Saturday, March 31, 2007

Never Mind...Just Kidding

It seems that Jim Cooper, director of the Salt Lake County public library system, has rescinded an invitation to Mark Spragg, author of An Unfinished Life, and has dropped his book as the choice for Salt Lake County's "One County, One Book" program for 2007.

Spragg, of Cody, Wyo., said he was notified in January that his book had been chosen for Salt Lake County's "One County, One Book" program, which encourages people to read and discuss books.

Two weeks later, he received an e-mail from library employee Susan Hamada saying the invitation to speak had been rescinded.

"An Unfinished Life" is about a woman who tries to make amends with a bitter Wyoming rancher after causing a car accident that killed his son and her husband.

Spragg theorized that his book, with some rough language, was considered an affront to conservative Mormons.

"You don't ask someone to dance, then say, 'You're too unsightly,' when they stand up from the table," he told the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City.
"We felt it was a little stale. We wanted something that was different," Cooper told The Associated Press on Friday.
So the "stale" An Unfinished Life, published in August 2004 was replaced by the "fresh" Life of Pi which was first published in the U.S. in June 2002. Yeah, that explains it. Call in the spin doctor and let the cover up begin.

Stacks and More Stacks

I don't know how it keeps happening (I keep telling myself that) but new stacks of books keep appearing around here. I just realized this morning that I've accumulated another little stack in the last three weeks or so. Just yesterday, I picked up that great compilation of three of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels for $2 and, for $3, Three in Time, a collection of three "rediscovered" time travel novels that were published several decades ago. I also stumbled onto a couple of historical novels having to do with former slaves, one of them, in fact, The Bondwoman's Narrative, is said to have been written by a former slave herself. Throw in a $1 copy of The Dante Club, a mystery set in 1865 and using Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell as characters, plus two Sharyn McCrumb mysteries and a "meditation on reading" and I've added quite a load in just a few days. Oh well, the more the merrier.

Remember this stack from a while back?

I've managed to finish a couple of them, and both were very good, Carry Me Back (at the top of the stack) and Taps (near the bottom) and last night I made a good start on the Elmer Kelton western that I've been wanting to read, so I've made at least a dent in that bunch. My library system has become so efficient in getting my requests to me that I'm actually surprised to have made even that much progress. Oh well, I can't think of a nicer problem to have.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Mass Hysteria Continues

OK, does this early release of the dust jacket excite you and make you tremble in anticipation of the big day when the final Harry Potter book is released to the masses? I just don't get the hysteria involved with the Potter books but I surely have to admire the media manipulation that the Potter book publisher accomplishes. It's akin to watching lambs being led to the slaughter.

Edit: As Katrina pointed out in her comment, I've shown the British dust jacket only. Thanks to her link, here's another look at the British version of both the children's cover and the adult cover.

And this is supposedly going to be the dust jacket that will be seen in U.S. and Canadian bookstores.

Falling through the Earth: A Memoir

Danielle Trussoni, author of Falling through the Earth, is as much a casualty of the Viet Nam war as was her father, Dan, who returned from that war as damaged goods, a man unable to show his wife and children that he loved them. Trussoni's benign neglect of his children forced them to grow up tough and able to solve their own problems because he was a firm follower of the old adage that "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Sadly, their situation shows clearly how the crippling aftereffects of combat can be so easily passed on from one generation to the next, making one wonder where the cycle finally ends.

Dan Trussoni was a volunteer tunnel rat in Viet Nam, one of those incredibly brave men who went alone into the underground tunnel system that allowed Viet Cong soldiers to disappear at will and that provided them with a safe haven to recover from wounds and to hide food and weapons until they were needed. These young American soldiers, armed with little more than a pistol and a flashlight, had to crawl through booby traps and utter darkness never knowing what awaited them around the next corner as they tried to clean out the systems they discovered. It is little wonder that they came back with mental scars that never really heal.

Danielle became aware at an early age of how her father's Viet Nam experience impacted his life. She found the pictures of dead bodies and the human skull that he brought home. She also found that she was largely going to have to raise herself after her parents split up and she decided to live with her father. Dan Trussoni's idea of a little quality time with his daughter was to bring her to his favorite neighborhood bar in which she spent so much time that she was considered to be one of the regulars.

Life for the Trussoni kids was full of surprises, including the appearance of an illegitimate half-sister and a full sister who had been placed for adoption by their parents who felt too young and overwhelmed to keep her when she was born. Danielle was her father's daughter in every way, fearless, tough, brash and willing to take whatever life threw her way. That personality led her to Viet Nam, alone, where she saw for herself some of the same sights and experienced a little of the fear that her father felt while he was there, even forcing herself to "tour" one of the famous tunnel systems with a guide.

Falling through the Earth, with chapters that alternate between views of growing up in the Trussoni family, Dan's Viet Nam war, and Danielle's own trip there, is a fascinating book, one that makes me wish that we would make absolutely certain that our wars are really necessary before we send our young men into them.

Rated at 3.0

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Here Come the Library Bounty Hunters

The folks who run the Bryan-College Station, Texas, public library system have decided that enough is enough. The system is losing so many books, CDs and DVDs to "forgetful" patrons and, even worse, to those who move to another city and take the items with them, that a collection agency has been hired to help with the problem.
According to Bryan Public Information Officer Jay Socol, the libraries levied $239,000 in fees and fines in 2006 but only collected about $45,750. He said $41,750 of the fees levied were waived.

"Our DVD collection has been heavily raided by individuals," Mounce said. "One family has a dozen DVD's checked out, and they moved and we cannot find them."

