Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Cyrano de Bergerac - Edmond Rostand

At the risk of sounding like a bit of a fool, I have to say that I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. The version of the play that I read was translated by Lowell Bair and first published by Signet Classics in 1972. My surprise came from not having particularly enjoyed either movie version of Cyrano that I’ve seen, and assuming that was the play’s fault rather than the fault of the two movies. 

The unrealistic plot of Cyrano de Bergerac, as it turns out, is precisely what makes it so charming. Imagine what has to be the greatest swordsmen in French history (the play is set in 1640), a man who can write poetry aloud while in the midst of a swordfight for his very life. Such a man would be a romantic hero in any country of the period, but because Cyrano has also been blessed with one of the longest noses in French history, he is not exactly having to fight off the women. 

Our hero is, in fact, madly in love with his first cousin, Roxanne. Roxanne, though, is the kind of woman who can only imagine herself ever falling in love with a handsome man – and in Cyrano’s friend Christian, she finds just what she is looking for. Unfortunately for Christian and Roxanne, Christian’s ability to creatively express his feelings is at the opposite end of the scale from his good looks. If Roxanne ever figures out just how dull-witted the man is, she is certain to ban him from her life. And that’s where Cyrano comes in. 

Cyrano’s ability to write a love letter is exceeded only by his ability to kill eight or ten men in a single swordfight. Christian obviously needs help (probably in both areas), and Cyrano is willing to write his love letters as a way of himself staying close to Roxanne. The beautiful Roxanne, though, has attracted more than two suitors (even though she doesn’t even realize that Cyrano is one of them), and that complicates the plot considerably. 

Cyrano de Bergerac
is dramatic; it is funny; and its puns (especially those regarding Cyrano’s nose) are brilliant. The play’s final act is obviously overly-melodramatic, but actually, it’s really no less realistic than the rest of the play. The same theater-goers who laughed their way through most of the play probably never thought they would be leaving the theater in tears when the final curtain closed, but I’m willing to bet that’s exactly what happened to many of them. The fictional Cyrano de Bergerac is an unforgettable character, and even though the play’s author believed the play to be a literary disaster, it turned out to be the one that made Rostand (left) famous – and has kept him that way.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore - Ed Griffin-Nolan

Ed Griffin-Nolan is definitely right about one thing. There is a feeling of kinship among those who have ever hitchhiked, even if for only one memorable trip in their relative youth. The memories created by thumbing your way from one state to the next are so vividly implanted that veteran hitchhikers enjoy talking about them even decades later – and they love hearing the stories of others who have experienced the road up close and personal the way hitchhikers, by definition, experience it. I still sometimes think about the time me and another soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old hitchhiked about 275 miles from our home in Southeast Texas to New Orleans on a spur-of-the-moment whim. And that’s why I was initially so intrigued by Griffin-Nolan’s Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore

Ed Griffin-Nolan and a buddy hitched – roundtrip – their way from New York to California in 1978, and they still talk about that trip whenever they get together. Now, some forty years later, Ed decides to do it again, but this time he will be out there on his own and he will be flying back to New York when he arrives in San Francisco instead of hitchhiking home via a different route. Ed is 62 years old now, and he really doesn’t know what to expect, but if the sign he uses to attract the attention of potential Good Samaritans is any indication (“Nobody HitchHikes AnyMore”), he already knows that the art of hitchhiking is not what it used to be. The man, however, is still optimistic: 

     “Who will pick you up? Everyone asks me that question. 

      …How could I possibly know how to answer when the answer was to be found in the future, out on the sides of dozens of roadways? Who, indeed, will pick me up? The tease, the adventure, the allure of hitchhiking is that I wake up not knowing who will give me a lift today, and my ride wakes up not knowing who I am either.” 

What follows is an account of some of the most fulfilling days on the road imaginable, days when the kindness and spirit of America are obvious as people drive out of their way to extend their ride so they can leave Ed at a better spot from which to begin the next leg of his journey. But there are also days when the author is passed by by hundreds and hundreds of vehicles before he snags his next ride. There are days when he is picked up by drivers angry with the world and ready to tell him all about it. And there are days when he sits off-and-on in the same McDonald’s so long that he is able to pick out all the regulars: 

     “McDonald’s has been a haven for hitchhikers for as long as I’ve been thumbing rides. Bathrooms, free water, shade, air conditioning, electricity to charge a phone, wi-fi to check on the world back home – what’s not to like? Plus, they now serve the Egg McMuffin all day long. 

     McDonald’s is, for better or worse, a melting pot of cultures. People come to America now already knowing our brands…I hear conversations in Russian, Chinese, and Spanish. In yuppie coffee shops, sometimes the only international flavor is the macchiato.” 

