Eight recent books of fiction, nonfiction & poetry – #bookreview

Here are eight recent books to consider, whether you prefer fiction, nonfiction or poetry.  

Midnight Movie
By Tobe Hooper, with Alan Goldsher
(Three Rivers, paperback, list price $14.00 ; Kindle edition $0.99) 

Fans of Tobe Hooper’s horror movies, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, likely will relish this experimental first novel. It is written in a fake documentary style that also blends in some fictional blog postings, fake tweets, fake news articles and fake testimonies.

In the book’s bizarre plot, a movie that Tobe Hooper made as a teenager and lost is somehow rediscovered and shown in Austin, Texas. That event unleashes a killer virus on the world that only the filmmaker himself can stop — if he can just figure out how. (This book is not recommended for readers who faint easily at the sight of blood, zombies…and over-the-top literary excess.)

Rawhide Ranger, Ira Aten: Enforcing Law on the Texas Frontier
By Bob Alexander
(University of North Texas Press, list price $32.95)

After lawmen gunned down the notorious outlaw Sam Bass at Round Rock, Texas, a young man who lived nearby, Austin Ira Aten, decided to change his career aspirations, from cowboy to Texas Ranger.

Aten joined the Rangers in 1883, soon after he turned 20. He then became, over time, “a courageously competent lawman…favorably known statewide…a high-profile Ranger,” according to the author of this well-researched biography.

While performing his Ranger duties, Ira Aten also became “directly linked to several episodes of Texas’ colorful past that scholars and grassroots historians have penned thousands—maybe millions—of words about.” And Aten’s well-regarded law-enforcement career continued long after his Ranger years, Alexander’s excellent book shows. 

Ciento: 100 100-word Love Poems
By Lorna Dee Cervantes
(Wings Press, paperback, list price $16.00) 

This handsome, enjoyable volume from San Antonio, Texas-based Wings Press keeps its subtitle’s promise. A widely published poet has accepted a difficult challenge and penned a hundred 100-word poems focused on love.

The poems deal with love at direct levels. So you’ll find no easy hearts and flowers here. The images include “steamy matinees”, “sensuous leanings” and “exquisite private views,” to mention just a few. 

Battle Surface!: Lawson P. “Red” Ramage and the War Patrols of the USS Parche
By Stephen L. Moore
(Naval Institute Press, hardback, list price $34.95 ; Kindle edition, list price $34.95)

Stephen L. Moore has written several books on submarine warfare. Battle Surface! blends superb research with a writing style that rivals good fiction. Moore recounts the true story of a U.S. Navy commander who defiantly charged his submarine into the midst of a huge Japanese convoy and stayed on the surface, dodging enemy fire and sinking several ships with torpedoes.

One superior decried the action as “dangerous, foolhardy, and of too much risk.” Others higher up, however, thought differently, Moore notes. They awarded Cmdr. “Red” Ramage the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories
Edited by Judy Alter and James Ward Lee
(TCU Press, paperback, list price $19.95)

 “Walrus hunter.” That was one of the civilian jobs the U.S. Army recommended to Elmer Kelton when he was discharged as a “rifleman, infantry” following World War II. Kelton became a journalist, instead, and a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction books before his death in 2009.

This engaging, warm collection of essays and remembrances celebrates Kelton’s life, his personality, his love for the American West and his “straightforward and clean” writing style. In the words of one of his friends, Felton Cochran: “I tell people Elmer Kelton didn’t write ‘westerns’—he wrote western literature.”

Rudder: From Leader to Legend
By Thomas M. Hatfield
(Texas A&M Press, hardback, list price $30.00 ; Kindle edition, list price $30.00)

Earl Rudder could have kept working in a small-town Texas drugstore after high school. He exhibited little ambition and had no money for college. But this excellent biography shows how a chance encounter soon led him to college athletics, coaching and the Army Reserve, and then to D-day heroics, Texas state politics and, finally, the presidency of Texas A&M University’s statewide system.

This excellent biography shows how Gen. Rudder guided A&M through major upheavals that included desegregation, admitting women, and making the Corps of Cadets voluntary.

Working the Land: The Stories of Ranch and Farm Women in the Modern American West
By Sandra K. Schackel
(University Press of Kansas, hardback, list price $24.95)

Women do not just “keep house” on a ranch or farm in the modern American West. This well-written book shows that they have long been doing virtually anything they can to help keep their rural lifestyles viable and afloat in tough economic times.

Sandra K. Schackel interviewed more than 40 women in New Mexico, Texas and other states and found them actively wrangling animals, running machinery, creating summer camps and bed-and-breakfasts on their land, and even holding jobs in town to help support their spreads and their families.

The Road to Roma
By Dave Kuhne
(Ink Brush, paperback, list price $15.95)

This book’s seven well-written short stories are mostly set in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, Texas, and they reflect the writer’s strong sense of place and character. The stories previously have been published in a variety of literary journals, and their focus is on the deeper, sometimes transformative moments that occur in ordinary people’s lives.

 Si Dunn‘s latest book is a novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, all available on Kindle.

