Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic - Daniel de Visé


Those of us who tuned into NBC's Saturday Night back in the day just to get another dose of John Belushi's craziness (in my case, it was also to see Gilda Radner in action) should not have been surprised by John's sudden death or even the way that he died. But most of us still were. Daniel de Visé's The Blues Brothers, part dual-biography, part show business history, and part cultural history, is a vivid recreation of those times. 

Dan Aykroid and John Belushi were destined to become best friends at some point in their lives. The two men followed remarkably similar career paths to the "overnight success" and sudden stardom they seemed to achieve as cast members of Saturday Night. Both were products of comedy clubs, Akyroid in Toronto and Belushi in his home town of Chicago, that featured small groups of improvisational comedians so when they began working together on Saturday Night, the magic came early and it came often.

Surprisingly, it would be the relatively nerdy Dan Akyroid who ended up introducing the more worldly John Belushi to a style of music he knew almost nothing about despite having grown up in Chicago. Belushi was quick to pick up on Akyroid's enthusiasm for the sound, and it was probably inevitable that their shared love of the blues would be reflected on television screens all over America. And that television version of The Blues Brothers band turned out to be so much fun and so popular a concept, that in 1980 it led directly to the outrageously expensive and difficult-to-film movie The Blues Brothers, a movie that is now considered to be a true film classic. 

The success of The Blues Brothers movie made the pair, but especially Belushi, such hot stars that Belushi's already problematic relationship to alcohol and drugs grew to out-of-control levels that began to threaten his marriage, his ability to work, and his life. Despite the efforts of those who knew him best, there was no going back for John Belushi.

Fans of the movie (and the musical genre) will be especially pleased to see how many pages the book devotes to the making of The Blues Brothers. The utter destruction and chaos endured by the city of Chicago during its filming is so unbelievable that it is difficult to believe that it was ever allowed to happen. This was an incredibly expensive and difficult movie to make, but even after expenditures reached a point of no return, the millions of dollars kept adding up to the extent that recovering even the cost of the movie seemed impossible to studio executives. The Blues Brothers was an important movie in another sense; it jumpstarted the waning careers of some blues regulars who were barely hanging on in 1980. Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown found a whole new generation of fans, and some would go on to enjoy the most lucrative years of their entire careers.

Reading The Blues Brothers is a little like watching a massive train wreck in slow motion, but the book is packed with so many details and stories that Blues Brothers fans are certain to be intrigued by what they learn from it.  

Daniel de Visé publicity photo

Monday, February 26, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (February 26, 2024)


I finished three books last week, but the real highlight of the week for me was the way a fourth one so unexpectedly absorbed almost all the reading time I had left over. Finished up were Study for Obedience, The Blues Brothers, and American Spirits, three books with very little in common, and the one that grabbed me and wouldn't let go was Deanna Raybourn's Killers of a Certain Age.

I'm about seventy-five percent through Killers of a Certain Age now, so that one will almost definitely be finished up in the next couple of days. In addition, I'm also nearly done with Tommy Orange's There There and well into the short story collection Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird, Hitchcock's Blondes, and the Perry Mason classic, The Case of the Empty Tin. 

And there are the ones that I've just scratched the surface of or plan/hope to start soon:

The only Michael Cunningham novel I've read is The Hours, but I was so impressed by that one that Cunningham's name on a book still grabs my attention. Day is Cunningham's latest, and although I've only read the first twenty pages or so, I'm intrigued by its premise. The novel checks in with one family on three specific days: April 5, 2019; April 5, 2020; and April 5, 2021. In effect, Day is a story about how different the family was one year prior to COVID-19 compared to how it is one year after the worst of COVID-19 is behind us. 

How to Build a Boat is one of the last two 2023 Booker Prize nominees that I'm still waiting for, and it's finally arrived at my library branch. This is an Irish coming-of-age novel about a boy with a dream that he believes will change his life forever. The boy, whose mother died when he was born, is another of those obvious outsiders who attract bullies for their entire lives. He comes to the attention of two teachers who want to help him through his troubles, but each of them have troubles of their own, so maybe before it's all over the boy will end up helping them as much as they help him.

I'm running out of library-time for The Only Good Indians, so it really needs to happen for me soon. Native American author Stephen Graham Jones is a multi-award winner, so I have high hopes that this one is better than its jacket flap makes it sound. I'm not really into "horror" anymore, so the description puts me off a bit: "Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on retribution, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and tradition they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way." We'll see.

Others starting to make their presence felt are these four which are all being published in the next four to fifteen weeks (shown here in order of publication):

I've freed up a little reading time by deciding to take a pass on The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency because I realize now that the HBO series I watched a few weeks ago is almost entirely based on this first novel in the series. The scripts greatly expand on the several mysteries cleared up by Mma Ramotswe in the book, so I already know "who did it." I've also returned Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to the library in favor of reading one of the Christie novels already sitting on my own shelves. That gives me the space to take a flyer on any wildcard that catches my eye later this week.

