Translate

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Chase 2010 Year-End Statistics

Another year is done and I've managed to pull together some end-of-year numbers that reflect the kind of reading year 2010 was for me. I find that I was fairly consistent from month-to-month with my reading but that I had at least two "reading slumps" during which nothing really impressed me as being even remotely special.   I hate when that happens.  In fact, the same thing happened to me last year, further evidence, I believe, that the problem is one of my own "attitude" rather than of the quality of the books on hand.

This, according to the stats, was my year:
Number of Books Read - 125

Fiction - 90:
Novels - 84
Short Story Collections - 6

Nonfiction - 35:
Memoirs - 15
Biographies - 6
Literary Criticism - 3
Political Science - 3
Language Arts - 2
Sociology - 2
Sports - 2
Science - 1
True Crime - 1

Written by Men - 76
Written by Women - 45
Co-Authored by Both - 4

Audio Books - 13
E-Books - 10
Library Books - 41
Review Copies - 72
Started but Abandoned - 9

Author Nationality:
British - 10
Iranian - 2
Icelandic - 2
French - 1
Irish - 1
Spanish - 1
Canadian - 1
Australian - 1
American - 106

Length of Average Book Read in 2010 - 316 pages
Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 34,500+

Coming into the year, my rather vague goals included reading more international fiction, more nonfiction, more short story collections, more classic literature, and to read multiple books from a series or two. It appears that I failed miserably on all counts with the exception of short story collections. Next year's goals are going to be a bit different and I'll get into those in the next few days but I am convinced that I need to read fewer review copies in 2011. I love early-looks at books but I can see that I need to limit myself to three or four per month rather than the six or seven I have read each month during the last two years or so.

I'm excited about moving into the New Year and beginning the fifth year of Book Chase on January 20. Let's have some fun in 2011.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Top 10 Nonfiction of 2010

These are my ten favorite nonfiction books of the 35 books read in that category during 2010:


1.  George Washington: A Life - Ron Chernow - I would guess that most Americans do not even realize how little they know about George Washington.  Oh, sure, we all know that silly cherry tree story (an event that never happened) proving that Washington "could not tell a lie."  We know that he crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776, during the Revolutionary War because we are familiar with the historically inaccurate Emanuel Leutze painting from 1851 portraying that courageous decision.  We know about Washington's wooden teeth, or we think we do since that is another slightly bent story about our first president (the real story of Washington's dental problems is even more fascinating than the myth about his wooden teeth).


2.  My Reading Life - Pat Conroy - Pat Conroy fans, this one is for you.  Longtime readers of Conroy’s fiction have often wondered why so many years pass between new books, how much truth is really contained in his novels, how his family reacts about seeing themselves in his novels, and whether Conroy’s abuse at the hands of his father has had a long term impact on his head.  In My Reading Life, Conroy answers all of those questions – and many more.


3.  Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones - Her father is James Jones, the National Book Award winner most famous for From Here to Eternity, the first book of his World War II trilogy that also includes The Thin Red Lineand Whistle. Her mother is Gloria Jones, an outrageously full of life woman so beautiful that she was once a Marilyn Monroe stand-in. Like her father, Kaylie Jones is a talented writer and she has spent a lifetime immersed in the literary world. Unfortunately, Jones also shares the alcoholism suffered by both her parents, a problem she addresses frankly in Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir. 


4.  War - Sebastian Junger - For a long time, I have been fascinated by the breed of reporter/writer so willing to put everything on the line in order to experience warfare alongside American soldiers. It is only from these brave and talented men and women that the rest of us get a decent picture of what is really happening out there and what our young soldiers are enduring for months on end. Sebastian Junger is one of the best of the breed. I am already a fan of Junger’s The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont, both of which are excellently written, but I do believe that War is his best effort yet.


5.  Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book - Sean Manning, ed. - All of us, I suspect, have one or two favorite books on our shelves, books that we are as much emotionally attached to as anything else we own.  But, think about that for a second.  One’s favorite books, the ones carried around during a lifetime of relocations, are not necessarily favorites because of what is between their covers.  They are just as likely to be favorites because of all the memories attached to their acquisition, or where they were first read, or what family member owned them first, or because they were a gift from a favorite teacher, relative, or long lost friend.  As the back cover of Bound to Last puts it, we love this kind of book “because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object.”


