The Pavement Bookworm, Part 2

I first posted about Philani Dladla (aka The Pavement Bookworm) back on August 28.  In case you didn’t see that post, here’s a quick link to it for your reference.

As you might recall, Dladla is a young South African who found himself homeless and addicted to drugs…nothing unusual about that story.  But what makes Dladla special is that he used his love of books as a way to pull himself back together and, more importantly, to help a whole lot of other people in the process.

It’s a great story, especially if you follow the links and watch the videos associated with Dladla’s journey.  And, in that first post, I mentioned that the 24-year-old was working on a book of his own, a memoir explaining just how he became the man he is today.  Well, GoodNewsNetwork tells us that Dladla’s memoir is going to be released in late October by South African publisher Jacana Media.  The book, aptly titled The Pavement Bookworm, does not appear to be available for pre-order in the U.S. – at least at the moment – but it’s one worth watching for.

Book details
  • The Pavement Bookworm by Philani Dladla
    EAN: 9781928337003

Post #2,576

Printed Books Are Still Popular

I spotted an interesting article from Shreveport Times columnist Gary Calligas this morning.  In it, Mr. Calligas, who publishes a free monthly magazine for “mature adults” and hosts a Saturday morning radio show aimed at the same audience, talks about his fear that the youngest generations are now doing pretty much all of their reading on one electronic device or another.  According to Calligas, and I agree with him here, such youngsters are completely missing out on the more tactile pleasures associated with reading a book – pleasures that they will never even know they are missing unless someone makes sure that they get a few physical books in their hands before it is too late.

He greatly encourages grandparents (many of whom personally know nothing of the advantages of electronic reading) to buy books for their grandchildren – books they can discuss with them and enjoy together, no matter the age of those grandchildren.  He goes on describes what he saw at a local library sale:

“I was so happy to learn many seniors who were grandparents or great grandparents buying printed books for their grandkids. I know their grandkids are going to be thrilled about receiving them for an upcoming special occasion. One gentleman told me his grandson needs to learn more about American and World History from other sources than what they are teaching in school. So, he added these books will give him the opportunity to talk with his grandson about those certain times in history and to comment on their importance.”

In fairness, Mr. Calligas does mention that many young people are driven to reading e-books more as a matter of convenience and lower pricing than for any real pleasures to be derived from electronic reading itself.   He is quick to point out, too, that he has tried reading e-books and neither enjoys reading them or finds the process to be an easy one.

Gary Calligas

All of the author’s points are well taken, but I do think that most of us these days, young people included, tend to read both e-books and tree-books.  About one-third of my own reading, for instance, is done via a Kindle or an iPad app allowing me to access my e-books.  On the other hand, my youngest grandson, a seventh-grade student, does his reading exclusively with physical books.  He loves the heft and feel of the books he’s reading and especially enjoys collecting them in series.  I enjoy the convenience of having a large number of books on one device without having to worry about finding shelf-space for them all.  (When I want to add a book to my permanent collection, I buy a physical copy even if I have already read it electronically.)  I realize that this is only anecdotal evidence, but I’ve noticed the same reading habits in my granddaughter, a high school junior who much prefers physical books both when it comes to reading for pleasure and when it comes to reading for study – as I well know since I’m the one financially supporting most of her reading.

Personally, what I’m seeing is that the market share of e-books may have very well peaked for now.  E-books will always be around, and they certainly have their advantages, but at least for now, the very existence of the physical book is not being threatened – despite all the dire predictions otherwise that were so common just three or four years ago.  And that is a wonderful thing.  

These are wonderful times for readers.

Twain’s End

I started reading Mark Twain when I was about twelve years old, and over the decades I have come to read a substantial portion of his novels, essays, and other writing, including even his very long “autobiography.”  Too, I have read collections of his letters, biographies, and books about his books, so I was already pretty much aware that Mark Twain’s personality often bore little resemblance to that of Samuel Clemens.  But still, I was unaware of the scandal involving Clemens and Isabel Lyon until I read last year’s nonfiction account of it in Laura Trombley’s Mark Twain’s Other Woman (one of the many books used in Lynn Cullen’s research for Twain’s End).  So when I heard about Cullen’s new novel about Twain’s dedicated effort to ruin the reputation of his longtime secretary, I was eager to get my hands on it.

