Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Reading Withdrawal Is a Very Real Thing

This will be very brief.

I've been forbidden by my eye surgeon to read or write anything for more than five minutes at a time once or twice a day for the next week.  My eye surgery seems to have gone well, but the healing process and the proper setting of the implanted lens requires that I not focus too long on any one focal length.  Apparently, there is a risk that the lens will not function properly in the long term if I do that while the eye heals around it. 

Anyway, I just wanted to let everyone know that I have not disappeared for good...and that I still have to go through the same process with the left eye in mid-July.  

You would not believe the reading withdrawal pain I'm going through right now. It's real...and it is driving me nuts.

Time to go...can't even proof this post until later, so I hope there are not too many typos in it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Judith Krantz Dead at 91

According to Variety, author Judith Krantz died of natural causes on June 22 at her Bel Air home where she was "surrounded by family, friends, and her four dogs."  

Krantz was almost fifty years old when she completed her first novel, Scruples, but the novel went on to top the New York Times bestseller list four months after its publication and launched a whole new career for its author.  Prior to Scruples, Krantz was a popular freelance writer for magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and McCalls.  Her second novel, Princess Daisy, was considerably more lucrative for her than Scruples had been.  Also a number one bestseller, Princes Daisy even set the record for highest amount paid by a publisher for any novel up to that point - $5 million, plus another $3.2 million for the paperback rights. 

There are said to be some eighty million copies in fifty languages of her books now in print.  The author's roll continued when her third and fourth novels, Mistral's Daughter and I'll Take Manhattan also each topped the New York Times bestseller list.  Krantz went on to write a total of ten novels and an autobiography, Sex and Shopping: The Confession of a Nice Jewish Girl that was published in 2000.  Seven of her novels were adapted for television movies or series, and Krantz also wrote an original television miniseries called "Secrets" in 1992.  

I never read Judith Krantz and always thought of her as the female Harold Robbins, but no one can deny that she capably tapped into a style that was very popular among female readers in the eighties and nineties.  I'm sure that her fans remember her fondly and that they will miss her.

You Can't Read without Decent Eyesight - And I'm Working on That One Tomorrow

Tomorrow marks the first step in a process that will hopefully restore some of the vision I've lost over the past four or five years due to having macular degeneration and cataracts in both eyes.  
There's absolutely nothing that can be done for the type of macular degeneration I have other than to continue taking the vitamin/mineral supplement that I have already been taking twice a day for over four years.  If doctors are correct, that supplement does have a good chance of at least stabilizing the problem for a long time to come - and actually seems to have done that so far.  But the cataracts can be dealt with, one-at-a-time, and my right eye is scheduled for some attention early tomorrow morning.

The surgery, though, does require that special care be taken in order that the eye heal properly.  Other than the eye drops (which I can deal with easily) and special care not to bump the eye, that means that my right eye cannot be used for "heavy reading" for the next week.  Well, "heavy reading" is the only kind I do, so that will take some getting used to, but I think I can manage it with one eye.  But as soon as the process is over with the right eye, the same thing will have to be done with the left, so this is going to take a while  - things should finally be back to normal by the beginning of August, but that seems like a long, long time from now.

And in a case of rather poor timing, I see that I have some scheduled deadlines looming in the next two-to-six weeks that may suffer, so I wanted to explain what was going on down here in case I seem to be slowing down or even disappear for a bit.

I'm actually looking forward to the eye surgery because I've been living every avid reader's nightmare for way too long as my sight steadily deteriorated.  I cannot imagine ever losing sight to the degree that I would lose the ability to read a book and write about the experience. I have been an avid reader since I was five years old, and I plan to remain one to the end.  Your eyes are precious commodities, guys.  Take good care of them.

Monday, June 24, 2019

No Fences in Alaska - Glen Sobey

Despite myself having come of age a long time ago, I still enjoy a good coming-of age novel and usually read several of them a year.  And that is precisely what drew me to Glen Sobey’s No Fences in Alaska. This one in particular, though, appealed to me because one of its two central characters, Cooper, is a man in his sixties who is facing a steadily worsening case of early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Even better, Harper, the novel’s other main character is a sixteen-year-old girl in so much trouble at home in Texas that Grandpa Cooper, whom she has not seen in ten years, is her best and last chance at salvaging something positive from her life before it is forever too late.

