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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End-of-Year Stats

I've enjoyed reading the year-end roundups on several book blogs in the last few days but have held off on preparing my own because I had three books nearing completion just as the year was coming to a close. I wasn't sure which, if any, would be finished before 2009, so I held off on a list. As it turns out, I finished all three of them as of last night, so this is how 2008 officially went for me:
Number of Books Read = 143
Fiction = 104
Nonfiction = 39

Novels = 96
Short Story Collections = 8

Memoir = 18
Biography = 6
True Crime = 3
Essay Collections = 3
History = 2
Current Events = 4
Sociology = 3

Written by Men = 89
Written by Women = 52
Co-Authered = 2

Abandoned = 5
Review Copies = 59
Translations = 4
eBooks = 3
Audio Books = 13

Civil War Related = 4
Alternate History = 4
Young Adult Fiction = 4
Re-Reads = 3
Sports Related = 2


By Author Nationality:

British = 9
South African = 1
Australian = 1
Irish = 2
Japanese = 1
Canadian = 6
Algerian = 1
French = 2
American = 120
I need to start planning for next year now although I do have four good books started already that will be carried into 2009. I'm particularly excited about two of them, one already a bestseller and another that won't be published until the end of March 2009. I'm also a bit surprised that even though my total number of books read dropped by 16 when compared to 2007, my two-year total is 302. That is by far the most I've ever read in any two consecutive years and it probably happened because of the effort that I put into this blog. It's no coincidence that the Book Chase will be two years old three weeks from today.

Overall, this was a fun year and I find myself starting the new year with much more enthusiasm and energy than I had at the end of 2007. That's largely, I think, because I've enjoyed meeting so many interesting people (bloggers, authors and fellow readers, alike) and have really enjoyed all the input that I received this year. Thanks to all of you who make this so much fun.

Happy New Year to you all - stay safe tonight. I want to see you next year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Things the Grandchildren Should Know

Things the Grandchildren Should Know caught my eye on the nonfiction new acquisitions shelf of my local library. Something about the title made me curious but when I picked up the book I had no idea it was a memoir and, for all I knew, it could have been some kind of self-help, advice book. Frankly, I had no idea who Mark Oliver Everett was and had never heard of a singer called “E” or a band called the Eels. It’s only in the last few days, in fact, that I’ve sampled some of Everett’s music and I’m still not sure what to think of most of it. I was not overwhelmed by what I heard, but I enjoyed enough of the music to ensure that I will revisit it soon to see if it sticks.

That’s the music. The book, though, is definitely a keeper because it reads as one of the more honest family-story exposĂ©s that I’ve read in years. Memoirs are beginning to lose favor with the reading public due to the large number of “pity parties” that have been published in recent years and the fact that several of them have been exposed as complete frauds. Things the Grandchildren Should Know is no pity party on the part of Everett. He does not come looking for sympathy or seeking to impress readers by the amount of tragedy he has endured. Rather, he recounts his family history in such a direct, in-your-face style, a style that makes great use of irony and humor when least expected, that the reader often ends up smiling through even the saddest events of Everett family history.

By the time the ride is over, Everett has managed to explain how he became the person he is, where he finds the creative spark for his music and how that music has probably saved his life, and where he plans to go from here.

It is easy to see that Mark Oliver Everett is an extremely talented man, a prolific songwriter with the vision and musical ability to produce recordings that turn his songs into award-winning hits. But Everett grew up in a Washington D.C. suburb as one-quarter of a dysfunctional family headed by a brilliant father, a man who spoke so little to his children and never touched them that he was little more than a physical presence in their home, and a mother who paid little attention to him or his sister. Everett and his sister, Liz, came to rely greatly upon each other but were still emotionally scarred by the seeming indifference of their parents. But, sadly, while Everett was able to save himself through his songs, Liz decided to seek her own relief in whatever drugs she could find.

Things the Grandchildren Should Know is the story of a musician who achieved the kind of success that he hardly dared dream might be possible as a kid. The remarkable thing is that he achieved that success while his family was going to pieces around him to such an extent that one day, still a young man, he was stunned to find himself its only survivor. Eels fans probably know much of Everett’s background already through his autobiographical songs but casual fans, or readers unfamiliar with the music, likely will be surprised that so successful an entertainer can express such an unpretentious view of life – and make us believe him.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Trouble with Boys

Peg Tyre has written a remarkable book about a problem that many of us have sensed (but failed to articulate and complain about) for years: our young boys are being shortchanged from the first day that they enter a school building. Not too many years ago the concern in public education was how to prepare girls to grow into women able to compete with their male counterparts in the work world. That was a legitimate concern and, much to the credit of this country, a tremendous, and very successful, effort was made to correct the problem. But as always seems to happen, the pendulum continued to swing their way long after females had achieved educational equality. The momentum created to correct the initial problem was so strong that it eventually placed male students at a disadvantage, a new problem just as serious as the one it corrected.

I have personally observed much of what Peg Tyre describes in The Trouble with Boys. For what it is worth, I can offer anecdotal evidence of my own that the problem Tyre describes is a serious one. I am the father of two daughters, both elementary school teachers now, and the grandfather of one granddaughter and two grandsons, all of whom are elementary school students. Because I am convinced that learning to read well, and as soon as possible, is the key to anyone’s future, I encouraged my daughters to become readers and have done the same for their children. It is in observation of their children that I first became aware of just how different so many little boys are from little girls when it comes to their early schooling.

According to Tyre, the problem for little boys begins as early as preschool because they are physically and mentally less mature than little girls their age. Boys at this age are less verbal than girls, a deficit that makes it more difficult for them to learn to read, and they have less well developed fine motor skills, making it more difficult for them to control a pencil or a paintbrush. But their biggest problem is the great difficulty they have in sitting still for long periods of time, a tendency that almost guarantees that they will be disciplined at a much higher rate than girls and that they will learn at a slower pace.

The physical disadvantage faced by young boys has become more and more exaggerated in recent years because of the emphasis on starting our children into preschool programs at younger and younger ages. Little boys find themselves labeled early on as troublemakers and poor students by teachers that simply do not recognize or understand the handicaps the boys are facing in the classroom. As a result, boys are almost five times as likely to be expelled from preschool and are twice as likely to be placed under medication for some type of attention deficit disorder.

And, of course, this makes them much more likely to hate school and learning. Too many of them tune out, barely skating by academically and staying in school mainly because of sports programs and the girls they meet there. These boys have subconsciously assimilated the message they received from preschool through elementary school that they are problem students whose behavior and study habits are not appreciated.

And the result is predictable. Boys and girls enter preschool at about the same level but around the fourth grade girls are noticeably pulling ahead of boys academically, a lead they never relinquish. By middle and high school girls make up a substantial majority of top-ranked students and today they outnumber male university students to such a degree that many schools have created a kind of affirmative action plan for boys in order to create some balance in their student enrollments.

