Saturday, October 30, 2010

Books for Treats

Luann is on the right track...join her?
It's not too late.  You can still give "Books for Treats" tomorrow night if you participate in the whole Halloween thing.  Now, I'm not saying that you will not have a record number of tricks pulled on you if you do hand out books rather than candy.  So, reader beware.

Take a look at this website and you'll learn all you need to know about why so many people are starting to give books instead of candy.  Maybe not for you this year, but think about it for next year.
Books feed children’s minds, while candy only feeds their cavities. Books encourage children to read, and parents to read with them and/or ask them about their books. Many children rarely receive books as gifts, so even gently read books are special treats.
Do you recycle? If so, do you think it is a lot of work? No. You believe in supporting the planet by recycling materials so they don’t go into the landfill. Books For Treats takes a little more time than buying a giant bag of candy, but if you believe that you can help turn Halloween from a cavity-, obesity-, diabeties-contributing holiday into one that shows that society cares about our children, then it’s worth the extra effort.

Giving books instead of candy shows kids you care about them and are encouraging them to read. This not only helps raise their interest in reading, but raises their feeling that the community cares about their future.
I'm not kidding myself into believing that giving out books instead of candy on Halloween will ever become the new normal. But, if enough of us are willing to be a bit different, we can do some good.  Let's help create a new generation of lifetime readers.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nashville Chrome

The Browns (Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie) were already a successful country music trio when I began listening to recorded music as a boy.  For that reason, it seems that their music has always been part of my life.  And even though the siblings broke up the trio decades ago, I continue to listen to Jim Ed perform on, and host, the Grand Ol’ Opry radio broadcasts on Nashville radio station WSM.  So I thought I knew a little about the Browns.  But when I started to read the new Rick Bass novel about the Brown family, Nashville Chrome, I realized just how little I knew about their personal lives or how the three eldest children became, for a time, so famous.
Nashville Chrome tells the Browns’ story largely through the eyes of the oldest Brown sibling, Maxine.  Rick Bass did the research, including visits and interviews with members of the Brown family, and it shows in the story he tells; there is plenty about the family’s early days and their relatively brief career as one of the most popular singing groups in the country.  
But fiction being what it is, it is hard to know just how accurately Bass portrays Maxine’s reaction to the breakup of the group and the rather sad efforts she made during the next several decades to make a personal comeback on her own.  Is his portrayal of Maxine factually accurate?  Was she humiliated by the young employees of her old record label?  Would she actually consider making a documentary film directed by a 12-year-old boy with a handheld video camera and a vision of his own?
Bass reminds readers just how big the Browns were at their  peak.  They successfully competed on the charts with a young Elvis Presley and, in fact, topped him for a long time.  Their admirers included people like Johnny Cash and the Beatles.  They had it all; and they lost it all so quickly that most people today have never heard of them.  
Country music and pop music fans will appreciate Nashville Chrome for the way that Bass recreates a long gone era, a time when new music stars could still come from nowhere, and often did, catching the imagination of the country in a way that just doesn’t happen very often today.  
What they might not appreciate nearly as much is the way Bass presents his story.  Nashville Chrome is a novel, but it reads more like a series of magazine articles.  The Browns, as individuals, never come to life, and it is never easy to sympathize with any of them - or with anyone else in the novel with the exception, perhaps, of the Brown matriarch.  The feeling that the novel was pasted together from previously published works is even stronger because of the repetitiveness of what Bass has to say about the unusual sound developed by the Browns as children.  According to Bass, it was simply fated to be this way; fame was the trio’s destiny and they could not have avoided it, for better or worse, no matter what they might have done.  This might be a great theory - but the reader is beat over the head with it so many times that his eyes begin to glaze over.
Bottom line is that the story of the Browns is an intriguing one and Nashville Chrome is worth reading for that reason, alone.  That the novel is written in such an un-novel-like style is unfortunate.
I am with Maxine.  The Browns deserve a movie version of their own.
Rated at: 3.0

I love this YouTube clip of the Browns doing their best known song, "Little Jimmy Brown," in 1999.  They still had the perfect harmony that made them so famous.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Anne Rice Sells Personal Library

I have to wonder a bit why famed author Anne Rice decided to sell 7,000 books from her personal library. I know that Rice has changed, both as an author and as a person, over the last two decades, so perhaps these are books she is simply no longer interested in having around her.

