Thursday, September 30, 2010

Todos Santos

If it can be said that a novel whose central character is the mother of a teenage son is a coming-of-age novel, then Todos Santos is exactly that. In fact, both Catherine Barnes and her 14-year-old son, Isaac, have coming-of-age experiences in what is Deborah Clearman’s debut novel.

Catherine Barnes has been living the good life in Iowa with her professor husband and young son. But when she learns that her husband makes a habit of becoming intimately involved with female students of his, she understands she has been living a lie. Making matters even worse, Isaac is so uninterested in school that he will fail 8th grade unless he attends summer school. Catherine senses that both she and her son badly need to get away from Iowa for a while, and when her sister-in-law invites her to Guatemala for the summer, she gladly accepts the offer.

Zelda, a longtime resident of Guatemala, happily agrees to put Isaac to work in her shop while Catherine, an illustrator of children’s books, moves on to remote Todos Santos to work on her next book. As Catherine learns from Oswaldo, the guide Zelda hired for her, Todos Santos is a mountain town with a violent past, one whose residents are still very much influenced by superstition, black magic and legends about ancient mountain gods. Only after she moves into a Todos Santos hotel and begins her work, does Catherine fully realize just how different a culture surrounds her.

Isaac, in the meantime, tricks his aunt into believing that he has been invited on a weekend trip by the parents of his new friend, a 15-year old boy from New Jersey. In reality, he and Ben are off to the coast on an adventure of their own, an adventure that leads to tragedy for both boys. Catherine knows it is up to her to rescue her son, but she is hours away from him and Todos Santos is falling into chaos around her. What happens over the course of the next few days will change Catherine and Isaac forever.

Deborah Clearman’s novel is an eye-opener for readers like me who come to it with little more than a generic picture of Guatemala in mind: a country with beautiful beaches, widespread poverty, recent political violence, and little hope that things will get better, etc. These clich├ęs are all true to one degree or another but Clearman uses her Guatemalan characters to remind us that people are pretty much the same no matter where they might live, that our similarities far outnumber our differences. Parents everywhere want to provide the best possible lives for their children. Mothers love their children more than they love themselves. Relationships change, and love is sometimes found when and where one least expects to find it.

That Deborah Clearman has a deep affection for the people and culture of Guatemala is obvious. She has, after all, been visiting and living there since the late 1970s. One only has to read Todos Santos to understand why.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Steve Martin’s style of standup comedy has always been somewhat of an acquired taste. One eventually got it, or one did not, and I admit that I was one of those who did not. I figured out quickly enough what Martin was trying to do; that was not the issue. It was simply that his style of standup silliness more bored than entertained me. His stage act had a limited shelf life for most people, meaning that its popularity would peak and begin to decline relatively quickly - something that Martin, in fact, addresses directly in Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.

Hearing Martin explain in great detail how he came up with his material, and how difficult it was for him to write enough of it to fill even a twenty-minute performance, did not make the gags any funnier to me. Born Standing Up did, however, make me better appreciate Martin’s comic vision and how hard he worked to find his eventual success. Steve Martin beat the odds to become one of the funniest men in Hollywood and this memoir, beginning with his childhood and ending at the point he gave up standup for good for a movie career, tells exactly how he did that.

Steve Martin was born in Texas but moved to California when his aspiring-actor father moved the family there. Just a few years later, Disneyland would open within two miles of the Martin home and ten-year-old Steve would become one of Mr. Disney’s earliest employees. He would spend several years working in the theme park, most importantly in the magic shop where he developed his love for magic and the magic act he would eventually use to break into “show business.”

In Born Standing Up, Steve Martin takes a serious look at how he became the Hollywood star he is today. He details the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father, his days as a semi-professional magician, his experiences as a young television comedy writer, his move to standup, his relationship with Saturday Night Live, and finally, his transition into movies. Along the way, he reminisces about old friends, including high school buddies who founded the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and some of the women he was involved with during those years – including his chaste and short-lived pursuit of Linda Ronstadt.

Martin reads the audio version of Born Standing Up himself, but his reading is surprisingly dispassionate and dry at times. He also provides several short banjo interludes as breaks between distinct sections of the book. This one will appeal especially to Steve Martin fans and “nuts and bolts” comedy fans interested in how Martin’s material developed over the years.

Rated at: 3.0

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 26

It's been ten books since my last update and, since the end of September comes in just a two of days, this will represent my Top 10 lists exactly three-quarters of the way through 2010.

To be considered this time are six novels and four nonfiction titles: Crying Tree (Naseem Rahka), The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai (Ruiyan Xu), The Hanging Tree (Bryan Gruley), "S" Is for Silence (Sue Grafton), Land of Ghosts (E.V. Seymour), Todos Santos (Deborah Clearman), The Gettysburg Approach to Writing and Speaking Like a Professional (Philip A. Yaffe), Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen (Jimmy McDonough), Born Standing Up (Steve Martin) and A World without Islam (Graham E. Fuller).

