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Book Review: "The Leftovers"
January 19, 2014 8:20 PM | Posted in: ,

I finished Tom Perotta's novel, The Leftovers [Kindle | iBooks] this weekend, and found it to be both compelling and unsatisfying.

The book was published in 2011, and if I ever heard anything about it, I had forgotten it. But it's recently been getting new press due to the film adaptation that is scheduled to appear sometime this year on HBO.

Book coverThe basic premise of the book is simple. Three years earlier, on October 14th to be exact, 140 million people around the world - people of all races, religions, cultures, nationalities, and other demographic affiliations - simultaneously and instantaneously disappeared. There was no warning; there was no explanation. The book follows the lives of a handful of people living in Mapleton [somewhere in America] who are trying to cope with the aftereffects of the most mystifying phenomenon in human history. And most of them are, frankly, a mess.

The first thing that might come to mind when you hear this plot premise is, "well, he's writing about The Rapture." Nope. While the author plays around the edges of that explanation, the book is completely irreligious. [Don't let the description of the HBO series lead you astray in this regard.] In fact, there is no attempt whatsoever to try to explain the disappearance phenomenon; it's left to the reader's imagination to put some context around the plight of the "survivors." In this sense, the author is showing respect to the reader, not feeling the need to explain everything, and is confident enough to let the story lead to whatever conclusions the reader desires.

We whose faith includes a belief in the Biblical Rapture might be offended by a portrayal of something that simulates an aspect of our faith without ever honoring it, but that would be an overreaction. This is a figment of a writer's imagination, possibly designed to provoke precisely that reaction, but more likely simply a way to stimulate our own imaginations.

I kept trying to make this into a science fiction story, but it wouldn't cooperate, staying stubbornly grounded in typically illogical human emotions, decisions, and relationships. It's not a book for children - there's lot of graphic sex, and some violence, and the usual quota of bad language. But mostly there are stories of broken people who are either trying to rebuild their lives after inexplicably losing loved ones, or who have twisted off into patterns of behavior that you know won't turn out well.

I've never lost a close family member to an unexpected event, let alone an unexplained one. Some of the questions the book raises are legitimately troubling. How do you live your life knowing that what happened once might happen again, and more of those you love might simply vanish? Would it be difficult to form friendships, let alone build a loving relationship? 

And how do you heal when there is no possible way to bring closure to the situation? How many times have we heard the parents of missing children express a desire to know something - anything - about their kids, if only to have that closure.

In the end, however, I found that I could only pity the characters in the book, as none of them seemed to have any concept or inkling of the true nature and character of God, or the comforting truth of Scripture, or the concept of healing grace. I don't necessarily look for this in the novels I read, but when one takes its primary cue from a phenomenon that is unique to Christianity, it's a shortcoming that leaves me, well, unsatisfied.

Book Review: "The Ecuadorian Deception"
January 7, 2014 7:36 PM | Posted in:

My pal and former Midlander Bear Mills has published a new novel entitled The Ecuadorian Deception (available via Amazon.com in Kindle and paperback formats). Book coverI finished reading it over the Christmas holiday and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspense novels seasoned with a healthy heap of [obscure] history.

I'm not a huge fan of the suspense/mystery genre and I can count the number of historical novels I've read on the fingers of one hand, but I stayed up well past my usual bedtime to finish this book, and my wife will attest to the fact that I never forego sleep for reading.

There's not much I can tell you about the book's plot without spoiling it. As you might surmise, most of the action takes place in Ecuador. The main character is a freelance website developer who has been lured to South America by an offer from a mysterious would-be employer. The offer is short on details, but lucrative enough to cause him to ignore some warning flags. (Take it from me, a $50K project will get any freelancer's attention.) And, sure enough, he gets his mule in an ant bed in pretty short order. The plot is thick with nefarious characters and ancient Incan treasure.

The book is rich with the kind of details - cultural, geographical, and historical - that accompanies writing that's not only well-researched, but personally experienced by the author. Indeed, Bear has spent time in Ecuador, in the exact locations where the action takes place. And as a former Texas Teacher of the Year, he understands the importance of accuracy in details.

The Ecuadorian Deception is also notable for what it doesn't have. I daresay that you'd have to go back to the days of Agatha Christie to find a mystery novel that contains no profanity, no lurid sex scenes, and no graphic violence...and yet still manages to maintain a high level of suspense and excitement.

While you won't find this on a book jacket, Bear is an evangelical Christian, and he embeds his values into his plot and writing style. Here's what he has to say about how his faith affected his approach to writing this novel.
I love mysteries, but many of them are laced from cover to cover with vulgarities. The F word must be the perfect word because it's a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, invective, preposition, and exclamation. I wanted to write a thoroughly entertaining novel that was free from cursing, but was gritty and even a little scary. If the novel is a success, maybe others will get on the profanity-free train with me.

I wanted to show how faith played itself out in the real world, a world where tragedies happen and bad people do bad things to good people. Author Craig Groeschel, a pastor up in Oklahoma, has written that when bad things happen, we need to stop saying, "God, why me?" and start saying, "God, what now? What do you want me to do? How do you want me to respond that will glorify you?" That's what I wanted to play out in the book.

[As you might guess, I'm all in favor of this trend. If you feel the same way, I can recommend a couple of other authors whose faith informs their novels. John Bush's Knox's Irregulars boldly integrates Reformist theology into a hard science fiction shell, while Jared Wilson, who is a pastor in real life, has crafted a gripping tale of the supernatural entitled Otherworld.]

Bear doesn't have the luxury of being a full-time writer; he has a day job to pay the bills. But he's working on two sequels to The Ecuadorian Deception. Again, in his words:
The sequel, The Ecuadorian Assassin, is about halfway done on first write through. My goal is to have it out by January of 2015. It is much more political in nature, dealing with the tense relationships between the US and Ecuador, especially since Ecuador has been courting Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba as prime political allies, but needs US tourism and expatriate relocation to pay the bills. Like all good sequels, it brings back many of the characters from the first book, with [main characters] George and Hugh at the center of things. The third book in the series is projected for release in 2016.
This is a great first effort and I look forward to more from Bear.

Book Review: "The Passage" and "The Twelve"
February 20, 2013 6:36 PM | Posted in:

I just finished reading The Twelve, the second book in what will eventually be author Justin Cronin's trilogy that began with the 2010 release of The Passage. The trilogy's conclusion, The City of Mirrors, isn't due until sometime next year...and that seems like an eternity.

If you're already a fan of speculative fiction, you no doubt are familiar with these books. On the other hand, The Passage escaped my attention for two years, so perhaps there's some value in restating the obvious.

A comparison with Stephen King's The Stand is inevitable, and a quote by King graces the cover of the first book. Both novels employ a vast array of characters trying to survive an apocalyptic event that irrevocably changes the face of society and culture (is that redundant?). Both events arise from man's clumsy attempts to manipulate nature to achieve dubious ends - we never learn, do we? - and both trace multiple subplots as a remnant of souls do their best to either regain the high ground for humanity, or turn the disaster to selfish gain. Both prominently feature some apparently obligatory supernatural themes. In other words, they're both variations on the classic "good vs. evil" theme.

But, frankly, The Stand doesn't stand up well in comparison. King is a popular writer, but he isn't necessarily a good writer. He's formulaic and often unnuanced, and the reader isn't likely to get lost in the beauty of his prose. The Stand was an epic novel in its own right, in its own time, but it had the advantage of being early on the scene of the genre. (It didn't help that the movie adaptation was a made-for-TV version that starred Molly freakin' Ringwald. Is that King's fault? Probably not, but, still...)

Cronin, on the other hand, is the real deal, an author with legitimate literary credentials - not to minimize King's credentials of selling eighteen zillion copies of his books, which buys lots of immunity to hack blog critics like yours truly - and he proves that you can apply beautiful and moving prose to scenes that also scare the living daylights out of the reader. Plus, he's a Texan, albeit a transplant, having been an English professor at Rice University and still residing in Houston. A good deal of the action in the second book takes place in Texas - focused on Kerrville, of all places, but Midland/Odessa gets a couple of mentions as well, albeit nothing that the Chambers of Commerce will be publishing in their annual reports .

I'm intentionally not going to reveal the basic plot for Cronin's trilogy, even though it's all over the interwebz if you care to read other less considerate reviews; I don't want to spoil any surprises. The first volume pretty much requires that you invest in the next one, but the second one has a very satisfactory ending that, despite the angst implied in the first paragraph above, makes the wait for the final volume bearable. (This stands in stark contrast to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, which is positively criminal in the way each volume ends maddeningly and without the slightest sympathy for the reader's absolute need for the next fix...um...installment.)

If you're seeking a couple of page-turners that will consume days of your life, and you wish Stephen King didn't rely quite so heavily on evil clowns (I know; more redundancy) and/or precocious-but-disabled children, you'll find the first two books of Cronin's trilogy to be a suitable investment.
A few weeks ago, during a post-dessert foray through Barnes & Noble, my eye lit upon a book resting on a table, notable for its thickness and heft, entitled 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die (And 10,001 You Must Download). Now, normally, when I find a book that looks promising, I look for it in e-format but in this case, the treeware version called to me.

Book coverThis is 960 pages of musical history, profiling in chronological order the editors' choices for the most influential recorded songs - by decade - beginning with Enrico Caruso's O Sole Mio, recorded in 1916, and ending with the Gorillaz 2010 recording of Stylo. Each song is described in terms of its influence, with tidbits of trivia about the artists, the context of the recording, and in many cases, other artists who covered the song or who were influenced by it. Some great photos accompany the text.

If you love pop, blues, or rock and roll (sorry, country fans...the British editors knoweth not what they do), you should get this tome. While I'm not familiar with many of the songs - I lived through but ignored the whole punk genre, and continue to ignore rap, for example, and the Anglo-centrism of the editors focuses on some UK artists I never heard of - you may still be interested in how they fit into the progression of musical history. And, frankly, any book that recognizes the genius of Dolly Parton's Jolene has something going for it.

And for those songs that are familiar, the accompanying stories and trivia are fascinating. For example:

  • None of the Beatles played an instrument on Eleanor Rigby.

  • Pete Townsend so admired Smokey Robinson's lyrics in The Tracks of My Tears that he lifted one of them to entitle the Who's Substitute.

  • Macy Gray and Marilyn Manson grew up in the same Canton, Ohio neighborhood.

  • Aerosmith's classic Walk This Way was inspired by a scene and line in the Mel Brooks movie, Young Frankenstein.

  • When Jimi Hendrix purred "move over Rover" in Fire, he was referring to an actual situation where his bass player's mother's Great Dane was interfering with his attempts to put a move on Jimi's girlfriend in front of the fireplace.

  • Lani Hall, the singer on Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66's Mas Que Nada (one of my favorites, by the way) learned the Portuguese lyrics phonetically, and sang them so convincingly that Brazilians thought she was a native speaker.

  • The editor assigned to Paul Revere & The Raiders' (I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone labels that band "the first great punk band," and then makes a convincing case. Incidentally, did you realize the band was formed in 1958.

  • The drummer on Peggy Lee's 1958 hit, Fever, played with his bare hands, without  sticks. 
And, finally, many artists have recorded Save The Last Dance For Me, but the first #1 hit recording belonged to The Drifters in 1960. The lyrics of the song have a special meaning for the writer, Doc Pomus, because he...well, you'll have to get the book to learn the rest of the story.

Photos from book

Five Book Mini-Reviews
April 7, 2012 7:10 AM | Posted in:

There's a good reason for the solid non-blogging going on around here lately: I've been reading. You know, like, books. You might find something of interest among the group, so here are some brief reviews. The linked titles lead to Amazon.com, where you can either order the hard copy version, or download the Kindle version; some of these books are also available via Apple's iBooks app. The ratings are my subjective assessment, where 1 star is any text of any Obama speech on the Constitution, and 10 stars is the Bible.

Five Book Covers

  • Knox's Irregulars, by J. Wesley Bush, or, as I know him, John. It's a little strange to read a book by an author you knew before he became an author. I've never met John, but I've followed his various blogs and Facebook postings for years, and he's shown kindness by pretending to read some of my stuff. He's something of a Renaissance man, with many interests, talents, and skills, and so it was not surprising that his personality and background permeates his first novel. Knox's Irregulars is a good representative of an increasingly underrepresented literary genre: hard science fiction. It's also possibly the only representative of legitimate science fiction that has as its underlying and undisguised theme God's grace expressed through a reformed Christian theology. Intrigued? You should be. It's a good story and well-written, set on another planet, in a distant future that has many disturbing similarities to our present. The attractive tech comes in the form of combat suits, ala Iron Man. (Did John Steakley invent this genre with Armor?) My rating: 7 stars

  • Hammerhead, by Jason Andrew Bond. Well, how about that? Another hard sci-fi novel. This one has nothing to do with sharks, or least, not the kind that live underwater. The attractive tech in this book is a combat helicopter capable of doing intricate maneuvers at mach 3 speeds, but the real interest is in the disparate team of good guys who grudgingly seek to undermine a global plot to, you know, end life as we know it. Characters are painted with rather broad brushes, and the plot requires you to suspend belief at several key junctures, but overall, a good way to spend some time. And don't be surprised if you see this one translated into the big screen in a movie starring The Rock. My rating: 6 stars

  • Dead Iron: The Age of Steam, by Devon Monk. I have to admit that I'm smitten with the idea that a woman would write a steampunk zombie werewolf novel with some majick, a witch, and possible dwarvish folk thrown in for good measure. Now, my pal Mike S. wasn't too impressed with the book, but I think this was also his first encounter with the genre and he had different expectations. Me? I'm all about steampunk zombie werewolf novels, and if you are as well, grab a copy. It's well set up for a sequel, too. My rating: 8 stars

  • Working Stiff, by Rachel Caine. I have to be very careful here, because I don't want to give any spoilers about the main premise of this novel (which is also likely to be the first in an ongoing series). At one level, it's a murder mystery, full of unexpected twists and turns, but what really sets it apart are the peculiar circumstances that come to define the novel's primary character. This one also has some plot holes big enough to drive a hearse through, but overall, it's quite entertaining. My rating: 7 stars

  • The High-Beta Rich, by Robert Frank. I threw this one in to prove that I'm not a complete philistine when it comes to literature. Frank is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and his particular beat is covering the lifestyles of the rich, famous or not. And by "rich," I mean "filthy, stinkin', over-the-top, life's-not-fair, who-needs-a-lottery-ticket" wealthy. It's interesting in a voyeuristic way to read about the excesses of the rich, but there's an oddly pleasing schadenfreude that accompanies the recitation of how some of them lose their wealth. And that's what this book is really about - the up-and-down cycles that are becoming increasingly common and extreme. (Beta in the title refers to the financial variable that describes the volatility of a stock vs. the market as a whole; the higher the beta, the more the stock's price will swing as compared to the market.) The author lays out a good argument for why the fortunes - forgive the pun - of today's wealthiest Americans have implications not just for them and those they employ, but for all of us as taxpayers and citizens. There's some intriguing and sometimes frightening insights as to where we may be heading as a society. It's a short book, easy to read, with just enough juicy stuff to keep you going through the more academic portions. My rating: 7 stars.

