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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Even the Giant Booksellers Are Struggling to Show a Profit

Book lovers like us are already aware of the way that independent bookstores are struggling for survival these days and that Barnes and Noble and Borders are often blamed for squeezing the life out of the independents. But how many of us realize that the two giant booksellers are themselves finding it difficult to turn a profit? Or that they feel squeezed by Amazon.com? According to Forbes, Borders is still losing money and Barnes and Noble has pretty much conceded the online book sales market to Amazon.
Books sales are flat, discount super-centers like Wal-Mart have gobbled up half the best sellers and no one touches Amazon online. So where does that leave Barnes & Noble and Borders?

Possibly in no-man's land, particularly in Borders' case.
...
And despite recent rumblings, don't look for the two chains to turn to a merger as a way to shake themselves out of the doldrums. A combined company would invite serious antitrust scrutiny, according to Jefferies & Co. analyst Donald Trott, since the only other serious hardcover player is Amazon.
...
Overall U.S. book sales, which include school textbooks, have averaged 4.4% growth annually since 2002, according to the American Association of Publishers. But book club orders and mass market paperbacks are down. Adult hardback books, meanwhile, are off 1.5% since 1997, a sign of the increasing amount of people's leisure time eaten up by the Web, DVDs and the proliferation of television channels.

Barnes & Noble's decision to shut down the warehouse it uses exclusively for its Internet business is a telling sign that the company has effectively given up hope of matching Amazon's book-selling volume over the Internet. Amazon doesn't officially disclose the percentage of its $10.7 billion in annual sales that it derives from books. But industry followers estimate the number at 50%, or over $5 billion. That's about 10 times Barnes & Noble's online book sales, which stood at $459 million a year ago, according to the company's 2005 annual report.
And the news is even worse for Borders because, as Forbes reported yesterday, the super chain lost almost $36 million during the first quarter of 2007.
In fact, one serious problem plaguing Borders is that customers increasingly choose to purchase their books online. Amazon.com had traditionally handled Borders' online business, leaving Borders with just a commission while Amazon hoarded most of the generated revenue.

But now that's changed. In March, Borders announced it would launch its own Web site as part of a broader strategy to improve business.
So it appears that both chains concede the fact that their business decisions are now being driven by what happens at Amazon.com. It's interesting, though, that while Barnes and Noble is cutting back on its investment in the online business, Borders is expanding its own efforts. No one could have imagined a decade ago when the big fish in the business like Borders and Barnes and Noble were gobbling up all the little fish that a killer whale like Amazon would come along to chase the big fish around the book selling ocean. As a book lover, and one who spends way too much money on books (according to my wife, at least), I find all of this interesting and I wonder what the book market will look like ten or twenty years from now.

Should we care? Should we, the consumers, be worried about this trend? My main concern, personally, is that the book market will become very much like today's music industry which makes it difficult for the consumer to find and purchase anything other than the same old homogenized product that is offered at every music retailer. Will bookstores of the future sell much more than an expanded best seller list? I can't believe that a merger of Barnes and Noble and Borders would be good thing. I want more bookstore diversity, not less.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Camel Bookmobile

Masha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile was inspired by the real Camel Library that is headquartered in Garissa, Kenya, and which uses camels to carry books to and from readers who live in the remote areas of that country. To her credit, Hamilton did not allow herself to be blinded by the inspirational aspects of bringing books and ideas to readers who had never been exposed to all that books have to offer to those who are willing to turn their pages. Her story also looks at the potentially destructive effects that books, and what they contain, can have on tribal customs and the very way of life that has sustained the tribes for thousands of years.

Fiona Sweeney, a work-frustrated 36-year old American librarian, is thrilled when she is hired to help run the camel bookmobile in northeastern Kenya because it seems like the perfect job for her at this point in her life. Her mission, as she sees it, is to "bring Dr. Seuss, Homer, Tom Sawyer and Hemingway" to a world of new readers who will be inspired to change their own lives for the better after reading the masters. The problem is that Fiona Sweeney, like most of us who have ever traveled to, or worked in, different cultures, is so burdened by the values of Western culture that it is impossible for her to understand the people she is trying to help or the problems that her efforts are causing for those people.

The remote village of Mididima soon becomes Fiona's favorite camel bookmobile stop because of the enthusiasm shown by the village children and its schoolteacher. There she also befriends a bright young woman who longs to teach in the big city and the girl's grandmother, an independent elder who comes to support her granddaughter's ambitions. But blinded by her good intentions, Fiona is never fully aware of the hostility that her presence has created among the village elders who see her influence on the thinking of the village young people as a threat to their way of life.

In order to survive and to complete its mission of visiting as many villages as possible, the camel bookmobile service has to protect its limited number of books. For that reason, its African director has a firm rule that if a village fails to return all of the books loaned to it, the bookmobile will stop coming to that village. It is when one young man refuses to return two books that the entire village of Mididima is thrown into a social turmoil that forever changes the lives of its people and Fiona Sweeney.

Has Fiona Sweeney done the village any favors by exposing them to a world of new ideas and cultures? Has she improved their future prospects or has she inadvertently destroyed the fabric that has held the village together and ensured its survival for generations? Or is the truth somewhere between the two extremes? The Camel Bookmobile is a reminder that Western culture is not necessarily what the rest of the world needs or wants, a lesson that even those with the best intentions need to consider before trying to impose it on others.

Rated at: 3.0

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Freakonomics

With Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and NY Times writer Stephen Dubner have accomplished something that I have long thought impossible: writing a book based on economics that is fun to read. But, of course, that may be because the book is relatively light on economic theory and could be more properly called a sociology book except for the authors' main point that life revolves around "self-interest."

Most of us, if we wonder at all about the trends and behavior that we see around us, rely on "conventional wisdom" to explain why things happen as they do. Levitt points out that, not too shockingly, conventional wisdom is often wrong and that it should always be questioned before being accepted as fact. Along the way he provides the data to back up and prove his case concerning several interesting questions about which he believes that conventional wisdom has drawn the wrong conclusions. Some of Levitt's assertions are not politically correct ones to speak out loud and his work has been criticized by some readers more for the very conclusions he's reached than for any lack of evidence with which he builds his case.

For instance, conventional wisdom tells us that the huge drop in the violent crime rate that we witnessed in the nineties was the result of many big city mayors placing more and more policemen on the streets, policemen who were armed with a "zero tolerance" policy and with other new and innovative crime fighting techniques. Not so, says Steven Levitt. He believes that there is one reason, and only one, that the crime rate dropped as it did: Roe vs. Wade. Simply put, the legalization of abortion guaranteed that huge numbers of unwanted children were not born in the seventies and eighties, the very children who were most likely to grow into the violent criminals of the nineties and beyond. Fewer criminals on the streets, according to Levitt, translated into a lower violent crime rate.

