Monday, March 02, 2015

The Year of Reading Dangerously

British editor Andy Miller, fast approaching 40, was busy living life…very busy.  Married and the father of a small son, Miller spent a good portion of his days just getting to and from the job that made his lifestyle possible.  At home, his evenings were spent accomplishing ordinary tasks such as helping his wife put meals on the table and reading bedtime stories to his son.  All in all, not a bad life, but one day Miller came to the odd realization that for a man who made his living working with words, the only reading he did for pleasure anymore came from magazines, newspapers, and websites – and most of that reading happened during his almost-daily commutes.  Sadly, books were no longer a part of his life.

He decided to do something about that – and he shares the results of his efforts with the rest of us in The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Books Saved My Life.  Some may quibble with Miller’s choice of books, even with the word “great” in his book’s subtitle, but he made it through the year.  He read the books, and his life was changed for the better for having done it. 

Miller’s “List of Betterment” includes many books generally considered to be among the finest ever written, but it also leaves room for a few titles that will probably bewilder most American readers (Krautrocksampler and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, for example).  Not all of the rest of Miller’s reading was confined to acknowledged classics from previous centuries.  The list also includes relatively recent titles such as A Confederacy of Dunces, Catch-22, Beloved, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and One Hundred Years of Solitude (a title he pretty much despised). 

Andy Miller
The Year of Reading Dangerously, though, is more than just another book about books.  It is, instead, a mini-autobiography in which the author spends as much time recounting why he chose these particular books and relating them to his life experiences as he does discussing the books themselves.  His choices are personal ones, and he uses a Henry Miller quote to make that clear.  Miller (Henry), when speaking of “books that had remained with him over the years,” said “They were alive and they spoke to me.”  It follows that simply reading the book list reveals much about Andy Miller to the rest of us. 

Are you wondering what the “two not so great” books Miller is hinting at in his book’s subtitle are?    Well, one is Dan Brown’s rather infamous The Da Vinci Code and the second is another Dan Brown book that Miller, in the end, decides not to bother reading at all, leading to a bit of inaccuracy (he admits) in that subtitle.


Upon the completion of Miller’s dangerous reading year, he said, “I am myself again.  But I no longer tell lies about books.”  He doesn’t have to now.  And neither do the rest of us, if we decide to do our own reading as dangerously.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Jeff Kinney (Wimpy Kid author) to Open Bookstore in Hometown

The Wimpy Kid
There was a nice story in the Boston Globe Magazine this weekend about Jeff Kinney who is best known for all of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (favorites of a grandson of mine).  It seems that Kinney has taken it into his own hands to build a new bookstore in the little town he lives in, Plainville, Massachusetts.  

Kinney makes it clear that this is not some kind of "vanity project" and that he is not interested in creating  a "Wimpy World" with which to promote himself.  Rather, he is opening a bookstore to serve a community that is very short on bookstores (Plainville has only 8,000 residents and is, I suspect, at least 45 minutes from Boston on a good driving day.)

The author also gives us his take on tree-books vs. e-books, especially when it comes to children.  And, I love this, his take on working in the bookstore when he can:
I do plan to be an occasional part of it, but if this is about me, then it’s not going to succeed, or if it depends on my presence, it’s not going to succeed. I want it to succeed on its own merits. I think that I’ll make appearances, do things like teach a cartooning class or maybe down the line a screenwriting class. I am actually eager to work as a staffer there. I’d like to receive books and shelve books and maybe do some book talking of my own. That’s something that I’m actually looking forward to, maybe working the cafe occasionally. I never got to do that kind of a thing, and I think it would be fun.

Again, here's the link to the complete magazine article: Boston Globe Magazine 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Dumping Books on Colorado Hwy 287? Cut It Out...

Colorado Hwy 287 at Arapahoe (near spots the books are dumped)
Here's one for everybody's "what the hell?" files.

It seems that someone has been regularly dumping small loads of books (about 50 at a time) on the median of one Colorado highway.  Needless to say, officials there, especially those in charge of the cleanup required, are not happy about this WTH development.

Details come from Tampa Bay's Channel 10 News:
Since December, workers for CDOT have collected 300 books from the median – anywhere from 25 to 50 at a time. Fiel says not only is it dangerous, but it's frustrating.
"Sending guys out there in the middle of the median is a safety issue," he said. "These guys have more important things to do."
At first, it was romance paperbacks. Now, on the tenth mission to clean up the dropped debris, crews have found a hodge-podge of different titles.
"It's one of those things, it's very frustrating," Fiel said.

