Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran

In 2007, at 67 years of age, Haleh Esfandiari survived a nightmare experienced by so many of her fellow Iranians during the last several decades. She was arrested by the Iranian secret police on trumped up charges, interrogated endlessly, and finally placed in solitary confinement inside the infamous Evin Prison for 105 days. That she survived her ordeal, and did not suffer physical torture at the hands of her interrogators, makes her one of the lucky ones.

Esfandiari is not the typical citizen of Iran. She is, in fact, the founding director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. and she has taught at Princeton University. She lives in Maryland with her Iranian husband, a Jewish George Mason University professor, whom she married in Iran in 1964. Herself the product of a mixed marriage (her father is Iranian and her mother Austrian), Esfandiari, an avowed feminist, worked for Iranian newspapers before leaving the country in 1980 for political reasons. Esfandiari’s mother, however, decided to remain in Iran even after her husband’s death so that, when her time came, she could be buried next to him.

On December 31, 2006, Haleh Esfandiari had just completed an extended visit to her 93-year-old mother and was being driven to the airport for her return flight to the United States. Before she could make it to the airport, her car was stopped and she was robbed of her possessions, including her passport. Despite the warnings of some of her Iranian friends that this was no ordinary mugging, Esfandiari wanted to believe that she had been targeted by robbers only because of her apparent wealth rather than for political reasons. She would soon learn how wrong she was.

Esfandiari’s 105 days of imprisonment would be proceeded by four months of almost daily interrogation at the hands of investigators determined to force her to confess that she was part of a United States conspiracy to overthrow the Iranian government. Despite the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the questions (as well as that of her consistent responses) and the increasing threats of a life in prison sentence, or worse, for her refusal to cooperate, Esfandiari refused to sign a confession even after being taken to the notorious Evin Prison.

My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran is Haleh Esfandiari’s account of how she maintained her sanity and physical health during her eight-month ordeal. Early on, she sensed that a system of routine and order would be instrumental in fighting off the despair and confusion she could so easily fall into during her confinement. Because during the early weeks of her imprisonment she was allowed no reading material other than the Koran, Esfandiari used physical exercise as both an escape and a means of setting goals for herself. She knew she had to be as mentally tough as her interrogators if she was to survive what they had planned for her.

The most unexpected aspect of My Prison, My Home is the relationship that developed between Esfandiari and some of those holding her, especially the female guards in control of her daily routine. A surprising number of these women came to sympathize with Esfandiari and to develop a personal relationship with her. Esfandiari, on her part, would take such an interest in their lives that she became a grandmother-like figure to some of the young women. Even her interrogators and the prison doctor sometimes displayed what seemed to be genuine concern for her mental and physical health while they continued to pressure her for a confession.

Despite the tremendous emotional and physical ordeal Haleh Esfandiari suffered at the hands of her countrymen, her prose is, at times, flat and rather unemotional, almost as if she cannot allow herself to feel again the pain and despair of those days. Perhaps, too, her tone is such because something inside her has died and she knows that she will never again see her beloved Iran as she saw it before her imprisonment. Much more than her passport and possessions were stolen from her on December 31, 2006.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by publisher)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 6

I'm almost half way through Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone and I'm finding myself totally immersed in his 1950s Ethiopian setting. This one comes in at 534 pages and I suspect that I will be sorry to see it end. Thanks to the heads-up from Class Factotum (and because my library finally got it on the shelves) I didn't miss out on this experience...late as I am to the party.

This lunchtime I finished up the Joyce Dyer memoir, Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood, the book in which she revisits the neighborhood in which she spent the first five years of her life. Because so little of her old neighborhood looks anything like she remembers it, Dyer takes an interesting approach to her "reconstruction" of those early years and learns and reveals many intimate details from her family history. My review of the book will come in a day or so.

So, after 10 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow - 4.0 (novel)
5. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
6. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
7. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
8. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

9. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)

10. William S. and the Great Escape - Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children's book)
Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one - and once a book drops off the list, it is gone forever.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

We Have a Winner

It's time to give away the Advance Reader's Copy of John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River that I offered last week.

To that end, I took the six "random numbers" chosen in the fourteen comments about Book Chase's third birthday and slipped them into my handy-dandy Random Number Generator:
Kate - 21
Elizabeth - 3
Melanie - 5
Megan - 24
Sheila - 6
Donna - 15
I asked for a number between 3 and 24 to be generated and, on the third try, I hit on one of the six numbers chosen by the contest entrants.

...and the winner is Sheila's number 6. So, Sheila, send me an email with your mailing instructions and I'll get the book out to you as quickly as I can. Thanks to everyone who entered or otherwise commented last week; I appreciate your kind words.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where Books Come to Life

This very clever video presentation comes from the New Zealand Book Council. In it, Maurice Gees' Going West comes to life before your eyes.

Take a look.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 5

I finished the latest E.L. Doctorow novel, Homer & Langley, during lunch today and have posted a full review directly below this post. I've read lots of Doctorow over the years and I always expect to be wowed by his work, something deserving a clear 5.0 rating. It never quite seems to happen that way for me, though, and this one was no exception. This, in my opinion, is another very good - but not great - E.L. Doctorow novel.

So, after 9 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow - 4.0 (novel)
5. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
6. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
7. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

8. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)

9. William S. and the Great Escape - Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children's book)
Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one - and once a book drops off the list, it is gone forever.

Homer & Langley

The Collyer brothers of E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley are loosely based on a pair of real life brothers whose eccentric lifestyle created a sensation when they were found dead in their New York City Fifth Avenue home in 1947. Like their real life counterparts, by the time of their deaths, Doctorow’s Homer and Langley Collyer had filled their once extravagant home with so many newspapers, books, magazines, and whatever else Langley decided to drag home (including the Model T that filled one room) that they could barely move around inside the home. Doctorow’s fictional brothers, however, do not meet their deaths until well into the 1970s, allowing them to witness the Korean War, the Viet Nam War and the flower children of the sixties.

Homer introduces himself in the book’s first sentence by saying, “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” and from that moment, everything is “seen” and recounted from his point-of-view. Homer is the younger brother, the one left behind with his wealthy parents when older brother Langley leaves for the battlefields of World War I France. Langley would return to the family, his health ruined by the poisonous gas he inhaled during his last fight, only to find both parents dead from the flu epidemic that had so devastated the country.

