Friday, September 30, 2011

If Trouble Don't Kill Me

A month ago I had never heard of Clayton and Saford Hall, twin brothers from the boondocks of Virginia.  Now, thanks to the dual biography, If Trouble Don't Kill Me, written by Clayton’s grandson, Ralph Berrier, Jr., I feel as if I have known them all my life.  The Hall twins are representative of a distinct era in country music and American history.  They were born in 1919 into a culture that leaned heavily on local musicians when it came to socializing and entertainment.  These mostly self-taught musicians seemed to be everywhere, and they passed their skills on from one generation to the next.  If a boy could get his hands on a fiddle, a banjo, a mandolin, or a guitar, someone was there to teach him what to do with it.

Clayton and Saford were bitten by the music bug when they were just boys and, even in a section of the country crawling with good pickers, Saford’s way with a fiddle and Clayton’s with a banjo soon enough turned the boys into local celebrities.  Like so many others of the period, the Halls used low-powered, regional radio stations to build their reputation.  These stations knew their audience well and gave it what it wanted – live country music at the beginning of the long workday, and the same again at mid-day when it was time to stop for lunch.

The boys were on top of the world by 1940.  They were able to quit their jobs in a furniture factory and were making a nice living by working fulltime with Roy Hall (no relation) & His Blue Ridge Entertainers, the best known band in the region.  Their future was golden - and then it happened.  The U.S. got involved in World War II and Uncle Sam came calling for the Hall twins and so many others like them.  First to go was Saford, but just 16 months later it would be Clayton’s turn.

Ralph Berrier, Jr.
Saford and Clayton were in the thick of some of the war’s heaviest fighting but both of them managed to beat the odds and make it back to Virginia.  Saford, who was involved in some of America’s earliest action in the war, would eventually fight his way from North Africa to Sicily, and on through Europe, ending up finally in Germany.  Clayton would endure some of the war’s most brutal Pacific theater fighting, including the key battle on Okinawa. 

The boys came home to a different world and, being the heroes they were, they got on with life as best they could.  Music remained one of the most important things in their world, but they had missed their chance at real fame and they knew it was time to move on.  Saford, somewhat of a hard-drinking scoundrel, summed up his life this way not long before he died:

            “I know I ain’t been the best person all the time.  But I did the best I could.  I’ve seen and done things that not a lot of country boys ever get to do.  I know I ain’t got much time left, but I know where I’m going when my time comes.  I did my best to live a good life.  That’s all any of us can do, ain’t it?  Just live a good life?  When all is said and done, ain’t that enough?”

Yes, sir, it most certainly is.

Rated at: 5.0

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Books I Can't Wait to Read Again

I know that I shouldn’t do it.  I am well aware that I cannot possibly read all the new books that deserve my attention - books that I would enjoy, books that I would remember forever, books that might actually change my life or the way I view the world.  And there are more of them published every day.

So why do I want to go back and re-read a bunch of books that I read years, or even decades, ago?  Easy.  I loved the first experience, or they changed my life, or they changed the way I look at the world. 

All I have to do is stand in front of my bookshelves and I see books that call out to me for another chance to have their pages turned and appreciated:

1.     Black Boy – Richard Wright – This 1945 memoir (which I discovered during the sixties) made me think about what it was like for Blacks to grow up and live in the Jim Crow South.  I remember what it was like to grow up in the South before the Civil Rights era – and this book should have been required reading in those days.  I am a different person than when I read this all those decades ago, and maybe, just maybe, this book is part of the reason why.

2.     Andersonville – MacKinlay Kantor – This 760-page novel about the infamous Civil War prison camp located just a short drive from Plains, Georgia, humanized that war for me like no other book I’ve read on the subject (and I’ve read dozens and dozens of them).  I think it is sad that so many people think of the Civil War as ancient history.  Just think about this for a moment: the book was published in 1955, only 90 years after the war ended.  Yes, those 1950s.

3.     The Prince of Tides – Pat Conroy – I loved this 1986 book so much that I bought paperback copies the next year as Christmas gifts for every person who worked in my department (almost 25 copies, from what I recall).  The book turned me into a lifelong Pat Conroy fan.

4.     Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke – This 1989 Burke novel served as my introduction to Cajun detective, and ex-New Orleans cop, Dave Robicheaux.  Finally, someone was writing about the Cajun culture without resulting to cartoonish stereotypes – and Dave Robicheaux was actually a hero, not someone to laugh at…what a concept.  I’ve been hooked on the series (this was the third book) ever since, and I greatly admire Mr. Burke.

5.     The Longest Walk – George Meegan – This one, from 1988, describes Meegan’s walk of almost seven years, a walk that totaled over 19,000 miles and took him from the southern tip of South America all the way to the northernmost point in Alaska.  Meegan’s walk was a great adventure that tested him in every way.  It made me into a confirmed hiker for a while and might be exactly what I need to get myself seriously walking again.

