Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I Surrender - Again

I've chosen my 2007 reading pretty well up to this point, only having given up on one book all year long, but I'm going to have to pull the plug on Ali Smith's Hotel World. I enjoyed listening to the audio version of Smith's The Accidental but I wondered at the time if I would have enjoyed actually reading the book rather than listening to it on my daily commute. Both of the books feature a structure that has alternating chapters being narrated by a different character who speaks in a stream-of-consciousness voice that can be confusing and hard to follow. They are so similar, in fact, that I now know the answer to my question. No, I would not have enjoyed the written version of The Accidental nearly as much as I enjoyed the audio version of it.

I find Ali Smith's writing style to not be worth the trouble. Her plots are sketchy, at best, and having to wade through this much gibberish as Smith attempts to be clever bores me to the point that I just don't care at all about the book. I managed to make my painful way through 91 pages of the book and I can't remember the last time I quit a book after having read so many pages. But I don't intend to waste even another five minutes on this book and I doubt that I will ever attempt another Ali Smith book as long as she continues to write in this style.

Just to be fair, I probably should mention that the book was a Booker Prize finalist in, I think, 2002.

Rated at: Complete waste of time

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Patricia Highsmith Radio Interview

Just in case anyone is still interested after wading through the long previous post, I want to share a radio interview that Patricia Highsmith did in New York with Don Swaim back in 1987. After reading her biography, I feel like I know the woman even though this is the first time I've ever heard her voice.

Beautiful Shadow

Patricia Highsmith is still, I suspect, largely unknown in the United States despite the fact that most people will remember the Alfred Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train (not to mention the 1987 farce based on that film, Throw Mama from the Train), and the 1999 release of The Talented Mr. Ripley, all of which are based on novels by Highsmith. Between 1950 and her death in 1995, she produced twenty-two novels, seven collections of short stories, a book about writing and even a children’s book called Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda.

I have long been a fan of psychological suspense novels but have only recently started to read Patricia Highsmith because, frankly, she is not one of those high-profile writers who are found on the bookshelves of every Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore in which I browse for new material (what that says about chain bookstores is a whole other story). As it turns out, I didn’t know what I was missing, and when I found a copy of Andrew Wilson’s Patricia Highsmith biography, Beautiful Shadow, I found that Highsmith’s personal life was every bit as interesting and as strange as her books.

Highsmith lived most of her adult life in Europe, spending more than a decade in France before moving to Switzerland where she died in 1995. But she was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and that state and her country left permanent marks on her despite the amount of time that she spent criticizing America and its foreign policy from Europe. She was born on January 19, 1921 just nine days after her parents were granted a divorce and, in fact, her birth name was Patricia Plangman not Patricia Highsmith. Three years after her divorce Mary Plangman married Stanley Highsmith, a commercial artist, and it was Stanley’s surname that Patricia was given when she started school in New York City. Highsmith always felt that she had been deceived by her mother regarding her real father and it is one of the many things for which she never forgave Mary.

The real Patricia Highsmith was largely defined by the fact that she was a lesbian although she did sleep with the man to whom she was engaged at one time, novelist Marc Brandel. She cared enough for Brandel to undergo six months of psychotherapy in an attempt to remake herself into a heterosexual but, of course, that effort was doomed to be an unsuccessful one. After graduating from Bernard, and while aiming to become a serious writer, she spent several years writing dialogue and plots for several comic book publishers at the rate of $55 per week. Her friend Truman Capote helped her get a place in Yaddo, a writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, at which she spent two months working on Strangers on a Train. Although she only ever spent two months there, it was to Yaddo that Highsmith left her entire fortune of some $3 million plus all future royalties paid on her works.

Patricia Highsmith is remembered for the way that her novels were so often told from the point-of-view of a sociopath as he committed murders and other assorted crimes. She did this so well that the reader often found himself sympathizing with the criminal and hoping that he escape justice despite the awful things that he had done. She was capable of describing, in detail, crimes of extreme evilness but she did it in such a direct, logical and detached way that the evil seemed real and almost commonplace. Most of her books have a homosexual undertone and that, along with the utter amorality of some of her leading characters, made it somewhat difficult for her to get her work published in the United States. It seemed easier for her to find willing publishers in Europe and she was always much more popular in Western Europe than she has ever been in her country of birth.

Twenty interesting “facts” that are noted in the Wilson biography:

1. Her mother’s side of the family was known to have large feet and hands, something that Highsmith inherited even to the extent that in her later years people often remarked that her hands gave her a masculine look.

2. She was largely brought up by her grandmother, Willie Mae, and she never got over the fact that she had been “abandoned” by her mother at an early age.

3. She believed that she had been sexually abused between the ages of four and five but had no specific memories about such abuse.

4. She recorded in one of her dozens of notebooks that she started keeping at age 15 that her IQ was 121.

5. In 1939 she joined the Young Communist League but had become disillusioned with the party by 1941 and left it.

6. Highsmith had a long string of physical relationships with women and considered herself to be promiscuous because most of her relationships lasted just a few months and she recognized her own “insatiable appetite for constant supply of new conquests.”

7. She had a great desire for self-knowledge and used her notebooks to very frankly record her thoughts on any subject that crossed her mind.

8. She was disgusted by most gay women that she encountered and believed that most of them were stupid and beneath her, much preferring the company of gay men.

9. The main themes of her writing were the lure of the double, blurring of identity and homoeroticism at which was usually only hinted.

10. Highsmith admired and was most influenced by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, James M. Cain, Kafka, Melville, Hawthorne and Dostoevsky (with whom she fell in love at age 13).

11. Her mental instability and that of her mother frightened her.

12. Stanley Highsmith finally adopted her in 1946 when she was 25 years old.

13. Richard Chandler wrote a screen adaptation for Hitchcock of Strangers on a Train that was rejected and a new writer was hired to complete the task.

14. Her second novel, written under the pen name Claire Morgan, was a lesbian novel that she didn’t dare publish under her real name.

15. She was known to be “anti-Israel,” anti-Vatican and anti-war but was politically conservative when it came to things like public welfare and people whom she saw as making no effort to take care of themselves. Some considered her attitude to be racist.

16. Alcoholism was a major problem for her and she was seen as a hostile person who was incapable of any long-term kind of relationship.

17. She felt that only her writing stood between her and insanity.

18. She absolutely loathed the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies.

19. A friend of hers saw her as “a lesbian who didn’t particularly like women; a writer of the most insightful psychological novels who, at times, appeared bored by people; a misanthrope with a gentle, sweet nature.”