The brothers, one unable to work because of his sightlessness and the other because of the war damage to his lungs, will live together for more than 50 years as recluses in the only home they have ever known. As the years pass and the last of their domestic help leaves them, Homer and Langley venture from home less and less, Homer usually only to sit in the park across the street from the brownstone and Langley to scavenge more of the things he convinces himself might prove useful one day.

Langley, seemingly on the edge of serious mental illness, has three goals in life: pay as little to New York’s public utility companies as possible; create the ultimate newspaper, one that will tell everything its readers ever need to know in a single, one-time edition; and collect duplicates of every item that catches his fancy. Homer has his music and his brother, and he would find it difficult to survive without either. Homer and Langley may not have gotten out much but life had a way of coming to them over the years in the form of visits from gangsters, prostitutes, bill collectors, dance party customers, sixties hippies, the FBI, and even a few single women, one of whom would, for a time, become Langley’s wife.

Upon their deaths, many would see the real Homer and Langley Collyer as nothing more than obsessed junk collectors because they left little behind that would prove otherwise. Doctorow’s sympathetic characterization of the two men reminds there has to have been much more to them than that. Homer & Langley, at times, has the unfortunate feel of a Forest Gump satire but readers will find it to be an excellent character study.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, January 25, 2010

Blind Submission

Angel Montgomery, an insatiable reader, has landed a job in what is arguably the most successful literary agency on the West Coast. She can hardly believe that she is working for the famous Lucy Fiamma Literary Agency or that she answers the phone almost every day with the chance of finding one of her favorite authors on the other end of the line. But, while she is thrilled to discover her natural ability to transform promising manuscripts into potential best sellers, she is shocked that Lucy Fiamma expects her to work around the clock to earn her pitiful salary. Her dream job has quickly become the job from hell. What does she do now?

She sticks it out - because reading has been the only constant in her life for as long as she can remember. She explains: “…reading was only part of the thrill that a book represented. I got a dizzy pleasure from the weight and feel of a new book in my hand, a sensual delight from the smell and crispness of the pages. I loved the smoothness and bright colors of their jackets. For me, a stacked, unread pyramid of books was one of the sexiest architectural designs there was. Because what I loved most about books was their promise, the anticipation of what lay between the covers, waiting to be found.” How could anyone who feels that way quit this particular job?

Despite a failing romantic relationship, deteriorating health and lack of anything resembling a personal life, Angel continues to work the agency’s blind submission stack in search of the agency’s next big thing. She learns how to survive the bizarre list of demands Lucy drops on her the first thing every morning and to tolerate the rest of the office staff. And, in the process, she is turning into a very fine literary assistant.

Crazy as the job already is, everything is kicked up a notch when Angel begins working on an anonymously written manuscript about a West Coast literary agency and the people who work there. Despite the mystery of the blind submission’s origin, Angel is impressed enough with it to bring it to Lucy’s attention and is soon working with the mysterious writer, via email, to turn the pages into a novel the agency can sell. She recognizes from the start that the manuscript describes an agency eerily similar to hers, but Angel begins to panic when later chapters begin to reveal intimate secrets about her own work life and personal relationships. The details are so personal, she realizes, that the anonymous author has to be someone close to her. But why would someone so close want to disgrace and discredit her?

Blind Submission is a satirical look at the “sausage making” part of the publishing world book lovers find fascinating but seldom see for themselves. This 2006 novel's setting is what initially appealed to me but I also found it to be a satisfying mystery that kept me guessing until near the end of Ginsberg’s story. Blind Submission successfully crosses several genre lines, in fact, and other readers will undoubtedly enjoy its romance/chick lit aspects most. There seems to be something here for just about every kind of reader.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 4

I finished Blind Submission yesterday morning, perhaps the strangest ride I've had so far this year. I changed my opinion of the book at least three times over the course of reading it and finally settled on a 4.0 rating. Blind Submission takes place inside the offices of a famous West Coast literary agent and is special fun for all the "book nuts" out there. I'll explain my changing reaction to the book in a formal review sometime in the next day or so.

After 8 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
5. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
6. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

7. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)

8. William S. and the Great Escape - Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children's book)
Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Get Out of the Way

Every so often, if a reader is lucky, along comes a book that strikes really close to home because it centers around one of the reader’s own life experiences. Get Out of the Way, a new novel set in the late 1960s when the military draft that provided fresh soldiers for the battlefields of Viet Nam was reaching its peak, is one of those books for me. Because author Daniel Dinges uses historical events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy to mark what was happening in America during Tom Daniels’ Army basic training – two tragedies that occurred during my own 1968 training – I found myself closely identifying with young Tom Daniels and his confusion about the war in Viet Nam.

Tom Daniels does not have many options to choose from in early 1968. For almost two years he has avoided the draft by claiming a student deferment despite the fact that he drops his college classes not long after he signs up for them so that he can find fulltime work. His scam works because, by the time the draft board has processed the paperwork needed to cancel his student deferment, Tom has registered for a new semester of classes and the cycle begins again. Timing is everything - but now the board has figured out Tom Daniels and he needs a new plan. He is in good physical condition, he is not homosexual, he does not want to become a fulltime college student, and running for the Canadian border is not something he would ever consider. So what is he to do?

What Tom decides to do will shock those who know him and, at the same time, arouse the suspicions of his local draft board. He volunteers for the next list, figuring that since he is older and better educated than the average inductee, he will be able to snag a noncombat position for himself among the thousands of clerks and administrators who support the combat troops. He is so confident he can pull it off that he is willing to gamble his life in the effort.

Tom Daniels is a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of young men who experienced exactly the same thing he faced in 1968. What Daniel Dinges describes about the life-changing decision forced upon Tom Daniels, and about his experiences in the U.S. military, apply to the countless thousands who experienced the same in the real world. Get Out of the Way is a rather simplistic history lesson covering a volatile period in American history because it is told entirely through the eyes of a young man confronted by the politics that might cost him his life. He is not a sophisticated person; he is the average American male fresh out of high school and wondering what comes next. No matter how they may have resolved the issue of Viet Nam for themselves, male readers who were around in the late 1960s will recognize a little of themselves in Tom Daniels.

