Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 by the Numbers

As happy as I am to put 2020 behind us, I'm not really expecting the first half of 2021 to be very different. The good news, I suppose, is that there does finally seem to be good reason to hope that things will slowly return to at least near-normal over the next few months. I'm pleased to be able to say that Book Chase is rapidly approaching its fourteenth anniversary (January 20), and that I'm enjoying book-blogging as much, if not more, than ever. 

But now, it's time for my annual crunching of the numbers - and being a former accountant in the real world, this is one of my favorite posts of the whole year. I enjoy comparing my tabulations to those of past years just to see how my reading has evolved over the years. This is what the numbers look like for 2020:

Number of Books Read - 120 

Fiction - 97:   
  • Novels - 85   
  • Short Story Collections - 6  
  • Plays - 2
  • Novellas - 4


Nonfiction - 23:
  • Memoirs - 6
  • Biographies - 3 
  • Sports - 2
  • True Crime- 1
  • History - 3
  • Science - 2
  • Sociology - 3
  • Politics -  2
  • Travel -  1

Total books are down 12 from 2019 with the difference coming from a drop in nonfiction titles from 45 to 23. Fiction titles are up 10 books from 2019.

  • Written by Men - 67
  • Written by Women - 50
  • Written by Both - 3

2019's men to women ratio was 84-45 as compared to this year's 67-50 ratio. I think this is the first year that the gender ratio has fallen much below 2-1 in favor of male authors.

  • Audiobooks - 23
  • E-Books - 44
  • Library Books - 64
  • Review Copies - 38
  • From My Shelves - 18

  • Pages per Day: 103
  • Total Pages Read: 37,600

The source-mix of my books changed a bit from 2019 to compensate for all the 2020 pandemic restrictions: 11 fewer audiobooks, 22 more e-books (twice as many as 2019), 28 fewer library books, 9 more review copies, and 7 more from my own shelves. Surprisingly, I read 6,000 fewer pages this year, probably because I went through a period of several long weeks during which I found it almost impossible to concentrate on reading. I was starting to think the problem was never going to go away until very did.

My goals coming into the year were simple ones: read more in translation, more from my own shelves, more literary classics, more from the years 1920-1979, and catch up on a few of the detective series I follow. Let's just say I did better on some of the goals than on others:

  • 9 translated works
  • 18 from my own shelves
  • 2 literary classics
  • 10 from 1920-1979
  • 14 early books from my favorite series

I was a little surprised to learn how heavily I depend on newish books for my reading material. Fifty of the books I read in 2020 were published in 2020, another five will be published in 2021, and twenty were published in 2019. Numbers like that make me wonder if I'll ever figure out what I missed during those years I was way too busy caught up in living life and raising a family to read more than twenty or thirty books a year. I suppose I'll never know unless I finally find enough willpower to better resist all the bright and shiny new objects that keep getting dangled before my eyes. 

All in all, I feel blessed to be a committed reader because I think 2020 would surely have been a lot tougher than it was if I had had to depend on television to amuse me. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Book Chase January 2021 Reading Plan

Well, here we go...ready or not 2021 is here. I'm looking forward to a fresh start despite the overwhelming possibility that at least the first six months of 2021will simply be Episode 2 in the Pandemic Unleashed mini-series we are living in right now. So in the spirit of making the most of a fresh start, this is what my January reading plan is shaping up to be:

This 20th book in the series featuring Chicago female detective V.I. Warshawski was published early in 2019. I read most of the early books as they were published in the eighties and nineties, but I put them aside in the mid-nineties and have read only one of them since - and that was in 2009. I suspect that I will not remember much about V.I. and that reading this one will be much like starting the series all over again. I remember really liking her, though, and I'm curious to see how it goes. 

