Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Elizabeth George's New One - May 2008

"He found the body on the forty-second day of his walk."

According to Elizabeth George, this is the first sentence in her new Thomas Lynley novel, Careless in Red, due out this May. I'm really looking forward to finding out what Ms. George has in store for Lynley and Havers as all of us, characters and readers alike, try to recover from the devastating events of her last novel in the series.

This clip is from "The Book Show" on Sky Arts, a nicely done show in which George reveals the first sentence of the new book at the very end of her interview.

I can't wait to get my hands on this one...where's an ARC when you need one?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Walking Across Egypt (1987)

Walking Across Egypt is my first 2008 re-read and I am relieved to report that it was even funnier and more touching this second time around than it was when I first read it in the late eighties. That might very well be because I opted for the excellently “performed” audio version of the book this time rather than the printed version. I suppose I will never really know for sure. But one thing that I do know is that Norman Dietz, the book’s reader, created such a perfect voice and delivery for Mattie Rigsbee, the story’s 78-year-old main character, that he had me laughing out loud at Clyde Edgerton’s dialogue on a regular basis.

Mattie Rigsbee believes that she is “slowing down” and she is not bashful about pointing out to family and friends the numerous things that she can no longer do as quickly or effectively as she used to do them. Of course, Mattie is still more alive than most of the younger people around her, and she still works circles around most of them, but by her own standards she has definitely begun to slow down. Most of all, she realizes that if she is ever to have grandchildren of her own that either her son, who is over 40, or her 38-year-old daughter is going to need to get with it pretty quickly. Hers is not the only clock that is ticking. She’s read, after all, that a man’s sperm gets pretty tired after he passes the age of forty.

Mattie’s life, strange though it may sound, took a turn for the positive when she met the town dogcatcher, a fortunate meeting for both of them, actually. The dogcatcher, who had come to Mattie’s to pick up the stray dog she called about, became her rescuer when he cut her out of the bottomless rocking chair she had accidentally wedged herself into several hours earlier. That was, of course, fortunate for Mattie. As a result of that timely meeting, the dogcatcher found himself being treated to regular home-cooked meals by Mattie; that was fortunate for the dogcatcher.

But more importantly for Mattie, the dogcatcher had a nephew who was in juvenile detention. The real heart of Walking Across Egypt is the relationship between Mattie and 16-year-old Wesley whom she takes to visiting at the reformatory. Wesley, who preceded his stay in the reformatory with some years growing up in an orphanage, gave Mattie a new reason for living. She believes strongly that she should follow the Lord’s instruction to “love the least of these my brethren” and is certain that Wesley qualifies as her personal “least of these my brethren.”

Walking Across Egypt is funny but it is filled with little truths that Edgerton offers via the many wonderful characters that surround Mattie and Wesley, from eccentric neighbors, to slightly hypocritical church friends, to family members who understand neither of them. This one is guaranteed to make you laugh…and to leave you with a few things to ponder when the laughing stops.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, January 28, 2008

Short Story Monday IV - "Haunted"

“Haunted” is a short story that appears in at least two different Joyce Carol Oates short story collections. I read it this afternoon from 2003’s “Small Avalanches and other stories,” a collection that seems to be aimed at the Young Adult market since all of the stories “visit the dark psyche of the teenage years.” But Ms. Oates used the same story to kick-off her 1994 collection entitled “Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque,” a typically dark collection of her work.

“Haunted” is the story of two girls, sometimes friends, sometimes not, who grew up together on nearby farms during a time when farms were failing all around them. In fact, since both of them were in no small part tomboyish, the two spent a good deal of their free time exploring the abandoned farmhouses that neighbored their own. Despite the warnings of their parents to stay away from the falling down old houses and barns and their abandoned wells, and the rumor that many of the old places were haunted by the ghosts of previous owners, the two girls liked nothing better than to explore them.

Oates paints the picture of what seems to be a normal rural childhood, one in which the farm kids are bused to town for schooling and where the “townies” become the natural elite whose favor is courted by those from the country. Nothing could be more natural than that the two girls begin to drift apart as they enter their middle school years and one starts to be recognized for a natural beauty and sex appeal that the other does not have. About the only thing that the two still have in common, as one is drawn more and more into the orbit of the town kids, is their love for exploring the old home places, even the one where a bloody murder-suicide took place years earlier.

But even when things seem perfectly normal, Oates is building the reader’s suspicion that the story will not end well for the girls, throwing little hints, one-sentence flashbacks, and a change of perspective from a teenaged narrator to somber narration by that same person some decades later. Despite the numerous clues and disclosures provided by Oates, this one still reads like a train wreck that one can see coming from a mile up the tracks: it feels inevitable, but is still a shock.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jimmie Rodgers (1979)

Nolan Porterfield’s 1979 Jimmie Rodgers is the definitive Jimmie Rodgers biography, a frank and honest look at a man who was determined to make the most of what he knew was going to be a very short life. Porterfield pulls no punches in the biography and spends as much time discussing Jimmie’s weaknesses as he does his strengths. As a result, the story that he tells is even more astounding than if he had written a puff piece portraying Jimmie as the perfect superstar of his day.

Jimmie Rodgers did not have a great singing voice. He was not an exceptionally talented guitar player and, in fact, was not known to be a very good musician. He found it difficult to keep time when recording with other musicians and was nowhere near the songwriter that he is “officially” credited with having been. That lack of songwriting ability when coupled with Jimmie’s difficulty in learning new material limited the number of recording sessions that could be scheduled during his short lifetime.

But Jimmie Rodgers was one of the great stylists of his day and he used his unique “blue yodel” and combined “hillbilly” and blues music in a way that continues to influence country music even today. He paved the way for the “singing cowboys” who became so popular in Hollywood movies after his death. Porterfield quotes music historian Henry Pleasants this way about the limitations of Jimmie’s voice: “Well, great voices do not great singers make. Great singers are made by what musically creative men and women do with the voices God gave them.” Exactly.

