Thursday, April 30, 2020

Book Chase: The May 2020 Reading Plan

I seem to have strayed a bit from my April reading plan. Even though I did read ten books in April, only six of them were actual planned-reads. I've been more easily distracted during the whole covid-19 thing, and my reading reflects that.

Normally I would just slide all of the unread books to the top of my reading list for the new month, but that's not going to happen this time. I'm simply not in the mood for overly depressing novels or nonfiction. That means that LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval is going to disappear for now despite having been on the list for the last 60 days. I just can't handle that one right now, I don't think. The first three books on the May list are, however, holdovers from the April list:

1. 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 plan to start it early in the month. 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. 

2. 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. I hesitate to leave this one on the May list, but I want to at least give it a good shot.

3. The Night Fire by Michael Connelly is the latest RenĂ©e 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. Considering how much I love the Harry Bosch books, I'm surprised that I didn't get to this one in April. 

4. A Spark of Heavenly Fire by Pat Bertram was written in 2016 but its plot very much reminds me of what we are all living through today. Set in Colorado as the "Red Death" sweeps through the state, this one is all about a purposely released organism that is killing hundreds of thousands of people, "a government cover-up, and public hysteria." Sound familiar? In this instance, a brave reporter (I wish there were more of those in the real world) tries to find out what is really happening.

5. I, John Kennedy Toole by Kent Carroll and Jodee Blanco is billed as "A Novel Based on a True Story." Many of you are familiar with Toole's story, his tragic death, the novel he didn't live to see published (Confederacy of Dunces), his mother's heroic efforts to get the book published, and how the novel ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Co-author Kent Carroll is the publisher who helped rescue the book from oblivion. I'm particularly looking forward to this one.

6. The Benefits of Breathing by Chistopher Meeks is the author's third collection of short stories. I usually read close to ten short story collections every year, and I've enjoyed Meeks's other two collections, so I'm expecting good things from this one. Meeks is also the author of several novels I've read, and he's someone I recommend to those of you unfamiliar with his books. Don't you love this cover?

7. The Last Agent by Robert Dugoni is a Charles Jenkins book that sounds as if it picks up right where The Eighth Sister leaves off. Charles Jenkins is a six-foot-five-inch black man so he's not the ideal secret agent to be nosing around in Russia, but that's a large part of the fun. Not being able to blend into a crowd is most certainly not a good thing for a spy. I've only read a couple of Dugoni novels, but I've been impressed by both of them, and I really happy that he has a substantial backlist for me to explore after I finish this new one (to be published in August).

8. Wyoming by JP Gritton is one of a bunch of library books I had on hand when my library locked its doors. The due date has been extended to June 1 on all of them, so I kind of forgot about that stack. This one is set in the eighties, and it's about an out-of-work guy hoping to make a quick buck by delivering high-grade marijuana to Houston from Kansas City. The delivery goes well enough; it's getting back to KC with the money that seems to be a problem. It's always something, isn't it?

9. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler is the book that first turned me on to the gigantic writing talent that Anne Tyler is. I don't even remember what attracted me to this book back in 1982, but I fell in love with the writing and the plot almost immediately. To this day, I have that still-pristine first edition copy on my shelves. I may end up buying an e-book copy for reading purposes, because I'd hate to damage the physical copy I have by reading it a second time after all these years. 

10. Blood by Allison Moorer recalls an event that remains at the heart of the lives of Allison Moorer and her sister Shelby Lynne. Both women have become well known singer/songwriters but they still have to fight not to let themselves be defined by the moment their father shot their mother to death before turning the gun on himself. Shelby was 18 at the time and Allison was 14. I read a ton of memoirs every year, but I suspect that this will be one of the most memorable ones I read in 2020.

