Friday, February 28, 2020

Book Chase: The March 2020 Reading Plan

I was surprised this morning to see that I actually came closer to completing my February reading plan than I expected I would. I read and reviewed eight of the ten books on my list and am about 33% of the way through a ninth one that I'm really enjoying. The tenth book on my February list, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, is going to slide to the top of my March list along with the one I'm a third of the way through, Joan Schweighardt's Gifts for the Dead (a book I'm really excited about right now). In addition, I "read" two audiobooks I hadn't planned to read: Ol' Yeller and The Reckless Oath We Made (Bryn Greenwood), meaning that I will have read ten books during February after all, just not the exact ten I had planned on reading.

That said, this is what I have planned for March:

1. Gifts for the Dead - Joan Schweighardt - I knew very little about this one when I put it on my reading list for last month, but now that I've read about a third of the book, I'm really excited about it. It's set in the early 20th century just before WWI breaks out and features a well-developed group of Irish immigrant characters who are facing a family tragedy together. The book has a great sense of place and time, and the author's writing style is a pleasure to read.

2. 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.

3. American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins - I can't wait to get to this one and have been looking forward to reading it for a while now. The traveling critic-show that wants to kill this book came through San Antonio last week but I decided against making the drive there from Houston to hear what they had to say - mainly because I was afraid most of it would be in Spanish only. I'm going to try to read the book with an open mind and not worry about all the "cultural appropriation" baloney associated with it.

4. Daughter of the Reich - Louise Fein - is a review copy that I picked up from LibraryThing a few weeks ago. It's the story of the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi who falls in love with an old Jewish friend of hers and begins an affair with him, endangering both their lives. I know I said I was done with WWII fiction of this type, but I'd forgotten that this one  was already on the way to me. It amazes me how many books like this one there are out there all of a sudden - and how much alike all their covers look.

5. Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel - This is one I have on hand from my local library, and it seems like a timely read. It's a 2014 dystopian novel about a deadly flu epidemic that crushes the world, completely disintegrating life as we know it. It spans several decades and moves back and forth between life before and after the pandemic suddenly appears. Along with the Netflix series Pandemic that I'm currently watching, this one may end up making me more nervous about our immediate future than I really want to be.

6. A Bitter Feast - Deborah Crombie - This is another library book that is due back soon. I'm a big fan of Deborah Crombie and her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series, so I'm really looking forward to this newest one. The story takes place during a weekend break in the Cotswolds that Duncan and Gemma are enjoying until the bodies begin to fall around them. I'm fascinated that a native Texan, still living in McKinney, Texas, can write such a good mystery series set in England - much like Elizabeth George does with her Inspector Lynley series.

7. The Blues Don't Care - Paul D. Marks - This is an e-ARC that I received a couple of weeks ago, and it sounds like a lot of fun. The basic premise is that the only white member of an otherwise all-black swing band in WWII Los Angeles has to solve the murder that one of the other band members is accused of having committed. If he is successful, he will have earned a permanent gig with the group. If not, not. I've read Marks in short story format before and enjoyed his work.

8. The Dead Don't Sleep - Steven Max Russo - This is another e-ARC that I've recently received. This one appealed to me because it features an "aging Vietnam veteran" whose war experiences seem to be coming back to haunt him when he meets a strange man who claims to remember him from the war. Once the vet figures out who the stranger is, he knows that it is time for a final reckoning with the man who  should have been taken care of the first time they had the chance all those years ago.

9. Land of Wolves - Craig Johnson - I've been a fan of Johnson's Longmire series for a long time  - both in print and via the well-done Netflix series of the same name. This is the latest book in what is now an 18-book series that has seen Walt Longmire age rather gracefully over the years despite the beating his body has taken. I've read most of the others, and I'm saving the Longmire short story collections for when I get completely caught up on the novels. 

10. LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval - Kyle Longley - This is a 2018 ARC that I've had around the house for almost two years and I think I'm finally ready to read it. 1968 was a crazy year for the country - and for me, personally. It's the year I went into the Army, the year I was attacked by fellow soldiers inside Fort Campbell, KY, after Martin Luther King's assassination, and the year I learned of Bobby Kennedy's assassination via a tiny transistor radio while sitting in a tree in the middle of the night while keeping an eye on the four or five wild pigs that had me so securely treed.

Because I spend so much time driving around Houston, I will likely work in one or two audiobooks, too. Most likely, I will end up finishing seven or eight of the books on this list and probably the two audiobooks I start in March. My February list kept me focused pretty well, so I'm hoping the same thing happens in March. As long as it works for me, I'll keep writing up a formal plan like this one to work from.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Clive Cussler Dead at 88

Clive Cussler in 2011
Prolific author Clive Cussler died at his home on Monday, February 24, at age 88.

