Book Chase 2011 – in Numbers

Being the statistics nerd that I am, I’ve managed to pull together some end-of-year numbers that reflect the kind of reading year 2011 was for me. I think I was more consistent in my reading this year than I ever have been, with seven months at 10 books read, three with 11 read, and two with 12.  I didn’t hit one of my normal “slump” periods in 2011, and that probably means that I chose my reading material more carefully this year then in past years.  I did, however, abandon 9 books again this year, same as in 2010.  I continued to make good use of my public library, and was lucky enough to get my hands on a bunch of really great Advance Reading Copies.  It was a good year.

This, according to the stats, was how it happened:
Number of Books Read – 127
Fiction – 92:
Novels – 90
Short Story Collections – 2
Nonfiction – 35:
Memoirs – 12
Biographies – 5
Literary Criticism – 2
Education – 3
Travel – 2
Sociology – 4
Sports – 1
Science – 1
History – 5
Written by Men – 84
Written by Women – 43
Co-Authored by Both – 0
Audio Books – 15
E-Books – 17
Library Books – 41
Review Copies – 64
Started but Abandoned – 9
Translated: 9
Pages per Day: 93
Length of Average Book Read in 2011 – 306 pages
Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 34,000+ 
I’m excited about moving into the New Year and beginning the sixth year of Book Chase on January 20. I hope to come up with something special to mark my fifth anniversary because that’s definitely one I never thought I would be celebrating.  Let’s have some fun in 2012; I can’t wait to get started.

Authors, Poets, and Playwrights Lost in 2011

As happens every year, 2011 claimed a long list of writers, poets, and playwrights from around the world.  Here’s the list that I’ve pulled so far – with just three days to go (the ones in red are simply the ones most readers will be familiar with):


