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Saturday, October 31, 2009

2009 Texas Book Festival - Day 1

I managed to stay pretty much on schedule today with one major exception. I decided to skip the last hour so that I could make a side trip to a little community north of Austin to visit my brand new great niece. It was a good choice and I really enjoyed meeting her (she's five days old now).

I found the session on "Are Books Dead" t0 be fascinating despite the fact (or maybe because) all four presenters are heavily involved in the e-book business. The good news is that everyone on the panel ,and everyone else in the room, agreed that books are far from dead. The bad news is that panel members see the growth of e-books as another nail in the coffin of independent bookstores unless those stores find a way to specialize even more than they already do. There was also an interesting discussion on what public libraries might look like in anothrt ten years - again, not a very encouraging picture for book lovers. More later.

This is the House Chamber in which the first session was held (about 20 minutes prior to the session):


And this is a shot of the front part of the room:



The second session was in the same room and featured four excellent biographers who gave insights into their most recent biographies, their research techniques, biographers they admire, and plans for their next books.

From left to right, Brad Gooch, Blake Bailey, moderator Dwight Garner, Brenda Wineapple and Tracy Daugherty

I admit that I went into the Peter Maass presentation expecting the worst from him in regards to the oil industry and his discussion of his new book, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. Perhaps because he was speaking to a whole bunch of Texans, Maass was pretty even handed and did not try to make the oil companies into complete villains. There is plenty blame to spread around when it comes to oil's impact on producing countries and on the countries so desperately needing the oil of those third-world nations. It is not a pretty picture - and I'll have a whole lot more to say about the book when I can get it finished and sit down to write a formal review.

I managed to get this shot of Peter Mass (on the right) and moderator John Spong without annoying either of them too much (no flash involved):



Peter Maass, author of Crude World

And tomorrow is another day. Austin is pretty wild tonight, especially along its infamous 6th Street where tens of thousands hit the street in celebration of Halloween every year. From what I understand, it's a night the Austin police dread and they expect things to be particularly wild this year because this is the first time that Halloween has been on a Saturday night in eleven years. It's Austin's version of Mardi Gras.

I think I'll stay and read. How sad is that?

Friday, October 30, 2009

2009 Texas Book Festival


The rains have stopped, the temperature has dropped, and it looks it will be a nice weekend for Austin, Texas. I'm leaving early tomorrow morning for my three-hour drive to the capitol where I'll be enjoying Texas Book Festival XIV. I have all my battery chargers going right now so that I'll be able to record video, audio and still pictures when opportunities to do so present themselves.

I've penciled in the following sessions but I'm staying open to last minute changes of plan:
Saturday -

10:00 - 11:00
Are Books Dead?: The Digital Future of Reading, moderated by Bob Carlton

Or

Richard Russo - a 45-minute presentation

11:30 - 12:30
Writing about Writers: Blake Bailey (on Cheever), Tracy Daugherty (on Barthelme), Brad Gooch (on O'Connor) and Brenda Wineapple (on Hawthorne)

1:00 - 1:45
Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America
with Helen Thorpe

2:00 - 2:45
Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil with Peter Maass

3:30 - 4:15
Margaret Atwood - 45-minute session

There are several conflicting sessions I would love to get to and that might result in a change of plans tomorrow. For instance, Joe Lansdale has a session at the same time as the one with Margaret Atwood - and Atwood's is a bit of a walk from where I will be for the previous session. It's the last presentation of the day, and I might decide based entirely on how up I am for a long walk in the opposite direction from where I will be parked. I would also like to make the 2:00 discussion between Elizabeth Berg and Amanda Eyre Ward but I'm reading the Peter Maass book right now and would love to challenge him on his extreme bias against the oil industry (any book of this type with book blurbs from Robert Redford and Robert Reich is a clear indicator of its point-of-view). What to do?

Sunday -

11:00 - 11:45
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle with David Wroblewski and Dick Donahue

12:00 - 12:45
Gerald Posner as presented by The Daily Beast and Texas Book Festival

1:30 - 2:30
Scene of the Crime: Two Texas Mystery Writers with Kathryn Casey and Jay Brandon, moderated by Steven Saylor

3:30 - 4:15
Barbara Ehrenreich on her book, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America," introduced by Sarah Bird

Or

Douglas Brinkley on his new book, "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America," introduced by Evan Smith

4:00 - 5:00
A few minutes listening to the music of one of my favorite Austin singers, Jimmy Lafave

I made a few changes on the fly last year so this is not necessarily who I will see because I'm hoping to get in as much as possible over the two days. The amount of overlap is distressing because for some hours I want to be at three sessions at once and, for other hours, nothing much appeals to me. Oh, well; I suppose that's a nice problem to have.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Demented Censor Runs Wild in Tennessee

Well, it seems that Maury County (Tennessee) Library patrons are going to have to use their imaginations a little more than they thought they would when they went to the library for something to read. The library is being victimized by a mystery censor with a big blue pen and a tiny little mind who is marking out all the "offensive" words in those library books.

MercuryNews.com has the details (what there are of them):
Officials believe the same person has used a blue pen to censor words in between 50 and 100 books during the past several months.

Library Director Elizabeth Potts said most of the books are mystery novels, but the vandal also targeted the "9/11 Commission Report."

Potts said no one is forced to read the books and "if they don't like them, they should just return them."

Potts said the library doesn't have the money to replace the damaged books, so patrons will to have to use their imagination to guess what the blotted out words are.
If this wasn't so stupid, it would be funny. I am so sick of all the nannies out there who think they know better what's good for me than I do. Come on, library system, nab this fool before more books are destroyed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Macmillan Authors Take a Pay Cut


Publishing giant Macmillan (including the Farrar Straus & Giroux and St. Martin's Press imprints) has a new deal for its authors, one that lowers royalties on e-books to 20% of net proceeds received by the company. That is well below the 25% rate paid by most other mainstream publishing houses.

