Friday, April 29, 2011

Beach Music

That Pat Conroy is not the most prolific writer in the world is an understatement.  Longtime Conroy fans have grown accustomed to the several-year wait between his novels, and for them the publication of a new Pat Conroy novel is a big deal.  I am one of those longtime Conroy fans myself but, for some unexplainable reason, I left Beach Music on the shelf for close to sixteen years before finally reading it this month.  Perhaps it was just comforting to know that I had a “new” Pat Conroy novel waiting for me anytime I was ready for it.  That is the closest I can come to explaining my decade-and-a-half wait.

Beach Music was worth that long wait. 

Even casual fans of Conroy’s writing would recognize this 1995 book as a Pat Conroy novel.  It focuses on another large, dysfunctional Southern family filled with over-the-top siblings and eccentric parents; the narrator’s high school friends are a uniquely memorable bunch (this time one of them is running for governor of South Carolina, one is a successful Hollywood producer, another is a writer, and one is a Catholic monk); and the book is as much about coastal South Carolina as it is about the people that live there.

Jack McCall and his friends came of age as university students when they and other South Carolina students could no longer ignore what was happening in Viet Nam - but the war that made them grow up nearly destroyed them in the process.  Some relationships were ruined forever and others were salvaged only after the smoke finally cleared.  Now those relationships seem to be coming full-circle as Jack McCall and his old friends are forced to relive the terrible days of protest, betrayal, and death they experienced two decades earlier.

After his wife jumped to her death from a Charleston bridge, Jack, a writer of cookbooks and travel guides, took his toddler daughter Leah to Rome in hopes of starting a new life for them there.  During the several years they have been in Rome, Jack has cut off all contact with those he left behind in South Carolina, and Leah’s Southern heritage is acknowledged only through the tales and legends Jack uses as bedtime stories.  But now Jack receives the only news that could force him to go home: his mother is dying of cancer and she wants to see him.

Ready or not, Jack is suddenly thrust back into the arms of his family and friends, many of whom are thevery people that helped drive him away a decade earlier.  He is almost overwhelmed by his larger-thanlife brothers (one of whom is a mental patient), his alcoholic, former judge of a father, and his dying mother – and, he has to face his wife’s parents, whom he has not seen since they tried to take Leah away from him following their daughter’s suicide.  If that were not enough, politician Capers Middleton and Hollywood producer Mike Hess, two of Jack’s closest childhood friends, are forcing him to relive the Viet Nam era events that emotionally crippled everyone in their small circle.

Beach Music is pure Pat Conroy.  It is another passionate, larger than life, love story filled with memorable characters and side-stories that immerse the reader in a part of the country that Conroy so deeply loves.  Pat Conroy is a Southern writer and he is proud of it.  His is the generation most impacted, and most scarred, by the Viet Nam War and, in Beach Music, Conroy brings to vivid life the era that so terribly changed this country forever.

Rated at: 5.0 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mission Accomplished: Mother and Daughter Book Club Ends Ten-Year Run

The Walnut Creek, California, Mother and Daughter Book Club is about to close its doors after a remarkable ten-year run.  Amazingly enough, the book club is only breaking up at all because the "daughters" part of the equation is moving on to college in just a few weeks.
The Walnut Creek-based book club met recently to review all the book club picks and reminisce experiences over the past decade. Books from the "American Girl" series were among the group's first choices before they soon graduated toward young-adult novels, their themes ranging from lighthearted to serious. As the girls matured, so did the book picks, Allison said.
"In middle school, when our daughters would not sit with us one-on-one to talk about sex, drugs, friendships, confidence, or values; they talked endlessly about those issues in book club. Through books, we helped our girls navigate these hard years, and made sure they heard our opinions and perspectives, as well as those outside their comfort zone. We made sure the girls knew they had five other moms, and that if for some reason, they couldn't turn to their own, they had one of us."
The book club was a safe haven for these mothers and their daughters, a neutral site where they could discuss all those "growing up" topics in a nonjudgemental setting.  These young women and their mothers will remember the Mother and Daughter Book Club for the rest of their lives - and well they should.  What a great idea...what a great story.

The whole story can be found here at  Please take a look.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts

John Sutherland’s How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts is a reader-friendly summation of literary theory that few avid readers will be able to resist. Each of Sutherland’s concepts is presented in a concise, four-page essay formatted to highlight its main points for the quick reference of readers wanting to review or reinforce their understanding of specific points. Each essay, for instance, opens with a summary/introductory paragraph in bold print and includes a timeline of key dates pertaining to the concept being discussed. Each piece also includes a “boxed” story about, or example of, its subject concept and ends with a clever “condensed idea” summation of its four-pages. As I grew more and more intrigued by Sutherland’s ability to summarize four pages of complex thought into just a handful of words, the “condensed ideas” soon became my favorite part of the essays.

The “condensed ideas” are particularly helpful when trying to recall the meaning of some of the book’s vaguer literary terminology, but even the explanations for more commonly understood terms can be fun. Examples include:

Hermeneutics – “Reading literature and understanding literature are two different things.”
Intentionalism – “What a work of literature means is not always what the author means it to mean.”
Translation – “It’s impossible – but what option do we have?”
Irony – “The camera may never lie. Literature does. And cleverly.”
As the book moves from literature’s origins toward its future, the essays are presented in six distinct sections: “Some Basics;” “Machinery: How It Works;” “Literature’s Devices;” “New Ideas;” “Word Crimes;” and “Literary Futures.” Considering how rapidly everything associated with publishing is changing today, readers will find the “Word Crimes” and “Literary Futures” sections of the book to be particularly interesting.

“Word Crimes” focuses on things like plagiarism, libel, literary lies and ghost-writers. Sutherland is particularly hard (deservedly so) on Herman Rosenblat who, in 2008, published a completely fictitious account of his Holocaust experiences, in effect, placing the authenticity of other Holocaust memoirs in greater doubt for those already disinclined to believe them. Sutherland, in this section, also addresses subjects such as the Tom Clancy and James Patterson “factories” that continue to top the best seller lists despite minimal contributions from the two writers, and the allegation that Dick Francis wrote none of his own novels.

