A Tale out of Luck

Country singer, and national icon, Willie Nelson has teamed up with Mike Blakely to write A Tale out of Luck, a western novel with a bit of a mystery thrown into the mix.

Hank Tomlinson has probably fared better than most Texas Rangers who were suddenly thrown out of work when the Rangers were disbanded in Reconstruction Texas following the Civil War. He operates the Broken Arrow Ranch and owns most of the businesses in Luck, the little town that he founded in order to attract the services that were not in the area when he began his new life as a rancher.Things are going so well, in fact, that he has just brought a Kentucky thoroughbred back to the ranch that he hopes will make him a bundle in breeding fees.

But when Jay Blue, Hank’s son, and Skeeter, the orphan taken in by Hank as a youngster, do a poor job on guard duty one night and the new mare disappears, things change for Hank and the people of Luck, Texas in a big way. Barely one step ahead of Tomlinson and his anger, the boys race off, determined to recover the lost horse, and find themselves in the adventure of their young lives.

Along the way they meet and befriend an albino Negro who captures and tames wild horses for the U.S. Cavalry and a young Apache warrior who has been critically wounded during the massacre of his people by the Calvary and a few ranch hands who were along for the ride, two people who will come to play important roles in their future.

Suddenly the folks in Luck, Texas, are faced with warring Apaches and what appears to be a lone Indian assassin from Tomlinson’s past who makes everyone nervous by peppering two people with arrows and scalping them before disappearing again. When a policeman from Austin comes to town to further complicate matters, things get a little hot for the Tomlinson clan before the book reaches its rousing climax.

Willie Nelson and Mike Blakely have touched most of the Western genre bases with A Tale out of Luck. There are bands of marauding Indians, cavalry troopers racing to the rescue in the nick of time, cattle rustlers, wild horses, a beautiful, world-wise but kindly saloon keeper, a jail escape, a bigger-than-life good guy, and an equally bigger-than-life villain to menace him. The authors combine these elements in a clever way, managing to include a surprise or two, so that the novel is a fresh and fun read even for those who have read dozens of westerns in their day.

A Tale out of Luck hits the bookstores in September and western fans should take a look because Nelson and Blakely make a good team.

Rated at: 3.5

Is This the Next J.K. Rowling?

I’m pretty oblivious to this kind of trend, being long past the age where I get caught up in the kind of frenzy that creates superstars like Harry Potter and his real-life mom. But I can’t help noticing more and more buzz about Stephenie Meyer and her teen-vampire books. Is she The One?

The series was literally dreamed up by Meyer, a Mormon mother of three and graduate of Brigham Young University who lives in Arizona.

“It was the kind of dream that makes you want to call your friend and bore her with a detailed description,” Meyer wrote on her Web site, stepheniemeyer.com.

Meyer said the young couple she dreamed of were talking in the woods — a girl and a gorgeous vampire. After the dream those voices in her head wouldn’t stop talking, and she didn’t stop writing. The first in her series about teenage vampires, “Twilight,” was published in 2005.


In Meyer’s world, vampires don’t have fangs, nor do they turn into bats.

They can be out at daytime but not in direct sun, or else they’ll start to glow. The main character, Edward, can read people’s minds and other vampires have other special powers.

Parents of would be readers might be happy to know that the books are a mix of fantasy and romance but without foul language, sex or drugs in the plots.

It appears that Barnes and Noble management have jumped aboard the bandwagon and is preparing midnight parties for the release of her next book in the series. I’m sure that most booksellers are pulling for her because they miss the Harry Potter effect on their bottom line but I do have to wonder where the protesters are. You know, all those who were protesting the witchcraft in the Potter series. Are they OK with teenage vampires?

Consumption

Kevin Patterson’s Consumption is my third book in the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge. Patterson, who spent some time in northern Canada working as a doctor, vividly portrayed a world I’ve often wondered about, but of which I knew very little, so I really lost myself in this one.

In almost whiplash fashion, Canada’s Inuit people were yanked from the traditional lifestyle they had lived for centuries into what should have been for them an easier life in the small Artic communities they had only visited in the past. In a scant three generations (Patterson’s book covers the 1950s to the 1990s), these people went from living “on the land” to watching their young people leave the Artic entirely in order to seek a lifestyle scarcely heard of by their grandparents. That such a rapid change was almost certain to be a destructive one does not lessen the impact of Patterson’s story of the Inuit as they move from a difficult, but successful, lifestyle to one of poverty and confusion, and on to a generation of children with material and cultural desires that can no longer be satisfied in the Artic.