James Charles Rodgers, the youngest of three children, was born to a poor Mississippi couple on September 8, 1897. His father left a job with the railroad to farm the land on which the family lived in an attempt to provide a steadier living and so that he could spend more time with his growing family. But when Jimmie’s mother died in 1903, Aaron Rodgers returned to the railroad life and the Rodgers children were housed with other relatives.

Jimmie, who spent much of his young adult life working railroad jobs like his father, never seemed to see his railroad wages as anything more than the money he needed to tide him over until his singing career blossomed. Despite that, Jimmie Rodgers will always be remembered as a “railroad man” because he billed himself for a long time as “The Singing Brakeman,” an image that Hollywood used in the one short film recording that was made of Jimmy performing some of his songs.

Jimmie Rodgers was a man in a hurry. He knew that tuberculosis would kill him, especially if he did not spend weeks at a time in bed resting and recuperating from the effects of the disease that was killing so many of his countrymen. But Jimmie Rodgers was not one to spend his time bedridden and worrying about himself. He decided to make the most of the time he had, and only took to his bed when his doctors told him that he was near death if he refused to end his non-stop touring and recording schedule for a while, instances that became more and more frequent as Jimmie’s neglect of his health began to take its ultimate toll on him.

“That old T.B.” finally beat Jimmie Rodgers in May, 1933 when he died in a New York hotel room during what was to be his last recording session. Weak as he was, Rodgers managed to record thirteen masters from May 17-24, twelve of which were eventually released for sale. In a little less than six years (August 1927-May 1933), Jimmie managed to record only 110 songs, not a huge songbook by the standards of any major recording star, but one that is destined to live forever.

Jimmie Rodgers was a man who fought tremendous odds in order to live the life of his dreams. He was a musical pioneer who, although he could not finally beat the disease that killed him, held it off long enough to establish his place in music history. He survived the death of traveling vaudeville tent shows and the impact that the Great Depression had on the sale of his records. He was there to see the early days of radio and to suffer the effects of “talkies” on the kind of traveling live entertainment packages that made his living.

Nolan Porterfield has done a magnificent job of describing the ups and downs that Jimmie Rodgers suffered in his 35 years. In one sense, Jimmie did not have much to show for a music career that resulted in the sale of some seven million records and constant touring of the south and southwest parts of the country. At his death he had only about $4,000 to his name, the money that he had been advanced for his last recording session and the proceeds from the sale of an automobile. But, oh what a life he lived, and what a legend he has become!

Rated at: 5.0

This is one of the songs that Jimmie did for his Hollywood "short." It's known as "Blue Yodel No. 1" or "T for Texas."

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Reader's Obituary

There's some kind of upper-respiratory bug going around Houston and knocking people on their butts for what seems forever. It finally chased me down three or four days ago and I've been struggling to get through a day's work and not crash into bed immediately upon reaching home every evening. I'm still reading, though at about fifty percent my normal rate, but putting a coherent thought into writing has become more and more difficult every hour, thus my lack of response to your recent comments and my overall neglect of Book Chase.

Maybe it's because I feel so terrible that this obituary from the Chicago Tribune caught my eye. Whatever the reason, I absolutely love the way that Mary Jane McNamee's obit leads off with a tribute to her love of reading.
With 12 children to raise, Mary Jane McNamee, an avid reader, grabbed moments for herself wherever she could.

In the morning, her children would awake to find her already up, curled in a chair with a cigarette, a soda and a book. After dinner, she'd prop up a novel behind the sink to fill her mind while her hands were busy with a sky-high pile of dishes.

At no time did she seem overburdened by her plus-sized brood.

"She was fascinated by all her kids," said her son Tom, a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times.
As heavy duty readers, I think that we will all agree that this is a beautiful final tribute to a loved one.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dwight Yoakam Wednesday

It's been a while since I've shared a bit of authentic country music here, so if you're in the mood, here's "Always Late," the Lefty Frizzell classic as done by the one and only Dwight Yoakam. I'm not sure the year on this one, but Dwight was looking and sounding great. I hope you enjoy the break.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I've come to realize that I miss some of my old friends, the ones that I read years ago and have carted from country to country for the last couple of decades, books that catch my eye on my shelves every time I'm looking for a book to read but for which I never reach. With three or four exceptions, I have never been one to read a book more than one time, but that's about to change.

I've read eight books so far in 2008 and I doubt that any of them will make my Top 15 list. In fact, at the rate I'm going, I wonder if I will have a 2008 Top 15 Reads because nothing I've read so far has left that kind of impression on me. Perhaps it's me. Sometimes I get into a reading rut for weeks on end where nothing quite does it for me, only to suddenly break out and absolutely love three or four books in a row. (I've also been fighting a bad cold for almost a week and I'm starting to lose the fight, something that hasn't helped much.)

In an attempt to break out of this slump, I'm going to set a new 2008 reading goal for "re-reads," hoping to revisit 10-15 of my all-time favorite books. I'm starting off with two very different books: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Clyde Edgerton's Walking Across Egypt. One is from 1965 and I recognized it as a horrific masterpiece even when I read it as a junior in high school. The other is from 1987 and is one of the few books that made me laugh out loud from start to finish...two books that could hardly be more different.

Maybe reading these will give me the jump-start that I need to get back in the groove...

Speechless in Houston

I don't know what to say.

I'll just refer you to this Rocky Mountain News article about a woman who strangled her mother to death, hoping that she would receive a prison sentence of life so that she could do nothing but read books the rest of her life.

I'm stunned...

Monday, January 21, 2008

Short Story Monday III - "An Outside Interest"

Everyone should have an “outside interest,” some activity or interest apart from their normal routine to keep them alert and enthusiastic about their lives, even more than one if they have the time. Everybody needs a hobby, right? Well, as Ruth Rendell points out in her short story, “An Outside Interest,” there are hobbies and then there are hobbies.

