Monday, March 30, 2020

Book Chase: The April 2020 Reading Plan

It is definitely not a good sign that working on a blog post is more interesting to me right now than actually sitting down and reading a book. Not good at all.

Even before the official "Stay Home" order hit my county about ten days ago, we were already staying home and away from people as much as we possibly could. It was just good common sense to do so. My wife would be in very serious trouble if she contracted Covid-19, so I've been the one to go scavenging for the things we need. At first, that meant going to the stores every two or three days, but now I try to get all the necessary shopping done on Friday mornings. The only kicker will probably be those prescription refills that just can't wait until a Friday morning pickup. But that's the plan.

So far no virus problems in the family, but I have succumbed to a reading-virus that seems to be plaguing the whole book blogging world. I simply cannot concentrate on my reading right now. I get two or three pages into a book, only to realize suddenly that I have no idea what I just read from the last half page or so. My concentration is not what it was before the bug invasion, and I find little thoughts popping into my head regularly when they should be minding their own business and waiting for later. What am I missing on the news? Are the big cities in Texas starting to crack at the seams? What will happen to the elderly if hospitals can't keep up with the demand for beds and ventilators? Will I ever see toilet tissue and paper towels on the grocery shelf again?

Consequently, my March reading has been relatively light. But as I look back on my reading plan for the month - ten books plus an audiobook or two - I see that I didn't miss the mark as badly as I feared I might considering all the distractions. I managed to finish seven of the ten books on the list and get through one audiobook. And I'm about one-third of the way through another book on the list, and about 75% of the way through a second audiobook. So I guess it could have been worse.

This is what I have planned for April:

1. Daughter of the Reich by Louise Fein is the one that I'm a third of the way through coming into April. (It's a 530-page ARC.) 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. So far it is not different enough from all the similar books I've read in the last couple of years to make me fall in love with it. I'm hoping there are some surprises ahead that will make that happen because right now it's only about a 3-out-of-5-stars book.

2. The Dead Don't Sleep by Steven Max Russo is an e-ARC that I've been looking forward to for a few weeks, and I'll finally be starting it in the next day or two. This one appealed to me because it features an "aging Vietnam veteran" whose war experiences seem to be coming back to haunt him after 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 never been allowed to come home from Viet Nam in the first place. 

3. 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 because of my race 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 trying to keep an eye on the four or five wild pigs that had me so securely treed. 

4. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout is one of the last tree-books I bought before all this staying-at-home stuff started. I was a fan of the Olive Kitteridge film on HBO back in the day, and I'm looking forward to this collection of stories focusing on the recent doings in Olive's world as she "touches the lives of everyone around her." As those already familiar with Olive will know, having her touch your life is not necessarily a pleasant experience, so this one should be interesting. (I'm already a big fan of Elizabeth Strout's writing, so why I never got around to reading the first Olive book is a mystery to me.)

5. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles is an ARC I was hoping to carry with me to the San Antonio Book Festival next weekend for an author signature. Well, we all know what happened to the book festival. Jiles is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, News of the World, so I'm really looking forward to this one. It's the story of a young musician who is conscripted into the Confederate Army just a few months before the end of the Civil War in 1865. Jiles is a brilliant writer, so I have high hopes for this one..

6. As Good as It Can Be by William A. Glass is an ARC I received courtesy of the author back in late January. The book is all about a military brat struggling to stay out of trouble - and out of jail - who gets drafted into the army almost as soon as he gets out of high school. Now his problem is going to be figuring out how to keep from getting the dishonorable discharge that will ruin the rest of his life. 

7. Westwind by Ian Rankin is back in print for the first time in almost thirty years, and I'm wondering how something like that could happen to an author as popular as Rankin is. He  admits that the book, when published in 1990, was a big flop. According to Rankin, it got only one small review in the Guardian before it disappeared. Rankin was happy enough to forget about it - and then the Twitter world starting asking him about it often enough to spark his interest in republishing the book. He says he polished it up a bit, and I have to say that at first glance it looks pretty good. Should be interesting.

8. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is said to be "an exceptional depiction of the suffering caused by the influenza" pandemic of 1918. It seems to be on everyone's list of the best books coming out of the epidemic that killed millions of people in 1918 and 1919. More specifically, it's about a newspaper woman and a soldier who both catch the flu. When Miranda comes out of her delirium, she learns that the soldier is dead and that he most likely caught the flu while trying to nurse her back to health. 

9. Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker came to mind because of the Porter title, up above, I'll admit. I fell in love with Parker's Spenser books back in the mid-eighties, but I've always been afraid to go back and read one of them again because of the risk that the books are not as good as I remember them to be. And that would be sad. Spenser and Hawk are to this day one of my favorite detective teams (well, Hawk is the muscle and Spenser is the detective) of all-time. I hope they still are after this re-read.

