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.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Sean Doolittle: A Reader's Reader Who Loves Indie Bookstores

Nationals Pitcher Sean Doolittle
I realize that I'm more than a bit prejudiced when it comes to my opinion that avid readers are a special breed. But it's a chicken-and-egg thing; are they special because they develop so much empathy from all that reading, or is it that particularly empathetic people are naturally drawn to reading lots of books?  I'll probably never reach a conclusion on that part of my theory, but my broader theory that readers are special is one I find pretty easy to defend.  In fact, over the last twelve years I've collected almost 100 stories about readers and compiled them here on Book Chase under this "Readers" label. 

And that brings me to the latest, a story about Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, an athlete on a one-man mission to save America's independent bookstores one store at a time.  The Wall Street Journal (no link provided because the complete article is behind a subscriber firewall) featured Sean in an article this week in which the pitcher explains what he's up to:

"Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle found himself mired in an unusual predicament for a professional baseball player during spring training: He needed more books to satisfy his enormous appetite for reading - and he couldn't find a local bookstore near the team's facility in West Palm Beach, Fla..."
"Forced to settle for a nearby Barnes & Noble, Doolittle decided to embark on a project. He vowed to seek out an independent bookshop on every road stop this year and share his adventures with his Twitter following of nearly 100,000.  The idea began as a way for Doolittle, a two-time All-Star, to take advantage of a job that allows him to travel to cities around the country. It has allowed Doolittle to use his platform as a famous athlete for a cause that matters to him." 

Doolittle is on a quest to support the kind of local business that is active in its community and offers it the kind of "all inclusive" space that makes a community feel like family.  He wants to publicize those bookstores and help get the word out that readers still have choice when it comes to buying books; not all books have to be purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Doolittle considers these places "important fixtures in their communities" and wants to make sure that they thrive so that others will be encouraged to open up bookstores like them.

Sean Doolittle is my kind of reader, and he proves one more time that readers are special people.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream - Carson Vaughan

Having grown up in a small town, I learned the hard way that small towns are both the best and the worst places for kids to live.  That bit of wisdom came to me just as I reached young adulthood; right about the time I decided that I had had enough of small town living to last me a lifetime.  But my little town was home to just over 12,000 people when I escaped it.  Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream, in comparison, is set in a tiny village in rural Nebraska called Royal – population 81 when things went bad there.  The problem for Royal and the little zoo it was collectively so proud of was that there were some pretty unusual people among those eighty-one souls.

Dick Haskin was one of those eighty-one people, but Dick did not plan to stick around forever. He had a big dream and he intended to make it happen: get a job in Rwanda assisting famous primatologist Dian Fossey.  But just when that near impossible dream was within his grasp Fossey was murdered in her base camp, and Dick headed back to Royal with Reuben, an adolescent chimp in the back of his old pickup.  There Dick, ever the big dreamer, installed Reuben into an old trailer home and created what he called The Midwest Primate Center – and for a while things went well.  Dick went on to add enough other animals to the center (cougars, tigers, wolves, bears, fainting goats, and the like) that it was renamed Zoo Nebraska and became a popular regional tourist draw for the village.

Author Carson Vaughan
But there were big problems for the little zoo right from the beginning. Admission receipts were never enough for Dick to pay himself a salary or even to hire the amount of help he needed to run the facility properly, so Dick worked himself literally almost to death trying to do most of the work himself.  He had to depend on volunteers - people whose own love of animals and pride in the zoo compelled them to help out when they could -  if he and the zoo were going to survive. Unfortunately, too many of the volunteers and board members recognized that the zoo was failing and became involved in a power struggle that would ultimately doom the zoo they all claimed they loved.

And that was before the chimps escaped and scared the citizens of Royal half to death.

Vaughan says in his author’s note at the end of Zoo Nebraska that it is difficult to place the blame for what happened to the little zoo on any one person or group. As he puts it, “I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone involved lands somewhere in the middle; that intentions were often pure but expectations rarely fulfilled… “More importantly,” he says, “I’ve come to see hints of Royal – both hope and struggle – in small towns everywhere, or, perhaps more accurately, hints of every small town in Royal.