How Literature Works finishes, appropriately, with essays on “The e-Book” and “Literary Inundation” (part of the “Literary Futures” section). As Sutherland emphasizes, today’s reader is faced with more choice than ever before in the history of the world. But that is not necessarily a good thing. As he puts it, “We are faced with the paradox that our ignorance (with the mass of books necessarily unread by us) is growing faster than our knowledge…not a new problem, but the scale of it is terrifyingly new.”

Perhaps it is time for readers to reflect for a moment on the nature of literature itself, precisely what it is that draws them to the printed page every day of their lives. They, and all future readers, because of the sheer volume of new material available to choose from, will find it more difficult than ever before to make wise choices about what they read. Books like How Literature Works will help them make those choices.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Favorite Bookstores

Like most avid readers and book collectors, I have my favorite bookstores.  Some of them are local, some are one or two states away from Houston; others are across the Atlantic.  One that I've mentioned before is Shakespeare and Company, a Paris bookstore that has to be seen to be believed.

George Whitman and daughter Sylvia in his bookstore bedroom
Painting by Rosy Lamb
Shakespeare and Company, in its current incarnation, was reborn in 1961 when George Whitman opened up his English-language bookstore in the heart of Paris.  Whitman, who was born in 1913, plans to live in the bookstore until he reaches his hundredth birthday.  Thankfully, his 30-year-old daughter plans to keep the store open even after her father leaves the business.

This is a must-see spot for book lovers but, despite its proximity to Notre Dame, it is easily missed unless one is specifically looking for it.  This video gives a taste of what the bookstore is like, but hardly does justice to the real thing:

This April 21 Los Angeles Times article brings the Shakespeare and Company story current - and what a story it is.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Love of My Youth

Although Miranda would never consider Adam to be the “love of her life,” beyond a doubt, he was the “love of her youth.”  Adam, in his turn, feels the same way about Miranda.  In what was the first serious experience with love for both of them, Miranda and Adam fell madly in love in the mid-1960s when both were 16-year-old high school students.  They seemed destined to spend the rest of their lives together until Adam made one terrible mistake – a mistake he has felt guilty about for more than thirty years, a betrayal of her trust so terrible that Miranda has never gotten over it.

When, in late 2007, the two of them, now not having spoken for three decades, find themselves in Rome at the same time, each rather reluctantly agrees to a brief reunion there.  Adam hopes to find that what he did to Miranda did not destroy her, that she is healthy and happy with the life she created for herself after the shock of his betrayal – most importantly, that an apology from him is not something she needs to hear.  Miranda, who takes pride in her personal courage, decides to meet with Adam because she feels that a woman her age should not have anyone in her life that she feels incapable of facing.  

Thus begins a series of long walks around the city during which Miranda and Adam have long philosophical conversations about everything but what tore them apart in their early twenties.  Both are as reluctant to confront that horrible memory directly as they are to discuss any details or feelings about their families.  The more the pair talks during their exploratory walks around Rome, the more the reader begins to wonder whether their relationship was doomed even before Adam’s fatal error – whatever that error may have been.   

By alternating flashbacks to the 1960s with scenes from the present, Gordon emphasizes how little Miranda and Adam have changed.  As a young man, Adam was focused exclusively on a future as a successful concert pianist; he demanded that his girlfriend (and any future wife) dedicate her life to helping make his dream come true.  In Adam’s mind, Miranda’s dreams and ambitions were secondary to his, if they were to be considered at all.  The young Miranda, however, believed she could change the world, and she was willing to place herself in danger in order to do so.  What she was not willing to do was to view her ambitions as less important than Adam’s. 

The Love of My Youth builds slowly, steadily increasing the reader’s curiosity about what really happened, what terrible thing Adam did to destroy the relationship forever.  Gordon adds layer after detailed layer to the characters Miranda and Adam until they become very real, if flawed, people.  Gordon has, in fact, achieved the difficult task of making this reader care about her two main characters without liking either one of them.  Fans of previous Mary Gordon novels are likely to enjoy this one.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hunting Book Titles Like Easter Eggs

I often find myself playing a little side-game while reading a novel with a less-than-obvious title: can I spot the exact reference, usually buried deep inside the novel, where the title's origin and meaning will be revealed?

I was starting to give up with Pat Conroy's 628-page Beach Music when it finally happened on page 475 in a scene in which Lucy is releasing a bunch of endangered loggerhead turtles so that they can make their run to the water:
"These are South Carolina turtles like my boys here," Lucy said, smiling at us. "I think they listen to the waves. I think they just love beach music."
Conroy did use the term a few other times in the book, such as on page 620 when quoting a "suicide letter" written by Shyla to her husband, Jack:
"I'll listen for your knock and I'll open the door and I'll drag you up to that room where we danced to beach music and kissed while lying on the carpet and I dared you to fall in love with me."
These references, however, pertain to the songs that Jack and his friends listened to on their transistor radios when partying on the beach together, or to the music played at Southern dance clubs in those days (sixties and early seventies).  I think that the book's title is more fitting when considered in the context of the page 475 reference and have to believe that's what Conroy had in mind.

I always get a little kick out of noticing the title references - but I usually forget to mark the page so that I can come back to it.  I can give one more recent example, though, this time from James Lee Burke's Glass Rainbow (page 200):
"We're all dust. At a moment like this, you get to look through a glass rainbow and everything becomes magical, but when all is said and done, we're just dust. Like the people in those paintings. We don't even know where their graves are."
Maybe you play the same game?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Hazel Dickens Time Machine Has Been Silenced

America lost one of its most precious national treasures yesterday when singer Hazel Dickens died at age 75.  Hazel, who died of complications from pneumonia, had been ill for some time, finding it more and more difficult to travel to concert dates around the country.