According to The Portland Business Journal,  Powell's Books, based in Portland, made the purchase:
Powell’s has begun marketing the books online ( and, after a spell, will distribute the titles to its stores for retail sales. The books will contain a sticker noting that they’re from Rice’s personal collection.

 Rice’s tastes apparently ran from philosophy film history to metaphysics and theology. Many of the books are either signed by or annotated by Rice herself.
The books don't seem to be terribly overpriced (at least that's the case with the ones on the first page of the link, noted above) and it would be interesting to have one of the books Rice annotated.  I might just do a little unplanned shopping in the next day or so.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Paris Vendetta

The Paris Vendetta is the fifth (my first) Steve Berry thriller to feature Cotton Malone, a former operative of the U.S. Justice Department. Malone, with some help from Danish billionaire Henrik Thorvaldsen, is now the owner of a used-book store in Copenhagen. The men became friends because Malone was coincidentally at the scene of the Mexico City shooting in which Thorvaldsen’s son, along with several others, was killed. Their relationship, which began with Thorvaldsen’s heartfelt appreciation that Malone immediately gunned down some of the shooters that horrible day, has grown into a close one in the minds of both men.

Thorvaldsen, however, is still consumed by the knowledge that the two men most responsible for the Mexico City massacre are still alive. He wants them dead, and he is hoping that Cotton Malone will help him make that happen. Malone is sucked into Thorvaldsen’s plot early one morning when his bookstore is invaded by an American agent running for his life. Soon, the bookstore has been shot up and the two men are on the run.

Malone will learn that one of the men being sought by Thorvaldsen is a British aristocrat who is involved in a plot with a group of financial experts to undermine the world’s economy so that group members can profit from the ensuing chaos. As if that were not enough, the British millionaire is also on a mission of his own to find the looted treasure Napoleon supposedly hid before his exile to Corsica. Unfortunately for him, however, he is not the only one hot on the trail of clues needed to pinpoint the treasure’s final resting place.

The Paris Vendetta serves up typical thriller material. Cotton Malone is a likable character, as are most of those he ends up working with in his attempt to save the world from what The Paris Club has planned for it. In the manner of James Bond and Mission Impossible, Malone also finds himself dealing with a hired terrorist determined to destroy a Paris landmark. His efforts to stop the terrorist are so spectacular that Malone often seems only a step or two short of qualifying as a bona fide super hero.

The most interesting character in the book is Henrik Thorvaldsen, a good man so caught up in grief over the way his son died that he is willing personally to murder the men responsible for that death. Nothing else matters to him anymore. Malone wants to help Thorvaldsen find peace, but for complicated reasons involving The Paris Club and the U.S. Department of Justice, he finds himself opposing the efforts of his old friend.

While The Paris Vendetta has its moments, it is too similar to all those other modern day thrillers out there to stand out as anything very special. Steve Berry’s novel is better written than most thrillers in the sense that he treats history with more respect than most thriller writers do. The problem comes from the feeling one gets that plots like this one have already been written too many times.

Rated at: 2.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Washington: A Life

