Thursday, July 30, 2015

Providence Noir

I have been reading the Akashic “Noir Series” since 2010 and, at this point, I’ve lost track of exactly how many of the short story collections I’ve read.  A quick search of Book Chase does come up with several reviews of the Akashic books and one or two other more general posts regarding them, but I’m never sure just how well the search function of Blogger works, so the results might be incomplete.  In any case, I have enjoyed all the ones I’ve read, and Providence Noir is no exception.

As is always the case with this series, Providence Noir is a collection of dark crime stories set in the specific geographic region named in the book’s title.  In this case all of them take place in a single city, but some of the other books group the stories by specific state (Lone Star Noir, for example) or even by whole country (such as Haiti Noir).  Interestingly, eight of the fifteen stories in this volume were written by women and seven of them by men, something (that at the risk of sounding chauvinistic for saying it) strikes me as unusual for a collection of crime stories this dark. 

Ann Hood, who edited Providence Noir, uses Otto Penzler’s definition of “noir” in her introduction both to define the term for readers and to tell them what to expect from the stories, “Noir is about sex and money and sometimes about revenge…in noir there are no heroes and no happy endings.”  And that is what makes reading the Akashic books such great fun.

There are stories here of mobsters with a strange honor code all their own, scams gone bad, cases of mistaken identity, friends killing friends to hide the truth about themselves, dreams foretelling tragic events, sociopathic children, people not sure whether they have murdered or not - and my favorite one, the book-themed story by Peter Farrelly that closes out the collection.

Peter Farrelly
Farrelly’s story, “The Saturday Night Before Easter Sunday,” starts out rather innocently with a thirty-eight-year-old trying to impress a young coed by telling her that he is a novelist whose first book is soon to be published.  She is duly impressed, but their short-lived affair disappoints both of them and they soon go their separate ways.  But when our pretend-author is faced with the chance to steal the work of a young British writer, he jumps at it and, almost before he knows it, he is a published author whose publisher is hailing him as a major discovery.

But remember Otto Penzler’s definition of noir that I quoted earlier?  There are “no happy endings” in noir fiction according to Mr. Penzler.  I suspect that, in this case, that would largely depend on which of the story’s main characters you asked because one of them is very, very happy with the rather Hitchcockian ending of the story.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Vending Machines and Free Books: What a Deal, Kids!

In terms of children and books available to them, how bad does it have to get for a neighborhood to be considered a "reading desert?" Well, according to the Soar with Reading project, the much of Washington D.C. qualifies for that rather dubious honor:
Back in 2001, a study found that in underserved communities, there was only one age-appropriate book available for every 300 kids. After commissioning a study by a childhood literacy expert to look into that, they learned the situation today was even more dire.
"[I]n the shadow of our nation's capital, in 2015, there is access to only one-age appropriate book for every 830 children," the website notes. And that's what the company is calling a book desert.
But hang on because the Soar with Reading folks have decided to do something about these awful numbers.  The group has placed three of their free books vending machines in the neighborhood, machines that allow kids to punch a few buttons and walk away with as many free books as they want.  
'Cause here's the thing: You can't read without having something to read! And giving kids' access to books is the first step to opening up their minds to the possibilities of reading.  
It surely can't hurt.

The machines and 100,000 children's books, by the way, were donated to the program by Jet Blue airline.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman was crowned Book of the Year months before it was finally published in mid-July.  And as regards book publicity, both positive and negative, it certainly deserves that title, and could easily be dubbed Book of the Decade with little argument from either the book’s supporters or its detractors. 

Watchman has split the book community almost right down the middle.  For every reader who waited anxiously for the book to become available, there seems to be a reader who had already declared no interest in reading it – at least until all the hoopla died down.  Some worry that Harper Lee has been hoodwinked into allowing what was really just a rejected manuscript into being published at all.  A few even go so far as to doubt that she is even aware that the book has been published.   Others, once they began to hear rumors that Lee exposes the much beloved Atticus Finch’s racism in Watchman, declared that they would never read it because they did not want the Atticus character from To Kill a Mockingbird to be tainted in their minds.

I tended to be in the “wait and see” camp myself, but I decided to drive from Houston to Monroeville, Alabama (Lee’s hometown and residence) so that I could witness firsthand the festivities planned there for the book’s unveiling.  What I saw in Monroeville, and the conversations I had with the locals, leads me to believe that Lee is fully aware of what is happening with Watchman.  Not one time did I hear anyone express any doubt at all about that and, in fact, the town celebrated the book and its author with great pride during the two days I was there.  And, because I could not resist buying a copy of Watchman in the gift shop of the old Monroeville courthouse, my reading plan as regards the book changed – and I finished it before I made it back to Houston.

