Studs Terkel Dead at 96

Studs Terkel, a symbol of Chicago for so many years, has died. Mr. Terkel, according to the Chicago Tribune, suffered a fall two weeks ago that seems to have led to his death, something that so often happens to people in their eighties and nineties.

Most of his books were written radio. Terkel asked questions and then listened. He drew out of people things they didn’t know they had in them.

“I think of myself as an old-time craftsman,” Terkel said. “I’ve been doing this five days a week, for more than 30 years. When I realize the work is slipping, I’ll quit. But I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet. I still have my enthusiasm. I still love what I do.”

And he was far from finished doing it.

What will be his last book, “P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,” is scheduled for a November release. Terkel was a one-of-a-kind writer who lived a unique life. I’ll miss him.


Frances, over at NonSuchBook tagged me for a meme four days ago and, in my usual tardy manner, I’m finally getting around to responding to the tag.

The rules are simple:

Pass it on to five other bloggers, and tell them to open the nearest book to page 56.

Write out the fifth sentence on that page, and also the next two to five sentenc.

The CLOSEST BOOK, not your favorite or most intellectual.

So let’s see what happens and whether or not this snippet from page 56 of In Memory of Central Park: 1853-2022 creates any interest in Queenelle Minet’s dark vision of the future, a review copy of which I’m just about to finish up.

I’m going to warn you that these sentences, taken out of context, are going to read pretty strangely – but maybe, just maybe, they will intrigue a few people enough that they go out and find a copy of the book (it’s a good one). So here goes:

“A hooded confessor, his face is always in shadows, but instead of purple robes, he wears a Campfire Girls of America T-shirt. And instead of Hail Mary’s and penance, he prescribes free thinking and rebellion. You want to sleep with your sister? Why not do it? You want to tell your boss what you think of him? What’s stopping you?

Phillipe’s whole life has been a struggle against limits; first, the limits of his disability and then, sending his rage out into the world like a teenage thug, any limits he could find to bash against.”

That will be rather mystifying, I suspect, but I’ll be finishing the book this weekend and should have a full review up next week.

Since I’m late to the party again, I won’t directly tag anyone. But feel free to experiment on your own…

Texas Book Festival

I’ve been looking forward to this weekend for several weeks now – and it’s finally almost here: The Texas Book Festival. So early Saturday morning I’ll be heading to Austin for two days of nothing but books, books, and more books. As usual at this kind of event, it will be impossible for me to see everything and everyone I want to see because of the overlapping scheduled events, but I’m going to work on the schedule tomorrow to see how I can make maximum use of my two days in Austin. This, by the way, is the book festival started by Laura Bush in 1995 when she was still First Lady of Texas and lived in the governor’s mansion.

Take a look at the list of authors who will be paticipating in some fashion or another. I’m particularly looking forward to presentations or “hosting” by: Douglas Brinkley, Michael Dirda, William Least Heat-Moon, Robert Caro, Stephen Harrigan, T. Boone Pickens, Roy Blount, Jr., Christopher Buckley, Rick Bragg, Amanda Eyre Ward and David Ebershoff. If I can even come close to covering that group, I’ll come home happy with the weekend. I’m not really expecting that my proposed schedule will work out, though, and I’m looking forward to the surprises I’ll likely experience.

For an idea of what I’m up against, here’s the two-day schedule that shows the event sites, topics and all the overlaps involved. It will be a challenge, for sure.

Throw in all these exhibitors, the fact that I’m dragging along a camera and my digital sound recorder, and I should be exhausted by the time I return to the office at 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning. But it’s all worth it – of course.

To the Woman (We Think You’re a Teacher) with the Books on the 2 Train

I’ve admitted before to being a poetry-challenged reader and, despite my best efforts over the years to fix the problem, that’s a handicap that will likely be with me for the rest of my life. So you can imagine my surprise when I fell in love with a poem posted by Dewey on The Hidden Side of a Leaf. Admittedly, I have no idea whether or not this is good poetry – but I know that I like it and, for a change, I understand it. So it’s a good poem by my meager standards:

To the Woman (We Think You’re a Teacher) with the Books on the 2 Train

By some anonymous students

On the platform for the 2 train
you stand with a book in your hand
the pages open
Which is how you enter the train

Sometimes you smile, or frown
Once you even cried
on the train
when you were reading Night
and a man sitting across the aisle
said he cried too, when he read that book
and we thought,
we want to read that book
so we did

And then you were reading all those
basketball books
by Walter Dean Myers
so we read those too
speeding along on the 2 train
one time you saw us reading Slam
and you said
I love that book
and do you think Slam is going to make it in high
We do, we think he’s going to make it

