Reviews written by David
Dave Schwinghammer's Public Reviews
  Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream
by H. G. Bissinger, Rob, Jr. Clark (Photographer)
5 of 5 stars Gladiators April 9, 2002
The oil town of Odessa, Texas, is home to the most successful football program in Texas, The Permian High School Panthers. In FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, H.G. Bissinger, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, sets out to shadow the 1988 team.
The Panthers drew as many as 20,000 fans on a Friday night. But football wasn't Bissinger's only concern. He wanted to examine racial relations, politics, and the effect of a one-industry economy. He wanted to know how sports impacted the educational system. Bissenger goes to every practice, meeting, and game. He goes to school with the players, visits their homes, goes to church with them; he even hunts rattle snakes with them.
In his preface, Bissinger refers to the Friday night games as "the Friday night fix." Adults live vicariously through their sons. Bissenger interviewed hundreds of Odessa citizens during the time he lived there, and it seemed the biggest danger was that these boys would have their fifteen minutes of fame on the gridiron and spend the rest of their lives reliving it.
Bissenger introduces us to some unforgettable characters. Boobie Miles dreams of playing for Nebraska or Texas A&M, of winning the Heisman, and his uncle L.V., who had rescued him from a foster home, expects those dreams to bear fruit. But a bad knee made Boobie tentative. Jerrod McDougal is a 5'9" offensive tackle with no such dreams, but he loves to play for the Panthers, the Boys in Black. "It's like the gladiators," he says. "It's like the Christians and the lions . . . . a high no drug or booze or woman can give you." Then there's Gary Gaines, the coach of Permian High. He returns home after losing an important game to find several "for sale" signs planted on his lawn.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a cautionary tale, warning of the consequences of putting too high an emphasis on high school sports. In some respects, this is a depressing book. There's an epilogue at the end detailing what became of some of the players. Knee scopes, failing grades, and the inability to compete claiming most of the Permian gladiators. pixel
  Inner Passages
by Carl Brookins
2 of 5 stars Trust the reader April 5, 2002
INNER PASSAGES is about the ramming of a sailboat in Desolation Sound off the coast of British Columbia. The protagnoist, Michael Tanner, a public relations executive from Seattle, loses his wife and her best friend. The authorities don't take Tanner seriously when he insists his boat was rammed on purpose, and he begins a lonely search for a yacht named Goldenrod.
The strength of INNER PASSAGES is the setting: the waterways along the coast of British Columbia between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Brookins also has more than a layman's knowledge of sailing.
I had problems with motivation. Why would the yacht, whether it was running drugs or whatever, call attention to itself by attacking a civilian boat unaware of its intent? Brookins does take us aboard Goldenrod at times, but he never does address the issue.
The author's penchant for jumping out of third person limited into omniscient point of view also bothered me. On page 82, I was sure I was missing a page. Without white space or anything, Brookins jumps from Tanner's internal monologue to a sailor aboard the Goldenrod. Brookins also doesn't trust the reader. He ruins the climax by telegraphing what's going to happen. Also, for most of the book, Tanner is alone. Whenever that happens, there's a tendency for too much interior monologue, which really slows the pace. Three-quarters of the way in, Michael acquires a lady friend and the story becomes more engrossing.
Mary Whitney and Michael Tanner are likable characters, but it's always dangerous when a human antagonist is missing. pixel
  Slaves in the Family (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
by Edward Ball
5 of 5 stars Fascinating detective story April 5, 2002
Edward Ball is a descendant of rice plantation owners. Ball, son of a minister and former Village Voice columnist, set out to discover his connections to a slave-owning past. What he found was six generations of Balls who owned twenty plantations along the Cooper River near Charleston, South Carolina, masters over more than 4,000 African-Americans.
He finds Elias "Red Cap" Ball who inherited half of a 740-acre Comingtee Plantation and twenty black and Indian slaves in 1698. Elias had five white children and possibly two by his black housekeeper, Dolly. One of his children tells his heirs in his will to lend money at interest or buy young slaves. Henry Laurens, married to Red Cap's daughter Eleanor, owned the largest slave-trading firm in the colonies. They brought 7,800 Africans to America between 1751 and 1761, earning a hundred and fifty-six thousand pounds in commissions, making him and his wife one of the richest families in America. John Ball, Red Cap's grandson, leaves $227,191 to his heirs as a result of selling his belongings at auction, which included 367 people.