2                                  Robert Trumble – Australian writer – 91
3                                  Eva Strittmatter – German writer – 80
4                                  Dick King-Smith – British author – 88
6                                  Susana Chavez – Mexican poet – 36
9                                  Ruth Cavin – American writer – 92
11                               Marcel Trudel – Canadian author – 93
15                               Romulus Linney – American playwright – 80
17                               M.K. Binodini – Indian writer 0 88
17                               Jean Dutourd – French author – 91
19                               Wilfrid Sheed – American author – 80
20                               F.A. Nettlebeck – American poet – 60
20                               Reynolds Price – American author – 77
22                               Park Wan-suh – South Korean author – 79
23                               Novica Tadic – Yugoslavian poet – 62
24                               Anna Yablonskaya – Ukrainian playwright – 29
25                               Vincent Cronin – British writer – 86
26                               R.F. Langley – British poet – 72
27                               Diana Norman – British author – 77
29                               Loreen Rice Lucas – Canadian author – 96
30                               Hisaye Yamamoto – American author – 89
31                               Nikolay Dorizo – Russian poet – 87
31                               Stuart Hood – Scottish writer – 95
2                                  Eric Nicol – Canadian writer – 91
5                                  Brian Jacques – British author – 71
8                                  Jorma Ojaharju – Finnish author – 72
11                               Bo Carpelan – Finnish poet and author – 84
15                               Judith Binney – New Zealand author – 70
16                               Hans Joachim Alpers – German writer – 67
17                               James McLure – American playwright – 59
17                               Perry Moore – American author – 39
19                               Max Wilk – American playwright and author – 90
25                               Aminath Faiza – Maldivian poet and author – 82
25                               Manny Fried – American playwright – 97
28                               Netiva Ben-Yehuda – Israeli author – 82
1                                  Hazel Rowley – Australian writer – 59
2                                  John Haines – American poet – 86
2                                  Thor Vihjalmsson – Icelandic author – 85
3                                  May Cutler – Canadian author – 87
3                                  Al Morgan – American author – 91
12                               Olive Dickason – Canadian author – 91
14                               Giora Leshem – Israeli poet – 71
15                               Amos Bar – Israeli author – 79
15                               Jean Liedloff – American writer – 84
24                               Lanford Wilson – American playwright – 73
26                               Joe Bageant – American writer – 64
26                               Diana Wynne Jones – British author – 76
27                               H.R.F. Keating – British writer – 84
2                                  Paul Violi – American poet – 66
3                                  Ulli Beier – German writer – 88
3                                  Marian Pankowski – Polish writer – 91
6                                  L.J. Davis – American writer – 70
10                               Stephen Watson – South African writer – 56
14                               Arthur Marx (son of Groucho) – American writer – 89
23                               John Sullivan – British writer – 64
25                               Ira Cohen – American poet – 76
29                               Abdul Hameed – Pakistani writer – 83
30                               Ernesto Sabato – Argentine writer – 99
6                                  Oniroku Dan – Japanese author – 80
7                                  Kate Swift – American writer – 87
7                                  Doric Wilson – American playwright – 72
9                                  Newton Thornburg – American author – 81
10                               Patrick Galvin – Irish writer – 83
13                               Pam Gems – British playwright – 85
14                               Birgitta Trotzig – Swedish author – 81
15                               Martin Woodhouse – British author – 78
18                               Dick Wimmer – American author – 74
19                               William Kloefkorn – American poet – 78
22                               Bob Gould – Australian bookseller – 74
25                               Edwin Honig – American poet and translator – 91
25                               Yannis Varveris – Greek poet – 56
27                               Johanna Fiedler – American author – 65
2                                  Josephine Hart – British novelist – 69
3                                  Harry Bernstein – American author – 101
4                                  Lilian Jackson Braun – American author – 97
4                                  Andreas P. Nielsen – Danish author – 58
7                                  Jorge Semprun – Spanish writer – 87
10                               Patrick Leigh Fermor – British author – 96
12                               Kathryn Tucker Windham – American author – 93
21                               E.M. Broner – American author – 83
21                               Robert Kroetsch – Canadian novelist – 83
24                               Richard Webster – British writer – 60
26                               Simon Heere Heeresima – Dutch writer – 79
29                               K.D. Sethna – Indian writer – 106
3                                  Ian Blair – British romance novelist – 69
3                                  Francis King – British writer – 88
6                                  Warren Leslie – American author – 84
16                               Geraint Bowen – Welsh poet – 95
20                               Blaize Clement – American writer – 78
20                               Gloria Sawai – Canadian writer – 78
27                               Hilary Evans – British author – 82
1                                  Stan Barstow – English novelist – 83
2                                  Leslie Esdaile Banks – American author – 51
3                                  William Sleator – American science fiction writer – 66
11                               David Holbrook – English writer – 88
15                               Colin Harvey – British science fiction writer – 50
21                               Edith Tiempo – Filipino author – 92
22                               Samuel Menashe – American poet – 85
25                               Ruth Thomas – British writer  – 66
26                               Susan Fromberg Schaeffer – American novelist – 71
4                                  Hugh Fox – American novelist and poet – 79
6                                  Michael S. Hart – Project Gutenberg founder and e-book inventor – 64
9                                  Khairy Shalaby – Egyptian writer – 73
14                               Frank Parkin – British author – 80
19                               Jo Carson – American writer – 64
23                               Jose Miguel Varas – Chilean writer – 83
25                               Denis Cannan – British playwright – 92
27                               Sara Douglass – Australian writer – 54
29                               Hella Haasse – Dutch writer – 93
1                                  Ruby Langford Ginibi – Australian author – 77
2                                  Taha Muhammad Ali – Palestinian poet – 80
7                                  Mildred Savage – American author – 92
7                                  Avner Treinin – Israeli poet – 83
15                               Gerald Shapiro – American writer – 61
18                               Paul Everac – Romanian writer – 87
18                               Andrea Zanzotto – Italian poet – 90
21                               Anis Mansour – Egyptian writer – 86
24                               Morio Kita – Japanese novelist – 84
1                                  Andre Hodeir – French author – 90
3                                  H.G. Francis – German writer – 75
4                                  Andy Rooney – American writer and journalist – 92
5                                  Les Daniels – American writer – 68
6                                  Isaac Chocron – Venezuelan playwright – 81
6                                  Peretz Kidron – Israeli writer – 78
7                                  Tomas Segovia – Mexican poet – 84
7                                  F. Springer – Dutch writer – 79
9                                  Shmuel Ben-Artzi – Israeli writer – 96
10                               Barbara Grier – American publisher – 78
16                              Rusian Akhtakhanov – Chechen poet – 58
17                               Peter Reading – English poet – 65
18                               Daniel Sada – Mexican author – 58
19                               Michael Hastings – English playwright – 73
19                               Ruth Stone – American poet – 96
20                               Shelagh Delaney – British playwright – 72
21                               Anne McCaffrey – American science fiction writer – 85
24                               Helen Forrester – Canadian writer – 92
25                               Leonid Borodin – Russian novelist – 73
25                               Erling Laegreid – Norwegian author – 72
29                               Mamoni Raisom Goswami – Indian writer – 69
1                                  Christa Wolf – German writer – 82
2                                 Christopher Logue – British poet – 85
2                                  David Montgomery – American historian – 84
7                                  Josip Barkovic – Croatian writer – 94
8                                  Gilbert Adair – Scottish author – 66
10                               Jean Baucus – American author – 94
11                               Ahmed Bahgat – Egyptian writer – 79
13                               T.J. Bass – Amerian writer – 79
13                               Kabir Chowdhury – Bangladeshi writer – 88
13                               Russell Hoban – American writer – 86
15                               Christopher Hitchens – British writer – 62
20                               Hana Andronikova – Czech writer – 44
22                               Richard Bessiere – French author – 88
25                               Simms Taback – American author – 79

Happy Birthday, Rod Serling

I didn’t have time to mention in on Christmas Day, but I do want to mark the birthday of one of the earliest “literary” influences in my life, Rod Serling.  Serling was born on Christmas day, 1924, and died on June 28, 1975, at the age of 50 from complications suffered during the open heart surgery procedure he had undergone just two days earlier.  Most people, especially those my age, will remember Serling as the creator of one of the finest programs ever to grace CBS-TV, The Twilight Zone, but he was also an accomplished short story and screenplay writer.  The series ran for 156 episodes, over 90 of which Serling wrote himself, and his introductions to each of the shows became classic pieces of television history in themselves.