So there you have May's plan. With the exception that I'm not as open right now to "depressing" books as I normally am, my concentration is better than it has been for a couple of months. Maybe I'm making a better choice of books, maybe I'm finally getting used to being so confined every day. Whichever it is, I'm glad that it's working.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

As Good As Can Be - William A. Glass

As Good As Can Be is one of those coming-of-age novels with which people of a certain age find it so easy to identify. If your own coming-of-age spans the fifties and sixties (as mine did), the novel is almost certain to get you thinking about your own experiences during those years. But that’s far from all that William A. Glass’s As Good As Can Be has going for it because Dave Knight’s growing-up story turns out to be quite an adventure. Before this one is over, we spend time with the Knight family in Iran, follow the military family from one army post to another, and get a long look at what it was liked to be stationed in South Korea almost two decades after the dust settled on the Korean War.

And Dave Knight lives on the edge the whole time, never making it easy on anyone who cares for him – or, for that matter, on anyone forced to deal with him by circumstance, be they teachers, superior officers, or employers.

Today, Dave would likely be one of those kids said to be suffering from ADD, kids who are often very bright but just can’t sit still long enough to concentrate on their studies. But in the fifties, Dave is diagnosed simply as a pain in the butt by his teachers and, more importantly, by his strict Army officer father who sees him as an embarrassing failure. Dave is such an avid reader that reading is pretty much all he wants to do, no matter what class he is in or how far ahead of his reading class he might already be. Otherwise, he cannot sit still and he cannot shut up, neither of which do anything to endear him to his teachers. The pattern is set early in his life, and Dave’s father gives up on him just as early.

William A. Glass
That tells you a lot about Lieutenant Colonel David S. Knight Jr., Dave’s father, but it doesn’t tell you just how often, or how tragically, the colonel lets down his wife and children. Dave and his brothers and sisters spend most of their time trying either to please their demanding father or to avoid him altogether. They usually fail at both – sometimes with life-scarring consequences.

Dave, though, is a survivor, and this is his story.

Bottom Line: As Good As Can Be may be primarily a coming-of-age story, but it is also quite the page-turner, and it’s easy to get caught up in the Knight family’s tragic story, a story largely written by the family’s alcoholic patriarch, a man unwilling ever to put his wife and children above his own military ambitions. This one is one hell of a ride.

Review Copy provided by Author or Publisher

Monday, April 27, 2020

Covid-19 Journal - Week 7 Begins

What a difference a week makes.

Some of you already know from a comment I added  subsequently to last week's Covid-19 Journal update that my 98-year-old father fell and broke his hip last Tuesday. He had surgery on the hip late Wednesday afternoon, and he is now recovering in a Houston hospital. He will probably move to a physical therapy facility tomorrow, where he will spend the next two weeks trying to regain as much of the limited mobility he had before the fall as possible. At that point, we will have to determine the best way to get him the level of care that he will need for the foreseeable future. 

What makes all of this especially tough is that I'm unable to visit potential care facilities to help me judge for myself the quality of the facilities and the people who work there. No nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state (perhaps the entire country?) are allowing visitors, including family, to come inside. They are even restricting residents to their own rooms at this point. I'm finding that virtual tours, while helpful, don't give me the comfort level I need to make such a life-changing decision - and that my stress level rises at about the same pace my comfort level falls. To say that this has been a horrible week would be an understatement

Virus Stats from Johns Hopkins:

In the last week,

Worldwide cases increased from 2,440,876 to 2,995,456,
United States cases from 766,212 to 968,203, and
Texas cases went from 19,512 with 504 deaths to 24,968 with 651 deaths.


For the most part, we have been having some really nice spring weather even though it did reach 91 degrees at least once this week. Unfortunately, tornados came through the area last week and there was some major damage in a small rural community about 50 miles northeast of us. I think there were at least three deaths involved plus the usual mass destruction that accompanies this kind of storm. And then Saturday night, a nice little hail storm came out of nowhere and pelted the house so hard that I was worried about the windows on the north side of the house breaking. Interesting weather-week to say the least. 