Cussler's work fascinated readers for decades and has been favorably compared to the type of novel that made authors like Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, and others of that genre famous. But unlike most of the others in that school of writing, Cussler actually lived adventures akin to those he wrote so effectively about. The man was himself an underwater explorer who was given credit for discovering and exploring at least 60 shipwrecks in his day.

Best known for his Dirk Pitt series, a series that sometimes strayed even into alternate histories, Cussler was awarded a Doctor of Letters degree in 1997 by the New York Maritime College after publication of his first nonfiction work, The Sea Hunters (1996)

While it was the third Dirk Pitt novel, Raise the Titanic, that actually secured Cussler's literary career, the series totals twenty-five books in all, with the last one (Celtic Empire) being published just last year. The last eight Dirk Pitt novels were co-authored with Dirk Cussler, the author's son. 

In addition to the Dirk Pitt books, Cussler authored several other series: The NUMA Files (featuring Kurt Austin), The Oregon Files (featuring a ship called the Oregon), The Isaac Bell Adventures (set in the early 1900s), The Fargo Adventures (featuring a husband/wife treasure-hunting team), two adventure books for children, and five non-fiction titles. All told, his 85 books are said to have sold more than 100 million copies around the world and to have been translated into some 40 languages.

Clive Cussler was a force to be reckoned with in every sense of the world, and he will be missed by his fans.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Three Soldiers - John Dos Passos

Author John Dos Passos came out of World War I believing that socialism and pacifism offered the world a better way forward. He finished writing Three Soldiers in the spring of 1919, but the novel was not published until 1921. Interestingly, the 1932 Modern Library edition of the novel that I read includes an introduction dated June 1932 in which Dos Passos laments the fact that he did not “work over” the novel much more than he did before it was first published in 1921. It is obvious from the introduction that the author was a disillusioned man in 1932 but that he had not given up on changing the politics of the average American. According to him:

            “…we can at least meet events with our minds cleared of some of the romantic garbage that kept us from doing clear work then. Those of us who have lived through have seen these years strip the bunting off the great illusions of our time, we must deal with the raw structure of history now, we must deal with it quick, before it stamps us out.”

Three Soldiers follows a pattern familiar to anyone who has read even a few war novels, be those stories about WWI, WWII, or the wars in Viet Nam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We first meet the main characters as civilians and then follow them through their military basic training, their deployment to the field, into battle, and finally, to the aftermath of their combat experiences. While Dos Passos did take this approach in Three Soldiers, there are strikingly few pages dedicated to actual battle descriptions and the like. Instead, the author focuses more on what happens to soldiers when combat ends by showing his main characters as they recuperate from their wounds in war zone hospitals. In that way, it is easy for Dos Passos to contrast the disillusioned, sometimes physically and emotionally crippled, soldiers there to the patriotic, ambitious boys they were when they eagerly joined the army to serve their country.  

John Dos Passos 1896-1970
This is not an easy novel to read, mainly because each new chapter seems to open with long, dreary descriptions of the cold, wet days that the soldiers wake up to every morning. Those descriptions help set the tone for the mental state of the author’s three soldiers (although the bulk of the novel is really about only one of them) as they finally figure out how naïve they have been about how the system really works. Rather than winning promotions and pay increases, they find themselves doing menial tasks and reporting to men who simply gamed the military system better than them. They get bored – and the reader starts getting bored with and for them. Perhaps that is what Dos Passos was aiming for; if so it works beautifully.

Bottom Line: Even to its last two pages, Three Soldiers is one of the most depressing war novels I’ve ever read. The argument that Dos Passos makes for socialism and pacificism is clear enough, but because the author sees everything in such black and white terms, he does not, in the long run, build a very effective case for either.

Bonus Observation: This Dos Passos quote from the 1932 introduction could have easily been written last week:
            “Certainly eighty percent of the inhabitants of the United States must read a column of print a day, if it’s only in the tabloids and the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Somehow, just as machinemade shoes aren’t as good as handmade shoes, the enormous quantity produced has resulted in diminished power in books. We’re not men enough to run the machines we’ve made.”

I can only imagine what Dos Passos would  think if he were alive today when all of us have hundreds, if not thousands, of books at our electronic fingertips twenty-four hours a day?

