Short Story Saturday: Charles Dickinson’s “My Livelihood”

51kw2zfrdwl-_sx365_bo1204203200_Today’s Saturday Short Story comes from Charles Dickinson, an author whose work I discovered in the mid-eighties. In fact, two of his novels from that decade, Waltz in Marathon and Crows, are still two of my all-time favorites. Dickinson’s third book (1987) was a short story collection called With or Without and Other Stories and its opening story is titled “My Livelihood.”

The story’s narrator is a man whose father owned a neighborhood grocery store but seemed to hate the store and every minute that he spent working in it. He told his children so many times that he hated it, that each and every one of them learned to hate it as much as he did. And because the entire family (husband, wife, and six children) had to work the business, they were an unhappy bunch. Our narrator tells us that:

“To the old man, work was a curse. Now it is to us, too. We may like the money, or maybe the people on the job, or the end of the day, but none of us gets anything from the actual work. It makes me angry. My father had no right.” 

A man with that kind of legacy is not likely to be upset when he loses a job that bores him nearly to death, one that he already despises. So when the narrator (whose father-in-law calls “the numbnuts”) learns that his dairy job has been eliminated, he is not particularly upset – even though his wife is six-months pregnant with their second child. It’s not the first time he’s been out of work, after all, and he figures that he’ll get around to looking for another job sooner or later.


Charles Dickinson

Well, maybe not this time.

His wife’s family, seven brothers and her father, are all members of the carpenter’s union and the old man has enough pull to get his son-in-law into the union without him having to bother with trifles such as being qualified or waiting his turn in line. But our narrator, whose own wife and son have taken to calling lazy, declines the offer.

But he really loves to play golf, and 180 holes a week is just a start. Has the guy figured it all out? Is he the only genuinely happy person in his whole family?

Book Chase By-The-Numbers: 2016

Another calendar year is in the books, and in just twenty-one days, I will mark the completion of a full decade of Book Chase blogging.  I am very much looking forward to 2017, but as much as I fight it, I feel myself slowing down a bit these days – it’s starting to be a struggle to blog at the relatively steady pace I’ve tried to keep for the last ten years. Please know how much I treasure all of the friends and contacts I’ve made over the years of book-blogging because without you guys (and the internet that allows us to find each other) none of this would have been possible – or nearly as much fun. So thank you one more time.

I always enjoy looking at my year-end reading numbers because that process brings back some great reading memories – and 2016 was a  year filled with remarkable books that I will remember for a long time.  One of the highlights of my year was (finally) discovering Hoopla, the service that combines with my county library system to allow me to stream as many as seven audiobooks per month. Even though I have never managed more than two audiobooks in a given month, I find myself going through the Hoopla catalog at least three or four times a month.  Thanks to Hoopla, the ten audiobooks I read this year are the most I’ve managed since 2011.

I’ve previously posted my Top 10 lists in fiction and nonfiction plus a list noting the best “older books” I read this year – from 2015 and earlier. Here are some direct links for anyone curious about my 2016 favorites:
Now, still with the remote possibility that I will finish one more nonfiction title in the next two days, here is 2016 by the numbers:
Number of Books Read – 137:
Fiction – 99:
Novels -87
Short Story Collections – 12 
Nonfiction – 38:
Memoirs – 13
Biographies – 4
Books on Books- 7
Sports – 1
Travel – 1
True Crime- 2
History –  2
Science – 1
Sociology – 2
War – 4
Aging – 1
Written by Men – 90
Written by Women – 53
(Includes six books by authors of both genders)
Audio Books – 10
E-Books – 31
Library Books – 42
Review Copies – 73
From My Shelves – 21
Abandoned Books: 15
Translations: 6
Average Number of Pages Read per Day: 102
Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 37,197 

In one sense, I did better with books by foreign authors this year than last – 31 in 2016 as opposed to 17 in 2015 – but 25 of those were written by British, Canadian, or Irish authors and that just seems way too easy.  Of the remaining six, two were French translations, and one-each were from Egypt, Gaza, The Netherlands, and South Korea.  

I got in more reading this year than I had anticipated having time for coming into the year, and I discovered a few authors I’m hoping to read for years to come, so if 2017 can be as much fun as 2016 turned out to be, I will be one very happy reader this time next year.

Underground Airlines

0316261246-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_I first became aware of author Ben H. Winters in 2012 when I stumbled upon The Last Policeman (winner of an Edgar for Best Paperback Original), what turned out to be the introductory novel in a trilogy by the same title. Comprising the rest of the trilogy are Countdown City (winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction) and World of Trouble (nominated for both an Edgar Award and an Anthony Award). Underground Airlines is Winters’s first book since completion of the trilogy in 2014.

Underground Airlines is set in the present day, but Winters alerts readers early on with the insertion of a striking United States map that things are just a little bit twisted in this version of the present day world. Three things about this map are very, very different from the map so familiar to people around the world: Texas, one of the most recognizable state-shapes, is labeled as “Republic of Texas (Disputed); there is a color-coded legend identifying “Slave States” and “Free States;” and four states are clearly shaded in as slave-holding states. The four slave states are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Carolina (the Carolinas having merged into a single state). For obvious reasons, the rest of the country now refers to those states as the “Hard Four.” 

In the Hard Four, slavery continues to exist because rather than fighting a civil war to end it once and for all, the states managed to reach a compromise in 1861 that allowed them to avoid open warfare (albeit it a compromise requiring six amendments and four resolutions, including the Eighteenth Amendment that made the rest of the slavery-amendments “permanent and everlasting.” And just as nineteenth-century slaves dreamed of fleeing the South for freedom in the North, modern day slaves continue to flee northward to the free states and Canada.


Ben Winters

Slave-owners, of course, had never accepted that a slave could just walk away to freedom, and that is no different today, so bounty hunters are employed to track down the escapees and forcibly return them to their owners. Victor, himself at one time an escaped slave, is one of those bounty hunters. While Victor’s bid for freedom did not last long, he does consider himself lucky to have avoided a return to slave labor by agreeing to hunt down and collect other escapees for the U.S. Marshall’s Service – whose job it is to return escaped slaves to their owners in the Hard Four.

Victor, though, is so guilt-ridden about the 209 men, women, and children he has returned to slavery that he can barely sleep anymore. And as he learns more and more about Jackdaw, the man who would be his returnee number 210, Victor understands that there is something very different about the man. When even the U.S. Marshall he reports to refuses to tell Victor who Jackdaw is and why there is such a special sense of urgency in capturing him, Victor realizes that this is a make-or-break case for him personally, one during which he will die unless he can figure out a way to escape the clutches of the U.S. Marshall Service once and for all. But what about the tracking-chip embedded somewhere in his body? Is he really doomed even if, or maybe especially if, he finds Jackdaw for his handlers?

