Book Chase: 2012 By the Numbers

Another calendar year is in the books and in just three weeks, I will mark the completion of six years of Book Chase – and I can honestly say that I’m looking forward to Year Seven with as much excitement as I felt on day one (January 20, 2007).  Because I retired from the rat race three days ago, I should have more free time to devote to the things I most love doing.  How that will affect Book Chase is anyone’s guess, but I can’t wait to find out.

I always enjoy looking at the year-end numbers because they bring back lots of good memories.  So here goes:
Number of Books Read – 134
Fiction – 102:
Novels – 94
Short Story Collections – 8
Nonfiction – 32:
Memoirs – 12
Biographies – 5
Books on Books- 2
Business – 2
Travel – 2
Other- 5
Sports – 1
Science – 1
History – 2
Written by Men – 91
Written by Women – 40
Co-Authored by Both – 3
Audio Books – 5
E-Books – 10
Library Books – 39
Review Copies – 87
Started but Abandoned – 9
Translated: 5
Pages per Day: 110
Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 40,200 
And now, it’s on to 2013.

Book Trailer of the Week – Ken Bruen’s "White Trilogy"

I have been fascinated by Ken Bruen, both the man and his books, for a few years now, so I’m really happy to see that some of his earlier work is being re-published for those of us that were a little late getting to Ken.  And, that leads me to what will be my final 2012 Book Trailer of the Week.  The video I’ve embedded here is part of an announcement from Mysterious Press about the publisher’s decision to bring back Bruen’s “White Trilogy.”

Ken Bruen, known as the “Father of Irish Crime Fiction,” captures the tone of his books perfectly when he says that he believes in “dancing on the Titanic.”  He and his characters always manage to find some humor in even the bleakest moments of despair (maybe that’s an Irish thing), so I can easily imagine that the author would indeed have danced on the decks of the Titanic right up to the final moments.  Check this out:

  (17th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase)

March Madness for Book Lovers

Now this is my kind of “March Madness.”

It won’t be long before the 9th Annual Morning News Tournament of Books kicks off.  If you are unfamiliar with the rules and set-up of the competition, take a look here, and put this one on your March calendar.  It’s fun, you meet some great new book people, learn about some fiction you may be in danger of letting slip through the cracks, and you get an opportunity to contribute your own thoughts along the way.

I enjoyed following along the last couple of years, and I’m looking forward to the 2013 competition, even though I’ve only read two of the 16 books that will be going head-to-head this year.  I’m familiar with several others on the Short List – and I have to admit that I’m surprised at some of the titles that were culled from the Long List to arrive at this “Sweet Sixteen.”

Half-Blood Blues

By the time I finally picked up a copy of Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s novel already had quite a reputation going for it, the result of having won Canada’s Giller prize and having been a short-listed candidate for Britain’s Booker Prize.  I am happy to report that this story of three black jazz musicians, who find themselves trapped in Paris when Hitler’s Nazis overrun the city, largely lives up to that reputation – except for maybe a quibble or two I will mention later.
Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones have known each other forever.  The two grew up together in Baltimore where they honed their musical talents to so a high level – Sid on base and Chip on drums – that they would become popular in Berlin as the core of a jazz band they called the Hot-Time Swingers.  But they really hit the big time when they add trumpeter Hieronymous Falk to the mix.  Hiero, a mixed-race German, is so special a talent that he catches the attention of one Louis Armstrong – who invites the band to join him in Paris to cut a record.
The tough decision to shut things down in Berlin is made easy for the band when Hitler labels jazz as “degenerate music” and bans public performances of it.  When the Hot Swingers, including its German members, realize that more than their mere livelihood is at stake, the scramble is on to find papers good enough to get them across the border and on their way to Paris.  Little do they know it, but Hitler’s army is not all that far behind them.
Sid Griffiths, the book’s narrator, tells this intriguing story from the perspective of just over fifty years in the future.  Sid and Chip are old men living in 1992 Baltimore with plans to attend the imminent Berlin debut of a documentary film honoring the now legendary jazz trumpeter Hiero Falk.  Hiero, caught in a Nazi roundup of “undesirables,” has not been heard from since the day of his arrest and is presumed to have died in a Nazi death camp.  The mystery surrounding his arrest, details of which only Sid knows, have turned Hiero into the kind of musical legend that only dying young can do for a musician. 
Esi Edugyan
But Sid knows the whole story, and even though the truth is still eating at his soul, he does not really expect, or want, to go public with it.  Surprise, surprise, Sid.
Esi Edugyan has Sid speak in the vernacular of jazz musicians of the thirties.  While this initially slows the reader down, once the speech pattern becomes familiar, this technique gives Half-Blood Blues a feeling of authenticity it otherwise would not have had.  This does, however, bring me to my first “quibble.”  When Sid is thinking out loud for the reader, he sounds nothing like he does in conversation with his friends – even in 1992 – and that is sometimes a little jarring to the reader’s ear.
 But more importantly, the book’s ending does not quite measure up to the hugely dramatic build-up leading to it.  Perhaps unrealistically, I was hoping for more.  I did, however, still very much enjoy this one, and I suspect that I will be thinking about it for a good while, so if you like WWII history from a civilian point-of-view, you will likely love Half-Blood Blues.  Esi Edugyan is most certainly a talent to be watched.

Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year

By the middle of 1863, it was obvious to most observers that the Confederacy was doomed; it was only a matter of time.  If the North could just find the will to keep fighting, the Union would survive.  But only eighteen months earlier, the outcome had been very much in doubt, and were it not for the particular talents of one man, things might have turned out very differently.  As often seems to have happened throughout history, the right man was in the right place just when he was most needed: Abraham Lincoln was in the White House.
Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year is David Von Drehle’s account of how Lincoln, during 1862, evolved into exactly the leader the United States so desperately needed if the Union were to win the Civil War.   The book offers a month-by-month account of the challenges faced by a President in command of an army led by one incompetent general after the other.  Von Drehle makes a strong case that if Lincoln had not been up to the challenges of 1862, the military successes of 1863 may never have happened because it could very well have already been to late by then.
Lincoln’s first task was to build an army almost from scratch.  The military was unprepared to fight a war of the scale of the one it now faced, and the thousands of newly recruited soldiers depended on a handful of experienced officers (thanks to the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848) to get them ready for combat.  By 1862, Lincoln expected his army to be the aggressor, but he had little luck in finding a commanding general capable of taking the fight to the enemy.  That he allowed the incompetent egomaniac George McClellan to keep overall command of the Union army for as long as he did was, perhaps, Lincoln’s biggest failure.  But by the end of 1862, when he had finally ridded himself of the insubordinate little man, it was obvious that Lincoln had solidly redefined his role as Commander-in-Chief – and that he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to win the war.
David Von Drehle
Incompetent generals with no game plan were not Lincoln’s only problem.  The civilian population of the North did not seem to have any more of a will to fight, or confidence in ultimate victory, than most of his generals had.  His cabinet was, by Lincoln’s choice, filled with political rivals with agendas of their own.  And in addition to his political problems, the president had to overcome the great personal grief of losing a son to typhoid, and had to endure the erratic, often embarrassing, behavior of his wife as she tried to cope with the same loss.  Not a moment of peace, would this president know.
But, endure it, he did, and in the process, Lincoln would claim his place in history as one of the greatest leaders, especially in time of war, that the world has ever seen.  David Von Drehle’s account of the year Abraham Lincoln “invented the modern presidency” is a fascinating one that now has a permanent home on my bookshelves.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

As 2013 Fast Approaches

This is the time of year when most folks pause for a moment to contemplate the year just completed and  the new one fast approaching.  Sadly, if what I recall is correct, it is also the time of year during which more people are overwhelmed by despair and loneliness than at any other time of year.  With all the stress on family, happiness, and spending associated with the whole holiday season, it is easy enough to understand why this happens.

Too a much less tragic degree, this year I am even seeing it happen in the book blogging community we all share.  In the last week, I’ve seen notices from three book-bloggers that they are shutting things down for good – after periods of six, three, and seven years of sharing their love of books with the rest of us.  Two of them even shut down comments so that no one could try to talk them out of quitting or even say goodbye, a decision I find kind of sad.

Believe me, guys, I understand why you’re doing it.  As much as we love what we do with our blogging, it does have a way of taking over one’s life.  I sometimes find myself scheduling the rest of my week around the time I need to spend on my blog posts and reviews.  Even though all the stress is self-induced, stress by any other name is still stress.  I get it.  I doubt there is a book blogger out there that has not, at one time or another, considered shutting things down.  I know that I have…more than once.  But I keep coming back, and Book Chase turns six years old on January 20, 2013.

I do think I’m going to have to take a slightly different approach, though, if I’m going to get the most out of blogging next year.  At least for a while, I’m going to be more selective than ever (and I was already pretty damned selective) about the books I take on for reviews.  I’m the kind of guy who reads every word of a book I review – and I strive to review every book I receive.  Don’t get me wrong, I love doing it, and my main goal has always been to spread the word about as many books as possible.  I hate, absolutely hate, the thought of good books just slipping through the cracks of a world dominated by the kind of trash that dominates today’s bestseller lists.

