A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life

cover94691-mediumWhen Pat Conroy died on March 4, 2016, America lost one of her most beloved writers. Conroy’s loss will almost certainly be felt strongest in his native South where he set the standard for Southern writers for the past several decades, but Pat Conroy fans all around the world were equally caught by surprise at how quickly his death followed the announcement that he was beginning treatment for pancreatic cancer.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, a compilation of past blog entries, essays, speeches, and interviews of Conroy’s is the author’s official farewell to his fans – and it is an effective one. Despite how unlikely it is, over time readers often come to believe that their favorite writers would be their friends if only they ever managed to meet them; they feel as if they know them that well from their writing. Pat Conroy fans seem almost universally to have felt that way about him, and as several of the blog entries included in A Lowcountry Heart will make clear, they just may have been right because Conroy as much looked forward to meeting them as they did to meeting him. He was one of those rare authors who actually look forward to the next book promotion tour, and he often blogged about the people he met along the way and how much he enjoyed the experience.

As Conroy put it in an early 2014 blog entry, “It (book tours) is part of the covenant I sign with Doubleday that I’ll do everything possible to help the sell the book, including not getting drunk on tour or embarrassing my publishing company with my cutting-up on the road. I go out to sell books and it has become one of the greatest things about being a writer during my lifetime. No writer should turn down the chance of meeting the readers of his work.”

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Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy was not one ever to forget his friends or the teachers who influenced his life in some positive way. He was loyal to the end, and his friends knew that he would always be there for them. This was especially true for his old school friends and for a handful of schoolteachers who, in the end, became some of the dearest friends he had. Two of those friends, Bernie Schein and Rick Bragg say their goodbyes to Conroy here in separate pieces, Schein’s “Farewell Letter” and a reprint of Bragg’s Southern Living article titled “The Great Conroy: An Homage to a Southern Literary Giant and a Prince of a Guy.” Both pieces are beautifully done.

A Lowcountry Heart represents Pat Conroy well, presenting him in all his frank vulnerability and willingness to share with the rest of us his pain and what life has taught him. Conroy knew that he was in a race against the clock to finish his last novel, but sadly was unable to complete the book before his time ran out. According to editor Nan A. Talese, she has less than two hundred pages of The Storms of Aquarius in her possession – but the search among his journals for more on the new novel continues. Perhaps someday, Pat Conroy fans will receive one final gift from their storytelling friend. We can only hope so.

Truman Capote’s Ashes Sell to Highest Bidder

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Ashes for Sale

I think I can probably assume that anyone reading a “book blog” has a keen interest in the world of books and publishing.  I know, too, that some of us feel that passion so strongly that we sometimes do some things that appear a bit on the strange side to nonreaders.  But would you spend a whole bunch of money to buy the ashes of your favorite author…or those of some world class author?

That, believe it or not, is what someone has done this week according to The Guardian:

“The ashes of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s author Truman Capote have been sold at auction in Los Angeles for $43,750 (£33,800).

Kept in a carved Japanese wooden box, the ashes belonged to the late Joanne Carson, wife of the former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. According to vendor Julien’s Auctions, Carson, who died last year, said that owning the ashes “brought her great comfort”. She and Capote were good friends, and the celebrated writer died of liver disease at her mansion in Bel-Air in 1984, at the age of 59.”

[…]

“Along with his ashes, the clothes Capote was wearing at the time of his death were sold for $6,400 and two lots of his prescription pill bottles went for a combined $9,280.”

It is easy to imagine that  Truman Capote would have believed this whole thing to be quite a hoot, but I don’t think I’d personally much enjoy having Truman sit on one of my bookshelves next to my copy of In Cold Blood.  How about you?  If not Truman, is there someone else you would consider if the opportunity arose?

One for the Books

0670025828-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Avid readers, especially those who have been reading for a few decades now and have a little history under their reading belts, simply cannot resist picking up a book about books and reading. Looking back through my own files, I see that I’ve read about eighty books that can be characterized as a “book about a book,” and that at least thirty of them still sit on my shelves. Some of these books are novels (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Bookman’s Wake, etc.); some are memoirs (84 Charing Cross Road, Slightly Chipped, Among the Gently Mad, etc.); some are historical fiction (Mrs. Poe, The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, etc.). There are reference books, instructional manuals, and even a few true crime books that fit well into the category.

Most readers drawn to this type book, however, seem to prefer the ones that are some combination of memoir and general celebration of the world of books and those who read them (physical copies, not electronic ones). That’s where Joe Queenan’s One for the Books fits in. One for the Books is certainly a celebration of books and what they have meant, and continue to mean, to mankind, but what makes it a particular joy to read is that Joe Queenan is a funny man – and his take on what turned him into such a voracious reader is often laugh-out-loud funny.

Queenan is not all fun and games and jokes, however. Early on, for instance, he tells us that, “I was stranded in a housing project with substandard parents at the time I started reading as if there were no tomorrow, and I’m convinced that this desire to escape from reality – on a daily, even an hourly basis – is the main reason people read books. Intelligent people, that is.”

And the man’s cynicism often shines brightly, such as when he is giving his take on book clubs: “I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club. Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation…the people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent, but they are rarely what I would call interesting.”

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Joe Queenan

As for those who like to read “bad books,” Queenan has this to offer: “People who like bad books are not bad people, any more than are people who like bad food. They are simply people who like bad books. They are people on whom the gift of literacy may have been wasted.”