How much do parents really matter when it comes to raising children who will do well in school? Is it important to surround a young child with books, to read to that child every night, to limit his television time and spend his summers bringing him to museums and zoos? If you're like me, you will likely say that all of those things help create a good student, a child that will grow into a productive adult with a good future. If you're Steven Levitt, on the other hand, you will say that none of those things have anything much to do with the kind of grades that your child can be expected to earn in school. Levitt argues that there are only two types of parental attributes: things that parents ARE and things that parents DO. Parents are either bright or they are not, and they come from families that have passed on the same genes to them that they are passing on to their own children. It is that basic genetically provided ability that determines the school marks that a child will receive. What these parents ARE, smart or not smart, is the determinate factor. What they DO by supplying books and an atmosphere that encourages good learning habits is not nearly as important to the children. Levitt, in fact, argues that books, museum trips, etc., are just outward indicators that the parents are bright and that they enjoy learning themselves, not tools that can turn an average child into a brainy one.

Freakonomics also has entertaining chapters based on questions that tend to make the reader pay attention to the details that provide the answers. What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? Which is more dangerous, a swimming pool or a gun? What do real estate agents and the Klan have in common?

If those questions make you curious, Freakonomics is worth your time. I'm still mulling over some of the answers provided by Levitt, not sure that I agree with all of them, but his conclusions have definitely made me think and look at the world from a different point-of-view than the one I had before reading the book. I've always been more a cynic than not, so it was fun for me to find a book that so cleverly and effectively debunks "conventional wisdom."

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, May 28, 2007

Book Burning in Kansas City

I have to admit to some mixed emotions when it comes to what Kansas City bookstore owner Tom Wayne (Prospero's Books) has done to bring attention to what he sees as the declining respect for books in this country. On the one hand, his book bonfire has caused a bit of public awareness of the situation. But, on the other hand, Mr. Wayne has rather shamelessly sacrificed some books to the flame in what he calls a "good excuse for fun." Now, the little cynic voice inside my head tells me that Wayne carefully selected the books to be burned and that most of them were probably junk to begin with, but I still cringe at the image of so many books being burned.
"This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

The fire blazed for about 50 minutes before the Kansas City Fire Department put it out because Wayne didn’t have a permit for burning.

Wayne said next time he will get a permit. He said he envisions monthly bonfires until his supply _ estimated at 20,000 books _ is exhausted.

"After slogging through the tens of thousands of books we’ve slogged through, and to accumulate that many and to have people turn you away when you take them somewhere, it’s just kind of a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "And it’s a good excuse for fun."
...
The idea of burning the books horrified Marcia Trayford, who paid $20 Sunday to carry away an armload of tomes on art, education and music.

"I’ve been trying to adopt as many books as I could," she said.

Dozens of other people took advantage of the book-burning, searching through the books waiting to go into the flames for last-minute bargains.

Mike Bechtel paid $10 for a stack of books, including an antique collection of children’s literature, which he said he’d save for his 4-year-old son.

"I think, given the fact it is a protest of people not reading books, it’s the best way to do it," Bechtel said. "(Wayne has) made the point that not reading a book is as good as burning it."
I'm wondering if Mr. Wayne would let me fill a U-Haul truck with free books if I showed up at his warehouse one day. That little voice is telling me "no way...not gonna happen."

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Great Expectations

Each time that I read Great Expectations I'm left wondering whether or not Pip would have been happier if he had never been made the gift of "great expectations." More importantly, would he have been a better man if he had remained apprenticed to his blacksmith brother-in-law Joe rather than having been sent to London to be trained in the ways of a gentleman?

Great Expectations is a Dickens cautionary tale in which the author warns his readers of what can so easily happen to a person when given the opportunity to "better himself" by leaving his home, family and friends behind for education and fortune-seeking in the big city. As soon as word reached the local townspeople around whom Pip had spent his early years that a fortune was soon to be his, Pip found himself treated with respect and awe by the very people who had had little time for him in the past other than to chastise his behavior and relationship with the sister who was raising him "by hand." Their "boy" became "sir" overnight it seemed.

But sadly, after arriving in London and seeking to impress his new friends and colleagues, Pip decided that those who loved him most were an embarrassment to his future prospects and he only occasionally felt any guilt about his lack of contact with them. It is only when Pip's future prospects shockingly take a turn for the worse that he seeks the comfort of the family that he left behind.

Along the way, Dickens fills Great Expectations with some of the most memorable characters in British literature history. There are Miss Havisham, the spinster who never recovered from being jilted at the altar; Joe, the blacksmith and Pip's brother-in-law who never stopped loving Pip as a son no matter how much Pip neglected him over the years; Estella, the beautiful young woman whom Pip has loved since they were small children but who has been raised by Miss Havisham to give her heart to no man; Herbert, Pip's best London friend, a truly good man who both benefits from Pip's help and who eventually offers Pip a new future of his own; and, of course, Magwitch, the colorful escaped criminal whom Pip meets in the first pages of the book.

This is one of those books that I read every few years because re-reading it is like visiting an old friend after too long an absence. As the old memories come back, it's like I've never been away.

Rated at: 5.0

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Happy 100th Birthday, John Wayne


John Wayne was born on May 26, 1907 and on this, his 100th birthday, Scott Eyman has come up with "100 reasons to Love John Wayne."

Here are the first ten; click the link for ninety other equally wonderful reasons to love the man.
1. Because he loved the movie business.

2. That walk.

3. "You may not like every film, but my fans will always come back because they know I won't be mean, I won't be small, and like an old friend, I won't let them down."

4. Because nobody else started out as such a bad actor and got so good.

5. Because he embodied American masculinity at midcentury and imposed an image on our idea of masculinity's past.

6. "A man ought to do what he thinks is right" (Hondo).

7. For the gentle way he could treat a fragile woman.

8. For the rump-slapping way he could treat a strong woman.

9. Hondo.

10. Because of his work ethic — in an acting career that spanned nearly 50 years, he starred in, by actual count, 156 movies.
Just seeing the man's picture reminds me of how much I enjoyed him over the years...and how much I miss him. It's hard to believe that the man would be 100 years old today.

The Dramatist

Jack Taylor is a man defined by his vices and weaknesses. Essentially, he is a man whose life has been largely consumed by an abuse of alcohol, pills, cocaine and nicotine. Taylor does nothing half way and his weaknesses have ensured that his personal life is a wreck; he runs women off at a steady pace and his closest friends are the two octogenarian women who run the failing hotel at which he's taken up permanent residence. But, hey, things are looking up for Jack. He's been off the dope and booze for a few weeks and he's even thinking about giving up cigarettes - all because his dealer has been given a six year prison sentence and Jack doesn't have the energy to locate a new supplier.

It is when Jack's dealer summons him to the prison to ask for help in finding out why and how his sister was killed that Jack reluctantly resumes his non-paying work as a private detective. The Dramatist is Ken Bruen's fourth Jack Taylor novel, and this time around, Bruen offers a more elaborate and detailed plot than in the previous three. Even so, Taylor's reluctance to get involved in the investigation of what he soon realizes was a murder and not an accidental death allows the author to detail Jack's daily struggles to remain sober and to rebuild the personal life that drugs and booze have taken from him.

