Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta

515ompiob8l-_sy346_The state of Mississippi has long fascinated me because of its rich Civil War history and its remarkable literary tradition – two key interests I have enjoyed my entire life. I first started exploring Mississippi by car in the late 1980s and I have continued to do so to this day, often spending many of my vacation days driving the state on self-directed Civil War tours, or ones designed to hit as many of the state’s wonderful bookstores and literary landmarks as I can manage in a week or ten days.

As everyone knows, though, Mississippi has its dark side, a legacy from the darkest days of slavery that continues to haunt the state to this day. Look at all the standards by which American states are generally measured, and you are likely to find Mississippi near, or actually at, the bottom of every single one of them. But then consider some other measurement, such as which states produce the highest number of prominent writers (per capita or otherwise) and Mississippi probably stands near the top of the list. Let’s just say that as much as I love the state, I don’t always feel safe driving its back roads on my own.

Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta portrays Mississippi and her people through the eyes of a British adventure/travel writer, a man who first became acquainted with the state while “interviewing elderly blues singers in the mid-1990s.” Grant was charmed by Mississippi, particularly by the city of Oxford, while on that initial project and would return periodically to visit his Mississippi friends. On one of those visits an old friend brought Grant to the Mississippi Delta region to show him her “home ground,” and Grant so fell in love with an old plantation house (near Pluto, Mississippi) belonging to his friend’s father that he impetuously offered to buy it – without first mentioning anything to his New York City girlfriend. Luckily for Grant, his girlfriend was as ready to get away from New York City as he was, and after looking at the house she agreed to give the Delta a shot.

Thus begins the Mississippi Delta adventure of two people who could hardly have been any more different from their new neighbors if they had tried. Richard and Mariah were liberal left-wing progressives for whom being politically correct in speech and thought was simply a way of life. For their neighbors, shall we say, it was not. But in the next few months, Richard and Mariah would make some of the closest friends they had ever had, and would explore the Delta in a way that outsiders are seldom permitted to do.

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Richard Grant

Grant would learn just how tricky race relations still are in Mississippi, a state with so large a black population that blacks can be said to hold as much (or even more) political clout as whites. He would learn that many Mississippi blacks would not look him in the eye when speaking with him; that even if he considered them a friend, many blacks preferred to speak with him outside or to enter his home from its rear entrance; and that there were many places his black friends did not think safe for a white man to visit – even in their company. Grant, though, because he wanted to tell Mississippi’s story, was persistent and he managed to get both his black friends and his white friends to be honest with him.

Along the way he meets some of Mississippi’s most colorful people and some of her most famous, including actor Morgan Freeman who still lives in Mississippi when not working on a film, and owns (with partners) what is perhaps the state’s most famous blues club. He explores the often bizarre world of small town Mississippi politics (in which gunfire and threats sometimes play a key role), the blues legacy being left behind by a generation of blues pioneers now steadily dying off, and the improving but still delicately balanced relationship between the state’s black and white populations.

Dispatches from Pluto exposes a side of a state that has been underappreciated for too long. Mississippi is rich in history, music, and American culture in a way that many other states cannot claim to be. Maybe a few more books like Dispatches from Pluto will finally expose what is still a well kept secret: Mississippi is a great place to visit – for a lot of good reasons.

On Prepping for the 2016 Texas Book Festival

tbf-2016-posterThe 2016 Texas Book Festival will be history this time next week, and I’m not at all prepared for it yet. I usually spend at least a couple of hours ahead of time preparing two separate schedules: a first-choice schedule that I will follow if everything breaks perfectly for me and a backup schedule that I can jump in and out of if sessions go longer than expected or any back-to-back sessions on the first schedule prove to be too far apart to allow me to make both of them.

As of this moment, I’ve got part of next Saturday mapped out and haven’t even looked at the Sunday sessions to see what’s on offer for the second day of the festival. I’m a little concerned that (based on what I’ve noticed about Saturday) there may be fewer outdoor sessions this year than in years past. That’s only important because it is easier to rush from one presentation tent to the next than it is to get indoors from outdoors. The indoor sessions are held inside the Texas Capitol building itself and the lines to get through all the associated security can be a little long – and timing is everything at the Texas Book Festival because no matter how many authors you see, you miss ten times that many. So many authors, so many books, so little time…can be exhausting.

Saturday is looking pretty good, though, as I’m finding that several of the authors I’ve already read in 2016 will be presenting. It appears that, with a little luck, I’ll be able to see Susan Faludi (In the Darkroom), Ottessa Moshfegh (Eileen), Virginia Reeves (Work Like Any Other), Diane Guerrero (In the Country We Love: My Family Divided), and Skip Hollandsworth (The Midnight Assassin). And that’s just from what I’ve seen of Saturday, so I’m hoping that more will turn up as I make my way through the rest of the schedule. I’ve also spotted sessions dedicated to short story writers, Kirkus Prize Finalists, the O. Henry Prize, and Tracking Terrorism, so Saturday is going to be a very full day.