According to the New York Times,
Currently, most popular retailers of digital books sell new releases and best sellers for $9.99 apiece, far below the typical $25 to $35 list price on hardcovers. For now, the retailers still pay publishers a standard wholesale price that is equal to half the list price of a hardcover book, but publishers fear that as e-books grow to a bigger share of the total market, the retailers will pressure publishers to cut their wholesale prices.

Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said that Macmillan was anticipating a time when Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other e-book retailers would try to push down wholesale book prices. “This is Macmillan’s attempt to pre-emptively squeeze authors.”
[...]
Richard Curtis, a literary agent ...said the difference between Macmillan’s standard e-book royalty and other publishers was not the point. “The point is whether we should be playing on such a low ballfield at all,” Mr. Curtis said, “and whether the industry should not really be thinking about a 50 percent royalty of net receipts.” He argued that because the cost to publishers of producing e-books was so low, authors should get a higher proportion of sale proceeds.
What Mr. Curtis says makes perfect sense to me. It costs the publisher relatively little to produce and market an e-book in comparison to doing the same for a paper version of the same title. Why should the authors accept such a small royalty percentage when publishers appear to be making a bigger profit, percentage-wise, on e-books than they make on the paper and cardboard kind?

I am intrigued by how the publishing and book marketing business models are evolving - and by the rapid pace things are changing. This is going to get interesting. At this point, I only hope that things work out well for all of us: publishers, writers, and readers. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Massachusetts Private School Trashes Library - Opens Coffe Bar Instead

Here we go. I suppose it had to happen sooner or later, but Cushing Academy's decision to dump almost its whole library in favor of a lavish rec room seems a little empty-headed to me. According to this USA Today article, the school junked almost all of its library books in favor of Kindles, big screen TVs and a coffee bar. Welcome to the Cushing Cyber Cafe, boys and girls:
Its 20,000-book collection was barely used, administrators say. Spot checks last year found that, on some days, fewer than 30 books, or about .15%, circulated. And it was becoming rather lonely down there.
[...]
So the venerable boarding school west of Boston — the first in the USA to admit both boys and girls — last summer undertook another first: It began getting rid of most of the library's books. In their place: a fully digital collection.
[...]
Three big-screen TVs now greet visitors at the entrance, and the old circulation desk is now a coffee bar. Officially it's called Cushing Cyber Cafe, but students quickly nicknamed the spot "12K Cafe" after its $12,000 espresso machine.
[...]
He concedes that the $12,000 coffeemaker has become a distraction, but he says the real idea behind the cafe was to create "a new commons, a new agora, where people in a convivial setting exchange ideas and socially interact around ideas with culture and literature at their fingertips."
The USA Today article does a good job enumerating the pros and cons of a high school taking this approach with its school library so, if you still find yourself on the fence, you should take the time to read the whole thing. Myself, I have to wonder why these school administrators think that a bunch of students who don't seem to be readers in the first place are suddenly going to become avid readers/users of e-books. I suspect that once the "new" wears off, they will just be watching a lot of television and getting wired on all of the expresso being cranked out by their fancy new coffeemaker.

Private schools can get away with this kind of thing as long as apathetic parents let them but if I were a student there I would hate to have my research limited to only the books available on Amazon.com.

Perhaps Cushing Academy should change its name to Amazon Academy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Even Money

Even Money, the third collaboration between Dick Francis and his son Felix in the last three years, is another in the long line of Dick Francis horse track mysteries, and it is a good one. Longtime fans of Dick Francis might react differently to Even Money, of course, believing that it suffers in comparison to the author’s earlier work. I, on the other hand, having only ever read one other Dick Francis novel, and that many years ago, experienced Even Money more as a standalone novel. And as such, I enjoyed it.

Ned Talbot is thirty-seven years old and has been a bookmaker all his life, having inherited the family business from his grandfather, Teddy Talbot. In fact, when Ned sets himself up to do business at various tracks, the board above his head still says “Trust Teddy Talbot” on it. With the help of Luca, a computer whiz who accepts and manages each day’s bets, Ned makes a decent living for himself and Sophie, his mentally fragile wife. He may be doing quite well but Ned thinks often about how bookmakers are despised by most everyone in the racing world, even those who make their own livings from the services he and his fellow bookies provide.

Ascot is not one of Ned’s favorite racetracks and, in fact, he seldom enjoys setting up shop there. But because his grandfather had considered participation at Ascot to be one of the firm’s best marketing techniques, Ned and Luca are there hoping to make the best of things. What Ned does not bargain for is the stranger who approaches him at the end of the day to claim that he is Ned’s father, a man Ned had thought dead for thirty-six years. Just one hour later, as Ned and Peter Talbot make their way to Ned’s car, they are assaulted by a knife-wielding thug and Ned begins a frantic race of his own, one he has to win if he is to stay alive.

It is relatively common for bookies to be robbed of their day’s earnings before they leave the track, but Ned senses that what happened to him and his father is no ordinary mugging. What he discovers in his father’s rucksack (30,000 pounds in cash, counterfeit horse passports, an electronic device that reminds him of a television remote, and ten little devices each the size of a grain of rice) confirms for Ned that his father was specifically targeted by the man who attacked them. Now he wants to know why.

Even before the sudden appearance of his father, Ned has a lot going on in his world. Sophie is bipolar and her illness has gotten so bad that she has again been institutionalized for treatment; Luca is threatening to quit the firm unless Ned makes him a full partner; and the grandmother who raised him is suffering from dementia and living in a nursing home. Via these subplots, the reader comes to see Ned Talbot as a real human being who has managed to get himself in way over his head - and that is half the fun of Even Money.

I particularly enjoyed the novel’s details of how the world of bookmaking works, how odds are set, how bookies cover themselves with side bets of their own (a bit like insurance companies cover themselves by reinsuring their risk through other companies), and how they view themselves and those with whom they do business. I have not been a fan of this type of novel in the past but that little bit of “inside information” makes it more likely that I will seek out other Dick Francis novels now.

