Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

Despite having previously read Isabel Allende’s memoirs, The Japanese Lover is my first experience with her fiction.  I knew that Allende often uses “magical realism” in her novels, and because of my hit and miss reaction to that literary device in the past, I was reluctant to give her fiction much of a chance.  Admittedly, The Japanese Lover contains no elements of magical realism, but it so impressed me with the author’s story-telling talent that I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

The Japanese Lover is Alma Belasco’s story.  Because of her parents’ desire to keep her safe, Alma moved in 1939 to San Francisco to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle just as Poland was on the verge of being overrun by Nazi Germany.  There the little girl met Ichimei Fukuda, son of the family’s Japanese gardener, and the children almost immediately formed a bond that would tightly link them together for the rest of their lives.  Alma and Ichimei spent as much time together as possible until war again intervened in Alma’s life when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Suddenly Ichimei and his father disappeared, and except for a few highly censored letters from Ichimei, Alma lost touch with her best friend.

Wars do end, of course, and the survivors try to begin their lives anew.  Alma and Ichimei would find their lives intersecting again and again over the next several decades but their love, passionate as it was, was forced to live in the shadows.  Interracial love affairs, much less interracial marriages, were taboo in the culture in which they lived, and that taboo was not likely to change in time to do the lovers any good. 

Author Isabel Allende
As The Japanese Lover begins, Alma is living in an extended care facility designed for those approaching the ends of their lives.  No one, including her grandson Seth, knows her whole story – and she has no intention of sharing it with anyone.  But that changes when Irina Bazili, a young woman hired to assist the elderly with their daily routines, comes into Alma’s life.  Irina has a past of her own, one so traumatic that she is finding it impossible to deal with it successfully.  And when the two women realize just how much they have in common, they reluctantly begin to share their secrets.

The Japanese Lover alternates flashbacks and the present to tell the story of these two women, one of them old and approaching the end of her life, the other young and trying to deal with the long life she still has ahead of her.  In Alma, Ichimei, and Irina, the author has created three fully-fleshed characters, characters whose lives and experiences the reader will remember for a long time.  I plan now to explore Allende’s earlier fiction to see what I’ve been missing all these years.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Annapolis Library Springs 38 Leaks After Snow Removal

Annapolis Regional Library on a Better Day
From the "stuff happens" news category, comes the report that Annapolis Regional Library has been forced to close its doors for at least one week - perhaps more - after the crew removing snow from the roof managed to create at least 38 leaks that demand immediate attention.

The Capital Gazette provides details:

"It appears the leaks came from the 30 inches of snow on that flat roof and people trying to remove it caused more than a dozen leaks, and it got worse," said library system spokeswoman Christine Feldman.
The library has been closed since Saturday "for the comfort and safety of our staff and patrons," Feldman said.
As the leaks appeared last Friday, staff members quickly gathered trash cans to catch everything from drips to downpours.

The building was erected in 1965 and is due to be torn down next year as a new library is constructed. Today's analysis should be able to determine when patches on the roof can be installed.
"We are not going to be looking to replace the entire roof of a building that is going to be torn down in a year," Feldman said.
The best hope is for an adequate patching job to get through the next year.
"We just want to determine what we can do to get through that time in a safe and healthy environment for our staff and customers.

Please do click on the original link shown above for more detail and pictures recently taken inside and outside the library.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

College Students Not Crazy About E-Textbooks

I remember about a year ago reading (and posting) about the news that e-book sales were no longer increasing on a year-to-year basis.  At that time, such sales, while not actually in decline, seemed to have reached plateau levels. Well, this year the news is that every single one of the major e-book publishers had slight declines in e-book sales when the numbers are compared to the previous year. None of the drops are significant in terms of percentage sale, but it is striking that the decline happened straight across the board to all of them without exception.

Today I ran across this article from the Los Angeles Times about a claim that fully 92% of college students prefer printed books to e-books.  That surprises me a little considering the exorbitant amount charged these days for college texts because, for the most part, e-book versions of college texts are considerably cheaper than their printed versions.  But I know from experience that printed books work much better than e-books when it comes to detailed study, highlighting, page-marking, and the like, so the survey makes sense.
The finding comes from American University linguistics professor Naomi S. Baron, author of the book "Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World." Baron led a team that asked 300 college students in the United States, Slovakia, Japan and Germany how they preferred to read.
Physical books were the choice of 92% of the respondents, who selected paper over an array of electronic devices.
Interestingly, this L.A. Times article is based on a book called Words Onscreen that I reviewed way back on January 20, 2015, so the claim is not a new one.