Reading/Watching/Listening to:

I received a review copy of As Good As Can Be back in late January (you know, back in the good old days) and I spent three days this week reading it. It's a really interesting coming-of-age novel about a military brat who had one of those "Great Santini" kinds of fathers. I really enjoyed the book, not the least because I came of age at pretty much the same time as its main character, and I hope to have a formal review of the novel up on Tuesday. 

The review copy that I was happiest to snag this week is one called I, John Kennedy Toole by Kent Carroll and Jodee Blanco. Most of you know Toole's story, including his tragic death and how hard and long his mother worked to get his novel posthumously published. A Confederacy of Dunces, of course, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize after it was finally published - thanks largely to author Walker Percy and publisher Kent Carroll. This novel is a fictional recreation of Toole's life and it will be published on May 5.

I was surprised that three of the books I had on hold at the library decided to come in 4-6 months early! Just what I didn't need to have happen all at once, so I've accepted two of them and postponed the other. I'm wondering if the long wait time caused a bunch of people to drop off the list out of frustration. I have another 15 on hold, and I sure hope they don't all suddenly start coming in at the same time like this batch did. 

As you can see, the two I checked out are very different from each other. Blood is Allison Moorer's memoir about the traumatic murder-suicide in which she and her sister, Shelby Lynn, lost their mother at the hand of their father. I don't know much about My Sister the Serial Killer other that it's been highly praised in just about every literary publication I read. At the very least, one look at the cover makes me pretty sure that it's going to be an entertaining read.

I enjoyed a couple of good movies again last week, but my favorite by far was 1963's Hud starring Paul Newman, Melvin Douglas, Patricia Neal, and Brandon deWilde. Hud was based on Larry McMurtry's 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By and it won three Academy Awards. I read the novel in the mid-eighties and don't remember much about it, but Hud is such a masterpiece of storytelling that I know I'll be revisiting McMurtry's novel soon so that I can compare the two. 

The other highlight to my viewing week was a livestream event from the historic Carnton plantation house in Franklin, Tennessee. During the American Civil War, the house was used as a field hospital that treated at least 300 Confederate soldiers during and after the battle. Before it was all over, the bodies of six Confederate generals were placed side-by-side on the back porch of the house. Civil War battlefields are wonderfully preserved in numerous states, but Carnton and its graveyard are extraordinary. I know that not everyone has a Facebook account, but if you do, and if you would like to watch the one-hour tour, click on this link.

Listening To:

I decided to borrow some of my old Beatles LPs back from my grandson last week and drag out the turntable to see what they sound like (I gave the albums to him last year because he loves them as much as I do, and I know he will keep them safe for another generation.) I was surprised at how good they still sound, even on the more modern speakers that tend to pick up every little snap or pop that the old LPs were so prone to acquiring over time. We ended up listening to albums pretty much all day long for a couple of days while we did other things around the house. Great memories were rekindled -in my case, and created - in his case.

In the Kitchen:

Nothing much new in the way of grocery and supply shopping, I'm afraid. The local stores don't seem to have made all that much progress in re-filling all the holes on their shelves, so it's still pretty much a matter of luck when it comes to finding exactly what you're looking for. CVS pharmacy is doing a really good job with free delivery of prescription medicines. So far, our prescriptions have all arrived in one day at no extra cost to what we've already been paying for the same meds.

The Outside World:

Bolivar, Just East of Galveston Island on 4-26-20
Tomorrow it becomes mandatory in Harris County, Texas, that everyone who leaves home is to use a mask while out. The announcement was made four days ago, and it does look like around 80% of people are complying with the order already. We'll see tomorrow if the county is really going to fine people who do not comply. Sadly, I saw on the news today that the beaches in Galveston and Bolivar  were fairly crowded today, and that's not at all a good sign of what's to come. 

I don't know about you guys, but I'm tired - and not just tired of being confined so close to home for the last six weeks. I'm physically tired, and I fear that's the result of living with the increased stress levels we have all been experiencing whether we consciously realize it or not. Stress and a disruption of my exercise routine are really doing a number on me. 