Patterson tells the Inuit story largely through the eyes of Victoria Robinson, an Inuit woman who, when she developed tuberculosis at ten years of age, was taken from her parents and sent to Montreal for treatment. By the time that she was returned to her parents as a teenager, they were no longer living “on the land” and had moved to the small Artic town of Rankin Inlet. Victoria, now an educated young woman with some knowledge of the world, felt like an outsider when she was reunited with her family. She knew that she was different, and so did they. Her marriage to a Kablunauk, a white man, seemed inevitable to her parents, and the experiences of her bi-racial children reflect all of the pressures and desires confronted by young people who must abandon their own culture in order to have better lives than the one experienced by their grandparents and parents.

Consumption is a complex, multi-generational family saga filled with numerous characters, each of which contributes to fleshing out the world that Kevin Patterson has created. Patterson does not limit himself to a single point of view, including among his characters several Kablunauk who have come to the Rankin Inlet settlement for reasons of their own, some looking for adventure, some hoping to profit financially from what they find there, and others determined to accomplish some good by working to make the lives of the locals better.

Interspersed among the book’s chapters are short medical science essays attributed to Keith Balthazar, the town doctor who splits his time between Rankin Inlet and his apartment in New York. Readers might be tempted to skim, or even to skip, these essays but, by doing so, would miss many details and subtleties associated with the overall story. Like each of Patterson’s characters, the essays add bits and pieces of detail that help make Consumption into the moving novel that it is. It is near impossible for most readers to imagine the loneliness and isolation of the 1960s Artic settlements. Patterson not only makes it possible for us to imagine it, he achieves it in the most effective manner there is, by adding layer upon layer of detail and emotion until the reader comes to feel completely comfortable with the environment described and the people who live in it.

This is a remarkable first novel.

Rated at: 5.0

Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who became a publishing and internet sensation because of the courageous way that he faced his impending death, died this past Friday. His The Last Lecture became a best seller and served as an inspiration to anyone who happened upon it. Knowing about Randy’s terminal illness made this a hard book to put down, but it was not one that I felt able to review or comment on after reading it.

And now, Mr. Pausch is gone, leaving, I’m sure, a real void in the lives of those who knew and loved him. If this YouTube video is any indication, he must have been a heck of a guy.

And this is Randy Pausch, just two months ago as he addressed the Carnegie Mellon graduating class of May 2008.

As Mr. Pausch said, “we don’t beat the Reaper by living longer, we beat the Reaper by living well.”

May he rest in peace.

Simon & Schuster Sues to Recover Book Advances


Publisher Simon & Schuster has grown tired of waiting for books from Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, a couple of rappers who were paid nice advances a few years ago to pen their thoughts on life and love. According to BlackVoices, the publisher is now suing both the young ladies in an attempt to recover the money paid out to them for books they have failed to deliver.

According to Publishers Lunch, in 2004, Inga (aka Foxy) was paid $75,000 for an autobiography that was due in 2006. The book was described as, “relating her teenage years as an avid reader and gifted student, to her fascination with men involved in the drug underworld, to rapping on Jay-Z’s first big hit.”Kim was paid $40,000 in 2003 for a novel that she was supposed to deliver in 2004. S&S spokesperson Adam Rothberg said, “both accepted the money and both books never were delivered.”

These are not the first two “authors” who have been asked to return advances, of course, but I have to wonder how many books Simon & Schuster anticipated would be sold if the girls had actually delivered manuscripts for publication. Is there that big of a book audience among rappers and their fans in the first place? This seems like a bad investment on the publisher’s part from the very beginning.

Lottery

Perry L. Crandall’s definition of mental retardation includes the requirement of an IQ level of 75 or below and, since Perry’s IQ is 76, he is quick to point out that he is not retarded, just slow. Perry, who never knew his father, was doubly unfortunate to have a mother who wanted nothing to do with him and abandoned his upbringing to his Granp and Gran. But that’s when Perry’s luck changed for the better because his grandparents raised him to be a curious, happy and self-sufficient young man with a steady job and plenty of self-respect.

Gran always told Perry that the “L” in his name stood for lucky and, not too long after she died and left Perry pretty much on his own, he proved her correct by winning a $12 million state lottery jackpot. When all of Perry’s money-grubbing relatives, his mother, his “cousin-brothers” and their wives, suddenly became concerned about his welfare, Perry’s best friend and co-worker, Keith, decided to protect Perry from the attentions of his newly attentive family. Both Keith and Perry’s boss, Gary, soon found out just how difficult that job was going to be.

All of this is told through the eyes and voice of Perry himself and, despite Perry’s low IQ and his slowness, he is a diligent observer of what goes on around him. Perry considers himself to be an auditor, “someone who listens,” and he is a damn fine auditor, at that. He might not always understand the motivations of others or the hidden meanings behind their actions, but very little gets by without him at least having observed and made note of it.