Happy reading, everyone...we've had genuine spring weather here for the last few days, and that means that my reading hours are shrinking in direct proportion to the rise in temperature. But that's kind of a nice problem to have for a change.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Study for Obedience - Sarah Bernsetin (And a 2023 Booker Prize List Update)


For reasons not entirely clear to me, Sarah Bernstein's Study for Obedience was included on the 2023 Booker Prize shortlist. The novel remains as much a puzzle to me today as it did when, expecting a quick read, I began the first of its 200-or-so pages. A quick read, this is not.

The publisher compares Bernstein's style to that of Shirley Jackson, a writer I've often enjoyed reading, and I agree that Bernstein does capture some of the weirdness of a Shirley Jackson novel, especially by using a nameless narrator who lives almost entirely inside her own head. Bernstein's narrator, I suspect, is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but because no other character ever speaks to anyone but her, it's hard to tell for sure sometimes what is really happening and what is only being imagined. 

The basic premise of the book is that the narrator has been groomed almost since she could walk to be at the beck and call of her numerous older siblings and their parents. And there is every indication that the others were all happy enough to exploit her right up until they became adults with spouses of their own. After the last of her siblings left home, the narrator began working as a legal document transcriber and lived alone. Now, though, she has been summoned by her eldest brother to join him where he lives alone in some remote "northern" town where no one speaks English (French Canada, perhaps). There she is to serve as his housekeeper and general servant - even to bathing him and laying out his clothes each morning.

Despite having her life reclaimed this way, the narrator is somewhat surprised that she is so happy to be sharing a home with her brother again - and she so much relishes her isolation (especially when her brother leaves town for weeks at a time) that the language barrier is no problem. But then the animals, both domestic and wild, begin to display strange behavior and suffer in ways not known to have ever happened before in the village. Suddenly everyone perceives our forever-to-remained-unnamed narrator to be "the other," someone so different from the rest of them that she is a direct threat to the only life they have ever known.

Ultimately, this is, I think, a novel about being different, about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around you, and how the "normals" react to anyone they can't explain or understand. Perhaps Bernstein means it as a reprimand about the uneasiness that so many of us feel about the mass migration underway in the world today. And just maybe, I don't have a clue about any of this.

 Study for Obedience is not a difficult novel to read; it's a difficult novel to absorb, one that is likely to be a lot deeper than book I've just read. 

Sarah Bernstein book jacket photo


I have now read nine of the 2023 Booker Prize nominees and sampled two others long enough to know that I did not want to finish them. That leaves just two to go, and both of those have been on hold at my library for a while now.

My personal ranking of the eleven 2023 Booker novels I've experienced to this point goes like this:

  1. The House of Doors
  2. The Bee Sting
  3. If I Survive You
  4. Western Lane
  5. All the Little Bird-Hearts
  6. Pearl
  7. Old God's Time
  8. This Other Eden
  9. Study for Obedience
  10. A Spell of Good Things
  11. In Ascension 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Ex-Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread - Michiko Kakutani


Although Michiko Kakutani's Ex-Libris is subtitled 100 Books to Read and Reread, what Kakutani actually does here is divide the book into 100 sections, many of which include multiple books. One section, for instance, is titled "The Works of William Shakespeare" even though the author's work is only discussed in general terms with only one or two of the plays being specifically referenced at all. Other sections are devoted to particular books, usually two or three, from specific authors, and there are even a few sections highlighting entire series such as "The Harry Potter Novels" and "The Lord of the Rings." Consequently, it's difficult to get a true count of how many books are covered in the compilation.

"These magical brick-sized objects - made of paper, ink, glue, thread, cardboard, fabric, or leather - are actually tiny time machines that can transport us back to the past to learn the lessons of history, and forward to idealized or dystopian futures." Michiko Kakutani, Page 14. 

The books chosen for Ex-Libris range from well known volumes of classic literature to more obscure novels and authors of recent years, each title generally being granted one or two pages for Kakutani's sales pitch to the reader. The titles also cover a substantial amount of nonfiction, including history, sociology, and political books that Kakutani considers influential or important.  

I found many of the selections to be so affectively presented that I immediately added them to my personal TBR list. I even found myself going out to purchase a nice copy of Albert Camus's 1947 novel The Plague after reading about it early on in Ex-Libris because I was so immediately struck by how similar everyone's covid-year experience was to what Camus describes in that seventy-seven-year-old novel. The books added to my list are all over the map; some I had known of but had simply neglected to read for myself, some are more recent titles that I brushed aside because of the inordinate amount of hype they received when published, and others are books and authors I had never heard of before Ex-Libris. Embarrassingly enough, I even found three or four of the books already on my own shelves.

All in all, I added thirty-two books to my TBR - and now I'll see how my good intentions work out in the real world. I also see that I have already read another twenty-one of the books, meaning that I have little or no interest in reading about half of the books Kakutani presents here for consideration. In my estimation, that means that Ex-Libris worked pretty well for me.