With only three months to go, it is really getting difficult for a new title to crack either list.  This week shows just how tough, with only one of the ten titles gaining a ranking.  So, of 68 fiction titles, these remain my 10 favorites:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. The White Garden - Stephanie Barron (literary alternate history)
5. Shadow of the Swords - Kamran Pasha (novel about the Third Crusade)
6. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
7. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
8. Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel (novel with a punch)
9. The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith (historical thriller)
10. Far Cry - John Harvey (police procedural)

And the nonfiction list, from a total of 26 read, changes just a bit with Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen moving into what should prove to be a secure number 4 slot.

1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. War - Sebastian Junger (about the daily lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan)
3. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
4. Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen - Jimmy McDonough (biography)
5. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
6. Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero (biography)
7. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
8. Composed: A Memoir - Rosanne Cash (memoir)
9. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
10. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)

And there you have the best 20 books of the 94 I've read so far this year - with only three months to go, the list is starting to look pretty solid.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A World without Islam

When Graham E. Fuller imagines what the world would be like if Islam had never existed, he sees pretty much the same world we live in today.  Fuller believes that the current East vs. West conflict would exist even if religious differences had not been used over the centuries to motivate the common man to fight for his own particular version of heaven.  He, in fact, sees numerous factors, none of them having anything to do with Islam, which would have led to the tensions between the West and the Middle East.   
Fuller cites “economic interests, geopolitical interests, power struggles between regional empires, ethnic struggles, nationalisms, even severe clashes within Christianity itself” (between the churches of Rome and Constantinople) as important factors.  A World without Islam explores these conflicts, many of which actually predate the birth of Islam, as Fuller tries to explain how we arrived in this post-911 world.  The author recognizes that Islam serves as “a flag or banner” behind which millions of people unite, but he believes that, if not behind Islam, the same people would unite under some other “flag.”  Islam, to Fuller’s mind, happens to serve that purpose better than any of today’s alternatives.
A World without Islam begins with a chapter devoted to reminding the reader just how closely related are the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Despite the obvious differences between the three, each is a monotheistic faith recognizing the input of the prophet Abraham.  As Fuller sees it, much of the antagonism between the religions is caused by the way politicians stress differences for their own purposes.  Fuller goes on to explore the early conflict between Rome’s Western Christianity and that of Constantinople’s Eastern Christianity, a dispute he views as having been one of the early building blocks in the tensions between East and West still felt today.  
After a chapter on the Great Crusades (1095-1272), wars that were often as much about expanding Western territory and influence as they were about wresting the Holy Land from Islamic control, Fuller moves on to Islam’s relationship with three of the West’s natural rivals: India, China and Russia.  As the author points out, these seemingly natural allies against Western expansion have not always had an easy relationship within the borders of those three countries.  
The final section of A World without Islam explores the great cultural and intellectual decline suffered by the Muslim world, and how and why it happened.  Once dominant of the countries of the West, Eastern cultures would ultimately be swamped by the scientific, cultural and military accomplishments of those very same countries.  This resulted in both a resentment of the West and in the inferiority complex so common in Muslim countries today.  Fuller contends that this Eastern decline had little, if anything, to do with Islam, furthering his argument that today’s conflict would exist even if Islam had not.
Fuller offers Western leaders a plan to end terrorism, a plan that calls for the United States, and other Western nations, to leave the Middle East to itself.  Among other things, he suggests that finding a solution to the Palestinian conflict and a ceasing of support for corrupt Middle Eastern dictatorships will begin to ease the tension.  Rather than the West spending trillions of dollars on war and aggression, he believes that spending a tenth of that money on universities, schools, clinics and hospitals in the Middle East would cripple the sources of terrorism.
A World without Islam offers an interesting, if dryly presented, theory about Islam’s responsibility (or lack of responsibility) for the dangerous world in which we live today.  What Fuller has to say has merit, but his argument would be a stronger one if he had devoted equal time to Islam’s failure to control those within the faith who have turned to terrorism as a way of life.  Little is said about the silence of mainstream Muslim leaders to condemn the activities of those who slaughter thousands around the world in the name of God.  

