Monday, August 30, 2021

The Book Chase September 2021 Reading Plan

Despite my recent difficulties in concentrating on reading as easily as I normally do, it's time for me to take a look at what I have on hand for September reading. Coming in to this new month, I suspect that my reading by the end of the month may bear little resemblance to this list, but here goes anyway:

Beyond Words covers a question I've often wondered about, a tricky question at that: Are animals more like us than we want to admit? Carl Safina, using decades of field observations and some relatively new discoveries about the brain, attempts to answer that question here. I'm about 75 pages into this 411-page book right now (the section on elephants), and I'm fascinated by what I've read so far. The book's subtitle is "What Animals Think and Feel." 

I want to read The Skeleton Road for two big reasons: I've been a Val McDermid fan for a long time, and I've enjoyed other mysteries/thrillers (particularly those of another favorite of mine, Gerald Seymour) using the 1990s Balkan Wars as a backdrop. I realize I'm taking a bit of a chance with this one because it is book 3 in McDermid's six-book Karen Pirie series, but I decided not to wait. I'm hoping it works as a standalone until I can investigate the rest of the series.

Blacktop Wasteland is the novel that made S.A. Cosby's reputation in early 2020. As some will remember, I've recently read and reviewed Cosby's followup to this one, and I really liked it. The plot does sound a little more conventional than that of Razorblade Tears. It concerns a former getaway driver who gets tempted into doing just one more job. He's the "best getaway driver east of the Mississippi," after all. This one got raves last year from everyone that counts in the publishing world.

I've been fascinated by The Hole in the Wall Gang just about forever, and I brought this Butch Cassidy biography home with me from a South Dakota bookstore I visited during my July road trip to the Northwest. There is a whole lot of speculation as to whether Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did or didn't die in a shootout with Bolivian soldiers, but this one focuses on the "character" of the two men as much as anything else. It amazes me that they were still trying to catch Butch well into the first decade of the twentieth century.

I borrowed The Old Man from Amazon Prime a while back but lost it on my Kindle until recently. You can borrow 10 Prime Books at a time with no deadline to return them, so this is not the first time I've pulled this stunt. Thomas Perry is an exceptional writer of spy thrillers, and this one is really good. I'm over halfway through it, and it's the one I'm coming closest to losing myself in right now. It's about an American agent who has been on the run from the US government for decades because someone badly needs a scapegoat.

I'm in the mood for another nostalgic visit to the home office of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, so I've got Not Quite Dead Enough ready to go. This is the tenth book in the Nero Wolfe series. At the same time, I've unearthed an old 1952 hardback by Ellery Queen (without a dust jacket) called The King Is Dead that I might try to work into September also. I have no idea what it's even about, but I can't remember the last time I read an Ellery Queen novel (maybe never), and I'm curious to see what the book is like. 

Another old friend I hope to visit in September is Wyoming's Walt Longmire. Other than the brand new one, this is the only Longmire novel in the seventeen- book series that I haven't read. This one takes place in the general area of Sturgis during that town's annual motorcycle rally. According to the book flap, Bear (maybe my favorite character in the whole series) won't stop repeating (per Arthur Conan Doyle), "There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact." I've been saving this one; now's when I need it.

I do have four titles on hold at my library, and I'm hoping that at least one of those turns up in September. The one that frustrates me most is Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro because I had that one on hold for four months prior to leaving on my July trip...and you guessed it. It came in just a couple of days into my drive, and I had to release it to others on the hold list. I'm currently something like number 65 on the list of people wanting it. I also have Christy Lafteri's Songbirds on hold but I started out as number 4 on the list, and a couple of week later I'm still number 4. I also put Louise Penny's new Gamache novel, The Madness of Crowds, on hold, but I'm likely to buy that one well before it becomes available from the library.

The one I'm hoping shows up is The Reading List: A Novel by Sara Nisha Adams. I've made it to number 3 on the list now, so there's a good shot. It's described this way: "An unforgettable and heartwarming debut about how a chance encounter with a list of library books helps forge an unlikely friendship between two very different people in a London suburb." Well, if anyone's heart needs to be warmed right now, it's mine.