Rated at: 4.0

(Advance Reader Copy provided by G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Alternate History Sunday - The Winterberry

I read a whole lot of science fiction as a young teen and, in fact, I credit that genre for turning me into the avid reader that I am. The fifties and sixties were a nice period for science fiction writers, a couple of decades during which some of the real masters were reaching their peak or first appearing on the scene, and it was exciting to see what they would come up with next.

Alternate history is sometimes considered to be part of the science fiction world but that assumption can be misleading because so much alternate history is a rewrite of military history or other major world events. Of course, lots of alternate history does involve time travel and, as Harry Turtledove points out in his introduction to The Best Alternate History Stories of the 2oth Century, so many well known science fiction writers have very successfully written alternate history that it seems natural to lump the two genres together.

I dipped into Turtledove's anthology this morning to read "The Winterberry" by Nicholas A. DiChario - and I wish I could tell you more about this little gem but whatever I tell you might ruin its impact. So I'll be very careful. "The Winterberry" is a bit unusual as alternate history goes in that the author leaves it up to the reader to figure out exactly what piece of history is being rewritten.

The clues DiChario offers are more and more obvious until suddenly everything becomes clear. The story is only ten pages long and, honestly, not much happens. But when that little light goes off in your head, "The Winterberry" becomes a story you will remember and think about for a while because what the story's mentally handicapped narrator tells you about his life in his big house takes on a whole new meaning. Enough said.

Fuzzy as all of this must be, I hope it manages to influence a few people to find and read the story. I think you will like it - and you might develop a taste for alternate history in the process.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Little Bird of Heaven

Little Bird of Heaven is vintage Joyce Carol Oates, so much so, in fact, that fans of her writing will immediately recognize the novel’s setting and tone. Krista Diehl, the young girl whose father Eddie is suspected of the brutal murder of his mistress, is beginning to realize just how dangerous the world can be for a girl fast approaching sexual maturity. She is both repelled and fascinated by the boys and men with whom she is beginning to come into contact, and what her father is accused of having done leads her to the conclusion that men are dangerous beings. When her father one day emotionally grabs her by the wrist, her first thought is “Always you are astonished. Their size, their height. Their strength. That they could hurt you so easily without meaning to.”

Zoe Kruller was somewhat of a minor celebrity in little Sparta, New York. She was the best thing that her bluegrass band had going for it and any performance of theirs at the local park was guaranteed to attract the attention of a large number of male admirers, men who found it difficult to resist Zoe’s charms. To Krista, however, Zoe was the woman who served her ice cream at the local dairy and always remembered her name. She was Krista’s friend. That she was also her father’s mistress and that he would be accused of her bloody murder would change Krista’s life forever.

Also changed forever by Zoe’s murder would be her son Aaron, a boy whose own father is believed to be the most logical suspect in the murder if Eddie Diehl can prove that he is not the killer. Aaron, already on somewhat of a downward spiral of his own, is as certain that his father is not guilty of the crime as Krista is sure that her own father did not do it. Krista’s determination to find the truth about her father and his relationship with Zoe Kruller leads her to become as obsessed with Aaron Kruller as her father had been obsessed with the boy’s mother.

Oates tells her story from two distinct points-of-view. The first half of the book is filtered through the eyes of Krista Diehl who is really too young to understand everything that she discovers about the murder. This part of the book focuses on the gradual disintegration of the Diehl family which results from everything that happens to them following the murder. Aaron Kruller narrates the second half of the book and, since he is older than Krista, he fills in some of the blanks of Krista’s version of the events before and after his mother’s murder. Inevitably, these two young people have so much in common that their paths cannot help but cross – in a way that neither of them could have imagined and from which each are lucky to come out whole.

Little Bird of Paradise is a novel about self-discovery, pain, loss and how children so often have to pay for the sins of their parents. It is well written, as is almost always the case in a Joyce Carol Oates novel, but it is sometimes not easy to read because one feels, almost from the start, that its two narrators are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their fathers. This sense of impending doom will, however, keep readers turning the pages all the way to the end.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Look Out Kindle - Nook Has Landed

The new Barnes & Noble e-book reader, known as Nook, may prove to be more of a headache for Amazon's Kindle than the Sony Reader has been. Nook offers some important features that users of the Amazon and Sony readers can only dream about: sharing of e-books and the first inkling of a color screen. According to Computer World, the color screen is limited to search results that come via Nook's "virtual keyboard," but that is a good start and it is certain to gain the Nook a second glance from anyone shopping for an e-book reader. Most important, however, is that Barnes & Noble e-books can be loaned to friends who have either a Nook of their own or access to the free download that B&N offers to computer users and those who own certain smart phones.
Nook weighs 11.2 ounces and is 7.7 x 4.9 x .5 inches in size. The upper electronic paper display, with 16 levels of gray scale, is 6 inches diagonally, while the lower color LCD display is 3.5 inches.

A first in e-readers will be the ability for users to lend their e-books for up to 14 days at a time. With LendMe technology, an e-book can be shared to a friend's Nook, iPhone, iPod touch, and some BlackBerry and Motorola smartphones, possibly the upcoming Cliq, which is based on Android. Desktop and laptop PCs with Barnes & Noble eReader software can also receive the books being lent.

Users can also listen to songs uploaded through a computer to the Nook, as well as audiobooks and podcasts, using standard headphones.
OK, Amazon. The ball is back in your court now. The Nook is priced at $259, same as the Kindle, so here's hoping that Amazon and B&N start a little price war of their own. Come on, guys, it's all about market share at this point...start slicing away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Glenn Beck's Common Sense

Considering today’s political environment, I feel it necessary to emphasize that this is only a review of Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. It is not a review of Glenn Beck, the man. It is not a review of Fox News Channel or the program that Mr. Beck has on that network. It is a book review – period – and that is all it is meant to be.

