Friday, February 18, 2011

Early reader

Photos often need little explanation. This suffices here: my granddaughter reading.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Snared by The Darkness That Comes Before; a reading challenge update

Book 20: The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

As a rule I avoid the fantasy series by such prolific authors as Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. I am put off by the impossible to pronounce names of characters as well as the length of the individual books that stretch into yet another book and yet another.

So how did I find myself in my current situation? I just finished reading The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. I find myself 577 pages into his The Prince of Nothing series and I still have two books to read.

How did I wind up in this situation? My oldest son sent me the series as a Christmas present. My youngest is thrilled, waxing enthusiastically about the characters in this fantasy trilogy that he claims is his “favorite.”

The call of blood must be answered.

Yet, I admit to some reluctance even after I started reading. The convention for a fantasy series of this nature demands that the significance of the book’s opening be murky. Who is this man? His mission? Who are these people? What is this world? How the fuck do you pronounce this name?

Yet within 100 pages, perhaps fewer, I found myself totally absorbed by this story of a great Holy War, of magicians and mighty barbarian warriors. Bakker’s feat in fashioning this world and this cast of characters is impressive. The book is totally absorbing and, despite its vast size, a quick read because of the author’s skill in pacing and in storytelling.

So much so that I within minutes of taking down book one I have taken up book two.

And as with me, so with you, there is more to come, my friends, Much more. In the fullness of time.

+ + +

The completion of The Darkness That Comes Before advances me in two reading challenges that I have taken up in 2011.

The first challenge was issued by The Roof Beam Reader. The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. I have read two of my 12 since undertaking the challenge. This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Further progress in this challenge awaits the completion of Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series.

The second challenge is the Chunkster Challenge, specifically the “Mor-book-ly Obese Challenge. I am attempting to reading eight books all with a minimum page count of 450 pages and three of those eight must be at least 750 pages.

Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove weighed in at more than 900 pages. Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before (paperbound) was 577 pages (not counting appendices).

Six books remaining in this challenge, two of more than 750 pages.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

National Book Festival to be Two-Day Event, Sept. 24-25

February 7, 2011

The 11th annual National Book Festival, organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress, will become a two-day event this year. The festival will be held on the National Mall between 9th and 14th Streets on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Sept. 25 from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., rain or shine. The event is free and open to the public.

Several festival-related events will take place in the weeks preceding the beloved yearly festival, which celebrates the joys of books and reading. More information will be posted as planning for the festival continues at the festival’s website,

"Fans of the National Book Festival have urged us to make it a weekend-long event for many years," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

"Last September, during our wonderful 10th-anniversary celebration, we crossed the threshold of a million festival-goers over the life of the festival – and we look forward to welcoming millions more festival-goers of all ages for many years to come," Billington said. Some 150,000 book fans attended the festival of 2010.
The 2011 National Book Festival will feature award-winning authors, poets and illustrators in several pavilions dedicated to categories of literature. Festival-goers can meet and hear firsthand from their favorite authors, get books signed, have photos taken with mascots and storybook characters and participate in a variety of learning activities.

The Pavilion of the States will represent reading- and library-promotion programs and literary events in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. trusts and territories.

The popular Let’s Read America Pavilion will offer reading activities that are fun for the whole family. The Library of Congress Pavilion will showcase the cultural treasures to be found in the Library’s vast online collections and offer information about popular Library programs.

The 2011 National Book Festival will be made possible through the support of David Rubenstein, co-chairman of the National Book Festival Board and many other generous supporters.

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution, is the world’s preeminent reservoir of knowledge, providing unparalleled collections and integrated resources to Congress and the American people. Many of the Library’s rich resources and treasures may be accessed through the Library’s website,, and via interactive exhibitions on

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Swamplandia!, Running the Books and Known to Evil

Book 17: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I confess, I don't get it.  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell that is.

Oh, I understand the pre-publication hype that accompanied this novel. Russell is one of those "20 Under 40" writers chosen by The New Yorker as the new literary vanguard. 

