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Timothy J. Bazzett "BookHappy" RSS Feed (Reed City, MI USA)

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The Major's Daughter: A Novel
The Major's Daughter: A Novel
by J. P. Francis
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.24
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Women MAY like this as a Romance; POW/Historical aspect a disappointment, July 29, 2014
THE MAJOR'S DAUGHTER, J.P. Francis's novel, set in a WWII German prisoner of war (POW) camp in northern New Hampshire, sounded promising, since I remembered very much enjoying a couple similar books. One, many years ago, was Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier (Puffin Modern Classics), now a classic of YA literature. The other, Peter Ho Davies's The Welsh Girl, I read more recently. Both are excellent.

Francis's effort falls a bit short of those books. In fact I very nearly quit reading the book more than once, mainly because the pace is glacially slow, and for nearly 300 pages. Because THE MAJOR'S DAUGHTER is, above all, a love story. The title character, Collie Brennan, is a very 'nice' girl, who spent two years at Smith College before the war and the death of her mother brought her home. Her father, Major Brennan, is a WWI veteran with gas-damaged lungs. As Commandant of the German POW camp in the tiny community of Stark, he does his best, and the author repeatedly emphasizes what a good, honest, kind and decent man he is. The same is true of August Wahrlich, the handsome young German soldier that Collie falls in love with. It's also true of young Henry, the college-educated son of the local pulp mill baron, who sets his cap for Collie. The only real villain here might be Henry's older brother Amos, something of a lout and lecher. But even Amos is portrayed as having been changed by the war, so maybe there's even a little bit of goodness and decency in Amos. (But I doubt it; I suspect he's just the 'bad seed' of his family.)

But Collie is totally smitten by the handsome blonde August, so poor Henry is out of luck. And there's another parallel story in Collie's former college roommate, Estelle, who is in love with Mr. Kamal, a Sikh florist in her hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. So here we have two stories of unrequited, forbidden love - 'star-crossed lovers' (cue violin music). Sorry. But honestly, there were times here when this novel was only a small cut above a Harlequin romance. Except almost everyone was just so darn 'nice.'

There are a number of key lines scattered throughout the narrative that act as clues to just what this book is all about. Here are some of them -

"The heart wants its way."

"The heart always finds a path. It's like water ... it keeps seeking its own level."

"Watching him, her eyes on his, she wanted to rip out her heart and throw it away."

"How can we know what our hearts want?"

"My heart feels like it might burst ... I love him so."

"'I will always wonder if you were my great love,' she said."

"If she knew love now, she must have known love then."

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!

Yes, this is a LOVE STORY. But it badly needed an editor. Because it was probably at least a hundred pages too long, too repetitive. I'm not sure why I hung in there and kept reading, but the fact that I did suggests the writing is actually pretty good. And the last ninety pages or so almost made it worth while, because the pace picked up a little and some things finally actually HAPPENED.
No spoilers from me, because I suspect a lot of women will probably love this book. As a WWII story, or a POW camp story, it doesn't really succeed. As a romance it probably does. Enough said. (Three and a half stars)

As Time Goes By: The Best of Jimmy Durante
As Time Goes By: The Best of Jimmy Durante
Price: $7.98
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5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful versions of standards. Nobody does it like Durante. Highly recommended, July 25, 2014
I've had this CD on my player for the last two weeks. Listen to it every morning with my coffee. and it's a great mellow way to start the day. Durante sings like he talked, with great feeling. Remembered mostly as a funny man with a big schnoz, he has a way with a song lyric that will melt your heart. I have had "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" stuck in my head all week, humming and singing it as I go about my day, mowing the lawn, walking the dogs, etc. But it's only one of many beautifully orchestrated and wonderfully interpreted tunes on this LP. There's not a clinker in the whole bunch. If you like the standards and you liked Durante's tunes included on the Sleepless In Seattle soundtrack, then you will love this CD. Highly recommended.

I Wanted a Year without Fall
I Wanted a Year without Fall
by Frederick Busch
Edition: Hardcover
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not very good; recommended only for serious collectors of Frederick Busch's work, July 24, 2014
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I WANTED A YEAR WITHOUT FALL is something of a Holy Grail for Frederick Busch fans. It was his very first novel, published in England in 1971 by Calder & Boyars LTD. The book was never published here in the U.S. And now that I have read it, I can understand why. I have loved almost everything I have read from the pen of Fred Busch, so it pains me to say this, but this one was just not very good.

