The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens

The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens is a fun little novel (coming in at only 157 pages) disguised as a Charles Dickens autobiography.  The book, set in 1870 London, is narrated entirely in the voice of 58-year-old Charles Dickens who is feeling older than his years and wants to reveal one final episode of his life before it is too late to ever do so– indeed, Dickens would die in June of that very year.

The incident revealed here by Dickens occurred in 1835 shortly after he proposed marriage to his future wife, Catherine.  When the upwardly mobile Dickens becomes acquainted with Geoffrey Wingate, one of London’s most successful and prominent financial advisors, he also meets the man’s stunningly beautiful wife, Amanda.  Amanda is so beautiful, in fact, that her memory will haunt Dickens for the rest of his life.  His own marriage is an unhappy one, and for decades after he has lost contact with the beautiful Amanda, Dickens fantasizes about what might have been if he had only met her before Geoffrey Wingate made her his wife.
While doing research in preparation for an article featuring Geoffrey Wingate, Dickens learns that there is more to the Wingates than meets the eye.  He begins to suspect that Geoffrey Wingate may be little more than a common criminal and that his wife is hiding a sordid past of her own.  But it is only after interviewing a former prostitute whose face has been brutally mutilated, that Dickens recognizes the degree of evilness he is dealing with in the person of Geoffrey Wingate.  Now, in more personal danger than even he imagines, Dickens has to decide what to do about his suspicions.

Thomas Hauser

By blending facts from the real life of Charles Dickens with his fictionalized, hands-on investigation of one of London’s bad guys, Thomas Hauser has created a fun ride through the very streets of London that Dickens portrayed in his own novels.  Hauser has, in fact, so wonderfully captured the Dickens voice readers have grown familiar with from those nineteenth century novels that it is easy for readers to forget that they are not reading something written by Mr. Dickens himself.  If a nineteenth-century man in his early twenties can still be said to be coming of age, what Hauser has written here is in reality a coming-of-age novel featuring Charles Dickens.  And it is a good one.

Johnson Country Library Moving Books Five Tons at a Time

My librarian friends might want to file this video in the backs of their minds for future reference.  Based upon the big stir this book-moving method has caused in the Kansas media, this more efficient and timesaving  approach to moving books must be something relatively new.

The Johnson County Central Resource Library (in Overland, KS) is faced with moving approximately 200,000 books as part of its renovation project.  According to the library, moving the books the way shown in this video will save the project 12 extra weeks of work that would have otherwise been required if the books had been moved by hand.  

So this is either a something new – or it was a very slow news-day in and around Kansas City, Missouri.  Not sure which.

The New Waterstones Watch: Cheaper than the Apple Watch and Just as Much Fun

It has been really hard to avoid all the hype about the new Apple Watch lately, so British bookstore chain Waterstones has decided it is better to “join ’em if you can’t beat ’em.” 

Thus was born the brand new Waterstones Watch.  Guaranteed to cost a tiny fraction of what one of those Apple gizmos cost, this invention is guaranteed to leave your friends shaking their heads when they see it (of course, their head-shakes might just mean they are questioning your sanity).  

After watching the attached video/user’s manual, feel free to get your order placed before they are all gone.  Ready, set, go…

From the Waterstones Blog:

The screen is flexible and multi-layered to create a compact stacked effect. It looks exactly like paper because, if you look closely, you’ll see that it is paper.
Each Waterstones Watch includes our patented Brain and Optics Optimal Konnection System System, or B.O.O.K.S. System, featuring 26 individual characters which, when put together into ‘words’ and ‘sentences’, delivers a unique reading sensation.
The watch is fully backwards compatible. It supports every model of book created since the invention of the printing press over 550 years ago.
It is also entirely customisable. You can create your own model from almost any genre to make the Waterstones Watch truly represent who you are. 

