A Shortage of Reading Material Is a Thing of the Past

51bukngrbpl-_sy346_ Beyond a doubt, the best thing about being an avid reader of close to seventy years of age is that I never have to worry about finding a book to read anymore.  I  remember how when I was in my twenties and thirties that my greatest reading-fear was waking up one morning and not having a single unread book at hand. Those were the days when buying even a paperback per week hit the budget a good solid lick. A library was usually within reach, but after working a forty-something-hour-week, I was often too tired to make it there. Thankfully, those days are long gone.

Nowadays, like most people my age who have read for their entire lives, I have my own library, one that includes more unread books than I could possibly read in three or four years of dedicated reading. There are numerous anthologies, short story compilations, novels, and Civil War history books awaiting my attention – not to mention the 91 Library of America volumes on the shelves, each of those including numerous novels and short stories. So I’m set for a while even if worse were to come to worst.

51pckawcosl-_sy346_But here’s the real secret: many of my reading friends are roughly the same age as I am, and our wives are constantly at us to clean out some of the books that are stashed all over the house. That means that I seldom visit a reading friend who does not shove three or four “must-read” books at me before I head home. And I’ve learned to return the favor, often carrying a like number of books to their home when visiting so that the exchange comes out relatively even. The good news is that, at least so far, all of our wives see this as a kind of game in which the winning wife is the one whose husband’s book-count drops even for just a week or two. It’s one of those strange win-win things that I hope the ladies never figure out.

51kmu2vjmwl-_sy346_Just this month, for instance, I’ve been given pristine hard copies of four of Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlenour novels (a really good series from Iceland); Conspiracy of One (a detailed study of the Kennedy assassination); Witness (the classic Whittaker Chambers book written during the early days of the Cold War); and One Ranger ( a signed copy of Texas Ranger H. Joaquin Jackson’s 2008 autobiography). Now keeping in mind that this is all part of a game of musical chairs played with books, my wife is happy to tell you that we are winning so far this month because way more books have gone out the door than have come in the door (our wives give us a free pass when it comes to library books, thank goodness).

Now if I could just learn to read faster, life would be just about perfect.

 

Time Travel Tuesday: E.F. Benson’s “In the Tube”

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E. F. Benson

This week’s Tuesday Time Travel story comes from the pen of E.F. (Edward Frederic} Benson, a British writer perhaps best known for his Mapp and Lucia series written between 1920 and 1939. Benson died in London in 1940 at age seventy-two. Today’s story, “In the Tube,” first appeared in a 1923 issue of Hutchinson’s Magazine.  

The story’s narrator recounts an evening he spent in the home of one Anthony Carling, a man known among his London acquaintances as a great storyteller and gentlemanly host. As the story begins, the formal evening has ended and all the guests but one are making their way home under terrible, icy conditions. The narrator is the only guest who will be spending the entire night in the Carling home. Now, even though it is very late, the two men are enjoying the warmth of a comfortable fire when Carling begins to tell his guest of a recent experience on the London Tube.

Earlier in the month, Carling tells his guest, on the last train of the evening he found himself sharing an entire car with only one other passenger, a man he feels he should somehow recognize. Arriving at the next station, the two men changed trains, and again they were the only two passengers in their car. Shortly after the train began to move, however, Carling realized that he was the train’s only passenger. The very next evening, Carling was astounded to meet the same man at his neighbor’s home and reminded him they actually met on the previous evening – but the man insists the he arrived in London from the country on this very morning and could not possibly have met Carling the day before.

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Scene from 1920s London Underground

The next evening, while once again catching the Tube’s last westward-bound train, Carling spots the same man standing near where the train will pull into the station. But to Carling’s horror, when the train does arrive, the man steps in front of it and is crushed to death. No one else, however, sees a thing – because Carling, he is certain, has somehow been granted a look into the future.

Now should he try to prevent the man’s suicide, or will confronting him with what he knows, only place the idea of suicide into the stranger’s head? Why does he have this special spiritual connection with a man he has only ever met one time? And what if their connection survives even death?

Benson is known as a writer of ghost stories, and the ending of “In the Tube” is probably more reminiscent of a ghost story ending than that of a time-travel story. But whichever type story you choose to call it, “In the Tube” is one thing for certain: an intriguing look at what the editor of The Time Traveler’s Almanac calls the “theory that time possessed a geography that could be explored.” And explore it, E.F. Benson does.