Twain’s End can certainly be read straight through like an ordinary novel, but it might be more meaningful if one starts with the author’s presentation of her impressive research sources and techniques.  Best of all, Cullen shrewdly uses excerpts from Isabel Lyon’s actual diary as the basic, chronological structure of her novel.  Then, with the basic facts established, it is up to Cullen to speculate about the motives, hidden agendas, personalities, newspaper sensationalism, and half-truths that inevitably shadow a scandal of this nature.   And what Cullen “reveals” about Mark Twain, Clara Clemens, Jean Clemens, Olivia Clemens, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and John Macy is not often pretty.
Sam Clemens originally hired Isabel Lyon as the personal secretary of his ailing wife, but in reality, even from the beginning, she served more as secretary and manager of the day-to-day affairs of the entire Clemens family.  The Clemens family was not a happy one when Lyon entered the picture, and it was certainly not a happy family when she left it.  One daughter, Suzy, was dead; another, Jean, was in and out of asylums; and Clara had a volatile relationship with her overprotective father.  And sadly enough, Olivia Clemens strongly suspected that her husband was physically attracted to his secretary. 
Author Lynn Cullen

Twain’s End is the story of the slowly evolving relationship between Sam Clemens, Isabel Lyon, and Clara Clemens.  As presented by Lynn Cullen, the relationship may have been slow to develop, but it was an inevitable one that finally ran its course because Isabel Lyon was patient enough to bide her time.  In the end, however, Lyon’s dreams were frustrated and denied her.  And when she finally gave them up and married a younger suitor, Clemens cut her off, accused her of embezzlement of his personal funds, and made a concerted effort to ruin her reputation and life.  No one, not a single person, in this sordid story exactly covers himself with glory.

Twain’s End will be of interest to Mark Twain fans yearning to know more about what made the man tick.  I enjoyed much of the story, but found that it left me wishing that more time had been spent on the embezzlement aspect of the relationship and a good bit less on the “romance” itself.  My biggest surprise was the side plot involving Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and Sullivan’s cad of a husband, John Macy.  That’s a story (and a side of Keller) that I want to explore more in my reading, so here’s hoping that Lynn Cullen writes a novel about that trio next.

Post #2,571

Edgar Allan Poe Open Casket Photo

I suppose that some will consider this photo to be more than a bit morbid, or even in poor taste, but I find myself fascinated by it ever since I stumbled upon it yesterday.

The photo is said to be of Edgar Allan Poe’s open casket after his body was prepared for burial.  I think what fascinates me is the shocking realization of just how young this wonderful author was at the time of his death.  He died under a cloud of mysterious circumstances that I’m not sure have ever really been cleared up.  I, of course, knew he died at age 40, but he looks so young here that it really hits home on how much fine writing the world missed out on.

Now the BIG QUESTION: does anyone know if this picture is real or if it is just another internet hoax?  I am very skeptical about things I find on the internet but have been unable to find any information about this specific picture.  Thanks for any comments you want to offer.

