Dumping Books on Colorado Hwy 287? Cut It Out…

Colorado Hwy 287 at Arapahoe (near spots the books are dumped)

Here’s one for everybody’s “what the hell?” files.

It seems that someone has been regularly dumping small loads of books (about 50 at a time) on the median of one Colorado highway.  Needless to say, officials there, especially those in charge of the cleanup required, are not happy about this WTH development.

Details come from Tampa Bay’s Channel 10 News:

Since December, workers for CDOT have collected 300 books from the median – anywhere from 25 to 50 at a time. Fiel says not only is it dangerous, but it’s frustrating.
“Sending guys out there in the middle of the median is a safety issue,” he said. “These guys have more important things to do.”
At first, it was romance paperbacks. Now, on the tenth mission to clean up the dropped debris, crews have found a hodge-podge of different titles.
“It’s one of those things, it’s very frustrating,” Fiel said.

So it sounds as if nine of the ten loads dumped have consisted of “romance paperbacks,” and that…no, I’d better not go there.

Einstein’s Beach House

Every so often, a book seems to come out of nowhere to surprise me with the sheer fun of reading it.  Jacob Appel’s Einstein’s Beach House is one of those books.  And, as is usually the case when this kind of thing happens, a big part of the surprise is that Einstein’s Beach House is by an author whose work I was completely unaware of less than two months ago. 
Einstein’s Beach Houseis a collection of eight short stories, including the title story, that are about people dealing with bizarre situations, situations sometimes of their own making and sometimes created by people close to them.  But in either case, the narrators of Appel’s stories generally come away from their experiences with more self-awareness than they had going in  – an achievement that, unfortunately, does not always work to their advantage. 
The stories are about mind games, as in the way people justify missteps to themselves and in the way that others seek to manipulate them for their own purposes.  These are stories about men whose girlfriends “adopt” exotic animals and treat them as beloved children; stories about sex offenders and serial killers; and stories about more normal experiences like having a crush on the older girl who lives across the street, or being taken advantage of by a mooching, favor-seeking old boyfriend.  But as different as the plots of the stories are, they have one thing in common.  All of them are fun to read. 
Jacob M. Appel
If I were forced to choose a favorite story from the collection, it would have to be the one titled “Paracosmos,” about a young couple extremely worried about their daughter’s infatuation with her imaginary friend.  Neither the little girl’s mother, nor her father, could have possibly foreseen the peculiar consequences of convincing her to give up that imaginary friend, but the best thing about reading “Paracosmos” is that the reader will be every bit as surprised as they are.
I see that Wikipedia describes Jacob Appel as “…an American author, bioethicist, physician, lawyer and social critic.”  Who better qualified to write stories about “mind games” than a man with that background? 

I’ll say it again.  This one is fun.

Borderlands Books Will Survive, After All

San Francisco’s Borderlands Books has some good news to share with his loyal customer base: the store is not going to have to shut its doors, after all.  

You might remember that, on February 3, I posted the news that the longtime bookstore was being forced out of business because of that city’s dramatic rise in the minimum wage.  Although the news saddened readers across the country, if not across the world, it looked like a done deal.  

But then owner Alan Beatts had an idea.  Why not try to sell $100 member sponsorships in Borderlands Books?  Beatts figured he needed 300 people to sign on if the idea were to work…well, according to The Examiner, he is up to 449 sponsors, and counting:

The downpour of contributions began within the first two hours after Beatts blogged about a potential means to save Borderlands. In just that time, Beatts said more than 70 people called in or emailed their support, and the next morning the store was taking calls for most of the day from people interested in becoming sponsors.

“Though it has slowed down quite a bit from this weekend,” Beatts said, “people are still getting in touch.”

The sponsorships include special benefits such as donor-only events, clothing and first access to limited-availability items. For a small fee, Beatts’ adjoining cafe will also be made available after hours for sponsors, he said.

 Honestly, I am not surprised.  Readers, as a group, are special people and they will always jump at the opportunity to save a favorite bookstore.  Particularly intriguing, is the fact that Borderlands now has sponsors in the Netherlands, the U.K., Canada, and Australia.  You just have to love it.

Maya Angelou Forever Stamp to Be Issued

Angelou Stamp Issued by Ghana in 1997

Congratulations are in order for Maya Angelou on the announcement by the United States Postal Service that it will soon be issuing a postage stamp in the author’s honor.  According to the L.A. Times, neither the date of the stamp’s issuance or the image to be used on the stamp have been released at this time.