Along the way, Queenan gives his take on public libraries (and his series of bad experiences in libraries), his habit of reading thirty or more books at the same time (some of them, it seems, for years), the willingness he found at age sixty to toss books aside forever if they are not working for him, and his disdain for speed readers and those who get their “book count” up by reading a dozen children’s books a day. He observes that serious (obsessive) readers “all have some kind of clock or meter running in our heads…a rough estimate of how long we expect to live, and we have structured our reading habits accordingly.”

There is even a section on “loyal readers (who) may feel the need to part company with a writer he once admired greatly.” This, Queenan says happens when a reader learns something about a writer’s past or personality that makes it impossible for him to read them with pleasure or respect. He says (and he is never afraid to name names) that it’s happened to him with Henry Miller, John Cheever, Hanning Mankell, and Ian McEwan. I found this to be a particularly reassuring section of the book since I’m going through the same thing right now with an author whose initials are Joyce Carol Oates.

Readers, Joe Queenan is one of us; he gets it. Just listen to him explain the “excruciating” process of purging books from a collection: “This was excruciating. My books have been part of my life forever. They have been good soldiers, boon companions. Every book has survived numerous purges over the years; each book has repeatedly been called onto the carpet and asked to explain itself. I own no book that has not fought the good fight, taken on all comers, and earned the right to remain. If a book is there, it is there for a reason.”

Bottom Line: If you are one of those people that Joe Queenan calls “serious” or “obsessive” about books, you are going to love this book. No doubt about it.

James Patterson Decides Not to Murder Stephen King in Print

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James Patterson

This has to be the most bizarre news story out of the publishing world in a while.  It seems that “He Who Seldom Writes His Own Books” (aka James Patterson) canceled publication of a novel for this November about a stalker who is determined to kill Stephen King – supposedly, because he doesn’t want to cause King “any discomfort.”

Well, isn’t that special?  Patterson finally wised up to the world in which all of us live, one in which there are nuts on every street corner just looking for an excuse to kill a crowd of people…or maybe they would settle for one famous name – especially if someone like Patterson thought it might be cute to prepare the blueprint beforehand?  I guess this is a case of “better late than never,” but that this project even got this far before being put in the trash where it belongs, is both astonishing and crass.

From the sound of an article in The Guardian on Friday, Patterson is not the most remorseful guy in the world, and is using the whole incident as an opportunity to publicize the book that will “replace” his misstep in the publication schedule:

But on Thursday, less than two weeks after the novel was announced, Patterson announced its cancellation. He added that the decision was taken after the publicity that followed the announcement of The Murder of Stephen King, when he was alerted to the fact that “fans of Stephen King have disrupted the King household in the past”.

“My book is a positive portrayal of a fictional character, and – spoiler alert – the main character is not actually murdered,” he said in a statement from his publisher. “Nevertheless, I do not want to cause Stephen King or his family any discomfort. Out of respect for them, I have decided not to publish The Murder of Stephen King.”

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Stephen King

How can anyone in the business not have heard of Stephen King’s problems with fans in the past and just now be hearing of it?

The article reminds readers that King is not exactly a fan of Patterson’s writing, as he has stated in the past, although Patterson downplays King’s criticism as “hyperbole.”  All of this silliness makes me wonder if King and his family pressured Patterson and publisher to dump the book, because it is hard to imagine that King has not been aware of it for a while now, or that he would sit back and do nothing to influence its ultimate fate.

Come to think of it, King should write a book about this mess.

Dear Mr. M

1101903325-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_It was not until Dutch writer Herman Koch published his sixth novel (he has also written multiple short story collections) that readers in this part of the world were generally able to find his work for the first time. That book, The Dinner, because it is home to one of the most unreliable narrators readers are likely to have encountered for a while, was a huge surprise to American readers who picked it up not knowing what to expect.   Herman Koch was a hit in North America, and readers soon looked forward to more of his books – be they the five published before The Dinner or the ones to follow it.

Dear Mr. M, Koch’s eighth novel, once again makes good use of an unreliable narrator or two but still manages to keep its biggest surprise until the book’s last few pages. “Mr. M,” the book’s title character, is a prominent Dutch novelist who, as he is well aware, is fast-approaching the end of his career. The peak of that career, a novel based upon the likelihood that a teenaged couple murdered one of its teachers, is long behind him. He will never sell as many copies of a single book again, and he is trying to learn to be satisfied with his lesser numbers.

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Herman Koch

Mr. M, however, is not ready to roll over and die. On the contrary, he has a beautiful young wife and a daughter who will barely remember him if he dies anytime soon. He loves his family, and his books still sell in “respectable” numbers – and although he knows it or not, Mr. M has a downstairs neighbor who is absolutely infatuated with Mr. M and his daily routine. But that downstairs neighbor is not just interested in any book; he is obsessed with Mr. M’s fictional portrayal of what happened to the missing schoolteacher, and he is determined to discuss the real incident in detail with Mr. M. Whether the man wants to reveal the truth about what happened or to find out just how much Mr. M knows about it remains to be seen. Who is this guy, anyway?

Dear Mr. M is an intriguing murder mystery (was there even a murder?) told via multiple points-of-view and time periods, and the key characters are as well-developed as their psychotic personalities will realistically allow them to be known to the casual observer. The characters are of many types, but frankly, they are an unlikable lot who pretty much deserve each other and what happens to them. Dear Mr. M is a cynical novel, one filled with equally cynical characters, but that is the root of the darkness that makes the book so intriguing and, dare I say it…so much fun.