Underground Airlines is an alternate history thriller with a not-so-hidden message about the country and world we live in today. On the surface, it is a beautifully written thriller filled with memorable characters, be they good guys or bad guys (and it is never easy to tell those apart). There is, however, much more to Underground Airlines than characters and plot, and this Ben Winters novel will continue to haunt readers long after they have turned the last page. It is just that good.

Movies for Readers: The Soloist by Steve Lopez

2176660This week’s Movie for Readers is 2009’s The Soloist starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.  The film is based on the 2008 Steve Lopez book of the same title, Lopez’s nonfiction account of the friendship that developed between him and the talented musician he discovered living on the streets of Los Angeles.

Steve Lopez was a Los Angeles Times reporter when he first encountered Nathaniel Ayers, a one-time Juilliard School of Music student who has suffered from schizophrenia most of his life.  Such a bond developed between the two men that Lopez was able to get Ayers to move into an apartment while he searched for a longterm solution that would allow Ayers to one day share his god-given musical talent with others.

Movie Trailer for The Soloist

The Soloist is the story of two remarkable men and how each positively changed the life of the other.  Particularly impressive are the performances of Jamie Fox and Robert Downey Jr.  (below, are photos of the two men portrayed in the movie by the two actors).

04/20/2009 - Nathaniel Ayers - "The Soloist" Los Angeles Premiere - Arrivals - Paramount Theatre - Hollywood, CA, USA - Keywords: - 0 - - Photo Credit: Chris Hatcher / PR Photos - Contact (1-866-551-7827)

Nathaniel Ayers


Steve Lopez



Time Travel Tuesday: Adam Roberts’s “The Time Telephone”


This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story, “The Time Telephone,” comes from Adam Roberts, a University of London professor of English literature and science fiction writer. The story was first published in 2002 in a compilation of stories titled Infinity Plus.

As “The Time Telephone” opens a mother and her sixteen-year-old daughter are talking on the phone, saying things that one would pretty much expect to hear in a conversation between a mother and her daughter of that age. But, as the mother explains to her daughter, there is one difference here: even as they are speaking, the mother is pregnant with the very daughter on the other end of the telephone line. Mom, you see, is calling from sixteen years in the past.

The girl is not at all surprised by this bit of information because she remembers once hearing that time-telephoning had been a big thing a decade or so earlier. She is excited that it is finally happening to her, though perhaps she should be more concerned by the question her mother has called to ask her:

“Are you glad you were born? Are you pleased to have come into the world?” 


Adam Roberts

I don’t know about you, but if my pregnant mother calls from the distant past to ask me that particular question one day, I will have a hard time catching my breath long enough to make  sure that she clearly understands just how thrilled I am to be walking around today, thank you very much.

“The Time Telephone” is a reminder that time-traveling does not always go as planned. The story, in fact, ends with a telephone call that may have just gone very, very wrong for the whole human race.

Be careful what you wish for, all you wanna-be time-travelers out there. It’s not that simple, I’m afraid.

Ray & Joan

9781101984956Lisa Napoli’s dual biography of Ray and Joan Kroc is a detailed account of the lives of two people who turned out to be a whole lot more fascinating than I expected they would be. Admittedly, Ray and Joan were not always fascinating for the right reasons, but no one could ever call Ray Kroc boring – and anyone that managed to live with the man as long as Joan did, has to have been a little different herself.

By opening Ray & Joan with a story about how each preferred to “outsource bad news,” Napoli hints at the kind of eccentric behavior common to both of them. According to the story, rather than tell his second wife that he wanted a divorce (so that he could marry Joan), Ray had his lawyer tell her. Too, rather than face them himself, Ray had his longtime secretary fire employees – sometimes for the most frivolous of reasons (such as wearing a hat he disapproved of or drinking a cocktail he considered to be less than manly). Outsourcing at its finest.

Perhaps learning from his example, after Ray’s death, Joan removed her son-in-law (who lived just down the street from her in California) from the McDonald’s board of directors by sending her Gulfstream jet to Chicago to bring her chief advisor to her home to receive instructions about flying back to Chicago to remove the man from the board for her. Apparently that worked so well, that years later Joan even outsourced the difficult task of telling her immediate family that her death was imminent.

Ray Kroc, who once sold underwater plots of land to Florida tourists that failed to do their homework, was a born salesman. He may have been a short man, but what Ray lacked in height was more than offset by the man’s self-confidence and bluster – and he was always looking to get in on the inside of the next big idea before anyone else beat him to it. So when he saw the success that California brothers Dick and Mac McDonald were enjoying with their hamburger joints, Ray knew that he wanted in. And by convincing the brothers that he was the right man to sell McDonald’s franchises across America, he got in at the perfect moment. As Napoli clearly shows in Ray & Joan, although there were times that failure was much more likely than success, Ray’s association with the McDonald brothers would ultimately change the face of America (and, ultimately, the rest of the world) in ways both positive and negative.


Lisa Napoli

Joan Beverly Mansfield Smith, on the other hand, was a St. Paul lounge singer when she caught Ray’s eye. As beautiful as she was talented, the attractive blond was married (as was Ray) when Ray came into her life, but Joan would soon learn just how little her marriage would concern Ray – or slow down his efforts to make her his wife. It took Ray a bit longer than he had hoped, giving him time to work in one more ex-wife, but six years after Joan turned down his first marriage proposal she finally said yes. Then all they had to do was shed their current spouses.

Largely due to Ray’s unrepentant alcoholism, prejudices, authoritarian nature, and single-mindedness, theirs was never going to be an easy marriage. Joan seems to have been surprised as to what she was getting when she married Ray, but her own passive-aggressive approach to their differences did little to ease the couple’s problems. Ray, twenty-five years older than Joan, was not destined to live a long life, and the $500 million fortune he left behind, allowed Joan to become one of the most generous philanthropists ever (during her life, most of her grants and donations were made anonymously).

Bottom Line: Lisa Napoli’s account of one of the most amazing rags-to-riches stories in American history makes for intriguing reading. Ray Kroc was a fascinating man, a “character” who met his match in Joan Kroc, the woman who was only too happy to give away the fortune Ray left her.

Short Story Saturday: Elmore Leonard’s “The Boy Who Smiled”

gunsmoke_195306_v1_n1Before he began writing the wonderful crime fiction for which he became so famous, Elmore Leonard wrote Westerns, mostly short stories that sold well enough to the magazines of the day to allow him to continue writing while he developed the style that would work so well for him later in his career. Elmore would end up writing some thirty Western short stories and eight Western novels before, as he puts it, “television killed the Western.” Fortunately, by the time that happened, Leonard was ready to move on to a very different genre – and the rest is literary history.

