Thursday, May 23, 2019

Exiled: The Last Days of Sam Houston - Ron Rozelle

Sam Houston led the army that significantly changed the course of American history by defeating Mexico's General Santa Ana in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 25, 1836.  As a result of that  eighteen-minute battle, Mexico was forced to give up the region that would soon become an independent country known as The Republic of Texas until it became part of the United States in December 1845.  Houston was twice president of that republic, twice a U.S. senator after Texas became part of the Union, and at the very end of his political career he served as governor of the state he was so instrumental in creating. Significantly, he is also the only person in United States history to have served as governor of two different states, having first been the governor of Tennessee before coming to Texas under rather cloudy circumstances.

I have been an admirer of Sam Houston since I was a child, but I'm surprised at how much new information I learned about the man and his family from Exiled.  It helps, I suppose, that I live smack in the middle of the General's old stomping grounds (in what is now a north Houston suburb), and that I'm within 50 miles of Huntsville, the town in which Houston's family spent so many years while he was tending to his senatorial duties in Washington. Huntsville is also where Houston died and where he is buried, and it is home to a wonderful little museum that includes both the longtime Houston family home and the separate house in which Houston died in 1863 (he died downstairs and his funeral was held in the room above the bedroom in which he spent his final hours).  I haven't visited that museum in a few years, and this book reminds me of just how badly I need to do that again. 
The San Jacinto Monument is
taller than the Washington Monument.

Sam Houston was an American hero. As Exiled so clearly reminds the reader, he loved the Union more than anything in the world other than his family. But Houston was also a Texas patriot who dearly loved the state that voted to join the Confederacy despite his pleas for it not to do so.  After that fatal vote was taken, Sam Houston decided to resign the Texas governorship rather than swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, preferring to move back to Huntsville where he spent the remaining years of his life (he would be dead long before the end of the Civil War).  

Houston's last words reflect how much he loved his wife and the state whose history he is so much a part of: 


Sam Houston, forever my hero.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

World Literature Today - It's a Big Old World Out There

September/October 2018 issue
In my Sunday afternoon post about that morning's visit to Barnes & Noble I highlighted a new-to-me magazine called World Literature Today.  I mentioned that because the only copy for sale in the store was dated November/December 2018 I was a bit worried that I had just discovered a great looking magazine that was already out of business (these days you just never know).  But boy was I wrong!

It turns out that World Literature Today is one of the very oldest literary magazines being published in the United States today, and that it goes back for ninety straight years. The magazine is published bi-monthly by The University of Oklahoma in Norman, and it is available both in print and digital editions.  I chose a digital subscription over a print one for a couple of reasons: my local mail service tends to mangle about 50% of the magazines it delivers, and the digital subscription allows me to read back issues of the magazine going back to at least 2007.  At $18 a year, I think it is a real bargain coming in at $3 an issue the way it does compared to the cover price of $9 I paid on Sunday.  But World Literature Today is a non-profit publication, so price is not the real issue here (and if you can afford to pay more for a subscription than its suggested price, your money will be gratefully accepted).

If you are interested at all in reading the work of authors from outside the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, (not to say that authors and books from these countries are not also included in WTF's "world") I can't imagine a more perfect magazine for you than this one.  

The $5 Maya Angelou Quote Tote Bag
Most of us read very few translations, but that's not necessarily our fault because too little effort is made by publishers and booksellers to get good foreign fiction and nonfiction into our hands. I suspect that translations are not cheap to produce, and when you combine a more expensive translated book with the  smaller potential audience it naturally comes with, it's easy enough to see why more of them are not published here. The books will probably still not be particularly easy to find even once you learn of their existence, but at least you will have a chance now. First you have to know that they are even out there.

Here's a quick link to the magazine's homepage where you can sample the magazine and find out more about subscription rates and what to expect.

Herman Wouk Dead at 103

Author Herman Wouk
There are so many news sources these days - and so much junk news about junk celebrities - that I miss more important stuff now than I missed ten years ago when far fewer sources were available to me.  The haystack is just getting so big that the actual needles hidden in there are impossible to find sometimes; that's the only thing that can explain my missing news of author Herman Wouk's May 18 death at the age of 103 (just ten days short of his 104th birthday).