This is the heart of the book and, along the way, Jack watches his mother's steady deterioration, is confronted by an old lover while struggling to maintain a new relationship, is challenged by one of his few friends to confront a group of vigilantes and is threatened by a deranged killer. Ultimately, the murder investigation is brought to a successful climax but that was not the most intriguing part of the book for me as a reader and, in fact, the killer's identity came as no great surprise. Rather, I found myself fascinated by the train wreck that is Jack Taylor's life. I rooted for him as he managed to stay off the booze after each personal crisis confronted him but I didn't really expect him to manage it. His personal history filled me with skepticism that his abstinence would last despite the fact that he continued to surprise his friends and even himself by remaining stone cold sober no matter what life tossed at him next.

But be warned: even my skepticism did not prepare me for the ending of this book. I was stunned at its suddenness and power. The Dramatist is the first Ken Bruen novel that I've read without thinking about, and admiring, the author's style more than the novel's plot. Jack Taylor fans will consider this one to be a classic.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, May 25, 2007

In Cold Blood

While wandering the internet this morning I found video clips taken by someone who visited Holcomb, Kansas, the scene of the infamous Clutter family murders that were the basis for Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Both the book and the film that was later made from the book have fascinated and horrified me from the beginning. I remember passing through that part of Kansas as a kid with my parents on a vacation trip from Texas to California and trying to convince them to drive through Holcomb to see the Clutter home. It must have seemed a strange request to my parents (both of whom were non-readers) because they had never heard of Capote's book despite me having carried it around the house for days while I was totally immersed in that tragedy. Needless to say, we didn't take the side trip that I requested.

I find it kind of eerie to see that all these years later I could make that visit to Holcomb and still get such a sense of what it must have been like at the time of the murders. I'm assuming that these scenes were shot recently since the video was only posted to YouTube on January 31 of this year. If anyone from Holcomb or Garden City knows differently, please let me know.

Warning: toward the end of this video clip there are some explicit crime scene photos that show the murder victims. If this kind of thing bothers you, please don't click on "play."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Flight of the Conchords

This is not quite book-related but it is the quirky kind of humor and music that makes me laugh, and that's a good thing. HBO is set to premier a new weekly series on June 17 and has placed the entire first episode of the show on its website where it can be viewed at your leisure. I watched it this afternoon and now I'm really looking forward to seeing future episodes.


It's called Flight of the Conchords and involves two misplaced guys from New Zealand and their efforts to make a living as a folk band.

If you're curious, just click on the link to spend about 30 minutes with this strange pair. The picture I've posted is a little misleading because this first episode, at least, is more a musical situational comedy than anything else. The guys do not appear on stage.

Mistress of the Art of Death

Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, set in 12th century England, is a historical novel that reads more like a modern day thriller centering on the frantic search for a serial killer who has taken the lives of four young Cambridge children. When rumors about the initial murder implicate the local Jewish population, King Henry II is forced to take them under his protection in order to prevent them being slaughtered by his revenge seeking Catholic subjects. King Henry's Jews provide him with much of his tax revenue based on the profits of their money lending activities and it is the choking off of that revenue stream that causes him ultimately to seek the help of his cousin, the King of Sicily.

King Henry II requests that an investigative team be sent to Cambridge to prove that the crimes were not part of any perverse Jewish ritual involving the crucifixion of children and the draining of their blood. 12th century Salerno was home to one of the best medical schools in the world and the King of Sicily was able to send King Henry both the excellent investigator and the "master of the art of death," the earliest known form of medical examiner, whom he requested. But instead of sending his cousin a "master" of the art of death, the King of Sicily sent something even better, a "mistress" of the art of death, one Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar who may be the finest medical examiner ever produced by the Salerno school.

Adelia soon realizes that 12th century England is a more primitive and superstitious place than the one she left behind. But working with Simon, the investigator with whom she has been paired, Adelia manages to produce a short list of suspects despite the limitations placed upon her own investigative activities because of her sex. Unfortunately for Adelia and Simon, the danger to their own lives grows in proportion to the progress they make in their efforts to name the sexually depraved killer who has preyed on the children of Cambridge for more than a year.

In Mistress of Death, Ariana Franklin has combined the best traits of historical fiction with the attributes of a modern day thriller and it works beautifully. She fills the book with the historical details and background of everyday life that make the reader of good historical fiction feel like a time traveler. But, at the same time, she is slowly and steadily building the tension of her story to the point that the reader finds himself rapidly turning page after page in anticipation of the ultimate revelation. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, mysteries or thrillers. And, if you're like me and enjoy all three of those genres, you will have hit the jackpot.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has been one of my favorite authors for more than 20 years so I'm always on the lookout for something new from her, an easy thing for Oates collectors because she rewards us with at least two or three new books every year. I am primarily a fan of her fiction, novels and short stories alike, but I've been impressed with and enjoyed much of her poetry, essays and literary criticism as well. Her energy and accomplishments are amazing.

This past Sunday, Oates received an honorary degree from Brandeis University and spoke with Dan Snyder, Arts Editor for the university newspaper, The Justice:
Many female authors find themselves pigeonholed as "women writers," especially when their novels and short stories are generally focused on female protagonists and their perspectives. Fortunately, Joyce Carol Oates does not find herself in such a position. Oates' works have garnered much critical praise throughout her prolific, decade-spanning career, saving her from being grouped with other female writers whose work is considered less universal. Over the past 50 years, Oates has received Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award and a spot in Oprah's book club.
...
"It is a coincidence that I will be receiving a distinguished degree from Brandeis at about the time that my novel of melancholy and loss of my 'Jewish' heritage has been published. Since my great-grandparents chose to live without religion or any acknowledgment of their background, my grandmother had no religion, no tradition and no 'history;' her own son did not know of his Jewish background, nor did anyone else in our family. Yet I had long been intrigued by the seeming mystery of both my parents' backgrounds, so, typically, given that time in our American history, the early 1900s, shrouded in obscurity and the upheaval of families."

Although Oates is known for her captivating novels and short fiction, she has also published works of poetry, young adult fiction, drama, essays and criticism. Besides The Gravedigger's Daughter, the ever-prolific writer is also currently working two other books in less specific genres. One is what she calls the first installment of her journal, covering the years 1972 through 1983, to be published next October. Oates' other upcoming work is "a difficult-to-classify book titled WILD NIGHTS! Five Gothic Portraits." Oates described it as consisting of "prose pieces imagining the 'last days' in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway."
As you can see from the picture showing my two shelves of Joyce Carol Oates books (something over 80 of them now), I'm under her spell. I will, however, warn anyone not familiar with her work that her fiction tends to be dark and, at times, a bit depressing and filled with despair. She believes that the everyday world, especially for women, can be a very violent and dangerous place and that the violence, when it occurs, often springs up suddenly when a woman becomes too complacent about her surroundings and those around her. Joyce Carol Oates is not in the business of providing "happy endings" to her readers but, if you want to add some dark realism to your reading list, she is the master.

