Saturday, May 31, 2008

Tidbits from the Random House/Zogby Readers Poll

Interesting bits from the Random House/Zogby poll of readers that was released on Friday:
In very similar percentages by gender, some 82% of readers still prefer curling up with an old fashioned book rather than reading one via the use of any type of electronic reader. Not surprisingly, younger readers seem to be more open to reading books in new formats (13% of those under 30, compared to 6% of those over 65).

Most bookstore customers arrive with a specific title in mind, but some 77% of them say that they make unplanned for purchases at least some of the time.

When it comes to which book they want to read next, 60% say that they are influenced by suggestions from friends and families and 49% admit to being influenced by book reviews.

Judging a book by its cover is something that 66% of those under 30 and 34% of those over 65 admit to doing.

It is important for authors to hit a reader's "favorite list" because 89% say that they make a special effort to find new books by their favorite authors.

The majority of readers read one book at a time but 40% say that they read 2-4 books at once and 3% claim to do the same with more than 4 books.

Only 19% say that they borrow most of the books they read from a public library and, in a bit of good news for bookstores, 78% say that they own most of the books they read.

More than half of those polled, 57%, say that they return a book to their shelves after reading it but 20% pass them on to family or friends, 14% give them away to others, and 3% admit to selling them.

39% of respondents say that they buy 1-5 books a year, 26% buy 6-10, 14% buy 11-15 and 22% buy more than 16.

77% of respondents have purchased books online but 76% shop in chain bookstores and 49% at independent bookstores. Younger readers are more likely to purchase books online, at chain stores and at independents, while older readers are more likely than younger ones to buy at the airport, big box retailers, warehouse clubs, supermarkets and drugstores.

Although 23% say they are reading more this year than in the past, 46% say their reading habits haven't changed and 23% say they are reading less because they are spending more time on the internet, watching television and playing computer games.
Even with all of those statistics the poll doesn't address a question that I always find interesting. What percentage of people are reading today on a regular basis? I've seen statements such as 10% of the population buys 99% of the books sold in this country (percentages are made-up ones I threw in but they are fairly close to what I remember hearing) and that always helps me to understand how tough the book-selling business really is.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Flaw in the Blood

When Queen Victoria lost her beloved Prince Albert in 1861 the world was told that he died of typhoid fever. Although that is almost certainly not what killed him, the exact cause of Albert’s death is not likely to ever be determined. A Flaw in the Blood, Stephanie Barron’s Victorian thriller, speculates that something much more sinister than mere disease was the cause of death.

Irishman, Patrick Fitzgerald, who had defended Victoria’s would-be assassin in court some two decades earlier, could not imagine why he was being summoned to meet with the Queen at Windsor Castle in the middle of the night, the very night that Albert died there. But after refusing to sign a written statement demanded of him by the Queen and barely escaping death along with his ward, Georgiana Amistead, on the coach ride back to London, Fitzgerald slowly came to realize that the Queen feared both him and Georgiana for reasons of her own and wanted desperately to see them dead.

Georgiana Amistead is an unusual young woman, one of the few women of her time to have received medical training, and someone who has gained the respect and trust of Prince Albert himself. In fact, Albert has secretly consulted with her about the strange medical condition of his young son, Leo, a youngster who is constant danger of bleeding to death from the most minor of physical injuries. Unfortunately, Queen Victoria who is aware of correspondence between Georgiana and her husband resents the access that Georgiana had to royal secrets through her relationship with Albert.

So obviously neither Patrick nor Georgiana had any reason to expect that Victoria thought kindly of them. What they could not figure out, however, was why she saw them as enough of a threat to her that she was willing to send a one-eyed German count, Wolfgang von Stuhlen, on a mission to see them dead. As von Stuhlen chased the pair around Europe, and Patrick started to lose some of the people closest to him, he and Georgiana finally uncovered the secret that Victoria was so desperate to keep hidden away forever.

Most of this story is told in the third person but, by having Victoria narrate whole chapters in her own voice, Stephanie Barron places the reader inside the head of the very person making the choices that cost innocent lives and keep Georgiana and Patrick on the run. It is an inside look at a ruthless personality that I sincerely hope does not resemble that of the real Queen Victoria.

A Flaw in the Blood is enjoyable historical fiction and the world that Barron describes is one in which readers will gladly lose themselves for a few hours. But, first and foremost, it is a good mystery, one with just the right mixture of fact and fiction to keep its readers guessing and turning pages. I was a bit surprised that I did not feel more empathy for the two main characters than I did, however, and have to blame that on the author’s failure to quite get me to see Georgiana and Patrick, much less the villain chasing them, as real people.

Rated at: 3.5

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Library Just for Commuters

Part of California's public transportation system, better known as BART, is going into the library business. It sounds small-scale at this point but I know that if I were a daily commuter relying on public transportation to get me to and from work this is something I would really, really appreciate.

The story comes from the website of radio station KCBS:
BART has become the first transit system in the country to make library books available to commuters.

Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover became the first to use the kiosk at the Pittsburg-Bay Point BART station, swiping a library card in order to choose from 400 books stored in the machine.

The Bay Area program is modeled after similar ones in Europe. "A lot of people, particularly in East County, have a long commute. They drive to the BART station here and take BART into wherever it is they go to work and so we wanted them to be able to pick up a book on their way and not have to worry about getting to the library, you know, during its open hours," explained one librarian who was on hand for the unveiling of the kiosk.

