Category Archives: Book Review

White Creek

Yesterday, I finished a book, White Creek: A Fable, that I want to tell you about. It’s a witty, haunting tale of family and friendship, regret and redemption, set on a remote Wyoming cattle ranch in the dead of winter.

The White Creek Ranch has been in Hap Cobb’s family for over a century and a half, but Hap is now eighty-two, and the last surviving member of his family. Tart-tongued, moody, and all too often “a miserable old fart” (in the words of his long-suffering ranch hand and closest friend, Aaron Littlefield), Hap has no rival as a home cook, owns the best-stocked private library in the state, and prides himself on his “God-given ability” to exasperate everyone he meets. He is also a world classed foul mouthed old man. My favorite expletive statement he makes in the book is the hilarious “He’s happier than a two twatted whore in a room full of Siamese twins.” The enormous ranch house he inherited long ago from his grandfather stands mostly empty these days, save for Hap and Aaron, and while their life together is both busy and comfortable, Hap often loses himself in his past, knowing he has little future left.

When a sudden blizzard hits one January evening, however, and Aaron opens the door to a young woman and a teenaged boy seeking shelter from the storm, everything Hap thought he knew about the world begins to shift. With these two unlooked-for houseguests, the White Creek Ranch soon becomes a wellspring of mystery and possibility, and will never be the same again.

A story of magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Crowley. It’s a book with magic or the supernatural, however you want to think of it, presented in an otherwise real-world setting. The supernatural only begins at the end though you realize that it’s been going on throughout the book.

White Creek: A Fable is by Bart Yates, who lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and is the author of four previous novels: Leave Myself Behind (winner of the 2004 Alex Award), The Brothers Bishop, The Distance Between Us, and (writing as Noah Bly) The Third Hill North Of Town. When I first read Leave Myself Behind I loved it so much that I read it again. I never read a book twice, but this one I loved. I’ve devoured each of his books since. I have yet to read The Third Hill North Of Town, but it is on its way from Amazon. Yates has a way with words like few authors I’ve ever read. You will care about and fall in love with the characters. While White Creek is the latest of his books I’ve loved and read, I urge you to pick up any of these books and give them a read. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Yates books Leave Myself Behind, The Brothers Bishop, and The Distance Between Us represent gay fiction at its zenith. White Creek isn’t gay fiction but it is a damn good book, and I expect no less of The Third Hill North Of Town.


Pump Jockey, Part II

On Saturday, I wrote about the short story “Pump Jockey.” While I enjoyed the short story, I’m afraid some may have thought that I was recommending the longer book The Winter of My Discotheque. The truth is, I wouldn’t particularly recommend the book that expanded on the short story. The book wasn’t terrible, but from what I remember of it, it’s not one I’d highly recommend either. However, Rebel Yell: Stories by Contemporary Southern Gay Authors from which the short story came, is highly recommended. I also recommend Rebel Yell 2: More Stories by Contemporary Southern Gay Authors. The two short story collections have everything from gay southern gothic to just good old storytelling.


Cajun Country 

I’m down in the bayou as they say. I’m visiting my best friend in Louisiana for a couple of days. I’ll head back to Alabama on Thursday. It’s a long drive down but the traffic was mostly good.

On my way down I listened to Heidi Cullinan’s Short Stay. It’s part of the Love Lessons series and was pretty good. If you’ve read and liked the rest of the series, you’ll like this one too.


Reading 

I spent the evening reading and time got away from me. Before I knew it, it was time for bed and I had not written a blog post. Since I didn’t have time to ponder what to write, and I didn’t have anything specific in mind, I thought I’d just confess to reading and losing track of time. By the way, I am reading Tal Bauer’s book Enemy of My Enemy, which is the second book in her Executive Office Series. It continues the story of Pressient Jack Spiers and his lover Ethan Reichenbach. It’s a great political thriller and I hated to have to put it down and go to bed.


Busy Week

Yesterday, I gave a presentation on Pearl Harbor, which went exceedingly well. I was happy to have a World War II veteran there to view the presentation. Tonight, I have another event; I will be serving as host to a book discussion. The book to be discussed is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. An incredibly detailed book, No Ordinary Time tells the story of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and the American Homefront during World War II.

