Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2010 Texas Book Festival vs. Bluegrass Weekend

The 2010 Texas Book Festival, as started by Laura Bush in Austin when she and George lived in the Governor's Mansion there, is fast approaching - and I am faced with a choice I never expected to have to make.  It turns out that the Book Festival is being held two weeks earlier this year than in 2009, the weekend of October 16-17, to be exact.  Well, guess what?  That's the exact weekend that what is probably the best bluegrass festival held in Texas every year will be happening up near Dallas.  Even though the bluegrass festival ends late Saturday night, there is no way I can get to Austin early enough on Sunday morning to catch even the second day of the book festival.

What's a guy to do when the art gods conspire against him?  I've been thinking about this for a week now and - get ready for this - have decided to go to the music festival and skip Austin this year.  The way I look at it, quality bluegrass music is harder to find in this state than are quality book events.  I still can't believe the two festivals are overlapping this way, though...never saw that one coming.

The festival organizers have posted a list of authors who will be at the festival and the first thing I notice is that the authors of my top two fiction choices of the year (as of my last update) are both on the list: Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) and Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn).  Wouldn't you know it?  

Now, I'm going to try to put the festival out of my mind until October 2011.  Yeah, right.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Crying Tree

Surviving the death of a child involves perhaps the worst kind of emotional pain and grief one will ever be required to endure. And, although it is truly horrible to lose a child through illness or accident, having a child murdered has to be the worst thing parents can imagine for their children. This is exactly what Deputy Sheriff Nate Stanley and his wife Irene suddenly face when their only son is shot during what appears to be a home burglary gone very wrong.

Only eighteen months earlier, one of the reasons Nate Stanley moved his family from their home in Illinois to a remote little town in Oregon was because he thought it would be a positive change for his young son. Irene initially had misgivings about leaving the only home any of them had ever known, but her religious faith made it easier for her to acquiesce to her husband’s decision to accept a new law enforcement position in the little Oregon town. Now their son is dead – and the family is struggling to hold itself together even long enough to see the boy who killed him convicted of the crime.

Nineteen years later, Irene Stanley, having returned to Illinois with her husband and daughter, receives the letter she had long dreamed of receiving, the one announcing an execution date for her son’s killer. In just three weeks, Daniel Robbin, now 38, is to be put to death for murdering 15-year-old Shep Stanley all those years ago. Irene has just one problem: she has long since forgiven Robbin and she does not want the state of Oregon to execute him. But what can she do about it now, with only three weeks to spare?

Naseem Rakha tells much of the Stanley family story by alternating present-day-chapters with chapters set around the time of the murder. This device gives the reader a clear picture of what the family has gone through for almost two decades while, at the same time, it exposes the emotional impact of the pending execution on the prison warden in charge of ensuring that everything goes exactly by-the-book. Tension builds relentlessly for everyone involved as the execution date nears and Irene begins to understand exactly what happened in her house the day Shep was shot and killed there.

The Crying Tree is filled with sympathetic characters, all used to good effect by Rakha to explore both sides of the death penalty debate. While it is true that the most sympathetic of Rakha’s characters are trying to stop Daniel Robbin’s execution, I doubt that many readers favoring the death penalty will have their minds changed by the novel. Actually, I do not believe that is what the author was trying to accomplish anyway. Above all, The Crying Tree is a novel about the power of forgiveness to heal unimaginable wounds when nothing else will do the trick. Irene Stanley’s willingness to forgive her son’s killer saved her life - and ultimately saved what was left of her family. That is its real message.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 25

It's been five books since my last update and, since the end of August comes in just a couple of days, this will represent my Top 10 lists exactly two-thirds of the way through 2010.

To be considered again this time are three novels and two nonfiction titles:The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno (Ellen Bryson), Percival's Planet (Michael Byers), Beatrice and Virgil (Yann Martel), Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero (Tom Claven, Danny Peary) and Identical Strangers (Elyse Schein, Paula Bernstein) .

And, just as last time, only one of the three fiction titles cracks the list: Beatrice and Virgil jumps into the shaky number 8 slot.  So now, of 62 fiction titles, these are my 10 favorites:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. The White Garden - Stephanie Barron (literary alternate history)
5. Shadow of the Swords - Kamran Pasha (novel about the Third Crusade)
6. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
7. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
8. Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel (novel with a punch)
9. The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith (historical thriller)
10. Far Cry - John Harvey (police procedural)
And the nonfiction list, from a total of 22 read, changes a bit with Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero moving into what should prove to be a pretty secure number 5 slot and Identical Strangers entering at an extremely shaky number 10:

1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. War - Sebastian Junger (about the daily lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan)
3. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
4. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
5. Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero (biography)
6. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
7. Composed: A Memoir - Rosanne Cash (memoir)
8. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
9. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
10.Idential Strangers (memoir)  

And there you have the best 20 books of the 84 I've read so far this year - with only four months for others to make the final lists.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

