Friday, January 31, 2020

A Book List I've Maintained for 50 Years Now

Fifty years ago, about six weeks before I got married, I jotted down the title, author, and date-read of the book I had just finished. I tossed that piece of paper aside and didn't think about it again until I had finished another book. Then I decided to add that book to what was now officially a "list" of two titles. Well, I kept doing that until it became necessary to transfer the information to a little notebook if I wasn't going to lose it. And over the years, I continued to fill up notebooks and laboriously transfer the information to newer and larger notebooks. Luckily for me, I finally wised up and transferred the information to a notebook that would last me for a long time. The one pictured here is down to its last half-dozen pages now, but I've been using it since 1996, almost twenty-five years, and it holds all fifty years worth of reading.

I have also created an excel spreadsheet using the same data so that I can easily sort through all the books to see exactly which ones I've read and how long it has been since I read them. But I could never break the habit of maintaining a hard copy of the same information. And as of February 1, I have been doing this for fifty years, something that blows my mind. What was I thinking all those years ago when I jotted down that first title information? Certainly not that I would be sitting at something called a computer and writing a note to the world about what I had just done. And most certainly not that the list would stand at 3,490 titles some fifty years later. 

The world has changed drastically since February 1, 1970, and so have I and everyone I know. But the list goes on and on. Strangely enough, I find that to be rather comforting. Browsing the list brings back lots of memories as I try to remember what was going on in my life when I read specific titles. It still surprises me that the memories work in both directions: sometimes the book title by itself reminds me of a certain period in my life, and sometimes it's the date that brings back clear memories of reading the book.

Here are a couple of sample pages of what the list actually looks like:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sam Houston, Hitler, Randy Travis, and Louise Penny

It doesn't look like I'll be finishing another book this month, so this is what it looks like for me going into February.

Books in Progress:

1Three Soldiers - John Dos Passos - I'm about 70% of the way through this 471-page novel about World War I now, but I've only been reading it in spurts as the mood strikes me. I'm reading the 1921 novel in its 1932 Modern Library edition, and that's kind of fun because it feels strange to be carrying around an 87-year-old book. But I won't lie. This one is kind of slow at times because of its repetitive pages about the weather conditions the soldiers faced and how they coped with it. 

2. The Gone Dead - Chanelle Benz - I'm reading this one via its audiobook version mostly on the 30-minute drive to pick my grandson up from school every afternoon, so it will take a while. I'm only about 15% of the way through it, but Benz is so far doing a good job of creating kind of a Southern gothic atmosphere and setting up the mystery at the core of the book. It's about a young black woman who returns to her long-abandoned Mississippi home where she learns the truth about her own past.

3. The German Heiress - Anika Scott - This is an ARC I got from LibraryThing, and it's scheduled for an April 20 release. I've just started it but it already seems to fall into the pattern of most of the World War II fiction that's been published in the last couple of years. That's been quite a trend, hasn't it, and I wonder when it will finally dry up. This one does have a little bit of a different twist in that it's the story of a powerful, formally wealthy, woman trying to disguise her identity well enough to escape Germany at the end of the war. (Her family's factory used slave labor during the war.)

Other Books I hope/plan to read this month: 

4. Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers - Brian Kilmeade - I've admired Sam Houston since I was a boy, and I'm looking forward to Kilmeade's take on the pivotal role that Houston played in Texas history. All of this took place just a few miles from my home, so I've visited the San Jacinto  battleground and the Sam Houston homes in the area for myself on numerous occasions. As the book's subtitle indicates, this is not just a book about Texas, it's about "The Texas Victory That Changed American History." I agree with Kilmeade about its importance and impact.

5. Wolf - Herbert J. Stern and Alan A. Winter - I received this hardback review copy in the mail last week and I'm really curious about it. It is said to be a fictionalized biography of Adolph Hitler, one of the most deservedly hated men the world has ever seen. I've never felt much like reading about Hitler, but this might be a more painless way to learn more about how he became the monster that he was and how the Germans let him get away with it all. At over 500 pages in length, this had better be good.

6. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls - Anissa Gray - I picked this one up at the library last week without knowing a thing about it. Simply put, I couldn't resist a book with this title and didn't really look at it closely until I had it at home. Turns out, it's about three sisters, the eldest of whom suddenly gets arrested, leaving the care of her teenage daughters to her two younger sisters. "What unfolds is a stunning portrait of the heart and soul of an American family." We'll see about that.