Once finished, readers simply return the books to the BART book kiosk.
Wouldn't it be great to see similar programs all across the country?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Book Burning in Israel

I had a hard time believing this story when I first spotted it on another blog this afternoon, mainly because the last people in the world I would have expected to be guilty of a mass book-burning incident would be the Jews of Israel. Even if I ignore all the implications about religious freedom, it still bothers me that people who just two or three generations ago suffered this kind of thing themselves would even consider it today. has the details that were missing from the blogger's piece, so this must be for real:
Police in Israel are investigating the burning of hundreds of New Testaments in a city near Tel Aviv, an incident that has alarmed advocates of religious freedom.

Investigators plan to review photographs and footage showing "a fairly large" number of New Testaments being torched this month in the city of Or-Yehuda, a police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said Wednesday.

News accounts in Israel have quoted Uzi Aharon, the deputy mayor of Or-Yehuda, as saying he organized students who burned several hundred copies of the New Testament. The deputy mayor gave interviews to Israeli radio and television stations after word of the incident surfaced about two weeks ago.

Soon he was talking with Russian, Italian and French television stations, "explaining to their highly offended audiences back home how he had not meant for the Bibles to be burned, and trying to undo the damage caused by the news (and photographs) of Jews burning New Testaments," The Jerusalem Post reported.

Aharon told CNN on Wednesday that he collected New Testaments and other "Messianic propaganda" that had been handed out in the city but that he did not plan or organize a burning. Instead, he said, three teenagers set fire to a pile of New Testaments while he was not present. Once he learned what was going on, he said, he stopped the burning.
This is just so many ways.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Clouds Over Mountains

The December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was one of the pivotal events of American history, an event that not only changed the course of World War II but also greatly impacted the futures of America and Japan for generations to come. In Clouds Over Mountains, author Matt Joseph revisits that tragic day from both the American and Japanese points-of-view.

Yasuo Saito, who became one of Japan’s finest wartime pilots despite his humble beginnings in rural Japan, has lived with what he considers to be a shameful secret for almost fifty-three years. He lived a quiet, self-contained life all those years but, fearing that his secret is about to be exposed, he decides that personal honor and loyalties require him to return to Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor one last time.

Margaret Roberts, one of the FBI’s most successful female agents ever, has reached the point in late 1998 of being considered for the agency’s top spot, a mixed blessing because of the personal embarrassment resulting from the media investigation into her past and qualifications for the job. Roberts, hoping to relieve some of the tremendous stress she is under, looks to a few days in Hawaii as the way to go but finds herself there when an unusual crime makes headlines around the world: a body has been found on the U.S.S. Arizona memorial with bloody footprints leading away from it. Because of the location of the crime scene, the FBI assumes jurisdiction over the investigation and Roberts is immediately in the thick of things.

Clouds Over Mountains is an intriguing mystery, one that keeps the reader guessing for a while, but its real strength is that it is a strong character-driven mystery and not just a simple whodunit. Yasuo Saito is old-school when it comes to issues of personal honor and he has struggled for most of his life to reconcile himself to a decision that he made during the war. Through Saito’s efforts to explain the life that he has lived for the last five decades, the reader is taken inside a pre-World War II Japanese society very different from the modern Japan we know today. It is an interesting look at what American history will always characterize as a “sneak attack” from the viewpoint of those responsible for the attack and a reminder that both sides suffer greatly during any armed conflict.

Clouds Over Mountains is about family loyalties, patriotism, personal honor and shame, and desire for atonement. As in the best fiction of this type, history is simply the backdrop used to share the lessons learned by those who were there to experience it. This one took me to a world I was not at all familiar with, and I’m glad I made the trip.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, May 26, 2008

Windfall Books

I suspect that many of us will see ourselves in what Rose Albano-Risso describes of her own book buying history in today's Manteca Bulletin, of which she is city editor. I know, personally, that I have converted many of life's little, unexpected windfalls into a stack of new books. Have you?

I don't remember exactly how my parents received the news when they found out I didn't go to my graduation formal event and that I bought a dictionary instead.

But through the years, I've done the same thing. Some people, like my sister, have wanderlust. I've always had a love affair with books - still do.

Monetary gifts received for birthdays, graduations, and other special occasions provided opportunities to purchase books in my constantly growing must-read list while making sure those acquisitions were annotated accordingly on the frontispiece as to what that book was in celebration of and who made its addition to my private library possible.
This Memorial Day weekend, I had an opportunity to hit Barnes and Noble in Fremont and add a few more to my reading pile without feeling guilty about whether I should have been utilizing my money for more basic necessities such as gas for my trusty old KIA. I picked up a copy of "Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson, a book I've always wanted to get my hands on. Three Asian American studies paperbacks. Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father" which I was curious to read since reading the Time magazine cover story about his enigmatic late mother. Eudora Welty's autobiography. And a light-hearted book about nuns just for simple entertainment.

From whom do I owe this recent book shopping spree? Uncle Sam's gift, if one can call it that. More commonly known as the economic stimulus check.
I love Rose's idea of noting in each book the details of the specific occasion and donor making its acquisition possible. It's a little late in life for me to start something like that but I do wish I had had the imagination to do it a long time back.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Lost Bayou Ramblers and a Book or Two

It's been a busy Memorial Day weekend so far and it looks like it will stay that way for me. But I did have a chance to make a quick visit to Barnes and Noble yesterday to finally pick up my copy of Elizabeth George's latest Thomas Lynley book, Careless in Red, something I've looked forward to every year since I stumbled into the series way back in 1988. It's hard to believe that the series is 20 years old now. I also picked up a marked down copy of a book I'm completely unfamiliar with, Lisa Unger's Beautiful Lies after reading the first three pages of its first chapter. I'm still not sure exactly what it's all about but the writing is crisp and the basic plot description made me curious enough that I knew I would regret walking away from it.