Get Out of the Way suffers a bit in that Tom Daniels is the only character in the book that is near to being a fully developed one. The supporting cast is defined only in terms of its interaction with Tom and, consequently, those characters do not become quite real to the reader. I found myself wanting to know more about Tom’s parents, his brother, the young women in his life and some of the soldiers he met during his two years in the Army because knowing more about those characters would have given me a better understanding of Tom himself.

Readers of a certain age, those who were there, will find themselves revisiting old memories as they read Get Out of the Way. Younger readers will come away from the book with a better understanding of the life or death situation their very young fathers and grandfathers faced when confronted by such an unpopular war. The decisions those young men made went a long way in determining whom they would become or if they would survive to old age.

Rated at: 3.5

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 3

I have finished a review copy of Get Out of the Way, a new novel by Daniel Dinges. This one will bring back lots of memories, good and bad ones, for men who had to plan their lives solely around the Viet Nam War and the military draft required to sustain that misguided effort. This is a novel based on the author's experiences but I found that his story takes place in almost exactly the same months of 1968 during which I found myself snatched up by the system.

After 7 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
5. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

6. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)

7. William S. and the Great Escape - Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children's book)
Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one.

Do E-Reader Owners Buy More Books Than Others?

According to at least one survey, they do. GigaOM cites this L.E.K. Consulting survey that seems to prove that owners of e-readers are reading more than they read before purchasing the readers - and that a substantial percentage of their reading is of recently published books:
Of the 10 percent of consumers who own e-readers, 48 percent told L.E.K. that they were reading more books vs. just 7 percent who said their book reading decreased. E-reader owners also said they were reading more newspapers than before (59 percent) and more magazines (44 percent). According to L.E.K., 36 percent of the books read by people with e-readers are “incremental consumption,” representing new books rather than books the owner would otherwise have read in print.
“The fact that Amazon sold more Kindle books than printed books on Christmas Day 2009 speaks volumes,” L.E.K. vice president Dan Schechter said in a news release. “We’ve dubbed the 10 percent of consumers who own an e-reader as the ‘E-reader Republic,’ and think that it is a potential goldmine for content providers and advertisers alike.”

While iPod owners consumed about nine hours per week of new media, e-reader owners consumed more than 18 hours a week. L.E.K. said the survey is considered demographically representative of the U.S. population over 18 years of age.
This kind of news has to be encouraging to publishers despite the fear that low e-book prices might make consumers more resistant to the significantly higher prices publishers charge for physical copies of the same books. Publishers need to adapt quickly, and logically, if they want to avoid the fate of the big record labels. Have you been to a record store lately? Let's not let the same thing happen to bookstores.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Book Chase Is Three

I suddenly realized this afternoon that today marks three full years of existence for Book Chase. I made a mental note a couple of weeks ago to prepare something for the occasion but mental notes don't seem to work very well for me anymore.

I do, though, want to express my appreciation to everyone who stops by here on a regular basis to see what might be happening. I thoroughly enjoy your comments and books suggestions - pretty much everything but what the spammers try to sneak in, in fact. That interaction and instant feedback is what blogging is all about.

My reading habits have changed greatly in the last three years and that is largely due to all the great lit blogs I've discovered since I started one of my own. Before Book Chase, I never imagined the existence of such a huge online community of book lovers and lit bloggers. In fact, the sheer number of lit blogs still staggers me.

So, three years are in the books (excuse the pun), resulting in almost 1200 separate posts, a few thousand comments and over 400 book reviews. It has been quite a ride and, frankly, I never expected it to last this long. It has become such a big part of my regular routine now, however, that I can't imagine closing shop.

As part of my own tiny celebration, I am giving away an unread Advance Reader Copy of John Irving's latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. All you have to do to enter the giveaway is to leave a comment under this post in which you pick a number from 1 to 25. I will use my random number generator to pick a winner from the entries, but this way you get to choose your own "random number." Just be sure to check comments earlier than yours so that you don't choose an already-taken number.

Good luck.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robert B. Parker Dead at 77

I was shocked this afternoon to learn of the sudden death of Spenser creator, Robert B. Parker. Mr. Parker was only 77 years old and, these days, that doesn't really seem to be all that old. Parker wrote books other than the ones in his Spencer series, of course, but he will be long remembered for creating that wonderful Boston detective.

In my reading experience, Spenser broke new ground. He was a man's man and he was a woman's man. He could take care of himself and he showed little fear; he believed that the fight of good against evil was a worthy one; he loved to help the underdog and was especially protective of women. He had a long-term relationship with a beautiful woman and he never cheated on her. His best friend was a huge African American man and their friendship was so special that their relationship became one of my favorite things about a Spenser novel. Parker allowed Spenser to age over the years but he remained the same man he always was.

Other writers took the Spenser model and modified it enough to create series characters of their own but Spenser was out there very early in the game, helping to show them the way. I didn't discover Robert B. Parker until 1982 and I remember being thrilled to find out about all the earlier Spenser books. Within a few months, I caught up and had read all the Spenser novels written to that point - and for many years I read the new ones as quickly as I could find them.

Rest in peace, Mr. Parker. I thank you for all the books I've enjoyed over the years and I will really miss you.

(The second photo is from the back flap of 1983's The Widening Gyre, the tenth Spenser novel and the first one I purchased in hardcover - when hardcovers were going for $12.95 each.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times

When it comes to country music history, Ralph Stanley has pretty much seen it all. Now, at age 82, he has partnered with author Eddie Dean to share some of that with the rest of us. The book they co-authored, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, will, of course be especially appreciated by bluegrass fans, Stanley Brothers fans, and fans of the work Ralph has done since Carter’s death on December 1, 1966. Others, even those that are not fans of Stanley or of bluegrass music, will find the book to be a remarkable snapshot of a pivotal period in American music history, a time during which musicians like the Stanley Brothers earned their livings through live radio shows, relatively primitive recordings, and driving countless miles from one paying gig to the next.

Stanley was born in 1927 in the Clinch mountains of southwestern Virginia and he still lives very near the old home place where he grew up with his older brother Carter. Carter and Ralph were still teenagers when they began performing as the Stanley Brothers and, for the rest of their lives, the brothers would depend on music to provide their living, difficult as that would often prove to be (think about the impact of Elvis Presley). Carter would be gone much too soon, dead by age 42 primarily because of an inability to control his alcohol consumption, but Ralph would find new lead singers to keep the music of the Stanley Brothers alive to the present day.

