Tuesday, March 31, 2009

East Garrison

G.M. Weger’s debut novel, East Garrison, packs one heck of a punch. Make no mistake about it; this first novel is filled with brutal and gory details that are sometimes hard to stomach – especially if you are one of those who enjoy reading while eating lunch. Each time I figured the worst was surely over for Weger’s characters, she managed to top herself yet again.

Weger sets her story in an abandoned section of old Fort Ord called East Garrison, a sort of ghost town surrounded by acres and acres of what used to be shooting ranges and training ground for the U.S. Army. The property has been abandoned long enough that nature is fast reclaiming it, as evidenced by a bountiful wildlife population that includes at least one predator dangerous to man.

Tracy Dade finally has things going her way after years of struggling with family and personal problems. She is married to a police officer who patrols the Fort Ord area and she is about to give birth to their first child. Despite her good fortune, however, Tracy is still fighting a few demons from her past. She is insecure about her marriage, deep down inside herself wondering why her husband even stays with her, and she suffers from occasional depression. Tracy grew up in a family headed by a pot-smoking, neo-Nazi fanatic, a man with whom she seldom has contact, but she suddenly decides that reconciling her differences with her father is something she must do in order to ensure a normal life for herself and her new family – and she has to do it before she has her baby.

When Tracy, dangerously headstrong as ever, decides to search for her father in the most isolated parts of old Fort Ord despite being only hours from going into labor, things get interesting – and dangerous for all involved. Tracy’s husband has no idea where she is and only reluctantly begins a desperate search to save the lives of his wife and unborn child. Everything that can possibly go wrong for Tracy does go wrong and what happens to her, her father, and her best friend makes East Garrison one of the most gut-wrenching thrillers that I have read in 2009, so gut-wrenching, in fact, that I have to warn readers one more time that this is not lunchtime reading.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, March 30, 2009

Baby Jesus Pawn Shop

Lucia Orth’s debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, is long on setting and atmosphere, immersing its readers in the brutality of a 1982 Manila still under the thumb of Dictator Ferdinand Marcos. By 1982, Marcos was dying of kidney failure but he was determined to win one final “democratic” election to solidify, in the eyes of the rest of the world, his hold over the Philippines. Most people, of course, suffered tremendous hardships under his rule and some of the braver ones were now turning to demonstrations, bombs and assassinations in hope of overthrowing the Marcos regime.

It is a world in which no one can be trusted, including representatives of the U.S. government stationed in the Philippines. Marcos wants to stay in power and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. The U.S. government fears losing access to the military bases it maintains in the Philippines and appreciates the relative stability of the brutal Marcos regime. Those who want to overthrow Marcos and his henchmen fear the spies who seem to be everywhere.

Into this tense and volatile world comes Rue Caldwell, a woman whose husband represents the United States in its dark dealings with Marcos and his generals. Rue may be a naïve woman when she arrives in Manila but she is nobody’s fool. She is a compassionate woman and she tends to identify with the people who cook, clean, and drive for her, a quality that exposes their world to her in all of its precarious ugliness.

The blinders finally come off Rue’s eyes for good when she comes to know her driver, Doming, a man who, some years before, had been forced to flee his native village after making a symbolic attempt to avenge the government’s murder of his father. From the beginning, there is sexual tension between the two but more important is the way the world is changing drastically for both of them. Rue is shaken by the realization that her husband and her country are not what she thought them to be, and Doming is being drawn deeper and deeper into the Marcos opposition.

The question becomes how much each is willing to risk to do the right thing.

Lucia Orth’s story of what life under Marcos was like for the average Filipino puts the dictator and his ludicrous wife into perspective in a way that history books will never be able to do it. It is an education.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Book Signings - Not for Sissies

Ken Burger has written a book and now he's trying to sell it. As book lovers and folks who read a way above average number of books every year, we are the people with whom he wants to "make eye contact." This is what it is like for a relatively unknown author, the writer you see sitting at a table behind a stack of books when you enter your local bookstore:

Welcome to your book signing.

For the next two hours you try to make eye contact with strangers who don't want to make eye contact. You're friendly. You smile.

You say, "Hello, I wrote a book. This is what you do when you write a book. You stand around bookstores and bother people."

Most stop and listen because they're polite. You figure if they're near a bookstore they might want to buy a book.

But you could be wrong. What do you know? You're just a guy standing by a sign in the mall without a bunny suit.

Here's what you need to know about writing a book: It's 25 percent writing, 75 percent marketing. And you're in charge of marketing.

I wrote a book, "Swallow Savannah." It's a pretty good book, and I'm thrilled it was published and people seem to like it.

But book signings aren't for sissies. Leave your ego at home. You're not Pat Conroy. When people do come by your table, you have 4.6 seconds to tell them who you are and what your book is about.

A South Carolina story, you say. A riveting tale about the powerful forces of civil rights and the Cold War coming to bear on a small, rural Southern town.

If you don't hook them quickly, their kids drag them off to the toy section. Unless they're ravenous readers. God made a certain number of these people. They're like sharks. They eat three, four, five books a week.
The entire column is located at the Post and Courier website.

If you want to make "eye contact" with Ken, you can use the link, below, to take a look at his book (it will take a bit longer than the 4.6 seconds Ken usually gets from bookstore customers).

By the way, Ken lives and works in "Pat Conroy country" and Conroy has had kind things to say about the book. I'll be looking for this one.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Country Music Weekend

This has turned into an unexpected three-day weekend for me because my company is in the process of relocating to its new office building. The opportunity to sleep in on Friday and Saturday mornings gave me the chance to double up on some fantastic live country music (maybe even triple up if I can find another live show tonight) and I've really enjoyed the gift of that extra time. (I love living in a city where this kind of music is still available almost every night of the week.)

Last night, it was James Hand at Blanco's, my favorite Houston honky-tonk where he included the song shown in this recent YouTube video of one of his recent Austin shows:

Thursday night I caught up with Amber Digby and her band, another of my favorites. Here's a taste of what they do, a video from a show of theirs I attended a couple of years ago.