The Black Echo (1992) is the very first Harry Bosch novel. It's a book I've been trying to get my hands on for several weeks now because, despite being very familiar with the character and the chronology of the series, I've never read the first one. I actually started it yesterday morning and was surprised to learn that Harry was already 40 years old in this first book and that he was already living in what has become his iconic house - and he was already in trouble with the brass. The "black echo" in the title references the enemy underground tunnels that Bosch helped clear during the war in Vietnam.

This is one I read about in the New York Times Book Review, but I'm not sure what to think of it now that I have a library copy. It's about a woman who comes "home" for the first time in twelve years and finds that her best friend's children - who were 3 and 5 years old when she left - do not seem to have aged a single day in her absence. They are still the "perfect little children" she last saw. This one is going to have to work hard to make me suspend my feeling of disbelief - and that is never an easy thing for an author to do to me. We'll see. 

The truth about this one is that until about a week ago I had heard neither of the novel or its author. Then I spotted a four-episode miniseries by the same title on the PBS app I subscribe to. I was intrigued enough by the first episode to see if my library had a copy - and three days later I had it home with me. The series credits say that the episodes are "based on" the book by Louise Doughty, but it does not appear that the author had anything to do with writing the screenplay. I've watched the whole thing now, and I especially love the way it ended. I was on the edge of my seat for the last few minutes, and I can't wait to see how much of this came from the book and how much was changed. 

Starting with Joshilyn Jackson's Gods in Alabama, I've had good luck with this author's novels. Mother May I is an advance reader's edition I have of her new novel that will be published in April 2021. The premise is that when a baby boy goes missing his mother jumps in with both feet asking questions and exposing secrets that place both her and her son in deadly danger. "How far will a mother go to protect her child?" Honestly, I don't think I would be reading this one if it were not written by an author whose work I've enjoyed so much in the past. 

Laurie Frankel's One Two Three is also a review copy, this one to be published on June 8, 2021. I'm planning to read it soon, but I'll probably hold the review until closer to the book's publication. I was drawn to this one by the way its cover so perfectly reflects the books plot. One Two Three is about a set of triplet sisters, all very different from each other, who live in a little town whose water supply was declared "unfit for use" around the time of their birth. Now, the girls are digging for the answers their mother has never been able to uncover.

This is the third book in a thriller series featuring Ridley Fox and Nita Parris. I am unfamiliar with the characters or the author, but I want to learn more about each. This one was written in June 2014, but I'm reading a review copy. The hook goes like this: "Crack the code and you'll save millions of lives. But knowing it exists will get you killed." Not to worry though...CIA agents Fox and Parris are on the case.

I started reading Dark Passage a few days ago from this Library of America collection of Charles Goodis noir novels of the 1940s and 1950s. I've had to put it aside for a while, so I'll be reading the final two-thirds of the novel in January. I only put it aside because other deadlines ate up my reading time, so I'm looking forward to getting back to the story. Can't wait to see how it all turns out, and now I wish I could find someone broadcasting the movie version.

I suspect that, as usual, some choices will change because I'm expecting several books to be ready for curbside pick-up at my local library in the next 2-3 weeks. Among the possibilities are: Battle of Brothers (Robert Lacey), The Midnight Library (Matt Haig), I'll Be Seeing You (Elizabeth Berg), and The Queen's Gambit (Tevis Walter). Too, I'm still in the process of lining up new books for review during the first quarter.  But I think this is a good start to the year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism - Sharyl Attkisson

Never have I worked harder to keep myself informed as to what is happening in this country and around the world. And never in my adult life have I been so misinformed about what is happening in this country and the rest of the world. I know whose fault that is - and it is not mine. 

Sharyl Attkisson’s Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism does an admirable job of explaining the problem. What she has to say in Slanted will horrify any reader who is concerned about the future of this country, but the scariest thing about the current state of journalism in this country and the rest of the world is that it has been so bad for so long that a whole generation of young adults now considers it all to be normal. But, of course, the first thing that readers need to know about the book is exactly who its author is. Is Sharyl Attkisson an honest broker of the book’s message or does she have an axe of her own to grind? 

