Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Book Rescuer

There's just something that bothers book lovers about the idea of destroying a book, even when there's probably no good reason not to do it. We all know that libraries have to cull their collections in order to make best use of their usually limited shelf space and we all understand that certain books do become useless because of technological changes and the like. But, admit it. Doesn't it still kind of bother you to think of trash bins filled with still-readable books?

According to this article from The Mercury News, it bothers Robert Wright a whole lot. But unlike most of us, Mr. Wright does something about it.
With the zeal of a soul-saver, Robert Wright has delved into garbage bins, filled up his minivan and made space in his San Jose basement, rescuing books once destined for oblivion.

This week, Wright, 57, rumpled in sweatpants and a T-shirt, rushed to Morrill Middle School after the Berryessa school board had declared 686 library books surplus. The teacher browsed through volumes laid out on tables. He filled boxes until the custodian turned out the lights and chased him out. He returned Friday morning, his triumph mixed with amazement and distress.
A few years ago he rescued a hardback copy of "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" and read it to his son, then 11. They ended up going to the bookstore to buy the rest of the classic "Narnia" series.

"I know that an instruction book on how to use the slide rule would be obsolete, but novels by C.S. Lewis?" he asked.

Wright acknowledged that middle-school kids won't pick up a book with an unattractive or worn cover, an odd title or outdated contents. But he finds even some of those useful. "Homemaking for Teenagers," with instructions to girls on how to make a husband happy, for instance, is a historical artifact and can spark discussions about stereotypes, he said.

Many of the books he salvages end up in his English classroom at Morrill. When a student neglects to bring something for free reading time, Wright may hand him a rescued book like Paul Zindel's "The Pigman," about two high school kids who befriend a lonely man.

"After I force them to read the first five pages, they're hooked. I have to tear it from their hands," Wright said.
Robert Wright is doing his bit to extend the lives of books on the brink of destruction, once again proving that good books don't die - they are murdered.

A Quick Note

New Zealand's Hamilton County Bluegrass Band

I was a bit overly optimistic about having enough time and internet access while here in Kentucky to update Book Chase pretty much as normal. I'm finding that it won't be that easy.

The music festival is great, as always, but it totally kills the day. It all started on Thursday evening and will continue through Saturday (today). So because of a combination of way too much time spent in the sun, the relative isolation of the festival site, and the somewhat tricky weather in the area (like the tornado warnings that cleared the festival almost two hours early last night) it has been impossible to work in much reading or blog time. But I suppose that's part of the good news because I really needed a break from the usual routine.

But on this fourth day of my trip, I'm starting to suffer from "book withdrawal." Instead of my usual 150 pages a day I'm reading something like 50 pages while here - and finding it hard to concentrate even on those few pages. I keep reminding myself, though, that I'll be facing my old routine again soon enough and that my world will return to normal all too soon.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Innocent Man

Ron Williamson was at one time one of the favorite sons of Ada, Oklahoma. He was a young man with tremendous athletic skills and many locals believed that he just might be the next Micky Mantle, who is still the greatest baseball player to ever come from that state. But largely because of chronic injury problems that started in high school, Ron was not destined to become a great professional ballplayer. He got his shot, and managed to stay in the minors a lot longer than he probably should have, but baseball is not the thing for which Ron Williamson is remembered by citizens of Ada, Oklahoma.

No, when the people of Ada think of Williamson, what they recall is the rape and murder of which he was convicted and the years that he spent on death row. They remember that he came within five days of actually being executed for a crime with which he had absolutely nothing to do. Well that’s what most of them remember, anyway. Other Ada locals perhaps still want believe the local prosecutor who refuses to admit that he was wrong to ever charge Williamson with the crime, and who still wants to hold out the possibility that the DNA evidence that exonerated him does not prove that he was not involved in some way.

When it came to pinning the rape and murder on someone, Ron Williamson was certainly an easy target. Ron’s drinking problem began in high school and, when his baseball career unraveled, alcohol, drugs, and struggles with depression made it impossible for him to hold a job or to move on with his life. So when the baffled investigators and prosecutors in Ada decided that the crime was so brutal that it had to involve two people, Ron and his running buddy Dennis Fritz were “chosen” as the crime’s most logical perpetrators.

Now all they needed was the evidence to convict the two innocent men and cover themselves in glory as great crime fighters. There was no evidence to be found, however, something that did very little to slow down the police investigators or the local prosecutor who had already decided that Fritz and Williamson were guilty. A combination of creatively coerced “confessions,” testimony from local lowlifes (one who was later to be convicted of the very crime in question), sloppy testimony from experts, a judge who proved his own incompetence, and lies suggested to, and regurgitated by, jailhouse snitches, managed to convict both the men.

Their story is one that most of us would like to believe never happens in this country. Unfortunately, as Grisham proves in The Innocent Man, it probably happens much more often than we know. All it takes is the right combination of incompetent policemen, investigators, expert witnesses, prosecutors and judges to make it possible. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz had years stolen from them and their lives were largely ruined by the very people charged with protecting the public welfare. This is one scary story.

Grisham tells the Fritz and Williamson story in a very straightforward way. There is no attempt to “novelize” what happened through the use of extensively recreated dialogue or by speaking from the points-of-view of its main characters. That does make for some rather dry reading at times but the details resulting from Grisham’s research makes his straight reporting of the facts a fascinating one. The 10-disc unabridged audio version of The Innocent Man is read by Craig Wasson who does a particularly effective job in giving a voice to Ron Williamson’s frustration and outright anger about the situation in which he found himself.

Fans of John Grisham’s novels, in which the action seldom seems to stop, might find the pace of this one to be a little slow. But Grisham had an important story to tell and he told it well.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On the Road Again

Somewhere in Tennessee

I'm leaving before daybreak tomorrow morning on my way to Owensboro, Kentucky, for the annual bluegrass festival held up there every June by the International Bluegrass Music Museum. I'll be checking in with updates on the music (for those few of you who might be interested) and will maybe even work in a book review or two since I have such a hard time sleeping in hotels. I'll be lucky to get four intermittent hours of sleep per night, so you might not even be able to tell that I'm away from home.

I've been looking forward to the trip for a while and can't wait to hit the road (I must have been a long-haul truck driver in a previous life or something). I'll initially be heading to Texarkana, a city that sits on both sides of the Texas-Arkansas border, and then on to Memphis before I finally turn more northeastward and home-in on Kentucky. I'll get the bulk of my driving in tomorrow and, depending on how sleepy I feel, I may just drive the 1100 miles in one very long day.

