Books That Pack A Punch

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Dear Readers,

Don’t know the philly shell from the philly cheese steak? Can’t tell the different between a jab and a joint? Well, you are in luck. I realized that I haven’t written a “my favorite books about XXX” post in a while, and so I decided to remedy that today with a post about what are, in my opinion, the finest books written about the sweet science. I do so, as always, with the caveat that I am not saying that these are the best books written about boxing, but rather that they are my favorites.

La dolce scienza has produced some of the finest sports writing, no writing in general, that the country has ever seen. Looking at the list of those who have opined about the kings of the ring reads like a literary who’s who. Papa Hemingway. Joyce Carol Oates. A.J. Liebling. Norman Mailer. Jack London. Lee Hutch. Okay, so I’m kidding about that  last name, but you get the idea. There is something about two fighters standing in the spotlight trading blows that attracts those with a literary urge. Perhaps this is because within the space of single fight, you can witness hope, both lost and found, glory, honor, the sting of defeat, and the triumph of victory. It’s too tempting of a target for writers to resist.

So, with the disclaimer above in place, I shall now proceed to give you my favorite books on boxing, some fiction and some non. I like to mix it up. Just like you should mix up your punches.

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The Sweet Science is perhaps the finest book written on the subject. Liebling is a gifted wordsmith who turns boxing into ballet. The book is made up of a collection of essays written by Liebling for The New Yorker in the 1950s. They reflect the passing of the old guard (Joe Louis and Archie Moore) and the rise of a kid from Brockton, Mass named Rocky Marciano. Each essay follows the same basic pattern. Liebling visits the fighters in camp, foot toddles or takes a cab to the fight, and then stops off for a drink or a bite afterwards and reflects on what he has seen. Even if you are not a fan of the sweet science of bruising, read this book as an example of some of the finest reportage this nation has ever produced.

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If The Sweet Science is on the list, then you absolutely must include the author to whom Liebling drew inspiration, Pierce Egan. Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism is a collection of essays written in the 19th Century. Read widely by young men all over England, his work inspired the likes of Charles Dickens. It was Egan who first referred to boxing as “The Sweet Science”, a term which is still in use today, almost two hundred years later. His delightful tales of bouts which lasted hours rather than minutes are sure to appeal to fight fans today, just as they did when he penned the words so many years ago.

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Fat City by Leonard Gardner is boxing noir at its finest. Boxing and noir (be it screen or page) go together like peas and carrots. Published in 1969, Fat City is Gardner’s only novel, and a fine one it is. The story, set in Stockton, follows the attempted comeback of a semi-retired fighter along with the rise of a new contender. There are no spotlights and million dollar fights here. No, Dear Reader, this is a look at the underside of boxing where men on the margins of society fight to survive both in the ring and out. For most fighters, even today, this is their reality, not pay per view events and legions of adoring fans. It’s a fine, short novel, even for those who are not boxing enthusiasts. As a character study, it ranks among the finest ever written. And as a benefit, it is also available as an audiobook!

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Bert Sugar’s Punchlines is a delight little collection of wit from the cigar chomping, fedora wearing, historian and journalist of the fight game. Inside, you’ll find such gems as Bert commenting on graduating from law school and passing the bar exam. (“That’s the only bar I’ve ever passed.) He also opines about his favorite fights and his favorite fighters. A true student of the history of boxing, Bert draws from a wealth of knowledge to put together a book that is both funny and informative.

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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey Ward tells of the life and times of the Galveston Giant, the world’s first black heavyweight champion. After you read it, check out the Ken Burns documentary with the same name. Just to give you an idea of how much white American hated Jack Johnson, consider this. When he defeated the “Great White Hope” James Jeffries on July 4, 1910, it touched off race riots throughout the country in what is our first example of nationwide rioting. Angry white fans stormed black neighborhoods and beat men in the streets and set fire to houses. Yes, people even died. What I admire about Jack Johnson is that he just didn’t give a f–k about what white America thought. He did his own thing and if you didn’t like it, that was your problem, not his.

