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The Best Selling Mystery Writer of All Time?

Posted by foneill898 on January 6, 2018 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Agatha Christie has sold more books than any other novelist in history — 66 novels, 14 books of short stories — more than a billion copies in total. And more than 50 movies have been made of her works. So, as a reasonably literate person, I figured I should at least give her a shot, see what all the fuss is about. So I bought the Kindle version of And Then There Were None, her best seller — a hundred million copies sold. (It ranks behind Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, The Little Prince and The Hobbit on the list of all time best sellers.)


Can a hundred million readers be wrong?


Well, after plowing through And Then There Were None, my unequivocal response:




And Then There Were None is a silly, unexciting, poorly written book that stretches the concept of suspension of disbelief beyond its breaking point.


I’m disappointed, but at least I can take Agatha Christie off my bucket list.

Running the Amazon

Posted by foneill898 on November 19, 2017 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)

A friend who knew that I had spent a month on the Amazon in a dugout canoe gave me Joe Kane’s book, ‘Running the Amazon’. It’s the story of the first expedition to travel from the source of the great river — 17,000 feet up in the Andes — to its mouth 4,200 miles away in Brazil. I began reading it with a huge dollop of skepticism. After all, I knew it wasn’t as romantic as it seemed. I had spent much of my time on the river swatting no-see-ums during the day, being devoured by mosquitoes at night, sometimes paddling for a full day in the blazing heat without seeing another human being, the river so wide at times you can barely see the other side. But I also knew that when you have a group of people bound together under difficult conditions, especially people with outsized egos, sparks can fly.


The conditions for Kane and the nine others in the expedition he joined as its chronicler were difficult beyond imagination, far beyond my limited sea-level knowledge of the river. They had to battle oxygen deprivation at the top, rapids that roared through immense canyons on the way down, Peruvian revolutionaries who threatened to kill them, drug traffickers, unimaginable fatigue, the vagaries of nature, and most of all, their own emotions and those of each person on the expedition. The result: one of the most thrilling true adventure tales you can imagine.


Joe Kane is a wonderful writer, and he had a unique cast of characters to write about. Imagine ten people with egos big enough to take a journey that no human being had ever taken before, one that would be dangerous at best and deadly at worst. This is the cast of characters that make ‘Running the Amazon’ such a magnificent tale. Kane, the only North American, is a newspaper reporter from San Francisco. Francois Odendaal, the South African expedition leader, is a man with grandiose plans and more than a few character flaws. Piotr Chmielinski, the Polish co-leader, proves to be a pillar of strength for a group that is torn by dissension before a third of the journey is completed. British doctor Kate Durrant, the only woman, provides medical support for the group. The others — Tim Biggs, Zbyszek Bzdak, Jack Jourgensen, Jerome Truran, Sergio Leon and Pierre Van Heerden — all have skills that should have made the expedition stronger. But egos clash and personal agendas get in the way. Only a handful would be around at the end of the six month journey. But they give us one helluva ride along the way.




The Harvest of Greed

Posted by foneill898 on February 26, 2017 at 5:55 PM Comments comments (0)

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed.”


Mahatma Gandhi said that more than seventy years ago. If anything, greed has gotten worse over those years. Much worse. Today, Americans account for 5% of the world’s population, yet we’re responsible for 50% of the globe’s solid waste. The U.S. has so much of everything, yet we elect a President who tells us the rest of the world is cheating us, that we’re not getting our fair share of the pie.


America has so much, yet some of us are still poor. We have so much, yet we’re destroying the world for our children. Our hyper-consumption of fossil fuels has caused the earth’s temperatures to rise dramatically in recent years. Each of the past three years have been the hottest on record — for the entire world — and the polar ice caps are melting so fast we could soon face uncontrollable climate change. Yet we elect a president who’s blinded by greed, a president who says global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.


Greed and the suffering it causes have been themes in great literature throughout history. In Greek mythology, greed was the catalyst for Midas’s golden touch. In Shakespeare, Macbeth’s greed leads to his own death. Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald – the list goes on — all wrote about greed. But in my opinion, the classic on the subject is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It’s the story of Oklahoma farmers who are forced from their land by the bankers who hold their mortgages. In some ways, the world portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939, seems quaint compared to the high octane world we live in today. Yet The Grapes of Wrath remains the quintessential American tale about greed and human suffering.


Steinbeck uses the story of a humble Oklahoma family, the Joads, to portray the plight of thousands of Dust Bowl farmers who migrate west after the great drought of the early 30s makes it impossible to earn a living in Oklahoma. The Joads and thousands of others head for California, where they hope to find work on the vast farms that cover the state. They suffer unimaginable hardships both in their journey and after they arrive. The migrants are treated so harshly by the rich, greedy farmers that Tom Joad and his friend Jim Casy decide to organize them. They’re attacked by the farmers’ thugs and Casy is killed. Joad kills Casy’s killer and is forced to flee.


Despite the terrible hardships the Joad family face, the book ends on a note of optimism. The Joads, after all, will endure.




