Best Books of 2012 – at the Three-Quarters Mark

Three-quarters of the way through 2012 already, and I’m finding that my “Best Of” lists are beginning to solidify quicker than in past years.  That might be because this year’s lists are limited to books published between October 1, 2011 and December 1, 2012 rather than being open to everything I read during the calendar year.  This is what it looks like as of September 30 (with changes highlighted):


Fiction:
1.     Edge of Dark Water – Joe Lansdale East Texas redneck noir at its finest
2.     The Angel Makers – Jessica Gregson – Hungarian women react badly to the aftermath of World War I
3.     The Headmaster’s Wager Vincent Lam – Betting it all on one throw of the dice
4.     Canada Richard Ford – Some borders are forever
5.     Heading Out to Wonderful Robert Goolrick – Spare me the good old days
6.     The Solitary House Lynn Shepherd – Period mystery using many Bleak House characters
7.     The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes – Run that past me again
8.     The World without You Joshua Henkin – One family’s Fourth of July fireworks
9.     A Blaze of Glory Jeff Shaara – What could have been but for one bullet
10.  The Beautiful Mystery Louise Penny – Monkish murder in a monastry
Nonfiction:
1.     The One – R.J. Smith – “the life and music of James Brown”
2.     Game Over – Bill Moushey, Bob Dvorchak – the horror of Jerry Sandusky and his enablers lives on
3.     Private Empire – Steve Coll – “ExxonMobil and American Power”
4.     The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe – Loving books to the finish line
5.     Visiting Tom – Michael Perry – Gifts from a village elder
6.     Holy Ghost Girl – Donna M. Johnson – growing up while following a tent preacher from town to town
7.     Wild – Cheryl Strayed – one woman’s hike for her life
8.     Taking Flak – Dan Pastorini – Frank memoir from a Houston Oiler quarterback
9.     This Mobius Strip of Ifs Mathias B. Freese – Essays and memories from a thinker
10.     The End of IllnessDavid B. Agus, M.D. – alternative medicine and new technology combine

Winter Journal – Take Two

This is only the second time I have re-posted anything to Book Chase, especially unusual this time because I made the original post only four days ago.  This YouTube video of Paul Auster reading a selection from Winter Journal is so exceptional and moving, however, that it needs (and deserves) to be added to my review of the book.

So, here is the author reading his own words – followed by my thoughts on the reading experience.

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A number of words come to mind when one considers Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal – unconventional, personal (almost by definition, I suppose), rambling, confusing, boring, frustrating, rewarding, revealing, gratifying, moving.  Consequently, although many readers are certain to appreciate the book, I suspect that an equal number will end up considering it a waste of precious reading time.  Auster, in his sixty-third year when writing Winter Journal, has produced what his publisher calls an “unconventional memoir,” a “history of his body and its sensations.” 
And a memoir that includes a list and description of every scar on the author’s body – and how he earned those scars – along with a description of all twenty-one addresses where his body has ever resided (a descriptive list that burns 53 pages of the 230-page ARC edition of the memoir) is exactly that.  The publisher, of course, uses the word “unconventional” as a selling point, but I am not certain that readers will necessarily agree that this much unconventionality is a good thing.  The section on a lifetime of living space will, in fact, likely be the tipping point for those readers who might already be starting to question the Winter Journal reading experience.  They will either make it through these 53 pages, and the rest of the book, or they will give up somewhere in the middle of the list.
Surprisingly for such a short book, Auster also devotes almost ten full pages to recounting the plot of the noirish 1950 movie D.O.A.  Again, unconventionally, the author devotes as much time to the details of the film as to the reason he references it in the first place – Auster’s experience with panic attacks.  Admittedly, the main character of D.O.A. suffers a classic panic attack of his own, but reading ten pages of movie recap grows rather tedious.
Paul Auster
The book may be uneven, but moving moments are sprinkled throughout.  Auster’s memories of his visits to Minnesota and the pages he devotes to personal relationships (particularly to his relationship with his second wife), for instance, work beautifully.  There is a horrifying memory of an encounter he had with a Parisian piano-tuner while living in France with a girlfriend.  There is the moment during which the author reflects on Joubert’s thoughts on growing old: “One must die loveable (if one can).”  Auster explains his understanding of the Joubert quote this way:
“You are moved by this sentence, especially by the words in parentheses, which demonstrate a rare sensitivity of spirit, you feel, a hard-won understanding of how difficult it is to be loveable, especially for someone who is old, who is sinking into decrepitude and must be cared for by others.  If one can.
Consider, too, Auster’s recollection of an observation generously offered him by an aging French actor:
“Paul, there’s just one thing I want to tell you.  At fifty-seven (Auster’s age at the time of the conversation), I felt old.  Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.”
Confused for a long while by this observation, it is only several years later that Auster comes to believe the actor may have been telling him that “a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four.” 
So there are wonderful moments in Winter Journal, and there are whole sections that left me wishing the author would simply get on with it.  Unconventional, it certainly is.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

New Audio Book: Telegraph Avenue

Serendipity strikes again…

I’m starting the audio book version of Michael Chabon’s freshly minted Telegraph Avenue tomorrow morning on my commute to the office – and today, I received an email that includes a link to brief portions of it being read aloud by Clarke Peters.  Peters has a wonderful voice and a great delivery, plus he seems to really have enjoyed putting the book to “tape.”

