Sunday, May 31, 2009

Newspaper Clipping Sunday

A baker's dozen of Odds and Ends from all over for you this morning:



Audio book sales are down a whopping 47% according to publishers. This makes me wonder if e-book sales are eating into the sale of audio books or if all those free audio book downloads local libraries make available are the real culprits.

One national charity's "blue boxes" seeking book donations are crippling local library books sales across the country. Good or bad? You decide.

On the pleasure of re-reading favorite books - "The point of reading outward, widely, has always been to find the books I want to re-read and then to re-read them. In part, that’s an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that no matter how long and how widely I read, I will only ever make my way through a tiny portion of the world’s literature." Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times

Declining Book Sales Cast Gloom at an Expo
- and the beat goes on. I don't think a 1.5% overall decline in book sales means it's time to push the panic button. After all, the industry still sold over 3 billion books and, thanks to higher prices, net revenues actually rose by 1%.

The ever-brilliant Hugo Chavez is distributing 2.5 million copies of three books to the poor of Venezuela although they would probably much prefer something more appropriate, like food or clothing. The subject of the books will not be much of a surprise to those who regularly follow the antics of this bozo.

An unusual friendship and letter exchange creates a brand new little reader

President and Mrs. Obama to host
National Book Festival in September. Thank you very much, Laura Bush.

British textbook risks angering Muslims with its take on Islam's attitude toward women. I am so sick of this kind of thing and wish that publishers and booksellers would stop treating Islam any differently than they treat Christianity and other relgions. Giving in to threats from thugs is like paying money to blackmailers - it never ends.

Are comic books turning into soap operas? Well, I agree with Archie; I would have chosen Veronica, too.

How to bind a book. Who knew it was a 36-part process?

Why e-books aren't cheaper. It's all about fixed costs - and Tina Brown (as I saw on Book TV yesterday) is already ticked off that Amazon sells them for as little as $9.99.

Taking a book vacation - cheap, relaxing, instructive - the perfect vacation for those who can't leave home

Books still rule at Book Expo 2009, as indicated by this article Searching for eBooks at Book Expo 2009. Let's hope the book industry doesn't destroy itself the way that the music industry did itself by ignoring all this new technology.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

James Patterson Sets Record for Selling His Name

Tom Clancy was the first writer that I noticed farming out his name to books largely, if not completely, written by others. Of course, Tom's name was always in a huge font and the grunt who did all the real work had his name on the cover in much smaller print. Clancy did pretty well with that business model but James Patterson has taken it to new levels of absurdity.

And now the Guinness World Record people are recognizing just how greatly Patterson has abused his reading public by marking him as the official world record holder for "Most Entries on the New York Times Best-Seller List." According to GalleyCat, Patterson (or someone using his name to sell books) has placed 45 books on the list, 31 of them going all the way to number one.

All this proves to me is how easy it is for junk writers to dominate bestseller lists while better writers struggle to sell a few thousand copies of their work. In an age dominated by reality television, made-up junk sports, and rap music, I am not at all surprised by this. A bit sad, maybe, but not surprised.

Friday, May 29, 2009

When Ignorance is Bling...uh, Bliss

That great philosopher and wise man, Kanye West, has been quoted over on seattlepi.com in a statement that displays both his remarkable intellect and his willingness to share his brilliant insights with all the chumps in the world (the rest of us):
"Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed," West said. "I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph.

"I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life," he said.
As the article points out, Mr. West has recently "written" a book of his own. I've seen it. I think my 7-year-old grandson could write a more meaningful book.

Kanye West: Ignorance preaching to the ignorant. Priceless.

A "book" of 52 pages, many of them blank or containing absurd amounts of "white space," a book requiring the help of a ghost writer... makes me wonder if Kanye West is a "proud non-reader of books" simply because he doesn't know how to read a book.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

If Only I Could "Unread" I Am Charlotte Simmons

Booking Through Thursday this week asks the flip side of last week's question (A Second First Time). This week the question is:
Is there a book that you wish you could “unread”? One that you disliked so thoroughly you wish you could just forget that you ever read it?
I'm sure if I thought about it very long, I would probably come up with at least half a dozen dogs that I would prefer to "unread." I'm going to go with the first one that flew into my mind, though, because I really don't think I can top it no matter how long I think about the question. Interestingly, I found this question over at C.B.'s blog where he chose Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities as the book he wished he had never opened. I don't have as low an opinion of that particular Wolfe book, but I find it kind of funny that my choice turns out to be another of Tom Wolfe's novels: I Am Charlotte Simmons.


I am not going to bother with much of a description of the novel's characters or plot. I'll just say that it is a pointless story about modern university life and it is peopled by some of the most despicable characters to ever come together in one book. The point is that there is no point to this novel. The only reason I kept reading, and this is a long book, is that I figured someone like Tom Wolfe just had to have something literary in mind and that it would click with me "any page now." Never happened and, when done, I realized I had just finished reading a poorly written piece of soft porn. The book is garbage - and I only wish I could get those wasted hours back. Tom Wolfe owes me big time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

One Good Turn

That One Good Turn does not always lead to another is a harsh fact of life that several of Kate Atkinson’s characters learn the hard way in this, her second Jackson Brodie novel. Their experience is, in fact, more one of no good deed going unpunished.

None of the festival crowd trying to negotiate the streets of crowded Edinburgh is quite prepared for the case of road rage unfolding in front of it over what is, after all, only a very minor traffic incident. One driver, though, emerges with baseball bat in hand and seems anxious to start swinging it. As the violence escalates, some members of the crowd, including Jackson Brodie, ex-policeman and retired private detective, are moved to do the right thing, choices that do not go unnoticed by the maniac with the baseball bat.

Upon the arrival of the authorities, the crowd quickly breaks up and all the witnesses go their own way with the exception of Martin Canning, a rather effeminate writer of throwback mysteries, who accompanies the road rage victim on an ambulance ride to the hospital. A Kate Atkinson novel is never simple, though, and when the psychopathic driver decides to hunt down the witnesses to his road rage, Atkinson begins to juggle half a dozen plotlines that seem, at first, to have little to do with one another. Atkinson develops each plotline on its own, fully developing her characters along the way and, as she did in Case Histories, gradually overlaps the characters to tell a story bigger than the sum of its parts.

Atkinson peoples One Good Turn with a colorful assortment of characters, all of whom will have their lives changed forever because of a random traffic accident that has nothing to do with any of them. Jackson Brodie, feeling a bit emasculated by all the money he inherited from a former client, is in the city because Julia, also from Case Histories, is there to perform in a festival play. Gloria, wife of sleazy homebuilder and thug Graham Hatter, witnesses the accident while on an outing with a flighty friend of hers. Newly promoted police detective Louise Monroe learns that her 14-year-old son and his friend were thrilled by the violence they witnessed. Throw a few illegal alien Russian women, a circus, a mistaken-identity murder, a dumb-as-a-post psychopath, and a disappearing drowning victim into the mix and things tend to get a bit wild.

