Five Recent Works of Nonfiction and Fiction – #bookreview

These five recent good books deal with a wide spectrum of topics, from artificial reefs to the Wild West to urban search and rescue. 

The Ship That Would Not Die: USS Queens, SS Excambion, and USTS Texas Clipper
By Stephen Curley – with an afterword by J. Dale Shively
(Texas A&M Press, hardback, list price $29.95)

This intriguing, well-illustrated coffe-table book tells the story of a World War II attack transport that became a luxury passenger-cargo liner and then the first Texas Clipper training ship for Texas A&M’s Texas Maritime Academy.

From 1965 to until mothballed in 1994, the Texas Clipper hauled merchant marine cadets and Navy ROTC midshipmen to sea. In 2007, finally worn out, the ship was towed into the Gulf of Mexico and deliberately sunk to help create an artificial reef.

In his afterword, J. Dale Shively notes: “Her fourth existence is now full of marine life growing on her decks and fish swimming in and out of her openings.” The sunken vessel reportedly now generates up to $4 million annually in fishing and diving revenues for Texas businesses.

Texas Task Force 1: Urban Search & Rescue
By Bud Force
(Texas A&M Press, paperback, list price $24.95)

Fort Worth, Texas, writer-photographer Bud Force’s inspiring overview focuses on one of the nation’s finest emergency response teams: Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1).

Organized in 1997, TX-TF1 has been called to some of America’s worst disasters, including the World Trade Center terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Texas Task Force 1’s 450-plus members include firefighters, medical personnel, canine handlers, heavy equipment operators and others with special skills. Proceeds from the sale of this book help support Texas Task Force 1.

Lone Star Law: A Legal History of Texas
By Michael Ariens
(Texas Tech Press, hardback, list price $49.95)

Give this author credit for (1) biting off a bigger topic than anyone can chew and (2) producing an excellent and important study in the process. The ponderous and massive Texas legal system is built upon a multinational heritage that has included Mexican and Spanish civil law and English common law, as well as laws from the state’s days as a republic, he notes.

Texas’ current homestead and bankruptcy laws, for example, have roots in the days when the Republic of Texas was a haven for people from across the United States fleeing debts. And, “[a] willingness to do justice on the cheap” led to the creation, in 1891, of two supreme courts in the state.

Jade: Outlaw
By Robert Flynn
(JoSara MeDia, paperback, list price $9.99 ; Kindle edition, list price $0.99)

Tension quivers throughout this tightly crafted, well-written Western novel. A hater of Indians who is now a tormented outlaw finds himself falling in love with a woman who was kidnapped as a child and raised as an Indian. The outlaw also is being pressured to become a desperate town’s lawman, and he realizes it is almost the only way to save his life.

Robert Flynn’s previous novel, Echoes of Glory, won a 2010 Western Writers of America Spur Award. His newly published sequel to Jade: Outlaw is titled Jade: The Law.

Details at 10: Behind the Headlines of Texas Television History
By Bert N. Shipp
(The History Press, paperback, list price $19.99)

Bert Shipp’s memoir is drawn from his long career as a Dallas TV newsman, and the book is an entertaining blend of recollections and “true stories about the birth and early childhood…of one of the most pervasive electronic forces in our lives and of the news people who created it.”

Shipp worked at the heart of Dallas-Fort Worth TV news for nearly 50 years, lugging heavy cameras and sound gear to cover local, national and international events before advancing to top editor positions.

Si Dunn‘s latest book is a detective 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. He is a freelance book reviewer and a former technical writer and software/hardware QA tester.

The Mayor’s Daughter – #fiction #bookreview

The Mayor’s Daughter
By James Hoggard
(Wings Press, paperback, list price $16.95; Kindle edition, list price $9.95)

James Hoggard’s beautifully written family drama, set in the 1920s, begins with a simple and very familiar premise. An artistic, intelligent young woman who is still in high school falls in love with a young man who dropped out to work at an oil refinery. But her parents disapprove of him. They consider him far beneath their daughter.

The young man has no father, and his mother runs a boarding house of questionable repute, the parents point out. Furthermore, local rumormongers have said that men and women both live under its roof, so it might be a whorehouse.