A compelling chronicle of a nation and its leaders during the period when modern America was created. With an uncanny feel for detail and a novelist’s grasp of drama and depth, Doris Kearns Goodwin brilliantly narrates the interrelationship between the inner workings of the Roosevelt White House and the destiny of the United States. Goodwin paints a comprehensive, intimate portrait that fills in a historical gap in the story of our nation under the Roosevelts.


Balance

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I wasn’t up last night to writing a lengthy blog post. I was reading a book: LIfe Lessons by Kaje Harper. Sometimes you need balance in your life and last night I felt more like reading than writing. It was a good book, and I am glad I finished it. It’s book one in a series of four, and I think I’ll be beginning book two today if I have some free time at work.


Enemies of the State: The Executive Office


I’m very happy that my good friend Susan brought this book to my attention. It is exactly the type of book I like. I love mysteries, suspense, and political thrillers like those written by Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, or Steve Berry, but they never have any gay characters in them, not even secondary characters as there would be in real life. So it was great to see this kind of book written with gay main characters.

Enemies of the State: The Executive Office by Tal Bauer ranks right up there with anything by Brown, Berry, or Clancy. It’s a masterpiece of political intrigue and plot twists set in the near future, and is terrifyingly possible. It builds slowly although I loved the first half of the book as much as the second half (maybe more). And once you hit the halfway mark, hold onto your seat and make sure you have no other plans, because you will not want to put this book down.

This story will have you laughing and crying, but every word is worth it. You’ll fall in love with Jack and Ethan as they are the rollercoaster that brings this wild ride home. A rollercoaster is a great way to describe this book with all it’s twists and turns that build you up and up to the pinnacle at the midway point and then it’s a fast ride to the finish. The whole ride is thrilling. Enemies of the State: The Executive Office is book one of a three-book series, and I cannot wait for book two to release in the fall.

I haven’t read much in the last six months. My friend who passed away was my main reading partner and we loved to discuss books with one another. He was a particularly big fan of Amy Lane and as much as I love her books, I haven’t been able to pick up one of hers since his death. But I am back to reading now, and loving every minute of it.  Here are a few other books I have recently read:

The Orion Mask by Greg Herren

Dark Tide by Greg Herren

How to Howl at the Moon by Eli Easton

Superhero by Eli Easton

The Skyler Foxe Mysteries (five full-length mysteries, one novella and two collections of short stories) by Haley Walsh

All of the books are worth your time. I just happened to be so blown away by Enemies of the State that I felt it needed a good review and I hope you will check it out.


The Porn Phenomenon

Josh McDowell, a well-known evangelist and apologist, commissioned a new study to expose what he calls the “pervasiveness of pornography in the church and among Christians” and to his disbelief, the statistics proved what he had already feared – “pornography has infiltrated the church, especially among young adults.”
“Of young adults 18-24 years old, 76 percent actively – and these are Christians – actively seek out porn,” McDowell lamented to OneNewsNow.
Here are some additional key findings from the church commissioned study titled: “THE PORN PHENOMENON: A COMPREHENSIVE, GROUNDBREAKING NEW SURVEY ON AMERICANS, THE CHURCH, AND PORNOGRAPHY: Impact of Internet Pornography on American Population and the Church.”
  • 21% of youth pastors and 14% of pastors admit they currently struggle with using porn.
  • About 12% of Youth Pastors and 5% of Pastors say there are addicted to porn
  • 87% of pastors who use porn feel a great sense of shame about it
  • 55% of pastors who use porn say they live in constant fear of being discovered
OneNewsNow reports on McDowell’s one man crusade to turn the tide on all those young Christian’s addicted to playing with themselves.
McDowell tells OneNewsNow young people have a cavalier attitude towards porn.
 
“Of 13- to 24-year-olds, 96 percent would say that when they talk to someone about porn – their friends, which most of them are Christians now – they do it in either a neutral, positive or encouraging way,” he says.
 