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving – #bookreview #writing #screenwriting

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving
By Dan Fante
(Harper Perennial, $14.99, paperback; $9.99, Kindle)

Italian-American novelist and screenwriter John Fante wanted his son Dan to become a plumber or electrician, not a writer or worse, an actor.

He had strong and bitter reasons behind that desire, as Dan Fante movingly notes in this dark and painful, yet ultimately uplifting and triumphant family memoir.

One of John Fante’s novels, Ask the Dust, had been published in 1939 with great expectations and is still respected as a classic look at life in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Yet it was not a commercial success at the time, largely because the publisher, Stackpole Sons, could not afford to publicize it.

Weirdly, the publisher had “made the dumb and costly blunder of publishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf without the author’s permission,” Dan Fante writes. “The promo money that should have gone to publicize Ask the Dust was spent in New York City courtrooms fighting a protracted lawsuit with the Führer.”

So, to support his family, John Fante returned to writing Hollywood screenplays, including, nearly three decades later, Walk on the Wild Side, and “considered himself a failure as an artist.” His other outlets included too much drinking, too much golf and too much gambling, often in the company of novelist and short story writer William Saroyan, “a loose cannon,” particularly around dice games, Dan Fante notes.

Also: “Pop’s nasty mouth and rages were taking a toll on his life,” to the point that he sometimes punched out movie producers for whom he had been writing or rewriting scripts.

In his brief attempt at college, young Dan Fante had discovered that he was “a fairly decent actor.” But: “…John Fante had utter contempt for the profession, as he did for agents and TV writers and film directors and almost all movie people.” He’d tell his son: “You’re no genius, kid….Get yourself an honest career. Work with your hands.”

Much of the rest of this memoir focuses on Dan Fante’s strained relationship with his father and other family members and on Dan’s attempts to find himself after leaving home and hitchhiking to New York City, hoping to study theater.

Once there, he descends, instead, into a dark, urban hell relentlessly driven and wrecked – over and over again –by alcoholism, drugs, an often uncontrolled sex drive and numerous moments where he goes right up to the edge of committing suicide.

Dan Fante recounts how he tried many different schemes to survive, and some of them, such as working in the limousine business, briefly made him rich and brought him into the company of famous and powerful clients —  but only when he was able to sober up and stay focused.

Ultimately, he hits bottom too many times and finally can’t get up again. In the meantime, he loses his father and older brother to alcoholism, as well.

But he does, at least, reconcile with his father shortly before John Fante’s death: “We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante’s gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer’s heart.”

At age 47, Dan Fante finally went home again in utter defeat, lugging three garbage bags “filled with all that I owned up the front walkway of my mom’s house.”

What happens next is a tough but inspiring true story of how a writer finally was able to find his voice, his focus, his legacy and his stability in life. It is a story rich with lessons and messages for almost anyone currently struggling to succeed as a novelist, screenwriter, writer of nonfiction or practitioner of virtually any other creative endeavor.

Si Dunn

Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity – #bookreview

Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity
By Glen Sample Ely
(Texas Tech University Press, $34.95, hardback)

Many eyes are on Texas once again now that Gov. Rick Perry is running for President.

Of course, he’s now being slammed even by members of  his own party (including former officials in the George W. Bush Administration) for trying to be too much of a simplistic shoot-first, ask-questions-later Texas “cowboy” on the election trail.

So what is it about Texas and its Wild West reputation that stirs up so many arguments, passions, conceptions, misconceptions and occasional hatreds?

In Where the West Begins, Fort Worth, Texas, writer Glen Sample Ely valiantly grabs and wrestles with the electrified third rail of Texas identity: Is Texas a Southern state, or is it a Western state?

He starts with his own city, Fort Worth, which often bills itself as “Where the West Begins.” He calls Cowtown “representative of Texas as a whole,” and uses it to launch into the bigger topic of how the state’s various and varied geographical regions have contributed to its long-ongoing identity conflicts.

“Texans,” Ely cautions, “may want to consider carefully before augmenting their Lone Star lineage with either a southern or western identity, because both of these regions, like Texas, have confusing and conflicted legacies and plenty of historical baggage.”

For example, cotton, not cattle, used to be king in Texas, and one of the last battles of the Civil War was fought in Texas weeks after that conflict was officially over. Indeed, some parts of  Texas tended to be closely allied with the Confederacy and had sent cavalry units and soldiers to fight Union forces in other states. Yet other areas of the state had Union supporters mixed in — often violently — with supporters of the South. And West Texas had an “astonishingly high” level of disloyalty to the Confederacy, Ely reports, because it had long been heavily dependent on federal funds and U.S. Army forts and outposts for economic survival.

Today, many residents of West Texas identify themselves as living in the West or Southwest, not in the American South, he says. Yet many in East Texas still ally themselves with the Deep South.

Ely’s book is nicely researched and well-written, and it has a thick bibliography and notes collection.

