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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Blaze

I suspect that most readers remember well their surprise when the news first broke that Richard Bachman, author of Thinner, was none other than the famous Stephen King. It wasn't long before more of "Bachman's" work was released to the world, some of it even being filmed. As it turns out, King put away one last Bachman book that he wrote in 1973, what he calls a "trunk novel," that he thought did not deserve publication.

King has now reworked the novel and had it published with his entire share of the proceeds being directed to The Haven Foundation, a charity that was created to help "freelance artists" who need temporary financial support. But all of that aside, I can't help but feel that Blaze is one trunk novel that probably should have remained locked in the trunk.

Clayton Blaisdell, the "Blaze" of the book's title, stands 6'7" tall, weighs in at almost 300 pounds, and is truly a gentle giant who has suffered at the hands of the world for most of his life. He lost his mother at an early age and, after being three times tossed down a set of stairs by his father and suffering brain damage, he found himself in an orphanage that saw nothing wrong with farming out the boys to homes that wanted them only for the free back-breaking labor they provided. Blaze was a hopeless student and when he finally left the orphanage he drifted into the life of petty crime that kept him alive.

Blaze's life in crime took a turn for the better when he met George Rackley, a man with more than enough brain power and criminal instinct for the two of them. Their con games worked quite well until George's sudden death left Blaze on his own again before the two were able to pull off the big score that they hoped would allow them to retire from the game forever. Blaze, following the detailed instructions of George, whom he still hears clearly speaking to him in his head, decides to go for the big payday on his own by kidnapping the baby heir that the two had planned to kidnap and ransom together. Not a good idea.

Despite its kidnapping plot and its sympathetic main character, Blaze never really succeeds in building much drama or suspense and its outcome is the predictable one. The way that King has structured the book with alternating chapters of flashbacks to the childhood that formed Blaze into the common criminal that he is today exposes the weakness of his main plot because the back story is better written and is much more interesting than the ultimate climax of the main plot line. This one is probably best left to King collectors who need it to maintain the completeness of their collections.

Note: The book includes Memory, the short story "seed" for King's next novel, Duma Key, which is to be published by Scribner in early 2008.

Rated at: 2.0

Monday, July 30, 2007

Another Library Book Sale Feeding Frenzy

Many of us have enjoyed library book sales from time to time because it's always a little bit exciting to wonder what you might find hidden in those stacks of used books. At the very least, we all hope to walk away with five or six bargain books that we've been meaning to read for a long time. Prices are good, books are everywhere, and it's nice to be surrounded by book lovers like ourselves. Those were the "good old days" of library used book sales.
More and more common is the library book sale like the one described by Walter Browne in the Philadelphia Inquirer last Friday.


Recently, more than 100 booklovers crammed into the Gloucester County Library in Mullica Hill - an oasis of tranquility and civility. It was the opening of the library's book sale.

Most of us were there to buy a few used books - but then, there were the Others.

I warn you: Book sales can be mean. They are an unhealthy blend of Norman Rockwell and capitalism. Arrive early and you can witness the sideshow: the wrinkle-shirted book dealers with their dollies and empty cardboard boxes.
...
Inside, the vultures ravaged the tables to stock their online stores or used bookstores. They had roaming goons, too, minions separating the Hemingways from the Harlequins. Eyes and hands never moved so fast.
...
One thinning-haired man with a scruffy beard and wrinkled shorts was yelling obscenities as he flung empty boxes. One smacked a guy as he entered. "I'm trying to work here!" the dealer snarled. "Someone took my damn books! This is insane!" Everyone froze - except the other dealers, who knew that it was an excellent time to snatch more books. The crazed man accused the elderly volunteers of incompetence. It was excellent entertainment. One of the volunteers told the enraged dealer he would have to leave if he didn't calm down. "We have women and children present!" he said, even threatening to call the police.
This kind of thing seems to be happening all around the country since the abundance of internet booksellers has forced bookstore owners to scramble for the books they need to restock their store shelves. But enough is enough.

Library sales are generally stocked with books that have been donated by "friends of the library." Those donations give libraries an extra source of revenue but they are not intended to provide a nice profit margin for resellers; they are meant to be shared by library patrons. Perhaps it is getting near the time that book dealers need to be banned from such sales. If so, I don't want to hear a bunch of whining from the very people who are ruining library book sales for the rest of us. Yes, enough really is enough.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Becoming Jane


Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, opens in "select cities" on August 3 and it appears to be only the first entry in a real bonanza for Jane Austen fans over the next year or so. The movie website to which I've linked does a remarkable job of introducing the movie and includes a trailer and other movie clips. This one might get me to make one of my rare visits to a movie theater.

But, according to the Boston Globe, the really good news is that this is just the tip of the iceberg that is headed our way.



"The Jane Austen Book Club" is scheduled for release next year, as is an adaptation of "Northanger Abbey," the only one of Austen's six novels not previously made into a movie.
...
Television has, if anything, been an even more ardent admirer of Austen. PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" has plans for a four-month Austen festival next year, including versions of all the novels and a biopic bearing the unfortunate title "Miss Austen Regrets."
Jane Austen fans are some of the most ardent and best organized fans out there and this is certain to be an exciting year or two for them.

Michigan Supreme Court Answers Right to Library Question

Back in early April, I made note of the lawsuit filed by a Michigan resident who lived in an area of the state that did not have a public library of its own. The man sued the nearest public library because it refused to sell him the "resident permit" that would allow him to use that facility. At the time, I remarked that it should be relatively simple for the library to calculate the tax amount it received from those living in its district and to sell permits for that same amount to those neighboring the district.

However, it is not quite that simple because the non-library district has been negotiating a "blanket rate" for all the people that live there without access to a library of their own. Having some people pay directly for a permit would mean that the library would be, in effect, paid twice for those people. But it is only because the two sides could not agree on that "blanket rate" that anyone might need to pay directly, in the first place. The library did not want to sell permits to individuals because that would cause it to lose some of its negotiating strength. The non-library district did not encourage anyone paying directly because of the "double payment" issue.

The Michigan Supreme Court has now reached a decision in the validity of the lawsuit and has answered the question of whether it is a constitutional right in Michigan to have access to a public library.
Residents not living in a community have no constitutional right to borrow books from its library, a divided Michigan Supreme Court ruled today.

The court voted 4-3 to dismiss the lawsuit of George Goldstone, who sued after Oakland County’s Bloomfield Township Public Library refused to sell him a nonresident library card. Goldstone lives in nearby Bloomfield Hills, which does not have a library.

The township’s residency requirement is “a viable means of establishing and maintaining a local public library,” Justice Stephen Markman wrote for the majority.

He was joined by Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, Maura Corrigan and Robert Young Jr.