Harper lives in San Antonio and Cooper lives in a remote area of Alaska. The two have not seen each other since Harper was six years old because Greg, her father, blames Cooper for everything that has ever gone wrong in his own life – and plenty has gone wrong. Unbeknownst to Harper, she’s probably a lot more like her grandfather than she is her father, and that’s a big part of the reason that her father gets along as poorly with her as he does with his old man. But Harper, perhaps because she so deeply craves the love she is not getting from her father, is herself a big part of the problem - if her father won’t show her his love, she will find it elsewhere.  Greg demands a conservative Christian lifestyle under his roof, and Harper adamantly refuses to live that way. Instead, she takes great delight in dressing provocatively, using hard drugs, and sleeping with her college-age boyfriend at every opportunity. 

Glen Sobey
Most people living Harper’s lifestyle are destined to bottom out at some point, some sooner than others.  Harper is no exception, but the girl is smart enough to grab at the only lifeline available to her when it happens, her estranged grandfather. Cooper, who has begun contemplating how his own life is destined to end in a whimper rather than a bang, jumps at the unexpected opportunity to do some good for his family before he forgets he even has one. And that’s where the rest of the story begins, because after Harper joins Cooper in Alaska they manage more than once, and in more than one sense, to save each other’s lives.

Bottom Line: No Fences in Alaska is a touching story in which the author pulls no punches. What Harper goes through in Texas is brutal, if not uncommon, and few of his characters are portrayed as being completely innocent of helping to cause what happens to this family.  As a reader, my only quibble with the novel is the quick and drastic swing in temperament that the author demands of his key characters.  I found it difficult to believe, for instance, that such an uptight family, one that failed to master one-on-one communication for a decade, could so rapidly become a family that joked openly about their various sex lives around the communal dinner table.  There’s a lot to like about No Fences in Alaska, though, so don’t let that observation scare you away. Ultimately, this is a very satisfying novel.  

Review Copy provided by Black Rose Writing

Book Number 3,410

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Short Story Sunday: At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners - Lauren Groff

I know that you can’t always tell from my short story reviews that I love short stories the way that I love novels, but I swear it’s true.  It’s just that short stories have more of a tendency to frustrate me than novels do.  If I see early on that a novel is not working for me, I don’t hesitate to toss it into the discard pile. That’s not something, though, that I’m likely to do with a story whose total reading time is only a small fraction of the time it takes me to finish a novel.  Curiosity keeps me reading to the very last word of most every story I start – but I sometimes end up wishing I hadn’t bothered.

Lauren Groff’s “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” is a story that falls somewhere near the middle of my rating scale, maybe a three-out-of-five kind of story, and I’m left now trying to figure out why that is.  The story, set in Florida’s swamplands, is a highly atmospheric one in which the villain of the piece, a university herpetologist, allows his strategically located house to be invaded by live snakes even while his young son is just a toddler.  The boy’s “Yankee” mother, needless to say, is not thrilled at the thought of sharing her home with snakes and yearns for a way out.  So when the outbreak of World War II gives her an opportunity to escape her snake-filled home, she jumps all over it.

But as she would learn, it is not going to be that simple.

Lauren Groff
My unease about the story comes, I think, from its overall gloominess. The setting is scary and depressing, the characters (with perhaps one exception) are unhappy about their state in life, and so many chances for betterment are squandered, that there is no way I could ever claim to have “enjoyed” this one. But I know that not all short stories or novels are meant to be “enjoyed” or merely to entertain the reader.  Instead, what Groff has done with this one is to put me deep inside a time and place I would have to be dragged into, kicking and screaming all the way, to ever experience in the real world. She put me inside the heads of two very strange human beings – father and son – whom I learned to understand a little and empathize with a lot, and she did all of that in less than twenty pages, something that some novels don't manage in 400 pages. And now I’ve been thinking about the story way longer than it took for me to read the whole thing. 

