Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew about Helping Your Child Succeed

Because I work so closely with my youngest grandson on his daily homework assignments and on his test preparation, I am always on the lookout for books like Rebecca Deurlein’s Teenagers 101.  In this case, it was the book’s more descriptive subtitle that grabbed my attention: “What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew about Helping Your Kid Succeed.”  My grandson has a variety of learning disabilities that frustrate his efforts, so keeping him properly motivated is a big part of helping him succeed with his school work.
Teenagers 101, though, is not just aimed at parents of children who are struggling with their school work.  Much of the book, in fact, is aimed at parents whose children are doing better than most of their peers, those kids who take Pre-AP and AP classes and cannot imagine a future for themselves that does not include at leastfour years of secondary education.  Deurlein’s advice regarding motivating your particular student, however, applies equally well to students at both ends of the spectrum. 
And, if you in your role of parent or grandparent, need a little motivation to remain, or to become, active in helping your student succeed, Deurlein offers these two reminders of just how important that role is:
·      “How you respond to your children’s actions, and what consequences they face as a result of their behavior will determine, almost entirely, their future behavior.”
·      “Every kid does something well.  Our job is to notice when that happens and use it as a tool of encouragement that will prod children to work harder next time.”
Deurlein, however, is quick to point out where your role as mentor begins and where it ends.  Too many parents make the mistake of “editing” student homework to the point that it becomes more the work of the parent than that of the student – and no one, including the student, is fooled.  Consequently, the author devotes an entire chapter to “knowing when to back off” and letting your teen assume responsibility for his day-to-day education, a process that should be well in place by the time they start high school.
Rebecca Durlein
Along the way, there are chapters on a diverse set of topics, such as: the advantages of allowing your children to take advanced classes; organizational skills; teaching children to “dress for success;” determining if your student is “college bound;” building self-esteem in children; and how to effectively work with your child’s teachers.  Keep in mind that Teenagers 101 was written by an experienced high school teacher, someone who has probably seen it all by this stage in her career.  She has a good idea of what works and what does not work.

If you are looking for some motivational tips or for something to explain what your child might be going through, Teenagers 101 is a good place to start.

An App for Censorship: Squeaky Clean

The Famous Mr. Clean Himself

I suppose I should have seen it coming.  There’s already an app to help shortcut just about anything a human being can possibly want to do these days, so I should not have been surprised by this: an app to censor the books read by children.  

All concerned parents have to do is run an e-book through something called Squeaky Clean in order to make themselves feel good about their parenting skills a little while longer.  As a consequence, their children just might be sheltered from the harsh realities of living in the 21st century – or of even growing up – for another few days or weeks. 

According to NPR, Jared and Kirsten Maughan came up with the idea for Squeaky Clean when their daughter came home from school one day all upset about some of the words she was being forced to read as part of a school assignment.  This Washington Post article notes that the little girl was in the fourth grade at the time, and that she had borrowed the book from the school library (which means it may have not been required reading, after all).  The article points out what happened next:

…the Maughans quickly learned from a lawyer that republishing books with the offensive words changed or removed would violate authors’ copyrights. So they partnered with a Chicago firm called Page Foundry, which altered its general book-reading app to create Clean Reader — a profanity-filtering program. The Maughans earn a small commission from books purchased through the app.

Not so fast, Maughans.  Before long authors were fighting back and demanding that the Maughns not sell their books on a website suggesting that they be censored before being read.   Says NPR:

Arguably, the leader of that angry response was author Joanne Harris, best known for her novel Chocolat. In several scathing blog posts, Harris decried what she called “censorship, not by the State, but by a religious minority.”

Joining Harris in the fight were authors like Margaret Atwood – and the Society of Authors.  As of last week, the Squeaky Clean website no longer sells books, but it continues to offer the free app to those wishing to play censor for a day with their children’s reading.    

My favorite paragraph from the NPR link shows just how ludicrous this whole thing is:

Blogger — and romance novel aficionado — Jennifer Porter has drawn up a rundown of the common replacements for words the app deems profanity. Among some of the noteworthies: from “whore” to “hussy,” from “badass” to “tough” and, somewhat confusingly, from “vagina” to “bottom.”

Jennifer Porter’s piece includes a list of common “bad words” and their suggested replacements.  You have to see it to believe it.

A Dickens and Baseball Kind of Day

It was beautiful all around this part of Texas today.  I’m starting to really believe that Spring has settled in so permanently now that we won’t suffer one of those nasty little weather surprises we often get around here in late March or early April.  Bright sunshine, a high of just over 80 degrees, and a cool (but   gusty) breeze all afternoon just can’t be topped.  

