Monday, October 31, 2011

The Forgotten Waltz

Almost exactly four years ago, Ireland’s Anne Enright was the “surprise winner” of the Man Booker Prize for what is said to be a rather bleak novel called The Gathering.  Despite my good intentions, I have yet to read that one, but after reading her latest work, The Forgotten Waltz, I have to wonder if Enright does not specialize in “bleak.”

Set in a Dublin suburb, The Forgotten Waltz recounts Gina Moynihan’s reflections on a love affair she seems almost destined to have had, an affair in which she is the one wearing the tarnished label of “The Other Woman.”  Herself married at the time, Gina was immediately attracted to Sean Vallely when she first encountered him at a family function.  The two would be thrown together numerous additional times before the more oblivious Sean would finally succumb to the affair that would ultimately break up both marriages.

Complicating the affair for both Sean and Gina, is Sean’s young daughter Evie.  Evie is said to be a “special” child, one with fragile health – she suffers seizures - who, at least to Gina, seems to be uncannily observant of her father’s moods and whereabouts.  Almost despite herself, Gina is drawn to Evie in some inexplicable way and comes to believe that, without Evie, the affair with Sean would never have happened.  Gina’s life, of which the reader will share in the most intimate of details, is further complicated by a deteriorating relationship with her sister, the breakup of her marriage, the death of her mother, and the challenge of competing with Evie for Sean’s love and attention. 

Anne Enright
Frankly, nothing out of the ordinary happens in The Forgotten Waltz.  Enright’s story is one of commonplace adultery, the kind of love triangle that happens all around us, whether we notice or stop to think about it, every day.  What makes the book memorable is Enright’s ability to get so deeply inside the head of a narrator like Gina, someone honest enough with herself not to try to rationalize her involvement with a man like Sean.   Before she takes up with him, Gina knows that Sean has a loving wife – and, perhaps even more importantly, a daughter who needs him - but she gives little thought to their needs.  She wants Sean for herself, and when she gets him, guilt is not much  of an issue for her.

None of the characters in The Forgotten Waltz are particularly likeable but, thanks to Anne Enright’s way with words, they are real.  These are just ordinary people making do with what life throws their way.  They do not always make the best decisions or choices, but tomorrow always comes - and they get to try again.  Isn’t that just the way it is?

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Burn This Book

Confessions of a Jackass

I hate the thought of books being burned, censored, or otherwise abused.  I have, in fact, made numerous posts here on Book Chase over the past five years ripping into those who dare do that kind of thing - for any reason whatsoever.

But I am weak.  Worse than that, I am guilty of hypocritical behavior, for I admit that there is at least one book that I would burn in a second.  It's not that the book's content is worthless (although it most certainly is); it's because the book and its "author" might actually influence some little girl out there to emulate the behavior being celebrated under this hideous book jacket.  So, if by some fluke, I come across a free copy of this little loser's book, it will not survive long in my hands.    

I'm not going to reward Gallery Books buy buying myself a burn-copy, but if I spot one that's already been tossed away by some remorseful "reader", I will gladly put a match to that one.  Burn this book...please.  No, really.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


David Lamb kidnaps the little girl with good intentions, and for all the best reasons.  He wants to teach her a lesson about how dangerous life really is, a lesson that will protect her from those dangers for the rest of her days.  The unknown narrator of Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam’s debut novel, puts it this way:

So you see, none of this was planned.  This is the kind of unforeseeable map that arises one bright little city at a time.  It is about letting go of the clench in your forehead and letting your heart steer.  And it isn’t as easy as it sounds.”

Lamb is minding his own business when the little girl, dared to do so by her two friends, brazenly walks up to him and asks for a cigarette.  On his way home from his father’s funeral, and still a little numb from that experience, Lamb’s original reaction when the freckle-faced little girl approaches him is to feel sorry for her.  Then he decides, with little Tommie’s complicity, to teach her friends a lesson by making it appear that he is kidnapping her by force. 

