Sunday, May 30, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 19

I think this would be a good time to update my "Best of the Year" list since we are closing out the month of May on a hot three-day weekend, meaning the year is almost half over already. I have been so busy helping to pack my daughter and move her to another house that I've done very little reading for the last three or four days - but there are a few changes to the list.

Since the last update, I've read A Week in December (Sebastian Faulks), Johnny Porno (Charlie Stella) and Not So Perfect (Nik Perring). I'm also well into Jeremy Butterfield's Damp Squid (an exploration of the English language) and Republic, by Charles Sheehan-Miles (an alternate history look at what might happen if the Homeland Security agency got "over ambitious"). Two of the books crack the list at numbers 8 and 10.

So this is what the fiction list looks like after 38 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. Far Cry - John Harvey (police procedural)
7. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
8. Johnny Porno - Charlie Stella (noir crime fiction)
9. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)
10.Not So Perfect - Nik Perring (short story collection)

And the nonfiction list from a total of 13 read so far this year is unchanged:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
4. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
5. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
6. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
7. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
8. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
9. A Time to Betray - Reza Kahlili (memoir of Iranian CIA agent)
10. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)

Let Us Never Forget Them

As you share food and fun with family and friends this weekend, please take a moment to remember those who helped make the world a safer place for all of us.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Here They Come

Janet Evanovich
It's getting hot out there in more ways than one because the big summer books are about to hit the shelves of your local bookstores. Based on their huge initial printing numbers, you won't have any trouble finding a copy of this bunch:
Sizzling Sixteen - Janet Evanovich - (a Stephanie Plum novel) - 2,500,000 copies

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner - Stephanie Meyers - (a "Twilight" novella) - 1,500,000 copies

The Lion - Nelson DeMille - (a terrorism thriller) - 1,000,000 copies

The Search - Nora Roberts - (a serial killer thriller) - 650,000 copies

Star Island - Carl Hiassen - (another South Florida novel) - 500,000 copies

2010 will be a good year for authors named "Stephanie" or "Janet "but this looks a whole lot like the same old stuff to me...and I'm bored already.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Not So Perfect

When it comes to reputation and popularity, modern day short story writers seem to get the short end of the stick. Novels are more popular than shorter works; there is no doubt about that. Readers seem to prefer immersing themselves in complicated, detailed plots housed in 500 pages novels over experiencing spare short stories of a dozen pages or so. I tend to be that way myself, despite the fact that I have come to believe that it might be more difficult to write a quality short story than it is to write a longer work. Nik Perring's Not So Perfect has pretty much convinced me that I am correct about that opinion. It must really be hard to make it look this easy.

Not So Perfect is Perring's collection of 22 short stories, several of which have been previously published in British (I think) literary magazines. The collection gives new definition to short story because these little tales are best characterized as short short stories. These are stories of a few hundred words and just three or four pages, on average, but do not let their brevity fool you because each of the stories packs a little kick of its own. Perring has such an uncanny ability to create believable characters and unusual situations in very few words that I found myself always looking forward to the next story to see if he could pull it off again. He did.

None of Perring's characters are perfect, and what we see of their lives is not even close to being perfect, but they are interesting and fun to get to know. Among my favorite stories is one about a library patron that comes to the disapproving notice of the librarian who suspects he is up to no good. There is one about a young woman's obsessive use of Post-It notes, another about two birdwatchers that come out only at night, and one about a woman who literally vomits small animals. There may be no perfect characters and no perfect lives in Perring's stories but I defy the reader to forget them.

Not So Perfect is fun and I will long remember it because of a unique experience I had while reading it. I always keep a book in my car, just for those little unexpected delays that so often happen during my daily commute or when I have to queue up someplace for a few minutes of what would, otherwise, be wasted time. Not So Perfect rode along in my passenger seat for several days and, while waiting for an exceptionally long traffic light to turn green in my direction (a wait of almost three minutes), I was able to read an entire short (short) story on the way to work. How cool is that?

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Johnny Porno

Frankly, I do not usually pay much attention to book blurbs because of how writers generally trade them among themselves, their special way of exchanging rather painless favors. But to Charlie Stella’s credit, most of the blurbs on the cover of Johnny Porno come not from authors, but from newspaper and magazine critics. And then there’s this one from Ken Bruen, a man who has written several of my favorite hardcore crime novels, “Stella is a winner, a true artist.” Despite my misgivings about the honesty of book blurbs, when a talent like Ken Bruen offers that kind of praise, I do tend to listen – and, in this case, I am happy that I did.