Thankfully, my thirteen-year-old grandson’s team played in a baseball tournament all weekend, including today’s doubleheader, so I had a great excuse to enjoy it all firsthand.  The team didn’t fare very well (even losing one of its best hitters to a double-fracture of his right leg on Saturday), but it was still a memorable week-end.  It probably seems even better than it really was because of how nasty the weather has been here for the last several weeks.  Just plain old pitiful.

But…before the two games this afternoon I finished a little book titled The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens by Thomas Hauser.  It’s one of those novels written in the first person that are narrated by a famous real life person from the past.  In this case, that person is Charles Dickens.  

I will do a more formal review of the book in the next few days sometime, but I have to say that Hauser did a remarkable job of capturing Dickens’s speech pattern, style of expressing himself, and his whole general persona.  The book is a mystery cloaked inside a “confessional” tale in which Dickens reveals some things about his past that he has kept secret for almost four decades.  Good stuff.

Honestly, I was unfamiliar with Thomas Hauser before The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens caught my eye in a catalog.  Turns out, though, that the man has written some 47 books “on subjects ranging from professional boxing to Beethoven.”  His very first book (Missing) was nominated for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and was made into a huge hit film starring Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon.  Surprisingly, Hauser is probably best known for his boxing books and the work he does for HBO Sports.  

More a little later on this one.

Sisters of Shiloh

It may have been uncommon, but it was certainly not unheard of for women to disguise themselves as men during the Civil War years so that they might join the fight on one side or the other.  Sisters of Shiloh, co-authored by sisters Kathy and Becky Hepinstall, tells the story of two fictional Virginia women who do exactly that.
Growing up in Winchester, Josephine and Libby were everything to each other.  Josephine, a year older than Libby, was the plain one, a shy little girl who was never quite at ease in the company of strangers.  Libby, on the other hand, was a pretty child so at ease in the world that her older sister easily faded into the background.  It was inevitable that someone would come between the sisters – and that someone came along in the person of Arden, the little boy who invaded the sisters’ orchard hideaway when Josephine was thirteen and Libby twelve.
When, despite the pleas of Libby for him not to do it, the newly wed Arden sneaks away to join the Confederate army, Libby finding it impossible to wait at home alone, decides to catch up with him.  Josephine, ever her sister’s protector, joins her, but by the time they find Arden at Antietam it is too late to save him from his fate.  Libby, though, is not ready to quit the fight; she wants vengeance and vows to kill with her own hands one Yankee soldier for every one of the twenty-one years Arden lived before dying to a Yankee bullet. 
Kathy and Becky Hepinstall
As members of Jackson’s famous Stonewall Brigade, she will get her chance to do exactly that – but only if she and Josephine can make their fellow soldiers believe that they are men – and if Libby does not first slip into madness.  More and more often as the war grinds on, Arden comes to Libby in the dark of night, and what he hints about her sister is not pretty.  He urges Libby to keep killing Yankees but seems equally concerned about making her understand what really happened between him and Josephine on the day he died at Antietam. 

Sisters of Shiloh tells the story of two remarkable women who refuse to accept the roles and places assigned to them by the mores of their time.  Instead, they do what their hearts tell them is right: they take full control of their own lives and experience the defining events of their generation.  Libby and Josephine may be fictional characters, but it is important to remember that there were scores of real women who did the same thing during America’s Civil War.  How they pulled it off is hard to imagine, but novels like Sisters of Shiloh offer a glimpse into their world and into their heads. 

Does Anyone in Ford Heights, Illinois, Give a Damn?

Phil Kadner, Chicago Tribune

This is just bizarre.  

It seems that in Cook County, Illinois, somewhere near Chicago, sits a poverty stricken little “village” called Ford Heights.  According to Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Kadner, “The village has only about 2,700 residents and is only a couple of miles long.”

Here’s the bizarre part.  Residents of Ford Heights pay property taxes to the county’s library district (over $13,000 last year) but they cannot borrow books from a library.  Any library.  Neither is there one in their village, nor do they have borrowing privileges at any of the libraries in areas surrounding Ford Heights.  

Perhaps even more bizarrely, Ford Heights has a fully-staffed seven-person library board for which residents foot the bill, a board that might be in the process of working out an agreement with one of the other nearby libraries – or not.  The mayor, who sounds more than a bit cavalier about his responsibilities to the people who elected him, sure as heck doesn’t know.  According to Kadner again, the mayor said this when questioned,”I don’t know.  I don’t talk to those people (library board members).  They are very dysfunctional.  I have no dialogue with them at all.  I have no idea what they are doing.”