Black River

Black River, S.M. Hulse’s debut novel, is one of those books that come around every so often to remind me of why I so much enjoy reading and why I am always willing to take a look at debut novels and books by new-to-me authors.  It is that good.  The novel tells the story of Wes and Claire Carver, man and wife, who left Black River eighteen years earlier because of what happened to them in that little Montana town.  Now, Wes is back.  And he really doesn’t want to be there.
For generations, the best paying jobs in Black River have been inside the walls of the local prison.  Many of the prison’s correction officers, in fact, have fathers who themselves once held the same jobs they are working today.  Wes Carver is no exception, but for Wes it all went terribly wrong during a prison riot during which he was taken hostage by a psychopath – and tortured for 39 hours.  Wes, even though he worked at the prison another two years, emerged from that experience a broken man, both physically and mentally.  Then, after a near violent confrontation at the dinner table between Wes and his stepson, he and Claire leave Black River to start a new life for themselves in Spokane, Washington. 
S. M. Hulse
Now Wes has returned to Black River for two very different reasons: to bring Claire’s ashes back to her son and to testify at the parole hearing of the man who almost tortured him to death twenty years earlier.  Finally forced to confront all his old demons (including his relationship with the step-son he has barely spoken to for the past eighteen years), Wes is not having an easy time of it.  Now his friends are starting to wonder which of the two tasks will destroy him first.
Black River, largely told through flashbacks, is filled with interesting characters and plot twists, and its setting is so vividly rendered by Hulse that the reader gets a clear feeling of what life in such a geographically isolated and self-contained location must be like.  This is a place with few secrets, a place where newcomers are not particularly welcome, a place where families have known each other for generations.  And they like it that way. 

No, this is not a perfect novel.  But it is one that I highly recommend, and one that has turned me into an S.M. Hulse fan.  I can’t wait to see what she does next.

More Sunday Shorts

  • I spent the entire day (from 7:00 a.m. until after 5:00 p.m.) traveling from one ballpark to another and watching my grandson play in three different baseball games, so I haven’t read much at all today.  It’s on days like this, though, that I really enjoy tucking my Kindle into a pocket and sneaking in some reading during the downtime between games.
  • I’m a bit over halfway through a British novel by Neil Grimmett called The Hoard that has turned into a really dark, almost surreal, thriller about high grade explosives being sold by a group of well placed Brits to any terrorist in the market for such things.  I was a bit slow to warm up to the plot, but now that the characters have been fully developed, I am well and truly hooked and can’t wait to see how this one ends.  (I managed to read about 30 more pages of The Hoard today off my Kindle.)
  • I am also about one-third of the way through By Sorrow’s River, the third book in Larry McMurty’s “Berrybender Narratives,” and I’m really enjoying the saga.  I think this series will particularly appeal to female readers because it is filled with so many female characters – some of them British and some of them Indian.  I find myself consistently rooting for the oldest Berrybender daughter, Tasmin, in her quest to carve out a new life for herself and her family, but I have absolutely fallen in love with the two youngest girls.  I don’t think I have ever met two more precocious (and literate) little girls than these two in any book I have ever read.  Kate, the four-year-old, is a brilliant little troublemaker I will never forget, and I am fascinated by how much young Mary enjoys stirring things up – and how good she is at it.
  • Is anyone else familiar with “The Berrybender Naratives”?  Have you read any of the books and, if so, what did you think of them?  I need to do a little research to see how well received (or not) these four books were when each was first published.  As a dedicated McMurtry fan, I was aware of them as soon as they were available, but I don’t recall them making a very big splash in the book world.
  • My brief reading slump is all over.  I’m enjoying my reading again, and I’m really looking forward to what comes next.  At least for the moment, I seem to be choosing wisely, and as long as that continues, the slump is not likely to return.
  • Now it’s on to another week of work, dealing with the insurance adjuster on Tuesday in order to assess the hail damage my wife’s car suffered last Sunday evening, and fighting the VA and Treasury’s efforts to harass my 93-year-old father to an earlier than necessary death.  It promises to be an interesting week for sure.

Short Story Saturday: Ann Beattie’s "The Indian Uprising"