The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons, beginning in 1959, not too long after I turned eleven years old – the perfect age for someone to discover a series like that one.  Suddenly, I found myself paying attention to plot details and characters in a way I hadn’t done before, probably because I was so fascinated by just how much could be packed into a show that lasted only 25 minutes or so.  And, too, I think these shows were my introduction to the concept of the “surprise ending,” still one of my favorite literary devices (I thank Rod Serling for preparing me to be a huge O. Henry fan when I finally stumbled upon that great short story writer a few years later).  Rod Serling is, beyond doubt, one of the main reasons I am such an avid reader today.  He helped make me appreciate the world of stories and books, and I still can’t get enough of either today.

Serling is a member of the Television Hall of Fame and I consider him to be one of the finest science fiction writers that I have ever read.  It is a real shame that the man, a heavy duty chain smoker, died so young from the damage all that smoking did to his heart.  Who knows what else he might have left behind?

David & Lee Roy: A Vietnam Story

As they approached the end of high school in Lubbock, Texas, David Nelson and Lee Roy Herron would find themselves having to make the same decision thousands of other young men their age were making all around the country.  The Vietnam War was raging and their peers were dying there by the dozens every week.  Would David and Lee Roy enlist; wait to be drafted; find a way to avoid the conflict as long as possible, gambling that the war would end before their draft deferments did; or would they run?  The boys, best friends as long as either could remember, took the honorable road of signing up for Marine Corps officer training with active duty to follow their graduation from Lubbock’s Texas Tech University.
Fateful decisions were made at Texas Tech.  David opted, with the blessing of the Marines, to delay active duty while he attended law school at Southern Methodist University.  Lee Roy, to the surprise of no one who knew him, decided to live his boyhood dream of fighting for his country, and was assigned the role of combat infantry leader upon completion of a Vietnamese language school.  David, from the moment he decided on law school, worried that he had let his old friend down and began to withdraw from contact with Lee Roy.  He tried to convince himself that he skipped Lee Roy’s wedding because of law school demands, but he still felt guilty about missing the opportunity to see his old friend one last time before Lee Roy left for combat.
David Nelson
Just two months into his tour of duty in Vietnam, Lee Roy Herron died a hero, killed in battle against overwhelming odds, and David Nelson would feel guilty for the rest of his life about the different paths he and Lee Roy had taken.  A chance meeting at a Houston bookstore book-signing in 1997, during which David met Lee Roy’s old commanding officer, would finally provide the opportunity for David to meet his grief and guilt head-on.  He decided to honor Lee Roy Herron’s memory by writing a book of his own about their friendship and Lee Roy’s amazing patriotism and heroism.  The book he co-authored with Randolph Schiffer all these many years later, David & Leroy: A Vietnam Story, is a heartfelt tribute from one soldier to another – written after decades during which David Nelson, both consciously and subconsciously, continued to battle the guilt he probably still feels some of today.
It is certain that the story of David Nelson and Lee Roy Herron is not a unique one.  Similar decisions were made by hundreds of thousands of young men during the Vietnam War era and it was not uncommon for best friends to take opposite paths.  David Nelson and his co-author have written a book that will likely offer comfort, of a sort, to many who came of age in the 1960s.  What confusing times those were for all of us.
Rated at: 4.0

The Leopard

As Jo Nesbo’s The Leopardopens, Harry Hole is living deep inside the bowels of Hong Kong and trying to avoid the gangland creditors who badly want to catch up with him.  In the meantime, Harry is well on his way to committing suicide by alcohol and opium abuse.  But, just in the nick of time for Harry, Norway has a new serial killer on her hands, one that will rival even Harry’s previous adversary, The Snowman, for creative killing.  His old department needs Harry’s talents – and he has to be found and convinced to do battle with Norway’s latest incarnation of pure evilness.
The Leopard is a grim, disturbing book that sometimes goes over the top before Nesbo decides to dial it back to a more believable level, but the picture he paints of a worldwide underground of pure evilness is unforgettable.  The uncorrected proof I read was 513 pages long, plenty of time for Nesbo to expose the underbellies of Hong Kong, Norway, and Africa, and he does so with great gusto.  As the body count rises, the book’s plot becomes more and more complicated, and the investigation becomes more and more personal for Harry. 
Readers unsure as to whether they are ready for the level of violence and brutality of The Leopardshould read its first chapter before investing in a copy of their own.  This little four-page chapter forewarns the potential reader by perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the book.  In addition, the beginning of the second chapter offers insight into the mind of this particular killer when Nesbo allows him to speak in the first person:
            “For my part, I believe that the ability to kill is fundamental to any healthy person.  Our existence is a fight for gain, and whoever cannot kill his neighbor has no right to an existence.  Killing is, after all, only hastening the inevitable.  Death allows no exceptions, which is good, because life is pain and suffering.  In that sense, every murder is an act of charity.”
Jo Nesbo
I do have one suggestion for readers unfamiliar with Nordic proper names.  The Leopard is a long, complicated novel that makes reference to dozens of character and place names.  Many, if not most, North American readers will quickly become confused by the names thrown at them (they simply do not stick) – and, when those names show up later in the book, these readers will find it near impossible to place them in their proper context to what has previously occurred.  I have to admit to even being confused as to the gender of some of the names I faced.  My suggestion: start a simple little list or chart of character names that can be referred back to as you read the book.  I do wish I had followed my own advice.  Next time.
Rated at: 3.5

Merry Christmas, Book Lovers

Even Santa enjoys a good book now and then.