20. Although she lived in Europe for the last 32 years of her life, Highsmith continued to vote in U.S. presidential elections.
I doubt that I would have enjoyed the company of Patricia Highsmith but I do find her to have been a fascinating woman, one of those people with the kind of flawed personality that lends itself to the creation of great art. I recommend that anyone interested in reading Highsmith’s books read this biography first because of all of the insights it offers into her creative process and choices of subject matter.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, February 26, 2007

Rowling Sues eBay India

J.K. Rowling plans to sue eBay after having received a temporary injunction to stop eBay India from selling unauthorized electronic versions of her Harry Potter books.

The author has obtained a temporary court order until May 23, which forbids the website to list the unauthorised copies of her novels. The injunction is the first of its kind for eBay, and now the auction site will be forced to monitor its listings for copyrighted items.
I always assumed that someone, or some team of someones, at eBay were checking to make sure that they weren't selling bootleg versions of books and music or counterfeits of any kind. I know that is a huge job, but it would seem to be kind of a basic requirement to me, and I surely don't blame Rowling for suing eBay to make it happen.

Favorite Mystery Writers of Library Thing Users - So Far

The Library Thing website continues to amaze and amuse me to the point where I find myself spending at least a few minutes on the site every day of the week. It’s the kind of website that becomes more valuable as a user gains more and more familiarity with all the ways to mine it for useful information.

For instance, I noticed a Group thread just before Christmas that was started by a simple question: “Certainly while some authors should have stopped writing after the sixth book, others have been able to continue to write, book after book, and still write top-notch mysteries. What long-running series would you recommend?”

I’ve read mysteries on a regular basis ever since, as a teenager, I discovered Conan Doyle and Rex Stout and fell in love with the concept of “series fiction.” Over the years, of course, I managed to read all of those Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe books and moved on to more modern series that continue to grow. And I’m always on the lookout for new writers who maintain the tradition started by writers like Doyle and Stout, so I found this to be an interesting question. From the numerous responses to the question, I have learned of a few mystery writers that were still unknown to me, have had my opinion of a few others confirmed, and found myself disagreeing with the way that others were rated by the respondents. This is what I found and the list I've put together based on the responses:

1. Michael Connelly - was most-mentioned and his Harry Bosch series was consistently praised (I’ve been meaning to read Connelly for several years and never seem to get around to him.)

Connelly was followed by a group of writers, old and new, who received unanimously high marks from everyone who mentioned them:

2. Reginald Hill – Andy Dalziel series

3. Robert Crais – Elvis Cole and Pike series

4. John D. MacDonald – Travis McGee series (one of those series that I read at least 20 years ago and I wonder if they would measure up on a re-reading to the good memories I have of them)

5. James Lee Burke – Dave Robicheaux series (a series that I’ve kept up with almost from the beginning and one that is wonderful if read in the order in which the books were written because Dave’s character develops as we watch the story of his life unfold)

Members of this second group were also highly rated but not mentioned as often as those in group one:

6. Ian Rankin – John Rebus series (A series that I’ve just started to dip into recently)

7. Elizabeth Peters – historical mysteries using Ameila Peabody or Jacqueline Kirby

8. Dennis Lehane – Kenzie and Genarro series (Lehane seems to have abandoned the series but I think it’s still his best work)

9. Lawrence Block – Matt Scudder series (haven’t read these in a while for some reason)

10. Walter Mosley – Easy Rawlins series (a really good series set in 1950s-1960s Los Angeles and I find this still to be Mosley’s best work)

11. C.J. Box – Joe Pickett series

12. Raymond Chandler (maybe the best of them all, in my opinion)

13. Tony Hillerman – Navajo series (have read a few of these but not really a fan)

14. Anne Perry – William Monk or Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series (Have read some of the Pitt books but am a little bit put off by Perry’s personal history, I think)

15. Ed McBain – 87th Precinct series (great series but prefer the longer books that come later in the series)

Next came a group that all had their fans but were not as often mentioned:

16. Margaret Yorke (have found that her characters and plots to be a little spookier and more realistic than indicated by the dust jackets of her books)

17. P.D. James (have read some of her work but not really a fan)

18. Peter Robinson

19. Jane Hadden – Gregor Demarkien series

20. Archer Mayer – Joe Gunther series

22. J.A. Jance – J.P. Beaumont series

23. Donna Leon – Guido Brunetti series set in modern Milan

24. John Lescroart – Dismas Hardy or Hardy & Glitzky series

25. Emma Lathan – Wall Street series

26. Robert B. Parker – Spenser series (found this series to be excellent and exciting for quite a few years but Parker seems to be producing Spenser books by formula for last few years)

27. Stephen Hunter – Earl Swagger series

28. Rex Stout – Nero Wolfe series (one of those classics that deserve to be read even today)

29. Marcia Muller – Sharon McCone series (interesting series but have read very little of it)

30. Peter Tremayne – Sister Fidelma series set in ancient Ireland

31. Sue Grafton – Kinsey Milhone series (much like the comment about Parker, above, Grafton seems to have peaked several books back)

32. Agatha Christie – Miss Marple series

33. Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes series (classic series not to be missed)

34. Ruth Rendell – Inspector Wexford series (one of my favorite crime and suspense novelists, including the books she writes as Barbara Vine)

35. John Mortimer – Rumpole series (crimes and comedy, a great combination)

36. Sharon Newman – Catherine LeVendeur series

37. Minette Walters

38. Jill Churchill – Jane Jeffries series

And then there were those who were mentioned several times but who ended up with more negative comments, or “votes,” than they did positive ones:

39. J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) – mentioned were the “In Death” series and Eve Dallas series

40. Martha Grimes – Richard Jury series (a little surprised by some of the negative comments but agree that her books are not what they used to be)

41. Lee Child – Jack Reacher series

42. Janet Evanovich – Stephanie Plum series (defenders were lukewarm and detractors dislike her writing very much but she is constantly on Best Seller lists and I saw where Stephen King has made somewhat negative remarks about her as part of a cover blurb for a new British mystery writer)

While this list is far from complete, I think it’s a good example of the type of information that can be picked up from just one of the hundreds of questions that are posted at Library Thing every week. I always keep a few mysteries and crime novels around as a change-of-pace so something like this will help me the next time that I’m looking for someone new to read. If you haven’t found yet, now’s the time.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

How Can They Let This Happen?