But it all takes time – and I want to spend some of that time re-reading some of my old favorites, along with new work from authors I love most.  My taste has definitely changed (I like to think it has grown) over the years, and I need, if I am going to stay enthusiastic about my reading, to concentrate on  the kind of reading that still excites me.  Too, I’ve promised myself for a long time that I was going to go back and read some of my favorite series all over again, one-by-one.  I’m starting on one of those series tonight, in fact: James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books.  There are something like 19 in the series, and my first edition copy of book one, The Neon Rain sits on my desk right now, just waiting for me.

So, here’s to a fresh start in 2013.  Hang in with me if you can.  There are likely to be fewer new books mentioned next year, but I really want to share with you the books that I love, and have loved most for a long, long time.  Thanks for being here.

Merry Christmas, Book Lovers

Even Santa enjoys a good book now and then.

Here’s hoping everyone has a wonderful Christmas with family and friends.  Stay safe and warm.

The weather here in the Houston area is fairly miserable for the second year in a row.  We had a loud mid-morning thunder storm, lots of wind, and the temperature will drop almost forty degrees when the sun goes down this evening (that’s only into the low thirties, however).

I hope you get (and give) lots of books and bookstore gift cards for Christmas because, of course, we all need more books.

Merry Christmas.

James Baldwin’s "Sonny’s Blues"

I picked up my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories again this afternoon and, after flipping through it for a minute or two, settled on the 31-page short story “Sonny’s Blues.”  James Baldwin wrote this one…and, I’m strictly guessing here…sometime in the late fifties, and it is a beautifully written experience for the reader.

Frankly, it caught me a bit by surprise.  I was initially unimpressed with what seemed to be a straightforward account by a Harlem man of his younger brother’s arrest and imprisonment for using and selling heroin.  It is the classic story of two brothers, one who works hard to make something of himself, the other who succumbs to the temptations of the neighborhood streets.  Nothing new, there.

James Baldwin

But very subtly, the story shifts to one about a man’s addiction to music and his sadness that his brother will never understand how much music means to him and to those that share his addiction.  Sonny knows that his older brother will never understand their relationship, or him, unless he finally hears music the way Sonny feels it as he plays it.

The moving part of this story has nothing to do with the musician’s struggle to stay clean or with the older brother’s attempts to help him through that pain.  (In fact, the saddest thing about “Sonny’s Blues” is that, despite the troubled Harlem neighborhood Baldwin describes, the story reads more like a description of the last days of a golden age for black families…a far more innocent time.)  No, the moving (and most beautiful) part of the story is Baldwin’s description of Sonny’s performance in a jazz club, during which the story’s narrator finally understands his brother, through having truly felt the music for the first time in his life.

Every musician should read this one because the last two pages of it are very special – James Baldwin got it, and he expresses it here as only a great writer could have done.  Powerful stuff.

Little Wolves

Little Wolves is a tough novel to explain.  I understand why some people do not like to see the word “literary” used to describe a novel type but, for lack of a better word, I am going take the notion one step farther and will call this one “literary crime fiction” – or “literary thriller.”  That is exactly what Little Wolves is: a character and setting-driven novel with a plot encompassing elements of both the mystery and thriller genres.  It has an exciting story to tell, and it tells it in literary fashion.
Lone Mountain is one of those 1980s Minnesota prairie towns in which everyone pretty much knows the business of everyone else, a place where personal grudges are sometimes carried for decades, and even passed from one generation to the next.  And when, shortly after the arrival of a new pastor and his wife, the town is shocked by the shotgun murder of Sheriff Will Gunderson by a local teen, a violent chain of events is unleashed that will finally expose the ugly core of this little community. 
As Grizz Fallon, the young murderer’s father, tries to make sense of what his son has done, he learns how little he really knew about what was going on in the boy’s day-to-day world.  But the more he discovers about his son and what drove him to kill, the more resistance Grizz gets from the remaining town sheriff, a man who has had it in for Grizz for a long time.  Grizz, though, believes that he failed his son and, despite being warned to mind his own business, he will not rest until he knows the truth about what happened on that bloody morning.
Thomas Maltman
Grizz is not the only one feeling guilty.  Clara Warren, the new preacher’s wife, now believes she could have prevented the shooting if only she had had the courage necessary to do so.  Clara, who has a strange personal connection to the town, encouraged her husband to take the Lone Mountain job for reasons she has not been entirely honest with her husband about.  But the more she learns about her past, and its connections to the present, the closer she comes to cracking from all the pressure.
Thomas Maltman has written a complicated novel, one that can be read and enjoyed on several levels.  The novel has the kind of action that most pleases thriller fans, and the mystery at its core is an intriguing one.  Even better, it is filled with well-developed characters (of the hard-to-like, but easy-to-understand variety) and a complicated set of dual plots (filled with literary references) that tie together beautifully at the end. 
Now that I think about it, maybe I should have called it a “literary page-turner.”  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Best Books of 2012