The 1963 state constitution says libraries “shall be available” to all Michigan residents but also gives libraries the authority to create rules.
Maybe this will finally get the two sides to complete the stalled negotiation process that would solve this problem in a more common sense way. Let's hope so because I feel for those 4,000 Bloomfield Hills residents who don't have access to a public library at the moment. Their community is probably too small to be able to build a library of its own, but they do need to pay their fair share of the cost of running the Bloomfield Township library.

A relatively simple problem has taken on a life of its own and it's time for the two sides to go back to the negotiating table and get this resolved.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Books Are Cool


It's kind of nice to see books used in non-book-related advertising the way that this J. Crew mail order catalog uses it. We receive a handful of catalogs in the mail every week and they all start to look alike to me and usually get tossed straight into the can. This one caught my eye and made me take a second look.

Some advertising director somewhere had a cool idea.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Most of us have something in common with Bill Bryson. We are not scientists and, for the most part, we really do not understand science despite however many science classes we sat through during our school days. Bryson realized that about himself and, because his curiosity was still very much alive, he decided to do something about it. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the result. And when Bryson says "nearly everything," he is not joking.

The book consists of an introduction, thirty long chapters that are organized into six sections, and something like 100 pages of notes (I read the e-book version and have not looked at a printed version to get actual page counts). Most books of over 500 pages will never be called short but, considering the number of hugely complicated topics that he tackles in this book, Bryson has indeed written a "short history." And, most importantly, his explanation of the science involved is kept at a perfect level: basic enough for those of us without a background in science to understand it, but complicated enough to make us realize just how amazing it is that anyone ever reached the level of understanding held by the real scientists in world history.

The book's six sections carry the reader from the creation of the universe, through the evolution of our own planet, to the beginning of life on Earth and the eventual development of man, closing with a final chapter on the devastating effect that mankind continues to have on the other species of the world. Along the way, we meet many of the scientists who made the biggest discoveries and scientific breakthroughs in scientific history. Bryson puts a human face on these men and women by describing the many wrong turns that most of them took before finally reaching their halleluiah moments. In fact, as Bryson describes some of the petty feuding that has always been part of the scientific community, one wonders how so much was achieved so quickly.

If you find yourself feeling the way that Bryson felt before he began the research for A Short History of Nearly Everything, this is a book that you will enjoy:
All mine (science textbooks)were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn't be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it.
Most of us got by our science classes without gaining much of an understanding of all the science behind those "facts" that we taught ourselves to regurgitate when it came time to fill out our test papers. A Short History of Nearly Everything goes a long way in showing us just how much we missed out on by settling for that.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, July 27, 2007

Who Is Most Likely to Survive?


Looking back just a few decades and seeing what a small percentage of writers from those days are still read today (if their books can even be found) makes me wonder about some of the major bestselling writers of our own era. I've chosen six authors who have made loads of money, sold tons of books, etc., but who have all received criticism, to one degree or another, for what they write.




What do you think...and why?

Which of these authors, if any, is most likely to still be in print 100 years from today?
Danielle Steele
Stephen King
JK Rowling
James Patterson
Dean Koontz
Tom Clancy
pollcode.com free polls


Note: I forgot to include a "none of the above" choice, so if that's your choice, just say so in a comment.

Blog Tip Meme

Gentle Reader, of Shelf Life, tagged me with a meme that is quickly turning into a nice list of blogging tips. Each of the tagged bloggers simply adds a tip to the bottom of the list and asks a few other bloggers to participate. I'm not going to directly tag anyone at this point, but if any of you guys see this and it appeals to you, just copy the list, add your own tip to the end, and post it on your blog.

1. Look, read, and learn. ***- http://www.neonscent.com/

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. **-http://www.bushmackel.com/

3. Don’t let money change ya! *-http://www.therandomforest.info/

4. Always reply to your comments. ******-http://chattiekat.com/

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. ***-http://chipsquips.com/

6. Don’t give up - persistence is fertile. **-http://www.velcro-city.co.uk/

7. Give link credit where credit is due. ****-http://www.sfsignal.com/

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.**-http://scifichick.com/

9. Visit all the bloggers that leave comments for you - it's nice to know who is reading! ** http://stephaniesbooks.blogspot.com/

10. When commenting on others’ blogs, a few kind words go a long way. *–http://shelflifeblog.blogspot.com/

11. Do your best to post to your blog every day. Readers like to find something new when they click on a website, so try not to disappoint them. http://bookchase.blogspot.com/

Stephen King for American Express

Over the years, I've taken a dislike to almost everything that carries the name American Express, especially their former financial services company. But I still have somewhat of a soft spot for their old television commercials because they almost always made me laugh.

I'd forgotten about this one, from the 1980s, that featured author Stephen King. King was not quite the legend that he is today, but he was getting there.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Man's Apartment Condemned Because His Books Are Fire Hazard

I've heard stories like this one before, and about 20 years ago, I visited an old man who had so many books and newspapers in his tiny home that the only way to move around inside was to follow the narrow "tunnels" that he had cleared to his kitchen, bathroom and bed. Everything else was covered with stacks of books. I felt very uneasy during my short visit and wondered whether or not I should report what was obviously both a health hazard and a fire hazard that threatened this man's life.

So I'm not particularly surprised to read that Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, authorities have decided to evict one man from his apartment because of the dangerous situation they say he has created there with his multitude of books.
John Puchniak quite literally lives in a sea of books.

He reads constantly except when he’s haunting bookstores, libraries and, when he’s able to get there, the Philadelphia bookstore that he co-owns. He filled his house with about 3,000 texts until it was repossessed by the bank, which agreed to move them all to an apartment Puchniak rented on North Main Street specifically because there was plenty of storage space.
...
During a routine yearly inspection, one that Puchniak had passed since he moved there in 2002, he was given three days to clean, but no indication about what needed to be done. Boxes and bags of books were everywhere, so he began reorganizing.

When Puchniak’s landlord, Caroline Lawson, city code enforcement officers Frank Kratz and Joann O’Donnell and city fire inspector Bill Sharksnas returned on June 1, the apartment was condemned, according to Puchniak’s attorney, Jim Hayward.

O’Donnell then indicated Puchniak needed to “get rid of the books” before it would be habitable again, Hayward said.

Certainly not an option for Puchniak, he began further consolidating his collection, clearing his two flights of stairs, the landings in between and pathways to most radiators.
Mr. Puchniak has obviously crossed the line from book-lover to someone who has become totally obsessed with books. They have taken over his life to the point where he thinks of nothing else and now can barely afford housing and the other necessities of life for himself.

