Sunday, August 25, 2019

Louise Penny and Inspector Gamache No. 15: A Better Man

I was very slow in discovering Louise Penny's wonderful Inspector Gamache novels, and I still haven't read the entire series. I'm not even sure what caused me to pick up Bury Your Dead back in December 2010, but that has to be one of the most rewarding book choices I made during that entire year because it opened up a whole new world to me. Penny's fictional village of Three Pines is so real to me that I feel like I've been there, and I always look forward to my annual visit there via her latest Gamache crime novel. I hope she keeps them coming for a long, long time because Gamache, even when he's in retirement or semi-retirement, is one hell of a cop.

The video below is a CBS Sunday Morning report from July 2017, but it offers some insight into Penny and the relationship she has with her devoted fanbase. I got to thinking about her this morning while at Barnes & Noble because her fifteenth Inspector Gamache novel, A Better Man, will be available next Tuesday (August 27), and I want to grab a copy early on even if I don't immediately read it. Am I the only one who sometimes put my favorites away so that I can enjoy the anticipation of reading them? It's almost like I know I have some extra money in the bank. Weird, right?



One of my more hopeless book projects is to put together a hardback collection of all the Gamache books, so I jumped all over the two that I found on a B&N remainders table this morning: A Great Reckoning and Glass Houses. And then over lunch with a friend, the subject came up and he went out to his car and retrieved a pristine copy The Brutal Telling that he gave to me (some things are just meant to be). I already had an ARC of that one, but the hardcopy does give my mini-collection of Gamache books a little more consistency, so I was happy to get it.

And next week, I plan to add the new one. Life is good.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Eighth Sister - Robert Dugoni


It was only after I read Robert Dugoni’s The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell that I learned the author is probably better known for the two series that he continues to add to, the David Sloane series (of five books) and the Tracy Crosswhite series (of six books), than he is for his three standalone novels. I was suitably impressed by Sam Hell and decided to explore the author’s backlist a bit. Before I could do that, however, I got sucked in by a brand-new Robert Dugoni spy thriller called The Eighth Sister that has left me more determined than ever to check out the Dugoni backlist.

The Eighth Sister impresses me as kind of a throwback to all those Cold War era spy novels that I’ve read and enjoyed over the years except that it’s a little more cynical than I remember most of those novels as having been. There are the usual agents, double agents, even the semblance of a team-rivalry between the various spy agencies (both domestic and foreign) in this one, but what strikes me as most unusual is Dugoni’s decision to use a 6-foot five black man as his spy hero. After all, it will not be easy for a man like Charles Jenkins to blend into the background in Mexico and Russia, the two countries in which Jenkins works for the CIA. I admit to being a bit skeptical at first but realized soon enough that this kind of challenge makes the Charles Jenkins character even more fun than he otherwise would have been.

Robert Dugoni
Charles Jenkins is in his early sixties and he has not worked for the CIA in decades, ever since becoming so disillusioned with the agency that he walked away from it without a word to his superiors. Jenkins, married with a young son and a baby on the way, now runs a security consulting business that is struggling to fight off what seems to be an imminent declaration of bankruptcy. So, when his old Mexico bureau chief shows up at his door and offers Jenkins a CIA assignment that will pay him enough money to save his business and his home, he reluctantly agrees to take the job. A Russian agent is identifying and killing, one-by-one, a group of seven Russian women (known within the agency as the seven sisters) who have been spying for the U.S. for a number of years. That deadly Russian agent has been dubbed the eighth sister – and the CIA wants Jenkins to find her. 

But when Jenkins does identify the eighth sister, he learns that she is not at all what he expected her to be – nor, it seems, is anyone else with whom he’s been dealing. Now he will be lucky to get out of Russia with his life, much less save the lives of the four surviving sisters.

The Eighth Sister is a fast-paced thriller that turns out to be almost a chess match between Jenkins and the Russian agent who is chasing him across Russia. The two men are so well matched, in fact, that they grudgingly begin to respect each other’s abilities and to plan their next moves accordingly. Jenkins may be a master of misdirection, but after the Russian begins to take that particular talent of his into account he draws closer and closer to the fleeing American. Little does Jenkins know, though, that even if he makes it out of Russia, he will have to face an even more powerful enemy that wants to destroy him.

Bottom Line: The Eighth Sister is a highly atmospheric and well-researched spy thriller that is sure to please fans of the genre. Dugoni’s descriptions of the Russian winter almost gave me frost bite, but I still enjoyed this one so much that I want to explore the Dugoni backlist now more than ever. Good stuff.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Red Moon - Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon will be different things to different people. Science Fiction fans will embrace this near future novel because so much of it takes place on the moon in the year 2047 – and because Robinson hits relatively heavily on the scientific aspects of exploring and colonizing the moon. Thriller fans will be equally entertained because of the long, involved chase of the novel’s two central characters by some very powerful and evil people, a chase that sees Fred Fredericks and Chan Qi in great danger whether they are trying to hide on Earth or on the moon. Fans of novels about political infighting are likely to be intrigued by Robinson’s insights into how the Chinese government functions and how tenuously it holds itself together in moments of succession at the top. And those who enjoy learning history via solid historical fiction, are going to be left with a lot to think about when they turn the final page of Red Moon.