Ann Beattie
While explaining what drove her to write her short story “The Indian Uprising” in the “Contributors’ Notes” of The Best American Short Stories 2014, Ann Beattie remarks, “Is this oblique?”  She is referring to her explanation of the story’s origin, but she could easily have asked the same question about the story itself because there is nothing at all straightforward about “The Indian Uprising,” including its title. 
The story begins with a conversation between two unidentified people who do not seem to be much listening to each other.  Instead, each makes his/her point in succession even though the points only occasionally intersect.  But Maude, as it turns out, is pretty much the only one of Frank Chadwick’s former creative writing students who have bothered to stay in touch with him at all through the years. 
The diabetic complications that Frank suffers have made him a man much older than his seventy-one years, and during the celebratory lunch to mark his birthday at a nearby Mexican restaurant, Maud notices that a good bit of blood has seeped through the white sock on Frank’s swollen foot.  In a matter of minutes, Maude has fainted, and is being tended to while Frank is being escorted to the hospital by Savannah, the transgendered receptionist from his apartment building. 
On his way out of the restaurant, Frank loudly announces that he is borrowing one of the sombreros hung on the wall like one borrows “an umbrella” in similar situations.  Someone says, “There might be an Indian uprising if we try to stop him,” and Frank is allowed to go merrily on his way, sombrero and all.  (So the Mexican restaurant diners are the “Indians” ?)
A short while after Frank’s death, Maude decides to write about the experience and her relationship with Frank.  But Maude, a poet, decides that there is no poem to be had from the incident, and decides to try a short story, instead because “a lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love.  It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.”

I realize (and regret) that my thoughts about the story probably include enough information to spoil it for other readers, but that is how mystified I am about this particular Ann Beatty story being chosen for a “Best American Short Story” anthology.  Perhaps it was chosen because its theme is one that intrigues other writers.  But it is all just a little too much “inside baseball” for me, and it left me feeling rather cold towards it. 

Colorado’s Infamous Highway 287 Book-Dumper Stopped in His Tracks

Mystery solved.

The Case of the Colorado Book-Dumper has been quickly and neatly solved with the culprit being caught in the act of tossing more books out his window on Thursday morning.

According to the Times-Call Local News, the jackass otherwise known as Glenn Pladsen was stopped by a Colorado state trooper as he was throwing six more books onto Highway 287 early that morning.  The man’s justification for throwing the books out of his car window are astoundingly stupid:

Pladsen said he works long hours as a technician at RF Concepts LLC and that taking the books to the landfill or Goodwill would mean an extra trip, so he started tossing them out of the window on his way to work.
He added that he has arthritis and couldn’t lift the books over his head to throw them into a Dumpster. He has tried to give away the books — which cover a variety of topics and genres — but no one wants them.
“My whole basement is full of books, and I need to get rid of them now,” he said. “I’ll stop doing what I’ve been doing, of course.”

Well, of course you will, Glenn.  

In addition to denying that not all the books found alongside Highway 287 can be attributed to him, the genius went on to say that:

“I never did it when there were other cars around or in traffic,” he said. “I had no idea it was a mystery. I would have stopped a long time ago if I thought anybody cared.”

Gotta tell you, Glenn, old buddy that you don’t come across here as someone who is even capable of reading a book.   Quit talking, man.  Wow.

Read entire article here        Previous Book Chase posting here

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England proved to be one of those book titles I could not resist forever.  As an avowed book lover and one who has enjoyed visiting author homes for a long time, I shuddered at the very thought of what might be inside the covers of this one – and what I found was even stranger than I expected it would be.   An Arsonist’s Guide is not for everyone, but if you enjoy books about books and writing, humorous novels combining farce and satire, or characters so unrealistic that they start to seem real to you, you will probably enjoy it. 
Sam Pulsifer, whose father is an editor and whose mother is an English professor, accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson’s historic home.  His parents probably could not visualize a crime more devastating and embarrassing than that one, but it gets worse: the fire also claimed the lives of the two people still inside the old house.  Now, after serving ten years in prison, Sam is returning to Amherst, the scene of his crime, because he has no place else to go.  He just wants to hide while he figures out what to do with the rest of his life.
The past decade has not been kind to Sam’s parents.  His crime and ensuing imprisonment have taken such a toll on his mother and his father, both physically and mentally, that Sam barely recognizes them or their new lifestyle.  But even then, it is only when the historic homes of other famous authors begin to go up in smoke all around New England that Sam understands that his chances of maintaining a low profile while he regroups are gone.   Due to the timing and proximity of the fires, Sam is, of course, the most logical suspect.  He gets it – and he knows that if he doesn’t prove his innocence, he is likely headed back to prison for a long, long time.
The problem is that Sam Pulsifer is a chronic “bungler,” something that was first pointed out rather gleefully to him by a group of white collar criminals he met in prison.  As he moves from one crime scene to the next, interviewing people and observing the physical evidence, managing to implicate himself in one fire after the other, Sam proves their assessment to be an astute one.  He is indeed a “bungler.”

