Friday, October 31, 2014

Breaking Bad Bobbleheads Can Be Found at Barnes & Noble

Here's a quick heads-up to fans of Breaking Bad, the cable TV series that finished up a spectacularly successful run last season.  

As many of you know, action figures for several of the main characters were pulled off the shelves of Toys R Us because of pressure the chain received to get them out of toy stores whose primary customer base is children.  Well, it seems that all of the resulting media talk brought the figures to the attention of a lot of people who never would have otherwise heard of their existence.  Prices for the figures immediately skyrocketed on eBay and finding them in any brick-and-mortar store became more than a little dicey.  

I have not seen the action figures anywhere yet, but I did spot some of the similarly designed bobbleheads at Barnes & Noble this morning (right along side bobbleheads for several  Sons of Anarchy characters). The Walter White one is great, the one for Saul (the crooked lawyer) is pretty accurate, and the one for Jessie not so hot, in my opinion.  

Of course, the one everyone really wants is the Heisenberg version of Walter, and that one was nowhere to be found.  I still hope to find two or three of the actual action figures at a reasonable price, but if not, these bobbleheads are the next best thing.

I also picked up the Sons of Anarchy Clay Morrow figure shown in this post.  Call me crazy, but they make me smile.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Although you would not guess it from her picture on the book jacket of Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado is one angry young woman.  She herself admits to being angry much of every single day of her life.  What makes her angry, you wonder? It’s this: being poor and having to put up with a way of life she sees no end to despite what she considers her best efforts to break free from the cycle of poverty into which she was born.  Only Tirado can say if she has given up on ever escaping poverty, but from the level of anger she so readily embraces, that just might be a safe bet.

That Linda Tirado knows of which she speaks is beyond dispute.  She has the lifetime credentials so many of this country’s poor earn the hard way: through personal experience.  She is an obviously intelligent and articulate woman and she hopes that more fortunate Americans are willing to listen to her for the two or three hours it takes to read her book. 

I listened and I agree with much, maybe even most, of what she has to say about being stuck in low-paying jobs for the long term.  Tirado’s points about how extremely difficult it is to escape the barely-making-ends-meet life are valid ones.   As she says, it is near impossible to find a better paying job if you cannot afford a car to get you to that job; it is hard to go to school if you have to work two jobs just to pay the rent and put food on the table; it is near impossible to save for the future at the rate of five or ten dollars a paycheck if the first medical emergency that comes along is only going to wipe out your savings again. 

Author's Book Jacket Photo
Tirado, though, seems to have given in to the temptation to do more than just inform with this book.  She wants to get even – at least a little.  Even as she shoots down all the stereotypes that “rich people” hold about “poor people,” she gleefully embraces all the ones about rich people.  She preaches tolerance and respect for the poorer segment of American society while ridiculing the rest of that same society.  She demands respect but does not display any in reverse.  She strays into politics but shows that she knows little more than liberal talking points, and she uses those points to distort the position of others with whom she disagrees.  And, frankly, her “Open Letter to Rich People,” with which she ends the book, might be “cute” but its contemptuous tone makes it pretty much counterproductive.  

The author paints everyone not living a life of poverty with the same brush, and we, of course, are not all the same.  Many of us come from backgrounds very similar to hers (my own parents were sharecroppers who moved to a neighboring state in order to start a whole new life with little more than what they could carry with them in their old car – I grew up poor and did not escape that life until a good while after I married). 

And that is a real shame because this book has a worthy message.  But a little less anger would have gone a long way in getting that message across.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything

I hesitate to call this new Stephen Hawking biopic a tear-jerker, but I am willing to bet that a few tears will be shed at each viewing despite the movie's overall inspirational theme and intent.

All of us, I imagine, when we think of Stephen Hawking visualize him in his wheel chair, slumped over and dependent upon his speaking-device to communicate with the rest of the world.  His is the story of a remarkable man who possesses one of the finest minds the world has ever seen, a mind trapped inside a near-helpless body.  But equally true is that his wife is an equally remarkable woman.  This is their story.  

The Theory of Everything is a look at what Hawking was like as a young man, how he and his wife found each other, and how much they have accomplished together since then.

