Monday, April 30, 2007

"Why E-Books Will Succeed"

I've spent most of the day attending a class and meeting with a job counselor, so I just now spotted this topic over at Web Worker Daily. It emphasizes the interesting point that e-books are likely to survive by finding a niche of their own when it comes to certain types of publications rather than by replacing the books we read for pleasure. Anne Zelenka sees e-books as being better suited for text books and work related reading than their paper and board counterparts and, since e-books are electronically searchable, I tend to agree with her.
Why will e-book readers succeed? Not because e-books are good replacements for paper books — but because they’re good complements to paper books and documents, especially for work-related reading rather than pure pleasure.

Time and again we see that technology doesn’t have to mean an end to the old ways of doing things. Tech tools allow us to do things in different ways or to do things we couldn’t possibly do before, adding new value to our lives, not just reproducing value we could already access.
There are other reasons e-books and e-book readers may have value even in a world where paper books don’t become obsolete. Students could benefit from electronic textbooks, carrying the equivalent of a backpack full of books in a small tablet. Knowledge workers might prefer to read technical articles or lengthy professional documents on an easy to read, lightweight reader rather than printing them out and carrying them. Imagine taking hundred-page spec documents onto a plane with you just by carrying a reader loaded with them, and being able to search them electronically instead of using a table of contents or index. Service people could carry readers loaded with installation and repair manuals.

You can’t take an e-book reader into the bath tub with you, but so what? There’s room in the world for electronic and paper books.
I seriously doubt that e-books will ever result in much of a change in the way that we read for pleasure. Holding a book, turning the pages, placing the bookmark and all of the assorted tactile pleasures that come from doing those things will never be replaced by squinting at some rigid electronic books reader. Just won't happen. But I would love being able to quickly search some of the business and non-fiction books that I read rather than having to mark them up and flip through hundreds of pages looking for exactly the definition or reference that I vaguely remember seeing somewhere along the way.

The Winds of Time

Despite having been written in 1957, The Winds of Time remains an interesting twist on the usual time travel novel because these time travelers don’t use any sort of time machine to project themselves more than 15,000 years into the future. Rather, they use a potent drug to place themselves into suspended animation and let time itself travel at its normal pace. When they awaken, they are in the future. But all is not well.

Doctor Wes Chase, on a fishing vacation with his wife in Colorado, has his life forever changed when he is taken prisoner near a remote mountain lake by one of a group of aliens who crash landed on Earth some 15.000 years before his fateful encounter with them. When they crashed, these explorers, who closely resembled Earthlings, had been on a mission to find another race of men with whom they could partner up for the good of both groups. They quickly realized that Earth humans were in such a primitive stage of development that their only chance to ever see their home planet again required them to travel approximately 15,000 years into the future. Unfortunately for them, they awoke to find themselves still 200 years too early to expect any help from the people of Earth.

That’s where Wes Chase’s life changing adventure begins.

Chad Oliver, who died in 1993, was an anthropologist and his science fiction focused primarily on the kind of culture clash that results from the sudden contact of different cultural systems. Such a culture clash, and the way that both sides adapt and change each other in the process, is the most fascinating part of The Winds of Time. Oliver’s style and his vision of what alien contact would be like influenced countless writers who followed him and he is regarded by many to be the equal of Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.

I have a fondness for time travel novels that goes back all the way to my teen years and that’s why I picked up The Winds of Time. I was disappointed when I first realized that the novel did not employ the use of some kind of time travel hardware and relied instead on medicine to get the job done. But the longer that I read, and the more that I considered this twist, the more I realized that if time travel is ever to occur, Oliver’s idea is one of the more likely ways that it could actually happen. This isn’t a complicated novel, nor one filled with exotic battles and weaponry, but it is definitely one that fans of the genre will enjoy. It deserves to be remembered as one Science Fiction’s early classic volumes.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Literary Misblurbing"

The NY Times Sunday Book Review has an interesting article called "Literary Misblurbing" this week. Here's one example of what has always been common in movie advertising and seems to be happening more and more in book ads:
Such an admission might earn a jaundiced laugh from Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, whose 1982 pan of Shirley Conran’s “Lace” — what Yardley called a “schlock novel” written with “transparent and exquisite cynicism” — contained the following sentences: “Conran knows all the names, brand and otherwise, and she certainly knows where and when to drop them. ‘Lace’ doesn’t sink under the weight of them, it soars — right up into the same stratosphere where you’ll find ‘Valley of the Dolls’ and ‘Scruples.’ ” Sleepily pawing through the newspapers after the review ran, he was startled to come across an advertisement for the novel emblazoned with the following testimonial: “ ‘It soars!’ — Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post.”
The rest of the article is filled with similar "misblurbs" created by publishers and authors who seem to have little shame when it comes to misleading the public. Self-policing has obviously failed to curb this less than honest (and insulting) trend.

When a Book Is Not a Book

I admit to being hopeless when it comes to home decor choices but an article like this one does tend to amuse me from time to time.

Stacked on top of a table or stacked up to make a table or shelved as a design feature, books have become a versatile way to create interest, warmth or vitality in today's interior designs.

"Books are happening things," said Wayne Bucy of Wayne Bucy Interiors and a consultant with Temptation Gallery, Nashville. "Books can make a big impact on a room."
For design flair, don't try to make every shelf look the same or overly coordinated.

"Theoretically, you aren't supposed to even match color with color," said Tom Oakley, staff designer at Davishire Interiors. "You aren't supposed to pick up a color in a rug or upholstered sofa and use it in the color of books."

