Saturday, February 28, 2009

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

In 1984 a college student woke up in her Burlington, North Carolina, apartment to find a young black man in her bed who intended to rape her. Because Jennifer Thompson was about half the size of the man she faced, and was already pinned down by his weight by the time she awoke, she recognized that any physical defense she presented would only worsen her situation. Jennifer, however, was not prepared to give up that easily. As the man began raping her she made a conscious effort to study his face and everything about him so that she would be able to work as closely as possible with the police on his capture. She even talked him into interrupting the rape long enough for her to escape the apartment and run for help.

Jennifer's attention to detail resulted in the well-executed police artist sketch that would lead to the quick arrest of Ronald Cotton, a local man, as the man who raped her and another woman on the same night.

Cotton was not at all worried when his family told him the Burlington Police Department wanted to speak with him in connection with the two rapes. He knew he had a rock-solid alibi for the night in question, so he drove himself to the police station in order to prove that he had nothing to do with either crime. Unfortunately for Cotton, he got his dates mixed up, making his supposed alibi worthless, and he was charged with both rapes.

The trial jury recognized Cotton's resemblance to the police sketch and considered Thompson to be an exceptional witness because of her decision to concentrate on her assailant even as the assault against her was happening. Her strong trial testimony, during which she appeared to be absolutely certain of Cotton's guilt, was all the jury needed to convict Cotton of her rape, and they quickly did just that.

Eleven years later, in 1995, DNA testing would prove that Ronald Cotton had nothing to do with Jennifer Thompson's rape and he was freed from prison, a dream that Cotton had all but given up on ever seeing happen. Ronald Cotton, now in his early thirties and lucky to have survived more than a decade in prison, was back with his family hoping to start a new life for himself.

Tragic as all of this is, it is far from being a unique story because, sadly, this kind of thing happens more than anyone in law enforcement would care to admit. Thousands of people have been imprisoned with no more evidence against them than the word of their accuser. Honest mistakes are made, lies are purposely told, and justice is not always blind.

No, the truly remarkable part of this story is what happened next.

Jennifer Thompson, married and the mother of triplets by the time of Cotton's release, feared that he would take his revenge by harming her or her children. Two years passed before the two of them finally came face-to-face but, when it did happen, both their lives were changed forever. Cotton, an extremely compassionate man, surprised Thompson by readily offering his forgiveness in their first conversation - and that would be the beginning of a powerful, loving friendship between the two and their families that is still going strong.

Today Cotton and Thompson work together to bring attention to other inmates around the country who have been imprisoned under circumstances similar to those that placed Ronald Cotton in jeopardy of spending his whole life in a jail cell. Much good has come from the awful circumstances that have linked forever the lives of these two people, and Thompson and Cotton have both thanked God that Cotton is the one she chose that day in the Burlington police station if she was destined to get it wrong.

Read Picking Cotton to get the rest of the story - there's a lot more.

Rated at: 5.0

Friday, February 27, 2009


Evensong, a blending of historical fiction, romance novel and war thriller, is set during the period in which Hitler conquers France and begins his bloody effort to keep her. Americans Christina Cross and her young sister have only recently arrived in the country but soon find themselves caught up in the struggle and fighting for their lives.

Christina’s story begins on a miserable farm in Kelly Flat, Missouri, where her father, a European opera singer and World War I veteran, started a new life with Christina and his French wife. Despite the near impossibility of eking a living from the farm, things suddenly get even worse and Christina is forced to take a job in town in order for her family to survive.

Senator Liam Caradine, owner of the small luxury hotel employing Christina, is struck by her resemblance to his lost daughter and decides to do all he can to make life easier for Christina and her family. Caradine quickly realizes that Christina is a remarkable singer and he takes advantage of an opportunity to have her sing at a West Point event, an event which just happens to include Laurent de Gauvion Saint Cyr in its audience. Laurent, a French army officer sent to West Point to collaborate with like-minded American military officers, is immediately attracted to Christina. Christina, however, knows that she loves the elderly senator and rejects the advances of the young Frenchman.

It is only when Christina and Nicolette, her little sister, go to France to live with their uncle, General Petain, that she becomes reacquainted with Laurent through a chance encounter. Despite the loyalty Christina feels toward her uncle, she soon finds herself in complete disagreement with his strategy to pacify Hitler and allows Laurent to recruit her into the French resistance.

As France and its allies fight the German army, Christina, Laurent, and even Nicolette, find themselves in the thick of things. Laurent is so in love with Christina that he is willing to risk his troops in an attempt to rescue Nicolette from the Nazi experimental death camp in which she has become a prisoner. Christina, unaware that Laurent is preparing to infiltrate the camp, decides to rescue Nicolette on her own. What happens next leads to an ending that is not what most readers will expect to read.

Evensong is an exciting, but seldom completely realistic, adventure. Much of its continuing action depends on extremely unlikely last-second rescues and superhuman endurance and strength from men who have been shot multiple times, burned by flame throwers or had limbs completely blown off them. The storyline depends so much on coincidence to move it along, and the situations and characters are handled so melodramatically, that the book seldom reaches the level of realism needed to give it the emotional depth demanded by its plot. The most compelling reason to read Evensong is for the way it describes the horrors of how children were handled and exploited in the Nazi death camps. That portion of the book is, indeed, very powerful.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer Dead at 91

It is another sad day in the literary world.

Philip Jose Farmer, one of the Kings of Science Fiction, author of one of the book series I most enjoyed in my whole life (the Riverworld books) died yesterday in his sleep.