“So you see, none of this was planned.”

Lamb considers himself a good man.  When he looks at Tommie, he sees a little girl from a poor background and, most likely, from a broken home, who has no future unless she changes her ways soon.  He wants to help her, and he thinks he can do that by taking her on a road trip from Chicago to the remoteness of the Rocky Mountains.  Lamb, a fiftyish failure at his job, his marriage, and most other personal relationships, believes he still has something to offer this child.

Bonnie Nadzam
Bonnie Nadzam will make many a reader uncomfortable with her effort to get inside the head of a man like David Lamb, a man who spends as much time trying to convince himself that his motives are pure as he does trying to convince his young victim of the same.  Lamb, however, is not so self-deluded that he cannot see himself through the eyes of other adults he and his “niece” encounter along the way.  As the days roll by and Lamb begins to worry about how he will ultimately extricate himself from the situation, and as Tommie allows him a greater and greater degree of physical intimacy, the reader’s tension will build to an almost unbearable level.

Although Lamb is not an explicitly sexual novel, it is most definitely a disturbing one.  The source of the book’s horror is its reminder of how often evil is motivated by good intentions, and how easy it is for a predator like David Lamb to make himself unrecognizable to the rest of us.  Fair Warning: Bonnie Nadzam has written an impressive debut novel, but it is one that will not be quickly, or easily, forgotten. 

Rated at: 4.0 

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy Birthday to Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy

It's time to send out happy birthday wishes to two of my favorite American authors: Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy.  Anne turned 70 yesterday (October 25) and today Pat reaches 66 years of age.  I've been reading both authors for much of my adult life, and I'm looking forward to many more good books from each of them.

Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler has written eighteen novels to this point and her nineteenth, The Beginner's Goodbye, is scheduled for April 2012 (it's on my ARC wish list, dear Publisher).  A quick look at my bookshelves turned up hardcover editions of fourteen of the novels, in addition to two or three duplicates in different editions.  For multiple reasons, even though I've read all eighteen titles, I don't have personal copies of: The Amateur Marriage, A Patchwork Planet, Digging to America, or Noah's Compass.  

For those not familiar with Tyler's work, I suggest starting off with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant from 1982,  That is still one of my favorites.

Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy has only published ten books during his forty-year career, sometimes going six or seven years between books and driving his fans to the point of nerd-hysteria when a new title is finally announced.  There was even a fourteen-year stretch between his last two novels, Beach Music and South of Broad.  Five of the ten books are novels (unless The Boo is counted as a novel and, frankly, I'm still not entirely certain how to classify that one), one is a memoir of his college basketball days, one is a cookbook, one a memoir about his early days as a schoolteacher, and the other is a book about his own favorite books and how he became a reader and a writer.  

Another check of my bookshelves reveals hardcover versions of three of the novels, the basketball book, the book on his reading life, and an ARC of his last novel, South of Broad.  I have, however, read all of Conroy's books and I'm looking forward to the new memoir about his current relationship with his father and how they reconciled their differences.

Anyone unfamiliar with Conroy's work, but curious, should start with Prince of Tides, still my favorite of his novels, or maybe with his love letter to books, My Reading Life.

Anne Tyler and Pat Conroy are two of the authors I most admire because I know I can always depend on them to move me as well as entertain me.  They are very special writers and I wish them many more productive birthdays to come.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Leftovers

Imagine that something very much like the traditional Christian concept of The Rapture has suddenly occurred and that millions of people have disappeared.  This is the jumping off point for Tom Perrotta’s rather cleverly titled new novel, The Leftovers.

Much to the surprise of some of the true believers (many of whom are already a little ticked about being delegated to Leftover status), the chosen ones include Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Christians, and members of every other imaginable religion - even a considerable number of hedonistic non-believers known to have thoroughly enjoyed their time in this world.  That it all seems to have been so random is, in fact, the most difficult part of the experience for some to understand.