Bucy likes the warm colors of older books, the tans and the reds that have changed with time. He once used black books with gold gilt accents for an entire shelf. Then, he arranged black items such as copper tea kettles and urns among the books. He's not a fan of filling an entire shelf from end to end, unless using "one of those wonderful old sets of books."

Instead, arrange several books on one side of the shelf. Then place an interesting object on the other side. Start at the opposite end on the shelf below and do the same. Add variety. Arrange books in the center of the shelf with bookends. Stack two or three. Add greenery or a lamp into the mix. And don't be afraid to mix old books with new ones.
When it comes to books, don't limit them to shelves. Books can be used all over the home.

• Stack books high enough beside a sofa or chair to be used as a table.

• Use four stacks of books and put a piece of glass over them to make a table.

• Frame old leather-bound books with antique gilt accents to make a new piece of art.

So now the modern homemaker is supposed to choose books for their color and not for their content? Or because they have the proper size and bulk that allows them to be evenly stacked in a way that they can be turned into an end table? I suppose that's not too surprising since it's very unlikely that these "book collectors" will ever read any of the books they are bringing into their homes.

But the suggestion that I find strangest of all is that books should be sparingly placed on bookshelves so that space can be saved for greenery and tea kettles. Unbelievable. The writer of this article most obviously doesn't have a clue as to how precious each six inches of bookshelf space is to most of us. For all the good that these books are going to do, she may as well have suggested that her readers buy little boxes of various colors to place on their bookshelves rather than the real thing.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Known World

With The Known World, Edward P. Jones created a masterpiece, the kind of novel that brings much needed credibility to the Pulitzer Prize judges who named it Best Novel in 2004. The novel is set in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, some twenty years before the start of the Civil War and it focuses on an aspect of slavery that I knew very little about beforehand, the fact that there were freed blacks in the South who were themselves slave owners.

I found myself completely immersed in the world that Jones recreated, a world that was seldom pretty, one that was filled instead with flawed characters who reflected their upbringing and the times in which they lived. This is a multi-generational novel in which the author takes great care to explain how each of the characters came to be the person he ultimately was but it is not always told in strict chronological order. There are both flashbacks and jumps far into the future that add depth and historical context to the story and make this a memorable book.

The story centers on the Henry Townsend plantation, a plantation of some 33 slaves owned by a former slave whose father bought him out of slavery when Henry was a boy. Augustus, Henry's father, was a skilled furniture maker who was allowed by his owner to pocket a portion of what he earned building furniture for area plantation owners. Augustus accumulated enough money to buy his own freedom and finally saved enough to later buy the same for his wife and son. It was to the great disappointment of Augustus, a disappointment that almost separated father from son for good, that Henry eventually became a slave owner.

It is upon Henry's sudden death that the Townsend plantation is thrown into a chaos from which it never recovers. Caldonia, Henry's widow, did not have the discipline required to profitably run a plantation of 33 slaves while maintaining the distance from them required to keep their respect. She became so close to her overseer that he became bold enough to demand his own freedom, something that she denied him, causing him to lose control of himself and the other slaves for whom he had day-to-day responsibility. Some of those slaves began to run for their freedom, alone or in groups of two or three, resulting in tragedy for those left behind, both black and white.

The Known World is not a book that should be read quickly. Its story is told through the eyes of numerous characters from several families, black and white, and it can be difficult to follow until the reader feels familiar with all the names and relationships. It is one of those novels that suddenly "click" for the reader to the point that he finds himself totally taken by the world that the author has created. I regretted having turned the last page, finding myself wondering what became of the next generation and hoping that Jones will one day tell me.

Rated at: 5.0

Friday, April 27, 2007

When Madeline Was Young

In When Madeline Was Young, Jane Hamilton creates one of the more unusual American families that readers will find in recent fiction. Their story begins with the 1943 bicycle accident that left newlywed Madeline Maciver forever trapped inside the mind of a seven-year-old child, an accident that shaped the Maciver family in ways that no one could have foreseen. Aaron Maciver, her husband, determined to do right by Madeline despite the fact her parents write her out of their own lives, refuses to even consider the option of placing her in any kind of institution. At the hospital, during the early days after Madeline's accident, Aaron is comforted by talking to Julia, a nurse whom he briefly met at his wedding, and they find themselves falling in love.

When Julia eventually becomes the second Mrs. Maciver, she and Aaron agree that Madeline must remain a part of their new family and she effectively becomes their first "child," something that does not seem at all unusual to the son and daughter who complete the family. It is through the eyes of their son Mac that we learn what happens to this remarkable family for the next several decades. Most of the book is set in the fifties and sixties, two decades that Hamilton recreates in a way that reminds the reader just how different they were from each other. Through Mac's memories of his childhood and teen years, she contrasts the enthusiasm and innocence of the fifties with the angst and anger that the Viet Nam war created in the sixties.

This was not the novel I expected it to be. I was hoping that Hamilton would tell more of the story through the eyes of Madeline herself, offering some insight into what it would be like to suffer the kind of injury that Madeline suffered, but she became much more of a secondary character than I wanted her to be. With Mikey O'Day, Madeline's brain damaged boyfriend, Hamilton did, however, create one of the more memorable characters that I have encountered in a long while. The always happy Mikey O'Day, a man who loved singing in public and who saw Madeline as the love of his life, was sheer joy in his innocence and turned out to be my favorite character in the entire book.

