Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Special Niche for E-Books

I am ready to declare a special niche in my life for e-books - they are perfect for finding older books that I missed when they were first published.  I'm not talking about books from the early part of the twentieth century; I'm referring to books published in the last twenty or thirty years.  What got me to thinking along those lines again was reading Fearless, a book first published in 1993 by an author (Rafael Yglesias) I was completely unfamiliar with until I read the e-book version of the book.  Even in the nineties more books were published than anyone could possibly keep up with - meaning that hundreds, if not thousands, of great ones slipped right through the cracks completely unnoticed.

E-books give me a second chance at them.  There is no way a bookstore can keep a huge backlist on its shelves, but by shopping online, I can build my own backlist.  I've read True Grit and Fearless in the last couple of weeks, both of which are prime examples of the kind of good stuff I'm looking for now in e-book format (of course, True Grit has been re-released as a tie-in to the new movie, but it is still an example of what I'm seeking).

Another thing I like about the "e-book backlist" is that publishers and publicists are producing interesting tie-in material to go along with the books they release.  Authors are making themselves available for interviews, many of which are filmed for general release, like this one by Rafael Yglesias, himself:

So, trusty iPad in hand, I'm discovering the alternate reading path that I missed the first time around.  This is starting to be a whole lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Resolution is the final book in Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy and, although it makes for a powerful and disturbing standalone novel, it has an even greater impact if the three books are read in the order in which they were released.  Sadly, as Resolution opens, not much has changed for Maureen O’Donnell and her friends.  Everyday life in Glasgow can be tough enough, but Maureen, still recovering from the murder of Douglas Brady, her former lover, seems to be having way more bad days than good ones.

Never comfortable with the idea that Douglas left her a substantial amount of money when he died, Maureen blew through all of it before she realized that she would be taxed on her windfall.  Now she owes more in back taxes than she makes in a year selling bootleg cigarettes in her little stall at Paddy’s Market.  The trial of her lover’s killer is fast approaching, and Maureen feels certain that the man is somehow behind the mysterious packages that have started to appear at her door.  And, just when she thinks things cannot possibly get worse, Maureen learns that the man who abused her when she was a child, her own father, is back in Glasgow – living with her sister and newborn niece.  Maureen’s drinking is worse than ever, so bad that her friends are worrying about her blackouts and the mysterious bruises on her face that come and go (the source of those bruises is finally revealed at the very end of the book).

To say the least, Maureen needs a distraction if she is to save herself.  She finds one in the person of an old woman she knows from Paddy’s Market.  Sensing that the old woman is being physically and mentally abused by her gangster son, Maureen and her two friends decide to help the woman.  After the older woman ends up in the hospital with broken bones, the trio of wannabe do-gooders stumble onto a complicated scheme involving forced prostitution and political collusion that they are determined to expose.  Maureen, already feeling threatened by the potential release of Douglas’s killer, has now doubled the number of men who wish her dead.

Denise Mena’s downtown Glasgow is not a pretty place because Mena pulls no punches in portraying life there for those at the bottom of Glasgow’s economic and social ladders.  It is a bleak setting filled with people the reader would not willingly choose to associate with in the real world.  Even Maureen is someone most would avoid if they encountered her on a downtown street.  Aggressive, down-and-out alcoholics with chips on their shoulders are simply best avoided.  Mina’s talent is to make her readers care about people like Maureen, care enough about them to want to understand and accept them for what they are.

Denise Mina is a gem.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In the Mail...

Today's mail delivery included a nice surprise: a new book from Oxford University Press.  This one has a publication date of April 14 and  is called How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts and it is authored by John Sutherland.

The first thing I noticed about the book is the feel of its cover.  This is a paperback but the book's front and back covers feel as if they have been plasticized, giving them a slick texture that I could not help running my fingers across while trying to figure out how the publisher got this effect.  Too, the book's turquoise color jumps out at you.  That's about it for cosmetics, however.  As you can see from the picture, other than the color and texture of the cover, the book has a relatively generic look to it.

But, of course, it's what's inside the covers that really counts.  The book's introduction describes it as a "toolkit," one that "the well-equipped reader will want to have."  The 200-page book encompasses 50 "big ideas" about literature, each individual section presented in an easy-to-read format illustrated with offset quotes, timelines, and a one-paragraph summary/definition of its particular "big idea."  The book is further organized into six major sections  (each containing a few of the 50 ideas): Basics, How It Works, Literature's Devices, New Ideas, Word Crimes, and Literary Futures.

The very last piece in the book, Idea 50, is titled "Literary Inundation," and it addresses the tsunami of the written word facing today's readers.  It offers suggestions as to how to cope with the great deluge and notes the ironies of the situation - such as the fact that books are being published at a faster clip than at any time in world history just when more and more bookstores are closing their doors.

How Literature Works looks like fun, and I can't resist delving into it despite the fact that I'm already reading four other books.  Some books just feel right from the second you pick them up.  For me, this is one of those.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Max Klein has serious problems when it comes to flying.  Like pretty much everything else in his life, Max sees flying as just another disaster waiting to happen.  But, remarkably, when he finds himself in a passenger jet that is almost certainly going to crash, Max is one of the calmest people on the whole plane.  He is the guy who takes the time to comfort a young boy who is traveling alone, assuring the boy that everyone will be alright despite sincerely believing they would all soon be dead.  Then, improbable as it is, the pilot makes a miracle landing without killing everyone and Max becomes a folk hero.  Suddenly, the man who was terrified to fly feels invincible.