Be advised that, as usual in a Kate Atkinson novel, the reader must pay strict attention to all the characters and their goings-on in order to appreciate the intricate plot that Atkinson weaves. No snoozing allowed.

I thoroughly enjoyed One Good Turn but Atkinson does stretch “coincidence” to its breaking point often enough that I have to limit its rating to four stars.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How Not to Die

I watch so little television that I was completely unaware of “Dr. G’s” Discovery Health channel program before I began to read How Not to Die. The book’s title, though, caught my eye and, when I read that Jan Garavaglia is a chief medical examiner in Florida who “presides over” some 1,100 autopsies every year, I was hooked. I figured there could be no one more qualified to offer advice on extending one’s life than someone like Garavaglia who is intimately familiar with the unnecessary failings of the human body.

Granted, much of what Garavaglia offers is common sense advice that we have all heard before, but the doctor’s approach of illustrating her points with shared personal and work experiences makes what she has to say memorable - if not entirely new. How Not to Die is divided into chapters on all of the usual suspects when it comes to causes of early death: fear of seeing a doctor, adverse reactions to prescription medicine, auto accidents, medical mistakes, obesity, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, smoking, and general accidents.

Dr. Garavaglia uses a conversational tone, one that her television fans are likely to recognize, to make her points but most chapters also include a summary table or two to restate all the main points. I used the tables both to reinforce Garavaglia’s most important thoughts and to make sure that I had not missed anything in my reading. For example, the book includes a three-page table titled “Don’t Ignore These Symptoms” listing some twenty-three symptoms for which a person should always seek medical attention, a particularly helpful table for men who tend to “tough it out” rather than see a doctor until things become even more serious for them.

Part of the fun in reading a book like How Not to Die comes from the surprising statistics and facts the books often include, and How Not to Die does not disappoint in that regard. Consider these examples:
· Between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die every year from medical errors, more than from car wrecks, AIDS or breast cancer
· Over 65% of all traffic accidents happen at or near intersections
· Heart attacks are the biggest killer of travelers and the attacks usually come during the first two days of a vacation
· Vacations generally extend a person’s life expectancy; men who take frequent vacations are 30% less likely to die of heart disease and women are 50% less likely to do so
· Heart attack victims who also suffer depression are four times more likely to die within six months of their attacks than victims not suffering from depression
How Not to Die is perfect for those needing a little extra motivation to get them started on the kind of lifestyle that will allow them to remain active well into their eighties and beyond. It is all pretty simple, really, and Dr. Garavaglia even makes it sound like fun.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009 - Houston, TX

My father during World War II (third from left)

This is just a short clip showing a small fraction of the markers honoring the Houston-area veterans buried at Houston National Cemetery - about 8 miles south of my house. I was happy to see that several hundred people were at the cemetery this morning to honor these men and women. Houston National Cemetery is a 420 acre cemetery housing the remains of almost 68,000 veterans (at the end of 2008). I'm sure that number is growing rapidly since approximately 900 World War II veterans die somewhere in this country every day, many of them from this area. My 87-year-old father is a surviving World War II veteran, having spent three years in Europe (1943-45) during which he saw fighting all the way from the beaches of Normandy to Leipzig, Germany.



Let us never forget what these men and women went through to defend the rest of us. I particularly feel bad for the Viet Nam veterans because of the generally horrible way they were treated when they returned to American soil - thanks to despicable people like that media darling, William C. Ayers and his fellow scum. (Yes, I admit to hating this man and everything for which he stands now or ever in his past. The fact that he escaped prison on a technicality is one of the most shameful things that happened during that era - and, just as shamefully, he still gets away with murder today.)

The Last Paradise

As the twentieth century began, Galveston Island was home to a boomtown with a seemingly unlimited future. For good reason, the city called itself “Wall Street of the Southwest,” a title its citizens felt secure to claim because of Galveston’s number of large banks, cotton merchants and brokers. Most importantly, Galveston Bay formed a natural harbor that allowed Galveston to have become the largest city in the state of Texas, home to some 42,000 citizens.

It is at this point that Michael Kasenow’s debut novel, The Last Paradise, begins. Rather than telling Galveston’s story through the eyes of its wealthiest citizens, however, Kasenow decided to do so from the point-of-view of the racially diverse bunch inhabiting a lively Galveston neighborhood called the Alleys. The Alleys is home to former slaves, prostitutes, gamblers, alcoholics and other down-and-outers of all stripes.

Starting his story at a deceptively slow pace, Kasenow introduces a host of characters that readers will long remember. The character around whom the book is centered is drifter Maxwell Hayes, a man who, despite having experienced the worst that life can throw at a person, still knows right from wrong and is willing to defend those unable to defend themselves. Newt Haskins, Maxwell’s best friend, is a former Yale man and card shark who works on the docks with Maxwell. Maxwell, despite himself, is fond of prostitute Fanny Brown, a woman willing to sell herself if it means that her son Cody will be able to afford college one day.

Despite what the rest of the city is like, in the Alleys blacks and whites mingle freely and skin color is not a big issue. Jake Bishop, a black man who works with Maxwell and Newt, wants nothing more than to see his son and two daughters make more of themselves than he was allowed to make of himself. As the book opens, young Jake is preparing to leave Galveston for his first year’s schooling, still trying to choose between becoming a doctor or a schoolteacher.

These are just some of the characters that readers will come to know. There are numerous others, including the delightful Catholic nuns who run the orphanage, a happily in love, but mentally handicapped couple, corrupt businessmen, deadly policemen who double as Klan members, and other colorful hangers-on who frequent Maxwell’s favorite saloon.
The Last Paradise is a frank look at how those at the bottom of the economic ladder were exploited by those at the top in turn-of-the-century America. Life is not easy in Maxwell’s world but those who inhabit it along side him are surprisingly happy with their day-to-day existence right up to the point that others decide to remind them of how powerless they really are. Just when their little community suffers a mortal blow, and it seems that things cannot possibly get any worse, the famous Galveston hurricane of September 8, 1900 strikes the island.

Michael Kasenow’s description of the storm and its aftermath is haunting, especially knowing that Galveston was almost destroyed again in 2008, this time by Hurricane Ike. What Kasenow describes is so gut wrenching and horrible that the reader begins to feel like a storm survivor in search of loved ones. It is only when all the book’s characters are finally accounted for, in fact, that readers will feel ready to learn what life has in store for the survivors.

The Last Paradise, filled with humor, drama, tragedy and colorful characters, is a worthy piece of historical fiction. Michael Kasenow tells the story of a city that would likely be much different today if not for the storm that almost destroyed it 108 years ago.

Rated at: 4.5

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Barnes & Noble Loses Less Than Expected

I saw a few days ago that Barnes & Noble lost approximately $2.7 million during the first quarter of 2009, a scary number to a guy like me but less than the bookseller was expected to lose by those supposedly in the know. Digging into the details a little, it seems that both store sales and online sales are slipping for B&N, so the company's problems may be growing as the marketing of books continues to evolve.