To Live's to Fly

Townes Van Zandt is a music legend in Texas and was, without a doubt, one of the most talented songwriters of his generation. In addition, Van Zandt had a memorable singing voice and style that make him instantly recognizable to anyone even casually familiar with his work. Sadly, Van Zandt also was an alcoholic of epic proportions and that contributed to the fact that, though he is legend to many, he is largely unknown to even more. John Kruth’s To Live’s to Fly, the first official Townes Van Zandt biography, could help change that.

Those expecting to read the Townes Van Zandt story in typical biography-style will be somewhat disappointed in To Live’s to Fly. John Kruth made little effort to portray Van Zandt’s life in anything remotely resembling chronological order, relying instead on recollections of Van Zandt intimates to provide details of their personal experiences with him in a way that often has the reader jumping from year-to-year and decade-to-decade in confusion. In fact, because it relies so heavily on page after page of long, detailed quotes, the book reads more like a wake than a biography, a gathering of Van Zandt’s old friends who decide to spend the night trading stories about the man they all called friend.

Kruth devotes a substantial portion of his book to reviewing the Van Zandt songbook, a review that leaves the reader with the impression that very few Townes Van Zandt recordings are even listenable due to the incompetence and poor decisions of most of the producers working on his projects. It is doubtful that many fans of Van Zandt’s music will agree with Kruth’s assessment of the recordings and, in fact, most of Kruth’s criticisms will seem strange to those who decide to listen to the music in question while reading the book (as I did). Kruth himself is a musician but the fact that he would have produced Van Zandt’s albums differently than they were, in fact, produced adds nothing to the Townes Van Zandt story and his song-by-song criticism of the actual producers soon becomes boring.

This is not a comfortable read because of the way that Kruth jarringly switches between first person narrative and third person narrative at odd times and because he does not always make it clear exactly who it is he is extensively quoting from page to page. Some of the quoted passages run together and it is only well into them that the reader realizes that the speaker has changed from one paragraph to the next. Those geographically familiar with the ground covered in the book will also be irritated by the kind of sloppy fact checking that places the University of Texas in Houston rather than in Austin and mislabels Houston’s Interstate 45 as Interstate 35, a designation it picks up somewhere near Dallas.

But despite its numerous flaws, To Live’s to Fly has something to offer those who are curious about Townes Van Zandt, the man. The numerous stories told by his friends paint the picture of a generous man with a keen sense of humor, a womanizing gambler and substance abuser who was probably lucky to make it all the way to 52 years of age. Those closest to Van Zandt were generally not surprised by his death, some of them remarking that toward the end they could not help wondering if they were seeing him for the last time each time he walked out the door. The poignant chapter detailing Van Zandt’s sudden death at home, and what led up to his final day, is by itself enough to make this book worthwhile. Townes Van Zandt, though, deserves to be remembered for the music he created and left behind rather than for his destructive lifestyle. He will have to wait a while longer for his definitive biography. This is not it.

Rated at: 3.0

Review originally published at

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Bookwoman's Last Fling

I was excited to find a nice first edition hardcover copy of John Dunning’s The Bookwoman’s Last Fling at a bargain table price a few weeks ago. Knowing how popular the previous four Cliff Janeway novels had been with book collectors did make me wonder at the time why such a nice copy of this 2006 novel was still available in mid-2008. Now I think that I can answer that question.

Cliff Janeway, bibliophile ex-cop turned bookstore owner/detective, finds himself in Idaho at the behest of the executor of the estate of H.R. Geiger, a wealthy racehorse owner, in order to appraise the dead man’s book collection. Geiger’s wife, who has been in her grave for two decades, had been an avid collector of juvenile fiction and she left behind a collection of some of the finest first editions of their type known to exist.

Janeway is quick, however, to notice that the collection is not what it appears to be at first glance. Rather, it is a combination of beautiful first editions set along side much more common later printings of other books of the genre. This is no surprise to the man who has asked him to appraise the collection because he already knows that many of the books have been stolen from the shelves and replaced by much less valuable editions. Janeway also realizes almost immediately that he and Junior Willis, the estate executor, have a tremendous personality conflict and that there is little chance he will ever be able to work for the man despite how badly he wants to study the collection’s finer books.

While waiting around to see if he and Junior can come to an agreement about the job, Janeway makes a fateful visit to the deceased woman’s daughter who is in possession of fifty percent of her mother’s books. There he learns that the daughter has long suspected that her mother had been murdered and he agrees to work for her, not only to discover who has been stealing from the collection, but also to determine whether or not her mother was murdered and, if so, who did it.

Janeway’s search leads him into the world of California horseracing and the bulk of the story takes place inside the racetracks where he is convinced the killer will be found. John Dunning has lived and worked in that world and he writes comfortably and capably about the experiences of those who work behind the scenes to make sure that all of that expensive horse flesh is ready to run when the gates fly open. He writes about it so well, and so comfortably, in fact, that The Bookwoman’s Last Fling reads far more like a Dick Francis novel than it does the next Cliff Janeway novel, ensuring disappointment for Dunning’s bibliophile fan base, especially those of us who are not particularly fans of Dick Francis mysteries even when they are penned by Dick Francis himself.

But even more irksome to me, personally, was what appears to be Dunning’s decision to play unfairly with his readers. This is, after all, a mystery and mystery writers know that their readers try to solve the mystery along with the fictional detective working the case. When all the provided clues end up leading nowhere because the murderer turns out to be a minor character thrown into the mix near the end of the book and the detective has nothing more to go on himself than a “feeling” about that character, the covenant between mystery writer and mystery reader has been broken. Such is the case here.

Cliff Janeway is an interesting character and I probably won’t let my disappointment with The Bookwoman’s Last Fling keep me from reading the next installment of his story, if there ever is one. But now I will definitely come to that one a little more skeptical about what I might find within its pages.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Critics Name Their Most-Hated Books

The Times Online has a fun piece this morning in which various writers and critics "choose their most-loathed books." It's juicy stuff.

I've often wondered why I dislike certain writers or particular books that seem to have achieved a kind of cult following. I feel so out-of-step sometimes when I mention how boring I find the whole "Lord of the Rings" thing to be or how pretentious and boring I find anything that ever came from Ayn Rand's pen. Then there's my reaction to certain contemporary writers like Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, Jackie Collins, etc., writers that seem to have cloned both themselves and the tripe that they so consistently place on the best seller lists. While I would personally be embarrassed to be seen browsing through any of their books in a public place, I can always count on seeing the very same books prominently placed in the best seller display of any large bookstore I visit.

