a notice of a court date, but they apparently were all sent to a previous address and Henson saw none of them.

"I understand the city was following its procedure ... but when somebody's not informed of a court date and then they're getting arrested on the side of the road, getting embarrassed, having fear and all that, it just doesn't sit well with me," Henson said.

Narde said they don't buy that Henson never knew they were looking for the DVD, noting that they left two cell phone messages and that their notices didn't get returned by the postal service meaning someone had to have picked them up at his old address.
[...]
Narde said the city council met Tuesday and agreed to research a possible revision to the policy on issuing arrest warrants in similar cases.

"In the meantime the court and the police department have been directed not to issue any summons for failure to return library materials," she said.

The city has also refunded the $460 the arrest cost the Hensons and promised to wipe the incident off Henson's record...
So what do you think? Is this as crazy as it first sounds or is there a lesson to be taught to those egomaniacs who always seem to believe that laws don't really apply to people like them. After all, our Congressmen certainly behave this way, so why can't the rest of us? Personally, I hope the guy learned a lesson and that the publicity got through a few other thick skulls along the way. But, hey, that's just me.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Noah's Compass

Anne Tyler has a talent for getting to the core of even the most ordinary of lives. Her characters are real people making their way the best they can from one day to the next. Readers seeking thrilling plot elements or adventures will not find them in an Anne Tyler novel, but those wanting to learn more about the human condition and the humor to be found in everyday life will very much appreciate her work.

Liam Pennywell is a typical Anne Tyler character. Liam, at 60 years of age, does not consider his life to have been much of a success - and he is right about that. Unable to make a living in his area of expertise, Liam has fallen back on a career of teaching history at a private boys' school in Baltimore, a position that does not require from him so much as a formal teaching certificate. In the meantime, his two marriages have fallen apart and, at this point in his life, he is no longer close to his three daughters or his grandson. Liam lives alone and his only friend, even by the most generous definition of that word, is another of the teachers at the boys' school.

When Liam is suddenly downsized by the school, he decides to simplify his life by moving into a tiny apartment in a more downscale part of the city. He almost welcomes the fact that he has been forced into early retirement and is planning a lifestyle more appropriate to his reduced circumstances. After settling into the new apartment with the help of his one friend and his youngest daughter's boyfriend, Liam falls asleep in his new bedroom. He wakes up - in the hospital - and, although Liam has no memory of the event, it seems that sometime during the night an intruder entered his apartment through the unlocked patio door and knocked Liam unconscious before leaving empty-handed.

Liam feels as if the burglar has stolen part of his life and he is obsessed about regaining his lost memory of what actually happened that night. His search for someone to help him recover the memory leads him, almost accidentally, into a relationship with 38-year-old Eunice, a free-spirit of a woman who finds herself attracted to the older man. Liam is slow to recognize that Eunice is offering him a shot at the kind of joyfully spontaneous lifestyle he has never known. Then, when he finally figures it out, the idea scares him so much that he is not sure how to respond to what might be his last chance to make something interesting of his life.

"Noah's Compass" is about relationships and how people perceive each other. It explores Liam's inner world by taking a frank look at his relationship with his three daughters, his ex-wives, his grandson and the new woman who so unexpectedly enters his life. It is a book about having the courage to take chances, and how sometimes the biggest risk in life comes from a reluctance to gamble a bit before it is too late and the chance is lost forever.

Liam Pennywell tends to be a boring and timid man, one willing to shut down his life at the relatively young age of sixty, but his mistakes, and his little triumphs, have much to teach us. Readers will, I suspect, appreciate this novel more a few days after finishing it than they will upon immediately turning its final page. This one has to simmer a while.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, March 07, 2010

One Little Girl Rides to the Rescue of Her Library

As more cities across the country desperately seek ways to slash budgets, it seems that municipal and county libraries are getting hit especially hard in the process. The excuse often given for chopping library budgets is that fewer and fewer citizens use their services. Unfortunately, this becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy: cut funds, put fewer books and DVDs on the shelves, fewer people will show up. Well, duh.

