Translate

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Anyone ever having had a job suddenly yanked from under him by a questionable corporate decision will understand what Manny DeLeon is going through. Manny is one fine employee, a company man through and through who takes great pride in what he does for a living despite the low pay, the long hours, and the constant pressure from the home office to do more with less. Last Night at the Lobster may be Manny’s particular story but there are thousands and thousands of “Mannys” out there and Stewart O’Nan’s novel is a tribute to all of them.

Here it is, just five days before Christmas, and Manny is hoping for the perfect last day to close down the Red Lobster restaurant he’s managed for so long. He wants to go out with a bang: with a high customer count for the day, a heartfelt farewell to all his regulars and his crew, and a feeling of accomplishment despite the message of “failure” that the bean counters have tossed his way.

What he gets instead is a typical New England blizzard that requires him to crank up the old snow blower and hit the parking lot in an attempt to clear spaces for customers who are probably too smart to venture out into the storm for a meal anyway. But Manny, ever the optimist, never stops “managing” his restaurant and the skeleton crew that shows up more out of personal loyalty to him than from any sense of obligation to the company on this last day.

This slim novel at times reads like a Red Lobster manual on how to close down one of its stores at the end of the day as Manny continues to follow company procedures and policies right up to the second he turns the lock on the door and heads to his car (whose windshield, he already knows, has been smashed by a disgruntled employee). But along the way, we meet, and get to know, the crew that showed up to man the restaurant during its last hours, some of whom Manny was surprised to see show up at all. Among them are Eddie, the handicapped dishwasher; Ty, the chief cook; Roz, an old-timer with the company who is actually vested in the company’s pension plan; and Jacquie, another waitress and former girlfriend of Manny’s.

Last Night at the Lobster is about one man trying to make it through a painful day with his honor and self-respect in tact and O’Nan offers little in the way of drama other than Manny’s wishful thinking about his relationship with Jacquie, a yearning he still feels despite the fact that his new girlfriend is pregnant and Jacquie herself has moved on to a new relationship. Manny does manage to handle a few obliviously unreasonable customers, but one gets the feeling that they are just part of any day for him, something he can now do well with his eyes closed.

There are too few novels written about work, and almost none of them are about work in the service industry. O’Nan’s novel may be short, at only 146 pages, but he has packed enough into it that I doubt that anyone who reads it will ever be able to eat out again without a heightened awareness of those who make their meal possible.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

British Librarians Are Getting Lonely

Is the library experience in the U.K. different from that in America and Canada? According to this Guardian Unlimited book blog, libraries in the U.K. are hurting due largely to non-participation by the general public and the disappearance of library materials that are checked out and never seen again.
Partly one can blame the outdated stereotype of bespectacled dragons demanding absolute silence for putting people off. More recently, the image of the library as the warm retreat of the homeless hasn't helped either.

However nimbly they have adapted, modernised, lost books and gained technology, become determinedly "functional" as invaluable resource centres rather than bookstores, the libraries are always needing to boost their profile. They need more borrowers and yet, one of their biggest problems, in my experience, is that "borrowing" is not a readily understood modern concept, however well-embedded it was in Carnegie's day.
I'm just not buying the fact that the concept of "borrowing" is no longer understood by people in the U.K. I lived in London for a few years, until the summer of 1999, and I didn't see that as a problem during my regular visits to the Richmond library. What struck me was how empty the library always seemed, no matter what day or hour I dropped by. In comparison to the regular crowds I've seen in several Houston libraries since coming home, the Richmond one may as well have shut down and no one would have noticed other than the regulars who came in to play or work on the computers provided for their use.

Even having seen that, I'm surprised that things are so bad for British libraries and I wonder what the real cause is. Americans often joke about our tendency to believe the stereotype about Brits being so much more "cultured" than the "boobs" in this country. Come on, my British friends, you are going to ruin your image if you don't start using your library cards again.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Guitar and a Pen:Stories by Country Music's Greatest Songwriters

As a decades-long fan of country music, I can vouch for Vince Gill when he says in his foreword to A Guitar and a Pen, “…some of the greatest songwriters around are also some of the best storytellers.” Heck, whole movies can be, and have been, made from a three-minute country song without requiring much of a rewrite. Now, finally, with A Guitar and a Pen, arrives a collection of short stories from a group of songwriters responsible for some of the biggest hits and, much more importantly, some of the best songs, to come out of Nashville in the history of country music.

The collection includes stories from Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Braddock, Hal Ketchum, Janis Ian, Mark D. Sanders, Robbie Fulks, Marshall Chapman and Charlie Daniels, among others.

The twenty-five stories encompass a wide range of themes and writing styles. Among them are exaggerated tales of humor; stories of good love gone bad; some about growing up poor, or just growing up; one about the old West; some offering insights into the life of a songwriter; a few about early influences of musicians; even one about terrorism. I won’t claim that all of the stories worked for me, but this collection did have one of the better “hit” to “miss” ratios of any short story collection I’ve read in a while.

Among my favorites is Bob McDill’s “The Care and Treatment of Camp Cooks,” a story about a hunting club’s temperamental, but extremely talented, camp cook who goes on strike after one of the club members mistakenly offers an honest opinion on that evening’s meal when pressed to do so by the cook. Lesson learned by all but the cook. Another is “The Elk Hunters,” Tim Johnson’s story about a Nashville songwriter’s annual return to Oregon to bow-hunt elk with his brother and father and the shocking truths he learns about his father on one of the hunts.

There are also stories like the unforgettable “Gathering Together” by Robert Hicks, the story of Aunt Willie and her unique contribution to one family’s Thanksgiving meal and Monty Powell’s “The Point,” a touching account of how a man’s retirement dreams are ruined when he returns to the scene of his best childhood memories.

But the stories I found most interesting were the ones directly related to the country music business. The collection leads off with Robbie Fulks’ frank look at what life is like for those who do music “on a lower-than-celebrity level” as part of the presentation his story narrator makes at a local high school “Career Day” event, and it ends with “Will It Ever Happen Again,” a Michael Kosser story about a one-time hugely successful songwriter who hasn’t had a hit song in ten years and who might be forced to finally give up his dream. These are perfect bookend stories for a very fine short story collection.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ups and Downs- or Not?

I spent a few minutes at Barnes & Noble with my 86-year-old father this weekend (he can only stand comfortably for a few minutes at a time before his knees start causing him real problems) browsing the "Literature" shelves to see if I might have missed something from any of my past favorite writers, some of whom I've been reading for decades.

I was forced to walk the aisles at a lot quicker pace than I like and, as the names flashed by, I started to wonder something about the ones that caught my eye: in what direction is their work trending? That is, does their later work stack up to what came before?