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Forever and Ever, Amen - Randy Travis and Ken Abraham

I can remember so clearly the first time I heard a Randy Travis recording and how excited I was to discover his first major label release, the album Storms of Life. To understand my excitement, you have to recall just how bad country music radio was in mid-1986 when that album came out of nowhere; traditional country music was on its deathbed, having been replaced by spawns of that awful Urban Cowboy craze that gave us the silliness of John Travolta being accepted as a cowboy role model, line-dancing, and some of the worst music I’ve ever heard. Fans of traditional country music were yearning for new songs in the style they had loved their entire lives – but no one in the industry was paying any attention.

And then Randy Travis burst onto the scene as one of those overnight successes (who, of course, had been working for peanuts for years), and all was well in the world of country music again. Suddenly, everyone wanted to make music in Randy’s neo-traditionalist style and major labels were falling all over themselves trying to find their own version of Randy Travis. And for a while, that’s exactly what happened, enabling fans of real country music to hear the real thing on their radios for another few years. Sadly though, as soon as Randy’s generation hit middle age, the boom was over and country radio is worse today than it ever has been. But that’s not Randy’s fault. He did his bit.

But it wasn’t easy.

Forever and Ever, Amen is one of those conversational memoirs produced by so many celebrities and their co-authors (in this case that would be co-author Ken Abraham) that we’ve come to expect over the years. Reading them often has the feel of sitting down across the table from the celeb in question and listening to them reminisce for five or six hours. Forever and Ever, Amen is a little different, though, for readers who already know how the story is going to end. For those readers, this is more like watching one of those horror movies where you want to yell at the actors on screen not to go into that room or open that closet door. In the cases of Randy Travis, I wanted to yell at him, “Stay away from Lib Hatcher, whatever you do, Randy. Don’t listen to her.”

Amazingly enough, Randy Travis is such a forgiving person that he gives Hatcher all the credit for making him into the huge country music star he became despite the fact that she robbed him blind in the process, manipulated everything in his personal life to her benefit, and is probably at least technically guilty of some level of child abuse (Travis was 17 years old when their relationship began and Hatcher is more than a decade older than him). He emphasizes her role in launching and managing his career, as well as in weaning him from the teenaged drugging and drinking habits that would have likely seen him end up in prison had he not met her. And even when enumerating the ways that Hatcher abused his trust in her, both financially and emotionally, Travis never adopts an angry tone.

But there’s still the ending (at least for now it’s the ending) of the story, and that’s the part of Forever and Ever, Amen that I can’t imagine anyone reading with a dry eye. In mid-2013, Randy Travis suffered a massive stroke while in the midst of life-threatening breathing difficulties that stopped his heart in a hospital emergency room. Because he went into a coma at the same time, no one recognized that Travis had had a stroke and he was not treated for it until two days later, way too late to prevent massive brain damage and paralysis of his right side. It got so serious at one point that those closest to him were advised by doctors to pull the plug on him to end his suffering. When he did finally leave the hospital, the man had to learn to walk and talk again, and his recording career was over.

But Randy Travis is not a quitter, so maybe one day we will be reading Forever and Ever, Amen, Part 2. I hope so.

Bottom Line: Forever and Ever, Amen is a heartfelt memoir that tells the story of a man of faith who managed to beat the odds more than once in his life. His story is a remarkable one that will especially be appreciated by Randy Travis fans, but more importantly, it is an inspirational story powerful enough to change lives for the better.   

This was Randy Travis in 2017, four years after his stroke:

And this was Randy Travis before the stroke that almost killed him:

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls - Anissa Gray

I should begin by explaining exactly how Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls came to my attention in the first place. The first books that you really see in my local library as you walk past the check-out desk is the section dedicated to “new books.” Most of the books on those shelves are shown spine-outward, but the flat surface on top of the actual shelving is used to display the covers of thirty or forty books. Any avid reader or library patron knows how book covers all tend to blend together because once a design trend catches on, the copycats are not far behind. So you can easily imagine just how much the cover of Hungry Girls jumped out at me as I approached the shelves. And before I knew it, the book was in my hands and would eventually be heading out the door with me. This may not be the most beautiful cover you’ve ever seen, but there’s no denying that it’s an eyecatcher. So let’s rate the cover a five-star cover.

But that’s not quite the case for the book itself. Hungry Girls is about the Butler family, a troubled family of four siblings (three girls and one boy) in which Althea, the oldest child ended up being a mother-figure to her siblings even though Joe and Lillian went to live with their father after their mother died. There are so many grudges between these four and their father, that you almost need an excel spreadsheet to keep up with all of them. But now they are all adults, their father is dead, and Althea and her husband Proctor have twin girls of their own. Still, the grudges live on, despite that the family now faces a new crisis that threatens finally to completely tear it apart.