So many first novels read like autobiographical fantasies that I am still somewhat surprised when I read one that takes completely the opposite approach, as Ellen Bryson has done in The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno.  Bryson sets her debut novel in a New York City still reeling from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination – interesting enough a time, in itself – but she takes it all a giant step farther by choosing as her main characters some of the human oddities who worked and lived in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum at the time.  Bryson then proceeds to tell a rather sweet love story involving “the world’s thinnest man” and Matina, Barnum’s resident “fat lady.”  Things, however, do not remain sweet for long.  
Barnum, always on the lookout for new talent he can add to his cast of human curiosities, inadvertently stirs the pot when he brings Iell, a bearded lady, into the company.  That she arrives at the museum late at night, only to be quickly spirited away by Barnum, lends Iell an immediate air of mystery.  That mystery is compounded when Barnum’s assistant informs the museum residents that, not only are they not to speak to the woman or seek her out, they are also forbidden to attend any of her museum performances.  
The Rubber Man, the Giantess, the Strong Man, the Fat Lady and others view the mystery as a challenge to see which of them can be the first to solve it.  Bartholomew, though, becomes infatuated with the new performer as soon as he sees her picture on one of the museum’s oversized advertising posters.  Thus, begins Barthy’s transformation, from a man proud of his status as an elite human oddity, into a man completely consumed by desire for a woman to whom he has been forbidden even to speak.   But by the time the mystery of Iell is resolved, Barthy will have changed in more ways than one.
Ellen Bryson does a remarkable job of penetrating the screen behind which P.T. Barnum’s human curiosities hide themselves from the rest of the world, even to revealing the personal pride the performers take in having reached the top of their profession by meriting inclusion in Barnum’s famous museum.  But, long as it is on atmosphere and character development (which, alone, makes the novel worth reading), The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is a bit short on plot.  While the mysteries concerning Iell, and Barnum’s fascination with the woman, are worth solving, it does take a long time to get to that point and, before that happens, the reader will perhaps grow weary of the repetitiveness of everyday life in the museum.  
Still, this is an unusual first novel, one that will especially appeal to fans of gritty historical fiction.  If this is you, you will do well to give The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno a chance.
Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How Did I Miss This?

Sometimes I think I sleepwalk through the world of popular culture.  I spent almost ten years working outside the country and, when I returned to the States for good, I found it impossible to connect with a whole new batch of popular actors, television shows and celebrity types.  Frankly, I didn't try very hard to reconnect, but every once in a while something pops up out of nowhere and catches me by surprise...like this movie based on the work of one of my favorite writers (James Lee Burke) and starring two of my favorite actors (Tommy Lee Jones and Mary Steenburgen).

Now I realize I got out of the habit of keeping up with new movies, but this is ridiculous, because it is from last year and I've been home since 2002.

Here's the trailer for In the Electric Mist (based on Burke's 1993 novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead):

Apparently, the movie is some kind of French/American joint venture that was never released in this country but did fairly well in Europe and Asia.  A shorter version of the film has been released on DVD here, but that's been it.  The French director even wrote a book describing the project in great detail, so the movie has had a fairly high profile in that country.

But I'm stumped.  How can a movie starring actors the status of Tommy Lee Jones, Mary Steenburgen, John Goodman and Ned Beatty just fall through a black hole in this country?  Can it possibly be that bad?

Has anyone actually seen this thing?  I have to find it...

(I HATE the ads that Google insists on tacking on to the bottom of this thing.  Sorry 'bout that.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Identical Strangers

That Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein had been adopted as infants was a given.  Both were thankful to have been raised by loving adoptive parents and, at age 35, each had carved out a nice life of her own.  Paula, a freelance writer, lived with her husband and young daughter in New York City, and Elyse, a film director, considered Paris to be her home.  What neither woman knew was that they are identical twins who had been adopted out, when they were just a few months old, to separate families.
All that would change on the day Elyse contacted adoption agency Louise Wise Services to request information about her birth mother.  In addition to the minimal details about her mother’s background the agency was willing to share with her, Elyse was told that she had an identical twin sister.  And the search for her twin sister, which turned out to be surprisingly easy, was on.  Sooner than Elyse dared imagine, the two were sitting across from each in a New York restaurant on what, for both women, had the feel of a “first date.”  
Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited focuses on the women’s sometimes reluctant search for their birth mother, whom they learn was an exceptionally bright young Jewish woman who suffered severe schizophrenia at the time of their birth.  They also learn that locating their birth father will be impossible because when they were born their mother was unable to name him.  But despite being fearful of what they might learn about their mother’s mental illness, both sisters already having suffered varying degrees of depression, they are determined to identify her.
Identical Strangers, however, is about much more than the search for a birth mother – that particular book has been written often enough already.  Elyse and Paula, in alternating first-person chapters, instead offer a frank account of what it is like for each of them to suddenly face the identical twin neither ever suspected of existing.  One sister is enthusiastic about their reunion and future together but the other sometimes finds herself wishing she could have her old life back, the one into which she did not suddenly have to figure out how to squeeze in a new sister.  The two will exchange frank and blunt comments, and often have their feelings hurt, as they struggle to come to terms with their new relationship. Ultimately binding the sisters together, however, is their shared determination to learn why they were separated by the adoption agency instead of being offered to a family able to keep them together.  Only after many months of determined effort, do they finally learn the shocking truth about Louise Wise Services and the decision that forever changed their lives - along with the lives of the other twins (and one set of triplets) separated by the agency for the same reason.
Along the way, one learns much about the scientific differences between identical twins, fraternal twins and other siblings as the age old question of “nature vs. nurture” is explored.  Also included are numerous stories about the often amazing similarities shared by other twins and triplets who only found each other as adults.  Identical Strangers is another of those instances that remind us that real life can be as fascinating as the best fiction.
Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

No, NY Times, Reading Is Not a Social Event

I am pleased to report the group collectively known as Prospero over at The Economist agrees with my comments regarding the recent New York Times article about how carrying an e-book reader in public can suddenly transform a nerdy-reader-guy into a cool dude.  It all supposedly happens because the e-book reader makes our young hero appear more of a cutting edge kind of guy, someone with whom perfect strangers will be anxious to start a conversation.

My gripe is that the article is rather pointless because reading is not a social event.  It is, in fact, the exact opposite, an event during which the reader tunes out the rest of the world.

