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Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Book Doctor




From the Dallas Morning News comes an interesting story about a local "book doctor" and the people who bring books to her shop:



They come to the small shop in the Bishop Arts District with books. And stories.The wife whose husband accidentally spilled bleach and salsa on a book he borrowed from a friend.

The father who wanted his Bible restored so he could give it to his son before dying of cancer.

The daughter who wanted to repair the books that belonged to her sick mother as a way of keeping her mom's memory alive.

They come to see Julie Schleier, better known as the Book Doctor.

One page at a time, Ms. Schleier repairs, restores and binds books and Bibles that are long overdue for checkups.

While tough economic times may have some businesses struggling to stay afloat, the Book Doctor says her business is booming, in part because book-repair shops aren't plentiful.

"We have 12 weeks of orders," Ms. Schleier says. "Bookbinding is a dying art, but it doesn't mean there's not a demand for it."
...
The shop, tucked away at the end of a strip of stores, is filled with colored leathers, Irish linen papers and notes from customers thanking her for her restoration efforts. Ms. Schleier and four colleagues do nearly all the work by hand, from thinning strips of leather to make bookbinders to typesetting letters and using heat guns to remove glue from the spines of old books.
I've never had a book repaired but I can easily understand the sentimentality attached to certain books that would demand their restoration when wear and tear threatens their longterm survival. Every time a hurricane approaches Houston my first thought goes to all the books on my shelves and the window that is only ten feet across the room from them. I've emptied the shelves more than once in order to make sure that the books remain dry. Long live the book doctor.

(Read the whole article here.)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

One thing I’ve noticed, and taken advantage of, since the horrors of 9-11 is the increase in titles published in the U.S. pertaining to various Muslim cultures. I’ve read more than a dozen such titles in the last two or three years, both fiction and nonfiction, some written by Muslims and others by non-Muslims living in Muslim countries. I’ve learned something from each of them, but Qanta Ahmed’s In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is one of the most instructive of them all.

Qanta Ahmed, a British citizen raised in a moderate Muslim family in the U.K., received her medical education in the United States and considers the U.S. to be her second home (she currently practices medicine in South Carolina). But when she unexpectedly found herself without the visa necessary to remain in New York she accepted a position in a Saudi Arabian hospital and set out on what she figured would be an exotic adventure, an opportunity for her to experience life in a country dominated by Islam. Ahmed remained in Saudi Arabia for two years during which she learned as much about herself as she learned about Islam and the culture in which she had immersed herself.

Arriving at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital completely unprepared for the atmosphere in which she would be working, Ahmed was surprised to find herself being so ignored by the hospital’s almost exclusively male medical staff. She quickly learned that she would be allowed to practice medicine unveiled, dressed in white lab coat and trousers, but that her medical opinion would almost automatically be considered inferior to that of any of her male colleagues.

Ahmed found herself resenting, and being frustrated by, the limitations placed on the women of Saudi Arabia. She learned that these women, herself included, could only be seen in public if their dress conformed to strict Muslim law (never a strand of hair to be exposed), that they were not allowed to drive a car, that they could not leave the country without the permission of a father, brother or husband, and that “morality policemen,” known as the Mutawaeen were more than willing to make sure that women strictly complied with what was required of them.

But, as Ahmed learned when she grew closer to her female colleagues, all is not as it seems in Saudi society. Many women, because of the support offered them by their fathers and husbands, are being allowed to enter professions long closed to them and to open businesses of their own. They are raising their daughters to become confident, outspoken women who consider themselves to be the equals of their brothers in every way. She discovered progressive families filled with idealists and community activists determined to bring change to the Saudi system, change that will bring many Western liberal values to the kingdom.

Ahmed, however, was shocked to find just how far Saudi Arabia still has to go in terms of its racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Americanism. She found that even the large number of Saudi doctors trained by Jewish teachers, teachers they considered to be their personal friends, were still unable to get past their rabid anti-Semitism. She felt firsthand the personal hurt of watching close friends and colleagues celebrate what happened to America on September 11, 2001, some even going so far as to buy celebratory cakes for the hospital within minutes of the news.

Despite her many dismaying experiences, Ahmed left Saudi Arabia feeling much closer to Islam than when she arrived in the country. Her friends patiently instructed her in the nuances of the religion and her completion of the Hajj inspired her in an almost magical way. Readers unfamiliar with what happens in Mecca during the Hajj will be fascinated by the logistics of that annual celebration as described by Ahmed, and will understand exactly how large numbers of people can sometimes die in the midst of a religious experience of this magnitude.

In the Land of Invisible Women, particularly since it was written by a woman with a foot in two worlds, is a real eye-opener.

Rated at: 4.5

Friday, November 28, 2008

Christmas Lights and Tommy Chong

This has been one of those days that rarely happen to me anymore unless I'm traveling - a whole day gone by during which I've hardly picked up a book. Now, I did write a review for Curled Up with a Good Book this morning on Jason Wright's new novel, Recovering Charles, and I've managed to read 20 pages of Elizabeth Samet's book about teaching English at West Point.

That's it.

Most of the day was spent on one of those annual events I dread the most - putting up the outside Christmas lights. Honestly, it went a little better than usual this year, mainly because I didn't end up at any point with two female plugs or two male plugs facing each other as my only plug-in option. That happened last year and I had to redo one whole side of the yard at the cost of about two hours of extra work. The only problem this year is that it was 81 degrees while I was doing all the work this afternoon. That doesn't do much to get you in the mood for Christmas.

Then this evening, strictly by accident I stumbled upon a movie on Showtime I had never heard of called "He Was a Quiet Man," a surrealistic thing starring Christian Slater about an abused office worker that brings a loaded pistol to the office and proceeds to lose his mind. It was fascinating and it immediately hooked me.

And now, I'm watching a documentary about Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) and the relatively bogus conviction that earned him a 9-month prison sentence in 2003. What a likable guy - and what a shame that the Federal prosecutors decided to make an example of him. Hey, who knew that Tommy Chong is Canadian? Not me.

But I'm already missing my regular reading; I feel some heavy duty reading coming up from my bedside table tonight.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Says No New Books to Be Acquired for Now

Now comes news that the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. has put a "temporary" freeze on its acquisition of new titles. The publisher is owned by an Irish company that went some seven billion dollars in debt in separate acquisitions of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt in order to combine them into their present form. Boston.com (Boston is home to the publisher) has the details:
The acquisitions were financed with borrowed money; president Jeremy Dickens told The New York Times that EMPG is paying $500 million per year on its $7 billion debt.
...
Still, some publishing executives found the move puzzling, even for a contemplated sale. "If you put a company up for sale, you do want to be acquiring new books," said Drake McFeely, chairman and president of W.W. Norton & Co. "You don't want to offer only the backlist, but also a forward list. It's my observation that you would expect a higher price, not a lower price, with new acquisitions."