A Trip to the Bookstore
March 2, 2012 8:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Note: What follows is an entirely accurate account. It's not my fault if "accurate" equates to "boring."

We went out for dinner tonight, not wanting to be the only people in Midland who didn't do so. If there's a restaurant in our fair city that's not making money, it's because the owners want a tax write-off. Anyway, we went to The King and I for [duh] Thai cuisine - and it occurs to me that there must be an ordinance that requires every city to have a Thai restaurant named "The King and I," except for Memphis, Tennessee, which is required to have a fried chicken restaurant named "The King and Me." But I digress.

Photo of book coverAfter dinner, we decided to head over to Barnes & Noble for coffee and dessert. Oh, and magazines. We split some kind of mixed berry cream cake thing, which was OK but not earth-shattering, and Debbie read some depressing articles in a Mother Jones while I learned how to supervise Millennials in a design firm.

We then spent a few minutes perusing the books...a novel concept, no pun intended. Anymore, I feel guilty buying an actual physical book, instead of downloading the digital version. Bookstore visits have become screening excursions, where we make lists of reading material we'll later search out on the web. And, sorry Barnes, we really don't download much from your website. I trust that our significant and regular investment in your café makes up for that slight.

That's not to say that the shelves aren't filled with interesting material. Take Dead Iron (OK, Barnes, at least I linked to your site), for example. This book is a genre mash-up of epic proportions: a steampunk Western werewolf novel. What's not to like?

If you haven't been to a Barnes & Noble recently, you might not know that there's a whole section devoted to "Teen Paranormal Romance" novels. At least, I think they're novels, and not how-to books. I'm pretty sure there are some werewolves in some of those books, too, but I'd be surprised if any zombies are involved. I think there's an untapped market for teen zombie romance novels.

I did see one book that I was tempted to buy in treeware form: American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. It's an account of a Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle. The book describes Kyle as a "native Texan," I guess as opposed to a naturalized Texan. Just so happens that he was born in Odessa, which explains his proficiency with a firearm. His longest confirmed sniper kill was 2,100 yards, using a rifle firing a .338 Lapua Magnum round.

If you want to buy that particular ammo, be prepared for sticker shock. One dealer is selling a box for $111.33 - for 20 rounds. A $5/shot, it's not a caliber for casual plinking at the range.

Uh, where was I? Oh, yeah, the bookstore. See, that's the benefit of spending some time outside the café...it can stimulate a stream of consciousness that, if not exactly the embodiment of creativity, will be a serviceable proxy. I recommend it.
My enchantment with the Lord of the Rings series notwithstanding, I'm not a big fan of the fantasy literary genre. So I was surprised at how quickly I was sucked into George R.R. Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire, which has grown to five volumes, with two more on the way. The preceding link leads to a Wikipedia entry which has a pretty good summary of the plots of the five books, if you're interested in knowing more.

Book CoversI've spent the past four or five months slogging through the e-book series - the equivalent of more than 4,000 hardback pages - finishing up A Dance With Dragons last night. I must say that if the true test of a novelist's skill is to make the reader so emotionally involved with the characters and plots that he or she gets angry with the writer when things don't turn out "right," then Martin must be deemed a true master of the genre.

A Dance With Dragons has one of the worst endings - meaning "it's not the way the book should end if there's any justice in the world" - I've ever encountered. Not only did it end abruptly, as if Martin grew suddenly weary of wordsmithing, but it also [seemingly] ended the lives of some of the book's primary characters, although in a fantasy novel, much is not what it seems. But with possibly years to go before we find out what happened, or happens next, this is very uncomfortable for the reader.

Of course, IANAN (I Am Not A Novelist), and so I can't really get inside Martin's head and know his motivations or strategies. I would love to ask him a few questions, such as...

  • Do you already know how A Song of Ice and Fire will end, and the dispositions of each of the primary characters, or will you let the rest of the story evolve in ways you can't yet anticipate?

  • I haven't counted them, but I'm guessing you've introduced and fleshed out a couple hundred characters over the course of the series. Many of them are now dead. How do you keep up with each of them, and how do you decide their roles in the unfolding story?

  • You've taken fifteen years to write the first five books, and there was a six year gap between A Feast For Crowns and A Dance With Dragons. How long will you make us wait for the next installment?

  • Really? Seriously?!
I hesitate to recommend this series to you if you've not already gotten hooked. Martin's maddening habit of making you invest deeply and emotionally in characters and then killing them off is, well, maddening. On the other hand, you'll not find a richer alternate universe anywhere in literature.

Another 15 seconds of "fame"
September 13, 2011 6:19 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember this post? No? Can't say that I blame you; it dealt with some pretty obscure subject matter.

Book coverWell, unless you're a musician and music historian who's writing a scholarly book about the musicians of Alabama including Gene Sullivan and who had almost despaired of finding a photograph of Mr. Sullivan...until he stumbled across this here blog-like thing. And if you do happen to be Mr. C.S. Fuqua, you might just want to include the scanned photograph from the Gazette in Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, which is scheduled for publication this week and will be available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher's website.

Mr. Fuqua was kind enough to notify me today via email of the book's impending publication, and to send along a PDF of the book cover and the section of the book about Gene Sullivan. I particularly liked the accompanying image.

Scanned Photo

It looks like an interesting book. I'm going to order two copies. One for me to read, and one for my mom, because she'd never forgive me if I didn't.

Also, it's just another reason why I keep blogging (however sporadically)...you never know when even an obscure post will touch a nerve or fill a need for someone else.

Book Review: "Feed" and "Deadline"
July 23, 2011 7:12 AM | Posted in:

Imagine a scenario where every mammal on earth is infected with an incurable mutant virus that generally remains dormant until the moment of death, at which point the virus springs into action. Its goals are simple - survive and replicate - and it achieves these goals by taking over the dead host's neural and muscular systems, and begins to seek out new living hosts. In other words, it makes them into zombies.

Book coversConsider the implications. Every person, every warm-blooded animal weighing more than forty pounds (the threshold for critical mass) will eventually become the walking dead, with no purpose other than to infect others in order to propagate the virus. A second "death" is required to stop them and so every human with the means carries a weapon and lives with the idea that each new day they may be forced to "kill" a family member or co-worker.

This is the basic premise for the Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant. The first two books have been published: Feed and its sequel, Deadline. Both are available in eBook and paperback versions.

But don't let the zombie angle throw you. These are not George Romero ripoffs (although in the not-that-distant future of the books, Romero's movies have become not entertainment but training films). They are sly, fast-paced, and fully fleshed-out (pardon the pun) looks at a terrifying future, and they feature unforgettable characters and plot twists that are as surprising as any mainstream page-turner on the market. And the main characters are professional bloggers. (Perhaps the most unbelievable part of this science fiction scenario is that they are actually profitable professional bloggers.)

Feed introduces us to the primary cast of characters and provides the societal and political context for the trilogy. If there's a theme, it's don't mess with a blogger with a big gun and a bigger audience. The Deadline continues with the same cast - sort of - and adds a conspiracy of surprising origin.

Grant has succeeded in combining real science (the references to microbiology, virology, and epidemiology ring true), technology, social media, journalism, and weapons (it's still about zombies, you know) into a fast-paced, believable new and scary world. My only complaint is that her religious and political views are rarely in line with mine; your mileage may vary.

Reading List
May 3, 2011 9:08 PM | Posted in:

Here's what I'm reading now. Well, not right now, because I'm writing this. Don't be so literal (pun intended). Also, because I know you care about such things, I'm including a parenthetical note about the method of word delivery.

  • The Dark Design - The third installment of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld saga. Riverworld is ridiculously audacious in scope and complexity, and should be on the must-read list of every aficionado of speculative fiction [or, sci-fi geek, if you prefer]. (iBooks edition on iPad)

  • Freddy and Fredericka - I read Mark Helprin's hilariously insightful novel about the future king of England a year ago (read my brief review here). It seemed like a logical choice to accompany the hype surrounding the royal wedding. And it's even better the second time around. (Kindle edition on iPad)

  • Low Country Summer - This is, frankly, a chick-flick novel, authored by Dorothea Benton Frank. I'm reading it because the publisher, HarperCollins, sent me a copy to review. Don't tell anyone, but it's pretty darned good. Watch for a complete review within the next few weeks. (Treeware version)
How can I possibly balance three such disparate tomes, you might ask. It's actually easy, now that I've given up completely on trying to focus or concentrate on any given subject for more than fifteen consecutive minutes. I blame social media, artificial sweeteners, and an increasing awareness of human mortality.

Character Development in Serial Novels
February 15, 2011 10:14 PM | Posted in:

I wrote a bit late last year about Tim Dorsey's series of novels in this Random Thursday post. At that time, I had read three of the installments and was starting on the fourth. As of earlier this evening, I've now finished a dozen, and have just downloaded the 13th (and last) in the series.

In the beginning, I inadvertently skipped around in the series before I realized that Dorsey had published a recommended reading order; even though the series has a linear story, he intended the books to be read in order of publication date. Fortunately, my oversight probably resulted in his selling more books than he might otherwise have.

The reason is simple: had I begun with the first book in the series, Florida Roadkill, I likely would never have sought out subsequent offerings, because I didn't like the main character. Dorsey's portrayal of Serge Storms, an amoral, borderline psychopathic, hyperactive Florida history addict and budding serial killer evoked little sympathy or affinity in this reader...and small wonder, you're thinking. What's to love about a serial killer? (Disregard Dexter for a moment.)

But here's an interesting thing, and a lesson for authors. Whether intentionally or by accident, Dorsey evolved Serge's personality into someone who - if not exactly lovable or sympathetic - is multi-faceted enough to engender something akin to goodwill on the part of readers who are patient enough to get to know him.

For example, in the introductory novel, Serge wasn't much of a drinker, but he did indulge in the occasional beer. In subsequent books, he was a teetotaler, which made him more interesting when contrasted with the completely hopeless addicts who inexplicably became his sidekicks and companions. In the beginning, he was humorless and ruthless; later, his ruthlessness was still evident, but it was tempered with a kind of vigilante justice that he directed toward those who preyed on the most helpless segments of society. (OK, there was still the occasional random, overly violent murder, but nobody's perfect.) Serge also became more introspective, exploring his own motivations along with the readers, although this exercise was generally more entertaining than enlightening.

Dorsey did something else with his main character that offers a good lesson for authors: he never completely described his physical characteristics. Medium height, athletically thin, prematurely gray, with piercing eyes. That's pretty much all there is to know about Serge's appearance throughout the series. This approach allows the reader to modify the character to his or her own notions, for better or worse. Sometimes less really is more.

The Serge Series (my own title; Dorsey has never, to my knowledge, put a label on it) won't be to everyone's taste. But as a primer on how to develop a recurring character, it's downright fascinating.
I received an email yesterday from Josh Wallaert, the web editor for Places, which is described as an interdisciplinary journal of contemporary architecture, landscape, and urbanism, with particular emphasis on the public realm as physical place and social ideal. Josh wanted to draw attention to a new essay by Cornell University architecture professor Jim Williamson.

I was a bit skeptical that an article emanating from an Ivy League school would be of much interest to Gazette readers, but I clicked over...and think you should do the same. With an enigmatic title, What Passes for Beauty: A Death in Texas recounts the author's experience designing a grave site for a West Texas rancher while working for a firm in Midland during the 1970s.

It's an anecdote that accurately captures some of the spirit of the region, both in terms of the character of the land and of its ranching inhabitants. It's also an interesting coincidence that Professor Williamson's on-campus address is Sibley Hall, given that the Sibley ranching family has a long and storied history in West Texas.

The only minor quibble I have with the article is that it's apparently been a while since Williamson has visited the Permian Basin, given his observation that the oil is now "mostly gone." He would likely be amazed at the current vitality in the oil and gas industry in our region.

Random Thursday
December 9, 2010 8:55 AM | Posted in: ,

Scattershooting while making frantic preparations to defend the Gazette against the inevitable attack by WikiLeaks sympathizers who are targeting high profile websites.

  • While most people probably look for novels to read during summer vacations, the year-end holiday season is also a good excuse to look for some light reading, especially when curled up by a fire and accompanied by a steaming mug of coffee as a howling north wind propels tumbleweeds across the front porch. If you agree, here are a few recommendations.

    • Tim Dorsey authors an ongoing series of semi-related, genre-busting novels set primarily in Florida. They're what you might get if you mashed up Florida Monthly, True Crime, and Mad Magazine. Or, if you prefer movie metaphors, they're the result of retaining the Coen Brothers and Monty Python to remake Scarface. If a series of books whose primary recurring character is a serial killer can be described as delightfully zany, then Dorsey has nailed it. I've read Triggerfish Twist, The Stingray Shuffle, and Hammerhead Ranch Motel (and I'm starting on the latest offering, Gator a-Go-Go), and they've been uniformly entertaining and ever-so-slightly disturbing...in other words, the perfect mindless reading choice as an antidote to the holiday frenzy. (Now, here's something weird. The preceding links lead to Amazon.com's website because even though I've download all of these titles to my iPad via Apple's iBook Store within the last two months, iBooks no longer lists any of Dorsey's books. Would love to know the story behind that. Update: OK, the iBooks store once again has the books.)

    • If "action thrillers" are more to your liking, check out Whitley Strieber's Critical Mass. Be forewarned, however, that this novel is almost too realistic in its depiction of a scenario in which radical Islamic terrorists literally take the world hostage. Strieber goes to great lengths to describe the mindset and motivation of jihadist Muslims, and the effect is chilling. His eye for technical details, ala Tom Clancy, adds a riveting context to a complex and all-too-plausible plot. (I read this one in good old fashioned treeware form, from the Midland public library no less. What a quaint experience!)

    • Then there's Jim Butcher's Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files. Harry Dresden is Chicago's only professional private investigator who also happens to be a wizard (as in Harry Potter, not Gilbert Arenas). Side Jobs is a collection of short stories and one novella describing Butcher's battle with the supernatural forces of evil that inhabit the spirit world of Chicago, although, inexplicably, he never strays into Chicago politics. Too scary, I guess. Anyway, the stories are infused with humor and all the elements of good fantasy, and are mostly PG-rated in style. There's a whole series of Harry Dresden novels, and this book is a good way to gauge your ongoing interest.
  • Let's talk music for a minute, as long as we're on the subject of holiday diversions. The "Pick of the Week" at Starbucks is a free iTunes download of Pink Martini's arrangement of the Christmas standard, We Three Kings. I sampled it last night, along with other cuts from the group's new "nondenominational holiday" album, Joy to the World, and I was pleasantly surprised by the unique arrangements of some old favorites, and the inclusion of some songs I'd never before heard.