The article notes that Angelou passed away last year at age 86, and recounts the highlights of her varied career.  It also briefly mentions the traumatic experience that marred her childhood so badly that she was unable to speak for the next five years.

I think it is particularly fitting that an author of Angelou’s stature and accomplishment is being honored with one of this country’s “forever stamps,” because she certainly earned her “forever place” in American literary history.

The Missing Place

Until the recent drop in oil prices, the most exciting thing going on in the oil exploration business was the huge increase in production from places where, just a few years earlier, it had been too expensive even to drill.  But almost overnight, because of a perfect storm combining high oil prices and innovative drilling techniques, much of the state of North Dakota found itself experiencing something akin to the mid-nineteenth century California gold rush days.  Oil patch workers by the thousands moved to North Dakota.  The good news was that wages skyrocketed; jobs were so plentiful that oil companies were desperate to fill them; and some local landowners began to experience wealth beyond their wildest dreams.  The bad news was that that the cost of living in North Dakota also skyrocketed; prostitution increased dramatically; and drug trafficking became a major problem.  In some ways, it was the Wild West all over again.
This is the setting for Sophie Littlefield’s The Missing Place, a novel in which two young men from very different backgrounds come to North Dakota to get a piece of the action.  Both men are looking for alternatives to college, and they figure that the North Dakota oil patch offers the best chance for them to put some real money into their pockets.  And, right up until the day they both disappeared, that’s what happened.  Now their mothers have come to Lawton, North Dakota, to find their sons.
Until they meet in North Dakota, neither woman has any idea that the other exists.  One is a working class woman from California; the other the pampered wife of a prominent Boston attorney.  The only thing the women have in common is that their sons disappeared on the same day and have not been seen since.  It is soon obvious that the women will never be friends, but it is equally obvious to them that no one, neither the oil company employing their sons, nor the local police, is looking for their boys.  If they are to be found, their mothers will have to do it themselves – and it will take both women working together to get the job done.
Sophie Littlefield
Throw into the mix an oil company desperate to hide its high rate of injuries and deaths on the job, a police department that is not at all interested in investigating the disappearance of the men, and a local Indian tribe with an ax to grind of its own, and you have the makings of a nicely plotted crime thriller.  And that is exactly what the first eighty percent or so of The Missing Place is.  The problem with the book is that it does not end with its dramatic, tension-filled climax.  Instead, it continues on until all the personal conflicts between its characters have been resolved.  This effectively takes all the wind out of the book’s sails and it seems to crawl to its final destination.

I do recommend the book to those curious about what it is like to work outdoors in North Dakota in the dead of that state’s harsh winters.  The overall atmosphere of The Missing Place, when combined with the often thrilling search for two young men in way over their heads, makes for exciting reading.  I only wish the author had stopped while she was ahead.

Dog-Sitting, Baseball, and Rude Drivers…Plus a Little Reading

I usually catch up a bit on my sleep on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but it didn’t happen this weekend. I am so drowsy right now that I feel as if someone has drugged my Diet Coke. My wife, both daughters, and granddaughter have been in San Marcos since Friday morning because of the drill team competition that my granddaughter’s high school team participated in there.  That left me and my youngest grandson home alone to babysit my daughter’s dogs…meaning that I had to drive to her house every morning at seven to let them do their thing, and then return at five to feed them and let them run outside again.  I may never recover.

Yesterday also marked the beginning of the youth baseball leagues in the area, and this afternoon I drove out to watch my other grandson’s team play in their first tournament of the season (they lost 11-6).  

Anyway, suddenly the whole weekend is shot, and it seems like all I did was make sure that my grandson and his dogs were fed and watered as needed.  

I did manage to get in a few hours of reading, even finishing one mediocre novel and making good progress on the nonfiction title I’m reading at the moment.  So, there’s that.  And we did make a stop at a “Half-Price Books” bookstore in search of book 7 in a series my grandson is reading…no joy there.  But I stumbled upon another Library of America title I didn’t have and snapped it up for $17.50 (half its cover price).  It’s the complete collection of Dashiel Hammett novels, one of the LOA books I’ve been hoping to find for a while.  I have 75 Library of America titles now and love everything about them.