So there you have it. I'm cautiously optimistic about my September reading, but only time will tell.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

And Be a Villain - Rex Stout

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series is the first detective series I remember getting myself hooked on. The good news back then (the mid-sixties) was discovering that the series had started years before I was born (with 1934’s Fer-de-Lance), so there were already lots of Nero Wolfe books for me to enjoy. Even better, Stout kept writing new ones every couple of years right up until his death in 1975, so for a long time there was always another new Nero Wolf story to look forward to. And as I’ve just been reminded, author Robert Goldsborough added another sixteen Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin books between 1986 and 2021, meaning I have even more Nero Wolfe material to explore now than I ever imagined. 

As I began And Be a Villain, I had vivid memories of the Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin characters and the amusing relationship that developed between them over the years. Theirs was/is much more than an employer/employee relationship; the men respect each other, care for each other, and are real friends. That, in fact, is part of what makes their verbal sparring so much fun. But even though this is not the first time I’ve read And Be a Villain, I remembered very little about it’s actual plot, so reading it now was almost like reading it for the first time.

Nero Wolfe is almost literally an “armchair detective” — and he’s a good one. Wolfe is a large man (I picture him as someone approaching a weight of 300 pounds) who refuses to leave his New York City apartment for any reason. Archie Goodwin, considerably younger than Wolfe, and a whole lot more agile, does all of the leg work involved in a Nero Wolfe investigation. In the meantime, Wolfe happily follows his own schedule of meals at specific times and two daily sessions with his beloved orchids. 

This time around, popular radio talk show host Madeline Fraser has had the unthinkable happen during one of her live broadcasts. A guest has dropped dead on-air after taking a sip of  from a soda provided by one of the show’s sponsors. All the police know for certain is that someone slipped cyanide into one of the bottles, and that this particular guest drew the unlucky bottle. It is exactly the kind of case that appeals to Wolfe, and because he has a large tax bill due just when his cash flow is at a low point, he offers his services to the radio network and the show’s sponsors on a contingent basis. If he solves the case before the police do it — or if the police solve it only because of a Wolfe-provided clue — he cashes their $20,000 check. If he fails, they get the check back.

But when Wolfe gathers up all the principals involved with Madeline Fraser’s radio show, he makes his first discovery: they are all lying — maybe not all for the same reason, but each and every one of them is holding something back. And that’s a fatal mistake, because now Nero Wolfe is ticked.

Bottom Line: And Be a Villain (1948) is the thirteenth Nero Wolfe mystery, and by this time fans of the series were familiar with the Wolfe and Goodwin characters. Feature films based on the Rex Stout characters had been produced by 1948, and television was going to make Nero Wolfe a household name in various TV series over the coming decades. The Nero Wolfe novels are usually not very long, but they are always satisfying. Fans of character-driven mysteries will particularly enjoy them, I think, but the mysteries are always solidly constructed ones that readers will also enjoy trying to solve before Wolfe gives them all the answers. 

Rex Stout

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Brokenhearted and Dispirited

Reading books has seldom let me down. I can almost always distract myself from my day-to-day problems or other bad news by escaping for a while into another world via a novel or a well-written piece of historical nonfiction. Today that is not possible...and I don't know when, or even  if, it will be possible again.

I am devastated by what is happening in Afghanistan right now, especially the needless slaughter that took place at the Kabul airport this morning. Dozens of people, including an unknown number of American soldiers, are dead. For nothing.

I pray for the families of all of the people who were murdered in Kabul this morning, but my heart and my spirit are truly broken at the moment. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Legends & Lies: The Real West - David Fisher

David Fisher’s Legends & Lies: The Real West, an oversized book of 285 pages of text and historical photos, was published in 2015 as a companion piece to a television series of the same title. As such, I’m sure it provided much more detail and context than the television shows could have possibly offered. However, readers picking it up at this point, especially those who know even the basic history of the American west are likely to be at least a little underwhelmed by the book. 

That said, Legends & Lies does have separate chapters on the people that most of us so readily identify with the history of America’s westward expansion. Too, the chapters help the reader separate fact from myth even if they do not always provide enough context to explain effectively the motivations of everyone involved. This is very far from being the whole story, but I don’t think it pretends to be that. Legends & Lies, for the most part, delivers what it promises: a brief look at the “characters” that Hollywood and early television programming turned into mythical American heroes, be they “good guys” or “bad guys.” And, many times, they were both.

