Thursday, May 30, 2013

After Visiting Friends

Michael Hainey was barely six years old when his 35-year-old father was found dead on a deserted Chicago street. Consequently, most of what Hainey knows about his father came to him second-hand via stories and "facts" delivered by his mother, older brother, other relatives, and friends of his father.

Bob Hainey, Michael's father, truly was the stereotypical Hollywood version of a big city newspaperman. Hard drinking, chain smoking, regularly working to the early hours of the morning, he was as likely as not to end his work day at a private party hosted by a co-worker or some obscure friend-of-a-friend. Michael's mother, if she was unhappy about her marriage, hid it from her two sons. And, when her husband was suddenly snatched from her, it was up to her, and only her, to hold the family together. Despite this, Barbara Hainey avoided talking about what happened on the night her husband died for most of her life.

The Hainey men are drawn to, and have a distinct talent for, the world of newspaper journalism. Michael's Uncle Dick was the first in the family to make his mark at a Chicago newspaper and he was instrumental in giving Bob his start in the business. Now, years later, Michael has followed his father and uncle into the family business. And now he wants to know exactly how is father died - and why - something no one is very anxious to help him figure out.

So Michael Hainey does what an investigative reporter does best: he investigates the "mystery" surrounding Bob Hainey's sudden death at the age of 35. What was his father doing in a strange neighborhood, not one he had any reason to be in at that time of the night; who found him; what killed him; and, most curious of all, who are the "friends" he was reportedly visiting that night, and why had none of them ever stepped forward to explain how his father ended up on the street all alone?

It would not be easy, but Michael Hainey is a persistent man and he was determined to find the answers about his father and what happened on that fateful night. What he hoped to learn had the potential to destroy his idealized image of the father he barely remembered. Michael knew that. But he had to know the truth. Then he had to decide whether he should share that truth with his mother and brother.

After Visiting Friends is an intriguing memoir about the truth pertaining to those closest to us - and whether we might be better, or worse, off for knowing that truth. Considering Bob Hainey's lifestyle, what Michael learned about his father is not really all that surprising. The big surprise is how those around him react to both his search for the truth and what he finally learns about his father.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Trailer of the Week: Apology

I just found another one of those rather mysteriously intriguing book trailers that always work so well on me - mysterious in the sense that I still don't really know what the featured book is all about, and so intriguing that I can't wait to get my hands on it to find out.  Whether or not I then read it, the trailer has already done its job.   

The trailer is for Jon Pineda's Apology and it is very professionally produced and presented (tell me what you think of the trailer and whether it works similarly on you):

(23rd Book Trailer in a continuing series of interesting trailers spotted by, and shared on, Book Chase)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts

Is it possible that if there had been a more experienced United States ambassador in Berlin in 1933 that Adolph Hitler might have been stopped before it was too late?  We will, of course, never know the answer to that question.  What we do know is that Ambassador William E. Dodd, despite what seems to have been his best intentions, failed to build strong enough a case against Hitler to convince Franklin Roosevelt and others that the world was on the brink of disaster. 

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts is not just William Dodd's story; it largely reflects the hopes of governments all over the world that Hitler's aspirations for restoring Germany to its former glory could be contained through the usual diplomatic channels and behind-the-scenes political pressures.  In hindsight, with the exception of his failure to control his rather promiscuous daughter Martha (who "befriended" several questionable suitors at a time), Dodd's efforts do appear to have been more on the mark than those of many, more qualified, politicians of the period.

Dodd was not Roosevelt's first choice for the Berlin ambassadorship, something the new ambassador only learned after accepting the assignment.  Clearly, the University of Chicago professor (and head of its history department) had no idea what he was getting himself into when he agreed to become America's German ambassador.  But believing that the new job would allow him more free time to work on his four-volume history, The Rise and Fall of the Old South, Dodd decided to move his family to Berlin.

