Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Download of a Random-A** Story

now finished: The Ghosts of Ragged-Ass Gulch by Bill Pronzini

Every once in a while you just have to listen to something silly...or maybe that's what I'm telling myself because I succumbed to the pressure of the "Free for Members" section of Audible and downloaded this along with a half dozen or more other interviews, shows, and samples last month. This novella (or is it a novelette? That's a problem with downloading free audio samples; you don't actually know how many words/pages you've got. I am still resistant to audio fiction for many reasons, and now I have thought of another one) is about a detective in Northern (waaay northern) California investigating a fire, death, suspected arson and the like in a former gold mining town.

It was enjoyable enough, although I wasn't too fond of the way the male narrator did women's voices. They were like something out of a cheesy variety show sketch. Is that really necessary? We understand that his girlfriend Carrie is a woman, and your weirdly affected not-falsetto does nothing to further this impression in our minds, Mr. Narrator Dude.

This, you see, is part of why I am not an audio book person. I am greatly enjoying my Audible membership for the non-fiction, particularly my idea to listen to a lot of Pulitzer-winning non-fiction books on my MP3 player as I walk and ride buses around Korea, but as for novels (and novellas/long short stories), I still hate being read to. Hate hate hate.

Putting all that aside, this is a simple story that would be a great way to pass the time in a doctor's waiting room, for example. Mostly it just made me hanker for another trip to Northern California some time in the very near future. And, I kept thinking someone might actually secretly have gold in them 'thar hills... alas, no.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Pennsylvania President

now finished: President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein(entry backdated to when I finished the book)

Lots of early U.S. presidents were from Virginia. There were also a few from New England and from the Carolinas-Tennessee corridor, and a couple from New York. There was even a "Western" president (you know, Ohio and the Indiana "frontier") who played up the log cabin angle in his campaign years before Lincoln was around. But the 15th president, James Buchanan, came from Pennsylvania, and what I learned from this prez bio is that Pennsylvania politics of the early to mid-1800s were almost as atrocious and horrifying as New York politics.

I've mentioned before that Martin Van Buren basically invented the Democratic party as we know it, with political party loyalty, back room deals, and bizarre trade-off power plays. (He had the help of Andrew Jackson in this, along with plenty of New York politicians.) Well, Pennsylvania was not content to let its neighboring state be the biggest and baddest, and it certainly started throwing its weight around in presidential elections as well.

Now, here I must say that I actually like James Buchanan, and I think he gets a raw deal in how he is remembered. (I mean, to the extent that he is remembered at all.) He was a true success at his law career, and his political career. He made money, and he made connections, but he had loyalty to the place he came from and he supported his family forever, a family plagued with deaths and deadbeats and struggles and extra mouths to feed. This is why his niece and others lived in his household and ended up coming to the White House with him -- that's right, James B. is our famous "bachelor president" who had his niece do all the official society hosting First Lady duties. James had a LOT of experience, serving in Congress and as a Secretary of State, as well as being involved in all the political goings-on in Pennsylvania. People think poorly of him because the South started seceding at the end of his term, and because the slavery question obviously erupted into the biggest event in U.S. history during the next presidency, that of Abe Lincoln.

But our boy Buchanan did his utmost to keep the Union together, and he was deeply concerned with the law. He, like Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore before him, was no fan of slavery, but saw no legal way in the Constitution for the president to do anything about it. He also considered secession illegal. Most people at that time were focused on trying to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories; abolitionists were considered dangerous radicals (and, also a threat to the Constitution), sort of like some people jabber about Michael Moore and other righteous crusaders today.

Buchanan also got a raw deal from the Democratic party. Buchanan probably should have been nominated for the presidency earlier than he was. Maybe Franklin Pierce was the Obama to his Hillary? (Although I tend to think of Hillary as more like Henry Clay - hugely important and destined to be president, a foregone conclusion that somehow went awry.) Buchanan got shipped off to Europe during Pierce's presidency, but interestingly that ended up working out in his favor because he wasn't around for those violent, nasty, tearing-the-country-apart years and he was actually able to get the 1856 nomination.

Buchanan was dedicated to the law and I think of him as acting with dignity and maturity in his political interactions. Of course he had his side of things in the heated passions of Pennsylvania politics. But he was also the older, wiser man born at the end of the 1700s, the previous generation that was now passing the torch to a volatile new era.

Furthermore, I learned from this biography how very much Lincoln some ideas of Buchanan agreed  with and even adopted some ideas of Buchanan. There is one part where the author, Klein, includes Buchanan's writing of his main points on slavery, secession, the Union, and the crisis, and then juxtaposes it with Lincoln's later speech of "his" points on slavery, secession, the Union and the crisis. Well my, my, aren't they similar. 

In short, this was another fascinating read and I truly think everyone would benefit from and enjoy reading a bio of every president in order, as I am doing. Note: my favorites are still Millard Fillmore and my boy JQA.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

I left home lots of years

now finished: The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

People who say you can't go home again may not have really tried. At any rate, you can definitely leave home again if you decide you don't want to be back after all.

I enjoyed this novel of Iowa people, life, The Big City, escape, grad school, drinking, cousins, driving, fretting, tragedy, cynicism, hippies, music, war, financial woes, family, "America," and so on.  As I mentioned on my Goodreads review, I really have to like a book that includes the the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Chicago's Clark Street, the Grand Canyon, AND Indigo Girls, don't I? Not to mention the random f***ed-uppery of the characters. Story of my life, much?

But it was not perfect, lest ye plunge in thinking it will be like The Corrections only different but still as good. No. It was lighter and had mistakes. Yes, mistakes! Actual mistakes! Come on, publishing industry: don't give up on editors. All writers need editors. Real writers know this. Books especially need editors. Clearly, I should have a job editing at a major publishing house based on what was allowed to make it into print in this and The Help, to cite two recent examples. In The Year We Left Home, we read that Newhart aired in the 1970s (no, that would be The Bob Newhart Show, not the 1980s Newhart) and "apparent" is spelled wrong MULTIPLE times. How does that happen? These are only a couple examples.

If I got over that (if!), why else would this not be a perfect book? I'm not sure. It features grad school and aimless twenty- and thirty-somethings in all their glory. Grad school people and aimless twenty- and thirty-somethings are my favorite! It also involves people living in different places, which is also my favorite. Not to mention the Iowa/Nebraskaness of it all, which everyone knows I think is the most underrated region of the U.S.  (Not best, underrated. Don't you misquote me.)

There's just something imperfect about it. But it's likable, likable, likable and it sucks you in so you'll stay up reading after you could easily have gone to sleep even if you aren't trying to finish it for your book group, as I was. The characters are all messed up in many ways (oooh, I forgot! There's AA! AA is always fun.) My book group had some dissatisfaction because of the messed up characters, but I greatly enjoyed the heck out of the oh-so-flawed people who populated this book.

I would probably read another of hers.  But get a new editor!