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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Best Books of 2012 - at the Three-Quarters Mark


Three-quarters of the way through 2012 already, and I'm finding that my "Best Of" lists are beginning to solidify quicker than in past years.  That might be because this year's lists are limited to books published between October 1, 2011 and December 1, 2012 rather than being open to everything I read during the calendar year.  This is what it looks like as of September 30 (with changes highlighted):


Fiction:

1.     Edge of Dark Water – Joe Lansdale - East Texas redneck noir at its finest
2.     The Angel Makers – Jessica Gregson – Hungarian women react badly to the aftermath of World War I
3.     The Headmaster's Wager Vincent Lam – Betting it all on one throw of the dice
4.     Canada Richard Ford – Some borders are forever
5.     Heading Out to Wonderful Robert Goolrick – Spare me the good old days
6.     The Solitary House Lynn Shepherd – Period mystery using many Bleak House characters
7.     The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes – Run that past me again
8.     The World without You Joshua Henkin – One family's Fourth of July fireworks
9.     A Blaze of Glory Jeff Shaara – What could have been but for one bullet
10.  The Beautiful Mystery Louise Penny – Monkish murder in a monastry



Nonfiction:

1.     The One – R.J. Smith – “the life and music of James Brown”
2.     Game Over – Bill Moushey, Bob Dvorchak – the horror of Jerry Sandusky and his enablers lives on
3.     Private Empire – Steve Coll – “ExxonMobil and American Power”
4.     The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe – Loving books to the finish line
5.     Visiting Tom – Michael Perry – Gifts from a village elder
6.     Holy Ghost Girl – Donna M. Johnson – growing up while following a tent preacher from town to town
7.     Wild – Cheryl Strayed – one woman’s hike for her life
8.     Taking Flak – Dan Pastorini – Frank memoir from a Houston Oiler quarterback
9.     This Mobius Strip of Ifs Mathias B. Freese – Essays and memories from a thinker
10.     The End of IllnessDavid B. Agus, M.D. – alternative medicine and new technology combine

Friday, September 28, 2012

Seriously, Barnes & Noble?

Seriously, Barnes & Noble and Little, Brown?  You don't see anything wrong with pricing an e-book at $18 when the real thing sells, brand, spanking new for $21?

Click on image for larger version

Winter Journal - Take Two

This is only the second time I have re-posted anything to Book Chase, especially unusual this time because I made the original post only four days ago.  This YouTube video of Paul Auster reading a selection from Winter Journal is so exceptional and moving, however, that it needs (and deserves) to be added to my review of the book.

So, here is the author reading his own words - followed by my thoughts on the reading experience.



=======================================================================



A number of words come to mind when one considers Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal – unconventional, personal (almost by definition, I suppose), rambling, confusing, boring, frustrating, rewarding, revealing, gratifying, moving.  Consequently, although many readers are certain to appreciate the book, I suspect that an equal number will end up considering it a waste of precious reading time.  Auster, in his sixty-third year when writing Winter Journal, has produced what his publisher calls an “unconventional memoir,” a “history of his body and its sensations.” 

And a memoir that includes a list and description of every scar on the author’s body - and how he earned those scars – along with a description of all twenty-one addresses where his body has ever resided (a descriptive list that burns 53 pages of the 230-page ARC edition of the memoir) is exactly that.  The publisher, of course, uses the word “unconventional” as a selling point, but I am not certain that readers will necessarily agree that this much unconventionality is a good thing.  The section on a lifetime of living space will, in fact, likely be the tipping point for those readers who might already be starting to question the Winter Journal reading experience.  They will either make it through these 53 pages, and the rest of the book, or they will give up somewhere in the middle of the list.

Surprisingly for such a short book, Auster also devotes almost ten full pages to recounting the plot of the noirish 1950 movie D.O.A.  Again, unconventionally, the author devotes as much time to the details of the film as to the reason he references it in the first place – Auster’s experience with panic attacks.  Admittedly, the main character of D.O.A. suffers a classic panic attack of his own, but reading ten pages of movie recap grows rather tedious.

