Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

This is the full episode of a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special from a bunch of years ago.  It is just a bit blurry, but it still manages to bring back a lot of good memories - although I had forgotten what a little griper that Peppermint Patty was.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ann Morgan's Quest to Read a Book from Every Non-English Speaking Country in the World (In One Year)

Even though I don't watch Ted Talks as often as I should, I really do love the idea that they are always available out there - completely free of charge - for me tap into whenever I get a chance. The talks cover just about any subject you can imagine, some of them are long, some short - but the thing they have in common is that all of them will make you think.

I stumbled upon this one by Ann Morgan via a link on Twitter today.  Ann, it seems, took a look at her bookshelves one day to see what they tell the world about her and was not entirely pleased by what she found there.  She was particularly dismayed by the limited number of translated works she owned.  She wanted to do something about that...and did by setting up a new book blog in which, over a one-year period, she would review and talk about a book from every non-English speaking country in the world (almost two hundred countries).  

But let her tell it.  Click on this link to watch her 12-minute presentation. You will find other links at the Ted Talks site that will give you more detail on the books read and on Ann's blog.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Buffalo Noir

Buffalo Noir, a 2015 addition to the Akashic Books collection of noir short stories, follows in the tradition of the numerous series editions that have preceded it.  The books, most of them set in specific cities, offer twelve to fifteen stories from writers who are especially familiar with those cities and who recognize the undersides of those places that outsiders only stumble upon by accident - sometimes to their regret. 

This time around there are stories from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates (who recently tweeted that the "best view of Buffalo is in a rearview mirror), Lawrence Block (who was born in the city and lived there for several years), S.J. Rozan (whose family lore says that she was conceived in Buffalo), and Lisa Marie Redmond (who has been with the Buffalo Police Department since 1993).  Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, who also contribute stories to the collection, edit Buffalo Noir. The book opens with Park's eight-page introduction in which he describes the meaning of the term "noir" more by example than by explicit definition. Although his approach marks his introduction as different from the other introductions I've read in the series, it is highly effective and, in fact, Park's recollection of an incident from his own childhood is almost as intriguing as the collected stories themselves.

The twelve stories are as different in style as their authors. Some stories are told in a straightforward fashion and have conclusive endings; others are more open-ended and leave it up to the reader to decide what really happened. Some are dark and filled with the shadows one expects from noir fiction; others stretch the definition of noir almost to its breaking point.

I’m sure reflecting my personal reading tastes as much as anything else, my two favorite stories are both of the more straightforward type: Lawrence Block's "The Ehrengraf Settlement" and Gary Earl Ross's "Good Neighbors."  In Block's story, a wealthy man, used to always getting his way without much of a fight on the part of whomever he runs over in the process, makes a critical mistake when he decides to cheat his defense lawyer of the bulk of his fee. And in "Good Neighbors," the couple buttering up their elderly next-door neighbor in hope of inheriting her property some day does not react well when new neighbors move in and immediately gain the old woman's affection (Hitchcock would enjoy this one, I think).

Buffalo Noir is fun, and that is what noir fiction is all about, really. If you enjoy noir, you simply cannot go wrong with any of the books in the Akashic Books noir series, this one included.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Literature vs. Genre Is a Battle Where Both Sides Lose"

During a discussion of author James Lee Burke over on Twitter this week I made the comment that the man does not get all the credit he deserves simply because of the genre in which he chooses to work. I firmly believe that to be true in Burke's case because he is one of the most gifted writers of his generation regardless of critical perception. If you are unfamiliar with Burke's work, you are really doing yourself a disservice. 

Coincidentally, I just spotted a piece in The Guardian that puts forth the argument that "literature versus genre is a battle where both sides lose." One of the more interesting points in the article is that when a respected literary writer strays into a genre the author still gets more critical respect than the masters of the very genre in question. Writer Damian Walter uses Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in comparison to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games as an example of the point he is making.
Literary authors are the luxury brands of the writing world, the Mercedes, the Harrods and the Luis Vuitton of high culture. Genre writers are mid-range consumer brands, with an equivalent status to Skoda, Argos and Primark. Stephen King is the Ford Mondeo of letters, the writer dads actually read while pretending they got past chapter three of Infinite Jest in their 20s.
Which is really the heart of the problem. The market for high-end literature isn’t a healthy one. Intellectuals are reliably penniless, and fancy reading habits don’t make you cool any longer. The people who actually buy books, in thumpingly large numbers, are genre readers. And they buy them because they love them. Writing a werewolf novel because you think it will sell, then patronising people who love werewolf novels, isn’t a smart marketing strategy – but it’s amazing how many smart writers are doing just this.
Excuse me for a bit of a digression, but this whole thing reminds me of all those aging pop and rock recording stars who rather condescendingly decide to "go Country" in order to revive or save their sagging careers. That might work for one song or even one album, but fans really aren't that stupid and they will soon sense a lack of sincerity on the part of a singer or a writer - and they will scorn them, as a result.