Note to my fellow book snoops: click on the photo to get a larger view of the titles. You'll spot some duplicates because I have a few ARCs and the like among the first editions on the shelf. The first shelf holds Oates novels, in the order in which they were written, and the second shelf does the same for her short stories, essays, plays and criticism. My collection, believe it or not, is far from being a complete one.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Confederacy of Dunces


I first read John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces not too long after its initial publication and I remember being particularly saddened by the fact that such a talented writer had committed suicide even before his first book had been published. I found it incredibly sad that the world had been deprived of such a talent and wondered what might have been. But, despite the fact that the book has been on my shelves for more than two decades, and all my good intentions, I never got around to revisiting the book until the last couple of weeks. What finally got me off center and back into Ignatius J. Riley's world was finding an audio version of the book at my local library.

A Confederacy of Dunces centers on Ignatius J. Riley, a 30-year old, over-educated mama's boy who still lives at home and refuses to work for a living, preferring instead to live off of his mother's tiny income. And those are his good points. He was further described in Library Journal as "a fat, flatulent, gluttonous, loud, lying, hypocritical, self-deceiving, self-centered blowhard who masturbates to memories of a dog and pretends to profundity when he is only full of beans." All true enough, but the fun begins when Ignatius is suddenly arrested for vagrancy by a suspicious New Orleans policeman desperate to impress his police department superiors.

Ignatius soon finds himself half-heartedly looking for gainful employment in order to help pay the damages caused when Irene, his often-tipsy mother backed into the wall of a downtown New Orleans business. Eventually Ignatius manages to find work at two different businesses desperate enough to hire even someone like him. Levy Pants and Paradise Vendors, Inc. would never be the same after Riley's few weeks as a Levy Pants file clerk and a Paradise Vendors "weenie vendor."

Along the way, we meet a cast of New Orleans characters who, for one reason or another, forever have their lives changed by coming into contact with Mr. Riley: Patrolman Mancuso who so desperately wants to arrest someone, anyone, in order to get back in uniform; Miss Trixie, near 80-years old and wondering why in the world she's not allowed to retire from Levy Pants; Darlene, the stripper who's highest ambition is to work on stage with her pet bird; Miss Lee, Darlene's employer, who has a nice little dirty picture business going on the side; Dorian Greene, a blatantly gay man who hosts a disastrous party for his friends with Ignatius as the main attraction; Gomez, the pathetic office manager at Levy Pants; Mr. Levy, inheritor and hater of the family business; Myrna, the northerner "girlfriend" whom Ignatius loves to hate; and Jones the old black man coerced by Miss Lee to work at the strip club at way less than minimum wage and who gained his ultimate revenge.

It took me a while to warm up to Ignatius J. Riley because, obviously, the man doesn't have a whole lot going for him. I actively disliked him at first but he was so intriguing a character that I kept turning pages until I came to realize that my disgust for the man had turned into a strange hope that he would somehow manage to prevail in his attempts to remain a "free agent" in the world, someone above life's everyday troubles. By the end of the novel I even found myself liking the man despite his skills at so selfishly manipulating everyone around him.

The audio version of A Confederacy of Dunces is read by Barrett Whitener who adds much to the book's characters by supplying them with the various ethnic accents required to fully bring them to life. In particular, Mr. Whitener made me laugh just about any time that he bellowed "Oh my god" in Riley's voice because I knew that another Ignatius J. Riley rant was on the way.

John Kennedy Toole was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for A Confederacy of Dunces when it was finally published. What a shame that he was gone too soon to see it.

Rated at: 4.5

Monday, May 21, 2007

Crazy Random Meme Redux

Dew over at The Hidden Side of a Leaf has tagged me in the "Page 161" meme and that's kind of cool because I just picked up a new book this afternoon and it was sitting in my lap when I saw her new tag. I was in my local Kroger this morning on an emergency run for a dozen eggs and some buttermilk (my wife was baking and came up short of both items) and I happened to go down the magazine/book aisle of the store. Well, of course, "happened to" is not accurate; I always take that path when I'm in the store no matter toward which aisle I'm ultimately headed.

This time a new hardcover book caught my eye primarily because its cover looked so familiar. Turns out that it is by the author of The Kite Runner and this new one, A Thousand Splendid Suns, has a very similar cover. My errand didn't leave me with much spare time but the book was marked 25% off so I took a chance on it. I've taken a closer look at it now, and it appears to be something that I'll really like.

So...here's the fateful fifth full sentence from page 161:
"This was the first time that someone whom Laila had known, been close to, loved, had died."
That quote becomes more meaningful when taken in the context of the book, a novelization of the last 30 years of Afghanistan history as seen through the eyes of two generations of a simple Afghan family. I'm not sure when this one will work its way to the top of my TBR list, but I'm confident that this is a good one.

Royal Mail to Issue Harry Potter Stamps

The commemorative stamp business, and I want to emphasize the word business, has always amazed me. Postal systems around the world print up millions of special postal stamps that they sell to collectors at full face value despite there being little chance that more than a relatively small percentage of the stamps will ever be used to pay for actual postage. Of course, that practice should help to keep the actual cost of a first class stamp lower than would be the case without all the contributions from folks who collect newly issued stamps (I collected them from both the U.K. and the U.S. for a number of years myself), so I have to rather selfishly applaud the idea.

Over the years the numerous book and author related commemorative stamps have been my favorites. This latest set just announced by the Royal Mail doesn't appeal to me much but I expect that it will do quite well with the younger set, and with many of their parents, come to think of it. All seven Harry Potter book covers will appear in this set.
Images from the covers of Edinburgh author JK Rowling's seven books about the young hero will appear on first-class stamps.

The crests of Hogwarts school and its four houses will also appear on five stamps sold together as a set.

The Harry Potter stamps will launch on July 17, four days before the seventh and final book - Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - goes on sale in the UK.
A single set of the 12 Harry Potter stamps will require a face-value investment of something over $8.00 at current exchange rates and the service expects to sell millions of the stamps at the equivalent of about 68 cents U.S. each. That's what I call big business...looks like the Royal Mail will make more money off of Harry Potter than most of the stores that discount the books. Brilliant, that.

So Many Books, So Little Time

Sara Nelson has written the perfect hardcover book blog, a book that I enjoyed from cover to cover. Nelson's basic premise, to read one book a week and to explain why she chose the book and how it impacted her world that week, is basically what many book bloggers aim for themselves. It was fun to see that Nelson experienced many of the same things that bloggers experience: TBR lists that seem to grow rather than shrink over time, books coming out of nowhere and demanding to be read immediately, periods in which it is difficult to find an appealing book despite being surrounded by books, etc. As I read the book, and got to know so much about Sara Nelson and her personal world, I found myself wishing that she actually did write a book blog because she would be a wonderful addition to the book blogging world, someone we would all enjoy knowing.