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The Professional by W.C. Heinz is a novel published in 1958. In the story, a journalist spends time in training camp with contender Eddie Brown and his trainer Doc Carroll. (Why are boxing trainers always called Doc?) It ends with the fight itself. Heinz gives us a fascinating peak inside the seamy world of championship boxing in the 1950s. You’ll meet many a shady character from promoters to writers. Truthfully, that hasn’t changed. Boxing is still full of shady characters. I watched a documentary that came out a few years ago called After the Fight. In it, renowned neurologist Robert Cantu pointed out that the two leading causes of death for boxers were gunshot wounds and stab wounds. It’s a rough world, and Heinz certainly brings that to life in his novel.

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Okay, it might be cheating to have At the Fights on this list as it is a collection of boxing reporting from the 20th Century. From Jack London writing about Jack Johnson (and it was London who coined the phrase “Great White Hope”) to stories about this new kid called Mike Tyson, At the Fights brings you the best writing about the sport from its heyday to its decline. Consider it like a tour through the wastelands of a sport which once ruled the world and now struggles to find a place thanks to the rise of other bloodsports such as UFC and MMA.

And, as an honorable mention, I’d like to include a book of short stories by various others published under the title “Battling Boxing Stories.” I have listened to it twice on Audible. The stories cover a lot of ground, but they all relate back to the sport which still, despite its decline, holds a piece of the American imagination.

So until next time, Dear Readers, keep your guard up and your chin down.

L.H.

Inspiration Part Deux

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Dear Readers,

I wanted to expand a bit on the topic of last week’s post and go into a bit more detail. I’m happy to report that my current work in progress is half completed. I’ve written half a novel in fourteen days. The next fourteen will see me finish the first draft. In other news, you may also obtain a copy of my first book on Kindle for a mere .99 cents up through June 9th in order to mark the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. So if you haven’t read it, now’s a good time.

But on to the subject of today’s post. You can see in last week’s post where I talked about the photo that helped launch my current book, but allow me to go into a bit more detail. So as I was looking at the photo and pondering those questions, the lyrics to Runaway Train by Soul Asylum came to mind. Particularly the lines “Can you help me remember how to smile/Make it somehow all seem worthwhile/How on earth did I get so jaded/Life’s mystery seems so faded”. Wow, I thought, I could definitely see a young woman in 1864 trafficked into prostitution as my main character Molly was appreciating those lyrics. Like all 90s kids, I know this song, but I did not have it downloaded on my phone as its never been one of my favorites.

I wanted to listen to it as I looked at the photograph, so I fired up the AppleTV, opened up YouTube, and watched the original video. Though you may not believe me when I say this, I had NEVER seen the video before! It was released in 1993 and we didn’t have cable and I wouldn’t have watched MTV anyway, even if we did. As the video started, Dear Readers, I was absolutely awestruck. I had no idea the subject of the music video was runaway children, going so far as to show photos of actual missing children. Now, Molly did not run away from home. She was sent to America, but through circumstances that you’ll just have to wait to read about, she finds herself forced into prostitution just as runaway teens today are sometimes compelled into those exact same circumstances by traffickers. (And others are outright kidnapped by the same.)

Later that day, I got in the car to run down the corner store to buy my daily green apple slushy. In the truck, I tuned into the Pop Rocks station on SiriusXM, and guess what song came on? If that’s not a sign, dear readers, I don’t know what is. I made the photo/lyric sheet that appears at the top of this post and printed it out to keep next to my computer. I need only look at it and the words come pouring from my head as if they were floodwaters through a breached levee.

So follow the posted link above and watch the original video if you’ve never seen it. Absolutely haunting. That I can tell you.

L.H.

The Photo That Launched 90,000 Words

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Dear Readers,

It is said that Helen of Troy had a face that launched 1,000 ships. My current work in progress, tentatively titled Molly’s Song was launched by a face as well. Or, to be more accurate, by a black and white photograph of a young woman. As the image is copyrighted, I cannot include the picture itself in this post, but you may visit the article here and see it for yourself. Scroll all the way to the end of the article, as it is the last photograph, though check out the others and read the article too. It’s quite interesting. Then return to my humble page and read on. Note that the photo is risque, but it is not lewd. It was taken in the 19th Century, so view it in that light.