Then you were reading some really hard stuff
Epistemology of the Closet, Postmodern Narrative
and we tried those, but we think you have to have read
the books those authors have read, if you want to read
their books

Our favorite is when you are reading poetry
Picnic, Lightning
and you lean back against the seat
and smile
and keep reading the same page
again and again
we do that now and it’s really nice

Last week you were reading The Life of Pi
and we rushed out to buy it
So we could be in the lifeboat
adrift in the blue, blue sea
with the boy, the Bengal Tiger, and you

If we don’t see you next year
on the train
Maybe sometime we’ll bump into each other on the
You’ll know us because
we’ll have books in our hands

Osama bin Laden Said to Be Writing Book

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the world’s most famous murderer might be in the process of writing a book to be published in Arabic and English. Of course, this all comes from “unnamed Pakistani sources,” whatever they might be worth.

Quoting from the Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, the Italian news source says the book looks at “atrocities committed against Muslims by the West and how the Crusaders have harmed world development.” The book is also said to blame the United States for the current crisis in global finance and to offer new information about the 9-11 attacks on the US.

Well, now this could be interesting. As we have all seen in recent months, international book publishers and newspapers, as a group, have shown very little courage when it comes to publishing anything that might even remotely offend a certain “segment” of the Muslim world.

Knowing that Christian terrorists are unlikely to firebomb their places of business or murder their employees, will publishers like Random House line up to cash in on the potential profits of a bin Laden book? Will the big chain bookstores, such as Barnes and Noble, display the book in display racks near the store entrances so that everyone gets the opportunity to see the book for themselves? You know – just exactly opposite the way that they handled The Jewel of Medina.

Living with the Truth

Jonathan Payne has, over the course of a lifetime, settled comfortably into a lifestyle that demands very little of him. He is owner, and sole employee, of a small bookshop that is filled to bursting with used volumes but which draws a limited number of customers through its front door. He lives alone, has lost both parents, and rarely has any meaningful contact with his only sister – or with anyone else, for that matter. His nights are his own and he often spends them pouring over the risqué magazines he has stacked in his bedroom.

The man is his own boss in every sense of the word.

That is, until Truth shows up for breakfast one morning as Jonathan is preparing to leave for the bookshop and simply refuses to go away. Not only does Truth take over a spare bedroom (although he never sleeps), he accompanies Jonathan to the bookshop and becomes his constant companion, something a loner like Jonathan is not particularly pleased about.

Luckily for Jonathan, Truth, a handsome fellow with a mildly twisted sense of humor, is the kind of guy whose company grows on a person. So despite his initial reluctance to have Truth around all the time, Jonathan begins to enjoy their conversation and finds himself teasing and joking with Truth when he spots an opportunity to do so. And, in the process, Jonathan begins to learn some painful truths about the missed opportunities sprinkled throughout his past, opportunities lost due to his own bad choices.

Truth, as personified by author Jim Murdoch, is a rather soft-hearted spirit not at all interested in hurting the people in whom he takes an interest. In fact, humans fascinate him so much that he enjoys and looks forward to “working” with them on a one-on-one basis. Yes, he wants his humans to see the truth about themselves and the way they have up-to-now spent their lives, but he reveals those truths in such a nonjudgmental manner that personal regrets are limited.

Living with the Truth is more than the story of one man’s life and what he finally learns about himself and his past choices. It is also a reminder that one short lifetime is all that any of us are allotted and that those of us who refuse to ever take a risk, and are forever taking the safer turn at life’s crossroads, will probably look back in regret about “what could have been.” And that, by then, it will be too late.

Much like Mr. Truth himself, Living with the Truth is one of those books that grows on the reader as its pages are turned. It is a cleverly constructed tale with a moral to offer, hard to beat that combination.

Rated at: 4.0

Bookstore Widows (and Widowers)’s Lori Borgman, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, I hope, describes what it’s like to be a bookstore widow (something my wife has experienced for too many years to count). I know that I see a lot of myself in what Borgman says here about her husband. A few years ago, I dreamed of chucking the old day job and making our living as a full-time book scout. In fact, I did pretty well two or three weekends a month, often turning a profit of a couple of hundred dollars a weekend as I bought books from one Houston bookstore and sold my purchases to another on the same day. It was all a matter of knowing the stock of the various dealers and what they were likely to want to add to their inventory.

Then things changed, mostly due to the internet, I think, and dealers seemed more aware of what was available just a few miles from their front doors. All of a sudden, true bargains became almost impossible to find and dealers knew more about the real value of what was on their own shelves than ever before. Let’s just say that I really miss the good old days – and the extra cash I earned for the price of a few gallons of gasoline and a day spent visiting local bookstores, something I would have likely been doing anyway.

