Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Good Sister - Gillian McAllister

It is all relative, of course, but in many families there is a “good” sibling, and by comparison, there is a “bad” sibling.  And more often than not, that idea becomes so normalized within the family circle that even the “bad” sibling comes to believe it to be true.  This is the family dynamic explored by Gillian McAlister in her novel The Good Sister, the story of one family being destroyed by what appears to have happened behind closed doors during one tragic night.

Martha Blackwater knows what she wants out of life, and she is well on her way to making it all happen, including the baby she and her husband welcomed into the world right on schedule.  But as it turns out, Martha wants more – and if she is to get it, she is really going to need some help caring for her new baby.  When Becky, Martha’s sister (who seems to be chronically unhappy with her own work) becomes so frustrated by her current job that she desperately wants to quit, the solution to Martha’s problem seems an obvious one: Becky will stay home and care for the baby while Martha devotes herself to her new project.

But then it happens.  Baby Layla is dead, and Becky is charged with her murder.  

Gillian McAllister
Becky insists that she is innocent, and Martha wants desperately to believe her sister even though all the evidence seems to point directly to Becky’s direct involvement in Layla’s death.  If not Becky, who could be responsible for smothering the baby? That’s what Martha wants to find out, and despite her husband’s objections, she begins her own clandestine investigation – one that will have her second guessing everything she thought she knew about those closest to her.

Sometimes Martha is certain that Becky is innocent; at other times the weight of the evidence against Becky has Martha doubting her sister.  What will happen to them even if Becky is found innocent?  Will their lifelong bond allow them to remain close even if the actual truth of what happened that night is never definitively determined? And if the worst happens, and Becky is found guilty, what will that do to Martha’s relationship with her parents and her brother?  

The Good Sisteris a courtroom drama told in alternating flashbacks to what happened nine months earlier, but it is really more about the strong bond between two sisters being tested in an unimaginable manner.  Some things are just impossible to forgive.  Or are they?

Copy provided by G. P. Putnam's Sons for review purposes

Book number 3,406

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship - Bernie Schein

When it came to exposing his personal life in print, Pat Conroy seems to have had little fear despite knowing that numerous members of his family were not going to appreciate his decision to air the family’s dirty laundry in so public a manner.  Conroy was so frank about himself and his upbringing that longtime readers of his work easily could see that the man was still carrying emotional baggage from his childhood, but few outsiders could know just how heavy that burden was. Now, Bernie Schein, Pat’s lifetime best friend despite a fifteen-year interruption to their friendship, takes up where Pat left off.  

Many Pat Conroy fans came to consider him a personal friend over the decades they read him, so for obvious reasons Schein’s Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship is not an easy book to read – it just hurts too much to watch a friend suffer the way Pat suffered.  It is, however, a book that Pat Conroy fans owe it to themselves (and to Pat) to read.

Bernie Schein was a senior in Beaufort High School (South Carolina) when military brat Pat Conroy entered the school as a junior.  It was soon obvious that Conroy was going to be a star athlete despite the resentment of the school’s seniors who would have preferred that he fail.  What was not immediately so obvious is that he was also going to become a huge social star among the school’s freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.  And after Bernie invited Pat to the very first school party of any type he would ever attend, the two became friends for the rest of their lives.

Bernie Schein
Their friendship started in a 1961 Beaufort High School study hall, and it would not end until the two men said their goodbyes at Pat’s deathbed on March 4, 2016.  Along the way, Pat, Bernie, and the rest of their crew managed to avoid the Viet Nam War while Pat and Bernie prepared for careers as school teachers and writers.  The two shared a sense of humor that usually saw them trading one verbal putdown after another any time they were together. Each gave as well as he got, but largely due to his alcoholism and the damage that Santini did to his soul, Pat’s vulnerabilities and insecurities were sometimes expressed in bursts of sudden anger and an uncanny ability to hold a grudge for reasons that were often only imagined.   

Yes, this is a book for Pat Conroy fans, but as one of those fans, I have to warn you that you will come away from it a little saddened by some of the things you learn about Pat’s interactions with those closest to him.  For that reason, this is not always an easy book to read.  But Pat, especially near the end of his life, expressed a desire to be as honest with his fans as he could possibly be. He was willing to talk about anything and everything, and Bernie Schein makes sure here that Pat gets his wish.  Pat would have approved.

More than anything in the world, Pat Conroy wanted to be the hero in his world, and he worked hard to play that role – often to his own detriment. Little did he realize how big a hero he always was to his readers.

Copy provided for review purposes by Arcade Publishing

Book Number 3,405

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Bookshop of Yesterdays - Amy Meyerson

Authors figured out people like me a long time ago – but really, that wasn’t so hard to do.  Just include the word “bookstore” or “bookshop” in your book’s title and feature the image of an old bookstore, book, or stack of books on its dust jacket, and we will practically sprain our wrists snatching your novel off the bookstore or library shelf as soon as we see it.  And best of all, we will read it and we will talk about it – a lot.  