One little girl in Hull, Massachusetts, has had enough of this nonsense and she is fighting back. According to Boston.com, sixth-grader Calliope Pina Parker came up with a plan to raise some cash for the library, even to rallying some local politicians to help her out:
Calliope is also an avid user of libraries, borrowing books from across the region and frequenting branches throughout the South Shore on her way to and from school, ballet, and karate practice. So it came as a particular blow when cuts in Hull not only sheared the library's budget and hours but also cost the town its state certification last month.

"Now people from Hull can't go to any other library," said Calliope, whose library card is no longer welcome in most other communities.
[...]
Today she organized an all-day "readathon" of the J.K. Rowling book that started it all, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," to raise awareness about the situation and money for the nonprofit group that supports the library.

Calliope, a student at the South Shore Charter Public School in Norwell, found a location, publicized the event through e-mail, fliers, and phone calls, and organized a network of readers that extended well beyond her circle of friends.

The schedule of participants, stretching across three poster sheets at the Weir River Estuary Center, included the names of two selectmen, allowed readers to go at their own pace -- some took a page, some half a chapter -- and provided flexibility for drop-ins.
[...]
To maintain certification with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners -- which enables local residents to borrow more broadly and allows a library to receive state aid and grants -- a community must meet a number of requirements for library spending and operating hours, based on population and past funding.

Cities and towns that fail to meet the minimums can seek a waiver, and 97 of them applied this year, nearly four times the number last year and higher than at any time in the last two decades. The board last month granted them all waivers except Hull, because the library was a singled out for a cut 58 percent greater than other departments in Hull's budget.
There you have it. Sometimes it takes a child to remind adults what is important. Well done, Calliope.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bangkok 8


Bangkok 8 is the first of John Burdett’s Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels, a series that with 2010’s The Godfather of Kathmandu, now numbers four titles. Sonchai, the product of a union between an American Vietnam War soldier and a Thai bargirl, brings exceptional talents to his work. He speaks perfect English and has such a good understanding of Western culture that he makes the perfect front man for his department when it comes to dealing with crimes involving Westerners. And a doozy of a case has just been dumped in his lap.

An American Marine sergeant has been killed in a bizarre plot involving a multitude of snakes hopped up on methamphetamine and a huge python that comes close to swallowing the victim’s head. When Sonchai’s partner, a fellow Buddhist whom he considers to be his true soul mate, is killed during the initial investigation of the crime, Sonchai swears to personally avenge his friend’s death. John Burdett’s surrealistic version of 21st century Bangkok, though, is not that simple.


Sonchai’s investigation leads him deeply inside the city’s booming sex trade, a world in which Western men of all ages and means flock to Bangkok by the thousands to purchase the sexual expertise of young Thai women (many of whom, sadly, are mere children). The American FBI, as a matter of course, is involved in the investigation but things begin to get complicated when a famous American millionaire is implicated in the murder along with a mysterious Thai giantess who is much more complicated than she first appears.


Bangkok 8 presents the city, and Thai culture, in such strange lights that the trust of many readers will be severely tested. But the book’s ending is so bizarre (no other description quite fits this ending) that even readers happy to go along for the ride to that point might find themselves shaking their heads in frustration. This is not so much a “who dunnit” as it is a “why they dunnit” and, while there is much of interest in Bangkok 8, the novel is unlikely to satisfy detective fiction fans who prefer their detectives to work in more realistic settings.


Rated at: 3.0

Friday, March 05, 2010

Altar of Eden

It is difficult to describe a book like Altar of Eden without giving away too much of its plot. In simple terms, it can be thought of as a high speed thriller/shoot ‘em up that combines key elements of The Island of Dr. Moreau (H.G. Wells) and Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton). As much as I like The Island of Dr. Moreau, I dislike Jurassic Park so it does not surprise me that I have mixed emotions about Altar of Eden.

On the one hand, this is a science-based thriller and author James Rollins provides enough detail about fractal research and DNA manipulation to give his plot a certain degree of credibility. On the other hand, much of the book is filled with endless gun battles and sieges fought by a host of rather stereotypical characters on both sides (especially the Cajun bunch featured so prominently in the story). Rollins knows how to write a good thriller, and he punches all the right buttons in this one, but I have read enough thrillers now that they do not “thrill” me like they used to. What kept me reading this one was a desire to find out exactly what the rogue scientists were trying to achieve and what was going wrong for them.