McDowell is putting together what he calls the most comprehensive conference for Christian leaders about Internet pornography. Called “Set Free Summit,” it will take place in April in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Source: The Daily Grind, February 5, 2016

 

Read more: http://2anothercountry.blogspot.com/2016/02/church-funded-study-finds-76-of-young.html#ixzz3zOufwhQs


Carry the Ocean


I wrote briefly on Saturday about the book By That Sin Fell the Angels by Jamie Fessenden. My friend who suggested it then suggested another, this one was Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan. I’ve written about Heidi before because I’ve read her books Love Lessons and Fever Ptich. I’d seen Carry the Ocean before but after reading the blurb, I had decided that it didn’t sound like a book I wanted to read. Here’s the blurb:

Normal is just a setting on the dryer.

High school graduate Jeremey Samson is looking forward to burying his head under the covers and sleeping until it’s time to leave for college. Then a tornado named Emmet Washington enters his life. The double major in math and computer science is handsome, forward, wicked smart, interested in dating Jeremey—and he’s autistic.

But Jeremey doesn’t judge him for that. He’s too busy judging himself, as are his parents, who don’t believe in things like clinical depression. When his untreated illness reaches a critical breaking point, Emmet is the white knight who rescues him and brings him along as a roommate to The Roosevelt, a quirky new assisted living facility nearby.

As Jeremey finds his feet at The Roosevelt, Emmet slowly begins to believe he can be loved for the man he is behind the autism. But before he can trust enough to fall head over heels, he must trust his own conviction that friendship is a healing force, and love can overcome any obstacle.

Warning: Contains characters obsessed with trains and counting, positive representations of autism and mental illness, a very dark moment, and Elwood Blues.

I’m glad my friend convinced me that I should read this book. She said, “I consider it one of the best books I have read this year and hope, if you decide to give it a try, you will enjoy it too.” I value her opinion greatly, so I knew I had to give it a try. I downloaded the Kindle sample and began to read. The first thing you do is fall in love with Emmet. You can’t help it.  The sample wasn’t enough, I needed to read the whole book.

I also have to admit that I cried, a lot with his book. When I read Amy Lane, I always cry some, but I don’t think I got through a single page of this book without a tear in my eye. I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but I will be honest, since I lost my job, I cry very easily. My depression is harder to fight right now.  Not everyone will cry as much as I did, but it was worth it. You see, I don’t have autism, major depressive disorder, or clinical anxiety, but I identified with them.  Let me break this down so that I can explain it better.

I’ve always felt very intelligent. Like Emmet, I learned you can’t say that to other people, but you can thank them if they tell you that. I am not a genius, but I do possess above average intelligence. For example, I went to the dentist once in high school, the dental hygienist asked me how school was going, and I told her all the things that were going great and about some of my accomplishments. I was set to be valedictorian at the time (I did graduate as valedictorian). She told my mother later, “He thinks a lot of himself, doesn’t he?” I was mortified when I found this out. I’d only told her what she’d asked. I honestly wasn’t bragging, but she thought I was. So, since then I’ve learned not to tell people I’m intelligent but to let them figure it out for themselves. This makes it very hard in applying for jobs and in job interviews because even though you need to sell yourself to the interviewer, I’m always afraid that they are going to think , “He thinks a lot of himself, doesn’t he?” So while not autistic, some of Ememt’s issues hit home pretty hard.

Furthermore, I don’t have a major depressive disorder, but I do have depression. I take an antidepressant for it, and I know that it doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. You’ve seen from this blog that I have dark days. For Jeremey, it makes it hard for him to get out of bed; for me, it usually manifests itself as cluster headaches, which can be just as debilitating. I’ve battled depression for many years, and I also understand the influence parents can have on our mental state. Jeremey also feels what others are feeling. If someone is sad, he becomes sadder. If someone is scared, he becomes more scared. He’s a very empathetic character, but he sees that as a weakness. I think one of my strongest traits is that I am empathetic. I can take on the feelings and understand someone else’s emotions, but I use this to try to help people.