The day was capped off for us by a Saturday night 40th wedding anniversary party for some friends of ours for which an amazing Cajun band was booked. It was a real treat to watch these guys do their magic and to see just how alive Cajun music still is. The band, Lost Bayou Ramblers, played many of the old traditional Cajun songs that I've heard all my life and they did it with great flare. Their driving beat had the dance floor pretty much filled all night long and the event turned into one very fine celebration of a marriage that is beginning its fifth decade.

Oh, and by the way, Lost Bayou Ramblers, was nominated for a Grammy this year and, although they didn't win the thing, it must have been the experience of a lifetime for them.

For those unfamiliar with Cajun music, this is typical of the sound and it's the kind of thing that had people dancing all night usual when a Cajun band is in the building.

This picture was taken at the Grammy Awards show in February.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Two Brothers - One North, One South

The Civil War tore families apart like no other war in American history has ever done. It was not uncommon for brothers, or fathers and sons, to fight the war from opposing armies, a fact that serves as the central theme of the David H. Jones novel, Two Brothers – One North, One South.

Maryland, as a border state, saw its families suffer greatly from the divided loyalties of its citizens and Jones focuses on the Prentiss family, an actual Baltimore family of the time, to tell his story. William Prentiss, the family’s youngest son, fought with the Confederacy’s 2nd Maryland Battalion but his older brother, Clifford, remained loyal to the Union and was an officer in the 6th Maryland Volunteers. The brothers experienced numerous battles and much personal danger but survived to the end of the war when both were severely wounded in one of the war’s last battles, the breaking of the siege at Petersburg.

Sadly, the brothers who had not seen each other in four years only met again because of those battlefield wounds suffered only a few yards from each other. They were carried off the field together, treated by the same doctors, and transferred to the same Washington D.C. hospital. In this fictionalized version of their story, Walt Whitman, who spent countless hours in Washington D.C. hospitals visiting and nursing wounded soldiers from both armies, became well-acquainted with William before he died while the two discussed William’s war experiences. And when the other two Prentiss brothers arrived to visit Clifton, Whitman was able to describe their brother’s war experiences in detail as the four discussed those years.

Much of Two Brothers is told in dialogue between the Prentiss brothers and Whitman but the dialogue does not consistently ring true. In order to inform his readers of historical facts, Jones at times has the brothers exchange war details that would have been all too obvious to those who lived those events. The reader might also begin to wonder how it was possible that Walt Whitman could recall one young soldier’s history in such great detail considering the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers he came to know during the war.

Two Brothers will serve as a good Civil War history primer for those not already familiar with the war and how it ultimately played out but, as a novel, it would have been stronger had it focused more on the tragedy of brother-against-brother and less on battle details. It does not quite reach the emotional level needed to turn the Prentiss brothers into the real human beings that they were in the 1860s. That said, the novel is an interesting one and it will be welcomed into the personal libraries of many a Civil War buff.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Names on a Map

America’s generation gap was exposed in the late 1960s to a degree that may never be reached again because, as the war in Viet Nam claimed more and more young lives, Americans found themselves politically at war with each other in a way that sometimes managed to split apart even families. Fathers fought sons, wives fought husbands, students fought teachers, the clergy fought the government, and young men fought themselves because duty to country so often conflicted with what was in their hearts. Even all of the political sniping associated with the war in Iraq has been unable to recreate that level of tension.

In Names on a Map, Benjamin Alire Saenz tells of the Espejo family, one of the thousands of families that did not manage to survive the Viet Nam War intact. Octavio Espejo, who was brought to the U.S. as a small boy when his parents fled the Mexican revolution, is a proud and honorable man. Now an insurance salesman in El Paso, Texas, and the father of three, Octavio considers himself to be a patriotic American. It is 1967 and his twins, Gustavo and Xochil, are finishing high school and making decisions about the rest of their lives.

The war in Viet Nam, particularly the draft he faces after high school, nags at Gustavo just as it does every boy his age. Some of his friends are eager to join the military after graduation, some are against the war and will refuse to serve, some will let the draft board decide their fate, and others, like Gustavo, are finding it difficult to decide what to do at all.

Gustavo knows that his father expects him to serve if called and that he will be proud to have a son fight for his adopted country. He knows that his mother is terrified at the thought of losing him in this war but that she will not try to influence his decision. He knows that his twin sister can hardly stand the thought of him leaving home and that his young brother, Charlie, loves him more than anything in the world. But he also knows that the ultimate decision is his. Should he allow himself to be drafted? Should he choose prison over induction into the military, or should he cross the border into Mexico and live a new life there, never to return to the United States?

Names on a Map consists of short, alternating sections in which Saenz allows each of his main characters to speak in a unique voice and from a personal point-of-view. He often describes the same scene through the eyes of three or four members of the Espejo family, allowing the reader to view all of the cracks and strong points of a family stretched to its breaking point.

Saenz sympathetically describes the motivations and emotions of those on both sides of the Viet Nam War debate and readers who lived through that era are certain to see themselves, their families and their friends in some of his characters. Those too young to have lived that part of American history, will come away with a better understanding of the period and will recognize the parallels to America’s present situation. Perhaps those on both sides of today’s debate would better understand each other if they were to read this one.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


When it comes to Atonement, I'm arriving late to the party. I have been aware of the novel almost since it was first published and I know of the major motion picture produced from its story but, for various reasons, it has taken me several years to get around to reading it.

Ian McEwan has written a complicated, multi-layered book that is simply beautiful when considered as a whole. It is a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, a love story, a war novel, a mystery and an author’s reflections on the art of fiction writing, all rolled into one. The book is structured in three distinctive sections, each with a very different story to tell, and an epilogue that flashes forward more than 50 years.

