Posted by: Jeanie F | March 3, 2014

Where Do You Get Book Recommendations?

New and Recommended

Last week I had the good fortune to visit one of my favorite indie booksellers, Bay Books on Coronado Island. This is a great store, small but extremely well-stocked, with knowledgeable staff to recommend and discuss books. It got me thinking about how my own reading habits have changed since I’ve started doing most of my reading on my Kindle.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my Kindle, and I have been a Kindle reader since its inception. Recently, however, I’ve noticed that I’ve been jumping around, finding it difficult to settle on a book I want to read cover to cover. This is unusual for me, so I began to analyze what’s happened to my reading habits.

My trip to Bay Books crystalized my thinking. I miss examining a real book before I commit hours of my life to it.

When buying ebooks on Amazon, I tend to limit my choices to specific books that I am searching for, usually after reading a review or getting a recommendation. While I was in Bay Books I realized that some of my all-time favorites are books that I stumbled upon while browsing in a bookstore, often titles I had never seen. While Amazon displays the covers and provides free samples of the book, it really isn’t the same as holding the unknown book in my hand, flipping through the pages, maybe discussing the book with knowledgeable staff. I realized that the “real world” assessment of a book seems to net better results for me.

I’m not saying I won’t continue to love reading on my Kindle, but I am going to make a more concerted effort to get to some of my favorite Indies: Bay Books, Laguna Beach Books, and Vroman’s in Pasadena to name a few.

How about you? Where do you go for great recommendations? Please participate in the poll below. I’d love it if you would also follow up with a comment to elaborate on your response.

Posted by: Jeanie F | October 24, 2013

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel

When I first came across this title in The New York Times Book Review, I didn’t immediately feel drawn to reading it. The review made it clear that this was a disturbing account of the hurdles our military personnel face when they return from war – specifically Iraq and Afghanistan – with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. David Finkel is the author of The Good Soldier, the chronicle of one platoon’s deployment to Iraq. It doesn’t pull any punches in reporting of what, specifically, we ask of our military. Certain this new book would be disturbing, I moved on to other reviews.

The thing is, I couldn’t get Thank You for Your Service out of my mind.

It didn’t help that positive reviews kept showing up in other publications – nor that the title, Thank You for Your Service , serves to underscore the sincere, but unhelpful, gratitude we extend to those soldiers most of us rarely encounter in person. I began to feel that I owed it to them to find out just what they, and their loved ones, face when they return. I bought the book.

Finkel centers his account around Sgt. Adam Schumann. Schumann is a verified hero, has served three tours to Iraq, and is regarded as “one of the best soldiers of the battalion.” The book chronicles not only Schumann’s struggles with his return to his wife, family, and country, but that of others who live with the aftermath of deployment: the widow of a soldier that Schumann tried, unsuccessfully, to save; Schumann’s own wife, who must cope with her husband’s PTSD; another young soldier working his way through the labyrinth of military bureaucracy in an attempt to get the help he needs. It also shows the efforts of Army vice chief of staff, Peter Chiarelli, who works to understand what drives the highest post-service suicide rate the country has ever seen. Last year the number of deaths due to suicide by active-duty personnel was greater than the number of combat deaths.

I can’t say that I “enjoyed” this sad indictment of a country that is failing those who so desperately need – and deserve – our help. I can say I came away from this book with a new appreciation of the ongoing sacrifices that our military and their families make. Regardless of what any of us may think about US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no question that these men and women see it as their duty to protect their homes and country. Many have paid a terrible price for doing that duty.

Finkel doesn’t wrap this book up with pat answers or panaceas. In the end we feel that the men and women we meet will continue to struggle to regain their lives, and we root for their success. Their willingness to share their experiences with Finkel – and through Finkel, with the rest of us – shows just how bravely they still serve their country. We need to ensure that we can find ways to serve them.