Is the Kindle starting to impact B&N's online sales? I don't own a Kindle but I do have a first generation Sony eReader and I can truthfully say that I still, after all this time, much prefer owning a hard copy of a book - even the ones I might be disposing of later, or maybe, especially of the ones I am not all that sure I will want to keep. I know that I can get some cash back, or another book in trade, for a hard copy I own, something that seems impossible (or illegal) with e-books. But maybe I'm one of the exceptions to the rule and Kindle and eReader really are starting to impact the online sales of B&N and Borders.

The bigger problem that I observe when I go to Barnes & Noble is that so many people seem to be there to drink coffee, while trashing a few magazines and newspapers, or to do high school or college homework research. I seldom see those same folks at the cash register when I'm checking out. And, too, it seems that it's mostly bestsellers and other books by "hot" authors that are going out the door when I'm around despite the tremendous number of square feet devoted to publisher back lists. I really, really hope that stores like B&N and Borders survive forever, but I'm starting to wonder what they will look like in another ten years - or if they will even exist (remember Crown books?).

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Second First Time

I think this week's "Booking Through Thursday" meme is one of the best yet. The question is what book would you like to experience all over again just like you experienced it the first time around.

There's no way that I can limit it to one, so let's see what happens once I get started. The funny thing about these books is that I've generally been afraid to read them a second time because I don't want to spoil my great memories of the impact they had on me.

One that comes to mind is Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. I don't remember exactly where I found the book but, once I started reading it, I could hardly put it down and raced through the whole thing in just a couple of days. I had never heard of Anne Rice and had seen no advance publicity on the book that predates all of today's vampire craze. Remember this was 1976 and there was no internet for publishers to spread the word about their new books, so this one caught me completely by surprise. Rice did something in Vampire I would have believed impossible - she made some vampires into sympathetic characters and even had readers thinking about the pros, not just the cons, of that kind of life.

Then there's Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides. I knew Pat Conroy's writing well by the time The Prince of Tides came along, but there was just something special about this one that had me so deeply identifying with the main character that I fell completely in love with the story and its setting. I may have already been a Pat Conroy fan, but it was The Prince of Tides that elevated Mr. Conroy into that handful of authors I consider to be the very best in the business. I was so taken with Prince, in fact, that I bought copies of the book for everyone in the office the Christmas after I read it. People thought I was crazy, I think, but I know that several of them still read Pat Conroy.

I can't skip Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove here because I've often mentioned how Lonesome Dove is my favorite book. Similar to my relationship with the work of Pat Conroy, I was very familiar with Larry McMurtry (a Rice University graduate and a man who spent a lot of good years in Houston) so when Lonesome Dove hit the shelves I grabbed the first copy I saw in my local bookstore - and it blew me away. It was nothing like any of McMurtry's earlier work and I was completely taken with the book's two main characters, Gus and Call, and the touching relationship they had. Even the secondary characters jumped off the page and made me, as a reader, care about what happened to them. The book won a well deserved Pulitzer and turned into a famous television movie that is still one of my favorite movies. Come on, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones - does it get any better than that?

Finally, I want to mention James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, another Pulitzer winner (1988). I have been a Civil War history buff since I was a kid, so we're talking several decades here, but for the first time I found a book that put the entire war into an understandable perspective - and did it in less than 700 pages. McPherson's style makes the book very readable and, in my opinion, is still the standard by which Civil War history books should be judged. I gave a few of these as gifts, too, but they didn't go over as well as I had hoped because some readers are mistakenly intimidated by a book like Battle Cry. I suspect that the ones I gave away are sitting on a few shelves in the same mint condition they were in when I gave them away almost twenty years ago. Maybe I should tell those folks that mint, first editions of Battle Cry of Freedom sell for well over $100 a copy today.

These are four of the books that really got me excited when I discovered them. I could list others, but you get the idea - books can excite a person like nothing else in the world, including songs, movies, and art. I really believe that.

Problem Update

Blogger is aware of the problem - since yesterday morning - and claims to be working on a fix but has not updated their note even one time yet so that we can know what to expect.

Someone posted that by removing the "Followers widget," the problem is eliminated. I'm not ready to do that at this point and I'm hoping that Blogger finally gets it together and solves the problem.

Others say that the blog might load if a person hits the "back button" when that "abort message pops up. I don't think that will work, but I haven't tried it for myself yet.

This stinks, for sure.


EDIT: Problem appears to have been fixed after something like a 36-hour duration (from when I first noticed the problem). I suppose it could have been a lot worse.

Problem with Microsoft Explorer

I noticed yesterday morning that my traffic began to drastically decline, going down by about 80% by the end of the day. I'm still having the same problem today but I may have stumbled onto why it is happening.

Although I seldom use Explorer as my home browser, it is the only browser we are allowed to use at the office. I saw there this morning that Book Chase is not opening in Explorer but thought it might be something going on with the filtering that our office ITS people do.

The bad news is that I just tried opening Book Chase here at home via Explorer and I'm finding that it refuses to fully load, automatically closing before it reaches that point. That explains my traffic dropping off the cliff the way it is.

Is anyone else out there having a similar problem - especially those of you who use Blogger as your source code? I haven't made any changes in days to the blog that would be causing this to happen.

Anybody?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In the Land of Cotton

In the Land of Cotton is Martha Taylor’s very personal look at one of the most volatile and exciting periods in American history, a time during which the Civil Rights Movement changed race relations in this country forever. It was a decade during which America put a man on the moon, fought one of the most unpopular wars in its history, and finally recognized that all men are, indeed, created equal. Like Martha, I came of age in the South during the 1960s. Unlike her, with the exception of how America’s Viet Nam adventure impacted all young men of the time, I was largely an outside observer to what was happening around the country.

When Martha’s story begins in 1956, she is a young girl living a relatively sheltered life with her grandparents in Memphis, Tennessee. One year later Martha’s parents buy a home in a new Memphis subdivision and she moves back home to live with her parents and little sister, a move that will change her life forever. Martha’s parents are happy enough to leave her to herself as long as she is home before dark every evening and she is quick to take advantage of that lack of attention.

Exploring the area on her bicycle one day, Martha is thrilled to discover, deep in the woods near her home, the little family enclave in which Lucy Boyd, her family’s black housekeeper, lives. The Boyd family is at first a little uneasy about having Martha around so much, fearing what might happen if the little white girl is noticed there among them. Martha, however, because she understands her own family’s racial attitudes well enough to know she can never tell them about her visits, is able to continue them in complete secrecy.

And continue, the visits do. Martha comes to know and love the several generations of Boyds living in their primitive family compound and they, in turn, accept her as one of their own. By the time her parents move the family to Texas, the Boyds have taught Martha more about the world and life than she will ever learn from her own parents, and she has become especially attached to Silas Boyd, a young man about her age.

What happens to Martha and Silas over the next few years is as much America’s story as it is their own. Deeply in love though she might be, Martha realizes that her family is never likely to accept her love for a black man. Silas, on the other hand, has the reluctant approval of his mother but knows that being seen with a white girl in the 1960s South could cost him his life. Swept up by the rapidly changing events of the times, their story is one of inspiration and tragedy.