I’m hoping to start reading one of those longterm residents of my shelves tonight that I posted about a few days ago.  Depending on my mood later this evening, I’ll probably grab either Vonnegut’s Bluebeard or Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.  It’s a toss-up right now.

One last observation: Some people are stupid.  Some people are rude.  But the worst people are the ones who are both rude and stupid.  On the way home a few minutes ago, on a five-lane road (two lanes running each direction and one turning lane in the middle), a guy stayed behind me for almost two miles before suddenly gunning it, passing me, and immediately putting on his turn-indicator to turn right at the intersection fifty yards up the road.  Seriously, fool?  He saved approximately three-quarters of one second, burned a ton of gasoline for no reason, and caused me to have to slow down for nothing.  He is one of the rude, stupid people I refer to, above.

Short Story Saturday: How to Be a Writer

Lorrie Moore

I was listening to a book podcast the other night (one from the U.K., but I can’t remember exactly which it was) where Lorrie Moore was being interviewed at some London event.  What immediately struck me was Moore’s rather quirky sense of humor about herself, her characters, her books, and, well, just life in general.  Even the title of the 1994 book she was being specifically interviewed about was a bit weird: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?  I guarantee you that if I ran across that title on the spine of a book at a local bookstore, the odds are pretty high that I would pick it up for a closer look.

“How to Become a Writer” is one of Moore’s earlier short stories, and it is included in the The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (2012) edited by Joyce Carol Oates.  According to Oates, Lorrie Moore is “the very Jane Austin of the ill-at-ease and the inept.”  The story’s narrator certainly fits the bill because she is one of the most socially inept characters I’ve run across in a while.

The seven-page story is a chronology of the events that combine in a perfect storm kind of way to transform one young lady into “a writer.”  Not the least among these events is the computer glitch that places her in a creative writing class rather than in the bird-watching seminar she thinks she has registered for, a class she decides to keep only because she cannot face the long registration lines again.

As Ms. Oates says in the story intro, it is both funny and touching.  Well, for me, it is funny – and touching mainly in the sense that I always feel great sympathy for those trying to negotiate their way through life carrying only the most limited and basic social skills in their toolbox.  Our young narrator, however, is not completely lacking in self-awareness, as when she describes her desire to be a writer this way:

“…but you have a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit.  You have, as your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd.”

Or this observation about herself:

“You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with one’s genitals.  Don’t dwell on this.  It will make you nervous.”

I think I’m going to like Lorrie Moore.  

I love this book more every week:


The Flight of the Phoenix: Two Movies, One Novel

I just finished watching the 1965 movie The Flight of the Phoenix, in the process breaking one of my most sacred rules when it comes to books vs. movies.  With rare exception, have I ever watched a movie before reading the novel upon which the film is based.  I broke that rule with this one.

Phoenix is the story of an old, beat-up airplane that crashes deep inside the Sahara Desert with an assortment of 14 passengers aboard.  The passengers are mostly oil field personnel, but there are a handful of others aboard, including some military personnel, and one man who has come to the desert simply to visit his oil-worker brother.  

As their water begins to run out, the survivors have two choices: they can sit around in the shade of the wreckage and wait to die from dehydration, or they can try to build a smaller plane from the remains of the larger one they crash-landed in.  They go for it.

The movie is wonderfully cast with a rather grizzled looking Jimmy Stewart in the roll of the pilot, supported by an ensemble cast of Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Kruger, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand, George Kennedy, and Dan Duryea.  This was one of the shortest two-hour movies I have watched in a long time – never once was I tempted to check the clock to see how much time was left.

Cover of the 2004 Re-release

The movie is based on a 1964 novel of the same name that has probably reached the “forgotten novel” stage by now.  I don’t think its even in print anymore, but I’m going to grab a used copy somewhere if that turns out to be the case.  It was written by Trevor Dudley Smith under the pen name Elleston Trevor, and I’m guessing that it was popular enough in its day that I should be able to find a copy someplace fairly easily.

Bonus bit of movie trivia for you:  

A test pilot was killed simulating take-off the the “rebuilt” airplane and the plane was destroyed in the crash.  A completely different airplane was borrowed and used in all the close-ups that still had to be shot after the tragic accident.  

The 1965 movie was successful and popular.  It was re-made in 2004 in a version starring Dennis Quaid that did not fare nearly so well.

Trailer for the 1965 movie:

Trailer for the 2004 movie (in which glaring changes to the 1965 film were made).  It’s easy to see why it flopped in comparison to the original film.