Now I need to study the rest of the Saturday schedule, the Sunday schedule, and start thinking about a hotel. Last year, like every year, I drove to Austin on Friday without having located a room and ended up staying 50 miles north of the festival in a little Texas town I’d never heard of. It worked out well enough, but my house is only 150 miles from Austin, so it seemed a little crazy to drive another 200 miles over the two days I was there.

Short Story Saturday: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”

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1950 First Edition of The Martian Chronicles

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is a devastating six-page story set in the distant future (2026) when it first appeared in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles back in 1950. But time moves relentlessly forward and that distant future is now only ten years away, although Bradbury – who died in 2012 – will not be around to see it.

The story opens in a very quiet, fully-automated, home in which a rather sophisticated alarm clock is in the process of getting a family of four out of bed and prepared to start a new day. The “voice-clock” begins alerting the family to that new day by singing, “Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock!” But no one stirs even when the automated stove produces a breakfast for four of eight sunny-side up eggs, sixteen slices of bacon, eight pieces of toast, two coffees, and two glasses of milk. Thirty minutes later, when the stove realizes that no one will be claiming the breakfasts, it uses its aluminum wedge to scrape the cold and shriveled food into the sink – which proceeds to wash everything into a disposal system that removes the remains from the house.

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Ray Bradbury

If this is what home-life will be in 2026, count me in. But where is the family that lives in this residence from the future? Why aren’t they jumping out of bed, eating breakfast, listening to the overhead speakers remind them of the day’s To-Do list and weather report, before rushing out to greet the day?

Ray Bradbury stories often include portentous predictions of the future, and “There Will Come Soft Rains” is no exception, for despite all the comforts of the future he describes at the beginning of the story, something has gone terribly wrong for the residents of this luxurious house. Technology has always been a doubled-edge sword, and Bradbury was not optimistic about that ever changing. And that’s the warning message he sends to future readers of “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

Ray Bradbury is, of course, most famous for books such as The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Dandelion Wine (1957), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). He sold his first short story when he was just twenty-one years old – and before he was done, Ray Bradbury sold hundreds more. Ray Bradbury’s work is representative of the best that American literature has to offer.

Movies for Readers: Hidden Figures

the_official_poster_for_the_film_hidden_figures_2016This week’s Movie for Readers is Hidden Figures, the story of African American mathematician, physicist, and space scientist Katherine Johnson who did critical work for NASA by calculating flight trajectories for both Project Mercury and for the 1969 flight to the moon by Apollo 11. The movie is based on a recent nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Hidden Figures is scheduled for a limited release on Christmas Day with a wide release to follow on January 6, 2017.

Hidden Figures Movie Trailer:

imagesConsidering the times, the fact that Johnson was female was probably a bit of a shock to most NASA employees – but that she was African American had to be absolutely stunning to them. Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson in the lead role as Katherine Johnson. The film also stars Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. It is directed by Theodore Melfi.

The trailer indicates that the film focuses as much on the social issues of the day as it does to the work done at NASA.  It should be interesting.

 

Savages

1439183376-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_I admit that I’m a latecomer to Don Winslow’s fiction, with 2015’s The Cartel being the first of Winslow’s books I read – and Savages, from 2010, being just the second. I’ve been told that Savages, although it was Winslow’s thirteenth crime novel, is considered his breakthrough novel, the one that moved him to a whole new level of success than could be claimed for any of his previous books. Savages is so good that I find this easy to believe even without having read any of the dozen books that precede it.

Savages is about three twenty-something friends who are living the good life in Southern California. Chon, Ben, and O have the money and the leisure time to do the things they want to do, and to avoid those things they don’t want to do. And they owe it all to the high quality marijuana product that Ben developed from the seed that Chon brought back from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. O, on the other hand, lives at home with her mother and what has turned into a long, steady stream of stepfathers – all of whom have been wealthy enough to allow O and her mother never to have to worry about how their abused credit cards are ever going to be paid off.

The product sold by Chon and Ben is so good that it almost sells itself to what has become a cult following that calls itself “The Church of the Lighter Day Saints.” Now the money steadily rolls in, Chon only occasionally has to apply strong-arm tactics, and Ben has time to travel the world spending his money in those places it will do the most good. But the good times can’t last forever, and when the Mexican Baja Cartel comes calling, those days may be over for good.

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Don Winslow (Photo: Knopf)

Competition among the Mexican cartels has grown so bloody and out of control that the head of the Baja Cartel has decided to cushion her losses in Mexico by moving her operation north across the California border. When she demands that Ben and Chon give up their marketing operation and sell their product directly to her instead, negotiations do not go at all well. Ben and Chon refuse to play by the cartel’s new rules set, but when the Mexicans kidnap O and threaten to behead her if the boys don’t agree to the deal, all bets are off. The Mexican drug war has officially come to Southern California – and Chon and Ben are in the middle of it.