2012 was another good year for readers, one in which many of our favorite authors produced new books while fresh new voices got our attention with wonderful debut novels and short story collections of their own.  It was also a year during which the memoir genre remained very hot and new takes were offered on some of history’s greatest figures.  Even though I neglected nonfiction titles a bit this year, I believe that my nonfiction list is one of the strongest ones I’ve had in my six years of producing year-end Top Tens.

Best Fiction of 2012

  1. Edge of Dark Water – Joe Lansdale (This redneck river adventure is like reading something written by a Mark Twain on steroids.  Not for the faint of heart…and that is a really good thing.
  2. The Angel Makers – Jessica Gregson (World War II fiction with an interesting twist about wives who have finally had enough from their abusive husbands.  I still think about this one sometimes.)
  3. Heading Out to Wonderful – Robert Goolrick (Sometimes “wonderful” is not good enough, as two star-crossed lovers learn the hard way.  I love the setting and atmosphere of this haunting novel.)
  4. The Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam (A Saigon schoolmaster gambles with his son’s future as the city falls to its North Vietnamese invaders.  Really captures the mood of the times.)
  5. The Solitary House – Lynn Shepherd (Dickens fans will feel right at home in this London setting and will even recognize a few Dickens characters doing their thing…lots of fun.)
  6. The Round House – Louise Erdrich (2012 National Book Award Winner, a coming-of-age novel in which a boy comes of age while his parents are themselves aging under very traumatic circumstances.)
  7. Canada – Richard Ford (Sometimes crossing a border, be it an emotional or a national one, does mean you can never go home again – if you ever had a home to begin with.)
  8. The World without You – Joshua Henkin (An emotional Fourth of July weekend during which a family gathers to mourn a lost son, brother, and husband – and learns that the family can never again be the way it was.
  9. The Beautiful Mystery – Louise Penny (Set in a remote Canadian monastery, this is a takeoff on the classic locked-door mystery structure in which a limited number of characters could have actually committed a murder – atmospheric and entertaining.)
  10. Malena – Edgardo David Holzman (The world sat back and watched Argentina nearly destroy itself.  Holzman puts a face on a handful of the “disappeared” and makes us wonder how we could have let this happen.)
Best Nonfiction of 2012
  1. The One – R. J. Smith (Soul singing pioneer James Brown lived a very publicly self-destructive life, so we think we know all about him.  Well, here’s the rest of the story…all of it.)
  2. Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year – David Bon Drehle (1862 was a make-or-break year in American history, and thanks in large part to the personal efforts and skills of one man, the country managed to survive.  A permanent addition to my shelves)
  3. Game Over – Bill Moushy and Bob Dvorchak (The Penn State child-rape scandal was every bit as bad as you feared it was – and much worse.  You won’t believe what some “good people” did to cover this one up while more boys were being molested on campus.)
  4. Private Empire – Steve Coll (A frank and detailed history of the corporate evolution of Big Oil’s ExxonMobil, this is a fair a representation of Big Oil as I have seen in a long time.)
  5. Mr. Churchill’s Profession – Peter Clarke (Few people realize how dependent Churchill was on the revenue earned from his books.  Very interesting book that approaches the famous politician from a whole new angle.)
  6. Wild – Cheryl Strayed (One woman’s walk-for-her-life, and one of 2012’s best selling memoirs. A very frank look at one woman’s life…a woman who is quite a writer, as it turns out.
  7. The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe (Another 2012 bestseller – a man and his mother talk books as a way of making it through the final months of her cancer illness.  Book lovers will understand this one on several levels, I think.)
  8. Visiting Tom – Michael Perry (Everyone should be lucky enough to have neighbors like Tom and his wife.  Tom, one of the most patient men imaginable, shares his learned wisdom with Perry and the rest of us.)
  9. Holy Ghost Girl – Donna M. Johnson (An insider’s look from a woman who grew up on the road as her mother followed a traveling tent-preacher from town to town.  A whole new world.)
  10. Elsewhere – Richard Russo (More about Russo’s mother than it is about him, a relationship that dominated Russo’s life from childhood to the moment his mother died.  Surprising.)
(Only books published between October 1, 2011 and December 15, 2012 were considered for these lists.  Most previous lists were based on what I read during the calendar year, regardless of publication date.  I will be following this more traditional approach from now on.)

Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books

With one exception, Book Finds is an excellent reference for aspiring book collector/dealers and a good review for collectors who might be returning to the hobby after an absence of a few years.  The notable exception is the author’s limited handling of the multitude of online resources available to today’s serious collector.  (I am working with the book’s 2001 second edition, and there is a 2006 third edition that might be more complete in this area).  However, because of the rapid pace at which things change on the Internet, the author’s decision to present the information in summary fashion is probably as good as any.
But there is a lot more to Book Finds – and much of the information presented in the book is timeless.  Book Finds includes chapters covering “edition, condition, and scarcity;” the scouting of books; auctions and catalogs; collectible authors; collecting trends; signed vs. unsigned books; acceptable book repairs; safe ways to clean books; and dealing vs. collecting.  Depending on one’s previous experience, some of these chapters, particularly the ones regarding edition-identification and condition, have the potential of saving the reader a lot of money.
Five rules, according to Ellis, are the “glue that holds the process together,” and the new book collector or dealer will be wise to master each of them:
1.     “Specialization” – no one can know everything.
2.     “Condition” – when it comes to value, nothing is more important than condition
3.     “The Rule of Three” – “A book has to be worth three times what you just paid for it in order to make a profit on it.”
4.     “Keep Looking” – “Anything can be anywhere.” (attributed by the author to Larry McMurtry)
5.     “Trading” – “Never pay cash for a book when you can trade for it instead.”
Book Finds also includes an appendix, in alphabetical order, by publisher, showing how to recognize each publisher’s method of designating a book’s first edition.  While the appendix is far from being complete, the major publishers are included alongside some of the lesser-known publishing houses.  It is a good beginning reference that, for the more serious collector, can be supplemented by standalone volumes on the same subject.
Also interesting is the book’s final chapter, “1,001 (More or Less) Collectible – and Findable – Books.”  The list, more than a decade old now, is a fascinating look at which authors were hot at the turn of the new century, which others were expected to join them, and how easy it is to be wrong about collecting trends. 
These are interesting times for book lovers.  E-books threaten to replace tree-books, authors are self-publishing both in virtual and in print format, major publishers are struggling to find a business model that makes sense, and bookstores are disappearing as fast as record stores did in the early years of the century (and we all know how that saga ended).  Book Finds should help new book collector/dealers make sense of it all – and to make a little profit while they have a whole lot of fun.

Top 25 Best Selling Books of All Time

That the reliability of articles and statistics found on Wikipedia are a bit questionable will be our starting point, the “given” of this little exercise.  That said, I think some interesting “truths” can be gleaned from the site’s list of all-time bestselling books.

Do keep in mind that the list makes a distinction between “most published and distributed” and “best selling.”  That eliminates contenders like the Bible, the Qur’an, and Quotations from Chairman Mao.  Too, sales figures for individual Harry Potter and Twilight books are, for some reason, said to be so unreliable that they are not included in the list (although the Potter series is estimated to have sold more than 450 million copies in total, and the Twilight series, some 116 million copies).

If we accept these standards, the best selling single-volume books of all-time are said to be:

  1. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens – 1859 – 200 million copies +
  2. Le Petit Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery – 1943 – 200 million
  3. The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien – 1954-1955 – 150 million
  4. The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien – 1937 – 100 million
  5. Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao Xuequin – 1754 – 100 million
  6. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie – 1939 – 100 million
  7. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis – 1950 – 85 million
  8. SheH. Rider Haggard – 1887 – 83 million
  9. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown – 2003 – 80 million
  10. Think and Grow Rich – Napoleon Hill – 1937 – 70 million
  11. The Catcher in the RyeJ. D. Salinger – 1951 – 65 million
  12. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho – 1988 – 65 million
  13. Steps to Christ – Ellen G. White – 1892 – 60 million
  14. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov – 1955 – 60 million
  15. Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning – Johanna Spyri – 1955 – 50 million
  16. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care – Dr. Benjamin Spock – 50 million
  17. Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maude Montgomery – 1908 – 50 million
  18. Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse – Anna Sewell – 50 million
  19. The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco – 1980 – 50 million
  20. The Eagle Has Landed – Jack Higgins – 1975 – 50 million
  21. Watership Down – Richard Adams – 1973 – 50 million
  22. The Hite Report – Shere Hite – 1976 – 48 million
  23. Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White – 1952 – 45 million
  24. The Ginger Man – J. P. Donleavy – 1955 – 45 million
  25. The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter – 1902 – 45 million
A few things immediately jump out at me:
  1. Being originally published in the English language is a huge advantage (as 20 of the top 25 were),
  2. But one book each in French, German, Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese cracked the top 25,
  3. Children and YA books are quite well represented,
  4. Quality is not required for a book to become a massive bestseller (as in, The Da Vinci Code and She),
  5. Dr. Spock and Shere Hite made the list with “medical” books,
  6. The only religious book to make the list was published way back in 1892, and
  7. I doubt that some of these books are being much read at all these days.
Interestingly, just out of the top 25 are books like: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Angels and Demons, and Valley of the Dolls (God, help us, I kid you not on these three) and War and Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird.

