House of the Rising Sun

Hackberry Holland is a man within whom the forces of good and evil are constantly battling. On the one hand, Hack is a good man who always strives to do right by his fellow man.  On the other, he is a man who, despite all his innate kindness, sometimes loses control in the heat of a moment and does some very bad things.  His life is now filled with so much regret that Hack has come to believe that it is his personal failings that best define him. 
His friends (many of them ex-Texas Rangers like Hack) and family have all been tested at one time or another by Hack’s rash behavior.  Some of them feel as if they have been trying to save Hack from himself forever – but they still come running, albeit reluctantly, when the man needs help.  And right now Hack needs every bit of help he can round up because he has stirred the wrath of a man who will stop at absolutely nothing to retrieve the jeweled cup that Hack has taken from him.
Austrian Arnold Beckman is Hackberry Holland’s opposite.  Hack is a well-intentioned man whose mistakes, when they cause injury to innocents, keep him from sleeping at night.  Beckman is a man who not only does not worry about injuring those weaker than himself, he takes great delight in doing so in ways that will inflict the worst psychological damage and physical pain imaginable upon his victims.  This may not a fight that he ever meant to pick, but after Beckman involves Hack’s estranged son in the battle to regain the lost cup, Hack knows it is one that will have to be fought all the way to its bloody conclusion – whatever that turns out to be.
House of the Rising Sun is a rousing adventure set during that period of Texas and U.S. history during which the ways of the Old West are being replaced by more “modern” ways of doing things.  World War I is over and Americans are confident that the War to End All Wars has done exactly that.  Never again will young men be sacrificed to save the world from itself.  Unfortunately, everyone fails to account for the existence of men like Arnold Beckman.  But there are, thankfully, still a few throwbacks around like Hackberry Holland who recognize Evil when they see it and are willing to fight it to the death.


Author James Lee Burke
The greatest strength of any James Lee Burke novel, and House of the Rising Sun is no exception, comes not from the first rate thriller that the man writes but from the emotional depth of the characters with which he populates those thrillers.  Hackberry Holland is a man very much in the mold of Burke’s best-known character Dave Robicheaux.  Like Robicheaux, Hack is filled with self-awareness and regrets; he is a man who will one day look back at his life and judge himself more harshly than even his meanest critics would ever dare.  James Lee Burke understands human nature as well as anyone writing today, and he paints a setting as vividly as any artist ever painted one.  He is a true master of his craft.

Best Books of the Year List Is Starting to Round into Shape

Is it too early for all these “Best of 2015” lists that are starting to pop up everywhere?  Since there are only thirty-two days remaining in the year, and there has to be some kind of calendar cut-off date that makes sense, I don’t think it is.

In my own case here at Book Chase, I am willing to include books that are published during the first week of December only if they are truly outstanding.  Otherwise, I do my best to limit my best of the year lists to books published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year.  I’m working on my first long lists for fiction and non-fiction titles right now, but since I usually read less than 35 nonfiction titles a year, I’m not sure that I will be able to complete a full Top Ten list in that category.  

These are a few of the books that jumped out during my first brief pass through the 108 books I’ve read so far this year.

Fiction:
The Hot Countries – Tim Hallinan
The Essential W.P. Kinsella – W.P. Kinsella
The Fifth Heart – Dan Simmons
Darkness, Darkness – John Harvey
The Assault – Harry Mulisch 

Nonfiction:
Twain’s End – Lynn Cullen
The Art of Memoir – Mary Karr
Deep South – Paul Theroux

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be adding and subtracting books from the list as I re-read my reviews and check publication dates, but I suspect that most of these titles are going to be there somewhere.


New York Times Lists 2015’s Notable Books (and I’ve read exactly one of them)

The New York Times has just published its list of “100 Notable Books of 2015.”  And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, because it always seems to be the case when I read lists like this one, that I’ve read almost none of the books on the list.  Well…to be exact, I’ve read one and have two others in my TBR stack someplace.  I should probably be more concerned than I am that all three books are fiction titles, but since I so seldom agree with the Times on what constitutes a “notable” nonfiction book, that’s just business as usual. 

The one I’ve read is Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a Lost Child, the fourth book in the author’s Neapolitan Series.  In fact, I’ve read all four books in the series since mid-October, and I’m happy to see this one on the list. 

