Translate

Monday, November 30, 2009

I Want This Typewriter


Man, do I want this typewriter!

This is the little machine that produced every word written by Cormac McCarthy in the last 50 years, every single word - some 5 million of them. And now Mr. McCarthy is selling his little Olivetti typewriter and donating the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute. Unfortunately, those who know about this kind of thing estimate that the sale will bring somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand dollars.

The New York Times says:
Christie’s, which plans to auction the machine on Friday, estimated that it would fetch between $15,000 and $20,000. Mr. McCarthy wrote an authentication letter — typed on the Olivetti, of course — that states:

“It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose. ... I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put this at about five million words over a period of 50 years.”

Speaking from his home in Santa Fe, Mr. McCarthy said he mistakenly thought that the typewriter was bought in 1958; it was actually a few years later. He had a Royal previously, but before he went off to Europe in the early 1960s, he said, “I tried to find the smallest, lightest typewriter I could find.”
Oh, to have money like Tiger Woods (and a less volatile wife) or Paul McCartney (minus the insane wife). As originally described, or not, this baby would look great sitting on the desk in my home office.

Black Water Rising

Jay Porter is struggling. He lives in a cramped little apartment with his pregnant wife, a woman he has known since she was thirteen years old, and he wonders if they can ever afford a better home. Porter, a player during the Black Power movement of the 1960s, is now a lawyer with a cheap, strip mall office and an incompetent secretary he can just afford. His clients are walk-ins and referrals who can barely afford to pay him at all, much less an amount that would offer Porter a decent profit for his work. So, when one of those clients arranges a free boat ride down Houston’s Buffalo Bayou in lieu of a cash payment, Porter accepts the deal and decides to celebrate his wife’s birthday on the little boat.

As the boat makes its way through the heart of downtown Houston in near total darkness, the Porters and the boat’s captain are startled by a woman’s desperate screams for help. It is impossible to see the woman or her attacker from the boat but, as they are paused to listen, the three soon hear the sounds of someone rolling down the bayou’s steep bank and splashing into the water. Porter manages to get the barely breathing woman into the boat but, because he fears getting involved in the problems of this white woman, he brings her to the police station’s front door and slips away before anyone can see him or get his name.

It is only when he sees the story in the newspaper that Porter learns that the woman he rescued may not have been a victim at all - she might, instead, be a murderer. Still reluctant to get involved, Porter only learns how much trouble he is in when a stranger offers to pay him for his silence about what he saw and heard the night of the murder. The man leaves Porter with two choices: take the money and remain silent or be shut up for good.

Attica Locke has here the makings of an intriguing story about a former Black Power radical trying to make his way through the still tense racial attitudes of 1981 Houston, Texas. She does, in fact, do a remarkable job of capturing the mood and atmosphere of 1980s Houston, a period during which the city was facing almost uncontrollable growth in both population and serious crime. It was a time when whole neighborhoods were off limits after dark to whites and blacks alike, high crime black neighborhoods whites did not dare enter and high income white neighborhoods where blacks drew the immediate attention of Houston cops.

Locke, though, makes the mistake of creating two additional subplots that do little more than complicate her story. First, she gets Jay Porter involved with a young man who has been beaten by union thugs who want to head off an economically crippling strike by dockworkers at the Houston port facilities. Next, she exposes Porter to a plot by Big Oil to manipulate the price of gasoline at the pump, a plan about which only one old white man and Porter seem to care. These subplots overwhelm the more interesting, and plausible, mystery of the woman in the bayou and eventually begin to seem almost cartoonish - especially in the way that Big Oil is represented in the most stereotypical way possible. Few of the associated characters seem real and, as a result, even Porter and his wife become less sympathetic characters.

And that is a shame because the first chapter of Black Water Rising is one of the best lead chapters I have read in a while. This could, and should, have been a very different book.

Rated at: 2.5

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pete Dexter's Missing Pages

I'm doing it again - getting excited enough about a book to write about it even before I finish it. This time it's Spooner, by Pete Dexter, a book that came from nowhere to catch me completely by surprise.

I was not unaware of Pete Dexter's work before I started Spooner, having read God's Pocket, Deadwood and Paris Trout, Mr. Dexter's first three novels. But none of those prepared me for the wit and humor on display in this new one. The writing in Spooner reminds me a lot of what John Irving produced at his peak, the kind of writing I've really missed. Warren Spooner is a special character, one not easily forgotten even though he is surrounded by equally memorable (and rather strange) people, including his mother and the stepfather who helped raise him. This is the story of a very troubled young man and his stepfather's refusal to give up on him - no matter what.

I knew this one was going to be fun when I spotted Pete Dexter's "note to early readers." Who could resist reading a book with a note that says, in part:
As far as I know, sometime in November of last year, the book you have in your hands was three years late. There are many reasons it was three years late, probably the most conspicuous being that it was once 250 pages or so longer than the version you hold, and it takes maybe half a year to write an extra 250 pages, and at least twice that to subtract them back out. I realize this leaves another year and a half unaccounted for, and all I can say about that, readers, is get in line. Whole decades are missing from my life, and I am pretty sure I wouldn't have it any other way.
[...]
...god knows how many of my greatest admirers have died while I've been diddling around with this thing - and so you can understand, perhaps, that in the end somebody had to put his/her foot down and say enough, and in the end somebody did. Be assured it wasn't me. I could have kept this up for another five years.
[...]
...you should keep in mind that you're reading somebody who is still missing 18 months of the last 36, and has no idea about 2006 at all.
The Advance Reading Copy of Spooner comes in at a whopping 466 pages, all of them worthy (at least through the 365 pages I've read to this point), but I wonder what those other 250 pages had to say about Spooner and Calmer. It's a shame that we'll never know.

Friday, November 27, 2009

We're All Doomed!

The New York Times and some San Francisco books stores believe the world, as they know it, is soon to end. According to them, the twin monsters known as WalMart and Glenn Beck are on the verge of killing off liberal thought. In the best tradition of Chicken Little, the Times has this to say about the discounting of a handful of bestselling hardcovers by WalMart, Amazon and Target:
So if this is all a scheme to control those influential bestsellers, just what would a future look like if, say, Wal-Mart became the last bookstore standing?