Yet, for me, the reality of the novel doesn't meet its expectations.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family. There's mom and dad, Hilola and Chief, and their three children, Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.  The family, who live on an island, run a little tourist attraction. Hilola wrestles gators and dives into a pit full of the creatures.  Chief is the master of ceremonies, while the children perform various functions from selling popcorn to helping with the lights.

The enterprise falls on hard times when Hilola dies of cancer. Kiwi and Chief head to the mainland. Both seeking work to help offset the family's mountain of debt. Chief finds employment in a nearby casino, while Kiwi goes to work for the World of Darkness, a newly opened amusement park that's pulled all the tourist away from the gators.

Ava and Ossie are left to sort for themselves on the island.  Ossie falls in love with a ghost and later elopes with her immaterial lover. Ava, accompanied by a weird island Bird Man, sets off to rescue Ossie from the depths of the underworld. She learns, of course, to no one's surprise that there is no ghost or no underworld, but that hell is here on earth.

Russell's snarky take on the tourists who visit Swamplandia! and the World of Darkness reveal the influence of Jonathan Franzen.  I also thought of John Irving while reading this novel.  Remember Irving's ongoing fascination with bears and wrestlers? Here's its gators and ghosts.

It's difficult to understand exactly what Swamplandia! is meant to add up to.  A longish story on Louis Thanksgiving, the dead Dredgeman that Ossie's fallen in love with, takes up a chunk of the novel.  Otherwise, it's Ava in pursuit of the missing Ossie, cameos by the Chief and Kiwi learning to swap insults with the best of them while adjusting to life on the mainland.

I didn't much like Swamplandia! or its gator or ghosts.

 Book 18: Running the Books by Avi Steinberg

Based on its subtitle, "The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian," I expected more about books in Running the Books. Books play a role, but a minor one.

Running the Books is really a memoir of a Harvard-educated Jewish nerd's experience working in a Boston prison library for two years. 

So much of the book seems predictable: conflicts with the guards, developing inappropriately close relationships with a few of the prisoners and prisoners who make lavish plans for their future only to be gunned down on the outside or fall victim to the drugs that landed them in prison in the beginning.

Running the Books falls short of being a compelling work. The best that can be said is that it's mildly interesting.

Book 19: Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

Leonid McGill, the reluctant hero of Walter Mosley's Known to Evil, is one of Mosley's best characters in many years.

Once a "fixer" for the New York underworld, McGill is attempting to go straight, launching a new career as a P.I.   But McGill's past, and the people that populated it, have a way of holding on.  They're either asking favors of McGill or he's having to turn to them for favors as he unravels the current mystery or protects his family from their own misdeeds.

The mystery at the heart of Known to Evil,  why someone is trying to kill a New York college girl, is merely a framework for these shady figures from McGill's past to re-enter his life.  All of which provides a satisfying friction as McGill is forced to make choices he thought he'd put behind him.

When Mosley truly devotes himself fully to the thriller, he's as good as any genre writer today. Known to Evil displays Mosley's talent at its fullest and finest.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry an American epic

On the way to San Antonio they passed two settlements -- nothing more than a church house and a few little stores, but settlements anyway, and not ten miles apart.

"Now look at that," Augustus said. "The dern people are making towns everywhere. It's our fault, you know."

"It ain't our fault and it ain't our business, either," Call said. "People can do what they want."

"Why, naturally, since we chased out the Indians and hung all the good bandits," Augustus said. "Does it ever occur to you that everything we done was probably a mistake? Just look at it from a nature standpoint. If you've got enough snakes around the place you won't be overrun with rats or varmints. The way I see it, the Indians and the bandits have the same job to do. Leave'em be and you won't constantly be having to ride around these dern settlements."

"You don't have to ride around them," Call said. "What harm do they do?"

"If I'd have wanted civilization I'd have stayed in Tennessee and wrote poetry for a  living," Augustus said. "Me and you done our work too well. We killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with."