Kadner’s column can (and should) be read here.  It is an eye-opening look into what I suspect is local government at its worst.  Kadner is certainly to be applauded for trying to get something done that will allow the residents of Ford Heights full access to a library system they are helping pay for.  Good luck to him on that one.  It won’t be easy as long as no one with the authority to make it happen gives a damn.

New Harper Lee Book Cover Revealed by Publisher

It seems that my February 7 post about the cover of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, was premature because the book’s publisher has just announced an entirely different look for the much anticipated novel.

So here’s an update:

Apparently, this is NOT the cover of the new book.

This is the new cover announced yesterday.
And, for reference purposes, this is what the original cover looked like.

I do like the “new, new” cover a lot more than I like the one supposedly announced back in early February.  It makes much more sense when compared to the original (disregard that 50th anniversary addition to it).  I like the continuity implied by the resemblance of the two covers and the sixties-feel that both give me.  

So maybe this is the final cover…for sure, it won’t be the last bit of news to trickle out between now and July, however.

Jack of Spades

This time around, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates (who writes under a pseudonym or two of her own) offers a disturbing thriller about a mystery writer whose pen name starts to cause him problems in the real world.
Andrew Rush, author of twenty-eight highly successful mysteries, is quite pleased with himself these days.  His career solidly established, Rush has earned the respect of readers and critics, alike.  But Andrew Rush has a problem.  His agent and publisher expect him to keep doing what has worked so well for him in the past, and that is not enough for Rush anymore.  Unbeknownst to his wife, children, or even to his longtime agent, Rush has been writing novels under the pseudonym Jack of Spades for a while now – novels that are nothing like the ones he writes under his own name. 
The Jack of Spades novels are so disturbingly dark, masochistic, and violent that Andrew Rush would not even want to be seen carrying one of them around.  They are so strange that public libraries ignore their existence, so bad that when one of Rush’s grown daughters stumbles upon a copy of a Jack of Spade novel in her father’s study, she is repelled by its very existence.   But for reasons he would probably not admit even to himself, Andrew Rush badly needs Jack at this point in his life.  However, not until a local woman accuses him of plagiarism and presses formal charges against him, does Rush realize just how much he needs Jack.
Andrew Rush fears embarrassment and damage to his personal reputation as much as he fears anything in life.  Even though his publisher provides legal representation (and very expensive representation, at that) and assures him there is nothing to be much concerned about, Rush finds it difficult to think of anything but the lawsuit’s potential to ruin his reputation.  The writer, though, is not getting advice only from his lawyer; Jack of Spades is at his ear, too – and is offering him a more hands-on solution to his lawsuit problem.  Now the big question is whether or not Andrew Rush will come to his senses before his descent into utter madness consumes him and those around him.
Jack of Spades is a tip-of-the hat from one writer to another.  Oates makes numerous references throughout the novel to horror author Stephen King, even using King as a very minor character in the story at one point.  King fans are likely to be pleased that Oates even mentions a plot twist or two of King’s that are similar to the general plot of Jack of Spades.

Bottom Line:  Jack of Spades, although somewhat predictable, is a fun ride that fits snugly within the horror thriller genre.  Fans of the genre are certain to appreciate it.

(to be published on May 5, 2015)

Is Listening to a Book the Same as Reading One?

Although this video seems to be aimed more at the parents of young readers than at adult readers themselves, most of the benefits of audio books listed here apply equally well to readers of all ages.

Jon Scieszka, author of the Frank Einstein series, and Brian Biggs (illustrator of the books) note that:

  • Listening to audio books help readers learn how to pronounce words correctly, 
  • Young readers can successfully listen to books at two entire grade levels higher than that at which they can read,
  • Readers learn about the pacing of stories by listening to them read aloud,
  • Young readers have a 76% higher comprehension rate when listening rather than reading for themselves, and that
  • Young readers are 67% more motivated to finish an audio book than they are to complete a written one.
I have listened to audiobooks for years, most often during my compute to the office and back (now down to four mornings a week).  But I also depend on audio books to keep me entertained and awake during the long driving days I rack up every summer following my other hobbies: music festivals, baseball, Civil War battle sites, and visiting author homes/museums around the country.  I generally drive around 3,000 miles a summer doing those things, so I have a bunch of hours available to listen to someone read to me.