In reality, When Madeline Was Young is an ordinary book about an extraordinary subject. It could have been so much more if Hamilton had focused more on Madeline and less on the things that made the Macivers just like every other family in the fifties and sixties. The Macivers were different and it is those differences that I wanted to learn about.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, April 26, 2007

102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

102 minutes. Hard as that may be to believe, that's all the time that elapsed between the moment that Flight 11 struck the first Twin Tower and the instant that the second tower collapsed. I expect that all of us, at some time or another, have imagined ourselves trapped in one of those buildings and wondered what our struggle for survival would have required of us. We will never forget those horrible images of people falling or jumping from the upper floors of the Towers, nor the pictures and stories of the heroes who were everywhere that day.

At times I found 102 Minutes, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, to be painful reading. The book took me much longer to finish than I anticipated because I could only read it for a few minutes at a time before having to put it down for something less depressing. In actual fact, I read the book over a period of several months, finally finishing it last night.

Through hundreds of survivor interviews and countless hours reading transcripts of telephone and radio conversations, the authors were able to recreate much of what happened in the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001. Much of what went on in the buildings was truly inspirational, with countless heroes to be found selflessly helping those too injured or physically impaired to get themselves down those dozens of flights of stairs that had to be negotiated if they were to survive.

But those 102 minutes were also filled with heartbreaking stories of the hundreds of people who were trapped in offices above the points of impact of the two crashes. Those people never had a chance of survival because their only exits to the lower floors, stairways and elevators, had already been destroyed. There was so much smoke, and the buildings so soon showed signs of being unstable, that roof top helicopter rescues were also impossible. Phone calls for help quickly changed to last messages to loved ones when the trapped realized that they were going to die.

Some of what Dwyer and Flynn learned while researching 102 Minutes will also anger the reader because, while it is true that some 12,000 of the almost 15,000 people in the buildings managed to escape, more should have gotten out alive than did. The combination of sheer chaos, poor communication systems, and building code exemptions taken over the years unnecessarily claimed hundreds of lives. Even after the first tower had collapsed, most fire fighters and policemen in the second tower had no idea that the first tower was gone or that the tower in which many of them were resting for a final attempt to reach its upper floors was in danger of an imminent collapse itself. Some 200 of them are believed to have died together that way when the second tower fell. And despite the communication problems exposed by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, New York policemen and fire fighters still found it near impossible to communicate with each other, further limiting the chance that they and many of the tower office workers would survive the day.

But most disheartening of all is the fact that there were simply not enough stairways in either building to effectively evacuate the many thousands of people who worked in them each day. Real estate and office space is at a premium in New York and the Port Authority was able to get building code exemptions that allowed the Twin Towers to be constructed with fewer exits than they should have contained. Fewer stairways meant more office space to rent, and that's the trade off that was chosen. The fact that many of the existing stairway sections were so damaged or destroyed in the initial crashes meant that many of the survivors never had a chance.

While this is not an easy book to read, it has much to offer to those who manage it. There are many lessons to be learned from what happened on September 11, 2001 and 102 Minutes is a clear presentation of those lessons. Let's all hope that those in authority will be better prepared if something like this horror ever happens again.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Eleven New Books for Under $35

This is why my TBR list continues to grow faster than my "completed list." I stopped into a couple of local bookstores yesterday and could not resist picking up this stack of bargain-priced books. All of them are in new, never read, condition and I paid only one or two dollars each for most of them.

Suite Francaise is the only one of the lot for which I paid anything near full price. I've been hearing good things about this novel for a while and I seem to have finally reached the point at which I could no longer resist its pull.

In The Magdalen Martyrs, Ken Bruen continues the saga of Jack Taylor whom I first encountered in The Guards. I was so taken with Bruen's writing that I snapped this one up from the bargain table as soon as I spotted it.

I've always enjoyed novels set in the American Civil War period and it seems that I'm finding them on a regular basis lately. The Glory Cloak portrays Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton working together to solve the true identity of a mystery soldier they find in a Union hospital.

John M. Del Vecchio's Darkness Falls is described this way: "Corporate mergers, downsizing, and public schools in turmoil all form the background for this novel of love, hate, violence and glory, rescue and murder...a complicated story of life in America's core - the suburbs." Considering my own recent "downsizing," it's no surprise that I had to have this one.

I have always been partial to Southern writers, probably because I can so easily identify with their subject matter, so I snapped up this biography, Carson McCullers: A Life. I was also a bit intrigued by the fact that the book was first published in France and that I found its British publication in a used books bookstore in Houston. I don't think that particular combination has ever happened for me before this one.

Paradise Salvage is one that I spotted on the shelf at least two weeks ago and didn't buy. But for some reason, it stuck in my mind and, when I saw it was still there, I decided to give it a try. I'm not familiar with its author, John Fusco, but being a fan of The Sopranos, I couldn't resist this cover blurb: "Cross The Sopranos with Catcher in the Rye and you'd probably get this suspenseful novel - and very good it is."

This is another Civil War novel that I had never heard of before yesterday. The Rope Eater tells the story of a young Union soldier who volunteered after hearing a particularly stirring recruitment speech. When confronted with the realities of warfare, he deserts the army and signs up as part of the crew of a whaling ship, something else about which he knows absolutely nothing.

I'm not entirely sure why I picked this one up other than the fact that I've enjoyed several of Sharyn McCrumb's books in the past. But I am one of those folks who just don't "get" NASCAR at all; I draw a complete blank when it comes to listing one appealing thing about that particular "sport." St. Dale is the story of a group of strangers who go on the "Dale Earnhardt Memorial Pilgrimage" and what happens along the way. We'll see.