Johnny Porno is set in 1973, a year during which Richard Nixon is still hoping to survive the Watergate break-in, the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes abortion, the Viet Nam War officially ends and the state of New York bans the screening of perhaps the most famous pornographic film of all time, Deep Throat. It is also the year that John Albano, a hotheaded carpenter, is stripped of his union card after he argues with the wrong man on a job site, making it near impossible for Albano to pay child support to his ex-wife.

John Albano loves his son and sincerely wants to provide for him but, since losing his high paying union job, he simply cannot meet his obligations to the boy. So when a New York mobster offers him the job of gathering cash receipts from the illegal showings of Deep Throat, Albano jumps at the chance to earn some extra money. Albano’s quick fists, and his even quicker temper, first bring him to the attention of the mob boss, but that same inability to control himself will soon have him in trouble with Eddie Vento, the man who hired him. Unfortunately for him, John Albano has a special talent for making deadly enemies, and his life is about to get complicated.

Charlie Stella has filled Johnny Porno with a wide variety of characters. There are mob enforcers, hit men, crooked cops, good cops, vindictive ex-wives, fragile FBI men, drug addicts, police informants, wannabe porn stars (and those who live like porn stars already), good girls, con men, good guys, cute kids, loyal mothers – and Johnny Porno, a man who hates the nickname he is stuck with and just wants a little respect for his efforts to do right by his son. This is a gritty, complicated story and it is not for the faint-of-heart or the easily offended. If books were rated in the manner of Hollywood movies, Johnny Porno would have earned at least an “R” rating for itself. But if you enjoy Soprano-style fiction, you will not want to miss this one.

As the Chicago Sun-Times put it, (Stella) “May just be the best crime writer you’ve never read.”

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

2010 Moby Awards for Book Trailers

The awards we've all been breathlessly awaiting were awarded on May 20 in NYC. Yes, the 2010 Moby Awards for book trailers can now be announced. Among the winners are this one for "best performance by an author," won by Dennis Cass for his performance in book launch 2.0:

Other winners included:

"Biggest Waste of Conglomerate Money"

"Most Annoying Appearance by an Author"

and "Best Foreign Book Trailer" to this funny (R-Rated) video

Be patient with this one and you will hear one of the funniest book blurbs ever - near the end - and might enjoy the little jab at a famous book that closes the video.

For those of you still interested, the link shown at the beginning of this post will take you to the other award winners - and losers.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Week in December

John Veals and Hassan al-Rashid, two of the main characters from the new Sebastian Faulks novel, A Week in December, have more in common than either man would care to admit. Veals is the stereotypical hedge fund manager, one who has already pocketed more money than he could spend in a hundred lifetimes; al-Rashid is a young Muslim from Scotland who has been radicalized by one of the crazies who share his mosque.

Veals has hatched a plan that will make his hedge fun billions of dollars but will, in the process, destroy banks, jobs, the financial security of thousands of pensioners, and a significant portion of Africa’s agricultural production. It would be impossible for him to care less about the people who will lose jobs or starve to death because of his market manipulation. Hassan al-Rashid is a key player in a bomb plot to blow up one of London’s hospitals. He, too, is unconcerned about the innocent people he will destroy in the process of furthering his delusional political goal. A Week in December follows the progress of the Veals and al-Rashid plots for the week ending just before Christmas 2007, but these are only two of the book’s main plotlines.

Faulks also offers the improbable romance between Gabriel Northwood, a usually-out-of-work barrister, and Jennie Fortune, a young, mix-raced woman who happens to drive a train on the Circle Line portion of London’s underground. And there is book reviewer R. Tantor, a vicious little man whose main purpose in life seems to be nipping in the bud the potential success of as many debut novelists as possible. Tantor, one learns, cannot stand to see others gain the kind of success and attention his own novel failed to generate.

But these are just a handful of the characters and subplots Faulks uses to describe goings-on in the London of late 2007. There are more than a dozen other support characters, largely, but not limited to, family members and friends of the main characters (including even one Eastern European footballer brought in to play in the English Premier League), that allow Faust to expose the worst aspects of contemporary life in the United Kingdom. Along the way, he gives the reader satirical, but harsh, looks at the out-of-control greed governing the financial industry, the insanity that drives Islamist extremism, the utter stupidity of “reality” T.V., the ruinous effects of internet addiction, the failure of schools to educate, and the overriding pretentiousness of the super-rich. Frankly, there is not much to like about this version of British big city life.