The collection agency follows a process to collect the fees. First, it sends a letter to the patron. If they do not respond, a second letter is sent. After the second letter, the agency calls the patron's home and tells them that they will report the overdue fees and materials to a credit reporting agency. If they still don't respond, a report will be made.

"They don't threaten the people; they are very polite and very friendly over the phone," Mounce said.

The agency, which works for dozens of libraries all over the country, charges $10 for each account it pursues and guarantees to customers that the fees it brings in will make the service budget-neutral.
I suspect that the inclusion of so many DVDs, CDs and audio books on library shelves has made the problem much worse than it used to be when only books were available. I know that some people simply misplace an item or two and then forget about even having them, but I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who deliberately keeps anything that belongs to a public library. I'm all for the idea of turning in a report to credit agencies if that's what it takes to get the attention of those having so little respect for their community.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Books Some Parents Love to Hate

According to a Courier-Journal (Louisville) article these are the "Top 10 Most Challenged Books for 2006." I'm assuming that means that these books were the ones that parents most often demanded be removed from the shelves of school libraries. Lucky Toni Morrison - she has two books in the Top 10.
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, for homosexuality, anti-family, and unsuited to age group.

Gossip Girls series by Cecily Von Ziegesar for homosexuality, sexual content, drugs, unsuited to age group, and offensive language.

Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor for sexual content and offensive language.

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler for sexual content, anti-family, offensive language, and unsuited to age group.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison for sexual content, offensive language, and unsuited to age group.

Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz for occult/Satanism, unsuited to age group, violence, and insensitivity.

Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher for homosexuality and offensive language.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky for homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, and unsuited to age group.

Beloved by Toni Morrison for offensive language, sexual content, and unsuited to age group.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier for sexual content, offensive language, and violence.
The list comes from the American Library Association.

Mozart and Leadbelly

Mozart and Leadbelly is a collection of short stories, essays and talks that Ernest Gaines has produced over the years. I was drawn to this short but repetitious book because I've read two Gaines novels this year and wanted to learn more about Gaines as a writer, more about his creative process, and more about the man that he is.

Ernest J. Gaines was born in Louisiana in 1933, a time when many black families were still tied to the land that their ancestors had worked as slaves. It was, in effect, a watered down version of the plantation system which had once thrived in that part of the state. Gaines learned many lessons before he left Louisiana to go to California for an education, lessons that serve him well to this day. He was raised by a crippled aunt who managed to cook meals, clean house and raise a vegetable garden by crawling on the ground much as a six-month-old baby might crawl. Her example taught Gaines that nothing is impossible and that quitting is not an option. He became a writer when he started producing letters for the illiterate friends of his aunt who came to him on her front porch and asked him to write to their distant family members. Seldom did they have anything to say other than "I'm fine and things here are fine," asking him to fill up the rest of a couple of pages with something interesting.

The essays will be of particular interest to fans of the Gaines novels, A Lesson Before Dying, A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman because of the insights offered into how those novels were conceived and constructed. In addition, there are five early short stories, including the first one Gaines ever wrote, "The Turtles," that display Gaines' remarkable talent for recreating a time through the eyes of the ordinary people who lived it. Not surprisingly, Gaines was influenced and learned from the writers who preceded him, in particular writers like Twain, Joyce, Turgenev, Chekhov and Tolstoy. But he also took inspiration from the great paintings which seemed to him to tell a story as well as any novel could do it, and from music ranging from Mozart to Leadbelly.

Rated at: 3.0

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mardigian Library to remove all books; students won't notice

Is it April already? Well, this is the first April Fool's joke of the season that I've spotted and it's a nicely done bit of satire by the student newspaper at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Students visiting UM-D's newly-renovated Mardigian Library will find plenty of room to study and hang out, now that the books are gone.

Library administrators undertook the renovations in response to a Student Government petition, removing all books and shelving and installing a state-of-the-art sound system and night club-style lighting. According to the SG petition, the books and shelves were "taking up a lot of unnecessary space that might be better utilized by students who want to see their tuition used to serve their needs."
Students visiting the library seemed happy with the changes. Senior education major Helga Dummkopf said, "I guess I never noticed they had books here before because I only came here to buy cappuccino sometimes. But seriously, this is so much cooler, now I really want to come to the library."

Mudack Padlo, a junior majoring in comparative literature, echoed Dummkopf's sentiments. "I was never actually inside the library before because I was kind of intimidated by all the books, but it's really more student-friendly now, so I'll be coming here a lot from now on."

Larry Wormer and Calvin Thorpe duel over one of the few books that were overlooked in the library restructuring. The overachievers made other students look stupid as they clung to the hardcopy.

Used Books and Their Little Surprises

Have you ever opened up a used book, in a bookstore or at a library sale, and found something interesting inside the book? Many people, it seems, have found strange things that were used as bookmarks and left behind by the previous owner of the book, things like slices of cheese, speeding tickets, snapshots of nudes, and even squirrel tails.

Over the years, Hamill and her cohorts have found personal letters, valentines, used engagement calendars, photographs and pressed flowers in books.

"I find it rather touching," she said.

But there was the man who, while examining books at one of the sales, discovered $75. "He kept it all," Hamill said. He returns each year.

Thankfully, I haven't found animal parts or food in any of the thousands of used books that I've handled over the years. But I have found three or four old bookmarks, signed and dated, from the early 1900s that were really beautiful and well preserved. My favorite find, though, was a hand-written receipt from a Houston hardware store, dated June 1936, which detailed each purchased item and its price. It was like a little snapshot of a time long past and made me wonder about the person who first placed that receipt in the old book so long ago.