Some disappeared from elevators as they moved between floors, some from living room couches while in the middle of conversations with friends, and others from their chairs as they consumed what would be their final meals.  Some families lost fathers, some lost mothers, and some lost a child or two.  Others were shocked to become the only Leftover in their immediate family.  Amazingly enough, however, life would soon resume its normal rhythms while the Leftovers sought their own ways to cope with their losses. 

The Leftovers, which begins three years after the big event, centers itself on the Garvey family: Kevin, who becomes Mapleton’s new mayor; his wife, Laura, who joins the Guilty Remnant cult; Tom, their son who becomes part of Holy Wayne’s Healing Hug movement; and teenaged Jill who still lives at home with her father.  The Guilty Remnant bunch and the Healing Hug movement, though they are very different types of cults, are two of the mechanisms through which people try to cope with what has happened. That even a family like the Garveys, one of the lucky ones to remain whole after the supposed Rapture experience, is tested beyond its breaking point illustrates the emotional severity of what has happened around the world.

Tom Perrotta
This is a book about coping and healing.  Some turn inward, some to cults, some to family and friends; others ignore it all or become suicidal.  As Tom Perrotta mentioned at the Texas Book Festival in October, 2011, his book is set during the “seven-year period of Tribulation after the Rapture” and he wonders if “anyone would even remember the rapture three years later.”  This is the question that, with the help of his fictional Garvey family, he explores in The Leftovers.

However, for reasons difficult to explain, The Leftovers is a surprisingly flat reading experience.  None of the book’s main characters, other than perhaps Kevin Garvey, are particularly appealing and the book, by spending so much time with its two weird cults, seems to gloss over the magnitude of the loss so many ordinary people would have experienced.  One cannot help but feel that The Leftovers could have packed a more profound emotional clout than it does – meaning that the book, for many readers, will be a disappointing near miss.

Rated at: 3.0 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Texas Book Festival 2011 - A Personal Tour

Click on Pictures for Larger Image

Texas State Capitol Building (Site of Texas Book Festival)


"Lone Star Tent" Session
C-Span's Book TV Tent During a Session
C-Span's Campaign 2012 Tour Bus
Barnes & Noble Tent and Book Signing Tent
Book Signing Tent
Free Eye Examinations for Children
Technology Tent with Hands-On E-readers on Display
Music Tent and Children's Tents

Tent Events
Chad Harbach and Justin Torres Discuss Their Debut Novels
Amy Waldman in Book Signing Tent
Juan Williams Interviewed by Glenn Frankel in Book TV Tent
Michael Ventura Reads from "If I Was a Highway" (Butch Hancock in background)
Butch Hancock & Jimmie Dale Gilmore in Music Tent

Capitol Grounds
Portion of Capitol Building as Seen from Tent Area
Interesting Twisted Tree
Book Lovers in Serious Discussion on Their Favorite Authors
One of the Reconstruction Era Cannons Still on the Grounds
One of the Many Monuments on the Grounds 
And Another
Monument to Confederate Soldiers

One of Two Indoor Events I Attended
Russell Banks Interviewed by Bob Edwards
Inside Texas Senate Chamber

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Texas Book Festival - Saturday

Juan Williams
What a great first day to the 2011 Texas Book Festival.  I was able to see everyone I mentioned yesterday with the exception of Kathy Reichs, and the only reason I didn't see her was because I opted for a session that included three first time novelists instead.  The big attraction to that session was Chad Harbach, whose The Art of Fielding I reviewed here just a few days ago.  Also part of that cool Q& were've Amy Waldman and Justin Torres.  All three new novelists were refreshingly honest about what their sudden success has meant to them and how they've handled it.

I also enjoyed the session with Tom Perrotta who offered insights into his new book, The Leftovers, that will help me do a much better job when I review it in the next day or two.  Tom read a surprisingly long section of the book that left the good-sized audience chuckling...a seduction scene gone very, very wrong.