    For example, Elohai, N'tzor is based on the Jewish Amida, the "Standing Prayer," there's a version of White Christmas sung in Japanese, Auld Lang Syne is set to a rollicking samba beat, Ocho Kandelikas is a tango combination of Spanish and Hebrew, Silent Night has verses in its original German, as well as verses in Arabic and in English, and the familiar Carol of the Bells is presented in its original Ukrainian form of Shchedryk.

    If you're a Christmas purist, this is perhaps not the best choice, but if you enjoy hearing different takes on the holiday season, this is a great addition to your collection. And for those of us for whom Christmas is all about Jesus, the multi-ethnic approach to the album is an actual (however unintentional) reminder of the universal Gift that God gave to the world, manifested in the Savior's birth.

  • And, finally, give a listen to Colt Ford's Chicken and Biscuits and decide whether it represents all that's wrong with country music today (A duo with rapper DMC? A song called Hip Hop in a Honky Tonk, featuring Amarillo native Kevin Fowler?) or if it's the embodiment of how country artists can embrace changing musical tastes without losing those "down home" roots. As for me, I just happen to think it's a lot of fun.
Amazon.com's "commitment to principle" lasted about twelve hours, and then it showed that it's still in the business of turning a profit and dependent on the good graces of its customers to do so.

In pulling from its virtual bookshelf the disgusting The Pedophile's Guide To Love & Pleasure: A Child-Lover's Code of Conduct, Amazon proved that even the largest retailer is not immune to public pressure, and that community standards - however fragmented or ill-defined - still carry weight in the marketplace.

The only surprises in this situation are that (1) Amazon decided to sell the book to begin with, and (2) that it tried to support that decision with a "freedom of speech" argument. In this case, the right to freedom of speech should be strongly trumped by the basic tenets of human decency, the violation of which threatens the foundation of our society. If that sounds overly dramatic, then you're just not paying attention.

One of the first websites to break this story was TechCrunch, and this article focused on an interesting phenomenon: the apparent reliance on "the Red States" and "Middle America" to be the moral gatekeepers for America. I suspect the public outcry against this book was more widespread than that, and I would caution any one group from thinking it has a monopoly on the moral high ground in general, but to the extent that "Red State" residents succeeded in convincing Amazon to change its corporate mind, I proudly claim citizenship in that group.

In Progress Book Review: "Warriors"
October 27, 2010 2:02 PM | Posted in:

I'm about halfway through a compilation of short stories and novellas entitled Warriors. It's edited by acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy authors George R.R. Martin (whose Wild Cards series I've been devouring whenever I can find a volume in e-book format) and Gardner Dozois.

The anthology is filled with stories that go beyond the genres that its editors are known for, encompassing historical accounts, current events, and crime thrillers and mysteries. The common thread is found in the anthology's title: people (or other living creatures) who fight...for their lives, for a cause, or for reasons that the reader must discover. The stories range from suspenseful to humorous to disturbing, but they're all top quality fiction and each is riveting in its own way.

This being the Halloween season, however, I wanted to tempt you with one particular entry, a novella entitled Out of the Dark*, written by David Weber. Weber is best known for his military-themed science fiction and alternative history novels. This particular story is straight-up sci-fi at its best, but with a twist. The plot line is similar to that of the 1984 movie Red Dawn, except instead of Russians invading America, it's aliens invading earth. And, as in the movie, the invaders find that they've bitten off somewhat more than they can chew, despite their advanced technology.

But there's a twist to the story, and while I don't want to give too much away in case you're interested in reading it yourself, let me just explain that the aliens discover that choosing targets on the basis of geography without considering history can be a huge strategic area, especially when that geography includes the rugged Carpathian Mountains.

As I said, I'm only about halfway through the iBook version of Warriors, but I can already give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up for those who enjoy well-written, action-packed fiction.

*In the course of researching links for this post, I found that Out of the Dark has been expanded to novel length by the author. Unfortunately, the reviews on Amazon.com are not generally kind (and they're filled with spoilers, so investigate at your own risk).

There are a number of reasons for the absence of posts around here, but at least one of the more valid ones is that I've been reading more books lately. I figured I'd break the blogging drought and share a bit about those books, which fall into two categories: memoirs and zombies.

In the former category we have two books by the same author, Jeanette Walls: The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses. Both of these books were recommended by relatives - an aunt for one and a cousin for the other - and they were absolutely correct in their strong recommendations.

The Glass Castle was published a few years ago, but Half Broke Horses is new and is actually a prequel to The Glass Castle. Both books trace the lives of the author and her family, starting with her grandmother (in Half Broke Horses) and continuing through her own upbringing (in The Glass Castle). I don't know that I'd go so far as to recommend reading Horses before Castle, but if it worked out that way for you, I don't think you'd be disappointed.

Walls is a splendid storyteller, and her early childhood unfolds like a slow motion train wreck. At times, I didn't want to look, but I couldn't help it. If you want to feel better about how you were raised, The Glass Castle might just be the ticket.

Half Broke Horses was a bit more enjoyable for me, because most of it takes place in the desert Southwest, including West Texas. Walls account of her grandmother's life as a rancher/teacher is just fascinating. She calls the book a "true life novel" because she wasn't able to verify all the stories she heard about the characters in the book, but that's in no way a shortcoming.

I highly recommend both books.



Once I got past the relative intensity of the preceding volumes, I was ready for lighter fare, and I succumbed to the temptation to download the Kindle edition of a book I'd had my eye on for more than a year: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. I can't recall when I enjoyed a book this much. According to other reviews, 85% (an odd number, made more credible by its oddity) of the original novel was retained, with the remainder being comprised of "ultraviolent zombie mayhem." Actually, the mayhem was rather tame, although there was quite a bit of vomiting into one's own hands, which I assume was the etiquette of the day, yet another reason I'm glad not to live in 19th century England. But it added just the right amount of edge needed to produce a first-rate satire.

OK, let's stop for a moment for a confession. I've never read Pride and Prejudice. I know; I'm a crass philistine, a backward rube. But if Jane had written her book this way in the beginning, I think she'd have reached an audience that was hitherto inaccessible. I could be wrong.

Another strong recommendation, especially if you enjoyed the original, because - face it -  everything is better with zombies.



So, while I was in a zombie state of mind, I grabbed another Kindle book from the genre: Best New Zombie Tales, Volume One, a collection of short stories assembled by James Roy Daley. It was on sale via Amazon.com for $2.99 and thus irresistible. The Kindle version of the book (which appears to be the only version available) was horribly laid out, with weird page breaks and misspelled words, but those flaws seemed to just highlight the pulp fiction attractiveness of the subject matter. And, in fact, there are more than a few excellent tales in this collection of nineteen short stories.

Think about it. The concept of the dead returning to life is rife with possibilities beyond the shambling brain-eating stereotype. For example, what if the undead weren't really evil; what rights might they have as nonproductive but also non-consumptive members of society? What are the theological implications of zombies (other than the idea that they'd make darned fine church ushers, at least the non-brain eating ones)?

Some of the stories in the collection bordered on high schoolish lameness, while others were right out of Stephen King's playbook (although in a couple of cases, executed better, no pun intended). If you're in the mood for this kind of speculative/horror/fantasy fiction, you'll more than get your money's worth.



Bonus review: Somewhere in the midst of all the preceding, I also read Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest. This was another Kindle version, although it's also available in paperback. It's a steampunk alternative-history novel set in Seattle during the Civil War, and the city has been overrun by - wait for it - zombies. If you're into the whole steampunk thing (and if you don't know what that is, you're not), this is worth reading. Otherwise, meh.
I've previously recommended The Oil Drum blog as a resource for all things energy-related, but it also directed me to one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a long time, Mark Helprin's 2006 Freddy and Fredericka. I'll even borrow the blog's summary of the book's premise, if you're not inclined to click over:
...the future King and Queen of England are dropped naked from an airplane into America as sort of a rite of passage. Though heir to the throne and infinitely wealthy back home, Freddy must use only his wits, skills of persuasion and physical abilities to somehow rise to the unlikely position of the leader of the USA - if he manages this, basically from scratch, he will then have earned the throne of England not only due to hereditary decree but via his own merits.
The book is, as the Oil Drum writer puts it, a hilarious romp - often bordering on Monty Pythonesque silliness - but it's also a sweet love story, and a thought-provoking essay on what it means to be a servant-leader. The British monarchy is an institution that many believe has no place in the 21st century, and the Royals have frequently been their own worst enemy in terms of public perception. But Helprin manages to bring to life a picture of a would-be king whose human foibles (and boy, are they manifold!) are tempered by a nobility of purpose that's sadly lacking in American politics.

Freddy and Fredericka works on several levels. Read it for pure entertainment and escapism, or look for underlying messages of loyalty and self-sacrifice.

The book is also available in a Kindle edition.


Forgetting J.D. Salinger
January 29, 2010 9:23 AM | Posted in: ,

The media is filled today with stories about the impact that J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye made on impressionable [mostly] young readers. For example, the co-hosts of NBC's Today Show shared their recollections of how the book affected them, with Matt Laurer stating that he remembered being proud that Catcher was his first "real book."

I must be one of the few people in America who don't have a similar story to share. I'm pretty sure I've read the book and I think we still have a copy somewhere in our home library, but frankly, it made absolutely no lasting impact on me. I can't recall a single detail from Catcher other than the name of the lead character, Holden Caufield. And all this talk about the author and the book has stimulated no desire whatsoever to find the book and [re]read it.

A friend recently tagged me via Facebook for the "15 Books That Affected Me" meme. While I didn't respond (Sorry, Joe; nothing personal, but I don't do Facebook memes. I don't do much of anything Facebook, but that's another story.), I did spend about thirty seconds thinking about it, and in light of today's Catcher lovefest, it seems appropriate to list at least a few books from my youth that did stay with me.

I was a big fan of science fiction as a kid, and while that ardor has cooled somewhat over the years, the books I remember most tend to come from that genre. Robert Heinlein's New Agey (the term hadn't been invented at that time, AFAIK) Stranger in a Strange Land made an impact on me, as did Harlan Ellison's short story collection, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. And, of course, the list wouldn't be complete without Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and its prequel, The Hobbit. (And in the interests of complete transparency, there was that one summer when a copy of J. D. Southern's scandalous novel Candy circulated between beach towels at the Fort Stockton public swimming pool, the "best" passages easily found by their dogeared pages.)

I wish I could point to more intellectually sophisticated reading material - and my reading habits really were more varied than they may seem - but there it is. Salinger and Catcher may have shaped a generation, but I never got on that particular bus.

Book Review: "Under the Dome"
January 12, 2010 9:43 PM | Posted in:

Is it just me, or has Stephen King gotten grosser in his old(er) age?

I confess that it's been a long time since I read one of his books (Pet Sematary? The Tommyknockers?) but having recently completed the 18,000 pages* of his latest novel, Under the Dome, I confess that I was shocked - shocked, I tell you - by the author's use of graphic language and imagery.

Yeah, I know, he's a master of the horror/supernatural novel and that genre in its modern incarnation seemingly requires language that oversteps all the bounds of propriety (a lesson that Edgar Allan Poe obviously never mastered, poor hack). But I don't recall that The Stand, for example, succumbed to such obvious gross-for-grossness-sake as Under the Dome.

When you couple that with characters that are more one-dimensional than usual (especially those unfailingly über-hypocritical creatures known as Christians) and throw in some plot gaps that defy rationalization, you end up with a book that will make you regret the time you invested in it.

It's a shame, too, because the basic premise was promising. A transparent impermeable dome materializes over a small town in Maine. The sudden isolation of the population and the mysterious source and properties of the dome should have made for a more sophisticated and riveting novel, but King just can't seem to pull it off, giving us instead the junior high treatment, and re-purposing all of his usual conventions (kids with prophetic dreams and visions...who saw that coming?). After all is said and done, I just can't recommend it.

*I'm not exaggerating, because I read the whole darned thing on my iPhone's Kindle application. The Whole. Darned. Thing.

Bird
November 20, 2009 9:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I see a lot of websites during the course of a week. Many of them are design-related and thus represent what should be the most striking, innovative, and creative examples the profession can build. Still, it's not often that I run across one that simply takes my breath away.

This is one.

Andrew Zuckerman is a professional photographer, and his new book has the simple and completely descriptive title of Bird. It consists of a series of gorgeous photos of birds, both exotic and mundane. What sets his work apart from other "nature photographers" is his elimination of any context for the subject; the photo consists of an image of the bird against a pure white background. This makes for a striking image, and allows the eye to focus completely on the details of each specimen.

The website for Bird goes one step further by providing an audio recording of each bird's call. This added dimension allows the visitor to create his or her own context, albeit an incomplete one, although that depends on the extent of one's imagination.

I'm not a fan of websites built with Flash, but this is probably a perfect example of when the exception is entirely justified.

Bird is available via Amazon.com [link], and if you find it appealing, you may also be interested in Zuckerman's previous publications that use similar techniques, Creature [link] and Wisdom [link].
David Ulin has written a thought-provoking article for the L.A. Times entitled Amazon's troubling reach in which he explores some of the ramifications of entrusting our "collective memory" (as expressed via books) to a commercial entity such as Amazon.com.

Amazon had a recent "stumble" in which it unilaterally and without warning deleted a couple of books from its customers' Kindle e-book readers, citing "licensing issues." Amazon's founder and chairman, Jeff Bezos, later apologized profusely for doing this, but the damage to the company's credibility has been done.

Perhaps that's not a fair way to put it, though. More likely, the innocence of consumers has been punctured with respect to acquiring their books electronically, and I think that's probably a good thing. Ulin's article raises a number of interesting questions, but in the end, Amazon (or any other company in the same business) can exert only the control that we permit. As with any other purchase, an informed consumer is the best guard against commercial impropriety.

If we're really concerned that our "shared informational heritage" won't be properly stewarded by Amazon, we shouldn't be buying, er, licensing e-books from them. That's a decision each of us has to make on our own.

Interrobang Character Entity
July 10, 2009 9:35 PM | Posted in:

The interrobang is a sadly underutilized bit of punctuation, in my humble opinion. That might be because the HTML character entity coding to produce it in web pages is obscure. It doesn't appear in my [admittedly dated] HTML: The Definitive Guide but, of course, the interweb is chock full of references. So, if you want to include one in your website, use this code: ‽

Here's the result of that code, as rendered by your browser in Verdana:

OK, there might be one additional reason you don't see the interrobang used very often. It doesn't  render very impressively. What's up with that‽

Book Review: "The Metamorphosis"
December 29, 2008 6:23 PM | Posted in:

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

Thus begins Franz Kafka's novella, The Metamorphosis, as translated from the original German by Stanley Corngold. The rest of the story is spent describing the remainder of Gregor's short and painful existence as a giant bug (the proper translation of the German phrase, ungeheueres Ungeziefer ñ Corngold's "monstrous vermin" ñ is the subject of ongoing debate among those who have too much time on their hands) living in the tiny bedroom of his family's apartment.