So, another week in the books. Hang in there, guys. Stay safe.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

One British Library Finds All Its Books Re-shelved by Height

What happened to one public library in the U.K. made me chuckle a bit, even though I feel their pain. I've been there. 

On a much smaller scale, I had something similar happen to my home library a few months ago when our new cleaners wanted to start their service with what they called a one-time "deep cleaning." I came home to bookshelves upon which the books were universally dust-free - but some of them were upside down, others backwards, and almost all of them were out of order. It too me several hours to put things right, and I've now banned the cleaners from even touching the bookshelves. 

According to this BBC News link, the Newmarket library's cleaner performed a deep clean of her own and decided that the books would look a whole lot better on the shelves if they were arranged by height. (At least they seem to be right side up and facing the correct direction, and that's a definite plus.)

A Sample of the Cleaners' Work

"James Powell, of Suffolk Libraries, said staff "saw the funny side" but it would take a "bit of time" to correct.
"It looks like libraries will be closed for a while so we'll have plenty of time to sort the books out", he said.
"The cleaner is lovely and does a great job in the library. It was an honest mistake and just one of those things so we would never want her to feel bad about it," he added."

Mr. Powell is obviously a lot more sensitive a guy than I am if he's worried about hurting the cleaner's feelings at this point. And he has a much gentler sense of humor than mine, at least when it comes to anyone manhandling the books I've acquired over a lifetime. My cleaner, I hope, learned a valuable lesson about properly handling books - just as I learned a valuable one about giving complete instructions in lieu of assuming that everyone understands that books are where they are on a shelf because that is precisely where they belong. (I do realize that books are mere decorations for some people, but don't even get me started on that whole selling books by the yard or by color thing.)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Hangman - Louise Penny

Louise Penny’s novella, The Hangman, was part of the Good Reads project sponsored by ABC Life Literacy Canada. That project, funded in part by the Canadian government, was meant to introduce Canadian authors to a wider reading public. By the time Penny wrote The Hangman, she had already written six Inspector Gamache novels, so some booksellers list this 2010 novella as book number 6 ½ iThn that series. (With the planned September 2020 release of All the Devils Are Here, the series will have reached 16 novels.) The problem is that The Hangman is a shadow of any of the Gamache novels.

Gamache is called back to Three Pines to investigate a suspicious death after a morning jogger stumbles upon a dead man hanging from a tree. By all appearances, the man seems to have taken his own life, but after Gamache reads his rather cryptic suicide note, the inspector decides it is more likely that he was murdered. Now, Gamache and Inspector Beauvoir are going to have to figure out who the man really is, what he came to Three Pines hoping to find, and who decided to kill him.

Louise Penny
The Hangman is short even by novella standards, coming in at only 89 short pages of text, so there is not a lot of room in it for character development or setting description. Readers familiar with the Gamache series will recognize Three Pines, Gamache, Beauvoir, and a Three Pines character or two such as Myrna (the bookstore owner) and Gabri (the pub owner) from the village, but other than Gamache none of the characters are much fleshed out, and their previous relationships get only a quick nod from Penny.

But short as it is, Penny does offer a few insights into Gamache’s methods and a general observation or two about people and crime that, although not particularly deep, are striking. Little asides like:

            “People rich in money might belong at the Inn and Spa, but those rich in other ways belonged in the tiny village of Three Pines. Here, kindness was the real currency.”

Or this observation from Gamache:

            “Still Paul Goulet looked blank. Chief Inspector Gamache knew how difficult that was. A person’s face almost always had some expression on it.
            A blank face was a wall. Put there on purpose, to hide something.”

And, finally, this Gamache thought after a comment by Gabri:

            ‘“Arthur Ellis,” said Gabri, almost to himself. “He sounds so normal. Seemed so normal.”
            Gamache had to agree. But he also knew normal people were killed all the time. It was the murderer who wasn’t normal.”

