Saturday, March 30, 2013

Notable Nonfiction: First Quarter 2013

I don't have ten nonfiction titles that I feel good about recommending as the first quarter of 2013 ends, but these five, I think, are worth your consideration:

1.  The Spark - Kristine Barnett  (Story of an autistic little boy whose IQ is higher than Einstein's) 
 2.  Mr. Lincoln's Battle with God - Stephen Mansfield  (This is not your father's Abe Lincoln)
3.  Butterfly in the Typewriter - Cory MacLauchlin  (Revealing John Kennedy Toole biography)
4.  Celebrating Pride and Prejudice - Susannah Fullerton  (Everything you wanted to know about the best loved novel ever written)
5.  Good Prose - Tracy Kidder, Richard Todd  (Part memoir, part writing manual co-authored by Kidder and his longtime editor)
I have high hopes for three or four other nonfiction titles that will reach the top of my TBR stack soon, but you can't go wrong with any of these.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Fiction Top Ten - First Quarter 2013

Hard as it is to believe, we are already one-quarter of the way through 2013, meaning that it's time for my first Top Ten update of the year.  Even though my choices are limited to books published between October 1, 2012 and today, this first list is filled with great reads.

Fiction Top Ten
First Quarter 2013

1.  The Dinner - Herman Koch  (Dutch novel proving that boys will be boys - and so will their parents)
2.  A Possible Life - Sebastian Faulks  (We are, all of us, connected to those who come before and after us.)
3.  The Heat of the Sun - David Rain  (Madam Butterfly: The Rest of the Story)
4.  Dear Life Alice Munro  (Chance encounters and spur-of-the-moment decisions change lives.)

5.  Tenth of December - George Saunders  (NY Times calls this "best book you will read in 2013."  See for yourself.)
6.  The Accursed - Joyce Carol Oates  (Demons, Presidents, and fair maidens seduced)
7.  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan  (A mysterious bookstore with almost no customers hires a new night manager)
8.  The Sound of Broken Glass - Deborah Crombie  (Scotland Yard detectives juggle home and work duties via role reversal)
9.  Truth in Advertising - John Kenney  (A midlife crisis involving diapers and the Super Bowl forces one ad exec to finally come-of-age)
10. Hit Me Lawrence Block  (Block's lovable hit man is back with a vengeance.  He needs to pay for new stamps for his collection.)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Yankee Miracles

I cannot remember a time I was not a baseball fan – and as a kid growing up in a small town in the ‘60s that meant I was a Yankee fan.  No other team was on television as much or got as much national press coverage.  Those were the days of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Tony Kubek, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Bobby Richardson, etc. – a classic Yankee lineup.  Although my keenest interest in the team would only last another decade or so, I could never resist keeping up with all the drama associated with a George Steinbrenner team. 

As it turns out, a guy I never heard of, Ray Negron, had a front row seat to all that drama all his own – right in the dugout.  Negron’s story is an inspirational one, one that he shares with the rest of us in a book he has co-written with Sally Cook called Yankee Miracles (Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers).  His story can be characterized as a fairy tale with a very unexpected “fairy godmother” by the name of George Steinbrenner.  Who would have thought Steinbrenner had a heart?  Not me, I confess, but something was going on here.

Steinbrenner and one of his security people caught the then 17-year-old Negron spray-painting graffiti on Yankee Stadium one day.  Abandoned by his quicker cousins, all of whom managed to escape, Ray Negron had no idea that the man holding tightly to his arm was about to change his life forever.  But, after throwing a real scare into the teen by letting him stew for a while in a holding cell inside the stadium, that is exactly what Steinbrenner did.

Instead of immediately filing charges against him, Steinbrenner offered Ray the chance to work in the Yankee clubhouse until he had worked off the damages he owed the team.  Ray jumped at the job for two reasons: one, to stay out of jail and, two, because he was an avid Yankee fan (something Steinbrenner didn’t know).  The next time Ray saw his quickstepping cousins, they would be in the stands (after sneaking inside the stadium again) and he would be walking the field among his heroes.

Ray Negron
Yankee Miracles is about the “Yankee miracle” that Ray Negron personally experienced; it is the story of his chance encounter with a notoriously egocentric man who stepped out of character long enough to save a boy’s future.  Ray Negron would go on to make baseball his career, most of it as a member of the New York Yankee organization, a life that a young boy headed toward big trouble the way he was could have never otherwise achieved.