This is why I keep my favorites where I can see them and put my hands on them quickly.  The few minutes I spent handling them this evening brought back some great memories, both about the books and about who I was when I first read them.  I promise myself tonight that I will read them again sometime soon.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Man from Beijing

Henning Mankell is best known for having created fictional detective Kurt Wallander, a character I am familiar with via a couple of BBC adaptations of Mankell’s work.  Wallander is typical of the genre, I suppose.  He is another of those broken down, older detectives whose personal life is in ruins but who gamely carries on with catching the local bad guys.  It is all very dark and moody, but I almost always take to that type of atmosphere and character and that is what I expected to get from The Man from Beijing.

And, at first, that is what I got.  The story opens at the scene of a spectacular mass murder in one of Sweden’s most isolated little villages.  All but three of the village’s twenty-two inhabitants have been brutally slaughtered in just a few hours and police are struggling to identify either a motive for the murders or a suspect.  When Judge Birgitta Roslin, who is on a two-week medical leave from the bench, realizes that this is the same village her mother was raised in, she decides to go there for a personal look.  Once there, and sensing that the police investigation is headed in the wrong direction, Roslin begins her own - an investigation that leads her to believe that a Chinese assassin is responsible for the deaths.

Butting heads with the local police, however, proves to be rather fruitless, so Roslin continues to nose around on her own.  Her amateur investigation brings her all the way to China where her efforts attract the attention of the wrong people.  Just happy to escape Beijing in one piece, Roslin returns to Sweden only to find that her Chinese troubles have followed her home.

Henning Mankell
Henning Mankell had the makings of a snappy crime thriller on his hands if he had only stuck with this basic plot and characters.  Even the long flashback dealing with San, a Chinaman kidnapped to work on America’s transcontinental railroad was interesting (and directly pertained to the plot), although, for the most part, very dryly narrated.  By the time Mankell got back to present day Sweden, I was beginning to get a little hazy on some of the murder details and the Swedish characters.  I managed to get myself back on track only to find that Mankell had a long, boring harangue in store for his readers.  The author managed to move the side plot along eventually, but along the way he had one of his main characters read segments of political speeches that in real time were said to last four or five hours.  As I listened to Mankell defend the likes of Chairman Mao and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I began to understand how the character’s captive audience must have felt.

This is a good book gone very, very bad.  It reads more as an excuse for Mankell to preach his own leftist political views than as a book to be enjoyed by mystery/thriller fans.  Had The Man from Beijing been properly edited, it could have been a gripping police procedural about a stunning crime.  As is, it is a tremendous bore about a stunning crime.

Rated at: 1.5

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paulo Coelho Believes That Giving His Work Away Is a Good Business Plan

Paulo Coelho
Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, according to the New York Times, is not afraid to give his work away because he thinks that will help him to sell more books in the long run.  Coelho is best known for his international bestseller The Alchemist with over 65 million copies sold to-date.  One might think that success at that level would make Coelho reluctant to let free copies of his latest book change hands; one would be wrong.

Years ago he upended conventional wisdom in the book business by pirating his own work, making it available online in countries where it was not easily found, using the argument that ideas should be disseminated free. More recently he has proved that authors can successfully build their audiences by reaching out to readers directly through social media. He ignites conversations about his work by discussing it with his fans while he is writing.

Mr. Coelho continues to give his work away free by linking to Web sites that have posted his books, asking only that if readers like the book, they buy a copy, “so we can tell to the industry that sharing contents is not life threatening to the book business,” as he wrote in one post.
Coelho is a twitter magician of sorts, with some 2.4 million followers (and, as he points out, that's more followers than Madonna can claim).  I am not a follower (yet) of Coelho's but he sounds fascinating.  Read the NYTimes article here, and you will learn facts like these: the man's first book took him 40 years to complete, but the last one was written in 3 weeks following his 4 years of research.

Now, I'm off to become a Coelho follower...

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Good School

My wife and I oversaw our children’s public school education in simpler times – no doubt about it.  But now, despite the fact that our two daughters have both chosen to teach in the same school district within which they were educated, we worry about the schooling our grandchildren are receiving there.  Perhaps, it is precisely because we have so much “inside information” about the school system that we worry so much.  Despite what most young parents might think, it is difficult to distinguish a good school from a bad school.  That is scary enough, but what should really terrify parents is that bad teachers riddle even the best schools.

Peg Tyre’s The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve explains how parents can recognize good schools and good teachers when they see them.  Because today’s schools are evaluated on the results of standardized tests parents seldom understand, there is a good chance that their children are receiving an inadequate education – one that does not prepare them to be successful adults.  Simply put, “teaching to the test” means that America’s school children are getting a dumbed-down version of the education they deserve.

The Good School focuses on “seven essential domains of education” that parents need to understand if they are to protect their preschool-to-middle-school-age students.  Tyre begins with a chapter on how to choose the right preschool for your child before moving into chapters on testing, class size, reading, mathematics, balance, and teachers.  Her precise, and very readable, style makes her a good communicator, but Tyre is so determined that parents get her message that she goes one step farther by ending each segment of the book with a chapter summary list she calls “The Take Aways.”