But let me let her speak for herself. The following quotes are a few of the ones that I found particularly interesting and appealing:
“Woody Allen once said that the advantage of bisexuality is that it doubles your chances of finding a date on Saturday night. Having a bifurcated reading brain – one part that likes “junk” and one that reveres “literature” – is the same kind of satisfying. You don’t have to be any one thing and you don’t have to think any one way. And should you happen upon different kinds of people in different situations, your pool of conversation topics is twice as deep.”

“Explaining the moment of connection between a reader and a book to someone who’s never experienced it is like trying to describe sex to a virgin. A friend of mine says that when he meets a book he loves, he starts to shake involuntarily. For me, the feeling comes in a rush: I’m reading along and suddenly a word or phrase or scene enlarges before my eyes and soon everything around me is just so much fuzzy background…I have to read and read and read, all the while knowing that the more aggressively I pursue my passion, the sooner it will end and then I will be bereft.”

“It’s always dangerous to reread the pivotal books of your youth. Like discovering poetry or journals you wrote as a teenager, revisiting your adolescent feelings about books can be at best embarrassing and often excruciating

"Allowing yourself to stop reading a book - at page 25, 50, or even, less frequently, a few chapters from the end - is a rite of passage in a reader's life, the literary equivalent of a bar mitzvah or a communion, the moment at which you look at yourself and announce: Today I am an adult. I can make my own decisions."

"I believe that an unreturned book between friends is like a debt unpaid. It can linger, fester, throb like a sore wound. The best preventive medicine is the simplest: Return All Books."

"It's exciting and familiar at the same time, a pretty great combo. Which, I guess, is the main reason people reread in the first place: they like going into a book knowing what they're getting at the same time that they can discover a line or a character or an attitude they missed the first time around. They like, in a world full of bad feelings and surprises, to know that the book they're reading will offer up none of the above. They like, in other words, returning to the known."

"...reading is organic and fluid and pretty unpredictable, based as much on mood and location and timing as anything else. If a book is good, that doesn't mean you'll want to read it, and if it's bad, that doesn't mean you'll pass it by. I only have to glance at my original list to see that, in spades."
Beyond a doubt, Sara Nelson is speaking to us in So Many Books, So Little Time. This one is fun and I recommend it to all the book lovers out there. You know who you are.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Crazy Random Meme

I've set a new personal record when it comes to memes. After being tagged for the first time ever just a few days ago, I find myself being tagged again this afternoon (by Matt). So I've gone from tagless to double-tagged in the blink of an eye.

The rules, as posted by Matt, are: “You simply have to grab the book nearest to you (no cheating here), turn to page 161, and post the text of the fifth full sentence on the page along with the body of the instruction on your blog.

The book nearest at hand is one I started reading in the hospital waiting room on Friday, Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. It's a historical novel set in 12th century Cambridge and the designated sentence is:
"For the tenth time, she went over the reasoning that had brought them all to this place."
This historical novel is actually a very gruesome and exciting murder mystery. I'll be talking about it more in the next few days.

Bookcase Obsession

I was relieved this morning, thanks to a David McKie Guardian column, to find that I'm not the only person in the world suffering from the dreaded Bookcase Obsession that requires me to try to read the titles of the books randomly displayed over the shoulders of whatever person I spot pictured in newspapers or magazines seated in front of their home or office shelves. I always suspect that the books behind the interview subject will tell me more about them than the questions that they answered for publication. And what I find by studying the titles that I can barely make out often changes my opinion about their owner; sometimes in a positive way, sometimes in a negative one.
Whenever I see such pictures I have an uncontrollable urge to seize the nearest magnifying glass and try to decipher the titles. What is it that drives some people (I know others who confess to this failing) to devote their time to such snooping when we could be walking the downs, or exploring the music of Medtner, or deconstructing the latest piece about Paris Hilton?

In part, it's just an addiction to books.
...
Yet in any case, would the books on display necessarily tell the whole story? If you knew that Eamonn McCabe was about to arrive with his camera, would there not be quite some temptation to parade the titles with the greatest literary cachet and exile some of the less prestigious ones to the kitchen? After all, the books that you have about you help to establish your image.
...
Yet I cannot break myself of my habit. Perhaps I need therapy. Either that, or a stronger magnifying glass.
Most of my own bookshelf snooping has been done on my computer monitor and I've been able to successfully magnify a picture on a few occasions to the point that I was happily able to kill ten minutes or so in deciphering the titles of a couple of dozen books that held prominent spots on the shelves of some interesting people. Stephen King books have turned up in some amazing places considering all the heat that man takes from critics who love to pan him. And I get a kick out of finding baseball books where I least expect to see them. But as Mr. McKie says, all those slightly out of focus bookshelves are "giving me a headache." At least I know now that I'm not alone.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Middlesex

I sometimes begin a novel knowing pretty much what to expect from it. I'm either familiar enough with the author that its style doesn't surprise me or I've somehow already picked up enough information about its plot that the book holds few surprises other than its details. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, was definitely an exception to the rule because this was my first Eugenides novel (it's his second novel) and I had heard nothing at all about its plot.

Middlesex is a complicated novel of more than 500 pages, the multi-generational story of the Stephenides family who fled to America in the early 1920s for its very survival. At the core of this family saga is the fact that two members of the family, brother and sister, arrived in America as husband and wife, something that was to genetically impact the book's narrator and main character, Calliope Stephenides, who was born a hermaphrodite in 1960 Detroit. The novel's opening line sets the stage for the rest of the book:
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."
Everything about Calliope's birth appeared normal to the attending Greek doctor and his nurse and for the first 14 years of her/his life Calliope was raised as the girl whom she appeared to be. Things suddenly changed for her after she reached puberty and an emergency room doctor recognized that Calliope was, in fact, not the girl she thought she was.

Eugenides fills each generation of the Stephenides family with memorable characters from the moment that Desdemona and Lefty are forced to abandon everything and flee to America to the point at which Calliope Stephenides finally becomes Cal Stephenides. Their story typifies the experience of many immigrant families who came to the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. We watch as Lefty and Desdemona, guarding the secret of their marriage all the while, struggle to gain an economic foothold in Detroit that will allow them to carve out a good life for themselves and their children in their new world. It wasn't always easy for them but, by the time their grandchildren are born, Lefty and Desdemona can look with pride at the American family that they have created.

Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, one that I expected both to be impressed by and to enjoy. And to a large degree that is what happened. But the novel did not quite work for me and I found it difficult at times to "believe" some of the characters or plot twists, especially the easy transition that Calliope made in becoming Cal. I found it hard to believe that a person who had been raised female for the entire 14 years of her life could so easily, and so suddenly, take on the persona of a teenage male. But, putting my minor quibbles aside, I do think that Middlesex is a book worth reading and I have a feeling that it has the makings of becoming a favorite book of lots of readers.