It’s a fairly straightforward photograph. A young woman is seated in a chair (or possibly a stool) and looking at a photograph. But it is anything but simple, Dear Reader, for you see, the woman is a woman of ill repute (harlot, scarlet woman, woman of ill fame, hooker, whore, ceiling expert, fallen woman, prostitute, or whatever term people use), though today we use the word sex worker. Granted, the photo was taken about twenty-five years or so after the time period I decided to write about in my novel. (Civil War as opposed to late Gilded Age), but while looking at the photograph, I wanted to know the answers to several questions, and the answers I dreamed up formed the basis of my novel.

  1. What was her name?
  2. Where was she from originally?
  3. What color was her hair? (Red, of course!!!!)
  4. What circumstances led to her employment in a bordello?
  5. How old was she?
  6. Who is in that picture she is looking at?
  7. Who gave her the locket she wears around her neck?
  8. What does she dream of at night?
  9. What are her fears?
  10. What does she do in her down time? Does she have any?
  11. Does she ever wonder how her life might have been different?
  12. Is she comfortable with her circumstances? Or does she want out of sex work?
  13. Where is she? City? State? Country?
  14. Does she ever think of slipping off into the night and starting a new life elsewhere?
  15. If she does, will she actually do it? Or merely think about it?
  16. Is she religious?
  17. Does she have friends? Enemies? Regular customers? Customers she hates?
  18. What does she do when she gets angry? Sad? Happy?
  19. When was the last time she cried? Laughed?
  20. Has she ever been in love? When? With Who? What happened?

So there you have it, Dear Readers. I wanted to know the answers to these questions, and so I set out to figure these things out and thus I got a novel out of it. Or will have one once all the steps have been completed.

For the record, I named her Molly O’Sullivan, of County Galway, residing on Mott Street in Manhattan in the Summer and Fall of 1864.

Booking a Cover

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Dear Readers,

Next week I should have my draft cover designs to choose from. Once I pick the concept I like the best, it’ll be refined until it is perfect. At the same time, So Others May Live will be going through it’s final formatting. I should be able to reveal the cover around April 1st and I’m hoping the book will be available around April 18th (ebook, hardback, and paperback with Audiobook to follow later). At least that’s the date I’m shooting for. I’m using Damonza for my cover design and formatting needs. Everyone raves about them, and thus far they have been really easy to work with. I’m on pins and needles waiting to see what my cover concepts look like.

It has been a long wrong. Two years ago today, March 9th, I wrote the first word of So Others May Live. And now, I’m just over a month away from publication. That’s kind of exciting to think about. I knew that writing a novel was a long, slow process, but I had no idea how much work would actually go into it. In some ways, writing the first draft was the easy part. Revisions, editing, etc, proved to be the tough stage. Clicking “send” to deliver my manuscript for cover design and formatting was both a proud moment, but a scary one too. Rather like dropping your child off for their first day of kindergarten.

As soon as I am able, I will share the final, official cover with you. Until then, happy reading and happy writing.

L.H.

 

A Spring Training Reading List

Dear Readers,

Spring Training has arrived. Yesterday, courtesy of SiriusXM, I listed to WEEI’s coverage of the first Red Sox game I’ve gotten to hear since the final game of the World Series. I know, I know, it is Spring Training and the games don’t count. But I love listening to the games nonetheless. Plus, my little girl Anastasia Colleen is a big Sox fan too, and so we listen to the games together. Will the Red Sox repeat last year’s success? I don’t know. Maybe. Hopefully. But I’m not much on predictions as I thought there weren’t going to win the World Series last season. But I digress.

For those of you anxious for Opening Day, as am I, today’s post will give you a little bit to hold you over until then. As part of my series on my favorite books, here are my favorite baseball books. Most of it is non-fiction, a bit of it fiction, and I admit a certain bias when it comes to Red Sox books because, well, they are my team after all.

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This one is a must read for any Red Sox fan. Steven King and Stewart O’Nan chronicled the 2004 season as it happened. The book consists of their musing about games that they watched, along with email exchanges between the two. You get the highs. The lows. And the magic of the comeback against the Yankees. You can almost hear Tessie blaring from the book as you read, and it might leave with the sudden urge to belt out Sweet Caroline. Though normally known as a horror guy, King is actually pretty damn funny, a fact this book attests to. (Added bonus: the Audiobook version is great.) The Curse of the Bambino was broken. And maybe Bucky Dent can finally drop his acquired middle name of Bucky “Fucking” Dent. Well, on second thought, let’s not get too carried away……

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Baseball is made for summer, especially summers on Cape Cod. This book details a single season of the Cape Cod League, following a specific team, the Chatham As. It was kind of a rough season for them, but you get to meet players who are among the best college baseball has to offer, along with coaches and host families who all strive to make the league the best damn summer league in the country. The nice things about books that follow specific teams is that you really get to know the players and come to care about what happens to them.