Movies for Readers: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

516ijhaacbl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, published in May 2012 won several awards, including the National Book Critics Award for Fiction and a movie version starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Giamatti is being released in November 2016.

Neal Thompson describes it this way:

“Billy Lynn and his Bravo squad mates have become heroes thanks to an embedded Fox News crew’s footage of their firefight against Iraqi insurgents. During one day of their bizarre Victory Tour, set mostly at a Thanksgiving Day football game at Texas Stadium, they’re wooed by Hollywood producers, smitten by Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and share a stage at halftime with Beyonce. Guzzling Jack and Cokes and scuffling with fans, the Bravos are conflicted soldiers. “Okay, so maybe they aren’t the greatest generation,” writes debut author (!) Ben Fountain, who manages a sly feat: giving us a maddening and believable cast of characters who make us feel what it must be like to go to war. Veering from euphoria to dread to hope, Billy Lynn is a propulsive story that feels real and true. With fierce and fearless writing, Fountain is a writer worth every accolade about to come his way.” –Neal Thompson

I have had this one in my electronic TBR stack for quite a while but have not convinced myself that it is something I will enjoy, so it just sits there – and the fact that it is an e-book makes it very much easier for me just to forget about it.  Even the trailer does not do the trick and make me want to read the novel before seeing the movie…can’t explain why.

What do you think?

Sandlands

30134079Rosy Thornton’s debut short story collection, Sandlands, is a collection of sixteen stories, each of which is set in Suffolk, an English county bordering the North Sea.  The county is a low-lying one with a few hills, extensive wetlands, and a long coastline, and Thornton uses many of its physical features as key elements of her stories. Too, the county is filled with historical significance, and almost all of the sixteen stories link the county’s historic past with its present.

I have long admired short story writers with the ability to construct believable little worlds and populate those worlds with complex characters, all within the limited number of pages and words they allow themselves.  That process always reminds me a bit of working a complex puzzle of sorts, and Rosy Thornton managed to solve the puzzle more times than not in her Sandlands collection.

There are stories here of witches from centuries past who still have the power to kill, World War II soldiers who spend the duration of their war as POWs in Suffolk, ancient churches still being worshiped in today, and women walking the same paths that their mothers and grandmothers walked and biked decades earlier. There are stories of good ghosts, and stories of the scarier sort of ghost. Some of the stories are funny, some are very sad, and some are nostalgically heart-wrenching – such as the last story in the collection, “Mackerel,” in which an elderly grandmother eagerly awaits a visit from her young-adult granddaughter as she prepares the young woman’s favorite dinner.

As in any collection of short stories, it is only natural that I have my favorites, such as “Nightingale’s Return” in which an Italian man comes to England to see with his own eyes the farm on which his prisoner-of-war father was forced to work for much of World War II. Another is “Curlew Call,” the story of a young woman who decides to spend her gap year in service to an elderly wheelchair-bound woman who lives alone in an isolated house on the coast. When the old woman is hospitalized and the teenager finds herself living alone in the intimidating old house, she manages to reconstruct the old woman’s tragic past through old pictures and newspaper clippings. What she reveals is not at all what she, or the reader, expects.

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Rosy Thornton

Then there’s my favorite story of all, “The Watcher of Souls,” featuring the barn owl that serves as the inspiration for the book’s cover photo. In this one, a woman is able to track an owl she encounters on her morning walks back to its nest and begins to explore the detritus at the base of the owl’s nesting tree. Expecting to find nothing but the tiny remains of the owl’s meals, she is surprised to find instead a bundle of letters that have been hidden there for decades. But what she finds next turns into the biggest surprise – and shock – of all.

Sandlands is a fine collection of highly atmospheric stories that reflect on how closely the modern world is still tied to the generations that preceded it. It is about family and reminds that we are who we are because of those who came before us and prepared the way. Readers with a fondness for well-constructed, more literary short stories are going to enjoy and appreciate Rosy Thornton’s Sandlands.

For more on Rosy Thornton and her work, please visit her website.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

462 Books Read in 2008

As the tenth anniversary of Book Chase grows ever nearer, I find myself browsing through some of the almost three thousand posts that I’ve made here over the years, especially the ones from the early years.  As you might expect, sometimes it’s like reading them for the first time because I can’t remember actually writing them.  Too, I’m finding that for every post I’m pleased with having produced, I find another whose very existence embarrasses me for a variety of reasons.

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Sarah Weinman

Last night I read a post from January 2009 about a woman who read 462 books in 2008.  Does that number astound you as much as it did, and still does, me?  But the really remarkable thing is what Sarah Weinman had to say about how she does it.  This is from the original Los Angeles Times article that caught my eye on January 9, 2009:

I’ve been trying to analyze my reading method to see why I’ve almost always been able to do this (well, I started reading at the age of 2 1/2; I don’t think I was speed-reading back then, but I became aware I could read fast when I burned through eight “Sweet Valley High” books in one evening when I was about 9.)