I am unable to judge the authenticity of Patricia Wood’s Perry Crandall character because I have never really known anyone with a 76 IQ. I did note at least a couple of occasions where Perry seemed to express himself in words and manner that seemed to be likely beyond his capabilities. But someone like Perry who has studied the dictionary every day of his life since he was a boy could be expected to have an unusually large vocabulary. Whether or not he would be able to understand all the nuances of those words is a bit questionable, however.

But minor quibbles aside, Patricia Wood has created three characters in Lottery that I will remember for a long, long time. Perry’s innocence and good will make him into the kind of person any of us would enjoy being around. Keith, despite all of his rough edges, that include passing gas in public and using Perry’s dreaded “F-word” constantly, proves to be the perfect friend for Perry, someone whose loyalty is never in question. And then there’s Perry’s grandmother, a woman whose love for Perry is so fierce that it pushes him to levels of achievement that would have otherwise been impossible for him even to approach.

Paul Michael’s masterful narration of this audio book particularly shines when he is speaking in the voices of these three main characters. His reading skill, and variation in voice and tone, help to create three characters that become very real to the listener. Lottery may be one of those books that are perfect for reading aloud because I somehow doubt that the characters would have seemed as alive on the written page as they do in this audio version. These eight discs, totaling almost nine hours, really fly by and at the book’s end I found myself hating to lose touch with Perry and his new family.

Rated at: 5.0

What If…?

So, what if some homeless guy starts healing the sick one day, a fellow who remains anonymous as long as he can and asks nothing in return from those whose lives he has saved? Would you believe that he was performing miracles or would your skeptical nature make you certain that he was involved in one of the biggest scams ever pulled on a gullible public? But then what if he healed one of your children, granting that child the future that was about to be lost to some terminal illness? Then would you believe?

When one skeptical New York reporter survives a terrible automobile accident despite losing so much blood that she could not have possibly lived through it, she decides to find the man who reportedly molested her in the street as she was bleeding to death. And when she walks out of the hospital just hours after doctors gave up on saving her life, that is exactly what she does.

It soon becomes obvious to Mary that the man was, in fact, healing her injuries, not molesting her, and she suddenly realizes that she has been handed every reporter’s dream story. She comes to understand that she has become part of something much bigger than just a career-making newspaper story, however, and finds herself falling in love with the man and his mission, a turn of events that places her in more danger than she ever could have imagined.

A man like John, a healer and a visionary who wants to change the world forever, is a threat to some powerful people who like things just the way they are. John has a plan, after all, that would end poverty everywhere in the world and allow mankind to live the Utopian lifestyle that has been dreamed of for centuries. His very existence is a threat to those on top of the heap who do not want to lose their power and economic dominance. When the governments of countries such as China and Russia demand that the U.S. put a muzzle on John, he literally becomes a threat to world peace, and there are plenty of people suddenly willing to do whatever it takes to shut him up.

What If? is quite a ride and it has one of the strangest endings I have encountered in a long time. It is a provocative look at what might happen if a true miracle worker were to suddenly appear in the modern day world, a hopeful, but sad, story about the most likely “what if” scenario that would develop from such an event.

Steve N. Lee has written an unusual thriller that will have the reader quickly turning pages almost all the way through it. My only quarrel with Lee’s storytelling is the excessive number of pages he used on a rather anticlimactic court trial toward the end of the book. That section, in fact, stalled the book’s momentum to such an extent that it became somewhat of a chore to get through it. But that is a small complaint when compared to the pace maintained in the rest of the book.

WARNING: Do not succumb to the temptation to read the book’s ending first because this is one time that I can guarantee that you will regret doing that.

Rated at: 4.0

See Bethany’s Review Here

A Book List Bonanza

I don’t think that I’ve ever met a book addict who is not also a lover of book lists: Top 10s, Prize Winners, Best Sellers, All-Time Favorites, etc.

Well, book addicts, I just stumbled upon a goldmine of book lists over at The Guardian so get ready to have some fun. Here is the indexed list, and here are a few of my favorites:

Top 10 Books About Civil War

Top 10 Books About Troubled Families

Top 10 Asian Crime Fiction

Top 10 Books About Outsiders

Top 10 Books About Forgetting

Top 10 Short Books


Top 10 Books Set in Japan


Top 10 Psychological Thrillers


Top 10 Books in Which Things End Badly


Top 10 Literary Murders

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve already spent way too much time browsing the lists today – but who can resist this kind of thing? The lists go back all the way to November 1999 and there are 250 of them so far.

Have fun.

When the Real World Dares Intrude

The real world is starting to get in the way of my reading and blogging and there doesn’t seem to be a thing I can do about it. Today was one of those days where eight hours go by in increasingly frustrating increments until the whole day is suddenly shot and little has been accomplished despite having worked at full speed the whole time. Nothing made sense or followed a normal pattern, so everything took twice as long as normal and will have to be rethought tomorrow.