In the Land of Cotton is a touching reminder of those times for those of us who lived through them. Just as importantly, it is a very readable personal history of that period for those too young to remember it for themselves, history told in a manner that makes it both vivid and real – something even the best history books seldom achieve.

Rated at: 4.0



Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Autograph Scammer Goes Down

I enjoy showing off my autographed first editions as much as the next guy - maybe even more. But I try to make sure that I get author signatures in person or, at the least, from a source I know well enough to trust 100%. I have been lucky enough to catch up with many of my favorite writers at various book events, even to getting books signed by Stephen King in both London and Houston, for instance. I have signed first editions from folks like James Lee Burke, Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Mortimer, E.L. Doctorow, Jane Smiley, Ruth Rendell, Clyde Edgerton, Don Robertson, Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, and Frances Fyfield, among others. I even have signed firsts from a couple of my sports heroes, Jim Bouton and Nolan Ryan.

I've sometimes wondered if, by getting a book personalized to me by an author, I was decreasing its value. Older first editions, even those considered "modern," have a tendency to go up in value over the years and I suspect that buyers don't want books with my name written in them - even by the book's author. But I don't intend to ever sell my books, especially the signed ones, so the point is moot.

But there are lowlifes out there willing to sell anything someone else is willing to buy, faked autographs included. Take a look at this KYW Newsradio blurb about one such creep:
According to Dubnoff, Smith bought first-edition books by such authors at Truman Capote, James Michener, Norman Mailer, Tom Clancy, Tom Wolfe and others, forged their signatures, and then sold them at inflated prices on Ebay.

For example, Dubnoff says, Smith bought Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire for $46:

"He sold that same book, this time with a forged signature by Anne Rice in the book, for $566. So his profit was more than 500 dollars on this one book."

Dubnoff says Smith used two different Ebay accounts...
I ran into this kind of thing years ago with baseball cards, programs, and the like. In the 1980s, I was an officer in the official Houston Astros fan group and had easy access to both the visiting and home players. Over the period of about six years, I snagged a few hundred autographs from players, managers and coaches, and I still have every single one of them. When I compare some of the ones I gathered in person to those I see on the internet market, I have to laugh. So many of those shown for sale on the net are such obvious fakes that I can't imagine ever wanting to acquire an autograph through that channel.

It's a "Buyer, Beware" world. Be careful out there.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Nobody Move (Audio Book)

Readers who know Denis Johnson only from his 614-page National Book Award winner, Tree of Smoke, a complicated novel about the Vietnam War, will find it difficult to believe that Nobody Move is from the same author. Nobody Move is short and it is certainly not complicated. The novel, in fact, first appeared in print as a four-part serialization in Playboy in 2008 and the book’s pacing reflects the fact that it was written to be presented in four distinct parts over a period of months.

In a book filled with lowlifes, thugs, enforcers, and other assorted sociopaths, Jimmy Luntz is about the closest thing to a hero there is - proving that everything is, indeed, relative. Luntz, in debt to a cutthroat loan shark, one day finds himself in a car being driven by Gambol, a man who intends to remind Luntz of his monetary obligations by using a $10 crowbar on his kneecaps. Gambol, though, gets careless just long enough for Luntz to gain the upper hand. Luntz, not one to pass up an opportunity to avoid a good beating, manages to shoot Gambol in the leg, steal his fat wallet, push Gambol out of the car, and drive away in the man’s Cadillac.

Jimmy, now on the run in northern California, meets one Anita Desilvera, newly divorced and recently framed by her ex-husband in a $2.3 million embezzlement scheme. Anita is determined to get her hands on the money she has been accused of stealing and sees Jimmy as the kind of “muscle” she needs to get it done. Jimmy, on the other hand, just likes what he sees when he looks at Anita and is happy to be hiding out with someone so attractive.

Jimmy and Anita hatch a plan that will net each of them half of the missing $2.3 million dollars but, when Gambol and his loan shark boss catch up with them, plans change – and quickly. What happens next reads like Raymond Chandler on speed. Denis Johnson pulls no punches. This is a dark book, one filled with violence and brutality but, very much in the Chandler style, Johnson uses dark humor and sharp dialogue to temper what his characters are doing to each other.

The audio version of Nobody Move is read by actor Will Patton, well known for the major books he has narrated in the past, including Johnson’s own Tree of Smoke. Patton’s delivery is perfect for this four-CD audio book, employing exactly the tone needed to deliver Johnson’s sarcastic dialogue and witty give-and-take at its best. Even the most brutal of Johnson’s characters are given distinct personalities of their own by Patton’s vocal takes on their make-up.

This one, bloody as it is at times, is still great fun, and that is due in no small part to Will Patton’s reading. I am not sure that I would have found it nearly so funny in written format but I highly recommend the Nobody Move audio book to readers who have a Pulp Fiction frame-of-mind.

Rated at: 5.0 (audio)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When It Rains...

Several weeks ago, I marked this weekend on my calendar as one of those rare ones I hoped to fill with nothing but a whole lot of live country music. It was almost too good to be true the way things were coming together for that weekend, and you know what happens when something is too good to be true - it doesn't happen.

For starters there was an extremely rare bluegrass concert in a little town just 20 miles north of me. Then there was the private party I snagged an invitation to that was featuring one of my favorite country bands and two other really good ones. And there was the big Country Roots show at Houston's Trader's Village, a huge flea market only 15 miles from home.

Work obligations caused me to miss out on the bluegrass festival but I hoped to make up for that loss by attending the party. Then it happened - lightning, thunder, heavy rains, and even a little flash-flooding. I sat in the car waiting for things to lighten up but, after 40 minutes listening to rain pound the roof and hood of my car, I gave up because the grounds were soaked and that much lightning around tall trees scares me to death.

So everything was washed out for me until today when the weather finally cleared up and I made it out to Trader's Village where I experienced a fun afterfnoon listening to four great bands. I'm posting one video that I shot this afternoon featuring Amber Digby & Midnight Flyer. I have to tell you that my copy of this song is much clearer than what shows up via this YouTube video - why, I have no idea. Something bad happens in the upload process to YouTube, that's for sure.



Amber Digby, Dicky Overbey on steel, Randy Lindley on lead guitar, Ben Collis on bass guitar

Saturday, May 16, 2009

At Least Book Gluttony Does Not Lead to Obesity

I've noticed a "Book Gluttony meme" making the rounds this week and, after reading a few of them, I feel that I'm in good company when it comes to accumulating books.

The meme goes this way:
Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? ? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?
Well, I don't even try to kid myself anymore about my book-buying habits. I do very vaguely remember the days when, as I approached the end of a book, I began to search around the house for the next one. I would consider myself very fortunate to find as many as two books that I had not yet read - three or four unread books in the house at once almost never happened. Let's just say that those days are long gone.