I suppose that's why the Times article made me chuckle a bit this morning. I know it's Sunday morning and this might seem to be a little bit of a mean-spirited way to start off the day, but here are a few highlights from the article.
Daisy Goodwin, TV producer

Patricia Cornwell... anything lately Her first few books starring the paranoid but compelling Dr Kay Scarpetta were gripping, if a bit gory – but, in the past few years, Cornwell seems to have abandoned any pretence at coherent narrative structure, decipherable plot or any shred of credibility. I threw her last book off a boat. A classic book I have never managed to stomach is The Lord of the Rings – enough with elves already.
Ian Rankin, novelist

I haven’t ever wanted to hurl it to the floor, but I’ve started Midnight’s Children several times and been unable to get past the first 10 pages. Not sure why; it’s been a few years since I gave it a go . . . maybe time to try again! I loved Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, but was told by author friends that Blood Meridian is his masterpiece. I tried it and couldn’t get halfway through. Just didn’t find it interesting. Also couldn’t finish The Road. How can a book be harrowing and pedestrian at the same time? Enjoyed The Hobbit as a teenager; gave up on The Lord of the Rings after about 30 pages
Stephen Amidon, novelist and fiction reviewer

The Waves by Virginia Woolf is everything a novel should not be – and so much less. After the triumphs of Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and the fascinating experimentation of Orlando, Woolf decided to change tack with this “playpoem” and wound up sinking into a putrid morass of unreadability. Beloved of American academics – which ought to tell you something right there – the book fairly accurately simulates the experience of sitting next to a pretentious old windbag on a flight to Australia.
These are just three of the people who speak their mind in the article. Read the whole article and, if you feel up to it, let me know what is on your own "most-loathed" list and why.

I do feel better now about my reaction to Patricia Cornwell novels and The Lord of the Rings because it seems that I might be in good company on those. Some of the choices surprise me, though, and make me wonder how readers can see books so differently, with the same books being on "most-loathed" and "best-loved" lists. We readers are a bit strange, aren't we?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Books on Demand

A company called On Demand Books is producing a fascinating piece of machinery that is capable of printing library quality paperback books that are said to be indistinguishable from those produced by a publishing house. The machines are being sold to libraries and, more interestingly, to bookstores looking for a way to compete with the likes of

As the video demonstrates, this would be the ultimate toy for the multimillionaire book collector:

All the specs and details are covered at the On Demand Books website. The only thing I haven't been able to find is the cost of the machine. Maybe I just missed it, or maybe it's one of those "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" things.

Blackwell, a bookstore chain in the U.K., is leasing and installing the machines in 50 of its locations and claims to be able to offer a choice of "around one million titles" that can be produced in something like seven minutes.
Alison Flood, news editor of The Bookseller, said: "Imagine going into a book store and getting an obscure title while you wait. It could be a way for street chains to compete with the range that is offered online. The novelty for readers will also be exciting and it could be a great thing for the high street."

On Demand has been in talks with other British retailers about stocking the Espresso. Blackwell is the first chain in Europe to place an order for the machine and the largest commercial retailer in the world to do so.
So books are dead, are they, doomsayers? These books can be produced for a penny a page, three dollars for a 300-page book, so they can still generate a nice profit at a relatively low sales price. Now if I could just come up with the cash, and the space, to get one of these gizmos for my home library...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Wild Nights: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway

Wild Nights, the latest from Joyce Carol Oates, is a collection of five longish short-stories, each of which fantasizes about the end days of one of America’s best known and most respected writers. As indicated by the book’s complete title, there are stories about Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemmingway, in that order. And strangely enough, at least to me, the stories seem to have been ordered in such a way that each tops the previous one in degree of sadness the reader will feel on behalf of the author being featured.

Edgar Allan Poe, grateful for having been given the job of lighthouse keeper on Vina de Mar and looking forward to the complete isolation promised by his employer, comes to find that sanity is not an easy thing to hold onto when one’s only companion is an independent little dog. Emily Dickinson’s end days, as envisioned by author Oates, come in the twenty-first century, not in the nineteenth, and are bought and paid for by a couple who decide to make their home more intellectually interesting by purchasing a robotic replicate of Dickinson’s talents, emotions, and memories. The very fact that “Dickinson” would face similar end days numerous times in different homes marks the story as an even greater tragedy than the one faced by Poe.

Next comes the story of Sam Clemens, forced to “perform” as the character Mark Twain in order to make a living because his royalties will not sustain his lifestyle any longer, and desperately unhappy since the deaths of his favorite daughter and his wife. His only comfort is the friendships he so desperately seeks with little girls between the ages of ten and fifteen, something that drives his daughter Clara crazy and that, even in early twentieth century America, had to be a little suspect. This story is more realistic than the first two and it more directly reflects the actual lifestyle of its subject, rating it an even higher notch on the “sadness meter,” as a result.

But things get worse because of the way that Henry James, up next, has his days as a London hospital volunteer during World War I so bleakly imagined by Oates. Himself desperately suffering from a heart condition that made physical work dangerous, James, when not debasing himself allows another to do it for him in a most shocking way, a scene that will stick in my mind longer than I really want it to (and, no, it is not the one between James and his favorite male patient).

Ernest Hemingway is saved for last and, although his final days are more familiar to most readers than those of the other four authors, his story seems saddest of all. Oates manages to place the reader into Hemingway’s mind in such a way that his ultimate suicide seems almost justifiable due to the man’s inability to face the loss of both his physical and his mental powers. It is heartbreaking to see this lion of a man go down with only the slightest of whimpers.

Wild Nights is one of those rare collections of which I will easily remember each of its stories for a long time to come. Joyce Carol Oates has, in a sense, “humanized” each of her subjects by emphasizing their weaknesses, the same weaknesses that, in combination with their particular strengths, made these writers the geniuses they were. Each of her stories mimics the writing style of the author being featured, part of the fun, and yet, part of the sadness that blankets the entire book. I’m not sure what motivated this particular book, nor what Ms. Oates hoped to accomplish by writing it, and I hesitate to recommend it to others because I don’t know how other readers will react to the extreme “realism” at its heart. Those afraid to have the images they carry of these authors in their heads changed might best avoid the book because change they certainly will. But those willing to take a chance on it will likely find it to be a book they will always remember in great detail.