So it sounds as if nine of the ten loads dumped have consisted of "romance paperbacks," and that...no, I'd better not go there.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Einstein's Beach House


Every so often, a book seems to come out of nowhere to surprise me with the sheer fun of reading it.  Jacob Appel’s Einstein’s Beach House is one of those books.  And, as is usually the case when this kind of thing happens, a big part of the surprise is that Einstein’s Beach House is by an author whose work I was completely unaware of less than two months ago. 

Einstein’s Beach House is a collection of eight short stories, including the title story, that are about people dealing with bizarre situations, situations sometimes of their own making and sometimes created by people close to them.  But in either case, the narrators of Appel’s stories generally come away from their experiences with more self-awareness than they had going in  – an achievement that, unfortunately, does not always work to their advantage. 

The stories are about mind games, as in the way people justify missteps to themselves and in the way that others seek to manipulate them for their own purposes.  These are stories about men whose girlfriends “adopt” exotic animals and treat them as beloved children; stories about sex offenders and serial killers; and stories about more normal experiences like having a crush on the older girl who lives across the street, or being taken advantage of by a mooching, favor-seeking old boyfriend.  But as different as the plots of the stories are, they have one thing in common.  All of them are fun to read. 

Jacob M. Appel
If I were forced to choose a favorite story from the collection, it would have to be the one titled “Paracosmos,” about a young couple extremely worried about their daughter’s infatuation with her imaginary friend.  Neither the little girl’s mother, nor her father, could have possibly foreseen the peculiar consequences of convincing her to give up that imaginary friend, but the best thing about reading “Paracosmos” is that the reader will be every bit as surprised as they are.

I see that Wikipedia describes Jacob Appel as “…an American author, bioethicist, physician, lawyer and social critic.”  Who better qualified to write stories about “mind games” than a man with that background? 


I’ll say it again.  This one is fun.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Borderlands Books Will Survive, After All

San Francisco's Borderlands Books has some good news to share with his loyal customer base: the store is not going to have to shut its doors, after all.  

You might remember that, on February 3, I posted the news that the longtime bookstore was being forced out of business because of that city's dramatic rise in the minimum wage.  Although the news saddened readers across the country, if not across the world, it looked like a done deal.  

But then owner Alan Beatts had an idea.  Why not try to sell $100 member sponsorships in Borderlands Books?  Beatts figured he needed 300 people to sign on if the idea were to work...well, according to The Examiner, he is up to 449 sponsors, and counting:
The downpour of contributions began within the first two hours after Beatts blogged about a potential means to save Borderlands. In just that time, Beatts said more than 70 people called in or emailed their support, and the next morning the store was taking calls for most of the day from people interested in becoming sponsors.
“Though it has slowed down quite a bit from this weekend,” Beatts said, “people are still getting in touch.”
The sponsorships include special benefits such as donor-only events, clothing and first access to limited-availability items. For a small fee, Beatts’ adjoining cafe will also be made available after hours for sponsors, he said.
 Honestly, I am not surprised.  Readers, as a group, are special people and they will always jump at the opportunity to save a favorite bookstore.  Particularly intriguing, is the fact that Borderlands now has sponsors in the Netherlands, the U.K., Canada, and Australia.  You just have to love it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Maya Angelou Forever Stamp to Be Issued

Angelou Stamp Issued by Ghana in 1997
Congratulations are in order for Maya Angelou on the announcement by the United States Postal Service that it will soon be issuing a postage stamp in the author's honor.  According to the L.A. Times, neither the date of the stamp's issuance or the image to be used on the stamp have been released at this time.

The article notes that Angelou passed away last year at age 86, and recounts the highlights of her varied career.  It also briefly mentions the traumatic experience that marred her childhood so badly that she was unable to speak for the next five years.

I think it is particularly fitting that an author of Angelou's stature and accomplishment is being honored with one of this country's "forever stamps," because she certainly earned her "forever place" in American literary history.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Missing Place

Until the recent drop in oil prices, the most exciting thing going on in the oil exploration business was the huge increase in production from places where, just a few years earlier, it had been too expensive even to drill.  But almost overnight, because of a perfect storm combining high oil prices and innovative drilling techniques, much of the state of North Dakota found itself experiencing something akin to the mid-nineteenth century California gold rush days.  Oil patch workers by the thousands moved to North Dakota.  The good news was that wages skyrocketed; jobs were so plentiful that oil companies were desperate to fill them; and some local landowners began to experience wealth beyond their wildest dreams.  The bad news was that that the cost of living in North Dakota also skyrocketed; prostitution increased dramatically; and drug trafficking became a major problem.  In some ways, it was the Wild West all over again.