Stylistically, Savages is a hard book to describe. It is dark, violent, and sexy just the way one would expect a crime fiction novel featuring the Mexican drug cartels to be. But it is also a hilarious and touching love story (albeit one involving two men and one woman) that makes it easy to forget just how much trouble the novel’s main characters are really in. Ben, Chon, and O, for lots of reasons (some good, some not so good) are going to stick in readers’ minds for a long time. And the good news is that in 2012 Winslow published a prequel to Savages called The Kings of Cool, so readers of Savages will be able to spend even more time with them.

Rolling Blackouts & Graphic Nonfiction (What is that, exactly?)

This is NOT  a book review.

51m7cipixol-_sx365_bo1204203200_I just want to mention a book that caught my eye in Barnes & Noble on Sunday afternoon.  The cover of Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq gives the book such a different look that I had to pick it up.  This is one of those books whose cover image and back cover blurbs are printed directly onto the boards, not on a dust jacket covering yet another book that looks like every other book without a dust jacket.  It’s solid and heavy, coming in at 298 pages of comic book style illustrations  on relatively heavy paper.

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First Page of Rolling Blackouts

But this is not a graphic novel, a comic book, or a collection of funny cartoons.  Rather, it is something new to me: a graphic nonfiction book.  This is cartoonist Sarah Glidden’s account of the two months she spent with the people portrayed in the cartoons traveling part of the Middle East to gather personal stories from refugees created by the Iraq War.  I did buy a copy of Rolling Blackouts but it will be a few days yet before I can begin reading it.  It does appear to be a serious nonfiction book told via several hundred watercolored illustrations, and according to Glidden the dialogue (which is often edited for brevity) is taken from the digital recorder she carried with her during the trip.

I am really looking forward to the experience of reading Rolling Blackouts, and I hope some of you can tell me how long this has been going on – and maybe even recommend similar books to me.  Right now, I’m wondering if graphic nonfiction even works, and how the graphic nonfiction reading experience compares to reading a traditionally published nonfiction title.  This should be interesting.

Time Travel Tuesday: Yesterday Was Monday

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Theodore Sturgeon

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story comes from the pen of a man best known for his short stories and novellas, Theodore Sturgeon. “Yesterday Was Monday” was first published in 1941 in a magazine called Unknown. Sturgeon, who died in 1985 at age 67, was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2000.

Harry Wright went to bed on Monday night at his usual time and slept for six hours just like he always does. Then he woke up – and discovered that it was Wednesday morning. Harry, though, isn’t the worrying type, so he starts getting ready for another day at the auto-repair shop where he has worked for the last eight years. He will just let the missing Tuesday take care of itself, thank you

But when Harry locks his door and steps out into the hall to find a little man hard at work methodically scuffing up the stairs with a hammer and chisel, he begins to suspect that the missing Tuesday does not mean to be ignored. It seems that the little man is only one piece of a large contingent of little men busily working away everywhere Harry looks – and they are all in the process of manually aging whatever object they are working on, be it a car, a house, or a place of business. Harry, never one to sweat the small stuff, just keeps walking toward the garage.

Harry believes himself to be an exceptionally talented mechanic, and he takes great pride in his work. This morning (which Harry knows should be Tuesday morning, and not Wednesday morning) he is looking forward to finishing up the job on the rear springs of a 1939 sedan he started on Monday. So when he sees that the job has not only been finished by someone else, but has been finished very well, Harry is in such a rage that he grabs the little man walking past him by the man’s leather collar.

After the little man breaks Harry’s hold on him and screams for help from a Supervisor, Harry finds himself face-to-face with a tall man dressed in a “single loose-fitting garment.” It seems that once someone like Harry gets lost in time, there is only one thing to be done: take him to the Producer to “find out what is to be done with him.”

Now Harry just wishes he could go back to bed and wake up on Tuesday morning.

(Time Travel Tuesday No. 3)

 

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox

1101904658-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Most of us lucky enough to have watched the Carol Burnett Show as it aired every week only realized how truly wonderful the program was after its eleventh, and final season on CBS was over. Like all good things lasting that long, its contemporaries tended to take the show for granted. Oh sure, we couldn’t wait to see if Tim Conway was going to crack up Harvey Korman in any skit they played together, or which recurring character Carol was going to play that week, but most of us didn’t give a second thought as to how difficult it must have been to produce a show like that one week after week.

Carol Burnett’s In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox takes us back to those early days, beginning when CBS contracted with the then young Broadway star to give her a weekly series pretty much whenever she was ready to move to California. It took Carol and her producer husband Joe Hamilton a while to feel comfortable with a cross-country relocation, but they finally made the move – and the rest is television history.

Admittedly, television was a different beast in the seventies than it is today, and variety shows were fairly common then: The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In, Flip Wilson, The Jim Nabors Hour, and The Dean Martin Show all come to mind, but there were others. But stiff as the competition was, the Carol Burnett Show may have been the best and most loved of them all.

The show was blessed from the start with a group of co-stars who, according to Burnett, enjoyed the rare kind of chemistry that made the show’s improvisational style of comedy look so easy. Burnett tells how each of her co-stars (Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner, and Tim Conway) were hired and how their roles developed and changed over the show’s eleven-year run, all the way from Korman’s mentoring of the very young Vicki Lawrence to Waggoner’s evolution from pretty-boy announcer to equal partner in the show’s skits.

