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Friday, November 30, 2007

The Almost Moon

Alice Sebold is no stranger to violence and her writing reflects that fact. Sebold, who was raped at the end of her freshman year at Syracuse, bluntly told of that experience in Lucky (as in “lucky to be alive”), her 1999 non-fiction debut. A few years later she struck gold with an unlikely success about a brutally murdered fourteen-year-old girl who narrates her own story, including all the murder details, in The Lovely Bones. In both cases, Sebold was criticized by some readers and critics for being too explicit about the violence that characterizes her work.

So readers of The Almost Moon, Sebold’s second novel, should know by now that she is not bashful about exposing the dark side of human nature and that, in the process, she pulls no punches. But she has outdone herself this time.

Helen Knightly admits in the book’s opening sentence that killing her mother was easy. It was not something that she had planned to do that day but she finally reached a breaking point while struggling with the mechanics of cleaning up her 88-year-old dementia-suffering mother after she had soiled herself. It was easy, and she had no regrets about the murder or how nonchalantly she handled the body when it was over. She finally felt free of the mentally ill woman who had ruined her life and it seemed a wonder that it had taken her so long to reach this point.

After calling her ex-husband to confess what she had done and to ask for his help, Knightly spends the next 24 hours reflecting on her horrible childhood and trying to come up with a plan that will allow her to escape punishment for her crime. When she realizes that the police already consider her to be the prime suspect in her mother’s murder she has to choose between surrendering, running, or taking her own life. None of the choices are simple, and she seriously considers them all.

The Almost Moon is a painful book to read, especially the first few chapters that detail the murder and immediate minutes following the crime. Many readers will consider, as I did, abandoning the book at some point during those early pages. But those who stay with it will be rewarded with an interesting look into the mind of Helen Knightly, the middle-aged product of the dysfunctional family that shaped her into the woman she is. Although she never becomes a sympathetic character, it does seem sad to see that Helen will not manage to escape her mother’s influence. This realization, in fact, makes her wonder which of her own two adult daughters is most likely to succumb to the mental illness that seems to have cursed her family from one generation to the next.

This book is not for readers who demand and expect happy endings from their reading. This is life through the eyes of Alice Sebold. It is not pretty, but it is brutally honest.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Loop Group (2004)

Larry McMurtry has always had the knack of creating memorably quirky characters for his novels and Loop Group is no exception. He seems to have a particular fondness for feisty sixty-something year old women, and with Maggie Clary and her best friend Connie, he has created two of the funniest fictional women since Terms of Endearment’s Aurora Greenway. Maggie and Connie, best friends since the sixth grade, are two women who simply refuse to act like the sixty-year olds they are. Single and lusty as ever, they are still using their Hollywood

contacts to hustle a living as part of a “loop group” that provides groans, shrieks, grunts and other sounds as part of the dubbing process used for movie soundtracks.

Critics have pointed out that the movie world no longer functions as McMurtry portrays it in Loop Group, if it ever did. But that’s really not the point. This is comedy, almost slapstick at times, and the workaday details of Hollywood movie production are just not an important a part of the story. Readers looking for a realistic portrayal of Hollywood, or for answers about the meaning of life for those who reach sixty years of age, will be disappointed. This is a comedy, not a self-help book, and it is a first-rate comedy, at that. I was surprised at the number of extremely bad reviews the book has received on Amazon.com because this is vintage McMurtry with a style and tone that is not unlike many of his best books of the past. Loop Group is being panned for many of the same reasons that other McMurtry books have been praised.

Maggie has literally not felt whole since her hysterectomy and her three daughters and her friends are worried enough about her that she has begun to receive their special attention. Depressed and listless, and growing more depressed all the time because of all the extra attention she is getting, Maggie decides to take the advice of a flirtatious waiter to get away from it all and see a bit of America. She and Connie, two women who have never strayed far from Los Angeles in their entire lives, head for Texas to visit Maggie’s only living aunt, a vigorous six-gun toting woman who is the proud owner of “two million chickens” and a house that reminds the ladies of the one in the movie Giant.

Maggie and Connie are no Thelma and Louise and on their way to Texas they manage to meet a “professional” hitchhiker who scares them so badly that they leave the interstate and travel some of the most desolate back roads that the Southwest has to offer. They even manage to lose their van to a chronic car thief when they stop in the middle of nowhere at the first sign of civilization that they’ve seen for hours.

Typical of a Larry McMurtry book, Maggie and Connie share their lives and their little adventures with side characters eccentric enough to make them seem almost normal. There are Maggie’s little Sicilian shrink, the various members of her “loop group,” her three daughters and their husbands, and her Aunt Cooney, for a start. This one is fun. Especially so if the reader recognizes up front that it is farce and not intended as a guide book to aging gracefully, a point which many critics seem to have missed.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Last Laugh


From Scotland comes the story of the stand-up comedian who has learned the hard way that it is not funny to steal books from his employer, HarperCollins Publishing. The Sunday Mail reveals just how incompetent a thief Gary Little is. Let's hope that Gary can work up a special routine for his new jail friends.

A STAND-UP comic faces jail after police smashed his £100,000 scam selling stolen books on eBay.

Gary Little swiped thousands of bestsellers from publishers HarperCollins while working as a forklift truck driver at their warehouse near Glasgow.

He sold the haul - some of it valuable limited editions - online to buyers across the UK at knockdown prices.

The 44-year-old netted at least £100,000.
...
A friend of Little said: "Thousands of books were going out the back door and straight on to eBay. Many of them commanded premium retail prices. So when they were offered cut-price on the internet, there was still good money to be made.

Little was a trusted employee and the scale of what was going on was shocking."
...
Little's operation was smashed in February 2005 but he only pleaded guilty this month at Glasgow Sheriff Court.

Following sentencing, the procurator fiscal will lodge an action to recover money from him under proceeds of crimes laws.
Something tells me that this particular clown will probably not see much jail time considering how long this case has already been pending. I suppose the bright side to something like this, though, is that it proves that books are still seen as a valuable commodity despite all the gloom and doom we hear about the imminent death of hard cover publishing due to lack of interest on the part of the ever-diminishing reading public.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Spoonfuls of Stories

I love this idea and I'm pleased to see that the folks who bring us the Cheerios breakfast cereal have brought the program back for its sixth year. Let's face it. Way too many breakfast cereals aimed at children are not really something that most parents want to see their kids eating on a regular basis. Cheerios, on the other hand, is one of those cereals that parents don't have to feel guilty about placing in front of their children in the morning. And now, in a program that started again on November 12, some five million children's books will be placed inside boxes of Cheerios until they are all gone.