Paul Auster
The book may be uneven, but moving moments are sprinkled throughout.  Auster’s memories of his visits to Minnesota and the pages he devotes to personal relationships (particularly to his relationship with his second wife), for instance, work beautifully.  There is a horrifying memory of an encounter he had with a Parisian piano-tuner while living in France with a girlfriend.  There is the moment during which the author reflects on Joubert’s thoughts on growing old: “One must die loveable (if one can).”  Auster explains his understanding of the Joubert quote this way:

“You are moved by this sentence, especially by the words in parentheses, which demonstrate a rare sensitivity of spirit, you feel, a hard-won understanding of how difficult it is to be loveable, especially for someone who is old, who is sinking into decrepitude and must be cared for by others.  If one can.

Consider, too, Auster’s recollection of an observation generously offered him by an aging French actor:

“Paul, there’s just one thing I want to tell you.  At fifty-seven (Auster’s age at the time of the conversation), I felt old.  Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.”

Confused for a long while by this observation, it is only several years later that Auster comes to believe the actor may have been telling him that “a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four.” 

So there are wonderful moments in Winter Journal, and there are whole sections that left me wishing the author would simply get on with it.  Unconventional, it certainly is.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Audio Book: Telegraph Avenue

Serendipity strikes again...

I'm starting the audio book version of Michael Chabon's freshly minted Telegraph Avenue tomorrow morning on my commute to the office - and today, I received an email that includes a link to brief portions of it being read aloud by Clarke Peters.  Peters has a wonderful voice and a great delivery, plus he seems to really have enjoyed putting the book to "tape."

Clarke Peters, you are a very lucky man to have enough talent to get paid for doing something that seems to be so much fun for you.  Now, I can't wait to get started.

Here's the YouTube video:


Goodbye for Now


Goodbye for Now, the new Laurie Frankel novel, is a movie waiting to happen, the kind of story that Hollywood types hope will become the next When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle.  The plot is certainly an intriguing one.  Sam Elling is a young man who finds it difficult to get a first-date, much less a second one.  The great irony of his life is that Sam is a computer geek employed by a Seattle computer dating service to help others find their “soul mates.”  The irony of his love life does not escape him, so Sam decides to use his programming skills to identify his perfect match – on the first try.  The program he invents works so perfectly that the company’s profits take a hit because repeat customers become a thing of the past.  No longer an asset to his employer, Sam loses his job, but not before having found his dream girl, co-worker Meredith Maxwell, whom he immediately dubs “Merde.”

Still out of work, Sam has plenty of time to spare when Meredith’s grandmother dies suddenly.  Seeing how hard she takes her grandmother’s loss, he writes a program that will sort through their hundreds of emails, video chats, and texts to help him create what turns out to be an almost magical algorithm.  That algorithm rearranges these communications from the past into new, real-time mixes that allow Meredith and her grandmother to exchange emails and enjoy video chats as if the old lady were still in Florida for the winter – not dead and buried.

Sam and Meredith, along with a rather colorful cousin of Meredith’s, recognizing a unique opportunity to go into business for themselves, are soon offering Sam’s creation to the general public.  As the business grows quietly and steadily, the three are optimistic about their future and proud of what they offer their grieving customers.  Things get more complicated, however, when word of their venture spreads and a few newspapers start calling.  Soon, newspapers from around the world are writing about them, CNN is talking about them, and prominent religious leaders are questioning the morality of what they are selling at this company called RePose.

Laura Frankel
Is easing the immediate pain of a grieving person really a good thing if it just prolongs the grieving process and makes it more difficult than it would have been otherwise?  Should the number of times a customer can use the RePose software be limited?  Is RePose making it impossible for users ever to move on with the rest of their lives?  Do dead people still have the right to privacy?  These are just a few of the issues with which RePose must grapple.  But, Goodbye for Now is also Sam and Meredith’s love story - and that part of the story is about to get complicated.