Carla Fransisca, on the other hand, boarded the plane with her young son figuring that this was going to be just another plane ride.  Now, because she was unable to save her son, Carla is crushed by the realization that she failed in the most important job of her life.  She blames herself for the toddler’s death and seems perfectly willing to live the rest of her life in seclusion.  `

Fearless begins with an airplane crash, one so vividly described by Rafael Yglesias that readers with even a tinge of the fear of flying will find themselves cringing at what the passengers are enduring.  The book looks at how people react to almost dying, how it changes the way they see the world and how they plan to spend the rest of their lives.  Living on “bonus time” is, it seems, a blessing for some, but a burden for those overcome by survivor’s guilt.

When, in the aftermath of the crash, Max finally meets Carla, he feels compelled to help her through the grief of losing her only child.  As their spouses watch helplessly from the sidelines, Max and Carla must decide who they will be for the rest of their lives.  This 1993 novel, part comedy and part tragedy, is both entertaining and thought provoking as it forces the reader to consider how he might react to his own near miss.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

From Self-Published to a $2Million Deal

Amanda Hocking
From self-publishing to a book deal worth a supposed $2 million - that's what's happening to one 26-year-old from Austin, Minnesota:

(Complete Austin Daily Herald article can be found here.)  

...She’s spent years writing and rewriting books, always dreaming of becoming an author. She’d been thinking about paranormal novels before the “Twilight” craze hit the pop culture scene, but the vampire mania helped her decide on paranormal romance as a genre she could have fun with. Since then, she has written about teens and vampires, troll princesses, zombies and more.

She sold about 25,000 books online in mid-October, and was steadily working to put out one book a month on Fast forward a few months, and as of Wednesday, Hocking has sold 1,030,768 books and counting.
Hocking’s book deal with St. Martin’s revolves around her “Watersong” series, a story arc involving sisters and sirens (the Greek monsters who lured sailors to their doom) she’s been toying with for some time. While the first book is due out by fall 2012, she’s free to publish other books online so long as they don’t interfere with the “Watersong” publishing schedule.
Stories like this one are becoming more and more common, proving once again what a rapidly changing world we live in.  Self-published e-books can sell hundreds of thousands of copies for unknown writers.  YouTube videos can be used to publicize self-produced music - and linked to iTunes to allow relatively unknown singers to make a decent living.  Throw in Facebook, MySpace (although this site seems to be fading fast) and a few other sites, and anything seems possible.  Even those who do not become big "stars" in the publishing or music worlds have a chance to earn some decent money and go farther than they otherwise ever could have hoped.

The business model definitely changing.  Publishers and music labels are having to adapt to a world they never expected to face.  Already, the music industry has crippled itself by fighting all this new technology rather than embracing and adapting to it.  Sadly, as their reaction to the whole e-book episode indicates, publishers are beginning to move down the same path chosen by the labels.

As consumers, we have to ask ourselves if this new way of marketing artistic content is good, or bad, for us.  Are we missing out on something potentially great because the big corporations cannot spend the kind of money they spent in the past to publicize artists?  Or, is the opposite true?  Are we being exposed to more talent than ever because "new media" make it possible for everyone to get their shot?  How many talented writers are going nowhere because they do not have the skills or desire to market themselves at a time when publishers are not spending the money to nurture people like them?

What bothers me a bit is that I have seen very few stories like this one about "serious" writers.  It seems, from what I've seen so far, that the only ones becoming successful self-published e-book authors are those writing off-the-wall thrillers, cookie-cutter romances, or books about zombies and vampires.  Where are the self-published authors who write serious literary fiction or nonfiction books?  Are they out there?  If you know of any who fit that description, please let me know so that I can take a look at their work.

Good thing or bad thing?  It's just not that simple anymore.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Didn't I Think of This?

Here's yet another idea that has me slapping my forehead in disgust because this kind of thing never occurs to me.  It's clever, its simple, and it got published as a really cool children's book.

Take a look.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The 10 Books I Just Had to Have - But Still Have Not Read

I've seen this meme in several different places in the last couple of days (but I think it originated over at Tales from the Reading Room): The Top Ten Books I Had to Have - But Still Haven't Read.  My only problem will be keeping the list to only 10 hardcovers that I could not wait to get my hands on but failed to read - so far.
1. Beach Music by Pat Conroy - I bought this one the week it first hit the bookstores, way back in 1995 and it still sits on my shelf just as bright and shiny as the day I brought it home.  Reading it was one of my stated goals for 2011 but I've grown a bit superstitious about this one, sort of holding it back so that I will always have a new Pat Conroy novel in my back pocket.  I'm starting to doubt that I will read Beach Music until Pat gives me a new one to hang on to.

2. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan - Does anyone remember what a smash hit this novel was when it first came out.  It clearly marked Amy Tan as one of the decade's most talented newcomers and I had to get my hands on a copy.  I did - that was 1989.  It's a First Edition copy and its now worth several hundred dollars, I'm told, but I still haven't read it.

3.  The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie - I'm sure everyone remembers the tremendous controversy generated by Rushdie's supposed insult to Islam, the jihad declared against him, him going into hiding in the U.K., etc.  I stumbled upon two first edition copies of the book and snapped them up, thinking they might become rather valuable.  They did - at least for a while - and I traded one copy for a pristine first edition of The World According to Garp.  Still haven't read the other copy that's been on my shelf since 1989.

4.  This Body of Death by Elizabeth George - Much like my silliness with Pat Conroy books, described in number 1, it feels good to have an Elizabeth George in the bag for when I want to visit some of my favorite fictional characters.  I do have reading this one as one of my 2011 goals but it has been on the shelf since May 2010 already.