Dr. Lorna Polk, a veterinarian researcher, is stunned by what she finds in the hold of a boat that washes up on the coast of southern Louisiana after a bad storm. The caged animals there, while recognizable, appear to be throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary period during which they were not only larger than their modern counterparts but displayed physical characteristics long lost in the evolutionary process. What appears to be a baby saber-tooth jaguar is alone in one of the cages and the immediate problem becomes one of finding the baby’s gigantic mother before she kills anyone as she moves up the coast in search of food.

Lorna Polk and Jack Menard, the officer she teams up with, do not have to worry about finding the bad guys because those people are coming to them in a desperate attempt to get back their lost animals. This is a story of evil scientists, the amoral exploitation of science for military purposes, corrupt paramilitary organizations, religious fanaticism, and those innocently caught in the crossfire, including the victims produced by genetic research gone bad. Rollins also includes an interwoven bit of back history involving Lorna Polk and Jack Menard to make his characters more sympathetic to the reader and to break up what would otherwise have been an endless series of pitched gun battles. Strangely enough, even with all this back story, the most sympathetic characters in the book are not Lorna Polk and Jack Menard but are, instead, the animals and humans produced by the failed genetic experiments.

As a thriller, Altar of Eden is only average but there is enough other stuff going on here to make it worth a look.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Happy National Grammar Day


I'm sure that everyone is excited about the big day, maybe even a little intimidated. After all, what could be worse than making a huge grammatical error on National Grammar Day 2010?

Booking Through Thursday marks the occassion this way:
In honor of National Grammar Day … it IS “March Fourth” after all … do you have any grammar books? Punctuation? Writing guidelines? Style books?

More importantly, have you read them?

How do you feel about grammar in general? Important? Vital? Unnecessary? Fussy?
I actually do have a grammar book on my desk and, despite what my writing looks like, I actually flip through the book sometimes when I am unsure about the proper way to phrase a thought. My problem is that the book is so comprehensive (it's 354 pages long) that I can't always find the answer to my question. More than once, I have come away from the book more confused than when I started flipping its pages.

But I blame myself, not the book, when I fail to successfully negotiate its finer points because that usually just means I've run short of time or patience, maybe both. Believe it or not, I actually do find English grammar to be an interesting subject, a quirk on my part that must go back to all the grammar drills (and sentence diagramming) the nuns at St. Charles put me through during my seven years of Catholic school. Thank you, Sister Patrick Marie.

The book I use is The Writer's Digest Grammar Desk Reference by Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson. If you ever feel the need to pick up a good book on English grammar, you won't go wrong with this one.

(No fair pointing out the grammatical mistakes in this post but, if you feel the need to do so, it's me, not the book.)


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Matterhorn, a first novel by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, was some thirty years in the making and it was only published after Marlantes cut about 1,000 pages from his original manuscript. Despite the cuts, the book still comes in at close to 600 pages in length and it tells a story that will be stuck in the minds of its readers long after they have turned the final page. This one, too, is a reminder that the written word almost always tells a story more powerfully than the same story can be told on film.

The life expectancy of newly minted second lieutenants dropped into the heat of the Viet Nam War was not a long one. Marine Lieutenant Waino Mellas, a young officer with dreams of wartime glory he could later parlay into a nice stateside career, was one of those men. Matterhorn, written in the third person, focuses on what happens to Mellas during his first two months in the country. It can be seen as a coming of age story of sorts, an experience shared by the thousands of young men (“kids,” as Marlantes refers to them) who were forced to scramble for their lives in the jungles of Vietnam.

Lieutenant Mellas finds that all of his training has done little to prepare him for what he experiences leading a small group of men deep into the bush in search of hidden weapons and enemy soldiers. The old adage that “experience is the best teacher” makes perfect sense to him; he only hopes that he will live long enough to gain that experience. In two months, by the end of Matterhorn, Mellas will be much wiser about the ways of war and the nature of those who fight it – and, just as importantly, he will be wiser about the nature of those who call the shots from the safety of their desks.