A lot of it has to do with my music background. I studied voice and piano fairly seriously during my elementary and high school days, and as such, I became very attuned to rhythm and cadence and voice. So what happens when I read is that I can “hear” the narrative and dialogue in my head, but what’s odd is that I’m both aware of the book at, say, an LP rate (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) but in my head it translates to roughly a 78. I’ve tried to slow this down, but realized that my natural reading rhythm is freakishly fast when an author friend asked me to go through the manuscript of her soon-to-be-published book for continuity errors.

I sat in the La-Z-Boy at my parents’ house with a pencil, went through page by page making notes but also enjoying the book, and had the whole task done in about 3-4 hours. This was a 350-page manuscript too, so roughly 80,000 words. Take away the pencil and the editor’s hat and the reading speed would probably be close to 90 minutes. What also seems to happen is that I read a page not necessarily word by word, but by capturing pages in sequence in my head. The words and phrases appear diagonally, like I’m absorbing the text all in one gulp, and then I move on to the next sequence I can absorb by paragraph or page. It’s like I’m reading from a whole-language standpoint instead of phonics — that’s the only way I can figure out how to explain it.

Isn’t that amazing?  Well, I got to wondering what Sarah Weinman might be doing today, and I see that she is a successful editor and writer.  In fact, she is the editor of a Library of America book that I plan to add to my collection soon, one called Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s.  But that’s hardly all that Sarah has been up to, as you will see if you take a look at her website.  

What Sarah can do with the written word is a true talent, a talent she was born with that is much like being born a natural musician or singer.  I don’t know if she is still reading almost 500 books a year these days, but she is so, so lucky to be able to be able to use that talent in her chosen profession.  We should all be so lucky.

 

The Glorious Heresies

c60c62_1380a0ef49ea4b0a86f3fb2b2b45875a-jpg_srz_257_387_85_22_0-50_1-20_0-00_jpg_srzLisa McInerney’s highly anticipated first novel, The Glorious Heresies, has already picked up two major awards and been listed for at least two others. The novel won both the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize and, in addition, has been shortlisted for the Best Newcomer (Irish Book Awards) and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Set in Cork, Ireland, the novel explores what it is like for the working class in that city following the post-2008 economic downturn that left so many people there both jobless and with little hope they would find a decent-paying job ever again. Not surprisingly, crime – petty and not so petty – is what many resorted to in order to put food on the table for their families. For fathers and their sons it usually involved drugs; for young women it more often took the form of street-walking or more sophisticated levels of prostitution.

The Glorious Heresies centers on two families, those of Jimmy Phelan and his mother Maureen; and Tony Cusack and his six children, especially Tony’s oldest, Ryan. Jimmy Phelan and Tony Cusack were running buddies when they were twenty years younger and Tony served as Jimmy’s messenger. But, other than occasionally running into each other in a pub, the two have had nothing to do with each other in the last two decades. But all of that is about to change in a big way.

Jimmy’s mother has taken a hands-on approach to stopping a would-be burglar from making off with anything of hers but, in the process, has created a problem that requires a bit of very confidential cleaning up. Jimmy needs a helper he can trust, and when he happens upon Tony on the street, it is as if fate has provided just the man he needs. Fate may have been kind to Jimmy, but Tony will curse that chance encounter for the rest of his life.

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Lisa McInerney

The rest of the novel is filled with dark Irish humor and some of the funniest dialogue in a crime novel since Elmore Leonard. Particularly funny is the interplay between hardened gangster Jimmy and his mother, a woman with a mind of her own who is every bit the match for her gangster son. The novel serves also as a coming-of-age story for Ryan Cusack, a young man who cannot believe that one of the prettiest girls in his entire high school has taken up with him. Ryan, never long on self-confidence when it comes to girls, may not understand what Karine sees in him, but he is going to make the most of it – right up to the moment he is busted for dealing drugs on the street and is sentenced to prison.

The chief flaw in so many of McInerney’s side-characters is their failure to know when to keep their mouths shut, a flaw that will be the end of more than one of them before The Glorious Heresies runs its course. Tony compounds his problems and extends his relationship with Jimmy way past where he wants it to be when he inadvertently reveals something to Tony’s mother, but Tony is not the only one with a loose tongue. Throw in a nosy next-door-neighbor who just happens to have a thing for teenaged boys, and a prostitute who will not rest until she finds out where her boyfriend has gotten to, and you have the makings of a truly memorable debut novel.

The only false step in the novel, if there is one, is a side-plot (involving the burning down of a rural church) thrown in so late in the story that it seems superfluous and beside the point. Perhaps sensing that the main plot had been extended beyond its breaking point, McInerney hoped that the side-plot would bring the novel to a more rousing climax. It did not.

The Glorious Heresies is fun – and Lisa McInerney is an author to keep an eye on.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Movies for Readers: A Man Called Ove

imagesThis week’s “Movie for Readers” is a Swedish import based on a popular book of the same title, A Man Called Ove.  The Fredrik Backman novel was a bestseller in Sweden and did quite well in the U.S. when published here in 2014, spending some time on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Publisher Simon & Schuster characterizes the book this way:

    “Ove is getting older. He’s the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People in Ove’s neighborhood call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But behind Ove’s cranky exterior lies a story and a sadness. When an accident-prone young couple with two young daughters moves in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox one November morning, overturning his well-ordered routine, it is the spark in a surprising, enlivening chain of events—featuring unkempt cats, unexpected friendships, arrogant bureaucrats, several trips to the hospital, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. Swept along in the tide, Ove is forced to change and learn to understand his neighbors and the modern times into which he has been grudgingly dragged. But as his neighbors learn more about the reasons behind Ove’s grumpy façade, they must also band together to protect each other and their neighborhood in a struggle that will leave no one, including Ove, unchanged.”