Brock Clarke
Brock Clarke’s utterly absurd characters and far-fetched plot are a perfect match for the satirical look at life (and the literary lifestyle) that he presents in An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.  Ironically, the book is filled with literary allusions and observations that will be most appreciated by the very folks whose lifestyle is being lampooned.  Clarke has something to say about the complexities of life, love, and marriage, and he says it well.  This may very well be one of those love-it-or-hate-it books with little opinion between the two extremes, but book lovers should give it the shot it deserves.

Book Trailer of the Week: The Little Prince (movie version)

This may be the first time I’ve ever used the word “enchanting” in a sentence, but there is no other way to describe this movie trailer.  The Little Prince is not one of my favorite books (I don’t think I have ever read it, actually) so I’m speaking here as an adult and not reacting from some long-buried childhood memory:

This movie is enchanting.  Period.

Sin Killer Killed My Reading Slump

 I’ve been edging toward a serious reading slump in the last week or so, one of those periods during which my pace slows down and even choosing the next book becomes a chore.  It seem like that happens to me two or three times a year.  But I always try to keep in mind that it takes only one book to get me jumpstarted and moving again…but what book?

Well, I found it on my own shelves this time around, where it has been patiently waiting to be read since I brought it home in 2002.  It is a Larry McMurtry western called Sin Killer that turned out to be the first of four novels comprising McMurtry’s “Berrybender Narratives.”  I remember starting this one once before and being pretty much underwhelmed by the characters and plot after wading through roughly its first twenty-five pages.  And that’s the way it started out for me again this time.  But then suddenly, the characters all started to fall into place and I felt myself being sucked into the little world in which McMurtry had placed the Berrybender family.

From there, there was no looking back, and I raced through the book in two days.  Sin Killer ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I couldn’t wait to start on The Wandering Hill, the next book in the series.  And that’s where my “completist gene” paid dividends…all three of the remaining books in the series were right there on the shelf smiling at me because they knew they had me hooked.

I got through the first thirty-five pages this morning, resolving the cliffhanger in the process, and now I’m looking forward to reading the four books in succession.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like to wait a year or so for each of the next books in the series to be published one-at-a-time because I’m pretty certain that I would have lost the momentum (and memory of the plot details) necessary to maximize the fun of the Berrybender books.  (I see now that both The Wandering Hill and By Sorrow’s River were published in 2003 and Folly and Glory in 2004.)

So…reading slump averted.  Now to see what’s happening with the surviving Berrybenders…

The Book of Speculation

Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, is a complicated tale about a family whose women have for generations suffered one of the strangest curses imaginable: they all choose to end their lives by drowning.  An odd thing about the string of deaths is that each of the women, because of her ability to hold her breath for an extraordinary length of time, once made her living as a circus “mermaid.’  But strangest of all is that each of them decides to do the deed on July 24.
Although Simon Watson’s mother is one of these women, he has no idea that she is just the latest in her line to have drowned herself on July 24.  Simon, now a small town librarian, lives alone in the family home in which he cared for his younger sister after the death of their father.  Enola (yes, she is named after the Enola Gay that carried the first atomic bomb to Japan) joined the circus as a Tarot card “seer” six years earlier and seldom makes it home now to see her brother.  Simon’s life has, in fact, become rather dull and routine – but all of that changes on the day in June that he receives an unexpected package in the mail.
An antiquarian book dealer, whom Simon has never heard of, has sent him a 1700s-vintage book because of a reference the dealer found in it to a member of Simon’s family.  The book, which appears to be the logbook of a traveling circus, arouses Simon’s curiosity so intensely that he decides to use all his library skills and connections to research the name found in the book.  And what he finds scares him to death.  Now, with July 24 fast approaching again, Simon’s life has become a race against the clock as he desperately searches for an answer that will keep his sister from becoming the latest victim of the family curse.
Erika Swyler
The Book of Speculation revisits the age-old debate of fate vs. free will.  Is the course of a person’s life governed by fate, or is free will enough to move what appears to be one’s fate in a whole variety of directions?  Simon does not believe that his sister has to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmothers.  But as the days fly by, and the universe begins to conspire against him, he begins to wonder if fate holds all the best cards.

Bottom Line: The Book of Speculation is an intriguing story in which alternating chapters between the past and the present steadily crank up the tension all the way to what proves to be a rousing finish.  It is easy to get lost in this one – and I did.

