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Saturday, January 31, 2009

One Year Reprieve for Libraries

Nothing like waiting until the last minute, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission has finally blinked on the requirement that all children's books be removed from library shelves until it could be determined that they were not toxic. Now it's up to the libraries to convince those who must be obeyed that printing ink should be exempted from such testing.


(Near miss allows library escape for now)

From a Houston Chronicle article:
The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Friday that it will postpone lead testing requirements that would have put libraries at risk of liability lawsuits for loaning children’s books.

Congress tightened limits on lead levels in children’s toys as part of the Consumer Project Safety Improvement Act, following a lead paint scare from imported children’s toys. The new requirements were set to take effect Feb. 10 and carried the weight of civil or criminal penalties for distributors of children’s products, including books.

This decision, once entered in the Federal Register, will give public libraries one year to decide how to bring their collections of children’s books into compliance.

While pleased, advocates of libraries would like to see more than a postponement of the requirement.
Surely, a reasonable compromise can be reached sometime during the next year...even with the Federal Government in the picture.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Reader Born in a Library

Some of you read so many books that you've probably jokingly been asked if you were born in a library. Well, two-day-old Sariah Trevino will be able to say that she really was born in a library, the Denver Central Library.

Her mother didn't quite make it to the hospital but was lucky enough to be helped inside the library by some alert employees and delivered her daughter there without any complications. In fact, it sounds like everything went very smoothly.

Sariah and her mother
Photo: (THE DENVER POST | JOHN PRIETO)


Trevino was on her way to the hospital Tuesday, riding the "0" bus, when she started having contractions.

A woman on the bus, who works at the hospital, noticed what was going on, Trevino recalled. She told the expectant mother to get off the bus at the library and used her cellphone to call for an ambulance.

"I tried to get to Denver Health," Trevino said sheepishly. "I didn't make it."

Trevino said as she walked from the bus toward the library, she knew the baby was coming in a hurry.

"As soon as I started walking, I felt pressure," she said.

Once inside the library, Trevino lay down on the floor and people inside, including library security, began to help. Trevino only had to push twice to deliver her baby girl.
Wouldn't it be fun to tell your reading friends that you were born in a library?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Weight of a Mustard Seed

Wendell Steavenson admits right up front that Saddam Hussein would have been unable to sustain his brutal dictatorship of Iraq without the help of those willing to carry out the horrible atrocities he directed. Be it war against neighboring countries, massacre of fellow Iraqis or torture prisons filled with those seen by Saddam to be a threat to his regime, he could not have managed it alone. Steavenson is not a naïve woman; she fully understands that her many interviews with former Iraqi Army officers have to be filtered through the eyes of a skeptic because those with whom she spoke were more interested in spinning a story that would justify what they personally did during the Saddam years than they were in telling the truth.

Despite her skepticism, Steavenson decided that the men deserved to be heard and the result is The Weight of a Mustard Seed: An Iraqi General’s Moral Journey during the Time of Saddam. Not surprisingly, along with claiming to have never felt fear in battle, each of those interviewed claims to have always tried to limit the brutality of Saddam’s orders as best he could despite the danger to the lives of himself and his family for having done so. Iraqi military men, much as the Germans did after Hitler, have orally rewritten their history to the point that Saddam was the only bad person there and everyone else was, to varying degrees, one of his victims. Of course, that is a lie – and Steavenson does not pretend otherwise.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed focuses on General Kamel Sachet, a man eventually executed upon the orders of Saddam despite the fact that he was a Saddam favorite for most of his military career. Steavenson came to believe from all the interviews she conducted with Sachet’s fellow officers that he might have indeed had cleaner (though not clean) hands than most. However, she reminds the reader that she reached this conclusion by speaking with Iraqis, all the time fully aware that the art of duplicity is part of being an Iraqi, and that survival under the Saddam reign of terror required Iraqis to develop multiple personalities from which they could choose to fit the occasion.

What emerges from The Weight of a Mustard Seed is an inside look at the men who made it possible for Saddam to brutalize Iraq for so many years. Despite their attempts to hide the truth, and to make themselves look better than they were, the interviews reveal interesting detail about the military, the prisons, the purges and the tribal rivalries that made it all so easy for Saddam to surround himself with men as brutal as him. It is necessary to read between the lines and to compare the stories of different speakers, but one does come away with a sense of how Saddam was able to make Iraq into his personal playground for so many years.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike Dead at 76

Comes word today that we've lost another of the great ones. This time it's John Updike - who passed away sometime this morning from the lung cancer he's been fighting.

I will always remember him best for his Rabbit books, the series of books published over a thirty-year period that chronicled the ups and downs of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former high school basketball player just trying to make his way in the world. Most recently, Updike had seen some success with his follow-up to 1984's The Witches of Eastwick, The Widows of Eastwick, his 23rd, and I would think, his last published novel.

Updike, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, was a masterful writer, one of the finest ever produced by this country. It will be strange not to see a new John Updike novel in 2009 because he seldom let a year go by without something new to offer his fans. Rest in peace, Mr. Updike. We'll miss you.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lush Life

Lush Life is my first audio book of 2009 and I doubt that I will find a better combination of author and reader the rest of the year. Richard Price is a master of dialogue regardless of the class or color of his characters and Bobby Cannavale, the television and movie actor giving life to the characters here, handles them all with ease.

Rather surprisingly, despite the length and heft of Lush Life, its plot centers around a simple armed robbery that goes bad because of two of the people involved, one of them a victim, and the other, one of the robbers. Two people, each totally unprepared for what is happening to them at that moment, are suddenly eyeball-to-eyeball and, to the surprise of both of them, one is shot dead.

Ike Marcus, a young white guy out on the town with two friends, refuses to accept the fact that two black teens expect him to hand over his valuables despite the pistol one of them is aiming at him. After he mutters what would be his last words, “Not tonight, my man,” he is struck by a single bullet and falls to the ground mortally wounded. On the other side of that pistol stands Tristan Acevedo, a young man holding a gun for the first time in his life and who is stunned to realize that he has reflexively pulled its trigger after Ike Marcus foolishly stepped toward him.

Lush Life is not a whodunit. There is never any doubt as to the murderer’s identity or motive. Instead, Price takes a frank look at everyone involved in, or affected by, the crime: the three robbery victims, the two robbers, family and friends of all of them, the police charged with figuring it all out, and the people who live in the neighborhood where it all happens.

The book is largely conversational, perfect for an audio presentation, and the way that Price allows his characters to express themselves makes them seem very real. We get into the heads of those black kids living on the project streets, kids so caught up in the drug culture that they are oblivious to any other possibilities. We suffer along with Ike’s father, an articulate man driven by confusion and despair to hang out near the crime scene in hopes that he will overhear someone bragging about the murder. We admire Matty Clark, a good detective and a decent man, who takes a personal interest in Ike’s family and risks his own career by fighting to keep the investigation as active as possible. We sympathize with Eric Cash, another of the robbery victims, who has his life almost destroyed by what happens to him after the crime. We sneer at the way the robbery’s third victim uses his fifteen minutes of fame to advance his show business career.