7. A Fatal Grace - Louise Penny - One of my goals for 2020 is to catch up on the earlier books from series that I started reading somewhere in the middle. Louise Penny's Gamache series is one of those series. A Fatal Grace (2006) is the second book in the series, and it sounds like a really good mystery. This is part of what it says on the back cover: "How could she have been electrocuted in the midst of a curling match in Three Pines - and without anyone seeing a thing?" 

8. Gifts for the Dead - Joan Schweighardt - This is one I received in December via an email request from the author to consider it for review. I'll be reading a PDF version of the book so it may take me a little longer than normal to get it finished, but from the few pages I've sampled, this one has a lot of potential. I find it to be very readable and the author appears to be a pretty good storyteller, to boot. 

9. Forever and Ever, Amen - Randy Travis & Ken Abraham - This is a review copy of an e-book that I just received, but the book was actually published last summer. I really, really want to like this one because I've been a fan of Randy Travis music since 1982 when I heard him sing for the very first time. The man has really had a tragic life and I hope this is an honest recounting of how and why it all happened to him the way that it did. It still makes me sad to know that he will probably never be able to sing again.

10. The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick - This one, written in 1962, fits well into my 2020 goal to read more of the  "modern classics" that I've somehow never gotten around to reading up to now. I'm really curious to see how it compares to the four-season Amazon Prime series that is based upon it because the novel is only about 225 pages long. Somehow, Prime managed to stretch the premise into almost 40 hours of pretty good television over four years - if you have the time, the series is worth a look.

I seriously doubt that, come the end of February, all ten of these books will have been read and reviewed. Shiny new books and review opportunities are likely to catch my eye well before then. And, of course, some of these may end up being abandoned. Too, I'm waiting on a couple of library holds right now that could/should make it to me sometime in February, including the now infamous American Dirt - when that one comes to me, it's immediately going right to the top of my TBR list.

But this post should help keep me a bit more focused than I usually am, so it's worth a try. I'm aiming for some kind of middle-of-the-road compromise between rigidly following a reading list and drifting from book to book. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Suddenly It's not Politically Correct to Read "American Dirt"

As I mentioned in previous posts about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, I still haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of what has become a rather controversial novel. As of this date, in fact, I’m still number thirty-eight on my library’s hold list, exactly where I was a few days ago when I was suddenly bumped back eight spaces on the list. But only three days after my enquiry as to how that could happen I was back at number thirty-eight, making me wonder if the line-jumpers have now been placed back at the end of the line - where they should have been in the first place. Never, of course, will the truth be known.

I’m more interested than ever in reading American Dirt because of all the controversy the book has generated, and what I think is the unwarranted criticism it has suffered since publication. Immediately after publication, American Dirt seemed certain to dominate the bestseller lists for a long time. Oprah Winfrey gave it her blessing, the Hollywood clique gave its gushing (with that crowd it’s either gush or rant, nothing in between) approval, and the novel was generally being hailed as a real eye-opener, a game-changer even, in the politically charged open-border argument. And then some of those same people were saying the exact opposite about the book while throwing around words and phrases like “cultural appropriation,” “stereotypes,” and “melodramatic.”

Jeanine Cummins
I believe that the criticism has more to do with political correctness and peer-intimidation than it does with the quality of the book. The author’s writing is being ripped apart, many admit, because as a “white person and a Puerto Rican,” Cummins has dared to write a heartfelt novel about Mexicans who attempt to cross the southern border of the United States illegally. That genius Salma Hayek has even apologized about her initial praise of the book, in the process exposing the fact that she didn’t even bother to read it before praising it. In other words, Hayek just went along with the crowd and fully expected her Hollywood buds to award her a few brownie points for her efforts. Then the buzz did its 180 degree turn and the genius decided that she’d best go along with where the crowd was now going. Brilliant, just brilliant, Salma.

The book still, I’m happy to see, has its defenders, among them one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett. In Patchett’s estimation, all of this sudden criticism may have more to do with “sexism than concerns about the author stepping into a culture and identity she doesn’t understand.” Patchett told the Los Angeles Times that “There’s a level of viciousness that comes from a woman getting a big advance and a lot of attention. If it had been a small advance with a small review in the back of the book section, I don’t think we’d be seeing the same level of outrage.”

