Missoula

That college campus rapes are common in this country will surprise no one.  It only makes sense that this would be the case anywhere that so many young people are experiencing sudden personal freedom in an atmosphere chiefly characterized by easy access to alcohol and drugs.  What is shocking and surprising is just how poorly local and campus authorities handle reported assaults.
John Krakauer’s Missoula,via a detailed look at the university town of Missoula, Montana, vividly illustrates just how difficult it is for rape victims to get justice in America’s courts – especially if their abusers happen to be college athletes of local or national renown.   Missoula, home of the University of Montana, typifies the problem rape victims are likely to encounter in too many college towns across the country, and what Krakauer learned in his investigation of the city is important.  And sadly, what the author found explains why such a low percentage of rape victims even bother to report the assaults they suffer.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this chosen silence, some of it even accruing to the rape victims.  It is all too common that the victim of rape is under the influence of drugs or alcohol to the extent that memory of the rape is clouded and almost dreamlike.  Such victims are often not certain that they do not share some responsibility for the rape, and because the majority of rapes can be characterized as “acquaintance rapes,” victims are reluctant to go public with the crime.  They may have known their rapists for years and now find it difficult to ruin the lives of someone they had considered a friend, someone they trusted to protect them, not do the opposite.
Missoula explores the specific cases of several women in that city, women who had the courage to bring charges against those who stole forever their sense of security and confidence in their surroundings.  All of the women whose cases are highlighted struggled with the decision to go public with what happened to them.  In most cases, they hid the truth from their parents and boyfriends as long as they could, and it was only when the psychological damage they suffered became obvious to others that they spoke of what happened to them.  And that is when their problems grew worse.
That is when the women had to deal with Missoula prosecutors who refused to bring a rapist to court unless they believed there was absolutely no way to lose the case.  The Missoula County Attorney’s Office, as led by Kirsten Pabst and Fred Van Valkenburg, refused to file charges in the vast majority of rape cases presented to it by the Missoula Police Department for consideration.  Pabst, in particular, seems to have disregarded evidence that indicated a high chance that a crime had occurred because she was more concerned about keeping her personal Win-Loss record as near hundred percent as possible. 
Author Jon Krakauer
Even worse, the women, if those who raped them were University of Montana football players, faced the wrath of the local community.  How dare these women cause the record of the football team to be less than it would have been were the criminals who raped them allowed to remain on the playing field?  The victims were personally shunned and humiliated in public to a disgraceful degree intended to destroy them and to protect the men who raped them. 
Almost unbelievably, many of the people responsible for the horrible miscarriages of justice detailed by Krakauer are still in place in Missoula.  Some, particularly Kirsten Pabst, have actually benefitted from their abuse of the public’s trust in them.  Pabst’s behavior is so reprehensible and damning that she actively tried to keep Missoulafrom being published in April of 2015.  Her behavior, however, so greatly benefitted the football fans of Missoula, Montana, that voters there rewarded her with a more powerful position than the one she held at the time of the Department of Justice investigation that condemned her handling of rape investigations.

Missoula exposes the ugly truths about college campus rape.  But the book is also a disgusting reminder of how so many are willing to reward criminal behavior if looking the other way results in more wins for the local college football team -rape victim be damned.

Ebooks with Soundtracks and Sound Effects – Are They for You?

Depending on whom you listen to, ebook popularity is either fading or sales numbers for them have reached a plateau. Either way, that’s probably good news for brick and mortar bookstores everywhere.  But don’t expect ebook publishers and sellers to just sit back and watch what is happening to ebook sales.  Instead, publishers are looking for new ways to enhance the experience of reading an ebook – and what could be better, some of them say, than sound effects specifically produced for the ebook you are reading?

According to The Independent, popularity of soundtrack enhanced ebooks in the U.K. is second only to their popularity in the United States (where have I been on this one?):

So if ebook popularity has faded slightly, how have soundtracked books captured a growing market? Their growth, it seems, goes hand in hand with a resurgence in audiobooks and podcasts. Both have been given a leg up by improved access through iTunes and landmark releases such as the now-classic Stephen Fry-read Harry Potter series and true-crime genre-reinventing podcast Serial. It appears that we still want in-depth, long-form stories, simply in new and different ways from the printed page alone. Some 10 per cent of those surveyed by Nielsen said that they were willing to pay extra for new and interactive ebook features.

