Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Trailer of the Week: American Sniper (movie version)

Suddenly, I seem to have more movie choices than I've had in years.  Whether this is a fluke, or the movie industry has actually turned the corner and is starting to make more adult films than comic book rip-offs, I don't know.  I'll just take advantage of it while the opportunity presents itself.

"American Sniper" is based on the Chris Kyle autobiography of the same name.  Kyle was murdered on a firing range while working with/counseling a veteran with mental problems associated with that veteran's own service to this country.  Kyle's story is a sad one that needs to be told because too many Americans don't understand just how much a few good men are sacrificing on behalf of the rest of us.

Those of you interested in the book that tells the story in Chris Kyle's own words can click on the link below:

 And for a look at what Taya Kyle thinks of the movie, click to this USA Today article that includes an interview of Taya touching on everything she went through with her heroic husband.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"All About That Bass" Song Parodies (Book Related and Otherwise)

If the popularity of a song can be judged by the number of song parodies it generates, "All About That Bass" is absolutely huge.  I've seen at least four good-to-great ones in the last month or so, and I suspect that there are still many more to come.

Some are book related, like this one from "Read Across Road Island",

or like this one promoting the Book of Morman,

or how about this one from a Maine high school,

and then there's this one from Country Music a cappella group Home Free (coincidentally, I grew up with the parents of Tim Faust, the bass singer in this group),

A quick search on YouTube will turn up a few dozen other parodies, but let me warn you right now that most of them are awful, truly cringeworthy stuff.  "All About That Bass" is the perfect parody-base of a song because it is so easily adaptable to whatever message anyone wants to attach to it - and it's catchy as heck.  If you watch these videos, I hope you can get the tune out of your head sometime soon.  Good luck with that.

P.S.  For the one or two of you in the world still not familiar with the original, this is what started all the fuss:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Norman Birdwell, Creator of "Clifford The Big Red Dog," Dead at 86

(Photo from Clifford's Facebook Page)
Norman Birdwell, who created all of those wonderful children's books  about "Clifford The Big Red Dog," died last Friday (December 12, 2014) at the age of 86.  Although an official cause of death has not yet been released, the Associated Press reports that Birdwell had been hospitalized for the past several weeks following a bad fall he suffered at his home on Martha's Vineyard.  He is also known to have been fighting prostate cancer.

The more than forty Big Red Dog books have been translated into thirteen languages, and it is estimated that there are over 126 million copies of them in print.  Clifford, along with his best friend Emily, also starred in two animated television series that remain popular today.  

Too, I still remember the Big Red Dog software program I used in helping to teach my now-15-year-old granddaughter how to read.  And I can only guess at how many hours I spent reading Clifford books to her, her brother, and cousin as they all progressed through their pre-reading years.  

Norman Birdwell
Norman Birdwell's stories are wonderful, and they always have a good lesson to teach without being too obvious about it all.  Maybe that's why kids love the books so much - and why they don't bore the parents and grandparents who are reading them aloud over and over again.

Clifford and Emily always made me smile, and I sincerely thank Mr. Birdwell for his contribution to children's literature.

My Accidental Jihad

My Accidental Jihad is the story of a young woman who, because she fell in love with an older Moslem man from Libya, found herself undertaking a very personal jihad of her own.

No, no, no… not that kind of jihad. As Krista Bremer puts it in her book," the prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest jihad, or struggle, of our lives is not the one that takes place on a battlefield but the one that takes place within our hearts...the struggle to manifest humility, wisdom, and compassion." Bremer, in order to make her new romance work long term, was forced to "wrestle with my intolerance and self-absorption." Despite the odds against her, she won her personal jihad and, with the man who would forever change her life, she created a beautiful new family of her own.

The author's choice of partners was both wise and lucky in the sense that she met a Moslem man who did not insist that she live under the strict religious restraints that Moslem women around the world contend with every day. The open-mindedness that each brought to the relationship allowed them to grow both spiritually and socially. Over the years, they have shared their respective cultures with their children, and have managed to meld themselves into a family that recognizes the best - and the worst- of both worlds.

Krista Bremer
There is a lot to like here, but I finished the book with the feeling that Bremer was going out of her way to soften some of the quirks of modern Islam, especially those pertaining to the treatment of women and a worldview that makes so many members of the faith ready to accept “battlefield jihad” as inevitable.  She succumbs a bit to the common tendency automatically to see one’s own culture as cruder and less meaningful than another offering a simpler lifestyle in which family, spirituality, and worship are the main concerns.