Hearing Hazel Dickens sing in a live performance was like being handed the keys to a time machine set to stop at a time when country music was still in its raw infancy.  Those wondering what original country music sounded like before it was commercialized in the 1920s have only to listen to a Hazel Dickens recording to feel the power and beauty associated with the music of those early days.  Thankfully, Hazel leaves behind a respectable number of recordings for those of us still here.  Sadly, however, we are no longer able to ride that time machine back to a Hazel Dickens concert.

I was lucky enough to climb on that time machine only once - in June 2007 when Hazel performed at the International Bluegrass Music Museum's annual festival in Owensboro, Kentucky (ROMP).  Regular ROMPers were not surprised when a huge thunderstorm began to roll in to Yellow Creek Park that afternoon, complete with spectacular displays of lightning and loud bursts of thunder.  Hazel was in the middle of her second song of the day when festival organizers decided to clear the stage for the safety of the performers; the danger of a lightning strike was just too great to allow the show to go on even though it was still not raining.  But the rain did come, and it came in buckets for more than an hour.  By the time the stage was deemed safe again, Hazel (probably for health reasons) had left the park for good.

Hazel was scheduled to appear at ROMP the next year but had to cancel her appearance on her doctor's orders.  She was simply too ill to travel to Kentucky that year, but even though I never had the chance to see her perform again, I will forever treasure the one-and-a-half songs I witnessed that June 2007 afternoon in a secluded little Kentucky public park.

Hazel Dickens was a union advocate, a feminist, and one of the women who paved the way for females to make their mark in bluegrass music.  She and her partner, Alice Gerrard fronted their own bluegrass band when that was simply not done.  Their vocals used the same arrangements used by their male counterparts, breaking new ground for women, and changing the music in a way that opened the door for all those female bluegrass singers who have followed them.

Hazel was very special to me and my bluegrass-loving friends and we will miss her greatly.  Considering her ill health, her death is not a shock or a surprise - but realizing that I have forever lost my chance to climb back onto the Hazel Dickens time machine really hurts.

Rest in peace, Hazel.  We loved you then, and we love you now.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kindle Users to Join the Long Library Queues with the Rest of Us

I wonder if Amazon's announcement that the company has partnered with OverDrive to make it possible for Kindle-users to download books from local libraries will be the final nail in the coffin of Sony's e-book Reader?  Amazon's slowness in making it possible for its Kindle to connect with public libraries has been about the only good thing Sony still had going for it in the e-book-reader wars.  Now, Sony is saying goodbye to even that last advantage.

Without a doubt, Amazon is doing the right thing for its customers.  But those customers are likely in for rude shocks the first time they try to "check out" a book from their local libraries.  Even without the millions of Kindle-users in the queues, checking out an e-book has been no easy task.  It is all a matter of supply and demand - and most public libraries are already finding it near impossible to keep up with the demand for e-books.  Throw the new Kindle-based patrons into the mix, and the wait is likely to be one of several weeks for access to even a relatively popular title.

Rather than helping to shorten the wait-time for library patrons, publishers, still unsure how to deal with public libraries and e-books, are actually a big part of the problem.  Libraries face at least three challenges when acquiring e-book copies, especially copies of popular titles: high base prices vs. their very limited budgets for what are considered to be extra books; not all publishers are willing to sell e-books to libraries; and, at least one publisher will only allow its e-books to be checked out 26 times before they must be retired forever.

There is little doubt that Amazon's entry into your public library will bring the e-book/public library business model to a crisis much sooner than would have otherwise happened, forcing publishers to take a more reasonable approach to libraries - or to concede that market to other publishers willing to grant more equitable terms.  In the short run, this will further frustrate those who enjoy the convenience of acquiring library books from the comfort of home; in the long run, it will probably help to equalize the current e-book supply/demand imbalance a whole lot sooner than expected.

We'll be watching.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Long Goodbye

Death is something with which baby boomers are becoming more and more familiar. Older boomers, now well into their sixties, are dealing not only with the loss of parents, but with the loss of age group peers and siblings. For most, it is the first time they have had to deal with death so often, or so intimately. Consequently, books like Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, a frank account of the author’s reaction to the loss of her 55-year-old mother, are becoming both more common and more popular.

O’Rourke wrote The Long Goodbye because she believes that Americans have lost the “rituals of public mourning.” She says that, these days, our real grieving is done in private because our culture no longer allows for the kind of public grieving that once “shaped and supported” our loss. Each of us has to define “grief” for himself. Numbed to learn that her mother was dying of colorectal cancer, O’Rourke reacted in a way that seemed illogical even to her. Rather than clinging to the other things she still had in her life, she ended her marriage, quit her job, and started an affair with a man who lived across the country. Her grief was on the verge of destroying her.

As O’Rourke waited for the disease to take her mother’s life, she found it more and more difficult to deal with personal relationships, often having little patience with her father as he struggled to cope with the pending loss of his wife. Then, when it was all over, she wondered if her own life was worth continuing. Now she was divorced, the new man in her life was already gone, and, for the first time, she had to face life without her mother’s love and support. O’Rourke desperately wanted someone to come along and save her from herself because she was unsure how long she wanted to live in a world that, for her, had lost its purpose.

The Long Goodbye chronicles Meghan O’Rourke’s grieving process from the moment she learned of her mother’s imminent death through the year following that loss. O’Rourke, herself a writer and journalist, in an attempt to find out what was happening to her, and what she might expect to happen next, naturally turned to other writers for insight into the grieving process. She offers a lengthy bibliography of books she studied, divided into the sections: “Critical Studies and Nonfiction,” “On the Psychology of Grief,” “Fiction and Poetry,” and “Memoir.”