Not everyone agrees with the concept, however, and some of spoken out rather loudly about the BookTracks app.  Here’s a bit of what Tech Crunch’s  Paul Carr has to say:

It, hopefully, goes without saying (not least because so many people have already said it) that Booktrack is a laughably stupid idea. The whole point of reading fiction is to remove the reader from reality — for the physical book to drop away and the sights, sounds and smells of the story to play out in the mind. As such, soundtracks and animated arrows urging you to read at a fixed (“it’s adjustable!” the PR will be yelling at this point) pace are an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction. In fact, they’re so at odds with the way that people read books that one has to wonder whether the company’s founders have ever done so.
YouTube Demo Video



So there you have the two very different points-of-view. I do think I’m going to download the app to see for myself if this is something I might on occasion enjoy. Take a look at the YouTube promotion for BookTrack and read the two articles, and if anyone out there tries it, or has already tried it, please do let me know what you think of the app – and the overall experience.  Thanks.

Trump and Carson Books Displayed in Barnes & Noble Humor Section Display

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, but at Barnes & Noble it has always turned out to be a customer prank rather than something condoned by store management.  It’s sort of like when I found about a dozen bibles in a Fiction display at my own local B&N one time – the manager almost hyperventilated when she saw them there while rather loudly explaining to me that customers sometimes used her displays to make points of their own.  

Found this on Twitter feed of @robbymyers who believes the book display reflects a liberal bias on the part of Barnes & Noble.  I really doubt that’s the case but I have seen similar things happen at independent bookstores that probably do reflect what Robbie is referring to here.  I’m much more willing to laugh at this kind of thing (because it really is kind of funny) than to tolerate a bookstore burying deep in the stacks somewhere those books its management disagrees with – and that happens all the time.

. and in the humor section at Miami Barnes & Noble, clearly no liberal bias .

My Name Is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton may not be the thickest novel you read in 2016, but it is a novel whose deceivingly simple plot and characters are likely to stick in your mind for many months to come.  This is especially true of Lucy Barton and her mother, two women whose relationship can best be characterized even on its best day as “frosty.”  When faced with a rare opportunity finally to reconcile their differences, these two are as likely to make things worse as they are to make them better.
This is very much Lucy Barton’s story and she tells it in her own words and at her own pace.  Growing up Lucy Barton was not an easy thing to do.  The Bartons were among the poorest of families in little Amgash, Illinois, and everyone knew it – and worse, everyone treated them accordingly.  Lucy, the Barton who escaped Amgash, now lives in New York City with a family of her own. 
Author Elizabeth Strout
Confined to a hospital bed for what to her seems like forever, Lucy is battling a postsurgical infection that refuses to succumb to treatment.  She misses her two daughters terribly and only sees her husband during sporadic, short visits.  But lonely as she is, when she wakes up one day to see her long-estranged mother sitting at the foot of her bed, Lucy hardly knows how to react – or what to say.  All they seem to have in common, really, is a shared memory of the townspeople back in Illinois, and both women find it easier to limit conversation to that safe topic rather than to risk an exploration of what went wrong between them.  Try as she might to break through her mother’s emotional walls, Lucy knows the likelihood of doing so is not high.  
Two of the saddest narrative reflections imaginable say it all:
            “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you.  I feel that people may not understand: it was all right.”
And,
            “I have no idea if she kissed me goodbye, but I cannot think she would have.  I have no memory of my mother ever kissing me.  She may have kissed me though; I may be wrong.”

Layer by layer, Elizabeth Strout has constructed a haunting novel peopled by what are destined to be two of 2016’s most memorable fictional characters.  My Name Is Lucy Barton is a beautiful book.


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A Tale of Two Bookstores – and Two Countries

I noticed two news stories today about bookstore censorship.  One took place in Saudi Arabia, the other in New York – and although they are spookily similar in nature, their outcomes are gratifyingly different.  


Example of an illustrate Quran

In New York, a man confronted bookstore employees about the illustrated Quran that was on display in the shop.  According to an Albany television station, the man threatened to put the bookstore “out of business” is his demand was not met.

According to Morrow, a man came into his Saratoga Springs store on Tuesday and threatened to put the company out of business because they had an illustrated copy of the Qur’an on display. He says the man, who he didn’t name, berated an employee and then called the Manchester store and yelled at another worker.
Originally, Morrow wasn’t going to say anything about the incident, but decided to, saying in part, “If terrorism succeeds in closing our minds off, terrorism has succeeded. No more shots need to be fired.”
“We’re engaged in a civil society here and we have to have this conversation,” said Morrow. “If people are going to do this then other people need to know about it.”

