ON MY SHELF – JAMES LEE BURKE

Off the Shelf - Take a look at your bookcase. If you had enough free time, which book would be the first one you’d like to reread? Why?


A few days ago, I finished “Wayfaring Stranger,” the latest, greatest book by James Lee Burke, one of my top five favorite authors. It was a good read. Maybe a great read. It made me hunger for more of that special JLB magic.

books james lee burke

So there I am, looking through my bookshelves and I realize I have every hardcover edition of the past 20 years of James Lee Burke, many of them signed by the hand of the Master.

I’d like to reread at least a few of them, maybe start the Dave Robicheaux series from the beginning. Read them in hardcover and paper and sniff the ink, feel the binding give just  a little. It would be a trip back to when books had heft, a feel, a scent. I sometimes miss that. I love my Kindle and my audiobooks, but sometimes … I miss the smell of printer’s ink.

RICHARD BEN SAPIR – THE FAR ARENA

The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir

FarArena

I recently bought a used copy of this long out-of-print book. I first read it when it was released in 1978. I was working at Doubleday and it fell to me to do the write-up for it in the monthly publication that was sent to book club members.

A large part of my job was reading books. Talk about great jobs, that was the best. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my Doubleday years. Not merely was I paid to read and write about books, but I received (as did all the editors and graphic artists in the department) new copies of every book we worked on. We all had huge personal libraries. We also had 2 hour lunches and wonderful co-workers. I looked forward to work the way most folks anticipate the weekend. It was that good. I realize this is a digression, but I wanted to put this in context. Maybe brag a little.

The Far Arena is classified as science fiction. It is, but not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t fall into any genre except perhaps speculative fiction, a catch-all term for odd books. Time travel? Sort of. But without the machinery.

gladiators2The story in brief: A Roman gladiator is flash frozen in the arctic ice. He is accidentally discovered by a team drilling for oil and subsequently defrosted and brought back to life. What follows is his story as a Roman married to a Hebrew slave, and his perceptions of the modern world from the point of view of a man whose world disappeared 1600 years ago. His observations on modern society are priceless.

For example, while in the hospital, he asks about the slaves who serve him. He is referring to the to nurses and other workers who attend to his needs. His new friends explain that they aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave, or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea.

“You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves without responsibility.”

“They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.

“They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves. They are slaves,” he responds. Who would argue the point? Not me.

That is paraphrasing, of course, but it’s the spirit of the dialogue. I have never looked at the world quite the same way since I read this book. Modern workers have all the freedom of slaves, but no assurance that anyone will care for them when they are no longer able to work. That’s a pretty good deal from the owners’ … I mean employers’ … point-of-view.

This is a brilliant, unique book. It stands apart from all the books I’ve read over the years. All other time travel stories are about modern people visiting the past. This is the only book I can think of where a man from the past offers a view of the modern world and it’s not pretty.

Richard Ben Sapir wrote other books that are unusual and worth reading. I especially liked The Body. But The Far Arena stands head and shoulders above the rest. He only wrote a few novels. His world was really comic books, or what are now called “graphic novels.” Finding copies of Ben Sapir’s books is challenging. If you can buy or borrow one, it’s a must-read, even if science fiction is not normally your favorite genre.

It would make a great movie. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. I recommend you read it if you can. You can find copies around occasionally and although he was not a prolific writer, he wrote a few other novels, all of which are very good and have unique stories.

Did I mention that it’s exceptionally well written? Highly literate? Well-researched? Convincing? All those things and a great, gripping story too.

Happy hunting and hopefully, happy reading!

THE WITCH PROMISES GREAT BEST-SELLERS

A BOOKISH CHOICE – A literary-minded witch offers you a choice. With a flick of her wand, you can become an obscure novelist whose work will be admired and studied by a select few for decades (phooey on that!) or a popular author whose books give pleasure to millions (definitely). Which do you choose? (Is this a serious question?)


Was I ever young enough to think money doesn’t matter? If I ever said anything that silly, I apologize. To anyone to whom I may have expressed such arrant nonsense, I must have been on drugs. They warned us about the brown acid.

75-BooksHP

You can always write some (or many) good books if you have a publisher and an audience. If your books sell well, you don’t have to write drivel. There’s nothing to prevent you from being a best-selling author and a fine writer. I can think of a bunch of authors who succeed at both.

Great writing does not exclude popularity. Exceptional books will find their audience if they get a reasonable shot at it … which means, any exposure at all.

Go with the best-selling choice. It’s a win-win.


And Mr. Huberman, you need a course in spelling and grammar. I don’t wish to insult you, but please, take the time to proofread your posts before publishing. You are writing for writers. We notice.

WALDO AND MAGIC, INC., ROBERT HEINLEIN

waldo and magic incI’m astonished how many people have read these two novellas and miss the point. Some readers apparently can’t see any connection between the two stories. They think these novellas are in a single volume by a fluke or “to fill up space.” Either they didn’t really read them or they are conceptually challenged, unable to make a logical leap between two related ideas without a flow chart.

The point is that technology is a based on our belief it will work. As long as we believe in it, it functions. If or when we stop believing, it won’t. It’s all magic.

When we lose faith in technology, magic jumps in and becomes the new technology. The difference between one and the other is functionally negligible. The stories’ plots are irrelevant. It’s the concept that counts.

I read these books about 50 years ago. I haven’t read them since, but remember them. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the plot of whatever book I read last week. These were original concepts when first introduced in the 1940s, was still original 25 years later when I read it. Probably still original today, more than 60 years after the stories were first published.

The best science fiction is concept-driven rather than character or plot-driven. These two have stuck with me for a lifetime. Both novellas are based on a unified concept: We believe in what works — and what works is what we believe.