Bottom Line: The Hangman is an entertaining mystery story, but it is a little too stark for readers who first met Gamache and Three Pines in the Inspector Gamache novels to really sink their teeth into. Gamache completists will definitely want to read it, but it is not likely to become one of their series favorites.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Other Wes Moore: One Name,Two Fates - Wes Moore

     “One of us is free and has experienced things that he never even knew to dream about as a kid. The other will spend every day until his death behind bars for an armed robbery that left a police officer and father of five dead. The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

As shown in the above quote, Baltimore’s two Wes Moores, roughly the same age, ended up in very different places. But it didn’t have to be that way. In The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, one of the two men tells exactly how, and maybe why, it happened the way it did for them. The book is divided into eight chapters and three sections. The three sections, representing distinct periods in the lives of the two men, are titled: “Fathers and Angels,” “Choices and Second Chances,” and “Paths Taken and Expectations.” Each section is introduced by a conversation between Wes and Wes in the prison’s visiting room, with the chapters within the sections representing the eight pivotal years in their lives.

            “…for those of us who live in the most precarious places in this country, our destinies can be determined by a single stumble down the wrong path, or a tentative step down the right one.

Both Wes Moores grew up in fatherless homes. The difference, though, is that one Wes lost his father to a tragically misdiagnosed illness and the other never really knew the man who abandoned him before his birth. And, both little boys were blessed with strong mothers who wanted better lives for themselves and their children. But again, there was one difference. In the author’s case, his mother never lost her determination to keep her children safe from the drug culture that surrounded them. She even went so far as to move her family from Baltimore to New York so that her own parents could help her raise her children in a “better” environment (as questionable as their new neighborhood actually turned out to be). The other Wes didn’t get that level of attention and help from his own mother for as long, and when he did become intimately involved with the Baltimore drug world, she only went through the motions of trying to stop him. As it turned out, she had her own addictions to deal with.

It is not surprising that both Moore boys, one by now in New York, the other still in Baltimore, would eventually find themselves at the same crossroad in life. Both were tempted by the big money that could be earned on the streets. One succumbed to the temptation. The other was sent to military school. And their lives would never again have much in common.

Wes Moore
Even now, author Wes Moore is reluctant to say conclusively what he believes made the critical difference in the life-paths chosen by him and the other Wes Moore. He says, “The answer is elusive. People are so wildly different, and it’s hard to know when genetics or environment or just bad luck is decisive.” If I had to guess myself, I would say that the difference-maker in the author’s life was his mother, a fighter of a woman determined that her children would not fall victim to the environment they were forced to live in. Somehow, with the help of her own parents, she was able to find the money to place her children in private schools (especially the military school that eventually put Wes on full scholarship) to somewhat shelter them from the influence of their peers on the street. The other West Moore was not so lucky.

Bottom Line: The Other Wes Moore is a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspirational, account of two very different lives, what those lives had in common, what was different about them, and how they eventually intertwined.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Covid-19 Journal - Week 6 Begins

I'm kind of in shock this morning as I watch the price of crude oil rapidly fall to near zero. It actually hit one penny per barrel a few seconds ago, and at this moment the price is around twenty-five cents a barrel. That is a disaster for the world economy that is going to have some longterm effects that most people don't think about. It's a great feeling to get gasoline for under a buck a gallon, I agree. But it's a killer for a country that had finally reached energy independence because now many domestic oil producers are going to disappear forever - and we will be dependent on the Saudis once again for our energy. 

(Before I finished this post, the price of oil had gone negative for the day. That, in effect, means that some producers are willing to pay you roughly $35 a barrel just to haul the stuff away.)

Virus Stats from Johns Hopkins:

In the last week,

Worldwide cases increased from 1,846,963 to 2,440,876,
United States cases increased from 555,398 to 766,212, and
Texas cases went from 13,741 with 286 deaths to 19,512 with 504 deaths.