6.  Mark Twain's Other Woman - Laura Skandera Trembley - During his lifetime, Mark Twain was arguably the most famous man in the world. As such, he was very conscious of the public image that guaranteed him a secure income stream on the lecture tour any time he needed to tap into it. And because Twain had a habit of losing money to unwise investment decisions, the money he earned from public appearances was crucial if he was to maintain the lifestyle to which he and his family had become so accustomed. Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain became increasingly concerned about how he would be remembered after his death, and he was determined that nothing would tarnish his image at that late date. He achieved that goal - until now.


7.  Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley, Eddie Dean - When it comes to country music history, Ralph Stanley has pretty much seen it all. Now, at age 82, he has partnered with author Eddie Dean to share some of that with the rest of us. The book they co-authored, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, will, of course be especially appreciated by bluegrass fans, Stanley Brothers fans, and fans of the work Ralph has done since Carter’s death on December 1, 1966. Others, even those that are not fans of Stanley or of bluegrass music, will find the book to be a remarkable snapshot of a pivotal period in American music history, a time during which musicians like the Stanley Brothers earned their livings through live radio shows, relatively primitive recordings, and driving countless miles from one paying gig to the next.


8.  At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson - Readers who enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (in which he covered the world of science), are likely to be equally taken by At Home: A Short History of Private Life in which the author turns his attention to social history. At first glance, I feared that Bryson was going to do little more than wander from room to room of his home, explaining along the way the development of the form and function of each of the old house’s rooms. This 19th century-built home, a former parsonage located in rural England, certainly lends itself to that type of discussion. Luckily, however, Bryson had much more in mind for At Home.


9.  Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen - Jimmy McDonough - Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen is some kind of crazy cross between biography and author memoir. I call it crazy because, in theory, it should not work - but the craziest thing about it is how well it does work once the reader clicks to the book’s obvious slant. Author Jimmy McDonough idolizes Tammy Wynette and he is none too thrilled with those who so often made her life a living hell. While he recounts Wynette’s life in detail, McDonough is quick to offer his personal opinion about those details. He never hesitates to ridicule individual songs, hair styles, clothing, or album covers, for instance. McDonough wisely does not even attempt to portray himself as the impersonal biographer. Otherwise, the four or five personal “letters” to Wynette he places throughout the book would be even stranger than they already are. 


10.  Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams - It is always easier for an outsider to be objective about an unfamiliar culture than it is for someone totally immersed in that same culture, especially when strict conformity to the accepted norm of the culture serves as a means of survival within it. I recognize, however, that an outsider brings his own baggage and bias into any discussion about a culture foreign to his eyes. And when it comes to the hip-hop culture that so completely dominates overall black culture today, especially the lives of its younger members, I am absolutely an outsider. But, as such, I have long wondered how, and why, American blacks have allowed their culture and their image as a people to be disgraced by something as shallow and destructive as hip-hop. In Losing My Cool, Thomas Chatterton Williams explores how the hip-hop culture came to dominate Black America and what needs to be done to counter its terrible influence on young people.


I am particularly pleased with the quality of the books on this year's Nonfiction Top 10 list.  I had hoped to read more nonfiction in 2010 than I read in 2009 but finished with only 35 nonfiction titles for the year.  Maybe I was just lucky; maybe I was more careful in my choices.  Whatever the reason, I think this is my strongest nonfiction Top 10 list in the four years I've been sharing here on Book Chase.  Check some of these out if you have the time - you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 10 Fiction of 2010

These are the ten fiction books I most enjoyed during 2010 of a total of 90 books read in that category:

1.  Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese - Cutting for Stone is one of those novels whose size and reputation could easily intimidate its prospective readers. It comes in at almost 550 pages, after all, and most of the story takes place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, of all places. Its main characters are Ethiopian, Eritrean, Indian, British, or some mix of those nationalities and, even when the action moves to New York City, it is to a part of the city few Americans know anything about. The novel is part history lesson, part love story; it is both a modern novel and a reminder of the kind of thing Charles Dickens wrote on his best days; it is a science lesson and a travelogue. Bottom line: This is a very special novel, a reading experience everyone should at least consider having. Pick up this book; flip through it; read a few pages to see if it is something for you. If not, put it aside and try it again in a few months. Maybe you will get lucky the second time around.