First to replace Carter was18-year-old Larry Sparks, but Sparks would be followed over the years by others, including an even younger Keith Whitley who joined the Clinch Mountain Boys with his singing buddy Ricky Skaggs. As Stanley recounts, Whitley would move on to a successful stint with J.D. Crowe before himself dying of alcohol poisoning when just on the verge of a career-making mainstream breakthrough.

Man of Constant Sorrow includes stories about many of the men that have been members of the Clinch Mountain Boys for the past six decades. Stanley shares both the good and the bad about his life and he does the same for the men with whom he worked all those years, even to providing details (as he understands them) of the murder of Roy Lee Centers and the legal system that let off his killer with the lightest of sentences imaginable. Stanley speaks often of losing band members to death or illness and addresses how difficult it was for him to fire various Clinch Mountain Boys over the years.

The beauty of Man of Constant Sorrow is that it is told in Ralph Stanley’s voice, mountain dialect and spelling, included. The voice is so accurate (and, at times so rambling) that one has to believe that Dr. Ralph’s contribution to the book was largely made via a recording device into which he spoke his memories and that Eddie Dean’s job was to put everything in the proper order for a book presentation.

This stream-of-consciousness approach also contributes to an unpleasant surprise or two for those of us who know Ralph Stanley only through his onstage persona. Stanley, it seems, has a tendency to give praise to others with one hand while, with the other, explaining that he does it better than they ever did (be “it” music or some standard of behavior), and a willingness to tell degrading stories about the people he does not like or approve of, even if they are long dead. I was particularly struck by the paragraphs devoted to how delightful if was for the band to have a dim-witted picker on the road with them, someone at whom the rest of the band could always laugh to relieve the tension and fatigue of the road. This light streak of cruelty and lack of empathy in some of Stanley’s stories truly surprises me and exposes an inability to see himself through the eyes of others.

Man of Constant Sorrow suffers, too, from the glaring gaps left in its chronology. Very little is said about Carter Stanley’s children and how they survived after Carter’s death despite the fact that one of them, Jeanie, is herself an excellent bluegrass singer. There is also the matter of Ralph own first marriage, to which I can find only one quick reference where Stanley discusses his mother’s reaction to his surprise marriage to Jimmie: “My first marriage didn’t really count in her book. And not in mine, neither. I had to go through the bad marriage to be ready for a woman like Jimmie, I reckon.” To those unaware of Stanley’s first marriage, this is the equivalent of a neck-twisting double-take, and I still wonder where in his long story this failed marriage fits. Lastly, there is little mention of Ralph’s own children, despite the fact that Ralph Stanley II was a Clinch Mountain Boy for about 20 years and that one grandson is a current member of the band.

Despite the gaps in the book, and, in my personal opinion , some of what Dr. Ralph reveals about his nature, Man of Constant Sorrow is a worthy addition to country music history and it deserves a wide audience. It is, after all, Ralph Stanley’s story - and he gets to decide what he wants to share and what he wants to reveal about himself in the process.

Rated at: 4.0

Best of 2010, Update 2

I have finished the new Ralph Stanley biography, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times. The book is officially authored by Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean so I am not sure if this should be considered a biography, an autobiography, or some hybrid of the two. Perhaps there should be a new category called "celebrity biography" because of the way they are written from interviews and taped conversations. This one, for instance, is entirely in the spoken voice of Ralph Stanley.

After 6 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

5. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)

6. William S. and the Great Escape - Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children's book)
I'm a bit surprised that I still have not found a 5.0 rated book. I have already abandoned three books, too, so maybe I'm just more impatient than I was at the end of last year.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Mama, books and death"

What better tribute can a person whose life has been defined by a love of books receive than something like this?

Tina McElroy Ansa, who lost her mother last week, celebrates her life in this special piece:

One of the first memories I have of my mother is of her sitting in her pink reading chair in the living room with a hard book in her hand. At age 5 or so, I’d come running up to show her something I’d found out in the yard.

She would stop, look me in the face and say softly yet sternly, “Not now, baby. Mama’s reading.” Then she would go back to her book.

I would stomp off for a couple of minutes, probably seconds, and return with the same request, “Hey, Mama, look at this leaf I found. Smell it!”

She would put the book down in her lap again, her manicured finger holding her page, and patiently, slowly repeat her rule.

“Not now, baby. Mama’s reading.”

And I would storm off again, wondering what magic was there in between the pages of those books. Because of my mother, I soon discovered that magic.
My mother fed us wonderful books in just the way she fed us fried Silver Queen corn in summer and chitlins and rich vegetable soup in winter.

This sharing of books was our family practice initiated by my mother until her death. While I was on the road promoting my books, I was always on the lookout for books I know she would enjoy. My friend Blanche, a bookstore owner in the San Francisco Bay area who made friends with my mother when Mama and her childhood friend, Aunt Mary, joined me on book tour there, made sure all the really good authors who came through her stores signed copies of their books for Mama. Just weeks ago, one of Mama’s granddaughters shared the memoir of Diahann Carroll with her, and they discussed it over the phone.
My mother gave me words. My writing taught compassion. My mother died. Fifty thousand Haitians are killed. And I know how it feels to mourn for all of them and each of them.

Universally and specifically.
Avid readers already know how books can positively shape a person's character and life in ways that non-readers will never enjoy. Nellie McElroy understood that. She dearly loved books and reading and she gifted successive generations of her family with that same love, in the process creating new readers that are likely to think of her every time they open the covers of a new book. How great is this?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Boston Noir

Boston Noir is, by my count, the thirty-fourth book in a series of darkish short story collections set in major cities around the world. Each of the featured cities has distinct enough a personality to set a unique tone for its particular volume, even, at times becoming as much a character in the stories as the chief protagonists themselves.

This particular volume is home to eleven short stories, some of which have been written by authors already well known to genre readers and others by lesser known writers. Dennis Lehane contributes both the book’s introduction and a story entitled “Animal Rescue” about a seemingly simple man with an unexpected hard edge to him. Other contributors include: Stewart O’Nan, Lynne Heitman, Jim Fusilli, Patricia Powell and John Dufresne.