In effect, the American education system has been over-feminized by its tendency to reward the behavior more common to girls and to punish that more likely to be shared by young male students. The Trouble with Boys offers solutions and possible corrective measures that need to be adopted before another generation of men is doomed to second class status.

As Tyre points out, this country simply cannot afford to write off half of the population if it is to successfully compete in the global economy of the future. Advocates of equality for women may be concerned by any new emphasis on the same for men, fearing that the infamous pendulum will once again swing too far before stopping. But, as Tyre emphasizes, that is not what anyone is proposing or expecting; this is simply a matter of true equality for both sexes, a goal that will benefit all of us.

The Trouble with Boys makes a strong case that something must be done quickly in order to correct the biggest problem now facing this country’s school system. It should be read by parents (regardless of whether they have boys or girls), school teachers and administrators, and everyone concerned about the future. It is a good place at which to begin the conversation – read it and pass it on to others before we waste another generation of young men. It is time that we quit treating boys as “defective girls.”

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, December 28, 2008

No Angels in This Story - Period

Herman Rosenblat, as it turns out (see post previous to this one), is a bigger fraud than I originally imagined him to be. He knew exactly what he was doing and he has damaged not only himself but everyone unlucky enough to have been associated with him and his joke of a book in any way: Berkley Books, Penguin Group (USA), Holocaust scholars, other Holocaust survivors, members of his family, those who wanted so badly to believe in the miracle of his story and, yes, even Oprah Winfrey, one of his biggest boosters.

Surely his wife knew that the book was based on a gigantic lie. Why did she go along with the fraud? Was it all about the money? Are we really to believe that Rosenblat created the lie because he "wanted to bring happiness to people?" Sorry, Herman, but I don't buy that for a minute.

The Houston Chronicle has the latest:
Rosenblat, 79, has been married to the former Roma Radzicky for 50 years, since meeting her on a blind date in New York. In a statement issued Saturday through his agent, he described himself as an advocate of love and tolerance who falsified his past to better spread his message.

“I wanted to bring happiness to people,” said Rosenblat, who now lives in the Miami area. “I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world.”

Rosenblat’s believers included not only his agent and his publisher, but Oprah Winfrey, film producers, journalists, family members and strangers who ignored, or didn’t know about, the warnings from scholars that his story didn’t make sense.
...
Among the fooled, at least the partially fooled, was Berenbaum, former director of the United States Holocaust Research Institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Berenbaum had been asked to read the manuscript by film producer Harris Salomon, who still plans an adaptation of the book.

Berenbaum’s tentative support — “Crazier things have happened,” he told The Associated Press last fall — was cited by the publisher as it initially defended the book. Berenbaum now says he saw factual errors, including Rosenblat’s description of Theresienstadt, the camp from which he was eventually liberated, but didn’t think of challenging the love story.

“There’s a limit to what I can verify, because I was not there,” he says. “I can verify the general historical narrative, but in my research I rely upon the survivors to present the specifics of their existence with integrity. When they don’t, they destroy so much and they ruin so much, and that’s terrible.”

“I was burned,” he added. “And I have to read books more skeptically because I was burned.”
This whole episode leaves me with more than just a bad taste in my mouth. Now I have to question whether or not the book should even be published as fiction and/or a movie made from its story. Beyond a doubt, it has the makings of a beautiful movie about a remarkable love story, a love story we now know to be as untrue as it is unbelievable. Should Herman Rosenblat profit from his attempted fraud, after all? What do you think?

This British page has the details of Rosenblat's fictional memoir and will give you a feel for what a great novel and movie this could have made before it was tainted so badly by this little scandal. At the time this was posted, the owner of the page believed the story to be a true one

Saturday, December 27, 2008

No Angel at the Fence

It looks like Oprah's been had again although it remains to be seen whether she will ask the author of Angel at the Fence t0 appear on her show so that she can publicly humiliate him in the style in which she destroyed James Frey.

Oprah has been pushing Herman Rosenblat's supposed true story of first meeting his wife at the fence of the Nazi concentration camp in which he was imprisoned as a boy. He claims that she, from the other side of the fence, helped him survive the ordeal by tossing food to him over the fence. Apparently no one much wondered how such a thing would have been possible until recently. Rosenblat and Berkley Books defended the validity of the book just yesterday (from the New York Times):
In the book, “Angel at the Fence,” Herman Rosenblat writes that he met his future wife, Roma Radzicki, at right with Mr. Rosenblat, while he was a prisoner at Schlieben in Germany and she lived nearby, and would sneak him food at the camp’s fence. But in a recent article in The New Republic, several scholars challenged details of the story, noting among other things that the camp’s layout would have made exchanges at the fence impossible. In a statement reported by The A.P., Mr. Rosenblat said: “I was a young child at the time my family was caught up in the Holocaust, and I saw things through a young child’s eyes. But I know and remember what I saw.”
This afternoon, Yahoo News has the latest:
The publisher of a disputed Holocaust memoir is canceling publication of the book. Berkley Books issued a statement Saturday saying it is canceling publication of "Angel at the Fence" after receiving new information from the agent of author Herman Rosenblat.
...
Berkley says it will demand that Rosenblat and his agent return all money that they have received for the work.
So another book scam has been blown apart, another publisher is embarrassed, and all for nothing. Herman Rosenblat suffered greatly during World War II and I find it very sad to see something like this happen to him at this stage of his life. I suspect that his heart is in the right place and that he might very well have come to believe the story he tells in Angel at the Fence. Memory can be a trickster, especially in the midst of all the trauma that Rosenblat experienced as a child. What a shame - for everyone involved.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rocket Man

Dale Hammer, the Rocket Man, has it all: a big, new house in the suburbs, an attractive wife who also happens to be an attorney, a young son, and the good fortune to work at what he loves most, writing.

But don’t start envying Dale too quickly because Dale Hammer also has: a new house he cannot really afford, an attractive wife who is seriously thinking of divorcing him, a young son that considers Dale to be a complete “doofus,” and the misfortune to be an unmotivated writer whose only three novels have been out-of-print for years. To top it off, Dale is smack dab in the middle of a serious middle age crisis all of his own.

In Rocket Man, William Elliott Hazelgrove creates an Everyman for our times, a guy bewildered by the twists and turns of his life but still hoping to find a way to become the man he imagines himself to be. The problem is, though, that Dale is not the self-motivated type and, despite his best intentions, he can seldom force himself to “go along to get along.” In the course of just a few days, his rebellious nature results in him being investigated by the police for the destruction of what he considers to be an atrocious sign marking the entrance to his neighborhood, fighting an all-out war with both the crossing guard and P.E. coach at his son’s elementary school, getting caught driving a vehicle full of boy scouts across private property with a drink in his hand, and desperately trying to salvage his turn as this year’s Rocket Man for that same troop of scouts.