But that leads me to what I consider to be a major flaw in Kakutani's overall approach to Ex-Libris. Many of these books, both fiction and nonfiction titles, present very strong political or societal opinions - all of them slanted in one direction. That's not a huge problem for me despite it being evidence that Kakutani does not really want to hear or give time to world views that don't correspond to her own. What is a problem for me is that fifteen of the sections include specific emotional rants about Trump (keep in mind that this book was written during the 2020 election campaign), rants that compare him to Nazi Germany and other dystopian societies over and over again. I think this cheapens the legitimate message of Ex-Libris, and I came to find it all frustrating after a while - even to the brink of almost tossing the book aside for good more than once.

I'm glad I didn't do that because Ex-Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread is still a good book. However, I know that I'm now less likely to pick up another Kakutani book, and that's kind of a shame.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Galway Confidential - Ken Bruen


Galway Confidential is Ken Bruen's seventeenth Jack Taylor novel, but it is the first since A Galway Ephiphany was published during the catastrophic covid year of 2020. Appropriately enough, as this new glimpse into Jack's darkly chaotic world begins, Jack himself is just waking up from a coma of almost two year's duration. Jack wakes up into a world in which so much has changed that he can hardly believe his eyes. Some things, though, never seem to change no matter how much we wish they would. Those he can believe.

Jack is struggling to recall the near-fatal knife attack that preceded him being tossed into the river to drown, and he cannot recall at all the man who saved his life by pulling him from the river just in the nick of time. That man is now a fixture in Jack's life despite how utterly annoying Jack often finds him to be. But Jack owes him - and Jack always pays his debts.

Despite his brush with death, Jack's reputation on the street is still that of a man able and willing to go where the local police refuse, for reasons of their own, to go. When bad people need fixing, Jack Taylor is the man good people go to for the job. One thing that didn't change while Jack was enduring his long sleep is that there are plenty of bad people out there who need fixing. And two of them have just intruded on Jack's world. Their bad.

One of them is taking a hammer to the heads of Galway's nuns, and the other is burning alive homeless people. Jack is not having any of that.

Ken Bruen's Galway is a dark place in which no one can ever truly be trusted, least of all the police, the Church, and the government. It is a world in which despair, fear, and desperation are often the drivers, a world in which surprisingly effective alliances are sometimes formed between people who refuse to accept things as they are - people who fight back. 

Jack Taylor, a man who has been trying to drink himself to death for decades, is one of those people. His badge as a police officer of the Garda Síochána has been taken from him, he has watched his mother be manipulated by an unscrupulous priest for years, and he knows that successful politicians are never the best of us. Jack has done things he's not proud of, some of those things responsible for his seeming determination to kill himself with the booze. He has killed people to stop them from killing again. It is no wonder that the weak and the helpless come to Jack Taylor for help.

Jack Taylor is a good man.

Galway Confidential is filled with Ken Bruen's usual wit and stylistic quirks, and reading a Ken Bruen novel, dark and brutal as the world it is set in may be, is always fun. Galway Confidential is no exception.

Ken Bruen (Macmillan Publishers photo)

(Look for Galway Confidential on March 5, 2024.)

Monday, February 19, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (February 19, 2024)


Despite this past Friday marking the start of the 2024 college baseball season (my favorite sports season of them all), I managed to complete three books I've been reading: Larry McMurtry: A Life, Ex-Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread, and Galway Confidential. I've already reviewed the Larry McMurtry biography, and I hope to share my thoughts on the latter two books later on this week. I also decided to table a couple of books for at least the moment (The Last Outlaws and What to Read and Why) because I just wasn't feeling connected to either of them anymore, but I did make good progress on a few others. 

This week I plan to finish Study for Obedience, a 2023 Booker Prize nominee (despite having cursed it aloud several times along the way), along with The Blues Brothers (a book I've appreciated more and more the deeper I've read into it), and maybe one or two others.

These are the new ones I started (or more seriously started) last week:

Recent events reminded me of the stories and rumors that surrounded Alfred Hitchcock and his relationship with his leading ladies back in the day, so I'm not particularly surprised by the revelations in Hitchcock's Blondes. But really, I'm reading this one as much because I'm a fan of Hitchcock movies as for any other reason, so after reading the chapter about the making of Notorious with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, we sat down and watched that 1946 movie last night for the first time. Pairing the movie and the book that way worked so well that I plan to do that at least one or two more times.

I'm a Russell Banks fan from way back, so I was really curious about his upcoming book American Sprits. As it turns out this is a grouping of what the publisher calls "three interlocking tales." Each of the novellas or short stories (whichever you choose to call them) are in the neighborhood of 80-85 pages long, and what the first two have in common is the small New York community in which they are set. Banks can be very dark sometimes, and the first story is exactly that. I'm halfway through the second now, and it's heading in the same direction. The writing is brilliant, as usual.