So, let’s begin with Attkisson’s background. She is a veteran news reporter who has won five Emmy Awards and an Edward R. Murrow Award for her investigative reporting at networks like CNN, CBS, and PBS. She is an old-school journalist who believes in following the truth no matter where it leads her or whom it embarrasses. She most definitely does not believe, and never has, in mixing her personal opinions into the news she reports. And that’s why she walked away from a successful career at CBS News when she discovered that her producers were more interested in pushing an approved “narrative” than they were in telling the truth. Gradually, over a number of months, she came to the realization that her stories were being censored out of existence because of pressure from politicians and corporate sponsors. She had the courage - and the support of her family - to walk away from a job she found as humiliating as it was frustrating. Now, she has a nonpartisan Sunday-morning news show on the Sinclair network called Full Measure with Sharyl Attikisson and produces some of the most informative podcasts anywhere. In other words, her bonafides are the real deal.

As Attkisson sees it, journalists “have blended opinion and reporting. We’ve self-censored people and topics. We’ve stepped in to try to shape public opinion rather than report the facts. It is only with this recognition of the fact that we have a problem that well-intended, serious journalists can begin to solve it.” The problem is that the vast majority of the news media have an agreed upon narrative to sell to the public and they get away with lying or distorting the truth all too easily. So why should they reform themselves when their propaganda is so successful? And they have been so successful that Attkisson says, “The information landscape becomes ever narrower, squashing diversity of thought and facts. Pretty soon, we won’t know what we don’t know. And that will be that.” 

And it gets worse because pollsters have now transformed a once-enlightening tool into just another propaganda technique to sell the “The Narrative.” According to the author, “Just as The Narrative calls upon the news to codify certain story lines, political polls are now widely used for the same purpose. Polls have morphed from providing a snapshot of pubic opinion at a moment in time into being an indispensable tool used to shape voter opinion.” They simply cannot, and should not be trusted, any longer.

I’m going to end this with a long quote from Chapter 10 of Slanted because I believe that it perfectly captures the dangerous world we are living in today, a world in which we can no longer trust the news that we hear all day long, every day of the year - those same two or three stories that are pushed at us over and over again so steadily that we cannot avoid them even if we want to. Even if they are largely little more than outright lies, distortions, and omissions:

“The trend of mainstream media outlets actings as police and enforcers over other media is a shocking change in our news landscape. Reporters are now less concerned with facts and more with demanding adherence to The Narrative. They determine the position that is to be taken on issues or the facts that can be written about. They use their platform to insist that theirs is the only right and correct view. They convince their colleagues that the job of a reporter is not to be neutral or fair but to take the ‘correct’ position. They define the parameters of the language deemed acceptable or unacceptable for the media to use when covering an issue. They punish, cajole, and threaten those who do not comply. In other words, instead of covering the news, they attack those who are off narrative and cover that as if it is big news. Their goal is to stop the freethinking, independent interlopers. To make it where nobody dares to go off script or disclose the facts or ask questions that the media bullies want to keep hidden.”

Thank God, they could not “stop” Sheryl Attkisson.

On a more hopeful note, Attkisson closes Slanted with a list of reporters and organizations that also refuse to be stopped. The list includes reporters from NBC, CBS, ABC, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Sinclair, and ESPN. Among them are people like Howie Kurtz, James Rosen, Pete Williams, David Martin, Peter Schweizer, Lara Logan, Greg Jarrett, and John Solomon. Listed organizations include: The Epoch Times, RealClearPolitics, Just the News, The Hill, Wikileaks, the Wall Street Journal, and business news channels like CNBC, Fox Business, and Bloomberg. Conspicuous by their absence are the New York Times, CNN, PBS, and the Washington Post.