Fred Fredericks, to be kind, is a rather shy, naïve young American traveling to the moon to deliver some communications hardware to the Chinese colony there for his Swiss employer. It is Fred’s first trip to the moon, making it easy for him to befriend the elderly Chinese poet/television personality who is also landing on the moon for the first time. The two men bond over their shared fear that their landing craft is approaching the moon’s surface much too rapidly for anyone to survive the looming crash. By the time that a landing so gentle that neither man felt it has been accomplished, the two are fast friends.

But Fred, unbeknownst to him, had more than a lunar landing to worry about because almost immediately he is caught up in a Chinese power struggle that leaves him on the run with Chan Qi, the pregnant daughter of an influential Chinese politician. Fred is accused of a crime he has no memory of, and Chan Qi is believed to be behind the massive political protests taking place on Earth. Now both of them are running for their lives, and neither Earth nor the moon is a big enough place for them to hide. 

Kim Stanley Robinson
Red Moon has a lot going for it. Robinson always takes the “science” part of “Science Fiction” seriously, and among the other aspects of colonial life on the moon he explores, he has particular fun revealing the difficulties of moving around in a gravity only one-sixth of Earth’s – which proves to be a major problem for someone as unathletic as Fred. The book’s plot is certainly thriller-like, but Robinson never gets in a big hurry to move it along. Instead, he spends as much time developing his main characters – especially the budding relationship between Fred and Chan Qi – as he does moving them in and out of danger. The novel is highly atmospheric, even to the point that Robinson is never afraid to slow the action down long enough to describe an earthrise or some exotic lunar location Fred and Chan Qi are traveling through. 

Bottom Line: Red Moon is science fiction with a message. It manages to combine philosophy, politics, and scientific speculation in a manner that remains entertaining from the first page to the last, and it moves along at just the right pace to do that. But if you prefer your thrillers to maintain a frantic pace from beginning to end, Red Moon may not be for you. My one quibble with the book is that it ended before I expected it to end, leaving me with a few unanswered questions to wonder about. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Choice, So Much Choice: How Do We Keep Up?

I can’t remember ever being more overwhelmed by choice when it comes to deciding what I’m going to read next. I still remember those days before the internet when I dreaded finishing a book because I had no idea where my next book was coming from. That, of course, was because no internet, meant no way to download a book in ten or fifteen seconds any hour of the day that the urge struck me to do so, and because books were relatively expensive to me when compared to my piddling amount of disposable income. 

And no internet, meant that I had to work hard to learn about new books because I pretty much had to depend on the Sunday newspaper to review maybe four or five books for me that were being released that week. If I was lucky, one or two of them might even appeal to me; if I was even luckier, I might be able to scrape together the money to buy one of them. Nowadays an avid booklover can find more book news than they can possibly read or absorb before it goes out of date. With just a few exceptions, American newspapers have canned just about all of their book reviewers, but there are book blogs, book vlogs, Amazon and Barnes & Noble reader-reviews, on line literary magazines, print magazines dedicated to new books, library site reviews, GoodReadsLibraryThing, and on, and on, and on. So much choice.

Last week I posted about the exercise I went through to cull a few books off the TBR list I keep over on GoodReads. That resulted in three books being removed, a good thing, but I almost immediately added two books to the same list based on a comment made on the very post noting the three-book removal. Net gain: one book less on the list. 

The GoodReads list (123) is made up mostly of books published in the last ten years or so, but not a whole lot of them from the current year, so I have been keeping a handwritten second list of newly published books (44) that I depend on my library to find for me if I can’t somehow first snag a pre-publication review copy. (I know that makes it sound as if I don’t buy books anymore, but I’ve already bought five in August and the month still has ten days to go. Now let’s add all those books (37) that have been given to me this year (I call these my “trunk books” because that’s where I keep them), all of which I want to read sooner or later, and we are up to 209 books that I fully intend to read at some point. I won’t even try to count  the several dozen books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet – because I’m not crazy enough to believe that I will ever read all of those.

So, I’m going to try something different for a while by simultaneously reading a book from each of these categories:

·     Review Copies
·     Library Copies
·     Bookshelf Copies
·     Trunk Books

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This is in lieu of allowing my choices to be limited by what is on the TBR lists, because let’s face it, those lists will never go away – and none of us really want them to. But of course, there are many, many TBR list books in each of the four categories I’ve designated, so this is kind of a win-win proposition. If I don't do something like this, I know that I will end up reading nothing but books published in the current year - and that can't be good.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir - Jaquira Díaz

That Jaquira Díaz is a survivor cannot be argued. The odds that Díaz would be able to turn her life around as dramatically as she seems to have done had to have been pretty heavily stacked against her when she was growing up in housing projects in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach. Compounding Díaz’s problems, her mother battled schizophrenia all her life, her maternal grandmother was mentally unstable, and Díaz herself had to battle depression so bad that it led to multiple suicide attempts on her part. But survive, she did, and now she is telling the world all about it in Ordinary Girls: A Memoir.