Much of what Tyre offers is good common sense, something that seems to be not so common these days.  For instance, she remarks that a good way to separate good teachers from the “not-so-good” ones is to remember that the good ones “want you to have more information about education not less.”  And some of what she has to say touches on concerns that parents might already have about their children, such as her belief that a “poor-quality teacher-child relationship” in preschool or kindergarten can “set the stage for academic and behavioral problems through eighth grade.” 

Peg Tyre admits that “perfect schools” do not exist.  Thankfully, as she points out, most students do not really need a perfect school – but they do need a good one.  Unfortunately, it is more up to parents than ever before to find that good school for their children and, if they cannot find one, it is up to them to figure out how to help create one.  The Good School tells you how to get that done.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

(Another) Sinful Saturday

From what I've posted here on the last three Saturdays, I'm sure it's become obvious that I'm a big fan of pulp fiction cover art.  I want to highlight a cover this week that I think will help to explain my infatuation.

First is the actual book cover for a 1953 book by Jane Manning called Reefer Girl:

The book is described as "The frank, biting story of a young girl of the slums, and how she was caught in the toils of evil."  Its cover is based on an "oil on board" painting by Rudy Nappi.

Next, I want you to click on the image shown below to experience a true work of art, Nappi's original painting:

See why these covers can be so intriguing?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Best of 2011, Update 7

A month has gone by since my last Top 10 lists, a month during which I have considered another 12 books (8 novels and 4 nonfiction books) for placement.

Changes are found at numbers 5 (Doc) and 8 (Wherever You Go).

Fiction: (Top 10 of 66 considered)

1. Nemesis - Philip Roth (novel)

2. Saturday - Ian McEwan (novel)

3. Rhino Ranch - Larry McMurtry (series novel)

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

5. Doc - Mary Doria Russell (novel)

6. Love at Absolute Zero - Christopher Meeks (novel)

7. That Old Cape Magic - Richard Russo (novel)

8. Wherever You Go - Joan Leegant (novel)

9. Hustle - Jason Skipper (novel)

10.Among the Wonderful - Stacy Carlsen - (novel)
Similarly, changes to the nonfiction list are found at numbers 1 (If Trouble Don't Kill Me) and 8 (He Stopped Loving Her Today).
Non-Fiction: (Top 10 of 28 considered)

1. If Trouble Don't Kill Me - Ralph Berrier, Jr. (biography)

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

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

4. Bittersweet Season - Jane Gross (on caring for aging parents)

5. Tiny Terror - William Todd Schultz (psychobiography of Truman Capote) 
6. Chinaberry Sidewalks - Rodney Crowell (memoir)

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

8. He Stopped Loving Her Today - Jack Isenhour - (music memoir)

9. What It Is Like to Go to War - Karl Marlantes (memoir)

10. Lincoln's Men - William C. Davis (Civil War History)
With just a bit over three months remaining in 2011, the lists are starting to firm up - but that anything can still happen can be clearly seen from the addition this time around of a new number one book in nonfiction.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Operation Napoleon

Veteran thriller-readers know that a “suspension of disbelief” is often part of the game.  Without a willingness on the reader’s part to cut the author a little slack, the plots of many (if not most) thrillers would fall apart very quickly.  Sometimes, however, an author’s plot narrative will stretch the willingness of his readers to suspend their disbelief beyond the breaking point.  That, unfortunately, is the case with Arnaldur Indridason’s Operation Napoleon.

This recently translated 1999 novel was written relatively early in Indridason’s career and it is still the only standalone novel he has produced.  The author is known for his well received Inspector Erlunder series and this book, in fact, appears to have been written between the second and third books in that series (there are now eight Erlunder books, although only the last six have been translated to English). 

Operation Napoleon begins in 1945 just after a military plane has crashed onto an isolated Icelandic glacier.  Despite horrendous weather conditions and the isolation of the crash site, the area is soon swarming with dozens of American soldiers in search of the wreckage.  Two bachelor brothers who live at the base of the glacier, one of whom saw the plane as it passed low over their farm, unhesitatingly become guides for the soldiers.  But, despite the hard work of the American military and the efforts of the brothers to point them in the right direction, the rescue mission ends in failure.  Only a tiny portion of the plane, with German markings on it, can be found. 

Flash forward to 1999 and the resumption of the search.  Certain people deep within the American military and its government desperately want to find the airplane that crashed in 1945 before anyone else spots it.  Modern satellite technology now makes it possible to monitor from afar any changes to the surface of the glacier that swallowed the airplane and, because glaciers are known to cough up lost objects every so often, these men hope to spot the lost aircraft that way.  That is exactly what happens.

Unfortunately for Kristen, a young Icelandic public servant, her brother and his friend happen upon the wreckage not long after the American searchers have finally gotten their hands on it.  At the exact moment that soldiers spot the two young men, Kristen is on the phone with her brother who barely manages to describe what he sees before a group of armed soldiers surround the two young men.  Sensing that something is very wrong, and unable to reconnect with her brother, Kristen begins a quest to find the truth – and her brother – before it is too late.