Here are a few of the names that jumped out at me, along with my gut feelings about the current state of their work (or at least my own reaction to that work):

Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith/Lauren Kelly - As good, if not better, than ever

John Irving - In decline and actually beginning to lose me as a fan

James Lee Burke - see Joyce Carol Oates, above

Robert B. Parker - In terminal decline - I've stopped keeping up with him at all

Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine - Current work strikes me as better than her earliest work but not as good as her best of her middle period work

Harry Turtledove - seems to write the same two books over and over again

Pat Conroy - has written true classics and is capable of writing another any time out

Anne Tyler - not quite achieving what she did in her earlier books but still one of the best out there

Elmer Kelton - later work is some of his best and includes a classic western or two

Larry McMurtry - his middle years produced his best work but he's still worth a look with every new book

Stephen King - Horror bores me now but I don't know if that's King fault or if I finally just grew up

Elizabeth George - Getting better and better

Tom Wolfe - Last couple of books make me wonder if he was ever as good as I first believed

Jane Smiley - Early work, I loved; later work and her wacko political stance has turned me completely off her writing

Dennis Lehane - later work is excellent but I still miss his Kenzie/Gennaro series
Those are the names that jumped off the shelf at me as I sprinted through the store well aware that my time was limited. I didn't buy a thing because the pace of the visit through me off, and I started to wonder on the way home if the writers have actually changed (declined, as often as not) or if I'm the one who has changed. Maybe my tastes are so different today from what they were years ago that I overrated authors at one point and can see them more clearly now for what they really are...or vice versa. Who knows?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Resistance

Really good alternate history does more than simply speculate about one or two of the limitless “what if” possibilities offered by the past. In the best writing of this type those “what ifs” are just starting points for stories that go well beyond the big picture to consider what the historical changes would mean to ordinary people caught up in their wake. Resistance, Owen Sheens’ debut novel, does exactly that, and does it remarkably well.

What if the allied invasion of France had been repelled by a German army fully prepared to meet the invaders on the beaches of Normandy? What if that failed invasion resulted in such a devastating defeat for the Allies that Germany was almost immediately able to land her soldiers on England’s southern coast and begin a march to London?

The women of the isolated Olchon Valley of Wales did not even have time to wonder “what if” before they woke up one morning to find that every one of their husbands and sons had vanished, leaving behind nothing to indicate where they had gone or when they might return. But Maggie, oldest of the women, knew in her heart that the men would be gone for a long time when she saw that her husband William had left their cows un-milked, something he had never done in all their years together. She was able to convince the rest of the women that their husbands had joined the resistance, something they hardly dare speak of even among themselves, and that it is their duty to work the farms on their own while their men were away.

And that is exactly what they try to do until a small German patrol suddenly appears in the valley on a mission of its own. Despite the women’s efforts to disguise the absence of the valley’s men, Captain Albrecht Wolfram quickly reaches the correct conclusion that the women are alone and that their husbands are involved in fighting the German invasion. Albrecht knows that he should report the situation to his superiors but he realizes that, if he does so, everyone in the valley will be killed as an example of what will happen to the families of others who join the underground resistance. Albrecht has already seen the worst that war has to offer and he does not have the stomach to cause the deaths of these innocent women. He, in fact, realizes that his patrol has dropped through the cracks of the German command and decides to keep his men safely in the valley long after their initial mission has been completed.

When harsh winter weather sets in, making it impossible for the soldiers to leave the valley even if they want to, both the women and the soldiers come to realize that they must depend on each other for survival. The women grudgingly reach the conclusion that their resistance is no longer possible. Out of necessity the two groups learn to accommodate each other and over the long winter months personal relationships change to the point that both sides almost forget that they are at war with each other. What they have in common is more important than their differences.

But seasons change, and winter is always followed by spring. Warmer weather opens the valley to the outside world again and the realities of life under a ruthless occupying force. Are the women in more danger from German reprisal or from their neighbors who see them as collaborators? Should they have done more to resist the valley’s invaders? What will their husbands think of them? Those are just some of the questions that readers will ponder long after they turn the last page of Resistance.

This one is not to be missed.

Rated at: 5.0

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mary Badham and Harper Lee


I find it a bit sad, but not surprising considering Harper Lee's love of privacy, that Mary Badham who played Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" has not spoken with Miss Lee since about the time the movie was released. What is surprising is that the book and movie still have a huge impact on her life as this short article from The Birmingham News describes:


Now 55 and living in rural Virginia, Badham has long since lost touch with Lee, who has staunchly and successfully maintained her privacy since "To Kill a Mockingbird" came out.

"I figure she knows how to get in touch with me if she wants to call me," Badham says. "But I don't want to bother her.

"I'd love to talk to her, just to say thank you for my life and that I hope I'm doing a good job with what has become my life, working with this book and the film."

Although Badham gave up acting when she was 13, she still goes all over the country and around the world talking to schoolchildren and literacy groups about both the book and the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird."
For what it's worth, Wikipedia says that, "At present Badham is an art restorer and a college testing coordinator. Married to a school teacher, and the mother of two..."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Murder Room

The Murder Room, P.D. James’ twelfth of thirteen mysteries featuring Scotland Yard’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh, is a satisfying addition to that character-driven series. For me, the main attraction to a P.D. James mystery has always been the way her excellent understanding of human psychology allows her to populate each of her novels with so many believable characters. That talent usually complicates her mysteries and keeps readers turning pages all the way to the end and, despite the fact that I listened to this one instead of reading it, The Murder Room was no exception.

In London, a city filled with world-class museums, a tiny museum like the Dupayne can easily slip through the crack and, in fact, this one has. Devoted exclusively to the “interwar years” of England, the lull between world wars with which she was blessed from 1919 to 1939, the Dupayne specializes in rare first editions and artwork of the period. But over time its main attraction has come to be a room everyone calls the “Murder Room,” a space devoted exclusively to the sensational murders of those particular days. The room is filled with exhibits detailing the murders, including pictures of victims and murderers alike, and the few visitors who find their way to the Dupayne seem to spend most of their time there.

But these are tough times for the Dupayne and the three Dupayne siblings to whom it belongs. It is time for them to decide whether or not to keep the museum open, a decision requiring the unanimous consent of the two brothers and their sister, and one that is starting to seem more and more unlikely to be reached because Dr. Neville Dupayne hates the very thought of the museum’s existence and cannot wait to see it closed forever.

When Neville Dupayne is found murdered in a manner similar to one of the more spectacular murders featured in the museum’s “Murder Room,” Dalgliesh and his team are assigned to investigate. They learn soon enough of the animosity between Neville and his brother and sister, who seem desperate to keep the museum open, but those are only two of several people they interview who might have wanted to see Neville Dupayne dead. By refusing to continue the Dupayne Museum, Neville Dupayne was in the process of throwing people out of jobs, and even out of living quarters, so it was obvious that this cold natured man had enough enemies to complicate any investigation into his death.

