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santini“Stand by for a fighter pilot!” If you read Pat Conroy’s 1976 novel The Great Santini, or saw the movie starring Robert Duvall, you will remember how the children of Marine Corps pilot Bull Meecham would line up like small soldiers to welcome their father home. What you might not know is that scene repeated in real life at military bases across the South for the seven kids of Donald Conroy and his wife Peg — as did the physical and verbal abuse vividly recounted in book and film.

“The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn’t sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates,” writes eldest son Pat near the beginning of his heartfelt new memoir, The Last of Santini (Nan Talese/Doubleday, digital galley).  “I’ve got to try and make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain one final time.”

If this strikes you as so much hyperbole, you probably haven’t read much or any of Conroy’s fiction. But fans — and I count myself as one — are familiar with his extravagant prose style and the autobiographical nature of his novels. Conroy has long spun his dysfunctional family ties into entertaining stories. His flawed protagonists — The Prince of Tides’ Tom Wingo, Beach Music’s Jack McCall, South of Broad’s Leo King — are all haunted by their pasts and troubled parents, siblings, spouses. Life is a mix of pain and dread, leavened by humor and a measure of forgiveness. No wonder that some of Conroy’s own relatives have taken umbrage seeing versions of themselves in print. Don Conroy was initially outraged by The Great Santini, but he eventually enjoyed the fame and would show up to sign copies with his son.

Although Conroy writes affectionately of his much-married maternal grandmother and movingly of his mother, a faux Southern belle who introduced him to books and the reading life, he never strays far from stories about his formidable father. As the eldest child, Pat was  a favorite punching bag, and he acknowledges he hated his father for years. Writing was a way of exorcising the demons. Still, as both men grew older, a tentative truce was declared, and Don Conroy, if never a good father, proved a fond grandparent and uncle.

But not all of Conroy’s stories end happily or peacefully. His younger brother Tom killed himself while a young man, leaving his siblings to grieve and wonder at what might have been. And his sister, the poet Carol Conroy, is still estranged from Pat, disagreeing with his memories of their shared childhood.

When Conroy’s memoir My Reading Life was published two years ago, I suggested we all give thanks to Peg Conroy for giving her son the gift of books and love of words. That book was his tribute to her, and he gave her and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind credit for turning him into a Southern novelist. The Death of Santini is a tribute not so much to Don Conroy as a testament to his influence. He, too, helped make Pat Conroy the writer he is. Stand by for a storyteller.

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DearI always read the cartoons in The New Yorker first, except when there’s a short story by Alice Munro. She comes first, always. But as I noted in a 2001 column for the Sentinel, “Let us now praise Alice Munro,” I’m running out of ways to do so without repeating myself.

In 1990, I called her “the most generous of storytellers. She can capture an entire life within a few pages, and many of her stories open to encompass more stories, other lives.” Four years and another collection later, I noted that “love and loss, fate and choice are the seeds with which she sows a rich harvest.” Her 1996 Selected Stories was “a cause for celebration,” as were subsequent collections by this “Canadian Chekhov.” I rather regret that last rave because really there’s no comparing Munro to anyone but herself.

Her new collection, Dear Life (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), is everything I’ve come to expect from Munro and more. This time, the remarkable stories of seemingly unremarkable lives that suddenly turn on a dime — “Amundsen,” “Haven,” “Train” — are followed by a section dubbed “Finale.” Munro explains, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.”

Well! Because Munro’s stories often deal with the memory of events in small-town and rural Ontario where she grew up, I’ve often wondered how autobiographical they might be.  Munro, however, has always said she makes things up, although she did draw on her family’s Scottish immigrant history in writing The View from Castle Rock.  Still, it’s interesting to read the pieces in Dear Life as both story and memoir, trying to discern the difference.

Really, I can’t tell. The lives of Munro’s characters are rarely tidy, emotions are always mixed. She’s expert at mining “the truth in fiction.” Her narrators can be unreliable, although, as a writer, she is essentially astute. So, does it really matter that the young schoolteacher in “Amundsen,” who is courted and then jilted by a doctor, is wholly invented, or that the girl in the last story is Alice recalling an incident told by her mother? Both have the quality of lived experience.

“We say of some things that they cannot be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.”

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Even though I’ve lived in Florida for most of my adult life, I didn’t grow up here. Still, I was lucky enough to have cousins who are natives, so I have more than the usual Florida vacation memories of beach and sun. With my cousins Paulette and Gordon Jr., I enjoyed the free-range, small-town childhood of Central Florida B.D. (before Disney), going barefoot in December, picking oranges in the backyard, pole-fishing in little lakes. For attractions, there were the slopes of Sand Mountain, the parrots at Busch Gardens and waves at the beach, but my favorite part of those treks was stopping at A&W for frosty mugs of root beer.

