Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Christopher Hitchens was a remarkable and fearless man who remained true to himself and his beliefs right up until the moment that esophageal cancer claimed his life in December 2011.  Admittedly, Hitchens was a man of excesses, and his lifestyle largely contributed to his death at the relatively young age of sixty-two.  But it is unlikely that he gave much thought to the destructiveness of such a lifestyle until the 2010 book tour during which he was suddenly hospitalized because of the agonizing pain he experienced around his chest and thorax.  Eighteen months later, Hitchens would be dead, but he spent much of his remaining time writing about his personal journey through what he called “Tumorville.”   That work is captured in Mortality, the little 104-page memoir on dying he left behind.

Christopher Hitchens was, of course, not a man without enemies – thousands of them – and, early in his struggle to rid himself of the tumor that killed him, he became aware that “some who have long wished me ill” were rooting for the “blind, emotionless alien” of a tumor that was killing him.  If he had not been so outspoken about his atheism and disillusionment with liberal politics, it is likely that far fewer would have openly gloated about his illness.  But if the effectiveness of a man’s arguments can be measured by the number of his enemies, Christopher Hitchens was an extremely effective debater.  The man knew he had enemies – and he loved it.

I do suspect that admirers of Christopher Hitchens will have already read some of what is in Mortality because portions of the book were published previously as Vanity Fair magazine essays.  Although this might disappoint some readers, keep in mind that the observations Hitchens makes about living with cancer, enduring months of chemotherapy, and the specific “etiquette” of the disease are so frankly presented that they remain as powerful on subsequent readings as they are on the first.  Note also, that capturing the essays in one volume this way makes it easier to keep them together for re-reading.

Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens was well aware that many people were wondering whether he would turn to religion before his death.  He even stumbled upon a “Place Bets” video inviting people to bet on whether he would “repudiate (his) atheism and embrace religion by a certain date or continue to affirm unbelief and take the hellish consequences.”  While he generally found this kind of thing to be more amusing than annoying, Hitchens offers a rather poignant thought about all those prayers supposedly being said on his behalf:

            “Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute?  I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice.  Meanwhile, the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe.  I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes (the official “Everybody Pray for Hitchens” day), please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries.  Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”

Pure Hitchens…all the way to the end.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Doh! I Really Want My Book Back!

photo provided by Valparaiso Police Dept.
There are two possibilities, I suppose.  Either someone included the wrong book in a batch donated to Indiana's Porter County Library system and hasn't noticed the mistake yet, or someone died before telling his heirs what was hidden inside the book.  According to Valpo, sorters at one branch of the library system were a bit shocked to find a gun hidden inside the hollowed-out book shown above:
The book, which carries the title "Outerbridge Reach," was hollowed out and contained a historic-looking handgun, according to Valparaiso police.
"Somebody just opened it up and said, 'Oh my,' " said Assistant Library Director Phyllis Nelson.
The weapon was described by police as a gold, wooden handle, A.S.M. brand, .31-caliber, single shot, black powder gun.
Local police determined that the gun was not a stolen one, but librarians say they have no way of determining who inadvertently donated the little pistol.  Perhaps strangest of all, this is not the first time something like this has happened to the county library - librarians there found a pistol hidden in a donated book about twelve years ago. 

Just goes to show that anything can happen in a place as wild as a public library...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Moby-Dick Big Read,Chapters 26-32

Laura Ford illustration of Chapter 26
Melville uses chapters 25 and 26 to introduce readers to other key members of the Pequod crew and to applaud the qualities of the working class.  As George Cotkin points out in Dive Deeper, Melville also makes clear his allegiance to the Democratic Party of his day by heaping praise on President Andrew Jackson.  Both chapters are entitled "Knights and Squires."  (See illustration to the left.)

Captain Ahab finally makes an appearance in Chapter 28, a chapter appropriately titled "Ahab."  Ishmael has grown more and more apprehensive in anticipation of finally meeting the captain, but the man has remained in his cabin so long that Ishmael no longer expects to find him on deck at the beginning of each new day.  For that reason, he is very startled one morning actually to find the man himself standing there:
 " soon as I leveled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me.  Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck."
The chapter is particularly well read by Anthony Wall, whom I believe to be an award-winning BBC producer.  Good readers make all the difference.  I find myself becoming irritated with those who read the words as if they deserve no emotional input from the reader, and by those readers who continually flub their lines by skipping words or reading them out of order.  The good readers, however, are a joy.