Footage of the terrible crash that killed stuntman Paul Mantz who was simulating takeoff of the reconstructed airplane. Right up to the actual crash, this footage was used in the 1965 move (in color).

Someone Is Trying to Save Boston from "Awful" Books

Is this a rare picture of “noluckboston”?

Just in the nick of time, I learned a well-kept secret this morning: February is “Library Lover’s Month.”  Well, who knew?

Well, apparently, someone in Boston knew all about it and has stepped up his/her efforts to point out just how many “awful” library books are on the shelves of the Boston Public Library.  

According to the folks at Boston.com:

A user who goes by the name “noluckboston,” has used BiblioCommons to tag 74 books in the Boston Public Library system as “awful library book.” The tag “awful library book” is featured amongst some more typical categories to classify books, such as “suspense,” “romance,” and “fiction,” in the site’s “recent tags” box. 
Noluckboston, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, isn’t using his or her own judgment to be the arbiter of taste for the Boston Public Library’s collection. Instead, he’s tagging books based off the “Awful Library Books” blog, which two public librarians in Michigan have been running since 2009.

There’s a good bit more to this story, so do click the link I’ve included (above), but there’s a lot to love in just these two clipped paragraphs.  

Is “noluckboston” a good guy or a bad guy…a superhero or a library terrorist?  Heck, I love “noluck” simply because it’s nice to see someone care so much about their public library that they take the time to do something like this.

And then there’s the bonus link to a site called “Awful Library Books” that I didn’t know about.  That one sounds like fun and I’ll be heading over to take a look at it later this morning.

Long Lost Dr. Seuss Book to Be Published in July

I’ve never been much of a fan of Theodor Geisel’s Dr. Seuss books.  The kind of word play and repetitiveness that so much characterize the books just doesn’t appeal to me, I guess.  We did buy Seuss books for our daughters, and later for their children, but every one of them had, at best, a lukewarm reaction to the books…must run in the family.

But this will be big news for lots of Dr. Seuss fans out there, so I want to mention it here in case anyone has missed it…a “brand new” lost manuscript has been “re-discovered” and it will be shared with the world on July 28.  The little book is titled What Pet Should I Get? and it is said to be very much up to the standard Geisel set with his other Seuss books.  As can best be told, the book was written sometime between 1958 and 1962.

I hope it does well, and causes a big stir in the children’s book market.  Good luck, Doc.

Against the Country: A Novel

The first-person narrator of Ben Metcalf’s Against the County is ticked off, and he wants to make sure that you, the reader, understands just exactly how ticked off he is.  He hates living in the country, certainly never wanted to spend his childhood there, and blames Goochland County, Virginia, for pretty much every bad thing that has ever happened in his life. 
Metcalf, in fact, effectively sets the tone of Against the Country with the book’s very first sentence (a sentence that is typical of the style and structure used throughout the book):
            “I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to a climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, and braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside, all because my parents did not trust that I would mature to their specifications in town.”
And, yes, our narrator is not just ticked off at Goochland County; this is a man who still hates his parents for having moved him to such a remote, poverty stricken area in the first place.  But all of us, if we survive the process, eventually will come of age, and in the long run, that is what happens to our unhappy narrator.  Now he wants to share with us all the details of that horrible experience.  And Ben Metcalf obliges him in this sometimes sad, often laugh-out-loud funny, coming-of-age novel that would have been more have descriptively titled “Rant against the Country.”   
Ben Metcalf
Along the way, the narrator is (from his point-of-view) abused at home by a father who seems to take great glee and pride in making life at home as difficult as possible for his children; physically abused on the school bus on a regular basis; and abused, perhaps worst of all, by the physical environment in which he is forced to contend with snakes, forced labor, rats, and the harshest winters he would ever experience in his lifetime (both indoors and outdoors).  But, through it all, never does our narrator lose either his way with words or his sarcastic sense-of-humor.  He rants; he raves; and he makes us laugh.   
This, for instance, is one of his typical observations about his childhood:
            Mostly I spent my energies on my parents new conception of themselves, and to a smaller extent their children, as real Americans, which was undertaking enough, and looked to my chores, and mostly completed them, and did my best to stay out of the on-deck circle for a whipping, where I never stood less than third in line.”

