Townes Van Zandt

I’ve been reading a biography of one of my favorite songwriters, Townes Van Zandt, another of those special people who burned so hot with talent that he consumed himself in the very process of living. I won’t be doing a review of the book here because it’s promised for another site, but I couldn’t resist posting this clip tonight. It shows the real power of the man’s music, I think, and I hope you enjoy it. Not everyone is familiar with Townes, so maybe this will create a bit more interest in his music.

There are quite a few recordings of the man’s work on YouTube and in the record shops (if anyone still shops for music in record shops). This video is a clip from a seventies documentary that featured Townes pretty prominently.

R.I.P. William F. Buckley

It’s no secret to anyone who has spent much time reading this blog that I tend to be on the conservative side when it comes to politics. I’m more of a moderate on social issues but when it comes to economic policy and government issues, I’m definitely on the right side of center. I mention that simply as a lead in to acknowledge the death of one of my political heroes yesterday: William F. Buckley.

In an attempt to keep this on the subject of books, however, I’ve blatantly ripped off for this list of books written by Mr. Buckley:


“God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom,’” Regnery, 1951.

“McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning,” with L. Brent Bozell, Regnery, 1954.

“Up From Liberalism,” Helene Obolensky Enterprises, 1959.

“Rumbles Left and Right: A Book About Troublesome People and Ideas,” Putnam, 1963.

“The Unmaking of a Mayor,” Viking, 1966.

“The Jeweler’s Eye: A Book of Irresistible Political Reflections,” Putnam, 1968.

“Quotations From Chairman Bill: The Best of William F. Buckley Jr.,” compiled by David Franke, Arlington House, 1970.

“The Governor Listeth: A Book of Inspired Political Revelations,” Putnam, 1970.

“Cruising Speed: A Documentary,” Putnam, 1971.

“Inveighing We Will Go,” Putnam, 1972.

“Four Reforms: A Guide for the Seventies,” Putnam, 1973.

“United Nations Journal: A Delegate’s Odyssey,” Putnam, 1974.

“Execution Eve and Other Contemporary Ballads,” Putnam, 1975.

“Airborne: A Sentimental Journey,” Macmillan, 1976.

“A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts,” Putnam, 1978.

“Atlantic High: A Celebration,” Doubleday, 1982.

“Overdrive: A Personal Documentary,” Doubleday, 1983.

“Right Reason,” Doubleday, 1985.

“Racing through Paradise: A Pacific Passage,” Random House, 1987.

“On the Firing Line: The Public Life of Our Public Figures,” Random House, 1989.

“Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country,” Random House, 1990.

“Windfall: End of the Affair,” Random House, 1992.

“In Search of Anti-Semitism,” Continuum, 1992.

“Happy Days Were Here Again,” Random House, 1993.

“Buckley: The Right Word,” edited by Samuel S. Vaughan, Random House, 1996.

“Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith,” Doubleday, 1997.

“Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches of William F. Buckley Jr.,” Forum, 2000.

“The Fall of the Berlin Wall,” John Wiley, 2004.

“Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography,” Regnery, 2004.

“Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes & Asides From National Review,” Basic, 2007.


“The Temptation of Wilfred Malachey,” Workman Publishing, 1985.

“Brothers No More,” Doubleday, 1995.

“The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy,” Little, Brown, 1999.

“Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton,” Harcourt, 2000.

“Elvis in the Morning,” Harcourt, 2001.

“Nuremberg: The Reckoning,” Harcourt, 2002. “Getting It Right,” Regnery, 2003.

“The Rake,” HarperCollins, 2007.

Novels in Buckley’s “Blackford Oakes” series:

“Saving the Queen,” Doubleday, 1976.

“Stained Glass,” Doubleday, 1978.

“Who’s on First,” Doubleday, 1980.

“Marco Polo, If You Can,” Doubleday, 1982.

“The Story of Henri Tod,” Doubleday, 1984.

“See You Later, Alligator,” Doubleday, 1985.

“High Jinx,” Doubleday, 1986.

“Mongoose, RIP,” Random House, 1988.

“Tucker’s Last Stand,” Random House, 1990.

“A Very Private Plot,” William Morrow, 1994.

“The Blackford Oakes Reader,” Andrews & McMeel, 1994.

“Last Call for Blackford Oakes,” Harcourt, 2005.

Buckley was 82 years old. I’ll miss him.

Down River

When Adam Chase left Salisbury, North Carolina, for what he thought would be forever, after being acquitted on murder charges and barely escaping the county with his freedom, he accepted that he would never see the place again. And for five years he managed to push the state and everyone he left behind there from his mind. But a phone call from his old friend Danny Faith asking for his help was enough to finally get him back to Salisbury despite his misgivings about facing the people who were still convinced that Adam had cheated the justice system.

Adam Chase doubted that his family had recovered from his murder arrest and the trial that eventually set him free. After all, the key witness was his stepmother who called the police and identified Adam as the man covered in blood that she spotted outside her window on the night of the murder. As far as he knew, almost everyone in the county still considered him to be a murderer, including his own father who chose to believe his wife’s testimony over the word of his son. Adam was right about the townspeople, but things were much more complicated than he expected.