From the Chicago Tribune:
The longtime Peoria resident wrote more than 75 novels, including the Riverworld and World of Tiers series. He won the Hugo Award three times and the Grand Master Award for Science Fiction in 2001.

Farmer was "one of the great ones," according to a statement on the web site of Subterranean Press, which published his later novels.

"He was always a joy to work with, and we will dearly miss his intelligence and good nature," the statement said.
I remember being so excited when I discovered the Riverworld books that I gave the whole set (four paperbacks at that time) to friends and co-workers for Christmas one year. I lost myself in those books in a way that has seldom happened since, in fact. Just picture the premise: every human being who has ever lived wakes up one morning, naked and bewildered, along the banks of what seems like a never-ending river. Picture Mark Twain, Hitler, cave men, Sir Richard Burton, Alice Liddel and many other famous people interacting and teaming up for a battle of good vs. evil. Throw in the fact that anyone dying along the river wakes up somewhere else on the river the very next suicide a way to travel to a more pleasant part of the river bank, a way to escape captivity, a way to search for a loved one?

If you enjoy this kind of fantasy and have somehow missed Riverworld, do yourself a favor and read at least the first volume now in honor of the wonderful writer who imagined and shared them with the rest of us. I can't think of a better tribute to Mr. Farmer than a few thousand people reading Riverworld all over again.

These are the first two books in the series (and my favorites) for anyone wanting to look into them a little more:

Another great one is gone...damn.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Thin Black Line

Hugh Holton, a thirty-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, wrote several successful novels before he died in 2001 but one project was still unfinished at the time of his death. Now more than seven years later, that project has been published as The Thin Black Line. The book’s subtitle, True Stories by Black Law Enforcement Officers Policing America’s Meanest Streets, tells Holton’s readers what to expect.

Holton’s editor, Robert Gleason, allows twenty-eight police officers, twenty men and eight women, to tell their individual stories in conversational first person narratives. The twenty-eight interviews include those of three Chicago police officers named Holton: the author, his father, and an officer by the name of Aaron Holton who may or may not be a member of the author’s family. Of the officers interviewed, almost half of them are from Chicago and most of the rest are from large cities such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia. To his credit, Holton included probation and correctional officers in his survey, a decision that adds a much-needed spark to the book.

Given that each person’s account is limited to six-to-eight pages, few of the narrators develop a personality or context of their own and their stories, no matter how dangerous the experiences they describe, tend to blend into a surprising blur of sameness. The most intriguing stories are told by those who decide to focus on one or two experiences rather than a listing of all of their most exciting and dangerous moments.

Because so many of those interviewed became police officers just when police departments around the country were beginning to recruit blacks for the first time, it is surprising that the issue of race is so seldom mentioned in the book. After all, as Holton states in his prologue, it was only after the assassination of Martin Luther King that most big city police departments came to understand there was a certain advantage to having black officers police black neighborhoods. Black policeman were recruited even in the deep South, although Sergeant Melvin Stokes of the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Sheriff’s Department recalls that “Black officers also couldn’t arrest white people” but, if it somehow happened that they did, they had “to call a white officer to transport them, ‘cause we didn’t want anybody to claim we did something bad to them before we got them into the jail.”

Philadelphia police officer Roger Tucker is another who mentions race during his career recap, however counterproductive and disappointing his statement turns out to be. According to Tucker, “I still believe that police officers are basically hired mercenaries…What you are doing is enforcing the majority laws on a minority community. Also what you are doing is trying to keep a large number of minorities from getting in the same position that you’ve been ‘privileged’ to get.” One wonders how this “mercenary” sleeps at night if he truly believes what he says about his life’s work.

With few exceptions, the twenty-eight people interviewed for The Thin Black Line never seem real. Because very little individual personality is on display, their war stories blend to the point that any potential impact on the reader is severely limited. There is no way to know if this is the book Hugh Holton would have written had he lived long enough to complete the task, but reproducing edited transcripts of the original interviews does not quite do the job, so perhaps Holton had more in mind for The Thin Black Line than this. Unfortunately, we will never know.

Rated at: 3.0

State of the Union

As usual, Dilbert is spot on:

...and the beat goes on.

(Click on the image for an a larger look at it.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Literate Car Burglar?

I've always been of the opinion that I can leave three or four brand new hardback books on the front seats of my car, in full view of the public, in perfect safety. And, so far, I have always been right about that. After all, how many thieves are such avid readers that they'll break into a vehicle to get their hands on forty dollars worth of books?

One California woman had the opposite experience - someone stole a bag of books from her car, and nothing else.
The victim, whose name was not released, said someone forced entry into her locked vehicle and stole a satchel containing books from inside the vehicle, the Sheriff’s Department reports.

The loss was estimated at $365.
I'm impressed - a burglar who can read...or at least knows enough about the book world to turn books into some fast cash. Looks like I need to rethink my own theory about leaving books in plain sight.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Barrens

Adults tend to see serial killers as replacements for the monsters of their childhoods. Something about how those mysterious killers strike time-after-time without being seen, often going years before being caught, if ever caught at all, reminds them of the monsters they imagined under their beds and in their closets. We never see them but they scare the hell out of us because we know they are out there somewhere.

Joyce Carol Oates, writing as Rosamond Smith in her 2001 book, The Barrens, explores the long history of one New Jersey serial killer who, almost despite himself, gets away with murder for a very long time. Unbeknownst to the killer, this time, though, his snatch-and-murder of a young woman will also claim a male victim, a young family man who for the second time in his life becomes obsessed with one of the killer's victims.