The backlist can represent a huge part of a publisher's income. In recent years, Houghton's backlist has brought in as much as 80 percent of its trade profits. "Any one of us would love to have Houghton Mifflin's and Harcourt's backlists," McFeely said. "Houghton has J.R.R. Tolkien, the Peterson field guides, Philip Roth. Harcourt has T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren. Both lists are gems. But I'd guess they'd have a hard time finding a buyer who would pay what they paid."
...
"I think it's heartbreaking that decisions made by a series of corporate owners are decimating two venerable publishers," said Wendy Strothman, a former Houghton executive who is now a Boston literary agent. "It was their hubris in taking on so much debt when anyone could see that the economy was weakening. The editing and marketing operations pursued quality, and were creative. It's not about the books; it's about the gross mismanagement of the owners."
This last bit is the saddest part of this whole story - poor management decisions seem to be behind the decision to sell the publisher again while, in the meantime, a desperate cutback to conserve cash is put into place. With a liability of $500 million interest per year on this huge debt, the Irish owners have severely weakened Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's chances of surviving in today's economic environment.

HMH spokesman Josef Rosenfeld has denied that the publisher is in the midst of a "freeze, offering this statement in explanation of what is happening:
"A headline about a freeze is very appealing, but in reality all we're doing is taking a good, hard look at everything that comes in, much the way this company is watching all expenses and expenditures," "It's just a higher degree of scrutiny.
If that gives you the impression of a man blowing smoke, don't feel bad. I get the same impression. This, unfortunately, is a company in big financial trouble and what happens next is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

One New Chapter a Day

Although I've not read him, I know that Alexander McCall Smith is quite popular in the U.S. for his "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" novels, so some of you may enjoy what Mr. Smith is doing over on the Telegraph's website. The man is writing an online novel there, adding one chapter per day, called Corduroy Mansions and the Telegraph is making it available to readers via a variety of delivery mechanisms.

Smith has been working the project for a while now, but it is not too late to catch up and then get in on the fun of reading a new chapter each day. Just follow this link to the fun.

(Alexander McCall Smith, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, is a British writer and expert on medical law who has written over 60 books since 1981. He appears to have at least four more books in the works for 2009.)

I don't think I'll have the time to experience this cool concept for myself, so I'd love to hear from anyone who reads this one. Have fun.

The Other Shoe Drops







Now comes the rest of the story on the two big U.S. bookstore chains - and it looks like Borders Group continues to have much bigger problems than Barnes and Noble. According to the Bloomberg people:




Borders has fired 20 percent of its corporate workforce and reduced inventory while it seeks ways to win sales from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.

The bookseller posted a third-quarter net loss of $175.4 million, or $2.90 a share, wider than the $161.1 million, or $2.74, deficit a year earlier, as consumers cut back on purchases of books and magazines.

Revenue for the three months through Nov. 1 fell to $693.4 million from $765.2 million, the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company said. Sales at older stores dropped 12.8 percent, while debt was reduced by 34 percent to $525.4 million, Borders said.
I'm a bit surprised that Borders management is trying to steal sales from Wal-Mart and Amazon.com rather than from Barnes and Noble. I suppose that, in one sense, that's logical since it will be easier to focus on the differences between Borders and those companies; Barnes and Noble is simply too much like Borders in presentation and services for the two to really gain much of a competitive advantage on the other that way.

This is not good news for book lovers, that's for sure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Books as Christmas Gifts

I've noticed several blogs in the last few days suggesting that books be given as Christmas presents this year, especially since the economy is clobbering so many bookstores and small publishers. I think, of course, that's a wonderful idea. Today I saw this press release from Books-A-Million in which several authors talk about the books they give as gifts:

-- Glenn Beck, author of The Christmas Sweater - "I'm the guy that people dread getting books from--because I give them the tough stuff. America Alone by Mark Steyn, The Forgotten Man by Amity Schlaes and The 5000 Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen. Sure, they may take a couple of months to read--but when they are finally done they will have a really firm understanding about what is going on in the world--and how we can avoid repeating the mistakes of our past."

-- Paula Deen, author of Paula Deen's My First Cookbook - "I love giving Bibles, especially first Bibles to the youngsters. One of my treasured gifts that I received was for my wedding. I got it from my ex-brother-in-law, and it was a monogrammed Bible."

-- John Grogan, author of Marley and Me - "Any book that touches my heart dearly. There's great joy in sharing a great book, and the price tag is irrelevant. My short list would include Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, and Alan Gurganus' Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All."

-- Nicholas Sparks, author of The Lucky One - "Well-written novels. Harder than it sounds to find them. In the course of reading 120 books a year, I might come across three or four that blow me away. Those are the ones I usually give as gifts."
Intrestingly (to me) all three of the books mentioned by John Grogan are ones that I still consider to be among my all-time favorites. I've taken a quick look at the list of books I've read in 2008 and these are the ones I am most likely to give as Christmas presents:
Finding Nouf - Zoe Ferraris

Sing Me Back Home - Dana Jennings

Atonement - Ian McEwan

Resistance - Owen Sheers

This Republic of Suffering - Drew Gilpin Faust


River of No Return - Jeffrey Buckner Ford


Collected Stories and Other Writings - Katherine Anne Porter

In Memory of Central Park: 1853-2022 - Queenette Minel

Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay

The 19th Wife - David Ebershoff
I posted this list in no particular order and I suspect that most of these books, if not all of them, will be on my "Top 10 Favorite Reads of 2008" when I pull something together in a few weeks.

Which books do you plan to give (at least in theory) as Christmas gifts?

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Gingerbread Girl

Stephen King’s short story, The Gingerbread Girl, appeared in Esquire magazine in July 2007 and was published this year as one of the stories in King’s Just After Sunset collection. It has also been released as a standalone two-disc, roughly two-hour, audio book narrated by Mare Winningham, the version of the story that I recently experienced.

Emily, a young woman whose marriage has begun to fall apart after the crib death of her only baby, is the “Gingerbread Girl” of the book’s title. Searching for a way to maintain her sanity after the tragic loss of her child, she soon becomes obsessed with her daily runs, extends them to longer and longer distances and, in the process, convinces her husband that she has become mentally unstable. When a minor spat with her husband suddenly flares into something more serious, Emily hits the door and literally runs right out of her husband’s life.

Taking a page from the fairy tale Gingerbread Man’s book (“Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”), Emily depends on her legs to outrun her troubles and conflicts. She will soon learn, however, that running in the wrong direction can be more dangerous than not running at all.

Emily retreats to her father’s little beach house on Florida’s remote Vermillion Key where she is content in her aloneness and continues to add to the mileage she is capable of running. All goes well and one day she is surprised to find herself ready to invite her father to join her in the Keys for a few days. But then, despite having been warned by her only friend on the island that one of the wealthy homeowners has arrived with another of his “nieces” and that she should avoid the man, Emily lets curiosity get the best of her and practically runs into the arms of a serial killer.

At this point, The Gingerbread Girl can only hope that her legs will be able to save her from becoming the killer’s next victim. Since she is trapped on a very small island, that might not be as easy as it sounds even for a trained runner like Emily.

Mare Winningham’s presentation helps make Emily into a comfortably believable character, a woman suffering terribly and unable to express that pain to anyone who might be able to help her grieve. She is by far the most complete character in the story, especially when contrasted with the man chasing her, a character that remains a stereotypical villain to the end. It could be that the limitations of the short story format kept King from more fully developing his killer, but that failure kept me from reaching the tension level that I have come to expect from a Stephen King thriller. I suspect that this one would have made a better novel than short story.