Here’s hoping everyone has a wonderful Christmas weekend with family and friends.  Stay safe and warm.  The weather here in the Houston area is fairly miserable already – and we are expecting some rain for much of Christmas Eve and Christmas day combined with temperatures in the forties and a bit of wind.  I hope you get (and give) lots of books and bookstore gift cards for Christmas because, of course, we all need more books.

The Thief

The Thief(scheduled for a March 2012 release) is Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura’s first novel to be published in English.  Judging from the quality of The Thief, I believe it is safe to say that it will not be his last.  The young author, already a winner of multiple literary prizes in his native Japan, seems destined soon for wider recognition of his talents.
“The Thief” in this story is such an accomplished pickpocket that he sometimes goes on automatic pilot, even to the point that he cannot remember the source of the wallet full of money he later discovers in his own pocket.  He was trained by one of the best in the business, an older man named Ishikawa, and the skills he learned provide him with a good living.     
Now, Ishikawa reappears and offers our Thief the chance at some easy money to be earned as part of a gang contracted to perform a “sure thing” breaking and entering job.  All the gang has to do is break into a man’s home, tie him up, and steal everything in his safe – everything.  But, of course, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  When the surprisingly prominent target ends up dead, all the Thief really understands about the crime is that he will be lucky to survive his participation in it.  
Fuminori Nakamura’s Thief is a complicated man, one not at all bothered by how he makes his living but, especially when it comes to children, still a softie at heart.  Because it is so easy for him to acquire cash, the Thief even allows himself a touch of Robin Hoodish behavior on occasion – as in when he gives away a whole day’s take on the streets to stop a young boy’s mother from forcing him repeatedly to shoplift the food and supplies she wants. 
The Thief exposes a bit of Japan’s underbelly that will surprise many readers, but that is one of the benefits of reading translated crime fiction.  The genre, even one like The Thief that is long on noir, reveals much about a country’s personality and culture that otherwise remains hidden from the casual observer.  This is a worthy addition to any crime fiction lover’s bookshelves.  Enjoy. 
Rated at: 4.0

Best of 2011 – Final List

It’s time for the unveiling of my Top 10 fiction and nonfiction lists for 2011.  I am especially happy with this year’s lists, and just reading through them brings back great reading memories about the discovery of new authors, the return of some old reliables, and the great fun I’ve had here on Book Chase in the last twelve months.  So, here goes with the lists:

2011 Top 10 – Fiction

1.  Nemesis – Philip Roth (October, 2010, novel set in 1950s New York)

2.  Saturday – Ian McEwan (2006 novel set in London)

3.   Remember Ben Clayton – Stephen Harrigan (novel set in 1920s Texas)

4.  The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach (coming of age baseball novel)

5.  The Sisters Brothers  – Patrick deWitt (western noir novel)

6.  Love at Absolute Zero – Christopher Meeks (comic novel about science and love)

 7.  Doc – Mary Doria Russell (realistic western about Holliday and the Earps)

8.  Lost Memory of Skin – Russell Banks (novel about registered sex offenders in Miami)

9.  The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides (college novel set in 1980s)

10. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb – Melanie Benjamin (novel about little people and P.T. Barnum)

I just realized, while putting this list together, that my reading taste seems to be evolving because there is no detective or crime fiction on the list despite how many books of that type I still read.  Too, I’m slowly moving away from listing books published in prior years – only two on the fiction list for 2011 – but I think that books published late in the year are often considered for the next year’s list, so I have only one “ringer” on the list this year,

2011 Top 10 – Nonfiction

1.  If Trouble Don’t Kill Me – Ralph Berrier (August, 2010, dual biography of two musician brothers from rural Virginia)

2.  Wolf : The Lives of Jack London – James L. Haley (Jack London biography)

3.  Hitch-22: A Memoir – Christopher Hitchens (memoir republished in 2011)

4.  A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves –  Jane Gross (a brilliant how-to manual)

5.  Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers – Todd Schultz (biographical analysis of Capote’s mind)

6.  Chinaberry Sidewalks – Rodney Crowell (loving biography of the country singer’s parents)

7.  We Were Not Orphans: Stories from the Waco State Home – Sherry Matthews (adults remember their childhood years in Texas state home)

8.  Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – Charles Bracelen (Grant’s race against cancer to finish his memoirs)

9.  He Stopped Loving Her Today – Jack Isenhour (creation of the greatest country song ever recorded)

10. What It Is Like to Go to War – Karl Marlantes (Vietnam war memoir) 

And, that’s it, a fond farewell to 2011, and an enthusiastic welcome to 2012 (the last year I plan to hold a full-time job, by the way, so it’s bound to be a memorable one for me).  

