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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Baltimore Readers, These Guys Deserve Your Support





I see that a couple of young brothers, aged 25 and 27, are getting set to open up new bookstore in Baltimore that will sell both new and used books. I love stories like this one because it indicates that despite all the gloom and doom we read about the future of independent bookstores, new stores are being opened around the country all the time.



Opening what the brothers say is the Baltimore area's largest new and used book store without any retail experience was a risk, acknowledges Jack Revelle, who handles the people side of things, while his brother handles the computers and programming. "Our complementary skill sets are invaluable," he mentions as an aside.

But they are young and don't have families to support yet, so the risk was warranted, he said, and though he wouldn't recommend it, they both already had quit college to advance the business -- he just a semester and a half short of graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Seth just a semester short from Wheaton.
...
Retail experience also is not a requirement for the employees they hire, he said.

"I want people who love to be around books, who are passionate about books," he said.

His test for applicants is asking them to rank authors in chronological order. "We pay fairly and offer fringe benefits," he said. "We want to have great employees, so they can give customers a great experience."

Their venture is not the typical dusty used-book place. It's open and airy and reminiscent of a Barnes & Noble or the Borders in Timonium -- not coincidentally.

The comfortable brown leather armchairs that encourage reading are new, but the display cases and the checkout counter came from a Borders that went out of business in Rockefeller Center in New York.

"We're big on the environmental stuff and recycling," Revelle said, noting the books they don't use are recycled into paper towels.

What isn't reminiscent of Borders are the paintings, photographs and prints on the walls. Done by local and regional artists, all are for sale -- with the store charging a commission of just 10 percent.

They think the store, which not only sells books but buys them as well, will find a good market in Towson. "It has the right mix of people who really enjoy books, and I just think people like used-book stores," Jack Revelle said.

Barnes & Noble, just up Dulaney Valley Road, remains philosophical about the newly arrived competition.

"The marketplace for books has changed dramatically over the last decade," spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said, noting that both large and small booksellers are now competing with online ventures and discount operations such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Target.

"But, we believe there is room for all booksellers in the marketplace. People who shop at our stores also like shopping at smaller bookstores," Brown said.
I love their enthusiasm and the fact that they realize it makes perfect sense for them to take this kind of risk now before they have family obligations that might limit their future risk-taking opportunities. They might be young, but they seem to know exactly what they are doing.

I also highlighted the quotes concerning the type of help with whom they are hoping to staff their new store. Too many chain bookstore managers don't seem to take that kind of thing into account when staffing their locations. Who better to work in a bookstore than someone who is passionate about reading and books and wants to work around them because it's fun?

But speaking from recent experience, I know that counts for little at places like Barnes & Noble and Borders. When I was not-so-gently pushed into early retirement back in March, I thought that I might finally get the chance to work in a bookstore for a few years, something I've wanted to do for a long time. At this point, I'm not overly concerned with what the hourly wage is; I just want to work at something that I find fun to do. I applied at two different Barnes & Noble stores, one Borders store and one Half-Price Books store. I got one interview as a result and spoke briefly with one other store manager. I expressed my love of books and why, at my age, I thought I would be perfect for their stores. All I received in response was polite skepticism. In all four cases, the resulting silence has been deafening and I'll never understand why. But that's life.

Friday, June 29, 2007

We Have a Winner

Thanks for all the entries to my Books and Bluegrass contest. They were interesting, to say the least, and some of your responses made me smile. The winning entry scored 100% and was obviously sent in by someone who knows her bluegrass music.

Since Kentucky is the home of bluegrass music and has just made it the official music of the state I'm not surprised that the winner comes from that part of the world. Congratulations, Selena, and be looking for your book in the mail within the next few days. I just left it at the local post office so it's officially on its way to Kentucky. You should have it before it's available in bookstores since its publication date is July 10.

Thanks again to everyone who participated.

Books and Buses

A two-day book project that the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority is running makes me wonder if something like this would work on other large city bus routes on a regular basis. The folks in Tulsa have come up with 3,000 children's books and they are distributing the books to bus passengers as they ride around the city of Tulsa. Riders are encouraged to read a book on the bus and, if they like, to take a book home with them.

(Karen Healey looks through some of the books made available to Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority bus passengers.)

A program to get books in the hands of children made a rainy day a little brighter for passengers on city buses Thursday.

Caring for Kids Book by Book, a Bank of Oklahoma literacy program, joined with the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority to distribute 3,000 books collected at Bank of Oklahoma branches during June.

"We're running out of books. It's been very popular," said William Cartwright, Tulsa Transit's general manager.

Donated children's books, most of them new, were placed on fixed-route buses, which serve about 9,000 passengers each day.

A sign behind the driver's seat instructed people to take a book and read it while they rode or to take it home and keep it.
Public transportation and books make a perfect mix. All it would take is a little effort and publicity to collect a few thousand books to be placed in boxes on buses, train cars and underground cars where people could easily get to them as they ride to their final destination. Passengers could be encouraged to add to the books in the box by placing their own book discards there for others to enjoy. Knowing book lovers the way that I know them, I can't help but think that the book supply would start to regenerate itself to the point where "seed books" would only have to be added every so often. After all, book lovers struggle to find a place for all the books they accumulate and they can't bear to toss them out. What better way to keep books in circulation than to place them in an environment that encourages reading to pass the time?

I'm sure that transit authorities everywhere will have a dozen reasons not to do something like this but I can't imagine anything simpler and cheaper that would put more smiles on faces than this. It's the little things that make this a better world for all of us.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bang the Drum Slowly

I first read Bang the Drum Slowly as a high school student and it stayed on my mind for several days after I finished it. In fact, it had such an impact on the way that I saw life that I was more than a little reluctant to read it again, fearing that my fond memories of the book would be spoiled. That kind of thing has happened to me several times in the past, but not this time. Bang the Drum Slowly is still the great book that I experienced the first time around.

In the era before free agency rules made millionaires out of very mediocre baseball players, even all-star left-handed pitchers had to find work in the off season. Henry Wiggin, star lefthander for what was probably the best team in baseball during the early 1950s, the New York Mammoths, was no exception. Henry took to selling life insurance and annuities to his fellow ball players and he became quite good at his sales job. One of Henry’s customers was Bruce Pearson, a third-string Mammoth catcher who bought an insurance policy covering his life only to later discover that he was dying of Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a disease that was incurable in the 1950s.

Bang the Drum Slowly at its base is a realistic baseball novel told in the words (and with the spelling skills) of a small town boy born during the Depression who had the physical skills to become a major league baseball pitcher. It is an honest look at what goes on off the field and in the clubhouse when athletes spend more time on the road, and with each other, than they spend with their wives and children. There are racial tensions, drinking problems, womanizing and personality clashes that have to be dealt with by management, a baseball management generally interested only in the club’s bottom line.

The heart of this story, however, is the bad break that fate has handed Bruce Pearson. He faces imminent death even in what turns out to be the best season of his career. Henry Wiggin, feeling protective of the naïve Pearson, does his best to keep Pearson’s secret from team management and their teammates. But when word of Pearson’s situation slowly begins to leak, amazing things begin to happen to the New York Mammoths and to Bruce Pearson.

