Happy Publication Day to On the Road

Sixty-two years ago today, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published. All these years later, it is one of the best loved and most popular American novels ever written, and it remains the seminal piece of literature produced during and about the Beat Generation.

My novella, “Back on the Road,” which can be found in the novella collection Road Stories, was heavily influenced by Kerouac’s work. In the novella, a group of friends, all recent college graduates, set out on a road trip to follow Kerouac’s protagonist’s, Sal’s, route across America. On the way, through adventures and mishaps, they learn about the country, each other, and themselves.

Happy Publication Day to On the Road. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. And while you’re at it, check out Road Stories to read “Back on the Road.”

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Don’t Sell Me a Car. Tell Me a Story.

I hate being sold anything. I like buying things, but I hate being sold things. That’s why I like the following two ads from Audi. Rather than telling me (and everyone else) what we should buy, Audi is telling us a story. They’re not beating us over the head with reasons their car is better than others or giving us other reasons to buy an Audi. Instead, they’re speaking to our emotions, telling us a compelling story about people we don’t know, but who we start caring about almost as soon as the story begins.

Stories are powerful. They express truths that can’t be conveyed with more direct language or sales techniques. They speak to our hearts, something that sales talk or logic can’t do. They give us reason to buy, even when our defenses are up making sure we aren’t being sold anything.

This first video ran during the Super Bowl a few years ago. The car Audi would like to sell us is at the center of the video, but not the center of the story. In order to make us care, stories almost always have to be about people (or animals). Audi is selling cars, but they’re telling stories about people.

In this commercial for the Audi RS6 Avant, they go a step further. They’re selling a car, and the story is about a young man growing into an adult. But Audi goes the extra step by making us care about a station wagon. I just read an article indicating that station wagons are a dying breed, but after I watched this extended commercial, I started thinking that maybe I need a station wagon. That’s quite a feat because I do not like station wagons. So, if the commercial affected me this way, it’s having the same effect on others.

Well done, Audi. Keep the stories coming.

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Happy Birthday, James Baldwin!

Had he lived, today would have been author James Baldwin’s 95th birthday. If you’ve never read Baldwin, do yourself a favor and pick up the short story, “Sonny’s Blues. If you’d like to read it online, take a look at this website. The story is annotated, but still well worth reading.

My favorite passage in the story takes place at the end. The narrator is at a club watching his brother, Sonny, play piano in a band. The gig, like the story itself, starts out slow, and then builds little by little, finally reaching it’s crescendo as the story ends.

Here’s a bit of “Sonny’s Blues” from the annotated version:

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumphs, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them all on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing–he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, his instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.

Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with his life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what we had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his; that long line, of which we only knew Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Then it was over, Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then, he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again. It glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”

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The Latest on “The Ones That Got Away”

Just a quick post to give you an update on my next book. It’s tentative title is The Ones That Got Away and it’s about a guy who’s stuck in an unhappy marriage. He thinks he married the wrong woman and, through a little bit of time travel, he gets the chance to build a life with each of his previous three serious girlfriends (i.e., the ones that got away).

The novel was supposed to be done by the end of March 2019, but I had a computer snafu and ended up losing the entire book. At that point, I had written about 40% of the first draft. So, when I lost it, I had to start again from scratch. It wasn’t fun to lose all that hard work, but honestly, I think it was for the best. It gave me a chance to rethink parts of the plot, and as a result, I think it’s going to be a much better book.

At this point, I’m thirty days or less away from completing the first draft. Once that’s done, it will take me a month or two to revise the manuscript, then it will go to my editor, who will give me even more work to do. My goal at this point is to have The Ones That Got Away ready for publication by the end of October.

Thanks for following along. I appreciate your support.

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Back to the Woods

Up until a year or so ago, I used to go hiking a lot. It was not unusual for me to be tromping out in the woods three or four days a week. When I’d travel, I’d often set aside a day to hike. Although the exercise was good, the results when on these unfamiliar trails was not always what I had planned.

For instance, while hiking a new (to me) trail in Wisconsin a couple of years ago, I got lost and ended up hiking nine miles instead of the four I had planned to hike. Another time, in Smoky Mountain National Park, I hiked a four mile-long loop trail that I swear went straight up for three of the four miles. At one point, I had resigned myself to living out my final hours sitting on a log rather than continuing the uphill slog. It was during that hike that I realized I mostly like leisurely walks through the woods over death-defying hikes that cause more stress than they relieve.

This last point is an important one, and one I was reminded of today when I hiked four miles on the Cedar Forest Trail in Cedars of Lebanon State Park in Wilson County, Tennessee. For me, hiking has always been a way to get some exercise while also addressing the stresses of everyday life. The problem is that I often allow those stresses to stop, rather than motivate, me from going out into the woods to hike. I use things like relationship issues, career headaches, money problems, etc. to keep me out of the woods. Instead, these are the very things that should drive me to hike more. Every time I hit the trail, I can feel whatever stresses I’m experiencing lift and lessen. The solitude of the woods helps to clear my head and gives me a new perspective. In other words, hiking in the woods is a prescription to combat everyday stresses, not a luxury that can be avoided due to those stresses.