Here is my review of that book. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

The Travelers

Travel writer Will Rhodes, for all his sophistication in the ways of the world, is really a pretty clueless guy when we first meet him in Chris Pavone’s The Travelers.  Will spends many of his days sampling the finest wines and tourist resorts the world has to offer those who can afford the best.  All he has to do in return is turn his experiences into articles that his travel-magazine employer can use.  Simple enough, but one night in Argentina, after a little too much of the wine, Will finds himself in bed with a beautiful woman he could not resist despite his love for his wife of just four years.  Life is all about choices, Will Rhodes, and that was a very bad one.

Because he so greatly fears what might happen to his marriage if his secret is exposed to his wife, Will is easily forced into the world of international espionage, a world he hardly imagined even existed before his ill-fated encounter with the woman calling herself Elle.  But dangerous as the new job might turn out to be, Will tells himself that it is a win-win decision because now his wife will never learn of his sexual encounter with Elle, and at least he is working for the good guys (he hopes). 

Author Chris Pavone
Chris Pavone’s intricate and complicated plot is largely narrated through the eyes of Will Rhodes, a man who at first appears to be in way over his head.  But, as time will prove, Will is not just some dummy with social connections around the world.  Piece by piece, layer by layer, Will begins to make sense of what is happening around him, but what he uncovers often leaves him more confused than before.  It is only when he has gathered enough pieces that Will begins to understand just what a huge mess he has gotten himself into, a mess as likely to end his life as it is to end his marriage.

What makes The Travelers so much fun for (patient) readers is that they seldom know a whole lot more about why things are happening than Will Rhodes knows.  By the time  it all starts to make sense to him, readers are wholly invested in Will’s well being, and are as prepared for the thriller’s rousing climax as they hope Will Rhodes will be.  As Will himself put it, “…all of us (are) travelers, all on our way to someplace else.” 

It’s just that sometimes we don’t know where that “someplace else” is until it’s too late.

(Review Copy provided by publisher)

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Austin Bookstore Offers 10% Discount to Shoppers Legally Packing Guns on Their Hips

That's Brave New Books just below the "1904" sign. Note there's a bank right next door.

It seems there is a bookstore (click on picture for larger view) in Austin, Texas, that is offering a 10% discount on purchases made by customers who are "open carrying" a gun while doing their bookish shopping. That is more amazing than you think...oh, not so much that it happened...but that it happened in Austin of all Texas cities. For those who don't know Texas very well, let's just say that when I visit Austin I sometimes wonder if San Francisco has been transported to Texas and laid atop Austin.  

News come from The Guardian that Brave New Books manager John Bush says:
 “We appreciate it when people take security and defence into their own hands. In a world where mass shootings are happening more and more, when seconds count, it’s up to we the people to protect our community.”
While I personally don't have a huge problem with the open carrying of weapons in public places, I have to agree with the publisher representative quoted in the article as saying that the decision is less a "political statement" than it is a "marketing stunt that preaches to the converted."  

The folks at my favorite Houston bookstore, Brazos Bookstore, had this to say about their Austin rival:
Jeremy Ellis from Houston bookshop Brazos Bookstore told Melville House that he had taken the decision to post signs restricting open carrying on 1 January. “I have always believed that bookstores are forums for all ideas, but I also understand that the free exchange of those ideas can be hindered (if not entirely obstructed) when one party in the conversation holds a deadly weapon,” said Ellis. “I would rather regulate the guns than the conversation, so we respectfully request that all our patrons leave their firearms at home or in their cars while shopping with us.”

You never know what's going to happen next do you?  Even in bookstores.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Most Popular Library Books in the U.K.

Richmond Library (building on the left) - My home library in England for several years

Interestingly, it appears that readers in the U.K. enjoy reading novels about crime in the U.S. as much as readers in this country enjoy reading novels about crime in the U.K.  At least that's an easy conclusion to reach from data supplied by Public Lending Right on the "100 most borrowed books in U.K. libraries in 2014/2015." 