Just how closely, of course, the movie follows the book, remains to be seen.  A Man Called Ove was released on August 26 and should still be in theaters.

As you will see from the official trailer, below, this one is in Swedish with English subtitles.

Bright Midnight

bright-midnight-coverChris Formant’s Bright Midnight is one of the best reading surprises I have had in all of 2016. It is obvious that Formant, who holds a spot on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Board of Trustees, would know rock and roll history. But who knew that the man could write such a fun, engaging murder mystery? And it’s not just any murder mystery. No, this one involves the murder of real-life rock and roll icons Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Peter Ham, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – all in their prime, and all at the age of twenty-seven. And, believe it or not, Formant makes it all sound very, very real.

Gantry Elliot, a key man at Rolling Stone magazine, is himself a classic. Gantry was just a young University of Texas student when he stumbled into the vocation he would enjoy for the rest of his working life. Gantry was more than a magazine reporter; he was a friend to most of the pioneers of rock and roll music. So when anonymously delivered packages start showing up on his desk, he is quick to understand the significance of what he finds inside them. Someone is trying to convince Gantry to take the “Club of 27” conspiracy seriously, the theory being that there is no way that so many rock and roll stars could have died at the same age in such a short period of time. Surely, the theory goes, they had to have been murdered.

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Chris Formant

The packages are being sent to Gantry for a reason: his personal history gives him the unique insight into the times needed to judge the credibility and importance of the clues being forced on him. Almost despite himself, Gantry soon realizes that the person sending him the material is an insider from way back who may hold the key to explaining the rash of deaths that came so near to wiping out rock and roll’s royalty all those decades ago. But Gantry, fearing that a serial killer is delivering the packages to him, knows that he needs some serious help if he is going to survive this mess so he calls his one contact in the FBI, a man he has not spoken to in three decades.

And that’s when the fun starts.

Readers of a certain age (specifically those who personally remember the musical icons of the 1960s and early 1970s) will love Bright Midnight. The details about the lives and deaths of so many rock icons are certain to bring back vivid memories of the time and the music.  Bright Midnight, though, is especially fun for fans of “cold case” novels and films because that is exactly what Gantry, the FBI, Scotland Yard, and the Paris police are faced with: a cold case involving the possible murder of half a dozen of the biggest stars in rock and roll history.

Bright Midnight is fun – just hang on tight for the ride, because it’s a wild one

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Writer Rescues Only Copy of “Life’s Work” from Burning Building

laptop-cleaning-opening-tips-2Hang on a minute, here.

While I understand the emotion that caused writer Gideon Hodge to rush back into his burning home in order to save his “life’s work,” I can’t even begin to comprehend why the only copy of all of that work was being kept on a single, unprotected laptop computer.  Has this guy never had, or even heard of, a hard drive failure in the past?  If not, he’s one of the luckiest laptop computer users I’ve ever heard of.

According to The New Orleans Advocate, the 35-year-old Hodge got a call that his building was on fire and managed to rush back just in time to rescue his computer from the flames and water:

“Clad in a T-shirt that said #photobomb next to an illustration of the Joker photobombing Batman and Robin, Hodge dashed into the building. He ran past the smoke and the firefighters yelling at him to stop and managed to grab the precious laptop.

“Anybody that’s ever created art, there’s no replacing that,” Hodge said. “It’s got pretty much my life’s work.”

Hodge said he did not hesitate before running in. “Despite my better sense, I just ran inside and grabbed it,” he said. “I didn’t think to be scared.”

The computer was intact, Hodge said, sheltered from the deluge of water by a table. The charger was a loss.”

The big question, though, remains: Why has no one explained the concept of offsite data storage to this man?  Heck, a thumb drive would do the trick for two novels.

Dallas City Council Incapable of Prioritizing: Decides Little Free Libraries Must Be Regulated

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Examples of Little Free Libraries as found on Pinterest

Don’t even get me started on neighborhood Deed Restriction committees because I will tell you a story or two that will curl your toes about the kind of people who take great pleasure in enforcing their will upon their neighbors.  But when elected city council members start to resemble the over-zealous do-gooders of Deed Restriction committees…well, that’s when I really get ticked off.

And that is exactly what seems to be happening up in Dallas right now.

Despite all the real problems that a city the size of Dallas is going to have, simply by definition, the city council there has decided to waste its time drafting and passing a city ordinance to regulate the size and location of Little Free Libraries that people want to place on their own property so that they can share and exchange books with their neighbors.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  They are more concerned about those tiny wooden boxes that have appeared on the lawns of about two dozen Dallas residents than they are about the tent cities that keep being re-erected by the people who live on the streets of Dallas.  After all, according to the Dallas Morning News, there have been at least three complaints about the Little Free Libraries this year:

On Monday morning, a Dallas City Council committee signed off on a proposal that would limit the size and location of community book exchanges that have taken root in some two dozen Dallas residents’ front yards.  As far as city officials can tell, if the full council gives its blessing, Dallas will become one of the only cities in the country to specifically regulate the take-a-book, leave-a-book boxes, which, in the past, have been subject to building laws and zoning codes.