While I might concede that the world would be much the same even if Islam had never existed, the author did not convince me that the present conflict would be playing out in the same terms today if that were the case.  Islam, with its encouragement of religious martyrdom, has changed the world in a negative way that would have been unlikely without the existence of it or a similar religion.
A World without Islam offers many ideas, some new, some not, which will, at the least, make the reader think about his own preconceived notions.
Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Weekend Note

Fall weekends are always frantic for me, and this one is no exception.  There's just so much going on that sitting down at a keyboard is almost impossible.  I started the day at peewee football game involving my oldest grandson's team (9-year-olds), a classic match between two of the four undefeated teams in the league.  It looked bad for the good guys at first because their opponents returned the opening kick for a touchdown and it was 6-0 just a few seconds into the game.  Luckily that's all the scoring the Patriots would do and our Eagles team won 13-6.

I managed to sneak in an hour's worth of reading on that great new George Washington biography I've mentioned (an October release from Ron Chernow) before working in nice little one-hour nap, proving that even frantic weekends can be resting.  Now I'm watching on television as UCLA beats up on the Texas Longhorns at home (it's 27-12 as I type this) and I'm smiling at all the glum faces in that huge Austin football stadium.  In less than an hour, I'll be switching to baseball for the Astros vs. Pirates - and I still need to see what kind of coverage the National Book Festival is getting on C-SPAN.

Somehow or another, I even finished two books this morning.  I read the last chapter of A World without Islam and, on the way to the football game, listened to the last few minutes of Steve Martin reading his memoir Born Standing Up.  I'm going to have to let both of these titles simmer a bit longer because, honestly, I'm not sure yet how I rate either of them.  Each book had its moments - good and bad.

Tomorrow is a big football day here in Houston.  It's the first regular season match-up in several years between the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys.  For us to be in our seats for the noon kickoff, we have to leave home about 9:45 and I'll be lucky to be home by 5:00 p.m. because it takes forever to empty the stadium parking lot and get past all the stadium traffic.  But, if Houston wins, it will all be worth it.

Life is sweet for this baseball, football, book loving Texan (until the bell rings on Monday morning to start another work week).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Can't Take Them With You, Part 2

After our discussion about book collections and what happens to them after our time with them is over, I started looking around my shelves in preparation for some serious cataloging that I plan to do over the next few weeks.  And, as usual, the first books to catch my eye were the 15 Dickens novels that take up most of one shelf all on their own.

The books were published around 1880 (the books show no date) by Belford, Clarke and Company of New York and Chicago.  The volumes are bound in red boards rather than in the green boards I find all over the internet when I do a web search on this publisher.  If they have the same value as the set bound in green cloth, they are still amazingly affordable at somewhere between $15 and $25 a book.  Those kind of prices make me wonder why I don't channel more of my book budget into collectibles since the collectibles don't seem to cost any more than new books.  Maybe it's time for me to jump back into that market.

Here are some scans and photos of the Belford, Clarke & Company set:

Front Cover, Great Expectations and Uncommercial Traveller

Great Expectations

Illustration of Scene Described on Page 8
Illustration of Scene Described on Page 196
The 15-Volume Set

And Where They Sit

(The photos and scans can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Near Wordless Wednesday - And One Day Late

Deep Inside the Algerian Sahara Desert

(Where I spent much of the '90s))

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Land of Ghosts

Someone in Russia is working hard on a hit list and, as the body count mounts, Russian government officials are getting more and more nervous about the situation. One by one, those most guilty of brutalizing Chechens during the ongoing fight between the Russian military and Chechen rebels demanding independence, are being eliminated. Be they former generals, jailers or interrogators, someone has a list of the worst offenders, and he is checking names off that list at a steady pace.

But the Russians are not the only ones worried. The British government has managed to plant a Secret Intelligence Service agent so deeply within a fierce group of Chechen rebels that he has become second-in-command to the group’s charismatic leader. Now his handlers have reason to suspect that Rufus Graham has gone rogue and may be directly involved in the Russian assassinations. Fearing the serious political crisis certain to erupt if the Russian government connects a British secret service agent to the killings inside Russia, the British government wants to bring Graham back to England.

Luckily, the agency has the perfect man for the job in Paul Tallis, an experienced MI5 field operative who happens to have been Rufus Graham’s best boyhood friend. Tallis, unwilling to believe that the boy he lost contact with all those years ago could be guilty of what SIS suspects of him, agrees to bring Graham home – or to kill him if the worst is true and he refuses to leave Chechnya.

E.V. Seymour takes the reader deep inside a conflict during which the Russian army used horrific force against the civilian population in order to break the will of a people fighting for its independence. What she portrays is not pretty. Land of Ghosts is a story of brutality and torture from both sides of the conflict, but the behavior of the Russian invaders was particularly vicious. Russian soldiers used rape, torture, murder, and the burning and looting of villages as ways to discourage civilian support for the rebels they fought. Chechen rebels, on their part, were likely to brutalize and torture the Russian soldiers that fell into their hands.