From The New York Times:

Herman Wouk, whose taut shipboard drama “The Caine Mutiny” lifted him to the top of the best-seller lists, where he remained for most of a career that extended past his 100th year thanks to page-turners like “Marjorie Morningstar,” “Youngblood Hawke” and the World War II epics “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” died early Friday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 103.
His death, just 10 days before his 104th birthday, was confirmed by his literary agent, Amy Rennert. She said he had been working on another book when he died, although, as was his custom, he had declined to discuss its subject until it was finished.
According to the Times, Wouk was never a big favorite of the critics, but I'm here to tell you that he did have his fans because the man knew how to tell a story - and a long story, at that.  I've only read three of Wouk's books (The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembranceand that was in the late sixties and early seventies, but I still remember how enthralled with them I was and how I couldn't wait to get back to them every evening.  I must have been one of the "yahoos who hate culture and the mind" that critic Stanley Edgar Hyman said back in 1966 comprised all of Wouk's readers.  Stanley who?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry - Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of those books I should have absolutely loved.  After all, it is set mainly inside a bookstore and it features a crotchety bookseller, a dedicated publisher’s rep, and a precocious little girl who just oozes cuteness from every pore of her body.  The problem is that I only liked the book and never really came very close to loving it the way I fully expected to going in.

Don’t get me wrong, Gabrielle Zevin has not written a bad book here; it’s just that it could have been so much better than it is.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, though, is only 258 rather easily read pages long and that is a big part of the problem - so few words simply do not allow Zevin the space she needs to fully develop so many important characters.  And that’s a shame because if I had known more about A.J., his adopted daughter Maya, and his wife Amy, the book’s ending may have impacted me much more deeply than it did.  Perhaps the author was shooting for the kind of fable that we all grew up on, those stories where we recognize the characters by type and that tells us everything we need to know about them in order for us to focus on and enjoy the tale itself.  That’s kind of how it worked for me, anyway.  I enjoyed the story, but except for the first few glimpses of Maya I never felt that the characters were real enough for me to invest much emotion in them.

As the story begins, A.J. is not a happy camper; his wife has died and he’s stuck on Alice Island, near Hyannis, running the failing bookstore they opened together shortly after their marriage.  A.J. is such a grump these days that publisher reps who manage to make it all the way to Alice three or four times a year never know what to expect.  He is as likely to throw them out as he is to buy something from them for sale in his bookstore.  And, although he soon regrets it, that is precisely what he does when Amy Loman of Knightley Press visits Island Books for the first time.  So A.J. the grump is probably lucky to have any customers at all anymore – and the ones that he still has are not supporting the store like they did before his wife died.  No one, however, should be tempted to hold their breath while waiting for A.J. to wise up and change his attitude about life because the now heavy-drinking A.J. is not at all interested in making that happen. But then someone decides to leave a surprise for A.J. in the bookstore one night, and his life - and all of Alice Island - will be forever changed.

Author Gabrielle Zevin
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is for those of us who are always on the lookout for novels centered around books or bookstores, preferably both (you know who you are).  The bookstores in this kind of novel are usually so perfect that we can’t help wishing they were located somewhere very near us, preferably within walking distance.  Sometimes we even find ourselves wishing we could work in just such a place – even at minimum wage, if that’s what it takes to get the job.  Island Books doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

Here are two of my favorite A.J. Fikry quotes:

            “We read to know we are not alone.  We read because we are alone.  We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone.”

And this one:

            “We are not quite novels.  We are not quite short stories.  In the end, we are collected works.”

Simple words maybe, but words that do make you think.

Book Number 3,396

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell - Robert Dugoni

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell was a nostalgic read of sorts for me because it reminds me so much of my favorite John Irving novels Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Robert Dugoni's characters aren't quite as quirky and off the wall as so many of Irving's are, but this episodic coming-of-age novel is every bit as dramatic as either of those novels. Sam Hell starts a little slowly, with young Sam Hill's problems being of the kind lots of "different" kids face in the world: bullying, isolation, self-doubt, etc. - but as Sam grows up, his problems become ever-increasingly serious ones. And by the end of the novel, the reader is left breathlessly wondering just how much Sam will be asked to endure before things get better, if they ever do.

Sam Hill is born with red eyes, pupils so red, in fact, that he startles even the attending nurses at his birth. And, kids being kids, school is pure hell for the boy soon adorned with the nickname that he will wear into adulthood: Sam Hell. Sam's eye color will, however, play a major role in what kind of man he will become, and he would tell you that those eyes and the way people reacted to them made him a better man than he would have been without them. Sam would also be quick to credit his fierce mother, a woman who devoted her life to making sure that her son always got a fair shake in life despite the way he looked. She was not always able to make that happen, but Sam always knew that he could depend on her to go down swinging. 

Author Robert Dugoni
Sam is lucky enough to find two people in grade school who in their own ways are as different as he is.  One of them is the only black child in both the school and the neighborhood from which it draws its students; the other is a little red-haired girl who takes great delight in being the born rebel that she is.  These two will be Sam's best friends for the rest of his life, and the three of them create a little self-contained support group that the rest of us can only wish we could find somewhere.