 Then in Chapter 29, "Enter Ahab, to Him Stubb," as Ahab hurls personal insults at one of his officers, it becomes clearer what the captain's state-of-mind is as the voyage begins.  In explaining Ahab's tendency to pace the decks in the wee hours of the morning, Melville makes an observation that shows how little the sleeping habits of old men have changed in the last 150 years, "Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death."  I can attest to the truth of that one.

Chapter 30, "The Pipe," sees Ahab toss his beloved pipe overboard as he dedicates himself exclusively to the task at hand: taking his revenge on the white whale that snatched his leg from him.  Anything that distracts him from that task by giving him pleasure or by soothing him has to go.

Chapter 31 is a rather strange chapter during which Stubb shows how dismayed he still is by his confrontation of Ahab by describing a disturbing dream he had following their run-in.

And, finally, Chapter 32, "Cetology," is a long one in which Melville discusses every type of whale likely, or unlikely, to be encountered during the voyage.   The narrator displays a good understanding of the various classes and families of whale as known at the time, but comes down hard on the side of those who consider the whale to be a fish, not a mammal. The length of the chapter could make for a rather tedious reading experience, but Big Read reader Martin Attrill makes quick work of it while managing to keep it all interesting.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

That's Not a Feeling

Because so many first-novels are coming-of-age tales, it is no great surprise that Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling follows the pattern. No, the real surprise here is how good this book is for a first effort. Within the confines of a boarding school for troubled teens called Roaring Orchards, the author creates a unique little world that is as appalling as it is funny – and he makes it all seem very real.

Although only those being completely honest with themselves would admit it, Roaring Orchards is a place for desperate parents to park children with whom they can no longer cope. Some of the teens are suicidal, some are borderline criminals, some are former addicts, and a few are simply incapable of coping with everyday life. Roaring Orchards represents the last chance their parents have to save them – and to reclaim a normal life for themselves. That Aubrey, the school’s headmaster, strictly limits contact between parents and children makes it that much easier for parents to rationalize the relief resulting from their children’s absence.

Benjamin, who has already tried to kill himself twice, agreed to tour the boarding school with his parents only because it “calms them down.” By the time he realizes that his is a one-way ticket, Benjamin’s parents are long gone. He does not want to be there, and he lets everyone know about it. But until he can figure out the system, he is going to have to take it one precarious day at a time.

Dan Josefson
Aubrey uses an inflexible set of rules – bordering on rituals - to keep his Roaring Orchards students in line. The students, ranging in age from 14 to 16, are divided into three groups, or “dorms,” with distinctive sets of privileges and obligations for each group. At the top of the hierarchy are “Normal Boys and Girls,” followed by “Alternative Boys and Girls,” and “New Girls and Boys.” “Normal Kids” have the run of the school and the headmaster grants them a status almost equal to that of his teachers. “New Kids,” the group with zero privileges and special work obligations, is where everyone begins his stay at Roaring Orchards – although for some it is a revolving door of a dorm they never seem to escape for long. Consequently, “Alternative Kids” are very much aware that they are always one slip-up away from returning to the “New Kids” dorm.

This is not a happy place for anyone but Aubrey. Teachers are as unhappy as their students, the main difference being that teachers can escape (as they regularly do) by quitting the school, while students are limited to desperate prison break runs that never gain them freedom for long.

Immensely observant and insightful, Benjamin is also quite the chronicler and That’s Not a Feeling is a wild ride – sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, always unforgettable.

 (Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Beatles and Bluegrass

Music is as big a constant in my life as my love of books and reading.  Never does a day go by that I don't spend hours listening to music from the collection stored on my computers, iPad, iPod, and that nebulous "cloud" up there somewhere.  I grew up on sixties rock, soul, and country and was lucky enough to have parents who bought four or five new singles every week (some of which I still have around here), so I was exposed to the hits on a regular basis.

 Although I spend more time with bluegrass than any other single genre these days, I find myself longing to hear the deep catalogs (not just the signature songs) of some of my old favorites from the sixties more and more.  So, imagine my surprise last weekend when one of the bluegrass bands at the Bloomin' Bluegrass Festival was a band specializing in Beatles songs.  Now, further imagine my surprise at how good the blend sounded...Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Bluegrass Band...