Land of Ghosts, however, is about more than men killing each other for political reasons. It is about friendship, love, and how people are changed by constant exposure to the horrors of war. Seymour peoples her story with interesting characters that include a newly minted Russian millionaire willing to help Tallis for the sheer adventure of it and the Chechen woman who prepares him for his mission while fighting her own expulsion from the U.K. Tallis even finds a bit of romance amidst the chaos of wartime Chechnya and grows close to the young Muslim who insists on helping him negotiate his way through the dangerous landscape he must cross.

Even those for whom Land of Ghosts is their first Paul Tallis book, will come away with a good understanding of what makes him tick because Seymour provides the backstory and side plot associated with a good standalone novel. Much in the tradition of James Bond, Paul Tallis achieves the seemingly impossible over and over again, surviving situations that often do in the lesser men around him while he moves one square closer to his goal. That kind of thing is built into this genre. If you are a fan, you already know that and will not want to miss this one.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

You Can't Take Them with You When You Go

One thing many of us have in common is the time, effort, and money we've invested in building our own home libraries.  We build them, we enjoy them, and then we leave this world without taking any of those wonderful books with us.  Have you ever wondered what will happen to your collection one day?  Is there anyone in your family that cares about books the way you care?  Will anyone in the family even have the space needed to keep all your books together.

Here's a cautionary tale from The Columbus Dispatch:
Walker Lowman's beloved collection of 6,500 books - about the same number that Congress purchased from the third president in 1815 - is being scattered all over town.

"He would probably not be very happy right now that his collection is being broken up," said daughter Karen West, 57.

While helping appraiser Jeff Baker organize the contents of Lowman's Upper Arlington home in advance of an estate sale starting today, the Northwest Side resident shared reminiscences this week about her father - who died in January at age 85.
The siblings did what they could to keep things intact, dividing about 1,000 books among them. The rest were offered to the OSU Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, which selected about 200 - many of them first editions signed by their authors.

"Nobody in the family had room for 6,000 books in their home," West said of the decision to donate and sell the remainder.
Mr. Lowman's children are doing everything possible to do what is right with their father's lifetime collection, but there is only so much anyone can do when faced with the sudden burden of finding a home for more than 6,000 books.

Is this something we, as collectors and book lovers, should take care of before we leave this world for our next gig?  Should we find future homes for our books and leave written instructions for those left with the task of cleaning up behind us?  It's certainly something to think about and I might just start placing little name tags inside the books I want to see kept in the family - as a start to easing the burden on my own family.  Another thing I need to do is to prepare a list of which of my books have some extra value so that they don't get lost in the shuffle.  Just what I need...another bookish project.

Monday, September 20, 2010

S Is for Silence

The lifeblood of any small company is the new business brought in by referrals from friends and former customers. Kinsey Millhone runs a one-woman detective agency and, although she is doing well enough with it, she is always hesitant to reject any potential clients that come her way. Still, after a friend asks her to meet with Daisy, a young woman whose mother disappeared 34 years earlier (in 1953), Kinsey only reluctantly agrees to take on a case gone so cold that it is unlikely ever to be solved.

That Violet Sullivan was Serena Station’s town slut is no secret. The stunningly beautiful redhead may have been married, with a seven-year-old daughter, but she still moved steadily from one affair to the next despite the grief it caused her husband. Men found Violet hard to resist; their wives despised her. And then one evening, she blew her daughter a kiss, waved goodbye to the babysitter, and disappeared in the flashiest car in Serena Station, a brand new 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air. She would never be seen again.

Kinsey does not expect her investigation to get far but, when one morning she finds all four tires on her VW Beetle slashed, she knows that she is making someone very nervous. Violet’s disappearance is complicated by the rumor that she left town with $50,000 in cash, and the fact that every man Kinsey interviews seems to have had a reason to want her dead. Kinsey will find that having an abundance of suspects is not a good thing.

S Is for Silence focuses almost entirely on the cold case Kinsey Millhone has been hired to investigate, even to such an extent that the book’s lack of attention to Kinsey’s personal life might disappoint some longtime fans of the series. Grafton alternates chapters flashing back to 1953 with chapters showing Kinsey stirring up things with the same characters in present day 1987, giving readers the opportunity to observe both eras in real time (in typical “cold case” fashion).

Despite being atypical of Grafton’s alphabet series, S Is for Silence is cleverly constructed up to the moment its disappointingly farfetched ending is exposed. The book’s climactic scene is so dependent on coincidence that much of its tension is lost because the reader is unlikely to be able to take the scene completely seriously. This, added to the way that so many of the investigation’s turning points are entirely dependent on Kinsey’s sudden intuition, and not on what she actually discovers about Violet’s disappearance, results in a less than satisfying mystery.