Clarke Peters, you are a very lucky man to have enough talent to get paid for doing something that seems to be so much fun for you.  Now, I can’t wait to get started.

Here’s the YouTube video:

Goodbye for Now

Goodbye for Now, the new Laurie Frankel novel, is a movie waiting to happen, the kind of story that Hollywood types hope will become the next When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle.  The plot is certainly an intriguing one.  Sam Elling is a young man who finds it difficult to get a first-date, much less a second one.  The great irony of his life is that Sam is a computer geek employed by a Seattle computer dating service to help others find their “soul mates.”  The irony of his love life does not escape him, so Sam decides to use his programming skills to identify his perfect match – on the first try.  The program he invents works so perfectly that the company’s profits take a hit because repeat customers become a thing of the past.  No longer an asset to his employer, Sam loses his job, but not before having found his dream girl, co-worker Meredith Maxwell, whom he immediately dubs “Merde.”
Still out of work, Sam has plenty of time to spare when Meredith’s grandmother dies suddenly.  Seeing how hard she takes her grandmother’s loss, he writes a program that will sort through their hundreds of emails, video chats, and texts to help him create what turns out to be an almost magical algorithm.  That algorithm rearranges these communications from the past into new, real-time mixes that allow Meredith and her grandmother to exchange emails and enjoy video chats as if the old lady were still in Florida for the winter – not dead and buried.
Sam and Meredith, along with a rather colorful cousin of Meredith’s, recognizing a unique opportunity to go into business for themselves, are soon offering Sam’s creation to the general public.  As the business grows quietly and steadily, the three are optimistic about their future and proud of what they offer their grieving customers.  Things get more complicated, however, when word of their venture spreads and a few newspapers start calling.  Soon, newspapers from around the world are writing about them, CNN is talking about them, and prominent religious leaders are questioning the morality of what they are selling at this company called RePose.
Laura Frankel
Is easing the immediate pain of a grieving person really a good thing if it just prolongs the grieving process and makes it more difficult than it would have been otherwise?  Should the number of times a customer can use the RePose software be limited?  Is RePose making it impossible for users ever to move on with the rest of their lives?  Do dead people still have the right to privacy?  These are just a few of the issues with which RePose must grapple.  But, Goodbye for Now is also Sam and Meredith’s love story – and that part of the story is about to get complicated.
This is a tearjerker, an emotional rollercoaster, a sci-fi comedy – all of these things.  But despite all its tugging at the heartstrings, Goodbye for Now never quite works for me.  Because I found the characters to be more of the sit-com type than of the real-world variety, I was never able to get emotionally invested in any of them long enough to care about them.  The dialogue is snappy, funny, even touching, but never quite real– Sam and his friends are likable, if not quite believable.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Goodbye for Now Book Trailer:

Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature

When it comes to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, I’ve been a firm believer (and consistent user) of the book since I purchased it in hardcover back in 1989.  That volume, the fifth edition, is the one edited by Margaret Drabble, and it is over 1100 pages long.  Obviously, there is a lot packed into such a thick book – but, thankfully, it is surprisingly light in weight and easy to handle.  According to its dust jacket, this edition is the one that first included references to “detective stories, science fiction, children’s literature, comic strips,” and the like.  It also included foreign-language authors whose works had been largely translated into English.

I don’t recall what I spent for that book 23 years ago, but if I could price it per time referenced, I’m sure it would be one of the better book bargains I’ve ever managed to snag.

That is why I was so pleased to receive a copy of The Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature in the mail today.  “Concise” is one of those words, however, that must be considered in the proper context.  Admittedly, this paperback is a good bit physically smaller than my “full” 1989 volume, but it manages to come in at a bit over 800 pages, itself.  This one, with a nod to previous editors Drabble and Jenny Stringer, was edited by Dinah Birch and Katy Hooper.  This fourth edition of the “concise” Companion makes some changes of its own by expanding coverage of “science fiction, biography, travel literature, women’s writing, gay and lesbian writing, and American literature.”

I am addicted to “literary lists” and always find them fascinating, so I am particularly happy about the appendices listing winers of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Man Booker prizes.  I try to keep updated lists of winners of the best known literary prizes on my own, but never manage to keep up for long. This gives me a fresh start as of the 2011 winners.

Other indices are: Chronology (listing key books alongside significant historical events of the same year), Poet Laureate (British), Children’s Laureates, Library Association Carnegie Medalists, King’s and Queen’s Gold Medals for Poetry, and T.S. Eliot Prizes for Poetry,.

Those browsing an Oxford Companion or a Concise Companion for the first time will be pleased, I think, to find hundreds of author biographies, plot summaries, sketches of individual characters, references focusing on key books, genre fiction, literary theory, historical context, etc. (5500 entries in the concise version, alone).