I find his story to be a sad one, one that is not all that uncommon, and my sympathies are with him in his battle to regain his apartment even though I know that the man could use some help in sorting out his obsessive behavior. Something tells me that it must be very easy for book lovers to slip over the line that he has crossed. Now, that's a scary thought, isn't it, book lovers?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Something Was Missing

I knew something was missing on Friday night when I was in that packed Potter Party at my local Barnes & Noble store. Yes, something was definitely missing, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. It was only when I started to sort through the pictures while thinking about which ones I wanted to use for this post that the answer finally hit me...almost no black children or parents to be seen anywhere. Why is that? Is it that the Harry Potter series doesn't appeal to that group of readers or is it that black children read that much less than children of other races? How sad for all involved, if it's the latter.

Anthony Asadullah Samad, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum, believes that it is time for black parents to do something about what he sees as a disturbing trend among black readers, especially young boys.
They used to say that if you want to hide something from black people, put it in a book. I can tell you, having moderated panels on both coasts (the Harlem Book Fair and the first Leimert Park Book Festival) in the past month, that, for the most part, a lot of black people are reading. It's what they're reading (fiction, romance, erotica) that might be of concern, but at least some are reading. The African-American market is the "growth market" for the book industry.

There is an exception. Young black boys. Several national surveys have stated that black boys (ages 13-24) are not reading books. An amazing 54% of young boys under 15 years of age (more than half of school aged boys) have never read a book. Most of them drop out of school because they're made to read books. Literary is a crisis in the black community, even though some suggest we're in the midst of a new "black literary renaissance." 70% of black boys/men (high school and college) 21 and under, claim to have read at least one book in their lives, but most can't recall the title. Most of them have read newspapers (mostly sport pages, and magazines), but don't know the pleasure of reading a book. Their leisure (and study) time is spent watching "channel zero" (television) playing video games or on-line. How do we rationalize, as a race and a culture, not exposing our children to literature? I believe that for every video game a child has, they should have two books.
...
Since I was in my mid-20s, I made a habit of buying a book a week, and trying to read a book a week (it's more like a book a month now). The point is, however, reading became a habit for me. As much a habit as working, exercising, advocating, "getting busy" and sleeping, reading, and subsequently-studying, has always been somewhere in the mix. It became part of my socialization. We have to make reading part of young black male's socialization. We have to ask them, not "Wassup?" but "What you read lately?

Make 'em respond too. Stop showering our young boys with toys, and clothes and electronic gadgets. Shower them with books. Hold them hostage on the other stuff until they read a book. Want some $150 sneakers? Read $150 worth of books. Want a $40 video game? Yeah, after you buy $40 worth of books.

Want $2000 rims? Hell, you can buy a library for $2,000-that's about a book a week. Young people's favorite saying is, "Don't get it twisted." They definitely got it twisted. What they think is important is not really important. What they think has value, don't have the value to take them where they now to go. Now, we have to twist them back. We have to show them what real value is. It needs to start with reading a book.
Sadly enough, even in a book crowd the size of the one I was in Friday night, I recall seeing only a handful of black customers: two teenage boys who seemed to be there separately, a young couple with no children in sight, and a father with two cute little girls in hand. Dr. Samad is right. Something has to be done to inspire kids to read, and that something has to start with parents. Today's black culture does not seem to reward reading the way that it did in previous generations and that is a terrible disservice to its young people. I hope that Dr. Samad's message is taken to heart by black parents everywhere because children aren't likely to become readers without some inspiration from their parents and educators.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, recounts Afghanistan's troubled history of the last several decades through the eyes of a segment of the Afghan population that probably suffered and lost the most during that period, its women. The novel's two main characters, Mariam and Laila, two very different women, are thrown together because of what seems like a never-ending war, and their almost helpless struggle for survival comes to represent the struggle of their very country for the same.

Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, lived in isolation with her mother in a tiny hut for the first 15 years of her life. When forced into marriage with a 40-year old Kabul shopkeeper, she finds herself unable to provide him the sons he so desires. Laila is the only daughter of a family who lives in the same Kabul neighborhood that Mariam has settled into and Mariam has been vaguely aware of her since Laila was a small child.

Having been raised in such different circumstances, the women are not natural allies. On the one hand, Mariam has been raised without a father and in a society that treats illegitimate children as outcasts. Laila, on the other hand, was raised by a father who was determined to see her educated and who always told her that she could be anything that she wanted to be. But as their world becomes more and more subject to strict Islamist law and the women realize that they have almost no rights under that law, they find that they have more in common than they realized. And they find that they need each other.

The recent history of Afghanistan is a tragic one. Its people have been living in a war zone for decades, beginning with the Soviet occupation, and each time that things seemed to be getting better, the country was able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Soviet army was forced to leave by jihadist warlords who almost immediately launched their own civil war when the Soviets cleared out. And the warlords destroyed much of what had not already been destroyed before the Taliban faction became strong enough to take control of the government. And, of course, after the Taliban had systematically destroyed modern Afghan society, returned the country to the standards of the 7th century and given safe haven to Osama bin Laden, the United States and her allies invaded the country in hopes of capturing bin Laden and destroying the group responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack on New York City.

That is the history of Afghanistan that we all know. But A Thousand Splendid Suns makes the reader feel and understand Afghanistan's story in a way that reading newspaper headlines will never do it. The book did not leave me feeling optimistic about that region's future. In fact, being reminded of the potential for havoc and genocide there due to the many tribal differences had the opposite effect on me. It makes me realize how dangerous it is to upset the very fragile stability that countries in that part of the world have achieved for themselves.

The book also contains one of the saddest sentences that I have ever read it a novel:
"One last time, Mariam did as she was told."
Khaled Hosseini is a fine writer, as he has shown with this novel and with his first, The Kite Runner. The story he tells here is a tragic one for sure, but I somehow expect that Afghan reality is even more terrible than Hosseini portrays it in this book. Nevertheless, this is a provocative novel and I highly recommend it to all.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, July 23, 2007

Used Books Offered in Three U.S. Airport Bookstores

I flew regularly over roughly a three-decade period before I swore off flying forever on March 22, 2002. And during those almost countless trips, including more than 50 trips across the Atlantic, I found myself in dozens of airport bookstores trying to fight the sheer boredom and frustration that has become such a large part of today's business travel. But not once in all those trips did I run into an airport bookstore that included used books in its sales stock. Until today, I didn't even know that anyone had been brave enough to try something that unique but, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, that's happening in at least three U.S. airports now.
A selection of used books is mixed in among the new at Powell's Books at Portland International.

Headquartered in downtown Portland, Powell's has three branches at the airport: one in the pre-security Oregon Market area and smaller outlets on Concourses C and D.

Powell's airport store manager Martin Barrett says travelers can stop by the pre-security store to sell or trade as many as three books at a time.

Anyone with more than three books to sell or swap must drop them off and return a day or two later for a tally.