As usual, reader Judy Kaye does a magnificent job in presenting the words of Sue Grafton in the audio version of the book. Hers is the perfect Kinsey Millhone voice.

Rated at: 3.0

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Meet the Wizard, Part II

Guest Blogger Mark Shapiro

My introduction into the world of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and L. Frank Baum began at the Long Beach swap meet in Long Beach, California when I came across a young couple selling artifacts they had found in their grandfather’s attic.   
I had never seen the Wonderful Wizard of Oz book, nor knew of L. Frank Baum despite having a Masters in Journalism and having been a teacher up to that point.  I walked by the book and then it struck me to go back to ask how much the book was going for. The young man said one dollar and, this being a swap meet where bartering is common, I said I would take it for fifty cents.  A deal was struck.
Four months later as I was going to visit my wife’s parents in Spokane, Washington, I saw in the airplane magazine an article on L. Frank Baum and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The article stated that the book was worth $10,000 and, to my astonishment,a it was like having the spirit of L. Frank Baum invade my soul.
From that point on, I dedicated my life to researching and finding anything Baum.  Like all collectors, I made many mistakes in purchasing books I thought were first edition and first state until i purchased the Bibliographia Oziana by Greene,Hanff,Martin,Haff and Greene. I then spent six months digesting this information which has led me to accumulate over 450 L. Frank Baum and William Denslow books (Denslow being the illustrator on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz).  I have spent the past 38 years coming across the books and other items related to Oziana through swap meets, eBay, auctions and private parties.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Chicago and New York: Geo.M.Hill Co, 1900, 261 pages, had an initial printing of only 10,000 copies of which approximately a third were first state and, of those, approximately 2,000 were in the B binding. On the book’s spine, the first state, and rarest of this book, has the “O” outside the “C” to spell the abreviation “co” following Geo. M. Hill - whereas the second state binding has the “O” inside the larger letter “C.”
14 of the more than 450 books in Mark's collection
Lyman Frank Baum (15 May 1856 - 6 May 1919) was an American author of children's books best known for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He wrote thirteen novel sequels, nine other fantasy novels, and a host of other works (55 novels in total, plus four "lost" novels, 82 short stories, over 200 poems, and an unknown number of scripts, and many miscellaneous writings.) The highest priced Wonderful Wizard of Oz in second state, and second state binding, with an inscription by Baum went for $152,500 at Christies Auction House in 2002.

I have never sold any of his books, for they are the children I never had. The Smithsonian Library in Washington is interested in housing my collection for posterity one day.
Freda and Mark Shapiro
Having been written up in various magazines and newspapers throughout the country and in dedicating my blog, WizardofBaum, to everything Oz and beyond, I feel the spirit of L. Frank Baum in me to help keep him alive in an ever changing world.  I have been a guest speaker at many conventions and it gives me inner warmth to share not only the world of L. Frank Baum but also the overall wonderment of books in general. My dear departed mom, Freda Shapiro , molded me into the collector I am by taking me to museums, book stores and libraries throughout my childhood.

(Thanks again, Mark, for sharing your collection with Book Chase readers.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Hanging Tree

As The Hanging Tree, book two in Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake series, opens, not much has changed for small town reporter Gus Carpenter.  He is still reporting local politics, sports and deaths for his twice-a-week newspaper and playing in a midnight hockey league at the local rink.  When, in book one of the series, he returned to Starvation Lake after disgracing himself in Detroit, Gus moved in with his mother - he still lives there.  And to complete the circle of his life, Gus is romantically involved again with Darlene, a woman he has loved since they both were children and she was his cousin Gracie’s best friend.
Gus Carpenter might work for a smalltime newspaper in remote northern Michigan, but he still considers himself a good investigative journalist.  Sensing that something is not right about the new hockey rink being donated to Starvation Lake, he decides to look into the donor’s finances.  In the process, he manages to infuriate the millionaire benefactor and most of the paper’s readers and advertisers.  That is enough to make his life in hockey-crazy Starvation Lake miserable, but when his cousin is found hanging from the town’s “shoe tree,” an apparent suicide, things will get much worse for Gus.
His instincts tell him that Gracie’s death is a case of murder, not suicide, and Gus vows to learn the truth about what happened on the night she died.  His investigation brings him back to Detroit where he digs into the life Gracie lived in the city before she returned to Starvation Lake only to be seen there, by those who thought they knew her best, as little more than a failure and a drunk.

