BLEEDING KANSAS: Coming-of-age adventure and danger on the American frontier just before the Civil War – #fiction #bookreview

Bleeding Kansas

Dave Eisenstark

(World Castle Publishing, LLC paperback, Kindle)

 

It is very tempting to say: “This book is a lot like Huckleberry Finn, but on land, with lots of horses and guns!”

However, amid the humor, the horrors and the main character’s many dangerous, coming-of-age adventures, readers also get close, unnerving looks at a very rough, very dark chapter in American history.

During a seven-year period leading up to the Civil War, violent clashes in Kansas and parts of Missouri pitted anti-slavery “Free-Staters” against pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” It was gang warfare on horseback, and it also was a proxy conflict that demonstrated what was about to happen on a gigantic scale once the North and South split and took up arms against each other.

In Bleeding Kansas, a Quaker youth from Pennsylvania, James Deeter,  heads west, trying to avoid being drafted into the Union Army. But Deeter makes some naive and unfortunate decisions along the way. To survive, he finds himself suddenly facing his worst nightmare: He must ride in raids as part of the pro-Confederate gang known as Quantrill’s Raiders.

Eisenstark’s fiction in this book can stretch credulity at times, and it relies on a few coincidences and confluences of historic characters. Yet those just enhance the dark humor and the moments of real horror and surprise that keep coming as the well-written work of history-based fiction unfolds.

Memo to producers: Bleeding Kansas has the makings of an action-packed movie for a rising young star.

Si Dunn

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Book Briefs: Cormac McCarthy, Prehistoric Central Texas, Rio Grande border – #bookreview

Here are three specialized books for serious readers of specialized topics. The first provides a “comprehensive yet concise overview” of Cormac McCarthy’s “legacy in American literature.”  The second examines a 14th century civilization in Central Texas that “represents the last prehistoric peoples before the cultural upheaval introduced by European explorers.” And the third delves into the complex, often violent history of the Rio Grande border area that separates Mexico and the United States.

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The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy
Edited by Steven Frye
(Cambridge University Press – paperback, hardback)

An “international team of McCarthy scholars” provide more than a dozen insightful essays that examine and analyze some of the prolific and reclusive author’s “best known and commonly taught novels,” as well as his “work in cinema, including the many adaptations of his novels to film.” Some of the titles reflected upon include The Road and All the Pretty Horses.

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The Toyah Phase of Central Texas
Late Prehistoric Economic and Social Processes
Edited by Nancy A. Kenmotsu and Douglas K. Boyd
(Texas A&M University Press – hardback, Kindle)

In this important gathering of “studies and interpretive essays,” the editors and other contributors focus on a mobile, prehistoric society of hunter-gatherers whose culture “arose in and around the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas” and whose homeland covered much of Central Texas and South Texas in the 14th century. They were, the book contends, “never isolated from the world around them”–a world that included neighboring tribes and groups in northern Mexico and eastern New Mexico, plus newcomers such as the Apache and Comanche. Yet these “last prehistoric peoples” soon would have their culture changed and overturned by the arrival of European explorers.

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River of Hope
Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands
Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez
(Duke University Press – paperback, hardback, Kindle)

America’s border with Mexico has a complex and troubled past, a complex and troubled present, and likely will have a complex and troubled future. In this thoughtful, well-researched study, Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, focuses on how the people who lived in the border area during the 18th and 19th centuries fared as Spain, Mexico, and the United States all vied for control. Ultimately, Spanish colonists near the border became Mexican citizens but then became Americans, whether they wanted to or not, as political and military power shifted and territory changed hands. Meanwhile, those who were caught up in the seesaw battles did not “adopt singular colonial or national identities. Instead, their regionalism, transnational cultural practices, and kinship ties subverted state attempts to control and divide the population.” In short, they intermarried, formed defensive alliances (Mexican, Indian, and Anglo), and identified more with where they lived than with any distant capitol that allegedly controlled them.