2.  Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes - Matterhorn, a first novel by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, was some thirty years in the making and it was only published after Marlantes cut about 1,000 pages from his original manuscript. Despite the cuts, the book still comes in at close to 600 pages in length and it tells a story that will be stuck in the minds of its readers long after they have turned the final page. This one, too, is a reminder that the written word almost always tells a story more powerfully than the same story can be told on film.


3.  The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim - The Calligrapher’s Daughter is Eugenia Kim’s debut novel and, as so many first novels do, the book tells a story very close to the author’s heart, one, in this case, inspired by her own mother’s life. Set in Korea between 1915 and 1945, it recounts the suffering inflicted upon the country by Japanese invaders that arrived there early in the 20th century. Japanese administrators, determined to wipe out any memory of an independent Korea, allowed only Japanese to be spoken in schools, taught only Japanese history to Korean children, destroyed the Korean royal family, and filled local prisons with those that dared protest. During World War II, when Japan realized its chances of prevailing were slipping away, life became particularly desperate for Koreans because Japan saw Korea as little more than a source of slave labor, food and raw materials to be exploited for the Japanese war effort.


4.  The White Garden - Stephanie Barron - Everyone knows that, one day in 1941, famed British author Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with heavy rocks before stepping into the cold waters of the river Ouse. Perhaps because of the extra weight she carried into the water with her, Woolf’s body would not be found until three weeks later. Woolf’s family and friends, aware that she was often in a suicidal frame-of-mind, were not surprised by her end, so the official verdict of suicide was never challenged. Now, in an intriguing piece of alternate history, The White Garden, Stephanie Barron examines the possibilities of what may have happened during the three weeks between Woolf’s disappearance and the recovery of her body in the Ouse.


5.  Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier - Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, based on the true story of fossil-finders Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, is a piece of feminist historical fiction that works. Set in the early years of the 19th century, the book is a reminder of how completely women were excluded from the scientific community of the time – regardless of what they might achieve they were unlikely to receive much official credit for their work. It was a time, too, when people still believed that God had created the earth, and human beings, a mere five or six thousand years earlier and any evidence to the contrary was seen as something blasphemous.


6.  Drood - Dan Simmons - Drood is more than a book; it is an experience, a total immersion into Victorian England and the personal lives of two of the most famous authors of the day: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Either way the reader chooses to experience this Dan Simmons book, by reading it or by listening to the audio book version, requires a major commitment of time and effort. The book itself is almost 800 pages long and the audio version of 24 CDs requires just under 30 hours of listening time. The audio book, read by Simon Prebble, is the route I chose to follow.


7.  Bury Your Dead - Louise Penny - Bury Your Dead is book number six in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series but, as has so often been the case for me, I am arriving late to the party.  There are several unrelated plotlines in Bury Your Dead and Louise Penny juggles them like a champion, maintaining the reader’s keen interest in each of them as they slowly reach their separate climaxes.  In addition, and an aspect of the book that particularly appealed to me, there is a very painless history lesson at the heart of the murder with which Armand Gamache is most directly connected.  


8.  North River - Pete Hamill - For a book that includes so much actual, not to mention potential violence, Pete Hamill’s North River is at its heart a very gentle novel.  Dr. James Delaney, a WWI medic who was himself wounded in the war, is having a tough time of it in 1934 Greenwich Village. Delaney’s neighborhood patients are suffering the effects of the Depression and cash money to pay for Delaney’s services is hard to come by.  Despite the fact that his wife, Molly, who suffers from depression, has walked out of his life and has not been heard from since, Delaney keeps her room as she left it in hopes that she will walk back into his world one day.