Rated at: 2.5

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Forced Out

The unabridged ten-disc audio version of Stephen Frey’s Forced Out, despite its rather flawed ending, is a good choice for commuters faced with the same old mind-numbing drive or train ride. L.J. Ganser, the audio book narrator, helps give each of the main characters a distinct and recognizable personality and his reading style contributes to the story’s steadily building suspense.

Frey certainly gave himself a lot to work with in Forced Out: a washed-up New York Yankee baseball scout that stumbles upon a can’t-miss prospect buried deep in the depths of minor league baseball, a crime boss obsessed with revenging the death of his little grandson, a mafia hit man with a conscious and his own problem obsession, and a black teenager who dreams of owning a baseball team one day.

Jack Barrett, disgraced Yankee scout, is a few years past sixty and he is feeling each and every one of those years. He can hardly believe that the twists and turns in his life have finally forced him to share a home in Florida with his daughter because neither of them can really afford to live on their own anymore. When Jack, always looking for a way back into the good graces of the Yankees, recognizes that Florida minor-leaguer Mikey Clement has all the tools to make him into a great player, he dedicates himself to getting Clement a tryout with the team. Stunned at Clement’s rejection of his help, Jack is determined to find out why Clement seems so afraid of him.

Meanwhile, New York hit man Johnny Bondano has been ordered to find and kill the man involved in the hit-and-run accident that killed the young grandson of his mob boss. Bondano considers himself to be an honorable man despite the nice living that he makes by disposing of the men he is ordered to kill. Up to now, at least, he has convinced himself that everyone he has killed deserved to die, even if only for the reason that they were horrible human beings. But this time his code of ethics is being tested because he is not at all sure that the man marked for death is the one who actually struck and killed the boy.

Frey fills his parallel storylines with enough colorful, though often stereotypical, supporting characters and incidents to keep the reader interested in both worlds, especially once the reader comes to realize that bad things are bound to happen when the two sets of characters finally collide. He expertly raises the tension level, as things ever so slowly come to a head, something that takes more than ninety percent of the book’s pages. And then, in one climactic scene, it is pretty much all over.

And to make matters worse, Frey resolves the fates of several major and minor characters and their side-stories in just a few short pages preceding the book’s very predictable final scene (not to mention one pivotal character that just seems to disappear from the story completely). Readers will be uncomfortably jarred by the sudden change-of-pace that marks the book’s last few pages during which characters and incidents that took countless pages to develop are suddenly dispensed with in a matter of a few paragraphs. They may, in fact, very well feel a bit cheated.

All of that said, Forced Out, the audio book, gave me what I always hope to get from an audio book: a fast paced, easy-to-follow story with enough twists and turns to keep me awake on my early morning commutes. However, it would never have worked for me as a printed book - and I would have been especially furious at the way Frey handled the last five percent or so of the story.

Rated at: 2.5

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Little Friend of the Library

Time for a feel-good story, something we can really use amidst all the bad news that is so consistently being thrown at us twenty-four hours a day.

According to the Lake County News (California), one little girl wanted to make a difference at her local library so she raised enough money to buy eleven new children's books for Upper Lake's library:
Applying to Sunkist’s “Take a Stand” – its program to supply lemonade stands to community minded youth aged 7 to 12 – Miranda explained she wanted to give back to her community.

The lemonade stand arrived in late summer, after Miranda had begun her fourth grade year at Upper Lake Elementary School. Miranda asked for and received support for supplies from both Sentry Market and Hi-Way Grocery, who generously donated lemons, sugar and ice.

She also creatively handcrafted ribbon and bead bookmarks to supplement her sales and satisfy her non-thirsty patrons.

Miranda’s delicious, old-fashioned, fresh-squeezed lemonade was a satisfying surprise for those who stopped for refreshment on Sept. 13, a warm and sunny Saturday in front of the historic Upper Lake Library.

The proceeds of her effort netted $49.12 and in honor of her community spirit, the donation was matched by The Friends of the Lake County Library.

When questioned how she wanted her donation spent, Miranda emphatically responded, “More picture books and chapter books!”

This young lady’s efforts resulted in 11 new books for juvenile readers and to each book was affixed a special bookplate honoring its benefactor.
Just look at the proud smile on this little girl's face. If that doesn't make you feel good, nothing will.

Eight-year-old Miranda Huntley

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity

As the book jacket of A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity says, “this time it’s personal.” Bill O’Reilly, the man so many folks love to hate (please don’t get Barney Frank started), this time around explains how he came to be the man he is. While it is doubtful that his detractors will read the book, those who admire O’Reilly, or at the least find him to be entertaining, will probably enjoy this one.

Bill O’Reilly, born in 1949, seems to have always been a bit of a rebel despite his upbringing by Depression era parents. Many of his core beliefs, such as spending wisely and saving for the future, come from that upbringing and, in fact, the core belief central to his makeup, a strong feeling that people should be treated fairly in life and that evil must be confronted and challenged, comes from watching his own parents struggle to make their way.

O’Reilly watched his father trade job security for a lifetime of stagnation in a job that never rewarded him the way he deserved to be rewarded and, as a result, the younger O’Reilly chose to be the free agent that he is today. Being an independent, as O’Reilly calls himself, allows him to look at both sides of an issue without having to worry about official party lines or whom he might offend by his position on any particular issue. His willingness to challenge those with whom he disagrees, especially those he believes to be playing unfairly or unethically, makes O’Reilly into an equal-opportunity offender. Most of the time, he has the Democratic faithful screaming for his head; at other times, the screaming comes from Republican Party faithful.

A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity is filled with stories from O’Reilly’s childhood and early career, stories that give insight into how one rebellious, non-conformist kid with a low attention span became the anti-evil crusader he is today. Whether it was designing a plot to get even with a neighbor who confiscated his group’s rubber ball when it went onto his property or driving the nuns at his Catholic school to distraction, O’Reilly was developing the nonconformist personality that he uses so effectively today.

But there is more to the man, much more. He has a sentimental side, and a hardcore loyalty to his oldest friends, that he seldom displays in public. Friends come and go in life, usually because circumstances change and neither side makes the special effort required to maintain contact over the years. O’Reilly refuses to let that happen. He feels a special bond with the people he grew up around and those he met at university or early on in his public career, and he is determined to maintain those friendships, often organizing group events that bring together a dozen or two people at a time.

The bottom line for Bill O’Reilly is that he absolutely detests unfairness and those who make their way in life by taking advantage of others. He is a firm believer in self-reliance but he knows that self-reliance works only in a social and economic system that is based on fairness. He hates the world of special privileges and, when he finds people gaming the system, he calls them out, a habit that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

O’Reilly lives by a simple philosophy, really. He believes that “you either fight active evil or you accept it. Doing nothing is acceptance. There is no in-between.” As he puts it, “When it is all over, when you are dead...your legacy will be defined by two simple questions: How many wrongs did you right, and how many people did you help when they needed it?”