I chose to read The Metamorphosis as a part of my Exploring Our Personal Library project. I can't remember when I last read it, but I had forgotten - possibly on purpose - its depressing existentialism. The story, written by Kafka in 1915, exemplifies the narratives of dreary and surreal life that marked his work to the extent that the author's very name has become an adjective: Kafkaesque.

I had also forgotten that this particular translation of the story contains extensive expositions, clarifications, debates, and illuminating material apparently designed to tell us what the author was really trying to tell us. The book is 200 pages in length; the novella itself consumes only 55 of them.

He died of tuberculosis in 1924, and most of his works were published after his death. Nevertheless, entire careers seem to have been built around the study of Kafka's relatively short bibliography, and even today literary scholars continue to debate meanings and implications. I think Kafka would be bemused and amused (if he ever was amused at anything). After all, he gave instructions to a friend to burn all of his manuscripts upon his death. (His friend justified ignoring those instructions with the rationale that Kafka had given them specifically to the one person he knew would ignore them. I sense a promising political career.)

Kafka himself was not impressed with The Metamorphosis. In his personal diary, entries from 1913 and 1914 read, respectively, I am now reading [the story] at home and find it bad. and Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to the foundation.

Indeed, the story itself is really secondary to the author's single-minded devotion to his craft, and to the almost mystical aura that modern critics have constructed around Kafka's life and motivations.

It's depressing to think that writing greatness requires such depression. I'd much rather think that writing is fun, but I'm apparently too naive to ever become a "serious writer."

Book Review: "Wandering Stars"
December 16, 2008 6:20 PM | Posted in:

Avid science fiction readers are familiar with several common themes: good-humored adaptation to inhospitable conditions by people who didn't ask to be there; unfamiliar languages, customs, and alien or inscrutable jargon; the guiding, intervention, or oversight by unseen-but-powerful forces and/or beings; and the triumph against insurmountable odds by those armed with little more than intelligence and wit. Given those themes, the only question one might have about an anthology of Jewish fantasy and science fiction is, "and for what meshugge reason is it that we should have shpilkess waiting for such a thing?"

Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction is a collection of thirteen short stories originally published in 1974. Via the preceding link you can order the 1998 paperback edition, but I had the pleasure of reading the original hardback version*. This anthology, edited by Jack Dann and with an introduction by Isaac Asimov, contains four stories written expressly for the collection, but the others span a considerable stretch of history, dating back to Horace L. Gold's Trouble With Water which was originally published in 1939.

If you're a sci-fi aficionado, you'll probably recognize all the authors: William Tenn, Avram Davidson, Robert Sheckley, Pamela Sargent, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The stories are uneven in quality, and too many of them feature caricatured aliens who would have been right at home in the Star Wars Cantina scene, but there's enough meat overall to make a satisfying ñ if quick ñ literary meal.

Several of the authors focused on such fundamental questions as what does it mean to be Jewish? and who can rightfully claim to be a Jew? As you might guess, those questions generally involved non-human lifeforms, and the answers generally eventually fell on the side of inclusiveness.

I mentioned the jargon that's an essential part of science fiction. Readers of Wandering Stars would be well served by the ability to read Yiddish and Hebrew, although the context of the scattering of foreign (to me) words generally permits accurate comprehension. Interestingly, while Harlan Ellison provides his "Grammatical Guide and Glossary for Goyim" at the end of I'm Looking for Kadak, that's the final story in the collection. I'd have been better served if it had come first so I could have referred to it while working out the nuances of schlemiel, schlemazel, and schmuck (if you'll pardon my, um, French).

It also helps to have some passing familiarity with the great names of Jewish scholarly and rabbinical history (which, again, I don't) like Hillel and Shammai, and of the great villains like Haman and, of course, he who shall not be named.

I found Wandering Stars to be satisfying on several levels, both as someone who likes a good sci-fi yarn every now and then, and also as one who takes seriously any race designated as God's chosen people (even if some of the authors themselves would scoff at that designation). The pleasure of re-reading this book was enhanced by the fact that I thought I'd lost it years ago.

*Holding a long lost book in your hands is an experience that the Kindle will never replace. Also, finding forgotten handwritten notes inside a book jacket that stimulate memories - or raise questions - is a wonderful thing. Inside this book is this cryptic phrase: "For Siggy Poo, Mitzi, 8/77." My recollection is that I found this book at the old Half Price Bookstore on McKinney Avenue (?) in Dallas, but that note contains enough vaguely familiar meaning to make me second-guess myself.

I took a break from exploring for forgotten gems in our home library and read two new (to me) books a couple of weekends ago. Peggy Noonan's Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now (published earlier this month) and Tony Earley's Jim the Boy (published in 2001) are both short, quick-reading books of tremendous naivety, which is for the latter a wonderful thing, but not so much for the former.

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Patriotic Grace contains a mishmash of ideas from a writer for whom I have great respect. Noonan is, among other things, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and she generally writes from the politically conservative perspective. In Patriotic Grace, she calls for improved civility in political discourse, and for an overall increase in respect with which the federal government treats the citizens that allow its existence and power. It's hard to argue against these things. However, the book falls short in recommending specific remedies, and Noonan seems to lose focus by fixating on the likelihood (or, in her estimation, the certainty) of a major terrorist hit on the US that will shake the foundations of our society and government.

Noonan's biggest lapse in judgment is in assuming that it is possible for Americans to stop defining one another by their political viewpoints, that we can somehow agree to disagree and still be civil to one another. I think the current presidential campaign and the overall state of the political blogosphere prove those to be patently ridiculous notions. All you have to do is read the comments left on Noonan's recent WSJ column entitled Palin's Failin's, where the author is demonized by her fellow conservatives for offering the mere suggestion that the Alaskan governor falls short in several areas of importance to Noonan when considering someone who might become President.

I've heard it said in church that mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don't deserve. From one perverted perspective, American political life is all about giving the other guy what he doesn't really deserve. I wish more people would join Noonan's call for the right kind of grace, but I'm cynical enough to believe it's never going to happen.

Despite these shortcomings, Patriotic Grace is recommended, if only as an exercise in fantasy.

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Jim the Boy is as simple and straightforward as its title. It's a story about a just-turned-ten boy in rural North Carolina in the mid-1930s. If that sounds familiar, it may be because I gave the sequel, The Blue Star, a glowing review last May. On a whim, I picked up Jim the Boy at the local Barnes & Noble and read it in a couple of sittings.

It was interesting to see how the characters in The Blue Star were initially brought to life, although it's not generally recommended to read the sequel before the original. But Tony Earley is such a gifted storyteller that it doesn't really matter. Both books create a world that entices the reader to the point of immersion. It helps if you had some rural experiences in your childhood, but even a born-and-bred city slicker will find much in common with the characters, as the author deals with issues that are common to and through humanity, regardless of trivialities such as where we were born or raised. (This is, indeed, the common ground that Peggy Noonan would like for us to remember during political silly seasons.)

I enthusiastically recommend Jim the Boy to readers of almost any age, although those younger than early teens might not appreciate some of the emotional nuances imbued in the characters.

...the goal of reading is to go beyond the author's ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative, and ultimately independent of the written text. ... The experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and, literally and figuratively, to a changed brain.
We were never born to read. [With the invention of reading] we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain is a delightful rarity: a treatise that will pass the strictest scholarly and scientific scrutiny while being completely accessible - and fascinating - to the layperson. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is a professor of child development at Tufts University near Boston, and she also directs the Center for Reading and Language Research. Her passion is developing a better understanding of how the human brain re-organized (and re-organizes) its own circuitry to permit people to communicate through the written word. But her research isn't limited to the historical or theoretical; she's also determined to find ways to cope "when the brain can't learn to read." And her focus isn't limited to the past or present; she's doing her best to look into the future to see how our transformation into a digital society might affect our reading skills.

The book is less than 250 pages (with another sixty pages devoted to notes, sparing the casual reader a slog through the omnipresent footnotes that mark an academic text), but its breadth and scope are expansive. Wolf takes us through the known history of writing, starting with clay tokens dating to 8,000 BC and which represented the first accounting records; to Sumerian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphics; to the first alphabet (attributed to Semitic workers living in Egypt around 1,900 BC); with a detour through Greece to explore the surprising condemnation of writing by none other than Socrates, who believed that the access to unsupervised reading would lead to undisciplined thinking, erroneous conclusions, and the destruction of memory.

The author then describes at length what goes on inside the brain when we read. Thanks to advances in brain mapping, scientists can now literally see the process of reading played out across the brain, beginning with visual recognition of the words, followed by word-specific activation, phonological processing (connecting letters to sounds), and, finally, semantic processing (assessing varied meanings and associations), all of which takes place in the normal reading brain in .2-.5 of a second. If this sounds overwhelming, never fear. Wolf considerately places this jargon-heavy science into a neat package of italicized text, and points out that those who aren't all that interested can skip to the next section and be no worse for having done so.

Then, having described how the brain is supposed to handle the process of reading, she delves into those situations where it doesn't work that way. She spends a great deal of time on dyslexia, a syndrome that still isn't fully understood although great strides are being made in that direction. If nothing else, Wolf offers great hope to those who have children or other loved ones who are having difficulty learning to read. She urges calmness and patience in the case of children who seem to be "behind the curve," as the acquisition of reading skills varies greatly among individuals.

Wolf comes by this advice honestly; her children are dyslexic, and she and her husband had several dyslexic ancestors. She presents compelling evidence that dyslexia isn't an unmitigated curse, as there are too many examples of brilliant dyslexics whose contributions to culture and society through the ages are unmistakable and invaluable. In her words, dyslexia, with its seemingly untidy mix of genetic talents and cultural weaknesses, exemplifies human diversityñwith all the important gifts this diversity bestows on human culture.

Finally, Wolf ponders the implications of a digital society, where the traditional written word has been replaced by pixels and sound bites. If the book has a weakness, it comes here, as the subject is given relatively short shrift. But at least one set of questions illuminates one significant source of concern:

Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?

I can't think of anyone to whom I wouldn't recommend this book, but I think it's an especially valuable and enlightening resource to three groups. First, educators who teach reading will benefit from the author's insights about how the human brain learns to comprehend the written word. Second, parents of young, pre-literate children need to understand the long-term significance of that seemingly simple things - like merely talking to their children - can have on their ability to achieve effective literacy (pay close attention to her thoughts about "the war on word poverty").

The third group is perhaps less obvious. I think that writers, professional and otherwise, will benefit from Wolf's perspective about the purposes of reading. Writers would do well to internalize the quote that introduces this post and ponder the implication that their words are most successful when they provide not an end, but a beginning ñ a jumping off point where their readers build upon a foundation in ways that the author may not be able to conceive.

Book Review: "The Road"
August 5, 2008 6:09 PM | Posted in:

In his devilish little book called A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose (reviewed in these pages in 2006), B.R. Myers devotes an entire chapter to Pulitzer prize winner Cormac McCarthy, calling his prose unspeakable in every sense of the word.

That and similar pronouncements were at the front of my mind as I opened McCarthy's 2006 novel entitled The Road, and the first few pages seemed to validate my reservations, as I immediately encountered incomplete sentences, perplexing punctuation, and obscure metaphors. "OK, just as I thought; I'm not cut out for McCarthy's style."

But the oddest thing happened. The story took over and it was so compelling and horrifying and tender that while the literary affectations still whirled like gnats, they were dismissed with a mental wave of the hand and I was immersed with no hope or desire of rescue. I read it through, cover-to-cover, in as close to non-stop fashion as someone with real-life responsibilities can get away with.

The Road is a travelogue through a post-apocalyptic landscape, recounting the story of a father and young son who inexplicably survived something ñ we're never told exactly what ñ but are now threatened by the aftermath. McCarthy crafts a tale that engenders dreadful anticipation. His vignettes are pictures of the horrifying lengths people will go to survive, offset against the unyielding and unnaturally optimistic force of love.

I wonder if McCarthy actually read Myers's critique and took some of it to heart. What I didn't see in The Road was bloated prose. If anything, the author forces the reader to look for what's missing in order to complete the picture. Even the repetition of certain scenes (there are only so many ways to describe a gray and dreary landscape, and most of those are no better than what I just wrote) serves the storyline.

Post-apocalyptic stories are common and often take the form of something more accessible to the masses; you just don't think about a Pulitzer Prize winner writing something like Mad Max, The Stand, or A Boy and His Dog. McCarthy has managed to elevate the literary quality of that story while still retaining some of the macabre and nightmarish elements that made those other works popular. If you prefer to consume your horror novel with extended pinkie finger, I unhesitatingly recommend The Road.

Postscript: Let's hope that the movie version of this novel translates to the big screen as well as did No Country for Old Men.

Book Review: "The Lizard King"
July 23, 2008 6:07 PM | Posted in:

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by reptiles. Growing up in rural West Texas, I had plenty of encounters with lizards and snakes, and Book covercultivated an encyclopedic knowledge of the more notorious species. But I never graduated to collector status, and thus never encountered the types of characters and degree of passion documented in Bryan Christy's new book, The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers.

Christy is a freelance writer who has been published in National Geographic and Playboy, and The Lizard King is a perfect showcase not only for his writing skills but also for his dogged research.

I don't want to reveal too much of the plot in this true story, but it's the true account of how some of the world's most audacious and successful merchants made millions of dollars through the illegal importation of reptiles and other creepy-crawlies into the United States, and how an understaffed, underfunded (and underappreciated) federal agency brought them to justice. While the book's billing as The Sopranos, with snakes is a tad over the top, the book does deliver some fascinating plot twists and insights into a unique niche of criminal activity that most of us never knew existed, much less spent any time contemplating.

The Lizard King is effective and entertaining on several levels, but not all of those levels will appeal to everyone. If, for example, your skin crawls at the mere thought of a snake or lizard, you might not fully appreciate some of the tidbits sprinkled throughout the book that serve to highlight either the reasons some collectors are so enamored of certain species, or the reasons others judge those same collectors to be borderline insane.

Some of those "tidbits" are delivered in rather uncomfortable detail, including a description of one Dr. Karl Patterson Schmidt, a respected herpetologist who in 1957 inadvertently and unfortunately mishandled a boomslang, an African rear-fanged species that's generally mild-mannered but carries highly potent hemotoxic venom (and in the world of herp collectors, such poisonous snakes are termed "hot"). He received a small bite on the thumb for his carelessness, at which point his scientific training took over and he started a diary of what he thought would be his brief illness and recovery. Thirty-six hours later, he was dead of multiple hemorrhages throughout his body.