Book 16: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

There is a Dickensian quality to Larry McMurtry's elegiac epic of the dying Western frontier.

Dickensian in the vivid minor characters that inhabit this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. From Blue Duck, a bloodthirsty Indian who leaves a trail of death in his path, to Lippy, the piano player in the whorehouse with the leaky stomach; from Po Campo, the trail drive cook who refuses to ride an animal, to all the cowboys and Indians and sporting women, who make this novel such a vivid and interesting stew.

Dickensian, too, in its scope. Lonesome Dove is principally the story of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, two former captains in the Texas Rangers, who are now leading a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. But it is also the story of Jake Spoon, who once rode with McCrae and Call, and has now fallen into bad ways. Lorena Wood, a sporting woman who dreams of San Francisco. July Johnson who rides out of Arkansas in search of justice and a runaway wife. 

Lonesome Dove is nearly a thousand pages in length, yet McMurtry might have written a thousand pages more and still had stories to tell. The stories that McMurtry does consign to these pages are captivating; at once romantic and brutally candid. Death rides the trail with the Hat Creek cowboys as does a taste for sweet-young whores and bad whiskey.

The cowboys battle heat and cold, thirst, grasshoppers, snakes and river crossings, while living in fear of Indians who are rarely seen, but whose promise is always lurking beyond the next hill. The cowboys are a naive and sentimental bunch, given to hard work and long silences.

McCrae and Call are like two halves of one man. McCrae is a garrulous old philosopher and it is impossible to read this novel without conjuring an image of Robert Duvall as McCrae in the TV mini-series. Call is as reticent as McCrae is talkative. He's a brooding man, who wanders away from the campfire each night because of his preference for solitude. 

Lonesome Dove is a novel that will long endure. It is a true American epic, defining the West and its passing, celebrating (and sentimentalizing) the men and women who claimed a hard country during a brief interlude as wildness gave way to civilization.

+ + + + +

Lonesome Dove is the first book I've completed that meets the criteria for two challenges issued by other bloggers. The Chunkster Reading Challenge's Mor-book-ly Obese challenge calls for reading eight chunksters, including three books of 750+ pages. At 945 pages (paperback edition), Lonesome Dove easily meets that requirement.

The second challenge, from Roof Beam Reader, is called the 2011 To Be Read Pile Challenge. The idea is to take 12 books that have been on your bookshelf or "to be read" list for more than a year and actually read those books in 2011. One down, 11 books to go.

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mockingbird a powerful and affecting story of persistence and loss

Book 15: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

 Winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine takes place in a small Virginia community in the weeks following a shooting at the local middle school.

Two students and a teacher were killed in the shooting. The story is told through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl, Caitlin whose brother was among those slain. Caitlin has Asperger's syndrome.

The choice of Caitlin as the narrator is at once a risky, yet inspired decision on Erskine's part.  Risky because of the inherent difficulty in portraying Caitlin in a realistic manner. Erskine must convince the reader that the character on these pages represents an authentic inner portrayal of an autistic child. That she does exactly this says much about her talent as a writer and her keen observational skills.

Inspired because Caitlin interprets the world quite literally. Told to experience the world as if she was wearing someone else's shoes, she wonders how they would ever fit. She sees the world in black and white. Too, Caitlin is plain spoken. She says what she thinks. Although she intends no harm, some find Caitlin's candor rude.

Because a child's understanding is limited, because a child is inclined to remark on the obvious, a child narrator allow an author to furnish the reader the story in small pieces, allowing tension to build and understanding to emerge page by page rather than in a rush. Like a chess grandmaster, Erskine is able to use Caitlin in such a satisfying fashion.

Caitlin's brother, Devon, helped her cope with the world. Now that he is dead, she must find her on way. We follow her as she seeks to make friends and to find closure, both for herself and her father, who is virtually paralyzed with anger and grief at the cruel and unexpected death of his son.