Even more amazingly, we come to know dozens of people around the core of main characters, each of them adding bits of color and detail to the world so clearly illustrated in Lush Life. I seldom suggest that readers opt for the audio version of a book over its written one, but I am doing it this time.

Lush Life is a very good book, one you have to hear to really appreciate at its most powerful.

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book Giveaway Winner!

First, thanks for the 20 giveaway entries - nice to see that kind of interest in the book. After assigning an entry number to each separate name, I used a random number generator to match up with the winning number...and the winner is: Jen, of Jen's Book Thoughts.

But don't despair because Jen has agreed to my alternate plan of reading the book and reviewing it on her own site before passing it on to the next reader. We're now hoping to have this book read until it falls apart, with each reader signing the book by name and blogsite (if they have one) and adding the date they finished it. Perhaps each reader can scan the page of the book used for signatures and post that along with their review so that we can all track its progress.

How better to stick it to those who deem themselves worthy of deciding what the rest of us should be allowed to read?

So, Jen, email me with the mailing instructions and I'll send The Jewel of Medina on the first leg of what I hope turns into a long, long journey.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Are Children's Books Health Hazzards?

We've all heard about the dangerous toys imported into this country from China - along with the Chinese-manufactured pet food that seems to have killed more than a few U.S. pets a few weeks ago.

Now parents have to worry that the storybooks they hope will inspire their children to become lifetime readers may be as toxic as those Chinese toys. Libraries and bookstores across the country seem to be faced with the possibility that they will have to clear their shelves of books aimed at readers under 12-years old until those books can be checked for toxic lead paints and plastic.

According to the Mercury News:
That little-known consequence of a law passed to protect kids from tainted toys has librarians and publishers lobbying furiously for an exemption before it takes effect Feb. 10. Without a reprieve, San Jose library officials say they could be forced to close their children's sections and send off all 700,000 volumes in them for safety testing.
...
Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in August to protect kids from exposure to lead and plastic. The law followed the discovery of lead paint in imported toy trains and mounting health concerns about baby bottles and toys containing phthalates, used to make some plastics more flexible.

Lawyers for the Consumer Product Safety Commission told publishers in a recent opinion that the law covers children's books as well as toys and applies retroactively to include library collections. All books aimed at kids under 12, the commission said, need to be tested to ensure they don't exceed the new lead and phthalate limits.

Although publishers presented the commission with evidence they say proves books don't pose any of the health risks to children that the law intended to address, the agency has yet to be convinced.
Applying this law retroactively to libraries and bookstores seems to me to be an impossible burden despite the fact that so many little ones keep their books in their mouths as much as they keep them in their hands. This is a tricky question but the word "overkill" does come to mind pretty quickly.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Books: A Memoir

Counting the two books that Larry McMurtry coauthored with Diana Ossana, Books: A Memoir is his forty-first book. I have read all but a handful of them (and will get around to those eventually) and was a regular at Booked Up, McMurtry’s antiquarian bookstore during the relatively short period it had a Houston address. I only ran into McMurtry once in all my visits to Booked Up and, on that occasion, he was involved in what seemed to me to be a detailed business discussion with the store’s manager so I decided not to bother him. I have long regretted that missed opportunity to talk books with a bookman of McMurtry’s experience, so I see Books: A Memoir as the next best thing to a sit-down with him. In fact, Books is written in such a rambling conversational, style that I imagine it to be closely akin to what speaking to him would actually be like.

The 109 chapters of Books cover McMurtry’s love of books from his boyhood to the present day, each chapter being a little snippet of information regarding how he became the bookman he is today. It is almost a stream-of-consciousness format, with some names and references occurring in more than one chapter and some turns of phrase being used so many times that they become McMurtry catch phrases. Some would suggest that McMurtry needed a better editor for the book; I say that it is exactly that kind of thing that makes the book seem so much like an actual conversation with the man.

The biggest surprise to me is that McMurtry seems prouder of, and happier with, his success at creating several great antiquarian bookstores and a huge personal book collection than he is of all of the success and awards coming from the books he himself has written. That tells more about him than anything else in his story – he is primarily a book lover. That he is able to make his living by writing books is, for him, the wonderful bonus that allows him to indulge his first love, acquiring fine books written by others.

Larry McMurtry has strong opinions when it comes to books, bookstores and readers and he shares many of them in this memoir. Here are a few samples of what he had to say:
“But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself; savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.”

“I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support – reading – is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one.”

“For the twenty years or so in which I reviewed for newspapers regularly, I mainly reviewed fiction, with now and then a biography or two mixed in. If one adds them up, I suspect I reviewed several hundred novels – or at least I reported on them – and the result was that I burned out as a reader of fiction.”

“No one claimed book collecting was rational.”

“Many bookmen, and some of the best among them, rarely, if ever, read. They acquire and they estimate and they sell; they collate, measure, hype. They read catalogues, they look in bibliographies, they submit quotes. But they don’t have time to read.”

“I don’t like the audiobooks but at least they preserve the human longing for narrative, and for a certain linkage between the author and the reader. A story gets told, and loyalties to authors might also be developed.”

“This is not likely to be a popular view, but the cruel fact is that many writers go on writing after it would have been better for them to stop. Of course, it’s not human nature to stop when you’re winning - or even when you think you’re winning, which is more often the case.”

When I’m writing I often spin out my daily pages as rapidly as possible, in order to get back to whatever I am reading.”
I’m happy that I finally managed to have that conversation with Mr. McMurtry, one-sided as it had to be.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Harbor

Lorraine Adams won a Pulitzer prize as an investigative journalist for the Washington Post some seven years before she stumbled upon the newspaper story that would eventually inspire her 2004 debut novel. That novel, Harbor, would also prove to be a prize winner by being named “Book of the Year” by both the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly and being awarded with the Los Angeles Times 2004 book prize for first fiction.

Although most of its action takes place in Boston, Harbor is really a story about the breakdown of society in modern Algeria, a country that for too many years suffered the slaughter of its population at the hands of several Muslim extremists groups, the army charged with protecting the population, and the corrupt government that, at times, seemed to welcome the carnage. It is said that over 100,000 people died in those few years, most of them butchered, and many thousands of them decapitated for the purpose of terrorizing those who might fight back.

Aziz Arkoun, and hundreds more like him who could not find work that would allow them to marry and move from the home of their parents, would make their way illegally to the United States, willing to risk their lives and leave everything they knew behind in hope of a better life. After 52 days as a stowaway on a tanker, Aziz finds himself in a near frozen Boston harbor, jumps overboard, and barely survives his swim to shore. He speaks not a word of English, has no money, and no plan other than to contact another Algerian, the one person that might help him.