I picked up a signed copy of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies in Austin in late October when I attended the Texas Book Festival there.  I probably would not own a copy otherwise because in the past I’ve found Groff’s prose to be a little too dense for my taste but her festival presentation was so charming that I decided to take a chance on this new one.

The other book from the Times list that is still in my TBR stack is Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child.  I’m a relatively recent convert to Morrison’s fiction and this one sounds like an excellent addition to her body of work.


So for now now, I’ve read one percent of the titles on the list…with a pretty good chance that I will get that number all the way up to three percent some day.  Wow.


Barnes & Noble Signed Books Promotion

I was too late last year to take advantage of the Barnes & Noble signed books promotion, so I made a special trip to the bookstore this morning hoping to pick up a signed copy of Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover.  Because she is one of the more “literary” writers who signed books for the event, I was a little concerned that signed copies of her book would all be gone by the time I got there.  But I shouldn’t have worried.  There were about eight copies on the shelf and I bought one of the two they sold during the 45 minutes I was in the store.


Isabelle Allende Signature

The featured titles include cookbooks, novels, classic fiction, biographies, history, politics, celebrity books, and music legends and sports heroes. 

Well, take a look for yourself:

Here is the complete list of authors participating in our Signed Editions program.
Award-Winning Authors
  • Isabel Allende, The Japanese Lover
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
  • David Mitchell, Slade House
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea
  • Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Admired Authors, Enduring Works
  • Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
  • Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (25th anniversary edition)
  • S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders
  • Khaled Hosseini, Kite Runner
  • Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
Bestselling Fiction Authors
  • Mitch AlbomThe Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
  • Chris Colfer, The Enchantress Returns, The Wishing Spell, A Grimm Warning, and Beyond the Kingdoms
  • Victoria Aveyard, Red Queen
  • John A. Flanagan, The Tournament at Gorlan
  • Erin Hilderbrand, Winter Stroll
  • Jan Karon, Come Rain or Shine
  • Jeff Kinney, Old School (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series #10)
  • Marie Lu, The Rose Society
  • Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Thorns and Roses
  • Gregory Maguire, After Alice
  • Richelle Mead, Soundless
  • Marissa Meyer, Winter
  • Rick RiordanThe Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Series #1)
  • Rainbow Rowell, Carry On
  • Brandon Sanderson, Steelheart (B&N exclusive edition)
  • Adriana Trigiani, All the Stars in the Heavens
Bestselling Mystery & Thriller Authors
  • David Baldacci, The Guilty
  • Lorenzo CarcaterraThe Wolf
  • Lee Child, Make Me (Jack Reacher Series #20)
  • Michael Connelly, The Crossing
  • Patricia Cornwell, Depraved Heart
  • Clive Cussler, The Pharoah’s Secret
  • Janet Evanovich, Tricky Twenty-Two
  • Elizabeth George, A Banquet of Consequences
  • Newt Gingrich, Duplicity: A Novel
  • Sue Grafton, X
  • Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
  • Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Crimson Shore
  • Lisa Scottoline, Corrupted
Favorite Authors from Page to Screen
  • Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
  • Terry Brooks, The Elfstones of Shannara
  • Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Gayle Forman, If I Stay
  • Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
  • John Green, Paper Towns
  • Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
  • Veronica Roth, Allegiant (Collector’s Edition)
  • Andy Weir, The Martian
Fascinating Celebrities
  • Drew Barrymore, Wildflower
  • Abigail Breslin, This May Sound Crazy
  • Christie Brinkley, Timeless Beauty: Over 100 Tips, Secrets, and Shortcuts to Looking Great
  • Frederick Forsyth, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue
  • Whoopi Goldberg, If Someone Says “You Complete Me,” RUN!: Whoopi’s Big Book of Relationships
  • Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?
  • Khloe Kardashian, Strong Looks Better Naked
  • Mary-Louise Parker, Dear Mr. You
  • David Spade, Almost Interesting
  • Rainn Wilson, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy
Internet Sensations
  • Shane Dawson, I Hate Myselfie
  • Connor Franta, A Work in Progress (B&N Exclusive Edition, hardcover)
  • Joey Graceffa, In Real Life: My Journey to a Pixelated World