 Thus begins a wild ride during which this young female civil servant outwits, outruns, and outthinks the villains chasing her (keep in mind that these are super-villains of the exaggerated James Bond school of villains, no less) - not to mention her thwarting of their efforts to kill her and anyone to whom she might have inadvertently leaked her suspicions.  In other words, Kristen somehow becomes superwoman, even though she does manage to get a few innocent people whacked along the way.  The sheer unlikelihood of Kristen’s numerous escapes from certain death, combined with a weak surprise ending and the book’s obvious tinge of anti-Americanism, makes this one I wish I had avoided.

Rated at: 2.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Happy Birthday to Stephen King and H.G. Wells

Happy Birthdays to authors Stephen King and H.G. Wells who share September 21 as the date of their births.  I think it's kind of a cool coincidence that these two guys were born on the same day of the year.

Wells was born on September 21, 1866 in Bromley, England, and died on August 13, 1946.

King, who turns 64 today, was born in 1947 in Portland, Maine - just a bit more than one year after Wells's passing.

Whether King will ever be held in the same esteem as Wells is debatable, but I do think their work (other than King's pure "horror" output) has a good deal in common, and I get a kick out of the fact they were born on the same day - some 81 years apart.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wherever You Go

Modern-day Israel is one of those countries in which I can just about barely imagine living.  Living one’s life surrounded by sworn enemies, and being condemned by much of the rest of the world for what sometimes seems to be an overzealous dedication to self-defense, has to have a huge psychological impact on Israeli citizens.  I often wonder how they go about their daily lives under those conditions.  Is terrorism constantly on their minds or do they learn to push aside the threat and get on with it? 
Questions like these make me appreciate novels that offer a glimpse into that world, books that speak with authority and insight about what it is really like there.  Joan Leegant’s Wherever You Go is one of the better books of this type I have read in 2011.

Wherever You Go is the story of how three very different American Jews, strangers all, converge in Israel only to have their lives forever changed by circumstances none could have foreseen.  Yona Stern is there in hopes of reconciling with the sister who has not spoken to her for ten years but finds that Dana, by now a hardcore West Bank settlement zealot, wants nothing to do with her.  Mark Greenglass, a respected Talmud scholar who initially returned to his religion as a means of escaping the addiction that was killing him, is back from a family visit to New York and wondering where his religious fervor has gone.  And young college student, Aaron Binder, finds himself drawn to a radical fringe group and its charismatic leader after deciding to stay in Israel a while longer before returning to the U.S.

Leegant tells their individual stories in alternating chapters, building each character layer by layer until they seem very real to her readers.  They have very different lives, and at first do not seem to have much in common until one realizes that the three of them have come to Israel seeking the same thing: a fresh start on the rest of their lives.  Yona needs her sister’s forgiveness if she is to move on; Mark needs to reconcile his inner religious turmoil before he can do the same; and Aaron is desperately seeking an affirmation of his self-worth, something his overbearing father has long denied him.

Joan Leegant
Just about the point at which some readers might begin to wonder what Leegant intends for her characters, one of them will make the fatal decision that brings them together for the first time.  It is a tragic choice, one made for all the wrong reasons, and it has the potential to ruin the futures of Yona, Mark, and Aaron.

Wherever You Go is a gut-wrenching look at how one brief moment can change lives forever.  Three people: an unobservant Jew, a Jewish religious scholar in the process of losing his faith, and an unstable radical, come together in a collision authored by sheer chance.  None of them will be the same.

Rated at: 4.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Following Josh

For a long time, my favorite kind of travel book reading has involved long trips by train, foot, automobile, boat, or hitchhiking, during which a solitary traveler connects on a basic level with people in remote parts of the world.  Dave Norman’s description of his trip by train from China to Poland, Following Josh, although technically not a trip he took alone, certainly qualifies in every other way.  I use the word “technically” here because, for two guys traveling together as far as Dave Norman and Josh Vise did, the two managed to spend as much time apart as they spent together.  It was almost as if they did not much like each other – more on that later.

Dave and Josh are old high school buddies from St. Louis whose lives took different turns several years prior to the trip.  Josh has been teaching English in Asia while Dave has been earning a living as a freelance sportswriter from his home base in New Hampshire.  Now, each is ready to begin the next chapter in his life.  Josh is returning to his hometown to see what happens next, and Dave wants to take the long way (around the world) to his new home and life in New York.  They decide to meet in Seoul, from where they will travel all the way to Poland together.

As the book’s subtitle summarizes, this is a trip from China to Poland, but its actual route is this one: Seoul, Beijing, Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Irkutsk (Siberia), Perm (Russia), Moscow, Brest (Belarus), to Warsaw.  Along the route, Dave and Josh are tested in a number of interesting ways but manage to survive the journey in relatively good health and with their friendship passably intact.  As difficult as some of the trip proves to be, the biggest danger the two face is that they might not be friends by its end.

