Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: By the Numbers

Another calendar year is in the books, and in just three more weeks, I will mark the completion of thirteen years of Book Chase blogging.  I am really looking forward to 2020, the beginning of another decade of talking about books, publishing, bookstores, libraries, and any other bookish topics that might come up.  I have greatly enjoyed the last thirteen years, and I truly treasure all of the friends and contacts I've made over those years.  Without you guys none of this would have been possible, so thank you all.

Proving, I suppose, the old rule that "once an accountant, always an accountant" is a real thing, I always post a statistical accounting of my completed reading year before beginning the new one. (I do realize that no one other than me is likely to care about these numbers, but I post them as a reference point I can use in future years, so bear with me for a moment.)

2019 was another good year filled with remarkable books that I will long remember.  But I will primarily recall 2019 as the year that I returned to book-blogging after more than a year's absence due a couple of automobile accidents that put me out of commission for a long time. Recovery was slow, painful, and often discouraging, but I came away from the whole process with a new appreciation for the simple pleasures of books, friends, and family. And it is wonderful to be back here.

So, finally, the stats:
Number of Books Read - 132

Fiction - 87:

  • Novels - 84
  • Short Story Collections - 3  
Nonfiction - 45:

  • Memoirs - 7
  • Biographies - 6
  • Books on Books- 5
  • Sports - 1
  • True Crime- 5
  • History -  6
  • Music - 2
  • Sociology - 7
  •  Instructional - 2
  • Politics - 1 
  • Essays - 2
  • Travel - 1 

  • Written by Men - 84
  • Written by Women - 45
  • Written by Both - 3

  • Audio Books - 34
  • E-Books - 22
  • Library Books - 92
  • Review Copies - 29
  • From My Shelves - 11

  • Pages per Day: 120
  • Total Pages Read: 43,650 

I'm disappointed (as usual) by the small number of works by foreign authors that I read in the past year.  I did manage to read 35 books from other countries but 28 of those were from either the U.K. or Canada, and that seems too easy.  The others came from Sweden, Australia, Germany, Ireland, and Belgium. I hope to have more variety to report this time next year.

Now it"s time to move on not just to a new year, but to a whole new decade...this is going to be fun. Happy New Year, y'all.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Without Expiration - William R. Hincy

William R. Hincy’s Without Expiration is one of the most unusual short story anthologies that I’ve read in a while. The twelve stories, many of which have previously been published in literary reviews, share a common theme. Are good people capable of doing things as bad as those done by bad people on a regular basis? And what about bad people – are they capable of on occasion producing the kind good deed that would make good people proud? And most importantly (at least to me), is if the answer to both questions is yes, just how big a difference is there, really, between “bad” people and “good” people (excluding, of course, the psychopaths among us). Only the great scorekeeper in the sky can answer that one.

As almost always happens in any short story collection that I read, a few favorite stories loudly made themselves known to me. In the case of Without Expiration, there are four of them: “Left to Soak,” “Friendly Stranger,” “A Study in Discontinuity,” and “Flying.”

“Left to Soak” is the story of a couple that has made it through forty-four years of marriage despite the husband literally not washing or drying a single dish the entire time. Even while hospitalized, all the wife can think of is the sink full of dirty dishes that inevitably awaits her attention when she gets home. What I love most about this one is the incredible amount of tension that builds right up to the moment that Helen gets her first glimpse of the kitchen sink. Has Hank actually cleaned up after himself in her absence – or not?

William R. Hincy
“Friendly Stranger” is one of those stories with a narrator I can identify with from the very first sentence (most of us living in big cities will probably see at least a little of ourselves in this guy) when he says, “…my sole goal in life is to avoid waiting at a red light for more than one rotation.” Setting a weird series of events in motion, one day a jerk in a blue Infiniti cuts our friendly stranger off just as it looks like he will be the last guy to make it through the red light. The jerk does make it through, but friendly stranger doesn’t. And what happens next, catches both men – and me – by surprise.

“A Study in Discontinuity” and “Flying” are very different stories, but I am hard-pressed to determine which are the good and which are the bad people in either story. In the first, a woman comes out of a coma every so often only to remind her husband of his sins against her, sins that are ancient history to him but still fresh memories for her. The second is about a father and son whose relationship would be described as “strained,” at best. Whose fault that is, is open to question.

Bottom Line: Without Expiration is a compilation of wild short stories that range from pure comedy to pure tragedy. There is even one that I read twice (because it is so entertaining) without ever figuring out exactly what the author was aiming for. I figure that’s the one that the back of the book describes as “absurd.” Has to be.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Dad's Maybe Book - Tim O'Brien

Dad’s Maybe Book is Tim O’Brien’s first new book in seventeen years – and, sadly enough, it is likely to be his last one. But never say never, because O’Brien didn’t expect the material that comprises Dad’s Maybe Book ever to be published when he began writing the pieces to his two young sons back in 2003. Near the end of this one, though, the seventy-three-year-old author does seem to be formally announcing his retirement when he says, “…no more early (writing) mornings. The daily agenda will be simple: sleep until seven or eight, then settle in to read the books I want to read. At my age, a certain selfishness seems permissible – doing the things I long to do and not what some preacherly internal voice tells me I must do.”

In June of 2003, the fifty-seven-year-old Tim O’Brien was surprised by the gift of a first child, a little boy called Timmy that the author describes as “an eater of electrical cords, a fertilizer factory, a pain in the ass, and a thrill in the heart.” As Timmy entered his sixteenth month of life, O’Brien was struck by the thought that his young son might never really know him. After all, if the actuarial tables were correct, they would not be spending too many more years together.