Danny Faith, Adam’s lone reason for returning to Rowan County, was nowhere to be found and no one admitted to knowing where he might have gone. Robin, the girlfriend he abandoned five years earlier, now a respected police officer and still filled with anger about the way that he treated her was not exactly thrilled to see him again. His father was under pressure to sell off much of the family farm in a deal that would make many in the county wealthy but he refused to even consider it, a situation that promised to turn ugly soon. Things are tense all around and, when bodies start to turn up, Adam Chase finds everyone looking his way again, including the sheriff.

Down River is a book about choices, both those made and those avoided, and the results of those decisions on the ones forced to choose and on those who love them. It is a book about the Chase family, one of the most dysfunctional ones imaginable, a family short on forgiveness and filled with the kind of anger that might outlive them all. If the family is to survive, someone has to bend but no one wants to be the one to give in first. John Hart has created a southern gothic world in which sudden violence and anger are commonplace, the perfect setting for a family that seems more than willing to destroy itself out of sheer stubbornness. There are few shiny white knights in this story where everyone seems to have a secret to hide and a good reason for wanting to keep the truth hidden forever. But after the first domino falls, it becomes only a question of who will be left standing when it is all over.

This is John Hart’s second novel, a nice follow-up to his 2006 Edgar nominated debut novel, The King of Lies.

Rated at: 4.0

Charles Dickens Auction

It’s articles like this one that make me wish I had a spare $150,000 or so to really indulge my love of books and all-things-Dickens:

The Kenyon Starling Library of Charles Dickens is expected to fetch more than $2 million when it is sold at Christie’s on April 2.

Among the highlights is “The Uncommercial Traveller” (1861), inscribed by Dickens to novelist George Eliot. Its pre-sale estimate is $100,000 to $150,000. (See photo)

A page from the original manuscript of Dickens’ first novel, “Pickwick Papers,” containing a comedic scene between Pickwick’s valet, Sam Weller, and a gentleman, John Smauker, could sell for $150,000 to $250,000.

Now…where did I hide all the spare cash?

Resurrection Day

October 1962 was a nerve-wracking time for most Americans but it was only much later that I learned that I probably should have been closer to “terrified” than to “nervous.” I remember well reading the headlines and short articles in my thin local newspaper about the confrontation between Khrushchev and Kennedy that was happening in Cuba. There was a sense of great danger in the articles but I don’t recall talking with anyone who really believed that Russia and the United States would actually fire nuclear missiles at each other over the incident. Of course, I was only 14 at the time and may have been spared the truth about what adults were really thinking, but subsequent release of details about the confrontation show how utterly naïve so many of us were. (I do remember one of the infamous nuclear bomb drills, the old “duck and cover” routine, at my school that week but even that didn’t really scare me since I had already experienced several of those silly things.)

Resurrection Day, by Brendan DuBois, starts with the Kennedy-Khrushchev stalemate over the nuclear-tipped missiles that Khrushchev was installing in Cuba at Castro’s “invitation.” But DuBois takes an alternate path, the path we came so close to actually following, and explores what might have happened if Khrushchev had not blinked at nearly the last possible moment and agreed to remove his nuclear weapons from Cuba.

Ten years later, 1972-America has still not recovered from the devastation of the short war with Russia. Washington D.C. is still a blank spot on the map, New York City is off limits and has been fenced in by the military, and the country is still partially dependent on food supplies from Great Britain in order to feed people in its major cities. Russia has been effectively wiped off the map and its survivors forced into primitive living conditions in which their long term survival is still in doubt. It seems that the Soviet arsenal was greatly overrated and contained far fewer missiles capable of reaching the U.S. than had been thought before the war.

Carl Landry, military veteran turned Boston newspaper reporter, opens up a can of worms when he refuses to end his investigation into the murder of an old man who had contacted him with promises of a huge story. Despite being warned off the story by his editor and the paper’s resident military censor, Landry keeps snooping around and begins to uncover, with the help of his new British girlfriend, secrets about the true condition of New York City, the upcoming presidential election, and a plot between British and American military forces.

Brendan DuBois has created an intriguing version of America struggling to recover from the loss of its major city and its capitol. It is an America in which many want to believe that Kennedy survived the destruction of Washington D.C. and will return to power with a plan to rebuild the country while others despise him and blame him for being so trigger happy that he started a war that resulted in the deaths of millions of Americans and Russians. It is a world in which most of America’s former allies seem to delight in the fact that she is on her knees and needs their help, a condition in which some wish her to remain forever more. It is a country filled with paranoid citizens who truly do have to worry about being watched, arrested, and sent to detoxification camps if they say the wrong things to the wrong people.

Resurrection Day is not perfect. It probably overstates the difficulty that America would have rebounding from the kind of limited nuclear war described, one she actually won, and some of the characters, particularly the chief villain of the piece, are a bit on the stereotypical side and the ending feels a little too formulaic, too much like the culmination of so many other “spy thrillers,” But fans of alternate history will appreciate the world that DuBois created for us to ponder and should take a look at Resurrection Day.