I also sat in on a hilarious "Literary Death March," during which four very funny authors  read seven-minute excerpts from their latest books (who would believe that a cook book could be so funny?)..  In an setting resembling American Idol, three judges chose two finalists who then competed in a literary game to determine the overall winner.  The four writers included: Karen Russell (Swamplandia!), Charles Yu (How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe),  and eventual winner Martha Hall Foose (A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home).

...but the dog is bored
I also attended an interesting session on The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral presented by Jeff Guinn..  I've heard the corrected record on this famous "gunfight" before, but Guinn offered some insights into the principle players I hadn't heard before.  He also talked about his book on Bonnie and Clyde and the movie that might result..all in all, an interesting 45 minutes.

The highlight of the day, though, was the first session I attended, 45 minutes with author/columnist/commentator Juan Williams who spoke in detail of his firing by NPR almost exactly one year ago.  The incident, according to Williams, accounts for about ten percent of his new book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate.  During the Q&A following his remarks, Williams surprised me by revealing that his recent-college-graduate-son is a conservative Republican.  Juan is pretty far left of center, so that probably surprises him as much as it surprised me.

Nice day...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Texas Book Festival 2011 - Prep

I'm sitting in an Austin hotel room tonight making plans for the 2011 Texas Book Festival that will be held at the State Capitol this weekend.  I enjoyed a rather leisurely drive from Houston to Austin this afternoon, during which I explored some of the back roads between the two cities, and I'm really looking forward to the next two days.  I hope to be able to post some pictures and comments here tomorrow night but it will probably be next week before I can get into a whole lot of detail about the festival.

Already on my "do not miss" list are presentations and interviews with: Juan Williams (Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate), Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers), Kathy Reichs (Seizure: A Virals Novel), and Russell Banks (Lost Memory of Skin).  In addition, I've penciled in sessions on "What Really Happened at the O.K. Corral," "Writers on Reading," "Gangster Tour of Texas," and "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation."

 Something new at the Festival this year is the inclusion of what they are calling a Saturday night "Lit Crawl" from various East Austin venues.  I hope to make a couple of stops on that circuit, too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Selective Book Burning (Isn't It Always?) by U.S Soldier

Photo from Soldier's Tumblir Blog
You just never know.  Book burning by American soldiers in a war zone is something I never expected to read about, but it has apparently happened deep in the heart of Afghanistan.  I agree that sending so many copies of the same book to soldiers who would have much preferred to receive "food or soap," instead, was dumb.  I can even sympathize with the claim that the books were burned because they were taking up precious storage space in the camp and had to be destroyed for that reason. has the details and a link to the blog of one of the soldiers involved in the book burning.
It gets awfully cold in the Afghan desert at night, and American troops need to sometimes take desperate measures to stay warm. One smart soldier in Afghanistan has stumbled on a trick, however: Bill O’Reilly’s book makes some damn good kindling.
An US soldier stationed oversees took to his Tumblr blog to tell the Web that donations of Bill O’Reilly’s book “Pinheads and Patriots,” which servicemen received an entire box of, might not be the best gift for the guys and gals involved in American military operations in Afghanistan. I suppose it does make a thoughtful 10-year anniversary gift, though.
My cynicism about why the books were really burned was rewarded when I got to this quote from the unnamed book burner:
 “I won’t say I didn’t take pleasure in removing a few copies of this bigoted twerp’s writings from circulation, but the reason for doing so was military necessity.”
Photo from Soldier's Tumblir Blog
A visit to the soldier's blog confirmed that his political leanings are directly opposed to those of someone like O'Reilly.  No biggie, of course...just a shame that the guy is so hypocritical about his true motivation for burning these particular books.  Man-up, burned the books because you detest their content.  Just tell the truth.  Seeing that you are serving the country in such a dangerous war zone (for which I sincerely thank and applaud you), I would have expected more political courage from you - and a whole lot less whining about the inconvenience this box of books caused you guys.