Like him, take him or leave him, love him, or hate him, it’s hard to argue with that philosophy.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Barnes and Noble Report Card

I haven't done one of these "state of the business" posts for a while but it looks like the time has come. I've seen Barnes and Noble in the business news several times lately and even received one of those trashy chain-letter emails that warned me that Barnes and Noble is among a group of companies that are in danger of folding before all those Christmas gift cards can be used up. Ridiculous as that notion sounds on the surface, it did grab my attention since that's been the gift-of-choice that I most often receive from my wife and daughters.

And now I see on the Forbes.com website that the latest Barnes and Noble numbers are downright ugly:
Barnes & Noble just reported a third-quarter loss of $18.4 million, or 34 cents per share, compared with profit of $4.4 million, or 7 cents per share, a year earlier.

Same-store sales fell 7.4% for the quarter. Barnes & Noble said a significant drop-off in customer traffic and consumer spending affected its business in the third quarter. Management says it is taking measures to reduce expenses for the rest of this year and next.
The family has already decided to cut back on Christmas gifts this year, concentrating only on giving the three little ones a good Christmas, so I was not going to receive the usual B&N gift cards this year anyway. But if this were a more normal year, I might have suggested avoiding the cards after seeing numbers like these and knowing how tough it has been in recent years for even Barnes and Noble and Borders to turn a profit.

Come to think of it, I don't hear much about Barnes and Noble wanting to acquire Borders anymore.

Just a quick aside - There are two Barnes and Noble stores in my immediate area and I live almost exactly between the two so I shop at both of them on a regular basis. The two stores are a lot alike, of course, but there is one huge difference that continues to irritate me. One store includes almost no fiction in its publishers' remainders section and the other one is filled with it. I really like shopping the markdowns and always get a kick when I find a title that I couldn't afford at full price there in the stacks of cheap books. I even mentioned to the store manager who seems to avoid mark-downed fiction that he was pushing me to the other location but he just "politely" blew me off with some kind of excuse I don't even remember now.

I wonder if it's up to each store manager to determine how much emphasis to give to the publishers' remainders or if there is a Barnes and Noble store policy regarding the books. Anyone know the answer?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hardly Knew Her

The only writing of Laura Lippman’s I experienced prior to Hardly Knew Her was her 2007 standalone novel What the Dead Know, an intriguing, realistic mystery with a big surprise at the end. I had somehow managed to miss even the series for which Lippman is best known, the one featuring private detective Tess Monaghan. And as it turns out, I hardly knew Laura Lippman from reading just that one piece of her fiction.

Hardly Knew Her, Lippman’s new collection of 17 short stories (or 16 short stories and a novella, depending on how one classifies the book’s last piece), has a much different tone than I expected from her, one very unlike the what I previously experienced in her writing. This time, instead of serious reality, she offers up a combination of wry humor, nasty surprises, and cold blooded murder in a way that somehow makes even the most brutal crime seem almost comic or, at the very least, completely justifiable.

The book is divided into four distinct sections, and it is in the first section of seven stories, titled “Girls Gone Wild,” that Lippman immediately alerts the reader as to what to expect. These particular girls can take care of themselves just fine, thank you, as someone probably should have warned the males who dared to threaten or cross any of them in this group of stories.

Readers familiar with Lippman’s fiction know that most of it, including the Tess Monaghan stories, is set in Baltimore. For that reason, Lippman calls the second section of the book, comprised of four stories placed in cities like Dublin and New Orleans, “Other Cities, Not My Own.” No matter what their location, there are few good girls in this group of stories either and not many men able to keep up with them. Most, in fact, would have been happy enough just to have survived an encounter with these women.

Part three of the book, “My Baby Walks the Streets of Baltimore, finds Lippman back in familiar territory and includes two Tess Monaghan stories and a less successful faux newspaper “Sunday Lifestyle” kind of feature on female detective Monaghan. “The Shoeshine Man’s Regrets” is a particularly affecting introduction to the ways and style of Tess Monaghan and will create some follow-up interest in that character. The other Monaghan story, “Ropa Vieja” does not work quite as well due to its somewhat obvious crime solution and the newspaper piece just seems jarringly out of place.

The fourth section of the book is the 54-page story, “Scratch a Woman,” about an upscale, work-from-home madam who, in the everyday world, is known to her neighbors as a wealthy soccer mom raising a son on her own. Few, even her sister who lives nearby, know much about her and she is careful to keep it that way until circumstances force her to help her sister cover up a crime that could send both of them to prison. This is by far the longest piece in the book and it is probably no accident that it is also its most effective story.

Hardly Knew Her is a fun-to-read collection that remains fairly light all the way through despite the gruesome crimes committed in many of the stories. Its many surprises and twisted endings help make it all go down pretty easy.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Right Mistake

The Right Mistake is the third Walter Mosley book to feature Los Angeles street-philosopher Socrates Fortlow, a man keenly aware of how finely balanced are the forces of good and evil doing battle within him. He has learned to live with a constant personal struggle to ensure that the good inside him maintains its upper hand on the evil he knows to be buried not so deeply in his heart, a struggle he does not always win.

Socrates Fortlow, by the time that we catch up with him again, has spent some twenty-seven years of his life in prison for the crimes of murder and rape. He readily admits to the brutal rape and two murders that put him away and is somewhat surprised that he was ever allowed to see the light of day again as a free man. For several years now, Socrates has been content to live a quiet life, determined to fly under the radar of Los Angeles law enforcement, and he is still somewhat surprised at his freedom. But now he has a new project – one that will turn him into a celebrity of sorts and is guaranteed to catch the suspicious eye of the LAPD to such an extent that it jeopardizes his freedom.

Socrates has boldly finagled for himself an all-but-free lease on a big tin-covered house, nicknamed the Big Nickel that he wants to turn into a community center, a place that is large enough to host his new Thursday Night Thinkers’ Meetings. The Thinkers are a diverse group, most of them members at the personal invitation of Socrates, comprised of several races, religions, and economic backgrounds. The group includes professional gambler Billy Psalms, hugely successful and wealthy “junk dealer Chaim Zetel, despised murderer Ronald Zeal, Zeal lawyer Cassie Wheaton, popular singer Marianne Lodz, respected carpenter Antonio Peron, and karate master Wan Tai. Led by Socrates, they come to the Big Nickel every Thursday night to discuss the world in which they all live and how they might change themselves in ways that would make that world a better place for all of them.

Socrates has put his group together in a way that cannot help but produce lively, often threatening, debate when the topic turns to race but in time its members come to relish the arguments that allow them to see their lives in ways they would otherwise have never considered. As the Thinkers learn to respect each other as individuals instead of focusing on racial and social differences, meaningful relationships and support groups are formed and even Socrates is challenged in a way he could never have foreseen.

Understandably, the LAPD cannot accept the possibility that nothing criminal is happening in the Big Nickel because there are simply too many known criminals coming and going from the place. Socrates has made the Big Nickel available to neighborhood gangs as a place to which they can come to safely negotiate their street differences. Known drug dealers and dangerous criminals like Ron Zeal are regulars. So sure that the Big Nickel is a way for Socrates to disguise his criminal activities, the department manages to place an undercover cop into the Thinkers, a decision that will indirectly lead to another murder trial for Socrates Fortlow.