The unnamed narrator of Rendell’s story is a pretty ordinary guy, married, living paycheck-to-paycheck, and doing his bit to provide for his wife and son. But he’s unable to provide housing that his wife feels is safe enough for her to walk the neighborhood alone so she expects him to walk her to and from her errands. That is probably what gave him the idea for a new outside interest of his own.

The more he heard the horror stories told by his wife and her friends, the more powerful he felt and the more thankful that he was male. When he accidentally frightened a lone female walker one evening, the burst of excitement that he felt hooked him on his new interest and he began to regularly seek out lone women as targets of intimidation. Rendell does her usual worthy job of placing the reader right inside the head of even a deviant like this one, and the man’s rationalizations for his behavior almost start to make a perverted sort of sense as he repeats them to himself over and over.

But, of course, all good things must end and this is no exception. Rendell slowly builds the story’s suspense as her “stalker” becomes ever bolder in his confrontations and the reader’s sense of dread becomes stronger and stronger. Unfortunately, the ending is rather predictable, one that I could see coming about two-thirds of the way through the story, and detracts from its overall impact. This is not one of Ruth Rendell’s stronger efforts.

From the Ruth Rendell short story collection called The Fever Tree

Rated at: 2.5

The Dogs of Babel (2003)

Grief is a strange thing, often bringing with it the kind of pain that can cause even the sanest among us to do things so completely out of character and so irrational that others begin to fear for their personal safety and wellbeing. It is said that there is no greater grief than that suffered at the loss of one’s child but, especially for those who have no children, losing a beloved spouse has to be a crushing blow of the same magnitude.

In The Dogs of Babel, Carolyn Parkhurst tells the story of one man who suddenly faced exactly that level of grief when he returned home one evening to find his backyard swarming with policemen inside the crime scene tape blocking entrance to his property. Lexy, his wife, was dead, the result of a fall from a large tree she had climbed for some unknown reason. That the fall had killed her was beyond question. All that remained to be determined was whether she died by accident or by suicide.

Despite eventual assurances from police investigators that Lexy’s death was the result of some kind of freak accident, Paul felt that there was much more to her death than the police would ever know. He also realized there was a witness to what happened: the couple’s dog, Lorelei, a Rhodesian Ridgeback that Lexy brought to the marriage. Paul, a university linguistics professor, much to the dismay of everyone in his department, decided there was only one thing to do. He had to teach Lorelei to “talk” so that she could tell him what she saw on that terrible afternoon.

In succeeding chapters, Parkhurst alternates between Paul’s almost frantic efforts to communicate with Lorelei in the present and his bittersweet memories of his life with Lexy. Many of Paul’s memories are almost too good to be true and, as he returns to them seeking clues about what might have happened to Lexy, he begins to admit to himself that all was not what it seemed to be.

Despite its title, this is not really a book about a man’s efforts to teach a dog to talk. Rather, it is a book about grief and the craziness that can take over the lives of those suddenly struck by catastrophe beyond their comprehension. Paul does eventually come to realize that his work with Lorelei is doomed to failure, but not before he places his one remaining link with Lexy in mortal danger through his contact with a group of maniacs who are trying to make it physically possible for dogs to talk by subjecting them to painful and deforming amateur surgery.

Frankly, this would have been a better novel if Parkhurst had spent more time with Paul’s efforts to make Lorelei tell him the truth about Lexy’s last day. Instead, she has concocted some kind of romantic mystery in which Paul stumbles around seeking clues that will conclusively prove whether or not his wife killed herself. In the process, both Paul and Lexy are revealed as the flawed and rather unlikable characters that they are and the reader comes to realize that the only truly sympathetic character in the book is a dog. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is doubtful that Parkhurst intended it that way.

But my biggest complaint about The Dogs of Babel is that Carolyn Parkhurst did not play fairly with me as a reader. She withheld a key piece of information from me, one that I will not reveal here because, in a sense it is a “spoiler,” but one of which Paul was aware within days of Lexy’s death. Knowledge of that information would have made it much easier to decide whether or not Lexy was a suicide, something that Parkhurst could not have her readers do if her novel was to reach the climax she intended for it. That approach does not work for me and is a crutch that authors should never be tempted into using because most readers will resent it.

The Dogs of Babel is not necessarily a bad novel, just one that could have been so much more than it is.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Happy Birthday, Book Chase

I just realized that Book Chase is officially a year old today and thought that I should at least mention the milestone because when I started the blog a year ago I honestly never expected to last even this long. But after having made some 460 posts that generated more than 3100 comments and a long list of new "bookish" friends, I want to say how much fun that all of this has been for me.

I really appreciate the fact that so many of you stop by to check out what's been posted, and I especially appreciate that so many people take the time to comment on what I've had to say...whether or not they agree with me. The world of book blogging has been a revelation to me and I only wish that I had discovered it a few years sooner than I did because I can't remember ever being more excited about my personal reading or the book world, in general. We have a great little community going and I feel blessed to be a part of it.

Year Two, here I come, ready or not...

Playaways and Libraries

Until last year I was not really much of a fan or user of audio books. I was lucky enough to have a short drive to the office and, when at home, I used my down-time to read text rather than drag out a CD or tape player to listen to books. The experiences are so different, and I love reading so much, that I was just not tempted at all by the "convenience" of recorded books.

But something changed in 2007 and I found myself with an audio book "in progress" just about all the time. In fact, I finished 18 audio books last year, some of them as long as twenty CDs and requiring well over twenty listening hours. My current drive to work is about twice as long as last year's (30 minutes now) and audio books continue to ease the boredom associated with that kind of repetitive driving.

This article from the Albany Times Union discusses an audience for audio books that I hadn't much considered: kids, kids who are learning to read, kids who are reluctant readers at best, and kids who are turned on by modern technology and feel that it's cool to use an audio book, especially one of the new Playaways that are becoming more and more common in public libraries.
At the Clifton Park Halfmoon Public Library in Clifton Park, librarians recently purchased 55 audio book players, known by the name brand Playaway, to keep up with growing demand by kids to listen to their favorite authors.