This week’s short story, “The Boy Who Smiled,” first appeared in the June1953 issue of Gunsmoke magazine, and I found it in a compilation titled The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.” The book contains Leonard’s thirty Western shorts (assuming here that “complete” means “complete”), and for what it’s worth, it’s one I’ve enjoyed dipping into since I purchased it back in 2004.

The story’s narrator is a white man responsible for monitoring just over one hundred Apaches who are allowed to live off the reservation because they have always been “fairly peaceful.” The agent is also responsible for Mickey Solner, a white man living nearby who married an Apache and fathered a son by her. As the story opens, that boy, 14-year-old Mickey Segundo steps into the agent’s office and plops a couple of human ears down on the man’s desk.

The ears once belonged to Tony Choddi, the horse-thief who traded a stolen horse to Mickey’s father before running off. Unfortunately for all concerned, the wealthy rancher whose horse was stolen wanted to hang someone for stealing his horse, and Mickey’s father was the only one at hand. So now Tony Choddi has lost his ears, along with his life, and the agent wonders if the wealthy rancher will be the next to die.


A Very Young Elmore Leonard (Campbell Ewald Company photo)

Five years later, nothing has happened and the agent is still embarrassed that he ever warned the rancher about Mickey Segundo. But then the day comes when a very different looking Mickey Segundo agrees to lead the rancher and another man across the desert on a pronghorn hunt. The agent can tell that the rancher doesn’t recognize Mickey, and even as it’s happening, wonders why he isn’t identifying the boy for the man himself.

“The Boy Who Smiled” is early Elmore Leonard but even this early on, it is obvious that Leonard is every bit as interested in his characters and what makes them tick as he is in the story’s action. His Western short stories were a definite cut above the bulk of what the pulps of the day usually printed.

The Years That Followed

b91ddf161df102b596b76616d77444341587343The Years That Followed, Irish writer Catherine Dunne’s tenth novel, is a tale of two women who do not know each other but who have one thing in common that comes very close to ruining both their lives: the Petros Demitriades family. Petros Demitriades, as it turns out, is a wealthy Cypriot who made his fortune from the hugely profitable shipping company whose management he hopes one day to turn over to his four sons.

Calista, daughter of an affluent Irishman and his Spanish wife, falls in love with Alexandros, the youngest of the four Demitriades sons, when the young man comes to Dublin to represent his father in a new business arrangement between the two families. Pilar, whose parents are impoverished farmers from the Extremadura region of southwest Spain, is so determined to escape the life she seems destined to live that she flees to Madrid in search of a better future. There, with help and guidance from an old friend of her mother’s, Pilar is justifiably proud of the new life she creates for herself. But it is her misfortune that the first time in her life that she falls in love it is with a married man: Petros Demitriades, the father of Calista’s lover and eventual husband.

Neither of the two women’s lives will ever be the same.


Catherine Dunne

The Years That Followed is a novel of revenge, one in which one of its two main characters is so callously mistreated that eventually she can think of little else other than getting even with the man responsible for causing her a lifetime of grief. By then, the other main character has sworn off of men except for the occasional one-night stand she treats herself to – and so much regrets the next morning. Dunne’s plot is a well choreographed one in which Calista and Pilar deal with the same people while managing to remain completely unaware of each other’s existence. The author alternates the present day action of 1989 with flashbacks to the previous decades as she tells her story, a story that relies largely on coincidence to reach its ultimate climax – and it should be noted that readers willing to suspend their sense of disbelief are going to enjoy the novel a good bit more than those unable to do so.

For the most part, I managed to suspend my own sense of disbelief (although there were moments I really had to work hard to get there) right up until the point that the novel’s final big “reveal” is made. That revelation, necessary as it may be to tie up all of the novel’s loose ends, did, I have to admit, leave me groaning at the sheer implausibility of what I had just read. The book’s climax is so held together by coincidence and luck, in fact, that its lack of believability overwhelms everything that precedes it.

Time Travel Tuesday/Thursday: Molly Brown’s “Bad Timing”

c5024“Bad Timing,” this week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is appearing on Thursday because of the scheduled book review that filled the allotted slot this week (although the novel about Bonnie and Clyde that I reviewed Tuesday is so vividly written that I sometimes felt like a time-traveler riding in the backseat of their getaway car, so maybe it counts as a time-travel story of a sorts, too).

“Bad Timing,” Molly Brown’s first published short story, won the British Science Fiction Association Award for best short story of 1991 after appearing in Interzone, the longest running science fiction and fantasy magazine in Britain (the now bi-monthly magazine began as a quarterly publication in 1982). The story explores the dangers and frustrations of time-travel paradoxes.

Alan, who works in the Department of Archives at the Colson Time Studies Institute, gets quite a surprise one morning when he finally makes it to the job. A co-worker of his cannot wait to tell him about a 1973 story he just found in the fiction section of the archives, a story that has Alan “in it.” Not only does the story mention Alan by name, it describes him as an archivist at the Colson Time Studies Institute. Maybe even more shocking, especially considering how badly the story is written, it includes the correct explanation for why time travel is possible and details about Alan’s twenty-fourth century apartment and lifestyle.

By the end of the day, the beautiful author, dead some three hundred years now, is all that the unhappy Alan can think about, and when his co-worker finally leaves him alone he goes to the lab where the lightweight time machines (purposely made to resemble folding bicycles) are kept. But there is one problem, a big one: Alan, who has no idea how to operate a time machine, is forced to jump on before he can print more than the first five pages of the user’s manual. And there’s no coming back for the rest of the instructions now because, as it turns out, Alan is lucky if he can stop the time machine in the right quarter-century, much less the exact month and year he aims for.

The beautiful Cecily is back there somewhere and Alan desperately wants to find her before the moment that she described in her short story so that he can walk into her life just as she described it. But so far, he’s just as likely to arrive when she’s still in her mother’s womb or when she’s on her deathbed.

This is very much a case of “bad timing.”

Calvin Learns the Truth About Librarians

This old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon is just too good not to use on book blogs around the world over and over again.  So here is the day that Calvin learned that all those librarians who had been looking at him weren’t really as bad as he had imagined them to be:


Every time I see an old Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side cartoon it reminds me that the cartoons today are a mere shadow of what they once were.

Nowadays, in my opinion, no one even remotely approaches the genius shown on a daily basis by Bill Watterson  from 1985-1995 (Calvin and Hobbes) and Gary Larson from 1980-1994 (The Far Side).  I still miss waking up to something new from them every morning.