The stories have a tough, sometimes depressing, tone to them but they are kept lighter than they otherwise would have been by the bits of ironic humor that sneak into them when least expected. Even readers unfamiliar with the term “noir,” will be tempted to explore the collection after reading Lehane’s definition of what it takes to be a “noir hero” –
“In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs. Tragic heroes die in a blaze of their own ill-advised conflation. Noir heroes die clutching fences or crumpled in trunks or, in the case of poor Eddie Coyle, they simply doze off drunkenly in a car and take one in the back of the head before they have a chance to wake up again. No wise words, no music swelling on the soundtrack.”
These are stories about white collar people who finally reach their breaking point; people who see an opportunity to stick it to the system and grab the chance to do so; people eager to profit from the deaths of others; hard people that suffer because of soft hearts; inept criminals who somehow manage to bluff their way through; and the worst kind of sex predator – something for everyone.

Stories collected from so many different writers will, of course, vary in quality, and those gathered in Boston Noir are no exception to that rule. What is rather unusual, unfortunately, is that the quality of these stories range all the way from very effective to almost incomprehensible, meaning that most readers are likely to consider Boston Noir to be, at best, an average collection of short stories.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Illegal Downloading of E-books Is a Growing Problem

As far as illegal downloads go, 9 million copies is small potatoes in comparison to how many illegal music downloads are still occurring every year. I get that. But I am still impressed with the fact that 9 million copyrighted books were "stolen" via the internet last year. (I wouldn't feel badly if they were all titles by Dan Brown and James Patterson, but that's another story.)

According to this Washington Post article, the bulk of the downloading pertained to some 913 titles, each of which was illegally downloaded about 10,000 times:
The study, conducted by the online monitoring and enforcement service Attributor, highlights the drain from piracy on publishers revenues and the need for more effective protections online for copy-righted material.
The study examined 14 categories to capture a representative sample of the industry, including business and investing, health, mind and body, fiction and reference. Business and investing titles suffered the highest number of illegal downloads, averaging 13,000 copies per title, with a potential loss of more than $1 million on each title, Attributor estimated. Popular fiction titles averaged about 6,000 illegal downloads each.

"Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, for example, was pirated 1,132 times from just one of the hosting sites. Attributor would not release total individual numbers. In fiction, "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown was pirated 8,177 times from one site.
I have also linked to the study so that you can see the details for yourselves, including a listing of the sites responsible for allowing the bulk of the 9 million illegal downloads. I'm going to visit some of those sites (if the links are real) just to see what's going on. I suspect that the industry is watching them closely, too, and I wonder how much increased traffic the sites will receive now that they've been "outed." This is one of those Catch-22 situations for publishers.

Best of 2010, Update 1

I finished a short story collection late last night so it is time for my first update to my Best of 2010 list. Boston Noir is a collection of 11 short stories set in and around Boston, stories involving assorted crimes and criminals that definitely fall in the "noir" category.

After 5 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (nonfiction)
2. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

3. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

4. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)

5. William S. and the Great Escape - Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children's book)
Alert readers will note that my numeric book ratings do not fall perfectly in line on this list. I try to rate an individual book according to what I perceive to be its overall merit and quality. My Best of 2010 list, on the other hand, is based on how much I enjoyed the book and how likely I am to ever be tempted to read it again. Fuzzy enough for you?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Something a Little Different

The hardest thing for me at the end of each calendar year is putting together my "Best of the Year" post. I am starting to believe that the books I read during the first quarter of a given year just don't get a fair shake because they are a little dimmer in my memory than those books I read later in the year.

So, this year, I'm going to keep a "real time" Top 10 list. It will be a floating ranking of the books as I read them. At least at the beginning, I will mix fiction and nonfiction titles in the same list but it might make more sense later on to split the list into two. Each time that I finish a book, I will rank it relative to the books I read before it and when I come to book number 11, one will drop off the list. That way I'll be all set at the end of the year. My only concern is that this might take all the "suspense" from the list, but I honestly think it will be more meaningful.

This is where I am as of January 13:
1. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (nonfiction)
2. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
3. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)
4. William S. and the Great Escape - Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children's book)
The race is on. And it's a marathon.

The Opposite Field

Learning to hit consistently to the opposite field can transform an average hitter into a baseball star. More importantly, the ability to “hit 'em where they’re pitched” in the real world can be the difference between being a failure and being a success at life itself. Jesse Katz is one of life’s better opposite filed hitters.

The hook of Katz’s The Opposite Field is what Katz experienced as a youth league baseball commissioner in Monterey Park, California: irrational parents, deadbeats, suspicious parents, fundraisers and budgets, tricky player drafts, prima donna coaches more interested in winning than in kids, complicated game scheduling, parental custody disputes, dishonest uniform and trophy suppliers, and all the other headaches that seem to come with the territory. Admittedly, it was fun to read about all the things Katz never saw coming and how he handled the league’s problems on the fly, often barely managing to keep things together. But the real story in The Opposite Field is Katz’s immense love for his son Danny, a boy he largely raised alone after he and his Nicaraguan wife separated.

That is precisely why Katz, not the most athletic guy in the world, decided to sign his five-year-old up for baseball – with himself as team coach, to boot. Then, when it appeared that the league might fold before his son’s second season, Katz made the life-changing decision to run the entire facility, not just his son’s team. He had little idea of what he was getting himself into but, with the help of a few other dedicated parents, Katz would oversee several of the best years La Loma Park’s families ever experienced.

Despite the fact that La Loma Park dominated Jesse Katz’s time, he did have a life outside its four ballparks, and he is remarkably honest in sharing that life with readers of The Opposite Field. Katz explains how he got to be the man he is: only child of high-achieving New Yorker parents (who divorced when he was 16) who raised him in liberal Portland, Oregon; a man with a great love of Latin cultures around the world, especially, it seems the women of those cultures. Fluent in Spanish, Katz chose his Los Angeles neighborhood in large part because of his fascination with the racial diversity of the people who lived there.