How could anyone pass up a brand new copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition of an American classic when they find it priced at $1. Impossible, certainly for me. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow, was first published in 1953 and was recognized as something special from the beginning. I'm a longtime admirer of Bellow, so this book will definitely find a permanent home on my bookshelves.

I'm desperately hoping that this one isn't of the "chick lit" variety but since I heard some good things about it, and because it's another Southern novel, and since the price was certainly right, I decided to give it a try. Gods in Alabama tells the story of a young woman who returns to small town Alabama, her black boyfriend in tow, to confront both her roots and the fact that she knows exactly what happened to the high school football hero who disappeared.

I bought this one based entirely on the reputation of its author, Dan Simmons. I wasn't aware that Simmons had started a private investigator series before finding this third Joe Kurtz novel. I'm a sucker for series novels for some reason and I have high hopes that Hard as Nails will start me off on another fun ride.

All in all, this was one of the most cost efficient book buys that I've ever made. Seven of the books, all new, were purchased at one bookstore for less than $10, including tax. The other four were bought at a different store for under $25, including the one for which I paid near full price, Suite Francaise. It was a good day.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel - 1918-2007

1918 His Family Ernest Poole

1919 Magnificent Ambersons, The Booth Tarkington

1920 No Award

1921 Age of Innocence, The Edith Wharton

1922 Alice Adams Booth Tarkington

1923 One of Ours Willa Cather

1924 Able McLaughlins, The Margaret Wilson

1925 So Big Edna Ferber

1926 Arrowsmith Sinclair Lewis

1927 Early Autumn Louis Bromfield

1928 Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Thornton Wilder

1929 Scarlet Sister Mary Julia M. Peterkin

1930 Laughing Boy Oliver LaFarge

1931 Years Of Grace Margaret Ayer Barnes

1932 Good Earth, The Pearl S. Buck

1933 Store, The T. S. Stribling

1934 Lamb In His Bosom Caroline Miller

1935 Now In November Josephine W. Johnson

1936 Honey In The Horn Harold L. Davis

1937 Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell

1938 Late George Apley, The John P. Marquand

1939 Yearling, The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

1940 Grapes Of Wrath, The John Steinbeck

1941 No Award

1942 In This Our Life Ellen Glasgow

1943 Dragon's Teeth Upton Sinclair

1944 Journey In The Dark Martin Flavin

1945 Bell For Adano, A John Hersey

1946 No Award

1947 All The King's Men Robert Penn Warren

1948 Tales Of The South Pacific James A. Michener

1949 Guard Of Honor James Gould Cozzens

1950 Way West, The A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

1951 Town, The Herman B. Wouk

1953 Old Man And The Sea, The Ernest Hemingway

1954 No Award

1955 Fable, A William Faulkner

1956 Andersonville MacKinlay Kantor

1957 (Honorary Award) Kenneth Roberts

1958 Death In The Family, A James Agee

1959 Travels Of Jamie McPheeters, The Robert Lewis Taylor

1960 Advise And Consent Allen Drury

1961 To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee

1962 Edge Of Sadness, The Edwin O'Connor

1963 Reivers, The William Faulkner

1964 No Award

1965 Keepers Of The House, The Shirley Anne Grau

1966 Collected Stories Katharine Anne Porter

1967 Fixer, The Bernard Malamud

1968 Confessions Of Nat Turner, The William Styron

1969 House Made Of Dawn N. Scott Momaday

1970 Collected Stories Jean Stafford

1971 No Award

1972 Angle Of Repose Wallace Stegner

1973 Optimist's Daughter, The Eudora Welty

1974 No Award

1975 Killer Angels, The Michael Shaara

1976 Humboldt's Gift Saul Bellow

1977 No Award

1978 Elbow Room James Alan McPherson

1979 Stories Of John Cheever, The John Cheever

1980 Executioner's Song, The Norman Mailer

1981 Confederacy Of Dunces, A John Kennedy Toole

1982 Rabbit Is Rich John Updike

1983 Color Purple, The Alice Walker

1984 Ironweed William Kennedy

1985 Foreign Affairs Alison Lurie

1986 Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry

1987 Summons To Memphis, A Peter Taylor

1988 Beloved Toni Morrison

1989 Breathing Lessons Anne Tyler

1990 Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love, The Oscar Hijuelos

1991 Rabbit At Rest John Updike

1992 Thousand Acres, A Jane Smiley

1993 Good Scent From A Stange Mountain, A Robert Olen Butler

1994 Shipping News, The E. Annie Proulx

1995 Stone Diaries, The Carol Shields

1996 Independence Day Richard Ford

1997 Martin Dressler Steven Millhauser

1998 American Pastoral Philip Roth

1999 Hours, The Michael Cunningham

2000 Interpreter Of Maladies Jhumpa Lahiri

2001 Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay Michael Chabon

2002 Empire Falls Richard Russo

2003 Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides

2004 Known World, The Edward P. Jones

2005 Gilead Marilynne Robinson

2006 March Geraldine Brooks

2007 Road, The Cormac McCarthy

I'm about one-third of the way through The Known World by Edward P. Jones and I noticed that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. That got me to wondering about past winners and how many other Pulitzer Best Novels that I might have read. Since I don't normally pay much attention to literary prizes I had to go back and compile a list of past winners. I learned a couple of things in the process: I've actually read more of the winners than I anticipated (those shown in blue) and there have been numerous years in which no prize was awarded for Best Novel. I'm a bit embarrassed, too, to admit to not having yet read a few of the winners, but there are others on the list with which I'm not even familiar. That may be a bigger sin.

Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country

I have long enjoyed good travel writing, especially when it is set someplace in the British Isles, because despite having lived in the U.K. for a while, I still wish that I had taken time to see some of the more remote parts of the kingdom. It seemed that no matter how many hours I spent behind the wheel of the car there was always more to see just down the road. I still find it frustrating to think that, despite having driven from Lands End to John O'Groats, and later having crossed the country from several other angles, I still read of out-of-the-way places that I managed to miss.

That is what first attracted me to Queenan Country. According to the dust jacket blurb, Joe Queenan has been going to the U.K. for decades but, because he is married to a Brit, he had seen little more than the various cities and villages that are called home by his wife's relatives. This time he decided to go to the U.K. on his own to drive around until he had seen most of the sites and sights that he had missed despite having spent a substantial portion of his life in U.K. pubs and homes.

This is my first experience reading Joe Queenan and Queenan Country is not the travel book that I expected. Rather, it is more of a general "love letter" from Queenan to a country for which he has some very strong mixed feelings. Living with a British wife for over 25 years gives him an insider's look at the country and its people and allows him to make some delicate observations that would otherwise probably come across as insulting to British readers (and still might come across that way for all I know). Queenan's use of humor to make his points does soften the blow to a degree, but only to a degree, but because he is an "equal opportunity" insulter, he certainly can't be said to be playing favorites. He insults both Americans and Brits to equal effect, I think, before ending the book with what reads like a heartfelt open letter to a people, the British, whom he sincerely admires.

What follows is a sample of the Queenan style:
" is clear that the inhabitants of the British Isles, and particularly the English, share certain common characteristics. They plan too much. They do not like to improvise...They are repelled by American businessmen, but wish they could be more like them...They are embarrassed that they lost their empire; even more embarrassed that they had it in the first place; but would secretly like to have it back, if only for the weekend, or for a few hours on Boxing Day. They are constantly apologizing, and do not seem terribly comfortable in their own skins. By contrast, even the most appalling Americans are comfortable with themselves. Americans do not mind being appalling."
"Many many years ago, the template for the royal family was established. The king or queen was either dull or insane; the children, some of whom dabbled in architecture or spoke a few words of Welsh, were invariably thick as two planks. It is hard to see how anything has changed over the centuries; the British people, for whatever the reason, seem to like having the royals around. But I don't tell people in other societies how to run their countries. That's George Bush's job."
But if anyone doubts that Queenan loves Britain and her people, he ends the book this way:
"The Brits were the very best mankind had to offer; if the planet was ever to host a more fascinating race, then the rest of us were in for a real treat. By taking my name, my wife had conferred on me perhaps the greatest gift an American can receive: the keys to the Kingdom by the Sea...there would always be an England.

The alternative was simply not acceptable."
I may not have agreed with everything that Joe Queenan has to say in Queenan's Country, but that's something that I never expected. The man made me laugh out loud a few times when his wit bit especially close to the bone in the way that the best travel books do for me sometimes, and this travel-book-that's-not-really-a-travel-book did that for me more often than I thought it would.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam Killed in Car Crash

Author David Halberstam was killed in a San Francisco area car accident today when the vehicle in which he was riding was hit broadside by another car.

"Looking at the accident and examining him at the scene indicated it's most likely internal injuries," Foucrault said.

The driver of the car carrying Halberstam is a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and was taken to Stanford Medical Center. Two others were injured.

Halberstam spoke Saturday at a UC Berkeley-sponsored event on the craft of journalism and what it means to turn reporting into a work of history.
David Halberstam was probably best known for what his publisher called his "trilogy on power in America," The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and The Reckoning. Along the way, he even earned a Pulitzer Prize, but he was one of my favorites mainly because he was such a great baseball writer who so ably recreated bygone eras of baseball history. In fact, three of my favorite baseball books were written by Halberstam and I highly recommend them to any fans of the game who may have missed them up to now. Summer of '49 is the story of the 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox and October 1964 recounts the 1964 season that ended in a World Series clash between those same Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals.

But I think that the best of Halberstam's baseball books is one that he wrote in 2003, The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship, in which he captures an October 2001 road trip of some 1300 miles taken by a couple of old Boston Red Sox teammates of Ted Williams who decide to visit him one last time before he dies. It is an unforgettable true story that defines the real meaning of friendship.

David Halberstam will be missed. May he rest in peace.

Writers - Hollywood's Version

This is a clever compilation of Hollywood clips concerning writers that was produced for the 2007 Academy Awards broadcast.

It's an amusing three minutes to start off the new week.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Exeter Library to Provide Free Netflix Service to Its Patrons

Is this a good idea or a bad one? Exeter Public Library has subscribed to Netflix and will be accepting requests from library patrons for DVDs not owned by the library system.

"The Library has subscribed to Netflix, the online movie rental service. Now, if there is a title you are looking for that isn't on our shelves or the shelves of any other RI library, you can request that we get it through Netflix for you. This is a great way to view the popular movies that are always out, as well as the documentaries, foreign films, and television series that aren't available at the local libraries. It's also a great way for us to provide the materials you want, without having to purchase several copies of the same title.