The young woman, Ru-Marie Coleman, tries to expand her independence and continue her relationship with Buster Lopreis. But herr parents respond by escalating their efforts to break them up. Meanwhile, Buster keeps trying to win Ru-Marie’s parents over, even though they call him “the problem” and refuse to speak his name.

From there, the story’s tensions gradually build, until events finally spiral out of control and two families are ripped apart.

Along with love and hate, Hoggard’s engrossing tale delves into “the airs of superiority” that people who grew up in poverty can take on once they become financially successful or at least reasonably well off.

Ru-Marie’s father, Jeff Coleman, owns a sporting goods store in a growing Texas town known as Kiowa Falls. (It bears some slight resemblance to an early-20th century Wichita Falls, where the book’s author is an English professor at Midwestern State University.) Coleman also has become Kiowa Falls’ mayor, with help from wealthy backers to whom he now owes allegiance.

There is irony in Jeff Coleman’s and his wife Eileen’s expanding hatred of Buster. “The problem” is almost a mirror image of who they used to be. The mayor grew up poor, living in a boarding house without a father. His wife grew up in a boarding house, as well.

Now that they have been accepted into their town’s society, one of their greatest concerns is what other people will say about them. Indeed, Ru-Marie’s mother has become obsessed with what’s “acceptable” and “not acceptable” for her daughter.

“He’s trash, Ru-Marie, just trash, and what will people think?” Eileen says during one of her many arguments with her daughter over Buster.

At one point, Ru-Marie complains to Buster about her father: “He won’t ever say it—I don’t even think he dares think it—but it crazes him to no end to think if I keep going around with you, I’ll end up p.g.—their damn silly term—and me somehow his surrogate, back in the same, impossible poverty he thinks he grew up in.”

Buster, ever the peacemaker, responds by urging her not to be hard on her parents. He remains hopeful that he can somehow change their opinions of him.

The Mayor’s Daughter takes on increasingly darker tones as it delves into secret marriage and one other aspect of early 20th-century North Texas life: a lingering tolerance for “frontier justice” in a city that is now modernizing and growing rapidly.

With this book, James Hoggard, author of 19 other works including novels, short-story collections, poetry and translations, demonstrates once again that he is a masterful storyteller worthy of his many writing awards.

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.

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.

The Silver Lotus – fine historical fiction by Thomas Steinbeck – #bookreview

The Silver Lotus
By Thomas Steinbeck
(Counterpoint, hardback, list price $25.00; Kindle, $9.99)

Written in the style and language of a 19th-century novel, The Silver Lotus is a grand, sweeping, absorbing tale of Pacific seafaring, romance, family, and business and cultural interactions that ultimately help spur the growth and development of the Northern California coast.

This elegant work of historical fiction has surprisingly little dialogue. Its author, Thomas Steinbeck, son of the great novelist John Steinbeck, relies, instead, on heavy doses of exposition. Yet The Silver Lotus remains an engrossing, well-written story throughout. And it is a refreshing change from books full of fast and furious action and characters who engage in taut exchanges of clever words, while revealing little about their feelings, emotions or sense of place.

Thomas Steinbeck’s novel begins in Canton, China, the late 1890s, in the home of Master Chu-Woo Yee, a man of “high moral principles.” He also is a successful grain merchant with profitable experience in “a great many [other] varieties of exported and imported goods.”

Master Yee allows very few foreigners into his home. But one of them fascinates and intrigues him: Captain Jeremiah Macy Hammond, “one of the last of a long line of the great Nantucket seamen.”

Steamships now have begun to dominate cross-ocean trade. Yet Captain Hammond continues to transport his cargoes under sail, for a very practical reason: profit. He has amassed a small fleet of schooners that can carry large cargoes while sailing inexpensively with only a few crewmen.

When political turmoil suddenly erupts in China, Captain Hammond uses two of his ships to help to move Master Yee, his family, and the Yee fortune to safety in Singapore. Soon, Captain Hammond and Master Yee’s beloved daughter, Silver Lotus, are in love, and Master Yee is in no position to refuse their marriage.

Lady Yee, as Silver Lotus is known, is a remarkable woman with many talents and interests, as well as uncommon beauty. Before their marriage, she informs Captain Hammond that if he chooses to go back to sea, she will “sail with him, and make her life and home by his side.”