I would guess that most Americans do not even realize how little they know about George Washington.  Oh, sure, we all know that silly cherry tree story (an event that never happened) proving that Washington “could not tell a lie.”  We know that he crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776 during the Revolutionary War because we are familiar with the (historically inaccurate) Emanuel Leutze painting from 1851 portraying that courageous decision.  We know about Washington’s wooden teeth, or we think we do since that is another slightly bent story about our first president (the real story of Washington’s dental problems are even more fascinating than the myth about his wooden teeth).
We know, too, that General Washington led the American rebels against the British army and that he was America’s first president, a man who very reluctantly agreed to a second term.  Some of us even know that he was involved in the French and Indian War as a very young man.  But that is about the limit, if not beyond the limit, for most casual observers of American history.  
But how does a man become George Washington?  What stroke of luck placed him in the right place at precisely the time his young country needed someone exactly like him?  Would America be the country it is today if George Washington had not been there to lead the fight for its liberty and oversee its earliest days of independence? Those who wonder about such things need only pick up Ron Chernow’s new Washington biography, Washington: A Life, to find all the answers.
Put simply, Chernow’s 900-page biography is as comprehensive as it is remarkably easy to read. Unlike so many history books and biographies that I have slogged through in the past, the pages and chapters fly by in this one.  Mr. Chernow plucks George Washington from the mythical pages of history and turns him into a human being, a man with as many faults as qualities, a man who transformed himself into one of the most influential ever born.  
Chernow’s biography stresses just how private a man George Washington was despite the fact that he took great pains to document the details of his life.  He was not a man given to public display of his emotions, preferring to lead with a quiet dignity and calm that never failed to impress those around him.  He had a special charisma that allowed him to keep his army together under the harshest of conditions, even when it seemed the Revolutionary War might end with the American army simply walking away from the battlefield for good.  He used that same charisma in his two presidential terms and had a strong hand in shaping how the United States government functions today.
Despite the light shown in the Leutze painting,
the crossing was made in the dark of night
But George Washington is more than a mythical hero.  That he shared the faults of his time and his class cannot be argued; that he overcame them, makes him more the hero.  Chernow puts the flaws into the context of Washington’s times but that does little to lessen their impact on Washington’s image.  The reader will be particularly struck by Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery.  On the one hand, he had misgivings about one human being having the right to own another, and he always tried to treat his slaves with dignity and respect, perhaps even with affection in some few cases.  On the other hand, he demanded that his slaves work hard on a daily basis, no matter their age or the weather conditions.  Washington’s income, something he was stressed about during the war and his presidency, depended on slave labor and he did not free his slaves until his wife's death.  (He even purchased teeth from slaves to be used in replacement dentures for the teeth he had lost - no wood in George’s mouth).
Washington was a land grabber as a young man, having recognized that the easiest source of wealth (other than marrying it, which he also managed) in this new country was land.  He involved himself in a scheme to buy up the land rights, at greatly reduced prices, of his fellow French and Indian War veterans before those men could exercise them.  Much of that same Western acreage would be disposed of by a desperate Washington in his later years when his service to his country deprived him of the time to properly manage his several Virginia farms.
Chernow tells the complete story.  Washington’s flaws are offset by the greatness of his vision, and the reader cannot help but come away from the book with the conviction that things would have been greatly different for America if there had never been a Virginian by the name of George Washington.  Without Washington, the Revolutionary War might not have been won, and even if it had been, the government we know today would probably be a very different one without having had his guiding hand at critical early moments in its history.
Washington: A Life tells a fascinating story in easily read prose; readers should not be put off by its length.  The best praise I can give a book of this type is that it makes me want to read more about the period and some of the other men involved.  That is certainly the case with Washington: A Life.
Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

This review is part of Ron Chernow's TLC Book Tour for Washington: A Life.

Other reviews, remarks and opinions concerning the book can be found at:

Tuesday, October 5th: Rhapsody In Books
Wednesday, October 6th: Til We Read Again
Thursday, October 7th: Wordsmithonia
Monday, October 11th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, October 12th: American Creation
Wednesday, October 13th: A Reader’s Respite
Monday, October 18th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, October 19th: Books and Things
Wednesday, October 20th: Life Is A Patchwork Quilt
Tuesday, October 26th: American Revolution & Founding Era
Wednesday, October 27th: Rundpinne
Thursday, October 28th: Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Unique Bloomin' Bluegrass Moment

I suspect that something like this would never happen in the world of rock, pop, or what people so ignorantly call "country music" today.

Not long into their second set of the day (10-16-10), Rhonda Vincent & The Rage found themselves on stage with no power to the sound system.  There was no way to guess how long it would take to get the power restored, so Rhonda made a quick decision to move her band into the crowd for as long as it might take to get things working on stage again.

The result is what you see here: Rhonda Vincent & The Rage unplugged and working hard to make themselves heard by as many people as possible.  I've only seen this happen one other time and that was three years ago when a tremendous thunderstorm knocked out the power at Yellow Creek Park in Owensboro, KY.  Those of us who waited for about three hours in hopes of seeing the last acts of the festival were rewarded with an intimate, unplugged set from the Marty Stuart and Del McCourey bands.

Remember that this was just before dark, thus the washed out color, and that there was zero sound amplification.