10. The Night Fire by Michael Connelly is the latest Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch novel. I've been purposely holding this one back because I know that as soon as I read it I will have to wait several months for the next one in the Bosh-universe series. It's kind of like having money in the bank; it's comforting to know that it's there waiting for you when you need it most. Well, I think that time has come for me. I can't wait any longer.

So there you have the plan for April. But honestly, the main hope I have for the month is that my reading pace gets back to something resembling my normal pace before the month is over. If that happens, I will be satisfied.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

This was not my first attempt at reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. That first attempt, several years ago, did not go very well, and I ended up abandoning this 1962 alternate history novel in a state of confusion about 25% of the way through it. And now, right up front, I’m going to confess that this second attempt was easier than the first one primarily because I watched all four seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle (a 40-episode series loosely based on the novel) before trying to read it again.

It’s 1962, and World War II has been over for twenty years. The former United States has been split almost down the middle by the victors, Germany and Japan, with Germany occupying the eastern half of the country and Japan the western half. A buffer zone running through parts of Colorado is the only thing that keeps the former Axis allies from each other’s throat. A few “free” Americans manage to live in that zone. The rest are under the thumbs of the Germans and Japanese who treat them as second-class citizens, at best, and as enemies of the state, at worst.

The Germans have continued to exterminate what they consider to be inferior races across the globe, most recently via a botched attempt to do so in Africa. The Japanese are disturbed by the barbarity and aggressiveness of the German government, and they know that Germany must never be trusted. To the Japanese, it is obvious that Germany will settle for no less than total world domination – and that one day she will come for Japan and her North American territory.

Dick shows what this occupation of America is like through the eyes of several characters struggling to survive an America in which they have little hope for a better future. One character is a dealer in rare, historical artifacts, two others are involved in creating the forgeries that are sold to Japanese collectors as authentic artifacts, another is the estranged wife of an American Jew, and a fifth has written a novel of alternate history in which the United States wins World War II instead of the Axis powers. All of them, no matter what they do, live in more or less constant fear of their Japanese occupiers.

Philip K. Dick
The Man in the High Castle is a powerful book, one that demands the close attention of the reader if its full impact is to be felt. It is confusing at times, and its open-ended, ambiguous ending is not a particularly satisfying one. It is said that Dick purposely left the book open-ended because he intended one day to write its sequel. Unfortunately, the author found it so difficult to revisit Nazism that he never got the sequel written. Interestingly (and exactly as happens in the novel itself), Dick used the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, for assistance in plotting The Man in the High Castle. And in September 1963, The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award for best novel, the highest honor in all of Science Fiction.

Bottom Line: Seldom, if ever, have I recommended that a movie or television adaptation of a novel be watched prior to reading the book. But despite the huge differences between The Man in the High Castle and its film-version (a whole paper could be written on that subject), I’m going to do exactly that this time. If nothing else, the film leaves the viewer with a more easily imagined vision of America under occupation by its enemies, and it introduces all of the major characters from the novel. Admittedly, one or two of the novel’s characters (especially Juliana) are not much like their film versions, but that will not matter for long. This is one of those science fiction classics that every SF fanatic out there needs to read if they want to maintain their Sci Fi street creds.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Blues Don't Care - Paul D. Marks

The Blues Don’t Care is the first entry in Paul D. Marks’s new series featuring Bobby Saxon, a musician turned amateur detective who lives in WWII era Los Angeles. Bobby is a mean piano player in the style of all the popular jazz and swing bands of the day, but he has a big problem. Bobby is white. His favorite bands are exclusively all black. And, at least in Los Angeles, it’s unheard of for a white musician or singer to be part of what would otherwise be an all-black band.

But persistence has a way of paying off. Bobby sits through so many sets of his favorite band, The Booker “Boom Boom” Taylor Orchestra, that Booker starts to recognize him in the crowd - admittedly, it helps that Bobby’s is one of the few white ones in the whole room. But best of all for Bobby, on the night that he and Booker finally speak to each other Booker is short a piano player, a problem Bobby can help solve for him. And although he is not exactly warmly welcomed by all the bandmembers, by the end of the night Bobby has impressed all of them, especially Booker, with his talent.

When he is offered a regular gig with the Booker “Boom Boom” Orchestra, it appears that Bobby’s dreams have become reality. But there is only one way that he will keep the job, and it has nothing to do with Bobby’s musical talent. One of the other bandmembers has been arrested and locked up for a murder he didn’t commit, and Booker asks Bobby, because he is a white man, to prove the man’s innocence. If he pulls it off, the job is Bobby’s. If not, not.

Paul D. Marks
To say that Bobby is in over his head is an understatement. He has no idea where to begin his “investigation,” but before this one is over he manages to get himself (and anyone who dares help him) punched, kicked, tied-up, shot at, and otherwise abused. But Bobby, as we already know, is persistent – and persistence pays off.