Despite all of her reading, and the advice offered by friends and family, Meghan O’Rourke learned just how personal an experience grieving the loss of a parent really is. While she did experience some of what her reading, and her friends, led her to expect, much of what she learned from the literature did not reflect what she was feeling. The Long Goodbye is a worthy addition to the literature on the grieving process, and readers will be grateful for O’Rourke’s insights and frankness.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Do You Know Laura Lippman?

Laura Lippman has been on a roll for a while now so I imagine that many of you are already aware of her crime thrillers.  But if, by chance, you are not familiar with Lippman's novels and short stories, I have some good news for you.  Publisher William Morrow is making it possible for me to give away three copies of Lippman's books next month, including two copies of I'd Know You Anywhere which is being released in trade paperback on May 3.

I'll have more details in a few days (including how to enter the contest), so check back if you're interested.  If you enjoy crime fiction with a psychological twist to it, Laura Lippman is for you.  You're going to thank me.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mothers and Daughters

The orphan trains (1854-1929) organized by the New York Children’s Aid Society represent a fascinating bit of social engineering.  It is estimated that close to 250,000 children from the East Coast made their way to new homes in the West and Midwest on these trains.  As the trains moved westward, orphans and homeless, or otherwise neglected, children were displayed at local train stations where, one-by-one, they were chosen by families desiring a child.  Oversight and record keeping concerning these “adoptions” was often purposely sloppy in order to ensure that the relocated children would not be able to return to their former home cities. 

Rae Meadows centers Mothers and Daughters around one such train and the little girl whose mother placed her on it out of desperation.  Eleven-year-old Violet would ride her orphan train all the way from New York City to Minnesota, enduring stops along the way where the babies and younger children were snatched up eagerly by families wanting a child.  The older, less desirable, children like her often rode the train to the end of the line where they were offered work rather than a new family.  This would be Violet’s fate.

Mothers and Daughters is the story of three generations of women, a short line beginning with Violet and ending with her granddaughter, Samantha.  In the present, Sam’s 72-year-old mother, Iris, is dying and has asked Sam to be with her until it happens.  Sam is pregnant with a daughter of her own, but Iris will not live long enough to meet her.  Back home after her mother’s death, Sam is surprised to receive a box of her mother’s things that appears to have been unopened for decades.  Among the papers in the box is a little bible dated 1910 – and inscribed by the New York Children’s Aid Society.  Feeling certain that the bible once belonged to her grandmother, Sam hopes to learn, these many years later, how it came into her hands and what connection her grandmother might have had to the aid group.

Meadows rotates sections in strict order to tell the stories of Violet, Iris, and Samantha, three women with very different lives.  Short pieces on Violet (largely concerned with her childhood on the streets of New York and her orphan train experience) are followed by sections on Iris (as she prepares to die) and on Samantha (as she spends time with her dying mother and starts life with her new baby).  Of the three characters, Violet is the best developed and readers will be fascinated by her life on the streets and her experiences on the orphan train.  Iris and Sam have lived more ordinary lives and they are, as a result, less memorable than their ancestor. 

Mothers and Daughters is an interesting intergenerational novel but it does little to explore how the women have been shaped by those who preceded them, somewhat weakening the impact of the individual stories.  The novel’s real strength is in its depiction of the orphan train as seen through the eyes of one little girl who was forced to grow up much too quickly.  Violet’s story deserves a novel of its own; perhaps one day Rae Meadows will give us one.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Some Publishers Cannot Afford to Sell Books on Amazon

That the old book-selling business model no longer works very well is old news.  Common sense, however, still dictates that every copy of a book a publisher sells to a consumer has to be a good thing.  But according to Linen Press (complete article on The Guardian Book Blog), common sense, in this case, is very wrong.  For every copy that this tiny U.K. publisher sells through Amazon, it loses the equivalent of three dollars.  Here's why:
Amazon don't tell their customers how much they take from a small publisher like me, nor do they advertise the fact that I have to pay the postage on the books sent to them.
Linen Press books cost £4 a copy to produce, for several reasons...The RRP is £11.99. The postage is £2.50. On my website I sell the books for £8.99, so I'm not ripping you off; I'm just trying to persuade you not to buy from Amazon.

Here are the scary sums:

Amazon takes 60% of my RRP (in the book trade, the bigger the sales outfit, the bigger the discount they demand from the publisher: Amazon 60%; Waterstones 50%; independent bookshop 35%). On a £11.99 book, Amazon's takings are £7.20. Mine are £4.80.

Out of this comes £2.50 to pack and post the book to Amazon, and the author's royalties on a heavily discounted book reduced to 50p. My writers lose out on an Amazon sale, too. That leaves 82p for Linen Press, but the book cost £4 to produce. So I lose £2.18 on every sale by Amazon.
All of this is bad enough (and, yes, the arithmetic shown above is a tad misstated although its bottom line is the same), but the scariest statement in the article is this one:
For all its vast catalogue, Amazon's market domination is actually reducing choice by squeezing out small publishers who are prepared to take risks.
So for publishers with the per-book cost that is built in to small press runs, selling through Amazon is a whole lot like an individual selling something through eBay.  After paying postage fees to deliver an item and the advertising fees demanded by eBay, there's very little left to claim as profit for the seller.  That's why I no longer deal with eBay other than as a buyer.  I wonder how many small, independent booksellers will reach the same conclusion about dealing with Amazon.

Friday, April 15, 2011

National Library Week 2011

It's National Library Week (April 10-16) and I almost missed it again this year.  So on this next-to-last day of the national celebration of libraries, I want to add my own brief thoughts about my appreciation for our country's public library system.

The little town I grew up in had what was basically a little one-room library that housed, by my estimation, approximately 3,000 books.  Perhaps 25% of those books were in the children's section of the library and the rest of them were shelved in the adult section.  Some of my earliest memories of feeling "independent" pertain to hopping on my bicycle and riding the three miles to that little library where an elderly librarian always greeted me with a tight little smile.  This lady had to be won over, and that did not come quickly or easily.  Eventually, though, she began to consider me one of her "regulars" and she took an interest in what I was reading, as opposed to what I should be reading.