Dave Norman
Dave and Josh, despite the high school friendship Dave recalls fondly, are not much alike these days.  Josh is the organized one who arrives in Seoul with detailed written plans for each leg of the trip; Dave is willing to go along with Josh’s plans but would be just as willing to take the whole trip one day at a time.  Josh is the kind of American traveler who worries excessively about not offending any of the locals along the way; Dave ridicules Josh’s political correctness and is more, as he sometimes demonstrates, the Ugly American type.  Their Odd Couple relationship makes for some interesting moments, confrontations, and misunderstandings.

The boys have some interesting experiences (although the more interesting ones do not seem to have been all that much fun) involving friendly and not-so-friendly locals, corrupt border officials, and other travelers they meet along the rail system.  The trip is a way for Dave and Josh to say goodbye to their old lives and to welcome their new ones.  As Dave puts it:

            “Back home, I react to the same things in the same ways, day after day, and that becomes who I am.  But in completely new surroundings, I can be anyone I want as I feel my way through the customs.  Travel lets me character-act, and the locals get a kick out of helping.”

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

(Not So) Sinful Saturday

Photographer Thomas Allen does some remarkable things by combining old books, cutouts, a camera, and a whole lot of talent.  Allen has such a remarkable eye that his creations are used as dust jackets and covers for new books, completing the cycle.

I don't begin to understand how all of this is accomplished and Allen's website doesn't really make clear how he pulls it all together.  But you have to see it, to believe it.

This is my favorite of the images I've seen.  In fact, I like this original art even better than the book jacket into which it was later transformed.

Click on the image to see a much larger version.

Friday, September 16, 2011

So, Where Are You From?

I'm in a mood to crunch a few numbers today, and I'm always fascinated by statistics, so I thought I would take a look at where my blog traffic originates.

What surprised me, in addition to a couple of the countries that show up on the list, is that only ten countries provide 99.5% of my hits (according to Google Stats).  These statistics only go back about two years, but I think they are representative of the future.
1.  USA - 70%
2.  United Kingdom - 7%
3.  Canada - 6.5%
4.  Australia - 4%
5.  Germany - 3.5%
6.  Denmark - 3%
7.  South Korea - 2%
8.  France - 1.5%
9.  The Netherlands - 1%
10. India - 1%
All Others - 0.5%

I get a kick out of getting a substantial number of hits from foreign countries - and, when writing a post for Book Chase, I do try to keep in mind that I will have readers from around the world.  I don't do that in a sense of trying to be "politically correct," but I have to admit that knowing this helps me consider my words a little more carefully.  I don't necessarily worry about offending foreign readers, as such; it is more a case of not wanting to offend them accidentally through a poor choice of words or by using a misleading tone of voice.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Married a Communist

There is almost as much going on between the lines of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist as there is in the story the novel tells.  Most obviously of course, the book is another chapter in the life of Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.  This chapter of Nathan’s story, concentrating on his teen-age years and his flirtation with Communism as it does, is a key portion of the Nathan Zuckerman saga.  And then there is Roth’s use of the book as payback to his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, for her overwhelmingly critical memoir (Leaving a Doll’s House, 1996), the book with which she did her best to destroy Roth’s reputation. 

The good news about all of this is that, although several of the 1998 book’s key characters are certainly based on Bloom, her daughter by a previous marriage, and some of her friends, I Married a Communist is more than just a means of retaliation on Roth’s part.  It is also a powerful indictment of the McCarthy-era witch-hunt that needlessly ruined so many lives in its determination to snuff out American Communism.

Key characters include: Nathan Zuckerman, a high school student being drawn toward Communism by his best friend and mentor; Murray Ringold, Nathan’s much admired English teacher; Ira Ringold, war veteran, radio actor, and active Communist to whom Nathan is particularly drawn; Eve Frame, silent movie star and radio actress who marries Ira; and, Sylphid, Eve Frame’s adult daughter. 

Philip Roth / Nathan Zuckerman
Ira’s story is recounted over several evenings of conversation between the now 90-year-old Murray Ringold and Nathan after a chance meeting between the two men provides them with the opportunity to do some long overdue catching up.  All of the key players in the story, other than Murray and Nathan, are long dead, and Murray holds nothing back as he shares his memories of his brother.  Murray is the last person alive who knows the whole story, and he believes that Nathan is the only one left who cares enough to listen to it.  As the two share memories of the past, Nathan reflects upon his own involvement in the events of those years and how his choices affected his relationship with his parents.

I Married a Communist is the second book in Roth’s “American Trilogy,” a series that also includes American Pastoral (an alternate history of America) and The Human Stain (about the goings on at a small New England college).  The trilogy is largely an indictment of the American Dream and a study of the social changes that shaped American thought during the second half of the twentieth century.  This second book, as are the other two in the series, is a reminder of just how easily those with the best of intentions can ruin innocent lives.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Help Ex-Borders Employees

Photo by Reddit User Jessers25
I think we all agree about how sad it is to see one of the world's major bookstore chains bite the dust - especially when one remembers that Barnes and Noble is not doing all that well either.  Sure, the book-selling business model has changed, e-books are negatively impacting physical bookstores, and blah, blah, blah.  It's all becoming old news, just part of the economic bad news that has all of us numb these days.