The Search Is On

I spent a couple of hours yesterday at the job center that my ex-employer set up to assist its down-sized employees in finding new jobs. It's nice to see such a strong effort being made to place people as quickly as possible but, in another sense, it's also a little depressing to hear the stories being told about the already infamous morning on which we were all sent packing. The center is filled with counselors, computers and telephones and it was all fairly chaotic yesterday since it was the first day that the center was open for business. I'm going to head that way later this morning to complete some of the testing they suggest and to do some work on preparing a résumé that will somehow properly represent the last 29 years on a single page.

I've been told that it's important that we keep to a regular schedule during this transition period, that sleeping until noon and then staying up half the night is not a good idea, and I'm finding that easy to do. My eyes pop open at 5:20 every morning just like they have every workday for the past five years. Some habits are hard to break.

Monday, March 26, 2007


I'm going to admit right up front that I have always had a soft spot when it comes to Southern writers who write well about growing up in the American South of the first half of the twentieth century. That positive prejudice comes from how easily I can identify with the stories that these writers have to tell. Willie Morris is one of those writers and, sadly, we lost him in 1999 at the relatively young age of 64.

Taps turned out to be Willie's last book and it was not published until 2001 after his wife, JoAnne Prichard Morris, working from notations that Morris made on the original manuscript, released it to Houghton Mifflin for publication. Willie Morris treasured his memories of growing up in Mississippi during the forties and fifties and, in Taps, he does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere which he remembered so well. The story takes place in early 1950s Fisk's Landing, Mississippi, and is told through the eyes of Swayze Barksdale, a young high school student who finds his life forever changed by the Korean War.

The changes begin when Swayze and a friend of his are recruited by World War II hero Luke Cartwright to play "Taps" at the funerals of the many Fisk's Landing boys who are so steadily being killed in Korea. Fisk's Landing is small enough that Swayze can easily recall each of the boys being buried in the town cemetery and, in fact, some of them had been classmates of his until they dropped out of high school to join the military. The circumstances of 1951-52 force Swayze to mature in ways, and at a pace, that few 15-year-old boys ever face. He has to deal with the fact that his mother is more than just a little "odd," he finds his first love, discovers sex, gets drawn into a conspiracy to help his two best adult friends hide their own love affair, and loses his girl to the football captain.

But it is when Swayze finds himself playing "Taps" for his closest friend in the world that he really understands what it is to be a man. He has learned lessons in that one year that will serve him well for the remainder of his life and he will never forget the people of Fisk's Landing who helped make him into the man that he ultimately became. Taps is a touching story and Willie Morris wrote it in the style that the best southern writers have, a style that seems to come from growing up in the South during a certain period in time. Frankly, I haven't read all that much of his work, but I suppose I can look at that neglect as being a good thing because now I can look forward to reading the rest of it.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Google Book Search

I haven't been paying much attention to the Google project involving the scanning of books from various university libraries, so it's been a while since I've checked to see what's now available. This morning I decided to take a look at the Google Book Search page and noticed something that had escaped my attention the last time I looked at the site. Google seems to have made available for downloading as Adobe Reader PDF files books that are not covered by copyright restrictions. It is simply a matter of searching for "Full view books" and clicking on the PDF button for a download in that format.

I quickly searched for "Civil War" books and found the memoirs of General John B. Gordon that were published in 1903. The download into Adobe Reader took less than a minute and I've already spent 30 minutes reading parts of this fascinating book.

This is probably the last thing that I need - more reading material for my TBR list - but it is an exciting thing for those who enjoy reading out-of-print material. If this particular book is any indication, the scanning process seems to be working well because I only noticed one slightly out-of-focus page in this book of over 500 pages. This will be great fun and, I'm afraid, very addictive.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Defining Moment

The Defining Moment, by Jonathan Alter, can be best summarized by its own subtitle: “FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.” I seldom “read” the audio versions of histories or biographies because the numerous dates and names are hard to retain, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this 10-disc, 12 hour and 35 minute presentation is so well read by Grover Gardner that I was able to easily follow the book.

Few of us who didn’t live through the troubles of the 1930s realize today just how close the United States came to suffering a literal revolution of its citizens who saw everything around them collapsing while they so desperately struggled to feed their families. Just as the unemployment rate began to soar, workers faced the likelihood of losing their savings to a failing bank system. That was the situation faced by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he stepped into his White House office on his first day in office.

Roosevelt won the “anyone but Hoover” election easily and, while many in his own party did not consider him to be the best man for the job, feeling that he was an intellectual lightweight and physically unable to meet the demands of the job, he turned out to be ideally suited for the situation he faced. Instead of becoming the benevolent dictator that some were calling for, Roosevelt set off in co-operation with congress on a 100-day program that effectively saved both capitalism and democracy for future generations. He accepted a plan to save the banking system, a plan that had been largely drafted by administrators from the Hoover administration, and began to rebuild the confidence of Americans within days of the beginning of his first term.

Within the first 100 days of this first term, plans were in place to put people back to work and the country began to recover from the panic and despair that had cost Hoover the White House. Roosevelt’s judgment was not always the best and his political instincts sometimes unnecessarily made enemies of people he could have had as political allies rather than as political enemies. He was adamantly opposed to federal deposit insurance for bank accounts, for instance, because he believed that the weaker banks would fail and that the larger, healthier banks would then follow suit. Fortunately, he was unable to stop congress from passing an insurance bill despite his opposition. Of course, although it didn’t occur until 1937, Roosevelt’s greatest legacy is the Social Security System which he helped to create. Roosevelt may not have always had a plan, but he understood that action was necessary in order to change the public's perception that its government was unable to cope with the country's problems. Some of what he tried did not work, but enough did, to make Americans believe that things were finally turning around.