James Poyas, great-grandson of Red Cap, never married but seems to have had a relationship with a field hand named Diana, with whom he had a son, Frederick. Edward Ball finds Frederick's descendants, living in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Ball also tracks a young slave girl from Sierra Leone to Charleston, where Second Elias Ball bought her, and traces her lineage to Thomas P. Martin, retired assistant school principal and a seventh-generation descendant of Priscilla.
Edward Ball visits Sierra Leone, looking for descendants of slave traders there. Peter Karefa-Smart, a descendant of Gumbo Smart, a middleman for the British, doesn't seem to bothered by what his ancestor did. He says, "If there were no buyers, there would be no sellers, but you could turn it around and say, if there were no sellers, there would have been no buyers."
There are a couple of incidents that caught my interest. One was the story of Boston King, who escaped from Tranquil Hill, one of the Ball plantations. In 1792, Boston King and Twelve hundred other escaped slaves boarded ships bound for Sierra Leone, thus coming full circle. Another is the amazing resemblance between the author, Edmund Ball and his William James Ball, the patriarch of the Ball family during the Civil War. Give William James a haircut and a shave and they could be twins. pixel
   Rookery Blues : A Novel
by Jon Hassler
4 of 5 stars Dickensesque April 2, 2002
ROOKERY BLUES revolves around the experiences of the Icejam Quintet during the '60s at Rookery State College: Leland Edwards on piano, Neil Novotny on clarinet, Victor Dash on drums, Connor on bass, and Peggy Benoit, saxophonist and singer. The musicians are professors and instructors at the college. Each of them has a story line. The beautiful Peggy Benoit is taken with alcoholic Connor. She's kind of a groupie, being more enamored of Connor's reputation as an artist than the man. I found Neil Novotny, who plays clarinet, the most interesting character, because he gives Hassler an opportunity to satirize beginning novelists (and I imagine what he remembers about the experience himself). My favorite Hassler book is STAGGERFORD in which Hassler satirizes the political and personal machinations that occur in a high school setting. As a twenty-year teacher, I found those more interesting than the story line.
I also had fun trying to pick out any similarities to the two colleges Hassler taught at: Brainerd Community College and St. John's (just outside St. Cloud, Minnesota). There's an ice fishing scene which seems to point at the little lake right next to St. John's. The other character I found intriguing was Victor Dash, the faculty union representative. Most of the teachers involved find labor negotiations beneath themselves; Dash revels in the matter, would like nothing better than to strike.
Hassler is a Dickensesque writer, totally immersing us in this academic setting. Major characters and minor characters are given the same careful attention to detail. You can't lose with ROOKERY BLUES. pixel
  Mrs. Million : A Novel
by Pete Hautman
3 of 5 stars The professor has a mean streak March 30, 2002
Sam O'Gara appears in most of Hautman's novels. In this one he gets a bare mention. He's the father of Barbaraannette Quinn, who wins the lottery and decides to spend a million of it trying to win her husband Bobby back. He absconded six years before and she's never gotten over the good-looking devil.
Bobby, along with his girlfriend, Phlox, sees her offer on TV. They decide to claim the reward and then split, which strains credulity because people are looking for Bobby in Cold Rock, Minnesota. You see, before he left, he conned these two guys out of money to start a dude ranch, and he runs into them as soon as he sets foot in Cold Rock. Suddenly everybody wants the million dollars and Bobby changes hands more often than the Hope diamond.
There are a lot of quirky characters in MRS. MILLION, but probably the most interesting one is the college professor, Andre Gideon, who just happens to be in the right place (or wrong, depending upon how you look at it). He's more interested in JJ Morrow, another con man, who sends letters to celebrities to mooch money off of them. Gideon is unique because Hautman is working against type. Gideon looks about as violent as Shirley Temple, but he's got a mean streak as long as the English Chunnel.
There's a lot of internal monologue in this novel, which slows down the pace, but it speeds up when Barbaraanette collects the million in cash from her marathon-running banker, who just happens to have loved her forever. The funniest part is how often the money changes hands. You'll start counting heads when the money disappears. Everybody seems to be accounted for.