Two of the Deadliest

Two of the Deadliest is a collection of 23 short stories specifically centered on “two of the deadliest” of the seven deadly sins: lust and greed.  Of the stories, 18 are written by women already established in the genre and 5 by female newcomers.  As in most short story collections, there are hits and misses in this volume, but the newcomers do score with what is perhaps the best story of them all, Z. Kelley’s “Anything Helps.”  And, surprisingly, one of the weaker stories in the collection comes from the book’s editor, Elizabeth George.
Many of the stories are set in contemporary, big city America, but there are also side trips to France (in the 1920s), rural California (in 1916), rural Texas (in the 1930s) and contemporary Ireland.  The narrators of Two of the Deadliest’s audio version were well chosen and, with an exception or two, were nicely matched to the stories they read.  I did, however, find both the tone  of the story titled “Enough to Stay the Winter” (by Gillian Linscott) and that of its reader to be particularly dull.  I still cannot decide whether I should blame that more on the story or the reader.
Of the book’s 23 stories, I most enjoyed “Everything Helps” by one of the newcomers, Z. Kelley.  Despite its violence, this is a rather endearing story about a single mother so desperate for the money she needs to pay for her son’s urgent surgery that she takes a cashier job in a Las Vegas storefront that combines slot machines and sales of pornographic material from a back room.  The woman befriends a homeless man who panhandles on the street outside the storefront and surprises herself by how much she looks forward to seeing him each day.  This story is solid all the way through, and its ending is a memorable one. Kelley is a good storyteller and she has filled her story with remarkable characters: the two Arab brothers who run the little casino, the cashier’s mother and son, her co-worker, and the homeless man who gives her the courage to go on with life.  
I also particularly enjoyed Wendy Hornsby’s alternate history version of Jack London’s death, “The Violinist.”  This one, set in 1916 during London’s last days, speculates about the people who surrounded London at the end of his life and whether or not one of them might have had a personal reason for wanting to see him dead.  Was it suicide or murder?  Hornsby builds a good case for the latter while introducing the reader to some of the people and problems London was dealing with at the end of his life.
The beauty of a large collection of stories like this one is the likelihood that there will be stories in it to please any reader.  Whether or not different readers will agree about which are the best stories is a whole other question, and that is another part of the fun.  Frankly, I could take or leave most of the stories in the book because they struck me as pretty average.  Of the 23, I would say that about half a dozen are outstanding, ten are average, and the rest are not very good.  I will leave it up to future readers to decide for themselves which are which.
I do have one final thought, however, concerning Elizabeth George’s contribution to the book, “Lusting for Jenny.”  The story is passable all the way up to the ending George chose for it.  As the story progressed (no spoilers here), I could see the possibility of a clichéd ending ahead, but I hoped that it would not be chosen by George.  Unfortunately, that is exactly what she used - and it is that ill chosen ending that will first come to mind any time I think about Two of the Deadliest.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 27

I think I'm at a logical spot to update my Best of 2010 list for this month.  It's been three weeks since the last update and I have six new books for consideration (four novels and two nonfiction titles): Arctic Chill (Arnaldur Indridason), Dark Road to Darjeeling (Deanna Raybourn), The Paris Vendetta (Steve Berry), Two of the Deadliest (Elizabeth George, editor), At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson), and  George Washington: A Life (DeRon Chernow).

With just over two months to go in the year, I'm seeing fewer and fewer changes to the lists, especially on the fiction side.  This week the only two changes will be on the nonfiction list.  So, of 72 fiction titles read, these remain 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)

But the nonfiction list, from a total of 28 read, changes way up at the top with both George Washington: A Life and At Home: A Short History of Private Life moving onto the list at numbers 1 and 5, respectively:

1. George Washington: A Life - Ron Chernow (biography)

2. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)

3. War - Sebastian Junger (about the daily lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan)

4. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)

5. At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson (Sociology)

6. Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen - Jimmy McDonough (biography)

7. Losing My Cool - Thomas Chatterton Williams (memoir)

8. Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero (biography)

9. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman (on the evolution of Jane Austen's reputation)

10. Composed: A Memoir - Rosanne Cash (memoir)

And there you have the best 20 books of the 100 I've read so far this year - with only ten weeks to go.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Readers who enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (in which he covered the world of science), are likely to be equally taken by At Home: A Short History of Private Life in which the author turns his attention to social history. At first glance, I feared that Bryson was going to do little more than wander from room to room of his home, explaining along the way the development of the form and function of each of the old house’s rooms. This 19th century-built home, a former parsonage located in rural England, certainly lends itself to that type of discussion. Luckily, however, Bryson had much more in mind for At Home.