The article's subtitle tells it all: "County libraries get ready to shut down April 6 from a lack of funding." When I spotted this Mail Tribune article I almost passed it by, thinking that it was just another article about a library being shut down temporarily while renovations to the building were being completed. It seems to be happening a lot lately in Harris County, Texas, where I live and I assumed that the article was just going to explain the alternatives that library patrons had while the work was underway. But something about the length of the article made me take a second look. How can this be allowed to happen, Oregon?
Talent's new library will open today with much fanfare even as all 15 Jackson County branches set in motion a timetable to mothball the system indefinitely after their closure April 6.

This twist of fate doesn't faze local donors who have put their heart and soul into the new building next to City Hall. The donors have opened their pocketbooks to enlarge the meeting room and teen section and make other improvements.

"Once voters understand the real situation, they will take action," said Patricia Remencuis, who, along with her husband, donated $10,000 to the Talent library and got four grants that have paid for a larger facility than originally was planned for the site.

Even as the couple proudly show off the new facility, Jackson County officials are preparing the public for the closure of all branches after they have been remodeled or rebuilt primarily from $38.9 million in bonds OK'd by voters in 2000 and designated for new library construction countywide.
After the library in Medford shuts down to the public, it will remain open to Rogue Community College students only. RCC has an agreement with the county to use part of the library space.

"We will have a security guard at the door to check ID," said Stark. "You will have to have an RCC ID to check in."

After the closure, library workers will spend a week putting all the books that have been checked out back on the shelves.

On April 13, the equivalent of 80 full-time library jobs will be terminated. Stark is one of six employees who will stay on to maintain the mothballed system.

All the materials and equipment will remain in place until the May election.

So it's "put up or shut up" time for the voters of southern Oregon. And, under the rules governing this particular election, long term survival of the library system seems far from assured. The proposed tax increase will hit Jackson County property owners hard in the pocket book and they already rejected a similar proposal in a November 2006 vote. Maybe this time they will realize what they are about to lose. Here's hoping.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Out-of-Print But Not Forgotten has recently come up with a Top 10 list of the "most sought-after out of print books in America in 2006" and, with maybe one exception, they are all big surprises to me.
1. Sex (1992) by Madonna

2. Football Scouting Methods (1963) by Steve Belichick

3. Touch Me Again (1978) by Suzanne Somers

4. Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words (1975) by Johnny Cash

5. Treasury of Great Recipes (1965) by Mary and Vincent Price

6. The Principles of Knitting (1988) by June Hemmons Hiatt

7. The Lion’s Paw (1946) by Robb White

8. The Secret of Perfect Living (1963) by James Mangan

9. Once a Runner: A Novel (1978) by John L. Parker, Jr.

10. One Way Up (1964) by John F. Straubel

The only book in the list that doesn't really surprise me is the Johnny Cash title because of the popular biographical film Walk the Line that was largely based on this particular book. How does Madonna do it? This is one Top 10 list on which I never expected to find this particular semi-talented celebrity's name. And who knew that Suzanne Somers had written two books of poetry and that anyone remembered them? That's the beauty of the relationship between readers and books...there seems to be a book for every reader and a reader for every book.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Does Anyone Really Read These Things?

The New York Times had an article yesterday concerning a "minigenre of publishing" that it labels "candidate lit." As this country rather painfully (and way too early) makes its way toward another presidential election campaign, many publishers are releasing new books by hopeful candidates and are even emptying their warehouses of leftovers from previously released books that they hope to unload on a gullible public.

For candidates, writing a book is a way to make money, build gravitas and grab media attention. (They can also use a memoir as a dumping ground for past unpleasantries, paving the way for the campaign-trail line “I addressed that in my book.”)

For publishers the 2008 campaign season is the time to rerelease forgotten titles, sign unpublished candidates and, if they’re lucky, laugh all the way to the bank as they reap sales from best-selling political books. “What you have, essentially, is a celebrity with built-in press coverage,” said David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Mr. Obama’s latest book, for example, has sold more than a million copies in hardcover.
Mr. Obama’s recent success has revived the notion of experiencing the pace and trappings of a presidential campaign through a book tour, said Chuck Todd, editor of the daily political tip sheet Hotline.

“The book publishing business has become the new exploratory committee,” Mr. Todd said. “For Obama, it was a way of testing the waters. That’s when you find out: Are you interesting enough to get enough interviews? Can you get people to show up for a signing?”

I think that's what this is really all about. Release a book, hit a book tour across much of the country to see what kind of crowds show up and how many newspaper reporters tag along for some free publicity. The candidates aren't really all that concerned with the number of books that they sell, except maybe for bragging rights amongst their peers. Of course, the publishers have book sales in mind and have been known to lose their shirts on this kind of book.

But I still have to Obama sold a million books, but how many of them were actually read? I'd be willing to bet that number is a whole lot less than one million.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Blogs vs. Newspaper Book Supplements

Author Susan Hill is also a book-blogger and she hit the nail squarely on the head a few days ago when she described what it is in the nature of book blogs that makes them so appealing to book lovers. It's the fact that we don't have to read about the same old 20 or 25 books that appear on the various Best Seller lists each week, the same books that we find in every major bookstore in the country. Suddenly we have choice, such a vast choice that it's hard to keep up with the abundance of books and authors that we discover every week.

Literary editors focus almost exclusively on new books, that is their remit; the trade focuses a lot on what is New New New. But one of the joys of book blogging is this absence of stress on the new. I read and re-read. I pick up something recently published. I embark on the Anthony Powell Dance to the Music of Time sequence, which I will eventually write about here. I re-read a Dickens. I enthuse about a novel to be published in August, a proof copy of which has landed on the mat. Or not. People who read the blogs, who buy or borrow a book because they like the sound of it from what I have written, are not worried about when it was published. There is very little Joneses-keeping-up-with and worrying about the Man Booker list.
The book blog has resulted in a new and very refreshing wave of book-focused commentary and, usually, enthusiasm and it is making at least some of the Book Trade wake up to their backlists, to out of print titles, and even bookshops to looking over their shoulders .. in a good way.

Susan is correct, no doubt about it. My TBR list continues to grow and grow as I discover books from past decades that I either never knew existed or didn't have the time for when they were new. And I'm finding those books via the various book blogs that I read each week...not in the big Barnes & Noble or Borders stores that I frequent.