Sunday Shorts

I’m heading to Minute Maid Park in a few minutes with my youngest grandson to watch the Astros take on the Angels (who used to be the California Angels but are now called something really cheesy like the “Angels of Anaheim”).  But before we leave, there’s time for a few more Sunday Shorts:

  • I spent another hour sorting a closet full of books yesterday afternoon and came away with 20 more hardcover books that I can release into the wild to make their own way in the world.  I’m sure the books will be thrilled to see the light of day…as thrilled as the folks at my office will be Monday morning to find the coffee break room filled with free books again. That brings me to almost exactly 100 hardcover books that I’ve moved out the door so far this year.  
  • I’ve kind of settled on the idea of listening to classic novels as I drive to and from work (although I’m going into FULL retirement on May 14, so time is running out quickly) because I never seem to get around to reading them anymore.  That backfired on me this week when, right in the middle of The Three Musketeers, I came across a disc so defective that it cannot be read by any CD player I own.  Well, that stopped me in my tracks.  I hesitate to try to finish up by reading the rest of the story because the new translator is likely to have a completely different style than that of the audio book version.  Epic Fail.
  • Coming into the year, I put together a list of unread books I own, some of which have been on my shelves for almost 30 years.  I prepared the list with high hopes to then make a real dent in it during 2015, a project that doesn’t seem to be happening.  Just this week, I finally finished my first book from the list (The Joy Luck Club) and I’ve started another one (a thirteen-year-old Larry McMurtry book).  That’s not nearly the pace I was hoping for, but it’s a start.  Now I need to build on the tiny bit of momentum I’ve gained this week…lots of books to go.
  • And, I feel like I’m entering my first reading funk of the year.  I can always tell when it happens because my per-day page count drops right off the table – exactly as it has for the last four or five days now.  I’ve learned the hard way that the only thing likely to get me back on pace any time soon is to find that Magic Book, the one that gets me so excited that I can’t put it down.  Let the search begin…wish me luck.

Short Story Saturday: Charles Baxter’s "Charity"

Charles Baxter
Charles Baxter’s short story “Charity” made its first appearance in 2013 as part of Issue number 43 of McSweeney’s.  It is also the very first story in The Best American Short Stories of 2014, the wonderful collection edited by Jennifer Egan that I enjoy dipping in and out of so much. 
“Charity” is about Matty Quinn, a man who goes to Africa with only one goal in mind.  He is not there to exploit the situation so that he can come home a richer man.  On the contrary, he is there simply to make a difference in the lives of a few people via the little health clinic that employs him.  Matty Quinn is a kind soul, and as observed one day by Harry Albert, he does the little things that really do make a difference.  Matty is so kind, so empathetic, in fact, that Harry falls in love with him before they speak a single word to each other.
Matty Quinn, though, is an example of the old clichéthat “no good deed goes unpunished” because soon after he returns to the U.S. doctors tell him that the fatigue and pain he suffers are due to a viral rheumatism infection that he acquired in Africa.  Their remedy?  Painkillers and time.  But before he knows it, doctors have cut Matty off from the very painkillers that make his life even remotely bearable – forcing him to spend his remaining savings to acquire the same drugs illegally on the streets of Minneapolis.  Finally, Matty does what is to him the unthinkable; he resorts to mugging people to get enough cash to make it through another day.  And kind soul that he is, the guilt drives him nuts. 
“Charity” is told in two distinct voices.  The first part of the story is a third person recounting of Matty’s story: who he is, how he met Harry, why he was in Africa, and what happened to him when he came home.  The second part of the story suddenly switches into the first person voice of Harry himself, and in a final twist of voices, Harry reveals that he is also the author of the third person account that makes up the earlier part of “Charity.”  This second section delves deeper into the relationship of the two men and brings the story to its somber, but satisfying, conclusion. 

Interestingly, in the “Contributors Notes” section of The Best American Short Stories of 2014, Baxter reveals that “Charity” is just one of several stories he had been writing at the time about “virtues and vices.”  He had, in fact, been struggling with a plot for the story he wanted to call “Charity” when he remembered a character from the one he called “Chastity.”  In that story, a young man is severely injured during a mugging when someone comes up behind him and strikes him with a pipe.  The mugger was never identified.  Baxter says he began wondering who could have done such a thing – and why.  Could the mugger actually have been a good man caught up in a situation so desperate that it drove him to do something completely out of character?  Thus, was born the plot of “Charity,” and the rest is history.