But back to books...Walter sums up the "literature vs. genre" war this way: "They’re two halves of the same craft, and if the art of fiction is to remain healthy, we should stop narrowing its range with snobbery."  

Case closed.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Does Desperation to Sell Force Famous Authors to Reveal Pen Names?

Why slap on a sticker "revealing" the author's real name? Desperation to sell?

Authors have been doing it forever...writing under a pseudonym. They do it for a number of reasons: to disguise their gender, to try a new genre without linking their actual name to it forever, because they are so prolific that their publisher doesn't think another novel in their name will sell so soon, etc. 

Examples include:

  • Mary Ann Evans - George Eliot
  • Charlotte Brontë - Currer Bell
  • Emily Brontë - Ellis Bell
  • Anne Brontë - Acton Bell
  • Nora Roberts - J.D. Robb
  • J.K. Rowling - Robert Galbraith
  • Stephen King - Richard Bachman
  • Joyce Carol Oates - Rosamond Smith, Lauren Kelly
  • Ruth Rendell - Barbara Vine
And then, too, you sometimes have cases of multiple authors deciding to write under a single pen name:

  • Christina Lynch & Meg Howrey - Magnus Flyte
  • Frederic Dannay & Manfred B. Lee - Ellery Queen
  • Cherith Baldry, Kate Cary, & Victoria Holmes - Erin Hunter
But what I still don't understand is why a publisher and author decide to start overlaying the author's real name on a book published in a pen name? I mean, what's the point of using a pen name if later it's all "revealed" just to sell more books?

The photo up above (that I snapped at Barnes & Noble this morning) is what got me wondering. King did it the same way with the Bachman books that Rowling and her people are doing here. What the heck is that all about?  Surely, neither King nor Rowling needed the money that bad.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Movies for Readers: The Jungle Book

It's The Jungle Book like you've never seen it, and although some will probably still prefer Disney's cartoon version of the Kipling classic, the studio has done another wonderful job with this version.  It's set to be released in the Spring of 2016 and stars the voices of  Bill Murray (as Baloo), Scarlett Johansson (as Kaa), Christopher Walken (as King Louie), Ben Kingsley (as Bagheera), Giancarlo Espositio (as Akela), Idris Elba (as Shere Khan), and a bunch more. 

I'm not always a fan of how computers are used to make films nowadays, but this one, at least from its trailer, appears to be remarkable.  Projected date of release is : April 15, 2016 (and, yes, that's also Tax Day, so you may be looking for a place to escape the pressure on that day anyway).

Movies for Readers No. 5

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Comin' Right at Ya

One of the presentations I most looked forward to at the 2015 Texas Book Festival was the one featuring Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel.  Even though Ray and his co-author David Menconi were allotted the very last time slot on the second day of the festival and I still had a three-hour drive ahead of me, I was determined to make that session.  Good decision.

I’ve been a fan of Ray’s music since the early eighties and especially appreciate his efforts to keep Western Swing music alive.  Not only has Asleep at the Wheel recorded Western Swing albums of its own, Ray has produced three very fine Bob Wills tribute albums, and recorded a successful swing-oriented album, “Willie and the Wheel” with the one and only Willie Nelson.  But that’s the public Ray Benson everyone knows.  And I wondered if he would be anything like that public persona when seated on a small stage to discuss his new autobiography, Comin’ Right at Ya?  Well as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

Comin’ Right at Ya is the life story of Ray Benson Seifert, one of four children born into a Jewish Philadelphia family, a guy whose inventor father founded the Seifert Machinery Company and whose schoolteacher mother earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.  Ray Seifert grew up and became a self-described “Jewish Yankee Hippie” – and then his love of roots music led him to invent the “character” that the world now knows as Ray Benson, Texas country music star.

It took a while for Ray to make his way to Austin, Texas but thanks largely to Willie Nelson’s invitation he finally got here.  And he brought Asleep at the Wheel with him.  And the rest is history.  The Jewish Yankee hippie is now one of the state’s favorite sons, even to having been named “Texan of the Year” in 2011 by the Texas legislature. 

Ray Benson Signing at 2015 Texas Book Festival
A whole lot happened to Ray and the band before he achieved that lofty status, of course, and Ray tells it all - well, most of it because he admits that his publisher lightly censored some of his stories.  But even with the publisher looking over his shoulder, Ray shares stories about Willie, Dolly, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, George Strait, Lyle Lovett, a lot of other friends he’s made in the business, and a few folks he doesn’t think too highly of.  Ray is as bluntly honest about his business and personal failures as he is about his successes, and his is a career which has seen many of both, including the nine Grammies Ray and the band have earned along the way.