A Great Literary Discovery

Posted by foneill898 on September 26, 2016 at 2:00 PM Comments comments (0)

The Blue Hour is one of those hidden gems you find once in a decade. Hard to believe, but there was just one cursory review on Amazon. Perhaps because it’s the only book the author has published in English. But if you want to add a wonderful novelist to your library, turn your eyes toward Lima, Peru, where Alonso Cueto writes and teaches journalism at the Catholic University of Peru.


The Blue Hour is both a psychological thriller and a story of love and irredeemable loss. When his mother dies, Adrian Ormache, a successful Lima lawyer, finds a letter indicating that she was being blackmailed for crimes his father committed. He learns that his father, an army colonel, was responsible for horrible torture during the war against the Shining Path, the leftist revolutionary group that plagued Peru in the 1980s. Adrian barely knows his father, who has been divorced from his mother since he was a child. But after he finds the blackmailer, a former lieutenant of his father’s, he’s told about one prisoner the Colonel spared and kept as a lover — a young girl named Miriam.


The Blue Hour tells the story of Adrian’s heart-rending, sometimes heart-pounding, search for Miriam and his attempt to right the wrongs his father committed. In the process, he learns about a Peru that’s a thousand light years removed from the civilized Lima he grew up in, a Peru that’s still haunted by a war that destroyed families and continues to destroy years after it’s over. When Adrian enters this unfamiliar world, he also dredges up some deep, unsettling secrets about himself.


Alonso Cueto is one of those rare writers who can grab you from the first page and hold you to the very end. The Blue Hour is not to be missed.

Into The Unknown

Posted by foneill898 on June 1, 2016 at 12:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Ages ago, I spent a year in Lima, Peru. While living there, I traveled to Machu Picchu, the wondrous Incan ruins which were built on a bluff high up in the Peruvian Andes. I met a Japanese archeologist in a small village near the great ruins. He told me he was going to prove that his ancestors had sailed the Pacific and come to Peru many centuries ago. He was convinced they had established a great civilization in the jungles and ultimately came through the high Andes pass beyond the village and built Machu Picchu as a fortress against their enemies.

The Japanese archeologist was just one of many people who believe that ancient civilizations are hidden in the impenetrable jungles of the Amazon. The stories are never-ending. El Dorado, the Cloud People of Peru, the earthworks of Western Amazonia, the Lost City of Z.

Before I went to Lima, I had spent many weeks in a dugout canoe on the Rio Napo, a tributary of the Amazon that begins in the Ecuadorean Andes. The Amazon was so hostile we spent most of our waking hours battling it. No-see-ums and mosquitoes bombarded us day and night. Poisonous snakes and insects were a constant threat. When it rained, it came down in sheets so heavy it was impossible to see five feet in front of you. Huge logs crashed down from the Andes and threatened to crush our canoe. It would take hours to light a fire, the land was so wet.

The jungles were so dense and hostile I was certain that the only way to travel was by water and the only places to live were along the hundreds of waterways that tumbled out of the mountains. I was also certain that the people who lived there would be so busy fighting the elements they couldn’t possibly have the time or the will to create an advanced civilization.

So I started reading The Lost City of Z with my own prejudices.

Early in the twentieth century the English explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett regaled the world with his stories about his efforts to find Z, the fabled city that was supposedly built in the middle of the Brazilian jungles many hundreds of years ago . Some eighty years later, David Grann wrote this book about Fawcett’s adventures.

The book is actually two stories. The first is about Colonel Fawcett, who spent much of his life exploring the Amazon searching for Z. Fawcett made six forays into the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon between 1906 and 1914. Each time he returned to New York or London, he wrote and lectured extensively about his adventures. By the time he made his last trip in 1925, he was world famous, and so was the legend of Z.

The second story, which is interwoven with Fawcett’s, is about the adventures of David Grann, the American journalist who wrote this fascinating book. First, Grann spent many months doing an exhaustive study of Fawcett’s journals and other documents about his expeditions in search of Z. When Grann’s research was done, some eighty years after Fawcett’s last expedition, he decided to follow the path Fawcett took on that fateful expedition. Even though travel in the jungles was a bit less brutal than it was in 1925, when Fawcett, his son and a friend disappeared, Grann’s adventure was every bit as exciting as Fawcett’s. And the conclusion to his story is both surprising and completely unexpected.




Great Literature from Barbara Kingsolver

Posted by foneill898 on April 1, 2016 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Most of us see things literally. A tree is a tree is a tree. The artist sees a tree fancifully — from the hard core of the trunk, from its roots, from its shadows, its seeds, its leaves, the interstices between its branches, from its possibilities, its spirit, its hopes, its dreams. Barbara Kingsolver is a true artist. She sees the world around her from such unimaginable angles it takes your breath away. In the Poisonwood Bible, she uses all her artistic powers to the fullest.


The Poisonwood Bible is actually two stories: the story of Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary from Georgia, and his wife and four daughters, and the story of what happens to the Prices and to the Congo after the country becomes independent from Belgium.