How it works: you place a paper or e-mail request with us. If the title is not readily available through the regular library delivery system, we will go into our Netflix account and order it for you. When the movie arrives, we will notify you and you can check it out for one week with your library card - just like the movies we own. Depending on how popular the service become, your DVDs should arrive very quickly."
The more I think about this, the more that I think it is a bad idea. Since when do we expect our public libraries to provide us with the services of a video of charge? What do you think?

Thanks to The Shifted Librarian for this news.

The Overnight

I haven’t read much horror fiction in years other than to dabble in the genre via an occasional Stephen King novel, and even those have become rarer and rarer for me lately. But, on the other hand, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to books about books or bookstores so when I noticed that Ramsey Campbell’s The Overnight was set in an English bookstore I grabbed it despite my general misgivings concerning horror novels. Frankly, they don’t scare me anymore and I find myself laughing at the “horror” more times than not. In that regard, this one did not turn out to be the exception.

Ramsey Campbell has long been one of the mainstays of horror fiction with more than two dozen titles to his credit, such as The Doll Who Ate His Mother, The Last Voice They Hear, Scared Stiff and Waking Nightmares. None are titles that would make me reach for my wallet but I was so intrigued by the fact that Campbell wrote The Overnight after having worked full time at the Cheshire Oaks branch of Borders for several months that I decided to give it a try.

Strange things began to happen at the new Texts bookstore almost as soon as its American manager opened it for business. An unusually dense fog settled over the strip center in which it is located and never lifted again, the computers seemed to have minds of their own (I know, Bill Gates, nothing so crazy about that), one employee suddenly lost the ability to read, books were found damaged on the floor each morning despite having been properly shelved the night before, a strange, chill dampness invaded the store and customers stayed away in droves.

Soon enough the new store is ranked as the very worst of all the Texts locations and Woody, the American manager, is told to expect a visit from corporate bigwigs who are flying to England to see the problems for themselves. In desperation, Woody schedules the entire staff for the all-night marathon shelving and clean-up project that brings the novel to its horrific climax. Although I found myself chuckling at the “horror,” Campbell does provide an insider’s look at some of the drudgery associated with working in one of the big chain bookstores, the constant rush to get new books out of the stockroom and onto the shelves, the never ending battle to get every book back to its proper place at the end of the day despite the best efforts of customers to misplace them, and dealing with destructive customers being chief among them.

If you enjoy horror novels, and if they really do scare you, this is one of the better written ones that you are likely to find. If you are more attracted to the novel by the bookstore setting than by the horror, you will have to judge for yourself whether or not, at 396 pages, this one is for you.

Rated at: 2.5

Saturday, April 21, 2007

One Man's Library

I'm willing to bet that most of us are involved in a never ending struggle to find room enough for all of the books that we keep bringing home. We never have enough shelf space, closets are filling up, and books can be spotted all over the house. Don't feel too bad because you're not alone. Qatar's Hani Attayah knows just how you feel.
His private collection of more than 20,000 books, all stalked in the villa where he lives with wife, makes it one of the biggest private libraries in the region.

Hani Attayah works at the Ministry of Education as a supervisor of Arabic language curriculum and for the past 39 years he has been spending 40 per cent of his salary on books.

He brought a large part of his present collection from his home country Syria way back in 1968 spending a lot of money on transport.
The family moved to a bigger house-a villa with an upper floor-in the hope that they would be able to have more living space. "But that hasn't really happened. This house has also proved to be too small for the stockpiles of books we have," the Attayahs told Al Sharq in an interview.
Finally, Attayah has a word of caution for book lovers: "Do not lend books to anyone. They are never returned."

There are people who occasionally come to him looking for books, he says. They take them on the promise that they would be back soon. So far, no one has returned.
When does a hobby become an obsession? It's a fine line and some of us have been walking it for years. Has Mr. Attayah crossed that line by spending 40% of his salary on books and accumulating over 20,000 volumes? Maybe, maybe not. But he certainly proves that "book lust" is universal characteristic, one that knows no boundaries. And since he is fortunate enough to have a wife who shares his love for books, I have to believe that the sheer pleasure gained from his books is more than worth the cost and hassle associated with them. Bravo, Mr. Attayah.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Indies Under Fire

A scene from Indies Under Fire

The Santa Cruz Film Festival opens today and it includes an interesting, and rather timely, film highlighting the plight faced by independent bookstores around the country today.
Focusing on Palo Alto and Santa Cruz, "Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore," a 56-minute documentary by Jacob Bricca, gives a poignant look at the death of the independent bookstore.
Bricca captures the issues involved with a genuine objectivity that allows a viewer to relate to each side's arguments. Among them: Chains such as Borders may pose a threat to emerging authors by supporting the ones who are already known and, even at early stages in a writer's career, giving publishers feedback on what sells and what doesn't.
But on the other side of the coin is the tale of Borders itself, which grew out of a single bookseller's passion into a chain of more than 500 stores. And isn't that the American dream - to put what you love in the hands of as many people as you can?

It's hard to argue with that viewpoint unless you've experienced the joy of hanging out in an independent store, heard authors speak there or discovered a literary gem you never would have found otherwise, experiences lovingly documented by Bricca.