Anissa Gray
Althea and Proctor have been arrested and are facing charges that could see them both locked up for a number of years. Someone will have to take care of their teenaged twins, but Viola and Lillian, neither of whom are much up to that task themselves, are not willing to let the girls be taken in by their brother Joe and his family. Too many overlapping grudges ever to let that happen. What does happen to the girls next, as they deal with their own insecurities and embarrassments at school, is not unexpected. The big question is whether or not the supposed adults in their family will be able to get their own insecurities and resentments under control in time to save the girls from themselves and the townspeople. This one is a race against the clock – almost literally, as it turns out.

Bottom Line: The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is a well-crafted novel that holds few real surprises. Despite its predictability, though, this one is a sometimes  interesting look at a family trying to pull itself together for the first time in its history – and it all has to be done before it is too late to stop the family’s youngest members from falling into the same traps that previous generations have been caught up in. Most memorable character: Nai Nai, the Chinese grandmother who lives with one of the Butler women.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Bookstore Sales Plummet and E-Books Are Saving Authors

While looking around the internet news sites this morning, two articles that seem to be flip sides of the same coin, caught my attention. The first piece is titled "Bookstore Sales Plummeted 5.7% in 2019" and the second "The Invisible Army: How E-Books are Saving Authors."

The gist of the first article is that brick and mortar bookstores in the United States fell almost six percent from 2018 levels, meaning that total bookstore sales were down about $600 million in the year-to-year comparison. The article says that the numbers were compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. Interestingly, the article says that the only "huge" bestseller during all of 2019 was Where the Crawdads Sing, a book that continues to rank high on the bestseller lists well into 2020. (And now American Dirt may not be the bookstore savior that it was destined to be before the P.C. cops started squawking about it.)

Keeping in mind that these numbers do not reflect hardcover sales via Amazon or even the Barnes & Noble website, I'm not sure that this tells us much of anything about the overall health of the publishing and bookselling industries. But what it does say is that fewer books are being purchased at the brick and mortar storefronts - and that's not a good thing because it means that those locations will likely be carrying smaller and smaller inventories while trying to make up for lost book sales by selling all the other junk that already clutters up the B&N stores. 

The Invisible Nicola May
The second article is a longer piece written by Nicola May, a romantic comedy author from the U.K. who regularly tops the Kindle bestseller list. According to May, she could "walk into a roomful of readers, booksellers and authors" without any of them having any idea who she was. She calls herself a "lone field marshal in the invisible army of e-book bestselling authors." 

May's main point is that without Amazon she could not afford to write at all because the books chains completely ignore authors like her. Her secondary point is that not only are the chains ignoring authors like her, they are ignoring readers who love the books being written by e-book-dependent authors like her. May has been practicing her craft for 23 years, but would still be unpublished (other than her own self-publishing efforts) were it not for e-books. 

May does lament the fact that e-book-only authors like her get very little love or recognition from the powers-that-be for the huge sales many of them are amassing. No big book awards come their way, and she doesn't expect that kind of thing to change, really, but as she puts it, "...I'm still smashing it with readers and paying more than just the rent."

So there you have it. It seems like there are two separate bookselling worlds out there, one that pushes print-books out the door as quickly as possible, and one that sells a huge number of e-books written by authors who remain relatively anonymous to the rest of the world. The good news is that, at least for now, there seems to be room for both worlds to simultaneously exist, a fact that readers and writers alike should celebrate. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Fatal Grace - Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace is book two of Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache series, a series that has grown so popular over the last fifteen years that it will soon – with the publication later this year of All the Devils Are Here - total sixteen novels and one novella. Because I somehow managed to read nine books in the series before having read any of the first five, I am particularly enjoying the way that the early books are filling in some of the gaps in the way I’ve perceived Penny’s main characters. Reading A Fatal Grace was, for me, like reading a long flashback about some of my favorite fictional characters because this book takes several giant steps toward evolving those characters into the people I’ve grown so fond of in the last ten years.  

But let’s begin with the novel’s hook because it is a good one. CC de Poitiers, a truly despicable woman, has been murdered – although no one in Three Pines much appears to care – in what seems to be an impossible manner. She was electrocuted on a remote, frozen Canadian lake in the middle of a curling match, and nobody saw a thing. And that was that.