This is a tearjerker, an emotional rollercoaster, a sci-fi comedy - all of these things.  But despite all its tugging at the heartstrings, Goodbye for Now never quite works for me.  Because I found the characters to be more of the sit-com type than of the real-world variety, I was never able to get emotionally invested in any of them long enough to care about them.  The dialogue is snappy, funny, even touching, but never quite real– Sam and his friends are likable, if not quite believable.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Goodbye for Now Book Trailer:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature

When it comes to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, I've been a firm believer (and consistent user) of the book since I purchased it in hardcover back in 1989.  That volume, the fifth edition, is the one edited by Margaret Drabble, and it is over 1100 pages long.  Obviously, there is a lot packed into such a thick book - but, thankfully, it is surprisingly light in weight and easy to handle.  According to its dust jacket, this edition is the one that first included references to "detective stories, science fiction, children's literature, comic strips," and the like.  It also included foreign-language authors whose works had been largely translated into English.

I don't recall what I spent for that book 23 years ago, but if I could price it per time referenced, I'm sure it would be one of the better book bargains I've ever managed to snag.

That is why I was so pleased to receive a copy of The Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature in the mail today.  "Concise" is one of those words, however, that must be considered in the proper context.  Admittedly, this paperback is a good bit physically smaller than my "full" 1989 volume, but it manages to come in at a bit over 800 pages, itself.  This one, with a nod to previous editors Drabble and Jenny Stringer, was edited by Dinah Birch and Katy Hooper.  This fourth edition of the "concise" Companion makes some changes of its own by expanding coverage of "science fiction, biography, travel literature, women's writing, gay and lesbian writing, and American literature."

I am addicted to "literary lists" and always find them fascinating, so I am particularly happy about the appendices listing winers of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Man Booker prizes.  I try to keep updated lists of winners of the best known literary prizes on my own, but never manage to keep up for long. This gives me a fresh start as of the 2011 winners.

Other indices are: Chronology (listing key books alongside significant historical events of the same year), Poet Laureate (British), Children's Laureates, Library Association Carnegie Medalists, King's and Queen's Gold Medals for Poetry, and T.S. Eliot Prizes for Poetry,.

Those browsing an Oxford Companion or a Concise Companion for the first time will be pleased, I think, to find hundreds of author biographies, plot summaries, sketches of individual characters, references focusing on key books, genre fiction, literary theory, historical context, etc. (5500 entries in the concise version, alone).

As noted on its cover, this new (as of October 11) Concise edition is also "web linked."  Scattered throughout, are suggestions to turn to the web for additional information about subjects covered in the book.  For instance, beneath the section on William Blake, is the "See Web Links" icon and the words "The William Blake Archive."  A quick search of Google for the archive led me here, to a helpful website I had never seen.

Past experience tells me that, for avid readers, this will be the best $20 spent this year.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 5-9


Chapter 5 (Breakfast) finds Ishmael at a group breakfast, sharing a table with his fellow-boarders, Queequeg among them, at the Spout Inn.  Ishmael seems to be the only one of the whalers willing to be himself and not worry about what others think.  As a group, these whalers appear to be a shy bunch, content to eat their breakfast rather quietly before hitting the streets of New Bedford one last time before going to sea.  Queequeg, in the meantime, uses his harpoon to spear food from nearby platters or to drag distant platters closer to him.

Musa Okwonga
"Breakfast" is read in great style by Musa Okwonga whose twitter account describes him this way: "Poet, sportswriter; author, musician; journalist, broadcaster, communications adviser.  BBC, ESPN, MSN, FT, The Blizzard, The Independent and more."  Okwonga does a bit of everything, it seems.  He can be followed on Twitter here.