''A lot of airport employees and airline crew members take advantage of this,'' says Barrett, but if a passenger shows up with a suitcase full of books to swap, that's fine, too.
...
Opened about 30 years ago, the Renaissance Book Shop at General Mitchell International Airport may be the oldest used bookstore in an airport.

Located pre-security, the store's shelves are crammed with 40,000 to 50,000 books -- everything from general fiction and biography to local and regional history. There are also back copies of Life magazine.

Dave Long, a staff member at the bookstore for more than 25 years, says customers include frequent travelers, "meeters and greeters" and folks who come to the airport just to browse.

"It's always great to see someone just light up when they find something they've been searching for," Long says.

Ember Dahlvig, who works for a hedge fund in New York and grew up in Medford, Wis., travels to Milwaukee often to visit friends -- and to shop for used books at the airport.

"I leave extra room in my luggage planning on it," she says.

Dahlvig likes the selection, prices and some great bargains. She also enjoys the store's relaxing ambience.
...
In North Carolina, it's a reader's paradise at Raleigh-Durham International. New books are sold at Borders, Hudson News & Books, CNBC, Press Plus and other retail outlets. But there are about 8,000 used books for sale at 23-year-old 2nd ed. Booksellers, a shop owned by Walter and Karen High. Walter High says the shop sells about 60,000 books a year.
What a great idea! Finally someone realizes that travelers grow sick of seeing the same titles in every airport bookstore that they step into. My favorite airport bookstore was the Books, Etc. located in London's Gatwick airport because it contained a pretty nice selection of hardbacks and paperbacks that I didn't find in most airports. Too, I always looked forward to checking that airport's W.H. Smith location to pick up one of those special "airport hardback editions" that they sold there to travelers for just under ten pounds, quite a bargain at the time because they were recently released books and were usually not available in the U.S. yet.

But finding an airport bookstore that stocked a few thousand used books would have been a dream come true for someone like me...and I might still be flying.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Along the Edge of America

When Peter Jenkins finished college he made a decision that was destined to change him forever. He decided that he was not ready for things like graduate school or a steady job. Instead, he decided to walk across America with his dog, Cooper. As word of what he was doing spread around the country, Jenkins was asked to speak to small groups and eventually found himself writing the magazine articles for major publications that led to his bestsellers describing his adventure.

A Walk Across America covers his walk from New York to New Orleans where he fell in love with both the city and the woman who was to become his wife. The Walk West is about his walk with his new wife from New Orleans to Oregon, completing the long journey that he had envisioned as a fresh college graduate. Jenkins continued to travel and to write books about his trips and the people whom he met along the way, and he was so well rewarded for his efforts that he was able to settle his wife and children on a 190-acre farm to live the good life. But despite the fact that he sensed that something was wrong, that the "good life" was killing him both spiritually and physically, Jenkins could not bring himself to do anything about it.

Reality has a habit of slapping a guy in the face to get his attention if he insists on ignoring it for too long. And that's what happened to Peter Jenkins in 1987 when he returned from a two-week book tour promoting Across China only to be met at the airport by a good friend who was there to hand him his car keys and a letter from his wife telling him that she had filed for divorce. Several years later, having remarried and started a second family, Jenkins still felt that something was missing, that some part of him had died and that he missed it. That's when he decided to see if he could recapture the innocence and optimism that he had when he started that first walk across America.

Along the Edge of America is the result of his decision to see if he could rekindle the sense of adventure that had served him so well as a young man. Although he knew very little about boats or navigation, Jenkins decided that his next adventure would take him from Key West, Florida, all the way along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas until he reached the Mexican border, a trip that totaled over 2500 miles (including his side trips exploring rivers and bays that he encountered).

As usual, a Peter Jenkins book is about much more than just getting from point A to point B. The fun begins with watching Jenkins start from a level of zero ability and confidence when it comes to handling a boat on his own as he slowly progresses to the point that he just might be able make the trip that he planned, "might" being the key word even when his instructor has done all he could for him and has left him alone with the Cooper, his new boat.

Jenkins spread his trip over a period of almost two years and that allowed him to settle into several of the various communities that he found along the Gulf for months at a time. Along the way, we meet the people whose families have taken their living from the Gulf of Mexico for generations, people who do not always trust strangers but who eventually open up to Jenkins and, through him, tell us their stories. Anyone who believes that the tiny coastal communities along the Gulf Coast are just like the rest of America will never think that again after seeing how these adaptive people struggle today for their survival. They survive their encounters with Mother Nature in a way that only people who live near large bodies of water are ever asked to do.

In the end, Peter Jenkins found exactly what he hoped to find: the best of himself and everyone whom he met during his search. He managed to fight off hijackers, out-run Hurricane Andrew and survive a nearly tragic encounter with another storm. But the most important thing that he did was to reclaim the man who had been lost to him for so many years.

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Your Home Library

I see that Kimbooktu.com has a neat little project going at the moment that reminds me of the discussion that we had here a while back about trying to read titles of the books that show up over the shoulders of people whose pictures we see in magazines and newspapers.

The project is called Your Home Library and it asks readers to email a picture of their home libraries to the site with a few words of description. The pictures and descriptions are then posted for all to see and admire. Take a look. It's a fun idea and offers some great ideas about shelving books and clearly shows that we all seem to be up against the same main problem: too many books for our shelves. So far, there are pictures of 12 home libraries from all over the world.

Me and Harry Potter

My first, and if Rowling is to be believed, my last, Harry Potter Party is over. I arrived at the local Barnes & Noble last night to find something that reminded me of a strange combination of the worst of last minute Christmas shopping, Halloween, and a slumber party. By the time that I walked into the store just after 9:30 p.m., it was already jammed with more people than I ever dreamed I would see in a bookstore at one time.

And that's when the real impact of Harry Potter hit me. It's one thing to read about those fantastic sales numbers and to watch the internet frenzy that has been steadily building over the last few days. It's quite another to join the crush of folks from one small section of suburban Houston as they gathered to finally get their hands on that final Potter book. My first impression was that fewer folks were in costume than I had expected to see, and that continued to be the case for the rest of the evening. But they were there in all ages - from two-year olds to 70-year olds and it was interesting to see how they settled in, made themselves comfortable, and waited for the midnight hour to finally arrive.

I was a bit surprised, considering the fact that most of them live close to this Barnes & Noble, that more people didn't go home after receiving the "bracelets" that designated their place in line. The bracelets were lettered A-Z and each group was numbered so that everyone knew exactly where his place in line would be. But folks preferred to stay for the duration of the wait and made themselves comfortable on the floor with a book or let their kids play some of the games at tables manned by Barnes & Noble staff.

I took this picture about 11:00 when I was walking back to the bookstore after having a snack and a bit of a rest at a table in front of the grocery store that shares the same parking lot. A few folks preferred to stand outside the store, despite the high humidity of the evening, rather than trying to find a spot inside.