The twelve chapters are these:

  1. Daniel Boone: Traitor or Patriot?
  2. David Crockett: Capitol Hillbilly
  3. Kit Carson: Duty Before Honor
  4. Black Bart: Gentleman Bandit
  5. Wild Bill Hickok: Plains Justice
  6. Bass Reeves: The Real Lone Ranger
  7. George Armstrong Custer: A General’s Reckoning
  8. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley” The Radical Opportunists
  9. Jesse James: Bloody Politics
  10. Doc Holliday: Desperate Measures
  11. Billy the Kid: Escape Artist
  12. Butch Cassidy: The Last Man Standing

Bottom Line: Legends & Lies is a good place to start for readers wanting to learn more about a period of American history that still fascinates so many people all over the world. The book is both a primer and a decent jumping off spot for more focused histories on the same topic. There is certainly nothing new here, and that is likely to disappoint readers hoping to learn more about the “lies” referenced in the book’s title. Frankly, this is pop-history and it is probably more suitable for a Middle School audience than it is for an adult audience. 

David Fisher

Monday, August 23, 2021

City Problems - Steve Goble

City Problems
is the first book in what its author, Steve Goble, intends to be a series featuring Ohio detective Ed Runyon. 

As the novel opens, Runyon is an emotionally damaged former NYPD investigator who has settled into the same job in a rural Ohio setting in which he hopes that he can heal while continuing to do his job. Runyon knows that he has a problem because his therapist, his friends, and his lover all tell him so. He’s not fooling anyone about that, even himself. But now, the very thing that drove him over the edge in the big city setting of New York is threatening to do it all over again in small-town Ohio. 

“The Joker was a trickster God in a universe without rules, sense, or justice. I didn’t want to live in a universe like that and maybe sometimes I still worry I do live in a universe like that. I’d used booze, pills, therapy and meditation ever since New York in an attempt to not see the universe that way. And now, here I was looking for a missing girl while memories stalked my mind, like Grendel at Herot.”

Runyon sincerely believes that he could have saved the life of a young woman murdered in NYC if he had only focused more intently on finding her sooner than he did. He still has nightmares about the way he finally found her and what she must have suffered before dying. So now, as he helps an investigator from the “big city” of Columbus, Ohio, follow leads about a girl who disappeared from there after a party, Runyon so much dreads failing again that he can barely sleep at night. And he wants nothing more than to kill her abductor with his own hands when he finds him. His city problems have followed him all the way to a small town in Ohio.

Bottom Line: Steve Goble has a very readable writing style, one that makes City Problems a quick read despite it being well over 300 pages long. This is not a complex plot at all. Most of its backstory is used to explain, or hint at, why Ed Runyon is the man he is today and how he ended up in rural Ohio. Runyon only becomes involved in a couple of other police incidents during the novel, and unlike as usually happens in more complicated plots, both of those incidents are quickly enough wrapped up. They serve as distractions to Runyon, making him feel guilty about not being able to entirely focus his efforts on the search for the missing girl.  That said, I do not feel that Goble plays completely fairly with his readers in this one because the culprit turns out to be someone that is largely invisible throughout the bulk of the novel. There is a good bit of misdirection here, and that’s part of the fun, but I suspect that veteran readers of mysteries and crime novels are going to feel a little frustrated at the end of this one. 

Steve Goble

Friday, August 20, 2021

Killing Crazy Horse: The Merciless Indian Wars in America - Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

Killing Crazy Horse: The Merciless Indian Wars in America
is the ninth of eleven books that currently make up the “Killing Series” co-authored by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. It’s the first book in the series since the very first one, Killing Lincoln, that I’ve read but my general impressions of the two books are similar. Both of the books present a good introduction to the subject at hand, but neither of them explore the topic in any real depth. This is particularly true for Killing Crazy Horse, a book that attempts to cover a volatile stretch of American history encompassing something like seventy-five years in so few pages.