You might start by reading Thank You for Your Service.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | August 23, 2013

The Son by Philipp Meyer

Growing up in Texas in the mid-20th century, I was taught a very specific version of Texas history. According to the State Song, as well as our Social Science curriculum, Texas was “boldest and grandest/Withstanding every test/Oh empire wide and glorious/You stand supremely blest.” In any conflict with another culture, Texans were steadfastly in the right.

How were the Mexicans represented? By the arch-villain, General Santa Anna, the Napoleon of the West. Apparently any Mexicans in the area now known as Texas were there for one reason – to wage war on the heroic Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, and the martyrs of the Alamo.

Indians? The bloodthirsty Comanches finally got what they had coming to them when the iconic Texas Rangers teamed up with the US Army and wiped them out.

Civil War? Texas stood with the Glorious South, pro-segregation, pro-slavery, and pro-secession.

Goes a long way toward explaining Rick Perry, doesn’t it?

Reading Phillip Meyer’s new novel, The Son, gave me a whole new perspective. The sweeping story of Texas is personified through the lives of three generations of the McCullough family: Eli, Peter, and Jeanne Anne.

The patriarch, Eli, was born on March 2, 1836, the date that Texas became an independent republic. He grounds us in the historical context when he tells us the signing of Texas’  Declaration of Independence from Mexico took place

in a humble shack at the edge of the Brazos [River]. Half the signatories were malarial; the other half had come to Texas to escape a hangman’s noose. I was the first male child of this new republic. 

Eli’s life is by far the most interesting of the three as it covers what was truly the Wild West. I don’t want to give away anything that would ruin the cliffhanging suspense of this story. Suffice it to say there is ample sex, violence, and bloodshed to satisfy any Cormac McCarthy fan.

Eli’s son, Peter, was born in 1870.  His story opens in 1915 at the time of conflict between Anglo landholders and Tejanos, Mexican landholders who had originally settled in southwest Texas. It is Peter’s voice which narrates the ongoing struggle between Texas and Mexico over property rights, crucial during a time when “cattle was king.” It is from Peter’s point of view that we witness the violence that accompanied this struggle.

Jeannie, Peter’s granddaughter, was born in 1926. She tells the story of a strong woman trying to find a place in a paternalistic society. During her time as the predominant McCullough, Texas changed from a cattle state to an oil state. It was Jeannie’s job to preserve and expand the family fortune  as the state’s main export changed.

You may want to make note of this timeline; early in my reading I had some trouble keeping the chronology and relationships straight as each of these characters’ stories is told individually in alternating chapters.

The strength that Meyer brings to what is potentially a story we’ve heard before is his attention to detail. His knowledge of the time and place makes it come alive. In researching this book, which took him five years to write, Meyer did extensive first-hand research. He tells an interviewer for Amazon.com:

I took weeks of animal tracking classes, spent a month at Blackwater (the private military contractor) learning combat skills and soaking up the warrior culture for the sections on both the Comanches and the early Texas Rangers; I taught myself to bowhunt and killed several deer, ate them, tanned various deer hides. I shot two buffalo (whose meat was destined for restaurants and grocery stores) and because the Plains tribes sometimes did it for survival purposes, I drank a cup of warm blood from the neck of one of the animals. Not recommended. And I spent months in the woods, mountains, and deserts of Texas—I slept outside, hiked, or hunted almost everywhere the book takes place, took careful notes on and pictures of all the plants and animals I saw, then realized that the ecology of Texas had changed so enormously over the past 150 years that my notes weren’t necessarily valid. So had to go back to the historical and archeological record to research about exactly how and where and why it changed—the plants and animals I was seeing between 2008-2013 were not necessarily the plants and animals that were there in 1850 or 1870 or 1915. 

That research paid off in accuracy and detail. Some readers have complained that it is depressing, too gory, too graphic but, in my opinion, that is its strength. This story tells the truth about Texas’ past, not the whitewashed version I learned in school.