The author does use each of the home’s many rooms as fresh jumping-off points to turn his book in different directions. Some of the book’s chapters are specific to the particular rooms from which the author speaks, while others only begin in the room in which the reader finds himself figuratively standing. This device allows Bryson to relate some rather fascinating, and often shocking, social history in the witty style his readers have so much come to appreciate.

Many, if not most, readers will be surprised to learn that only in relatively recent times did houses develop into the style we live in today. Humans, for multiple reasons, were slow to adapt their dwellings into something offering much more comfort than was found sleeping outside. Bryson points out that much can be learned about social mores from the way rooms of the house were given over to special uses. That bedrooms and bathrooms, for instance, were two of the last rooms to evolve for special usage, reveals much about the accepted privacy standards of the day. Making love and bathing were not always activities that people expected to do in complete privacy – for practical reasons involving limited space, large families, communal dining, and limited wealth.

Perhaps it is just me, but I found the pages about the problem of disposing of human excrement in large cities to be particularly intriguing. We are all familiar with the notion that chamber pots were often dumped into the streets from upstairs windows. But I am willing to bet that most of us never considered that a cellar could be filled with human waste up to a depth of six feet or that the space behind a home could be two feet deep in the same product. What Bryson describes is appalling and says much about how desperate people had to be to choose city life over a life in which one did not have to wade through excrement of all varieties on a daily basis.

Bryson has great fun in describing the evolution of male and female fashion. Some of what he describes from prior centuries even mirrors the “reasoning” behind some of today’s more ludicrous fashion statements - and the slavish way that people follow hot trends. Wigs for men, of the type still worn in British courtrooms, were such a popular status symbol when first introduced that men were actually shaving their own hair off and replacing it with the obviously expensive (and exclusive) new head gear. That their own hair often looked nicer than the wigs they could afford, did not bother these men. It was all about displaying their wealth and status.

At Home is an interesting and fun look at the societal evolution of much of the Western World. That Bill Bryson infuses the facts with his own brand of humor, makes it all more fun than it would have been if written as straight history. This is a trivia-collector’s delight.

Rated at: 4.0

Monday, October 18, 2010

Back in the Real World

Wow.  I can't believe I haven't posted since last Wednesday.  As you probably guessed, I was able to get up to Farmers Branch (between Dallas and Ft. Worth) for the bluegrass festival I mentioned in my last post.  I got back to Houston on Sunday morning where the real world was waiting for me with open arms.

My 88-year-old father fell and broke his hip a few days ago and is in a rehab facility about ten miles north of where I live, so I stopped off there on the way home.  Today was a day of desperation at the office as several of us struggled mightily to get our 4th Quarter forecasts and 2011 production budgets done by noon (second pass).  I expect that after we see the numbers tomorrow there will be a third pass.  Then it was back to the rehab facility to bring my dad some things he requested yesterday - a drive of almost an hour in rush hour traffic.

I have managed to squeeze in some reading but I'm falling behind my self-imposed schedule on reviewing the books I've finished.  I have two to write already and I'm finishing up on three other books in the next two or three days.  My main concern is the review of Washington: A Life I need to post on Monday as part of the official blog tour for that one.

Because of all that, I'm going to skip more book talk today in favor of posting one of my favorite performances from the "Bloomin' Bluegrass Festival."  This video features Adam Steffey & The Boxcars on October 16, 2010, doing one of the songs Adam originally recorded with Alison Krauss & Union Station.  The weather was great, the music was even greater, and I'm totally exhausted.  Isn't that the way a good vacation always works?

The Boxcars: Adam Steffey (mandolin), Ron Stewart (banjo), John Bowman (fiddle), Keith Garrett (guitar) , Harold Nixon (bass)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Worth It or Not?