Now if I can just cram some reading in between some little league baseball this afternoon and, hopefully, another show tonight...all will be well in my world.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are - Movie Trailer

I was way too old for this 1963 book when it first hit the bookstores and, somehow or another, despite its steady popularity, I don't remember ever seeing a copy of it among the kids books we had in the house when my daughters were the appropriate age. But despite all of that, I've been aware of the book for years. Now it is soon to be a movie:

What do you think, those of you familiar with the little book from which a full-length movie has now sprung?

Gulliver's Travels DVD Restoration

Pictures are stills captured from actual DVD

Max and Dave Fleischer began a remarkable two-year project in 1937 that would result in one of the finest full-length animated movies ever made, Gulliver’s Travels. Even by today’s standards (or perhaps that should be, especially by today’s standards) the magnitude of the project is almost overwhelming: about 600 artists and technicians employed for over two years who used twelve tons of paint and 39,000 pencils to produce some 115,000 composite scenes.

Gulliver’s Travels was an immediate success upon its 1939 release, receiving two Oscar nominations, and it remained a presence in theaters and television well into the 1950s. However, by the 1990s, the film did not seem to exist in decent condition anywhere and more than one generation of children missed experiencing it. Thankfully, the Fleisher family allowed its own 35mm source print to be used in the production of the remarkable new DVD just released by Koch Entertainment.

The new version of Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels is so crisp, and its colors so vivid, that it could have been made yesterday rather than seventy years ago. The original soundtrack has been restored even to the point that two new options, Dolby Digital and 5.1, are available. The only clue that this is a seventy-year-old movie comes from the look of the animation itself, a pre-computer style that makes the artistic achievement of the movie even more obvious than it probably was upon its 1939 release.

The seventy-seven minute film covers only that portion of Swift’s story in which Gulliver is shipwrecked and comes to shore in the kingdom of Lilliput, a land in which he is a giant among Lilliput’s little men and women. Gulliver arrives just in time to help the Lilliputians avoid all-out war with a neighboring kingdom and he becomes a much-admired hero, on both sides, for his efforts.

I watched Gulliver’s Travels with my seven-year-old grandson and found that he enjoyed the movie as much as he enjoys his more modern cartoon favorites. He particularly liked the scenes in which the night-guard first discovers the giant and struggles to get anyone to pay any attention to his alarm. He also had a few laugh-out-loud moments while the Lilliputian crew works hard to tie down the giant only to have him so easily undo all of their work in a few seconds.

Gulliver’s Travels holds up so well to modern eyes that it is easy to forget that the film was created seven decades ago. I highly recommend this one for book-loving parents looking for a painless way to expose their children or grandchildren to a literary classic.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Paul Levine, already the author of two well-received series (the Solomon vs. Lord books and the Jake Lassiter books), this time up offers, Illegal, the first volume of his new series featuring Los Angeles lawyer Jimmy Payne.

It may say “J. Atticus Payne” on his business card but he is just Jimmy Payne to his friends and “Royal” Payne to his opponents in the courthouse. At least that is the way it was before a family tragedy led to Payne’s divorce from Sharon, the woman he still loves – and not so secretly believes still loves him despite her recent engagement to a radically conservative radio personality. Now, he is pretty much “Royal” Payne to everyone he knows, including Sharon.

Payne is a man with an attitude, something that can be, and usually is, a problem in a courtroom. Combined with poor judgment and a big mouth, both of which Payne has in abundance, it can be fatal to a legal career. When, on his way to a jail cell to do time for a contempt of court charge, Jimmy decides instead to make a run for it, he runs straight into a situation that will change his life forever.

Tino Perez is only twelve years old but he is a streetwise beyond his years, despite the efforts of his protective mother, and he has made his way illegally to Los Angeles from his home in Mexico in hopes of finding his mother there. The two became separated at the California border and Tino is desperate to find Marisol again. The boy has no money or documentation and, after he fails at trying to rob Jimmy, decides to ask for his help instead of his money.

Jimmy Payne, already on the run anyway, is “encouraged” by his ex-wife to help Tino find his mother, so the two of them backtrack to Mexico hoping to discover what happened to Marisol at the border and where she might have ended up. From this point, Illegal becomes a thrilling exposé of the dangers faced by those attempting to enter the United States illegally from Mexico. Jimmy and Tino have to contend with ruthless and violent men on both sides of the border, men who exist in a shadow world that those seeking illegal entry into the U.S. often come to know too well.

In a race to stay one step ahead of the authorities looking for him, Jimmy, with Tito in tow, goes toe-to-toe with coyotes in Mexico and California, crooked cops, American vigilantes determined to close the border, sex slavers, and an exploitive agricultural king who employs hundreds of illegal workers.

Illegal is a wild and bloody ride that personalizes some of what happens on America’s southern border every week. A few of the characters, especially the villains, tend to be a bit stereotypical, but the book is so action-filled that it is easy to get past that minor distraction. Illegal is a good start to what should be a fun series and I am already looking forward to what Jimmy Payne gets himself into next time around.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oh What a Paradise It Seems

Oh What a Paradise It Seems, published shortly before John Cheever’s 1982 death, is his fifth and final novel. It follows his previous novel, Falconer, by five years and marks a return in tone and style to that of the earlier Cheever novels. If Falconer can be said to be Cheever’s “prison novel,” Oh What a Paradise It Seems is his “environmental novel.”

Lemuel Sears may be fast approaching old age but his interest in women, especially those younger than him, is as passionate as it has ever been. Always on the make, even when he finds himself standing in a long bank teller’s line, Sears manages to strike up a brief conversation with an attractive, much younger, woman that leads him into a rather one-sided love affair. As with so many previous male characters created by Cheever, Lemuel is at a disadvantage in the relationship because Renee remains as big a mystery to him throughout the relationship as she was the moment he first spotted her waiting in line ahead him.

Lemuel is a man of means who still enjoys some of life’s simpler pleasures and he looks forward to the hours he spends ice-skating on little Beasley’s Pond when it freezes over every winter. When he discovers that the pond is being purposely filled in and polluted by illegal dumping at the profit of the local mafia, Lemuel hires his own lawyer and scientist to fight those responsible for destroying the pond and endangering the health of everyone living near it.