Yes, I’m waxing nostalgia, but it’s what William McKeen calls “honest nostalgia” in the introduction to  Homegrown in Florida, a collection of “stories (some fact, some fiction) of a vanishing place and a lost time.” There are also song lyrics by John Anderson and a few poems, including Teri Youmans Grimm’s “Miss Senior High Duval County.” Like many of the stories, it mixes the bitter with the sweet, and while it is particular to a time and place, it also has a coming-of-age universality.

A goodly number of the tales are sand-in-our-shoes memories of outdoors adventures. Although Stephen F. Orlando’s “The Other Campout” ends happily with teenage boys cutting up in a waterspout, in Jeff Klinkenberg’s “Nothing I Could Do,” a boys’ golf-course adventure turns into tragedy. Ken Block’s “Riding the Wave” pays homage to surfing and a younger brother’s battle with cancer. But Sherry Lee Alexander remembers the sweetly Southern vibe of Miami of the 1950s-60s in “Seaboard Coast Line” when “we were all still kids in Camelot.”

Allisson Burke Clark, “God Only Knows,” moved to Florida at age 11 and promptly encountered teased hair and iridescent eye makeup courtesy of mature Michelle. “My mother had talked breathlessly about the long growing season down south — we’d have flowers ten months out of the year, she said. Did Florida kids, like hothouse flowers, bloom before the rest of us?”

(Perhaps I should mention here that my cousin Paulette, three years my senior, taught me how to smoke, blowing smoke rings in the orange blossom-scented air. Of course, years later, after I had moved to Florida, she also saw me through quitting.)

Other contributors to the book include quintessential Floridians Carl Hiaasen, Zora Neale Hurston, Tim Dorsey and Tom Petty. The latter recalls “When the King Came to Ocala” (as told to Paul Zollo) and his early enthrallment with Elvis.

Petty also was inspired by Gram Parsons, the subject of Orlando author and TV reporter Bob Kealing’s “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock.” Parson’s contributions to music have long been overshadowed by his “live-fast-die-young,” drug-fueled lifestyle, his fatal overdose at 26, and the weird, failed attempt to steal his body and burn it in the desert.

But while Kealing doesn’t skirt the tabloid stuff, he’s more interested in Parsons’ journey as a muscian, his “own Cosmic American roots, planted deeply within the Georgia red clay and Florida myakka.”

The book itself is a fascinating journey to the past and back again as Kealing revisits the people and places important to Parsons’ career and life, and to Southern rock. Kealing has an entertaining, conversational style that nicely complements his subject, who crammed a whole lot of living into two decades. A new batch of old photographs from the 1960s and ’70s also prove revealing. Then there’s the discography, from The Shilos and the International Submarine Band,  to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers,  to Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and just Gram Parsons. Ah, he was young and amazing.

Sure, I can get all nostalgic reading this book and hearing “Hickory Wind.” But it’s honest nostalgia.

Open Book: Both Homegrown in Florida and Calling Me Home are published by the University Press of Florida, which sent me review copies. And I’ve known Bill McKeen and Bob Kealing for pretty much as long as I’ve lived in Florida, which is longer now than Gram Parsons’ fleeting life.

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Watching the first two episodes of the new HBO series “Girls,” I chuckled, cringed and laughed out loud. That was when 24-year-old Hannah announced to her parents that she believed she was “the voice of her generation,” or at least “a voice,” and needed $1100 a month for the next two years to finish her collection of essays. Her mother sputtered, “That’s ridiculous!”

Present-day me agrees with mom. But long-ago me recognizes the confident bravado of the young writer when everything is bright and shiny and possible. Still, as Hanna’s gynecologist asserts in the next episode, “I wouldn’t be 24 again.”

I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen (more on that in a moment), but I imagine that she would have a similar reaction to “Girls.” Her new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, reminded me that Quindlen is the voice of my generation, beginning with her “Life in the Thirties” column for the New York Times 25 years ago and continuing through her books. Like many other women of a certain age, I find myself nodding in agreement as I read her new one.

Early on, she writes, “There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps, more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes. … We understand ourselves, our lives, retrospectively.”

How true. As are her observations on collecting “stuff,” the choices that bless and burden our generation of women, how much of life is surprise and happy accident, the importance of girlfriends, “the joists that hold up the house of our existence.”

I could continue quoting, but you should have the pleasure of discovering what Quindlen has to say on your own. It’s like an ongoing conversation with your BFF about books, men, mothers, kids, work, aging. I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen, but she sure speaks for me.

Open Book: I’ve never met Anna Quindlen, but I feel like I know her through her books and novels, and having looked at a series of pictures of her at different ages in the current issue of More magazine, I know we sort of look alike, except for our noses.  And having read her over the years, I know we share remarkably similar interests and views. So much so that after reading a NetGalley digital copy of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House), I bought two hardcover copies — one for my college roommate for her birthday, and one for me just because.