If you’ve had the patience to read to this point, this book is for you. You are someone willing to make the required commitment to thinking for yourself. You are not one of the millions who have simply tuned out because the static is just too much to deal with. Sharyl Attkisson is a name you need to remember, a journalist who will help you find the truth. You need to read this book.

Sharyl Attkisson

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Strongheart - Jim Fergus

Strongheart is the final chapter of the western trilogy that Jim Fergus began in 1998 with One Thousand White Women. In that first novel, President Grant and Cheyenne Nation chief Little Wolf agreed on an exchange of one thousand white women for one thousand of the tribe’s best horses. But don’t be mislead by that one-horse-for-one-woman trade because the entire trilogy is a strong pro-feminism statement about the power of women to adapt to new challenges while at the same time influencing the dominant culture in positive ways. 

All three books are based upon diaries and journals kept by some of the most influential women who joined the tribe: May Dodd, who was released from a Chicago mental institution so that she could be part of the initial trade; Irish twins Meggie and Susie Kelly; and Mollie McGill, whose words are so large a part of Strongheart. As a result, the reader experiences life with the Cherokee through the eyes of some of the strongest women imaginable exactly as they experienced it on a daily basis. 

Contemporary characters in Strongheart include Molly Standing Bear, descendent of one of the diarists, and JW Dodd, son of the man who first published a portion of the diaries in a Chicago magazine called Chitown when JW was just a boy. Molly and JW shared a mutual crush as pre-teens, and because of that, Molly has decided now to share more of the historical diaries that have come into her possession so that JW, as the magazine’s current editor, can publish them as his father did before him. 

Strongheart picks up the story shortly after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a battle that would prove to be the short-lived immediate victory that would ultimately doom forever the way of life the tribes so precariously held on to. By this point in the story, the women have successfully married into the tribe and have children of their own. Sadly, however, many of the mothers and their children have been killed even before the Little Bighorn fight by surprise attacks on their villages by American soldiers. Now, the tribes have broken into smaller groups all in search of a place to safely make it through the coming winter. 

Despite the odds against them, a group of white warrior women and the Cherokee women who trained them, is determined to take up the fight for survival alongside their men. Others in the tribe make a different decision for themselves and their children. This is their story.

Bottom Line: The One Thousand White Women trilogy is about a group of courageous women who learn that they are more equal in the world created by “savages” than they ever will be in the “civilized” world from which they came - and some of them are not ready to give up that life even if they have to die to keep it. The story is rightly sympathetic to the plight of the women and their new families, but it shares that sympathy, too, with the often-bewildered boy soldiers who oppose them. Note, also, that there is much here that those interested in the sociology of America’s indigenous people during this tragic era are certain to appreciate. 

Jim Fergus

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Book Chase 2020 Top 15

Because I did not read enough nonfiction during 2020 to justify a separate nonfiction list, I have decided to produce one list encompassing both fiction and nonfiction titles.  That said, these are the fifteen books that topped my 2020 reading. Fourteen of the books were published in 2020, and one will be published in the first quarter of 2021.

1. The Fighting Bunch by Chris DeRose - full review - True story of WWII vets who took up arms in Tennessee to save their community and their state

                   2.  Slanted by Sharyl Attkisson - full review - the book's                         subtitle, How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship                 and Hate Journalism, says it all

3. A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin - full review - Retired cop John Rebus may be showing his age, but he's still after the bad guys, and this time it's personal

4. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins - full review Probably the most controversial book of the year, it was fun to see it sell like hotcakes. Quite a thriller

5. The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin - full review  an American tragedy brought dramatically brought to life

6. Mad at the World by William Souder - full review an eye-opening biography of author John Steinbeck

7. Miami Noir: The Classics by various authors - full review - a collection of dark short stories and novel excerpts from over a dozen writers, some of whom will surprise you

8. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles - full review the latest historical fiction from this author; this one takes place in and around Galveston and Houston in the early days of those cities

9. Next to Last Stand by Craig Johnson - full review - Sheriff Longmire works a Wyoming case in this one (despite straying from his own county) and the whole gang is back...finally.

10. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman - full review another memorable title from this author with great characters and lots of surprises.

11. All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny - full review this latest Gamache novel resolves a lot of family issues that have been brewing for a long time in the Gamache family

12. The Benefits of Breathing by Christopher Meeks - full review latest short story collection from one of the masters of the genre

 13. Truthtelling by Lynne Sharon Schwartz - full review - 25 short stories that run the gamut. My introduction to Schwartz and I'm still wondering why it took me so long to find her.

14. Good Eggs by Rebecca Hardiman - full review Millie Gogarty is an old Irish woman trying to make the most of the time she has left. Is Florida ready for her? (2021)

15. Street Music by Tim Hallinan - full review the final Poke Rafferty novel according to its author and that makes me very sad. 

Edit: I'm doing something this year I've never done in the almost-fourteen-year existence of Book Chase. I'm changing a list of favorite books after I've published. I finished Slanted on December 27, and I strongly feel that it deserves a place high up on my list of 2020 favorite books.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck - William Souder

According to its publisher, William Souder’s Mad at the World is the first “full-length biography of the Nobel laureate to appear in a quarter century.” As someone who has been reading John Steinbeck’s work for decades, I knew surprisingly little about the author’s personal life or the “story” behind even his best known works. That is no longer the case because Souder’s biography deals in depth both with Steinbeck, the man, and everything of consequence that he wrote during his lifetime attempts to avoid the demands of his ever-growing fame. 

John Steinbeck was not a man who had a lot of close friends, and he could be quick to discard the ones he did have. He was an egocentric man who took criticism of his work personally, meaning that those who dared to criticize him (even it was part of their job) often suffered the consequences of being shut out from his life for having been so bold. Even as a boy, he was always the outsider who seemed to prefer his own company to that of others. He was obsessed with his writing, but considered himself such a gift to women that he spent much of his time drinking and womanizing. He even had such little self-awareness at times that he bragged of his countless conquests to drinking buddies and former lovers - often even in writing. Steinbeck was married three times, producing two sons by his second wife. That neither son seems to have ever had much good to say about their father is telling. That they were bitter about their upbringing is an understatement.

Some of his best ideas, including some of those responsible for his most famous and best-received books, came from ideas, diaries, articles, stories, and the like, that others shared with him. Generating new ideas seem to have been Steinbeck’s biggest obstacle, but what he did with those ideas, even the ones previously abandoned by others, is unarguably brilliant. Never a man to be much impressed by money and fame, Steinbeck grew more and more unhappy with his life as fame and fortune found him. His problem was that money went through his hands even more quickly than it came to him. Year after year, he had to borrow money to pay the taxes on the previous year’s income even when he had a fortune coming in from book sales, Broadway plays, and movies.

But that is not all there is to know about John Steinbeck. As Souder puts it:

“What’s clear is that his mind was aflame from an early age, and that certain impulses fell into place and took hold of young John Steinbeck, a boy who could not conform, who could not tolerate a bully, and who believed that somewhere within the solitude he craved there was a world that could be rendered sensible and fair. These tendencies were hard to reconcile and hinted at a difficult but consequential life ahead.”

Steinbeck’s best work came from his anger at what he saw all around him in California’s Salinas Valley. He was sickened by the way immigrant crop-pickers were treated despite their importance to the entire country, and when the Great Depression resulted in the valley being inundated with starving people from other states, he did his best to publicize their plight. But even then, because he struggled so greatly to know where to start, Steinbeck had to look “outside of himself” for the idea that would turn into The Grapes of Wrath. Still, he hoped that the book would fall from the bestseller lists within six months so that he could be forgotten forever.