  • Dan Howell, Phil Lester, The Amazing Book Is Not on Fire
  • Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy
  • Jenn McAllister, Really Professional Internet Person
  • Paige McKenzie, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl
  • Robby Novak, Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome
  • Tyler Oakley, Binge
  • PewDiePie, This Book Loves You
  • Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York—Stories
  • Zoe Sugg, Girl Online: On Tour
  • Kristina WebbColor Me Creative
Celebrated Chefs
  • Giada De Laurentiis, Happy Cooking
  • Paula Deen, Paula Deen Cuts the Fat
  • Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinnertime
  • Bobby Flay, Brunch at Bobby’s
  • Ina Garten, Make It Ahead
  • Sammy Hagar, Are We Having Any Fun Yet?
  • Nigella Lawson, Simply Nigella
  • Matt Holloway & Michelle Davis, Thug Kitchen Party Grub
Masters of Business & Money
  • Charles G. Koch, Good Profit
  • Tony Robbins, MONEY Master the Game
Music Legends
  • Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
  • Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music
  • John Fogerty, Fortunate Son
  • Jewel, Never Broken
  • Patti Smith, M Train
Sports Heroes
  • Colin Cowherd, Raw
  • Tim Howard, The Keeper
  • Mike Lupica, Fast Break
  • Jerry Rice, 50 Years, 50 Moments
  • Jalen Rose, Got to Give the People What They Want
Bestselling Authors Who Motivate & Inspire
  • Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
  • T. D. Jakes, Destiny: Step Into Your Purpose
  • Joel Osteen, The Power of I Am
  • Dana Perino, And the Good News Is…
  • Ann Romney, In This Together
  • Don Miguel Ruiz, The Toltec Art of Life and Death
Favorite Authors On Politics & Culture
  • Ben Carson, A More Perfect Union
  • Chelsea Clinton, It’s Your World
  • Bill NyeUnstoppable
  • Rand Paul, Our Presidents & Their Prayers
  • Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road
Powerful Narratives from Top Historians
  • Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat
  • Brian Kilmeade, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates
  • Erik Larson, Dead Wake
  • David McCullough, The Wright Brothers
  • Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power
  • Stacy Schiff, The Witches
  • Simon Winchester, Pacific
  • Bob Woodward, The Last of the President’s Men
Bestselling Authors of Children's Picture Books
  • Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express (30th anniversary edition)
  • Jan Brett, The Mitten (20th anniversary edition)
  • Caralyn Buehner, Snowmen at Christmas
  • James Dean, Eric Litwin, Pete the Cat Saves Christmas
  • Nathan Lane, Devlin Elliot, Naughty Mabel
  • Tom Lichtenheld (illustrator), I Wish You More
  • Brad Meltzer, I Am Abraham Lincoln
  • Julianne Moore, Freckleface Strawberry
  • B. J. Novak, The Book with No Pictures
  • Laura Numeroff, Felicia Bond, If You Give a Dog a Donut
  • Sherri Duskey Rinker, Tom Lichtenheld, Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site
  • Nancy Tillman, On the Night You Were Born
I don’t mean to be this some kind of ad for Barnes & Noble, but this promotion does offer a rather unique opportunity to pick up signed copies of some very popular writers.  For those of you unable to visit a brick and mortar B&N in the next day or so, these titles are also being offered online, but you probably should hurry because this promotion is a popular one.  I didn’t see all of these titles on display this morning and I do know that a couple of the “Fascinating Celebrities” had already sold out (Drew Barrymore and that Kim Kardashian person)…saying a lot about what people are willing to spend their money on, I think.  

Ann Morgan’s Quest to Read a Book from Every Non-English Speaking Country in the World (In One Year)

Even though I don’t watch Ted Talks as often as I should, I really do love the idea that they are always available out there – completely free of charge – for me tap into whenever I get a chance. The talks cover just about any subject you can imagine, some of them are long, some short – but the thing they have in common is that all of them will make you think.

I stumbled upon this one by Ann Morgan via a link on Twitter today.  Ann, it seems, took a look at her bookshelves one day to see what they tell the world about her and was not entirely pleased by what she found there.  She was particularly dismayed by the limited number of translated works she owned.  She wanted to do something about that…and did by setting up a new book blog in which, over a one-year period, she would review and talk about a book from every non-English speaking country in the world (almost two hundred countries).  

But let her tell it.  Click on this link to watch her 12-minute presentation. You will find other links at the Ted Talks site that will give you more detail on the books read and on Ann’s blog.