Tommy Orange is a Native American writer who allows twelve Native American characters to tell about their lives, their dreams, their failures, and their successes. All twelve of them are heading to the Big Oakland Powwow for reasons of their own, some hoping to connect with lost family members, some to lose themselves in the old culture, some to make a few honest dollars, and a few others plan to make some real money by less than legal means. Native American literature is starting to make me wonder if there are very many happy Natives out there. I "get" the theme of despair common to so many books written by minorities, but I'm beginning to crave a feel-good novel or two that represent today's Native culture too. This isn't it.

In addition to reading steadily from Agustina Bazterrica's short story collection Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird and from Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Empty Tin, I'll also likely add one or two of these:

And as always, I'll be surprised if something completely off my radar as of this moment doesn't come out of nowhere to demand to be started this week too. Can't wait to see what that turns out to be. Have a good reading week, everyone. Have fun!

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Larry McMurtry: A Life - Tracy Daugherty


"The bookshops are a form of ranching. Instead of herding cattle [booksellers] herd books. Writing is a form of herding, too; I herd words into little pargraphlike clusters."

I first read Larry McMurtry back in 1971 after finding a battered, jacketless copy of Moving On on the clearance shelves of a used-book bookstore one day. Picking it up for a dollar, I didn't figure I had a lot to lose and, as it turned out, that dollar may have been one of the most valuable ones I've ever spent in a bookstore because over fifty years later I'm still reading Larry McMurtry. 

Over the years, I was lucky enough to catch McMurtry behind the counter of his Booked Up bookstore in Houston on occasion, and even managed to make a mad scramble to Archer City one Saturday morning just in time to watch as McMurtry's dream of turning Archer City into the U.S. version of Hay-on-Wye ended forever (one of the saddest things I've ever witnessed). But Larry McMurtry was a very private man, never one to toot his own horn or to speak in public if he could possibly avoid it, so most everything I thought I knew about him came from reading his novels and memoirs. It is only now that McMurtry has been dead for almost three years that a comprehensive biography has finally been written about him, and thankfully it's a good one.

Tracy Daugherty's Larry McMurtry: A Life reminds us that McMurtry was born just in time to witness the  cowboying way of life die in America, an experience that created a feeling of loss deep in McMurtry's soul that would later be reflected in so many of his novels. Sadly, near the end of his life McMurtry would come to believe that he had also lived just long enough to witness the end of bookselling as he knew it. His life began with a feeling of something lost forever, and it ended the same way. But perhaps saddest of all is the way McMurtry had to battle depression from almost the first moment in 1991 when he awoke following quadruple bypass surgery to the day he died in 2021. He believed that "while my body survived, the self that I had once been had lost its life," that he had become a mere ghost or shadow of what he was before the surgery. 

But a lot happened between what McMurtry saw as the two greatest cultural losses of his lifetime, and Tracy Daugherty tells us all about it in this detailed (sometimes, I fear, too detailed) biography. As McMurtry's quest carries him from Archer City, to Houston, to Washington D.C., to Hollywood, to Tucson, and back to Archer City, Daugherty fills in the details. It's all there: McMurtry's lifelong relationships with numerous women including actress Diane Keaton and his late-in-life writing partner Diana Ossana; both marriages and his deep love for, and appreciation of, his musician son James McMurtry; his troubled relationship with his parents and the citizens of Archer City who felt they were ill-treated by the town's portrayal in The Last Picture Show; and McMurtry's dissatisfaction with a career that never produced the book he was aiming for. 

Two final points to consider: 

  • Some of McMurtry's books are discussed in depth, even to the extent that major plot lines are revealed and discussed in detail. Readers for whom "spoilers" are an issue should read Larry McMurtry: A Life very selectively and carefully in order to avoid them. 
  • Especially early in the biography, long chapters are devoted to setting the Texas literary scene (what there was of it) as McMurtry began his literary career. Because I was anxious to learn more about McMurtry, I found some of these chapters to be overly long even to the point of making for frustrating reading. My advice regarding these chapters is to persevere because the added context to McMurtry's own efforts will reward you later with a better understanding of McMurtry's harsh judgement of his own legacy.
Longtime fans of Larry McMurtry will, I believe, be particularly pleased with Larry McMurtry: A Life, but even readers not especially familiar with McMurtry and his books should find it interesting. I recommend this one.
Tracy Daugherty author photo

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Writing to Learn - William Zinsser


William Zinsser's thirty-year-old Writing to Learn has fundamentally changed the way I read, and I only wish I'd found it sooner than I did. As it turns out, this is not so much a book on how to write well, as it is a book about why you should write more - and how big a difference developing that one habit can make in your life. 

