One Year Reprieve for Libraries

Nothing like waiting until the last minute, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission has finally blinked on the requirement that all children’s books be removed from library shelves until it could be determined that they were not toxic. Now it’s up to the libraries to convince those who must be obeyed that printing ink should be exempted from such testing.

(Near miss allows library escape for now)

From a Houston Chronicle article:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Friday that it will postpone lead testing requirements that would have put libraries at risk of liability lawsuits for loaning children’s books.

Congress tightened limits on lead levels in children’s toys as part of the Consumer Project Safety Improvement Act, following a lead paint scare from imported children’s toys. The new requirements were set to take effect Feb. 10 and carried the weight of civil or criminal penalties for distributors of children’s products, including books.

This decision, once entered in the Federal Register, will give public libraries one year to decide how to bring their collections of children’s books into compliance.

While pleased, advocates of libraries would like to see more than a postponement of the requirement.

Surely, a reasonable compromise can be reached sometime during the next year…even with the Federal Government in the picture.

New Reader Born in a Library

Some of you read so many books that you’ve probably jokingly been asked if you were born in a library. Well, two-day-old Sariah Trevino will be able to say that she really was born in a library, the Denver Central Library.

Her mother didn’t quite make it to the hospital but was lucky enough to be helped inside the library by some alert employees and delivered her daughter there without any complications. In fact, it sounds like everything went very smoothly.

Sariah and her mother
Photo: (THE DENVER POST | JOHN PRIETO)

Trevino was on her way to the hospital Tuesday, riding the “0” bus, when she started having contractions.

A woman on the bus, who works at the hospital, noticed what was going on, Trevino recalled. She told the expectant mother to get off the bus at the library and used her cellphone to call for an ambulance.

“I tried to get to Denver Health,” Trevino said sheepishly. “I didn’t make it.”

Trevino said as she walked from the bus toward the library, she knew the baby was coming in a hurry.

“As soon as I started walking, I felt pressure,” she said.

Once inside the library, Trevino lay down on the floor and people inside, including library security, began to help. Trevino only had to push twice to deliver her baby girl.

Wouldn’t it be fun to tell your reading friends that you were born in a library?

The Weight of a Mustard Seed

Wendell Steavenson admits right up front that Saddam Hussein would have been unable to sustain his brutal dictatorship of Iraq without the help of those willing to carry out the horrible atrocities he directed. Be it war against neighboring countries, massacre of fellow Iraqis or torture prisons filled with those seen by Saddam to be a threat to his regime, he could not have managed it alone. Steavenson is not a naïve woman; she fully understands that her many interviews with former Iraqi Army officers have to be filtered through the eyes of a skeptic because those with whom she spoke were more interested in spinning a story that would justify what they personally did during the Saddam years than they were in telling the truth.

Despite her skepticism, Steavenson decided that the men deserved to be heard and the result is The Weight of a Mustard Seed: An Iraqi General’s Moral Journey during the Time of Saddam. Not surprisingly, along with claiming to have never felt fear in battle, each of those interviewed claims to have always tried to limit the brutality of Saddam’s orders as best he could despite the danger to the lives of himself and his family for having done so. Iraqi military men, much as the Germans did after Hitler, have orally rewritten their history to the point that Saddam was the only bad person there and everyone else was, to varying degrees, one of his victims. Of course, that is a lie – and Steavenson does not pretend otherwise.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed focuses on General Kamel Sachet, a man eventually executed upon the orders of Saddam despite the fact that he was a Saddam favorite for most of his military career. Steavenson came to believe from all the interviews she conducted with Sachet’s fellow officers that he might have indeed had cleaner (though not clean) hands than most. However, she reminds the reader that she reached this conclusion by speaking with Iraqis, all the time fully aware that the art of duplicity is part of being an Iraqi, and that survival under the Saddam reign of terror required Iraqis to develop multiple personalities from which they could choose to fit the occasion.

What emerges from The Weight of a Mustard Seed is an inside look at the men who made it possible for Saddam to brutalize Iraq for so many years. Despite their attempts to hide the truth, and to make themselves look better than they were, the interviews reveal interesting detail about the military, the prisons, the purges and the tribal rivalries that made it all so easy for Saddam to surround himself with men as brutal as him. It is necessary to read between the lines and to compare the stories of different speakers, but one does come away with a sense of how Saddam was able to make Iraq into his personal playground for so many years.