Part One, set in 1935, introduces thirteen-year old Briony Tallis, an aspiring novelist even at that age, who has a vivid imagination but a limited understanding of the motivations and emotions of the adults around her. Her imagination takes over when from a distance she witnesses a scene between her older sister, Cecelia, and the charwoman’s son, Robbie, at the fountain in front of the family home. Imagining that Robbie has forced her sister to strip to her underwear and immerse herself in the fountain, Briony is filled with conflicting emotions. As the day goes on, she becomes more and more certain that Robbie is a danger to her sister and is so convinced that he is evil that her imagination leads her to identify him as responsible for a sexual assault that occurs that night.

Part Two picks up the story some five years later in France where Robbie, who has been freed from prison to join the fight against Hitler, is part of a British army retreating to Dunkirk in hopes of being evacuated to England in time to fight another day. Painfully carrying a piece of shrapnel in his side, he realizes that he is responsible for his own survival and slowly works his way to the coast with two others. But by the time he gets there to experience the chaos and further slaughter of the Dunkirk beaches his wound is causing him serious complications.

Part Three focuses on the now eighteen-year old Briony who has moved to London to study nursing at exactly the point at which her training hospital is overrun by casualties from the Dunkirk slaughter. Her experiences mature her in more ways than one and she longs to somehow undo the wrong she committed against Robbie and Cecelia who has been estranged from the family ever since Robbie’s imprisonment as a convicted rapist.

Finally, there is the epilogue set in 1999 in which Briony, now a respected elderly novelist joins family to celebrate her seventy-seventh birthday, a section of the book in which McEwan has stashed one final surprise for his readers. This is an ending that readers will likely react to differently, some in surprise, some in admiration, and others in frustration and even a little anger.

Atonement paints a vivid picture of pre-war England and the days immediately after the British army collapse in France caused most Londoners to expect German bombers and troops to appear at any time. It explores the emotions of both those seeking to atone for transgressions against others and those who suffered those transgressions and find it hard to forgive or forget them. It studies the “truths” of fiction and what writers and their readers should expect from each other.

I may have gotten there late but this is one party I’m happy I didn’t miss.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Charity Shop Finds

I wonder if anything even remotely resembling this British news story ever occurs at the Goodwill or other charity shops in this country. Somehow, I doubt it. This is from The Press Association and describes some of the rare books donated to one particular charity shop chain in the U.K.

Rare books donated to Oxfam shops, including a first edition by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is due to be auctioned.

The star item going under the hammer in Oxford is Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study In Scarlet, which is expected to fetch £7,000 to £9,000.

It was discovered inside a book called Samuel Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887 by two volunteers at an Oxfam shop in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

Other lots at the Bonhams auction include first editions of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, Sons And Lovers by DH Lawrence, CS Lewis' The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Simon Roberts of the books, maps and manuscript department at Bonhams, added: "It is extraordinary what emerges from these Oxfam shops. It is a snapshot of what people have read and collected over the past century.

"Some of these books have been handed in with little knowledge of their value."
No kidding.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Books You Can Visit

The old debate of whether the book or the movie made from the book is best might someday be replaced by one asking whether the book's website is better than the book itself.

NPR has an article about debut novelists who are using websites to interact with readers and add to the story they've told in their books. Both of the imaginative sites highlighted in the article offer enough fun to entice those who have already read the novels and those who may be thinking about reading them into making return visits.
Avideh Bashirrad, deputy director of marketing at Random House, says that a book Web site has to be dynamic and attractive and should deliver information that isn't in the book.

"A letter from the author, for instance, directly to the readers, or even an invitation to e-mail the author directly, that kind of thing is really important to readers," says Bashirrad. "To be able to reach out to them makes readers feel really special and also builds loyalty."
Marisha Pessl has a site for Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Charles Bock has one for Beautiful Children. I haven't read Beautiful Children but enjoyed wandering around the site so it must be working. As for Calamity Physics, I didn't take to the book at all and really had to work to finish it but the website was lots of fun. It's starting to look as if authors are definitely going to have to put a webmaster on the payroll in order to keep up in the changing world of publishing.

The article sidebar also has these book website links:

Mergers and Acquisitions - Dana Vachon

Last Last Chance - Fiona Maazel

Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Party Like It's Texas

This was one of those rare weekends for me when I spent almost no time at all on the computer. Believe me, that doesn't happen very often. But when a great country music show comes to my part of town, and the price is right (as in free), I'm there. So it was two days of listening to some folks who understand the difference between the faux-country music that's played on FM stations today and the real thing that's still sung in the honky tonks around the country.

Here's just a sample of some of the people I saw. Despite what lots of people think, there are some young country singers out there who are still singing in the traditional style. And we love them in Texas.

Amber Digby and Justin Trevino on a duet they did today (this video is a couple of years old, I think)

Miss Leslie & Her Juke-Jointers - this was actually recorded only a few hours ago

Tony Booth (shown here at Blanco's, a Houston honky tonk I've been known to frequent)

Others performing this weekend included Fort Worth's Jake Hooker & the Outsiders, Wayne "The Animal" Turner (recently retired from a 28-year stint with Hank William Jr.'s band) and Country Jim & His All-Stars who do some great old Bob Wills-style music.

It will be back to books the rest of the week...just wanted to record this here for my own record.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Shakespeare & Company

I ran across an article in Russia Today about the famous French bookstore Shakespeare & Company and that reminded me of one of my favorite video pieces of the last year or so. I posted a link to the video in early February 2007 but Google now allows their videos to be embedded inside a post, so I thought I would mention this again. I find it a fascinating piece.

The video runs for about 53 minutes but, if you can spare that much time it, is fun and interesting.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Just how many books should you read to judge an award?"

Claire Armistead of the Guardian's book blog provides a picture that puts into perspective the task faced by those asked to be judges for book awards. Take a look at what she was faced with for the non-fiction Samuel John prize - 131 books plus another 31 books subsequently requested by the judges.