(Video I shot in Farmers Branch, TX, on Saturday, October 20)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mr. Churchill's Profession

Peter Clarke’s new Winston Churchill biography, Mr. Churchill’s Profession, focuses on a less often explored side of the man who will always be best remembered for his defiance of Adolph Hitler during World War II.  This is a book, as the subtitle clearly states, about “the statesman as author.” Not having much considered this aspect of the great political figure’s life before, I was pleased by how revealing a portrait of the man such a focus makes possible.

Winston Churchill became a published author in 1898 and, for the rest of his life, the bulk of his income would be provided by his writing – not by the political offices to which he was elected.  Even as a young army officer, Churchill considered himself as much writer as soldier, and used family influence to attach himself to several military campaigns as a war correspondent.  The money he earned from newspapers and from repackaging the articles into books allowed Churchill and his widowed mother to maintain a lifestyle that would otherwise have been impossible after his father’s death.

Churchill’s parents enjoyed a lifestyle that always seemed just barely – if never completely - within their means of paying for it.  Randolph Churchill placed his own personal pleasure above any obligation another father might feel for educating his sons for the future.  So, in lieu of spending money on a better education, Randolph steered his son toward a military career and left it up to Winston to educate himself as best he could.  Unfortunately, although Winston did do a remarkable job of educating himself, he also inherited the spendthrift ways of his parents.

Peter Clarke
Randolph Churchill died still a young man and, after Winston’s mother largely ran through the remainder of the family fortune, he relied upon his writing income to support them until his mother remarried.  But an income tax loophole and his need to publish as often as possible combined to put Churchill on a writing-treadmill that he would spend his lifetime trying to dismount.  The tax code allowed taxes on book advances (which were extraordinarily large in many cases) to be deferred for three years, with one-third of the resulting tax obligation payable in each of the three years following receipt of the cash.

Churchill, barely making ends meet as it was, depended on advances for future books to pay the taxes on those already written.  This trap would keep him writing at full speed for the rest of his life in order to keep himself one year ahead of the tax man.  The speed at which he had to write frustrated Churchill’s publishers, impacted the quality of his work, and changed his writing habits. 

The “book that defined the ‘special relationship” between Britain and the United States is, of course, Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples.  Churchill originally contracted for the book in 1932, but the rise of Hitler, Churchill’s duties as Prime Minister during World War II, and financial pressure to write other books first, meant that the four volumes would not be finished until the 1950s.  The special relationship defined and explored in A History, although weaker now than at anytime in the last several decades, has lasted through a long succession of prime ministers and presidents.

Mr. Churchill’s Profession has succeeded in showing a side of Winston Churchill not usually explored in a Churchill biography.  It is a worthy edition to the Churchill story and a book that amateur historians will want to read.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Trailer of the Week - "Dancers Among Us"

Photos are more impressive today than ever before - but they are also so easily faked that I am seldom all that impressed.  Rather, I start as a photo-skeptic and, unless I can find proof that a spectacular photo is not faked, I discount its value.

That's why the book trailer for Dancers Among Us is so much fun.  The trailer shows exactly how some very interesting photos were posed and that they are both spectacular and legitimate.  Dancers and fans of dance will love this one.

  Take a look:

Based on what I see here, the book certainly looks like fun.

13th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase (it's been two weeks this time around).

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Investigation of Ariel Warning

There is something very strange about Ariel Warning’s behavior and Adam Remler is determined to find out what it is because Ariel is Adam’s on-again, off-again mistress and her erratic behavior is starting to make him very nervous.  But, worst of all, Ariel is also romantically involved with Adam’s identical twin, and is urging Adam to confess their affair to his brother.  If he refuses, she threatens to do it herself.

The Investigation of Ariel Warning may be a mystery involving a long, painstaking investigation, but it is also a book about the intensely, unique relationship shared by identical twins.  Everything in the lives of the Remlers begins with the fact that each has an identical, someone who knows them as well as they know themselves, a permanent backup and support system.   However, even for identical twins, their relationship is a strange one.  The two see each other every day, check in and out with each other when leaving their apartments, are both writers, and they share a production company.  One often knows what the other is thinking, and they literally share each other’s pain.     

Robert and Rich Kalich
Now, production assistant Ariel Warning is driving a wedge between the identicals, and neither brother is emotionally capable of doing anything to stop her.  Following one slim lead after the next (a few of Adam’s intuitive leaps forward do require a certain level of suspended disbelief on the part of the reader) Adam travels across the country in search of Ariel’s story.  What he learns about her past is disturbing enough to make him fear for his brother’s safety.  Suddenly, the investigation becomes a race against the clock.