Si Dunn

Book Briefs: Four Works of Fiction & Nonfiction from the American Southwest – #bookreview

A Texas Jubilee: Thirteen Stories from the Lone Star State
James Ward Lee
(TCU Press – paperback, Kindle)

James Ward Lee, former English department chairman at the University of North Texas, has earned his membership in the Texas Literary Hall of Fame the hard way. He has written numerous books, short stories and other well-received works.

A Texas Jubilee, his entertaining and absorbing new short story collection, focuses on life in fictitious Bodark Springs, a small East Texas town, in the 1930s and 1940s.

The interconnected stories often have colorful characters, richly detailed local conflicts, and troubling events such as the arrival of an aged man claiming to be Jesse James and the occasional appearance of a bike messenger who delivers World War II death-notice telegrams. One of the best stories, “A Blue and Gray Christmas,” reflects on a grandmother’s early childhood memories of the Civil War.

Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West
W.C. Jameson
(Taylor Trade – paperback, Kindle)

Many of  writer and treasure hunter W.C. Jameson’s books and articles have entertained readers who love “the Old West and a good mystery.” This second edition contains 21 “baffling” tales that still stir up people’s imaginations and sometimes continue a few disputes.

One of the best of the “unsolved mysteries” in Jameson’s book involves an alien spacecraft that may–or may not–have crashed north of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1897, in the tiny town of Aurora.

On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest
Char Miller
(Trinity University Press – paperback, Kindle)

The American Southwest is a hotbed of water-supply controversies and immigration disputes, plus sharp political clashes over how to deal with both major issues.

In On the Edge, former Trinity University history professor Char Miller’s taut, insightful essays zero in on “the American Southwest, a region I have known, loved and misunderstood.” He reflects on San Antonio and Los Angeles and what is happening to “the borderlands that stretch between them.”

He puts special emphasis on sustainability and “the environmental pressures, judicial struggles, social injustices, and economic disparities that have troubled the communities I have resided in.”

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence
Edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso
(Arte Publico Press – paperback)

Mexico’s gruesome narcotics wars and heightened U.S. border security efforts have disrupted many economic, cultural and personal ties between the American Southwest and Mexico.

This  eye-opening book’s 12 bilingual essays highlight key losses, including the casual ease with which tourists used to cross the border. One writer notes: “The typical American tourist (including Mexican Americans) had no passport; it wasn’t needed. They often did not plan ahead. People walked or drove across the border at El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, San Diego/Tijuana and…Nogales/Nogales…and found a vibrant restaurant with delicious food and even better music. This happenstance border crossing allowed for adventures and exploring for the day….”

While some of the essays are dispiriting, hope also emerges within this important collection.

Si Dunn

Lunch with Buddha – An entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking American road-trip novel – #bookreview

Lunch with Buddha
Roland Merullo
(PFP/Ajar, Kindle, paperback)

To be honest, I was not really aware of Roland Merullo until his publisher contacted me offering a review copy of an enticingly titled new novel, Lunch with Buddha.

I could blame my “Who?” reaction on my intense focus toward reviewing technology books over the past two years. And I could blame it on empirical evidence that it’s really tough to sell works of fiction these days.

Indeed, several writers of novels and short story collections have told me they don’t get much publicity help from their publishers. Some also have declared they were taking up self-publishing so they could (a) get their books into print (or its digital equivalent), (b) keep more of their paltry earnings, and (c) try their hand at book promotion. Furthermore, I have data — very hard data — showing that virtually no one on Planet Earth has yet read my novel, Erwin’s Law, nor my experimental novella, Jump.

Thus, bottom line, I have not been paying very close attention to the world of fiction lately.

Immediately, I was impressed  (and jarred) to learn that (1) Roland Merullo’s seventh novel, Breakfast with Buddha, is now in its 14th printing; (2) Lunch with Buddha, published late last year, is his eleventh novel and already in its second printing; AND (3) Lunch with Buddha’s completion and publication was funded, at least in part, with significant Kickstarter contributions from Merullo fans.