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Carol Burnett

Equal time is given to the show’s weekly guest stars, a list that reads like a Hollywood “Who’s Who.” Covered in detail are appearances by the likes of Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Alda, Jerry Lewis, Bernadette Peters, Steve and Edie, Betty White, Rita Hayworth, Betty Gable, Ronald Reagan, Shirley MacLaine, Donald O’Connor, Roddy McDowall, and Jim Nabors (and that’s the short list). Often included in Carol’s recap of the time she spent with her guest stars are the scripts of entire skits performed with them on that week’s show.

In Such Good Company captures all the fun of the show, but even avid fans are likely to be surprised by a thing or two they missed way back when (it’s been, after all, more than fifty years since the airing of the first show). What particularly surprised me were the short chapters titled “The Night I Fired Harvey” and “Harvey Leaves Our Show.” It seems that the often-grumpy Korman managed finally to cross the line, and Carol surprised him by calling his bluff. I can’t help but wish I could have seen the look on Harvey’s face when, completely out of character, Carol finally lowered the boom on him.

In Such Good Company also includes a detailed “Appendix 1” listing by season each show, the show’s guest stars, airdate, and other short notes. In addition, “Appendix 2” lists the writers employed for each season of shows (Burnett is always quick to give credit to the show’s writers).

Bottom Line: In Such Good Company is for the fans. It is certain t be a treat both for those who remember watching the shows the first time they aired and for new fans just now discovering the brilliance of The Carol Burnett Show via DVD or YouTube.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Orange Blossom Special Comes to Texas

So many Houston-area music festivals have  been rained out in the last couple of years that the great weather for the Tomball Bluegrass Festival yesterday was almost a shock to the system.  With temperatures in the high fifties at the beginning of the day that topped out around eighty degrees in the afternoon, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect – and the three thousand or so people who came by to hear the great bluegrass, sample the food, and enjoy the shopping couldn’t have enjoyed it more.

We just don’t get enough bluegrass around Houston (although that is improving some in the last year or two), so I try not to miss anything this close to home.  The city of Tomball is located about eight miles northwest of me, so this is as good as it gets for me as far as driving distance goes.  The city brought in two really good bands from out of state (David Davis & The Warrior River Boys and Chris Henry & Hardcore Grass) in addition to the two very good local bluegrass bands (Kenny Snow & The Bordertown Ramblers and Chris Hirsch & The Lonestar Bluegrass Band) that opened the festival.

Here’s a taste of the great musicianship and sound coming from Tomball yesterday.  I shot this video at the end of the day when the bands combined for one final jam session at the end.  Most of you will recognize the song whether or not you are a fan of country music because this one has been hard to miss for the last few decades and has become a genuine American music standard: “The Orange Blossom Special.”

The end of show jams are always fun because of the improvisation required to take advantage of multiple fiddles, guitars, and mandolins in the same song. These guys did a great job making the most of the talent on stage without stepping all over each other.

Short Story Saturday: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

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Shirley Jackson

“The Lottery” is Shirley Jackson’s best-known short story, one whose ending still packs quite a punch even though today’s readers are likely to recognize similar stories and plots that are rip-offs of this particular short story. So it is easy to imagine that “The Lottery” was even more shocking to the reading public when it was first published in the New Yorker on June 28, 1948. Jackson, after going through all the mail generated by the story’s publication, said this about the experience: “Millions of people, and my mother, had taken a pronounced dislike to me.”

“The Lottery” opens on the morning of June 27 in a small village of three hundred people. It is the day of the village’s annual lottery and the village boys have been gathering piles of the smoothest and roundest stones they can find for a while. Now they jealously guard their stockpiles while stuffing as many of the stones into their pockets as they can. The girls their age are just as excited about the big day as the boys, but they mostly leave it up to the boys to gather enough stones for everyone, much preferring to visit with their friends.

By ten o’clock the children have been joined in the village square by their parents and older siblings and everything is in place for the selection of this year’s lottery winner. All across the green, family clusters are standing nervously in anticipation of the moment in which someone from each family group, in surname alphabetical order, will be asked to draw a slip of paper from the village’s traditional black box. From this first drawing, one village family will be chosen, and from the drawing immediately to follow, one member of that family will be selected as this year’s lottery winner.

But why does everyone so much dread being named winner of this year’s lottery?

“The Lottery” is a nine-page exercise in surrealism that expertly builds tension by stealthily slipping in one clue after another about what the big lottery prize is going to be. By the end of the story, most readers will feel that they know what is coming – exactly as Jackson probably intended – but by keeping the winner’s identity hidden until the story’s last page Jackson ensures that the tension level remains as high as ever. For those unfamiliar with the work of Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” is the perfect introduction – and for those already familiar with her, it is a reminder of just how good a writer she was.

For those interested in reading more from Shirley Jackson, I highly recommend the Library of America’s 2010 publication titled Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories.  The book includes Jackson’s short story compilation The Lottery; or, The Adventures of James Harris, novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and a selection of short stories previously uncollected – or even unpublished.