The Assault

I did not learn until last month that Dutch author Harry Mulisch died in late November 2010, but even though The Assault is the only Mulisch book I have read, the news that he is gone saddens me.  And because The Assault is so well crafted and tells such a memorable story, I intend to see what else of his is available to readers in this country. 
The novel is set in Haarlem in late 1945, during the last few weeks of Germany’s harsh occupation of The Netherlands.  As is always the case, a few have decided to make life easier for themselves and their families by collaborating with their occupiers rather than resisting them.  Toward the very end of the war, the assassination of one of these despicable people, a police inspector by the name of Ploeg, will lead to the near total destruction of the unfortunate Steenwijks, a family in front of whose home the German’s find Ploeg’s bullet riddled body.  
In one horrible night, ten-year-old Anton Steenwijk loses everything: his parents, his only sibling, and the home he has lived in as long as he can remember.  The events of that night are so shocking and so chaotic that Anton understands little of what is happening around him.  All he knows, as he is being taken away by car, is that his house seems to be burning to the ground, and that his parents and brother are nowhere to be found. It is only years later, as he encounters figures from his brief Haarlem past, that Anton begins to learn the details of what really happened that night.
Now he has to deal with it.
Harry Mulisch
The Assault is as much about the emotional scars of an enemy occupation of one’s homeland as it is about the physical ones.  After wars, cities can be so successfully rebuilt that just a few years later it is hard to believe that they were ever destroyed in the first place.  It is not so easy, however, to rebuild the emotional lives of war’s survivors, and for many that task is impossible.  Anton Steenwijk, though, has been more successful at putting the war behind him than most of his contemporaries have been.  He is not out there looking for the truth – but the truth seems to be looking for him.  What he learns changes everything about who he thinks he is.

Bottom Line:  This excellent translation of The Assaultwill haunt the novel’s readers long after they have turned its last page.  I highly recommend this one.

Saving Books One Penny at a Time

Save a book from this fate: buy it for a penny

Have you ever noticed what seems to be thousands and thousands of used books on sale for a few pennies each on  Many of them are being offered at one cent each, in fact.  Have you ever wondered how anyone could afford to sell books at that price?

The secret, my friend, is in the price being charged to the buyer for shipping…what the shysters on TV like to call “postage and handling,” with “handling” perhaps providing the largest portion of the profit being made on the entire transaction.  Why else would every single TV seller be so eager to give you two items for the price of one PLUS another charge for postage and handling?  

Well, according to The Guardian, it works pretty much the same way on when it comes to the sale of used books by third-party sellers.  Acquire them cheaply in bulk, slap a penny price tag on each book, charge the standard $3.99 shipping fee, and there’s money to be made there for both the seller and for Amazon. 

The price point is partly a result of the market’s downward pressure: at a certain level of supply and demand the race to the lowest price swiftly plummets to the bottom. What remains inflexible is the $3.99 fee Amazon charges the buyer for shipping. From that $4, Amazon takes what they call a “variable closing fee” of $1.35. They also charge the seller 15% of the item’s price – which in the case of a penny book is zero. That leaves $2.64 to cover postage, acquisition cost and overhead. 
“All told,” Mike Ward concedes, “we only make a few cents on a penny book sale like that.” Now that hardly seems like much, true. “But keep in mind,” he adds, “that last year we sold 11.5m books.”

 (The most surprising bit in the article might just be that so many charity shops are giving away donated books in bulk if someone is just willing to haul them away on a regular basis.)

Do read the article because it might just get you in the proper mood to see what you can add to your own collection for only $4 a whack.  Some very good deals are to be had.

Book Trailer of the Week: Toddlers Are A**holes (And It’s Not Your Fault)

Although even the last of my grandchildren are now well beyond the toddler stage of life, this does bring back some memories…not all of them pleasant ones.

Looks like the book offers a bit of comic relief for parents who find themselves mired in toddlerhood at the moment.  I hope it helps.  But don’t get so involved in the book that you forget to check on the little guys…or they will make you pay for that oversight.