We were on the very edge of the storms that clobbered the Southeast yesterday, so we really didn't get any of the high winds or much of the heavy rain. It did rain pretty much all day long, but it really only came down very hard three or four times all day. And today is one of the most beautiful days of the year with bright sunshine, cool temps, and very little wind. 

Reading/Watching/Listening to:

This is the only recently published e-book I was able to get from my library last week, and I'm about 75% of the way through it this morning. The Other Wes Moore was written when its author learned there was another man by the same name in his city who is living a life 180 degrees from the one the author has known. The author is a Rhodes Scholar, a veteran, a businessman, and a White House Fellow. The other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence in prison for his part in a jewelry store robbery during which a policeman/security guard was shot and killed.  Both men are black. 

I was pleasantly surprised that I was able also to snag an e-book loan from my library of Louise Penny's 2010 Armand Gamache novella The Hangman. It appears to be 100 pages long, and I'm wondering how it chronologically fits into the Gamache timeline, or if that even matters. Penny also published Bury Your Dead, the sixth novel in the Gamache series, that year, so I wonder if the novella started life as an intended-novel that she quit early on, or if it was always planned as a novella. I'll read this one as soon as I finish The Other Wes Moore because the due-date clock is ticking on it. 

I enjoyed several good movies and documentaries last week, but  honestly, with such an abundance of choice these days it would probably be more surprising if I hadn't. First Man (2018) is a biopic of Neil Armstrong that focuses on America's quest to beat the Russians to the moon. I had not realized that Armstrong had some emotional problems that he had to battle throughout his life, problems serious enough that they sometimes had the NASA decision-makers wondering if he was the best choice for various missions. The movie stars Ryan Gosling.

The Tomorrow Man (2019), starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner, is a strange little movie about a "survivalist" who is preparing for apocalyptic times by storing food and gear in a secret room of his house. Because he is divorced and lonely, when he spots the Blythe Danner character he thinks he's found his soulmate after he observes her buying in large quantities just the way he does. Little does he know that she is just a hoarder. The last minute of this one is especially strange - never saw The Tomorrow Man going where it ended up.

Watching Drunks (1996) is a lot like sitting in on one of the AA meetings that take place all over the world every day. It is one heck of a reality check, but not nearly as depressing a movie as you might think it would be. The best part of this one for me was watching the actors, most of whom got so deeply into their roles that it was easy to forget they weren't a bunch of actual alcoholics and addicts. As you can see from the attached image, the cast of this one is pretty remarkable.

Listening To:

I got part of my music-fix last week from watching a couple of documentaries that were truly wonderful. First, I finished up Ken Burns's eight-part documentary series called Country Music. Burns had the good sense to end the documentary in the late 1980s because, sometime in the early nineties, real country music was destroyed by the likes of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, and it never really recovered from their influence. I also watched Ron Howard's documentary on The Beatles called The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years. Even to this day, I listen to The Beatles more than to anyone else, so this one was a real treat for me last night. Ron Howard did a great job of putting all the material together. 

I also broke out a few of my older compilation albums, the kind where a dozen or so different artists contribute a song each based on a unifying theme or one core singer they all duet with. I had forgotten how good some of those albums are. But what I enjoyed most from my collection last week was rediscovering the amazing voice of Patty Loveless (a cousin of Loretta Lynn, by the way). Patty can sing just about any kind of music but I am particularly fond of her two or three bluegrass/mountain music albums. If you are a grasser, I very much recommend the album pictured.

In the Kitchen:

Life goes on. We are still finding pretty much what we need from the grocery stores every week, but it requires me to go to two or three of them every Friday morning to make that happen. I'm a little surprised that there are still large gaps on the shelves of the three grocery stores I shop in my north Houston suburb - and how the outages are so different from store to store. What one chain has been out of for weeks, another has in semi-abundance, and vice versa. I would definitely prefer not having to make three stops every week, tripling my exposure, but I don't expect that to change soon. 