Commonwealth

0062491792-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Most of us have wondered at one time or another how our lives may have turned out differently if only one particular event had never happened. What if we had never met one certain person, or taken a particular class, or had that temporarily crippling accident? Who might we be today? How different might our lives have turned out to be?

Ann Patchett explores precisely that question in Commonwealth, her latest novel. What if deputy district attorney Bert Cousins had not decided to crash a co-worker’s christening party because he couldn’t stand the thought of spending another Saturday at home with his own three children and pregnant wife? As it happens, two families are torn apart, re-formed as new blended families, and six children grow up barely knowing their fathers. Would the six children and four adults have been happier and more successful people if Bert Cousins had stayed home that Saturday afternoon? Patchett doesn’t speculate about that much, but as the next fifty years or so of her story unfold, that question will frequently cross the mind of readers.

Before the christening party is over, Bert Cousins has not only become attracted to Beverly, his host’s wife, he has shared a sexy kiss with her while holding the woman’s newly christened baby between them – and the die has been cast. In what seems like no time at all, Bert, Beverly, and Beverly’s two daughters are living in Virginia – and the girls’ father, Bert’s wife, and Bert’s four children have been left behind on their own in Torrance, California.

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Ann Patchett

The first third or so of Commonwealth, covers the painful aftermath of that Virginia move as the children are forced to cope with summers spent traveling across the country to spend a few weeks with the fathers they otherwise never see. The children, who are not always particularly crazy about spending time around even their blood-siblings, now have to find ways to put up with the stepbrothers and sisters they seldom see other than on the summer trips. Beverly, though, may be the person who most dreads the summer visits because she suddenly goes from caring for only two children to being responsible for six – and Bert Cousins is still a man who refuses to spend time around children – his or anyone else’s.

Commonwealth, though, goes on for another fifty years during which Patchett explores the lives of the children from young-adulthood to their own fifties and shows how they were shaped into the relatively responsible adults they now are – a process that included learning to appreciate each other and the blended sets of parents they shared. Would they have been the same people if Bert Cousins had not been enough of a jerk to crash a baby’s baptismal party to avoid the company of his own children? Probably not, but when they consider how much they have come to mean to each and think about all the shared experiences that resulted from their changed circumstances, they understand just how much they would have otherwise missed out on.

Bottom Line: Much of Commonwealth reads like a train wreck you can’t avoid staring at, but in the end, it is – good and bad – all our stories. We are, after all, what life makes us, and we do not get to choose what our childhood will be like. The childhood Patchett describes in Commonwealth is said to be similar to the one she herself experienced. If so, that childhood has all the makings of an enthralling memoir that Patchett will perhaps write in the future.

Belford, Clarke & Company Charles Dickens Set (1880s vintage)

Rearranging my bookshelves is a recurring game with me, but I have to admit that it is much easier to take 850 books off the shelves than it is to get them back up there.  For some reason, I always seem to have books left over at the end of the process – proving that I eventually use every square inch of bookshelf space available to me.  But the best part of the whole process is that I get to enjoy some quiet time with books I’ve started to take for granted.

This time around, I was struck again by the beauty and dignity of a Charles Dickens set that I acquired from a very kind lady back in 2007.  Earlier that year I purchased two of the fifteen volumes in that set from the 1880s and posted about it on Book Chase.  A woman in California who had acquired all of her father’s books saw the post and told me that she would be happy to send me the whole set if I would agree to pay the postage to Houston.  I did – and she did – and the books have been the centerpiece of my bookshelf display ever since.

For display purposes, I have temporarily placed them on my set of library steps:

This is an example of the type of illustrations that each book contains:

And this picture is an example of the front covers of the various books (they are all the same):

One of the books even included a small set of instructions on how one should properly open a book in order to best preserve its binding:

In addition to the fifteen-book set, there was this 1875 volume of Dombey and Son in one of the boxes.  It is one volume of the “Works of Charles Dickens: Globe Edition.”

I’m also happy to report, that unlike quite a few books of this age, the print is large enough that I am actually able to read the books rather than just turn them into display copies.  Needless to say, I am still overwhelmed by the generosity of the previous owner of the books.

Fields Where They Lay

13935024_1222720154425432_2923937362586033090_nTim Hallinan’s Junior Bender books have something in common with both the bestselling crime fiction series of today and the classic series from the past: a main character who continues to evolve from book to book. Junior is a burglar’s burglar and he has been on a winning streak for more than two decades, but please don’t mistake Junior for Robin Hood just because he’s a nice guy. That’s not to say, however, that Junior gets to profit from everything he steals. Certain very powerful (and nasty) people know all about Junior’s skills, and they sometimes manage to find a way to compel Junior to do a little work for them on the side. Junior has not yet failed to get one of their jobs done – but he always makes sure that it happens under his own terms.