In her book, The 3-Day Effect, author Florence Williams makes the case that time spent in the wild not only can help us relieve stress, but can also fortify us against future stress. Williams conducted outdoor, “in the wild,” experiments with veterans suffering from PTSD, female victims of physical and sexual abuse, and, in an unusual but very personal experiment, herself, while she was going through an unexpected and unwanted divorce. In each case, the subjects of the experiments found that their time in the outdoors relieved their stress (whatever their particular stress might have been), and it also helped them to deal with the cause of their stress when they returned back to their lives.

I like to go out into the woods for a couple of hours and just walk. I find the time relaxing, invigorating, and recharging. But to get maximum benefit from being out in nature, Williams suggests spending a minimum of three days in the wild. Staying out even longer can be even more beneficial, but there are diminishing returns the longer you stay out.

I have a bad habit of staying cooped up in the house. It’s where I write, and I’m committed to spending more time writing in the future. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t be just as committed to spending time outdoors, hiking, walking, or even just sitting. If Williams’ 3-Day Effect theory is right (and I believe it is), being out in nature will be good for my health and for my writing.

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Longmire and the Problem with Tortured Plots

SPOILER ALERT This post contains spoilers for the book Gone Girl and the Netflix show Longmire.

My son tells me that I’m not much fun to watch a movie with because I tend to pick apart the plot. I understand what he’s saying, but I hate watching a movie or TV show, or read a book, where the characters have to do something completely illogical, often against their own interest, in order for the story to ultimately reach its pre-determined conclusion.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was an extremely popular book (and later, a movie) that, to me, is exhibit one when it comes to tortured plots. I don’t remember all of the silly things that happened to continue the story, but two things come to mind.

First, Nick Dunne, the protagonist in the book, is suspected in the disappearance of his wife, Amy. Police are closing in on Nick, so he hires an attorney. But he’s not just an attorney. He’s a super-attorney. One of the best defense lawyers in the country. He’s well-known and well-respected. Why he took a relatively low-profile case in Carthage, Missouri is anyone’s guess.

So, the first thing the attorney does is schedule Nick for a TV interview, something no defense attorney would do. The idea is for the TV interview to rehabilitate Nick’s reputation in the public ahead of his potential arrest. I know that doesn’t make sense and is completely unnecessary. Nick is neither famous nor infamous. Generally speaking, people don’t know who he is. He really doesn’t have a reputation to rehabilitate. But it gets worse. When the interviewer starts questioning Nick about new evidence that his attorney is unaware of, chaos ensues. Nick is like a deer in the headlights and his attorney has no idea what to do. The entire exercise makes Nick look guilty. This is why no attorney would have arranged such an interview. It’s ridiculous, but it’s necessary for the story to continue down the path the writer is paving.

Another example occurs at the end of the book. Amy is afraid Nick is going to leave her and expose her self-kidnapping, so she threatens him with some of her own vomit that is laced with antifreeze. Amy saved her vomit (Who among us hasn’t done that?) and froze it just in case she ever needs to use it against Nick. She tells Nick that if he ever leaves her or exposes her actions, she’ll go to the police with the vomit, which she says she’ll claim is evidence that Nick tried to poison her. In order for the reader to believe this, they have to believe not only that Amy is some sort of criminal mastermind with unbelievable foresight, but also that the police are idiots and can’t see through her silly ploy. Regardless, Nick caves to her threats and agrees not to leave her. What a happy couple.

All of this is prelude to the TV show plot I’d really like to complain about. For the past few weeks I’ve been watching the Netflix series Longmire. The series is a western-themed crime drama that takes place in Absaroka County, Wyoming and is based on the Walt Longmire mysteries written by Craig Johnson.  The first three seasons of the show were broadcast on A&E, but after being cancelled, Netflix picked it up and produced seasons four, five, and six.

The early seasons were pretty good. I found some plot points to take issue with, but overall, they were pretty solid. But as the seasons went on, reality became more and more of a victim. The writers of Longmire would have you believe that this tiny police department (only four or five cops for an entire county the size of Delaware) with a sheriff who refuses to carry a cell phone, can get phone records, ping a cell phone, and get up-to-date credit card records with nothing but a phone call and a smile. No warrant needed. Okay, lots of crime-dramas play fast and loose with police procedures, but in the last couple of seasons of the show, the warrantless records requests were constant. Even when the cops had no contact with a suspect, they somehow had access to all of the suspect’s credit cards and bank records. It was crazy.

But things went completely off the rails in the final season. Walt Longmire learns that Barlow Connally, the wealthiest guy in the county, has killed his own son (one of Walt’s deputies) and is behind the murder of Walt’s wife. Barlow comes over to Walt’s house to confess, then pulls a gun on Walt forcing Walt to shoot him (Barlow’s gun is unloaded). When the bullets aren’t enough to kill him, Barlow grabs Walt’s knife and stabs himself, finally ending his life.

This is a little convoluted, but stick with me. Barlow had Walt’s wife killed because she was leading the charge against a proposed Casino in the county. Barlow needed the Casino in the county to further his business interests, so he has her killed. His son, Branch (The Connallys have some crazy names), the sheriff’s deputy, figured out that Barlow had Walt’s wife killed. Branch confronts Barlow and Barlow kills him, but makes it look like a suicide. That begs the question, why did Barlow kill his own son to cover up his involvement in Walt’s wife’s murder only to turn around and confess the whole thing to Walt?