Children love to get "prizes" with their meals these days. Thanks to McDonald's, Burger King, and the Sonic people, they are disappointed if they don't get something, in fact. And we all remember how much fun it was when we were children to get some toy from inside a cereal box. What better than a book? How cool is that?
In addition, Cheerios is again working with First Book, an award-winning children's literacy nonprofit, to give a year's worth of children's books to 50 reading programs serving disadvantaged children across the country. Over the past six years, Cheerios has donated more than $2.5 million to support First Book and its mission: to help get brand new books to children from low-income families.
...
This year's book offerings from Cheerios are five great titles from Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, including a book that Cheerios had specially printed in both English and Spanish.

LiteracyNews.com has details on the five books being given away. And to make it easy for parents to get all five books without ending up with unwanted duplicates, the Cheerios boxes have special windows on the front that show which book is inside. The books should last until early spring 2008 according to General Mills but you can start looking for them on grocery store shelves now.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sleep Toward Heaven

Can a person truly forgive someone who has stolen the most precious thing in her life, someone who has killed the person around whom her entire future was structured? Celia Mills certainly does not believe that she will ever forgive the woman who shot and killed her husband as he ran an errand for her one hot Texas afternoon.

Sleep Toward Heaven, Amanda Eyre Ward’s debut novel is the story of three very different women who find their lives intersecting under tragically unpredictable circumstances. One of the women, Karen, is a Texas death row inmate who has been convicted of killing several of the men who paid to have sex with her along the Texas highways she worked to support her junkie female lover. Another is Franny Wren, a young New York City doctor who has been so affected by the death of her young cancer patient that she is having second thoughts about her career and her marriage plans. The third is Celia, widow of Karen’s last victim, the only man she killed who was not one of her customers, a man who happened to cross paths with her at precisely the wrong moment.

The state of Texas has a long tradition of executing its murderers, something that longtime residents of the state usually take for granted. It is just a fact of life in Texas that many convicted murderers end up in Huntsville where they pay the ultimate price for their crimes. Ward uses Karen, Franny and Celia to put a human face on that experience by alternating segments in which each of the women draws closer and closer to the date that Karen has with her executioner.

Franny Wren never expected to return to a life in small town Texas, and certainly never expected to become a prison doctor working with the female prisoners on death row. But here she was. Karen finds herself looking forward to the relief that death offers. Her life on death row among the handful of female prisoners awaiting their own executions has become miserable and it is only a question of whether she will be executed before she dies from AIDS. Celia, the only character whose story is told in first person narrative, is working hard to convince her mother and friends that she is putting her life back together despite the fact that she is beginning to question her own sanity.

As the clock ticks down and these three women come together one hot Texas August, they touch each other’s lives in ways that will change them forever. Sleep Toward Heaven never becomes preachy or overly sentimental, even to its unexpected ending. Rather, Amanda Eyre Ward allows each reader to decide about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty for himself. Personally, I am pro-death penalty and I expected Ward to work harder to change my mind than she did. I found instead that the strength of her work is the way that she made me think about all the issues surrounding the death penalty without beating me over the head with them.

Rated at: 3.5

Friday, November 23, 2007

Christmas Jars

Christmas Jars is a little book with a big message about the Christmas season. In an age when Christmas gift giving has become more of an expensive routine than a heartfelt pleasure for many people, Jason Wright offers an alternative that recaptures the spirit of the season.

When young newspaper reporter Hope Jensen experienced one of those horrible Christmas Eves that are often written about in newspapers like hers, she had no reason to believe that anything good would come from the experience. Getting through her first Christmas without her adoptive mother was going to be hard enough already but, when she returned to her apartment wanting nothing more than to sleep the rest of the day away, things would get worse. Hope found her apartment trashed by burglars, something that seems to happen all too often on Christmas Eve.

Finding herself somewhere between bursting into tears and throwing a tantrum, Hope was saved from doing either when she discovered a small jar stuffed with coins and paper currency that had mysteriously appeared just inside her apartment door during all the excitement. There was nothing to indicate its source or why it had been left for her. Smelling a newspaper story, and in need of something pleasant on which to focus, Hope Jensen decided that she would solve the mystery of her Christmas jar.

What she discovered about the Christmas jar tradition in her town, and what she learned about herself in the process, is the heart of this Christmas story. It is a story about strangers giving gifts to those who need them most, and how those who received the jars on one Christmas often gave Christmas jars of their own to others on the next.

Christmas Jars is a tale reminiscent of a 1940s black and white movie in the way that many of its characters are a tad too perfect and too ready to forgive. The length of the book, a short 122 pages, does not allow Wright to flesh out his characters or their story and that is a shame because he has created characters worthy of more attention. Perhaps that is meant to be part of its charm but the book would have been much stronger and would have had more of an impact on the reader if its characters had been more completely developed. But the real point of this book is its message, an inspirational one that will be retold this fall as a “major motion picture.” Here’s hoping that Christmas Jars and its movie version start a new tradition of Christmas Eve giving that is passed from one generation to the next.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, November 22, 2007

How 250,000 Books Can Disappear


How can a public library system (with ten library locations) lose almost a quarter of a million books? One British library system has figured out a way:


ALMOST a quarter of a million books have gone missing from Waltham Forest libraries amid claims they have been burned or pulped.

That means there are 60 per cent fewer books in local libraries now than there were two years ago.

Library worker Lyndon Holmes told the Guardian: "We have to tell the public we can't get the books for them.
...
"I know for a fact lots of them were taken to the tip, at least two van loads. There were all sorts, but I know there were brand new books."

All the borough's non-recyclable rubbish is taken to the London Waste depot at Edmonton to be burned. And anything not already sorted for recycling is destroyed along with the rest.

Mr Holmes said the books were dumped to make space in the refurbished Walthamstow Central Library and, by the time work was finished, there was not enough staff left in employment to sort them, give them away or sell them.

According to official figures presented to the council's cabinet in July, Waltham Forest's book stock has fallen from 1,738 per thousand people in 2004-5 to 717 per thousand people in April this year. That is a cull of 229,725 books, based on the current population of 225,000.

Nearly 75,000 books vanished during January and March this year alone.

David Brangwyn, a former librarian at Walthamstow Central Library, said staff had spent weeks packing and labelling books worth thousands of pounds before the library was refurbished but no-one knew where they went.