In what seems to him a miracle, Aziz overhears two people on the street speaking Arabic and, after throwing himself at their mercy, he is taken into the home of one of the men until he is well enough to contact his “cousin” who lives just a few miles away. Aziz finds himself living in a cramped apartment with other Algerian illegals, a little support group to which he would remain attached for several years while he and the others struggled to learn English and find work, no matter what it might pay.

Unfortunately for Aziz and his friends, his “cousin” is not one to work for anything as low as minimum wage and he makes his own living by smuggling everything from drugs, to designer clothes, to what the FBI believes might be explosive chemicals. The FBI, in its effort to prove that the Algerians are a threat to the country (a full year prior to 9-11), links bits and pieces of evidence together into what becomes a wider and wider net that threatens to haul in the innocent along with anyone that might be guilty.

Adams does not avoid the horrific truth of what was happening in Algeria in the early nineties and, in fact, describes one murder in such brutal detail that readers will be shocked, if not offended, by what they read. However, that incident forms the very core of Harbor, and without it, the book would not be nearly so strong or its message so true. As one who was evacuated from Algiers just as everything there was falling apart, I strongly commend Lorraine Adams for telling Algeria’s story in such frank and believable terms despite the fact that I had dreams of that particular killing for two nights running. Let no one doubt that, in Harbor, Adams has captured the utter brutality of what Algeria suffered at the hands of its own.

Rated at: 4.5

Book Giveaway Question

I've been thinking about the giveaway of my copy of The Jewel of Medina and I've come up with another proposal concerning the book. See what you think.

Most of you are well aware of the controversy involving the book - all the way from some University of Texas instructor who, with the help of a few radical Muslim friends of hers, convinced Random House to refuse the book's publication, to the firebombing of its London publisher's offices.

I am willing to bet that all of you detest censorship and book banning, so here's what we could do. What if I pick a winner on Sunday just as planned - but with one added twist: that winner would read the book and (hopefully) review it before passing it on the the next person in line. Each of us who have read the book would sign and date it before passing it on. In other words, we could start our own mini-protest against book censorship and have some fun at the same time.

We could make sure that the book is read by many more people than otherwise would have read it before the misguided efforts to keep it out of our hands. We can help show the futility of book banning.

That's the basic proposal but suggestions would be appreciated. I would love to see this copy of the book read and signed by a few dozen folks before we do something with it, maybe like sending it to the author or...

So what do y'all think?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Given Day

Dennis Lehane, already well known for his detective series, thrillers and the movies made from his books, this time around tries his hand at historical fiction. The result of his efforts, The Given Day, is so good that it will have his readers wishing he had tried it years earlier.

Set in World War I era Boston, The Given Day describes one of America’s great cities at a pivotal point in its history. Social unrest and demand for change are making the rich and powerful very uneasy and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to remain atop the heap, no matter the cost to those struggling for their very survival. Labor unions are so much on the move that even the Boston Police vote to unionize and the N.A.A.C.P. is making strides in the city at the same time that anarchists are threatening to blow it up. In the midst of what is already a chaotic situation, Boston is hit hard by the Spanish flu epidemic and must depend on a police force threatening to walk off the job.

The Given Day features three sets of characters whose paths cross, sometimes in significant ways and sometimes only briefly, over a number of years: the Coughlin family, an Irish family headed by a prominent police captain; Luther Laurence, a black man hiding in Boston because of a murder charge in Oklahoma; and Babe Ruth, the great Red Sox pitcher and slugger.

Thomas Coughlin, a police captain who came to Boston from Ireland as a young man, is proud of his sons, especially Danny, the one that followed him into the department. But things go bad when Danny finds that he has more in common with the people he has been asked to spy upon than with those to whom he reports what he learns. Danny reluctantly becomes a leader in the effort to unionize the Boston Police Department and one of the key players in the decision to have the police turn in their badges in protest of their poverty level wages and horrible working conditions.

Luther Laurence is forced to kill a black Oklahoma mobster in self-defense but allows another one, already critically wounded, to live. Luther knows, though, that the man he spared will never return the favor and he immediately leaves the state, abandoning his wife and unborn child in the process. Working as a houseman and driver for the Coughlin family, Luther feels safe until he attracts the curiosity of another police captain determined to learn his story.

Babe Ruth makes several appearances in The Given Day but it is in the book’s prologue that Lehane renders him most memorable. That section of the book, some twenty-seven pages long, in which Ruth and some other professional baseball players unexpectedly find themselves challenging a group of black amateur ballplayers to a game in the middle of nowhere, should be published as a short story on its own. It exposes the racism of the day and introduces both the Babe and Luther, all of it centered around one of the best descriptions of a baseball game I have ever read.

The Given Day, weighing in at just over 700 pages, is thrilling historical fiction at its best, a book that will be long remembered by those fortunate enough to discover it.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blogiversary Giveaway

Last January 20 I remember my relief at having survived a whole year as a participating member of the net's book-blogging community. I have to admit that I had my doubts as to whether or not I would be around for a second celebration, but today's the big day. Book Chase is officially two years old and I'm having a great time with it.

So after 829 posted topics, 302 reviews, thousands of comments, and meeting lots of new friends, I'm ready to celebrate the day with a book giveaway.

This copy of the controversial novel by Sherri Jones is the hardcopy one that I purchased and reviewed in Book Chase back in November. It has been read exactly one time and is in great shape.

Anyone wanting to be included in the drawing just needs to leave a comment to this post telling me why they want the book. Any reason for wanting it, other than burning the thing, is acceptable. I'll do a random numbers drawing one week from today, so get those entries in.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Washington Teacher Wants to Keep Huck, Scout, and Lennie Out of the Classroom

One high school English teacher in Washington thinks it's time to kick Huck and Jim, Atticus and Scout, and Lennie and George out of school for good. They just don't cut it anymore because the books in which they appear (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men) also include black characters portrayed as "ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated."

John Foley has reached this remarkable conclusion almost entirely because of America's inauguration of its first black president tomorrow, an event of which everyone in this country should be proud whether they voted for the man or not. However, President Obama will already be faced with completely unrealistic expectations as to the ways that he will impact the future of not only this country but that of the entire world. Are we now to believe that such an articulate black man can also rewrite the history of his race in this country? I hate revisionist history when it tries to rewrite reality, and I'm afraid that is exactly what Mr. Foley is suggesting.

The two books Foley is suggesting should replace the three classics he wants to toss out are both great books. One of the two (Lonesome Dove), in fact, is my favorite novel and I've reread it several times already and plan read it many more times. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to replace three classic novels with two other worthy books simply because the black characters of those two books are more positively presented. Why is there not room for all five of these books in a four-year high school curriculem?

