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Archive for the ‘Subculture’ Category

eagleReaders’ Digest Condensed Books takes it on the chin from many quarters – dumbed down books stripped down for readers who place more value on popular titles than quality reads. Looking back at them now, it seems that Readers’ Digest was the only transition from kids’ books to “adult” literature I had access to. My brother and sisters and I would check the mail every day, and when that box turned up it was Katy, bar the door. And while we were waiting there was always the shelf full of previous collections we could grab. Now, most of the books weren’t memorable, but others set me on the path of my pleasure reading, and where’s the harm in that?

Once an Eagle was a transition from my childish understanding of war to a more sober take on its dark and dirty side. The story of one man’s Army career from private in the futile search for Pancho Villa to retired general seeing the early signs of the coming war in Vietnam, it is also the story of the American military through the 20th century.

Sam Damon grows up in a small Midwestern town, hearing tales of glorious and deadly battles from veterans of the Civil War and the Philippine American War. He joins as a private soldier at a time when the Army was considered a refuge for drunks, brutes, and incompetents, but those men become the cadre around which newly-minted civilian soldiers became an Army in 1917. Damon is a powerful leader, inspiring loyalty and pulling reluctant men into his fearless wake. He frightens them, though – in battle he is savage and coldly brilliant, with the mythical luck of the born warrior. His successes earns him medals and brevet promotion, but his first loyalty is with his men. He also comes up against Courtney Massengale, a bloodless, politically-connected West Pointer who sees war as a series of staff exercises, and whose time-in-grade will keep him a half-step ahead of Sam throughout their parallel careers.

After 1918, Sam and his new family begin the grinding tour of moving from one camp to another to study his craft. With the world determinedly turning its back on the horror of the recent war, the Army once again becomes a backwater. But such backwaters creates a sense of community and continuity in their denizens, forming deep friendships and uneasy truces between enemies. It isn’t just the men, either – their wives are their allies, spies, and bulwarks against the maneuvering that might destroy a man’s career. There are also the common soldiers, rootless, bored, underpaid, and kept in line by relentless, sometimes cruel discipline.

Then war comes again, and the officers who have languished in rank are suddenly given armies to train and command. Damon’s war is in the Pacific, where repeated amphibious assaults give way to jungle fighting against an enemy that does not surrender.  As an infantry commander on the beach, Damon has to rely on a Navy with its own agenda, a fledgling Army Air Corps, and a superior officer – Massengale – who still doesn’t see the blood and death his orders cause. Damon must call on his innate skills as a warrior, as a leader, and as a commander who must place professional duty above personal sacrifice. In the wake of the war, with no political patronage, those qualities get him put on the shelf. Until he’s needed to investigate a local brushfire war threatening American interests.

Myrer’s control over both his characters and their situations makes it easy to keep up with, even care about, the myriad of people who must populate a book about armies and war. Even after so long, I’m pretty sure I could even tell you what characters appear in what parts of the story and what their relationship to Damon is. Myrer’s descriptions of battle are detailed and horrible enough to strip the shine off the techo-thrillers and are reminders that war is, after all, friend only to the undertaker. I’m pretty sure Sam Damon would agree with Edwin Starr.

Revisiting the book as an adult, I made an interesting discovery about the condensation process Readers’ Digest used on this particular story. A significant section that has Damon travelling to China to observe the Communist guerrilla war against the Japanese. A heroic Chinese commander teaches him about both ideology and tactics, striking a sympathetic chord in both character and reader. That section was completely missing from the digested version, possibly because, up until recently, Reader’s Digest was a leading anti-Communist voice in American society. On the other hand, that same conservative approach took a lot of sex out of other books they condensed, which probably made it more palatable for the parents of pre-teens and adolescents like me and my siblings. Middlebrow? Maybe. But re-reading The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice wouldn’t have led me to travel through the lives and stories of so many different people and kept me reading until it became an indispensable part of my life.

Check the WRL catalog for Once an Eagle

Sam Elliott also starred as Sam Damon in an NBC miniseries that follows the novel pretty closely.

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yummyIn 1994, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was executed by fellow members of his gang. He was 11. What was his crime? In the eyes of his killers, he was bringing too much police and media attention to their part of town. Eager to prove himself to older gang members, he had shot wildly into a group of kids playing in the street, killing a 14-year-old girl named Shavon. Yummy’s murderers were only 14 and 16 years old themselves. The shocking nature of his death as well as his life landed his mugshot on the cover of Time magazine and a mention by President Bill Clinton in a speech addressing the three-fold increase in homicides in Chicago since 1980.