Because The Hanging Tree is a character-driven story with an intricate backstory, readers who begin the Starvation Lake series here will not short-change themselves.  The book is filled with well developed, but less than perfect, characters that move the story along at a nice pace but Gruley offers more.  Along the way, he gives his readers a taste of what life might be like in those little towns up north where men in their thirties and forties schedule their lives around the games they play in midnight hockey leagues.  Even non-hockey fans (like me) will appreciate Gruley’s game descriptions and insights into the minds of men willing to risk major injury on the ice at the advanced age of 40 or so.
My only quarrel with the book is its ending, a solution to its central mystery I found to be more confusing than convincing.  Perhaps, female readers will better understand the ending, but it did not work well for me.
Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Meet the Wizard, Mark Shapiro

1899 First Edition, First State

Almost four years ago (January 2007), I spotted a story about a collector of all things Wizard of Oz that absolutely fascinated me.  I posted about Mark Shapiro and his Oz books back then in what was only the 14th posting I had yet made here on Book Chase (Lions and Tigers and Books, Oh My).  Now, almost 1400 posts and four years later, I have the opportunity to update my original thoughts.

I've exchanged a few emails with Mark in the last couple of weeks, emails in which Mark was kind enough to include pictures of a tiny portion of his collection.  Based on what I've seen and on what I have read about Mark's collection on the net, I have to believe that his personal collection of L. Frank Baum material has to rank as one of the finest of its type in the world.

Mark, 64 years of age, has been collecting L. Frank Baum books and related material for some 38 years now, but his collecting bug probably can be traced all the way back to the childhood days he spent with his mother touring museums and libraries.  As you can see from the pictures, Mark has combined the best of both those worlds by becoming a first rate collector of rare books and related material, and displaying his finds in a museum-like setting.  He is building his collection in the spirit of his mother, whom he lost in 1998 at age 83, and sees it as a way of continuing to honor her memory.

Mark now has over 450 first edition Baum books but he is particularly excited about his 1899 Wizard of Oz, "B" binding with "O" outside the "C" on the book's spine.  Mark has 15 first edition, first state copies of Wizard and 5 of them are of the rarer "B" binding (out of only 2000 printed).

Despite the already massive size of his collection, Mark continues to find new items through private purchases, eBay auctions, garage sales and swap meets. The man is forever on the chase.
Illustration by William Wallace Denslow

Best Book Case Ever

There is no way that I can do justice to Mark Shapiro's collection and enthusiasm for Baum books - and other neat stuff.  I will add, though, that I am particularly envious of his collection of Wurlitzer juke boxes from the 1930s and 1940s.  Mark Shapiro is the kind of collector I would be if not for a few limiting handicaps: lack of funds, lack of time, lack of space and, most important, a wife who would kill me.

(By the way, Mark, I suspect I did not accurately describe the B-binding, mentioned above, so let me know how to correct that.)  

Readers might also enjoy Mark's blog, WizardofBaum.  

Please click on the pictures for larger versions.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dirty Sexy Politics and the "Unedited Ramblings of an Idiot"

A year or so back, I wrote the "nastiest" book review I have ever written.  The review encompassed my reaction to a well known South African author's latest novel - a reaction of horror,disgust and disbelief that something so bad could have been written by one of the supposedly blessed ones.  I caught some static because of the review, mainly from people who believed I hated the novel only because I disagreed with the politics expressed in it.  I did think I might have been too hard on the author and vowed to think twice before posting another review with the same tone.

Well, I have definitely been topped because Leon Wolf's review of Dirty Sexy Politics, the new Meghan McCain memoir sets a standard that I can only dream of ever achieving.  Bottom line: Wolf hates the book and believes that Meghan McCain is a complete waste of oxygen.

I want to give you a feel for what is in the review (one of the longest book reviews I've read in a while) but you really need to read this one (follow the link, above) in order to fully appreciate how good it is.
It is impossible to read Dirty, Sexy Politics and come away with the impression that you have read anything other than the completely unedited ramblings of an idiot.
The most obvious problem with Dirty, Sexy Politics is that grammatically, the book appears to be the work of a high school sophomore. To be more accurate, it appears to be the first draft of an essay written for a high school English class; the one turned in before the teacher makes all the pretty red marks in the margin that helpfully keep students from turning in final papers riddled with comma abuse, sentence fragments, and incorrect punctuation. Each subsequent page of this book contains one grisly crime against the English language after another.
Were this a book from any other author, I might at this point be lamenting the fact that the author had an important message that would sadly be lost due to her horrible communication skills. Not so with Meghan McCain. Meghan’s primary goal in writing Dirty, Sexy Politics appears to have been to show off her encyclopedic knowledge of who was wearing what clothes on what occasion. From all appearances, it is physically impossible for Meghan McCain to describe a given scene or occurrence without describing in detail what everyone in the room was wearing (and how their hair was done), most especially including herself.
On the whole, I am simply not a talented enough writer to express how truly horrible this book was. The last line of the book implores readers not to let Meghan “pick up this torch alone.” I can honestly say that I was encouraged throughout to pick up a torch in order to burn my copy of Dirty, Sexy Politics, even though I was reading it on a Kindle. There is no reason that anyone who is not getting paid to review this book should ever, ever spend money on it.
These quotes are just the icing on the cake. Take it from me, the cake is even tastier than its icing.