Then things started to fall apart at home, requiring frustrating attempts at understanding the mechanical problems involved, and resulting in an eventual phone call to repairmen who charge arms and legs just to make house calls. The bottom line is that our electronic gate quit working properly and it is going to cost some $900 to get it doing its thing again. What a day…

Well, at least I am immersed in three good books right now and I’m looking forward to an hour or so of concentrated reading time later tonight. I’m really impressed with The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara’s account of the Normandy invasion as seen through the eyes of the generals who planned it and the enlisted men who made it work. I’ve read about 340 pages into it now and can’t wait to get back to Shaara’s account of one of the key battles of World War II (and one my father saw first hand). Then there’s Consumption, Kevin Patterson’s novel which is really a social history of Canada’s Rankin Inlet, and will be my third book in the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge. But the big surprise is how much I’m starting to enjoy Willie Nelson’s A Tale Out of Luck, a western he’s written with the help of Mike Blakely. I received this ARC at least six weeks ago even though it won’t be published until sometime in September. It’s a little stereotypical but is great fun for shootem-up fans like me.

So it could be worse…thank goodness that books are always there to take my mind off what the rest of the world is chunking at me.

Signed by Author

This Guardian article about the speed record for signing books in a one-hour period being claimed now by Salmon Rushdie got me to thinking about signed books, in general. I do enjoy adding them to my collection but I much prefer getting a book signed in person or via direct mail contact with the author. I also own a few signed first editions that I’ve picked up from various bookstores over the years but, since they don’t come attached to any personal memories, they don’t mean as much to me as the others (although I’m still tickled to have found a personalized copy of one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s books for $2.98 on a bargain shelf, the inscription being dated November 9,1974).

Rushdie said he had signed 1,000 copies, on his most recent tour promoting the Enchantress of Florence, in a books warehouse in Nashville in 57 minutes.

Rushdie insisted: “Let me be clear: I did not initial the books, but signed my full name.” The Best of Booker winner agreed that a crack team of book-handlers is essential.

“I did have the support of experienced staff at Ingrams book distributors in Nashville, (and at many other US bookstores), who will confirm that among the fastest present-day signers of books are President Jimmy Carter, the novelist Amy Tan, and myself,” he said.

So Mr. Rushdie signed the books at the rate of one every 3 1/2 seconds. I have to admit that I’m impressed with his stamina and speed but would someone please tell me why I should add special value to something that the man held in his hands for less than four seconds, a book that obviously spent more time in the hands of the helpers who were shoving them at him one after the other than in Rushdie’s? (Actually I would be willing to bet that he probably just raised his hand after each signature, allowing one helper to move the signed book away from him as a second helper was pushing a fresh copy under his raised hand).

Sorry, Mr. R., but I don’t “get it” because I don’t collect books as an investment; I collect them for their content and whatever memories get attached to them along the way. This whole process of mass producing signed books just seems ludicrous to me…and a bit seedy.

Bleeding Kansas

Sara Paretsky is, of course, best known for her V.I. Warshawski detective series, a series that has long chronicled the life of one of the best known female detectives in the world of fiction. Her readers, me among them, carry a little “character comfort” into each of the new books in that series and, like me, they may have been thrown a little off-stride by Bleeding Kansas, Paretsky’s stand-along look at contemporary life in rural Kansas.

Bleeding Kansas centers around the state’s Civil War era history, a time in which families in border states like Kansas had to pick one side or the other regarding the issue of slavery. No one was allowed to remain neutral, and the wrong choice often proved to be a fatal one when things heated up and neighbor turned on neighbor. The Grelliers, Fremantles and Schapens are three families whose Kansas roots are well documented all the way back to their arrival there in the 1850s. Although the three families strongly supported each other in the anti-slavery fight of those years, today they have little in common.

The Grellier and Schapen families still farm some of their original acreage but the only thing recalling the Freemantle past is the dilapidated old mansion of theirs that dates back to their earliest years in the state and is now being occupied by a free-thinking niece of theirs. By now, the Schapens have evolved into a family dominated by the hypocrisy and bigotry of the preacher who runs their fundamentalist Christian church. The Grelliers are trying to eke out a living from their farming and whatever other small business ideas they can use to bring in a little extra cash.

Times are tough economically and tensions are already high when Gina Haring, the Freemantle niece, moves into the old house to refocus her life after having suffered through a divorce in New York. Haring is the suspicious type and her “chip on the shoulder” attitude, lesbian relationship, and fascination with Wiccan ceremonial practices escalates community tensions to a new high.