(“At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” first appeared in a 2013 issue of Five Points, a literary magazine published three times a year by Georgia State University. I found it in The Best American Short Stories 2014 collection compiled by Jennifer Egan and Heidi Pitlor.)

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Beartown - Fredrick Backman

Fredrik Backman is a Swedish columnist and writer whose books seem finally to be getting their due in the United States.  Backman first came to my attention just a few months ago when I first heard about (probably because of the movie of the same title) his 2012 debut novel A Man Called Ove. I enjoyed that one so much that I started looking for more of Backman’s work and quickly came upon the quirky My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2013).  That one led me to Beartown (2017), the novel of his I’ve enjoyed most to this point.  And now that I know that 2018’s Us Against You is a sequel to Beartown, I can’t wait to get my hands on that one.

I read the fabulous audiobook version of this one narrated by Marin Ireland, and I came away as impressed with Ireland’s narrative talents as I already was with Backman’s writing skills.  This is another of those books that require the complete avoidance of spoilers, so if you have any interest in reading this one, do make a special effort not to let that happen to you.  That would be a real shame.

The first third or so of Beartown has all the makings of what you might expect from the typical coming-of-age story set in any youth sports environment, in this particular case, ice hockey.  Youth sports can be brutal in a lot of subtle ways, especially when parents try to relive their own youth through the bodies of their sons and daughters – kids who are seldom prepared for all the pressure they will be (sometimes inadvertently, I suppose) subjected to by their parents, siblings, and coaches.  In this case, the pressure to excel is immense and, because Beartown is a tiny village deep in the Swedish forest, that pressure comes from an entire community.  Having a winning hockey team is absolutely the most important thing to the majority of Beartown’s citizens when it comes to determining their and the town’s self-image.  And, if they have their way about it, they will win at any cost.

Fredrik Backman
Backman sets up Beartown beautifully, and just when you think you can see where the next two-thirds of the book is going to take you, you find out just how wrong you are.  Beartown is not a just story about how kids begin to play a sport when they are four or five years old, and what that game and the teammates they grow up with will mean to them for the rest of their lives.  Oh, it’s about that, don’t get me wrong; but it is about so, so much more than that.  It’s about people, and what those people are willing to do and ignore “for the sake of the team,” and about how something that happens in childhood can be something you think about every day for the rest of your life – even if you don’t want to. 

Sadly, I’ve heard similar stories in the real world.  We all have.

Book Number 3,409

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Book Chase List: 2019 Top Ten - Fiction

2019 is already half over so it's time for me to review my reading to this point in order to determine which of the 60 books I've read so far (not all sixty meet the year-published requirement) belong on my first pass of a Best of 2019 Fiction list.  As in years past, I'm limiting the candidates to books published between October 1 of the preceding year and December 31 of the current year.  That means that there is always the possibility that a book could end up as one of my top ten picks in successive years - but that is yet to actually happen.

1.  A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by Scottish author C.A. Fletcher has so much going for it that I can't imagine it dropping far down the list in the next six months. Get this: it's a combination dystopian, coming-of-age, quest novel that (especially towards the end) throws one curve after another at the reader.  You know it's going to be special when an author asks his readers right at the beginning to avoid spoiling the book for others by blabbing too much about it online.  

2.  Hunter's Moon by Philip Caputo is going to be published on August 6, so you'll have to snag an ARC to read it now.  If you can't pull that off, just know that this one is well worth the wait.  It's a novel about Michigan's Upper Peninsula disguised as a collection of interrelated short stories that present a surprisingly violent view of life in that rather remote area of the country.  I have found that I can always count on enjoying anything new from Philip Caputo, and this is no exception.

3.  The New Iberia Blues from James Lee Burke is proof that an author's advancing age does not have to lessen the quality of his work.  Burke is 82-years-old now but you would never know that if this twenty-second Dave Robicheaux novel were your first experience with his writing. Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, an alcoholic, a cop, and a knight in shining armor to those he's sworn to protect from the more powerful.  This is probably my favorite fiction series of all time.