As noted on its cover, this new (as of October 11) Concise edition is also “web linked.”  Scattered throughout, are suggestions to turn to the web for additional information about subjects covered in the book.  For instance, beneath the section on William Blake, is the “See Web Links” icon and the words “The William Blake Archive.”  A quick search of Google for the archive led me here, to a helpful website I had never seen.

Past experience tells me that, for avid readers, this will be the best $20 spent this year.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 5-9

Chapter 5 (Breakfast) finds Ishmael at a group breakfast, sharing a table with his fellow-boarders, Queequeg among them, at the Spout Inn.  Ishmael seems to be the only one of the whalers willing to be himself and not worry about what others think.  As a group, these whalers appear to be a shy bunch, content to eat their breakfast rather quietly before hitting the streets of New Bedford one last time before going to sea.  Queequeg, in the meantime, uses his harpoon to spear food from nearby platters or to drag distant platters closer to him.

Musa Okwonga

“Breakfast” is read in great style by Musa Okwonga whose twitter account describes him this way: “Poet, sportswriter; author, musician; journalist, broadcaster, communications adviser.  BBC, ESPN, MSN, FT, The Blizzard, The Independent and more.”  Okwonga does a bit of everything, it seems.  He can be followed on Twitter here.

In Chapter 6 (The Street), Ishmael is amazed by the variety of humanity he finds on the streets of New Bedford, the current whaling capitol of the world.  The way he sees it, Queequeg does not stand out in this crowd and, in fact, is just one among many strange characters wandering the city.

Big Read Illustration, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is read by Mary Norris, but I am, embarrassingly, unable to determine exactly “which” Mary Norris that might be.  I suspect it is the Irish Mary Norris who has been describing her horrible experiences in St. Joseph’s Orphanage, a facility run by the Catholic Church in Killarney, Ireland.  But, I’m only guessing.

It is in Chapter 7 (The Chapel) that Ismael’s spirits become a little subdued by all the reminders inside the church of lives lost to the very pursuit he is about to embark upon.  There are numerous commemorative plaques scattered throughout the little church but, alas, few bodies to match them since all of those being memorialized were lost at sea, never to be seen again.

This chapter is read by Keith Collins, another of those rather generic names from which I can not comfortably identify the actual narrator.  This is turning into my one complaint about the way the Big Read is being presented.  Capsule biographies of the readers would be a huge help to listeners located outside the U.K.

Chapter 8 (The Pulpit) really puts The Whaleman’s Chapel into perspective as it describes the unique pulpit from which the famous Father Mapple preaches his Sunday sermons.  Rising high above the church’s whaling congregation, and modeled to look like the prow of a whaling ship, this pulpit gives Father Mapple the perfect spot from which to reach his audience.  And, as described in the next chapter, a Father Mapple sermon is quite an experience.

Simon Callow

“The Pulpit” is read by Nick Atkinson and, again, I’m having to guess just which “Nick Atkinson” this really is.  I see two possibilities: Nick Atkinson, the Australian actor, or Nick Atkinson, the British rock band singer.  Your guess is probably better than mine.

Chapter 9 (The Sermon) is really something to hear.  Melville has written a barnburner of a sermon for Father Mapple and Simon Callow delivers it to perfection.  I found this chapter to be one where it is best just to put the book down and listen to Callow deliver the sermon “live.”  He did a beautiful job.  Of course, Simon Callow is one of the most respected British stage and movie actors around, and very easily identified.

Dive Deeper covers a good bit of ground related to Chapters 5-9, including a real-life model, Methodist minister Edward Thompson Taylor, upon which Father Mapple is likely to have been based.

Included is this interesting observation about Melville’s view of theology, as expressed in Moby-Dick:

“The cosmic joke that hits hard in Moby-Dick is not about whether there is a God.  It is about why such a God should be so distant or mean-spirited.  Does this deity take perverse pleasure in joking with the lives of so many poor souls?  This may be the ‘ultimate secret’ that Melville’s humor seeks to reveal.  Or, maybe the point is that the joke is on us?”

I am particularly looking forward to hearing/reading Chapter 10 because it is read by one of my favorite multi-threat talents, the great Stephen Fry.  What a shame Chapter 10 is only four pages long!