We the Animals

I first became aware of We the Animals, Justin Torres’s debut novel, late last October when I attended a session presented at the 2011 Texas Book Festival by Torres and two other first-time novelists, Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) and Amy Waldman (The Submission).  I was impressed enough with each of them to walk away from the session wanting to read all three of the books presented that day.  We the Animals completes that reading cycle for me.  Different as they are, all three novels turned out to be interesting, worthwhile reads that I would probably have otherwise missed, so I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear their authors speak about them that day.
If I remember correctly, Torres stated in Austin that We the Animals began as a group of individual short pieces, and that it was only later that he realized that he had the makings of a novel on his hands.  By stringing the stories together in chronological order, he has produced that novel (although its brevity makes it as much akin to a novella as to a novel, I think). 
Justin Torres
We the Animals is the story of three brothers who grow up in upstate New York alongside their white mother and Puerto Rican father, two people who have plenty of growing up of their own to do.  The boys’ Brooklyn-born mother became pregnant for the first time at age 14 and her baby’s father was not much older.  As the novel unfolds, it can be difficult to remember that Ma and Paps are still in their twenties as they try to cope with poverty and the challenge of raising three young boys together.  The couple’s passionate relationship creates a family dynamic that will severely test the strength and character of their children.  Fortunately for the boys, they bond in a way that forges a unit stronger than the sum of its individual parts.  
The stories told in We the Animals vary from laugh-out-loud funny ones to tear-jerking sad ones, but taken as a whole, they paint the picture of three boys who somehow thrive despite the hands-off approach by which they are mostly being raised.  They have each other.  They adore their mother and, despite often fearing him, they love their father.  One feels good about their chances – and then comes the book’s jarring last chapter, a piece of the story that changes everything before it.
Rated at: 4.0

American Pickers Guide to Picking

I am willing to bet that a substantial majority of readers of the American Pickers Guide to Pickingwill be comprised of people who already avidly follow the American Pickers television show on the History Channel.  The size and loyalty of that group certainly bodes well for Hyperion, the book’s publisher.  Those same readers are, however, likely to be disappointed by the book when they figure out that it offers very little new material to devoted fans like them.  For instance, about the only new thing that I, as one of those fans, learned from the book is the exact nature of the business relationship between Mike and Frank, an arrangement never made clear in the television series.
As a group, pickers seem to be born with super-exaggerated “collecting genes” that usually become obvious at an early age.  We all remember, or might have even been, the kid who amassed a huge collection of comic books, baseball cards, marbles, or dolls and became, by default, the neighborhood expert in his specialty.  Not surprisingly, that kid usually grows into an adult collector of equally impressive, but much more expensive, adult toys: antiques, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, advertising signs, and most anything between.
Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, friends for more than thirty years now, were two of those kids.  As a small boy, Mike scavenged anything he could turn into a buck or use in trade for something better.  At the same time, Frank was putting together what sounds like an impressive collection of the beer cans of his childhood era.  The boys, who never would have dared dream they could someday make their livings as “pickers,” do exactly that today – and have become television stars in the process. 
Mike and Frank use Mike’s Antique Archaeology store (in Iowa) as the home base from which they travel across the country by van in search of those oddball items they can double or triple their money on by reselling to serious collectors.   American Pickers Guide to Picking is filled with tips that include everything from how to recognize promising road stops, to how to deal with the eccentrics who have spent a lifetime accumulating outbuildings filled with piles of “farm fresh” goodies they often have to be talked into finally letting go. 
Longtime fans of the show will be most intrigued by the personal philosophies offered by Mike, Frank, and their Girl Friday, Danielle Colby.  Danielle, the heart and soul of the Antique Archaeology store, mans the home front and is instrumental in doing the research that makes it possible for Mike and Frank to stay on the road as long as they do.  These three are the dream team of picking and they make it all seem like so much fun that the rest of us long to join them in the profession.  Writer Libby Callaway has worked with them to produce an interesting book that will appeal both to their television fans and to those who might seriously be considering a move into the field of American picking.  Just be aware that American Pickers Guide to Picking is not so much an actual guide to picking as it is a tribute to what is perhaps the finest “reality” show on American television.
Rated at: 3.0

Christopher Hitchens Dead at 62

By now, most of you know that Christopher Hitchens died yesterday in Houston where he spent his final days battling the cancer that killed him.  The news of his death, though not unexpected, is saddening.  I will keep this simple – and from my heart.  I don’t want to get into all the specific things that Christopher Hitchens accomplished in his 62 years.  Rather, I want to share with you why I admired Christopher Hitchens, the man, so much.

Hitchens was probably the most politically incorrect man I’ve ever run across.  I didn’t always agree with him, but Hitchens told it like it was, not worrying about offending anyone, hurting feelings, or avoiding buzz words that could be distorted and used by others in a personal attack on him.  He was interested in telling the truth as he saw it, and he pulled no punches in getting his message out.  I loved him for that.

The man was brilliant.  Read his essays, magazine pieces, and books if you don’t believe me.  He was passionate about the injustices he saw in the world and he wanted to make the rest of us passionate enough to insist that something be done about those things.  He recognized the enemy and he would not apologize for pointing out exactly who that was.  Of course, he made many enemies along the way, but those enemies, more often than not, exposed themselves as being on the wrong side of history while attempting to prove Hitchens wrong.