The word “merciless” as used in the book’s subtitle most definitely applies to both sides. Mercy from the enemy was not something either side expected or was prepared to grant. Massacres of helpless Indian villages were as common as the massacre and torture groups of settlers that had gathered together in larger numbers for self-protection. Scalping and other corpse-mutilation was practiced by both the Indians being chased and by the American army trying to wipe them off the face of the entire continent. Mercy was rare, if it existed at all. 

“Indian Fighters” were some of America’s first national celebrities, and a few of them even rode their newfound fame all the way to the presidency of the United States. And once in the White House, these same presidents pressed even harder to annihilate the only ways of life that Native Americans had ever known. Starving them to death, walking them to death, shooting and stabbing women and their children to death by the hundreds…nothing was off the table. Westward expansion was the new goal, the availability of so much “free land” was impossible to resist, and the discovery of gold was the icing on the cake. In the minds of too many, especially those in charge of American policy toward the Indians, the ends most certainly justified the means. Morality be damned.

Bottom Line: Killing Crazy Horse is a very good primer for readers wanting an overview of America’s nineteenth century Indian wars. As such, it will serve as a good jumping off spot for those wanting to explore some of what they read here in more depth. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Razorblade Tears - S. A. Cosby

As I got deeper and deeper into S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears, the author’s followup novel to the much-praised Blacktop Wastelands, the cynic in me began to whisper that Cosby must have been working from a “Woke Checklist” of sorts when he wrote this one. Just, for instance, consider the cast of characters: a black ex-con with a gay son, a white ex-con with a gay son, a beautiful little mixed-race girl, a trans-gender character, and a homophobic villain who associates with a white supremest motorcycle gang (Sons of Anarchy, anyone?). But the whispering cynic in me turned out to be wrong (or I simply stopped caring) because S.A. Cosby is one heck of a storyteller, and he had me turning pages so quickly that I forgot all about my theory. 

Neither Ike Randolph nor Buddy Lee Jenkins had much to do with their sons long before the two young men, a married couple, are gunned down together on the street. Ike and Buddy Lee are both violent men who spent significant time in prison while their sons were growing up, and the last thing either man was willing to accept after being released was having fathered a gay son. But now the boys are dead — and their guilt-ridden fathers want to know why. More importantly, they want revenge, and they are not going to sit back and wait for the cops to get that for them. The men believe it’s the least they can do now for their dead sons. 

When Buddy Lee approaches him about the two of them working together to solve the murders, all of Ike’s instincts tell him that Buddy Lee is not someone he wants to know at all, much less work with so intimately. But, Ike listens long enough to decide that revenging the murder may be the only chance he will ever have again to do anything for his son — even if it is way too late. Then the two of them start asking questions, the kind of question that makes some people very, very nervous…so nervous that they come after the guys asking those questions.

Bottom Line: Razorblade Tears is one of those books that readers most often hear described as a “page-turner.” In my experience, only a small percentage of the books described that way manage to live up to that promising billing. Razorblade Tears, though, pulls it off, even to making it look easy in the process. Admittedly, some of the violence in the novel may be a little farfetched, but that’s part of the fun. This one is for readers who are not put off by explicit violence and the threat of worse. If that’s you, you are going to love Razorblade Tears.

S. A. Cosby

Monday, August 16, 2021

She Wants to Be a Transhuman (courtesy of the BBC)

 Just a year or two ago, this would have seemed as ludicrous as a lot of the things we now take for granted. This YouTube video is from a BBC television show set in the near future. It's a heart-to-heart talk between a young woman and her parents about what she intends to do as soon as she can afford to transform herself into a "transhuman." 

It's clever, maybe even funny, but who knows how far away something like this might really be. Nothing much surprises me anymore. Don't give up on the's really well done, I think.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Spider Woman's Daughter - Anne Hillerman

Some five years after the 2008 death of her father, author Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman continued her father’s Leaphorn and Chee series with Spider Woman’s Daughter. The novel was well received and even won the prestigious 2014 Spur Award for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America in addition to earning its spot on the New York Times Best Seller list. What I find most striking about the novel, however, is the decision that Hillerman made practically to kill off Joe Leaphorn in the very first chapter of the very first book she added to the long-running series. After being shot in the head, Joe Leaphorn spends more than half of Spider Woman’s Daughter in a coma, and even by the end of the novel he can still barely communicate with others for more than a few seconds at a time. Leaphorn, although he is a secondary character in the story, is still very much a presence but he seems well on his way to becoming a Navajo legend — someone more often than not spoken of in the past tense. (And, from what I understand, Leaphorn continues to be very much a secondary character in the novels that follow Spider Woman’s Daughter.)