So how did she do it? A big part of the story is that Díaz’s love of books and stories not only helped her to survive a childhood largely spent drinking, drugging, and fighting on the streets and beaches of Miami with her friends, but also offered her the career path she has embraced as an adult. Her father may have not always been there for Díaz – and he regularly failed to protect her from her mother’s destructive behavior – but he was a man who loved books and reading. Reading her father’s books made Díaz feel closer to him despite his shortcomings, and even during the most chaotic and lowest periods of her adolescence, she never lost the desire to turn herself into a writer.

But it wasn’t easy to get there.

Díaz tells us that she was a runner, someone who ran from her problems rather than facing them head on. Damn the consequences. Whenever the combination of circumstances and depression reached an unbearable pitch, she walked away from good jobs, from marriage to a man who wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, from a promising stint with the U.S. Navy, from school, from her family, and from anyone else who tried to help her. The problem was that she almost always ran in the wrong direction. Díaz did, though, have a loyal core of friends - those “ordinary girls” of the book’s title - whom she counted on to get her through just one more day or night every time she couldn’t do it on her own .  And they did just that.

Jaquira Díaz
Despite being an avowed feminist and social warrior, Díaz and her friends seem to have completely embraced the Hip Hop lifestyle during their teen years, a lifestyle that (at least from the outside looking in) is the antitheses of feminism. She and her friends knew the lyrics to dozens of rap songs and took great joy in singing them together, but still seemed surprised when anything akin to those lyrics intruded on their real world. Sexual violence, drug and alcohol abuse, a mentally ill mother, a largely absent father (even when he was there), violent fights with other girls, and arrests and court appearances were all part of Diaz’s adolescence. Her solution was usually to run from one bad decision to the next.

Yes, the odds were stacked against her, but she made it. I only wish I knew what finally turned her around for good and how it happened, but that is a frustrating thing about Ordinary Girls. Díaz doesn’t really tell us what finally did it for her other than suggesting that her childhood friends were instrumental in making it possible for her to become who she is today. I don’t doubt that for a minute, but I am disappointed that she did not share more about the rest of her life with us. About the closest thing we get is one three-sentence paragraph in which Díaz mentions college, graduate school, editing a magazine, teaching, working as a financial aid counselor, and taking care of her paternal grandmother - with exactly this much detail.

All of that has the makings of a second memoir, so perhaps that is the plan. If not, opportunity lost.

Copy provided by Algonquin Books for review purposes

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Bookstores I Wish I Had Visited When I Was Within 50 Miles of Them - Parnassus Books (Nashville)


Unlike the bookstore that I featured here a few days ago, Ann Patchett's Parnassus Books is still in business, so it is not too late for me to visit this one. I don't get to Nashville much anymore, and the last time I was there I couldn't get to Parnassus before it closed up for the day. But I'm still hopeful that I will make it there one day - and lucking into a day when Ann Patchett is in the store would be the icing on the cake. 

Patchett is called the "Patron Saint of Indie Bookstores" for a good reason, as will become instantly clear in this video. She is such a goodwill ambassador for bookstores, not just her own, that I can't imagine anyone being more perfectly suited for the designation. I had the good fortune of hearing her speak at a book festival in San Antonio a few years ago, and still recall how genuine a people-person, Ms. Patchett is. 

And my experience with her books, has placed her firmly on a short list of authors whose new work I'm always on the alert for. In the meantime, these are some of my favorite Ann Patchett books:


My Personal Favorite
 I did not start reading Ann Patchett until 2012, and I started with 2011's State of Wonder, the story of a scientist who goes to the Amazon to recover the personal effects of her mentor who has died in the jungle. She is to meet the unresponsive doctor he worked with and find out exactly what is happening on the research project. My complete review is here.


Ann Patchett's first novel was published in 1992 and it reminds me a little of John Irving's Cider House Rules. The Irving novel is set in an abortion clinic and The Patron Saint of Liars is set in a home for unwed mothers. What makes them seem so similar to me is that the central characters of both novels have created perfectly normal lives for themselves in both places.


The Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays that reads more like a memoir than many memoirs read. For those interested, Patchett has also written a memoir called Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, but I much prefer this one. 