Bottom Line: The Blues Don’t Care is a fun, atmospheric look at 1940s Los Angeles that almost perfectly captures the tone of all those old black and white gangster movies of the day. Bobby Saxon is such a fan of those films himself that he uses them as training films in his quest to make himself into a detective capable of solving a murder the police have little interest in solving for themselves. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it makes him crazily reckless. And that’s exactly why The Blues Don’t Care is so much fun. (Well, that and one other thing about Bobby you’re going to have to learn for yourself – trust me.)

Review Copy courtesy of Author and/or Publisher

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Life Limps On

Thank goodness we live in the digital age. I can't imagine how much harder all of this extreme social distancing would have been to tolerate just two or three decades ago. At least now many jobs can be done from home. There are multiple ways for us to amuse ourselves while confined. And, for the most part, our children and grandchildren are able to transition into online schooling fairly easily. Life limps on.

Just as importantly for the mental health of all the semi-professional readers out there, our virtual libraries are still open for business even though all their brick and mortar locations seem to have locked their doors tightly. This is the perfect opportunity for us to finally tackle the massive TBR stacks we all seem to have on hand. You know, depending on how long all of this may last, I just might finally make a dent in the unread books I have in the house. 

Read on, friends. Stay well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

From Library of America Comes "A Reading List for 'the most deadly pandemic in human history'"

I realize that not everyone wants to be reading about pandemics from the past right now - and for good reason. Instead, some of us (perhaps, most of us) are looking for ways to escape the subject, BUT if you are one that wonders how the world managed to get through this kind of thing last century, Library of America (my absolute favorite publisher of all time) has prepared a reading list just for you:

A reading list for "the most deadly pandemic in human history"

What makes this all so particularly intriguing is LOA's emphasis on how the Spanish flue pandemic of 1918-1919 with its 675,000 American victims "became a formative experience for a generation of American writers."

Here's just a taste of the LOA blog article:
Mary McCarthy was orphaned after both her parents succumbed, which led to the unhappy childhood she recounted in Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood. Thomas Wolfe never got over the loss of his brother Ben; barely fictionalized, Ben’s death is a key episode in Wolfe’s debut, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). A section of Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain depicts the flu’s ravages among homesteaders in the American Northwest and across the border in Canada. William Carlos Williams, working as a family doctor in New Jersey, reported making up to sixty calls a day; he later wrote, “we hadn’t a thing that was effective in checking that potent poison that was sweeping the world.”
For a compelling list of works and authors associated with the Spanish Flu outbreak, please click on the link up above. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Bitter Feast - Deborah Crombie

Deborah Crombie’s A Bitter Feast is the eighteenth book in her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series, a series that began in 1993 with A Share in Death. Like Elizabeth George, author of the Thomas Lynley series, Crombie is an American who sets her books in the U.K. Both authors have lived in the U.K. at one time or another and are familiar enough with the British settings of their novels that readers would be hard-pressed to guess the nationality of either.

A Bitter Feast begins with Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James looking forward to a family weekend during which they and their three children can relax in the Cotswolds. The family has been invited to a large country estate that belongs to the parents of Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot, a close friend and co-worker of Gemma’s, and they are in the rather complicated process of getting there: Gemma, her daughter, and Melody in Melody’s car; the two boys and a family friend coming by train; and Duncan driving alone in the family car.

With the exception of Duncan, all arrive safely.

Deborah Crombie
Beginning with Duncan’s accident, the weekend will not be at all like the relaxing one they had all anticipated. Instead, Duncan learns that there is much more to the accident that so easily could have killed him than meets the eye, and that other lives are still in danger. Viv’s pub seems to be the center of the storm. How did a world famous chef ever find the place – and why did he not survive the night? Why are all of Viv’s employees so reluctant to answer questions, and just what are they hiding from the cops - and from each other, anyway?

Bottom Line: A Bitter Feast offers a good (and rather complicated) mystery that will stump most readers right up to the very end of the book. But series fans are likely most to appreciate the novel for the long look they get at the various members of the Kincaid-James family, all the way from little Charlotte and Toby, on to their rapidly maturing brother Kit, and at the still close relationship between Duncan and Gemma themselves. The ever-evolving relationship between Melody Talbot and fellow cop Doug Cullen, shaky as it is by book’s end, is also explored in depth. All of Deborah Crombie’s novels work pretty well as standalones, but as is most always the case in series of this length, longtime fans are really the target audience for A Bitter Feast, and they are the readers who will most enthusiastically appreciate the book. (And that’s as it should be, I think.)

Friday, March 20, 2020

Are Library Books Safe During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Barbara Bush Library, Spring, Texas

My local library system is trying especially hard to keep providing a service to its patrons who prefer reading physical books over reading them in e-books or audiobook format. And I'll hand it to these wonderful librarians; they are really going the extra mile right now. Just take a look at the system they currently have in place six days a week for patrons to come by and pick up the books they've asked to be held for them. 