Bottom Line: With the exception of the author’s insertion of political asides into his narrative, Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore is a fun read – especially if you yourself have experienced some of what he describes. At first the political asides are mildly distracting more than anything else, but near the end of the book they become heavy-handed enough to become more an irritant than a distraction, especially some of the points Griffin-Nolan attempts to make in the book’s epilogue.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

And Nine Months Later...



Now, maybe I'm the only one who finds this observation to be oddly funny, but I could not resist sharing it with the rest of you. According to one of the calendars I use, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot all had birthdays last week:

  • King - September 21,1947,
  • Fitzgerald - September 24,1896,
  • Faulkner - September 25,1897, and
  • Eliot - September 26,1888.
And this week, it's these:
  • Donna Leon - September 28, 1942,
  • Miguel de Cervantes - September 29, 1547,
  • Truman Capote - September 30, 1924,
  • Daniel Boorston - October 1, 1914,
  • Graham Greene - October 2, 1904, and
  • Gore Vidal - October 3, 1925.
"So what," you say? Well, for some reason my mind immediately decided to do the math, and I realized that means they were all likely conceived sometime during the Christmas/New Year's holiday season some nine months earlier. So, as readers, let's all be grateful for the good spirits (pun intended) of those long-ago holidays. 

'Twas the season...



Saturday, September 26, 2020

Rogue Protocol (Murderbot #3) - Martha Wells

I can’t help but feel a little confused by the third book of Martha Wells’s “Murderbot Diaries.” It’s not the plot or the characters that confuse me, though. It’s more a question of why the whole book - all 158 pages of it - was not simply tacked onto the ending of the previous book – also of about 150 pages – and published as the novel it was meant to be. As it is, Rogue Protocol breaks almost no new ground either plot-wise or character-wise, and I doubt that I would have stayed with it all the way through if I had picked it up as a standalone novella. It was tough enough, at times, to do that anyway because I started to feel as if I were reading a story I had already read, and that only the names of most of the characters had changed.  

Murderbot is still trying to gather evidence against GrayCris Corporation, the cut-throat company that is so willing to murder its competitors in the name of increased profits. Murderbot is still officially a rogue SecUnit on the run, and as such, he’s forced to live in the shadows. Still, most often by teaming up with other artificial-intelligence creations, he manages to make his way from planet to planet without being captured. 

That doesn’t mean that it’s been easy, or that it’s going to be, because Murderbot’s big weakness keeps getting him in trouble. He still has a soft spot in his “heart” for humans, and he keeps stumbling into situations where several rather naïve human scientists have to be protected from the evil GrayCris Corporation. And, since Murderbot is heading in the same direction, he finds it impossible to keep himself from taking the humans under his wing – whether they always realize it or not. 

But all of that is part of the problem I had with Rogue Protocol. Wells assumes that all of her readers are already going to have Murderbot’s backstory, so she doesn’t spend much time developing the book’s newest characters (granted, they are only passing through, anyway) or the backstory. Consequently, Murderbot does not come across as nearly the compassionate and ironically funny character he is in the first two books in the series. And then there’s yet another claustrophobic jaunt down long hallways dotted with dangerous intersections, as Murderbot frantically tries to get his humans to safety while fighting one combat bot after another. 

The best part of Rogue Protocol is Miki, the little bot that just wants a friend like himself. Even as Miki is recklessly throwing his body into every battle alongside Murderbot (despite being hopelessly overmatched), he’s more concerned with hurting Murderbot’s feelings than with the danger to himself. He loves his humans, and they love him, but Miki truly treasures his first friendship with someone “like him.” 

Bottom Line: It seems that the publisher of the Murderbot Diaries made more of a business decision than a literary one with the way the company handled Rogue Protocol. This one could, and probably should, have been the second half of its predecessor, Artificial Condition, even though it would have probably seemed a little repetitive that way. As it was, two Murderbot Diary novellas and one Murderbot Diary novel were published in 2018, rather than what could easily have been two novels.

Martha Wells

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Bookshop on the Corner - Jenny Colgan

Seldom have I been left with such mixed emotions about a book as I have by Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Corner (perhaps published as Little Shop of Happily Ever After in the UK). I absolutely loved and enjoyed about one-third of the book, and I was pretty much bored with the other cliché-filled two-thirds of it. This is the first title I’ve read by Jenny Colgan, but a quick review of her backlist leads me to believe that she discovered a successful book-selling formula years ago and that she intends to milk it as long as it continues to work for her. Granted, I am not the target audience for a Jenny Colgan book; I know that now, so my reaction to this one is as much my fault as it is hers. Luckily enough, however, I “read” this one via its audiobook version, and Lucy Price-Lewis, the narrator, has such a charming voice and way about her that I continued listening almost despite myself. 