This is the setting for Sophie Littlefield’s The Missing Place, a novel in which two young men from very different backgrounds come to North Dakota to get a piece of the action.  Both men are looking for alternatives to college, and they figure that the North Dakota oil patch offers the best chance for them to put some real money into their pockets.  And, right up until the day they both disappeared, that’s what happened.  Now their mothers have come to Lawton, North Dakota, to find their sons.

Until they meet in North Dakota, neither woman has any idea that the other exists.  One is a working class woman from California; the other the pampered wife of a prominent Boston attorney.  The only thing the women have in common is that their sons disappeared on the same day and have not been seen since.  It is soon obvious that the women will never be friends, but it is equally obvious to them that no one, neither the oil company employing their sons, nor the local police, is looking for their boys.  If they are to be found, their mothers will have to do it themselves - and it will take both women working together to get the job done.

Sophie Littlefield
Throw into the mix an oil company desperate to hide its high rate of injuries and deaths on the job, a police department that is not at all interested in investigating the disappearance of the men, and a local Indian tribe with an ax to grind of its own, and you have the makings of a nicely plotted crime thriller.  And that is exactly what the first eighty percent or so of The Missing Place is.  The problem with the book is that it does not end with its dramatic, tension-filled climax.  Instead, it continues on until all the personal conflicts between its characters have been resolved.  This effectively takes all the wind out of the book’s sails and it seems to crawl to its final destination.


I do recommend the book to those curious about what it is like to work outdoors in North Dakota in the dead of that state’s harsh winters.  The overall atmosphere of The Missing Place, when combined with the often thrilling search for two young men in way over their heads, makes for exciting reading.  I only wish the author had stopped while she was ahead.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dog-Sitting, Baseball, and Rude Drivers...Plus a Little Reading

I usually catch up a bit on my sleep on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but it didn't happen this weekend. I am so drowsy right now that I feel as if someone has drugged my Diet Coke. My wife, both daughters, and granddaughter have been in San Marcos since Friday morning because of the drill team competition that my granddaughter's high school team participated in there.  That left me and my youngest grandson home alone to babysit my daughter's dogs...meaning that I had to drive to her house every morning at seven to let them do their thing, and then return at five to feed them and let them run outside again.  I may never recover.

Yesterday also marked the beginning of the youth baseball leagues in the area, and this afternoon I drove out to watch my other grandson's team play in their first tournament of the season (they lost 11-6).  

Anyway, suddenly the whole weekend is shot, and it seems like all I did was make sure that my grandson and his dogs were fed and watered as needed.  

I did manage to get in a few hours of reading, even finishing one mediocre novel and making good progress on the nonfiction title I'm reading at the moment.  So, there's that.  And we did make a stop at a "Half-Price Books" bookstore in search of book 7 in a series my grandson is reading...no joy there.  But I stumbled upon another Library of America title I didn't have and snapped it up for $17.50 (half its cover price).  It's the complete collection of Dashiel Hammett novels, one of the LOA books I've been hoping to find for a while.  I have 75 Library of America titles now and love everything about them.

I'm hoping to start reading one of those longterm residents of my shelves tonight that I posted about a few days ago.  Depending on my mood later this evening, I'll probably grab either Vonnegut's Bluebeard or Tan's The Joy Luck Club.  It's a toss-up right now.

One last observation: Some people are stupid.  Some people are rude.  But the worst people are the ones who are both rude and stupid.  On the way home a few minutes ago, on a five-lane road (two lanes running each direction and one turning lane in the middle), a guy stayed behind me for almost two miles before suddenly gunning it, passing me, and immediately putting on his turn-indicator to turn right at the intersection fifty yards up the road.  Seriously, fool?  He saved approximately three-quarters of one second, burned a ton of gasoline for no reason, and caused me to have to slow down for nothing.  He is one of the rude, stupid people I refer to, above.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Short Story Saturday: How to Be a Writer

Lorrie Moore
I was listening to a book podcast the other night (one from the U.K., but I can't remember exactly which it was) where Lorrie Moore was being interviewed at some London event.  What immediately struck me was Moore's rather quirky sense of humor about herself, her characters, her books, and, well, just life in general.  Even the title of the 1994 book she was being specifically interviewed about was a bit weird: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?  I guarantee you that if I ran across that title on the spine of a book at a local bookstore, the odds are pretty high that I would pick it up for a closer look.