As Fields Where They Lay opens, Christmas is just days away and Junior’s worst nightmare has come true.  He is spending all of his normal waking hours – and many others he would much prefer to be asleep – inside the Shopping Mall from Hell. The mall has already lost all its anchor stores, much of its third floor is locked up tight, and most of the businesses still able to keep the doors open are just hoping to hang on long enough to bank a few Christmas sales dollars before calling it quits in January. Even worse, Junior has been forced to listen to the same recording of a “The Little Drummer Boy” so many times that he has to look in a mirror every so often to see if his ears are bleeding.

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Tim Hallinan

Junior knows, however, that if he doesn’t figure out soon why the mall is suddenly suffering such a huge increase in shoplifting losses, he won’t be alive to hear the little drummer boy banging away on his drums on Christmas morning. The Russian crime boss who owns a controlling interest in the mall wants an answer by Christmas Eve, and has warned Junior that if he doesn’t have one ready he may as well not bother with this year’s Christmas shopping.  A little to his surprise, Junior finds that he admires many of the hardworking shop-owners he meets and genuinely likes them.  And after he stumbles upon the bloody body of one of his mall favorites, it all becomes very personal for Junior.

Fans of earlier Junior Bender books will be pleased to see appearances by series regulars such as Junior’s best friend, Louie the Lost, but it is one of the new characters, a skinny mall Santa Clause named Shlomo Stempel, who comes close to stealing the whole show. Not only does this Jewish Santa provide wise counsel to Junior throughout his investigation, he provides exactly the Christmas miracle needed to put a proper seasonal topper to Fields Where They Lay.

Bottom Line: Despite the odds against it happening, Tim Hallinan has managed to raise the bar on his Junior Bender books yet again.  Do your friends a favor this Christmas – turn them on to Junior Bender.

Time Travel Tuesday: Fish Night

 vinther1This week’s Time Travel story comes from one of my favorite novelists, Joe Lansdale, and was first published in an Arbor House Books anthology called Specter! in 1982. “Fish Night” is only six pages long, but it clearly illustrates the danger of messing around with time travel if you don’t know what you are doing.

The story opens in an American desert just as a beat-up old Plymouth breaks down, stranding an old man and a young college student who is working with the old man for the summer. The two are door-to-door can-opener salesmen, and things have not been going well for them. The young man is thinking about quitting the job early, and the old man is depressed because he knows that the era of traveling door-to-door salesmen is likely to end before he does.

But as the heat of the day turns to the chill of the night, the old man tells the student about what happened to him on this very stretch of road some twenty years earlier when another car broke down on him. The old man was reluctant to tell his story because he knew the boy would laugh at him, but the atmospheric conditions were so reminiscent of that earlier experience that he couldn’t stop himself.

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Joe Lansdale- Nacogdoches, Texas

It seems that the old man – who is completely convinced that he saw what he saw – was suddenly surrounded by swimming fish of a variety and quantity he had never seen. It was as if he were suddenly standing at the bottom of the sea and watching fish swim all around him. He remembers it being a pleasant and peaceful experience akin to a baby returning to its mother’s womb. The boy, of course, is skeptical. Skeptical, that is, until the next morning when the old man shakes him awake to see the strange fish swimming all around them and inside the car in which they spent the previous night.

Have these time-travelling fish come to the future, or have the two men somehow managed to travel back to the past? And what would happen if the old man decides to find a way actually to swim with the fishes?

Unfortunately, there’s only one way to find out.

Eileen

41zuygnm4blEileen Dunlop lives her life in two places and neither of them are a place she really wants to be. Eileen spends her days as a secretary at the local boys’ prison where she works with several older women, who largely ignore her, and one or two guards she spends her working hours sexually fantasizing over. Then she goes home where the only one awaiting her is her drunkard father, an ex-cop who is suffering dementia so badly that Eileen has to keep all his shoes locked in the trunk of her car so that he doesn’t wander off and get into trouble during the day while she is at work.

Even though Eileen’s parental duties are largely limited to resupplying her father with gin and just enough food to keep him from starving to death, she resents doing even that much for a man who consistently ridicules her face and hair, her clothes, and her lack of friends – be they male or female. It is the Christmas season, but as far as Eileen is concerned December is just another month on the calendar. It will take more than Christmas to put a smile on this woman’s face.

And then like something out of a 1940s noir movie, the prison hires Rebecca Saint John as the imprisoned boys’ new educational counselor. Rebecca is everything that Eileen is not: pretty, flashy, flirty, self-confident, and bright. Because Rebecca is such a welcome distraction from the prison’s daily grind, Eileen is as taken with her as any of the male guards. For the first time in her life, Eileen looks forward to going to work where she can spend time with her new friend – the only friend she has in the world. But who is Rebecca Saint John, really? Can anyone really be as perfect as she seems to be?

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Ottessa Moshfegh

All Eileen knows, or cares about, is that she finally has some place to go on Christmas Eve because Rebecca has invited her over so that the two of them can spend the evening together. Eileen is surprised to find that Rebecca lives in one of the poorest sections of the city, and that her house is even filthier and more rundown than the one Eileen lives in with her father. All this she sees before Rebecca opens the front door – but what she finds inside the house is even more stunning. By the time the evening is over, Eileen will be a far different woman than the one she was when she stepped through Rebecca’s front door for the first time.