Bottom Line: Mad at the World succeeds in humanizing the man responsible for some of the best, and best known, books of the last century. That John Steinbeck was not a particularly likable man can hardly be disputed, but the importance of the books he produced over a relatively short lifetime is equally indisputable. His “instinct for privacy…bordered on pathological” and although he tried to hide it, he often suffered from depression. John Steinbeck was a man driven to write but totally unprepared to handle the success his writing would bring. Mad at the World leaves me wondering if he ever had a truly happy day in his life.

William Souder

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A New Wrinkle Comes Along Just in Time

 In an attempt to shake the mood I've been in for the last three or four days, I decided to take a look at how my reading is likely to go for the remainder of this cursed year. All I've really felt much like doing for a few days is to bury myself inside a book, only coming out of hiding long enough to take care of those things that can't be avoided. And the more I'm forced to go out in public (especially to the grocery store), the less I believe that people are not just inherently too stupid for their own good. OK...rant over. I promise.

So, here's what the rest of December looks like for me:

I'm something like six decades beyond the target audience of this children's classic, but my curiosity has finally gotten the best of me. It's one of those books I've been hearing about for what seems like forever, and I still see it referenced several times a year despite how little I read of YA or Middle-Grade books. I jumped into it last night as soon as I found out it was immediately available from my library. So far at least, it's everything good I've heard about it - and it has already been instrumental in changing my mood for the better.

Although I've been reading John Steinbeck for most of my life, I've never taken an in-depth look at his life despite owning a door-stop-sized Steinbeck bio that's been around the house for at least thirty years. The highly praised Mad at the World caught my eye a few weeks ago, though, and I decided to give that one a look. I'm now about 80% of the way through it, and I've learned so much about Steinbeck's personal life that I'll never see him the same. If you are a biography reader, I recommend this one.

I'm about half-way through Strongheart and plan to finish it before the end of the month. The tone of this third book in the series is much more somber and ominous than that of the first two books despite all the terrible things that happened to the white women and the tribes they have married into in those first two. Part of that, of course, is because we all know how the story ends for those tribes and what happens to them next. The writing is still strong, and Jim Fergus continues to tell a great yarn despite what the ultimate ending of the trilogy has to be.

I'm reading Dark Passage from this Library of America collection of five David Goodis novels from the 1940s and 1950s. Goodis isn't as well known today as some of his contemporary crime novelists, but he was definitely one of the better writers of dark crime fiction from that era. Dark Passage is one of his better known novels, probably because of its movie version, and I'm suitably impressed already even though I'm less than one-third of the way through it. I'm looking forward to reading the other four novels in 2021 and 2022.

I'm in the process of pulling together my January books right now, and hoping to get off to a nice fresh start to the coming year. Surely (please, please, please) 2021 has to be better than the one we've all just endured. At the very least, readers will still have books - lots of them - to lose themselves within when the going gets tough.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Book-Lover Humor Times Eight

I am an easy target for "bookish" cartoons because they seldom fail to make me laugh...or at least smile. That's why I can't help clipping them when I run across them someplace on the web. 

I doubt that all of these will be new to anyone, but I hope there's something here that makes your day at least a little bit better:

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

In Her Tracks - Robert Dugoni

I have to admit that I was reluctant to begin reading Robert Dugoni’s In Her Tracks after I noticed that the book is Dugoni’s eighth Tracy Crosswhite novel. I wondered how much not having more of the detective’s backstory in-hand would detract from my enjoyment of this new one, and feared it was probably too late a book for me to jump into the series as a first-time reader. That seemed fair neither to Dugoni nor to me. Happily, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Dugoni handles late-starters like me by seamlessly inserting the skeleton of Crosswhite’s backstory throughout the first few chapters of In Her Tracks. Tracy Crosswhite, who has a tenth-month-old daughter, extended her maternity leaver in order to deal with the  psychological damage she suffered the previous winter. She has, in fact, been diagnosed with “situational PTSD” and is seeing a counselor. But now, Crosswhite believes that she is ready to return to her job as a Violent Crimes detective in the Seattle Police Department. She has been working there with the same team of detectives for over ten years, and she’s missed them. Departmental Captain Johnny Nolasco, though, hasn’t been particularly looking forward to her return and has, in fact, assigned her old desk to a new female detective. The “mutual animosity” Nolasco and Crosswhite share is nothing new; it goes all the way back to their days at the police academy. Now, they tolerate each other only because it is to their mutual benefit.