Mark Harris, who passed away just a few weeks ago, will long be remembered for Bang the Drum Slowly, a book that was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 100 sports books of all time. This book has something for baseball fans and non-sports fans alike and, even after such a long absence, I enjoyed spending time again with Henry Wiggin.

Rated at 4.0

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Canadian Writers and U.S. Sales

I've often wondered why Canadian writers don't have more of a presence in the United States. After all, they are the closest of our neighbors who have English as the natural language of most of its citizens and the two countries have more in common than not. So why is it that only a handful of Canada's writers ever show up on the shelves of my bookstores? Why does it seem so much easier to find British writers here than it is to find Canadian writers?

According to The Globe and Mail, things are getting worse, not better.
It may be a golden age for Canadian literature, with Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje garnering world renown, but data suggest book exports to our country's main trading partner are dwindling.

Industry challenges are myriad, ranging from a weak U.S. dollar in relation to the Canadian currency, which is cutting into the value of book sales, to changes in the U.S. booksellers' market, leaving Canadian publishers scrambling to keep up.

Together, these factors amount to a slow but steady drop in exports over the past five years and may help explain the growth in Canada's "cultural goods deficit." Book exports to the United States slid 23.6 per cent between 2002 and 2006, Statistics Canada said yesterday, as the greenback tumbled 26 per cent against the loonie.
...
Publishers are "finding new markets, trying to plug away at the U.S. and tightening their belts, but the deterioration of the exchange rates has happened so quickly -- to the point where it's almost impossible to keep changing the pricing on the books."

Publishers are trying to cut costs and diversify into new markets in Australia and - once books are translated - Europe and Asia. The United States, however, still accounts for about 90 per cent of Canadian book exports, according to Export Development Canada.
I found another surprise in looking at the statistics at the end of the newspaper article: the U.K. imports a very small amount of books from Canada despite the historical relationship between the two countries. So I'm asking for some help from my Canadian friends. Which authors should I be looking for, and can you recommend any websites that specialize in Canadian books, especially those sites with relatively low postage charges? Let's get the word out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Amy Tan Working on New Book

Amy Tan's first book, The Joy Luck Club, was chosen as the book to be read as part of the Harris County library system's participation in the Big Read this summer. Tan was in fine company because the list of novels from which the county system chose her novel included works by Bradbury, Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck, McCullers and Wharton, among others.

The Big Read is an NEA project "to restore reading to the center of American culture."
The Big Read answers a big need. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that not only is literary reading in America declining rapidly among all groups, but that the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young. The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture would study the pages of this report in vain.

The Big Read aims to address this crisis squarely and effectively. It provides citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities. The initiative includes innovative reading programs in selected cities and towns, comprehensive resources for discussing classic literature, an ambitious national publicity campaign, and an extensive Web site providing comprehensive information on authors and their works.

Each community event lasts approximately one month and includes a kick-off event to launch the program locally, ideally attended by the mayor and other local luminaries; major events devoted specifically to the book (panel discussions, author reading, and the like); events using the book as a point of departure (film screenings, theatrical readings, and so forth); and book discussions in diverse locations and aimed at a wide range of audiences.
Seeing Amy Tan's picture in my library branch on each recent visit made me wonder if she had recovered from her terrible bout with Lyme disease, so I was happy to read in a Reuter's India dispatch today that she is doing much better and is working hard at her writing again. The article ends with this interesting quote from Tan regarding her decision never to release information about any of her "in progress" work.
"I never talk about what a new book is about as it will leave me. There is a story in Chinese where a man goes to a magical place and is overwhelmed by the beauty and the peace. He has to leave and they tell him that if he tells anyone where this place is he will never find it again. That is the metaphor for writing. You are in a secret place and discovering it but once you tell people it is gone."
I find this to be an extremely graceful refusal to an interview question she didn't want to answer, a response perfectly in character for my image of the author.

Contest Prize




This is an advance copy of the book and I hope to have it in the hands of the contest winner at least a few days before its official publication date of July 10.











The winner of the Books and Bluegrass contest will win an early copy of John Twelve Hawk's The Dark River, the second book of his Fourth Realm Trilogy. The first book of the trilogy, The Traveler, was a New York Times bestseller and it received excellent reviews from several major publications:

"Portrays a Big Brother with powers far beyond anything Orwell could imagine...Political prophecy is rarely such fun." - Washington Post

"Seductive...Quickly hooks you into its Matrix-esque world...(Let) the butt-kicking begin." - USA Today

"The stuff that first rate high-tech paranoid schizophrenic thrillers are made of." - Time

"Page turningly swift with a cliffhanger ending...John Twelve Hawks has drawn upon both pop cultural and literary touchstones and modified them to create a cyber 1984." - New York Times

John Twelve Hawks and Random House have an interesting website that provides a good feel of the atmosphere John has created in The Dark River and explains where the book fits into the overall story. Check it out.

Remember to get your answers to me by Friday morning so that I can get the book in the mail to the lucky winner early on Monday morning. Good luck to all.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Books and Bluegrass Contest Final

I arrived back in Houston a few hours ago after having driven all the way home through rain very similar in magnitude to the rain that almost shut down the whole festival on Saturday night. It's good to be home, but the 5-hour nap I just took has left me feeling more than a bit sluggish.

Anyone wanting to officially enter the contest needs to package up their answers for me in an email and send them to: samhouston23@gmail.com. Please organize your answers in the order in which I posted the pictures so that I can more easily award you all the points you have coming. I need all entries by Friday morning and I will announce the winner this weekend at latest.

Now, for the book. I'm going to prepare a separate post to describe the book and its author, including links to the author site, etc. For the moment, let me just say that this is a hardcover copy of The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks. The Dark River is a sequel to John's The Traveler, a book that spent some time on the New York Times bestseller list. Details to follow...

This book won't be in bookstores until July 10, so you will be among the first in the world to have a copy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Books and Bluegrass Contest, Part III

The music festival ended about midnight and became quite an experience when severe thunderstorms moved through the area in the late afternoon. There was so much lighting around that both the performers and the audience had to take shelter several times over the next few hours, and it eventually became too dangerous for the performers to use any microphones and lighting. Finally, around 10:30, those of us who had been stubborn enough to stick around despite being chilled and wet for several hours were shown to a small tent where we were well-rewarded with an impromptu jam session from the festival headliners.

These are the final contest pictures:

Brother acts are traditional in bluegrass music and, over the last six decades bluegrass music has been blessed with several great bands fronted by brothers. The man shown in the blue shirt was part of one of the greatest bluegrass brother acts of them all until his brother passed away a couple of years ago. His band now includes his grandson (standing next to him with the guitar). Who is this man and what what was the name of the act before the death of his brother?


This gentleman is the last surviving musician who actually was an influence on the musicians who developed the original bluegrass style of country music. He is 100 years old and has been married to his singing partner for 70 years. He performed for Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in 1941. Who is this man? I'll award a bonus point for the name of his wife.

This woman is another one of the pioneers. Originally from the West Virginia coal mines, she now lives in Washington D.C. and she is one of the main reasons I was so willing to drive over a 1000 miles to this festival. She did a lot of work for the coal miners' union and she sings with great love and understanding about the working people of this country. Who is she?