This one won’t cheer you up, but I guarantee you that this time next year you won’t have a hard time remembering what it was about.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Canadian Book Challenge No. 2

I've been meaning to post about John Mutford's second Canadian Book Challenge for a while, so it's "better late than never" time now. John gathered quite a group of readers and bloggers for his first challenge and seems well on his way to doing the same for the next challenge that runs from July 1, 2008 to July 1, 2009. The "challenge" is for each participant to read 13 books about, or written by, Canadians during that time span. John makes the whole thing rather painless by providing a list of books to consider and 13 potential reading themes from which to choose.

I'm personally taking the easy way out by picking John's "Free Spirit" theme because it allows me to read whatever Canadian books catch my eye during the next 12 months - assuming I can actually find a copy of the ones I want to most read.

Don't anyone tell John but I couldn't wait to start reading Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief, so I read the first two chapters of it during my lunch break today and I'm throughly hooked on it already.

Oh, and since I am of mixed German/Swiss/French and Cajun ancestory, with heavy emphasis on the Cajun portion, I am particularly hoping to find Canadian novels about the whole expulsion from Nova Scotia experience and would welcome suggestions from anyone having their own favorites on the subject. I have to imagine there must be a bunch of them out there somewhere. I'm also interested in non-fiction writing on the subject but I've been a little put off by the dryness of the ones I've found so far. Again, I would welcome your suggestions.

I picked up Consumption, by Kevin Patterson, at the library last weekend and plan/hope to make that the second of at least thirteen Canadian books I will read in the next twelve months.

Join up over at John's Book Mine Set if this sounds like fun to you. I'm 0-2 on challenges so far, but I feel good about being able to meet this one.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East

Benjamin Orbach did something just a few months after the events of 9-11 that few Americans dared to do. Just when most Americans were purposely avoiding travel to the Middle East (or had left the area for good), Orbach decided to move to Jordan on his own so that he could study Arabic as it is spoken on the street. He wanted to learn everyday Arabic slang and ways of expressing himself in the language that would allow him to communicate with Arabic speakers at the deepest level. Immersing himself into the culture of Amman, and living there without the usual security surrounding most Americans in that part of the world, he learned much more about himself and the people he met than he could have reasonably expected to come away with going into the experience.

Orbach's language skills and obvious respect for the culture and people he lived among made it possible for him to fit into his Amman neighborhood so well that he formed lasting friendships with the people he saw there everyday, his barber, his grocer, students at his university, his language teachers, restaurant owners and his landlady, among them. Unlike most Americans, and probably most Westerners, he came to see them as individuals with the same hopes and desires that we all have, rather than as interchangeable parts in a single Arab culture dominated by a religion bent on destroying the West and claiming the world for Islam. Anyone who reads Live from Jordan will be able to rid themselves of that stereotypical viewpoint forever and that makes it an important book.

When I started reading Live from Jordan I wondered whether or not Benjamin Orbach's personal experiences would be similar the ones I had while working in Algeria from late 1992 until early 2002. As it turns out, they definitely were. I am not an Arabic speaker but in Algeria French is the business language of choice and most Algerians are at least somewhat fluent in the language. That allowed me to have rather detailed and intimate discussions with my Algerian co-workers and friends about our differences and, more importantly, about our similarities. Much as I suspect that Orbach will always treasure his days in Jordan and Egypt, I will be forever grateful for the friendship and trust that was offered to me by those Algerians who welcomed me into their world as an individual rather than exclude me as an “American.”

I mention my years in that part of the world only to emphasize how "true" this book read to me. I did not find a false note in it anywhere and would love to see its message spread as widely as possible.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, June 16, 2008

Wild Nights and Wasted Hours

I'm having one of those "spin-y0ur-wheels-in-place days" today. That happens to me when I can least afford to have it happen, of course, right when I am so overwhelmed with things needing to be done in the next week that I can't focus on any one of them long enough to make any real progress on the list.

In the early morning hours of June 25, I am hitting the road for Owensboro, Kentucky, for what has become an annual event for me. It is time for the three-day music festival that the International Bluegrass Museum hosts there every year at the end of June, something I usually start looking forward to around early January. This is a 2200-mile round trip drive for me and, despite the price of gasoline, I'm finding that it is still cheaper (and a lot more fun) to drive to Owensboro than it is to fly there via Louisville or Nashville.

In the meantime, I have to get as much as possible done at the office during the next six work days so that I don't find myself sleeping there when I go back to work on July 1. And since I usually drive back from Kentucky in one very long day of about 20 hours, I won't be in great shape when I show up at my desk that first morning.

I also have a slew of library books that are not renewable because they have been requested by other patrons, and there's no way that I can read them all (or even most of them) before I leave. You wouldn't believe how long I've waited for some of those books to become available and, of course, they all show up at the same time. That would have been bad enough even here at home, but hitting the road means that I'll have to return most of them and go back to the end of the line again.

And then there's all the special packing I need to do: dozens of CDs to bring to a friend who runs an internet radio station, extra batteries, memory cards for cameras and sound recorders, books on CD for the trip, real books for meal breaks and late at night when I find myself wide awake in some strange hotel bed, etc. In addition, I need to make sure that my laptop is working correctly and has all the software on it that I'll need for picture and sound editing and for keeping in touch here on the blog. I still need to clear the memory cards of past concerts I haven't edited yet so that I'll have space for the performances I am going to record in Kentucky; that's another time-consuming little job because I don't want to lose anything in the process of moving things from drive-to-drive.

So after a weekend spent at the ballpark watching my Astros get absolutely trounced by the New York Yankees and a long Monday in the office running as fast as I can run, here I am: trying to stay awake in my desk chair, doing nothing of consequence except for this bit of nonsense.

Oh well, I think I'm going to pick up a book and lose myself in that for the evening. I started Wild Nights by Joyce Carol Oates yesterday and I am absolutely loving it so far. It's a book of "short stories," I suppose you'd call them, that imagine the last days of a few of America's literary giants. I've read the one on Poe and I'm almost done with the one on Emily Dickinson (can't get that one off my mind). The Dickinson piece is pure science fiction at its best and I find it fascinating. Imagine a future in which lifelike robotic replicas of famous historical characters can be brought into the home, and that they are programmed with the personality, talents, and memories of the real people. And, most importantly, that they are completely lifelike except for the lack of digestive system and sex organs. The very weirdness of this whole idea really has me thinking about just which person from the past I would choose to live with if it were possible.

