Sunday, May 26, 2019

It's Sunday, So This Must Be Barnes & Noble - Part 3

(I swear there were really lots of other customers around.)

Barnes & Noble had an unusual feel this morning, and it took me a few minutes to figure out why that was: around 80% of the customers in the store were adult males.  Now that's not something you see every day in a bookstore.  And these were not grown men herding their kids to the children's section of the store or trailing their wives as they moved from section to section. Most of these guys were on their own. The only downside to the mix was that I had to wait my turn to get at some of the books that caught my eye because some guy was already standing there looking at a copy.

But that only slowed me down for so long, and I ended up placing several new books on hold at the library anyway before I left the store (you didn't hear that, Barnes & Noble guys):

The Lost Girls of Paris is a fictionalized account of some brave women who were sent from London during World War II as secret agents into occupied Europe where they served as couriers and radio operators for the resistance. Twelve of the women disappeared, and when an American woman finds their pictures in a lost briefcase in 1946 New York City, she is determined to learn their stories and what happened to them. 

You will notice a theme in the other three books I added to my list; bookstores or libraries play a prominent role in each of them. That's not at all unusual for me, because I'm a real sucker for this kind of fiction.  The Bookshop of Yesterdays is about Miranda Brooks who inherits a bookstore from the man who was her favorite uncle when she was a child. She has no idea why he became estranged from the family, but via a scavenger hunt her uncle set up inside the store before he died, she is about to find out.

What's even better than a bookstore? A well stocked library does it for me.  The Library of Lost and Found is about a librarian who feels perfectly fine around books, but not at all comfortable around people - and she worries about it.  But then she receives a gift at the library that draws her out of her shell, a book of fairy tales dedicated to her by her dead grandmother. Is Zelda, her grandmother, really dead? Maybe not, and Martha is determined to find out for herself.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is set in a rural town in 1968 Australia where Tom Hope meets Hannah Babel (there's obviously a plot tip in those surnames).  Tom does not know why Hannah (an Auschwitz survivor) wants to open a bookstore in their tiny town, but he feels a connection with her from the moment they meet and she hires him to build the shelves for her new store.  The question is can a man who admits he's only ever read one book in his entire life successfully court a woman whose entire life centers around books and readers.

These four bring my current hold list up to twelve, but I did finish a couple of books earlier today so all is not lost. Appropriately enough for this Memorial Day, one of the books I finished was a World War II history by Adam Makos called Spearhead. That one is all about tankers and their tanks, and it covers the final push into Germany during the last year of the war. Believe it or not, the reunion between an American gunner and a German tanker that takes place at the end of the book is likely to bring tears to the eyes of most of its readers (me among them).  This is a touching story that shows how the humanity in man can survive even the worst moments in history. More on this one later.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Sean Doolittle: A Reader's Reader Who Loves Indie Bookstores

Nationals Pitcher Sean Doolittle
I realize that I'm more than a bit prejudiced when it comes to my opinion that avid readers are a special breed. But it's a chicken-and-egg thing; are they special because they develop so much empathy from all that reading, or is it that particularly empathetic people are naturally drawn to reading lots of books?  I'll probably never reach a conclusion on that part of my theory, but my broader theory that readers are special is one I find pretty easy to defend.  In fact, over the last twelve years I've collected almost 100 stories about readers and compiled them here on Book Chase under this "Readers" label. 

And that brings me to the latest, a story about Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, an athlete on a one-man mission to save America's independent bookstores one store at a time.  The Wall Street Journal (no link provided because the complete article is behind a subscriber firewall) featured Sean in an article this week in which the pitcher explains what he's up to:

"Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle found himself mired in an unusual predicament for a professional baseball player during spring training: He needed more books to satisfy his enormous appetite for reading - and he couldn't find a local bookstore near the team's facility in West Palm Beach, Fla..."
"Forced to settle for a nearby Barnes & Noble, Doolittle decided to embark on a project. He vowed to seek out an independent bookshop on every road stop this year and share his adventures with his Twitter following of nearly 100,000.  The idea began as a way for Doolittle, a two-time All-Star, to take advantage of a job that allows him to travel to cities around the country. It has allowed Doolittle to use his platform as a famous athlete for a cause that matters to him." 