In her honor, Captain Hammond repaints his newest ship his wife’s favorite colors, emerald green with yellow trim outlined in black, and rechristens it “The Silver Lotus.” And Lady Yee proves very adept at living at sea beside her husband. She takes “total interest in everything to do with her namesake, her crew, and her cargo.”

Despite its calm narrative and languid pace, Steinbeck’s book has plenty of action and tensions. There are encounters with pirates, sea storms, illnesses, racism, drug abuse, great wealth, and death. There also are dangerous rescues and glimpses into the intricacies and risks of seafaring commerce, as well as clashes over medical and immigration practices in early 20th-century California.

At one level, The Silver Lotus is simply old-fashioned, entertaining historical fiction, enjoyable to read. On another level, however, Thomas Steinbeck’s second novel is a modern, intelligent reflection on how the melding of cultures, talents, dreams and resources has been a driving force behind the growth and prosperity of Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States.

Si Dunn

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

Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Apricot Jam and Other Stories’ – #bookreview #fiction #Russia – updated

Apricot Jam and Other Stories
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Counterpoint, $28.00)

A major literary work is now available for readers who relish the works of modern Russian writers, particularly the ones who rebelled against communism’s restrictive censorship and social, legal and economic rigidities and achieved international acclaim during the final decades of the Soviet Union.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories,  an engrossing collection of eight short stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has been published by Berkeley, Calif.-based Counterpoint.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, primarily on the strength of three novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In The First Circle (better known as The First Circle), and Cancer Ward. These books shone glaring, shocking spotlights on the Gulag, a USSR government agency that operated a brutal, sprawling system of forced labor camps for political prisoners, criminals and others who ran afoul of  Soviet laws, officials, informants and secret police.

Significantly, the eight short stories in this 352-page collection are making their first appearance in English. They were initially published in Russia in 1994, after Solzhenitsyn ended years of exile in the West and returned to his native land. He died in 2008.

The title story provides an excellent example of the unusual “binary” writing style that Solzhenitsyn employed in these eight works of short fiction. In “Apricot Jam,” the son of a kulak (a relatively affluent peasant) has almost lost everything in his life except the memories of the apricot jam his mother used to make for him before communism and collective agriculture destroyed his family and his farm. He is now nearly starving to death while serving internal exile and doing hard labor in a distant town. In desperation, he writes a letter to a famous Russian writer who has published a book touting that the “meaning of life is labor in a communist society.”  He humbly begs the famous writer to send him a food parcel, because he is working hard to try to stay alive, yet now nearing death from lack of nourishment.

In the second part of the “Apricot Jam” story, the exile’s letter has arrived at the famous writer’s elegant dacha outside Moscow. There, the famous writer entertains a professor of cinema, as well as a neighbor, the head of the literary department in the State Publishing House, a man who “held the reins of the whole of literature in his hands….”

In the posh dacha, the men also enjoy some apricot jam, but it is just one minor trapping amid the surrounding opulence as they speak in praise of Comrade Stalin, socialist realism, and how “Creating an art of world significance–that is the task of the writer today.” The apricot jam briefly figures into their discussion as a symbol for a type of  “amber transparency” that “should be present in literary language, as well.” 

Soon, the famous writer mentions the unusual letter he has received from the exiled, starving worker. And, as they discuss its text, their final analysis of it is devastating.

In the story “The New Generation,” a principled and disciplined engineering professor finally gives in to pleadings by a failing student and hands him a passing grade. The professor is, after all, under orders to “make allowances” for the students now being sent to him from factories, some of whom would be “better off making pots and pans” rather than being forced to become engineers.

 Two years later, in the second part of the story’s binary structure, the engineering professor is arrested, and his interrogator from the GPU (the State Political Directorate) is none other than the failing student who had talked him into a passing grade. The ex-student cannot undo the professor’s arrest, yet he can and does, as a sort of return favor, offer him three grim choices of fates. 

Solzhenitsyn served with distinction as a captain in the Red Army during World War II, but was arrested after he wrote a letter that included disparaging remarks about Josef Stalin’s leadership of the war effort. The writer spent the next eight years in Soviet labor camps and another three years in internal exile.

Much of his fiction in Apricot Jam and Other Stories draws its creative spark from his grim wartime and Gulag experiences. Yet some of the stories also deal with post-Soviet issues in the times of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. For example, in the concluding story, “Fracture Points,” characters face the difficulty of trying to adapt to new freedoms and new economic structures at a time when “[t]he word ‘privatize’ was as frightening as a sea monster.”