I suppose that because this is just the second book in the Gamache series I should not be surprised that the good inspector is not even mentioned until the book’s eighth chapter begins on page 54. Penny, instead, spends the first 53 pages reintroducing the reader to the main residents of Three Pines, a little village about an hour’s drive from Montreal where Gamache works and lives. (Series readers know, of course, that Gamache will eventually become a Three Pines resident and that some of these same characters will become his closest friends.) Gamache is already familiar with Three Pines because he helped solve a crime in the village, almost losing his own life in the process, just a year earlier. Now he is back to see if he and his team can figure out how CC de Poitiers could have possibly been murdered in plain sight without anyone noticing.

Louise Penny
A Fatal Grace provides a first-rate mystery for its readers to solve, one that becomes ever more complex as Gamache learns more and more about the victim’s past and how it all relates to some of the village’s oldest residents. And of course, that’s why we read murder mysteries. We want to solve the crime before the fictional detective gets it all figured out (this is one of the extremely rare times that I actually accomplished that), but fans of the series should pay particular attention to the developing relationships between the various characters, especially between Beauvoir and Gamache, but also between Gamache and the main Three Pines characters, and between the Three Pines characters themselves. There are lots of answers in A Fatal Grace to the questions readers may otherwise have to wonder about in the books that follow.

Particularly enjoyable, also, are the little asides Penny sprinkles throughout the first half of the book that explain Gamache’s investigatory techniques and his affinity for mentoring rookie investigators. For instance, in one exchange with a young cop who is on his first homicide investigation, Gamache had this to say:

            “You need to know this. Everything makes sense. Everything. We just don’t know how yet. You have to see through the murderer’s eyes. That’s the trick…and that’s why everyone’s not cut out for homicide. You need to know that it seemed like a good idea, a reasonable action, to the person who did it. Believe me, not a single murderer ever thought, ‘Wow, this is stupid, but I’m going to do it anyway.’ No, our job is to find the sense.”

Two of my favorite developments in the long term Gamache story come at the very end of A Fatal Grace: Reine-Marie, Gamache’s wife, makes her first appearance in Three Pines where she makes a positive impression on Ruth Zardo (perhaps every reader’s favorite series character), and the Gamaches unexpectedly return to Montreal with Henri, a Three Pines dog who loses his owner. The novel, though, does not end on an entirely happy note because Penny reveals that Gamache still has powerful enemies amongst his superiors, enemies willing to do whatever it takes to destroy Armand and his future.

Bottom Line: A Fatal Grace is a good mystery that can easily be read as a standalone, coming as early in the Gamache series as it does, but it will be even more special a book to fans of the series, both those who have read ahead and those who are reading the books in order. Don’t miss this one.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Wolf - A Novel About Adolph Hitler

The possibility that a monster like Adolph Hitler could have ever been a ladies man never crossed my mind. Never. But that is exactly the way that Hitler is portrayed here in Wolf, the new fictional look at Adolph Hitler’s rise to power by authors Herbert Stern and Alan Winter. And according to the novel’s “Historical Notes” section, there is good reason to portray him that way because Hitler was not really the cold, emotional wreck of a man who was incapable of forming meaningful relationships with others that so many “esteemed” historians claim he was. Stern and Winter say that he, in fact, “forged life-long friendships with numerous people,” people to whom he was “exceedingly loyal.” This is particularly true in cases of the men who were with him from the very beginning of his rise to power - as it was true of the “stable of women” he manipulated for his own purposes throughout most of his adulthood.  

Most of the characters in Wolf were real people, but the book’s narrator, Friedrich Richard, is not one of these. Rather, Richard is a fictional, amnesiac soldier who meets Adolph Hitler in the mental ward at Pasewalk Hospital in 1918. Richard is in the hospital for treatment to help him recover his identity when Hitler, having been diagnosed as a psychopath suffering from hysterical blindness, introduces himself to Richard as “Wolf.” Both men are suffering from World War I combat-related issues. Richard is not particularly happy to have been asked by doctors to help look after Wolf, but after Wolf becomes completely dependent on Richard’s assistance for getting around the hospital, the two begin the close friendship that will last them for at least the next sixteen years.

Pasewalk Hospital - Where Hitler was treated
The sixteen years encompassed by Wolf, beginning in October 1918 and ending in August 1934, would see Adolph Hitler rise all the way from being a mere corporal whose mind has convinced his body that he is blind, to the moment that German voters decide to “anoint” him their country’s dictator. Along the way the two men’s friendship will be tested numerous times, but Richard convinces himself that by staying close to Hitler he will be able to curb the man’s worst impulses. Hitler, on his part, remains dependent on Richard and is always more willing to listen to counsel from him than from anyone else in his organization. The supreme irony of their relationship is that Richard’s good advice is instrumental in Hitler’s rise to the top of German politics – and to all that will soon follow.

