Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Flamenco, who knew?

I just finished my third Sarah Bird book, The Flamenco Academy, and plan to put her on my favorite authors list right after I finish this post.

A lot of authors, particularly contemporary female authors, tend to write about You, With More Money. There are subgenres, too, of You, With No Money At All, and You, With A Ridiculous Amount Of Money. With the exception of the last, the women in them generally have careers and homes (if You have a Ridiculous Amount Of Money, why work?) Their men, whether they're seeking, losing, or escaping, are front and center. Their friends are to the side, supporting. Their family generally lurks in the background, coloring everything.

The three Sarah Bird books I've read are less about You, and more about the characters in them. In The Yokota Officers Club, it was about the college-age daughter of a military family in the 1960s and the effect all the moving around had on her life and family. In my least favorite of the three (and most about You), The Boyfriend School, the heroine is a freelance writer and photographer in oil-bust Austin who finds not only a living in writing romance novels, but a community and (bleh) a boyfriend. The plot still seemed formulaic, but the characters that inhabited it were unusual enough to make the book stand out in my memory.

So when I saw The Flamenco Academy, I decided to read it as a tie-breaker to determine whether or not I liked this author. I like Spanish music, and the book sounded promising. It delivered big-time.

The book is about obsession, and the history of flamenco, and the destructive side of friendship. The protagonist, Cyndi Rae, meets Didi when they're both juniors in high school. Cyndi Rae has been homeschooled and knows no one, has no friends, until she meets Didi in the oncologist's office. The two bond over their fathers' illnesses and their flaky mothers (both of whom lose interest in the role after the deaths of their husbands). Didi is a wild, flamboyant girl whose hobby is being a groupie. Didi intends to be famous, not the way most teenage girls do, but in the way of someone who will actually get there.

Cyndi Rae is the small, quiet planet that orbits around Didi's bright sun. Her career plans involve being Didi's manager and accountant until the night she falls in love. The description of her night with the mystery man is beautiful and emotional, and she knows nothing about him except that he's a flamenco guitarist. She and Didi track down his identity, which leads the pair of them to the so-called "flamenco academy" (actually a real university program, at the University of New Mexico, but "The Flamenco Program" isn't a very catchy title). Didi and Cyndi Rae are the stars of their intro class, Didi for her stage presence and Cyndi Rae for her mathematical ability to stay on the beat (earning her the nickname "La Metronoma").

The two use the flamenco scene (who knew, right?) to achieve their goals. Didi throws in some spoken-word and creates something completely unique that people flock to in droves. Cyndi Rae becomes a "flamenco nun," working day and night at her art, submersing herself in the flamenco world, and pursuing her goal of getting closer to her mystery man. If you pick up this book (and I do recommend it) you'll intuit what happens when she reaches it from the opening paragraphs, but I won't go into it here.

Novels that teach you something are always interesting. They can make a subject come alive in ways nonfiction can't. I'd kind of heard of flamenco before -- I'm sure you have too -- but the book taught me its history and a brief history of Gypsies in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. I learned that people can live "a flamenco life" the same way people can live "a blues life," how the music and dance are meant to be a translation and interpretation of real-life events. If I want to hear more or see more, I learned some names to google, too.

The relationship between Didi and Cyndi Rae is also fascinating. Most contemporary fiction doesn't look at the darker nature of female friendship, but I know I've had Didis in my own past, who were users but were also so much fun. And yet, I always miss them when they're gone. It's clear from the ending that Cyndi Rae does too, despite everything, and while the book ends on a relatively happy note, it doesn't end clean, leaving you with the feeling that the story of Didi and Cyndi Rae is far from over, and probably won't end until one of them dies.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Olympics: SRS BSNS

I just finished yet another book on the Olympic games. Titled simply: The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games by Allen Guttmann, it was definitely a project. Its slender size belies the complexity of the story it has to tell. Guttmann's aim was to get behind the scenes of the Games, to bust into the closed-door meetings in Lausanne and share with an average readership the social history of the Games and what really goes into them.