That said, My Accidental Jihad affords the reader a view that is both optimistic and inspirational, a look at what is still possible in this world.  While the book is not at all what I expected it to be from its title when I first picked it up, it reminded me of how much can be accomplished when two people combine a willingness to listen with the ability to find workable compromise.

That’s a worthy accomplishment, indeed, Ms. Bremer.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Potential readers of Adultery who prejudge it negatively based upon its title alone are going to miss out on a very fine literary novel - one that strives to put the reader inside the head of a young woman on the brink of doing something that has the potential to ruin her life.  Yes, just as its title implies, Paulo Coelho’s latest novel is about sex outside the bounds of marriage (and, yes, the sex acts are described in rather explicit detail), but the main character’s adulterous acts are just one part of her story.

Linda, barely into her thirties, already seems to have it all: two great children, a wealthy husband who truly loves her, and a newspaper job that she mostly enjoys.  Linda, however, is already becoming bored with it all, and she is terrified at the thought that life has no more surprises in store for her.  But her depression has her equally terrified that everything in her life could suddenly change.  As she puts it in a moment of self-reflection:

            “…I feel afraid of everything: life, death, love or the lack of it; the fact that all novelties quickly become habits; the feeling that I’m wasting the best years of my life in a pattern that will be repeated over and over until I die; and sheer panic at facing the unknown, however exciting and adventurous that might be.

When chance throws Linda into contact with a man as unhappy as she is, she aggressively jumps at the chance to live out her fantasies.  And, for a while, it works; she is happier with her life and believes that she has made the right choice.  It is only when her fling becomes an addiction, and exposure seems more and more likely, that Linda begins to understand the immense risk she is taking.

Paulo Coelho
Admittedly, Adultery is only one woman’s story, but it does a superb job of exploring one motivation for, or cause of, of adulterous affairs between people who have everything to lose and so little to gain from the flings.  Paulo Coelho does not justify adultery in this novel – far from it.  Instead, he explores it, and shows just how destructive it can be. 

Margaret Jull Costa and Zoe Perry translated Adultery from the Portuguese, and they did such a fine job with the translation that, not once, did I feel that I was reading from a translated manuscript.  Adultery is neither a piece of soft porn nor a romance novel; what it is, is a powerful look deep into the soul of a young woman in trouble, and I recommend it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

2014 Top Ten: Nonfiction

Subject to any last second surprise coming my way this year in the way of nonfiction titles, these are my favorite nonfiction books of 2014.  I enjoyed, learned from, and admire each and every one of them:

1.   Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman - Robert L. O'Connell -  The two key military figures on the Union side during the Civil War were Generals Grant and Sherman.  Arguably, these two men formed a  partnership that did as much to end the war in favor of the Union as anything else that happened during that four year run of American history.  Fierce Patriot, which explores all phases of the man's life, is the best Sherman biography I have ever read.

2.   Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee - Michael Korda - Coincidentally (I think), Korda's lengthy new R.E. Lee biography was also published in 2014.  It would have been a top pick of 2014 even without the publication of Fierce Patriot, but having the two books published so close together gives the reader a chance to look at the war through the eyes of two opposing generals. It is so instructive a book that I have come to regard it as the definitive Lee biography.

3.   The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee - Marja Mills - Despite Harper Lee's assertion that she had nothing to do with this book and is unhappy with it, the author still avows that, during their relationship as friends and next-door neighbors, Ms. Lee was aware of, and gave her consent to, the idea that Mills was going to write a book.  Regardless of which woman is correct, this one offers a rare insight into Harper Lee's everyday life and relationship with her elder sister. To Kill a Mockingbird fans should not miss it.

4.   The Search for Anne Perry - Joanne Drayton - Unlike the situation with the book just above, there is no doubt that Anne Perry approved of Drayton's book and fully cooperated with her efforts.  Readers have been fascinated for years about Anne Perry's Australian murder conviction (she and a friend bludgeoned the friend's mother to death with half-a-brick when the girls were teens).  That conviction, paired with Perry's career as a crime writer specializing in fictional murders, makes people naturally curious about what happened in Australia and how the author has coped with her past.  The Search for Anne Perry offers some answers, but I suspect that it is unlikely to change many minds about Perry or her occupational choice.