And, finally, I admire Christopher Hitchens for not finding God in his final days.  For eighteen months, Hitchens knew that he was dying, giving him plenty of time to reject his atheism in favor of Christianity or some other “acceptable” religion.  That he did not play that game, proves his personal courage.  Christopher Hitchens left this world walking the walk, not just talking it.  I will miss him.

Previous Book Chase posts on Christopher Hitchens:

Christopher Hitchens’s “Year of Living Dyingly”
Hitch-22: A Memoir
Christopher Hitchens on Cancer Etiquette 
Chris Hitchens in the Battle of His Life

Are E-Books Raising the Price of Real Books?

I admit to having mixed emotions about e-books.

On the one hand, I am a gadget freak by nature, meaning that I am totally fascinated by the technology that makes e-book readers possible.  Heck, I was so excited about the readers that I bought two of the extremely overpriced Sony Readers when they first came out.  I fell in love with the ease of transporting a small library in my pocket – something that was particularly handy during those years I spent weeks at a time working deep inside the Sahara Desert.
On the other hand, e-books, themselves, have not exactly grown on me.  I find it much more difficult to concentrate on a book’s contents when I read it electronically, and I very much miss the feel and smell of a hard copy in my hands.  To me an e-book will never be the real book; that honor will always belong to any book’s hardcover version.
Now, though, I’m starting to get concerned that the great new popularity of e-books, and the willingness of buyers to cough up whatever outrageous price publishers demand for them, is going to start directly impacting me at the bookstore when I shop for real books.  Are publishers printing fewer copies of books now that e-books have taken a chunk out of the number of copies they can expect to sell?  If so, does that mean that hardcover prices are being pressured upward because printing costs, distribution, and the like, have to be spread over fewer copies?
Or, how about this?  Are printed book prices being artificially raised in order to maintain the gap between their prices and their e-book knockoffs?  The narrowness of that price gap is already ridiculous, but publishers have to fool customers into thinking that e-books are significantly cheaper than real books if they want to continue increasing their sales.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at a few numbers I pulled this afternoon from the Barnes & Noble website:
1.  Zero Day – David Baldacci – $14.70 in hardcover, $12.99 for the e-book
2.  Kill Shout – Vince Flynn – $18.47 and $14.99
3.  The Litigators – John Grisham – $14.92 and $12.99
4.  Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson – $18.42 and $14.99
5.  Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand – $14.67 and $12.99
6.  The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach – $14.14 and $12.99
7.  In the Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson – $14.13 and $12.99
Come on, 15 bucks for an e-book that I can’t easily loan to a friend, or trade to someone for another e-book, or sell back to a used book bookstore?  For less than two dollars more, I can OWN a real book, not rent an electronic one.  Do I look stupid? 
I read 15-20 e-books per year; I read over 100 real books during the same period.  Seldom do e-books make my Top 10 lists for the year’s reading – and that’s not necessarily the fault of the book.  It’s much more the fault of the reading experience offered by the e-book format.
Are those like me, who love flipping real pages, about to get punished for preferring the real thing?  I wonder.

To the End of the War: Unpublished Fiction

Fans of James Jones, a writer well known for his powerful World War II fiction, have long been intrigued by his unfinished last novel, Whistle, wondering how different it might have been if he, and not Willie Morris, had finished it.  But if most of those fans are like me (someone who has read Whistle three times), they probably still give little thought to Jones’s unpublished first novel, They Shall Inherit the Laughter.  Intriguingly, that first novel has now (more or less) been published, and curious readers can decide for themselves whether the publishers of Jones’s day were correct to judge it “unpublishable.”
I use the term “more or less” published because of the manner in which this new book’s editor, George Hendrick, has prepared it for its long delayed release.  They Shall Inherit the Laughter is not being presented as a novel.  Rather, it has been re-titled To the End of the War: Unpublished Fiction, and its best bits have been recast as a series of interconnected short stories that are largely, and obviously, based on Jones’s personal experiences.  Johnny Carter, the protagonist of this short story collection, is simply James Jones under another name.
James Jones
Jones was bitter and cynical about his war experience by the time the military returned him to the U.S. to recover from wounds suffered in the Pacific.  Jones, well aware that he was just being patched up for reassignment to another combat unit, used his repatriation to the States as an opportunity to go AWOL, hiding for a while in his hometown of Robinson, Illinois.  He largely spent his time in Robinson drinking, womanizing, and seeking the company of combat veterans as disillusioned about the war effort as him.  All of this, in fictional format, is at the heart of what Johnny Carter experiences in these newly released “short stories.”
To the End of the War, one must remember, is very early James Jones.  However, even though it does not live up to the standard of Jones’s later work, it is a clear link to what was to come, both in theme and in style.  The book makes clear why Maxwell Perkins, despite refusing to publish They Shall Inherit the Laughter, saw enough in Jones to encourage him, if indirectly, in his second attempt at a novel, one that would become world famous as From Here to Eternity.   There are certainly enough flashes of the real thing here, particularly in the dialogue between Johnny Carter and other combat vets, to make To the End of the War a worthwhile reading experience for all fans of World War II fiction.
Rated at: 3.0

Favorite 2011 Cover Art

All this year, I’ve been adding cover images to iPhoto of each of the books I read.  The index has turned into a surprisingly colorful and fun-to-look-at bunch of images that gave me the idea to choose my favorite half-dozen covers of the year.  As it turns out, three of the books featured will be also make my Top 10 fiction or nonfiction lists, and three will not.