And in Saudi Arabia, it is the unpredictable Donald Trump whose book is being kept out of bookshops.  According to the story on RawStory.com, Trump’s book will not be offered for sale in at least one of the two largest bookstore chains in that country.

Saudi Arabia-based retail chain Jarir Bookstore has removed books written by U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump from its shelves, it said on Tuesday, part of a backlash against his proposal to stop Muslims from entering the United States.
Jarir, part of one of the Gulf kingdom’s biggest retailers, Jarir Marketing Co, announced the move in a Twitter response to another user’s call for a boycott of the Republican front-runner’s books.
“Jarir Bookstore sells books by Donald Trump, who is known for making comments offensive to Muslims and Islam. We ask them please to remove them,” wrote Saudi user Mogatah on Dec. 19, along with a photo of the Arabic-language edition of Trump’s 2009 book “Think Like a Champion.”
“The copies have been removed, we thank you for your comment,” Jarir replied, three days later.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that Trump’s book is being outlawed in countries like Saudi Arabia, but I am happy to see that the New York bookstore did not succumb to a similar demand to remove its Quran display.  The societal differences are obvious.  

Movies for Readers: Philomena

My weekly “Movies for Readers” offering this time around is a little different in that it was released two years ago and is fairly available right now from sources like Showtime on Demand and Amazon’s Prime Video.  

The movie is based upon Michael Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the true story of what happened to an Irish teenager and her baby when the girl became pregnant out of wedlock.  It is a tragic story that still manages to have somewhat of an uplifting ending, and it is beautifully acted by Judi Dench (who plays the woman fifty years after her pregnancy) and Steve Coogan (who plays Michael Sixsmith).  

Below are pictures of the actors, the people they portray, and the book upon which the movie is based.


Michael Sixsmith and Philomena Lee

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan
Philomena’s child and his sister

Movies for Readers No. 10


It’s Christmas Eve Eve – and Calvin Is Worried

It’s Christmas Eve Eve and Calvin is getting just a little bit concerned.

Maybe it’s because of this year’s letter to Santa:
Dear Santa. Why is your operation located at the North Pole? I’m guessing cheap elf labour, lower environmental standards, and tax breaks. Is this really the example you want to set for us impressionable kids?  

Calvin

(My plan is to put him on the defensive before he considers how good I’ve been.)

(Click on the comic strip for a slightly larger version.)

2015 Notable Deaths in the Literary World

I’ve been known to pull together rather extensive “Notable Deaths” lists in the past, but this year I’m going to limit the list to major (or best selling) authors and a few others whom I will especially miss.  As always, I fear inadvertently leaving out someone whose death I missed hearing about, so if you think other authors belong on the list please let me know in the comments section of this post.


2015 Deaths
E. L. Doctorow
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia” .

Doris Lessing
“There is only one real sin and that is to persuade oneself that the second best is anything but second best.”
 Ruth Rendell
“I think about death every day – what it would be like, why it would happen to me. It would be humiliating to be afraid.”
 Günter Grass 
“As a child I was a great liar. Fortunately my mother liked my lies. I promised her marvelous things.”
Henning Mankell
“I am not afraid of dying. I have lived longer than most people in the world. What scares me is to have a body that works but a brain that is waving goodbye. If that happens, I hope I die quickly.”

Oliver Sacks
“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.” 

Anne Rule
“I always say that bad women are fewer than men, but when you get one, they’re fascinating because they’re so rotten.”
Terry Pratchett
“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”

Peter Dickinson 
“I think Peter Dickinson is hands down the best stylist as a writer and the most interesting storyteller in my genre.” Sara Paretsky

Colleen McCullough  
“That’s the purpose of old age… To give us a breathing space before we die, in which to see why we did what we did.”

Jackie Collins
“I have this theory that people in Hollywood don’t read. They read ‘Vanity Fair’ and then consider themselves terribly well read. I think I can basically write about anybody without getting caught.”


And then there are these three men whose talents I admired.  I will miss each of them.
B.B. King
“When I do eventually drop, I pray to God that it’ll happen in one of three ways. Firstly, on stage or leaving the stage, then secondly in my sleep. And the third way? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself!”
 Yogi Berra
“You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”

Percy Sledge

“‘Cover Me.’ ‘Take Time To Know Her.’ ‘Warm and Tender Love.’ ‘Out Of Left Field.’ ‘Dark End Of The Street.’ ‘Tears Me Up.’ ‘My Special Prayer.’ All points back to one song. ‘When A Man Loves A Woman.’ The Grand-daddy to all of my songs. The boss of all of my songs. I have great respect for that song. Always will.”