5.  The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend - Glenn Frankel - John Ford's masterpiece film, The Searchers, is very much a movie legend.  Here Glenn Frankel details the making of The Searchers, including inside stories about John Wayne, John Ford, and others essential to the movie's successful completion.  The book, however, is more than just another book about a famous movie.  Frankel thoroughly researched the true story upon which the movie is based, that of Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped in Texas (1836) by Comanches when she was only nine years old. Cynthia Ann is a Texas legend whose story has been told many times in many ways, but the reality of her life has been clouded by the myth-making of Hollywood and novelists.  Frankel explains here where myth and reality collide, but he argues that the two are of equal importance.

6.   Johnny Cash: The Life - Robert Hilburn - This biography focuses almost entirely on Cash's life from the time he arrived in Memphis and began to make records - with roughly ten percent of the book occurring prior to that date.  It is frank about the personal lives of both John Cash and June Carter Cash, and some of what it has to say will likely surprise even the most ardent of Johnny Cash fans out there.

7.  13 Hours in Benghazi: The Inside Account of What Really Happened - Mitchell Zuckoff - 13 Hours is about what happened on the ground in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11-12, 2012, when four U.S. citizens (including Ambassador Christopher Stevens) were murdered there.  It is NOT about the politics of the situation or what might have been happening in the White House simultaneously to the attack in Libya.  Told through the eyes of some of the defenders who were there, 13 Hours reads more like a thriller than a first-person history of an actual event.  What this handful of men did is astounding, but whether or not the truth about how they were left in such a vulnerable position in the first place is ever revealed remains to be seen.

8.   Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption - Laura Hillenbrand - As one of the biggest books of 2014, this one has been hard for readers to miss.  And, because a movie version of Unbroken will be released near Christmas, the book's fame may not have peaked even now.  Unbroken tells what Olympic runner Louis Zamperini endured during World War II at the hands of his Japanese captors.  Perhaps the most memorable part of Zamperini's story is how he found forgiveness for the Japanese man who tortured him for so long - and what happened decades later when the two men finally met face-to-face one final time.

9.  Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever Growing Deity - Matthew Paul Turner - This is an ironic, often humorous, look at the history and evolution of organized religion in America.  Turner studies the good and the bad, and leaves it up to the reader to decide which is which.  One thing for certain is that most readers will likely come to realize that, in this country, "God was created in the image of man" and not vice versa.

10.  My Salinger Year - Joanna Rakoff - In 1996, when she was twenty-three years old, the author experienced life in one of the last "old school" literary agencies in New York.  Having J.D. Salinger taking a shine to her was just a bonus to the overall experience.  Here Rakoff tells us all about it - and shares her personal experiences with the famous author.  Readers who enjoy books about books need to find this one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Amazon 2014 Best Seller List

Most of the titles I see on Amazon's announced list of 2014 bestsellers do not surprise me very much.  I think, in fact, what surprises me the most (and also makes me a little sad) is that nineteen of the books on the list sold more copies in e-book format than they sold in tree-book format.  

Here is the Amazon list, from top to bottom.  You will note that it is a mix of all genres, including children's fiction.  The ranking is based strictly on number of copies sold/

1.   The Invention Of Wings - Sue Monk
2.   Gray Mountain - John Grisham
3.   All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr
4.   Twenty Seconds Ago (Jack Reacher #19) - Lee Child
5.   Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty
6.   The Target (the Will Robie series) - David Baldacci
7.   The Fixed Trilogy - Laurelin Paige
8.   The Heroes of Olympus Book Five: The Blood of Olympus - Rick Riordan
9.   Top Secret Twenty-One (Stephanie Plum) - Janet Evanovich
10.  Killing Patton - Bill O'Reilly
11.  Unlucky 13 (Women's Murder Club) - James Patterson and one of his grunts, Maxine Paetro
12.  Edge of Eternity: Book Three of The Century Trilogy - Ken Follett
13.  Shadow Spell (Cousins O'Dwyer) - Nora Roberts
14.  Mr. Mercedes - Stephen King
15.  Blood Magick (Cousins O'Dwyer) - Nora Roberts
16.  Field of Prey - John Sanford
17.  Written in My Own Heart's Blood (Outlander) - Diana Gabaldon
18.  Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul - Jeff Kinney
19.  City of Heavenly Fire (The Mortal Instruments) - Cassandra Clare
20.  Flash Boys - Michael Lewis

A Few of James Patterson's Grunts (co-authors)
There you have it: eighteen fiction titles (including one children's book) and two nonfiction titles.  Proving once again that genre fiction is what pulls in the big books, the list is not going to be very inspiring to more serious readers, but it is what it is.  At least people are still reading books, so I'm going to restrain myself from further comments about what it is they choose to read.