The Playaways look and function like a digital music player similar to an iPod. Only, instead of hundreds of songs, each device holds just one book, like the latest in the Harry Potter series or Phillip Pullman's "The Golden Compass." Listeners can skip through chapters by hitting a button in the same way that one might advance to the next track on a CD.

The circulation desk sells ear buds for $1, or patrons can use their own headphones.
Another benefit to the audio books is that they have become another product libraries can shelve that will draw in young people, increasing the chance that they will grow to value and use libraries as adults.
And for readers who might not be as enthusiastic about books as some of their peers, audio books can often spark interest for an exciting story that will lead to a love of books, said Cathy O'Connor, a librarian at the Schenectady County Public Library.

In Schenectady, popular audio titles include Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series, Christopher Paolini's sword-and-dragon fantasies, and action titles by Anthony Horowitz.

"We'll see kids check out the audio books and the print version at the same time, and listen to them and read them together," O'Connor said. "It's especially good to have for reluctant readers, readers that may not be as facile with the written word."
Personally, I think that the Playaways are a bit overpriced for personal users but they make sense for public libraries where they will be listened to by dozens of different people. Hey, whatever helps make children enthusiastic about books and reading is great as for as I'm concerned, regardless of the expense.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Making a Living from Old Books

Books are so darn heavy in groups of more than five or six that I never imagined that people living on the streets would bother with pulling them from trash bins for their resale value. But, from the sound of this New York Times article, the practice is not uncommon in the city.

By 9:15 most mornings, Thomas Germain, a ruddy-faced man in a yellow slicker, is pushing his oversize black wheeled suitcase down 12th Street in the direction of the Strand Bookstore on Broadway. Sometimes, the suitcase is stuffed full of books; sometimes the books fill a box or two or three that he balances carefully on top of it, a mass of swaying literature he rolls all the way from Greenwich Village or SoHo or Stuyvesant Town.

By 9:30, he’s often sitting outside the Strand, waiting for the store to open, drinking a breakfast of Budweiser with his friend Brian Martin, who’s pushed and pulled his own collection of books to the same destination in a large, teetering grocery cart.
Hundreds of men and a smaller number of women eke out a living scavenging books in Manhattan, according to Mitchell Duneier, author of “Sidewalk,” a book about the subculture of sidewalk book scavengers and vendors. Some of them sell their books on the street; others, the less entrepreneurial, or the more impatient, go for the surefire cash at the Strand. When the store opened that Monday morning, Tommy Books and Leprechaun each in turn emptied their boxes onto the counter, where Neil Winokur, a Strand employee, quickly sorted them into two piles.
Read the whole article to find out about one enterprising "rookie" who made a great find for himself and for the bookstore. Despite the obstacles faced by these guys, I think this still qualifies as a "feel good story."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Thin Man (1933)

Being almost completely unfamiliar with the old Nick and Nora Charles movies, I came to The Thin Man with no preconceived notions about its two main characters and how they might fit into the rest of Hammett’s body of work. At first, the book did not strike me as being particularly dark or hardboiled, two qualities I have come to expect from Hammett’s writing, but by the time I finished it I had changed my mind. As Hammett developed his storyline and fleshed out his characters it became apparent that the more sophisticated Nick and Nora were dealing with characters from the criminal underworld and the NYPD who would have fit comfortably into any Hammett novel.

Ex-detective Nick Charles and his wealthy young wife have come from San Francisco to spend Christmas 1932 in New York City, a city with which Nick is very familiar and in which he still has many friends and contacts because of the years he worked it as a private detective. Nick, retired from the business and hoping to earn his keep these days by managing the enormous wealth that his new wife has inherited, wants nothing more from the holiday than a chance to visit old haunts, see a few friends, drink some good booze on a regular basis and sleep until noon each day.

A chance encounter with the daughter of a former client of his who wants him to help her find her father makes sure that most of Nick’s original holiday goals will be impossible to achieve because, try as he might to avoid any involvement, he is slowly sucked into a mess beyond his imagination. Before he knows what hit him, Nick is working with a NYPD detective on a murder investigation, becomes the target of one of the murder suspects, finds that the wife of another suspect is trying to frame him for the murder, realizes that he and Nora have become surrogate parents to the young lady who first got him involved, and is still trying to squeeze in as much booze as possible into his daily routine.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammett’s last novel and I had hoped to enjoy it much more than I did. Strangely enough, what will stay with me the longest is the alcoholism that the novel’s main character, Nick Charles, so obviously suffers, suffers to such a degree that he is constantly joking about his need for a drink and offering drinks to others so that he will have an excuse to mix one for himself. In fact, his young wife Nora, if she stays with Nick too many years, is almost certainly going to end up in the same boat. Hammett, an alcoholic himself, portrays these drinking habits as humorous and sophisticated, very much a positive thing in the lives of Nick and Nora Charles. I found that attitude, along with some casual use of the “N-word” to be distracting enough to keep me from fully buying into the novel’s plot. I realize that the book was written at least 75 years ago but I struggled to get past this kind of thing, especially Hammett’s attempt to make alcoholism seem so appealing a lifestyle.

I listened to the audio version of the book and I was impressed with the way that William Dufris read the novel. The Thin Man is largely a first person narrative by Nick Charles with the remainder of the book being told in conversational format. Dufris does a superb job providing accents, inflections and different voices for the various characters, male and female, and made listening to Hammett’s story a pleasure but, overall, I was disappointed in the book. Based on its reputation, I think that I expected too much.

Rated at: 3.0

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Big Tobacco Sues Little Publisher

I decided not to mention the publication of these little books last summer when I first spotted an article about their release. There was just something that rubbed me the wrong way about books that seemed, at least at first glance, to glorify a product as horrible as cigarettes. I'm extremely anti-smoking, and have been so for decades, and I really hated to even mention an industry like "big tobacco" which, in my opinion, has no legitimate reason for even existing.