The first part of the story takes place in the two years before the Congo gains independence. It documents the Prices’ time in the small village of Kilanga. Nathan Price is a Baptist minister whose narrow-minded insistence on bringing the word of his God to the people of Kilanga has tragic consequences for the entire family.

Price’s inability to understand that the only thing the villagers want saving from is Nathan Price is told from each of the girls’ viewpoints. “No matter what happens on God’s green earth,” Rachel says, “Father acts like it’s a movie he’s already seen and we’re just dumb for not knowing how it all comes out.” It’s often funny, sometimes shocking, ultimately tragic.


The second part of the book documents the sad history of both the Prices and the Congolese people after Belgium grants the country “independence”, an independence that is brutally thwarted by the greed and cruelty of U.S. and Belgian diamond miners, who have the elected president, Patrice Lumumba, assassinated and the dictator Joseph Mobutu installed with the approval of President Eisenhower, the man with “the clear-rimmed glasses and spotted tie, the broad smile, the grandfatherly bald head like a warm, bright light bulb. He looked so trustworthy and kind,” Orleanna Price says as she looks back at the way her family was destroyed by the blind faith of her husband and the cruelty of the puppet masters who manipulated the people of the Congo.


The Poisonwood Bible is in turn riotously funny and unbearably heartbreaking, personal and historic. Kingsolver uses all her artistic powers in this book, which is one of the great books of Twentieth Century literature. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to see the world with open eyes.


The Most Amazing School in America

Posted by foneill898 on March 22, 2016 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)

I went to high school in Newark, New Jersey, at a time when racial tensions in America were as high as they’ve ever been. That school, St. Benedict’s Prep, was right in the heart of the city, right where five days of rioting would devastate the city in 1967. Twenty six people died in those riots, 725 others were injured and $70 million in damage was done to buildings on and around Central Avenue, including the record distributorship where I worked after school. St. Benedict’s, which had just turned 100 years old at the time, was untouched by the violence, but it was still mortally wounded by the hatred and bitterness. Five years after the riots, St. Benedict’s closed its doors.


Ironically, even though the people who lived around Benedict’s were mostly black, the school was 99% white kids from the suburbs when I went there. After the riots, whites fled the city and it was difficult to get students from the suburbs to come into Newark, so the Benedictine monks who ran the school decided to close it in 1972. They moved to the suburbs, where some of them would teach at Delbarton, a fellow Benedictine high school.


After one year, Father Edwin Leahy, a 26 year old monk who graduated from Benedict’s in 1962, said it was wrong to participate in the racism, to close the school because of the increase in African Americans in Newark. He decided to reopen it with donations from local businesses and the alumni, many of whom went on to successful careers in business. Leahy had no idea how to run a school, but he took inspiration from the Good Book — the Boy Scout Handbook.


What followed is a miracle. Take a look and be inspired.




Elmore Leonard

Posted by foneill898 on August 22, 2015 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (0)

I started reading Elmore Leonard in the late 80s, when he had just become well known for his crime novels. I’ve read most of the novels he’s written since then. His death last year ended a brilliant writing career, but his books still have traction. He writes about crime with the best of them, but if there was a book genre called ‘entertainment’, I’d put him there, right at the top. Leonard will sacrifice anything, especially proper writing, in his efforts to entertain. “I try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip,” he once said.


Many critics cite Get Shorty and Rum Punch as his best, but you could pick almost any of them; he never wrote a bad one. Pagan Babies is right up there with the best. Leonard’s main characters are always rogues and con men, and Pagan Babies stars one of the great rogues of modern literature. Match him up with a young insurance investigator who wants to be a stand-up comedienne and you have the funniest pair of scoundrels walking the pages of any of Leonard’s books.


Pagan Babies begins in post-genocide Rwanda and winds its way from Africa to Detroit, where Father Terry Dunn meets Debby, the insurance investigator, who spent three years in prison for deliberately running over her ex. Father Dunn and Debbie join forces in an effort to extort $250,000 from the ex, who now owns a restaurant frequented by most of Detroit’s top wise guys. When the head of the Detroit Mafia gets involved in their scheme, the book takes so many hilarious twists and turns you don’t know where it will end up.


It might seem unfair to give a book like Pagan Babies the same rating as War and Peace, but given the limitations of star rating systems, both get the same five star rating. Leonard is simply the best in his genre.




Posted by foneill898 on February 27, 2015 at 12:55 AM Comments comments (0)


No, not the Japanese poetry. The Asian restaurant


we go to near our home. The other night, my wife


and I were the last ones in the place, and the sushi


chefs had just sat down to eat. Thought you'd enjoy this photo.


Global Chaos Update

Posted by foneill898 on February 4, 2015 at 6:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Global Chaos Update


The snow just keeps coming to lower New York. This is the third storm we’ve had in ten days, and we’re expecting two more in the next five days. Just one more sign of what I call Global Chaos, which has brought record warmth to most parts of the world and record cold to New York and the Northeast. It's easy for New Yorkers to say this can't be global warming, but they're not looking at the big picture. The weather worldwide keeps getting more and more chaotic.


Anybody who says global warming is a myth is in serious denial.