The Investigation of Ariel Warning is Robert Kalich’s debut novel and, as the clichĂ© about first-novels observes, Kalich “writes what he knows.”  Rather eerily, Robert Kalich has an identical twin brother of his own, both men are writers, and they jointly own and run a New York City film production company.  For their sakes, I hope there is no Ariel Warning equivalent in their past.

This one is very much a novel of the mind.  It is about emotional trauma, special relationships, temptation, sexual tension, and the overwhelming fear that one can end up all alone in the world – that even the strongest personal relationships can be destroyed.  I should note, too, that those familiar with Shakespeare’s The Tempest will solve the mystery of Ariel Warning a lot sooner than those who are not.

I found the novel’s pace to be a little creaky at times, but The Investigation of Ariel Warning has a lot going for it and is an impressive debut novel.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Traveling McCourys, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and The Gibson Brothers

I have a lot to do before I leave for Farmers Branch (near Dallas) in the morning for a really great two-day bluegrass music festival, but I want to give a little taste of the kind of music I will be enjoying up there.

This first group calls themselves The Traveling McCourys because they are essentially Del McCoury's band, and two of the members - including lead vocalist Ronnie McCoury - are his sons.  In this video the guys are performing one of my favorite Del McCoury songs, "A Deeper Shade of Blue."  Ronnie sounds so much like his father that it's kind of eerie, sometimes.

Even Rhonda Vincent, the Queen of Bluegrass, is on the bill.  Here's Rhonda and the Rage performing one of her signature songs, "All American Bluegrass Girl."

And, finally, here's a taste of The Gibson Brothers with "Walkin' West to Memphis."

I have some light packing to do and need to charge all kinds of batteries for my sound recorder, video camera, and two still cameras. The weather should be great, with lots of sunshine and relatively cool temperatures.  I. Cannot. Wait.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You

Joyce Carol Oates books generally focus on the vulnerability of women and what can happen to them when they least expect it, especially if they wander into situations or places they are physically or emotionally unprepared to handle.  Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You, the author’s latest Young Adult novel (said to be appropriate for readers 14 and up), is a cautionary reminder that women first enter this danger zone as girls – when peer pressure and a desire to “fit in” make them especially easy targets.

The novel is divided into three interconnected sections.  The first part focuses on Merissa, a Quaker Heights Day School senior who is on a roll.  She is, in fact, doing so well that her friends have taken to calling her “The Perfect One.”  Merissa seems to prove their point when, two weeks before Christmas, she learns that she is the only one of her classmates to have snagged an early admission to Brown University, one of the schools most prized by her peers and teachers.

The second section of the book is a flashback to the previous year when Tink, a former child actress, made her debut at Quaker Heights Day School.  Tink has a mind of her own – and no friends until the day Merissa and her group ask Tink to join them at their lunch table.  Soon, mostly because of her independence and seeming indifference to what others think of her, Tink earns the school’s respect and her new friends have taken to calling themselves Tink, Inc.  Then, almost as if to spite her soap opera actress mother, Tink kills herself.

Part three of Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You concerns Nadia, another member of Tink, Inc.  Nadia, during one night of drunken partying seems to have done some things she is probably lucky not to be able to remember.  Now, having been labeled a school slut for the remainder of her senior year, she is being cyber-bullied and harassed in the school hallways by friends of the boy she believed would keep their secret.

Tink may be gone, but her friends still call upon her for advice and claim to feel her presence when they most need her reassurance.  Because of their “what would Tink do” approach to life, Tink still “speaks” to them and helps them through their worst days.  Merissa, seeking relief from the intense pressure to excel, cuts herself and considers suicide.  The level of social isolation and ridicule Nadia experiences proves to be more than she can handle alone.  Thankfully, Tink is there to help.

Middle and High School girls will easily identify with the characters and situations of Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You.  If they have not lived through similar situations, they almost certainly know of someone who has.  The novel, perhaps because of the age of its target audience, does have a more optimistic ending than that of most Joyce Carol Oates novels.  The relative ease with which the girls seem to pull their lives back together might seem unrealistic to adult readers – but Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You was not written for us.  Its message of caution, hope and optimism is one that young women need to hear.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 20-25

Chapter 24 illustration (untitled) by Ann Hamilton (2002)
Chapters 20-22, "All Astir," "Going Aboard," and "Christmas Day," respectively, finally see Ishmael and Queequeg on the open sea as they begin what they hope will be a successful three-year whaling adventure.  Everything required for the journey is now on board the ship, having been topped off by the little extras personally carried aboard by Captain Bildad's sister, known as Aunt Charity.  Charity owns a share of the ship and its profits and has more than "charity" in mind.  She wants this voyage to be a successful one as much as Ahab and his crew want it.  And so, on a cold and icy Christmas day, the voyage has finally begun.