She made sure that I had pretty much exhausted everything on the shelves that she considered age-appropriate (and those were some pretty rigid standards in the 1950s, believe me).  Then she surprised me by saying that, if I would bring a note from home giving her the authority, she would enlist me on a reading program of her own design.  From the day I brought her that note, that librarian opened up a whole new world to me.  Suddenly, I was delving into the classics and a whole lot of relatively current adult fiction.  She did shelter me by refusing some of my choices, but she always found a substitute that made sense in the context of what I was asking to read.  All that summer, and the two that followed (ages 10-12 for me), she was my guide.

That woman, in that tiny, underfunded library, taught me to love reading.  She gave me a gift that has lasted a lifetime, one that has given me more pleasure and contentment than any gift I have received since.

I am, of course, not alone.  Here is an example of what libraries can mean to a kid, in this case, award winning children's author Virginia Hamilton who grew up in little Yellow Springs, Ohio.  Here her husband speaks of how important a public library was to his wife when she was growing up there.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Siege of Washington

Fortunately for the United States, when the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the Southern states were as ill prepared to wage war as the Union states.  Had it been otherwise, the South might have ended the war in a matter of days by overrunning the nation’s capitol and capturing its entire government.  Historians have often wondered why the South did not go for the kill anyway, having more to gain than to lose in a battle to take Washington.  In The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union, historians John and Charles Lockwood explain.

Washington was poorly defended on April 14 when Fort Sumter was surrendered to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard.  President Lincoln, recognizing the country’s precarious situation, issued a call for troops the next day, Monday, April 15, and several Northern governors immediately began to mobilize state militias for Washington’s defense.  Actually getting those troops to Washington would prove to be the hard part. 

Located some 60 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Washington D.C. was solidly within slave-holding territory, and was, in fact, surrounded by the largely hostile populations of two states seen as likely to secede from the Union: Virginia and Maryland.  The best way to get Union troops to Washington was to use the rail lines that passed through Baltimore – something that the citizens of Baltimore were determined to stop from happening.  As the First Pennsylvania Volunteers, the Sixth and Eighth Massachusetts, and the Seventh New York tried to make their way to President Lincoln’s defense, it became a race to see which army would arrive first: North or South.

John and Charles Lockwood, using private letters, diaries, newspaper stories, and firsthand accounts from Lincoln’s secretaries (John Hay and John Nicolay), paint a vivid picture of life in a city whose citizens expected to be overrun by a hostile army at any moment.  A substantial portion of the city’s population sympathized with the Southern position, adding to President Lincoln’s concern about whether Washington could effectively be defended against an invading Southern army.  As conditions worsened, and it appeared more and more certain that Washington would be invaded, those who could leave, did so.  By April 22, telegraph communication with the outside world had been cut off and it was impossible to reach the city by rail.  As food supplies dwindled and bank runs became the order of the day, the nation’s capitol was truly under siege.

The Siege of Washington is a well constructed, but at times repetitive, account of a twelve-day period (April 14-25, 1861), during which America’s future might have been set on an entirely different path.  The authors, by using the words of those who were there, recreate what it was like for Washington’s citizens as they waited to see whose army would reach them first.  Civil War buffs will appreciate this one.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Will Nicolas Cage Get His Comic Book Back?

Comes word from ZippyCart, among others, that actor Nicolas Cage, once the proud owner of a pristine copy of Action Comics # 1, the book that introduced Superman to the world, is hoping to call it his own again. It seems that Cage’s copy of the comic, worth at least $1 million dollars, was stolen from him more than ten years ago, vanishing from sight until it turned up in an abandoned storage unit a few days ago.
The locker unit was auctioned off through Riverside-based American Auctioneers… about a month ago, where the comic book, carrying an estimated worth of $1 million was discovered. The locker’s new owner (who chooses to remain anonymous), unsure of the comic book’s value, was then connected with collectibles expert and New York dealer, Stephen Fishler. Fishler originally sold Cage Action Comics #1 back in 1990 and was able to positively ID and authenticate that the comic book was in fact, the one stolen from Cage.


The DC comic book, widely considered to be the most important one ever published for setting the precedent for superheroes to come, was one of three vintage comic books stolen from high security frames on a wall in Cage’s home back in 2000. The initial investigation received a break when days after the break-in, an L.A. area store owner informed Fishler about a phone call he received for pricing on two of the books Cage was missing. Several months later, the third missing comic book, Marvel Mystery #71, resurfaced on eBay...The investigation ending shortly thereafter, leaving a truly devastated Cage.
Ultimate ownership of the recovered comic book has been somewhat complicated by the fact that Cage reportedly received an insurance company settlement for its loss. Because the book is almost certainly worth more today than it was when it was stolen from Cage, this could get interesting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ape House

The great success of Water for Elephants made it almost a certainty that Sara Gruen’s follow-up novel would suffer by comparison. That one set the bar so high that it would have been a real surprise if Gruen had been able to reach those heights with successive novels. What we know now is that, though she might very well achieve that kind of magic again one day, Ape House is not the one that will do it for her.

Ape House begins rather promisingly in the Great Ape Language Lab where Isabel Duncan and her university assistants are studying the communicative adaptability of a small family of bonobo apes. By using basic ASL (the American Sign Language system), the apes are able to converse with their keepers, even to the point of expressing their desires, emotions, and feelings about their life behind bars. The apes, in effect, have learned to understand, and speak, simple English. Isabel Duncan has, at the same time, grown so close to them that she considers the apes to be family.

All too soon, however, Gruen takes Ape House in the wrong direction. Rather than concentrating on the unique relationship between the apes and their humans, she spends the bulk of the book exploring the romantic relationships of her human characters, in effect stealing any potential magic Ape House had, and transforming it into a mediocre romance novel.