And things do get complicated when a second murder, which appears to be another copycat murder based on information found in the “Murder Room,” is discovered at the museum. The Murder Room is likely keep most readers guessing right up to the point the murderer is revealed – and beyond, because of the romance with which James closes this chapter of Dalgliesh’s story.

The audio version of The Murder Room is read by Charles Keating who is a master of British accents. His use of multiple accents and voice inflections makes the characters easy to distinguish from one another and was, I think, particularly effective in creating one of my favorite P.D. James characters of all-time, Tally, the lonely caretaker who lives in a small cottage behind the museum. Readers who have the time, and who enjoy audio books, would do themselves a favor to listen to this one rather than reading it. This was fun.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mark Twain as Seen by Thomas Edison

I may be the last book nut on earth to finally see Thomas Edison's short film clip featuring Mark Twain and his daughters but...if not, here it is for the other straggler or two.


Mark Twain - 1909- at Stormfield (Redding, Connecticut)

Stormfield burned down in 1923. It had remained empty for several years after Twain's death but at the time of the fire it served as the summer home of the Margaret Givens family of New York.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oh, Never Mind...




It looks like the L.A. Public Library has quickly backed off its proposal to charge patrons a buck a book for transfers between branches. The library apparently caught quite a bit of heat from people who strongly opposed the idea and the mayor blinked.


Turns out our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, isn't on board, David Zahniser reports.

"I didn't make that proposal. The library commission did," the mayor told reporters on Monday morning. "They didn't confer with my office when they did that. It may be that now that they see the proposals I have made, they may reconsider that."

Just hours later came the news that the head of the library, who got 800 e-mails from truly peeved book lovers, wants the Library Commission to drop the buck-a-book proposal. Which makes it almost a done deal.
That didn't take long. This is a good example of how the internet has changed things for politicians, both local and national ones. It's really hard to slip something through anymore without the whole country/world becoming aware of it...no more secrets.

Monday, April 21, 2008

One for Sorrow

Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow is one of the more unusual coming-of-age novels I have ever encountered. Although it has been compared with the likes of Catcher in the Rye and The Lovely Bones, it has far more differences than it has things in common with them, sharing only a portion of the broadest themes of those two novels. This very sad YA novel, especially its ambiguously hopeful ending, is likely to strike a chord with its readers who may be struggling through many of the same emotions and problems faced by fifteen-year-old Adam McCormick - minus the ghosts.

Adam is not the most popular guy in his high school. He does run on the school’s track team but is otherwise pretty much a loner. He is close to his grandmother, who lives with the family, but his parents spend much of their time either ignoring or yelling at each and his older pothead of a brother enjoys ridiculing him at every opportunity. That’s bad enough, but then things take a turn for the worse.

First his superstitious old grandmother dies in her sleep after her count of the number of crows around the house convinces her that bad things are in store for the family. Next his mother is permanently injured in a head-on collision. Believing that bad things happen in “threes,” Adam thinks the cycle has run its course when the body of a classmate of his is found in a shallow grave. Little did he know that his real troubles were only beginning.

Jamie Marks, the computer geek who was murdered, had been even more of a loner than Adam but he is not ready to “cross over” and before long his ghost begins to appear to the girl who had accidentally discovered his grave. After Adam became intimately familiar with the former grave site himself, Jamie’s ghost becomes his regular companion, encouraging Adam run away from home and even introducing him to another permanently-teenaged ghost that has been hanging around her old home place for several decades.

Has Adam been befriended by a ghost or is the ghost selfishly using him for purposes of its own? The two grow very close, and there are even hints of a budding homosexual relationship between them, but before long Adam loses his will to live, almost completely stops eating and drinking, and is perfectly willing to allow death to bring him fully into Jamie’s world. As Jamie struggles to remain in the world he knew, Adam seems to be steadily slipping from that very world as the vampire-like Jamie, either accidentally or purposely, steals more and more of his life essence.

This gloomy book is filled with a long list of irritating and unsympathetic characters, especially the adults, but even all but one of the young people closest to Adam let him down or go out of their way to make his life miserable: his girlfriend, his brother and Jamie’s ghost. This sets the tone for an ending that might leave some readers disappointed but, though it might not be the ending expected by most, realistically, is probably the best that Adam could have hoped for and it fits well with the rest of his story.

One for Sorrow did not leave me feeling particularly optimistic about life in small town America and, in fact, left me a bit down about the whole experience. But young adult readers might take a different message from Adam’s ability to survive everything thrown at him in one dangerously tough year. I hope they do.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Life Class

Life Class, Pat Barker’s first novel since 2004, begins on the eve of England’s entry into World War I, a time period Barker knows well and one she covered admirably in her prize winning WWI trilogy published between 1990 and 1995 (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road). Naturally, mainstream critics have compared Life Class to the earlier books but they have unfortunately come to the conclusion that it is inferior to that trio. Though that might be the case, readers should not be put off by that opinion because Life Class still has much to offer.

Barker’s story begins at the Slade School, a prestigious London art school being attended by Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, aspiring artists hoping to eventually make their mark in the London art world. Tarrant, who can barely afford to keep himself at the school, has come to the realization that he may be in over his head and is close to quitting the school. Elinor Brooke, on the other hand, is doing quite well in her classes and is determined to reach her goal of becoming a successful artist. Tarrant is attracted to Elinor but finds that he cannot really compete for her affections with Kit Neville, an accomplished young artist who has already established a minor reputation in the city.

Barker explores the rather insulated little world of the Slade School whose students think about little other than art, and she exposes the highly competitive nature of most of its students, a competitiveness they bring even to their personal relationships. Paul Tarrant finds himself immensely attracted to Teresa Halliday, an artist’s model introduced to him by Elinor, and begins a shaky affair with her despite the ever present threat that her estranged husband may be spying on the couple. Kit Neville, in the meantime, is trying to bully Elinor into marrying him, something she bluntly tells him she has no intention of ever doing.

But even those attending the Slade School and living in the world they have created for themselves cannot ignore what is happening in the real world. World War I is upon them and every able-bodied man and, to a certain degree, every woman is expected to play a positive role in that struggle. Before long, the Slade School, emptied of its male students and many of its female ones, is just a shadow of what it was before the war. And that is when the real Life Class begins for Paul, Kit and Elinor as everything they stand for and know is challenged by the realities of the brutal warfare that would go on to claim the lives of millions.