Rated at: 3.0

Friday, May 18, 2007

What Did Rude People Do Before Cell Phones?

Charles Dickens, Sara Nelson and Ariana Franklin combined efforts this morning to save a life and keep me from a Houston jail cell. We left the house this morning at 5:30 A.M. (me, wife and in-laws) to keep a 7:00 A.M. check-in appointment at the hospital where my mother-in-law was scheduled for back surgery. Needless to say, at that hour of the morning only one other group had arrived and been processed before us. Eventually the family waiting area filled up with people who were waiting to be notified by doctors about how their particular family member came through one type of surgery or another. Until 9:00 all was well, with CNN playing quietly on the big screen television, some people sleeping and others talking quietly to family members. Up to that point no one had any surgery news to share with others so there was almost no cell phone activity in the room.

That all ended with the arrival of the cell phone addict from hell who arrived just after nine and proceeded to shout almost continuously into TWO cell phones, sometimes simultaneously (one in each ear, I swear), in Spanish for the next three hours. She remained completely oblivious to the stares, gestures and mutterings directed her way and managed to drive 2/3 of the other people completely out of the room to either stand in the hallway or sit in the dining room. Three things saved her life: My wife reminded me a dozen times that it wasn't worth causing a scene, I don't understand much Spanish anymore and could at least tune out the meaning of her constant blabber, and I had three books with me to pass the time. By switching between books I was able to maintain a level of concentration that made the situation at least tolerable.

I somehow managed to read about 60 pages in each of Great Expectations, So Many Books, So Little Time, and Mistress of the Art of Death. I'll be finishing all three of them in the next few days, I suspect, so I'll save my remarks about the books until I'm done.

Today I just want to thank Mr. Dickens and the Nelson and Franklin ladies for their heroic efforts.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Oprah Book Club Stickers and Me

I spotted a clever column at the Guardian Unlimited website this morning that is titled "Books as Drinking Companions." Who could resist clicking on that title? As it turns out, columnist Jonathan Morrison is offering book title suggestions to various types of drinkers. He has ideas for happy drinkers, miserable drinkers, light drinkers and violent drinkers (he suggests hardcovers for those with violent tendencies).

But what really caught my eye was his advice that "drinking with books is fine, providing you're over 18 and don't buy anything with a Richard and Judy Book Club sticker on it...."

Richard and Judy host a morning television talk show in the U.K. that is very similar to the type of show that seems to be popular all over the world these days, shows filled with bits of hard news surrounded by entertainment news, relatively light interviews with celebrities and politicians selling books, movies or simply themselves, and maybe a few cooking lessons thrown in as icing on the cake. I'm not sure when it happened but Richard and Judy have apparently started a book club on the show in which they choose and highlight a book of which they are particularly fond. Oprah Winfrey with a British accent, I suppose.

The crack about the "Richard and Judy sticker" got me to thinking about the countless books that I've seen with "Oprah Book Club" stickers or imprints plastered all over their covers. I always look at those books with an extra bit of skepticism for some reason and, even if I want the book, I have never been able to force myself to buy a copy with the word "Oprah" anywhere on it. I can remember several different times that I've gone out of my way to find an edition of a book that predated Oprah's blessing so that I didn't give the impression to the world that my choice of books was influenced by Oprah Winfrey of all people. I'm always happy to see anyone discuss their love of books and reading, but I don't want to join Oprah's club, thanks anyway.

Call me grumpy today. Oprah always seems to affect me that way.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

167 Not Necessarily Great Books for Teen Boys

Britain's Department of Education is spending some time, and a good bit of money, in another effort to encourage teenage boys to read books for pleasure to the same degree that British teen girls read them. Part of that effort has resulted in a list of 167 books that are thought to be the kind that will encourage boys to keep reading for pleasure past the age of 11.

But over at the Guardian Unlimited, columnist Nicholas Lezard is less than impressed with the list and, in fact, with the whole effort.
Boys don't read enough, you see. So Alan Johnson, education secretary, and librarians from the School Library Association have given us 167 "top books for boys". The resulting list is a pile of cack - sub-Tolkien and not-really-books - studded here and there with gems.

You have to get to number 14 on the list, as it appears in the Times, before you get any fiction (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams). Then you get a wodge of classics - Robinson Crusoe, King Solomon's Mines, Northern Lights, and Frankenstein.

The last of those shows that someone hasn't got their thinking cap on, for Frankenstein is a dull and confusing work. At least it will familiarise them with 19th-century style - and put them off it forever.

Great Expectations is a much better read - but it's presumably too long for impatient little hands to hold. Treasure Island and Kidnapped are there, but - unbelievably - Robert Louis Stevenson's version has been passed over in favour of a graphic novelisation of the story.
...
There are plenty of books here that I've never heard of - and one or two that haven't even been published yet. The ones I've never heard of are presumably recent publications that librarians have seized on after boys cited them as being marginally preferable to a poke in the kidneys with a stick.

Some of them may be quite good - but by being there, they've knocked something else off the list. While the quality of the books may be debatable, therefore, their position in anything that might be called a literary canon is not: they're not in it. There's no sense of continuous heritage, of anything timeless, or which might alert these putative boy-readers to the fact that once upon a time, books relied on a good, moving story and weren't packaged with raised lettering on the cover and a picture of weaponry, or dragons.

It makes me wonder: what's so good about reading anyway? And what's so good about forcing an intimidatingly long list on reluctant potential consumers, when so much of it is either garbage or stuff they'd have read anyway? And if they're not inclined to read, so what?

The only book I really want them to read and absorb, now I come to think of it, is the Highway Code, so they don't run me over when they grow up.
Lezard has an interesting take on the declining rate at which young men read for pleasure and on the likely success of this particular list to do anything to solve the problem. Books are competing with so many distractions these days that I'm sometimes surprised that young people read at all anymore. What with homework, after-school sports programs and classes, video games, iPods, the internet with all of its My Space and YouTube clones, television trash shows, etc., when is a kid supposed to read a book? There are only so many hours in the day. While I agree with Lezard that this particular list (click on the above link for the complete list) leaves a lot to be desired, I do see the necessity of including the types of books that can compete directly with all the distractions in a kid's life today. Maybe, with a little luck, even the junkier books on the list will keep the boys reading long enough for them to discover what else is on offer in the book world. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tag, I'm It

Jenclair at A Garden Carried in the Pocket tagged me for the "8 Things" meme. This is a first for me, but here goes:

The rules -

1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4: Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.


1. I was born and raised in Texas but, by a large majority, my cousins live on the east side of the Sabine River (in southwest Louisiana) and are very much Cajun by heritage and habit.

2. I was in the Algerian Sahara Desert on 9-11-01 and found out about what happened in NYC that day from an Arab employee who was crying as he broke the news to me.

3. I am a huge fan of what I consider to be "real" country music and have a collection that includes probably every song recorded by Hank Williams, more than 300 different recordings from George Jones, and close to 300 each from Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The collection totals over 22,000 country songs in all.