5.  The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway - This is a beautiful collection of Hemingway's short stories I picked up, brand spanking new, in 1987.  I love Hemingway and I'm learning to love short stories more every year - haven't read a one from this book.

6.  The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard - Leonard is an excellent writer of westerns, both novels and short stories, and this is a collection of those short stories.  I really enjoy seeing this book on my shelf; it is a quality publication and feels good in my hands.  Have I read any of the stories since buying the book in 2004?  Don't ask.

7.  The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott - I bought this one at a time I was particularly enthralled by stories about the British experience in India.  This seemed like the perfect collection to give me a better feel for the period as it was experienced by both sides.  As I recall (and my memory may be faulty) PBS or some network was also televising some of Scott's work.  So I grabbed this collection - in 1976 - and I have still only read the first novel in the book, The Jewel in the Crown.

8.  Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut - Over the years, I have really tried to like Vonnegut's books.  I really have.  In fact, I bought this hardcover at full price (only $17.95, plus tax, but those were 1987 dollars).  It is still brand new but I doubt I could get my money back on this one if I tried to sell it to the collector market.  Maybe I'll even read it one year but Vonnegut has not been an acquired taste for me even all these years later.

9.  The Collected Stories of Richard Yates - I love Yates's novels but have read only one or two of his short stories.  I figured this nice collection would be a way to catch up on those, so I grabbed the book in May of 2001.  And there it sits, still taunting me with its beautiful presence.

10.  Careless Love: The Unmasking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick - This biography is almost 700 pages long, counting the footnotes, but it is the second volume (I think) in Guralnick's Presley bio.  I bought it in 1999 thinking that I would hold off from reading it until I could find an equally nice copy of the first book, Last Train to Memphis.  Still looking.
So there you have the ten unread books that jump off the shelf at me every time I approach them looking for something else to read.  They whine; they tear up; the scream as loud as they can - and I still ignore them.  One of these days...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Sharing, Suckers!

Remember when Amazon made the big announcement that some of its Kindle books would be available for sharing with your friends (or family, if you have no friends)?  Of course, the whole thing was pretty much just a big slice of PR baloney because each e-book could only be loaned once for 14 days - and never again.  So along came sites like Lendle where book owners could list their books for sharing with others who offered to do the same.  The more books you listed, the more books you could borrow from someone.  It was all done by the rules: each book was only good for one 14-day swap and then it was retired forever.

Sweet deal, right?  Well, it was apparently too sweet for Amazon (or, more likely for the publishers that produce Kindle books for Amazon) so Amazon pulled the plug on Lendle yesterday by denying the site access to its Kindle database.

E-book buyers already give up a fistful of rights one expects to have when buying a book, especially the right to resell the book to another buyer.  That's bad enough, but throw in the inconvenience caused by the fact that Kindle books are pretty much readable only on a Kindle; the ridiculous refusal of certain publishers to sell e-books to libraries, period; and the limit that one particular publisher places on how many times an e-book can be checked out from a library before it has to be repurchased, and one begins to think these publishers don't have the first clue about marketing their shiny new golden eggs e-product.  If book publishers learned nothing from what happened to the music industry in the last decade, they deserve to suffer the same fate - and they will.

Consumers are going to find ways to get cheap e-books.  They might prefer to borrow them from others of the same mind but, if publishers refuse to let that happen, there are plenty of ways to get at the books.  It might not be legal, but it will happen.  Pirate sites are already out there, but they are tiny compared to what was available (and still is) for CDs and movies.  If publishers do not start playing fair with their customers, however, those pirate book sites will not stay tiny for long.  When consumers feel cheated, they see little wrong in cheating back.  Is that where the book world is headed?

Who benefits from this boneheaded Amazon move?  Publishers?  Retailers?  Customers/readers?  The unfortunate answer is: no one, absolutely no one.

Jeff Croft, Lendle co-founder, tells his side of the story here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

True Grit

Tom Chaney makes the biggest mistake of his already despicable life when he murders Mattie Ross’s father and robs him of his horse and the cash in his pockets (including two unusually shaped, and easily recognized, gold pieces). Now he has to deal with Mattie Ross, the murdered man’s fourteen-year-old daughter, a girl who will not rest until she sees Tom Chaney hang for the murder.

Mattie makes the trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with two missions in mind: claim her father’s body and send it home for burial, and hire someone to help her capture his killer. The first task is a relatively easy one, but the second is more of a challenge. Mattie, though, knows exactly the kind of man she is searching for and, once he sobers up, U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn seems to be the answer to her prayers. He is a man with true grit enough to match Mattie’s own.

Rooster Cogburn has a history of his own, having ridden with the infamous Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, but he is smart enough to keep the odds in his favor. Not only has he accepted a $100 contract from Mattie Ross to capture her father’s murderer; he also draws a U.S. Marshall’s salary and hopes to claim the bounties being offered on Chaney and others traveling with him. After LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger/ bounty hunter, offers to split the bounties with Cogburn, the two men decide to team up – and to sneak out of Fort Smith early enough to leave Mattie far behind. It would not be that easy.

True Grit is first rate western adventure as seen through the eyes of Mattie Ross, now an old woman recalling the adventure of a lifetime she experienced at age fourteen. Young Mattie sees the world in black and white terms. She wants Tom Chaney to hang for the murder of her father or she wants him shot dead if it proves impossible to take him alive. What’s right is right, and she will not rest until she makes it happen, even if she has to shoot the man herself.