(Movie opens November 17)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

That Old Ace in the Hole

Frankly, because of my experience with both of the other Annie Proulx novels I've read, I was a little reluctant to even begin reading her 2002 novel That Old Ace in the Hole. I found both "The Shipping News" and "Accordion Crimes" (well written as they are) to be a little too somber, almost depressing, to suit my tastes, but this one was very different.

That Old Ace in the Hole is the story of one Bob Dollar, a young man from Denver so desperately in need of work that he takes a job as a scout for the Global Pork Rind company. Bad as that company name is, the actual job is even worse. As scout, it is up to Bob to find Texas Panhandle ranchers and farmers willing to sell their acreage to him regardless of the fact that his company plans to place gigantic, smelly hog farms on their property. Because the massive hog farms run by Global Pork Rind are so ruinous to the environment and so unpleasant for the neighboring farms to be around, Bob is "encouraged" to lie and cheat in any way necessary to get the aging ranchers to sign their names on the dotted line.

Bob Dollar, though, finds himself enjoying life in little Woolybucket, Texas, so much that he just can't quite bring himself to disclose his real purpose in the town. This premise allows Proulx to tell the history of the region through the wonderful characters she creates for the novel (men and women Bob Dollar is trying to deceive into selling their property), all of them descendants of those who settled that part of the state when Indians were still a constant danger.  

Proulx's writing (and certainly her plot) reminds me a bit of the kind of comic western that Larry McMurtry writes.  McMurtry fans will easily take to this novel and might be surprised to learn that someone out there can actually top Mr. McMurtry at his own game sometimes. I came away from That Old Ace in the Hole wishing I had not waited so long to read it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Texas Book Festival - Part Two

As promised, here are a few thoughts on the author presentations that made the strongest impressions on me during the 2014 Texas Book Fest.

James Ellroy
James Ellroy
I heard acclaimed crime fiction writer James Ellroy speak for the first time on Saturday, and I was a bit taken aback by the way he began his presentation.  Yes, I've read enough of Ellroy's fiction to know what kind of language he so effectively uses in his books (and I am certainly no prude), but I have to wonder at the wisdom of him greeting the audience as if we were  a bunch of characters from his books.  

Ellroy welcomed us by "category," categories that all began with the letter "p" and included such groups as "peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks, and pimps."  That initial burst went over well enough and drew the laughter that Ellroy was after, but it seemed that he didn't know when to quit. He went on for another paragraph or two during which he referred to his own apparently astounding male anatomy at least twice and dropped an F-bomb.  The author still got some laughs, although considerably fewer than those his first sentence drew, but the laughter was of the nervous variety and, frankly, many seemed to be rapidly growing bored with the canned patter.  I particularly felt bad for the ten-or-eleven-year-old girl sitting near alone near the front who had for some inexplicable reason decided to attend this festival session.

Once Ellroy finally did turn the conversation toward his new novel, Perfidity, and where the book fits into his LA series of novels, things got interesting and stayed that way.  It's all about persona these days, so I probably should not have been at all surprised by any of this.  Let's just say that Mr. Ellroy does not have a future in stand-up.

Joyce Carol Oates
Ms. Oates has been a favorite of mine since about 1980 and she was really the only "can't miss" author of the weekend for me.  She is, of course, one of the most prolific writers the world has ever been blessed with, and at age 76 she shows no sign of slowing down.  (I have just over 100 of her books on my shelves now - almost all of them being first edition hardcovers or advance reader copies - and I am nowhere near being a JCO-completist.)
Joyce Carol Oates

Speaking of "persona," Oates has an intriguing one of her own.  She comes across in public as a tiny, gentle woman of astounding intellect (she is a Princeton professor), maybe a little shy, but someone always listening to what is being said around her.  She keeps her dark side so well hidden that no one would guess, meeting her for the first time, that she is capable of writing the dark, disturbing novels that characterize much of her work.  I learned years ago never to underestimate the potential power of anything this woman writes.