But the story is in the news again because, according to London's Guardian Online, big tobacco is now demanding via the court house that all the unsold Hemingway books (first in line in the above picture) be pulped because they too closely resemble real packages of Lucky Strike cigarettes and will "damage the health of the brand." Maybe the kind folks at British American Tobacco should be worrying more about the health of their customers than the health of the Lucky Strike brand...
Last summer, the small British publisher and design company Tank hit on the idea of producing a range of classic books packaged like cigarettes. Abridged works and short stories by Kafka and Conrad, Tolstoy and Kipling, Hemingway and Stevenson, which looked like packs of 20 cigarettes, were duly distributed through bookshops and the Design Museum.

The books, released as Tales to Take Your Breath Away at the start of the cigarette ban in pubs and restaurants last July, were well received by the design press and have made popular Christmas presents. But now the publishers are having to inhale deeply themselves as British American Tobacco (BAT) claims that one of the packs, containing Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Undefeated, resembles its own Lucky Strike pack.
Masoud Golsorkhi, co-founder and creative director of Tank, which is based in London, said: "I had been toying with the idea of using the cigarette packs for some time. When we heard about the smoking ban it seemed like it was now or never.

"I thought that producing a book that was small enough to be easily carried everywhere with you, like a packet of cigarettes, could be a good alternative - and the packaging made it fun."
TankBooks responded via its Brighton-based lawyers, Be., to BAT's claims by showing that a large number of cigarette brands have a circular motif similar to that of Lucky Strike. It says members of the public are unlikely to mistake a Hemingway novel for a packet of cigarettes.
My money is on the tobacco giant. History tells us that those guys are not bashful about distorting the truth and have the money and lawyers to do it well.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Proud Flesh (1973)

There is no doubt about it. The Texas Renshaws were a dominating family, one willing to run over any outsider who dared stand in the way of whatever they wanted. And their definition of “outsider” was anyone not born into, or married into, the Renshaw family. If one Renshaw could not get the job done, the rest of them saw nothing wrong with ganging up to use whatever brute force was necessary to get them what they wanted.

Whether or not any Renshaw involved in a dispute was right or wrong never mattered much to the rest of the family. Either way, the Renshaws, none of them strangers to violence, were certain to show up to defend their family member or, if it was too late for that, to avenge him. That was a given, something that the rest of their East Texas community accepted as a fact of life, and something that the six Renshaw boys took for granted. Considering the nature of the Renshaw sons, it was a brave man who courted any of the four Renshaw daughters but all but one of them managed to marry.

But the family’s chief strength, a clannishness learned at the knee of the strong widow who headed the family, would ultimately reveal just how weak its members really were when that widow, Edwina Renshaw, suffered a sudden heart attack and took to what was expected to be her death bed. Responding as they always did in times of family crisis, the Renshaw children returned to the family place with all of their own children and spouses in tow to await their mother’s death. Throw in a few older relatives who felt the need to be there and a bunch of screaming toddlers who only wanted to go home and there is little wonder that a family as volatile as the Renshaws would crumble under the pressure of all that togetherness.

The Renshaw family was not easily embarrassed but the way that their mother’s favorite child, youngest of the bunch, had completely abandoned the Renshaws was something they tried desperately to hide from their neighbors. Determined that Edwina would live long enough to reconcile with her youngest son, the Renshaw boys tried to keep her alive the only way that they knew how, through brute force and will. The craziness resulting from their tactics is at the heart of William Humphrey’s story, one involving kidnapping, interracial “romance,” dogs slaughtered in the middle of the night, a daughter who seems as likely to accidentally kill Edwina as to nurse her back to health, and misadventure in New York City.

All in all, this is quite a story and it proves that Proud Flesh is still only flesh after all is said and done. Or, as William Humprhey put it, “Over the lacerations they inflicted upon each other, tissue formed like proud flesh over festering wounds.” The Renshaws, in the end, were just another family bent on self-destruction, and they made a fine job of it.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, January 14, 2008

Short Story Monday II - "Front Seat"

I've been a fan of Ruth Rendell's novels for years and have read more than two dozen of them, including standalones, those featuring Inspector Wexford, and others penned as Barbara Vine. She seldom disappoints me but for some reason I can't recall ever reading any of her short stories despite having many of them on my shelves. So, during my lunch break this afternoon, I picked up my copy of her Collected Stories and read one called "Front Seat" that was originally published as part of her The Fever Tree collection.

"Front Seat" is very much a Ruth Rendell story despite its length of just a dozen pages. Rendell specializes in building very believable characters, not all of them very likable or mentally healthy, as the basis for her stories of ordinary people who find themselves involved in crime either as victim or perpetrator. "Front Seat" is a little different in that the crime in question is some fifty years old when it strikes the interest of one Cecily Branksome, a woman on holiday with her husband at one of England's communities on the sea that can be very uncomfortable and boring even in the middle of July.

Cecily's personality can be trying even in the best of times but, when the wind and rain drives her indoors with nothing better to do then snoop into the doings of the locals, she does manage to make the acquaintance of a local hustler who feels that she and her husband might provide a little free food and drink for a few days. Cecily was intrigued by the commemorative inscription on one of the benches facing the sea because it indicated that it had been donated by a local man once accused of murder but who had been acquitted of the crime. Cecily's new friend, the local "barfly," was more than willing to fill in the details of the old case for her and to show her where everything had happened.

Never for a minute doubting her ability to solve a crime that the police had failed to sort out years earlier, Cecily researched the details for herself and began to look up the few remaining locals who might have some memory of the affair. Using perfectly sound logic, she solves the case and notifies the proper authorities so that the culprit can be arrested and made to pay. Or did she?

This is one of those stories with a nice little twist thrown in at the very end. At times that technique can be frustrating because writers sometimes do not play fair and fail to leave adequate clues with which the reader might have figured out the twist beforehand. I can't claim to have seen this one coming, but a quick scan of the story's earlier pages convinces me that I probably should have. I like that.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Comanche Moon

I've mentioned before (probably several times) how much I love Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and how high it is on my list of all-time favorite books. I intend to read the book again in 2008 for what will be the fourth time, in fact, because every time that I read the book I feel as if I've taken the time to visit old friends Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. It's like I've known them forever although I only met them in 1985 when I luckily stumbled on a copy of Lonesome Dove on the first day that it hit bookstore shelves.

