Monday, May 30, 2011

Forever War

Kevin Coolidge

Apple pie, cold lemonade, people walking their dogs… I’m back. Once I couldn't wait to get home. Now I can't wait to leave. Too loud, too soft, too much. I can’t think. I have no patience. I won’t go back to flipping burgers. I hate the fat, little kids with their grubby hands. There are no other jobs. I can’t sleep. I shouldn’t. It's too quiet. This is not the place I left. I’ve never been here before. There is something I’m good at. One job for which I am uniquely trained …a soldier. The war continues. I'm going home.

You can’t go back. It’s never the same. Each war is different. Every war is the same. No honor. No glory. No heroism. Time does not heal all wounds, and no one knows it better than the reluctant conscript William Mandella, in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Mandella’s been in the war against the Taurans for over a thousand years. It’s the war that never ends.

Mankind has discovered the “collapsar.” Just fling an object at a collapsar with sufficient speed, and it pops out in some other part of the galaxy. Travel time between the two collapsars…exactly zero. Humanity spreads to the stars, but we aren’t alone. A fierce enemy opposes us. An enemy that is mysterious, inscrutable, unconquerable and very far away.

An army of foot soldiers must guard these portal planets and protect the human race. The novel follows Mandella, a physicist drafted by United Nations Exploratory Force (UNEF) through the Elite Conscription Act. While in space, and jumping from portal to portal, he ages only months while decades pass on Earth. In the centuries that follow, sweeping changes occur—the population explodes, language and technology evolve, society changes. It’s not the Earth he knew. It’s not the Earth he left. Is it even worth fighting for? Is the war meaningless?

First published in 1974, this novel was thought to be too controversial and almost was not printed. It was rejected by eighteen publishers before St. Martin’s Press decided to take a chance on it. It went on to win both the Nebula for best science fiction novel in 1975 and the Hugo Award for best novel in 1976. The Forever War, however, is not just a science fiction novel about Vietnam, but a novel about war, and soldiers, and why we think we need them.

Joe Haldeman is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and The Forever War is as much about the war as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s a novel about the tedium and futility of war, the brutality of combat. It’s a realistic look at the military from the perspective of the fighting man, and about the isolation a soldier feels when returning home…

Forever war? Or Forever Peace? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column? Visit the archives at This Memorial Day weekend enjoy your time off, but remember those veterans who died in service to their country.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ghosts of Penn's Woods

Kevin Coolidge

“There it is again,” he muttered. “Sounds just like a little one crying for his mama. No wonder this part of the canyon used to spook the Injuns.”

Darkness can come early to the hollows and the hills of Penn’s woods, and O’Conner had put in a long but profitable day working on his trap line, but he was tired and anxious to make his way out of the hollow and head for home and supper. The last thing he wanted to do was wander these woods in the dark, especially with that brand new bear trap he had just bought in Williamsport. Its cold, steel jaws were lying out there waiting for some unsuspecting bear, but he’d never forgive himself if he read in the Agitator next week that a poor couple had lost their babe in the woods. A few more minutes at the end of a long day wouldn’t make that much of a difference…

In the dark, O’Conner must have lost track of his trap. Maybe he slipped, maybe he was distracted by the bawling child, and maybe he realized it right before the teeth clamped into his leg. He must have struggled and screamed long into the night, but he had done his job too well. He couldn’t break the tether, the steel held tight, and he died of starvation and exposure, leaving his body to be found by hunters. This gruesome event left an impression on the folks in these parts and to this very day it’s called Deadman’s Hollow. Some say it’s haunted by his shade because he feels it should bear his name.

Pennsylvania has many natural and supernatural attractions, and you can read more in Ghosts of Penn’s Woods by Jeffrey R. Frazier. Jeffrey is the author of a series of books called Pennsylvania’s Fireside Tales and specializes in compilations of old-time Pennsylvania folktales, legends and folklore. For his latest book he decided to write about ghostly encounters in and around Pennsylvania’s State Parks and historic sites.

Rickets Glen State Park offers scenic waterfalls and great hiking, but it’s also home to the “ghost tree” – a tree planted in the very spot a young “wood hick” or lumberjack was crushed to death. It’s still there today, but bears no leaves or fruit. It’s as if it has been covered with a killing frost, and appears as white as a dried, dead bone. Some claim to hear strange sounds and screams in the wind.

Few places in America can claim as many restless spirits as Gettysburg. The battlefield carries a sense of melancholy and the feeling that not all the dead have yet found their peace. There is at least one man who has heard shouts of “Give ‘em the cold steel boys” where Major General George Pickett’s Division met their bloody end. Perhaps these words are so imprinted on the fabric of space and time that you can still hear them.

Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon is today a designated National Natural Landmark, but it was also a place of bloody, human sacrifice. In the 1600s, the usually lush landscape experienced a period of drought that lasted three years, resulting in conditions so dry that the forest experienced fire after fire, and this time came to be known as the “Big Burn.”

The fires wiped out much of the game that the Indians depended on for food. It was a desperate time, and according to the tale, it was decided to take the child of an unwed mother and sacrifice it to the god of rain. The babe was thrown into the canyon, and the horrified screams could be heard until the baby had fallen all the way to the bottom of the canyon. On warm summer evenings the cries may still be heard. Some might say it is the wind, or warm air rising, but I’m not so sure.

The woods and wilds of Pennsylvania have claimed many a life, and the dead don’t always lie down. This summer, visit the natural, scenic wonders of the Keystone state, and if you’re lucky, maybe you can walk two worlds…if you dare…

Specters, spooks and haints--have a strange and weird tale to share? Send it to the ghost in the machine at Miss a past column? For all the news that’s fit to print, and some that ain’t, visit our blog at and catch yourself up. Looking for a children’s book with a happy ending? Check out “Hobo Finds A Home” about a kitten who found himself a home. You can look for Hobo this Fall where he will costar in the very first reality TV show to take place in a bookstore. Watch “Shelf Life” and feed your mind…

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Read the Printed Word!

During April’s book club meeting, we met at the bookstore to discuss Dave Eggers book, Zeitoun, which follows the Zeitoun family and their experiences with the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Although Zeitoun never presents itself as an overall expose of the crises that arose from Katrina’s damage, nevertheless, it is a poignant and painful narrative that certainly addresses wider issues than one family saying, “This is our story.” We, as a book club, had a lively discussion over a two-hour period … with perhaps half an hour actually focusing on the book itself. Ultimately, I believe that we were avoiding deeper examination about the powder keg of political, religious, and psychological questions that Zeitoun brings out.

This is comparable to my approach to the review I want to write for this week’s column. I feel firmly committed to telling readers about Barbara Hale-Seubert’s recently-published book, Riptide: Struggling with and Resurfacing from a Daughter’s Eating Disorder, though it is an emotionally difficult task. Luckily for the reader, this book is much easier to read than it may be to discuss. Tackling these painful issues, however, is precisely what makes Barb’s book so powerful and necessary. Riptide is a courageous, insightful, honest examination of a journey few families want to talk about – the addiction and self-destruction of a loved one, and the family’s roller-coaster ride alongside them.

Without a doubt, families trying to deal with a loved one’s psychiatric illness or addiction, struggle through exhausting waves of guilt, anger, shame, love, helplessness, self-doubt, despair and hope. Though our culture has become more accepting of and open about addiction issues, still families struggle with what to say to people in their communities. They feel the addicted loved one somehow serves as an indictment of their family, shouting to the community that “there’s something wrong with those people, that someone in their family would have to deal with things in such a self-destructive way.” Families are afraid people will judge their loved one – or the entire family – as weak, lacking in self-control, crazy, bad parents, bad Christians, abusive, ignorant – you name it. Whether the blame and shame comes from the community or only from the minds of the family themselves, there’s no doubt there’s usually more than enough to go around. Thus, families protect the loved one and themselves by keeping the issues “private”.

As Erin’s mother, Barb too struggled with all these feelings. Though Barb Hale-Seubert and her husband Andrew Seubert are therapists, their profession did not always ease their suffering through the many years of dealing with Erin’s illness, her short recoveries and her many relapses. As a matter of fact, being a therapist often increased Barb’s feelings of shame and guilt. A mother often blames herself for her child’s patterns of self-destruction, thinking the “if only I were a better mother” that our culture and perhaps our own deep-rooted psychology plants inside us. Worse for Barb, she would think: “In my professional capacity, I have helped so many people. Why can’t I help my own daughter? What will people think of me as a therapist when they see my daughter slowly killing herself?”

We have so many stories and studies and sayings that tell us the lengths a mother will go to in order to save her child: Barb, too, fought like hell to save her daughter Erin from the disease which ravaged her for ten years. The problem was, too often, Barb ended up fighting Erin to save her from herself. Riptide takes passages from the journals that Barb kept over the years of Erin’s illness, until and beyond Erin’s death in 2000, at the age of 23. Through her writing, Barb was able to move to a more peaceful place in being with Erin. Barb began to understand how Erin’s eating disorder had a stranglehold on Erin, that Erin believed that she could not cope with life without the eating disorder, even while those coping techniques were killing her. Near the end of Erin’s life, Barb was able to be with Erin in a place of love and forgiveness, instead of endless tension and struggle, knowing that the only one who could save Erin was Erin herself.