Best of luck to you all.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding is a difficult novel to categorize.  Most obviously, as can be judged by its title, it is a baseball novel.  But it is also Chad Harbach’s debut novel.  And it is a gay novel…a literary novel…a coming-of-age novel. Logically, the next question about the book becomes: is it good at any of these things?  Well, considering that the novel is also one of 2011’s most-hyped books, I have to give a qualified yes as answer to the question of whether the novel is any good – qualified because, despite what it accomplishes, I do not believe that it lives up to all of the hype.

The novel focuses on several characters associated with Westish College, a tiny liberal arts school located in northern Wisconsin. Mike Schwartz is the baseball team’s catcher and acknowledged leader who stumbles upon a high school shortstop with great fielding skills and an uncanny work ethic.  Schwartz decides that this young man, one Henry Skrimshander, would be a perfect fit for Westish and manages to recruit him for the school.  Already on the team is Owen Dunne, a light-skinned black player who just happens to be Henry’s gay roommate. 

Westish is a strange little school, but many of those who pass through it form strong emotional bonds to the place.  Its president, Guert Affenlight, for instance, has given up a position at Harvard University in order to come back to Wisconsin to head his alma mater, and his daughter Pella will seek shelter there upon the breakup of her marriage. 

Chad Harbach
At the heart of the story is Henry’s run at a record setting number of errorless games at shortstop – a record currently owned by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez.  As the record setting game approaches, Henry begins to think too much about the streak and very suddenly develops a case of Steve Blass disease.  (Avid baseball fans will remember Blass as the Pittsburg Pirate pitcher that inexplicably lost his ability to throw a baseball accurately and, as a consequence, was forced to retire from the game.)  Henry’s personal unraveling coincides, and perhaps influences, a similar unraveling of the lives of those closest to him: Guert, Mike, Owen, and Pella.

Chad Harbach’s writing often reminds of the novels of John Irving.  Harbach’s love, and knowledge, of baseball is reminiscent of Irving’s relationship to college wrestling.  Both writers delight in strangely-named oddball characters, and both are willing to use whatever number of pages it takes to explore fully the story they want to tell (517 pages, in this case). Although The Art of Fielding works well, it does not manage to live up to the huge amount of pre-publication hype it generated.  Building the expectations of readers to an unreasonable level is a dangerous game – and The Art of Fielding suffers the consequences.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Being Lauren Myracle

For YA author Lauren Myracle, it has been a week of good news and bad news.  First came the good news: Shine, her novel about the bullying of gay kids, had been chosen as one of five finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.  Myracle, of course, was thrilled and knew exactly what being part of this short list would do for her reputation and books sales.

Then came the bad news.  Her nomination was all a big mistake.  The judges had actually nominated Frannie Billingsley's Chime - another one-word title that sounds a whole lot like "Shine."  One can imagine how crushed Myracle must have been when she got word that it was all one big mistake, but that is when things really got interesting.  The old nugget that politicians so often forget: - that "the cover-up" is more serious than the incident being covered up - is biting the National Book Foundation on the...uh...ankle.

The NPR Monkey See blog has the details:
If they wanted Myracle off the list, they had the option of withdrawing the nomination and saying, "We made an error, we still think it's a wonderful book and never would have made this mistake if we didn't consider it an entirely deserving choice, but we have to use the list our judges made, and we apologize." If they wanted to call it serendipity and essentially overrule their judges, they could have done that, too.
But asking her to withdraw — to solve the problem for them — when she had nothing to do with the creation of the problem in the first place seems a bit unfair. 
The NBF has tried to atone by donating $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation at Myracle's suggestion, because Shinedeals in part with gay kids. It has also apologized... 
Lauren Myracle

This has to have been traumatic for Lauren Myracle but I have to believe that all of the publicity associated with the blunder will bring more attention to Shine (and higher sales figures) than she would have dared imagine even two weeks ago.  Grin and bear it...all the way to the bank, Ms. Myracle.  Even your next title will likely benefit from the name recognition you will gain from this fiasco.  Congratulations.