2007 Tournament of Books Contenders Announced

The Morning has announced this year's nominees for its "prestigious" Rooster Award. For those like me, who missed this event last year, let me try to explain how it works. The website has come up with a list of what it considers to be 16 of the best novels written in 2006 and, much like what happens in the NCAA Basketball tournament, will next divide the books into brackets in which each book will go head-to-head against another book. A judge will read each of the books and will choose one of the two as "best" so that that book can move on to the next round to face another of the 16 books and a different judge. It's not clear to me if all 16 books are in the same bracket to begin with or if the tournament will begin with two groups of eight or four groups of four, etc. But the main point is that at the end of the readings only one book will be left standing as 2007 Rooster-winner.

This really sounds like fun and something to watch over the next few weeks, and it's another of those great ideas that make a person kick himself for not thinking of it himself. Anyway, here are the 2006 Rooster Award contenders:
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson

Arthur and George, Julian Barnes

Brookland, Emily Barton

English, August, Upamanyu Chatterjee

The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford

Pride of Baghdad, Niko Henrichon, Brian K. Vaughan

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Peter Orner

The Echo Maker, Richard Powers

Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon

Firmin, Sam Savage

Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart

Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali

Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead

Much like some of the other challenges that we see in various book blogs, this could be a lot of fun for a group of "judges" to replicate on their own.

I Don't Like This Book So I'm Keeping It

A group of Florida parents have come up with a unique way to censor the books that are in their children's school libraries. While I don't agree with what they are doing at all, I do have to kind of admire the method to their madness...but only if they reimburse the library for the unreturned books. Come to think of it, that could start a never-ending cycle of these particular books flowing in and out of the libraries and should make the authors very happy.

A group of parents in Miami-Dade have come up with a unique way to get books they considered controversial off the shelves at their children’s schools libraries. They check them out, but never return them.

Dalila Rodriguez admits she checked out “Discovering Cultures, Cuba” from the library at her son’s school Norma Butler Bossard Elementary at 15950 SW 144th St. earlier this month, and doesn’t plan to return it. Rodriguez said this book, like another controversial book she’s checked out “Vamos a Cuba,” contains false information about Cuba.

Rodriguez said, “If you take it out and don't return it, no kid can read it. It's not censoring; it's protecting our children from lies."

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Accidental

The audio version of The Accidental is made especially memorable by the excellent ensemble cast that reads it. Each of the actors has been expertly chosen to read the thoughts and experiences of one of the four members of the Smart family and the young lady who “accidentally” enters into, and radically changes, their lives. And as is almost always the case, I have to wonder how differently I have reacted to the audio book version of The Accidental in comparison to how I might have reacted to the written version of the book. The readers are that good.

The Smarts, a London family living in a Norfolk cottage that they have rented for the summer, are a family coming apart at the seams at the beginning of the novel. Michael is a university professor who spends more time trying to seduce his female students than he does in educating them. Eve, his wife, is a second-rate novelist who specializes in re-creating the lives of people who were killed during World War II by changing the circumstances of their deaths so that they survive the war and she can then relate the lives that they would have had in her alternate world. Magnus is Eve’s 17-year-old son by a previous marriage who is obsessed and devastated by his inadvertent part in the suicide of one of his fellow students. And Astrid is the couple’s 12-year-old daughter who is just on the verge of becoming a young woman but is not quite ready to make that leap from girlhood. The four are so self-absorbed that they barely speak to each other.

But all of that changes when a 30-something-year-old young woman appears at their front door with the story of a broken-down car. Amber manages to get inside the house and lets everyone assume that she has been invited there, Eve assuming that Amber is one of Michael’s students, and Michael assuming that she has been invited by Eve. The children immediately take a liking to the intruder and, in fact, Amber soon becomes the first lover that Magnus has ever had. It takes a while, but eventually it is Eve who realizes just what an accomplished liar and fake Amber really is. She demands that Amber leave their rented home, suffering a black eye in the process, but the family finds that they have been changed forever as a result of their exposure to this strange person who has touched them all.

Ali Smith has an unusual writing style in which she uses the “streams of consciousness” of the individual characters to display exactly how each of them perceive what is going on around them. The reader sees the same events from several points-of-view and eventually gets a clear understanding of what is happening to the family at the hands of this strange person who has invaded their home. That style is an intriguing one and it has led me to find a copy of Smith’s earlier book, Hotel World, for later reading.

Rated at: 3.0

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Steinbeck Collector Wins Big at Auction

There are book collectors like me who feel guilty about paying more than $50 for a book and then there are book collectors like Jim Dourgarian who jump at a chance to buy five personally inscribed John Steinbeck first editions in one 30-minute span.

By the end of the auction Sunday, Dourgarian was the owner of five first editions from the collection of Elizabeth Steinbeck Ainsworth, the author's sister. Another buyer paid $47,800 for a copy of Steinbeck's Depression-era masterpiece "The Grapes of Wrath,'' which is believed to be the world record for an auction sale of a Steinbeck novel.
... Dourgarian made the time to jump into the auction and ended up with five first editions, including a copy of Steinbeck's first book, the 1929 "Cup of Gold,'' which he purchased for $21,510.

The price is a relative bargain for a book that's truly a one-of-a-kind piece for collectors, he said.

"These are the last of the closely held family books,'' Dourgarian said. "There's not a lot to trump his sister's copy, inscribed by Steinbeck.''

While the book and its garish cover, a bright picture of a pirate, is in less-than-pristine condition, it's an example of a book that was read and loved by the person who received it.

"Steinbeck and his sister were readers, and the books show it,'' Dourgarian said. "They weren't just bought to be put away.''

While I know that I will never be able to participate in something like this Steinbeck family auction, I sincerely appreciate those who spend their money on something that they love and want to preserve for future generations...even if these eventually get sold to another collector I have to believe that they will continue to be in good hands.

The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere

Debra Marquart was born to a North Dakota dairy farming family and she got away from the farm and the state just as soon as she could, ready or not. She is the youngest of three sisters and one brother and, in her own judgment, was pretty much a disappointment to her parents until she neared forty years of age. Her career path is an interesting one but it is not one that would make it easy for parents to sleep at night: singer for traveling bands that covered the gamut from country to punk, college dropout, college professor and, now, coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at Iowa State University and musician with a rhythm and blues project called The Bone People.