Bleeding Kansas is Paretsky’s look at what can happen in modern small town society when a cultural clash suddenly develops. She draws parallels between the conflicts of the mid-1800s involving pro and anti-slavery advocates and the modern clash between the local fundamentalists, represented by the Schapens, and the liberal women from Lawrence who join Haring in her lifestyle in their small community. Paretsky demonstrates that, emotionally, very little has changed and that people are still capable of physically attacking their neighbors over simple differences in politics or lifestyle.

Bleeding Kansas raises important questions and provokes thought on the social condition of modern America. It is not at all a bad book. But, as a novel, it does not entirely succeed in achieving the feeling of reality required to best get its message across because so many of its characters are almost cartoonishly extreme.Some of them, Jim Grellier, in particular, are almost too good to be true.Others, especially those characters representing the Christian fundamentalist sect in the book, are so blatantly close-minded and evil that it is at times difficult to take them seriously, lessening the impact of the book’s message. This one is a near miss.

Rated at: 3.0

Unholy Domain

Dan Ronco’s Unholy Domain comes along just when most people are becoming fully aware that the world’s new dependence on the internet leaves all of us vulnerable to a completely new kind of terrorist threat that was never envisioned by the net’s creators. All it takes to cripple economies, kill power grids, shut down sophisticated weapons systems and, ultimately, to kill people is one person with the will and the skills to hack into the right computers around the world. If that thought makes you nervous, you probably should stay away from Unholy Domain.

Unholy Domain is Ronco’s follow-up to his PeaceMaker in which he described how a computer super-virus was used to destroy economies around the world, causing the deaths of so many people in the process, that things might never be the same again. The U.S. government now fears out-of-control technological advances and, in self-defense, is severely limiting the release of new high-tech products. Complicating the situation are two groups, one completely in opposition to the introduction of new technology (the Church of Natural Humans), and a second one intent on selling new technology on the black market to the highest bidder (the Technos), that are literally at war with each other.

Caught between the government and the warring factions is one David Brown, son of the now deceased Ray Brown, the man blamed for creating the virus that devastated the world ten years earlier. David, hoping to prove that his father is innocent of the crime, begins his own investigation into what happened a decade earlier and quickly draws the attention of both the Technos and the leadership of the Church of Natural Humans. In order to safeguard their plans for the future, the Technos want to eliminate David as soon as possible. The religious fanatics, on the other hand, want to keep him alive long enough to follow him to the headquarters of the Technos in order to destroy that bunch once and, hopefully, for all.

When Unholy Domain shifts from set-up of the intriguingly dangerous mess that David creates for himself and anyone who tries to help him in his investigation, it becomes a rollercoaster ride of pitched battles between fanatic warrior armies, assassinations, murders, kidnappings, torture and wild lovemaking, not necessarily in that order. There is enough science in the book to satisfy science fiction fans and enough action to keep thriller fans more than happy.

This one, despite the terrifying glimpse of a future set only a few years from now that it offers, is fun.

Rated at: 4.0

Bookstores and One-Sided Politics: A Bad Business Plan

Would you give your business to a bookstore that actively works to ridicule one political party and promote the success of a second one if the party being attacked was the one you felt more comfortable with at the moment? Could you hold your nose long enough to pop in and spend some of your book money there? Or would you avoid the place like the plague?

It seems to me to be a very poor business plan for a bookstore, or any other business, to do something that would, right up front, alienate a substantial portion of its potential customer base. One bookstore that has apparently been doing this for a number of years, and has survived, is Bookshop Santa Cruz, a bookstore that has decided that pushing a potential Obama presidency is worth the risk of hurting its bottom line. Of course, this store is in California, so I don’t know that it’s necessarily a huge risk in this particular case.

Bookshop Santa Cruz is selling key chains that count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Democratic senator from Illinois is sworn into the Oval Office.

“If he doesn’t win in November, we’ll have much larger problems than our unused inventory,” bookshop general manager Casey Coonerty Protti said. “I am very hopeful he’s going to win. I just can’t imagine Americans would do that to themselves.”

The $10 Obama clock key chains, which went on sale last week, were created by bookshop owner Neal Coonerty and include a ubiquitous Obama quote: “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.”

The Obama clocks are a spin-off of Coonerty’s original clock creation two years ago, when he produced a key chain that counted down the time until President George W. Bush’s second term ends.


Obama “hope clocks” are a “natural extension” of the anti-Bush message, she said.

“We would support any Democrat in their race to the White House at this point,” Protti said. “The moment Bush leaves is the moment everyone’s been waiting for.”

If you read the rest of the article, you will find that this particular store has a long history of actively supporting liberals and attacking conservatives, so I suppose that its customers know the atmosphere before they walk in the front door.

But it is definitely not a store I would feel comfortable in because my political views are usually slightly to the right of center. This is one time that my love of books probably couldn’t overcome my unease with such blatant, “in-your-face” politics. Personally, I am sick of books from either side of the political spectrum that simply ridicule the other side and have nothing else to offer the reader.