This picture was taken under the cover of the small tent where the two headliners on the right, and their bands, put on a once-in-a-lifetime jam session for about two hundred wet and cold fans. The man in white fronts what is, in my opinion, the best bluegrass band in the business, a band that includes his two sons. What is his name? The man in the blue jacket has been playing in bluegrass bands since he was 13 years old but is now a major recording star with his own band and style of country music; he has a museum quality collection of country music artifacts, and is a Nashville regular who is married to another country music star.


Hold your answers, everyone...keep them a secret and email your answers to me on Tuesday.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Love Affair with Books (How to Break Up with a Book)

The New York Times has an interesting article this morning about book lovers and how difficult it is for them to part with their books. Of course, that's not a new concept to people who bother to read books and book blogs. We all understand the pain, I think. What I find interesting in this particular article is the idea that libraries can be used to put old books "out of their misery" if their owners can't bring themselves to do the deed.
A library is an obvious recipient for giveaway books, so I trotted off to my local library in Larchmont, N.Y., to find out about their experiences.

Nancy Donovan, who has worked at the library 18 years, says she is quite familiar with the overly attached syndrome.

They can’t throw them away, so they give them to us even if they are old and moldy and mildewed,” she said. “And then we throw them in the trash.” I have no doubt that this is exactly what happens all the time when readers have such strong sentimental attachments to their books that they can't stand the thought of tossing even the worst ones into the trash, no matter how terrible their condition may be. Box them up, instead, and let the local library do your dirty work.

Ms. Donovan hastened to say that the library was happy to receive good books in good condition, but that a book “has to earn its keep.”

“It has to be current and in very good shape,” she said.

Larchmont is probably more a reading community than many other parts of the region, where more media, like DVDs and CDs, are checked out of libraries than books, Ms. Donovan said, but even so, the library can take only so much.

“We say we will take one container per household per week,” she said. And no cheating — you have to be able to carry the container and fit it through the door.

“We’re fairly brutal,” she said. As is the case with donations to most local libraries, some of the books are tossed, and many others are sold for 50 cents or a dollar to help finance the library.
If you're more into adding books to your collection than into trying to reduce its size, the article also mentions a website that may be of some help. I haven't been to the site yet but it sounds like another good one.
However, Better World Books (www.betterworld.com) offers a different option. Started by some freshly minted Notre Dame graduates in 2002, it collects used books and textbooks from about 1,000 campuses and 700 libraries nationwide.

As an individual, you can donate if you pay for shipping yourself; but you can buy anything off its Web site and shipping is free anywhere in the country.

“It’s like 1,000 sidewalk sales rolled into one,” said a co-founder, Xavier Helgesen. He estimates that his organization receives about 15,000 used books a day and sells about 5,000 daily.

Some of the unusable books are recycled, many of the textbooks are sent to universities in Africa and of all the books that are sold, a certain percentage of each sale — it varies but ranges around 15 percent — goes to nonprofit partners promoting global literacy.

Ms. Burger of Princeton Public Library says her library sends books to Better World. A neat option on the Better World Web site lets you type in your ZIP code to find out if your local library donates to the group. You can buy specifically from that collection and up to 35 percent of what you pay for those books goes back to that library.
Free postage is always a good thing.

Books and Bluegrass Contest, Part II

I don't have many photos to add to the contest today because tomorrow's line up has more of the better known bluegrass performers and I think that they would be easier to identify. In fact, some of the biggest names in bluegrass music will be on stage here between nine a.m. and midnight on the 23rd of June.

That said, here are a couple of photos to add to the challenge:


The fellow on the left fronts one of the best known and most respected bluegrass bands on the West Coast. Who is he?

This is exactly half of a relatively new bluegrass band that has already achieved tremendous success and is easily remembered because of its catchy name. What's the name of the band?

Hold your answers, everyone...keep them a secret and email your answers to me on Monday.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Books and Bluegrass Contest

I've just completed Day One here in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I'm getting ready for another day of music with six good friends who have joined me here from all over the country. In fact, we are from seven different states: Texas, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

But speaking of books...

I received a really striking book from a publisher just before I left Houston that I would like to give to someone. When I get home I'll do a post about the book and its author, pictures and links included. In the meantime, I'm going to post a few pictures that I will be taking here at the festival but I won't be identifying the singers and bands yet. The person who can correctly identify the most bands and singers in my photos will win the book.

So here's the first batch of photos:

These are three members of one of the best known bluegrass bands in the business (the fiddle player and the banjo player or not shown in this picture). The band leader is the fellow in the snazzy suit. What is the name of this band?

This man is an expert on old-time music and he plays the songs on instruments very much like the ones that the songs were first played on. He shares his surname with his very famous half-brother. Who is this?

These two gentlemen do not usually work together. However, they opened the show last night by doing one song together. The man on the left has one of the best "high lonesome" voices I've ever heard in my life and works hard to preserve traditional American music. The man on the right is an amazing musician and singer who has released solo albums but who has also recorded on the releases of numerous other singers. He is particularly fond of Celtic music and has recently returned from performing in Ireland.

So there you have the first three chances to pick up points. Now I realize that bluegrass fans are not a huge number when it comes to comparison with the number of fans of other types of music. I know this might be difficult but I'm hoping that it might be a fun challenge for everyone and that it might even interest some of you in sampling some of the music. Good luck!

(When I've posted all the pictures, entries can be emailed to me at the address shown in my profile.)

Hold your answers, everyone...keep them a secret and email your answers to me on Monday. I'm going to post two or three pictures in the morning (it's near midnight here and I just made it back to the hotel).

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Postman

David Brin's The Postman tells the story of Gordon Krantz, a man who finds himself still struggling for survival some sixteen years after nuclear war has almost completely destroyed the United States. Luckily for him, Krantz had been a bright student before his school days so suddenly ended forever at the age of sixteen, and he remembered enough Shakespeare and other classic literature to be able to earn his food and shelter as a traveling entertainer as he made his way westward from Minnesota.

But Krantz knew that his survival always depended on his ability to avoid bands of murdering bandits or sudden death at the hands of Mother Nature. One day his luck ran out. After an encounter with bandits left him with little more than the clothes on his back and in desperate need of shelter to avoid freezing to death, Krantz stumbled upon an old post office jeep, complete with the driver's remains. In order not to freeze, he clothed himself in the heavier clothing of the driver for the night and continued to wear the old uniform the next day when he left the jeep's shelter.

Much to Krantz's surprise, the next group of people he encountered was joyful to be hosting a mail carrier, someone they never expected to see again after having lived through sixteen years of isolation and precarious survival. They insisted on sharing past-life memories and stories about the mailmen they remembered from childhood and Krantz did not have the heart to tell them that he was a fraud. But, fraud or not, Krantz realized that he could easily acquire food and shelter by pretending to be a postal inspector sent by the "Reformed United States" to set up post offices throughout the state of Oregon. He justified his lies by telling himself that he was offering hope and inspiration to people who probably needed those things for their long term survival almost as badly as they needed food and shelter.