That said, there is a whole lot of common sense in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense (including a copy of the Thomas Paine work that inspired Beck’s book). Simply put, Beck does not trust those who have been elected to represent us in Washington D.C. and he has not trusted them for a long time. He does not trust Democrats, and he does not trust Republicans, to represent properly the wishes of the people who give them their jobs and who pay their salaries. And based on the mood of this country, particularly as expressed since early this summer, Glenn Beck has a lot of company.

According to Beck, it is impossible to trust a President and members of Congress when:

· They will not tell us any hard truth that would hurt them at the time of their next election
· Every President since Carter has promised to lower the country’s dependence on foreign oil but we import more oil than ever from our political enemies
· They promise a protective fence on our southern border, appropriate the funds, and never intend to build it
· They use racial and ethnic politics to keep themselves in office
· They see themselves less as public servants than as an entitled political class all their own
· They vote as directed by those who contribute the most to their campaign war chests rather than as would be best for those they actually represent
· So many of them have one set of tax rules for themselves and another set of rules for the rest of us

Make no mistake about it. Glenn Beck believes that we are living in dangerous times and that personal freedoms have never been more under threat in this country than they are today. According to him, these truly are desperate times – but he is not ready to surrender because he believes there is still enough time to fashion a return to the core values that made this country so unique in the world. He is convinced that our best days are not behind us, that we are already on the way back, and that public dissent and debate is what will finally get us there. Rather than waiting for others to express their unease with what is happening in Washington, Beck argues that our newfound sense of urgency should encourage each of us to express, loudly and clearly, our personal misgivings about what we see happening. The country can no longer afford our silence and apathy.

Beck believes that the average American has enough common sense to know when something does not pass the smell test. He is betting there are enough Independents to save us from those who have lost touch with their own common sense – Democrats, Republicans and Progressives, alike.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, October 19, 2009

Little Bird of Heaven - So Far

I seldom post about a book before I finish it but I have to say how much I'm enjoying the new Joyce Carol Oates novel, Little Bird of Heaven. I started it on Saturday morning and read about sixty percent of the book over the weekend. It's a deceptively "thin" little volume and I didn't realize that it was 442 pages long before I got well into it. I wish other "chunksters" would use the same paper that is used in this one because I could get a lot more books on my shelves that way.

Little Bird of Heaven is the story of a brutal murder and it is told from two distinct points-of-view. The first part is narrated by the daughter of the man who is suspected of the murder, and the second part by the young man whose mother was killed. It slips back and forth into scenes before the murder and after the murder and, piece by piece, a detailed story becomes clear. The second part of the book, which I am only about 60 pages into, so far has not revisited any exact scenes from the first part but it hits all around those scenes.

It is the intricate plotting of the book that really intrigues me. I enjoy working puzzles and that's what reading Little Bird of Heaven is like. I've seen comments on Amazon that this is a boring book - and maybe it is for readers who have to have lots of action in their novels. Those who enjoy character studies, however, are going to love this book as much as I already do (although I am beginning to suspect that the murderer will not be identified at all).

Target Jumps into Book War

The book war we were discussing last week has just become more interesting with Target’s decision to join battle with Wal-Mart and Amazon to see who can sell the “most anticipated” books of the Christmas season the cheapest. Consumers, of course, welcome any kind of price war but now the publishing industry itself is beginning to wonder if this is really a good thing.

According to this New York Times article:
Publishers, booksellers, agents and authors, meanwhile, fretted that the battle was taking prices for certain hardcover titles so low that it could fundamentally damage the industry and the ability of future authors to write or publish new works.
[...]
“If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over,” said David Gernert, Mr. Grisham’s literary agent. “If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s ‘Ford County’ for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer’s attention away from emerging writers.”
[...]
“What this does is accentuate the trend towards best sellers dominating the market,” Mr. Petrocelli (owner of San Francisco indie bookstore Book Passage)said. Without independents, decisions about what books to put on store shelves would reside in the hands of a few corporate executives rather than hundreds of idiosyncratic booksellers, he said.

“You have a choke point where millions of writers are trying to reach millions of readers,” Mr. Petrocelli said, “but if it all has to go through a narrow funnel where there are only four or five buyers deciding what’s going to get published, the business is in trouble.”
Despite having at least one of his books included in the "most anticipated titles" (the shock here is that he doesn't have two or three of his 150 books a year in the list), even James Patterson seems to have his doubts about how smart all of this is:
“Imagine if somebody was selling DVDs of this week’s new movies for $5,” Mr. Patterson said. “You wouldn’t be able to make movies.” He added, “I can guarantee you that the movie studios would not take this kind of thing sitting down.”
So there you have it. If the super-brilliant, wonderful writer and all-around Superman, James Patterson, thinks this is not good, it can't be good. After all, no one knows how to manipulate the bestseller lists better than Mr. Patterson.

I'm embarrassed to say that I agree with Superwriter. This might just backfire on those of us who don't shop the generally poor books that dominate the bestseller lists by squeezing higher quality books right off the press.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Despite never having read Little Women, I managed to obtain, over the years, a general understanding of the book’s plot and characters by reading about its author and her most famous novel. The Alcott family, with its numerous connections to the literary elite and thinkers of its day, has long fascinated me but it is only in recent years that I have become curious about the work of Louisa May Alcott herself. My interest was particularly peaked, I think, by Geraldine Brooks’ March, a wonderful fictional account of what Mr. March was up to during the times he left the four little women and their mother home alone to fend for themselves. Now, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women has convinced me that it is finally time to sit down and read Little Women for myself.

Harriet Reisen reminds us that, in her day, Louisa May Alcott was as big, if not bigger, than Mark Twain. Her books sold in astonishing numbers, eventually making her a very wealthy woman who was able to support her entire extended family with the royalties they earned. She was perhaps the J.K. Rowling of her day - but life was not always so kind to Louisa May Alcott.