A visit to Wal-Mart stores in Oakland and Mountain View revealed a remarkably limited selection, a narrow worldview and a political bent that can be summed up best with two words: Glenn Beck. The Oakland Wal-Mart carried only 21 hardcover titles: Mr. Beck’s “Arguing With Idiots” (plus the audio book) and his holiday offering, “The Christmas Sweater”; “Going Rogue” by Sarah Palin; the book of Carrie Prejean, the dethroned Miss California, “Still Standing”; and titles from the Rev. Rick Warren and the television minister Joel Osteen.
[...]
Praveen Madan, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco, disagrees with this fear. He said people would not start “reading this rightist propaganda literature instead of reading more worthy things” simply because the books cost less.

Mr. Madan said bookstores were more threatened by the recession and e-books than the current price war. Censorship? Not with the Internet selling virtually every book. He, Ms. Caldwell and Mr. Petrocelli — all independent bookstore owners — sell online, and even Wal-Mart’s Web site has a larger, more diverse inventory.
Mr. Madan, at least, is bringing a little common sense to the scare tactics of the Times. He knows that his Bay area customers are not likely to buy "rightist propaganda" as long as he continues to be their supplier of "leftist propaganda." Don't think so? Just read what another bookstore owner there has to say about the Palin book:
“It’s like buying porn,” he said. “People might want to buy it, but they don’t want to be seen buying it in the Bay Area.”

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lit

Reading Mary Karr’s latest memoir, Lit, is akin to catching up with an old friend over a cup of coffee or, perhaps in this case, over something a bit stronger than coffee. Karr’s earlier memoirs, The Liars’ Club (1995), which covered her childhood years, and Cherry (2000), the story of her adolescence and early adulthood, established for her a well deserved reputation as an exceptional memoirist. Now, some nine years after Cherry, Karr completes her story, for now, by revealing how she managed to overcome the odds to escape both the insular little town in which she grew up and the quirky upbringing she endured there.

One thing is certain; Mary Karr has not had an easy time of it. Growing up in a muggy, mosquito ridden little East Texas refinery town, one in which its residents breathe polluted air no matter from which direction it blows (as I well remember), she was raped by a teenaged neighbor when she was eight years old. Her father, a heavy drinking refinery worker, loved her dearly but was not exactly a role model for his daughters. Her seven-times-married, artistic mother was a bit of a desperado in spirit who struggled with a tendency toward full-blown psychotic episodes throughout much of her life.

As she so frankly details in Lit, Mary Karr is a combination of the good and the bad components of both her parents. Always a bit of a rebel at heart like her mother, she went into the world resenting those born to wealth as much as her father disliked them, taking pride that she could at least outdrink those who “had been born on third base” but who believed “they hit a home run.” And outdrink them, Mary did - all the way to the point of her own debilitating struggle with alcoholism, a struggle that would steal years of her life and ultimately destroy the marriage that produced her son.

It was a close thing, but Mary managed to save herself, and she accomplished it by doing something so completely out of character for her that it still surprises her. She turned to prayer and organized religion despite a lifetime spent scoffing at both. Despairing and suicidal, she committed herself to what she calls “The Mental Marriott” and the timeout there that would ultimately lead her to place her future in the hands of God, the possibility of whose existence she previously had not been able to take seriously. Lit is a word of several meanings when it comes to Mary Karr. It can be a reference to her success in the literary world or it can be used to describe the drunken state in which she spent so many of her waking hours for so many years. Finally, and most hopefully, it also describes the religious experience that saved Mary Karr’s life when she finally “saw the light.”

Fans of Karr’s previous memoirs will be pleased with this inspirational addition to her story, but Lit also works well for those reading her for the first time, so well that I suspect the new Karr readers will now want to turn to the first two books.

Rated at: 5.0

(Advance Reading Copy provided by Harper)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Across the Endless River

Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, born in 1805 during the Lewis and Clark expedition, is one of the most unique figures in American history. The son of a French fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, and Sacagawea, the Indian woman who played such a prominent role in the expedition, Baptiste was carried on his mother’s back all the way to the Pacific Ocean. He was born with a foot in two different worlds and, before he was twenty years old, the young man would find himself visiting Europe’s major cities as the five-year guest of amateur natural historian, Duke Paul of Wurttemberg.

In Across the Endless River, Thad Carhart recounts how the two men met and imagines what Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau might have experienced during his half-decade living among Europe’s minor royalty. As Carhart points out in his “Author’s Note,” while no record of Baptiste’s European years exists today, some details of Duke Paul’s history during those same years are known. Carhart largely uses what we know about Duke Paul to frame Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau’s European adventure. Baptiste would have been, for instance, instrumental in assembling and cataloging the Duke’s huge North American natural history collection and would have witnessed the Duke’s arranged marriage (a marriage very much to the Duke’s economic advantage) and his equally arranged separation after the birth of his son.

Across the Endless River clearly contrasts the differing lifestyles Baptiste experienced before he turned twenty. In America, as a boy, he moved between his Mandan village and Captain Clark’s St. Louis home, and learned the skills that would allow him to make his living as a frontier guide for Europeans looking for adventure and fortune. He was able to converse in several Indian languages and is known to have also spoken English, French, German and Spanish, a skill that allowed him to move relatively easily within whatever world he found himself.

One can only imagine, of course, what Baptiste thought of the different cultures he experienced and this is the real theme of Across the Endless River. What would a man raised in the wilds of a young country think of the decadent lifestyle of European royalty? What would he think of the servant class and its relationship to the wealthy? Would he relate to the servants or would he learn to reflect the attitudes of the Duke and the Duke’s royal family? Would he have sexual adventures in Europe and who might those couplings involve – prostitutes, servants, members of the royal family? Would he be treated as a mere curiosity in Europe or as an equal?

