Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bermuda Shorts by James J Patterson

When Bermuda Shorts arrived in my box from the ER program, I had to study it a minute.  I thought this was a new book by the famous author who is known for thrillers and detective novels. The one who has all those books on the best seller list.  Why does he need an early review? I wondered.

I realized after glancing at the back that this was a different James and a different kind of book: a collection of thoughtful, humorous, bittersweet essays about love, growing up, sports, politics and telephones.  There was also a short story thrown in at the end as a kind of bonus.

The personal essay is not an easy form to master, but it is also the most compelling reading, and I found myself thinking of people who would like to read certain essays.  My father-in-law would love his essay on the Washington Redskins (in fact there was a whole series of sports essays that for some would be quite compelling.)  The ministers at my church would have loved an essay titled God, Gordo and Gandhi.  Anyone who has been in love would like The Conjecture Chamber.  There is something here for everyone.  

I hope more than a few people notice this small book.  I enjoyed every essay and found them all to be clear and intelligent and worthwhile.  He manages to tell stories and be thoughtful.  He draws almost always from his rich and interesting life as a sports fan and a musician and son.  James J Patterson is a good writer and you will spend an enjoyable afternoon with this collection.

If you saw my last post you know I also love the publishing house that put out this collection.  I am more than willing to lend this to anyone local, but would also like to encourage you to buy it or to request it from your local library.  Support small presses!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Alan Squire Publishing

I recently received an ER copy of a collection of personal essays put out by a small publishing company called Alan Squire Publishing.  I'll be reviewing this book in a few days, but before I get to that I want to share a bonus story that was included as part of the package.

Included with the book and the obligatory letter from the publisher was a 6 page photocopy of a newspaper story.  I blew it off at first.  One night as I was drifting off, it caught my eye and I became caught up in the story of the man behind this small press.  The newspaper article was from a 2008 edition of The Washington Post Magazine and was by an incredible feature writer by the name of Laura Wexler.

It seems Andrew Gifford the founder of Alan Squire Publishing was heir to the famous Gifford Ice Cream stores which all went out of business when Gifford's father left town with all the money.  Andrew was 10 years old at the time and never saw his father again.

Gifford was left with nothing and eventually found his way to a routine day job trouble shooting for the APA.  In the meantime, he always had this dream to publish books, and so using his own credit card he began to publish.  He has published three books now and has teamed up with the Santa Fe Writers Project to start offering a literature prize.

Thirtysomething Gifford also suffered from a horrible disease  called Trigeminal Neuralgia.  For 14 years he had a searing pain in his face.  Apparently this disease is also nicknamed the suicide disease because the pain is so horrific and apparently very difficult to treat.

So Gifford labors away at his day job, heir to a scandal that rocked the Baltimore ice cream world, and by night labors to produce good books and deals with searing and enduring pain.

The article I read recounted how finally he met a doctor who offered him a risky procedure to end the pain (brain surgery) and after all the years of the most painful existence you could imagine, he woke up after surgery to find his pain was gone.  Andrew Gifford went through a period of time after the surgery where he actually missed his pain.  He fingered the pills he used  to take. He mourned his missing pain like one might mourn a missing lover.

I reread that last page several times.  How could you miss your pain?  Is it true that we can become so attached to even the most horrifying life set backs that we actually miss them when they are gone?  I was amazed at Andrew's story and kept turning that idea over and over in my head.  How could someone miss a pain so awful that you feared breeze on your face or the feel of the shower on your skin?

The newspaper story did exactly what it intended to do.  My heart is very big for this young sweet man, and I hope that his business does well, and I intend to go out and buy and read all his books.  I am telling you to do the same.

Readers, this is the kind of guy we want to succeed.  So take a look at these books and ask yourself if you wouldn't like to read one or two of them. I don't mean to say buy these books cause you feel sorry for a guy who has had a rough life and is trying to do something to make himself a little piece of happy.   I am saying, the books are pretty good and we should patronize this guy because he is a good guy and he is trying to make for himself a little piece of happy.

At least request it at your public library so they will buy a copy of these good, good words.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Banned in China

At the end of Pearl of China the author, Anchee Min, writes a short note to the reader about her inspiration for writing this book, a fictionalized account of the life of Pearl Buck in China, as seen through the eyes of her (fictional) life long best friend Willow Yee.

Min writes that she had never read The Good Earth (Buck's most famous work) and in fact during Buck's bid to return to China with Nixon in 1972, Min (along with other school children) was forced to denounce her.  While Min was giving a reading of her memoir Red Azalea at a book store, a woman stepped up to her and asked if she had ever read The Good Earth.  Min replied no and the woman handed her a copy of the book as a gift.  While doing so she told Min that The Good Earth taught her to love China.