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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Enjoy the day, folks.  Reconnect with family and friends and remember that we all, everyone of us, have more things in common than we have differences.  It’s time to work together to make this a better world for everyone.

Have a great day; enjoy the conversation and the food; read a good book.  Although we forget it all to often, the truth is that we are very lucky people to be living in this day and age.

See you tomorrow.

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.

The James Patterson Money Machine on Display at B&N

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Book Display Spotted on October 8, 2016 in Houston B&N Bookstore

This is an actual display in the Best Sellers section of the Barnes & Noble bookstore nearest me.  I expect that one similar to it can be found in other B&Ns, maybe even all of the B&N bookstores for all I know. So what makes it special, you ask?  Well, every single book on the display was “written” by one James Patterson – or at least that’s what the various covers say.  But with one or two exceptions, one being the throwback copy of Along Came a Spider, I doubt that Patterson did a whole lot of writing on these.

Somehow or another James Patterson has become a brand name, and now Mr. Patterson can just slap his name on a book cover in big, bright letters and leave the actual writing of the book to the author whose name appears in smaller, less colorful letters below the huge “James Patterson” logo.  And, of course, the authors willing to play the Patterson Brand Game are lined up down the block because being tapped on the shoulder this way by James Patterson means they are likely to sell more books with even one Patterson brand book than they ever would have sold by writing half a dozen non-Patterson brand books.  Ka-ching!

A couple of Patterson brand books a year would be one thing, but more than a dozen of them a year is just humiliating, in my worthless opinion, to the image of the authors who do Mr. Patterson’s grunt work for what is likely to be the smallest slice of the two-piece pie they produce for him.

…just saying.

New (Amazon) Prime Reading Service Debuts

 

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Screen Shot of New Prime Reading Page

There’s more good news today for those of us who pay our hundred bucks (or so) a year to maintain our Amazon Prime memberships.  In addition to free movies, music, two-day shipping on most Amazon purchases, video games, photo storage, and one free Kindle book a month, we now get more even free books from the new Amazon service called Prime Reading.

According to CNET.com, Prime Reading works this way:

…provides a rotating library of over a thousand books, with current titles including “The Hobbit,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Millionaire Next Door.” The free service, available only to Prime members in the US, also includes changing selections of comics, kids’ books and magazines, including National Geographic Traveler, People and Sports Illustrated.

The service is available on iOS and Android devices using the free Kindle app, as well as on any Amazon Kindle e-reader or Fire tablet.”

[…]

“Using a similar tactic, Amazon last month introduced a slimmed-down, free-for-Prime version of its paid audiobook services called Audible Channels. A full Audible membership costs $14.95 a month.

In addition to Prime Reading, Amazon will continue to provide the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. That Prime service lets people borrow one e-book a month from a much wider selection of hundreds of thousands of titles.”

(I am a very satisfied Amazon Prime member but this posting is not meant as an endorsement of Amazon Prime. It’s a simple heads-up for those who may have not have yet heard about the latest enhancements to the service.)

Mississippi Noir

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Mississippi Noir is the latest collection of dark crime stories in the long running series of similar titles from Akashic Books, and it’s another good one. The first hint of what to expect from the book’s sixteen stories comes in the blunt opening paragraph of Tom Franklin’s two-page introduction:

“Welcome to Mississippi, where a recent poll shows we have the most corrupt government in the United States. Where we are first in infant mortality, childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, teenage pregnancy, adult obesity, adult diabetes. We also have the highest poverty rate in the country.

And, curiously, the highest concentration of kick-ass writers in the country, too,”

And judging strictly from the number of writers who make their homes in Oxford, the claim about “kick-ass writers” might very well be true. (But sadly, so are the other ones.) This Mississippi-based story collection features the work of a few familiar names, such as Ace Atkins, writers newly-come to the genre, and even a couple of writers being published for the first time. As is always the case with the Akashic books in the series, the sixteen stories are divided into four thematic sections with tiles that give a clue to the type of story housed there: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” Bloodlines,” and “Skipping Town.”

As it turns out, my three favorite stories come from three different sections of the book: “Lord of Madison County,” by the first-time-published Jimmy Cajoleas, “Oxford Girl” by the already well-known Megan Abbott, and “Pit Stop”, by veteran writer John M. Floyd.