Comin’ Right at Ya is for the fans, especially those who appreciate the heck out of Ray’s music but are only vaguely aware of his roots and how he has so successfully reinvented himself.  He’s Texas’s number one “Jewish Yankee Hippie” now, and the state is proud to claim him as one of its own.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

John Irving at Home

From what I understand John Irving no longer lives in the beautiful Vermont home in which this video was filmed, but there is much more to this video than its setting.  In addition to the tour, the author offers insights into his writing technique (longhand, both sides of the page) and his wish to die at his desk doing what he loves best.

Irving continues to fascinate readers, and I post this three-year old video in honor of the recent publication of his fourteenth novel, Avenue of Mysteries.

Monday, November 16, 2015

In Dubious Battle

Published in 1936, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle reads like a snapshot from the period in American history during which workers were perhaps at their lowest point ever.  They were suffering greatly because of low wages, an overabundance of unemployed workers willing to work for next-to-nothing wages, and employers who were only too happy to take advantage of the tragic economic situation of the day.  But by actively recruiting workers, union organizers were placing their own lives and those of the workers in jeopardy.  The battle was on, dubious though it may have been.

And along came John Steinbeck to tell the world about it because as he said in his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech:

            “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed.  He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

And, perhaps more in this novel than in anything Steinbeck had written previously, In Dubious Battle does precisely that.

To his credit, Steinbeck exposes both sides for what they are.  On the one hand, employers (fruit growers in this case) are shown as exploiters of the working poor, commonly hiring desperate workers and then callously tossing them away in favor of cheaper labor as soon as the opportunity presents itself to do so.  On the other, union organizers are exposed as the Communist tools they are, men even willing to get workers killed or maimed if that will somehow advance “the Cause.”  In fact, the organizers hope to provoke deadly violence directed at workers in order to fire up the men enough to keep them walking the picket lines. 

The book’s two main characters are Mac and Jim.   When Mac, a veteran union organizer, senses something special in new recruit Jim, he decides to bring him to the apple orchards where fruit pickers are facing an devastating cut in their daily wages.  Jim is a true apostle of the cause and, as Mac teaches him the organizing techniques that work best, Jim aches to be more directly in the cause - and constantly implores Mac to “use him.”  At one point, after suffering an injury that leaves him somewhat out of his head, Jim somehow manages to take over the strike, a change that makes Mac very nervous:

            Jim said softly, “I wanted you to use me.  You wouldn’t because you got to like me to well.”  He stood up and walked to a box and sat down on it.  “That was wrong.  Then I got hurt.  And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I’m stronger than you, Mac.  I’m stronger than anything in the world, because I’m going in a straight line.  You and all the rest have to think of women and tobacco and liquor and keeping warm and fed.”  His eyes were as cold as wet river stones.  “I wanted to be used.  Now I’ll use you, Mac.  I’ll use myself and you.  I tell you, I feel there’s strength in me.”

In Dubious Battle may not be one of John Steinbeck’s most popular or highly acclaimed novels, but it is a powerful one, one that deserves to be read today because it offers such a clear look into America’s not too distant past.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Does Crime Fiction Do a Better Job of Tackling the Issues of the Day Than Literary Novels Do?

Based entirely on my own reading choices, I've come to believe that modern day crime fiction does a better job of tackling the issues of the day than straight-up literary fiction does.  Perhaps that's because so many present day events are violent or otherwise horrifying (or have the potential to be those things) that they leave most of us shaking our heads in near shock. What better subjects are there for books that can both explore the problems and bring them to a resolution of one sort or another?  Literary fiction, on the other hand, seems more likely to deal with the emotional, internal conflicts of its chief characters.

The Guardian, just today, has an illuminating article on the Inspector Rebus novels of Scottish author Ian Rankin that touches on that thought a bit.  The chief premise of the piece, one with which fans of the novels are certain to agree, is that the Rebus novels are likely to "endure" for generations to come because each of them so vividly capture "a specific time and place" (that place usually being Edinburgh).  

Rankin has been writing the Rebus novels long enough now that his regional readers (and others who know a little of the city's history) can't help but feel a bit nostalgic when they read one of the Rebus books set in previous decades.  Writer Sam Jordinson says in the article:
My certainty comes from the idea that these books will continue to have historical value. Each is a finely rendered snapshot of a specific time and place. The descriptions of 1980s Edinburgh struck me forcefully when I read Knots and Crosses last week (alongside plenty of other Reading group contributors). This week, reading The Falls, I was even more aware of how well the novel captures a specific time. And how interesting it was to realise that this era now seems long gone, even though the novel was only published in 2001.