Grade: A

It’s been a long time since my last post. For a while my life just grabbed hold and required some extra attention, but then I got shanghaied by Raymond Chandler’s Long Goodbye, perhaps the longest goodbye of my life. This is not a particularly long book – 379 pages – but it’s taken me almost a month to read. I couldn’t abandon it, but I never felt like reading it. Before I write my review, I want to pose this question:

When is it time to just give up on a book?

How do you make the decision, or are you one of those people who must finish a book once it’s started?

Now, on to my review . . .

I found myself idly browsing my TBR shelf looking for something that caught my fancy. I came across The Long Goodbye, which has apparently been on this shelf for years. How do I know this? There was a bookmark from Latitude 33 Bookshop, an indie bookstore in Laguna Beach that, sadly, closed at least five years ago.

I may be one of the few avid readers in the US who has never read any Raymond Chandler, so I decided the time had come. There are such accolades at the beginning of the book:

The New Yorker : [Chandler] wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered.

LA Times: Philip Marlowe remains the quintessential urban private eye.

Literary Review: Raymond Chandler was one of the finest prose writers of the twentieth century. . . Age does not wither Chandler’s prose. . . He wrote like an angel.

With reviews like that, how could I go wrong? Well, I’m sorry to say for the most part, this book just didn’t work for me. I kept reading because I was hoping somewhere along the line it would click, but I couldn’t get beyond the 1950’s voice (Long Goodbye was first published in 1953) , which reminded me too much of Sargent Friday on “Dragnet”.

On helping a drunk outside a restaurant:

“You know him?” [Marlowe asks the valet]

“I heard the dame call him Terry. Otherwise I don’t know him from a cow’s caboose. But I only been here two weeks.”

From a cop whom Marlowe bested in an investigation:

“The hard boys will take care of you, buster. I won’t have to bother. You think you’re important enough to bother them? As a P.I. named Marlowe, check. You’re not. As a guy who was told to get off and blew a raspberry in their faces publicly in a newspaper, that’s different. That hurts their pride.”

So why did I have to keep going? I’m not opposed to giving up on a book that isn’t working for me, but every once in a while The Long Goodbye lapsed into real beauty, as when Marlowe stood by a window listening to the night sounds of Los Angeles:

Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

Take that, Dan Brown, and Lee Child, and Sue Grafton. That is real writing. It demands to be read. Even when you don’t particularly feel like reading it.

Grade: B

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 14, 2013

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

Yes, it will appear that I have become obsessed with books about the American West, and maybe I have. Since I’ve read every Wallace Stegner novel at least once (don’t ask how many times I’ve read Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose) and most Willa Cather – and please don’t forget my rave reviews of The Sister Brothers and Blood Meridian - I’d say this cat is out of the bag. Somehow, however, I’ve missed Ivan Doig until the GoodReads’ data base noticed I had been on a Kent Haruf jag and recommended The Whistling Season.

I have to start being more conscientious about my GoodReads account.

The Whistling Season is the story of the Millirons family – father, Oliver, and his young sons Paul, Damon, and Toby. The book opens in 1909, shortly after Mrs. Milliron has died, leaving the family to struggle on alone on their farm in rural Montana. Oliver is browsing the want ads, hoping to find a housekeeper, when he comes across an ad reading “CAN’T COOK BUT DOESN’T BITE.” This introduces Mrs. Rose Llewellyn of Minnesota to the Millirons, along with an unexpected traveling companion, her brother Morris Morgan.

The plot, which I won’t divulge, is fairly straightforward. The pleasure in reading The Whistling Season is getting to know the characters and the setting. Please don’t be put off by this – entertaining characters in an interesting setting are more than enough to carry this charming story.

Much of the action takes place in the rural one-room school that the boys attend – Toby in first grade, Damon in sixth, and Paul in seventh. The school is a microcosm of the small community of Marias Coulee, Montana, and we are able to watch as the values and mores of that town are played out throughout the book.