But this time around I'm going to read Lonesome Dove as part of the series that it grew into after all of its initial success as a Pulitzer Prize winner and well-respected television mini-series. McMurtry added to the Call-McCrae story with three more books about them. Book Two is a traditional sequel to Lonesome Dove called Streets of Laredo, the story of Woodrow Call's later years as a bounty hunter. Next came a prequel titled Dead Man's Walk in which McMurty, in a way, introduces McCrae and Call to the world as teenagers who have just joined their beloved Texas Rangers. Book Four, Comanche Moon, covers the missing "middle years" of my two friends and their little band of Texas Rangers, so in order to read the story in chronological order for the first time, I'll start with Book Three, and follow with Books Four, One and Two, in that order. And what a saga it is since the books total some 2,661 pages in the first edition hardcover versions that are on my shelves.

CBS Television will be giving me a little jump-start on my project tonight by showing the first episode of its brand new miniseries based on Comanche Moon.
"Comanche" delivers a solid story, though not an especially upbeat one. It's unblinking, melancholy, violent, frustrating, wistful, sometimes reassuring, sometimes funny, often troubling, almost never sentimental.

It locks in on the men and women who settled the American frontier and refuses to buy the myth that because in the end they stretched America from sea to shining sea, it was all good.

To McMurtry, whose four-book series spawned five separate miniseries, the sacrifices by the dead and the living are rarely noble. They're ugly, they're ragged, sometimes they're just plain stupid. Mostly they reflect the worst of human behavior, not the best.
Interestingly, several storylines and characters in "Comanche" strongly echo HBO's late, lamented "Deadwood" - which is worth mentioning because "Comanche," restricted by network content standards, sometimes seems tepid by comparison.
But "Comanche" can stand on its own as a perceptive view of how the West was tamed - a "victory" McMurtry portrays as the end product of clashes among a rotating cast of cultures whose commonality lay largely in the cruelty they inflicted in the name of their beliefs.

Or simply their desires.
This is one of those rare times that I am actually looking forward to watching network television for something other than a football or baseball game. It's been a few years since that has happened. That probably means that I'll be disappointed, of course.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Would You Admit It?

Even if it were true that you had never read one single book in your entire life, would you be big enough a fool to admit it? Apparently so, if your name is Victoria Beckham. According to this article from BBC News, Mrs. Beckham claims never to have read a book despite the fact that she has "written" her own autobiography. I don't blame her for not reading that one.

"And some, including Victoria Beckham, claim never to have read a book at all."
The article concerns the debate over whether or not the decline in reading rates around the world is anything to be concerned about or whether books have been replaced by other reading sources. But I have to admit that it tickles me to have Victoria Beckham so readily confirm my previous impressions about her extreme shallowness. Thanks, Victoria.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Down to a Sunless Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea is one of the most unusual short story collections that I have ever read. What makes this collection different from most is the way that Matt Freese varies his writing style from story to story to match the mental state and speaking style of each of his main characters, a technique that does not allow his readers to get comfortable with a “Matt Freese writing style,” but one that definitely increases the impact of each of his stories.

Plot is secondary in the fifteen stories offered here. Instead, Freese has written stories that seek to give a clear picture of what it is like inside the mind of damaged individuals who are struggling to make their way in the world. Some have suffered physical damage or they are handicapped. Others, for multiple reasons, are the victims of mental illnesses of various sorts that make it impossible for them to fully function in the everyday world.

Make no mistake. This is a dark and disturbing series of stories. Some of Freese’s characters offer inspiration but, for the most part, the reader finds that their situations are unlikely to improve and that they will probably continue to experience life as misfits, outcasts, or worse. Freese knows of which he writes. These stories were written over the course of thirty years, twenty-five of which Freese spent in the practice of psychotherapy or as a clinical social worker. They are about people he knows, including even members of his own family.

What is most remarkable about the collection is how Freese is able to make the reader feel solid empathy for each of his characters. Their minds and bodies may be impaired but his characters come across as real, sympathetic human beings deserving to be understood and respected for the people they are. They want nothing more out of life than we all want, and they deserve no less.

Among my favorites of the stories is “Herbie,” in which a boy holds onto his ambition and dreams despite living with a father who seems determined to physically and verbally abuse the boy into believing that he is worthless. But, damaged as he is by fear of his father and the abuse he suffers at his hands, Herbie keeps his dreams alive at least for now. And then there is “Little Errands,” a story about a man with a phobia about the mail system. He can never be certain that he actually placed something in the mail and fears that he might have somehow misplaced it and only thinks that he mailed it. And, if he actually mailed it, what are the chances that it will slip into some crack inside the mailbox that is inaccessible to the postman when he comes to gather the box’s contents? He can hardly bear to think of all the things that can happen to a mailed item before it reaches the destination for which he intends it.

Not all fifteen of the stories work for me but Matt Freese has created so many unforgettable characters that I find his collection to be well worth reading. He offers insights into people and situations that only someone of his experience could possibly offer, and despite the nature of his stories readers coming to them with an open mind will be happy that they did.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Advance Reading Copies on Loan?