Paul and Kit find themselves working under primitive conditions in Belgium military hospitals and, for a time, serving as ambulance drivers during the worst of the fighting there. Each is tested, and each responds in his own way. Paul feels the suffering of those he treats and carries to safety so deeply that he finds himself able to paint at a level he could only dream about before having seen combat and even being wounded himself. He matures emotionally to such an extent that he is changed forever. Kit, on the other hand, goes to Belgium with the primary purpose of painting what he sees, manages to avoid most personal danger, and comes back as much the personal fraud as he was before leaving London. Elinor, despite spending a week in Belgium with Paul and witnessing a bombing attack on the town, refuses to much think about the war, insisting instead that her “work” is as important as anything else going on in the world. She focuses on her art while the rest of her life suffers.

Interestingly, it is only Paul, the least successful of the three before the war, who passes the ultimate Life Class.

It remains to be seen whether or not Life Class is book one of a new trilogy but its main characters are interesting enough for at least one follow-up book and its ending is ambiguous enough regarding the relationship between Paul and Elinor that readers would welcome a second look at these characters.

Rated at: 3.5

Friday, April 18, 2008

L. A. Library System Wants to Charge Patrons a Buck a Book

The Los Angeles Public Library system wants to start charging one dollar per book for transfers between libraries within the system. The library has recently had its annual budget cut because the city is running a huge deficit and it is looking for ways to raise money on its own. Good or bad idea? According to this Daily News article those against the change are becoming pretty vocal.

...the proposed $1 fee has riled library users, who have watched book collections dwindle in their branches and have come to rely on the interbranch transfer system that allows users to search the book catalog, reserve a book and have it delivered to their local library in a few days.

"When I heard about the $1 fee, I just flipped," said Kim Cooper, who started Save the L.A. Public Library with her husband, Richard Schave, to urge Villaraigosa to reject the reserve fee.
...
The library system has already had to slash its book-buying budget from $11.4million to $8.8million over the past year.

After the department was ordered to cut its budget by 5 percent earlier this year, the library also had to stop buying books from February through June.
...
Last year, users requested 1.5 million book holds. Persic said the library doesn't know how much the $1 reserve fee would generate because people would likely cut back on the number of books they reserve.
While I can sympathize with the library's problem, this plan seems to be a sure way to discourage reading. Does it make any sense to put yourself out of business for failing in your primary mission by, in a sense, pricing yourself right out of the market? I've seen children walk out of a library with two dozen short books that will last them a week or two. D0es anyone really believe that parents of small children will spend $25-$50 per month to support the reading habits of their younger children?

Personally, if my county system were to implement a similar plan, my reading habits would change. I would be less likely to take a chance on books recommended by others and would end up making fewer trips to my local branch because of the very small chance that I will ever actually find on the shelves the exact book, or books, I'm wanting to read next. Via the internet I am able to line up for exactly the books I want. They don't always arrive at my branch in a timely manner but I know that I'll eventually get them.

But I probably request over 100 books a year from the library...at a buck a book that starts to get expensive. I expect my county to use a portion of the exorbitant county tax bill I pay every year to keep my library functioning. So far, so good.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Double or Nothing: How Two Friends Risked It All to Buy One of Las Vegas' Legendary Casinos

Double or Nothing is Tom Breitling’s side of an incredible story of how he and longtime friend, Tim Poster, created an internet travel business from scratch and sold it in just a few years for a $100 million profit. Even more incredibly, they used much of that money to help finance their purchase of the Golden Nugget casino and made another $100 million only one year later when they, in turn, sold that business to a Texas restaurant king who badly wanted into the gambling business.

Breitling’s account is one in which he describes himself as the conservative one in his friendship and business partnership with Tim Poster, an old school friend of his who carried an image as an extreme risk taker even in high school. Ever the gambler, it was Poster who invited Breitling to join him in the fledgling travel business that ultimately financed the pair’s entry into the Las Vegas casino scene as young owners of the legendary Golden Nugget casino. Breitling’s role in both businesses was usually to be the one to “put on the brakes” in order to slow down some of Poster’s more rash and overambitious ideas. The partners were well-matched, and the combination of their individual personalities and deep respect for each other created a highly successful business team.

Breitling tells his story in a conversational style that makes for easy reading but he focuses so much on his relationship with Tim Poster, and how much they have meant to each other over the years, that the more interesting aspects of the story are disregarded. Readers expecting to find behind-the-scenes details on the operations of a major Las Vegas gambling casino will be disappointed to find little of that in the book. There is considerable detail on the sale of the casino, including bits of gossip about the new owner and his family, but not much is revealed about the nature of the gambling industry itself.

One of the book’s most interesting characters is the unnamed “Mr. Royalty,” a big time gambler who went on a roll lasting almost a year and who caused Breitling and Poser great anxiety as they watched him take their new casino for some $8 million, finally forcing them to lower their betting limits in self-protection. Readers like me who realize that the gambling industry is based on one gigantic scam perpetrated on a gullible public will likely find themselves rooting for Mr. Royalty in what becomes his very personal competition with the Golden Nugget owners. The book begins and ends with a description of that epic battle.

Double or Nothing is an interesting book, especially if read as a business book, but the story is not as impressive as I imagined it would be. Breitling and Poser are brash risk takers but the book exposes enough of their childishness to leave the impression that they are also two of the luckiest businessmen on the planet.

Rated at: 2.5

National Library Week, Part II


Click on strip for larger image.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Americans of the present day, who are generally appalled when battlefield deaths reach even double-digit proportions, have almost no real comprehension of the tremendous loss of life suffered during the American Civil War. Because it all happened almost 150 years ago, it is easy for most to simply gloss over even a number as large as the 620,000 total deaths usually attributed to that war. That kind of number just does not have an impact on most of us because we find it difficult to put it into its proper perspective. Readers of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will never make that mistake again.

Those who lived through the bloody days of 1861-1865 were almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of their losses. In addition to the estimated 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives during that four-year span, approximately 50,000 civilians died as well. All told, the United States lost about 2 percent of its population in less than half a decade of civil war, the equivalent of a 6,000,000 person loss if today’s population were to suffer a similar rate of attrition. There was hardly a family in the country not impacted by the horrors of this war so it is little wonder that the country struggled to understand what was happening to it.

Faust details what it was like for small towns near the fighting when the townspeople could suddenly find the dead bodies scattered on adjacent fields to outnumber the townspeople themselves. She explains what it was like for the several hundred thousand families whose fathers and sons became part of the vast number of “unknowns” buried in unmarked or mass graves, lost to them forever. Equally importantly, Faust places human faces on those who struggled not only to cope personally with so much death but to create the very procedures modern Americans expect their government to use today in order to fully account for every soldier who has paid the ultimate price in service to this country. One cannot read this book without coming away with a new respect for the Civil War generation.

The best coping mechanism available to nineteenth century Americans was the concept of the Good Death. Parents and spouses were greatly comforted if able to determine that their loved ones had died a Good Death, one in which they were able to express an awareness and acceptance of their fate, a belief in God, and some message for those who were unable to be at their side when they died. Soldiers and hospital workers did their best to inform families back home that this was the case for those lost in the war but almost 50 percent of those who died were never identified, leaving families wondering for years.