"They were perfectly good books and there was no reason to throw them away," he said.
...
Cllr Reardon refused to comment at the meeting and when the Guardian later contacted her. She said she would answer campaigners' questions at the next meeting on January 28.
Way to go, Councillor Geraldine Reardon. That gives your people two more months to lose thousands more. I suspect that you had better have some good answer prepared by the time you do find the courage to explain yourself. This whole episode is disgraceful.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shalimar the Clown

As it turned out, Shalimar was anything but a clown. True, as a young man he was well known for his antics on the high wire that were so funny that they made everyone forget just how dangerous they were. But when he and fellow Kashmiri Boonyi Kaul were just fourteen years old, they fell in love and Shalimar’s life was changed forever. The two married soon after and settled into a life in rural Kashmir that included working together as regional entertainers.

All went well until Boonyi, a talented dancer, made the first of two fateful decisions. She decided to make the most of her dance talents by moving to India without Shalimar in order perform on a bigger stage. There she caught the eye of American ambassador Max Ophuls and made her second decision, one that would ultimately change Shalimar from clown to assassin. She decided to become the ambassador’s mistress.

Shalimar the Clown begins and ends with the assassination of Max Ophuls. At the time of his death, Ophuls is an old man living in Los Angeles near his beautiful daughter, India, and his government career has included a stint as U.S. counter-terrorism chief. His brutal murder, in the style favored by Islamist terrorists, at first leads authorities to believe that he was targeted because of his roll in developing U.S. counter-terrorism policy. Little did they know that the assassination of Max Ophuls had been set in motion decades earlier.

This is complicated historical fiction covering the period during which Kashmir changed from a relatively peaceful place in which Muslims and Hindus successfully coexisted to the self-destructive region of the world it is today. Rushdie tells Kashmir’s story through the eyes of those who lived through, but did not always survive, those violent years. He has written a political thriller filled with enough interesting side stories and flashbacks to put the tragedy of Kashmir into an understandable context for Western readers. That alone makes Shalimar the Clown a remarkable book. But what makes the book truly special is the way that Rushdie uses so many unforgettable characters to explain how, and why, the world has changed for the worst over the last two decades.

The audio version of Shalimar the Clown is read by Aasif Mandvi, a movie, television, and radio actor and successful writer and producer. Mandvi does such a wonderful job reading Rushdie’s words that I have to wonder if I would have enjoyed reading the book nearly as much as I enjoyed listening to Mandvi breathe life into each of Rushdie’s characters. He slips effortlessly from one accent to the other and uses tone and cadence in such a way that even the longest and most complex Rushdie sentences are clearly understood. As a reader, I would have had a difficult time, probably to the point of distraction, with some of the place and character names that are so integral to this story. Mandvi’s reading made sure that did not happen, another reason that Shalimar the Clown is an excellent choice for fans of audio books.

Rated at: 4.5

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Great Books, Great Last Sentences

Earlier this month when we talked about favorite "book endings," we pretty much agreed that the list would have been more interesting if it were one of actual last lines rather than of plot descriptions. With that in mind, I decided this evening to look at some of my favorite books to see what their last lines were and whether or not the words were representative of the book as a whole.
1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - "The woman," Dillard whispered. "The woman. They say he missed that whore." These three short sentences sum up one of the key relationships in the entire 843 page book.

2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - "I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her." This long sentence, typical of Dickens, sums up another of the great love relationships of literary history.

3. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving - "O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking You." This sentence perfectly sums up the tragic and permanent end of a friendship.

4. Andersonville - by MacKinlay Kantor - "When he had nearly reached the lane, birds rose before him like an omen." This is a last glimpse of the infamous Confederate prison camp in which so many Union soldiers died in misery.

5. The World According to Garp by John Irving - "But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." Irving ends the book with a final message to his readers.

6. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before." Some boys never grow up or change their ways, so why should Huck? This is still one of my favorite books of all time but it reads differently to me now that I've read Finn, the recently written story of Huck's psychopath of a father.

7. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy - "I can't tell you why I do it or what it means, but each night when I drive toward my southern home and my southern life, I whisper these words: Lowenstein, Lowenstein." I love this book and this last sentence made me wonder if Tom Wingo would ever manage to find peace.

8. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara - "It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the fourth of July." This sentence serves as a reminder of the great co-incidence that the tide of the Civil War turned for good on the eve of July 4, 1863. The ironies of history are sometimes astounding.

9. Time and Again by Jack Finney - "I reached Lexington Avenue, turned south and - the yellow lights of Gramercy Park awaiting at the end of the street - I walked on toward Number 19." A time traveler makes a critical decision about his future in the last sentence from the time travel book that made me a fan of time travel novels for the rest of my life. Jack Finney is the master of that genre.

10. Final Payments by Mary Gordon - "It was a great pleasure simply to be near them. There was a great deal I wanted to say." Thus ends one of the most touching first novels I've ever read in my life. I became a Mary Gordon fan based on this 1978 novel and I've never changed my mind about her great talent.
These are last sentences from some of my very favorite novels. As I went through the exercise of searching for these sentences, it became obvious to me that first sentences and last sentences of novels serve two very different purposes. Where the first sentence of a novel wants to grab your attention and not let you go, a last sentence often serves to summarize an entire book and to reinforce its central message or mood.

I'm happy that I took the time to pull the quotes because it reminded me of why I loved these books in the first place and made me want to re-read them yet again. They are like old friends I haven't seen in a while. We have some catching up to do.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Virgin Suicides (1994)

If one of the five Lisbon sisters was crazy, it had to be Cecilia, the youngest. At least that’s what all the neighborhood boys thought when she proved them right by killing herself during the first party that the sisters had ever been allowed to host. What none of the boys expected at the time was that just one year later all four of Cecilia’s older sisters would also be dead, victims of their own bizarre suicides.

Set in 1970s Michigan, The Virgin Suicides is the tragic story of the Lisbon family, a family headed by a rigidly strict mother and a nondescript high school teacher father who produced five unexpectedly beautiful daughters. It is impossible to read this book without wondering what would drive five attractive young women to end their lives just as they were beginning. What was happening behind the closed doors of the Lisbon household that could possibly have resulted in that kind of tragedy? Jeffrey Eugenides does not provide any easy answers and, in fact, limits the reader’s knowledge of the girls to those first hand observations available to their neighbors and schoolmates.

The book is narrated by one of the group of horny young boys who live on the same street as the Lisbon family. Through their collective eyes, the reader learns of the limited school activities that the girls participated in and just how little after school contact they had with their peers. These boys actively spied on the girls, hoping to catch a glimpse of them through the windows of their upstairs bedrooms, and what we learn about the girls from them is largely based on their speculation and guess work as to what is happening in that house. The boys became obsessed with the sisters and, when one of their group successfully lobbied Mr. Lisbon to be allowed to take one of his girls to the school prom, his good intentions may have directly contributed to the ultimate destruction of the family.