The basic premise of The Bookshop on the Corner is that the rampant library-closings in the UK have finally put Nina Redmond out of the only job she has ever wanted to have. She loves her work as a front-line librarian, and she is very, very good at perfectly matching library patrons to books they are certain to enjoy. Now, even though she is being given the opportunity to interview for a different kind of library position – a backroom job that would isolate her from patrons – Nina is not at all sure that she wants the job even if it’s offered to her. And then, she has a brilliant idea. 

Why not open that bookstore she’s dreamed about owning all of her life? Of course, she has no money, can’t possibly come up with the rent on a shop, and after selling on all the books her library is now discarding, she has no idea how she would even restock the shop. Nina solves the money-problem by deciding to open up a mobile-bookstore housed inside a large van. So now, the only problem is that the only old van she can afford is located somewhere in remote Scotland – a long way from Birmingham, especially for a tiny young woman who has never driven anything that big in her life. 

To this point, and then as Nina worked on setting-up shop, I was totally on board with The Bookshop on the Corner. But then the book turned into a formulaic romance novel filled with exactly the characters that come in that recipe. I still had two-thirds of the book to go, and I could already predict (with near-perfect accuracy, as it turned out) how it was going to proceed all the way to the end. (And don’t even get me started on those awful “hot” love scenes.) 

Bottom Line: The Bookshop on the Corner was a disappointment to me because of Colgan’s failure to sustain the book’s strong start through to the end. I don’t do star-ratings, but if I did, this one would get two stars on a generous day, and I would throw in an extra one because of Lucy Price-Lewis’s narration. Romance fans are certain to disagree with me on this one – so I’ll just call The Bookshop on the Corner a learning-experience.

Jenny Colgan
Lucy Price-Lewis

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Fighting Bunch - Chris Derose

If Chris DeRose’s The Fighting Bunch were a novel, I probably would have put it down almost as quickly as I picked it up. I would have found the premise of the book to be too farfetched for me to take it seriously, and I would have been unwilling to suspend my level of disbelief to that degree. If nothing else, that shows how naïve I can be about some of the things that happened in America’s s relatively recent past. The book’s subtitle, a long one, says it all: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution. But I suspect I’m not the only one who never heard about what happened in Athens, Tennessee, in 1946 after a group of battle-hardened veterans came home and found their county to be completely controlled by one corrupt politician and his gang of criminal-enforcers. 

When the bloody battle was all over, the (mostly) young men who fought and won the Battle of Athens began to realize that they might be in big trouble. After all, what they had just done was not exactly legal, so they could very well themselves end up prisoners in the jail they had just liberated from the political machine so determined to rob them of that day’s election victory. Wiser heads in the group convinced the rest that it was time for all of them to shut up about what had just happened in their little Tennessee town. And they did exactly that - even to the extent that their own children and grandchildren were never sure exactly what role their elders played in the armed rebellion. 

Chris DeRose, when he began The Fighting Bunch, realized that only half the story had ever been told, and he knew that the time left for gathering first-hand accounts of the events of that night was fast running out. Only a handful of men were left to tell the story. DeRose, though, found the next best thing: adult children of the men who were willing to share both their own memories and any original papers left behind by their fathers, along with even some of the original acetate recordings of the live radio broadcast by station WROL from that night. As indicated by its dozens of footnotes and an extensive list of interviews, DeRose did his homework, and it shows. His account of “the only successful armed rebellion since the Revolution” and the men who pulled it off is fascinating. 

Bottom Line: The Fighting Bunch is a rather shocking account of how a group of WWII veterans, men themselves instrumental in assuring the freedom of Europe and the rest of the world, came back to Tennessee to find their own home-county under the thumb of a despicable dictator and the murdering thugs he employed. No one dared oppose the gang - even at first, the veterans themselves - but what happened when the ex-military men reached their breaking-point is a story that readers will find difficult to forget.

Chris DeRose

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

$3 Million Worth of Stolen Books Found Underground in Romania

Back in January 2017, in a heist that sounds like something out of the latest Mission Impossible movie, a gang of Romanian thieves  cut a hole in the roof of a London postal transit warehouse and "abseiled" 40 feet to the floor, dodging sensors all the way. They were after a collection of rare books being stored in that warehouse prior to shipment to a rare-books auction being held in Las Vegas. They escaped with the books, said to be worth over $3 million, the same way they came into the building. 

Now, almost four years later, the books have been recovered, and according to BBC News, thirteen people have been arrested: 

The gang is responsible for a series of high-value warehouse burglaries across the UK, London's Metropolitan police said in a statement.
Officers discovered the books underground during a search of a house in the region of Neamț, in north-eastern Romania, on Wednesday.
The find follows raids on 45 addresses across the UK, Romania and Italy in June 2019, investigators say. Thirteen people have been charged, 12 of whom have already pleaded guilty.
The hoard includes rare versions of Dante and sketches by the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, as well as the titles by Galileo and Isaac Newton dating back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.

