Oops, I’ve already read this one

I read two kinds of fiction, dime-a-dozen thriller and police/black ops books from the grocery store and literary fiction by established authors. The major books I remember, the grocery store novels I occasionally buy a second time without realizing I’ve already read them.

Some people keep yearly reading lists. If I did that, I would never again sit down with a “new” novel and 15-20 pages and realize I’ve been here before. I’m not organized enough to log in every novel I read into a spreadsheet.

Years ago, my wife and others who read romance novels used to complain about authors/publishers re-issuing old novels under new names. The authors I read don’t do that; it’s just that in spite of the over-the-top James-Bond kind of action, the plots and action don’t vary that much. So, the descriptions on the backs of the books don’t provide me with enough information for me to make sure I haven’t already read the book.

In general, I write better when I’m reading. So I go through dozens of books a year. Some I enjoy re-reading, but not the grocery store black ops stuff. Unlike Amazon, Publix and Food Lion don’t display a message with each book on the shelf that tells me when and if I purchased it in the past.

My reading is always in a state of chaos and it’s too late now to get it under control. Does anyone else find themselves buying the same books more than once, though not intentionally? As William Bendix often said on the old TV series “The Life of Riley,” “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

Malcolm

‘Firefly Lane’ by Kristin Hannah

Best I can tell, we really escaped 2020 and are now slogging our way through 2021. If this true, then I’m 12 years behind the times reading Firefly Lane.

It’s a well-written story about two schoolgirls who, though opposites in many ways, become close friends and make a pact to remain best friends forever. One  (Tully) becomes a rich and famous news anchor. The other (Kate), who showed a lot of promise as a writer, ended up having a busy family life as a stay-at-home mom.

There’s a lot of realistic push-me/pull-you between Tully and Kate because their lives unfold quite differently, leading to differences of style and opinion, including the question of whether or not Kate is overprotective when it comes to her daughter. Tully and the daughter think so.

If you read Hannah’s afterword, you probably understood why she ended the book as she did. She handled it well. Nonetheless, I didn’t like it. I saw it as adding insult to injury insofar as Kate’s role in the story was concerned. Kate’s life was rather that of the Biblical Job and the ending made her a tragic character rather than a gracefully aging mother contentedly watching her children grow into adults partly in spite of Tully and because of Tully.

Worth reading,  but it needed something different and less predictable in the final chapters. I haven’t watched any episodes of the Netflix series.

Malcolm

Some readers wanted a bombastic ending to “Sarabande.” I chose a minimalist approach that reflected, in my view, who the character was and how she had changed.

‘The Unwilling’ by John Hart

This is probably the most powerful crime novel I’ve read in years, but I’ll tell you now, it’s not for the squeamish. Many of the characters in this novel have no souls or are flawed in some fundamental way the is broken beyond mending. Gibson French, the son of a police detective and an overprotective mother lost his older brothers to the Vietnam war, one to death, the other–Jason–to horrors that changed him into an unknowable man.

Jason comes home after serving time in prison and wants to get to know Gibson (Gibby). They drink beer, they meet women, they talk. Innocent, enough, right, until a young woman dies in a horrific fashion and Jason is the presumed killer. Detective French doesn’t want Gibby to be influenced by Jason, much less drawn into probable crimes and the wrong crowd.

All of Hart’s novels are memorable. No doubt, the family dynamics made The Unwilling difficult to write. This novel is, perhaps, his best, though I think it was more gritty than it needed to be. But, given the characters, perhaps not. I am happy with the ending, though the characters and the novel’s readers go through hell to get there.

Around the edges of the plot, we have Vietnam’s My Lai massacre and the prospect that it wasn’t the only war crime that happened during the war. Jason knows but hasn’t been willing to speak of it.

Gibby comes of age–in spades, one might say–and, the wonder of this novel is that he survives the process. In fact, perhaps his parents also survive the process. These are strong characters, a twisted plot, and issues that will stick with the reader long after the last page of the novel is reached. That’s what makes good fiction.