As you can see from the ballpark-sized rounding off of these numbers, lots of books are grouped together and are really impossible to rank.  But I do suspect that the rankings shown are relatively correct.
Any thoughts?

This Is How You Lose Her

Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, a nine-story collection, is the author’s follow-up to his 2008 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Seven of the stories were first published in The New Yorker between February 1998 and July 2012, one in Glimmer Train in 1998, and another in Story in 1999.
Reading these stories in the order in which they are presented here, one after the other, will be a greatly different experience than that had by those who read them over the fourteen-year period during which they first appeared in print.  This Is How You Lose Her, in fact, reads more like a novel than it does a short story collection.  This is because all of the stories, although they flip back and forth between segments of his life, feature the same central character already familiar to readers of Díaz’s two previous books.  Yunior, a young Dominican, along with his mother and older brother, came to the United States when he was just a boy, and these stories, in addition to telling how Yunior got here, detail what happened to him once he did.   
Be forewarned that these stories, insightful as they often are, are written in a raw, sometimes outrageous, style.  Díaz writes in a Hispanic street vernacular that sees him often mixing Spanish words into his sentences.  And, even though entire sentences are sometimes presented in Spanish, Díaz leaves it up to non-Spanish speaking readers to figure out what he is saying based on the context of the rest of the paragraph.  But that is the least of it.
Junot Diaz
Yunior is a womanizer, and he comes by it naturally.  His father, although not a constant in Yunior’s life, set the pattern for that lifestyle early on, leaving Yunior to learn all the moves by watching his older brother in action.  His is the kind of macho culture in which women are primarily objects to be sexually exploited, and Yunior describes in explicit terms what he gets from the women who briefly pass through his life. 
Some might find Yunior’s language offensive, but it is exactly this style and language that make Díaz’s stories as powerful and effective as they are.  However, one does begin to wonder how long such a distinctive style can be mined before it goes stale for the reader.  Even though this is my first experience with Junot Díaz’s work, I already wonder how much more of it I can read before the style becomes tiresome.  Díaz is definitely on my radar now, but I am more likely to wait for something new from him written in a different voice than I am to seek out either of his two earlier books.
This Is How You Lose Her is a book about heartbreak – and the very macho central character, surprisingly enough, suffers much of it himself.

In Between Days

Although he is already a prize-winning short story writer (a 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction and a story included in the 2008 Pushcart Prize anthology), In Between Days is Andrew Porter’s first novel.  I was originally drawn to the novel because of its Houston setting but, frankly, setting is not the book’s strong suit.  Other than dropping a few street names, restaurants, and the like into the mix, Porter really does not create much of a sense of what the city is like – In Between Days might be happening in any large American city. 
Porter’s plot, though, is an interesting one.  Part character study, part coming-of-age novel, it is the story of the four-member Harding family, a family stretched to its breaking point long before the event that finally threatened to shatter it once and for all.  As the book’s opening sentence reveals, Elson and Cadence Harding have recently divorced, a status to which neither of them have adapted particularly well.  Elson, once one of Houston’s hottest young architects, has become a disappointment both to himself and to his employers.  Cadence, struggling to find new direction, is taking college business classes and sleeping with one of her professors. 
Andrew Porter
Their son, already a college graduate, is still living at home with his mother and working a dead end coffee shop job while he considers his future.  His father did not react well to the recent disclosure that Richard is homosexual, and their relationship has been severely strained ever since Richard broke the news.  Chloe, Richard’s younger sister, was attending an east coast college when she learned that her parents had separated.  Now she has been kicked out of school, and is accused of being part of something so serious that she refuses to discuss it with her parents.  Only when private detectives show up at her Houston home, do Chloe’s parents begin to realize what kind of trouble she really might be in.
In Between Days is a story about relationships, trust, and the difficulty of ever going home again once a certain emotional line has been crossed.  The Hardings are in a “between times” period during which the courses of the rest of their individual lives will be determined.  They are somewhere between being the strong family they once were and forever splintering into four very separate lives, and all bets are off as to where each will end up as they struggle with the thought of a future that scares them to death.
Is a happy ending in store for them?  Depends on whom you ask, but I’m not certain that even the Hardings are sure how to answer that one.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