Bottom Line: Wolf helps explain what many readers will have only wondered about: How did the citizens of Germany not simply allow, but actually vote, a man like Adolph Hitler into the absolute power that would lead to him becoming perhaps the greatest monster the world has ever seen. While the novel can at times read a little too much like a history book, it is in its best moments a horrifying reminder of just how easily something like this could happen again.

Review Copy courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

American Dirt - Backlash Against the Backlash

It's time for another American Dirt update. 

As I noted last week, despite all the self-righteous ranting associated with a well orchestrated backlash aimed at Jeanine Cummins and her novel American Dirt, the book continues to sell well. Tomorrow's New York Times Book Review is going to announce that the novel is the number one bestseller on both the "Combined Print and E-Book Best Sellers" list and the "Hardcover Best Sellers" list. The novel reached number one on both lists last week for the first time.

Longtime bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, is still going strong but has slipped to number four on the combined list while hanging on strong to the number two slot on the hardcover list. 

In addition, to these two lists, I see that this week's review includes a list of "Audio Monthly Best Sellers," monthly being the key word in that title. On this list, American Dirt is number six and Where the Crawdads Sing is number two. Now that American Dirt has started to sell so well, it will be interesting to see where it places on the monthly listing of audiobook bestsellers next time the list is published.

So the reader backlash against the original (and questionable) book backlash continues. And I still believe that's a good thing.

Read American Dirt and decide for yourself.

For your convenience, here is a quick link to "American Fatwah," a previous post that tells the whole story as I understand it.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Old Yeller - Fred Gipson

The first time I read Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, I was already thirteen or fourteen years old and “officially” too old for the book since it was aimed at 9-to-12-year-old children when it was published in 1956. That would be about right, too, since the book is only 117 pages long, and would be called a “chapter book” today. I do hope that copies of Old Yeller can still be found in elementary and middle school libraries because it tells the kind of story that kids are likely to remember for the rest of their lives - just the way I remembered it so well that this re-read held few surprises for me despite my fifty-eight year gap between readings. (I admit that the 1957 Disney movie of the same name probably had a lot to do with those clear memories, though, because the movie seems to have followed the book’s plot straight down the line.)  

Old Yeller is a coming-of-age story about Travis and his little brother Arliss, two boys left alone in the late 1860s on a small Salt Lick, Texas, farm with their mother while their father (along with most of the other men in the area) is away on a cattle drive. Fourteen-year-old Travis is going to have to grow up fast if he’s even going to come close to filling his father’s shoes, and it’s not going to be easy. It doesn’t help that “little Arliss” is the kind of free-spirited little boy who likes nothing better than to get naked and spend his time wading around in the family’s drinking water.

 When, out of nowhere, a big yeller, meat-stealing, dog shows up at the ranch and devours what was left of the family’s last slaughtered hog, it looks like Travis has another problem to contend with. But after that “big yeller dog” is noisily adopted into the family by little Arliss, he turns out to be exactly the kind of ranch dog that every boy needs by his side. Thus begins a series of encounters with bears, wild pigs, and raging bulls during which Old Yeller proves that he is willing to fight anyone and anything to keep his adopted family safe from harm.

Fred Gipson
And then, just about the time you finally catch your breath, here comes an ending that no one who has ever read Old Yeller will ever forget. Let me warn you that this is an ending that few ten-year-olds are going to get over quickly – but here’s a tip for you parents out there. Old Yeller has a sequel called Savage Sam that tells the story of one of Yeller’s pups, the little dog that came to live with Travis and Arliss near the end of Old Yeller. That will make it all better.

Bottom Line: Old Yeller may be a children’s book, but it works pretty well for adults, too, especially those who remember the book or the movie from their childhood. It is written in a straight-forward style that sometimes causes the mini-climaxes to come a little too close together for readers used to the more comfortable pacing of adult novels but, after all, that approach keeps it short enough for its target audience. This 1957 Newberry Medal nominee is, in my estimation, a five-star book for readers of all ages.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Author Bibliographies on Book Chase

I spent some time last night setting up two new bibliography page tabs for the blog. The tabs show up near the top of the homepage in alphabetical order by author's last name, and there are now seven of them: James Lee Burke, Elizabeth George, Tim Hallinan, Larry McMurtry, Louise Penny, Ruth Rendell, and Anne Tyler. 

In addition to a list of what each author has published, I've included a very brief biography, a picture, and a video featuring the author in action. I think the videos add an extra touch to the author pages because, in most cases, I've been able to find a video in which the author is either being interviewed live or giving a presentation at some book event. For example, the video I found last night for Louise Penny's page is over an hour long, and from what I've seen of it so far, it's really funny and charming.