The Hot Countries

Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series hit the ground running in 2007 with A Nail Through the Heart and it has never slowed down.  And with the October 2015 release of The Hot Countries, the seventh book in the series, Poke Rafferty fans again have reason to celebrate. 
Longtime fans will already know this, but for the uninitiated, I’ll give a little basic background about Poke Rafferty and those closest to him.  Poke is a semi-successful travel writer whose travel guides are a bit offbeat in the way that they sometimes focus on the seedier sides of the cities he is exploring – and that’s exactly what he was looking to do when he came to Bangkok.  But along the way, life happened.  Poke is now married to Rose, a former bar girl, and they are living happily together with Miaow, their adopted daughter.  (Miaow, who was living on the streets when Poke spotted her, is probably my favorite character in the whole series.)
But Poke is more, much more, than just a travel guide writer.  The man is a born fixer, and he does not mind getting his hands dirty.  When he sees someone suffering at the hands of others, he wants to fix it – and with the help of some friends he usually does just that.  Poke’s most important “helper” is Arthit, a high-ranking Thai policeman, who also just happens to be Poke’s best friend.  The relationship between these two strong men has, in fact, been a beautiful thing to watch as it has developed and deepened over the seven books.
But now, in The Hot Countries, everyone closest to Poke is being threatened by a mysterious stranger who wants two things from Poke and will gladly kill any number of innocent people if it forces Poke to give him what he wants.  But there are two problems: Poke does not even have one of the things being demanded of him, and he will be damned if he will give up the other one.  And so it begins.
Author Timothy Hallinan 
But as the bodies begin to fall and he ever so slowly closes in on the man responsible, Poke will get some help from the unlikeliest group of heroes imaginable: a bunch of seedy old men who came to Bangkok decades ago strictly to enjoy the city’s wide open sex trade.  Now, what’s left of these men spend their days and nights hanging out at the Expat Bar, where they do their best to pretend that they are still the young, virile men who first sat on one of those barstools so many long years ago.  And who knows?  Maybe they do still have a little gas left in the tank after all.
Hallinan, in one paragraph, captures the sad essence of these men.  Here is part of that paragraph:
            “One night on Patpong around 3 a.m., exhausted, half drunk, and unwilling to return to the home he hand turned into a shrine to her (the Thai woman he was still in love with) he walked into a tiny place called the Expat Bar.  And he stayed for forty-three years.
Getting old.” 

The ending of The Hot Countries achieved something that rarely happens to me when I am reading: it left me with a tear in my eye.  I am a fan of series writing because of the way the good ones so fully develop not only the main character, but also several supporting characters.  I have read in and out of many crime fiction series since the eighties, and a few of them are so remarkable that they have become longtime favorite books of mine.  The Poke Rafferty series has earned its place among this select group.  I look forward (and hope) to be reading more Poke Rafferty stories for a long, long time.

Post #2,571

The Perfect Cake for Book Lovers

I have no idea about the origin of this “library cake,” but I hope that the baker/decorator was well-rewarded for her effort.  This thing is amazingly detailed and had to take forever to prepare.  How much would you be willing to pay for one like it?

The photo does not “blow up” very large before it begins to lose focus, but take a look at this beauty.  It’s the perfect birthday cake for the book lovers in your family…if you think they actually might be able to bear cutting into it, that is.

(Do click on the image to enlarge it.)

Post #2,570

Mary Karr Speaks
More on Mary Karr and her new book, The Art of Memoir.  This is her NPR interview of September 15, 2015 (with thanks to Kaye for the link).  It’s a revealing look at Karr’s take on the memoir genre, and is particularly revealing, I think, when she discusses what it is like to write so intimately about the people she loves.  

I am also linking to two earlier posts I wrote concerning Karr.  The first is my November 26, 2009 review of her memoir Lit, and the second is a more general reflection I posted in October 2009:

Lit: A Memoir

Mary Karr, Hometown Hero

David Foster Wallace fans will probably be most interested in the part of this interview in which Karr discusses, in great detail, her relationship with him.  I suspect (based on some of the comments posted over at NPR) that some will be offended by her characterization of Wallace because she is brutally honest in her comments and shoots down a David Foster Wallace legend or two in the process.  What does clearly come across is Karr’s anger at Wallace for having chosen suicide as a way out of his troubled life…an anger that, from the tone of her comments, she is not even close to being over.

Mary Karr: The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr grew up in the same little rathole that I grew up in – at just about the same time – so I have identified with her writing ever since I discovered her via her wonderful The Liars’ Club.  I was kind of a fan of memoirs before I read Mary’s first book, but her’s struck me as so true and so brave that I now appreciate a good memoir more than ever.  And I’ve always got my eye out for the next good one, especially those written by non-celebrities.  

I’m looking forward to grabbing The Art of Memoir some time this week when I finally get the chance to visit a bookstore or two.  Can’t wait.