Matt McBride has built a good life for his wife and two sons in wealthy Weymouth, New Jersey, where he is a hugely successful real estate agent. McBride, however, is unable to forget a high school classmate whose mutilated body was discovered in the swampy New Jersey Pine Barrens not far from the school they both attended. Though he barely knew the girl, McBride still feels guilty that he did not save her from her fate.

Twenty years later, this time in Weymouth, another young woman with whom he was barely acquainted disappears, and McBride's old nightmares return stronger than ever. Driven to find the killer, no matter the cost to his marriage, job or family, Matt McBride begins his own investigation into the woman's disappearance despite the fact that certain Weymouth detectives believe he himself might be her killer.

The suspense builds as Oates brings McBride and the killer closer and closer together in alternating chapters told from the points-of-view of the two men. As the official police investigation goes nowhere, a violent confrontation between McBride and the killer seems inevitable, the only question being which, if either of them, will survive the showdown.

The Barrens does not make for quick reading because of the rambling, at times almost incoherent, style Oates uses for the chapters written in the killer's voice. In fact, although the book is short of three hundred pages in length, it seems longer because of the extra effort it requires of its readers. Oates is not known for painting pretty pictures or crafting happy endings for her novels and here she fills Weymouth with flawed characters intent on making the most of their shallow lifestyles. Surprisingly, however, she has written an ending for The Barrens that can be characterized, for her, as a happy one - strange though it is.

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Do Not Miss "Taking Chance"

I watched an HBO movie tonight that is a must-see. It is a true story in which few names seem to have been changed and it is as current as the evening news. The movie is about one fallen Marine being escorted back from Iraq to Wyoming to his family and his final resting place.

I realize that it is only available to HBO subscribers at the moment - but it will be on DVD before you know it, so keep this title in mind: Taking Chance. Do not miss it because it is exactly the kind of movie that will put your everyday life into its proper perspective.

Passing It On

From (Iowa) comes the story of how one woman consistently left children's books in the waiting areas of dentists, doctors and hospitals so discreetly that no one had a clue as to their orign. Sadly, this woman's husband killed her and their four children on March 24, 2008 before he used his vechicle to end his own life in a car crash.

But Sheryl Kesterson Sueppel's best friend, Kathy Benge, has come up with a wonderful way to remember Suppel and her love of children and books.
"I thought, what an appropriate idea to gather friends and family to continue that tradition," she said.

Benge said she started the book drive Feb. 4, sending out e-mails to family and friends, including the Kesterson and the Sueppel families. Those e-mails were forwarded on two to three times and the effort grew.

"It's been a great family experience for everybody," she said. "It was just right up Sheryl's alley."

By Thursday evening, Benge said she had 1,000 books. She expected a lot more to come in by today, possibly even doubling that number by the end.

The response has been much more than Benge anticipated, she said.

"It has been very overwhelming for me," Benge said. "I really felt, for me personally, this was the perfect thing to do.

"I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart."

Benge said she will get together with Sueppel's family and friends to label the inside of each book with a message about how the book is in honor of Sheryl Kesterson Sueppel.
What a tragedy that this man was compelled to take the lives of five innocents, the people closest to him in the world, before killing himself over the half million dollars he was accused of embezzling. It would be a very fine thing for Sheryl Sueppel to be remembered for the good she did rather than for her sad end, so I hope that Kathy Benge is able to turn this book drive into a town tradition...passing on Sheryl's good deeds for many years to come.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

John Updike Videos

Hard as I find it to believe that Katie Couric actually may have read much of John Updike's work, I did find this CBS tribute to be interesting because the deaths of very few writers get this kind of treatment on any of the major network evening news programs these days.

As usual, Katie does a fine job with the teleprompter, but if you are more interested in hearing from Updike concerning The Widows of Eastwick, and you have 85 minutes to spare, there's this from the New York Times.

October 28, 2008 interview.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Definition of Irony

Remember the floods that threatened the contents of the University of Iowa's library last summer? Remember the "feel good story" that developed when dozens of volunteers showed up at the library to move the books to higher ground?

Well, guess what? Now comes news that the sprinkler system in part of the library failed yesterday, resulting in damage to about 2400 of those very same books.

Yes, truth is often stranger than fiction.

Maybe that's why Herman Rosenblat thought he could get away with his own bunch of lies?

Original posting about the floods (June 24, 2008):

Rescuing Books in Flooded Iowa

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Unrepentent Herman Rosenblat Admits He Would Lie Again

Now he's done it - he's crossed a line with me, and any sympathy I one time may have felt for Herman Rosenblat has been overwhelmed by my contempt for the man.

Rosenblat, the guy who lied about his World War II Nazi concentration camp experiences, says now that he would tell the lies all over again. In one breath he admits he was lying, and in the next he has the nerve to say that in his imagination it happened exactly as he said it did and that makes his fraud acceptable.

Could there be a worse time for a fool like Rosenblat to go on national television and show his utter contempt for the truth? All around the world, people are finding it near impossible to trust anyone in business or politics, a development that makes the current economic crash especially hard to tolerate. To one degree or another, all of us feel like chumps. So along comes Rosenblat with an inspirational, feel-good story that turns out to be just another pack of lies from another cheap crook looking to make a fast buck. Great timing, Herman.