The Outside World:

Texas is starting to open up just a little bit this week. The barriers to all the State Parks have been lifted, and the parks are open to those who wear masks and maintain the required spacing from each other. I doubt that will have much of an impact on the economy, however, since access to state parks is, I think, free. Maybe some folks will at least burn a little gasoline getting to the parks.

The governor has also said it's now OK for small businesses of all types to offer curbside service, something that might help the economy a bit, maybe even saving a few jobs that were on the brink of being lost in the next few days.

I wonder, though, even when things are more generally opened for leisure, shopping, exercise, etc. how soon people like me are going to feel comfortable going out in crowds of any size again. When will I feel comfortable  shopping without a mask, maybe even gloves? Will I return to major sporting events at all this year, or even next year? 

Will the "old normal" ever be normal again?

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Some Bookstores Are Delivering "Mystery Bags" of Books to Customers

While independent bookstores all over the world are struggling to stay solvent, the good news is that a lot of them are figuring out ways to generate at least a little cash flow while their doors are still locked tight. 

According to this Smithsonian Magazine article, some are delivering "mystery bags" of books to customers yearning to experience the surprise of going to a bookstore and coming home with something totally unexpected. Since they can't browse the shelves for themselves, they ask the bookseller to do it for them.
"Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C. began offering the service in mid-March at a customer’s request.

“Favorite email of the day so far: ‘If I give you guys $100 can you send me a mystery bag of books?’” the bookstore tweeted on March 21.

“Yes. Yes we can.”

By the next day, more than 50 people had contacted the store with similar orders, according to Mary Tyler March of WAMU. Prior to the mystery bag suggestion, Capitol Hill Books had essentially closed its doors, limiting opening hours to 60-minute slots in which four people at a time were allowed to wander the store’s narrow, book-lined aisles."

Bookstores in other states have followed suit, and at least one of them says that it is delivering about 125 mystery bags per week. From the sound of it, the booksellers are having as much fun with this concept as the shoppers, so this is one of those win-win situations for a whole lot of bookish people.

Click on the link up above for the entire article. It might make you smile a little today.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Case of the Negligent Nymph - Erle Stanley Gardner

I must have read twenty-five or thirty of Erle Stanley Gardner’s eighty Perry Mason novels during my teen years in the mid-1960s. I don’t remember specific titles anymore, but I do remember being fascinated by the Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake characters and what a great team they made. The legendary courtroom battles that Perry Mason always won were the icing on the cake that introduced me to the legal thriller genre, a genre I’ve enjoyed off-and-on to this day.

So I thought I knew what to expect when I decided to read Gardner’s 1950 Perry Mason novel The Case of the Negligent Nymph. But I was only partially correct, and now I wonder if this one is truly representative of my reading experience all those years ago. In this one, Mason inadvertently becomes a participant in the crime of a woman he will shortly find himself defending in court – all the while trying to cover up the fact that he is the unknown “accomplice” who plucked the woman burglar from the water as she tried to make her escape. (I’m no lawyer, but is that even ethical?)

But before long, Mason has more to worry about than his accidental participation in a home burglary. The bodies start falling and his client, despite all the good counsel she receives from Mason, follows none of it. Instead, she seems determined to drag her lawyer deeper and deeper into a complicated plot that could very easily see both of them ending up in prison. Perry Mason deeply regrets his instinct to help the woman escape the vicious guard-dog that was rapidly gaining on her in the deep water. But, really, what else could he have done?

Erle Stanley Gardner
Gardner managed to pack a rather complicated plot into what is a relatively short novel (the 1968-vintage paperback I read has 215 pages), but the lack of space for character development sometimes makes it difficult to remember which is which and how they tie into the plot. I would, in fact, recommend that readers take a moment to jot down the names of each new character as they encounter them, along with a brief description of who they are and how they fit in. I wish I had done that because it would have helped.