How in the world can anyone read that many non-fiction books in the time required? Should judges be expected to read all the candidates cover-to-cover? I find it hard to believe that's possible.

Claire's comments are interesting, as are some of the responses she's received.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Book Sales Are Flat Except for Teen Books

Have you heard what Newsweek is calling today's teens? Well, they are using the encouraging term "Generation R" (R is for reader) to describe them because that generation seems to be responding well to the boom in the number of new Young Adult fiction books that are being published these days. According to Newsweek, sales in YA fiction have risen 25% in the last few years. We should probably confess to Newsweek that we are buying and enjoying some of the titles ourselves, but this is nice to see.
"This is the second golden age for young-adult books," says David Levithan, an acclaimed author of several young-adult novels ("Wide Awake," "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist") and executive editorial director at Scholastic Inc., the world's largest publisher and distributor of books for kids and teens. In just the past few years, Scholastic and many other publishers of young-adult (also known as YA) fiction have seen "amazing success," says Levithan, who calls this the "most exciting time for young-adult literature since the late 1960s and 1970s when 'The Chocolate War' [by Robert Cormier] and 'Forever' [by Judy Blume] were published."

Levithan and others cite several reasons for this perfect storm for teen lit, the most obvious two being the increasing sophistication and emotional maturity of teenagers and the accompanying new freedom for writers in the genre to explore virtually any subject. Another is that bookstores and libraries are finally recognizing this niche and separating teen books from children's books. "Teenagers don't want to walk past the Curious George books to get to their books.
This is an interesting three-page article; read the whole thing via the link, if you're interested.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"A Guitar and a Pen" - Controversy

I reviewed A Guitar and a Pen back on April 28 and I well remember the short story that is causing author Robert Hicks a few problems this week. It was one called "He Always Knew Who He Was" and featured a real life visit that Bluegrass music originator Bill Monroe made to the White House. The story was attributed to country music journalist Hazel Smith who has now come forward to say that she did not write the piece. Robert Hicks admits to having ghost written the story and is apologizing for some apparent inaccuracies contained in it according to the Country Hound website.
The story is presented as a true account, first-person narrative in which Smith accompanied Bluegrass great Bill Monroe on a trip to the White House. Monroe performed and received an honor from former President Bill Clinton. Smith maintains she was not present for the event, and that the only person who was with Monroe on the trip was his agent, Tony Conway.

Conway argues the story itself is incorrect. The trip Monroe took as described in "He Always Knew Who He Was" actually took place in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was President. In today’s story, Conway said, "I think this guy (Hicks) had heard the story at some point in his life and just kind of embellished it from there. He might have heard it four or five times from different sources, but he got the story wrong."

Hicks and his publisher, Center Street, will make corrections to future printings of the book and current electronic copies. Said Hicks, "I regret it and I take full responsibility for it. It turns out that the story's point of view isn't correct. It's a story I have told personally for many years, and I was wrong."
Either way, it has the makings of a fine tale.

Good Time - Alan Jackson

I know more than a few Alan Jackson fans who were concerned that Alan’s previous album marked a permanent change of direction for him. That album, produced by Alison Krauss, will likely prove to be the worst selling album in the Alan Jackson catalog so it is good to see that Good Time is a return to form for him. His fans can stop worrying now.

Good Time is jam-packed with solid country music and, as usual for an Alan Jackson album, the songs will appeal to a wide audience. There are love ballads for the ladies, a drinking song or two for the guys, some autobiographical songs, and lots of Alan Jackson humor on display.

Alan shares some of his own story on “Small Town Southern Man,” the first single from the album, a song in which he pays tribute to his father, and on “1976” in which he describes some of the notable highlights of 1976, the year he met his wife at the local Dairy Queen. One suspects that the lady has a sense of humor after listening to “Nothing Left to Do,” Alan’s description of “one night in the life” in which he tells us that there’s “nothing left to do now that we’ve done it.”

Other examples of Jackson’s humorous touch are “I Still Like Bologna,” in which he admits to enjoying plenty about the digital age but says that he’s not ready yet to give up all of life’s simple pleasures and “If Jesus Walked the World Today,” in which he imagines that when Jesus comes back it will be as a hillbilly.

“If You Want to Make Me Happy,” a traditional honky tonk song, kicks off with a fiddle and closes with a steel guitar. What more can a country fan ask for? How about a hook that advises, “If you want to make me happy, pour me bourbon on the rocks and play every sad song on the jukebox.” Does it get any better than that, country fans?

Good Time includes a love song duet with the talented Martina McBride, “Never Loved Before,” that may be destined to be a single at some point. It is just one of at least half a dozen love songs on the album, some of which are mid-to-up-tempo songs that even the guys will enjoy.

Alan Jackson fans will love this album…and, with seventeen songs on it, Alan is offering us a real bargain. Buy this album. You won’t be sorry. It’s not a perfect album, but it is, for the most part, real country music.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Bush Tragedy

Jacob Weisberg must thank his lucky stars every day that George W. Bush became the forty-third president of the United States because first he was able to cash in with a series of junk books on “Bushisms” and is now playing armchair shrink with a real book in which he claims to have gotten into Bush’s mind to the extent that he can explain every major decision made in the White House during the last eight years. Even better he claims to understand the motivation of pretty near every decision Bush has made since he was a boy. That would indeed be a remarkable achievement if it were to be believed.