(Here's the link, again, so that you don't have to scroll up the page to find it)

Thank you, Mr. Wolf for suffering through this one so that the rest of us don't have to waste our time and money on it.  I've seen enough of Meghan McCain on political talk shows to know that she's pretty much empty-headed and would not have been tempted to ever read this one- however, those who may have purchased it because of who she "is" should thank you for the thirty bucks you just saved them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

Li Jing was born in the United States and spent the first ten years of his life there.  His father, a Chinese college professor, had come to America to start a new life, but he decided to return to China with his son after the sudden death of Li Jing’s mother.  Two decades later, Li Jing is a hardworking Shanghai investment banker, head of his own firm, and he barely remembers the English he learned as a child.  
That will change when a traumatic brain injury leaves Li Jing suffering from an unusual form of Broca’s aphasia.  He loses all ability to speak or write in Chinese, although he can still understand what is said to him in that language, but he has retained the uncanny ability to express himself in simple English.  That his wife and young son speak not a word of English is a problem.  Perhaps more threatening for the longer term, Li Jing knows that his business will certainly fail unless he regains the ability to maintain his intimate connections within the Shanghai business community – something impossible to do for a man who can no longer make himself understood in Chinese.  
Desperate for the breakthrough her Chinese doctors are unlikely to achieve, Meiling (Li Jing’s wife), agrees to bear the expense of an American neurologist to come to Shanghai to work with her husband for a number of weeks.  Newly divorced Oklahoma doctor, Rosalyn Neal, looking for any kind of fresh start, accepts the job.  Rosalyn Neal, however, is prepared neither for the energy-sapping complications of trying to make herself understood in a country whose language she does not speak, nor for the challenge presented by her new patient.
Ruiyan Xu
Li Jing, unable to speak Chinese, and refusing to speak English, remains silent for so long that Rosalyn begins to talk about herself just to fill the silence in his hospital room.  Something in her story stirs Li Jing’s own memories of his American childhood and the two grow closer despite Li Jing’s continuing failure to recapture the Chinese language.  And almost too late, Meiling realizes she will have to compete for her husband’s affection with the very doctor she brought to Shanghai to help cure him.
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai, Ruiyan Xu’s debut novel, is an ambitious one in which she explores the importance of language and culture in human relationships.  Li Jing loses more than words when he loses his ability to speak Chinese.  He can only communicate with his wife in the simplest of terms, completely unable to express in any depth the fears, doubts, and other emotions he feels.  Meiling grows weary of the whole process and begins to lose hope and, finally, interest, as her marriage begins to fall apart.
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai is more, though, than a novel about loss.  It explores whether a common language (and the inherent ability to communicate deeply) might be more emotionally important to a relationship than common culture and shared past.  It is a novel about misunderstanding, despair, betrayal, forgiveness, and recovery.  It is, in fact, a beautifully written first novel that offers an intriguing look into modern Chinese culture and reminds the reader just how important words are.
Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Koran Saved from the Flames - 1865

Just a few days before America's Civil War ended in April 1865, Union troops arrived in Tuscaloosa with orders to burn the University of Alabama, including its impressive library.  Pleas to spare the library were denied and it was quickly put to the match.  There was just enough time for someone to run into the library, grab one book, and make his way to safety.  (The burning was likely justified by the Union because of the number of Confederate officers it produced.)

According to the Tuscaloosa News, that book was an 1853 copy of the Koran.  Why it was chosen remains a mystery, but the fact that it was the only book to survive this Union Army atrocity is rather remarkable.

How times have changed.  Today some would burn copies of the Koran or the Bible in order to make political statements.  In 1865, when the Union already had the whole state of Alabama on its knees, but would still purposely burn down a remarkable library in petty retribution, someone managed to save a copy of that same Koran.

The Tuscaloosa News article can be found here, along with a picture of the time-worn Koran saved from the flames on April 4, 1865.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Librarian Sues Over X-Rated Workplace

According to one Birmingham, Alabama, librarian, some big city public libraries should be off limits to children because of the indecent behavior that goes on there.  And she has had enough.  Barbara Ann Wilson is suing the Birmingham Public Library because she has been forced to work in a setting where some patrons use the internet to surf porn sites on the same library computers being used by children.  Her lawsuit claims that she received little or no support from the library manager when some of these same patrons pinched and groped her after she confronted them about their behavior.

From the ABC news site:
The library subscribes to a filtering service, according to its website. It can be turned off, however, at the request of any adult.

