Publishers Weekly Review

Glad to see this! For an indy author, something of a coup, reviewed by jury selection: https://www.publishersweekly.com/9781732760806?fbclid=IwAR1Syf-ovA1xvyRY5qDpj6J_F0bdusGS1iUZB-7viUAl5OF685vFhKueltg.

As most readers of this blog will know, the novel is available on Amazon here https://amzn.to/3eZo2XQ or by request at your local book store.

And through the end of April, the Kindle version is available for free on Amazon.

Here’s what Publishers Weekly said:

Thanks, PW! What a happy surprise amidst our sequestering!

Fave Books of 2019

For what it’s worth, here are the ten books I most enjoyed, learned from, dug to the max in the past year.  Only one is new, but they’re all in print if you’re interested.  I’m listing them alphabetically by author’s last name, not ranking them 1-10.

Lynda Barry – How to Draw Comics.  How does a guide to making comics double as a tool for spiritual growth?  Check out this line:  “We might call what we are doing when we use images in this way a form of dreaming.” By the way, Barry doesn’t care if you think you can draw. She prefers students who gave up drawing as children. That’s where the magic lies!

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything.  I read whatever Bryson writes, but this is his best one, I think.  Each chapter a compact, reader-friendly history of scientific discovery (with head-shaking anecdotes about the wacky discoverers themselves), ranging from the macro marvels of astronomy to the micro level guesses of atomic physics.

Ted Hughes – Poetry in the Making.  Like Barry’s book, a primer on imagining differently, in the great English poet Hughes’ case, in order to build poems.  The book was intended as a tool for middle school teachers, but its appreciation of the rigor, attentiveness, humor, and compassion that goes into writing a poem offers lessons for us all.

Mark Hyman – 10-Day Detox Diet:  The Blood Sugar Solution.  Ironic that I write this while slamming one of my wife Chris’ yummy Christmas cookies, but I do so having lost fifteen pounds by following the guidelines in this sensible guide to healthy eating.  The book’s also a convincing screed against the sugar industry that we now know has sucked most of us into a deadly addiction.  The other books on this list expanded my horizons.  This one shrank my waistband.

Gerda Lerner – A Death of One’s Own. Hard to blurb this book, which has touched and shaken me more than anything else read this year. Gifted by a friend who is facing her own deadly cancer, this is a deeply felt day-by-day testament to the tumor-driven dying of the author’s husband. I think it’s a capital-G Great book, singing love, marriage, worry, wonder, and yes, the certainty awaiting us all.

J.R. Moehringer – Sutton.  The author of a poignant memoir The Tender Bar and that ace biography of Andre Agassi, Open (both well worth reading) brings a noir sensibility and hard-boiled style to this fictionalized biography of the world’s most famous bank robber Willie Sutton. Mr. Scorsese, please, make a film of it!

Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye.  A tremor in the Force this year with her death, sending me to this debut novel I’d missed.  Amazing that right at the start it was all there – her pitch-perfect plainsong, her spiraling dives into complex psychology, her ability to frame explosive critiques of our screwed up world in the troubles of a single family.  In 2020, I’m planning to take them all in order, one by one.

Michele Obama – Becoming.  I bought this for Chris for her birthday last year, in audio book form as read by the author, and we’ve shared it among friends ever since.  We all know that voice: succinct, loving, sharp-eyed, decent, and self-aware.  I’m not a huge fan of listening to books, but this one you have to hear.

Walker Percy – The Last Gentleman & The Second Coming.  One of the unsung pleasures of living in your 7th decade is that of re-reading.  These two novels published decades apart concern the same spacey protagonist, an everyman adrift in the pretty illusion that we call life.  As a youngster, the first spoke to me more.  (Hard for youngsters to care much about the worries of the old, I guess.)  But now, reading them together, Percy’s wily tracing of the way one’s rubbery soul resists its own lessons across a lifetime turned the two novels into one instructive (and even funny) meditation.

Esme Weijun Wang – The Collected Schizophrenias.  Most of us have seen the damage an unbalanced mind can do; Wang shares her own story, that of a brilliant student reduced to hiding in a closet beset by monsters, living always in the shadow of lurking psychosis.  She shares what she has learned about mental illness, too, and it’s clear we don’t know much.  We have labels, we have categories, we have brain-modulating medications, but also people everywhere hiding in closets beset by monsters.

Colson Whitehead – The Intuitionist.  Whitehead’s big book this year was Nickel Boys, but I found his first at Goodwill and thought I might start there.  An audacious mash-up of Ellison and Delillo, this young man straight out of Harvard weaves a sustained metaphor about racism and social striving into a detective story involving elevator inspectors.  After this, in 2020 (just like with Morrison), I’m planning to read straight through Whitehead’s oeuvre.  I mean, wow.