Go Set a Watchman is certainly not nearly as polished as To Kill a Mockingbird.  I found the book’s first hundred pages (in which Lee sets up the premise for what is to follow) to be slow reading and was beginning to grow bored with what Watchman appeared to be.  But then things got interesting.

Jean Louise Finch, otherwise known as “Scout,” is the twenty-six-year-old narrator of Watchman.  She is in Maycomb, Alabama, on a rare visit home from New York to what remains of her family there.  The country is in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a time of tension and turbulence in much of the South, and Jean Louise is finding it difficult to reconcile her childhood memories to what seems to be happening in Maycomb.   When she finds that those to whom she is the closest, including both her father and the man she is engaged to marry, are secretly involved with the most blatant racists in the county to keep Negros “in their place,” she is ready to leave Maycomb and her family behind forever.

Harper Lee Book Jacket Photo
In the end, Go Set a Watchman is a realistic look into the mindset of white Southerners of the time, men and women who feared destruction of the only way of life they had ever known.  Good men, as well as evil men, were caught up in the struggle for full racial equality that was happening all around them.  It was largely a matter of degree, and Atticus Finch, a good man was, after all, nothing but a man of his times.

Go Set a Watchman is not a great book, but it is one that will have people talking about it for a long time.  Those worried about Atticus Finch’s “image” need only remember that Mockingbird is told through the eyes of a child and Watchman through the eyes of that now-adult child.  Atticus may not be the saint from Mockingbird, but he is still a good man trying to do what he believes to be the right thing. 

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Lives in Ruins

There is a good chance that you have something in common with Marilyn Johnson, author of Lives in Ruin: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, because Johnson's dream job (one she aspired to but never filled) was to be an archaeologist.  It seems like thousands and thousands of us had the same dream - largely, with the same result.  Once we find out how hard it is to get a job as a field archaeologist, and how little the work actually pays, we move on to a more realistic alternative to make our way in the world.

Johnson, however, is luckier than most of us will ever be when it comes to archaeology: she turned her love of the calling into a book deal.  And she has written a book sure to please the rest of the dreamers out there.  Johnson's research gave her the opportunity to get her hands dirty at digs all over the world, to meet some of the most respected archaeologists working today, and to gain a new appreciation for those, from top to bottom, who dedicate their lives to sifting through the remains of those who came before them.  As she put it in the book's prologue, she was "studying the people who study people."

Lives in Ruins is presented in four sections: "Boot Camp," "The Classics," "Archeology and War," and "Heritage."  In the appropriately titled first section, Johnson recounts what she considers to be a "rite of passage" for all wannabe archeologists: field school.  In one of my favorite chapters in the book, she describes the typical field camp experience in which apprentices pay for the privilege of joining an excavation to do the dirtiest and most tedious grunt work imaginable.  They pay dearly (often in the thousands of dollars) for the chance to be there simply because they hope the experience and the contacts they make will help them become a permanent part of that world.

"The Classics is a short section in which the author meets, and learns from, some of the most respected archaeologists who have made their career studying Greek archeology.  Amusingly, Johnson points out how often even this rather elite group of professionals affectionately evokes the name Indiana Jones in conversation with her and how amused they themselves are at the job envy they sense from so many of the people they meet outside the job.

Marilyn Johnson
The books third section, Archaeology and War addresses one of the major problems associated with preserving the past there is today: war in all of its terrible destructiveness.  Here, Johnson interviews and befriends some of the people working hard to educate American soldiers about the importance and sacredness of some of the ground upon which they are fighting for their lives.  Encouragingly, the military seems to have fully embraced site preservation as one of its wartime missions.

Heritage, the books last section, finds Johnson and a group of archaeologists from six continents on a field trip/convention to Machu Picchu where she compares and contrasts the ways that various countries approach archeology and summarizes what she learned about the profession and those who sacrifice so much to be a part of it.

Lives in Ruins is an eye-opener of a book, a stark reminder of how easy it is to destroy our history in the blink of an eye, and a tribute to those who dedicate their lives to preserving as much of that history as possible for future generations to explore and appreciate.

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Culling Feels Good

My project to get rid of a healthy percentage of the books I've accumulated over the years is moving steadily along.  This week alone I managed to move about 80 books out of the house to new ownership, and that brings my total moved count to right at 130 books.  And the best news for me is that I'm finding it easier and easier to cull books from my stacks.

Granted, I'm running out of exile candidates, but I do still have two more closets (that house at least 400 books between the two of them) to get through, so more are bound to go.

In the process, I've reorganized my bookshelves to the degree that the 800 books, or so, on the shelves are all there because they have attained a certain status in my mind.  They are there for specific reasons.  I have my shelves grouped into small sections but the bulk of the books are titles filed alphabetically by author - regardless of whether the books are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, or anything else.  Then I have those smaller sections such as: autographed books, Modern Library volumes from the forties and fifties, Library of America collection, books on books, author biographies, novels using famous authors as characters, baseball books, books about long walks or trips, books on classic country music artists, and books of all types relating to the American Civil War.  