It's also an excellent crash-course in twentieth-century world history. I'd never considered the extent to which the IOC must act as a second UN sometimes. For example: in 1949, when Taiwan broke away from mainland China, there were suddenly two groups claiming to represent the real China. The animosity between the two groups was such that they not only refused to compete together as a unified team, but that each threatened to boycott if the other was allowed in. Quick, what do you do? What's best for the Games? What's best for China? And if, as a representative from a NATO country, you vote for the Communists, what does that mean for international relations? Here's another thorny one: what do you do when a country's very policies violate the Olympic spirit? Should you let apartheid South Africa send an all-white team? Should you let Nazi Germany send a team devoid of Jewish athletes? Is your head spinning yet?

Answering these questions has been the business of the IOC since its inception. Baron de Coubertin's vision is often interpreted to be apolitical. Guttmann's thesis is that it was frankly political: the Olympics were supposed to be a sort of proto-UN, where countries could get to know one another outside of a diplomatic setting, find common ground through sport, and ultimately, learn to get along better to the point where the only people who need guns are those competing in the Olympic marksmanship events. But, as Guttmann shows, throughout the history of the modern games, there have always been groups who aren't so willing to do that. Almost every Olympics has been threatened with a boycott from one country or another. Sorting out the reasons why, trying to remember my world history, trying to recall what the various countries are called today, was why it took me almost two weeks to finish this 193-page book. I'm not saying it's a bad read, just that it takes some concentration.

Guttmann also devotes some time to the amateur question and the issue of doping. I'm too young to remember this, I guess, but the amateur question is sort of the old "doping". It was, until the mid-1980s, a specter that hung over every Games. The meaning of "amateur" was sticky and open to interpretation: a man enlisted in the cavalry was not an "amateur", but an officer was. Jim Thorpe was famously stripped of his medals after it was revealed that he had been paid to play summer professional baseball when he was in college. Like the doping scandals, it seemed that prior to every Olympics, a front runner in some event would be disqualified for having been paid to play. And like the doping scandals, sometimes it would seem incredibly unfair, as in the 2000 case of Romanian gymanst Andreea Raducan. Raducan was stripped of her all-around title after she tested positive for pseudophedrine, which was given to her by a doctor for a cold.

The version I read is a second edition, edited to include information on the Games up to Salt Lake City. The last few chapters interested me the most, because those are the Games I remember the best. I was hoping he'd devote more space to the Winter Olympics, especially the figure skating. 1992 and 1994 were exciting years in figure skating. New rules for women raised the stakes dramatically. In the 1992 Olympics, every single women's medal winner had a fall. 1994 had not only the drama between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, but a stunningly beautiful performance by Oksana Baiul. I think Guttmann was wrong to state that the decision to award the gold to Baiul was "questionable". Not to anyone who watched it and actually understood what they were seeing. Both women skated a beautiful program, but Baiul also skated clean, and since Kerrigan couldn't make the same claim, she rightfully received the silver. It was a small point, but it did make me wonder somewhat about the rest of the book.

Guttmann also gives space to the issue of commercialization. The 1976 Montreal Games were such a money-loser that there was scant competition for the award of the 1984 Games. Yet those games made money for the city of Los Angeles, through the sale of television rights and commercial sponsorships. Again, I can't remember a time when this wasn't a case. But apparently that was the first year it was possible to fly to another city on the official airways of the Olympics, rent a car from the official car rental company of the Olympics, drive to the official hotel of the Olympics, and kick back with either an official domestic beer of the Olympic or an official imported beer of the Olympics, and watch the game on the official television of the Olympics, while sitting on the official mattress of the Olympics. Guttmann also ties the demise of the amateur question to the increased commercialization. There still isn't much money in swimming as a profession, but how much do you suppose Michael Phelps makes in endorsements?

While this book is a bit of a project, it does contain much interesting history and context. Another interesting feature of the book is its bibliographic essay. It's five pages long and will help you scratch any itch for specialized information. If you've always wondered what it's like to be an Olympic rower, if you want to know more about Rhodesia and the Games, if you're determined to pin down the ambiguous Avery Brundage once and for all, there are books for those things too. One that particularly interests me is The Big Red Machine by Yuri Brokhin. I've always thought there was something creepy about the Russian, East German and now Chinese gymnasts. Their achievements are undeniable, but watching them perform is a little like watching someone do something at gunpoint. Most Olympic fans know the broad outlines of a typical Communist athlete's career, but I'd like to learn more specifics. This book has inspired me to do so...but later. I need a bit of an Olympic break. I'm going back to novels for a little bit.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Celebrate Banned Books Week: Read

A post on commondreams.org by the always-excellent Leonard Pitts alerted me to the fact that next week is National Banned Books week. You can read his article here. Banned books have been in the news a lot lately due to our wonderful VP candidate Sarah Palin, who has expressed interest in the subject in the past, and not the right kind of interest.