Faulks gradually brings his characters and plots closer and closer together, building the tension as readers begin to wonder how it will all end. That device worked, perhaps too well, on me and I found myself racing through the final chapter (day seven) to learn what happens when the main plotlines finally converge. I say it worked “too well” because I found the book’s ending to be somewhat flat when compared to its buildup. My other quibble with the book concerns the number of pages Faulks used to detail the inner workings of the financial strategy devised by the book’s chief villain, John Veals. Faulks fell victim to the temptation of giving his readers too much information – and, as a result, may have lost some of those readers long before they finished the book.

I do wonder whether A Week in December will appeal more to its British readers or to its American Anglophile ones. It is, though, absolutely well worth the attention of both groups.

Rated at: 4.0

P.S. If you enjoy the novels of Tom Wolfe, you will probably enjoy this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Losing My Cool

It is always easier for an outsider to be objective about an unfamiliar culture than it is for someone totally immersed in that same culture, especially when strict conformity to the accepted norm of the culture serves as a means of survival within it. I recognize, however, that an outsider brings his own baggage and bias into any discussion about a culture foreign to his eyes. And when it comes to the hip-hop culture that so completely dominates overall black culture today, especially the lives of its younger members, I am absolutely an outsider. But, as such, I have long wondered how, and why, American blacks have allowed their culture and their image as a people to be disgraced by something as shallow and destructive as hip-hop. In Losing My Cool, Thomas Chatterton Williams explores how the hip-hop culture came to dominate Black America and what needs to be done to counter its terrible influence on young people.

As the subtitle to his book (How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture) indicates, Thomas Chatterton Williams was one of the lucky ones. It was a close call, but he saw through the false bravado of hip-hop before it was too late for him to make something of his life. Williams and his brother are the products of the marriage between a white woman from California and a black man from Galveston, Texas. The boys grew up in a New Jersey home in which their father stressed to them that learning is a skill that needs to be practiced each and every day. There were no days off for Thomas. His friends might be wasting their summers by posing as thugs on the streets and local basketball courts but Thomas was spending hours preparing for his next school year or prepping for the SAT examination.

His father, largely a self-educated man, led by example; the man practically devoured books. He did not just read them; he had conversations with them, leaving notes and underlined passages on practically every page he read. But for Thomas, as for everyone else he grew up with, hip-hop culture trumped whatever good influence he received at home from his parents. As he puts it, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. To survive, I drank in my community’s mores, including its fear of learning, even as I capitulated to my father’s seemingly eccentric will at home…had mastered the delicate balance of keeping it real and keeping Pappy satisfied at the same time.”

Even after the countless hours of study with his father paid off in a scholarship to Georgetown University, Thomas continued to immerse himself exclusively in the world of his fellow black students. He paid no attention to his white dormitory mates, skipped class as much as he attended it, and spent as much time as possible with the black students of Howard University, where he felt totally at home because its students were living exactly the debasing lifestyle he knew from high school.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, though, is a learner and, by his second year at Georgetown, he began to realize just how badly the hip-hop culture had cheated him and his peers out of the finer things of life. They had been compelled to embrace a dishonorable lifestyle, one with no dignity and no future. Thomas discarded a culture that promoted self-hatred, denigrated women, and ridiculed books and learning for his own vision of what a man should be. Thanks to Pappy’s influence, Thomas embraced the degree of non-conformity that allowed him to become the man his father always hoped he would become.

Losing My Cool is a frank look at what has gone wrong in Black America. Williams points his finger at the culprits - and he names them. Sadly, those who would most benefit from the lessons in Losing My Cool are the least likely to read the book, either because they cannot, or because they will not. Either way, that is a tragedy.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Has anyone read the books in this series? If so, does this book trailer accurately capture their tone and content? I have to admit, I might watch a 60-minute video along the lines of this trailer but I'm not sure I'm up to reading one of these "classics." Any thoughts?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Private Life

Nobody ever said that marriage is easy.

Private Life is Jane Smiley’s rather dry take on marriage as seen through the eyes of the women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is filled with husbands that are, at best, benevolent dictators and, at worst, contemptible egomaniacs that see their wives as little more than housekeepers to be slept with on occasion. There are very few happy women in Private Life and, with the possible exception of Mrs. Kimura (a Japanese immigrant to America), none of them are married. For these women, marriage is a crapshoot and, by the time they figure out if they have won or loss, it is too late to ask for a second roll of the dice.

It is telling that two of the most accomplished women in the novel, and probably its happiest overall, are women who choose not to marry: the Kimura daughter, who works with her midwife mother, and Dora, a successful newspaper correspondent and friend of the book’s main character, Margaret Mayfield. The other women eventually, sooner for some than for others, come to see their marriages as more burden than blessing.