The role of Rocket Man, the scout-parent in charge of safely launching the individual rockets constructed by each troop member, is not something that particularly appeals to Dale but he sees it as perhaps his last chance to prove to his son that he is not the doofus his son imagines him to be. But will Dale successfully launch the rockets without killing himself or half the scouts? Will his wife serve him with divorce papers either way? Will his brother and sister-in-law ever speak to him again? Will he be sent to jail for sawing down the sign he denies ever touching but for which he has openly expressed his distaste? Will he ever be allowed on the grounds of his son’s elementary school again?

These are just some of the things on Dale’s plate.

Dale is definitely having a difficult time, be it called mid-life crisis, or not. He might not be the most likable character that readers have recently encountered, but they will find themselves pulling for him nevertheless because he dares do so many of the things that others only wish they could do. Who has not on more than one occasion daydreamed of taking down some pompous blowhard? Can any of us honestly say that we don’t feel a little vigilante in ourselves when the circumstances are just right? Well, Dale does not deny it, especially to himself.

Hazelgrove has filled Rocket Man with enough eccentric characters (my favorite is D.T. Hammer, Sr., Dale’s Mississippian father, who knows exactly when to revert to a stereotypical Southern plantation owner persona that would be familiar to Scarlett O’Hara herself) to turn it into quite a suburban adventure, one that will have the reader shaking his head while at the same time rooting for the Rocket Man to successfully pull his life back together. Go, Dale.

Rated at: 4.0

Review as originally posted on Curled Up with a Good Book

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas, Y'all


Here's hoping that everyone has a safe and happy Christmas - and that Santa brings you lots of new books to add to your TBRs.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Disagreement

The disagreement noted in the title of Nick Taylor’s debut novel, The Disagreement, turned out to be a rather serious one leading to a four-year war between two sections of the United States that ultimately cost more than half a million lives and left much of the American south almost completely destroyed.

In Taylor’s story, John Muro, a young Virginian who dreams of attending medical school in Philadelphia, has the misfortune of turning sixteen on the very day of Virginia’s secession from the Union, turning his desire to study in the North into an impossibility. But Muro’s mill-owning parents offer him an alternative that he grudgingly accepts: the chance to attend the University of Virginia Medical School in Charlottesville. Now exempt from military service, but still feeling somewhat cheated, Muro finds himself smitten by Lorrie Wigfall, a beautiful young lady that just happens to be the niece of the doctor in charge of Charlottesville’s military hospital.

As both the war and Muro’s relationship with Lorrie progress, Muro comes under the wing of Lorrie’s Uncle, Dr. Cabell, and abandons his formal studies for a full-time position in the hospital. For the next four years, Muro and some of his fellow students receive a medical baptism of fire during which they learn more about being doctors than they would have ever learned from medical school lectures and labs.

It is only as the war draws to a close that John Muro becomes haunted by his old dream to study and work in Philadelphia. The war has not been kind to him and his family and he finds that his unhappiness with his life and his doubts about his future give him little reason to remain in the devastated South. The real question, though, is whether or not he can turn his back on the people who have meant so much to him during the war. Can he really abandon his defeated country and live among those responsible for destroying his old life?

The Disagreement offers an interesting take on what the Civil War might have been like for those southerners who lived in a war zone for four years. However, the book’s focus is so much on the personal relationships experienced by John Muro that it is easy to forget there is a war going on in the background, even a war as hugely tragic as the American Civil War.

The reader does not get a real sense of the horrors of a military hospital of that period or of the deprivations felt by the average southern family during the last months of the war. While it is true that the book emphasizes the lack of medical supplies available to southern hospitals, other horrors of the war, including the war’s direct impact on the civilian population of war torn states and the tremendous suffering endured by soldiers on both sides, are glossed over and barely touch the reader’s emotions.

Nick Taylor tells a good story in The Disagreement, and I enjoyed it, but it is less a Civil War novel, and more a novel about relationships and loyalties, than I expected it to be when I picked it up.

Rated at: 3.0

Monday, December 22, 2008

Children's Author Unable to Create New Stories Since Stroke



Canadian author Robert Munsch is experiencing a trying time since his stroke of fourth months ago, but he says that it is teaching him "to be very patient." It's not all lost time for Mr. Munsch while he waits to recover his writing skills because he is spending his time editing some 51 book drafts that he worked up before his stroke.




Per the Canadian Press:
Robert Munsch, the children's author whose fertile imagination has produced beloved books including "Love You Forever" and "The Paper Bag Princess," says he's been unable to create new stories since suffering a stroke four months ago.

"I try to do poetry and make up stories and it doesn't work, and (the doctors) told me that I should probably wait for a year for that to come back," he said in a recent interview from his home in Guelph, Ont.
...
Munsch was able to recover enough to go through with a brief Ontario book tour in the fall. And, he's scheduled to do a reading as part of the 11th annual Family Literacy Day on Jan. 27.

Once he's fulfilled that obligation, however, he plans to retreat from the spotlight.

"I just scrubbed everything," said Munsch, who has been involved in Family Literacy Day, organized by ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, for six years.

While on hiatus, he plans to edit the whopping 51 book drafts he had on the go before his stroke.

"I'm just reworking the stuff that I have. I'm not doing new stuff," said Munsch, who has already written more than 50 books, the first of which was "Mud Puddle."
As scary as this had to be for Munsch, I'm betting that he will make a full recovery and that he has many new stories yet to tell. He has a great attitude about everything and realizes just how lucky he was. Good luck to him.

The Embezzler



How bad can the business of selling books really be when an independent bookstore in North Carolina fails to notice that a "trusted employee" has walked away with $348,975?

I'm just kidding - I know these are tough times for booksellers - but this kind of thing always amazes me and makes me wonder how some people can be so blind to what is going on around them.

According to the News & Observer,


A former bookkeeper with Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh was arrested over the weekend and charged with embezzling $348,975 from the popular independent bookstore.

Anna Susan Kosak, 43, of Raleigh is charged with taking the money over several years, according to court records. Quail Ridge General Manager Sarah Goddin said Sunday that Kosak was employed as the store's bookkeeper twice, from 1998 to 2001 and again from 2004 until September. Goddin said Kosak's departure in September was not related to the embezzlement charge.

Goddin said the missing money went undetected because it disappeared over a long period of time. Quail Ridge does about $3.4 million in sales a year, according to Nancy Olsen, who owns the 24-year-old store with her husband, Jim.

"We're shocked," Nancy Olsen said Sunday.
Well, duh. Pay attention, guys.

(Admittedly, I'm an accountant by training and experience but I refuse to believe that this woman could not have been stopped early on in her serial thieving. It's not that easy to pull off something like this - much easier to stop and detect than to accomplish, in fact.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top 15 Reads of 2008

I've taken a long look back at all the books I read this year and have come up with my 2008 Top 15, a list composed of five nonfiction titles and ten novels. 2008 has been an excellent reading year for me, one in which I've discovered lots of new authors and revisited some old favorites.