“Lord of Madison County” tells of a seasoned teenaged drug dealer who has stumbled upon the best way imaginable to hide the truth about himself – he pretends to be a Jesus freak interested only in spreading the word of God among his peers. When, predictably, the young man learns that, not only is he nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but that bigger, badder criminals are all around him, things do not go particularly well for him and his preacher’s-daughter girlfriend.

“Oxford Girl” takes the rather unusual approach of adopting its plot from an English ballad dating back to the 1820s. The old ballad tells the story of a young woman who is brutally murdered by the man she believes she is going to marry. The short story cleverly cites verses from one version of the old song as the story about two University of Mississippi students unfolds along eerily similar lines. There is one key difference, however, that makes the story especially effective – unlike the song, which is narrated by the killer, the story’s narrator is the murdered girl.

And then there’s “Pit Stop,” a story that likely would have warmed the heart of Alfred Hitchcock. In this one, a young woman is telling her little girl a story from her past, the one in which she encountered the infamous “Night Stalker” who killed several women along Mississippi’s Highway 25. An abundance of false leads and misdirection – along with plenty of clues that point to the Stalker’s true identity – make this one a fun and satisfying read.

Bottom Line: Mississippi Noir meets the high standard set by it predecessors in this Akashic Books series.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Rainy Sunday Odds & Ends

Its an Odds and Ends Sunday:

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

Book Chase’s Best Dust Jackets of 2015


First impressions are so striking that bad ones are almost impossible to overcome. And for booksellers and publishers, there is nothing more important than making a good first impression on readers browsing the shelves of their favorite bookstores.  A bad or  an underwhelming dust jacket on a new book immediately limits its potential audience to only the most informed readers – those who go out of their way to keep up with what is in the book publishing pipeline at all times. A good or striking dust jacket, on the other hand, will catch the eye of many a reader who would have otherwise just passed a book by.  

That said, of the books I read in 2015, these are the ten that I think did the best job (in reverse order) of presenting themselves to the reading public:

10.  Striking in its simplicity but an eye-catcher nonetheless 
9.  Immediately makes the reader want to know more
8.  Stunning graphics for this submarine mystery
7. Colors and tones perfect for a novel about Bangkok’s mean streets
6.  Faux record label captures spirit of the times
5.  Kinsella is all about baseball nostalgia and so is this cover
4.  Certain to capture the eye of To Kill a Mockingbird fans
3.  What book nerd won’t pick this up for a look?

2.  How is to to grow up in funeral home?  Just look at the cover.


1.  All about the fading of the Old West. Perfect, perfect cover.

Best Books of the Year List Is Starting to Round into Shape

Is it too early for all these “Best of 2015” lists that are starting to pop up everywhere?  Since there are only thirty-two days remaining in the year, and there has to be some kind of calendar cut-off date that makes sense, I don’t think it is.

In my own case here at Book Chase, I am willing to include books that are published during the first week of December only if they are truly outstanding.  Otherwise, I do my best to limit my best of the year lists to books published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year.  I’m working on my first long lists for fiction and non-fiction titles right now, but since I usually read less than 35 nonfiction titles a year, I’m not sure that I will be able to complete a full Top Ten list in that category.  

These are a few of the books that jumped out during my first brief pass through the 108 books I’ve read so far this year.

Fiction:
The Hot Countries – Tim Hallinan
The Essential W.P. Kinsella – W.P. Kinsella
The Fifth Heart – Dan Simmons
Darkness, Darkness – John Harvey
The Assault – Harry Mulisch 

Nonfiction:
Twain’s End – Lynn Cullen
The Art of Memoir – Mary Karr
Deep South – Paul Theroux

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be adding and subtracting books from the list as I re-read my reviews and check publication dates, but I suspect that most of these titles are going to be there somewhere.


Another Courageous Publisher Is Slaughtered

Yet another brave man has been slaughtered for daring to publish something that “offends” the ever-encroaching evil that is slowly taking over the world.  I cannot even imagine the courage to do what these people do, and it breaks my heart to see them butchered by those whose tiny little brains have been filled with stupidity and hatred, leaving no room for rational thought.