Writing America

Having recently spent a week exploring some of the literary landmarks of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, I was intrigued by Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Writing America as soon as I heard about its scheduled publication.  The book’s subtitle, Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (A Reader’s Companion), led me to believe that it would serve as a good planning tool for more trips of a similar nature to the one I had just completed.  As it turns out, I was right.
As Fishkin puts it in the introduction of Writing America, E.L. Doctorow once said that a novelist “endows places with meaning.”  But Fishkin goes further than that when she says, “And if literature endows places with meaning, places can help us better understand how works of literature came to be what they are.  Writing America examines intersections between public history and literary history”…And that makes it a perfect companion for those who enjoy extended road trips across America. 
My own trip found me visiting cities and small towns that influenced, and were influenced by, such writers as William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Richard Wright, and Tennessee Williams – all of whom are among the most well-known authors this country has produced.  Fishkin, however, does not limit herself to the better known of America’s writers.  Instead, she gives equal attention to lesser-known writers produced by several minority populations living and thriving in America: African-Americans, Americans of Asian descent, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans. 
Author Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Each chapter of Writing America includes a study of several related authors, a few seldom-seen photos of authors and landmarks, excerpts from the work of the various authors being highlighted, a detailed list of historic places relating to the authors in one way or another, and two or three pages worth of references for “further reading.”  There are chapters dedicated to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglas, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Sinclair Lewis.  But there is also a chapter highlighting a number of Native American writers who were highly influenced by what they (or their ancestors) saw and experienced at Wounded Knee, and another on Asian American writers that focuses largely on the impact of the Japanese internment camps of World War II.  There is also a full chapter dedicated to the impact that the Harlem neighborhood of New York had on multiple generations of African American writers, and a particularly eye-opening one on the wonderful Mexican-American writers produced along the border that Texas shares with Mexico.

And finally, Writing America finishes with a chapter on how Hollywood, particularly in its heyday, both influenced and used the work of so many of America’s best known writers, writers such as William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Nathanial West, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and Lillian Hellman.  Fishkin’s book can certainly be enjoyed by the more sedentary among us, but it is sure to be particularly relished by those who enjoy getting out on the road to visit America’s hidden (and not so hidden) treasures. Writing America is a little treasure chest filled to the brim with literary treasures; it is a fine traveling companion for those with a little time to wander – and to wonder about America’s literary past. 

Jackie Collins Dead at 77

The world lost another of its popular writers this week in the person of Jackie Collins who succumbed to breast cancer. Now I won’t pretend to have been a Jackie Collins fan and, in fact, I don’t recall having read even one of her books, but I know that Ms. Collins had a whole bunch of fans who were saddened by the news of her death, so I wanted to officially mark her death here on Book Chase.

Collins was, of course, best known for her rather risquè books such as Hollywood Wives, so I think that this video (shared today by The Guardian) in which she gives her candid opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey is a fitting and appropriate way to remember her.  

Too, I had to chuckle when I read the part of The Guardian article that said that Collins’s 1968 novel The World Is Full of Married Men was actually banned in the entire countries of South Africa and Australia.  My, how times have changed…

Post #2,566

Median Income of Authors is Pitiful

An article (and broadcast) on the National Public Radio website
will probably surprise you as much as it did me with some of the sales and earnings figures in highlights.  It will probably also make you as sad and concerned as it made me.

I knew that, with the exception of a handful of authors (many of whom write little but exploitive and derivative trash), it is not easy to make a living strictly as an author.  “Day jobs” are common among writers, even the best of them, especially if their names are not James Patterson, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Danielle Steele and the like.

So what is a good sales figure for any book?
“A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies,” says literary agent Jane Dystel. “Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher’s attention for the author for a second book.”
But if that second book doesn’t sell, says Dystel, odds are you won’t get another chance. And that brings us to the Authors Guild survey. Just over 1,400 full- and part-time writers took part in the survey, the Guild’s first since 2009. There has been a 30 percent decline in author income since then and more than half of the respondents earned less than $11,670 (the 2014 federal poverty level) from their writing related income.

For me, the key takeaway from this article extract is that author income has declined 30 percent just since 2009, meaning that less than half of those considering themselves to be authors are making more than $12,000 per year.  As a lifelong reader, and someone who loves books dearly, I understand the motivation that drives people to write.  And now I appreciate them more than ever.