Private Life opens in 1942, just as Margaret Mayfield locates what is left of a Japanese family she has grown close to during her years in coastal California. The Kimuras are living in a horse stall at the closed-down racetrack where they, along with hundreds of others of Japanese descent, have been interned on the orders of the federal government. What particularly hurts Margret is the role played in their arrest by her husband, the self-declared-genius, astronomer, and unofficial physicist, Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. By 1942, Margaret knows that her husband is more fool than genius and she regrets the lifetime she has squandered in his company.

Smiley tells Margaret’s story in a series of flashbacks of five-to-ten-year intervals, beginning with her childhood in rural Missouri where she grew up with her two sisters and two brothers. Life was cheap in nineteenth century Missouri; women died during childbirth, men in war, and both sexes frequently succumbed to illness and accident. The Mayfield family is often visited by tragedy and, at age 27 already dangerously close to spinsterhood, Margaret will marry more out of desperation than of love. If only she had known what was to come of her marriage to Captain Andrew Early.

Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early is a man with a high opinion of himself, one who never considers the possibility that he might be wrong on any scientific question or issue of the day. He makes a good initial impression on those he seeks to impress but cannot control his emotions or tongue if challenged. Finally, having burned one bridge after another behind him, he brings Margaret to the observatory at Mare Island’s U.S. Navy base and shipyard where he will work for the next several decades. It is on Mare Island and in Vallejo, California, that Margaret will proceed to waste the rest of her life alongside the man she comes to realize is insane.

This is not an easy book to read, despite its interesting theme and look at early twentieth century California history (including the San Francisco earthquake of 1906), because of the degree to which it gets bogged down in the details of Andrew Early’s misguided scientific theories. Those who make it through those pages, however, might feel it was worth their effort in the end.

Yes, nobody said that marriage would be easy. According to Jane Smiley, it might just be impossible.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Should These Books Be Banned?

Here's an interesting question for you guys. All of us, I dare say, are adamantly against the idea of banning books, and many of us go out of our way to promote books that are banned anywhere in the world. That is simply second nature for a bunch of book lovers like us.

But is it always that simple? Are there books that do deserve to be banned because they are as dangerous as assault weapons? Here are two that I personally believe fall into that category: The Anarchist Cookbook and The Poor Man's James Bond. Should we really be making it this easy for all those terrorists and terrorist wannabes out there?
Online retail giant Amazon has come under fire for openly selling controversial books that contain prescriptions of deadly chemical cocktails, and dangerous information that can be misused by just about anyone.
The books in question- 'Anarchists's Cookbook' and The Poor Man's James Bond were downloaded off Amazon by a white-supremacist father-son duo. The father then used the instructions in the book to concoct a chemical weapon.icky Davison, 19, of Annfield Plain, County Durham, was sentenced to two years in a young offenders' institution on Friday after being convicted of charges relating to downloading copies of the Anarchist's Cookbook and The Poor Man's James Bond.

His father, Ian Davison, 42, was jailed for 10 years at Newcastle Crown Court after he manufactured enough ricin to kill nine people and kept it in a jar in his kitchen for two years, the Press Association reports.
Even the "author" of The Anarchist Cookbook, William Powell, would love to see it go out of print permanently. I have to agree with him.

Best of 2010, Update 18

The last few days seem to have flown by even quicker than they usually do. I took Thursday afternoon off to drive about 35 miles northwest of where I live to attend a rare bluegrass music event. I say "rare" because it is highly unusual for one of the nationally-touring bluegrass bands to include Houston on its schedule. Frankly, the Houston area is not a hotbed of bluegrass fans and, consequently, those of us who are here suffer the neglect of the traveling bands.

So, when a band the caliber of The Grascals comes anywhere near here, you will find me there. And what a show it was: one hour and fifteen minutes from some of the best bluegrass musicians and singers in the business today. These guys keep it fresh and fun while managing to give a respectful nod to some of the bluegrass classics from yesterday.

Friday was spent cleaning out the garage at my dad's house, the last step I needed to complete before the cleaners came in on Saturday to give the house a thorough going over - now, all I need is to get the carpet cleaners in - and we are done! The house will be ready to be officially put up for sale and the hard part will be over.

The good news is that I've had enough "sitting around" time during the last three days that I've managed to read a couple of interesting books and finish up a third: John Harvey's Far Cry and Jane Smiley's Private Life, plus an amazing memoir on the utter destructiveness of the hip hop life style by Thomas Chatterton Williams called Losing My Cool. The Smiley book left me cold (and more than a bit depressed) but I am adding the Harvey book to the fiction list at number six and the Williams book to the nonfiction list at number three. Now I just need to find some time to get my thoughts about these three down on paper.