9.  Shadow of the Swords - Kamran Pasha - Few will argue the old cliché that there are “two sides to every story,” or that truth requires consideration of both sides, especially when it comes to the study of written history. The tendency of history textbooks to present only one point-of-view brings to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote, “History is written by the victors.” But the “victors,” unfortunately, tell us only what they want us to know, and the losers generally have lost their right to argue the point.  Kamran Pasha’s Shadow of the Swords is an opportunity for Western readers to look at the bloody Third Crusade of the late twelfth century through the eyes of Saladin, commander of the Muslim forces in Palestine at the time of Richard the Lionheart’s invasion of the region. Note, however, that portions of the book are written from Richard’s point-of-view, although Saladin’s character remains the most influential one throughout the book.


10.  City of Tranquil Light - Bo Caldwell - City of Tranquil Light, Bo Caldwell’s second novel, is a beautiful story set in China just when that country was on the cusp of all the cultural shocks the rest of the 20th century would bring it. It is the story of two young Mennonites who were inspired to return to rural China with the charismatic minister who came to their communities seeking the funds and volunteers he needed to keep his mission there alive.  The saga begins in 1906 when a 21-year-old farmer from Oklahoma and a 22-year-old nurse from Cleveland decide to become foreign missionaries. For Katherine Friesen, the decision is a little easier than it is for Will Kiehn – Katherine’s sister is married to the charismatic young minister with whom she will be traveling to China. Will, on the other hand, has never known a life other than farming and he fears that he is unprepared for what is ahead. He is right about that. But no one could have been prepared for the lives he and Katherine will lead in a remote Chinese village for the better part of the next twenty-five years.


And there you have it: a Top 10 list of the best fiction books I encountered during 2010.  I am pleased with the list, having thoroughly enjoyed all ten of these and, for a change, I think I could have come up with a strong second ten books.  Interestingly (to me, anyway), four of the books are review copies provided by publishers and six came from my county library, including the two audio books that made the list.  Not a single book that I purchased myself made the list.





Monday, December 27, 2010

Territory


Territory broke new ground for me.  I have long been a fan of realistic western fiction, the grittier the better, but have never much enjoyed fantasy writing of the type filled with magicians, superheroes, or magic kingdoms.  Fortunately, this time my love for both factual and fictional accounts of the Earp brothers, and their association with Doc Holliday, overrode my reluctance to spend reading time on the fantasy genre.  That is because Emma Bull has pulled off what I would have considered impossible before reading Territory: a near perfect blending of a realistic western with a healthy dose of magic thrown into the mix. 

That Bull’s use of magic is key to the development of her novel’s plot and characters but still not overdone, makes for an enjoyably off-center look at some real-life characters already very familiar to fans of Old West novels.  The action all takes place in and around Tombstone, Arizona, just a few months before the infamous (and still mysterious) “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” as all the usual suspects gather there to feed on the hatred they feel for each other. 

On the one side are Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and the equally famous dentist who calls himself Doc Holliday.  On the other side are gunslinger Johnny Ringo and the Clanton and McClaury brothers, a bunch of part-time cowboys and rustlers. What makes this portrayal of the historical events of the day so different is that several of the key players have more than simple charisma working in their favor; they are secret magicians with the power to influence events as much with their minds as with their pistols. 

Into this mix, Bull blends several fictional characters that get caught up in the events of the day.  Jesse Fox, making his way to Mexico where he hopes to make a living breaking wild horses, stops in Tombstone to see his old friend from San Francisco, Chow Lung.  Fox knows deep-down that his Chinese friend has unusual powers but is reluctant to admit it even to himself.  Little does he know that Chow Lung has called him to Tombstone using some of that same magic so that the two can investigate the evil that has entered the town. Mildred, recently widowed, works in one of Tombstone’s daily newspapers as a typesetter but is the glue that holds the little paper together.  When Jesse Fox comes into the office one day, they inadvertently begin a partnership that will change both their lives forever.

Bull takes the time to build a realistic setting within which she develops her characters and their motivations.  Atmospherically, everything will seem so familiar to fans of the western genre that, when fantasy replaces realism, they will hardly notice the jolt.  Fantasy and magic are well used in order to explore a world on the edge, one in which physical strength and domination are key elements in local politics and in the everyday lives of all of Tombstone’s citizens.