But Doig has deftly selected to frame this story with short sections that move us into the future: 1957, when Sputnik has rocked the US confidence in being the best and the brightest, and education is suddenly seen in a new light. At this time, Paul Milliron is a grown man and is State Superintendent of Schools for the State of Montana. It is his responsibility to announce that Montana is closing its rural schools and bussing the students to larger schools. Not to worry, parents are assured – no student will be bussed more than a one and a half hour ride each direction.

On the eve of this decision, he has returned to Marias Coulee one more time to reflect on the impact that little school had on his life, and it is actually “adult Paul” who is telling the story. This simple device allows Doig to inform his narrator from a remove that a child – even a very bright child – couldn’t pull off. It works in the same way that the adult “Kevin Arnold”, narrator of “The Wonder Years,” can tell us young Kevin’s story without making him seem unnaturally precocious.  As “adult” Paul relives the role of the school in his childhood, aware that its fate – and that of every rural school along with it – rests in his  hands, he realizes,

Forever and a day could go by, and that feeling will never leave me. Of knowing in that instant, the central power of that country school in all our lives.

I was completely charmed by this book and its cast of characters. It took me back to a time past that may be idealized, may be romanticized, but touches a core of nostalgia for a simpler, more straightforward life than we seem to be able to manage today.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | April 28, 2013

Eventide by Kent Haruf

In a recent post, I reviewed the third book in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy, Benediction. The first book in this series was Plainsong. Today, nearly thirteen years after I read it, it remains one of my top ten books of all time. Somehow I skipped over the middle book, Eventide. Since I so loved the other two, I decided I’d better go back and see what happened in between.

It is by no means necessary to read these books in order. While there is a sequential view of life in Holt, CO, each book stands squarely on its own. And Eventide didn’t disappoint. It picks up with the McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, elderly ranchers living outside of Holt. Here’s how the book opens:

They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning. The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond. Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer.


This style is part of what makes all of Haruf’s writing so powerful. The spare, precise language succinctly evokes the time, the place, the people, the tone. Seemingly unadorned, these books contain some of the most beautiful and striking images I’ve ever read. The Amazon.com review hits it squarely: “Haruf’s books are so low-key and straightforward that a careless reader might miss the fact that they are about everything that life has to offer: love, sorrow, malice, understanding, and the connections that make and keep us human.”

There are several story lines to follow: that of the McPheron brothers and their teenage charge, Victoria Roubideaux; Luther and Betty Wallace, a mentally disabled couple raising their children as they try to negotiate the intricacies of modern society; DJ, an eleven-year-old boy responsible for himself and his elderly and infirm grandfather. The gist of the book is the individual struggles of these people and the small ways they provide succor to each other and others in their path.

This description may put you off by sounding sentimental or maudlin, but that’s because I don’t possess the same facility with language that Haruf does. He breathes life into his characters and situations with the most delicate of tools: exquisite writing. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Ron Charles, book editor for the Washington Post, had to say about Haruf and Eventide:

It works only because Haruf describes their ordinary tragedies in prose that’s strikingly unadorned. Their struggles are raised by this clarity to such an extraordinary vision that at the end of some chapters I was left wondering, Who in America can still write like this? Who else has such confidence and humility?

Quotations don’t do it justice, anymore than a tuft of prairie grass could convey the grandeur of an open plain. Every decoration has been stripped away, leaving a narrative that almost never hazards an interior thought or authorial comment, forcing the story to rest entirely on Haruf’s flawless selection of detail and ear for dialogue.

This is easy to do badly, as a thousand Hemingway imitators know, but Haruf never missteps, and I wish his books were required reading for anyone learning to write.

If you want to see how a true master writes, if you want to meet characters who will stay with you for days, weeks, years after you close the book, if you want to find faith in the human spirit, then pick up one of these stellar books.

Grade: A+

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