Winter Journal

A number of words come to mind when one considers Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal – unconventional, personal (almost by definition, I suppose), rambling, confusing, boring, frustrating, rewarding, revealing, gratifying, moving.  Consequently, although many readers are certain to appreciate the book, I suspect that an equal number will end up considering it a waste of precious reading time.  Auster, in his sixty-third year when writing Winter Journal, has produced what his publisher calls an “unconventional memoir,” a “history of his body and its sensations.” 
And a memoir that includes a list and description of every scar on the author’s body – and how he earned those scars – along with a description of all twenty-one addresses where his body has ever resided (a descriptive list that burns 53 pages of the 230-page ARC edition of the memoir) is exactly that.  The publisher, of course, uses the word “unconventional” as a selling point, but I am not certain that readers will necessarily agree that this much unconventionality is a good thing.  The section on a lifetime of living space will, in fact, likely be the tipping point for those readers who might already be starting to question the Winter Journal reading experience.  They will either make it through these 53 pages, and the rest of the book, or they will give up somewhere in the middle of the list.
Surprisingly for such a short book, Auster also devotes almost ten full pages to recounting the plot of the noirish 1950 movie D.O.A.  Again, unconventionally, the author devotes as much time to the details of the film as to the reason he references it in the first place – Auster’s experience with panic attacks.  Admittedly, the main character of D.O.A.suffers a classic panic attack of his own, but reading ten pages of movie recap grows rather tedious.
Paul Auster
The book may be uneven, but moving moments are sprinkled throughout.  Auster’s memories of his visits to Minnesota and the pages he devotes to personal relationships (particularly to his relationship with his second wife), for instance, work beautifully.  There is a horrifying memory of an encounter he had with a Parisian piano-tuner while living in France with a girlfriend.  There is the moment during which the author reflects on Joubert’s thoughts on growing old: “One must die loveable (if one can).”  Auster explains his understanding of the Joubert quote this way:
“You are moved by this sentence, especially by the words in parentheses, which demonstrate a rare sensitivity of spirit, you feel, a hard-won understanding of how difficult it is to be loveable, especially for someone who is old, who is sinking into decrepitude and must be cared for by others.  If one can.
Consider, too, Auster’s recollection of an observation generously offered him by an aging French actor:
“Paul, there’s just one thing I want to tell you.  At fifty-seven (Auster’s age at the time of the conversation), I felt old.  Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.”
Confused for a long while by this observation, it is only several years later that Auster comes to believe the actor may have been telling him that “a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four.” 
So there are wonderful moments in Winter Journal, and there are whole sections that left me wishing the author would simply get on with it.  Unconventional, it certainly is.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Somewhere Out in Mudbrook – Michael Perry and the Long Beds


Remember my post on Michael Perry’s new one, Visiting Tom, from a while back?

Well, I’m happy to report that that one is finally nearing the top of my TBR stack – but the real reason I’m posting about Michael Perry again is to share this YouTube video of Michael and the Long Beds performing “Somewhere Out in Mudbrook.”

This is good stuff.  Slap on a pair of headphones and enjoy…

Man Opens a Real Home Library

It’s been a while since I’ve found an interesting library story to highlight, but I really like this one, so maybe it was worth the wait.

Seems that a man in the Philippines takes the “pass it on” principle very seriously.  Because Hernando Guanlao wanted to share his passion for books, he set up an official lending library in front of his Manila home twelve years ago.  Interestingly, the library has no rules.  Take as many books as you want; bring them back when you want; keep them permanently if that works better for you.  The big surprise is that the library has grown from less than 100 books to approximately 3,000 books despite its its free-for-all policy.

The BBC has a nice article, including pictures, that can be accessed here:

He was looking for something to honour their (his parents) memory, and that was when he hit upon the idea of promoting the the reading habit he’d inherited.

“I saw my old textbooks upstairs and decided to come up with the concept of having the public use them,” he says.

[…]

But it’s people like Celine who sustain the library.  She lives down the road from Guanlao, and she arrived with two bulging bags of books – some of which she was returning, others of which she was planning to donate.

She says she loves the concept of the library, because Filipinos – certainly those who are not particularly wealthy – have limited access to books.

“I haven’t been to any public libraries except the national library in Manila,” she says, explaining that it is quite far away – and it is not possible to borrow any books.

I’ve said it at least a dozen times…book people are special people.  Hernando Guanlao proves my theory.

I’m not even going to pretend to understand what the commentators are saying in this news video, but it offers a good look at the library (and includes a few words of English here and there).

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 3-4

I’m four chapters into the Moby-Dick Big Read and still very impressed with the quality of the production and the talent of the readers.  Listeners will, of course, enjoy certain readers more than others for a variety of reasons.  Myself, to this point, I prefer the first reader (the only female of the four) to the others.  I’m noticing, surprisingly, that readers do tend to skip words or transpose them fairly often.  Perhaps, that stems from an intentional attempt to make the first-person narration sound more conversational, or maybe, these are simply mistakes not considered worth the effort of re-recording for 100% accuracy.  I suspect the latter.

At fifteen pages, Chapter 3, “The Spouter Inn,” is one of the longest in Moby-Dick, and I’m willing to bet that it will be the funniest.  This is the chapter in which Ishmael finally sees Queequeg face-to-face after much anticipating and worrying about his appearance at the inn until after midnight.  It does not help that he is already in bed and only gets a good look at the “cannibal,” when Queequeg finally lights a candle while preparing for bed.  Panic and terror are the order of the day on the parts of both men.

Chapter 4, “The Counterpane,” is Ishmael’s rather strange account of waking up next to the cannibal whose arm is “thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.  You had almost thought I had been his wife.”  Diving Deeper devotes two full pages to the “homoerotic intonation of the relationship” between Queequeg and Ishmael – most of it recounting the life story of the first scholar officially to call attention to something readers had been wondering about for years.  This scholar, Newton Arvin, one of Truman Capote’s sexual partners in the 1940s, lived a rather tragic life during which he fought a losing battle to hide his sexual preferences – and to hold off the depression caused by so much stress and worry about being exposed.  Arvin died in 1963 of pancreatic cancer, long after he split with the much younger Capote.