Eileen is told from the perspective of a decades-older Eileen, a woman who can now look back at that long ago Christmas Eve with at least a vague understanding of the woman who opened the door to her that night. That Christmas Eve was anything but what Eileen hoped it would be, but it certainly changed her life.

Bottom Line: Eileen is a memorable debut novel that ends with a plot twist that would have pleased the great Alfred Hitchcock to no end had he only been here to read it for himself.

The Earls of Leicester & Sister Sadie

I just got home from the Bloomin’ Bluegrass festival in Farmers Branch where I was treated to some really great bluegrass/country music on Friday and Saturday.  I did manage to get in a little reading and even finished the audiobook version of A Man Called Ove while driving the 230 miles each way to the festival.  I also managed to read the last chapter of The Maximum Security Book Club and about 100 pages of the new Carol Burnett memoir In Such Good Company, so despite not reading a lot of pages, I feel like I didn’t neglect my reading all that much.  I’m delusional that way, sometimes.

I want to share two bands that particularly impressed me this weekend.  They are very different from each other, and it’s the first time I’ve seen both of them live.  The first is a group called The Earls of Leicester and it’s the creation of the amazing dobro player Jerry Douglas (the guy has won 14 Grammys).  Jerry created the band to keep the song catalog of the late Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs alive and they really get into their performance – as you can see from the authentic period clothing and hats they all wear.  The band does nothing but Flatt & Scruggs music and they do it completely in character.  Shawn Camp, guitar player and lead vocalist, sounds so much like Lester Flatt that it’s downright spooky sometimes to hear him introduce a song.

The second band is an all female group called Sister Sadie.  These five superb musicians and vocalists (Dale Ann Bradley, Tina Adair, Gena Britt, Deanie Richardson, and Beth Lawrence) originally got together intending to do only one show in Nashville, but it’s turned into something much bigger than any of them ever dreamed it would.  They were nominated this year by the IBMA, in fact, for the award given to Emerging Artist of the year (but did not win).

I hope you enjoy both groups.

Bluegrass Weekend in North Texas (with video)

I’m spending the weekend up in Farmers Branch, a little city of 30,000 residents that sits between Dallas and Fort Worth.  This is the weekend of the community’s seventh annual Bloomin’ Bluegrass festival, a festival that I try really hard not to miss.

Bluegrass fans who haven’t come to Texas for this festival really should fix that because the best part about Bloomin’ Bluegrass is that it is free, and the food at this thing puts to shame most of the larger, better known bluegrass festivals I’ve attended.  But best of all, every year the festival bands include some of the biggest names in bluegrass music.  This year’s performers include: The Gibson Brothers, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Tim O’Brien, Band of Ruhks, Jerry Douglas & Earls of Leicester, and the Del McCoury Band with David Grisman as special guest – and it’s like this every year.

So unless you can get out here tomorrow, mark your calendars for October 20-21, 2017 because that will be your next chance at Bloomin’ Bluegrass.

Here’s a taste of Friday night’s show: The Gibson Brothers singing “Walking West to Memphis”

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books

browsings_rnd01-02I first encountered Michael Dirda about twenty-five years ago in the guise of a little 67-page guide he penned for The Book of the Month Club (when I actually believed BOMC books to be collectable) titled Caring for Your Books. The book answered so many of my questions about the proper handling of, and caring for, books that I still sometimes refer to it to this day. Michael Dirda was someone I wanted to read more of – and over the years I have managed to do so.

Browsings: A year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, is a collection of weekly pieces Dirda wrote for the American Scholar. (Believe it or not, the columns can all still be accessed on the American Scholar website for those who wish to sample them.) What is perhaps best about the Browsings collection is that the columns are personable enough to serve as both an introduction to Michael Dirda’s writing for those unfamiliar with him and as a chance for those already familiar with Dirda’s work simply to catch up with him.

It is obvious from the start that Michael Dirda is an impassioned booklover, a man who could not imagine his life without it being fully immersed in the world of books, writers, critics, publishers, and bookstores. Books are his life and he does not apologize for it. Because the columns are of a more informal nature and tone than one would expect from a book dedicated to the topic, Browsings reads much like a conversation with the author. But don’t let that informal tone fool you for a minute because, in addition to revealing interesting tidbits about his personal life, Dirda covers a lot of material that his fellow booklovers will find instructive and informative. Be warned from the beginning, however, that the book does not include a formal listing of all the books and authors referenced in the weekly columns; readers interested in that information should keep a pencil in hand while reading Browsings.

Michael Dirda

The columns cover a wide spectrum of book-related topics, but as Dirda himself recommends in his introduction, it is probably best that they be read in groups of three or four at a time, and in the order in which they were written (and presented here). This is how Dirda’s readers in the American Scholar experienced them, and by reading the pieces this way, the references to the previous week’s work should not seem out of place or overly repetitive. Each reader of the book will have his own favorite column or columns, of course, depending upon his particular interests. Among my favorites, are the columns on topics such as spring book sales, memorable books from one’s childhood, Dirda’s preference for reading books written before he was born, seasonal reading, books as gifts, libraries without books, and whether or not older writers should ever retire.

