Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thoughts on Moby-Dick

This is not a "review" of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.  Another one of those wouldnt do much good.  What follows are simply my thoughts and impressions on finally finishing a book that I first attempted, and failed to complete, more than four decades ago.  Since that first encounter, I have probably read the first quarter of Melville's classic another ten times without getting any further into the novel.  But this time I made it despite setting the book aside for two or three weeks at a time.  And I feel like I finally successfully climbed Everest.

Most everyone knows the basic plot of Moby-Dick: nineteenth-century whaler loses his leg to a ghostly white whale and becomes obsessed with revenging his loss by killing the huge creature.  Nothing less will do.  What most people who have not read the classic do not realize is how few pages of the novel are actually devoted to advancing Melville's plot (my own rough estimate is that less than half of the book's more than 600 pages do so).  The rest of the book, the portion that most often drives readers to distraction, is Melville's primer on the nuts and bolts of whaling, whaling ships and their crews, and whale anatomy. 

Melville, through the voice of his narrator, builds a strong case that those risking their lives providing a product so critical to the nation deserve much more respect and appreciation than they are accorded by the public.  He is also determined that his readers get a proper sense of the size of the creatures whalers were, under the harshest of conditions, battling for the benefit of those who took it all for granted.  Melville accomplishes both admirably.  The risks these men took with their lives on the open sea are astounding, and modern readers cannot help but be impressed by their skill and courage.

Moby-Dick has a Shakespearian quality to it, even to what at times sounds almost like stage direction inserted by the author as an aside.  This quality is most apparent in Melville's dialogue and the way he has his characters regularly speak their deepest and most private thoughts aloud.  Both the structure and the philosophical nature of the book contribute to its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written - despite the generally terrible reception the novel received when first published. 

Bottom Line:  There is so much going on in Moby-Dick that whole books have been written about the novel.  It is, I suspect, on many more "To Be Read" lists than it is on "Read" lists, and this is understandable given its length and complexity.  Readers, however, should never permanently abandon their effort to read this classic novel.  Just the feeling of accomplishment one gets when that final page is turned is reason enough to keep Moby-Dick on the nightstand as long as it takes.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elmore Leonard's Final Novel to Be Completed by His Son

Here's some news that will make fans of the late Elmore Leonard's
Peter and Elmore Leonard
Raylan Givens novels breathe a little easier: there will be at least one more of them.  Leonard was in the process of writing another Raylan Givens story (with the working title Blue Dreams) and Peter Leonard, the acclaimed author's son, has said that he will likely finish it for his father.

The Guardian has the scoop.
"I don't know the last line, the novel was unfinished," he added. "I don't know how many pages it is." Blue Dreams was originally conceived to feature a rogue immigration and customs official, an Indian bull rider and federal marshal Givens.

Peter also reveals that his father could be a harsh critic, so harsh, in fact, that Peter put fiction writing aside for 27 years after showing Elmore a six-page short story he wrote shortly after college.
Leonard, whose published novels include Back from the Dead, Voices of the Dead and Trust Me, described his father's input into his own writing career. "Just after college I wrote a short story that was six pages long. A few days later, I got his three-page critique, the gist of which was 'all of your characters look and sound the same, they're like strips of leather drying in the sun'. I didn't write another word of fiction for 27 years." 

Peter Leonard finally got past the critique and has three published novels under his belt.

Click here to read the whole article.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Seat of Empire

Modern observers know that the business of politics is a nasty one.  Jeffrey Stuart Kerr’s Seat of Empire reminds us, however, that as politics goes, it is simply business as usual, that little has changed since the founding of this country – or since the earliest days of Texas history.  Here, Kerr tells the story behind the “birth of Austin, Texas,” a city forever linked to the personal feud between the first two presidents of the Republic of Texas: Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar. 

Lamar was determined to create a permanent capitol for the new republic on the site of a hill whose natural beauty he fell in love with while on a remote buffalo hunt.  Houston was determined that the permanent capitol of Texas be located just about anywhere else, and preferably far to the east of Lamar’s chosen site.  (One would suspect that Lamar felt equally strongly that the permanent capitol would be anywhere but its present location, Houston, the city named after his despised political rival.)  

Lamar’s vision was on shaky grounds from the beginning.  Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto - the battle that effectively gave birth to the Republic of Texas - was not the only politician against setting the country’s capitol in an area so remote that it could not be securely protected from Comanche raids and Mexican army invasions from the south.  Other prominent Texas politicians lobbied to have the new capitol placed in cities more convenient to, and more likely to be an economic godsend for, their own constituencies.

Jeffrey Stuart Kerr
Kerr details how Lamar and his backers were finally able to pull off the coup that would create the built-from-scratch city that became the last capitol the Republic of Texas would know – and the only capitol that the State of Texas has ever had.  As Kerr puts it, “The city of Austin was born in 1839, almost died in the early 1840s, and sprang back to life thereafter…the explanation begins with a buffalo hunt.”

State of Empire is an eye-opener for those (including, I suspect, most Texans) who do not know the colorful history of Austin’s founding.  Those who know the modern city’s streets well will find it difficult to envision Comanche raids on the same ground so bold and horrific that they came close to forcing abandonment of the new settlement.  Somehow, largely due to a handful of brave and determined citizens, Austin survived long enough for the rest of the Republic to catch up with it.