Erik Larson
Unprepared as he was, Dodd did recognize that Hitler was not a man to be trusted and that Germany's Jews were in a dangerous position.  This alone marks him as a more perceptive man than most of his peers in the U.S. State Department  - a department in which an anti-Jewish sentiment was largely the norm.  Hitlers takeover did not happen overnight, and as the world watched the slow but steady fall of the German government to him and his henchmen, Dodd gradually came to realize that Hitler intended to expand the boundaries of Germany by whatever means it took.  When he finally tried to convince Roosevelt of Hitlers true intentions it was too late, and his superiors in Washington easily undermined his efforts. The result was that the United States, along with the rest of the world, procrastinated until it was too late to stop Hitler without the loss of millions of innocent lives.

Bottom Line: Reading In the Garden of Beasts is like being an eyewitness to one of the saddest chapters in world history, a year during which there might still have been time to stop one of history's madmen before it was too late.  If only the right people had listened...

Monday, May 27, 2013

Class A

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere is, not very surprisingly, a fairly depressing book. But what else would one expect from a memoir set in a little Iowa town in which most of the "characters" simply want out of town as soon as possible. Not only do the A-level ball players hope to leave quickly, but also the team's radio announcer can't wait to move on and up, and many of the team's most rabid fans seem to have little in their lives other than their “worship” of a few mediocre ballplayers who will be around town one or two seasons at most. The town is dying, the team is awful, and even the players don't really seem to like each other much.

Lucas Mann, the book's author pulls no punches in his portrayal of professional baseball at its lowest level. He presents baseball as the business it is, even to stressing that most of the players on Clinton's LumberKings team are seen by the organization as just place-fillers. No one in the organization thinks they have a prayer of ever making it to the major leagues, but hey, it takes a whole lot of warm bodies to play a regular season baseball schedule and there are lots of young men willing to play the game until someone finally forces them to stop. So, for every kid that actually makes it all the way to the top, there are hundreds who spend six or eight years doing the only thing they were ever really much good at doing. Sadly, we (most guys) would have done the same thing if given the chance.

Lucas Mann
Saddest of all, however, is Mann's frank portrayal of a group of super-rabid Clinton LumberKings fans. If Mann's story is accurate, these folks don't seem to have much of a life outside their little baseball stadium. That they invest so much emotional energy into guys who are only passing through (and who forget the fans the second they leave Clinton, Iowa) is hard to watch - but there is at least a little of the same behavior in all sports fans (the best lesson from the book).

"Class A" puts the focus a bit too much on the author and would have been more effective had Mann stayed in the background and told more about the players and their relationships to each other and their families. Although he offers a good bit of that kind of detail, it is almost overshadowed by Mann's hero worship – which is hard to figure considering that Mann is about the same age as these players and has as much baseball experience as many of them.

Bottom Line: not a bad book about minor league baseball but it could have been so much more.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Books for Soldiers

As we pause to thank the soldiers, past and present, who have protected and kept us all safer, let's consider, too, one of the little things we can do for them.  Our fighting men  and women are not living under the most pleasant circumstances - and they are stuck that way for months at a time.  Reading, however, does make it possible for them to escape into entirely new worlds for at least a few minutes at a time, so please consider sending books to these men and women.

One way to do that is through organizations such as "Books for Soldiers."  There are probably other organizations that do the same thing (and other ways to get books overseas), so please let me know if you have experience, both positive and negative, with any of those groups.

A few other photos to help motivate you to donate books to the cause:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ireland's New Short Story Stamp

In recent years, very much to my surprise, I have become a fan of short stories.  Most surprising, though, is that thanks to Britain's Nik Perring I discovered a whole new (to me) genre called "flash fiction," those stories so short that the time it takes to read them can be measured not in minutes, but in seconds.

All of that, to introduce this new stamp from Ireland that actually contains an entire 224-word short story on its face:

Now, that is what I call a short story (although, I might call it more a short essay rather than a short story).  But, whatever you want to call it, this is probably the coolest stamp I've seen in a long time.