Rated at: 3.5

Short Story Monday VIII – Perhaps a Miracle

When is a short story not a short story? I’ve been a big fan of Ellen Ghilchrist’s writing for several years and decided to read one of her short stories today as a change of pace from the string of Joyce Carol Oates stories I’ve been featuring…and I absolutely love the cover of The Courts of Love, so that book was an easy choice from which to choose a story. But after reading “Perhaps a Miracle” I discovered that the first 180 pages of the book are an assortment of stories featuring Nora Jane Whittington, former hippie, mother of twins, who is now returning to college.

It’s not so much that the first nine stories are about one person that makes me wonder what to call this one. It’s that these nine seem to be in chronological order and that, taken together, they tell one story. Does that make these stories into nine chapters of a novella? Did I read a short story this afternoon or chapter one of a book? All that aside, this is a good story and it does make me want to read more of the stories to see what will happen next, so Ms. Gilchrist was successful whatever the format this should be called.

“Perhaps a Miracle” is the story of a very much in love couple, parents of ten-year-old twin girls and doing quite well for themselves. But things do tend to get complicated don’t they? One evening, sensing that something is desperately wrong, Nora Jean rushes naked to the family swimming pool just in time to keep a small neighbor boy from drowning. What Nora Jean doesn’t know about her neighbor, the little boy’s grandmother, promises to complicate her life in a way she can’t even begin to imagine: the boy’s mother is living with a former lover of Nora Jean’s, a man who fathered one of the twins. I’ll bite…can’t wait to hear the conversation between Nora Jean’s husband (who has already conceded to himself that he might not be the father of the girls) and the ex-lover when/if they come face-to-face after more than ten years of not having seen each other. There’s a novel in there for sure.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage

Seldom have two heads-of-state been better matched to work for common goals than were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. However, neither their personal relationship nor their political one was as placid as usually portrayed for benefit of the general public on both sides of the Atlantic. Nicholas Wapshott’s dual biography, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, offers a more realistic look at the personal relationship that helped change the course of world history by so directly contributing to the end of the Cold War.

Reagan and Thatcher, whose terms in office overlapped by the eight years of Reagan’s presidency, first met in 1975 at the suggestion of a friend of Reagan’s who believed that the two would be natural political allies. At the time of their meeting, Thatcher had just been elected Conservative leader and Reagan had just finished his second term as governor of California and was being pressed by some for a run at the presidency. On that eventful day, the pair found their political views to be almost identical and they forged an alliance, both personal and political, that would remain strong and productive throughout Reagan’s entire term as President of the United States.

Margaret Thatcher saw Ronald Reagan as an inspirational figure but Reagan’s tremendous respect for her political skills, and his willingness to listen to her and to take her advice on a regular basis, placed Thatcher in the unusual position of being almost an unofficial member of the Reagan Cabinet. As a result, Thatcher influenced American international policy like no world leader other than Winston Churchill had ever done before her. She was not afraid to make demands of Reagan and she found him a willing listener who could often be moved in the political direction that she preferred as British Prime Minister.

That is not to say that Ronald Reagan always gave in to Margaret Thatcher’s arguments, but she knew that she could always count on Reagan to give her point-of-view a fair hearing. Together, the two leaders hastened the demise of the Soviet Union by keeping the “heat” on its leadership and by engaging their two economies in a spending war for military weapons that the Soviets could not long sustain.

On the surface, the two seem to have had little in common. Thatcher’s formative years as a shopkeeper’s daughter, with a religious father who seldom allowed alcohol in his home, was very different from the childhood endured by Reagan, son of an alcoholic father who could barely afford food and shelter for his family at times. But remarkably Thatcher and Reagan ended up with the same strong beliefs that nothing was more important than family and religious faith. Both believed in hard work and developed a true appreciation for those who made their living in “trade,” producing a strong belief in each of them that everyone deserves respect and fair treatment regardless of social class or financial worth, lessons that served each of them well in their political careers.

Nicholas Wapshott’s use of the treasure trove of hundreds of recently declassified letters, notes, transcripts of telephone conversations and recollections of many who witnessed the relationship as insiders has resulted in an effective political history of the eighties and the kind of dual biography that political junkies everywhere will enjoy. Taken alone, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would have likely been recognized as remarkable politicians, but taken together as a unified team with common goals they enjoyed the kind of success that the pairing of George W. Bush and Tony Blair could only dream about. What they accomplished by joining forces was astounding.

Rated at: 4.0

Award Winning Faces

I’m not nearly the movie fan that I was a decade or so ago, but I stumbled upon this really well done “morphing” of actresses that I want to share here in honor of the upcoming Academy Awards show. The scary thing is that I could come up with so few names as the beautiful faces kept coming at me nonstop. See how you do. (You can click on pause if you want to think for a second but the real impact comes from letting the thing run at its normal speed.)

Click here to see some of the most beautiful women in movie history.