The possibilities are endless for a man caught between two, so different worlds, and Thad Carhart makes the most of them. The book does suffer a bit because of the contrast between its fast paced early sections and the much slower pace at which the book’s European sections move. Much of Baptiste’s time in Europe is spent idly traveling from one royal home to another where little more than another banquet or ball ever seems to occur. This may perfectly reflect the lifestyle of Europe’s “rich and famous” of the day but even Baptiste grew bored with it and it gives the book an uneven feel. In the end, though, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau is a fascinating character and it is great fun to speculate along with the author about what he was really up to from 1824 to 1829.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Doubleday)



Monday, November 23, 2009

City of Bones

When a dog returns to its waiting owner with a human bone clutched in its jaws, Detective Harry Bosch inherits one of the coldest of cases, the 20-year-old murder of a young boy who was never reported missing. Bosch has seen everything during his long career with the LAPD but he is still capable of feeling a sense of outrage about the murders he investigates for the city. And what he learns about the short life of this young murder victim will hit him particularly hard.

It soon becomes obvious that the boy lived not just a short life, but a very painful one. There is evidence of numerous breaks in the bones recovered by the police and some of the fractures appear to have been suffered when the boy was only two years old. Bosch knows there is a killer out there who believes that he will never be caught - and that the killer is likely to be one of the boy's parents. What he does not know is the boy’s name or who his parents are.

There can be no doubt that Michael Connelly is a master of the police procedural and much of City of Bones is textbook police procedural. The reader is intimately exposed to the time-consuming and tedious process that is a police investigation, including the dozens of false leads that have to be worked before the real ones can be followed. Detective Bosh and his partner, Jerry Edgar, are determined that, against all odds, they will bring this boy’s killer to justice and, as one piece of the puzzle after another slowly begins to fall into place, they seem to be getting there. But at what cost to the boy’s family and to the detectives, themselves?

City of Bones is a superb procedural but what saves it from the possibility of becoming tedious are side-plots involving two women well known Harry Bosch. One is the egotistical coroner he is forced to work with, a woman so determined to become a national celebrity that she has her own documentary cameraman follow her around from case to case. The other is an overage police rookie who manages to attach herself to both Bosch and the case he is working. Between these complications, the internal politics of the LAPD and the 20-year-old murder case, Bosch has plenty on his plate.

What longtime Harry Bosch fans will remember most about City of Bones, however, is likely to be the revelation Harry makes at the very end of the story.

Reader, beware: Don’t go there first.




Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Quick Personal Note

I have been down with the flu since Friday and I've spent more time sleeping than reading or doing anything else. Thankfully, I'm feeling a bit better this afternoon and I'm hoping that things gradually return to normal for me over the next few days.

I've actually been able to finish two books since Thursday but I can't imagine writing anything about them right now that would even come close to making sense. The good news is that I've caught up on sleep (thanks to the medicine) and lost a few pounds. The bad news is that I caught the flu on my third vacation day and I'll be way behind when I return to the office early next week. At this point, I'll consider this a moral victory if I can keep some of those lost pounds from returning - you have to take your wins where you find them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bookshop Santa Cruz Is "Just Plain Nutz"

The bookstore from which I would never buy a book is at it again. Remember this from July 16,2008? Well, here we go again. This time it's Sarah Palin and her new memoir that are being ridiculed by the business-plan-challenged management of Bookshop Santa Cruz. Not surprisingly, the Santa Cruz Sentinel is there to cheer them on:
By golly, a downtown bookstore has found a way to poke fun at former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and draw attention to her new book released this week, "Going Rogue: An American Life." Several copies of Palin's book, about her experience as John McCain's running mate in 2008 and life in Alaska, are stacked on the checkout counter at Bookshop Santa Cruz next to a bowl filled with small bags of walnuts -- a 2-for-1 special of sorts. Customers who buy Palin's book, priced at $29 in hardcover, also get a free bag of "Just Plain Nutz."
[...]
However, down the street at Borders, customer Marc Schwartz laughed at the Palin stunt, but turned the joke on Bookshop Santa Cruz.

"For them, it's hypocrisy. They're using Palin to line their pockets," Schwartz said. "They like capitalism as long as they have a monopoly on it."

Bookshop Santa Cruz isn't worried about offending many customers. So far only one book has been sold.

"We know some customers have to buy it because it's on some uncle's wish list," Coonerty-Protti said. "But it's not a big seller for the Santa Cruz market. We haven't had a lot of interest in selling the book anyway."
Why would any conservative-minded reader patronize a bookstore that believes he is an idiot? Obviously if Bookshop Santa Cruz has only sold one copy of a book that has already sold 300,000 copies elsewhere, the answer is: they don't patronize it. I admit to getting a bit of a chuckle from the fact that this bookstore is located in a state on the brink of financial collapse and in search of a bailout from the rest of us. Does that tell you a little about who is "Just Plain Nutz"?

(No, I am not a fan of Sarah Palin and will not be reading her book. I am, though, intrigued by the utter stupidity of some businesses and those who "manage" them.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

First Impressions of the Sony PRS-600 Reader Touch Edition

I decided to purchase the Sony PRS-600 Reader Touch Edition this morning and I've been playing around with it all day. I was relieved to see that the Sony salesperson was familiar with the offer (although I was the first such transaction handled in this store) and that everything was set up to make it all go pretty quickly. I was given $75 off the price of a new reader for turning in my old one.

I was able to get my new reader "authorized" by the Sony e-book store and had all of my e-books on the new reader within an hour of having arrived back home.There were 113 e-books on the old reader and I had quite a few others in formats not supported by my old PRS-500. So after uploading the 113 books I knew would work, I started in on the ones in .txt and PDF format - and they all seem to work just fine on the new reader.

I hated to see my old PRS-500 being carried to the backroom but after playing around with the new version in the store for a few minutes I knew I would never be happy with the old one again. There are just too many new features - the very ones I've been wanting to see for a long time. I'm not saying that the PRS-600 is perfect, because it is not.