What happens among those attending the Thursday night meetings will likely be seen as wishful thinking by some readers, a little too utopian for the real world, they will say. But what Walter Mosley describes is not impossible; hey, it could just happen. And Mosley has filled The Right Mistake with the kinds of people that will have readers wanting to believe that what he describes might actually happen someday, that one little corner of the world will become a better place because a man with nothing to lose decided to make a difference.

Socrates Fortlow is that man for his Watts neighborhood.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, November 17, 2008

New Pat Conroy Novel Expected August 2009


Finally - something solid on Pat Conroy's new novel, including its proposed publication date.

From Publishers Weekly comes word that the new one is already being "shopped for film."
The Prince of Tides author's new one, South of Broad, is being shopped for film by Lynn Pleshette (and is due out from the author's longtime publisher, Doubleday, in August 2009). The book, which is set in Charleston and follows an 18-year-old named Leopold Bloom King...
Information about Conroy's next novel has been surprisingly hard to come by for about eighteen months now, ever since rumors first began to surface about its "imminent publication," so I'm happy to see something this concrete coming from a source like Publishers Weekly. The bad news is that we're still at least nine months away from seeing the new book.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You Snooze, You Lose

I remember being crushed ten years ago (1998) when John Harvey announced that Last Rights would be his final Charlie Resnick novel. Neatly enough, Last Rights was the tenth novel in the Resnick series, a detective series that I followed almost from the beginning.

I looked forward to the next Resnick almost as soon as I closed the final page on the last one, even having British friends hand-carry the new ones to me when I lived in Algiers or found myself stuck deep in the Sahara Desert for weeks at a time. By 1998 I was living in London and was able to grab the British version of Last Rights on the first day that it hit my local Waterstones. Even before I finished that one, I managed to get an email to Mr. Harvey pleading with him not to kill off the series and had a very polite response from him thanking me for my enthusiasm and explaining why he felt it was time for him to move on.

What's a reader to do? I grudgingly accept the man's right to call his own shots and, during the last ten years, I've reread the whole series in the order in which it was written. Quite a treat, that was.

But now, now I get news that there is a new Charlie Resnick novel out in the world titled Cold in Hand, a book that was published in the U.S. on September 15 while I was apparently asleep. How could I have missed this one for the last two months? Even worse, I find that it was published in the U.K. way back on January 31...how humiliating is that oversight for someone who considers himself to be a Resnick fanatic?

The good news is that I have a new Charlie Resnick novel to chase - one that will be on my shelves as soon as I can snag a copy.

Remainders Weigh a Ton - Literally


Who knew that a sense of humor would be so helpful to an author having her sanity tested by the book-buying public? New Zealand's Wendyl Niessen was lucky to have such a strong one on the day that she received 1.2 tons of books - all the remaining copies of her Bitch and Famous, her 2007 memoir about "the glossy world of magazines and TV." As described in the New Zealand Herald:

So it was with some nonchalance I greeted the delivery guy on my path the other day and instructed him to simply deposit his load under the house. He looked at me in horror.

"I can't do that," he replied.

"Why not?" I said. "It's just up the path."

"Madam," he said, displaying an unusually courteous tone for these modern times. "It weighs 1.2 tonnes."

"I'm sorry," I replied hesitantly. "Nothing weighs 1.2 tonnes."

"Two pallets of books," he answered, before remembering to add a now rather weighted "madam.

I had just taken delivery of what was left of Bitch and Famous, the book I wrote last year. I was told it had sold well. My publisher said he had some copies left in the warehouse and would I like them at a very good price? It seemed like a good idea at the time.

As I hid inside my house and listened to the sound of hydraulic equipment unloading the pallets on to the street, my first thought was the desperate hope that my neighbour, who knows a bit about publishing, would not look out his window and realise that the aspiring author across the road was having to buy her own books. My next thought was to ring my husband and inform him that instead of going to the gym after work he might like to transfer 1.2 tonnes of books into the basement, quickly, and preferably before it rained.
Read the rest of the article to find out why Nissen ended up with so many copies of her book and what she did next.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Esquire's 75 Books Every Man Should Read

As much as I enjoy book lists of all sorts, I don't tend to post them too often here on Book Chase. And then, of course, when I do post a list I always find myself embarrassed by how few books on the list I've actually read. That's why I wanted to see what would happen with this one, figuring I might do a little better than I usually do because it is specifically aimed at male readers.

This is Esquire Magazine's "The 75 Books Every Man Should Read: An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published"
1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver
2. Collected Stories of John Cheever
3. Deliverance, by James Dickey
4. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
5. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

6. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
7. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
8. The Good War, by Studs Terkel
9. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
10. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor

11. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
12. A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter
13. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
14. Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
15. A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee

16. Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson
17. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
18. Dubliners, by James Joyce
19. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
20. The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

21. Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone
22. Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
23. Legends of the Fall, by Jim Harrison
24. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry
25. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer

26. The Professional, by W.C. Heinz
27. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
28. Dispatches, by Michael Herr
29. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
30. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

31. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
32. The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
33. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
34. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
35. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

36. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
37. A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley
38. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
39. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
40. Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian

41. Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
42. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
43. Affliction, by Russell Banks
44. This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff
45. Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

46. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
47. Women, by Charles Bukowski
48. Going Native, by Stephen Wright
49. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
50. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarré

51. The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
52. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
53. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
54. The Shining, by Stephen King
55. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

56. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
57. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
58. Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges
59. The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe
60. The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford

61. American Tabloid, by James Ellroy
62. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley
63. What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer
64. The Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett
65. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

66. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell
67. Native Son, by Richard Wright
68. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans
69. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
70. The Great Bridge, by David McCullough

71. The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
72. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
73. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
74. Underworld, by Don DeLillo
75. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Well there it is and, if I've counted correctly, I can only claim 28 of the 75 books listed. But, hey, I'm the proud owner of another nine of them, so that total might go up in a few years.

Now I'm wondering why the magazine is convinced that these particular books "should" be read by every man.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The 19th Wife - Final Blog Tour Stop for David Ebershoff

This is it: the final stop on David Ebershoff's blog tour in support of his new novel, The 19th Wife. I finished the book a little over two weeks ago, just before I had the opportunity to hear David speak about the novel at the Texas Book Festival where he was informally questioned by author Amanda Eyre Ward. I enjoyed the discussion and gained some insight from it into what doing the "live" research was like for David, including his visit to a grocery store in a very closed, polygamous community where he had rather naively hoped to speak with some of the community's women.



My thoughts on the book follow:


David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife is a big book - from its nearly 600-page length, to its fascinating recounting of the epic early days of the Mormon religion, to the multitude of first-person voices so deftly handled by Ebershoff, and on to the vast amount of research material (both real and fictional) that was used to breathe life into so many memorable characters. But most importantly, it is a big book because of the way that it so seamlessly combines current news events so many of us have followed in recent years (like the raid by Texas authorities on the Yearning for Zion ranch in which dozens of children were taken from polygamous families) with an intriguing history of the origins of one of America’s major religions.