Not only do I now have dozens and dozens of unread books in the house, my reading habits have completely changed. Today, for instance, I'm reading from five different books and I'm down to five only because yesterday afternoon I finished an audio book on the way home from the office. I don't know exactly which book I'll start reading from next, but it is not through a lack of choices that I say that. Just on top my desk I see six unread books. There are dozens more stacked neatly on the shelves and out of sight in various closets - and I know that another half-dozen or more are headed my way via the mail.

Does that stop me from buying books every week? I'll give you three guesses, but I expect you to get it in one.

The short answer is: the number of unread books I own has no relationship to the number of books I am likely to buy this week, or next week, or today. If an opportunity to shop for new books presents itself, I take advantage of the situation. I'm not a frivolous or wasteful shopper, however. Price does matter to me and I love shopping the bargain book tables at Barnes & Noble and Borders more than anything other than attending a big book festival. I do collect the work of certain authors and am willing to pay a premium price for their hard-to-find or out-of-print titles. I also have a soft spot for early editions of Charles Dickens novels and find those hard to pass up if they are in my price range (a range which is, unfortunately, much lower than it used to be).

I am definitely an out-of-control book buyer but, in the great scheme of things, that's pretty much my worst vice these days so I consider myself lucky. Even my wife has finally reconciled herself to the idea that she is likely to find books stashed just about anywhere in the house - and concedes that finding books stashed is better than finding liquor bottles stashed.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"The Last Child" - Winners Announced

I used my handy-dandy random number generator this evening to come up with three random numbers between one and eight in order to pick three winners from the eight entries received in my book giveaway and these are the winners:
Melanie

Rhapsody in Books

Sharon54220
Please send me your names and mailing addresses so that I can send them along to Books-A-Million. I need to send all three addresses in the same email, so please try to email me as soon as possible with an address to which the bookseller can mail your copy of The Last Child. I can't wait to hear what y'all think of the story.

Thanks for participating, for the kind words, and for some great suggestions for me to consider regarding the blog structure here.

(Picture is of John Hart, writer of The Last Child)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Chris Matthews, Book Critic Supreme

Chris Matthews, according to the Christian Science Monitor, is one of the most amazing book critics in the world. Unlike most book reviewers, Matthews has the rather unique ability to review books before they are even written. I only wish I were half as talented as Mr. Matthews.

The main criticism that Matthews makes, after ridiculing Palin's ability to even read a book, much less write one, is that she is using a collaborator to help her with her book.

Now, I am not even close to being a fan of Sarah Palin. Her planned book is not one that would appeal to me in the least - but, unlike Super Critic, Chris Matthews, I realize that does not necessarily mean that Palin is writing a "bad" book.

What I find most ridiculous is that Matthews has such a selective memory when it comes to politicians hiring "collaborators" to help with their books. Did he forget that Hillary Clinton had "help" writing her prize winning It Takes a Village or that very, very few politicians write their own books? Barry Goldwater's famous The Conscience of a Conservative was ghost written but Goldwater got all the credit for the book. There are even rumors that John Kennedy did not write his famous book, Profiles in Courage, and that President Obama may not have written his books without help from a ghost.

This is simply the way that it is done. Politicians are not writers and the vast majority of them on both sides of the aisle do not do their own grunt work when it comes to writing a book.

Get over yourself, Chris. You are not a Super Critic - you, sir, are a rather common Political Hack.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Last Child

Two pieces of good news for fans of detective/thriller fiction: John Hart tells one hell of a good story and he is getting better and better each time out. Set in rural North Carolina, The Last Child tells the story of 13-year-old Johnny Merriman who is still searching for his twin sister who disappeared a year earlier. Johnny refuses to believe that she might be long dead. Instead, convinced that Alyssa is still alive and being held captive nearby, he is consumed with the idea of finding her before it is too late.

Johnny Merriman’s world was shattered by his sister’s disappearance. Unable to deal with his own grief, Johnny’s father has also disappeared, leaving Johnny’s mother at the mercy of a wealthy real estate developer who keeps her so strung out on booze and drugs that she spends most of her time in bed – right where he wants her. As Johnny sees it, he is the only one who can make things right again.

Johnny, though, has an ally in Detective Clyde Hunt, a man who is so haunted by his own failure to find Alyssa that one year later he still cannot get a good night’s sleep. Hunt is, in fact, so obsessed with the case that he has let his obsession destroy his marriage and ruin his relationship with his only son. Because Johnny distrusts all police officers, he searches for his sister on his own, beginning with his attempt at a house-by-house questioning of his entire community. As Johnny digs deeper and deeper into the town’s secrets, the wrong people begin to get nervous and Hunt finds it impossible to protect the boy from himself.

John Hart is a masterful storyteller but, just as importantly, his characters are real people motivated by the same emotions, desires and weaknesses that plague us all. As the plot of The Last Child takes its many twists and turns, the reader knows the characters well enough to predict how each of them will react to events and to each other – or does he just think that he does?

Be forewarned that surprising twists come so fast in the book’s last eighty or ninety pages that it is best to be prepared to read all those pages in one sitting. Once you start reading that last leg, there will be no stopping until you finish the final page.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Giveaway - The Last Child by John Hart

I've been reading an Advance Readers' Edition of John Hart's latest novel, The Last Child, for the last three days and I plan to post a formal review by the end of the week. Today, though, I got an email from the Books-A-Million folks (source of the ARC) telling me that they are providing me with three autographed copies of the book to give away here on Book Chase.

I've enjoyed the book, finding it hard to put down at times, and I'm now about 80 pages from finishing it - and the plot just took a twist that will make the last 80 pages a real treat. What was shaping up to be a good, solid 4-rated book may have just turned into a solid 5. I can't wait to find out.

If you are a fan of hardcore detective/thriller fiction, this book is for you. Here's your chance to snag not just a free copy of the book (released just today), but an autographed one. I have to tell you, guys, I'm a little jealous.

If you want to be considered for the drawing, get your entries in as soon as you can. Books-A-Million will be ready to start mailing books to the winners pretty quickly. All you have to do is reply to this post with a suggestion as to how I can make this a better lit-blog. All ideas will be considered, but the winners will be picked on a purely random number basis.

Get 'em in, guys.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Something to Make You Smile

If this doesn't get your toe to tapping, you're hopelessly depressed. Jackie Wilson was one of the great ones and this is a clever video. I've watched it half a dozen times and still get a kick out of it.

Enjoy.



See, I told you you'd feel better.

7: The Mickey Mantle Novel

Mickey Mantle was one of my childhood heroes. Because Major League baseball did not arrive in Texas until 1962, kids in my part of the world looked elsewhere for their baseball heroes and The Mick was exactly the made-to-order living legend we craved. It was a different world, a time when sportswriters largely ignored the private lives of professional athletes until their personal habits began to affect them on the field. It was only after Mantle retired, in fact, that most of us learned how addictions to alcohol and sex made a complete shambles of Mantle’s personal life – the very things that Peter Golenbock emphasizes in his “Mickey Mantle novel.”