All of that said, an off-the-cuff remark she made during the discussion of the "abortion story" in her latest collection made me smile.  Ms. Oates, like most of us, be we liberal or be we conservative, is constantly surrounded by people who think like her and believe the things she believes.  Thus, the remark that "of course, everyone here is pro-choice" (perhaps not the exact words she used) popped out of her mouth at one point during the story discussion.  For her, this is a given fact because she probably knows so few people who are on the other side of that issue.  (The question that spurred that remark was whether or not, when writing a story touching on something like abortion, she worries about offending half of those who will read the story.)

I was lucky enough to speak with the author after her presentation and to have her personalize my first edition copy of her 1969 novel, Them (along with my copy of her latest short story collection, Lovely, Dark, Deep).

Elizabeth Crook
Elizabeth Crook
I was already familiar with Crook's Monday Monday, a fictional account of that fatal day in 1966 when Charles Whitman, from the 28th floor of the tower on the campus of the University of Texas, used his rifle to kill sixteen people and wound 32 others.  I read the novel several months ago and I highly recommend to any and all readers.

Until this session, however, I was unaware of how much primary source research Crook managed to complete before sitting down to write the novel.  According to Crook, she was astounded to find so many survivors of that day still living in Austin - and willing to talk to her about the experience - and that she already knew several people personally touched by the murders.  I walked away from this session having moved Elizabeth Crook up a notch or two on my personal writer-scale and looking forward to reading more from her.

Kevin Kwan
Book festivals always embarrass me into realizing just how many authors there are out there whom I have yet to discover.  Before Saturday, Kwan was one of those people.

Kevin Kwan
Kevin Kwan moved from Singapore to Houston with his family when he was 12 years old.  He is a graduate of the University of Houston and, despite spending his formative years all over the world, he sounds like he is from Houston.  His debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, did very well for him and he has a sequel in the works.  Admittedly, this is not the type of novel I would normally read (comedy based on the spectacular wealth of Kwan's own family), but the author's short reading was such fun that I just might give it its shot.  

This is a case of being so impressed with an author's presentation and, yes, with his "persona" that he is now firmly established on my radar screen as someone to stay aware of.

There you have it.  The Texas Book Festival is one of those annual treats to which I start looking forward weeks ahead of time.  I'm already anticipating next year's event, so thanks to all involved with making it happen - and Special Thanks to Laura Bush who started the festival way back when she lived in Austin with the governor of Texas, George W. Bush.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Texas Book Festival: Impressions & Thoughts (Part One)

As can only be expected, this year's Texas Book Festival had its share of hits and misses.  Thankfully, however, from my experience, the hits way outnumbered the misses.  

As always, my biggest complaint is being forced to leave a great session early in order to make it on time to a session that runs immediately following the first, or even overlaps it.  Because the tents are a good walk from the Capitol building itself, and because metal detectors are involved upon each entrance of the building, I missed the last fifteen minutes of several presentations in order to make it to the next on time.  Granted, that's the point at which most sessions are thrown open to questions from the audience, but still I felt a little gyped.  On Saturday, for instance, I found myself sneaking out of sessions by James Ellroy, John Dean, and Elizabeth Crook way before I was ready.

On the other hand, the tent "system" did enable me to sample presentations by several authors with whom I was unfamiliar - and, too, the shade offered a welcome break from all that direct sunshine.  So I suppose this is not a "terrible" problem.  It probably seemed worse to me this year because so many of my "can't miss" authors were scheduled for Saturday that the Sunday session had the feel of "after-thought" for me.

Biggest surprise authors to me: Kevin Kwan and Elizabeth Crook.  I was unfamiliar with Kwan's novels (Crazy Rich Asians was his debut novel) even though he grew up in the Houston area after his family moved here from Taiwan when he was twelve.  I did know Crook's wonderful novel about the Charles Whitman murders on the University of Texas campus, Monday Monday, but was still impressed by the insights she offered us about the tower sniping and how the novel was conceived and put together.

Random thought: What do book festivals and bluegrass festivals have in common?  Lots, and lots of gray hair.  Are serious readers dying off at the same pace that bluegrass fans are doing it?  One difference is that book festival crowds always appear to be about 90% female, while bluegrass festivals are more of a 50-50 split.  (I, in fact, noticed that guys were seeking each other out a bit to hold conversations about "guy books.")