The eventual resolution is sidesplitting. pixel
  The Fallen Man
by Tony Hillerman

4 of 5 stars A Charlie Chan, Number One Son relationship? March 28, 2002
I look forward to the next Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novel like a five-year old looks forward to Christmas. Jim Chee is studying to be a shaman, and in the early novels, LISTENING WOMAN, THE SKINWALKERS, we get to look over his shoulders and learn about the various Navajo rituals, the most interesting of which is the skinwalker ceremony. You see, the Navajo believe in ghosts. They believe that the living can be inhabited by the spirit of the dead. Many of the old timers go so far as to burn down their hogans when there's a death. Logically then, according to a Navajo, anyone who, say, commits a murder or molests a child must have been inhabited by this evil spirit, hence the name skinwalkers.
Almost as interesting as the rituals is the vast scope of the reservation. In THE FALLEN MAN a man has been murdered on sacred Ship Rock, seventeen hundred feet above the desert floor. To make matters worse, he isn't found for another eleven years.
Joe Leaphorn, newly retired and at a loss for something to occupy his time, connects the skeletal bones to another murder, that of an old canyon guide, shot down by a sniper. Jim Chee, an acting lieutenant in this one, has a father/son relationship with Leaphorn. Chee wants to look good in Leaphorn's eyes, but he always seems to mess up somehow. Leaphorn is Charlie Chan to Chee's Number One Son. Leaphorn is taciturn, Chee more volatile. Leaphorn mourns his dead wife; Chee has more woman trouble than a gynecologist.
I know Tony Hillerman is getting older (he's in his seventies now, I guess), but I wish he'd find a little bit more time to write. I've been reduced to reading some of the Hillerman clones and they just don't measure up. pixel
  Confederates in the Attic : Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Vintage Departures)
by Tony Horwitz
5 of 5 stars Stranger than fiction March 22, 2002
Truth is stranger than fiction, and CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC certainly proves the point.
War correspondent Tony Horwitz sets out to explore the contention that some people in the South never stopped fighting The Civil War. He witnesses Klan rallies; journeys to Andersonville, the Confederate prison camp; interviews the great Civil War historian Shelby Foote; but by far the most interesting people he meets are the reenactors. Horwitz travels from Antietam to Gettysburg in the company of Robert Lee Hodge, a real "hardcore" who insists on drinking out of a tin cup, eating hard tack and salt pork, wearing homespun clothing, speaking in authentic nineteenth century diction, and maintaining a starvation diet. On the battlefied, Hodge would "do the bloat," swelling his belly, curling his hands, puffing out his cheeks, in imitation of the bloated corpses found in Matthew Brady photographs.
Horwitz visits Confederate museums, where he finds a torch used by Sherman's men, a carpetbagger's suitcase, a handwritten list of South Carolians killed in the war, a bestseller in Columbian bookstores.
Horwitz even visits a bar that celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday with a "Thank God for James Earl Ray Party." He also tells us about Michael Westerman, who drove through Guthrie, Kentucky, flying a rebel flag. Carloads of black young men ran him to ground, one of whom shot Guthrie dead.
This book is frightening, informative, and funny in spots. If you're looking for something different, CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC is a great choice. pixel
   The Wheat Field : A Novel
by Steve Thayer
2 of 5 stars She must've been drunk March 19, 2002
Steve Thayer is primarily known for his stories set in St. Paul, Minnesota. The city becomes a character in the novels. He shows us the Cathedral, the Mississippi and its caves, the beautiful homes on Summit Ave. He takes us back to the depression when gangsters, such as Dillenger and the Barker gang, were given free reign in the city.
In The WHEAT FIELD, Thayer moves the setting to the Wisconsin Dells, Kickapoo county. Again he uses the history of the Dells to provide texture for his novel. He mentions Joe McCarthy, who supposedly belonged to the gun club mentioned in the story, and Ed Gein, the murderous ghoul, who dug up corpses in the local graveyard and used their skin to upholster his furniture.
I had high hopes for this novel. It takes guts to make your main character a voyeur, and just a few pages in there's a lurid sex scene. Most of the writing books tell you to make your protagonist a likable character; and who likes peeping Toms? Just a bit on the plot. Two people are murdered in this wheat field in the midst of what looks like a crop circle. They're high school friends of Pliny Pennington, the deputy in charge of the murder investigation. He's in love with the female victim, Maggie Butler. We soon discover that two more of Pennington's high school friends, a senatorial candidate and his wife, were also involved. The evidence points towards a "snuff" film.