I’ve been dipping every so often into the new Oxford Book of American Short Stories (second edition) ever since I got my hands on an early copy a few weeks ago, and I continue to find one gem after the other.  This is a massive paperback of 873 pages and 60 short stories written by the early masters of the genre and those who have carried the tradition on into this century.  Lovecraft, Poe, Twain, Faulkner, and Hemingway are in the mix alongside writers like Updike, Malamud, Cheever, and Joyce Carol Oates.  Throw in writers like King, Erdrich, Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz and you can watch the American short story evolve over more than two centuries.

Fans of Joyce Carol Oates, among whom I count myself, will be pleased to see that Ms. Oates has contributed both a short story and an introduction to this edition of the collection.  And, as she puts it in that introduction:

“Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically.  A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American.”

Mostly because I’ve so much enjoyed reading the writers in the collection least familiar to me, I haven’t followed her advice so far.  However, a quick look at the table of contents makes it easier to understand what Oates is saying.  The stories are presented in the order of each author’s birth year, from oldest to most contemporary – in this instance, from Washington Irving in 1783 through Junot Diaz in 1968.   Readers making their way through all sixty stories in near-chronological order this way will gain a new perspective on the evolution of American culture over the last two centuries.

This evening I read Junot Diaz’s “Edison, New Jersey” and Bernard Malamud’s “My Son the Murderer,” two very different voices from different eras whose stories happened not all that far from each other.    I have no idea where I’ll go next…and, for me, that’s half the fun.  It is obvious that Oates put a lot of thought into choosing these stories, none of which will be found in the first edition of American Short Stories.  Some are familiar “classics,” some have largely been forgotten for decades, and others are being introduced for the first time to the larger audience they deserve.

Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is one of those deceiving novels in which, for page after page, nothing much seems to be happening until enough small pieces suddenly fit together to reveal another segment of the puzzle.   And, in the meantime, the main players are, bit by bit, turning into real flesh and blood people whose lives outside the pages of the books are easily imagined.  Serena Frome, who supplies the narrative voice of Sweet Tooth, is one such character.
It is 1972 and Serena, bright as she is, knows that even her superior Cambridge education will not guarantee her a spot on a career path she deserves.  The corporate and academic worlds of 1972 Britain are, after all, still very much dominated by men, so her employment options are limited.  But during this Cold War period, British Intelligence sees Cambridge as an important source of new recruits to the service and, when she is “tapped on the shoulder” by a professor/lover who identifies candidates for MI5, Serena accepts the resulting job offer.  
She has no idea what to expect next, or even an inkling of how drastically this one decision will impact the rest of her life.  Now, after the passage of almost four decades, she begins her story in the book’s opening paragraph this way:
            “My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service.  I didn’t return safely.  Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.” 
In the last sentences of the first chapter, speaking of her lover, Serena offers another hint of what is to follow:
            “His case was more complex and sadder than anyone knew.  He would change my life and behave with selfless cruelty as he prepared to set out on a journey with no hope of return.  If I know so little about him even now, it’s because I accompanied him only a very small part of the way.”  
Photo Credit: Annalena McAfee
Serena Frome, as it turns out, is as finely crafted a fictional character as one could hope to find.  She is certainly not easy to like, but she is easy to understand; she can be frustratingly boring one moment, and be taking stupid chances with her future the next; and she is as likely to let her innate intelligence be neutralized by her equally innate naiveté as the other way around.  She is, in other words, human. 
Above all else, however, readers will probably remember Sweet Tooth because of its ending, one likely either to infuriate them or to leave them smiling in admiration – one or the other.  Sweet Tooth is so much more than the sum of its parts that, as I expected from already being a fan of McEwan’s previous novels, I find myself in the “smiling with admiration” camp.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Open Yale Courses – "The American Novel Since 1945"

I’ve long dreamed of living in some university town where I would be within walking distance of a school that encouraged people like me to monitor lectures and classes that appealed to them.  In my case, these would most often be in the areas of  world literature and American history.  Houston is home to several good schools (Rice University, The University of Houston, St. Thomas University, among them) but none of them are easy for me to get to  – nor, as far as I know, do they allow casual monitoring of even their largest classes.  So, no joy there.