What would drive a child to become a hardened gang member at such a young age? Author G. Neri uses a fictitious narrator, named Roger, who is the same age as Yummy, as his vehicle for exploring the cause and provocation for his conduct. The story unfolds with few surprises: abuse, abandonment, and a lack of supervision that left Yummy to find his own amusement out on the streets. Arrested for the first time when he was 8, he quickly came up against a shortcoming of the state laws regarding juveniles. Since no juvenile could be convicted of a felony, gangs eagerly took advantage of this law, using young men to do hard crimes with no harsh consequences. Yummy was just one of a veritable army of children living on the streets and committing crimes to please their gang leaders.

Were Yummy and other juveniles in the same situation monsters or children? The authors don’t pretend to have a pat answer. Finding a solution to the spiral of violence would be ideal, but first the problem itself needs to be understood. Human troubles are always fraught with nuance and are hostile to simple resolutions. Instead, the book aims to shed light on the lives of the different players, in order to bring some humanity to what is otherwise just a grim set of statistics on youth gang life.

Designated a Coretta Scott King Award honor book in 2011, this title is a tough read, but the author brings a lot of honesty and reality to the dramatization of these real events. Recommended for readers with an interest in graphic novels, American history, and social justice.

Check the WRL catalog for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

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Hum and the ShiverIn the first decade of the new century, urban fantasy went from a blip on the genre map to a big part of the fantasy fiction market. That success was built on kick-ass heroines modeled after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quirky casts of characters such as those found in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, or glib modern magicians standing in for the classic noir detective, as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The novels featured the creatures of classic horror films–vampires, werewolves, and other monsters–and/or the traditions of the English faerie story–the battle of the seelie and unseelie court beneath the noses of regular mortals–all given a modern twist. At the time, these tropes were fun, and fresh, a great variation on the fat doorstops of epic fantasy.

But like any publishing phenomena, the pattern has been repeated so many times that it’s not so fresh anymore. After reading five or six series that follow the same approach, most readers feel like they had been there, done that.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see new takes on contemporary fantasy, and Alex Bledsoe has done just that with his novels about the Tufa people of the east Tennessee mountains. Yes, it’s another variation on the fairy courts, but by displacing the fey into the heart of the Appalachians, casting a wounded American woman soldier as the protagonist, bathing the story in mountain music, and putting Hatfield/McCoy-style feuding at the center of conflict, Bledsoe makes something entirely new.

The story concerns Bronwyn Hyatt, a young woman who went into the Army to escape the pressures of a close-knit family, her reputation as a trouble-making girl, and in particular her dangerously wild ex-boyfriend. But now she’s back from Iraq, a war hero with a shattered leg, knowing instinctually that she has to come to grips with her past and find a way to balance her own needs with her family obligation and destiny.

Two outsiders figure prominently. Craig Chess is a young Methodist preacher trying to build a congregation in the midst of people who don’t take to outsiders. There’s chemistry between him and Bronwyn, but that comes with the danger of provoking Duane, the hair-trigger violent ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to believe that their relationship is over. Don Swayback is a reporter sent to cover Bronwyn’s return who rediscovers his forgotten family history and his own musical gift.

All of this is set in the mysterious Cloud County, a locale where roads seem to disappear or re-arrange for unwanted strangers. Family traditions run deep, with most divided into one of two feuding camps, united only in their dislike of the outside world. Music lovers will love this world, as the magic is intrinsically connected with its playing.

The story continues in Wisp of a Thing, from 2013, and Long Black Curl, due out this year.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hum and the Shiver

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JacketIt doesn’t seem like you’d find romance, emotional conflict, and a profound cultural shift in a grease-filled garage, but Wayne Harrison has found a way to do it–and for some reason that setting gives the themes a lot of punch. I mean, who would expect that guys who spend their lives elbow-deep in transmissions, radiators, and carburetors would live deeply-felt lives?

Harrison’s story centers on Nick Campbell’s Out of the Hole garage, where legendary mechanic Nick has taken on 17-year old Justin as a Vo-Ag intern. Over the course of a summer, Justin practices diagnosing and repairing the good old cars with names like Barracuda, Chevelle, Challenger, Firebird, GTO. Those cars could be completely disassembled, re-engineered and rebuilt to burn the rubber off the fat racing tires. Think Greased Lightning or just about any Springsteen car.  And Nick is a master, even written up in Road Rage magazine for his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of just what it takes to milk that last bit of torque to create the unconquerable street car.