Readers looking for insights about depression and suicide will be disappointed by The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides has chosen instead to emphasize how something of this magnitude can happen without anyone recognizing it, or perhaps, even having the will to stop it before it is too late. Even the young men so obsessed with their every activity were unable to see what was coming. Those closest to the girls, their parents, were so caught up in the grief of having lost their youngest daughter already that they could not stop her sisters from following her example. By limiting the reader to only the facts known to the book’s other characters, Eugenides forces one to speculate about what must have happened to cause the suicides in much the same way that others in the story speculate. The sad truth is that it is often impossible to understand what drives another person to take his own life.

I do wish that Eugenides had given the sisters more distinctive personalities. As it was, only Cecilia, the first to take her life, and Lux, the family risk taker, stand out at all. The other three girls are so interchangeable that even their classmates sometimes had a problem telling them apart. I realize that this “sameness” may have contributed to their final choices but, as a reader, I would have enjoyed knowing more about the girls before they were gone forever. That must be exactly how the neighbor boys felt.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Partial Victory for Pat Conroy


I see that Pat Conroy has received a little good news from West Virginia regarding the banning of two of his books at Nitro High School . It seems that the good folks there have decided to allow Conroy's Beach Music back into an honors English classroom but that they have still not come to their senses regarding The Prince of Tides, one of Conroy's masterpieces.


A majority of community residents and professionals who reviewed the book recently agreed that Shamblin should be allowed to use the novel in his classroom. “Beach Music” and another Conroy novel, “The Prince of Tides,” drew some parents’ criticism earlier this fall for scenes of child rape, sexual assault, violence, suicide and other themes.

“The Prince of Tides” is still suspended at Nitro while the same committee considers its content.
...
Shamblin told Kanawha County school board members at a meeting later Thursday night that he is strongly opposed to a book-rating system that could flag books with violence, strong language and sexual themes. A proposed policy will be discussed next month.

“Who would be making the decision? The teacher?” Shamblin said.

He offered a policy amendment that would say “a citizen complaint cannot disrupt or impede the educational flow in the classroom.”

Scenes of violence and sexual assault appear in mainstream media every day, Shamblin said, and are not subjected to a ratings system.
The very idea that high school students need to be protected from the contents of a book, especially one of this quality, is ludicrous. These students are exposed to every kind of violence and questionable sexual content every time they turn on a television set, a stereo or play a video game. Isn't it strange that busybodies always seem to have so much time on their hands?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Songcatcher (2001)

The Songcatcher tells the story of one North Carolina family and the song that it passed from one generation of the family to the next, a song that famous folk singer Lark McCourry hopes to find so that she can center her next record album around it. Malcolm McCourry, kidnapped in 1751 by English sailors at age nine and taken to sea, learned the song by hearing it on evenings during which the men sang ballads to entertain themselves and their shipmates. It was the kind of ghost story that an impressionable young boy would never forget, and McCourry brought the lyrics with him to America in 1759 when he decided that he was finished with life on the ocean.

Sharyn McCrumb looked to her own family history as inspiration for The Songcatcher. She discovered ancestor Malcolm McCourry while researching another book and framed this story around his real life experiences. McCrumb uses alternating sections within each chapter of the book to recount the events of Malcolm’s life that resulted in him starting a second family in the mountains of North Carolina and the real world plight of Lark McCourry who is reluctantly returning to those same mountains to see her dying father one last time.

As the book progresses from generation to generation, it becomes obvious that Lark McCourry has much in common with her ancestors. Like them, she is basically a loner who manages to keep people at a distance and who suffers a poor relationship with her father, the kind of relationship that so many first-born McCourrys experienced over the years. But the song has survived everything that the family has experienced for more than two hundred years and it is up to Lark McCourry to make sure that her father does not take it with him to the grave.

Regular readers of Sharyn McCrumb will recognize some characters from her past “ballad novels.” Sheriff Spencer Arrowood makes a relatively brief, but important, appearance in the book, and Nora Bonesteeel, an old woman who converses with the dead as easily as she does with the living, is there to help tie the McCourry generations together. Rather strangely, the book includes a side story that adds little or nothing to the main plot, a storyline involving a sheriff’s deputy who manages to get his foot trapped beneath the wreckage of an old airplane that crashed into the mountain forests decades earlier. Because the book already alternates two distinct storylines, the addition of a third one into the mix, one that really doesn’t go anywhere, is an unnecessary distraction.

Sharyn McCrumb has an interesting family history to tell and, although The Songcatcher is not one of her strongest books, it is worth a look.

Rated at: 3.0

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Vonnegut Was the American Mark Twain"


The real "American Mark Twain"


The AP has an interesting article comparing the kick in sales that a famous author gets upon his death. This is something that always happens when a famous singer dies, and I can clearly remember all the record shops completely selling out of Elvis Presley recordings within a day or two of his sudden death. I figured that it would also happen, probably to a lesser degree, when famous authors died. In this instance the comparison is between the recently deceased trio of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron. According to the piece, Vonnegut is the clear winner.
No writer was more competitive, or ambitious, than Mailer, author of such epics as "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song," and critics would likely hand him the prize for his generation. But if sales are the measure of the public's mind, then honors clearly belong to Vonnegut.

"Vonnegut was the American Mark Twain. He even looked liked him. Everybody loved Vonnegut, whereas Norman was a much more controversial figure," says J. Michael Lennon, the literary executor for Mailer, who died Nov. 10 at age 84.
"Vonnegut was the American Mark Twain." What the heck does that mean? I always kind of thought that Mark Twain was the American Mark Twain. I sure hope this guy was misquoted.
According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" has sold about 280,000 copies since 2006, more than four times the combined pace of six of the most talked about books of the past 60 years: Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," and Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," "Sophie's Choice" and "Darkness Visible."

While Vonnegut's passing last April led to a significant jump in sales for his books, the change was far smaller for the works of Mailer and Styron, both of whom, unlike Vonnegut, won Pulitzer Prizes. Books by all three writers are still used in classrooms, but Vonnegut's are read more both on and off campus.
...
Other books by Vonnegut are also strongly outselling his contemporaries. "Cat's Cradle" has sold nearly 130,000 copies since 2006, according to Nielsen BookScan, and "Breakfast of Champions" totals 74,000. Meanwhile, Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," winner of the Pulitzer in 1968, has sold less than 2,000 since 2006, while Mailer's "The Armies of the Night," a Pulitzer winner in 1969, sold just 3,000.
I'm not surprised that the more literary works sell less than the shorter and easier read books of Vonnegut's. I get the impression that my personal favorite of the three, Bill Styron, probably is coming in a poor third in this comparison.