The Elena Ferrante Series Reviewed (The Story of the Lost Child)

I recently completed The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth (and final) book in what has become known as the purposely mysterious Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series.  The books explore the decades long friendship between two Italian women who met as children in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Naples.  My Brilliant Friend, first published in 2012, seemed to come from nowhere as it became a 2015 bestseller in, I suppose, anticipation of the publication later in the year of the fourth book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child.  Between these two came 2013’s The Story of a New Name and 2014’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
With the exception of a few brief moments in the books during which Elena, the book’s narrator, addresses the reader about her current feelings regarding her old friend Lila, the books offer a chronologically linear progression of the pair’s more than fifty-year relationship.  Seldom has a relationship between literary characters been more deeply explored than this one.  Each book in the series comes in at around 400 pages, but the Neapolitan Series is easier to read than one might imagine.  My Brilliant Friend, beginning as it does (after a brief word from the sixtyish Elena) when its two chief characters are preschoolers, is both charming and intriguing – and when it ends, some four hundred or so pages later, most readers will want to know more.  And Elena Ferrante has a lot more to say about Elena, Lila, their working class families, their friends, their lovers, their children, and the lives the two little girls will live during the next six decades. 
Bottom line, this is a fictional study of the kind of longtime friendship that can shape – for good or for bad – a person’s entire life.  Even as children, Elena and Lila recognized in each other the best that their neighborhood had to offer.  They were among the very brightest in their local school, they were often the most adventurous, and neither was much willing to put up with the foolishness of those around them.  They simply could not imagine staying in the neighborhood forever, and they looked forward to the time when they could finally begin living their reallives.
It would not, however, be easy for either of them to make their escape from the neighborhood.  Elena and Lila were, as it turns out, as much rivals as they were friends.  At times, it can even be said that they were more rival than friend to each other.  Their competitiveness drove each of them to achieve more than likely would have been possible if they had never met, but it may have been at too great a cost for them to enjoy what they achieved.  Only they can answer that question.

Elena and Lila are two of the most memorable characters I have encountered in a long time, and their often-tragic relationship leaves the reader with a lot to ponder about life, fate, and trying to go home again after living in a bigger world.

So now Common Core schools are junking classic literature? What’s next?


As someone who tutors a middle school student on a daily basis, I can tell you that I am not a fan of Common Core, that perhaps well intentioned, but often misguided, attempt to rewrite (and standardize) educational standards and teaching techniques across the country.   Without even getting into the ludicrous way that simple math solutions are taught under Common Core, there are way too many unintended consequences associated with the program to allow to be comfortable with the movement.

Here’s one of those unintended consequences that make me particularly sad (as presented in today’s Hartford Courant):

Many schools are eliminating the classics of literature, the backbone of any self-respecting English language arts class, in favor of “choice” books such as pulp fiction that offers comparatively little challenge.
Anyone with affection for reading and the study of literature has to wonder how this could happen, why school officials would allow it to happen and why there isn’t more outrage.
In part, the cause of this terrifying trend is the Common Core State Standards emphasis on short articles and excerpts of nonfiction, particularly historical and scientific documents, which are easily assessed on a standardized test. The Common Core website indicates that “fulfilling the standards requires a 50-50 balance between informational and literary reading.”
This translates to fewer works of great literature, more nonfiction.

The article is not all doom and despair, so take a look at it’s suggested solutions to the problem…and it is a problem.

I know that I am fast approaching the dinosaur stage of my life, but it is getting more and more difficult for me to watch silently as so much that I hold dear gets carelessly tossed into history’s trash bin. I wonder if common sense will ever be applied to Common Core.

Saturday Morning Book Browsing

I spent almost three hours this morning in a large Barnes & Noble store near me…just wandering the shelves, marveling at the large number of people inside the store, and even snagging one of the three or four comfortable chairs in the store for a few minutes.  Regular B&N shoppers will know how hard it can be to find a nice out-of-the-way place in any of the stores these days to rest the legs and back for a few minutes.  I spent those “resting” minutes wisely going through the seven or eight books I was carrying around so that I could choose the two or three I could actually afford to buy today.  

It wasn’t easy to put so many books back on the shelves, but I did remember to create a written want-list that I will be revisiting sometime next year.  For some reason, I found myself particularly intrigued by the Science Fiction section of the store, something that hasn’t happened to me in a number of years.  Lately if my SciFi reading doesn’t pertain to time travel, it doesn’t happen.  But I stumbled upon a book called The Sand Men by British author Christopher Fowler that promises to be something special.