There is adventure in True Grit and there is humor. The more subtle humor stems from the way that the roughest and toughest characters in the book speak their dialogue. Even in the heat of battle, or while throwing personal insults at each other, Cogburn and the rest speak in Mattie Ross’s voice, including her vocabulary and grammatical style. It took me more than a few pages to figure out that the book is more a monologue than a traditional novel. The reader is hearing the elderly Mattie Ross recount her adventures, and each of the characters, from Rooster to Tom Chaney, speaks the way that Mattie would have spoken had she been in their shoes.

It is easy to see why True Grit made Charles Portis’s reputation; it is a shame, however, that Portis wrote so little else. This is one of those books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and it is good to see that the new movie version has given it new life.

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song

Time for something a little different.

It seems that one UCLA student does not appreciate people talking on their cellphones in the study area of the school's library.  Hard to argue with that sentiment - if only she had stopped there.  The young lady, unfortunately, proceeds to mock the "Asians" who have offended her.  Her YouTube "vlog" is a hit - something I suspect she now regrets.  Note: The most offensive part of the young lady's rant is not included in this particular clip but is definitely mocked in the lyrics of the answer-song.

One young "Asian" has decided to respond, in song, to her concerns (Beware: there is at least one "F-bomb" involved here) and the rest is history.  Lesson learned?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

We Were Not Orphans

The Waco State Home was officially established in 1919 with the purchase of 95 acres of land located near what is now the business section of Waco, Texas.  The Texas Legislature intended the grounds to be used as housing for a portion of the state’s children whose parents could not afford, or refused, to care for them.  The home, which closed its doors in 1979, accepted only white children between the ages of four and sixteen until the 1960s when the impact of the Civil Rights Movement began to be felt.  It is important to note that, as Sherry Matthews makes clear from the title of her new book, these children were not orphans; they were taken into the Waco State Home as wards of the State because their parents were not caring for them properly.

We Were Not Orphans is about the Waco State Home, those who worked at the facility and, most importantly, the children who spent formative years there.  Matthews, one of whose earliest memories is that of her three brothers being carried away by strangers to live at the Waco State Home, knows first hand the impact that the Home had on thousands of Texas families.  Her brothers would remain at the Home for six years; some children would spend more than a dozen years there; and others would be adopted, never to return to their parents and siblings. 

In 2008, while attending a reunion at the Home with one of her brothers, Matthews floated the idea of publishing a collection of firsthand accounts of life at the facility.  The response she received from other attendees was so positive that she began the work that would result in We Were Not Orphans.  Matthews worked with dozens of the members of the Home’s alumni association, gathering as many of their firsthand accounts as possible, and she researched whatever public and private records to which she could gain access.  There is no doubt, however, that the book’s real power and impact comes from the 54 taped interviews, divided by decade, that are transcribed in the book.

Sherry Matthews
What Sherry Matthews learned was not pretty.  Despite all the good that was accomplished at the Waco State Home, much damage was also done to the children who lived there.  That the staff was peppered with sadists, rapists, perverts, and incompetents was a well-kept secret because those with the power to do something about the problems tended to look the other way.  This often willful inattention to what was happening in the boys’ and girls’ dormitories allowed horrific child abuse to exist there for several decades.  It was only in the early 1970s that any real change in that regard came to the Home – just a few years before it was closed and converted into a psychiatric residential treatment center for young people.

In the meantime, young girls became pregnant and disappeared from the school, physical discipline often resulted in bloody children or broken bones, male perverts observed little girls in their communal showers, and children were used as slave labor to run a 235-acre farm rented by the Home.  Sadly, even though most of the damage was done by a limited number of child abusers, no effective effort was made to end the abuse until a Federal judge stepped in and ruled that living at the Home equated to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

No so surprisingly, however, many of those who are quoted in the book consider going to the Home to have been one of the best things that ever happened to them.  This is especially true of individuals who came to the Home during the Depression era because, for many of them, it was the first time they had enough to eat.  They were also blessed with a decent education, the chance to earn a little money all for themselves, scheduled outings, and a structured system that helped prepare them for life after the Waco State Home.  In many ways, they were better off than the brothers and sisters they left behind.

While the reader will come away from We Were Not Orphans disgusted by how long it took officials to clean up a terrible situation at the Home, he cannot help but be heartened by the utter resilience of most of the children who passed through those doors.  There is a lesson to be learned here and we can only hope, for the good of the children still living in such places, that the right people have learned it.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Water for Elephants: The Movie

I reviewed Water for Elephants back on December 15, 2008, giving it a 4.5 rating.  That missing half point was deducted because I found the ending of the book to be a bit farfetched despite the fact that it is exactly the kind of ending I would have wished for the book's main character after getting to know him so well.  I thoroughly enjoyed (as I was at the same time horrified by much of it) the story, even ranking it number three on my Top Ten Fiction Books for 2008.

Now here in 2011 the book is generating even more buzz than it did when it was first released.  That is, of course, because 20th Century Fox is about to release its version to movie theaters across the world.  The book has even been re-published with one of those movie tie-in-covers I hate so much.  My first impression, based entirely on this one movie trailer, is that the movie will not quite do justice to my imagination - but isn't that almost always the way when a book comes to film?

I'm sure I will see the movie eventually, but probably in the comfort of my own home.  What do you think?  Is the trailer enough to get you excited about this one (it certainly appears to be beautifully filmed)?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Burned by an E-Book

Here's one more reason that e-books will never equal the real thing.