 The two most borrowed books on the list are both crime fiction novels by Lee Child, and the writing robot that calls himself James Patterson has ten books of the 100 listed.  But here's something interesting:
The really big story, though, is to be found elsewhere in the data. Four authors this year registered more than a million loans; and three of them write for children. Coming in behind Patterson were Julia Donaldson of The Gruffalo fame; Daisy Meadows, the pseudonym for the various writers who contribute to the Rainbow Magic series; and Francesca Simon, the creator of Horrid Henry. Jacqueline Wilson, ever a PLR favourite, comes in at eight. An even more telling indication of just how comprehensively children’s writers have dominated last year’s borrowing figures, though, is provided by the list of authors with the most books in the Top 100. Patterson – inevitably – tops this ranking as well, with 10; but directly behind him are Jeff Kinney, creator of the Wimpy Kid Diaries, with seven; David Walliams, with five; and Liz Pichon, the illustrator and author of the Tom Gates books, with four. By comparison, Child, John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbø all come limping in with a mere three.
I suspect that a list constructed for U.S. libraries would look much the same...and I'll be keeping an eye out for one.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Movies for Readers: Bosch

This week's Movies for Readers is actually a 10-episode series based on Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels.  Unfortunately, it is available only to Amazon Prime customers (at least for now) but since more and more people are using Prime, that's a whole lot of people.  This first season took inspiration from three of Connelly's novels: Echo Park, City of Bones, and The Concrete Blond.  I am happy to say that Titus Welliver, who plays Harry Bosch in the series, nails the Bosch character as I saw him in my mind from the books.

But the best news of all is that Season 2, based on Connelly's Trunk Music, The Drop, and The Last Coyote will be available for binge-viewing on Amazon Prime beginning on March 11, 2016.  

Movies for Readers No. 16

Thursday, February 04, 2016

El Camino Del Rio

I am one of those native Texans, and there are a whole lot of us, who have never been down to South Texas, that part of the state that the uninitiated traveler suspects is as Mexican as it is American.  We hear all the stories, especially post-9-11, about the open border down there but it doesn’t always seem real to us.  Jim Sanderson’s El Camino Del Rio, which was actually written well before the 9-11 murders, paints a vivid picture of life in a small Texas border town.  That world, as Sanderson depicts it, was already a complicated one for law enforcement officers on both sides of the border.  One can only imagine what it must be like today.

Dolph Martinez, a Border Patrol officer in Presidio, Texas, spends his life caught in the middle.  Despite his striking Hispanic physical appearance, Martinez, known as “Pretty Boy” to many of the locals, is only half Mexican (born to a Mexican idler and the daughter of a prominent South Texas rancher).  Dolph has always chosen the path of least resistance in his life.   The path to Presidio started for Dolph right out of high school when he turned down a scholarship to Rice University in favor of joining the military because, as one thing always leads to another, that’s where he finds himself now – in charge of a Border Patrol office assigned the impossible task of stopping the flow of illegals into Texas and guns into Mexico.

This time around, though, it’s going to take more than just bringing a few Mexicans back to the border bridge and watching them cross back into Mexico.  Dolph and his people are finding dead bodies on the Texas side of the border, and the men responsible for the murders are on the Mexican side of the line.  Dolph knows that he is going to need to work both sides if he is to stop the killing before anyone else dies – and he knows just how to do that.  What he doesn’t foresee is how many of his friends and co-workers are going to become casualties of one type or another before this one is over.

Author Jim Sanderson
El Camino Del Rio is a highly atmospheric snapshot of what the border was like when illegal drugs and guns crossing the border was still the biggest problem that South Texas law officials encountered.  Sanderson’s colorful characters are all trying to make the best of the hybrid world they live in by picking and choosing the best on offer from both sides.  However, the familiarity they have with how things are done in Mexico is a double-edged sword, one that most certainly cuts both ways.  Dolph Martinez is good at what he does, but he has his hands full with the rogue do-gooder nun offering safe haven to as many illegals as she can round up, the friend who is determined to construct a “hot springs” tourist attraction in one of the hottest locations in the United States, and the tall blonde who catches his eye when he can least afford it.

This one is fun…and I’ll be darned if it doesn’t make me want to drive all the way down to Presidio to take an outsider’s look at that world for myself.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Do Annual Reading Plans Ever Make It Through a Whole Year?