Caitlin befriends a young boy. We later learn that his mother was the teacher who died in the shooting. She also crosses the path of another boy, a classmate, whose cousin was one of the shooters. Perceived as evil, although he had no hand in the shooting, the boy is shunned by other children.

Alongside Caitlin, we learn a little something about finesse in human relationships and in the importance of persistence -- an attribute that Caitlin is really good at.

"You have to Work At It . . . ," Caitlin tells her father. "You have to try even if it's hard and you think you can never do it and you just want to scream and hide and shake your hands over and over and over."

A Virginia resident, Erskine developed the idea for Mockingbird following the shootings of 33 people at Virginia Tech University at Blacksburg in April, 2007. She has fashioned a powerful and affecting story, filled with humor and pathos.  It is a book not just for any age, but for the ages.

                                                                                  - - -

Erskine is among the participants at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. She will appear Thursday, March 17, at Buford Middle School.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Al Jaffee's Mad Life; Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere

Book Thirteen: Al Jaffee's Mad Life by Mary-Lou Weisman

In the prologue of her biography of Mad Magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee, Mary-Lou Weisman introduces the concept of the "plausible impossible." It's the concept that allows Bugs Bunny to run off a cliff, across a yawning chasm and onto the other side.

"It is the guiding comic principle -- at once thrilling and ridiculous -- that lies at the heart of cartooning," Weisman writes. "This willing suspension of disbelief has a logic all its own. What keeps Bugs aloft, what makes the impossible plausible, is not looking down.

"It is a talent that eighty-nine-year-old Al Jaffee has displayed in his life as well as his art."

Indeed. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Jaffee was reared for almost six years in a Lithuanian shetl. He lived -- vermin-infest and always hungry -- among extreme poverty and extreme neglect on the part of his mother. Before his 12th birthday and the outbreak of war, Jaffee returned to America, where he was reunited with his father.

But the reunion was brief.  His father, once a successful businessman, had fallen on hard times and Jaffee and his two brothers (a fourth returned to America months later) were shuttled between family members, where they were sometimes welcome, sometimes not.

Jaffee also had trouble adjusting to his American classmates as well as to the culture of his homeland that now felt like a foreign country.  He never truly felt at home and always feared that he would once again be uprooted.

Art emerged, both in Lithuanian and later in America, as a way for Jaffee to find acceptance. His talent also led to his admission to a special New York high school. There he met Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman, who became his colleagues on the Mad staff.

Before joining Mad, Jaffee worked at Timely Comics for Stan Lee where he wrote and drew Patsy Walker
Jaffee established his reputation as a great American cartoonist in the pages of Mad, principally as the creator of the Mad fold-in and the feature Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.

Weismnan's biography is an engrossing and loving tribute to a talented cartoonist and absolute proof that the plausible impossible is possible as long as you don't look down.

Book Fourteen: I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman

I'd Know You Anywhere ranks as Laura Lippman's finest work. 

This tension-filled and disturbing novel, is the story of Eliza Benedict, the only survivor among a series of young girls kidnapped, raped and murdered by a West Virginia youth.

Since that event, years before, Eliza has managed to get on her life back on track. She is happily married, living with her husband and two children in Bethesda, Maryland. But there is a shadow looming.

Walter, who kidnapped and raped Eliza, and now grown old in prison, is scheduled to be executed soon. He reaches out to Eliza. It's clear he wants something, but what is not immediately apparent. Yet Eliza wants something too -- answers. She wants to know why the other girls were murdered and she was not. The question haunts her.

Lippman is skillful at ratcheting up the tension through the various assaults on Eliza's happy and orderly life. There is not only Walter's unwelcome intrusion into her life, but that of a woman who has taken up Walter's cause and is campaigning against the death penalty; an unprincipled journalist/blogger; and the mother of one of the victims, angry because Eliza might have saved her daughter, but did not.

I'd Know You Anywhere is a superb and riveting thriller.