We've discussed before why libraries carry such a limited selection of e-books (certain publishers refuse to sell to them) and why they have so few copies of the titles they do carry (publishers will only sell them a certain number of copies and they try to limit the number of times an e-book can be "checked out" before it has to be repurchased by the library).  All of that means that library patrons will almost always have to queue up for an e-book, placing it on hold for a few weeks before it becomes available for download to their e-reader.    Then, when the book finally becomes available, it will only be available for checkout for a few days (usually five) and can only be read for fourteen days after it has been downloaded.

Well, that combination of silliness caught up with me today.  After waiting six weeks to get a copy of Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey, I will not be able to finish it before the file becomes unreadable on my iPad.  Remember, we're dealing with an e-book here.  Since I didn't have a physical copy of the book to carry around, I failed to realize that the book is 720 pages long.  For that reason, I didn't start reading it soon enough to get it done before the file becomes unreadable  - something that happens tomorrow.

My choices, you ask?  Only one comes to mind: queue up again for the book and resume reading it in another month or so.  The book cannot be renewed for another two weeks because the "corrupt by" date is built into the file on my iPad.  I realize this is only likely to happen with exceptionally long books, and that it is partially my fault for not checking the length of the book early on, but this is just more evidence that e-book publishers don't get it.  (The OverDrive software does not show page numbers by default - a conscious effort to change the display is required for that to happen.)

One thing for certain is that I will not be rewarding Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, publisher of A Journey: My Political Life, by purchasing a copy of the book for my shelves or for my iPad, nor am I likely to line up again and wait my turn for a library copy.  Two can play at this game.  Unfortunately, even though it is not by choice, the book officially becomes my second abandoned book of 2011.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Look Away, Dixieland

If you are from the South, James Twitchell is the great-grandson of a greedy carpetbagger.  If you are from the North, he is the great-grandson of an enterprising businessman who was willing to relocate half way across the country in order to seek his fortune.  Defining the aftermath of the Civil War this way, largely based upon whether your section of the country was on the winning or on the losing side, is indicative of the still existing sectional differences in this country.  This difference in point-of-view is felt much more profoundly in the South, of course.  Southerners, after all, are descendents of those who had a very personal war waged against them by Mr. Lincoln’s armies.  Their homes, crops, cities, towns, factories, and universities were purposely destroyed in a way, and too a depth, that Union civilians seldom felt.

Twitchell, whose great-grandfather, Marshall H. Twitchell, moved from Vermont to Louisiana shortly after the war, now lives in Gainesville, Florida.  On the same day that President Barak Obama was inaugurated, he and his wife set out on a slow drive across the Old South, along U.S. Highway 84, in hope of gaining an understanding of how something like what was done to his ancestor could have happened.  What he learned from the people he met along the way opened his eyes in many ways.  Twitchell would learn new details about the assassination attempt on his great-grandfather, in which the man lost both arms, and he would gain insight into why horrors like that one occurred during the Reconstruction period.  Admittedly surprised by the friendliness and openness he encountered throughout the Deep South, Twitchell was forced to reconsider some of his own prejudices and stereotypical ideas about the South.  Look Away, Dixieland is part history lesson, part travelogue, and part memoir. 

At its core are two horrendous massacres that occurred during Southern Reconstruction: one at Colfax, Louisiana (April 1873) in which several dozen blacks were slaughtered, the other at Coushatta, Louisiana (August 1874), in which five whites, including three members of Twitchell’s family, and twenty blacks were killed.  Two years later, when Marshall Twitchell dared return to the parish, he narrowly escaped an attempt on his own life.

Twitchell’s travels along Highway 84 make for interesting reading.  He and his wife are appalled by the amount of trash they observe alongside the highway and by the easily observed poverty of the region, but they are slowly won over by the eagerness of the average Southerner to answer their questions and help make their quest a success.  As Twitchell interacts with the locals, visits their little museums and their big churches, even meeting descendents of those who might have tried to kill his great-grandfather, he begins to understand that he is not as different from these Southerners as he would have liked to believe at the beginning of his drive. 

The one false note that Twitchell strikes comes with almost a full dozen jarringly out-of-place references to Fox News or Sean Hannity.  Almost every time Twitchell references a point about racism or less than honest newspapers and reporters of that long ago time, he feels obligated to use modern day Fox News Channel as an example of what he means.  The references, spread throughout the entire book, more often distracted me than strengthened the point Twitchell wanted to make, weakening the book to a considerable degree.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Protect and Defend

Those, like me, who have not read Act of Treason, the book that immediately precedes Protect and Defend will find themselves at a bit of a disadvantage as they begin this one.  That is because Protect and Defend begins with alternating chapters that tie up a major loose end from Act of Treason while beginning the setup for Mitch Rapp’s next mission.  The two books were written in 2006 and 2007 and Flynn assumed, I think, that his Mitch Rapp series would be read in the order in which it was written.  That was more likely to happen in 2007 than it is now that the series is at least ten books long and some of the earlier ones are getting tougher to find.  That minor quibble aside, Flynn soon moves on to the new plotline and the new adventure takes center stage all on its own.

Rapp’s quest involves an issue that is yet to be resolved in the real world: what to do about Iran’s determination to join the nuclear bomb club?  When, as a complete surprise to the United States, disaster strikes Iran’s nuclear program, Mitch Rapp sees an opportunity to destabilize that country’s government.  Rapp rightly suspects that the Israeli’s are involved but, since there is no evidence to tie the implosion of the facility to either Israel or the U.S., he arranges for a dissident group of Iranians to claim the credit.