For both sides of the argument, take a look at this LA Times article.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Land of Marvels

In the Middle East very little is as it appears on the surface, an essential lesson for anyone working or doing business there. Those spending much time in the region are often reminded that “a signed contract is just a pause in the negotiations,” just when they have invested so much into a project that they can no longer afford to walk away from it. Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels, set in 1914 Mesopotamia, is a reminder, however, that this way of conducting business is not necessarily as one-sided as some would like to think.

Mesopotamia in 1914 is a volatile region. The world is on the brink of war and many European nations are trying to place themselves in advantageous positions that will allow them to pick up the pieces when the already weak Ottoman Empire finally loses its grip on the area. The region that will one day be renamed Iraq is rich in oil and chrome ore, two resources vital to a war effort, and various European factions want to control those resources.

Oil and chrome ore, however, are not Mesopotamia’s only attractions. The region, for thousands of years home to some of the most powerful civilizations the world has seen, is also a favorite hunting ground for archeologists from around the world. One of these, John Somerville, is well into his third digging season at Tell Erdek and is desperate to find something to justify his efforts before it is too late. Not only is Somerville, who self-finances the project, running out of money, a German-built railroad is fast approaching his work site and threatens to run its line right through it.

Joining Somerville at the dig site are his wife, an assistant archeologist, a young Englishwoman, and various government representatives, military men and schemers from all over the world. Somerville’s dinner table becomes a place for all to meet and discuss what they see for the future as well as Somerville’s own progress in discovering the secrets of the past. Even at Somerville’s table, however, all is not as it seems, and the conversation and evolving relationships among those sharing the table are as filled with deceit, danger, and double-dealing as the bigger world around them.

Somerville, so focused on his own problems and impending doom, manages to remain oblivious to all of the intrigue going on around him and his efforts finally pay off in the kind of major discovery that he hopes will save his project and make his name. All of this leads to the book’s symbolic ending, a satisfying and somewhat startling one despite the way that most readers will have seen it coming several pages earlier.

Land of Marvels is not without its flaws. One or two of its main characters are more stereotypical than they should have been, even to reminding the reader of movie types from the 1940s era. In fact, some of the comings and goings around the little base camp, as two characters barely avoid each other at a crucial moment, are reminiscent of films of the same period but this kind of thing can be forgiven in a book that is otherwise so well done.

Land of Marvels is a trip back to the future.

Rated at: 4.0






"The Lioness and the African," Phoenician, 899-700 B.C.

This is a British Museum piece that must have served as the model for one of the discoveries described in Land of Marvels.










Saturday, January 17, 2009

John Mortimer Dead at 85

I saw late last night that John Mortimer, one of the first British writers that I read on a regular basis, has died in a London hospital from a long illness. I will always think of those great Rumpole of the Bailey books when I think of John, of course, but I have thoroughly enjoyed most all of his fiction for a long time.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon a 1992 book signing of his in a London bookstore one day and still have that pristine, signed copy of Dunster on my bookshelves.

I'm sure that I'm not the only one who had the phrase "she who must be feared" flit through his mind immediately upon hearing of John's death. His Rumpole books always made me smile - and the news that he might have been working on another Rumpole book at the time of his death is a bit sad because Rumpole fans will never know the pleasure of reading that one.

We'll miss you, Mr. Mortimer. Thank you for so many hours of reading pleasure.


Link to 17 minute John Mortimer interview conducted by Don Swaim in 1987

Friday, January 16, 2009

Pirates on the Prairie

Pulling for the underdog is a habit that comes naturally to most of us. No matter the event, there is just something special about watching a little guy or a small town team or school successfully compete against the heavily favored big ones. Whatever the result, it is always heartwarming to witness an underdog play well enough to be on the brink of winning a big game or championship despite the odds against it happening.

Eric Bergeson’s Pirates on the Prairie looks at one such team, the Halstad High School Pirates, a combination of small town and farm boys, which made it all the way to the Minnesota state basketball tournament in 1952. Halstad, a northern Minnesota town near the border with North Dakota, was home to about 500 people in 1952 and its high school fielded basketball and baseball teams largely made up of the same handful of players.

By 1952, most of the boys already had played basketball together for several years, instinctively knew where to find each other on the floor and had developed an almost uncanny ability to find just the play they needed right when they needed it most. Most important, they played the game as a team and did not have to rely on any one player to carry them. Nevertheless, what happened to them in 1952 was something beyond their wildest dreams because they went to the state tournament where all teams, regardless of size, competed in one bracket - and they almost won the whole thing.

Pirates on the Prairie, though, is much more than the story of a few boys who managed to play a game exceptionally well for several weeks in 1952. Sports fans will be pleased with the way Bergeson chronicles the seasons leading up to 1952 and will feel the town’s joy and excitement as he recreates key games from the 1952 season as well as each tournament game. However, what makes the book special is the way that Bergeson develops each of the players, coaches, and townspeople into real people, people who had lives before that magical 1952 season and people who have lived for a long time since those glory days.

The Halstad starting five, all in their seventies now, reunited to meet together with Bergeson to share their memories of that season. What they had to say about the game, their coaches and the little town in which they grew up was often more touching than all the success they achieved as boys. Amazingly, they still carry themselves as the athletes they were more than fifty years ago and display the same team spirit that made them so successful then. The 1952 high school basketball season helped make these men who they are today and they seem to realize just how blessed they were to have experienced it.

Pirates on the Prairie started out as the lifelong dream of a man who, as a little boy in 1952, idolized the Halstad High School basketball team. He asked Eric Bergeson to consider researching and writing their story, and now he shares his dream with the rest of us.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Free Country Music CD

This is almost too good to be true.

Miss Leslie is offering her latest album absolutely free of charge to anyone who emails asking for a copy. This is the same CD, with the same packaging, that is selling for full retail price all over the web, not some cheap throwaway version.

This is the third Miss Leslie & Her Juke-Jointers album and, in my opinion, it is the best yet. Leslie, who wrote all the songs on the album, has never sounded better, the band is tight, and the album displays some really fine sisters harmony. This is Leslie's way of getting the word out about her music, so take advantage of it if you are a real country music fan - I'm not talking about the crud that plays on country music FM stations today. This is hardcore honky tonk the way it was done back in the sixties - but a girl singer is up front the band.

If you decide to take advantage of the offer, please tell Leslie I said hello. But hurry because the Houston Chronicle publicized this offer last Sunday and when they're gone, they're gone.

How Victorian Novels Changed Human Nature





Researchers now believe that Victorian novels did a whole lot more than just reflect the social mores of the time - they actually shaped those mores and contributed to human evolution. From the U.K., the Guardian offers the story:





The despicable acts of Count Dracula, the unending selflessness of Dorothea in Middlemarch and Mr Darcy's personal transformation in Pride and Prejudice helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society, according to an analysis by evolutionary psychologists.