Bottom Line:  State of Empire will be of particular interest to Texas readers but will also benefit Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar scholars and historians more generally interested in this period of Texas history.  The book is aimed at general readers but includes a generous number of annotations, and enough bibliographic material, to lead scholars to other sources of detail concerning the birth of Austin, Texas.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tool Rentals at Libraries? Seriously?

I don't know what to think about this NBC news clip about a new "trend" in what is on offer at public libraries.  Even though I can see the usefulness of the new library offerings, I have to wonder how this kind of thing impacts the buying know, books.  

I love my county library system but I really don't think I would be thrilled to see my tax dollars go toward the purchase of tools, toys, cameras, and the like.  For me, a library will always mean books, be they audio, electronic, or physical - plus computer access for research.  For a traditionalist like me, music CDs and movie DVDs are already pushing the envelope far enough.

Take a look at the video I've linked to here and let me know how you feel about something like this.  Maybe I'm just getting old.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Fast Times in Palestine

In a lot of ways, Pamela Olson's Fast Times in Palestine is an eye-opener.  No doubt about it.  The stories she tells about the wonderful people she met and the beautiful experiences she had there are unarguably heartwarming - and heartbreaking. They are similar to what I experienced during my years in Algeria.  Olson's memoir further proves to me that, given half a chance, people are capable of forming lasting friendships and bonds so long as they are willing to see each other as fellow human beings rather than as representatives of their respective governments.  

As I learned on September 11, 2001, however, not everyone is capable of doing that.  I saw Algerians crying because of my shock and pain and I saw Algerians openly laughing and celebrating the tragedy of that day.  But I saw an even higher percentage of my French co-workers smiling and joking about the same thing.  What does that prove?  Only that people are people and that politics makes many of them incapable of seeing the bigger picture.  But not all of them.

Pamela Olson
Pamela Olson saw things in Palestine I never suspected existed there: a thriving business community; nightlife that includes ready access to alcohol; weddings at which any inhibitions regarding dress and partying are abandoned at the door; and nice restaurants, among them.  She also tells of many of the things I expected to read about: Palestinian families with members maimed or killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time; Palestinians whose homes have been purposely turned into rubble by the Israeli military; and families whose very livelihood is threatened because their centuries-old olive groves are now on the wrong side of a security fence erected by the Israelis (tragically, hundreds of the ancient trees have been destroyed in the name of security or settlement).

My only complaint about Fast Times in Palestine, and I consider it more to be pointing out what I see as a flaw rather than complaining, is that Olson's focus is overwhelmingly on Palestine's moderates and Israel's extremists - not to say that there are not plenty of each, because there certainly are.  I will long remember some of the wonderful Palestinian families to whom she introduces the reader.  I do believe that Israel is very heavy-handed at times in its approach to co-existing with Palestine, and Olson certainly puts a human face on those suffering the consequences.  But I also believe that Israel is home to many moderates who are simply trying to raise their families and get on with their own lives.  I would love to see the author spend some time with those people and tell their stories as well.  What is happening in Palestine is a tragedy and, while Fast Times in Palestine adds to the dialogue, there is definitely room for another book here.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


When it comes to crime fiction, writers generally choose between telling their story through the eyes of either the criminal being pursued or the one primarily responsible for catching him.  Or occasionally, generally via alternating chapters, readers are offered both points of view - an approach that works remarkably well to create and maintain a high level of tension that peaks when pursuer and pursued finally come together.  Timothy Hallinan's new Junior Bender series, of which Crashed is book number one, takes the first approach.

Junior Bender is one damn fine burglar, a thirty-six-year-old man who has been successfully breaking into houses since he was fourteen without ever having been caught.  When it comes to breaking and entering, Junior is a pro's pro.  He only works two or three times a month, never gets greedy, and knows exactly what he will be able to move safely on the street.  So when a cop is waiting for him as he exits his latest job, Junior is truly and honestly surprised.  He is even more surprised to learn that he has been set up by criminals every bit as street smart as him, criminals willing to blackmail him into doing something for them he wants nothing to do with.

Trey Annunziato, a notorious Los Angeles mobster, wants Junior to work as a private investigator on the set of a pornographic movie the mob is bankrolling.  Someone wants badly to make sure that the film never happens, and each day lost is costing the mob boss almost $25,000 in sunk costs.  When Junior learns that the star of the film is the dope-addled, grown-up version of one of America's most beloved child television stars of the previous decade, he finds himself sympathizing with the aims of the saboteur he supposed to stop.  What is a decent criminal to do?

Timothy Hallinan
Readers familiar with Timothy Hallinan's Poke Rafferty thrillers (the Bangkok books) know that the author fills his thrillers with well-developed characters that are as much fun as the tight spots his heroes get themselves into and out of.  If Crashed is any indication, the Junior Bender series continues that Hallinan tradition.  Junior has a network of friends he can call upon when he needs a special skill or just another pair of hands, and unfortunately for him, he has at least one sworn enemy in the LAPD who would love nothing better than to put Junior away for a long, long time - if he cannot coerce Junior into sharing the wealth with him first.

Bottom Line:  Crashed is a fun way to begin what promises to be another great crime series from a trusted author.  This one is a wild ride that, despite the overall sadness of the story it tells, will keep the reader chuckling throughout.  Junior Bender is just that kind of guy - and, frankly, it's a lot of fun rooting for a bad guy with a heart.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)