Listening to John Dean, Douglas Brinkley, and Luke Nichter discuss the Nixon tapes makes me want to find some of them on line and listen to them.  Having read the transcripts of some of the tapes, I imagine them to be a mixture of sheer boredom, revulsion, and utter fascination with the events of the day.

In Part Two, I have a few thoughts on specific authors to share.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Photo Tour of William Faulkner Home Place: Rowan Oak, Part One

Oxford Town Square
After an interval of several years, I was lucky enough this summer to be able to stop by Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.  Rowan Oak, originally built in 1844, was purchased in 1929 and remained in the Faulkner family for over 40 years until sold in 1972 by Jill Faulkner Summers to the University of Mississippi.

Rowan Oak is a fascinating place for fans of Faulkner's writing to spend several hours wandering on their own.  The grounds of the home are well maintained by Ole Miss, and for a small entrance fee to get inside the home, it is possible to get an accurate feel for the life that Faulkner and his family enjoyed here.   Personal items (including clothing, furniture, books, etc.) are still sitting in the separate bedrooms of the house and, perhaps most intriguing of all, the wallpaper on which Faulkner outlined A Fable is still on the wall of his study.

These are some of the exterior photos I took that day, with pictures from inside the house to follow in Part Two:

 Click on individual photos to see full-size, high resolution versions of each.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia Bulldogs (Reader of the Month)

Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia Bulldogs
I absolutely love stories like this one about Georgia Bulldog wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.  It seems that Mitchell, despite how severely injuries have limited his effectiveness during the 2013 and 2014 football seasons, still has his head screwed on straight.  Life is all about priorities and making the most of opportunity, something that young Mitchell already seems to understand.

From the September 12, 2014 edition of the CBS Evening News, comes this great piece on Mitchell's love of reading and willingness to go the extra mile to surround himself with fellow readers:
Fact is, Rackley may have been the only one in Athens who didn't know the name Malcolm Mitchell. Number 26 for the University of Georgia Bulldogs was one of the top recruits in the country a few years ago. He's Georgia royalty. 
And presumably, if Rackley had known that, she wouldn't have stood in that Barnes & Noble talking his ear off about the book club she had just joined. 
"I mean he like stepped back and he said 'You did? You did?' and he said, 'Can I join your book club?'" Rackley recalled. 
"And I said, 'I don't know if you want to join mine. We're all 40-, 50-, and 60-year-old women.'"
But Mitchell was undeterred. So now, one of the top wide-receivers in the country has been meeting monthly with his book club lady friends.
So picture it: one of the most talented college football players in the country surrounded by a bunch of middle-aged women who meet once a month to discuss the book they've just read with their book club.  

That's what Malcolm Mitchell does despite what has to be the tremendous pressure of getting himself back at full speed to take the field for his Georgia Bulldogs.  (Mitchell had the unfortunate experience in the first game of the 2013 season of tearing his ACL during the celebration of another player's touchdown and missed the rest of the season.  Then he suffered a knee injury just as the 2014 season was about to begin.)

And then, there's this:

After everything he's accomplished, what's he most proud of?
"I finished the 'Hunger Games' series in about two days," Mitchell said. 
Wait, but what about the touchdowns?
"That came natural," Mitchell said. "That's a gift. I had to work to read."

Malcolm Mitchell may be only 22 years old, but he is wise beyond his years.  He is my "Reader of the Month."

(Be sure to click on this CBS link and watch their broadcast replay of the story; you will be impressed.)

(Hat Tip to JandaAnne Sample of VA for making me aware of Mitchell's story) 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Unbroken: The Movie Trailer

Louis Zamperini (1917-2014)
Because it seems like Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken has been on the New York Times Non-fiction Best Seller list forever, I suspect that many of you already know the Louis Zamperini story.  Zamperini, who died on July 2, 2014 at the age of 97, was the young Californian who placed eighth in the 5000-meter finals of the 1936 Olympics.  That may not sound like all that much, but Zamperini's final lap was so extraordinarily fast that the infamous Adolph Hitler demanded a personal audience with him.  