At the heart of Ebershoff’s story is the actual 1875 memoir written by Ann Eliza Young about her experiences as the 19th wife of Brigham Young, Wife No. 19. In reality Young likely had married more than 50 women by the time he added Ann Eliza and her two children to his family, a total of which Ann Eliza was unaware at the time of her wedding. The 19th Wife details exactly how the practice of polygamy and the Mormon faith crossed paths and ultimately became so intertwined that the single issue of polygamy came close to destroying the religion and many of its members. For a time, armed conflict between the church and the United States government seemed inevitable and Ann Eliza’s exposé may have inadvertently saved the religion by embarrassing its leadership into denouncing the practice of polygamy once and for all.

Ebershoff’s fictionalized version of Ann Eliza’s original memoir is presented in alternating chapters with his account of a modern day murder investigation involving another 19th wife, this one part of a First Latter Day Saints (usually referred to as “Firsts” in the book) family in Mesadale, Utah. These Firsts are not members of the Mormon faith. Rather, they consider themselves to be the descendents of the true faith founded by Joseph Smith, a religion in which polygamy continues to play a major role.

Jordan Scott, a 20-year-old who had been expelled from the Mesadale community several years earlier, has made a new life for himself in California but he still feels compelled to keep up with what is going on in Mesadale via the internet. That is how he comes to learn that his mother has been charged with his father’s murder and that, if convicted, she could face the death penalty. Jordan returns to Utah to see his mother for the first time since she dumped him on the side of the highway to begin life on his own and, almost despite himself, he comes to believe that his mother is innocent of the murder.

At first, the chapter-by-chapter transition from the 19th century diary to 21st century Utah is a little jarring. But soon, the similarities between the experiences of the two 19th wives become clear, the book settles into a comfortable rhythm, and the reader comes to understand that Joseph Smith’s decision to make polygamy central to his religion is still impacting the lives of some Americans more than 100 years later.

The 19th Wife is excellent historical fiction, well-researched and filled with numerous characters who give life to the early days of the Latter Day Saints. But even more significantly, it explores the topic of polygamy from several points-of-view: those of the husband, the wife, and the children who grow up along side tens of brothers and sisters in a dormitory lifestyle.

As is so vividly portrayed in The 19th Wife, polygamy has been outlawed in this country for good reason. Some of those reasons are more obvious than others, including the fact that so many young girls are married off to men a generation or two older than them, men who are sometimes blood relatives of theirs, men they are forced to marry despite whatever misgivings they might have. A more recent phenomenon sees young boys (such as Jordan Scott), known these days as “lost boys,” on some pretense or another being pushed out of the only community they know in their early teens so that they will not be around to compete for the hands of girls of the same age.

Wives find it difficult to maintain their dignity in polygamous relationships that require them to compete for the affections of their husband, a constant competition that they are doomed to lose as years pass and younger wives continue to be added to the family. Brigham Young himself set the precedent of counting as “wives” only those with whom he still shared a bed, something that Ann Eliza only learned well into her marriage. She found that, instead of being wife number nineteen, she was more likely to be wife number fifty-two, nineteen of whom were still sleeping with Young.

And, finally, the more introspective husbands involved in polygamous households, men for whom such a system would seem to be perfectly tailored, sometimes express regret that they simply do not have enough hours in the day to get to know all of their numerous children. These men come to realize that being a good father and husband is measured in terms of quality relationships, not in the number of children they father or the number of wives they have, and that realization comes to haunt some of them.

Bottom line, this book is about the children who grow up in a social setting among dozens of peers and adults in what must seem more a boarding school than a family home. It is about the rights of children, rights denied them by the very lifestyle they are being forced to live.

David Ebershoff has written a book, a big book, one that deserves a wide audience.

Rated at: 5.0

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Prisoner of Guatanamo

In recent years, the term “Gitmo” has come to loom large in the consciousness of anyone trying to follow the progress of the United States in her attempt to prevent the next 9-11. The Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, Gitmo, is home to prisoners who might know enough to help cripple al-Qaeda, the group supposedly responsible for what happened in New York City six years ago. This much we know. What actually goes on inside the gates of Gitmo, we can only imagine.

Dan Fesperman, novelist and Baltimore Sun reporter, sets out to change that with his latest thriller, The Prisoner of Guantanamo, a book that takes the reader inside the gates of the facility for a look at what daily life might be like there for prisoners and guards alike. His story focuses on the efforts of FBI Special Agent Revere Falk, an Arabic language specialist, as he interrogates one Yemeni prisoner over and over in an effort to get key names and information from him that will lead to the identification of al-Qaeda members still being sought. Much of what Falk and his fellows do at Gitmo has become part of the boring routine that often develops when small groups of men and women work long hours for weeks at a time in isolated living conditions with only themselves for company.

For Falk, it is his second hitch at Guantanamo Bay. Twelve years earlier he had been posted there as a young Marine whose curiosity about life on the other side of the fence brought him into contact with Cuban secret service agents who now suddenly reappear in his life to demand a meeting with him. To further complicate matters, when the body of a U.S. soldier washes up on a Cuban beach, Falk is put in charge of the investigation into the soldier’s death and his routine is shattered for good. Already suspecting that the death was not an accidental drowning, Falk begins to realize just how unusual the case is when three high-powered investigators from Washington arrive in camp and take an interest in his investigation.

Although he is taken off the case and told to return to his regular duties, Falk continues on his own time to piece together the details of what happened on the night the soldier died. Unable to tell the good guys from the bad ones, he finds himself doubting the motives of even his oldest friends as he moves closer and closer to the truth of what certain rogue government officials may be planning. As things begin to fall apart around him, Falk finds himself desperately on his own and willing to take help from where he would normally least expect to find it. Written in the tradition of the best Cold War spy thrillers of the past, The Prisoner of Guantanamo more than holds its own as it moves to its suspenseful climax.

Dan Fesperman’s detailed description of Gitmo life, a life dominated by military routines and regulations, boredom, petty jealousies among interrogators and between the various security agencies, and more than a bit of paranoia on both sides of the interrogation table, is an intriguing one. Readers of The Prisoner of Guantanamo will not be able to look at Gitmo headlines any time soon without flashing back to the book and the world created by Fesperman.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Jewel of Medina

Even before its publication, The Jewel of Medina angered some people, made some very nervous, and rallied others who resent being told what they may or may not read. The book’s first publisher bailed out on it’s deal to publish the novel and its British publisher, after being firebombed, is yet to publish the book. Thankfully, the publication and marketing of this Sherry Jones debut novel in the United States has been accomplished without violence and with little, if any, real protest from those who would like to see Jones silenced.

The Jewel of Medina is not a great novel. But, of course, it is not that simple.

Any fictional account written today about the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and his nine wives and four concubines, even as sympathetic an account as this one, will be controversial. But, more particularly, The Jewel of Medina is especially prone to controversy since it is told from the point-of-view of Muhammad’s “child bride,” A’isha bint Abi Bakr, who was betrothed to Muhammad when she was six years old and he was fifty.