Robert Dugoni has created some memorable characters here, and my comparison of The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell to a John Irving novel is just about the highest praise I can give to a novel.  I recommend this one.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

It's Sunday, So This Must Be Barnes & Noble - Part 2

 This week's Sunday morning visit to Barnes & Noble resulted in my TBR list growing by almost ten books - even though I brought only one of the books home with me today.  For about twenty minutes it seemed that no matter what direction I turned my head, there was something interesting in front of me.  When you get on a roll like that, you may as well just go with it.  So I did what I always do, put my phone's camera to good use by snapping pictures of things I want to know more about (I try, though, not to be particularly obvious when I take pictures inside a bookstore so some of these photos are a little wonky).

So let's begin with what I brought home, a new-to-me magazine title and Alex Berenson's 2017 The Prisoner:

World Literature Today is a high quality production that I've never before seen, and even though I paid full price for this November-December 2018 issue, I'm thrilled to get my hands on it.  As you can see, the cover features the wonderful writer Alice Walker and highlights several intriguing articles, especially the one titled "Illness & Literature." The magazine is chockfull of reviews, poems, stories, and interviews, so I expect to get a lot of use out of it.  Now I'm hoping that this wasn't somehow the last issue of a magazine that I only discovered on its deathbed - that would be just my luck.

I also bought a book from the bargain book display, The Prisoner.  I have found myself reading a whole lot of fiction and nonfiction set in various Muslim countries in the last few years, probably because I spent so many years living and working in North Africa and became pretty familiar with the culture.  A lot of those, of course, were thrillers and this one by Alex Berenson does sound like fun.  I take this from the dust jacket: "An Islamic State prisoner in a secret Bulgarian prison has been overheard hinting that a senior CIA officer may be passing information to the Islamic State.  The agency's top officials, and even the President, say the possibility is unthinkable."  And that means that recurring character John Wells is going to have to "resume his former identity as a hardened jihadi."

It seems as if I'm seeing more Holocaust-based fiction right now than I've seen in a long time.  Considering the horrifying rise in anti-Semitism around the world, that is probably a good thing (maybe everyone should be forced to watch movies like The Pianist so that this trend is stopped in its tracks).  This one is set in 1943 Amsterdam where a married couple is arrested and sent to separate camps.  Now the wife has to decide whether she prefers the certainty of a slow death over volunteering for the camp brothel.  

I absolutely fell in love with Swedish writer Fredric Backman's novel A Man Called Ove a while back but have read only one other by him since then, a novel called My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry.  That's why I was happy to spot the more recent Bear Town and Us Against You (not pictured) on separate tables this morning. Without even knowing much about the plot details (I do remember that one of the two is about a small town hockey team), I'm putting both of them in line to be read soon just because I enjoy Backman's quirky plots so much.  

And because I'm a sucker for longish family sagas, these two made the morning's cut: The Guest Book (not pictured) by Sarah Blake and A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan.  I can't imagine any more different families, one wealthy and upperclass for generations and the other a family that has produced witches for generations.  Both novels appear upon first glance to be well written, so I'm looking forward to getting around to both of them eventually.  

I've been a Kate Atkinson fan for a few years now, and was pleased to see that her 2018 novel Transcription is now in paperback. This one is a spy novel set in England shortly after the conclusion of World War II. (I should mention that almost all of these books were found in displays of "new" paperbacks.)  The New Yorker raved about this one last year - and Atkinson is just so solid that I don't doubt that Transcription will be good.

Then there's this one called Supermarket by Bobby Hall (who appears to be a musician of note with whom I am completely unfamiliar).  It tells the tale of a young man named Flynn who has moved back in with his mother due to his anxiety and depression problems. Flynn gets a supermarket job that he believes will solve all of his problems - a steady job does tend to do that - but things don't go at all as planned after Flynn shows up at work only to find that he's walked into a crime scene.  This one is called a "psychological thriller" and a "study of madness and creativity." Sounds good.

And finally, there's the only nonfiction book in the lot, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, a book I've seen around for quite a while but somehow never taken a close look at.  Now I wish I hadn't waited so long because this one might finally answer some questions I've had for most of my life.  This will be my first Mary Roach book, but a quick glance at what else she's written tells me it's not likely to be my last.

In the past I would have purchased most of these nine books, if not all of them, eventually but those days are long gone due my lack of shelf space. I'm to the point where it has to be one book out for every new book I bring into the house, and that tends to make me a lot more careful with my book purchases than I used to be. So for now, most of these will be going on my "hold" list at the local library (best internet invention ever) - as soon as I can get that list back below the limit set by the library, that is.  Don't expect to see any of them reviewed on Book Chase anytime soon; but I can dream, right?