Oh…and just what has happened in the publishing industry since 2009 that might explain this drastic income drop?  Can it be blamed on the proliferation of cheap (and often free) e-books that are so readily available nowadays?  Are more readers than ever making their reading choices strictly based on how cheaply they can get new books?  Is all that self-published trash out there so flooding the market that the worthy stuff is lost in the gigantic haystack of garbage self-publishing has produced?  (I’m not saying that all self-published writing is bad.  But I am saying that at least 95% of it should have never seen the light of day – and that having it out there now makes it much harder to find the good stuff than it used to be.)

Most readers don’t read literary magazines or the book sections of newspapers that support and publicize quality writing.  They depend on one or two websites that offer free or almost-free books every day of the week.  And they get what they pay for – junk.  Meantime, quality writers and their work are being lost in the shuffle.  And that makes me sad.

Please do read the whole article over at NPR…and you will see that the writer of the piece does not entirely agree with me when it comes to all the free stuff being the main culprit here.

Post #2,565

Love as Always, Kurt

Loree Rackstraw and her fellow students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were not exactly thrilled when they learned in September 1965 that a new instructor by the name of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been hired to replace novelist Verlin Cassill, the instructor they were all expecting.  No one, including Rackstraw, had ever heard of Vonnegut, much less knew anything at all about any writing accomplishments and skills he might have.  Little did Rackstraw imagine that she and Vonnegut were about to begin a personal relationship that would last for the rest of Vonnegut’s life.
Their relationship, which Rackstraw several times hints was sometimes an intimate one, was a bit bizarre at times.  As she puts it, the “friendship was sustained mostly by the U.S. Postal Service” and it was common for the pair to go more than a year at a time without actually setting eyes on each other.  But the relationship was most certainly a long and enduring one because it lasted for more than fifty years.  During that half century, Vonnegut shared his most intimate thoughts and feelings with Rackstraw and always made sure that she saw early drafts of his latest work.  He also shared much of his artwork with her and continued to encourage her with her own writing.
Love as Always, Kurt is very much Loree Rackstraw’s memoir.  And, although she structures the memoir around the chronological progress of Vonnegut’s literary career, this is not a Kurt Vonnegut biography that can be depended upon for completeness or objectivity.  That Rackstraw still deeply cares about Vonnegut is obvious on every page, and those readers looking for a more traditional biographical handling of the author are likely to be disappointed.  Those hoping for a more intimate and emotional glimpse of what Kurt Vonnegut, the man, was like, are going to be pleased.
The Kurt Vonnegut portrayed by Rackstraw was a naive man, one whose friends feared was easily exploited by those seeking to take advantage of his good nature.  He was a man who believed that we are put on this earth “to fart around,” and he said that he was having a “perfectly wonderful time” doing just that.  Love as Always, Kurt also focuses on Vonnegut’s strong anti-war sentiments and other far left political views.  That manifestation of Kurt Vonnegut cut his political opposites no slack, and he and Rackstraw (and the rest of their crowd) often took great glee in viciously ridiculing anyone who disagreed with them. 
Kurt Vonnegut and Loree Rackstraw
My most vivid takeaway from the memoir is the impression that Vonnegut was terribly insecure about his own writing.  Writing did not come easy for him, and he was often at odds with his publisher about delivering promised projects by the contracted deadlines.  I was also struck by the man’s intolerance of those who did not politically line up with his own views.  Rackstraw makes it clear that she, Vonnegut, and their friends much preferred ridicule and laughter to the consideration of opposing viewpoints.

If you read Love as Always, Kurt just remember that Loree Rackstraw is very much Kurt Vonnegut’s cheerleader.  To her credit, she does not pretend otherwise.  But even as one-sided as the memoir is, it deserves a look from Kurt Vonnegut fans because of the little details and insights into his personal world that Rackstraw reveals.

Post #2,564

To Re-read or Not to Re-read: Which Side of the Fence Do You Fall On?

Do you guys do a lot of re-reading?  I’ve done a little in the past, but not nearly as much as I would like to do because it seems that I’m always behind on the stack of newer books that have more recently caught my eye.  But I did decide a few months ago that it was time for me to start taking advantage of the substantial Library of America books that I’ve accumulated in the last few years.  

For those unfamiliar with the LOA books, they are high-quality editions of American classics, both fiction and nonfiction, and there are something like 250 volumes now.  I should mention, also, that the LOA is a non-profit publisher, so if you are working on putting together a really fine home library, please do consider them in your plans.