And those rules would be as follows: The libraries can stand no taller than five feet and can be no wider than 20 inches and no deeper than 18 inches. In addition, anyone wanting to plant a Little Free Library in their front yard has to stay 10 feet away from a neighbor’s property line, and would be limited to a single structure per parcel.

The above quote from the Morning News was provided by Texas Monthly.com and that link has both a brief history of Little Free Libraries and a recap of what a handful of cities around the country have been doing to harass the goodhearted souls in their cities who want to do something as terrible as share a few books with their friends and neighbors.

You know the old saying about no good deed going unpunished?  Looks like city councilmen all across the country are determined to prove just how true that is these days.

U.K. Issues Set of Six Mysterious Stamps to Celebrate Agatha Christie’s 126th Birthday

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I have some good news this morning for collectors of commemorative stamps featuring authors and books.  The U.K. is celebrating the 126th birthday of Agatha Christie by issuing a set of six very special stamps.  Each of the stamps features one of Christie’s books and cleverly includes a clue or two to help solve the book’s central mystery.  The stamps were issued yesterday (September 15) and collectors can purchase them directly from the Royal Mail.

According to The Guardian:

“The six stamps are devoted to classic Christie mysteries, including her debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which Christie began writing 100 years ago at the age of 26, and another Hercule Poirot mystery, Murder on the Orient Express – appropriately enough a first class stamp. Each design includes microtext, UV ink and thermochromic ink. These concealed clues can be revealed using either a magnifying glass, UV light or body heat and and provide pointers to the mysteries’ solutions.”

I love the idea of interactive stamps offering mystery clues, and can only imagine how thrilled Agatha Christie would be at such a clever spin on the stamps honoring her work.

Click on the Guardian link up above for more detail about the stamps and for a look at the other two stamps in the series.

The Orphan Mother

28926201The Orphan Mother is the third Civil War era novel from Robert Hicks. While not strictly meeting the definition of a trilogy, each of the three novels focuses on participants in the bloody 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.

The first of the three books, The Widow of the South, tells the story of Carrie McGavock, mistress of the Carnton Plantation house and the property on which she personally cared for and preserved the graves of some 1,500 casualties (from both armies) of the nearby battle. McGavock maintained the cemetery for the remaining years of her life, and it is open to the public even today. A Separate Country, the second of the three books, looks closely at the life lived after the war by the Confederate general in command of Southern troops at the Battle of Franklin, John Bell Hood, and is largely set in New Orleans. Now comes The Orphan Mother, which commences shortly after the end of the Civil War and recounts the story of Mariah Reddick, Carrie McGavock’s personal slave, a woman who experienced no other life but service to Carrie until the war finally ended.

Mariah Reddick is the preeminent midwife in the city of Franklin, Tennessee. She offers her birthing services to black and white families, alike, and by now has had a personal hand in the birthing of a significant portion of its citizens. The only thing different now is that she gets to keep the fees she collects for her services rather than having to turn the money over to the family that owns her. Mariah is doing well, and feeling confident about what the future holds for her and her only son Theopolis, who just happens to be the best shoe and boot maker in the city of Franklin.

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Robert Hicks

Theopolis, though, has bigger ambitions than ministering to the feet of his fellow townsmen – he wants to represent them in the state government. But when Theo is murdered by an angry mob at the first political event he tries to speak at, Mariah’s world comes crashing down around her, and all she wants now is to identify the men who killed her son so that she can somehow bring them to justice. Mariah will learn much about her town and the people in it during her search for her son’s killers, but she will also meet a man with the ability to change the rest of her life, if she will only let him – and if he can bring himself to tell her the truth about her son’s death.

The Orphan Mother is a fine addition to Robert Hicks’s Civil War books, and it leaves me anxious to see what comes next from Hicks. Civil War fiction (as with all serious historical fiction) is a tool by which a good novelist brings history to life by allowing readers to witness historical events through the eyes of those who lived it. Robert Hicks makes that happen in The Orphan Mother.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Man Booker Shortlist: Down to the Final Six

The 2016 Man Booker Shortlist has been announced, eliminating seven of the thirteen books on the original longlist previously announced.  I was still (slowly) working my way through the longlist, so this will serve to refocus my TBR list a bit.  Of the original thirteen, I have read three books – and two of those did not make it to the shortlist, the lone survivor being Eileen by American author Otessa Moshfegh.

The longlist included five titles from British authors, five from American authors, two from Canadian authors, and one from South African author J.M. Coetzee.  The shortlist is made up of two British authors, two Canadians, and two Americans (and that makes me wonder if that was not the plan all along).

The Man Booker Shortlist:

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Winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction

(US) Described by the publisher, Macmillan, this way: “A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.”

 

51llns0kdfl(UK) From the book’s dust jacket we learn this about Hot Milk, “Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant–their very last chance–in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.”

Hot Milk is Levy’s seventh novel. She is also the author of short story collections and numerous plays.

5100SFEA6aL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_(UK) The book’s self-description: “A brutal triple murder. Dark and deadly deeds in a remote northwestern crofting community in 1869 lead to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. There’s no question that Macrae landed the savage blows, but it falls to the country’s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence. Was he insane? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the inevitability of the gallows at Inverness.Will he swing for his wicked acts?