I did the usual: read the cover information, flipped over to the backside of the paperback to read the publisher description of the plot, and started reading the first chapter.  The Sand Men is set in a Middle Eastern gated community for ex-pat families of foreign workers there (a lifestyle I’ve experienced firsthand), so that is a good sign.  And it seems to be mixing the elements of science fiction, political thriller, and fantasy novel into a package that can lead in countless directions.  But it was when a Muslim handyman froze to death in the sand of a resort beach so hot that tourists had abandoned it in favor of the hotel’s air conditioned bar, that I was all-in.  Escapism, here I come.

I also left with a copy of the Tin House “magazine” edition dedicated to essays, short stories and poems that have “theft” as a common denominator.  I can tell you that it is a brilliant and entertaining collection – as vouched for by whomever it was in a local coffee bar who walked away with the first copy that I carelessly turned my back on while getting a refill.  Rest assured that I will be more careful with this copy, even though I can still chuckle at the irony of having someone steal a book in public that includes the word “theft” in its title.  Heck, I’m even a bit impressed that anyone steals books these days…


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Movies for Readers: 45 Years

45 Years appears to be a really good literary movie, and that means it will probably play in a limited number of movie theaters.  Let’s face it, if it is not Star Wars No. 16 or another darn movie based on a comic book super hero, that’s what happens to movies nowadays. But movies for literate adults are really out there…and it is well worth driving a little out of the way in order to support and enjoy them.

This one is based on a David Constantine short story and stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a married couple approaching their forty-fifth anniversary.  

I don’t know the short story, but the trailer is intriguing enough to keep 45 Years on my radar.  And the clincher came near the end of the trailer when “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Platters is used as part of the soundtrack.  Perfect, just perfect, that was. 

Release date: December 23, 2015

Movies for Readers No. 9

The Opposite of Everyone

Joshilyn Jackson has been on my radar for a few years now via two of her previous six novels, gods in Alabama and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and those two were enough to make me want to read her latest, The Opposite of Everyone.  This one features one of the least likable heroines (at least as the story begins) that I’ve encountered for a while…a divorce lawyer who is every bit as cutthroat as her real world counterparts. 
To her credit, Paula learned to play that kind of legal hardball the hard way.  She never knew who her father was, and her mother was a shape-shifter who changed her own name and occupation to more closely fit into the environments of a stream of live-in lovers.  Bad as that may have been, things got even worse for Paula and her mother when the cops busted one of Kai’s men.  While her mother served time for a related offense, Paula’s lessons into the ways of the world continued in the state-run school for parentless girls that became her new home.
So, all things considered, Paula has turned out pretty well.  She’s now a prominent Atlanta divorce attorney, partner in a three-attorney firm that appears to be doing quite well from the pain of others (is that too cynical on my part?).  But, like Kai, Paula is unable to sustain long-term relationships of her own – even with Kai, it seems.  And now, in a rather cryptic note (even that much communication between the mother and daughter is rare) Kai announces that she has a very few weeks left to live.  Oh, and by the way, she does not want Paula to come to her in San Antonio, thanks very much.  As it turns out, Paula has no intention of visiting her dying mother anyway, so her mother’s instructions are not exactly a crushing disappointment to her.
Kai, though, has a couple of big surprises for Paula, and when the first one shows up in her office, Paula’s world – and her way of looking at that world – begin to change for the better.  Via alternating flashbacks from the present to Paula’s childhood experiences, The Opposite of Everyone tells an intriguing story of a grown woman who in every sense is still struggling to figure out who she is.  And she is in for a big surprise.
Author Joshilyn Jackson
Joshilyn Jackson is a good storyteller, an author who places believable characters into unusual situations that will test what is at their core.  My only quarrel with The Opposite of Everyone is that near the end of the novel, the flashbacks really began to slow the plot’s momentum – even to the point that I was tempted to skip the flashback and read the next real-time chapter instead.  In two or three instances, I found that to be particularly frustrating.  My anxiety to find out what happens next probably speaks well for plot’s effectiveness, but not for how the flashback device itself was executed.

Bottom Line: The Opposite of Everyone has a good story to tell, and if you are a little more patient than me, you’re really going to like this one.  Look for this one in February.


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Book Chase 2015 Fiction Top 10

2015 was a good year for new fiction.  My fiction reading ended up being a nice blend of some of my favorite fiction types: serious westerns, baseball stories, detective fiction, literary fiction, and great series additions from a couple of longtime favorites.  
 