But for a long time, I did not consider listening to a book to be equivalent to reading one.  It just felt too easy, more akin to watching a math teacher work a problem on the blackboard than working that same problem out for myself.  I was always a little embarrassed, in fact, to admit that my only experience with a book (pick a book, any book) was via audio; it felt too much like cheating.

This year, though, I have had a change of heart.  Probably, because I’ve learned what genres work best for me in audio format, I have come to fully embrace audio books as part of my regular reading (even down to keeping track of the pages I have “read” in audio).  I believe that my comprehension of certain books really is higher via audio.  That was a surprise. And, God knows, there are dozens of words that I have read in books hundreds of times each that I’m still not sure how to pronounce at loud.  Often, when one of those words pops up in an audio book, I’ve paused to repeat it half a dozen times before moving on.

So what do you think?  Is listening to a book the same as reading one?  Does it count?

When I Found You

It is possible for the course of a person’s life to be changed in an instant.  Sometimes that change is for the better, sometimes for the worse.  But then there are those times when it is hard to tell which it is.  Nathan McCann, the main character of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s When I Found You, would probably tell you that, in his case, it would depend on which day of the week you asked him that question. 
Nathan, a middle-aged accountant, is caught up in a loveless marriage to an unhappy woman who is only going through the motions of life.  He is not, however, (as he will prove in spades later in the story) the kind of man to give up easily or quickly when he has made a commitment to another person.  For now at least, Nathan’s work and his love of duck hunting help make up for the unhappiness of his home life. 
And then it happens.  While they are on a hunt one cold morning, Nathan’s dog leads him to the tree sheltering a newborn baby clothed only in an old sweater and a perfectly fitting knitted cap.  When, much to his shock, Nathan discovers that the baby is still alive, he drops his shotgun where he stands and rushes the child to the local hospital – where, beyond all odds against it, doctors manage to save the baby’s life.  And, almost unbelievably even to Nathan, his own life is about to change every bit as drastically as the abandoned baby’s life will be changed because, almost out of nowhere, he is filled with an all-consuming desire to adopt this little boy.
Catherine Ryan Hyde
But, that is not to be.  The baby’s grandmother steps up to claim him, and the best that Nathan can do is get her to agree that she will someday introduce her grandson to “the man who found him in the woods.”  Young Nat (who was named after Nathan) proves, though, to be more than the old woman can handle, and one day fifteen years later she does more than introduce the boy to Nathan – she abandons him on man’s doorstep.  Thus begins the rest of Nathan McCann’s life, and it will not be an easy life because Nat will soon vividly demonstrate how he wore out his grandmother and why she dumped his care into the hands of “the man who found him in the woods.”  

The basic plot outline of When I Found You is what compelled me to read the novel.  I was intrigued by the idea of a man who, strictly by chance, stumbles upon the one person with whom he will be most intricately bound for the rest of his days.  I expected a tale of a life saved, and put to good use, by someone who had escaped what was almost a certain death sentence.  Instead, the book turned into more of a cautionary tale with the message “be careful what you wish for”.   When I Found You is interesting in the way that train wrecks are interesting…I looked, but I didn’t enjoy it.

Brazenhead Books: Bookstore or Speakeasy?

Owner Michael Seidenberg, Owner of Brazenhead Books

I absolutely love this story, and I’m hoping that my link back to the complete article in the New York Times works for all of you (the NYT only allows a person free access to ten articles per month, so some of you may have already exceeded your personal limits).  

This is the gist of the story.  A longtime NYC bookstore owner has been operating his latest location from his rent-stabilized apartment since 2008.  Apparently, he has been very sly about keeping this bit of information from his landlord for good reason, because now that he has been found out, Michael Seidenberg is being forced to vacate the building by the end of July.

How has he kept the secret while regularly drawing packed crowds to his hidden bookstore?  Does he even live there anymore?  Is Brazenhead Books more a literary salon than a bookstore?  Does Mr. Seidenberg really want to sell his books?  What are he and his regulars going to do, come July?

All this and more, can be found in the Times article.  Just click on the link I provided in the first sentence of this post.  This is cool as cool can be.  

P.S.  (Looks like this is not the only time that Seidenberg has gone public with his story.  This article from July 2014 indicates that the eviction notice came as a result of something that happened around then.  Mr. Seidenberg must have been given a full year to vacate the premises.  