For me, the primary takeaway from Writing to Learn is that the act of writing forces the writer/reader to focus his mind and to organize his thoughts to such a degree that, as Zinsser puts it, "we write to find out what we know and what we want to say." It takes a little extra effort and time to follow Zinnser's suggestion, but the enormous payoff at the end makes it all worthwhile. Readers who take the time to write short reviews of the books they've read already know that they remember those books they write about far longer than the ones they don't take the time to review (even if the resulting review or summary is only for their personal use).  

Zinsser convinced me to take it one step farther than just sitting down to write a review within a few hours of having finished a book. I often find myself a little befuddled while reading a complicated novel, one with multiple plots and numerous characters, for instance, or when reading detailed nonfiction. When that happens, I find myself rereading whole pages or sections of a book (sometimes more than once) to see what I've missed, but even then I'm often still not satisfied that I got the author's point. Instead of all of that rereading, thanks to Zinsser, I've learned to slow down long enough to write about what I've just read, and the results have surprised me. 

Zinsser tells me that's because:

"Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know - and what we don't know - about whatever we're trying to learn."

 And the good news is that the extra effort (it's more of a timing change than anything else for those of us who write about what we read) has not slowed my reading pace at all. If anything, I'm finding that it comes closer to speeding up my reading rather than to putting the brakes to it because I'm reading as many books now as I ever have - and remembering much more of what I've read. 

But that's not why Zinsser wrote Writing to Learn. His main message is that students should be required to "write across the curriculum" no matter what discipline they are studying. By doing so, they will more completely understand whatever lesson within their discipline they are studying. Math students should be able to write about solutions and why they work, science students should be able to explain to complete novices what they are learning; anthropologists should be able to make their observations truly comprehensible to all of us; even music students should be able to make music theory comprehensible to the rest of us. And in the process, those students will learn as much as we who read their work will learn. They are likely even to come away with new ideas of their own.

Writing to Learn is not a long book, coming in at just under 200 pages if I remember correctly. And, as many readers of the book have pointed out, Part 2 is filled with many relatively long examples of excellent writing from several different disciplines. At first, I was a little put off by how many examples Zinsser uses, but when I realized all of a sudden just how much information I was absorbing by reading in disciplines I previously had no interest in, or had always before been intimidated by, I understood why he included them. Those examples reinforce Zinsser's message so nicely that I suggest you read them even thought the book makes perfect sense without them. 

Zinsser says it best:

"Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts and ideas. It's a physical activity, unlike reading. Writing requires us to operate some kind of mechanism - pencil, pen, typewriter, word processor - for getting our thoughts on paper. It compels us by the repeated effort of language to go after those thoughts and to organize them and present them clearly."

William Zinsser (1922-2015)

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Chatham School Affair - Thomas H. Cook


Even in mid-December 2023, I had (probably) still not heard of Thomas H. Cook despite all the crime fiction the man has written over the last several decades. But by the end of the first week in February 2024, I had read three of Cook's books, and knew that I'd be reading more of them.

It's a cliché to put it this way, but reading a Thomas H. Cook novel is very much like peeling an onion layer by can be hard work, but in the end it will have been well worth the effort. Cook is the master of inserting foreboding hints of what is yet to come just when the reader leasts expects them. And he doesn't often do it the easy way by ending chapters on successive cliffhangers like so many authors do. Cook's clues and hints are usually subtle enough that my eyes sometimes do a double-take before the words I've just read have consciously sunk in.

The Chatham School Affair starts feeling ominous even in the novel's second chapter as Henry, the book's narrator, looks decades backward to the unexpected consequences resulting from his father's hiring of a new art teacher for the all-boys private school he heads. Henry says that this broke his mothers spirt and physically ruined her; that the school was boarded up, the grounds "gone to weed;" and that the school's reputation was "reduced to dark and woeful legacy."

What could such a young, inexperienced teacher possibly have done that was bad enough to ruin lives and destroy an entire school within months of her arrival on its campus? By the third chapter, readers know that whatever it was she did, the teacher ended up in a courtroom fighting desperately for her freedom. We have barely begun to peel away the layers of The Chatham School Affair, but already we know we had better pay close attention to what each successive chapter reveals.

This is the story of a single school year, one that forever changes the lives of many of the people who experienced it along with Henry, his father, the young school teacher, and the married teacher whose eye she catches on the first day of classes. Rather than risk revealing any spoilers for future readers of the novel, that's enough about its plot. Just know that this onion of a novel has way more layers to peel away than it first appears - and once you begin peeling them away, it will be difficult to stop. 

The Chatham School Affair is a complicated novel filled with memorable and well developed characters I'm still thinking about several days after turning its last page. Some of the characters turned out to be just who I expected them to be, others not so much. The fun came from trying to figure out which would end up being which. 

Cook won the 1997 Edgar Award for The Chatham School Affair, and it's easy to see why. This is a good one.