So this is what the fiction list looks like after 35 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
5. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. Far Cry - John Harvey (police procedural)
7. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
8. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)
9. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow (novel)
10. The Man from Saigon - Marti Leimbach (Vietnam War novel)

And the nonfiction list from a total of 13 read so far this year:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
4. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
5. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
6. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
7. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
8. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
9. A Time to Betray - Reza Kahlili (memoir of Iranian CIA agent)
10. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bookstore Slobs, Part 2

The two comments to yesterday's post about the bookstore slobs I see in my local B&N every time I go there got me to thinking a bit more on the subject.

I have to ask myself if I feel differently about a student using B&N as a library than I do about some shopper too cheap to pull his wallet out of his pocket and buy a book or two. I worked with a fellow for about twenty years who used to use every lunch hour reading books in the bookstore across the street from our office. He would read three or four books a month that way, hiding the books somewhere deep in the shelves until he was done with them. Never, not one single time, did I know him to buy a book - from anywhere. But then I see students there on weekends and in the evenings making use of the technical and scholarly books in B&N and that doesn't bother me so much.

I realize how expensive books are for college students and, after all, this store has little tables placed around the store for the use of "customers," not to display books. Sometimes I see whole study groups in the store using one single text as part of their school preparation. B&N, at least my local one, seems to encourage this kind of thing.

Take a look at this letter from a Georgia resident lamenting the closing of his local Barnes & Noble store:
A month ago I heard sad news for our community that the Barnes & Noble bookstore located in Fayetteville is about to close.

I remember when I first moved to Fayetteville and I did not have a job, friends and family, so I used to go frequently to the bookstore and spent many hours there, lost in the reading of different kinds of books, eating a delicious desert, with the help of such as wonderful workers who were ready to help every customer.

I was so excited about living so close to Barnes & Noble that I decided to get the membership card to buy books. I got many dictionaries and books, which helped me to improve my vocabulary.

Then I began working and on my days off I decided to spend one hour in the store reading motivational books and other kinds of magazines. Doing the same activity during the past two years has helped me in the process of improving my English, since my first language is not English.

During the times that I spent in the store I noticed that a lot of young people were there reading books, magazines and eating a delicious dessert as well. I think that this class of business should remain open. This book store is something positive for our Fayetteville community.

I was thinking what can I do to impede the closing of Barnes & Noble, so I thought I do not have the money to allow for the store to remain open but I have feelings, thoughts, ideas, knowledge which I have gained during my entire life from books that I had read, some of them found in that precious store. I decided to write this letter to make everybody think: What can I do to stop Barnes & Noble from closing?
My first reaction is to tell the guy that if folks like him would have just spent a few bucks on books, at least as much as they spent on deserts, maybe this wouldn't be happening. But I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong to feel that way. Maybe the bookstores are providing a community service to students in exchange for a little good will.

Don't miss the comments from Janda and Martha. Both speak from bookstore clerking experience and what they have to say is not pretty, especially Martha's definition of "soiled."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bookstore Slobs

Maybe someone can explain to me how bookstores like Barnes & Noble can allow their stock to be trashed by non-buyers on such a massive scale. I am always a bit amazed at the number of people sprawled out at my local store with magazines, books and newspapers all over their chairs and on the floor around them. It is bad enough that most of these folks don't bother to re-shelve anything - they do not even try to keep the products in good enough shape to sell.

There have been several instances in the last few months where I went looking for a specific title only to find that the only one in stock looked worse than something I might find at Half Price Books - for half the price. I will not pay full price for a book that's dirty or torn, Mr. Store Manager...not gonna happen despite your unwillingness to mark down the damaged goods. Don't try to buy an unsoiled newspaper in that store, either, where even the magazines are a hit and miss proposition.

Do these stores actually make so much money on over-priced coffee, drinks and snacks that they can cover the lost sales on the items they are really there to sell? Do publishers take back all those trashed books? I suspect that magazines and paperbacks still get only their covers ripped off and returned for full credit, but what is the deal on hardbacks and newspapers?

Anyone have the scoop?

Annie, are you out there? Cip, I don't mean guys like you...we're talking slobs here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Year of Magical Thinking

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” That is precisely what happened to author Joan Didion. While this would make a memorable opening line for a novel, it is actually a sentence from the very beginning of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of what she experienced during the immediate year following the sudden loss, on December 30, 2003, of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne.