The good captain can hardly wait to tell Crosswhite that the only empty desk he has in the Violent Crimes group is the one working cold cases — and that he only even has that desk available  because the detective on it is retiring. For Tracy Crosswhite, it’s either work cold cases or quit, and both of them know that Nolasco is really hoping that she takes the second option. Which is exactly why she won’t quit.

Crosswhite has long been one of the best detectives the SPD has, and when her old partner asks for her help on a case involving a female jogger who has just gone missing, she jumps in with both feet despite already having begun work on her own cold case involving a little girl who disappeared five years earlier. Captain Nolasco, to say the least, is not happy when he learns that Crosswhite has so quickly strayed from her cold case work, and he pulls her from the new case. Crosswhite, however, soon figures a way to link other cold cases with the current missing-jogger investigation closely enough to use the older cases as a backdoor into the jogger case, at the same time figuring that what Captain Nolasco doesn’t know can’t hurt her. 

Bottom Line: If In Her Tracks is any indication, the Tracy Crosswhite novels are largely the type of character-driven ones that most appeal to readers who enjoy immersing themselves in long series. Half the fun in a detective series comes from watching the main characters evolve over time into people readers eventually come to love and respect. The other half, of course, comes from reading about cleverly constructed cases the fictional detectives must solve over the course of a number of years. It gets even better when two or three cases are simultaneously explored in the same novel, but not all writers can pull off that trick. Robert Dugoni is one of those who can, and he does it without all of the confusion that often accompanies trying to follow more than one plot line at a time. The last thing I need right now, as a reader, is another long detective series to keep up with, but I’ve gladly added the Tracy Crosswhite series to my reading list.

Robert Dugoni (Photo by Douglas Sonders)

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Monday, December 14, 2020

The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America - Tom Zoellner

All that country means all that driving. Horizon plus time: an exultant combination.” (Page 38) 

Tom Zoellner is a wanderer, a man who has spent countless hours wandering the backroads of America making note of what he discovers at each stop along the way. Zoellner has been wandering long enough now to have reached some conclusions about America and her people, and he shares those experiences (and conclusions) with the rest of us in The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, a collection of fourteen essays he’s written over the years. I do wish the book had been written more in the “road trip” style than it was, but that did not keep me from finding most of the essays fascinating. 

It was in the collection’s third essay, “Drive,” that I confirmed that Tom Zoellner is a man who sees being on the open road — with no real destination in mind — exactly how I’ve viewed it all my life:

Into the car and away — away to the next valley over the ridge, away to the next town, the next exit, the unknown lump of color around the turn in the road just out of sight, leading and receding. Into the car, into the country. Here is where I feel most at ease and have since the age of majority: propped upright and relaxed at the wheel, the country spinning along outside the windows.”

There is little I love more than the spell of motorized land journey, a languorous day, a vague forward-looking destination in mind and a full tank of gas. If there is an opportunity to fly, I will not take it…” (Page 37)

I so totally identify with those two little paragraphs that I could have written them myself — and that glorious feeling is one of the main things that 2020’s pandemic has stolen from the rest of us for way too long. 

Other essays in the book include mini-histories of the State of Nevada and Las Vegas, the Mormon faith and its sacred sites that can be found all over America, the corrupt towns that spring up in the shadow of places like St. Louis, and the exploitation of America’s indigenous tribes by New England’s earliest settlers. Another of the more road-trip-like essays recounts Zoellner’s attempt to set foot on the point of highest elevation in all 48 contiguous states, a feat he is remarkably close to having achieved.