For whatever reason Hillerman decided to take this approach to her father’s beloved Joe Leaphorn character, this is very much a novel belonging to two other Navajo cops: Sergeant Joe Chee and his wife Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito. Primarily tasked with solving the attempted assassination of Leaphorn, even though Bernie is “officially” off the case because she witnesses the attempt on Leaphorn’s life, the couple makes an interesting team as they follow leads all over New Mexico. 

Joe Leaphorn is not a man without enemies. Over the course of his long career as a Navajo Nation Police Officer, Leaphorn has intimately touched the lives of numerous families living on Navajo land — not always in a positive manner — and the list of potential shooters who might want to avenge some perceived family slight by killing Leaphorn is not a short one. Even though Cree and Manuelito themselves grew up on the reservation and understand the sacredness of family ties and confidences there, they find it difficult to get anyone to talk to them about the attempt on Leaphorn’s life. But, they keep pulling on threads and, soon enough, it is not only people on the reservation who are getting nervous. 

Anne Hillerman has written a good story here, one that mystery fans, especially readers already familiar with the book’s main characters, are certain to enjoy. My only quibble with Spider Woman’s Daughter - and it is a pet peeve of mine — is that the author falls into that old cliché near the end of the novel of having the villain of the piece confess gleefully, and in great detail, to everything that’s only been hinted at before. This kind of confession always seems to happen when the bad guy is on the verge of killing the only cop that knows the whole truth, and that’s what happens here…paragraph after paragraph of confession even though every reader knows the villain is in for a big surprise. Call it the “James Bond Surprise,” if you will.

Bottom Line: Spider Woman’s Daughter is very good, and it has rekindled my desire to read the whole Joe Leaphorn series that her father began in 1970, Anne’s additions included. I especially enjoyed the insights into contemporary Navajo Nation life and traditions that Hillerman so seamlessly includes with the core of the story, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Anne Hillerman

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause - Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause was not an easy book for me to read and consider. My reluctance to read the book stemmed from my nervousness that a handful of my boyhood heroes were going to be exposed as frauds. But that’s not exactly what happened. Rather, I learned that those boyhood heroes of mine, while not the men I was taught they were, never pretended that they were. No, the actual frauds turned out to be the historians who for decades after the Civil War pretended that these heroes of mine were people they really never came close to resembling in real life. According to Seidule, the Lost Cause was the fraud, not the Confederate Army generals who fought so long, hard, and bravely to keep millions of black slaves in chains. The generals knew who they were and why they were fighting…and so did their contemporaries. 

Seidule is a man who literally grew up in Robert E. Lee’s shadow. He is a Virginian by birth who spent much of his boyhood in Georgia. He is a military man of decades experience, and he taught history to West Point cadets for a number of years. He is a graduate of Virginia’s Washington and Lee University. You just can’t get much more “deep South” than that. He grew up on myths about the Civil War that, especially following the 2015 violence in Charlottesville, were finally being challenged even in the South. He puts it this way:

“The problem is that the myths I learned were just flat-out, fundamentally wrong. And not just wrong in a moral sense, as if that weren’t significant enough, but wrong factually, whether through deception, denial, or willful ignorance. The myths and lies I learned promoted a form of racial hierarchy and white supremacy.”

Then, at the end of the book’s first chapter, the author begins to make his case with one particularly telling paragraph:

“The Civil War left between 650,000 and 750,000 dead because the Confederates fought to create a slave republic based on a morally bankrupt ideology of white supremacy. White southerners went to war to protect and expand chattel slavery but suffered a catastrophic defeat…Yet the former Confederates succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in changing the narrative of the Civil War. Lee’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote to the Pulitzer Prize-winning southern novelist Ellen Glasgow, ‘We Southerners had one consolation. If our fathers lost the war, you and Margaret Mitchell…have won the peace.’”