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As I’ve said many a time, I love baseball on the radio and old time radio programs, so imagine my sheer joy when I discovered this gem on the shelf at a used bookstore. A ranking of the 101 best announcers in baseball history! Oh the joy! I won’t spoil it for you by saying who ranked first on the list, but if you are a longtime baseball fan, I’m sure you can guess. But all of the big names are in here, from Red Barber to Vin Scully to Harry Caray. If you are a baseball fan and you’ve never listened to a game on the radio, this season do yourself a favor and try it.

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I absolutely love this book! It’s a collection of the best baseball pieces from Sports Illustrated from the late 50s through the early 2000s. Some of the stories are from big name writers, but others are by writers that you might not have heard of before. The articles are varied, from great pieces on the old Negro Leagues, to baseball in Japan, to fishing with Ted Williams, to why baseball is best on the radio, this book has it all. It is one that you can read at your own leisure, a piece at a time. Any baseball fan, particularly a fan of the history of the game, needs a copy of this.

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I picked up this book almost as an afterthought one afternoon. It is set at a small college and is about the baseball team, but also the college itself. It’s about friendship, love, self doubt, anxiety, and second chances. In other words, things we’ve all seen in our own lifetimes. I think this book might appeal to those who either are fans of baseball, or work at small colleges as it does a good job detailing what that is like too. There are some great books on baseball fiction out there, and this is one of them.

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I’m not a huge fan of the time travel (or time slip) novel. In fact, I’ve only read two. One is the excellent firefighting novel Chicago 1871 by James Merl. The second one is If I Never Get Back. In this tale, a sportswriter finds himself covering a team during baseball’s early era. The problem? Well, he’s from a considerably later time period. What’s great about this book is that it does a good job describing what early games were like, how the teams traveled and lived, and how the game evolved. It’s got its funny bits as well, and so it is well worth the time to read it.

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This book is for the serious Red Sox fan only. It consists of stories from the team’s past, from the earliest days to the near present. Mostly the stories are interviews with people and it can be difficult to digest at times, but every Sox fan must have this book on their shelf. It is available on Audiobook too, but honestly, it isn’t a very good listen. You are better off buying a copy and reading it the old fashioned way.

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Feinstein is the godfather of American sports writing, so when he turned his pen to life in the Minor Leagues, he produced an instant classic. From players chasing their dreams of big league glory, to general managers with shoestring budgets, this book paints a picture of the underbelly of professional baseball. It isn’t all nationally televised games and mega million dollar contracts. No, for most, they toil in relative obscurity with the odds of making it to The Show stacked against them. If anything, this book gives you a greater appreciation for what the players go through to make it to the big stage.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. A baseball reading list to tide you over until Opening Day. There are many notable books that did not make the list, mainly because my lists consist of my favorites, something which is dictated by personal taste and not my non-existent talent as a literary critic. Here’s hoping that your team wins most of their games this season.

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Anastasia Colleen says “Go Red Sox mens!”

L.H.

 

 

 

 

Of Books and Burns

Friends,

As I’ve previously written posts about my favorite books on topics as diverse as the Old West and the great works of Russian Literature, I thought I would turn my attention to another subject near and dear to my heart; the fire service. Novels about firefighting are not all that common, and indeed, only one makes my list here. Part of it is because the job isn’t simply rushing from one emergency to the next, which does make for exciting reading. For a novel to be realistic, it would have to cover training time, meals, and sleeping. Hardly compelling stuff. Furthermore, raging structure fires are not as common as they once were, and professional firefighters today spend more time running EMS calls than they do putting out fires. So the books that follow are mostly non-fiction memoir type books, with the exception mentioned above. These are not technical books about the job, but rather books about either the history of the fire service or the experiences of someone in it.