4.  Speaking of favorite fiction series, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series is very, very high on my list, too.  Dark Sacred Night is part of the Bosch series, but it is a little different in that it introduces a potentially new longterm partner for Harry, one Renée Ballard.  What starts out as a rocky relationship between the two cops, morphs into one of mutual respect by the end of the book.  Detective fiction fans who have not ready Harry Bosch yet have no idea what they are missing.  Don't be one of those people.

5.  Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is a brilliantly constructed novel of historical fiction that uses an old house to link characters from the 19th century to a group of them from the 21st. It all happens in Vineland, New Jersey, and involves a small group of historical figures of whom very few readers will likely have heard. But that's part of the brilliance of Kingsolver's story - and it helps to make the author's fictional characters almost indistinguishable from those who lived and breathed in Vineland in the past.  It's so easy to get lost in the 19th century setting that I was always a bit reluctant to return to 21st century Vineland.

6.  Louise Penny writes another of my favorite detective series, this one featuring Montreal's Inspector Gamache, and Kingdom of the Blind is the latest in the series.  When Armand Gamache receives a letter inviting him to an abandoned farmhouse outside of Three Pines, the former head of the Sûreté du Québec discovers that an elderly stranger has named him as an executor of her will.  Armand never heard of the woman, and the bequests are so wildly unlikely that he suspects the woman must have been delusional - until a body is found, and the terms of her bizarre will are suddenly more menacing than they are confusing.

7.  Houston Noir, a collection of dark short stories from various writers, all of them set in Houston, is around the fifteenth such collection that I've read in this remarkable series from Akashic Books.  Each of the books sets its stories in one particular city or region from around the world, so I've been waiting a long time for Houston to finally get its time in the spotlight - not that the stories themselves are at all flattering.  No, these are exactly the kinds of stories a reader expects from any book with "Noir" in its title.  

That's it for now, only seven titles.  With another half of the year to go, I can't wait to see what books are added to the list, which ones drop off, and what the final order of the ultimate survivors will be.  This list is sort of like baseball's mid-season All-Star Game.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster

I most enjoy the kind of fiction that both entertains me and allows me to immerse myself in a world that I would never otherwise experience.  A good novel or short story can take me around the world to some remote location, some major metropolis, or just to the heart of the city I live in.  A good novel or short story is the only time machine I’ve ever been able to get my hands on.  A good novel or short story introduces me to the kind of people I’ll never encounter in the real world – and that’s the only way I would ever want to encounter some of them. A good novel or short story teaches me about other cultures from the inside, allowing me to see myself through the eyes of others.  

But I often find myself wondering if I’m not missing as much as I’m getting from the fiction I read.  And that’s why I decided to read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, a book that promised to explain to me what an author really means when he says something.  Admittedly, I had mixed emotions about reading this one, fearing a bit that it might inadvertently ruin some of the fun I’ve always had with reading fiction, but it turns out that I was already “getting” more of the author’s clues than I realized. It helped, too, to see that Foster reassures the reader that his opinion is as valid as anyone else’s and that no two readers ever experience the same book.  

Thomas C. Foster
The revised 2017 edition of the book that I read is divided into twenty-seven intriguingly titled chapters, a Preface, an Introduction, a Postlude, and an Envoi, along with an extensive reading list for those who want to test their newly acquired awareness of symbolism and deeper meaning.  The author’s keen sense of humor and irony is apparent even in his chapter headings.  Chapter 2, for instance, is titled “Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion,” while Chapter 3 is called “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires.”  One of my favorite chapters (and one of my favorite chapter titles) is Chapter 10, “Never Stand Next to the Hero,” in which Foster points out that things can get very dangerous, even deadly, around the hero of the story, but not for the hero.  Instead, it’s the sidekicks who will be the first to pay any price that is to be paid.

Another interesting one-two chapter punch comes from Chapters 16 and 17, respectively titled “It’s All About Sex…” and “…Except Sex,” in which Thomas contrasts sexual symbolism with the thought that when an author is writing explicitly about sex, they are actually writing about something else. As Foster cleverly puts it, “When they’re writing about other things, they really mean sex, and when they write about sex, they really mean something else.  If they write about sex and mean strictly sex, we have a word for that. Pornography.”