Anyway, I picked up a volume of Steinbeck books and started there before I could lose my good intentions.  And it worked.  I was instantly reminded of all the reasons that I’ve always found John Steinbeck’s writing so fascinating – and of the six of books that I’ve read this year, three turned out to be re-reads.  What surprised me about that is that I enjoyed two of the re-reads as much as I enjoyed them the first time around, and one not as much.  It’s the difference between reading them as a young, inexperienced man and reading them as a much older, battle-scarred one that intrigues me.

In the past I’ve re-read a few books on a regular basis: To Kill a Mockingbird, Lonesome Dove, and The Prince of Tides, among them, but it’s been at a sporadic and unpredictable rate.  Some years, I do no re-reading at all; during other years, I re-read several of my all-time favorites.

I was reluctant to re-read anything for a long time, fearing that I would ruin an old favorite by carefully reading it through a different set of eyes and biases the second time around.  But that hasn’t really happened – yet.  And with 83 volumes of Library of America books already in my collection, my re-reading can be as varied and unlimited as I could ever wish it to be.  (I put the Steinbeck aside a couple of days ago and decided to read a Raymond Chandler novel or two.  And The Little Sister, which is not a re-read, has been a revelation.  Man, that guy was good.

So…do you guys re-read?  And, if not, why not?

Link to Library of America

Post #2,563

The Joys of Trashy Literature

I admit it.  I love dipping into old pulp fiction every once in a while as a reminder of how “innocent” that time really was by today’s standards.  And I love books about books, bookstores, and libraries.  

So how could I resist sharing this hilarious combination of the three?  I have no idea who created these and put them all together this way, but I thank them from the bottom of my heart for the smile they gave me this morning.

Post #2,562

Book Trailer of the Week: My Life After Death

Holy cow…

I was curious about this book because I thought that, surely, it had to be a satirical look at mediums who scam their way through life speaking to the dead loved ones of people willing and able to pay them for that “service.”  Well, no, that’s apparently not what My Life After Death is.  This book, my friends, is intended to milk even more money from the most gullible and hurting people among us.  It is for real; I kid you not.

My Life After Death has supposedly been written by a man, long dead as the result of his suicide, through the lips of the female medium shown in the video, and then further dictated to his mother (whose name is on the cover as the book’s co-author).  Did you follow that?

I’m calling this my “Trailer of the Week” because it’s utter absurdity has more than earned it the crown.  I had no idea there were still people out there doing what this woman does for a living.  Silly me.

(You have to watch this book trailer to believe it.  If you are still not convinced that this book is a “serious” one, go over to Amazon and read the reviews there.  Unbelievable.)

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

Although I cannot speak for the last generation or two, I think that it is still safe to say that most Americans have been, at the very least, exposed to the idea of the mythic “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”  Most probably even think that they understand what happened in Tombstone, Arizona, on that fateful day and believe that it was all a well-planned conflict by the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday to take down a bunch of local bad guys.  Well, boys and girls, Mary Doria Russell has written just the book to show you just how wrong you are about why that thirty-second gunfight really happened – and just how tragic the whole affair was for everyone involved.

Russell’s Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral, which begins approximately two years before October 26, 1881, is a well-researched historical novel that digs deeply into the character and past of the main players in the brief drama.  The book explains, though, not just who these dozen or so people were; it delves into why they were in Tombstone in the first place and how their paths crossed many, many times before the afternoon that suddenly left three drunks dead and three  lawmen severely wounded.  The short-lived violence was so devastating, in fact, that other than the unarmed man who was allowed to run away from the fight, Wyatt Earp was the only man still on his feet when the shooting stopped. 
So what caused the confrontation?  Why were the Earps and Doc Holliday so ready to rush into a fight that could so easily cost them their lives?  Did the immediate “crime” (their insistence in wearing their pistols inside Tombstone city limits) of those they being confronted justify such a violent clash?  Who fired the first shot and why? 
Epitaph is both an edifying and entertaining look into the single gunfight that would come to represent the “frontier justice” of the 1880s for decades to come.  The whole O.K. Corral myth soon took on a life of its own, in fact, that had very little to do with the reality of the situation.  The fight was much more a tragedy than an arrest gone badly with the “good guys” coming out on top.  As Russell puts it in her two-page introduction to Epitaph, it changed the lives of the survivors forever because, for the participants:
            “Whether you live another five minutes or another fifty years, those awful thirty seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you.  You will be cursed with a kind of immortality. Year after year, everything that did and did not happen during those thirty seconds of confusion and noise, smoke and pain, will be analyzed and described and disputed.
            A century will pass, and decades more.  Still, the living will haunt the dead as that half-minute becomes entertainment for hundreds of millions around the world.  Long after you die, you will be judged by those who cannot imagine six paces from armed and angry men.”
Author Mary Doria Russell