Love Give Us One Death

  Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days
Jeff P. Jones

**WINNER: 2016 Idaho Author Award**
**WINNER: 2015 George Garrett Fiction Prize**

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Texas Review Press
Date of Publication: October 25, 2016
Number of Pages: 232
Scroll down for Giveaway!

Bonnie and Clyde are the most famous outlaw pair in American history. Frank Hamer, the legendary Texas Ranger, was hired to stop them. Part prose, part verse, with historical artifacts interwoven, the well-researched novel tells the story of their deaths on a lonely Louisiana back road, as well as their bloody and short lives together. Its many voices invite the reader to become a ghost rider along with Bonnie and Clyde, while it also exposes the forces of injustice and greed that created them.



“If you are a fan of historical fiction, you must secure a copy of his debut novel in which Jones ‘added, subtracted and distorted facts’ adroitly and creatively in his re-telling of Bonnie and Clyde’s last days. There are very few writers who can write like Jones — in many voices and in various forms — but he choreographs his work like an award-winning producer, designating him as unique as the members of the Clyde Barrow Gang.” -Idaho Statesman
“Love Give Us One Death delivers not only a knock-out story of brutal adventure, and love, across the heartland of the Great Depression, but a story about the very character of the republic itself.” -Robert Wrigley, Poet
“This is the history of love and destruction you didn’t know you needed. In a time of Public Enemies, we see the last legs of a journey between the violent and manic Romeo and Juliet-like pair. The last public outlaws are riding away into their last sunrise, and this book serves as its journal.” -Atticus Books
“The language is absolutely stunning. Characterization, historical setting, ambience are all accurate and depicted with great clarity. A terrific achievement.” -Mary Clearman Blew, Author of All But the Waltz
“This is historical fiction raised boldly to the level of myth.” -Tracy Daugherty, Author of The Last Love Song



I still remember the day – more than 50 years ago now – that I first became aware of the Texas outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. I was probably twelve or thirteen years old when I spotted a strange, framed picture on the wall of a seldom-used room in the home of my Louisiana grandparents. The picture was an artist’s take on the now-famous Bonnie and Clyde death scene that my grandmother had pulled out of some magazine and framed. That woman was one of the gentlest, kindest human beings I’ve ever met, so this seemed completely out of character for her. I had the feeling that for two violent criminals to have so captured her imagination like these two had done, quite a backstory had to have been involved. (Too, as I learned later that same day, Bonnie & Clyde were killed only 165 miles north of the family farm and were big news over the entire state when it happened.)

The exploits of Bonnie and Clyde have intrigued me ever since then, so I was curious to see how the Jeff P. Jones novel, Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days, would portray them and their cohorts. Most people these days, when they hear the names “Bonnie and Clyde,” picture Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty all dressed up in their 1930s clothes driving around the country in beautiful, vintage automobiles, but that’s only director Arthur Penn’s prettified Hollywood version of the pair. While Love Give Us One Death does, in fact, share many of the events portrayed in the movie, the novel always includes the uglier realities associated with the incidents that movie fans will remember from the Penn film – especially the harsh reality of what life on the road was really like for Bonnie and Clyde the last few weeks of their lives.

This is particularly true, for instance, in the author’s approach to the road accident in which one of Bonnie’s legs was so severely burned before she could be pried from the wreckage that she never walked without a limp again for the rest of her life, even having to be carried by Clyde on those days when the leg was especially bothering her.   Jones’s description of the condition of Bonnie’s injured leg – the exposed bone, the smell of the burned (and later) rotting flesh, the stomach-turning sight that her leg became, reaches a level that the romanticized movie never dared approach.

Love Give Us One Death also exposes a side of Bonnie that might surprise readers who know of her only from the 1967 movie by recounting the incident in which two wounded motorcycle cops were executed on the highway where they fell. Although there is some dispute as to whom actually pulled the trigger that day, the novel pins the executions on Bonnie.

Love Give Us One Death uses a mixture of straight prose, poetry, newspaper clippings, and even a newspaper cartoon of the day to tell its story – a combination that works well to bring the outlaws back to life for readers. I suspect that Jones has come closer here to the essential nature of Bonnie and Clyde and those who rode the highways with them than most nonfiction accounts have been able to get at by limiting themselves to an account of the facts. By getting inside their heads and allowing them to speak for themselves, the author portrays the realities of their months-long crime spree without destroying the myth that built up around them even before they died.

One final thought: those who may be relatively unfamiliar with the Bonnie and Clyde story should not be put off by the book’s subtitle (Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days) because Jones does an admirable job of telling their early story through short flashbacks and the like. It is all here.


JEFF P. JONES’s ancestors were sharecroppers in east Texas. He was born in Denver, and was educated at the University of Colorado at Denver, the University of Washington, and the University of Idaho. He’s a MacDowell Fellow, and his writing has won a Pushcart Prize, as well as the Hackney, Meridian Editors’, A. David Schwartz, Wabash, and Lamar York prizes. He lives on the Palouse in northern Idaho. This is his first book.


5 Winners! One winner  wins poster & signed copy; Four winners win signed copies!
December 13 – December 22, 2016

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Book Chase 2016 Nonfiction Top 10

I am ending the year the way I end pretty much every year: wishing I had read more nonfiction.  No matter how good my intentions might be at the beginning of the year, I always ended up reading somewhere between thirty-five and forty nonfiction titles.  The total never seems to vary by much, and this year is no exception.  Fortunately, however, I did discover some very good nonfiction titles:

Book Chase 2016 Nonfiction Top 10

c4134-dcf67587a4cf2d8597338566c774443415873431.  When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi – When Breath Becomes Air is part autobiography and part memoir, but most of all it is a very talented doctor’s farewell to a world that is surely less than it would have been were he still a part of it.  I should note, too, that the last part of the book is his widow’s memoir because, after Kalanithi’s surprisingly quick death, she finished the book for her 37-year-old husband.  Just twenty-two months after learning of his illness, Paul Kalanithi’s journey was over, a journey described by his wife as “one of transformation – from one passionate vocation to another, from husband to father, and finally, of course, from life to death, the ultimate transformation that awaits us all.”

f7777-0805097678-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_2.  The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer –  Skip Hollandsworth – Skip Hollandsworth, a regular columnist for Texas Monthly magazine, became so intrigued by a true crime story from Austin’s past that he turned it into his first book, The Midnight Assassin.  The book recounts a series of murders that happened there in 1884 and 1885, murders that were so horrendously bloody that they rivaled those committed three years later by London’s Jack the Ripper.  The murders in the two cities were in fact similar enough that some newspapers of the day speculated that London’s Ripper may have tested and developed his skills in Austin before bringing them with him to Europe.