On another level, this is a study of the "victimless" crime of reptile smuggling - except that in many cases there are victims. The author succeeds in doing what some might find unthinkable: making us feel sorry for many of the hundreds of thousands of illegally transported reptiles. While most of them are bound for dealers and collectors who, we hope, will care about them, others are used as luggage by drug smugglers, and their fate is something no living creatures should have to endure, regardless of the phobias they generate in many humans.

While Christy does his best to inject suspense and drama into the subject matter, in the end this is the story of criminals who are pretty far down on the food chain in terms of being dangers to society. That's not to excuse their illegal activities, nor to take away from the determination and ingenuity of those who brought them to justice. This is not a story that will make you quiver with anticipation of the next turn of events, but it shed a lot of light on the possible origins of those cute little turtles and sinister-looking snakes you see on your next visit to the pet store. And if you actually like the company of such critters, you'll probably learn some interesting things about them in the process.

The Lizard King will be introduced in hardcover on August 1 under the imprint of Twelve, a one-book-per-month boutique publishing arm of Hachette Book Group USA.

A.J. Jacobs's first book, The Know-It-All, chronicled his quest to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica from A-to-Z. Jacobs has now extended his version of literary flagpole-sitting to the Bible in The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, in which he describes his attempts to adhere to the laws and commandments - Old and New Testament - set forth in the Bible.

Jacobs is a self-described agnostic, a secular Jew who had almost no exposure to religion, Jewish or otherwise. The only Bible he had when he started was a King James Version which he had somehow acquired from an ex-girlfriend, and which he had never opened. But he was intrigued by the apparent fascination of millions (if not billions) of people through time with what was written in the Bible, and chose this method of trying it on for size, so to speak.

His efforts are, of course, a gimmick...a hook to attract attention (hence my earlier reference to flagpole sitting). He also picked a potential minefield to meander through, given the reverence many of us have for God's Word. (Can you imagine someone taking a shot at the Koran in this fashion, for the purpose of writing a humorous book about the experience?) So, you might be surprised that I recommend reading his book, especially if you are a Christian. Here's why.

In addition to being a well-written and entertaining diary of a man trying to live with one foot in the 21st century and the other in 4,000 B.C., Jacobs's observations and experiences provide much food for contemplation. Most of the following items were probably not even on the author's radar screen as he wrote his book, but that doesn't make them any less valid.

  • He reminds us of the Jewish underpinnings of our faith. Through liberal consultation with various religious advisers, Jacobs sheds light on the Jewish traditions surrounding many of the [primarily Old Testament] commands. We also get to see how some modern-day Jews continue to observe the letter of the Law.

  • He unwittingly demonstrates the absolute futility of living a life that's "good enough" to please God. Jacobs is quite forthright about his failures in living up to even some of the most seeming simple commandments, and his frustrations are a reminder of the importance of God's grace.

  • His attitude nevertheless serves as a valuable reminder of the importance of putting God at the forefront of our thoughts and works. We are called to be holy, even as God is holy. A good place to start is to dwell on His word in all things.

Of course, as interesting - and occasionally hilarious - as it might be to watch someone try to shoehorn ancient Jewish traditions into a modern New York City lifestyle, the ultimate question for Christian readers has to be: what about Jesus?

Jacobs lays out his quandary in clear terms: If I don't accept Christ, can I get anything out of the New Testament at all? What if I follow the oral teaching of Jesus but don't worship his as God? Or is that just a fool's errand?

In the end, Jacobs cannot - will not - acknowledge Jesus Christ as the messiah that his forefathers prophesied about, and the Christian reader will find his stance puzzling and disappointing. How can someone dive into the Bible - a book comprised of revelations inspired by God Himself with the overarching purpose of pointing mankind to the Savior - and still come away a non-believer?

Jacobs states that Ecclesiastes is his favorite book in the Bible, presumably because of its pragmatic wisdom and advice. It's ironic then that in his quest to live according to the truths of the Bible, he is unable to recognize The Truth for which the book was written. That, in the end, made his exercise the ultimate "vanity of vanities."

Book Review: "Grace (Eventually)"
June 4, 2008 4:49 PM | Posted in:

Anne Lamott continues to exasperate - and, occasionally, infuriate - me. Her latest book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, takes up where the previous one left off, and you might recall my less than warm review of that one. I had expectations of a kinder, gentler Lamott for this book, based on the pre-release publicity.

And she is. Sort of.

Lamott claims that she no longer hates George W. Bush, and she goes to great lengths to explain the depths of that hatred so we'll understand the miracle that apparently occurred when she found that she could nobly rise above such feelings. In a chapter entitled "Dandelions," she implies that she was able to release some of her hatred by allowing others to take it up:

And to be honest, it helped beyond words when Bush's approval ratings began to tank. More than anything.

Despite the assertion that such feelings no longer dominated her every waking moment, her references to the President, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, John Ashcroft, et al are sprinkled liberally (ha!) through the book, almost as many times as she mentions Jesus. I find that a little disturbing from a Christian author writing about faith.

I started to enumerate the areas where Lamott's beliefs are diametrically opposed to mine, but that serves no useful purpose. Suffice to say that if you lean toward a view of God that emphasizes His grace and forgiveness, and minimizes His call for holiness, then you'll be at home with her theology.

I'm running out of reasons for continuing to buy her books. I can get all the left-leaning, profanity-laced tirades I want from The Daily Kos or the Huffington Post, without adding the explosiveness of shaky religious doctrine to the mix. But it would be unfair not to acknowledge that when Lamott is good, she is very good, and she continues to strike the occasional soul-chord in fundamental ways.

She's never tried to avoid or gloss over her mistakes and shortcomings, and her vulnerability is something I admire. For example...

I will never know how hard it is to be developmentally disabled, but I do know the sorrow of being ordinary, and that much of our life is spent doing the crazy mental arithmetic of how, at any given moment, we might improve, or at least disguise or present our defects and screw-ups in either more charming or more intimidating ways.

And this...

Jealousy always has been my cross, the weakness and woundedness in me that has most often caused me to feel ugly and unlovable, like the Bad Seed. ... I know that when someone gets a big slice of pie, it doesn't mean there's less for me. In fact, I know that there isn't even a pie, that there's plenty to go around, enough food and love and air.

But I don't believe it for a second.

I secretly believe there's a pie. I will go to my grave brandishing a fork.

Anne Lamott has always been a gifted writer, and one could do worse when picking an author to study for the sheer craftsmanship of the work. But with this third book in a series on faith, the anecdotes are starting to seem repetitious (and some just sort of trail off into obscurity without any apparent point). And that's a shame, because up until now, I could overlook what I believe to be skewed doctrine for the overall uplifting experience of her writing. That's no longer the case. Now that I find that last thing missing, I've no reason to anticipate her future books.

No one ever accused me of being on the cutting edge of anything. I'm behind the curve in all areas of life, slow on the uptake. I defend myself as intelligently cautious; those who know me would say that I'm just clueless. Anyway, I offer that as an excuse as to why I'm just now posting about a book that was published in 2003 and which has been mentioned many times by many better bloggers and writers.

First, I have to give credit to Jim over at Serotoninrain, who was the first to get my attention about Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Jim is pretty much the antithesis to me when it comes to books, as he's always the first to find the good stuff, and you'd think that by now I'd learn to just immediately go buy and read whatever he recommends instead of waiting, like, five years. (I'd link to some of his posts that referenced the book but I think they were pre-Wordpress and therefore not searchable.)

But, then, it occurred to me that not everyone I know is as cool as Jim and it's entirely possible that some of you haven't read Blue Like Jazz either. This post is for you, especially if you are a Christian (or if you're curious about what it means to be a Christian).

Listen carefully: read this book. It takes just a few hours ñ a Sunday afternoon works great ñ and I promise that you'll come away with some new ways to think about Christianity. More to the point, you'll be challenged to look at your own flavor of Christianity through a new lens, and particularly if you grew up in the Bible Belt in a mainstream evangelical church.

Miller opens his heart and allows the lifeblood to spill onto the pages of his book as he describes what it means to be a sinner held fast in the arms of a loving God. His witness and testimony isn't powerful because of his theological or hermeneutic prowess; it's powerful because he tells what Jesus has done for him.

Along the way, he also manages to entertain the reader; this is no dry and somber work. It's often playful, even juvenile in a Dave Barryish kind of way. One of my favorite passages is taken from a chapter about money, where he describes what it's like to be a poor writer (this passage could, by the way, apply to bloggers, with the exception of the overstatement of how much they get paid):

Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to to forgive us because we envied another man's stupid words. And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more.

Christianity Today describes Miller as "Anne Lamott with testosterone" and compares Blue Like Jazz with Lamott's excellent Traveling Mercies. I wouldn't disagree; both books are now in my "read again every so often" collection, both for the writers' skill and for their messages. (Miller shares Lamott's dislike for Republicans and corporations, although he's not as rabid about it. The strength of my recommendation for this book is directly proportional to the negativism with which you assimilate this observation, as it gets right to the heart of what Christians should be about.)

You may be wondering about the book's title. The phrase comes from an almost-throwaway line in a passage about the beauty of the Grand Canyon at night, where Miller describes the stars as "...notes on a page of music, free-form verse, silent mysteries swirling in the blue like jazz." He writes about jazz a few times through the book, beginning with the introductory author's note, where he relates how he never liked jazz until he saw a man on a sidewalk playing a saxophone for fifteen minutes, and the man never opened his eyes. After that, he liked jazz; the musician's love for it was that infectious.

That, my friends, is how we are to be about Jesus, never taking our eyes off him. Because that's the surest way to show others how to love him, too.

Summer is fast approaching, and that's prime novel-reading season. I've read three novels in the past month or so, something of a record for me, and wanted to share some observations in case you're getting summer book-buying fever. (Note: There are no plot spoilers in these mini-reviews.)

The Blue Star - Tony Earley
A review copy of this book arrived, unsolicited, on my doorstep in late February. I knew nothing about it or its author, and the jacket blurb telling me that the writer was also responsible for Jim the Boy did little to work up my enthusiasm for the thin volume. I finally threw it in a suitcase and determined to work my way through it during a trip, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else...and ended up kicking myself for ignoring one of the more delightful books I've had the pleasure to read in a long time.

There's nothing particularly dramatic or edgy about The Blue Star, which is set in a small North Carolina town during the run-up to America's entrance into WWII. Tony Earley has crafted a character-driven novel that's beguiling in its simplicity, and soothing in its pace. If you're a fan of Jan Karon's trillion-selling Mittford series, I think you'll find The Blue Star has the same ambiance. I recommend it highly for a stress-free warm weather indulgence.

Ant Rating: Rating: 5 Ants

The Good Guy - Dean Koontz
Koontz's novel is almost a year old, and so all of his fans have already read it. But if you don't fall into that category, and you're looking for an edge-of-the-seat "action/suspense" novel that grabs hold and doesn't let go, you won't be disappointed in this one.

Koontz creates one of the most creepily competent bad guys since Hannibal Lector, and pits him against an enigmatic-but-just-as-competent ñ are you ready? ñ good guy. The result is not art, but it's a perfect poolside page-turner.

Ant Rating: Rating: 4 Ants

Blasphemy - Douglas Preston
Then we come to this waste of paper by another well-known creative type who seems to be just phoning it in. Preston has authored (or co-authored along with Lincoln Child) some very good novels, but this isn't one of them. He's pulled in every stereotypical character and every lame plot twist you can imagine and concocted a big mess. My advice is to avoid it like the plague. Try Tyrannosaur Canyon if you want some of the same characters in a better setting.

Ant Rating: Rating: 1 Ant

Book Review: "Signed, Mata Hari"
November 14, 2007 4:44 PM | Posted in:

The latest review copy arrived from the publisher a couple of weeks ago, hand-delivered by special courier, and I tore into the important-looking package with eager anticipation.

...rewind...

The latest review copy arrived from the publisher a couple of weeks ago, deposited on my front porch by the Fed Ex gal's signature sling-ring-and-run maneuver, and after brushing away the dirt and dead leaves, I pulled the zip tab with eager anticipation.

And so we see that the same event can take on a completely different feel depending on the intent of the author.

This same point can be extended to Yannick Murphy's Signed, Mata Hari: A Novel (a book which, by the way, I explicitly did not include on the list when I was asked by the editor at Little, Brown to indicate my preferences for upcoming reviews; nevertheless, I dutifully read it).

One can view the life of Mata Hari as an epic tale of loss and survival, wherein the heroine endures an abusive marriage, suffers the mysterious and heartbreaking loss of her children, brings an Eastern art-form into European respectability, and subverts her moral inclinations in the hopes of eventually restoring relationships with her family. In the end, her spirit triumphs even as her mortal body is defeated.

Or, you could say that Mata Hari married the first guy she could find willing to take her from a dead-end life in the Netherlands, moved with him to Java where they both became known for their blatantly promiscuous behavior, leading to the eventual loss of both children, whereupon she became a world famous courtesan (aka, prostitute) and exotic dancer (aka, stripper), and courted famous men who eventually led her to become a spy for the Germans during WWI, a role for which she was ultimately punished before a French firing squad.

Murphy, of course, took the first road, because that makes for a better -- if not completely interesting - novel. She's taken the admittedly intriguing life of Margaretha Zelle (as she was known before becoming Mata Hari) and filled in many of the gaps in the history with her own imagination. The result is a portrait of a woman who, for however noble her motives might have been, "used what she had to get what she needed." It's not a very original story, after all.

Murphy's prose tends to paragraph-length sentences, more organized than stream-of-consciousness, but still demanding strict reader attention. The book is organized into short chapters that jump to and fro in time, a technique which actually helps the story and will appeal to those of us for whom "Short Attention Span Theatre" was crafted.

On the other hand, this is a book that is marked by sexual explicitness that for some will border on pornographic. I'm not sure how knowing the details of the arrangement of Mata Hari's genitalia with respect to the rest of her anatomy advances the story for the reader. And while the scenes are not inconsistent with the presumed character of the woman, her apparent willingness to bed anything that moves - and some that don't, if you get my drift - doesn't really need to be documented with such repetition. In case I'm being too subtle here, this is not a children's book.

One reviewer began by posing a question: "Do we really need another book about Mata Hari?" The reviewer went on to provide a fairly glowing report, but for me, the answer to that question is, no - not really.

Book Review: "Dead Boys"
August 21, 2007 4:42 PM | Posted in:

Do you think your life sucks? If so, perhaps you need to pick up a copy of Richard Lange's Dead Boys, collection of short stories filled with characters whose lives are so desolate and hopeless as to make even the most committed pessimist feel like he or she is walking on sunshine.

Lange's stories are built around common themes: addiction, self-destruction, under-achievement, doomed schemes and relationships, "careers" measured in hours or days instead of years or decades, broken things and ruined people. The protagonists' stories are self-revealed, making some of the details of their lives all the more shocking or pitiful.