Jeanine Cummins herself, at least to this point, has been relatively silent about the nasty criticism. It will be interesting to see how the whining impacts sales of the book in the long run because this kind of thing often backfires on those doing the criticizing or boycotting. Only time will tell.

As for me, I’m hoping that the book does well. It is about a middle-class Mexican woman and her young son who are desperate to escape the drug cartel members who killed her journalist husband in revenge for the articles he was writing about the cartel. Her best hope is to escape into the United States. This is a very pro-immigrant book, and the politically correct whining it has generated caught me by surprise. If the critics don’t like what this “white Puerto Rican” has written and how she has portrayed their culture, let’s see them do it better. I’ll be happy to read their books, too, but I’m not going to play their kill American Dirt game.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Alas, Babylon - Pat Frank

Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon was published in 1959, and I first read it as a sixteen-year-old in 1964. This is the first time I’ve read it since, but that initial reading impressed me so much that I still have that particular paperback copy of Alas, Babylon on my shelves. To understand why this one made such an impact on me, it helps to remember just how deeply implanted into the minds all of us growing up in the fifties and sixties the relative likelihood of a nuclear holocaust was. We were part of that whole “duck and cover” drill process that was going on in schools all across the country in those days. We took it seriously because the adults all around us took it seriously.

So along comes Pat Frank in 1959 with a 315-page novel about what would happen if Russia started firing missiles at the United States and Western Europe in an attempt to win a nuclear war via a devastating first strike that would cost millions of lives in a matter of hours – and suddenly, our worst fears were easier than ever to picture in our minds. It all seemed very real to someone my age because, after all, the Soviet Union was already winning the space race, and catching up seemed to be beyond the capacity of the U.S. space program.

But, as it turns out, Alas, Babylon is not at all the pessimistic and terrifying book it might have been. Yes, millions do die, whole cities are wiped out in minutes, and millions more will die in the months following “The Day,” but those in little Fort Repose, Florida, are not prepared to give up even then. Randy Bragg is not going to let them. Mark Bragg, Randy’s brother, is an officer in SAC Intelligence, and Mark manages both to evacuate his wife and children from Omaha to Florida and to give Randy a 24-hour heads-up about the impending doomsday. That little head start would make a difference.

Pat Frankb
The core of Alas, Babylon is, as would be expected, the community’s common effort to survive the aftermath of being completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Suddenly responsible for their own food supply, safety, health care, and the like, the people of Fort Repose soon learn that they will have to depend upon each other if any of them are to survive the long term – and that thieves will be subject to the harshest penalty there is. Fans of dystopian novels will find much here to please them. It can be argued in fact,  that books like Alas, Babylon, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Eugene Burdick’s Fail Safe, and Peter George’s Red Alert created the pattern for most every dystopian novel that would follow.

Pat Frank’s message, however, is a bit different than the message sent by most dystopian novels. Frank does not shy away from showing the reader exactly what the carelessness and stupidity of the political class might cost the world one day. He doesn’t linger in the gore, but he does paint a clear enough picture of what would be lost – perhaps lost forever. Frank focuses more on how much we are going to miss all the things we destroy, and just how suddenly thousands of years of human advancement could be made meaningless. Pat Frank, though, has one more message for his readers, a message of hope - hope that those who survive will be able to claw back as much of the past as is humanly possible, and that civilization will survive the worst.

Bottom Line: I’ve seen a few reviews of Alas, Babylon claiming that the novel is so racist and misogynistic that it is barely readable. All I can say to those reviewers is that they just don’t get it. The novel was written in 1958 or 1959, a period during which racism was more obvious than it is today. Pat Frank makes that racism part of his story, particularly the way that everyday conversation often included casual racial and religious slurs, even to using the infamous “N-word” on numerous occasions in the book. Frank’s main characters, Randy Bragg and his family, though, are anything but racist in attitude and action. The author uses the Bragg family to make his points about racism and racists; he doesn’t preach tolerance, he shows it in action, and he makes sure that one of the key families in Fort Repose’s survival is a black family, a family that is totally accepted in the new world in which they find themselves. Read between the lines, people.