The two new pages are the ones for Tim Hallinan and Louise Penny, but I plan pages for Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, John Harvey, and a few
others. The idea began as kind of a checklist for my own use because I'm one of those obsessive completists who hope to own a copy of everything their favorite authors have written. That's seldom the case, of course.

Anyway, do take a look at the tabs up above if you have the time. I would welcome suggestions about making the pages more useful, so don't be bashful if you have ideas.  


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Sam Houston & the Alamo Avengers - Brian Kilmeade

Sam Houston is one of the most fascinating figures in American history primarily because so few men have had as many highs and lows in one lifetime as Houston managed to squeeze into his. So unhappy with his home life that he ran away at age sixteen to live with one of the chiefs of the Cherokee nation, Houston by age twenty-two had become a protégé of Old Hickory himself, General Andrew Jackson. With Jackson’s support, Houston went on to represent Tennessee in Congress and followed up that success by becoming governor of the state. He was so popular, in fact, that some considered him destined to become president of the United States.

And then things went bad again.

In what became somewhat of a still unexplained scandal, Houston’s wife of just three months left him and returned to her father’s home. (There is still disagreement among historians about the reason for her abrupt departure from the marriage.) Turning to the bottle, Houston (The Raven, as he was known to the Indians) returned to his Cherokee family and tried to drown his sorrows even while representing the Cherokee nation in negotiations with the American government. But the man could not stay out of trouble for long. After an incident during which Houston severely beat a Congressman over the head with his hickory cane because of what he considered to be slanderous comments about him made by the Congressman, Houston became one of those “second-chancers” who went to Texas to start all over again (in Houston’s case it was more like a third or fourth chance, but who’s counting).

 Houston did not go to Texas without connections, however. Officially or not, he became President Andrew Jackson’s “eyes and ears on the ground” when he got there. Texas, of course, was still part of Mexico at the time but, with the blessing of the Mexican government, American settlers were being welcomed into the region and the word was out in the East. Families wanting a fresh start would get exactly that in Texas. There was a mini-land-grab going on and all were welcome. Other famous second-chancers who came to Texas about the same time as Houston were Jim Bowie, David Crockett, William Barrett Travis, and James Fannin.

Brian Kilmeade
By the time that General Santa Anna and his army decided to crush the brewing settler revolution, Travis, Bowie, Crockett, Fannin, and Houston (among others) were positioned to play key roles in what would happen next. The only way that the Texians and Tejanos had any real chance of winning their fight for freedom from Mexico was  General Santa Anna blowing the whole thing by becoming overconfident and lackadaisical in his approach to quelling the revolution. And many say that’s exactly what he did because the war ended at San Jacinto when the Texans caught the Mexican army so much by surprise that many of them were literally caught with their pants down. That surprise attack made possible one of the most one-sided battles/slaughters imaginable, leading to what author Brian Kilmeade describes this way:
            “Sam Houston’s greatest day not only secured independence for what would be the Republic of Texas, but it also made possible the fulfillment of his and Jackson’s dream. Thanks to Houston, Texas could now one day become part of the great American story. And thanks to Texas, America could one day spread from sea to shining sea.”

Bottom Line: Brian Kilmeade’s Sam Houston & the Alamo Avengers: The Texas Victory That Changed American History, is an excellent overview of Texas history. But excluding notes, acknowledgements, and an index, the text is only 232 pages long, and readers would do well to use the “For Further Reading” section of the book as a guide to the best of the books that Kilmeade used in his own research. That said, do not underestimate the importance of a book like Sam Houston & the Alamo Avengers because books like this one and others help to ensure that future generations do not forget their history. Having lived most of my life in a city named after Sam Houston (a city in which most of the downtown streets are named after men who fought in the Texas revolution), I thought I knew their story pretty well. Turns out, there’s always more to learn – even in 232 pages.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

American Dirt Tops NYT Bestseller List for First Time

I was pleasantly surprised this morning to open my copy of the New York Times Book Review and find that the controversial novel by Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt, is sitting atop two of the review's fiction best seller lists: the Print Hardcover list and the Combined Print and E-Book list. For the first time in a while, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is not number one. That took some doing.

As can be seen in the attached picture I took last week, my local Barnes & Noble is all-in on the book. The Target stores around here are less enthusiastic about American Dirt, but the two Target stores I've been in recently both had two or three copies prominently displayed. I'm happy that the all-out effort to ruin the author and publisher of American Dirt is having a boomerang effect instead - the absurdly brutal attack on Cummins has ended up making her loudest critics look much worse than what they accuse her of being. 