Of the five Ann Patchett books I've read, these are my favorites, but there are another five or six of the author's books I can still look forward to reading for the first time, something that makes me happy. Only two days ago, in fact, I moved Patchett's Bel Canto near the top of my TBR list, so maybe I should order a signed copy from Parnassus Books. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Keep or Go? Why Deleting Books from My To-Be-Read List Is No Simple Task

Mainly because I feel that my TBR stacks are totally out of control, I've been in a list-making mood all week long. I can honestly say that my stacks are more organized now than ever before, and that they feel more under control - but they are just as long as ever, so I'm not sure that I've really accomplished much of anything.

But then I noticed a meme over on The Writerly Reader book blog that will almost painlessly push me to shorten the stacks by eliminating a few of those books that don't have a chance of ever getting read in this lifetime. It's pretty simple, really. Just go to my "Want to Read" label at GoodReads, identify the five or ten books that have been on that list the longest, and make a simple "Keep" or "Go" decision about each of them. Then, immediately delete all the ones marked "Go," (assuming, of course, there will actually be some so designated). 

So here goes:


On the list since March 20, 2012,

Well, it's David McCullough, a writer whose work I admire, and it's John Adams a president I find truly fascinating since watching the HBO series on him years ago.  This is not a good start.  Keep



Also on the list since March 20, 2012. I must have been feeling particularly ambitious that day. I'm not as familiar with Walter Isaacson's writing as I am McCulloughs, but my knowledge of Einstein's life is embarrassingly limited. Oh, well...at least I remember now that the book is on my list.  Keep


Also on the list since March 20, 2012. Three biographies added on the same day. What in the world was I thinking? I still find Lincoln fascinating and admirable, but I've read nearly a dozen Lincoln bios over the years, and I think I can make it through without reading this one. We have a winner.
Go


Added this one to the list on March 29, 2012. It is a collection stories, essays, humor pieces, lists, and the like that are sure to appeal to the book-lover, but honestly, I've read so many similar books in the last few years that this one doesn't particularly appeal to me anymore, so it has to Go.



On the list since March 30, 2012. I'm a fan of Ann Patchett's novels, so I can't explain why this one is still on the TBR. Obviously, I forgot all about it or Bel Canto would have been read a long time ago, so this TBR review is serving two very different purposes: moving some books to the top of the list and tossing others completely off the same list.  Keep


For some reason, GoodReads has this one out of chronological order. It was added to the list on March 22, 2012. It is a Joyce Carol Oates novel (this is the French cover) using Marilyn Monroe as a central character. Because of a personal encounter with JCO's temper I had a couple of years ago, I won't be reading her again. This is an easy one: GO.


Added to the list on March 30, 2012. I was probably initially attracted to this one by its title alone. But it is a translation of a really interesting German novel that is part murder mystery and part coming-of-age novel. I'm still curious about this one.

Keep



On the list since April 6, 2012, this one is a combination of two of my favorite things to read about: baseball and time travel. That's not a combination you run across very often. I even have an ARC of this 2007 novel somewhere around the house, so why haven't I yet read it? I wish I knew.
Keep


Added this one on tax day, April 15, 2012. I was lucky enough to visit Shakespeare & Co. in Paris twice, and I'm sure that's why I put this Canadian's insider's account of what it was like to work and live in this amazing bookstore in its prime on the list. I'm starting to like how this little project is getting me to move some of these to the top of the list.  Keep


Placed this one on the list on April 17, 2012. I remember thinking that I owed it to myself - and the authors I had the nerve to be reviewing - to read this one in order to write the best reviews I could write. It was hard to find in 2012, but I just noticed that it's available as a Kindle book for five bucks (another good side effect of this exercise).  Keep

So there you have it. I was hoping for an elimination-rate of at least fifty percent, but I'm honestly kind of surprised that I hit even thirty percent. That gets my GoodReads TBR down from 124 books to 121, but the best part is that I've rediscovered some good ones that I had forgotten all about.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Chances Are - Richard Russo

Richard Russo is one of those writers who has not felt compelled to publish a novel every year just because so many of us have come to expect that from our favorite authors – and his slower pace is reflected in the consistently high quality of his work. Russo, who was first published in 1986 (Mohawk), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction some sixteen years later with what was only his fifth book, Empire FallsChances Areis only his ninth novel (he has also published two short story collections, a memoir, and a collection of essays) in a career that now spans something like thirty-five years. And it is one very fine novel.

It’s September, and most of the tourists and summer residents have finally packed up and left Martha’s Vineyard for another year. But three sixty-six-year-old men, friends since they first met as college freshmen, have decided to spend a weekend on the island catching up and reminiscing about the experiences they shared in the crazy 1960s. The men are still close friends but have not been together for ten years, so there is a lot to talk about. The real question is how willing they are to share some of the secrets they’ve been hiding from each other.

Lincoln is now a commercial real estate broker in Las Vegas where he lives with his wife, the mother of his six children. As he tells it, he is financially comfortable now, but he was a much richer man in 2008 before the crash. Consequently, Lincoln is under some pressure to sell the Martha’s Vineyard property he inherited from his mother. Teddy is an academic who runs a tiny press for a university in Syracuse and has discovered that he is very good at fixing things – especially broken books. Mickey, who lives in nearby Cape Cod, is a musician who fronts a regionally-popular band and enjoys much the same lifestyle that he has lived since he was in his twenties.  Of the three men, he is the one who seems to have changed the least since they went to school together in Connecticut.