Rated at: 4.0

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John Updike Dead at 76

Comes word today that we’ve lost another of the great ones. This time it’s John Updike – who passed away sometime this morning from the lung cancer he’s been fighting.

I will always remember him best for his Rabbit books, the series of books published over a thirty-year period that chronicled the ups and downs of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball player just trying to make his way in the world. Most recently, Updike had seen some success with his follow-up to 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick, The Widows of Eastwick, his 23rd, and I would think, his last published novel.

Updike, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, was a masterful writer, one of the finest ever produced by this country. It will be strange not to see a new John Updike novel in 2009 because he seldom let a year go by without something new to offer his fans. Rest in peace, Mr. Updike. We’ll miss you.

Lush Life

Lush Life is my first audio book of 2009 and I doubt that I will find a better combination of author and reader the rest of the year. Richard Price is a master of dialogue regardless of the class or color of his characters and Bobby Cannavale, the television and movie actor giving life to the characters here, handles them all with ease.

Rather surprisingly, despite the length and heft of Lush Life, its plot centers around a simple armed robbery that goes bad because of two of the people involved, one of them a victim, and the other, one of the robbers. Two people, each totally unprepared for what is happening to them at that moment, are suddenly eyeball-to-eyeball and, to the surprise of both of them, one is shot dead.

Ike Marcus, a young white guy out on the town with two friends, refuses to accept the fact that two black teens expect him to hand over his valuables despite the pistol one of them is aiming at him. After he mutters what would be his last words, “Not tonight, my man,” he is struck by a single bullet and falls to the ground mortally wounded. On the other side of that pistol stands Tristan Acevedo, a young man holding a gun for the first time in his life and who is stunned to realize that he has reflexively pulled its trigger after Ike Marcus foolishly stepped toward him.

Lush Life is not a whodunit. There is never any doubt as to the murderer’s identity or motive. Instead, Price takes a frank look at everyone involved in, or affected by, the crime: the three robbery victims, the two robbers, family and friends of all of them, the police charged with figuring it all out, and the people who live in the neighborhood where it all happens.

The book is largely conversational, perfect for an audio presentation, and the way that Price allows his characters to express themselves makes them seem very real. We get into the heads of those black kids living on the project streets, kids so caught up in the drug culture that they are oblivious to any other possibilities. We suffer along with Ike’s father, an articulate man driven by confusion and despair to hang out near the crime scene in hopes that he will overhear someone bragging about the murder. We admire Matty Clark, a good detective and a decent man, who takes a personal interest in Ike’s family and risks his own career by fighting to keep the investigation as active as possible. We sympathize with Eric Cash, another of the robbery victims, who has his life almost destroyed by what happens to him after the crime. We sneer at the way the robbery’s third victim uses his fifteen minutes of fame to advance his show business career.

Even more amazingly, we come to know dozens of people around the core of main characters, each of them adding bits of color and detail to the world so clearly illustrated in Lush Life. I seldom suggest that readers opt for the audio version of a book over its written one, but I am doing it this time.

Lush Life is a very good book, one you have to hear to really appreciate at its most powerful.

Rated at: 5.0

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Book Giveaway Winner!

First, thanks for the 20 giveaway entries – nice to see that kind of interest in the book. After assigning an entry number to each separate name, I used a random number generator to match up with the winning number…and the winner is: Jen, of Jen’s Book Thoughts.

But don’t despair because Jen has agreed to my alternate plan of reading the book and reviewing it on her own site before passing it on to the next reader. We’re now hoping to have this book read until it falls apart, with each reader signing the book by name and blogsite (if they have one) and adding the date they finished it. Perhaps each reader can scan the page of the book used for signatures and post that along with their review so that we can all track its progress.

How better to stick it to those who deem themselves worthy of deciding what the rest of us should be allowed to read?

So, Jen, email me with the mailing instructions and I’ll send The Jewel of Medina on the first leg of what I hope turns into a long, long journey.

Are Children’s Books Health Hazzards?

We’ve all heard about the dangerous toys imported into this country from China – along with the Chinese-manufactured pet food that seems to have killed more than a few U.S. pets a few weeks ago.

Now parents have to worry that the storybooks they hope will inspire their children to become lifetime readers may be as toxic as those Chinese toys. Libraries and bookstores across the country seem to be faced with the possibility that they will have to clear their shelves of books aimed at readers under 12-years old until those books can be checked for toxic lead paints and plastic.