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The Bronx was burning before I was born. The men of Engine Company 82 fought a never ending battle against the red devil, responding to numerous fires each shift. Dennis Smith, a firefighter on Engine 82 also happened to be a talented wordsmith. His memoir, Report From Engine Co. 82 is a firefighting classic. Imagine if, rather than writing about World War One, Remarque wrote about life at what was, at the time, one of the busiest engine companies in the world. And that’s what this book is like. It is, perhaps, the greatest of all the firefighting memoirs and rises to the level of true literature. Smith wrote many books, including a novel called A Song For Mary which tells his story before he joined the fire department. He has also made contributions to fire service history. His History of Firefighting in America is an excellent, if somewhat hard to find these days, book. Recently, he penned a great book on the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. But Report rises to the top of the crowded field of fire department memoirs.

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In graduate school, my research focused on the German Civil Defense system during World War Two.  I had the opportunity to interview German firefighters who worked during the firebombing raids from 1943-45. This ignited, pardon the pun, in me a lifelong interest in how fire departments cope with the strain of wartime conditions when they find themselves on the front lines. Burning Issues is a unique account because it describes the activities of the Belfast Fire Brigade during the early years of The Troubles. No other fire service in Europe or America has had to cope with what the Fire Service of Northern Ireland has. For thirty years, terrorism tore their relatively small country apart. As part of the establishment, the fire brigade tried to stay above the sectarian issues which divided the country, and responded to calls from both communities. The author does an excellent job writing about what it was like working in that kind of environment. This is a tough book to get a copy of now, but if you can find one, buy it.

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Larry Brown was a retired firefighter turned novelist from Oxford, Mississippi. His non-fiction book On Fire is a short but very interesting account of his time as a firefighter. It consists of a series of short vignettes which move from the humorous to the tragic, a fact which I think all of us current or retired firefighters can relate to. With a novelist’s skill, he tells stories which induce laughter and/or tears. Reading this book is rather like sitting around a campfire and listening to the author tell stories. It’s personal and engaging. Sadly, the author passed away several years ago, but he has left us with a great account of firefighting in the Deep South in the 70s and 80s. I’m sure William Faulkner would approve of this book.

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If you are in the market for a more scholarly look at the development of the American Fire Service, look no further than Crucible of Fire. The author describes some of the great conflagrations of the 19th Century and explores how they impacted fire departments of the 20th Century. It’s about lessons learned and applied. As such, it might not appeal to the general reader, though firefighters, historians, or both will find much to like about it. Firefighting in the United States is long on tradition unimpeded by progress, so sometimes it is nice to see where some of those traditions came from. Fire departments are made up of humans, and as such, we tend to learn from our mistakes, thus finding things out “the hard way”. This book is a great read for young firefighters, who I think need to know some of our shared history, no matter how boring it might seem to them. The fundamental goal of firefighting, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, has never changed, even though our apparatus and gear has.

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3000 Degrees is the best book written on a single fire and the men who fought it. The author tells the tragic story of the 6 firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire in December of 1999. I was a young firefighter in Texas at the time, and I remember watching the news coverage of this fire. What the author does particularly well, is introduce you to the lives of the six men, so that when the unfortunate events occur, you can really feel the loss suffered by their families. It’s far more than just the story of a fire, it is an ode to those who answer the alarms, even knowing the risks they face. Not a terribly long read, it can be easily digested. It is also available as an Audiobook with an excellent narrator, so if that is more your cup of tea, you can enjoy it that way.

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My final book is the only work of fiction on the list. Chicago 1871 is both a science fiction novel and a historical one. The science fiction angle comes from the fact that the protagonist travels back in time to Chicago on the eve of the Great Fire. While I actually don’t much care for time travel books, this one is the exception. Once we arrive in the past, the author does an incredible job painting a portrait of the Chicago Fire Department in the 19th Century. The information about how they lived and fought fires is well researched enough to be like reading entertaining non-fiction. The action scenes are very well done, and you can almost taste the smoke. I’m a first generation firefighter, and my son has no desire to enter the profession and so I’ll be the only generation, and I have no personal connection with the firefighters of old, other than a shared job. Sometimes, the book made me wish I had worked back then instead of when I did. But to work back then, I’d have to live back then, and I rather like having access to antibiotics. There aren’t many firefighting novels out there, but this one is the best I’ve read. Feel free to check out the author’s page here.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. Hopefully you’ll check out some of these books and find them as interesting as I did. Being a firefighter is the toughest job you’ll ever love. My years on the job made me the person I am today, for better or worse. Until next time, enjoy your holidays and I’ll see you at the big one.