 
2015 Fiction Top 10
 

1.  The Essential W.P. Kinsella – W.P. Kinsella – It is a difficult concept to explain to non-fans of the game of baseball, but there is a strong feeling of kinship between hardcore lovers of the game.  Kinsella is one of those people,and it shows in the beauty and sweetness of his baseball stories.  The man is a master short story writer and, thankfully, many of his stories are about baseball.  This collection covers the entire Kinsella range of writing – and it is wonderful.  Not just for baseball fans.

2.  Epitaph – Mary Doria Russell – I doubt there is a more familiar story from the Old West than that of the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”  It has been written about almost since the day it happened and has been the subject of successful movies from time to time.  Russell’s Epitaph offers the story behind the story by humanizing the main players on both sides of the gunfight.  Readers may be surprised to learn that almost everything they “know” about the incident is wrong…the truth is even better.

3.  House of the Rising Sun – James Lee Burke – Burke is one of the masters and his new addition to the Holland family saga is destined to stand as one of his best.  Hackberry Holland is a good man who sometimes does some very bad things while trying to correct the ills of the world.  House of the Rising Sun is his story, the story of a man right on the cusp of old age who wants to undo some of the wrongs he has done to others before it is too late to salvage some of the good he deserves.

4.  The Hot Countries – Timothy Hallinan – This latest Poke Rafferty novel is an especially nice addition to the series for fans who have followed Poke’s adventures from the beginning.  What makes the Rafferty series special is how Hallinan has allowed Poke and numerous supporting characters to evolve naturally over time.  Readers know them so well by now that reading a new Poke Rafferty novel is like catching up with old friends.  This one, though, features an unlikely cast of heroes that may surprise even longtime readers.

5.  Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff – Groff is a darling of the critics and it is easy to see why.  Fates and Furies tells the story of two people who seem to have always been destined to find each other.  Almost from the moment the two university students meet, they know that they will spend the rest of their lives together.  But that is only the “fates” portion of the story.  When Groff turns to the “furies” part, the reader is forced to wonder whether any two people ever really know each other.  Certainly, these two did not.

6.  The Fifth Heart – Dan Simmons – Simmons has done it again.  This one is another blending of fact, fiction, and magical realism that combines real life literary figures, like Henry James and others, with fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes.  James reluctantly works with Holmes in an attempt to find the truth behind the apparent suicide of the wife of Henry Adams.  But there’s more, much more to this literary thriller.


7.  Twain’s End – Lynn Cullen – Based upon historical fact, Twain’s End speculates about the mistress who was so important to Twain in the final years of his life – and why he and Clara, his daughter, suddenly decided to do everything they could to destroy the woman’s life.  Mark Twain was a carefully constructed persona that Samuel Clemens constructed to sell books and keep the money rolling in.  Twain’s End offers some insight into the real man behind that fictional character.

8.  The Hummingbird – Stephen P. Kiernan – The Hummingbird is a beautifully crafted story that combines three separate storylines to illustrate the impact that wars have on those forced to endure them.  While a hospice nurse tries to ease  the pain of an irritating old man, her husband struggles with the memory of what he did in Afghanistan.  But it is when the nurse begins to read a short book to the old man that it all makes sense to her – and to us. 

9.  Beautiful Trees – Nik Perring – This is the second book in a trilogy that will eventually include Beautiful Words, Beautiful Trees, and Beautiful Shapes.  It is so “beautifully” illustrated that it can be described as a picture book for adults, one that tells of the lifetime love one couple has for each other and the trees which so marked their time together.

10.  The Nature of the Beast – Elizabeth Penny – This is the eleventh Inspector Armand Gamache novel and it just may be one of the best in the whole series.  Gamache is struggling with his retirement and finds himself tempted to go back to work, maybe even to rejoin his policeman colleagues in Quebec.  But, in the meantime, the world will not allow him to rest.  Now, practically at his own doorstep in tiny Three Pines, he is faced with solving one of the most horrifying crimes ever.

Book Chase 2015 Nonfiction Top 10

2015 is one of those years when the bulk of my nonfiction reading was made up of memoirs and biographies…and, as you will see from my Top 10 Nonfiction list, I found some really good ones.