If you have never before read any Solzhenitsyn, Apricot Jam and Other Stories can be a good introduction that may inspire you to also delve into his earlier works of fiction, particularly the ones that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature 41 years ago.

This new book, translated by “TK” and published by Counterpoint, demonstrates once again why Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn continues to deserve his ranking as one of the world’s great writers.

 – Si Dunn

#

Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Apricot Jam and Other Stories’ – #bookreview

Apricot Jam and Other Stories
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Counterpoint, $28.00)

A major literary work is now available for readers who relish the works of modern Russian writers, particularly the ones who rebelled against communism’s restrictive censorship and social, legal and economic rigidities and achieved international acclaim during the final decades of the Soviet Union.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories,  an engrossing collection of eight short stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is now available from Berkeley, Calif.-based Counterpoint.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, primarily on the strength of three novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In The First Circle (better known as The First Circle), and Cancer Ward. These books shone glaring, shocking spotlights on the Gulag, a USSR government agency that operated a brutal, sprawling system of forced labor camps for political prisoners, criminals and others who ran afoul of  Soviet laws, officials, informants and secret police.

Significantly, the eight short stories in this 352-page collection are making their first appearance in English. They were initially published in Russia in 1994, after Solzhenitsyn ended years of exile in the West and returned to his native land. He died in 2008.

The title story provides an excellent example of the unusual “binary” writing style that Solzhenitsyn employed in these eight works of short fiction. In “Apricot Jam,” the son of a kulak (a relatively affluent peasant) has almost lost everything in his life except the memories of the apricot jam his mother used to make for him before communism and collective agriculture destroyed his family and his farm. He is now nearly starving to death while serving internal exile and doing hard labor in a distant town. In desperation, he writes a letter to a famous Russian writer who has published a book touting that the “meaning of life is labor in a communist society.”  He humbly begs the famous writer to send him a food parcel, because he is working hard to try to stay alive, yet now nearing death from lack of nourishment.

In the second part of the “Apricot Jam” story, the exile’s letter has arrived at the famous writer’s elegant dacha outside Moscow. There, the famous writer entertains a professor of cinema, as well as a neighbor, the head of the literary department in the State Publishing House, a man who “held the reins of the whole of literature in his hands….”

In the posh dacha, the men also enjoy some apricot jam, but it is just one minor trapping amid the surrounding opulence as they speak in praise of Comrade Stalin, socialist realism, and how “Creating an art of world significance–that is the task of the writer today.” The apricot jam briefly figures into their discussion as a symbol for a type of  “amber transparency” that “should be present in literary language, as well.” 

Soon, the famous writer mentions the unusual letter he has received from the exiled, starving worker. And, as they discuss its text, their final analysis of it is devastating.

In the story “The New Generation,” a principled and disciplined engineering professor finally gives in to pleadings by a failing student and hands him a passing grade. The professor is, after all, under orders to “make allowances” for the students now being sent to him from factories, some of whom would be “better off making pots and pans” rather than being forced to become engineers.

 Two years later, in the second part of the story’s binary structure, the engineering professor is arrested, and his interrogator from the GPU (the State Political Directorate) is none other than the failing student who had talked him into a passing grade. The ex-student cannot undo the professor’s arrest, yet he can and does, as a sort of return favor, offer him three grim choices of fates. 

Solzhenitsyn served with distinction as a captain in the Red Army during World War II, but was arrested after he wrote a letter that included disparaging remarks about Josef Stalin’s leadership of the war effort. The writer spent the next eight years in Soviet labor camps and another three years in internal exile.

Much of his fiction in Apricot Jam and Other Stories draws its creative spark from his grim wartime and Gulag experiences. Yet some of the stories also deal with post-Soviet issues in the times of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. For example, in the concluding story, “Fracture Points,” characters face the difficulty of trying to adapt to new freedoms and new economic structures at a time when “[t]he word ‘privatize’ was as frightening as a sea monster.”

If you have never before read any Solzhenitsyn, Apricot Jam and Other Stories can be a good introduction that may inspire you to also delve into his earlier works of fiction, particularly the ones that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature 41 years ago.