Bottom Line: Zoo Nebraska sometimes reads more like fiction than nonfiction; it is that hard to believe that something like this could really happen.  If it were made into the rare movie that exactly follows a book's outline, most viewers would still consider it too farfetched to be anything other than satire about modern life in small town America.  Time to roll out one of my favorite clich├ęs: Life is stranger than fiction.

Book Number 3,397

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Exiled: The Last Days of Sam Houston - Ron Rozelle

Sam Houston led the army that significantly changed the course of American history by defeating Mexico's General Santa Ana in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 25, 1836.  As a result of that  eighteen-minute battle, Mexico was forced to give up the region that would soon become an independent country known as The Republic of Texas until it became part of the United States in December 1845.  Houston was twice president of that republic, twice a U.S. senator after Texas became part of the Union, and at the very end of his political career he served as governor of the state he was so instrumental in creating. Significantly, he is also the only person in United States history to have served as governor of two different states, having first been the governor of Tennessee before coming to Texas under rather cloudy circumstances.

I have been an admirer of Sam Houston since I was a child, but I'm surprised at how much new information I learned about the man and his family from Exiled.  It helps, I suppose, that I live smack in the middle of the General's old stomping grounds (in what is now a north Houston suburb), and that I'm within 50 miles of Huntsville, the town in which Houston's family spent so many years while he was tending to his senatorial duties in Washington. Huntsville is also where Houston died and where he is buried, and it is home to a wonderful little museum that includes both the longtime Houston family home and the separate house in which Houston died in 1863 (he died downstairs and his funeral was held in the room above the bedroom in which he spent his final hours).  I haven't visited that museum in a few years, and this book reminds me of just how badly I need to do that again. 
The San Jacinto Monument is
taller than the Washington Monument.

Sam Houston was an American hero. As Exiled so clearly reminds the reader, he loved the Union more than anything in the world other than his family. But Houston was also a Texas patriot who dearly loved the state that voted to join the Confederacy despite his pleas for it not to do so.  After that fatal vote was taken, Sam Houston decided to resign the Texas governorship rather than swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, preferring to move back to Huntsville where he spent the remaining years of his life (he would be dead long before the end of the Civil War).  

Houston's last words reflect how much he loved his wife and the state whose history he is so much a part of: 


Sam Houston, forever my hero.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

World Literature Today - It's a Big Old World Out There

September/October 2018 issue
In my Sunday afternoon post about that morning's visit to Barnes & Noble I highlighted a new-to-me magazine called World Literature Today.  I mentioned that because the only copy for sale in the store was dated November/December 2018 I was a bit worried that I had just discovered a great looking magazine that was already out of business (these days you just never know).  But boy was I wrong!

It turns out that World Literature Today is one of the very oldest literary magazines being published in the United States today, and that it goes back for ninety straight years. The magazine is published bi-monthly by The University of Oklahoma in Norman, and it is available both in print and digital editions.  I chose a digital subscription over a print one for a couple of reasons: my local mail service tends to mangle about 50% of the magazines it delivers, and the digital subscription allows me to read back issues of the magazine going back to at least 2007.  At $18 a year, I think it is a real bargain coming in at $3 an issue the way it does compared to the cover price of $9 I paid on Sunday.  But World Literature Today is a non-profit publication, so price is not the real issue here (and if you can afford to pay more for a subscription than its suggested price, your money will be gratefully accepted).

If you are interested at all in reading the work of authors from outside the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, (not to say that authors and books from these countries are not also included in WTF's "world") I can't imagine a more perfect magazine for you than this one.  

The $5 Maya Angelou Quote Tote Bag
Most of us read very few translations, but that's not necessarily our fault because too little effort is made by publishers and booksellers to get good foreign fiction and nonfiction into our hands. I suspect that translations are not cheap to produce, and when you combine a more expensive translated book with the  smaller potential audience it naturally comes with, it's easy enough to see why more of them are not published here. The books will probably still not be particularly easy to find even once you learn of their existence, but at least you will have a chance now. First you have to know that they are even out there.

Here's a quick link to the magazine's homepage where you can sample the magazine and find out more about subscription rates and what to expect.

Herman Wouk Dead at 103

Author Herman Wouk
There are so many news sources these days - and so much junk news about junk celebrities - that I miss more important stuff now than I missed ten years ago when far fewer sources were available to me.  The haystack is just getting so big that the actual needles hidden in there are impossible to find sometimes; that's the only thing that can explain my missing news of author Herman Wouk's May 18 death at the age of 103 (just ten days short of his 104th birthday).

