Sunday, December 29, 2019

For You to See the Stars, by Radney Foster

For You to See the Stars

Radney Foster is a genius. His album Del Rio, TX 1959 is one of those rare records where every single song is brilliant; four of the ten tracks made the Top 40 country charts ("Nobody Wins" was the highest, peaking at #2) but the other six are equally amazing. "A Fine Line" (not one of the four that charted) might be my favorite, but it is honestly difficult to rank them. I wore the CD out when it was released, and it remains a staple in my playlists today. Recently Foster played the Saxon Pub here in Austin (a great venue that attracts singer-songwriters; my wife and I have also seen The Band of Heathens, Walt Wilkins, and The Accidentals among others) and I was finally able to catch him live. Not only did he sing a great set, but he read excerpts from For You to See the Stars, a book of short stories he'd written as a companion to his album of the same name. After the show I snapped up a copy of the book and quickly devoured it and the accompanying music. Out of ten stories, five literally made me cry and one made me laugh out loud. All are exceptional. I truly hope Foster continues to write—both songs and books.

First Sentence (from the Foreword):
The bus was an old Eagle.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Past Tense, by Lee Child

Past Tense (Jack Reacher, #23)

This book has four simultaneous threads happening: Reacher investigating his father, Reacher being targeted by the mob, Reacher being targeted by a group of local thugs, and a Canadian couple being held against their will in a strange motel. The last thread takes up maybe half the pages, and Reacher doesn't actually get involved until around chapter 35. A lot of suspense in this part of the story as we don't really understand what is happening to the couple until just before Reacher stumbles (fairly spectacularly) onto the scene. The mystery around Reacher's father is the most interesting of the four threads, and had a fairly satisfying solution. Oddly, the thread with the mob doesn't really get resolved, but everything else does, more or less. While this is one of the weaker Reacher novels, it is still pretty good.

First Sentence:
Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, he began his long migration south.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

The famous tale of Alice in Wonderland is told in two books, combined here into a single volume: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Thanks to Disney the story is roughly familiar to all: a young girl careens through non-sensical adventure after non-sensical adventure, meeting one impossible character after another. Children's books at heart, the recurring theme is having to reluctantly put away the fantasies of youth and grow up. "Shall I never get any older than I am now? That'll be a comfort, one way—never to be an old woman—but then—always to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn't like that!" Many events seem random and disconnected, but this shows how kids can jump from topic to topic in a way that makes sense to them but not to adults; Alice's occasional frustration with the characters she meets demonstrates her inevitable progress toward maturity. Many of the modern interpretations of these characters veer quite dark (such as Lost Girls or Alice Through the Looking Glass), but none of that darkness really exists in the original text. Even the Queen of Hearts who constantly screams "Off with her head!" is shown to be toothless, with the King quietly pardoning everyone behind her back. Both books are very short so this is a quick, enjoyable read; this edition includes the wonderful John Tenniel illustrations as well (albeit in black in white) which add so much to the stories. If you haven't ever read these, do yourself a favor and pick them up and see just what is down the rabbit hole.

First Sentence (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland):
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"
First Sentence (from Through the Looking-Glass):
One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it:—it was the black kitten's fault entirely.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A Civil War: Army vs. Navy, by John Feinstein

A Civil War: Army vs. Navy - A Year Inside College Football's Purest Rivalry

I'm an unapologetic Longhorn football fan, but I've always been fascinated by the Army-Navy rivalry. It is the only game attended by the entire student body of both schools, and even when the teams are awful (which sadly is pretty normal these days) the game is exciting and the spectacle captivating. I love watching this game each year, the only non-Texas game that is appointment viewing for me. So when I spotted this book in a discount bin about the 1995 Army and Navy seasons, culminating in their clash at the end, I snatched it up and saved it to read just before this year's bout. Unlike what many of the refs did during their respective seasons, that was a good call.

Feinstein is known more for his books on basketball and golf, and it shows a bit here: his college football knowledge seems a bit lacking in places. For instance, he claims the Army-Navy game is the best rivalry in the country; it is certainly in the top echelon, but what about Harvard-Yale? The World's Largest Cocktail Party? The Battle for the Axe? Michigan-Ohio State? The Iron Bowl? Or the greatest of them all, the Red River Showdown? Similarly with stadiums, he calls Notre Dame Stadium "college football's most famous stadium." Um... how about the Rose Bowl, or Michigan Stadium, or Tiger Stadium? Even the name of the book is a bit odd; the Civil War is what the annual Oregon-Oregon State game is called; nothing to do at all with Army-Navy.

That said, this is a wonderful book and the Army-Navy game is one of the treasures of college football. Feinstein does a great job of ping-ponging between the Army and Navy squads as their year progresses, becoming a biographer of sorts for a handful of players and coaches on each team. Along the way a lot of the traditions and history of the schools and squads are told giving more than a glimpse into what life at a service academy must be like. Even with Feinstein's hyperbole and occasional pretentiousness this was a fantastic book and I look forward to watching the game on Saturday!

First Sentence:
Almost thirty minutes after the last play of his college football career, Jim Cantelupe, still dressed in the black uniform with the gold number 22 on the back and front, walked down a dank, winding hallway in the bowels of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher

Wishful Drinking

Based on Fisher's one-woman show, this memoir is brutally honest, sincere and candid, and damn funny. It is a very fast read that has an odd but endearing style of writing: choppy but still very readable. More a collection of anecdotes than a narrative it still manages to cover a lot of her life: being born to famous showbiz parents, her two marriages and subsequent divorces, the death of a close friend (in her bed!), her addictions, and her mental health issues. She manages to take all this pain and turn it into a witty, insightful set of stories. Well written, and well done.

First Sentence:
I have to start by telling you that my entire existence could be summed up in one phrase.

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