Malcolm

My reference shelf: ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable’

Originally published in 1870 by the Reverend E. Cobham Brewer, it was aimed at the growing number of people who did not have a university education, but wanted to understand the origins of phrases and historical or literary allusions. The ‘phrase’ part of the title refers mainly to the explanation of various idioms and proverbs, while the “fable” part might more accurately be labelled “folklore” and ranges from classical mythology to relatively recent literature. On top of this, Brewer added notes on important historical figures and events, and other things which he thought would be of interest, such as Roman numerals. – Wikipedia

Prior to the Internet’s arrival allowing us to Google almost anything, I found this book to be a handy (and often distracting reference) for tracking down the origin or meaning of popular phrases, people, odd words, and the other kinds of stuff that authors ponder.

For example, from my 14th edition published in 1989, here are a few entries:

  • About the size of it: “How matters stand, approximately the facts of the case.”
  • Adamastor: “The spirit of the Cape of Storms (Cape of Good Hope), described by Camoëns (1524-1580) in the Lusiads, who appeared to Vasco da Gama and foretold disaster to all attempting the voyage to India.”
  • Blue-pictures: “Indecent cinema shows. The name derives from the custom of Chinese brothels being painted blue externally.”
  • Cracked pots last longest: An old proverb. Long-sufferers from ill health or some disability often outlive the seemingly fit and healthy.”

For authors, the book is a gold mine. I’ve shown only a few short entries here that will fit in this post. Some of the entries’ definitions often go on for multiple paragraphs and include cross-references. Many entries include similar words or phrases that alphabetically follow the first.

Here’s the publisher’s description for the most recent edition:

‘This is, in fact, not what you were looking for; but it’s much more interesting’ Terry Pratchett

Much loved for its wit and wisdom since 1870,Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable takes you on a captivating adventure through its trademark blend of language, culture, myth and legend. Nowhere else could the histories of the guillotine and Guinness stout sit so comfortably alongside the KGB and the Keystone Kops. Brewer’s is a catalogue of curiosities and absurdities that, over almost 150 years in print, has acquired near-mythical status.


Edited by Susie Dent, this new edition includes a brand new Collection of Curious Words and many new and updated entries. Its pages brim with esoteric and entertaining oddities – everything from curious customs to the world of newspapers and political alliances of yesteryear – all seen through the distinctive Brewer lens.

This twentieth edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable encapsulates all the charm and wit that characterise its predecessors and maintains the standards of scholarship and eclecticism that have long been its hallmark.

Whether you’re a committed Brewerphile or a newcomer to its pages of fascinating entries, this edition will draw you in and keep you glued to its rich mix of eccentric nuggets.

As Susie Dent explains in the foreword, Brewer’s “is unlike any other reference book that exists, anywhere.”

Malcolm

If you read all of my books (why not start today?), you’ll probably discover that I’ve made use of Brewer’s Dictionary.

U. S. complicity in the brutal 1950 repression in South Korea

Lisa See has written a wonderful novel, The Island of Sea Women,  about the women who worked as haenyeo divers on South Korea’s Jeju Island during the 1930s and 1940s. The focus, in addition to the matriarchal-world of harvesting food from the seafloor, is on the long-term relationships between the women and their families during a very dangerous period on Korean history.

In 1950, there were brutal purges in South Korea by the U.S.-stalled government of Syngman Rhee against real and imagined communists in the south, including Jeju Island. Multiple villages were burnt, thousands of innocent people were brutally tortured and killed, all based on the lame excuse that a communist walking through the countryside proved everyone there was a potential sympathizer.

I found myself growing more and more angry about the complicity of the U.S. in these massacres as I got farther into the novel. See mentions in the afterword that Jeju citizens were forbidden from speaking about what happened for 50 years under pain of death.

The Americans, who occupied South Korea at the end of World War two classified anything having to do with the purges, the pictures of which look like something out of Nazi Germany. Our military could have and should have brought order to the land it governed. Instead, as General MacArthur claimed, the U.S. viewed the executions as an “internal matter” while local commanders surreptitiously cheered the brutal putdown of the left-wing uprisings, and even took pictures of the mass graves of innocents killed in the process.