Amateur psychoanalysis aside, The Bush Tragedy is an interesting biography of George W. Bush primarily because of the amount of time and research spent on the Walker side of Bush’s family tree. While the Bush and Walker families had much in common, Weisberg points out that their differences are more important than their similarities, much as was the case when the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families merged. The Bush family, as headed by Prescott Bush, was a modest one that did not believe in flashing, or wasting, its wealth. Prescott Bush’s ideals demanded that he treat others as equals and that his wealth be as hidden as possible while he and his family lived its relatively frugal lifestyle. Other than money, the Walkers seem to have had little in common with the Bush family. The Walker family, as headed by George Herbert Walker, was a flamboyant one never afraid to display its wealthy lifestyle to the rest of the world, a family that thrived on the acquisition of all of the toys, estates and hired help that fit the image it had of itself; an aggressive, impatient and class-conscious family.

George H.W. Bush, by all outward appearances and temperament, is very much a Bush as he demonstrated during his four years in office, a period during which he was usually cautious, open to counsel and not afraid to change his mind. George W. Bush, on the other hand, seems to have more the personality of a Walker than that of a Bush, traits that can be observed in the way he has run his own presidency: impatience, aggressiveness, personal certainty and the preference for action over time spent on careful analysis.

Weisberg covers all of the main players in the Bush administration and ably illustrates the ways that men like Cheney, Rumsfeld and other neoconservatives have been able to influence George W. Bush to attain their own goals. Others, such as Karl Rove, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, come across as weaker characters that either worked to stay on Bush’s good side or found themselves actually conforming their own core beliefs to fit those of the President. Of all the main players, Powell seems to be the one to have been most isolated and taken into the inner circle only when he was needed for some specific task.

The Bush Tragedy has much to offer despite its overdependence on psychobabble and Shakespeare to explain the mind of George W. Bush. Weisberg’s theories may be interesting, but they are only theories, and the real meat of his book is found in its biographical details and its look at the inner-workings of the Bush White House. There is much there that will be new to casual followers of political history and that makes the book a worthwhile one.

Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Germany Marks Book Burning Anniversary

May 10 marked the anniversary of the infamous Nazi book burnings that took place in Germany in 1933 and that country is marking this 75th anniversary by focusing on the authors whose works were destroyed that day. According to this DW-World article, some 130 authors found themselves on the list to have their works ceremoniously wiped out:

But while the names and works of many of the targeted authors are still popular today, others like German writers Maria Leitner and Georg Hermann have virtually been forgotten.

This shows that in some ways the book burning had a long-term effect, according to Olaf Zimmermann, managing director of the German Council of Culture.

"Yes, it's disgraceful, but the sad fact is that many authors whose books landed on the bonfires have faded into obscurity," he said.
Today an underground memorial marks the spot on what is now August Bebel Platz. Conceived as an "empty library," visitors can view it through a glass window built into the pavement.

"It is the right monument in the right place," according to Klaus Staeke, president of the Academy of Arts.

Records show that at least 35,000 books were burned in 22 cities between May and the end of August 1933 in an event unseen since the Middle Ages.

In Berlin, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels delivered a midnight speech in which he said: "The era of Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The soul of the German people can express itself again."
I've always been struck by the fact that, as the article mentions, the "burn list" was compiled by students who very aggressively worked to purge public and private libraries of the books before the burnings finally took place. It is good to mark this kind of anniversary, I think, in order to remind ourselves that mass hysteria is never that far away from sweeping the world up into some kind of new craziness that we will regret as soon as the smoke clears (pun intended). After all, this was only 75 years ago, the blink of an eye, really.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Ghost

Robert Harris has written a political thriller that never quite managed to “thrill” me.

The title of the book refers to its unnamed main character, a ghostwriter who has made a pretty good living writing “memoirs” for celebrities and sports figures that are incapable of writing their own books. Despite all of his experience in the field, however, our Ghost has never tried his hand at writing a political memoir until lured to do so by the big money he is offered to complete a manuscript for a former British prime minister.

The Ghost knows that the author of the manuscript he is replacing drowned near Martha’s Vineyard, a death that some attribute to suicide and others to drink, but which is not officially marked as a questionable one. It does bother him a bit that he is ghosting for a “ghost,” but it is not until he finds a stack of pictures, one of which has a phone number scribbled on the back of it, that he begins to suspect that Prime Minister Adam Lange is not the man he appears to be and that some very powerful people in Britain and America are desperate to hide that fact.

Our Ghost wonders for a time if he is being paranoid about the potential personal dangers involved with the project but, as he gets farther and farther into his research, finds that paranoia could be the least of his problems.

Harris has basically written an anti-Tony Blair novel with The Ghost although some of the plot elements are so farfetched that it is easy to forget the similarities between Blaire and Adam Lange. One gets the feeling that Harris is making some legitimate political points in the novel but that they are a bit obscured by the envelope in which they are delivered. The Ghost would have been more effective with a few less of the “Mission Impossible” elements to distract from its political message. The impact of the novel is also lessened to some extent because Adam Lange and the Ghost are surrounded by several stereotypically clich├ęd characters, an element that made it difficult for the novel to build to the level of tenseness that it deserved.

Readers should be warned not to read the last pages of the book before they work their way there naturally because Harris has saved a little surprise for them that he throws in at the very end. The audio version of The Ghost was perfect for a week’s worth of my daily commuting but I am not convinced that I would have enjoyed the written version as much as I did the excellently narrated audio book.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Best Booker Winner Ever?

Abe Books polled over 700 of its U.K. customers and compiled this list as the all-time best Booker prize winners:
1) Life of Pi by Yann Martel (12.4%)

2) Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (10.5%)

3) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (8.8%)

4) The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (8.5%)

5) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (6.9%)

6) The Bone People by Keri Hulme (5.5%)

7) Possession by AS Byatt (5.4%)

8) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (5.2%)

9) Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (4%)

10) The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (3.3%)
I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read a single one of these although I own Life of Pi, Possession, and The Blind Assassin. I even held a copy of Disgrace in my hands this morning and could have had the hard cover copy for all of $2 but put it back on the shelf because I found my one Coetzee reading experience to be such a distasteful one. Life of Pi is in my TBR stack at the moment but the other two have been hiding out somewhere on my bookshelves for a long, long time.