48415-97816231701273.  Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War – Perry A. Ulander –  Perry Ulander managed to come out Vietnam in one piece, and in Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War, he tells us how he did it.  The memoir begins with the stunned nineteen-year-old Ulander reading a letter from his Uncle Sam directing him to report to Chicago for his pre-induction physical.  It ends more than a year later when a very different Perry Ulander, having just completed a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, is equally stunned to so suddenly find himself back on U.S. soil.

65f09-9780062309914_105c3-14.  The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones – Rich Keinzle – Four years after Jones’s death, his legacy has become more settled and his whole story can be told in one volume – and that is exactly what Rich Keinzle has done in The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones.  From the very beginning of his career, country music fans were intrigued by the craziness that followed Jones around the country as he performed.  By the end of that career, George Jones had become a much-respected vocalist (still with a reputation for craziness) who had managed to grab the attention of music lovers around the world.  It was never easy for the shy, insecure performer that Jones was throughout his lifetime, but, public warts and all, he was just too good to ignore.

a4d35-1616205024-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_5.  Dimestore: A Writer’s Life – Lee Smith – Lee Smith is a wonderful storyteller, and for the last forty-five years she has been telling us stories about life in the Appalachian Mountains, a region and a people she knows like the back of her hand.  Now, in Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Smith finally shares her own story.  I see that the book’s subtitle changed somewhere between its publication as an Advance Readers Copy and its final version, but I actually find the ARC subtitle to be the more fitting of the two (“A Memoir in Stories”) because that perfectly describes the approach Smith takes here in recounting her life for readers.

0062300547-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_6.  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J. D. Vance – What J.D. Vance has accomplished in his young life is almost a stereotypical representation of the American Dream. His grandparents came to Ohio as very young newlyweds with almost nothing to their names where they managed to raise a middle-class family that included Vance’s mother. Vance, as it turned out, would spend more of his childhood with his grandmother than with his mother (and barely knew his father), but would go on to become a Marine and would earn degrees from both Ohio State University and Yale Law School. So in just three generations, Vance’s family had gone from dirt poor to having a member of the immediate family graduate from one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. But it was not easy.

6f419-hi2bres2bcover2bmiddleweight7.  West Texas Middleweight: The Story of LaVern Roach – Frank Sikes – Middleweight boxer LaVern Roach was a very successful professional boxer from the end of World War II to early 1950 but today his name is a relatively unknown one even among boxing fans.  But despite being unfamiliar with the name LaVern Roach, I was very familiar with several of the boxers who were his biggest rivals at the time for the middleweight world championship, names like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jake LaMotta.  As an amateur, he had a record of 100 wins and 5 losses (with four of the losses coming before he turned eighteen), so his fast start as a professional was not a surprise to those in the sport.  His unusual good looks and his success made him one of the more popular boxers of his day, and LaVern Roach seemed destined for great things.  Sadly, it was not to be.

de17e17ed9ec6db596d73496e414443415873438.  Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq – Sarah Glidden – Frankly, I had doubts about Sarah Glidden’s decision to use “comic panels” to tell the intriguing story of her visit to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq with her two journalist friends and a friend of theirs who just happened to have seen military action in Iraq as an American soldier.  Rolling Blackouts manages to pack in more factual information than I expected from graphic nonfiction genre, but it is more effective when illustrating the emotions of the interviewer and those being interviewed. Sarah Glidden’s 2,500 illustrations (she calls them “comics”) are truly wonderful, and they greatly add to the book’s emotional impact on the reader. This one was a pleasant surprise.

ed3d4-b016tg5rgu-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_9.  Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide – Michael Kinsley – Michael Kinsley’s guide to old age is primarily aimed at his fellow boomers, the millions of us born between 1946 and 1964.  As a group, boomers are the next generation in line to “lose the game of life,” as Kinsley puts it, so it is time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable.  And, early on in Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, Kinsley makes the case that since we are all destined “to stay dead many years longer than we were alive,” the only thing we are going to leave behind is memories of ourselves – our reputations.  But here’s the kicker, boomers: if you want to be remembered as a good person, now is the time to get started because that old game clock is busily ticking away even as you read this.

e0e9d-0807049107-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_10.  The Drone Easts with Me: A Gaza Diary – Atef Abu Saif – It is difficult to read Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary and simultaneously keep oneself divorced from the politics that caused the situation to happen in the first place.  But that is exactly what Saif, who hardly addresses the cause of the 2014 war that Israel waged in the Gaza Strip, asks his readers to do.  Doing so allows the fifty-one days of war he describes in his 2014 diary to be experienced strictly through the eyes of those helplessly caught up in the middle of it all with no place to hide.  And that makes The Drone Eats with Me a very effective war memoir.

Short Story Saturday: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “The Bears”


Sarah Shun-Liem Bynum

This week’s Saturday Short Story is a relatively new one called The Bears that was written by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. The story first appeared in Glimmer Train, but I found it in The Best American Short Stories of 2016, an annual compilation of the year’s best short stories (a series edited for the past ten years by author Junot Díaz). Bynum is a Los Angeles based writer born in Houston who is perhaps best known for her 2004 National Book Award finalist novel Madeline Is Sleeping. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and compilations.

Although “The Bears” begins straightforwardly enough, it is one of those stories that depend on its readers to work a little harder than they may have planned at the outset. These are the story’s opening sentences:

“Once, when I was convalescing, I was sent to a farmhouse in the country. No one there knew I had been sick. A woman came to cook in the evenings, and her daughter would appear at odd hours with a mop and bucket, keeping the place clean.” 

All plain enough and generally true, if a little misleading.

As it turns out, our narrator has recently suffered a miscarriage from which she is yet to have recovered either physically or mentally. And rather than having been sent to the farmhouse, she has actually been invited there, part of a small group of artists and writers asked to come to the isolated farmhouse to work on their various projects. The narrator is there, in fact, to finish a chapter for the book she is writing on William James. The moment she sets foot inside the farmhouse, however, her self-confidence vanishes, and she can barely remember who William James was, much less what she wanted to say about him.

burr_2-e1391115593262-2200x1200So rather than immersing herself in writing and research, the narrator spends all of her time on long walks along isolated roads and the even more-isolated side roads off those. One road, in particular, intrigues her by the way that every piece of property she passes but one is marked with clear warnings to trespassers to stay off them. The exception is a white colonial house belonging to someone, according to his mailbox, called Jerry Roth. In her eyes, the house and acreage it overlooks are, “Perfect as in a painting or a dream; as if all the charm and sentiment the countryside had been coolly withholding could now, at last, express itself, could gloriously unfurl…”

Despite never seeing anyone around it, the daily walk to and from the white colonial becomes the highlight of her day. And right up until the day, exhausted and bleeding from her decision to run down the road rather than walk it, she discovers the front door to be unlocked, she had never set foot on the property. She finds no one inside the home, but makes herself at home anyway, even to sitting at the large kitchen table while eating the breakfast toast she finds there. And then, through the window, she spots a bear of a man methodically approaching his home from the rear. But the huge man, when he spies her through the kitchen window, surprises her with his sudden burst of speed.

“Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” anyone?

Book Chase Top Ten Fiction List (Books Published Prior to 2016 but Read This Year)

Roughly half of my fiction reading this year has been of books published prior to 2016, so I decided to post two Top Ten Fiction lists instead of combining old and new books into a single list the way I’ve done in the past.

Book Chase Top Ten Fiction List (Books Published Prior to 2016 but Read This Year)

the-shootist1.  The Shootist (1975) – Glendon Swarthout – The central character of The Shootist is one John Bernard Books, a nineteenth-century gunfighter with a fierce reputation as a sure-shot with a quick hand. But time is beginning to catch up with Books and now, in January 1901, he has come to El Paso to see the doctor who saved his life years earlier when Books took the only bullet that ever came near killing him. Books is in pain and he knows that something is seriously wrong with him. And when the doctor tells him that the pain is being caused by the prostate cancer that is killing him, Books knows that he will die in El Paso – and soon.

c9383-1250018781-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_2.  The Dealer and the Dead (2014) – Gerald Seymour – The Dealer and the Dead is about a man who might have to pay the ultimate price for a mistake he made almost two decades earlier.  In 1992, Harvey Gillott promised to deliver heavy weapons to an isolated Croatian village located along the border with Serbia, weapons the villagers desperately needed if they were to prevent their village from being overrun by the Serbs who were determined to destroy everyone who lived there.  Gillott took payment for the weapons but never delivered the promised weapons.  Some eighteen years later, what remains of the bodies of the four men who had been sent to collect the weapons are discovered in a farmer’s field – and in the pocket of one of the dead men is a tiny piece of paper with a name written on it: Harvey Gillott.

0207a-1471137392-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_3.  England and Other Stories (2015) – Graham Swift – This is a remarkable collection of twenty-five stories about people who, regardless of their age, have reached a point where regret and self-doubt are something they confront every day.  These are people living in fear that their lives may never again be as good as they were in the past.  Not only do they fear that possibility, they are certain that it is the truth.  What makes this collection a bit unusual is that none of these stories have ever been published elsewhere.  These are new stories (written, I’m guessing, within the amount of time it would normally have taken Swift to produce a novel), and taken as a whole they present the diversity of a country that is all too often confined to its stereotypes in the minds of foreigners.

8ad0e-md38031527194.  The Long Goodbye (1953) – Raymond Chandler – Marlowe is a cynic with a good heart, a man attracted to the down and out characters he so often finds on the streets of Los Angeles.  He still believes that he can help them, even though more times than not, he fails.  One of those whom Marlowe tries to help is a hopeless drunk by the name of Terry Lennox.  Marlowe and Lennox meet late one night when a woman angrily drives away and leaves the appallingly drunk Lennox standing alongside Marlowe outside a restaurant.  After Marlowe takes the man home with him so that he can safely sleep off his drunk, the two men become friends of a sort. Things get interesting a few months later when Lennox comes to Marlowe looking for a quick ride to the Tijuana airport.

51vc-6vtuzl-_sx334_bo1204203200_5.  The Cartel (2015) – Don Winslow – When it comes to controlling drug traffic and territories, everyone is fair game to the resulting violence: family members, newspaper reporters, teachers, women, children, policemen, the innocent and the guilty, alike.  And worst of all, like their terrorist cousins on the other side of the world, the gangs now capture the shootings, explosions, and decapitations on video for the entire world to see.  Don Winslow’s The Cartel schools us on just how horrible the situation along the U.S./Mexican border really is today – and why so many Mexicans cross that border to escape the mayhem at home.

deadf-1455524190-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_6.  The Burning Room (2014) – Michael Connelly – Harry Bosch’s days with the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit are numbered – and have dwindled down to what Harry considers to be a precious few.  Harry figures that if he doesn’t rock the boat so much that the upper brass finds a reason to cut him loose early, he might have one more year in him before the department forces him into retirement.   But it won’t be easy because a cold case with huge political implications has just been dumped in Harry’s lap.

1476738025-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_7.  A Man Called Ove (2012) – Fredrik Backman – The novel opens with Ove shopping for an iPad, an electronic gadget about which the 59-year-old man knows next to nothing. Ove, however, would never allow even that level of cluelessness to keep him from expressing his opinion about the object in question and the two salesmen attempting to explain its mysteries to him. By the time this early scene is over, the reader (and the two abused salesmen) will assume that they know everything they need to know about Ove – mainly, stay out of his way.  All of themwould be wrong – very, very wrong at that.

f7538662-3a68-41a1-96b5-5c114da5841fimg4008.  The Haunting of Hill House (1959) – Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House is still the standard by which haunted-house stories are judged today even though it is based on some of the same plot devices common to more run-of-the-mill haunted-house novels and movies. For instance, Hill House is a large, isolated old house with a reputation for being haunted, a place the locals don’t want to be anywhere around after dark – and then along comes a party of outsiders who have decided to spend a few nights inside the house to see if anything spooky might happen while they are there. Throw in the rather creepy caretakers of the place (who always leave before it gets dark), long hallways with lots of closed doors, mysterious staircases that lead to unexpected rooms, plus lots of unexplained noises in the night, and The Haunting of Hill House could easily have ended up being little more than a mediocre story filled with clichés.  That’s not what happened.

1439183376-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_9.  Savages (2010) – Don Winslow – 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 would 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 really are 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.

1250077060-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_10. Time and Time Again (2014) – Ben Elton – Hugh Stanton, ex-Army, is a man who cannot think of a single good reason to go on living. Not only has he been kicked out of the army, but a hit-and-run driver has recently struck and killed Stanton’s wife and two young children. So he plays along when his old Trinity College professor says to him, “If you could change one thing in history, if you had the opportunity to go back into the past, to one place and one time and change one thing, where would you go? What would you do?” After much debate, Stanton and Professor McCluskey agree that the best way to save the twentieth century from itself would be to prevent World War I from ever starting. But although he agrees to give it a shot (pun intended), Stanton remains a time-travel skeptic right up until the moment he steps out of a 1914 hospital basement.