We don't really get to know any of these people, other than Pliny. Once more, those pesky book doctors insist that in a thriller there be less of an emphasis on character development, ignoring the danger that the reader just might not care what happens to these people. I also had a hard time with Thayer's choppy writing style. Very short sentences, even during those times when nothing much is happening. There's also implausibility galore. At the end, the setting shifts to Nantucket where we meet a ghost and a bunch of CIA types with a connection to the impending Kennedy assassination. In the acknowledgments, Thayer thanks his agent, the driving force behind the novel. She must've been drunk. pixel
  Horse Heaven (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
by Jane Smiley
4 of 5 stars Equine fun! March 18, 2002
Jane Smiley's best book is probably A THOUSAND ACRES. I had trouble with it. I guess because of the V.C. Andrews incest theme. However, because I was raised on a farm and because I recognized the King Lear allusions, I did enjoy it as a whole. I was willing to give Smiley another go when I came across HORSE HEAVEN. It doesn't hurt that I'm a horse racing fanatic.
This is a Michener-like novel with something like a dozen story lines, with trainers and gamblers and jockeys and sports writers and touts interacting before, during, and after the races. If you watch any horse racing, you'll recognize the billionaire owner and his trophy wife Rosalind Maybrick, who has a requisite affair with one of the trainers. There's the successful trainer, Buddy, who uses underhanded means, and the unsuccessful trainer, Farley, who plays by the book. There's Roberto, the jockey, who's putting on weight. There's Leo, the gambler, and his son Jesse, who's more adult than his father. And there are the horses. Justa Bob will remind you of Seabiscuit. He passes from owner to owner, spiraling down from the winner's circle to an also ran. The fractious Epic Stream is a fictional War Admiral, who had a habit of biting his jockey.
Mixed in with the fictional are the factual elements. Real horses like Silver Charm, Skip Away, Real Quiet and silverbulletday and the big time races that aim toward the Triple Crown and culminate with The Breeders Cup.
Horse Heaven was five hundred and sixty-one pages of equine fun. pixel
  Peace Like a River
by Leif Enger
4 of 5 stars Is that guy the devil? March 15, 2002
PEACE LIKE A RIVER starts out like a house afire. These two boys try to rape Davy Land's girlfriend during a football game, but Jeremiah Land, the school janitor interrupts, flogging them with a broomstick handle. They retaliate, Davy retaliates. There's a home invasion. Davy shoots them dead, one of them execution style.
At first I didn't think Davy had enough motivation to do what he did. Sure, the boys kidnapped his little sister, but they didn't hurt her much, and when they show up in his bedroom, they're armed with only a baseball bat. There also isn't much exposition involving the two boys. We don't learn to hate them. We never develop a "They got what they deserved" sympathy for Davy.
But that's the point. Enger makes sure we know that Davy did something unforgivable, that he will be an outsider for the rest of his life. And beyond?
A couple of characters in PEACE LIKE A RIVER are unforgettable. Swede Land, the little sister, and very late in the story, Jape Waltzer. Enger loves Robert Service poety, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Zane Gray, and western folk lore. As a result he imbues little Swede with poetic talent. Throughout the story, she's writing an epic poem about this outlaw named Sundown. After awhile, this gets a little old and the poems aren't as good, but she's hard not to love. Jape Waltzer, although he provides a refuge for Davy, is hard to like. I think he's supposed to be the devil. Which leads to the mystical aspect of the story. Jeremiah Land, the janitor, has the power to heal. He even heals the superintendent of schools of facial lesions after he fires him. But he doesn't heal his son, Reuben the narrator, of chronic asthma, and we're kept wondering why until the end.
The middle of the story is slow, really slow. I kept falling asleep. The family sets out to find Davy when he escapes from jail. They travel in an Airstream trailer. An FBI agent trails along behind. They don't have any gas, but that's not a problem with Jeremiah around. The story picks up speed when we meet Davy again and Waltzer. Enger must have had a really good editor. He hardly tells us a thing about how Waltzer and Davy met. Our imaginations take over. The guy has funny eyebrows; he's missing two fingers on one hand. He's meaner'n sin.
There's another slow scene toward the end, after some fireworks, where Enger gets carried away showing off his lyrical writing style in a resurrection scene. I'd be willing to bet he's got a copy of LIFE AFTER LIFE, by Dr. Raymond Moody on his desk somewhere.
Some of this is awfully corny, but well worth your time if you appreciate solid characterization and some nifty description.

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