Which brings us to The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. This one was first published in mid-2018 but I didn’t stumble upon it until a few days ago when it was released in a paperback edition.  Believe me, if I had seen it in 2018, it would have been read in 2018.  It was even named one of the Best Books of Summer 2018 by both the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Library Journal, so I’m not sure how I missed it.

On the surface, this one seems to have a lot going for it.  It’s about a young Philadelphia teacher who returns to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of an uncle she has not seen since she was a little girl.  Sixteen years earlier her uncle had a mysterious falling out with Miranda’s parents, one so severe that she never saw him, or heard her parents speak of him again (they even refused to attend the man’s funeral).  Now, Miranda is shocked to learn that upon his death her Uncle Billy left to her the old neighborhood bookstore she has such fond memories of visiting as a child. But why would he do something like that – and more importantly, what is she going to do with the floundering bookstore? 

Beginning with the mysterious clue she received in Philadelphia before she learned of her uncle’s death, Miranda is soon involved in a complicated scavenger hunt inside his bookstore.  When she was a little girl, Billy always had a bookshop scavenger hunt prepared for Miranda’s amusement whenever she visited Prospero Books, but she is not at all prepared for where this final hunt might lead her.  Ready or not, though, Miranda is determined to learn what it is that Billy seems so badly to want to tell her - even after she figures out that each clue in the chain is leading her closer and closer to a truth that could destroy her family and everything she believes about herself.

Amy Meyerson
The Bookshop of Yesterdays, with all of its references to books both classic and modern, is definitely a booklover’s mystery, one that is enjoyable as such.  But something about the plot nags at me a bit and makes me wonder if I missed a plot element somewhere along the line that would explain away my doubt.  Why did Billy use a scavenger hunt, one that had a relatively high chance of failure or not even being undertaken by Miranda at all, to pass along something of such great importance to her?  Why did he not simply write her a detailed letter, including all the necessary references to the people who would fill in the details for her, and attach that to his will?  (I know that book, of course,would not have been nearly as much fun as The Bookshop of Yesterdays– so is this just an instance of me not being able quite to reach the level of suspended disbelief that the author is asking me to reach?)

Bottom Line:  If you are one of those people I described up above – and you know if you are – grab this one and read it quick.  And then come back and tell me what I missed that explains Billy’s willingness to gamble that Miranda would be able, or even want, to solve one last Prospero Books scavenger hunt.  

Book Number 3,404

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Lonesome Dove, A Prayer for Owen Meany, & Spooner - First Paragraphs Sell a Book

I got to thinking this morning about some of my favorite books and how vivid they still are in my mind despite the fact that it has been decades, in some cases, since I've read them.  That made me curious as to exactly what would pop into my head by reading the first pages of a few of them.  And that in turn made me realize just how brilliant some of those first few sentences are.

A book right up at the top of my "Favorites" list is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.  I love everything about that book: the relationship between Augustus McCrae and W.F. Call; the book's contrasting laugh-out-loud humorous episodes and tear-jerking tragedies; the numerous supporting characters who are so important to the story; and the inclusion of one of the darkest literary villains I've ever encountered, the infamous Blue Duck. But I didn't know any of that would happen to me until I had turned the last of the 843 pages following this short-but-truly-sweet opening paragraph:
"When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake - and not a very big one.  It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs.  They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over.  The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail."

Another favorite author of mine is John Irving, and one of my favorite John Irving books is A Prayer for Owen Meany.  And now that I think about it, this one shares a lot of the characteristics I love so much in Lonesome Dove, primarily of course, the remarkable friendship between the book's two main characters.  Irving's opening Owen Meany paragraph sets the stage well for what is to come:
"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.  I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ - and certainly not for Christ, which I've heard some zealots claim.  I'm not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I've not read the New Testament since my Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go to church.  I'm somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in The Book of Common Prayer.  I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days - the prayer book is so much more orderly."

Pete Dexter (another longtime favorite) has written some truly wonderful novels, and sometimes I think that Spooner is as underrated as it is because everyone prefers to talk about others of his like Paris Trout, Deadwood, or maybe The Paperboy.  But next to Deadwood, this one from 2009 is my favorite, probably because I find it so funny and just so damned clever.  Note again, that this is another book about a lifelong relationship between two very different people (this time, a boy and his step-father). It starts like this:
"Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic honeysuckle little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a makeshift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Woods, across the street from and approximately in the crosshairs of a cluster of Confederate artillery pieces guarding the dog-spotted front lawn of the Greene Street Sons of the Confederacy Retirement Home.  It was the first Saturday of December 1956, and the old folks' home was on fire." 
 A good first paragraph is one of the most important tools an author has available to grab my book-browsing attention - usually quickly and in less than 100 words.  I can learn more about the style and readability of an author from an opening paragraph than I will ever gather from a canned dust jacket summary or some blurb from a fellow author of the writer's that I wouldn't believe in a million years anyway.  That old you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours trick doesn't fool me anymore.