Didion’s world was already in turmoil when she and her husband sat down to dinner that night. A short time earlier, they had been sitting at the bedside of their only daughter, Quintana, where she lay unconscious, suffering from a combination of septic shock and pneumonia. Fearful that their daughter might not survive what had begun as a relatively benign health problem, the couple returned that fateful evening for a quiet dinner alone. Then it happened. Suddenly, while in the midst of preparing their dinner, Didion sensed that something was terribly wrong with her husband. When Dunne did not respond to her efforts to revive him, she called for help – but it was too late. Her partner of 40 years had been snatched from her forever.

What follows is Joan Didion’s recollection of how she reacted to her husband’s death over the next twelve months - while still having to cope with the increasing likelihood that her daughter might also be taken from her. Before the experience of losing a spouse or child, it is impossible for one to predict how she will react to a loss of that magnitude. Didion, an experienced researcher, turned to the literature of grieving so that she would better know what she should expect to experience in the first year without her husband. She might have been a bit surprised that her grieving so closely followed the pattern she read about in most medical books, memoirs, self-help books, and novels. But what most surprised her was that, at times, she was literally crazy, though she prefers to call her crazy behavior` “magical thinking.” She expected to be “crazy with grief” but not to exhibit the kind of bizarre behavior that characterized her behavior in 2004.

The Year of Magical Thinking is one woman’s account of what it was like to be wrenched from her husband and writing partner of forty years. Dunne and Didion worked so closely together that she feared that she might never be able to write again, having lost the best editor and literary confidant she ever had. It might be one woman’s story, but there is much here for those having experienced similar losses and for those who sense that such losses are approaching. It is a frank and honest description, if a bit rambling at times, and even a bit repetitive – two qualities that likely mimic Didion’s 2004 state-of-mind.

The four-disc audio version of The Year of Magical Thinking is read by stage actress Barbara Caruso. Caruso so perfectly captures the tone of voice in which the book is written that I often had to remind myself that I was not being read to by Joan Didion, herself.

This is not an easy book to read, nor is it one that will please everyone who has experienced this level of grief. It should, however, be considered as a touchstone for those seeking insight into the grieving process.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, May 07, 2010

One Last Thing to Do before I die

Were you bullied when you were a kid? Did your favorite daydream back then involve some farfetched scenario in which you got even with the bully who took such pleasure in tormenting you – preferably by causing that bully at least twice the amount of physical pain and mental anguish you suffered at his hands? Well, friend, I have just the book for you.

Steven Drew Goldberg’s One Last Thing to Do before I Die is a dark comedy, one that will have you laughing out loud despite the fact its main character, Max Wiseman, is determined to kill himself as soon as he can. Max, a young NYC prosecutor, might seem to have it all. He, after all, is worth every bit of ten million dollars and he works some of New York’s highest profile criminal prosecutions. He drives a $100,000 car and tells time by a $10,000 watch. Come on, he can look out his apartment window and see the Statue of Liberty. Can it get much better than this? Max will argue that, yes, it surely can - and it should.

Max, although he is not particularly religious, does have one guiding principle upon which he centers his life: The Golden Rule, a simple but solid premise with great potential for good. Unfortunately for Max, very few of the people he encounters every day seem to have even heard of that rule, much less practice it, and he has grown weary of living in a world where his most common thought is, “What is wrong with people?” He sees little chance that his future years will be any happier than the ones he has already suffered through, so he is ready to end it all now. But Max has one last thing to do before he makes his dramatic exit – find Derrick Frankenmeyer, the jerk that, as a twelve-year-old, terrorized the younger and much smaller Max Wiseman for several weeks during what turned out to be Max’s personal summer camp from hell.

For readers, if not for Max, getting there is half the fun. Along the way to confront his personal bogeyman, Max will have adventures and misadventures in Houston, Albuquerque, a remote farm in Oklahoma, and along old Route 66. He will be forced to deal with enough illogical airline clerks, rent-a-car clerks and hotel clerks to last a lifetime, so many, in fact, that he grows more certain that killing himself is the only way to go. The real question is what will happen when he finally catches up with the infamous Derrick Frankenmeyer. And not even Max knows the answer to that.

This one is great fun, my fellow bully-victims. I only wish the bullies of the world could read well enough to learn something from One Last Thing to Do before I Die, too. (Just kidding, bullies…)

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 17

Things have settled down here a bit - but the planned estate sale is scheduled for early Saturday morning so it will be a fairly hectic weekend. I'm hoping that we have my dad's house pretty much emptied out by the end of the weekend so that I can arrange for it to be cleaned and otherwise readied for the sales market. Wish us luck...