After the lab is blown up by a grotesque group of animal activists, and Isabel is almost killed in the explosion, reporter John Thigpen feels compelled to follow the tragedy to its end despite having to take a job with a trashy Los Angeles tabloid in order to be able to do so. Thigpen had visited the apes only hours before the blast and was changed by the experience, coming away from the lab with the feeling that the apes were every bit as “human” as the newspaper crew flying home with him.

While Isabelle is still recovering from her injuries, the university sponsoring the language lab decides to sell the apes to a pornographic film producer who wants to give the animals their very own reality television show. The bonobos are given their own house, complete with a computer to order whatever they desire (including individual food selections), exercise equipment, comfortable furniture and a big screen television. There are so many cameras in the house that the animals never have a moment of privacy – everything they do is shown on live television, 24 hours a day.

Despite the fact that none of Ape House’s human characters are as interesting (and certainly not as likable) as the apes, the novel spends the bulk of its time on human relationships. Gruen uses these characters, and their efforts either to exploit or to save the apes, to expose the absurdities of modern culture – particularly in regard to reality TV, Hollywood phonies, shrinking newspaper circulation, and celebrity worship. She neglects, however, what would have perhaps saved the book: the interrelationship between the apes and the humans with whom they come into contact. The chance to explore such a relationship is probably what drew most readers to Ape House in the first place, and its near absence leaves the book reading more as farce than legitimate social commentary.

Rated at 2.5

Monday, April 11, 2011

Odds and Ends

...from another weekend gone forever:

I attended my fourth funeral (three of them of the out-of-town variety) Saturday in the last 8 weeks.  In that short period of time, I've lost a cousin, two aunts, and a good friend who was my department's administrative assistant.  I don't remember anything even close to this pace ever happening to me before, so I'm hoping it's over now.  Twice a year is bad enough, but four times in two months is getting to be as scary as it has been heartbreaking.

Do you ever get the feeling that no matter how many books you are exposed to in a given week or month that you are just seeing the tiniest tip of the iceberg?  It happens to me all the time, and seeing something like someone else's "library loot" post really brings it home.  Take a look at today's post from Pages Turned.  In this picture are 17 books brought home by a person whose reading taste is usually very similar to my own.  17 books, and I have not heard of a single one of them.  Since we do share a similar taste in books, this kind of thing always makes me wonder what I'm missing while I'm struggling to finish up something that does not quite work for me as I thought it would.  If anyone needs a good reason to abandon "bad books" midstream, this is it:

I'm not a big fan of prime time television programming and have not been since at least the early nineties when I moved out of the country for the first time.  When I got home a few years later, I found it near impossible to close the "culture gap" that developed while I was gone.  I have never cared for all that celebrity gossip stuff, and I found that I couldn't even recognize the faces of any of the new crop of actors that had grown popular in my absence.  I never did catch up, really.  But along came a NetFlix application for iPad, and I'm suddenly hooked on Grey's Anatomy, a show I barely knew existed until I started watching it in late February.  Now I've burned through the first four seasons and seven episodes of the fifth (it's amazing how quickly they seem to go by without commercial interruptions) and I'm still hooked.  It's great fun to watch that many episodes so close together; it is much easier to be impressed by the slow evolution of the characters as they move in and out of the show.  Any suggestions for another series for me to start after I finish season 6 of Grey's Anatomy?

And, finally, my Houston Astros have two wins for the season.  They played their best game of 2011 yesterday against the Florida Marlins, outscoring them 7-1 and outhitting them 16-4.  In the process, the team doubled its number of victories in one afternoon.  How sad is that?  Well, it took them 9 games to win 2 and they are hugging last place in the NL Central all by their lonesome.  I suspect that's a spot they will grow very accustomed to as the season progresses.

happier days 

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Jimmy Burns is an ex-Marine, an ex-dealer in stolen pre-Columbian artifacts, and an American expat living the simple life deep inside Mexico in a little town called Merida.  He does manage to make a living using his old beat up truck to do small hauling jobs to the jungle for archaeologists and others seeking to exploit the country’s buried past, but he is easily distracted.  Jimmy enjoys his down time and is not overly concerned about his future, content to take life one day at a time.

While he may be an idler, Jimmy does care about the people closest to him and he has a keen sense of the absurd.  This is a good thing since his little corner of Mexico is about to be invaded by some of the most absurd Americans imaginable, a group of hippies and slackers who barely know where they are, much less why they are. 

Gringos centers around Jimmy’s search for Rudy Kurle, a young man for whom Jimmy feels responsible after allowing him to wander away from a dangerously isolated dig site.  Jimmy’s search takes him and his crew to an ancient holy site just when dozens of the worthless hippies converge there in expectation of some major revelation.  Here the search grows complicated, and changes focus entirely, when Jimmy is forced to rescue two children who will not otherwise survive the night’s weirdness.

Gringos is one of those novels that suffer from a lack of likable characters to such a degree that it is difficult to care what happens to any of them, including the novel’s supposed hero/narrator.  The whole novel, at times, seems as tired and pointless as the lives led by its characters, making its ending, in which Jimmy unresistingly drifts into the next phase of his life, unsurprising.

Readers captivated by the renewed interest in Charles Portis novels (following the recent success of the movie remake of True Grit) will want to take a look at Gringos since Portis has written so few books.  I would, however, suggest that they might want to read this one after having first sampled other Portis novels.

Rated at: 2.0

Friday, April 08, 2011

Hop a Long, Git a Long, Read a Long with Elmer Kelton

This is a 1982 edition of a western first published in 1963

James, over at Ready When You Are, C.B., is hosting a western reading challenge during the month of May and I've been looking through my books to see what I might want to read for the challenge.  I have lots of westerns around the house, but I'm leaning toward reading one or two of these:
This is a 1985 edition of a book published in 1959

This is a 1967 first edition of what Ballantine Books called a "Western Original"

This is a 1975, third printing of a book first published in 1960
You will notice that all four of these westerns were written by West Texan Elmer Kelton. I first discovered Mr. Kelton's work in After the Bugles, pictured above, and over the years ended up with several hard covers of his and even one e-book double that I recently purchased. Kelton, in my opinion, wrote (he died in August 2009) better westerns than Louis 'Amour but he never seemed to get the public recognition that L'Amour got.  Kelton, who was 83 when he died, seemed to get better and better as the decades passed, eventually winning "Best Western Novel of the Year" seven times.  I'm always on the lookout for interesting western paperback covers like these but they are getting harder and harder to find.