Canada Reads

John Mutford made me aware of this CBC radio program last year when he was lobbying the CBC for a place on the 2008 panel. It appears that the five-person panel is again made up of celebrity types and that John, despite his love of books and reading and what that passion would have added to the discussions, was probably never seriously considered to join the group. That’s an assumption on my part, of course, but it certainly appears that the CBC did not want to put a “non-celebrity” into the mix.

I was reminded of John’s quest this morning when I noticed a Vancouver Sun article about the 2008 programs that will be aired next week.

The format, which produces an energetic, often heated conversation, stays the same: Starting Monday, five celebrity panelists will each bring a favourite work of fiction to the table. At the end of each day, one book will be voted off. The book all Canadians are urged to read in 2008 will emerge Friday.

Perhaps the best news about “Canada Reads” is that those of us out of range of a CBC radio station will be able to listen in this year because podcasts are being produced for each of the daily segments.

This year, the debate can be heard on CBC Radio One at 11:30 a.m. or 7:30 p.m. In addition, it’s being televised on the digital channel Country Canada ( and, for the first time, there’s a podcast (see so that, as Jansen says, you can follow the debate while walking the dog.

Perhaps John shouldn’t feel too badly about being left off the 2008 panel. It looks as if he’s been beaten out by a Canadian astronaut.

This year, the wow factor will be provided by astronaut Steve MacLean, who will represent the novel Icefields, by Thomas Wharton. How often do you get to hear an astronaut muse about literature?

Frankly, I think that the CBC is still missing a sure bet by not including someone like John on the show to debate his favorite Canadian book of the year. I doubt seriously that anyone chosen this year will exhibit the kind of passion that a true book lover like John would have shown.

But since I’m always a little bit irritated that I know so little about Canadian authors and what is happening in the book world north of the border, I’m going to try to make the podcasts work for me…maybe next year, John, maybe next year.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (2003)

Let’s just say that if God does not have a keen sense of humor, Christopher Moore is in a lot of trouble because “the Gospel according to Biff” is filled with the kind of irreverent, often slapstick, humor for which Moore has become well known. Without a doubt, some readers will consider the book to be blasphemy and will not get far with it; most, I think will enjoy Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal as the humorous and rather tenderly told coming-of-age story that it is.

Levi bar Alphaeus, a stonemason’s son known as Biff, has been Joshua’s (the Greek equivalent of the name Jesus) best friend as long as he can remember. Although Biff and Joshua were best friends, they gladly accepted Maggie, more formally known as Mary of Magdala, into their lives when her family came to live near them. No one knew Joshua better than Biff and Maggie, and that is why the angel Raziel has been assigned to keep the resurrected Biff locked in a modern-day St. Louis hotel room until he completes his writing assignment: a new text filling in the 30-year gap that exists in the known Gospels.

Biff was happy to be alive again but really did not feel like writing down his experiences of a lifetime as Joshua’s best friend until he stumbled upon a copy of the Bible in his hotel room (a copy that the angel tried to hide from him) and saw that none of the Gospels so much as mentioned his name or existence. That is when he decided it was time to set the record straight by telling his story…and what a story it was.

As the boys grew older, Biff realized just how special his friend was and he became protective of Joshua, trying to keep his true nature a secret from anyone other than Joshua’s closest friends and family, especially the Romans. Joshua understood that as the Son of God he was placed on Earth with certain responsibilities and obligations to his people. But the details were fuzzy and Joshua could think of no one better to answer his questions than the three wise men who visited him upon his birth. Thus began a twenty-year adventure in which Biff and Joshua spent a period of several years with each of the wise men learning everything that could be taught to them (well, Biff did not learn a whole lot other than some super martial arts skills that would later serve him well), a journey that took them as far as India and China.

This twenty-year period, constituting the bulk of Lamb, is narrated with great humor and candor by Biff as the reader watches the evolution of Christian thought as Joshua is exposed to the other major religions of the world. Moore uses humor to emphasize the human aspects of Joshua in much the way that he used it in describing the antics of the two boys from ages five to ten (my favorite portion of the book). As Joshua approaches thirty years of age, though, Moore does not stray far from what is recorded in the New Testament and Lamb becomes a dark tale in which humor does not work nearly so well, though Moore continues to use it.

Lamb is a thought provoking book for those willing to read it rather than condemn it for its very subject matter. There is a huge difference between blasphemy and irreverence and Christopher Moore never crosses the line. His portrayal of Joshua/Jesus as a human being, a man with all of the usual strengths and weaknesses, has a remarkable impact. After all, at the core of Christianity is the belief that Jesus became human in order to redeem the world. Moore’s portrayal of Joshua makes exactly that point, and makes it very well.

Rated at: 4.0

My Soul to Keep

Psychology professor Dylan Foster has a problem: a demon who has dedicated himself to destroying her sanity and her soul, an evil spirit by the name of Peter Terry who loves to torment her. The demon comes and goes but he knows so much about Dylan that he always pushes exactly the buttons that he knows will cause her greatest grief. Now, just when she is ready to enjoy a brief teaching break from Southern Methodist University, she is certain that he is back and that he has influenced the kidnapping of her friend Maria Chavez’s little boy.