But, while I totally applaud the effort being made here, I have to wonder if this is wise and how long the service will last. How long does the Coronavirus survive on cardboard, paper, or plastic covers? I've heard anything from 24 hours to 72 hours, even longer. The library does say that all returned books are going to kept out of circulation for a minimum of 72 hours, so there's that. But that doesn't really protect you from the possibility that some well intentioned library employee doesn't pass a fresher virus on to you via an infected pair of gloves or hands. Maybe I'm overthinking this?

Here's a summary of the procedure (taken from library website):

  • When you receive notification that your holds are ready for pick up, call your pick up location. (branch phone numbers)
  • Please have your library number and PIN ready.
  • You will be given a time you can pick up your holds.
  • When you arrive at the library, remain in your vehicle and call the library.
  • Pop your trunk open, so we can place your items inside.
  • You will be asked to show your library card for verification.
  • Library staff will bring your books to your vehicle

The library has also eliminated all late fees and is making a lot of children's material available online to make up for all those cancelled children's events that are such a large part of the library experience for Harris County families. They are even making it possible to get an instant library card on line for those who suddenly remember that books actually exist (even though I suspect most of the newbie cardholders are going to be streaming movies instead of turning pages). 

So, what do you think? Would you take a chance on printed books right now or would you stick to e-books, audiobooks, and podcasts? Me, I'm probably going to play it safe.

(On a personal note, my wife and I are celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary today. The day is, of course, nothing like the one we had planned, but I thought I would share the news with all of my book friends out there. It's been an exciting and wonderful 50 years, and it hardly seems possible that it's been that long.)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Feeling Mortal

I have admired Kris Kristofferson's songwriting as long as I can remember. Kris is one of those bigger than life people who always strike me as living life pretty near the edge, and frankly, I never expected him to be around as long as he has. But as a fan, I am ever so thankful that the man has lived a long, productive life. 

This song, "Feeling Mortal," from about seven years ago is one of my favorite Kris Kristofferson songs ever. If Kris was feeling mortal in 2012, I can only imagine how he must be feeling right now (Kris is now 83 years old). 

And tonight, for obvious reasons, the song seems to fit perfectly the mood a lot of us are in.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

I really had not intended to be reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven right in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. It just turned out that way because I checked the book out of my local library almost six weeks ago, and only just realized a few days ago that it is due back there this week. So time was running out on me. But now that Station Eleven will be forever connected in my mind with the Coronavirus, I know this is one I will remember for a long, long time – for lots of reasons.

Station Eleven is a beautifully constructed dystopian novel that spans the two weeks just before, and the 15-20 years following, the outbreak of a virus so deadly that it wipes out almost the entire population of the planet. The story begins during a Toronto production of King Lear during which the lead actor collapses and dies on-stage of a heart attack. Arthur Leander’s death, as it turns out, will be a prophetic one because almost everyone else in the theater that night will themselves be dead within just a few days. Two people who were in the theater, paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary and child actor Kirsten Raymonde, do survive to become major characters in the novel.

As the author describes it:

            “There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had been before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.”

And rather eerily, there is the scene during which an epidemiologist goes on a television news program to describe how the virus manifests itself:

            “Aches and pains. A sudden high fever. Difficulty breathing. Look, it’s a fast incubation period. If you’re exposed, you’re sick in three or four hours and dead in a day or two.” (At which point, the newscaster decides it’s time for a “quick commercial break.”)

Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is largely set in the two decades following the outbreak of the deadly flu, and it features a group of characters somehow connected to Arthur, the actor who dies on stage at the beginning of he book. For instance, Kirsten, the young actor who was on stage with Arthur when he died, is now part of a small troupe of actors and musicians (called the Traveling Symphony) that walks from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare and playing music for entertainment-starved people. And Jeevan finds that his paramedic training makes him the closest thing to a real doctor that anyone living around him will ever see again. Too, all three of Arthur’s ex-wives and his son play major roles in the novel.

What makes Station Eleven particularly poignant is the way Mandel uses flashbacks to show what the lives of her characters were like before their world ended in a whimper the way that it did. The flashbacks are especially affective when they occur only hours before the pandemic onset and Mandel makes it a point to note that a character was enjoying his second-to-last cup of coffee or some such thing.

Bottom Line: Station Eleven is an impressive dystopian novel that will (unfortunately) strike a particularly familiar chord with future readers who have experienced the Coronavirus outbreak for themselves. The novel cleverly pulls together a series of characters and stories that all come together, full-circle, by the novel’s end. Station Eleven ends pretty much where it began, in fact, leaving the reader with a lot to ponder. Reading this one right now may not be for everyone, but if you do read it now, I guarantee you that it will stick with you and give you plenty to think about. I highly recommend this one.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

So More Reading Time Means Less Reading?

I'm about 200 pages into Station Eleven, the 2014 dystopian novel by Emily St. John Mandel that focuses on a worldwide pandemic that kills off most of the human population in about 48 hours. 