I still can't get over that "American Mark Twain" quote...

Friday Night Honky Tonk - 2

This is a clip of one of my favorite country singers, the fantastic James Hand, appearing at my favorite Austin honky tonk, the famous Broken Spoke. James writes his own songs and it is sometimes very clear that he writes them from personal experience, a combination that results in some of the most heartfelt country music you'll ever hear. This one is called "A Floor to Crawl and a Wall to Climb."



God bless Texas...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Books I Haven't Read


French author Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is mentioned everywhere I look lately. This article from the "Books and Arts" section of The Economist put a smile on my face this afternoon. It seems that Bayard has developed a classification system to cover all the books he has not "read."
1. Books Unknown to Me

2. Books I Have Skimmed

3. Books I Have Heard About

4. Books I Have Forgotten
Some books are eligible for more than one category, but even that does not keep Bayard from talking about them and expressing his strong opinions concerning their content and worth.

As he says in this article, "Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read." I'm relieved to find I'm not the only one with this problem.

I didn't think that this one would appeal to me at all when I first started hearing about it, but these little excerpts and interviews are really starting to tempt me now...or I could just place the book in Category Three and continue to talk about it a lot.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Air We Breathe

Set in 1916 as U.S. participation in World War I looked more and more probable, The Air We Breathe offers a glimpse into that world from the unique perspective of the tuberculosis patients who were being treated at Tamarack State, a public hospital located in a small New York town that was well known for the number of private cure cottages also located there. The hospital became home to dozens of indigent immigrants from around the world who had to agree to strict rules regarding their behavior and treatment regimen if they wanted to remain under public care.

New arrivals were instructed to lie quietly in their beds and to move only when told to do so. No talking, laughing, smoking, singing, reading or writing was allowed. They were simply to remain as quiet as possible so that their bodies could focus on ridding them of the disease that brought them to Tamarack State. The patients, many of them from Russia, Germany, and various Eastern European countries were often destitute because they were not allowed to use the skills or educations acquired before their arrival in America. Long-term patients, those whose health improved enough for them to move out of the clinic and into semi-private rooms, soon became bored with the routine and the tiny library available to them. They filled their days with gossip about patients and hospital staff alike, and craved news of the outside world.

Miles Fairchild, a wealthy patient in one of the town’s expensive cure cottages, stepped into this closed community one day with good intentions. He proposed a series of weekly lectures that would allow him and other patients to share their particular areas of expertise with anyone who wanted to attend. Fairchild was gratified by the way his idea caught on but he soon came to resent the fact that he was pushed aside by the group almost as soon as his initial lectures were done. He continued coming to the Wednesday afternoon sessions only because it allowed him some private time with the young woman who drove him to and from the hospital.

As certainty of war approached, xenophobia and an almost paranoid concern about immigrants from countries soon to be at war with the U.S. became the norm even in small town America. When Miles Fairchild, already jealous of the attention his young driver is paying to Leo Marburg, a young Russian patient, decides to use his wealth and influence to question the national loyalties of patients and staff, the social order of Tamarack State begins to break down.

Andrea Barrett, who tells her story through the voices and observations of several anonymous patients, uses Tamarack State as a stand-in for what was going on in the country as a whole on the eve of World War I. The Air We Breathe is filled with sympathetic characters who too often take the easy way out when faced with difficult choices, especially when the inevitable head-to-head clash between Leo and Miles reaches its climax. But these characters fit perfectly into the largely forgotten world of public tuberculosis sanatoriums that Barrett has so remarkably recreated. Theirs is not necessarily a story I was sorry to see end, but their world is definitely one I am happy to have visited.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Banned Because of 'Generous Bazoongas,' Author Fights Back

There is probably nothing that an author hates more than having a book banned from a public or school library. But, with a little creativity and the desire to fight back, a savvy author can turn a book banning into a positive thing. After all, free publicity is a very good thing for anyone trying to sell something to the general public.

Today's Globe and Mail tells the story
of Canadian writer Nicky Tate who is " taking her bazoongas to Saskatchewan" in order to give away copies of her newly banned children's book.


The publisher learned of the ban this summer after school librarian Debbie Wagner called to complain about scenes of bullying, one of which includes the use of the word bazoongas to describe part of female anatomy. "I feel so strongly that what's happened there is wrong," Ms. Tate said yesterday. "My message to the students is, 'If you want to read this book, here it is.' " The novel will be available free to any elementary pupil in Kindersley who requests the title. The public library in the town of 4,500 is helping with the give-away program (the Kindersley branch carries a single copy of the title, which is currently checked out). The combined student populations of Elizabeth and Westberry elementary schools is nearly 600.
...
Trouble on Tarragon Island is the third in the series set on a fictional Gulf Island in British Columbia. It features a 13-year-old girl named Heather Blake who wrestles with her feelings about her grandmother's behaviour, which includes breaking the law to protest against clear-cut logging.

When the grandmother poses for a nude calendar as a fundraising gimmick, the girl becomes the target of schoolyard taunts.

"What they say about my grandmother is true," the girl says. "She does have generous bazoongas, and all of Tarragon Island has seen them."

Ms. Tate said she chose bazoongas over other more common but ruder slang terms.

"I was looking for something a little humorous without being obscene," she said. "The language that is used by children in schools can be quite foul."
As so often happens, another banned book is going to find a larger audience as a result of being banned than it otherwise would have. You just have to love the way this kind of thing keeps blowing up in the face of all those overzealous book banners out there.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Borders Bookstores Add Television Commercials Just for You

So now the Borders bookstores want you to enjoy the experience of listening to a few television commercials while you wade past the coffee shop, make your way around the toy section, and tear yourself away from the CDs and DVDs that take up so much of the remaining floor space. (Does anyone really buy CDs and DVDs at the inflated Borders and Barnes & Noble prices?) The good news is that Borders still sells books. The bad news is that you may be so distracted that you fail to much care.

Of course, Borders is spinning this as a service to its customers by claiming that it is making it easier for customers to keep up with legitimate news stories and the latest in entertainment news. As if I need more unwanted exposure to the likes of E! Entertainment Television.
The advertisers that have bought time on Borders TV are all “household names,” Mr. Diab said. Ford, for instance will showcase its hybrid vehicles.