Even the titles of the book’s following six chapters are revealing:

  • Chapter 2  My Hometown: A Hidden History of Slavery, Jim Crow, and Integration
  • Chapter 3  My Adopted Hometown: A Hidden History as “Lynchtown”
  • Chapter 4  My College: The Shrine of the Lost Cause
  • Chapter 5  My Military Career: Glorifying Confederates in the U.S. Army
  • Chapter 6  My Academic Career: Glorifying Robert E. Lee at West Point
  • Chapter 7  My Verdict: Robert E. Lee Committed Treason to Preserve Slavery

Robert E. Lee and Me recounts one man’s journey, but it is a journey that more and more Southerners are embarking upon these days. Seidule’s book, including its thirty pages of footnotes, is a good place to begin that journey. It is a reminder, too, that history books are not to be taken at face value, and this includes the history books being written today as well as the ones written earlier. Readers will do well to keep this in mind because today’s historians are no more trustworthy than those of the past. History is written by the “victor,” and it always will be. 

Ty Seidule 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Random Notes Triggered by The Worst Marketing Email Ever (Penzeys Spices)

This is going to be one of those posts where I bore you with a few random thoughts. It's just turned out to be that kind of day, as I wait to leave for my regular appointment with the retina specialist who monitors my macular degeneration "progress." 

But what really put me in a bad mood this morning - other than the already scheduled doctor-visit - is the email from Penzeys Spices I found in my inbox. We have been buying Penzeys spices for years, depending on our local Houston store for shopping until we recently took to buying the spices over the internet because of all the COVID-19 restrictions. Not once in all those years did I wonder about the political views of the people who run/own the company; I simply did not care in the least.

Then today, there's an email in my inbox marketing some special deals on a few interesting spices. It was only when I opened the email and read the body of it that I discovered a rant berating the "stupidity" of Republicans and EVERYTHING about them and their "misguided" conservatism. There was bullying, name-calling, and derision all wrapped up in one condescending, self-righteous rant that was semi-disguised as a "humorous" sales pitch. I cannot understand why a company that depends on a loyal customer base for its very survival (especially right now) would ever take such an approach? And now, Bill Penzeys is going to have to find someone to replace the sales he will no longer make to me...after all these years. Good luck to him, because "marketing genius," is a title he will never be able to claim after this fiasco.

I try really hard to ignore political differences and just get on with my life. But people and companies, like Bill Penzeys and the little spice company he runs, that work so hard to divide us for their own personal profit do not deserve a place in my life. And Mr. Bill no longer has one. "Oh, no!" Mr. Bill.

On a happier note, I'm doing a lot of reading right now even though I'm not finishing many books. A quick check this morning tells me that I'm well over halfway through several books, but I still keep dipping into the rather high stack of physical books on my desk to start new ones. That happens to me at least once a year, so I'm not surprised, but I think it's time to re-focus on two or three of them before starting another new one (something that is easier said than done when I'm in this mood). 

Among the books I'm particularly enjoying right now is Anne Hillerman's Spider Woman's Daughter, which is I believe the book in which she took over her father's long-running Joe Leaphorn series. Anne cleverly has Leaphorn shot in the head and hospitalized at the very beginning of the novel so that she can focus more on Cree and Bernie Manuelito (husband and wife Navajo cops) as they try to catch Leaphorn's would-be assassin. Hillerman revisits the Leaphorn "legend" in conversation as others work the case on his behalf.

Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule, a man who grew up in the shadow that Lee still casts in the old South, makes a compelling case that the South lost America's Civil War, but that it won the subsequent peace.  Siedle believes it is time to set the record straight about what he calls "the myth of the Lost Cause" and why the war was all about slavery and nothing else. I didn't grow up in the old South like Seidule, but I did grow up in a Confederate state, so I understand how difficult writing a book like this one must have been for its author. 

The Likeness is Tana French's second Murder Squad book and the third of her books that I'm now familiar with. This one has a highly unlikely premise that I'm willing to play along with, but it takes French just over 100 pages of set-up finally to start the plot moving in the direction promised on the book jacket. I can imagine that many readers give up well before French finally remembers that she is writing a crime novel and not a character study of the book's three main good-guy characters. Whew...