Born to a father who never quite figured out how to earn enough to support his family, life for Louisa and her sisters was difficult. The girls often ended the day hungry and there was seldom any money for dresses or housing comparable to those of their friends and relatives. The Alcott family, in fact, was dependent on those same friends and relatives for the loans and gifts without which they might not have survived as an intact family. And what a list of friends and relatives they had, among them, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and supporters of the Transcendentalist movement in which Bronson Alcott played such an important role.

Bronson Alcott may have been the genius his friends believed him to be, but he was also the kind of dreamer who could never turn his dreams into the reality he envisioned for them. Bronson, however, had great faith that his family would somehow be provided for despite how little effort he made to support them himself. He was always willing to accept whatever monetary help his generous friends offered but his second-born daughter Louisa was determined that the family would one day earn its own way and repay all the debts her father had ignored for so long.

From the beginning Louisa was motivated by the money she could earn from her writing, seeing her efforts as the best chance to bring her family to financial respectability Determined to make it happen, she wrote quickly in marathon stretches that would often leave her bedridden and unable to write again for several weeks or months. But despite her illnesses, which grew more serious after her experience as a Civil War hospital nurse, Louisa earned enough money to give both her immediate and extended families the luxurious lifestyle none of them could have ever expected to see.

The Woman Behind Little Women offers remarkable insights into the inner workings of the Alcott family and Louisa’s role as provider and near-matriarch of the family. Fans of Little Women will be naturally drawn to the biography and coming PBS Alcott documentary, but I suspect that others lucky enough to discover The Woman Behind Little Women will be just as intrigued by what they learn. There is so much here that even the biggest Alcott fan will come away with a new appreciation of what this great writer accomplished in her relatively short lifetime.

Rated at: 5.0

(Advance Reading Copy provided by Henry Holt and Company)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wal-Mart and Amazon Start Book War

You know, I really miss those gas wars that were so common when I was a teenager and young adult. Remember those? They would generally break out between competing gasoline stations sitting across the street from each other on the same corner. Before you knew it, the price of gasoline might drop by forty or fifty percent and stay that way until both stations realized they could not afford to keep the pumps open at those prices. As consumers, we made out like bandits.

Well, here's a bit of good news. Looks like Wal-Mart and Amazon are about to start a book war. According to the Wall Street Journal, it will happen just in time for our Christmas shopping (of course, all good book buyers will continue to buy locally from indie sellers...right?). Too, you have to be willing to shop exclusively from the best seller list to take advantage of all of this.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. launched a brash price war against Amazon.com Inc. on Thursday, saying it would sell 10 hotly anticipated new books for just $10 apiece through its online site, Walmart.com.

That was just the beginning.


Hours later, Amazon matched the $10 price, squaring off in a battle for low-price and e-commerce leadership heading into the crucial holiday shopping season. Wal-Mart soon fired back with a promise to drop its prices to $9 by Friday morning.
This could get interesting.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's a Book a Day for Nina Sankovitch

Nina Sankovitch is my new book-blogging hero - heck, even the New York Times is impressed with what Nina has challenged herself to do and how well she is getting it done.

What's she doing? Well, how about reading a book every day and writing about each book on her blog? Those of us who have been at this thing for a while know how high a mountain Nina is climbing because most of us are happy to break 100 books and book reviews a year (a milestone I reached this past Sunday, by the way).

According to the Times:
Last Oct. 28, on her 46th birthday, Nina Sankovitch read a novel, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” by Muriel Barbery. The next day she posted a review online deeming it “beautiful, moving and occasionally very funny.”
And that's how it started.

[...]
In a time-deprived world, where book reading is increasingly squeezed off the page, it is hard to know what’s most striking about Ms. Sankovitch’s quest, now on Day 350, to read a book every day for a year and review them on her blog.
[...]
There were a few close calls — Christmas, for example, when she did not start reading until 10 p.m. She has household help for a day every other week, and it doesn’t hurt that the family is comfortable economically or that the household, now in full Halloween mode, seems to have a suburban Glass family quality. Peter, her 16-year-old, is reading Pynchon; the 14-year-old, Michael, reads Ayn Rand and political screeds like those by Al Franken; and asked what kind of books he likes to read, George, the 11-year-old, replied, “Long books.”
I love the thought that the New York Times is showing a little love to a fellow book blogger, so let's return the love by reading the whole article (see the link highlighted, above).

And, best of all, here's the link to Nina's blog. I'm adding her to my blog roll to see what she does on day 365 and, even more intriguingly, on day 366. Check her out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City

Raymond Chandler set his stories and novels in a Los Angeles that sometimes seemed to me to be part of an alternate universe. The city was still recognizable but something was always just a little off about it. Chandler created his striking version of Los Angeles so successfully, in fact, that it often seemed more real, if rather more odd and dangerous, to me than the real city streets of L.A.

I followed Chandler into his Los Angeles before I ever saw the real thing for myself and I was somewhat disappointed by what I saw when I finally got there. The two cities, real and imagined, just did not match up all that well for me. After having read Catherine Corman’s photo-filled Daylight Noir, I now know for sure that the problem was entirely my own. Daylight Noir is filled with moody black and white photographs of many of the locations prominently featured in Chandler’s work, photos as arresting as the images created by Chandler himself.

My problem was that I was looking at Los Angeles through modern eyes and in living color. Corman solves that problem by producing all of her photos in high contrast black and white, just as they might have been photographed in Chandler’s heyday. The reader will note, too, that there are no people in any of the pictures, a tactic that further enhances the feeling of big city loneliness so common in Chandler’s work. Catherine Corman has an artistic eye and her photographs reflect that artistry. They are shot from unusual angles, only rarely straight on, and yet have the look of pictures that could have been taken in the early decades of the last century.

Corman’s photos tell me more about Los Angeles than any of those thousands of self-promoting, touristy, pictures I have seen over a lifetime. As a bonus, they also remind me why I love Raymond Chandler’s work so much and they make me anxious to revisit his stories for the first time in a long while. Daylight Noir is the perfect companion piece to Raymond Chandler’s mysteries and I plan to keep it near my Chandler collection so that I can refer to it the next time I crack open one of his hardboiled stories.