This is part of what Borgman had to say about her husband and his love of books and bookstores but do read the whole piece for all the gory details. I suspect you’ll see a little, or a lot, as the case may be, of yourself in Mr. Borgman:

The husband loves books. We have a large used bookstore at a major intersection near the house, conveniently located on the way to everywhere.

I’m not saying he spends a lot of time there, but in six states the store could officially be registered as his common-law wife.

On occasion, when he would “forget” his cell phone, I had to send one of the kids to the bookstore to tell him dinner was ready and it was time to come home.

The husband is not alone in his passion; there is an entire breed of book lovers who lose track of time wandering among the shelves. They are bookies of a different breed and not the kind who place bets.

A bona fide book lover is someone who loves the smell of paper. He or she loves the feel of the book as much as the look of the book. If someone could bottle the smell of ink on paper in an aftershave, I’m pretty sure the husband would wear it.

Mr. Borgman, I feel like I’ve known you forever.

Winner! – Shape of Mercy

I received fourteen entries to the random number contest to win a free copy of The Shape of Mercy so I numbered the entrants 1-14 and had the software randomly generate a number between one and fourteen.

And the winner is number 2: Amy (Sleepy Reader blog)

So, Amy, send me some snail-mail details and I’ll put your copy of the book in the mail for you on my next post office run.

Thanks to everyone who entered the contest. I wish I had fourteen copies to give away.

Jewel of Medina Update II

Finally. I now have a copy of The Jewel of Medina in my personal library – although I’m still not sure about the book’s literary merits, if any. I’ve flipped through it and read several paragraphs from different sections of the book and I’m a little nervous that it might be more of a “historical romance” than quality historical fiction. I’ll know soon enough because I’m adding it to the stack of books I’m reading right now, bringing that stack to a total of five.

I did not expect to find the book on display so I went directly to the “Js” of the Barnes and Noble fiction section where I managed to overlook it on my first attempt. Frankly, all this time, I was expecting to find one of the quality-sized paperbacks instead of a hardcover and that’s the main reason that I missed it. The Barnes and Noble employee I approached for help seemed to know nothing at all about the book’s history but, as he looked it up in the computer system, I filled him in a bit and it seemed to ring a bell. He said there should be one copy on the shelf and more in the back and, as we walked back to the J-section of the store, he speculated that this must be the book of which his District Manager strongly suggested only one copy be placed on display at-a-time. Apparently, in this part of the Barnes and Noble world, it has been decided that no attention will be drawn to the book, that it will be displayed on the appropriate part of the fiction shelves spine-out so that the cover art catches no one’s eye, and that replacement copies will be put on the shelf only if someone happens to notice that a copy has sold despite all the obstacles against anyone actually spotting the book. All in the name of “bookseller safety” according to the employee with whom I spoke. Whatever…

One of the blurbs on the book’s back cover is particularly interesting. It comes from Irshad Manji, Director of the Moral Courage Project. Manji says:

“Sherry Jones does an extraordinary service to Islam in popularizing – and humanizing – a Muslim heroine. It’s the kind of history that I never learned in my mosque or madressa. As a faithful, feminist Muslim, I say ‘mashallah’ for this riveting novel.”

I’m looking forward to finally reading it for myself now.

Jewel of Medina Update

So how is it going for The Jewel of Medina, the book that Random House decided not to publish after an obscure University of Texas instructor stirred up a controversy among her Muslim contacts? Well, it seems that the book is selling in decent numbers despite the reluctance of some bookstores to carry it (or place it where it can be readily found in their stores). The good news is that nothing has happened to any booksellers, to the publisher, or to the author despite the dire predictions by that self-important university teacher. That makes me wonder if Random House is regretting its decision to bail out under her pressure – or not?

According to the book’s publisher, Beaufort Books, 3,000 copies have now been sold from the first printing of 50,000 books, 45,000 copies of which have been shipped.

3,000 copies sold is nothing to sneeze at and, hopefully, the author’s book tour and word-of-mouth publicity will generate more sales. It would be encouraging to see this one on the best seller lists but that appears unlikely to happen at this point.

I can’t believe that I still have not had my hands on a copy. I’m going to try again this afternoon to find one at the largest Barnes and Noble store in my area because I want to determine for myself whether the book is actually worth my time. Is it well-written historical fiction or is it junk? Would it have sold even 3,000 copies without the controversy contrived by someone who took offense to the book for reasons of her own? There’s only one way to find out – I’m going to have to at least attempt to read this one at some point.

Great Time for Canadians to Buy Books?

According to CBC News, the falling Canadian dollar has created a wonderful, though temporary, opportunity for Canadian readers to buy books imported from the United States at bargain prices. It all has to do, of course, with the price shown on the books and their dust jackets and how suddenly the Canadian dollar’s value has fallen in relation to that of the U.S. dollar.