This is representative of what it was like to try to walk around in the store by the time that I arrived. It never seemed to get much worse than this, actually, so I suppose that most everyone was there by 9:00 when the scheduled events started to happen.

But as this and the following pictures show, walking around the store soon became almost impossible as people began to find their parking spots for the wait. Shopping to kill the time soon became impossible and most people seemed to grab something off the shelves and settle down with that one book.



In the meantime, while all this library reading was happening, this is what the checkout line usually looked like, confirming my suspicion that very few books other than the Harry Potter one being sold at something near cost were going to go out the door this evening.

The coffee/snack shop in the store did do a booming business all night long, however, with a long line that seemed to move slowly but steadily for most of the night, so all was not lost at the cash registers.

I did spot this 8-year old Harry Potter lookalike who was kind enough to let me snap his picture. I enjoyed a long talk with his father about reading and how he encouraged his two boys to read every day for at least one hour.

There was face-painting...

and shell games with prizes for the kids.

Then at ten minutes to midnight all the cash registers were manned, the books were pre-bagged, and the first few people in line were allowed to move into place in front of one of the booksellers. The countdown started, the last ten seconds seeming like a New Years Eve countdown, and I swear that I saw tears in a few eyes.

And first out the door, after what I think was about a 7-hour wait for her, was this young lady who paused long enough for me to grab her picture.

I had to pick something up at the grocer's on the way home so I stopped off at a Kroger's store where I found that I had just missed the rush there for Potter books. I heard the manager tell someone on the telephone that they sold 130 copies of the book pretty quickly. He seemed pleased with that number, and I think that the people who bought their book at Kroger's may have been the wisest shoppers of the night. On the way out the door I picked up a souvenir of the evening:

So there you have it. It wasn't exactly what I expected, but in some ways the evening was more impressive than I imagined it would be. When I think that this very thing took place in thousands of locations all over the world last night it sort of boggles my mind. What a marketing feat these publishers have managed to pull off. I'm impressed.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Countdown to Potter Party Time

Tonight is the big night for muggles everywhere and I'll be heading out in a few hours to see if I can grab some pictures to share here tomorrow. Less than two hours to go now in London, and I've seen on a couple of book blogs that folks there have been costumed and lined up for several hours already. So camera and fresh batteries in hand, I'll be heading for Barnes & Noble in about five hours to see what's happening there.

For some strange reason that I can't explain even to myself I'm kind of looking forward to this.

Excuse me. I need to take my temperature.


EDIT: From the number of hits I'm getting this afternoon based on the words "Australia, Potter blogs" and similar combinations, I'm assuming that the great unveiling has already happened there. I've received quite a few "hits" today from people searching for Harry Potter Seven "leaks" but, as the day goes on, the "Australia" searches are becoming more common, although I suspect that even those searchers are really just looking for "leaks."

Baltimore Doctors Write Book Prescriptions


Via the Baltimore Sun's website comes word of another great idea about getting books into the hands of young readers. That city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, asked Baltimore doctors who work primarily with low income families to participate in a national program called "Reach Out and Read."


About a third of the 72 pediatric practices were already participating, sending each child between the ages of 6 months to five years old away with a book after each checkup, a total of 37,000 books a year.

Yesterday, Sharfstein announced that 20 more practices have met his challenge, making Baltimore the city with the fastest program expansion rate in the country and putting 18,514 more books into circulation. Another four city practices -- meaning 4,640 more books -- are about to sign on.

Dr. Barry Zuckerman, the Reach Out and Read director and chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, has marketed his program to individual practices since it began more than a decade ago. The program is at 32,000 sites.

But never has a city decided to use its power to persuade doctors to sign on.

"We're in all 50 states," Zuckerman said. "But Baltimore is the first one that said, "OK, if half the children are benefiting from this, we want to spread this so the other half can benefit, too."
Although this program is over ten years old, this is the first time that I've run across it. I'm not a fan of big government by any stretch of the imagination but I wouldn't mind at all seeing some of my tax dollars spent on books for those children who would otherwise not likely have books in their homes. And, at $2.75 per copy, I don't see it as something that most doctors couldn't afford to do out of their own pockets for their low income patients. Go, Baltimore!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

While hiking in rural England in the summer of 1990, Geraldine Brooks stumbled upon a small village that has come to be commemorated as the Plague Village because of what happened there in 1665-1666. She was so deeply touched by what she learned of the events in Eyam during those plague years that a decade later they served as the basis for her first novel, Year of Wonders. Her novel begins with the few known facts about Eyam's plague year and puts a human face on the village whose people made the decision to quarantine themselves for however long it took to protect neighboring villages from spread of the disease that threatened Eyam's very existence.

Central to the story is young Anna Frith, an 18-year old mother of two young sons who has been widowed by the mining accident that took her husband's life. Unable to work the mining claim that had provided a decent living for her family before her husband's sudden death, Anna is reduced to working as a servant at the village rectory and to taking in a border sent her way by Michael Mompellion, the rector. Unfortunately for everyone in Eyam, the new cloth that was brought into the village by this traveling London tailor was infected with the "seeds" of the plague that was soon to devastate the village.

Eyam, a village of less than 400 citizens, had only one church and Michael Mompellion, its rector, was depended upon for his moral guidance and leadership. So when he asked his congregation to close the village off, with no one allowed in or out until the plague had run its course, they reluctantly agreed that it was the right thing to do. Little did anyone expect that two-thirds of those sitting in the church that day would not be alive one year later.

Year of Wonders is a fascinating look at what happens to this group of people who have made the decision to cut themselves off from the rest of the world to await their fate. As more and more people die the painful death that comes with bubonic plague, some find a strength that they never knew they had and others become filled with doubt and all of the worst aspects of human nature. Some turn to self-flagellation in an attempt to appease what they see as a suddenly wrathful God, some to witch hunts within the village population, and one or two even to devil worship. Soon it is up to Anna, and Michael and Elinor Mompellion to provide the care and comfort that makes it possible for the village to live up to the pledge that it made to protects its neighbors.

Geraldine Brooks fills the Plague Village with very real human beings who, in barely twelve months, display all the best and all the worst that human beings have in their nature. The people she describes in Year of Wonders are no different than the people you might run into the next time that you find yourself in the middle of some natural disaster that temporarily cuts your area off from the rest of the country. Sadly, some things never change.

Rated at: 3.5

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hemingway's Cuban Home and Papers Endangered

Word comes from The Guardian that everything that Ernest Hemingway left behind in Cuba seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place at the moment. On the one hand, his home and possessions belong to a government and a country which can't afford (and may lack the will) to ensure that they are preserved for future generations. On the other, is a U.S. government whose economic sanctions against Cuba make it extremely difficult for help, in both money and skilled labor, to get from this country to the Hemingway home located 10 miles from Havana.