In Chapter 6 (The Street), Ishmael is amazed by the variety of humanity he finds on the streets of New Bedford, the current whaling capitol of the world.  The way he sees it, Queequeg does not stand out in this crowd and, in fact, is just one among many strange characters wandering the city.

Big Read Illustration, Chapter 6
Chapter 6 is read by Mary Norris, but I am, embarrassingly, unable to determine exactly "which" Mary Norris that might be.  I suspect it is the Irish Mary Norris who has been describing her horrible experiences in St. Joseph's Orphanage, a facility run by the Catholic Church in Killarney, Ireland.  But, I'm only guessing.

It is in Chapter 7 (The Chapel) that Ismael's spirits become a little subdued by all the reminders inside the church of lives lost to the very pursuit he is about to embark upon.  There are numerous commemorative plaques scattered throughout the little church but, alas, few bodies to match them since all of those being memorialized were lost at sea, never to be seen again.

This chapter is read by Keith Collins, another of those rather generic names from which I can not comfortably identify the actual narrator.  This is turning into my one complaint about the way the Big Read is being presented.  Capsule biographies of the readers would be a huge help to listeners located outside the U.K.

Chapter 8 (The Pulpit) really puts The Whaleman's Chapel into perspective as it describes the unique pulpit from which the famous Father Mapple preaches his Sunday sermons.  Rising high above the church's whaling congregation, and modeled to look like the prow of a whaling ship, this pulpit gives Father Mapple the perfect spot from which to reach his audience.  And, as described in the next chapter, a Father Mapple sermon is quite an experience.

Simon Callow
"The Pulpit" is read by Nick Atkinson and, again, I'm having to guess just which "Nick Atkinson" this really is.  I see two possibilities: Nick Atkinson, the Australian actor, or Nick Atkinson, the British rock band singer.  Your guess is probably better than mine.

Chapter 9 (The Sermon) is really something to hear.  Melville has written a barnburner of a sermon for Father Mapple and Simon Callow delivers it to perfection.  I found this chapter to be one where it is best just to put the book down and listen to Callow deliver the sermon "live."  He did a beautiful job.  Of course, Simon Callow is one of the most respected British stage and movie actors around, and very easily identified.

Dive Deeper covers a good bit of ground related to Chapters 5-9, including a real-life model, Methodist minister Edward Thompson Taylor, upon which Father Mapple is likely to have been based.

Included is this interesting observation about Melville's view of theology, as expressed in Moby-Dick:
"The cosmic joke that hits hard in Moby-Dick is not about whether there is a God.  It is about why such a God should be so distant or mean-spirited.  Does this deity take perverse pleasure in joking with the lives of so many poor souls?  This may be the 'ultimate secret' that Melville's humor seeks to reveal.  Or, maybe the point is that the joke is on us?"
I am particularly looking forward to hearing/reading Chapter 10 because it is read by one of my favorite multi-threat talents, the great Stephen Fry.  What a shame Chapter 10 is only four pages long!



Monday, September 24, 2012

Winter Journal


A number of words come to mind when one considers Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal – unconventional, personal (almost by definition, I suppose), rambling, confusing, boring, frustrating, rewarding, revealing, gratifying, moving.  Consequently, although many readers are certain to appreciate the book, I suspect that an equal number will end up considering it a waste of precious reading time.  Auster, in his sixty-third year when writing Winter Journal, has produced what his publisher calls an “unconventional memoir,” a “history of his body and its sensations.” 

And a memoir that includes a list and description of every scar on the author’s body - and how he earned those scars – along with a description of all twenty-one addresses where his body has ever resided (a descriptive list that burns 53 pages of the 230-page ARC edition of the memoir) is exactly that.  The publisher, of course, uses the word “unconventional” as a selling point, but I am not certain that readers will necessarily agree that this much unconventionality is a good thing.  The section on a lifetime of living space will, in fact, likely be the tipping point for those readers who might already be starting to question the Winter Journal reading experience.  They will either make it through these 53 pages, and the rest of the book, or they will give up somewhere in the middle of the list.