This is probably not the wisest reading choice right now considering our own situation, but it is getting harder and harder for me to put this one down because it is so beautifully constructed. At first, it's a little hard to keep up with the key characters, and the way that the story intersperses  flashbacks with present-day activity, but once you start to understand how the characters relate to each other (even if they don't always know it), it all gets pretty intense. 

I can't see this one having a particularly happy ending, though, so here's hoping we do a good bit better for ourselves in the real world. 

As a change of pace, I'm also reading The Blues Don't Care by Paul D. Marks, a novel set in WWII era Los Angeles. This one's kind of a light mystery (although the murder victim does appear to have been hanged) centered around a young white musician who is trying really hard to catch on with a popular (otherwise) all black jazz band. The whole vibe of this one reminds me of those 1940s black and white movies starring the tough-guy actors of the day. It's fun.

And then there's The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri about a family of refugees from the Syrian civil war that makes its way to England. It's another gloomy book that I probably don't need to be reading at the moment, but it is very well written - and the audiobook is so well read by the narrator that I'm really enjoying it (although I do feel a little bad about using the word "enjoy" in this context).

All of this "social distancing" stuff is already starting to get on my nerves even though I know it's the best way to protect someone my age from becoming a health department statistic by the time this is finally all over with. Surprisingly, even with all the extra hours available for reading and blogging, I find myself accomplishing less than I was prior to the Coronavirus finally being taken seriously. For whatever reason, it's harder for me to concentrate right now. I haven't finished a book in almost a week now, and I'm at least two days away from finishing one. That's something that almost never happens to me.

And speaking of "social distancing"...went to the grocery store this morning to pick up some dairy products, breakfast cereal, and a couple of other items. I wasn't interested in picking up water or any of the worth-its-weight-in-gold toilet tissue at all, but I decided to cut across the aisle that normally has toilet tissue in order to make my way out of the grocery section and into the pharmacy area. Well, there was one four-pack of toilet tissue still on the shelf, and as I approached approached it, not even slowing down to give it a second look, a thirty-something woman crashed head-on into my cart so that she could grab the four-pack before I could (she thought) go for it. I looked at her as if she were crazy, I suppose, but she didn't bat an eye. Just tossed the stuff into her cart and ran off at a near-trot, never acknowledging me or the crash we had just had. I swear that some people have LITERALLY lost their minds over this whole virus thing.

So maybe, a little social distancing will turn out to be a blessing. My right forearm has been throbbing ever since the cart-crash, and I'm pretty sure that the pain is going to be with me for a while. Better to socially distance myself than to turn into one of the nuts out there.

So how's your week going?

Thursday, March 12, 2020

On Reading "Station Eleven" During the Coronavirus Pandemic

We really do live in interesting times, don't we?

This seems to be the week that people in the U.S. are finally starting to realize just how disruptive to daily life the Coronavirus is going to be. The last 24 hours has seen things like the immediate suspension of the NBA season, the announcement that Tom Hanks and his wife are being treated for the virus in Australia, the acceleration of the already rapid decline in the stock market, the closing of the U.S. capitol to tourists, the European travel ban, and the decision of several U.S. lawmakers to self-quarantine themselves after learning they had shaken the hand of someone who later tested positive for the virus.

Closer to home, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, an event that has a huge impact on the economy of this city, has been cancelled after only a few days, and local universities are extending this year's spring break for a few extra days while school administrators try to figure out what to do when the break ends. There are panic-driven shortages in essential items like bottled water and bathroom tissue to deal with as people try to find enough of each to last them the next 4-6 weeks. Shelves are literally empty in most stores, and the only way to find the products is to be lucky enough to be there when a new truckload of the stuff has been placed on the shelves overnight. 

And that brings up the impossibility of finding hand sanitizers anywhere in this city (country? world?) Last weekend I decided to brew up a batch of sanitizer based upon the formula found on the internet: 1/3 Aloe Vera gel mixed with 2/3 70-91% Isopropyl Alcohol. But that's not easy to do if you have neither of those ingredients on hand. Although it took me four stops, I finally did manage to find enough alcohol and gel to brew up a good-sized batch of the stuff that I bottled up and gave to members of my family. But home-brewing is no longer much of an option because it is impossible now to find alcohol anywhere that I've looked.

It's rather amazing how much time all of this has taken, and how little reading I'm being able to work into my schedule these days. Even more disappointingly, I was really looking forward to attending the San Antonio book festival on the first weekend in April, and that is not going to be happening now, even if the festival is not cancelled, because I'm in that age-group most susceptible to dying from the virus. Just not worth the risk, small as it actually may be.

Oh well, back to my current book, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Fittingly, that's the 2014 novel about a terrible flu pandemic that practically wipes out the planet, leaving only scattered communities of survivors. This should be fun. Maybe I'll learn something useful from it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Land of the Wolves - Craig Johnson

Land of Wolves is the fifteenth novel in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, a series that began in 2004 with The Cold Dish. Johnson has treated Longmire fans pretty well over the years by publishing a new novel every year since that first one introduced the character. But it gets even better for fans, because Johnson published Longmire novellas in 2013 and 2016, and short stories or short story collections in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016. That’s a whole lot of Walt Longmire material in just fifteen years – and that’s not even to mention the very popular Netflix multi-season series based on the Longmire books and characters.