To learn more, I suggest http://islandstudies.net/weis/weis_2016v06/v06n4-2.pdf, an author mentioned by See in the novel’s afterword.

As a grade school student, I saw news reports about the Korean War. What I did not see–since it would be classified for years–was any news about the South Korean president we installed killing his own people. Once again, we were cut off from the truth about what our country was doing, or in this case, not doing.

Lisa See has not only written another powerful novel that teaches us much about a culture far away but one that sheds light on another failure of our civilian and military leadership.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels including “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”  We are especially happy with the highly praised narration of the audiobook.

It’s Monday: What are you reading?

Word of mouth is one of the best ways to learn about new books or old classics that a friend has re-discovered. I tend to stick with authors I like, such as John Hart, but if a friend or book blogger tells me about something else, I can easily be tempted to try a book or author I’m not familiar with.

This week, I started another novel by Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women. I’ve read an enjoyed most of her novels. The book was released in 2019 by Scribner.

From the Publisher

“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

I’m enjoying the book. Younger readers may be surprised to learn that Japan occupied Korea for many years

What are you reading?

So, are you reading something wild and wonderful? If so, please share the title and author and what you think of it so far.

Malcolm

Explaining research to a non-writer

Every time a feature film set in the past is released, it doesn’t take long for the press to start finding research gaffes from minor stuff like cars on the street before they were made, songs being sung before they were released, and then major problems such as battles being fought in the wrong country and world leaders showing up after they were dead.

It’s hard to explain how such things happen to our readers and viewers. Hollywood, of course, is more of a problem because so many people are involved with each production. Major authors have multiple editors and fact checkers. Small press authors usually have to roll their own research and hope for the best.

When authors write novels, they are primarily concerned with the storyline and the characters. Yet, as one writes, there are dozens of things to check:

  • The characters, such as my protagonist in Fate’s Arrows drive cars. Okay, what makes were they and when were they available?
  • My protagonist is an archer. What kind of bow did she use  and what kind of damage would an arrow inflict when it hit a person?
  • My protagonist, Pollyanna, was a Marine who learned Karate in Okinawa like a lot of other soldiers at the end of WWII. So, what techniques will she use when attacked back in the states?
  • Most people know little or nothing about the Korean War. Fortunately, I had a good source book and that allowed my character to mention things that happened, along with the exploits of the forerunner of the CIA.
  • In the novel, she’s auditing the books of a small grocery. Fine. What products are in the store?
  • And since the KKK is involved–this is Florida in 1954–that means reading more about that group than anyone would want to.

Basically, if somebody coughs in your novel and grabs for a bottle of cough medicine, you have to find out whether that cough medicine even existed when the novel was set.

If you were around at the time and place your novel is set, you can’t even rely on your memory.  Most people don’t remember nitty gritty specifics. They know they grew up listening to a song on the radio, but do they know what date it was released? Probably not.

When we write our novels, everything is open to question even though we’re writing fiction.

Malcolm

I could’ve been a sheep rancher

When my wife and I moved to Atlanta from North Georgia in 1980, we were having trouble making ends meet. I suggested Montana.

What would I do there, she wondered. I said that I’d hire on at a sheep ranch and/or drive concessionaire busses trucks in Glacier National Park.

She didn’t think either of those jobs sounded like the real me. Plus, she had no intention of living in Montana.

As it turned out, I was writing a book about sheep ranching and had a folder filled with everything one needed to know to get started–or to stay solvent if one had already gotten started. Fortunately, I didn’t become a full-time sheep rancher: the Montana wool business has been in decline for years.

The more one looks into the ranching biz, the more one discovers there’s a lot of down-in-the-muck stuff going on that we never saw on “Fury” or “Bonanza.” I didn’t mention this to my wife.  Plus, Montana’s high range isn’t very hospitable to humans who grew up in the South. My wife already knew this so there was no way I could spin the weather situation.

She didn’t know that ewes, as Bill Stockton tells us, let gravity drop the new-born lambs out on the ground. Or, if that doesn’t work, they spin around and sling them out. This information was not in my wife’s “need to know” classification.