The neighborhood would become home to Katz despite its distance from his mother and father. He met and fell in his love with his wife there, a full-of-life woman from Nicaragua who was in the United States illegally but who was not at all apologetic about her status. Over the years, the two would experience much together, some of it good and some of it not so good. Katz would grow close to his Nicaraguan family members, several of whom eventually made their way to Los Angles, but would struggle to relate to his out-of-control stepson. He would watch helplessly from afar as his mother battled cancer and would marvel at the support his father would lend his mother despite their divorce.

As young Danny approached his teenage years, his natural yearning for more independence would both test his relationship with his father and lead to one of life’s more beautiful gifts: one final season in La Loma Park playing baseball for his father. The Opposite Field can be a bit rambling at times as Katz moves between tales of his own youth and that of his son but, by the book’s end, it all comes together beautifully. This is a book for those wanting to be reminded of their own Little League days but it is more than that; it is a book for fathers and their sons.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by Crown)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

William S. and the Great Escape

It is August 1938 and, despite the Great Depression gripping the country, William cannot tell that anything has changed for the Baggett family. His father and stepmother depend on government handouts to feed their large family just like they always have; he still has to avoid attracting the attention of his older half-brothers who delight in tormenting him; and he will never understand how his mother could have ever married “Big Ed,” his father, in the first place.

William, who is twelve years old, has been planning to run away from the Baggetts for a long time and he hopes to save enough money in the next few months to make that happen. His plans change, though, when his younger sister Jancy suffers a loss at the hands of the older Baggetts and convinces William that now is time for the four youngest Baggetts to make their escape. One morning before daybreak, William, his two younger sisters, and four-year-old Buddy sneak away to walk the five miles to town where they hope to catch a bus to their Aunt’s house - some 65 miles up the road.

If it were that easy, of course, William S. and his siblings would not have experienced much of a “great escape.” Even before they make it to town things get shaky, but the young Baggetts are offered temporary shelter by Clarice, a little girl whose dog discovers them walking down the street. William’s biggest problem while hiding out with Clarice’s help is how to keep the two youngest Baggett kids from bouncing off the walls from boredom, a predicament he handles by performing Shakespeare’s The Tempest for them. William and Jancy, despite the odds against them getting there, are determined to make it to their Aunt and, when they do, they find they may have completed only what will be the first leg of a longer journey.

William S. and the Great Escape will, I think, be enjoyed by children from about 10 to 13 years of age. Children of that age are generally already familiar with classic tales about stepchildren being abused or ignored by parents who favor their own older children, so they should be sympathetic to the plight of the youngest Baggetts. They will also thrill to the dangers and close calls the children face as they try to outwit the adult world. The author, though, in her zeal to promote the works of William Shakespeare to her young audience, may have overdone it to such a degree that some of those young readers resort to skimming whole chapters of the book in order to get back to “the good parts.”

I passed William S. and the Great Escape on to my 10-year-old granddaughter yesterday and I look forward to hearing what she thinks of it. I suspect that, since she is part of the book’s target audience, she might see it very differently from the way I did.

Rated at: 3.5

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Books of the Century Challenge

I am a chronic failure when it comes to all those great reading challenges that pepper the book blog world. I have started, but failed to complete, at least ten challenges in the last three years and I try not to be tempted into accepting new ones anymore. But along comes Tim Gebhart from A Progressive on the Prairie with another great idea, and I here I go again. This challenge offers so much flexibility that I should be able to handle it, for a change (famous last words I've uttered before).

Tim calls it The Books of the Century Challenge and bases it on Daniel Immerwahr's The Books of the Century website. Click on the Challenge link for all the details and book choices involved and I think you will be pleasantly surprised to find that this is the most flexible challenge you may have ever run across. It can be a one-year thing for you, a five-year quest, or even something that can last you the rest of your life. It's all up to you - and you can consider yourself to be a winner by reading only five books if that's the goal you want to set. If I fail at this one, I'm really going to give up forever.

I think this will be the perfect challenge for readers with new e-book readers because of all the free classics available via the readers - and it will be great for library patrons because lesser known 100 year old classics can be difficult to find.

Tim's Books of the Century Challenge blog explains it all, so take a look and think about joining us in this one.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

HalfPintIngalls Has a Lot to Say

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder have to check out the Twitter posts being made under the name "HalfPintIngalls." HalfPint's Twitter biography goes like this:
Name: Laura Ingalls Wilder

Location: the prairie

Bio: I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
HalfPint, as of this minute, has 5,357 followers (me among them) and she has tweeted almost 500 times - not bad for a little girl way out there on the prairie.

Here are a few examples of what she has to say:
School let out before the blizzard hit, so we didn't have to burn the store-boughten desks for warmth. Not even a few! OH WELL...

On the other hand, when we get a "snow day" off from school it lasts four whole months.

If you're celebrating in town tonight, be sure to give the buggy reins to a trusted friend on your way home from the saloon. (New Year's Eve tweet)

I love the shiny penny I got for Christmas! Stared at the "heads" side all morning. Saving "tails" for later to prolong the fun! (Christmas day tweet)

It's SO COLD that one of my pigtails just snapped off. Awesome.

Today was a pretty good day until the horse died from bloat

Oof. Ate so much my new nickname is "Two-Thirds-Pint." (Thanksgiving day tweet)

Just walked 160 acres for this stupid piece of candy. 160 acres until the next one. HATE trick-or-treating on the prairie. (Halloween tweet)

All I said was, "I see you've got an extra big bustle, Nellie Oleson! Is that the new style?" I don't know why she's so upset.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, HalfPint's "Twittergraph" started sending messages to the world in July 2008. If you are curious about who might be behind all the fun, read the article for one theory on just whom it might be.

This is my kind of humor.

If you are on Twitter, book lovers, you need to make HalfPintIngalls a friend.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A Dave Robicheaux Special

I've been a fan of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels since 1989 when I stumbled onto Black Cherry Blues in one of those old Crown Books bookstores (Crown was one of the earliest book discounters but would eventually give way to Barnes & Noble and Borders). I was so taken with the character and story that I immediately went in search of hardcover first editions of the first two books in the series. I remember paying about $30 for each of those and how $60 seemed like a whole lot of money to be spending for two books - and it probably was a lot of money 20 years ago. But the books turned out to be a great investment because, last time I checked, I think that each of them were going for several hundred dollars.