 It's hard to believe that this kind of thing happens in the real world and not just in movies and books. Apparently, the thieves were willing to sit on the books as long as it took to figure out a way to turn them into actual cash - something that must be near impossible for books as rare and as well documented as these are. 

And now, I can't help but wonder if being stored underground in those conditions for almost four years has damaged the books despite how well they seem to be wrapped in the below photo from the Metropolitan Police. High humidity is a book-killer, and from the looks of this underground vault, damp conditions appear likely. Somewhere, an insurance company or two are breathing big sighs of relief about now.

Metropolitan Police Photo

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The World Has Gone Mad: Banning Harry Potter

In what just may be the final straw that broke this camel's back, I can now officially declare that the world has gone mad. 

According to Newsweek (remember them?), one terribly "woke" (a word I detest in this context) bookstore owner in Australia actually thinks it will make her little shop a safer place for customers if she quits selling anything written by JK Rowling. That includes, of course, the Harry Potter books as well as the books published under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym Rowling uses for her crime novels. 

So how does this make her little woke-shop a safer place for her customers and their children? Well, according to the genius that owns the Rabble Books bookstore in Perth:

"...we want to talk about JK Rowling. We are always trying to make Rabble a safer space for our community, and part of that is trying not to put books by transphobes on the shelves, when we know about them."

Despite her obvious punctuation problems, this marketing genius goes on to say that all of that regained shelf space is going to be filled with comfort reads that are guaranteed to pull the community closer together by making them feel oh-so-safe as they browse her shelves. No longer will they have to look over their shoulders and wonder if a transphobic person might be sneaking up behind them:

"What I’d love to hear is your suggested alternatives - what are some queer and trans positive fantasy books for young people and crime books for adults?"

Please excuse the sarcasm, and don't get me wrong here. I have nothing against books featuring the "queer and trans" community. That's not really the point. With rare exception, I oppose censorship, and I agree that this woman can sell whatever she wants in her shop. What upsets me in this instance is the way she's going about it. "Cancel Culture" is a horrendous tool used by stupid people, and it's time that the rest of us stop condoning its use.  

The Woke Genius, Nat Latter


Saturday, September 19, 2020

Hieroglyphics - Jill McCorkle

   “I think that those who forget being children have likely lost their souls; it’s just that simple.” 

If this quote from page 261 of Jill McCorkle’s Hieroglyphics is true, the four main characters of her new novel remain firmly attached to their souls. One of the four, Harvey, actually still is a child, and Shelley, Frank, and Lil seem to live almost as much in the past as they do in the present. 

Frank and Lil, after spending most of their adult lives in Boston, have retired to North Carolina where Frank has become preoccupied with getting inside his boyhood home for one final look at the place he so vividly remembers. He particularly wonders whether the old Mason jar full of boyhood trinkets he left behind all those years ago might still be hidden away where he saw it last. Lil, his wife, has equally vivid childhood memories of her own, especially the ones so eerily similar to her husband’s. Shelley, whose own childhood was more troubled than she wants to admit even to herself, and her son Harvey are renting Frank’s old family home – and Shelley has no intention of letting Frank inside the rundown old place for a last look. 

Hieroglyphics is not the kind of book that hits the ground running and maintains a quick pace for the next 300 pages. That kind of book is easy for the reader to get into. Instead, McCorkle sets her hook here in a very gradual manner by building the depth of her main characters layer by layer until the reader learns to see them as the real flesh and bone people they are. By the end of Hieroglyphics, it is obvious that all four have something in common. Each, even six-year-old Harvey, is emotionally scarred by something that happened to one, or both, of their parents. 

Memories, though, are funny things, especially those held by older people involving their childhood experiences. Frank and Lil have vivid memories of those days, but they do not stop to think that the memories, even hazy as they are becoming, were originally filtered through the eyes of a child. Shelley has a past she so badly wants to keep hidden that she creates an alternate family history for her two sons. And little Harvey becomes the near-perfect reflection of all of his mother’s insecurities and fears. 

Bottom Line: Hieroglyphics is a literary novel for readers who enjoy memorably complex characters who are doing the best they can simply to get from one day to the next. Bit-by-bit, as their inner lives are revealed, it all starts to make sense – and it becomes impossible not to root for each of them to get past what has so emotionally scarred them. This one demands a little patience, but that patience is well-rewarded in the end.