Richard Russo
However, there is someone missing from this reunion, and all three men feel her absence deep down inside themselves. Jacy was the sorority girl they were all in love with, each of them secretly hoping that he would be the one Jacy chose to spend the rest of her life with – despite how guilty they still feel about having been so willing to betray the trust and friendship of the other two Musketeers if that’s what it took to win Jacy’s love. But then, in 1971 during their last weekend together, Jacy disappeared from the island, never to be heard from again, and that kind of betrayal became unnecessary. 

What, though, happened to Jacy? Her disappearance was never solved, and when Lincoln starts asking questions about that weekend, disturbing answers begin to surface.

Chances Are, despite the unsolved mystery it centers itself around, is not really a mystery novel. Rather, it is a literary novel that depends on its exceptionally well-developed characters to keep its readers turning pages. Russo proves himself to be such a master of misdirection here that his readers are certain to be fascinated as the author subtly reveals one clue after the other about who Lincoln, Teddy, Mickey, and Jacy are and how they became those people. And, too, this one has one of the most satisfying and well-written endings that I’ve read so far this year. Chances Are is one I’ll be recommending to my friends for years to come.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Bookstores I Wish I Had Visited Before It Was too Late


I make a habit of visiting any interesting bookstore that I run across while traveling, but there are so many wonderful stores that I will never get to that it makes me a little sad to think of what I'm missing. Here's an example of a bookstore that I will never see other than through this wonderful YouTube video.

Brooklyn's Community Bookstore seems to have closed its doors sometime in 2016, but what an adventure it would have been to spend a day shopping there. It had to have been a sad day for the neighborhood when this one closed its doors for the final time. But time moves on, and the 69-year-old owner of the store just couldn't keep up the pace anymore, so another unique bookstore bit the dust.   But don't feel too sorry for owner John Scioli because after doing business in it for thirty years, he sold the building for $5.5 million. (Location, location, location.)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What's Wrong with This Picture? Does It Increase or Decrease Book Sales?

Click Photo for Expanded View

We live in the most politically correct/sensitive times in the history of the world. And that's not nearly the bold statement it may at first appear to be. I find myself almost every day hesitating to say something in public because I fear using a racially insensitive (as in, out of date) term that may offend someone within listening distance. After all, a word that was totally acceptable a day earlier could have been replaced by a whole new term almost overnight. That's how quickly social mores seem to change these days - and, in my opinion, it's stressful and it doesn't really do much to bring us all closer together the way we should be. Rather,  all too often it becomes just another source of division, and those of us who haven't received the latest memo are ridiculed, misunderstood, or worse. 

Well, that brings me to today's visit to the book section of Target this morning. I've noticed this there before, but this morning I decided to take a picture and raise a basic question about the way that Target markets books written by black (jeez, is "black" even still acceptable a term) authors. You will notice that the section of the book department pictured up above is made up of only minority authors - the shelves just to the right are being used for popular bestsellers.

My real question is this: why are minority readers not insulted by this little segregated area amongst all the books being sold by Target? Doing it this way, means that all, or just about all, black authors are going to be confined to this part of the store rather than being mixed into the other sections of the shelves their books would normally be placed if the author were not a black person. Is that not insulting both to the authors and to their readers? I read books by minority authors from all over the world on a regular basis, but I'm more inclined to search for them in the non-fiction, fiction, memoir, or cooking sections of the shelves where they belong.

I know that Barnes & Noble did the same thing for several years, actually labeling the section using a racial description (Black Literature, if I remember correctly) of the authors. I thought that was odd even way back then, and noted that two black authors of prominence were not happy about it, Thomas Sowell in a townhall.com column of May 2007 and Juan Williams in a Wall Street Journal editorial of November 2009. 

So why didn't Target get the memo?

Thomas Sowell
If Rachael Ray had been black, there are bookstores where her cookbook would not be displayed in the same section with all the other cookbooks. It would be displayed off in a special section for black authors.

This means that many people who were looking for cookbooks would not even see Rachael Ray's cookbook, much less buy it.

This is not rocket science but it seems to have escaped the notice of those publishers who supply racial information on their authors, thereby jeopardizing sales of their own books.
...
This is only one of many examples of how much this generation -- especially the "educated" part of it -- has let symbolism over-ride substance. With just a moment's thought, anyone whose IQ is not in single digits would see the absurdity of the idea of losing book sales for the sake of symbolism. But the real problem is that so many people today don't stop and think when they are being swept along by some fashionable notion. The notion of honoring black ("African American") writers with a special section in bookstores is just one of innumerable fashionable symbolic notions that ignore consequences.