Monday, October 17, 2011

This Book Will Save Your Life

The audio book version of This Book Will Save Your Life (by A.M. Homes) benefits from the fine reading given it by Scott Brick.  That Brick manages to give so many eccentric characters a distinctly recognizable tone of voice is, in fact, remarkable.  And, because these characters are the best thing the novel has going for it, Brick’s contribution is particularly important to one’s overall perception of the novel.

The book opens just as Richard Novak is suffering through a life-changing experience.  He is on the phone with a rather blasé 911 operator who insists on methodically interviewing him about the pain he his experiencing rather than taking his word that he needs immediate help.  The pain, so bad that Richard is even unsure precisely where he hurts, does ultimately land him in a Los Angeles emergency room.  The Richard Novak that emerges from that emergency room will not be the same man who entered it.

Prior to his painful reawakening, Richard was content with his life of relative ease and isolation.  He lived alone, working the stock market from his expensive home, totally dependent upon the services of a daily housekeeper/cook and personal trainer to keep him going.  The problem, as he sees it now, is that he is close to no one, including the teenage son he barely knows. 

A.M. Homes
Richard’s need to reconnect with humanity will lead him to a series of bizarre experiences involving those he encounters over the next few days.  Among Richard’s new intimates are: a Hollywood star who seems to need a new friend as badly as Richard; a young mother whose family completely takes her for granted; a cheerful donut-shop owner/philosopher; and the J.D. Salinger-type writer who happens to live next door to Richard’s Malibu beach house rental.  As he reaches out to help whatever strays he encounters along the way, Richard suffers through the turbulence of trying to reclaim a relationship with his son just when his house begins to slide into a hillside sinkhole.

This Book Will Save Your Life works well as a tongue-in-cheek satire of the modern California lifestyle.  Richard’s sincere attempt to change his life for the better makes him an easily likable character, as are many of the characters to whom he attaches himself.  My one quarrel with the book’s plot is the ambiguous ending that comes before the book resolves its most climactic scene.  I am not one who is amused by the task of creating his own ending for a novel, instead believing that to be the author’s job.  This Book Will Save Your Life had me right up to the book’s last page – where it lost my affection and caused me to lower its rating.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why Not Public Bookshelves?

Something is happening in Germany...something that I would love to see spread to this country. I understand what a poor world economy is doing to pretty much all of us. Money is tight for individuals and for government entities at all levels. But with all the money being printed and thrown at the problem, especially in this country, why not throw a few bucks at something that might actually raise the morale of those of us at the bottom of the food chain. How about some "public bookshelves," all based on the honor system, that anyone can use? According to the Washington Post, this is how they do it in Germany:
“This project is aimed at everyone who likes to read — without regard to age or education. It is open for everybody,” Michael Aubermann, one of the organizers of the free book exchange in the city of Cologne, told The Associated Press.
The western city’s latest public shelf, a €5,000 ($6,883) steel bookcase with acrylic glass doors, was put up two weeks ago next to Bayenturm, one of the city’s medieval towers. It is the fourth free shelf that Aubermann’s group, the Cologne Citizen’s Foundation, has placed outside; there are two more inside local Ikea outlets.
Each shelf holds around 200 books and it takes about six weeks for a complete turnover, with all the old titles replaced by new ones...
So far, the Cologne book group has had few problems with vandalism or other kinds of abuse, though a used-book seller once scooped up every volume on a shelf to sell at a flea market. Another time the shelves kept getting stacked with material from a religious group.
“We made sure to get rid of that stuff as quickly as possible,” Aubermann said. “Propaganda is the only kind of literature we do not allow here, whether it is right-wing, racist or proselytizing.”
The book cases are like small treasure chests with an eclectic mix of anything from fiction to obscure self-help, travel guides or crime novels.