The dollar’s now fallen to below 80 cents US, but again the price on the book jacket doesn’t reflect that.

Prices are set and printed months before the books hit the shelves.

That means that right now, books are a bargain,” Smith said.

“Like Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem, it’s $29.95 US, and it’s $31.95 Canadian. But, if I went at today’s [currency] rate, it should be $39.95 Canadian. That’s a 10-buck difference. That’s another book,” Smith said.

The publisher’s CEO, David Kent, watches the exchange rate every day, because most of the books it sells are imports from the United States.

“We import 75 per cent of the books we sell,” he said. “The difficulty for us is, when we adjust price, you won’t see it on books in the stores for a month in advance … right now U.S. books are a tremendous bargain, priced less than they would be in the U.S.,” Kent said.

This is exactly opposite the situation that occurred just a few months ago when the Canadian dollar gradually reached par with the U.S. dollar. At that point, Canadian consumers rightly complained that they were being gouged because of the “old prices” at which the books were still being sold. Some Canadian bookstores, as I recall, started selling the books at lower prices then despite the fact that they had been imported to be sold at a higher cost. Consumer pressure worked then but, now that the pricing situation has reversed, Canadian bookstores should not expect any sympathy from customers. Funny how that never seems to happen, isn’t it?

Oprah Freaks Over the Kindle

Live blogging the Oprah Winfrey Show (something I never thought I would say):

Will an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey on her show this afternoon serve as the tipping point for Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader?

As I write this post, Oprah is literally freaking out about the gadget and has just told her audience to open up their surprise packages containing their own new Kindles. She is so over the top and hyper this afternoon (almost a parody of the infamous Tom Cruise appearance on her show) that Amazon management must think they’ve died and gone to heaven.

She just introduced Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the two of them are yucking it up about how great the ebook reader is. I have to say it again: Oprah is jumping around and shrieking as if she’s on speed and Bezos is cracking up at her antics. She’s just gone to commercial and promised to demonstrate how to download books and newspapers to the Kindle when she returns (something she failed to do, but she did close the show by saying there would be a Kindle “school” on for those who want to buy one now).

She also hinted at a special deal that Bezos is going to announce for everyone who didn’t receive a free one in her audience this afternoon (this is supposedly a live show).

Here’s the (not so big) special deal that Oprah hinted at earlier: go to and get the special discount code good for $50 off the current price of the Kindle for use when ordering at Amazon. Do keep in mind, though, that a new version of the Kindle is said to be coming out sometime in January and the new version might make you wish you had waited until then.

Oprah’s television personality is not something I can take in doses of much over five minutes at a time but she definitely has a huge audience so this may be the best thing to happen to Amazon in a long, long time. Can she do for the Kindle what she does with her book club choices? Considering the price of a Kindle, I doubt it, but it sure won’t hurt.


Determined to bring major changes to French politics and society, President Nicolas Sarkozy does not seem to be at all concerned with maintaining a politically correct image for himself in the process. In fact, a big part of the man’s image and charm centers around his willingness to rock the boat any time that helps him achieve his goals. And, much to the dismay of his countrymen, one of the least politically correct things that Sarkozy has done since taking office is to express his admiration for America and many of the things for which this country stands. That alone makes him more of a “maverick” in France than John McCain could ever hope to be in this country.

Testimony is both a detailed explanation of the goals Sarkozy hopes to achieve during his presidency and a description of the societal and political problems that he recognized on his first day in office. Many of Sarkozy’s observations about what has caused the French economy and lifestyle to fall behind those of so many other European countries will be of particular interest to American readers who worry about the direction in which this country appears to be heading.

Sarkozy is particularly concerned with the jealous criticism directed at so many of France’s most successful citizens and the prevalent desire to “level things out” in a manner that would allow everyone to share the country’s wealth. As he puts it, “Instead of mobilizing society through those who have succeeded the most, the French prefer to stoke up resentment of those who have more than others, on the assumption that they must have stolen what they have from others!” Any society has a big problem when its biggest “achievers” are seen as targets to be destroyed by those who underachieve in their own lives, an attitude that Sarkozy recognizes in France and one which seems to be more common in America now than ever before.

Regarding his country’s tendency to overtax its richest citizens, Sarkozy makes the observation that other countries benefit greatly from the policy because so many of France’s best minds and most ambitious people choose to relocate to countries with more reasonable tax laws. “Equality should mean not that we all become poor, but rather that we can all hope to become rich or at least ensure social advancement for our families” is a Sarkozy point that seems to be as misunderstood today in America as it is in France. As Sarkozy goes on to say, “…the main consequence of preventing the most dynamic members of society from getting rich is to make everyone else poor. By trying to ensure equality for everyone you end up penalizing everyone.”