"How to Become a Writer" is one of Moore's earlier short stories, and it is included in the The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (2012) edited by Joyce Carol Oates.  According to Oates, Lorrie Moore is "the very Jane Austin of the ill-at-ease and the inept."  The story's narrator certainly fits the bill because she is one of the most socially inept characters I've run across in a while.

The seven-page story is a chronology of the events that combine in a perfect storm kind of way to transform one young lady into "a writer."  Not the least among these events is the computer glitch that places her in a creative writing class rather than in the bird-watching seminar she thinks she has registered for, a class she decides to keep only because she cannot face the long registration lines again.

As Ms. Oates says in the story intro, it is both funny and touching.  Well, for me, it is funny - and touching mainly in the sense that I always feel great sympathy for those trying to negotiate their way through life carrying only the most limited and basic social skills in their toolbox.  Our young narrator, however, is not completely lacking in self-awareness, as when she describes her desire to be a writer this way:

"...but you have a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit.  You have, as your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd."

Or this observation about herself:

"You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with one's genitals.  Don't dwell on this.  It will make you nervous."

I think I'm going to like Lorrie Moore.  
--------------------------------------------------------------------


I love this book more every week:

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Flight of the Phoenix: Two Movies, One Novel

I just finished watching the 1965 movie The Flight of the Phoenix, in the process breaking one of my most sacred rules when it comes to books vs. movies.  With rare exception, have I ever watched a movie before reading the novel upon which the film is based.  I broke that rule with this one.

Phoenix is the story of an old, beat-up airplane that crashes deep inside the Sahara Desert with an assortment of 14 passengers aboard.  The passengers are mostly oil field personnel, but there are a handful of others aboard, including some military personnel, and one man who has come to the desert simply to visit his oil-worker brother.  

As their water begins to run out, the survivors have two choices: they can sit around in the shade of the wreckage and wait to die from dehydration, or they can try to build a smaller plane from the remains of the larger one they crash-landed in.  They go for it.


The movie is wonderfully cast with a rather grizzled looking Jimmy Stewart in the roll of the pilot, supported by an ensemble cast of Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Kruger, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand, George Kennedy, and Dan Duryea.  This was one of the shortest two-hour movies I have watched in a long time - never once was I tempted to check the clock to see how much time was left.


Cover of the 2004 Re-release
The movie is based on a 1964 novel of the same name that has probably reached the "forgotten novel" stage by now.  I don't think its even in print anymore, but I'm going to grab a used copy somewhere if that turns out to be the case.  It was written by Trevor Dudley Smith under the pen name Elleston Trevor, and I'm guessing that it was popular enough in its day that I should be able to find a copy someplace fairly easily.

Bonus bit of movie trivia for you:  

A test pilot was killed simulating take-off the the "rebuilt" airplane and the plane was destroyed in the crash.  A completely different airplane was borrowed and used in all the close-ups that still had to be shot after the tragic accident.  

The 1965 movie was successful and popular.  It was re-made in 2004 in a version starring Dennis Quaid that did not fare nearly so well.

Trailer for the 1965 movie:




Trailer for the 2004 movie (in which glaring changes to the 1965 film were made).  It's easy to see why it flopped in comparison to the original film.




Footage of the terrible crash that killed stuntman Paul Mantz who was simulating takeoff of the reconstructed airplane. Right up to the actual crash, this footage was used in the 1965 move (in color).

Someone Is Trying to Save Boston from "Awful" Books

Is this a rare picture of "noluckboston"?
Just in the nick of time, I learned a well-kept secret this morning: February is "Library Lover's Month."  Well, who knew?

Well, apparently, someone in Boston knew all about it and has stepped up his/her efforts to point out just how many "awful" library books are on the shelves of the Boston Public Library.  

According to the folks at Boston.com:
A user who goes by the name “noluckboston,” has used BiblioCommons to tag 74 books in the Boston Public Library system as “awful library book.” The tag “awful library book” is featured amongst some more typical categories to classify books, such as “suspense,” “romance,” and “fiction,” in the site’s “recent tags” box. 
Noluckboston, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, isn’t using his or her own judgment to be the arbiter of taste for the Boston Public Library’s collection. Instead, he’s tagging books based off the “Awful Library Books” blog, which two public librarians in Michigan have been running since 2009.

There's a good bit more to this story, so do click the link I've included (above), but there's a lot to love in just these two clipped paragraphs.  

Is "noluckboston" a good guy or a bad guy...a superhero or a library terrorist?  Heck, I love "noluck" simply because it's nice to see someone care so much about their public library that they take the time to do something like this.

And then there's the bonus link to a site called "Awful Library Books" that I didn't know about.  That one sounds like fun and I'll be heading over to take a look at it later this morning.