Read the whole article over at the Post for more details and anecdotal color.  I suppose that vandalism and theft would be a constant threat but if it works in Germany (and Portugal), why not give it a shot here?  Pretty cool...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Black Boy

 My second reading of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, coming some 40 years after my first, was a much different experience than I expected it to be.  I probably should not have been surprised because I am not, of course, the same person I was four decades ago when I first read of Wright’s struggles to survive the Jim Crow South as a young black man with an “attitude problem.”  But, more importantly, the text I read in the late sixties did not include Wright’s complete manuscript.

The Library of America edition I read this time includes an additional six chapters (some 117 pages) under the subtitle “Part Two: The Horror and the Glory.”  In this section of the book, Wright describes his arrival in Chicago and his flirtation with the American Communist Party.  This new section of Wright’s autobiography does offer new insight into his life and politics but, frankly, it lessens the overall impact of Black Boy.  The book is much more powerful with its original open-ended final words than it is with the detailed revelations pertaining to the silliness and incompetence of Chicago’s Communist party.

“Part One: Southern Night,” particularly as it pertains to Wright’s early boyhood, is fascinating.   A portion of one paragraph on page 192, for instance, in which Wright addresses the ever-present tension he lived with, is unforgettable:        

            “I did not know when I would be thrown into a situation where I would say the wrong word to the wrong white man and find myself in trouble.  And, above all, I wanted to avoid trouble, for I feared that if I clashed with whites I would lose control of my emotions and spill out words that would be my sentence of death.  Time was not on my side and I had to make some move.”

Wright, an exceptionally bright child despite getting a slow start to any kind of formal education, had two strikes against him from the beginning.  Strike one was his geographic location – he grew up in the heart of Mississippi when Jim Crow was still king.  Strike two was that Wright was part of such a deeply conservatively religious extended family that he was not allowed to read much other than the Bible.  His maternal grandmother believed all fiction to be the devil’s work and severely punished Wright if he dared expose himself to it.

What Richard Wright accomplished despite these handicaps is striking.  Physical survival was not a given in the American South of those days for young black men as outspoken as Wright.  That he did survive, and that he accomplished as much as he did, is inspirational.  Black Boy deserves to be considered an American classic even in this complete version, but I believe that it is a better book as originally published.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Dominoes Are Falling

This YouTube video from Bookmans is almost exactly a year old, but it's new to me since I just stumbled upon it this afternoon while messing around there.  Take a look.  It's pretty cool, but I'd sure hate to be the one responsible for cleaning up the mess.

BookmansTV has posted about 90 of what appear to be book themed videos on YouTube. Here's another short example of the kind of stuff they do.. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Vault

In The Vault, Ruth Rendell introduces her longtime readers to a new world – one in which her beloved Inspector Wexford no longer has a policeman’s badge to flash.  Wexford, now officially retired, wants to experience the things his long career left him so little time to explore.  To that end, he and his wife are living on a London property belonging to their daughter, Sheila, from which Wexford plans to explore methodically all the London landmarks he has mostly only read about.

During one of his long walks on the London streets, Wexford, who already misses his connection to the police, happens upon Detective Superintendent Tom Ede.  The two had worked together for a short time when Ede was a young man, and Ede is still a bit in awe of Wexford’s crime-solving skills.  Based on his brief experience with Wexford, and involved in a bizarre murder investigation that is going nowhere, Ede is rather eager to hire Wexford as his personal adviser on the case.  Wexford, it turns out, is just as eager to accept the offer – despite there being no salary attached to the job.

Thus begins Wexford’s efforts to identify the four bodies found in an old coal cellar that can only be accessed via a manhole cover located smack in the middle of the driveway of a fashionable London home.  Wexford, despite his lack of authority and the waning support of D.S. Ede, doggedly moves from interview to interview even as the case begins to make less and less sense to him. 