As word spread throughout the region, Krantz was soon to learn that the hope he offered created both opportunity and risk for the people who heard his story. For sixteen years those people had managed to survive, but they feared a large group of survivalist refugees from the past who intended to take what they had and make them into little more than slaves. Suddenly, with knowledge that the "Restored United States" would one day be there to help them, people were almost anxious to confront their vicious enemy. Only Krantz knew the truth, and he dared not steal the hope that these people embraced so desperately.

The Postman offers another doomsday scenario, this one a little more hopeful than most. It illustrates how a man who believes in ideals and morality can make a critical difference if only he has the courage and near foolishness to tackle what seems like an impossible task. Krantz wanted to give up but he could not abandon the people who had embraced "the postman."

I suspect that many people, like me, have not read David Brin's novel because of exposure to Kevin Costner's rather lame movie of the same name. Although the movie was based on Brin's book, rest assured that that is where the resemblance begins and ends.

Rated at: 3.0

Rushdie Recommendation Committee Stunned at Negative Reaction

I was not surprised at the Muslim world's negative reaction to the news that Salmon Rushdie has been recommended for a knighthood. Anyone who reads a newspaper every once in a while could have seen this coming. But according to Guardian Unlimited, neither the committee that made the recommendation, nor those who have been pushing for this honor for Rushdie, saw it coming. They are "stunned."
It also emerged yesterday that the writers' organisation that led the lobbying for the author of Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses to be knighted had originally hoped that the honour would lead to better relations between Britain and Asia.
...
It was chaired by Lord Rothschild, the investment banker and former chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery. The other committee members are Jenny Abramsky, the BBC's director of radio and music; novelist and poet Ben Okri, who is vice-president of the English chapter of PEN International, which campaigns on behalf of writers who face persecution; Andreas Whittam Smith, former editor of the Independent; John Gross, the author and former theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph; and two permanent secretaries, one from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and one from the Scottish executive.

"Very properly, we were concerned only with merit in relation to the level of the award," Mr Whittam Smith said yesterday.

He added that it would be for the main committee to assess any other aspects of the honour. The Foreign Office is represented on the main committee by the permanent secretary, whose job it would be to raise any potential international ramifications. A Foreign Office spokesman said he was not aware of any request by the honours committee to gauge likely Muslim reaction to the knighthood before the decision was taken.
...
The Pakistani foreign ministry summoned the British high commissioner yesterday to complain about the knighthood, but British officials said they used the occasion to protest about the remarks by Mr Ejaz ul-Haq, who has since said that his comments were a statement of fact and not intended to incite violence.

"The high commissioner, Robert Brinkley, made clear to the Pakistan ministry of foreign affairs the British government's deep concern about what the minister of religious affairs is reported to have said," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said. "We made very clear that nothing can justify suicide bomb attacks."

However, Pakistan's foreign minister, Kurshid Kasuri, said on a visit to Washington that Britain could not have been surprised by the outrage.
For those who missed it, Mr. Ejaz ul-Haq, Pakistan's Minister of Religious Affairs, made the statement that Rushdie's proposed honor was complete justification for anyone who now decides kill innocent British citizens in protest of this supposed insult to Islam.

Look at the list of people on the recommendation committee. Is it really possible that not one of those esteemed individuals even thought for one second that something like this might happen? Can they really be that out of touch with the realities of today's politics? I wonder if Mr. Rushdie himself, despite what he says for public consumption, really believes that an honor that puts his life in even more danger than it already is really worth it. I'm all for honoring authors, especially with honors outside the literary community, but this one seems to be asking for trouble. Am I wrong?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Waterstone's Requires Cash from Publishers for Prime Store Placement

British bookstore chain Waterstone's has apparently been using a system similar to that of American radio stations which have often required cash from record labels in exchange for placing their songs on staion play lists. The stations have been known to receive thousands of dollars and numerous gifts in return for helping to make a new song into a national hit. Now Waterstone's admits that it has been requiring publishers to pay for special placement and promotion in its bookstores. ...or does it? The article ends with a bit of spin that claims that Waterstone's judgment was not influenced in any way by all that money changing hands.
Waterstone's, the book chain, admitted yesterday that it has asked publishers for up to £45,000 to promote their books in its 300-plus stores, but the retailer strongly denied that the money influences which titles it recommends to buyers.
...
For £45,000 per book, Waterstone's, the document suggested, would place six titles in windows, front-of-house displays and in a national advertising campaign.

For £25,000, the chain allegedly offered to feature a title in a front-of-store bay as a "gift book", and at tills. For £17,000, a book, it was claimed, would be displayed as one of two titles billed as the "offer of the week" for one week in the run-up to Christmas.

A payment of £7,000 would allegedly ensure a book was promoted as a Paperback of the Year and be mentioned in newspaper advertisements, while £500 would see a book appear in Waterstone's Christmas gift guide, complete with a bookseller review.
...
Though readers may believe that titles recommended or given prominence in book shops are purely down to a retailer's judgement, similar charges to those alleged are now said to be standard across the book industry. One supermarket chain is said to be considering charging publishers just for the right to pitch a book.

Anthony Cheetham, chairman of Quercus Books, said: "It's not a system you can opt out of. If retailers offer you one of these slots and you say no, their order doesn't go down from 1,000 copies to 500 copies - it goes down to 20 copies."

But Waterstone's firmly denied selling favours yesterday. A spokesman said that its "recommended" titles were picked by its own experts and that only then were publishers of those titles approached and asked to make a contribution to the cost of promotion.
So is this another "chicken and egg" case? Should book publishers who have their product chosen as worthy of special attention be asked to help cover the promotional costs? Does this make you, the reader, feel that you are being conned by the bookstores? What about small publishers who can't afford this kind of money to promote one of its titles? Is this an unfair advantage to the major publishing houses?

This may turn out to be a common practice in the U.K., and it may be perfectly legal. But is it right? Now I wonder if there is a similar practice in this country. My first inclination is to denounce this kind of thing because I've seen first hand how a similar practice has ruined American radio and resulted in only a handful of songs getting any exposure. The stations are boringingly predictable and listeners are abadononing them in droves. Is this what we want for our bookstores?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Road Trip!

Military Memorial along the river in Owensboro, Kentucky

I'm off bright and early tomorrow morning (before dawn, so it won't actually be very bright), to start a 20-hour drive to Owensboro, KY, to attend a 4-day bluegrass music festival there with a few friends from my Real Country Music website. I haven't mentioned it often on this site, but real country music is a second obsession of mine and I spend a lot of time at the RCM website and working on our RAM Radio internet radio station so this is a trip I've looked forward to making ever since I returned from last year's Ownesboro festival.

I'm going to bring my laptop with me, and the hotel promises access to high speed wireless internet connection, so I'm hoping to stay in touch here as well. And, of course, I'm bringing three or four books with me because I find it almost impossible to get much sleep in a hotel room and will need something to get me through those long nights.

Books and bluegrass music. It doesn't get much better than that.

Part of the Cherryholmes family from last year's festival

What the Dead Know

When the Bethany sisters disappeared from Baltimore's Security Mall during the Easter weekend of 1975 no one expected that their disappearance would remain a mystery for decades. Of course, when the girls were not found in the first few days, it became more and more likely that only their remains would be returned to Miriam and Dave Bethany. But even that didn't happen.