Driving the King

The 1956 onstage assault suffered by singer Nat King Cole in Birmingham, Alabama, made headlines around the world.  Thankfully, the three men who attacked Cole at that event accomplished little more than knocking him to the floor before they were apprehended by policemen who were there to prevent just such an incident.  King returned to the stage a few minutes after the assault and managed to finish his performance without further incident.
This is the real world event that Ravi Howard uses as the centerpiece of his new novel Driving the King – even though he moves the event back about a decade and has it take place in Montgomery rather than in Birmingham.  However, as alluded to in the book’s title, Driving the King is really the story of a fictional character who served as the singer’s personal driver for a number of years (Nat King Cole is, in fact, a relatively minor character in the book). 
Initially drawn together because they shared a first name, Nat Cole and Nat Weary were boyhood friends and classmates before King’s family moved out of Montgomery.  And now that the famous Nat King Cole has come to Montgomery to do a show, Nat Weary has a favor to ask him.  Weary wants Cole to help him propose to his girlfriend during the show – and the singer agrees to stop the show while Weary makes his move.  But when a man jumps on stage and begins beating Cole, everything goes wrong.  The proposal never happens, and Nat Weary, as a result of his aggressive defense of Cole, finds himself doing ten years of hard labor in one of Alabama’s harshest prisons.  “The King,” though, never forgets what his old friend did for him.  Upon Weary’s release from prison, Cole asks Weary to come to Los Angeles to be his driver and after much consideration Nat accepts the job. 
Author Ravi Howard
Driving the Kingis set in the pivotal period of race relations in this country.  The book covers in detail the Montgomery bus strike of the period, and even includes a young Martin Luther King as one of its characters.  It is a stark and vivid portrayal of Jim Crow Alabama, but it does not stop there, because Nat King Cole, as the first black performer with a television show of his own (15 minutes in length), suffered racial prejudice even in Los Angeles.  (In the real world, a cross was burned on the LA lawn of King’s home by members of the Ku Klux Klan.) 

This is an ambitious novel – and it largely accomplishes what it set out to do.  But, perhaps because so many of its characters are stereotypical (both blacks and whites), the book never fully draws the reader into the world as it was at that time.  It just does not seem real.  Nat Weary is an interesting character – and learning a bit about Nat King Cole’s personal journey is interesting – but I can’t help but feel that Driving the Kingcould have been so much more than it is.  And that’s a shame.

Why I Will Never Read J.M. Coetzee Again (not that the goofball cares, of course)

J.M. Coetzee

Listening to Simon and Thomas (on a recent episode of The Readers podcast) discuss “reading assumptions” got me to thinking about my own preconceived reaction to certain authors and wondering if I were doing myself a disservice in the process of making assumptions similar to those they described.  But when I thought more specifically about some of my assumptions, I decided that the answer to that question is an emphatic “no.”  

Let’s take South African author J.M. Coetzee as an example of what I mean.  Based almost entirely upon one novel, Diary of a Bad Year, I have come to despise the man.  I have no interest in ever reading another word he has written, or will write in the future, no matter how much critics around the world may love the guy.  Why do I feel that way?

Because in that book, Coetzee comes across as a vicious, little weasel of a man who represents everything I hate about politics and the smear tactics that are so often used today to ruin unfairly the reputations of good men.  Coetzee hates certain U.S. political figures so deeply that he simply cannot control himself in Diary of a Bad Year.  He, in fact, lets his hatred so overwhelm him that, despite his attempt to employ effectively a stylistic gimmick, the stink of his hatred permeates the entire novel.  I finished it only because Coetzee made such a fool of himself that I could not turn away.  In a perverse way, it was a fascinating thing to watch.
So now, and probably forever more, when I see a J.M. Coetzee book in a bookstore, I think of nothing but the pettiness and childishness displayed by its author in Diary of a Bad Year.  Am I wrong for not giving another Coetzee book a chance?  Considering how angry the last one left me feeling, I don’t think so.

Life is too short to read all the good books that I want to read, so why should I bother with those that are almost certain to leave me feeling abused?  I do suppose, though, that I should thank Mr. Coetzee for automatically eliminating his novels from consideration each time that I go about choosing the next book.  Anything that simplifies life is a good thing – even when it comes from a man dominated by his one-track mind.

Sunday Shorts

Somehow or another, I have collected a random little bunch of bookish (and maybe not so bookish) thoughts in the last couple of days that I know do not deserve anything remotely like an entire blog post of their own.  These are things I would normally tweet about on my Book Chase Twitter account, but that has come to feel so much like shouting into a black hole that I’ve pretty much given up on Twitter.  