2015 Nonfiction Top Ten

  1. The Undertaker’s Daughter Kate Mayfield – an intimate look at what it’s like to grow up inside a small town funeral parlor.  Kate Mayfield explores the formalities of American funerals and body preparation as seen through the eyes of a little girl who had to know when to disappear into the background completely and when to be herself.  Surprisingly (or not), overnights at her house were prized by her friends.
2.  The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson – Notes from a Small Island, the big breakthrough book for Bill Bryson, is now twenty years old.  In this 2015 road trip, the author revisits many of the stops he made in Small Island and hits a few new places that he missed twenty years ago.  Bryson tries mightily to avoid comparisons, but that proves impossible and inevitably a little sad as the past can look so good when compared to the present.
3.  Deep South – Paul Theroux – Theroux, another veteran travel, this time focuses on America’s “Deep South.”  This is a region I’m very familiar with, and I was curious to see what a world traveler in Theroux’s league would make of it.  The author found a lot to like and a lot to wonder about.  I agree with most of his conclusions, but I also think that Theroux shortchanged the South’s residents a bit, too, especially when commenting on the number of readers, books, and bookstores there.  
 
4.  The Art of Memoir – Mary Karr – Mary Karr is best known for her previous memoirs (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit).  I have long believed that she is one of the very best at her craft and that she has been instrumental in making memoirs as popular with readers as they are today.  In this new book, Karr explains exactly how she does it and offers tips to aspiring memoir writers everywhere.  The best news is that she adds a good bit of new detail to her own story, one that has long intrigued readers like me.
 
5.  Dangerous When Wet – Jamie Brickhouse – Yes, it’s another memoir, and yes, it’s written by another former Texan who has moved to the East Coast.  And it is wonderful.  This one has its moments…and some of those moments are guaranteed to shock readers unfamiliar with the lifestyle that Brickhouse lived for so long in New York City.  But Brickhouse is first and foremost a great storyteller, and readers will find themselves lost in his world before they know it.
 
6.  Comin’ Right at Ya’ – Ray Benson & David Menconi – Ray Benson, a favorite son of Texas and Western Swing music, is in reality, as he himself puts it, is a “Jewish Yankee hippie” who reinvented himself to such a degree that his story reads more like fiction than fact.  Born and raised in Philadelphia, of all places, Benson first came to Texas at the invitation of country music’s Willie Nelson.  And the rest is history.  Music historians are likely to say that no one has done more than Ray Benson & Asleep at the Wheel to both preserve and to give new life to Western Swing.  Texas loves the guy…and claims him as its own now.

7.  Lights Out – Ted Koppel – This is the scariest book I read all year – bar none.  In it, Koppel explores what would happen if just one of America’s three large electrical grids were to fail for an extended period of time, and how easy it would be for one of the country’s enemies to make exactly that happen.  It is remarkably more likely that America’s next all out war will be a cyberwar almost invisibly waged rather than one involving ground troops.  This one is not for the faint of heart.


8.  Missoula Jon Krakauer – This is Jon Krakauer’s exposé of a problem plaguing college towns all across America: the rape of female students by men they see every day on their campuses.  Often these rapists are longtime friends of their victims…and often the rapes go unreported.  Colleges tend to protect male athletes accused, the entire college town usually rallies to the defense of these rapist-athletes, and prosecutors let it all happen.  This book will infuriate you.

9.  The System – Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyan – Touching on some of the same problems covered by Missoula, this is another indictment of big time college football.  Sadly, a university’s football team has more to do with a school’s public image than academic standards have to do with that image .  And because college football pays all the bills, not only for the rest of a school’s athletic program but for much of every other program, football is now a very big business – a business with all the corruption and cheating one would expect it to have.

10.  Lives in Ruins – Marilyn Johnson – Lives in Ruins is an inside look at modern archaeology through the eyes of someone just like the rest of us, one of the dreamers who wish they had somehow made a career digging into past lives and civilizations.  It is both eye-opening and inspirational in the way that it reveals just how difficult it is to break into the field – and to make any kind of real living from it.  Bottom line on this one is that it will make all the wanna be archaeologists out there want it even more.  And that is a good thing.