According to the Mercury News:

That little-known consequence of a law passed to protect kids from tainted toys has librarians and publishers lobbying furiously for an exemption before it takes effect Feb. 10. Without a reprieve, San Jose library officials say they could be forced to close their children’s sections and send off all 700,000 volumes in them for safety testing.


Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in August to protect kids from exposure to lead and plastic. The law followed the discovery of lead paint in imported toy trains and mounting health concerns about baby bottles and toys containing phthalates, used to make some plastics more flexible.

Lawyers for the Consumer Product Safety Commission told publishers in a recent opinion that the law covers children’s books as well as toys and applies retroactively to include library collections. All books aimed at kids under 12, the commission said, need to be tested to ensure they don’t exceed the new lead and phthalate limits.

Although publishers presented the commission with evidence they say proves books don’t pose any of the health risks to children that the law intended to address, the agency has yet to be convinced.

Applying this law retroactively to libraries and bookstores seems to me to be an impossible burden despite the fact that so many little ones keep their books in their mouths as much as they keep them in their hands. This is a tricky question but the word “overkill” does come to mind pretty quickly.

Books: A Memoir

Counting the two books that Larry McMurtry coauthored with Diana Ossana, Books: A Memoir is his forty-first book. I have read all but a handful of them (and will get around to those eventually) and was a regular at Booked Up, McMurtry’s antiquarian bookstore during the relatively short period it had a Houston address. I only ran into McMurtry once in all my visits to Booked Up and, on that occasion, he was involved in what seemed to me to be a detailed business discussion with the store’s manager so I decided not to bother him. I have long regretted that missed opportunity to talk books with a bookman of McMurtry’s experience, so I see Books: A Memoir as the next best thing to a sit-down with him. In fact, Books is written in such a rambling conversational, style that I imagine it to be closely akin to what speaking to him would actually be like.

The 109 chapters of Books cover McMurtry’s love of books from his boyhood to the present day, each chapter being a little snippet of information regarding how he became the bookman he is today. It is almost a stream-of-consciousness format, with some names and references occurring in more than one chapter and some turns of phrase being used so many times that they become McMurtry catch phrases. Some would suggest that McMurtry needed a better editor for the book; I say that it is exactly that kind of thing that makes the book seem so much like an actual conversation with the man.

The biggest surprise to me is that McMurtry seems prouder of, and happier with, his success at creating several great antiquarian bookstores and a huge personal book collection than he is of all of the success and awards coming from the books he himself has written. That tells more about him than anything else in his story – he is primarily a book lover. That he is able to make his living by writing books is, for him, the wonderful bonus that allows him to indulge his first love, acquiring fine books written by others.

Larry McMurtry has strong opinions when it comes to books, bookstores and readers and he shares many of them in this memoir. Here are a few samples of what he had to say:

“But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself; savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.”

“I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support – reading – is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one.”

“For the twenty years or so in which I reviewed for newspapers regularly, I mainly reviewed fiction, with now and then a biography or two mixed in. If one adds them up, I suspect I reviewed several hundred novels – or at least I reported on them – and the result was that I burned out as a reader of fiction.”

“No one claimed book collecting was rational.”

“Many bookmen, and some of the best among them, rarely, if ever, read. They acquire and they estimate and they sell; they collate, measure, hype. They read catalogues, they look in bibliographies, they submit quotes. But they don’t have time to read.”

“I don’t like the audiobooks but at least they preserve the human longing for narrative, and for a certain linkage between the author and the reader. A story gets told, and loyalties to authors might also be developed.”

“This is not likely to be a popular view, but the cruel fact is that many writers go on writing after it would have been better for them to stop. Of course, it’s not human nature to stop when you’re winning – or even when you think you’re winning, which is more often the case.”

When I’m writing I often spin out my daily pages as rapidly as possible, in order to get back to whatever I am reading.”

I’m happy that I finally managed to have that conversation with Mr. McMurtry, one-sided as it had to be.

Rated at: 4.0

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Harbor

Lorraine Adams won a Pulitzer prize as an investigative journalist for the Washington Post some seven years before she stumbled upon the newspaper story that would eventually inspire her 2004 debut novel. That novel, Harbor, would also prove to be a prize winner by being named “Book of the Year” by both the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly and being awarded with the Los Angeles Times 2004 book prize for first fiction.