So starting with the five nonfiction titles, these are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2008:
Nonfiction Favorites

1. This Republic of Suffering - Drew Gilpin Faust - a detailed look at the psychological impact that the bloodbath known as the American Civil War had on Americans of the time and those of today

2. River of No Return - Jeffrey Buckner Ford - the surprisingly frank biography written by the oldest son of the man forever known as Tennessee Ernie Ford

3. In the Land of Invisible Women - Qanta Ahmed - a rare inside look at Saudi Arabian society and attitudes about the West written by a British female doctor with a foot in both worlds

4. Jimmie Rodgers - Nolan Porterfield - written in 1979 but probably still the definitive biography of Jimmie Rodgers, one of the most influential singers of all time

5. Sing Me Back Home - Dana Jennings - the history of country music from the very personal viewpoint of a man whose family lived the stuff of country music songs

Fiction Favorites

1. Resistance - Owen Sheers - an alternate history of World War II that sees a German invasion of Britain and what happens in an isolated section of Wales

2. Atonement - Ian McEwan - a terribly sad World War I misunderstanding recounted by a young English girl - with an ending that some love and some detest

3. Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen - a drama-filled account of circus life in a second rate circus during the Great Depression

4. Sweetsmoke - David Fuller - a remarkable slave, during the American Civil War, tries to identify the murderer of the freed black woman who secretly taught him to read and write

5. Wild Nights! - Joyce Carol Oates - wild stories about the last days of Poe, James, Hemingway, Twain and Dickenson - unforgettable images

6. The Wolfman - Nicholas Pekearo - a monster story in which this vigilante wolfman is actually the hero of the piece - by an author who was killed in the line of duty prior to the book's publication

7. Finding Nouf - Zoe Ferraris - an intriguing murder mystery set in Saudi Arabia and investigated by a male/female investigative team that functions well despite all the Saudi restrictions on women

8. Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay - a World War II story about the French roundup of Jews in Paris, a book whose first half is so good that its ending can be forgiven and forgotten

9. In Memory of Central Park: 1853-2022 - Queenelle Minet - a dark vision of what the world just might be like in 2050, a fantastic but believable look at New York City's future

10. A Grave in Gaza - Matt Beynon Rees - a terrific atmospheric mystery set in Gaza and featuring middle-aged good guy and detective Omar Yussef - one of a series

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Inside

What is it like for a man who expected to die in prison to suddenly find himself back on the outside after fourteen years served for a murder that DNA testing now proves was not his doing? Will he be able to control his rage, the same rage that he learned to depend on in prison for his very survival, so that he does not commit a crime of violence that returns him to lockup? Can he tolerate the leeches, including his wife, who are so eager to help him spend the false-imprisonment settlement he will soon collect from the Canadian government?

In his novel, Inside, Kenneth J. Harvey places himself in the mind of just such a character, Myrden (a man whose first name is never revealed), and does it so effectively that many of those questions are answered. Harvey, in fact, tells Myrden’s story largely through the man’s own thought processes, a technique that leaves the reader standing squarely in Myrden’s shoes, seeing life through his eyes, and feeling all of his emotions and frustrations. The book, in fact, is almost completely written in sentence fragments of less than five words and reading it is like listening to Myrden think out loud.

Myrden is the first to admit that he was not exactly an innocent man when he was sent to prison for murder. At times he is not completely sure, despite the new DNA evidence, that he did not commit the crime and wonders if the real mistake is that he is being released. But he is grateful for the large settlement he receives from the government and is eager to use it to better the lives of his daughter and his granddaughter, Caroline, the true love of his life.

Sadly, Myrden, a man who has learned the trick of depending only upon himself for survival, finds it near impossible to relate to a wife who seems only to care about the cash windfall headed their way, his old crowd, or the poverty that surrounds them all. Wanting nothing more than to be left alone, he is forced instead to deal with the newspaper reporters who hound him for a quote and old friends who see him as a local celebrity with cash to blow. His immersion into the hard world from which he had been snatched and imprisoned, a world in which he is surrounded by reckless people with little to lose, the only world he has ever known, is inevitable despite his best intentions.

Myrden is a man who wants nothing more than to make life a little easier for those he loves, his way of making up for past mistakes before it is too late. He has some small successes but, when others begin to interfere with his larger goals, he has to decide how far he is willing to go to put things right and whether or not he is prepared to suffer the consequences.

Inside explores a world that, thankfully, few of Harvey’s readers will have experienced firsthand. It is a brutal place filled with people who have lost all hope that things will ever be better for them and their families, a place dominated by addictions and those willing to do most anything to feed them, a world in which second chances do not often turn out well. This is not a pretty novel but it is well worth the effort.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, December 19, 2008

Want a Kindle for Christmas? Do you have $1500 to Spare?

Has Amazon managed to create a huge market for the Kindle by making sure that it is almost impossible to get one delivered in time for Christmas? Have they created the kind of feeding frenzy for the Kindle that we have only seen in the past for video game consoles, certain video games and the iPhone? Is Amazon this brilliant - or do the dumb get lucky sometimes?

The folks over at Bloomberg Muse are talking about ads asking up to $1500 for the Kindle, Version One:
“People who want to give it as a holiday gift have to pay a premium to get it in time,” said Bird, 27, a salesman for an Internet company in Redwood City, California. “If the existing one can be sold at a profit and I can buy the new version when it comes out in two or three months, then it’s worth the effort.”

Stoked by an Oprah Winfrey endorsement in October, the Kindle quickly sold out. With Christmas a week away, used Kindles are listed on EBay, Craigslist and Amazon.com’s second- hand product site for as much as $1,500.

The run on Kindles ambushed Amazon.com, which had expected to have enough supply for the rest of the year. As the retailer struggles to get more in stock, it’s asking buyers to join a three-month waiting list. While the shortage risks alienating shoppers and leaving some sales on the table, the Kindle’s buzz may pay off in 2009.

“It’s a great position to be in, given the uncertainty of the economy,” said Bryan Eshelman, managing director at Alix Partners LP, a retail consulting firm. “Could they have ended up with more inventory of this, and therefore, more sales in this time period? Sure. But in this economy, I don’t fault its strategy.”
I have to wonder how many potential Kindle sales are being lost to frustrated consumers who settle for the Sony eBook reader (or some other brand of reader), how many spur-of-the-moment sales are being lost forever as people get the time to reconsider their urge to own an electronic book reader at all, and how those paying a premium for the Kindle will feel when they find next year that the new and improved Kindle is available at its regular price.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Chemist

What is it about serial killers that ordinary people find so fascinating? Think about it. Stories about real life serial killers from prior centuries, like Jack the Ripper, still sell books and become the basis for hit movies. Fictional serial killers like Hannibal Lecter can transform reclusive authors into multi-millionaires during the course of just one or two hit books and movies. Maybe it’s that serial killers replace the monsters and assorted scary types we met in childhood (those of us, that is, who were children prior to today’s politically correct fairy tales and cartoons). Whatever the attraction, it is difficult to argue that the exploits of serial killers, be they real or fictional ones, don’t grab our attention.