(Click on the link shown above the stamp for more details.) 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Devoted

When it happened, Ryan Brooks thought it was the hands of God pulling him from the burning wreckage of the Brooks family car.  Later, he knew that he had been saved by a Wyoming rancher - the same man who had to watch his parents burn to death because he could not do the same for them.

Now, thirty years after that horrible 1960 accident, and despite an exchange of birthday and Christmas cards during most of those years, Ryan has still not met the man who saved his life.  And it is now or never because his rescuer is terminally ill - and has, at most, a few more weeks to live.  Both men fear the painful memories that their meeting might reawaken, but they know that if it is ever going to happen, it has to be soon.  What neither of them could have anticipated is how greatly Ryan's visit will impact lives other than theirs.

Ryan, unsure how to handle the visit, and struggling to say everything he feels, is so welcomed into the O'Donnell home by Alessandra, Mike's wife, that he grows more confident by the hour.  Too, it doesn't hurt that Mike's pretty daughter, Shannon, has come home to be with her father during his final days.  But the longer Ryan stays in Wyoming, the more complicated things become.

Jonathan Hull
The Devoted is a story filled with surprises, surprises that are revealed one-by-one until the reader's (and Ryan's) initial assumptions about the accident, Mike, Alessandra, and Shannon are largely proven wrong.  The O'Donnells are a family with lots of secrets - secrets that they have kept even from each other for decades.  Shannon's parents brought secrets into their marriage that go all the way back to World War II Italy where Alessandra had a passionate love affair with a German soldier who was part of the group that occupied her tiny village.  Now might be the last chance to finally share those secrets with each other and Ryan.  But the real question is whether any of them will emotionally survive the revelations.

Bottom Line: The Devoted is a good story and Jonathan Hull tells it well.  Fans of historical fiction and readers who like romantic literary fiction will particularly enjoy this one.  Too, World War II history buffs are sure to appreciate Hulls version of life on the Italian home front for those Italians not pleased to be allied with Adolph Hitler.  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thieves of Book Row

Travis McDade's Thieves of Book Row covers a remarkable number of years (much of the 1920s and 1930s) during which East Coast public and university libraries were systematically looted of their most precious books.  What makes the organized thievery so remarkable is that major New York book dealers (such as Harry Gold, Charles Romm, and Ben Harris) were not only eager to put the books on their bookstore shelves, they actively recruited the very thieves who were so good at stealing the books. 

This was all much easier than one imagines it would be today.  Most law enforcement officials, including judges responsible for determining the penalties for book theft, did not consider rare book theft to be a crime worthy of an extended prison sentence.  Even librarians, both public and university ones, were not overly concerned about loosing a few books - until the magnitude of their losses finally became impossible to ignore.  And rich, prominent Americans were so keen to build private libraries of their own (also recognizing that rare books were one of the better investments available to them) that stolen books quickly changed hands and were lost to their original owners forever.  One suspects, in fact, that some of the finest collections in the United States were greatly improved during this period.  Finally, one man decided that enough was enough.

Travis McDade
Thieves of Book Row is his story.  William Berquist, investigator for the New York Public Library, made it his life's mission to prosecute book thieves and recover stolen books.  He organized his fellow library detectives, librarians, and honest booksellers - and worked directly with law enforcement officials who took the crime seriously - to finally break the backs of the book theft rings.  Sadly, however, no one will ever know how many thousands of rare books were never recovered or were inadvertently destroyed by the thieves.

Bottom Line: Thieves of Book Row will most appeal to those who enjoy reading "books about books."  It belongs in the True Crime genre but, both in the author's style and in the nature of the crimes detailed, it makes for some rather dry reading.  Exciting, it is not - but book lovers and avid readers are likely to enjoy reading about a crime wave that forever changed the way public libraries handle rare books.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)