4. The Civil War intrigues me and I am a member of a Houston Civil War Round Table group that meets once a month.

5. I was an officer of the Houston Astros booster club in the '80s and met many of my childhood baseball heroes as they came through Houston for old timers games or to speak at our monthly meetings.

6. Until my left knee eventually forced me to quit running, I was a dedicated runner and I completed marathons in several different states from 1979 to 1994.

7. I worked in the oil industry for over three decades despite having returned to college to complete my degree only after surviving two refinery explosions in one year at a Mobil refinery in Beaumont, Texas.

8. I take politics very seriously but I've taken a personal vow to stay away from political arguments on the internet after finding out that death threats tend to bother me.


This is a great way to get to know one another a little better, so I'm going to tag the following folks and we'll see what happens:

Matt at A Variety of Words

Amanda at The Blog Jar

John at The Book Mine Set

Cip at bookpuddle

Sharon at Ex Libris

Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf

Joy at Thoughts of Joy

J.S. Peyton at BiblioAddict

I'm off to alert the chosen eight, and hoping that they have not already been tagged for this one.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Disappearing Profits




As I've long suspected, the appearance of a new Harry Potter book doesn't seem to add much to the bottom lines of the retailers involved, be they the big bookstore chains or small independent shops. The impact of a Harry Potter book is felt in the secondary sales that might follow when Potter fans return to the stores for something new to read, still excited about books and the fun that they offer.

Harry Potter has become the ultimate loss leader in the book retailing industry.




It is expected to become the fastest-selling book in history, smashing the record set by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which sold 6.9 million copies within 24 hours of being launched in 2005.

With two and a half months to go, Amazon.com alone has received more than one million pre-orders. Potter 7, as Deathly Hallows is known in the trade, should provide a huge boost to book stores. After all, fat sales should equal fat profits.

But Hogwarts is not the gold mine it might seem. Indeed, for all the hype and bluster, the book might as well be retitled Harry Potter and the Damp Squib as far as retailers' profits are concerned.

Due to rampant discounting, few shops selling the book, from Waterstone's to Tesco and Amazon down to small independents, will make any money. Most will break even and many will make a loss.
...
Meanwhile, far from looking forward to the historic launch with fevered anticipation, many retailers are privately fuming that such a huge event will leave them no richer.

"It really is incredible that no one apart from JK and Bloomsbury will make a shekel. When you think of the work we have to do and the hoops we have to jump through around the launch, it is unbelievable," said the managing director of one of the United Kingdom's largest book retailers.

The Harry Potter situation is emblematic of wider shifts going on among book retailers. The emergence of supermarkets as a new force in bookselling has resulted in fearsome price wars surrounding big titles.
...
...the book will be a tremendous footfall generator, getting people into stores and spending money.

"We look at Harry Potter in terms of our commercial position. We see it as beyond just a book. The most exciting thing about it is that it will be the biggest day of footfall in the whole year. It is good to see that number of people in the stores and they will like what they see," Johnson said.

One thing is clear though: for retailers, Harry Potter is a decidedly mixed blessing.
I'm seriously thinking about hitting one of the Barnes & Noble stores up here, camera in hand, just to experience some of the craziness of this last Potter frenzy. I'm off to mark it on my calendar...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Brokeback Lawsuit Insanity

While I agree that the teacher and school in question here should have gotten parental approval before screening the movie version of Brokeback Mountain in an 8th grade classroom, I find the reaction of these grandparents to be totally absurd. Tell me if I'm wrong here, but I cannot imagine that a 12-year-old child would require psychological treatment after watching this particular over-praised and over-rewarded movie. I don't want to offend anyone by saying this but the movie reminds me of chick-lit without the chicks.

The lawsuit claims that Jessica Turner, 12, suffered psychological distress after viewing the movie in her 8th grade class at Ashburn Community Elementary School last year.

The film, which won three Oscars, depicts two cowboys who conceal their homosexual affair.

Turner and her grandparents, Kenneth and LaVerne Richardson, are seeking around $500,000 in damages.

"It is very important to me that my children not be exposed to this," said Kenneth Richardson, Turner's guardian. "The teacher knew she was not supposed to do this."

According to the lawsuit filed Friday in Cook County Circuit Court, the video was shown without permission from the students' parents and guardians.
...
In 2005, Richardson complained to school administrators about reading material that he said included curse words.

"This was the last straw," he said. "I feel the lawsuit was necessary because of the warning I had already given them on the literature they were giving out to children to read. I told them it was against our faith."
These folks have already apparently demanded the banning of other material from the school, probably the usual banned book hit parade. I'm not condoning what the school allowed to happen because I think that parental approval should have been obtained before a film of this nature was shown to the students. I do think, however, that these grandparents were probably eagerly looking for their next complaint and that they are trying to parlay this one into a money grab, to boot.

Paperback Writer



I suppose it's a bit of a stretch (and an excuse to feature my favorite band again) but here's another "literary themed" song from the Beatles.

Happy Mothers Day


Happy Mothers Day everyone. Here's hoping that you are surrounded by family and friends but that you can squeeze in a little quiet time with your favorite book. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Half-Price Books



Sharon Anderson Wright, right, with her sister, Executive Vice President Ellen O'Neal

(Original article and photo are from the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram)



I first discovered Half-Price Books while on a business trip to Dallas for which, luckily for me, I had driven rather than flown. Otherwise, I would have had to buy an extra suitcase to carry home all the books I bought that week. Over the years, the chain has expanded and Houston has been blessed with several locations, one of which is only five miles from my home and sees me at its cash register at least once a week.
There are reminders of Pat Anderson all around the headquarters of Half Price Books, the used-book chain she co-founded in 1972.

Her desk, displayed in an open area of the corporate office in Dallas, is still covered with her old photographs, hand-kept ledgers, old paperbacks and the small box holding the pencils she would sharpen down to the nub to save money on supplies.

Her aversion to debt remains a guiding principle for the company, which has kept borrowing to a minimum even as it has expanded to nearly 100 locations in 14 states. The offering of full health benefits for all full-time workers also is a nod to Anderson, who looked after her employees like family and came to the aid of more than a few of them in times of need.

Then there are her daughters Sharon Anderson Wright and Ellen O'Neal, perhaps the biggest reminders of their mother, and the keepers of her legacy since Anderson's death from lung cancer in 1996.
...
There have been changes, of course, since Anderson's death.

The growth of the company, which typically opens three to seven stores each year and also has a thriving wholesale business, forced management to become more organized and a bit more computer-savvy after years of resisting technology.

The expansion also made it too costly to maintain full health benefits for part-time workers, a decision that Wright said she made "not lightly." But she suspects that her mother would be proud of what Half Price Books has become, and perhaps a bit surprised by it.