World War II would, of course, interrupt Zamperini's running career, and it is what happened to him as a Japanese prisoner-of-war that makes his story so very inspiring.  (And it is wonderful that Louis lived long enough to see for himself just how inspiring his life could be to others.)

Following up on the success of Hillenbrand's wonderful book, comes the movie readers hoped for, and it appears from this brief trailer that they got it right.

 I am looking forward to this one.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Search for Anne Perry: The Hidden Life of a Best Selling Crime Writer

Finally...a book that gets inside the head of author Anne Perry in which Perry herself tries to explain what she was thinking when she, along with another teen girl, brutally beat that girl's mother to death with a stocking-enclosed piece of brick.

Because I've been wondering for years about Perry's rather strange decision to make her living as a murder mystery writer after having been convicted of committing one of the more horrible murders in the entire history of New Zealand, I had high hopes that "The Search for Anne Perry" would answer some of my questions and doubts about Perry. What I did not expect was to come away with much sympathy for Anne Perry, but even that happened - if only a little.

Joanne Drayton managed to get the full cooperation of Anne Perry for this biography despite the fact that Drayton is from New Zealand and that the book would first be published there, a country which Anne Perry is still more than just a little sensitive about (the U.S. edition is new but The Search for Anne Perry was, in fact, published in New Zealand in 2012). For that reason, Search is filled with Anne Perry quotes that help explain how such a terrible murder ever happened, how Perry survived five years in harsh prisons, how her newly acquired Mormon faith allowed her to move on with the rest of her life, and why she believes today that she should be forgiven of her crime. Drayton offers her own analysis, too, often by quoting characters from Perry's books in which it seems that Perry is explaining herself through those fictional characters.

My only complaint - and I did find this irritating - is that Drayton, in the process of quoting those characters often insists on going through much more plot detail than is necessary to make her points about Perry. She sometimes even includes spoilers (for no need) that Anne Perry readers probably will rather not learn. But that's a minor quibble. This book ultimately delivered the goods for me, and for that reason, I am recommending it to others who might still be wondering about Anne Perry's murder conviction and how she kept her past hidden (even from her agents and publishers) for as long as she managed.

See below for a previous post on the Anne Perry murder conviction:

Anne Perry / Juliet Hulme (Revisited)

The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World

As someone who has been working in the energy sector for more than 40 years, I am probably more familiar with the subject of drilling and fracking than the average citizen, but I still learned some things from Russell Gold's "The Boom." It is always healthy to look at an issue as sensitive as fracking from both points of view, and this is something that Gold does an admirable job of via this book.

The new fracking technology was originally intended to tap into the huge natural gas reserves that were until the last decade or so pretty much beyond the ability of contemporary drilling methods to recover economically. That technology has proven to be just as effective in the recovery of the shale oil that had previously been way too expensive to recover and bring to market.

The question now is one of safety and environmental impact of the fracking techniques being used in so many thousands of new wells each year. Economically, there is no doubt that fracking has had a huge beneficial impact on the country. Environmentally, the final judgement is yet to be reached because, while it is true that some water wells have been contaminated by natural gas leaking into the neighboring water systems, this has happened so few times that there is no great impact involved - so far. On the other hand, those who lease their property to drilling companies do often find their personal lives shattered and changed forever by all the drilling activity that suddenly springs up around their homes, farms, and ranches. Of course, they can always take the big money and run - and lots of them do - but that's not a welcome option for everyone.

Too, as Gold points out, substituting natural gas in place of coal in the electricity-generating process cannot help but have an immediate, and positive, impact on the environment. The U.S., in fact, is one of the few countries in the world (despite never having signed the Kyoto Agreement) that has significantly cleaned up its air in during the past two decades. Many environmentalist have reluctantly come to the conclusion that natural gas is a "bridge fuel" that buys the world more time to develop alternative fuels that we can actually afford, ones that will ultimately provide ALL of the energy we need in this country and not just a tiny fraction of it.

So, love fracking or hate fracking. It's your choice - and "The Boom" might help you decide which side of the issue you come down on.