Intriguingly, Roland Merullo turned down a six-figure advance from a major publishing house and chose a small, independent publisher to bring out his new book.

So he must be good, right?

He’s better than good, actually. Roland Merullo is one of the best, most entertaining writers I’ve encountered in a long time. Seldom am I hooked by a book’s first few paragraphs. But, in Lunch with Buddha, Merullo blends verbal calmness, clarity, wit and depth to create an engaging, absorbing story that flows smoothly from darkly humorous opening to meaningful end.

His new tale is a road-trip novel that covers an odd, yet very American, route: from Seattle to North Dakota, in a borrowed, battered pickup truck nicknamed “Uma.”

Otto Ringling, a New York editor of culinary books and recent widower, is taking the journey with reluctance, while searching for peace of mind and new meanings for his suddenly altered life.

His traveling companion on the drive is his sister’s former guru, “His Holiness” Volya Rinpoche, a Siberian “semi-Buddhist” who now is the sister’s husband and father of their young daughter, Shelsa. Volya still has many questions and misconceptions about life in these not-so-United States. But he also has an infectious spirit, an unshakable spirituality, and plenty of confidence that all will be well and work out in the end.

Otto, meanwhile, is just trying to get a renewed grip on existence. “One of the side effects of losing a spouse–at least for me–had been a peculiar inability to perform the most mundane tasks,” he says in the book, adding:

“Making plane and hotel reservations, shopping for food, setting out the trash on time–these duties, which ordinarily I would have completed with a practiced ease, now seemed as daunting as the learning of a Chinese dialect. I let things slide. For the first time in family history, bills were paid late. The dry cleaners had to call three times to remind me to pick up my shirts. My children could be harsh with me about these failings, but I took their casual criticisms like a battered old fighter takes punches. I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help them envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces.”

While Otto and Volya drive across Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, her young daughter Shelsa, and Otto’s children Anthony (20) and Natasha (22), are all riding Amtrak, taking a separate route. They’ve been to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, to witness Otto scattering his wife’s ashes. Now they are heading for Dickinson, North Dakota, where Celia and Volya live — in Otto’s view — “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality.”

Along the way, Otto and Volya have several humorous–and sometimes troubling–encounters with contemporary American culture and values. Otto, for example, tries to explain to Volya the meanings of some strange signs they see along the highway, such as “REPTILE ZOO AND EXPRESSO” and “EAT BIG FOOD.”

Otto and Volya also have debates over religion and spirituality as the widower seeks understandable meanings he can attach to life, death, and whatever lies beyond our mystery-shrouded finality. For example:

 “What is the goal?” I asked, trying to slip away from it. “What’s the whole point? Enlightenment? Eternal life? What?”

He patted me on the shoulder for the millionth time, and said, “You purify. You go and go. Life cuts you and you try and try and try and pretty soon–”

“You become beautiful.”

“Yes. Good.”

“But toward what are we going and going? What does the beauty look like?”

He shrugged almost helplessly, and for a moment I was gripped hard by the hand of doubt. He seemed only an ordinary man then, and I wanted more than that from him, more than cryptic answers and shrugs. A small inner voice suggested he’d been fooling us all these years, playing a role, maybe even working a scam.

“I can show you,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

“All right. Please show me, then. I’m having a crisis of faith. I’m a little bit lost.”

He nodded sympathetically. “We find you,” he said. “Don’t worry too much….”

Lunch with Buddha has the same key characters as Roland Merullo’s best-selling Breakfast with Buddha. And a third book, aptly titled Dinner with Buddha, is said to be in the works.

Fortunately, Lunch is written so it can be picked up and immediately enjoyed by those who have not previously read Breakfast. Indeed, Lunch with Buddha will make many readers go back and devour Breakfast, then eagerly anticipate Dinner–and check out some of Roland Merullo’s other works of fiction and nonfiction while waiting for the next serving.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Jack Kerouac are the two names that  pop most quickly to mind when the debate topic is “classic road-trip novels.”  I move that we now add Roland Merullo to that short, but esteemed, list.