Scott Brown over at Fine Books Blog has some interesting news about one publisher's new attitude about Advance Reading Copies (ARCs). Since many of my fellow book bloggers receive ARCs from various publishers on a fairly regular basis I think that most of you will find this to be an interesting development.
I've written on this subject before, so I won't rehash the whole thing, but basically there are two issues. 1) Do publishers have the right to prevent sales of ARCs; and 2) Does it really matter. The answer to #2 is NO. The number of ARCs trading online (which is a much smaller number than the count of copies LISTED online), is quite small and they are a specialty item for collectors who are not likely to do what publishers fear: buy the ARC secondhand instead of the real book new.
However ridiculous their concerns are, publishers do get worked up over ARC sales and Scribner has come up with an innovation: legal wording inside the ARC that says it's on loan:

Click the link over to Scott's original blog entry for more of his thoughts on the issue. Personally, I'm a collector of ARCs and I can't recall ever selling one, or even giving one away. I find them to be fun items to add to my book collection and I'm always on the lookout for older ARCs and Uncorrected Proofs. I have regular first edition copies of many of the ARCs that I own because I consider the ARCs to be complimentary to the hardback first editions, not a replacement for them that will save me a few bucks.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Short Story Monday - Nicholas

I've tried and tried to get myself more comfortable with short stories as opposed to novels and non-fiction works but it just doesn't come easy for me. For whatever reason, I enjoy long books, long movies and long songs more than I do their shorter versions. I absolutely hate reading or listening to abridged books and honestly believe them to be an abomination. When I start watching a seasonal DVD collection of one of my favorite TV series there is nothing I enjoy more than binging on them over a single weekend if I can find the that kind of time.

But I know that I'm shortchanging (pun intended) myself when it comes to my reading of short stories. So I'm hoping to read more individual stories in 2008 and to at least double the number of short story collections that I read last year, three.

I'm reading Mathias Freese's short story collection, Down to a Sunless Sea, right now, in fact, and one of my favorites from the collection, so far, is a story called "Nicholas."

Nicholas is not a good student, something that does not particularly concern him one way or the other because he believes that he pretty much has real life figured out already. The way he sees it, going to school is like doing "hard time" and is for suckers, not for him. He believes that having a purpose in life is more important than learning to read well or memorizing a bunch of meaningless facts that he will never use again. He may be in a "slow class" but he knows that he is no slow learner because he already knows what is important and what is not.

As Nicholas puts it,"Whose the bigger jerk, the teacher who gets paid peanuts or the electrishan who makes $15 or $20 an hour without colledge?" His parents don't read books because they get everything they can possibly need from TV or newspapers. He has a purpose in life, knows where he wants to go, and that's more than he can say for any of the burned out teachers in his life.

Sad as it is, "Nicholas" offers insight into the struggle that schoolteachers face every day of their careers. Nicholas is certain that he is right about the meaninglessness of school to a kid like him and no one in his life will ever convince him otherwise. He is just putting in his "hard time" until his sentence is over.

Mathias Freese has some twenty-five years experience as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist and it shows in this short story collection. I'm enjoying the way that he gets inside the minds of his unusual characters and I plan to review the whole collection in the next few days.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Fruitcake Lady (Truman Capote's Aunt)

Speaking of Truman Capote, here's a clip of one of his aunts, Edna Marie Rudisill, who is said to have had a hand in raising him. Ms. Rudisill apparently became somewhat of a celebrity on the Jay Leno Show and this is said to be typical of what she did on the show. The woman had no fear and pulled no punches. She's funny, if "R Rated."

I've been told that the lady passed away a year or so ago at about 95 years of age. I tried searching for more details via Google but came up empty. She was definitely a hoot and if she was anything like this when Truman was a boy he may have gotten some of his sense of humor and his sharp tongue from her.

Truman Capote - Hollywood Versions

I really miss Truman Capote from the days when he was constantly showing up on television talk shows and variety shows. I enjoyed his "outrageous" mannerisms, his voice and the way that he always tried to shock the host and audience of the shows on which he guested. He always made me laugh and that is exactly what he wanted to do. But Capote managed to hide behind the "character" that he turned himself into and it allowed him to remain a celebrity despite the great writing difficulties that he had after he finished "In Cold Blood." He was unique and he still fascinates me but, for some reason, I've seen neither of the two movies about him that were produced a few years ago. I need to fix that.

"Infamous" movie trailer - Warner Brothers

"Capote" movie trailer - Sony

I've often wondered how two major studios could decide to produce almost the same movie at the same time, but I'm sure that Truman would have loved all the attention. I'm curious to see how Harper Lee is portrayed in the two films and to find out whether or not she had anything to do with either of them. So I'm finally getting around to these two movies (that's my usual pace these days when it comes to movies) and looking forward to what they have to say about Capote and Nell Harper.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

One Reader's New Year's Resolutions

I'm not one for making New Year's resolutions mainly because I can't remember ever making one that I followed through with for more than a few days anyway. So why bother? But this list of one "reader's New Year's resolutions" by the American-Statesman's book editor, Jeff Salamon, made me chuckle a bit because of the universality of the man's resolutions. I think that those of us who think of ourselves as readers can easily pick out three or four of Salamon's resolutions for ourselves. I'm willing to bet they are pretty much the concerns of every dedicated reader out there to one degree or another.

1. Read faster...I'm not interested in speed-reading methods that encourage skipping every other word or sentence or paragraph; skimming is to reading as stepping in a puddle is to swimming. I want to read the way I already read, just more quickly.

2. Less genre fiction, more short lit...Like everyone I know, I'm usually worn down enough by my professional, familial and social responsibilities that what little discretionary reading time I have I often give over to something relatively undemanding; mostly, high-grade specimens of genre fiction. But then, occasionally, I'll pick up a short work of "serious" literature — recently, Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" — and gape at how different it feels to give myself over to an author who's more interested in language and character than plot.

3. Don't read in bed... Reading until I fall asleep has only succeeded in training me to fall asleep when I read.

4. Buy fewer books... I'm surely not the only bibliomaniac who spends as much time shopping for books as he does lamenting how many of the books he already owns go unread. Partly, this is because I adore books as objects; a vintage paperback designed by Paul Rand is a thing of value, whatever resides between its covers. And partly it's because my eyes are too big for my eyes, as it were; I'm eternally fooling myself into believing that tomorrow morning I'll wake up and discover a few extra hours in the day that I can devote to reading.