The Land of Wolves sees Longmire still trying to recover from the almost-fatal injuries he sustained in Mexico in the previous book, Depth of Winter. The sheriff is still struggling with some painful physical wounds, but more disturbingly to Longmire (and to his fans), is how negatively the near-death experience has affected his mental state. For the moment at least, Longmire is questioning his future and is not sure that he wants to be the sheriff of Absaroka County much longer.

But the bad guys are not going to sit around and wait for Longmire to recover.

Soon after being called to the scene of what appears to be the suicidal hanging of a sheep herder, Longmire begins to doubt that the man really killed himself. His investigation soon leads him back to one of the oldest families in the county, a family headed up by a Basque grandfather whose own father once used a shotgun to blow off the leg of Longmire’s predecessor in the sheriff’s department. As Longmire keeps pulling on lose threads, things get so complicated that the ailing sheriff starts to wonder if everyone he speaks with is part of some kind of vast conspiracy to keep the truth from him forever.

The title of this one comes from the lone wolf who seems always to be in the shadows wherever Longmire’s investigation takes him in the more remote parts of Absaroka County, Wyoming. The graying wolf becomes kind of a stand-in for graying Walt Longmire, a man who knows he’s past his prime and wondering how much longer he will be physically capable of doing the job he once loved so much.

Craig Johnson
Longmire fans were, I think, looking forward to Longmire coming home to Wyoming for his next case. The Mexican setting for Depth of Winter was interesting, and the plot was a real thriller, but it took Longmire out of his element and didn’t leave much room for the rest of the revolving cast of characters to have much interaction with him. Fans will be somewhat disappointed to learn that even though Land of Wolves takes place entirely within Longmire’s home county, only Ruby and Vic Moretti, of all the secondary characters, have much of a presence in the novel. There is almost no Henry Standing Bear at all, Lucian Connally is around only briefly, and Longmire’s daughter, Cady, only communicates with her father via a terse email or two. Longmire is hurting and confused, and it shows in his relationships.

Craig Johnson is guilty of the cardinal sin of “telling – not showing – what happened when it comes time for him to wrap up The Land of Wolves, something that never fails to annoy me as a reader. And, to make it even worse, Johnson has Longmire do all of his “telling” to the one deputy who has been close to him during most of the murder investigation, Vic Moretti. That Moretti is also Longmire’s love interest in the series, makes it even harder to believe that she would not have already been aware of most of what Longmire reveals to her.

Bottom Line: It’s always good to spend some time in Wyoming with Walt Longmire and the crew, but this one is a bit of a disappointment because not all of my old Wyoming friends showed up for our annual reunion. Here’s hoping that by the next book, Walt is more his old self and that the secondary characters all make the cut. And, please, enough with the passive, conversational-recap endings.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Oprah Was Not Quite as Cowardly as I Accused Her of Being

(This was written to record my reactions to the show while watching it for just over one hour - sort of a live streaming of my immediate reactions.)

As it turns out, and I just found out about this ten minutes ago, I was a little hard on Oprah Winfrey in Saturday's post about her handling of American Dirt on her Book Club television show (as shown exclusively on Apple TV). 

I've just learned that there is a second part of the broadcast, a segment of just over an hour, during which Oprah interviews Jeanine Cummins in detail. I'm watching that interview as I write this post, and it provides some insights into the author's struggle to write the book and why she wrote it. Cummins was stalled and about to finish her "second failed draft of the book" when her father died suddenly at the dinner table. The author then went into a period of deep grieving that ended only months later when she began to write a new draft, the first half of which she completed in eight days, with the second half taking her another eight months to complete.

The conversation between Jeanine Cummins and Oprah Winfrey lasted for about 18 minutes before three of the author's critics were brought on stage to join the conversation. Jeanine Cummins admitted that she made some mistakes, and that some of what she said in her "Author's Note" was insensitively worded. I have to say that Cummins appears to be in a bit of shock during some of the conversation, and that she is obviously hurt and saddened by the personal attacks she has received since January. 

I found it a bit ironic to hear the word "saddened" used by two of her critics when they expressed how the publication of American Dirt made them feel. In their cases, they say they were hurt because they have written similar stories themselves and almost no one noticed their efforts. I get that. But one of the critics said that her goal is to keep American Dirt off of bookshelves - and that is simply wrong. I don't get that, and it saddened and angered me to hear her say it.