The three I've reproduced above worked perfectly for/on me.  I would likely have ended up with all three of the books on my shelves anyway because I was already a fan of these three authors before first setting eyes on these three particular novels - but even if I had been a reader being exposed to McMurtry, Irving, or Dexter for the first time, I'm pretty sure that the books would have come home with me.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Sam Houston Memorial Museum (With Excerpts from Exiled by Ron Rozelle)

Sam Houston portrait (museum)
The Sam Houston Memorial Museum located in Huntsville, Texas, very near the campus of the university named after Houston, is a remarkable place.  I spent much of the day there Saturday taking photographs of the various buildings and stunning Sam Houston artifacts located there.  The rented home in which the Texas hero died in 1863 was moved to its present location there in 1936, and the home in which Houston lived for most of the years he spent in the United States senate and in which his children were raised sits right there where it has always been.

Upstairs room in which funeral was held
Non-Texans will not know how big a hero Sam Houston is to me and my fellow Texans.  Houston was in charge of the Texas army at the time it claimed its independence from Mexico by defeating General Santa Ana's Mexican army in the Battle of San Jacinto, forever changing both Texas and United States history.  Seeing the Mexican general's saddle (taken from him at the battle as a war prize) was almost as thrilling to me as seeing Houston's famous leopard-skin vest, a gift from the Cherokee Indian tribe). 

Below is an excerpt from Exiled: The Last Days of Sam Houston  by Ron Rozelle (published by Texas A&M University Press in 2017) that sets the scene for the attached photos:
His funeral was a small event, held the next day directly above the little room in which he died, in the parlor of the Steamboat House.  Every straight-back chair in the house was placed facing the casket that had been built recently in the prison by the ship's carpenter of the Harriet Lane.  The Baptist preacher was out of town, so Margaret had to make do with the pastor of the Presbyterians, Reverend James Cochran.  
The death room
After the final prayer the coffin was maneuvered down the steep steps by pallbearers who were Houston's fellow Masons and carried in a steadily falling summer rain across the muddy road to the cemetery.  He was buried at the far end, in a place he had chosen himself just a few feet from the grave of his friend Henderson Yoakam.  
Neither ceremony was attended by many people, possibly because of the small room in which the funeral had been held and the rain that fell on the burial.  But it is unlikely that many more would have shown up in a big church on a sunny day.  In the midst of the war, and given the low regard in which so many held him, many papers wouldn't have wasted space needed for war news and casualty lists on even a tiny notice of his death.

 These last two photos are meant to give some perspective as to the physical proximity of the two rooms pictured above.  This is The Steamboat House that the Houstons were forced to rent after they sold their nearby home to pay off debts incurred during one of Houston's political campaigns.

View directly up the stairs to the funeral room

View of the home showing the death room at ground level and the funeral room above 

Saturday, June 08, 2019

The Goldfinch - Why Do I Still Hate This Novel So Damn Much?

I wish I could understand the visceral negative reaction I had to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch when I read it back in December 2013 because to this day I still despise everything about that reading experience - and if I understood why that is, I would be able to avoid anything like that ever happening to me again.  The book, which went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was already a darling of the critics in late 2013 so I expected to really enjoy it and even forked out for the hardcover version.  In fact, I was already a fan of Tartt's writing, having enjoyed both The Secret History back in 1993 and The Little Friend in 2004.  But something went terribly wrong this time and I had to force myself to return to The Goldfinch enough times to finish it. 

And after I finally turned its last page with a big sigh of relief, I decided not to review the book because I couldn't stand the thought of spending any more time with its characters in my head.  I can only even find one ever mention of it on Book Chase, and that was only to include it in a post I did about twenty-first century Pulitzer Prize winners in early 2015. Even then, I couldn't force myself to say much about the book although my aversion to it is obvious:
"Novel with one of the weakest and most unlikable main characters I have encountered in years, this is my least favorite of the twenty-first century's winners.  Frankly, I found its message to be a worthy one, but one that was so pretentiously delivered (especially the novel's last few pages) that, in the long run, I regretted wasting reading time on it."

All I can figure is that the main character and his buddy repulsed me so completely by their enthusiastic embrace of the drug culture that I didn't want to spend any time with them there - even via the pages of a book.  I found them so weak and so willing to throw their lives away - and to destroy the lives of others in the process - that I could find not one empathetic bone in my body for them.  It got so bad that I would have preferred the author just to kill them off and shorten the novel by fifty pages or so, even more if that were possible.

The reason I'm writing this is that I just stumbled upon the trailer for a movie version of The Goldfinch that is apparently being released this September.  I watched the trailer out of curiosity, and all those negative feelings about the book immediately came back to me.  So let's just say that I'm not going to make the same mistake with the movie that I made with the book.

I always find it difficult to give an answer when someone asks me what my favorite book of all time is because I've enjoyed too many great reading experiences over the years to be able to choose just one - or ten.  But if anyone ever asks me which book, of the several thousand I've read, that I hate the most, I know exactly what title will pop into my head before they finish asking the question.  So there's that.

Here's a link to that 2015 Pulitzer Prize post in which I first forced myself to write something about The Goldfinch.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Vintage Editions - When Jig Saw Puzzles and Books Collide

I don't think I've mentioned on the blog before, but building 1000-to-2000 piece jigsaw puzzles is something I really enjoy doing when I'm not in the mood for reading.  And every once in a while, the two hobbies even meet head on like they did with this particular puzzle from the White Mountain puzzle people.