Juan Williams

As the author of books on black history and black culture, I was disappointed but not surprised. To see a working-class 30-ish black woman with a book these days is almost always to find her reading a selection from the fastest-growing segment of African-American letters, a genre called "ghetto lit" or "gangster lit."

The best that can be said about these books is that they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. Black women are much bigger readers than black men, and gangster lit dominates the best-seller list in Essence Magazine, which calculates rankings using sales at black-owned bookstores nationwide. Recent titles shout out to the hard, fast lifestyle: "Bad Girlz 4 Life," "Still Hood" and "From the Streets to the Sheets." 
[...]
The black imagination as revealed in gangster lit is centered on the world of drug dealers— "dough boys" who are heavy with drug money—and the get-rich-quick rappers and athletes who mimic the druggie lifestyle. And there are lots of "ghetto-fabulous" women, referring to themselves as bitches, carrying brand-name handbags and wearing big, gaudy jewelry. Attitude and anger are everything. The dispiriting word "nigger" is used freely by black characters talking about one another.
[...]
At least two black-owned publishing houses have been created as a result of the growing market for these books. Large established publishers, including Simon & Schuster, Kensington Books and St. Martin's, are on the bandwagon. They created "urban fiction" divisions after realizing that the grass-roots demand for these books was strong enough that authors were making money with vanity-press printing and hand-to-hand sales at black beauty salons, over the Internet and even from car trunks.
[...]
Not only the best but the worst that can be said about these books is they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. They are poorly written, poorly edited and celebrate the worst of black life.
[...]
It is hard to believe, but legendary black writers telling stories about the full scope of the black experience, from Langston Hughes to Toni Morrison, are being pushed aside. Inspirational books on black history or the civil-rights struggle are now for the classroom only. Even libraries now stock gangster-lit novels, because they bring new readers in the door.
 
Links to my two original posts on this topic:

"Bookstore Ghettoes", May 10, 2007 

Ghetto Lit - Good, Bad, Embarrassing?, November 5, 2009


Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Lost Girls of Paris - Pam Jenoff

After reading three novels by Pam Jenoff, I’ve rather reluctantly come to the conclusion that the author is a romance novelist disguised as a writer of historical fiction. That kind of thing is far enough from my reading tastes that I’m not sure why it took me this long to figure it out. The romance around which The Winter Guest is built is integral to the plot, so I never wondered why it was there. But in rereading my 2011 review of The Things We Cherish, I see that the romance in the “present day” section of the novel struck me as a waste of precious pages that could have been far better used to advance her core plot. And now, there’s The Lost Girls of Paris, a novel that has an implausible romance as a key element of its 1944 section and an equally silly one in its 1946 section. 

But that’s hardly my main problem with Lost Girls. No, this one commits what I consider to be the mortal sin of novelists: Instead of showing me what happens in the book’s climax, Jenoff tells me what happened– all in a brief recap.  A build-up of over 350 pages suddenly comes to a screeching halt in the book’s last two or three pages; that’s just not right, and I still feel cheated. 

So, what’s The Lost Girls of Paris about? Well, it does have the kind of plot that could have resulted in an excellent piece of historical fiction. Grace Healey, a young woman  late for work, stumbles upon a lost suitcase in 1946 Grand Central Station. She knows she shouldn’t do it, but Grace indulges her curiosity long enough to open the suitcase for a quick look – and then walks away with the photographs of twelve young women she found inside.

Pam Jenoff
Grace, who lost her husband in an accident shortly before he was to be deployed to his WWII duty station, feels a kinship with this group of women that she can’t explain to herself. But it is only when she figures out who the suitcase belongs to, and that the twelve women were all deployed out of London into Occupied Europe to help prepare France for the Allied invasion, that Grace realizes that she will not be able to rest until she figures out what happened to the women in the pictures. And what she learns is not pretty.

The Lost Girls of Paris follows a familiar pattern for Pam Jenoff novels in that it simultaneously tells two stories set a few years apart through the viewpoints of multiple characters. This time, one of the plots runs through 1944 and the other occurs in 1946, and there are three distinct narrators (Grace; the woman who lost the suitcase; and one of the women whose picture is found in the suitcase). It is an interesting enough book to make me want to learn more about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) authorized by Churchill and the men and women sent behind enemy lines to sabotage and otherwise subvert Germany’s attempt to conquer the world. That’s something I want to learn more about even though (or maybe, especially because) the novel’s characters are so poorly developed that they never quite seem like real people in real danger. I'm disappointed because this one could/should have been so much better than it is.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Remembering Toni Morrison - A Video Tribute from the New York Times

This New York Times tribute to Toni Morrison, I think, gives us a good feel for how much Toni Morrison achieved during her time on this earth and how she perceived herself toward the end of her life.  She was a truly remarkable woman.  There is an awful lot packed into this video of just over four minutes.