But guess what?  I have discovered that lecturers from the best universities in the world are willing to come to my house to deliver personal lectures free of charge.  No travel expenses, no college fees, and, of course, no college credit.  Materials are suggested, but whether you purchase them is entirely up to you.  Sounds perfect to me because, at this point, I’m not after a degree.  I’m simply looking to have some fun by learning strictly for the sake of learning.

This, for example, is a lecture series from “Open Yale Courses” that I plan to start soon on “The American Novel Since 1945.”  This screen shot provides a course overview and shows the first five lectures of a series of twenty-six.

Click on this screen shot to see a more readable version

Think about this for a minute…twenty-six lectures totaling almost 21 hours of clock-time.  Can you imagine what this would have cost you just a few years ago, or what it would still cost if you took such a class on-campus?  Here’s a link to the complete page for those who want to take a closer look – please do let me know if you decide to listen to some of the lectures and what you think of them.

This is just the smallest tip of a very large free learning iceberg.


Elsewhere is not so much a Richard Russo memoir as it is the author’s frank recounting of life with his mother, a woman for whom he pretty much took responsibility while still in high school.  As Russo puts it in the book’s prologue, “What follows in this memoir – I don’t know what else to call it – is a story of intersections: of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion.  It’s more my mother’s story than mine, but it’s mine, too, because until just a few years ago she was seldom absent from my life.”  The key word in this explanation is “flawed,” because, as Elsewheremakes clear, the author allowed his mother’s undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder largely to define his own existence, even after he married and was raising a family of his own.
As he begins to describe his childhood in Gloversville, New York, readers of his fiction will recognize that the upper state tannery town provides the basic setting of much of Russo’s fiction.  But Gloversville, once a proud producer of high quality leather products, was already in decline by the time Russo’s 1950s childhood began.  By then, automation and cheap foreign labor – along with the negative environmental impact associated with the tanning of leather – was killing both the town and some of its citizens. 
Richard Russo
The anxiety condition that Russo’s mother lived with all her life went undiagnosed.  Everyone around her, including the husband who left her when Richard was just a boy, found her impossible to live with, but more often than not, they wrote off her behavior as just a bad case of “nerves.”  Russo, to his great credit, assumed primary responsibility for his mother from the moment she decided to follow him across the country to Arizona to begin his college career.  This would not be the last time Mrs. Russo changed addresses because her son did.  She would do so for the rest of her life.
One gets the sense from reading Elsewhere (some ideal spot only in his mother’s mind where she could finally live the life she deserved), that Russo still does not realize how great a personal sacrifice he made for her all those years.  He readily admits that, despite all he did for her, he feels that he failed his mother by accepting her condition as an untreatable one – a passive approach, he tells us, that he has taken with no other problem he has ever encountered. 
The bad news here is that Elsewhere is not the memoir most Richard Russo fans were expecting or hoping for; the good news is that this one leaves a lot for Russo to tell in a second memoir.  

A Little Help, Book Chase Readers?

Only 23 days to go.  I officially go on permanent vacation at the stroke of midnight on December 31, and I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to concentrate on in between all the catch-up chores I need to do around the house.  No one will be surprised to learn that it involves books – or that I’m hoping to get some help from you guys.

First question:  do any of you know of a good book database kind of app that works on the iPad?  I’m hoping to finally catalog everything I own, including duplicates, so that I can visit used-book stores with all the data in my hand.  Preferably, the database would include fields for cover images and “comments” that I might want to make regarding different printings or editions of the same book.

I downloaded a trial version of iBookshelf this morning, and I’ve entered a couple books just to get the feel for it.  It does seem to do most of what I’m looking for in a book app, but I don’t want to miss out on something better if I decide to upgrade to the paid version.

Second question:  I’m looking for suggestions on used-book stores in the immediate Houston area, say within 100 miles, or so, of the city.  In particular, I’m looking for stores that specialize in Modern First Editions (1940-to present, in my case) and has both a decent selection and a steady inventory turnover.  As you can imagine, I’m hoping to find stores with a little personality owned by real book-lovers willing to deal with people like me.  Over the last 30 years, I’ve accumulated quite a view duplicates – most of which have been largely untouched since I purchased them – and I’m hoping to trade them for store credits or sell them outright, where possible.

I keep most of my books in a climate-controlled storage facility and I need to reassess my need for the unit.  At this point, I might need more space – or less – depending, on how things work out over the next few months.  The good news is that the books look as good as they did on the day I put them away – and many of them were purchased brand new because I had a hunch about that they would be worth putting aside for a decade or two.

I just wish I had had more cash back then, because unloading some of them is going to be an interesting, if long, process.  And I can’t imagine a better way to ease into what some people insist on calling “retirement.”