That image of a special “on-deck circle” for whippings paints a vivid picture – and it made me laugh, transforming the sentence into one of my favorites in the entire book:
Against the Countryis not an easy read, but patient readers will soon find themselves warming to both the narrator and his voice.  it is a novel I will remember for a long time, one that has earned a permanent spot on my already overcrowded book shelves.

Bonus Suggestion:  Do not skip the section at the end of the book titled “A note on the text,” whose first sentence is the pithy, “This text was set in Christ knows what by who knows whom,” or the section titled “A note on the people” that follows it. 

Want to learn more?


Lost on My Bookshelves for Way too Long – Part 1

I need another project like I need another hole in the head. 

But I think that I have finally motivated myself to start chipping away at a special TBR list made up strictly of books that have been on my bookshelves for at least ten years without having been read.  I keep stumbling onto books that have been there more like 20+ years…and I’m wondering if they really deserve still to be taking up that much precious shelf space.  It’s come to the point where I need to either read them or abandon them to someone else who might enjoy them.

These are the first five that caught my eye this afternoon:

The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks (2000) – I have enjoyed several of Banks’s novels over the years (Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, Continental Drift, Trailerpark, among them) and must have believed that the short stories would appeal to me equally when I purchased this first edition. The thirty-one stories were written over a 30-year period.

Any Old Iron, a 1989 novel by Anthony Burgess – I have no idea where I bought this book, or more importantly, why, since I am pretty much unfamiliar with this author’s work.  But here it sits…and sits.  It is said to be a “multilayered historical portrait of our cataclysmic (twentieth) century from the sinking of the Titanic through the Russian Revolution and the two world wars to the creation of the state of Israel.”  Burgess is best known, of course, for A Clockwork Orange, and I suspect this to be a prime candidate for abandonment.

Eagle’s Cry, a 2000 novel by David Nevin that is billed as “A Novel of the Louisiana Purchase.”  This is a period in American history that I find intriguing because the country was still in the process of taking its final shape as more and more territory continued to be added to it.  Now all the U.S. had to do was hold itself together and a new world power would be born.  Easier said than done.  Central characters include Jefferson, Madison, and Napoleon Bonaparte.  I have not read Nevin, but I see here that he wrote two historical fiction novels prior to Eagle’s Cry, and I know he’s written several since.  I place the odds at about 60-40 that I will finish this one.

Amy Tan’s famous 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club, has been sitting on my shelf in the form of a pristine first edition almost since it was first published.  This one is the story of four Chinese women who started a club to play mah jong, invest in stocks, and eat good food together.  Forty years later, one of the women is gone, replaced by her daughter, and the story continues.  This little first edition has become valuable enough that I would never abandon it, but I do need to read it…very carefully.  And I will.

Bluebeard, the 1987 novel by Kurt Vonnegut has been sitting on one bookshelf or another since 1987.  It’s another pristine first edition whose pages have never seen the light of day.  I probably bought it because it was Vonnegut, and for no other reason (unless it was the cool boot on the cover), since the book’s description does not much interest me: “This one is about a man who was in on the founding of the first major art movement to originate in the United States, Abstract Expressionism, and whose pictures all fell apart due to an unfortunate choice of materials.”  A bit “ho hum,” that.  I place the odds of finishing it at something like 50-50.

My plan is to read one, maybe two of these books a month, until I exhaust the backlog on my shelves.  Frankly, though, that could take years, so I would probably settle for checking off ten or so a year in hopes that I don’t end up falling any farther behind than I am today.  Wish me luck.

The Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Inductee Biographies 1991-2014

Bluegrass music is the purest form of real country music still doing fairly well in today’s music marketplace.  Generally speaking, traditional country music has been so overwhelmed by country-pretenders now that the real thing is seldom heard on FM radio stations anymore. Even the record labels are recording very little of it these days.  But somehow, perhaps because so much of it is performed live at festivals during the spring and summer months, bluegrass is actually growing in popularity throughout the U.S. and Canada.  And those fans of traditional country music searching for a place to hear the real thing are turning to bluegrass music as the natural alternative to the trash being played on FM radio stations that dare call themselves country stations today.

Fred Bartenstein

So…bluegrass fans, new and old, this book is for you.  The Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Inductees Biographies 1992-2014 from Fred Bartenstein and Gary Reid celebrates all of the inductees to the Hall since its creation.  The Bluegrass Hall of Fame itself is housed at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, and it is a must-see for bluegrass fans.  