Jill McCorkle

(Review Copy provided by Publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Who Doesn't Love Books on Books? Here Are 60 Suggestions for You


Anyone who spends time blogging about books and/or reading the dozens and dozens of excellent book-blogs out there, also loves reading about actual books. And we are very lucky that there are so many of them out there: books about books, about bookstores, about booksellers, about bookmobiles, about libraries, about collecting books, about caring for books, and even about "how to read" a book. You name a book-topic, and it's probably out there somewhere.

I had several hours this afternoon during which I had to do the kind of busywork that allows a person to just let their mind I did. At some point I got to wondering how many book-related books I've read, so I decided to look into that when I got home. Below, is a listing of the ones I could identify (the year listed is the year I read the book, not the year it was published):

  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays - Amy Meyerson - 2019
  • A Novel Bookstore - Lawrence Cross - 2012
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robert Sloan - 2013
  • Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore - Matthew Sullivan - 2019
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookstore - Lewis Buzbee - 2008
  • The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald - 2019
  • The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted - Robert Hillman - 2019
  • Paris by the Book - Liam Callanan - 2019
  • Book Case - Stephen Greenleaf - 1992
  • The Bookman's Tale - Charlie Lovett - 2013
  • The Bookworm - Mitch Silver - 2019
  • The Bookseller - Cynthia Swanson - 2016
  • The Book of Speculation - Erika Swyler - 2015
  • The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - 2006
  • Booked to Die - John Dunning - 1995
  • The Bookman's Wake - John Dunning - 1996
  • The Bookman's Last Fling - John Dunning - 2008
  • The Camel Bookmobile - Marsha Hamilton - 2007
  • First Impressions - Charlie Lovett - 2014
  • The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon -2012
  • The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafon - 2014
  • The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett - 2017
These 22 are all novels, with most of them being mysteries. I think the 34 that follow below are all nonfiction:
  • The Thieves of Book Row - Travis McDade - 2013
  • Books - Larry McMurtry - 2009
  • So Many Books, So Little Time - Sara Nelson - 2007
  • The Library Book - Susan Orlean - 2019
  • A Passion for Books - Harold Rabinowitz, Rob Kaplan - 2002
  • The Care and Feeding of Books Old and New - Margot Rosenberg, B. Mancowitz - 2008
  • The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe - 2012
  • The Clothing of Books - Jhumpa Lahiri - 2018
  • Book Lust to Go - Nancy Pearl - 2010
  • Modern Book Collecting - Robert A. Wilson - 1988
  • So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance - Gabriel Zaid - 2017
  • How to Read a Book - Adler and VanDoren - 1986
  • The Man Who Loved Books too Much - Allison Hoover Bartlett - 2009
  • The Maximum Security Book Club - Mikita Brottman - 2016
  • Book Finds - Ian C. Ellis - 2000
  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books - Paul Collins - 2003
  • Among the Gently Mad - Nicholas A. Basbanes - 2005
  • Slightly Chipped - Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone - 2001
  • Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore - Suzanne Strempek Shea - 2008
  • A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict - John Baxter - 2006
  • My Reading Life - Pat Conroy - 2010
  • The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr - 2015
  • The Fiction Writer's Handbook - Shelly Lowenkoph - 2011
  • Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading - Nina Sankovitch - 2015
  • Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading - Maureen Corrigan - 2007
  • A Year of Reading - Michael Dirda - 2016
  • How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster - 2019
  • Reading with Patrick - Michelle Kuo - 2017
  • A History of Reading - Alberto Manguel - 1999
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously - Andy Miller - 2015
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi - 2004
  • The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared - Alice Ozma, Jim Brozina - 2011
  • How Reading Changed My Life - Anna Quindlen - 2007
  • How Literature Works - John Sutherland - 2011

Suggested Additions to the Lists:
  • The Book on the Bookshelf - Henry Petroski - nonfiction -courtesy of Jeane
  • A History of Books - Gerald Murnane - nonfiction - courtesy of Moshe Prigan 
  • Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year Reading from Home - Susan Hill - nonfiction - courtesy of Kath
  • Jacob's Room Is Full of Books: A Year of Reading - Susan Hill - nonfiction - courtesy of Kath

(The ones in bold type are my favorites of the lot.)

I know that you guys, avid readers that you are, have probably read most of these, too. I also know that I've skipped others that don't include some variation of the word "book" in their titles, so please feel free to give me more book-books in your comments. And, I hope you find something new-to-you here that you will enjoy reading.

(This post has been, and will continue to be, added to from time to time.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The True Adventures of Gidon Lev - Julie Gray with Gidon Lev

Gidon Lev is an ordinary man who, because of the circumstances of his birth, has lived a truly extraordinary life. That he is even alive to tell us about it today, is perhaps the most amazing thing of all about him because Gidon had no business even surviving his childhood. His adventures began in 1941, when as a six-year-old child, Gidon was transported along with his mother and grandfather to Térézin, a German concentration camp some 30 miles north of Prague. He would still be there at the end of World War II, one of the ninety-two children known to have survived the experience out of the fifteen thousand children imprisoned there during the war. 