Even though, at barely 100 pages, Oh What a Paradise It Seems is technically more a novella than a novel, Cheever, always the master short story writer, includes in it an interesting subplot or two to more fully flesh out his characters. As is so often the case in Cheever’s novels, too, one of the main characters is a reluctant, but active, bisexual male who struggles to control the guilt he feels about his hidden sexual nature. This is such a common theme in Cheever’s work that it is a wonder that the truth about his own sexual nature remained a well-kept secret until after his death.

Cheever barely lasted long enough to complete Oh What a Paradise It Seems before he died of cancer, and he may have intended it to be longer than it turned out to be. However, he packs so much into the novel’s 100 pages that readers will find that it truly does read more like a novel than a novella.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, March 23, 2009

No Kidding, Sherlock

I doubt that many would dispute the premise that, as a group, women have a higher percentage of avid readers than men. Just take a look at the blog rolls on any of the lit blogs you read and that fact will become pretty obvious. Male lit bloggers must be outnumbered at least 10 to 1.

But for the few doubters who might still be out there, here is a London survey that makes the point in a number of different ways (as recapped in The Hindu):

Twice as many men as women admitted that they never finish a book.

Forty-eight per cent of women can be considered to be page turners, or avid readers, compared with only 26 per cent of men.

Slow Worms are those who spend a long time reading, but who take their books very seriously and finish them. They can often manage only one or two books a year. This group was made up by 32 per cent of male respondents and 18 per cent women.

Serial Shelvers have shelves full of books that have never been opened and are not likely to be -- 17 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men fall into this category.
Call me crazy, but I firmly believe that this split starts in the earliest school years and gets wider and wider all the way through university. Elementary school teachers and the parents of boys desperately need to work together to, at the least, begin to narrow this gender gap.

The Soul Thief

Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief has left me wondering what I must have missed. Baxter, after all, is a writer with a reputation, and one of his previous eight books, The Feast of Love, was a National Book Award nominee. This is my first Charles Baxter book and, based on reputation and reviews of his previous work, perhaps I expected too much from The Soul Thief. Whatever the reason, the book did not quite work for me.

The book’s central character, Nathaniel Mason, is a 1970s graduate student in Buffalo, New York, a loner who unexpectedly meets a pretty girl while making his way to a rumored party location one rainy night. Little does he know that this girl, Teresa, and the young man to whom she introduces him, Jerome Coolberg, will conspire to steal the rest of his life from him.

Coolberg is so obsessed by Nathaniel that he almost immediately begins to make portions of Nathaniel’s past his own, publicly claiming that the most dramatic events from Nathaniel’s history actually happened to him rather than to Nathaniel. With a little help, Coolberg manages to secure some of Nathaniel’s clothing and other personal items for his own use, pushing Nathaniel to the verge of collapse in the process, and uses the items to remake himself in Nathaniel’s image.

The second half of The Soul Thief happens some two decades later when Coolberg calls the Mason home asking for Nathaniel. Nathaniel, who has never mentioned Coolberg to his wife in all the years they have been married, reluctantly agrees to meet in Los Angeles, hoping for the long overdue confrontation that will provide him answers to all the questions he has carried inside for so many years.

By this point in the book, Baxter has created a level of anticipation and tension that has his reader racing toward what promises to be a dramatic climax. What the reader gets, instead, is a tricky ending that will likely leave him more confused than satisfied and perhaps, as in my case, at least a bit disappointed in the whole experience.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, March 22, 2009


The intensity and bluntness of Falconer, John Cheever’s fourth novel, will almost certainly surprise those who have read his other novels. The author’s tendency to write darker and darker novels over the years is not nearly enough to prepare his readers for the shock that is Falconer.

Falconer is Cheever’s famous “prison novel,” the story of 48-year-old Ezekiel Farragut, a genteel professional who, in a drugged fit of rage, one night murders his own brother. Now, Zeke Farragut is just another inmate in a maximum security prison called Falconer, a man still fighting his drug addiction and trying to maintain his sanity in an environment for which nothing in his old life could have prepared him.

Prison is, of course, an environment in which homosexual acts are common, a world in which sexual violence and intimidation simply cannot be controlled by those in charge of the system. Cheever often included homosexual or bisexual characters in his previous novels but, before Falconer, he never described the men or their sexual activity in the frank terms he uses to describe Farragut’s day-to-day existence inside the Falconer system.

John Cheever novels particularly appeal to readers who enjoy short stories because of the way that he allows his characters to tell stories seeming to have little to do with the main plots of his novels. In this way, Cheever creates some of the most memorable characters of recent decades and builds detailed environments for his novels. Often, in fact, readers will become so immersed in a Cheever side-plot that they return to his main plot with a jolt. Falconer is no exception because of the way Cheever allows many of Falconer’s prisoners to explain to Farragut just how they ended up in the prison.

The strength of Falconer is its cast of characters: prisoners, guards, and visitors, alike. Cheever is not as successful, however, in creating a totally believable prison environment because the novel touches so lightly on the racial and gang violence common in prisons even in the 1970s. Some of what he describes inside Falconer is more surrealistic than realistic, a choice that somewhat lessens the impact of this terrific character-study.

That said, Falconer made a huge splash when it was first published and it is a major literary achievement that deserves to be read today, some three decades after its publication.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, March 20, 2009

French Bibliomaniacs

It's time for a little change of pace, something light, but meaningful to book lovers, to start the weekend. This clip, from CBS Sunday Morning, is a nice look into a world within which, I would bet, all of us would love to immerse ourselves.

"Misfits" like us?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bullet Park

Bullet Park (1969), John Cheever’s third novel, continues his string of novels portraying life, especially life in the suburbs, in a light that becomes darker and darker with each succeeding book. Unlike his first two novels, both featuring the Wapshot family, Bullet Park does not use humor to soften Cheever’s vision or message.

Bullet Park is every bit the typical 1960s northeastern United States suburb. It is populated by white-collar professionals whose wives are left at home each morning when the men head to the train station and a day’s work in the city. It is a place where image is important, where one’s children are expected to succeed, where being seen in church on Sunday mornings is still important, and where adultery and drinking too much are common.