Daylight Noir
should appeal equally to fans of photo collections and to fans of the remarkable work of Raymond Chandler.

Rated at: 5.0

(Advance Reading Copy provided by Charta)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Death on the River

Young Jake Clay managed to get himself into the American Civil War just long enough to have his brains scrambled by a blow to the head at the battle of Cold Harbor. But, as it turned out, he was one of the lucky ones because he fell so close to the Confederate lines that he was almost immediately snatched up and taken prisoner. Others, less fortunate, died miserable deaths in the field when General Grant refused a truce during which the dead and wounded from both armies could be cleared from the battlefield.

It is the first taste of battle for Jake Clay and, as big a shock as battle is, he is about to get an even bigger one when he arrives at the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia. Na├»ve young man that he is, Jake soon finds himself giving William Collins all the cash he has in exchange for promised protection that will help ensure his survival despite the horrible living conditions of the prison camp. Collins, a former big city street thug, is the self-appointed leader of what he calls Mosby’s Raiders, criminals who kill and steal from their fellow prisoners at will.

Jake Clay entered Andersonville Prison an innocent boy with high expectations of himself but, by the time he left the camp, he had condoned behavior that shamed him. He might be barely alive, but to stay out of the Andersonville cemetery he had done things, or allowed them to be done on his behalf, that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Little did Jake know that his journey home at the end of the war would offer him a final chance at redemption – an opportunity that would almost kill him in the process.

Death on the River, aimed at the Teen Market, offers a realistic look at Civil War fighting and the horrors of Andersonville Prison without over-focusing on the gory details. Jake Clay is a Union Army volunteer primarily because his older brother has already been lost in battle and Jake wants to honor his brother’s memory. Jake, though, like most soldiers of the period, has little idea what he is getting himself into as his first battle approaches and, like so many others, his first fight will be his last.

This historical coming-of-age novel is so filled with adventure that it might very well lead its young readers to search for more books on the American Civil War, much as I did at that age after I read Red Badge of Courage for the first time. Several decades later, I still find myself drawn to Civil War fiction, new histories of the war, and biographies of those who played a role in it. Here’s hoping that books like Death on the River help spawn a new generation of amateur historians who will move on to Civil War fiction classics such as MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize, or Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, another Pulitzer winner (1975).

Rated at: 4.0


(Advance Reading Copy of Death on the River provided by Orca Book Publishers)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rainy Weekends and Books

It's been raining steadily here for the last two days - and at least once a day for what seems like at least the last 10 days. But that's not all bad. Not leaving the house since Friday afternoon has allowed me to get in some extra reading hours, watch a movie or two, and watch some of the Civil War documentaries I've recorded from the History Channel.

In fact, I finished three books in the last two days: Lit by Mary Karr, Death on the River by John Wilson, and Daylight Noir by Catherine Corman. Lit is the Mary Karr memoir I wrote about last week, the volume that chronicles Mary's struggles with alcoholism, her marriage problems, her surprising turn to prayer, and her literary success. Death on the River is a Young Adult novel about the famous Andersonville prison where so many Union soldiers died during the Civil War, and Daylight Noir is a photograph book filled with pictures of buildings and locations mentioned in various Raymond Chandler novels.

I have a movie to recommend, one that I stumbled on this weekend. It's called A Family Thing and it stars Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones, a hard-to-beat combination of great actors. It involves a man in rural Arkansas who learns something shocking about his birth shortly after his mother dies. I won't say anything more because it is difficult to describe this movie without leaking a spoiler or two. Let's just say that if you enjoy great acting, lots of drama, and a few tears with your movies, you will probably love this one.

And speaking of a few tears, it's time for me to get back to the football game between Houston and the Arizona Cardinals. It's going to be a long, long football season for Texan fans.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Dear Federal Trade Commission


Dear Federal Trade Commission,

I am formally notifying you that I take pride in my amateur status when it comes to reviewing books here on Book Chase. As you will notice, if you bother to look around, I do not sell any ads on Book Chase relating to books or anything else.

I do, of course, receive a number of Advance Reading Copies of books throughout the year and I review close to 100% of the books that make their way to me that way (after carefully choosing from the titles I am offered). It appears that your new blogger guidelines consider ARCs as a form of compensation for my reviews. For that reason, I will include a disclaimer in each review from this date forward that involves an ARC received directly from a publisher.

In addition, I note that the little Amazon.com icons I place after most of my book reviews might be the source of a problem for me. After all, Book Chase readers have followed those links so many times that Amazon has paid me almost $10.50 this year (money I used to purchase a book for a Book Chase giveaway). At that rate, I will soon be able to retire from my day job and do this as a profession. I place the Amazon icons after my reviews only because I take pleasure in the fact that I might play a tiny role in moving a few books into the hands of readers who may have otherwise missed them.

While we are having this little chat, Mr. FTC, I have to ask why bloggers are expected to disclose the receipt of free ARCs and are not allowed to run related ads while print reviews are not held to the same standard. Why are magazines and newspapers not held to the same high ethical standards expected of book bloggers?

Thank you for your time.

Here's hoping that my efforts here at Book Chase meet with your wholehearted approval. I wish I could say the same for your efforts but I outgrew the need for a Nanny several decades ago.

Your pal,

Sam Sattler
Book Chase

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Travel Writing

Peter Ferry is a storyteller and his debut novel, Travel Writing, is one terrific story. The novel’s dedication is the first clue that Ferry has chosen to write something a little different to mark his first time out. It will not take long for alert readers to notice that the three people to whom the book is dedicated have the same names as three of its main characters, nor that the author himself is the novel’s narrator. Soon enough, the reader is wondering what is real and what is not - and that is half the fun of Travel Writing.