Buffalo Noir

Buffalo Noir, a 2015 addition to the Akashic Books collection of noir short stories, follows in the tradition of the numerous series editions that have preceded it.  The books, most of them set in specific cities, offer twelve to fifteen stories from writers who are especially familiar with those cities and who recognize the undersides of those places that outsiders only stumble upon by accident – sometimes to their regret. 
This time around there are stories from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates (who recently tweeted that the “best view of Buffalo is in a rearview mirror), Lawrence Block (who was born in the city and lived there for several years), S.J. Rozan (whose family lore says that she was conceived in Buffalo), and Lisa Marie Redmond (who has been with the Buffalo Police Department since 1993).  Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, who also contribute stories to the collection, edit Buffalo Noir. The book opens with Park’s eight-page introduction in which he describes the meaning of the term “noir” more by example than by explicit definition. Although his approach marks his introduction as different from the other introductions I’ve read in the series, it is highly effective and, in fact, Park’s recollection of an incident from his own childhood is almost as intriguing as the collected stories themselves.
The twelve stories are as different in style as their authors. Some stories are told in a straightforward fashion and have conclusive endings; others are more open-ended and leave it up to the reader to decide what really happened. Some are dark and filled with the shadows one expects from noir fiction; others stretch the definition of noir almost to its breaking point.
I’m sure reflecting my personal reading tastes as much as anything else, my two favorite stories are both of the more straightforward type: Lawrence Block’s “The Ehrengraf Settlement” and Gary Earl Ross’s “Good Neighbors.”  In Block’s story, a wealthy man, used to always getting his way without much of a fight on the part of whomever he runs over in the process, makes a critical mistake when he decides to cheat his defense lawyer of the bulk of his fee. And in “Good Neighbors,” the couple buttering up their elderly next-door neighbor in hope of inheriting her property some day does not react well when new neighbors move in and immediately gain the old woman’s affection (Hitchcock would enjoy this one, I think).

Buffalo Noir is fun, and that is what noir fiction is all about, really. If you enjoy noir, you simply cannot go wrong with any of the books in the Akashic Books noir series, this one included.


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"Literature vs. Genre Is a Battle Where Both Sides Lose"

During a discussion of author James Lee Burke over on Twitter this week I made the comment that the man does not get all the credit he deserves simply because of the genre in which he chooses to work. I firmly believe that to be true in Burke’s case because he is one of the most gifted writers of his generation regardless of critical perception. If you are unfamiliar with Burke’s work, you are really doing yourself a disservice. 

Coincidentally, I just spotted a piece in The Guardian that puts forth the argument that “literature versus genre is a battle where both sides lose.” One of the more interesting points in the article is that when a respected literary writer strays into a genre the author still gets more critical respect than the masters of the very genre in question. Writer Damian Walter uses Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in comparison to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games as an example of the point he is making.

Literary authors are the luxury brands of the writing world, the Mercedes, the Harrods and the Luis Vuitton of high culture. Genre writers are mid-range consumer brands, with an equivalent status to Skoda, Argos and Primark. Stephen King is the Ford Mondeo of letters, the writer dads actually read while pretending they got past chapter three of Infinite Jest in their 20s.
Which is really the heart of the problem. The market for high-end literature isn’t a healthy one. Intellectuals are reliably penniless, and fancy reading habits don’t make you cool any longer. The people who actually buy books, in thumpingly large numbers, are genre readers. And they buy them because they love them. Writing a werewolf novel because you think it will sell, then patronising people who love werewolf novels, isn’t a smart marketing strategy – but it’s amazing how many smart writers are doing just this.

Excuse me for a bit of a digression, but this whole thing reminds me of all those aging pop and rock recording stars who rather condescendingly decide to “go Country” in order to revive or save their sagging careers. That might work for one song or even one album, but fans really aren’t that stupid and they will soon sense a lack of sincerity on the part of a singer or a writer – and they will scorn them, as a result.

But back to books…Walter sums up the “literature vs. genre” war this way: They’re two halves of the same craft, and if the art of fiction is to remain healthy, we should stop narrowing its range with snobbery.”  

Case closed.

Does Desperation to Sell Force Famous Authors to Reveal Pen Names?

Why slap on a sticker “revealing” the author’s real name? Desperation to sell?

Authors have been doing it forever…writing under a pseudonym. They do it for a number of reasons: to disguise their gender, to try a new genre without linking their actual name to it forever, because they are so prolific that their publisher doesn’t think another novel in their name will sell so soon, etc. 