Along the way, Negron and Cook tell of the close friendships between Ray and some of the most famous, and infamous, players ever to call the Yankee clubhouse home: Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Dwight Gooden, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter, among them.  Do keep in mind that Ray Negron is a Yankee-lifer and that he tends to see the Yankees a bit through rose-colored glasses.  However, despite the feeling that much of what he reveals about his years with the Yankees is sugarcoated, Yankee Miracles will definitely appeal to readers who miss the likes of Mantle, Munson, Maris, and Martin.  They don’t make them like those guys anymore.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Saturday Night in South Louisiana

Gino Delafose
Just time tonight to post a video I shot over the weekend in Louisiana at the Crawfish Etouffee Cook-Off.  This one features one of the better known bands in that region right now, Gino Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie.  Gino, at 41 years of age, is one of the newer generation of Zydeco and Cajun music performers in the state.

The weekend was a successful one, with (unfortunately) more crawfish-eating than reading going on.  I think I gained three pounds in two days.

By the way, there is some pretty nifty dancing beginning about the 2 minute, 50 second mark.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Truth in Advertising

Although most people would tell you that they are too smart to be fooled by advertising, the truth is that it works - and that it works on even those who claim otherwise.  But, despite its effectiveness, we still like to laugh at the whole advertising industry and those who spend their lives “lying” to the rest of us about products we can easily live without.  John Kenney’s debut novel, Truth in Advertising, gives readers a chance to do exactly that.  Truth in Advertising, however, is a novel with a serious message.  That the message is cloaked in dark, often laugh-out-loud, humor is just a bonus. 

Whether he realizes it or not, Finbar Dolan is caught up in his own version of a mid-life crisis.  He is about to turn 40, has just backed out of his impending wedding, does not have to use all the fingers of one hand to count his friends, and feels like he is pretty much just wasting his life.  He has carved out a mediocre career for himself at a Madison Avenue ad agency but no longer really believes in what he does.  Then, Fin and his three siblings, none of whom he even speaks to anymore, must decide how to handle the impending death of their long estranged father.  When he learns that none of them intend to see their father before he dies, Fin realizes he is on his own.

Truth in Advertising is a story about second chances – as opposed to “second acts.”  Fin Dunbar will come to believe that, “Every day we get a fresh chance to live the way we want.”  He learns, the hard way, that the choice is his, but that realization is a long way from where he bottoms out:

John Kenney
         “It will change.  All of it.  Imperceptibly at first.  Then irrevocably.  Thirty comes.  Thirty-five surprises you.  The prospect of forty stuns you.  Once the money was a wonderful surprise.  Now it is not enough.  A restlessness creeps in.  A wanting of something you cannot quite put your finger on.  Stories of others people’s lives fascinate you.  The idea of many things – a career change, a sabbatical, graduate school, a tattoo – seems interesting but you never do any of them.”

Whether you call it a “second chance” or a “second act,” Fin Dunbar is finally ready to make more of the second half of his life than he made of its first.  If it is really possible for a person to come-of-age at 40 (you decide), John Kenney has written one of the funniest coming of age novels that I have read in a while.  But, call it what you will, Truth in Advertising is an admirable debut novel.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Crawfish and Thieves of Book Row

I'm feeling a bit better today (my allergy to tree pollen has had me feeling bad for almost two weeks) so it looks like I'll be spending most of the weekend in Southwest Louisiana eating crawfish and listening to Cajun dance bands.  

I've just downloaded an upcoming book from Oxford University Press called Thieves of Book Row (June release) for my downtime, so I'll have that along with me for the late night downtime when, as usual in a hotel room, I won't be able to get to sleep.  So I'm covered that way, too.  Now, if I can get my video camera functioning correctly again - I tried to get fancy and ended up instead fouling up the settings some way - I plan to post some music to YouTube to give you guys a taste of what an authentic Cajun band sounds like.  

In the meantime, here's something from one of my favorite Cajun  bands, Lost Bayou Ramblers, proving that young musicians are keeping the music alive by merging it with more mainstream rock sounds.  I still love the traditional Cajun music sound, but this is a pretty exciting evolution of the trad sound:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen struggled to get Pride and Prejudice finally into print.  Finding a publisher was not easy (she even considered self-publishing), but she did not give up.  During the years the manuscript sat on her shelf, she reworked it and changed its title from First Impressions to the even more plot-descriptive Pride and Prejudice.  Now, 200 years later, that novel is still one of the best known, and best loved, books in the world.  