Nick is married to Mary Ann, a beautiful, intelligent woman who runs the business end of the shop, and with whom Justin inevitably falls in love. Even after his apprenticeship is up, Justin flees his unwelcoming school for the camaraderie of the shop, and eventually takes a job there. Old-timer Ray, Bobby the ex-con, Nick and Mary Ann are the friends and uncomplicated family Justin needs. But Nick and Mary Ann suffered a tragedy while he was gone, and it’s having an effect on the shop–Nick’s work is getting dangerously shoddy and he and Mary Ann are barely talking. Mary Ann turns to Justin for comfort, which turns into a sexual relationship. Now 19, Justin sees a perfect future in which he takes Mary Ann for himself. There’s one problem: Nick.

Justin still regards Nick as a mentor, a combination father figure, brother, and teacher.  And the opportunity to work on Nick’s latest project, restoring and racing a Corvette ZL-1, one of two in existence, is irresistible. The owner also has a big dream to build a chain of shops specializing in customizing those big engines. See, the future is here. The EPA’s new emissions restrictions essentially require computerized controls, and those can’t be diagnosed by guys listening to spark plugs and tasting the gasoline. Plus they make the cars wimpy–no more living and dying on the line for cash or pink slips with the new generation.

Harrison pulls off both sides of the story with seeming ease. The world of cams and quarter-mile racing opens up even to the most auto-phobic, and the interaction between the characters is natural enough to touch the heart of any gearhead. As those worlds head towards collision, neither set of readers will be able to ignore the power of the writing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spark and the Drive

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JacketOK, let’s get this out of the way first – the book we have in our collection is actually titled The American, which as you read the book becomes patently ridiculous. This is a movie tie-in for a George Clooney vehicle, which got middling to bad reviews from ‘ordinary’ people, but middling to good reviews from top critics. If the movie follows the pacing of the book, I can see where the thrill movie seeker would come away less than satisfied.

A Very Private Gentleman is slow, but in the way that develops tension even as the gentleman slowly allows readers into his very private world until we get a more complete view of a character who rationalizes and even elevates the evil he does.  Even the nature of that work is trickled out until we fully understand that he is a master craftsman of death. Not the death-dealer, but the maker of the custom weapons the death dealers require. That doesn’t make him any less a target, and there are plenty of people who want him dead.

His craft requires subtlety, patience, watchfulness, and mobility. For this, his final job, he has chosen to live in a small Italian village under the identity of a painter of butterflies, so he becomes Signor Farfalla to the inhabitants. While awaiting the commission, he argues theology over bottles of fine wine with the local priest, becomes known at the local bars and restaurants, and a regular customer at the local brothel. Even considering his obsession with security, this is the most idyllic place he’s ever lived.

Indeed, the idyll is seductive. The kindness of people who don’t demand intimacy, the eternal feel of this ancient village, the excellent food, the romps with two beautiful girls, the landscape around his temporary home all call to him that he can maintain this identity and settle into a well-deserved (but still watchful) retirement. But his sixth sense turns up a hint of danger, and the idyll becomes less than ideal.

Signor Farfalla still has that commission to fulfill, which means meeting the client for the specifications, finding the materials, creating and testing the weapon, then making the final delivery. Each of those is a potential vulnerability, and Signor Farfalla practices his professional paranoia to the hilt. When the commission comes face-to-face with the source of his unease, it quickly becomes apparent that his professional life will cause his personal death.

Signor Farfalla addresses the story directly to the reader, even telling us that he’s withholding information that might allow us to identify him. That almost-confiding tone also conveys a sense of hubris when he claims the rightful role he believes history owes him, but involves us in his love of nature, and the good life he’s got. That personal connection makes the climax much more shocking than a genre thriller as the final revelations erupt and Signor Farfalla must make fatal decisions.

Check the WRL catalog for A Very Private Gentleman (aka The American)

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Going ClearTalk show monologues, celebrity gossip columns, even South Park episodes are full of jokey references to the quirky beliefs of Scientology and adherents like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. If you’re like I was, you laugh along with these, but don’t really know anything about Scientology. I watched The Master, a film with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to try to get some insight. The film piqued my interest, but left me with more questions than answers.