The Horizontal World is Marquart’s frank account of what it was like for a girl with her temperament to grow up on a farm that that already been in her family for several generations and in a community in which everyone knew exactly who she was and everything about her. Despite her haste in leaving all that behind, Marquart eventually found herself drawn back to that very community in search of a deeper understanding of her roots. She never felt that her parents comprehended who she had become and what her life was like and found herself becoming the daughter that they “knew” when she visited them twice a year. She had not spoken to her father during the last two weeks of his life even though she had promised him that she “would be back” and that is a regret with which she still lives.

This is how she described her awareness that the world had more to offer to those willing to risk leaving the farm:
“I grew up in an almost bookless house, aside from the Betty Crocker cookbook and the gold-embossed row of World Book encyclopedias, which were only good for filling out the details in school reports. Great mysteries lurked out there in the world, I suspected, at which the World Book could only hint.”
I can barely imagine what it would be like to grow up in a place as sparsely populated as the Dakotas but Debra Marquart has vividly described what it is like for “dreamers” in all small towns across America who can’t wait to test themselves against the rest of the world.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Original Help Desk?

This is very clever and thank goodness for the subtitles because I'm not real sure which Scandinavian language I'm hearing...

The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith

With Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created one of the more memorable sociopath serial killers of fictional history. And, despite the fact that parts of her plot are not quite believable, The Talented Mr. Ripley, written in 1955, has to be considered a classic crime novel.

Tom Ripley was not the kind of man who was willing to work hard for the finer things that he felt that life owed him. Rather, he found it enjoyable to manipulate those around him into giving him some of those things and, if that didn't work, he was more than willing to take those things however he could get them. When Dickie Greenleaf's father asked Ripley to go to Italy in an attempt to talk his son into returning to the family's New York business, Ripley immediately recognized an opportunity to escape his unhappy New York existence at the expense of someone else. Unfortunately, for Dickie Greenleaf, Tom fell in love with Greenleaf's European lifestyle and decided to take that for his own, too.

Patricia Highsmith achieved the difficult task of making the reader, at the very least, sympathize with Tom Ripley, if not actually like him. The reader spends so much time in Ripley's mind, listening to his logic, his fears and his aspirations, that his murders and other crimes seem almost inevitable and beyond his control. He is a true sociopath and has no feelings of guilt about killing when he thinks it is necessary to ensure the lifestyle that he sees as due him. His feeling of invincibility allows him to take chances that a sane person would never take, and he gets away with fantastic crimes as a result. That is where Highsmith's plot loses a few points for not being totally believable: Tom Ripley easily passes for Dickie Greenleaf even when using Greenleaf's passport and being interviewed by the same Italian policeman as both "Dickie" and later as "Tom," Greenleaf's parents accept a forged will in favor of Tom despite the fact that it is not witnessed and a New York bank has questioned recent signatures of their son, and Tom's fingerprints are assumed to be that of the real Dickie Greenleaf when Greenleaf's personal belongings are found in Venice near where Tom is living.

But really these are minor quibbles when placed against what Highsmith achieved in this novel. One suspects that the plot details were always secondary to her and that her goal was to create an unforgettably horrific character like Tom Ripley. And, in that, she was completely successful. In fact, Highsmith eventually returned to the Tom Ripley character for several more novels that I look forward to reading.

Rated at: 4.5

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Low Tech Books Still Offer More Than High-Tech Replacements

Whitney Gould of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel mentioned yesterday that a friend of hers has dubbed her "Gutenberg in the Digital Age" because she doesn't own things like an iPod, cable television, a digital camera or a Blackberry. She disavows any interest in new technology and explains why she much prefers a good book over any electronic version of the same thing. While I am Gould's complete opposite when it comes to new technology gizmos, I completely agree with her that a good book beats a new tech version of the same thing hands down.

Recently, when I was convalescing from back surgery and a fractured foot, my techno-aversion took on new dimensions. After a brief fantasy about gizmos that might make my confinement more palatable (now is the time to finally call the cable guy; I really should get into text messaging, etc.), I reverted to my primitive ways. What I craved more than any high-tech gadget, I realized, was time to read.

And read I did - 18 books in four months. Novels and biographies. Memoirs. Histories. Short stories. Poetry.
Reading a good book is itself an out-of-body experience. Your physical self is in a chair, your mind in another universe. And each foray into that unknown land leaves you enriched, better attuned to nuance and hungry to know more about the inner lives of others.
There is another joy to reading that is purely physical: the solidity of a well-thumbed hardcover nestled into your lap; the swish of pages between your fingers; the tingle you get from a good story unfolding, line by line. No buttons to push, no software to download, no batteries to recharge.

Whenever I hear someone say, "I just don't have time to read," I have to smile. You have the time if you make the time. Turn off the electronic buzz around you for a while and step onto the slow track.

Then pass that wonderful book you just read along to a friend and think of the great conversation you'll have.

And there it is. With a good book you control the flow of words and information at your own pace. If your mind drifts for a few lines, it's easy to backtrack and re-read a paragraph or two. Your imagination paints pictures that even the latest technology can't match and you get inside the minds of characters and real people in a way that no movie or play will ever allow you to do. And there is simply nothing that has the friendly and comforting feel of a book. Those who continue to predict the imminent death of books and of reading are simply wrong. It will never happen.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Down for the Count?

I still try to tell myself that there is a future for small, independent "mom & pop" style bookstores even though all the evidence and my own logic tells me otherwise. Here in Houston we are down to a precious few of those stores and I suspect that there will never again be as many of them here as there are today. Shrinkage of this type is hard for a book lover to watch.

The San Francisco area has long had the reputation of supporting some of the best independent bookstores in the country, but it appears that those stores are suffering the same fate that their cousins are facing everywhere else. We all recognize the culprits:, Barnes & Noble, Borders, eBay and the countless other websites on which books are bought and sold. Sure, I know who the "bad guys" are supposed to be. But I spend a lot of money with most of those "bad guys," in particular with Barnes & Noble because of their brilliant scheme of sponsoring their own credit card that takes the place of their old membership card, offers an additional 5% discount when used at one of their stores and which gives bonus points in the form of $25 gift cards to the store for expenditures charged elsewhere to their card. How can any book lover resist a combination like that?

But, all that said, it still breaks my heart to realize that so many little bookstores continue to disappear on a monthly basis. The Contra Costa Times reminded me of the sad news again today, in fact.
Five years ago, Gary Frank decided to sell his bookstore.

The Booksmith had built a fine reputation during a quarter of a century, thanks to an impressive series of author appearances and a high-traffic location in the old hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury.

Yet hardly anyone expressed interest. Frank was disappointed but not surprised.