Cheever tells his story from two distinct points-of-view, beginning with Eliot Nailles who lives comfortably in Bullet Park with his wife and son. No matter how comfortable they might appear to be, however, no member of the Nailles family is particularly happy, or even content, with life in Bullet Park. Eliot still considers himself a chemist but works on nothing more exciting than the formula for his company’s latest mouthwash; Tony, his son, is reacting badly to poor high school performance; and Nellie, his wife is unhappy about Eliot’s reaction to their son’s problems.

The second part of the novel is narrated by Paul Hammer, a newcomer who moves to Bullet Park with his wife, and feels drawn to the Nailles family by the strange conjunction of their family surnames. This part of the novel deals almost exclusively with Paul Hammer’s memories of his past rather than with any interaction between the two families, making the novel’s thrilling climax an even bigger surprise to the reader than it otherwise might have been.

In Bullet Park, Cheever has created a surreal neighborhood filled with eccentrics and troubled cynics where anything might just happen - and often does. It is such a biting piece of satire, in fact, that one has to suspect that it reflects a lifestyle that Cheever found to be particularly meaningless.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Joyce Carol Oates Suffers a Tough Year

Raymond Smith, Joyce Carol Oates

I haven't mentioned Joyce Carol Oates here in recent weeks but I've been quietly wondering when she would release a new book. After all, this is the most prolific high-quality writer that I know of, a very good thing for me since I'm a huge fan of her work, and her next book, based upon her own unique standard, is overdue.

Now I see in yesterday's Sun Sentinel interview that Ms. Oates is having a difficult time adjusting to the sudden and unexpected loss in February 2008 of her husband of almost 50 years. Raymond Smith, according to Ms. Oates was perhaps the main reason that she has been able to write so many books and plays since they married in 1961. Now that she is alone in dealing with all the financial and household chores that Smith took care of for so many years, she has far less time to write. I, for one, am extremely grateful for the role that Raymond Smith played in the literary career of Joyce Carol Oates.

Just look at a few of the things she's accomplished in the last five decades:
48 novels written in her name or in one of her two pen names

8 novellas

34 short story collections

Numerous plays and play collections

At least 8 books of poetry

At least 10 essay collections

At least 7 children or young adult books

Numerous other non-fiction and editorial works

Stories and novels made into movies and television plays

National Book Award winner in 1970

14 other award nominations (National Book Award, Pen/Faulkner, Pulitzer, etc.)

And the latest: making this year's Man Booker International Prize long list (included in the count directly above)

These numbers are taken from the informal checklist of her work that I use from time-to-time to add to my Joyce Carol Oates collection (some 81 books plus a few books about Oates), so the numbers are only my best approximation.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Wapshot Scandal

In The Wapshot Scandal, published in January 1964, John Cheever continues the story of the Wapshot family that he began in 1957’s The Wapshot Chronicle. Family history and reputation managed to retain a certain amount of prestige and respect for the Wapshots in tiny St. Botolphs for a decade or two beyond the time that the decline in Wapshot family prospects became evident to outsiders. Now The Wapshot Scandal focuses on the youngest members of the family, brothers Moses and Coverly, as they build new lives for themselves far from the little town in which they grew up. Thankfully, Cousin Honora is also a part of this second Wapshot book and, as it turns out, the contribution she makes to the overall sense of scandal that envelopes the family is a key one.

Moses and Coverly, having successfully secured Honora’s financial support, are now married, with families and careers of their own. But despite Honora’s decision to share what is left of the family fortune with them, neither man is particularly happy with his lot in life because each is married to a troubled woman and tied to a job he secretly despises. Honora, in the meantime, still reigns in the big family home in St. Botolphs where she lives alone with her longtime housekeeper, the closest relationship she has in the world despite what either woman might say about it.

Honora, as spirited and eccentric as ever (and described by Cheever as looking “a little like George Washington might have looked had he lived to be so old”), does not recognize the precarious decline the Wapshots are enduring until she is forced to match wits with an unhappy IRS employee who appears suddenly at her door. The resulting confrontation, and Honora’s approach to solving the problem, will leave the reader smiling in admiration as the elderly woman proves to be more than a match for her young challenger.

Despite its humor, however, The Wapshot Scandal is overall a much darker book than the one in which Cheever first introduced the family. Life in the suburbs, the lifestyle chosen by Moses and Coverly, is portrayed as bleak and despairing, a world often dominated by alcohol and adultery, a world in which hard work and doing the right thing for one’s family are not always appreciated or rewarded. The Wapshot Scandal offers a much harsher brand of satire than the comic version of its predecessor and it leads nicely to Cheever’s even grimmer look at the suburbs, his third novel: Bullet Park.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

Students who do not acquire good reading skills and habits before they reach middle school are very likely to do below average work during their middle and high school years. Reading and writing skills are the keys to learning and, sadly, not all children leave elementary school with those keys in hand.

Donalyn Miller, a Texas 6th grade language arts teacher and enthusiastic reader, uses her classroom to pass her love of reading on to dozens of young students each school year. Miller tried the conventional methods of teaching reading but was disappointed with the results and recognized there had to be a better way.

She came to realize that simply teaching students how to read is not good enough and, largely through her own example and encouragement, Miller’s students now learn just how wonderful a gift a love of reading is. On the first day of school, Miller’s students are challenged to read 40 books during the coming school year, books they will choose for themselves largely from the classroom’s more than 2000-book library with as much guidance from their classmates as from their teacher.

Even more importantly, the students learn that they will be given about 30 minutes per school day during which they will be allowed to read for their own pleasure. Miller does not believe in assigning a book to be read by the entire class at the same time, worksheets to be filled in as a way to verify that reading has been done, or “busy work” art projects tied to the reading. She teaches the traditional book report format but more often allows her students to do “book commercials” during which students sell the rest of the class on reading a book they have enjoyed. Miller has little tolerance for exercises that do not add to the reading skills of her pupils – she would rather have them spend that time reading.

What happens in Miller’s classroom is guaranteed to make avid readers, especially those with small children of their own, smile and shake their heads in admiration. Most of her students meet or surpass their goal of 40 books, and even those who do not meet the goal, read many more books in the 6th grade than they had in any previous school year. Miller, as she should be, is especially proud of those students who go from three or four books in the 5th grade to more than 20 during the 6th grade. She, in fact, considers those students to be some of her biggest success stories.