The dining room in Ernest Hemingway’s house

For the past two years, a group of American organisations has been working to restore the battered house and save the manuscripts and books. But US sanctions against Cuba have hindered the group's attempts to collaborate with the Cuban government. The Bush administration's response has been mixed, flitting between acquiescence and obstruction.
...
The house made the US National Trust for Historic Preservation list of 11 most endangered historic places in 2005, the first time a site outside the country has done so. The roof was sagging and there was mould on the walls. Parts of the ceiling were so close to collapse that furniture was put in storage.

That alerted Hemingway fans in the US - businessmen, actors and even congressmen - who offered to help. But the sanctions prevent Americans financing projects that might help the Cuban government. In this case, Cubans stand to gain from tourism revenue as Hemingway's house would be a big draw.

The Bush administration blocked direct financial aid, but issued a licence that allowed a visit to the island by US architects and construction specialists paid for by Hemingway devotees. With their help, the Cuban government went ahead with the project, and renovation of most of the house was completed in February.

But much of the rest of the estate remains in disrepair. An impressive tower next to the house is closed, Hemingway's fishing boat is shrouded in scaffolding, and red tiles are sliding off the roof of the termite-infested guesthouse. More importantly, the original manuscripts and books, which contain thousands of Hemingway's notes, are still at risk. The US government has blocked not only the money needed but specialist equipment such as dehumidifiers and scanning equipment.
...
The struggle started when Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Hemingway's editor, Max Perkins, visited Cuba in 2001 and was stunned by the importance of the collection and the dire state of the house. "This is the house that contains the most important legacy of Ernest Hemingway, and it really was falling apart." When she returned to the US, Ms Phillips founded the Hemingway Preservation Fund and began raising money and interest in repairing the house and saving the documents. She and others helped broker a deal between the US and Cuba in 2002 that allowed copies of the author's papers to be made and returned to the US, but the Treasury rejected an initial request for more direct collaboration.
...
Sympathisers include academics, writers and actors. The novelist Russell Banks started a literary campaign that gained the public support of John Irving, Norman Mailer and Salman Rushdie. The Sopranos star James Gandolfini turned up at one fund-raising event, according to Ms Stephens. Among politicians, Senator John McCain, a long-time Hemingway fan, has also helped.
The loss of so much Hemingway material would be a tragedy for the literary world and I'm surprised that someone in the Hemingway family has not tried to acquire the material by now or at least worked to make sure that it is properly treated and preserved. It is discouraging to see what can happen when politics end up in the middle of a project that requires little more than common sense. Since politics and common sense seldom mix, I'm not optimistic that all of this will have a happy ending. And the clock is ticking.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Has Harry Potter Seven Been Leaked?

I've never read a Harry Potter book so I don't have any way to judge for certain the authenticity of what I just read over at one of those bit torrent sites, but it does appear that the new Harry Potter book is out on the web and has been accessed by thousands of people already. It appears that someone has photocopied the entire thing, two pages at a time, and has made it available for illegal downloading. The site that had it up originally has taken it down but it was too late to keep it from spreading to other sites that specialize in that kind of thing.

I was able to read a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book and look at a few sample pages, some with pictures, without having to illegally download a thing.

I'll never understand what people get out of spoiling something for so many people. I post this here as a warning to those who might spot these links somewhere and be tempted to look at them. They look like the real thing to me. If you don't want to have the whole experience ruined for you, stay away from these sites.

No Late Fees Means Fewer Lost Books for Alachua County


Every so often I spot someone at my local library who is paying a late-return fine that almost equals the cost of the book they are returning. I often wonder why, at that point, they don't just kick in the last buck or two and keep the book for themselves. Now I see that one Florida county library system has a policy of never charging late fees and that the result is that they are losing fewer books than ever before. That makes perfect sense to me the more that I think about it. Not having to face a cash penalty upon returning a book late might make some people more likely to return a book than not. It sure works for Alachua County, Florida.
The county turned over a new leaf after a 1970s study found it cost an average of $21,000 in staff time to handle $13,000 in income generated by fines annually. Shortly after the change, library staff found that more materials were being returned to the libraries once patrons no longer faced fines.

Nearly three decades later, library officials are still convinced the policy is ultimately a more cost-effective way to manage the 2.85 million items that are circulated annually.

According to Phillis Filer, public services administrator at the Headquarters Library in Gainesville, Alachua County libraries get back a higher percentage of loaned materials today than they did when fines were in effect.

Filer added that since the change, Alachua County libraries have lost fewer books than other libraries that still charge fines, although exact numbers could not be located.
My library branch charges 10 cents a day for overdue books and 25 cents per day on overdue DVDs or CDs. It takes a while for the fines to add up to much money at those rates but I wonder what the tipping point is for some patrons. Do they avoid returning a book that has $10 worth of late fees attached to it? Or is it at the $25 level that approaches the cost of many books? Maybe more libraries should try the Alachua County approach rather than hiring private bill collectors who resort to making credit agency reports on patrons who have unpaid library fines. Interesting.

Australia Laments Loss of Harry Potter

At the risk of turning this blog into an "All Harry, All the Time" blog, I continue to read interesting takes on the final book that I want to share here. I suppose the good news is that this will pretty much all be over in the next few days, although I warn you that I still hope to snag some pictures Friday night at my local Barnes & Noble when the final Potter Party is held.

This particular article is from "tomorrow's" The Australian (love that international date line) and speaks of the likelihood that there will never ever be anything like the Harry Potter phenomenon again.
In a world where children's lives are increasingly dominated by electronic entertainment, from television to the internet, iPods and PlayStation, the impact of J.K. Rowling and her Potter tales on reading habits was ground-breaking. Books, once the domain of bespectacled geeks, were suddenly very cool, thanks to the adventures of a bespectacled geek.

"I can remember when The Goblet of Fire came out I walked into a school and about half the children were sitting in the playground reading," recalls Bronwen Bennett, president of the Children's Book Council of Australia. "If it hadn't been for Harry Potter they would have been seen as geeky or nerdy. It has been wonderful in getting kids reading and legitimising reading as an acceptable recreational pursuit."

In particular, Bennett says the books were crucial in getting boys to read. Marketing, she says, also played a crucial role in the creation of Harry Potter as a household name, with the movies, toys and games all luring young readers back to the literature.