And that’s when Dad’s Maybe Book was born. But the book didn’t really begin to gain much momentum until O’Brien and his wife learned that they were expecting a second son, a little boy they would call Tad. The book that began as a series of “love letters to his children, along with a few anecdotes and some tentative words of advice” was finally published in late 2019. That Dad’s Maybe Book turned into so much more than that, and that Tim O’Brien (the National Book Award winner for 1979’s Going After Cacciato) fans would enjoy reading it, seems to have caught O’Brien at least a little bit by surprise.

Tim O'Brien
Personally, I’m not surprised by that at all because what O’Brien has written here is as much a terrific memoir as it is a book about parenting or a series of letters to his young sons. Even more importantly for contemporaries of the author, this is a very fine reflection on the aging process and facing the ultimate ending that grows closer for all of us with each day’s passing. The book is largely structured around “Home School” and “Homework” assignments that O’Brien requires  of his sons over the years. Surprisingly, many of those assignments focus on the stories and novels of Ernest Hemmingway, an author whose work O’Brien both admires and dislikes – often  at the same time. It is in these five sections of the book (titled “Timmy and Tad and Papa and I) that O’Brien, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, explains how he became a pacifist and why he despises wars of any type so much today. (He particularly despises those who are so willing to fight wars using someone else’s sons to fight them.)

Dad’s Maybe Book was written over a fifteen-year period during which O’Brien’s sons grew from babyhood to teenagers; a time during which they, their father, the country, and the world changed greatly. It is a hopeful book, but it is often a sad book, one in which the author’s anxiety about being so much older than his children becomes more and more obvious as the years pass. It ends, though, with a comforting piece that O’Brien calls “One Last Lesson Plan,” instructions on just how he want his sons to spend the day together on what would have been the author’ hundredth birthday, October 1, 2046 (wouldn’t it be something if he were still here to spend that day with them). He wants them to play a round of golf together, drink some beer, look at some old family pictures, and “Forgive what needs forgiving, laugh at what needs laughing, and then go home.”

Bottom Line: I saved my favorite quote from Dad’s Maybe Book  for this summation because I think it represents the overall tone of the book so well: “It’s 3:12 a.m., October 1, 2016. I have turned seventy. Daylight will bring slices of cake and cheerful goodwill. It will be like celebrating a hernia.” God help me, but I love this quote.

Review Copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Santa May Be a Little Distracted - But Watch the Sky, He's Coming Soon

I'm hoping that Santa can tear himself away from his reading long enough to complete his rounds tonight. Looks like the guy is a real book nerd...three books going at once and a TBR stack close at hand.

Hey, maybe we should leave a book out for Santa instead of cookies and milk. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Hill Women - Cassie Chambers

Never underestimate a mountain woman.

Cassie Chambers grew up in the second poorest county in the entire United States, Owsley County, Kentucky. And she did it when the county was suffering the worst of times because of the duel decline of the two industries that had sustained life in Owsley County for generations: coal and tobacco. Without a market for coal and tobacco, there were very few jobs to be had in the county, especially jobs that payed anything even close to a living wage. Chambers, though, found her way out of Owsley County, and today the Harvard Law graduate whose firm offers free services to indigent Kentucky women, is even a member of the Democratic National Committee. And she knows exactly to whom she owes her success: the generations of strong women who preceded her.

Cassie’s story begins with her grandmother, a woman whose belief in hard work and family was passed down to her children (four boys and two girls), including Cassie’s mother, Wilma, and her mother’s older sister, Ruth. Wilma, certainly no stranger to hard work, would go on to become the first in her family to graduate from high school, as well as from college, something she achieved when Cassie was five years old. The women in Cassie’s family led by example, and Wilma’s acquisition of a college degree despite the tremendous odds against her made it plain to Cassie that her mother placed great value on education. As Cassie put it, by “graduating with her degree, my mother changed both of our lives.”

Cassie Chambers
The most remarkable thing about Cassie Chambers is not what she achieved academically and after graduation - it is that she so willingly gives back to the community and culture from which she came. But even that did not come easy for her because of the difficulties she faced while trying to live in two cultures at the same time. The more she fit in at Yale and Harvard, the more comfortable she felt in those worlds, the less she fit in back in the Kentucky mountains she had left behind. Ultimately, the author came to understand that not everyone can or even should leave the mountains, that the people there are “connected to the land and to each other in a deep and meaningful way.” The mountain communities are worth saving, and she is doing her best to make sure that those who do stay in them are getting all the help they need and deserve.

Perhaps the biggest compliment ever paid to Cassie Chambers came from her Aunt Ruth one day after Cassie asked if her aunt still considered her to be a hillbilly. “You’re not anymore,” her aunt replied, “but you still got a piece of hillbilly in your heart.” The author says that she felt herself “swell with pride.”

Bottom Line: Hill Women is a tribute to the part of the country where Chambers was born, those Kentucky Appalachian communities that spawned generation after generation of tough men and women like those in her own family. The women, though, in the author’s family were different from the men in one significant way: they valued education much more than the men valued it. And even if they could not manage to get an education for themselves, they badly wanted it for the rest of the family, especially their daughters, sisters, and nieces. Education was the ticket to a better life for the women of Appalachian Kentucky - men could own farms and head families of their own; women, if not for education, were doomed to living the confined roles that mountain culture expected of them. This is their story.

Review Copy courtesy of Ballantine Books