Oops!  That’s twelve (thirteen if you count the two Percy’s separately).  So, sue me.  Please also note that I have not mentioned the wonderful books by my friends that came out this year, having written about them in previous posts.  What have you enjoyed reading in 2019? Please share in a comment if you will. And happy holiday reading to all!

What to Read this Veterans Day

One of the few gratifying things to emerge from America’s nearly two decade-long 9-11 driven engagement in the Middle East is a community of powerful, tell-it-like-it-is writers.  On this Veterans Day, wanted to list ten works by these authors that anyone who claims to care about veterans should consider reading.  I’m not ranking them.  They’re listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.  Most are still in print, and I hope they stay that way.

Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden.

Ackerman served 5 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has Silver and Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.  This isn’t the only book he’s written about the wars, but in its brief, searing and lyrical 173 pages, he screams the aftermath of war, as a grievously wounded man, on full life support, lies dying in the company of his young wife and the ghost of a buddy who didn’t survive their battle (and who narrates the story). Bleak, yes, but I couldn’t put it down.

Brian Castner, The Long Walk:  A Story of War and the Life that Follows.

During three tours in the Middle East, Castner led an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit.  His no holds barred memoir intersperses nerve-wracking anecdotes from the front with his equally compelling experiences post-discharge, trying to raise a family while dealing with PTSD (which he labels “going Crazy”).

Dexter Filkins, The Forever War.

Filkins is not a soldier, he’s a war correspondent, who has covered the tortured conflict in Afghanistan since way before 9-11 (when we were arming the same combatants we now fight).  This history of our longest war goes straight to the streets, showing the human cost on both sides of a conflict no one seems to understand or know how to end.

David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service.

Finkel is a war correspondent, too, the author of one of the best books about the Iraq War, Good Soldiers.  This one’s just as thought-provoking, focusing on what happens when combat veterans come home, as they struggle to make their way, coping with PTSD, the lure of suicide, and the needs of loved ones in a nation that doesn’t understand.

Sebastian Junger, War.

The author of the riveting tale The Perfect Storm and other books about men and women in extremis, Junger imbedded himself with a platoon on a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan for over a year.  In this book, you get to know these guys and the gritty, nervy fraternity they make for themselves out on the wild frontier.  As close as we couch potatoes are likely to come to being there.

Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor.

Co-written with a writer named Patrick Robinson, this is probably the most famous tale to emerge from the war in Afghanistan, thanks to the movie of the same title and several other books that tell pieces of what happened the day Seal Team 10 set out to capture an al Qaeda leader and everything went sideways.  Knowing that Luttrell was later shot and killed back home by an Iraq war veteran with PTSD, who he was trying to help, well, I don’t even know what to say about that.

Phil Klay, Redeployment.

A Marine in the Iraq War, Klay’s story collection reads like a kaleidoscope of the battlefield experience and its aftermath, each tale a bleeding shard of the whole spinning wheel.  These stories have been compared to Hemingway and Conrad, and for good reason. 

Jennifer Percy, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism.

Percy, a young MFA-writer, took it upon herself to follow one man as he bravely and desperately seeks relief from the horrors of his post-conflict experience back home, where he is haunted by the ghosts of friends he’s lost and a hulking imaginary monster he calls The Black Thing.

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds.

Powers is a native of Richmond, Virginia, and attended the same high school as my sons.  He joined the Army at 17 and served as a machine gunner in Iraq.  This novel follows two friends amidst the battle of Al Tafar, as one unravels and the other tries to hold him together.  This book has been made into a movie, too.

Gary Trudeau, The War Within & Signature Wound.

Trudeau, yes the Doonesbury cartoonist, early on committed to the lives of the men and women in the desert conflicts and their families back home.  He’s published collections of wartime letters and set up a blog sharing eye witness accounts, for instance.  But his comic strips, tracking the post-conflict struggles of former jock, now amputee war veteran, B.D., and the young brain injury survivor Toggle, are some of the most moving, somehow funny, and on point accounts to emerge from these wars.

Catch-22 Revisited: A very short review

Joseph Heller’s timeless World War II novel Catch-22 first came out in 1961, but I ran across it in 8th grade. 1970 was the year I first started reading real thick small-print adult novels (that year was made for hooking a reader, with The Godfather (and that lady’s troubling but intriguing sexual dysfunction solved by Sonny Corleone as only he could), and the big trio of war novels all arriving in paperback (Slaughterhouse Five, MASH, and the Heller classic). In another post, maybe, I’ll go into the other paperback that rocked my world that year — Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask — but for now, suffice it to say that I became a reader for real in 8th grade.