This one was a whole lot of fun because I so clearly remember reading many of these "vintage" books in exactly these editions.  

(Unfortunately, I've had to put aside jigsaw puzzles for the moment because I have cataracts on both eyes that have started making it difficult for me to judge accurately the different color tones in these puzzles pieces- a problem that has literally doubled the length of time it takes me to build a puzzle, and even more importantly, the frustration level involved in building them.  But surgery is scheduled for June 26 and July 17, so I'm hoping that things are much better soon so that I can share a few more of my favorites here.)

Do click on the photo for a better look at the puzzle.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World - C.A. Fletcher

There is so much I want to tell you about this book – but I can’t do it because I’ve been asked not to by someone important, the author, who took the time to lead things off with a special “note on spoilers” in which he says this:

            “It’d be a kindness to other readers – not to say this author – if the discoveries made as you follow Griff’s journey into the ruins of our world remained a bit of a secret between us…”

So, I’m extra carefully walking a fine line on this review – but the things I wish I could tell you are right there on the tip of my tongue. That’s how excited I am about this book and how badly I want to see it get into the hands of thousands and thousands of readers.  

Let’s start with the fact that a while back, almost the entire human race lost the ability to reproduce itself, meaning that the Earth’s population has dropped from its peak of 7.5 billion down to less than 9,000 people. Think about that.  9,000 people spread over the Earth’s surface means that surviving families (those over the generations who have mysteriously retained the ability to reproduce) can go an entire lifetime only ever running into a very few people not part of their own family or small group.  And when those strangers show up, it is not always a good thing for the ones being visited.

This is precisely why Griz’s family lives on an island capable of providing everything it needs to sustain life.  Griz describes it this way: “My childhood wasn’t like yours. I’ve never had friends, and in my whole life, I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football.”  All Griz has are his family and his precious dogs.  (Even most of the dogs still around are not able to reproduce themselves, so dogs are a very precious commodity in Griz’s world.)

Author C. A. Fletcher and His Dog
Then one day Griz spots a boat with bright red sails moving toward the island, a boat carrying the stranger who will forever change Griz’s life and, for that matter, his whole world.  After the man steals one of Griz’s two dogs, Griz will know him only as a thief of the worst order.  And the chase is on, because according to Griz, “…there may be no law except what you make of it.  But if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you.  Because if we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?”

What Griz discovers about the world when he makes it to the mainland for the first time in his life will astound the reader just as much as it astounds Griz.  A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is really the story of a boy on a quest to get back what is his, but it is what happens to Griz along the way that makes this novel so memorable.  And as for those spoilers, let’s just say that you will know them when they jump off the page at you, and that you will understand the author’s urgent request to keep them to yourself. I can’t think of a book more easily spoiled than this one, because…well, I just can’t tell you that.

Read this book, everyone.  You can thank me later.

(C. A. Fletcher is a Scottish author, and this is my first exposure to his work. I’m hoping there’s a lot more from Fletcher out there because if A Boy and His Dog is any indication, the man has a wonderful imagination.)

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Hunter's Moon - Philip Caputo

A Philip Caputo novel can always be counted on as an opportunity to get deeply inside the heads of some interesting fictional characters, a chance to remind ourselves about what makes people in the real world - including ourselves - tick. Even though some readers may still want to quibble over whether or not Hunter’s Moon is a novel or a collection of short stories despite the fact that the book explicitly labels itself "a novel in stories," there is definitely plenty to learn about human nature in Caputo's latest.

All but one of the book’s seven interconnected, chronologically-ordered stories are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the exception being the one that takes place in a remote part of Alaska.  Oddly enough, placing one of the stories in the wilds of Alaska makes clear just how remote and wild the Upper Peninsula itself is, and why so many of the damaged souls in Caputo’s stories find some kind of comfort there.  Caputo describes northern Michigan so well that the Upper Peninsula in a way becomes the character that binds his stories together; it is the one constant between six of them and a first cousin to the Alaskan setting of the seventh.  

Author Philip Caputo
These are stories about men and women who are not quite managing to live the lives they had expected for themselves, and their disappointment shows. They include stories about a man struggling to keep a second marriage alive despite his personal demons; a father who really, really dislikes his young adult son; a son who equally dislikes his 85-year-old father with whom he can’t remember ever getting along; and others about people trying to cope with a shared act of sudden violence that forever changed their lives for the worst.  

This being a Philip Caputo book, many of its central characters are veterans of America’s recent wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, and what they experienced in those wars is something they still think about every day of their lives. This is particularly true of the poignant story that closes the book, one in which a young veteran struggles to cope with the guilt that he brought home from the war with him, but it is also a theme that occurs in several of the other stories.  Even the collection's most prominent character is largely defined by what he experienced in Vietnam decades earlier.  

Hunter’s Moon is vintage Philip Caputo; his fans and longtime readers will not be disappointed.