Thursday, August 08, 2019

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee - Casey Cep

Most readers know that Harper Lee only wrote one book, the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and that she suffered from a complicated kind of writer’s block for the rest of her life. That the rather infamous Go Set a Watchman was published in July 2015 really doesn’t change that fact, becauseWatchman is really nothing more than Lee’s failed first attempt at having a novel published. She was asked to re-write Watchman from the point of view of Scout as a child and to limit the book’s plot to an incident from the 1930s. She did so, and the rest is history. So, Go Set a Watchman is just the failed first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I wish it had never been published. And considering the state of her health in 2015, I have to wonder if Lee truly realized what publishing that failed manuscript would really mean to her legacy– or if she even realized it was being published at all. 

But the bigger question is why Harper Lee was never able to complete another book. What was she doing all those years between the immediate explosion of Mockingbird and her death? Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee provides some of the answers to that literary mystery.   

Furious Hours is really three books in one. The first half of the book details the life and crimes of one Reverend Willie Maxwell, a preacher in rural Alabama who in the 1970s was accused of murdering five members of his family in order to cash in on the numerous life insurance policies he had purchased on their lives. There is little doubt that Maxwell was a serial murderer, but authorities were never able to collect enough evidence to convict him of any of his crimes. Maxwell, however, did not get away with murder. Instead, he was himself shot at pointblank range while attending services for one of his own victims. The resulting trial of Maxwell’s killer was sensational enough that it caught the attention of Harper Lee, and she traveled from her New York City apartment back to Alabama to see what would happen. She believed that she had finally found her next book, and she was hoping that it would be as big as Truman Capote’s in Cold Blood, a book for which she was largely responsible.

Most of the second half of Furious Hours is a concise Harper Lee biography. But it is the kind of biography that seeks to understand its subject’s mental state as much as the simple facts of her life. Harper Lee was a very private person, with a few close friends and colleagues (most of whom never even saw the inside of her apartment in the decades they knew her), and she liked it that way. She refused to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird or what she was currently working on, and even the neighbors who lived on the same apartment building floor as her for years had no idea that she was a world-famous author. She was also a woman who drank to excess (whether this was a cause or an effect of her writer’s block is debatable) and suffered from depression to the extent that her friends and her two sisters worried greatly about her state of mind. According to Casey Cep, “after three dark decades” Lee’s life finally took a turn for the better when she finally admitted to herself that she would never finish the book about the Maxwell murders – or any other book. The relief she felt was obvious to those around her and it showed in her correspondence. 

The final chapter of Furious Hours, titled “The Long Good-Bye,” comprises what I consider to be the book’s third distinct section. This is an accounting of Harper Lee’s final years, including what her life was like after her March 2007 stroke, and it includes the circumstances surrounding publication of the infamous Go Set a Watchman manuscript that in so many ways would have been better off never seeing the light of day.

Bottom Line: Furious Hours is a worthy addition to the study of Harper Lee and her work, and it helps explain why she never completed another book after the overwhelming success she experienced with To Kill a Mockingbird.True crime fans will be intrigued by the utter audacity of a killer like Willie Maxwell, but readers wanting to learn more about why Harper Lee seemed to shut down after Mockingbird are going to find a goldmine here.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Pretty Girls - Karin Slaughter


Warning: Karin Slaughter’s 2015 crime thriller Pretty Girls is not for readers who have weak stomachs or especially vivid imaginations. In fact, this one, with its graphic depictions of bondage and torture, makes the run of the mill Stephen King horror novel read like something from the pen of Jane Austen. 

Two decades ago, three sisters, the eldest of them nineteen years old, were part of a close-knit Southern family. Julia was a college freshman living away from home for the first time in her life, and her younger sisters, Lydia and Claire, were still at home with their parents. The girls were growing up, and although their parents were not thrilled about that prospect, their future seemed to be a bright one. But everything changed on the night that Julia disappeared while making the short walk back to her dormitory room from a local bar. Julia was never found or heard from again, and her family came apart at the seams. Lydia and Claire barely acknowledge the existence of the other now and have not spoken for at least twenty years. It is like Julia’s abductor killed the whole family – because he did.

Karin Slaughter
Today, Lydia is a single parent raising a sixteen-year-old daughter of her own and dating the ex-con who lives next door. Claire, on the other hand, is married to a multi-millionaire architect and living the good life in Atlanta. Their worlds and their lives could not be more different. But worlds have a way of colliding, and theirs are about to do exactly that. It is only after Claire suffers a tragedy of her own that she discovers that the life she has been living for the last two decades has been nothing but an illusion. Everywhere she looks, she learns more of the shocking truth – and when the cops and the FBI start threatening her, Claire realizes she can trust no one with what she has learned; she is on her own. 

And then Lydia knocks on Claire’s front door and refuses to leave. 