It's a slight little thing, just over 150 pages long, and it's pretty thin on plot too. Here's the basic premise: narrator Ben, a failed writer/poet who is frustrated in love (there may be a former lover who has committed suicide; it's not entirely clear), receives a late night phone call from his best friend, Leo, who is on the run from a jealous, possibly murderous, husband. Leo comes to Ben's roach-infested Greenwich Village apartment. The husband (Mickey) pursues him there. Ben and Leo flee the city to the wilds of Staten Island where they become mixed up with a weird Boy Scout troop, then industrial spies/gangsters. They are captured by nameless bad guys. Mickey shows up and helps them escape through the woods, down a river by boat, then back "into the woods." There is also a mysterious black woman named Dignity, who has apparently helped the bad guys kidnap a baby, and she flees with Ben, Leo and Mickey. And there is kind of a running subtext about Beowulf woven throughout all this too. Huh? Oh, and before I forget, at least part of the time Ben seems to be telling this whole wild tale to a sleeping child, his own, we assume.

Are you confused? Yeah, me too. And unfortunately Busch tried to sustain all this by writing much of the story by means of dialogue meant to be oh so clever. And perhaps it was clever forty-plus years ago, but today much of this "witty repartee" just falls miserably flat.

The thing is this novel simply does NOT read like a Fred Busch work. But hey, the guy had to start somewhere. So I'm gonna call this his 'practice' novel. He had obviously not yet found his own voice as a writer when he wrote this thing, with its odd overlay of nightmare and surrealism. In fact, a source close to Busch has told me that when he wrote I WANTED A YEAR WITHOUT FALL, Busch was in his "Malamud phase." Because Fred Busch was a great admirer of the fiction of Bernard Malamud. And once I heard this, I could begin to see minor echoes of an early Malamud novel. In A New Life: A Novel, Malamud's sad-sack anti-hero Levin becomes involved with his boss's wife, Pauline Gilley. Busch's Leo likewise, with his boss Mickey's wife, Christy. There are children involved in both cases. And both Levin and Leo want to "do the right thing." So yes, I can see parallels. But Malamud created an adequate framework to sustain the story. Busch did not.

So I have finally satisfied my curiosity about Frederick Busch's first novel. Everything got better after this one, which I would only recommend to serious collectors of Frederick Busch's work. (two and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

Crusoe's Island: The Story of a Writer and a Place (Carolina Women)
Crusoe's Island: The Story of a Writer and a Place (Carolina Women)
by Heather Ross Miller
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars A family memoir that's a keeper, July 22, 2014
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CRUSOE'S ISLAND, by Heather Ross Miller, is a poignantly lovely memoir of a particular place that helped form a family, the isolated wilderness area of Singletary Lake Group State Park tucked deep in a corner of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. This place, perhaps dark and forbidding-looking to the outsider, was the first home of the newly married Heather Ross and her park ranger husband, Clyde Miller, nearly a generation older than she. That age gap and the isolated wilderness would seem like two strikes against a new marriage. But they managed to thrive during the thirteen years they lived there. Their two children were born there and the author began her writing and teaching career during those years.

The book is a lazily pure delight to read, reminiscent of Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, but with a personal side that makes it much more interesting. Miller has a curious mind and is a keen observer of nature. Add this to her obvious love of family and you have a real keeper of a family memoir. Clyde Miller is as wise and indulgent a father and as loving a husband as Charles Ingalls from those Little House books. And Heather's sharing of her own vivid imagination in this dark swampy forest gives you a close look at how she began to write the stories and books that would establish her reputation as one of North Carolina's premier writers. I very much enjoyed this story of the early years of her marriage. It's a keeper.

P.S. Miller is part of a writing family. Her father, Fred Ross, was a novelist, as was her Uncle James Ross. Her Aunt Jean Ross wrote short fiction, and her Aunt Eleanor Ross Taylor was a poet. Her Uncle Peter Taylor was a fiction writer and her Uncle Donald Justice was a poet. There may be even more connections like this that I'm unaware of, but with family ties like this, how could Heather Ross Miller be anything BUT a writer?

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel
Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel
by Nickolas Butler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.70
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Midwestern soap opera. Women will probably like it, July 19, 2014
I saw a full-page ad for Nickolas Butler's SHOTGUN LOVESONGS in The New Yorker several weeks ago which piqued my interest, so when I saw the book at a local library book sale for a buck, I grabbed it.