When I was growing up, my sister and I loved the after-school special, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, based on Nat Hentoff's young-adult novel with the same title. For the uninitiated, the story focuses on a group of high-school students who are friends and write for the school newspaper together. They are assigned the book Huck Finn for their English class, when one of the students (who is black) takes exception to the pervasive use of the word "nigger" in the novel. He refuses to read it, his father gets involved and asks for the book to be removed from classes, the group of friends is divided, teachers are suspended, the whole town is split, and a public hearing is called.

In the climactic "hero scene," the school librarian stands up and warns people that there's an even worse book in the library that gets checked out all the time. She gives an example of some of its typical content and proceeds to spin a shocking, graphic tale of rape, adultery, murder, and cannibalism. When the audience is sufficiently shocked, she announces that the story came from the Bible.

We were recently remembering this movie, and my sister said she wished that the person banning a book was a Christian right-winger (as in the real-life example that happened in my father's school district). I think the point was that banning books is a bad idea, regardless of how solid your reasons may be, and that commuication is the answer. In the case of Huck Finn, it's an excellent opportunity to talk about racism and changing standards. If language is the issue, that's another good topic of discussion, especially given the fact that curse words are so pervasive, they're almost losing their power to offend.

Many people who object to these books don't understand that portraying something isn't the same as approving of it. The book that was banned in my father's school district was Ordinary People by Judith Guest, which had been taught for over a decade without incident. The people who complained objected to the drinking and drug use in the book, and to some of the language, as well as an extremely mild, off-stage sex scene. But the main character in the book is coping with the death of his older brother and the stress it caused to his family. You see him start to turn to drugs and alcohol, then turn away from it. I think that's a more powerful anti-drug message than the standard "Drugs are bad, people do them for no reason, don't be one of them."

Interesting side note, though: the year that Ordinary People faced a challenge, people were drawn to it like a magnet. Students in different classes read the book. Adults who lived in the area went out to the library in such quantity that it was wait-listed everywhere. Ultimately, all book banning does is make more people want to read it. Yet people continue to try it. If you didn't click through, Pitts cited an example of "passive" book-banning by a Cuban-American who disliked the way her homeland was portrayed: she checked it out and kept it. Other people continue to lodge complaints at libraries and schools. It makes you wonder what they're afraid of. But it's also kind of wonderful that in 2008, with streaming porn on demand, thousands of television channels, all the movies you want delivered to your door for a flat rate, and 24/7 online video games, a book is still seen to be so powerful that some people seek to ban it. So next week, celebrate the power of the book. Read a banned book.

Some of my favorite banned books:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, JK Rowling
The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Anastasia Again! Lois Lowry (yeah, seriously)
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

For a more complete listing, visit the ALA websitehere. Nominate your own favorites, or share your stories in the comments below.

Library Thing'd

So, I first heard about this website around the time I did NaBloPoMo last year (and yes, I am going to try it again this year!). I finally got around to making an account on it yesterday. Nothing like procrastination!

I have to admit, at first I didn't really get it. You make the account and upload all the books you own...so??? But I spent a little more time with it today, while I was supposed to be doing housework or getting ready for orchestra or something, and it looks like it's sort of a myspace for books. The best thing about it, though, is...are you ready?.... they will give you free books. It's an "early review" program, and they have a ton of books listed that are new or just coming out. It's sort of a lottery because there are a lot of people who do this, and a limited amount of copies of books. But so what. I figure, even if I win it once a year, I will gladly accept one free book a year. All I have to do in exchange is write about it, which I was going to do anyway.

Some of my readers have probably yawned through this last paragraph, remembering they felt the same way when they discovered this site...like two years ago. If so, I am looking for LibraryThing friends. Feel free to add me. The URL is http://www.librarything.com/home/LibraryDiva76. I'm still working on my library, obviously. It's hard to remember off the top of your head all the books you own. Hell, I forgot the one that's sitting on my desk, d'oh! Hope to see some of you on there!