It may possibly help you understand the enigma that is Texas a bit better. And it may possibly give you a few insights into the roots of Rick Perry’s “cowboy” mindset as his campaign gets underway and he tries to find traction with voters in 49 other states — many of whom remain openly suspicious of Texas after Lyndon Baines Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Si Dunn

Always for the Underdog: Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War – #bookreview

Always for the Underdog: Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War
By Keagan LeJeune
(University of North Texas Press, $29.95, hardback)

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled America’s size. It also left  one small border area in legal limbo. When the United States and Spain disagreed over who owned it, they pulled back their militias to avoid war and left the area ungoverned. Soon, the tiny Free State of the Sabine was formed in pine forests along the Sabine River that now separates Texas and Louisiana.

Also known as the Louisiana Neutral Strip, the Free State of Sabine became a haven for outlaws, and it remained so for many years after the boundary dispute was settled.

Keagan LeJeune’s informative and entertaining book focuses on one “good” fugitive in the lawless area, Leather Britches Smith.

In 1912, Leather Britches – a man with a murderous reputation and plenty of weapons – sided with union workers against lumber mill operators during a violent, fatal clash that became known  as the Grabow Riot or the Grabow War. It was  part of the bigger Louisiana-Texas Timber War that raged from 1911 to 1912.

The author is a professor of English and folklore at McNeese State University. He lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and has served as president of the Louisiana Folklore Society.

Si Dunn

Lucky Me: My Sixty-Five Years in Baseball – #bookreview

Lucky Me: My Sixty-Five Years in Baseball
By Eddie Robinson, with C. Paul Rogers III
(SMU Press, $23.95)

Eddie Robinson has never been one of Major League Baseball’s headline-hungry bad boys.

A four-time American League All-Star and former general manager of the Texas Rangers, Robinson is still considered one of professional baseball’s true good guys, after a lengthy career that began during the Great Depression and lasted until his retirement in 2004.

Born in 1920 in Paris, Texas, Eddie Robinson started attracting team scouts well before he graduated from Paris High School.

In his entertaining and well-written memoir, Lucky Me, Robinson poignantly recounts how the Boston Red Sox offered to pay his tuition at the University of Texas at Austin, if he would join their minor-league system later on. “But,” Robinson writes, “times were still tough because of the Depression, and I was the principal breadwinner in our family because my parents were divorced.”

Rather than accept the Red Sox’s generous offer, he signed with a minor-league team, the Knoxville Smokies, and quickly used his signing bonus, $300, to pay some bills and buy his mother a washing machine.

From there, his fledgling pro baseball career quickly sank, and he soon was traded to a small-town Georgia team that played Class D baseball, “the lowest of the low,” he recalls. His manager told him he would never make it to the majors. But the next year, Robinson got better at hitting and fielding. With grit and determination, as well as some good coaching, he started scrapping his way out of baseball’s basement.

As he continued to improve, Robinson went on to play for several more minor-league teams. Then he made it to the majors and appeared on the rosters of seven American League teams, including the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees.

Robinson appeared in two World Series before his playing days ended in 1957. In his final at-bat, playing for the Baltimore Orioles, he was fanned by famed knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm. The next morning, Robinson reported for work as a front-office management rookie.

Many of baseball’s greatest names pop up in Lucky Me, including Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, Billy Martin, Satchel Paige, Bob Lemon, Earl Weaver, Dizzy Dean and Paul Richards.

In the book’s foreword, Tom Grieve, a game broadcaster and former Texas Rangers general manager, recalls how Robinson gave him hitting tips when he was a young player attracting major-league scouts in 1966. Grieve later played for the Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers.

Ironically, when Robinson became the Rangers’ general manager, he eventually traded Grieve to another team, but he soon signed him back and later gave him his first front-office job as the Rangers’ director of group sales.

Not surprisingly, Grieve terms his friendship and work history with Robinson “a grand slam.”

Big-league baseball enthusiasts likely will view Eddie Robinson’s Lucky Me memoir in the same postive light, both for its fine details and its smooth flow. Robinson’s co-writer, C. Paul Rogers III, has co-written three other baseball books and is a professor of law and former dean of the Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas.

Si Dunn

Captain John R. Hughes: Lone Star Ranger

 

Captain John R. Hughes: Lone Star Ranger
Chuck Parsons

(University of North Texas Press, $29.95)

 John R. Hughes is often considered one of the Texas Rangers’ “Four Great Captains,” alongside William Jesse McDonald, James A. Brooks and John H. Rogers. (Chuck Norris, as Walker, Texas Ranger, figures nowhere in this equation.)

Before Hughes became a Ranger in 1887, he tracked down and killed several thieves who had stolen horses from his ranch and and some neighbors’ ranches.

This well-written biography by Western historian Chuck Parsons describes how Hughes intended to be a Texas Ranger for just a few months after he signed up. But he stayed on and eventually served almost 30 years, chasing horse thieves, sheep thieves, fence cutters, train robbers, bank robbers and others.

Hughes also helped provide security for three presidents who visited Texas: William H. Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Porfirio Diaz of Mexico.

The Ranger tried to keep a low profile, but writers hailed him in newspaper and magazine articles, particularly after he retired. And novelist Zane Grey dedicated a novel, The Lone Star Ranger, to Hughes and other Rangers.

Chuck Parsons has written several other books, including The Sutton-Taylor Feud: The Deadliest Blood Feud in Texas.

Si Dunn