Doolittle is on a quest to support the kind of local business that is active in its community and offers it the kind of "all inclusive" space that makes a community feel like family.  He wants to publicize those bookstores and help get the word out that readers still have choice when it comes to buying books; not all books have to be purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Doolittle considers these places "important fixtures in their communities" and wants to make sure that they thrive so that others will be encouraged to open up bookstores like them.

Sean Doolittle is my kind of reader, and he proves one more time that readers are special people.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream - Carson Vaughan

Having grown up in a small town, I learned the hard way that small towns are both the best and the worst places for kids to live.  That bit of wisdom came to me just as I reached young adulthood; right about the time I decided that I had had enough of small town living to last me a lifetime.  But my little town was home to just over 12,000 people when I escaped it.  Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream, in comparison, is set in a tiny village in rural Nebraska called Royal – population 81 when things went bad there.  The problem for Royal and the little zoo it was collectively so proud of was that there were some pretty unusual people among those eighty-one souls.

Dick Haskin was one of those eighty-one people, but Dick did not plan to stick around forever. He had a big dream and he intended to make it happen: get a job in Rwanda assisting famous primatologist Dian Fossey.  But just when that near impossible dream was within his grasp Fossey was murdered in her base camp, and Dick headed back to Royal with Reuben, an adolescent chimp in the back of his old pickup.  There Dick, ever the big dreamer, installed Reuben into an old trailer home and created what he called The Midwest Primate Center – and for a while things went well.  Dick went on to add enough other animals to the center (cougars, tigers, wolves, bears, fainting goats, and the like) that it was renamed Zoo Nebraska and became a popular regional tourist draw for the village.

Author Carson Vaughan
But there were big problems for the little zoo right from the beginning. Admission receipts were never enough for Dick to pay himself a salary or even to hire the amount of help he needed to run the facility properly, so Dick worked himself literally almost to death trying to do most of the work himself.  He had to depend on volunteers - people whose own love of animals and pride in the zoo compelled them to help out when they could -  if he and the zoo were going to survive. Unfortunately, too many of the volunteers and board members recognized that the zoo was failing and became involved in a power struggle that would ultimately doom the zoo they all claimed they loved.

And that was before the chimps escaped and scared the citizens of Royal half to death.

Vaughan says in his author’s note at the end of Zoo Nebraska that it is difficult to place the blame for what happened to the little zoo on any one person or group. As he puts it, “I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone involved lands somewhere in the middle; that intentions were often pure but expectations rarely fulfilled… “More importantly,” he says, “I’ve come to see hints of Royal – both hope and struggle – in small towns everywhere, or, perhaps more accurately, hints of every small town in Royal.

Bottom Line: Zoo Nebraska sometimes reads more like fiction than nonfiction; it is that hard to believe that something like this could really happen.  If it were made into the rare movie that exactly follows a book's outline, most viewers would still consider it too farfetched to be anything other than satire about modern life in small town America.  Time to roll out one of my favorite clich├ęs: Life is stranger than fiction.

Book Number 3,397

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Exiled: The Last Days of Sam Houston - Ron Rozelle

Sam Houston led the army that significantly changed the course of American history by defeating Mexico's General Santa Ana in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 25, 1836.  As a result of that  eighteen-minute battle, Mexico was forced to give up the region that would soon become an independent country known as The Republic of Texas until it became part of the United States in December 1845.  Houston was twice president of that republic, twice a U.S. senator after Texas became part of the Union, and at the very end of his political career he served as governor of the state he was so instrumental in creating. Significantly, he is also the only person in United States history to have served as governor of two different states, having first been the governor of Tennessee before coming to Texas under rather cloudy circumstances.

I have been an admirer of Sam Houston since I was a child, but I'm surprised at how much new information I learned about the man and his family from Exiled.  It helps, I suppose, that I live smack in the middle of the General's old stomping grounds (in what is now a north Houston suburb), and that I'm within 50 miles of Huntsville, the town in which Houston's family spent so many years while he was tending to his senatorial duties in Washington. Huntsville is also where Houston died and where he is buried, and it is home to a wonderful little museum that includes both the longtime Houston family home and the separate house in which Houston died in 1863 (he died downstairs and his funeral was held in the room above the bedroom in which he spent his final hours).  I haven't visited that museum in a few years, and this book reminds me of just how badly I need to do that again. 
The San Jacinto Monument is
taller than the Washington Monument.