Faust points out an interesting side effect of the widespread acceptance of the Good Death concept. In her estimation, although the religious concept of a Good Death offered comfort to mourners and helped prepare soldiers for the likelihood of their own deaths, the concept was also one of the things that “enabled the slaughter” in the first place. Soldiers, confident in their individual mortality, were more willing to face death both as a fulfillment of their duty and as a potential relief from the tortures they were enduring on a daily basis.

In the years following the war, the United States government, in response to the feelings of its citizens, formalized many of the procedures to handle soldiers lost at war that are still in place today. A system of national cemeteries was established and the government spent slightly over $4 million by 1871 to locate and rebury every Union soldier who had been lost in the South. Formal procedures were established in the military to account for every soldier lost on the field of battle and to notify next-of-kin in a timely manner. Military pensions and disability payments became the accepted way for the government to reward soldiers for their service. That none of this was in place before the Civil War illustrates just how unprepared the country was for a war of the magnitude of the one it faced in April 1861.

Of course, the new procedures were solely for the benefit of Union soldiers. Confederate bones were often left in the field to rot even after the bodies of Union soldiers had been recovered, ensuring that southerners would have to bury and honor their own dead through the use of private funds (most often raised by southern women), ensuring the animosity of the South for decades after the war. The contempt shown by the Federal government for the soldiers of the South reinforced the hostility still present there and contributed to the sectionalism problems that persisted into the twentieth century.

This Republic of Suffering is more than a book for historians and Civil War buffs. This is a book with lessons for a country that even today finds itself in another long and challenging war.

Rated at: 5.0

Happy National Library Week, Librarians


Click on the strip for bigger image.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bookstore Clerk Observations (From The Secret of Lost Things)

Over the last few years I've taken to marking passages from most of the books I read, even novels, so that I can more easily find the quotes again when I go back looking for them. I didn't use any quotes in my comments of a couple of days ago on The Secret of Lost Things but a few things did seem "mark-worthy," in particular some of the characters' observations about the shop's customers:


“I think what you mean is that book collecting is only meaningful if it’s personal,” Oscar clarified. If it’s just another way of accumulating wealth, instead of for the books themselves, it isn’t right. Collectors are trying to protect themselves. To separate themselves. It’s a hierarchy. That’s my complaint with Gosford. In a way I’d rather Redburn steal the books – at least I know they mean something to him. He takes a risk to get what he wants.”
I can really identify with this one because I hate the idea of anyone collecting books simply for competitive purposes or as investments. I would certainly have a great book collection if I were a multi-millionaire but I'm proud to have the simple collection I've put together over the years because each and every one of the books on my study shelves means something personal to me.

“Our business is to find homes for books with the hope they will be loved as we have loved them. My heart is broken every day I make a sale; then renewed again by the arrival of an unexpected replacement. I keep learning to love again...After nearly fifty years my relationship to books remains mysterious to me, but I know from my own collection that ownership is the most intimate tie we can have to objects.”
Now, I realize that this is a romantic version of bookstores and their owners, but don't we all want to believe that this is the way it really is...or the way we would feel if we finally got to live out our fantasies of owning our own indie bookstores?

Exclusively male, these compulsive book buyers and collectors were neurotically convinced that a day missed was a volume possibly lost, or at least in someone else’s hands. What were their lives made of, apart from books? The Arcade was their first destination, a quick stop to check on fresh inventory piled at the base of Pike’s platform; an obligatory daily search for hidden treasure. Acquisitiveness drove them, and envy – the ingredients, I suppose, of any passion.
I've seen some really aggressive collectors on occasion, but I also see a little of myself in this description, too, so I'll stop at that.

Oscar appeared outraged on Melville’s behalf, but of course he sold used books every day whose authors never saw a penny of what Pike pocketed. Even the new review copies that Walter Geist sold from the basement left an author out of any profits, because they had been sent, to garner publicity, to journalists and reviewers who hadn’t paid for them, but sold them nonetheless to the Arcade, collecting a quarter of retail price.
We all want to see our favorite writers do well financially so that they can afford the time to keep doing what they do so well, and this quote does kind of make a person think. I love used book bookstores as much as the next guy and I'm always willing to buy an ARC when I spot one by one of the authors I read but I do sometimes wonder what writers themselves think about the lost royalties...not all that much, I suspect (and hope).

At the least, these quotes will give you a bit of the flavor of The Secret of Lost Things. And maybe they will give you something to think about...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Anne Perry / Juliet Hulme

I've wondered for a long time if it's just me or if others feel the same way about reading murder mysteries by Anne Perry. Does it bother you to contribute to the income of an author who makes her living as a murder mystery writer when she herself served five years in prison after being found guilty for her part in the brutal battering-to-death murder of her best friend's mother?

I realize that Perry, known then as Juliet Hulme, was only fifteen years old in 1954 when she helped her friend murder her mother, a crime requiring some 45 blows with a brick to the head, blows struck by both girls. But that's hardly a child who doesn't know right from wrong. Am I an exception to the rule because I get a queasy feeling every time I see an Anne Perry book on the shelves of my local bookstores? I have to wonder how in the world she ever had the audacity to choose this line of work for herself, in fact.

There's no arguing with the fact that she's loaded with talent and has been a very successful writer over the years, but she's not for me. Am I wrong for feeling this way and not being more forgiving of something that happened in her youth?

The Secret of Lost Things

Sheridan Hay’s debut novel weighs in at over 350 pages and gives her ample opportunity to explore several different genres. She has written a combination coming-of-age novel, literary mystery, and sexual awakening novel (which I classify here as a subgenre of the more general coming-of-age novel). It is an ambitious first novel, to say the least, one in which Hay displays keen writing skills and, at times, striking observations about the human condition. That said, the novel does suffer a bit from her use of stereotypical characters (in particular, the transsexual character and the albino character) and a failure to keep the reader entirely engaged in the literary mystery at the heart of her story. Still, The Secret of Lost Things will definitely appeal to avid readers and book lovers, especially those who enjoy novels set in a bookstore environment.

Rosemary Savage’s life in remote Tasmania did little to prepare her for life in New York City but that is exactly where she found herself not too many weeks after her mother died. Rosemary, who never met her father, had practically been raised in the small hat shop from which her mother eked out a living for the two of them. When her mother’s closest friend, a bookshop owner who felt that Rosemary needed a fresh start and some adventure in her life, gifted her with a ticket to New York, Rosemary left Tasmania for good and almost by accident found herself working at the Arcade, a huge bookstore that specialized in used and rare books and just happened to be near her first home in the city.