Fans of serial killer fiction will be happy to find that Janson Mancheski’s new novel, The Chemist, includes a worthy addition to that list of killers (although there is doubt as to the ultimate fate of many of his victims) whose crimes fascinate as much as horrify us. Mancheski’s serial abductor is very good at what he does, so good, in fact, that there is nothing to make investigators think that the three young women who disappeared the previous spring have anything in common. They, along with their vehicles, have simply vanished. It is only when the headless body of one of the missing women is fished from Lake Michigan and Green Bay detectives learn that the body is filled with date rape drugs that they begin to understand what is happening in their community.

As a new spring begins, and another girl is reported missing, Detective Cale Van Waring faces a race against the clock. He has a hunch that the missing women have been taken, and maybe murdered, by one man but he has no clues, no witnesses, and very little hope that he and his team will be able to identify the kidnapper before he strikes again. What he does have going for him is a dedicated team willing to bend proper police procedure if that might save lives, a police captain willing to shield him from much of the criticism directed at the police for what seems to the public and local politicians as a complete lack of progress on the case, and a low-life willing to trade what little he suspects about the killer for a reduced prison sentence of his own.

Janson Mancheski, a practicing optometrist who was the team eye doctor for the Green Bay Packers for almost a decade, has used his scientific background to write a realistic police procedural that includes many of the best crime thriller elements. His pathological “mad scientist” creates a method of abduction unusual enough to baffle the investigators and leave his victims helpless, a method that readers will recognize as brilliant and terrifying in its inherent simplicity. As Mancheski so clearly demonstrates in The Chemist, though, good detective work often comes down to the process of elimination as one possibility after another is recognized, investigated, and eliminated from the list of possible solutions. The magic displayed in television crime series seldom, if ever, happens in the real world, making it all the more surprising when a spectacular, high profile offender is finally identified.

The Chemist is said to be “A Cale Van Waring Adventure, Book One” and I’m looking forward to the detective’s next Green Bay case because Mancheski has created a cast of characters and a world that I enjoyed visiting. I’m curious to see how the relationships change over time, as they do in the best series, and I hope that down the road Van Waring and his crew become old friends of mine.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Looking Back - Looking Forward

Can you believe that 2008 is almost over already? I suddenly realized today that we have exactly two weeks to go and that got me to thinking about how my reading might change in 2009, what I've read this year, what I've missed, and what I wish I had done differently.

It's looking like I'll read something in the neighborhood of 140 books this year, down a little bit from last year's almost 160, but 2007-2008, taken together, will mark the first time that I've ever even come close to reading 300 books in any two-year period in my life. Honestly, that's not a reading goal I've held out for myself and it hardly seems possible even now that I'm this close to achieving it (295 books read with 2 weeks yet to go, and six books already at various levels of completion).

But the best part is that, even after those thousands of pages, I'm just as enthusiastic and excited about starting my next book as I've ever been in my life. In fact, I started Dennis Lehane's 700-page blockbuster, The Given Day, last night and I had to force myself to put it down and get some much-needed sleep. I hope the book holds up to the early promise of its prologue, describing a wonderful incident in which the 24-year-old Babe Ruth stumbles upon a pickup baseball game in an empty field while waiting for the train on which he is riding to be repaired. He manages to join the game being played by two teams of black players and what happens is remarkable and telling. If this prologue has not been published as a standalone short story, it should be. It is that striking.

2008 has been another year during which I've either failed at, or avoided, the book challenges that seem to be so popular all over the book-blogging web. I tried the Russian Challenge and failed miserably at it, but I've had better luck with the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, having read six of the required thirteen books with a little over six months to go (and I'm about to finish the seventh one). If I make it all the way to thirteen Canadian books, this will be the first challenge I've ever completed. Finally.

I'm working on a "Best of 2008" list similar to my "Top 15" from last year. I'm getting close but it's starting to look like I'll end up with a Top 20 that includes thirteen or fourteen novels and six or seven non-fiction titles. I'll probably break the list into two sections, ranking each type of book separately rather than choosing only one favorite book for the year.

My reading started pretty slowly this year because I ended 2007 in a bad reading slump and just couldn't get going in January when the calendar changed to the new year. I ended up re-reading a couple of old favorites and that finally got me going in what has turned out to be a fun year. I've really enjoyed discovering the work of new authors, getting to know a few of them, and reading the new work of a few authors I've been reading for decades.

And now Dennis Lehane has me all pumped up and ready to jump right into 2009 despite all the doom and gloom out there about the economy, crooked politicians, people who want to blow me up, and a 401-k that has become a 201-k and will force me to work several years longer than I had hoped to work.

Oh, well. I can still afford books so this old world is still a great place to be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Business of Selling Books

Bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble are able to offer big discounts on bestsellers and sales specials because publishers generally give the booksellers a hefty discount off of cover price: typically about 48%. On top of that discount, the booksellers are also given the right to return the copies they are unable to sell.

But now a new HarperCollins imprint, wants to change the traditional agreement and Borders has agreed to the new terms. This could be tricky for the booksellers and it will be interesting to see if the new agreement is just the first of many new ones between publishers and the big chains.

According to Minyanville, the new deal works this way:
Borders Group will get a discount of 58% to 63% off the cover price on initial orders from the publisher, a new imprint of News Corp's (NWS) HarperCollins. Typically, the discount is about 48%.

Under the deal, Borders won't return unsold books to the publisher. This could be a gamble, because an estimated 30% to 40% of adult titles are eventually returned to the publisher.

The new agreement may mean remainder bins filled with steeply discounted books will be sittng next to bestsellers, or at least tucked away in the back of the store.
As someone being forced to keep a tighter than usual watch on my spending right now, I know that I'll be tempted to buy new books later than usual in hopes of picking up a bargain by waiting. This sounds like a good change for the publisher - and a huge amount of risk being placed entirely on the shoulders of the bookstores.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants is another of those novels that I somehow managed to miss reading when it was at its peak of popularity, this time by well over two years. But I’m here to tell you that, in the case of Water for Elephants, it is definitely better late than never.

Even in Depression-era America, Jacob Jankowski is doing pretty well for himself. He is a Cornell-trained veterinarian who only needs to sit for his final exams to make it official. He thinks he is in love but his lack of experience with the ladies means that he is more likely to be in lust than in love. For him, life is still pretty good.

But things change sometimes when one least expects it, and for Jacob change comes in the form of a tragic traffic accident that claims the lives of both his parents. As bad as that is, it gets even worse when he learns that he has also been left destitute because his parents mortgaged everything to pay his Cornell tuition, and Jacob finds that he cannot sit still even long enough to finish his exams. Wanting to get away from it all, he hops the first freight train that comes along, avoids getting thrown back onto the tracks, and soon enough finds himself a member of Benzini Brothers traveling circus.