"That's the part I tried to get across in subtle ways," says the filmmaker, 36, a Palo Alto native who now lives in Connecticut and teaches film production at that state's Wesleyan University. "What I feel is precious and tragic when lost is the preciousness of those places as community centers, as places you can ... bump into someone you know. You can offer more services and sell a lot of books (at a chain store), but there is something antiseptic in comparison."
You can watch the trailer from the film here or order a DVD copy for home viewing. Book lovers are right to be concerned about the market pressures that are killing off independent bookstores one-by-one. There is no doubt that communities are poorer for their loss but I also think that, to a large degree, readers have no one to blame but themselves. It is just too difficult for most of us to avoid the pull of the big chains that offer us huge discounts, coffee shops and online sites with huge inventories. Many of us spend significant amounts of our income on books and are constantly searching for ways to make each book dollar stretch a bit farther. I admit to having had a Barnes & Noble membership card for years...and I've recently upgraded that card to one of the new B&N credit cards that gets me another 5% discount when I charge books there...mainly because they have two huge storefronts within a few miles of me. I do make an effort to visit the Houston area independents on weekends if I can, but I've been slipping, getting lazy. I (we) need to do better.

Three Little Girls with a Big Dream

Arundel Elementary School students Hannah Blumen-Green, Amanda Breslauer and Madison Norman helped collect up to 6,000 books to help build libraries in Africa.

Since it's been such an awful news week, I found this story about three school girls and their group project to be particularly inspirational.
Building a library takes time, effort and a lot of books but three Arundel Elementary School fourth grade students — Hannah Blumen-Green, Amanda Breslauer and Madison Norman — decided to start a community book drive to start one for students in Africa.
“When these girls contacted me to arrange a meeting, I was amazed,” African Library Project Founder Chris Bradshaw said in a letter. “We’ve never had a group of kids so young take on the African Library Project by themselves before. After I met with them — without their parents or a teacher — any doubt I had about their ability to handle the project disappeared. In fact, I felt better about the future of the planet. Organized. Articulate. Determined.”

It takes 1,000 books to start a library and the three young women would need to raise money to ship the books. Well over 4,000 books and $1,800 were collected in one month. There’s enough to start four libraries and the young women finished packing the books last night.

“We all like books, so we wanted to help,” said 9-year-old Breslauer.
Sometimes it takes children to remind us of all the good things in the world. Innocence is not a bad thing.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Guards

I've read dozens of hardcore crime and detective novels over the years, but Ken Bruen's The Guards stands out as one of the most unusual of the lot. I recently became aware of Ken Bruen, who lives in Galway, Ireland, and set this novel there, when I read The Triumph of the Thriller earlier this month. Bruen was listed as one of the best crime writers working in Europe today and The Guards was mentioned as a particularly good place to start reading him.

Jack Taylor, the novel's narrator, is a former member of the Garda Siochana, Ireland's police force, who has attained somewhat of a local reputation for being good at "finding things." He is the closest thing to a private detective that a highly suspicious Irish society will trust to even a small degree. Unfortunately for Taylor, one of the things that he is best at finding is his next bottle of booze and he spends a substantial portion of his waking hours in a less than sober state. Taylor's reputation as a "finder" results in a young woman asking him to investigate the supposed suicide of her daughter and what he learns in the process will forever change his life.

On the surface, Jack Taylor is little different from many of genre's most popular detectives. He is an alcoholic fighting to stay sober in a world that every day confronts him with readily available booze, a man with a history of failed relationships, one handy with sarcasm and wit even when in danger.

But two things make The Guards different from the bulk of crime fiction being written today, the first being Bruen's writing style. The novel's prose is sparse, relying on short scene after short scene to move the plot along rather than on surrounding action scenes with the details of an intricate plot. Each scene is presented through the eyes of Jack Taylor and the reader's sense of what is happening is limited to only what Taylor sees or remembers from his own past. Bruen doesn't always hold himself to standard punctuation and is very fond of producing lists in place of simple sentences. For example,
"My clothes were




at the end of the bed."
Too, many of the scenes are preceded by one of the author's favorite quotations from the works of other crime writers such as Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Ed McBain and George P. Pelecanos.

The second thing that makes this novel so unusual is how unimportant the plot really turns out to be in the long run. This novel is more about character development and the relationships of the characters than it is about the investigation that Taylor undertakes on behalf of the grieving mother. And it works beautifully. Jack Taylor is an unforgettable character who takes his rightful place among the Spencers, Robicheauxs, Spades and Marlowes of the literary world.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Child's History of England

Under Construction

From the "You Gotta Love It" file, comes news that a Charles Dickens theme park is set to open soon in the dockyards of Chatham, England, a site that at one time employed Dickens' father. I've got just enough of the kid left in me to be excited about something like this, especially since I was first blindsided by Dickens novels at about 12-years of age and still sometimes see his work through the eyes of a boy.
Never mind that the books tackle child exploitation, poverty, murder and domestic violence; the indoor attraction is based on designs by the creator of Santa World in Sweden so the emphasis is firmly on fun, fun, fun.

Dickens World feels like Disney gone to the dark side. In place of the Magic Kingdom there is Newgate Prison; instead of talking animals there will be shady characters loitering in dark corners. Although the attractions are all faithfully Dickensian, the larks are very much 21st century.
The whole project cost £62m and hopes to present Dickens to coaches of schoolchildren without having to call in the Muppets for backup. But it isn't just an expensive gesture to introduce The Mystery of Edwin Drood to a pre-teen audience. Dickens World has been nearly 40 years in the making. Originally slated to open in London's King's Cross, before being forced out by rising property prices, it is now based in the historic dockyards of Chatham...Capitalising on the author's ever-increasing popularity, the organisers are expecting 300,000 visitors a year.
The plan is to artfully side-step the more gruesome aspects of Dickens' work while still remaining faithful to the Victorian period - so no need to worry about rats and poor sanitation in the restaurant. "I would hope that what we are doing is as much about history as Dickens storylines," says Christie, who has been working on the project since 2000. "Visitors are not going to come here to be depressed so our role is to entertain them. We're not going to have starving babies crawling around on the cobblestones. If you're coming from Japan or America what you're probably going to want to see is a realisation of what you think London might be like, but is no longer."
I realize that the theme park is trying to walk a very fine line between educating its young visitors to the joys of Dickens and turning Dickens into the U.K. version of Mickey Mouse, but I'm betting that those in charge will manage to pull this off. Of course, not everyone is so sure. This article represents the view of someone willing to bet that this is going to be one hugely expensive mistake.