 

41ZUYGNM4bL._SY346_(US)  The Los Angeles Times describes Eileen like this: “The novel fixates on solitude and isolation, alcoholism and child abuse, the icy gray New England suburbia of her town, “X-Ville,” and the even grayer ambience of Moorehead, the boys’ juvenile detention center where Eileen works. She lives alone with her retired-cop alcoholic father since the death of her mother, and her relationship with him seems limited to buying him bottles of alcohol and avoiding him altogether.  Her work life seems also unbearable, other than brief minutes when her fantasy life takes her to her crush, a security guard named Randy, who most likely doesn’t know she exists.”

41M7cxoDK7L(Canada)  The Telegraph review of All That Man Is opens this way: “David Szalay’s fourth novel tells the stories of nine male protagonists at various stages of their lives. “It’s important to feel part of something larger,” says one and, from the students of the first chapter, through the middle-aged drifters at the book’s centre, to the retiree with whom it ends, Szalay’s 21st-century men feel their lives lack meaning. Most are British but there are Belgians and Danes too, so these are timely meditations on how this country sees Europe, how Europe sees us and how we see ourselves.”

Booker_Thien-xlarge_trans++QbFiyxT4AaTcAHNa4wzsULNgOPWIo1ukKD3uSzd43XQ(Canada)  From the book’s publisher: “The Shanghai episode is one thread of a family history picked up by the novel’s heroine, Marie, a math professor living in present-day Vancouver. As the novel opens, Marie is thinking back to her father’s death by suicide in China. At that time, a family friend arrives in Vancouver. She tells stories that stretch back to the Japanese invasion; tales of her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, and her great aunt Swirl and the wars and political campaigns that led to separations, homelessness and death. These accounts slowly unravel the mystery of Marie’s father. She also reads fragments of The Book of Records, a largely improvised novel that reflects the haphazard construct of history.”

I have a copy of Hot Milk and I’ll see if I can find copies of the other four I haven’t read.  For some strange reason, it always seems easier for me to find novels by British authors here in Houston than it is for me to find the work of Canadian writers.

American authors only became eligible for the prize in 2014 when the competition was opened up to any novel published in the U.K. that was first written in English.  While I do think it’s kind of fun to see how Americans do in the competition, part of me wishes that the change had not been made because I always depend on the Man Booker lists to alert me to some of the better British and Canadian books of which I otherwise would never have heard.

 

Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally

1940363055-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Avid Andy Kaufman fans know how closely connected to Andy’s career that Bob Zmuda was, and for that reason, a new book by Zmuda on Kaufman is likely to grab their attention.  But those same fans, knowing Kaufman and Zmuda as well as they probably do, will also know better than to expect “the truth, finally” from this book.

Andy Kaufman was more performance artist than comedian, a man who enjoyed nothing more than getting some kind of genuine emotional response from his audience – be that response negative or positive.  Bob Zmuda was Andy’s partner in crime for years, and the two of them concocted some great schemes together.  There is little doubt that Zmuda helped make Kaufman into a star/celebrity, but there is also little doubt that, without Andy Kaufman, relatively few people would know who Bob Zmuda is.

So what is “the truth, finally” that Zmuda has decided to reveal in Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally?  It’s simply this: Zmuda wants the rest of us to believe that he actually still thinks that Andy Kaufman faked his own death thirty years ago, and that he will soon be making his first public appearance since that “death.”  That’s it; that’s all there is to it.  Zmuda, for obvious reasons, wants to sell books about Andy Kaufman – and he does not want this to be the last of those books, so he’s leaving the door wide open to a Truth sequel.  Very Kaufman-like, that.

261251There are, however, some interesting aspects to Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally that potential readers will want to consider.  Fans of “Man on the Moon, the remarkable Andy Kaufman biopic, for instance, will be intrigued by all the details into the making of that film that Zmuda and Margulies share in the book.  Too, Jim Carrey fans are certain to be fascinated by Carrey’s total immersion into the Andy Kaufman persona that he took on during the entire making of that movie.  (That more “truth” about Jim Carrey is revealed in the book than about Andy Kaufman may be what Zmuda intended all along.)

It should also be noted that the role of Lynne Margulies in Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally is a limited one.  Her contributions amount to short pieces in which she briefly reflects on her memories about something that Zmuda introduces and then covers in detail.  This is very much Bob Zmuda’s book, and it shows.  One gets the impression that Zmuda enjoys being disliked (much as Kaufman did), and that he almost goes out of his way here to show all the worst aspects of his own character in order to get an emotional reaction from his readers.

Worth reading?  Well, how big an Andy Kaufman fan are you?

Here’s one of my favorite Andy Kaufman bits in which, in the person of Foreign Man, he does several impersonations, including Elvis Presley.  Fans will want to note that this was Andy’s very first appearance on the Johnny Carson Show.

I miss Andy Kaufman…a lot.

Dancing with the Tiger

0399175172-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Lili Wright’s Dancing with the Tiger is long on setting and atmosphere. Set in Mexico, the novel uses the country’s mean streets, its belief in mysticism, and the ease with which so many of the country’s archeological treasures are smuggled across its borders, to create a thriller in which American mask collectors, a Mexican drug lord, and those wanting to keep Mexico’s treasures out of the hands of private collectors or foreign museums, battle for what might just turn out to be Montezuma’s actual burial mask. Wright, whose brief author’s biography says she has “studied Spanish, lived with Mexican families, worked as a journalist, watched dancing tigers parade down the streets, visited ghost towns, and started her own mask collection” puts all of that experience to good use here.