As Prospero puts it:
Rather, I'm intrigued by the notion that e-readers make reading less antisocial. Doesn't reading necessitate not socialising? Indeed, isn't that part of the appeal?

I was always under the impression that books served a dual purpose: not only do they offer a world to enter, but also they offer an affordable means of escape from the world we're in. What a nice cloak a book can be on the subway or the train, or while sitting at a bar, enjoying the buzz of humanity while absorbed in something else. I'm reminded of Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist", in which books are recommended as props for travellers who would rather avoid idle chatter with strangers.
Exactly.  Having strangers bug me about my e-book reader while I'm trying to read is the last thing I want to have happen to me.  I much prefer being thought of as a nerd.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero

It was not particularly easy for a kid to be a baseball fan in small town Texas during the late 1950s and early 1960s.  For the most part, all we had to work with were the statistics and player pictures on our baseball cards and the abbreviated box scores our local newspaper deigned to print (the more space the editor needed to fill, the more box scores we got).   Best of all, though, were the nationally televised weekend games, match-ups that so often featured the New York Yankees I had become a rabid Yankee fan by the beginning of the 1960 season – just as Roger Maris joined the team from Kansas City.
As exciting as that season was, no one would have dared predict that Maris might break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record in 1961 or that Mantle would keep almost the same home run pace right down to the last several weeks of the season.  Even small town newspapers were caught up in the excitement of the chase and, for a change, they printed some of the same articles big city fans were reading in their own papers.  But there must have been one subtle difference in what we read and what big city fans read because I was only vaguely aware, in Texas, that New Yorkers were rooting for only Mantle to break the record; if not Mantle, certainly not Maris, was the overwhelming sentiment there.
Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero is the complete Roger Maris biography.  And, because Maris was a private person who shared very few personal details with writers of the day, the book holds surprises even for those who witnessed the pressure-packed 1961 season and believe they already know the Roger Maris story.   Few, for instance, are likely to know that Maris was not born in North Dakota as he claimed or that “Maris” is not the original spelling of his surname – or about the dysfunctional family dynamic that caused the spelling to be changed.  
The biography, however, rightfully focuses on the way New York sportswriters and broadcasters conspired to ruin a good man’s reputation and to make him miserable during what could have been the best year of his life.  Old-school writers, in particular, hated to see Babe Ruth’s home run record fall and, if it had to be broken at all, the last thing they wanted to see was someone like Roger Maris do the breaking.  Because they did not consider Roger Maris to be a “true Yankee,” this unethical group of writers trashed his reputation on a daily basis.  They portrayed him as surly and unappreciative, a man who refused to play through his injuries the way Mantle played through his own.  They even covered for Mantle’s drinking problems and resulting lack of hustle while attacking Maris for not going full out even when ordered to play at a slower pace (to protect an injury) by his manager.  And it worked – fans in every American League city hated Maris and never failed to boo or jeer him, even in his home ballpark.
That was bad enough.  But just as bad was the unethical way  Commissioner Ford Frick decided to protect the home run record of Babe Ruth, a friend of his, by hanging the infamous “asterisk” on Maris, insisting that Ruth was still the single season champion for a 154-game schedule and that Maris was only the champion for a less impressive 162-game schedule (even though Ruth had three more overall at-bats than Maris).  But it gets still worse because, later in his Yankee career, the full extent of a hand injury was kept from Maris by the Yankee front office and his manager, Ralph Houk, a decision that all but ensured he would never fully regain the grip in that hand or be able to pull a ball like he did when it was healthy.  This is the same front office that failed to protect Maris from the rabid press in 1961 or even to promote his continuing chase to catch Ruth after the 154th game of the season, the same people who would send him off to St. Louis without ever recognizing what a great Yankee player he actually had been.
Understandably, Roger Maris hated the Yankee organization and Yankee fans by the time he was traded to St. Louis in an underhanded deal that turned out to be the biggest blessing of his career.  That he would be able to reconcile with the Yankee organization, thanks to the efforts of George Steinbrenner, and that he would learn to love baseball again because of his experiences with the St. Louis Cardinals, is the best part of the Roger Maris story.  When he died at age 51, still in the prime of life, baseball lost one of its all time greats, a man that, in my opinion, deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame despite the successful efforts of a group of despicable writers to keep him out of it.
Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero is not just a book for baseball fans because Roger Maris is a true American hero, a man whose story will be an inspiration to anyone who reads this revealing biography. 
Rated at: 4.5

Sunday, August 22, 2010

No, Virginia, Life Is Not Fair

No realist ever said life is fair...no one with his eyes open ever believed it was.

According to Forbes magazine, these are the best paid writers from June 1, 2009 to June 1, 2010:
1.  James Patterson at $70 million  (one out of every seventeen novels bought are "written" by "the quickie") 
2.  Stephenie Meyer at $40 million  (will the public never grow tired of vampires and werewolves?) 
3.  Stephen King at $34 million  (I admit to having enjoyed a whole lot of King, and still look at his new books to see if they appeal to me)  
4.  Danielle Steele at $32 million (receives $7 million advance per book and had four new ones in the twelve month period) 
5.  Ken Follett at $20 million (I can live with this one, having enjoyed Pillars of the Earth and others of his - much of his earnings came from revived interest in Pillars
6.  Dean Koontz at $18 million (frankly, I used to think of Koontz as King-lite, but he has carved out a nice genre niche for himself)  
7.  Janet Evanovich at $16 million (astonishingly, she sells at an amazing annual pace and has a new publisher willing to give her an even more astonishing advance per book) 
8.  John Grisham at $15 million (the man has had some good moments, I agree)

9.  Nicholas Sparks at $14 million (give me a break)

10. J.K. Rowling at $10 million (the billionaire writer falls all the way to number ten, poor thing)
No, boys and girls, life is not fair, and this list proves it once again. Appealing to the lowest common denominator will beat out quality every single time, be it in books, movies, television or music.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"There has been a stigma attached to the bookworm"

One paragraph from this New York Times article particularly caught my attention this afternoon:

“I think, historically, there has been a stigma attached to the bookworm, and that actually came from the not-untrue notion that, if you were reading, you weren’t socializing with other people,” Dr. Levinson said. “But the e-reader changes that also because e-readers are intrinsically connected to bigger systems.” For many, e-readers are today’s must-have accessory, eroding old notions of what being bookish might have meant. “Buying literature has become cool again,” he said.  (Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University)
The focus of the article is on how e-book reading devices make people who dare read in public more accessible - like that's necessarily a good thing.