Monday, September 15, 2008

At W.A.R.: The Story of Axl Rose

Although I like to read about celebrities a lot, many of their stories are pretty much the same. The typical arc of a celebrity drugs-and-booze memoir is: early days (often troubled), meteoric rise to fame, introduction to drugs and booze, drugs and booze induced trainwreck, self-destruction of career, rehab, comeback of sorts. I picked up W.A.R: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose by Mick Wall because I knew it'd be different. After all, Axl Rose is one of the most magnetic, mercurial, enigmatic celebrities the world has ever known. Probably only Michael Jackson cuts a stranger figure these days.

Besides, I love Guns n' Roses. I always have. Sadly, I was born too late to be able to see them play with Metallica, and my parents were still able to veto that plan (with good reason as that tour was marked by riots). They had something special, something that only comes around a few times per generation. Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles all had it too: that indefinable quality that makes kids plaster their bedrooms with their pictures, skip lunch for a week and use the money to buy their albums, obsess over every detail of their songs and (for a select few) even motivate them to learn guitar, bass, or drums so one day, they too could be just like their heroes.

I've been trying to score Slash's autobiography for a while, but people keep checking it out. So I read the unauthorized biogrpahy of Axl Rose instead. The name "Mick Wall" rang a faint bell to me, but I wasn't sure why until the introduction. Remember the infamous track on one of the Use Your Illusion albums called "Get in the Ring?" The one where Axl named several people he intended to beat the crap out of? Mick Wall was one of them. His offense was writing a story, in Kerrang! magazine about the Vince Neil-Axl Rose feud. He says that Axl called him and asked him to come over because Axl wanted to tell his side, that he'd given Axl the chance to take his words back and he refused. Since his version matches Vince Neil's own version in my favorite rock-n-roll memoir, The Dirt, he's probably telling the truth.

But the book does suffer from Wall's lack of access. In the introduction, Wall promises "to turn on the lights in the blacked-out room where the real Axl Rose has been hiding all these years." Yet, he takes as his main source material interviews in music magazines and statements on websites. I actually remember many of those interviews -- I always tried to pick up a copy of any magazine that interviewed Axl or Slash. Overall, I was left with the feeling that I could've written the book myself, given access to the archives of magazines like Rolling Stone and Guitar World.

However much more detail the reader may desire, the story as presented is still compelling. I didn't know too much of what happened to the band after 1994, and why they split up, although my base speculation on the reason was right: Axl was nuts, and they no longer wished to have their fortunes tied to someone who would freak out on a moment's notice. The most shocking thing of all about Axl's behavior is that it is apparently not drug-induced. Axl swears he never touches the stuff, and even people with the inside knowledge and incentive to make a liar out of him confirm this. He hasn't done hard drugs since the Appetite for Destruction days, when he saw what it was doing to the rest of his band. Instead, Axl is what might be described as a "New Ager". He does past-life regression therapy, takes lots of herbs and vitamin pills, and travels with a massage therapist and acupuncturist.

Sadly, it doesn't seem to be helping him get his shit together musically. For almost 15 years, he's been working on an album called Chinese Democracy. His original bandmates are long-gone, as are most of their replacements. His record company tried everything to motivate him, and finally wound up cutting him loose and telling him that if he wanted to do this, he was doing it on his own dime. Even that didn't motivate him: that happened several years ago. In 2006, it looked like something might be happening: a rumor persisted that the album would be released that year, and Axl began to be more visible, even performing with original GnR member Izzy Stradlin. But it's still not out. Since GnR broke up, Axl has disappeared for years at a time, and apparently no one, not even Mick Wall, really knows what he's been doing with all of his free time.

In some ways, Guns n' Roses were casualties of the times. The remarkable Use Your Illusion double album was released in 1991, the same year as the landmark Nirvana album Nevermind and the Pearl Jam album Ten. They blew bands like Motley Crue and Poison off the air overnight, and Guns n' Roses has always been unfairly lumped in with them, although they're the only ones that have really stood the test of time.