So…here’s my first (and maybe my last) group of Sunday Shorts:

  • Is it as hard for you to follow a Zadie Smith novel as it is for me?  I’m about 80 pages in her novel NW right now, and I’m finally able to read whole pages without having to re-read paragraphs over again because I have no idea what the woman is talking about.  As many of you know, Smith is one of those “creative” stylists.  No quotation marks for Zadie…just smaller print to indicate conversation is taking place.  Now try to figure how who is speaking for each line.  Simply put, that is not as easy as you might think it would be.  Anyway, I’m almost  through the first section of the book – and I’m hoping she doesn’t mess around with me by switching styles with each section.
  • I managed to cull another 30 books from my shelves and closets this afternoon.  That brings my culled total up to about 80 books since I decided it was time to get rid of some books before my wife volunteered to do the job herself.  I hope they all find good homes and are happier than they were here sitting inside dark closets for years at a time.
  • I saw one of those cheesy little sayings this weekend that went something like, “The key to happiness is avoiding all idiots.”  Well, I failed miserably at doing that today, and my unhappiness level has been pretty high since before noon today because one of the biggest and most proficient idiots I have ever known decided to start another squabble with me.  I like the way Mark Twain put it in his autobiography when he said that some people are just “assfull.”  You are my hero, Mr. Twain…but you already know that.
  • The Astros toyed with my emotions for over four hours this afternoon, but the final score of the game did get me out of being in such a deep funk about that “assfull” nuisance I had to deal with, so I forgive them.  First we grab a 4-0 lead and coast right up to the last two innings – during which we fall apart and let the Rangers tie the score at 4-4.  Then Astros right fielder George Springer makes one of the most spectacular catches I have seen in over 50 years of watching baseball games by extending his glove over the outfield fence to catch what would have otherwise been a walk-off grand slam home run for the Rangers.  It took another nail-biting four innings, but the good guys finally prevailed 6-4.  And suddenly, I was smiling.
So, for the moment, life is a little better.  I don’t have to deal with that assfull hypocrite again for another few days; with a 3-3 record, my local baseball team is doing OK to start the 2015 season; and I have room for 80 new books.  (But don’t tell my wife that last bit.)

Full Measure

T. Jefferson Parker has been writing crime fiction for three decades now, and he has done it consistently well.  But, perhaps because his reputation as a crime writer is already as solid as it gets, he offers something very different to his fans this time around.  Full Measure is a character-driven literary novel that, according to fellow novelist Stephen Harrigan, sees Parker “playing in the same league as John Steinbeck.”  While that may be a little strong, do not make the mistake of underestimating this novel because it truly is a fine piece of writing.
When Marine Patrick Norris returns from Afghanistan, he believes that his fighting days are over.  Little does he suspect that he is coming home just in time to help defend his family in a very personal battle that seems almost certain to overwhelm them.  The California avocado farm the family has operated as long as Patrick can remember has been overrun by a fast-moving wildfire.  Now, only a few trees are standing – and no one knows how many of them are still alive.  And because the remaining trees may never produce avocados again, Norris Farms is unable to get the bank financing needed to carry it through the lean times just ahead.  If the family can hold on long enough to prove that most of the standing trees are still alive, the farm has a slim chance of surviving.  But hanging on will not be easy – and it cannot be done without Patrick’s help.
T. Jefferson Parker
Ted, Patrick’s older brother has long been the weakest link in the family chain, and now his mental instability and carelessness around the trees are as big a threat to the farm as the rogue storm that appears to be headed San Diego’s way.  Ted thinks little of himself, but he idolizes his younger brother and considers Patrick to be a true American hero, someone who has upheld the honor of his family and his country.  Patrick is everything that Ted wants to be but knows he never can be – and it shames him.
Ready or not, Patrick Norris is in the fight of his life now.  He wants to save his brother from himself, he will do whatever it takes to save the avocado farm, and his struggle with demons of his own is about to doom his relationship with the young woman he deeply loves. 

Full Measure is the story of a family pushed to the brink by Mother Nature.  It is about loyalty and duty to family, and the way that two very different brothers respond to the immense pressures of the situation.  It is about life in all its beauty and all its ugliness.