What the Dead Know is a fine suspense novel that focuses on how this unsolved mystery impacts the lives of those left behind, especially Dave and Miriam, the parents who find that their separate grieving processes put a tremendous strain on an already shaky marriage. After a few years, Miriam reconciles herself to the fact that she is unlikely ever to see her girls again but Dave refuses to give up hope that they will be returned to him. Miriam begins to see Dave as someone too weak to get on with the rest of his life. Dave starts to believe that Miriam is just not as good a parent as he is and thinks less of her because she seems to him to have so easily moved past the family tragedy.

And then one day the impossible happens. A woman passing through Baltimore hits an oil slick on the freeway, causing her to lose control of her vehicle just long enough to force the SUV in the next lane to roll. In a panic the driver abandons her car and tries to walk away from the accident. When stopped and questioned by a Baltimore policeman, she tries to divert his attention from the accident by claiming that she is Heather Bethany, the younger of the two girls who have been missing since 1975.

But is she? If so, where has she been all this time and why is she only now coming forward to end the decades old mystery of her disappearance. "Heather" is unwilling to provide the answers to any of the questions that the Baltimore police want to ask her and Detective Kevin Infante does not believe that she is who she claims to be. What is she hiding?

Author Laura Lippman has created a suspenseful mystery that will keep the reader rapidly turning pages in anticipation of finding the answers to all of those questions. Lippman, who lives in Baltimore, has won several crime fiction awards, including the Edgar, and she is best known for her series of Tess Monaghan crime novels. But this "stand alone" novel is my first experience with her writing and it leaves me with one question about her style. I found Lippman's habit of referring to her policeman characters as "a police" to be distracting, and eventually, a little irritating. She never calls them "a cop" or a "policeman." It's always "a police." I've never seen that done before and I wonder if that's the way that Baltimore cops refer to themselves or if Lippman has created this term on her own. She uses it so many times in the novel that she obviously prefers it, whatever its source.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, June 18, 2007

Book Likers Are People Too

Part-time reader Julia Keller writes in yesterday's Chicago Tribune that people like her are critical to the survival of the publishing industry. I agree with Julia that "book likers" are an important target audience for publishers, and at the risk of being labeled as someone she would describe as "swaddled in snobbery," I have to say that I suspect it's "book likers" who largely determine the makeup of the various Best Seller lists, bleak as those lists generally are.
You don't have to love books. It's OK just to like them. It's OK to be a casual reader, a sometime scholar, an occasional consumer of print. It's acceptable to read a book every once in a while, for the simple reason that you happen upon one that intrigues you -- without quitting your job, selling your furniture and going back to graduate school in comparative literature.

In the midst of last weekend's wonderful Printers Row Book Fair, I listened to author after author, moderator after moderator, panelist after panelist (including me), automatically refer to the assembled multitude as "book lovers." Now, book lovers are wonderful. Book lovers are essential. I love book lovers. But it occurred to me that the audience surely included a good number of people -- perhaps even a majority -- who, if pressed, would classify themselves as "book likers." As people who enjoy reading, as people who respect authors and seek knowledge, but for whom reading is not a consuming, world-obliterating, walls-come-tumblin'-down passion.
...
Book lovers remain a fairly stable unit from century to century, a crucial but relatively small segment of the population for whom words are life itself. Book lovers, that is, aren't a growth area.
My only real quibble with Julia is her implication that that all book lovers are "those whose livelihoods depend on the publishing industry." I don't believe that's even close to being a true statement. But putting that aside, I'm all for giving three cheers for "book likers" who support bookstores, authors and publishers on at least a part-time basis. That support just might be enough to make the difference.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

American Pastoral


Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's alter ego is back, this time to tell us about his boyhood hero, the gifted high school athlete Seymour Levov. Levov, who because of his blond good looks became known as "The Swede," seemed to have it all to the young Nathan Zuckerman who admired him from afar. Even as an adult, Nathan vividly recalled the time when, surrounded by a group of his young friends who were watching the high school boys at football practice, "Swede" Levov called his name and joked about the beating he was taking on the field. Nathan became the envy of his crowd simply because "Swede" Levov knew his name and treated him as an equal, a feeling he would never forget.

But, as they always do, things change. Boys grow up and become men with families, jobs and responsibilities that often taken them far from their home towns. Nathan Zuckerman assumed that "The Swede" grew into the life for which he had seemed destined, a life that would be the envy of all who knew him. And, on the surface, it appeared that Zuckerman was right about that. "Swede" Levov, one time Marine drill sergeant, married Miss New Jersey 1949 and eventually took over and successfully ran his father's glove manufacturing business. It was only years later, when accomplished writer Nathan Zuckerman met successful businessman Seymour Levov by chance in Yankee Stadium, that Zuckerman began to understand that Levov's life was not all it appeared to be.

In fact, "Swede" Levov, barely hanging on to the life he had made for himself, his wife and his only child, was obsessed with trying to figure out exactly where he had gone wrong. Was it his fault that his daughter's hatred of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War turned her into more than just another war protester? Could he have done something, anything, to prevent her from evolving into the bomb planting terrorist that she became? Those were the questions that he lived with every day after Merry Levov planted a bomb in the post office of her own small hometown, a bomb that killed a local doctor who had stopped on his way to the local hospital to pick up his mail in the otherwise deserted post office.

The first part of American Pastoral, narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, captures the optimism and excitement that describes America during the years just before and after World War II, a time when anything seemed possible for those who wanted it badly enough. But the heart of the book begins when the reader is rather painfully taken into "Swede" Levov's head and made witness to his innermost thoughts and doubts about himself. We watch Levov torture himself about all the "what ifs" and "could have beens" in his past as he lives with his constant desire to find his daughter so that she can prove her "innocence" to the world. Sadly, he only gets one part of his wish.

Philip Roth did a remarkable job of recreating a troubling period in recent American history, the decade of the sixties during which many young, naive people saw violence as the only way to protest what they perceived to be an unjust war in Viet Nam. With Seymour Levov, Roth created a character that I will remember for a long time. However, I'm starting to wonder if anyone dares to edit Philip Roth these days because American Pastoral would have been even more powerful without the repetitiveness that characterizes its last hundred or so pages.

Ron Silver does his usual superb job in the audio version of this book, a 14-disc, 16-hour experience.

Rated at: 3.5

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Forgive Me

Nadine Morgan is a small town girl who could hardly wait to escape the limited life offered by the tiny Cape Cod fishing village known as Woods Hole, Massachusetts. And escape she does, transforming herself into the breed of reporter who seeks danger wherever she can find it anywhere in the world. But something she read in the journal of a young American teacher who was killed in a South African ghetto by a mob of youngsters who took the opportunity to kill a white man that day haunted her and she realized, that like him, she "was just lonely, at the end of the day."