The Book Whisperer
is filled with ideas, experiences, and recommendations that will prove useful to every classroom teacher. One thought that will stay with me is how strongly students tend to mimic their teachers’ attitudes toward the importance of reading. Those teachers who see reading as a gift rather than a goal have the greatest positive impact on their students’ long-term reading habits. There is a strong connection between a teacher’s personal reading habits and the reading achievement of that teacher’s students. Sadly, not all teachers, even reading teachers, are good role models.

Teachers, please read this book!

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino & Ron Cotton on Tour

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ron Cotton, two of the Picking Cotton writers have been making the interview rounds since the book's release a few days ago. In fact, their quest to tell their story of mistaken identity has been featured on some major news programs:

60 Minutes, Part One - Video

60 Minutes, Part Two - Video

The Today Show - Video

Diane Rehm Radio Interview

All Things Considered Radio Interview

My February 28 review

Superman No. 1 Auction Is Over

If you wanted that great copy of Superman No. 1 that I mentioned a few days ago, I'm sorry to tell you that you waited too long. The auction is over and the comic sold for $317,200. I know that all of you out there with a spare $325,000 to invest in comics are kicking yourselves right now for letting this one get away.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the comic book was bought for an unnamed bidder who wanted to add this one to his already impressive collection:

The winning bid for the 1938 edition of Action Comics No. 1, whose cover features Superman lifting a car, was submitted Friday evening by John Dolmayan, drummer for the rock band System of a Down, according to managers at ComicConnect.com.

Dolmayan, who is also a dealer of rare comic books, said he acquired the Superman comic on behalf of a client. He declined to identify the client.

"This is one of the premier books you could collect," he said in a telephone interview. "It's considered the Holy Grail of comic books. I talked to my client, and we made the move."

Dolmayan said the client has "a small collection, but everything he has is incredible."
I suspect that, when the economy improves in a few years, this will actually prove to have been a real bargain purchase for its mysterious buyer.

By the way, is it just me? Doesn't the cover of the comic make Superman appear to be a villain rather than a hero? Remember that no one was familiar with the Superman image when this comic first hit the market.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Wapshot Chronicle

The Wapshot Chronicle, the first of John Cheever’s five novels, may have taken him more than a decade-and-a-half to complete, but it was well worth the wait. The novel was published in March 1957 and in 1958 was awarded the National Book Award. More than fifty years have passed since its publication, and today the novel seems to receive neither the attention nor the respect it deserves. This is unfortunate, because today’s reader will still enjoy The Wapshot Chronicle and appreciate it as the exceptional work that it is.

The Wapshot family is an old New England family whose best days are long behind it. The family may still be one of the most prominent ones in little St. Botolphs, Massachusetts, but its remaining wealth is controlled entirely by the elderly and very eccentric Honora Wapshot who lives alone with her longtime housekeeper. The rest of the St. Botolphs Wapshots, Leander, Sarah, and their two sons, Moses and Coverly, live in a big rambling house not far from Honora and depend on her for the financial support needed to maintain their rather leisurely lifestyle.

The Wapshot Chronicle is very much the coming-of-age story of Moses and Coverly, brothers who, as they grow into young men, are suddenly handed responsibility for ensuring Cousin Honora’s continuing financial support of themselves and their parents. The always slightly out of touch Honora, via some logic all her own, sets a goal for the boys that will earn each of them a fortune if accomplished. None of the Wapshots could know, though, how deeply Honora’s deal would mark the rest of their lives.

Cheever fills The Wapshot Chronicle with dominating, sometimes cruel and thoughtless, women whom his male characters have little chance of influencing. What happens to Leander and his two sons might seem truly tragic in a different book, but Cheever tells their story with such boisterous good humor, and with such understanding of even his most vicious female characters, that The Wapshot Chronicle reads as very much the satirical comedy he intended it to be.

And then there is Honora - life would be much more fun if every family had its own Cousin Honora.

Rated at: 5.0

(I'm finishing Cheever's second novel right now, The Wapshot Scandal, and I plan to move directly on to the other two novels and his novella. I've never immersed myself in an author to this extent before and I'm finding it an interesting experience. I'm reading Cheever from a fantastic new Library of America collection that includes all five books, so this is an easy project. I love Library of America collections - there are about 30 of them on my shelves now - and I definitely reccomend them to everyone interested in a high quality publication at a great price.)

Needless to say, more Cheever reviews are coming...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Trespasser

Edra Ziesk’s The Trespasser is a story about respecting boundaries and what happens when Sebastian Bryant, a New York photographer, inadvertently triggers a tragic chain-of-events in a remote Kentucky town by failing to understand just how serious one old man is about keeping strangers off his property.

By the time he stumbles upon the striking little Appalachian mountain cabin, Bryant has already driven across much of America taking pictures for his next book. Now, though he is fighting excessive heat and failing light, Bryant offers fifty dollars to the young couple living there to stand on the cabin porch with their baby while he photographs the scene. As he prepares his cameras, Bryant is confronted by the property owner, Hesketh Day, a man suffering from dementia, and while the two men talk about what Bryant is doing on Day property, it becomes too dark to take any photos.

Bryant underestimates the level of Hesketh Day’s opposition to his presence and returns to the cabin the next morning where Day even more angrily disputes his right to be there. This time, though, Day is armed and Bryant’s final misjudgment is a fatal one. Bryant, as it turns out, is not the only clumsy trespasser in the town and the remainder of The Trespasser explores how one relatively innocent act leads to a disturbing blurring of physical and emotional boundaries that makes the town’s return to its old rhythms and routines near impossible.

Sylvie Pomfret sees nothing wrong with moving into Hesketh Day’s big house while Day is locked up. After all, the now empty house has an indoor toilet, a washer, and a telephone, three things missing from the little cabin that the Pomfrets rented from Day before the shooting. Mattie Wheeler, Day’s cousin, does not see it that way and her outrage at the audacity of Sylvie’s move leads to a physical confrontation between the two and a formal complaint to the local sheriff.