Also, I don’t have clinical anxiety, but I do have anxiety attacks. Usually they happen when I have an approaching deadline, and I feel that I’m running out of time. I have them really bad when I have to fly in an airplane, and sometimes have them in crowds. The airplane situation is dealt with easily with Xanax, which I take to ward off the panic attacks, but the other ones I can’t predict until it’s too late. I have coping strategies, what Emmet would call modifications, to handle my anxiety attacks. What works for me is to sing to myself, “You Are My Sunshine.” Mama used to sing this to me as a child and I find it comforting. But also concentrating on the meter of the song, I can slow things down. When I have a panic attack, my heart races and everything moves so fast and I feel completely out of control. “You Are My Sunshine” calms me down and slows down my mind.

When I’d first read the blurb for Carry the Ocean I didn’t think I’d be interested in reading it. Usually, when I find a book that I love, it’s because I can identify in some way with the main character. I didn’t think I could do this with Emmet or Jeremey. However, here’s why I think this book is so extraordinary: Heidi Cullinan has written two characters that seem so different from us, but I challenge any of you to read this book and not identify in some way with these characters. I honestly don’t think you can.

I cried a lot in this book because it was powerful and emotional. I cried because I was happy or empathetic. It’s hard to describe the emotions that this book evoked in me. It made me happy, it broke my heart, and it touched my soul. I think there are three lessons to learn from this book. First, don’t judge a book by it’s cover (literally and metaphorically). There is so much more to this book than that blurb, just as there was so much more to Emmet and Jeremey than most people could see. Second, there is no such thing as normal.  Third, while some of us merely carry buckets of water, some of us Carry the Ocean.

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A Return to Maycomb

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For thus hath the LORD said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
Isaiah 21:6

The above passage from the Book of Isaiah is where the title for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman comes from. The title itself tells us much about the book. The twenty-first chapter of Isaiah for tells the fall of Babylon because of its wickedness. Babylon had once been a shining city admired by all, but it was filled with wickedness: decadence, liars, manipulators, and all sorts of other evils. For Lee, Babylon symbolizes the South. While the watchman would tell of the fall of Babylon in the Book of Isaiah, the Supreme Court has ruled that the South must change in its decision Brown v. Board of Education. The old South can no longer stand and its old principles of “separate but equal” must end. Thus the South follows the fate of the fall of Babylon. Nothing will ever be the same.