So I'm off to find out how the story ends...not well for Emily's owners, I suspect.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

It's Sunday Morning and I Miss Tim Russert

Tim Russert was just about the only newscaster or interviewer on any of the three big networks that I still trusted to play fair with both parties. I'm sure that Mr. Russert had strong opinions regarding politics but he always seemed to hold both parties to the same standards and refused to soften his interviewing technique in order to advance the point-of-view of one group over the other. I respected him for that.

But, just as importantly, I admired what the man stood for in regards to family and work ethic. His father, wife and son seemed to mean everything to him and he was never afraid to show his feelings. Tim Russert was such a likable guy that many thousands of us thought of him as a friend, someone we looked forward to spending some time with every Sunday morning and during all of that frantic election night coverage when he so much seemed to be a voice of sanity among all the braying jackasses that surrounded him.

So I'm missing Tim this morning. Just knowing that he's not behind his desk for "Meet the Press" saddens me and, since I can't imagine the program without him, I don't even feel up to turning it on to see how his absence is being handled today.

Apparently, there are countless thousands who are missing Tim, too, because according to this New York Daily News article Tim's books have shot to the top of Amazon's best seller list since his sudden death. And how appropriate it is that on this Father's Day Russert's Big Russ and Me: Father and Sons, Lessens of Life is selling out in bookstores all across the country.
A day after NBC journalist Tim Russert died from a sudden heart attack, his two books about fatherhood were flying off the shelves.

"Big Russ and Me: Father and Son, Lessons of Life" - Russert's tribute to his truck driver father - and his followup book, "Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons," soared to the top of's best-sellers list Saturday.

Book stores said customers were snapping up any remaining copies as last-minute Father's Day gifts.

"I was pretty moved by it all," said Jason Keighery, who tried to buy a copy of "Big Russ and Me" at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, only to be told they were sold out across the city.
I still find it hard to believe the man is gone. I will miss him.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Rescuing Books in Flooded Iowa

Andrea Melendez / The Register

Beth Westlake, a University of Iowa graduate student, passes a book up the stairs to another volunteer. From Nietzsche's controversial works on the concept of supermen to volumes on Judaism and Islam, thousands of books were salvaged from the university's Main Library basement by lines of hundreds of professors, students and other volunteers.

Amidst the natural disaster that is doing so much damage in parts of the country right now, this kind of story still manages to give me faith that people are equal to whatever task thrown at them and that good people will always band together in ways that you might least expect. This story comes from the Des Moines Register.
In all the statewide stories of heroism, it would be hard to find more passion than in the snaking line going up the steps of the Main Library at the University of Iowa on the banks of the flooding Iowa River.

Hand over hand; all man's ideas were handed. Philosophy and theatre, science and religion. Books rising from the basement to a higher level.

A student handed to a professor to a fresh-faced child.
Librarians have been moving books from the basement all week — only copies of manuscripts and theses. But when they heard the news Thursday that the river was going to rise higher than expected, they put out a call for help.

"All of the sudden, 'whoosh' all these people showed up," said Nancy Baker, university librarian. "This is where it shows up for people, library books. They are very powerful for people. Many things can be replaced but not some of these books."

Many are out of print, books dating back to the 1800s or older that have been stacked in the basement for generations — called special collections — while so-called "rare" books are already on higher ground.

"We are a research library, the big library in Iowa. We provide the whole state with education and research. Some of these books you can't just get another copy," Baker said.

As the hour approached quitting time at 5 p.m., when all operations were ordered to halt and volunteers evacuate the building, hands moved faster and faster.

One stack was emptied every 20 minutes.
It was over. People groaned. They begged to go on.

Hold on. Librarians announced to cheers that they could stay until 9 p.m. to save more books. Floodwaters would not steal great thoughts. Not here.
So these books will live on to speak to another few generations of scholars, researchers and readers. Beautiful.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Sing Me Back Home

OK, I admit it. When it comes to real country music, and those whom I believe truly appreciate it as the art form that it is, I am prejudiced. Never in a million years would I believe that some guy from New Hampshire, a writer and editor for the New York Times, of all the newspapers in the word, for crying out loud, would know much about the real thing; no way would someone with that background actually understand the music and those who created it. Well, that was before I read Sing Me Back Home, by Dana Jennings, who is exactly the guy I just described.

I want to apologize, Mr. Jennings, and I salute you, sir.

Sing Me Back Home is not a straight forward history of country music. Books like those serve their purpose, certainly, and there are many worthy ones out there already that take that approach. Jennings, on the other hand, turns the history of country music into something very personal: a way to share his own family story.

As most country music historians (and knowledgeable fans) agree, the years from the late forties to the very end of the sixties mark the period of classic country music. The music reached its peak during those years and has faced a steady, downhill slide since 1970 with the exception of a small (and poorly rewarded) group of pickers and singers that refuses to let classic country music completely disappear. But, overall, country music has probably never been in a sorrier state than it is in today. According to Jenkins, in fact, “It can be entertaining, but the difference between today’s country and the summits of the 1950s and ‘60s is the difference between the lightning and the lighting bug.”

As Jennings puts it, “country music was made by poor people for poor people.” At its best, country music reflected, and maybe even justified, the lives endured by the rural poor who lived all around the United States, not just those from the South or the mountains and coal-producing regions of the Southeast. It is the history of working people, those who made livings with their hands, often at the sacrifice of their health or even their lives, during those two decades. Nothing for them came easy and, when they finally made it to Saturday night, they became walking, talking country songs themselves. They lived the cheating songs and the drinking songs; they spent time in prison, went hungry in the bad times, hit the road out of desperation or despair, had love affairs end badly, and repented on Sunday mornings with the full knowledge that they would backslide again come the very next Saturday night.

But what makes Sing Me Back Home so memorable is the way that Dana Jennings readily fits a member of his own family to every kind of classic country song there is. He lived it – and he remembers it because it made him the man that he is today despite the fact that he sits behind a desk at the New York Times. Song by song, the reader meets members of Jennings’ family who could easily have been the inspirations for those same songs because, not only did these folks love and surround themselves with country music, they lived the lifestyle at its heart.

For those of us of a certain age, and of a certain upbringing, this book is like preaching to the choir. We already knew this deep down in our souls. But having someone as frank, and just as importantly, as articulate, as Dana Jennings come along to tell the real story of country music’s golden age and how its listeners related to those songs, is a real bonus.

Sing Me Back Home fits longtime country music fans like an old glove. But the book is also a perfect primer for those newer fans who wonder about the country music legends that are barely more than names to them today. In fact, the discography at the end of the book is worth its whole $24 dollar cover price. Those willing to spend the money and time required to surround themselves with the albums and box sets listed by Jennings in that discography will learn more about the history of America’s working class than they could ever learn from any textbook.