The book's premise is a pretty good one: an in-depth look at the life-long friendship between four men - Henry, Lee, Ronny and Kip - now in their mid-thirties, in a small, economically depressed town in rural Wisconsin. Well, actually there are five main characters, the other being Henry's wife, Beth, from the same group of high school friends. But here's the thing: Butler tells the story using shifting points of view with each character getting a turn telling his/her version of their story in alternating chapters. Using five different voices to tell the same story would be a pretty good hat trick, if it worked. Unfortunately, I don't really think it does. And throwing one female voice into the mix makes it even more confusing. What actually happens is that all five characters seem to share the same sensibility, and one which seems way too sensitive and often filled with near-purple prose to seem a genuine representation of small-town Midwestern farm boys. Because the one voice here that seems the most convincing is that of Beth. I think an omniscient POV would have been much more effective - and convincing.

But in spite of this, it's a pretty decent story. You've got a Neil Young-type rock star (Lee), a successful commodities trader (Kip), a farmer (Henry), a banged-up ex-rodeo rider (Ronny), and a farm wife (Beth). And they've all got problems with relationships - and maybe with growing up too. After Beth, Henry is probably the next best-realized character, except, as a farmer, he seems to have way too much time on his hands to go drinking and soul-searching with his buddies. Farmers don't have much spare time. Period. So that gave me a little trouble too. But he is, as his wife reflects repeatedly, a very good and decent man. So yeah, all the elements for a pretty good story, except about 200 pages in, it all begins to get just a little too soft and smarmy and, to my mind, degenerates quickly into soap opera territory and stays there all the way to its rather anticlimactic conclusion. And the sad and weary world view expressed by some of these characters seems just a bit ludicrous considering they are only thirty-three years old.

I wanted to like this book, and I don't really DISlike it, and I have a strong hunch that women readers will like it very much. And maybe Butler knew that, since the story seems to be aimed primarily at that audience. I mean, smart move, Nick. Everybody knows there are more women readers than men, so ... So I'll recommend the book for women. Guys? I think they might lose interest. (three and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey
by Jill Bolte Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.75
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not very reader-friendly, but recommended for family members of stroke victims, July 16, 2014
While I have the greatest admiration for the author of MY STROKE OF INSIGHT, Jill Bolte Taylor, for all the work she did and all she went through in her years-long recovery from a massive brain bleed and stroke at the age of 37, I found the book to be not very reader friendly for the average layman, and so ended up skimming much of it. And then, in addition to all the medical, clinical, and neuroscientific terminology, Taylor began throwing in a lot of what seemed to be New Age stuff about deep inner peace and oneness with the universe, and how she had found ways to achieve these things and avoid hostility, jealousy, anger and other negative feelings as she continued her struggles to properly reintegrate the two hemispheres of her wounded brain. Eventually this overloaded mixture just got to be too much for this reader.

I do think the book could be useful to family members and/or caregivers of stroke victims, that is if they are able to separate the useful information from all the medical, scientific and New Age jargon.

For those more interested in straight memoirs of stroke victims, I would recommend Robert McCrum's My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke or May Sarton's After the Stroke: A Journal.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

Collected Poems
Collected Poems
by Donald Rodney Justice
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.96
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3.0 out of 5 stars Recommended for poetry enthusiasts and students of poetry., July 16, 2014
This review is from: Collected Poems (Paperback)
I don't generally read much poetry. And when I do it often baffles me, makes me feel stupid. But I wanted to at least try this book, Donald Justice's COLLECTED POEMS, because I had recently read and very much enjoyed a book of letters exchanged between Justice and his dear friend, fiction writer Richard Stern, more than fifty years ago, before either had become known - A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946-1961. Justice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, probably became more famous than Stern, although as a long-time teacher of writing at the University of Chicago, Stern exerted a strong influence on many writers now more famous than he ever was.

So I wanted very much to like this book. And I did find myself charmed by certain pieces, mostly those from the last few volumes, when Justice allowed himself to range into more accessible free verse or prose poems. Because in his early years he tended to experiment with more difficult forms like 'sestinas' which are complex, nearly mathematical in nature, and - at least to me - not very reader friendly. But even in the early books I found poems I could relate to because of their subjects. One was "Sonnet to My Father," with its poignant closing line, "Yet while I live, you do not wholly die." Another was "Love's Stratagems," which brought to mind youthful back-seat fumblings with its lines:

"But these maneuverings to avoid / The touching of hands, / These shifts to keep the eyes employed / On objects more or less neutral / (As honor, for the time being, commands) / Will hardly prevent their downfall."