Anna Ramsey’s father, a well-known mask collector (and purported expert in the field) has just suffered a potentially fatal blow to his professional reputation, and Anna feels responsible for what happened. Daniel Ramsey’s latest book, for which Anna served as fact checker, has been exposed as wishful thinking on Ramsey’s part. In one fell swoop, both the book and a substantial portion of Ramsey’s collection are shown to be fakes, effectively destroying Ramsey’s reputation with museums and collectors around the world. Worse, Ramsey has turned to the bottle for comfort and can barely take care of himself, much less work on restoring his reputation.

So when Anna and her father learn that a meth-fueled looter has found Montezuma’s death mask, exactly the thing to restore Ramsey’s collection to its former glory, Anna knows what she has to do. Her father is too much into the bottle to be trusted with going to Mexico to purchase the mask from the looter; she will have to do it herself. Cash and her mother’s ashes in hand, and without telling her father that she is doing it, Anna heads to Mexico where she hopes to locate the looter and bring the Montezuma mask home. As it turns out, she will be lucky if she is able to bring herself home to her father, much less the mask he wants so badly.

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Lili Wright

And the race is on. Before it is over, the mask will have changed hands several times, people will have been tortured and killed in the most bizarre ways imaginable, and Anna will be wondering just how far she will have, or is willing, to go to attain the mask for her father. And that is where the novel becomes more a comedy of errors than the thriller it was intended to be. Anna is so reckless that she puts herself into one life threatening position after another with little thought as to the likely consequences but continuously walks away from the encounters with only a few bumps and bruises. The only thing saving Anna from her incompetence is the even greater incompetence of the bad guys chasing her and the mask.

Dancing with the Tiger is a fun ride a long way into its 453 pages, but eventually the reader begins to sense that its author is running out of pages in which to wrap up the chase and the book’s several side plots. And unfortunately, that is precisely what happens, leaving Wright with little choice but to resort to a series of short character summaries to explain the final destiny of each main character. That works – but it is akin to slamming into a wall at 60 mph. Not much fun.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

On First Hearing About 9-11 from an Algerian Muslim

twin_towers2As I type this, it has been almost fifteen years to the hour that I learned about what happened in New York on this day in 2001.  Right about now, I would have been working away as Finance Manager on a billions-of-dollars project deep in the Algerian Sahara Desert, oblivious to the news that a teary-eyed Algerian employee (and good friend) of mine would bring me just as I was returning from lunch about three hours later.  Keep in mind that his English was as bad as my French, and you will get an idea of how difficult it was for me to accept what I slowly comprehended he was struggling to tell me.

Keep in mind, also, that this man is a Muslim and that he knew full well what level of retribution the attack on the Twin Towers was likely to unleash in his part of the world.  He knew it instinctively, and yet he was more concerned about me and how I would handle the horrible news that thousands of Americans were likely going to die as a result of an attack on America made in the name of his religion by radicals with nothing more than vengeance and murder on their crazed minds.  I will never forget the moment that he saw that I understood what he was telling me, and that I fully comprehended its impact.  His eyes said it all.

I immediately went back to my camp bedroom and tuned in CNN International which had been covering the attacks for hours by then, where I sat along with three or four of my fellow ex-pats and my two closest Algerian friends in the camp (including the man who broke the news to me).  We watched for hours as the attack video and the collapse of the two buildings was replayed over and over again.  And the world, of course, has never been the same since that terrible day.  But still, what I remember most clearly, and what I will treasure for the rest of my life, is the empathetic way that an Algerian Muslim broke the news to me and tried to cushion me emotionally in the immediate aftermath.  Djamel is a good man, one of the best I know from anywhere in the entire world, and I will consider him a true friend for the rest of my days.

So, on this fifteenth anniversary of the Twin Tower mass murders, let’s all strive to remember that there are good people on both sides of this long war against terrorism.  There are victims on both sides and there are bad men on both sides.  Innocents are dying, and will probably continue to die for several generations to come.  And we are all losers because there are no winners in this fight until it is over  Then,  and only then, we will all be winners.

 

On Judging a Book by Its Cover

I think it’s time to modify the old saying about judging a book by its cover.  For me, it should read, “You can’t always judge a book by its cover.”

When it comes to books, perhaps the most important bookstore marketing tool out there for them (other than a mega-selling author’s name in big letters splashed on the cover in red) is the image that appears on the front of the book’s dust jacket.  That’s what grabs the attention of the casual book-browser who just happens to be strolling through a bookstore on a Sunday afternoon.  If that picture or illustration is powerful enough to stop the browser in his tracks, then the book has a pretty decent chance of going home with him.

That leaves me wondering why publishers don’t put a more consistent effort into producing the kind of jackets that refuse to let you walk past them without at least picking them up to get a better look?  Take a look at these examples from a handful of the books I’ve read this year.  The first six are ones that I would not pass by without a second look:

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Each of them make me wonder what kind of tale is inside those covers.

These, on the other hand, would never get that (or any other) kind of reaction from me:

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Two of the six books in the first group are among my favorite reads to this point of 2016, and three from the second group are among my biggest disappointments of the year.  I would have ended up reading all twelve of the books anyway because none of them came from bookstores; they were either library books or review copies that came directly from publishers.  But if all twelve had depended on me discovering them in my local bookstore, the bottom six would have been in big trouble.

So, can you judge a book by its cover – or not?