The Vault reads like a traditional police procedural but, as Wexford eliminates one false lead after the other, the cast of suspects begins to blend together.  The investigation, as such, does not make for compelling reading because much of what Wexford learns about the crime is based on chance or leaps of faith that somehow connect odd clues together.  More interesting, to me at least, is the side plot involving his Kingsmarkham daughter, Sylvia, and her love affair gone bad.  Wexford reacts to this threat to his daughter’s safety as any parent would, and finds himself spending as much time in Kingsmarkham as he does in London.

The Vault will particularly appeal to Wexford fans wanting to see how the man eases his way into retirement, but it is probably not the best place to be introduced either to Rendell or to Wexford.  It should also be noted that The Vault is a sequel (of sorts) to A Sight for Sore Eyes but that it works equally well as a standalone Wexford mystery.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Driving to San Antonio

These last three days have gotten away from me to the point that this is the first chance I've had even to check in since last Friday.  My father was hospitalized until Sunday and all my free time has been spent on keeping an eye on that situation.  Thankfully, he is now back home where he will complete his recovery.  I will be in San Antonio all week (a four-hour drive from Houston) and I spent all morning getting myself here in time for afternoon meetings and a business dinner.  Instead of hitting the bar for another few hours I've decided to call it a night - it's all about pacing and endurance, after all.

On the way up, I finished listening to/reading This Book Will Save Your Life, by A.M. Homes, a literary novel I really enjoyed right up until its rather ambiguous ending.  Maybe its just me, but I absolutely hate endings that leave the main character in physical jeopardy right through the book's final sentence.  Why do I have to decide if the character lived or died?  What point is the author trying to make by ending a book this way?  Is it as pretentious a device as I always feel that it is?  Fair or not, I will be hard pressed to rate this one higher than a 3 when it had a very solid four right up to its last paragraph.

I also listened to a two-hour audio version of Stephen King's Ur, a 2009 King novella written for the exclusive use of Kindle owners.  While the thing does at times sound more like a Kindle commercial than a piece of fiction, I had a great time imagining what it would be like to actually own something like the special pink Kindle the story's young professor received.  That pink gizmo allows the prof to check out over 10 million alternate universes in which all the great writers in our world might very well have continued to write long after we thought they were dead.  Imagine any of your favorite authors, but especially those whose lifetime of work you finished reading long ago.  Now, imagine a device that gives access to dozens of new novels those same authors wrote in alternate universes - because they lived longer in those, or perhaps started writing earlier, etc.

What would you pay for that?  Could you resist doing nothing but reading for the rest of your life?  It's a great idea, and I wish that King had stayed with that one plot line.  Unfortunately, he didn't, and the rest of the story is a lot more humdrum and predictable.  Oh well; it was still a fun way to kill almost exactly half of my drive time to San Antonio.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Abandoned: House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home

A quick glance through it at the library a few days ago convinced me that House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home would be a wise choice for me.  After all, it is a memoir by a Southern writer who became a writer despite the obstacles thrown at him during his childhood.  I really enjoy reading memoirs, and I identify with Southern writers, so it seemed like a no-brainer of a choice.  Top it off with the revelation that the author's mother has a Cajun background - and I couldn't wait for it to work its way to the top of my TBR stack.

But I missed one little thing.  I see now that the book seems to be written entirely in the second person present tense.  It reads like something told by a mere observer of Mark Richard's life, not like something written by a man who is revealing the touching events of his own life.  I read the first ten pages of the book, all the time hoping that Richard would switch over to first tense as the book progressed and his narrator grew older, figuring that he was recounting events so early in his childhood that he only knew what was told to him by others about them.  As far as I can tell, however, the entire book is written this way.  By the end of page 10, I was so frustrated by the distraction of reading in second person present tense that I returned the book to the library on my way home from the office this afternoon.

I'm pretty sure there is an interesting, perhaps even a moving, story between the covers of House of Prayer.  Unfortunately, I am not going to experience it.  Has this kind of thing ever happened to any of you...something so distracting about a book that, despite really wanting to read it, you just toss it aside?