Beaten to within an inch of her life by Mexican drug dealers, Nadine awoke to find herself back in Woods Hole, under the care of her father and his girlfriend for the long recovery that her injuries demanded. But despite the romantic interest taken in her by the town doctor under whose care she finds herself and the slow reconciliation that she is making with her best friend, Nadine cannot wait to leave Woods Hole for another of the world's hot spots. That feeling is nothing new for her because "the story" has always been more important to her than the people who love her and depend on her, a flaw that has contributed to most of the regrets that she has in her life.

It is upon her return to South Africa with the parents of the young American whose journal she was so touched by that Nadine is finally able to forgive herself, and to feel the forgiveness of others, for the decisions that she made during her first assignment there. One of Jason Irving's killers has applied for amnesty and his mother is determined to make sure that the young woman remains in prison for the rest of her life. Covering the story for an American newspaper allows Nadine the opportunity to reconcile herself to her past decisions and relationships and to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

Nadine Morgan's story is not a simple one, and the most remarkable thing about Forgive Me is the clever structure that Amanda Eyre Ward uses to tell that story. Chapters that alternate between the past, the present, and journal excerpts allow the reader to gradually flesh out the character of Nadine Morgan, a woman who sees professionalism as a willingness to make her personal life a secondary concern regardless of the consequences suffered. Ward provides numerous clues and details about the makeup of Nadine, but even the most careful reader will be delighted by what the author has in store for them at the end of the book.

(As part of Library Thing's Early Reviewers project, I received a copy of the uncorrected proofs of Forgive Me directly from its publisher, Random House, for my review.)

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, June 15, 2007

Too Many Books, Too Little Space

I reached the breaking point almost eight years ago, and I imagine that many of you have also reached it: every new book I bring into the house can only end up on my bookshelves if I remove a book that's already there. That means, in effect, that for every book I add to my collection, another one ends up in one of the closets where it immediately falls to a sort of "second class" status in my home library.

Well, if it makes you feel any better, according to the 5 Towns Jewish Times it's not just home libraries that have reached that tipping point.
“Unfortunately, we are forced to weed out our books every month to make room on the shelves for new ones,” says George Trepp, director of the Long Beach Public Library. “This is very frustrating for our staff, who love books and want to share as many of them as possible with the community.”

The discarded books are forwarded to a book reseller, Better World Books, with a percentage of the sales coming back to the library. Those books that are not sold are donated to a few different charities such as Books for Africa, National Center for Family Literacy, and Room to Read.

“It’s disheartening to the board of trustees, the library staff and the Long Beach community that we can no longer keep or expand our book selection,” says Mr. Trepp. “We are close to one book bought equaling one book being taken off the shelf.”
...
Ten years ago, the library underwent a significant expansion. “We knew going into the last renovation that we would outgrow the space again and we hope to find a solution to this problem,” says Mr. Trepp. “Weeding out our books is the library’s last resort.”
I suppose that I shouldn't be at all surprised to read about something like this. After all, even the largest and best funded of libraries has a finite supply of shelf space in which to place its books. And, of course, modern libraries are feeling the shelf space crunch even more these days because so much of their space is taken up by DVDs, VHS tapes, CDs and books on cassette tapes. Book weeding is something that all libraries, including most home libraries, needs to do on a regular basis. There's not much point in keeping out-of-date computer books, discredited old science books, and the like on anyone's shelves when space is at such a premium. But I do find it a little sad that so many worthy, but out-of-print, books are being culled from the one place that most readers expect to find them.

On the other hand, there is a little touch of good news hidden in this situation. The cause of this whole problem is the fact that so many thousands of new books are being published around the world every year. That's a good thing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

I Can't Remember a Day without Books

My barber asked me this morning if I go everywhere with a book in my hand. She's been cutting my hair for several years now and she remarked that she doesn't recall a single time that I sat in her chair without first closing the book that I carried in with me. She's right; I don't recall a single time either.

That got me to thinking about the difference between avid readers and those who either don't read at all or who only read one of the giant bestsellers once or twice a year. What turned some of us into readers and left so many others unblessed with the inclination? Is it genetic? Are some us simply born that way and others not? It's kind of scary to think that something like a love of reading, something that has played such a large part in my life, was given to me through sheer, random chance. I have only one sibling, a non-reading brother, and I cringe to think that there was a 50-50 chance that I had missed out on the "reading gene" and that the little fellow instead had ended up in his DNA rather than in mine. Of course, he's probably just as happy being a non-reader as I am being a book nut since he has no way to know what he's missing. But still...

I'm coming to believe that it is near impossible to turn a person who is inclined to be a non-reader into an avid one. Yes, you might be able to move them along the reading scale in that direction, but I don't believe that they will ever turn into one of the book nuts like us. That spark is either there, waiting to flame up when it's ready, or it's not there at all and throwing all the gasoline in the world on it won't start a fire.

Am I wrong?

I Married a Dead Man

The first version of I Married a Dead Man appeared as a novella in the April 1946 issue of Today's Woman. By 1948, when the book was published under the pseudonym William Irish, Cornell Woolrich had expanded his novella and completely rewritten its ending, resulting in a fine American Noir novel that has been filmed at least three times. The best known movie version of I Married a Dead Man is the 1950 film starring Barbara Stanwyck for which the title was changed to No Man of Her Own. The movie is an excellent representation of the film noir of the period although it was somewhat weakened by the studio's decision to use the original ending of the novella rather than the stronger, more compelling, ending of the novel itself.

Helen, a very young woman, finds herself seven months pregnant and abandoned by the father of her child. All that the father of her child has left her is a five dollar bill and train tickets from New York to the West Coast where she hopes to start a new life for herself and her baby. By the time that she is seen struggling to find a place for herself and her one suitcase on an overcrowded train, Helen is down to her last seventeen cents and is near despair. But fate has a surprise in store for Helen and the young couple who befriend her on the train, a surprise that offers Helen the chance to provide her child with the kind of life she never dreamed possible.

Does she have the nerve required to snatch that chance when she recognizes it? Is her love for her new baby so strong that she will do anything to ensure the child's future? By the time that Helen has to answer those questions for herself, she finds that circumstances completely beyond her control have made it possible for her to live a life she never dreamed possible if only she keeps her mouth shut. But of course, fate is not that kind, nor is life that simple. That's the rest of the story, a story that would have made Alfred Hitchcock smile, and one that I'm not going to spoil for you.

Cornell Woolrich deserves to be better known than he is today. He was a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Raymond Chandler, all of whom have remained largely in print for the last 60 or 70 years. But despite the fact that during the period between 1940 and 1948 alone, Woolrich produced six novels under his own name, four as William Irish and one using the name George Hopley, his work is not easily found today. Woolrich has been called "the Hitchcock of the written word" and, in fact, between 1938 and 1950 Hollywood producers turned some 15 of his stories into movies, the most famous of which is Hitchcock's own Rear Window, a film based on the 1942 Woolrich novella It Had to Be Murder.

So if you are a fan of Cain, Hammett and Chandler but have read all of their work, Cornell Woolrich is a name you need to remember. Finding his work will require some extra effort, but Woolrich is a worthy addition to anyone's American Noir collection.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

You Should Be Ashamed of Yourselves, Book Bloggers




How dare you make up your own mind about the books you read and the authors who write those books? Where do you get the audacity to write all that meaningless tripe that you try to pass off as a book review? What makes you think that what you have to say is of interest to anyone but other brain dead book bloggers like you?