The Defining Moment gave me a new appreciation for all that Roosevelt accomplished and for just how close the country came to being changed forever in a negative way. Things were so desperate that many in the government and among the citizenry were prepared to junk capitalism in favor of some variation on socialism or communism. As has so often happened in American history, the right man for the job of president came along at the moment he was most needed. Franklin Roosevelt successfully faced his “defining moment” and the rest is history.

Rated at: 3.0

Friday, March 23, 2007


I have long been an admirer of Mark Twain's work, fiction and non-fiction alike. That admiration, and the negative comments that I heard about Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn, almost convinced me to ignore the book. But after seeing comments about Finn on two of the blogs that I regularly read, book/daddy and A Garden Carried in the Pocket, I couldn't resist any longer. And I'm happy that I didn't.

Finn is not an easy book to read because, in its own way, it is even more horrifying than the fantastical books by writers such as Thomas Harris who splash gore around to such a degree that their books lose all sense of realism. The horrible crimes that are committed in Finn, on the other hand, always make the reader cringe simply because they seem to be happening to real people in a real world. As is so often the case in a man like Finn, he is the product of cold and abusive parents who warped him from the beginning. He is in constant rebellion against his father, a town judge who rules his courtroom and his home with an iron fist and who has no more sympathy for his sons than he does for the criminals he sees in court.

Clinch, of course, begins with the world created by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn but he fleshes out that world in a way that Twain himself was unable to do in the period in which he wrote. Using incidents and characters from Twain's book, Clinch provides the back story to Huck's tale that explains much of what Twain had to leave unsaid in the original.

The elder Finn depends on the Mississippi River for his very life. The river provides him with the catfish that he sells or exchanges in town for the supplies that keep him alive. More importantly to Finn, it is the sale of those same fish that make it possible for him to consume the amount of alcohol that makes life worth living for him. Equally important, the Mississippi is always there to cover a man's sins and, as the book begins, one of those sins, a dead woman who has been skinned, is floating down the middle of the river toward town. But since Finn is a psychopath this is hardly the last of his crimes that the reader will witness.

The most controversial aspect of the novel is Clinch's contention that Huck was a mulatto whose mother had been purchased off a steamboat in slave territory and taken back to Illinois against her will. That Huckleberry Finn was a black child is not a new theory, and Clinch has made that possibility the centerpiece of his novel. That fact alone determines the ultimate fate of not only Finn but of Mary, Huck's mother, and it leads to the complete moral collapse of Judge Finn.

This may not be an easy book to read, and I don't feel that I should say that I enjoyed it, but it is definitely one that will stay with me for a while. I've read many books that I can barely remember any details of just a year or two later. Finn is in no danger of becoming one of those.

Rated at: 4.0

Jane Austen Gets a Makeover

According to the TimesOnline, the next volume of Austen's work published by Wordsworth Editions will feature the "new" Jane Austen on the cover.
According to Wordsworth Editions, which sells millions of cut-price classic novels, the only authentic portrait of Jane Austen is too unattractive.

Helen Trayler, its managing director, said: “The poor old thing didn’t have anything going for her in the way of looks. Her original portrait is very, very dowdy. It wouldn’t be appealing to readers, so I took it upon myself to commission a new picture of her.

“We’ve given her a bit of a makeover, with make-up and some hair extensions and removed her nightcap. Now she looks great — as if she’s just walked out of a salon.”
Some will see this as a positive thing and some will recognize the hidden message in the decision to market an icon like Jane Austen on her looks rather than on the content of her books.
Patrick Stokes, of the Jane Austen Society, said: “She’s not a goddess. She has no copyright. It’s just what happens when someone is so popular, and if it brings her to a different readership then that’s good news.”

Patrick Janson-Smith, a leading literary agent, said: “Portraits of modern authors are airbrushed the whole time, especially American lady authors of a certain age. It’s a shock to meet a writer when the reality falls a little short. We live in a shallow world where authors are increasingly sold on their appearance.”
I find this bit of silliness to be disturbing because it reminds me of how today's culture has managed to make stars out of people like Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, etc. more based on their looks than on their very limited talent. The entertainment industry dumbed itself down long ago but thankfully I've developed an ability to tune out the noise. Do we really need to sell classic literature based on the looks of the authors now? Good grief.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Updated: Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

I know this isn't a new video, but I just found it today and was intrigued by it. I guess the big surprise is that someone actually thought to take Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," the satirical 1729 essay in which he suggested a way to ease the burden of Ireland's poor, and turn it into a hip hop video. All they had to do, according to Swift was to make their babies into a food source, not a burden.
”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ...”

Fair warning: Here is a modern version of the same message and some may find it as offensive as those who read the original in 1729.

See what happens when I have extra time on my hands?

Things Change

I seem to have arrived at one of those crossroads in life that come up every so often. When I wake up tomorrow morning, for the first time since I turned 16 years old I'm going to be among the ranks of the unemployed. I've seen this coming for the last six months because my company acquired two others and found itself seriously strapped with debt and with more than a thousand extra employees. But still, now that it's finally happened, I find myself a bit stunned by the reality of the situation. I'm going to miss my co-workers and the comfort of working for a company that I know so well, obviously, but I'll also miss the daily walk that I took every noon:

This is a view of the office building from the waterway across the street. The waterway walk was opened about two years ago and I put it to good use in all but the worst Houston weather.

These are just a few of the things and places I passed along the path each day.

I plan to take it slow for the next couple of weeks so that I don't rush into anything that I'll regret. I suppose the good news is that I'll have more time for reading and blogging...time to turn one of life's pages.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Laptops and Guns

Back in early February I wrote about one of Denver's Tattered Cover bookstore locations and the extremely realistic statue of an old man that management placed inside the store. It was a fun story because of the way that the subject of the statue toyed with customers when he happened to be inside the store.