Although most of its action takes place in Boston, Harbor is really a story about the breakdown of society in modern Algeria, a country that for too many years suffered the slaughter of its population at the hands of several Muslim extremists groups, the army charged with protecting the population, and the corrupt government that, at times, seemed to welcome the carnage. It is said that over 100,000 people died in those few years, most of them butchered, and many thousands of them decapitated for the purpose of terrorizing those who might fight back.

Aziz Arkoun, and hundreds more like him who could not find work that would allow them to marry and move from the home of their parents, would make their way illegally to the United States, willing to risk their lives and leave everything they knew behind in hope of a better life. After 52 days as a stowaway on a tanker, Aziz finds himself in a near frozen Boston harbor, jumps overboard, and barely survives his swim to shore. He speaks not a word of English, has no money, and no plan other than to contact another Algerian, the one person that might help him.

In what seems to him a miracle, Aziz overhears two people on the street speaking Arabic and, after throwing himself at their mercy, he is taken into the home of one of the men until he is well enough to contact his “cousin” who lives just a few miles away. Aziz finds himself living in a cramped apartment with other Algerian illegals, a little support group to which he would remain attached for several years while he and the others struggled to learn English and find work, no matter what it might pay.

Unfortunately for Aziz and his friends, his “cousin” is not one to work for anything as low as minimum wage and he makes his own living by smuggling everything from drugs, to designer clothes, to what the FBI believes might be explosive chemicals. The FBI, in its effort to prove that the Algerians are a threat to the country (a full year prior to 9-11), links bits and pieces of evidence together into what becomes a wider and wider net that threatens to haul in the innocent along with anyone that might be guilty.

Adams does not avoid the horrific truth of what was happening in Algeria in the early nineties and, in fact, describes one murder in such brutal detail that readers will be shocked, if not offended, by what they read. However, that incident forms the very core of Harbor, and without it, the book would not be nearly so strong or its message so true. As one who was evacuated from Algiers just as everything there was falling apart, I strongly commend Lorraine Adams for telling Algeria’s story in such frank and believable terms despite the fact that I had dreams of that particular killing for two nights running. Let no one doubt that, in Harbor, Adams has captured the utter brutality of what Algeria suffered at the hands of its own.

Rated at: 4.5

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Book Giveaway Question

I’ve been thinking about the giveaway of my copy of The Jewel of Medina and I’ve come up with another proposal concerning the book. See what you think.

Most of you are well aware of the controversy involving the book – all the way from some University of Texas instructor who, with the help of a few radical Muslim friends of hers, convinced Random House to refuse the book’s publication, to the firebombing of its London publisher’s offices.

I am willing to bet that all of you detest censorship and book banning, so here’s what we could do. What if I pick a winner on Sunday just as planned – but with one added twist: that winner would read the book and (hopefully) review it before passing it on the the next person in line. Each of us who have read the book would sign and date it before passing it on. In other words, we could start our own mini-protest against book censorship and have some fun at the same time.

We could make sure that the book is read by many more people than otherwise would have read it before the misguided efforts to keep it out of our hands. We can help show the futility of book banning.

That’s the basic proposal but suggestions would be appreciated. I would love to see this copy of the book read and signed by a few dozen folks before we do something with it, maybe like sending it to the author or…

So what do y’all think?

The Given Day

Dennis Lehane, already well known for his detective series, thrillers and the movies made from his books, this time around tries his hand at historical fiction. The result of his efforts, The Given Day, is so good that it will have his readers wishing he had tried it years earlier.

Set in World War I era Boston, The Given Day describes one of America’s great cities at a pivotal point in its history. Social unrest and demand for change are making the rich and powerful very uneasy and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to remain atop the heap, no matter the cost to those struggling for their very survival. Labor unions are so much on the move that even the Boston Police vote to unionize and the N.A.A.C.P. is making strides in the city at the same time that anarchists are threatening to blow it up. In the midst of what is already a chaotic situation, Boston is hit hard by the Spanish flu epidemic and must depend on a police force threatening to walk off the job.

The Given Day features three sets of characters whose paths cross, sometimes in significant ways and sometimes only briefly, over a number of years: the Coughlin family, an Irish family headed by a prominent police captain; Luther Laurence, a black man hiding in Boston because of a murder charge in Oklahoma; and Babe Ruth, the great Red Sox pitcher and slugger.

