Territory

Territory broke new ground for me.  I have long been a fan of realistic western fiction, the grittier the better, but have never much enjoyed fantasy writing of the type filled with magicians, superheroes, or magic kingdoms.  Fortunately, this time my love for both factual and fictional accounts of the Earp brothers, and their association with Doc Holliday, overrode my reluctance to spend reading time on the fantasy genre.  That is because Emma Bull has pulled off what I would have considered impossible before reading Territory: a near perfect blending of a realistic western with a healthy dose of magic thrown into the mix. 
That Bull’s use of magic is key to the development of her novel’s plot and characters but still not overdone, makes for an enjoyably off-center look at some real-life characters already very familiar to fans of Old West novels.  The action all takes place in and around Tombstone, Arizona, just a few months before the infamous (and still mysterious) “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” as all the usual suspects gather there to feed on the hatred they feel for each other. 
On the one side are Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and the equally famous dentist who calls himself Doc Holliday.  On the other side are gunslinger Johnny Ringo and the Clanton and McClaury brothers, a bunch of part-time cowboys and rustlers. What makes this portrayal of the historical events of the day so different is that several of the key players have more than simple charisma working in their favor; they are secret magicians with the power to influence events as much with their minds as with their pistols. 
Into this mix, Bull blends several fictional characters that get caught up in the events of the day.  Jesse Fox, making his way to Mexico where he hopes to make a living breaking wild horses, stops in Tombstone to see his old friend from San Francisco, Chow Lung.  Fox knows deep-down that his Chinese friend has unusual powers but is reluctant to admit it even to himself.  Little does he know that Chow Lung has called him to Tombstone using some of that same magic so that the two can investigate the evil that has entered the town. Mildred, recently widowed, works in one of Tombstone’s daily newspapers as a typesetter but is the glue that holds the little paper together.  When Jesse Fox comes into the office one day, they inadvertently begin a partnership that will change both their lives forever.
Bull takes the time to build a realistic setting within which she develops her characters and their motivations.  Atmospherically, everything will seem so familiar to fans of the western genre that, when fantasy replaces realism, they will hardly notice the jolt.  Fantasy and magic are well used in order to explore a world on the edge, one in which physical strength and domination are key elements in local politics and in the everyday lives of all of Tombstone’s citizens.
This one is fun, and it would be a shame if those who loathe either western fiction or fantasy fiction were to miss it.  Give it a shot.
Rated at: 4.0

The Broken Shore

I have long believed that quality crime fiction, the kind built around a sense of place and well developed characters, can give the armchair traveler a better feel for a country and its culture than all but the best written travel books.  Books like Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore always remind me how true that is.
Big city Australian cop Joe Cashin has been exiled to the little police station responsible for the security of the small South Australian coastal town he grew up in – not that the citizens there have much crime to worry about.  He has ostensibly been sent to the area to recover from a serious physical injury, but Cashin is the kind of cop whose superiors sometimes need a break from him, and no one seems in a hurry to call him back.  Perhaps that is because he is not much into political correctness or going out of his way to make his fellow policemen look good when they do not deserve it.
When local millionaire Charles Bourgoyne is discovered in his mansion with his head bashed in, Cashin soon finds himself at odds with others in the department who are determined to pin the crime on a group of aboriginal teens caught trying to sell the man’s watch.  After the case is officially closed, Cashin, ever the introspective loner, decides to investigate the crime on his own.  His investigation, made more difficult by the town’s instinctive racism toward its aboriginal population, will lead him deep into a part of the community’s past tainted by child pornography and sexual abuse. 
Joe Cashin is not a perfect cop.  In fact, he sometimes tends to make the kind of careless or lazy mistake that can place him, his fellow cops, or the success of an investigation in danger.  The older he gets, the more Cashin questions what he has done with his life.  He is close to no one, including his mother and only brother, but despite not being happy about the situation, he does little to remedy it.  But the man has a good heart, and a very big one, at that.  He is a staunch defender of the underdog and he believes in second chances, two qualities that mark him as a misfit among his fellow policemen.
The Broken Shore is filled with memorable little moments, unforgettable characters, and complicated personal relationships.  It is about much more than the murder of one old man with a past of his own to protect.  Peter Temple uses dialogue to develop his characters much in the way that Elmore Leonard has become so celebrated for doing.  It works well for Temple, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting into the revealing conversational rhythms of his characters.  Readers will be well advised, however, to familiarize themselves with the Australian slang terms in the book’s glossary before beginning the novel (a fun, standalone read, that is) in order to keep the conversation flowing at the pace at which it is meant to be read.
This, my first Peter Temple novel, is actually the author’s ninth, and I look forward to reading the others.
Rated at: 4.0

Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero

It was not particularly easy for a kid to be a baseball fan in small town Texas during the late 1950s and early 1960s.  For the most part, all we had to work with were the statistics and player pictures on our baseball cards and the abbreviated box scores our local newspaper deigned to print (the more space the editor needed to fill, the more box scores we got).   Best of all, though, were the nationally televised weekend games, match-ups that so often featured the New York Yankees I had become a rabid Yankee fan by the beginning of the 1960 season – just as Roger Maris joined the team from Kansas City.
As exciting as that season was, no one would have dared predict that Maris might break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record in 1961 or that Mantle would keep almost the same home run pace right down to the last several weeks of the season.  Even small town newspapers were caught up in the excitement of the chase and, for a change, they printed some of the same articles big city fans were reading in their own papers.  But there must have been one subtle difference in what we read and what big city fans read because I was only vaguely aware, in Texas, that New Yorkers were rooting for only Mantle to break the record; if not Mantle, certainly not Maris, was the overwhelming sentiment there.
Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero is the complete Roger Maris biography.  And, because Maris was a private person who shared very few personal details with writers of the day, the book holds surprises even for those who witnessed the pressure-packed 1961 season and believe they already know the Roger Maris story.   Few, for instance, are likely to know that Maris was not born in North Dakota as he claimed or that “Maris” is not the original spelling of his surname – or about the dysfunctional family dynamic that caused the spelling to be changed.  
The biography, however, rightfully focuses on the way New York sportswriters and broadcasters conspired to ruin a good man’s reputation and to make him miserable during what could have been the best year of his life.  Old-school writers, in particular, hated to see Babe Ruth’s home run record fall and, if it had to be broken at all, the last thing they wanted to see was someone like Roger Maris do the breaking.  Because they did not consider Roger Maris to be a “true Yankee,” this unethical group of writers trashed his reputation on a daily basis.  They portrayed him as surly and unappreciative, a man who refused to play through his injuries the way Mantle played through his own.  They even covered for Mantle’s drinking problems and resulting lack of hustle while attacking Maris for not going full out even when ordered to play at a slower pace (to protect an injury) by his manager.  And it worked – fans in every American League city hated Maris and never failed to boo or jeer him, even in his home ballpark.
That was bad enough.  But just as bad was the unethical way  Commissioner Ford Frick decided to protect the home run record of Babe Ruth, a friend of his, by hanging the infamous “asterisk” on Maris, insisting that Ruth was still the single season champion for a 154-game schedule and that Maris was only the champion for a less impressive 162-game schedule (even though Ruth had three more overall at-bats than Maris).  But it gets still worse because, later in his Yankee career, the full extent of a hand injury was kept from Maris by the Yankee front office and his manager, Ralph Houk, a decision that all but ensured he would never fully regain the grip in that hand or be able to pull a ball like he did when it was healthy.  This is the same front office that failed to protect Maris from the rabid press in 1961 or even to promote his continuing chase to catch Ruth after the 154th game of the season, the same people who would send him off to St. Louis without ever recognizing what a great Yankee player he actually had been.
Understandably, Roger Maris hated the Yankee organization and Yankee fans by the time he was traded to St. Louis in an underhanded deal that turned out to be the biggest blessing of his career.  That he would be able to reconcile with the Yankee organization, thanks to the efforts of George Steinbrenner, and that he would learn to love baseball again because of his experiences with the St. Louis Cardinals, is the best part of the Roger Maris story.  When he died at age 51, still in the prime of life, baseball lost one of its all time greats, a man that, in my opinion, deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame despite the successful efforts of a group of despicable writers to keep him out of it.
Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero is not just a book for baseball fans because Roger Maris is a true American hero, a man whose story will be an inspiration to anyone who reads this revealing biography. 
Rated at: 4.5

The White Garden

Everyone knows that, one day in 1941, famed British author Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with heavy rocks before stepping into the cold waters of the river Ouse. Perhaps because of the extra weight she carried into the water with her, Woolf’s body would not be found until three weeks later. Woolf’s family and friends, aware that she was often in a suicidal frame-of-mind, were not surprised by her end, so the official verdict of suicide was never challenged. Now, in an intriguing piece of alternate history, The White Garden, Stephanie Barron examines the possibilities of what may have happened during the three weeks between Woolf’s disappearance and the recovery of her body in the Ouse.

American Jo Bellamy has come to Kent’s Sissinghurst Castle to copy the layout of its famous White Garden for a wealthy client who wants to replicate it on the grounds of his Long Island home. Imogen Cantwell, the castle’s head gardener, has grudgingly agreed to allow Jo full access to the White Garden so that she can gather all the measurements and photos she will need to create a perfect copy of the grounds for her client. But, for Jo, this is not just a way to generate revenue for her business; it is an opportunity to visit the part of England in which her beloved grandfather, who killed himself just three weeks earlier, lived for the first two decades of his life.
After Jo discovers that her grandfather spent several months as an apprentice gardener at Sissinghurst (the home of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West), her search for garden records from that period leads her to the discovery of what appears to be a partial diary written in the hand of Virginia Woolf herself. Oddly, however, the journal is bound with a note indicating that, when it was boxed for storage, it actually belonged to Jo’s grandfather. Even odder, the first entry in Woolf’s handwriting is dated the day after her supposed drowning in the river Ouse.
Already puzzled by her grandfather’s so out-of-character suicide, Jo now starts to wonder if her trip to Sissinghurst might have everything to do with the timing of his death. Her quest to have the first half of the journal authenticated, and to find its missing pages, draws the attention of others wanting to exploit the astounding journal for their own purposes. For Jo, it is all about understanding why her grandfather felt it necessary to end his life; others want a piece of the fame, and profit, which will result from proximity to a journal that might literally rewrite a significant portion of literary history.
The White Garden works because of the way Barron mixes her intriguing plot of alternate history with a large cast of interesting characters. Admittedly, some of the characters are a little too close to stereotypes to be completely effective but, in the context of the story, even those characters contribute to the fun. Fans of Virginia Woolf, and Anglophiles of all stripes, are likely to enjoy this one a great deal. I certainly did.
Rated at: 5.0

Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times

When it comes to country music history, Ralph Stanley has pretty much seen it all. Now, at age 82, he has partnered with author Eddie Dean to share some of that with the rest of us. The book they co-authored, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, will, of course be especially appreciated by bluegrass fans, Stanley Brothers fans, and fans of the work Ralph has done since Carter’s death on December 1, 1966. Others, even those that are not fans of Stanley or of bluegrass music, will find the book to be a remarkable snapshot of a pivotal period in American music history, a time during which musicians like the Stanley Brothers earned their livings through live radio shows, relatively primitive recordings, and driving countless miles from one paying gig to the next.

Stanley was born in 1927 in the Clinch mountains of southwestern Virginia and he still lives very near the old home place where he grew up with his older brother Carter. Carter and Ralph were still teenagers when they began performing as the Stanley Brothers and, for the rest of their lives, the brothers would depend on music to provide their living, difficult as that would often prove to be (think about the impact of Elvis Presley). Carter would be gone much too soon, dead by age 42 primarily because of an inability to control his alcohol consumption, but Ralph would find new lead singers to keep the music of the Stanley Brothers alive to the present day.

First to replace Carter was18-year-old Larry Sparks, but Sparks would be followed over the years by others, including an even younger Keith Whitley who joined the Clinch Mountain Boys with his singing buddy Ricky Skaggs. As Stanley recounts, Whitley would move on to a successful stint with J.D. Crowe before himself dying of alcohol poisoning when just on the verge of a career-making mainstream breakthrough.

Man of Constant Sorrow includes stories about many of the men that have been members of the Clinch Mountain Boys for the past six decades. Stanley shares both the good and the bad about his life and he does the same for the men with whom he worked all those years, even to providing details (as he understands them) of the murder of Roy Lee Centers and the legal system that let off his killer with the lightest of sentences imaginable. Stanley speaks often of losing band members to death or illness and addresses how difficult it was for him to fire various Clinch Mountain Boys over the years.

The beauty of Man of Constant Sorrow is that it is told in Ralph Stanley’s voice, mountain dialect and spelling, included. The voice is so accurate (and, at times so rambling) that one has to believe that Dr. Ralph’s contribution to the book was largely made via a recording device into which he spoke his memories and that Eddie Dean’s job was to put everything in the proper order for a book presentation.

This stream-of-consciousness approach also contributes to an unpleasant surprise or two for those of us who know Ralph Stanley only through his onstage persona. Stanley, it seems, has a tendency to give praise to others with one hand while, with the other, explaining that he does it better than they ever did (be “it” music or some standard of behavior), and a willingness to tell degrading stories about the people he does not like or approve of, even if they are long dead. I was particularly struck by the paragraphs devoted to how delightful if was for the band to have a dim-witted picker on the road with them, someone at whom the rest of the band could always laugh to relieve the tension and fatigue of the road. This light streak of cruelty and lack of empathy in some of Stanley’s stories truly surprises me and exposes an inability to see himself through the eyes of others.

Man of Constant Sorrow suffers, too, from the glaring gaps left in its chronology. Very little is said about Carter Stanley’s children and how they survived after Carter’s death despite the fact that one of them, Jeanie, is herself an excellent bluegrass singer. There is also the matter of Ralph own first marriage, to which I can find only one quick reference where Stanley discusses his mother’s reaction to his surprise marriage to Jimmie: “My first marriage didn’t really count in her book. And not in mine, neither. I had to go through the bad marriage to be ready for a woman like Jimmie, I reckon.” To those unaware of Stanley’s first marriage, this is the equivalent of a neck-twisting double-take, and I still wonder where in his long story this failed marriage fits. Lastly, there is little mention of Ralph’s own children, despite the fact that Ralph Stanley II was a Clinch Mountain Boy for about 20 years and that one grandson is a current member of the band.

Despite the gaps in the book, and, in my personal opinion , some of what Dr. Ralph reveals about his nature, Man of Constant Sorrow is a worthy addition to country music history and it deserves a wide audience. It is, after all, Ralph Stanley’s story – and he gets to decide what he wants to share and what he wants to reveal about himself in the process.

Rated at: 4.0