Sara Gruen lets Jacob tell his own story by alternating the first person narrative of ninety-something-year-old Jacob, now living in a nursing home, with the voice of twenty-three-year-old Jacob as he experiences his summer with the Benzini Brothers. And what a story it is because the Benzini Brothers circus is not exactly The Ringling Brothers show and only circus owner, Uncle Al, tries to pretend that it is. Everything about the Benzini Brothers is second rate: the ragged animals in the zoo’s menagerie are badly treated and lucky to eat once a day, the roustabouts and other workers are not paid consistently, the freaks are usually fakes or not all that freakish in the first place, and the girly show performer has been known to take paying customers after show hours.

Jacob manages to catch on permanently with the show even with his incomplete veterinarian credentials and all goes relatively well until he falls in love with two ladies: Rosie, the elephant who joins the circus after he does, and Marlena, the beautiful young equestrian performer unfortunately married to the sadistic August, a man who beats both Marlena and Rosie.

Gruen paints an unforgettable picture of life in a small-time Depression-era circus, an environment filled with filth, underfed animals and humans, cruelty, alcohol abuse, varying degrees of crime, lust, and callousness. Jacob, appalled at what he sees and what he learns about August, Marlena and Uncle Al, fights to maintain his sense of decency in a world he never knew existed, but his love for a married woman and his guilt at not doing more to defend Rosie from the beatings she suffers at the hands of August has him doubting himself.

Surprisingly, as intriguing as the young Jacob’s story is, the nursing home predicament that the older Jacob finds himself in is an equally touching one. The audio version of Water for Elephants (10 CDs and 11 ½ hours long) is read by David LeDoux, as the young Jacob Jankowski and John Randolph Jones, who turns in an absolutely brilliant performance as Jacob, the old man. Frankly, both of the worlds created by Gruen are somewhat horrifying and both will linger in my memory for a long time.

Water for Elephants is, however, a tiny bit blemished by its unlikely ending even though it is the kind of fairy tale ending that I personally would have wished for Mr. Jankowski. Some things, though, are just too good to be true - or to ring true in a novel even as good as this one.

Rated at: 4.5

A Plea from Joshua Henkin



Matrimony author, Joshua Henkin, has an important reminder for booklovers everywhere. Please consider what Josh has to say and do what you can this holiday season.

Thanks.


Dear Friends,

As many of you know, the book industry is in serious trouble. It was in trouble when economic times were good, and now that times are bad, things have gotten really precarious. Book sales across the industry are down as much as 40 percent, publishing houses are laying off people and cutting imprints, one big publishing house announced that it was no longer reading new manuscripts, and a major chain bookstore is on the brink of bankruptcy. Many of these problems have been a long time coming (the decline of newspapers and especially of book review sections has been a big blow, as has the closing down of many independent bookstores), but in recent months the problem has become especially acute. I don't mean to sound alarmist, but these are alarming times. What's at stake is the future of books, and of reading culture. Although books will continue to be published (Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling will publish their next books), for everyone except a handful of bestselling authors, the future is far more uncertain. What's at stake is the wealth and diversity of book culture. Many classics (books we read in our English classes in high school and college, books our children read or will read), simply wouldn't be published by today's standards and, if they were published and didn't sell well immediately, they would be removed from the bookstore shelves. This is why it's so important that you buy books for the holidays. There's a website dedicated to this enterprise, http://www.buybooksfortheholidays.com, which you might want to check out, and publishing houses are running ad campaigns focused on holiday book-giving. You really can make a difference. A typical paperback novel costs less than fifteen dollars, far cheaper than a necklace or a sweater or dinner at a nice restaurant.

Thanks for reading this, and have a happy and healthy holiday.


Best, Josh
http://www.joshuahenkin.com

Sunday, December 14, 2008

How Did It Get This Bad?



We've all heard anecdotal evidence about the sorry state of the book industry these days - especially, I think, when it comes to the sale of literary fiction. But it doesn't get more disgusting than this Plain Dealer quote (Karen Long) of a recent Barnes and Noble sales pitch:




This week, my e-mail burbled up an alarming assertion from Barnes & Noble: "In 2007, one of every fifteen hardcover novels sold was a James Patterson title, and in total, Patterson's books have sold an estimated 150 million copies worldwide."

Ye gods. In "Cross Country," the latest chest-thumper from the Patterson print factory, it takes until the third paragraph for protagonist Alex Cross to ask, "Was I getting too soft for this? I wondered for an instant, then let it go. I wasn't soft, if anything I was still too hard, too unyielding, too uncompromising."
Friends, we can do better.
We certainly can.

I find it impossible to believe that a man who places his name on books he farms out to other authors for the actual grunt work of writing them can keep outselling real authors. Admittedly, I've never been a fan of the Patterson style even when he was writing his own books. They always seemed more like screenplays than novels with those dozens of little two-or-three-page chapters. I find it impossible to enjoy novels with over 100 chapters...I'm just saying.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Recovering Charles

Recovering Charles, Jason Wright’s fourth novel, is about second chances, those who need those chances, and those asked to provide them. It is a reminder that the second verse of a person’s life does not have to be a repeat of the first and that the second verses of our lives, in fact, might just turn out to be the ones for which we will be remembered.

Luke Millward, a young New York photographer, has seemingly overcome his mother’s suicide and his father’s inability to recover from her loss. He is doing well in a career of which he is proud and he has a girlfriend who loves and admires him. Over the years, though, he received numerous phone calls from his alcoholic father asking for loans and, despite knowing that he would never see the money again, Luke always sent what he could, no strings attached – until the last time.

That last conversation, during which Luke told Charles, his father, that he was fed up with their relationship and never wanted to hear from him again, is the one that will come to haunt him because Charles took him at his word and has not called in over two years.

And then it happens – a stranger’s phone call changes Luke’s life forever.

As a photographer, Luke is intrigued by the television coverage of Hurricane Katrina, drawn to the images coming out of New Orleans, in particular, finding that he cannot shut down his “photographer’s inner lens.” But the last thing Luke expects is to receive a stranger’s phone call asking him to come to the city to help in the search for his father who has not been seen since the day before the storm. Reluctantly, so reluctantly that it seems to take him forever to actually reach New Orleans, Luke agrees to help find Charles, be he dead or alive.

What he finds in New Orleans is not what he expects. Nothing, of course, could have prepared him for the devastation and chaos that is post-Katrina New Orleans. The utter destruction, the smells, the dead bodies still waiting to be carried away, and the militarization of the city are almost overwhelming to him. But he finds something else: a little community of self-sustaining friends, including his father’s fiancĂ©, into which he is welcomed with open arms, a group of people that loves his father dearly, something that Luke, who remembers his father primarily as the out-of-control alcoholic he last spoke to, can hardly believe.

Luke hardly recognizes the Charles described to him by his new friends: a man well on his way to making a success of his life’s second verse, a man loved and respected by everyone who knows him and is missed by all of them. As his new friends help him search for his father, Luke gradually comes to see Charles through their eyes and begins to hope that he will be given a chance to put things right with his father.