Barnes & Noble: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The way my copy looked before I removed the price sticker

Almost unbelievably, it is ANOTHER rainy weekend in the Houston area, and because the baseball games I planned to attend today have all been cancelled, I had time to make a run to a local Barnes & Noble store.  It was a rather uneventful visit with little new stuff catching my eye, but I did find a couple of “bargain books” to bring home with me.

The first is/was a perfect copy of Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, NW, that I’ve wanted to read for a long time ago.  “NW” is a postal code in London, and when I lived there my code was “TW.” I came to understand how different the areas within those code boundaries can be even if they are very close together.  Anyway…I’ve been curious about the book for a long time, so it was nice to find a first edition hard copy for just six bucks (especially in the condition it was in when I left the store with it).

The second book is a new one to me: also from 2012 it is called Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training and it was co-authored by Colonel Jack Jacobs and David Fisher.  I grew a little nostalgic flipping through the book as it began to remind me of things I had forgotten about my own basic training in 1968 at the Army’s Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  Had to have it.

My first surprise (the good one) was that the new bags I posted about earlier this week are already in the bookstores.  When the cashier placed my purchases in one of the new bags, I learned something I didn’t know about them; they feature two different books, not one.  Mine has a portion of the first page of Tom Sawyer and an illustration of Tom smoking his pipe on one side, and a selection from the first page of Moby Dick with an illustration of the whale sinking beneath the ocean’s surface on the other side.  They really are pretty cool.

My second surprise (the bad and ugly one) occurred when I got home and tried to remove the price sticker from the Zadie Smith book.  Why don’t bookstore clerks realize that not all dust jackets are made from the same material?  The price sticker that will easily pull off a slick cover will damage a cover made of rougher (and more fragile) paper.  That’s what happened to me.  Suddenly my Zadie Smith dust jacket turned from a pristine one into an embarrassment.  Now I’m ticked.  The “TH” of Smith’s name was once dark, dark black on a snow-white background.  Now it’s got little white dots on the bases of those two letters and the white background is smudged black.  Just shoot me now, B&N.  It would be quicker than this kind of slow torture.

Book Trailer of the Week: Suite Française (Movie Version)

I know/think that I have a copy of Irėne Némirovsky’s Suite Française around here somewhere, but 20 minutes of searching have not turned it up.  Now I’m hoping that I didn’t  inadvertently include it in one of the bags of books I’ve been bringing to the office for others to plunder on their coffee breaks.  I’m kind of betting that it will turn up here again someday but…

Anyway, while looking for the correct spelling of the author’s surname, I found a movie trailer from 2014 that seems to perfectly capture the tone of the novel Némirovsky was working on when taken by the Nazis and imprisoned in the camp in which she eventually died of disease.  

I would love to see this movie (it appears to have just been released in this country last week) mainly because of the scenes depicted early on in the clip depicting the mass exodus forced upon French civilians by the invading Germans.  Roads and train tracks were choked well beyond their capacity when several million people decided to flee the major cities at the same time.  Just imagine how spectacular this would look and sound on a wide movie screen paired with the high-tech sound systems most movie theaters have nowadays.  

I misplaced Suite Franćaise before I finished it, a first for me…and I hope, a last. 

To Dwell in Darkness

To Dwell in Darknessis book number 16 in Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series.  It may be a bit difficult to believe that these fictional detectives have been around for that long already, but it is that very longevity that makes the series so appealing to longtime readers.  Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and his wife Gemma James live complicated personal lives centered on the logistics of making their blended family work, and things seldom stand still for them on the home front. 
This time around, Duncan is dealing with his recent transfer from Scotland Yard headquarters in London to a new job in the borough of Camden.  To all appearances, the transfer is a demotion in both status and responsibility, but because his old boss at the Yard is avoiding him, Duncan has never been given a proper explanation for the change.  If that were not bad enough, Duncan misses his old team in London, and is finding it difficult to warm up to the team recently assigned to him in Camden.   And unfortunately, the new team largely feels the same about Duncan.
But, when a bomb explodes in St. Pancras Station during the afternoon rush hour, Duncan and the new team, be they ready or be they not, must get to work.  Luckily for Duncan, Gemma’s trusted friend and colleague, Melody Talbot witnesses the explosion and ensuing panic and becomes an integral part of the investigation.  This allows Duncan to run two separate investigatory teams simultaneously (one official and one not), and he jumps at the opportunity even though this will leave him open to much second-guessing by his Camden staff. 
Gemma, in the meantime, is managing an unrelated London investigation of her own that haunts her terribly.  She feels certain that she has identified the brutal killer of a little girl, but she does not have the evidence necessary to prove her case.  The killer seems to have thought of everything, but Gemma is relentless in her pursuit of the man. 
Deborah Crombie
As soon as Duncan, Gemma, and Melody learn that some of the victims are close friends of theirs, the investigation becomes personal – and, at the same time, more difficult.  Not only are they charged with finding the group behind the bombing, they have to help their friends deal with its aftermath.  Was this the work of a terrorist group, and will the group strike again, or is it simply an innocent protest gone bad?  And what if it is a bit of both?