Most of the novel’s action takes place on, or around, a strategically well-located hill the marines have dubbed “Matterhorn.” Initially, the men work themselves to the point of exhaustion digging bunkers, patrolling the surrounding jungle, and otherwise transforming the hill into a suitable base for American artillery. To the company’s dismay, changes in strategy soon result in the whole area being abandoned to the North Vietnam regulars who are happy to claim the fortified hill for their own purposes. Predictably, for a war in which victories are claimed by winning the “body count,” the company is ordered to retake the hill because battalion commanders see the large number of enemy soldiers atop the hill as a prize not to be ignored.

Matterhorn is not easy reading for those who lived through this period in American history. It is a stark reminder of how difficult this political war was on the soldiers having to fight it. These young men had to fight more than the enemy. They endured torrential monsoons, snakes, leeches, malnourishment, jungle rot and exposure to chemicals like the now infamous Agent Orange. They prayed for heavy fogs to lift long enough for helicopters to evacuate the wounded and to resupply the rest of them with food, water and ammunition. And tragically, they faced a black power movement within the ranks that sometimes ended in murder by hand grenade.

Karl Marlantes vividly brings this 40-year-old war back to life, a war filled with lessons about how not to fight our next one. My only quarrel with the novel is the pace of its ending. What happens in the book’s final three pages happens at such an abrupt quickening of pace that its impact is lessoned, and some readers will find themselves questioning whether a company commander would react to the book’s climax the way Lieutenant Mellas reacts. Personally, I found the lieutenant’s reaction to be not so much out of character as unrealistic.

Rated at: 4.5

(Review copy provided by publisher)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

One Little Word in Bluegrass Unlimited Brings Out the Amateur Censors

One sentence in the September 2009 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited (my favorite magazine) has created a small firestorm of criticism from a few people who took offense at the style in which the article was written.

The article in question is a feature on Charlie Sizemore written by Chris Stuart. Mr. Stuart decided to use a direct, and very emotional, quote from Charlie in the first paragraph of his piece. Charlie, speaking of the time in the seventies when he was the lead singer for Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys (as a teenager, no less) had this to say about how upset he was about one of his appearances with the band, "Ralph, I'm sorry. I can't sing for shit." The point of Charlie's story is that Ralph Stanley's sympathetic response was perfect and that it might very well have saved his career in bluegrass music.

One little word, and not a particularly offensive one, in my opinion, resulted in letters and emails to the editor of Bluegrass Unlimited threatening to cancel subscriptions to the magazine. You know the drill - nothing new here except for how little it took to cause some folks to demand their own version of censorship, the rest of the readership be damned.

Daniel Swanson, via email said, "I got as far as the first paragraph before being floored. Needless to say, I quickly moved on to the next article. I have decided two things: I won't read any more articles by the foul-mouthed Chris Stuart and if you don't clean up your formerly fine magazine in the future, I'll have no choice but to cancel my subscription." - a silly, but very direct and aggressive response.

Jim Griffith of Ashland, Kentucky said, "I was very surprised that you printed the language used in the article about Charlie Sizemore...This type of language will cheapen your magazine if continued. I hope you will leave this type of language out in the future, as I would like to enjoy your magazine for many more years." - a silly, but more passive-aggressive approach than the one quoted above.

These were the only comments to the article published in the January issue of Bluegrass Unlimited - two over-the-top reactions to what is in reality a fairly innocent little word, a word that, in this case, perfectly describes the emotion being felt by Charlie Sizemore when he approached Ralph Stanley all those years ago. Chris Stuart even had the nerve to use the word "hell" a couple times in the article but I doubt that our two wannabe censors read far enough into the article to find them.

I was happy to see in the magazine's March issue that Ron Thomason, Robert Grosz and Dale Martin have written letters in defense of Chris Stuart's judgment to use the quote exactly as he heard it from Charlie Sizemore's mouth. Well done, guys.

Bluegrass music is as real as any music being made these days. Good songs are about emotion, be the emotions joy or despair, and, as a fan of the genre, I would be shocked if my favorite singers and songwriters did not honestly feel what they write and sing about. I want to hear real songs from real people, not censored claptrap from a bunch of phonies.