President Sarkozy is not afraid to point out the French superiority complex, something that is apparently obvious to everyone other than the French themselves, and how counterproductive that attitude is when dealing with citizens of other countries, including those of Europe. As he correctly says, “By living off our past, by believing that we can get away with anything because we’re France, by thinking that we don’t have to try as hard as the others do, we are losing influence,” something else, I would suggest, for American readers to keep in mind about our own attitudes.

France, as does most of the rest of Europe, has a social welfare system of significantly greater scope than the United States but Sarkozy believes that the system has become more a detriment to, than an advantage for, his country. He makes the common sense observation that, “The French are not afraid of work. But the deliberate inversion of values between work and welfare has caused people to lose their bearings. When someone who works doesn’t live any better than someone who doesn’t work, why should the one working get up early in the morning?” We are fast approaching the same point in America, I believe, and should learn from the experience of countries like France that got there before us.

With the emergence of Nicolas Sarkozy, America seems to have more in common with the leadership of France now than it has since the end of World War II. Even Sarkozy himself seems to feel that way when he says, “I would like to put special emphasis on our relations with the United States. Our situation is unique. The United States is a country that some of France’s elites claim to detest, or at least criticize regularly and in a stereotypical way. This is rather strange for a number of reasons. The United States is a country that France has never been to war against, and there aren’t so many of those…and I have no intention of apologizing for feeling an affinity with the greatest democracy in the world.”

And, finally, near the end of Testimony, Sarkozy almost seems to be speaking directly to his American readers when he observes, “Democracy dies away when there is no longer any difference between the majority and the opposition, when the left and the right are no longer faithful to their values, and when no one is willing to stand and fight for the policies for which he or she was elected. This is no doubt one of the main causes of the current crisis of politics.” And it explains so much of what has happened to the United States in the last two decades, a period during which the merger of our own two main political parties has moved ever nearer.

Testimony is one of the best political memoirs that I have read in the last several years. It explains much about France and one man’s hopes for reviving his country, but just as importantly, the book serves as a warning to the citizens of this country that they do not want to continue to drift toward a lifestyle and political outlook that is eerily becoming more European every day.

Rated at: 4.0

Enthusiastic Brooklyn Librarian Charged with Ethics Violation

Robert Grandt is an educator of some 39 years experience.

He is also a very proud father.

So what’s the problem? Well it seems that Grandt’s pride in his daughter has gotten him into hot water with NYC’s Conflicts of Interest Board because he had the audacity to place copies of the new book that his daughter helped illustrate into Brooklyn Technical High School’s library. Now keep in mind that Grandt was not selling the book, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, from the display table he set up. He was giving the book away to anyone who showed an interest in it.

The New York Times has all the details of this ridiculous waste of the city’s time:

On Monday, the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board announced it had settled a case it had brought against Mr. Grandt for promoting his daughter’s work. He agreed to pay a $500 fine and admit in a three-page stipulation that he had violated the city ethics code.

Mr. Grandt, who said he was an unwitting villain, was disappointed the board did not see things his way.

“There are so many things going on they could investigate,” he said in an interview, “and they had nothing better to do than allege that my daughter would have gotten 20 cents in royalties if someone bought the book. But nobody did. I gave out free copies. I was just so proud of my daughter for writing it.”

Mr. Grandt said he did not envision that putting a few copies of his daughter’s book on a table or promoting it in the newsletter last spring would cross the line.

“I’m supposed to, as part of my job, display new books and encourage the kids to read new books,” he said. “So here, I displayed my daughter’s book and encouraged the kids to read it and am told that I had done something illegal.”

Trouble first surfaced in June, he said, when he was summoned to an assistant principal’s office. Representatives from the city’s Department of Investigation were there to ask about the book.

You know what? Even if this man’s daughter made a whopping twenty cents for any books purchased as a result of her dad’s efforts, who cares? Is this is all the fine folks in New York City have to worry about? If so, they must never turn on the local news.

The members of the Conflicts of Interest Board should be ashamed of themselves and rushing to give Grandt the apology he deserves. Yeah, right…that’s gonna happen.

Free Book – The Shape of Mercy

And now for some good news. If what I have written about Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy makes you want to read it but you’ve spent the October book budget already, how does a free copy sound?

Here’s your chance to win a brand new, mint, never read, perfect copy…just leave me a comment about the book under its review and I’ll do a random number drawing this weekend to pick the lucky winner.

The Shape of Mercy

Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy is not at all the usual type of reading that I do but because I am curious about what is happening in Christian Fiction and Young Adult Literature these days, I decided to take a look at it. And I am happy that I did because The Shape of Mercy represents both of those genres very well, further convincing me in the process that neither genre should be taken for granted.