Examples include:

  • Mary Ann Evans – George Eliot
  • Charlotte Brontë – Currer Bell
  • Emily Brontë – Ellis Bell
  • Anne Brontë – Acton Bell
  • Nora Roberts – J.D. Robb
  • J.K. Rowling – Robert Galbraith
  • Stephen King – Richard Bachman
  • Joyce Carol Oates – Rosamond Smith, Lauren Kelly
  • Ruth Rendell – Barbara Vine

And then, too, you sometimes have cases of multiple authors deciding to write under a single pen name:

  • Christina Lynch & Meg Howrey – Magnus Flyte
  • Frederic Dannay & Manfred B. Lee – Ellery Queen
  • Cherith Baldry, Kate Cary, & Victoria Holmes – Erin Hunter
But what I still don’t understand is why a publisher and author decide to start overlaying the author’s real name on a book published in a pen name? I mean, what’s the point of using a pen name if later it’s all “revealed” just to sell more books?

The photo up above (that I snapped at Barnes & Noble this morning) is what got me wondering. King did it the same way with the Bachman books that Rowling and her people are doing here. What the heck is that all about?  Surely, neither King nor Rowling needed the money that bad.


Movies for Readers: The Jungle Book

It’s The Jungle Book like you’ve never seen it, and although some will probably still prefer Disney’s cartoon version of the Kipling classic, the studio has done another wonderful job with this version.  It’s set to be released in the Spring of 2016 and stars the voices of  Bill Murray (as Baloo), Scarlett Johansson (as Kaa), Christopher Walken (as King Louie), Ben Kingsley (as Bagheera), Giancarlo Espositio (as Akela), Idris Elba (as Shere Khan), and a bunch more. 

I’m not always a fan of how computers are used to make films nowadays, but this one, at least from its trailer, appears to be remarkable.  Projected date of release is : April 15, 2016 (and, yes, that’s also Tax Day, so you may be looking for a place to escape the pressure on that day anyway).

Movies for Readers No. 5

Comin’ Right at Ya

One of the presentations I most looked forward to at the 2015 Texas Book Festival was the one featuring Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel.  Even though Ray and his co-author David Menconi were allotted the very last time slot on the second day of the festival and I still had a three-hour drive ahead of me, I was determined to make that session.  Good decision.

I’ve been a fan of Ray’s music since the early eighties and especially appreciate his efforts to keep Western Swing music alive.  Not only has Asleep at the Wheel recorded Western Swing albums of its own, Ray has produced three very fine Bob Wills tribute albums, and recorded a successful swing-oriented album, “Willie and the Wheel” with the one and only Willie Nelson.  But that’s the public Ray Benson everyone knows.  And I wondered if he would be anything like that public persona when seated on a small stage to discuss his new autobiography, Comin’ Right at Ya?  Well as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.
Comin’ Right at Ya is the life story of Ray Benson Seifert, one of four children born into a Jewish Philadelphia family, a guy whose inventor father founded the Seifert Machinery Company and whose schoolteacher mother earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.  Ray Seifert grew up and became a self-described “Jewish Yankee Hippie” – and then his love of roots music led him to invent the “character” that the world now knows as Ray Benson, Texas country music star.
It took a while for Ray to make his way to Austin, Texas but thanks largely to Willie Nelson’s invitation he finally got here.  And he brought Asleep at the Wheel with him.  And the rest is history.  The Jewish Yankee hippie is now one of the state’s favorite sons, even to having been named “Texan of the Year” in 2011 by the Texas legislature. 
Ray Benson Signing at 2015 Texas Book Festival

A whole lot happened to Ray and the band before he achieved that lofty status, of course, and Ray tells it all – well, most of it because he admits that his publisher lightly censored some of his stories.  But even with the publisher looking over his shoulder, Ray shares stories about Willie, Dolly, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, George Strait, Lyle Lovett, a lot of other friends he’s made in the business, and a few folks he doesn’t think too highly of.  Ray is as bluntly honest about his business and personal failures as he is about his successes, and his is a career which has seen many of both, including the nine Grammies Ray and the band have earned along the way.

Comin’ Right at Yais for the fans, especially those who appreciate the heck out of Ray’s music but are only vaguely aware of his roots and how he has so successfully reinvented himself.  He’s Texas’s number one “Jewish Yankee Hippie” now, and the state is proud to claim him as one of its own.