Sincerity or Hypocrisy?

Am I missing something here, or maybe reading too much into the motives of these people? This is a press release, not a news article, that I've run across on the web. It claims, on the one hand, that author Howard Bronson is upset that recent events have caused two of his books to suddenly spike in sales, but, on the other hand, it reads like nothing more than the typical publishing industry press release trying to move a few thousand books on the market.
It's been an odd year for author Howard Bronson. Sales of two books he wrote over a decade ago have suddenly gone through the roof but not for the reasons he would prefer. It began as the tainted pet food story grew which sparked the jump in his book Dog Gone - Coping With The Loss of A Pet (Bestsell). At first, Bronson noted a small increase of just a few hundred copies but in the last few weeks, the increase has been in the thousands. "
Then came yet another senseless tragedy: the brutal killing of thirty students in Virginia. Immediately, queries and sales of Bronson's classic Early Winter, learning to live Love and Laugh Again After a Painful Loss (Bestsell) have increased
ten-fold. "I never designed the books for situations like these," lamented Bronson...
The only problem at present is that there aren't all that many of these two books remaining in stock, probably no more than 10,000 mostly found on line. Bronson suggests that people first check their local libraries and, he is also arranging for the books to be made available as e-books at his direct cost through
Note that the date of this press release is April 17. Maybe it's just my natural cynicism, but I find it a bit hard to believe that "queries and sales" of Early Winter increased "ten-fold" within hours of the Virginia Tech tragedy. I'm willing to be talked out of my suspicions in this instance but my hypocrisy sniffer is sure twitching.

EDIT of April 19:

Howard Bronson has added two comments concerning this press release and my initial doubts about it. He invites anyone still concerned to contact him by email so that he can respond to their concerns. Please open the comments below to read what Mr. Bronson had to say and to get his email address if you would like to contact him directly.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reading Inspires Kids

I have no idea where this commercial ever ran. I know that I never saw it on television, but I've run into it several times on the net and wanted to share it with those who haven't seen it yet. It's brilliant in its simplicity.

Monday, April 16, 2007

My Used-to-Be Indie Bookstore Dream

How many of you have dreamed of some day owning or operating a small bookstore of your own? If they are honest with themselves, I doubt that there are very many book bloggers or book blog readers who haven't squirreled that idea away as something to return to when their finances and free time will allow them to turn that acorn into the real thing. It's something that's been in the back of my mind for years, something that I saw as a way of really enjoying retirement from the corporate world while earning a few bucks for my pleasure. Unfortunately, now that "retirement" has suddenly slapped me in the head, that little acorn seems to have rotted instead of sprouted into the dream I was hoping to live.

While the day of the small independent bookstore may not yet be over, I find the odds to be so heavily in favor of failure that I almost certainly won't be risking any of my savings in an attempt to live my bookstore dream. I've seen several such ventures open and close in the last two years just in my section of north Houston and, while some of them did appear to be under funded from the start, they seemed to fail more often than not because of the high rents charged to them when their original leases expired.

But thankfully, some brave folks do seem to be surviving, if not necessarily thriving, in their own quests to live the dream.
Back in the dim, distant days of 1997, was just getting its feet wet. That same year, three ambitious Manhattan business people entered waters not easily survived. Cliff Simms, his wife Dorothea von Moltke and Chris Doeblin opened a book shop - Labyrinth Books - near Columbia University in New York City.

Statistics can help to put this bold move into perspective: In 2006, 97 new independent booksellers opened shop in the United States - and more than 100 independent bookstores closed.

Indy proprietors are delighted that the gap is closing.
The new shop didn't go over too well with Yale University, since it introduced direct competition to its designated Barnes & Noble bookseller. Even without Yale's support, Labyrinth Books has weathered the storm. Soon, it might even reach profitability.

Though a balance sheet scripted in black ink would be nice, co-principal Dorothea von Moltke admits that although it has taken a while to find their footing, business is on the ascendant.

To von Moltke (Yale College '90), "New Haven is a town with rhythms that you have to figure out. Working with the Yale calendar and around events in the city is something we've been working on."
Katie Trumpener, an English and comparative literature professor at Yale, supports independent booksellers such as Labyrinth Books.

"With a chain bookstore, somebody far away is choosing, somewhat generically, what books will be available to people based on whatever has sold elsewhere," asserts Trumpener. "The independent bookseller has an independent frame of reference and is going to be gearing its stock much more closely to the local community. That is important in providing a framework with books that people might never otherwise come across."
I honestly do believe that independent bookstores provide a service to their communities that none of the big chain bookstores are capable of providing. In order to survive, independents will have to become part of the community, not just a storefront that rents space there. It is all about service, community goodwill and being much more than just a retailer. My local Barnes & Noble makes an effort in that direction but will forever be limited by what the corporate powers will allow. Now if I could just find a couple of rich partners to bankroll me...