A’isha, as portrayed by Jones, is an independent and willful little girl, a free spirit who sees herself as the equal of any male she encounters. She is especially close to one of the little boys, Safwan, she plays with every day and his continuing presence in her life will at times tempt her to break her marriage vows to Muhammad.

A’isha’s world changes forever on the day that her mother calls her away from her friends to tell her that she is to immediately begin purdah, confinement to her home, where she will remain until her husband comes to claim her on her wedding day. That is shock enough for a little girl like A’isha, but the even bigger shock is that the future husband to whom she was betrothed at birth, Safwan, is out of the picture. Instead, her husband-to-be is a man even older than her father, the Prohphet Muhammad.

Rebellious, though she might be, A’isha remains confined to the home of her parents for the next three years and, by the time she is nine years old and Muhammad comes for her, she is desperate for a change of scenery despite her fears about what marriage will be like. Much to her relief, the marriage between A’isha and her new husband is not actually consummated until several more years pass and she has matured into womanhood.

Ironically, as imagined by Jones, A’isha eventually becomes much more anxious to consummate the marriage than Muhammad is because of the competition she faces within Muhammad’s harem for its leadership role. She realizes that her image as “child bride” is not one to convey the status and respect required for her to assume the role of “Great Lady of the harem.” The A’isha of The Jewel of Medina, much like the historical A’isha, grows into a strong woman, very much a Joan of Arc of her times, a woman who becomes a trusted advisor to Muhammad and who leads troops into battle against the enemies of Islam. In fact, although it is not covered in the book, the historical A’isha played a key role in the initial Islamic civil war that produced the split between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions that is still causing problems for the religion today.

The Jewel of Medina is historical fiction, “fiction,” being the key word. It is not anti-Islam and, to the contrary, it reads as a very pro-Islam look at the religion and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad. It places the religion’s origins into the context of its times, a time when war among different tribes and alliances was more the norm than the exception, when leaders had to literally fight for the survival of their own, a time when polygamous marriages were often entered into as a means of building political alliances.

More importantly, it is a reminder that Muhammad was a human being, something of which he himself often took great pains to remind his followers.

I said earlier that The Jewel of Medina is not a great novel. It’s style is a little stilted, especially the dialogue, and that makes it easier to take in doses of a chapter or two at a time rather than in longer stretches. But even though it focuses largely on the relationships between, and internal struggles for dominance, among Muhammad’s wives, there is much to learn from the novel. Most readers, in fact, will come away from the book with a better understanding of, and more compassion for, the religion of Islam than with which they began the book.

I, for one, am thankful that the author and publisher had the courage to get this one into my hands. It was not a wasted effort on any of our parts.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Merle Haggard Recovering from Cancer Surgery

Time for me to put on my other blog hat for a few minutes, guys, the country music one. I've been a fan of real country music almost as long as I've been a book nut. That's a long, long time.

Two country singers have been very special to me for most of my life. I discovered George Jones when I was about 13 years old and Merle Haggard came along three or four years later. Those two singers have been constants in my life for more than 40 years now. These are men whose lifestyles are accurately reflected in their music: heavy drinking, heavy smoking, drugs, multiple marriages, run-ins with the law, etc. You name it, and they probably did it. And amazingly both mellowed soon enough to have now reached their early seventies.

They are as surprised about that as I am, I suspect.

But now comes news that doctors discovered a tumor in Merle's right lung sometime in May and that he refused to be treated for it. It seems that his family finally convinced him to allow doctors to remove the tumor and that he is recovering at home. God knows what that really means at this point.

According to the Dallas Observer,
A recent biopsy revealed that Haggard had non-small cell lung cancer (a form of the disease that has a much better cure rate), so surgery to remove the upper lobe of his right lung became mandatory. According to the surgeon, Haggard woke from the operation, yodeled and smiled. And his post-operative progress was so rapid that he was discharged on Saturday.

That’s good news for all involved as Haggard is still one of the preeminent country singer-songwriters in music--country or otherwise.
Merle is one of the great ones and I want to have him around for a long, long time. He still sounds great and I'm looking forward to some new Merle Haggard music - lots of it.


Merle singing one of the best country music songs ever written - written, of course, by him (along with his first wife, Bonnie Owens)

Books, Book Wars and Feuding Sisters

I'm not sure whether to call this an "amusing" story or a "sad" one. Either way, the article is not what we normally see from the book world. Sure, there have always been feuding authors and there always will be. Some of the biggest names from the last two centuries fought with their peers over which of them was the more important writer of the day. Think Vidal vs. Capote, Theroux vs. Naipaul, Updike vs. Wolfe, Lewis vs. Dreiser, Twain vs. Harte, Mailer vs. Everyone, Hemmingway vs. Stein, etc. And that's just the tip of the literary iceberg when it comes to dueling authors.

(Tatiana Boncompagni shown in first photo)
(Both sisters - in happier days - shown in second photo)

But, at least up to now, I don't recall that any of the literary feuds involved siblings. According to Bloomberg.com, though, that is exactly what is happening with two sisters right now.
Tatiana Boncompagni, the author of ``Hedge Fund Wives,'' a novel to be published in May by News Corp.'s HarperCollins, sued her sister Natasha over claims she copied parts of the manuscript and sought copyright protection as its co-author.

Tatiana Boncompagni, 31, a freelance journalist whose first novel, ``Gilding Lily,'' was published by HarperCollins last month, accused her sister of secretly copying parts of ``Hedge Fund Wives'' this year during family visits in New York and Milwaukee.

Natasha Boncompagni, 33, denied the claims in the copyright- infringement complaint, filed today in federal court in Manhattan. She said she co-wrote the novel and that she would have sued Tatiana if her sister hadn't beaten her to court.
Sounds like a family in which if "you snooze, you lose," one in which keeping a lawyer on retainer at all times is a must. Frankly, the book sounds like chick lit on steroids from its description in the Bloomberg article, one that I have no interest in, so I suppose I'll settle on "amusing" rather than "sad" as a description of the story's tone.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sarah's Key

Tatiana de Rosnay really painted herself into a corner when she decided on the structure of Sarah’s Key, her touching portrayal of one of the darkest incidents in French history, the July 16, 1942 roundup of Parisian Jews by the French police for their eventual transport to the Auschwitz death camp. De Rosnay chose to tell her tragic story by alternating the first person narrative of Sarah Starzynski, a little girl caught up in the roundup with her family, and Julia Jarmond a journalist assigned to do a story on the incident some sixty years later.

This structure worked well for the first half of the book, during which Julia researched what happened at the Vélodrome d'Hiver in alternating chapters with Sarah’s account of what she experienced and saw on the fateful day she was imprisoned in that indoor stadium with her mother and father. Then, at about the book’s midpoint, de Rosnay found it necessary to silence Sarah’s direct voice and to tell the rest of the story strictly through Julia and her efforts to determine Sarah’s ultimate fate.

This is the point at which the book loses its most dramatic and effective voice and its whole tone changes. The shock and horror that dominated the first part of the book soon evolve into a much less emotionally gripping tale of Julia’s determination to find out whether or not Sarah survived the war and, if so, what might have happened to her since.