Recovering Charles is a reminder to families everywhere that lives do have second verses and that the things said in anger, and those words left unsaid in the aftermath of anger, do not necessarily have to lead to a lifetime of regrets. People can, and do, change, and oftentimes life’s second verse is the sweeter of the two. This is another inspirational Christmas season offering from Jason Wright, one with the potential to change lives for the better.

Rated at: 4.0

Review first posted on Curled Up with a Good Book



Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

New York Times correspondent Sarah Lyall fell in love with an Englishman in the early 1990s and has been living and working in London ever since. But despite her decade and-a-half there, she still finds herself fascinated by the remarkable differences, minor and major, that exist between the U.S. and the U.K. despite the language and history shared by the two countries.

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British is Lyall’s generally lighthearted report of what it is like for an American, Anglophile or not, to live and work in the U.K. As someone who did exactly that for a number of years, I can honestly say that most of the oddities and quirks of life in Britain Lyall notes in her book are ones that early on caught my own attention.
Some of what Lyall has to say is offered in the way of legitimate criticism and some of it simply explores the differences between U.S. and British points-of-view and ways of everyday life. But, for the most part, what the book has to say is cloaked in the type of good natured humor that makes it all go down pretty easily. Along the way, the book’s fourteen chapters explore subjects such as the British attitude toward sex, class, Parliament’s structure and its members, the game of cricket, British understatement, British eccentrics and the eagerness of Brits to practically freeze to death on the country’s public beaches.

By far the most serious subject approached by Lyall is the British near-obsession with alcohol and binge drinking, a tendency the extent of which surprised and shocked me during my own years in the U.K. As Lyall puts it, “For the British, alcohol is a relaxant, an emollient, a crutch, a relief, an excuse.” At the same time that per capita drinking in most of Europe is on the decrease, the opposite is true in the U.K. where people are drinking more, starting at a younger age, than in the past. Excessive drinking at sporting events, football and rugby, in particular, is so out of control that the notion of the British “soccer lout” has become almost stereotypical. But most ominous, is the way that town centers across the country, so many nights a week, become danger zones best avoided by the sober in late evening. While the Brits tend to forgive this kind of behavior and treat it with a degree of humor, Lyall herself wisely makes her case without treating the problem as a joke.

The Anglo Files is a witty look at the differences, perceived and real, between America and Britain. As such, it offers useful insights into those differences and will help prepare first-time visitors to the U.K. for what they will encounter upon leaving Heathrow or Gatwick to immerse themselves in Britain, be it for two weeks or for two decades. Those looking for a serious analysis of what makes the U.K. so special to Americans will probably be somewhat disappointed. Those looking to understand why they still feel like such outsiders after having spent years living in Britain will, on the other hand, enjoy her humorous approach and will see themselves in her experiences.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Google Book Search Unveils Old Magazines

I only have a few minutes tonight but I want to share the news that Google Book Search now includes old issues of what seems to be about ten different magazines. Unfortunately, Google intends that access to the magazines only turns up when a Google search is being performed on a subject mentioned in one of the featured magazines. There's not really an easy way to find out how many magazines are in the data base at this point, but Search Engine Land has kind of a road map for those wanting to read complete back issues rather than just an article or two.

The procedure described really works well and led me quickly to this page from which I can read whole issues of New York Magazine from certain years between 1965 and 1995.

Now I'm warning you that this can turn into another time-eater, so be careful, be very careful.

Monday, December 08, 2008

English professor Elizabeth Samet arrived at West Point with a perspective much different than that of her students. At West Point, she is a minority in more ways than one: civilian, female and, one has to suspect, politically much more liberal than the vast majority of her students.

Samet, with a Harvard BA, a PhD in English literature from Yale, and no military experience, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to be a West Point instructor. But for the past ten years that is exactly what she has been - teaching the “literature of war” to students likely to experience the real thing for themselves soon after leaving the academy. In the process, Samet offers her students the opportunity to consider the moral and ethical nuances of the profession for which they are so rigorously preparing themselves. Theirs is a world of contradictions, and Samet strives to show them how a study of the great literature of the past can help them function effectively in that world.

In Soldier’s Heart, Samet sets out to prove that the way that the military regards itself is largely a reflection of the way it has been represented in literature. But as she sees it, despite the fact that the military embraces that image, its leadership still largely distrusts literature and those who enjoy it as a pastime, fearing that they are not as masculine as warriors need to be for the good of themselves and their country. Needless to say, Samet does not agree and finds, to the contrary, that her students learn much about themselves through an “unflinching look at both the romance and the reality” of the profession they have chosen. She helps make her point by quoting C.S. Lewis: “We read to know we are not alone.”

Samet knows how important books are to soldiers trapped in what must seem to be a never-ending war. Her own father still remembers many of the USO-distributed titles he read during the Second World War and she notes that those paperbacks reminded soldiers that “books are weapons” to be read and passed on to others. As she sees it, books can be weapons in a variety of ways: “against boredom and loneliness, obviously; against fear and sorrow; but also against the more elusive evils of certitude and dogmatism.”

She recalls that one of her former students, while serving in Iraq, read at a much faster rate than when he returned to the United States. He found that while in Iraq anything that challenged or stimulated his mind made time go by much quicker than it would otherwise have for him. But back home, far from the conflicts of war, he found that his reading had lost its sense of urgency. He still enjoyed reading at his slower pace, and he still loved books, but “he was no longer reading for his life.”

Soldier’s Heart makes a strong case that soldiers who study “the literature of war” are better prepared for combat than those who do not, that they go into the stresses of combat with a more refined sense of themselves and the morality of warfare, an important skill and a strength that will serve our young officers, and those they lead, well.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Brains and Brawn Make a Champion

Gene Tunney, heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1926 to 1928, is probably best remembered by sports fans for his storied bouts against Jack Dempsey, especially the second one (the famous "long count" match). Tunney was not typical of most of his boxing competition, much preferring to turn his fights into chess matches rather than slugfests, so it should probably be no surprise that he was a great fan of Shakespeare's plays and counted Ernest Hemmingway and George Bernard Shaw among his personal friends.

According to USA Today, some of Tunney's book collection along with some boxing memorabilia will be auctioned by Sotheby's this week:
Tunney's unusual life of boxing and books will be on display on Thursday in an auction of his memorabilia by Sotheby's in New York. Items on the block include the gloves Tunney wore and the stool he sat on when he defeated Dempsey in the 1920s, a collection of Shakespeare's plays from the 17th century, and books inscribed by Hemingway.

"It wasn't a persona or an act that he did to get attention," said Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president at Sotheby's. "This was really who he was. He was just as comfortable if not more comfortable in a library than in the boxing ring."
...
As boxing champ, Tunney lectured once at Yale about Shakespeare for nearly an hour without notes. He related characters in Shakespeare's plays to those in his own life, comparing the blustery soldier Ajax in "Troilus and Cressida" to a loud contemporary boxer, said his son, Jay Tunney, who is writing a book about his father.

"He brought Shakespeare into his own life and showed people in the audience how Shakespeare influenced him," Jay Tunney said. "That's what made his lecture stand out."