As I learned while reading Lawrence Wright’s excellent Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, my confusion was no accident. Scientology is a slippery subject for at least five reasons. First, it’s not a religion in the traditional sense that many of us assume. In particular, there isn’t much reference to a god or gods in Scientology. Second, terminology within the religion is full of strange jargon that outsiders find hard to decipher. Third, even within the religion, access to beliefs is parceled out to each adherent as they gain different levels in a hierarchy. Fourth, the beliefs of the religion have shifted over time and continue to change. Fifth, and perhaps most central to the book, it’s not easy to leave Scientology, and life can get quite unhappy for those who divulge Scientology’s secrets publicly. Those who protect the religion aren’t above smear campaigns against Scientology’s critics, and there’s an organized campaign to put out favorable disinformation in response. Only the disgruntled are likely to go public, and they aren’t the most reliable sources. Add all of this up, and it’s no wonder that Scientology makes for a distinctly blurry target.

That’s why it’s so important that someone of Lawrence Wright’s stature and thoroughness as a researcher and writer took on the subject. Wright is an award winning journalist and writer whose previous book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize. Wright spent years interacting with former Scientologists and pursuing queries with current adherents to the highest level. He’s not just repeating the gossip of a few disgruntled apostates. Everything in the book is carefully documented with multiple sources and the book was singled out for multiple awards, including a National Book Award nomination.

All of that makes this sound like a dreary tome, but far from that, it’s also a fascinating and highly readable narrative, covering Scientology from its odd beginnings, through years at sea where L. Ron Hubbard traveled on ocean liners, unable to find a country to call home for his religion, even as its beliefs developed in many strange directions. The tale continues into the modern era when celebrity adherents are carefully groomed, lavished with perks, and then kept cautiously in line, and on to David Miscavige, who took leadership in a late 1980s coup against Hubbard’s intended successors and continues to rule his flock with an iron fist.

Along the way Wright catalogs Scientology’s odd collection of beliefs about reincarnation; its battles with psychology, the IRS, and the legal systems of many nations; its extortion of money from believers and extended investment in real estate; and most of all, its cruel treatment of adherents who fall into disfavor with the Church’s leaders and sustained campaign to keep them in the religion’s control. Wright debunks Hubbard’s many lies about his background. He shows how Scientology has extorted money from adherents by forcing them to take expensive classes and even making charges to their credit cards without permission. He documents Miscavige’s physical and emotional abuse of even his highest lieutenants. He reveals the lush treatment given to Tom Cruise, including the way that Scientology helped him procure a new partner after his split with Nicole Kidman. Most horrifically, Wright describes the way in which Scientology has broken the families of members, taken away children, mandated divorces and abortions, and imprisoned, tortured, starved, and brainwashed those singled out for punishment.

For a taste, check out this summary of some of its revelations, but to put yourself fully in the know, check out the book and read it in its entirety.

Check the WRL catalog for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief

Or listen to Going Clear on audio CD

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IllusionSeparateness

As human beings we are all connected, even across time. Small acts of kindness or a single act of brutality may have repercussions down through the years and perhaps even across generations. During World War II, a baby was placed in a girl’s arms in Paris. She raised the baby as her own son and told him a romantic version of his origins. Almost two decades later as a young man in the United States, he realizes that his circumcision means that he was almost certainly Jewish and learns what that meant for his chances of survival in World War II Paris.

Simon Van Booy’s haunting novel starts in 2010 with a series of coincidental meetings. An elderly man in California cradles a new rest home patient as he dies. Then the story jumps around through disparate people in different decades and on different continents and at various points in their lives. The people portrayed in the first decades of the 2000s are largely unaware that they are connected to horrific and sometimes heartwarming events in the battlefields of WWII France sixty years earlier. It is a compelling story told through vignettes painted in sparing poetic language.  It only as you read on that you can build up the picture of the connections between the characters, in many cases connections that they themselves will never know. There is the mystery of what happened to John during the war and minor characters who suggest or carry out small acts of kindness that show how lives are entwined  throughout the decades.

The Illusion of Separateness is a quick read and a memorable story that raised the possibility of redemption, the power of love, and the healing in human connections. I recommend it for fans of  literary fiction. Read it in a quiet moment to savor the language, the story and web of connections as they build up.

Check the WRL catalog for The Illusion of Separateness.

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