This one is fun, and it would be a shame if those who loathe either western fiction or fantasy fiction were to miss it.  Give it a shot.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, December 26, 2010

North River


For a book that includes so much actual, not to mention potential violence, Pete Hamill’s North River is at its heart a very gentle novel. 

 Dr. James Delaney, a WWI medic who was himself wounded in the war, is having a tough time of it in 1934 Greenwich Village.  Delaney’s neighborhood patients are suffering the effects of the Depression and cash money to pay for Delaney’s services is hard to come by.  Despite the fact that his wife, Molly, who suffers from depression, has walked out of his life and has not been heard from since, Delaney keeps her room as she left it in hopes that she will walk back into his world one day.

His day-to-day routine, bleak as it is, is rocked one day when Delaney returns home to find that his daughter Grace has abandoned her two-year-old son at his doorstep.  At first, Delaney is filled with anger that Grace would do such a thing.  Later, he will realize that little Carlito and Rose, the woman he hired to help him care for the little boy, are two of the best things that ever happened to him.

Delaney’s life grows complicated when he is called upon to save the life of Eddie Corso, a local mobster who has been gunned down by a rival gang.  Delaney and Corso have a history going back to the first time Delaney saved Corso’s life – when Delaney risked German snipers to get to the severely wounded Corso one horrible day during the war.  The bond the two men formed that day is as strong as ever.  Unfortunately for Delaney and his grandson, rival gangster Frankie Botts is convinced that Delaney knows where the recuperating Corso is hiding, and Botts is willing to do anything to get that information, even if it involves the boy.

But now comes the gentle (and best) part of the story.  North River is really a very well written love story that encompasses the love of a man for his lost wife, his estranged daughter, his grandson, and soon enough for Rose, the Italian illegal emigrant who has moved so seamlessly into his life.  Before long, little Carlito, who spent his first two years living in Mexico, is speaking Spanish, English, and even a good bit of Italian as he charms everyone in the Delaney household.  Carlito’s world is one of constant discovery, and before long the adults around him cannot but help see the world through his new eyes, too.

North River gives the reader a remarkable feel for life in one New York City neighborhood during the Depression.  Hamill’s sense of what everyday life was like for those who lived within a few blocks of the Village during the thirties is a key element of his story.  This is a combination of superb historical fiction, crime fiction and romance and, as such, it will certainly appeal to a variety of readers.  Don’t miss this one.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Charlie and the Book Factory

Once again, a child leads the way.  One little boy in Dalton, Georgia, decided that it would be nice to have a bookstore in his hometown - and he decided to do something about it.

According to PRWeb.com:
Charlie got the idea to write a letter to Books-A-Million, the nation’s third-largest book chain, after his parents told him one night they didn’t have time to drive to the store’s nearest location 30 miles away. His mom, Jody, told his third-grade teacher Debbie Reynolds about his plan. Reynolds moved up her persuasive writing lesson and encouraged her students to write letters to the CEO of Books-A-Million. By Thanksgiving, about 500 letters written by students in the Dalton Public School system landed on Anderson’s desk, begging him to open a Books-A-Million store at the local Walnut Square Mall.


On December 3rd, Anderson made a surprise appearance in Reynold’s classroom and announced that a Books-A-Million store would be opening, hopefully in time for the holidays. Anderson sealed his promise by giving each child a $25 gift card to the new store.
Charlie officially becomes the store's first customer
But that was just the beginning.  Charlie and some of his classmates were part of the store's official grand opening on December 18 when they probably took advantage of all those $25 gift cards.  Books-A-Million must have worked at record speed to get this location opened before Christmas, so here's hats off to them for what they did for Charlie, his school, and the citizens of Dalton.  After all, how can anyone live 30 miles from the nearest bookstore?  That's too horrible to contemplate. 

Thanks to Books-A-Million and to Charlie and his teacher for this just-in-time-for-Christmas feel-good story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Broken Shore

I have long believed that quality crime fiction, the kind built around a sense of place and well developed characters, can give the armchair traveler a better feel for a country and its culture than all but the best written travel books.  Books like Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore always remind me how true that is.