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The importance of Ernest Hemingway hasn’t faded in the 50 years since his death. His works still are read and analyzed, his eventful life dissected, his oversized personality discussed, the myth and the man reimagined.

 Award-winning writer Paul Hendrickson (Sons of Mississippi) is quick to say the world doesn’t need another traditional Hemingway biography. So he takes an unconventional tack with Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved, and Lost, 1934-1961, focusing on the last 27 years of the writer’s life. He anchors the engaging narrative of Hemingway riding the waves of fame and fortune — the high tides, the stomach-churning swells, the swirling depths – to Hemingway’s love for his “fishing machine,’’ Pilar.

            Hendrickson describes his mission in a long, entertaining prologue: “So it’s about such ideas as fishing, friendship, and fatherhood, and love of water, and what it means to be masculine in our culture (as that culture is rapidly changing), and the notion of being ‘boatstruck’ . . .and how the deep good in us is often matched only by the perverse bad in us, and – not least — about the damnable way our demons seems to end up always following us.’’

Hendrickson, forgoing the terse, laconic style of Hemingway for his own looping elegance, acknowledges those demons as both arising from Papa’s past (his father’s suicide, for instance) and the flaws in his character. Yes, he could be – and often was – selfish, egotistical, “gratuitously mean.’’ He cheated on his wives, belittled his friends, dealt awkwardly with his sons, especially the third, the troubled Gregory (Gigi).

  But oh, Hemingway could write. Hendrickson does not forgive the great man because of his great talent, but he does show “amid so much ruin, still the beauty,’’ and  how he bravely engaged with life and was often at his best on Pilar, the middle-aged man and the sea.

 Hendrickson interviewed Hemingway’s three sons, read the thousands of letters Papa wrote, and, of course all the books, and he quotes liberally from these sources and others to emphasize Hemingway’s complexities and contradictions. I wasn’t sure I could read another 500-plus pages on Hemingway, but I found Hemingway’s Boat fascinating and revealing. Not as boatstruck as either author, I did skim the complete guide to boat building and Pilar’s specs. Still, in the end, Hendrickson also sent me back to Hemingway’s books and the stories, which is a good thing.

I already had reread Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast in the spring when The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s best-selling novel came out. Written from the perspective of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, The Paris Wife is a romantic evocation of their meeting and courtship in Chicago in 1920, and then the next five years in Jazz-age Paris among the fabled “Lost Generation.’’

Many of the incidents in the novel – first encounters with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, Ernest’s struggles to claim his own voice, Hadley’s loss on a train of her husband’s manuscripts – were recounted by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, and I suggest a tandem reading.

 Hemingway was a great believer in finding the truth in fiction, and McLain’s sympathetic voicing of Hadley feels authentic. She was passionately in love with her younger husband, but her traditional upbringing and values were no match when the poisonous Pauline, soon to be the second of four Mrs. Hemingways, literally moved in on her marriage. She reluctantly retreated with young son Jack, and, yes, she had regrets, but she also felt that they would always have their Paris. “We got the best of each other.’’  

If you read A Moveable Feast, you’ll know Hemingway felt much the same near the end of his life. In Hemingway’s Boat, Hendrickson writes that it was because Hadley “was his truest love, or at least his truest marriage’’ that Hemingway’s subsequent marriages were doomed from the start. Then again, Hadley didn’t have to compete with Pilar.

Open Book: I read the digital galley of Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat (Knopf), which the publisher provided through NetGalley. I bought a hardcover copy of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Ballantine) so I could present it to my book club. When I couldn’t find my old paperback of  Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I borrowed a copy from the Orange County Library.

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I once shared a cab with several book conventioneers in Chicago after we all got tired of waiting for the shuttle bus that never came. We introduced ourselves, and the woman sitting next to me said, “I know you. You’re big in Duluth!” I looked at her in astonishment — never having been to Minnesota — and she quickly explained that my book reviews and columns, syndicated on the KRT news wire, were frequently published in the Duluth News Tribune.

I came home to Orlando and shared “Big in Duluth” with my friend Dewayne. We’ve collected odd phrases over the years that we think sound like intriguing titles for short stories. “Big in Duluth” joined such favorites as “But It Came with Extra Horsehair” and “Punch Were Served.”

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, and I’m having a Facebook/e-mail conversation with Laurie Hertzel, books editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Turned out she’s from Duluth, so I told her my “Big in Duluth” story. Turns out she was the reason I had a rep in her hometown because she picked out the reviews that ran in the paper, where she worked for 18 years. Hertzel thought being books editor/critic must be the best job in the world and wanted to be “me” one of these days.