"Maybe they saw the future," he said.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, open since 1982 near City Hall, sought a buyer, couldn't find one and closed last summer. Cody's Books shut its flagship Berkeley store after a half-century run. Black Oak Books closed one of its stores and is considering shutting the other two if a buyer can't be found. Numerous small new and secondhand stores have fallen with little fanfare.
A good bookstore, he notes, is unlike any other retail space. Where else can you linger, sample the merchandise and then casually reject it if not quite right? Your local pizzeria would frown on such behavior. In a culture that worships money, bookstores are one of the few commercial institutions where cost doesn't trump all other considerations. Massive bestsellers share shelf space with the most obscure tomes.

But some refuse to give up. Such is the case with Praveen Madan who has recently purchased Booksmith and intends to give it a complete makeover so that it will survive to serve its community for years to come.
Madan, 41, calls bookstore owners "reluctant capitalists," saying they're suffering because they haven't innovated. His plan: "Create the store for the 21st century. If you do it well, you'll give customers a reason to come back. But you can't do it by making them feel guilty."

He's full of plans for improving the Booksmith's Web site, tying the store more firmly to the Haight-Ashbury community, doing more events -- making it both inescapable and irresistible for those who live in the neighborhood.

Frank, who owns the Booksmith building, is helping the new team by offering a below-market rent. He couldn't think offhand of a store anywhere in the country that has successfully reinvented itself and moved to a secure financial footing, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.

"Someone needs to take bookstores to another level," Frank said. "Because this level sure isn't working."

But Who's Counting?

So how many books does the average reader finish in a year? That's a question that I see on many book blogs and over at the wonderful Library Thing website all the time. In my own case, I've found that my aversion to today's television programming has resulted in a steady increase in the number of books that I read each year. In fact, because my television viewing has averaged less than one hour a week for the last three or four years, I have been reading 80-100 books a year. That's at least 40 more books per year than I read when I was an All-American couch potato with a remote control in his right hand.

Kurt Hackemer, a University of South Dakota history teacher, has noticed the same effect on his entire family since he moved them to a small South Dakota town and didn't bother to connect the family television set.
Since moving to rural Vermillion without cable TV, Kurt Hackemer says he and his family read more.

It's not like they banned television from their household - they just haven't gotten around to hooking it back up yet. But it's been more than a year now.

"During the first week, our kids - Anna, 9 and Will, 5 - were thinking that this is just awful, terrible, but then they forgot about it," says Hackemer, a University of South Dakota history teacher.

Hackemer read about 10 books during the Christmas break, but says he reads a lot with or without TV.
"Right now, the crazy reader in our family is my daughter," Hackemer says. "That kid reads four or five books at a time, all piled on her nightstand next to her bed, with bookmarks in all of them. She'll walk in her room, pick one, read it, and the next night be into a different one."

Hackemer is not the only person up in South Dakota who has made the connection between increased reading and lack of interest in television's offerings.
Tim Gebhart estimates that he reads 50 to 70 a year, in a broad range of topics.

"I don't watch television very much," says Gebhart, a Sioux Falls lawyer. "I probably have read that much for as long as I've lived."

..."Years ago on a family trip to San Francisco, I told the kids we could start with a Giants game, or go to Golden Gate Park, or China Town, or I know of this really good bookstore," he says. "They said 'Let's go to the bookstore!' So that's the first place they ever went in San Francisco."

I don't know if the quality of television programming has really declined in the last few years or if my perception of what is being offered is what has changed. But whichever it is, it is nice to rediscover that good books are always there to pick up the slack.

Friday, February 16, 2007

One Man Revisits His Old Books

I believe that most of us are overwhelmed at times when we look at our bookshelves and realize how many of the books are still unread despite having been on the shelves for months or even for years. Then we begin to think about those books that we read one or more decades ago and which have remained closed ever since we finished them. And, of course, there's the problem that we all have in finding shelf space for the dozens of books that we continue to bring home every year. The forest has indeed become so large that we no longer can spot the trees.

Dmetri Kakmi, a senior editor at Penguin Books Australia, has recently recognized the problem and has done something about it. He's completed a massive culling of his shelves, eliminating everything that he no longer holds in high esteem or which he is not likely to read again. And he claims that he feels better for having done it. I don't know if I will ever have the nerve to take this particular approach with my own bookshelves but I found Mr. Kakmi's reaction to having done it himself to be interesting.
Gazing at the groaning shelves brought on intense anxiety. I felt overwhelmed by the titles, the multicoloured spines, the sheer weight of words and knowledge staring at me from the niche in the wall; consequently, over a month or so, I boxed hundreds of books and offered them to friends, charities and opportunity shops.
I am a bibliophile; I do not approve of getting rid of books willy-nilly. Nor am I inclined to desecrate a book by turning down the corner of a page to mark my spot, or to abandon a novel on a bus or train.

To me a book is sacred and must be treated with utmost care and respect. Like a beautiful house or a priceless work of art, a brilliant book is entrusted to us for the duration of our life and it is our solemn duty to be its guardian and benefactor until we can no longer perform the duty.

That said, I had no choice. The truth was my library had to be culled out of sheer necessity. Aside from the fact that shelf space was at a premium, many of the books had not been read in decades.

A little voice told me most would probably never be opened again, at least not by me. As far as I was concerned, their day had come and gone. Surely, I reasoned, liberating them into the care of someone who will doubtless turn their pages and read them is a kindness, a chance at second life.

Mr. Kakmi realized that he was neglecting his old friends, those books and writers he had enjoyed so much in his younger days, at the expense of lesser writers and books that were crying for his attention simply because they were the "flavor of the day." He determined to do something about that and seems to be enjoying the sheer anticipation of re-reading all the gems that he has put aside for too long.

That does make me wonder if I, since I'm in my fifth decade of reading now, should consider taking a similar approach. I don't think that I have the courage to cull as drastically as Mr. Kakmi culled his own shelves, but at the least I see that it may be time to refocus my reading to what is more important from what is simply more popular.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Probable Cause

Probable Cause is Theresa Schwegel's follow-up to her Edgar Award-winning novel, Officer Down. I was not much impressed by Officer Down but I did enjoy that one enough to give it a rating of 3.0 and the implied recommendation that fans of detective fiction give it a shot. I'm sorry to say that I can't do that with Schwegel's second novel.