Big city Australian cop Joe Cashin has been exiled to the little police station responsible for the security of the small South Australian coastal town he grew up in – not that the citizens there have much crime to worry about.  He has ostensibly been sent to the area to recover from a serious physical injury, but Cashin is the kind of cop whose superiors sometimes need a break from him, and no one seems in a hurry to call him back.  Perhaps that is because he is not much into political correctness or going out of his way to make his fellow policemen look good when they do not deserve it.

When local millionaire Charles Bourgoyne is discovered in his mansion with his head bashed in, Cashin soon finds himself at odds with others in the department who are determined to pin the crime on a group of aboriginal teens caught trying to sell the man’s watch.  After the case is officially closed, Cashin, ever the introspective loner, decides to investigate the crime on his own.  His investigation, made more difficult by the town’s instinctive racism toward its aboriginal population, will lead him deep into a part of the community’s past tainted by child pornography and sexual abuse. 

Joe Cashin is not a perfect cop.  In fact, he sometimes tends to make the kind of careless or lazy mistake that can place him, his fellow cops, or the success of an investigation in danger.  The older he gets, the more Cashin questions what he has done with his life.  He is close to no one, including his mother and only brother, but despite not being happy about the situation, he does little to remedy it.  But the man has a good heart, and a very big one, at that.  He is a staunch defender of the underdog and he believes in second chances, two qualities that mark him as a misfit among his fellow policemen.

The Broken Shore is filled with memorable little moments, unforgettable characters, and complicated personal relationships.  It is about much more than the murder of one old man with a past of his own to protect.  Peter Temple uses dialogue to develop his characters much in the way that Elmore Leonard has become so celebrated for doing.  It works well for Temple, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting into the revealing conversational rhythms of his characters.  Readers will be well advised, however, to familiarize themselves with the Australian slang terms in the book’s glossary before beginning the novel (a fun, standalone read, that is) in order to keep the conversation flowing at the pace at which it is meant to be read.

This, my first Peter Temple novel, is actually the author’s ninth, and I look forward to reading the others.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, December 20, 2010

Do E-Books Even Need Covers?

I got my Sony Reader back from my granddaughter last weekend so that I could download a review copy of Pat Conroy's first novel, The Boo.  I was a little disappointed to learn that the review copy has a built-in ticking time-bomb that will destroy it exactly 60 days from the moment I completed its download.  I can understand the publisher's reasoning for doing it that way (I suppose), but that got me thinking again about the difference between e-books and real books - and why I will always prefer the real thing to a stupid digital file that has no personality or eye appeal.

 I went out of my way, and spent a good deal of money, to place a whole wall of built-in bookshelves in the study of this house when we built it eleven years ago.  I still enjoy puttering around the shelves, coming up with new filing schemes and presentations as the mood strikes me.  Try doing that with a collection of e-books.  Bookshelves reveal much about their owner, sometimes more than the owner intends, I'm sure.  Are your shelves filled with James Patterson and Danielle Steele novels to the exclusion of most everything else?  Do the Twilight novels occupy a prominent position on your shelves?  Right alongside your collection of multiple copies of the Harry Potter series, perhaps?  If so, you might want to make sure that your boss doesn't peruse your shelves during your next Christmas party if being taken seriously by her is important to you.

When given a chance to study the bookshelves of friends or family members, heavy-duty readers cannot resist.  And, whether they will admit it to you are not, they make personal judgments based on what they see on those shelves.  Savvy book owners know this, of course, and they use their books to tell others about themselves. All e-book collectors can do, on the other hand, is call up their little digital bookshelves and pass the e-reader or iPad around the room.  Not quite the same, is it?

Then, there are the book covers.  Simply put, I love book covers.  They are often pieces of art, much like those LP recording covers of the past (I still keep some of my favorite LPs in frames in my office and they get an amazing number of comments from visitors).  The first thing a potential buyer sees of a real book is its dust jacket and, if that cover is bad enough, it can end up being the only thing a potential buyer will see.  Some dust jackets are so bad that male readers cannot imagine being seen in public with them.  I'm sure the same, in reverse, is true for female readers.