Despite what David Allan Coe says to the contrary, I do not believe in the perfect country music song. But there just might be a perfect country music book. If so, this is it.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Love in the Present Tense

Can a book whose plot includes murder, prostitutes, desperate poverty, sexual harassment, infidelity, drug abuse, ruthless politicians, corrupt policemen, and a near-death experience be described as sweetly sentimental? Well, at least in the case of Love in the Present Tense, the answer is a definite yes.

Barely qualifying as a teenager, but streetwise as they come, Pearl suddenly finds herself pregnant and on the run because she has accidentally shot to death the baby’s father, who just happens to be a police officer. Pearl, whose own mother is a self-destructive addict, is determined that her baby will be given the unconditional love that she herself has never experienced. And that is exactly the kind of love that Leonard, who suffers from a degenerative eye disease due to his premature birth, receives from Pearl.

By the time Leonard is five years old he and Pearl are renting a room in a small California beach community and the little mixed-race boy has blossomed into the kind of kid that everyone has to love. At times displaying wisdom well beyond his years, he more often seems to be an almost dangerously trusting and forgiving little boy. The term “sweet natured” could have been invented just for him, in fact.

That is why Mitch, who runs a business from his home next door to the one Pearl is renting, so readily offers to let Leonard stay with him during the day while Pearl is at work. Impressed that Pearl assures herself that he is the kind of man who can be trusted around little boys before she agrees to accept his much-needed help, Mitch expects things to go just fine for him and Leonard. And they do – until Pearl doesn’t come to pick up Leonard one day after work and seems to have disappeared forever. Mitch effectively becomes the father that Leonard never knew but Leonard still very much believes in “forever love,” a theory taught him by his mother, and never loses the feeling that Pearl is still around to protect and love him.

Love in the Present Tense is, at heart, the story of the deeply loving relationship that develops between Mitch and Leonard, two guys who manage to cobble together a little family of their own. That’s the “sweetly sentimental” part of the story. But there is much more to their story than that because neither of them is as perfect as they may sound. Leonard grows into a teenager who, because he believes himself destined to die young, has a dangerously self-destructive outlook on life. Mitch shows his own darker side by for more than a decade relishing an affair with the wife of his major client, a man who has treated him almost like a member of the family, even at one point hoping that his daughter and Mitch would become a couple.

Catherine Ryan Hyde tells her story using three distinctive first person narratives: Pearl, Leonard and Mitch. The audio version of the book is nicely read by three separate voices, each ably contributing to the personality of one of the book’s main characters.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Out, to which I was originally drawn because I wanted to learn more about everyday life in Japan through the eyes of one of that country’s best novelists, is my first real experience with modern Japanese fiction. Since I am also a fan of hardboiled detective fiction, I actually had two reasons for getting hold of a copy of Natsuo Kirino’s prize winning novel. But in reality, this is no detective novel; it can, in fact, be more accurately described as a crime thriller and, because of its gritty setting, dark plot and tough characters, a perfect representation of Japanese noir.

Natsuo Kirino has written a story about a segment of Japan’s underclass that is rarely discussed by outsiders, an underclass that has everything in common with its equivalent in this country: people who work full-time jobs for such low wages that they can barely get by from one paycheck to the next. As their desperation grows over time, some in that predicament discover that the everyday struggle for survival has turned them into people they hardly recognize, people willing to do just about anything that gives them a chance to get a little bit ahead in the struggle to carve out a decent life for themselves.

The four women who work as an unofficial team during the overnight shift at a box lunch factory because it pays a few pennies more per hour than the earlier shifts can feel their lives slipping away from them. For a variety of reasons, each has come to prefer the solitary lifestyle demanded of those who return home just in time every morning to see everyone around them leave for their own day’s work. Yoshie, the sole support of an invalid mother-in-law and unappreciative teenage daughter, feels trapped in a situation she can barely afford to sustain. Masako has a husband whose life is so separate from hers that she only sees him at mealtimes and a teenage son who despises her, and she has come to appreciate the way that her night shift allows her to avoid both. Kumiko, youngest of the four, lives only to shop and has gotten so far into debt that she feels physically threatened by bill collectors. And Yayoi has two small boys and a husband who squanders the family earnings on his gambling addiction and the women who work the clubs he frequents.

Of the four, it is Yayoi who cracks first. The almost casual way that her husband discloses to her one evening that he has gambled away all of their savings throws her into such a rage that she finds the strength to strangle him to death. Desperate to cover up what she has done, Yayoi seeks help from Masako, the one person she trusts to keep her secret. The two hatch a scheme to dispose of the body by cutting it into pieces and placing the pieces in garbage cans around the city, a solution that requires the help of Yoshie and Kumiko if it is to have any chance of success.

Tension mounts when enough of the body is discovered to allow its identification and the police begin to suspect that Yayoi may be involved in the murder of her husband. But it is when the group’s weakest link decides to cash in on what she knows about the murder that things really begin to come apart for the women; soon all four are forced to scramble not only to keep their freedom, but to stay alive.

Out is one bloody and gruesome novel. It is filled with brutality, despair, greed and sadism and I can actually only recall one genuinely likeable character in the entire novel, someone I never expected I would grow to admire, a Brazilian/Japanese citizen in Japan to work in the country of his father. It is perhaps somewhat of a feminist novel but only in the sense that the author portrays these women, still very much second class citizens in their culture, as being capable of the same extremes and callous behavior displayed by the worst men in their lives. This is true equality, I suppose.

All four of these women were looking for a way out of their hopeless circumstances. They got more than they bargained for.

Out is an interesting novel, to say the least, but some readers may find its tone and content hard to take for 359 pages. It has certainly given me a view of Japan that I had not considered before, an impression that will haunt me for a good while. I can’t say that I enjoyed this book but I have to admit that I found it morbidly fascinating.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, June 09, 2008


Readers have so often heard that a novel has been “ripped from the headlines” that the phrase has by now become little more than a cliché. But anyone living in Houston, or anywhere in the state of Texas, for that matter, in the last few years will most certainly recognize the headlines from which Janeology was ripped. The Andrea Yates trial, which did become a national story of some magnitude thanks to several trashy television programs that milked it for all it was worth to their bottom lines, was one that Texans, especially Houstonians, lived with on an almost-daily basis for months on end.