I found the list interesting...but humbling, as usual.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dailey & Vincent

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, both veterans of years working with big-name bluegrass bands, have now teamed up to form a band of their own and have recently released their first album, the self-titled Dailey & Vincent. Dailey is best known for the nine years he spent with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the band he left in August 2007. Vincent, brother of Rhonda Vincent, got his start performing with his family’s band, The Sally Mountain Show, and has worked with the biggest names in bluegrass and country music in recent years.

If Dailey & Vincent is any indication, these guys have a very bright future in bluegrass music. What makes this album, a mix of traditional bluegrass and gospel music with a little country thrown in for good measure, special is the harmony singing featured in most of the songs. Jamie Dailey has one of the purest (and highest) high tenor voices in the business and Darrin Vincent’s voice offers the perfect blend needed to create some memorable vocals.

Among the album’s strongest cuts are five gospel tunes, including an acappella performance of “Don’t You Want to Go to Heaven When You Die,” sung in four-part harmony and guaranteed to make you hold your breath as the lyrics seem to come faster and faster and get you wondering when the singers are going to run out of breath themselves. “By the Mark,” a song that should become part of every Dailey & Vincent performance if it’s not already, gives Jamie Dailey the chance to demonstrate that superb high tenor of his and is sure to be an album favorite.

The traditional bluegrass sound is well represented by standout songs such as “Cumberland River,” “Poor Boy Workin’ Blues” and my favorite, “Don’t You Call My Name.”

This is a first class album debut but that should not be surprising considering the decades of musical experience that Dailey and Vincent already have under their belts. The guys have surrounded themselves with some fine musicians and promise to be just as good on stage as they are on this recording.

Dailey & Vincent doing "By the Mark" - listen to the chorus for Jamie's wonderful high tenor sound (imagine this song with the proper amount of bass sound it has in the real world)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Edgar Award Winners

Is it any wonder that Amazon sells so many books?

I love links like this one listing recent Edgar Award winners and nominees, lists that are informative while, at the same time, making it so easy for me to spend more of my book budget, of course. Fans of mysteries, crime fiction, "fact crime," and biographies about writers of the genres will love this list.

The link covers the years 2002-2008 but there is a second link for the years 1954-2001.

Now I'm off to do some shopping...

Monday, May 05, 2008


If there is any such thing as Irish Noir, Ken Bruen is surely near the top of the list of its finest creators. His latest is Cross, the sixth novel in his Jack Taylor series and, though readers of the other five books in the series may find it hard to believe, this is perhaps the most dismally brutal book of the lot. Those in charge of bringing tourists to Galway, Ireland, may not be too happy with Mr. Bruen, I suppose, but Jack Taylor fans will want to get their hands on Cross as soon as they can.

Jack Taylor has never been what anyone would call a social success. He has few friends, no long term relationship, and very little real desire for either. And now that his mother is dead, not that his relationship with her was ever a very healthy one, he has no family. It says a lot about the man that the closest relationship in the world that he has is a love/hate thing that he has going with Ridge, a lesbian member of the Guard, a relationship that has gone on for a long time with neither of them ever expressing much in the way of feelings for the other. Sadly, each of them seems to feel the relationship to be more of an inherited obligation than a choice.

As Cross opens, Jack is still blaming himself for the accidental death of a little girl, something that understandably killed his long friendship with the child’s parents. To make matters worse, the young man Jack had come to love almost as a surrogate son after reluctantly taking him on as an investigative partner, is still in a coma after taking a bullet that Jack believes was actually intended for him instead. It is little wonder that most of Jack’s waking hours are spent in a constant struggle with himself to avoid falling off the wagon again. He knows that he may have already used up the last “recovery” he had in him and that if he gives into the bottle he may never be sober again.

Things are so bad, in fact, that Jack is strongly considering abandoning his beloved Galway in favor of a move to Florida of all places. But there are a few things he needs to do first. Like helping Ridge in an investigation that she hopes might finally earn her a promotion – by identifying those responsible for crucifying a young boy and leaving him for dead. And maybe, if he takes it seriously, finding out who is responsible for a rash of dog disappearances in one Galway neighborhood, or perhaps even trying to gain some closure with all those whom he has hurt and those others who haunt him even from their plots in the cemetery.

Jack Taylor is indeed a haunted man. His problem is that he knows himself well enough to understand that he has no one to blame but himself for all the failed relationships in his past. But recognizing one’s problems is the easy part; doing something about them is a bit harder.

Ken Bruen novels are about human nature as much as they are about criminals and their crimes. Bruen’s real story, one that continues from book-to-book, is about the evolution of Jack Taylor, a man who has been physically and mentally beaten up by life itself. None of us wants to be Jack Taylor but we surely cannot help but be fascinated by the man.

Readers new to the work of Ken Bruen would do well to read the Jack Taylor books in the order in which they were written because Jack’s story is a complicated one and in order to really appreciate the struggles of a man like him it is best to understand how he got to be the man he is today.

I am already looking forward to the seventh in the series but I almost wish I were just discovering the books and that I had the first six sitting in front of me ready for a marathon reading experience. They are just that good.

Rated at: 4.5

Previously Reviewed "Jack Taylor" Books:


The Dramatist


The Guards

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The World Below (2001)

One of life’s simplest truths is that it does not always work out the way we planned it and, considering all the crossroads in life and the number of choices that have to be made along the way, that’s not really too surprising. But even knowing this about our own lives, most of us tend to assume that our parents and grandparents (and those who preceded them) followed a straight path from point A to point B and that they lived pretty much the lives they planned for themselves, even if only because they had no other choices.