Barb gives her readers an amazing gift sharing her Erin’s life and death, and Barb’s own struggles alongside her daughter, in this book. Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., author and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, praises Riptide as “a well-written and searingly honest account of a mother’s journey through loss and grief…. [this] story culminates in what healing from pain can lead to – finding the compassion and forgiveness that offer meaning to our heartbreaks.” With Riptide, Barb Hale-Seubert offers inspiration and guidance to families living with a loved one’s addiction, mental illness, and/or eating disorder. Though I cried while reading it, though I had a terrible time getting started in writing this review, I feel blessed to have read it and proud to recommend and sell this important book.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dem Bones

Read the Printed Word!

As a bookseller and a columnist, I love to give book recommendations. As much as I love recommending books, though, I’m exponentially happier when someone can do that for me. No matter what my day-to-day job is, I’ll always be a dedicated reader, and, therefore, I’m constantly on the prowl for my next satisfying read.

I do enjoy a large cross-section of mysteries, especially this time of year. My patience, like everyone else’s, worn thin with the last clutches of winter and the columns of numbers for the accountant, I turn to mysteries that are well-written but easy on the heart and head. This time of year, I don’t want Pulitzer Prize winners; I don’t want rocket science; I don’t want harrowing memoirs of survival in death camps. I want to know that the protagonist will solve the mystery and live to fight another day. Furthermore, I want the detective to figure out the mystery for me, while I read along with admiration for the way that (s)he does it.

Like many people, I’ve been bitten by the bug of pop culture interest in forensic science. The only TV shows I have regularly watched the last couple of years are NCIS, CSI, and Bones. Before I was a fan of these shows, I read all of Patricia Cornwell’s “Kay Scarpetta” series, in which Dr. Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner for Virginia, solves murder cases with the help of an able cast of characters. Cornwell is an excellent writer in her own right, and though she herself was not a medical examiner, her research is impeccable, recognized and rewarded by many professional organizations in the field.

Whereas Cornwell wasn’t a medical examiner, author Kathy Reichs truly is a forensic anthropologist, as well as being a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and a continuing advisor to the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Quebec. Once I found out that the TV show Bones is loosely based on Reichs’ books, I read a bunch of this series, as well. The Temperance Brennan of the books has neither the same group of co-workers nor the same workplace as the Brennan from the TV show; nevertheless, the basic foundation of following the cases of this forensic anthropologist makes for fascinating stories. Reichs uses her many experiences as a boots-on-the-ground field professional, at sites as varied as Ground Zero in New York City to the exhumation of a mass grave in Guetemala, to tell the stories of Dr. Brennan, whose life and career has many parallels to those of Dr. Reichs.

More than a decade before Temperance Brennan captured the imagination of America, however, there was Gideon Oliver, the forensic anthropologist created by author Aaron Elkins. Like the bones and relics which Dr. Oliver searches for, the books about his adventures were lying there, waiting for me to discover them. Buried in the years I was busiest in high school and college, Aaron Elkins created this fun, lively series featuring Gideon Oliver, “Skeleton Detective”, part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones, part Dr. Thorndyke of turn-of-the-century British mysteries.

The Gideon Oliver mysteries hold together well as a series, as a result of likeable regular characters: not only Dr. Oliver, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, and his wife, Julie, a park ranger in the famous Puget Sound area, but also colorful characters who reappear often, including Detective John Lau of the FBI, Inspector Joly of France, and Gideon’s mentor, elderly but spry, world-respected anthropologist Abe Goldstein. The fact that Dr. Oliver’s work takes him all over the world keeps the series fresh. Dr. Oliver is constantly going somewhere on digs, speaking at academic symposiums, vacationing-researching on sabbatical, traveling to work on a book: all these locales prevent the stale sameness that begins to plague many mystery series. This series combines the best of police procedurals and cozy mysteries, giving the reader a satisfying combination of professional detectives examining clues, leading a murder investigation, questioning witnesses, and well-informed lay people contributing their intelligence and curiosity.

Although I started at the chronological beginning of Elkins’ series, with Fellowship of Fear, it isn’t until the second book in the series that Elkins really finds his stride and brings Gideon Oliver to life. In the first book, Dr. Oliver is a bit of a chauvinist, and the setting, in post WWII-Cold War Era Europe, seems flat and anachronistic instead of being a period piece. In The Dark Place, however, Elkins brings Dr. Oliver to Elkins’ own home, near the Washington state “rain forests”, near the Indian Reservation of La Push (ironically enough, this same area of the world was recently made famous as the setting for Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ series). Here, in the shadow of Mount Olympus, Gideon Oliver meets his future wife, Julie, who is a park ranger in the Olympic State Park. To dive in with Dr. Oliver and crew, I’d recommend starting here, then follow the books in whatever order you choose. Mayan curses, the tides of Mount St.-Michel, the barrows of England, and Cro-Magnon cave paintings await you!