Sadly enough, there was nothing particularly heroic about the Earps, Doc Holliday, or anyone who played even a minor role in what happened in Tombstone on October 26, 1881.  The Earps were, in reality, little more than a product of their times: a close family trying to make its way in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Wyatt was the presumed leader of the pack, and his brothers were perfectly willing to follow his lead when it came to moneymaking schemes that could possibly put the family in the black for good.  Their wives (and mistresses) went along for the ride.  The Earps ended up in Tombstone simply because, as usual, Wyatt was looking to make a quick buck.  And, as a man with no real family of his own, Doc Holliday, ever loyal to the Earp brothers, joined them in Tombstone for no other reason than to fix an aching tooth in Wyatt Earp’s mouth. 

But circumstances (and politics) combined to keep the Earps in Tombstone longer than they had planned to be there.  Wyatt, still hoping to cash in on his lawman experience, kept the clan there long enough for the world as they knew it to end in a storm of bullets.  As it did.

Epitaph is everything that historical fiction should be.  It is detailed, it is well written, and it tells the real story behind the myth – and at 577 pages, it is thorough.  I highly recommend it both to fans of serious westerns and to those who simply want to know “the rest of the story” about what really happened near the O.K. Corral that day.

Post #2,560

John Steinbeck’s F-Bomb and Other Random Thoughts

It’s funny sometimes how random, bookish thoughts pop into (and almost instantly out of) my head.  This has been one of those mornings:

I was reading John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle last night and noticed a fully-spelled “F-bomb” in the dialogue of one of that novel’s main characters.  That’s no big deal today, of course, but it made me wonder what kind of reaction that word must have gotten from critics and readers back in 1936 when Steinbeck wrote this one.  Surely that kind of thing could not have been common in the thirties, could it?

I see that the largest bookstore chain in Japan is trying to corner the market on what will be one of that country’s most popular books of 2015 by buying a full 90% of the book’s first printing.  That decision has effectively limited Amazon Japan to about 5,000 copies, leaving about 5,000 copies for all other booksellers.  It’s the bookstore’s attempt to fight back against Amazon, and it might very well work in a country the size of Japan if bookstores can convince publishers to play along with the plan.  But Amazon, as we all know, is the 500-pound gorilla in any room it enters, and I wonder how the company will fight this.  Should be interesting.

People in Cleveland are talking about the city councilman who has taken self-publishing to new heights by charging the city for printing somewhere between 200 and 300 copies of a book he wrote – apparently, a book largely about himself.  The guy than “donated” the books to a select group of Cleveland students as a motivational tool of sorts.  He is now being accused of doing little more than self-promoting his image as an “educator” at the expense of the city.  Big ego, but short on ethics.

I have considered Houston to be my home since 1972 when we moved here a week before my official university graduation date.  But because I’ve always lived just outside the city’s official borders, I have never set foot in one of the many libraries that make up the “Houston Public Library,” instead always using the surrounding Harris County Library system.  Well, now that we are so into the digital age, I decided to go to the nearest Houston library location to me and get myself a “city” library card.  I drove the 16 miles there and got the card yesterday morning, in fact.  The well-kept little library is located in what seems to be a mostly black neighborhood, and I was disappointed by the amount of shelf space the building houses.  The library has only a tiny fraction of the number of books contained in my local county library, and that makes me sad for the neighborhood.  Now I need to visit other Houston Library branches to see how they compare.