Meissner’s story will most certainly appeal to young female readers because, at its heart, it is a love story. In fact, it is three love stories. And it will appeal to Christian Fiction fans because of its low key approach to presenting a positive message about the Christian lifestyle and what it has to offer to those who choose to live it.

Lauren Durough, young college student and an only child, has grown into a bit of a rebel when it comes to doing what her family expects her to do. In most ways, she is a product of the privileged lifestyle to which she was born, but Lauren believes that her father is unhappy that he has no son to whom he will be able to turn over the family business when he is ready to retire. That makes her even more determined to blaze her own trail, resulting in her choice of a state school over a private university and her decision to major in English rather than in Business as she was expected to do.

A desire to cover some of her own school expenses leads Lauren to an interesting job transcribing the personal diary of Mercy Hayworth, a young woman who in 1692 Salem was charged with being a witch. Lauren knew that the job would be interesting; she never expected that it would change her life.

The Shape of Mercy is about three very different women: Mercy Hayworth, a nineteen-year-old charged with the 17th century death penalty crime of being a witch; Lauren Durough, the young college student who more than three hundred years later is asked to transcribe the barely legible words from Mercy’s diary; and Abigail Boyles, the elderly ex-librarian in whose family the diary has been passed from generation-to-generation.

Lauren immediately identifies with Mercy Hayworth and the innocent love story recounted in Mercy’s diary while she reluctantly approaches the brutal truth of Mercy’s final days that she knows will be revealed in the diary’s last entries. But Lauren is surprised to find that Abigail, through her own life story, can teach her as much about love, critical choices, prejudice and regrets as Lauren can learn from the much shorter and more tragic life described in Mercy’s diary.

Susan Meissner uses the lives of three very different women, women of vastly different life experiences, to reveal some real truths to her readers. The Shape of Mercy is filled with life lessons that young women will find particularly appealing but, make no mistake about it, it is never too late for any of us to be reminded of what Meissner describes here about preconceived notions and the importance of love in one’s life. This is one of those books that can be read on more than one level – and it might even make some young readers curious enough to do some reading on the Salem Witch Trials, definitely a good thing.

Rated at: 4.0

Ten Books I Love That Nobody Else Seems to Much Care About

As a counterpoint to my list of “Ten Books Others Love but I Hate,” a list that drew the wrath of one commenter who couldn’t believe my stupidity, I offer this one, a list of books that I have loved for a long time even though I seldom hear them mentioned anywhere these days:

1. The Wolf and the Buffalo – Elmer Kelton – Kelton’s 1980 novel that pits black cavalry soldiers against the Indian tribes who called them Buffalo Soldiers. The book explores the relationships between the various races during this volatile period of American history and reminds the reader that, even though the former slaves and the American Indians would seem to have much in common, they were actually mortal enemies. Kelton also explores the relationship of the black soldiers and the white and brown citizens of the Texas towns they were sent to protect from the raiding tribes. This one is filled with memorable characters and episodes and is one of my favorite Elmer Kelton books.

2. Final Payments – Mary Gordon- Gordon’s debut novel and the one that led me to read just about everything else she’s ever written. It’s the story of a thirty-year-old daughter who is finally freed from more than a decade of taking care of her bedridden father when he finally dies. This is one of the best psychological studies I’ve ever read – plenty of guilt to go around as this young woman struggles to get the rest of her life started.

3. Time on My Hands – Peter Delacorte – a time travel novel that includes one of my favorite presidents, Ronald Reagan, as a main character. When a travel writer is offered the chance to do a little time traveling in a 22nd century time machine he jumps at the chance even though he has to first agree to do whatever it takes to keep Ronald Reagan from becoming president of the United States. This is a good natured tale that made me smile a lot.

4. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – Doris Kearns Goodwin – Lincoln comes from nowhere to win the presidency. Goodwin explores Lincoln’s brilliant decision to fill his cabinet with many of his biggest rivals and political enemies regardless of their political party. If only we had someone capable of doing something like that today…

5. Three Chords and the Truth – Laurence Leamer – a warts and all look at some of the biggest names in country music, past and present. This one is a publicity director’s nightmare because it exposes much of the myth built around some of the more recent country stars. Guess what? Some of them can’t sing a lick and are about as country as Frank Sinatra. This one is fun.

6. Whistle – James Jones – published in 1978, this is the novel that Jones was working on when he died of congestive heart failure. It is the third book in his WWII trilogy that includes the much better known titles, From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. It explores the aftermath of warfare and what the survivors bring home with them when all the fighting is over.

7. Play for a Kingdom – Thomas Dyja – an intriguing Civil War novel that explores what happens when Union and Confederate troops, finding themselves in place for an extended period of time, decide to form rival baseball teams to kill the time. But not everything is as it seems, of course.