Today I found another news item, this time about a different Tattered Cover location, and not quite as much fun. It seems that an armed robber went into the store during business hours and demanded, at gunpoint, that a customer using a laptop hand it over to him. The store now provides security guards during business hours and, thankfully, no one was hurt during the incident. I've used my laptop in many public places that provide WiFi service, even walking off to grab another cup of coffee or coke and never had a problem with anyone approaching the laptop while I was gone. I may not feel so confident next time around.
Witnesses say it looked like a scene stolen from a movie: During business hours just after seven o'clock last night, a man robbed a customer at gunpoint at this Tattered Cover bookstore on Colfax.

Susan Crews says she looked on -- paralyzed with fright.

"Once he left, I was in tears. I was very anxious," said Crews who watched the suspect as he ran by her.

The masked gunman demanded a man's laptop computer and then fled.

He seemed to know exactly what he wanted.

"He went straight to the guy with the laptop. There was also a camera there. He didn't take the camera, he didn't ask for a wallet. and then he just bolted out," said Crews.
I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying is the best known Ernest J. Gaines novel, even having been blessed as an “Oprah’s Book Club” choice in September 1997. Today it is read in many middle and high school English classes for the lessons that it has to teach all of us about human dignity and grace. Not all of Oprah Winfrey’s book choices over the years have been the wisest, but she got this one right.

The novel is set in a section of 1940s Louisiana that Gaines knows and works so well in his writing. Jefferson, a young black man who by sheer chance found himself at the scene of a store robbery that went terribly wrong is convicted of murder and sullenly awaits his date with the state’s electric chair. There is substantial evidence of his guilt since the money from the cash register is found in his pockets and he has helped himself to a bottle of whiskey from behind the counter. And he is the only man still standing since the white storekeeper and the two black men who gave Jefferson a ride to the store have all been shot to death.

It is when Jefferson’s defense attorney, trying to save him from the death penalty, describes him as something more like a hog than like a man that Grant Wiggins finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the pending execution. Wiggins is the first black man who has left the plantation for an education and he is unhappy and resentful that the only work for him is teaching the children of those who still work the fields of the cane farm as generations of their families did before them. In a way, he considers himself to be as much a slave of the system as all those who are still tied to the land for their survival. But his aunt, with whom he still lives, and Jefferson’s godmother pressure him into becoming involved. They want him to convince the condemned man that he is a man, not a hog, and that he needs to approach his pending execution with all the dignity and courage that only the best of us ever really possess.

Wiggens takes on this responsibility simply because he doesn’t dare to deny his aunt’s request and, when he believes that he is failing them all, he continues the struggle only because he cannot bear to disappoint her. It is only when Jefferson begins to slowly respond to what Wiggins is telling him, and asking of him, that Wiggins realizes that he is being taught a lesson every bit as important as the one that he himself is trying to teach. A Lesson Before Dying is an inspirational book, one that will be used in classrooms for many years to come, and it very much deserves the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that it received in 1993.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, March 19, 2007

LitMinds Interview

In case anyone is interested, I want to mention that has honored me with an interview feature on their site. LitMinds is in the process of creating a world-wide community of book lovers and should really evolve into something great over the next few months. I look forward to seeing them grow, so take a look at their site and think about signing up as a member. You'll be happy that you did.

The Inhabited World

The Inhabited World is an unusual ghost story in the sense that the ghost himself might be the most confused character in the novel and that the word “ghost” is never once mentioned in the book. Evan Malloy finds himself trapped in and around the house in which he killed himself ten years earlier, having no idea why any of this is happening to him. All he knows is that he is unable to leave the property and that the only things he knows about since his death are events that have occurred under his direct observation (although he sometimes reads newspapers and computer screens over the shoulders of the current residents of his old home). He has no idea if his father is still alive or how his wife and step-daughter have managed since his death but does know a few things about world events, not a combination of knowledge that gives him any comfort.

Author David Long recounts Evan Malloy’s story in flashback, the story of a young man who ruined his first marriage by giving in to the temptation of a short affair with a co-worker only to eventually be given a second chance at happiness years later when he remarries his ex-wife and creates a new family with her and her daughter. But even this regained happiness is not enough to keep Evan from being overwhelmed by a depressive state that only ends when he pulls the trigger of the pistol that his wife brought to their second marriage.

It is when Maureen Keniston moves into the house that Evan finds himself caring for one of the house’s new residents for the first time. Maureen has come to the house as part of her effort to hide from the doctor at whose hands she has suffered an abusive relationship for the past two years. Evan feels a certain kinship with the woman and her situation and, although she is unable to sense his presence, Evan feels so protective of her that he attempts to give her the advice she needs in order to remain strong enough to break off the destructive affair.

Eventually the reader comes to realize that Evan Malloy may not be a ghost, after all, and that he is something more akin to Maureen’s guardian angel. Perhaps the reason for his own personal purgatory has been revealed to him. Considering his subject matter, David Long has managed to turn what could have easily been a depressing book into a rather inspirational one that requires his readers to look at life through the eyes of someone who has been there and realizes that he gave up on it too soon.

I only found this book thanks to Amy over at the Sleepy Reader who reviewed it on March 4. It continues to amaze me how my reading list changes almost from day-to-day as I spot interesting books on various book thanks, Amy.