I dare anyone to watch this ABC News clip and not feel anger about what Herman Rosenblat and his wife have done. The clip includes footage of Mrs. Rosenblat telling the story in her own words as if it were true, claiming that she went to the fence on a daily basis to bring apples and cheese to little Herman. She is as big a liar as her husband, who justifies what Mrs. Rosenblat did by stressing how much she loves him but does not allow her to be interviewed by his side.

Herman's own son is disgusted with his father and says it was always about the money to be made, nothing else, and that his attempts to stop his father from making fools of the Rosenblat family were ignored.

Just watch the video for yourself. Nothing that the interviewer asks this man sinks in. He has no conscious, makes no apology, and readily admits that he regrets nothing.

A movie based on the lie is still in the works and it appears, too, that Herman's lie will be turned into a novel, so the man will actually achieve his big payday, once again proving that crime pays quite well.

True as that is, Mr. Rosenblat, I do guarantee you that I will not add one penny of my own money to that payday...and I'm not lying to you.

Previous posts about Rosenblat's lies:

No Angel at the Fence
No Angels in This Story - Period

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

And You Know You Should Be Glad

Bob Greene and Jack Roth are very lucky men. Very few of us meet our soul mates (even if we are one of those lucky enough to make that close a friend at some point in our lives) when we are five years old, but it happened to these two during the first few days of Miss Barbara’s kindergarten class. Jack, always the one sensitive to the feelings of others, stood and announced to Miss Barbara that Bob was suffering a bad nosebleed and needed some help, something that Bob was too embarrassed to do for himself – and a bond was formed between the two that was destined to last their lifetimes.

Now, more than fifty years later, Jack’s cancer is threatening to end one of those lifetimes and Bob can hardly imagine life without him. Jack, Bob and three other Bexley, Ohio, boys were practically inseparable all the way through high school but the bond between Jack and Bob remained a special one even within their friendships with the other boys. After high school, as always happens, real life intruded on old friendships and the men saw less and less of each other. But Jack and Bob remained close and spoke often despite Bob’s relocation to Chicago, and Jack and Chuck, another member of the group, even became brothers-in-law after marrying identical twin sisters.

When Jack’s four friends gather in Bexley to show him their support they find the old friendships are as strong as ever. What they bring to Jack – old stories, inside jokes and countless memories – are exactly the things he needs to keep him going despite the ever-worsening news he receives from his doctors.

As Jack and Bob walk the streets of their childhood, revisiting old haunts that are vivid reminders of the years they shared in little Bexley, the reader experiences Jack’s longing to revisit his memories one-at-a-time, one final visit for each with nothing skipped. And because Jack has lived in Bexley almost his entire life, every one of their walks brings him past the physical markers of his lifetime, each marker triggering one of the memories he so earnestly seeks.

Jack Roth was a man blessed with the ability and time to make the most of his last days and he was lucky to have four good friends willing to revisit the past with him. When together, the five of them joked and laughed just as they always had in a vain attempt to hide their feelings about what was happening to one of their own. Jack understood that and welcomed the chance to push his worries aside for even a few minutes, the best gift his friends could give him. Best of all, though, since Jack’s best friend in the world, Bob Greene, is not a man afraid to express his feelings and emotions, the rest of us can learn from Jack’s example in And You Know You Should Be Glad.

You really should be.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back to the Old Days

All of that new library technology (WiFi, automated checkout, electronic book catalogs, computers, CDs, DVDs, etc) is something we've all grown so accustomed to now that many of us can barely remember the days when all of that great stuff was not part of a visit to our local library.

How far have we come? Well, it's almost a city emergency when the automated checkout system fails at libraries these days. At the very least, such a failure is worthy of a news story warning the public that their library will have a "retro" look for a while.

Story from the New Bern Sun Journal (NC):
Beach said the 126,303 library users "will have to bring their library card and sign out books just like they used to do. It's a funny thing, going back to the way it was 25 years ago. The barcodes will have to be entered manually once we get a new server."

Beach said library staff will be "filing cards alphabetically, like we used to, and we will have to keep a record of books coming in as they are returned until such time as we can scan them back in."

She said the computer server is 10 years old and "we have prayed on it for a long time now. It has gone well beyond when a server should be replaced."
Internet access has not been affected and will continue to be available.

But until the server is replaced, patrons can't reserve books or access the library catalogue by computer, either at the library or remotely.
Beach said the situation makes this "a perfect time to become a ‘browser' of the library shelves again, instead of browsing online and only coming to the library when you are going to pick up the book."

"We have come to depend on technology so much," she said. "Now we have to fall back on solutions that used to work just fine. We'll have to remember that. I just hope it doesn't last too long."
Ahh, the good old days...Remember when?

Monday, February 16, 2009

An Abundance of Crime in Bookstores

I jokingly said a couple of days ago that criminals don't go to used book stores. That reminded me, sadly enough, of all the headlines I've seen in the last few months regarding all kind of criminal activity in bookstores. Maybe we're not as safe browsing the shelves as we like to think:

Man Charged with Bookstore Assault - Ohio

Man Guilty in Bookstore Molestations - California

Blogger Stabbed at Bookstore in Bejing
- China

Adult Bookstore Robbed at Gunpoint - Kentucky

Jimmy Carter Visits University Bookstore to Sign Books - Washington

Teens Treated After Collapsing at Bookstore - California

Bookstore Evacuated After Electrical Problem - Texas

Man Guilty of Punching Bookstore Owner - Canada
I've noticed this kind of thing for a while now and 2009 seems to be getting off to a really quick start when it comes to bookstore crime. The links above are all from just the last two or three days, in fact.