Schwegel manages to tell a fairly interesting story about a group of Chicago cops who are just "bent" enough to force rookie policemen to commit burglaries on their behalf as part of the initiation into their police brotherhood. But in the process of telling that story she is unable to create even one character that is particularly likable or even wholly believable. Even the ultimate hero of the piece, Ray Weiss, remains pretty much a stereotypical womanizer of a young policeman despite Schwegel's attempts to make him sympathetic by having him carry the burden of parents who are disappointed in his life choices.

But the biggest failure of the book is that it never really developed enough suspense to make the reader feel that the hero's life is really in danger. The man behind the murder in which Weiss has been implicated never comes across as threatening to the point that he feels like a real danger to anyone. Without that kind of implied threat in the air, the plot falls flat and the book loses whatever punch it ever had.

I wish Theresa Schwegel well and I'm curious to see what she offers next. I hope that this effort was the result of her version of the "sophomore jinx" and that we haven't already seen her best work. I get the feeling that she hasn't quite hit her stride yet.

Just What We Need - An Anna Nicole Smith Book Is Rushed to Market

How did we sink to this? I have to admit that it doesn't surprise me because the world's mass culture seems to sink to a new low on a weekly basis, but I'm impressed with the speed in which this piece of junk is being rushed back onto the market.

"I just thought, so much has happened in the ten years since the first book came out that it would make a good trade paperback," Carole Stuart, the publisher of Barricade Books, told the Times. "Then of course last week she dies. And so we suddenly got really, really attractive to the distributors and book buyers." She added: "We didn't kill her or anything."

I've been pretty much aware that Anna Nicole Smith existed for a long time but I tried to ignore her because, frankly, I was always embarrassed when she claimed Houston as her home. I never could figure out what she did to earn her fame other than to take her clothes off for the cameras, prostitute herself with a man old enough to be her grandfather, make a public nuisance of herself in various stages of drunkenness or seem constantly to be on the verge of a drug overdose. I was saddened to see her lifestyle suddenly catch up with her but I was hoping that she would go quietly. I should have known better.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

One Man's Trash...

Here's another one of those stories that will make book lovers around the world sick to their stomachs. It seems that a used book store owner couldn't (or wouldn't) pay his rent. As a result, his stock of 500,000 used books was locked up by the owner of the building. And, yes, you guessed it. All 500,000 were eventually just thrown into the dump.
The books belonged to used bookseller Paul Saindon, who was evicted from his store in the Vieux Longueuil district three months ago for not paying rent. After the building's owner threatened to throw the books into the garbage, the city decided to put the books into storage temporarily at its own cost, La Presse reported.

The city tried to find someone to take the books before dumping them, but no one wanted them, a spokesperson said.

I suppose that I should try to be more understanding when I read this kind of news. After all, the city in question should not have had to foot the storage costs or the cost of shipping these books to other countries or even trucking them to VA hospitals and the like. But I cringe every time I see books being treated like garbage.

Charming Billy

Charming Billy is not an easy book to read for several reasons, not the least being the fact that its central character, Billy Lynch, a hopeless alcoholic, is already dead by the opening scene of the book. And despite the book’s title, Billy Lynch is only charming in the usual manner of alcoholics who stay drunk as many hours a day as they can get away with it. Sadly, as part of the close knit Irish community in which he worked and lived, Billy fit right in and no one was able to save him from himself.

But subject matter aside, this was also a difficult book to read because of the way that Alice McDermott uses flashback and vague narration in order to reconstruct and explain the life of the recently deceased Billy Lynch. She doesn’t offer the reader much help in piecing together all the bits and hints that she discloses over the course of the book. So many names are thrown out by McDermott, and her narrator is so vague at times about who the new characters are and how they relate to the story, that it is sometimes a struggle just to keep the plot straight.

And it is a complex plot that illustrates some of the basic laws of human nature, especially the ones regarding alcoholism and those who have to deal with it. Billy’s friends and family soon learned just how little they could do to help him defeat the disease that was killing him. Banning him from their homes didn’t work. Preaching to him didn’t work. Drinking with him certainly didn’t work. Anyone who has ever watched a loved one destroy himself by his addictions will immediately recognize the hopeless path that Billy and his family found themselves upon. But the saddest part of Billy’s story is the way that his favorite cousin’s attempt to spare him some emotional pain by lying to him has exactly the opposite effect on him. In fact, this is a case of “no good deed going unpunished” that negatively dictates the course of most of Billy’s adult life.

Charming Billy was a 1998 National Book Award winner and it is another of those award winners that make me question the whole process involved with picking winners in any kind of literary contest. This is a good book but I find it hard to believe that it was one of the absolute best efforts of that year. It has a touching story to tell but unfortunately that story gets clouded and muddled at times because of the structure within which McDermott frames it.

Rated at: 3.0

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Dickens Lust

I can't help myself. I love buying books and adding them to my personal library, and with eBay and other internet books sources making it all so easy these days I really have to watch myself. Here's a good example of what happens to me on a regular basis. The other night I spotted ten very attractive Charles Dickens novels that were published in 1885 by Belford, Clarke & Company of New York. The original owner of the books signed and dated each of them when she received them for Christmas 1886.

Now, right up front, I realized that I could not afford all ten of the books since each one of them had a starting bid price of $5.00 plus $5.00 in postage and handling fees. But imagine my surprise and delight when I picked up two of them for bids of only $5.50 and $7.50, respectively. Two of the books were subsequently withdrawn from the eBay auction but two others were still available when I checked last night. At least one of the ten went for something over $20.00 but I didn't follow them all too closely because I didn't want to be tempted into bidding for others in the set. I won't be receiving the books for about another 10 days, but I'm looking forward to getting my hands on them.

The first picture is self-explanatory but this second book is a front view of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. I've also included a copy of one of the simple inscriptions made by the original owner that Christmas season some 120 years ago. The books appear to be in pretty decent shape so I'm hoping that I'm not disappointed when they arrive.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Printed-on-the-Spot Books Are Given to Young Utah Students

Utah State University's Center for Open and Sustainable Learning Microlibrary has a 2007 goal of delivering 5,000 "printed-on-the-spot" books to Utah's elementary school students. In addition to getting books into the hands of young readers, the project seems to build an excitement about books in the classrooms lucky enough to receive a visit from the traveling print shop.

Project Director David Wiley Sr. manages more than 20,000 holdings - enough books to stretch the length of several football fields. Yet his "library" weighs fewer than 100 pounds and easily fits on a rolling cart or in the trunk of his car.