Golenbock is a fine baseball writer and I have read many of his nonfiction accounts over the years, books about Davey Johnson, Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry and Billy Martin, among them. This time he tries to have it both ways, on the one hand emphasizing that the book is an “inventive memoir,” while on the other claiming that Mantle’s closest friends “swear that the incidents in this book are true.” And I suppose that is not impossible if Golenbock means that he embellished a bunch of true stories with details know one could know but Mantle and, in some cases, Billy Martin.

I also agree with Golenbock that it would be difficult to write a novel about Mickey Mantle that did not include numerous segments on his boozing and womanizing since, along with baseball, those were probably the most important things in the world to Mantle. What surprised me, though, considering my familiarity with Golenbock’s other baseball books is how boring he was able to make Mantle’s sex life sound. Rather than simply hinting at the intimate details of Mantle’s sex habits, Golenbock has imagined them in a way that fits every tenth-grade boy’s dreams. I suppose that is the “inventive” part of his “inventive memoir.”

My problem with that approach is that sex scenes (and almost nothing else) consume at least the first half of the book and had me wondering whether Golenbock really had anything to say about Mickey Mantle that mattered. It turns out that he did, and that the patient reader is rewarded for not having earlier abandoned the book out of boredom. Most Mantle fans know what Mantle and the Yankees accomplished in the fifties and sixties but not so much about Mantle’s life after baseball. This is the real heart (and justification) for a book like “The Mickey Mantle Novel,” an account of Mantle’s last years, his fears, and his ultimate despair that will deeply touch all Mantle fans.

Keep in mind, too, that this book was part of publisher Judith Regan’s undoing at Regan Books. It was thought to be so controversial, in fact, that HarperCollins, parent company of Regan Books, dropped the book and it was ultimately published by The Lyons Press, with a first printing of 250,000 copies – many of which, like the copy I bought, are today on bookstore bargain tables all across the country.

Rated at: 2.5

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day, Y'all


I hope you all are having a wonderful day. Slow down a bit and make a special effort to store some special memories from today. Someday in the not too distant future you'll be very happy that you did.

Painting by Lee Lufkin Kaula (1865 - 1957)

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Elizabeth Edwards Gets Her Revenge?

The thought that John Edwards once had a legitimate chance at becoming president of the United States still terrifies me. Personal politics aside, I believe that most Americans now recognize this man for the worm that he is. Who can forget the way he was caught slinking around a California hotel on a post-midnight visit to the mistress (and her baby) he had apparently stashed there for just such occasions. Remember how he holed up (pun intended) in the hotel washroom for something like an hour hoping that the photographers would go away? The shallowness of the man was easier for some to spot than others, but for me the truth was forever exposed in that simple YouTube video showing Edwards combing and patting his hair for several minutes prior to a television appearance. That video earned him the "Breck Girl" title that he still carries.

Do you get the impression that I find John Edwards to be a despicable human being? Well, you're right. At the same time, though, except for the one instance in which she was involved in a political dirty trick of her own, I had great sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards. Still do, for the most part. But like so many people, I have to wonder what motivated her to not only write a tell-all book about life as Mrs. John Edwards, but to hit hard the publicity trail to talk about it to the likes of Oprah, Larry King, that bunch of harpies on the View, and Jon Stewart.

I can't begin to know why Elizabeth Edwards is opening up all the old family wounds again since she is supposedly still living with her husband (of course, that is a huge home and they may not actually see much of each other) while fighting a terminal illness. Perhaps it is her final revenge against a husband who has made her life so miserable and so embarassing. Could it be that she wants to embarrass Edwards and his lover,Rielle Hunter, so badly that Hunter will not dare marry Edwards when that opportunity finally presents itself? Is she trying to poison the minds of her children against their father by telling her side of the story while she still has the chance?

I have no idea. The one thing for sure is that she is not doing it just for the money, so it has to be for more personal reasons such as getting her feelings on paper now rather than leaving that to be done by others after her death.

But will the book actually sell in large numbers? Are that many people really interested in wallowing in all the Edwards mud one more time? Is this what we've come to, America? I, for one, cannot even imagine having this book on my shelves. Helping this woman degrade herself is not something I want to do.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Jodi Picoult Not a Fan of Dan Brown

Right up front, I'll admit that Dan Brown is one of a handful of writers I find it great fun to ridicule on a regular basis. In fact, he is second on my "chuckle list" only to that factory of writers collectively known as James Patterson. Patterson, though, is in a league of his own and should not feel threatened that he will loose his number one slot anytime soon.

Dan Brown is the fellow getting all the attention at the moment, however, and even a few of his fellow writers cannot resist taking a shot or two at him. From The Guardian comes news that Jodi Picoult is getting in on the fun:
Graciously allowing that she doesn't "deny Dan Brown any of his success", Picoult went on to pick apart Brown's best-known novel, declaring that the code-cracking thriller left her cold. "I don't understand the hype over such a poorly written novel - and as an author who does all her own research, I know better than to consider myself an expert in the field I am writing about," she told the Daily Mail. "I believe this was an error in judgment for this particular author."
[...]

Calling Brown "the author that his peers love to hate," the newspaper notes that this kind of criticism is nothing new.
Salman Rushdie memorably laid into him in lecture he gave at the University of Kansas in 2005, during which he called The Da Vinci Code "a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name". The Booker prize winner did, however, allow that despite the apparent paucity of his writing, Brown should be allowed to continue living. "Even Dan Brown must live," he said. "Preferably not write, but live."
I suspect that Mr. Brown, who most likely outsells his critics by multiples of 10 or more, is laughing all the way to the bank - but his books definitely make him a soft target for this kind of criticism.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Sworn to Silence

With Sworn to Silence, the first book in her new Kate Burkholder series, Linda Castilllo makes the big jump from romance novels to suspense thrillers, and she makes the transition look easy. Castillo’s Kate Burkholder, police chief in little Painters Mill, Ohio, is an unusual woman. Raised in the Amish tradition, she is the only person in her immediate family to opt for life in the wider world upon reaching the age at which she could choose her own future. Surprising even herself, Kate chose a career in law enforcement that, several years later, made her the perfect choice to fill the role of police chief in her old hometown.

Once the target of a serial killer who claimed the lives of several of the town’s young women, Painters Mill has been a sleepy little community ever since the murders mysteriously stopped sixteen years earlier. Kate, with ties to both the communities she deals with everyday, and still fluent in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect the Amish prefer to speak to each other, proves to be a popular police chief and she is happy with her decision to return to Painters Mill.

Now, though, the town’s worst nightmares have become its new reality. Someone is kidnapping and killing young women in the area in what seems to be exactly the same way they were tortured and butchered sixteen years earlier. As the murders continue, and Kate does not seem eager to call in outside help, the town leaders lose confidence in her ability to protect them from the sadistic killer who is killing their daughters.

Kate knows that she needs help from experts but, for very personal reasons, she fears bringing in that kind of expertise. She knows who the killer is but cannot name him without exposing a dark secret of her own and betraying her family in the process. By directing the investigation in a certain direction, she hopes to catch the killer without having to expose her family’s secret.
Sworn to Silence is at times a brutal novel because Linda Castillo describes what happens to the killer’s victims in vivid terms, painting pictures that are hard to forget - crime scenes that have even hardened policemen struggling not to vomit. However, Castillo’s refusal to blink at the crime scene, in combination with her well crafted characters, makes the Kate Burkholder series one that I will look forward to reading for years to come.