There are definite pluses and minuses:
Pluses:

1. Handles multiple formats, including epub, .txt, PDF, and Word documents
2. Offers five font sizes to help overcome formatting differences
3. Allows for "highlighting" and written notes on book pages
4. Has slots for Sony Memory Stick and SD cards
5. Touch Screen makes turning pages quick and natural
6. Notes can be written by hand, using a stylus, or by using the pop-up keyboard
7. Internal Memory can hold approximately 350 books
8. Extended battery life of 2 week or about 7500 page-turns (Old reader was good for only 1400 page-turns)
9. Battery takes charge much more quickly than the one in the PRS-500
10. Pop-Up Dictionary that defines any word double-tapped by stylus
11. Works with library e-books downloaded from public library systems
12. Screen Orientation can be switched to horizontal to better read certain PDF documents


Minuses:

1. Touch Screen means that the "ink" appears a bit lighter than in the old reader
2. Touch Screen makes the new reader more susceptible to glare problems
3. Lacks WiFi connection to purchase and download new material
4. Sony e-book store is still clunky and slow, requiring lots of patience
I'm happy with what I've experienced so far and I hope that I feel the same way two weeks from now. I have placed about 140 books on the reader, mostly classics, and have "borrowed" my first e-library-book (although the choices seem very poor here in Harris County, Texas). I don't use the reader for music or pictures so I won't be testing those aspects of the PRS-600. I can't imagine ever having such an urgency to get my eyes on an e-book that I'll miss the WiFi option so that won't be much of a minus for me. At this point, the only thing that has bugged me at all is the glare I get in certain lighting situations.

E-books will never replace physical books for me; they are just not the same thing. But I suspect that I'll be reading more of the classics because of this new reader and I'll be more likely to accept review copies in e-book format now. And, frankly, my wife is thrilled with the idea that the rate at which physical books come through the front door might slow down a bit. Maybe that's the answer - buy physical copies of books I want to keep and electronic copies of ones that are more disposable. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sony Wants to Sell Me a New Reader

Sony may have just sold me a new e-book reader - with an assist from Kristy who alerted me to an email offer she received from Sony yesterday. It turns out that, as far as its e-book store goes, Sony is killing the e-book format that works on my PRS-500 reader. That means that I can no longer get new content for the reader from Sony.

Sony offers two workarounds, however, and both of them are tempting. Option number 1 involves sending my PRS-500 back to Sony for about two weeks so that they can do a free firmware update that would allow my reader to use the new format. Option number 2 offers me either $50 or $75 for my old reader if I buy one of the two new Sony readers.

I'm seriously considering the PRS-600, the "Reader Touch Edition." What intrigues me is that the reader claims to work perfectly on PDF files, Word documents, other text files, the ePub format, and others. It also offers access to all the non-copyrighted Google books out there and to library systems that make e-books available to patrons. It seems to cover all the bases for me. Admittedly, if I understand correctly, there is no WiFi access for ordering new books from Sony or another bookstore but that is not an option I would use often anyway. No big deal.

The numbers look like this:

I spent $300 in 2005 for the PRS-500. Sony is willing to give me back 75 of those dollars if I give them another $300 for a PRS-600, leaving me with $525 invested in Sony readers. Now, of course, I've used the original reader for over 4 years so I've probably gotten my money's worth out of it already. (I'm a CPA and I just can't help running the numbers in my head - bad habit.)

I'm off the rest of the week, and I will probably run up to the big Sony Store at my local mall tomorrow. Can I resist the temptation? Should I even try? I suspect it's hopeless.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Last Night in Twisted River

Last Night in Twisted River is not quite the comeback John Irving needed to make readers forget, or to forgive, the dreary Until I Find You, but it is a giant step in the right direction. One of things Irving has always done best is to create remarkably detailed and realistic settings in which to place his larger-than-life characters and he uses that skill to great effect here. Irving also touches on so many of his familiar themes (wrestling, single-parent homes, New England locales, sudden loss of those closest to you, and bears, among them) that his longtime readers will recognize the territory.

This story of the Dominic Baciagalupo family, spanning more than five decades and three generations, begins in the remote logging environment of 1950s New Hampshire, very near the Canadian border. Dominic, known to everyone in the logging camp as “Cookie,” is in charge of feeding all those involved in the formidable task of harvesting the riches of the New Hampshire forests. He has lived alone above the cookhouse with his twelve-year-old son Danny ever since losing his wife to the tragic river accident that claimed her so suddenly one winter night. Dominic, having experienced or witnessed numerous crippling, if not always fatal, accidents in Twisted River over the years, knows that he lives in “a world of accidents” and he lives in dread of the next moment someone close to him will be snatched away.

Even in his wildest imagination, however, Dominic could not have imagined the accident that would force him to flee Twisted River with his son in a desperate attempt to keep the two together. Nor could he have imagined that what happened in the cookhouse that night would haunt Dominic and Danny Baciagalupo for the next fifty years. The pair may have left Twisted River behind forever but they still had to reckon with a man who wanted revenge so badly that he would never stop searching for them. Over five decades, and three generations, Dominic and Danny would live in several states and Canada, moving every time their tormentor seemed to be catching up with them.

Dominic and Danny are lucky to have the help of their old friend, Ketchum, a giant of a man who still lives near enough Twisted River to keep an eye on the man filled with such hate for Dominic and his son. Several times over the decades, Ketchum convinces Dominic and Danny that it is again time for them to abandon their new life in favor of avoiding the man who wants to see them dead. Several geographic moves will culminate finally in Danny and his father living in Toronto where Dominic works in a popular restaurant while Danny pursues his career as the bestselling author Danny Angel.

Ketchum, Dominic and Danny are not the only memorable characters in Last Night in Twisted River, however. The book is filled with women that are large in every sense of the word and each of them plays a significant role in the lives of the Baciagalupo men. Among others, there are “Injun Jane,” Dominic’s one-time lover who weighs in at more than 300 pounds; “Six-Pack Pam,” Ketchum’s lover who is large enough to intimidate most men with malice on their minds; and “Lady Sky,” the naked skydiver who literally falls into Danny’s lap.