I read a good bit in public, generally when I'm catching lunch on the run somewhere or when I'm forced to cool my heels in some doctor or attorney's waiting room.  Rather than sit like a lump of inert clay (the way so many others seem to do) I take advantage of the time to read a few pages in whatever book I have handy.

So lets get something straight, Professor.  I don't want to be accessible; I want to read.  I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me because they think I'm some nerdy guy with so few real friends that I substitute books for people.  I feel a kinship with others whom I spot reading in public, often making eye contact and sharing a quick smile and a little nod with them.  Sometimes we even lift our books so that we can share the titles being read - but very seldom do we really talk because that's just not necessary.  Readers understand each other; if the general public does not get it, perhaps the "stigma" rests on their own shoulders and in their tiny little minds.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Percival's Planet

Percival’s Planet centers on the 1930 discovery of the elusive “Planet X,” a planet long suspected to exist, but one very difficult to photograph using the technology of the day. “Planet X” would come to be known as Pluto, and the Kansas farm boy who discovered it would gain worldwide fame for finally locating it. Ironically, Pluto would go on to lose its status as a planet in late 2006 when the definition of “planet” was officially written and Pluto failed to meet the new standard.

In reality, however, Percival’s Planet is about much more than the discovery of Pluto. Michael Byers does center his story on young Clyde Tombaugh, the ultimate discoverer of the new planet, but he uses several interesting side plots to develop the other characters that will find themselves in Flagstaff when Clyde finds success there. These characters include Alan Barber and Dick Morrow, two young men who precede Clyde’s arrival at the Lowell Observatory, and Florence, the girl both men fall in love with; Edward Howe, a retired boxer that falls in love with his mentally ill secretary; Felix Duprie and his mother, wealthy Easterners that move to Arizona in search of dinosaur bones; and the eccentric widow of Percival Lowell, founder of the observatory, and a man who spent much of his life in search of Planet X.

Byers spends a good bit of time (and numerous pages) developing each of his subplots and supporting characters, something he can afford to do in a novel of more than 400 pages. The reader comes to know most of the main characters in their more natural habitats prior to their arrival in Flagstaff for purposes of their own. Despite their varied backgrounds, and individual pursuits, Byers builds a web in which these characters plausibly interact with each other to a degree that makes Pluto’s discovery read almost an afterthought. When, near the end of the book, the planet is finally discovered, in fact, it is somewhat a letdown because the reader’s anticipation of the event is sure to exceed the impact of the author’s description of the discovery’s aftermath.

Clyde Tombaugh’s personal story is an amazing one in itself. Clyde, son of a tenant farmer, had a keen interest in telescopes, even to manufacturing fine lenses of his own on the farm, but he could not afford to go to college after finishing high school. A chance letter would bring him to the attention of the Lowell Observatory director at precisely the moment a staff opening unexpectedly occurred and, much to his surprise, Clyde would be invited to fill that opening. And after receiving minimal on-the-job training on the observatory’s equipment, the young man barely out of high school virtually would be left on his own to search for the mysterious Planet X.

Percival’s Planet is an interesting peek at Depression era America and an assortment of characters trying to find their place in society just when times were becoming difficult - and it offers an intriguing look at the discovery of the used-to-be planet, Pluto. For all that, it does not work quite as well as it should because so many of the novel’s characters cross the line from believable into unbelievable, making it difficult for the reader to lose himself in the story being told.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Homeless Man Lives in Library for Two Weeks

Not Charles A. Jones

And guess what he did to kill the time...he read books.  You have to love that.

According to The Post Chronicle:

A 26-year-old homeless man was discovered living in the basement of an Ocean Township library in New Jersey. According to reports, he was found by the custodian after living in the Library for two weeks.

 Charles A. Jones Jr. is from Neptune, New Jersey. He was spotted by the custodian on August 13 around 9:10 p.m. He was spotted peeking through a basement window after hours. The custodian immediately called the police.
Not a bad life, I suppose...all the books you could ever want, plenty of time to read, and free food from the employee break room. What a deal!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil

The first thing you need to know about Beatrice and Virgil is that it is not for everyone. Many will find it to be moving and unforgettable; probably an equal number will be bored with it, even to the point of not finishing it. It is that kind of novel. The second thing you need to know is that it is a difficult novel to review without lessening its potential impact on the reader. Reviewers need to be particularly careful with this one because, the less readers know about the book’s details going in, the more they are likely to feel its emotional wallop.

Beatrice and Virgil is about, Henry, a novelist that has had a huge amount of unexpected success with his first novel, so much success, in fact, that he is not inclined to start writing a second book. Instead, he moves to an unnamed large city with his wife, where the couple lives comfortably off the proceeds of his bestseller. Henry takes music lessons, performs in amateur plays, and takes a clerking job in a small chocolate store. All is well until the day he receives a package containing a copy of a strange short story of Flaubert’s and a few pages from an unknown play.

