Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Set the Night on Fire

Seldom has a novel left me with a set of such conflicted impressions as has Libby Fischer Hellmann’s first stand-alone novel, Set the Night on Fire. One part of me loves the book as a solidly written thriller, another part cringes at how accurately Hellmann pegged the absurdity of the 1960s revolutionaries, and a final part of me just cannot take the book’s two main villains seriously. The first two points are so solidly in Hellmann’s favor, however, that I can easily get past my villain problem.

Lila Hilliard is on the run. Her father and brother have just died in a mysterious house fire and now someone is trying to kill her. Her problem is that she has no idea who is chasing her, or why. What she does know is that she is still alive only because her would-be assassin is not very good at his job – so far – and that she seems to have acquired a human guardian angel somewhere along the way. And when that guardian angel steps forward to identify himself, Lila learns things about herself and her father that turn her life upside down.

She learns that her parents, along with a few thousand other college students and college drop-outs, came to Chicago in 1968 to protest the Viet Nam War at the Democratic National Convention being held there. Unfortunately for Lila, her parents became involved with a small group of domestic terrorists willing to use bombs to make their point. Innocent people were killed, arrests were made, and people went to prison – her father, among them. Now someone wants to kill anyone even remotely connected to that group of friends, including, apparently, their children. This is good thriller material and Hellmann develops it well.

More than a third of the book is told in flashback to the years between 1968 and 1970. This is the portion of the book in which Hellmann develops her characters and introduces political and personal conflicts between them that will have major repercussions in the present. To Hellmann’s credit, this is also the portion of Set the Night on Fire that I found most difficult to read. Her portrayal of the radicals is so accurate that it reminded me of everything I hated about the sixties, especially the naïve pretentiousness of empty-headed terrorists willing to bomb private property at the risk of innocent lives in order to make some political point they only half understood. Sadly, just as in real life, some of the people in Hellmann’s novel still live in Chicago where they are corrupting yet another generation of young people. That Hellmann could make me feel the same level of contempt for these people that I felt in the sixties and seventies is, indeed, a credit to her writing skills.

Set the Night on Fire is a nice blend of thriller with historical fiction, one that should be of interest to those that have been around long enough to have experienced the sixties for themselves and to those who only remember hearing their parents speak of those days.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Is Your E-book Reader a Money Pit?

So do you think your e-book reader is saving you money?  Are you saving a bundle on your kindle by purchasing new bestsellers at a few dollars less than you would have paid for their hardcover versions?  Or, are you getting rooked by your Nook because Barnes and Noble heavily discounts those same bestsellers in hardcover anyway.  In other words, have your reading and book-buying habits changed significantly, or at all, since you started using your new toy?

I've had two Sony Readers in the last few years, the second one being an upgrade to the one I bought almost as soon as the gadgets hit the market.  Honestly, though, my reading habits are the same now as they were before I ever heard about e-books.  I shoot for 100 pages a day and it doesn't matter to me whether I get those pages from an e-book reader or from a physical book.  Well, if I'm being totally honest, I am more comfortable reading from a tree-book than from an e-book, but there are times during which only the Sony Reader is practical.  

I don't buy any more books than I used to - and 95% of my book purchases are of the physical variety.  The only significant change sparked by my Sony Reader purchase (and by my recent iPad purchase) is that I have built a pretty fair electronic library of literary classics and other old books long out of print.  But those, for the most part, have been acquired free of charge, so my spending level is unchanged.  I still haunt my local library and at least half-a-dozen used-book bookstores.  Now, I do check the various online bookstores at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple several times a week - but that's mainly to see what else I can snag for free.  That works well as long as I am not tempted to buy something else I randomly run across on one of those sites...always a struggle, I admit.

How about you, my fellow e-book reader enthusiasts?  Do you read more than you did before your purchase of the reader?  Do you buy more books now?  Do you read in new, weird places just because you can?  Are you buying books and stacking them up just because it's so easy to get them instantly?  Is this convenience factor causing you to spend more money on books than you really want to?

WSJ.com has an interesting article on the impact of e-book readers, including a bunch of interesting statistics.  You should take a look.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 29

This will be my last Top 10 lists update until I prepare the final one at the end of December when I will, hopefully, have another nine or ten books to consider. I offer six new books for consideration this time around (three novels and three nonfiction entries): The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski), Set the Night on Fire (Libby Fischer Hellman), For Love of Country (William C. Hammond), Crime Beat (Michael Connelly), My Reading Life (Pat Conroy),  and Mark Twain's Other Woman (Laura Skandera Trombley).