What really kills me, though, is the number of child molesters who do their sick thing in the children's section of bookstores - and how many parents send their small children there alone while they themselves wander around the rest of the store. I take my grandchildren to bookstores on a regular basis and, I guarantee you, that the last thing I would ever do is lose sight of them for ten seconds - even in a bookstore. And yet I see little ones in the children's section all alone for fifteen to thirty minutes at a time. That scares me.

Lessons to be learned: Stay away from Adult Bookstores and Jimmy Carter book-signings.

Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King

In Haunted Heart, her unauthorized Stephen King biography, Lisa Rogak presents a straightforward look into the major events of King’s life, from his birth into an impoverished family to the multi-millionaire lifestyle he lives today. And despite how heavily the book depends on secondary sources, and all the media attention given to King for more than three decades now, even passionate Stephen King followers should come away from it with a better understanding of the man.

Any potential revelations in the book originate in Rogak’s speculation about how King’s childhood shaped him into the writer, and the man, he is today, not from the well-known facts about his youth and his career. Stephen King does not remember his father, a man who, as the story goes, went down to the corner one evening for a pack of cigarettes and never returned. King’s mother never remarried and it was only by working multiple jobs when they came her way, and with substantial help from her sisters, that she was able to keep Steve and his brother together.

The resulting insecurity King felt as a child convinced him that the world is a dangerous place filled with countless scary things wholly deserving his fear. He admits that he fears most of them and that the only way he can escape those fears, even temporarily, is to write about them - something for which his fans should be grateful.

Rogak describes the depth of King’s addiction to drugs and alcohol in great detail. However, the surprising thing is not King’s alcoholism or past drug use, neither of which is much of a secret these days. Rather, the surprise is how productive King was during even the worst years of his addictions. To put it into perspective, consider that he has no memory of the exhaustive editing process he went through to finalize Cujo or the fact that he was almost constantly drunk or stoned during the entire time he directed his first motion picture but still managed to finish the project.

Haunted Heart
does well in its chronological presentation of Stephen King’s life, and Lisa Rogak’s assessment of what made King into the superstar writer that he is today is an interesting, if not new, theory. Readers looking for the basic Stephen King story will not be disappointed but one has to wonder what King’s take would be on all the speculation about what makes him tick. Unfortunately, without King’s participation or response we will never know how close to the truth Rogak and others have managed to get.

Stephen King fans will appreciate Rogak’s efforts but will, at the same time, wish that King had made himself available to her.

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cash on the Bookshelf

Most everyone has seen one of those "special" hollowed-out books that are supposedly used to hide cash and other valuables in plain sight on a person's bookshelves. I remember seeing a variety of pre-made book safes on the bargain table at Barnes and Noble a couple of years ago, in fact. That selection, all minus dust jackets, seemed to be books purchased in bulk from publisher overstock and subjected to very sharp slicer of some sort. If I remember correctly, there was a cheap little plastic insert-box pushed into the carved out hole, complete with a little door to trap the valuables inside.I think they sold for four or five dollars and I would have been tempted to buy one if it had included a dust jacket. Without a jacket, the book would have stood out on my shelves like a sore thumb - not a good thing when you're hoping something will blend into the background.

Well, someone actually used one of those things (or one he manufactured himself) to stash emergency cash and credit cards and almost 20 years later his brother donated it to a library book store in Maryland. Maryland's has the story - including the surprise happy ending:
Schnitman said his younger brother, Jeffrey Schnitman, had kept a "rainy day fund" of cash and credit cards in the book. He would not disclose the full amount of money.

When his brother died 17 years ago at the age of 36 from Crohn's disease, Schnitman kept the faux book along with its contents on his own bookshelf.

But in the months following his move from Gaithersburg to Chevy Chase last July, Schnitman accidentally donated the hollowed-out book and several others to the Montgomery County Friends of the Library's used bookstore on Boiling Brook Parkway.

"So I realized probably six weeks later that the book was missing and I went to the bookstore and magically someone had found it and turned it in," the 56-year-old said.
Frankly, the most surprising thing about this story is that Mr. Schnitman got his money back (click on the link for that part of the story) - maybe criminals don't frequent used book stores?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Life of Pi

I must be almost the last person in North America to read Yann Martel's unforgettable tale, "Life of Pi." Consider that there are now over 1900 reviews of the book on Amazon despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of a book's readers will ever take the time to do that, or that 16,095 members of Library Thing own it, making "Life of Pi" the 21st most popular book there. Well, I can finally tell everyone that it was worth the wait.

Yann Martel has written an inspiring story about the defining event in one man's life, an event that 16-year-old Pi Patel miraculously survives when so many others around him do not, something that shapes the rest of his life. It does not hurt, of course, that the story involves a shipwreck, a 450-pound Bengal tiger, one small lifeboat drifting the vast Pacific Ocean, cannibalism, and a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere.

Until his mid-teens, Pi Patel is raised in remote Pondicherry, India, where he and his brother are lucky enough to live on the grounds of the zoo managed by his father. Pi's father, though, becomes disillusioned with the Indian government of the mid-seventies and decides to move the family to Canada. The Patel family leaves India on the same freighter carrying a large number of zoo animals destined for new homes of their own in North American zoos. Plans for man and animal alike, however, change one day just before dawn when Pi realizes that the ship is rapidly sinking.

Suddenly the ship is gone and Pi finds himself sharing a 26-foot lifeboat with a severely injured zebra, a female orangutan elder, a manic hyena and, most importantly, a tiger so large that he alone fills half the boat's limited space. Animals do what animals do, especially when faced with starvation, and only Pi and the tiger he calls Richard Parker are still around when the boat reaches land 227 days later.

