WAYFARING STRANGER, BY JAMES LEE BURKE

James Lee Burke’s sprawling novel connects an encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to the Battle of the Bulge and the oil boom.


Here in the Lone Star State, we have a subgenre of the Great American Novel we like to call the Novel as Big as Texas. A representative N.A.B.A.T. features lots of pages crowded with multiple generations of characters fighting Comanches, driving cattle, bringing in oil wells, eating Mexican food, settling ancestral grudges and brooding about the pitiless immensity of the Land. The category arguably began with Edna Ferber’s “Giant” and has proven elastic enough to encompass not just earnest cycloramic texts like James Michener’s “Texas” but also literary benchmarks as varied as Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Philipp Meyer’s recent epic, “The Son.”

James Lee Burke’s enormous reputation centers mostly on the 20 novels in his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, which is set in Louisiana. But Burke was born in Houston and has long conducted a brisk side business west of the Sabine River with novels that chronicle the lives of the Hollands, an archetypically Texan clan. Son Holland, the patriarch, appeared in “Two for Texas,” which took place during the time of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution, and his descendants Hackberry Holland and Hack’s cousin Billy Bob Holland each anchor their own series of mystery novels.

Read the rest of the review at: www.nytimes.com


This is James Lee Burke in top form. If you like his writing, this will be a treat for you. It’s part of the Holland family of mysteries and a very good one.

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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.

RED QUEEN’S RACE — JUST LIKE REAL LIFE

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

Alice-Red-Queen

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Lewis CarrollThrough the Looking-Glass


That’s the way life used to be. Lucky me, I’m not trying to go somewhere else any more. Being here is fine.

Phew. I guess I can finally stop running!

WHAT MAKES A BOOK?

I read a lot and almost entirely on a Kindle. I feel about my Kindle the way I feel about computers: it’s a better way.

Especially as I’ve gotten older and my eyes tire quickly, being able to adjust size and style of the fonts has become increasingly important. Kindle is lighter than a paperback and has its own light. My Kindle isn’t a book — it’s a portable library that I can take with me wherever I go.

A while back, I had to read a “real book” because it wasn’t available on Kindle. I found it heavy and worse, I had to turn a light by which to read. I’m not used to that! Kindle HDX 1When we travel, I no longer need to haul a trunk full of paperbacks. My Kindle fits neatly in my shoulder bag, camera bag or laptop case. My wrists don’t get tired from holding it. I can read one-handed. The Kindle keeps my place for me, even if I’m reading more than one book at a time. And the bookmarks never fall out.

75-MyBooks-NK-05 I grab my Kindle on the way out when I’m off to the doctor. Having stuff to read takes some of the sting out of waiting. At home, I don’t have to figure out where to put books. For the first time in 30 years, there’s a bit of wiggle room on my book shelves.

I get annoyed by people who tell me electronic books aren’t “real books.” I’m sure when books replaced papyrus scrolls, a lot of people complained. And when the printing press replaced scribes, whew! That was major change. For me, it’s contents that makes a book, not format.

A couple of years ago, we gave away hundreds of books. They went to our local library, two high schools, the senior center and to any friends who wanted them. And there are plenty more where they came from if anyone wants them.

Yet I still love old-fashioned paper books. There’s nothing like the smell of paper and ink when you open a new book. Nothing sounds sweeter than the soft crack of a book’s binding as it loosens for the first time. The rustle of paper when you turn pages is music to my ears.

If I had unlimited room, I’d have a library with every book I love filling the shelves. But I’d do my reading on the Kindle anyway. Because it weighs almost nothing and it’s lit from within. I’ve gotten spoiled by the lightness and the light.

There’s room in the world for all kinds of things. Paper books will never be obsolete. Buy them as long as you have room in your bookcases.

For everything else, there’s a Kindle. Or a Nook or a tablet or whatever device you prefer.

Reading is important. The rest is semantics.

POEM TO THE THAWING WIND

A Poem to the Thawing Wind

By Robert Frost

 

Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
Make the settled snow-bank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate’er you do to-night,
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit’s crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o’er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.

Send in the clowns … Marilyn Armstrong

America, land of the brave and the free. Photo by Turtsman.

My father was not a wise man, but a smart one who knew how to make money. He was a lifelong Democrat, small businessman and other things I would prefer not to delve into right now. A big part of his salesman’s repertoire were one liners and jokes. This was a favorite of mine.

It isn’t what you don’t know that will get you. It’s what you DO know that’s wrong.

Albert Friedman
Self-Made American (1917 – 2010)

How true it is, and also, how sad. So many people knowing with complete certainty so much that is so wrong. For them, the motto will forever be thus:

Don’t confuse me with facts! My mind is made up.

So, I guess if you want to maintain your bona fides as a Real American, you should continue to watch ONLY Fox News. It will help to reinforce your unfounded opinions by presenting pseudo facts and speculation in lieu of real information and you, dumbass, will believe every word of it. Rupert Murdoch is laughing at you all the way to his offshore accounts.

Don’t read anything that contains facts unless they comply with your preconceptions. In fact, it might be best to avoid reading entirely. Make a flag of your ignorance and close-mindedness; wave it proudly. Tell the world you know nothing and don’t want to learn nothin’ neither.

Finally, proclaim that you are the prototypical American, unlike the rest of us snobbish book-reading socialist anti-Christian liberal Nazis who don’t agree with you. Don’t be concerned that you don’t know what prototypical means. I didn’t expect you to understand. Too many syllables.

After that, you can wonder why the world is losing respect for the United States. Maybe it has something to do with “true Americans” like you with your passion for ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and stupidity.

You vote against your own best interests because you vote not for people who will help you, but for those who share your hates. Anyone can have you by preying on what you hate. You hate so many things that you are easily had. You are America’s fools and losers, the people about whom H.L Mencken spoke when he said:

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

H. L. Mencken
US editor (1880 – 1956)

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY – JAMES ZERNDT – ENTER TO GET A FREE COPY!

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to head phones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s as wrong a time in her life to have a baby as there possibly could be and probably the worst possible place she could be — far away from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first person narrators, both south Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end the pain is very personal — and remarkable similar — for each.  There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade made abortion a viable choice. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paper back and Kindle.

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