I don't know what it is about starting a new year, but I always seem to bite off more than I can chew when it comes to stacking up books for later reading.  Maybe it's all those "Best Of" and "Watch For" lists that show up everywhere in December and January that cause it.  Whatever it is, it's happening again.

I read thirteen books in January and I'm deep into four others at the moment, so you would think that I'd be scurrying around in search of a book or two for February right now.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Instead, I have a formal TBR list of twelve books, new ones and old ones, some of which I had never even heard of just a few days ago:

  • The Crossing - Michael Connelly
  • A Banquet of Consequences - Elizabeth George
  • The Year of the Flood -Margaret Atwood
  • Evil Eye - Joyce Carol Oates
  • Ripper - Isabel Allende
  • A Darker Domain - Val McDermid
  • The Bazaar of Bad Dreams - Stephen King
  • The Bridge - Robert Knott
  • The Black Box  - Michael Connelly
  • Lit Up - David Denby
  • There Will Be Stars - Billy Coffey
  • The Skeleton Road - Val McDermid
I look forward to reading every single one of the books on the list, but the list is still not right...only one nonfiction book in the lot, and that's my review copy of Lit Up.  So what's the solution?  You guessed it: time to go on a search for five or six more nonfiction titles to add to all this fiction. 

Throw in the "dedicated author" reading I plan to do every year - last year, for instance, I read six of Steinbeck's novels - and that further complicates the "problem."  This year my dedicated author is Philip Roth and I'm currently reading The Ghost Writer, the first of Roth's four Zuckerman novels.  I know that my reading pace will slow way down as soon as the weather changes for the better (and baseball season begins) so I wonder sometimes why I get so excited every January...just another book nerd problem, I suppose.

Heck, maybe this is all just my unconscious version of a New Year's resolution.

EDIT:  Can't believe I forgot to mention the 10 books I have on hold at my library branch right now.  With my luck, all ten will suddenly show up during the same week or two.  

Monday, February 01, 2016

Where My Heart Used to Beat

I have long considered Sebastian Faulks to be the go-to author when it comes to fiction delving into the mindset of soldiers faced with the trench warfare experience of World Wars I and II.  His most successful, and I think his most compelling, books, The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong, and Charlotte Gray, have all focused on the war experience of soldiers and civilians.

Where My Heart Used to Beat does cover more of that ground, but does it from the perspective of a World War II veteran looking backward from present day 1980.  Via this look-back, Faulks shows precisely the war’s effect on the book’s main character, Robert Hendricks, a man very much shaped by his war experiences – whether or not he wants to admit it to himself.  Now a successful London psychiatrist with a respected book in the field to his credit, Hendricks lives a solitary life on his own.  He is a man with few friends, none of them close, who seldom thinks about his past.

That all changes – rather drastically – when Hendricks receives a letter from a tiny island off the coast of France from Dr. Alexander Pereira, an elderly neurologist who commanded Hendricks’s father in the trenches of World War I.  Hendricks reluctantly agrees to visit the old man in his island home in order to hear what the retired doctor can tell him about his father, who never came home from that war.  But as it turns out, Dr. Pereira has much more than that in mind.  Through long, detailed conversations between the men, in which Dr. Pereira often assumes the role of therapist and Hendricks the role of patient, we learn of Hendricks’s wartime experiences and how they so uncannily parallel those of his father’s one generation earlier.  

Author Sebastian Faulks
Much of Where My Heart Used to Beat takes place in present day 1980 where the reader witnesses the rather aimless existence of Robert Hendricks, now in his mid-sixties and near the end of his professional career.  The ordinariness and somberness of Hendricks’s lifestyle in the present pale in comparison to what he experienced as a young man, making his accounts of the war to Dr. Pereira even more compelling than they would have otherwise been.  This is very much a book about warfare and its effect on those who survive it.

Where My Heart Used to Beat is full of characters – perhaps too many characters, because even some of the most interesting of them seem to disappear almost as soon as they pass through Hendricks’s world.  Faulks seems to be reminding the reader that such is life, that people come and go at such a pace that even the interesting ones manage to escape us rather easily.  In contrast, the book’s three main characters (Hendricks, Pereira, and the young Italian woman Hendricks meets during the war) will leave readers with much to ponder long after the novel has been read.  Where My Heart Used to Beat is a complicated, introspective novel that will enhance Faulk’s already solid reputation as one of the finest historical fiction writers of his generation.