I love these images (and seem to be partial to landscapes, don’t I) because of their beauty and because they so perfectly capture the mood of each of the books.  Not so surprisingly, there is only one nonfiction title represented here, but it does have a great cover (Following Josh).

I realize there are countless great 2011covers.  Remember that these six are the best from the 121 books I’ve read to this point of the year – a very small sample from all the books published in total.

Lost Memory of Skin

With Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks has accomplished something I would not have believed possible.  Not only has he used a convicted sex offender as the lead character of his new novel, he has managed to make the young man both likable and someone readers can respect and root for as the novel progresses.

This twenty-something, young sex offender, known only as “The Kid,” finds himself living under a Miami Beach bridge as the novel opens.  Like all the rest who share this horrible living space with him, the Kid is caught up in an irony of his conviction.  His probation terms require that he not leave the county, but he is not allowed to live anywhere within 2500 feet of where children are likely to congregate.  Living under the causeway is the only way he and his fellow offenders can meet this term of their probations.
For all his lack of experience, the Kid is a complex character.  He knows nothing about his father except for the man’s name, and he was raised by one of the most indifferent mothers imaginable.  The Kid, in fact, can be said to have raised himself.  His addiction to Internet porn, an addiction he acquired as a young boy, was probably the defining event of his life.  That his mother only got upset about her son’s addiction to pornography because he maxed out her credit card, is indicative of the moral guidance he received at home.
When “The Professor,” a hugely obese college professor from a local school, appears on the scene, the Kid’s life begins to change.  Suddenly, someone wants to hear what the Kid has to say about his situation and wants to organize things under the causeway in a way that will make life a little easier for those who live there.  At first suspicious of the Professor’s motives (even to suspecting the Professor of wanting to molest him), the Kid gradually comes to trust the man.  When the Professor is revealed to have problems and peculiarities of his own, things will take an even darker, unexpected twist but the Kid, true to his own moral code, will somehow manage to persevere. 
Russell Banks (right)

Lost Memory of Skin does not overtly argue that the rest of us should try harder to “understand” what drives sex offenders to commit the horrible crimes they commit.    Banks is much subtler than that.  His message is more about the “big net” approach to punishment that treats all degrees of sex crime as being pretty much the same.  Readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Banks’s argument is a sound one.

It was only after I heard Banks speak about Lost Memory of Skin at the 2011 Texas Book Festival that I became curious enough to want to read it.  Frankly, prior to that event, the idea of reading a rather long novel about convicted sex offenders was not an appealing one.  Thankfully, my curiosity won out over my natural aversion to the topic, and I did not miss out on one of the year’s best novels.  It was a close call.
Rated at: 5.0

Author Dolls for Your Shelves

I am seriously thinking about giving this to myself for Christmas. It’s a 4 1/2 inch tall Joyce Carol Oates doll that I think would look great sitting on the bookshelves near the almost 100 JCO books that I’ve collected over the years.

Take a look here for all the cool little creations available for book nuts (and others) around the world.  
You could end up spending an hour wandering around this website; don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There But For The

Having read two of Ali Smith’s earlier novels, I knew not to expect anything resembling a conventional novel when I began There But For The.  Smith is one of those novelists who seem to be just as concerned about style and experimentation with form as they are about plot and characters – and There But For The follows that pattern.  For instance, despite that the plot is largely moved along via one-on-one conversation, not a single quotation mark will be found in this novel.  Smith, too, seems to favor long, rambling, multi-page paragraphs that are as densely packed with content as their overwhelming appearance to the eye leads the reader to expect them to be.  Personally, I find paragraphs of extreme length to be tiring, almost mind-numbing, after wading through anything more than a handful of pages of them.  A lack of quotation marks, on the other hand, does not bother me when the author, as Smith does here, still makes it perfectly clear which character is speaking.
Many of Smith’s regular readers love her for her style.  I have to say that I tolerate her style, but love her work, instead, for its memorable characters and unusual plotlines, both of which are strong points of this new novel.  The story begins at a London dinner table, over which a group of near strangers are becoming better acquainted, when Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table.  Only when Miles does not return within a reasonable amount of time, is it determined that he has locked himself inside one of the home’s upstairs rooms – a room he will remain inside for hours, that turn into days, and then into weeks.  Desperate to rid her home of her newly acquired squatter, the dinner host first searches Miles’s address book for someone who might be able to talk him out of the room.
Ali Smith
That is how she finds Anna, the first of four narrators through whom we learn more about Miles Garth and how he ended up where he is.  Anna, a fortyish woman who met Miles on a high school trip to France, at first barely remembers him but surprises herself by some of the things that come back to her.  Mark, who is responsible for having invited Miles to the dinner party, is a gay man in his sixties.  May, in her eighties, remembers the kindness shown her by Miles.  And, finally, there is Brooke, a precocious little ten-year-old girl who only met Miles at the party but now feels somehow connected to him.
There But For Theexplores some basic questions, even to the meaning of life, but its main theme involves how differently those who pass through our lives might remember the experience than we remember it – and how little we really understand about ourselves and  those with whom, over a lifetime, we share time.  The novel’s relatively simple plot is deceptive; there is a lot going on here.
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Do You Miss Borders Yet?