Copy provided for review purposes by Henry Holt & Company

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

The World Before E-Books

Remember the old days, when there were still some people who had not yet heard of e-books and e-readers?  Well, sometimes I miss those days.

See the comments below for further discussion of this topic:

Monday, June 03, 2019

Calypso - David Sedaris

David Sedaris is one of those guys whose books I’ve seen around for what seems ages without ever picking up one of them.  Don’t ask me why that is, because I don’t really have a good answer; it just seems to happen like that sometimes.  And then I spotted the strange little smiley-face on the dustjacket of Calypso in a bookstore one day, and I picked the book up to look inside.  Let’s just say, that I’m glad that I did because now I know what I’ve been missing.

Calypso is a collection of, if I counted correctly, twenty-one glimpses into the world and lifestyle of David Sedaris. Sedaris is known for his comedy, but these stories are as likely to bring a tear to the reader’s eye as they are to make him laugh – and there is a lot of both going on here.  I have no basis upon which to compare Calypso to any previous David Sedaris books, but I can tell you that this time around the man is looking at his life through the lens of middle age and he’s not particularly thrilled by what he sees. 

 But the real beauty of Calypso is the author’s willingness to reveal so much about his personal life, as well as those of his parents and siblings, that even a first-time reader like me comes away from the book feeling as if I’ve been reading Sedaris for years.  Right from the first page the reader is tipped that Sedaris may not look at life quite the way that the rest of us do when he says: “Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room.” There was no way I could quit reading after that opening because I could not imagine the connection between “middle age perk” and “guest room.”

David Sedaris
Along the way, there are personal stories about the suicide of Sedaris’s youngest sister; about his total addiction to the Fit-Bit watch routine; not being able to talk comfortably with his father at any point in his life; his mixed reaction to the legalization of gay marriage; his mother’s alcoholism; and his father’s insistence at unnecessarily scrimping and saving even at age 94.  And if that were not already enough, there are also stories about the author’s really strange relationship with a huge, deformed snapping turtle, the shopping gene he shares with his sisters, and what can happen to a man suffering a severe stomach virus attack while on stage in front of a whole bunch of people.  And that’s not all.  In other words, nothing is off limits in Calypso- and it all works.

If you are already a David Sedaris fan, you already know all of this; but it you are not, it’s not too late to become one.  

Book Number 3,401

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Murder in the Bayou - Ethan Brown

"Murder in the Bayou," by Ethan Brown tells the true story of the murder of eight "sex workers" in small-town Louisiana over the course of just a four-year period. Eight related murders in any city is noteworthy, but eight separate related murders in a town of only 10,000 people is almost impossible to believe. Sadly, it really happened - and nobody in law enforcement there seems to have worried much about it while it was happening.

Despite the serial killer theory being pushed by local law enforcement, it had to have been obvious to anyone paying attention that the murders were directly related to what was happening within the prostitution/drug trade in Jeff Davis Parish.  This was not the work of some random serial killer mining the parish for easy victims.  That eight young women could die at the rate of one every few months over four years is astounding until - according to the author - one takes local law enforcement into account. Ethan Brown agues strongly that local cops, politicians, businessmen, and drug trade power players all were directly involved in the murders. And since to this day none of the murders have been officially solved, one certainly has to wonder if Brown is not correct.

The Eight Murder Victims
Ethan Brown is a brave man: he names names while detailing exactly what he thinks happened to each of the eight murder victims. Brown spent weeks in and around Jennings, Louisiana (home base for most of the animals so intimately involved with these women) interviewing as many of the key players as possible. What Brown learned from those interviews, and others with survivors of the victims, helps make sense of what life must have been like in Jennings between 2005 and 2009 when the women were disappearing at such a rapid rate. What you read will disgust you because if even only half of what Brown says in Murder in the Bayou is true, Jennings was a cesspool at the time - and it might still be one.  

Ethan Brown
Brown is one heck of an investigator, but unfortunately Murder in the Bayou itself is a bit of an organizational mess.  Brown does, for the most part, organize his book chronologically, but it is still sometimes difficult to keep up with the people who move in that world because so few of them are fleshed out to the point that they stand out from the crowd. That this is no In Cold Blood is not surprising, of course, but I can't remember when I've read a book in any genre that ends as abruptly and jarringly as this one. 

Bottom Line: If this book helps finds justice for eight young women who were brutally murdered in a town in which no one with any power seemed to care, it will have have done its job despite its shortcomings.  But the clock continues to tick...and tick...and tick.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

"Happiness is having your own library card!"

I witnessed something just like this happen in the parking lot of my local library Friday morning when a young mother handed her little girl a library card on the way into the building. The scene immediately made me think of this old Peanuts comic strip by the great cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.

I don't know if it was the very first time that little girl held her own library card in her hands or not, but the look on her face was the same combination of happiness and contentment shown here on Sally's face. I am positive that this mother has created another lifelong reader - and we can never have too many of those.