Rated at 3.5

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Righting a Wrong about Harper Lee

I've been vaguely aware for a number of years of the rumor that Harper Lee was not really the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and that its true author was none other than Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote. Frankly, I never, even for one second, believed that there was any truth to the rumor. That was largely based on the fact that Capote never bothered to really make much of a statement one way or another in regards to the rumor and it was always my impression of him that he was a man whose word could not really be trusted when it came to his literary output, both published and what was supposedly always in the works, and that he would be perfectly happy for a rumor of that nature to circulate. For that reason, it's good to see that Charles Shields, author of last year's Harper Lee biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee seeks to finally kill that rumor.
Shields is convinced Lee is the author of her book. He interviewed the son-in-law of her now-dead editor, Tay Hohoff, who described the close friendship the two forged working together closely.

"Nelle would go to Tay's house just to visit," Shields said. "It would be utterly beneath Nelle's dignity to do something like that."

To write his nonfiction bestseller, "In Cold Blood," Capote asked Lee to accompany him to Kansas as his research assistant to investigate the 1959 murder of four members of a farming family.

"She had 150 single-typed pages of notes from their investigation of the murders," Shields said. "I realized that there were two authors in Kansas."

So Shields decided, "I have to right a wrong."
Wouldn't it be ironic if it were to turn out that Capote used much of Lee's writing for his own masterpiece, In Cold Blood and that the wrong rumor was the one discussed all these years?

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee is to be released in paperback on April 3 and will probably hit my TBR list shortly thereafter since I seem to have missed it in its hardback run.

Quote of the Week

This comes from U.K. education secretary, Alan Johnson, and while it leaves room for debate and may be seen as an exaggeration by some, I find a great deal of truth in what he says:

"The average family spends four hours a day watching television. If they read to their children for a tenth of that time, we could practically eradicate illiteracy."

The quote is part of a Guardian Unlimited article in which Mr. Johnson explains ways that schools can encourage boys to read so that they will be better able to keep up with girls when they reach secondary school.
More action-packed fiction and more attention-grabbing teaching could help boys engage with their learning - and benefit girls too by making lessons go more smoothly, he suggested.

Mr Johnson called for a comprehensive educational strategy which "builds a positive identity for working-class boys, instilling in them pride and a love of learning." This would include encouraging more parents and grandparents to read to children, a campaign to attract more men into teaching in primary schools, and special one-to-one tuition.
Something similar to Johnson's approach should be taken in this country where boys so often fall behind girls at an early age, and to an extent, that they never catch back up. Girls have benefited from the extra effort that has been made in recent years to ensure that they get off to a proper educational start. Unfortunately, the boys have been largely left to fend for themselves and that neglect of their needs has created a new problem with which educators now need to deal.

Rare Book Room

I found a really wonderful website this morning that I want to spread the word about because I find it to be so fascinating. It's called Rare Book Room and it contains images of some of the rarest books in the world, just as its name indicates. That alone is enough to make the site worthwhile. But what makes it really special is the way that visitors to the site can actually flip through the pages of the books, reading as much as desired and getting a feel for what the readers of these earliest editions experienced. I can already see that I'm going to be spending way too much time on the site.

Rare Book Room can be searched by author, subject or library location and even includes things like music pieces by Mozart and photography from the 1890s and early 1900s. All told, approximately 400 books are available for your browsing, an opportunity that most of us will never have in the "real world." And if you can lose yourself in old photographs the way that I can, studying the details and wondering about the people in the pictures, the site is a double temptation when it comes to spending valuable "reading time" outside the pages of all those books that are stacking up in your TBR stacks.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Blunderer

Most of us have seen, or know of, the Alfred Hitchcock film based on Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, a fascinating movie despite the fact that Highsmith absolutely hated the way that Hitchcock tamed her story to the extent that she thought he had ruined it by eliminating much of its shock value. Highsmith followed Strangers on a Train with The Price of Salt, a 1952 “lesbian novel” that she published under the name Claire Morgan. It was in 1954 that she published the second novel under her real name, one that she and some readers and critics believe to be “more complex and sophisticated: than its more famous predecessor.

The Blunderer is the story of Walter Stackhouse, a man who feels trapped in his marriage to the neurotic Clara, and who is indeed a world-class blunderer. Clara, after being told by Walter that he plans to go to Reno to divorce her, makes a suicide attempt that she only survives because Walter returns home just in time to get her to a hospital where her life is saved.

But it is when Walter becomes obsessed with the brutal, and unsolved, murder of a woman at a bus rest stop that his real troubles begin. He instinctively believes that the woman’s husband had something to do with her murder and finds himself compulsively clipping a newspaper article about the case and even going to the man’s bookstore just to see if he looks like a murderer. Compulsion turns to obsession when Walter, in his dreams, follows his own wife to a rest stop and murders her in the way that he imagines the first woman has been killed. The dreams become so real to Walter that upon awakening he is almost certain that he has really killed his wife.

When Walter’s mother-in-law suddenly appears to be on her death bed and Clara boards a bus to take her to her mother’s hospital, Walter can’t explain even to himself why he feels compelled to follow the bus when it leaves the station. It is almost as if he is living the dream that has dominated his recent nights. At the first rest stop that the bus makes, Walter looks for Clara but can’t find her anywhere despite the fact that he spends most of the 15-minute rest stop asking people if they’ve seen her. The bus leaves, one passenger short, and Walter returns home where he decides not to notify the police that anything strange might have happened to his wife.

Clara’s body is found the next day and Walter begins to dig the hole that will make everyone believe that he is the likely killer. He starts his downward spiral by not telling the investigators that he followed the bus, an omission of fact that is easily disproved by the detectives who interview everyone at the rest stop and everyone who had been on the bus that night. As more and more of the truth about Walter and his relationship with his wife becomes known to the authorities, it appears more and more certain that he is the guilty man despite the fact that he is not the killer.