Mr. Jones said Borders customers tend to be “highly educated, more affluent” and spend an average of an hour in the store, making them catnip to many advertisers. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to reach people,” Mr. Jones said. “Newspapers are not as effective as they used to be. Television is not as easily reachable as it used to be. This becomes an attractive option.”
The dumbing down of America continues at a rapid pace. But anyone believing that this is a plus to the Borders environment is probably a victim of that trend already. This is nothing more than a deal between Borders and advertisers to subject bookstore customers, somewhat of a captive audience, to a steady stream of advertising. Borders is likely to make a nice profit from the venture and that should help its shaky bottom line. Can Barnes & Noble be far behind?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Punch

It has been almost thirty years now (December 9, 1977) since a single ten-second snippet of NBA history forever changed the way that the game of professional basketball is played. On that evening in Los Angeles, Houston Rockets star Rudy Tomjanovich was almost killed by a single punch thrown by Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, no one realized the tremendous impact that Tomjanovich’s injury would have, not only on the lives of the two men directly involved, but on the league itself. John Feinstein’s The Punch explains how the paths of Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington crossed that night in what was really more an accident than a fight and how they have become forever linked in the minds of basketball fans, something about which neither man is happy.

In one very important sense, the NBA of the 1970s resembled the game of hockey as it is played in the NHL. NBA teams depended on superstars to score points and to convince people to buy tickets. Team owners and managers realized that those superstars needed to be protected because their injury or ejection would make or break a team’s whole season. For that reason, NBA teams almost always had someone on the floor to serve as the team’s enforcer, someone who would make sure that their superstar was not injured in a fight, someone who would often fight the superstar’s fight in his place, in fact. Kermit Washington, a fine player in his own right, also served as enforcer for the Los Angeles Lakers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Washington found himself coming to Abdul-Jabbar’s rescue again on that fateful night, something he was used to doing on a regular basis for the hot tempered Abdul-Jabbar. As the players were running from one end of the basketball court to the other, Washington noticed that Abdul-Jabbar was becoming frustrated with the pushing and shoving he was receiving under the basket at the hands of Houston’s Kevin Kunnert so he stayed close to the two men rather than running to the other end of the floor. Tomjanovich, Houston’s team captain, noticed from his end of the court that his teammate was being manhandled by two Lakers and rushed in to break up the fight. As he approached Washington from behind, with his hands down, Washington turned suddenly and threw a single punch at Tomjanovich. The combination of Washington’s strength, the speed at which Tomjanovich was approaching Washington’s fist, and the exact location of the punch left Tomjanovich on the floor in a huge pool of blood.

Tomjanovich, who doctors say was lucky to survive the kind of punch that dislodged his skull, did not play again that season. Washington was suspended without pay for sixty days and his career was never really the same again. NBA rules governing player fights grew out of what happened that night because it made league officials aware of the great danger of letting men the size of professional basketball players take swings at each other. The league tightened up to such an extent that even players on the periphery of a fight were subject to fines and suspensions, especially those coming off the bench to involve themselves.

Just as importantly, the lives of Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich would never be the same. No matter what either player ever achieved on or off the court, each would always be remembered first for “the punch.” Each of the men played for several more seasons, and Tomjanovich even coached the Houston Rockets to two NBA championships in the nineties, but both of them are still haunted by what happened during ten seconds of one of the thousands of basketball games they played during their lives.

John Feinstein was able to get both men, their families, and many of the players and coaches who were on the floor that night to share their memories. Rudy Tomjanovich, try as he might, cannot get over the feeling that everyone he meets thinks of him as the player “who got nailed.” Kermit Washington has spent his life trying to convince people that he is not a thug who almost killed someone with a sucker punch in a fit of anger.

Feinstein gives equal time to both men, exploring their childhoods, their days as amateur basketball stars, and their professional careers. He does not take sides or make excuses for what happened that night. Instead, he lets both men tell their versions of what happened and how that has affected their lives ever since. Strangely enough, it is Kermit Washington who seems to be having the hardest time dealing with the whole thing. Washington seems to have become somewhat paranoid about what he did and still blames the hit his reputation took that night for everything bad that has happened to him since then. As pointed out by John Lucas, an ex-player who made plenty mistakes of his own, Washington needs to finally just say, “I’m sorry. I screwed up.” He will never find the closure that Tomjanovich seems to have found until he stops saying, “I’m sorry, but…”

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer Dead at 84

The literary world has lost one of its "big name" authors with the death of Norman Mailer last night from renal failure. Bloomberg News has word from Mailer's official biographer:

Mailer died of renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, according to an e-mailed statement from J. Michael Lennon, the author's literary executor and official biographer. Mailer had been hospitalized last month for surgery to remove scar tissue on one of his lungs. He lived in Brooklyn, New York.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the maverick author was perhaps more famous for his self-aggrandizing public behavior and grandiose ambitions than for his writing talent. There were six marriages, the stabbing of his second wife, the alcohol-infused fights and the feuds with literary figures such as Gore Vidal, all from a slight, curly-haired man. He even ran two quixotic campaigns to become New York City's mayor.
I have to admit that I was always somewhat turned off by Mailer's public persona and that, as a result, I paid very little attention to him as an author. I think that the only book of his that I've ever read, in fact, is The Executioner's Song, Mailer's nonfiction account of Gary Gilmore's crimes and eventual execution by firing squad in Utah. I found that book to be fascinating but it did not lead to more Norman Mailer reading.

Mailer was definitely one of those bigger-than-life characters who will be remembered for his celebrity status and he was capable of superb writing. I do have to wonder how much more he would have accomplished if his personal life had been a little more under control, but then he wouldn't have been "Norman Mailer."

Friday, November 09, 2007

Friday Night Honky Tonk - 1

Country music lost one of its legends earlier this week when the great Hank Thompson passed away. Hank was still on the road until recently and he really seemed to love life. This is an appearance that he made in the early sixties on what appears to be the old Jimmy Dean television show. Hank was 82 years old.



This is a fairly recent picture of Hank:

Booking Through Thursday - On Friday


Would you say that you read about the same amount now as when you were younger? More? Less? Why?

I've seen this one at several of my favorite blogs in the last couple of days and, since it got me to thinking about my own early reading days, I decided to join in the chatter.

I've been keeping a list of the books that I read since February 1970. It's really hard for me to believe that I've been keeping that list for almost forty years now and that no one but me has ever even seen it. In fact, no one other than me even knew of its existence until this very moment.

In looking back at the list, I can easily see the relationship between what was going on in my life and how much time I had for reading. Over the years, I've read as little as a dozen books and well over a hundred in a given year. I don't think that my love of reading has changed over time, but my free time has surely varied from decade to decade. Those years during which I was newly married with young children reflect some of the lowest totals in the more than 37 years logged so far. Every time I changed jobs my totals went down. On the other hand, as I became more settled in my job and when my two daughters left home, my totals jumped way up and have stayed high for a while now.

