Choosing Sides

Book jacket for Hellhound On His Trail, by Hampton SidesI usually experience a mild euphoria when I reach the last chapter of a really good book. There’s a sense of accomplishment — especially if it’s long or has been a bit of a slog — as well as excitement, because finishing a book means it’s time to start a new one.

I have a general methodology for choosing what’s next on my reading list. I have a fondness for nonfiction, but rarely read two nonfictions in a row. I prefer to switch things up a bit. And while I have a Kindle, which I love, I also have a bookcase that is sagging under the weight of dozens of books I have not yet read. So I try to read at least one old-school book that used to be a tree, for every two eBooks.

Alas, I never seem to make much of a dent in that bookshelf because whenever I pass an independent bookstore, I feel compelled to buy at least a paperback.

It’s like being on a book diet; even if I manage to drop a few books, over time I end up adding back the same number… and then some. And they all go straight to my bookshelf. (Ha! See what I did there?)

Every Christmas, I drag my mom to the Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, with its creaky oak floors and corner dedicated to the picturesque, 170-year-old village of Chagrin. It’s the same bookstore I shopped in as a kid, and I am a slave to its “staff picks”.

I’m not ready for a world where this and other venerable little shops like Book Passage (Corte Madera), Books Inc. and Browser Books (San Francisco), and Copperfield’s (Sonoma and Napa Counties) don’t exist. So, I try to do my part.

Book jacket for Americana, by Hampton SidesThis brings me to today, when I finished reading Americana: Dispatches From The New Frontier, by Hampton Sides. As usual, I felt accomplishment because… well, 30 essays is a lot of essays! Plus, it’s a great collection. “Waiting for Liddy” and “In Darkest Bohemia” are bitingly funny, while “Points of Impact”, featuring the harrowing accounts of 9/11 survivors, sent shivers down my spine.

I’m a little sad to say goodbye to this book, because it’s the last one by Hampton Sides on my reading list.

Is Hampton Sides a great name for a writer or what? He grew up in Memphis and now resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico – but with that name, I always picture him sitting at an old typewriter in a mountain cabin in New Hampshire, or upstate New York.

New Mexico is proud of its adopted son. When I visited Taos a few years ago, I stopped at yet another lovely independent bookstore – Moby Dickens – and asked the kind women who work there for a recommendation. They made a strong pitch for Blood and Thunder, Sides’ acclaimed biography of controversial frontiersman Kit Carson, who lived in Taos (his home is now a museum) and is buried there.

Portrait of Author Hampton SidesOne of the shopkeepers reminded the other that Hampton Sides had visited the store once as part of a book tour. Perhaps reluctant to cheapen his literary reputation, she sheepishly added, “and he is… quite handsome”. Truth. Book jackets do not lie.

My favorite book from Hampton Sides is Hellhound On His Trail, a gripping account of James Earl Ray’s stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination and the manhunt for Ray that followed. I was consumed by that book, and could not put it down. It is remarkably suspenseful, considering the reader obviously knows how the story ends. In fact, Sides has been forced to defend the book as nonfiction, because some readers assume he embellished the facts to juice up the story. In fact, Hellhound On His Trail is a factual account based on painstaking research. The rest… well, that’s just great writing.

So now comes the fun part; it’s time to choose my next book. Unless Hampton Sides publishes something tomorrow, it’ll be either The Reliable Wife or one of the three Ann Leary books on my Kindle that are just aching to finally be read.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

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