Book Chase 2016 Fiction Top 10

2016 has been a good year for fiction and short story collections, and I’ve made the most of it by reading almost 100 fiction titles this year.  It probably helped that I attended three different book festivals around the state in the past several months (San Antonio, Kingwood, and the state festival in Austin) because festivals often bunch three or four authors into single sessions, ensuring that attendees are exposed to writers and books of which they may have otherwise never heard.

2016 Fiction Top Ten

cd73c-51ikroqj35l-_sx327_bo1252c204252c203252c200_1.  A Friend of Mr. Lincoln – Stephen Harrigan – Abraham Lincoln is one of the best-known presidents in the history of the United States, so most people are familiar with the story of his life.  They know about the poverty of Lincoln’s boyhood, the prodigious strength he developed as a teen, his debate skills, his presidency during the Civil War, and his tragic end.  The most common gap in most peoples’ Lincoln biography is the time during which he was a young lawyer and aspiring Whig politician – the 1830s and 1840s.  Stephen Harrigan’s novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln spans precisely this period of the young Lincoln’s life.  Harrigan recreates a well-meaning, but flawed, young Lincoln in the process of deciding what kind of man he wanted to be.

258174932.  News of the World – Paulette Jiles – What could possibly be more intriguing a main character in a book about Reconstruction Era Texas than a seventy-year-old retired Army captain who makes his living  traveling the vast state as a “professional reader” of newspapers? Perhaps a ten-year-old girl who has spent the last four years of her life as a captive of the band of Kiowa who butchered her parents and little sister in front of her would do it. And then, if you have these two characters cross paths, as Paulette Jiles does in News of the World, you have the makings of one of the most remarkable plots of the year.

57b53afc9d427-image3.  I Will Send Rain – Rae Meadows – It has not rained on the Bell farm in almost three months. Samuel Bell, his wife Annie, and their two children have never seen a drought like this one, but unlike some of their neighbors who have already abandoned their own farms, the Bells are determined to hang on until the rains return. Samuel and Annie tell themselves that it cannot possibly last much longer – but both know that if next year’s growing season is anything like this year’s they will end up dead broke and homeless.  And that’s when things really go bad.

louise_erdrich-larose_cover-harpercollins4.  LaRose – Louise Erdrich – It is difficult to imagine anything more devastating to a man than accidentally killing his best friend’s only son, but Landreaux Iron does just that when the little boy somehow manages to get between Landreaux and the elk at which he has just taken a shot. But according to Ojibwe tribal custom there is a way for the Iron family to recompense Dusty Ravich’s parents for their loss: all the Irons have to do is give LaRose, their youngest son and Dusty’s best friend, to Pete and Nola Ravich to raise as their own.  And that’s what they do.

0385542364-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_5.  The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead – From what I understand, there is some controversy about Colson Whitehead’s decision to fashion his novel about the Underground Railroad into a one that fits firmly into the alternate history genre rather than to write a more traditional piece of historical fiction on the subject. Frankly, that is precisely what drew me to the book in the first place. I have found that novels of alternate history, as opposed to more traditional historical fiction, often reveal the more essential truths about motivations, emotions, and what was really happening behind the scenes. Whitehead’s novel is no exception.  He artfully uses the alternate history genre to hammer home the harsh realities of one of the most brutal experiences in human history: slavery. In the process, he spares no one, be they black, or be they white.

winters_undergroundairlines_hc6.  Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters – Underground Airlines is set in the present day but Winters alerts readers early on with the insertion of a striking United States map that things are just a little bit twisted in this version of the present day world. Three things about this map are very, very different from the one that is so familiar people around the world: Texas, one of the most recognizable state-shapes on the map, is labeled as “Republic of Texas (Disputed); there is a color-coded legend identifying “Slave States” and “Free States;” and four states are clearly shaded in as slave-holding states. The four slave states are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Carolina (the Carolinas having merged into one state) and, for obvious reasons, the rest of the country refers to them as the “Hard Four.”

51zfuwbbuvl-_sy346_7.  Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves – The novel, set in 1920s rural Alabama, tells of an electricity visionary whose dream of electrifying the family farm his wife inherited inadvertently destroys two families, one of them his own.  The novel is filled with haunting characters that suffer greatly because of the actions of one man. None of them is perfect – far from it – but they need each other if they are to survive what has happened to them. The ultimate question they all have to answer now is how willing they are to forgive Roscoe Martin – and themselves – for what happened.

13935024_1222720154425432_2923937362586033090_n8.  Fields Where They Lay – Timothy Hallinan – 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.

56a71-cover88521-medium9.  The Jealous Kind – James Lee Burke – Thanks to a combination of selective memory, old movies and television shows, and iconic musical memories, we tend to think of the 1950s as a simpler, safer time that went by too quickly.  That’s as true for those of us who actually lived through the decade as it is for those of who simply wish they had.  I  doubt, however, that Hackberry Holland’s grandson, Aaron Holland Broussard, would agree.  Aaron, the latest addition to James Lee Burke’s Holland family tree series (and the main character and narrator of The Jealous Kind), sees the decade differently from the vantage point of his Houston neighborhood.

0804141290-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_10.  Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood – 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.  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 this year they are doing The Tempest.

(So there you have it, the Book Chase Fiction Top 10 for 2016.  I do reserve the right to modify the list if one of the 2016 books I will be reading between now and the end of the year knocks me off my feet with its sheer awesomeness – but that is unlikely to happen.)

Time Travel Tuesday: Nalo Hopkinson’s “Message in a Bottle” (416)716-7385

Nalo Hopkinson

Today’s Time Travel Tuesday story is Nalo Hopkinson’s “Message in a Bottle,” a story about a little girl who is not at all what she first seems to be. Hopkinson is a Jamaican now living in the United States whose story was first published in 2004 as one chapter of Futureways, a novel in which each chapter is written by a different author.

Greg, our narrator, is not a man who feels comfortable around children. He does not plan ever to have any of his own, but because he knows that he will “be pecked to death by the righteous breeders of the flock” for saying so, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t “hate them.” He just doesn’t understand them. And it doesn’t help that the little girl he has agreed to watch for an hour – the adopted daughter of friends – has a large head, that to his eye, makes her look more like an adult with a child’s frame than a child.

After his friends move to Vancouver, in part because they hope that their daughter will have better luck making friends in a new environment, Greg does not see them or Kamla for several years. By the time he sees them again, doctors have determined that Kamla suffers from DGS, Delayed Growth Syndrome (officially known as Diaz Syndrome in honor of the doctor who first identified the condition). The child’s oversized head and high degree of intelligence are two common symptoms of DGS.

a03666_lKamla is believed by her adoptive parents to be about ten years on the day they bring her to the art exhibit that Greg is in the process of installing. As he explains the working of the exhibit to Kamla, Greg is so impressed by her appreciation and understanding of his work that he develops a strong connection to the child. Her questions and remarks are so astute, in fact, that Greg has to force himself to remember that he is actually speaking with a child.