The next few chapters are short ones of two-to-four pages each, so I will soon experience a variety of new readers.  I’m hoping for another woman-reader to be added to the mix.

The End of Your Life Book Club

Almost from the moment I spotted the book’s title, I knew that I would be reading Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club.  Books about books have long appealed to me, and over the years, I have collected a number of my favorites of the type.  That this one is a memoir/biography rather than a novel about books made it even more appealing.
Will Schwalbe, former editor in chief of Hyperion Books, spent hours with his mother on the days she received chemotherapy treatment for the pancreatic cancer that was such a surprise to Mary Anne and her family.  When they ran out of things to talk about in the waiting or treatment rooms, Will and his mother often drifted into conversations about their shared love of reading.  
On one of their days together, Will turned to his mother with a simple question: “What are you reading?”  Mary Anne replied, appropriately enough, that she was reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and offered to give him her copy of the 1987 book when she was done.  By chance, Will already had a copy of his own and, at home that evening, he picked it up again.  When Mother and son discussed their reactions to the book the next time they were together, the “end of your life book club” was born. 
As he recounts the progress of Mary Anne’s disease, Schwalbe references more than one hundred books and authors he and his mother discussed during their book club “meetings.”  Their discussions offer a virtual treasure trove of insights that will have readers scrambling to get copies of many of the books for themselves.  This is the reason that avid readers are so taken by books about books, but The End of Your Life Book Club is really a son’s tribute to his mother, a woman he both loves and admires for the life she lived.  What will particularly appeal to readers is how Will and Mary Anne’s mutual love of reading make it possible for them to broach subjects they otherwise might never have found a way to discuss. 
Will Schwalbe, of course, explains it best:
            “They (the books) reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together.”
And there are moments like this one during their discussion of David Halberstam’s last book, The Coldest Winter, when Mary Anne offers:
            “That’s one of the things books do.  They help us talk.  But they also give us something we can all talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”
Will Schwalbe
Finally, I will never forget the way that Schwalbe describes his mother, near death and surrounded by stacks and shelves filled with her favorite books:
            “They (books) were Mom’s companions and teachers.  They had shown her the way.  And she was able to look at them as she readied herself for the life everlasting that she knew awaited her.  What comfort could be gained from staring at my lifeless e-reader?”
Now, that is something to consider as the world moves ever closer to being dominated by electronic, virtual books.
The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful book, and it has earned a spot on my bookshelves where it is likely to remain for a long, long time.  It is one of my new favorites.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Moby-Dick Big Read: Try It, You’ll Like It

In another wonderful case of serendipity, Susan – over at You Can Never Have too Many Books – posted yesterday about the online reading of Moby-Dick being sponsored by The Guardian newspaper.  Over the course of the next few months, 135 different celebrity readers from the U.K. will read the entire book, one chapter per night, until it is all done.  I’ve already made it through the first two chapters and can report that I am very impressed with the experience.

I call this a serendipitous event because just a few days ago I received in the mail the Library of America Melville volume that includes Moby-Dick – plus, I was already planning to read the novel before the end of the year because of a Moby-Dick-related book I received a while back from Oxford Press called Dive Deeper.  That book, by George Cotkin, centers around a chapter-by-chapter look at Melville’s most famous novel, offering insights into the author’s thinking, the historical period, and the book’s key plot points.  In other words, it is an excellent companion piece to the novel, but as part of a three-way reading of the novel, it is already proving to be a step beyond “excellent.”

I find reading along with the online-narrators and immediately reading the corresponding sections of Dive Deeper to be an effective way to enjoy the novel and, rather painlessly, ensure a deeper understanding of the work than I would have otherwise ever attained.  Serendipity, indeed.

I encourage you to follow the link back to Susan’s place and, from there, to the Guardian article to get all the detail about the project, how it came about, and who some of the readers will be.  Those of you wanting to get a quick sample of what it all sounds like can jump from here to the Moby Dick Big Read site directly.

The book’s first two chapters (a total of 10 pages) are largely scene-setters in which Ishmael introduces himself and explains why he wants to return to the sea.  By the close of the second chapter, he has found cheap – very cheap- lodging for the night in New Bedford’s Spouter-Inn where he will share the bed with an unusual roommate called Queequeg.

Two insights I gained from Dive Deeper:  1)  Going to sea is Ishmael’s antidote to the kind of depression that makes people suicidal, and 2) The preacher in the black church Ishmael accidentally enters in the heavy fog of the evening is perhaps patterned on Frederick Douglas who was in New Bedford at the same time Melville was there.