Thomas H. Cook author photo

Monday, February 12, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (February 12, 2024)


My past reading week would best be described as one in which I made some steady progress while beginning a couple of new books that I'm finding it really difficult to pin down. I finished three books again, and seem to be pretty much settled into that pace (probably just jinxed that though): My Side of the River, The Chatham School Affair, and Writing to Learn. I will share my thoughts on Writing to Learn in a few days, but I do want to say that despite a few reservations about Zinssler's style, the book has already changed the way that I read - and surprisingly, despite the extra effort required to do it Zinssler's way, I don't think my reading pace has slowed significantly at all.

I'm finally on the verge of finishing the two longest books I've been reading, being almost 450 pages into Larry McMurtry: A Life and about 300 pages into The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic. I'm also well into Ex-Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread, and I've begun more new books at the same time than I have in a long time. Unfortunately, the additions have come at the expense of me last week not picking up That Affair Next Door and What to Read and Why. Both of those are on my own shelves, and shelf-books are always the ones easiest to table for a while when others with due dates and/or promises attached come along.

I'm a big fan of short story compilations, and seldom has a collection of stories by a single writer disturbed me as much as Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird by Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica. I've read four of the twenty stories now, and I've found three of them to be rather disturbing, one so much so that I don't even know how I would ever discuss it in public and manage to remain in good taste while doing so. Bazterrica is a powerful writer, and I'm really wondering now what's ahead in the final sixteen stories.

Sarah Bernstein's Study for Obedience is my eleventh of the thirteen 2023 Booker Prize nominees, and it's another book that still has me stumped. The book's narrator has to be the most passive character I've ever read about, bar none, and as such, she is irritating the heck out of me. I have no idea where this story is heading, but one-quarter of the way through I'm ready to strangle the narrator and her entire family just to stop the pain the rest of them inflict on her. Just can't decide which I'd strangle first. To say that I see why the Booker judges ever chose this one would be a lie at this point, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. 

I hadn't realized before beginning Galway Confidential just how much I've been missing Irish author Ken Bruen. Those of you familiar with his writing, already know that Bruen is just different from most crime writers. His style is very minimalistic, even to the appearance of his printed pages, with some pages consisting largely of a list of thoughts, other containing a single word, and most being dominated by dialogue only occasionally augmented by descriptive passages. Bruen's novels, too, are among the saddest and the funniest ones I've ever read, especially now that series narrator Jack Taylor is an old man in despair, who just keeps on ticking despite his self-destructive behavior. I love this series way more than most.

I grew up watching Perry Mason on TV and reading Earle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason legal thrillers, but it's been a while since I've read one of the books. The Case of the Empty Tin looked like a good one to reacquaint myself with Gardner's style, and though I've only read its first chapter, I'm not at all disappointed, finding that the book holds up pretty well to my pleasant memories from back in the day - and in comparison to the imitators who followed Gardner's tremendous success.

I'm a fan of Tom Clavin's books from way back, so this one about the Dalton Gang of outlaws that plagued portions of the country right up until they met their fate in Kansas in 1892 intrigues me. It's kind of mind-boggling to me to believe that men on horseback were still robbing banks at that late date, but the Daltons were still at it right up until the day in Coffeyville, Kansas, when four of the five gang members were killed in an epic gunfight outside the bank there. Unbelievably, in 1931, the gang's one survivor, Emmett Dalton, who himself sustained 23 gunshot wounds during all the shooting, came back to Coffeeville as an honored guest speaker.

Among the most likely books up next, are these:

Anyway, that's the plan. What really happens remains to be seen. 

Happy Reading Week to all! Thanks for your input and for sharing your thoughts about your own reading discoveries. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

My Side of the River - Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez


After finishing Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez's memoir My Side of the River, I decided to wait three days before sitting down to compose my thoughts. My feelings about what I had read, along with my general impression of Gutierrez herself, were all over the map - and they still are. On the one hand, I greatly admire her work ethic and all that she has accomplished in her young life; on the other I can't help but resent a little her attitude toward the country that, despite the obstacles she faced, made it possible for Gutierrez to accomplish all that she has.

Gutierrez's story is a remarkable one. Her mother, as soon as she learned that she was pregnant with her first child, was determined to do whatever it took to give birth to that child in the United States rather than in Mexico. So baby Elizabeth was born in a Tucson hospital even though her parents returned to Mexico with her shortly thereafter. The family did not again take up residence in the U.S. until Elizabeth was four years old, and her younger brother would be born and start school in this country before expiration of her parents' tourist visas tore the family apart.

Elizabeth and Fernando remained in the U.S. while their parents unsuccessfully applied for new tourist visas. Suddenly Elizabeth, who was about to begin high school at the head of her class, was alone and responsible for the welfare of her little brother. That she would somehow manage to graduate at the head of her high school class and win scholarships to many of the best universities in the country is truly remarkable. Focusing on her mother's advice that she should always be the best student in the classroom, Elizabeth accomplished the near-impossible. 

And despite becoming rather disillusioned by her experience in the banking industry, she has continued to do so.

