On the Nightstand

Where has the year gone?   It’s December already and here we are rushing about looking for something to read.      Well, here’s another On the Nightstand for suggestions.     I have read some superb books this year and, this last episode for 2014,  I add my two watts for a few personal favorites.

How does On the Nightstand work?  Easy.  I put the books on the nightstand, read them, and then rate them by watts in my nightstand lamp.   A 100 watt book is one that kept me up late.  A 20 watt book was good for my sleep.   Anything in between?  My personal rating.

And, for something different, this installment, I have been blessed with first editions of some small press books this year, written by some very fine authors.   I also continue to read big press work because of an attachment to a particular author (spelled ‘G A R D A M’, for example) or subject or recommendation.

So, at the end of the year, here is what was on my nightstand: 


Small Press Favorites

Staff Monkeys, by Ltc. Peter Clark.   Colonel Clark was a long-serving Army officer who left service in 1997 to become a stockbroker, only to find himself Hoovered back into the Army eight years later as a staff officer and assigned to various posts in the middle East, both hot spots and spots that are just, well, hot.   Staff Monkeys is his humorous, cynical, and often dismaying journal of his ensuing deployments that ranged from Djibouti, where the local labor built bunkers tall enough just for themselves, five feet high, to Iraq, where he was assigned to a presidential palace but living in a shipping container, and to Afghanistan, where he was able to comparison shop for pink fuzzy handcuffs in a French-run post exchange.   Clark has an engaging and agreeable writing style that will appeal to present and former military and families who know, remember, or suspect that deployments are, well, just like that.   80 watts and, if the second edition is better edited, its bulb will be brighter.
Sophie’s War, by Janice Shefelman,  illustrated by Tom Shefelman.  Sophie is the teenage daughter of German immigrants in the Texas Hill Country during the American Civil War.  Based on true events, her war commences when the German immigrants prefer to not secede from the Union and flee to avoid being drafted into the Confederate Army, a dilemma that begins with the formation of real-life Captain Duff’s formation of the Committee of Vigilance, a group that ultimately murdered dozens of men from Comfort, Texas who had chosen to leave rather than fight for slavery.    Sophie’s War is a teen/ young adult novel but very well written and faithful to its historical sources.   It gets a 100 watt night lamp for its audience and for a lot of grownup audiences as well.

The Texas Gun Club Trilogy, Commander Mark Bowlin.  Three novels, and undoubtedly more in the works, focus on the World War II battles of two cousins from Texas who serve as infantry officers in the 36th Infantry Division in Italy.   The Texas Gun Club lands them on the beaches at Paestum / Salerno in the teeth of a determined German defense.  It is the best-written of the trilogy and recounts accurately the details of battles that meant the difference between the American army holding the beachhead or being kicked back to the Navy.   Victory Road follows the two from Naples to San Pietro at the entrance to the Liri Valley and fleshes out a parallel story of German spies who are on a collision course with the cousins.  For God and Country takes the cousins on a diversion to British lines in the Italian mountains before leading them into the disastrous attempt to cross the Rapido River.    Bowlin has written wonderfully engaging novels of combat that occasionally divert into novels of Italian road trips and cooking with fortuitous helpings of a background cast of Italian and German characters who happen to speak English.  For keeping me awake at night, they get the 100 watt award, (although I hope in the second editions the editor corrects some of the line editing errors that sneaked into the first editions).  Well done.

Big Press Reads

What a Carve Up!, by Jonathan Coe.   A classic English who-killed-whom in the country mansion, this novel is told from the point of view of a failed novelist who was hired by one of the manse’s heirs to write the family story and thereby out the killer.   Coe writes brilliant narrative fiction in his descriptions of the family members as, looters, self-righteous authors, muckers-up of the food chain, and the like, all in a looping arc that continually replays a scene from a movie the novelist saw as a child that mirrors the murder.  80 watts.

Bilgewater, by Jane Gardam.   I swear that Jane Gardam could write the instructions for using computer software and it would be the most entertaining reading of the year.   Working, instead, with the daughter of a widower who is headmaster at a backwater private school for boys, Gardam creates a painful, funny, and nuanced portrait of a girl who comes of age without a single female friend and succeeds, although in the process she lives through what would otherwise be the making a blooper reel of every dance, date, and prospective tryst that comes her way.   100 watts, period.

An Iliad, Allessandro Baricco.    This is the classic tale of the Trojan wars, of Agamemnon’s betrayal of Achilles and of the death of Hector, of Helen of Troy’s flight from her husband with her lover Paris who won her heart because of his foolish choice to select from among the gods who was the fairest of them all.  Baricco has re-told the original Greek classic from the points of view of the combatants of love, jealousy, and eternal conflict.    HDC.

 On the Nightstand

And what is on my nightstand now?   There are two new books  but, since they’re wrapped up in festive colored paper and ribbons, I don’t know their titles.  I do hope when the paper comes off that one is by Donna Tartt and one is by Rick Atkinson.  But I have to wait until December 25 to find out.

Best wishes for the holidays or, to paraphrase Rick Steves, until next time, keep on reading.



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