This is the point in the book where squeamish readers may start second-guessing their desire to continue reading Pretty Girls. Claire soon discovers exactly what happened to her sister all those years ago, and that it also happened to a lot of other girls who looked a whole lot like Julia. What Julia suffered is disturbing on its face, but the graphic details of torture, bondage, and humiliation described by Slaughter bring Pretty Girls to a level of horror that few thrillers of this type even attempt – and this is a long book. Just be warned. 

While I can admire Slaughter’s writing and story-telling skills, I don’t feel right in saying that I “enjoyed” this one or that it “entertained” me. If it had not been an audiobook that I started while on a road trip (and the audio reader makes the torture scenes especially real), I’m not sure that I would have even finished it. But it was one hell of a ride, and I won’t soon forget it – hard as I may try to do so.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Toni Morrison Dead at 88


Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1987 novel Beloved, died in New York on Monday at age 88 after what her family describes as a short illness (believed at this time to be complications from pneumonia). Beloved is part of a trilogy that includes 1992's Jazz and 1997's ParadiseWhile Beloved is almost certainly destined to be the novel for which Morrison will be best remembered, she authored numerous other novels that will be not be soon forgotten, such as The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby. Morrison also authored children's books, plays, short stories, and non-fiction titles. 


On a personal note, I remember very well how a large group of black writers and critics made a public statement in the New York Times to the effect that it was an outrage that despite all of its critical acclaim, Beloved failed to win either the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Knowing  that the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction would be announced just a couple of months later, I bought every first edition copy of Beloved I could afford, ending up with ten copies. It seemed very likely to me that Morrison would win the prize because of how seriously public sentiment had shifted in her favor. I doubted that the committee could resist the pressure to award the Pulitzer to Beloved (not that I don't think the book deserves the prize, because it does), and they could not. 

The copy that I read has been on my shelves since early 1988, and I still have five other copies that have never even been cracked open. Over the years, I managed to trade four of the first edition Beloveds to book dealers or collectors for other first editions I wanted to add to my collection (such as a pristine first edition of John Irving's The World According to Garp), so I'm glad I played my hunch.

The author was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Humanities Medal, and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison's career received a well-deserved, huge bump from Oprah Winfrey via Oprah's Book Club. All told, four of Morrison's novels were chosen by Winfrey to be featured on her television Book Club, resulting in hundreds of thousands of copies in increased sales for each of the books and a huge increase in the public's awareness and appreciation of Toni Morrison's work. Like or dislike Oprah's book choices, no one can argue that she did not have a positive impact on the careers of authors lucky enough to have their work chosen by her. Song of Solomon was featured in 1996, Paradise in 1998, The Bluest Eye in 2000, and Sula in 2002.

Toni Morrison will be missed, but long remembered.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier - Maya Rao

As someone who worked in the energy industry for more than 40 years, I was immediately drawn to Maya Rao's Great American Outpost. I missed out on seeing the Bakkan-Play explosion in North Dakota when it happened, but I heard many tales over the years about what life was like up there during the boom years. Those were the years during which the state was almost overrun by oil company personnel and their subcontractors - plus every shyster, con-man, and ex-con who got wind of what was happening up there. Having witnessed firsthand what it is like when multiple oil companies descend upon an area to get oil leases signed before the competition can beat them to it, my automatic sympathies were with the landowners and longtime residents of that part of North Dakota. And, from what Rao has to say in her Great American Outpost, my sympathies were well-placed.

The energy industry is one of periodic boom or bust, with everything being based on the commodity pricing of crude oil itself. Because the bottom can fall out of crude oil prices overnight, oil companies rush in to make their money while prices support drilling cost plus a decent level of profit. At the same time, oil service companies (plus every non-oil related business in that part of North Dakota) will be doubling and tripling their own prices in order to get the biggest piece of the pie they can grab while the grabbing is good. That usually works out OK for the oil companies, their employees, and the service companies; but it is the worst possible thing that can ever happen to the people whose home turf has been invaded by all the outsiders who show up to make a quick buck. Suddenly, the longtime residents can no longer afford to live in their own community. 

Maya Rao
And then, when the bottom ultimately does drop out of crude oil pricing, the resulting collapse is all too often left for others to clean up . State and Federal tax money often has to be spent on environmental cleanups and the reconstruction of roads and highways, and the businesses that serviced the area before the boom are long gone by the time everyone leaves town. In that sense, it’s akin to having a Super Walmart come to town and force all the mom-and-pop stores out of business only to close its own doors as soon as everything else has been driven out of business.

Anyone wondering what a nineteenth century gold rush was like, needs only to read Great American Outpost. As the book's subtitle says, this is an episodic account of "dreamers, mavericks, and the making of an oil frontier." The book's glaring weakness, in my opinion, is that Rao ends it rather abruptly instead of detailing her return to the "normal" world after having spent so long in such a different world. Having known several people who were in North Dakota at the peak of the craziness there, I know that’s not always an easy thing to do, and I would have enjoyed hearing how Rao and some of her “characters” dealt with the re-entry process.