The Lost Landscape

My friends know that I have long been fascinated by the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. I seldom agree with the author’s political views (especially as displayed daily on her personal Twitter account), but her novels and short stories are so dark and revealing of the depths of the human soul that I have often wondered what could have shaped Oates into the writer she is.  Over the years, Oates has revealed bits and pieces of her childhood in magazine articles and books, but it is her new memoir, The Lost Landscape, that offers both the clearest and the most complete look at the “hardscrabble rural upbringing” that helped create one of the finest (and most prolific) writers working today.
Many of the pieces included in The Lost Landscape have been previously published in publications ranging from AARP Magazine to the New Yorker.  Some have appeared in previous of her books such as The Faith of a Writer and [Woman] Writer.  Some, Ms. Oates tells us, appeared in “substantially different form” when first published.  But the important thing is that they are now available in one, easy to find volume that longtime fans of her work are sure to appreciate.
The Lost Landscape is largely a reflection on the author’s earliest years through the eyes of the person she is today.  It does not pretend to be a biography or even a “complete” memoir because Oates admits that like most of us she can only remember tiny bits and pieces of her past in any detail at all.  She realizes that her memories may be incorrectly tainted by the perceptions of the naïve child she was when she experienced the events being recalled.  She uses personal photographs from her childhood to recreate as best she can the events memorialized by the pictures, often spending as much time deciphering what is in the photographic background as on the event itself.  She says:
“Taking pictures has been our salvation.  Without taking pictures our memories would melt, evaporate.  The invention of photography in the nineteenth century…revolutionized human consciousness; for when we claim to remember our pasts we are almost certainly remembering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a visual immortality.”
Author Joyce Carol Oates
The book is divided into three sections, each representing a distinct phase of the author’s life. The first, and longest, section begins with her earliest memories and ends with the conclusion of her formal education. Along the way, readers learn of Oates’s childhood on the upstate New York farm of her maternal grandparents, her early education in the same little one-room schoolhouse her mother attended, and her earliest attempts at telling her stories through “books.”  There is even a long chapter on one of her favorite pets, a chicken she and her family dubbed “Happy Chicken.”
The Lost Landscape’s other two sections are considerably shorter than the first and focus on what is essentially the rest of the author’s lifetime – from her days in Detroit and Windsor to details she learned later in life about the childhoods of both her parents.  Particularly moving are her final reflections on her parents that make up the book’s third, and shortest, section.

Bottom Line: The Lost Landscape is an illuminating look at the creation of a writer, a memoir rather surprisingly created by a writer who seems to mistrust the very genre in which she frames it.


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Rainy Sunday Odds & Ends

Its an Odds and Ends Sunday:

  • Despite all the rain here (and the fact that last night’s windstorm will cost me about $4,000 in fence repairs), I decided to visit Barnes & Noble this morning.  I spotted a large table stacked with what the store has left over from the signed-books promotion that B&N ran over the Thanksgiving weekend…dozens of them.  There were even short stacks under the table.  I’m surprised there are so many of them, but not real surprised by the ones that didn’t sell well.  What do they most have in common?  The signatures look like something scribbled by a three-year-old handed a pen for the first time.  The worst offenders do not resemble handwriting at all, and in only a few cases can you even guess at a letter or two.  No way would I want something like this unless I got it in person and had it personalized at the time.  Otherwise, who would even believe it is a signed copy.
  • I’m hoping to whittle down my long list of 2015 favorites today so that I can post a top ten in both fiction and non-fiction around the middle of next week.  It’s tougher this year than it has been for a long time, and I can’t decide if that’s because there are more good books this year or maybe more of about the same quality so that they start to blend together.
  • I find myself reading a “Large Print” copy of Frederick Forsyth’s new memoir The Outsider because that’s the only copy that was available from my library.  It was a bit strange at first, but less so with every page.  I do especially like the way this edition of the book is bound without a dust jacket and an almost indestructible, slick cover.  (Incidentally, there were about six signed copies of The Outsider under the B&N table I previously mentioned…and Forsyth’s signature is a very nice, legible one.)
  • And, lastly, I’m finding that my ability to read six or seven books “at the same time” has disappeared.  I’m managing two comfortably at the moment, The Outsider and an ARC of Joshilyn Jackson’s The Opposite of Everyone, but that seems to be the limit.  It’s been a good while since I’ve actively read more than one at a time, so maybe the ability to read multiples will come back with practice.  I miss it.

"My Christmas in New York" – Harper Lee

Today’s The Guardian website includes the Harper Lee Christmas story first published in McCall’s magazine in December 1961.  It’s a true account of the Christmas present Ms. Lee received from two close friends – a present that helped to change her life forever.

“It was plain to anyone who knew me, they said, if anyone would stop to look. They wanted to show their faith in me the best way they knew how. Whether I ever sold a line was immaterial. They wanted to give me a full, fair chance to learn my craft, free from the harassments of a regular job. Would I accept their gift? There were no strings at all. Please accept, with their love.”

For better or for worse, depending entirely on your own opinion of how involved she really was in the publication Go Set a Watchman (and what you think of the book) , 2015 has been a big year for Harper Lee.  So what better way to bring the year to a close than to read one more vintage bit of her writing, “My Christmas in New York.”

Just click on the link I opened with to enjoy the story and the wonderful illustrations it includes.