From The New York Times:

Herman Wouk, whose taut shipboard drama “The Caine Mutiny” lifted him to the top of the best-seller lists, where he remained for most of a career that extended past his 100th year thanks to page-turners like “Marjorie Morningstar,” “Youngblood Hawke” and the World War II epics “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” died early Friday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 103.
His death, just 10 days before his 104th birthday, was confirmed by his literary agent, Amy Rennert. She said he had been working on another book when he died, although, as was his custom, he had declined to discuss its subject until it was finished.
According to the Times, Wouk was never a big favorite of the critics, but I'm here to tell you that he did have his fans because the man knew how to tell a story - and a long story, at that.  I've only read three of Wouk's books (The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembranceand that was in the late sixties and early seventies, but I still remember how enthralled with them I was and how I couldn't wait to get back to them every evening.  I must have been one of the "yahoos who hate culture and the mind" that critic Stanley Edgar Hyman said back in 1966 comprised all of Wouk's readers.  Stanley who?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry - Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of those books I should have absolutely loved.  After all, it is set mainly inside a bookstore and it features a crotchety bookseller, a dedicated publisher’s rep, and a precocious little girl who just oozes cuteness from every pore of her body.  The problem is that I only liked the book and never really came very close to loving it the way I fully expected to going in.

Don’t get me wrong, Gabrielle Zevin has not written a bad book here; it’s just that it could have been so much better than it is.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, though, is only 258 rather easily read pages long and that is a big part of the problem - so few words simply do not allow Zevin the space she needs to fully develop so many important characters.  And that’s a shame because if I had known more about A.J., his adopted daughter Maya, and his wife Amy, the book’s ending may have impacted me much more deeply than it did.  Perhaps the author was shooting for the kind of fable that we all grew up on, those stories where we recognize the characters by type and that tells us everything we need to know about them in order for us to focus on and enjoy the tale itself.  That’s kind of how it worked for me, anyway.  I enjoyed the story, but except for the first few glimpses of Maya I never felt that the characters were real enough for me to invest much emotion in them.

As the story begins, A.J. is not a happy camper; his wife has died and he’s stuck on Alice Island, near Hyannis, running the failing bookstore they opened together shortly after their marriage.  A.J. is such a grump these days that publisher reps who manage to make it all the way to Alice three or four times a year never know what to expect.  He is as likely to throw them out as he is to buy something from them for sale in his bookstore.  And, although he soon regrets it, that is precisely what he does when Amy Loman of Knightley Press visits Island Books for the first time.  So A.J. the grump is probably lucky to have any customers at all anymore – and the ones that he still has are not supporting the store like they did before his wife died.  No one, however, should be tempted to hold their breath while waiting for A.J. to wise up and change his attitude about life because the now heavy-drinking A.J. is not at all interested in making that happen. But then someone decides to leave a surprise for A.J. in the bookstore one night, and his life - and all of Alice Island - will be forever changed.

Author Gabrielle Zevin
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is for those of us who are always on the lookout for novels centered around books or bookstores, preferably both (you know who you are).  The bookstores in this kind of novel are usually so perfect that we can’t help wishing they were located somewhere very near us, preferably within walking distance.  Sometimes we even find ourselves wishing we could work in just such a place – even at minimum wage, if that’s what it takes to get the job.  Island Books doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

Here are two of my favorite A.J. Fikry quotes:

            “We read to know we are not alone.  We read because we are alone.  We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone.”

And this one:

            “We are not quite novels.  We are not quite short stories.  In the end, we are collected works.”

Simple words maybe, but words that do make you think.

Book Number 3,396

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell - Robert Dugoni

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell was a nostalgic read of sorts for me because it reminds me so much of my favorite John Irving novels Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Robert Dugoni's characters aren't quite as quirky and off the wall as so many of Irving's are, but this episodic coming-of-age novel is every bit as dramatic as either of those novels. Sam Hell starts a little slowly, with young Sam Hill's problems being of the kind lots of "different" kids face in the world: bullying, isolation, self-doubt, etc. - but as Sam grows up, his problems become ever-increasingly serious ones. And by the end of the novel, the reader is left breathlessly wondering just how much Sam will be asked to endure before things get better, if they ever do.