Gidon Lev is now 85 years old, and he is ready to share his story with the rest of us. 

Not only did this man survive a concentration camp where he could have so easily succumbed to disease or some German-inflicted atrocity, he survived both Israel’s Six-Day War and its War of Attrition. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He was married twice and now lives with his “life partner,” Julie Gray, a woman some thirty years younger than him who wrote The True Adventures of Gidon Lev with a mighty assist from Gidon himself. He has six children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild – with more to come. The man has certainly had his ups and downs during the last eight decades and, looking back, he’s not always proud of his behavior or the way that he treated some of those closest to him. But then, who is, really? 

His story is fascinating, no doubt, but one of the things I most enjoyed about The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is the way Gray (left) takes her readers along for the ride as she pulls the book together from her firsthand observations and Gidon’s notes and papers from his past. As each chapter unfolds, the author shares the circumstances under which it was written, the conversational editing process she led Gidon through, and his emotional reaction to whatever chapter of his life they were discussing. For me, it was hard not to feel as if I were in the room with them, a silent witness to their unique relationship and way of working so beautifully together. Too, I couldn’t help but wonder if the two of them were learning as much about each other and Gidon’s past as I was as a reader. Sometimes, even Gidon seemed a bit surprised by – and reluctant to accept – some of what they uncovered together. 

Bottom Line: The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is a firsthand account of one man’s experiences in a World War II German concentration camp. That the experience is told largely through the eyes and memories of a child, makes it even more heartbreaking a tale than it would have already been. That also leaves room for the 85-year-old Gidon Lev to learn things about himself and his experiences in the camp that he had no way of knowing – or remembering – as a little boy. Gidon Lev’s story deserves to be heard, and Julie Gray has done him and his story proud.

(Photo of Julie Gray and Gidon Lev credit to Julie Gray)

(Review Copy provided by Author or Publisher)

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Shane - Jack Schaefer

For a lot of legitimate reasons western novels get as little respect as romance novels, and, in fact, I’ve several times seen westerns characterized disparagingly as “romance novels for men.” But for a lot of equally legitimate reasons, westerns and romance novels, when they are approached in a serious manner by their authors, deserve the same respect granted to their supposedly more sophisticated cousins. Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel Shane is most definitely a western that stands tall for good reason. 

Shane certainly has its share of fistfights, and even includes a memorable gunfight between two of the fastest gunslingers passing through the state of Wyoming. But it also features a young couple trying to teach their son Bob (the novel’s narrator) right from wrong to provide him with a proper moral code he can live by for the rest of his life. It features a man so conflicted by his past that he struggles to keep himself under control even when violence is the only way to protect himself and those he loves. And it even explores one of the sweetest love-triangles I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Shane may not be the perfect western novel, but it comes as close as any to meeting that standard. 

     “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.” 

That’s the impression that Shane gave Bob when the two first set eyes on each other as Shane rides up to the Starrett farm. From that first moment, the boy senses something different about Shane, something very dangerous to anyone who might dare cross him for the wrong reason. Shane arrives just about the time that half-a-dozen small farmers are being coerced by a rich cattleman to walk away from the homesteads upon which they depend for a living. The man wants to drive large herds of cattle through the territory, but he cannot do that if he has to bypass all the fenced-off farms adjoining his own property. And after receiving a big government contract to supply as much beef as he can come up with, he will do whatever it takes to destroy the farms in his way. 

 Shane has to choose a side or ride away...he doesn’t ride away. 

Soon enough, Shane becomes a symbol of resistance to both sides of the fence dispute, something that he both regrets and accepts: 

     “In some strange fashion the feeling was abroad that Shane was a marked man. Attention was on him as a sort of symbol. By taking him on father had accepted in a way a challenge from the big ranch across the river. What had happened to Morley had been a warning and father had deliberately answered it. The long unpleasantness was sharpened now after the summer lull. The issue in our valley was plain and would in time have to be pushed to a showdown. If Shane could be driven out, there would be a break in the homestead rank, a defeat going beyond the loss of a man into the realm of prestige and morale. It could be the crack in the dam that weakens the whole structure and finally less through the flood.” 

Neither Shane, nor the Starretts, are willing to let that happen. 

Bottom Line: Shane is filled with memorable characters, heroes and villains, alike. One of the most memorable is Marian Starrett, a woman strong enough to support her husband in his fight to save their livelihood from the man who wants to steal it from them. The complicated relationship between Joe Starrett, his wife Marian, and Shane is one that Schaefer handles perfectly in this, his debut novel. Shane is so good that I can only imagine the pressure that Schaefer must have felt for the rest of his life to match it.