Their research suggests that classic British novels from the 19th century not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals' hunger for power and dominance.
...
The effect of such moralistic literature was to uphold and instil a sense of fairness and altruism in society at large, the researchers claim in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. "By enforcing these norms, humans succeed in controlling 'free riders' or 'cheaters' and they thus make it possible for genuinely altruistic genes to survive within a social group," they write.
Now just how cool is that?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Seventh Sacrament

Set in modern day Rome, but tied intricately to the city’s ancient past, The Seventh Sacrament is long on atmosphere and reveals a part of the city that few tourists will ever see much of, its historic catacombs. This fifth book in David Hewson’s well received Nic Costa series follows the efforts of Costa and his fellow Roman policemen Gianni Peroni and Leo Falcone to solve a case that the department bungled fourteen years earlier.

When seven-year-old Alessio Bramante disappeared in one of the tunnels being studied by his archaeologist father, Giorgio, the department’s chief concern was to find him while he was still alive. As time seemed to be running out, a decision was made that would ruin one man’s career and haunt Detective Leo Falcone for the rest of his life. The boy’s father was purposely left alone in the cell of one of the suspects in his son’s disappearance where he tried to beat a confession out of the prisoner. The prisoner did not survive that encounter and, as a result, the case against him and his fellow suspects fell apart. Alessio Bramante was never found, and his father turned out to be the only one to serve prison time as a result of his disappearance.

Now, fourteen years later, someone is picking off the remaining suspects one-by-one and has even attempted to kidnap Detective Falcone. Because Giorgio Bramante has recently been released from prison it is easy to name him the prime suspect. But what proves to be nearly impossible is finding him before he finishes going down the list of men he considers responsible for the loss of his son. And Falcone appears to be at the end of that list.

Readers of earlier Nic Costa novels will already know much about the personal lives of Costa and his colleagues but Hewson has made sure that this one can be equally enjoyed by those reading their first novel in the series. His characters, including the villains, are fully-fleshed human beings who share the usual strengths and weakness of the species. One of the novel’s strong points, in fact, is the way that Hewson develops personal lives for his characters and those closest to them, something that not all thriller writers bother to do.

The Seventh Sacrament is a complicated narrative that requires the reader to pay strict attention as Hewson tells his story via several points-of-view and across several time lines: the present, the weeks just before and just after the boy’s disappearance, and fourth century Rome. But this extra effort is ultimately rewarded by the way that Hewson so completely ties together all the loose ends and false leads into a satisfying ending.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Quote of the Day

Guess who?

"Wow, you people get really bent out of shape by an unattributed use of your reviews, or parts of your reviews, don't you? I was simply posting reviews to continue getting free stuff from the Vine. No big deal in my world."

(Hint: think "Lucky Billy")

And, yes, he's speaking to us.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Curious Case of Gandhi and the Stolen Books



From the "Just When You Think You've Heard It All" file, England's Northumberland Gazette offers this true story of a book thief who dares compare himself to Gandhi:








A man fined £255 for stealing a book from a shop in Gateshead has vowed not to pay it and compared his plight to that of Gandhi.

Raymond Scott, 51, was caught stealing The Cannabible Collection - worth £18.99 - and a £32 book on stone sheepfold artworks from a branch of Waterstone's in the MetroCentre.

Speaking outside the town's magistrates' court, Scott said: "I am not going to pay the fine because the amount was totally inappropriate and if they want to send me to prison for non-payment then so be it.

"Was not Gandhi imprisoned by the British?" he asked reporters.
Well, I'm certainly impressed - "Free Raymond Scott, free Raymond Scott...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cold in Hand

For ten years, fans of John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick novels were offered a new book at a regular once-a-year pace. Then in 1998 Harvey announced, much to the dismay of that fan base, that he was done with Resnick for good. At the time, Harvey offered no hope that he would ever resume the series but in 2008 he surprised Charlie’s loyal fans with his eleventh Resnick book, Cold in Hand.

Charlie Resnick, some ten years older now, has his thirty years in with the Nottingham police and, on his bad days, the possibility of retirement often crosses his mind. Charlie is still pretty much the man he was ten years earlier, an intensely introspective guy who lives with his cats and surrounds himself with classic jazz recordings, a cynical man seldom surprised by anything that life throws at him. Charlie, however, does admit that his romantic relationship with Detective Inspector Lynn Kellogg, the much younger woman now living with him, did surprise him. When he thinks too long about it, it still does.

When DI Kellogg tries to stop two teenage girls from fighting, a young man with a gun suddenly comes at her and the girl she is pulling away from the fight. Shots are fired, the young girl is shot dead, and Kellogg - still wearing the bullet proof vest she needed on an earlier incident - is wounded. Resnick is given a prime role in the investigation and finds himself dealing with a man who claims that Lynn Kellogg saved her own life by using his daughter as a human shield, something for which, the man loudly proclaims to one and all, she will pay dearly.

Kellogg herself, when she returns to the job, is charged with solving the murder of an Eastern Europe prostitute brought into the country specifically for the sex trade. Her investigation places her into an uncomfortable conflict with one being conducted by the Serious and Organized Crime Agency and endangers the lives of her only witnesses. As the action moves between London and Nottingham, Kellogg begins to suspect that the SOCA investigator heading up that case might not be the man he pretends to be.

John Harvey writes a brilliant police procedural and Cold in Hand is no exception but, as usual, depth of characterization is the most impressive aspect of Harvey’s writing. Charlie Resnick, especially for long time followers of the series, is a fully fleshed man with all the aches and pains, both mental and physical, that come with the years. He is a thoroughly decent man who deserves someone exactly like Lynn Kellogg in his life, a woman who sees deeply into Charlie’s soul, past his rumpled appearance and physical limitations, to the goodness there. The book, too, is filled with believable secondary characters, on both sides of the law, that move the story along to its fateful ending. Despite the tough time that Charlie has in Cold in Hand, his fans will enjoy catching up with him - and will hope to see him again in a few months.

Rated at: 5.0

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hard as Nails

Hard as Nails is the third Joe Kurtz novel offered by Dan Simmons and, one thing for sure, this one is perfectly titled. Joe Kurtz is definitely “hard as nails.” In fact, I cannot imagine anyone being tougher than this guy. He’s shot in the head and left for dead very near the beginning of the novel, receives only minimal medical attention, and searches for his shooter while battling the mother of all headaches (a headache he loses only after being tasered to within an inch of his life) for almost all of the rest of the book.