Bottom Line: There are lots of books out there like How to Read Literature Like a Professor, but as exemplified by the number of high schools and colleges in which this one is a regular part of the curriculum, this is one of the best of that type.  You want further proof?  It’s also the first of its type that I’ve ever managed to read cover-to-cover – and believe me, that’s saying something. 

Book Number 3,408

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home - Nora Krug

Graphic nonfiction is a genre that I was completely unaware of until late 2016 when I discovered Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts, her account of the trip that she and two friends took to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in order to document the effect of the Iraq War on the civilian population in those countries.  Glidden's book, told in the graphic style most familiar to comic strip fans, is a surprisingly powerful and moving one.  And I do not believe it would have worked nearly so well had it been published as a traditional nonfiction book. I wondered at the time whether I would ever read another graphic nonfiction title, and now almost three years later, it has finally happened.  

Nora Krug's Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home uses a somewhat different graphic style than that used by Rolling Blackouts, but it is a style that works very well to explain what it was like for that generation of Germans who grew up unsure as to exactly the role their grandparents may have played in World War II.  Their parents themselves were often unsure of the family's exact history, but even if they had all the answers, they often withheld the details that would have allowed their children to do any of the research for themselves (not a good sign).

Nora Krug, who lives with her family in Brooklyn, decided decades after the war that it was high time for her to learn the truth about her own family.  She knew that the task would be made more difficult by the deaths of the last remaining members of her family who had actual memories of World War II, and that she could not afford to wait much longer because that inevitable time was fast approaching.  Krug returned to Germany both to do archival research and to visit family members she had not seen since she was a child - and there she learned about her maternal grandfather (a driving teacher during the war) and her father's brother (a teenage member of the SS who died in Italy). 

Krug began her research with a mixture of dread and hope: dread that her relatives may have been among the war's worst offenders, and hope that she would find that they had managed to avoid taking part in the atrocities associated with the German army of those years.  In Germany, she visited archives to study records made available to the public and interviewed an elderly aunt who provided her with answers to some of her most nagging questions.  What she learned, and how she felt about it, is brilliantly recounted in Belonging via Krug's drawings and enhanced photos.  Publisher Scribner correctly characterizes the book as a "visual memoir," a genre of which I am now a big fan.

Bottom Line:  If you are in the mood for something very different in the way of memoir or general nonfiction reading, this one is most definitely worth a look.  I hope now to find a third book in the genre - and I really hope it doesn't take three years to find a new one this time.

The following are pages from Rolling Blackouts for those who may be wondering about the contrast in styles that I mentioned:

Book Number 3,407

Monday, June 17, 2019

Naomi Wolf Learns the Hard Way That Cutting Corners on Research Can Be Costly - and Embarrassing

Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf is no stranger to being challenged on the supposed "facts" around which she has based some of her bestselling books. But this time, it looks like she may have really stepped in it because her publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is delaying the release of her latest, Outrages, and recalling the copies it has already delivered to retailers around the country.

Last month a BBC reporter questioned Wolf's "interpretation of historical records" during an on-air interview in which he revealed that she had not taken the time to learn the correct meaning of a legal term first used in 1823 Britain, "death recorded."  Wolf made the mistaken assumption that the term meant that a prisoner execution had been carried out, when in fact the term meant exactly the opposite - that the prisoner had been pardoned.  The author apparently relied on the terminology as evidence that "several dozen executions" had been carried out in nineteenth century Britain of men accused of having had sex with other men. 

Wolf was obviously embarrassed to be called out so publicly on her sloppy research, and promised to look into the matter.  She agreed that it was an important question, but at the time she promised only to correct future additions if it turned out that she had used the term incorrectly.  Apparently more will be required of her.

According to a June 13 New York Times article:
"But the errors in 'Outrages' appear to be more grave, given that Ms. Wolf's publisher is taking the costly step of recalling finished copies, a rare measure that is usually only undertaken for books that contain fatal factual flaws or other more serious transgressions."
"It's unclear whether 'Outrages'will also be recalled in Britain, where it was released in May by the publisher Virago."
"Publishers often rely on authors to verify material in their books, and if fact checkers are used, it is typically at the author's discretion and expense." 