And there was the immediately recognizable rhythm and rhyme of the old nursery rhyme, "This Little Piggy" in the ineffably sad "Counting the Mad" -

"This one was put in a jacket, / This one was sent home, / This one was given bread and meat / But would eat none, / And this one cried No No No No / All day long."

And in "An Elegy Is Preparing Itself," a coffin, a shroud and a headstone enter into the piece. An affecting mini-portrait of the jobless men and the wandering armies of the unemployed from the thirties is offered in "Cinema and Ballad of the Great Depression."

Justice pays tribute to remembered music and dancing teachers in poems like "Mrs. Snow" (a dandruffy old woman in her kitsch-crowded apartment), "The Piano Teachers: A Memoir of the Thirties" and "Dance Lessons of the Thirties."

Equally poignant and indescribably sad is "A Chapter in the Life of Mr. Kehoe, Fisherman" with its sounds on a dock "Of bare feet dancing, / Which is Mr. Kehoe, / Lindying solo, / Whirling, dipping, / In his long skirt / That swells and billows, / Turquoise and pink, / Mr. Kehoe in sequins, / Face tilted moonward, / Eyes half-shut, dreaming."

If I had to pick favorites here, one would be "Ralph: A Love Story" a prose poem about a movie projectionist from an era "when stars did not have names" who flees a romantic entanglement only to die alone, still remembering "images in the dark, shifting and flashing ..." The other would most definitely be "On an Anniversary," beginning with, "Thirty years and more gone by / In the blinking of an eye, / And you are still the same / As when first you took my name."

So yes, there are some pieces here which I did find accessible and affecting. I only wish there had been more. When I am asked if I have favorite poets, my standard answers are usually Frost, Raymond Carver, (All of Us: The Collected Poems) and the later poems of Donald Hall. And now, perhaps, at least some of the poetry of Donald Justice. Recommended for poetry enthusiasts and students of poetry. (three and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

The Confessions of Frances Godwin: A Novel
The Confessions of Frances Godwin: A Novel
by Robert Hellenga
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.71
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern treatment of St Augustine? Maybe. LOVED this book!, July 15, 2014
First things first: I LOVED THIS BOOK!! I know, caps and exclamation points - I sound like a teenage girl. But I'm a guy, and I'm more than fifty years past teenage. But Robert Hellenga's newest novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANCES GODWIN, was just so damn good I couldn't believe it. Well, yes I could, because I've already read three other Hellenga novels over the past fifteen years or so - The Sixteen Pleasures: A Novel, Blues Lessons: A Novel, and Snakewoman of Little Egypt: A Novel - and they were all great.

But CONFESSIONS may well be Hellenga's best book yet. I think this one is truly a labor of love. The story is set in Galesburg, home of Knox College, where Hellenga taught English for decades and is now a Professor Emeritus and writer-in-residence. The town, lovingly mapped and described, is so important to the story that it practically becomes a character. The title character grew up on a farm nearby and attended Knox College, where she met her husband, Paul Godwin, her Shakespeare teacher (married to someone else at the time).

Galesburg, Milwaukee, Rome, Verona. All important places to Frances Godwin. Parts of her life both with Paul and later with her troubled daughter Stella and by herself. Faith, art, music, life itself. All the big questions are in here, and maybe some answers too. I'm not going to do any plot summaries here. The thing I kept wondering as I was reading was whether Hellenga was intentionally writing a kind of modern version of St Augustine's Confessions (Penguin Classics).

Because narrator Frances calls her story a "spiritual autobiography." A lapsed Catholic, she is fluent in Latin, a dead language, but also the language Augustine wrote in. She has her regrets about things she has done in her life, things recounted in stark and vivid detail, and is constantly toying with the idea of confessing her great sins, and moving "out of the shadows into the light." She has frank conversations with God, a God who seems oddly human and keeps urging her to confess. On one of her trips to Italy she is even carrying a copy of Augustine's CONFESSIONS.

I know a little about St. Augustine, but have to confess I have never read his books. So I am a bit over my head in trying to make a comparison. In the contest of wills between Frances and God, does God win? (Sorry, but I couldn't resist that.) That's something each reader will have to decide. The thing is, this narrative is just so rich with sidebars and details about so many things - all fascinating - that I just did not want it to end. But it does, and when I read that last paragraph, that final line, it gave me goose bumps. It was so perfect, positively perfect.