This time it is publisher Faisal Arefin Deepan who has paid the ultimate price for daring to publish books in Bangladesh that contained the work of an American-Pakastani blogger who himself was hacked to death in February.  As reported in U.S. News, this was actually the second attack of the day:

Earlier in the day, publisher Ahmed Rahim Tutul and two writers were shot and stabbed by three men in the office of the Shudhdhoswar publishing house, said police officer Abdullah Al Mamun.
Police chief Jamal Uddin Meer said the assailants then locked the wounded men inside the office before escaping. “We had to break the lock to recover them,” Meer said.
The two writers were identified by police as Ranadeep Basu and Tareque Rahim. All three of the victims were hospitalized, and Tutul was in critical condition, Meer said.
Ansar al-Islam accused the “secular and atheist publishers” of putting out books by blasphemers that dishonored the Prophet Muhammad, and threatened more attacks.

If you don’t believe that all of this is brought on by stupidity, just read that last sentence again, especially the part about publishing blasphemous books that dishonor good old Muhammad.  

Wake up world, enough is enough.  Haven’t we reached that point yet. 

Tortilla Flat

Frankly, I do not know what to think about John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.  On the one hand, this 1935 novel is an entertaining look at life through the eyes of a bunch of men whose biggest concern in life is where their next bottle of wine is coming from; on the other, the novel tends to leave the impression that everyone living in the Tortilla Flat section of Monterey, California, is shiftless and lazy.  And that impression, considering that all the characters in Tortilla Flat are (or would be called in today’s terms) Hispanics, is not one that leaves the reader very comfortable.

Danny and his friends are actually “paisanos.”  As Steinbeck puts it, a paisano “is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods.  His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years…when questioned concerning his race, he indignantly claims pure Spanish blood and rolls up his sleeve to show that the soft inside of his arm is nearly white.” 
Danny’s crew has more in common than the love of drink.  He and several of his friends, in a moment of drunken patriotism, joined the military at the outbreak of World War I, and now they have returned one-by-one to Tortilla Flat to resume the lives they temporarily abandoned.  The boys had varying degrees of success during the war.  Danny himself never left the States, others of them saw the fighting, and at least one of them spent most of the war in the brig.  But now they are home and they have resumed a shiftless lifestyle that sees them working only long enough to earn the next bottle or two of wine. 
Author John Steinbeck

Then Danny receives something of a mixed blessing when he inherits the two Tortilla Flat houses owned by his elderly grandfather.  His neighborhood prestige and status are immediately enhanced, but Danny is quick to feel the burdens of property ownership – and, rather than being excited by his windfall, Danny is troubled and unhappy.  It is only when his friends begin to move into his houses with him that Danny is finally able to settle into his new lifestyle, but even then he misses the carefree (and often violent) lifestyle that he lived before the war.  Danny simply misses his old life:

            “When Danny thought of the old lost time, he could taste again how good the stolen food was, and he longed for that old time again.  Since his inheritance had lifted him, he had not fought often.  He had been drunk, but not adventurously so.  Always the weight of the house was upon him; always the responsibility to his friends.”

Danny and his friends may be living lives filled with personal tragedy, but they live and love exactly as they wish.  They are their own men and, although most of us would condemn their habits and their lifestyles, they are happy.  But looking at the novle through today’s eyes, I still don’t know what to think of Tortilla Flat.  Is it insensitive and unfair, or is it simply a well-written product of its times?  Each of us, I suppose, will have to decide that for ourselves.

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The Pastures of Heaven

The Pastures of Heaven is John Steinbeck’s 1932 collection of twelve intertwining short stories set in a fertile valley near Salinas and Monterey, California.  As time passes, the characters, all of whom know each other in the way that people in small communities usually do, come and go as their individual stories and fates unfold.  Some set their roots so deeply that they and their descendants will be there forever, but others are only there long enough for some personal tragedy or failure to send them on their way.

In the collection’s second story, one Bert Battle, a man with a history of personal failure, comes to the valley to take over a farm that locals believe is both cursed and haunted.  Bert, though, makes such a success of the farm that he is soon accepted into the community and even becomes one of the most influential citizens in the entire valley.  Reflecting upon his great success at the valley’s general store one day, Bert remarks, “Maybe my curse and the farm’s curse got to fighting and killed each other off.”   This leads the storekeeper to make a prophetic observation of his own, one that sets the tone for the rest of the book: “Maybe your curse and the farm’s curse have mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes.  Maybe there’ll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures the first thing we know.” 
It was only a joke on the storekeeper’s part – but that is exactly what would happen.
The Pastures of Heaven (Castle Rock in Upper Center)

Several of Steinbeck’s stories are about dreamers who cannot resist the lure of the valley’s beauty and tranquility.  They come seeking shelter but find that their personal failings travel to the valley with them.   One man tries to raise his little boy in a kind of isolated poverty he believes will give the child an untainted life of the mind, only to watch his world crumble when school authorities demand that his son attend public school.  A woman comes to town with her mentally disturbed daughter hoping that the solitude will be good for both of them; an abandoned baby is found and taken into the care of a local rancher; two sisters decide to supplement their income by opening up a home business; and a new schoolteacher comes to town hoping to leave her family’s past behind her for good.  And it does not end well for any of them.