Last Night in Twisted River is an intriguing story but there is a bit of a problem in the way that Irving tells it. At over 550 pages in length, its repetitiousness becomes tedious, especially, but not limited to, the chapters following the book’s climax. Too, numerous pages toward the very end of the book are used as a political rant of sorts (an extremely mean-spirited and vulgar rant, at that) against all things Republican, conservative, George W. Bush, or religious right. Similar, but more concise, expressions made earlier in the book fit the voices of the characters making them, but one feels that the rant at the end of the book is there strictly for the benefit of Irving, not his characters. It makes for a jarring change of tone and, because it occurs so close to the end, it is what some are likely to remember most about the book.

Rated at: 3.0

(Advance Reading Copy provided by Random House)



Sunday, November 15, 2009

Two Chunksters at a Time

I am reaching the end of one of those rare weeks for me - 7 days during which I have not finished a single book. Not one. I should have seen this coming but it still feels strange. It's not that I haven't been reading at pretty much my normal pace for the last week or so but I started two books on the same day that, between them, total right at 1,000 pages. Now, almost 800 pages of reading later, I'm only now approaching the end of the two novels.

One of the books I've been immersed in for the last few days is the new John Irving novel, Last Night in Twisted River, a 553 page saga that covers three generations of one family over a period of 50 years. I'm over 500 pages in now and still feel ambivalent about the book but Irving has reminded me of one storytelling technique I have always found interesting.

In this story, Irving spends several hundred pages building suspense about the threat that two of his main characters are trying to escape. The years pass - the threat refuses to go away - and it seems more and more likely that time will finally force a deadly confrontation. When it finally happens, Irving sets the scene in great detail and brings the suspense to its peak level. Then, just when the action is about to begin, he does something unexpected by revealing the end result of the confrontation in what at first seems like just a descriptive throwaway phrase at the beginning of a sentence.

It takes a moment for the words to sink in but when they do the reader is stopped in his tracks. Irving spends the next dozen or so pages describing what happened but the reader already knows how the scene ends and is reading from a whole different perspective than the one most often offered in thrillers (not that Last Night in Twisted River can be called a thriller). I find this to be a very effective way to handle suspense and tension in a novel and I've come to prefer it to the more straightforward, linear approach to storytelling.

I wish I could think of other specific examples of this approach but, even if I could, they would probably be "spoilers" and I couldn't use them. In fact, I can already see that reviewing Last Night in Twisted River is going to be a tricky.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Man Hopes to Donate 100,000 Books Before His Time Runs Out

I was hoping to find something today that would be a nice contrast to yesterday's downer about the 12 thieves caught stealing $140,000 worth of textbooks from several Maryland libraries. I never expected to find something as perfect as this story, however.

According to Kentucky.com, sixty-four-year-old Jim Davis of Sheperdsville, KY, is in a desperate race against the clock to collect and donate 100,000 books to Kentucky libraries before his personal battle with cancer makes it impossible for him to continue.
...he was touched by a Kentucky Educational Television program about two months ago decrying the disproportionate number of high school dropouts in some Eastern Kentucky counties as well as the increase in teen pregnancies and soaring use of illegal drugs.

"If we don't do something now to keep kids in school and give them a good education, this whole country is going to hell in a hand basket," Davis said.

He contacted Bullitt County Public Schools and churches in that area, asking people to help him collect 100,000 books for libraries that needed them. He asked for textbooks, reference books, children's books, anything people had on their shelves collecting dust but not enhancing minds.
[...]
Davis saw that KET documentary while recovering from rounds of radiation and chemotherapy for cancers found in his brain, lungs and hip in January.

"The doctors gave me a year to 18 months to live," he said.

But the treatment sent the cancers into remission, he said. Follow-up CT and PET scans, however, found cancer in his neck, lower spine and stomach, he said.
[...]
Davis estimates he and others have collected 50,000 books. That's halfway to his goal.

Although he plans to be in Powell County on Monday, "I'm not doing this for that," he said. "This is something I can do before I'm gone."
A lot of people, including the Barnes & Noble folks, are working to help Mr. Davis meet his goal but he's only half way there. If anyone out there is interested in getting books to Kentucky on his behalf, please call (502) 428-6029 for details.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

12 Book Thieves Hit Libraries for $140,000

College and community libraries in Maryland have lost $140,000 worth of textbooks to twelve thieves looking to make a quick buck by reselling the books to area college students.

WBAL-TV, Baltimore, has the story:
The investigation into the thefts began in July when University of Maryland, Baltimore County police discovered a large number of the books in a car. The barcodes were removed from many of them. UMBC police said they believe that more than $54,000 worth of books were stolen from the campus library.
[...]
Their cases were supposed to go to court in September, but a judge dismissed three of them, claiming that police didn't have probably cause to stop and search the car.

UMBC police then shared their information, and the book theft investigation continued in other areas until the indictments were announced Tuesday.
[...]
"Ironically, there were books on ethics and philosophy, but largely, the bulk of the books were in the nursing field and the sciences, like chemistry," said Mary Eilerman, HCC's Chief of College Security.

Charging documents showed that some of those who were charged are family members.
According to the story, these guys were checking out dozens of books at a time, near the 75-book limit that some of the libraries allow its patrons. Maybe it's me, but why should anyone be allowed to check out 75 books at a time? Are there really enough books in the library system to allow one person to walk away with 75 of them? We all know how slow some people are to return books - are they even allowed to renew 75 books for additional time?

I know there are librarians out there who see this kind of thing all the time. Please help me understand why any library would allow such a large number of books to walk out the door with one person. I don't get it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Would You Give Up to Keep Reading?

Kathleen, over at Boarding in My Forties, asks an interesting question today.

"What would you give up to keep reading?"

Like Kathleen, I've been a reader as long as I can remember, always carrying a spare book around for those unexpected moments when I can sneak in a few extra minutes of reading time. I've come to the point that I actually see long lines and traffic jams as little bonus reading opportunities - and I'm willing to bet that's worked wonders on my stress level and blood pressure.