Sam Houston was an American hero. As Exiled so clearly reminds the reader, he loved the Union more than anything in the world other than his family. But Houston was also a Texas patriot who dearly loved the state that voted to join the Confederacy despite his pleas for it not to do so.  After that fatal vote was taken, Sam Houston decided to resign the Texas governorship rather than swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, preferring to move back to Huntsville where he spent the remaining years of his life (he would be dead long before the end of the Civil War).  

Houston's last words reflect how much he loved his wife and the state whose history he is so much a part of: 


Sam Houston, forever my hero.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

World Literature Today - It's a Big Old World Out There

September/October 2018 issue
In my Sunday afternoon post about that morning's visit to Barnes & Noble I highlighted a new-to-me magazine called World Literature Today.  I mentioned that because the only copy for sale in the store was dated November/December 2018 I was a bit worried that I had just discovered a great looking magazine that was already out of business (these days you just never know).  But boy was I wrong!

It turns out that World Literature Today is one of the very oldest literary magazines being published in the United States today, and that it goes back for ninety straight years. The magazine is published bi-monthly by The University of Oklahoma in Norman, and it is available both in print and digital editions.  I chose a digital subscription over a print one for a couple of reasons: my local mail service tends to mangle about 50% of the magazines it delivers, and the digital subscription allows me to read back issues of the magazine going back to at least 2007.  At $18 a year, I think it is a real bargain coming in at $3 an issue the way it does compared to the cover price of $9 I paid on Sunday.  But World Literature Today is a non-profit publication, so price is not the real issue here (and if you can afford to pay more for a subscription than its suggested price, your money will be gratefully accepted).

If you are interested at all in reading the work of authors from outside the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, (not to say that authors and books from these countries are not also included in WTF's "world") I can't imagine a more perfect magazine for you than this one.  

The $5 Maya Angelou Quote Tote Bag
Most of us read very few translations, but that's not necessarily our fault because too little effort is made by publishers and booksellers to get good foreign fiction and nonfiction into our hands. I suspect that translations are not cheap to produce, and when you combine a more expensive translated book with the  smaller potential audience it naturally comes with, it's easy enough to see why more of them are not published here. The books will probably still not be particularly easy to find even once you learn of their existence, but at least you will have a chance now. First you have to know that they are even out there.

Here's a quick link to the magazine's homepage where you can sample the magazine and find out more about subscription rates and what to expect.

Herman Wouk Dead at 103

Author Herman Wouk
There are so many news sources these days - and so much junk news about junk celebrities - that I miss more important stuff now than I missed ten years ago when far fewer sources were available to me.  The haystack is just getting so big that the actual needles hidden in there are impossible to find sometimes; that's the only thing that can explain my missing news of author Herman Wouk's May 18 death at the age of 103 (just ten days short of his 104th birthday).

From The New York Times:

Herman Wouk, whose taut shipboard drama “The Caine Mutiny” lifted him to the top of the best-seller lists, where he remained for most of a career that extended past his 100th year thanks to page-turners like “Marjorie Morningstar,” “Youngblood Hawke” and the World War II epics “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” died early Friday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 103.
His death, just 10 days before his 104th birthday, was confirmed by his literary agent, Amy Rennert. She said he had been working on another book when he died, although, as was his custom, he had declined to discuss its subject until it was finished.
According to the Times, Wouk was never a big favorite of the critics, but I'm here to tell you that he did have his fans because the man knew how to tell a story - and a long story, at that.  I've only read three of Wouk's books (The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembranceand that was in the late sixties and early seventies, but I still remember how enthralled with them I was and how I couldn't wait to get back to them every evening.  I must have been one of the "yahoos who hate culture and the mind" that critic Stanley Edgar Hyman said back in 1966 comprised all of Wouk's readers.  Stanley who?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry - Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is one of those books I should have absolutely loved.  After all, it is set mainly inside a bookstore and it features a crotchety bookseller, a dedicated publisher’s rep, and a precocious little girl who just oozes cuteness from every pore of her body.  The problem is that I only liked the book and never really came very close to loving it the way I fully expected to going in.