Other boundaries, some obvious and others less so, are crossed when one local attorney becomes so infatuated with Sylvie that he forgets she has a husband, when Sylvie and her baby appear unannounced at her sister’s door with no place else to go, or when Sylvie’s husband does the same to his sister and resentful brother-in-law in Ohio. Even Mattie Wheeler, always quick to accuse others of crossing lines, is not above using her status as a longtime area school teacher to squeeze special favors from the sheriff and a local attorney, both former students of hers.

Sebastian Bryant came to eastern Kentucky looking for photographs and stumbled into a closed little community whose code of behavior he would never understand. What happened to him rippled through the town in ways that would change other lives forever, sometimes for the good, and sometimes not. Edra Ziesk, in The Trespasser, has replicated a little piece of the hills of Kentucky and filled it with a cast of very real characters, with not a hero among them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Free Books for Book Club Members

I've often been tempted to join a book club despite not really having the spare time for anything new in my life these days. And now, comes a great giveaway limited to book club members that reminds me of what I'm missing:

The folks over at ReadingGroupGuides.com are offering a free book to the first 2500 book club members who fill out their short survey (estimated to take 10-12 minutes of your time). I've looked at the 28 books, copies of which are being given away, and I'm impressed with what's on offer.

If you are a book club member, you will want to take a look at the survey and grab a freebie for your trouble.
This is where you go for a sneak preview of the 28 books being given away and a few comments about what the group hopes to gain from the survey.

Be quick - make the first 2500, if you are eligible for the giveaway. You just can't beat free books...we all know that. (Do keep in mind that books will only be mailed to addresses in the U.S. and Canada - but the group would still love your input if you live in countries other than those two.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Audrey Niffenegger Rolls the Dice Again

Have you wondered for the last few years , like me, what happened to Audrey Niffenegger? Hard as it is to believe, it has already been six years since the huge, come-from-nowhere, splash she made with The Time Traveler's Wife.

Well, according to a Saturday New York Times article, Niffenegger, an artist and "faculty member at Columbia College Chicago, Center for Book and Paper Arts" is back, and she is back in a big way with a near $5 million advance from Scribner for her second novel:
The book (Her Fearful Symmetry) is a supernatural story about twins who inherit an apartment near a London cemetery and become embroiled in the lives of the building’s other residents and the ghost of their aunt, who left them the flat.

The auction for Ms. Niffenegger’s second novel involved several large New York publishing houses, as well as the original hardcover publisher of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” MacAdam/Cage, the San Francisco-based independent, and the publisher that holds paperback rights to the first novel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
As publishers seek sure bets, Ms. Niffenegger’s new novel attracted widespread interest. But second novels can be risky. Charles Frazier, the author of “Cold Mountain,” for example, received an $8 million advance for his second book, “Thirteen Moons,” but it did not sell as well as his first.

“There are going to be people coming to the book with claws out,” said Joe Regal, Ms. Niffenegger’s agent. “That’s just reality.
I have to admit that the plot description of this one does not appeal to me nearly to the degree that The Time Traveler's Wife sucked me in. But, who knows? Niffenegger's first novel was so much fun that I'm hoping that she's done it again, for her sake - and, more selfishly, for mine.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Painter of Battles

With The Painter of Battles, Arturo Perez-Reverte, offers a complete change-of-pace from what he usually provides his readers. Rather than another of the action packed thriller/mystery/war stories for which he is so well known, he has written a rather introspective novel that relies on a several-day-long conversation between two men to engage his readers in a story of slowly building suspense and intrigue. Longtime fans of Mr. Perez-Reverte might be surprised and even a bit put off, by the style and plot of The Painter of Battles, but those who stay with the story will be well-rewarded for their efforts.

Falques, an award-winning war photographer, has retired to an isolated tower in which he is painting a huge mural around one of its circular walls. The mural is intended to be both a presentation of everything he witnessed during his career and his understanding of what it is in the human psyche that allows ordinary men to destroy each other with such obvious relish. Falques, who has isolated himself from the community and surrounded himself with art books, is generally satisfied with the quality and progress of his efforts.

Everything changes, however, when Ivo Markovic appears from nowhere one day to announce very confidently that he is there to kill Falques – eventually. Before that happens, though, Markovic wants Falques to understand some things and there are things he wants to learn from Falques. Falques, of course, is at first startled by the intruder and his death threat but, after Markovic identifies himself, his appearance begins to make a certain kind of sense.

Markovic and Falques first crossed paths in one of the many wars Falques spent his lifetime recording when Markovic, in the midst of retreat with a handful of fellow battle survivors, is captured on film by Falques in a picture striking enough to add to the photographer’s fame. Unfortunately for Markovic, the photograph ends up having consequences neither man could have foreseen.

Falques, despite his aversion to sharing his thoughts with others, finds himself in a philosophical discussion of warfare, those who fight wars or take advantage of them, art history, and human nature that evolves over several days. The conversation is one between equals and both are somewhat surprised at what they learn from the other as the ultimate confrontation draws nearer and nearer.

The Painter of Battles is a literary novel that will have readers questioning their own attitudes toward warriors and warfare. It is so well written, in fact, that readers will likely find it difficult to determine which of the two men, if either, is the good guy and which the bad. Perez-Reverte provides a satisfying ending that allows each of us to decide for ourselves.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Hank Locklin - Gone at 91

I can't find anything on the net yet, but I've just heard, from someone who should know, that one of country music's legendary performers passed away today.

Mr. Hank Locklin was one of the greats of early country music and had just turned 91 years old about three weeks ago.

Here's a amazing clip of Hank singing one of his signature songs, "Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On." I'm not sure what year this performance is from but the man still had remarkable vocal control, that's for sure.

Another great one is gone - and country music is a mere shadow of what it was in the days when the real thing was being recorded. That's what makes a death like this one doubly sad.

Even in Tragedy Avid Readers Connect

Specialist Armando De La Paz Jr.

From today's Los Angeles Times
comes the unlikely story of an emotional connection between two book lovers who never met, one an 81-year-old retiree, the other a 21-year-old soldier who lost his life in Iraq:
Longshore learned of the Riverside soldier's death through a newspaper article.