Fictional Peter Ferry (as well as real life Peter Ferry) is an English teacher who makes a few bucks on the side writing newspaper travel pieces. He is also a born storyteller and he motivates and inspires his high school students by example, often telling them on-the-fly stories in class, rather than by preaching the mechanics of writing. All in all, Ferry is pretty content with his life, but all of that changes one winter night when he witnesses a car crash that claims the life of a young Asian woman.

Only moments before her death, Ferry had noticed the woman’s erratic driving before she pulled alongside him at a stoplight. The two make brief eye contact as Ferry realizes the woman is either too drunk or too ill to drive safely but before he can intervene she speeds away to her death. Realizing that his was the last face the woman would ever see, Ferry becomes haunted by his inaction, always wondering if he could have saved Lisa Kim’s life by acting more quickly and decisively.

This is the story Peter Ferry chooses to tell his high school English class, a story of one man’s personal obsession with the death of a woman he never knew in life but comes to know intimately after her death. Having failed to save her life, Ferry is determined to find out why she died. He is so obsessed with solving the mystery of Lisa Kim that he is soon neglecting his work and his live-in girlfriend to the degree that he is in danger of losing both. As Ferry comes closer and closer to the truth about what happened that winter night, readers will find themselves intrigued by the truths he uncovers.

But did any of this actually happen or is it all just an exercise being used by Peter Ferry to make a point about creative writing to his English class? Just about the time one begins to forget that Ferry is a writing teacher, the author yanks him back to his classroom to discuss the story with his young students. Further complicating things is the book’s narrative structure. The story is told from the past to the present with flashbacks and related travel pieces interspersed throughout, a choice that further helps to blur truth and which leads to the novel’s clever ending.

Did it happen? I found that I was not sure, and that I really did not care much, because I enjoyed the story for what it is, just as Mr. Ferry’s English class is so intrigued by it. I did have great fun along the way trying to decide whether or not the story is just part of Mr. Ferry’s lesson plan or if it really happened to him. But, in the end, despite all the fun readers will have with it, this is a book with a serious message about personal responsibility and how far that responsibility extends into the lives of perfect strangers.

Travel Writing is a remarkable first novel which, at least for now, moves into my 2009 Top Ten.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mary Karr, Hometown Hero

I grew up in a little backwater town in southeast Texas that lets me call people like Janis Joplin, Tex Ritter, Frank Robinson, George Jones, The Big Bopper, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Johnny & Edgar Winter, Jimmy Johnson, Evelyn Keyes, Mark Chesnutt, Clay Walker and Tracy Byrd hometown heroes. Admittedly, not everyone on this list has had the same impact on our national culture - and they were born, or grew up, in several different cities in Jefferson County. But I still claim them all.

I got to thinking about the list today (and there are others I could add) when I put down an ARC of Mary Karr's new memoir, Lit, because Mary is another of my hometown heroes. And, book nerd that I am, she is near the top of the list for me these days. I grew up in Backwater, Texas, a full decade ahead of Mary but much of what she has written about her childhood and her own Great Escape hit very close to home for me. I feel like I know her - and, in a way, I do.

Lit is the perfect title for part three of Mary's overall memoir because of the word's double meaning. Mary Karr is a respected poet and her previous memoirs, The Liars Club and Cherry have done quite well, I think, because of the frank way she exposes her life to the scrutiny of her readers. So, in one sense, Lit refers to Mary's literary reputation and achievements. Unfortunately, Lit has another connotation in Mary's life, a good portion of which has been spent fighting her alcoholism, a disease from which both her parents also suffered.

What Mary Karr has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, amazes me. I know where she came from and I know how hard it is to escape from that kind of place. I hope to get a moment at the Texas Book Festival on Halloween weekend to tell her just how proud I am of her.






Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood

I hesitate to write a third consecutive post about the new Pooh book - but here goes, anyway.

Because of a fluke in my work schedule, I had the opportunity this afternoon to get my hands on a copy of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood. I stopped at my local Barnes & Noble store on the way home and spotted a little display of about a dozen of the books at the entrance to the children's section.

The book retails for $19.99 but B&N, if I remember right, is offering a 10% discount. I was the only person in the store who seemed at all interested, but a Tuesday afternoon might not be the best time for me to make a judgment regarding any buzz that might be generated by the new book.

Physically, at least, this is a beautiful little book. It is printed on high quality paper and I enjoyed thumbing through the book's numerous illustrations. I read one of the stories but it has been so long since I read the original Pooh stories it would be unfair of me to compare the two. It will be interesting to read the reviews which should start showing up in the next few days.

Monday, October 05, 2009

"The Same Pooh Bear, but an Otter Has Arrived"

The responses to yesterday's post on the new Pooh book make me believe that there are a whole lot of people who feel uneasy, if not perturbed, by its release to bookstores today. The New York Times has a good article today on "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood" that hits on some of the same points we discussed:
“Some people said it shouldn’t be done, and there will still be some of that now, this feeling that this is a gleaming jewel in the world of children’s books and don’t mess around with it,” Michael Brown, chairman of the Pooh Properties Trust, said of creating the sequel. “This doesn’t damage the original stories at all, though, and allows us to continue the stories in a world of kindness, cheerfulness, laughter and fun.”


A less sanguine assessment came from Elizabeth Bluemle, a children’s book author, co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt., and president of the Association of Booksellers for Children. Spinoffs and sequels tend to be “thin soup,” she said in an e-mail message, and can keep children away from the original, better-written books.

“It’s just too much to hope that someone who isn’t the original writer will capture the voice, character, setting, pacing (and all the other elements of bookmaking) in the right measure,” Ms. Bluemle added, saying that she was not singling out “Return,” which she has not read.
David Benedictus, author of the new book responds:
“I didn’t want to do parody; I didn’t want to do pastiche,” Mr. Benedictus said of the danger of imitating someone else’s style. “Dorothy Parker thought Pooh was twee beyond words.”