Sworn to Silence
is not a flawless novel. One of its main characters, Kate’s love interest, achieves an unbelievable turnaround in his personal habits when he is sent to Painters Mill to work on the case, and the book’s ending might seem a bit formulaic to those who consider themselves veteran readers of the genre. These, though, are minor distractions in a book filled with promise of better things to come.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Passing Strange

Historians, and history itself, have not treated Clarence King kindly. King was at one time one of the most famous and admired people in the United States but, if you are like me, you likely have never heard of the man. Born into a wealthy family in 1842, King became famous as the geologist responsible for surveying and mapping diverse regions of the western United States. Always the self-promoter, he published a book about his adventures, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, that became a best seller of its day and made him into a national figure. Two of his closest friends were author Henry Adams and career politician John Hay, former secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. King traveled in the highest circles of society, even dining in the White House on at least once occasion.

All of which makes even more astonishing the fact that Clarence King lived a secret life that even his closest confidants knew nothing of until King was near death or had actually passed. King’s friends were well aware that King, the sole support of his elderly mother and an extended family, was hard pressed to meet his financial obligations. His financial difficulties were so serious, in fact, that King was only able to maintain his standard of living by accepting repeated loans from John Hay and others of his friends, often offering items from his personal art collection as collateral for the money loaned to him.

What King’s benefactors and admirers did not know was that, for some thirteen years, King was living two lives: one as the famous explorer of the American West and another as the husband of a woman who, in 1861, had been born into slavery in Georgia. King represented himself to ex-slave Ada Copeland as James Todd, an extremely light-skinned black man from Baltimore whose work as a Pullman porter required him to be away from home for months at a time. In a day in which a single drop of black blood was deemed to distinguish a black man from a white one, his story was believable enough for King to be accepted into the community in which Ada bore him five children.

Clarence King loved Ada Copeland but he lied about their relationship because he feared the scandal that would result from his marriage to a black woman. He knew that by publicly acknowledging his black wife and mixed-race children he would lose his friends and any chance of earning the income necessary to support either of his families. Although Ada may have suspected that her husband had something to hide, even she did not know the extent of her husband’s secrets until his confessional deathbed letter.

Clarence King’s story is a fascinating one and Martha Sandweiss tells it well. Almost as fascinating is what happened to Ada and her children after King’s death. Ada, who lived to be 103 years old, did not die until 1964, outliving her husband by sixty-two years. Passing Strange includes an account of her determined effort during the 1930s to be recognized as King’s rightful heir and the resulting court case that explains much of what happened after his death.

If this were a movie, no one would believe it.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Library Bureaucracy at Its Best (Worst)

Apparently, head librarians in Brooklyn do not spend much time speaking with each other about what is happening in the library system there. From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle comes the story of a library system "begging for used books" while one of its branches simultaneously places boxes of them on the curb for garbage collectors.


A concerned neighbor notified this paper last week that the Brooklyn Heights branch library had thrown out cartons of readable books of all types. While passersby scavenged through the boxes, stacked for pickup with the rest of the trash on Clinton Street, the hour was late and a rainstorm threatened.
[...]
The timing of the book dumping was especially ironic considering that the Brooklyn Public Library will host its “Great American Book Drive” on Saturday, May 16 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Central branch at Grand Army Plaza. The library has partnered with the socially conscious online used bookseller Better World Books for this event.
Is this a firing offense? I would hope so but, if not, someone needs to be demoted all the way back to shelving books for a year or so.

Aw, Man...

Sad news today from the world of entertainment - and books, too, since Dom was the author of a couple of cookbooks.

According to his son, Dom DeLuise passed away last night. Dom seldom failed to make me laugh whether it was on television or in the movies that I spotted him. He was one of the funniest men of his generation, and that is saying a lot when one considers how many great comics were working at Don's peak.

A Houston Chronicle article had this to say about Mr. DeLuise:

He was 75.

His son, Michael DeLuise, told Los Angeles TV station KTLA and radio station KNX that his father died Monday night.

The actor, who loved to cook and eat almost as much as he enjoyed acting, also carved out a formidable second career later in life as a chef of fine cuisine. He authored two cookbooks and would appear often on morning TV shows to whip up his favorite recipes.

As an actor, he was incredibly prolific, appearing in scores of movies and TV shows, in Broadway plays and voicing characters for numerous cartoon shows.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Dom DeLuise but it still feels as if I've lost an old friend. He was one of the most genuinely likable entertainers ever and he will be greatly missed. Rest in peace, Dom.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Free PDF Copies of Sin and Vengeance

Author CJ West, one of my Facebook friends, is giving away a free PDF download of his novel Sin and Vengeance. CJ tells me that the book has been optioned and adapted for film and that he is giving away free copies to spread the word about the film adaptation and his Randy Black series.

CJ is one of the new breed of writers who understands that he is ultimately responsible for his own marketing campaign and that the days when publishers took care of all of that are over and done for the vast majority of today's writers.

More than 15,000 copies of the novel have already been downloaded, so a lot of people are going to be exposed to CJ's work for the first time. That can't be a bad thing.

Click Here to get your own free copy of Sin and Vengeance.

Rednecks and Bluenecks

The amazing thing about Chris Willman’s Rednecks and Bluenecks is how much has changed since he wrote the book following George W. Bush’s second election victory. At that time, Democrats seemed in disarray and even the staunchest supporters of the party were struggling to get over 2004’s loss to a newly re-elected President Bush. Flash forward to early 2009 and the fortunes of America’s two main political parties have done a complete flip; now it is the staunchest of Republicans who are trying to cope with what happened in the last election.

The remarkably swift turnaround in the fortunes of the two parties makes much of Rednecks and Bluenecks outdated, but the book retains value as an interesting snapshot of the politics of country music at a volatile time in America’s political history. Country music in the early 2000s was well into a musical decline (a decline that has yet to bottom out) that saw it overwhelmed by singers and producers willing to kill its traditions if that would sell more music to the soccer moms chosen as its target audience. Country music went pop and producers created, and discarded, dozens of young singers in an attempt to move product. Tradition, musically or otherwise, did not seem to be much of a concern in Nashville, Tennessee.

However, Chris Willman found in 2005 that conservative politics still dominated the country music industry, despite all the new blood in the city, and that liberal country music stars and executives felt vastly outnumbered by their conservative counterparts. Some of the more liberal recording artists and producers, in fact, told Willman that they feared being too open and outspoken about their politics in an industry within which they were such a small political minority – the same reaction, of course, experienced by conservative entertainers based on either coast of America.

Willman interviewed major country music artists and executives from both sides of the political spectrum, paying a bit too much attention, in the process, to the Dixie Chicks blowup that ended with the Chicks abandoning country music for good. That incident is a good example of the disconnect between country music fans and some country artists but it ended as a media circus milked for profit by those on both sides of the argument - and is not necessarily what it appears to have been on its surface.