Friday, May 31, 2019

East of Eden: Book vs. Movie

French Movie Poster
I am a longtime fan of John Steinbeck novels, and have read just about all of them now, a few two or three times.  East of Eden has always been one of my favorites of Steinbeck's books, but until earlier this month I had not gotten around to watching the 1955 film version directed by Elia Kazan.  That movie soon became so overshadowed by the premature death of James Dean, one of its young stars, that it is never mentioned today without Dean's death being brought up at the beginning of the conversation - and probably again at the end.  James Dean is that big a Hollywood legend. But that left me curious as to whether or not the movie was capable of standing on its own.

My answer is yes, but it was not easy for reasons I never expected.  This 1955 theatrical trailer will give you a feel for what the film is like (I was particularly impressed with Kazan's direction):

East of Eden, as its title makes obvious, is a retelling of the Cain and Abel bible story, but to Steinbeck's credit his version is a good deal more complicated and nuanced than the original.  James Dean plays the bad brother, by far the meatier role, and he eats it up.  Richard Davalos portrays Dean's brother, Raymond Massey plays their father, Jo Van Fleet is their mother, and Julie Harris the girl who splits the brothers for good.  Too, Burl Ives does a particularly nice job in the role of town sheriff.  

This is definitely still a story of good vs. evil, but a large part of that battle is internalized by James Dean in the role of Cal, a young man whose destructive impulses clash mightily with his deep desire for his father's approval.  Most of the relationships in the film are complicated ones that evolve over time, sometimes for the better, but most of the time for the worse.  What happens to this family and those closest to them is not pretty, and Elia Kazan's actors perform with such an intensity that the film takes on a myth-like tone.

And that leads to the problem with the film I didn't expect to have.  Some of the acting is just too over the top to feel right for today's viewers, especially the way that James Dean portrayed the self-destructive anguish inside Cal.  As I remember one critic saying, most of the time that Dean was on the screen it appears that he is "on the verge of a nervous breakdown."  At best, that is distracting; at worst it is downright annoying.  Julie Harris is the other actor whose body movements do not appear always to be coordinated with what is coming out of her mouth, and she reminded me of a puppet on a string in certain scenes.  
Julie Harris and James Dean

The way that Kazan framed some of his scenes is eye-catching and memorable. I was particularly struck by the scene in which Cal is swinging on a child's swing while talking to his father who is standing on the porch in front of him.  The scene is shot from behind the father, and it is mesmerizing to watch the two hold an entire conversation while Cal swings toward and away from his father in the same way that their conversation ebbs and flows.  But then Kazan also has the habit of having two of his characters talk while he swings the camera directly behind one of them while the conversation continues.  Every time he did that, I was distracted by the visual handicap of not being able to see the speaker's face to help me better judge the mood of what was being said.  It just didn't work for me.

So there you have it.  I don't pretend to be a serious movie critic, and I'm only pointing out my personal impressions of the movie here, but for me this one would rate somewhere between three and four stars out of five.  I'd love to hear what you think of it.

(And, hey, while we're at it what's with all those fancy sweaters this small town farm boy wears throughout the movie - and that Pee Wee Herman kind of walk he does around town?  Sorry...I'll stop now.)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Less - Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is part of my continuing project to read all ninety-four of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners before there are one hundred of them; it is the forty-second one I’ve read over the years.  Now admittedly, my first impression of Less, based entirely on its first fifty or so pages, had me doubting the committee’s 2018 choice, but in the end I agree that Less does indeed deserve its prize.

 Novelist Arthur Less is about to turn fifty, but he is not going to go down without a fight. In fact, Arthur grows more and more irritated when his overeager friends begin to label him a fifty-year-old weeks before his actual birthday, and he never misses an opportunity to remind them rather loudly that he is still a young man of forty-nine, thank you very much. But don’t let Arthur fool you; the man is feeling older and older every day, and that’s largely due to Freddy Pelu, Arthur’s onetime boyfriend, who will soon be marrying another man and heading to Tahiti.   

Arthur has been invited to the wedding, but he knows that attending without making a spectacle of himself is not going to happen.  So what can he do?  In a moment of brilliance, Arthur decides to accept every literary invitation on his desk that will get him out of San Francisco around the time of Freddy’s wedding. No matter how second rate or embarrassing an event may be, if it’s far from San Francisco Arthur Less is your man.  And that is precisely how Arthur will end up traveling around the world for the next new months in search of something he doesn’t even realize that he is looking for until he finds it: himself.

Andrew Sean Greer
First it’s New York to interview on stage a famous science fiction writer, then to Mexico City for a stage reading of his own, to Turin where he has been nominated for a literary prize he’s never heard of, to Berlin to teach a class at a German university, to Morocco where he plans to celebrate quietly his fiftieth birthday with others even if they are strangers, to India to stay at a writers retreat, and then to Japan to write an article for an American magazine.  Arthur even manages to squeeze in an unscheduled little adventure in Paris somewhere in there.  But because Less is largely a novel of self-discovery, nothing goes as planned, and Arthur is forced to spend a lot of time inside his own head where he figures out more about his past and his future than he would have thought possible before packing his suitcase.  

Call this satire, if you will; I call it a love story.  A good one.