The newspaper world is small (and shrinking rapidly) so these kind of coincidences happen all the time. After reading Hertzel’s engaging new memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, I could tell you a lot more that the two of us have in common, but suffice to say she’s really the one who is “Big in Duluth,” and a lot of other places as well, including Russia.

The narrative is chronological, beginning with Hertzel starting her own newspaper full of her large family’s activities as a preteen, to joining the smoke-filled, male-dominated newsroom as a clerk in 1976, to working her way up the reporting and editing chain while witnessing the factories closing in Duluth and the population moving away. Change threads its way through News to Me.

 Any writer/journalist, or readers with such career aspirations or interests, will learn a lot from this book about the pre-computer newspaper world of IBM Selectrics, pica poles and clattering wire machines. Those days weren’t all that far removed from hot type and “hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite,” and female reporters still had to prove themselves outside of the women’s section. Hertzel got out of coffee-making duties for the male editors by making it undrinkable. Sorry, she shrugged. I don’t drink coffee, she told them, I don’t know how it’s supposed to taste. (I’ll second that.)

But Hertzel hasn’t just compiled a bunch of “war stories” for fellow journalists to appreciate. As she writes,  she didn’t set out to be a journalist; it just sort of happened as she followed her motto, “When a door opens, walk through it.” Still, I don’t think it’s an accident she ended up having a successful and varied career. She’s a naturally gifted storyteller with an eye for the telling detail and a way with words. Not that she hasn’t made mistakes and blown deadlines. But those doors she walked through don’t slide open as effortlessly as she would have it, like those at a supermarket. Just finding them takes talent and persistence, as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

Speaking of which, I’m not going to spoil for you how Hertzel found the story of a lifetime in the Soviet Union in 1986 in a small town near the Finnish border. But part of  it involves being met after an incredibly long train trip by smiling old people handing out flowers and speaking English. It’s a chapter in history that I was previously unaware of and now I want to read the book about it that Hertzel later co-authored, They Took My Father. Now there’s an intriguing title.

Open Book: The University of Minnesota Press sent me an advance reading copy of Laurie Hertzel’s News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist. I laughed at the cover picture because it looked almost exactly like the top of my old desk at The Fayetteville Times, right down to the standard blue-and-white reporter’s notebook, ashtray, press card, mug, newspaper clips, a clutch of pencils and pens. No computer in sight.

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Central Florida sometimes seems like ground zero for missing persons. There are the Amber alerts that make the national news (Caylee Anthony, Haleigh Cummings) but also the local searches for elderly folk who have wandered away or the guy who went fishing and fell in a lake. And sadly, there are cold cases, like that of Jennifer Kesse, the smiling young woman who seemingly vanished into thin air four years ago.

Recently, 11-year-old Nadia Bloom was lost in the swampy woods behind her east Orange County subdivision for five days before she was found. Our TV stations aired periodic bulletins of the search with footage of helicopters, organized grid teams and rescue dogs. I remember watching one black Lab with an  SAR (search and rescue) vest scenting the air before he put his head to the ground and took off, his handler following.

Thanks to Susannah Charleson and her Golden Retriever named Puzzle, I now have a much better understanding and even more respect for what the Lab was doing. Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search and Rescue Dog is a real find for dog-lovers, or anybody who appreciates a well-written tale.  It makes me want to go “wroo,” the triumphant sound Puzzle makes when she’s found someone, whether working through a towering debris pile or sweeping through the wilderness in the dark.

“We go where law enforcement directs us,” writes Charleson, who works with an elite volunteer team out of Dallas. “We run behind search dogs who tell us their own truths in any given area — never here, was here, hers, not hers, blood, hair, bone, here, here, here.”

It may look like a great game to outsiders — and games are very much a part of a search dog’s training — but this is is tough and serious work, sometimes in the wake of disasters such as earthquakes or tornadoes, or at crime scenes or drownings.  A pilot and flight instructor, Charleson was inspired to become a field assistant for a SAR canine team after seeing a photograph of a weary Miami handler and his Golden in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Eventually she decides to run a dog of her own, and her search leads to a willful, blonde pup who causes consternation among Charleson’s pack of Poms and cats as she she grows into a skilled search dog.

Charleson fluently mixes the story of her and Puzzle’s training and adventures with information about SAR canine teams. We meet Puzzle’s smart and agile mentors, including German Shepherd Hunter and Shadow the Husky, and are on the scene of numerous searches, some with happy endings, others with no ending. A year before Puzzle was born, Charleson worked canine SAR when the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas, and her account of standing over a bit of bone in a frozen field will tear at your heart.

Mostly, though, Puzzle and her teammates will make you happy. Maybe even go “wroo.” I know that if I’m ever lost in the woods, I want to awakened by that joyful sound. 

Open Book: Susannah Charleson’s Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search and Rescue Dog is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which sent me an advance reading copy. Try and resist that cover. Good dog! Good book.

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