Like the real life Andrea Yates, Jane Nelson decides that she has had enough of being a mother to her children and chooses to drown them in the family home while her husband is at work. Unlike Yates, she is not entirely successful and one of her toddler twins, a daughter, manages to survive the experience of being held underwater in the kitchen sink until her mother thought she was dead.

When the jury reaches probably the only conclusion that anyone could reasonably expect from them, Tom Nelson is left alone to struggle with the emotions of losing his only son, and his wife, and must deal with his daughter’s slow recovery. Some men finding themselves in Tom’s position might have turned to religion to help them through such a personal crisis; Tom sarcastically rejected religion and turned to the bottle instead. And that was before he even found out just how bad things would get for him when prosecutors decided to charge him with child endangerment for not having recognized that his wife’s mental condition made her a threat to the safety of their children.

Initially skeptical of the defensive strategy devised by his lawyer - that Jane’s inability to fully bond with or to nurture her children is a trait passed to her from one generation of her family to the next, a fact no one could expect him to have been aware of - Tom is reluctant to even listen to the clairvoyant brought in to research Jane’s family tree. But as evidence mounts that Mariah is truly connecting with Jane’s key ancestors, and Tom learns more and more about the woman he still loves, what happened in his kitchen starts to make some kind of sense to him despite the fact that he still feels tremendous guilt for not having saved his children from the ordeal they suffered.

Now it is only a question of what the jury will think of his lawyer’s theory. Will Tom spend the next few years in jail rather than with the little girl that needs him so badly in her life? Will his knowledge of Jane’s background allow him to shake the self-imposed guilt that he feels about his failure to recognize her mental state? How will his daughter cope with the knowledge that her mother killed her brother and tried to kill her?

Karen Harrington’s story of one woman who reached her breaking point is a thought provoking look at the influence, both good and bad, that past generations can have on the present. The theory that a combination of genetics and little or no nurturing from their own parents can explain why some women lack the maternal instinct to protect their children, and even have the ability to destroy those children themselves, while other women will gladly give their own lives to protect their own, is not a new one. But Harrington presents her case in Janeology in such a convincing and entertaining fashion that the theory will make those who read this book wonder a bit the next time the headlines are filled with a story about yet another mother killing her children. And we all know that, sadly, there will be a next time.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Richard, Judy and Oprah

For an author (with an exception or two), having a book picked by Oprah's book club is like winning the lottery. Being chosen by Queen Oprah almost guarantees an author royalty checks that will make them wealthy plus enough name recognition that their next couple of books will sell in numbers that would have seemed impossible pre-Oprah.

The same thing happens in the U.K. with the Richard & Judy book club. Richard and Judy have taken it one step further and now have a book club devoted exclusively to "summer reading," Richard & Judy's Summer Read. Ciar Byrne, in The Independent's book section details the impact, both good and bad, that these TV book clubs are having.
Since James Bradley's Gothic thriller The Resurrectionist was first published a year ago it has, to be kind, enjoyed modest sales. The tale of Edinburgh body-snatchers in the murderous era of Burke and Hare has sold fewer than 300 copies.

But that is apparently about to change. The title has been selected to feature on every author's holy grail: Richard & Judy's Summer Read. And unless he is very unlucky, Mr Bradley can expect can now expect to be selling 250,000 copies – much more than if he had won the Booker Prize.
Following in the footsteps of the success of Oprah Winfrey's book club in the US, Richard & Judy now wield unrivalled clout in the publishing world, with its annual Book Club and Summer Read delivering a sales boost of more than 300 per cent. Featuring on the list does not come cheap, however. Publishers have to be prepared to discount their books heavily – typically by around 65 per cent – to get them into the front of book stores, and are also required to contribute towards steep marketing costs.
Hazel Cushion, managing director of the Welsh independent publisher Accent Press, said: "They all come from large publishing houses, which shows how very hard it is to be selected.

"From an independent publisher's point of view, it's really ruined the fiction market. So many people only buy two or three books a year and now they're from the Richard & Judy selection and they're not prepared to look outside that."
"The average Richard & Judy book has sold a quarter of a million copies, which is higher than the average Booker Prize-winner. A spot on Richard & Judy is better than winning the Booker."
I was particularly struck by the fact that The Resurrectionist, a book that has sold only 300 copies in a year, will now become such a huge publishing success. Think about that for a minute. It's still the exact same book although I suspect that now it will be repackaged to include one of those tacky Oprah-type stickers on its cover. And, although it's the same novel it was before winning the Richard & Judy lottery, it will now make millions and the author will become rich and famous. It's a crazy world.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Belong to Me

Three or four times a year, despite the odds against it happening, I end up really enjoying a book that in theory just should not have worked for me at all. Belong to Me was one of those books, the first one in that category this year, in fact. Two words sum up the reluctance I had about reading the book: Chick Lit. The book synopsis screamed “Chick Lit” to me loudly and clearly but the novel seemed to have such a good word-of-mouth buzz going that I took a second look at it. And, yes, it probably is Chick Lit, but at the same time it is the kind of novel that will appeal to readers of both sexes.

This is a book about relationships and what holds them together. It is about parents and children, husbands and wives, old friends and new friends, and the ever changing combinations that evolve from those relationships. It asks whether or not a person can ever really “belong” to another and whether it is selfish to expect that of anyone. It is a character-driven novel filled with enough interesting and quirky people to keep the reader turning pages until its gradually developing plotline reaches the point of making it impossible to put the book down. It is, in other words, a very good book.

Cornelia and Teo, her physician husband, have moved from New York City to a quiet Philadelphia suburb that reminds them of the neighborhood in which they spent their childhoods. The young couple might be a little wary of the lifestyle change they are making, but they want, and expect, to fit neatly into their new neighborhood. Cornelia, though, learns almost immediately that it won’t come easy for them when she meets Piper (rhymes with viper), the Queen of the Neighborhood, who doesn’t bother with much tact when explicitly pointing out to Cornelia what is expected of any neighbor of hers.

Lake Tremain and her son, Dev, enter the picture just in time to throw Cornelia a lifeline when she needs it most. The two have moved from California so that Dev can attend a prestigious high school while his mother tries to make ends meet by working as a waitress. Lake and Cornelia quickly become friends, giving Cornelia the ally she needs when it comes to dealing with Piper the Viper.

Dev is one of those characters I will remember for a long time. He’s a fifteen-year old genius with a great sense of humor and an even greater sense of ethics and morality. I really liked this kid and was happy to see him emerge as one of the book’s main characters. But this book is simply filled with likable characters, among them Dev’s new girlfriend, Claire, an almost perfect, but not trouble free, match for him. Even Piper, a character whose first impression was far from positive, evolved into someone I could respect and like by the end of the story.