Vince Flynn
All goes to plan until CIA director Irene Kennedy travels with Rapp to Iraq to explore the possibility of new relations with the Iranian government.  After a successful meeting with an Iranian official during which he agrees to approach the moderates in his government about Kennedy’s offer, things rapidly fall apart.  Director Kennedy’s motorcade is ambushed and she is kidnapped.  Suddenly hundred of lives are at stake unless Rapp can rescue Kennedy from the torturers who hold her.  Kennedy, it seems, has a photographic memory and, if she is forced to reveal the names of all the international operatives working for her, the U.S. intelligence program will be set back by decades.

The early pace of Protect and Defend, during which the previous book is put to bed and the new plot is outlined, is rather slow but Flynn’s pacing perfectly matches his plotline.  As things get more and more out of hand, and the tension level associated with Kennedy’s kidnapping cranks ever upward, the pace of the writing picks up speed as well, and Protect and Defend becomes the real page-turner Vince Flynn fans have come to expect from him.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sleepless in Louisiana

It's going to be another of those weekends. After a full day's work in the office, I managed to get me and my dad on the road, headed toward southwest Louisiana by seven p.m. We got word yesterday morning that one of his three sisters has died of pneumonia and that the funeral is scheduled for tomorrow morning in a little town there called Church Point. My father has bad knees and cannot sit in the same position for an extended period of time so we decided to make a little over half the drive tonight to help him manage the pain. The drive back after the funeral tomorrow will be over five hours stretch breaks for him, so it will be a long day.

So I'm sitting in a Red Roof Inn in some little Louisiana town I missed the name of, typing on my iPad and planning to settle down for a couple of hours of serious reading before I have to turn the lights out. I'm about half way through We Were Not Orphans, an intriguing look at life in The Waco State Home, a facility run by the state of Texas for several decades. The home housed several hundred poor children at a time and it literally saved many of them from starvation. But the home had it's problems with sadistic teachers and "matrons" and it is heartbreaking to read the words of some of those who were raised there.

The question I'm left with is how to judge the right and wrong of a facility like this one. A lot of good was done for hundreds of children, and many of them consider living in the Waco State Home to have been the best thing that ever happened to them. A few, however, were victimized by sexual predators and sadists who worked at the home. Is it a simple matter of numbers or is all the good outweighed by the evil that seems to have occured so regularly there?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

To the End of the Land

Seldom has a book left me with such conflicting opinions of its quality as has David Grossman’s To the End of the Land.  The basic premise of the book is a relatively simple one: an Israeli woman whose son volunteers to take part in a major military operation decides to disappear until it is all over.  Ora, the young soldier’s mother, has convinced herself that if she cannot be found for a notification of his death, he will remain safe.  So, rather than going on the extended hike she had planned to take with her son, Ora makes the same walk with the boy’s father. 

At almost 600 pages, To the End of the Land is long enough for the reader to change his opinion of the book more than once, and that is exactly what happened to me.  First, I was almost undone by the set-up to the book’s main plot, some 120 pages or so during which not much seemed to be happening and I was finding it difficult to like, or even identify with, any of the book’s characters.  Second, came the heart of the book, during which Ora and Avram (the estranged father of her soldier son) walked for miles in isolated sections of northern Israel while Ora told Avram about the things he missed by never knowing his son.  These approximately 450 pages, as the two main characters chat about their past and the son they have in common, make for compelling reading.  Third, comes the book’s ending, one I found to be particularly unsatisfying considering the number of pages it took me to get there.

David Grossman
Grossman does such a superb job developing his characters that even the secondary ones come to life as the complicated relationships take shape.  The story centers on a love triangle that has lasted for decades after the chance hospital meeting of Ora and the two young men who fall in love with her there, Avram and Ilan.  Theirs is such a tangled relationship that Ora, although she marries Ilan, has sons by both men and it often seems that Ilan is more loyal to Avram than he is to her.  At this late stage in the relationship, Avram has had, by far, the toughest life of the three, and it is a joy to watch as Ora tenderly gives him new life during their long walk by feeding him just the right details and stories about the son he never knew.

This is not a perfect novel (as if there is such a thing) but I will remember it for a long time – not so much for its plotline, but because it gave me a feel for what it is like to live in a country where the threat of sudden death is always around.  It is the burden of Israel’s young people to protect their country from those so determined to destroy it, but the parents who must live with the terror of seeing their children march to war so regularly pay a high price of their own.  I come away from To the End of the Land with an increased respect for Israel and her people and a belief that this is an important novel.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Hypersensitive Israeli Writer Gets Hit in the Pocketbook

Joseph H.H. Weiler, the Winner
Some of you will remember this article from February 22 about an Israeli writer who sued an American editor who published a review of her book because she refused to accept a bad review (although this one was tame by any standard).  The review's actual writer was not named in the suit, only the publisher. The situation was laughable but it did send a ripple of unease throughout the blogosphere about the dangerous precedent something like this might set if the case were to come under the jurisdiction of the "wrong" judge.

Well, now for the good news.  The French judicial system has heard the case, and the good guy (the editor/publisher, of course) won.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, this is what happened:
A French court has dismissed a criminal-libel charge brought against a journal editor over a negative book review and ordered the plaintiff to pay punitive damages. The editor, Joseph H.H. Weiler, a professor at New York University's School of Law, said he had been awarded €8,000 (about $11,000) as a result of the action brought against him by Karin N. Calvo-Goller, a senior lecturer at the Academic Center of Law & Business, in Israel.
In the ruling, the court said the review expressed a scientific opinion of the book and did not go beyond the kind of criticism to which all authors of intellectual work subject themselves when they publish. It agreed with Mr. Weiler's contention that the case did not properly fall within its jurisdiction anyway. It concluded that Ms. Calvo-Goller had engaged in forum shopping and had shown bad faith in bringing the complaint. It said it was ordering the plaintiff to pay the €8,000 to Mr. Weiler in reparation for the harm caused by the improper nature of her action.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Dexter Is Delicious

I have followed, and very much enjoyed, Showtime’s Dexter series from the start, but Dexter Is Delicious is my first exposure to Dexter in actual book form.  It is not like I have been unaware of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter books all this time, however.  The only thing that kept me from reading one of them before now was my erroneous assumption that the books were little more than recaps of the same stories I had already watched on Showtime.  That is certainly not the case.