Why is it that we (and, in my experience, Americans are most guilty of this) are willing to work countless extra hours right before we go off on a vacation or long weekend to relax a bit?  And, more importantly, is it really worth it to exhaust yourself mentally and physically before resting up just in time to return to your regular work week?

I'm planning to drive up to Dallas on Friday morning for a weekend bluegrass festival up that way.  This is a big deal bluegrass festival when it comes to Texas and I've been looking forward to it for months.  As luck would have it, things are not going particularly smoothly at the office right now and I've been forced to work 11-12 hours per day this week just to get my Friday deadlines met by some time Thursday night.

That has meant almost no reading this week, way less sleep than normal, and a growing weariness on my part.  Every time this happens, I tell myself I will never fall into this trap again - only to do it again a few months later.  I suppose if it comes down to a choice of extra long hours vs. no vacation, vacation will win out every time.  But, really, now.  Is this the best we can do in this country?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dark Road to Darjeeling

Dark Road to Darjeeling is Deanna Raybourn's fourth "Lady Julia Gray novel," and a lot has happened to Julia since I last visited her. Silent in the Grave, the first book in the series, is the only other Julia Gray novel I have read, so I was a little surprised to see that in 1889, as the novel opens, Julia and Nicholas Brisbane have married. The two are, in fact, on the eighth month of their extended honeymoon travels around the Mediterranean. 

Seated in a Cairo restaurant, and about to discuss what their lives will be like when they return to England, Julia and Brisbane are surprised by the sudden arrival of Portia and Plum, Julia's sister and brother. Portia delivers the upsetting news that her former lover, Jane Cavendish, believes her husband has been murdered on the Himalayan tea plantation on which Jane very soon expects to give birth to their child. Julia, solid amateur detective that she considers herself to be, agrees to accompany Portia and Plum to the plantation to see what they can learn there about the supposed murder. Brisbane, professional detective that he is, reluctantly agrees to go with them because he knows the dangerous mischief Julia is likely to get into on her own. 

At the plantation, Julia and Brisbane find it easier to identify the numerous people who would benefit from Freddie Cavendish's death than it is to determine whether he was even murdered. His aunt and cousin share an obvious motive: financial control of the tea plantation. Others, including some of the plantation's expatriate neighbors and one or two of the Indians employed in service, have equally compelling, but less obvious, reasons for wanting to see Freddie dead. A more immediate concern for Julia and Brisbane is whether Jane and her baby are in danger from the same hand that might have ended Freddie's life. 

Dark Road to Darjeeling is a very good Victorian mystery, but that is not the best thing about this book. What most makes this series memorable is the relationship between Lady Gray and Brisbane, two characters who were meant for each other and for no one else. Julia is an independent, stubborn, confident and competitive young woman with a remarkable sense of humor. She loves her husband completely but cannot help herself when it comes to competing with him to be the first to solve a mystery. Brisbane is her perfect match, a man who admires her skills, finds it difficult to say no to her, and knows how to protect her from her most dangerous impulses. 

It is great fun to watch the two of them at work amidst the vivid 1880s atmosphere in which Deanna Raybourn places them. Raybourn populates this remote Indian outpost (neither Julia, nor Brisbane are quite sure where they are anymore) with exactly the type of eccentric characters one would expect to find in such an isolated part of the world. One or two of the mystery's evolving coincidences do require the reader to make a conscious effort to suspend disbelief for a moment, but that is part of the fun. Lady Gray novels are, above all else, relaxing escapism. 

Rated at: 4.0

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Are Picture Books Doomed?

Remember picture books?  I am willing to bet that most avid readers can still recall images from some of the picture books they had when they were first learning to read.  If not, older readers can certainly remember some of the picture books they used to get their own children, or perhaps their grandchildren, interested in reading.

Now, according to this New York Time's article, those old fashioned picture books are considered passé by modern parents who want to move their children into "chapter books" as soon as possible.  Some of the parents described in the article seem almost embarrassed to have their four-year-old seen reading a picture book when all his friends have moved on to those picture-less chapter books.
Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

“Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore,’ ” said Justin Chanda, the publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s a real push with parents and schools to have kids start reading big-kid books earlier. We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books.”
Literacy experts are quick to say that picture books are not for dummies. Publishers praise the picture book for the particular way it can develop a child’s critical thinking skills.