Si Dunn

Bruce Barnbaum’s ‘Tone Poems’ – Beautiful photographs, with music – #bookreview

Bruce Barnbaum is a superb black-and-white photographer, and Rocky Nook, Inc., recently has brought forth new editions of two of his beautifully crafted image collections.

Styled as part of a four-volume series, these two coffee-table books should appeal to almost anyone who loves good visual images and good music and appreciates opportunities to enjoy them together.

The two books, originally published by Photographic Arts Editions, are:

Tone Poems – Book 1, Opuses 1, 2 & 3
Bruce Barnbaum
(Rocky Nook, hardback)

Tone Poems – Book 2, Opuses 4, 5 & 6
Bruce Barnbaum
(Rocky Nook, hardback)

“It was the land, specifically the magnificent landscape of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, that initially drew me into photography,” Barnbaum writes, in a Tone Poems chapter titled “Opus 3, Lyricism of the Land.” Almost 40 years later, he is “still drawn to that landscape, but filled with ideas about photography—and about the land—that I never dreamed of having back in my younger days.” Barnbaum also is drawn to the landscapes of many other parts of the world and is keenly aware of their frailties, as well as the increasing threats that human activity and commercial development pose to their natural beauty.

Why two photography books that also have commentary about the compositions and CDs of music intended to be played as accompaniment to the stunning images?

“Sometimes, even the combination of words and pictures are insufficient to adequately convey my feelings,” Barnbaum notes. “Music, added to the mix, helps convey it much more strongly.”

The CDs included with these books feature selections of classical music played by noted pianist Judith Cohen, artistic director of the Governor’s Chamber Music Series in the state of Washington.

“The music and the images are meant to celebrate the life, the light and the poetic lyricism of the land,” Barnbaum emphasizes.

The two books succeed in reaching these lofty goals.

— Si Dunn

The Last Camel Charge – An intriguing look at America’s pre-Civil War desert military experiment – #bookreview

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment
Forrest Bryant Johnson
(Berkley Caliber, hardbackKindle)

The U.S. Army employed camels as transportation and pack animals in the American West during the mid-19th century and tried to create “a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps,” the author of this fascinating history work notes.

Initially headquartered near San Antonio, Texas, the fledgling camel corps soon became involved in expeditions of discovery, as well as fighting in several areas.

The notable actions included a victorious camel charge against Mojave Indians in the Arizona Territory and helping naval lieutenant Edward Beale’s successfully create a wagon trail from Texas to California.

The Civil War ended the camel corps experiment, the author shows. But Union and Confederate forces both used camels during the conflict, and the last U.S. Army camel died in captivity in 1934.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a few wild camels, distant offspring of the Camel Corps, are still alive and roaming the most desolate and isolated areas of the American Southwest. Indeed, the author notes, several wild camels were photographed near a West Texas railroad track in 2003.

Si Dunn

Granbury’s Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates – #bookreview #in #civilwar #history

Granbury’s Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
John R. Lundberg
(Louisiana State University, hardback, $39.95; Kindle edition, list price $25.95)

Soon after the Civil War broke out, Brigadier General Hiram Granbury’s Texas Brigade drew Confederate volunteers from across North, South and East Texas. And many of its dismounted cavalry soldiers deserted or became prisoners after their early battles.

But this important new work by John R. Lundberg, a history professor at Collin College in Plano, Texas, offers extensive fact and some opinion to illustrate how the Texas Brigade later reshaped itself into a fierce fighting unit.

Lundberg contends the brigade’s early desertions mainly involved soldiers who wanted to go back to Texas and fight closer to home.

The Texas Brigade, in his view, had “a hunger for victory unrivaled within most other western brigades,” particularly after it became part of the South’s Army of Tennessee. Indeed, as his book shows, the unit maintained its diehard reputation long after the Confederacy’s cause was lost.

Si Dunn

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