The music business is much different than movies. Tastes change a lot faster, and it's harder for individuals and bands to adapt. The bands that have toured for decades, like the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, aren't doing so on the strength of new material. One of the few bands I can think of that was really able to adapt was Queen. A major influence on Axl Rose, Queen maintained a consistent level of quality and popularity over two decades and would probably still be going strong if Freddie Mercury was still alive. I think it's because they had an identity of their own. They were part of no movement. Listen to any of their albums, from their debut to their finale, and it's always Queen. You can't mistake them for any other band. Yet they were able to adapt: you can hear Queen doing funk, Queen doing power ballads, Queen doing opera, arena rock, heavy metal, but it's always Queen, never ridiculous.

Guns n' Roses had the potential to be that way, too, when you hear the diversity of sounds contained in the albums they did release. By the accounts in this book, Axl was apparently forward-thinking musically. He was listening to grunge before it even had a name. He wanted very badly to work with Kurt Cobain, but Cobain had nothing but contempt for him. The end of the book hints at a possible reunion, although all anyone can do is speculate at this point. Will money trump animosity? Maybe it would for the rest of the band, but Axl's proven over and over again that he has an infinite ability to cut off his nose to spite his face. Dear Abby often asks her readers if they'd rather be right, or happy. Axl would rather be right.

But one thing is clear: the interest is still out there. It took me weeks to get this book, and I still haven't found Slash's book in. If Chinese Democracy ever comes out, it'll be a fast seller, even if the album sucks. And people like me, who were born too late, will probably flock to whatever venues the new GnR plays in, for the privilege of telling their children that they, too, once waited for 2 hours for Axl to come on and had him walk off after 30 minutes because someone threw a bottle.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My Second Sports Book Ever

Every two years, I put aside my general indifference towards sports to watch the Olympics. This year, I even stayed overnight at my parents' house so we could watch the opening ceremonies together, live at 6AM our time. I also caught a PBS program about the history of the modern games and its similarity to ancient games. They interviewed several authors, and the program was so engaging that I looked them up downtown. In the process, I found Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 by David Clay Large. I finished it last night.

In the other sports book I read, the author, Dave Zirin, deals with the issue of politics in sports, and of course, this was a main theme for this book as well. It led me to wonder why so many insist on this division. Nobody cares if there's politics in music, art, or theater. In fact, a lot of music, art and theater is overtly political. Having only read the two books on the topic, I can't really make an educated speculation, but I think that some of this might have come from the modern Olympic games itself, and its early movers and shakers like IOC founder Baron de Coubertin, who was determined to foster an international understanding through sport.

Yet, like the concept of amateurism, the idea of politics being completely removed from the Olympics is a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. (How much do you suppose Michael Phelps got for that AT&T cell phone commercial anyway?) Large shows how skillfully the Nazi party exploited the games for propaganda purposes, embarking on large-scale construction projects, working hard to sanitize open anti-Jewish sentiment at the site of the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and (fascinatingly) preserving just enough of the seedy side of Berlin so as to not disappoint those who came to have sex with transvestites, but not so much that the more vanilla visitor got the wrong impression.

Large also covers the worldwide boycott debate. By 1936, the Olympics were becoming more organized and athletes more serious. In the first few Olympiads, competitors came primarily from the ranks of college sports and upper-middle-class leisure-time sports clubs. As the Olympic movement caught on, athletes became more serious and more backing to attend became available. The issue was no longer fielding a team at all, but culling the competition. Athletes who had sacrificed much for the right to compete weren't about to forgo the Games due to some still-brewing political situation. Yet, some of the bodies that certified athletes were considering refusing to send teams anyway, and many might have done so were it not for the strong pressure from IOC president Avery Brundage.

There was also the determination among many minority athletes to shove the patent absurdity of the Nazi's beliefs right in their faces by competing and kicking ass. This book tells the whole story behind Hitler's refusal to congratulate black American track star Jesse Owens (who was the Michael Phelps of those games: dominant, breathtaking, admired even by his competitors). It also shares a lot of other interesting things that happened at those games: how American Helen Stephens was forced to prove that she really was a woman after winning the 100m dash over Polish world-record holder Staneslawa Walasiewiczowna, who was really a man; the determination of British racewalker Harold Whitlock, who won the 50k, but vomiting (and worse) most of the way; and the story of Korean Kitei Son, who won the marathon competing for Japan, but courageously told reporters after the medal ceremony that he had his head bowed not in pride, but in shame for the Japanese occupation of his homeland.