In typical Highsmith fashion, the detective investigating the murder of Clara Stackhouse is such an unethical and horrible man that, after a while, the reader has little expectation that justice will be served. In fact, one begins to wonder if justice even exists in the world she describes. This is a first-rate psychological novel, one that has a lesson to teach us all about how we choose to present ourselves to the world. I did not, however, find the book’s ending to be satisfactory. It doesn’t seem to fit the style of the rest of the book and does not quite ring true, feeling like a desperate attempt on Highsmith's part to wrap everything up as quickly as possible. That’s the only reason that I rate this book as a “4” rather than as a “5.”

The Blunderer would have made a great film in the hands of a director like Alfred Hitchcock because much of the plot revolves around the fact that things are just not what they appear to be when it comes to Walter Stackhouse and the death of his wife. Hitchcock was excellent at misdirection in his films and Highsmith’s novel provides many opportunities for that approach. But, as far as I know, he didn’t consider optioning the rights to this one and it was not until 1983 that anyone approached Highsmith about filming her book. Unfortunately, this project with HBO failed and the novel has not been filmed.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Outing of Joe Hill

Speaking of Stephen we were a couple of posts back...I've been hearing good things about his son's first published novel. Apparently, "Joe Hill," has been writing short stories and one unpublished novel for a while now, but the revelation that he's Stephen King's oldest son should change everything for him. I love the idea that authors can pass on their skills to the next generation this way, much like what seems to happen in musical families. Joe's picture makes me wonder how he got away with hiding his real identity as long as he managed it.
...when Hill's fantasy-tinged thriller, "Heart-Shaped Box," came out last month, it was inevitable that his thoroughbred blood lines as a writer of horror and the supernatural would be out there for all to see.
Hill, 34, took on his secret identity to test his writing skills and marketability without having to trade on the family name.

"I really wanted to allow myself to rise and fall on my own merits," he said over breakfast in this coastal city. "One of the good things about it was that it let me make my mistakes in private."

The moniker he chose did not come out of the blue. He is legally Joseph Hillstrom King, named for the labor organizer whose 1915 execution for murder in Utah inspired the song, "Joe Hill," an anthem of the labor movement. His parents, who came of age during the 1960s, "were both pretty feisty liberals and looked at Joe Hill as a heroic figure," he said.
Hill's decision to follow his father's career should come as no surprise. His mother, Tabitha King, has been turning out novels for decades. His younger brother, Owen King, came out in 2005 with a well-received novella and short story collection that is more literary than horrific and laced with absurdity.

Like Hill, Owen King wanted to cut his own path and his book did not mention his parentage. But he decided against a pen name, figuring it would be too much trouble to try to go by an alias when meeting people or having an agent, manager, publicist or personal assistant handle details of his professional life.

The only sibling who has yet to make it into print is Naomi King, oldest of the three, who has switched careers from restaurateur to Unitarian minister. But Hill said his sister is working on a nonfiction project: a book-length study of the sermon as literary text and its place in American culture.

The Kings should certainly be proud. A family of five, all writers, is really something. I'm going to have to place Joe Hill's "Heart-Shaped Box" on my TBR list but that's a mighty long list, so if any of you have already read it, tell us what you think of it, please.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Carry Me Back

There have been three constants in my life for almost as long as I can remember: books, baseball and country music. That’s why when I stumbled onto Laura Watt’s Carry Me Back, I knew that I was holding a book that was meant for me. The only thing that could have made the book more perfect is if her main character, Webb Pritchard, had been an ex-baseball player rather than a recently released from prison construction worker. But, because I’m a sucker when it comes to well-crafted time travel stories, the icing on the cake was that the entire novel revolves around the fact that Webb Pritchard is able to travel back in time from 1994 to 1951.

Laura Watt knows country music. She understands that what passes for country music on FM stations today is little more than watered down ‘70s rock music produced by singers, bands, and record labels who wouldn’t know a real country song if it bit them on the…uh, the ankle. Most country music fans, if given the chance to climb into a time machine and pick a destination, would opt to attend a Hank Williams concert sometime in the year 1951. With Carry Me Back, Watt offers us the next-best thing.

When the book begins, 40-year-old Webb Pritchard has just been released from prison, having served four years for shooting in the knee a low-life petty thief he caught in the act of stealing his construction tools. Pritchard fancies himself to be a better-than-average banjo picker and the first thing he does upon his release is to buy a beautiful old banjo for himself. That’s when the fun begins, because the banjo he names Little Darlin’ has a way of transporting him back to 1951, and into the company of Hank Williams, when he least expects it to happen. 1951 was not a good year for Hank Williams who had been fired from the Grand Ole Opry and who was looking for a guitar player to join his band on the road with “Doc Mullican’s Traveling Hayride & Medicine Show.” So for several weeks, Webb Pritchard finds himself uncontrollably jumping between 1951, and a job as one of Hank’s sidemen, and 1994 and his life as a struggling banjo picker trying to break into the bluegrass festival circuit.

What makes the novel such great fun is the way that Watt mixes real country artists, such as Earl Scruggs, in with her fictional characters to paint a picture of what it was like to be on the road in the early 1950s. From the way that she describes Nashville’s old Ryman Auditorium and what it was like backstage at a typical Saturday night Opry, it is obvious that Laura Watt has a deep love and respect for country music and the singers and players who were there at the beginning. Clearly, she misses the day when it was about the music and the songs and not about how sexy the girl singers are or how the boy singers fill out their jeans. She’s not the only one who misses those days and, if you’re one of those people yourself, this book will put a smile on your face and make you wish that you owned your own “Little Darlin’.”