Oh, by the way, the book that sold more in paper than in electronic blips?  The "Wimpy Kid" book that came in at number 18.  


Saturday, December 13, 2014

NPR Morning Edition Reads Book Club

Author Hector Tobar
Although I generally find the whole NPR experience to be a little creepy, I think their new "Morning Edition Reads Book Club" has some promise.  The premise is that an author (according to NPR, a well-known one) will choose a book they loved so that all the members of the club can read it together.  Then, in about a month, everyone will get together to have their questions about the book answered.

Personally, I hope the meetings will turn into more of a discussion than into a "less see what the author thinks about everything in the book" session, but that is likely to vary according to the temperament of whichever author chooses the month's book.  

The first session will be kicked off by an Ann Patchett favorite: Deep Down Dark, the story of those 33 Chilean mineworkers who were rescued in 2010 after having been trapped in a mineshaft for 69 days.

Click here for the NPR announcement and details regarding the new club.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Trailer of the Week: Wild (the movie)

Here is one more movie that I would love to catch during the Christmas holiday.  This one is based on a 2012 memoir written by Cheryl Strayed ("Strayed," from what I recall, is the surname she created for herself and is not her original name).  I have long enjoyed reading books about long hikes, bicycle trips, or road trips, and that's the main reason I picked up Wild in the first place.  But Wild is about much more than the hiking; it is about a woman looking to reset her life by first understanding her past.  And it is remarkable, so good, that I hope the movie even comes close to capturing the spirit of the book.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Belfast Noir

Belfast Noir is just the latest in the wonderful series of short story collections from Akashic Books that I first discovered back in 2010.  Each collection contains fourteen or fifteen stories that fit comfortably in the genre of noir crime fiction.  And, because each of the stories is written by someone from (or very familiar with) the city or region in which all of the stories are set, the collections are long on setting and mood.  I have already read and enjoyed Boston Noir, Mexico City Noir, Long Island Noir, Manila Noir, and Prison Noir and am happy to report that Belfast Noir equals the high standards set by its predecessors.  

This time around, the book’s fourteen stories are divided into four sections: “City of Ghosts,” “City of Walls,” “City of Commerce,” and “Brave New City.”  According to the book’s introduction, the sections represent “Belfast’s recent past, its continuing challenges, and a guess or two at where the city might go in the future.”  Fittingly, I suppose, of my four favorite stories in the collection, one of them comes from each of the four sections of the book.

From the book’s first section, I particularly enjoyed Lee Child’s “Wet with Rain,” a story about a CIA agent who comes to Belfast to clean up a potentially embarrassing situation before someone stumbles upon it.  Child, probably the best known of the book’s fourteen authors, comes to the collection via his Belfast-born father.

I have chosen from the “City of Walls” section, Ian McDonald’s eerie ghost story “The Reservoir.”  In this one, a man surprises everyone by showing up at his daughter’s wedding, but as it turns out, he is there for all the wrong reasons.  Author McDonald lives in Belfast.

Another favorite, Steve Cavanagh’s “The Grey,” is the first story in the “City of Commerce” section of Belfast Noir.  “The Grey” is a very fine courtroom procedural in which a thirty-year-old murder cases is reopened because someone finally decides to use DNA identification technology to identify a drop of blood found near the victim’s body.  Cavanagh was born and raised in Belfast.

And, finally, there is Arlene Hunt’s “Pure Game,” one of the three stories in the book’s “Brave New City” section.  This is a hard-hitting story about dog fighting rings and those who inhabit that brutal world.  At the risk of tipping the story’s hand, I have to say that it probably has the most satisfying ending of any in the collection.  Author Hunt now lives in Dublin but, I am assuming, has ties to Belfast and Northern Ireland.

The remaining ten stories in the collection are by: Lucy Caldwell, Brian McGilloway, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Gerard Brennan, Glenn Patterson, Claire McGowan, Sam Millar, Eoin McNamee, Garbhan Downey, and Alex Barclay.