But let's not forget the thousands of people out of work as a result of Borders failure to adjust quickly enough to the changing marketplace.  They are hurting - especially since they are looking for work in an economy that can't get the unemployment rate below 9% no matter how much tax money is squandered by the Feds trying to "create" jobs.

Take a look here at: "Help Ex-Borders Employees."  If you have some job leads to share, this is the place to do it.  Let's act like the book community we want to believe we are.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Postcards from Nam

Postcards from Nam is the third book in Uyen Nicole Duong’s “Fall of South Vietnam” trilogy, so I suspect that I would have been more emotionally invested in this book’s characters had I first read the earlier books in the trilogy.  But even without that background material, I have to say that this little 89-page novella makes for a powerful reading experience. 

The fall of South Vietnam was a tragedy for everyone involved, but especially so for those unable to get out of the country before it was overwhelmed by the enemy.  The lucky ones were airlifted along with the last of the American troops whom were themselves scrambling to get out before it was too late.  The unlucky ones left behind, if they really wanted to leave, had to risk everything in a desperate attempt to escape the country by sea.  These boat people, if they managed to survive the sea and attacks by pirates, ended up in refugee camps from which they hoped to immigrate to a country willing to offer them a fresh start.

Mimi was one of the lucky ones.  Now living in Houston after a successful career as a Washington D.C. attorney, she lives in self-imposed isolation as a working writer.  She has no friends, and expects to hear from no one – until a reminder from her past arrives one day to shake up her world.  A lone, oversized postcard from Thailand, something she had never expected to see again, waits for her amidst the day’s junk mail, and causes Mimi to flashback to 1988 when the cards first began arriving.

The one-of-a-kind postcards, obviously produced by an artist of some talent, are signed by a person calling himself “Nam,” a name that means nothing to Mimi.   The brief, but intimate, messages written on each of the cards make Mimi determined to learn the identity of her mysterious correspondent.  For the next ten years, she will search for the meaning of the cards and the identity of their creator. 

Uyen Nicole Duong
Pseudonym of Duong Nhu Nguyen
Postcards from Nam is a blunt, eyes-wide-open look at what it was like for first generation South Vietnamese refugees and their children to begin life in the country that had failed to stop the communist invaders from North Vietnam.  The families of former army officers, politicians, government workers, businessmen, and others tied to the U.S. effort, reorganized themselves into new communities in the U.S. from which they drew financial and moral support.  All well and good, but not everyone arrived with a clear conscious about the past.  Some lived in fear that, if the whole truth about them were discovered, they would have to face the wrath of others seeking personal revenge for old wrongs.

Mimi’s efforts to identify the sender of her mysterious postcards force her to remember things about her childhood she had long suppressed, a process that gives the reader terrific insights into the life she left behind and into the assimilation challenges she faced in this country.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, September 12, 2011

He Stopped Loving Her Today

As I write this review of Jack Isenhour’s He Stopped Loving Her Today (September 12, 2011), George Jones turns 80.  Casual fans of country music, or those oblivious of its history, will not be much impressed by a man’s eightieth birthday in an era when eighty is barely above the average lifespan of American males.  Those, however, who know a little about George Jones’s past, will find it hard to believe that Jones has completed his eighth decade on this planet.

He Stopped Loving Her Today focuses on a song called by many the greatest country music song ever written or recorded.  As indicated by its subtitle (“George Jones, Billy Sherrill, and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Greatest Country Record of All Time”) Isenhour takes an irreverent approach to his subject.  The tone suits perfectly the borderline chaos that surrounded the whole process of producing “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”  This is, after all, one of those “if you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry” books.

Isenhour reminds readers that George Jones was barely alive when the 1980 smash hit that saved his career was recorded.  Jones, by 1979, was so addicted to cocaine and alcohol that he thought of little else.  Fans, friends, and family watched in horror as Jones self-destructed, often making a public spectacle of himself, sometimes even as news-camera-wielding vultures merrily recorded his downward spiral toward what seemed imminent death.  It was only a question of what would finally kill the man: overdose, cirrhosis, alcohol poisoning, or a head-on collision on some dark highway as Jones made his way toward the neon lights of one more honky-tonk.

Enter songwriters Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman and record producer Billy Sherrill.  Sherrill neither wrote nor sang the song, of course, but the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” recording is probably more his creation than anyone else’s.   Sherrill had Braddock and Putman rewrite portions of the song so many times that neither songwriter is sure today just what portions of the song each actually wrote.  He layered the song with violins (not fiddles), back-up singers, harmonica, and a spoken stanza that pretty much steals the show all on its own.  Equally impressive, Sherrill managed to wring, almost note for note, a vocal out of a wasted George Jones that, when it was all finally pasted together, constitutes one of the finest George Jones vocals ever recorded – even if it never happened the way we hear it on record.