Curious about the unknown writer, and the man’s bold request for his help, Henry locates him and his amazing taxidermy shop. Over several visits to the shop, the taxidermist (also named Henry) reads scenes from his play aloud while (our) Henry becomes more and more caught up in the story of Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the monkey. He is so intrigued by the characters, and the way the taxidermist has captured their fictional personalities in the donkey and monkey posed on the shop floor, that he finds himself looking forward to visiting the preserved animals - and he misses them when he leaves the shop. The two Henrys form a relationship of sorts, as Henry (the author) helps Henry (the taxidermist) complete or re-write several scenes of the play.

Much as in Martel’s Life of Pi, there is more to Beatrice and Virgil than first meets the eye. The reader will be charmed by the relationship between the donkey and her monkey friend but, at times, will perhaps be bored by other parts of the story. I doubt that Martel purposely set out to bore any of his readers but, as one who was thus affected, I can honestly say that those moments of boredom would ultimately help to maximize the impact of what was yet to come.

Most likely, one will either love or hate Beatrice and Virgil. I come down on the side of those who loved it.

Rated at: 5.0

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Peep Diaries

 Hal Niedzviecki’s The Peep Diaries explores how and why popular culture has evolved into one in which so many people suffer from the TMI (Too Much Information) syndrome.  Not only are millions of exhibitionists willing to share the most intimate details of their lives with perfect strangers, they work hard to make sure as many people as possible view those details.  As Niedzviecki notes on the first page of his book, Webster’s New World Dictionary added a new verb to its 2008 edition to describe this very phenomenon: overshare - to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval.
But let us be honest.  There would be far fewer exhibitionists if the rest of us did not relish watching them make fools of themselves.  Not only are we a culture of exhibitionists; we are a culture of voyeurs.
Niedzviecki believes that Peep Culture emerged because people find it more difficult today than ever before to develop close, long-lasting relationships.  We might live in larger and larger cities, surrounded by more people than ever, but the pace at which we live our lives makes it near impossible to connect with like-minded people or to maintain such relationships over the long term.  So what could be more tempting, or addicting, than how easy it is to find hundreds of new “friends” on websites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube – especially when we can choose people who think and believe exactly as we do?
In order to test his theory, Niedzviecki became a direct participant in Peep Culture.  Among other things, he blogged and he tweeted; he participated in what is humorously called “reality TV;” he met with a group of people who post nude photos of themselves on soft-porn websites; he researched the latest tech gadgets that allow us to spy upon one another; he made over 700 new friends on Facebook; and he filled out online surveys in which he exposed his personal details to companies that profit by selling his information to others.  In other words, he did the very things so many of us have been doing for a number of years (well, maybe with the exception of posing in the nude for web photos). 
Niedzviecki thoroughly explores the downside of Peep Culture, a downside that is particularly dangerous to young people on the cusp of maturing into the adults they will be for the rest of their lives.  He notes that college administrators, hiring managers, credit managers, insurance investigators and others, are as aware of sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as anyone else – and that they often pre-screen applicants based on what they see on those sites.  Not surprisingly, what makes a high school or college student popular among his peers (primarily an ability to party with the best of them), is the very thing that could cost him admittance to the college of his choice, a high-paying job after college, or reasonably priced car or health insurance.  
Niedzviecki spends surprisingly little time exploring the more positive aspects of Peep Culture.  How, for  instance, those finding it most difficult to make face-to-face friends often eliminate depression and raise self-esteem in the process of making dozens of new friends on-line – even to the point of using their new found confidence to make friends locally.  Or how easy it is for like-minded people to find each other and share a passion about some obscure subject so few others seem to care about.  But regardless of whether or not there is a Peep Culture “pro” to match every Peep Culture “con,” there is no going back to the way we were even two decades ago.  The world has never been smaller, and never before have people been so interconnected for so many hours of the day.  
The repetitiveness of Niedzviecki’s arguments does, at times, make for dry reading, but The Peep Diaries is a nice snapshot of where Peep Culture is today, if not necessarily where it will be this time tomorrow.
Rated at: 3.0

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Is Stress Addictive?

Have you ever had so many things to do that, when you finally got a break, you couldn't figure out what to do with your sudden-found spare time?  That's where I find myself today.  For months now, every spare moment has been taken up with a task that needed doing ASAP, most of it involving things I needed to do for other family members.  Suddenly, we seem to be in the eye of the storm (the worst is yet to come, however), and things are so quiet today that I find myself wandering around wondering what I'm supposed to do next.  How sad is that?

I did spend an hour at B&N this morning, sitting in their coffee shop and proofing/editing a paper for someone who needs to turn it in tomorrow.  I went to B&N to do that hour's work just to get away from home because it seems there are more distractions here sometimes than there are sitting in the middle of a bookstore.  I have to confess, though, that three of my fellow patrons irritated the bejeezus out of me (on behalf of the bookstore) when they bought tiny cups of coffee before sitting down to trash several newspapers each while they sipped their coffee.  Don't these jerks realize that no one will buy the newspapers they wrinkle up, drip coffee on, and cram back on the racks?  Of course they do...they don't care.  Come on, B&N manager, are you really so desperate to get people into the store that you'll take a guaranteed loss on people like these?  You don't have to put up with that...just saying.

Now, I'm "multi-tasking" by watching the Astros game with the sound turned down low, reading what some of my favorite book bloggers have posted today, and doing my own muttering in this post...along with teaching my 8-year-old grandson how to work the DVD player in the play room.  The scary thing is that I feel as if I'm not accomplishing anything - and I'm wondering if I've become a stress junkie...that can't be good.