Min took the book and read it on the flight home, and when she was done she wept.  She never imagined that a Western writer could capture the essence of China, especially the peasant class, so beautifully.  And then there was that whole denunciation thing.  Min resolved to write this novel at that time.  

Min tapped exactly on why I have become fascinated with Pearl Buck.  She really understood China and its people and was able to write to tell the world and begin to bridge gaps.  We underestimate her importance on East West relations.  Remember that Nobel prize.

This novel was filled with moments like the one Min experienced herself: regret and longing and friendship and deep abiding love, especially toward the latter half of the book when we see Willow struggling to keep her faith and her dignity in spite of all the horror heaped upon her by the Chinese government.  The narrator foreshadows saying good-bye to Pearl for the last time.  She kneels at her grave in the US heartbroken that she did not see her friend for the last 37 years of her life.  She meets Nixon who brings her greetings from Buck (true?) in the US and you can feel the whole town tense and then admit that they know and love Pearl.  All these moments had me reaching for my box of tissues.  I loved this fictional story for that reason.

I was struck by how much Min's style of writing copied Buck's style.  They write in short sentences that move the plot forward quickly.  There are heros and there are villains and there exists no subtlety in any of the characters.  I was surprised to note that in Min's story the missionary work of Pearl's father, Absolom Sydenstrecker, was regarded as heroic. In fact, all the characters who converted to Christianity were heroic.  The Christian conversion narrative was so thick and annoying that it could easily be mistaken for a Christian tract.  While I find reading about missionaries in China interesting, I think there are always downsides and upsides and Min seems to really push a Christian agenda.  

This small part aside, I loved Pearl of China.  Because so much of the plot revolved around historical evidence, I am eager to turn now to some history books and biographies to see what of this volume happened and what was an invention of the author.  

By the way, as my title indicates, I don't think I can send this one to Catherine.  It is not very nice about Chairman Mao and Anchee Min's books all appear on the banned list.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

For all you e book readers out there

We have an on-going debate in our household over portable e-reading devices.  I say bad.  Husband says, good for the environment.  (He has managed to loose two of them on airplanes at this point.)

I stumbled across this fabulous series of youtube films pitting one of those devices against the book in a series of 10 films.  Guess what?  The book wins every time.

This is my favorite of the 10 films.  Go to youtube to enjoy the other nine.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Early Review Angst

What was I thinking when I put a bid on Little Big World by Jeffrey Hammond?  I think I was misled by the genre tag which read "memoir".  You know I am nuts about a good memoir.  I also have a weird interest in reading about people who collect things and this one was about collecting toys.  Boom.  This slim little book (116 pages) arrived in the mail, and has been torturing me for weeks.  I couldn't read anything else until this one was done.  The problem was the book was just was not that interesting.  I have never not finished an ER book.  It is my duty to read and review all the books I get for free, but I just could not get excited about this man's collection of toys.

It wasn't really a memoir either, it was more a rumination on collecting particular types of toys from e-bay that the author used to play with in the 1950's.  To some, I am sure it was infinitely interesting, but to me it was simply 116 pages of heady prose about what a miniature Dale Evans figurine means to the wider world.

The second chapter went into the history of the man who made these toys:  Louis Marx who made his fortune on toys in the great depression.  This was more interesting that the rest of the pages which dealt primarily with lining up plastic figurines on his desk and contemplating what play means to 50's kids.  It reminded me of the sad toys of the Toy Story movie franchise that are getting packed away when Andy goes off to college.  Only Toy Story is way more enjoyable.

Also, this quirky tidbit: Louis Marx had a daughter named Barbara Marx Hubbard who rejected her father's cult of capitalism and became a new age speaker/guru.  Interestingly enough, I have seen one of her films.  I never knew she was heir to a toy empire!

Anyway, the moral of this story is to think really hard before bidding on a book.  This blasted 116 pager kept me way down for far too long. I finally finished the review this morning and I feel free.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On-line reading

My attention span and time to read are getting shorter and shorter during these summer days and nights.  Please excuse me as I recommend an interesting series of articles from that was published last January.  Sarah Wildman has written Paper Love:  Inside the Holocaust Archives, a fascinating series on the huge post war archives established by 11 countries at Bad Arolsen in Germany.  They were closed to the public for many years and only since 2008 have their myriad contents been open to researchers.  If you are an historian this is a treasure trove beyond imagination of source documents.  It is, of course, treasure documenting one of the worst crimes against humanity, but Sarah Wildman shares an interesting tale of her excursion to examine them and solve a small family mystery.  Pictures too!

After you read them, you will be certain this should be made into a full length book. There are so many questions to be answered and so many stories to tell.  I love to read about old mysteries solved through archives and talking to elderly people who remember and reading old diaries.  This probably stems from being the daughter of a genealogist and tracking my mother all over towns looking through courthouse records and cemeteries.

In any case, this series is fascinating, and I will be the first in line to read her book, if she writes one.