"Initially it was the right book at the right time and as with any manuscript, not only do you have to find the right publisher but you have to find the person within that publishing house who recognises this as a potential success," Bennett says.
...
Andrew Hawkins from the book's Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, says there isn't, and may never be, any comparison. "Even with the global embargo, it is totally scary," he says of the launch timed with military precision. "I would like to think in my time I might see another Harry Potter, but I won't. It's just hard to imagine. And for every person in publishing the $64 million question is what could possibly replace it. It was just the right book for the right time."
...
Andrew Hawkins from the book's Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, says there isn't, and may never be, any comparison. "Even with the global embargo, it is totally scary," he says of the launch timed with military precision. "I would like to think in my time I might see another Harry Potter, but I won't. It's just hard to imagine. And for every person in publishing the $64 million question is what could possibly replace it. It was just the right book for the right time."
We'll see what happens next. I imagine that the Harry Potter clones will be out by the dozen before we know it as other authors and publishers try to cash in on the world that JK Rowling has made so popular. I know that I should "never say never" but I do doubt that anyone will ever equal the impact that Rowling has had on the bookselling world.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Truck: A Love Story

Michael Perry, author of Truck: A Love Story, seems like the kind of guy who, if he liked you, would befriend you for life, one of those people who really recognizes the important things in life and who is able to laugh at himself and his various little failures along the way. Thank God, though, that he doesn't live next door to me. Call me crazy, but I would find it hard to live with a neighbor who abandons an old pickup truck in front of his house so long that it sinks a couple of inches into the asphalt or who rolls a broken washing machine off of his back porch where it lays on its side for several months. But that's just me.

Perry, on the other hand, sees those options as indicative of the good life and that's the attitude that makes him, and the year that he describes in this book, so interesting. Approaching 40, Perry has settled nicely into the life he has carved out for himself. Still single, and with no marriage prospects in sight, he decides that this is the year that he will finally get that old 1951 International Harvester L-120 pickup truck restored and running again. With the help of his fix-anything brother-in-law who has just the place to work on the truck, Perry begins a project early in the year that he hopes will result in the truck being available to him in time for deer season at the end of the year.

Truck is, indeed, a love story. Perry's love for the rusting old truck that he parked for so long is obvious as he reminisces about his long history with the vehicle and how important a part it played in his life. Although he is not nearly the mechanic to tackle this kind of job on his own, but because of his brother-in-law's skills and help, the reader is able to watch the truck slowly come back to life and comes to feel almost as happy about the progress as Perry feels.

Michael Perry's original plans for 2003 could be summarized this way: get the old truck running in time for Wisconsin's deer season, plant his small garden and harvest enough from it to fill his freezer with vegetables for the winter, continue his work with the local volunteer fire department, spend time on the road supporting his last book, and supplement his income with some work as the qualified private nurse that he is. Little did he know at the beginning of the year that his world was to be changed forever by year's end.

And that's where the rest of Perry's love story begins. A speaking engagement at his local library ends with a brief encounter with the woman who will come to be such a significant part of his 2003. Gradually, but in the way that gradualness can seem so sudden in hindsight, Perry starts to really feel the possibility of a long term commitment that might even lead to the marriage that he no longer envisioned for himself.

I enjoy personal memoirs written by the kind of people whom I might find myself seated next to at the local waffle house but I almost passed Truck by because I have so little interest in the details involved in restoring or customizing old cars or trucks. But the book's cover caught my eye and, after flipping through it for a couple of minutes, I decided that it might be interesting after all. I'm grateful that I took a chance on it because, having gotten to know Michael Perry now, I think that I've found a new friend, a guy whose work I'll watch for in the future.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Long Walks Are Good for the Soul

For as long as I can remember, I've had this crazy dream of just taking off one day and walking across the country. When I lived in London I found myself having similar daydreams about doing the same thing in the U.K. and all the hiking that I did in Wales and England never really got that out of my system. In fact, living in England only made my dream seem even more possible because it was so easy to find magazines dedicated to long distance hiking and books written by people who had already lived the dream. Of course, now that a few more years have passed, and now that the roads are more dangerous than they've ever been, I realize that my dream is going to have to be lived through the experiences and words of others.

That got me to looking on my shelves this morning to see how many "long walk" books have managed to survive in my collection. I was surprised to find only three of them because I can clearly remember having read at least another half dozen or so of those in the last few years. I do have other "solo travel" books but those all involve people who made their trips by automobile or who relied on the kindness of strangers for long rides along the way.

Worldwalk is Steven Newman's story of his four-year, 15,000-mile, walk around the world that took him across five continents and through some twenty countries. Newman made that walk completely on his own, no sponsors to help pay his way and no crew to run interference for him so that his safety was guaranteed. He slept under bridges, and in fields or abandoned buildings, only occasionally being taken into the home of someone he met on his walk. He was arrested in several countries and even had to break his way out of jail in one instance. Newman, who ended up being listed in the 1988 Guinness Book of World Records as the first person to walk around the world alone, started his trek as a naive 28-year old and returned as a much wiser 32-year old world traveler. He does a very fine job telling his remarkable story in Worldwalk.

George Meegan took a different approach when it came time to make his own long walk. In The Longest Walk, Meegan describes his journey that begins on the southernmost tip of South America and doesn't end until he reaches the northernmost shores of Alaska, a vertical walk of over 19,000 miles that took him seven years to complete. Meegan, an Englishman, did not walk continuously for seven years but he always returned to the exact point from which he suspended his walk for various personal reasons. In fact, during that seven year period he married his Japanese wife and fathered two children (whose Japanese names translate into "Don't Stop" and "Keep Walking"). His walk was filled with adventure and frustration because between bouts of disease and hunger he found himself shot at, stoned, and threatened with knives. No one ever said a long walk would be easy and I was particularly touched by how dangerous Meegan felt Houston to be as he passed through the city.

The Walk West is the second "long walk" book that I read by Peter Jenkins, the first being A Walk Across America which chronicled Peter's walk from upper New York state to New Orleans. It was in New Orleans that Peter met Barbara Jo Pennell, a young seminarian who stopped him in his tracks. The Walk West picks up their story after they have married and decide to complete Peter's original plan to walk across the United States. All they have to do is walk from New Orleans to Florence, Oregon. How hard can that be?

Looking at these books again this morning has made me remember how much I enjoyed them the first time around. There's something about travel books written by lone travelers that has always appealed to me. I love the sense of adventure that comes from not knowing what's around the next corner and these books have to be the origin of my own love for rambling along all by myself, at my own pace, with a preference for following anything but in interstate highway.

I can't wait to check out a few bookstores to see what similar books I can find. The size of my travel book collection just doesn't cut it. I'm off.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and Political Correctness

Has it become politically incorrect for anyone to criticize JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books? Ron Charles, senior editor of the Washington Post's Book World section, is probably finding the answer to that question as a result of his column questioning the real value of those books. I've read a few of the comments that Charles received when his column was reprinted in the Salt Lake Tribune and I suspect that they represent a sampling of typical responses that the column will draw as it is reprinted around the country.