It’s unclear, although there was a suggestion that Barlow simply couldn’t live with himself after shooting Branch. I’m not buying that theory, but it’s possible. Another possibility is that Barlow wants Walt’s land to build a golf course, and the only way he can get it for his company is to force Walt to shoot him, then file a wrongful death lawsuit to get the land. I admit, this is far-fetched, but it seems to be what the writers were thinking. But to believe this, viewers have to believe that Barlow wants Walt’s land so bad that he is willing to die for it. That’s a tough proposition to accept, but there it is.

That brings us to the lawsuit, which is the piece de resistance of tortured plot lines. Tucker Baggett, the late-Barlow Connally’s theatrical attorney and successor as CEO of Connally Enterprises (or whatever it’s called), brings a wrongful death case against Walt. Oddly, the county is not involved in the lawsuit and Walt has to find his own attorney. That’s unrealistic, but it’s such a comparatively small plot problem that it’s relatively easy to overlook. It appears that the judge is in Tucker’s pocket and orders the case to court sooner than expected. Walt barely participates in his own defense. In fact, although it seems important to his case that Barlow Connally shot his own son and paid to have Walt’s wife killed, Walt never mentions it to his attorney. The attorney seems blissfully ignorant of the facts that led up to Walt shooting Barlow.

At the beginning of the case, Tucker is having his way. Walt looks horrible in the eyes of the jurors, so he decides to settle for the $250,000 insurance policy the county carries, although neither the insurance company nor the county are ever involved in the settlement negotiations. Tucker declines Walt’s settlement offer, saying that he doesn’t want the money, he wants Walt’s land and he wants to ruin Walt. So, the case proceeds.

Then, coincidentally, Tucker is killed and Walt is the main suspect. The judge refuses to declare a mistrial, and Barlow’s estate brings in another prosecutor. Yes, you read that right. They called the plaintiff attorney a prosecutor. Throughout the final episode, the terminology used by the people involved in the case goes back and forth between criminal and civil. They talked about the possibility of Walt being convicted of the murder of Barlow even though he hasn’t been charged with murder. It’s a wrongful death lawsuit. It’s as if the writers had no knowledge—not even the most rudimentary knowledge—of the legal system. I wanted to follow along. I wanted to accept what was happening during the final episode (really, the final season), but it was all too much. I yelled at the TV. I said things like “That’s unrealistic” or “That would never happen” or, when things got particularly bad, “Bullshit.” When I yelled, my dog just stared at me and didn’t comment one way or the other.

Once the trial is over and Connally Enterprises drops the lawsuit, there are about nine minutes left in the show. During those nine minutes, Walt and Vic cement their romance (Something I was NOT cheering for), Walt offers to retire and give his job to his daughter, Cady (It doesn’t work that way), Henry takes over operation of the Casino (But what about The Red Pony and Continual Soiree?), Ferg dresses up in a tux to win back his love, Meg, (although it isn’t clear if Meg is even at work when Ferg shows up at the hospital), and Lucien, Malachi, Branch, Barlow, Tucker, and a host of other good citizens remain dead. All in the final nine minutes.

There are other ridiculous plot points as well. For instance, Walt, a throwback to be sure, but still living in the twenty-first century, keeps his money in glass jars hidden around his house. When it appears he may lose the wrongful death case, he digs a hole on his land and buries the money. As the trial is proceeding, his attorney suggests that he transfer all of his assets to someone else, something that no self-respecting attorney would do at that late date. Even so, Walt tries to sign over his land to his daughter, Cady, also an attorney. She refuses to accept the land, not because it’s probably illegal and, at that point, ineffective, but because she wants Walt to fight to clear his name.

Throughout the show, cops (particularly Walt) break into houses to obtain evidence (which would be excluded if the case ever went to trial in real life), and they act irresponsibly, often in an over-the-top fashion, when the stakes are the highest. For instance, when Walt travels to Denver to track down and kill the guy who killed his wife, or when he goes to Tucker’s house after Tucker is murdered even though he (Walt) is the number one suspect and he’s been temporarily relieved of his duties as sheriff. It’s as if the writers had Walt and the other characters act in the exact opposite way a reasonable, well-constructed character would act.

Is it too much to ask that a show or book make sense, and that the characters act within their character? I think not.

Note: Despite my irritation with these plot problems, I have to say, I enjoyed Longmire. One thing that made the series enjoyable for me was the music. It was terrific, as evidenced by this trailer:

 

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The Best Books I Read in 2018

 

It’s that time again when I look back on the books I read the previous year and rank the top ten. It’s a silly exercise on my part, yet I enjoy it. I like reviewing what I read the previous year, reliving the experience of reading the great books, and even remembering those that didn’t live up to expectations.

This year’s list includes eight works of fiction and two nonfiction books. I read primarily fiction, so the split between fiction and nonfiction really shouldn’t be a surprise. As in past years, I’m ranking books I read during the year, not books that were published during the year. I’d love to be so caught up on my reading that I could limit myself to only books recently published. There were a lot of great books published in 2018, but since I’m still trying to work my way through books from previous years (even previous decades), I likely won’t get to them all for a while.

I read a lot of really good books in 2018. When I compiled my list, I had too many books to choose from, so I had to whittle the list down to just ten. But they are ten really good books.

As in previous years, there were a few books that disappointed. And sadly, two of the three disappointments were from authors I admire and normally like to read.