"I never met him or had any contact with him, but the story moved me deeply," Longshore said recently. "I felt I knew him because I'm an avid reader and he too, such a young man, he was an avid reader. I felt like I'd found a kindred spirit."

The article, which ran in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, motivated Longshore to call Scott Godwin, one of De La Paz's teachers at Arlington High School. Longshore and Godwin spoke about Longshore's idea to honor the young man with a high school reading program founded in De La Paz's name.

Godwin said the idea would be a fitting tribute to De La Paz, who grew up in Riverside, because the two would visit after class to talk about literature.

"He'd come to me and say, 'I need something a bit more challenging,' " Godwin said. "So I'd give him serious books, deep books. And he would just eat these big books up."

De La Paz never failed to quickly read what Godwin threw his way: "The Color Purple," "Kaffir Boy," "Rain of Gold" and even a little Shakespeare.

" 'Bless Me, Ultima' was another he read in two days," Godwin said. "And he understood each book, he got them, very complex stories and heavy issues."

But in class, De La Paz was a student just like any other, keeping his interest in literature quiet.

"He never wanted to be the one answering all the questions, and he didn't talk about the other books in class," Godwin said. "I think he figured other kids didn't share that love."

The enthusiasm with which readers connect never ceases to surprise me even though I regularly see instances like this one and have experienced some wonderful ones of my own via the book blogging community. But think about this one for a minute and consider the odds against these two men, with only one thing in common, connecting in such a deep way that some good will come from the tragic death of one of the two. The power of books is amazing.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

John Cheever at Thayer - Expelled?

I've been re-reading John Cheever's first novel, The Waphsot Chronicle, over the last couple of days and I find that I'm enjoying it even more this time around. I think I'm a different reader than I was when I first read the book back in the late sixties, in that I don't take novels as literally as I used to, and that seems to be making a difference.

Anyway, Cheever is on my mind and I couldn't resist sharing this interesting clip - even though I don't know the story behind its production.

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Writing on My Forehead

The Writing on My Forehead, Nafisa Haji’s debut novel, is a multi-generational look at a wealthy Indo-Pakistani family through the eyes of one of its youngest members, Saira Qader. Saira, always the rebellious one in her immediate family, and now a successful journalist, has broken with most of the social traditions of her family but now finds herself in the midst of a family crisis that causes her to consider a return to the more traditional role her family always expected of her.

In a flashback to her childhood, Saira reveals how she finally learned that her family was as split by its secrets as it was by the worldwide disbursement of its members. The family split began in 1947 when a portion of India was carved away to become Pakistan, but it did not end there. Saira and her older sister, Ameena, were born and raised in the United States because their father decided not to return to India after finishing medical school in the U.S. Saira’s father, though, was not the only family member to leave India for good and she has aunts, uncles and cousins in London from both sides of her family.

Despite the geography involved, there is enough wealth in the family to ensure that every wedding or family gathering in Pakistan welcomes family visitors from England and the United States. Saira and Ameena are as much part of the family as their cousins in India and Pakistan, and their parents strive to raise them according to family and Muslim tradition. Ameena is very much her mother’s daughter, willing to do everything her parents expect of her, including the acceptance of what proves to be a very happy marriage her parents arrange for her. Saira, though, is having none of that and, from the time she begins high school, she chooses an American lifestyle that would have shocked her parents if only they had known the extent of it.

The Writing on My Forehead, is a family saga in every way except the number of pages Nafisa Haji uses to tell her story. In flashbacks involving old notebooks, letters, and stories told by the oldest members of the family, the extraordinary history of this Indian family is told at a leisurely, though detail-filled pace. This is a family filled with memorable personalities, some of whom managed to touch history in the making, but most of whom are very ordinary people simply trying to make the most of their lives. What Saira learns about their secrets both draws her closer to them and gives her license to live life on her own terms.

My one complaint with The Writing on My Forehead is the somewhat jarring change-of-pace that occurs near its end. Saira’s recounting of her family history and her own social evolution is accomplished at a pace requiring only fifteen chapters in the book’s first 264 pages. The family crisis, following the events of September 11, 2001, is told at a rapid pace that squeezes another nine chapters into the book’s last 46 pages. Perhaps, that pacing is a deliberate one to demonstrate just how frantically out-of-control Saira’s life becomes at that point, but it left this reader, at least, with the feeling that the author was in a huge hurry to finish her story. The same story, told at the pace used in the first part of the book, would have seen me more emotionally involved in the book’s final revelations.

Rated at: 3.5

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Free Books from Random House

In contrast to my downer of a post from yesterday, let's talk books - specifically, free books that seem to instantly download in full-version PDF format.

These are all Random House titles and I suggest that you grab the ones you want quickly because this kind of giveaway doesn't last forever:

His Magesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik

Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb

Blood Engines - T.A. Pratt

Red Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson

Settling Accounts: Return Engagement - Harry Turtledove

I can't speak to the first four titles but I assume that they will be known quantities to sci-fi and genre fans. I've downloaded the Harry Turtledove title already because Mr. Turtledove is one of my favorite alternate history writers and, in fact, I'm pretty sure that my introduction to alternate history books was via a Turtledove title.

I hope you find something you to enjoy...just download and save.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

On Growing Up - Finally

I find myself, more and more often these days, in a mood where my books fail me, where it is difficult to lose myself in them as a way of escaping into a whole new world for an hour or two and leaving all my troubles behind in that other world, the one in which I live and work. Maybe it has something to do with the economy and the huge hit that my hopes to retire sometime in the next year or so have taken. Maybe it's because I actually believed that our new president was going to deliver at least a little of the hope and change he promised - and all I've seen is more of the same from him and his cronies. He seems to be nothing more than the product of the corrupt Chicago political system that created him, and that makes me sad. Even sadder, the other side has nothing to offer in response, so the country is in a downward spiral it will be lucky to survive.