So I've been pretty busy.  But it's been worth the hours I've burned doing it so far and I feel that the shelves are finally coming under some semblance of control.  And, boy, have I found a bunch of books I can't wait to read, books that have been out of sight for so long that I almost forgot that I even had them. 

This has actually been fun...I'm shocked to say that.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Richard Wright, Four-Year-Old Arsonist

One of the stops I made last week took me to the home of author Richard Wright's grandmother, a home that Wright spent a significant amount of time in as a child and young man.  

And, of course, I could only think of one thing while standing in the street to snap the photos I've posted here.  This is the very home (I was told) in which Wright set the curtains on fire while burning things in the room's coal-burning fireplace.  Those of you who have read Wright's Black Boy will remember the incident as Wright recounts it in the book's opening pages:
Now I was wondering just how the long fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them.  Would I try it?  Sure.  I pulled several straws from the broom and held them to the fire until they blazed; I rushed to the window and brought the flame in touch with the hems of the curtains.  My brother shook his head.
He spoke too late.  Red circles were eating into the white cloth; then a flare of flame shot out.  Startled, I backed away.  The fire soared to the ceiling and I trembled with fright.  Soon a sheet of yellow lit the room.  I was terrified; I wanted to scream but was afraid.  I looked around for my brother; he was gone.  One half the room was now ablaze.   
Soon my mother would smell that smoke and see the fire and come and beat me.  I had done something wrong, something which I could not hide or deny.  Yes, I would run away and never come back.  I ran out of the kitchen and into the back yard.  Where could I go?  Yes, under the house!  Nobody would find me there...Anyway, it was all an accident; I had not really intended to set the house afire.  I had just wanted to see how the curtains would look when they burned.  And neither did it occur to me that I was hiding under a burning house."

Wright was, of course, "rescued."  But his mother beat him within an inch of his life, it seems, and the little boy was bedridden for a long time as a result of that beating.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Lunch at the Piccadilly

Many baby boomers, especially those of us who are closer to 70 years of age now than we are to 60, are caretakers of our parents.  Some of those eighty-and-ninety-something-year-olds live with one of their children and some of them are living in assisted living facilities or in nursing homes.  Clyde Edgerton’s Lunch at the Piccadilly focuses on the group dynamic of life in one of these facilities, the Rosehaven Convalescence Center in little Listre, North Carolina. 

Carl Turnage became a regular at Rosehaven Convalescence when Lil Olive, his favorite aunt, took up residence there.  When, as a still relatively young woman, Lil realized she would never have children of her own, she decided to pour all of her affection for children Carl’s way.  And Carl, who considered Lil more a second mother than an aunt, reciprocated.  Now that his mother is dead, there is no one in the world closer to Carl than Aunt Lil, and he is determined to ease her through her final years.

What Carl finds in Rosehaven will make him laugh, make him cry, and change him in ways he never bargained for.  As often happens in assisted living facilities, the residents travel in packs of three or four like-minded souls who live primarily to speculate and gossip about everyone else in the building, including occasional visitors.  Come to think of it, life in an assisted living facility is a lot like eating in the Junior High lunchroom we all, perhaps not so fondly, remember.

Clyde Edgerton
Carl has the usual concerns about Lil: how to convince her to hang up her car keys for good, making sure that she takes her medication correctly, making sure that her bills are paid, how to add a little variety to her day, how to find enough time to visit her the way she deserves to be visited, etc.  And then L. Ray Flowers, a charismatic, guitar-playing, part-time preacher comes to Rosehaven for physical therapy.  Soon, L. Ray and Lil’s group of four have hatched up plans to form a national movement that would do away with nursing homes by moving the elderly residents into churches where they would be cared for by church members.  L. Ray likes to call these new facilities “nurches.”

But life goes on.  And minds slip.  And people come and go.  And when they go, they go for good.

Lunch at the Piccadilly, despite its setting, is not a sad novel.  Assisted living facilities are filled with humor and good times, and with people who are content with this stage of their lives.  Of course, there are a few chronically unhappy residents and others whose minds have slipped beyond the point of knowing exactly where they are most days.  But the beautiful thing is that they have each other for support and how much happier they all are as a result. 

Clyde Edgerton has largely captured the atmosphere that I see most every time that I visit my 93-year-old father.  He has been in a facility for over six years, and I have come to know many of his friends during that time.  Yes, it is an ever-changing cast of friends, but they are teaching me what to expect for myself later on -and reminding me to live life to the fullest while I can.  This is a beautiful little book.

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