That's the positive part of Gutierrez's story, but it's not the only part. At times she allows her accomplishments to be overshadowed by her resentment of U.S. immigration policy and a slip-of-the-tongue racism, such as when she accuses corporations in this country of "rushing to cover their white asses" after George Floyd's death. Or when she brags about gaming the system in order to "steal a little back" for herself as victim of what happened between Mexico and the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Gutierrez is right about a lot of what she says and feels about the way immigrants are treated in the U.S. but what she fails to mention or to understand is that it is different for legal immigrants than it is for those who cross the border illegally. The resentment and criticism she feels largely results from the way that too many immigrants abuse the  system she is so critical of. That is certainly not to say that people like her parents are not in turn abused by having to take the low-paying jobs that will allow them to remain in the shadows. America's immigration system is broken, and immigration law, no doubt, desperately needs to be rewritten. 

I recommend that everyone read My Side of the River and books like it with an open mind. There are good and bad guys on both sides of the equation, and both sides are as often wrong as they are right. People want a better life for their children than the one they had. It's always been that way, and it always will be that way. Surely there is a better way for us to work together to make that dream come true for more people.

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez - Linked-In Photo

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Ruined by Reading - Lynne Sharon Schwartz


Ruined by Reading begins with an interesting hook, one that avid readers will find impossible to resist because it argues so directly against everything we believe about books and the benefits of reading them.  It seems that Lynne Sharon Schwartz was reading a New York Times  article one day when a quote attributed to a Chinese Buddhist scholar she identifies only as "Mr. Cha" said something outrageous (my characterization of his statement) that got her to thinking. Mr. Cha said this:

"To read more is a handicap. It is better to keep your own mind free and to not let the thinking of others interfere with your own free thinking."

This led Schwartz to "brood" on her own reading habits:

"What is it all about? What am I doing it for? And the classic addict's question, What is it doing for me? Mr. Cha's serenity and independence of mind are enviable. I would like to be equally independent, but I'm not sure my mind could be free without reading, or that the action books have on it is properly termed 'interference.'"

That brooding resulted in Schwartz's Ruined by Reading, a book I sometimes found to go a little off-track, but one I could not put down for long. 

Ruined by Reading is not a long memoir, coming in at only 119 numbered pages, so rather than going on for too long about it, I want instead to display the flavor of the book and what to expect from it by sharing a few of my favorite quotes from what Schwartz has to say:

"It started - my reading that is - innocently enough, and then it infiltrated. It didn't replace living; it infused it, till the two became inextricable, like molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in a bead of water."


"The pressure to read the living is moral as well as social. We must know our own times, understand what is happening around us. But I know my own times. I am in them. It is the times of the dead I do not know. The dead are exciting precisely because they are not us. They are what we will never know except through their books...As writers, transmitters, the dead can be more alive than some of the living."


"...reading at random - letting desire lead - feels like the most faithful kind...Or perhaps randomness is not so random after all. Perhaps at every stage what we read is what we are, or what we are becoming, or desire."


"Reading gives a context for experience, a myriad of contexts. Not that we will know any better what to do when the time comes, but we will not be taken unawares or in a void."

And finally, one that just might be my favorite:

"Speed-reading is not actually reading at all but eye exercises."

I hope this gives a feel for what Lynne Sharon Schwartz has to say in rebuttal to the illustrious Mr. Cha. I think she did us proud. 

Lynne Sharon Schwartz 

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Resurrection Walk - Michael Connelly


I still remember the day in the early '90s when I stumbled upon Michael Connelly one afternoon as he prepared to do a reading in a Houston bookstore. I had no idea who Michael Connelly even was, but I felt bad for him because only two people, other than him and three or four store employees, were in the building. And I wasn't there because I knew Mr. Connelly would be there. So, even though I was in a hurry to get a jump on rush hour traffic, I decided to sit down and listen to what the man had to say. It would make a better story, I suppose, if I could tell you that I knew a winner as soon as I saw one, and that I immediately bought a couple of Harry Bosch novels to take home with me that day. But the truth of the matter is that I went home without an author-signed Harry Bosch novel, and didn't even read my first one for another few years.

Flash forward to Resurrection Walk, the latest "Lincoln Lawyer" book to pair up Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, and it's a whole different story. My notes indicate that I finally figured out just how good the Harry Bosch books are in 1997, when I read a couple of them back-to-back, and I've been reading them steadily ever since. Harry Bosch has even become my all-time favorite fictional detective by accomplishing something that I thought would be impossible: knocking James Lee Burke's fictional Dave Robicheaux from that number-one spot.

By my count, Resurrection Walk is the thirty-eighth Michael Connelly novel, and most of the books have either featured only Harry Bosch or have featured him in conjunction with younger series anchors such as Mickey Haller and Renée Ballard. Surprisingly - and I probably should not be surprised at all - this thirty-eighth novel proves that Connelly's storytelling talent shines as brightly today as it ever has. 