The Headmaster’s Wager

Almost exactly five years ago, I was introduced to Victor Lam’s writing through his short story collection, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures.  That twelve-story collection, featuring four Canadian medical students in various combinations, reads very much like a novel in itself.  Now, however, Lam has written a very different book, The Headmaster’s Wager, a remarkable family saga that officially marks his transition from short story writer to novelist.  (Vincent Lam is also an emergency room doctor and a University of Toronto lecturer.)
In the novel, Lam uses his own family history as inspiration to explore the experiences of Vietnam’s Chinese expatriate community over the course of recent Vietnamese history.  The reader will, through the eyes of Headmaster Percival Chen, live through the 1940 Japanese invasion of Vietnam, the French colonial period, and the long war against the United States that would split the country in two.  Percival will also know firsthand the Japanese occupation of China, his home country, and will feel the pain of responsibility for what his only son endures there during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Percival Chen is owner and headmaster of the Percival Chen English Academy housed in his former family home in Cholon, a largely Chinese-populated section of Saigon.  Percival, now divorced, lives above the school with his only son where a staff of servants attends to their daily needs.  Percival’s father earned the family fortune in the lucrative rice trade, but due to the vagaries of war (and the suggestion of a close friend), Percival now dedicates himself to qualifying students for translation jobs with the American government and military.  His is the most respected English-language school in the country, and it easily supports the headmaster’s reckless lifestyle.
Dr. Vincent Lam
Percival Chen is a gambling man.  Little bets, big bets, bets that might cost him his business or his life; it is all the same to him.  A man of large appetites, he is well known at the city’s high-stakes mahjong tables and to the high-end prostitutes introduced by Mrs. Ling.  Despite his recklessness, the school thrives, but Percival would never admit even to himself that his success is largely due to the connections of a teacher who is also his best friend, Mr. Mak.  Mr. Mak is an organizer, a Vietnamese with the business contacts, government contacts, and contacts within the structure of the Vietnamese secret police to ensure the success of the Percival Chen English Academy.  And he uses those contacts to make good things happen.
Finally, hardly realizing it, Percival makes the biggest wager of his life.  Win or lose, his family’s survival now depends on one final spin of the wheel by the headmaster.
The Headmaster’s Wager is a memorable debut novel, a piece of historical fiction within which the reader will become completely immersed.  Like Percival Chen, pity him, or despise him, this story of the love between a father and his son will not soon be forgotten. 
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Lincoln – Official Movie Trailer

I have high hopes for Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg movie that is set to open in November.  The official trailer has just been released and it certainly has “the look.”  A few people are already complaining about “the voice” in which Lincoln speaks in the film, but contemporaries of Lincoln are known to have spoken of his rather high pitched voice and soft delivery, so I don’t believe this is any kind of misstep on the part of Spielberg or actor Daniel Day-Lewis.  They know what they are doing.

I see that Tommy Lee Jones has a role in the movie, definitely a good thing, but I have to admit that I’m a little uneasy seeing Sally Field walking around as what appears to be Mary Todd Lincoln.  I hope I’m wrong about that and that she pulls it off but…

The Spy Lover

Kiana Davenport’s The Spy Lover is a Civil War novel with a twist.  What makes this one different is its focus on the wartime contributions of Johnny Tom, a Chinese immigrant, and Era, his copper-skinned daughter.  It is common knowledge that a large number of immigrants participated in the American Civil War, but amateur historians generally think of countries like Ireland, Germany, England, and Scotland as their countries of origin.  Few would ever consider China in this context. 
 Johnny Tom did not have an easy time of it after being snatched from his homeland and forced to work on the construction of America’s first intercontinental railroad.  Indeed, he was lucky to survive the experience and make his escape from the railroad work gang to start a new life for himself in a tiny Mississippi village.  Years later, Johnny’s world is ripped apart again when he is forcibly separated from his wife and daughter and conscripted into the Confederate Army.  But, in the confusion of battle – and all the while praying that his family is still alive – Johnny defects to the Union Army in hopes of winning American citizenship. 
Despising the Confederacy as much as her father despises it, Era agrees to work as a Confederate camp nurse in order to gather information she can trade to Union generals for word of her father.  Although the information is surprisingly easy to get, the process grows complicated when Era falls in love with a one-armed Confederate cavalryman she nurses back to health. 
The Spy Loverpulls no punches.  War is brutal and ugly, and the American Civil War was most certainly no exception to the rule despite the romantic connotations so often attached to it.  Davenport, in one graphic scene after the other, describes the horrors of the surgeon’s tent, recovery wards, battlefields, and life on the Southern home front.  She explores the impact of slavery on not only the slaves, but on the character and psyche of their owners.  She recounts the rampant racism that existed in all parts of the United States during a period in which immigrants from around the world often fought each other for a limited number of jobs.  The sheer ugliness of the picture she paints is a vivid reminder that the “good old days” are not necessarily good for everyone who lives them.
Kiana Davenport
In the interest of full disclosure, I will point out that, even though I have read Civil War history and fiction for more than four decades, I still tend to see the conflict through Southern eyes.  That tendency, however, is only part of the reason I find some of the author’s characterization of Southern culture and soldiers to be more stereotypical than realistic.  For example, every slave-owner in the book resembles Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree.  These men delight in beating even the children of their slaves almost to death at the least slight or offense.  Even more surrealistic is the author’s contention that, toward the end of the war, Southern troops – much in the manner of Chinese soldiers of the Korean War – commonly got high on chunks of opium called “bull’s eyes” before marching into battle.  But, despite opium and morphine being more available to Union doctors, not once do I recall a similar reference to Union troops using the drug for that purpose.
I point this out because the message of The Spy Lover would have been more effectively delivered via a realistic, and even-handed, approach to the two sides doing battle.  As it is, the novel requires a suspension of disbelief from me that somewhat lessens its impact.  That said, those who read it will not soon forget The Spy Lover, and more casual fans of Civil War fiction are likely to enjoy it very much. 
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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What Your Bookshelf Says About You