I cannot imagine a better introduction to the Charlie Sizemore piece than the one Chris Stuart chose for it and I find myself dumbfounded by the reaction of those who believe that any word in that article is offensive or out of place. Their desire to play the role of censor is what I find offensive, not the words "shit" or "hell." Come on, people.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The State of Book Chase

My version of a "state of the union address" for Book Chase:

I'm at the tail end, I hope, of one of those low energy periods I seem to go through two or three times a year. This one has been worse than normal because I've also been fighting a bad sinus infection for the past two weeks and I'm still only at about 90%, healthwise. The good news is that it doesn't take a whole lot of energy to read - as long as I can stay awake. The bad news is that it does seem to take a lot of energy to write about what I've read or what else is going on all over the world of books. I have literally crashed during the last three weekends and can barely remember doing anything other than hanging around the house and sleeping an amazing amount of hours.

I'm about 70% of the way through Matterhorn, a 570-page Viet Nam War novel, and I've reached what seems to be the book's major climax, leaving me to wonder what the author has up his sleeve for the final 175 pages. I'm to the point now that I have an emotional attachment to several of the book's secondary characters and it is painful to watch them drop one-by-one during a totally useless asault on a numerically superior NVA unit. This one will almost certainly be one of the best books I read this year. I know that already; it is only a question of what happens in the last section of the book as to where it will rank on the list. This one is due to be published sometime in April 2010.

I'm also reading an e-book thriller about genetically altered animals that are to be used as a kind of military weapon - against whom and by whom, I'm still not sure. It's the James Rollins novel Altar of Eden. This one is short on character development and long on shoot 'em up action, not exactly the kind of thing I prefer, but easy reading and fairly entertaining through its first half.

I did make it out to the library on Sunday afternoon (just before the hockey game that broke my heart) where I picked up my reserved copy of the new Anne Tyler novel, Noah's Compass. And, of course, I couldn't resist reading the first two chapters last night because I find Anne Tyler's novels hard to resist. She writes about real life but populates her novels with some of the most eccentric and memorable characters being created in literature today. This one is about a 60-year-old school teacher who suddenly finds himself without a job...perfect topic for today.

While at the library I picked up three audio books (I've returned to listening to a book on my commute now that I have a working CD player in my car again) and I'll be ready to start one of them by the end of the week, I think. I'm afraid I won't be able to get them all done in the allotted six weeks, but I couldn't resist bringing them all home at once, anyway:

1. Drood - by Dan Simmons - explores "the unsolved mysteries" of the last years of Charles Dickens (beginning in June 1865, I think). Dan Simmons writes long books so it is no surprise that this thing weighs in at 24 CDs and 30 hours of listening time.
2. Child 44 - by Tom Rob Smith - is one I remember hearing great things about when it was first published but, for whatever reason, I never got around to reading it. Maybe this audio book will do the trick. It's a lightweight compared to Drood, coming in at only 11 CDs and 12.5 hours.
3. Just After Sunset - by Stephen King - is a collection of short stories, one of which I read several months ago and enjoyed. I haven't been much of a fan of Stepehn King novels for a long time but I still enjoy his short stories, so this one might get the first nod. It is 13 CDs and almost 15 hours long.

I'm also expecting review copies of The Scent of Rain and Lightning, a thriller by Nancy Picard, and The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, yet another novel about the Alcott family - and I have a copy of The Samaritan's Secret, an Omar Yussef mystery by Matt Beynon Rees that I'm really looking forward to reading (Yussef is a detective who works in Gaza - great atmosphere and timely stories).

On top of these, I have recently received four others in the mail that I find intriguing:

1.Top of the Order - a book in which 25 writers pick their all-time favorite baseball players and tell why they chose them.
2. Ordinary Thunderstorms - a William Boyd thriller set in London
3. Far Cry - John Harvey's latest crime thriller (scheduled for publication on June 15). John Harvey is absolutely one of the finest crime/detective writers working in the U.K. today and he has been for quite a number of years now. If you don't know his work, you should take a look.
4. Lay Down My Sword and Shield - a new edition of the James Lee Burke book in which he introduced Hack Holland to his readers - way back in 1971. I read this one sometime in the '80s but remember very little about it so it will be like reading a brand new James Lee Burke novel. Sweet, that.

That would be enough of a challenge if I didn't also have at least six review copies left over from last year that I still haven't read. I'm going to get there, though.

Dang, life is sweet. I wish I had the energy to enjoy it.