Funny bones or bone dry? Send your thoughts on mystery series to Hobo, at Need a clue? Check the archives at Hobo’s blog,

Monday, May 2, 2011

Invisible Today; Goon Tomorrow

Read the Printed Word!

For as long as we’ve owned the bookstore (coming up on five years!), for as long as we’ve been writing book review columns (ditto), and ever since I discovered my favorite novel in a used bookstore in Denver (ten years ago), I’ve been singing the praises of Jennifer Egan. In the summer of 2007, I wrote one of my first reviews for the Gazette on Jen Egan, on being a fan-girl of her writing, and specifically, on the merits of her first novel, The Invisible Circus. The quote that caught my eye, convincing me to pick it up in the first place, still holds as true now as it did a decade ago: author Pat Conroy said of The Invisible Circus, “If there were any justice in the world, no one would be allowed to write a first novel of such beauty and accomplishment.”

To anyone and everyone who would even half-listen while browsing in our fiction and literature section, I’ve extolled the virtues of Jennifer Egan, her writing, her future potential. I evangelize readers into becoming Egan fans just as passionately as any missionary – reciting the Conroy quote; telling them how Circus was quite possibly my favorite novel of all time and heavily implying the weight that had coming from a crazy bookstore lady like me; informing people how her second novel, Look at Me, was a finalist for the National Book Award; and finishing with the confident prediction that Jennifer Egan is a novelist to watch, because some day she will win the National Book Award.

This past week, Egan’s latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

I guess I overshot in my predictions. The National Book Award is a highly-respected honor for American writing, but the Pulitzer Prize is awarded for many different kinds of American achievements, and is the erudite grandfather of the more recently created National Book Award. As for Jennifer Egan, I feel almost as proud as though she were my best friend, or I were her agent. I know my fan-love may be a more than a little nerdy, and probably a little disgusting, since I’ve only emailed with her a few times and never met her in person, but I can’t help myself.

To be honest, before I read it, I wasn’t certain I would like A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’m so attached to The Invisible Circus that no other novel, not even the others penned by Egan after Circus, have made the same impact on me. I knew, however, that even if I didn’t love Goon Squad, that I would no doubt appreciate Egan’s skill. One reason that Egan has been “an author to watch” is that she isn’t afraid to experiment: each book she’s written is so different from the others. Certainly the comparison between her first novel and her latest novel provides the perfect example. The Invisible Circus is bittersweet, lovely, heartbreaking, focusing the complicated layers of family relationships and the legends of love we build around those we have lost. Circus is a traditional, narrative novel, one I frequently recommend to book clubs and almost exclusively to women. A Visit from the Goon Squad, on the other hand, is an ambitiously-structured ‘novel’ of loosely interlocking stories. The relationships between the characters revealed in each chapter are subtle, clever, uncomfortable, and yet, ultimately, extremely satisfying.

A Visit from the Goon Squad focuses primarily on Benny, an aging punk-rocker turned record company owner-manager-producer, and on his assistant, Sasha. From the beginning, the reader learns of their shameful, private eccentricities: Benny sprays insecticide in his armpits and sprinkles little gold flakes in his coffee; Sasha is a closet kleptomaniac who displays all of her trophies on a large table in her small New York City apartment. I didn’t like these people in the beginning. I was embarrassed for them, uncomfortable reading about their painful, dirty little secrets. I read on, however, finding myself strangely compelled to know more about these people, who weren’t really bad people, just strange, as we all are strange once we scratch below the surface of our lives. As readers, we continue on to meet Benny’s young son, his ex-wife, Sasha’s college friends, her uncle, her crazy parents, Benny’s old bandmates, jumping back and forth across several decades in a clever uncoiling of stories that, in the hands of a less-talented writer would be confusing, but in Egan’s confident script, becomes more satisfying with each puzzle piece in place.

Whether your book club is young hipsters doing books and beer, a group of older ladies who have met each month from time out of mind, or an eclectic combination thereof, I heartily recommend reading A Visit from the Goon Squad together – even if it’s not your usual cup of tea (or brew). Goon Squad, for all that parts of it may be like other books or movies with similar structure, is ultimately much more than the sum of its parts.

Shameful secrets or Goons Just Wanna Have Fun? Tell Hobo your opinions on the matter by emailing him at Easter’s gone for another year, but search for Little Bunny Fu-fu or the Goony-goony bird in Hobo’s archives, at his blog,