In addition to these three, I'm still reading short stories from the Wastelands compilation (9 of the 34 stories still to go), and dipping in and out of others like:

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. I can't even remember how or where I heard about this one, but it is one I just couldn't resist, especially after seeing this  cover. The jacket explains the book's goal this way: "The similarity between human and nonhuman consciousness, self-awareness, and empathy calls us to reevaluate how we interact with animals...ultimately a graceful examination of humanity's place in the world." I can't wait to get deeper into this one.

I've also started listening to the audiobook version of Bill O'Reilly's Killing Crazy Horse while dipping back in to Leslie-Ann Jones's John Lennon biography, The Search for John Lennon, and wondering how in the world I can work in Val McDermid's The Skeleton Road and S.A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears before they are due back in the library on August 20. And, of course, I've read the prologues or first chapters of several of the books on Native Americans that I gathered up on the trip and from the library when I got home last week. Those keep calling me to pick them up.

This is not necessarily one of those cases of "too much of a good thing," but it is getting dangerously close to being one. Now I just need to READ...

Monday, August 09, 2021

The Writer's Library - Nancy Pearl & Jeff Schwager

The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives
is a collection of author interviews compiled by Nancy Pearl, “America’s favorite librarian,” and Jeff Schwager, a noted critic of books, movies, and theater. What makes the interviews such compelling and entertaining reading for avid readers is that each of them focuses on the influence that particular books have had on the various writers throughout their entire lives, but especially during their formative years.

The twenty-three authors, all but one of whom was interviewed in person, are:

Jonathan Lethem Laila Lalami

Louis Alberto Urrea          Jennifer Egan

T.C. Boyle Susan Choi

Andrew Sean Greer Madeline Miller

Michael Chabon                 Maaza Mengiste

Amor Towles Louise Erdrich

Dave Eggers Laurie Frankel

Viet Thanh Nguyen Jane Hirshfield

Richard Ford Siri Hustvedt

Charlie Johnson Vendela Vida

Donna Tartt Russell Banks

                Ayelet Waldman

(Just in case you are curious, the Donna Tartt interview was conducted via email.)

I was fortunate that several of my favorite authors are included on the list, but as it turned out, I enjoyed the thoughts of those authors with whom I was previously unfamiliar as much as I did those of my old favorites. In their shared introduction to the book, Nancy and Jeff address the book’s title and their interview style/intent this way:

“Thus the title, The Writer’s Library. Not necessarily the writers’ physical libraries, but the libraries they carry around in their hearts and minds; the books that have shaped their tastes, their psyches, the subject matter that fascinates them, the craftsmanship that fills them with envy, the stories that have resonated so deeply that they feel like stories they themselves have lived. For in telling us about the books that informed their lives, they would tell us the stories of their lives.”

And, in almost every instance, their plan worked brilliantly. The interviews are all very conversational in style with the exception of the emailed one with Donna Tartt. That interview reads more like a monologue than an interview, and as such, it suffers in comparison to the other twenty-two in the book. 

Among my favorite quotes from The Writer’s Library are these:

“Someone once said that history gives you the facts, and fiction gives you the truth of the facts.” - Nancy Pearl, interviewing T.C. Boyle

“Life is too short for bad books.” - Michael Chabon 

“The mark of a great novel is that it is engaging as a story, it feels organic in it composition, and yet the way in which all the various components interact creates an infinite number of harmonic combinations in the service of meaning. That’s why different readers of great works can discover different ideas, form different emotions, draw different conclusions, and support the validity of their impressions by pointing to various elements of the text. The best books don’t mean one thing.” - Amor Towles

“…short stories are something that to me are perfect because they have sort of the grace and insight of a poem and the narrative of a novel but, you know, much shorter, so you can have your fix in twenty or thirty minutes with a great short story.” - Viet Thanh Nguyen

“There’s not much crossover, you know. When I give readings, I don’t see any black faces out there, and I think to myself, Couldn’t I just have a couple of black readers, please? Because I, you know, I read black writers - I read everybody. I write black characters. I think that the nature of identity politics has bled into literary outcomes. The whole worth of literature is that it’s trying to show us we’re less distinct from each other than we thought we were.” - Richard Ford