The book's publishers were also in the audience and they fielded a number of questions from the three Latina authors sitting on stage with Cummins. In fact, the publishers were strongly challenged on why the book tour promoting American Dirt was said to have been  cancelled because of "safety concerns." The three authors claim that assertion makes any criticism of the book look like something coming from an angry mob rather than from serious critics - and from this point onward, the publisher took the brunt of the criticism from the three women. I had to shake my head a bit when one of the women stressed that anyone has the right to write any story that touches the heart, only to immediately turn to Cummins to tell her that the way she wrote American Dirt proves her incompetence on the subject. 

Overall, Oprah Winfrey did a passable job here of covering the controversy (and herself) by handling the discussion the way she did. The critics of American Dirt had their say, and Jeanine Cummins had the guts to sit there and listen to their points. The publishers, to their own credit, said that the criticism should have been directed at them rather than at Cummins - and from the look on her face when they said it, Cummins probably agrees with them. Surprisingly (to me, at least), when personally criticized for her choice of American Dirt for her book club, Oprah buckled immediately and admitted that she was guilty of everything they charged her with (mostly negligence when it comes to choosing LatinX authors as book club picks) -  but NOW she promises to do better.

Questions/statements from audience members were largely supportive - as one look at the faces of the authors on stage with Cummins could have told you even with the sound off. I was, however, surprised that one particularly childish and vindictive comment that was personally directed at Cummins was not edited out of the program because it did nothing but taint the whole conversation. Too, some of the questions directed to Cummins from on stage near the end of the program made clear just how much the three authors seated near her dislike Cummins and how much contempt they have for her. 

Jealousy is an ugly thing, but even though Cummins sometimes had that deer-in-the-headlights look on her face, I think she handled herself well here. It's time to move on. It's time for publishers to be more aware of LatinX (a term I see no real need for) authors because they deserve a wider audience. It's time for readers to search these writers out and to read their work. 

But the conversation should not be specifically about Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt. It should be about the lack of diversity in publishing and it should be directed at publishers, not the author of one book. The truth is that Jeanine Cummins's critics (especially that shrill smart-ass from L.A. who was not on this panel) owe Cummins a debt of gratitude for making the whole lack-of-diversity-in-publishing conversation possible. Without the success of a book like American Dirt, none of this would be happening right now.

So thank the woman. She deserves it after what you've put her through. 

Saturday, March 07, 2020

American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins (Reviewed and Defended)

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is so controversial a book these days that it is impossible to review the novel without acknowledging the supposed outrage associated with it. That means I will be doing both of those things in some detail here, but here’s the condensed version just in case you don’t want to read any further:

·      American Dirt is a very fine chase/thriller novel about a Mexican mother and son running for their lives and hoping to find safety and a new life in the United States.

·      The criticism about the author’s writing style is totally misplaced.

·      The criticism about the author’s right to tell “the story” of Mexican migrants wanting to cross illegally the border into the United States, the whole “cultural appropriation” argument, is dubious at best.

·      That some of the characters do not strike the book’s shrillest critic as being “credible Mexicans” is ludicrous.

·      American Dirt is nothing more than a convenient target for a group of Mexican and Mexican American authors to use to make the proper case that it is harder for people of color to break into print than it is for others.

·      Perhaps, the resentment associated with all of this is as much about the money that Jeanine Cummins stands to make from American Dirt as it is about anything else.

·      Even if the book is not a perfect representation of a “credible Mexican,” I am better for having read it, not worse.

So let’s start with the book.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives with her son and husband in Acapulco where she owns and runs a small bookstore. Lydia’s husband is a newspaper writer who has taken an interest in the increased drug cartel activity in their city, especially in the leader of the newest cartel to hit town. Their son, Luca, is a bright eight-year-old who loves to spend time with his mother in the bookstore.

The bookstore is Lydia’s passion in life, and even though the store is not exactly thriving, she enjoys getting the right books into the hands of the right readers. So one day when a new customer brings a number of books to the cash register, including two of Lydia’s all-time favorites, she cannot resist befriending him. By the time that Lydia figures out that Javier, her new friend, is the very cartel kingpin being investigated by her husband, the two have developed a solid friendship that makes it difficult for her to believe what her husband tells her about him. But when a few weeks later the newspaper reveals Javier’s true identity in a detailed exposé, the cartel jefe decides to take his revenge by wiping out the journalist’s entire family during a family celebration. Now, Lydia and Luca are running for their lives.

What follows is a thrilling race to the U.S. border during which Lydia and Luca struggle  to stay one step ahead of Javier and his men. Along the way, Lydia befriends a group of young migrants who are trying to cross the border for reasons of their own, and she soon realizes that they all have a better chance of survival if they stick together than if they travel as individuals. Lydia’s new family includes two beautiful fourteen and fifteen-year-old Guatemalan sisters forced to flee a drug dealer who wants to claim them as his own and a young Mexican boy who has spent his whole life as a garbage dump scavenger. Over time, the five of them become so dependent on each other that it is sometimes hard to tell exactly who is taking care of whom.