But, more likely, my mood comes from the rather sudden way that I find myself surrounded by so many friends and relatives suffering serious illness. Yes, I know, deep down in my heart, that we have reached the stage where we are "too old to die young," but that does not make it any easier to handle. One cousin, two years younger than me, is suffering from stomach cancer; another suddenly finds that she is in stage three colon cancer; a good friend I've been negligent about staying in touch with breaks the news that he has kidney cancer; and my best friend's mother-in-law, a woman I knew for more than 25 years dies of lung cancer less than 90 days after being diagnosed. My father, fast approaching 87 years of age, is still fighting the good fight, trying to make the most of what his body will allow him to do, but it breaks my heart to watch him struggle a little more with every flip of the calendar page.

I suppose this is all part of the process of growing up and that it has probably taken me longer than most to finally get there. On the flip side, I have been blessed with an interesting life and a wonderful wife who supported me in every dumb move I've made over the last 39 years, my two daughters have grown into caring, competent women, and now there are three youngsters coming up in the next generation.

Don't misunderstand me. "Is that all there is?" is not my point. I'm only wondering why I did not take the time to appreciate it all more when it was happening and I'm promising myself that I will appreciate the rest of my life - while I live it, not looking backward from some point in the future.

But enough of that...back to books tomorrow, I hope.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

American Rust

American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, is a hard story to forget. Beyond a doubt, it is one of the bleakest portrayals of small town America written since the Great Depression and its plot, for good reason, is a reminder of the fiction that came out of that era. Present day Buell, Pennsylvania, a steel town that is slowly rusting away because there is not even enough money left to tear down all the deserted steelworks in the area, is a throwback to 1930s America when high unemployment rates pushed so much of the country into despair.

Isaac English and his older sister, Lee, are two of the brightest students ever to come out of Buell High School. Isaac’s problem is that Lee escaped Buell for Yale, a husband, and a new life far from her depressed hometown, leaving him alone to deal with their invalid father. Isaac, though, has finally had enough and, with the $4000 he stole from their father, he plans to ride the rails to California to start his own new life.

Billy Poe, Isaac’s best friend, decides against going to California but does agree to walk with Isaac as far as where he will be able to hop his first train. A sudden thunderstorm that causes them to seek shelter inside an abandoned mill, though, will change their lives forever because of the three homeless men they meet there. That encounter ends with one of the homeless men dead from a crushed skull and Billy Poe charged with killing him. Isaac, unaware of what is happening to Billy back in Buell, continues on his hapless journey toward a new life, suffering more encounters with bullies and thieves along the way, and growing up more in a few days than he had since leaving high school.

American Rust does not require some spectacular plot to keep the reader turning pages. In fact, the all-but-accidental death of the homeless man, the focal point of the entire novel, could have easily been seen as just another case of self-defense. Rather, the real tragedy of their story is that the boys believe they will be charged with murder if tied to the incident in the old mill and that Billy, when he is arrested, refuses to defend himself for fear of implicating Isaac.

The killing and its cover-up especially have an impact on the people who care most about Billy Poe and Isaac English, and Meyer builds American Rust around alternating first-person chapters that give these voices weight equal to the words of Billy and Isaac themselves. We hear from Lee, Isaac’s guilt-ridden sister who finally realizes what her brother has been through since she abandoned him. We suffer with Grace, Billy Poe’s mother, as she grieves for him and comes to terms with the fact that, despite her willingness to do anything to save him from his fate, there is little she can do to help him. We hold our breaths as the town’s police chief, a man romantically involved with Grace, considers throwing his career away, and more, in order to save the woman he loves.

American Rust is about people and what happens to those people when the future they counted on is snatched from them. It is heavy on atmosphere and memorable characters and it is, I am certain, destined to be one of my favorites of 2009.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Plague of Doves

The Plague of Doves is the story of little Pluto, North Dakota, an isolated community with a mixed population of reservation Indians and descendants of the whites who founded the town. Louise Erdrich, through the interconnected first person narratives of various characters, builds layer after layer of Pluto’s history. The stories, sometimes told in the present and other times in flashbacks, all steadily add details to Pluto’s defining moment and contribute to the book’s surprise ending.

At the core of Pluto’s history is the horrific slaughter of a farm family just outside town that leaves only one survivor, an infant still in her crib when she is found by four Indians passing through the area. The suffering of the family’s milk cows and the plight of the child touch the group of passing Indians but they instinctively recognize the danger of becoming linked in any way to the murders of a white family. So, after milking the cows and caring for the baby, they use an anonymous note to notify the sheriff of the crime.

As things too often happen, though, their good deed does not go unpunished. Within days, a group of prominent white citizens, despite the sheriff’s efforts to stop them, identifies the formerly anonymous Indians and hangs all four (two men and two boys) from a tree on the outskirts of town. One of the boys, Mooshum Milk, manages to survive the lynching, resume his life in the community, and eventually raise a family of his own.

Mooshum has reached old age and enjoys telling his stories to his grandson and granddaughter. It is when he finally tells them the story of the murders and his near-lynching, complete with the names of those involved on both sides, that Evelina Harp, his granddaughter, begins to realize that life in Pluto is much more complicated than she ever imagined it to be.

Most often through Evelina’s eyes, but with added first-person narratives from several of the book’s key characters, the reader learns what happened in Pluto during the decades following the murders. As the years go by, intermarriage between the vigilante families and Indian families, and the deaths of most of the principles involved, mute the horror of what happened. Generations come and go, each less and less aware of the history shared with neighbors, and bloodlines become so blurred that most of the families descended from both the victims and the perpetrators of the crimes that marred Pluto’s early history hardly realize it.

As each narrator adds another layer to the story, readers will find it impossible to keep up with the various family relationships in The Plague of Doves - and Erdrich does not make it any easier to keep relationships straight by placing one of those elaborate family trees at the front of the book that have become so common. Rather, a fuzzy understanding of family relationships puts the reader on par with most Pluto residents who themselves barely comprehend the ties linking so many of them. That vagueness illustrates how the murders, tragic as they were, could have been absorbed by the townspeople to such a degree that the community thrives for decades despite a crime that should have destroyed it early on.

The Plague of Doves is a big, complicated family saga that is filled with lots of quirky humor despite the tragedy from which the story springs. Fans of Louise Erdrich know exactly what to expect, and this one will not disappoint them.

Rated at: 5.0