"I think we've grown more than she could have imagined," said Wright, who has nearly doubled the number of stores in the chain since her mother's death. "But we haven't varied from the basic concept. We've gotten more bureaucratic, but we've never done something we couldn't afford, and we've never taken on a lot of debt, so we're not beholden to anybody but ourselves."
I would guess that at least 25% of the hundreds of books that I own were found at one or another of the Half-Price Books stores in Dallas, Austin or Houston. And I continue to find great bargains and surprises at the stores. Just yesterday, in fact, I added three Library of America volumes to my collection of that series. All were brand new, never read copies listing for $35 each and I purchased them for $9.98 a piece.

Raymond Chandler Later Novels and Other Writings

Saul Bellow Novels 1944-1953



Henry James Novels 1901-1902


Matt DeSalvo: Reader and Pitcher, New York Yankees

Sometimes you find readers in the strangest places. How about in the New York Yankees locker room just before a baseball game? That's not something that I, as a longtime baseball fan, would have ever expected to see but Yankee pitcher Matt DeSalvo seems to be as serious about his reading as he is about pitching for the Yanks.

Matt DeSalvo sat in silence at his Yankee Stadium locker before his major league debut on Monday, buried in the written word. It is his most comfortable position.

In his hands, he held a small book with gilded edges. It was not a scouting report, and it was not a Bible, either. It was Confucius, DeSalvo said later, and the pages were covered with circled passages and notes he had made in the margins.

“It’s just what I’m reading right now,” DeSalvo said. “I like to read different philosophies, just anything, the way I see this world. We spend a whole lifetime trying to figure ourselves out. Like I’ll read a book and try to think, what’s this mean to me? And I’ll apply it to myself.”

When he finishes Confucius, DeSalvo will cross another title off his list of the 400 books he wants to read before he dies. He is halfway through the list already, having devoured 17 books during spring training alone.
...
When he finishes the list, DeSalvo said, he will write another novel. His first, called “Love’s Travels,” was written three or four years ago and has been seen only by himself and an editor. Its topic, he said, is the way a person’s concept of love changes over time.
Read the rest of this New York Times article to get a feel for what makes this interesting young man tick. I'm pulling for Matt DeSalvo to make it big...and to finish the other 200 books he has on his list. At the rate he's knocking out those books I think that he will be expanding that list by several hundred before he's done reading and pitching.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline

In the interest of full disclosure I want to remind everyone that I worked in the oil industry for 36 years and, in fact, my school years were spent in a community that was very largely dependent on oil refining for its livelihood. So, when it comes to the industry, I admit to being a little bit prejudiced in its favor and more than a little defensive when I sense that it is being unfairly criticized. The industry most certainly deserves some criticism when it comes to its past and to its present and I don't deny that. It's all of the nutty conspiracy theories that raise my blood pressure at times.

Lisa Margonelli's Oil on the Brain is the author's attempt to explain the price of a gallon of gasoline at the pump by tracing that refined product all the way back to its source. Margonelli came to her subject with the very limited understanding of the oil industry that the average American consumer has but, by spending time with industry people working in all of its many branches, she gathered enough information and insight to write an entertaining explanation of how gasoline is priced in today's market.

All of us, even oil company employees, shake our heads and cringe when we roll up to the gas pump for another painful purchase of enough gasoline to refill our tanks. That's why Margonelli begins her story at one of California's multi-pump convenience stores where she spent enough time to get a good feel for what it is like to be the retailer of a necessity for which the consumer feels gouged at every purchase. From there, she traces the flow of gasoline backward to the distribution system that includes truckers and pipeline systems, even riding with one trucker as he carried his dangerous cargo from its collection point to several California retailers.

Of course, she was still nowhere near the ultimate source of the gasoline, so she continued her backward journey and spent several days inside a California refinery where she watched the process of turning crude oil into its various finished products, including gasoline. She completed her journey by traveling to Freestone County, deep in East Texas, where she was welcomed onto one of the dozens of drilling rigs in the area.

Oil on the Brain does a fine job of simplifying and explaining the extremely complicated process of finding and producing oil and gas and I believe that most readers will gain a new appreciation for the complexity of such a risky undertaking. Margonelli also spent some time at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve located on the Texas Gulf Coast and in New York with the oil traders on the floor of the NYMEX. Those are particularly interesting chapters, especially the one concerning the NYMEX traders because it goes a long way in explaining why the price at the pump fluctuates as drastically and as often as it does.

The second half of Oil on the Brain recounts Margonelli's travels to Venezuela, Chad, Iran, Nigeria and China. All of these countries other than China are oil exporters and Margonelli details the effects, both good and bad, that impact the citizens of those countries when their governments become so dependent on the exportation of oil for their survival. Needless to say, the promises made to those citizens seldom morph into anything resembling the benefits listed by the oil companies because the local governments manage to squander and steal for themselves a large percentage of the new money that flows into the producing countries. Margonelli visited China to see for herself the rapid economic growth there that is causing the huge demand in oil imports that is so adversely impacting today's oil price.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how the search for a predictable oil supply impacts world politics and the lives of all of us. As Margonelli says in one chapter, the hidden cost in each gallon of gasoline might be as much as $5 per gallon if one includes all of the tax money being spent by the United States to make it possible to keep the oil flowing in this direction. That includes money spent on the military, foreign aid, and homeland security spending that has largely become necessary because of this country's presence in the Middle East in search of oil.

Rated at: 4.0

Golden Books Are Forever



Stories like this one from California librarian Julie Winkelstein can sometimes make my whole day.










My granddaughter (and daughter) came to stay for a few days last week. Now that she is 19 months old, books are becoming increasingly important to Maddie. To get ready for their visit, I pulled out some of the children's books I have been saving since my daughters were young.
...
Maurice Sendak's "One was Johnny" is one of the books I put out. This tiny toddler-sized tome was part of a set of three, although I have no idea where the other ones are. My daughter immediately recognized it, and was excited to realize it is actually her old copy. "I taught myself to read with this book," she told me.

Tired of waiting for someone to read it to her, she had set herself down and -- having memorized most of it -- used it to figure out just how to make words on the page into words she could read. As she began reciting it from memory, my youngest daughter and I were able to join in -- some things you never forge
...
I was amazed, and it made me think about all those early books that had such an impact on me, the ones whose words are there in my head somewhere. I can't help wondering what kind of impact these books had on my life. Have they shaped me in some way? Does the fact I can recite "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and "The Little Red Hen" give insight into who I am? And what does it mean that some of my friends share the same book memories? As a librarian, parent and grandparent, I would say the biggest significance to this is the importance of choosing memorable and appealing books for our children.
Reading this made me realize that I can still clearly picture in my mind some of the books that I read as five-year-old and even recall a few of the words if I really concentrate. I'm sure that my love of reading was born right there in all those Golden Books that I was lucky enough to call my own before I started school. And that's exactly why we keep dozens of children's books here at the house for when the three grandkids come to visit or to stay with us overnight. Exposure to books and to reading cannot start too early and that's a gift that will last a lifetime.