I've continued to purchase each new Dave Robicheaux novel as soon as it hits the bookstore shelves but, as alert Dave Robicheaux fans will notice, I seem to be one book short of having a complete set of the books. Someone-who-will-remain-nameless talked me into loaning him a copy over a long, cold weekend with the promise that the book would be returned to me in the same condition, smoke-free, early the following week. Never happened because it seems that Mr. Nameless decided to read the book while soaking in a warm tub, fell asleep, and awoke only to find the book floating face down in the bathwater like one of the bad guys in a Dave Robicheaux novel. I keep forgetting to find myself a pristine replacement copy of the missing volume - and Mr. Nameless has long since disappeared from my list of friends. Live and learn is what I took from that experience.

Sitting atop the books is a baseball cap I purchased at Houston's "Murder by the Book" a bunch of years ago. It is still in great shape despite the fact that I wear it regularly on weekends and during the summer. In the dozens and dozens of times I've worn the cap, not once has anyone caught on to the fact that the bait shop logo refers to a bait shop existing only in the mind of James Lee Burke and his thousands of fans. I keep hoping that I will one day run into someone who gets the joke - but I'm not holding my breath anymore. Hmmm, maybe it will happen if I wear the cap to this year's Texas book festival (end of October). I need to write myself a note...

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Calligrapher's Daughter

The Calligrapher’s Daughter is Eugenia Kim’s debut novel and, as so many first novels do, the book tells a story very close to the author’s heart, one, in this case, inspired by her own mother’s life. Set in Korea between 1915 and 1945, it recounts the suffering inflicted upon the country by Japanese invaders that arrived there early in the 20th century. Japanese administrators, determined to wipe out any memory of an independent Korea, allowed only Japanese to be spoken in schools, taught only Japanese history to Korean children, destroyed the Korean royal family, and filled local prisons with those that dared protest. During World War II, when Japan realized its chances of prevailing were slipping away, life became particularly desperate for Koreans because Japan saw Korea as little more than a source of slave labor, food and raw materials to be exploited for the Japanese war effort.

Many Korean patriots, however, refused to submit to the inevitable – and they paid a heavy price for their resistance. Najin Han’s father was one of those. Najin began life as her Christian family’s first born child, enjoying the comfortable lifestyle her well known artist father was able to provide. But, though she was too young to recognize it, all was not well in her world. By the time she was five years old, Japan was well into its efforts to annex her country and her father had begun to attract the attention of local Japanese authorities concerned with snuffing out the resistance.

Over the course of the next thirty years, Najin will struggle to carve out an independent life for herself, one with which her tradition bound father will never be completely happy. Najin is fortunate, however, to have as ally a mother willing to defy her husband in the best interest of her daughter. Rather than capitulate to her husband’s decision to marry off his 14-year-old daughter (to the 12-year-old son of an old friend of his), Mrs. Han secretly sends Najin to the royal court in Seoul where Najin’s dream of an education is made possible.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter is, though, as much the story of 20th century Korea as it is an engaging family saga. Readers, like me, whose sense of Korean history begins with the Korean War of the 1950s and ends with the horrors perpetrated by the almost cartoonish North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, will come away from the book with a new appreciation of Korean culture and the suffering its people have endured for the last 100 years. They will also become emotionally attached to Najin and her family as they follow the course of Najin’s life and everything that happens to her during this violent period in Korean history.

Some readers may find the book’s initial pacing to be a bit sluggish. I want to encourage those readers not to give up on the book too quickly because its pacing mimics that of Japan’s efforts to assimilate Korea – things begin to happen quicker and quicker as the country, and the book, move toward their climaxes.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Borders Makes Another Move in E-Books Battle

According to the Washington Post there is another snazzy e-book reader on the horizon, one that will use color more than the rest of the readers currently on the market. And, although it's not mentioned in this Post article, Borders has apparently struck a deal with Spring Design, the new reader's manufacturer, to ensure that the Borders e-book store is the first thing to be seen when readers power up the thing.
The device will feature a Google Android-based platform with full Web browsing capabilities, Wi-Fi connectivity, audio and video playback and image viewing in a variety of formats. The Alex eReader will also be able to run a number of Android apps.

The Alex eReader boasts a 6? EPD (Electronic Paper Display) screen which allows users to browse the Web in full color while simultaneously searching for and reading digital books. Users can thus click on hyperlinks within online books that lead to relevant information or multimedia content found online in order to enrich their reading experience. EPUB digital books can be searched and downloaded using Google API applications provided by Alex?s eReader.
This is another e-book reader using the EPUB format, further isolating Amazon's Kindle users, and it won't be the last.

As the article points out, Spring Design, just a few months ago, sued Barnes & Noble, claiming that the giant bookseller stole its trade secrets and incorporated them into The Nook. It's a cruel old e-book world out there for booksellers, isn't it?

Take a look:

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Pensioners Burning Books to Stay Warm

Mark this down as another of those stories I never expected to hear. It seems that some old age pensioners in the U.K. are burning books, instead of coal, as they try to stay warm during this unusually cold winter weather (are you paying attention, Mr. Gore?).

The complete article can be found here at this Metro website:
Volunteers have reported that ‘a large number’ of elderly customers are snapping up hardbacks as cheap fuel for their fires and stoves.
Workers at one charity shop in Swansea, in south Wales, described how the most vulnerable shoppers were seeking out thick books such as encyclopaedias for a few pence because they were cheaper than coal.

One assistant said: ‘Book burning seems terribly wrong but we have to get rid of unsold stock for pennies and some of the pensioners say the books make ideal slow-burning fuel for fires and stoves.

A lot of them buy up large hardback volumes so they can stick them in the fire to last all night.’

A 500g book can sell for as little as 5p, while a 20kg bag of coal costs £5.

Since January 2008, gas bills have risen 40 per cent and electricity prices 20 per cent, although people over 60 are entitled to a winter fuel allowance of between £125 and £400.
Just when you think you've heard it all...

The Unnamed

I suspect that the temptation to “walk away from it all” is a common one that almost everyone thinks about, even if only for an instant, at one time or another. Few of us, however, succumb to the temptation because our good sense allows us to control the fleeting urge to chuck it all away for a fresh start. What would happen, though, if, like Tim Farnsworth, the urge to walk away had to be responded to literally – no other option allowed? How would we survive the elements and the dangers of the streets? What would happen to those we leave behind? Joshua Ferris explores those questions in The Unnamed.