Also spotted in the February 9 issue are two books I want to take a closer look at:

This is a collection of nine (get it?) interconnected short stories that all take place in Phoenix during baseball spring training (known in Arizona as the Cactus League) just prior to the 2011 season. This one was released last Tuesday - just in time for avid baseball fans who need a baseball-fix prior to this week's opening of spring training in Florida and Arizona. Reviewer Charles McGrath says about it, "Baseball is never more than just a game here. Or, rather, a business disguised as a game - one that will nevertheless break your heart."

This one is billed as "an intimate history of premature birth and what it teaches us about being human." The author has a daughter who was delivered after 28 weeks at just 1 pound 13 ounces. DiGregorio explores the history of what happened to babies like hers prior to at least the second half of the twentieth century (they were largely just left to die on their own, apparently) and how things have so drastically changed for the better in recent years. My nephew and his wife had a son born last May even smaller than DiGregorio's daughter (he's still weighing in at only 14 pounds) so I'm probably more interested in this one than I would have been before.

And from the February 2 issue, these caught my eye:

This is a political thriller in which a plot to assassinate President Monroe, a man who sounds both a lot like President Trump and a whole lot not like President Trump. It's not so much the assassination plot that intrigues me; it's more that the main character, Hayley Chill, is a"Jason Bourne-like" 24-year-old army veteran who finds herself almost singlehandedly fighting the deep state to stop the assassination. Too, there's something the reviewer (Sarah Lyall) calls "one of the more surprising double-reverse plot twists I have seen in some time." Now, that sounds like fun.

This is a true-crime book about three young women who in 1980 decided to hitchhike to a peace festival in West Virginia. Two of the women were shot and killed in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and although most everyone in the county seems willing to tell what they know about the murders, the pieces they contribute don't add up to what is needed to make murder charges stick. The author learned of the murders after moving to the county fo work at a wilderness camp for local teenage girls. She couldn't stop thinking about the girl who were killed so near her new home - and all that thinking led to The Third Rainbow Girl.

Despite the fact that I'm obviously being distracted by all the shiny new books out there, so far this month I'm sticking pretty close to the reading schedule I put together at the end of January. I've now read three of the ten books on that list (The Gone Dead, The German Heiress, and Sam Houston & the Alamo Avengers) and I'm well on my way into two others. The only change to my plans came in the way of Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, the audiobook version of which I'm listening to now while driving around town on various errands. So far, so good.

Friday, February 07, 2020

The Gone Dead - Chanelle Benz

Chanelle Benz makes her debut with The Gone Dead, a novel set deep in the Mississippi Delta near the turn of the twenty-first century (2002, to be exact). The novel begins with an interesting hook in which its main character Billie James, a young black woman, returns to the Delta to take possession of the shack of a home that once belonged to her father. Billie was only four years old when her father died, and she remembers almost nothing about that chaotic day. Now thirty-four years old, and returning to the South for the first time in thirty years, Billie is dangerously naïve about what to expect when she comes “home” to claim her property.   

All Billie knows is that her father died in some kind of bizarre accident near the old house – and that nobody, including her uncle and other family members, wants to talk about it. Although she had planned to stay in Mississippi for only a couple of weeks – a family reunion/ vacation kind of thing – Billie becomes so intrigued with the reluctance of anyone to tell her anything helpful about her father that she changes her plans. That’s when she makes a big mistake: she starts asking the kind of questions that make a whole lot of people so nervous that they want her to shut up and go away. And they are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Chanelle Benz
The Gone Dead is about race relations in the South during the Jim Crow era - a period that lasted well into the 1960s. The number one priority of Jim Crow laws was  segregation of the races, a policy that was enforced by threats of violence that often became reality for those blacks who dared try to change things for the better. Billie’s father, a poet, was one of those people who dreamed of better days, and Billie suspects that his accident may not have been exactly accidental. And now that she’s stirred up a hornet’s nest from the past, Billie may end up being a little accident-prone herself if she’s not careful.

Bottom Line: The Gone Dead is a good enough debut novel, but it really doesn’t break any new ground and the story starts to feel like one you’ve heard too many times already. Benz, though, has created some interesting characters here, Billie James among them, and it’s easy to root for them as they finally begin to realize just how deeply they gotten themselves into a situation that could cost them their lives. Really, this is a pretty good mystery – even if it has the kind of open-ended finale that will probably not please readers who like their mysteries to be wrapped up a little more tightly at the end.