So what would I give up to keep reading? Well, that's a no-brainer for me. I would give up any hobby that intrudes on my daily reading - but that's not as easy as it sounds because I'm already so conscious of time wasting activities that I have very little fat left to cut. For instance, I found a way of compressing even my limited television watching hours by recording almost every single program I watch and then zipping through the commercials. Since every 60 minutes of television programming includes more than 20 minutes of commercials, this really saves a lot of time I can devote to reading.

But I am an avid fan of Houston sports teams - and can't bring myself to record football or baseball games - so I lose a few hours a week to television commercials that way. And, even though I've been a baseball fan almost as long as I've been a reader, if it came down to a choice between giving up reading or giving up my beloved Astros, it would be sorry, boys, but you can play ball without me. That might not impress non-sports fans, but I suspect some of you know how serious a reader that means I am.

What about you guys? What would you give up to keep reading?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Nibble & Kuhn

Derek Dover is fast approaching a career crossroad all too familiar to young attorneys and accountants everywhere. In Derek’s particular case, Boston law firm Nibble & Kuhn is considering him for promotion to partner– and, as is usually the case, only three things can happen. He will be made partner; he will not be made partner and will have to resign himself to years of grunt-work for those who do reach that level; or he will be asked to leave the firm.

Derek, until recently, believed that his chances of being the one chosen to join the firm’s inner circle were pretty good. But things change, and he is finding out just how quickly that can happen. Derek has mixed emotions about the make-or-break case he suddenly inherits, one in which he is to represent seven young boys who claim to have gotten cancer from the industrial polluter located near their neighborhood swimming hole. He knows the case is inherently weak, and he is astonished at the poor preparation done by the partner who handled the case prior to dumping it in his lap, but he knows that winning the case is vital to the future of Nibble & Kuhn. He also knows that winning this case will almost certainly land him the partnership he wants so badly.

And then there is Maria Parma, one of Nibble & Kuhn’s newest and lowest ranking associates, with whom Derek is madly in love. The good news is that Maria is so in love with Derek that she can barely keep her hands off him even in the office. The bad news is that she is engaged to someone she has known all her life and cannot even imagine how she might break off that engagement without devastating the two families.

Nibble & Kuhn is a lighthearted look at a law firm gone mad. Despite the failings of the firm’s overall leadership and the despicable nature of the man at the very top, David Schmahmann finds enough humor in Derek Dover’s situation to make this one fun to read. His story is, of course, absurd. Or is it? Is justice, as dispensed by the American judicial system, really nothing more than a role of the dice? Is it all a matter of which side can place the highest number of gullible jurors in the jury box? O.J. Simpson, anyone?

Despite its serious (and disturbing) message, Nibble & Kuhn is filled with smile-out-loud moments as Derek and Maria struggle with their own relationship while trying not to look like total incompetents in front of a judge who recognizes the absurdity of the case they are representing in his courtroom. I think readers of Nibble & Kuhn will care about what happens to Derek and Maria and that they will be pleased with the book’s satisfying, if somewhat predictable, ending.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Academy Chicago Publishers)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Just What Is It about Sarah Palin?

Just what is it about Sarah Palin that makes her such a threat to her opponents (both outside and inside her own political party)? Seldom has a politician seemingly come from nowhere to generate so much hate, disgust, love, and enthusiasm in the political class of America.

The Christian Science Monitor
book blog has a nice summary of all the Palin book activity scheduled for this month:
Being released today is “Sarah from Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar” by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe. The authors are reporters (Conroy is a digital journalist for CBS News and Walshe was a reporter and producer at Fox News) who were “embedded” on the Palin vice-presidential campaign trail.
[...]
On Nov. 12 comes “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star” by Matthew Continetti. Continetti is an associate editor at The Weekly Standard magazine. The book’s subtitle probably tells you all you need to know about the book’s political orientation but in case you’re interested, Karl Rove calls it “a tough, revealing look at how the bias or habits of liberals in the media led them to assault a political figure who shared neither their values nor background.”
[...]
On the 17th, just as Palin’s own book hits bookstores, readers will also be able to pick up “Going Rouge: An American Nightmare,” a collection of essays pulled together by two senior editors at Nation magazine. Here, again, the subtitle probably tells you all you need to know about the book’s angle on Palin, but if you need another clue, consider the fact that its publisher, OR Books, has a self-described “distinctive progressive edge.”

To make this all more confusing, however, is the fact that another “Going Rouge” is being published on the same day. That “Going Rouge” is a satirical coloring book by Julie Sigwart and Micheal Stinson who identify themselves as “longtime liberal activists.”

Longer range, journalist Joe McGinniss (”The Selling of the President,” “Fatal Vision”) is currently researching his own unauthorized Palin biography.
Personally, I don't get it. On the one hand, Palin's opponents seem so terrified of her potential that they are desperate to destroy her as quickly as possible and, on the other, her fans see her as the best possible chance to save conservatism. Perhaps it's because I'm conservative on fiscal matters and fairly liberal on social issues that I understand neither her appeal nor the anger directed her way.

One thing for sure: book publishers have to be loving her right about now.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Me and My Antique Sony E-book Reader

I normally only use the Sony reader when I'm on a trip during which it is impractical to carry several books with me and, since I don't travel at nearly the pace I used to, my PRS-500 has been stashed out of sight for the last several months.

But this afternoon I decided to take a look at it through today's eyes rather than through the eyes of a 2005 purchaser of the technology. And, you know, this is not a bad little gizmo. Admittedly, it doesn't offer the ability to wirelessly purchase e-books from the Sony bookstore or to download any of the "million" books made available by Google. (I have been expecting to hear that Sony has upgraded the PRS-500 software to make the Google books compatible with the reader but I'm now starting to doubt that will ever happen.)

This Sony e-book reader (Sony's original version) is relatively lightweight and it has room for well over 100 books on its hard drive plus an SD card slot that makes the reader's capacity almost limitless. So this antique reader (almost three years old now) still has its uses.

What does irk me is the poor job the reader does on PDF documents and e-books not "published" by Sony explicitly for the PRS-500. The resolution on those books is very poor, so light a shade of gray on white that it is almost impossible to read them. Couple that problem with the small font displayed by the reader - and the reader's inability to adjust the font of these particular books - and the third-party books are just about worthless to owners of this Sony device. I have noticed, though, that books saved as text files are legible when displayed on the reader - just very ugly because of the limited formatting offered by text files.