“To some degree, picture books force an analog way of thinking,” said Karen Lotz, the publisher of Candlewick Press in Somerville, Mass. “From picture to picture, as the reader interacts with the book, their imagination is filling in the missing themes.”

Many parents overlook the fact that chapter books, even though they have more text, full paragraphs and fewer pictures, are not necessarily more complex.
Still, many publishers have gradually reduced the number of picture books they produce for a market that had seen a glut of them, and in an age when very young children, like everyone else, have more options, a lot of them digital, to fill their entertainment hours.
Do read the whole article for a more complete feel for how this trend is impacting parents and their children.  I am no reading expert, and do not claim to be one, but the idea that picture books are being yanked from the hands of struggling young readers before they are ready to move on to something more difficult seems completely wrongheaded to me.  Child readers, especially those to whom reading does not come easily, need to feel good about their reading experiences.  If they are to become lifelong readers they need to gain some pleasure from the experience, not see reading as a chore or challenge that has to be overcome.

The problem, in my opinion, is overreaching parents, those who realize they cannot have a redo of their own lives and opt for the next best thing: pushing their children harder than they were pushed at the same age.  Picture books seem to be a critical part of the reading experience.  I suspect that children know when it is time to move from picture books to chapter books - even if their parents do not quite get it anymore.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Dewey's Read-a-thon, III

Hours 17-24

My nap turned into a full night's sleep when the alarm failed to wake me.  I vaguely remember turning it off so it's my fault.  I did read another handful of pages in the new Bill Bryson book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, so my final, rather pathetic stats are:

Books ReadDark Road to DarjeelingMaking Bank, At Home

Number of Books Read in and Completed since start: 3 / 1

Pages Read in these Hours: 14

Total Pages Now Read: 417

Minutes Read this Hours: 18

Total Minutes Now Read: 568


Hour 16

Books ReadDark Road to Darjeeling, Making Bank

Number of Books Read in and Completed since start: 2 / 1

Pages Read in this Hours: 23

Total Pages Now Read: 403

Minutes Read this Hours: 36

Total Minutes Now Read: 550


Hours 14-15

I finished Dark Road to Darjeeling and I'm pawing through the stack as Hour 16 begins in search of something that will keep me awake for a while longer.

Books ReadDark Road to Darjeeling

Number of Books Read in and Completed since start: 1 / 1

Pages Read in these Hours: 70

Total Pages Now Read: 380

Minutes Read these Hours: 100

Total Minutes Now Read: 514


We are 13 full hours into this thing and I can't believe how few minutes I've actually read during those hours.  I have managed to meet all of my Saturday obligations finally, so perhaps I'll get to do some concentrated reading before the crash that is likely to claim me later tonight.

The last two hours have largely been taken up with getting dinner on the table and my youngest grandson ready for bed.  My reading was limited but the totals now look like this:

Books ReadDark Road to Darjeeling

Number of Books Read in and Completed since start: 1 / 0

Pages Read in these Hours: 39

Total Pages Now Read: 310

Minutes Read these Hours: 49

Total Minutes Now Read: 414

Dewey's Read-a-thon, II

Hours 10-11

Books ReadDark Road to Darjeeling

Number of Books Read in and Completed since start: 1 / 0

Pages Read in these Hours: 65

Total Pages Now Read: 271

Minutes Read these Hours: 87

Total Minutes Now Read: 365


Hours 7-9

These include a trip to a local pizza parlor with my youngest grandson for a quick lunch but I did get a good bit of reading in:

Books ReadDark Road to Darjeeling

Number of Books Read in and Completed since start: 1 / 0

Pages Read in these Hours: 81

Total Pages Now Read: 206

Minutes Read this Hour: 123

Total Minutes Now Read: 278


Hour 6 got off to a late start but here are the stats:

Books ReadDark Road to Darjeeling

Number of Books Read in and Completed since start: 1 / 0

Pages Read in this Hour: 27

Total Pages Now Read: 125

Minutes Read this Hour: 42

Total Minutes Now Read: 155

I also visited two other blogs during the hour to see how things were going elsewhere.  If what I saw on those two are anywhere near average, I am reading at an embarrassingly slow pace so far today.