Let's face it. Harry is a little too far over the hill now still to be doing some of the stuff he once did as a street detective for the LAPD. But because Harry is Harry, he might be the last one to figure that out, so he's keeping himself in the game these days by helping Mickey Haller (his half-brother) "pull the needle from the haystack." In this instance, the "haystack" is prison, and the "needle" is someone locked up because they have been wrongfully convicted of murder. Harry vets their story, and then Mickey tries to free them.

"...nothing could ever beat the resurrection walk - when the manacles come off and the last metal doors slide open like the gates of heaven, and a man or a woman declared innocent walks into the waiting arms of family, resurrected in life and in the law."

Cindi Sanz could be one of those needles Bosch and Haller are looking for. She has been in Chino Prison for over five years, convicted of the killing of her sheriff deputy ex-husband in a fit of rage when he was two hours late returning their son one Sunday evening. After a face-to-face meeting with Sanz, both Bosch and Haller are enough convinced of the woman's innocence for Haller to take her case. But there are people out there who don't want the Sanz case re-opened, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn't happen. The bad guys are not always where you expect to find them, and it will take everything Bosch and Haller have if Cindi Sanz is ever going to take her "resurrection walk."

Resurrection Walk is first-rate courtroom drama, but longtime fans of the Bosch and Haller books are going to enjoy this one as much for how it moves the Bosch and Haller characters along as they will for all of Connelly's consistently superb storytelling skills. And just as the last Harry Bosch novel ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, readers here will be left wondering exactly what Mickey Haller is hinting as he begins his own personal resurrection walk at the very end of Resurrection Walk. I highly recommend this one, especially for longtime Harry Bosh and/or Mickey Haller fans.

Michael Connelly jacket photo

Monday, February 05, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (February 5, 2024)


I'm enjoying the books I've been reading (taken as a whole) more than I have in a long time, and I'm hoping that's at least a little bit attributable to the reading plan I began the year with. So far, so good. I finished another three books this week and enjoyed each of them: The King of Late Night, Resurrection Walk, and Ruined by Reading. Reviews of the latter two books will be posted sometime this week if things go as planned. 

I got back into a few others, too, that had fallen by the wayside because of other due dates I wanted to honor (The Blues Brothers, My Side of the River, Writing to Learn, and Larry McMurtry: A Life) and was pleasantly surprised at how seamless picking them up again felt. But I still haven't been able to return to That Affair Next Door or What to Read and Why. Maybe this week.

I did finally begin Thomas H. Cook's The Chatham School Affair and managed to get myself sucked up by Michiko Kakutani's Ex-Libris: 100 Books Read and Reread.

This is the third Thomas H. Cook novel I've read recently, and I've learned that Cook is a master at maintaining a constant feeling of dread in his novels. It seems as if every chapter of The Chatham School Affair includes at least one or two sometimes-not-so-subtle hints or clues about terrible things that have already happened but not yet been disclosed, or terrible things that are going to happen soon. At this point, I still can't figure out who the victims are, exactly what happened to them, who the actual bad guys are, or whether the narrator is one of the good guys or one of the bad guys. And, of course, I can't quit turning pages to find out all of these things.

Because Michiko Kakutani chose to title her book Ex-Libris, I'm assuming that the 100 books she talks about are ones from her personal library - or at least were at one time. It's actually more than 100 books because Kakutani sometimes dedicates a section to several books from the same author; Saul Bellow, Bruce Chatwin, and Joan Didion, for example. I've gone through the first twenty or so sections now, and was inspired enough by Kakutani's thoughts that I went out and bought myself a copy of Albert Camus's The Plague yesterday afternoon. So there's that, even though Kakutani has kept me irritated much of the time because of something I'll get into later.

I'll almost certainly be starting Ken Bruen's Galway Confidential this week because I want to make sure my review is posted before the novel is published later this month. I'm a big fan of Bruen's Jack Taylor series, but it sounds like I missed the book right before Galway Confidential because Jack is coming out of a long coma as this one begins (and if I had read the previous book, I'd know why that is). Can you imagine waking up, as Jack does, with no idea that Covid-19 ever happened? Then Jack finds out that two nuns have been bludgeoned by a hammer-wielding man - and that he is the best hope the nuns have to keep more of them from suffering the same fate.

Among the most likely books to be added this week are:

I'm thrilled to learn that Study for Obedience is ready for me to pick up at my library because it's one of the three remaining 2023 Booker Prize nominees that I've still not gotten my hands on. I have not read any of Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies' Detective Agency books, but I fell in love with the characters last month via the one-season HBO series from a few years ago, and I figured it was time for me to test-drive the actual books now. The Only Good Indians is a novel I found on a list somewhere of very good novels written by Native Americans, although it looks a little weird at first glance. And, finally, Tom Clavin is one of my favorite writers when it comes to Old West nonfiction, so I'm hoping to get to The Last Outlaws soon.

Here's wishing a great reading week to each and all!