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John Irving at Home

From what I understand John Irving no longer lives in the beautiful Vermont home in which this video was filmed, but there is much more to this video than its setting.  In addition to the tour, the author offers insights into his writing technique (longhand, both sides of the page) and his wish to die at his desk doing what he loves best.

Irving continues to fascinate readers, and I post this three-year old video in honor of the recent publication of his fourteenth novel, Avenue of Mysteries.




In Dubious Battle

Published in 1936, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle reads like a snapshot from the period in American history during which workers were perhaps at their lowest point ever.  They were suffering greatly because of low wages, an overabundance of unemployed workers willing to work for next-to-nothing wages, and employers who were only too happy to take advantage of the tragic economic situation of the day.  But by actively recruiting workers, union organizers were placing their own lives and those of the workers in jeopardy.  The battle was on, dubious though it may have been.
And along came John Steinbeck to tell the world about it because as he said in his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech:
            “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed.  He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
And, perhaps more in this novel than in anything Steinbeck had written previously, In Dubious Battle does precisely that.
To his credit, Steinbeck exposes both sides for what they are.  On the one hand, employers (fruit growers in this case) are shown as exploiters of the working poor, commonly hiring desperate workers and then callously tossing them away in favor of cheaper labor as soon as the opportunity presents itself to do so.  On the other, union organizers are exposed as the Communist tools they are, men even willing to get workers killed or maimed if that will somehow advance “the Cause.”  In fact, the organizers hope to provoke deadly violence directed at workers in order to fire up the men enough to keep them walking the picket lines. 
The book’s two main characters are Mac and Jim.   When Mac, a veteran union organizer, senses something special in new recruit Jim, he decides to bring him to the apple orchards where fruit pickers are facing an devastating cut in their daily wages.  Jim is a true apostle of the cause and, as Mac teaches him the organizing techniques that work best, Jim aches to be more directly in the cause – and constantly implores Mac to “use him.”  At one point, after suffering an injury that leaves him somewhat out of his head, Jim somehow manages to take over the strike, a change that makes Mac very nervous:
            Jim said softly, “I wanted you to use me.  You wouldn’t because you got to like me to well.”  He stood up and walked to a box and sat down on it.  “That was wrong.  Then I got hurt.  And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I’m stronger than you, Mac.  I’m stronger than anything in the world, because I’m going in a straight line.  You and all the rest have to think of women and tobacco and liquor and keeping warm and fed.”  His eyes were as cold as wet river stones.  “I wanted to be used.  Now I’ll use you, Mac.  I’ll use myself and you.  I tell you, I feel there’s strength in me.”

In Dubious Battle may not be one of John Steinbeck’s most popular or highly acclaimed novels, but it is a powerful one, one that deserves to be read today because it offers such a clear look into America’s not too distant past.


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Does Crime Fiction Do a Better Job of Tackling the Issues of the Day Than Literary Novels Do?

Based entirely on my own reading choices, I’ve come to believe that modern day crime fiction does a better job of tackling the issues of the day than straight-up literary fiction does.  Perhaps that’s because so many present day events are violent or otherwise horrifying (or have the potential to be those things) that they leave most of us shaking our heads in near shock. What better subjects are there for books that can both explore the problems and bring them to a resolution of one sort or another?  Literary fiction, on the other hand, seems more likely to deal with the emotional, internal conflicts of its chief characters.

The Guardian, just today, has an illuminating article on the Inspector Rebus novels of Scottish author Ian Rankin that touches on that thought a bit.  The chief premise of the piece, one with which fans of the novels are certain to agree, is that the Rebus novels are likely to “endure” for generations to come because each of them so vividly capture “a specific time and place” (that place usually being Edinburgh).  

Rankin has been writing the Rebus novels long enough now that his regional readers (and others who know a little of the city’s history) can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic when they read one of the Rebus books set in previous decades.  Writer Sam Jordinson says in the article:

My certainty comes from the idea that these books will continue to have historical value. Each is a finely rendered snapshot of a specific time and place. The descriptions of 1980s Edinburgh struck me forcefully when I read Knots and Crosses last week (alongside plenty of other Reading group contributors). This week, reading The Falls, I was even more aware of how well the novel captures a specific time. And how interesting it was to realise that this era now seems long gone, even though the novel was only published in 2001.