The library's policy states, "The library does not control or edit what is made available or filtered out by this service."
Click here to read the entire ABC News article (detailing the charges and possible solutions to the problem).

Not surprisingly, the ACLU has jumped in on the side of the porn-surfers but some of the group's suggested solutions are ludicrous: providing privacy screens on each computer or placing them in a secluded area off the library beaten path.  Perfect.

Someone needs to explain to me why tax dollars should be spent on providing free porn to the homeless and those who cannot afford to indulge themselves in the privacy of their own homes.  The government is well know for its obscene waste of tax money- but this is ridiculous.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Is This Man Insane?

Reverend Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center

This has been a strange week and, try as hard as I can, I can't seem to avoid straying into the suddenly volatile relationship between politics and books.  First it was the hate-filled protests over the new Tony Blair memoir, A Journey.  Now it is the man shown above, Terry Jones, who plans to burn copies of the Koran at his church on September 11.  The man is not concerned that his actions will undoubtedly cost many people their lives.  Muslims will protest his actions - and past protests of this nature have gotten so violent that some of the protesters die in the process of making their feelings known.  Innocent Christians will die when radical Islamists find a way to get their own style of revenge.  More of our soldiers will die in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of the recruiting tool Jones is handing to our enemy in those countries.

I repeat my question: is this man insane?  Can he possibly believe that his brand of Christianity is morally superior to Islam?  

I hate book burnings and what they represent.  The Koran is among the holy books of the world and to see such small-minded people want to destroy it this way disgusts me.  But this is America, and I suppose this man has a right to do what he is threatening to do.  Thankfully, his is a tiny church community of only 50 other ignorantly misguided souls.  Sadly, if he actually accomplishes what he plans, many more than 50 people will die because of his stupidity.

This is going to be ugly unless someone figures out a way to legally stop this from happening.  And the clock is ticking.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen

Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen is some kind of crazy cross between biography and author memoir. I call it crazy because, in theory, it should not work - but the craziest thing about it is how well it does work once the reader clicks to the book’s obvious slant. Author Jimmy McDonough idolizes Tammy Wynette and he is none too thrilled with those who so often made her life a living hell. While he recounts Wynette’s life in detail, McDonough is quick to offer his personal opinion about those details. He never hesitates to ridicule individual songs, hair styles, clothing, or album covers, for instance. McDonough wisely does not even attempt to portray himself as the impersonal biographer. Otherwise, the four or five personal “letters” to Wynette he places throughout the book would be even stranger than they already are.

Virginia Wynette Pugh was born in Mississippi in 1942 but grew up in nearby Red Bay, Alabama. Hardcore country music fans know most of the basic facts of her life, although some of what passes for common knowledge is largely exaggerated, often by Wynette herself (such as her supposedly poverty stricken girlhood or the kidnapping that never was). Tragic Country Queen aims to set the record straight. It covers all five of Wynette’s marriages, including the most famous one to George Jones and the final and most tragic of them all, to George Richey. It explores Wynette’s volatile relationship with her daughters, the serious health issues she suffered, the resulting addiction to painkillers, her musical success and failures, and everything between.

McDonough also devotes a significant number of pages to the country music producer Billy Sherrill, the man with whose help Wynette found early success and blossomed into “The First Lady of Country Music.” The chapters on Sherrill are an informative mini-biography that will be of great interest to music fans curious about the Nashville music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. The author does the same for Wynette husband number three, George Jones, providing a short Jones biography before getting into the details of their toxic marriage – and what seems to be a permanent love affair both found it difficult to get over.

The marriage to Jones was bad enough, but the real tragedy of Tammy Wynette’s life would come later. Husband number four would last only 44 days before Wynette would pay him to go away, clearing the way for her marriage to the villain of the Tammy Wynette story, George Richey. As McDonough sees the relationship, Richey was in it for the money and fame, certainly not because of his great love for Wynette. Wynette suffered debilitating intestinal problems by this point in her career, having already had much of her stomach removed, and Richey made sure that she had the painkillers she needed to keep herself on the road – and the money flowing. That George Richey controlled all the money coming in and going out, seems certain. That he made sure that Wynette’s daughters would get nothing when she died (and that the Richey family would do quite well, thank you) seems almost as certain.

It is unlikely that anyone will ever know the exact circumstances of Tammy Wynette’s death but McDonough offers an interesting theory or two as to what might have happened in her home the night she died there. Most bizarre of all, is what happened during the several hours her body was allowed to remain on the couch upon which she died while a house full of Richey’s guests drank and smoked around it.

Tammy Wynette wanted to be a country music legend and she got her wish. Sadly, this is most certainly not what she had in mind.

Rated at: 5.0