The books are TV Dexter’s alternate history (or should I phrase that the other way around?).  Dexter is basically the same likable serial killer we know from television but some of what he has experienced in that series has not happened to Printed-Word Dexter (and I assume that the opposite is also true).  Certain key characters have died television deaths but live on in the books.  Dexter’s new television son is his new daughter in Dexter Is Delicious.  His innocent young step-children from film are his not-very-innocent step-children in the books.

Dexter Is Delicious is a bizarre tale involving young Miami cannibals, a group that is, in its own special way, working to control the illegal immigrant population of that fine city.  However, only when two teen girls from an expensive private high school appear to have been kidnapped by the cannibals does the Miami Police Department get seriously involved.  The case falls into the lap of Dexter’s sister, Deb, who treats Dexter (a blood-splatter expert working for the same police department) as her personal employee, yanking him from the laboratory and running him all over the county in pursuit of the missing girls and those who might have them. 

Dexter, while he is perfectly willing to help Deb hunt the bad guys, is, at the same time, waging an internal battle brought on by the birth of his new baby girl.  He wants to rid himself of his Dark Passenger, that inner voice requiring him to kill on a regular basis.  Dexter wants nothing more than to feel the emotions any new father can be expected to feel.  To blend in despite being a sociopath, Dexter has already learned the proper things to do and say when around other people.  Now he is having longer and longer moments of actually feeling those emotions.  But what will his Dark Passenger think of all this?

Author Jeff Lindsay
The plot of Dexter Is Delicious is a bit farfetched, but that is unlikely to bother Dexter-regulars because this is nothing new.  From the point-of-view of someone who came to Dexter first via television, what did bug me was the limited, or even nonexistent roles played by some of Dexter’s fellow television cops.  Too, I kept  wondering how a blood-splatter expert could get away with running all over the Miami area for so long doing physical police work and only occasionally going in to the blood lab. 

The audio book version of Dexter Is Delicious, a nine-CD set, is read by its author, Jeff Lindsay, who does a good job giving voice to Dexter and Dexter’s sense of humor.  I was a little slow settling into Lindsay’s narrative style but by the second CD it all started to sound very natural, and in character, to me.  Anyone just willing to go with the flow of the story is going to have fun with this one.

Rated at: 3.5

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Bluegrass in Ft. Worth, Rodeo in Houston

Dailey & Vincent, band and tour bus
This is going to be one of those weekends (actually Fri-Sun) during which my reading takes a backseat to another favorite hobby of mine: real country music, as in the form of some of the best bluegrass music on offer today.

I drove up to a little town just west of Ft. Worth called Argyle yesterday morning - almost exactly a five hour drive at my pace - so that I could be sure to get one of the 400 tickets to be sold at the door for last night's show.  By four p.m., ticket in hand, I drove the eight miles to Denton, TX, grabbed a motel room, and returned to the festival location for some great BBQ, potato salad, and beans.

The show was excellent, as it included three of my favorite bluegrass bands.  My only complaint is that the show was opened by another of those bands that play jazz using bluegrass instruments.  I have no doubt that these guys are all excellent musicians; I know they are from their numerous years performing in some of the best bluegrass bands of the last 25 years.  It's just that I don't have an ear for jazz; it all sounds like musical gibberish to me, and after an hour of it I'm ready to pull my hair out.

But the rest of the evening was a gem.  First up was Adam Steffey and The Boxcars, a relatively new band composed of some veteran musicians and singers who have regrouped to have some fun together.  Then came a band that I sincerely believe has the best country music stage show out there, bar none: Dailey & Vincent.  Their 70-minute show is a combination of upbeat songs, gospel music, traditional bluegrass, and a whole lot of comedy.  I've seen them several times now and it has been fun to watch them grow into such a topnotch act.  Last up for the evening was Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.  Doyle is one of the bluegrass oldsters, having been in the business for 48 years, but he surrounds himself with young musicians and singers who are as good as it gets.  His new banjo player, for instance, just turned 20 a few weeks ago - and looks about 14.  I got the "bluegrass fix" I needed to get me through to June when I'll hit the road for four days of concerts in Kentucky.

Selena Gomez
The festival lineup for today is a good one, too, but I had to drive back to Houston this morning to rest up for tomorrow's visit to the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.  I promised my granddaughter several weeks ago (not realizing that I had a conflict) that I would take her and her brother out there because she really wants to see Selena Gomez.  From what I understand, Selena Gomez is a Disney Channel star whose main claim to fame is that she's Justin Bieber's current girlfriend (I'm sure I'm shortchanging the girl's vocal talents - I hope so, anyway, for my sake).

Oh, and I'm reading a Vince Flynn political thriller right now and have managed to get about half way through the book, but that's mostly because it is such easy reading.  That's about all I can handle this weekend.