Jack Schaefer

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Today's Smile: Heywood Broun vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald

Haywood Broun

Apparently, critic Heywood Broun (1888-1939) did not at all care for F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise when it was first published - and he never changed his mind. Broun not only gave the book a bad review, he continued to take shots at it in several later newspaper columns, including one written about his attendance at the 1920 Yale-Princeton football game. Broun worked as a sports writer for part of his career so he knew what he was talking about - but he still couldn't resist taking another shot at Fitzgerald, himself a Princeton graduate. 

Who doesn't love a longterm spat between a critic and a writer? I know that I do. But what struck me as particularly funny was Broun's take on the value of a college education. As quoted in LOA's email announcement of this Sunday's LOA "story of the week," it went this way:

"...Just before the whistle blew, Captain Tim Callahan of Yale and Mike Callahan of Princeton walked out into the middle of the gridiron. The referee said: 'I guess I don't have to introduce you boys,' and he was right, because the Callahan's are brothers.

Mrs. Callahan believes in scattering her sons. She follows the old adage of 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket.' There is still another Callahan who is preparing for Ursinus. Mrs. Callahan believes that by trying all the colleges at least one of her sons is going to get an education..."

Maybe it just doesn't take much to make me laugh today, or I've finally gone stir-crazy, but I find that to be a pretty good punchline.  It worked on me, anyway.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Saturday, September 12, 2020

To Your Scattered Bodies Go - Philip Jose Farmer

All of us, I think, can recall a handful of books that to this day seem to mark a particular period in our lives. Often, as the decades go by, we find ourselves taking those books with us as we move from place to place. For instance, I still have the paperback copy of Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle that I paid sixty cents for in a Nashville bus station during my Army basic training in nearby Ft. Campbell, KY, in early 1968. Its pages are brown and a little brittle now, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. 

Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go is another of those books for me. I did not discover this 1971 novel (and Philip Jose Farmer) until 1983 when I paid $2.95 for a twenty-third printing of the paperback version of the novel. As you can see, the price of a relatively thin paperback had gone up considerably in the fifteen years separating publication of these two books. I’ve read each of them at least three times now, so I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of them. 

The main character in To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the nineteenth century explorer Richard Burton, a man who one morning wakes up naked on the banks of a river he has never before seen. Burton, though, is not the only confused person waking up in that same condition:

“Everywhere on the plain were unclothed bald-headed human beings, spaced about six feet apart. Most were still on their backs and gazing into the sky. Others were beginning to stir, to look around, or even sitting up.” 

 That quote, from page 13 of the novel, hooked me, and it was off to the races when I learned that To Your Scattered Bodies Go was just the first book in Farmer’s “Riverworld novels.” Perhaps the best thing about coming to a series as late as I came to this one is not having to wait at least a year between new books, and I took full advantage of my tardiness. 

This first book in the series sees Burton aligning himself with men and women he feels he can trust to travel with him up and down the river while he tries to figure out why every human being who has ever lived has been resurrected at the same time somewhere along the banks of this ten-million-mile-long nameless river. One of the first to join Burton’s new “family” is Alice Hargreaves, who in her first life was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Among others taken in by Burton are a primitive cave man and an alien who died on Earth while in the processing of killing off the entire human race. 

After Burton discovers a group of “Ethicals” who seem to be responsible for this unexpected afterlife, he wants answers. If they are not gods, how did they manage to resurrect everyone? Is the human race being given a second chance to find heaven? Or is this all just an experiment run by the Ethicals to record the history and customs of the entire human race? Are the Ethicals amused at how humans are reacting to their resurrection? Whatever they are up to, Burton wants some answers – and he is determined to get them no matter how many times he has to kill his new arch-enemy Herman Goring. 

Bottom Line: To Your Scattered Bodies Go beautifully sets up the rest of the Riverworld books. As the book ends, Burton understands just enough about his situation to get himself into even more trouble by trying to find the river’s source – where he believes he will find the home-base of the Ethicals themselves and all the answers he so desperately wants. And, in book two, The Fabulous Riverboat, Burton teams up with just the man to get him further up the river: the resurrected young Mark Twain. Let the fun begin.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Is Late-Onset ADD a Thing?

I'm starting to wonder if it's possible to develop a case of ADD behavior late in life. I've been finding it difficult to actually sit down and read for more than a few minutes without stopping all of a sudden to do one or two other things that suddenly spring to my mind. If that were not bad enough, at the same time that my reading-pace has slowed way down, my book-acquisition-pace seems to be accelerating. 