 I find the following YouTube video to be fascinating because of how it intersperces clips from the John Rebus television series with an interview in which Ian Rankin describes the Rebus character of the books vs. the Rebus of the videos. But as it turns out, Rankin has never seen one of the videos, and he refuses to watch for now because he doesn’t want the film Rebus to distort the Rebus he presents in his novels. Here’s hoping that he doesn’t watch the films for a long, long time…just keep writing, Mr. Rankin.

 Take a look:


Problems of a Lifelong Book Nerd


I love books.  No, I really love books.  I love having them around me.  I love old books as much as I love new books.  I love review copies.  I love reading about books that won’t be published for months to come.  I love searching for bargains in used book bookstores or even at Barnes & Noble.  I especially love first editions, and I love offbeat editions of books I already own.  I freely admit that when it comes to books, I’ve got a problem.

The real problem, however, as most book lovers will immediately understand, is not my love of the printed book. Instead, it’s the  problem of finding the space to house all the books I already own and the time to actually read some of them.  I’m not about to offer any solutions to those problems here because I have never come even close to solving either of them.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will never have enough of either…because no real book lover ever does.  It’s a given.

So why did I stop by Barnes & Noble today for god’s sake?  The reason will be obvious to my fellow book nerds: I was passing right in front of the store on my way home from a visit to my father’s apartment (where I had already acquired a new book because someone there had given it to him so that he could pass it on to me).  Come one, confess…you would have stopped at B&N, too…right?

And now I am the proud owner of three other books I never knew existed before my unplanned stop at the bookstore this morning.  For now they are going to sit on the floor, right next to my desk, until I can find a better spot for them.  I already know that I’m unlikely to read any of them in the next few weeks because I’m already rather frantically trying to finish several very long library books before they have to go back to the library in just a few days.  I know that I could just return them late and pay the nominal fine involved, but I have a personal rule that I never purposely return a book late that another patron has placed on hold.  I hate that when people do it to me when I’m next in line, and I refuse to do it to others.  (I do admit that I’m tempted this time because of how long I waited for some of these books to become available to me.  After all, it’s not my fault that they all arrived at the same time.)

Problems of book lovers…aren’t they great? 

Movies for Readers: The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van, a true story based on Alan Bennet’s memoir, tells of his relationship with a woman who lives by the side of the road in her old van. Trying to be helpful, Bennet agrees to let her park the van on his driveway for three weeks – where she lives for the next fifteen years. Of course anything starring Maggie Smith and written by Alan Bennet should be a treat, so I’m looking forward to this one when it makes its way to the U.S. market on January 15, 2016. (It is set for U.K. release on November 20, 2015.)

Even the trailer is fun:

Movies for Readers No. 4

The Art of Memoir

While I may have no intention of ever writing a memoir, I am a huge fan of the genre and have read at least two hundred of them over the past few years.  So although I believed that Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir would be helpful to would-be memoirists, I picked it up mainly just to continue my one-way conversation with one of my favorite practitioners of the craft.  And just I had hoped, Karr by devoting a substantial portion of the book to her own memories and experiences, has written much more than just another “how to write” book.
The preface of The Art of Memoir speaks directly to those considering an effort in chronicling the experiences that shaped them into the people they are today but it is filled with as many words of warning as with words of encouragement.  As she puts it:

“Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen.  That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met.  Truth is not their enemy.  It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs.  It’s the solution.”
Karr has, of course, been writing and re-writing memoirs for a long time.  She has studied her favorite memoir writers (past and present) and has figuratively disassembled their best work to see what makes it tick.  For some three decades, she has taught the format and, along the way, has accumulated several thousand index cards filled with notes that she uses in the classroom.  For that reason, those looking to the book for specific writing tips and techniques will not be disappointed.  In truth, it seems that Karr may very well have had two specific audiences in mind when writing The Art of Memoir.  If so, both audiences will be satisfied.
Author Mary Karr

Parts of the book are aimed at both audiences – and, I suppose, at the third potential audience that might have one foot in each of the other two audiences.  I’m thinking specifically of chapters like the one titled “Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page)” in which Karr grapples with the issue of revealing personal details that have the potential to embarrass or enrage those one loves the most.  The chapter does end with an eleven-point list of the author’s “rules for dealing with others,” but it also shares stories about her mother’s immediate acceptance and encouragement of Karr’s previous books and her sister’s more reluctantly granted positive reaction to them. 