He Stopped Loving Her Today also offers a slightly different take on the debate about when, or if, country music lost its soul – and why.  The debate spans generations, each succeeding one finding someone to blame country music’s loss of its purity upon, be it Elvis Presley and rock & roll, producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley or, more recently, Shania Twain and her computer-generated vocals.  Isenhour’s theory and conclusions will probably surprise die-hard country music fans.

Isenhour manages to entertain and instruct at the same time.  More devoted fans of the genre will already be familiar with Jones’s personal history but will be enthralled by the details behind the recording of his signature song.  Casual fans of the music, or those more recently come to it, will appreciate the great odds stacked against George ever living to see his eightieth birthday, and will perhaps understand for the first time what a true living legend George Jones really is.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Steplings Book Trailer

Because attending the first Houston Texans game of the 2011 NFL season is pretty much an all-day affair (leave home at ten for the noon start, with a return around six), I want to take a few minutes early this Sunday morning to highlight another effective book trailer that's just been posted to YouTube.

These days I am as fascinated by book marketing as I used to be about the traditional relationship between  authors, agents, and publishers.  That whole business is rapidly changing - and has already reached the point where authors are having to figure out new ways to bring attention to their work.  Publishers seem to be largely passing the buck back to the authors themselves to get the job done.  That can be a good thing for those with the drive and talent to market themselves, but a very traumatic thing for authors used to doing it the old way.  It certainly opens the book publishing doors wider than ever before.

I read and reviewed Steplings last July, so I am judging the effectiveness and veracity of this trailer through those eyes.

This is how you do it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Another Sinful Saturday (with Robert Silverberg)

Photo from Vintagellu's Photostream on Flickr
Few people probably realize that celebrated science fiction writer Robert Silverberg wrote several novels for publisher Bedside as Mark Ryan.  Streets of Sin, the cover art shown here, was published in 1959 for sale in news stands across America.  Silverberg was ultimately named a Grandmaster by the Science Fiction Writers of America, so he is rightfully remembered best for his work in that genre.  (I don't think Mark Ryan won any awards - but he put food on Silverberg's table for a few years.)

Mark Ryan had some help from at least four others in putting a little cash in Mr. Silverberg's pockets because Silverberg also wrote in this style under the names: Don Elliott, Loren Beauchamp, David Challon, and Gordon Mitchell.  The books were published by Bediside, Nightstand, and Bedstand (names so similar that I'm guessing they might really all have been the same company).

I have not attempted to count the books that Silverberg wrote under these names, but there appears to be at least a couple of dozen of them, probably a good many more.  By the way, a copy of Streets of Sin in excellent condition could be had five years ago for about $60.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Michael S. Hart, Project Gutenberg Founder, Dead at 64

Michael Stern Hart
Michael S. Hart, the man credited with having invented the e-book (in 1971), but probably best known as the founder of the wonderful Project Gutenberg, is dead at age 64.  Mr. Hart was found dead at his home on September 6 after having suffered an apparent heart attack.

Details can be found at this full length Washington Post obituary:
Mr. Hart cobbled together a living with the money he earned as an adjunct professor and with grants and donations to Project Gutenberg. But he led a life of near poverty, Kahle said, and “basically lived off of cans of beans.”
Kahle and other friends recalled that Mr. Hart’s house in Urbana was stacked, floor to eye-height, with pillars of books.
The man who spent a lifetime digitizing literature lived amidst the hard copies, which he often sent home with visitors. It was one more way for him to share his books.
I, of course, knew nothing of Mr. Hart or his personal life until I read the Washington Post obituary I've linked to this post.  But...I will always remember how excited I was when I first discovered Project Gutenberg, and how I downloaded books directly to floppy discs so that I could carry them with me when I traveled on extended business trips.  The man was a true pioneer - and I only wish I had bothered to tell him that while he was with us.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Texas Book Festival 2011

Official 2011 Festival Poster
It's finally that time of year again.  The Texas Book Festival, held in Austin every year since Laura Bush dreamed up the idea when she was still First Lady of Texas, is fast approaching.  This year's festival will, in fact, be held on October 22-23.  I missed out on the event last year because of a scheduling conflict, so I'm particularly looking forward to the 2011 version.