Yann Martel mixes realism and magic to just the right degree, allowing his readers to suspend their disbelief to the degree that everything that happens seems possible - and then he throws readers the kind of curve ball that will leave them standing at the plate with bats on shoulders, an alternate version of his entire story. Each reader will have to choose for himself the version he believes to have happened, a choice that will tell much about the reader himself. I cannot imagine a more perfect choice for book club discussion than "Life of Pi."

If you are one of the few yet to read "Life of Pi," you have quite an experience ahead of you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bookstore Rants - Parts 1 & 2

What is a bookstore? For the uninitiated, this guy has the answer - and a few tips on how to behave there.

...and how not to behave there.

Retail work must really test the patience of store employees - maybe I'm lucky to have been rejected by three major bookstore chains in one three-week period of 2007.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kindle 2 - Are You Buying It?

Word comes from Amazon that the Kindle 2 is just about ready for shipping and that they are taking orders now.

The new version of the Kindle offers some pretty nice cosmetic changes to things like thickness and weight of the readers and the display is supposed to be considerably easier to read now. Battery life is said to be about 25% longer and book storage capacity about five times that of the original Kindle.

I do remember hearing that those who ordered the Kindle before Christmas will still be receiving Version 1, something that makes absolutely no sense to me as a business decision on Amazon's part. Both versions sell for the same price and I assume the profit margin must be about the same for both.

So if there were none of the old readers in Amazon's warehouse why would they want to build some of the old model and ship them at the same time the new ones are coming out? Wouldn't that make for some disgruntled customers?

Are you buying one of these?

If so, how do you plan to use it? Will it be primarily for travel and commuting, or will it be the usual way for you to read books - even at home? If you're not buying it, why not?

EDIT: I just went over to Amazon to read the presentation there and found that they will be shipping the Kindle 2 to everyone still waiting for a Kindle 1. That makes more sense.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Losing Game: Why You Can't Beat Wall Street

T.E. Scott would be among the first to tell you that it is impossible to call the tops and bottoms of the stock market. But Scott has timed one thing perfectly for sure: his book about the dangers of dealing with Wall Street, The Losing Game: Why You Can’t Beat Wall Street.

The Losing Game is neither a sophisticated nor a complicated look at the stock market. Rather, it is one man’s heartfelt opinion of a system he believes to be little more than legalized gambling on a national scale. The book is not a technical discussion of how the markets function, nor does it offer readers a way to beat the system. In fact, Scott does much the opposite. He believes that the deck is so stacked against the average investor, and that Wall Street has so many opportunities to siphon money from the investor, that very few people walk away from it richer than they began.

No matter what you think about the numbers used in Scott’s examples or his blanket indictment of everyone in the investment world, it is difficult to argue with his premise that, for most of us, investing in the stock market is just another way to gamble. In order for us to make money from our investment, someone has to lose an equal amount. We simply bet that our timing will be better than that of our fellow Wall Street gamblers who sell their stock to us just when we want it and buy it back when we are ready to sell. We bet against them – they bet against us.

Also hard to argue with is Scott’s contention that investors are being hustled constantly by people who could not care less whether the investor makes or loses money. The key for the pros is to keep all that money “in motion” by encouraging investors to buy and sell shares as often as possible so that the markets and brokers can collect maximum commissions. And that is easy enough for them to do since, for so many investors, playing the market is largely a series of irrational decisions dependent on the emotion of the moment. Investors desperately want to believe that they will “hit the big one” someday that will recoup all of their prior losses – classic gambling behavior.

The book does tend at times to be a bit more repetitive than necessary even when that repetition is seen as a way to highlight the points considered most important by the author. One set of four numeric examples, for instance, is repeated verbatim in four different sections of the book ( despite it being more than two pages long) rather than simply referring the reader back to the original set of numbers each subsequent time the example is used. That and a few noticeable editing flaws will test the reader’s patience a bit but will not distract from the book’s message.

The Losing Game has not convinced me to abandon the market completely but it has reinforced my determination to treat Wall Street the same way that I treat Las Vegas: bring only as much money there as I really can afford to lose and not a dime more. In both cases, I am betting against the House and, if I play too long, the House wins - that is, unless I first take my winnings home and keep myself there. I almost never see Las Vegas style gambling these days and I suspect that I will be seeing less and less Wall Street style gambling in the future.

Rated at: 3.5

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Richard and Judy Split Along North/South Divide

Richard and Judy are considered to be the Oprah of the U.K. when it comes to the overnight creation of bestselling books. Like Winfrey, they have a television "book club" used to announce the books they consider most worthy of being read by the masses and have created huge paydays for the writers lucky enough to have their books chosen.

But something interesting is happening in the U.K. where there is a huge sectional difference in how the Richard and Judy choices are perceived. According to the Times Online, those in the north could not care less what Richard and Judy recommend, while those in the south pay strict attention and read as instructed by the pair.
Lending figures for last year suggest that southerners are slaves to Richard & Judy, flocking to their local library to borrow everything they mention. The couple’s recommended titles make up at least half of the ten most-borrowed books in London, the South East, the South West, the East, the East Midlands and the South West.