Thomas Coughlin, a police captain who came to Boston from Ireland as a young man, is proud of his sons, especially Danny, the one that followed him into the department. But things go bad when Danny finds that he has more in common with the people he has been asked to spy upon than with those to whom he reports what he learns. Danny reluctantly becomes a leader in the effort to unionize the Boston Police Department and one of the key players in the decision to have the police turn in their badges in protest of their poverty level wages and horrible working conditions.

Luther Laurence is forced to kill a black Oklahoma mobster in self-defense but allows another one, already critically wounded, to live. Luther knows, though, that the man he spared will never return the favor and he immediately leaves the state, abandoning his wife and unborn child in the process. Working as a houseman and driver for the Coughlin family, Luther feels safe until he attracts the curiosity of another police captain determined to learn his story.

Babe Ruth makes several appearances in The Given Day but it is in the book’s prologue that Lehane renders him most memorable. That section of the book, some twenty-seven pages long, in which Ruth and some other professional baseball players unexpectedly find themselves challenging a group of black amateur ballplayers to a game in the middle of nowhere, should be published as a short story on its own. It exposes the racism of the day and introduces both the Babe and Luther, all of it centered around one of the best descriptions of a baseball game I have ever read.

The Given Day, weighing in at just over 700 pages, is thrilling historical fiction at its best, a book that will be long remembered by those fortunate enough to discover it.

Rated at: 5.0

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Blogiversary Giveaway

Last January 20 I remember my relief at having survived a whole year as a participating member of the net’s book-blogging community. I have to admit that I had my doubts as to whether or not I would be around for a second celebration, but today’s the big day. Book Chase is officially two years old and I’m having a great time with it.

So after 829 posted topics, 302 reviews, thousands of comments, and meeting lots of new friends, I’m ready to celebrate the day with a book giveaway.

This copy of the controversial novel by Sherri Jones is the hardcopy one that I purchased and reviewed in Book Chase back in November. It has been read exactly one time and is in great shape.

Anyone wanting to be included in the drawing just needs to leave a comment to this post telling me why they want the book. Any reason for wanting it, other than burning the thing, is acceptable. I’ll do a random numbers drawing one week from today, so get those entries in.

Washington Teacher Wants to Keep Huck, Scout, and Lennie Out of the Classroom

One high school English teacher in Washington thinks it’s time to kick Huck and Jim, Atticus and Scout, and Lennie and George out of school for good. They just don’t cut it anymore because the books in which they appear (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men) also include black characters portrayed as “ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated.”

John Foley has reached this remarkable conclusion almost entirely because of America’s inauguration of its first black president tomorrow, an event of which everyone in this country should be proud whether they voted for the man or not. However, President Obama will already be faced with completely unrealistic expectations as to the ways that he will impact the future of not only this country but that of the entire world. Are we now to believe that such an articulate black man can also rewrite the history of his race in this country? I hate revisionist history when it tries to rewrite reality, and I’m afraid that is exactly what Mr. Foley is suggesting.

The two books Foley is suggesting should replace the three classics he wants to toss out are both great books. One of the two (Lonesome Dove), in fact, is my favorite novel and I’ve reread it several times already and plan read it many more times. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to replace three classic novels with two other worthy books simply because the black characters of those two books are more positively presented. Why is there not room for all five of these books in a four-year high school curriculem?

For both sides of the argument, take a look at this LA Times article.

Land of Marvels

In the Middle East very little is as it appears on the surface, an essential lesson for anyone working or doing business there. Those spending much time in the region are often reminded that “a signed contract is just a pause in the negotiations,” just when they have invested so much into a project that they can no longer afford to walk away from it. Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels, set in 1914 Mesopotamia, is a reminder, however, that this way of conducting business is not necessarily as one-sided as some would like to think.

Mesopotamia in 1914 is a volatile region. The world is on the brink of war and many European nations are trying to place themselves in advantageous positions that will allow them to pick up the pieces when the already weak Ottoman Empire finally loses its grip on the area. The region that will one day be renamed Iraq is rich in oil and chrome ore, two resources vital to a war effort, and various European factions want to control those resources.