Adam Kirsch, New York Sun columnist, has about had enough of you. So cut it out.



In fact, despite what the bloggers themselves believe, the future of literary culture does not lie with blogs — or at least, it shouldn't. The blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not well-suited to writing about literature, and it is no coincidence that there is no literary blogger with the audience and influence of the top political bloggers. For one thing, literature is not news the way politics is news — it doesn't offer multiple events every day for the blogger to comment on. For another, bitesized commentary, which is all the blog form allows, is next to useless when it comes to talking about books. Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve. The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.

Still, it is important to distinguish between the blog as a genre and the Internet as a medium. It is not just possible but likely that, one day, serious criticism will find its primary home on the Web. The advantages — ease of access, low cost, potential audience — are too great to ignore, even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen. Already there are some web publications — like Contemporary Poetry Review (cprw.com), to which I occasionally contribute — that match anything in print for seriousness of purpose. But there's no chance that literary culture will thrive on the Internet until we recognize that the ethical and intellectual crotchets of the bloggers represent a dead end.
Does Mr. Kirsch feel threatened by the hundreds of literary bloggers out there who have formed a new literary community of their own? Is he unhappy because there is an audience for less pretentious literary opinion than one finds in print journals? Or is he bothered by the fact that bloggers figured out how to use the internet to discuss books and writing before the big boys in print journalism realized what was happening? Is he really the literary snob he appears to be?

Only Mr. Kirsch knows for sure.

I have to chuckle about this one-sided war between professional critics and amateur book bloggers because that's exactly what it is: one-sided. Book bloggers could not care less. I've never seen a blogger argue that "the future of literary culture" lies with blogs. Book bloggers are not that pretentious and I'm amazed that what we do bothers people like Mr. Kirsch so much and so easily. The only thing that should bother him is that book bloggers have probably done more to sell books, simply by talking about them and spreading the word about lesser known authors and books, than all the pros who review the same handful of books and authors every Sunday.

Well done, book bloggers. Keep up the good work.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Next Big Thing

Now that JK Rowling is set to retire, or maybe even kill off, Harry Potter with the release of her final Potter book on July 21, the frantic search for a replacement is on the way in the U.K. And Barry Cunningham, the Bloomsbury editor who likes to take credit for first spotting Harry's sales potential, thinks he's found just the thing. According to Guardian Unlimited, it's time to prepare yourself for a boy archaeologist who digs a big hole and for what he finds in it.


Cunningham found the first of the books, Tunnels, after its joint authors Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams pooled their resources to self-publish a deluxe edition. The first print run, sold through Gordon's local bookshop in Norfolk, apparently sold out within hours - a sensational success for a self-published book - and word reached Cunningham.

With the backing of Cunningham - a man considered something of a magician himself in the publishing world - the book has gone on to sell pre-publication rights in 15 languages around the world, securing advances totaling more than £500,000. Cunningham is currently in Hollywood, in discussions to sell the film rights.

"I knew from page one that Harry Potter was magic," Cunningham said earlier, "Reading Tunnels gave me the same thrill, discovering a world of imagination just beyond our ordinary lives." He confidently predicted that "millions of children" would soon be feeling much the same way.
Can Cunningham do it again or is he counting too much on his past success and reputation to sell this series? Only time will tell, of course, but I have to doubt that the next Harry Potter can be found so quickly. Success like Rowling's comes along only once every generation or so and the odds are against anyone matching her sales figures anytime soon, if ever again.

Monday, June 11, 2007

American Noir

I've long had an interest in the American Noir of the 1930s-1950s period and was particularly happy to find that The Library of America considers much of the work of that period worthy of being added to its list. In fact, I know of six volumes published so far: two collections of Raymond Chandler's work, two volumes from Dashiell Hammett, and two volumes entitled "Crime Novels," one covering the decades of the thirties and forties and another of work first published in the fifties.

In its own words, The Library of America publishes "America's best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions." I totally agree with that description and I've been collecting LOA books for a few years now, adding two or three a year to my shelves.

Today I've been reading Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man, a novel that is included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s. I plan to review the novel when I finish it because it is one of those "lost novels" that few people remember and that is a shame. But what I already find interesting is the great contrast between the quality of the volume from which I'm reading Woolrich's book (classy, full cloth binding, acid free paper) with the way that it was marketed in its earlier life.

Take a look at this 1949 cover:

Several of Cornell Woolrich's novels were published under the name of "William Irish," so no big surprise there. What makes me chuckle is how misleading this rather outlandish cover is about the book's plot, making it appear to be some kind of ghoulish horror novel when it is actually more akin to the kind of story that made Alfred Hitchcock famous. I wonder how many readers judged this book by its cover.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Gods in Alabama

I happened to pick up Gods in Alabama while browsing the shelves of a bookstore the other day and, as I almost always do with a book, I opened it to the first page to check out its first paragraph. That paragraph made me so curious about the rest of the book that I had to take it home with me:
"THERE ARE GODS in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches."
Those are the words of Arlene Fleet, a 27-year old Alabama girl who made a deal with God when she was 15 and who fled Possett, Alabama, two years later for a new life in Chicago. All God had to do was perform the miracle of making sure that the body of the star quarterback that Arlene killed was never found. If God pulled that one off, Arlene promised a three-for-one return on the miracle: no more sex outside of marriage; no more lying under any circumstances; and never, ever, to return to Possett, Alabama. Arlene thought that God "made out pretty well" in the deal.

It wasn't easy for Arlene to adapt to the people and the big city lifestyle of Chicago but the city eventually served her well. It provided her with an education, a teaching job while she worked on her Ph.D., and a steady black boyfriend who was the son of the former preacher of the Southern Baptist church she attended there. But, as Arlene sees it, God slipped up by allowing the dead quarterback's high school girlfriend, Rose Mae Lolley, to show up in Chicago full of questions for Arlene about the former football star. So, black boyfriend in tow, Arlene Fleet returns to Possett, Alabama, for her uncle's retirement celebration and to confront all the ghosts of her past.

Joshilyn Jackson's chapters alternate between what Arlene finds upon her return to Alabama and the life that she lived there as a young girl, a life that culminated in the death of high school star Jim Beverly. This is a darkly comic novel and I often laughed out loud at the sarcastic observations of Southern life as seen through the eyes of Arlene Fleet. It is a good story, and despite its comic nature, it is filled with observations about right and wrong, human nature, and growing up in a change-resisting South. My only quarrel with the novel is that I found two or three of the characters to be unrealistic and, in the case of Arlene's black boyfriend, to be too good to be true. I had somewhat of a problem with Arlene herself, wondering the whole time that I read, how a young woman could go through life without being more scarred by the thought that she had purposely killed a high school classmate.

But the novel is largely saved by an ending that caught me completely by surprise and by its numerous laugh-out-loud one-liners. This one is fun and I'm happy that I didn't let my fear that it would be "chick lit" cause me to miss it.