Tunney owned the first complete collection of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1685. It is expected to sell for $80,000 to $120,000.

Hemingway gave Tunney three books, including "A Farewell to Arms." Tunney turns up in a later Hemingway book, "Island in the Stream," when the characters drink to him at a Havana bar.
Gene Tunney was a champion in more ways than one.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thanks to Oprah?

At a time when so many retailers are struggling to even match last years sales numbers, much less manage to increase them, Amazon seems to have made a costly underestimation of how many Kindle units it needed for the Christmas season. Maybe it's thanks to the exposure that Oprah gave them, but this is the message potential buyers have been seeing on Amazon's Kindle page for at least the last couple of weeks.
Availability
Due to heavy customer demand, Kindle is sold out. Please ORDER KINDLE NOW to reserve your place in line. We prioritize orders on a first come, first served basis. This item will arrive after December 24.
TechNewsWorld, in an article entitled "Amazon Burns Through Meager Kindle Supply," has some harsh (and well deserved) criticism for Amazon management:
The book-loving media titan Oprah Winfrey, who has the power to send book publishers scrambling to reprint millions of copies of whatever book she happens to mention liking, gave Amazon.com's Kindle the thumbs up in late October. Still, after a year of solid sales, how did Amazon.com get caught with its pants down?

It's a question Amazon.com isn't going to answer directly. In fact, it's hard to get any solid Kindle numbers out of Amazon.com at all.

"We've been very pleased with sales of Kindle since its introduction. Oprah's recent announcement to her audience that Kindle is her 'new favorite thing' generated a significant increase in demand," Cinthia Portugal, a spokesperson for Amazon.com, told TechNewsWorld.

"As a result, we do not have inventory in stock available for immediate shipment. Customers interested in buying Kindles should still order immediately to reserve their place in line, as we will continue to ship to customers on a first-come, first-served basis," she added.

When pressed for details surrounding volume -- even just comparisons to last year's supply -- Amazon.com dodges the question.
The article mentions several alternatives to the Kindle, including the Sony Reader, Photoco's miBook, and Apple's iPhone. Interestingly, the miBook is the only one of the three gadgets made exclusively for reading text to offer a color screen and it is the cheapest of them all.

As an Amazon stockholder, I'm happy to see the Kindle selling so well. As an Amazon stockholder, I'm very unhappy to see that management has so badly misjudged the demand of a product that has the potential of making a huge difference on the company's bottom line.

Come on, Jeff.

Friday, December 05, 2008

To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming

When he began taking photographs of Native Americans in the Western United States in 1904, Edward Curtis could not have imagined that he was beginning the project that would last him for the rest of his working life. Curtis became so obsessed with making a complete pictorial record of Native American tribes that he found himself choosing the project over his family any time that the two came into conflict. Ultimately, he would lose his wife, his photography business, and most of his other assets because he allowed his photographs and the books he published to become the most important things in his life – everything else was secondary.

In To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming, Alan Cheuse uses longtime Curtis assistant William Myers and American Indian Jimmy Fly-wing to tell Edward Curtis’s story. Myers served as translator and transcriber for Curtis, making it possible for the pair to record the ancient Indian legends, stories, songs and history that turned Curtis’s project into so much more than just a collection of magnificent photographs. Fly-wing, a Plains Indian who out of curiosity climbed into the first train he ever saw and rode it all the way to Chicago, was an assistant of a different type, riding ahead of the party in order to locate Indian villages and build goodwill among the Indians about Curtis and his camera.

Curtis’s passion to visually record a society rapidly moving toward extinction was not well-rewarded during his lifetime despite the fact that much of his early work was financed by J.P. Morgan or that Teddy Roosevelt provided the forward for his series of books. After Morgan’s death, whenever Curtis was not actually in the field, he fought to keep the project alive by raising whatever money he could in the big cities of the East, further limiting the time he could spend at home and greatly adding to his wife Clara’s burden of raising their family and keeping their local photo studio in business entirely on her own.

To Catch the Lightning has a dramatic story to tell but it tells that story unevenly. At times the narrative races along with an excitement and tension perfect for the life led by this American dreamer. At other times, particularly during the long dream sequences of Jimmy Fly-wing and Curtis himself, the pace becomes sluggish and somewhat confusing, causing the book to sputter a bit before it regains its rhythm. Despite its uneven pacing, however, To Catch the Lightning offers worthy insights and explanations to help explain a man so willing to forsake his wife and children for a dream, a dream that consumed his entire lifetime, and one for which he will long be remembered.

Whether or not Curtis made the right choice for himself is certainly debatable. What is not debatable is that American history is richer and better documented because of the path he chose to follow.

Rated at: 3.5

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian is one young librarian’s description of his early days as a librarian in the California public library system. Scott Douglas was initially attracted to library work because of his love for books and literature, but that just set him up to have his illusions shattered by a system staffed with more non-readers than readers and a surprisingly high percentage of staff people oblivious to literary history. At least that’s the way that Douglas portrays the two libraries in which he has worked. Readers will have to judge for themselves just how much he exaggerates the deficiencies of his fellow staff members (pictured largely as incompetent societal misfits) in order to create a few laughs at their expense.

In his early days as a library employee, Douglas is shocked to find that even a green, part-time library employee like him is more knowledgeable of the world of writers and books than the longtime employees he meets. The professional librarians and permanent staff display a shocking lack of knowledge, a deficiency, though, that does not seem to concern any of them so much that they care to correct it.

As mediocre as Douglas makes the library staff sound, they do shine in comparison to the library patrons he describes. He delights in describing the crazies, the homeless, the teens with raging hormones, the patrons who use the library computers only to visit pornographic sites, the parents who dump their children at the library, the latchkey kids who have no other place to be in the afternoons, and the occasional death threat he receives. All for the sake of humor, of course, and all most likely exaggerated to a degree that voids much of the truth in what he describes.

I spotted this book in the library (a perfect spot to find a book about working in a library, right?) and started reading it as soon as I got it home. I was expecting to gain some insight into what that work environment is like – and maybe I did gain a little. My problem, though, is that the author’s style is seldom serious or believable enough to make me feel that what I’m hearing from him should do anymore than go in one ear and out the other.

Scott Douglas emphasizes laughs over truths, as can readily be seen in the dozens and dozens of meaningless little footnotes that he spreads throughout the book. Seldom does a page go by without forcing the reader to glance down two, three, or four times to read the references. And seldom is the glance worth the effort because most of the footnotes are little one-or-two-line throwaways that should have been inserted into the body of the book if used at all. On top of the half-page “asides” on largely unrelated topics that are added every half dozen pages or so, these footnotes (all in tiny print) very early on strike the reader as being both unnecessary and irritating.

I visit my local library on a weekly basis, something I’ve done for several decades now, and I generally enjoy the visits and come away satisfied. But if I had never experienced a library for myself, Quiet, Please would encourage me to leave well enough alone.

Rated at: 2.5