Nothing is certain anymore. Nothing. Chaos is king and magic is loose in the world.

Available on Kindle, in paperback and from Audible.com.

THE BEST BOOKS I NEVER READ BUT SAID I DID

 

Ulysses James JoyceIt starts in school when they give you lists of books to read. I was always a reader. Most of the time, I’d already read most of the books on any reading list. Most others were not big deal. Reading a book was not normally a problem for me. After all, I love books.

But literature courses inevitably include a lot of books that I would never read voluntarily. Maybe books that no one would voluntarily read. How about Silas Marner? When was the last time someone read that because it sounded like a fun read?

Despite current trendiness, Jane Austin was nobody’s favorite author in high school. I read it, but I didn’t have to like it. Pride and Prejudice was the only book I ever threw in a lake. There, I’ve admitted it. I do not like Jane Austen. Not then, not now. Neither does my husband. We also don’t like the movies made from the books.

By the time I got to college, among the many books I did not read was James Joyce’s Ulysses. Not only didn’t I read it, I barely got through the Cliff Notes. But I got an A on the paper for my “unique understanding of the characters and motivation.” Good Cliff Notes, eh? I did read Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and thought it wasn’t half bad. At least I could discern a plot and everyone in it wasn’t a prig — as they were in Austen’s novels.

I slogged my way through all of Dostoyevsky books. It was voluntary, but I still couldn’t tell you why I did it. Maybe to prove I could?

I read all 1800 pages of Romaine Rolland’s Jean Christophe because my mother loved the book. She also had me read Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsun’s depressing tale of grinding poverty and despair in the Norwegian highlands. I barely made it through Madame Bovary and War and Peace was a non-starter.

Growth of the SoilI never made it through anything by Thomas Hardy. Or Lawrence Durrell. I loved Larry’s brother Gerald Durrell. He was hilarious and wrote about my favorite subjects, animals. I slogged my way through Lady Chatterly’s Lover only because everyone told me it was hot. I thought it was dull. My brother had some books stuffed under his bed that were a lot dirtier and more fun.

I never owned up to not reading those important, literary masterpieces. When the subject came up — which it did when we were students and even for a few years after that — I would try to look intelligent. I’d grunt at the appropriate moments, nod appreciatively.

So yesterday, I was looking at a review I wrote last January about Dahlgren and realized I was lying about literature again. I hated the book. I didn’t merely dislike it. I found it boring, pretentious. It had no plot, no action, and as far as I could tell, no point. I mealy-mouthed around my real feelings because it’s a classic. Everyone says so.

So my question is: who really read that book? Who really loved it? Did everyone pretend to love it because they heard what a great book it was? How many people lie about reading great books when in fact, they never make it past the preface before falling into a coma?

I’m betting it ain’t just me.

REVISIONIST HISTORY AND RACISM – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond

by Scott Allen Nollen

Three Bad Men

As big a fan of these three men as I am, there is a level of revisionist history that is impossible for me to accept.

I had to stop reading the book. At least for a while. It’s a temporary interruption I’m sure, but I needed to back off from Three Bad Men. I need to take a few deep breaths and calm down before continuing.

This book chronicles the lives and friendships of John Ford, John Wayne and Ward Bond. Two great actors and one extraordinary director. It’s an interesting read. I have been reading, as is my habit, slowly, savoring. I was enjoying it.

Until I got to the section in which the author claims Ford used Stepin Fetchit and other minorities to “slyly mock America’s racism”.

That’s absolutely untrue.

What I see — and have always seen — is the perpetuation of racism by Pappy. As much as I love John Ford’s westerns, there’s no escaping the racism in his films.

They were still calling Woody Strode “boy” as late as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Even considering his belated attempt to make reparations with Cheyenne Autumn, it was much too little, way too late.

I’ll get back to the book in a while, when I have calmed down a bit. Right now, I’m sorry. I simply can’t continue reading it.

JAMES LEE BURKE TALKS ABOUT HIS FICTION, HISTORY, AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

 

Abandoning the badasses in his usual Louisiana haunts, the Edgar-winning author crafts his first historical novel about oil, movies, and the American Dream.

JamesLeeBurkeLike Babe Ruth, late in his career, pointing toward the center field bleachers at Wrigley Field before sending a ball soaring out of the stadium, James Lee Burke has managed, in one swift maneuver, to confirm and enhance his legacy. At the age of 77, the Edgar Award-winning crime novelist has written his best book.

Wayfaring Stranger is unlike Burke’s previous novels, yet it contains enough vintage Burke passages of pyrotechnical prose to light up the page, and remind the reader whose work rests in his hands. The historical novel introduces its protagonist, Weldon Holland, as a child growing up in rural Texas where he has a chance encounter with Bonnie and Clyde. From there we follow him through the combat of World War II, the rescue of a Jewish woman from a death camp, the rise of the commercial oil industry, and the lights, camera, and action of Hollywood nights.

American history has always been in the background of Burke’s crime novels, butWayfaring Stranger is his first work of historical fiction. The genre change serves Burke’s writing well, and it could not have come at a better time.

Source: www.thedailybeast.com

I haven’t read it yet, but it’s up next! I have been a big fan of Burke’s writing for more than 20 years. Unlike some other authors I could name, he actually writes his books himself. He isn’t a franchise. He’s an author and a brilliant one.

I’m also glad he wrote something other than another Dave Robicheaux detective novel. I love Dave and Clete, but they are getting a bit long in the tooth. Clearly James Lee Burke is more than a little tired of his characters and I have suspected for a while he was continuing to write them only because readers love them and the publisher finds them highly profitable.

I’m glad — despite pressure — he has written something fresh and new.

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