What is getting Ron Charles in hot water with all those Muggles out there? Not much, really, but it doesn't seem to take much.
It happened on a dark night, somewhere in the middle of Book IV. For three years, I had dutifully read the "Harry Potter" series to my daughter, my voice growing raspy with the effort, page after page. But lately, whole paragraphs of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had started to slip by without my hearing a word. I'd snap back to attention and realize the action had moved from Harry's room to Hagrid's house, and I had no idea what was happening.

And that's when my daughter broke the spell: "Do we have to keep reading this?"
...
But all around me, I see adults reading J.K. Rowling's books to themselves: perfectly intelligent, mature people, poring over "Harry Potter" with nary a child in sight. Waterstone's, a British book chain, predicts that the seventh and (supposedly) final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, may be read by more adults than children...

I'd like to think that this is a romantic return to youth, but it looks like a bad case of cultural infantilism. And when we're not horning in on our kids' favorite books, most of us aren't reading anything at all. More than half the adults in this country won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one.
...
" But before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel, they pop the question about The Boy Who Lived: "How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"
Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath. And you'd better answer correctly. Start carrying on like Moaning Myrtle about the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes, and you'll wish you had your invisibility cloak handy. Besides, from anyone who hasn't sold the 325 million copies that Rowling has, such complaints taste like Bertie Bott's beans, sour-grapes flavor.

Shouldn't we just enjoy the $4 billion party? Millions of adults and children are reading! We keep hearing that "Harry Potter" is the gateway drug that's luring a reluctant populace back into bookstores and libraries....

Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't encourage much optimism. Data from the NEA point to a dramatic and accelerating decline in the number of young people reading fiction. Despite their enthusiasm for books in grade school, by high school, most kids are not reading for pleasure at all. My friends who teach English tell me that summaries and critical commentary are now so readily available on the Internet that more and more students are coming to class having read about the books they're studying without having read the books.

And when their parents do pick up a novel, it's often one that leaves a lot to be desired.
...
How could the ever-expanding popularity of Harry Potter take place during such an unprecedented decline in the number of Americans reading fiction?

Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn't encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands - and rewards. Consider that, with the release of each new volume, Rowling's readers have been driven not only into greater fits of enthusiasm but into more precise synchronization with one another.
...
Like the basilisk that terrorized students at Hogwarts in Book II, "Harry Potter" and a few other much-hyped books devour everyone's attention, leaving most readers paralyzed in praise, apparently incapable of reading much else.

According to a study by Alan Sorensen at Stanford University, "In 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors." There's not much reason to think things have changed.
...
The vast majority of adults who tell me they love "Harry Potter" never move on to Susanna Clarke's enchanting Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, with its haunting exploration of history and sexual longing, or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, a dazzling fantasy series that explores philosophical themes (including a scathing assault on organized religion) that make Rowling's little world of good vs. evil look, well, childish. And what about the dozens of other brilliant fantasy authors who could take them places little Harry never dreamed of? Or the wider world of Muggle literary fiction beyond?
Most of what Ron Charles is saying in this column has been said a lot lately. Admittedly, since I'm not a fan of the Potter books, and because I've observed much of this for myself, I tend to agree with the man. I don't for a minute believe that the books are doing any harm when it comes to their influence on readers, young or old, but I also find it hard to believe that in the long term they will have any positive effect on reading habits. Maybe it's my innate cynicism speaking again, but I find it difficult to take seriously anything that has such a powerful marketing machine behind it. For me, Harry Potter has become the equivalent of country music's Garth Brooks, a singer whose music I still find distasteful because of the way that it was marketed.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Priest

Little did I realize when I picked up my first Ken Bruen book, The Guards, back in the middle of April that I was going to have read three others of his by the middle of July. But that's exactly what has happened. Initially I was fascinated by the way that Bruen paid homage to many of my favorite American Noir writers of the past by using a writing style so similar to theirs and by including quotes from many of them in his books. But after reading another Jack Taylor story in Bruen's Calibre I started to wonder if too much of a good thing was going to grow a bit old. As I was soon to learn, there was no need to worry about that because Bruen lightened up on all the direct references to those writers of the forties and fifties and really hit his stride with the next Taylor novel, The Dramatist. Now, with Priest, Bruen has placed himself solidly on the watch list I keep to make sure that I don't miss any new work of certain writers.

Fans of Bruen's Jack Taylor novels will probably notice that I didn't mention The Magdalen Martyrs, an earlier book in the series. I almost always read "series fiction" in the order in which it is written but I somehow missed that one when its turn came. But it is on my shelves waiting for me now.

The beginning of Priest finds Jack Taylor confined to the mental hospital he ended up in as a result of the shocking tragedy that ended The Dramatist. Having lost all will to live, and preferring to drink himself to death, Jack still somehow managed to stay away from the booze before being locked up for his own good. Now he is being released just in time to find that his old friends have not fared well during his five months in the institution and that he barely recognizes the Ireland in which he lives. Taylor realizes that things in Galway have taken a particularly nasty turn when he hears that a priest has been beheaded inside his confessional booth.

Desperately needing something to keep his mind off of the events that placed him in the mental institution, Taylor reluctantly agrees to look into this murder at the request of Father Malachy, an old friend of his mother's. What he finds out about the dead priest's history of sexual abuse going back to the sixties, and how it was covered up, does not surprise him in the least as he tries to identify the killer. But Jack's life is never that simple. Along the way, he takes on a young, eager partner who needs a father figure as badly as Jack needs someone to take care of, a match not exactly made in heaven but one which Jack comes to accept. Their new relationship is severely tested when Jack is asked by an old friend to find and stop the stalker who is threatening her.

As is always the case in his Jack Taylor novels, Ken Bruen surrounds his basic story with the devastating portrait of what it must be like to walk in the shoes of an alcoholic who is always one drink away from losing control of his life. Jack is well aware of his problem and is forced to avoid his old friends and neighborhoods because everyone he meets seems to be heading to a pub and would be happy to have Jack join them in an exchange of rounds. His struggle to remain sober takes on an almost heroic nature and is painful to watch. Despite his self-control problems and his tendency to solve problems with the use of violence, be it verbal or physical, Jack Taylor is a hard man not to like. He loves the music of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and is a dedicated reader of relatively obscure American authors who are little appreciated even in their own country. Despite all of his troubles, his personal library somehow seems to survive and he is such a book collector that bookstore owners give him first crack at books they know he will appreciate. What's not to like about a man like that?

Readers will find that a Jack Bruen novel does not wind down in the manner of most detective or crime fiction. Bruen doesn't rely on a recap of previous events to provide him with an easy ending for his books and, in fact, some of his hardest punches to the reader's gut come just when it appears that all the story has been told. Ken Bruen has carved out a worthy spot for himself among all those authors he so admires.

Rated at: 4.0