Oil and chrome ore, however, are not Mesopotamia’s only attractions. The region, for thousands of years home to some of the most powerful civilizations the world has seen, is also a favorite hunting ground for archeologists from around the world. One of these, John Somerville, is well into his third digging season at Tell Erdek and is desperate to find something to justify his efforts before it is too late. Not only is Somerville, who self-finances the project, running out of money, a German-built railroad is fast approaching his work site and threatens to run its line right through it.

Joining Somerville at the dig site are his wife, an assistant archeologist, a young Englishwoman, and various government representatives, military men and schemers from all over the world. Somerville’s dinner table becomes a place for all to meet and discuss what they see for the future as well as Somerville’s own progress in discovering the secrets of the past. Even at Somerville’s table, however, all is not as it seems, and the conversation and evolving relationships among those sharing the table are as filled with deceit, danger, and double-dealing as the bigger world around them.

Somerville, so focused on his own problems and impending doom, manages to remain oblivious to all of the intrigue going on around him and his efforts finally pay off in the kind of major discovery that he hopes will save his project and make his name. All of this leads to the book’s symbolic ending, a satisfying and somewhat startling one despite the way that most readers will have seen it coming several pages earlier.

Land of Marvels is not without its flaws. One or two of its main characters are more stereotypical than they should have been, even to reminding the reader of movie types from the 1940s era. In fact, some of the comings and goings around the little base camp, as two characters barely avoid each other at a crucial moment, are reminiscent of films of the same period but this kind of thing can be forgiven in a book that is otherwise so well done.

Land of Marvels is a trip back to the future.

Rated at: 4.0

“The Lioness and the African,” Phoenician, 899-700 B.C.

This is a British Museum piece that must have served as the model for one of the discoveries described in Land of Marvels.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0385520077&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

John Mortimer Dead at 85

I saw late last night that John Mortimer, one of the first British writers that I read on a regular basis, has died in a London hospital from a long illness. I will always think of those great Rumpole of the Bailey books when I think of John, of course, but I have thoroughly enjoyed most all of his fiction for a long time.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon a 1992 book signing of his in a London bookstore one day and still have that pristine, signed copy of Dunster on my bookshelves.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who had the phrase “she who must be feared” flit through his mind immediately upon hearing of John’s death. His Rumpole books always made me smile – and the news that he might have been working on another Rumpole book at the time of his death is a bit sad because Rumpole fans will never know the pleasure of reading that one.

We’ll miss you, Mr. Mortimer. Thank you for so many hours of reading pleasure.

Link to 17 minute John Mortimer interview conducted by Don Swaim in 1987

Pirates on the Prairie

Pulling for the underdog is a habit that comes naturally to most of us. No matter the event, there is just something special about watching a little guy or a small town team or school successfully compete against the heavily favored big ones. Whatever the result, it is always heartwarming to witness an underdog play well enough to be on the brink of winning a big game or championship despite the odds against it happening.

Eric Bergeson’s Pirates on the Prairie looks at one such team, the Halstad High School Pirates, a combination of small town and farm boys, which made it all the way to the Minnesota state basketball tournament in 1952. Halstad, a northern Minnesota town near the border with North Dakota, was home to about 500 people in 1952 and its high school fielded basketball and baseball teams largely made up of the same handful of players.

By 1952, most of the boys already had played basketball together for several years, instinctively knew where to find each other on the floor and had developed an almost uncanny ability to find just the play they needed right when they needed it most. Most important, they played the game as a team and did not have to rely on any one player to carry them. Nevertheless, what happened to them in 1952 was something beyond their wildest dreams because they went to the state tournament where all teams, regardless of size, competed in one bracket – and they almost won the whole thing.

Pirates on the Prairie, though, is much more than the story of a few boys who managed to play a game exceptionally well for several weeks in 1952. Sports fans will be pleased with the way Bergeson chronicles the seasons leading up to 1952 and will feel the town’s joy and excitement as he recreates key games from the 1952 season as well as each tournament game. However, what makes the book special is the way that Bergeson develops each of the players, coaches, and townspeople into real people, people who had lives before that magical 1952 season and people who have lived for a long time since those glory days.

The Halstad starting five, all in their seventies now, reunited to meet together with Bergeson to share their memories of that season. What they had to say about the game, their coaches and the little town in which they grew up was often more touching than all the success they achieved as boys. Amazingly, they still carry themselves as the athletes they were more than fifty years ago and display the same team spirit that made them so successful then. The 1952 high school basketball season helped make these men who they are today and they seem to realize just how blessed they were to have experienced it.