Northerners, by contrast, pay no attention to them. None of the couple’s recommendations appears in the top ten lists for the North East, the North West and Merseyside, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Readers were much more likely to plump for tried-and-tested books in the crime and romance genres. James Patterson’s hard-boiled thrillers are overwhelmingly popular in the North. Readers in the North East are most likely to select a pulse-quickening romance by Danielle Steel or Josephine Cox.
The reason for the divide is open to speculation, but authors suggested that word-of-mouth recommendations for Richard & Judy books were more likely to become epidemics in the South, where book discussion groups are more popular.
Just when I was ready to congratulate those in the northern part of the U.K. on their ability to choose for themselves, I got to the part of the Times article that mentioned the most popular writers up that way: James Patterson, Danielle Steel and Josephine Cox.

Never mind.

Obviously, those up north would be much better off letting Richard, Judy and Oprah do the choosing on their behalf.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Stuart: A Life Backwards

Stuart Shorter did a lot of living, most of it not very pleasant, before his tragic death-by-train at the age of thirty-three. A victim of muscular dystrophy, Stuart was ostracized and ridiculed by children his age because of the way he walked. He suffered at the hands of sexual predators, both in his own home, and in the Cambridge, England, facility he lived in after being placed “in care.” His drug usage progressed all the way from glue sniffing to heroin and his thievery landed him in more than a dozen prisons – where he would spend several years of his short life. When not locked up, Stuart Shorter lived on the streets and, though people feared his tendency toward violence, he most often managed to do more physical damage to himself than to others.

When Alexander Masters, while studying at Cambridge University, met him, Stuart Shorter was more in control of his life than he had been for a long time. He was living in his own small flat and had limited his use of alcohol and drugs enough to keep himself from getting into much new trouble with the law. Masters, an advocate for the homeless, saw the spark in Stuart that made his story an exceptionally tragic one and the two worked together for over three years to get that story down on paper. The result is Stuart: A Life Backwards.

Neither believed that the early trauma and taunting associated with Stuart’s illness predestined him to homelessness, severe drug addiction, or his violent nature. There was much more to it, and Stuart’s question “What murdered the boy I was?” became the central theme of the book. It was when they hit on the idea of telling Stuart’s story in reverse, a backwards biography of sorts, that a variety of answers was unearthed for their consideration.

Stuart: A Life Backwards
is largely told in Stuart’s own words along with Alexander’s reaction to his stories about prison life, school days, homelessness, violence, sexual abuse, and drugs. It begins at the point the two first meet, when Stuart is 29 years old, and progresses backward by jumps of roughly five years all the way to Stuart’s birth. Each of the segmented periods includes a real-time conversation between Stuart and Alexander about those years plus what the author learned through his own research.

As Stuart and Alexander search for the answer to his question, Stuart becomes a unique, and surprisingly insightful, person in the eyes of the reader. As the real tragedy of his life is revealed, one comes to believe that Stuart cannot possibly come to a good end – and, sadly, he does not.

Alexander Masters provides an interesting look into a lifestyle seldom described through the eyes of someone actually living it, especially someone self-aware to the extent that Stuart is, a man struggling to find answers of his own. What a shame it is that Stuart was not around long enough to see the finished product.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

Thinking about the recent death of John Mortimer these last few days made me want to revisit grumpy old Horace Rumpole and I chose the audio version Mortimer’s 2004 prequel Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders figuring that it would offer an overview of the whole Rumpole series. It did that – and more.

The Penge Bungalow Murders is the perfect book to be reacquainted with Rumpole, in fact, because it presents the famous barrister at both ends of his illustrious career: as the young Rumpole working his first murder case only eighteen months after having been called to the bar, and as the elderly Rumpole writing his memoirs near the end of his career. Rumpole fans will have heard him boast of his triumph in the Penge Bungalow case in past books and will enjoy finally learning the details of that case and how a barrister as inexperienced as Rumpole came to work it alone.

The details of the case itself are interesting enough but this will not be a terribly difficult case for most readers to solve. Young Simon Jerold stands accused of shooting his World War II hero-father and his father’s friend to death shortly after the elder Jerold ridiculed his son, in front of a small group of war veterans, as not having the courage required to fight a war. Because Simon, in a rage, threatened to kill his father on the spot, he is charged with the murder and appears almost certain to be convicted and to receive the death penalty.

Mortimer uses the murder trial to show that Rumpole has not changed all that much over the decades and to introduce the recurring characters now so familiar to readers of the Rumpole short stories. Some of the best one-liners in the book come from the inner thoughts of Rumpole as he is forced to work with C.H. Wystan, the head of chambers and Rumpole’s future father-in-law, a man more concerned with following polite legal procedure than he is with saving his client’s life.

But the highlight of the book for most longtime Rumpole fans will be in meeting the young Hilda Wystan, the future “she who must be obeyed,” and watching the courtship that occurs. Not too surprisingly, Hilda is the one doing the courting because she sees something in Rumpole that will allow her to “make something of him,” and it is all over before Rumpole realizes that he is all but engaged to be married to young Miss Wystan.

Bill Wallis, the audio book reader, handles a wide variety of British accents with ease and uses his voice to create distinctive personalities for the book’s many characters. His presentation of Hilda makes her into a surprisingly likable character, leading one to understand why Rumpole put up so little resistance to her efforts to snare him - despite what he said in later years.

The world is definitely a poorer place without John Mortimer and new Horace Rumpole stories.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sully and the Lost Library Book

It seems that the pilot who pulled off the miracle landing on the Hudson River on January 15th had to leave his library book behind when he abandoned his sinking jetliner. Sullenberger thought to call the Fresno State library to tell them what happened to the book and to request an extension of the time allowed for its return.