When Greg’s phone rings at 3:05 a.m. and Kamla is on the other end of the line, he begins to question the child’s mental health – but when she identifies herself as a time-traveler from the future and tells him what she has come back to find, she almost convinces Greg that she is telling the truth. Almost.

But what if what she says is true? What if she really is holding Greg’s “ticket to thefuture”?


Carousel Court

1476791279-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Carousel Court, the second novel from Joe McGinniss Jr., is a brutal take on the mortgage/housing collapse that ruined the dreams and lives of so many homeowners in the late 2000s. Those were the days when banks used unbelievably low interest rate home loans with minimal down payment requirements to lure first-time buyers into purchasing homes they could not actually afford to own. Nick and Phoebe Maguire, a young married couple living in Boston, were two of the people who got caught up in all the excitement of what seemed to be a sure way to make some easy money: move to California, buy way more house than they can really afford, live in that house long enough for its value to rise well above what they owe on it, and flip the house for a quick profit that can be put into an even bigger home they can’t really afford.

Considering how many people were doing exactly that, the plan did not seem to be all that risky to Nick and Phoebe. What happens, though, when the market collapses and home prices drop like a rock because no one is buying? Well, as Nick and Phoebe learned, that is the point at which your life pretty much goes to hell. In a game of musical chairs of this magnitude, someone is always going to be left standing at the end of the game- and this time, it is homeowners like Nick and Phoebe who believed that housing prices would rise forever. Their chair was pulled out from under them so suddenly that they never even thought about sitting down.

Now Nick and Phoebe are just trying to hold on as long as they can without having the bank repossess their home. Carousel Court, the street they live on, is one on which every homeowner (with a single exception) is trying to do the same thing. One neighbor has taken to burning everything he owns in his backyard pool, one spends all his time in the well-armed orange tent he has pitched in his front yard to scare off looters, and the others do all they can to pretend that the world is not collapsing around them.


Joe McGinniss Jr.

In the meantime, the California job that convinced Nick and Phoebe to relocate from Boston to Los Angeles in the first place does not exist when Nick gets there to claim it. And Phoebe, rather than being able to spend three months off with her young son, has to scramble to get a position with the pharmaceutical company she quit in Boston – a job she detests for the way it forces her to degrade herself to the doctors who purchase what she is selling (sometimes it seems all she is selling is herself).

Unable to focus on her job, and herself hopelessly addicted to some of the very pills she is selling, Phoebe is unable even to take care of her son, much less worry about her home and husband. But she has a plan, one that she cannot share with Nick if their marriage is to survive. And unbeknownst to Phoebe, Nick has a plan of his own, an illegal one that allows him to pocket thousands of dollars a month – until someone bigger and meaner than him decides to cut him out of the deal. So now facing imminent financial ruin, a failed marriage, and with little hope that things will ever work out for them in the future, Nick and Phoebe have hit rock bottom.

Bottom Line: Carousel Court is a frank look at what happens to good people when they lose control of their lives. It is difficult at times to have much sympathy for the book’s two main characters because they seem to be so willing, almost eager, to do anything it takes to ensure their individual survival. That makes for difficult reading at times, but the book’s bigger flaw is that, about half way through, it reaches a point at which very little seems to be happening other than what happened the day before – and the day before that, and the day before that. If the book had been perhaps fifty pages shorter, its message would have been a more memorable one – as it is, that message is muted by the repetition that surrounds it.

On the End-of-Year Increase to Publishing House Efficiency

It’s always hard for me in December to read at anything even close to the pace that I maintain during the rest of the year, and this year it’s been even more difficult than normal.  In addition to the usual time-killing aspects of the Christmas season (shopping, wrapping gifts, dealing with heavier-than-normal traffic, longer lines at the grocery, etc.), my granddaughter’s high school’s football team went five rounds into the Texas high school football playoffs before being eliminated yesterday in a semifinal game.  Because it’s her fourth and final year on the school drill team, that means that, with the exception of two nearby games, we have driven several hundred miles in the last five weekends getting to and from various stadiums around the state.

But just when I was starting to feel like I was catching up on promised reviews, the mail (both snail and electronic) has gone a little crazy.  Every one of the books pictured below got to me days quicker than they would have earlier this year; it’s as if publisher reps are clearing the decks to get a fresh start in 2017.  This is what arrived during the last four or five days:


The Five Books That Arrived Via UPS

Then there were the two that came to me by email (and I apologize for the photos):


Rather Be the Devil (as it appears on my Amazon Fire)


Ray and Joan on the same Amazon Fire

I’m about to finish up Catherine Dunn’s The Years That Followed (the third book in that first picture), and can’t wait to get started on one or two of the others.  It sort of feels like Christmas around here.

Short Story Saturday: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

the_things_they_carriedThis week’s Saturday short story, “The Things They Carried,” is taken from Tim O’Brien’s award-winning collection of linked short stories that was published under the same title in 1990. This opening story sets the tone for the rest of the collection and serves as an introduction to the characters and events that are explored in the stories that follow. O’Brien served in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1970, during which time he was wounded near Mai Lai. Of the many thousands of books and stories written about the Vietnam War experience, The Things They Carried and O’Brien’s subsequent Going After Cacciato are considered to be two of the must-read works of the genre.

The first sentence of “The Things They Carried” tells us that First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross “carried letters from a girl named Martha,” but by the story’s second paragraph, O’Brien is enumerating all the items that the troops carried, not out of choice, but out of necessity: “can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets…C rations, and two or three canteens of water.” It is when O’Brien starts assigning specific weights to items like these and turns to items considered “necessary” by individual soldiers that the story’s tone begins to shift to a more dramatic one, especially when he says “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”

And that is just the beginning, because the list of things being carried by the men and the reasons for carrying those things goes on and on. O’Brien tells us “what they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty,” and exactly how heavy all of it was. O’Brien, however, knows that he and his fellow Vietnam War veterans carried more into battle than the physical things he’s listed and weighed for us. Often, the problem was that the non-physical burdens outweighed the physical ones.


Tim O’Brien

They all carried “ghosts” with them, memories of past skirmishes with the enemy, visions of buddies who would were sent home in flag-covered coffins, and superstitions they hoped would keep them from the same fate. They carried infections, “lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.” As O’Brien reminds us, these men would “never be at a loss for things to carry.”

It is near the end of “The Things They Carried” that Tim O’Brien wrote one of the most devastating paragraphs on why young men are so willing to go to war that I have ever read, part of which is quoted, below:

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment” 

Let that last sentence sink in.