I should point out that these books I’m listing as disappointments were not necessarily bad books. In fact, all were okay, three stars out of five. But I had very high expectations of all three, and they all disappointed. Having said that, let’s get to the disappointments.

The first is The Keep by Jennifer Egan. I love Jennifer Egan’s writing. Her book, Manhatten Beach made last year’s list. A Visit From the Good Squad is one of my all-time favorites, and she has another book on this year’s list. But The Keep just fell flat for me. It’s characters were unlikable, the plot was contrived, and it left me disappointed. Make no mistake about it, Jennifer Egan is a great writer, but even great writers sometimes produce a dud. For me, The Keep was a dud.

Rachel Kuschner also hit a sour note with her latest, The Mars Room. The story was too slow, the stakes too inconsequential, and the characters were often too cliched. Rachel wrote one of my all-time favorites, The Flamethrowers, so I know what a capable writer she can be. Unfortunately, The Mars Room didn’t display her wonderful skill as a storyteller.

Finally, I was really looking forward to reading Jason Mott’s The Returned. It has a great plot idea: people who died years earlier begin returning to life. They aren’t ghosts or zombies. They are the same people they were when they died. And when they return, they have no memory of their death or where they have been in the intervening years. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, Mott’s execution on the idea leaves a lot to be desired. Some characters accept the returned. Some reject them, even resorting to violence. But what the characters don’t do nearly enough of is question where the returned have been or why they’ve returned. In fact, the returned don’t really question how they died, where they’ve been, or how the world has changed in the years since they died. It seems only natural that everyone involved would want these answers, but Mott just glosses over it. The Returned could have been a great book, but it turned out just okay.

Now to the top ten books (I read) of 2018:

10. Paris Trout by Pete Dexter – Pete Dexter is a terrific writer. In addition to Paris Trout, I read Brotherly Love ,which just missed making this year’s top ten list. Dexter also wrote one of my all-time favorites, Deadwood. Paris Trout was published in 1989 and takes place just after World War II. It deals with the murder of a young African-American woman in a small Georgia town, and includes all of the racial prejudice and hatred you’d expect. What I didn’t expect was how much these racial feelings from more than seventy years ago still feel fresh and raw today. Dexter’s writing, as always, is straight forward and unadorned, but powerful and compelling. It took me twenty-nine years after publication to read Paris Trout, but it was worth the wait.

 

9. A Filthy Business by William Lashner – When I choose a book to read, it usually is recommended to me by a friend, is talked about on social media, or is written about in an article. I don’t have any memory of how I came to know about William Lashner’s A Filthy Business. To the best of my knowledge, I had never previously heard of William Lashner (a former attorney and graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop), nor had I heard anything about A Filthy Business or any of Lashner’s other books. How I came upon the book is a mystery. Even so, I’m glad I did. A Filthy Business tells the story of Phil Kubiak, a sociopath who questions his actions, even as he kills, cheats, and steals. The story is told from the prospective of Phil as he is giving an interview to a journalist. The writing is gritty, the characters are complex (although sometimes over the top), and the story keeps urging the reader forward. I have a few qualms with A Filthy Business, but it still makes this year’s top ten list.

8. Down the River Unto the Sea by William Mosely – Walter Mosely is an incredibly accomplished writer. His books and short stories have earned him an O. Henry Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Pen-America Lifetime Achievement Award, and for good measure, he’s also won a Grammy Award. Down the River Unto the Sea is a crime drama written with a literary eye. It tells the story of a former NYPD cop, Joe King Oliver, who was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, spent time in prison, and is back on the streets working as a private detective. He’s trying to earn a buck while looking out for his daughter and re-married ex-wife when he receives a letter from the woman who framed him. She admits she lied, but all Oliver wants to know is, who put her up to it. As he works to clear his name, he’s also fighting to prove that a young journalist isn’t the one who killed two on-duty cops. Down the River Unto the Sea is not a perfect book, but it’s well worth the read.

7. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe – I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I didn’t read The Right Stuff until 2018, thirty-nine years after it was first published. The Right Stuff tells the story of the first Apollo astronauts, and some of the characters that worked in and around NASA (and the military) during those early days of the space program. Wolfe is a master storyteller, weaving the tales of several different people as they march toward a career in NASA, and when they come together as astronauts and friends. Wolfe’s book is different than the movie that was made from it (which was fantastic). The movie is a straight forward chronological telling of the early days of the Apollo program. Wolfe’s book jumps around more, goes on more tangents, and tells more about the danger and deaths faced by the early astronauts. At times, the book is darker, less optimistic and more personal than the movie. Both are great. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it. Nearly four decades after it was published, The Right Stuff is still a great read.

6.  A Thousand Acres by Jane SmileyA Thousand Acres was first published in 1991 and was awarded The Pulitzer Prize for Literature the following year. It tells the story of Larry Cook, an aging Iowa farmer who turns control of his farm over to his three daughters, none of whom particularly want the farm. The gift creates a rift between the father and daughters, between the daughters and their husbands, and between the sister themselves. Smiley does a terrific job of contrasting the beauty and starkness of the land and the lifestyles led by farmers. Ninety percent of the book is fantastic, but there’s one plot point that I have to discuss. The three sisters are typical Iowa farm daughters. One enjoys the farm (or so it seems), one hates the farm, and one has moved away from the farm to the big city (Des Moines) to practice law. These three woman are people you know, maybe even people you are. So it is jolting when one of the women decides to kill her sister. This revelation came out of left field and was completely out of character for the woman. I’m not sure why Smiley decided to turn this woman from mild-manner and people-pleasing to homicidal, but it went over like a lead balloon. Obviously, the Pulitzer committee felt otherwise, but for me, this small part of the story (and to be sure, it is just a small part of the story) stuck out and tainted the book. Even so, A Thousand Acres is still a terrific read.