This new book, translated by “TK” and published by Counterpoint, demonstrates once again why Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn continues to deserve his ranking as one of the world’s great writers.

 – Si Dunn

#

Faking It in the School for Tricksters

School for Tricksters: A Novel in Stories
By Chris Gavaler
(SMU Press, $23.95)

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/fjgemh

Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School remains a controversial chapter in U.S. history, more than 90 years after the school was shut down and converted to a military hospital. Later, it became the site of the U.S. Army’s War College.

The Carlisle campus is the central location in author and playwright Chris Gavaler’s engaging new novel, School for Tricksters, set in the early 1900s. The book was published recently by Dallas-based Southern Methodist University (SMU) Press.

Between 1879 and 1918, nearly 12,000 Native American children from more than a hundred tribes were sent to Carlisle for “education.” The campus followed strict military rules, and its administrators and teachers were supposed to try to strip away Native American cultures, customs, languages and religions. Students took Caucasian names and followed customs and religions of white Americans. They wore contemporary clothing when not wearing Carlisle uniforms.

Carlisle soon became the model for other Indian boarding schools sponsored by the U.S. government. The schools also became places where orphanages and parents sometimes dumped children who, in reality, had little or no tribal blood. This is the circumstance for several characters in School for Tricksters.

“You know how much white trash we got in here?” the school’s head disciplinarian, Mr. Henderson, asks Sylvester Long, a new arrival from North Carolina, just after Sylvester gives him a fake Cherokee name instead of his real name. “Kids with barely any Indian blood. Trying to steal an education from the government.”

Henderson, in Gavaler’s tale, is unaware that Sylvester has white and African-American relatives, as well as Native American blood, and is the son of a black janitor. In the early 1900s, having any black heritage at all is grounds for immediate expulsion from Carlisle.

Another new student, Iva Miller, arrives from the Oklahoma Territory believing she is part Cherokee or possibly Shawnee, whatever her father told the orphanage when he abandoned her. In truth, she has no Indian roots.

School for Tricksters becomes an engrossing coming-of-age story as Sylvester and Iva forge new identities built on falsehoods, while others around them also try to build new lives or maintain careers, sometimes with help from lies, deceptions or corruption. One of the book’s underlying themes is that we are all tricksters to some degree, at some point in our lives.

Significantly, the book’s main characters are real people used fictionally. Along with Sylvester and Iva, they include: Jim Thorpe, Carlisle’s stellar Sac and Fox football player who won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics; William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a Carlisle athlete of questioned heritage who achieved college and professional gridiron coaching greatness; Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Carlisle’s athletic coach who became a national sports icon; and Marianne Moore, a Carlisle typing teacher who became one of America’s leading poets.

Chris Gavaler’s fiction is drawn from extensive factual research and interviews. Also, each chapter is a separate short story that provides different perspectives of key characters as they adjust to Carlisle and Caucasian-dominated culture.

The real Iva Miller became Jim Thorpe’s first wife while he was a major-league baseball player. The real Sylvester Long achieved fame as a journalist, author and actor known as “Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance.” His tribal claims, however, eventually were disproved, and his 1932 death was ruled suicide.

Despite its underlying grimness, School for Tricksters is refreshingly unusual fiction. It also is another stark reminder of how Native Americans have been treated, feted, mistreated and exploited.

Si Dunn

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Lone Star Noir: Deep in the (Dark) Heart of Texas

 Fans of noir fiction prefer their stories dark and gritty.

They relish harsh tales told from troubled viewpoints: crime victims, serial killers, suspects, witnesses.

A private eye may be snooping around somewhere nearby. But cops and sheriff’s deputies are not yet on the scene. A terrible act central to the story is just about to be discovered. Or it is just minutes away from happening.

Lone Star Noir fits this story pattern almost perfectly. Fourteen hardboiled short stories, set deep in the darkest heart of Texas, take the book’s readers to life’s ragged edges. You move along grim roads leading “to the tail end of everything,” to places where “a plain bare bulb swings overhead, casting a dizzying light,” and into the company of people who understand “guns and dope and greed and hatred and delusion…” probably better than they understand anything else.

Published by Akashic Books, Lone Star Noir is edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd, the co-publishers of Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso.