This was my first visit to the Sony e-book store in a long while and I was happy to see that some very much needed cosmetic changes have been made to the store's appearance. Unfortunately, the electronic bookstore still has a clunky feel to it and it is not all that easy to move around the site with any degree of confidence. I always feel lost there. I did notice that book downloads are quicker than I remembered them to be - and, since I had to download again all 57 of the Sony e-books I own, that was nice to see. Prices are competitive with those of Amazon and Sony offers special prices on several books, even to offering about ten of them free and several others for only a buck.

I understand why Sony is spending all its time and money on the new readers. The future of the company depends on getting new products from the pipeline into the stores. I get it. But why can't Sony throw me and the other thousands of early-adapters a bone by upgrading the primitive software of the PRS-500? I buy a lot of Sony products as it is, but they could really lock my business in by showing me that they care enough about me as a past customer to keep my $300 investment working as long as possible.

Come on, Mr. Sony, give a guy a break.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Ghetto Lit - Good, Bad, Embarrassing?

Juan Williams, one of my favorite political commentators and writers, has an article in the Wall Street Journal on what he calls Ghetto Lit. I've often wondered how serious black authors feel about having their books housed in their own little ghettos in bookstores all across America. You know what I'm talking about, those little sections labeled "Black Literature" and the such. I assume that black authors sell more books to African-American readers that way, but I also believe that they lose many more sales to white and hispanic readers - a net loss to them and to their publishers.

Ghetto Lit, admittedly, is a whole other thing. From what I've personally seen of it, and from what Mr. Williams has to say about the genre, perhaps those writers are lucky to get their books inside a bookstore at all.
As the author of books on black history and black culture, I was disappointed but not surprised. To see a working-class 30-ish black woman with a book these days is almost always to find her reading a selection from the fastest-growing segment of African-American letters, a genre called "ghetto lit" or "gangster lit."

The best that can be said about these books is that they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. Black women are much bigger readers than black men, and gangster lit dominates the best-seller list in Essence Magazine, which calculates rankings using sales at black-owned bookstores nationwide. Recent titles shout out to the hard, fast lifestyle: "Bad Girlz 4 Life," "Still Hood" and "From the Streets to the Sheets."
[...]
The black imagination as revealed in gangster lit is centered on the world of drug dealers— "dough boys" who are heavy with drug money—and the get-rich-quick rappers and athletes who mimic the druggie lifestyle. And there are lots of "ghetto-fabulous" women, referring to themselves as bitches, carrying brand-name handbags and wearing big, gaudy jewelry. Attitude and anger are everything. The dispiriting word "nigger" is used freely by black characters talking about one another.
[...]
At least two black-owned publishing houses have been created as a result of the growing market for these books. Large established publishers, including Simon & Schuster, Kensington Books and St. Martin's, are on the bandwagon. They created "urban fiction" divisions after realizing that the grass-roots demand for these books was strong enough that authors were making money with vanity-press printing and hand-to-hand sales at black beauty salons, over the Internet and even from car trunks.
[...]
Not only the best but the worst that can be said about these books is they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. They are poorly written, poorly edited and celebrate the worst of black life.
[...]
It is hard to believe, but legendary black writers telling stories about the full scope of the black experience, from Langston Hughes to Toni Morrison, are being pushed aside. Inspirational books on black history or the civil-rights struggle are now for the classroom only. Even libraries now stock gangster-lit novels, because they bring new readers in the door.
Mr. Williams obviously feels very strongly that this kind of writing is harmful to the community it is targeting - and I just as strongly agree with him. The other word that comes to mind is embarrassing. Come on, guys, you can do better than this. Is this really the way you want to represent yourself to the world. Shame on you, writers of this trash. Shame on you.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Now This Is Just Silly

We've talked about the limited price war on books being fought by Walmart, Target and Amazon but what happened today turns an idea that already is dangerous to publishing into one that is simply absurd. John Grisham's new book, Ford County, seems to have helped set off a feeding frenzy.

This New York Times piece does its best to explain what happened yesterday:
At first, Amazon appeared to be the low-price player when it extended its $9 price tag to three hardcover books that were officially released Nov. 3. Amazon had originally offered that price in response to price-cutting by Wal-Mart on its Web site for preorders of 10 titles that included the three that were released Tuesday: “Ford County” by John Grisham, “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver and “Kindred in Death” by J. D. Robb. As of Tuesday morning, Amazon still had those titles priced at $9 while Wal-Mart, which had offered them on pre-order at $8.98, and Target, which had offered pre-orders for $8.99, had raised their prices. At Walmart.com, for example, “Ford County” was selling for $12, while “The Lacuna” was $13.50. At Target.com, “The Lacuna” was on sale for $18.89 and “Kindred in Death” was $17. But by late morning, Amazon had raised its prices — “The Lacuna” and “Kindred in Death,” for example, were offered for $13.50 — while Walmart.com had cut them again.
I think the three wheeler-dealers are right on the brink of ticking off some of the customers they're so busy trying to attract. When book prices start going up and down like Wall Street stock certificates there are going to be some who feel they have been cheated by buying in when they did. They are going to experience buyer's remorse and wish they had bought two hours earlier or one hour later. And they are going to blame Walmart, Target and Amazon.

This is getting strange but I suppose they Big Three are loving the publicity so much that stranger decisions may yet be coming.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Jackson

Few would argue that American workers are facing a crisis of confidence today - or as T.P. Jones puts it, a “loss of certainty.” That jobs are disappearing is beyond dispute; layoffs and terminations can be easily counted and their staggering number makes national headlines every week. It is, however, more difficult for the average worker to buy into the government’s claims about the number of new jobs being created or saved during the same week that so many jobs have been lost. There is just too great a feeling of “smoke and mirrors” involved, especially when it comes to the easily manipulated “jobs saved” category.