Oh…and I got a laugh or two from Dirda’s obviously heartfelt contempt for anything and everything to do with e-books and the devices used to read and store them.

Browsings is fun.

The Great Timekeeper in the Sky Is Really Ticking Me Off

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Some days I start feeling as if there are only two alternatives: throw my hands up in the air in surrender, or take a deep breath and try to focus on one thing at a time in hopes that I will actually be able to finish at least one of them.  Yesterday was one of those days.

I’ve mentioned before that I spend most afternoons tutoring a grandson of mine who has significant learning disabilities.  We’ve been doing this since he started the fourth grade and he’s now in the eighth, so it has become kind of second nature to both of us.  But for some reason, three of his teachers have been dumping a much heavier than average load of homework on him this week, and we are not finishing up before ten each evening (equating to near five hours of work).  Writing is a particular problem for him, and we are “blessed” this year with a Social Studies teacher who assigns her homework in essay form and wants it returned in the same format.  Goodbye, evening.

So that’s one thing.

Then, on the other end of the age spectrum, I find myself as primary caretaker for my 94-year-old father, a WWII veteran who fought his way from Normandy to Leipzig Germany by the end of that conflict.  Well, today I had to figure out the little electronic box that wirelessly takes the measure of how his new pacemaker is doing and transmits a report to his cardiologist’s office.  It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that the only instruction manual in the box was in Spanish…not English…not even French where I would have had a fighting chance.  Goodbye, morning.

And the final hurdle takes up the middle of most of my days: rehabbing the hip I broke back in May. I’ve joined a gym just to get access to the machines there that will help me rebuild muscle strength and bone density, but that means a couple of hours out of each day is now devoted to the workout, the walking, and the round trip to the gym.

All in all, there has been less time for reading and writing these last two weeks than any week I can remember this whole year except for when I was actually in the hospital with the broken hip. It’s frustrating, to say the least, because I’m trying to be more consistent with this version of Book Chase than I was with the previous one, and the Great Timekeeper in the Sky is not cooperating at all.  I’ve been hoping to post three book reviews a week, but first I have to read those books…and at 60 or 70 pages a day, that’s just not going to happen.

I can’t believe I ever thought that retirement was going to be filled with so much free time that I would be fighting boredom more than anything else.  Boy, was I mistaken!  So here’s a heads-up for any of you who may be fast approaching your own retirement: you might just have more free time while working that full-time job than you will when you decide to stay home.  Just saying…

Hag-Seed

0804141290-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the fourth book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that began in October 2015. Crown Publishing has invited a group of notable novelists each to retell one of Shakespeare’s classic plays as a Shakespeare-inspired novel in their own style, and Atwood’s Hag-Seed is based upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hag-Seed has been preceded by Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale, Howard Jacobson’s on The Merchant of Venice, and Anne Tyler’s on The Taming of the Shrew. It will be followed by Tracy Chevalier’s retelling of Othello, Gillian Flynn’s of Hamlet, Jo Nesbø’s of Macbeth, and Edward St. Aubyn’s of King Lear, for a total of eight books.

Atwood has cleverly insured that even those readers unfamiliar with The Tempest will recognize the connections between Shakespeare’s plot and her own modernized version of it by making her main character a formerly successful theater director who now spends his time teaching a literacy class at a local prison. Felix, that director, has his class perform one of Shakespeare’s plays each year as a way of encouraging them to read and study on their own – and the big surprise to everyone but Felix is that this works really well in improving the reading skills of his students. So as Felix takes the class through all the play’s scenes, the reader also gets a bit of a refresher course on The Tempest.

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Margaret Atwood

Felix, rather than working at the prison from the kindness of his heart, is there because he was pushed out as artistic-director of the famous Makeshiweg Theater Festival by a deviously treacherous rival – a man who has gone on to great personal success after ruining Felix’s career. Felix has been nursing traumatic emotional wounds from those days ever since while dreaming of the day he could take revenge on the two men who stole his job and reputation from him. Now, twelve years later, it seems that he is going to get his chance at revenge because his two rivals, both of whom are now ministers of the Canadian government, will be coming to the prison to watch The Fletcher Correctional Players perform The Tempest. Little do the ministers or anyone associated with the prison know that Felix and the Players plan to make them part of a performance none of them will ever forget. The big question is whether Felix will be able to control the Fletcher Correctional Players long enough to keep them from injuring or killing someone before the play is over and he has extracted his revenge.

In addition to all the detail about The Tempest covered while Felix is choosing his cast and rehearsing the play, Atwood has the actors speculate about what may have happened to each of their characters after the conclusion of the play. Shakespeare fans are likely to be amused – and maybe a bit impressed – by some of what the prisoners believe happened to the characters they played after the final curtain went down. Then, to top things off, Atwood provides a brief, five-page summary of The Tempest itself. All of this together just might make Hag-Seed an effective classroom companion-piece to The Tempest at whatever level it is being taught.