Don’t get me wrong, Gabrielle Zevin has not written a bad book here; it’s just that it could have been so much better than it is.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, though, is only 258 rather easily read pages long and that is a big part of the problem - so few words simply do not allow Zevin the space she needs to fully develop so many important characters.  And that’s a shame because if I had known more about A.J., his adopted daughter Maya, and his wife Amy, the book’s ending may have impacted me much more deeply than it did.  Perhaps the author was shooting for the kind of fable that we all grew up on, those stories where we recognize the characters by type and that tells us everything we need to know about them in order for us to focus on and enjoy the tale itself.  That’s kind of how it worked for me, anyway.  I enjoyed the story, but except for the first few glimpses of Maya I never felt that the characters were real enough for me to invest much emotion in them.

As the story begins, A.J. is not a happy camper; his wife has died and he’s stuck on Alice Island, near Hyannis, running the failing bookstore they opened together shortly after their marriage.  A.J. is such a grump these days that publisher reps who manage to make it all the way to Alice three or four times a year never know what to expect.  He is as likely to throw them out as he is to buy something from them for sale in his bookstore.  And, although he soon regrets it, that is precisely what he does when Amy Loman of Knightley Press visits Island Books for the first time.  So A.J. the grump is probably lucky to have any customers at all anymore – and the ones that he still has are not supporting the store like they did before his wife died.  No one, however, should be tempted to hold their breath while waiting for A.J. to wise up and change his attitude about life because the now heavy-drinking A.J. is not at all interested in making that happen. But then someone decides to leave a surprise for A.J. in the bookstore one night, and his life - and all of Alice Island - will be forever changed.

Author Gabrielle Zevin
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is for those of us who are always on the lookout for novels centered around books or bookstores, preferably both (you know who you are).  The bookstores in this kind of novel are usually so perfect that we can’t help wishing they were located somewhere very near us, preferably within walking distance.  Sometimes we even find ourselves wishing we could work in just such a place – even at minimum wage, if that’s what it takes to get the job.  Island Books doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

Here are two of my favorite A.J. Fikry quotes:

            “We read to know we are not alone.  We read because we are alone.  We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone.”

And this one:

            “We are not quite novels.  We are not quite short stories.  In the end, we are collected works.”

Simple words maybe, but words that do make you think.

Book Number 3,396

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell - Robert Dugoni

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell was a nostalgic read of sorts for me because it reminds me so much of my favorite John Irving novels Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Robert Dugoni's characters aren't quite as quirky and off the wall as so many of Irving's are, but this episodic coming-of-age novel is every bit as dramatic as either of those novels. Sam Hell starts a little slowly, with young Sam Hill's problems being of the kind lots of "different" kids face in the world: bullying, isolation, self-doubt, etc. - but as Sam grows up, his problems become ever-increasingly serious ones. And by the end of the novel, the reader is left breathlessly wondering just how much Sam will be asked to endure before things get better, if they ever do.

Sam Hill is born with red eyes, pupils so red, in fact, that he startles even the attending nurses at his birth. And, kids being kids, school is pure hell for the boy soon adorned with the nickname that he will wear into adulthood: Sam Hell. Sam's eye color will, however, play a major role in what kind of man he will become, and he would tell you that those eyes and the way people reacted to them made him a better man than he would have been without them. Sam would also be quick to credit his fierce mother, a woman who devoted her life to making sure that her son always got a fair shake in life despite the way he looked. She was not always able to make that happen, but Sam always knew that he could depend on her to go down swinging. 

Author Robert Dugoni
Sam is lucky enough to find two people in grade school who in their own ways are as different as he is.  One of them is the only black child in both the school and the neighborhood from which it draws its students; the other is a little red-haired girl who takes great delight in being the born rebel that she is.  These two will be Sam's best friends for the rest of his life, and the three of them create a little self-contained support group that the rest of us can only wish we could find somewhere.

Robert Dugoni has created some memorable characters here, and my comparison of The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell to a John Irving novel is just about the highest praise I can give to a novel.  I recommend this one.