Monday, June 27, 2016

England and Other Stories

I am one of those who believe (and have often said) that writing a good short story is more difficult than writing a good novel because a short story writer has to create believable characters and plots wholly within the limited number of pages he allows himself to get the job done.  He has to capture the engagement and imagination of his readers, and he has to do it quickly.  That is why it is always such a welcome event when a favorite novelist of mine decides to join the ranks of short story writers, or in the unusual case of Graham Swift, returns to that genre after an absence of almost thirty years. 

Swift's England and Other Stories is a remarkable collection of twenty-five stories about people who, regardless of their age, have reached a point in their lives where regret and self-doubt are something they confront every day.  These are people living in fear that their lives may never again be as good as they were at some point in the past.  Not only do they fear that possibility, they feel sure that it is the truth.

What makes this collection a bit unusual is that none of the stories have been previously published elsewhere.  These are all new stories (written, I'm guessing, within the amount of time it would normally have taken Swift to produce his next novel), and taken as a whole they present the diversity of a country that is all too often confined to its stereotypes in the minds of foreigners.  There are stories about newlyweds, about elderly couples who have been together for decades, about men and women grieving their lost spouses, about grown children still trying to figure out exactly who their parents were, about cheating spouses, about minorities who self-identify as "English" despite how others perceive them, and even about lesbian lovers who are key workers in a sperm bank.  And that is far from all.

Graham Swift
Among my favorites is "Yorkshire," in which an elderly couple (71 and 72 years old) sleep across the hall from each other for the first time after the man has been accused by his adult daughter of unspeakable crimes committed against her when she was a child.  In just a few pages, Swift engulfs the reader in the pain and anguish that fill those two bedrooms but leaves it up to his readers to judge the truth of the woman's charges.  Another favorite is "Fusilli," which tells of the man who receives a phone call from his soldier son while shopping in his local grocery store. He marvels at the technology that makes such a thing possible, all the while feeling uneasy about their conversation. 

Do read these stories in the order they are presented because, layer by layer, they add up to a cohesive picture of England as she is today, one in which it is easily imagined that characters from the various stories just might one day cross paths and enjoy each other's company - or not.  They seem that real.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Browser" the Cat Is Being Booted from His Library Home

Here's a rather disheartening news story for you on this late Sunday afternoon because of what it says about the petty, vindictive nature of some idiots...eh, people.  I just ran across this short story from Fox News about a Texas library that has evicted the library cat that's been living in the building for the past five years - all because some twit was not allowed to bring her puppy to work and decided to get even with the poor cat.  Geez people.
White Settlement Mayor Ron White told the paper that he blames the gray cat’s eviction on pettiness at City Hall because a city employee wasn’t allowed to bring a puppy to work.
“We’ve had that cat five years, and there’s never been a question,” White said.
Lawmakers took up the cat’s fate at a June 14 City Council meeting under an agenda item listed only as “consider relocation of Library Facility cat Browser.”
[...]
“This cat has been loved by people of all ages for six years,” Lillian Blackburn, president of the Friends of the White Settlement Public Library, told the Star-Telegram. “I don’t have any animals but this cat is so gentle and so lovable and he brings so much comfort to so many people, it seems a shame to take him away.”
White is hoping the council will reconsider its action at a July 12 meeting, two days before Brower’s eviction date, according to the paper. 

I have to believe that Browser is going to get a reprieve at that July 12 city council meeting.  Surely the two idiots who voted to boot the cat will come to their senses - one way or the other - by then.  Right?

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)