8. Andersonville – MacKinlay Kantor – the brilliant 1955 novel that so vividly portrays life in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. Kantor expertly portrays the viciousness of the prison guards but shows that the real villains were the gangs inside the prison population that preyed upon their weaker fellow prisoners. This is one reading experience I will never forget.

9. Waltz in Marathon – Charles Dickinson – if there is any such thing as a coming-of-age novel about a 61-year-old man, this is it. Harry Waltz, a good-hearted loan shark suddenly finds his whole world turned around when his “clients” start refusing to repay their loans, he falls in love with a woman 20 years younger than him, and his adult children come back into his life. This is Dickinson’s great debut novel from 1983 that turned me into a Charles Dickinson fan for life.

10. The Greatest Game Ever Played – Jerry Izenberg – recounts all the drama and hoopla surrounding Game Six of the 1986 baseball playoffs between the Astros and the Mets, a game I suffered through in the Astrodome. This book perfectly captures the tension and the exhaustion felt by anyone who endured this 16-inning marathon – and it doesn’t hurt that I am mentioned by name on page 72.

I hope you like this list better than the other one, Chloe, and that you will give me back a little bit of the credibility you took from me on that one.

Those Ol’ Post Partum Book Blues

I suspect that most heavy-duty readers, and that description has to include just about anyone who bothers to read book blogs like this one, have at one time or another fantasized about living the novelist life for themselves. We imagine how wonderful it would be to make our living by writing books that bring us a nice steady income and enable us to immerse ourselves in a world that we can only imagine from the outside looking in.

What a great day for a writer it must be when it comes time to push another of their “babies” out into the world. Or is it? Not necessarily, according to author William G. Tapply, a man who has produced some 40 books, including over two dozen “Brady Coyne mysteries,” a series he began in 1984. Tapply has just pushed another baby out into the big old world, Dark Tiger, his third Stoney Calhoun novel and he’s hurting (from St. Martin’s Moments in Crime):

Congratulations, you might say. A cause for celebration, right?

Wrong, actually. When I ship this one off to my agent and my editor (well, “ship” is wrong . . . I will email it), I’ll officially be Between Books. And when I’m Between Books, it means I don’t have anything to write about.

It’s an empty feeling. I liken it to the Post Partum Blues.

When the novel is written and edited and revised and shipped off, after about nine months have passed (this is my writing cycle), suddenly it’s no longer inside me. It’s gone, out in the world, off on its own, and I’m left feeling vaguely empty and aimless.

Then I understand all of those writers, of whom there are many, who become alcoholics or drug addicts or suicides or divorcees. Or all of the above. Writers can be a glum lot.

Well, it’s not like that with me. But it is an Empty Feeling.

Some writers just move on to their next good idea, of which, they claim, they have a boundless supply (“Oh, I’ve got a million ideas,” they say, annoyingly, or, “The world is full of ideas”). These happy, irritating souls leave themselves no time to luxuriate in that Empty Feeling. They just keep writing.

For me, alas, a workable idea, an idea that seems like it could sustain a long complicated story with many original characters (ie, a novel), is a rare and wonderful gift, and when I’ve got one, I treasure it.

Being “between books” is not what I imagined it would be like for someone who has written 40 books. If this is a common experience for most authors, Tapply has experienced it more than most of them and I appreciate his frankness. In fact, that’s both the good news and the bad news for Mr. Tapply. The bad news is that I have somehow managed to remain unaware of his work up to this point. The good news is that his piece on what he experiences when he finds himself between books has brought him to my attention and I will be reading one of his novels soon.

Mr. Tapply may just be creating a bunch of new fans while between books this time around.

(Click on the link and read the whole piece – there’s much more to it than the excerpts I’ve clipped here.)

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is the collection of Katherine Anne Porter’s three short novels that was first published in 1939, offering three pieces of fiction that very much helped to make and secure Porter’s reputation as one of this country’s best short fiction writers. Calling these pieces “short novels” may be a bit of a stretch for most readers, however, and it may be more appropriate to look at them as “long short stories.” After all, the book is only 150 pages in length.

Porter herself weighed in on the question and seems to have preferred the term “short novels” asking of readers and critics, “please do not call my short novels Novelettes, or even worse, Novellas. Novelette is classical usage for a trivial, dime-novel sort of thing; Novella is a slack, boneless, affected word that we do not need to describe anything. Please call my books by their right names…” However we choose to categorize these stories, it is easy to see why they are still being read today, almost seventy years after they were first published, and why they solidify Porter’s reputation.