Rosemary’s previous life left her unprepared for the eccentric crew populating the Arcade, among them, Pearl, a transsexual preparing for the operation that will physically transform her into the woman she knows herself to be; Oscar, the good-looking, but emotionally-stunted, clerk with whom Rosemary falls in love; Mr. Pike, the strange owner of the store who stands on his little platform in the center of the store all day pricing used volumes for the shelves and his rare book room; Lillian, a refugee from Argentina whose only son has become one of that country’s “disappeared”; and Mr. Geist, an albino who is going blind and who searches for a way to win Rosemary for himself. That kind of crew was certain to provide Rosemary with an education, one in which she learned as much about life as she did the book business.

In addition to what she learned from her co-workers, Rosemary found herself fascinated by the book collectors who visited the shop on an almost daily basis and, as she watched them in action, she realized how much they, too, were teaching her about the good and the bad of human nature. But everything suddenly changed when Mr. Geist received a letter offering to sell him the original manuscript of a Herman Melville novel, one long thought to have been lost in a fire, and he managed to involve Rosemary in his scheme to acquire and sell the book for his own profit.

The rather dramatic ending of The Secret of Lost Things, is not completely satisfying because of its somewhat predictable nature but this is impressive enough a first novel that good things can be expected from Sheridan Hay in the future.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Now Even the U.N. Destroys Books

Sadly enough, I have reached the point where stories about libraries and bookstores needlessly destroying books do not surprise me anymore. Those making such foolish decisions are generally idiots who should never have reached the level of authority required to make that kind of decision in the first place. Somehow they managed to get promoted above their level of competency and reached positions that allowed them to destroy the books under their care. Case closed: stupid people do stupid things.

But this Washington Post article detailing UNESCO's destruction of almost 100,000 books over a two-year period, books that were written and published using UNESCO funds (think for a minute where this money comes from, my fellow taxpayers), managed to stop me in my tracks this morning. How do these incompetents continue to get away with this? Apparently, the person responsible this time has already retired from UNESCO and there is little that can be done to punish him for his horrible decision to destroy the books rather than have them moved to new warehouse space.
PARIS -- For more than two decades, 250 historians and specialists labored to produce the first six volumes of the General History of Latin America, an exhaustive work financed by UNESCO, the United Nations organization created to preserve global culture and heritage.

Then, over the course of two years, UNESCO paid to destroy many of those books and nearly 100,000 others by turning them to pulp, according to an external audit.
...
South African Ambassador Nomasonto Maria Sibanda-Thusi told the executive board: "We believe that some decisive disciplinary action is needed. The main player may have retired, but what about those that knew but chose to remain silent?"

According to the report, the destruction occurred in 2004 and 2005, when UNESCO's overflowing book storage warehouses in Paris were relocated to Brussels. Rather than pay to move 94,500 books, auditors reported, UNESCO officials ordered them destroyed. The books were turned to pulp for recycling, the audit says.
...
Auditors made the discovery during a wide-ranging investigation of abuses and waste in UNESCO's book publication and distribution operations.

Because too many books often were ordered and others were never distributed properly, tens of thousands piled up in UNESCO's storage facilities at a cost of about $100,000 a year, until the agency decided to shift distribution functions to a Brussels company and move its stocks there.
Please read the entire article, especially the second page, because the whole story is much worse than these few quotes indicate. This smells of cover up and I'm sure that everyone involved will escape any kind of punishment. It would be very interesting to follow the money trail of this whole process, a process that went wrong from the beginning with more books than necessary being printed in the first place and then allowed to sit in warehouses rather than being properly distributed. Publishers made money, warehouses made money and, ultimately, the company that pulped the books made money. Who else made money? And those around the world who could have used the books are still empty-handed.

The U.N. and UNESCO continue to cover themselves in glory. Why am I not surprised by yet another scandal involving those organizations?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Love a Tree, Read an (e) Book? Nope.


Blogger and author, Lisa Logan, has come up with a list of six reasons that supposedly prove e-books to be superior to printed books. Lisa has several e-books "in print" and, at least for now, appears to be publishing only electronic versions of her work. Here are Lisa's reasons for junking paper in favor of plastic (along with my thoughts):


1. eBooks kill far fewer trees. I can't say NO trees, since the companies and authors producing them do likely use paper for marketing and correspondence. Still, eBooks are much more environmentally friendly than traditional, mass print run methods. POD (print on demand) improves on this approach quite a bit, but eBooks take that a big step further. (Trees are a relatively easily renewed resource. The natural resources used to produce electronic book readers, mostly petroleum products, are not. The planet is not in any danger from paper production - yes, I realize that energy is used to produce paper and to pulp the books unsold, but paper is biodegradable and plastics and batteries are not.)

2. eBook production/consumption requires minimal fossil fuel use. Consider how many trucks, planes, vans, and automobiles are put into service shipping the hundreds of thousands of book titles (that's TITLES, not total books) put into production each year. eBook manufacture requires a miniscule fraction of all this energy consumption. (The amount of fossil fuels used to transport printed books to market is a tiny drop in the overall fossil fuel bucket - there would probably be no measurable impact at all from people switching to e-books)

3. eBooks are less expensive than paper books. Typical prices for new eBooks run between two and six dollars, as opposed to between six and twenty-five dollars for a new print title. (Lisa is being a little optimistic on her pricing model. Check out the Sony e-book site and you will find that best sellers usually sell for between $10 and $15 per copy and other books will be close to $10 unless they are on sale.)

4. eBooks take up much less room. Find yourself hanging onto favorite titles for years? Then you have to have room to store them, dust them, and lug them around when you move. eBooks can be kept forever with very little space (or dusting) required. (This is a minor problem for real book lovers. We are very creative when it comes to finding space for new books and they are packed with great care when it is time to move them to new quarters. I've "lugged" boxes of books across the Atlantic on more than one occasion and would gladly do so again in order to be surrounded by my favorite books. Books make a house my home.)

5. Paper books degrade/damage easily. Pages wear and tear, yellow, and eventually crumble. Hang onto your favorite stories far longer by backing them up on sturdier media. (Hogwash. I have books that were printed in the 1860s and, though they be a little "brittle or yellow," they are still readable and I dip in and out of them on a regular basis - what could be more fun than reading Dickens from a book that was printed when the man was still writing at his peak? Does anyone seriously believe that an e-book will outlast a printed book? If so, they have not experienced the demise of Beta and VHS tapes, LPs, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, the new DVD just made obsolete, etc. Electronics versions of anything are doomed to short lifetimes because that industry insists on making the players or readers obsolete on a regular basis.)