Nevertheless, I'll give this collection a grudging recommendation, based on the author's skill as a story-teller. Lange's prose is sparse and sharp, with an economy of words that more of us should emulate. You get the feeling that he's spent a great deal of time in the company of folks whose lives form the basis for these stories.

Lange's stories are oddly compelling. His eye for detail is impressive and conversations ring true. And just when you think you've figured out where a particular storyline or character is headed, the author throws in a twist that makes the journey more intriguing, while not significantly altering the final destination; most of these people lead lives for which the outcome was determined years before, by their choices or by fate, however you want to look at it.

Note: This book deals with "adult themes" using "adult language." It's not for children. A review copy was provided to me by the Hatchette Book Group, USA. You can read the publisher's promotional write-up here.

Book Review: "The Crimson Portrait"
December 29, 2006 4:40 PM | Posted in:

I can't say that I'm a big fan of romance novels. Can't say that I'm not, either, since I've never knowingly read one (Jonathan Livingston Seagull was as close as I ever came and it doesn't count because it was the Seventies and I was trying to impress someone). So when a review copy of The Crimson Portrait showed up in my mailbox, unsolicited, from Hachette Book Group USA, I was skeptical.

But I was also a bit intrigued, as the introductory letter from Hachette's "marketing specialist" used the word "creepy" in the summary of the book, which partially offset the comparison to The English Patient, a book (and movie) which I've studiously avoided.

After reading the book, I can honestly say that it didn't make me into a fan of the romance genre, but I can give it a recommendation to those who are interested in "historical fiction" or who like their dramas mixed with some interesting medical trivia.

The plot synopsis goes something like this. A centuries-old British country estate is converted into a military surgical facility at the beginning of World War I. The estate's owner was a doctor who was killed in the early days of the war, and his widow ñ who suffers from a pathological degree of grief ñ offered her home as a hospital. But this is no ordinary hospital, as it is devoted solely to the treatment of soldiers with severe cranio-facial injuries, injuries so severe that all reflective surfaces have been banned from the estate, so that the victims cannot see the extent of their wounds.

The treatment and repair of such injuries was at that time unmapped territory. The surgeons assigned to these cases had no modern precedents, instead relying upon ancient texts ñ Chinese, Middle Eastern, East Indian, etc. ñ and their own intuition and ingenuity to rebuild or reshape faces. Jody Shields, the author, did extensive research into the history of these surgical techniques, and has inserted the details throughout the novel.

But the book explores more than the medical aspects of such injuries. The widowed estate owner encounters a wounded soldier into whom she imbues the personality and mannerisms of her late husband, and she hatches a plan to more fully transform the fellow into a proxy for the departed doctor with the unsuspecting help of the military surgeons and their assistants, including a female artist whose role it is to record the "before and after" of the treatments.

The book's strengths are in its descriptions of the medical challenges of the day and the profiles of the doctors who did their best to shelter those in their care from the horrifying ravages of war. The author touches upon, but doesn't fully explore the extent to which our facial features define us, physically and emotionally, both to ourselves and to those who know us. Unfortunately, the reader is never drawn fully into the story; we're left to be onlookers, but not participants. The novel also has a rather unsatisfying and abrupt end, as if the author lost enthusiasm for the plot or the characters. (Some of the other reviews I read spun this into a positive thing: "you'll want more!")

In the end, even though it's slightly flawed, The Crimson Portrait is still a worthwhile investment of reading time, especially for those who enjoy historical fiction.

Commercial link: Amazon.com

Book Review: "The Medici Giraffe"
September 6, 2006 4:38 PM | Posted in:

The Medici Giraffe [And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power], authored by Marina Belozerskaya and released a few weeks ago, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's billed as a primer about the role animals have played throughout the ages in the rise and fall of political fortunes and even civilizations, but it's really a history book that uses exotic birds and mammals as hooks to get the reader engaged in business to which he or she would never otherwise give a second thought.

Each of the seven stories deals with a specific period of history and a discrete set of characters -- beginning with Alexander's quest 300 years before the birth of Christ to acquire elephants to cement his war strategy and ending with publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst's acquisition of more exotic animals for his San Simeon estate than most zoos of the time could boast -- and each does have its fair share of animal-related plotlines. But with few exceptions, the animals are peripheral to the main stories.

That's not meant as a criticism, however. Belozerskaya has created a well-researched and beautifully written history book that will both educate and entertain the most finicky reader. The accounts are liberally laced with the kinds of details that bring history to life. For example, here's how the author describes Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon's wife, a woman who built an impressive collection of exotic animals and who is credited with introducing Australian black swans to Europe:

She was not especially bright or outstandingly beautiful, but she did possess an ineffable allure. Of medium height, with dark blue eyes fringed by thick long lashes, and with light brown silky hair that complemented her pale olive skin, she began to beguile men as a teenage girl (as long as she kept her lips sealed, for she had blackened teeth as a result of the sugar-saturated diet of Martinique).

Other historical events in the book include general Pompey's ill-fated attempt to ascend to the head of the Roman empire, CortÈs's conquest of the Aztec realm, the political intrigues of 15th century Italy as seen in the life of the Medici patriarch Lorenzo (the tale from which comes the book's title), the 16th century machinations of King Rudolf II, and a fascinating epilogue documenting the "Panda Diplomacy" that occurred -- and which is still ongoing -- between China and the USA.

The book's premise -- that wild and unique animals have been used throughout the ages as effective tools in diplomacy, conquest, and political intrigue -- is shaky, and is sometimes imbued with more significance than the facts seem to warrant. But if books with historical themes seem like unpleasant medicine to you, this premise will be just the right sweetness to make The Medici Giraffe go down pleasantly, and you'll be surprised at the enjoyable results.

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the good folk at Hachette Book USA.

Book Review: "The Detonators"
August 14, 2006 4:36 PM | Posted in:

There was a time in America's history when a major complex in New York City was targeted and destroyed by an enemy that most people either didn't know existed or didn't understand its motivations. It was a time when that enemy was working to weaponize anthrax to use against the United States. It was a time when small amounts of seemingly harmless liquids could be transported without suspicion, then combined to wreak devastation. It was a time when the American intelligence community, such as it was, was composed of independent agencies apparently more interested in protecting their individual turfs than working together to share information that might help identify and defeat the real enemy. It was a time when that enemy was living and working in the very country it targeted, using forged IDs and laundered money.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Of course it does, but probably not for the reasons you think. The time in American history described above began in 1916, just prior to the United States' entrance into World War I. The "unrecognized enemy" was Germany, in the form of a network of spies who were interned in the States while their country waged war in Europe. And the sabotaged facility was the munitions factory on Black Tom Island, located in New York Harbor.

In The Detonators, Chad Millman has written an unusually compelling account of this little-known act of sabotage on American soil, and the two-decades long effort by a few passionate men to properly lay the blame for the act at the feet of Germany.

This is a piece of American history that, frankly, I knew nothing about. World War I has never seemed to have the same historical allure as the sequel, and almost everything that happened prior to World War II seems to have been overshadowed by the Great Depression. But as many are fond of saying, history repeats itself, and those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat the mistakes.

Besides documenting some uncanny parallels to our post-9/11 world, the book manages to make the real life tedium of international legal wrangling and file scouring interesting. Millman has a gift for narrative, able to deftly insert small tidbits of personality into what would be dry and boring in less-skilled hands.

Make no mistake; this is not a page-turner, nor does it offer any cliff-hanging plot twists. It's a workmanlike, well-researched account of an incident in our country's history that would otherwise remain a footnote in a textbook. Millman has breathed new life into that incident and his account will enliven the most scholarly interest in that period of history.

The primary shortcoming of the book is that the author didn't take the opportunity to address the obvious parallels between that time in history and today's. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions, and that's fine -- perhaps even preferable if the alternative is to have some revisionist dogma laid out. But one gets the feeling that Millman would have been an objective and informed guide in helping us to place some of the most important events of this century into the historical context of the previous century.

If you're a fan of American history, this 286-page book, published last month, will probably be right up your alley.

You can learn more about the book and the author here.

Disclosure: A review copy of The Detonators was graciously provided to me by the good folks at the Online Marketing Group of the Hatchette Book Group USA.

Book Review: "Vanishing Point"
July 10, 2006 4:31 PM | Posted in:

We've got a treat for you today. For the first time in the storied history of the Gazette, MLB has agreed to appear "in her own words," in the form of the following book report. The reason is simple. The Hachette Book Group sent me an unsolicited copy of the subject book for review purposes. I'm not a fan of the mystery genre, but my wife has been for many years. She's got every Agatha Christie book in print, as well as extensive collections of authors like Ngaio Marsh, Tony Hillerman and many of the more contemporary authors whom I don't recognize. So, I outsourced the review to her, figuring she'd bring a more credible eye and commentary...which she has.

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Eric is not the greatest mystery fan, so I was the beneficiary of his last free book. Please bear with a neophyte review.

Vanishing Point by Marcia Muller was billed as a "lite summer read" and lived up to its billing. While this is obviously one of a series, it is the first Sharon McCone mystery for me. I did not find it hard to get into, so not having read the other books in the series was not a drawback.

Ms. McCone is hired immediately after returning from her honeymoon to find a missing person - missing from twenty something years ago. The client is the daughter of the missing woman and she wants to find out more about the disappearance of a loving, caring mother. Of course, the more the mystery is explored, the more mysterious it becomes and the loving, caring mother turns into someone a little more complex.

I was mystified by a newly married couple who would return from their honeymoon, immediately go their separate ways and check in with one another only every now and then, but perhaps that's a hallmark of a couple that gets together later in life.

Even though it was my first Sharon McCone, she seems to be annoyingly accomplished to me. I don't mind if my detective is a caterer as is Goldy Schulz in Diane Mott Davidson's mysteries or a teacher/show poodle breeder a la Melanie Travis in Laurien Berenson's mystery series. Heck, I don't mind if she's Harry Minor Haristeen, the postmistress with "talking" dogs and cats. But I do get a little tired of the female detectives who are accomplished at everything they do - like Kay Scarpetta, in Patricia Cornwell's books. This prejudice doesn't keep me from reading almost all the books, but I do seem to prefer a detective, amateur or not, that can't do absolutely everything well.

All that aside, this was what I would classify as a good "popcorn" book; a nice book to read when you want to relax and enjoy something without the burden of thinking too hard. It was fun, easy, good for the beach or the mountains, but if you take it on vacation, take something else as well as this is a really fast read.

Book Review: "Seeing"
May 14, 2006 4:29 PM | Posted in:

I finished José Saramago's Seeing yesterday. This novel, which was published in Portuguese in 2004 but released in an English translation this year, is the follow-up to Blindness, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

The events in Seeing occur four years following the epidemic of blindness that swept the population of the unidentified country introduced in Blindness. The Pulitzer-prize winning author takes you pretty far into the book before any mention of those previous events, and even further before any of the characters from Blindness appear. Once they do appear, however, they become central to the plot and while it's not essential to have read Blindness to comprehend Seeing (no pun intended), it is helpful.

Saramago's writing style is unchanged: no regard for punctuation, sentences that run on for paragraphs, few obvious clues during conversations as to who is speaking...although none of these things, or even all of them collectively make the story difficult to follow. In fact, these literary affectations have the strange consequence of freeing the reader's imagination and allowing her or him to form a kind of partnership with the author.

This is a difficult book to review without revealing too much. I apologize to those who haven't yet read Blindness; my recommendation is not to read Seeing until you do. Seriously. Both books will be more meaningful if you'll read them in the proper sequence.

If you have read Blindness, you should know that on the surface...in the beginning...the two novels have nothing in common other than the author's unusual writing style. Whereas the first book was horrifying and brutal almost from the start, Seeing is light, fanciful, amusing -- even comical at times, in a Marx Brothers' Duck Soup kind of way. It's a more overtly politicial story than its predecessor, with an overarching theme that those in power will do anything to stay in power. You'll be tempted to look for allusions to current governments and politicians in Saramago's fictitious setting; any success you might have in this endeavor will be entirely yours.

I'll leave you with this simple warning about Seeing: it's a literary sucker-punch, and it doesn't end like it begins. If you're interested in following some of the characters you met in Blindness (who may very well have been introduced in even earlier works by the author; I've not read any of his other novels), I assure you that you'll want to read Seeing. What I cannot assure you is how you'll feel after it's all over.

Book Review: "Blindness"
April 30, 2006 4:27 PM | Posted in:

I started reading José Saramago's Blindness around 9:00 p.m. on Friday and finished it about an hour ago (it's Sunday, about 3:30 p.m.). 326 pages in less than 48 hours. That's not exactly a speed-reading record, but it should be taken as an indication of the mesmerizing quality of this novel about what happens when an epidemic of blindness sweeps through the population of an unidentified nation.

This book was published eleven years ago and there's nothing I can add to the discussion about its message. Neither do I wish to reveal any additional details of the plot. All I want to do is share my reaction to the novel, since others have expressed an interest.

The author acts as an omniscient narrator, an observer and occasional interpreter of the events that unfold through the progression of the "disease" (if that's what it is). The writing style is almost stream of consciousness, but I found it not difficult at all to comprehend. (I did wonder how much, if any, of this style came from the fact that the novel was translated from Portuguese. There's a rather poignant publisher's footnote at the end informing the reader that the original translator died before completing the work, which was taken over by another person.) But the words and construction are just the delivery mechanism for a story with details that are by turns, incredibly disturbing and touching. Those details are so vividly described, so realistic, so brutal, that one might feel transported into the story...and that's often not a comfortable place to be.

One Gazette reader wanted to know if Blindness would cause nightmares, and my answer is that if one is prone to taking what they read into their subconscious then, yes, this is the stuff that nightmares are made of. But it would be unfair to leave it at that, because the diligent reader will find eventually find some redemption in the story.

Saramago is a Communist and an atheist, and I find some of his political views repugnant; his view of the world and humanity are colored by a lens that is very different from mine. But he has created a undeniably powerful novel, one that consumed my weekend, and I don't regret the investment of time.

Next up, Saramago's follow-up novel published this year: Seeing. I think I'll wait a few days, though...maybe just enjoy looking at things for a while.

If you've ever lived in a small town or attended a small school or worked in a small office, you're surely familiar with the gossiping, the flirtations, the unnoticed revolutions, the amateurish intrigues, the idle speculation, the short tempers, and the occasional tender mercies that are woven through the daily fabric of those experiences. These things are probably universal -- the plot elements never change, just the cast of characters.

Peter Orner thinks that the only truly exotic place would be one that's completely uninhabited by people. And thus it is that while the first novel by this award-winning author is set in the unlikely location of the Namibian veld, in south Africa, the faculty and students in the Catholic school that provides the main backdrop for the story will be as familiar to most readers as the backs of their hands.