That said, Sarah’s Key is a very good book and one that will be hard to forget, especially since it sheds light on an event that so many people themselves prefer to forget and would be happy enough that their children and grandchildren never learn about.

Sarah Starzynski was a typical Paris schoolgirl until the day that her mother sewed a yellow star on her school dress. Even then, things went along fairly normally until the morning when the family opened the door to French policemen who demanded that the family come with them. Sarah’s young brother, a spirited little boy, refused to go and managed to hide in a built-in wardrobe before the authorities saw him. Things took a horrible turn, however, when Sarah locked the hidden wardrobe and told her brother to remain there quietly until she could return for him in a few minutes. She slipped the key into her pocket and left the apartment with her parents, not for a moment thinking that she might never see the inside of her home again.

Sarah and her parents were taken to the Vélodrome d'Hiver where they and thousands of other French citizens, Jews all, were locked in with almost no food or water, hardly any place to sleep, and absolutely no toilet facilities. Old people died, babies died, newborns died or were born dead - and all of this happened without a German in sight; the French government was entirely in charge of the operation. Just when it seemed that things could get no worse, parents were separated from their children, no matter how young the children were, never to be seen again. Unimaginable as it is, the several thousand children were left on their own in the same conditions they had suffered with their parents.

Miraculously, Sarah managed to escape the camp to which the surviving children were sent, determined to get back to Paris to release her little brother from the hidden wardrobe before it was too late to save him.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond can hardly believe what she learns about the Vél d'Hiv and what some 450 French policemen did there for the Nazis at the instruction of the French government. She is even more shocked when she stumbles upon a link between her husband’s family and what happened that day, and dedicates herself to finding Sarah so that she can tell her that the family has not forgotten her, nor will they ever.

Sarah’s Key is about bigotry, collaboration, hatred, and looking the other way when evil presents itself. It is a horrible reminder of what supposedly good people are capable of in times of war - especially the willingness to turn on fellow citizens and neighbors of a different religion.

Sadly, it is also a reminder of how little has changed since July 16, 1942.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sad End for the Happy Bookseller

The Happy Bookseller, an independent bookstore that has done business in Columbia, South Carolina, for the past 34 years is soon to close its doors for good. According to the Free Times, the store opened in 1974 and had little real competition until 1993 when Books-a-Million opened up a store, followed by the opening of two Barnes and Noble stores just a couple of years later. Despite being a well-established and beloved Columbia institution by the time the big chains arrived, the Happy Bookseller learned the lesson that so many independent bookstores have learned in recent years: surviving the invasion of the big boys is unlikely in the long run. So another great independent bookstore bites the dust.

What makes this one particularly interesting to me is the relationship between the bookstore and one of my very favorite authors, Pat Conroy.
The author most closely associated with the store, however, may be Pat Conroy. The store has certainly been the beneficiary of Conroy’s success. But as Starr tells it, the independent bookstore also played a significant role in the South Carolina novelist’s own meteoric ascent.

“Pat came in to sign [The Great Santini], and although it’s hard to imagine now, no one came — except Pat Conroy and his book. That was it. Then the last time I remember Pat coming through, which was, I think, for Prince of Tides, there were over a thousand people backed up in a line that went as far back as you could see…One of the reasons Pat’s popularity grew is because of people like Rhett Jackson and the Happy Bookseller, who created a place for writers that didn’t exist in Columbia before.”

Conroy, in fact, would eventually present the Jacksons with the American Booksellers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Bookselling.
So despite its long history as a unique Columbia bookstore, the Happy Bookseller will soon cease to exist. And it will be greatly missed by its longtime customers and those authors who have made regular appearances there over the years. But because the business of selling books has changed so drastically over the last decade, and continues to change even today, the Happy Bookseller can no longer afford to turn on the lights.
With so much new interest in literature, business would seem to be brisk. Unfortunately, the increasing popularity of online booksellers like Amazon, combined with the hit from the chains stores and slim profit margins, has gradually sapped the store’s revenue. Graves describes the effect of Internet sales as the “drip, drip, drip” that eventually made staying open a virtual impossibility.
How sad is that?

If you have a local independent bookstore in your town, please support it - or lose it. There are two cool ones in Houston, on the same street, in fact, that I buy from as often as my budget allows: Brazos Book Store and Murder by the Book. I love those stores and what they represent but a downturn in my personal economy has made it more and more difficult for me to get to them as often as I have in the past. I sure hope I don't wake up one morning and find their front doors locked.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Collected Stories and Other Writings

With the publication of Collected Stories and Other Writings, Katherine Anne Porter, author of Ship of Fools, some twenty-six short stories, numerous essays, sketches, speeches and reviews, becomes part of the remarkable Library of America series (its 186th volume) honoring the work of America’s greatest and most important writers.

This one-volume collection, edited by Porter biographer Darlene Unrue, includes all of Porter’s short stories (including the three that Porter herself preferred to call “short novels”) and eighty nonfiction pieces, most of which have been out-of-print for years. Of particular interest among the nonfiction pieces selected for this volume by Unrue are two previously unpublished autobiographical essays written in 1933 and 1974 in which Porter discusses her early life and the influences on her writing. And, of course, readers searching for more information about Porter’s long life and career will appreciate the 21-page “Chronology” placed at the end of this 1100-page book that details her ninety-year lifetime.

Porter was often a critic of her times, but she took her criticism a step or two further by her general criticism of society and even of human nature itself. She was most certainly a keen observer of people, and some of her best stories are the often deceptively simple ones that focus on the unique relationship between husbands and wives. These are largely conversational presentations that clearly illustrate just how much is left unsaid in a marriage, stories in which real feelings are shown inside the heads of her main characters but never expressed out loud in the long conversations between husband and wife. Two particularly fine examples of this type are Porter’s “Rope” and “The Cracked Looking Glass,” both of which were included in her first short story collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories.

Porter, born in Indian Creek, Texas, near San Antonio, had the familiarity and love for Mexico shared by so many Texans. Her earliest published short stories are set during the Mexican Revolution years between 1910 and 1920, and her nonfiction pieces include more than two dozen essays on her love for that country and what she experienced there during such a dramatic period of its history. That Porter felt as much at home in Mexico as in Texas is obvious because of the depth to which she captured these times and Mexico’s people.

The last publication of Porter’s lifetime, 1977’s “The Never-Ending Wrong,” her reaction to the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case, is perhaps one of the most powerful pieces she ever wrote. Porter, who stood with hundreds of others outside the prison while the two were executed for their crime, admits that she could not determine for herself their actual guilt or innocence. But she makes a strong argument that their trial was one of those “in which the victim was already condemned to death before the trial took place.” She likens their trial to the trials of Jesus, Joan of Arc, those tried in Salem during the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692, and those condemned to death by Stalin in his 1937 Moscow show trials.

Collected Stories and Other Writings should help solidify Katherine Anne Porter’s literary reputation for generations to come, something that was becoming more and more difficult to do because so much of her work was out-of-print prior to this publication. Darlene Unrue has placed a wide range of Porter’s best work in one volume, a book that will prove to be a must-have for Porter fans and an important book for anyone who appreciates the best short fiction produced in the twentieth century.

Rated at: 5.0