A Portion of the Shelves Devoted to Old Favorites

I’ve confessed my weakness before for trying to read titles off of the spines of books appearing on bookshelves that just happen to be behind people whose pictures are posted in online newspapers and magazines.  I do the same thing when I spot shelves in Facebook photos or on personal blogs, regardless of why the pictures were posted in the first place.

Many of you have admitted to the same addiction.  Well, good news…now there’s a website for people like us.  Peter Knox and Graham Coursey have created Share Your Shelf, a site where people can post pictures of, and describe, the bookshelves in their lives.  Admittedly, while there are definitely some interesting photos there, it is not quite the same as peeking over someone’s shoulders who has forgotten exactly what is behind him when his picture is being snapped.  Good stuff, nonetheless, so do take a look.  You might even want to share your own shelves there.

Mostly Joyce Carol Oates and Ruth Rendell, Two Favorites

This is some of what Peter Knox had to say about the website in this September 7 article on The Guardian website:

Only a bookshelf can truly hold a reader’s history and future at the same time, while the present is usually found in a book bag or on a nightstand nearby. A lifelong reader myself, I’ve always had an obsession withseeing a person’s bookshelf, to get a sense of what they’ve brought inside their home and their head. Bookshelves are universal in that almost everyone has one, and unique in that no two collections are the same. They reflect much more than just the book-buying habits of their owner. Titles are easy to acquire and even easier to sell off or leave behind, so if it’s worthy of your shelf space, I want to know why.

[…]

And a Wide Shot Catching Most of One Wall

A bookshelf’s organisation, or lack thereof, can show that practicality and discoverability is the priority when shelved alphabetically by author (as is the traditional way). But if it’s arranged by colour or trim size of the book spines, the owner obviously prizes appearance and display above finding the right title quickly. More likely the shelf is representative of how the reader sees their own collection: frequent favourites at eye level,grouped together according to genre/topic/theme and other commonalities.  

The article concludes with Knox’s personal tips on organizing bookshelves.  Over the years, I learned his tip on having “a growth strategy” the hard way…several different times, in fact.  Unfortunately (or, perhaps, that should be fortunately), I have again reached the point where adding a new book to the shelves almost certainly means removing another one first.  I suppose that’s the best way of ensuring that my shelves reflect my  reading taste most accurately – but it does make for some painful decisions.

(Feel free to snoop and comment.  Just click on the pictures to see them full-sized.)

Defending Jacob

Parents will do whatever it takes to protect their children from physical harm or to defend them from anyone, or anything, that otherwise threatens their wellbeing.  That is a given; it is just what we do – even for our adult children.  But what if a parent suspects that a son or daughter might have committed a violent crime against someone else’s child?  And what if that parent is the District Attorney charged with prosecuting the very crime his son has been accused of committing?
First District Attorney Andy Barber, facing precisely that “what if” question, never hesitates.   Jacob is the most important thing in Andy’s life, and if Andy has to place his own future in jeopardy in order to save his son’s life, well, that is what he will do.  
One of Jacob Barber’s classmates, a 14-year-old boy, has been found stabbed to death along one of the walkways of the park that numerous students cross on their way to the middle school every morning.  Andy Barber, once he gets over the shock of such a thing happening so close to home, is determined to find and prosecute the murderer as quickly as possible.  He recognizes the fear and unease of his friends and neighbors and believes that moving quickly will help restore the community’s sense of security and normalcy. 
However, Andy and Laurie Barber receive an even bigger shock when their son is arrested for the murder and Andy is forced to take a leave of absence from the District Attorney’s office.  As the investigation evolves, the Barbers and the parents of the dead boy will learn things about their sons they never could have imagined.  They will also learn things about themselves and their neighbors that are almost as disturbing as what is revealed about the boys.
Defending Jacob is a classic courtroom thriller that will remind the reader of earlier novels like Presumed Innocent and A Time to Kill, two other books that caught the imaginations of readers and sold in huge numbers.  And like the best of his predecessors, William Landay focus on nicely developed characters, plot twists, and a major surprise or two near the end to create a memorable story.  But, even though there are recognizable similarities between Jacob Barber’s case and some recent real-world teen-murderers, Defending Jacob is as much a study of family dynamics as it is a legal thriller.
William Landay
The three members of the Barber family, ostracized and hated by their neighbors – every one of whom believe Jacob is the killer – have only each other for support and comfort.  But, as the pressure of the trial mounts, with more and more evidence pointing to Jacob’s guilt, Andy and Laurie begin to sense that their son’s emotional response to his arrest is odd.  The family’s survival is in doubt in more ways than one.
Surprisingly, the most memorable character in Defending Jacob is Jacob’s grandfather, a man who moves into and out of the picture as the plot develops.  The man’s pure evilness certainly makes a lasting impression; for me, one even more striking than that made by Andy Barber’s choice to place his son’s life above the very justice system he has spent a lifetime serving.
Defending Jacob is probably a little bit over-hyped but it has its moments and will certainly be enjoyed by courtroom drama fans.  Warner Brothers has already optioned the book, so read it before the movie spoils it for you.