5. Island by Thomas Perry – Island is a Carl Hiaasen-like romp through the Caribbean. At least, that’s how the book is promoted. I didn’t know about the promotional tagline when I started reading. In fact, I didn’t know anything about the book when I started reading other than that it took place in the Caribbean. And oddly, after reading the book, I didn’t think of it as a Hiaasen-like story, although I now see the resemblance. The characters are a bit wacky and the situations a little out there. But unlike Hiaasen, the characters are not over-the-top wacky, the situations are not way, way, way out there, and maybe best of all, the writing is not frenetic. When I read Hiaasen, I feel a bit like I’m being assaulted. Everything is too much, and it’s all coming too fast. With Island, I could enjoy the story, allow the characters to be a little wacky, but still root for them. And best of all, I could enjoy the story without feeling like I had to completely lose my grip on reality. Island was originally published in 1987, but to me, it didn’t feel dated or of a different time. The characters were fresh and well-rounded, and the story walked the edge of belief without crossing over the line.

4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Jojo is a thirteen-year-old boy growing into a man. His father is white and in prison. His mother is black and puts her need for drugs ahead of Jojo’s and his sister’s needs. His white grandfather won’t acknowledge his existence, and he is tormented by his black uncle’s death as a teenager. When his father is released from prison, Jojo’s mother takes him and his sister to Parchman Prison in Mississippi to retrieve a father they barely know. There, Jojo meets the ghost of a thirteen-year-old boy who died in the prison and carries much of the ugliness of the south in him. The writing in Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautiful. Ward tells a great story, but also excels on the sentence level. I enjoyed this book very much, but I have to admit that the introduction of the ghost lessened my enjoyment. I found the ghost to be a bit of a gimmick, and at times, the characters became a bit cliched. Even so, Ward’s writing was strong enough to keep me engaged. In the hands of a lesser writer, Sing, Unburied, Sing could have turned into a train wreck, but Ward was able to bring it home in good shape.

3. Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy– This book won’t appeal to most readers. It’s a craft book on writing. But for me, it was fantastic. In it, Percy details his philosophy on fiction writing. He discusses the difference (or lack of difference) between commercial fiction and literary fiction (one of my favorite topics) and writes about the importance (or necessity) of literary fiction accepting and adopting some of the plot devices common to commercial fiction. In particular, Percy says that literary fiction needs to get off it’s high horse and accept that readers want suspense and intrigue and thrills in the books and stories they read. This is something I have campaigned for for a long time (which is one reason I think Percy’s ideas are genius). As literary writers, we need to understand that readers don’t want to read a slow moving story where the stakes are low. They want to be pulled through the book by the story AND the writing. Pretty writing isn’t enough. Literary writers need to pay attention to plot and story. In the immortal words of author Bret Anthony Johnston, if you want to write a book without a plot, you might as well write a poem. (I’m paraphrasing)

2. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan – Originally published in 1994, The Invisible Circus tells the story of Phoebe, a young woman haunted by the death of her popular and free-spirited sister. Phoebe is the product of a dysfunctional family. She lives with her mother, a divorced woman trying to make it on her own. Her father is only a memory, and her wealthy brother, an inconsistent and misunderstood presence in her life. Then there’s her sister, the beautiful hippie girl that everybody loved, but who disappeared to Europe and wound up dead. Phoebe ventures to Europe to find out the truth about her sister, falls in love with her sister’s former boyfriend, and ultimately learns a truth she’d rather not know. Egan is brilliant in this book. Her writing is as good as it gets. Her characters are insightful and nuanced, and her story is compelling. This is the Jennifer Egan I came to know in A Visit from the Goon Squad and Manhatten Beach. The writing is tight and full of humor and suspense. Definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

1. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford – For Christmas 2017, my friend, Beth Ramsay, gave me Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In exchange, I bought her dinner. I got the better end of that deal. Jamie Ford has crafted a brilliant debut novel in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In it, he tells the story of Henry Lee, a Chinese-American living in Seattle. When the old Panama Hotel, which has been boarded up for years, is sold and about to re-open, workers find the belongings of several Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II inside. Henry was once very close with the daughter of one of those families, the Okabes. Henry makes it his mission to return the belongings to his friend, a woman he still has feeling for. But where is she? Is she still alive? And how will she react when she sees Henry? All questions are answered in this fantastic book. Thank you for the gift, Beth. It was wonderful.

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The Best Books I Read in 2017

In my review of the best books I read in 2016, I mentioned that I had not read many good books during the year. I read a few really good books and a lot of mediocre ones. That’s not the case with my 2017 list. For me, 2017 was a very good year for books. But before I get to my list of the ten best books I read in 2017, let me complain a little bit.

Expectations can be a funny thing. If you’re expectations are low, it’s easy for a good book to surprise you. But the opposite is also true. If too many people tell you how great a book is, it can be hard for that book to meet your expectations.

So, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the two Harry Potter books I read this year—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—were disappointing. I had heard people wax poetic about the Harry Potter series for years. They loved J.K. Rowling’s books and the movies that were made from them. They dressed as Harry Potter characters for Halloween (and sometimes not on Halloween), and they made pilgrimages to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando. These people were true fans. Me, not so much.

Author J.K. Rowling has had great success with her Harry Potter books, but I wasn’t impressed. I thought the writing was just okay, and there were big problems with the plots in both books. As you can imagine, neither book made my list for 2017.

I was also very disappointed in Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize winning author who is highly regarded in literary circles, so I had high expectations when I read his 2005 novel. But it didn’t turn out that way. I found his writing on the sentence level to be competent, but his storytelling was far too slow and boring. There’s an old joke about literary writing: nothing much happens, but it happens in great detail. The reason the joke works is because there’s a great deal of truth to it. Ishiguro’s work (at least Never Let Me Go) is the truth behind the joke.

That brings us to this year’s list. Remember, these are books I read in 2017, but they may have been published years ago. Let’s do the list in descending order. Don’t skip ahead. Let the tension build.

10. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk – Is it possible to like a book and be disappointed in it at the same time? That’s exactly how I felt after reading Fight Club, the popular novel first published in 2005. I had heard great things about it, but had never read it. I had heard great things about the movie version of the book, starring Brad Pitt, but had never seen it. So, I came to Fight Club with high expectations, maybe too high. I liked the book, and the psychological nature of the writing, but I can’t say that I loved it. I would definitely recommend Fight Club, but I won’t over-hype it. It’s a good book worth reading, but don’t let the book’s (and movie’s) popularity set your expectations too high.

 

9. Perfume River by Robert Olen ButlerPerfume River was published in 2016, and in 2017 was nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal. I had heard a little bit of buzz about the book, so I decided to give it a read. I’m glad I did. The book takes a look back at the Vietnam War from the perspective of Robert, a seventy-year-old history professor at Florida State (where the author is a professor). The Vietnam War split his family apart when his brother, Jimmy, chose to live in Canada rather than serve in a war he didn’t believe in. The family remains split up for nearly fifty years until the family patriarch, a World War II vet, takes ill and dies. The father turned his back on Jimmy when he went to Canada, and it’s up to Robert to try to reunite the family for the father’s funeral. In the meantime, Robert’s marriage to Darla is being strained, and Jimmy’s relationship with his long-time girlfriend becomes more and more complicated. Perfume River is a well-written, engaging story. Although it can be a little slow at times, it’s definitely worth the read.

8. Jimmy Buffet: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White – This is one of two nonfiction books that made this year’s list. I’m a fan of Jimmy Buffet’s music, but even more, I’m intrigued by the lifestyle that has grown up around him. Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurants and hotels have become ubiquitous in resort areas around the country (and a few internationally). Margaritaville has even moved into the 55-and-over residence business. Buffet was behind the creation of Landshark Beer, now owned and marketed by Anheuser-Busch. He is an interesting fellow who has parlayed his easy-going, toes-in-the-sand lifestyle into a wealthy life. And his fans—who refer to themselves as Parrotheads—love him for it. The book chronicles Buffet’s early life in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama, his time as a struggling songwriter in Nashville, and his serendipitous move to Key West, where the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle was officially born. To be sure, Ryan White’s book is not a critical look at Buffet’s life and success. It’s more a biography written by an unquestioning fan. Even so, I enjoyed the book and the temporary escape to Margaritaville.

7. Train by Pete Dexter – I have been reading a lot of Pete Dexter recently, and the more I read, the more I appreciate Dexter’s writing and his ability to tell a story. Train is not a new book. It was originally published in 2003 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction that year. The book takes place in 1953 and follows Lionel “Train” Walk, a young black caddy at a San Diego country club, and his benefactor, Millard Packard, a tough San Diego police detective who makes his own rules, and seems bored with ordinary life. Train appears to be going nowhere in life until Packard shows up at the country club one day. Time and again, Packard intervenes in Train’s life, seemingly without ever asking for anything in return. Train doesn’t understand this white man’s interest in him. In fact, no one seems to understand Packard, who is fearless in any situation, to the point of recklessness. His wife, the victim of a horrific crime Packard investigated, loves him, but also doesn’t understand his unorthodox behavior. Eventually, she fears what she cannot understand. One criticism I have about the book is the ending. As any writer will tell you, endings are hard. In this case, as good a writer as Dexter is, I’m afraid he swung and missed at the ending. Even so, the book is still good enough to make this year’s list.

6. The Life We Bury by Allen EskinsThe Life We Bury was published in 2014 and was nominated for several fiction awards. The story is about Joe Tolbert, a college student who has to write a paper for his English class. The assignment is to interview a stranger and write a brief biography. He reluctantly trudges off to a local retirement home to find someone interesting, and he is introduced to Carl Iverson, a Vietnam War hero, and convicted murderer of a teenage girl. Carl has cancer. He was medically paroled to the nursing home and only has a few months to live. Joe has trouble reconciling Carl’s military heroism with the brutal murder he is accused of committing, but the evidence seems overwhelming. As Joe digs deeper, he becomes convinced that Carl is an innocent man. But can he find enough evidence to overturn Carl’s conviction before he dies? The Life We Bury is a fun, compelling read that kept me intrigued from start to finish.

5. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock – Published in 2016, The Heavenly Table tells the story of the Jewett brothers, Cane, Cob, and Chimney, and their hardscrabble, murderous journey from the dirt farms of Western Alabama to bucolic Southern Ohio in 1917. As police close in on them, the Jewetts meet Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, a hard luck couple who take in the brothers and show them a kindness they have not previously experienced. Pollock does a masterful job with his characters. They are flawed and loveable and abhorrent and forgivable. No one is perfect and no one is evil. Just like real people, they are a mixture of good and bad. What comes out depends on the circumstances each character finds themselves in. The Heavenly Table is a terrific book. I plan on reading more Pollock in the upcoming year.

4. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis – If you’re not on a college campus, or at least in occasional contact with academia, you may not know that there is a sexual assault crisis going on at universities across the country. Reports claim that 1-in-5 female college students will be raped or sexually assaulted during their time on campus. Yet, author Laura Kipnis, professor at Northwestern University and noted feminist, thinks that not only are the stats misleading (or flat out wrong), but that the focus on women in constant danger of sexual assault on college campuses makes victims of all females and ultimately hurts feminism. In the book, Kipnis lays out the case that not only are cases of sexual assault on campus overblown, but that there is a certain group of feminists who are weaponizing sexual assault claims for political purposes. The book is wonderfully written, meticulously researched, and quite eye-opening.

3. Bear Town by Fredrik BackmanBear Town has been included on many of the “Best of 2017” lists I’ve seen floating around the internet. And with good reason. It’s a terrific book. The village of Bear Town is a tiny community that has seen better days. A lot of the best and brightest have left town, but those that have stayed believe better days are ahead. And they may be right. The junior hockey team—the pride of the town—is on its way to the national championship, a heady honor for such a hard luck town. But carrying the weight of an entire town on such young shoulders is tough business, and when one of the players is accused of raping the daughter of the team’s general manager, loyalties are questioned and friendships are torn apart. I highly recommend Bear Town, not only for the terrific writing and storytelling, but also for the sensitive way the author handled an often-taboo subject. Any other year, Bear Town could have easily been the best book of the year.

2. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – Let me say up front that Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers. I was a big fan of A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I had high hopes for Manhattan Beach. Egan didn’t disappoint. The book begins in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Twelve-year old Anna Kerrigan is the apple of her father’s eye, and is his companion when he goes to see Dexter Styles, a mysterious and powerful man who lives in a big house and has uniformed servants at his beckoned call. Years later, Anna’s father has gone missing, and Anna, now a young woman, is working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, with most of the men in the area off fighting World War II. One night while out drinking with a friend, Anna runs into Dexter, and the chance meeting changes their lives in ways they could have never imagined. Like Bear Town, in any other year, Manhattan Beach could have been the book of the year.

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Saunders is well-known as one of the world’s great short story writers. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first attempt at a full-fledged novel. On his first try, he hit it out of the park. In fact, in a sense, Saunders created a whole new genre. I know that’s quite a claim, but if it’s not a genre unto itself, then at the very least, it is a literary journey like I’ve never experienced before. Lincoln in the Bardo imagines the conversations of the dead-in-waiting in a Washington, DC cemetery. The Civil War is raging, and President Lincoln’s young son, Willie, has died. Lincoln visits the cemetery to hold his young son’s body. The visit, and Lincoln’s grief, cause a stir among the residents of the cemetery, resulting in strange acts of penance, long gripe sessions, and reflections on lives lived and ultimately lost. I listened to the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo and it was a wonderful experience. I suspect reading the book would be just as enthralling, but I can’t say for sure. Saunders humanity permeates the book and its characters. My guess is that this will come through in the print book every bit as much as it does in the audiobook. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is a true work of art.Facebooktwitter

The Life and Times of Randy Lanier

“Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty” — Peter Egan

When I was writing Driven: A Novel, I was inspired by the stories of several people. John Roberts and Mickey Munday, stars of the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, had a big influence on the story. So did Bill and Don Wittington, brothers who raced sports cars and indy cars, and paid for it all through their marijuana smuggling operation. The incredible story of another racer, John Paul, Sr., added to my knowledge of drug smugglers who used their ill gotten gain to pay for their racing addiction. But the guy who really influenced and inspired the book was an interesting and unassuming guy by the name of Randy Lanier.

Randy was born in Virginia and raised in South Florida. He fell in love with racing in the late 1970’s after attending a car show and stumbling across a booth for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). They were promoting amateur club racing, and Randy was an easy target. He loved the idea of pushing a car to it’s limits on a race track, so he signed up for an SCCA drivers school, where he received his competition license. Little did he know that his passion for racing would shape, and eventually derail, his life.

Randy drove a Porsche 356 in regional events, but he wanted to move up and race against better competition. He was having some success and making a name for himself, but his big break came at the 1982 24 Hours of Daytona. Famed racer Janet Guthrie fell ill, and her Ferrari team owner asked Randy to fill in for her. The car retired early with transmission trouble, but the effort earned Randy an invitation to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France later that year.

It’s important to point out how unusual all of this was. Randy was a relatively low-level racer when he was invited to join the Ferrari team at Daytona. It was a fluke. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time. To then parlay that into a ride at Le Mans is amazing.