A laptop, printer, paper cutter, heat-binding tool and a DVD loaded with best-loved books - available to the public free through Project Gutenberg - combine to make the traditional Bookmobile look like a lumbering giant.
Gutenberg offerings - books with expired copyrights - are converted into a format that can be printed and bound inside of 10 minutes, Wiley Jr. said.

There's no need for a warehouse to store inventory and no cost to ship books, because the Microlibrary prints requests only - for pennies on the dollar.

“The whole administrative cost of cataloging a book, checking it out, getting it returned and back on the shelf is more than the cost of printing the book and giving it to somebody,” Wiley Jr. said. “So putting something like this in a rural library would be super cost effective.”

Technology continues to find new ways to put books into the hands and minds of young readers, ways that could only be dreamed about just a few years ago. Check here for all the details, including some great pictures, of exactly how this project works.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Can an Audio Book Really Be Read?

Should listening to an audio version of a book be considered as having read that book? Audio books have been common in libraries in cassette and CD form for a long time now and they seem to be ever-increasing in popularity. I generally have an audio book in some stage of progress pretty much all the time despite the fact that it takes me close to two weeks to finish one of them because I do the bulk of my listening while driving. Now I'm even starting to see little self-contained gizmos in bookstores that are one-book players that include batteries and headphones. It's as simple as taking the book out of the package, plugging in the headphones and turning on the little player (Playaway Digital Audiobooks) .

I'm all for using MP3 players for studying and I applaud schools at all levels that encourage their teachers to make class notes and lectures available in MP3 format for repeat-listening by students. We have all become accustomed to multi-tasking (whether that's good or bad is a whole other discussion) so it makes perfect sense for students to reinforce class instruction at their leisure or while doing laundry or grocery shopping. But whether or not the easy availability of recorded books will encourage or discourage actual reading remains to be seen.

Now it appears that schools are going to have to make sure that the "playing field" is level for all students because not all of them can afford the recorded books or the players needed to utilize them.
When you compare traditional books to audiobooks, however, there's a big difference in price. A new paperback copy of Charlotte's Web costs $8 on Amazon, whereas the Playaway version costs $30, and an iTunes download of it costs $17. Many other iTunes book downloads cost more - for example, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice costs $26, and the more recent Harry Potter books cost $50. And that doesn't even count the cost of an MP3 player, for those students who don't have them.

The key is getting schools to help out with the costs, said O'Connor, the Spanish instructor at Tidewater Community College. Of the 16 students in O'Connor's class this semester, only two had their own MP3 players at the outset.
This isn't just happening in colleges, or even just in high schools. My two daughters are elementary school teachers and they both tell me that they see it happening as early as the second grade. But they tell me that they encourage their students to follow along to the recording with their own copy of the book as a way of reinforcing the reading skills that they are being taught in the classroom. They see the audio books as being positive influences on their young students.

I tend to think that "readers" will be as excited about books as ever before, that the growing availability of audio books will just make it possible for readers to consume more books than they otherwise would be able to consume. "Non-readers," at the very least, will use the audio books as study aids that allow them to remain non-readers while being exposed to the contents of books that would have otherwise always remained closed to them. Personally, I don't have any concern about audio books turning readers into non-readers. And, on the other hand, I see a positive influence on non-readers who might see enough of what they have been missing that they become excited about books for the first time in their lives. We live in interesting times.

Main Street

When Main Street was published in 1920 it struck a chord with everyday Americans in a way that few books had done up to that time. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was soon to be found in small town homes all across the country because so many people were able to identify with Main Street's main character, Carol Kennicott. Through the eyes of Carol Kennicott, some readers saw their own "main streets" in a way that they had not considered them before. For the first time they noticed just how smugly narrow minded and intolerant were the societies in which they lived. Others, who had already recognized the limitations imposed upon them by their small town leadership, saw Main Street as confirmation that they were not alone in wishing for more from life than what was on offer to them in small town America.

Ultimately, of course, Carol Kennicott resigns herself to living in the small Minnesota community that she once fought so desperately to change. Two years after moving to Washington D.C. with her small son she returns to her husband with a determination to make a good life for her family in Gopher Prairie. She's found that the reality of making a better life for herself in the big city is no match for the dreams that she had about doing so, and although she no longer loves her husband the way that she once did, she respects him enough to return to her life with him.

I suspect that even the book's sad ending served as a lesson for small town dreamers everywhere. They realized that their choices were limited to blind acceptance of a narrow minded value system, fighting the system and living unhappily in their small town, or striking out on their own to at least have a chance of finding something better. Future success and happiness, however, were not guaranteed as they were reminded by Carol's reflections:
"She looked across the silent fields to the west. She was conscious of an unbroken sweep of land to the Rockies, to Alaska; a dominion which will rise to unexampled greatness when other empires have grown senile. Before that time, she knew, a hundred generations of Carols will aspire and go down in tragedy devoid of palls and solemn chanting, the humdrum inevitable tragedy of struggle against inertia...'But I've won this: I've never excused my failure by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dishwashing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.'"
I first read Main Street in 1965 as a high school junior in a small East Texas town of about 12,000 people. I was already dreaming of an escape from that lifestyle and I found a certain amount of comfort and encouragement in discussing what was then a 45-year old book with the school's new English teacher. I sometimes think back to those days and wonder how different my life might have been if not for that teacher and for writers like Sinclair Lewis.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Leatherneck Publishing

Until I saw a press release regarding Leatherneck Publishing, I hadn't realized that books written by combat veterans had become such an established genre in the book world. I knew, of course, of the mainstream books of that type that get national distribution and publicity but the idea of this being a publishing house specialty is new to me.

On Saturday, January 27th the City of San Diego Public Library honored two of Leatherneck Publishing's books published in 2006 and written by San Diego County local authors. They are "Street Fight In Iraq" by GySgt Patrick Tracy, USMC (now 1st Sgt) and "An Angel Rode My Wing" by Lt. Col. H. Neil Levin, USMC, ret.
"Street Fight in Iraq" is one of the most compelling chronicles of the Iraqi conflict and is a best seller in Marine Corps Association bookstores. The language is harsh, the writing brutally honest and the message clear. It's down and dirty and Marines love this book. "An Angel Rode My Wing" has all the elements of any great action novel -- from being shot down over North Vietnam and miraculously surviving, similar to a James Bond adventure, to mysterious and mystical occurrences in life.

Now I have to see what's on offer so that I can read some of these books.