So now I know one Santa Cruz bookstore that I won’t be visiting next time I get to that part of the state. Oh, well…that does save time.

Funky Winkerbean, Would-Be Author


I started my day off with a smile very early this morning thanks to Funky’s high hopes. I think there’s a little bit of Funky Winkerbean in most of us. This is one of only six comic strips that I still read every morning, after a bunch of years of following each of them.

(Click on the strip for a larger, more easily read image)

Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias


Many Baby Boomers, as we draw closer and closer to the magic number that will allow, or maybe require, us to retire from full-time employment, find ourselves at least a little bit tempted to move into one of the hundreds of age-restricted communities that are popping up all over the country. After all, we reason, we have spent a lifetime paying taxes (including school district taxes for decades after the graduation of our last child), commuting to and from work, and tolerating the unruly behavior and noise of all those kids who live next door and down the street. Don’t we deserve to live our last couple of decades in peace and quiet, among people who share our interests and concerns, and away from the noise and clutter of those not as far into life’s journey as we are?

Andrew Blechman became intrigued by the concept of age-restricted communities when two of his neighbors moved from their longtime home in New England to The Villages, a Florida community designed for people wanting to immerse themselves in a lifestyle of leisure activities and relative isolation from the rest of the world. Blechman became so curious, in fact, that he moved in with his old neighbors for a few weeks to live that lifestyle for himself. Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias is largely the product of what he learned from the time he spent there.

Anyone considering residence in a community similar to The Villages would be wise to read Blechman’s book because of his firsthand reporting of what it is like to live in a place almost completely dedicated to boiling life’s experiences down to a few simple pleasures. Golfers and those into arts and crafts seem to love the place, as do those who want to cram in as much drinking and sex into the remainder of their lives as possible. But you have other interests, you say? Well, then in all likelihood you will want to avoid the lifestyle offered by The Villages and other communities like it and opt for a more traditional retirement location.

Do you resent being pandered to or brainwashed? If so, you will probably find the community-controlled newspaper, radio and television outlets that pretend that nothing bad ever happens in places like The Villages to be more than a little ludicrous. Even the “reporters” who are supposedly paid to function as news gatherers eventually come to resent all of the censorship necessary to keep smiles on the faces of community residents.

But more importantly, Blechman points out the important social issues that need to be considered before committing to life in any of America’s “Leisurevilles.” Is it right for retirees to yank their support from the communities whose services they have enjoyed for a lifetime? Are they abandoning their generational obligations by deciding not to serve as readily accessible role models to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Now that they have the luxury of so much free time should they be using some of it to better their communities by working for social or structural changes from there?

Those are just a few of the questions that Blechman asks in his book. There are good arguments to be made on both sides of the issue as to whether or not age-restricted settings like The Villages are a good thing or a bad thing. For some people, these communities offer exactly the lifestyle most suited to their retirement years. For others the very thought of moving into such a community is mind numbing, at best, and horrifying, at worst.

Leisureville moved me one giant step closer to deciding what kind of retirement setting will be best for me and my wife. But I also came away from the book with the understanding that, although age-segregated, gated communities have no appeal to us, they will appeal to many others – and are absolutely perfect for some.

Personally, I am certain that we would be bored in a community where golf, alcohol and casual sex are such prominent parts of the lifestyle that everything else seems secondary. For us it is more important to remain close to family and to enjoy the benefits of living in a diverse community with so much more to offer than golf courses, bars and community centers. I sincerely believe that aging is as much mental as it is physical, and that the mental part is much easier to govern while surrounded by family, a diverse group of fellow citizens and neighbors, museums, university access, and live sports and entertainment choices.

Rated at: 4.0

Shamless Pandering

Don’t panic. I”m not asking anyone to reach for their wallet or checkbook.

I just want to quickly mention another project that I spend a good bit of time working on along with a group of my good friends who share an interest in traditional country music, the kind that is seldom heard on the radio today. For several years now we have been promoting traditional country music, honky tonk country, bluegrass, and old-time string band music as actively as we can.

We suffered a bit of a setback last year when our websites were suddenly abandoned by the person who had everything registered under her name and who refused to respond to our requests to let us go on without her. All of that work has disappeared but we learned a whole lot in the process of creating it – and losing it.

Starting from scratch was a long and, at times, discouraging process but the good news is that we are starting to regain our old momentum and our four country music sites are coming along nicely. We now operate, under the Real Country Radio umbrella, a blogsite that features articles, pictures, book and CD reviews, and artist interviews, a “forum” site that encourages open discussion of our favorite kind of music, a MySpace site to help traditional country music artists find us and a very fine internet radio station that features real country music. Thankfully, I am part of a group of folks who are willing to put in the hours to make all this come together, folks who simply refuse to let the music die.