Nicholas Chavez was snatched from a public park near Dallas right in the middle of a party to celebrate Christine Zocci’s fifth birthday. Christine, the daughter of another old friend of Dylan’s, is no ordinary little girl. She is highly sensitive to the supernatural and her brief glimpse of the kidnapper has somehow linked her to both him and to Nicholas. It is only after Christine is hospitalized for cardiac arrest and Dylan has spent some time talking with her that anyone realizes that Christine is offering clues about the missing boy’s whereabouts and condition. She is able to describe what Nicholas sees and how he feels, often exhibiting symptoms herself of whatever is physically or emotionally bothering the boy.

My Soul to Keep is the third Dylan Foster book, a Christian fiction series in which Dylan has been doing battle with demon Peter Terry. I have to admit that I am not overly familiar with the “Christian fiction” genre, especially Christian thrillers, but I can certainly understand the appeal after reading this Melanie Wells novel. Yes, it is about good vs. evil and, yes, demons and guardian angels are some of the book’s main characters. Dylan Thomas does appeal directly to God in prayer but she doesn’t really expect to always have her prayers answered. Melanie Wells presents her as a bit of a lazy Christian, someone who might not attend church regularly but who still believes in God and the lessons of Christianity, someone who plans to do better someday but has not quite gotten around to it yet.

Melanie Wells deals with brutal characters in her story but, in what might best distinguish My Soul to Keep as “Christian fiction,” she draws the line at letting her characters use some of the harsh street language that real-life thugs are so prone to use. Her dialogue brings them to the brink of some of those words but Wells stops at precisely the point where her readers will have to use their own imaginations in order to complete some sentences. She does this so naturally that even fans of the most hardcore mystery writing will hardly notice it.

My only regret is that I was unaware of this series before book three came my way. My Soul to Keep works as a stand-alone but it did take me a while to understand the true nature of the Peter Terry character. Readers new to the work of Melanie Wells might want to consider starting at book one in order to have a clearer understanding of the plot line that runs from book to book. As for me, I’m searching for copies of books one and two while looking forward to book four.

Rated at: 4.0

Silent in the Grave

Lady Julia Grey may have married into a family even more wealthy than her own, may have lived a sheltered life surrounded by servants, and may have been blind to the harsh world outside her front door but she carried the genes of her own eccentric family as well. The woman certainly had a sense of humor, and as first-person-narrator of Silent in the Grave she displays it immediately in the book’s opening lines: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.”

Set in 1886 Victorian England, Deanna Raybourn’s irreverent novel combines elements of mysteries, romance novels and historical fiction in such a way that the book will appeal to a wide audience. I am not at all a fan of romance fiction, for instance, but despite the novel’s obvious appeal to fans of that genre, I never considered it to be a romance novel and enjoyed it for the historical detail and social observations in which Raybourn cloaked her story of Edward’s mysterious death.

Lady Julia married a man she had known since they were just children playing together and she believed that she knew everything about him. She certainly understood the fragility caused by a heart condition from which so many males in her husband’s bloodline suffered, including his cousin Simon who was dying in their home from that very illness. So when Edward suddenly dropped to the floor and died during a formal gathering at their home she was not much surprised.

What did surprise her was Brisbane’s revelation that her husband had hired him to investigate the mysterious death threats that he had been receiving in the mail for some time. Lady Julia may not at first have believed that there was anything mysterious about her husband’s sudden death, but she felt an obligation to her deceased husband to find out one way or the other. And if a crime had been committed she was determined that the criminal would pay a heavy price.

Nicholas Brisbane, expecting to use Lady Julia as just another source in his investigation, soon found himself forced to accept her as a full partner and, despite their series of adventures resulting from the investigation itself, it is their relationship that is really the heart of Silent in the Grave. And their mutual attraction means that they will be working together in the sequels that will follow this fist book in what promises to be a successful series.

Deanna Raybourn has written a first-rate Victorian mystery with an atmosphere and period details that have an authentic feel about them. Lady Grey’s sense of humor and the antics of her eccentric family keep the reader from becoming bogged down in the rather dark details of the mystery itself, a story involving deceptions, hidden sexual appetites, and disease that she could never have imagined before the death of her husband. All in all, this is an excellent debut novel despite the fact that it seemed to take forever for Lady Julia to finally make up her mind to investigate her husband’s death, a rather sluggish beginning that could potentially cause some readers to mistakenly give up on the book before it really hits its stride. At times I felt like shaking Lady Grey and telling her to get on with it. When she finally did, I found that it had been worth the wait.

Rated at: 3.5

Short Story Monday VII – "Bad Girls"

I’m starting to believe that I should just go ahead and change the title to this series of short story postings to “Joyce Carol Oates Monday” since I’ve become so hooked on a regular reading of her short work. This week I’m adding another story from her Small Avalanches collection: “Bad Girls.”