Bluegrass music fans are luckier than fans of most musical genres in the sense that many of its pioneers are still alive (and in some cases, even performing), meaning that they are available to tell their stories in their own words.  And, fortunately, many of the ones who are gone now had their stories recorded by Museum staff in long, formal interviews before they passed on.   The Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Inductees Biographies 1992-2014 continues that tradition:

The International Bluegrass Music Museum presents, for the first time in book form, carefully researched and engagingly written profiles of the pioneers of bluegrass music. The authors, who knew most of the Hall of Fame members personally, document not only the facts and career accomplishments of these men and women, but also capture a sense of their personalities and their impact upon fellow musicians and fans.

The International Bluegrass Music Museum places special emphasis on “first generation” bluegrass artists, those who were there at the beginning to create and perform the music we now call bluegrass.  The exhibits  are both educational and fun to see, and anyone finding themselves near Owensboro should take an hour or two to visit the museum and gift shop.  In addition to souvenirs, the gift shop sells the latest books on bluegrass artists and new and old music.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch: 10 Episode Series on Amazon Prime

Fans of Michael Connelly’s writing, especially his Harry Bosch books, this news is especially for you.  On Friday, Amazon Prime released the10-episode film series that so many fans have been looking forward to for the last several months.  I have only watched the pilot episode so far, but I can say that I’m pleased with the actor chosen to portray Harry as he begins to wind down his career with the LAPD.  Harry is kind of old and grizzled now, a look and attitude that actor Titus Welliver handles with ease.

This is a short clip of Welliver speaking of the series and his take on Harry Bosch:

Binging on series television, seems to be the way that most of us watch TV these days… so enjoy.  (Amazon Prime requires a $99 per year membership fee – and free video like this is part of that package.)

Orphan Train

That “orphan trains” ran regularly from Eastern cities to America’s Midwest for the better part of eight decades (1853-1929), comes as a surprise to most Americans.  The occasional movie, book, or song might explore the experience, but the story of how thousands of children were handed over to adults, who had to do little more than step forward and claim them, has never really caught the national imagination.  It is believed that most of the children were adopted by their new families, but it is also known that many of them became little more than indentured servants and a source of free labor for those taking them in.
Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train tells the story of one little girl who was among the last children to ride an orphan train out of New York City.  When the child is orphaned by a tragic fire, she becomes a ward of the state and authorities move her to one of the city’s chaotic orphanages.  Bad as that life might be, though, she is one of the lucky ones.  Without the orphanage, she could have ended up on the streets of New York to live as best she could among the thousands of children already out there scrambling to stay alive.  When the little girl is placed on a train heading west, she concludes correctly that if no family chooses her, she will be returned to the orphanage for good.
But although she is among the very last of the children chosen, chosen she is, and the child begins a new life in Depression-era Minnesota in the hands of a couple who see her as little more than a hired hand they don’t have to pay.  Vivian Daly’s story may not be a typical one for children of the orphan train, but it is certainly one experienced by a fair percentage of the orphan train children who were often turned over to just about anyone willing to take them off the hands of the orphanages. 
Christina Baker Kline
Now flash forward about eighty years to the coast of Maine where 91-year-old Vivian has hired Molly, a teenager living with foster parents, to help her “clean out” her attic.  Molly is a rebellious teen who has not been very lucky with the foster homes into which she has been placed, and she only takes the job with Vivian because she is forced to do so.  Molly and Vivian are wary of each other from the start, neither trusting the motives of the other, but as they come to know each other during their exploration of the contents of Vivian’s attic, their relationship begins to change for the better.  As Vivian begins to relive her life through the contents of all those boxes stacked in the attic, the two realize just how much they have in common, and they form a solid bond.

Orphan Train is a dramatic look at a part of American social history that is all but forgotten today.  But its principle characters are sometimes more stereotypical than they are realistic, and both the novel’s climax and its ending are fairly predictable ones.  Adult readers will learn much about the orphan train system from the novel, but Orphan Train is probably more suitable for Young Adult readers who can more readily identify with the book’s two central characters.

Bonus:  This is my favorite orphan train song – as performed by the wonderful Dry Branch Fire Squad.