Up for consideration this time around are two novels and one piece of non-fiction. I'm going to place One Last Thing to Do before I Die on the list at number 10 but The Malthusian Catastrophe does not quite make the cut. The nonfiction book, A Time to Betray, will move onto the nonfiction list at number 8.

So this is what the fiction list looks like after 33 fiction books read:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)

5. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
6. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates (novel)
7. The Samaritan's Secret - Matt Beynon Rees (detective fiction)
8. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow (novel)
9. The Man from Saigon - Marti Leimbach (Vietnam War novel)
10. One Last Thing to Do Before I Die - Steven Drew Goldberg (comic novel)

And the nonfiction list from a total of 11 read so far this year:
1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
3. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
4. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
5. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
6. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
7. Top of the Order - Sean Manning, Ed. (baseball essays)
8. A Time to Betray - Reza Kahlili (memoir of Iranian CIA agent)
9. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
10. Never Tell Our Business to Strangers - Jennifer Mascia (memoir)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Lay Down My Sword and Shield

That James Lee Burke’s Lay Down My Sword and Shield is back in print will be of particular interest to Burke fans who know Hackberry Holland only from last year’s Rain Gods. By the time of Rain Gods, Hack Holland is a grizzled old Texas lawman still not ready to call it quits even though he is in his early seventies. But in 1971’s Lay Down My Sword and Shield, the only other novel featuring Hack Holland, he is a young Texas lawyer being courted for a run at the U.S. Congress - hopefully, to fill the very spot once held by his father.

Even as a young man, though, Hack Holland is damaged goods, already suffering many of the anxieties and weaknesses that will haunt him and shape him into the man he will be almost forty years later. Hack is one of those Korean War veterans with the unfortunate experience of having been captured and imprisoned by the Chinese during the war. What happened to him inside that prison, told primarily in one long, flashback chapter, is something that often still wakes him in a drenching sweat during the middle of the night.

Hack Holland is a heavy drinker. He uses alcohol to help him make it through the night, and he uses it to help him tolerate the people he deals with during the day. Hack has an attitude problem when it comes to certain kinds of people: powerbrokers, society uppity-ups, bigots, phonies, and anyone else who tries to tell him what to do. Luckily for him, he has enough money to get away with not trying too hard to hide his feelings. But hide his feelings is exactly what he will have to do if he is serious about becoming a United States congressman.

If nothing else, Hack Holland is loyal to his friends, especially those he knows from his time in Korea. Now one of those old friends is in bad trouble down in South Texas, having been convicted of assaulting a peace officer while walking a picket line in support of higher wages for migrant farm workers. Hack heads that way, intending to do little more than file an appeal for his old friend, but he soon finds himself walking that same picket line and in the same trouble as the friend he is there to rescue. Perhaps because of his own prisoner-of-war experiences, Hack cannot resist coming to the defense of the underdog – and it doesn’t hurt, too, that he is strongly attracted to a beautiful young organizer he meets in that little South Texas town. Hack Holland is, first and foremost, about ensuring justice for those too weak to fight for it themselves, and he will fight until he drops.

Lay Down My Sword and Shield tells a powerful story, especially when dealing with Hack Holland’s war experiences and the brutality suffered by those walking the picket line, but it does not exhibit the keen storytelling skills longtime James Lee Burke readers have come to expect. The book is, at times, overburdened by its long, descriptive set-up passages, making it a somewhat more difficult book to read than the ones for which Burke deservingly has become so well known. Even so, Burke fans should not miss this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Now for Something Completely Different

I have three big passions in life: books, bluegrass music and baseball (my personal Killer Bs).

That's why this video of last night's Philies vs. Cards game caught my eye. I have seen idiots run onto the field and make jackasses of themselves numerous times in the last four decades. I'm especially fond of the gal who chased Nolan Ryan and a few other Astros around the field to give them each a big kiss. She was a regular all-star game attraction for a little while, in fact, but she pulled her stunt all over the country - anywhere she could get herself on national television.

The best thing I can say about this 17-year-old kid is that he at least kept his clothes on...a good move since he was soon to be tasered by a Philadelphia cop.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Spiderman Stops Comic Book Thief

One Australian would-be thief found out the hard way not to mess with Spiderman. It seems the perp was trying to walk out of a comic book store with a valuable copy of an X-Men comic. Unfortunately for him, he did not count on Spiderman catching him in the act and calling on the help of a couple of Jedi knights to block the door.