6. Have trouble reading small print? With a regular book, you're only in control of the glasses you can put on your face to magnify print. With eBooks, you can tweak the font size itself so it's easier to read. (While it is true that the font size on most e-books can be changed, if the e-book reader allows it, reading an e-book is still tougher on the eyes than reading from a printed book.)
E-books are interesting, and I admit to owning one of the Sony Readers. However, reading an electronic version of a book is NEVER my first choice. I have the reader handy for when I am traveling and would like to carry a large selection of books with me. It is certainly easier to carry two or three printed books and the Sony reader that is equipped with another 100 or so. But that's the only advantage I can see.

Book lovers, and we are the ones who probably read some 95% of the books read these days, want books. Books are important to us as "objects," not just for what they contain. We admire their great beauty; we love the way they feel in our hands and the way that a new book smells; we decorate our homes with books and we enjoy seeing the collections of our friends. How can an e-book compete with that?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

An Embarrassing Top 10 - America's Favorite Books



I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the list of "America's Favorite Books" compiled by the Harris poll people last month...but I am. I have no idea if they even attempted to come up with a scientifically representative sample, but let's face it, the results would probably be just as strange either way.


America's Top 10 Favorite Books

1. The Bible
2. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
3. Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
5. The Stand, by Stephen King
6. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
7. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
8. Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown
9. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
10. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
I'm sorry, but a Top Ten list that includes Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling,Margaret Mitchell, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, Ayn Rand, etc. leaves me with a bit of an upset stomach. All the great books out there, and this is what "America" considers to be the best ever? I'm embarrassed for us. Where are all the great books written in the last two hundred years?

Dan Brown, not once, but twice? I think I'm going to be sick.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

People of the Book

The Sarajevo Haggadah, a real Hebrew codex, has miraculously survived five centuries of violence, warfare and mankind’s tendency to destroy whatever is seen as a threat to those who for the moment have that kind of power. The fact that this haggadah is an illuminated text, a surprising style for a Jewish text of that period, makes the book exceptionally rare and of great historical value. The book might have been destroyed during the Bosnian conflict that devastated Sarajevo but for the intervention of a Muslim scholar who moved it to the safety of a bank vault, at least the second time in its history that this Jewish book was saved with direct Muslim help.

This is the point at which Geraldine Brooks chooses to begin her latest novel, People of the Book. Dr. Hannah Heath, an Australian expert in the field, has come to Sarajevo to ensure that the book is being properly cared for and to prepare it for exhibition in a Sarajevo museum as a symbol of the city’s, and a people’s, survival. During her examination of the book, Heath is thrilled to find inside it a few clues that might allow her to partially reconstruct the history of the book and its travels through the centuries. She finds: part of an insect wing, a white hair, a few salt crystals and what appears to be a wine stain.

Through a series of flashbacks drawing ever nearer to the book’s origins, Brooks details for readers what the few clues can only hint at to Dr. Heath concerning the book’s travels across Europe and the people who possessed and protected it over the centuries. Throughout its history this haggadah has been important to the people who owned it. It survived through a combination of luck and the extraordinarily brave efforts of people who were determined to see it survive. One flashback tells how it barely escaped falling into the hands of despicable Nazi looters, another of what happened to the book in 1894 Vienna, and others recount its creation and subsequent survival of the Spanish Inquisition years. As the book passes from hand-to-hand, backward in time, the reader comes to appreciate the miracle of its survival and the people who made that happen.

As Hanna Heath seeks to learn as much about the Sarajevo Haggadah as she can, she finds herself on a parallel journey in which she learns as much about herself and her personal origins as she does about the book. She finds herself attracted to the man who carried the haggadah to safety in Sarajevo, has to fight self-doubts about her professional competence, and is forced into a confrontation with her mother that will forever change her life.

People of the Book is at once a mystery, a history lesson and a modern day romance. My only quarrel with the book is its “Mission Impossible” ending which, for me, served to completely change the tone of the story being told and rather jarringly reminded me that I was reading fiction. Fortunately, this distraction came late enough in the narrative not to ruin the book for me.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, April 07, 2008

Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family's Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers

Thomas Oliphant’s Praying for Gil Hodges is his very personal account of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and, in particular, of Game 7 of that year’s World Series in which the Dodgers finally beat the hated New York Yankees to become baseball world champions. But this book is about much more than baseball; it is about how a child can form a bond with a sports team that will last him a lifetime and how a team can often bring whole families closer together by giving them a common love upon which to focus their energies for half a year at a time. And if that team is an underdog, and if it finally wins the big one after years of coming close, there is nothing sweeter on the face of the earth, something that all baseball fans understand deep in their hearts.

The Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s were unique to baseball in the sense that, in addition to breaking the color barrier by adding Jackie Robinson to their infield in 1947, they went on to become baseball’s first truly integrated team by adding additional minority players on a regular basis. By 1955 Robinson had been joined by Roy Campanella, Sandy Amoros, Jim Gilliam and Don Newcombe, all major contributors to the Dodger’s success on the field. Interestingly enough, these players were part of the team that finally beat the more conservative New York Yankees to bring the championship to Brooklyn.

Thomas Oliphant, son of a World War II veteran who found it difficult to work because of the illnesses he suffered as a result of his service years, was an only child whose mother worked as a legal secretary to support the family. His parents were originally from the Midwest, home of several of the Dodger players, so it was natural that they would become Dodgers fans. Oliphant’s early childhood was spent in the years in which the Dodgers were repeatedly beaten by the Yankees just when it seemed that they might finally win a Series. It happened to them in 1949, 1952, and 1953, and most Brooklyn fans had grown so used to losing the big game to the Yankees by 1955 that very few of them were ready to believe that they had any kind of chance of winning the best-of-seven series that year, even nine-year old Thomas.

Baseball fans, especially those who live and die with their teams each day for six months of the year, will see themselves clearly in the scenes described by Oliphant as he and his father watch the Dodgers shut out the Yankees 2-0 in game seven on a little black and white television set. They will recognize the nerve-wracking anguish of watching the other team put runners on base with no one out and their heavy hitters coming up. They will understand how difficult it is to forget that feeling of impending doom even when their team has a small lead going into the late innings. And they will certainly understand the agony of watching their team maintain that lead when it comes time to count the remaining outs they need to get on just two hands.

Oliphant has written a book about a team’s relationship to its fans and to its city and neighborhood. The book is not perfect by any means. Even avid baseball fans are likely to grow weary of some of the game-by-game detail that Oliphant includes in his section on the World Series leading up to the 1955 season, for instance. But those same readers will be so much in sync with Oliphant, his parents and everyone who celebrated on the streets of Brooklyn after the final out was finally collected that day that they will remember this book for a long time.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Book Showers for New Babies






This is one new trend that I have to like. According to Springfield's News-Leader, the latest thing in baby showers is one in which everyone brings their favorite children's books as gifts.





A new shower trend, the book shower, aims to stock the new baby's bookcase. The theme is catching on with modern moms, many of whom receive several showers and get plenty of the nuts and bolts of babydom.
...
Susie Richardson of Urbandale, Iowa, hadn't heard of a book shower until her sister suggested throwing one for Richardson's son, Max, now 18 months old.