Randy’s finishes at Daytona and Le Mans were nothing to write home about, but his personal performance impressed people. This new guy was pretty good.  And the experience cemented Randy’s decision to be a professional race car driver.

In 1984, Randy co-founded his own team, which he called Blue Thunder Racing. His partners in the venture were brothers, Bill and Dale Whittington. The team had great success, even winning the IMSA GTP championship in their inaugural season.

Randy tried to translate his success in sports cars into open-wheel cars in 1985. He attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 that year, but officials decided he was too inexperienced to take on the speedway. Randy would not be denied. He came back in 1986 and set the rookie record for qualifying, previously held by Michael Andretti. Randy ran a good race, finished tenth, and was named Rookie of the Year. Not a bad result for a guy who had only been racing professionally for three years.

Meanwhile, Bill Whittington and his brother Don were arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. It was alleged that the Whittington drug importing business was where they had gotten the money to fund Blue Thunder Racing.  Both Whittingtons eventually pled guilty, Bill receiving a fifteen year sentence, and Don got eighteen months. Randy wasn’t implicated, and he denied having any knowledge of the Whittington’s illegal business. But the Feds weren’t too far behind Randy. Eight months after the Whittingtons pled guilty, Randy was indicted on charges that he had smuggled 150 tons of marijuana into the U.S. When the government obtained a second indictment against him, Randy went on the lam. He left the country, eventually making his way to Antigua.

Randy was out in his boat on a bright, sunny day in the Caribbean when he saw a large ship blocking the entrance to the port, preventing him from entering. He had a feeling something was up, so he took a smaller boat onto the beach and tried to get back to his home. Law enforcement wouldn’t cooperate, instead chasing him around the island until he was caught and sent back to the United States. Randy was eventually sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under the Continuing Criminal Enterprise (AKA: Drug Kingpin) sentencing guidelines.

It seems incredible that anyone could be sentenced to life in prison for importing marijuana. The drug is actually legal (or decriminalized) now in several cities and states. To be fair, Randy was guilty. He even agreed to spend a reasonable amount of time in prison, but the Feds weren’t in the business of being reasonable, not when it came to drug smugglers. So, Randy languished in prison until October 2014. It’s unclear why he was released, but the Federal Government agreed to release him after more than twenty-five years in prison.

I find Randy’s story endlessly interesting. I would love to talk to him in person, and it would be great to actually race with him in an amateur endurance race. I just bought a new race car. You never know, maybe it will happen.

If you’re interested in reading a fictional story with a lot of factual inspiration that explores the intersection between drug smuggling and sports car racing, I invite you to check out Driven: A Novel, now available on Amazon and other fine book stores.

 

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Blind Ambition: The Theme Behind Driven: A Novel

Have you ever wanted something so bad that you’d do just about anything to get it? That’s the question I had in the back of my mind as I was writing my new novel, Driven.

In the book, Alex Booth is a twenty-four year old living in South Florida who has a burning desire to drive race cars professionally. He has a little experience in low horsepower cars, but he wants to step up to the big, expensive, high horsepower cars, the ones at the front of the grid. And he wants to get paid for his efforts.

When he loses the opportunity to drive a powerful Porsche 935K, Alex is forced to pay to race a low horsepower car as a way to further prove himself. Problem is, he doesn’t have any money. He’s been barely scraping by, often relying on his brother, Jimmy, to help pay the bills. What’s a wannabe race car driver to do? Well, in 1982 in Miami, if you need to make a quick buck, you can always smuggle drugs. Jimmy thinks that’s a great idea. Alex isn’t so sure, but since he doesn’t have any better options, drug smuggling it is.

Thus begins Alex’s journey into the world of fast boats, faster women, and big-time drug running. Alex doesn’t view himself as part of the drug culture—he’s generally a straight-laced, by-the-book kind of guy—but when your dream is as big and expensive as Alex’s, you sometimes have to do things you normally wouldn’t do. And the deeper in you go, the harder it is to get out.

Driven is all about Alex’s hesitant entry into the world of marijuana and cocaine smuggling, and how that world can lead to big money and big trouble. But Alex isn’t the only one with dreams. Gina, Alex’s girlfriend, dreams of living a normal life with a normal guy, complete with a 9-5 job, a mortgage, and two-and-a-half kids. And even though her dream may not seem as big or as bold as Alex’s, she is just as determined to get what she wants.

Jimmy, Alex’s brother, dreams of owning the coolest, most popular nightclubs in South Florida. His rise from manager of a beachfront bar to owner of Rum Runners, Miami’s newest and trendiest nightclub, is a sight to behold, exceeded only by his sudden and spectacular fall.

Cristina comes from a famous, wealthy family. She loves her lifestyle, but hates having to rely on her family for everything she has. She wants to make her own way in the world. By all means, she wants to continuing to live a life known only to the wealthy, but she wants to be able to pay for it herself. What will she be willing to do to realize her dream?

Most everyone is a nice, normal person until they’re presented with an opportunity to do or have that one thing they have desired their whole life. Driven is about how people act in that moment. What are they willing to do or say, and how far will they push things, to get what they want? You might be surprised.

Driven: A Novel is available beginning Friday, December 8, in both ebook and paperback formats, at Amazon and fine book stores everywhere.Facebooktwitter