The first and last stories in Pale Horse, Pale Rider share a main character, Miranda, who is portrayed in “Old Mortality,” the first story, as a child growing up in the shadows of her almost legendary Aunt Amy, a beauty who died young but still seems to be the family “star.” Miranda and her sister spend much of their childhood trying to unravel the legend of their aunt’s life and to make some sense of all the family personalities involved in her history, including that of their own father. As is always the real strength of Porter’s fiction, this story is filled with interesting characters and astute observations about the dynamics of family life.

The book’s last story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” centers again on Miranda, now a young newspaper columnist struggling to make a living completely on her own during the trying times of World War I. Porter captures the home front atmosphere well, including the often overzealous characters who tried to shame their fellow citizens into buying war bonds they could not always afford and the friction between the young men still at home and the women who had been left behind by their own soldier husbands, sons and boy friends. But her story centers on the flu epidemic that so devastated the world during the war years. Her description of the surreal dreams and confusion Miranda experiences in her struggle to survive an attack of the flu is an intense, and sometimes tiring, experience for the reader.

But it is the middle short novel, “Noon Wine,” that is my favorite. “Noon Wine” takes place on a tiny Texas farm between 1896 and 1905. As the story opens, the farm is going nowhere and its owner resents the fact that his sickly wife has insisted upon expanding into the dairy business. Even on such a small scale, this lazy man is not at all happy with the daily requirements of tending to his milk cows. His savior arrives in the person of a foreign drifter willing to work for low wages while practically running the farm for its owner. Several years later when a stranger comes to the farm asking questions about the drifter, events suddenly go out of control to the extent that lives are changed forever. Nothing that happens is black and white and Porter does a remarkable job in presenting all the gray tones involved in the situation.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an impressive collection that should not be missed by Katherine Anne Porter fans. At the very least, pick up a copy of the book long enough to read “Noon Wine.” You will be happy that you did.

Rated at: 4.0

The Sirens of Baghdad

Mohammed Moulessehoul, who writes as Yasmina Khadra, is a former officer of the Algerian army, an army that for the better part of the last two decades has primarily involved itself with fighting several well organized terrorist organizations within Algeria’s borders. Some critics, including many Algerians, have accused the army of being as bad as the terrorists it professes to fight, labeling it little more than the government’s own band of terrorists. Whatever the case may be, Khadra’s experience certainly places him in the position to offer insights into the minds of those who dedicate their lives to the destruction of the West and everything for which it stands.

The Sirens of Baghdad, originally published in France, is the story one young Iraqi university student (the book’s narrator) who is almost accidentally transformed overnight from a peacefully ambitious young man seeking to honor his family by his educational achievements into a human weapon of mass destruction. When the American invasion of Iraq reached Baghdad, this nameless student was forced to return to his remote desert village, Kafr Karam, to wait for a time that would allow him to return to his studies. His home is so remotely located that for a time he and the rest of those in the village were hardly touched by the war being waged in their country.

But, of course, time would bring the war even to a village as remote as his, and direct contact with the violence of war turned him into someone convinced that there was only one worthy goal left to him in his lifetime: revenge on the people who destroyed his way of life and, most importantly, dishonored his family in perhaps the worst way imaginable to an Iraqi Bedouin like him.

First he was stunned to witness the shooting of a retarded villager by American troops who mistakenly believed the man to be trying to escape from them at a roadblock. Only a few days later, even before he could recover from the shock of that death, an American missile struck a nearby wedding celebration, killing a number of women and children. But those events alone were not enough to turn him from student to avowed terrorist.

He reached his own personal tipping point when American troops searched his home and, in the process, almost inadvertently managed to dishonor and disgrace his family by the way they treated his father. The former student knew that revenge for a disgrace of this magnitude required blood to be spilled, and he immediately walked out of his village and made his way back to Baghdad so that he could spill as much American blood as possible.

As the narrator tries to connect with terrorist organizers who can use his willingness to die for the cause to their advantage, The Sirens of Baghdad describes life in occupied Baghdad through the eyes of others like him, men and women whose only purpose in life has become to maim and kill as many Westerners as possible before they die in the effort. What Khadra describes is a vivid portrayal of the dangers, intrigues and frustrations faced by American and Iraqi soldiers and those working with them to stabilize the country.

Although Yasmina Khadra does not attempt to justify what either side in Iraq is doing, he does tell his story only from the Iraqi point-of-view despite occasionally pointing out that American soldiers often insult Iraqi customs and cultural expectations more from ignorance of the culture than from spite or anger. Books like this one offer Western readers a rare opportunity to get inside the heads of those who live only to see our culture destroyed and, despite its relatively weak ending, this is a book that has much to offer to anyone struggling to understand the mindset of those so willing to blow themselves up simply to take a few Westerners with them.

Rated at: 4.0