Like Isaiah, who is an outsider in Babylon, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is an outsider to her home in Maycomb, Alabama. The twenty-six year old Scout has been away for eight years, first to college then to New York. When she returns to Maycomb in the summer of 1954 or 1955, at first she thinks Maycomb has changed, but not as drastically as it really has. She merely sees the cosmetic changes of an ice cream parlor where the house she grew up in once stood. Her Aunt Alexandra is the woman of he house, not Calpurnia, the black maid who helped raise her and is now too old to work. As all people who go away and come home again, she thinks she knows more than everyone and is more enlightened, though she feels that her father is as enlightened as she is. Atticus is her idol, as he is for all who ever read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Then her world crashes around her when she discovers that her father is part of Maycomb’s Citizens Council. For those of you unfamiliar with the White Citizen’s Councils of the South, they were social organizations similar to the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, but with the sole purpose of maintaining segregation. They formed throughout the South in the aftermath of the Brown decision. When she sees Atticus and her fiancé Henry sitting idly by listening to a speaker deliver a hate filled speech, she becomes physically ill. She feels betrayed by her father and all she thought she held dear. The first half of the book is introducing us to Maycomb after a decade or so has passed since To Kill a Mockingbird; the second half deals with the fallout of Scout’s discovery.
First let me address the provenance of the book, the official story is that Go Set a Watchman was the original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird submitted to the publisher. According to the story, Lee was told that the editor liked the flashbacks to childhood, and she should rewrite the book and focus only on the childhood. Lee did this and it became To Kill a Mockingbird, while Go Set a Watchman was placed in a safety deposit box and basically forgotten until Lee’s lawyer came across it a year or so ago. Others have speculated that this was a failed sequel, which I do not believe and let me tell you why. First of all, while it may read like a sequel, there are parts of this book in which the passages are nearly identical to those in To Kill a Mockingbird. I can see Lee using passages from a first draft in a rewritten final draft, but I cannot see Lee using passages from a first book in the sequel. That would be far too lazy and completely out of character for Lee. I don’t think the question should be “Is this books first draft or a failed sequel?” but should be, “Did Lee’s lawyer manipulate the then 88 year old Lee into publishing a book that she had not wanted to be published?” Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s longtime lawyer, protector, and and sister, is dead, and her young partner is now Lee’s lawyer. Alice, who died in November 2014, wrote in 2011, that Lee “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” In February 2015, the State of Alabama, through its Human Resources Department, launched an investigation into whether Lee was competent enough to consent to the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. The investigation found that the claims of coercion and elder abuse were unfounded, and, according to Lee’s lawyer, Lee is “happy as hell” with the publication. I not so sure that Lee wasn’t coerced or tricked into publishing the book, but we have to hope it wasn’t against her wishes. There will always be questions surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and I doubt we will ever know the truth.image
Second, let me address the nuances and changes of racial attitudes in the book. This has been one of the major criticisms of Go Set a Watchman, that Atticus is a racist in the book but was a champion of black people in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus was a champion of fairness and the law, but there is no doubt he had prejudices. He was a rural white southerner and a product of his times. Remember that Atticus was a legislator during To Kill a Mockingbird. In Alabama in the 1920s, few politicians were elected who were not members of the Klan. I’m not saying it was right, but most of the people in the Klan of the 1920s thought of it as being members of a social club or civic organization, much like the Masons, the Kiwanis, and Civitans. Hugo Black, a Supreme Court justice and champion of civil rights on the bench had been a member of the Klan. Furthermore, most white southerners felt a paternalistic relationship with blacks during the early 20th century, but southerners have always been conservative which means they don’t like change to come quickly. Southern men like Atticus Finch would have felt that southern blacks were not ready for full equality or for desegregation. He would have felt they needed more time. One of my pet peeves is for people to place modern beliefs and ideas on their interpretation of the past. We can look back and say something is wrong and backwards by our way of thinking, but we also must put ourselves in their mindset. To Kill a Mockingbird is very frank about racial attitudes of the South, and the good guys are champions for southern blacks, but Go Set a Watchman is a far more complex and insightful book on the realities of race in the 1950s. Not everything is cut and dry like in To Kill a Mockingbird.


Go Set a Watchman
may never be seen as the masterpiece that To Kill a Mockingbird was, but it has a historical significance far greater than its literary significance. Go Set a Watchman allows us to see the nuances of racial attitudes in Alabama in the 1950s. Whether that is how Calpurnia is portrayed, how Atticus is portrayed, or how Jean Louise is portrayed, the realities and subtleties are portrayed quite vividly. In Go Set a Watchman we get an almost firsthand account of what it was like for Harper Lee to return to Alabama after living in New York City. Jean Louise thinks she has become enlightened through her education and her time in New York City, but the big question is: has she? We get to see her real attitude, and we are fortunate to have Uncle Jack Finch guide us through the subtleties of southern racial attitudes. We like things to be in black and white, but in reality they never are. And that’s what makes Go Set a Watchman a true masterpiece.

I had planned on discussing the parallels of race in the 1950s to gay rights in the 2010s but I’m not up for writing that right now. Hopefully, that will be a post for next week. In the meantime, go out and buy Go Set a Watchman if you haven’t, and give it a chance. I think if you read it objectively and with an open mind, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I look forward to a day when someone collects the writings of Harper Lee from the newspapers and journals she contributed to as a student at Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama. I’m not sure that will be anything soon because of copyright and legal issues, but maybe some day. And there has always been the rumor that there really was a second book, Harper Lee’s great race novel, that Lee has refused to allow anyone to see because she was afraid she could never live up to To Kill a Mockingbird again.


P.S. I personally think she already did live up to it with Truman Capote’s
In Cold Blood, which I believe she wrote as she had the talent for it and Capote did not. It was well known that Capote, a childhood friend (Dill in TKM and GSW) was jealous of the success of TKM, and I’ve always suspected that Lee actually wrote most if not all of the book but let Capote put his name on it because she had already decided she wanted out of the limelight.


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