That brings me to my main quarrel with Gardner’s approach to The Case of the Negligent Nymph (other than the dangling participle or two that jumped out at me). The novel ends rather abruptly, after a farce of a courtroom section that was borderline silly, with the reader still not in possession of all the pertinent facts. Gardner then rather clumsily has Perry Mason expose some of the missing pieces by reading a long newspaper article aloud to Della Street. That is followed by a conversation between Mason, Della, and Paul Drake during which the gloating Mason provides the rest of the missing information. Frankly, I felt a bit cheated as a reader that I had to learn some of the key elements of the story at the same time Mason was explaining it to the novel’s other two recurring characters. Please, crime writers, show me, don’t tell me.

Bottom Line: The Case of the Negligent Nymph was a disappointment to me, but I do wonder if I would have actually enjoyed this one as a fifteen-year-old. Maybe it’s just that I’m a more mature reader now than I was when I read all those other Perry Mason novels. I do have on hand another Perry Mason novel, this one called The Case of the Haunted Husband, that I plan to read soon. I’m hoping for a better reaction to that one.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Simon the Fiddler - Paulette Jiles

Paulette Jiles came crashing into my reading world in October 2016 when I met her at the San Antonio Book Festival prior to publication (which had been delayed by about six months) of her News of the World, a book that would eventually become a National Book Award finalist. Jiles offered me one of a handful of the uncorrected proofs she had with her that day, and after a ten-minute conversation with her and author John C. Kerr, it was time for me to head back to Houston. Little did I suspect on that drive home that News of the World was about to become one of my all-time favorite books, but it did. And then, we Paulette Jiles fans waited over two years for a new book from her. Simon the Fiddler, published in April 2020, is that book.

“They’d hang a carpenter, a blacksmith, a gambler, or a horse thief but nobody would ever hang a fiddler.”  Lieutenant Jacob Whittaker to Simon Boudlin

It’s March 1865 and the Civil War is all but over. In about a month Robert E. Lee will surrender the bulk of his Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, effectively ending the war. But Simon Boudlin is not in Virginia; he’s in Texas – and he’s still trying to avoid being conscripted into the Confederate Army. That would not be easy for most twenty-three-year-olds, but Simon doesn’t look anywhere near his age. He is a small, boyish-looking man, who if he shaves very, very closely, can easily convince people that he is too young to fight for the Confederacy. It’s worked up to now, anyway. Then, following a barroom fight in Victoria, Simon learns that rather than being locked up in jail for his part in the brawl, he is finally being conscripted into the service of the Confederate Army – even if, as it turns out, it is only as part of the regimental band.

Paulette Jiles
Following a completely unnecessary battle, one in which men on both sides of the fight are needlessly killed, Simon and a handful of other musicians are called upon to entertain Confederate and Union officers, and their families, as part of the surrender process. There, Simon spots a beautiful young Irish girl and falls in love with her on the spot. Unfortunately for Simon and Doris, she is indentured to a Union officer as governess to his daughter and is only six months into her three-year contract with the man. Simon is barely able to speak with her before she is off to San Antonio with the officer and his family to complete her years of service.

Simon, though, cannot get Doris out of his mind. He will spend the next two years playing his fiddle all over Texas, trying desperately to become a man of means so that he can someday make Doris his wife. But it won’t be easy for either of them.

Bottom Line: Paulette Jiles writes beautifully about a period of Texas history during which life could still be rather primitive and dangerous for many of the state’s residents. Much of the narrative takes place in Galveston and Houston, two cities that barely resemble the cities they are today. Having lived in Houston for most of my life, I found it intriguing to imagine, even with the place names I recognized, a city so different from the one I have known for the past fifty years. Paulette Jiles made me see and smell that city and others like it. If you are a fan of well-written, solidly-researched historical fiction, Simon the Fiddler is a book you should not miss.

Review Copy provided by Publisher