We all love browsing in bookstores, even if we are supposedly there on a mission to buy one particular title.  If you are like me, and I suspect that most of you are, the majority of the books you buy are those that just happen to catch your eye as you wander around the store.  Some books just seem to call to you; others slap you in the head, they seem so perfect - and that's before you even open them.  I don't know what percentage of a book's sales can be attributed to the eye appeal of its cover, but I am willing to bet that the positive impact of an attractive cover is substantial.  How can browsing through tiny little icon book covers on your browser compare to the experience of a real bookstore?  It can't, of course, it can't.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Planet of the Apes

This is the second time I have read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, but the first time since 1968.  It is so much different than I remembered it.  My memories of that first reading were tainted over the years by the awful movies that followed the original Planet of the Apes movie.  The first movie was not completely true to the novel, but it was at least an above-average movie that deserved its popularity and box office success.  The subsequent movies were just terrible in every sense of the word and, unfortunately for me, they tainted Boulle’s book beyond my recognition of its positive aspects.

For starters, author Pierre Boulle is as French as his name sounds, and the astronauts who embark on a special mission in the year 2500 are French, not the Americans of the movies.  Unfortunately for our French friends, however, they find themselves in much the same position as their American movie counterparts.  Their world has been flipped on its head in more ways than they can count.  They are fortunate to have landed on a planet hospitable to human life, but they find that it is a simian-dominated world, not one dominated the human tribe they soon encounter.

Men are hunted for sport and for scientific purposes by gorillas sent to gather more research specimens for the chimpanzee scientists who need them for study purposes.  Men, after all, are the nearest animal to the apes who dominate this world and that makes them very valuable to the chimpanzee scientists and doctors searching for the medical breakthroughs that will save simian lives in the future.  In a matter of hours, Ulysse Merou is running for his life, part of a group of humans being systematically slaughtered by a hunting group of gorillas and their wives.  Ulysse is one of the lucky ones; he escapes the hunters shotguns long enough to get himself entangled in one of their nets, meaning that he will become a lab specimen rather than a trophy.

Pierre Boulle
This sounds like sensational science fiction, and it is.  But Pierre Boulle manages to create memorable characters (some of them men, some of them apes) along the way, characters with personality, depth, and the motivation and reactions that make them real.  Planet of the Apes is a satirical novel, one that uses the simian society of this strange new world to reflect on the strangeness of our own 1970s world.  Within this amazing story, Boulle explores politics, social mores, authority figures, human vanity and, of course, scientific research.  This slim novel of just 128 pages manages to make the reader reflect a bit on his own world while entertaining him within the fantastic situation into which Ulysse Merou and his two comrades have been plunked. 

There is even a “Statue of Liberty” type ending for the book, perhaps the only aspect of the novel surpassed by its movie version (the ending of the first movie is still, by far, the highlight of that whole series of films).  But, I am pleased to say that, as is almost always the case, the book is much better than the movie  - and, in this case, deserves to be read as the standalone story it was meant to be.  I had fun revisiting the Planet of the Apes.

(Free trivia fact: Pierre Boulle is also author of the respected novel Bridge Over the River Kwai, which became another very successful movie.)

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, December 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole, if he were alive, would be 73 years old today.  Sadly, Toole chose to take his own life on March 26, 1969, at age 31.

John Kennedy Toole is, of course, best known for the wonderful novel he was unable to get published during his lifetime, A Confederacy of Dunces.  I defy anyone to read Confederacy and then tell me that they will ever forget the book's main character, Ignatius J. Reilly.  That is not to say that Ignatius is a lovable, or even a likable, character; it is simply to say that he is unforgettable because of his unique approach to life.

Several years after his death, Toole's mother was able to get novelist Walker Percy to look at A Confederacy of Dunces, and Percy eventually saw that the novel was published.  In 1981, twelve years after his death, John Kennedy Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Note: Readers familiar with Confederacy might also want to find a copy of The Neon Bible, written by Toole at age 16.  This one is no Confederacy, of course, but it is a rather remarkable effort for a 16-year-old high school student.  Toole did not believe that the novel held up very well over the years and considered it to be an "adolescent" effort.  I wish I were capable of something so "adolescent" today.