One more comparison kept popping up as I was reading Hellenga's CONFESSIONS. I kept remembering Agatha McGee, a fictional spinster teacher, the creation of the late Minnesota writer, Jon Hassler, who first appeared in his 1976 novel, Staggerford: A Novel, and then in several subsequent novels. Like Frances, she was Catholic, but a pragmatic and practical one, who also had her doubts at times.

St Augustine or Jon Hassler? Yeah, there are parallels and comparisons, but Hellenga's Frances Godwin is one of a kind, a kind you don't often see in contemporary fiction. I am selfishly hoping that Hellenga might follow Hassler's lead and bring Frances back again in another novel. She's that fascinating a character. Did I say I LOVED this book? Oh yeah, I guess I did. Terrific book! VERY highly recommended.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit
Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit
by Matt McCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.49
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5.0 out of 5 stars A great baseball memoir - funny, revealing and moving, July 13, 2014
Matt McCarthy's funny, revealing and moving memoir, ODD MAN OUT, is probably the best book about the lower levels of professional baseball since Pat Jordan's classic A False Spring (1975), which I read over 30 years ago.

McCarthy was indeed an oddity in professional ball, a Yale graduate who majored in molecular biophysics. Following him through his one and a half seasons as a left-handed pitcher with minor league farm teams (Provo and Rancho Cucamonga) of the Anaheim Angels is a real trip in more ways than one. You get a real sense of the grittiness of it all: near slave-wages, greasy fast food, sweaty bus journeys and crappy locker rooms that are all part of lowest levels of professional ball. McCarthy gets used to being treated with suspicion and distrust because of his education, but he makes a few friends along the way as he gradually begins to realize his "stuff" is probably never going to get him to the majors. A few of the odd players - and coaches - he meets made me also remember a great fictional account of such a bottom-feeder southern league team - Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings.

I liked Matt McCarthy's book a lot. He is a natural and skillful storyteller. Now a physician, McCarthy obviously has great memories of his days as a pro ball player, undistinguished as they may have been. I don't know know what kind of a doctor McCarthy is or will turn out to be, but he's a damn good writer. The last paragraph in the book's Epilogue actually gave me goose bumps. It was that moving. I mean shades of Bang the Drum Slowly (Second Edition), another favorite baseball book by Mark Harris. I will recommend ODD MAN OUT to anyone who loves baseball and good books. (four and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

They Don't Dance Much: A Novel
They Don't Dance Much: A Novel
by James Ross
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.32
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4.0 out of 5 stars early southern noire from a one-book writer, July 12, 2014
I 'discovered' James Ross's THEY DON'T DANCE MUCH by a rather roundabout route. I had recently read two story collections by his sister, Jean Ross Justice, and enjoyed them tremendously. Then I learned she came from a writing family. Two brothers, James and Fred, also published some fiction, and her sister, Eleanor Ross Taylor, was a well-regarded poet.

Brother James's "southern noire" novel, it turns out, was his only published novel. It came out in 1940 to little fanfare, although it has been praised by no less than Raymond Chandler, acknowledged master of the hard-boiled crime genre. Since its initial release, it has been reprinted in several editions and formats. The one I just read, a 2013 Mysterious Press edition, has an introduction from Daniel Woodrell, who carries on the Southern noire/gothic writing tradition in fine fashion. (I was extremely impressed with WINTER'S BONE.)

THEY DON'T DANCE MUCH has been compared - and with good reason - to James M. Cain's work. And I agree, but the comparison I kept making was to Jim Thompson. But I found that Ross's book actually pre-dated Thompson's first book, although I suspect they were both publishing their stories before that, in the late 1930s. And Thompson, of course, went on to publish close to thirty novels, while James Ross wrote only this one.

But it's a damn good one, filled with gritty language and description, a little off-stage adultery, crooked gambling, and murder most foul. And I do mean FOUL. The southern roadhouse atmosphere is especially skillfully depicted, and the corn liquor flows freely. The odd thing is that there is not a lot of action in the book's nearly 300 pages, but the suspense keeps you turning the pages. I am not surprised that this book has stayed in print in one form or another for nearly 75 years now. I suspect that as long as this particular kind of hard-boiled fiction is around, James Ross will continue to be read. If you like Hammet, Chandler, Crumley, or Woodrell, then I highly recommend this book.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

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