Speaking for all of them, we’d love to have you join us in our quest to spread the word that real country music is still alive and well – and that it is being created by people from their teens to their eighties.

Bus of Real Country – free internet radio station

Real Country Radio blogsite
– Reviews, pictures, interviews, etc.

Real Country Radio Forums – Open discussion and breaking news

Real Country Radio @ MySpace

River of No Return

Ernest Jennings Ford was at heart a family man devoutly devoted to his wife and two sons. At the very peak of his Hollywood success, the man who will forever be known as “Tennessee Ernie” Ford, the radio character he created for himself, decided to walk away from all the glamour because of his concern for what the Hollywood lifestyle was doing to his family. The great irony of his life is that Ernie Ford would die in October 1991 under the care of a second wife who was determined to deny his two sons any part of his legacy, financial or otherwise, a woman who even tried to deny them access to their father’s funeral.

In River of No Return, Jeffrey Buckner Ford, eldest of the Ford sons, mixes his fond memories of growing up next door to Bob Hope and of the several successful television series that his father hosted with sad recollections of how alcohol and pills ended up destroying both his parents. He speaks frankly of the addictions and dissatisfaction with her life that resulted in his mother’s suicide after several earlier attempts had failed, and he speaks just as honestly of how his father failed to do the things that might have saved her life. Perhaps saddest of all is his disclosure of how Ernie Ford’s decision to protect his sons by moving them from Hollywood was doomed to failure because of what the boys witnessed in their own home, wherever it might be located.

Betty Jean Heminger met Ernie Ford when he was stationed at Victorville Army Air Base in California, where she worked as a secretary; she was only nineteen years old when they married. Betty Jean, an avid reader and an accomplished artist, was at first content to be labeled simply an entertainer’s wife but, as the years went by, she seemed to grow frustrated with her role, turning to alcohol and drugs to get through her day. Ernie and her sons sensed when she was losing control, but though they did their best to protect her from herself, they were not always successful. As the couple grew farther and farther apart, Ernie turned more often to alcohol to ease his own pain, a decision that would eventually lead to liver disease, severe memory loss, and ultimately his death.

But River of No Return is not just about the bad times. Jeffrey Buckner Ford celebrates the good times as well, and his pride in and love for both his parents are evident. He remembers the times when being around his parents was sheer joy, days spent on the set of his father’s television shows, his brief encounter with Bob Hope when he crawled through the hedges dividing their property in order to sneak a picture of Mrs. Hope, whom the neighborhood boys insisted swam in the nude in her backyard, and days spent basking in “celebrity” as only the child of famous parents can.

Ernie Ford was a spectacularly successful entertainer, a man with the voice and talent to sing any style of music but who, almost by default due to his “Tennessee Ernie” image, became best known as a country music singer. At the peak of his career, he was world-famous and played to particularly large audiences in England. As so often happens to a singer, today he is probably best-known for a single recording, “Sixteen Tons,” which in 1955 became the fastest selling single in the history of the record business. Ernie Ford received numerous honors during his career, but four of them particularly stand out because they reward his decades as an entertainer: the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994, and three stars on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame (one each for television, recordings and radio).

Jeffrey Buckner Ford presents the contrast between Ernie Ford’s public success and the frustrating failures he experienced in private in what is often a conversationally ironic tone, an approach that makes the sadness of Ernie’s life especially vivid. Longtime fans of Ernie Ford are certain to find River of No Return a gratifying experience despite its sad revelations about his personal life. Those not as familiar with Ford as a performer will likely read the book more as the cautionary tale it is but might, at the same time, find themselves compelled to investigate his musical history. They will be better off for having discovered why Ernie Ford is still considered to be an American music legend.

Rated at: 5.0

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com

The Cellist of Sarajevo

This is my second book in the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, qualifying because although it is set in Europe, the book was written by a Canadian author. Steven Galloway is a new author to me, exactly what I was hoping to find by taking part in this challenge, and he is one I’ll be keeping an eye on for a long time.

It is simply hard to imagine daily life in Sarajevo during the fighting there between Serb and Yugoslav soldiers, a time when anyone was considered a legitimate target for the daily sniper and mortar fire that targeted the city. But Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo makes it a little easier to understand what it must have been like for those who did not escape before it was too late for them to get out.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on a real event that occurred in Sarajevo in 1992 after twenty-two of its citizens were killed in a brutal mortar attack while standing in line for bread. Vedran Smailovic, a professional musician, decided to honor those who died that day by playing his cello for twenty-two consecutive days at the site of the massacre, one day in honor of each of those who died.

Galloway uses that act of immense courage as the centerpiece of his story, a story he tells through the eyes of four people who never actually meet on the dangerous streets of the city. In addition to the cellist, there are alternating segments about a female sniper named Arrow and two men who must negotiate the dangerous bridges and intersections of Sarajevo in order to find the food and water necessary for their survival.