Whether or not Pooh is twee, Mr. Benedictus said he stayed true to the original characters. “I made Eeyore a little more proactive so he wasn’t always the victim, although you can’t turn him into Gary Cooper or something,” he said. “Pooh may have put on an inch or two, but he’s the same old bear.”
And there's the problem. Mr. Benedict admits to changing the very character and personality of Eeyore and he has added "Lottie the Otter" to the beloved cast of characters created by A.A. Milne. I see red flags popping up everywhere and I'm more uneasy about the book than I was yesterday. This just doesn't feel right - but it is probably closer to the original than the Disney version, proving again that all things are relative.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Piglet Says Christopher Robin Is Back in the Forest

The buzz in the Forest is that Christopher Robin is back. Owl, Rabbit and Piglet have all heard the same thing and, though no one has seen Christopher yet, the possibility is all they can talk about.

Well, the rumors are true and Christopher returns to the Forest and his old friends tomorrow when Dutton Chrildren's Books (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group) releases the first new Winnie-the-Pooh book in 80 years. The finished book was delivered to Dutton in January but its contents have been a carefully guarded secret until now - no review copies were released and the first chapter was made available for preview only last week.

From the official press release comes these details:

Written by David Benedictus and illustrated by Mark Burgess, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood continues the adventures of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore and friends. Egmont Publishing will publish the book simultaneously in the UK. Penguin Audio will publish an audio version of the book read by Grammy Award-winner Jim Dale. The book has an announced first printing of 300,000.
[...]
Dutton officially introduced Christopher Robin and his "silly old bear" to the US in 1926 with the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E.H. Shepard. However Pooh had a significant walk-on role in 1924 with the publication of When We Were Very Young by A.A Milne with illustrations by E.H. Shepard. Milne and Shepard went on to collaborate on two more titles: Now We Are Six in 1927 and The House At Pooh Corner, which introduced Tigger, in 1928. Together, these four books form the basis of the original Pooh books. Newly-designed editions of all four books were published September 3rd.
Link to the book's beautifully illustrated first chapter

The new book does have the approval of the Trustees of the Pooh Properties but I have mixed emotions about the whole concept. I tend to be a bit of a purist when it comes to this kind of thing and my first reaction is to prefer that well enough be left alone. Messing around with a classic book by having someone other than the original author write a sequel to it is always a bit dangerous because the new author is extremely unlikely to be able to reach the level of the original - and, as a result, both the original and the new become somewhat tainted in the minds of readers. That said, however, this kind of thing probably does work better with children's books because so much of the story is told with easily mimicked illustrations.

For a more complete look at Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, including a video, go to the official Penguin website.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A Report from Winter

By the time Wayne Courtois got to his mother’s deathbed, she was no longer able to communicate and he was never quite sure she even knew he was there. Courtois had not seen his mother, or the rest of his family, for ten years when he arrived in frozen Maine feeling somewhat guilty about his long absence. A Report from Winter explains why it happened that way.

Wayne Courtois and his older brother Bruce grew up in a family in which emotions and feelings were largely ignored. Certainly, they were never expressed out loud or through any kind of physical intimacy. The one exception to the rule was the anger into which his mother would erupt at seemingly random moments, anger that often culminated with her expressing her utter contempt for Wayne, her youngest son. Wayne’s mother paid so little attention to the feelings of her sons that he grew up believing that having an emotional life was a secret best kept to himself. Open communication was so taboo in the Courtois family, in fact, that Wayne still believes that his parents died without the knowledge that both their sons are gay.

Finding it difficult to cope with his emotions while waiting for his mother to die, and having no one in the family with whom he can share his feelings, Wayne reluctantly decides to ask his partner, Ralph, to join him from Kansas City. The close relationship of the two men, and the unquestioning support Ralph provides in this moment of crisis, underscore everything wrong with Wayne’s family and transforms A Report from Winter into a remarkable story.

Wayne Courtois is one of those writers whose prose is almost effortless to read. One is left with the impression that his memoir is a brutally honest one, a book that is unlikely to be appreciated by his brother or his Aunt Louise, the two family members who spent some time with him at his mother’s bedside. He has little good to say about either of them, and readers of A Report from Winter will certainly understand why that is after reading the flashbacks to an incident from Wayne’s childhood which alternate with chapters about his mother’s death.

When he arrived in Portland that day in 1998, Wayne was not sure what to expect. As he puts it, “With a start I realized that, while I hadn’t taken this journey to indulge in self-contemplation, I’d be doing plenty of it whether I liked it or not. My goal might eventually be to get the hell out of here with my short supply of self-esteem intact.” Thanks to Ralph, I think Wayne Courtois left Maine with his self-esteem stronger than ever.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Will HarperCollins Marketing Tactic Tick Off Amazon?

HarperCollins is set to try something different with the release of Sarah Palin's new book, Going Rougue: An American Life. Rather than release the hardcover and the e-book at the same time, HarperCollins has elected to hold off on its e-book release until December 26 (one day after all that Christmas shopping is all done).

It is beginning to look like publishers still don't know how much the profits from the sale of e-books are offset by the predictable drop in hardcover sales. The companies have tried various strategies in recent weeks. On the one hand, Dan Brown's latest poorly written book, The Lost Symbol, saw a simultaneous release of both versions, and both the hardcover and the e-book sold in predictably spectacular numbers. And, on the other hand, Ted Kennedy's True Compass is only available in hardcover - with, at least for now, no plan to release the book in e-book format.

The approach taken by HarperCollins is somewhere in the middle, and by holding the e-book version off until after Christmas, the publisher hopes to maximize the sale of hardcover volumes. I doubt that Amazon and Sony are happy with the way the Kennedy and Palin books are being marketed, but this may be the only way for publishers to fight the $9.99 e-book price of which Amazon seems to be so fond.

Personally, I'm not in the least interested in any of the three books, but I do wonder what e-book fans think about the decision to limit their e-book access to the two political books. Any thoughts?