Crombie has another winner in To Dwell in Darkness.  She significantly progresses the Kincaid/James family dynamic and, for that matter, the personal lives of all of her main characters in ways that are sure to please longtime fans of the series.  And, in what I hope does not later prove to be a misstep, the author builds the novel to a rousing climax that ends with a dramatic cliffhanger leading directly to her next book.  It is the direction that the cliffhanger seems to be taking the next book that makes me a bit uneasy – but knowing Crombie, she will prove me wrong for having doubting her.

Nice Redesign of Shopping Bags by Barnes & Noble

The Wizard of Oz shopping bag

Well now, here’s a great idea from Barnes & Noble.  It seems that the B&N marketing folks have decided on a wholesale redesign of customer shopping bags.  The best part is that the bags so perfectly reflect a love of books (by featuring the first pages of a few classic novels along with some appropriate illustrations), that some customers ( as in, me) will be tempted to collect a complete set before they are all gone.

The Alice in Wonderland shopping bag
“The bag serves as advertisement and reminder of the bookstore and thus is an essential part of the brand’s communications,” said design firm partner Sagi Haviv in a statement. “However, this new shopping bag series does more than promote the brand itself; it reflects the love of books and itself provides a book experience — you can even start reading them on the way home.”
Barnes & Noble will be making 100 million bags to be distributed in its 700 stores across the U.S. starting this month.
I’m looking forward to seeing the bags because if they are even half as good as it appears they will be, this is going to be fun.

Louise Erdrich Wins Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction

Louise Erdrich

It may never have been Louise Erdrich’s intention to “provide the reader a Native American experience,” but she has brilliantly done exactly that for the last three decades.  And, now, she is being awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

According to the New York Times, this will happen on September 5 during the National Book Festival:

“It seems that these awards are given to a writer entirely different from the person I am — ordinary and firmly fixed,” she wrote. “Given the life I lead, it is surprising these books got written. Maybe I owe it all to my first job — hoeing sugar beets. I stare at lines of words all day and chop out the ones that suck life from the rest of the sentence. Eventually all those rows add up.”

Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine, was published in 1984, and her most recent is 2012’s The Round House.  I have been around for pretty much the entire ride (starting with her second novel, Beet Queen), and Louise Erdrich has become one of those writers in whom my trust is so high that I buy her novels on faith, fully expecting them to be of the highest quality.  And they always are.


Jack Pine

Sheriff Reuger London’s job is not an easy one.  His jurisdiction, one he works with a very limited amount of help, encompasses a remote forest area near the Canadian border almost completely populated by men – men to whom physical violence seems almost normal.  To top it off, his is very much a company town dominated by the only employer of consequence anywhere around, Johnson Timber.  And, because theirs is a dying industry that has attracted the attention of environmentalist activists wanting to finish the job of shutting the loggers down, the sheriff is sitting on a powder keg.  When the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent lawyer who is vacationing with his family in a nearby fishing lodge is raped in a woodshed on lodge property, things get ugly.
Despite the usual violation of its treaties with the U.S. government resulting in more and more of its land being confiscated, the Ojibwa Indian Tribe now owns most of the still-unlogged forest remaining anywhere around Johnson Timber.  The tribe, in fact, owns the most valuable trees still standing: acres and acres of 300-year-old Norwegian Pines coveted by every logger around.  Now, though, one of the tribe’s own, Tommy Toboken, is being accused of raping the lawyer’s daughter – and it is up to his old friend Sheriff Reuger London to bring him in. 
But after someone starts shooting loggers, Sheriff London has more to worry about than Tommy Toboken.  Soon Ben Johnson, owner of Johnson Timber, is pointing fingers at the environmentalists; the environmentalists are pointing fingers at the loggers; and the Indians don’t trust anyone on either side.  Now London has to figure out how to stop the sniper before he kills again.  Even though the environmentalists have the most obvious motive for shooting at loggers, Sheriff London decides to widen the scope of his investigation, and soon everyone around him is ducking for cover.
William Hazelgrove
Jack Pine is a first-rate crime thriller very much dependent upon the setting in which Hazelgrove has placed it.  The author vividly portrays a lifestyle and a physical environment few Americans ever get the opportunity to see for themselves, and that is a big part of the fun of Jack Pine.  But because I am so unfamiliar with the accent and speech patterns of the area, the phrasing of some of the dialogue became noticeably repetitive after a while.  Although I suspect that Hazelgrove accurately portrays the conversational pattern of his novel’s setting, I grew weary of how many times I had to read “oh, ya” or “oh, ya, you bet.”  I just do not have the experienced ear required to “hear” the dialogue of this region, and the overuse of “oh, ya” became an irritant.