Book Number 3,400

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

On Reading the 94 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winners

Author Ernest Poole
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded for the first time just over 100 years ago in 1918.  That first prize went to Ernest Poole for His Family, a novel that deals with the lives of a widower and his three daughters in the 1910s.  The next year the award was given to the more familiar Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, but then in what would set an irritating precedent, no award was presented in 1920 at all.  Subsequently, the award was skipped in 1941, 1946, 1964, 1971, 1974, 1977, and 2012.  

In my opinion, the Pulitzer committee letting this happen is an embarrassment to both the committee (whose "process" has failed) and to the best authors of the day (whose work is thus deemed unworthy of such a prestigious award).  In 2012 when three finalists were named before it was announced that no award was to be presented, it was particularly embarrassing for all concerned.  And of course, this is not even to mention the booksellers around the world who count on literary prizes to boost their bookstore sales every year.  Booksellers count on prizes like the Pulitzer in the way that movie theaters count on the Academy Award for Best Picture.
1956 Winner Andersonville

All this to say that I started regularly reading the Pulitzers in 1980 and, with the exception of a few bad stretches, have done fairly well with keeping up with them.  For instance, I've read everything from the 1980 winner (Mailer's Executioner's Song) through the 2008 winner (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz) with the exception of the winners for 1983, 1993, 2000, and 2001 - then I skip three years, four if you count the infamous no-award year of 2012.  

My point is that even though I've done fairly well since the eighties, I have still read less than half of the winners, so I want to formalize something I've been doing in a leisurely, informal way anyhow.  My new "Read the Pulitzers" project will by definition be both long term and continuing as (hopefully) the Pulitzer committee sees fit to gift its prize every year into the future.  There have been 102 opportunities for the committee to award a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and they have done so 94 times. Of those, I have read forty-one.

So I'm off...but before I go, here's a link to the list of all 94 winners through 2019 and my progress on them.

Quick Update:  Tomorrow I will be finishing up the 2018 winner, Less by Andrew Sean Greer, and will be reviewing it in the next couple of days. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Them: Why We Hate Each Other - and How to Heal - Ben Sasse

Nebraska senator Ben Sasse wrote Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal because he is genuinely concerned about the deep political divide that is destroying the culture this country.  However, while Sasse recognizes the seriousness of the problem, he believes that it is not too late to do something about America’s cultural decline.  I only wish I were even half as optimistic about that as Senator Sasse is.  

Arguing about political differences is not something new; Americans have argued politics since before there was a United States of America and that will never change.  What is different now is that almost no one even tries to debate a political opponent anymore. Instead, we prefer to treat those who do not agree with us as realenemies, and we resort to calling them names, personally ostracizing them, banning their work or products from our lives forever, and viciously ridiculing them at every opportunity that presents itself.  Why is that?

Sasse believes that our cultural split is largely due to the alienation and loneliness that too many people feel today despite being more “connected” to the world than ever before.  The problem is not that people are connected; the problem is that they can never escape that connection, and are instead bombarded 24-7 by what the media today mislabel “news.”  If it’s not CNN or MSNBC, it’s Fox News; if it’s not Twitter, it’s Facebook or whatever social media app is the latest thing; if it’s not TheWashington Post, it’s The Wall Street Journal.  There are media outlets to upset every one of us, and media outlets to reinforce every bias we already have. 

Senator Ben Sasse
So is it any wonder that the old groups or tribes (including our own families) we belonged to throughout our lives have splintered to the point that we are now more likely to be part of what Sasse calls an anti-tribe than part of a more traditional tribe?  Anti-tribes are, after all, nothing more than re-formed tribes whose members share a group of political enemies, and that list of common enemies is all it takes to make us passionate about our new family.  Even worse according to Sasse, Americans are now addicted to what he calls “polititainment,” the art of turning politics into entertainment that was so cynically created by the media in order to maximize its own profits.  But not only the media have monetized politics – politicians use the same anti-tribe message to maximize the political contributions so necessary to ensure their re-election (and every politician is alwaysrunning for re-election).  

Sasse does offer ways to stem the downward slide the U.S. is engaged in, but he admits that this will be a process of “taking back America by inches.” He warns against expecting a sudden or quick turnaround, because his solution may well be a generational one instead, one in which we learn to communicate with our families again; form four or five close friendships that will last the rest of our lives; and remind ourselves of the important role that satisfying work plays in our lives. 

That’s a good start, and maybe in the long run it will help do the trick.  I hope so.  But I believe that Sasse's suggestion that we quit spending our lives watching tiny screens and reading rants from people we have no reason to trust is even more important.

(I read this one via its audiobook version read by the author.)

Book Number 3,399

Monday, May 27, 2019

Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives - Adam Makos

Clarence Smoyer, top center
I didn’t plan it this way, but I find it highly appropriate that I finished Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives by Adam Makos during Memorial Day weekend. Spearhead is perfect for this particular holiday because it is one of those rare World War II histories in which the reader learns as much about the individual soldiers doing battle as about the battles they waged.  