Of the novels, Catch-22 was my fave. It was absurd, tragic and funny in a way that made sense, and when I bought a copy for my son Nick two weeks ago on his 22nd birthday, then got lost for a while in the first 100 pages before wrapping it, I was surprised by how well I’d remembered the story, still just as gripping as before. Some of its tropes — not just the old famous catch-22, but the one about measuring your age by how close you are to death, the Snowden’s of yesteryear, Milo Minderbinder as a type of the wheeler-dealer con man, etc., — had long been part of my mental library. The book stuck.

Of course, when all the movies based on these books came out, I went, and because the 1970s were the golden age of American films, I became an avid moviegoer as well. MASH and The Godfather were better than the books, but Slaughterhouse Five was best remembered for Valerie Perrine’s nude cameo, and I had my first film watcher hissy-fit, I think, over how little of Catch-22 made it into a 2-hour movie. Yes, Mike Nichols’ film came out the same year I read the novel. I pouted as only a working class country boy redneck with a subscription to The New Yorker can (ask Beth, I actually did subscribe back then).

So anyway, loved the book hated the movie, blah blah. And then last week Hulu released a mini-series Catch-22. At last, the novel would be done justice, all its characters and subplots included! I signed on for free just to watch it. Then, with that 100 pages I’d just re-read in mind, I saw that Amazon Prime had put up the original movie as well. So, what the heck, school’s out, I pulled that up, too. So here all those years later is my last and final review.

The novel still works, boy does it. In the current absurd, cruel, comic, and terrifying world we live in, there may be no better road map. Every character in the book has her/his match on the political stage, and their dilemmas match up, too. So if you haven’t yet, read it. If you read it as a kid like I did, re-read it.

The movies: Let me just say this, my snitty 8th grade know-it-all film critic self was wrong (surprise surprise). The 2-hour Catch-22 is brilliant. Somehow it hits all the novel’s key themes, and does so with a beautifully orchestrated chaos of one liners, flashbacks, fully lived performances (even the cameos), and cool sneaky easter eggs (pay attention to the photograph of FDR on the wall of Major Major’s office). It is in every way at least 100 times better than the slow, by the numbers GQ photo spread that is George Clooney’s Hulu show.

That is all.

I Hear America Singing (the Blues)

An appreciation of Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line

On April Fool’s Day 1996, my bride of exactly one day and I climbed into my little Ford Probe in upstate New York and headed west on a yearlong honeymoon, gigging as traveling occupational therapists.  We lived in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Raleigh, North Carolina for 3-4 month engagements at nursing homes.  On weekends we explored the surrounding area and in between gigs for weeks at a time we meandered across the American landscape and back again.  What we learned on that long sojourn changed us and has stayed with us ever since.  We drove and hiked and swam and flew and marveled at and studied this whole wide continent.  In our work, we got to know people of every ethnic and racial background, people who were indigent and people who were wealthy, all of them broken and seeking healing at our hands.  On our travels, we saw more of the same, but also began to imagine the landscape itself as a fantastically varied and torn, sometimes even ruined, expanse.  But one that seemed, let me be maudlin here for a minute, to have a heartbeat and a soulful yearning to heal itself, to explain us in some way, to shape itself into a whole where we might fit. 

Here’s an example.  We were headed back East, crossing the broad and unpeopled plains of Wyoming, and arrived late one night in a town called Green River.  The next morning I woke up, stepped outside my door at the back of the hotel, and nearly fell over in the shadow of a looming moonscape we hadn’t known was there.  This sort of thing happened over and over on our yearlong journey.  The continent’s shocking presence insisting we attend.  I say all this as an introduction to the photographer who made this picture. 

Joshua Dudley Greer – Green River, Wyoming
in his book of photographs Somewhere Along the Line

I saw it today in a review of his new book, and instantly zoomed back to that moment in the back of that hotel, coffee spilling from my cup. 

Joshua Dudley Greer, the review says, spent a year doing what we did, minus the therapy gigs but plus a genius eye for the beautiful, harsh and puzzling truths one finds along the highways of America.  You can see more of his pictures just by Googling, but I’d recommend you do what I just did, and purchase his book Somewhere Along the Line.  Every picture, as Rod Stewart sang, tells a story, but these do way more than that.  They speak directly to that troubling, inspiring experience Chris and I shared on our yearlong honeymoon.  They throw you up against the landscape, the individuals who – like us – try to make sense of it, make use of it, find themselves in it.  They hit hard at the ways we’ve uglified it, yet they sing of the ways it resists degradation, at how it shapes what we do and who we are, despite ourselves.

I’m rambling, and I apologize for that.  Clearly, I have a lot of work to do in coming to grips with this trip taken nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Greer’s photographs can help, I think.  Not as nostalgic travelogue, but as a Whitmanic yawp that says it’s all still out here, it’s all still just as profound and insistent as you found it.  What have we done to ourselves, to our land; what is it doing to us?  Come see.  You’ll be better for it.

By the way, the moving Washington Post review by Kenneth Dickerman that turned me on to this book is here.