“Bad Girls” is narrated by Orchid, the middle sister of a single-parent household. She and her two sisters have local reputations as “bad girls,” although as Orchid observes that really is more a reflection on the lifestyle that their mother can afford for the four of them than on anything they have done. As she puts it, “Bad girls you could almost hear them thinking. Bad girls! some old pain-in-the-ass aunt of Momma’s once hissed at us ’cause we were doing something she didn’t like. Which is what adults mean by bad – you’re doing something they don’t like.”

Of course, the girls learned to enjoy the attention they got and they tried to “shock” the adults around them by things like nose piercing and adding purple streaks to their hair…and it worked. It made them feel alive and special despite the cynics that their mother was turning them into by bringing a succession of “losers” into their lives for weeks or months at a time.

Before long, the girls came to believe that no man was to be trusted and that their mother was humbling herself to these losers out of some desperate need of her own for love and security. They swore never to be like her and they wanted to shake her out of her complacency. Granted, their mother must be sexy they figured, but they came to equate sexiness with hypocrisy, firmly believing it impossible to be sexy without also being a hypocrite.

It is when these teenage cynics decide that they need to expose their mother’s latest boyfriend as a fraud that things get out of hand and change five lives forever. Were they really bad girls, after all? Orchid still wonders.

As is so often the case with a Joyce Carol Oates story, “Bad Girls” has been produced on stage here and in Europe. The sad little world lived in by Orchid and her sisters, and so aptly described by her in a mere thirty-five pages, is enough to give any single-parent second thoughts about haphazardly bringing strangers into the lives of children who often soak up the wrong lessons from the experience. The dangers are real and the consequences not easily foreseen.

“Bad Girls” is another memorable story from the Small Avalanches collection, a collection that I appreciate more with each story.

Rated at: 5.0

Amanda Patchin’s Reading Challenge

Amanda Patchin is passionate about books and reading but lifestyle changes in the last couple of years have really limited the amount of time that she can devote to reading: two children, a one-year-old and an 8-week-old. She found herself slipping from a pace of more than one hundred books per year down to fifty-something and feared that in 2008 she would be lucky to work in twenty-five. Amanda refuses to let that happen and she created a personal challenge to make sure that it doesn’t, complete with a public blog to track her progress and thoughts. The Idaho Statesman talks about her today:

The 27-year-old owner of Veritas Fine Books & Coffeehouse in Garden City has read about 10,000 pages since Jan. 1. That’s more than 200 pages a day, but she has a long way to go to reach her goal of 79,349 pages by the end of 2008.

In 2005, she married her business partner, Jared, and they bought a bookstore on the Boise Bench, calling it Veritas.

In 2007, they expanded and moved Veritas to its current location on Chinden Boulevard and welcomed their first child, 1-year-old Alex. He now has an 8-week-old brother, Lucius. Patchin cares for her boys while working 70-hour weeks and spending most of her nights up rocking, nursing and reading aloud from Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”

Her hands are more than full, but in an effort to preserve her sanity and intellectual edge, she dreamed up The Web site launched on Dec. 31, 2007, with a note about Patchin’s quest to read 200 celebrated books in one year, two at a time.

Not only does Patchin read 600 words a minute, she has an 85-90 percent retention rate compared with the average reader, who takes in 200 words a minute and remembers about 60 percent of the content.

“I’m not virtuous that I can read 200 pages a day; I’m gifted to be able to do it. For people who don’t have the passion or the capacity, just set a goal for yourself that makes sense,” she said. “You don’t go out and run 10 miles and get a runner’s high the first time. You have to build up to it.”

Before launching the site, Patchin decided on the big 200. It could have been an exercise in indulgence. She could have peppered the list with old favorites including Austen and Tolkien and dozens of classics she’s been meaning to read.

Instead, she went to Everyman’s Library, a Web site created by Knopf and Random House UK to honor the Everyman’s collection founded by London publisher Joseph Malaby Dent in 1906. It now includes more than 500 titles, many of which are on Patchin’s list of poetry and fiction, nonfiction, religious, philosophical, historical, biographical and children’s literature.

Right now, the site gets about 25 unique visitors a day, which is fine with Patchin. She isn’t doing this to inspire a nation. She simply loves reading, and she figured a few people might find her quest interesting enough to inspire their own, whatever the tally.

“I want to challenge people to read a bit but not in the way of saying, ‘You should do what I do.’ It’s not a big educational thing for the public, but I thought it would be fun to have their input,” she said.

I have only spent a few minutes at her blog so far, but I’ll definitely be checking back in with her on a regular basis to see how she’s coming along in what is probably the biggest personal reading challenge that I’ve run into so far in 2008. Good luck, Amanda.

Nerdfighters Blurbing Book Club

This guy is new to me but I have to admit that I like his idea of a “blurbing book club” and, since he made me smile a couple of times, I wanted to pass on his idea. After all, writing a “blurb” has to be easier than writing a 500-word review, so maybe this is something we can all use from time to time. Enjoy the temptation, anyway.

From the looks of things, the “vlogbrothers” have been producing YouTube videos for over a year and have done something like 271 of them…who knew?