The Unforgiven

Alan LeMay, even if he had written nothing else, would be long remembered as a very fine writer of western novels because of his two best: The Searchers and The Unforgiven.  The Searchers, of course, was made into a much loved John Wayne movie, and in 1960 The Unforgiven was made into a film starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn.  Both the book and film versions of The Unforgiven are somewhat overshadowed by those of The Searchers, but, in a way, their stories are almost mirror images of each other.
In The Searchers, a white child has been stolen by Indians and her family is determined to rescue the young woman from the “savages.”  In The Unforgiven, a Kiowa child has been stolen by a white family, and when the Indians learn the origin of the young woman, they demand her return to the tribe.  Both books focus heavily on the racial prejudice that was so commonly inflicted upon American Indians by the very people determined to steal their homelands from them.  The resulting conflict was both brutal and bloody, with atrocities perpetrated by both sides.  What makes LeMay’s writing special, is that he gives equal weight to both points-of-view.  
The Zachary family has come to Texas for a new beginning and they are determined to hang onto their land and the way of life they have carved out for themselves.  Now, however, because of the drowning of the family patriarch on a recent cattle drive, they must look to Ben, the eldest of three brothers and one sister, for the leadership their father used to provide.  Ben proves himself to be a competent enough ranch manager, but when an old family nemesis shows up and begins spreading rumors about the Zachary daughter, things take an ugly turn.
Soon, the leaders of a group of Kiowa warriors that raids this part of the Texas territory with the coming of each full moon begins scouting the ranch in order to get a closer look at the girl they suspect might be a baby lost to the tribe years earlier.   And if the Kiowa decide that the young woman belongs to them, the Zacharys know that they will fight to the death to bring her home to the tribe.

Alan LeMay
Most westerns written in the 1950s were closer to the pulp westerns of the late-1800s than to serious western fiction.  Alan LeMay’s work is one exception to the rule.   LeMay’s The Unforgiven can, in fact, be called a “literary novel,” and he spends as much time here developing his Kiowa characters as he does his main white characters.  By looking at the conflict through two very different sets of eyes, what the author describes at the novel’s climax feels both inevitable and tragic.  In the real world of post-Civil War Texas, it was unlikely to end any other way.

Amazon Echo Is Super Radio Come to Life

I am a notorious early adopter when it comes to tech stuff, and today my order for something really fun finally arrived: The Amazon Echo (it was back ordered for four weeks and is still sold via invitation only).  

This neat little gadget is about the size of a Pringles potato chip can – but weighs a whole lot more – and it hooks up directly to a home network via wifi.  (It also has bluetooth capability.)  It’s like having Super Radio in the house because I can tell it to play a specific song, an album, or a mix of songs by an artist; to find me a radio station by category or call letters, etc., and it almost always does it.  It’s like having the largest music library in the world…all inside a can of Pringles chips.

It’s a lot like Siri, too, in that you can ask basic questions and get immediate answers, especially if you tell it to check Wikipedia for the info.  It gives localized weather reports, current temps, etc., and who knows what else?  I’ve started training the Echo to understand my pronunciation and speech cadence, but so far at least, my wife and grandkids are having every bit as much luck being understood by Alexa (the wake up name for Echo) as me.  And it’s a surprisingly high success rate for something just out of the box.

Supposedly, the Echo will get better and better as we all get used to working together and as Amazon continues to improve the system via regular updates on their end.  

I keep trying obscure artists from the past, and Echo keeps delivering.  I just threw Mississippi John Hurt at it, and I’m listening to his songs on “shuffle” right now.  Oh, yeah, this is going to be fun…even found the book podcasts I listen to every week.

Book Trailer of the Week: A Spool of Blue Thread

A new Anne Tyler book is always an event to be anticipated, and this week marks the debut of Tyler’s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread.  Longtime fans have been counting down to this one for several months already, and even though this trailer does not reveal much about the plot of A Spool of Blue Thread, I want to use it further spread the news that IT is finally here.

I’m hoping to grab a copy soon, but I will probably hold off on reading it for a while because I always like to have something by one of my favorites just waiting for me to choose the right moment to read it.  Anticipation, after all,  can be half the fun.

(Strangely enough, I’ve been checking with my county library system for several weeks in order to put a reading copy on hold…and some kind of computer glitch in their system is driving me nuts.  I can see the book, and can see that eight people have already placed it on hold.  But when I click on the link to add my name to the list, I get a message saying something to the effect that no copies of the book are available for request.  As evidenced by the fact that the hold list has been frozen at eight for quite a while, no one at the library seems aware of the problem.  Why this book?)