Surprisingly for such a short book, Auster also devotes almost ten full pages to recounting the plot of the noirish 1950 movie D.O.A.  Again, unconventionally, the author devotes as much time to the details of the film as to the reason he references it in the first place – Auster’s experience with panic attacks.  Admittedly, the main character of D.O.A. suffers a classic panic attack of his own, but reading ten pages of movie recap grows rather tedious.

Paul Auster
The book may be uneven, but moving moments are sprinkled throughout.  Auster’s memories of his visits to Minnesota and the pages he devotes to personal relationships (particularly to his relationship with his second wife), for instance, work beautifully.  There is a horrifying memory of an encounter he had with a Parisian piano-tuner while living in France with a girlfriend.  There is the moment during which the author reflects on Joubert’s thoughts on growing old: “One must die loveable (if one can).”  Auster explains his understanding of the Joubert quote this way:

“You are moved by this sentence, especially by the words in parentheses, which demonstrate a rare sensitivity of spirit, you feel, a hard-won understanding of how difficult it is to be loveable, especially for someone who is old, who is sinking into decrepitude and must be cared for by others.  If one can.

Consider, too, Auster’s recollection of an observation generously offered him by an aging French actor:

“Paul, there’s just one thing I want to tell you.  At fifty-seven (Auster’s age at the time of the conversation), I felt old.  Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.”

Confused for a long while by this observation, it is only several years later that Auster comes to believe the actor may have been telling him that “a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four.” 

So there are wonderful moments in Winter Journal, and there are whole sections that left me wishing the author would simply get on with it.  Unconventional, it certainly is.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Somewhere Out in Mudbrook - Michael Perry and the Long Beds



Remember my post on Michael Perry's new one, Visiting Tom, from a while back?

Well, I'm happy to report that that one is finally nearing the top of my TBR stack - but the real reason I'm posting about Michael Perry again is to share this YouTube video of Michael and the Long Beds performing "Somewhere Out in Mudbrook."

This is good stuff.  Slap on a pair of headphones and enjoy...


Man Opens a Real Home Library

It's been a while since I've found an interesting library story to highlight, but I really like this one, so maybe it was worth the wait.

Seems that a man in the Philippines takes the "pass it on" principle very seriously.  Because Hernando Guanlao wanted to share his passion for books, he set up an official lending library in front of his Manila home twelve years ago.  Interestingly, the library has no rules.  Take as many books as you want; bring them back when you want; keep them permanently if that works better for you.  The big surprise is that the library has grown from less than 100 books to approximately 3,000 books despite its its free-for-all policy.

The BBC has a nice article, including pictures, that can be accessed here:
He was looking for something to honour their (his parents) memory, and that was when he hit upon the idea of promoting the the reading habit he'd inherited.
"I saw my old textbooks upstairs and decided to come up with the concept of having the public use them," he says.
[...]
But it's people like Celine who sustain the library.  She lives down the road from Guanlao, and she arrived with two bulging bags of books - some of which she was returning, others of which she was planning to donate.
She says she loves the concept of the library, because Filipinos - certainly those who are not particularly wealthy - have limited access to books.
"I haven't been to any public libraries except the national library in Manila," she says, explaining that it is quite far away - and it is not possible to borrow any books.
I've said it at least a dozen times...book people are special people.  Hernando Guanlao proves my theory.


I'm not even going to pretend to understand what the commentators are saying in this news video, but it offers a good look at the library (and includes a few words of English here and there).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 3-4

I'm four chapters into the Moby-Dick Big Read and still very impressed with the quality of the production and the talent of the readers.  Listeners will, of course, enjoy certain readers more than others for a variety of reasons.  Myself, to this point, I prefer the first reader (the only female of the four) to the others.  I'm noticing, surprisingly, that readers do tend to skip words or transpose them fairly often.  Perhaps, that stems from an intentional attempt to make the first-person narration sound more conversational, or maybe, these are simply mistakes not considered worth the effort of re-recording for 100% accuracy.  I suspect the latter.