One thing I didn’t know at the beginning was that my wife’s allergic to wool. That much pretty scuttled the sheep rancher “dream.”

Malcolm

Several of my older novels are out of print, but my sheep rancher can still be found in “Mountain Song.” It is the tamest of my sheep books.

Notions on reading ‘Shuggie Bain’

My ancestry is mostly Scottish, instilled in me at an early age by my father and the books I found on our shelves when I was young. I am surprised, though, at my comfort level in reading Scots and how soon after reading a book written in Scots my speech takes on that unmistakable lilt. It’s somewhat embarrassing actually because people think I’m putting on airs.

I have argued for years with authors writing about highlanders who are presented as speaking Scots, a lowland language, rather than Highland English which is influenced by Gaelic. It comes down to the notion, I think, that Americans think all Scots speak the language of the lowlands but exhibit the fiery passion of the Highlanders which, some say, is characterized by sex, fighting, and drinking.

Shuggie Bain, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Douglas Stuart, is altogether another tin o’ worms. If you’re planning on visiting Glasgow, I urge you to read this book first so you’ll be used to not only the profanity of choice but Glaswegian often called “Glasgow Patter.” If you have trouble with it, consult 100 Glaswegian words that prove you are from Glasgow.

The article notes that Glasgow patter is a language of the streets, and that’s certainly true of the characters, speech, and lifestyles you’ll find in Shuggie Bain. In “real life”–unless we travelled to Glasgow and ended up in the “wrong” part of town–most of us would never meet such people, forget wanting to know them better, much share a strong lager with them.

Critics have called the novel “dark” and they are right. They’ve also called in a masterpiece, and the farther I read, the more I’m convinced they’re right about that, too. I have always thought that the Brits, in general, are a lot more earthy than Americans–perhaps demonstrated in such common expressions as “oh bugger” and “sod off” that we wend to avoid on this side of the pond. This earthy tone is clearly prevalent in the novel and would be viewed in the States as over-the-top chauvinistic, if not misogynistic.

But the writer in me wants to know what makes this novel a masterpiece and what motivates its characters. So I will continue, often with a smile at some of the things people say and do, to keep reading even though I might be totally scunnered by the time I get to the last page.

Is anyone else here reading the book yet?

Malcolm

On re-reading Smiley’s ‘Duplicate Keys’

I first read this 1984 book in the mid-1990s after enjoying Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner A Thousand Acres. I was disappointed because I expected more spooky police work and/or big-city thrills and chills. As a film noir fan, I’m used to harsher and darker crime stories

Publisher’s Description

Alice Ellis is a Midwestern refugee living in Manhattan. Still recovering from a painful divorce, she depends on the companionship and camaraderie of a tightly knit circle of friends. At the center of this circle is a rock band struggling to navigate New York’s erratic music scene, and an apartment/practice space with approximately fifty key-holders. One sunny day, Alice enters the apartment and finds two of the band members shot dead. As the double-murder sends waves of shock through their lives, this group of friends begins to unravel, and dangerous secrets are revealed one by one. When Alice begins to notice things amiss in her own apartment, the tension breaks out as it occurs to her that she is not the only person with a key, and she may not get a chance to change the locks.

Jane Smiley applies her distinctive rendering of time, place, and the enigmatic intricacies of personal relationships to the twists and turns of suspense. The result is a brilliant literary thriller that will keep readers guessing up to its final, shocking conclusion.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t ready for the “enigmatic intricacies of personal relationships” in 1995. Or perhaps I’ve either mellowed or become more eclectic in my reading since then.  Even so, I’ll probably never really grok the characters because they’re New Yorkers who enjoy subways, walking, lots of people, and all the other strangenesses I experienced whenever I visited NYC.

(I lived briefly in Syracuse as a kid, one of my brothers was born there, and then I went back there for grad school, but it’s on a different planet than the big city.)

The book is keeping my attention this time which says a lot for keeping books on one’s shelves and trying them out again later.

Malcolm

My novels include Fate’s Arrows (magical realism) and Sarabande (contemporary fantasy). Both novels are available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and Nook.