Rated at: 3.0

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Book Burning in Scotland

The person who posted this four-minute film to YouTube indicates that these 3,000 books were burned in late 2004. The bookstore owner who explains why the books are being burned in a rather spectacular tower that he created for them makes a good case for himself. What do you think? Was he justified in disposing of unwanted stock this way?




And for comparative purposes, here's a short video on the recent book burning in Kansas City that we've previously discussed:

Friday, June 08, 2007

Dickens on Criminal Nature

I've been ending the day with a chapter or two of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit and I'm really enjoying all of the side characters and conversations that Dickens so ably throws into the middle of his stories. One of those conversations struck me as something I might hear even today when the topic of crime comes up in conversation.

Dickens places one of his characters in an out-of-the-way French tavern where he hears the owner's wife respond to a Swiss customer who has excused even the worst criminal behavior by telling her that she needs to consider what it was in the life of the criminal who turned him into the devil he is today. The landlady responded:
"I am a woman, I. I know nothing of philosophical philanthropy. But I know what I have seen, and what I have looked in the face, in this world here where I find myself. And I tell you this, my friend, that there are people (men and women both, unfortunately) who have no good in them - none. That there are people whom it is necessary to detest without compromise. That there are people who must be dealt with as enemies of the human race. That there are people who have no human heart and who must be crushed like savage beasts, and cleared out of the way. There are but few, I hope; but I have seen...that there are such people."
The debate continues today, proving that there is nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Volunteer Needed

I'm still intrigued with "Bestseller," the upcoming U.K. television show that will supposedly do for unpublished authors what shows like "American Idol" have done for unsigned singers. I would very much like to receive first hand reports from someone in the U.K. as each of the six episodes air there. So if you have the time, and want to share your impressions, I would be very happy to post your thoughts here. Just let me know and we'll go from there.

I'll also take a second to make note of a couple of websites that you guys might find interesting.

We all seem to believe that we buy "too many" books, although I have no idea how to define "too many" and I wonder if it really exists for most of us. But I do know for a fact that we all want to stretch our book-buying money as far as possible. One of the best websites I've seen for an easy comparison of book prices is booksprice.com. It has a wizard of a search engine that allows for searching for best total price, including shipping and handling, and it works for DVDs and CDs, as well.

I've spotted a few online book clubs lately but I find the Oxford World's Classics Book Club to be a little different because it is strictly for a discussion of classic works. The book club is currently discussing Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, a book I have to admit that I haven't read, but I'm going to keep my eye on the club to see what's next.

The web has so much to offer readers these days that I'm starting to wonder when I'm going to have time to read...nice problem to have, though.

Will Borders Survive?

Borders Group has been downgraded to a "Sell" by one major investment company this week and speculation about the survival of Borders bookstores is becoming more and more common in the financial press. And, as discussed earlier, the expectation that Borders and Barnes & Noble will merge seems to be growing also because of the rate at which Borders is bleeding money. (The photo shows the London Borders bookstore before Borders announced that it was pulling out of the U.K. I spent many a happy Saturday morning in this store.)

Sadly, though, any merger of the two giant bookstore chains will result in the existence of fewer bookstores because of the overlap in territory that the two chains share today. I suspect that would mean longer lines and fewer book choices for most of us.
...a combined Borders / Barnes & Noble would sell about $8.5 billion. What is being overlooked here is the # of duplicate stores that would need to be closed, affecting total sales. This is not a 1+1=2 equation. This is more of a 1+1=1.5 equation.

What would be improved from the merger would be profitability, rather that size. Borders is currently going downhill fast, and has not had a profitable quarter in over a year now. Cash flow, negative in 2004 and 2005, was positive in 2006 only because of $317 million in borrowing. Borders need to merge to survive, not create a powerhouse. With national bookstore sales declining and less than 10% of its books sold online (Borders jointly owns its site with Amazon), a Barnes & Noble-Borders combination is not going to challenge Amazon anytime soon, it just assures they survive.
But there is now some speculation that a merger of Borders and Barnes & Noble is not as likely because of a recent FTC decision to oppose another proposed merger of similar giants.
The firm (Goldman Sachs) believes a merger with Barnes & Noble (BKS) is less likely following the FTC's decision to oppose the Whole Foods Market (WFMI) and Wild Oats Markets (OATS) deal.
But here's the kicker:
Heck, if they just wait long enough, Borders will probably go under and Barnes & Noble can just pick it up on the cheap.
Honestly, I never would have dreamed that Borders or Barnes & Noble would be in this predicament. It all makes me wonder now that they have grown so large, with so many locations, whether or not they will ever have the volume and the margins to cover all the expenses involved with that kind of growth. Would they have been better off by settling for fewer stores and less "dominance" of the market? Is it easier for a chain like Books-A-Million to make it with fewer stores?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Glory Cloak

The many heroes produced by and during the American Civil War have been well served by the countless historians who continue to write new books about them even today. But somewhat neglected have been the women who contributed so much to the war efforts of both sides of this tragic war, women who disguised themselves as men and joined battle regiments, women who served as nurses in military hospitals under conditions that can hardly be imagined today, and women who stayed home to run family farms and businesses on their own.

Patricia O'Brien's historical novel, The Glory Cloak, recounts the experiences of two of those women: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, and Clara Barton, battlefield nurse to the Union Army who placed her own life in jeopardy to save the lives of others. Their stories are told through the eyes of Susan Gray, a fictitious third cousin of the Alcott sisters who joined their household as a child after the loss of her own parents. Susan, ten years younger than Louisa, is so much like the tomboyish Louisa that the two develop a relationship that is closer than any that Louisa has with any of her sisters.

Susan and Louisa quickly grow frustrated with sewing uniforms, wrapping bandages and knitting socks for Union soldiers and decide to do more. That decision brings them to Washington D.C.'s Union Hospital where they are taken on as nurses under hospital conditions for which nothing could have prepared them. At first overwhelmed by the stench of unwashed bodies, festering wounds and un-emptied bedpans, the women soon find themselves carrying sawed off arms and legs to be dumped in piles on the hospital grounds and trying to comfort soldiers painfully suffering their final hours.

Amidst all the chaos that is Union Hospital, Louisa and Susan meet Clara Barton who sometimes visits the hospital to see the men with whom she has served in the field. The two nurses idolize Barton because of her selfless bravery and, as the friendship develops over time, Barton becomes their mentor and adviser.

The heart of The Glory Cloak is the friendship between Susan Gray and Louisa May Alcott, a relationship that is shattered for several years because of the love that both women feel for one mysterious soldier whom they nursed at Union Hospital. But Patricia O'Brien wraps her story in the historical context of its times and along the way the reader comes to know well the Alcott family and friends, including the Emersons and the Thoreaus. Never having read Alcott's Little Women, I was only vaguely aware of her personal and family history before reading The Glory Cloak. Now I want to learn more about the remarkable Alcott family and their times and, in particular, I want to read Alcott's Hospital Sketches, in which she recounts her experiences as a Civil War nurse.

I was drawn to The Glory Cloak because I am a fan of Civil War fiction, and I was not disappointed in that regard, but I think this novel will appeal equally to fans of Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. It is a wonderfully touching story cloaked in historical fact, a painless history lesson for those who might sometimes find history to be a dull subject.

Rated at: 4.0