Jackson, book one in the Loss of Certainty trilogy, personalizes today’s economic headlines by placing the reader inside the heads of a group of Midwesterners who have spent their entire working lives at JackPack, one of Jackson, Iowa’s biggest businesses. The Jackson Meatpacking Company employs some 2,000 Jackson citizens who do the backbreaking work of slaughtering several thousands hogs a day and, tough as the job might be, most of them cannot imagine ever doing anything else. But times are changing.

Jackson Meatpacking’s physical plant is old and rundown and no one will loan the company the money it needs to modernize the facility. The company is already facing a slow death when its management suddenly learns that a fierce and well-funded competitor is moving into the region and will be buying hogs from the same farms counted on by Jackson Meatpacking for its own supply of healthy animals. As hog prices inevitably rise because of this new competition, JackPack’s daily losses will increase, and the company will be pushed ever closer to the day it has to shut its doors for good.

But no one is ready to pull the plug on the company, least of all its employees and the man who runs it. That man is the grandson of Jackson Meatpacking’s founder and, because most company stock is still in the hands of his relatives, he has a very personal stake in the success of the operation. Even at that, he is not the only one with everything to lose if the company shuts down, meaning that a very different group of people will have to find a way to work together if JackPack is to have any chance of surviving. This time the inherent distrust between white collars, blue collars and union leaders will have to be cast aside for the good of all. Add to this mix a young investigative reporter new to Jackson and the vindictive newspaper publisher who hired her for reasons of his own, and it is anyone’s bet as to what Jackson Meatpacking’s ultimate fate will be.

Jackson includes an interesting side plot involving the construction of a dog racing track that must largely be built during the coldest months of a long Iowa winter. This side story involves city managers, construction people, and numerous other characters that I suspect will play larger roles in the second book of the Loss of Certainty series.

T.P. Jones did an extraordinary amount of research in preparation for Jackson and the books that will follow, and it shows. His characters are everyday, real people faced with uncertain futures and they react to the stress of their situations just as hardworking people all across America are reacting to their own uncertain futures today. At almost 540 pages, Jackson is a long but easily read book because Jones uses a very fluid and straightforward style to tell his story, a story to which his readers will strongly relate.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by Synergy Books)

Monday, November 02, 2009

Direct from Target, Amazon and Walmart: Book Rationing

Looks like Amazon, Walmart and Target are not too crazy about the idea of subsidizing the indie bookstores around the country by selling those stores bestselling books at prices lower than those at which the stores can obtain them from publishers on their own.

Indies were quick to recognize a win-win situation when they saw one. All they have to do is buy the books at these giveaway prices, mark them up enough to make a tidy profit, and still give their loyal customers a nice discount. Indies are happy; their customers are happy; Amazon, Walmart and Target are ticked off. What a deal.

This Wall Street Journal article has the details:
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has limited its online customers to two copies each of certain bargain books. Amazon.com Inc. has a three-copy maximum on certain discounted titles and Target Corp. has a five-copy limit online.
[...]
The retailers are losing money on each copy sold because publishers charge them about 50% of a book's hardcover price. The prices for the 10 books involved in the promotion are also lower than the wholesale price independent booksellers pay for the merchandise.

Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer at the Boulder Book Store, in Boulder, Colo., said he had intended to buy as many as 70 copies of Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna" from Walmart.com, Target.com or Amazon, because their prices are "more than $5 cheaper than what we can get it for from the publisher, Harper.

Mr. Kashkashian said he was surprised to see that the three retailers were limiting the quantities sold. "We're a big store, and if a customer wanted to order 100 copies of anything, we'd sell it to them," he said.
[...]
Joel Bines of consultancy AlixPartners LLP said retailers commonly ration loss-leader promotions to stop competitors from buying up the merchandise. In the book promotion, Mr. Bines noted, some independent booksellers surely would purchase Wal-Mart's books in bulk if possible at their below-wholesale price. He said some of the books would also probably end up on eBay, offered by speculators.

"It's to prevent a run on the bank, so to speak," Mr. Bines said of the limits. "They are losing money on every item they sell at this price, so they want to make sure the items actually go to customers, who might then buy something else."
I understand why the three big retailers are trying to protect themselves from this kind of thing and I wish them luck. I also understand why the indies, who are being crushed one-by-one by Target, Walmart, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders, would jump at an opportunity to stick it to the bullies on the block. Are the indies crossing an ethical line if they have employees, friends and family members order the maximum number of books allowed by Target? It's definitely a gray area but I think that if I were in the shoes of an indie bookstore owner, I would do it. (And I know that Target, Walmart and Amazon would do the same if the shoe were on the other foot.)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Great Festival with One Disappointment

The Texas Book Festival was even better this year than last, but that might be because I was so much better organized this time around. I haven't had time to digest all I saw and heard but I can say that it was a wonderful experience to hear so many authors speak - authors who were only names on a book jacket before the festival are now real people with distinct personalities, and that will make me a better reader of their work.

I will say that one of my favorite writers let me down in a big way. I knew, of course, that she was very much a liberal because I've read most of her books. I always take something positive away from reading this woman and her new book, as she explained it to her audience, sounds as intriguing as any of her earlier works. She's quite the humorist (and feminist) and makes men the butt of many of her jokes and stories so, as you would imagine, her audience was about 80% female and largely of the age group coming of age in the '60s and '70s.

I try to avoid politics here - but when she made the statement that anyone protesting the President's policies regarding health care or anything else is objecting simply out of racism - no other reason - I had to pack up my things and leave the audience (so quietly that I doubt that anyone even noticed). I'm paraphrasing what she said but I have the exact quote on my recording of her presentation (along with me muttering "bullshit" a couple of times).

This is a writer who is best known as a BS-sniffer, a reputation she takes great pride in claiming. Apparently, her BS-sniffer does not work on words that come out of her own mouth. I can't believe she believes such a simplistic explanation of the Tea Party protesters and, even more shockingly, I can't believe that she doesn't recognize how ignorant this makes her sound.

Having one of your favorite nonfiction writers call you a racist is not a great way to end such a pleasant weekend. But I'll live - and eventually I'll read her new book.