I almost forgot to mention that I found this book on the shelves of a used book store and that the mint harback copy of the book cost me all of one buck. I love it when that happens.

I can’t resist slipping in a shameless plug right here (sorry about that, I’m weak) for the internet radio station that I co-founded with a couple of good friends almost four years ago, RAM Radio. If you’re a fan of real country music, I invite you to join us because that’s what we play around the clock – real country songs recorded between the early 1900s and yesterday. You can tune us in directly through the iTunes software or Ram Radio will take you to our Live365 site.

Rated at: 3.5

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Stephen King's Favorite Books

Stephen King is one of those guys whom many critics, snobbish readers and some writers love to hate. He's certainly had his ups and downs when it comes to his literary output but no one can deny that he's often produced some very good work. Have you ever wondered what his favorite ten books are?

1. The Golden Argsoy – edited by Van H. Campbell & Charles Grayson

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

3. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

4. McTeague – Frank Norris

5. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

7. 1984 – George Orwell

8. The Raj Quartet – Paul Scott

9. Light in August – William Faulkner

10. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
From: The Top Ten (J. Peder Zane, editor)

Reading and Pretending to Read the Classics

This Christian Science Monitor article reassured me that I was not the only one out there who is afraid to lie about having read any particular book. I've seen so many articles lately about which books are most likely to be claimed as read by people who never bothered to crack the covers (Ulysses generally tops the list) that I was starting to think I was the abnormal one, not them. Personally, I wouldn't dare lie to anyone about having read some book because, with my luck, I would choose the one person in the room who particularly loved it and wanted to get into a detailed discussion. I have enough trouble remembering the details about the ones I do read that I don't think I could fake a discussion about one I haven't even held in my hands.

That's why I can't even imagine having this kind of nerve:
I had a friend who joined a London book club. He found the day of reckoning – when the members were to sit in a circle and discuss the latest book's merits – always arrived much sooner than he expected. His wife, also a member, would actually read the book. All he would do was rush through the blurb on the flap at the last minute. What flabbergasted his diligent spouse was that he would then expound the virtues and failings of the book with such authority that he always got away with it.

If you aren't a true bookworm, self-confidence is everything.
I wonder, too, how many of us experienced the kind of "university reading burnout" described here, as a result of which we, at least for a time, lost our ability to read for simple pleasure rather than for test scores and status among our peers.
Attending university put an end to this. Not that I stopped reading books from start to finish, but the reasons for doing so had altered. The pressure was on. Not only were we expected to read "The Mill on the Floss," "Middlemarch," and quite possibly "Adam Bede" in a week, but then we had to write a long essay about George Eliot's sense of tragedy (or some such thing), ready for the weekly tutorial. Agony! – particularly on summer days when all I wanted to do was float on the River Cam in a punt.

Then there was that other compulsion to read – the fact that fellow students all knew E.M. Forster or D.H. Lawrence backward, and if you didn't, you would seem next to useless socially.

Under such duress, the pure pleasure of reading largely went out the window.
As much as I love the classics, I couldn't force myself to read one for simple pleasure for several years after I left school. And it's only now that I've reread them for the right reasons that I truly appreciate all the ones I was forced to almost speed-read while at school.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Big One-Oh

Dean Pitchford has already enjoyed the kind of success about which most people can only dream. He’s been a Broadway star, a hugely successful songwriter, and has been nominated for four Grammys, two Tonys and four Academy Awards, winning Best Original Song for “Fame.” Now, with the release of his new Young Adult title, The Big One-Oh, Pitchford can also call himself a novelist.

When Charley Maplewood realizes that he’s had the last of his single-digit birthdays and that “the big one-oh” is staring him in the face, he knows that he has to do something special to mark the occasion. Unfortunately for Charley, there are a few things standing in the way of his plans to throw the mother of all parties for himself and his friends. For one thing he has no friends. For another, he is still haunted by his memories of how he single-handedly destroyed the last birthday party he attended when the sleepy pony he was riding suddenly decided that it preferred the role of out-of-control race horse to that of party pony.

The Big One-Oh is filled with characters that most of us will recognize from our own elementary school days: the class bully and his weaker sidekick, the already-most-popular girls who will remain most popular all the way through high school, the class geek, the class politician, and the rest of the herd. Charley deals with all of them as he arranges his party and, although he didn’t plan it quite that way, they all show up on the big day.

The Big One-Oh will have its young readers laughing out loud as Charley bonds with the strange man next door whom his mother forbids him to see, almost burns down his garage, and watches in shock as police cars and ambulances show up during the best part of his party. Charley Maplewood had the kind of tenth-birthday party that most boys wish for themselves. Luckily for their parents, they don’t usually get their wish. So, parents, hand them a copy of The Big One-Oh, instead, and let them think “what if.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

Just a Few Thinking Bloggers

Stefanie over at So Many Books has mentioned Book Chase as deserving of a "Thinking Blogger Award." Now that I've gotten over the surprise, it is my turn to nominate five other blogs for the honor. So, if you don't already know these, please take a minute to visit them.
The Book Mine Set - a Canadian blog produced by John Mutford

book/daddy - the blog of former Dallas Morning News book columnist Jerome Weeks

A Garden Carried in the Pocket - Jenclair's blog from Bossier City, Louisiana

The Class Factotum Speaks - not a book blog but this Rice grad living in Memphis writes about her life in a way that I find fascinating

A Work in Progress
- anyone so involved in a marathon read of War and Peace deserves our applause
These are only a few of the blogs that I read as often as I can squeeze in the time. The web is a virutal treasure chest of interesting reading and I could have listed another dozen or so blogs very easily. Enjoy.