After the Beijing games, many of the arguments employed in favor of the Berlin games sounded unsettlingly familiar: that isolating the country wasn't the answer; that the Olympics could bring new transparency to the country; that it was unfair to athletes who'd trained all their lives; that sports and politics shouldn't mix, anyway. Unfortunately, they're inexplicably interconnected. Many of the Olympic events, like the biathlon, marksmanship and equestrian events, were inspired by war and military training.

Large doesn't draw easy conclusions. Although he seems to think that boycotting the Berlin games would have been the proper thing for most nations to do, as it would've denied the propaganda whores their audience, he also acknowledges that the 1980 boycott of the Moscow games did nothing except provoke a counter-boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games. It's probably too soon to tell whether we really should have boycotted Beijing or not. Who knows, some of the predictions may come true: with an estimated 40 billion dollars invested in the games, maybe they really will be a positive force for change in China. And unlike the creepy, organized popular support of the Berlin games, there did seem to be a genuine outpouring of emotion on the part of the Chinese people. I watched a fair amount of coverage, and if spectators were paid to fill the stands, I didn't hear a word of it, yet many events sold out.

After over a century of the Olympics, the dream of unity through sport is still as far distant from reality as it was at its time of conception. International politics constantly rears its ugly head: from the infamous "blood in the water" USSR vs. Hungary water polo match in the 1956 Melbourne games, to the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games, to the more benign intensity of Cold War competition between the Eastern bloc and USSR and the United States and western European democracies. The spectators may just want to enjoy the games, and the athletes may just want to win, but governments of different nations are standing in the shadows, wanting something else entirely, no matter how much we wish they weren't.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Willie Morris and the funny nature of fame

The arc of Willie Morris's career shows that you never know what your legacy will be. He was the editor of the legendary Texas Observer (well, legendary to Texas liberals and Molly Ivins fans anyway)and also the editor of Harper's Magazine, where he nourished its reputation for cutting-edge content.

Yet, odds are good that none of this is ringing any bells with you. You would, however, instantly recognize the title My Dog Skip. Even if you've never read the book, you've probably seen the movie, or you've at least heard of it. But, as usual, the book is much better. I first read it right around this time of year eight years ago. The cat we'd had since I was a teenager was not doing so well, and I knew it was only a matter of time. Although the book (like almost every book about an animal) has a sad ending, the rest it is a beautiful tribute to the relationship between young Willie and his wonderful dog, Skip. I'm not exaggerating, either: Skip could play baseball and football, purchase his own bologna and even drive a car (if Willie was down on the floor steering and working the pedals for him).

The tale is the very essence of why people own pets, why they put themselves through the hassle of taking in something that can never talk back to them, teaching it how to live in house, cleaning the mess off it when it gets dirty, and all the while knowing that it'll end with you sobbing and digging a hole in your backyard. By Morris' own admission, Skip was the brother he never had in human form. Many pet owners probably view their pets the same way. One New Yorker article on people who spend large amounts of money on veterinary bills stated that something like 85% of pet owners told their pets every day that they loved them, while 90% thought of themselves as their pets' parents (I was actually surprised the percentages were that low). Morris himself described writing about the death of Skip in a subsequent book as one of the hardest things he'd ever written about, including the death of his own father.

Aside from pet ownership, Willie Morris captures childhood very well in this book. It's evocative of a simpler time -- not the post-World-War-II South (decidedly not simpler if you were the wrong color) but of childhood itself. There's an innocence and sweetness to his reminiscenses of camping at the grave of the witch, of finding and trying to nuture a sick kitten, and of all the trouble he got into when Skip followed him to school. Morris's writing is so vivid that you can smell the freshly mowed grass on the football field and taste the Coca-Cola he drank on hot summer days.

I read two of his other books, My Cat Spit McGee and Taps that I really liked. Sadly, these were his last two: he died in 1999. I tried one of his earlier books last year and didn't like it at all, but the reason why I love Willie Morris is for the vivid, evocative, emotional style of his last three books.