At fifteen pages, Chapter 3, "The Spouter Inn," is one of the longest in Moby-Dick, and I'm willing to bet that it will be the funniest.  This is the chapter in which Ishmael finally sees Queequeg face-to-face after much anticipating and worrying about his appearance at the inn until after midnight.  It does not help that he is already in bed and only gets a good look at the "cannibal," when Queequeg finally lights a candle while preparing for bed.  Panic and terror are the order of the day on the parts of both men.

Chapter 4, "The Counterpane," is Ishmael's rather strange account of waking up next to the cannibal whose arm is "thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.  You had almost thought I had been his wife."  Diving Deeper devotes two full pages to the "homoerotic intonation of the relationship" between Queequeg and Ishmael - most of it recounting the life story of the first scholar officially to call attention to something readers had been wondering about for years.  This scholar, Newton Arvin, one of Truman Capote's sexual partners in the 1940s, lived a rather tragic life during which he fought a losing battle to hide his sexual preferences - and to hold off the depression caused by so much stress and worry about being exposed.  Arvin died in 1963 of pancreatic cancer, long after he split with the much younger Capote.

The next few chapters are short ones of two-to-four pages each, so I will soon experience a variety of new readers.  I'm hoping for another woman-reader to be added to the mix.




Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club


Almost from the moment I spotted the book’s title, I knew that I would be reading Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club.  Books about books have long appealed to me, and over the years, I have collected a number of my favorites of the type.  That this one is a memoir/biography rather than a novel about books made it even more appealing.

Will Schwalbe, former editor in chief of Hyperion Books, spent hours with his mother on the days she received chemotherapy treatment for the pancreatic cancer that was such a surprise to Mary Anne and her family.  When they ran out of things to talk about in the waiting or treatment rooms, Will and his mother often drifted into conversations about their shared love of reading.  

On one of their days together, Will turned to his mother with a simple question: “What are you reading?”  Mary Anne replied, appropriately enough, that she was reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and offered to give him her copy of the 1987 book when she was done.  By chance, Will already had a copy of his own and, at home that evening, he picked it up again.  When Mother and son discussed their reactions to the book the next time they were together, the “end of your life book club” was born. 

As he recounts the progress of Mary Anne’s disease, Schwalbe references more than one hundred books and authors he and his mother discussed during their book club “meetings.”  Their discussions offer a virtual treasure trove of insights that will have readers scrambling to get copies of many of the books for themselves.  This is the reason that avid readers are so taken by books about books, but The End of Your Life Book Club is really a son’s tribute to his mother, a woman he both loves and admires for the life she lived.  What will particularly appeal to readers is how Will and Mary Anne’s mutual love of reading make it possible for them to broach subjects they otherwise might never have found a way to discuss. 

Will Schwalbe, of course, explains it best:

            “They (the books) reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together.”

And there are moments like this one during their discussion of David Halberstam’s last book, The Coldest Winter, when Mary Anne offers:

            “That’s one of the things books do.  They help us talk.  But they also give us something we can all talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”

Will Schwalbe
Finally, I will never forget the way that Schwalbe describes his mother, near death and surrounded by stacks and shelves filled with her favorite books:

            “They (books) were Mom’s companions and teachers.  They had shown her the way.  And she was able to look at them as she readied herself for the life everlasting that she knew awaited her.  What comfort could be gained from staring at my lifeless e-reader?”

Now, that is something to consider as the world moves ever closer to being dominated by electronic, virtual books.

The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful book, and it has earned a spot on my bookshelves where it is likely to remain for a long, long time.  It is one of my new favorites.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)