Willman points out that the political split between country music artists was influential in creating the alt-country genre, a genre greatly influenced by liberal singers who were at one time part of the hardcore country music family. These days, singers like Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, and others like them are no longer part of country music’s mainstream and have been joined in the alt-country movement by younger artists who share the same politics. Mainstream country, watered down though it may be, is still known for its core values and the conservative singers who best represent those values: Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, etc. Though as rockers like Keith Urban, rappers like Cowboy Troy, and teens like Taylor Swift continue to invade country music, it will be interesting to see whether conservative artists will be overwhelmed by this influx of non-country invaders who are likely to be less conservative than those they replace.

Country music is in the midst of an identity crisis, nothing new about that. Haggard and Cash have themselves straddled both sides of the liberal/conservative line for decades, proving that it can be done successfully. Rednecks and Bluenecks, however, focuses largely on a generation of country music artists that is not being replaced by likeminded singers and pickers. Country music is no longer country and one has to wonder how long it will be before the conservative voice of country music becomes the genre’s new minority. Rednecks and Bluenecks may have snapped a picture of country music’s last hurrah.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, May 03, 2009

An Eight-Book Week - Followed by a Seven-Book Week!


I knew they were coming but the sight of seven more new books arriving in the mail this week filled me with a combination of anxiety and glee. I can't remember ever receiving so many promising books in such a short period of time.

This week I welcomed:
The Turnaround by George Pelecanos - Pelecanos is one of the finest writers of urban crime fiction and this 2008 novel (now in trade paperback) got nice critical reviews last year. Pelecanos is described as a "literary crime writer," and this is the story of some naive young people who stray into the wrong Washington D.C. neighborhood with tragic results. Their story, covering several decades, is one I am really anxious to start.

In the Land of Cotton by Martha A. Taylor - This is a look at life in the Deep South just as the Civil Rights Movement is beginning to pick up steam. It is one little girl's story but I'm curious to see how closely it parallels my own memories of what life was like in the South during the late 1950s.

The Last Child by John Hart - I really enjoyed Hart's Down River and I've recently picked up a free e-book version of his first novel, The King of Lies, from his publisher. This one will be released on May 12 with a first printing of 175,000 copies and lots of high hopes. It is about a 13-year-old boy who decides to search, on his own, for his twin sister who has disappeared.

Border Songs by Jim Lynch - This one promises to be quite a character-driven novel about an American Border Patrol officer working the Canadian border. The publisher, Alfred A. Knoph, seems to be particularly excited about this title, so I'm being tempted to jump right in. Just picking it up long enough to write this bit has, in fact, made me even more anxious to get to it.

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels - My quest for Canadian fiction drew me to this one. It is the story of a Canadian couple, archeologists, who go to Egypt to help save as much of ancient Egypt as they can before engineers flood the area via the new Aswan Dam. Tragedy (of some sort) strikes and they return to Canada as much different people than they were before.

Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg - This is the true story of Beth Luxenberg, believed to be an only child by everyone who knows her, including her own son, who when she is 80-years old suddenly speaks of having had a disabled sister. Her son, both shocked and intrigued by his mother's late revelation, decides to find out the truth of his missing aunt.

The Last Paradise by Michael Kasenow - I couldn't pass up the chance to read this one since it is a novel about the great hurricane that wiped out Galveston, Texas in 1900. I've lived most of my life within 75 miles in one direction or another from Galveston and have always been intrigued by the storm that killed at least 5,000 people and almost wiped the island clean. I've been especially interested in what happened in 1900 since Hurricane Ike came through and smashed Galveston last year. I started reading this one today.

So there you have it, fifteen books received in a two-week period, and I don't smell a clunker among them. Excuse me while I find a comfortable spot to read...

Short Story Sunday: "The Worm in the Apple"

Since my wife's out-of-town this weekend, I read another John Cheever short story with my lunch. I'm reading from a collection of all of Cheever's stories and choosing stories based entirely on my reaction to his titles; if the title makes me curious, or gives me a particular image, I read the story to see how closely my imagined plot fits the actual story.

Some titles, like "The Worm in the Apple," don't tell me much about a story's content but give pointed clues to its tone. As it happens, "The Worm in the Apple" was difficult to predict from its title but, as I suspected, it is another version of Cheever's generally low opinion of life in the suburbs. One has to suspect that Cheever was not exactly a fan of "Leave It to Beaver."

"The Worm in the Apple" is about the Crutchmans, a family that seems too perfect to some to be real. The neighbors believe that the Crutchmans cannot possibly be as successful or happy as they appear and that the family is working doubly hard to hide its problems and failures. Friends and neighbors are not about to let them get away with that little charade.

A few "worms" did show up in the Crutchman apple over the course of the years, of course, as they always will. However, much to the disappointment of those keeping score, the Crutchmans always manage to get past any family setback or misstep and to remain as happy and successful as ever. As Cheever put it, near the end of this little five-page story, "one might wonder if the worm was not in the eye of the observer..."

"The Worm in the Apple" is a reminder that some people are insulated by their enthusiasm for life and that, almost by habit, they make the most of what each day brings them. On the flip side, it also reminds that others are so unhappy with life that they desperately want to believe that everyone else feels the same. Sadly, I have to believe that Cheever himself falls in the latter camp.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Can CBS News and Obama Increase Book Sales?

I'm always fascinated by the power that celebrities have to dramatically increase book sales. We all know that Oprah can create instant bestsellers on her show - even for books published years earlier. The same thing happens, to a lesser degree, in the U.K. via the Richard and Judy Show. I remember when President Clinton was seen carrying a novel in his hand as he made his way to his helicopter for a trek to Camp David - instant bestsellerdom for another author.

Now I wonder if CBS News and President Obama are going to have the same impact with CBS's decision to publicize Obama's recent New York Times interview in which the president mentions the book he is currently reading. The three have teamed up to give Joseph O'Neil's Netherland a shot at the big bucks. This is not a new book, already having sold some 90,000 copies, so it will be interesting to see what, or if anything, happens.
When he gets tired of trying to solve the country’s problems, it seems President Obama likes to kick back with a novel: In an interview with the New York Times, the president said he is "sick of briefing books" and is reading "Netherland" by the Irish author Joseph O'Neill.
...
"Netherland," as one of New York Times's best books of the year, has already sold over 90,000 copies but that number might surge on the news. Mr. Obama has a way of making books wildly popular – when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez gave him a copy of "Open Veins of Latin America," that book shot up to from about 50,000 in total sales to the become the second bestselling book on Amazon.com.
What is it? Do people feel closer to celebrities if they can imagine that they are experiencing the same book that the celebrities have read? Is this really a good thing? Is it fair or is there room for under-the-table dealing to corrupt the whole process? It's a mystery to me, but I'm always happy for the authors and publishers who benefit because what's good for them generally is good for me as a reader.

As I write this, Netherland is number 790 on Amazon's list of bestselling fiction. Will it move?