The Book in Question
This kind of thing is not, of course, a new problem.  But we live in a time in which the credibility of real news has in so many ways been destroyed by easy access to internet sources that don't just make mistakes, but actually purposely lie for financial gain or the destruction of some perceived enemy.  Perhaps this makes it easier for lazier or cheaper authors to justify to themselves a habit of rushing to print without doing the kind of fact checking that would have been second nature only a decade or so ago.  Some writers may figure that the likelihood of being wrong - or caught out by a reader or editor - is unlikely enough to justify taking a chance.  After all, it's all about making money, isn't it?  

The same New York Times piece quoted a publisher spokeswoman as saying, "As we have been working with Naomi Wolf to make corrections to 'Outrages,' new questions have arisen that require more time to explore."  However, as evidenced by the book recall, this is a problem that time alone is unlikely to solve.

First printing of Outrages was set at 35,000 copies.  That's a whole lot of paper to pulp and recycle. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Random Sunday Evening Thoughts - Mostly Bookish

This has been one of those weeks that thankfully come around only once in a great while.

  • Precisely seven days ago (I am writing this at 9:00 p.m. local time) my wife had just been delivered to a hospital emergency room by ambulance to deal with back pain so severe that she literally almost could not move.  Nine hours later she was transferred to a local rehabilitation hospital for treatment that lasted until noon today when she was released from the facility. (She is much, much better but still in considerable pain.)  Let's just say that I now fully understand what a combined effort it is to keep a household functioning smoothly - even one of only three people - because I've taken up the slack, and let's just say that I am exhausted.

  • I did manage to post several book reviews this week, but never did find the energy for anything else.  By the time I squeezed in a few dozen pages of reading, it seemed like the day was over and it was time to start planning for the next one.  I suppose the only bright spot to my change in schedule is that I was on the road so much (trips to the hospital and carting my grandson to and from his summer classes) that I made some great progress on a couple of audiobooks - finishing one completely and getting halfway through Beartown by Fredrik Backman.  Backman is a Swedish author whose books are all being translated and published in the U.S. now, and I'm a big fan.  Beartown has, in fact, turned into a big surprise.  What I thought was going to be a rather ordinary coming-of-age novel about a youth hockey team in Sweden, took such a drastic right angle turn about a third of the way through, that I can't wait to get back to it.  
  • For some reason my library holds often all decide to show up within a few days of each other...nothing for a couple of weeks and then five or six show up in the same week.  It's happened again, and now I have so many library books in the house that today I had to resort to creating and printing a special calendar just to keep up with when they all need to be returned.  I already suspect that at least a couple of them are going to have to be returned unread so that I can start them through the cycle again.  Counting Beartown, I now have eleven library books on my desk and another thirteen still on hold.  I'm at the top of the queue for at least three of those thirteen, and with my luck they will all show up next week.  I'm about done with How to Read Literature Like a Professor and Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, and I've started The Man from the Train and The Sympathizer, but the clock is ticking on the other seven.
  • Some of the books I have on hold are really intriguing and I know that I'll be tempted to start reading them just as soon as I get my hands on them (partially because they have dozens of people lined up behind me and I will only be able to check them out for two weeks).  Included is the the first book I've seen on the Bill Cosby trial, a book by Nicole Weisensee Egan called Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America's Dad that I'm hoping can explain this man to me.  Among the others is another of my "books on books" titles, The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick and some popular titles like Big Sky (Kate Atkinson), The Lost Girls of Paris (Pam Jenoff), Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Casey Cep), and On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel (Ocean Vuong).
Sometimes it seems that the faster I read, the further behind I get - and when I combine that with a period in which I spot new books that I want to read everywhere I look, this is what happens.  Oh, well.  As far as problems go, this one is kind of fun.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Good Sister - Gillian McAllister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book number 3,406

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship - Bernie Schein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy provided for review purposes by Arcade Publishing

Book Number 3,405

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Bookshop of Yesterdays - Amy Meyerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Number 3,404

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 09, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

View directly up the stairs to the funeral room

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