Sam Hill is born with red eyes, pupils so red, in fact, that he startles even the attending nurses at his birth. And, kids being kids, school is pure hell for the boy soon adorned with the nickname that he will wear into adulthood: Sam Hell. Sam's eye color will, however, play a major role in what kind of man he will become, and he would tell you that those eyes and the way people reacted to them made him a better man than he would have been without them. Sam would also be quick to credit his fierce mother, a woman who devoted her life to making sure that her son always got a fair shake in life despite the way he looked. She was not always able to make that happen, but Sam always knew that he could depend on her to go down swinging. 

Author Robert Dugoni
Sam is lucky enough to find two people in grade school who in their own ways are as different as he is.  One of them is the only black child in both the school and the neighborhood from which it draws its students; the other is a little red-haired girl who takes great delight in being the born rebel that she is.  These two will be Sam's best friends for the rest of his life, and the three of them create a little self-contained support group that the rest of us can only wish we could find somewhere.

Robert Dugoni has created some memorable characters here, and my comparison of The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell to a John Irving novel is just about the highest praise I can give to a novel.  I recommend this one.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

It's Sunday, So This Must Be Barnes & Noble - Part 2

 This week's Sunday morning visit to Barnes & Noble resulted in my TBR list growing by almost ten books - even though I brought only one of the books home with me today.  For about twenty minutes it seemed that no matter what direction I turned my head, there was something interesting in front of me.  When you get on a roll like that, you may as well just go with it.  So I did what I always do, put my phone's camera to good use by snapping pictures of things I want to know more about (I try, though, not to be particularly obvious when I take pictures inside a bookstore so some of these photos are a little wonky).

So let's begin with what I brought home, a new-to-me magazine title and Alex Berenson's 2017 The Prisoner:

World Literature Today is a high quality production that I've never before seen, and even though I paid full price for this November-December 2018 issue, I'm thrilled to get my hands on it.  As you can see, the cover features the wonderful writer Alice Walker and highlights several intriguing articles, especially the one titled "Illness & Literature." The magazine is chockfull of reviews, poems, stories, and interviews, so I expect to get a lot of use out of it.  Now I'm hoping that this wasn't somehow the last issue of a magazine that I only discovered on its deathbed - that would be just my luck.

I also bought a book from the bargain book display, The Prisoner.  I have found myself reading a whole lot of fiction and nonfiction set in various Muslim countries in the last few years, probably because I spent so many years living and working in North Africa and became pretty familiar with the culture.  A lot of those, of course, were thrillers and this one by Alex Berenson does sound like fun.  I take this from the dust jacket: "An Islamic State prisoner in a secret Bulgarian prison has been overheard hinting that a senior CIA officer may be passing information to the Islamic State.  The agency's top officials, and even the President, say the possibility is unthinkable."  And that means that recurring character John Wells is going to have to "resume his former identity as a hardened jihadi."

It seems as if I'm seeing more Holocaust-based fiction right now than I've seen in a long time.  Considering the horrifying rise in anti-Semitism around the world, that is probably a good thing (maybe everyone should be forced to watch movies like The Pianist so that this trend is stopped in its tracks).  This one is set in 1943 Amsterdam where a married couple is arrested and sent to separate camps.  Now the wife has to decide whether she prefers the certainty of a slow death over volunteering for the camp brothel.  

I absolutely fell in love with Swedish writer Fredric Backman's novel A Man Called Ove a while back but have read only one other by him since then, a novel called My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry.  That's why I was happy to spot the more recent Bear Town and Us Against You (not pictured) on separate tables this morning. Without even knowing much about the plot details (I do remember that one of the two is about a small town hockey team), I'm putting both of them in line to be read soon just because I enjoy Backman's quirky plots so much.  

And because I'm a sucker for longish family sagas, these two made the morning's cut: The Guest Book (not pictured) by Sarah Blake and A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan.  I can't imagine any more different families, one wealthy and upperclass for generations and the other a family that has produced witches for generations.  Both novels appear upon first glance to be well written, so I'm looking forward to getting around to both of them eventually.  