KMPH Fox 26 has the rest of the story:
You see, Sullenberger had packed the book in his luggage, which was on the plane at the time of the crash January 15th. That luggage has since been collected, with other debris of the crash, as part of a federal investigation.

Being the good patron that he is, Sullenberger called the library and asked for an extension to get the book back, or at least a waiver of overdue or replacement fees. Sullenberger had received the Fresno State book through an interlibrary loan request at a library near his home in Danville.

Fresno State took the request in stride, agreeing to forgive the overdue book, and even making plans to replace the book he checked out with a bookplate inside the cover of the copy dedicating the volume to Sullenberger.
I have to tell you that I am amazed that a man with so much happening to him in the last three weeks has the presence of mind to think about a lost library book. That says an awful lot to me about this man's character...a true hero is Mr. Sullenberger.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Dallas Library Lets Patrons Jump the Queue for Five Dollars

The Dallas Public Library system has come up with a plan that will make the system a few bucks richer while placing bestselling books and movies into the hands of patrons quicker than ever. The plan sets up a two-tiered system for acquiring access to the most popular, most heavily demanded, books and movies. Under that plan, patrons have a choice: pay $5 to get a copy now or get a copy for free by waiting in line with everyone else, a wait that usually runs between six and eight weeks.

According to the Dallas Morning News:
Library officials say the program is designed to eliminate or shorten wait times for people who want to borrow popular titles rather than pay hefty retail costs. Not every best seller or top-selling movie is part of the program, but many of the hottest titles ­ 28 books and 40 DVDs ­ are now available at all branches the same day they hit bookstores.
In Dallas, the StreetSmart program doubled in size from its launch in October through December. In total, consumers spent $10,405 on 2,081 items during those three months. Hill said revenues have covered the costs of buying extra copies of popular titles.
What do you think? Good idea or bad idea?

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Brightest Moon of the Century

Those who read last year’s Christopher Meeks short story collection Months and Seasons will likely remember Edward, a boy trying to cope with the sudden death of his mother with very little support from his still grieving father. Edward, already having a tough time adjusting to life without his mother, has the rest of his world turned upside down when his father decides to send him to an all-boys private school for rich kids. But by the end of that story, “Hands,” Edward and his father are starting to figure things out and it appears that, together, they might just make it.

The Brightest Moon of the Century, Meeks’s debut novel, uses the same short story to kick off its account of Edward Meopian’s life from ages 14 to 45. Edward, at age 14, is perfectly content to blend into life’s background, seeing that as the best way to avoid trouble with bullies, teachers and intimidating people of all stripes, including girls his age. However, when he finds it impossible to lose himself in the crowd at his new school, Edward begins to focus on solving life’s two biggest mysteries as he sees them: girls and finding that niche in the universe meant just for him.

There is a bit of Everyman in Edward and, like many of us, he sometimes takes life’s path of least resistance rather than the straightest one toward his goals, causing him to reach those goals a little later, but much wiser, than others. Because of that habit, he finds himself for a while running a trailer park mini-mart deep in the heart of Alabama and working in the back room of a southern California camera shop before finally gaining access to the prestigious Los Angeles film school program of which he dreamed for so long.

Edward Meopian, by his mid-forties, puts together almost exactly the life he dreamed about as a young man. He has the beautiful wife, the son, and the dream career he dared chase. Life, though, has a few more surprises for Edward but, this time, he is ready for them. He has lived, and he has learned, and now the brightest moon of the century gives him hope that the best part of his life is still ahead of him.

The Brightest Moon of the Century is one man’s story, a very ordinary man, at that, but Christopher Meeks has filled that story with enough interesting characters and episodes to remind just how limitless and filled with surprises even the most ordinary of lives can be. Meeks’s characters, and his slightly off centered view of life, continue to remind me of John Irving’s early work, definitely a good thing.

I wonder where Edward will end up - and what he will think about it all when he looks back at the lonely 14-year-old boy he once was. As John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Living History Book

Frank Woodruff Buckles turns 108 years old today. That's pretty amazing in itself, but even more amazing is the fact that of the five million Americans who served in World War I, Mr. Buckles is the last of them. Think about that. The war officially ended on November 11, 1918 - more than 90 years ago - and one American veteran of that war is still alive to talk about it.

Ironically, Buckles spent most of World War I in France and Germany where he worked as a driver and warehouseman, a lucky draw when it came to that war, but in 1940 he got caught up in the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and was held as a prisoner of war for more than three years.

(Mr. Buckles at 107)

Last Tuesday, as a winter storm moved in from the west, he sat in a nice blue blazer in a warm corner of his day room, surrounded by history books. Outside, white wisps blew across the pale stubble on the 330-acre cattle farm where he settled quietly in 1954 after what already had been a life’s worth of adventure in not one but two wars and as a commercial seafarer. Beyond lay the river town of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and the Civil War battlefield at Antietam, Md.

Buckles said he had always known he would grow quite old. His father lived to be 97. He had a sister who was 104. Other relatives on his mother’s side lived to be 100.

The national World War I veterans group, of which he is the commander and sole member, used to publish a newsletter. Each issue counted down the number of old doughboys still around. As the number got smaller and smaller, “I realized I’d be one of the last,” he said, “but I never thought I’d be the last.”

He grinned slowly and added, “Of course, if it has to be somebody, it might as well be me.”
Oh, by the way, it seems that Buckles was determined to get into that war - he lied about his age, adding over a year to it, and finally convinced the army that he was actually 18.

Mr. Buckles in his own words...from a few months ago.

Happy birthday, Mr. Buckles, and thank you for your service.