Simmons packs so much action and so many characters into this 288-page crime thriller that the reader might be in danger of acquiring a headache of his own. Before Kurtz can even begin to search for the man who almost killed him and his parole officer, he is forced to deal with two New York mafia dons (no stereotypes here: one is gay and one is female) that want him to find out who is killing so many of their heroin dealers and their customers. The dons are willing to pay him if he is successful - but one of them plans to kill him if he fails.

Then there’s the Artful Dodger, a terribly scarred serial killer who has worn a Brooklyn Dodger baseball cap, 24-7, most of his life. This guy is good - and he’s after Joe Kurtz, too. Throw into the mix a Yemeni assassin that mistakenly believes he is working for the CIA, an evil Viet Nam era colonel that gets around pretty well despite being confined to a wheel chair, his Vietnamese partner, Kurtz’s policewoman girlfriend-of-sorts, another mysteriously powerful man manipulating much of the action, and numerous colorful characters from the Buffalo underbelly and you have the makings for non-stop, but confusing, action and plots.

It is all a bit much and what could have been a riveting crime thriller reads instead like a surrealistic take on the genre itself. Simmons has the characters and plots for two good thrillers here but they suffer from being crammed into one relatively short book in which there is little room to fully develop either the characters or the plots. This is one of those cases of “too much of a good thing” and that’s without even mentioning the bizarre climactic battle that ends the book. Perhaps Simmons purposely went over the top with this one but, if so, that’s a shame.

Rated at: 2.5

Friday, January 09, 2009

462 Books Read in 2008




Sarah Weinman, a Los Angeles Times columnist, reads at an incredible speed, completing 462 books in 2008, in fact. I'm astounded when I hear of someone reading even 200-250 books a year, so 462 books in a single year is not a number I ever expected to hear - but the most amazing thing about that number is Sarah's explanation of how she does it (from the Los Angeles Times):




I've been trying to analyze my reading method to see why I've almost always been able to do this (well, I started reading at the age of 2 1/2; I don't think I was speed-reading back then, but I became aware I could read fast when I burned through eight "Sweet Valley High" books in one evening when I was about 9.) A lot of it has to do with my music background. I studied voice and piano fairly seriously during my elementary and high school days, and as such, I became very attuned to rhythm and cadence and voice. So what happens when I read is that I can "hear" the narrative and dialogue in my head, but what's odd is that I'm both aware of the book at, say, an LP rate (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) but in my head it translates to roughly a 78. I've tried to slow this down, but realized that my natural reading rhythm is freakishly fast when an author friend asked me to go through the manuscript of her soon-to-be-published book for continuity errors. I sat in the La-Z-Boy at my parents' house with a pencil, went through page by page making notes but also enjoying the book, and had the whole task done in about 3-4 hours. This was a 350-page manuscript too, so roughly 80,000 words. Take away the pencil and the editor's hat and the reading speed would probably be close to 90 minutes. What also seems to happen is that I read a page not necessarily word by word, but by capturing pages in sequence in my head. The words and phrases appear diagonally, like I'm absorbing the text all in one gulp, and then I move on to the next sequence I can absorb by paragraph or page. It's like I'm reading from a whole-language standpoint instead of phonics -- that's the only way I can figure out how to explain it.
The closest thing I've ever heard to something like this is the way a friend of mine, who has perfect pitch, describes the way she can always name the exact note she is hearing: she sees each individual note as a different color. She actually identifies each key by the consistent color she automatically visualizes in her mind every time she hears it. I'd love to have either of these talents but... of course I have neither.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Etta

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid or Etta Place before watching the classic Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie about the three of them. It has been a few years since I’ve last experienced that movie but I remember coming away from it with a decent understanding of Butch and Sundance but a relatively poor feel for Etta Place and how she came to be the woman she was.

As it turns out, very little is known about the real Etta Place, neither her name, where she came from, nor what happened to her after Butch and Sundance were shot dead in South America. That she was said to be a beautiful woman with refined habits, an expert horsewoman, and an outlaw with a good heart add to the picture, but the details seem destined to remain forever out-of-reach. First-time novelist Gerald Kolpan now offers Etta, the perfect companion piece to the movie that reintroduced Etta to the world some forty years ago.

Free spirited Lorinda Jameson, daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia banker, becomes well acquainted with horses and rifles as a girl but it is only when her disgraced father leaves her penniless and on the run from his creditors that she abandons the city and her old name for a new life in the West where she will be known as Etta Place. Penniless, though she is known to be, her father’s creditors will not be satisfied until she is dead or, at the least, scarred for life. But Grand Junction, Colorado, does not turn out to be the safe haven she hopes for and, in the course of defending her honor, she makes a decision that earns her a date with the Grand Junction hangman.

On the run again, Etta throws in with Butch and Sundance’s Wild Bunch, becomes the Kid’s lover, and participates in many of the train and bank robberies that make them infamous. Kolpan’s account of Etta’s story includes newspaper clippings, entries from her personal diary and even an excerpt from a dime novel written about the New Jersey train robbery that she and the gang pulled off. Along the way, Etta has occasion to work for the colorful Buffalo Bill Cody as part of his Wild West Show cast and even becomes young Eleanor Roosevelt’s closest friend.

Gerald Kolpan is a good storyteller and this fast paced western adventure story is fun from start to finish, even for those who already know the end of the Butch and Sundance story. We will likely never know the real Etta Place but Kolpan has done her proud with this version of what might have been.

Rated at: 5.0

(Scheduled for a March 24, 2009 Release)



Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Public Lending Right Makes Authors Smile a Little

I lived in London for a number of years during the nineties and made good use of the Richmond public library (pictured at left) located just across the Thames from my Twickenham flat and, when I needed a quick book fix during the day, I sometimes made a lunch hour run to the Uxbridge library just a few blocks from my office. But despite all my trips, and the several hundred books I checked out and took home, I never realized that the Brits have a system whereby its authors get a small royalty payment each time one of their books leaves the library.

David Barnett, in today's Guardian Books Blog offers a little insight into just how it all works and how gratifying he finds the very idea that people are deciding to carry his books home with them:
Whether you're Stephen King, author of countless doorstep-sized bestsellers, or Steven King, author of PublishAmerica-released volume Why Are We Here?, you'll get the same PLR payment: 5.98p per borrowing.

If you're a famous author you're probably getting the maximum PLR payment possible, currently £6,600 – enough to buy a few ermine-covered yellow legal pads and a couple of gold-nibbed fountain pens for the writing of your next opus. I know a couple of mid-list writers who have occasionally earned the maximum: not a bad little earner that will pay the mortgage for a few months.
...
My PLR payment this time round? A grand £8.79. Titter ye not – although that wouldn't buy a brand-new copy of either of my novels, it fills me with an almost heady sense of satisfaction.

Being – currently, this is the year it's going to happen, fingers crossed, onward and upward! – not even a mid-list, not even a bottom-feeding author (as the writer of two novels, Hinterland and Angelglass, published by an independent press with no resources for advances, marketing or getting books into the major bookstores, which demand horrendous discounts), the value of the PLR isn't in the money but in the information it provides about book borrowings.