I've been a Kate Atkinson fan for a few years now, and was pleased to see that her 2018 novel Transcription is now in paperback. This one is a spy novel set in England shortly after the conclusion of World War II. (I should mention that almost all of these books were found in displays of "new" paperbacks.)  The New Yorker raved about this one last year - and Atkinson is just so solid that I don't doubt that Transcription will be good.

Then there's this one called Supermarket by Bobby Hall (who appears to be a musician of note with whom I am completely unfamiliar).  It tells the tale of a young man named Flynn who has moved back in with his mother due to his anxiety and depression problems. Flynn gets a supermarket job that he believes will solve all of his problems - a steady job does tend to do that - but things don't go at all as planned after Flynn shows up at work only to find that he's walked into a crime scene.  This one is called a "psychological thriller" and a "study of madness and creativity." Sounds good.

And finally, there's the only nonfiction book in the lot, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, a book I've seen around for quite a while but somehow never taken a close look at.  Now I wish I hadn't waited so long because this one might finally answer some questions I've had for most of my life.  This will be my first Mary Roach book, but a quick glance at what else she's written tells me it's not likely to be my last.

In the past I would have purchased most of these nine books, if not all of them, eventually but those days are long gone due my lack of shelf space. I'm to the point where it has to be one book out for every new book I bring into the house, and that tends to make me a lot more careful with my book purchases than I used to be. So for now, most of these will be going on my "hold" list at the local library (best internet invention ever) - as soon as I can get that list back below the limit set by the library, that is.  Don't expect to see any of them reviewed on Book Chase anytime soon; but I can dream, right?

Random Sunday Morning Thoughts: Books, Blogs, and Bloggers

As I continue to clean up around Book Chase since my return to active blogging, a few things have jumped out at me:

  • Like where did so many of my old book-blogging friends run off to?  I decided to clean up my "Blogger Reading List" yesterday afternoon by removing those blogs that have been dead for at least one year.  Now keep in mind that I haven't edited that list in about three years, so I did expect that several blogs might have disappeared by now.  What I didn't expect to find, however, was that 16 of the 38 blogs that I followed three years ago are no longer active.  Do the math along with me and you will see that's 42% of the bloggers I was following just three years ago.  Gone.  I had followed a few of them for close to ten years and lots of them for more than five - and saddest of all, some of them left just after reaching personal five-or-ten-year milestones.
  • Like how much easier it is to remember details from the books I've read when I write something about them than it is if I know I won't be doing that.  I think it's a combination of me unconsciously paying more attention up front during the reading process, and that writing something halfway intelligible forces me to organize and solidly lock in my impressions and conclusions when I'm done with a book. 
  • Like how so many of my blogging friends have moved from Blogger to WordPress in recent years.  I made that same move a few years ago myself but learned the hard way that the free Blogger platform could do some things for me that the paid WordPress could not do nearly as easily, if at all.  So I moved back to Blogger.  I realize that was four years ago, and I suspect that both platforms have changed for the better since then, but I will be sticking with Blogger unless some huge WordPress advantage makes itself obvious. 
  • And finally, like how several of my longtime favorite book blogs are now just over or just under 15 years old and still going as strongly as ever.  Honestly, I don't know how they do it, but I love them for doing it so well for so long.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Louise Penny and Inspector Gamache Would Be Proud of This Duck

Just when you think you've seen it all, along comes a duck calmly sitting on top of a car and quacking at anyone who pauses for a second look - or in my case, a couple of quick pictures.

I admit to eating an Egg McMuffin for breakfast at least three times a week, and that's why I spotted this car in the side parking lot I use on the mornings I stop by a local McDonalds.  Since the duck showed absolutely no fear of humans, I suspected he/she was someone's pet, so I mentioned it to a couple of folks inside McDonalds hoping that someone could tell me why the bird was out there sitting on, and messing on, someone's car.

That's when the story got even stranger...turns out that the duck belongs to a fellow who was having breakfast in McDonalds, and that the big white bird is his daily companion as he runs errands around town.  The man even claims to have left that cup of on the car especially for the duck but I didn't ask him what was in the cup. Yes, you read that correctly: the duck rides around Houston all day long with his friend, the owner of the car.  

Louise Penny, who has created a wonderful old lady poet character  who carries her pet duck around with her everywhere she goes in the Inspector Gamache series, would be proud of this pair.  Whoever said that truth is stranger than (or at least every bit as strange as) fiction was right.