The 3rdArmored Division, “Spearhead,” is legendary for being at the forefront of the final push into Germany that ended the war in Europe – and the tank crew that Makos focuses on was one of the very best in the division. That is largely because the crew was blessed to have Clarence Smoyer as its gunner.  Clarence may have missed out on the formal training given to tank gunners, but it turned out that he was a natural shooter who never missed.  More importantly, some of his shots were so unorthodox in nature that his crew came to feel that Clarence was sometimes the only thing between them and death on the battlefield.

Even Clarence, though, would probably not have been able to save them forever from the German Panthers that so clearly outgunned the American Sherman tanks. It is said that a Panther could take out two side-by-side Shermans with one shot, so Clarence and his crew felt that it was only a matter of time before they would fall prey to a Panther. But that changed one day when Clarence’s crew was given one of the twenty brand new “super tanks” that America rushed into Europe to help offset the superiority of the Panther.  That’s the good news; the bad news is that now Clarence and the boys in their new Pershing would be the lead tank in every offensive that the division was a part of.

Clarence Smoyer
The climax of Spearhead is a personal one involving a duel between Clarence’s Pershing and a Panther whose gunner is teenager Gustav Schaefer.  It is a battle in which only one of the tanks can survive and the victor will help decide in whose hands the city of Cologne is in at the end of the day’s fighting.  But something happens in the middle of their fight that neither gunner expected – something that Clarence will see in his nightmares for decades to come.  In March 2003, Clarence and Gustav got the chance to meet face-to-face again in Cologne to figure out exactly what happened all those years earlier.  

Adam Makos found so much material available to him and his researchers that reading Spearheadis almost like riding along with Clarence and the rest of the tank crew.  Researchers used archive materials from the U.S. and England, period interviews between the crew and war reporters, detailed weather reports, battle orders, and even the transcribed radio logs of tank commanders talking to each other and their crews during the battles.  But perhaps best of all, Makos was able to study the footage shot by Jim Bates in Cologne that day – film footage that even includes Clarence’s one-on-one duel with Gustav when they crossed paths at a Cologne intersection. 

Bottom Line: Spearhead is a remarkable reminder that World War II is not so long ago that we do not still have veterans on both sides suffering from the memories of what they experienced in battle.  (My own father who just turned 97 was member of an artillery battery involved in several of the battles described in Spearhead from Clarence’s point of view.)  Even if military history does not normally appeal to you, don’t miss this one. It is that good.

Book Number 3,398

Sunday, May 26, 2019

It's Sunday, So This Must Be Barnes & Noble - Part 3

(I swear there were really lots of other customers around.)

Barnes & Noble had an unusual feel this morning, and it took me a few minutes to figure out why that was: around 80% of the customers in the store were adult males.  Now that's not something you see every day in a bookstore.  And these were not grown men herding their kids to the children's section of the store or trailing their wives as they moved from section to section. Most of these guys were on their own. The only downside to the mix was that I had to wait my turn to get at some of the books that caught my eye because some guy was already standing there looking at a copy.

But that only slowed me down for so long, and I ended up placing several new books on hold at the library anyway before I left the store (you didn't hear that, Barnes & Noble guys):

The Lost Girls of Paris is a fictionalized account of some brave women who were sent from London during World War II as secret agents into occupied Europe where they served as couriers and radio operators for the resistance. Twelve of the women disappeared, and when an American woman finds their pictures in a lost briefcase in 1946 New York City, she is determined to learn their stories and what happened to them. 

You will notice a theme in the other three books I added to my list; bookstores or libraries play a prominent role in each of them. That's not at all unusual for me, because I'm a real sucker for this kind of fiction.  The Bookshop of Yesterdays is about Miranda Brooks who inherits a bookstore from the man who was her favorite uncle when she was a child. She has no idea why he became estranged from the family, but via a scavenger hunt her uncle set up inside the store before he died, she is about to find out.

What's even better than a bookstore? A well stocked library does it for me.  The Library of Lost and Found is about a librarian who feels perfectly fine around books, but not at all comfortable around people - and she worries about it.  But then she receives a gift at the library that draws her out of her shell, a book of fairy tales dedicated to her by her dead grandmother. Is Zelda, her grandmother, really dead? Maybe not, and Martha is determined to find out for herself.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is set in a rural town in 1968 Australia where Tom Hope meets Hannah Babel (there's obviously a plot tip in those surnames).  Tom does not know why Hannah (an Auschwitz survivor) wants to open a bookstore in their tiny town, but he feels a connection with her from the moment they meet and she hires him to build the shelves for her new store.  The question is can a man who admits he's only ever read one book in his entire life successfully court a woman whose entire life centers around books and readers.

These four bring my current hold list up to twelve, but I did finish a couple of books earlier today so all is not lost. Appropriately enough for this Memorial Day, one of the books I finished was a World War II history by Adam Makos called Spearhead. That one is all about tankers and their tanks, and it covers the final push into Germany during the last year of the war. Believe it or not, the reunion between an American gunner and a German tanker that takes place at the end of the book is likely to bring tears to the eyes of most of its readers (me among them).  This is a touching story that shows how the humanity in man can survive even the worst moments in history. More on this one later.