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo is set in the early 90s, not long after Namibia won its independence from South Africa. There's a small all-boys Catholic school located in Goas, which the reader will come to view as dry and dreary and hopeless as place as any ever portrayed in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Into this barren backwater (sans the water) comes Larry Kaplanski, a young Jewish teacher from Cincinnati who has volunteered in a sort of Peace Corps-evoking mission to help educate young Namibians.

Second Coming is a stream-of-consciousness account of Kaplansk's (the others inexplicably decide his name doesn't warrant the final "i") time at the school. Despite what the book jacket says, he is the main character and most frequent narrator, although others occasionally take over the story-telling. Mavala Shikongo is a young and unmarried female teacher - a veteran of the bloody war for independence - who reappears, with young child in tow, at Goas after an unexplained absence, and after Kaplanski's arrival. As the only "eligible" female for miles around, she attracts the attention of all the men at Goas, including the married ones. Kaplanski is the only one to succeed in getting close to her, but with puzzling results.

I recently posted something about "blooks," books derived from blogs. Second Coming might be the inverse: a blog in book form. Orner has chosen an unusual format for his story. The book, which is about 300 pages in length, contains 153 chapters. Some chapters are but a few sentences in length, and none are more than a few pages. They're more like blog posts than literary chapters, and a given chapter doesn't necessarily build on or relate to those immediately surrounding it.

Still, Orner succeeds in painting a complete picture of life in a place that most of us cannot imagine and will likely never visit. The authenticity comes honestly; Orner himself worked as a teacher in Namibia. His descriptions of life in the drought-stricken veld will ring true to any desert dweller, and his insertion of various facets of Namibian history will be enlightening without becoming pedagogical. And his characters are uniformly complex and imaginative.

In the final anaysis, however, Second Coming may not be entirely satisfying, leaving the reader to fill in some significant gaps (the actual ending comes ten years after the rest of the book) in the lives of the main characters. Depending on one's tolerance for ambiguity, or willingness to partner with the author in finishing the story, this could be either a strength or a weakness of the book.

Notes:

This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy provided to me by the Time Warner Book Group. The book is scheduled for publication on April 24, 2006.

Peter Orner says that he writes by hand, the old-fashioned way, in similar fashion to another best-selling author. [Thanks to Jim for the serendipitous link.]

Second Coming contains passages with explicit and implied sexual content; this is not a novel for youngsters.

Book Review: "Philosophy Made Simple"
March 7, 2006 5:52 PM | Posted in:

Tomorrow marks the official release of Robert Hellenga's fourth novel, Philosophy Made Simple, but I was privileged to receive an advance copy from the publisher courtesy of my Book Angel at Time Warner Book Group.

This was my first exposure to Hellenga's writing. He is one of those authors whose prose takes a back seat to the story. I rarely found myself backtracking to re-read a specific phrase or sentence in order to savor the exquisite combination of words...but that is not meant as a criticism. In fact, it's quite refreshing to be able to concentrate on the story without the words getting in the way.

That's not to say that this is a simple book (or a simple story). Hellenga has juxtaposed settings and plot elements in imaginative and satisfying ways. For example, as a native Texan I was fascinated by his introduction of Hinduism and Indian culture into the familiar Rio Grande Valley town names such as Mission, Harlingen, Brownsville and McAllen. One of the important characters in the book is an artistic elephant named Norma Jean, owned and trained by a Russian but fluent in the ancient Sanskrit commands of mahouts.

Philosophy Made Simple is the account of a sixty-year old Chicago produce merchant named Rudy Harrington following the death of his wife. Rudy is vigorously engaged in a search for the meaning of life, and has decided to seek the answer by studying the writings of the great philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Descarte, Kant, and so on. This comes on the heels of his relocation to South Texas, where he has purchased an avocado grove, a move that cuts physical ties to his previous life but doesn't even nick the psychic ties to his past.

As the title implies, this is not a serious philosophical treatise, although the questions it raises - and, ultimately, fails to answer...again, this is not a shortcoming - are serious and fundamental. Hellenga writes with a wry humor and a keen eye for detail, and almost nothing turns out like you think it will. His characters, human and otherwise, are brimming with surprise. The ending is loose and some will find it unsatisfying. Regardless, the book is a pleasure to read, even if you've already found the answers to the questions in life that matter. Or, perhaps, especially if you've already found those answers.

Book Review: "Plainsong"
February 9, 2006 5:49 PM | Posted in:

One of the biggest surprises last Christmas actually arrived a few days afterward, when an unexpected A-to-Z logo'd box arrived in my mailbox, small and mysterious and completely without context. Surely I'd remember if I had ordered something from Amazon...?

Inside was a slim volume accompanied by a gift receipt. The volume was Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and it was a gift from my blogger pal in PA, Jim of Serotoninrain fame. Quite unexpected, and very much appreciated, it was.

I vaguely remembered Jim's review of the book, and to say that he liked it would be a crass understatement. But Jim's, well...you know...a sensitive guy, and I wasn't sure that the book would have a similar appeal for me.

I finally finished the other two books I had started and read Plainsong over a period of a couple of days. It's right at 300 pages but it should read faster than that...only Haruf's writing often requires that you read passages more than once, not because they're incomprehensible the first time around but because they're exquisite and fascinating and once just isn't enough.

Jim describes the book better than me; read his review. I didn't like the ending; it feels unfinished, too many issues left unresolved, and I suppose this is intentional given that Haruf continues with the characters in Eventide, which Jim also reviews here. Haruf's habit of omitting all quotes to indicate dialog borders on cuteness and takes some getting used to. But I have to tell you that the scenes with Victoria, a pregnant teen and the two aging, never-married rancher brothers she moves in with after she's evicted from her home are among the most moving and true-ringing passages that you'll ever lay eyes on. Those chapters alone make the book worth the modest investment.

I've already thanked Jim privately for the thoughtfulness of the surprise, but I want to also acknowledge his generosity publicly, and give a plug for a book that he feels strongly about. As a complete, standalone work, it didn't "exalt me" (as the New York Times quote on the cover seemed to promise), but the brilliant and moving passages were more than sufficient to make it memorable.

I feel the need to point out that Plainsong is not a book for children or those who are easily offended by "strong language and adult situations." Some might also be dismayed by the realities of life on a working ranch.

The subtitle to B.R. Myers's A Reader's Manifesto is An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. This slim (89 pages) volume is indeed an attack, and it apparently struck its intended targets. After one lukewarm attempt at self-publishing the original manuscript under the title of Gorgons in the Pool, it was picked up and published as a severely-edited article in the July/August 2001 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, where it generated a strong enough response to prompt Myers to publish the book in its "original tone and length."

A Reader's Manifesto is the literary critic's version of The Emperor's New Clothes. The author makes an impassioned case that a lot of what passes for Serious Writing nowadays is overwrought, hard to read and impossible to comprehend, and, well, pretentious. He not only names names, holding up specific passages from highly acclaimed and award-winning authors, but takes on those professional book reviewers who, he says, have fallen victim to the siren song of literary hokum.

By turns, Myers examines passages from novels by the following authors:

  • Annie Proulx - Winner of the 1993 National Book Award and 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Shipping News) and most recently revered for writing Brokeback Mountain.

  • Don DeLillo - Winner of the National Book Award for White Noise (1985), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II (1991) and the first American winner of The Jerusalem Prize.

  • Cormac McCarthy - Winner of the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses

  • Paul Auster - Recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters

  • David Guterson - Winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award (Snow Falling on Cedars)

Myers contrasts passages from the writing of these authors with excerpts from acknowledged past masters such as James Joyce, Saul Bellow, Honoré de Balzac, Samuel Beckett and even Louis L'Amour. These comparisons are often amusing, generally biting, and bound to be encouraging to anyone who's ever picked up a "modern novel," read it, and then wondered silently and perhaps a little ashamedly, "just what the heck was that all about?"

At the risk of making him sound a little paranoid, here's one of his conclusions.

This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren't worthy of them. ... But today's Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead ñ and then they subject us to the least expressive form, the least expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel.

Whether you agree with the strategy Myers employs in skewering specific authors - and I must admit that he's very good at it - it's hard to argue with his main premise, that "great prose isn't always easy, but it's always lucid," and that the reader has a sacrosanct right to dismiss works that don't meet that criterion.

If Jackie Collins, Tom Clancy and Stephen King (all authors which Myers refuses to condemn for their popularity) write books that prick your imagination, then there's no shame in reading them. And if the Literary Elite have a problem with that, well, it's their problem, not yours.

This book was intended to be controversial, and I recommend it to every aspiring writer as well as anyone who feels the call to be a book reviewer. It's both a lens and a mirror, useful for clarifying one's personal tastes and aspirations in literature.

Book Review: "Consider the Lobster"
January 11, 2006 5:14 PM | Posted in:

Update: For a more interesting and knowledgeable review of this book, with the not inconsequential advantage of brevity, go here.

I think there are two basic reasons why people read a collection of unrelated non-fiction essays.1 The first is that they believe that the topics of the essays in general are interesting, if not interrelated. The second is that they enjoy the writing of the author, regardless of the topic. I suspect that not infrequently the latter reason supplants the former, and that is indeed the case with me2 and Consider the Lobster, a recently-published compilation of ten essays by David Foster Wallace.

None of these essays was penned just for this collection; each was previously published in national periodicals, including Gourmet, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, with publication dates ranging from 1997 to 2005. The diversity of the subject matter is not surprising as it coincides with the equally diverse venues for original release.

Here's a quick synopsis of each essay, in the order in which they appear in the book:

  • The Big Red Son - This is an exposé3 of what goes on behind the scenes at the Adult Video News Awards, which is the porn industry's equivalent to the Academy Awards. Also includes coverage of the Adult Software exhibition, which in 1998 was one of the venues of the International Consumer Electronics Show. I'm pretty sure that the CES no longer is associated with said exhibition.

    I'm not sure why this article, written for Premier, was chosen as the lead-off, but I thought I would have to toss the book if it exemplified the rest of the essays. Fortunately, it didn't, but I can assure you that Wallace's graphic descriptions of the industry and its participants are just as sordid and offensive as the acts the industry peddles.4

  • Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would sort of Have to Think - This 1998 review of John Updike's Toward the End of Time was as yawningly uninteresting5 as the previous essay was offensive. Strike two.

  • Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed - Apart from the title, this 1999 exploration of Franz Kafka's6 use of humor left me searching for the TV remote control. Strike 2.5.

  • Authority and American Usage - Just when I was about to give it up as a lost cause, this absolute jewel of an essay pops into view. It's another book review - although only in the way that King Kong is a story about a monkey - and for yet another relatively non-mainstream publication: Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Wallace waxes rhapsodic in his admiration for Garner's work, but the article is really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion: who decides which words appear in the dictionary, and which combinations of words represent proper usage? If you love to write, or have a love of the written word, this essay will educate and entertain7 you, even though it's something of a slog due to the author's stylistic eccentricities (more about these later). This article alone is worth the price of admission.

  • The View from Mrs. Thompson's - Written in 2001, this is an account of the author's and his neighbors' reactions to the events of 9/11 from his then-home in Bloomington, Indiana. If you're from any coastal metropolitan area, his observations might be enlightening, but those of us living in "the Heartland" won't be particularly edified, because we've already lived them.


  • How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart - Wallace was a gifted young tennis player, by his own account, and it's natural that he should, well, have a thing for other gifted young tennis players. In this essay, he reviews Tracy Austin's autobiography, against his better judgment, and finds it to be lacking in almost every important respect. But in analyzing his disappointment with the book - and with athletes' autobiographies in general - he discusses the interesting possibility that some of the very attributes that make them successful in their careers also doom their attempts to describe in any entertaining and enlightening ways those successes after the fact.

  • Up, Simba8 - Rolling Stone hired Wallace to tag along with John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. It's hard not to draw some comparisons with Hunter S. Thompson's coverage of Nixon's and McGovern's 1972 campaigns (did RS also commission that work?), but Wallace manages not to totally don the gonzo journalist's persona even though he obviously tailors the story to the perceived Rolling Stone demographic (young, cynical, politically apathetic). He never explicitly reveals his own political leanings, although his repeated references to George W. Bush as "Shrub" probably gives us a clue. However, he was obviously smitten by McCain's perceived forthrightness and work ethic.

  • Consider the Lobster - Wallace was engaged by Gourmet to cover the 2004 Maine Lobster Festival. He spends much of his time dwelling on the question of whether lobsters feel pain when being boiled alive, and extends his musings to the deaths of higher-ordered creatures to fulfil American culinary demands. One wonders how the editors of Gourmet received this essay. Wallace also muses on the necessary evil that is tourism: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing. Chambers of commerce must love him.

  • Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky - Had this fallen nearer the top of the table of contents, it would likely have been strike three and I'd have abandoned the book. I've never read anything by Dostoevsky9, and for that simple reason I'm not intrigued by the breadth or depth of Frank's five volume project about the "life, times and writing" of Mr. D. Wallace, for the record, is quite impressed. With Frank's books, not with my literary lightweightedness, that is. Although, admittedly, that's just a guess.

  • Host - This essay appear in Atlantic Monthly in 2005 and is an insider look at life as a conservative talk-radio host. It focuses on a well-traveled (a euphemism for a guy who seems to have trouble hanging onto a gig) man named John Ziegler10, who at the time of the article was hosting a weeknight show on KFI-AM in Southern California. There's plenty of interesting stuff here about radio personalities, of both on-air and support varieties, as well as some engaging discussion about exactly why conservative talk radio is so successful while its liberal counterpart is floundering (to put it mildly): ...the single biggest reason why left-wing talk radio experiments like Air America or the Ed Schultz program are not likely to succeed, at least not on a national level, is that their potential audience is just not dissatisfied enough with today's mainstream new sources to feel that they have to patronize a special type of media to get the unbiased truth.

So, those are the essays. Three are excellent, three were passably interesting, three are deathly dull to this literary philistine and I found one to be incredibly offensive. But setting aside the individual works for a moment, there are a few things about the author's style and the way the book is marketed that mystify me.

The publisher is marketing this book as a collection of hilarious essays. Now, it's true that Wallace has a droll and often self-deprecating sense of humor, but he's no Dave Barry. I'll cop to the occasional snicker, and even a chuckle or two (primarily when he's poking fun at SNOOTs in Authority and American Usage but if you buy this book expecting to get the text equivalent of, say, Calvin and Hobbes, you'll be sorely disappointed.