5. Try to remember... You'd think that, being a slow reader, I would retain most of what I read; each word has that much more time to embed itself in my consciousness. But you'd be wrong.
I love the last sentence of Salamon's article because it so perfectly describes what I meant when I named this blog "Book Chase."
The aura of a book I have yet to read, with its promise of rapture, surprise and edification, might be even more powerful than the aura of a book I have read, enjoyed and duly forgotten.
Jeff Salamon is definitely a kindred soul of ours.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Tainted Hero

What happens when a good man, a veteran of numerous Special Forces combat missions and a man still capable of the kind of physical violence that kept him alive during his days in the military, gives up on the formalities of society to keep his family safe? Is he still a hero if he takes the law into his own hands and eliminates those who threaten or harm his family because a legal system riddled with weak judges will no longer do the job for him?

That is the question explored by author Michael Davis in his new book, Tainted Hero, but ultimately it is a question each reader will have to answer for himself. Imagine what the world looks like through the eyes of Eric Emerson, a moral man who feels compelled to protect those who cannot protect themselves. He has tried to play by society’s rules and, as a result, has forever lost some of the people closest to him. Now he has had enough. He still has the skills and, just as importantly, some of the special equipment that enabled him to survive missions behind enemy lines and he decides to use them. Whether they call it revenge or they call it vigilante justice, can anyone blame him for punishing those who have caused him so much personal grief when the legal system refuses to do it?

By the time that Eric and Major Samantha Cassidy, stumble onto the existence of a secret government report predicting imminent world catastrophe, the pair have already butted heads with government officials, high-ranking military officers and defense contractors about a new defensive missile being tested for use by the American military. As they get closer and closer to the truth, and as they start to suffer the consequences, they realize that they are dealing with something much larger than they ever dreamed.

Eric is faced with the biggest moral issue of his lifetime when he has to decide what to do with the terrible information about his government’s intentions that he possesses. Should he expose the study or does justice require him to allow the plan to proceed, regardless of its cost?

Tainted Hero is an interesting thriller to be sure, and it leaves the reader with a difficult question to answer: Is a “tainted hero” still a hero or is that simply impossible to imagine? Judge for yourself.

Rated at: 3.5

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Faked Out Again

Is there anything more irritating in the entertainment world than an athlete or performer who milks his retirement for every bit of publicity and adulation he can possibly squeeze from it and then refuses to actually retire?

Think Roger Clemens, he who announced his retirement prior to his "last" World Series and who was the toast of the sports world in his final days in a New York Yankee uniform. Everyone loved Roger (well, maybe not the folks in Boston) because of the way that he chose to retire on top after helping his team to get into another World Series, exactly what every major league ballplayer dreams of doing.One problem: Roger traded Yankee pinstripes for Houston Astros pinstripes just a few months later, pitched three years in Houston and then another half-season in New York. Who knows what happens next for Clemens unless the steroid scandal finally forces him into "real" retirement for good?

Think Garth Brooks, the guy who somehow hyped himself into country music stardom despite abandoning real country music to become Billy Joel in a cowboy hat (except that Billy never swung from ropes or smashed his piano on stage). Ol' Garth retired and then repackaged his same, sad selection of songs so many ways that only Wal-Mart could keep up with his "retirement." Then, of course, Garth and Trisha Yearwood made it official and got married just in time for him to sing on stage with her and record with her during his retirement. But, by then, all those Garth Brooks fanatics had already spent their money on all the repackaged goop they could get their hands on because Garth let them believe that was all there would be for at least the next dozen years. And the new songs keep trickling out. Funny guy, that Garth.

Now J.K. Rowling, she who practically shut down the world one night last July in celebration of what was said to be the last Harry Potter book EVER, a woman who makes the marketing machine behind Garth Brooks look amateurish, is hinting that she might yet write an eighth Harry Potter book...or a ninth or tenth, for all she knows. Seven, you say? We were promised seven and out and we all thought that we had now read the whole Potter saga so we laughed and cried together in sad celebration of the best and most important seven books ever written in the history of the world? No, says Ms. Rowling. Never say never.

These people have no shame. Their accountants and bankers love them, but I've had enough of faux retirements to last me a lifetime. Now, even Harry won't go away quietly.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Story of Forgetting

Thanks to breakthroughs in medical technology, it is not unreasonable for people to expect to live well into their eighties or even past ninety years of age today. But, precisely because medical science can keep our bodies alive longer than ever before, more and more families are forced to deal with the impact of Alzheimer’s disease. And despite the disease’s near epidemic numbers since the seventies there is still no cure for it as it continues to devastate families in ever increasing numbers.

There is no doubt that Alzheimer’s impacts some families more than others, a fact of which Stefan Merril Block is well aware since learning that nearly every member of his mother’s family has suffered from the disease. The Story of Forgetting, Block’s debut novel, tells the story of the Haggard family, a family like his own that has endured the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease generation after generation.

Block tells his story through the eyes of two very different people who have more in common than either could ever imagine. Seth Waller, an introverted Austin high school student, is enduring the loss of his mother who has been diagnosed as a sufferer of a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s and has been placed into a nursing facility that can provide her the constant attention that she needs. Abel Haggard, who lives alone on a decaying farm north of Dallas, has lost his twin brother to the disease and wants nothing more from life than to be left alone while he waits hopefully for the return of the daughter he has not seen in decades.

Seth knows nothing about his grandparents because his mother and father have never spoken of the time before they found each other. But a combination of his sudden realization of the importance of his mother’s genetic history and his own internet hacking skills starts the fifteen-year-old on his own “empirical investigation” to learn about his mother’s family, an investigation that brings him closer and closer to the ultimate truth.

The Story of Forgetting is a touching and informative portrayal of the destructive power of Alzheimer’s disease. Stefan Block describes Alzheimer’s patients with remarkable sympathy and clarity and offers insights into the disease from the points-of-view of both the patients themselves and of the family members who must deal with the impact of the disease on their loved ones. He very effectively ties the separate stories of Seth and Abel together with interspersed episodes from the fantastical tale that has been passed from generation-to-generation by the Haggard family, the story of Isidora , a land “free from the sorrows of memory,” helping to make this a powerful debut novel.

Rated at: 3.5