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live with their five daughters in Longbourn, a Hertfordshire town in which nothing is more important to young ladies and their mothers than making the right match.  A man with a fixed annual income is a must, but even better is a handsome man with an annual income.  And the highly competitive (if a bit scatterbrained) Mrs. Bennet is ready to start marrying off her daughters.  This is, in fact, to her husband’s dismay, all the woman thinks about. 

However, the Bennet girls, beautiful as most of them are, face some stiff competition in their little town, and when a military troop makes temporary headquarters there, the game is on.  But it is when two wealthy young men take up temporary quarters in one of the county’s most spectacular homes and, at the same time, a foolish young preacher comes courting the girls that the fun really begins.

Pride and Prejudice, considering its age, is remarkably easy for today’s readers to read and enjoy.  Austen’s witty dialogue and her writing style work as well today as when the book was first published, ensuring that the novel will continue to entertain readers for many generations to come.  It does not hurt, too, that Elizabeth Bennet, the second of the Bennet daughters - and Austen’s personal favorite of all her heroines - is one of literature’s most memorable characters.  Elizabeth, though, is surrounded and supported by a whole cast of characters that interact perfectly to make Pride and Prejudice the very special book that it is. 
There are the wealthy (Misters Bingley and Darcy and their sisters), the super-wealthy (Lady Catherine), the foolish (Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet, in particular), a scoundrel (Mr. Wickham), the rest of the Bennet sisters and their long-suffering father, and a town filled with friends and rivals.

New readers are likely to be surprised by how much fun Pride and Prejudice is, but this is precisely the reason so many re-read it on a regular basis.  Jane Austen wrote romantic comedy before there was such a thing.  She was way ahead of her time stylistically, especially when it comes to dialogue, and it all comes together beautifully in Pride and Prejudice.  This one is not to be missed.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oxford University Librarian Sacked Over Harlem Shake

Frankly, I don't get the Harlem Shake craze and haven't paid much attention to it, but the so-called dance seems to have cost one librarian her job.

According to USA Today, part-time librarian Calypso Nash has been sacked by Oxford University for allowing a group of students to perform the "dance" in a university library.  Students are, of course, protesting the sacking and are asking that the post-graduate student be given back her job.

All for this:

Hardly seems worth it...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

License to Pawn

 There are fewer less-likely television stars than the Harrison family (known to their fans simply as Rick, “The Old Man,” and “Big Hoss”) and Austin Russell (the loveable walrus-shaped guy everyone knows as “Chumlee”).  But that is exactly what they are these days, and their television show, Pawn Stars, is the main reason that The History Channel is thriving to such a degree today.  Now Rick Harrison, who first conceived and nursed the idea of a pawnshop-based television show years ago, has co-authored a book telling how it all happened.  That the history of the Harrison family is not always pretty only makes the level of their success even more remarkable.  Rick, with a little help from his three co-stars, tells us all about it in License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and My Life at the Gold & Silver.

The Old Man, it seems, was a hustler from the beginning, always on the lookout, even during his navy days, for ways to bring a few extra bucks home to his family.  The family, after the San Diego housing market crash crushed its real estate business, moved to Las Vegas where the elder Harrison opened a “gold and silver shop.”  Rick, largely a self-educated man, suffered from epilepsy as a teen and was a serious drug abuser.  Corey (Big Hoss) one-upped his father when it came to drug addiction, and he is lucky to be alive.  Even Chumlee was heavily involved with drugs at one time – but he wised up long before Corey did.  Although Rick tells most of the story, his father, son, and Chumlee each get a chapter of their own to personalize their individual experiences.  And, in frank detail, that is exactly what they do.

Pawn Stars Cast
Perhaps most interesting are Rick’s accounts of how the business and the television show actually work.  He includes numerous stories reminiscent of the show about some of the most interesting customers and deals that he has seen over the years.  Pawn Stars fans will certainly enjoy the stories but might be surprised to learn how much things have changed for the guys since the show became such a hit.  (Hint: huge crowds, combined with limited floor space, do cause problems.)

Like so many first-person narratives of this type, License to Pawn has more the feel of a transcribed and edited tape recording than of a written narrative.  But, as is often the case, the style works perfectly for those whose voices and deliveries are as familiar to readers as those belonging to the Pawn Stars cast.  No, this is not great literature, but is fun - especially for fans unlikely ever to get any closer to the Gold and Silver than the pages of this book.