Along the way, a few dreams do seem to come true.  But those “baby curses” are always out there waiting to destroy those who dare to dream, especially those who dare to dream as big as the protagonist of the collection’s next-to-last story (the stories are numbered, not titled separately).   Richard Whiteside came to the West to start a family dynasty and he immediately went to work building the family home that he envisioned would anchor the Whitesides there for many generations to come.  But Richard’s personal “baby curse” just smiled and waited in the background. 

The Pastures of Heaven is certainly not an optimistic short story collection, but readers of the book will get a preview of many of the themes that would influence John Steinbeck’s work throughout the rest of his career.

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Books on Books: My Favorites

I love “books on books,” be they fiction or nonfiction, and I suppose that most of you guys do also.  Over the years, I’ve read and collected books such as Celebrating Pride and Prejudice (Susannah Fullerton), Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (Paul Collins), A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (John Baxter), Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore (Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone), and Among the Gently Mad (Nicholas A. Basbanes).  What they have in common is that they celebrate books, and more importantly to me, people who love books with a passion that nonreaders usually find amusing, or even off-putting.

I also enjoy books about specific authors whom I have read and admired from afar.  But though I enjoy well written, comprehensive biographies, it is novels about authors that particularly intrigue me because fiction places me so much more deeply into their world than a bio ever manages to do.  Among my favorites of this type are: Patricia O’brien’s The Glory Cloak (about Louisa May Alcott), John Pipkin’s Woods Burner (about Henry David Thoreau), Therese Anne Fowler’s Z (about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald), and Glyn Hughes’s Bronte (about the entire Bronte family).  

I am lucky enough to have one of those huge Half Price Books stores near my house, and the first section of the store I always visit is the special marked one called…you guessed it…”Books on Books.”  Sadly, though, this kind of book does not seem to be particularly popular with the general reading public, so it’s been slim-pickings in that section lately.  I did find an oversized paperback there this week, however, that I couldn’t resist taking home.  It’s a book by Kevin Smokler called (bear with me because I’m going to give you the full title here) Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School.  Smokler writes in such a clear, straightforward style that I can already tell that each of the pieces are going to be a pleasure to read.  

In Practical Classics (2013, Prometheus Books), Smokler contends that books we HAD to read in high school came along with lots of baggage: study guides, quizzes, essays, and final exams, for instance – things that can suck all the pleasure right out of the reading experience even for avid readers.  Now, he says, let’s go back and read these same books for pleasure, just as if they are something brand new that you just stumbled upon in your local bookstore.  Among the books covered are ones like: Huckleberry Finn, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Age of Innocence, Pride and Prejudice, Cannery Row, The Bluest Eyes, The Joy Luck Club, Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Animal Farm. 

(Time for full disclosure: I have been out of high school for so long that I really DID discover a bunch of the books in Practical Classics in bookstores.)

I am always searching for titles similar to the ones I’ve mentioned in this post, so if you have some favorites of this type, please do pass the titles on to me in the comments.

Post # 2,507

Texas Orders History Books That Don’t Tell the Whole Story (and I am embarrassed)

A Book Texas Schools May as Well Use

I am a native Texan and have lived in this wonderful state for most of my life.  I am proud of Texas.

And I am terribly embarrassed by Texas sometimes.  This is one of those times.

Clippings from a Washington Post article:

When it came to social studies standards, conservatives championing causes from a focus on the biblical underpinnings of our legal system to a whitewashed picture of race in the United States won out. The guidelines for teaching Civil War history were particularly concerning: They teach that “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” — carefully ordered to stress the first two and shrug off the last — caused the conflict. Come August, the first textbooks catering to the changed curriculum will make their way to Texas classrooms.

[…]

No serious scholar agrees. Every additional issue at play in 1861 was secondary to slavery — not the other way around. By distorting history, Texas tells its students a dishonest and damaging story about the United States that prevents children from understanding the country today.  