The book cuts the state into three regions: Gulf Coast Texas, Back Roads Texas, and Big City Texas. Each region in the book, of course, has its own flair for sinister settings.

The stories are new, and most of the 15 writers (one story has two authors) have some kind of connections to the Lone Star State, which Bobby Byrd contends “bleeds noir fiction.”

A cautionary notice: Lone Star Noir is alive with raw language and murderous events. It is definitely not for the easily offended, nor the faint of heart.

Noir fiction can bring you face to face with people you would never want to meet, nor be. And it reminds readers how humanity’s darkest possibilities lie just beneath everyday life’s thin veneer.

Lisa Sandlin’s short story “Phelan’s First Case” focuses on a rookie Beaumont private detective who tries to solve a missing-person mystery in the gloomy Big Thicket north of Houston. Meanwhile, another mystery that could get somebody killed starts unfolding back at his office while he is away.

In “Bottomed Out,” Dean James’ gruesome tale, a Dallas company’s German “troubleshooter” gets a manager fired but also frames him for another employee’s murder.

And Jessica Powers’ short story “Preacher’s Kid” takes the reader inside the mind of a West Texas preacher. He tries and fails to stop his son from drinking, but he has to confront a much deeper and more painful truth about his family.

Akashic Books started its original noir anthology series in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Since then, approximately 40 noir story collections have been published, ranging from Chicago Noir to Paris Noir and Wall Street Noir. More are scheduled, including Cape Cod Noir and Pittsburgh Noir.

According to Bobby Byrd, many people arrive in Texas expecting to see J.R. Ewing or Larry McMurtry characters lurking behind every oil rig and cattle herd.

“The real Texas,” he insists, “hides out in towns and cities like you’ll find in Lone Star Noir.

Maybe, maybe not. In any case, it is infinitely safer to read the book and not go looking for proof — and trouble — at the end of dark Texas roads.

Si Dunn

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Fast-Paced Action: By Sea, by Land and by Air

Corsair
By Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul
(Putnam, $27.95, hardback)

Some fans of Jack Du Brul’s writing think his name should be listed first on the cover of Corsair, a new installment in the popular Oregon Files series.

But, regardless of who actually wrote what within this 437-page action-thriller, the team of Cussler and Du Brul has cranked out an impressive and fast-paced tale. It has surprising twists and turns on almost every page once the story hits full stride (or full speed ahead).

The Oregon is a ship within a ship. On the outside, she appears to be a 560-foot freighter so battered and rusty that Davy Jones’ locker will be the next port of call. Very cleverly hidden inside, however, is a world of surprises. When the ship is commandeered and the crew is seized by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa, the cocky sea criminals have no idea they have climbed aboard an amazing death trap.

In secret compartments deep inside its cargo holds, behind and beneath tightly packed containers and goods, the Oregon has another crew. (The ones now being held at gunpoint by the pirates are actors who happen to be skilled at fighting and killing.) The real crew is manning computers, video monitors, the ship’s enormously powerful high-tech engines, and a staggering array of weapons. The pirates are unaware that their every move now is being watched and that the hidden part of the Oregon’s crew is in complete control of the ship, not them.

Indeed, the Oregon is a ship full of mercenaries of the toughest type. “They typically worked for the (U.S.) government, tackling operations deemed too risky for American soldiers or members of the intelligence community, on a strictly cash-only basis,” the co-authors have written.

When the Somalis take their battered and rusty “prize” upriver to their leader, they are unaware that they are helping the Oregon capture him for the CIA and the World Court.

That operation is just the beginning of the action for the Oregon’s crew of weapons and technology specialists. Led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, chairman of the shadowy “Corporation,” and Max Hanley, its president, the ship soon has to go into harm’s way in a very big way. Their mission is to try to figure out what has happened to the American Secretary of State, whose plane has gone missing somewhere near the Tunisian-Libyan border on the eve of a vitally important peace conference.

What unfolds next is a sequence of unexpected events that tests virtually every weapon the Oregon can muster and almost every new idea her leaders and crew can create — in the heat of battle after battle after battle.

Corsair quickly accelerates to fighting speed for an afternoon or two of engrossing reading. It loses momentum only briefly amid some of the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. All in all, it is a very satisfying action-thriller. 

 – Si Dunn is a screenwriter, script doctor, book author and book review columnist.

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