The Sun is one of the newspapers that seriously limit use of its content, so I'll just provide a link to the whole story rather than to even quote from the article like I usually do.

Link to the Sun newspaper article, including a short video of the incident can be found here.

Good job, Spidie.

A Time to Betray

Reza Kahlili (whatever his real name might be) is no James Bond. Bond was equipped with an arsenal of clever weapons that could be depended upon to protect him from his country’s enemies. Reza Kahlili had only a code book, coupled with a deep desire to overthrow the murderers that rule his country. Yes, Bond, if captured, might face torture and death. But Reza Kahlili, if recognized as an agent of the CIA, would be forced to watch the rape and torture of his wife before she and his young son would finally be allowed to die. Only then would Kahlili’s interrogators turn to him. Yes, Reza Kahlili is no James Bond.

A Time to Betray is Kahlili’s account of how he came to “betray” Iran in an attempt to save the country from its radical and murderous leadership. Because of his position as a computer expert for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and his childhood friendship with Kazem, one of those now in charge of security issues inside the Guards, Kahlili is able to gather and transmit details that are otherwise unavailable to U.S. intelligence agencies. He will finally come to realize that the cover provided by his well known connection to Kazem is almost certainly the only reason he was able to survive for so long as a CIA agent – and, by the time he realizes this, he will be searching frantically for a way to escape Iran for good.

As a child, Reza Kahlili had two close friends, Naser and Kazem. Naser and Reza lived in the same upscale neighborhood, each of them part of a family within which the requirements of Islam were not strictly followed. Their friend Kazem was their opposite in several ways. He lived in a poor neighborhood, had to make regular meat deliveries from his father’s butcher shop, and, what would prove to be most important regarding the futures of the three boys, he came from a devout Muslim family.

As young men, the boys would take separate paths but they would remain close friends even during the years Reza studied computer science at the University of Southern California. Things would forever change, however, with the revolution of 1979 and the ascendance to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious fanatic who would ultimately be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his people. One would wholeheartedly support Khomeini, one would march in protest of Khomeini’s policies, and the other would choose a middle road from which he hoped to bring positive change.

A Time to Betray is a thrilling story, one filled with vivid images of the atrocities witnessed by Kahlili at the infamous Evin Prison and on the streets of the city. Readers will be horrified by Kahlili’s description of what countless young women were forced to endure in Evin before being marched to the firing squad, a death many of them came to welcome. And they will find it difficult to forget the details of the stoning of a woman convicted of adultery, a “crime” she committed only because she had no other way to feed her children. They will be angered that the culture’s built-in hypocrisy demands death for such women but seldom even punishes the men involved.

Reza Kahlili has told a dramatic story, one so dramatic that I have to question the timing of some of the events recounted in the book. On at least three occasions, timing is too convenient not to arouse suspicion that some events were placed in Kahlili’s timeline at the most dramatic points possible in order to maximize their effect. I do not question that they happened, just when they happened. Despite this misgiving about A Time to Betray, I believe the book is a worthy read, one to which Western readers would do well to allocate some reading time.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Exploiting Your Children for Fun and Profit

I was cruising the internet this morning when this headline caught my eye: Kate Gosselin New Book Flops. I started to move right past the link before it struck me that I had no idea what the headline means. From the headline, though, I can tell a few things: Gosselin has written previous books, those books must have done fairly well, and this new one is a surprise loser when it comes to sales.

All well and good, I thought, but who in the world is this Kate Gosselin person?

So I clicked on the link and found this:
Did Kate Gosselin’s new book flop? Kate Gosselin’s newest book is not selling nearly as well as many experts had originally predicted. Her latest book, “I Just Want You To Know: Letters to My Kids on Love, Faith, and Family,” has reportedly only been able to sell around 10,000 copies since it was released. That is a fraction of the sales that Gosselin had previously seen from her other books when they were released. Both of her previous books, “Eight Little Faces” and “Multiple Blessings,” were able to climb to number 5 on the New York Times bestselling list.
Turns out that Kate Gosselin is part of that weird couple who sold their children to some supposed reality TV show a few years ago. I think I remember hearing that the male half of this marriage from hell is gone now but that the show will go on.

Now the headline really confounds me because I can't imagine how this woman's first two books sold in such big numbers that 10,000 copies of the new one is bad news. That leads me to ask the question: who is buying and, perhaps, even reading these three books? But, more importantly, why are they doing that?

Good grief, "reality TV" is about as real as professional wrestling. How does someone like Kate Gosselin become a "star" for even 15 minutes, much less long enough to write and sell three books? Unbelievable...we are a country of idiots.