This is the list of announced author attendees (I haven't looked at it in detail yet but a few names have already jumped out at me):

2011 Festival Authors
Hugh Acheson
Monte Akers
Jill S. Alexander
Jessica Lee Anderson
Jay Asher
T. Lindsay Baker
Russell Banks
Mac Barnett
Michael Barson
Chris Barton
Austin Bay
Cynthia J. Beeman
Michael Berryhill
Frank Bill
Sarah Bird
Andy Borowitz
Jan Bozarth
H.W. Brands
Libba Bray
Karoline Patterson Bresenhan
Douglas Brinkley
Sam Brower
Alton Brown
Dominique Browning
Gesine Bullock-Prado
Marc Burckhardt
William S. Bush
Wendy Call
Ina Caro
Nell Casey
Susannah Charleson
Eileen Christelow
Marcia Clark
Roy Peter Clark
Rosemary Clement-Moore
Ernest Cline
Margaret Coel
Tyson Cole
Crystal Cook
Sarah Cortez
Doreen Cronin
Jeff Crosby
Brenda Cullerton
James Dashner
David Davis
Siddhartha Deb
Paula Deen
Sarah Dessen
Kate DiCamillo
Rick Dingus
Gerald Duff
David Eagleman
Arielle Eckstut
Bob Edwards
Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt
Will Erwin
James H. Evans
Lisa Fain
John A. Farrell
Steven Fenberg
William M. Fisher
Kathleen Flinn
Martha Hall Foose
Marla Frazee
Heather Vogel Frederick 
Doug Freeman
Susan Toomey Frost
Laura Furman
Jack Gantos
Kami Garcia
Amitav Ghosh
Adam Gidwitz
Dagoberto Gilb
Susannah Joel Glusker
Nina Godiwalla
David Goldfield
Jaimy Gordon
David Graeber
Don Graham
Keith Graves
Philippa Gregory
Ioan Grillo
Lev Grossman
Jeff Guinn
Gabrielle Hamilton
Butch Hancock
Chad Harbach
Stephen Harrigan
Thomas M. Hatfield
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith
Alan Hollinghurst
K.A. Holt
Ellen Hopkins
James D. Hornfischer
Kate Hosford
Steve Inskeep
Jane Isay
Sally H. Jacobs
Emily Jenkins
Craig Johnson
Mat Johnson
Donna Johnson
Mary Johnson
Hillary Jordan
Jonathan W. Jordan
William Joyce
Susie Kalil
Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Jordan Kaye
Josh Kilmer-Purcell
Chuck Klosterman
Michelle Knudsen
Michael Koryta
Allen Kurzweil
Louis Lambert
Joe R. Lansdale
Jeanette Larson
Jillian Lauren
Preston Lauterbach
Chris Lehmann
Jim Lehrer
David Levithan
David Liss
Lisa Loeb
Sylvia Longmire
Rhonda Lashley Lopez
Jerome Loving
James Luna
Barry Lyga
Bruce Machart
Noel MacNeal
Adam Mansbach
Jeff Martin
Alberto A. Martinez
Sherry Matthews
Kathryn J. McGarr
Patrick McGilligan
Cameron McWhirter
Candice Millard
Jacquelyn Mitchard
Robert Morgan
Erin Morgenstern
Shelia P. Moses
Thomas Mullen
Hal Needham
Kadir Nelson
Jim Newton
Jennifer Niven
Michael O'Brien
Kevin O'Connor
Meghan O'Rourke
Kenneth Oppel
Susan Orlean
Chuck Palahniuk
Jan Peck
Richard Pells
James W. Pennebaker
Ruth Pennebaker
Tom Perrotta
Steven Petrow
Donald Ray Pollock
Sandy Pollock
Peggy Post
Austin Powell

Dana Priest
Alex Prud'homme
Nancy O'Bryant Puentes
Hugh Raffles
Kerry Reichs
Kathy Reichs
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
David Rice
James W. Riddlesperger, Jr.
Brent Ridge
Spelile Rivas
Artemio Rodriguez
Mary Romero
Michael J. Rosen
Karen Russell
Louis Sachar 
René Saldaña, Jr.
Barney Saltzberg
Alex Sanchez
Steven Saylor
Liz Garton Scanlon
Stacy Schiff
John R. Schmidt
Joe Schreiber
Casey Scieszka
Jon Scieszka
Elaine Scott
Molly Shannon
Bob Shea
Maurice Sherif
Judy Sierra
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Dominic Smith
Clete Barrett Smith
C.W. Smith
Dava Sobel
Divya Srinivasan
Rebecca Stead
Frederick Steiner
David Henry Sterry
Taylor Stevens
Margaret Stohl
David R. Stokes
Ellen Sweets
Edward Swift
Nancy Tillman
Héctor Tobar
Justin Torres
Sergio Troncoso
Deb Olin Unferth
Dan K. Utley
Michael Ventura
Amy Waldman
Jason Walker
Amanda Eyre Ward
Steven Weinberg
William C. Welch
Rosemary Wells
C.M. Wendelboe
Colson Whitehead
Jo Whittemore
John Whorff
Dorothy Wickenden
Chris Wiesinger
Andy Wilkinson
Juan Williams 
Virginia Willis
Daniel H. Wilson
Jenny Wingfield
Adam Winkler
Meg Wolitzer
Baron Wolman
Daniel Woodrell
Robin Wright
Lawrence Wright
Richard Yañez 
Charles Yu
Paul Zelinsky
Gwendolyn Zepeda
Jennifer Ziegler
James Zogby