The National Road, however, is not a particularly optimistic book at all when it comes to the changes Zoellner has observed over the years. He is correctly dismayed by the divisions he sees along the lines of politics, religion, and economic opportunities — divisions that run so deeply that they are evident these days to far more casual observers than Zoellner. Something is terribly wrong when a country so casually “writes off” entire portions of the country as not worth saving. To his credit, the author recognizes that those places are “primarily rural” and located “in politically conservative regions.” When so many Americans are “shut out from their own country,” bad things happen. And they don’t happen only in the exclusion zones. 

Bottom Line: Tom Zoellner has learned much from all those hours behind the wheel, and what he has to say about America in The National Road needs to be heard, especially by those who may be able to do something about the spread of the country’s “exclusion zones.” I suspect, however, that because the political splits run so deeply now, those are the people least likely to get the message. 

Tom Zoellner

Saturday, December 12, 2020

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground - Alicia Elliott

Maybe I expected too much from Alicia Elliott’s memoir A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Maybe it’s my fault that I found the book so frustrating and, in the end, more confusing than enlightening. I wanted (still do want) to learn more about how North America’s indigenous people live today and whether the reservation system has been overall a good or a bad thing for them. As it turns out, this is not the book to answer that kind of question despite Elliott’s complaints that whites do not bother to wonder what their lives are like today. 

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a memoir centered on the dysfunctional family that Alicia Elliot had the misfortune to grow up in. Elliot, whose mother is a white Catholic and whose father is a Canadian Mohawk, grew up in a home where her mother was institutionalized once or twice a year on average when the mentally ill woman’s bipolar depression became too much for Elliot’s father to handle. What the author so frankly reveals about her childhood is as disturbing as it is sad: the constant hunger, living largely on whatever junk food was available, a case of head lice that lasted more than a decade, being accepted by neither whites nor indigenous schoolmates, etc., but what she describes is a function of poverty not exclusive to indigenous Americans or Canadians. 

As readers learn, this is largely a book about depression and those who suffer from it either directly or indirectly. The book’s title, in fact, is a translation of a Mohawk phrase for depression in which such a person is described as having a mind “literally stretched or sprawled out on the ground.” According to Elliott, indigenous people suffer disproportionately from depression, and that is because of the colonialism her people are still suffering from to this day. And, she says, until her people “decolonize” their minds, the problem will not go away.  

Even so, Elliott does not seem to expect all that much, for instance, to result from today’s efforts to make the publishing world more obviously reflect real-world diversity because “diversity is a white word.” As she puts it in a quote attributed to a Tania Canas essay of that title:

Diversity is about making sense of difference “through the white lens…by creating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness.”

Elliott says, “That is the crucial problem with the push for ‘diversity’ in publishing…’diversity’ is not about letting those who aren’t white make whatever art matters to them and their communities.” She goes on to say that, “It’s the literary equivalent of ‘ethnic’ restaurants: they please white people because they provide them with ‘exotic’ new flavours, but if they don’t appease white people’s sensitive taste buds they’re not worth a damn.” 

Alicia Elliott’s frustration and anger is obvious in her words, attitude, and accusations even when she momentarily turns her biting sense of humor on herself to make a point about how her childhood memories are different from those of most people, “…my childhood itches. This makes sense, since I had head lice for over a decade. My relationship with head lice was, until recently, the longest relationship I’d ever had.”  

The book’s anger is understandable when one considers the generational impact of Canada’s and America’s genocidal approach to their indigenous peoples. The despair and low self-expectations passed from one generation to the next, according to Elliott, continue to plague these people. And she is angered that those who even acknowledge that “awful things” were done in the past expect people like her to forgive and move on with their lives. I’m not convinced she is right about that, but I can understand why she believes it.

Alicia Elliott