If you like westerns, or if you want to break new reading ground, go over to Ready When You Are, C.B. to sign up; it's a one-book challenge, so give it a shot.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Best of 2011, Update 2

Hard as it is for me to believe, the year is already more than one-quarter done so this seems like a good time to update my rankings.  As of today, I've read 24 fiction titles and 10 nonfiction ones - despite my good intentions, the nonfiction titles are coming slow for me again this year.

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 British novel)

7. To the End of the Land - David Grossman (literary novel from Israel)

8. Resolution - Denise Mina (crime fiction from Scotland)

9. Bad Intentions - Karin Fossum (crime fiction from Norway)

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

Even though I've only read 10 nonfiction titles so far, I will go ahead and rank them:

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. We Were Not Orphans - Sherry Matthews (memoirs from a Texas home for neglected children)

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

6. The Siege of Washington - John and Charles Lockwood (Civil War history)

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

8. Look Away Dixieland - James B. Twitchell (Civil War History)

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

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

I found last year that making this a "live" list results in a more meaningful (more accurate) list than I've come up with in previous years when I've waited until late December to start the process, so I'll be doing an update once a month or so.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Renegades

Author T. Jefferson Parker has a theory that outlaws, in the spirit of the old American West, still exist. Parker, in fact, not only contends that outlaws still exist - his theory includes the belief that, just as in gunslinger days, many of today’s most notorious outlaws spend some portion of their lives working as law enforcement officers. In The Renegades, his follow-up to L.A. Outlaws, Parker tells the story of two modern day outlaws, both of whom just happen to be Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs.

Deputy Charlie Hood is one of the good guys. He is somewhat of a loner who prefers to ride the roads at night, even in his off-time, as he grows accustomed to his recent assignment to the county’s Antelope Valley. Charlie would, in fact, be just as happy never to be assigned a partner, but he soon finds himself working with Terry Laws, a man known to his fellow deputies as “Mr. Wonderful.” After Mr. Wonderful is assassinated while he and Charlie are on a routine call, Charlie accepts a transfer to Internal Affairs so that he can get to the bottom of the murder. Perhaps, he thinks, Mr. Wonderful was not really so wonderful after all.

Getting to the truth about his partner’s murder will not be easy – or safe. In the process of figuring out what Mr. Wonderful was up to, Charlie will make some ruthless men on both sides of the border nervous enough to want him dead. And they will do their best to make exactly that happen.

There is a good deal of dramatic action in The Renegades, but Parker has chosen to tell his story in a straightforward manner that offers few real surprises. Once the main characters have been fleshed-out in the minds of readers - and the plotline set in full motion - their ultimate fates are too easily predictable. Part of the fun in reading a police thriller of this type is trying to guess what will happen next as the hero gets into deeper and deeper trouble. Surprisingly, however, that fun is somewhat lessened when, as in this case, the reader always guesses correctly.

The nine-CD audio book version of The Renegades is read to good effect by David Colacci, a man whose voice is likely to sound very familiar to fans of audio books. Colacci’s differentiation of tone, accent, and cadence make the numerous characters relatively easy to follow despite the book’s frequent changes between first and third person perspectives. Not having read L.A. Outlaws, I am uncertain of how wise it is to read this sequel first. Jefferson does make an effort to repeat the key points from the first book to help his readers understand just how Charlie Hood turned into the man he is today, but it is very possible that readers with more background will experience The Renegades very differently than readers coming to it cold.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lots of Books, Lots of Numbers

I love LibraryThing - no big surprise there, I'm sure, for most of you, and I'm willing to bet that many of you feel the same way.  (Those of you who are unfamiliar with the site might want to go here. I've been a member there since July 2006 and I can't recommend it enough.)  What makes the site so much fun for me is the way that it blends two of my passions: books and statistics.  My love of books is probably obvious by now.  What might be less obvious, is how much pleasure I take in studying statistics, rankings, lists, and the like.

LibraryThing makes that easy to do.  For instance this is what I learned today in about five minutes of looking at the numbers there:
There are 1,315,207 members, as of this moment. 
Between them, the members have catalogued some 61,322,658 books. That's an average of just under 47 books per user. 
Of those 61 million books, 6,004,201 of them are unique titles. 
Those same members have written a total of 476,510 book reviews and posted them to the site.
Those are the raw numbers. What really intrigues me, is the detail behind some of those numbers.
The Top 10 Most Collected Authors are: 
J.K. Rowling - 397,655 books
Stephen King - 281,299 books
Terry Pratchett - 234,221 books
J.R.R. Tolkien - 189,282 books
Neil Gaiman - 178,120 books
C.S. Lewis - 174,157 books
William Shakespeare - 150,435 books
Nora Roberts - 135,337 books
Jane Austen - 128,463 books
Agatha Christie - 126,783 books
While I'm not surprised by most of the names on the list, I do find it a bit strange to see Nora Roberts bracketed by the likes of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. It is, indeed, a strange old world in which we live.

One other tidbit worth sharing today: of the Top 10 books most collected, numbers 1-7 are the Harry Potter novels, followed by The Da Vinci Code, The Hobbit, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yes, we as a group, have one heck of a split personality - if not much taste.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Bad Intentions

Bad Intentions is the seventh crime novel in Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series.  I cannot claim to have read all seven of the novels, but the three I have read so far certainly encourage me to seek out the rest of the series.  The books, all of which are set in Norway, are psychological crime novels in which character development and motivation are every bit as important as plot and action.  Those enjoying this type of crime fiction will do well to seek out the work of Karin Fossum.