Belong to Me is a sequel to Love Walked In but I am proof that it is not necessary to read that one first. I believed that I was reading a standalone novel the whole time and had no idea that many of its characters had been introduced in an earlier book until after I finished it. This one was fun, a nice change-of-pace for someone like me who came to it so reluctantly.

Rated at: 5.0

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Penguin CEO David Shanks on State of the Industry

Fritz Lanham of the Houston Chronicle caught up with Penguin CEO David Shanks at L.A.'s Book Expo where they had an interesting conversation (some highlights are shown below).

Q: And you still see a demand for books? Do you worry about the trend lines there?

A: I don't worry about it as long as the baby boomers are still here. They are, without any question, the biggest population of readers.

When somebody has a really good book, it can still sell 6, 8, 10 million copies. If you look at Harry Potter — that was 12 million copies of each book. Now they're few and far between. But the great news publishing should take out of this is you can still find 12 million people who will buy a book.
Q: You said earlier you're not concerned about readership as long as baby boomers are still reading. That suggests you are concerned about reading habits of younger readers.

A: I am concerned about it. We're going to have to find a way to bring them in. If you think about it, they're reading — they're reading text messages, they're reading blogs, they're reading stuff on the social networks. So they are reading. They're just not turning pages as we know them. So there has to be a way to market to that. There are already books coming out — we're doing some — from the bigger bloggers who have a built-in base. I think that's where it's going to come from.
Keep turning those pages, Boomers...but you need to get those grandkids as enthusiastic about books as you are. We won't be here forever, guys.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

When the Day of Evil Comes

When the Day of Evil Comes is book one of the Dylan Foster series and, with Dylan Foster, it introduces a literary character whose company I think I would enjoy in the real world. Dylan, a Southern Methodist University psychology professor, is one of those down-to-earth types not easily impressed by status symbols and those who flaunt them, someone who never quite loses her sense of humor about herself and those around her no matter what crazy turns her life might take, including the discovery that a demon from the spirit world is determined to destroy her.

That particular demon, who calls himself Peter Terry, is a bald, emaciated and very white-skinned man with an ugly horizontal wound across his back who makes contact with Dylan at a faculty outing that she is attending with fellow SMU professors. Spooky as the man is from the start, Dylan does not realize his intentions (or his true nature) toward her until she makes the connection between him and the student who suddenly files a formal complaint that Dylan made sexual advances toward him during his visits to her office for psychological counseling.

Dylan is removed from the classroom pending a formal investigation of the charges against her and, just when she thinks that things could not possibly get any worse, they do. She knows, of course, that she cannot defend herself by explaining to the investigative committee that her problems are being caused by harassment from a local demon. But when a second student’s sanity is threatened by the same Peter Terry, Dylan realizes that she has to move quickly and heads for Chicago hoping to learn more about the young man whose complaint started all of her problems.

When the Day of Evil Comes is a mystery and thriller combination that will satisfy fans of both genres. In order to defend herself in Dallas, Dylan Foster has to delve into the secrets of a Chicago family that has kept them hidden for decades, and she has to do it while enduring psychological tricks and physical threats from Peter Terry. Dylan defends herself from this demon through prayer, help from one little girl’s personal angel, and by covering herself with the spiritual armor described in Ephesians, chapter six.

This struggle between the forces of good and evil fits firmly into the Christian fiction genre but Melanie Wells makes her religious points in a way that are not so obvious or preachy that they intrude on the story being told. Dylan Foster is the kind of Christian that most of us probably are: a little bit lazy about the whole thing at times but quick to ask for help when we find ourselves over our heads in some kind of panic situation. The message is that there are bigger and better weapons on the side of good than on the side of evil – if we remember to ask for them.

I have not read the second novel in the series yet but my first exposure to Dylan Foster and Peter Terry was with book three, My Soul to Keep. After reading that one, I was a little surprised to learn that I had just finished something in the Christian fiction genre, a type of reading I rarely do, because its religious references are so much more subtle than in this first book. But now that I have read When the Day of Evil Comes it is easy to see why these books have been embraced by the Christian community, and I suggest that they be read in order if at all possible in order to get their full impact.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, June 02, 2008

Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found

Either there are more memoirs being published today or my eye has become better attuned to picking them from the stacks and stacks of new books I am exposed to every month. But, while there may be more memoir choices than ever before, finding an honestly written one is still the challenge. And why anyone would want to waste time on memoirs that are less than honest is beyond me.

Marie Brenner’s Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found is definitely one of the honest ones. In fact, in its frank discussion of family relationships it reminds me of Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother: A Memoir, perhaps the bluntest, most honest, memoir I have ever read. Neither of these books could have been easy for their authors to write.

The title of Brenner’s book is an apt description of the relationship she had with her only sibling, Carl, for so many years. Marie and her older brother simply could not have been more different from one another. Carl, a loner who seems to have been a conservative almost from birth, joined the John Birch Society at age thirteen in their hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Marie, on the other hand, was outgoing and her politics were the polar opposite of Carl’s. As Marie describes it, their childhood relationship was a tension-filled one that continued into adulthood even though they were eventually divided by a geographic distance as wide as the one between their political and social views.

Carl gave up the legal profession at age 40 and became a Washington apple grower. Marie became an investigative journalist and “writer at large” for Vanity Fair in New York City. Carl saw her lifestyle and her political views as stand-ins for everything he hated most in the world and he was never reluctant to remind her of that. The two were never really close, and it seemed impossible that they ever would be.

Then came news from Carl that, at age 55, he was suffering a type of glandular cancer with a survival rate of only 11% and that he needed her help. Marie, sensing that she might be running out of time to reconcile her differences with her brother, quickly joined Carl at his Washington orchard where she diligently employed her investigative skills in a quest to find a cure for his illness. At the same time, she tried to connect with Carl in a way, and to a degree, that would lead to the kind of brother-sister relationship she so badly wanted for them.

Apples and Oranges is about family relationships, especially those between siblings, and it explores the strengths and weaknesses that a family can pass from generation to generation. Brenner speaks of the frustrations, hurt feelings and anger that define her lifelong relationship with her brother but, just as importantly, she exhibits the type of love, compassion and understanding that would survive the worst that her brother could throw her way. It is a remarkable book for its honesty and the insights it offers into the nature of sibling relationships and why some work so well while others are doomed to fail.

Rated at: 4.0