Well, that visit got me wondering about other major city libraries in Texas and wether they offered free (or very cheap) library cards to other Texas residents.  Houston, I think, offers a card free of charge to all Texas residents who want to go through the process of acquiring one.  Other libraries, such as those in Dallas and Austin, offer cards but charge as much as $150 per year for them.  Some, like Fort Worth, do not make their system available to anyone living outside the city limits of that system – and even make residents jump through more hoops to acquire a card than Houston does for nonresidents.  Heck, even the Philadelphia Free Library offers a library card to anyone willing to cough up $50 a year for the privilege of accessing the system.  

I’m trying to force myself to sit down and write a review of sorts of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat…so I’m off to do that now.  I hope.

The Fifth Heart

Dan Simmons has done it again.  With The Fifth Heart he has created another of his striking blends of fact, fiction, and magical realism that keep readers turning the pages of his long novels.  This one comes in at 617 pages and will especially appeal to readers who enjoy speculative historical fiction that places literary figures in real life situations that demand they show a part of their character we can barely imagine they might have as we begin to read.  This time around, it is the author Henry James who surprises himself (and us) by matching the skills and bravery of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.  (I say “fictional” but a central part of The Fifth Heart’s plot sees Holmes and James trying to figure out if Holmes is real…or fictional.)  Throw in other real life characters like Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, John Hay, Clarence King, and Henry Adams and you have the makings for quite a make-believe romp.  And Simmons delivers admirably.
It is 1893.  Eight years earlier, Clovis Adams, wife of the highly regarded historian Henry Adams, is said to have taken her own life by ingesting an arsenic-based photographic developing fluid.  But not everyone is convinced that the woman killed herself, and one of the skeptics has hired Sherlock Holmes to investigate her death.  Now Holmes has coerced Henry James into coming to America with him so that the facts of Clover Adams’s death can finally be revealed.
Author Dan Simmons
But not so fast, Sherlock.  First we have to figure out who is trying to kill you…and why.  Then we have to somehow stop the plot to throw the world into chaos by the simultaneous assassination of most of the world’s top political leaders.  And we have to get all of that done before President Grover Cleveland comes to Chicago to throw the switch that will complete the electrification of that city’s great “White City” exposition (which came to be known as “Chicago’s World Fair).  The clock is ticking, Mr. Holmes.

I am a Dan Simmons fan, but I would be the first to admit that his long novels require a bit of patience on the part of his readers.  Be patient, pay attention to all the twists and turns of the main plot as a couple of side plots begin to intersect with it, and you will thoroughly enjoy The Fifth Heart.  Just don’t quit on it – and you won’t want to if you pay full attention from the beginning.  

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Binge Reading?

Gradually, over the last four or five years, I’ve starting watching television in “binge” mode.  That is, I hardly ever watch a series until it has been around for at least a couple of years, much preferring instead to watch the shows one after the other over a period of just a few weeks.  The chief benefit of binge-watching is that the storyline remains so fresh in the viewer’s mind throughout the experience that it is much easier to appreciate the intricacies of plot and the evolution of characters over the span of the series than would otherwise be the case.

Right now, for instance, I’m working my way through the wonderful PBS series Downton Abbey (I’m half way through Season Three) and enjoying it immensely.  I really doubt that a weekly viewing of the shows, followed by a gap of several months between seasons, would have convinced me to watch much past the mid-point of the first season.

But I never expected to become the binge-reader that I am today.  When I discover a worthy series of novels that I’ve come late to the party for, I find myself reading the entire series (be it three books or a dozen books) in relatively short order.  That’s how I read Timothy Hallinan’s great Poke Rafferty series and his shorter Junior Bender series.  Now I’m in the waiting mode on those.  That’s how I read Crag Johnson’s whole Longmire series, and now it appears that will be the way that I read Elena Ferrante’s four-book Neapolitan series. In Ferrante’s case, I finished the first book in the series a couple of days ago, have the second one on order from a bookstore, and have placed holds on the last two at my public library.

I wonder if that type of reading is a trend among avid readers around the world.  It is, I suppose, another reflection of how technology has managed to alter past behavior and habits that have been entrenched for decades.  And this is a change that I like.

Anyone else out there doing this kind of reading/watching?

Post #2,557