The Valentine’s Day Meme

This one seems to be popular on this Valentine’s day and I’m sorry that I haven’t spotted the originator in order to give credit where it is due. But…here’s the question:

“Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

One former favorite author came immediately to mind when I read the question: Robert B. Parker. I discovered Mr. Parker’s Spenser novels only two or three books into the series and for several years I anxiously awaited the arrival of the next Spenser. I talked them up, recommended the books to friends and my local library system and thoroughly enjoyed them. But I started to lose interest in the characters about the same time that Mr. Parker seems to have lost interest in them. Now, many years later he is still writing them but they remind me of cotton candy – all fluff and little substance. The books are very short, the type seems to be larger than that of most books, the paper thicker than normal in order to give the books some heft, and the novels so largely consist of dialog that a Spenser novel can now be read in a couple of hours.

My break with Parker was a gradual one rather than any kind of sudden realization on my part that his work had changed. I don’t even blink when I see a new Spenser novel these days. But, yes, Mr. Parker could lure me back. All it would take is a return to the form of his early Spenser novels so that I don’t feel that I’m paying for a novel and receiving a slickly packaged novella.

Borders Future Stores

George Jones, Borders President and CEO

For some reason, I’ve never felt as “comfortable” in a Borders bookstore as I usually feel in a Barnes & Noble store, but this new Borders concept does sound interesting…and the first of the new stores is opening right now near the Borders corporate headquarters.

Want to publish your own book, but don’t know how? There’s a kiosk in the store’s new digital center that walks you through it.

The store also features a digital center where people can make custom CDs with the help of Borders employees or on their own from a library with 2.4 million songs. They also can buy digital cameras and learn how to turn their digital photos into books.

The store, the first of 14 concept stores that will open in key markets around the country this year, is critical to the Ann Arbor-based bookseller’s turnaround. The store on Lohr near Ann Arbor-Saline Road opens today with a grand opening on Feb. 22.

“We will open these first stores and see how they do,” said George Jones, Borders chief executive officer.

Borders also is stocking merchandising in new ways. For example, magazines on cooking will be found with the cookbooks in a new cooking section at the center of the store. Yoga mats are in the wellness section along with diet, fitness and medical books. And while waiting to pay for your books, Borders has an array of merchandise along the line from coffee table books to stationery sets and candy.

“We’re not selling anything you have to have. If you are here, it is because you have decided to spend some of your valuable recreation time with us,” Jones said.

Borders will capitalize on unique content such as author interviews or concerts to be shown on Borders TV in the store and on its Web site.

Sounds like a bit of fun and something that I would take a look at for sure. Whether or not this is the kind of bookstore that would keep me coming back depends solely on the book selection offered, however…not on expensive coffee or self-produced CDs. I hope that Borders does not lose sight of the fact that its primary product is the written word, not a bunch of bells and whistles.

The Faith of a Writer

The Faith of a Writer is a collection of twelve previously published Joyce Carol Oates essays on writing (1973-2003) and an interview focusing on her Norma Jean Baker novel, Blonde. The essays do not constitute a how-to-write manual (although Ms. Oates does believe that writing skills are a craft that can be taught). Instead, they offer often surprising insights into the world of writing in general, and a rather personal take on how it all works for her personally.

Young writers hoping for inspiration and words of encouragement will find both in the essay entitled “Advice to a Young Writer” in which Oates discusses the mind-set that will help turn aspiring writers into better ones. She advises that they read widely, choosing a favorite author and reading everything written by that author, especially the early work that will likely show that their favorite was probably “groping” for a personal style that only became obvious in later writing. She tells them to write for today, with no concern about what future generations will think of what they write, not to be afraid to expose their deepest feelings, and not to fear being an “idealist.” But perhaps most importantly, she tells aspiring writers not to expect that they will be “treated justly or mercifully by the world.” That may sound obvious to some but, in a world where terrible writers become famous and wealthy while wonderful writers struggle to make a living, it cannot be repeated too often.

But most readers are not aspiring writers despite what we may tell ourselves. For the rest of us, what makes The Faith of a Writer so interesting is the author’s willingness to share some of the secrets known only to those who face a blank page everyday. In effect she answers many of the questions readers always wish they could ask:

  • “When I’m asked, as sometimes I am, when did I know I ‘wanted to be a writer,’ my reply is that I never ‘knew’ I wanted to be a writer, or anything else; I’m not sure, in fact, that I ‘want’ to be a writer, in such simplistic, abstract terms. A person who writes is not, in a sense, a ‘writer’ but a person who writes…” From “Running and Writing”
  • “One is frequently asked whether the process becomes easier, with the passage of time, and the reply is obvious: nothing gets easier with the passage of time, not even the passing of time.” From “Notes on Failure”
  • “Success is distant and illusory, failure one’s loyal companion, one’s stimulus for imagining that the next book will be better, for otherwise, why write?” From “Notes on Failure”
  • “It is bizarre to me that people think that I am ‘prolific’ and that I must use every spare minute of my time when in fact, as my intimates have always known, I spend most of my time looking out the window.” From “The Writer’s Studio”
  • “Read widely, read enthusiastically, be guided by instinct and not design. For if you read, you need not become a writer, but if you hope to become a writer, you must read.” From “Reading as a Writer”