Pirates on the Prairie started out as the lifelong dream of a man who, as a little boy in 1952, idolized the Halstad High School basketball team. He asked Eric Bergeson to consider researching and writing their story, and now he shares his dream with the rest of us.

Rated at: 4.0

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Free Country Music CD

This is almost too good to be true.

Miss Leslie is offering her latest album absolutely free of charge to anyone who emails asking for a copy. This is the same CD, with the same packaging, that is selling for full retail price all over the web, not some cheap throwaway version.

This is the third Miss Leslie & Her Juke-Jointers album and, in my opinion, it is the best yet. Leslie, who wrote all the songs on the album, has never sounded better, the band is tight, and the album displays some really fine sisters harmony. This is Leslie’s way of getting the word out about her music, so take advantage of it if you are a real country music fan – I’m not talking about the crud that plays on country music FM stations today. This is hardcore honky tonk the way it was done back in the sixties – but a girl singer is up front the band.

If you decide to take advantage of the offer, please tell Leslie I said hello. But hurry because the Houston Chronicle publicized this offer last Sunday and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

How Victorian Novels Changed Human Nature

Researchers now believe that Victorian novels did a whole lot more than just reflect the social mores of the time – they actually shaped those mores and contributed to human evolution. From the U.K., the Guardian offers the story:

The despicable acts of Count Dracula, the unending selflessness of Dorothea in Middlemarch and Mr Darcy’s personal transformation in Pride and Prejudice helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society, according to an analysis by evolutionary psychologists.

Their research suggests that classic British novels from the 19th century not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals’ hunger for power and dominance.


The effect of such moralistic literature was to uphold and instil a sense of fairness and altruism in society at large, the researchers claim in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. “By enforcing these norms, humans succeed in controlling ‘free riders’ or ‘cheaters’ and they thus make it possible for genuinely altruistic genes to survive within a social group,” they write.

Now just how cool is that?

The Seventh Sacrament

Set in modern day Rome, but tied intricately to the city’s ancient past, The Seventh Sacrament is long on atmosphere and reveals a part of the city that few tourists will ever see much of, its historic catacombs. This fifth book in David Hewson’s well received Nic Costa series follows the efforts of Costa and his fellow Roman policemen Gianni Peroni and Leo Falcone to solve a case that the department bungled fourteen years earlier.

When seven-year-old Alessio Bramante disappeared in one of the tunnels being studied by his archaeologist father, Giorgio, the department’s chief concern was to find him while he was still alive. As time seemed to be running out, a decision was made that would ruin one man’s career and haunt Detective Leo Falcone for the rest of his life. The boy’s father was purposely left alone in the cell of one of the suspects in his son’s disappearance where he tried to beat a confession out of the prisoner. The prisoner did not survive that encounter and, as a result, the case against him and his fellow suspects fell apart. Alessio Bramante was never found, and his father turned out to be the only one to serve prison time as a result of his disappearance.

Now, fourteen years later, someone is picking off the remaining suspects one-by-one and has even attempted to kidnap Detective Falcone. Because Giorgio Bramante has recently been released from prison it is easy to name him the prime suspect. But what proves to be nearly impossible is finding him before he finishes going down the list of men he considers responsible for the loss of his son. And Falcone appears to be at the end of that list.

Readers of earlier Nic Costa novels will already know much about the personal lives of Costa and his colleagues but Hewson has made sure that this one can be equally enjoyed by those reading their first novel in the series. His characters, including the villains, are fully-fleshed human beings who share the usual strengths and weakness of the species. One of the novel’s strong points, in fact, is the way that Hewson develops personal lives for his characters and those closest to them, something that not all thriller writers bother to do.

The Seventh Sacrament is a complicated narrative that requires the reader to pay strict attention as Hewson tells his story via several points-of-view and across several time lines: the present, the weeks just before and just after the boy’s disappearance, and fourth century Rome. But this extra effort is ultimately rewarded by the way that Hewson so completely ties together all the loose ends and false leads into a satisfying ending.

Rated at: 4.0

Quote of the Day

Guess who?

“Wow, you people get really bent out of shape by an unattributed use of your reviews, or parts of your reviews, don’t you? I was simply posting reviews to continue getting free stuff from the Vine. No big deal in my world.”

(Hint: think “Lucky Billy”)

And, yes, he’s speaking to us.