The young sniper, a former university student who shed her given name and christened herself Arrow when she began her new life as a sniper, is assigned the near-impossible task of protecting the cellist from enemy sniper fire during his daily street performance. She is a soldier with a conscience, so determined that she will target only enemy combatants that she eventually places her own life in jeopardy by refusing to kill a civilian she is ordered to shoot.

Kenan, father of two young children, makes a regular trek to the local brewery in order to gather the water supply that his wife and children so desperately need for their survival. It is not a short walk and he knows that one of the snipers hidden in the hills that surround the city could choose him as a random target at any moment. But he returns to the brewery every few days.

Dagnan is a baker who has to make his way across the city each day to get to his job, where he is paid in the bread that he helps to bake, bread upon which he depends for his survival and for its use as a currency he can barter for his other needs. Dagnan, who managed to convince his wife and son to leave the city before the siege made it impossible for others to escape, has cut himself from everyone he knew before the war, something he comes to regret.

The Cellist of Sarajevo explores what happens to people when they are faced with the possibility of sudden death on a daily basis, when their government can do very little to protect or help them, when their days have to be spent in search of the things they need to stay alive for another week. Will they be able to retain their humanity and charitable instincts to help those in worse shape, or who are weaker than themselves, or will they allow their society to become one of every man for himself? What are they willing to do to keep themselves and their families alive?

Steven Galloway has written a book that will leave his readers wondering exactly that about themselves.

Rated at: 5.0

Fig Pudding

I have read very little Children’s Lit in recent years but did enjoy reading this one before passing it on to my granddaughter who also enjoyed it.

Fifth-grader Cliff Abernathy has come to realize that being the oldest of six children is not just fun and games. The position comes with responsibilities. His parents expect him to help monitor the behavior of his little brothers and younger sister and he is often in trouble for falling down on the job. He definitely enjoys the perks of being the oldest but sometimes he wonders if they are really a good trade-off for the extra work his parents expect of him.

In Fig Pudding, Cliff shares his memories of everything that happened to him and his family in the past year,twelve months that includes things he wants to remember forever and one or two that he just wishes he could forget. The Abernathy kids have distinct personalities and Ralph Fletcher gives each of the kids a chance to shine in a chapter of his own.

There is Josh, only three years old and the youngest, who has to spend Christmas Eve in the hospital and desperately wants a “yidda yadda” from Santa, a gift request that has the whole family confused. Teddy is the hyperactive second-grader who spends so much time sitting under the kitchen table where his mother can keep an eye on him that he starts to like it under there and considers it to be his special playroom. Cyn, the only girl in the family, decides to “adopt” a new family and spends more time with them than she does at home. Cliff and Nate learn some things about themselves and each other as the result of a couple of fishing trips, and Brad, the most easy going of all the children, surprises everyone, and probably himself, with the Easter prank that he pulls on the whole family.

Fig Pudding is generally aimed at readers age 9-12 but readers of all ages will be touched by the tragic accident that claims the life of one of the boys. Each member of the family has to work through his own grief, anger and confusion in order to come to grips with what has so shaken them all but they finally come to understand that their lost son and brother will be alive forever as they celebrate his memory.

Ralph Fletcher cleverly ends Fig Pudding on a comic note by devoting the last chapter to the way that young Josh accidentally adds a “secret ingredient” to his father’s fig pudding, a dish that the Abernathy family traditionally carries to a large family gathering every year. It has never tasted better than it does this year – even with Josh’s help. This is one of those books that might well have children shedding a few tears as they read one chapter and laughing out loud during the next one, just like life in the real world.

Rated at: 5.0

Originally published at CurledUp.com

Nick Hornby, Blogger

Well, Nick Hornby has a blog of his own – who knew? I’m a big fan of Nick’s novels and am intrigued by what the man has to say about his own work and books, in general, so I suspect that I’ll be visiting the site on a regular basis (as will my friend, Bybee, when she spots this link – if she hasn’t already found it, of course).

Hornby has an interesting piece on why he thinks that e-books will never really catch on. Here’s a summary of his reasoning, but check out his blog post for the insightful details:

1) Book readers like books, whereas music fans never had much affection for CDs. Vinyl yes, CDs no.

2) E-book readers have a couple of disadvantages, when compared to mp3 players.

3) We don’t buy many books – seven per person per year, a couple of which, we must assume, are presents for other people.

4) Book-lovers are always late adaptors, and generally suspicious of new technology.

5) The new capabilities of the iPod will make it harder to sell books anyway.

But – and this is the most depressing reason – the truth is that people don’t like reading books much anyway

Check out the blog for some fun reading.