Alex, Reilly and Jon have been a trio since they were youngsters.  Now that they are young men, Jon is so troubled that he has been confined to a mental health facility for treatment.  Alex and Reilly, hoping to ease their friend’s mind, get permission to bring him with them for a weekend’s outing on remote Dead Water Lake.  When tragedy strikes in the middle of the night, and one of the boys drowns in the lake, the other two wait until morning to report the accident. 

Inspector Sejer, filtering the story about their friend’s supposed suicide through his years of experience, senses that something is wrong.  Things do not quite add up, but there is little he can do to disprove what Alex and Reilly insist happened that night – until the body of another teen associated with Alex, Reilly and Jon floats to the surface.

As Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, begin to tighten the screws on Alex and Reilly, their best hope is that one of the two will crack long enough to reveal what really happened to the two dead men.  Meanwhile, Fossum carries the reader deep into the minds of several secondary characters that have an interest in the outcome of Sejer’s investigation.

The mothers of the two victims form an unlikely friendship, based at first on nothing but their shared mourning, that surprises both of them with its intensity.  The women see their sons as innocent victims of a world gone mad – but only one of them is right about the innocent part.  Both of them, however, are determined to learn the truth about their sons’ last hours.

Karin Fossum
At the heart of the story is the relationship of Alex and Reilly, a relationship poisoned forever by the loss of Jon.  Alex has always called the shots with Reilly and Jon, and he will tolerate no resistance from Reilly now, just when the wrong move can send both of them to prison for the rest of their lives.  What really happened on the most important two nights in the lives of four young men is slowly revealed as Fossum allows Alex and Reilly to reveal themselves layer by layer. 

Karin Fossum writes rather sparingly (the book is less than 200 pages in length) but she creates such memorable characters, on both sides of the crime equation, that her novels remain with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Weekend Random Thoughts and Happenings

Bonobo Ape
Another weekend, this time a three-day one, has flown by and I'm trying to prepare myself mentally to return to the work-week grind before daybreak tomorrow morning.  It seems more and more often that I approach a weekend with big plans and end it with a bit of a confused whimper because so few of my big plans ever get tackled.

I did manage to get in a good bit of reading- finishing Gringos (Charles Portis) and reading over half of Ape House (Sara Gruen).  The first problem with this weekend's reading is that I found Gringos to be a major disappointment considering how much I enjoyed reading his True Grit a few days ago.  There has been so much hype about the re-release of the man's older novels that I couldn't wait to get my hands on one of them.  Maybe they were out-of-print for a reason?

The second problem with my weekend reading is that I'm finding it hard to believe that the same woman who wrote Water for Elephants wrote Ape House.  This new one started off strongly and I was hooked by the book's first dozen pages; then, it turned into a Romance Novel and the apes became minor, almost forgotten, characters.  Now, some 220 pages into the book, the apes are starting to take center stage again as "stars" of their own reality TV show.  Really, Sara?

Major distractions this weekend included a Saturday morning garage sale at my daughter's house in which she and my granddaughter netted all of $150 in sales.  Those things are always fun (to me, anyway) but it was hot and muggy and everyone involved, including the customers, seemed kind of sluggish.  It was so slow at times that I sneaked in some reading of Ape House while waiting for the next customers to drive or walk up.  Thank goodness I remembered to put my iPad in the car before I drove to my daughter's - my library copy of Ape House resting comfortably on the gadget.

The other major distraction is, of course, the start of baseball season - not that Houstonians will have anything much to cheer about this season, or most likely the next four or five.  Astros fans are enduring a complete rebuild of the team.  It is so bad that my most ambitious hope for the team this year is that it not humiliate itself by losing 100 games.  The Phillies made the Astros look like the Triple A team it really is, defeating us: 5-4, 9-4, and 7-2.  I'm trying to convince myself that I can still enjoy the season by admiring the skills on the opposing teams; after all, the pressure is off Astros fans for the foreseeable future.  Right?  Yeah, sure.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Fortunes of War

Fortunes of War is one of those “what-if” books that will make the reader wish its premise really could happen.  What if it were possible to identify a “power cycle” pattern that can accurately predict when a country’s political corruption is close to reaching the point where regional or world war will become inevitable?  What if a new watchdog organization could recognize those responsible for this level of corruption soon enough to disrupt it all before another war breaks out?

Fortunately, six Berkley students have done just that.  Unfortunately, by the time they announce their findings to the world in June 1938, it is too late to stop the group of greedy German industrialists that is making Adolph Hitler’s aggression possible.  The students, however, might still have time to do the next best thing because, now that the war is going poorly for the Germans, these same amoral businessmen want desperately to move their fortunes out of Germany and into Swiss banks.  Recognizing their opportunity, the Six Sentinels step in with a plan to make sure that these fortunes will never lead the world to war again.

The Sentinels are a varied group, but they have more in common than just their graduate studies at Berkley.  Each of them comes from one of the world’s most powerful and influential families: Mike Stone’s father is head of a huge New York bank; Cecelia Chang is the daughter of one of Hong Kong’s most influential traders; Jacques Roth is heir to the fabulous Roth banking fortune; Claudine Demauraux is the daughter of a powerful Swiss banker; Tony Garibaldi springs from one of Italy’s major wine producing families; and Ian Meyer is the son of the founder of one of London’s major auction houses.  A group like this one brings major weapons to any battle, but whether or not the six are a match for the Germans who are so determined to kill them is another question.

Like most thrillers, Fortunes of War requires the reader to cut its author a little slack.  There are moments when the close calls and near misses begin to get a little predictable but, if one is willing to suspend disbelief for its duration, Fortunes of War can be great fun.  Throw in a little romance (some might say, a lot of romance) along the way, and this one has something for everyone.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)