And what's with the footnotes, amigo?11 If you read the review from Publisher's Weekly on the Amazon.com link at the top of this overwrought post, you'll see what I'm referring to. Wallace has no qualms about footnoting his footnotes, and adding parenthetical interventions to the footnoted footnotes, with the unfortunate publishing effect of requiring 6 point type that will likely be illegible to half the reading population...not to mention the havoc that the technique wreaks upon continuity. But, it gets worse, as he Page Scan Thumbnailintroduces a footnoting technique in Host that causes the reader to wonder if whatever she was previously eyeballing has suddenly been replaced with a copy of, like, The American Journal of Flowcharting. If you're having trouble visualizing what I mean, click on the little thumbnail image at right. Those things that look like proofreader's marks are actually pseudo-footnotes and quasi-parenthetical comments. Sure, they beat 6 point type, but not by much. In addition to the challenges this eccentric affectation presents to the reader, there's at least one obvious practical implication: how the heck do they translate this non-linear presentation into an audiobook?

Finally (hold your applause), the author's command of English vocabulary (well, you can throw Latin in there, too) is intimidating. I suppose I should feel embarassed at having to look up words like psephology, prolegomenous, bruit and apsidal but frankly, after finding out what they mean, I contend there would have been no shame in the author's using more simple substitutes. (Except for psephology...there's no easy one-word synonym for this sociological term. What? Look it up yourself; I'm not running a grammar school here.) But I'll admit that while those and the other couple score or so unfamiliar words that were scattered through the essays made them temporarily less readable (and me more neurasthenic and luxated, to the point of being in a swivet), the time I spent adding to my education was probably worthwhile.

In the end, this is a book for those who love reading the English language when it's made to bend absolutely to the writer's will. Whether any of the topics of any of the essays interest you is almost beside the point; Wallace crafts words in such exquisite fashion as to make you either want to quit writing completely, or renew your attempts to gain a similar mastery.

1 Well, I suppose this is probably true for any book. [return]
2 Although in this case, there's a third reason: I was given the book for review purposes by my delightfully perspicacious Book Angel at Time Warner Book Group, Miriam Parker. [return]
3 Pun intended; boy, is it ever. [return]
4Yes, I'm making a moral judgment. If you're new here, well, that's what I do. If you're not, then you're not suprised. [return]
5It did have the somewhat redeeming characteristic of being enthusiastically negative about Updike's book. It's always fun to see one writer trash another's work. [return]
6I'm pretty sure Kafka never spent much time with, say, Mel Brooks. It's also worth noting, by the way, that Wallace is inordinately fond of the word "funniness." In his defense it is, well, fun to mouth sotto vocelly while reading. [return]
7If only by requiring you to assess whether or not you are a SNOOT. [return]
8The essay title comes from an obscure reference to a piece of broadcasting equipment that plays no major role in the story. [return]
9If that revelation shreds the last iota of I had as a reviewer of books, so be it. [return]
10Ziegler's still there. [return]
11Makes more sense to you now, doesn't it? [return]

Book Review: "Chasing Lance"
November 25, 2005 5:42 PM | Posted in: ,

How significant is the Tour de France to its namesake country? On Bastille Day, that most French of all holidays, the only financial institution permitted to conduct business is the mobile bank that accompanies the bicycle race as it moves across Europe.

That's one of the many behind-the-scenes tidbits served by Martin Dugard in his chronicle of Lance Armstrong's quest for a record seventh Tour de France victory. Of course, there's little suspense, as we all know that Armstrong was successful, but Chasing Lance is about the journey, not the destination.

Dugard has authored a number of books about human achievement and adventure, and has written articles for magazines like Outside and Sports Illustrated. In Chasing Lance, he capitalizes on his securing of a coveted press pass to bring us an insider's look at the 2005 Tour de France, the race in which Lance Armstrong not only secured his place in the permanent lore of cycling but which was ostensibly his last competition as a profession racer.

Dugard has covered the Tour before, has followed Lance's career for years, and has a love for the sport and a deep appreciation for the challenges of riding in what is billed as the world's toughest competition. He also loves the country of France and has taken the time to study its history. (Don't be fooled by his name; while "Martin du Gard" is a French author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1937, this Martin has not a drop of Gallic blood in his veins.)

He uses the descriptions of the historical significance of the towns through which the Tour traveled as context for the athletic drama being played out in the race itself. Each chapter is devoted to a stage of the race, with Dugard providing insight as to the individual and team strategies for attempting to master the difficult course. The Tour de France is replete with obscure traditions; it's also a masterpiece of modern logistical achievement as a veritable army travels more than 2,000 miles over the three week course of the race. Chasing Lance provides an entertaining education about the details of both aspects.

The pacing of the book mirrors that of the 2005 version of the race. The early and middle stages are where the heart of the battle for the yellow jersey (the symbol of the overall race leader) are played out, and that's where Dugard concentrates his attention. The strategy for the latter stages is generally centered around not making any mistakes, and there's rarely much drama in terms of the placement of the top riders. But there are still as many subplots playing out as riders in the race, and Dugard provides a look at some of those that might otherwise be overlooked, including some attention to the lantern rouge (the reference to "red lantern" coming from the light that hung from the caboose of a train), the term applied to the rider in last place. In 2005, that distinction belonged to Spaniard Iker Flores, who found no humiliation in his placement. After all, 34 other riders had either dropped out or fallen so far behind as to be disqualified from continung the race.

Dugard is well enough connected to have gotten an interview or two with The Man himself, as well as getting to spend time with other personalities well known to those who follow the Tour de France. The strength of the book comes from his access to those stories and insights, and to the fact that he covered the race from beginning to end, giving him the ability to put into overall context the daily drama (and, yes, even boredom) that played out on the road (and after the day's stage).

In the end, his attempt to equate cosmic significance to Armstrong's achivements borders on hero worship, but that's not to take away from those achievements or the effect they've had on people around the world...and especially other cancer survivors. And I don't fault Dugard for his enthusiasm for Lance, someone who, if not exactly a close friend, does at least have his cell phone number and has called him for a chat. I suspect that for any cycling fan - or for a fan of human endurance and achievement - that's pretty heady stuff.

If you're a TdF fan, this is a must-have book. Even if you're new to the sport or the race, Dugard's clear non-technical descriptions of the action and his human-oriented anecdotes make for an interesting and fast read.

Oh, and in case you're wondering...according to Dugard, Lance told him that he will not be racing again. Lance's explanation of why that's so provides the perfect epilogue for the book.

As always, I want to thank the good folks at the Online Marketing department of the Time Warner Book Group for providing a review copy of this book.

In May, 2001 25 men and one boy set out across the Sonoran Desert, determined to cross into southern Arizona, between Yuma and Nogales, from their native Mexico. Crossing into the US was easy; finding their way to civilization was deadly. Fourteen of them perished in the attempt. Luis Alberto Urrea reconstructs the details of this tragedy and presents them in an absolutely compelling account entitled The Devil's Highway

The Devil's Highway is a geographic area that corresponds roughly to the Cabeza Prieta ("dark head") National Wildlife Refuge, an area the size of Rhode Island with a permanent human population density of zero. A hundred consecutive days of 100°+ temperatures is not unheard of, and parts of the area average only 3" of rain each year. It also happens to be a popular conduit for those entering the country illegally from Mexico.

Urrea is a gifted author - this book was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction - and a tireless investigator. The breadth and depth of research that went into this quick-reading work is a reminder that being an author is difficult labor and there are no shortcuts.

Having recently read Urrea's wonderful novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter, I knew that while he loves Mexico, the country of his birth, he doesn't view it or its history through rose-colored glasses. Nevertheless, I wondered how he would tell this story within the context of the ongoing controversies surrounding illegal immigration. In a recent poll, 85% of Americans agree that illegal immigration is "a problem," and 55% say that it is "very serious." Illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, is a hot button issue to many; emotions run strong on all sides of the debate, and it's rare to hear or read an even-handed discussion of the issues. But that's exactly what Urrea gives us.

He gives us a matter-of-fact overview of the economic and political realities that cause so many Mexicans to view migration to America as their only hope for a life above the subsistence level. He shows us the frustrations and dangers of being a member of the US Border Patrol, La Migra; he also reveals the tolerance and even compassion that many of the BP agents have for those they capture and turn back. It's telling that most illegals will tell you that they'd much rather be caught by La Migra than by their own immigration police. La Migra carry life-saving bottles of water; los federales attach battery leads to body parts.

Urrea also provides some analysis of the costs and benefits that accompany illegal immigration, leaving it to readers to decide whether the math works for or against their perceptions.

But the most important thing he does with The Devil's Highway is put faces and lives and families and aspirations onto those otherwise anonymous masses about which we see only reports on the 10:00 p.m. news. The result is uncomfortable, because it injects humanity into the situation and that turns our nice black-and-white, well-focused picture of How Things Should Be into a muddy gray swirl that, for me anyway, will defy re-separation.

Urrea accomplishes something else, probably unintentionally but still important to those of us who live in or near the desert. He describes in great clarity the unforgiving nature of the desert, the way it can turn the unprepared into corpses almost before they understand what's happening.

The Devil's Highway is a thought-provoking look at an issue that has perhaps more immediate relevance than any other now facing our nation. It should be required reading for everyone who wants to debate illegal immigration... regardless of the side they take.

As always, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this book was provided to me at no cost and for review purposes by Time Warner Book Group as a part of its Online Marketing program. And, once again, I'd like to thank my personal Book Angel, Miriam Parker, for recommending an excellent work.

Book Review: "The Hummingbird's Daughter"
August 22, 2005 5:36 PM | Posted in:

It's been a couple of weeks since I finished The Hummingbird's Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea. I've intentionally delayed a review of the book, hoping to find some inspiration to describe this inordinately beautiful novel set in Mexico near the turn of the 20th century.

Book CoverWhen Miriam Parker, Time Warner Book Group's Manager of Online Marketing, recommended the book to me, she described it as "like nothing I've ever read before." I'd have to say that while that's not a particularly helpful description, it succinctly sums up my reaction, as well. This is a book that defies categorization: it's a historical novel; it's a religious fantasy; it's a bawdy comedy; it's a primer on Mexican folklore and the cuarandera's (healer's) art.

Above all, it's a gripping account of nothing less than the beginning of a sea-change in Mexican history, as we see how the life of a peasant girl sets in motion ripples that affect the course of an entire nation.

Urrea paints a picture of what can be described only as feudalism in Mexico. The gap between the rich and the poor is so wide as to stagger the senses. The brutality of conflict between the original inhabitants of Mexico and the Spanish-bred "ruling party" is likewise staggering. But even in the midst of the gritty reality, beauty and poetry is found, more often and more amusingly than you might expect.

I won't get into the storyline itself...I don't want to spoil the plot, and it's too complicated for a short review anyway. It's enough to say that this book satisfies on several levels and I recommend it highly. My only quibble is with the ending, which leaves some important questions unanswered...sort of like life in general.

One minor footnote: don't read this book on an empty stomach, particularly if you're an afficionado of Mexican food. The author's descriptions of the dining pleasures of the characters are literally mouth-watering!

[For another blogger's take on the book, read Cowtown Pattie's excellent review over at Texas Trifles, but beware of spoilers. I waited until after I finished the book to read her take, and she nails it, in my opinion.]

Note: This is my fourth attempt at this post, as I try to find the right approach to the topic. I've never been comfortable playing the role of a "critical critic," especially when dealing with so personal an issue as faith. Even now, I'm not sure how this will turn out, but as Ms. Lamott herself might say, I'm willing to throw it out and trust that God's grace will cover it. He's really good at doing that, you know.

Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith is essentially a sequel to Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, published a little more than five years ago. Both books are collections of essays drawn from Ms. Lamott's experiences and observations, and most of those essays deal with her spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus Christ. Both are well-written and often brutally honest accounts of her struggles to find peace in a life that has been made difficult by a long series of bad decisions on her part.

Unfortunately for Ms. Lamott's readers, the past half decade has not been particularly kind to her political leaning, and the degree to which she shares this fact colors almost every chapter of Plan B. She makes no effort to disguise her contempt for George W. Bush, Republicans and "right-wingers," apparently seeing no irony in the fact that those with whom she aligns politically are often the ones who hold her faith in equally open contempt.

Think I'm exaggerating about her displeasure with our President? The slams begin in the third sentence of the book. Here's an excerpt:

ìI know that Bush is family, and that I am supposed to love him, but I hate this-he is a dangerous member of the family, like a Klansman, or Osama bin Laden. In heaven, I may have to sit next to him, and in heaven, I know, I will love him. So I will pray to stop hating him, and that he will not kill so many people, today.î [Ch. 10; p. 144]

And another:

I felt addicted to the energy of scorning my president. I thought that if people like me stopped hating him, it would mean that he had won. [Ch. 17; p. 217]

And, finally, this:

But then-a small miracle-I started to believe in George Bush. I really did: in my terror, I wondered whether maybe he was smarter than we think he is, and had grasped classified intelligence and nuance in a way that was well above my own understanding or that of our eraís most brilliant thinkers. Then I thought: Wait-George Bush? And relief washed over me like gentle surf, because believing in George Bush was so ludicrous that believing in God seems almost rational. [Ch. 24; pp. 314-315]

Of course, many people have equally strong feelings about President Bush, but I suspect that not so many of them profess to be born-again believers, claiming to share the President's faith. But, doctrinal correctness doesn't fare much better in Ms. Lamott's essays.

The far-left Social Gospel leanings that she displayed in Traveling Mercies are brought into full bloom in Plan B. E.g. God has extremely low standards. Pray, take care of people, give away your money-you're cool. You're in. Nice room in heaven. [Ch. 10; p. 129] Of course, her pastor isn't much help in this regard. She [her pastor] said you could tell if people were following Jesus, instead of following the people who follow Jesus, because they were feeding the poor, sharing their wealth, and trying to help everyone get medical insurance. [Ch. 17; pp. 222-223]

Then there's her view on sin. Well, that's my word - and God's - for it. That's not really an operative concept for her purposes, though. She falls into the usual liberal paradigm (is that diplomatic enough?) of choosing to emphasize God's love while ignoring the reality and implications of His holiness. Jesus was soft on crime. [Ch. 14; p. 183] Well...no. It's a nice turn of phrase, and something we all wish was true, in our human and selfish and fallen way, but there's nothing in the Bible to support that view. He is "soft" on criminals, but He detests "crime."

In the end, if you can get past her political rantings and her skewed and New Age-y version of the Gospel, you're left with stories that are, by turns, hilarious, heart-rending, infuriating, depressing and encouraging. If you're easily offended by vulgar language, especially when used in conjunction with spiritual themes, you might want to take a pass. (After all, it was Lamott who described her conversion experience in Traveling Mercies thusly: "...I stood there for a minute, and then I hung my head and said, 'F**k it: I quit.' I took a long deep breath and said out loud, 'All right. You can come in.'")

Anne Lamott remains one of my favorite writers because her narrative and observational skills are superb. She writes from her heart, and I give her credit for that. But the skewed doctrine and caustic political attacks leave me wishing that I didn't know her heart quite so well.

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