The Best Book I’ve Ever Received as a Present?

Noted with more than a bit of envy on my part, is the announcement that The Guardian is fast approaching one million Twitter followers.  (Just click here to join the fun.)

In celebration of reaching a huge milestone like that one, the newspaper is hosting a series of book conversations on Twitter.  The latest (perhaps, the first) of them asks simply, “What is the best book you’ve ever been given as a present?”  Well, I thought about that one for a while, then a while longer, and then for another few minutes.  And I came up empty.

See, the thing is that I don’t remember ever getting a book as a gift for Christmas or on my birthday.  That’s never, as in not even once.  Oh, sure, I get the occasional Barnes & Noble gift card on those occasions, but never an actual book.  

I did not grow up in a book-loving family.  My mother was a magazine reader, my dad (who will be 93 in late April) is still an avid consumer of the daily newspaper, and my brother always seemed to have better things to do with his time than to sit down someplace with a book.  Ours was a relatively poor family, and that included all of the branches of the extended family I was closest to and most familiar with as a kid.  Books were a luxury best acquired from a library by those of us inclined to read them. (Actually, “those of us inclined” to do that was pretty much just me.)  

Unless you count comic books, I don’t remember seeing books in the homes of any of my cousins…and I have lots of cousins.  So when I started collecting brand new paperbacks at the whopping price of thirty-five or fifty cents a copy, no one seemed to notice.  And if they did notice, they were not impressed – or even curious enough to ask what I was up to.  Looking back, I can imagine how weird I must have seemed to the rest of the pack.

And now that I’m an adult, my family and friends seem to believe that I read books at such a pace that picking out an individual book as a gift is a no-win challenge. They figure, I suppose, that the odds are stacked against them when it comes to surprising me or, for that matter, even putting something in my hands that has even a remote chance of finding a permanent home on my already overstuffed bookshelves.  

I get it…but having been a committed consumer of the written word for as long as I can remember, I wish I could pull up the memory of a favorite book gift.  That, after all, seems like one of the rites of passage of growing up a book nerd.  Sigh…

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football

Although I did not plan it this way, I finished reading The System just the day before The University of Oregon and Ohio State University played for the first college football playoff national championship (won easily by Ohio State 42-20).  I am a fairly avid fan of college football, but watching the playoff system at work while reading this particular book seemed to put much more of a human face on the players and coaches by whom I was being so entertained.  Both aspects of the book’s subtitle, The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, were on display during the playoffs. 
Authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian have done their homework, and it shows in the way that The System covers just about every aspect of big-time college sports (which, by definition, automatically means football, with basketball a distant second).  The book takes a frank look at just about everything that happens on the field – as well as what happens off the field of play.  And it is what happens away from the spotlight that will probably prove most interesting to readers/football fans.  Hard looks are taken at the programs of schools like Alabama, BYU, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Washington State, and others.  Some programs and their coaches come out looking better than others, of course.  This is particularly true of BYU, a school at which the morals and character of student athletes is at the top of the coach’s, and the school administration’s, priority lists.
Benedict and Keteyian do spend extensive time on recruiting scandals and claims by athletes and their parents that they have been “abused” by coaches (Mike Leach’s problems at Texas Tech and Washington State are covered in detail, for instance), but they also look closely at problems caused by over-the-top boosters and alumni, female tutors hired by the programs to keep player grades up, and a subclass of recruiters known as “closers.”  “Closers,” by the way, are the beautiful female students who volunteer to show potential high school recruits around campus and town when they make their official recruiting visits to the schools.  As might be expected, what happens off the field can greatly impact, be it negatively or be it positively, the win-loss record a team achieves on the field.
The most disturbing aspect of what the authors describe, however, regards the percentage of “student/athletes” who are also “student/criminals” and how these particular players are often protected by the schools for which they play football.  Keep in mind that the crimes with which these players have been charged are not exactly white-collar crimes.  Instead, they most often involve robbery, both armed and otherwise; rape; other violence against women; or drug abuse.  In way too many instances, football comes first, and justice a distant second.

The System, although it covers incidents and other aspects of college football that more avid fans might already be familiar with, offers insights and additional details that will be new to most readers.  I recommend the book for fans, parents of players, and parents of girls headed to college.  There’s a lesson, and a warning, there for all of them.

If you want to learn more about The System: