Friday, May 22, 2015

Are Avid Readers "Suffering" from a Compulsive Behavior Disorder?

I'm just thinking out loud here, so bear with me for a minute.

Are all/most avid readers, the ones who read anywhere from something like 75 to several hundred books per year, victims of some sort of compulsive behavior disorder?  If so, I suppose that the consolation is that it is a rather healthy one compared to folks who are addicted to gambling, pornography, or washing their hands hundreds of times a day.

And if so, would anyone "suffering" the disorder actually choose to be cured of it?  I know that I would not.

I believe that book lovers are born, not made, that if the book-loving-gene is not present at birth, there is very little possibility that a person can be transformed into someone who reads every day of the year.  Now, that's not to say that a born book lover cannot be fine tuned into a "super" book reader, one of those 200-books-a-year types.  My theory is that those lucky enough to live in a home filled with books and people who take obvious pleasure from reading them will almost alwyas dedicate more and more of their own personal time to reading.  But turning someone who has no desire to pick up a book into someone who reads even 26 of them a year?  That's a miracle, my friend.

So.  Are you the "victim" of a compulsive behavior disorder that demands that you read every day...and more importantly, that you read as many books per year as you possibly can?


  • Are you compelled to read a certain number of pages per day?
  • Are you compelled to read at least one more book this year than you read last year?
  • Do you eat lunch alone so that you can read?
  • Do you read while brushing your teeth because no one can possibly expect you to talk then?
  • Do you carry a spare book in your car at all times?
  • Do you read in bank lines, in doctors' offices, and anyplace that will require you to wait in a line for even five minutes at a time?
  • Have you actually started looking forward to the down-times where you are forced to wait for service so that you can sneak in a little reading time?
  • Do you keep a book on the front seat of your car that you can grab while stopped at exceptionally long traffic lights?
  • Are you always looking for the next great read?
  • Are you a daily book-blogger?
  • Do you follow twenty or thirty other book blogs and consider all twenty or thirty of the bloggers to be personal friends of yours?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself secretly competing with your friends to see who can read the most books in a given year?
And that's just a start.

If you answered yes to more than one or two of these questions, you might be a "compulsive reader."  And, I'm willing to bet that you have been this way for most of your life.

And I whole heartedly applaud your efforts.  Keep up the good work.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Joy Luck Club

I began 2015 hoping to finally read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two...or three.  So far, I have read five books from the past; The Joy Luck Club is the first one reviewed here.

The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s 1989 debut novel, got such a good critical reception that it firmly established her literary reputation.  Tan has now written six additional novels, one novella, one work of nonfiction, and some children’s books, but none has received the level of acclaim earned by The Joy Luck Club. 

The novel centers itself on the mahjong club started by four Chinese women who came to the United States after fleeing the Japanese invasion of their homeland during World War II.  After becoming friends as part of San Francisco’s Chinese community, the women started the club as a way to socialize and enjoy each other’s cooking.  (Their husbands come for the food.)  By the beginning of the novel, however, one of the women has died and been replaced in the club by her American daughter.

Tan structured the novel into four sections of four interlocking stories each in which she explores the relationships between the elderly women and their daughters.  The stories emphasize how little the daughters know (or care) about their mothers’ pasts and how manipulative and competitive their mothers are.  These are stories about mothers who often hurt their daughters and, in turn, about daughters who even more often hurt their mothers.  But in the end, it is a story of what happens when mothers and daughters finally learn to forgive each other – as difficult a chore as that usually is.

The first section, “Feathers from a Thousand Miles Away,” is introduced by Jing-Mei, whose deceased mother is credited with the founding of the Joy Luck Club.   Jing-Mei’s introduction is followed by three stories in which each of the surviving elders tells a story about her childhood in China.  Section two, “Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” in turn, allows each of the American daughters to recall a key incident or influence from her own childhood in San Francisco.

Amy Tan
It is in the book’s third section, “American Translation,” that the reader learns just how difficult it has been for each of the older women to raise a daughter in the U.S.  It becomes apparent from the stories told in this section by the daughters that their mothers’ efforts to turn them into highly successful, competitive women have not been entirely successful.  The younger women, having now survived all the trials of first generation Americans, still resent the degree of intrusion into their lives that their mothers insist upon.

Finally, in the fourth section of the book, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” the mothers recall stories of their own young adulthood, that period during which they were most active in trying to form the personalities of their daughters.  With this section, the influences upon both generations of women are exposed for what they are, and the circle is closed.  Now it is up to them to find ways to forgive, understand, and love each other.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Trailer of the Week: The Shepherd's Life

I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but this looks like a book I would enjoy a lot.   I'm a fan of memoirs/autobiographies that give me a peek into the kinds of lives or locales I'm never likely to experience for myself, and...I'm never going to be a shepherd, right?  So why not read The Shepherd's Life instead?

This, I think, speaks once again to the degree of influence that a well produced book trailer can have.  (I still love book trailers.)  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The best thing about owning your own bookstore?

Ann Patchett
The best thing about owning your own bookstore?  According to author Ann Patchett (owner of Nashville's Parnassus Books) its the "enormous boon it was to her lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people."  According to this article in The Washington Post, Patchett has been "forcing books on people" since she was a little girl:
After all, I’ve been telling people what to read since I was able to recognize words on paper. I was the kid extolling the virtues of “Charlotte’s Web” in the school cafeteria. “Fern saves the runt from being killed,” I told my friends. “And so her father lets her keep him.”
And now that Patchett is beyond all the logistics of getting her bookstore up and running, she finds that her greatest pleasure comes from introducing readers to her favorite books, be they new or old ones:
They’ll walk right up to me and say, “I’m looking for a book.” I wait for a minute, thinking surely there’s going to be more to that sentence — “I’m looking for a book I heard about on the radio” or “I’m looking for a book like ‘The Goldfinch’ ” — but often there is nothing else. They just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.
Parnassus Books, Nashville
 I'm in the planning stages for my annual road trip during which I wander randomly in an eastwardly direction exploring towns and cities I've never (or seldom) had the opportunity to visit before.  This year (as I did two years ago), I am going to spend four days in Columbus, Ohio, at the Musicians Against Childhood Cancer benefit concert.  But on the way there, and especially on the return trip home, I will be doing some serious wandering around.  Some years I concentrate specifically on baseball parks or Civil War battle sites, but I've never really done a trip focused on indie bookstores.  Maybe this is the year finally to do that bookstore tour - before anymore of them disappear forever,

So now comes the planning bit...which amounts to nothing more than a list of indie bookstores and their locations and hours.  Then as I travel (not completely) aimlessly through a dozen or so states during my return to Houston, I will be able to use the list as a heads-up to which bookstores are in the general area.  

First store on the new list will be, of course, Ann Patchett's Parnassus Books...

Monday, May 18, 2015


Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, NW, makes for an unusual reading experience, one that is sometimes as frustrating as it is gratifying.   The “NW” of her title refers to northwest London, a section of the city Smith is intimately familiar with as a result of having grown up there herself.  The good news is that this familiarity allows Smith to create a core group of memorable characters for NW, some of whom have known each other well for a lifetime, and others who know each other only to the degree that they recognize everyone in the neighborhood from having seen the same old faces on the streets day after day.  The bad news is that Smith decided to use a different writing style for each section of the novel.  That makes it difficult for the reader ever to settle into a comfortable enough reading rhythm for the story to take over and flow on its own.  Getting the most from NW begins as a chore – and it ends that way – making it likely that some readers will abandon the book long before they make it through its first section.

The book revolves around the relationship between its two main characters, Leah Hanwell, a white woman of Irish descent, and Keisha Blake, a black woman.  The two have been best friends since they were little girls, and they slip into and out of that relationship with ease throughout the entire book.  Leah is married to a striking Algerian francophone with such good looks that her black co-workers are starting to resent the fact that a white woman, and not one of them, is married to him.  Keisha, in the meantime, has re-invented herself as Natalie Blake, a successful London barrister, and irritatingly to Leah, a mother. 

Zadie Smith
The other two main characters of NW are not well known to Leah or Natalie.  Nathan, now hopelessly addicted to drugs and living on the streets, is the boy both women were in love with as girls but never worked up the nerve to speak to at school.  Felix is just a face on the streets they have seen enough that they feel as if they know him.  Of the two, Felix is much the more sympathetic character and the section of the novel devoted primarily to him is perhaps the best part of NW. 

NW is a realistic novel.  It is sometimes optimistic, sometimes angry, as it offers its rather bleak look at urban life.  It is a novel long on ethnic influences and expectations and intimately explores the fine line between remaining true to one’s roots and being limited by them.  It is not a novel I will soon forget, but it is one in which the author’s experimentation with various style types hurt as much as it helped.  NW is, I think, one of those novels destined to have a whole lot of readers give up on it long before they should.  And that is a shame, because its characters and plot deserve more.    

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Myth That Retirement Always Equates to More Leisure Hours

It seems to have been one of those weeks...and there's no relief in sight yet.  Some of you know that I went into full-time retirement about 10 days ago, and that I expected that my leisure time (make that my reading time) would expand accordingly.  Yeah, in my dreams.

In addition to being responsible for making sure that my father (who is 93) is as healthy and happy as possible, I'm also responsible for the upkeep on the house he still owns.  So I have spent a good chunk of the last two days yanking an old dishwasher out of the house and replacing it with a new, better one.  Frankly, I'm not very good at that kind of thing, so a few misfires later, it is finally done, and done correctly, I'm happy to say.

Also, came the good news that my newly 16-year-old granddaughter passed her driving test last Saturday - and that she remembered my promise to give her my five-year-old Honda when she became licensed.  So I spent a good part of yesterday finding a replacement vehicle for myself...what turned out to be a much more pleasant experience than I had expected it would be.  But it still took several hours.

Now I'm involved with getting papers notarized so that I can spend a substantial part of my Monday morning in line at the county tax office getting the title of the old car transferred to my granddaughter's mother.  Just can't wait for that experience.

Oh, and tomorrow?  I have tickets to the Astros vs. Toronto baseball game and will be downtown most all day with my youngest grandson taking that all in.  Hopefully, the team will continue its winning ways and it will turn out to be a great day.

Why am I sharing all of this?

Because I'm not reading nearly as much before I retired and was allocated all these extra hours of free time (sarcasm).  In fact, my reading hours have been cut down by at least 50% since if walked away from my office for the last time.  And everyone keeps telling me that since I'm retired "what else do I have to do?" besides standing in lines and the like.   Ah, yes, retirement life sure moves at a different pace than working life moves; I just never thought that retirement life would be the most hectic of the two.

What reading I've done this week has at least allowed me to finish up Ben MacIntyre's thrilling account of the career of infamous British spy Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends.  Although the book seemed to drag a bit about halfway through (or maybe it was me that was dragging), I recommend this one to anyone even remotely interested in Cold War spies.  Philby was most certainly a despicable human being.  I've also gotten a bit over halfway through Dead Wake, Erik Larson's nonfiction account of Germany's  sinking of the Lusitania and how that event so suddenly changed the course of U.S. history.  

So, not at all a "lost week," just a much less productive one than I had expected.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Being Mortal

Dr. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal tackles many of the elder care issues my wife and I have been dealing with for close to a decade.  Each of us has been the primary caretaker of our elderly parents (only our fathers survive at this point) for that long now, and just when we think we have seen it all, something new catches us by surprise.  I only wish that we had come across a book like Being Mortal ten years ago rather than having to learn the hard way much of what the Gawande has to say in it about aging and death.

Life is all about the choices we make.  And the choices we make as we approach the end of our lives – or the choices we help loved ones make as they approach the end of their lives – are every bit as important as any we have ever made.  Faced with the choice between prolonging our lives for a few months at the cost of losing the quality of our remaining time or living more comfortably and autonomously for what time we otherwise have left, what do we do?  The right choice is never as obvious as one might hope it would be.  Gawande suggests that quality over a slightly extended length of time is the wiser choice, difficult as that choice may be to make when the time comes.

Dr. Atul Gawande
So why do we face such a dilemma in the first place?  Gawande blames much of the problem on the medical profession.  Most doctors, he says, are so reluctant ever to give up on a patient that, despite the additional agony involved in further treatment, they will try one hopeless procedure or drug after another until that patient finally dies.  They effectively destroy the remaining lives of their patients by failing to disclose the inevitable result to them: they are going to die soon and it cannot be avoided.  Gawande argues that, rather than something for the doctor to decide, this ultimate choice must be placed in the hands of the patient.  Medical problems that cannot be fixed even at great physical and mental cost to the patient must be managed rather than fixed.  And it is up to the doctor to recognize when that point has been reached so that he can help his patient make the right choice.

My personal experience and observation, as verified by Dr. Gawande in Being Mortal, tells me that dying in the U.S. has become a big business.  For the most part, our elderly no longer die at home; they more often die in some hospital or nursing home with a nurse or two around to record the event.  It is all very impersonal and routine these days.  But Gawande is not ready to give up on his profession.  The growing trend toward the use of home hospice services and the efforts of some medical schools to train their students more fully gives him hope.  His greatest fear is that so few medical students are choosing to specialize in geriatric medicine that the elderly will suffer unnecessarily for a long time to come.

Being Mortal is an excellent resource for anyone faced with life’s inevitable choices – the hardest choices any of us are ever likely to have to make.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Free Previews of Future Bestsellers

Good news for fans of e-books...

Starting tomorrow, the major online booksellers (Amazon, Apple, and others) will be offering free downloads of two compilations featuring long excerpts from books that are to be published later this year.

Buzz Books 2015 Fall/Winter is said to feature new work from the likes of Geraldine Brooks, Mitch Albom, and Alice Hoffman.  In addition, YA readers will be able to download Buzz Books 2015: Young Adult Fall/Winter.  All told, the two compilations are said to include excerpts from 54 forthcoming releases of fiction and nonfiction.  

I downloaded the 2014 catalog about this time last year and really enjoyed browsing the work of a bunch of new-to-me authors.  I suspect that this kind of thing appeals largely to avid readers who are forever adding to their TBR lists.  If you're one of those, tomorrow is the day to get your free copy.

(Tip:  Those of you with NetGalley accounts can download the compilations right now.)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Christopher Walken Reads Where the Wild Things Are

Christopher Walken is one of those actors who consistently fascinate me by their persona, those people who just seem to be so one-of-a-kind that no one quite like them will ever come along again.  I can't remember ever not enjoying a film of his...and some of them would have been real stinkers without his presence.

Anyway, you have to hear him read Where the Wild Things Are.  Who knew it was so creepy?  Most importantly, it made me laugh...a good thing.

The Autobiography of MarkTwain, Volumes I and II

Mark Twain had a mouth on him, no doubt about it – and that is why it is still so much fun to read the man’s writing today.  But even Twain knew that the world was not quite ready for the unexpurgated version of his thoughts that comprises the first two volumes (a third volume is yet to follow) of his autobiography, so he stipulated that the complete biography was not to be published until 100 years after his death – which occurred on April 21, 1910.  For those of us lucky enough to be around for the unveiling of the uncensored version of the manuscripts, it was well worth the wait.

Close to half of the material contained in the autobiography has never been published before, and readers have the Mark Twain Project (of the University of California, Berkeley) to thank for making it available now.  The previously published material has been published several times in the past, but always in an abridged form guaranteed not to offend.  But even the unrestricted version of Twain’s manuscripts is not what readers have come to expect from an autobiography. 

Rather than tell the story of his life in chronological order, Twain decided early on that he would dictate his thoughts to a stenographer as they occurred to him – regardless of where they might fit into the story of his life.  And, because he wanted them published in the order that he dictated them, reading the two books is more like having a conversation with Twain than anything else.  It is as if the man were sitting across the room and telling random stories from his life as they cross his mind.    

And what stories they are!  They range all the way from his thoughts on rather trivial newspaper stories that may have caught his eye over breakfast to wonderful remembrances of things that happened in the first decade or two of his life.  We learn of the villains in Twain’s world, some of whom personally crippled him with huge financial losses and scams, and others who were simply the villains of their times, men like Jay Gould and Belgium’s King Leopold II.  We learn much about his brother, a man full of dreams but without the ability to make any of them come true.  And most touchingly, Twain shares his deep love for Susy, the daughter who was snatched from the family so suddenly, by quoting liberally from the biography she wrote about her father.  (My own favorite sections of the book deal with Twain’s relationship with the U.S. Grant family and publication of the former president’s memoirs.)

Twain, though, never passes up the opportunity for a little personal vengeance.  As he often reminds his readers, he is speaking from the grave now, so what does he care about offending anyone?  He just wants to set the record straight – at least as he sees that record.  So rather unfortunately, the reader will have to wade through what seems like countless pages about the copyright laws of the day and biting commentary about an Italian landlady who drove Twain nuts for several months.

Intimidating as the two books may first appear to be, the author’s charm and rascality make reading them a pleasure that Twain fans will not want to miss.