But it is the book’s Appendix, a listing of “Required Reading,” that I expect to return to often in order to root through the two hundred or so memoirs it lists for future reading choices of my own.  In fact, because I have only read about ten percent of the books on the list, those six pages particularly excite me.  There is something for everyone in this very fine addition to Mary Karr’s body of work.


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"Do audio books help or harm literature?"

I listen to very few audio books these days (only one so far in 2015), but I find the related question asked by Claire Armitstead in her Guardian column interesting.  As the column banner phrases it, the question boils down to this:

Reading with your ears: do audio books help or harm literature?

In other words, do audio books leave the “reader” with a better understanding of a book’s contents or are audio books distracting enough to distort a book’s meaning?

From the article comes varying opinions:

If you believe the literary critic Harold Bloom, it is. “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” he told the New York Times. “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

…and this,

Neil Gaiman dismissed this on his blog as “just snobbery and foolishness”, adding: “I don’t believe there are books I’ve never ‘read’ because I have only heard them, or poems I’ve not experienced because I’ve only heard the poets read them. Actually, I believe that if the writer is someone who can communicate well aloud (some writers can’t), you often get much more insight into a story or poem by hearing it.” 

As for myself, I’ve more than once turned to the audio version of a book that was proving to be a particularly unpleasant read or so long that I feared I would never get around to finishing it.  I’ve even read books by alternating the audio and printed versions until I was done.  And not once, have I ever considered that a book read via audio (as long, that is, as it is an unabridged version) should not count as a book “read.”  


Claire Armitstead

But the bigger question is whether or not the audio book and the printed book are really the same book.  Again from my personal experience, I can say that on more than one occasion the narrater/actor of the audio book was talented enough to change positively my opinion of a book whose printed version I disliked.  So, no, I do not believe that an audio book is necessarily the same book that its printed version is.  Whether that’s a good thing or not, I can’t say.  I do know that when reviewing such a book I always include a statement to the effect that my rating may just be based more on the reader than on the book…or at least more heavily weighted toward the reader’s talent than to the author’s.  

OK.  What do you guys think about this?  Take a look at the linked column because I’ve only just touched on the number of possible questions concerning the relationship of audio books to literature.  You might just want to answer some questions or points I did not mention here.

It Doesn’t Get Much Worse Than This: Thank You ObamaCare – for Nothing

This has been one of the most stressful days I’ve endured in a long, long time.  Today was the second day this week that I spent three hours on the telephone with a trained monkey at a large insurance brokerage house who assured me that she could quickly and accurately set up 2016 medical insurance coverage for my wife (I am of medicare age, but my wife is not).

Despite her best efforts (much like watching a small child or large animal access a keyboard), she managed to sign me up not for a policy I needed, but for one that none of my wife’s doctors will accept.  Then she threw her little paws…make that hands…into the air and said she could not undo what she had just “accomplished.”  But, ever helpful as she is, she gave me a switchboard phone number to Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Texas.  Well, you can imagine how that went.  

No insurance company wants to hear from a person trying to cancel a policy with a $723 per month premium.  Blue Cross, I’m sure is no different from the rest, but to the company’s credit, I was able to cancel the policy after only being transferred four times (and having to repeat my story four separate times).  So only 45 minutes from the time I first heard Blue Cross’s automated menu, the job was done.

Now I am back to square one on my insurance search.  But at least this time, I’ve identified exactly the policy I want to buy and all I have to do is call the asylum again to see if they can figure out how to sign me up correctly.  Right?  Well, I made that call, told my story, and found out that no one in the monkey cage can talk to me until November 13.  I do have an appointment now and was told to call at precisely 11:15 to complete the new application.  

Fool that I am, I asked if they could tell me the name of the specific representative I would be working with.  Oh, no, that’s not the way it works…if the board is already filled by the time I call (which they admit is almost guaranteed to be the case), I’ll just have to wait the usual 45 minutes on hold before a live monkey finally says, “hello, how can I screw things up for you today?”  I. Just. Can’t. Wait.  

(I don’t mean this to be political or to offend anyone.  But my newly acquired firsthand experience leads me to the opinion I’ve just expressed in photo and words.  My wife’s premium will be about 214% higher than it is in 2015 and I (generously) estimate that we will be paying that obscene amount of money for about 70% of the benefits she now enjoys.)