Jeanine Cummins
Some have claimed that the character of Lydia, an upper middle class Mexican, is the only kind of migrant that Jeanine Cummins and her white readers are capable of identifying with long enough to write or read about. Those critics miss the point that Cummins is not trying to represent Lydia and Luca to be anything remotely like the typical migrant. On page 94 of the book, Cummins addresses Lydia’s own shock at the realization that she is now a “migrant”:

            “…like a thunderclap, Lydia understands that it’s not a disguise at all. She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are. And that simple fact, among all the other severe new realities of her life, knocks the breath clean out of her lungs. All her life, she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”

No, Cummins is not representing Lydia as a “typical” migrant, and she makes sure that her “white readers” get that point. Then she begins to surround Lydia and Luca with the more typical migrants who are following the same path to the U.S. And guess what, critics? We got it. And we sympathized with those migrants in the story every bit as much as we pulled for Lydia and Luca to make it.

And then there’s this on page 166, a passage during which one of the Guatemalan sisters and Luca are talking:

            “…he (Luca) starts to understand that this is the one thing all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances, some urban, some rural, some middle-class, some poor, some well educated, some illiterate, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carries some story of suffering on top of that train and into el norte beyond.”

Or this from page 212:

            “Lydia is constantly reminded that her education has no purchase here, that she has no access to the kind of information that has real currency on this journey. Among migrants, everyone knows more than she does. How do you find a coyote, make sure he’s reputable, pay for your crossing, all without getting ripped off?”

But it is this whole thing about “cultural appropriation” that I fail to comprehend. No, Jeanine Cummins is not Mexican, but she is something like one-quarter Puerto Rican, and she married an illegal immigrant in 2005. She knows what it’s like to be stopped by authorities and not have the right paperwork on hand to ensure that your husband is not about to be deported. And she spent four years researching and writing about the migrant experience.

So what if she is not perfect in her use of Mexican slang or in her description of everyday life in Mexico? Would I, a white reader, be more understanding of the dangers migrants are willing to face today and why they are willing to do so if Cummins had used a more correct word here or there? Would the book’s critics prefer that I not read American Dirt at all and remain blissfully ignorant of (and less sympathetic about) the dangers faced by the migrants headed our way?

If so, they confirm my theory that their criticism is based more on jealousy and money than it is about “cultural appropriation.”

And even before the contrived controversy, the “Author’s Note” (I know this is long) had this to say:

            “…the final, most significant factor that influenced my decision to tackle the subject. It took me four years to research and write this novel, so I began long before talk about migrant caravans and building a wall entered the national zeitgeist. But even then I was frustrated by the tenor of the public discourse surrounding immigration in this country. The conversation always seemed to turn around policy issues, to the absolute exclusion of moral or humanitarian concerns. I was appalled at the way Latino migrants, even five years ago – and it has gotten exponentially worse since then – were characterized within that public discourse. At worse, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.”

“So I hoped to present one of those unique personal stories – a work of fiction – as a way to honor the hundreds of thousands of stories we may never get to hear. And I so doing, I hope to create a pause where the reader may begin to individuate. When we see migrants on the news, we may remember: these people are people.”

“And yet, when I decided to write this book, I worried that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have. I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. But then, I thought, ‘If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, whey not be a bridge.’ So I began.”

Cummins even sought the opinion of prominent members of the Latino community, such as Norma Iglesias Prieto, who told her, “Jeanine. We need as many voices as we can get, telling this story.” And both Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez wrote glowing blurbs for the book’s back cover…along with Stephen King, Don Winslow, Ann Patchett, John Grisham and Kristin Hannah.

Finally, that brings us to Oprah Winfrey, who chose American Dirt as one of the books to be highlighted in the 2020 version of “Oprah’s Book Club.” To her credit, Oprah has not succumbed to the pressure to apologize for and change her selection. But anyone who has seen the televised version of the book club (on Apple TV) that supposedly features American Dirt is going to have a lesser opinion of Oprah’s courage. The book is barely mentioned, the author is barely allowed to speak. Instead, three or four migrants are allowed to tell their personal stories in great detail, including video footage taken on location. Of the approximately thirty-nine minutes the program lasted, I would estimate that Cummins spoke for less than two of them – and that was mostly in response to Oprah’s leading question about Cummins having now learned something she hadn’t known before writing the book.

Oprah Winfrey is, as it turns out, a politically correct coward.

Bottom Line: I’m happy to have read the book because I did, in fact, learn more about things I didn’t really understand before reading American Dirt. I don’t care at all that a few details may be wrong or distorted. That did not change the message I received from the novel, and it had no impact on my enjoyment or understanding of it at all. Don’t let the politically correct robots out there intimidate you and decide what you can and cannot read. Read American Dirt and decide for yourself

Edit of Monday, March 9, 2020:

I have just learned about a second segment of Oprah's Book Club during which Jeanine Cummins is interviewed for about 18 minutes before some of her critics are brought on stage to join the conversation. Please see that post for more detail.

I decided not to edit this original post because it would, in my opinion, be unfair of me to do so.