George Cotkin notes in Dive Deeper that Bulkington, a respected whaler first encountered by Ishmael at the Spouter Inn,  has Chapter 23, "The Lee Shore," to himself.  Admittedly, this is a very short chapter, but because it is the last mention in the book of Bulkington, scholars believe that Melville must have had bigger plans for the character at some stage of plotting Moby-Dick.  Some, in fact, believe that he was to be the book's central character before Melville decided to place Captain Ahab in that role.

Fiona Shaw
Chapters 24 and 25 ("The Advocate" and "Postscript") are interesting because of the spirited defense that Ishmael offers of the history of whaling and the good character of those who pursue that occupation.  Cotkin uses his own notes to these chapters to share history of a different nature: that of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham whose most famous drum solo is part of a song titled "Moby Dick."  As Cotkin says, "Alas, neither Ahab nor Bonham was able to vanquish the demons that haunted them."  I am learning quickly that Dive Deeper is full of such surprises - and not at all the dry read one might, at first glance, expect.

My favorite reader from this group of chapters (and it is a close call because this is an outstanding group) is Irish actress and stage director Fiona Shaw who reads Chapter 25.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writing Crime Fiction

Believe me, I am under no illusion that I will ever become a crime fiction writer.  I have, however, been reading steadily enough from the genre since the mid-sixties that I feel a certain kinship to those who do write it.  And, because I also have a weakness for books about writing, especially those written in a memoir-like style, Writing Crime Fiction was a natural choice for me.

Twelve different writers, all of them members of the Top Suspense Group, contribute a chapter to Writing Crime Fiction.  That the chapters are as different in tone and topic as the writers themselves makes for some interesting reading.  Want to learn more about the pros and cons (from a writer’s perspective) of the “indie revolution” that is impacting publishing today?  Joel Goodman has a whole chapter on the topic, including detailed tips on self-publishing and marketing your work.

Stephen Gallagher’s “Craft Notes” chapter gets into some of the specifics of constructing a crime story but is particularly interesting to non-writers in that it also addresses things like “writer’s block” and how to deal with critics.  Gallagher’s number one rule is: “Never reply to a critic.”  He adds:

            “Criticism is not wise advice to the artist; it’s a dialogue between the reviewer and the public.  Your relationship to it is that of an eavesdropper…and eavesdroppers who listen in hope of hearing something good about themselves almost invariably find disappointment.”

Wannabe mystery writers will find in Writing Crime Fiction what they need to accomplish their goal.  Lee Goldberg’s “Double Take” chapter and Libby Hellmann’s chapter entitled “Jack Bauer and Me: Building Suspense” offer detailed insights into the construction of a crime novel.  Goldberg discusses in detail the bones that hold crime novels together, the frame upon which all good crime fiction is carefully built, while Hellmann takes a similar approach to the sub-genre of “suspense” novels. 

There are chapters on “Finishing the First Novel” (a particularly helpful chapter), script writing and dealing with Hollywood, writing sex scenes, writing about amateur detectives, combining crime and historical fiction, writing “zombie fiction,” and one in which Bill Crider discusses the “secret” to getting published.  As it turns out, Crider has ten secrets to offer, the final one being: “There are no secrets.”

What is perhaps my favorite chapter in Writing Crime Fiction is Dave Zeltserman’s “On Writing Noir.”  Noir fiction is a particular love of mine but, try as I might, I can never explain the definition of “noir” to my own satisfaction – much less make anyone else understand the term.  Between the Otto Penzler definition quoted in the chapter and Zelserman’s refinement of Penzler, I think I finally get it – my instincts about the term were good, but I finally understand why.

The real beauty of Writing Crime Fiction, I think, is that it offers something for all of us, writer and reader alike.  If you want to try your hand at writing a crime novel, this is the book for you.  If you want to better understand why you love crime fiction so much – and how it all comes together - here are the answers.  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)