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L.H.

 

Writing Off Into the Sunset

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Howdy Partners,

I must say that Red Dead Redemption 2 is turning out to be quite the gaming experience. It’s a bit more involved than the first game was, but that isn’t a bad thing…as long as you remember to feed your horse. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, both print and screen. Perhaps that comes from growing up in Texas. I drive a truck. I have a nice pair of rattlesnake skin boots. We even had a horse when I was a kid. I love riding horses. I draw the line at wearing a cowboy hat, though when I worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife, I had to as it was part of the uniform. I grew up watching old westerns on TV, mostly B movies with thin scripts and bad acting. But at least you could tell who the good guys were. They wore the white hats! Who hasn’t dreamed of galloping off into the sunset on a trusty steed with a redheaded saloon girl sitting behind you in the saddle. Okay, maybe that’s just me. Before I digress further, I will now give you my favorite western novels.

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Lonesome Dove. What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said. If you want to learn how to create vivid characters, read this book. Captains Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae leap off the page and into reality. In my mind, they are real people. (Note: I see myself as being more like Augustus, but my wife insists I am like Woodrow F. Call…..something about being stubborn……). I first read the book in the late 80s, after I watched the mini-series. I think I was 10 years old or thereabouts. It is a relatively straightforward story about a journey from Texas to Montana, but three is nothing simple about the complex web of characters that populate the pages. I remember sitting in an undergraduate creative writing class and the professor asked us what we thought the greatest American novel was. I gave my opinion that it was Lonesome Dove. The professor sneered and said “Westerns aren’t literature.” I replied “Well the Pulitzer Prize committee disagrees with you.” Needless to say, my grade suffered as a result. The fact that the professor who so readily dismissed the greatness of Lonesome Dove had not published anything himself was not lost on me. If you only read one western in your life, read this book. If you only watch one western movie or television show, watch this one.

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The Son is a remarkable book that follows story lines set in three eras. 1840s Texas. 1915 Texas, when Anglo ranchers fought a nasty border war with Mexican rebels. 1980s Texas, where oil reigned supreme. This book doesn’t skip over the violence, and it is full of action. It is also the best fictional description of life among the Comanche that I have ever read. You’ll learn quite a bit about their life and beliefs from this novel. The chapters that deal with the Texas/Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution shed light on a little known conflict that still affects the relationship between the United States and Mexico today. The patriarch of the family, and the driving force of the narrative, is an all around badass. It is a book that tells the history of a state, a family, and a people. As an added bonus, A&E made a television version as well which is pretty faithful to the book. I’d classify this as a must read for all Texans or those who wish they were Texans.

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Ralph Compton was one of the godfathers of the western genre. His Dawn of Fury (and the subsequent sequels) are among my favorites. They are perhaps not quite as literary as the two books above, but they are action packed and a throwback to the old dime novels. The story involves a former Confederate soldier and his search for those responsible for killing his family in the waning days of the Civil War. With his trusty hound Cotton Blossom, he roams the West dishing out revenge and meeting all sorts of interesting characters, some of them historical (such as Doc Holiday). Admittedly, the books do stretch credibility a little bit, especially when the main character manages to get shot just about every third chapter and yet always manages to survive, despite living in the era before antibiotics. However, that is a small fault and does not detract from the story. The novels in this series are an immerse tale that gets you lost along the dusty trails and boom towns of the Old West.

So, partner, saddle up your horse and gallop, don’t trot, to your local library and read these books. They are perfect company on those lonely nights out on the trail. Just be careful that some low down varmint doesn’t steal them from your saddlebags!

I realize that there are many other wonderful westerns. (The Virginian, True Grit, Riders of the Purple Sage, Blood Meridian, etc) I do not mean to detract from any of them. My top three is exactly that, mine. Your mileage may vary.

Until next time, Happy Trails,

LH