Everywhere I turn, people are talking about books, and I'm jotting down their recommendations as fast as I can. Is there more book-chatter out there these days  because of the pandemic? I mean, it's great whatever the cause, but this is getting serious now. Just today, for instance, I watched a livestream from the Carnton house in Franklin, TN, and came away from that with at least half-a-dozen new books on the Civil War that I really, really need to read. And soon.

As of this morning, I was only actively reading two books, both very slowly, as it turns out: Sean Hannity's Live Free or Die, a book that is much better written than I had expected it would be, but is also pretty depressing and scary; and Philip Jose Farmer's science fiction classic To Your Scattered Bodies Go, a book I've read twice before and loved. I am also starting at least two others today by choosing one of the four western novels in the beautiful Library of America volume The Western that arrived in the mail last week. The classic novels are from the 1940s and 50s, but I don't remember ever reading one of them despite remembering three of them well as favorite movies. 

The second one, which I've already started, is Julie Gray's The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal, Holocaust Survivor, Optimist. I have had an electronic review copy of this one for a few weeks, and now seems like the time to read it. Lev was one of approximately 15,000 children sent to the German concentration camp near Prague called Térézin. He and 91 other children survived the experience. Julie Gray was reluctant to take on this project when Lev first approached her with the idea, but now the two of them are constant companions despite their several-decade difference in age. I am definitely liking what I see in this one through the first three chapters.

Also, coming into my hands in the last few days are several other books I'm itching to get into: a nice hardcover review copy of Jill McCorkle's Hieroglyphics; Russ Thomas's Firewatching, a book I was lucky enough to win in a blogger's random drawing; and Martha Wells's Rogue Protocol, the third book in her fun "Murderbot Diaries" that I just picked up from my library this afternoon. And that doesn't even count the dozens of others that I'm keeping handy because I just know I'm going to read them all someday. Yeah, right. Oh, and the new Civil War books I heard about this morning on that livestream I mentioned. I'm about to begin the search to grab each of those, too. 

Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Tampa Bay Noir - Various Authors

I have been reading the Akashic “Noir Series” books since 2010 and, at this point, I’ve lost track of exactly how many of the short story collections I’ve read and reviewed, but it’s definitely well over a dozen of them, all told. As their titles indicate, each of the books is a collection of crime stories focused on one city or geographical area (the one exception I’ve read is titled Prison Noir). I’ve enjoyed each of the books, but I’m still not sure which type I enjoy most, the ones set in places I’m well-familiar with, or those set in locations I know I will never be able to visit for myself. Houston Noir, Lone Star Noir, and Mississippi Noir are collections set in neighborhoods and cities I know well. Providence Noir, Chicago Noir, Santa Cruz Noir, Baghdad Noir, Manila Noir, Long Island Noir, Buffalo Noir, and Belfast Noir, not so much. And I enjoyed all of them. 

 That brings me to Tampa Bay Noir, a 2020 collection edited by Colette Bancroft, who also contributed one of my favorites of the fifteen stories in the book. This collection includes stories by several well-known authors such as Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger, and Ace Atkins, among others. Connelly’s story even revolves around his much beloved LA police detective character Harry Bosch, something sure to please Bosch fans everywhere. All of the books in the collection (and there are something like 107 of them now with another six already announced) divide the stories into four distinct sections. The four sections of Tampa Bay Noir are: “Suburb Sinister,” “Blood in the Water,” “Grifter’s Paradise,” and “Family Secrets,” with the stories within each section falling into those specific themes. 

 My personal favorites include Lori Roy’s “Chum in the Water,” a story about a rather naïve man who borrows money from the wrong old man while, at the same time, placing his complete trust in a young woman who is not at all the innocent young thing he sees when she smiles at him. Another favorite is Ace Atkins’s “Tall, Dark, and Handsome,” which is a role reversal of what happens in the Lori Roy’s story. This time, it’s a younger woman who misplaces her trust in an older man – right up until she’s had enough. 

But it’s the stories in the “Family Secrets” section of Tampa Bay Noir that appeal to me most, particularly the ones by Yuly Restrepo Garcés, Eliot Schrefer, and Colette Bancroft (left). For the most part, each of these stories takes place behind closed doors and doesn’t involve the kind of spectacular crime featured in some of the other stories in the book, but they are every bit as dark, maybe even darker, than those others. There are criminals, and there are victims, in each of these families, and some of them are even punished for what they are doing. 

Bottom Line: Tampa Bay Noir is a strong addition to the Akashic Books noir short story collections. Its fifteen stories are largely atmospheric and dark, exactly what fans hope for when they pick up a new book in the series. Too, this one would be a great introduction to the books for those who are yet to discover them.

(A search on "Akashic Books" in the search box at the top of this page will yield reviews of several other books in the series.)