Bottom Line: Despite my quibble about dialogue, this is a fine thriller with an intriguing setting.

(to be published April 1, 2015)

21st Century Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction

21st Century Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction

Interpeter of Maladies

Collection of short stories about Indians and Indian-Americans sometimes struggling to reconcile their culture with life in the United States.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Novel following the relationship of two Jewish cousins (who become pioneers in the golden age of comic books) before, during, and after World War II.

Empire Falls

Novel that tells the story of Miles Roby, former owner of the Empire Grill, and his relationship to his family and to the rich family that controls the lives of everyone living in Empire Falls, Maine.  This one was made into an HBO series starring Paul Newman.


Novel exploring the history of several generations of a Greek family through most of the twentieth century as it assimilates to life in the United States.  The novel’s main character (who gives the book its title) is an intersex man, a person who has a condition known as 5-Alpha-Reductase-Deficiency that gives him key feminine characteristics that make his gender so interchangeable that it is difficult to determine.  

The Known World

Historical novel that examines the issue of slavery from both the white and black points-of-view, including that of black slaveowners.


What turned out to be the first book in Robinson’s well-rewarded “Gilead Trilogy,” this one is the story of an elderly Congregationalist pastor who, in 1957, is writing the story of his life so that his young son will know who is father was.


My favorite of Geraldine Brooks’s novels, this one re-tells the story of Little Women through the eyes of Louisa May Alcott’s father (known here simply as March).  Much of the novel takes place during the Civil War when March was away from his family.


A father and his little boy are on the move, searching for food and shelter, after most of civilization has been destroyed.  It is not a pretty world out there.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Tells the story of a Dominican family living in New Jersey, in particular, the lives of overweight Oscar Wao and his runaway sister.  Oscar is a reader, and he is obsessed with the science fiction and fantasy genres.

Olive Kitteridge

A collection of related short stories that take place in little Crosby, Maine, this one recently was made into a very good four-part miniseries for HBO.  Olive Kitteridge, the title character, is a retired school teacher with so much attitude that her husband is either the weakest man imaginable or an out-and-out saint.


Yet another winner set in New England (see a trend here?), this one tells the story of a clockmaker who, on his death bed, recalls the life of his own father, a tinker who supported the family by selling goods from a donkey-cart.

A Vist from the Goon Squad

A collection of short stories spanning more than fifty years that largely explores the history of the rock music industry.  The stories have recurring characters, and some readers and critics consider the book to be more a novel than a short story collection.

(No Award Presented)

The Orphan Master’s Son

 Uses one man’s life history to tell the devastating story of life in modern North Korea.  A very complicated series of events allows one North Korean man a truly extraordinary, but tragic, life.

The Goldfinch

Novel with one of the weakest and most unlikable main characters I have encountered in years, this is my least favorite of the twenty-first century’s winners.  Frankly, I found its message to be a worthy one, but one that was so pretentiously delivered (especially the novel’s last few pages) that, in the long run, I regretted wasting reading time on it…just saying.

I have already read the winners from 2002 through 2007, plus the 2013 and 2014 winners.  My two favorites are March and The Orphan Master’s Son, and I consider both of these to be among my all-time favorite books.  I have officially placed the other six on my TBR list – and I’m still a little ticked at the judges that they pulled a fast one in 2012 by deciding not to choose a winner at all.  Who do they think they’re kidding?

Driving Mark Twain

Everywhere I have driven during the last six or seven weeks, Sam Clemens has been riding shotgun and entertaining me with stories from his life.  And how that man can talk.  Even when he repeats himself, the details of his stories sometimes differ to the point of casting them into a whole new light.  And since we have a few friends in common (Grant, Sherman, Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer, among them), Sam never bores me.  We even share an innate mistrust of politicians (you should hear old Sam go on about Teddy Roosevelt).  Mr. Clemens is great company and I will miss him when he’s done with all his stories.