I'm going to get back to a couple of books sometime this afternoon, too.  One is the 800-something page George Washington biography that I'm reading for a blog book tour scheduled in mid-October.  That one is fascinating, to say the least.  I've learned more about Washington in the book's first 75 pages than I new going in, and I still have about 750 pages to go.  The best part is that the book is written in a very readable style, meaning that most of what I read sinks in on the first pass.  The other is a novel supposedly about the discovery of Pluto in 1930 - but it is more about the characters whose lives came together at, and around, the Arizona observatory responsible for the discovery.  I have very mixed emotions about this one so far and it only has 75 more pages to convince me, one way or the other, of its quality.

You know, I could learn to like Sundays like this one.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ordinary Thunderstorms

With Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd tries his hand at what is still new territory for him, thriller-writing.  Perhaps best known for his eighties novels A Good Man in Africa and An Ice-Cream War, Boyd this time carries his readers to a very different world, that of  homeless men and women trying to survive on the streets of London.  
Main character, Adam Kindred, is in the city in search of a new job.  Kindred, a university lecturer and climatology researcher, is looking to return to England, the country of his birth, after having blown both his career and his marriage in the United States.  In a moment of weakness, Kindred succumbed to the charms of one of his female students. When, feeling guilty about his poor judgment, Kindred tried to break off the very brief affair, he learned just how unstable the young woman is.  In order to call Kindred her own, she was willing to wreck his marriage and his career - and she did exactly that.
Now, job interview completed, and finding himself in a celebratory mood, Kindred is eating alone in an Italian restaurant where he makes brief contact with another lone diner.  When that man, immunologist Philip Wang, leaves behind a folder of papers, Kindred volunteers to carry the papers to the man’s home.   That innocent decision, made out of good will and a bit of loneliness, will cost him everything he has left, including his reputation and his very identity.
Kindred arrives at Wang’s home, only to find him near death from what will soon prove to be a fatal stab wound.  In a flurry of panic, Kindred stumbles around the apartment and manages to leave his fingerprints in all the wrong places, including on the handle of the murder weapon.  Forced to flee the scene, but realizing that he will be the prime suspect in Wang’s murder, Adam Kindred decides to hide on the streets of London until the real murderer is captured or at least charged with the crime.  Kindred finds an almost perfectly hidden spot along the banks of the Thames to hide himself as he eludes both the police who have identified him, by name, as a murder suspect and the assassin who wants to kill him and retrieve the papers still in Kindred’s possession.
What keeps Ordinary Thunderstorms from working as well as William Boyd fans would expect it to work are the extraordinary coincidences that keep the plot moving along and the stereotypically horrible big-pharma villains trying to kill Kindred before he inadvertently spills the beans about what they are up to.  Boyd uses so little subtlety in developing those characters, and the hit man they hire, that it is difficult for one to take his plot seriously enough to be much thrilled by it.  Boyd may as well have used stereotypical big-oil villains who are willing to sacrifice workers and the environment in order to drill wells as cheaply as possible so they can continue to collect their huge bonuses and stock options.  He might have had them even negotiate with some national government in order to have a convicted terrorist released from prison in exchange for a lucrative oil exploration contract with some oil-rich Middle Eastern country.  That would be just about as believable as the activities of this big-pharma company.  Hey, wait a minute…
Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 24

I think it's time for another update while these last five books are still fresh on my mind.

To be considered this time are three novels and two nonfiction titles: The Perfect Reader (Maggie Pouncey), The Fabulous Clipjoint (Fredric Brown), The White Garden (Stephanie Barron), Composed: A Memoir (Rosanne Cash),  and The Peep Diaries (Hal Niedzviecki).

This time around, only one of the three fiction titles deserve to crack the list: The White Garden moves in at a nice number 4 slot.  So now, of 59 fiction titles, these are my 10 favorites:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (Vietnam War novel)
3. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)
4. The White Garden - Stephanie Barron (literary alternate history)
5. Shadow of the Swords - Kamran Pasha (novel about the Third Crusade)
6. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction)
7. Drood - Dan Simmons (historical fiction)
8. The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith (historical thriller)
9. Far Cry - John Harvey (police procedural)
10. Home, Away - Jeff Gillenkirk (baseball novel)

And the nonfiction list, from a total of 20 read, changes a bit with Composed moving in comfortably at number 6:

1. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
2. War - Sebastian Junger (about the daily lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan)
3. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)
4. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)
5. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)
6. Composed: A Memoir - Rosanne Cash (memoir)
7. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz - (memoir)
8. The Tennis Partner - Abraham Verghese (1998 memoir)
9. Game Change - John Heilemann & Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
10. Damp Squid - Jeremy Butterfield (on the evolution of the English language)  

That makes these the best 20 books of the 79 I've read so far this year, with almost five months still for otherss to make the final lists.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alan the Accountant Shuns Pants But He's One Cool Dude

As an accountant of several decades experience, I have grown a bit weary of the stereotypical accountant image used so often to amuse television and movie viewers.  I've laughed at this guy, too...heck, I may have worked with him in a past life.  I no longer make my living as an accountant but, you know, I feel bad for the brothers and sisters who still suffer the ridicule of their friends, neighbors, and spouses just because they have not yet put their pencils down.  You know who you are, you cruel people.

That's why I am pleased to announce a new children's book featuring none other than Alan the Accountant.  No longer do your small children have to be bored by books about firemen, policemen, cowboys, postmen, or Bob the Builder.  Now they can be bored by Alan the Accountant (who apparently cannot afford pants, or maybe just enjoys walking around without them - who said accountants weren't sexy?).