Over the period one of my books was borrowed 69 times, while the other had 78 outings. Not figures to exercise the great men and women of letters, but good enough for me. That's nearly 150 borrowings over a year. That means, on average, three people a week borrowed one of my novels. They might not have enjoyed them; they might not even have read them. But however tiny and unimportant to other people, the fact that someone bothered to pluck my work off a shelf, take it out and lug it home, is good enough for me.
What a great idea! I understand, of course, that someone has to pay for all those royalty checks but I actually would not mind paying a bit more tax to my county of residence in order to support something like this in the U.S. - especially, or maybe exclusively, for those authors who don't have a prayer of ever writing a bestseller. I can easily imagine that an annual check (even if capped at something like $10,000 per author) based on library traffic could make all the difference for some writers, and that would be tax money well spent, in my opinon...something that rarely happens anymore.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

State of the Blog

I'm relieved to have finished my last 2008-related book review and I feel that I can finally start to focus on my schedule for 2009. I'm starting a new position (same company) that might require longer hours in the short term, books are rolling in, and I've set up a facebook account hoping to extend my network of friends - so things are already busy.

I've decided to go back to the old fashioned way of reading books for a while: one at a time. I do have four books, one of which is an audio book, in progress at the moment so the change won't come immediately, but soon. I'm curious to see if I will absorb more from concentrating on one audio and one written book instead of spreading my reading over as many as seven or eight at a time. I'm not sure how I got into that habit, really, but I suspect it gradually happened as new books arrived or I unexpectedly came across something exciting in a bookstore or at the local library. They were all just too tempting and I couldn't wait to start them. Anyway, the change should be interesting.

Speaking of interesting - have you guys noticed how actively Josh Henkin is working with book groups and clubs in discussing his current novel, Matrimony? Josh is even willing to travel to meetings held within a couple of hours of his home and makes himself available by telephone for groups farther away. I think he is helping to break new ground in marketing himself and his novel this way and, although a few others are doing something similar, Josh seems to be setting the pace. Take a look at this Philly.com article to see how it works - makes me wish I was part of a book group.


Josh with a Mount Laurel book group


It's hard to believe that we're already a whole week deep into the new year - I'm finally ready to turn the calendar page. 2009, here I come...

The Monster of Florence

When novelist Douglas Preston moved his family to the Florence countryside he expected to immerse himself in the very culture he planned to feature in his next thriller. Early on, however, Preston’s research brought him into contact with Mario Spezi, an Italian crime reporter who was expert in the ways of Italian police investigations, and Preston’s life was changed forever.

Spezi mentioned that Preston’s new home was within a stone’s throw of one of the more infamous murder scenes in recent Florence history and that the double murder was almost certainly the work of a serial killer yet to be identified. Spezi, as it turned out, had made his reputation as a journalist by becoming an expert on the murders and was obsessed with finally determining the killer’s identity. As the two talked, Preston became more and more taken with Spezi’s story and decided to postpone his new thriller until after he and Spezi had written a book together about The Monster of Florence.

By the time Preston and Spezi teamed up to investigate the crimes for their book, it had been more than ten years since the last murders. The Monster, between 1968 and 1985, had killed seven couples as they made love in their cars or campers while parked in out-of-the-way sites around Florence. In a fashion similar to England’s Jack the Ripper, he mutilated the bodies of his female victims, even carrying away body parts as trophies or reminders of his crimes.

Unfortunately for Preston and Spezi, they soon found themselves in conflict with various members of the Italian crime investigation establishment, some of whose members had used the murders to make their reputations and advance their own careers. More than one person had been charged with the murders over the years as diverse theories, ranging from satanic cults to medically trained or aristocratic killers, were trotted out for the benefit of the public. Sadly, according to Preston and Spezi, those responsible for solving the crimes were so anxious to pin them on any likely suspect that they were willing to create evidence as needed, ignore any conflicting real evidence, coerce testimony from known informants, and ruin the lives of anyone who fell into their path if that would help close the case.

Preston and Spezi could hardly believe what they discovered about Italian criminal investigators, prosecutors and judges. Successive investigators built case after case against men who fit their preconceived ideas of how and why the murders occurred. It was all so ludicrous and, most importantly, so corrupt, that the two pushed on with their own investigation long enough to place themselves squarely in opposition to official investigators. As a result, Spezi himself was eventually charged with, and tried for, the very crime he had a spent a lifetime investigating and Preston was threatened with arrest if he ever returned to Italy. Italian authorities knowing how many lives had been ruined and how many reputations built on false investigations greatly feared the publication of Preston and Spezi’s book and seem to have charged Spezi with murder mainly in order to suppress it.

The Monster of Florence should have been a horrifying and fascinating true crime thriller because of the nature of the crimes, how long they went on, how difficult it has been to identify the killer, and the inept, fraudulent, and almost comical investigation so terribly bungled by Italian authorities. But, because of the dry style in which the book is written (more the style of a newspaper article than a book), even a story filled with as many horrifying elements as this one becomes more boring than thrilling. The second part of the book, in which Preston and Spezi recount what happens when they themselves become suspects rather than reporters moves at a more lively pace but it leads to an ending that likely will disappoint most readers.

The audio version of The Monster of Florence is competently read for the most part but one aspect of the audio book quickly grows into a distracting annoyance. Much of the book is written in conversational form encompassing direct quotes from those involved and, although these quotes are naturally reproduced in English rather than in Italian, they are delivered in such an atrocious (and stereotypical) Italian accent that they are sometimes difficult to understand even in English. The result is that every Italian character begins to sound like every other Italian character in a book already filled with names that, for the non-Italian speaker, can already be difficult to distinguish one from the other. This makes listening to the audio version of The Monster of Florence into a tedious experience that might possibly be avoided by reading the book the old fashioned way.

Regardless, this one is not quite what it could have been.

Rated at: 2.5

(And that officially closes 2008 for me - the 143rd review I've written for books read in 2008. Finally.)

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Fiction Class

Susan Breen’s The Fiction Class is an, at times, intriguing look into a creative writing class through the eyes of its teacher, Arabella Hicks. Arabella, fast approaching 40, is herself an unpublished author and has been struggling to find an ending for her novel for the past seven years. She tries to remain optimistic that she will one day finish the book and see it published even as she finds more and more of her time and energy dedicated to her aging mother, Vera, now that Vera is confined to a nursing home.

Arabella’s father suffered from multiple sclerosis and was lovingly cared for by her mother for many years before his sudden death. Now that she is reaching the end of her own life, Vera wants and expects a little attention from her only child, something that Arabella, since the two of them have not always gotten along, finds difficult at times to offer. She finds, though, that scheduling her weekly nursing home visit for immediately after her fiction class at least gives her something new to discuss with her mother while they eat the take-out dinner Vera brings with her.