Sue Miller’s The World Below reminds us that even those closest to us had their own dreams and that those dreams, especially if they did not come true, may be among the secrets that they choose, for whatever reasons, not to share with us.

Catherine Hubbard, fifty-two years old and twice divorced, is certainly not living the life she planned for herself. So when, after the death of their aunt, Catherine and her brother inherit their grandmother’s small Vermont house she decides to leave San Francisco to explore the possibility of creating a new life there for herself. She is disappointed to find that the house has been modernized to the extent that it barely resembles the home she so fondly remembers from the teenage years she spent there after her mother’s suicide but she tries to settle-in anyway.

While exploring the attic, Catherine is happy to find some of the old pieces that she remembers so well from her days living with her grandparents. But her luckiest find was an old trunk filled with clothing that her grandmother wore as a young woman because under the clothing were several volumes of her grandmother’s diary. As Catherine studied the books, and became familiar with her grandmother’s writing style, she started to read between the lines and gained a whole new appreciation for the woman with whom she had so much in common.

Catherine knew that Georgia, her grandmother, had been sent to a sanatorium as a teenager to be treated for tuberculosis but she would discover just how drastically that short period of time shaped the rest of her grandmother’s life. As she pieced together her grandmother’s “real” life, Catherine found herself reviewing her own life experiences as she tried to decide whether or not to make Vermont her new home: her mother’s suicide, her high school years in Vermont and her first boyfriend, her two husbands and her children.

The World Below explores exactly that, the world beneath the surface of the one Catherine assumed she already understood and, much as she was surprised on the day she spotted a sunken town beneath the surface of the lake she was fishing with her grandfather, the details she discovered about her grandmother were unexpected, but comforting. Sue Miller does a remarkable job alternating between the lives of Catherine and Georgia and creates two very different worlds in the process, one shaped by modern mores and attitudes, the other a very colorful rendering of the peculiar society that developed within the tubercular sanatoriums of the early twentieth century, a closed society in which those who feared they were doomed were eager to taste all that life had to offer before death came for them.

Ultimately, The World Below is the story of two strong women, each having to deal with what life throws at them, and doing it well. These women, survivors both, may not be happy with all of life’s “details” but neither of them is afraid of life.

We should all be so successful.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, May 02, 2008

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Much of Nick Hornby’s previous work has centered on sympathetic and likable male characters who are finally, inevitably forced to do a bit of growing up. It may come a little late for some of Hornby’s guys, but get there they usually do, and in the meantime the books are a fun ride for the rest of us. With Slam, Nick Hornby turns his hand to Young Adult fiction for the first time and introduces his readers to another likable male character, Sam Jones. The difference this time around, however, is that fifteen-year-old Sam manages to do most of his growing up by the time he turns eighteen instead of waiting until he closes in on thirty.

Sam Jones is a fairly typical London teenager, an adequate student who hopes to attend an art school after his basic studies are done and who spends all of his spare time with video games and skating (he assumes everyone understands that he means skateboarding when he calls himself a skater). He absolutely worships the great skater, Tony Hawk, and holds regular, two-sided conversations with the Tony Hawk poster displayed in his bedroom. He likes girls, sure, but has never really had a serious girlfriend and does not seem to be in too big a rush to find one.

Sam lives alone with his mother who is only sixteen years older than him and who, at times, treats him more like a friend than a son. But little could he imagine when he reluctantly agreed to accompany his mother to a party to meet her friend’s teenaged daughter, that his life was about to change forever. As his mother promised, Alicia was indeed a beauty, and best of all she seemed as attracted to Sam as he was to her. That was the good news – and the bad news – because, almost before he knew what happened, Sam’s new girlfriend was pregnant and determined to keep her baby.

That is where the story really begins and, despite its serious subject, Hornby, in the voice of young Sam Jones tells it with the usual combination of humor and insights into human nature that his readers have come to expect from him. Sam’s immediate reaction to run for his life landed him in nearby Hastings where he lasted exactly one night before realizing what a terrible mistake he was making. Returning to London to reluctantly face the fact that he is going to be a sixteen-year old father and that he has turned his mother into a thirty-two-year-old grandmother, Sam hopes to do the right thing by Alicia and their baby.

Novels about teenage pregnancies are not uncommon, of course, but Slam is one of the few such novels that explore the problem almost strictly from the male’s point-of-view. As such, the novel will likely appeal more to young male readers than to young females but Hornby makes his points in a way that should appeal to both sexes.

Early on, for instance, Sam finds it difficult to understand why many young girls find the idea of having a baby of their own so appealing: “There were a couple of young mums at my school, and they acted like a baby was an iPod or a new mobile or something, some kind of gadget that they wanted to show off. There are many differences between a baby and an iPod. And one of the biggest differences is no one’s going to mug you for your baby. You don’t have to keep your baby in your pocket if you’re on the bus late at night. And if you think about it, that must tell you something, because people will mug you for anything worth having…”

And, when his relationship with Alicia was still new and going a whole day without seeing her was akin to “torture” for him, Sam offers his own thoughts on the nature of torture: “…I will never join the army, by the way. I would really, really hate to be tortured. I’m not saying that people who join the army would like to be tortured. But they must have thought about it, right? So they must have decided it wouldn’t be as bad as other things, like being on the dole, or working in an office. For me, working in an office would be better than being tortured. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be happy doing a boring job, like photocopying a piece of paper over and over again, every single day, until I died. But on the whole I’d be happier doing that than having cigarettes put out in my eye. (What I’m hoping is those aren’t my choices.)”

This is vintage Nick Hornby disguised as a Young Adult novel. If you are already a fan, don’t be scared away by the YA tag.

Rated at: 3.5