This year has been kind of interesting to me because I was out of work from the end of March until two weeks ago. All of that extra time to discover book bloggers and their great tips on what to read, plus the extra time to actually do the reading, has resulted in what will probably be my highest yearly total ever. Of course, now that I've gone back to work, my book completion pace has fallen off a bit and I'm not sure where I'm going to end the year.

The reading bug bit me when I was about ten years old and I've never lost that original excitement about discovering new books and authors. I remember climbing on my bicycle when I was about ten and riding the four miles to the town's tiny little one-room library to get a new bunch of books to take home. I managed to get through the children's shelves so quickly that there was suddenly nothing new to read so the town librarian took pity on me and allowed me to choose freely from the adult shelves. She always quizzed me about a book or two that I was returning just to make sure that I was understanding them and, looking back, I'm really surprised that she never once refused me a book, regardless of its contents.

That experience probably made me into the reader that I am now because dipping into the adult section of the town library always seemed like such a privilege, a gift that the librarian was giving to me by bending the rules in my favor. Every Saturday morning was like Christmas, a feeling that I still sometimes get when I pick up a new book.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Pat Conroy Takes on the Idiots Who Want to Ban His Books






Pat Conroy has lost patience with those self-appointed censors in West Virginia who want to keep his "obscene and offensive" novels out of the state's high schools. According to the Guardian Unlimited website, Conroy is starting to speak out a bit about what is happening there.



Graphic depictions of violence, suicide and sexual assault in two Pat Conroy books are at the heart of a First Amendment debate, pitting offended parents against high school students who object to being told what they can't read.

Even Conroy has interjected himself into the debate. In an e-mail to a student, Conroy slams those who would ban his works as ``idiots.''
...
In a move that appeased neither side, the board decided Monday to explore using advisory labels on books that show content for violence, language, sexual content or adult situations.
...
Parents Ken and Leona Tyree found certain scenes in ``The Prince of Tides'' ``obscene and offensive.'' Leona Tyree said she was unable to finish the book. Their son has since left Shamblin's Advanced Placement literature class.

Another parent, Karen Frazier, complained about violence in ``Beach Music,'' and told school board members last month she wants guidelines for books used in public schools.

``If a teacher was on a computer and sending this filth to underage students, they'd probably be arrested,'' Frazier said at last month's meeting.
...
Because the two books were temporarily banned ``every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots,'' Conroy wrote in the letter published Oct. 24 in The Charleston Gazette. ``They don't know how the world works - but writers and English teachers do.''

Conroy referred to the books as ``two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar of God and say, 'Lord, this is how I found the world you made.'''
Pat Conroy has long been one of my favorite authors. I remember well, the year that Prince of Tides hit the bookstores in paperback because I bought a copy for each of the 15 people who worked in my accounting department as Christmas gifts. I loved the honesty and frankness with which Conroy told that story because of the way that he uses his personal life as the basis for much of his fiction.

I really like the idea of putting warning labels on the covers of books that contain "violence, language, sexual content or adult situations," too. I only wish we had had that in my own high school library because it would have saved me so much time in my search for that type of book. Those labels are going to be perfect pointers to the very books that Pat Conroy's "idiots" are so concerned about. You have to love it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Oprah Does It Again

I swear that I'm not constantly searching for negative news combining Oprah Winfrey and books. She just seems to make so many poor choices lately that it is more a challenge to avoid that combination than it is to find it. Now we have this from Brietbart.com about a book that she really has to be wishing had not been featured on her website. First she loved the book, then she denounced it, and now she's slipped up by pushing it again.
Oprah Winfrey has pulled a discredited children's book, Forrest Carter's "The Education of Little Tree," from a list of recommended titles on her Web site, blaming an archival "error" for including a work considered the literary hoax of a white supremacist.

"The archived listing was posted in error and has been removed," Winfrey spokeswoman Angela DePaul told The Associated Press on Tuesday, adding that she did not know long "Little Tree" had been on the site.

The AP had inquired last week about "The Education of Little Tree," which was featured on http://www.oprah.com with "The Color Purple," "The Grapes of Wrath" and other "guaranteed page-turners from Oprah's personal collection." The list can also be linked to in-store computer searches at Barnes & Noble.
...
"I no longer—even though I had been moved by the story—felt the same about this book," she said in 1994. "There's a part of me that said, `Well, OK, if a person has two sides of them and can write this wonderful story and also write the segregation forever speech, maybe that's OK.' But I couldn't—I couldn't live with that."

According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, "Little Tree" has sold about 11,000 copies in 2007. It was originally released by the Delacorte Press, then reissued a decade later by the University of New Mexico Press, which still publishes the book.
I have to wonder how many copies were sold by Oprah's endorsement. Since she has no idea how long the book has been featured on her website, there's really no way to tell. I understand, of course, that Oprah has "people" to take care of details for her, but I still would think that she would be a little more aware of what is being published and pushed in her name. Guess not.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

These Books Are 126 Years Overdue


The Jerusalem Post notes an amazing little book story in tomorrow's edition. It seems that during something called "The War of the Pacific," 1879-1883, some of Chile's soldiers looted the library in Lima, Peru.

The books are finally being sent back to Peru:


Chile on Tuesday returned 3,778 books that its military had taken from Peru's national library - more than 126 years overdue.

The volumes, written in Greek, Latin, French and Spanish, some with full-page colonial-era maps, dated from the 16th to 19th centuries. Chile shipped the books, most in excellent condition, to Peru this week via DHL, where they'll be returned to Lima's national library.
It's great to see that so many of the books are still in excellent condition. Now someone needs to talk to the DHL corporate people about a golden opportunity to cut the perfect television commercial (assuming they don't lose the books in shipment, of course).

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis

Bill Lewis is a high school history teacher with such a bad case of writer’s block that it is taking over his life. Lewis is working on a biography of famed explorer Meriwether Lewis and knows that he needs to have his book in print before the impending 200th anniversary of Meriwether’s death in order to maximize the impact of the book. But Bill has become so obsessed by the mystery of Meriwether’s death just three years after he and William Clark returned so triumphantly to civilization that he finds it impossible to finish the book unless he can fully explain Meriwether’s apparent suicide.