So, I am proud to introduce the very cool, Alan the Accountant:

Alan looks just like the kind of accountant who can motivate your children into taking up the pencil when older accountants are ready to hand it off to the next generation.  Don't miss the opportunity to thrill your children with the excitement of a day on the job with Alan.  One small footnote: the book is being published only in iPhone format (sounds like a plot by Apple accountants to sell more iPhones, to me).

Click here for all the details.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Composed: A Memoir

Acclaimed songwriter and recording star Rosanne Cash, is a reluctant celebrity at best. She never wanted a public life, always preferring to maintain her privacy rather than to share the details of her life via the numerous lowbrow celebrity-worship outlets so common today. Over the years, her fans have come to understand that choice, and to respect it. Those same fans now will be pleasantly surprised at the depth to which Cash willingly shares the details of her life in Composed: A Memoir.

Rosanne Cash’s father, of course, is none other than Johnny Cash, a man for whom the word “legend” is insufficient to describe his place in music history. Cash grew up in her father’s shadow, sensing early on that her achievements would be forever judged in comparison to his - a pressure-filled, no-win situation she wanted to avoid. She witnessed the performer lifestyle first hand and knew it to be harder work, and much less glamorous, than outsiders could ever imagine. She was certain she wanted no part of it. And, because she had always been good with words, even to believing that some day she would make her living as an author, Cash decided that songwriting offered her the best chance to work in the “family business” and still maintain the privacy she desired.

Rosanne Cash’s life has always been about music and journeys. As she puts it, “I have learned more from songs than I ever did from any teacher in school. They are interwoven and have flowed through the most important relationships in my life – with my parents, my husband, and my children…For me music has always involved journeys, both literal and metaphoric.” In Composed: A Memoir, she shares some of those journeys with her readers.

Cash, the oldest of her father’s children, starts at the beginning, recalling what it was like to grow up in Southern California at a time her father’s road habits were destroying his marriage and her mother’s health. She discusses her attempts to distance herself from her father’s style of music, including the London sojourn during which she served as a gofer at a London record label for several months (a job arranged by her father). She beautifully recounts her journey toward becoming a recording star and successful songwriter, and how proud her father was of her success. Along the way, she revisits her marriage to Rodney Crowell, a marriage that filled her home with daughters, and describes her relationship with John Leventhal, the man to whom she has been married for the past fifteen years, the father of her only son.

Beyond a doubt, first and foremost, Rosanne Cash is a writer. Her prose is at its best when she describes the devastating series of deaths she and her family endured beginning in early 2003 and the unusual brain surgery she herself suffered in late 2007. On May 15, 2003, June Carter Cash died and John followed her on September 12. Just six weeks later, her stepsister Rosie would die of carbon monoxide poisoning, and in May 2005 she would lose her mother, Vivian, to lung cancer. Cash spoke at the funerals of her parents and June Carter Cash; Composed includes each of their eulogies.

Indeed, Rosanne Cash is good at words. I suspect her father would be very proud of his daughter’s story.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, August 09, 2010

The White Garden

Everyone knows that, one day in 1941, famed British author Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with heavy rocks before stepping into the cold waters of the river Ouse. Perhaps because of the extra weight she carried into the water with her, Woolf’s body would not be found until three weeks later. Woolf’s family and friends, aware that she was often in a suicidal frame-of-mind, were not surprised by her end, so the official verdict of suicide was never challenged. Now, in an intriguing piece of alternate history, The White Garden, Stephanie Barron examines the possibilities of what may have happened during the three weeks between Woolf’s disappearance and the recovery of her body in the Ouse.

American Jo Bellamy has come to Kent’s Sissinghurst Castle to copy the layout of its famous White Garden for a wealthy client who wants to replicate it on the grounds of his Long Island home. Imogen Cantwell, the castle’s head gardener, has grudgingly agreed to allow Jo full access to the White Garden so that she can gather all the measurements and photos she will need to create a perfect copy of the grounds for her client. But, for Jo, this is not just a way to generate revenue for her business; it is an opportunity to visit the part of England in which her beloved grandfather, who killed himself just three weeks earlier, lived for the first two decades of his life.

After Jo discovers that her grandfather spent several months as an apprentice gardener at Sissinghurst (the home of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West), her search for garden records from that period leads her to the discovery of what appears to be a partial diary written in the hand of Virginia Woolf herself. Oddly, however, the journal is bound with a note indicating that, when it was boxed for storage, it actually belonged to Jo’s grandfather. Even odder, the first entry in Woolf’s handwriting is dated the day after her supposed drowning in the river Ouse.

Already puzzled by her grandfather’s so out-of-character suicide, Jo now starts to wonder if her trip to Sissinghurst might have everything to do with the timing of his death. Her quest to have the first half of the journal authenticated, and to find its missing pages, draws the attention of others wanting to exploit the astounding journal for their own purposes. For Jo, it is all about understanding why her grandfather felt it necessary to end his life; others want a piece of the fame, and profit, which will result from proximity to a journal that might literally rewrite a significant portion of literary history.

The White Garden works because of the way Barron mixes her intriguing plot of alternate history with a large cast of interesting characters. Admittedly, some of the characters are a little too close to stereotypes to be completely effective but, in the context of the story, even those characters contribute to the fun. Fans of Virginia Woolf, and Anglophiles of all stripes, are likely to enjoy this one a great deal. I certainly did.

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Who Will Turn Out the Lights in America's Last Bookstore

First there were locally owned, independent bookstores; then came the first of the big box bookstores to steal their market share and force the locals to close their doors by the thousands.  Next came the even-bigger box bookstores to knock off those earlier indie-killers - and we said goodbye to Crown Books and B. Dalton, and learned to live with the colorless, watered-down version of Walden Books.