“Reading fiction can move us into new places and provide new perspectives on the world. It can create an expansion of consciousness and serve as an intimate form of knowledge. This has been forgotten in our culture because the imaginary is regarded as soft, feminine, and unserious.”  - Siri Hustvedt

“It is what you read that matters and that you read not to shore up your own smug beliefs but to press yourself beyond them. Books become us. They are literally embedded in our nervous systems in memories. Those memories shift over time, but they form us nevertheless.” - Siri Hustvedt

“…I think that in addition to everything that fiction does to entertain and enlighten us, it needs to make us better people, give us insights into, or at least empathy for, other people.” - Nancy Pearl during her Charles Johnson interview

So there you, have it, a taste of what I most enjoyed in the twenty-three interviews. I found the book largely to be inspiring and comforting in the sense that, perhaps, my lifetime of reading has done some actual good and has made me a better person that I would be if I had not been a reader all my life.

Bottom Line: Reader, beware! Your TBR list is going to grow exponentially if you read The Writer’s Library. By my count, and considering the possibility of a duplication or two, I added some 88 individual books and/or authors to my own. 

Jeff Schwager

Nancy Pearl

Saturday, August 07, 2021

The Best American Short Stories 2021 - Selected by Jesmyn Ward

As these things work, all of the stories selected by two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward for The Best American Short Stories 2021 compilation were actually published in English in American or Canadian periodicals between January 2020 and January 2021 by writers who call either the United States or Canada home. For that reason, the stories reflect much of the craziness that the world experienced during the chaotic year that 2020 so unexpectedly turned out to be for all of us. The stories told to us here by the especially diverse group of writers chosen to represent America’s best short writing of 2021 are thought-provoking reminders of just how different we all are now from who we were just one year earlier. 

Almost every short story compilation will read differently to different readers. The favorite stories of one reader may barely impact another reader at all; some readers will love almost every story in the collection while others toss the book aside in frustration that none of the stories work for them. That’s just the way it happens, and with that caveat in mind, I want to give special mention to four of the twenty stories in The Best American Short Stories 2021 that most directly spoke to me. 

The first is “Clementine, Carmelita Dog” (originally published in Granta) by David Means, a story that captures much of the feeling of isolation and despair that seems to have been so common during much of 2020. This story, although it uses the third person voice, is told largely through the eyes of Clementine, a “middle-aged dachshund,” who positively impacts the lives of two separate households, once as “Clementine” and then as “Carmelita.” While not exactly a feel-good story, this one leaves the reader in a hopeful mood about the things we can learn from the year we’ve just endured. 

“Paradise,” by Maya Murray (originally published in The Southern Review), more directly addresses one of 2020’s disasters, the California wildfires that annually devastate portions of that state. In this character-driven story, we watch a woman trying to convince her 80-year-old father-in-law, a man for whom she now feels responsible despite his lifelong antagonism toward her, that it is time to abandon their home and run for their lives before it is too late to escape the fires. As I watched the interplay between the characters, I found myself wishing this one was much longer than it is.

Stephanie Soilleau’s “Haguillory” (originally published in Zoetrope: All-Story) is a revealing story about a deeply, probably permanently, flawed old man who confirms what kind of man he really is at the very end of the story. The story takes place in Louisiana, shortly after a hurricane has passed through the state, during a crabbing expedition the man and his wife have decided to make. Haguillory is a hard-to-forget fictional character that has earned his place in my memory — even though I can’t tell you why without spoiling the story. 

Finally, there is “Biology,” by Kevin Wilson (originally published in The Southern Review), the story I found to be most touching one of the twenty in the collection.  “Biology” is told largely in flashback through the eyes of a gay man who has just heard that his favorite high school teacher has died, the biology teacher who is responsible for having practically saved the man’s life by showing him, by example, how to survive his high school years. The teacher is a very complicated character, and I found myself being completely immersed in the world that Wilson created in the limited number of pages he allowed himself to tell the man’s story.

Bottom Line: The Best American Short Stories 2021 is an outstanding addition to this long-running series of short story compilations. That it reflects the work and world-views of such a diverse group of writers is an added bonus to readers looking to experience the writing of a group of young, new-to-them, authors.

Two-time National Book Award Winner, Jesmyn Ward