The Long Drunk

One of the best things readers can experience is the surprise of finding a good book where they really don’t expect to find one.  Sometimes that’s almost as good as finding a $20 bill inside the pocket of a pair of pants you haven’t worn since last winter.  No offense intended to Eric Coyote, but his debut novel, The Long Drunk, was one such surprise to me.
The novel is billed as “ultra noir,” and that may actually be a bit of an understatement.  Set in Venice, California, and featuring a “homeless detective” by the name of James Murphy, The Long Drunk shares many elements of the LA noir style of mystery writing Raymond Chandler helped make popular.  But in these more liberal times, Coyote has the option of offering us a much stronger cup of coffee than Chandler dared serve up in his day – and he uses it.
Murphy, a one-time professional football player who suffered a career-ending gunshot wound on the eve of his debut with the New Orleans Saints, is now a drunk.  He lives on the Venice streets with a few men (and one woman) every bit as focused on finding their next drink as he is.  The love of Murphy’s life these days is a Rottweiler he calls Betty, the dog he credits with saving his life and giving him a reason to go on living.  Now, it’s Murphy’s turn to save Betty’s life.
When Betty is struck by a car, Murphy gets her to a veterinarian before she dies, and learns there that the dog also suffers from cancer.   But even at the rate offered by a good-hearted animal doctor like this one, it will take $15,000 worth of medical attention to extend Betty’s life.  Murphy – a man who only ever keeps money in his pocket until he can spend it at the liquor store – promises to raise the cash needed to save his dog’s life.  The vet can only allow him one week to do it.
Eric Coyote

Our homeless detective soon realizes that his only chance to get the job done is the $25,000 reward being offered for information that will identify a murderer local police desperately want to find.  So, mostly sober by day, but wildly drunk by night, Murphy and his pals begin pulling on a few loose threads to see where they might lead.  Let the fireworks begin.

The mystery element of The Long Drunk, however, is probably not what most of the novel’s readers will remember longest about it.  They are more likely to be intrigued by what Coyote reveals about the rather unique lifestyle of California’s homeless, and the personal and community loyalties that evolve within the culture.  In this noirish world, so much high-quality food is being thrown out by Venice’s restaurants and high-end groceries that Murphy and his friends can afford to be a little picky about what they eat.  They might get by on the cheapest rotgut they can get, but come dinner time they discuss various cheeses, salad dressings, and desserts as if they eat their meals inside gourmet restaurants, not near the dumpsters behind the buildings. 
But, believe it or not, at its heart The Long Drunk is a love story, a tale about the pure love of a man and his dog for each other – and it’s a rather beautiful story, at that.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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My Weird Game Day Injury

Pre-game Unveiling of Last Season’s Championship Banner

This is one of my favorite days of the year – first day that the NFL gets back to a full schedule of games.  I headed out to the Houston Texans game this morning with high hopes and expectations, along with a little fear about what key injuries could do to this team.  Injuries killed the Texans last year and fans know that over the course of a 16-game season they are going to happen.  You just hold your breath until they do.

Well, I never expected to be the one injured today – in my first game of the season.

The Texans use some waist-high concrete barriers to guide the crowd from the parking lot into the stadium area.  They are there mainly to keep people from clogging up the lanes of vehicle traffic that are filtering into the parking area.  The problem is that the barriers are so randomly placed that you can find yourself walking into one if you are not paying attention to the people directly in front of you.  Today as we approached one set of the barriers the man next to me suddenly veered in my direction when he discovered that he was about to walk directly into a solid hunk of unmovable concrete.

In the process of avoiding the barrier, he managed to step directly on the side of my right foot, trapping it between the concrete and his own foot.  As I tumbled to the sidewalk, my foot remained trapped against the concrete and I wrenched it on the way down – and scraped a 4-inch by 8-inch patch of hide off the inside of my right arm as I slammed into the edge of the barrier.

I managed to make it all the way through the game and the long walk back to the car (even tolerated a half-time performance by Billy Ray Cyrus) – but one emergency room visit later I am now in a walking cast, have had a tetanus shot, and I’m sitting here with my injured foot elevated while wondering how I’m possibly going to make it to my desk in the morning.

But, hey, we beat Miami 30-10 and don’t play at home next week…plenty of time for me to recover.