Tim Farnsworth, a wealthy Harvard-educated attorney and partner at a prestigious New York City firm, lives with a monster: an unnamed disease that requires him to walk until he drops into a deep sleep from sheer exhaustion. The disease comes and goes, sometimes disappearing for years at a time, but when the urge to start walking strikes, Tim Farnsworth has no choice. He starts walking, and neither the obligations of his job nor those of his family can check his need to hit the streets.

Tim and his wife, by now, know what to expect when the disease returns. Tim is able to alert his wife to what his happening to him and she quickly outfits him in his warmest clothing and makes sure that he leaves the house (or office) with a backpack filled with things to help him survive on his own. Even all this planning does not always work, however, because Tim has a way of walking away from his possessions when coming out of one of his deep sleeps.

The Unnamed, despite the bleakness of its theme, is a terrific character study because it places the reader deep inside Tim Farnsworth’s head as he struggles to understand and control the disease that is slowly, but steadily, killing him. We share his frustration and despair when even the best doctors fail him; we worry with him about how his wife and daughter are holding up back home; we understand his anger at how his longtime legal colleagues take advantage of his illness; and, through his eyes, we see life stripped to its most fundamental elements.

This is a difficult novel to read because of its theme and storyline, and I have no quarrel with that. Ferris succeeds in making the reader feel Tim’s struggle not to surrender to the hopelessness of his situation as the unnamed disease more and more dominates his life. As a result, some readers might, after putting down the book, be a bit reluctant to return to it. This feeling, though, only illustrates how successful Ferris is in making the reader feel the Farnsworth family’s pain. On the other hand, I did struggle during the somewhat tedious section of the book during which Tim loses touch with reality to such an extent that he cannot distinguish the real world from his dream world. This overlong section of the book would have been more effective had it been presented concisely because, as it is written, I found myself rushing through it in order to get to the rest of the story.

The Unnamed is one of those books I will think about for a while – but not one that I am likely to want to read a second time. There is a lot to be gained from reading it once, however, and I recommend it to anyone ready to contemplate life at its most basic.

Rated at: 3.5

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New "TV Book Club" in U.K.

BBC4 pulled the plug on Richard and Judy a while back and that had to be bad news for publishers, authors and booksellers in the U.K. because it also meant that the Richard and Judy Book Club would no longer have access to its large BBC audience. Richard and Judy may not have have sold books in Oprah- style numbers but the show did create its share of U.K. bestsellers, so lots of people took a hit when the show ended.

Now, in a bit of good news for U.K. book people, British producer Amanda Ross has announced the first picks for her new "TV Book Club." The complete article may be found here at The Los Angeles Times website:
Called the Simon Cowell of publishing, Ross was the woman behind Richard and Judy's book club. For years, the popular talk show "Richard & Judy" -- or "chat show," as they say in the UK -- included, among its many topics, a book club. Like Oprah Winfrey's book selections, Richard and Judy's picks could turn quiet books into mega-bestsellers. At its height, the Richard and Judy Book Club accounted for 26% of the 100 bestsellers in the UK.
Though Richard and Judy have continued their show elsewhere, it hasn't had the same profile. And Ross has embarked on a new venture, the upcoming "TV Book Club," a show that promises to talk about books on TV. Ten books were announced for 2010, featuring Abraham Verghese's "Cutting for Stone."
Verghese's book is joined by Nick Hornby's "Juliet, Naked," "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters and George Pelecanos' "The Way Home," among others, in the first roster of the new show. But it remains to be seen whether British readers/viewers will embrace Ross' new show -- will the not-yet unveiled format, which promises new hosts and visiting comedians -- make a show dedicated to books a success?
This sounds like fun and I wish there were a way it could be made available to U.S. viewers via the internet (wishful thinking, I know). Am I the only one wishing that our own Book TV would feature fiction as well as nonfiction books? There are some weekends during which I am just not in the mood for another bunch of political books, biographies, and histories. I suppose that is just more wishful thinking but I cannot, for the life of me, understand why fiction has been banned by Book TV.

Monday, January 04, 2010


Tame by today’s standards, Summer, Edith Wharton’s most sexually explicit novel, probably shocked more than a few readers when it was first published almost 100 years ago. That it is also one of only two novels Wharton placed in a rural setting makes Summer even more unique among her novels.

Charity Royall is bored with her little North Dormer community and only works as the town librarian so she can save enough money to escape the life she endures there. She cares little for books and is perfectly willing to allow them to self-destruct on the shelves while she daydreams about a more exciting existence. But, as it turns out, her fate will be forever linked to the little library.

Lucius Harney, a young architect, has come to North Dormer to visit his aunt and to study and sketch some of the old homes in the area. When he wanders into the library one day in search of a book about the old houses, Charity is smitten with him and unknowingly sets the course that will alter the rest of her life. It is the start of a relationship that, even though it begins innocently, is best kept from the prying eyes of the town gossips. Charity knows that her guardian, Lawyer Royall, the man who did a better job of raising her before his wife died than after, would never approve the match – and that there are those in town who would relish the opportunity to tell him about it.

Secrecy, though, requires privacy, and privacy often leads to a degree of intimacy that results in tragic consequences for the unwed. Only after Harney returns to his life in New York, does Charity realize that she is pregnant - and on her own. As Wharton makes clear, a woman of this period facing Charity’s dilemma had few options: illegal abortion, being sent away to have the baby in secrecy, running away in shame, or perhaps the unlikely luck of finding a sympathetic man willing to marry her.

Charity moves from desperation to despair when she realizes how limited her choices have become and that the life she was already unhappy with has been forever changed, and that change being for the worse. As she moves from one poor decision to the next, at times risking her very life, one is reminded of how greatly American mores and values have changed in the last five decades.

Summer, even though it was governed by the stricter limits of its time on language and theme, is a memorable portrayal of what it was like for a woman to be “in trouble” during the first half of the 20th century. That it still can have a strong impact on the reader today leaves one wondering why it was not more of a sensation when first published. Edith Wharton fans should not overlook this fine novel.

Rated at: 4.0