Suddenly Barnes & Noble and Borders seemed to share the national book market except for the surprise of something called a Books-A-Million store that popped up every once in a while.  Mass market book consumers rejoiced at the low price of bestsellers, while hardcore book lovers grieved at the way the book market was being controlled by just two giant corporations.  Prices were down, but so was choice.

Then along came a little internet startup, Amazaon.com, to challenge the dominance of the Big 2 book retailers.  Barnes & Noble and Borders, used to having things their way, and not immediately recognizing the challenge of competing with an online bookseller the likes of Amazon, were slow to react.  So slow, in fact, that Borders has been losing money and closing stores for years in a desperate struggle just to keep its own doors open.  And now, even Barnes & Noble, the company that once seemed headed toward total dominance of the market, has put itself up for sale because it is not likely to otherwise survive into the next decade.

But even Amazon should not get complacent because, with the increasing acceptance of e-books, even a giant like Amazon is going to be challenged for market share.  Barnes & Noble did just that with the introduction of its Nook e-book reader but does not seem to have regained much, if any, market share in the process.  Sony tried it, probably with even less success than Barnes & Noble (just a gut feel on my part because I do not have the numbers to verify it).  But hold on, Amazon, because here comes Mr. Apple, Steve Jobs, with his iPad, a not-so-little gizmo that can function pretty well as an e-book reader among the countless other things it can do that the Kindle cannot.  Mr. Apple is, in fact, so powerful that he has already, much to Amazon's chagrin, changed the whole pricing structure for e-books.

My question is this: what are you going to do when bookstores go the way of CD stores?  Remember those things?  I, for one, did not even realize they were disappearing until they were almost all gone, but I am a bit more aware of what is happening this time around.

Someone please tell me this means a return, at least, to the days of the local independent bookstores, a step back toward the way we were a few decades ago.  I am willing to pay higher prices (and do it all the time) if it means that I can still drive to a nice bookstore on Saturday mornings, especially to one that still feels like a real bookstore.  Alas, Sven Birkets of the Wall Street Journal does not believe this will be the case.  See this article, "Bye-Bye Bookstores," for his thoughts.

Thankfully, I already own a pretty good library of my own and a room into which I can escape to be surrounded by books.  Perhaps that is where we are heading - a return to the fantastic home libraries of centuries past.  These days, I find myself singing the old song, "Stop the World and Let Me Off," with a whole new appreciation for its sentiments.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Two Great New Books Leave Me Feeling a Bit Guilty

There are only two novelists whose work I always buy just about as soon as it is published in hardcover: James Lee Burke and Elizabeth George. Not so coincidentally, both are still adding to a long series featuring a detective who has seen great change over the years. In the case of Burke, of course, I'm referring to Dave Robicheaux and, in the case of George, to Thomas Lynley. I have way too many years, and reading hours, invested in these characters not to care what happens to them next. It's been a bit painful to be a Thomas Lynley fan during George's last couple of books, but I'm told that he's back in fine form in This Body of Death. James Lee Burke has to be one of the finest novelists writing today, a distinction he has held for many years now, and I always look forward to the next Dave Robicheaux adventure.

I finally got around to buying both This Body of Death and Burke's new one, The Glass Rainbow, this morning. Normally, I would have grabbed each of them within days of their hitting the bookstores, but things have been so frantic around here since March that my bookstore visits have been limited - and, even during my few visits, I always forgot to look for the books.

Today I made a special trip to Barnes & Noble to see if I could afford to take both of them home with me. And it appears that my slow purchase paid off. The Elizabeth George book had a 50% off sticker on it and the James Lee Burke book has hit the bestseller list, meaning that it carries a 30% discount. Add my B&N membership discount to the scenario and I ended up getting 60% off on the George book and 40% off on the Burke one. Cover price on the two books totals $58.98 but I ended up getting both for a grand total of $28.63, plus tax.

So now I feel guilty for stiffing my area indie bookstores. But times are tough, my indie friends, and I simply could not resist this deal because, when I left the house this morning, I feared I was going to have to make the near impossible decision of choosing between the new Burke and the new George. I do promise to keep buying as much from you indie guys as possible, especially when it comes to new authors and backlists. Forgive me?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Camden Threatens to Close All City Libraries in 2011

It looks like Vice-President Biden's "Summer of Recovery" tour is fast turning into the bust the rest of us already knew was headed our way like a bat out of hell.  Sometimes, it seems, our beloved leaders are the last too know (scary as that thought is).

That's not the case, though, for the bunch in charge of Camden, NJ, government.  They know how bad it really is out there, and they are chopping non-esential services to help control their budget shortfall.  You know, non-essential services like public libraries.   According to the MyFox, New York, website this is what is going to happen:
New Jersey's most impoverished city will close all three branches of its public library at year's end unless a rescue can be pulled off.

Camden's library board says the libraries won't be able to afford to stay open past Dec. 31 because of budget cuts from the city government. The city had its subsidy from the state cut.

The library board president says the library system, which opened in 1904, is preparing to donate, sell or destroy its collections, including 187,000 books.

Board president Martin McKernan says keeping the books around would pose a fire hazard.
I am desperately hoping that this library board president is just playing a game of "chicken" with those in charge of funding the Camden library system because I cannot imagine that a library president would ever really resort to destroying a collection of this size.  Why would the books be more of a fire hazard if the doors are locked on Camden's libraries than they are now?  Does this guy really expect that his future budget will some day go up to a level that allows him to replace 187,000 books all at once?  Or is he a prime example of the Peter Principle...a man who has been promoted one too many times and is now in a job that demands way more competence than he possesses?

Libraries continue to take the hit for all the foolish government overspending in other areas.  This disgusting trend seems to be on the rise - and that is very, very wrong.