Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books, October 24, 2008



Tim O'Brien was a young man when he went to Vietnam. He survived the experience, at least physically, but as with all wars there is the emotional and psychological baggage that a soldier returns with that he will then carry for the rest of his life. The Things They Carried is perhaps an exorcism of some of that baggage, but here we do not find outwardly-directed anger or fear, nor do we find a sense of indignant frustration at the way he was treated when he returned. No, we simply find some of the most elegaic and poetic prose that has ever been written about human conflict. There is a dreadful sense of wonder pervading each one of these short stories - from the titular 'The Things They Carried' to such compelling narratives as 'The Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong' - and within each one O'Brien somehow manages to capture the youth that he possessed at the time, the stunning sense of dismay that they all must have felt, and the stark, brutal, terrifying reality of war. The Things They Carried is not a collection of horror stories. Quite the opposite. This collection is a brilliant reminder of the power of writing, how it can give us the most accurate representation of how things really were, and stands testament to the fact that O'Brien, perhaps overlooked, has managed to write one of the most remarkable anthologies of the twentieth century. I have read this book three or four times, and I will read it again without doubt. Stunning prose, brilliant stories, a staggering work of truth. Regardless of whether or not you like 'war stories' you should read this book, for it will serve to remind us not only why we write, but why we read.

Rae Helmsworth is a reviewer for Crimespree Magazine.


If you don't mind, I'd like to mention two books, both by Reed Arvin. Mr. Arvin doesn't seem to participate in the mystery community, and I've never heard his books talked about much, but I think they're superb. The books are both fast-paced and rich in detail; you really care about the protagonists, and the writing is simply fantastic. The Last Goodbye was published in 2004. It's the story of Jack Hammond, a disgraced attorney - he not only slept with his client's wife, he got caught at it. After being fired from his high-end law firm, Jack scrapes by as a court-appointed attorney in a store-front office in Atlanta. When Jack's friend, a former addict, is found dead with a needle in his arm, everyone except Jack thinks it's an overdose. Jack isn't buying it. After some investigation Jack discovers that his dead friend was linked to a woman who has a lot to lose if the association is discovered. And from there, the story becomes ever more complicated, a break-neck tale of love, betrayal, and greed.

The Blood of Angels was published in 2005. The novel's protagonist, Thomas Dennehy, is a prosecutor in Tennessee. He's handed the tough case of trying a Sudanese refugee who's accused of killing a white woman. The case brings racial tensions to the forefront, but worse is coming. As Thomas is preparing his prosecution, a university professor steps forward to say that Dennehy has previously sent the wrong man to the death chamber. And, a woman steps forward claiming that she's the alibi for the Sudanese refugee. Nothing is straightforward, everyone has hidden motives, and there are those who are willing to kill to protect their secrets. I think both books are distinguished by the attention paid to the protagonists' inner struggles. And both books raise difficult moral questions, without ever providing easy or pat answers. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Shauna Roberts is a medical writer, a copyeditor, and an as-yet-unpublished novelist. Her most recent short story is “Elessa the Restless,” a fantasy published in the anthology Barren Worlds (Hadley Rille Books, 2008). Her blog is at

Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged

The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged sits alone, its navy cover worn at the edges, on a tall, isolated bookstand in many magazine offices. Since its publication in 1961,writers have approached its altar with reverence to seek the counsel of this oracle.

Almost forgotten is its predecessor, the Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged published in 1944. Yet the three fat burgundy volumes of Webster’s Second are the better dictionary in several cases, and here are five examples.

1.Webster’s Second contains 2,987 pages of dictionary entries alone and more than 3,600 pages overall. Webster’s Third, despite its claim to be unabridged, contains only 2,662 pages of dictionary entries and about 2,800 pages overall.

2. Its etymologies are more detailed.

3. It is vastly richer in rare words, obsolete words, and regionalisms than Webster’s Third. Such oddball words are often exactly the ones I need to look up; I already know most common ones.

4. The bottom of each page contains lists of derivative and related words that don’t merit their own entry. Thus, one can find the correct spelling of these words and how to break them into syllables.

5. The three thinner volumes of Webster’s Second are easier to handle individually than the thirteen-pound Webster’s Third.

Webster’s Second has been out of print for nearly fifty years, but you can find it used online.

More forgotten books: PS I am going to be in Maine next weekend so if you are going to do a forgotten book, could you tell me by Tuesday so I can get the stuff ready early? Thanks.

Kerrie Smith
Martin Edwards
Bill Crider
Terrie F. Moran
Lesa Holstine
Robert Eversz.
James Reasoner
Paul Bishop 2
Paul Bishop 3
Scott D. Parker
David Cranmer
Barrie Summy
Patrick S. Bagley


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

THE THINGS THEY CARRIED is a collection, not an anthology. That bit of nitpickery aside, it's a helluva great book and one that should be read by anyone with an interest in American literature.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder if the British call collections anthologies? It's amazing whatever you call it.