"When she first mentioned it, I thought, 'How weird,'" she says. "But it turned out to be wonderful. We have so many books, things I never would have thought to purchase on my own."
...
The best thing about the shower was the emotion and thought her friends and family invested in the gifts. Inside the front covers, many of the givers scribed short messages for the new baby. Mom and baby have discovered the notes as they've read the books.
What a great idea! I hope this catches on and helps to create a whole new generation of readers. We've always kept a special bookshelf at home for our three grandchildren and, almost from the beginning, they have loved dipping into the books to choose some of their favorites for us to read to them. Now that they are a little older, they sometimes even ask us to read them a bedtime story over the telephone when their day is done. Starting life surrounded by books is a good thing.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Longtime Book Collector Finally Learns to Read

I spotted this touching story in the Houston Chronicle this morning concerning a 79-year old woman who has collected books for years even though she could not read any of them. It's a beautiful story about how she expected that one day all those books would come in handy and how learning to read has given her a whole second life.

Picture: Ruth Mims, front, and her tutor, Emily Hopkins, meet twice a week at Tye Preston Memorial Library in Canyon Lake.
Taken by: Delcia Lopez: San Antonio Express-News

Mims was first exposed to the world of books through her friendship with the little girl whose parents owned the farm on which Mims' parents worked. The girl would read storybooks to her when Mims was 5 or 6 years old; that experience sparked in her a lasting desire to read.

"I said, 'I'd like to learn to read that myself,' and she said, 'You have to go to school. You can't learn by listening to me read, that's not how it's done,' " Mims said. "And I said, 'OK, one day I'll find out how it's done.'

It would take her seven decades to learn the secret. In the meantime, life got in the way."
...
She began working with Emily Hopkins, a volunteer with 38 years of experience teaching preschoolers through eighth-graders. They began with the first volume of the "Laubach Way to Reading" series, which starts with phonics.

"I sat down and started with that very, very basic curriculum and realized she had some skills," said Hopkins, 70. "People at her age have learned to cope, so Ruth had quite a few coping skills."
...
"I'm going as far as my education will take me, darling. I have no intention of giving up," she said.

And of course, she plans to go through all the books in her house.

"When I had money, I bought all the things I wanted, and it was books and more books and more books. I have a full set of encyclopedias. I bought them in 1994," she said. "I knew one day I was going to learn to read them. I got enough books here to read the rest of my life and I have every intention of reading them."
To get a real feel for this lady, the life she's lived raising several successful children, and the spirit that inspires her to keep going full-speed ahead, read the whole article. It's a great way to start off the weekend.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Pat Conroy Interviews His Wife, Cassandra King

I posted here, almost exactly one year ago, that Pat Conroy's new novel was almost finished. Well, twelve months later I'm still anxiously waiting to see it show up in my local bookstore or to read something else about Pat's plans for that elusive next book.

The search term "Pat Conroy" is consistently one of the major drivers of internet traffic to this site, so I know there are countless others out there who can't wait to get their hands on the next Pat Conroy book, too. I'm sorry to say that I don't have any new information regarding the book, but I did find this great YouTube video this afternoon in which Pat interviews his wife, Cassandra King, about her own latest book, Queen of Broken Hearts.


Don't you love those accents? Or am I just showing my positive bias toward everything about the Deep South?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970)

Written in 1970, this pessimistic time travel novel, a Hugo Award finalist, begins in 1978 when Brain Cheney is more or less drafted into a mysterious government project. Chaney is a Biblical scholar of sorts whose book debunking certain ancient scrolls has irritated many Christians around the country but he is also a professional demographer and has already produced one report for the government predicting how current trends will impact the near future. The government believes him to be perfect for this new project. Who better to send into the future in the new time machine invented by the Bureau of Weights and Measures than a man experienced in predicting that very future?

Interestingly, Brian Cheney and the two military officers drafted into the project with him travel only as far as twenty years into the future, to the turn of the new century, because government officials are so concerned with what they see as a dark future for the United States that they hope to learn enough from the time travel to change that future. Today’s readers, of course, have lived beyond the years visited by these time travelers so their adventurous trip into the future has become our past. As a result, The Year of the Quiet Sun reads as much like an alternate history novel at times as it does as a story of time travel.

Cheney, the only civilian time-traveler of the team, has little regard for politicians and resents the way that the President and his staff order that the first trip into the future be only to 1980 so that the President can determine whether or not he will be re-elected. The three travelers, who can go into the future only one-at-a-time due to the limitations of their vehicle, get that information for him but they also return to 1978 with news of the tremendous unrest and violence that is already impacting the future of America’s major cities, especially Chicago. It is when they are sent forward to 2000, and just beyond, to learn the effectiveness of the President’s attempt to save the country that the novel really takes off.

The second half of the book centers itself around realistic military skirmishes between government troops and the rebels who are intent on overthrowing the government with help from the Chinese, but it also details the evolving relationships of the three time- travelers and the head of their project, the beautiful Katherine with whom two of the men have become particularly smitten. Readers who may have found the pace of the book’s first half to be a bit slow in its set-up of the second half action will find themselves well-rewarded for staying with the book to the end. Tucker’s vision of the horrible future that could have resulted from the radicalism of the 1960s and early 1970s is a horrifying one.

Tucker even saves a nice little surprise for his readers until near the end, one that more astute readers than me may figure out earlier, but one that made me laugh out loud at its cleverness.

Rated at: 4.0

Big Changes from HarperCollins



HarperCollins Publishers is forming a new entity that is set to make some big changes in the traditional relationship between publishers, authors and booksellers. According to the New York Times, it will work this way:
Author advances and bookseller returns are two issues that have long troubled the publishing industry. Best-selling authors can command advances that are so high that publishers often come away with slim profits, even for books that are major successes. Publishers also offer high advances to untested authors in the hopes of creating best sellers, but often those risks do not pan out.

Ms. Friedman said the new group, which will start by publishing 25 titles a year, will offer “low or no advances.” Mr. Miller said he hoped to offer a profit-sharing plan in which both publisher and author would split the net profits.

Under current standard practices, booksellers can return any books they do not sell, saddling publishers with the high costs of shipping and pulping copies. Mr. Miller said that by eliminating returns, the publishers could share any savings with authors.
It will be interesting to see how this works out for this new segment of HarperCollins. I gather from the article that the group will only publish a certain type of book for what is called the "low end of the market." The examples given do not particularly appeal to me as a reader but I'm intrigued by the possibility that e-book and audio copies of the books might be included at no extra charge with purchase of the hardcover version of the books.

The publishing industry is searching for a new business model, one that works for everyone involved in the process, including customers. I imagine that other companies will be watching this one closely.