And, has been the case for years, Texas is such a huge marketplace for school textbooks that publishers offer the same books to schools in other states, so this distorted picture of the American Civil War will be taught to students all over the country.

History, it is said, is written by the winner of any conflict, not the loser.  Yet, somehow in corporate America, if there is enough money involved and enough profit to be made, the loser is allowed to rewrite history…or to at least change its focus. 

I am a proud Southerner who had ancestors fight for the Southern cause during that war, and I am proud of them, each and every one of them.  I honor their bravery and the suffering they endured both during and after the war.  But the Civil War was, without a doubt, caused by the slavery issue.  Yes, there were other side issues involved, and those issues were very important to many of those fighting (on both sides), but without the question of slavery, the American Civil War would never have happened.

Get it right, Texas teachers.  Add to what is said in the books so that my grandchildren will understand what happened to their ancestors and how we became the country we are today.  Play fair.

Post #2,501

It’s the Twentieth Anniversary Year for the Texas Book Festival

I received an interesting email this morning from the folks who help put together the Texas Book Festival every October.  As it turns out, 2015 is the twentieth anniversary of the festival started by Laura Bush way back when she was still the “First Lady” of Texas and lived in the governor’s mansion with George.  (I believe that Laura also was instrumental in establishing the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. when she and George were in the White House.)

I have never attended the D.C. festival, but I am happy to say that I’ve been able to attend the Austin festival about a dozen years now – and I’m looking forward to this twentieth one.  

Anyway, back to the email.  Here are just a few statistics from the email to show what has been accomplished by the festival in the last two decades:

  • 1,033 grants totaling more than $2.7 million have been made to something over 600 libraries
  • 3,472 authors have participated in the festivals and made themselves available to their fans
  • 273 authors have offered their time to visit some 72 different Texas public schools
  • 64,127 books have been donated (through the Reading Rock Stars program) to disadvantaged children
On top of things that can be measured in hard numbers, like those shown above, the Texas Reading Festival has encouraged a love of books and reading in people of all ages.  The state is truly blessed to have such a well run book festival each year, something only made possible by the thousands of volunteers who make it work so well.  

And special thanks have to go to former librarian, Laura Bush.  Thank you, Laura.

The Hoard

It’s not that I haven’t read a lot of British fiction.  Like many Americans (especially those of us of a certain age), I grew up on books by British writers.  I have read hundreds of them over the years, books covering just about every period of British history right up to contemporary life in the U.K.  And I lived in London for much of the nineties.  But the England Neil Grimmett describes in The Hoard is such a surrealistically haunting place that I find myself still thinking about it some two weeks after I turned the last page of Grimmett’s dark thriller.
The Hoard is based upon a real-life explosion that occurred at Bridgewater’s Royal Ordinance Factory in 1951, a horrendous, never explained, explosion that killed an entire production crew.  Starting with that incident, Grimmett builds a scenario in which the factory’s higher-ups are involved in a complicated plot through which they are hoarding unaccounted for high-explosives to be smuggled out of the factory later as they are sold to the highest bidder.  Now, almost thirty years later, it is time to cash in.  The culprits are all old men looking to feather their nests before calling it a day – time is running out.
But there is one problem, a big one, and his name is Byron.
Byron’s father, you see, was killed in the original explosion, and Byron has come to suspect that his father’s death was murder – not an accident.  More importantly, he has gotten a job inside the ordinance factory and he is determined to find out what really happened on the day his father died.  But whom can he trust?  And what will happen to him and anyone helping him if he is exposed for what he is: a man on a mission to bring down some of the most powerful and influential men in all of Bridgewater?
Neil Grimmett
The Hoard is a rather complicated, first-rate, thriller but I will remember it primarily for its distinct setting and atmosphere.  The Bridgewater of Grimmett’s novel can be described as a one-company town gone terribly bad.  Everything one can imagine to be wrong about a town completely dominated by a single employer whose every resident depends entirely upon the company for his livelihood is here in spades.  The corrupt managers of the Royal Ordinance Factory demand complete loyalty and silence from employees.  What they see and do inside the factory is never to be spoken of outside the factory gates.  Workers who dare get a little too curious are dealt with harshly – that is, if they even live long enough to regret their curiosity.

The Hoard is quite a ride even for experienced thriller fans.