 I find the following YouTube video to be fascinating because of how it intersperces clips from the John Rebus television series with an interview in which Ian Rankin describes the Rebus character of the books vs. the Rebus of the videos. But as it turns out, Rankin has never seen one of the videos, and he refuses to watch for now because he doesn't want the film Rebus to distort the Rebus he presents in his novels. Here's hoping that he doesn't watch the films for a long, long time...just keep writing, Mr. Rankin.

 Take a look:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Problems of a Lifelong Book Nerd

I love books.  No, I really love books.  I love having them around me.  I love old books as much as I love new books.  I love review copies.  I love reading about books that won't be published for months to come.  I love searching for bargains in used book bookstores or even at Barnes & Noble.  I especially love first editions, and I love offbeat editions of books I already own.  I freely admit that when it comes to books, I've got a problem.

The real problem, however, as most book lovers will immediately understand, is not my love of the printed book. Instead, it's the  problem of finding the space to house all the books I already own and the time to actually read some of them.  I'm not about to offer any solutions to those problems here because I have never come even close to solving either of them.  I've resigned myself to the fact that I will never have enough of either...because no real book lover ever does.  It's a given.

So why did I stop by Barnes & Noble today for god's sake?  The reason will be obvious to my fellow book nerds: I was passing right in front of the store on my way home from a visit to my father's apartment (where I had already acquired a new book because someone there had given it to him so that he could pass it on to me).  Come one, would have stopped at B&N, too...right?

And now I am the proud owner of three other books I never knew existed before my unplanned stop at the bookstore this morning.  For now they are going to sit on the floor, right next to my desk, until I can find a better spot for them.  I already know that I'm unlikely to read any of them in the next few weeks because I'm already rather frantically trying to finish several very long library books before they have to go back to the library in just a few days.  I know that I could just return them late and pay the nominal fine involved, but I have a personal rule that I never purposely return a book late that another patron has placed on hold.  I hate that when people do it to me when I'm next in line, and I refuse to do it to others.  (I do admit that I'm tempted this time because of how long I waited for some of these books to become available to me.  After all, it's not my fault that they all arrived at the same time.)

Problems of book lovers...aren't they great? 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Movies for Readers: The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van, a true story based on Alan Bennet's memoir, tells of his relationship with a woman who lives by the side of the road in her old van. Trying to be helpful, Bennet agrees to let her park the van on his driveway for three weeks - where she lives for the next fifteen years. Of course anything starring Maggie Smith and written by Alan Bennet should be a treat, so I'm looking forward to this one when it makes its way to the U.S. market on January 15, 2016. (It is set for U.K. release on November 20, 2015.)

Even the trailer is fun:

Movies for Readers No. 4

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Art of Memoir

While I may have no intention of ever writing a memoir, I am a huge fan of the genre and have read at least two hundred of them over the past few years.  So although I believed that Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir would be helpful to would-be memoirists, I picked it up mainly just to continue my one-way conversation with one of my favorite practitioners of the craft.  And just I had hoped, Karr by devoting a substantial portion of the book to her own memories and experiences, has written much more than just another “how to write” book.

The preface of The Art of Memoir speaks directly to those considering an effort in chronicling the experiences that shaped them into the people they are today but it is filled with as many words of warning as with words of encouragement.  As she puts it:

“Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen.  That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met.  Truth is not their enemy.  It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs.  It’s the solution.”

Karr has, of course, been writing and re-writing memoirs for a long time.  She has studied her favorite memoir writers (past and present) and has figuratively disassembled their best work to see what makes it tick.  For some three decades, she has taught the format and, along the way, has accumulated several thousand index cards filled with notes that she uses in the classroom.  For that reason, those looking to the book for specific writing tips and techniques will not be disappointed.  In truth, it seems that Karr may very well have had two specific audiences in mind when writing The Art of Memoir.  If so, both audiences will be satisfied.

Author Mary Karr
Parts of the book are aimed at both audiences – and, I suppose, at the third potential audience that might have one foot in each of the other two audiences.  I’m thinking specifically of chapters like the one titled “Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page)” in which Karr grapples with the issue of revealing personal details that have the potential to embarrass or enrage those one loves the most.  The chapter does end with an eleven-point list of the author’s “rules for dealing with others,” but it also shares stories about her mother’s immediate acceptance and encouragement of Karr’s previous books and her sister’s more reluctantly granted positive reaction to them. 

But it is the book’s Appendix, a listing of “Required Reading,” that I expect to return to often in order to root through the two hundred or so memoirs it lists for future reading choices of my own.  In fact, because I have only read about ten percent of the books on the list, those six pages particularly excite me.  There is something for everyone in this very fine addition to Mary Karr’s body of work.