It’s kind of amazing to me how quickly all tracks of the old Borders bookstores are being erased from our national consciousness.  I know it’s all about change, strong business models, blah, blah, blah.  But, I never thought that seeing an old Borders commercial would make me feel nostalgic so soon.  Maybe it’s the season…

The Sisters Brothers

It is hard to know where to start with this one.  If I had to describe Patrick deWitt’s western novel, The Sisters Brothers, in one word, for instance, I would probably choose “irreverent.”  But that word has too many connotations to capture the essence of the book cleanly.  Perhaps, it will help to say that if you are a fan of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Quentin Tarantino movies like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, or Coen brothers movies like True Grit or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you will probably love this book. 
Eli and Charlie Sisters have been working for the Commodore for a long time, and have established a formidable reputation of their own by killing, over a number of years, many of the man’s enemies.  As The Sisters Brothers opens, the pair is preparing to make their way from Oregon City to Sacramento where they are to kill the Commodore’s latest nemesis, one Herman Kermit Warm.  Mr. Warm, it seems, has something he refuses to share with the Commodore, a secret formula that will make its owner a very rich man.
It was a long trip from Oregon City to Sacramento in the 1850s frontier, even for two men like the Sisters Brothers, leaving plenty of time and opportunity for things to go wrong along the way. As importantly, there was enough time for Eli Sisters to look back on his life and begin to begin to doubt the validity of the way he and Charlie made their living.  And that is precisely why, and when, the fun starts.  Between Oregon City and Sacramento, the boys encounter a long list of wild women, ruthless businessmen, incompetent gold prospectors, rough cowboys, unfortunate horses, and hustling townspeople guaranteed to keep the reader entertained from the first page to the last.
Patrick deWitt
Eli Sisters might just be my favorite fictional character of 2011.  Ever loyal to Charlie, his older brother, Eli is struggling with the conflict between that keen sense of family loyalty and the guilt he feels about the violent manner in which he and Charlie have lived their lives.  Newly self-aware, Eli concludes that Charlie, to his own advantage, has manipulated him since they were small boys – and that he has allowed Charlie to get away with it.  Despite their frequent bickering, and Charlie’s dominance, however, the relationship between the brothers is a close one.  But, now, Eli is looking for a way out of the life, and watching him ease Charlie toward that frame of mind is a treat.
Bottom line: if you come to The Sisters Brothers with the right mindset, this one is great fun.
Rated at: 5.0

Murder in Mount Holly

Publication of this “new” novel by Paul Theroux will certainly catch the eye of longtime fans of the man’s work, but this time there is both good and bad news for fans to consider.  The good news is that Theroux’s Murder in Mount Holly is, indeed, a “new” novel to most American readers because it has never before been published in this country; the bad news is that the novel is actually forty-two years old and most definitely shows its age.  The American version of this short novel first published in the U.K. in 1969 – and republished there in 1998 as part of a Theroux collection –  is finally being released tomorrow (December 6, 2011). 
Murder in Mount Hollyis a dark comedy set during the turbulent years of American history during which the generations were largely split by angry debate over the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War.  Theroux uses an assortment of characters thrown together by chance to illustrate how this unpopular war affected Americans of all ages and political beliefs.  The over-the-top approach to storytelling he uses here, despite not always working well for Theroux, does make this short novel a hard one to forget.
College student Herbie Gneiss, at the insistence of his recently widowed mother, decides to leave school so that he can financially support her huge grocery consumption pace (this is one very large woman).  This will prove to be an exceptionally poor decision when  young Herbie is drafted just weeks after finding work at the Kant-Brake company, a firm that produces detailed and realistic war toys for America’s children.  Rather unfortunately for his mother, as it will turn out, Herbie has already introduced her to the new love of her life, Mr. Gibbon, an older man he met at his boarding house.  When Herbie leaves for basic training, his mother moves into that boarding house to be near Mr. Gibbon- and the trouble begins.
The rest of this short novel involves the planning and execution of a farcical bank robbery by Mr. Gibbon, Herbie’s mother, and their landlady, Mrs. Ball.  Despite the ensuing violence and tragedy that follows, the cartoonish nature of Theroux’s approach to the story makes it difficult, if not impossible, for his anti-Vietnam-War message to make much of an impact on the reader.  Murder in Mount Holly is not Paul Theroux’s finest effort – far from it, in fact.  It will, however, interest the type of reader that feels compelled to read every page written by a favorite author, if simply to understand better that author’s progression from mediocrity to excellence over the years.
Rated at: 2.0