Over the period of ten classes, Vera is pleased by the special bond she forms with this particular group of adult students. Her students, almost without exception, take the class seriously and offer each other enthusiastic support and encouragement. She even manages to find romance in the form of a student some fifteen years older than her, a man who from the first class seems more interested in the teacher than the class.

The real blessing of the class, though, is that Arabella is able to share the details with her mother. They discuss the progress of the pupils, Arabella’s new boyfriend, and even the classroom topics and exercises. When Arabella’s mother is inspired to write a short story based on her own life, the truths she reveals in her fiction come as a complete surprise. More importantly, the story gives Arabella the chance to connect with her mother in a way she never dreamed might still be possible.

The Fiction Class is an inspirational story about new beginnings and the importance of resolving relationship problems while there is time. Aspiring writers will also find the tips offered in the ten fiction class segments useful - even the homework assignments are interesting enough that some are likely to use them as writing exercises of their own. At its heart, though, this is pretty much standard Chick Lit fare and, as such, it will naturally be more appreciated by female readers than by males. That, perhaps, is why I find the cast of characters to be something less than believable. How likely, for instance, is it that a transsexual shoe salesman and a man who sees all of life as a potential porn film would end up in a class of only a dozen students? How likely, too, that a fifty-something-year-old serial-womanizer would be such a stand-up guy in Arabella’s romance? Not very, guys, but the ladies may disagree.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Is the Newberry Medal Politically Incorrect?



I really get sick of this kind of thing but decided to mention it strictly because I find the whole premise to be so absurd. According to the Detroit Free Press, most Newberry Medal winning titles have featured white boys and that is wrong (for the same reasons we've junked all those dead white men we used to study in university lit classes):





Characters depicted in Newbery winners are more likely to be white and male and to come from two-parent households than the average U.S. child, according to a Brigham Young University study. The trend has accelerated even as the United States has diversified, with fewer black and Hispanic main characters in the past 27 years than in the civil rights era of 1951-79....
To be sure, only about 10% of new children's books published last year focused on minorities, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a library that serves the university's School of Education.

The number of books about minorities has remained around 10% since 1992, said Kathleen Horning, the center's director.
...
"The Newbery is given for literary quality: Ethnicity, gender, nothing of that is necessarily taken into consideration," said Pat Scales, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, which runs the Newbery award for the library association.

"We certainly want children's books to mirror society," Scales said. "It's not as magic as whether there is a boy main character or a girl main character or an African-American or Latino or Asian character. We owe kids good stories that reflect their lives and give them a more global view."
...
Likewise, since 1982, the library association has given the Coretta Scott King Award to black authors and illustrators depicting a sense of the African-American experience in their work.

"Pura Belpre started in 1996 and was originally given every other year because there weren't enough books by Latino authors and illustrators," Scales said. "That's changing, and starting in 2009, the association will give the award annually."
I'm sorry but when 90% of all the books written for children feature non-minority characters, what does anyone expect to happen? This sounds to me, frankly, as much ado about nothing - something that will take care of itself as books featuring minority characters become more and more common in libraries and classrooms.

It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the point being made in the article - it's that I'm sick of people who try to send me on a guilt trip in order to get their own way instead of doing the constructive work to right what they see as a wrong. I realize that I have the kind of big mouth that does not lend itself to political correctness but this really bugs me.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Book Recall



Despite the huge potential for this kind of thing, this is the first actual recall of an instructional book that I recall seeing in recent years. According to Augusta's Channel 12, a book on do-it-yourself electrical home wiring could, instead, help you burn it to the ground:



They're supposed to be helpful books that teach you how to do electrical wiring in your home.

It turns out, they'll potentially only help you get hurt and also damage your home.

They're called "Wiring a House, 3rd Ed." and "Wiring Complete, Expert Advice from Start to Finish Instructional Books."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is calling back about 64, 000 of them.
Why?

Because the Commission says the books have some errors in the diagrams that could cause you to incorrectly install or repair electrical wiring. That, of course, could be bad news for you.

They were sold at home improvement stores around the country last year for $25.

If you have one, return it to the store where you bought it for a full refund.
Well, I've seen a few self-help books that should have been recalled but never were and several financial advice books that should have never been printed in the first place - surely they were as dangerous as these two wiring manuals (said with tongue firmly in cheeck, I should add).

Thursday, January 01, 2009

After the Floods

The catastrophe known around the world simply as “Katrina” has inspired a number of novels since it destroyed New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast in August 2005. And novelists, because of their wonderful ability to create believable characters and subplots, probably have done as much to explain what it was really like in New Orleans after the storm as the rest of the media combined.

Now Bruce Henricksen’s debut novel, After the Floods, offers a much different, but no less perceptive, slant on what it is like to survive one of those life-changing events that none of us really expect to witness for ourselves. Henricksen’s story, set on both ends of the Mississippi River (New Orleans and the fictional Cold Beak, Minnesota), is a magical one that includes talking dogs, talking crows, a little boy wise way beyond his years, a magical distortion of time itself, and a whole cast of eccentric characters doing quite well for themselves, thank you.

After the Floods begins in New Orleans some months after Katrina and immediately introduces the reader to two of its main characters, Ruby and George Corvus, a pair of crows that, like other of God’s creatures, have suddenly been gifted with the power of speech. Things are not going very well in New Orleans, but Ruby and George are making the best of things as they observe the comings and goings below them.

Meanwhile, in Cold Beak, Minnesota, where a flood of its own did its best to destroy the little town, folks like Birdella May Borguson are getting on with their own lives. Birdie, a very large woman, decides that its time to lose weight and she convinces the owners of Cold Beak’s fancy new supper club to let her perform as a stripper in the room adjacent to the dining area figuring that the exercise will burn lots of calories. Fully-functioning businesses appear on previously vacant lots almost overnight much to the fascination and delight of Cold Beak citizens. Birds by the thousand, some seldom if ever seen before in Cold Beak, descend on the town. And some from New Orleans find their way to Cold Beak, including my two favorite characters, Ruby and George.

After the Floods is magical realism at its best, telling its story through other eyes, through the eyes of those who live a different reality than the one we ourselves live. In our world, animals don’t talk and buildings don’t sprout from vacant lots. In Cold Beak, they do, and they are accepted as elements of the reality of life there.

Bruce Henricksen offers the reader a charming little world that offers hope to us all, hope that it is possible to recover from even the worst of disasters, that life goes on in new ways and in new combinations that might be as good, or even better, than what has been lost. This is not escapist fantasy; it is a serious novel cloaked in the very magic of life itself, a book with a positive message that will have you smiling much of the way.

Rated at: 5.0