Bill Lewis and Meriwether Lewis have much in common as it turns out. Like Meriwether, Bill suffers from periodic, but chronic, depression to such a degree that thoughts of death and suicide are never far away. Bill dislikes men and finds it as difficult to build a friendly relationship with another man as Meriwether did two hundred years before him. Meriwether yearned constantly for female companionship and wanted nothing more than to marry. Bill, although married, is in such an unstable relationship with his wife and son that he finds himself drawn to unlikely candidates with whom he might be able to begin a new life.

Michael Pritchett tells the intertwining story of these two men by alternating chapters in the voice of each man. He relies heavily on the actual journals of Lewis and Clark to tell the story of their famous expedition, quoting directly from the journals at times and using the same flowery language of that time to detail their adventures and the battle that Lewis waged with depression even as he pushed westward. As Bill Lewis gets closer and closer to the chapter of his book that will describe Meriwether’s apparent death at his own hand, he seems to be sinking into the same state of melancholy that claimed Meriwether’s life. For Bill, it becomes a race to the finish but it is a question of whose life will end first, his or Meriwether’s.

Pritchett has written an interesting book but at times I found that the language and style of the early nineteenth century made for slow and difficult reading in the Meriwether Lewis chapters. The Bill Lewis chapters were a welcome break from that style but, as Bill began to identify more and more closely with Meriwether, even those chapters began to use Meriwether’s antique style. Michael Pritchett’s The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis puts a human face on Meriwether Lewis and, although it does not claim to solve the mystery surrounding his death, it is a book that will very likely encourage many of its readers to seek out the original Lewis and Clark journals.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Great Book Endings







This one is fun. The Associated Press has turned the old standby about favorite first lines from books on its head by coming up with a list of favorite book endings.



When some readers start a new book, they turn to the end to read the last page (As the quote from "When Harry Met Sally . . ." goes, so in case they die before they finish, they know how it ends). Others use self-control and discipline and plod slowly through the book until they finish with satisfaction. Some can't bear something awful happening to their favorite characters, so they skip to the back to make sure all is well.

And, of course, there are a few who just read the back to pretend like they covered the entire book.

Any way you slice it, book endings are, well, the big bang. They are a reward after pages and pages of mystery, plot and sometimes sorrow, or they are cause for anger when they leave us hanging.
To give you a feel for what the list is like, here are a few of the chosen endings.
• Best ending line: "Charlotte's Web," by E.B. White. "It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

• Best happy ending: "A Room With A View," by E.M. Forster. Boy meets girl in Florence, kisses her wildly, then they have troubles upon return to stuffy England. Boy eventually gets girl and they live happily ever after in Florence.

• Best tragic ending: "Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy. Beautiful, smart and enchanting Anna has an affair and ends up throwing herself under a train, all because Victorian society said it was OK for a man to cheat, but not a woman.

• Best end to a whodunit: "The Killer Inside Me," by Jim Thompson. This thriller works in reverse; we know who the killer is, but the characters have to figure it out. The ending is not only chilling but oddly remorseful in a way that makes you uncomfortable.

• Best Western ending: "No Country for Old Men," by Cormac McCarthy. This bleak novel - about a truck full of dead people, some cash and a manhunt - is spare at best. But McCarthy's ability to tell a story using as few words as possible is impressive, and it has an end that just kicks you in the gut.

• Best relief ending after scary book: "It," by Stephen King. A huge clown-devil-spider thing named Pennywise scares the living daylights out of misfit kids and, later, adults until finally they stand up and show It what they're made of.
The whole list is interesting and it has started me thinking about a similar list of my own favorite endings. Just what I need...another project.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Advertising Inserts for Library Books


I have to admit that I like this idea despite the first little stab of irritation that I felt when I spotted the BBC News item:
The scheme offers advertisers 500,000 inserts in county libraries such as Essex, Dorset, Somerset and also Bromley, in Kent, and Leeds. It aims to cover the UK by the middle of 2008 with around 3m inserts being made available per month.
...
Inserts, weighing up to nine grammes, are placed in each book as it is hired from the library, with a single insert allocated per person in order to avoid wastage.

Only one insert campaign will be allowed each month.
...
"Using library books as an advertising medium provides additional revenue for the libraries to invest in books and therefore allows advertisers to contribute directly to local communities."
Something like this, done tastefully, and if it actually puts more new books on library shelves is fine with me. Of course not everyone agrees. See the rest of the article for the other side of the argument.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

High School Coffee Shops


I've gotten used to the idea of seeing coffee shops in bookstores even though I've never been tempted to pony up five bucks for a coffee and a table that I could use for reading. Call me cheap, but I'd rather add the five dollars to my book budget rather than add the effect of all those extra calories to my already poor diet. What I never expected to see was high school libraries opening up their own coffee shops in an attempt to remind students that there is actually a place called a library in the same building that they wander around in all day long.

Some say that it's working. Others think it is a bad thing.
Coffeehouses are springing up in high school libraries around the country, marking a big departure from the days when librarians sternly prohibited food, drinks and talking.

Some health advocates wonder whether high school students really need any more caffeine, or the calories in that caramel mochaccino.

But school officials say these coffee shops are promoting reading and studying by attracting teenagers who might not otherwise hang out in a library.
...
The coffeehouse trend comes at a time when many school systems around country are removing junk food and soda machines.

"They're already providing horrible school lunches. Now they're adding to that with 800-calorie drinks," said Susan Levin, a registered dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Many students load up their coffee with sugar and cream or buy dessert-like coffee drinks, Levin said.

Terry Shrader, Centennial High principal, said the Parent Teacher Student Organization considered whether it was a healthy idea before opening the cafe.

"Then they came in one morning and watched how many students walk through the door with Starbucks or those Vaults, caffeinated drinks," he said. "There's not any increase in the amount of caffeine they're drinking."
...
John Witmer, who has run a before-school cafe at Hastings High School in Houston since he became librarian in 2003, said it is extremely popular with the 2,800 students.

Before the coffeehouse opened, "they were running about 6,000 visits per year to the library and checking out about 3,000 books," he said. Now, "we're running about 65,000 visits and checking out about 45,000 books."

He has used the money earned to eliminate library fines, he said.
...
But 17-year-old Aaron Nall, a senior, said he doesn't think his fellow students read any more because of the cafe.

"I think this place is more a social scene than anything," he said. "And it makes it loud if you're trying to use the library."
I'm not ready to buy into the theory that something like this increases real library usage, and I can imagine how irritating all the extra noise must be to students who are actually there to use the library. But, on the other hand, you can't really protect people, high school students, included, from themselves and I doubt that they are consuming many more calories or much more caffeine than they would be consuming without having access to a mini-Starbucks in their school. I'm neutral on this one.