Those are a few of the quotes that I found particularly meaningful but the twelve essays are filled with other insights and revelations. Perhaps my favorite is one that all book lovers (especially those who “blog” on a regular basis) will appreciate:

  • “…the art of reading hardly differs from the art of writing, in that its most intense pleasures and pains must remain private, and cannot be communicated to others. Our secret affinities remain secret even to ourselves…We fall in love with certain works or art, as we fall in love with certain individuals, for no very clear motive.” From “Notes on Failure”

This little book of essays (about 175 pages) also includes quotes from other writers and insights into their methods and sources of inspiration, something I’ve not touched upon at all. There is much more packed into this fine little collection than one would at first imagine; it has much to offer readers and writers alike.

Rated at: 4.5

Theft of the Master

Hitler’s well-documented determination to loot Europe of its most priceless art has sparked the imaginations of writers worldwide, resulting in many a thriller in book or movie format. Amazingly enough, some of the lost art objects still surface occasionally in places to which they were carried by those who in turn managed to loot Hitler’s stolen collection near the end of World War II. Edwin Alexander’s debut novel, Theft of the Master, in which just such a piece surfaces in 1992, is a worthy addition to the genre.

The piece in question, a 1493 wood carving depicting a seated Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount, was only one of many priceless art objects smuggled into Paraguay by one of Hitler’s despicable minions when those “officers” scattered around the world to hide in holes like the rats they were. But even rats live long enough to die of old age occasionally and, when this one did just that, the priceless art was suddenly up for grabs again.

Importantly, in this instance, the missing seated-Christ sculpture has as much historical significance to the country from which it was originally stolen, Estonia, as it has monetary value to those hoping to cash in on Hitler’s failure to survive the war. Alexander begins his story with the creation of the seated-Christ and describes in detail the atrocities committed by Hitler’s thugs when they took possession of it. Then it disappears for nearly half a century.

Theft of the Master at times reads like two separate books because much of the story takes place on the California coast near San Francisco and involves a wealthy British family suddenly in need of the services of a private detective. They find one in the person of Al Hersey, a lethal ex-Marine and self-employed private investigator who is willing to go wherever, and speak with whoever might have answers to the questions his clients are asking. Slowly but surely, as the persistent Mr. Hersey pursues his investigation through California, Estonia, Paraguay, Sweden, and New York, it becomes obvious that the answers about what happened to his clients in 1992 go back much farther than anyone suspected.

Edwin Alexander’s complicated plot is filled with memorably unique characters that are, at times, more fun than the plot itself but, by the end of Al Hersey’s around-the-world adventures, the reader realizes what a trip it was and how masterful a job Alexander has done in tying all the loose ends together. Al Hersey and his stay-at-home wife, upon whom he depends to handle all the logistics of his investigation, make quite a team and here’s hoping that Theft of the Master is only the first of his adventures of which we will be reading.

This one is quite a ride, so pay attention.

Rated at: 4.0

The Good Liar

The story told by Laura Caldwell in The Good Liar might seem farfetched at first glance, but in this post 9-11 world in which many of the West’s worst enemies have died at the hands of military assassins or sophisticated rocket attacks, if something like the Trust does not exist, maybe it should. Its existence, however, was the last thing that Kate Livingston was thinking of when she fell in love with Michael Waller and decided to forever pack away her life in Chicago to marry him and move to Canada where Michael was starting his new business.

Looking back, Liza Kingsley, Kate’s best friend, wondered what she was thinking when she had insisted that Kate go out to dinner with Michael Waller the next time that business brought him to Chicago. She could only rationalize her decision by reminding herself how improbable it was that Kate, recently divorced and not particularly interested in meeting anyone new, would fall in love with a man more than fifteen years older than her. She had only hoped to offer Kate a diversion that would tempt her back into the dating world. What she got was something that none of the three could have foreseen.

Kate may have been madly in love with Michael Waller but the experience of a failed marriage left her with a keen sense of when she was not being told the whole truth by her husband. In a matter of weeks she was sure that Michael was hiding something from her and she feared that it was an affair with her best friend, the very woman who had introduced them. But as much as Michael wished that he could put all of Kate’s suspicions and fears to rest, there was no way that he could even begin to tell her the truth about himself, his work, or his past. Waller knew that being honest with Kate would place her life in danger because of his work with a private espionage group, one highly funded and not afraid to use assassination to protect the interests of the United States or to keep its own existence hidden to the rest of the world.

The Good Liar is one of those stories in which it is not always possible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Even those deepest inside the Trust were having that problem and, as Kate applied more and more pressure on Michael to tell her the truth about himself, she inadvertently became the catalyst that could destroy the very existence of the organization. Of course that could not be allowed to happen and the question became one of who would survive the turmoil that Kate had helped create.

Laura Caldwell has written a first-rate thriller and she has capped it with an especially suspenseful ending that will have most readers reading the last few pages of The Good Liar as quickly as they can in order to ease the suspense.

Rated at: 4.0