Wish me luck for tomorrow.  This could be painful.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe is one of those books I first read as a kid in junior high school - and I still remember my excitement about the great adventure it described.  The funny thing, though, is that during that first reading the moral of the story went right over my head.  It is only now, having re-read the book as an adult, that I see that Crusoe’s hard-earned spiritual transformation from godless man to believer might just have been Daniel Defoe’s main point.  While I was being thrilled by Crusoe’s battles with pirates and cannibals, and his struggle to survive from one week to the next, an equally important story was happening inside Crusoe’s head. 

Most everyone knows the basic plot of Robinson Crusoe: a young Englishman, seeking adventure, goes to sea and eventually, after already having escaped from Barbary Coast pirates, finds himself stranded on a desert island where he manages to survive for 28 years by avoiding the cannibals who use the island as their private picnic grounds.  Crusoe finally makes his way back to England, but only after doing battle with both the cannibals and a group of mutinous sailors who stumble upon his island.  No boy-reader would argue with a story like that one.

Daniel Defoe
But most of the “action” happens before Crusoe is shipwrecked and during the last two years of his stay on the island.  In between, are the years Crusoe spends salvaging necessities from the shipwreck and figuring out how to manufacture items that he is unable to find on the ship before its remains wash away forever.  The brilliance with which Crusoe was able to make the most of everything he carried ashore intrigued me on my first reading of the novel (and I probably enjoyed that aspect of the book even more than I enjoyed the battles Crusoe was involved in, truth be told) but I do not recall being overly impressed by Crusoe’s belief that small “miracles” were being worked on his behalf by a god he, early on, barely believed existed. 

By modern standards, this is not a politically correct novel, but it should not be judged by modern standards.  That a three-century-old novel can still appeal to modern youth is remarkable, and Robinson Crusoe should be appreciated as a snapshot in time, a novel reflecting the racial and political attitudes of its day.  Recommend Crusoe to an early-teen-reader of your acquaintance and watch what happens.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Best of 2011 - First Pass

It's a bit early for me to expect a meaningful Top 10 list, especially in nonfiction titles, from my 2011 reading, but I really need to start sorting them properly before they become any fuzzier to me.  To this point, I've read fourteen fiction titles and seven nonfiction ones, meaning that all but four of the books will be listed.

The best ten fiction books to this point, ranked in order, are these:

1. The Glass Rainbow - James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux series)

2. Dead Man's Walk - Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove series)

3. Nemesis - Philip Roth (novel)

4. Autumn of the Phantoms - Yasmina Khadra (Algerian detective fiction)

5. Standing at the Crossroads - Charles Davis (British novel)

6. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe (classic novel)

7. The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson - (British novel)

8. Innocent - Scott Turow (legal fiction)

9. My Name Is Mary Sutter - Robin Oliveira (Civil War fiction)

10. Tallgrass - Sandra Dallas - (YA novel)

Since I've only read seven nonfiction titles so far this year, this will be a Top 7 list:

1. Wolf: The Lives of Jack London - James L. Haley (biography)

2. Hitch 22: A Memoir - Christopher Hitchens (memoir)

3. Chinaberry Sidewalks - Rodney Crowell (memoir)

4. Lincoln's Men - William C. Davis (Civil War history)

5.A Widow's Story - Joyce Carol Oates (memoir)

6. Scorecasting - Tobias J. Moskowitz, Jon Wortheim (sports)

7. Heart of the City - Ariel Sabar (sociology)

So there you have it.  This is really more for my own purposes than anything else but I decided to post it in case someone might be interested in seeing how the first two months of the year have shaped up.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Heart of the City

I suspect that many people, when they first pick up Ariel Sabar’s new book, Heart of the City, will mistake it for a short story collection.  After all, the book’s subtitle is: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York.  The book, in actual fact, is a collection of nine true stories about married couples who met somewhere in one of New York City’s public spaces: in Central Park, on a midtown street late at night, inside Grand Central Terminal, on a ferry headed to the Statue of Liberty, on the subway, at the top of the Empire State Building, in Times Square, inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or in Washington Square Park.

Sabar, inspired by the fact that his own parents met in Washington Square Park, presents an interesting premise as the basis of Heart of the City.  It is the author’s contention that chance meetings in unusually beautiful or iconic settings actually “encourage” couples to fall in love.  In order to test this theory of “environmental psychology,” Sabar, after a good deal of effort searching for suitable couples, chose the stories of nine of them for presentation in the book.

Ariel Sabar
The stories include one about two people who met, and fell in love, in Central Park in 1941 when he was a sailor on leave and she was homeless and sleeping in the park at night.  There’s another one about two loners who meet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, despite the heavy odds against him, he manages to impress her with his sincerity just barely enough to get her to stop running from him.  And, then, there’s my personal favorite, the story of a young German man who meets the woman (and her young son) who will turn out to be the love of his life while on a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty. 

Heart of the City includes a 24-page introduction explaining Sabar’s theory and how he arrived at it.  There is also a postscripts section at the end to bring to bring the reader up-to-date with each of the nine couples featured, and an epilogue in which the author reflects on what he learned while writing the book.  Strangely enough, the epilogue’s last paragraph leaves me with the impression that Sabar might be questioning his theory a little:
"Most of the couples in this book told me they would not have met but for place. The landmarks and public spaces where they spoke their first words were not mere backdrops. They were villages – a small place within a larger one – that slowed time just long enough for two busy people to catch each other’s eye. In rereading their stories recently, though, I noted something that mattered at least as much: the couples were open, and ready, to fall in love."
The relative sameness of the nine stories makes me wonder if Sabar might have built a stronger case for his theory by focusing on one or two couples whose marriages failed, indicating perhaps that they were so caught up in the moment, and in the location, that their initial judgment about each other may have been impaired.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)