But that won’t happen for a while…perhaps, another four or five weeks…because I’m only about fifteen percent of the way through the audio version of the second volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain.  Volume one comprises 20 CDs (the first of which will be of little or no interest to most readers, I suspect), and Volume two adds another 21 discs.
As read by Grover Gardner (who was named one of the “Best Voices of the Century” by AudioFile magazine), the books offer a wonderful opportunity to spend some one-on-one, quality time with Mark Twain.  I highly recommend this approach to anyone who might already have the set on their TBR stacks.

Combined, the books total 41 discs and 934 pages of autobiographical material.  Taken in the relatively small chunks that encompass my commuting time and my errand-running time, they are wonderful.  

Terry Pratchett – Dead at 66

Terry Pratchett

Author Terry Pratchett first announced in December 2007 that he had early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  As I noted in this December 12, 2007 posting, Mr. Pratchett was only 59 years old when he made the announcement on his illustrator’s website.  

Then in June, 2011, the author announced that he was “considering his options” to letting Alzheimer’s kill him.  According to Pratchett, he was preparing to sign the forms that would lead to his assisted suicide at a Geneva clinic.

Today comes word from the BBC that Terry Pratchett, aged 66, is dead and that he died at home, surrounded by his family…with his cat asleep on the bed beside him.  

From the BBC:

The announcement of his death was made on Sir Terry’s Twitter account on Thursday afternoon, with Rhianna (his daughter) later writing: “Many thanks for all the kind words about my dad. Those last few tweets were sent with shaking hands and tear-filled eyes.” 
Despite campaigning for assisted suicide after his diagnosis, Sir Terry’s publishers said he did not take his own life.
BBC News correspondent Nick Higham said: “I was told by the publishers his death was entirely natural and unassisted, even though he had said in the past he wanted to go at a time of his own choosing.”

Without a doubt, the fantasy writer will be greatly missed by his fans, and they will remember him forever.  He was special.

The following is a 2010 documentary that Mr. Pratchett participated in on behalf of the legalization of “assisted dying” in his home country.  It is a beautiful piece of work, but do be warned that it is graphic and one man does die in front of the cameras:


Phil Klay’s short story collection, Redeployment, was chosen as one of The New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2014.  Since that list is split evenly between five fiction and five non-fiction titles, it might be more accurate to call Redeployment one of The Review’s Five Best Works of Fiction of 2014.  It is certainly worth such a designation.
Klay is a Marine veteran of the war in Iraq, and he uses the experiences and observations he gathered from there to great effect in his stories.  His are not the kind of war stories that deal with battlefield tactics and combat.  For the most part, the war in Iraq was not that kind of war.  Instead of fighting a war of clearly defined battles, the soldiers of Iraq more often had to deal with the daily tension and pressure of expecting to die at any moment to a sniper’s bullet or to an improvised explosive devise (IED) placed in the path of their vehicle as they went about their business.  Casualties in this type of war as often involve mental wounds as they do physical ones, wounds and damage that the men will struggle with for the rest of their lives.  That mental damage is what Klay’s stories are about.
There are stories like “After Action Report,” in which a young Marine takes credit for a “kill” that belongs to a fellow soldier who does not want all the attention certain to follow such a dramatic one-on-one incident.  And, surely enough, after his fellow Marines begin to treat him differently than before, the young soldier begins to suffer the same mental stresses as if he had made the actual kill.  
Stories like “Redeployment,” in which a Marine, whose unit has taken to killing Iraqi dogs for sport, rotates home only to find his own dog to be suffering and dying from the cumulative effects of old age.   Now, on his first day home, he must decide the fate of his old friend. 
Stories like “Bodies,” in which a 19-year-old Marine, already scarred by his experiences preparing the bodies of dead comrades for shipment home from Iraq, himself comes home only to find that his pacifist girlfriend no longer wants anything to do with him. 
Phil Klay
And stories like “Prayer in the Furnace,” in which a Catholic chaplain suffers his own kind of mental anguish and ambiguity after a young soldier hints that his unit has been purposely killing innocent Iraqi civilians as a perceived form of payback for the casualties they have suffered.

What all of the stories in Redeployment have in common is a strong focus on the long term cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mental damage and anguish that our soldiers will have to live with for the rest of their lives.  We have created a generation of young men who never can, and never will, be what they could have been.  Some will say that is just another cost of defending our freedom.  Phil Klay’s stories are likely to make even those people wonder if it was all worth it.