None of the three new novels are making the list, so, with just over a month to go and 82 fiction titles behind me, the fiction Top 10 will remain:

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. City of Tranquil Light - Bo Caldwell (historical fiction

9. Shoeless Joe - W.P. Kinsella (classic baseball novel)

10. Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel (novel with a kick to the gut)

But two of the nonfiction titles are cracking the list, My Reading Life at number two and Mark Twain's Other Woman at number five. Of the 32 nonfiction titles read so far this year, these are my favorites:

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

2. My Reading Life - Pat Conroy (memoir)

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

4. War - Sebastian Junger (about the daily lives of our soldiers in Afghanistan)
5. Mark Twain's Other Woman - Laura Skandera Trombley (biography)
6. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley & Eddie Dean (biography)

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

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

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

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

And there you have the best 20 books of the 114 I've read so far this year - with maybe another nine or ten to be read before the end of 2010.  I honestly like the way the lists are shaping up; it's been a nice reading year.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I did not pay much attention to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle when it was released in 2008.  I knew it was a “dog story” and, frankly, novels about dogs or cats do not have much appeal to me.  So I did little more than thumb through the book once when I saw it on the shelf of my local bookstore.

Then, in December 2009, I attended the Texas Book Festival in Austin and sat in on a an interview session with the book’s author, David Wroblewski, during which the author discussed, among other topics, how he came to write the book.  The discussion was interesting – but not nearly as interesting as the reaction Mr. Wroblewski’s presence drew from the bulk of those in attendance that day.  The man was treated like a superstar author, and the questioners seemed to know the book by heart.

I was so impressed that I purchased a first edition copy of the book and had Wroblewski sign it for me.  Then I put it on the shelf at home for another year, finally “reading” an audio version of the book just this month. 

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle turns out to be quite a story (those familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet might recognize early on where it is headed) and my usual aversion to “dog stories” did not surface.  In fact, I particularly enjoyed those portions of the narrative told from the viewpoint of Almondine, the beloved Sawtelle dog that was Edgar’s protector from the day he was brought home from the hospital. 

This is the story of the Sawtelle family: Gar, Trudy, and their mute son, Edgar.  The Sawtelles have been breeding and training very special dogs for several decades and the dogs have become so special that they are known now simply as “Sawtelle dogs.”  However, despite the quality of the animals they produce, the Sawtelles are just barely surviving financially.  That their local veterinarian owns a share in the business, and does not charge for his services, is what allows them to continue at all.

David Wroblewski at Texas Book Festival Oct. 2009
But the Sawtelles are working at something they love, and 14-year-old Edgar is preparing himself to carry the business forward at least one more generation.  Then Gar’s brother, Claude, fresh from prison, comes home and things begin to change – for the worse, and in a way and to a degree that will surprise most readers right to the very end of the book.

I admire David Wroblewski’s courage to end the book the way he did, knowing that many readers will be very disappointed in that ending.  That ending, though, is a very logical one considering all that led up to it and the makeup of the book’s central characters. 

The audio version of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is exceptionally well read, with narrator Richard Poe striking the perfect tone and cadence for the various characters for whom he reads.  It was a pleasure listening to Mr. Poe and, because of the half point I am adding for his narration, I am rating this one a solid four. 

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, November 26, 2010

In the Mail

It is not often that I am blown away by the idea of a book before I have had the opportunity to page through it to see if it is really as has been described to me.  But an email I got last week from Da Capo Press got me very excited about a book of theirs titled Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book - and after receiving it in this afternoon's mail, I am more excited about it than ever.

Why did I react the way I did?  Just read this blurb from the book's back cover and you will, I am certain, understand:
In Bound to Last, an amazing array of authors comes to the passionate defense of the printed book with spirited, never-before-published essays celebrating the hardcover or paperback they hold most dear - not necessarily because of its contents, but because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object.  Whether focusing on the circumstances behind how a particular book was acquired, or how it has become forever "bound up" with a specific person, time, or place, each piece collected here confirms - poignantly, delightfully, irrefutably - that every book tells a story far beyond the one found within its pages.
Does anyone really believe that an e-book will ever have this kind of an impact on its owner?  Yeah, sure.

The book is edited by Sean Manning, who has written a brilliant two-page Introduction, and it includes a Forward from Ray Bradbury.  Manning's introduction, in fact, puts something about the attraction of a physical book into words that I have been struggling to express for some time.  It is a simple statement, so well put that I admire its clarity as much as the picture it paints in my mind:
It's just that, to me, one of the best parts of reading, one of the things that hooked me...is the tactile sensation of turning a page, the sight of my bookmark inching along night after night, getting closer to the finish, then finally closing the book, hearing that whomp, turning it over in my hands, feeling the weight of it, the sense of accomplishment that brings.

 That's exactly what I've been trying to say.  This one, without a doubt, is jumping to the very top of my TBR stack.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

From One Lucky Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving to all my book-loving friends.

From one lucky turkey to all of you.  I hope you have a great day with family and friends.  That's really what it is all about, after all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Reading Life

Pat Conroy fans, this one is for you.  Longtime readers of Conroy’s fiction have often wondered why so many years pass between new books, how much truth is really contained in his novels, how his family reacts about seeing themselves in his novels, and whether Conroy’s abuse at the hands of his father has had a long term impact on his head.  In My Reading Life, Conroy answers all of those questions – and many more.

According to Conroy, reading saved his life.  Books were his escape from the harsh realities of growing up in a family headed by the kind of brute his father was.  They kept him sane by showing him what was possible.  The first reader in his life was his mother, a woman who very literally educated herself with books from the public library topped off by her son’s schoolbooks.  She did the reading – and the study assignments – because she wanted to master what she had been forced to miss as a young woman

 The first time Mrs. Conroy read Gone to the Wind to Pat, he was only five years old.  She read it to him so many times (yearly) that it became an intimate part of their mother-son relationship and Conroy credits the experience with making him the novelist he is today. 

“I became a novelist because of Gone with the Wind, or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a ‘Southern’ novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word ‘Southern,’ because Gone with the Wind set my mother’s imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out.”

Conroy’s mother was his first influence, but she would not be the only mentor in his life.  Pat, knowing that he did not want to become a man that even remotely resembled the man his father was, searched for an alternative role model.  To his great relief, he finally found that man in a Beaufort High School classroom.  English teacher Gene Norris would become such a positive force in Pat Conroy’s life that their relationship would last for decades.
 “Though Gene couldn’t have survived a fistfight with any of the marines I had met, I knew I was in the presence of the exceptional and scrupulous man I’d been searching for my whole life.  The certainty of his gentleness was like a clear shot of sunshine to me.  I had met a great man, at last.”
Gene Norris would encourage and challenge Pat Conroy in ways that would make him a better writer – and, more importantly, a better man – than he might have been if the two had never crossed paths.

My Reading Life is filled with Pat Conroy’s memories.  It is a clearly marked roadmap of the life path taken by one of America’s most beloved writers.  It is both personal and frank in its approach, and it will certainly please those readers already familiar with Conroy’s novels and nonfiction work.  And readers for whom My Reading Life is their first exposure to Pat Conroy, will almost certainly want to see what they have been missing for the past few decades.

Personally I will remember My Reading Life best because of all the wonderful, bookish quotes it encompasses.  This is one of my favorites:  

“Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence.  You touch them as they    quiver with a divine pleasure.  You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next ten years.  If you do them the favor of understanding them, of taking in their portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented residence in your heart.”

Rated at: 5.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One Boy, 10,000 Books

As I continue my six-month fight of good vs. evil (have no doubt, I represent good in this battle) I am always on the lookout for "feel-good" stories to cheer myself up a bit.  And tonight, I think I found another one in the Charleston Post and Courier:

Sixth-grader Alec Robinovitz sat in a hospital clinic waiting room with his sick younger sister and his mother several years ago.
 There was nothing to do while they waited, he said, and the children in the room looked scared.

 The incident inspired him to help other sick children by collecting some gently used children's books from family members and friends and donating them to the pediatric clinics at the Medical University of South Carolina.     [...]

The siblings, who attend East Cooper Montessori Charter School, delivered this year's collection of books Monday, boosting the total books they've donated over the past four years to more than 10,000.

"People just started giving us books," said Alec, who's now 11 years old.

I know it's a corny thing to say, but it's true: anyone can make a difference. (Unfortunately, my evil opponent knows it works both ways.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

For Love of Country

For Love of Country is the second entry in William Hammond’s Cutler series set during, and following, the American Revolutionary War period. It follows A Matter of Honor (2007), in which Richard Cutler and his family joined with the likes of Captain John Paul Jones to help win America’s independence. Now, in the mid-1780s, the Cutlers, a prominent shipping family operating off the coast of Massachusetts, are doing well despite the lack of an American navy to protect their vessels from those of hostile governments and Barbary Coast pirates.
As the story begins, one of the family’s ships has been seized, and its crew and contents are being held for ransom (or as the pirates prefer to call it, “payment of tribute”) in Algiers. Making the troublesome situation even more disturbing is that twenty-one-year-old Caleb Cutler is a member of the imprisoned crew. One of Richard Cutler’s brothers was brutally flogged to death by the British during the war, and he is determined that he will not lose another to a bunch of North African pirates. Now, having been granted official diplomatic status by the fledgling U.S. government, raised the funds to pay the ransom, and outfitted a small warship, Richard Cutler hopes to negotiate the return of the ship and its crew. The governor of Algiers, unfortunately, has other plans.

For Love of Country references the backstory of the first book in enough detail that readers will feel comfortable in their knowledge of what motivates the Cutler family and those around them. This is a closely knit family, one still recovering from the loss of one son when another is suddenly snatched from them. Recovering Caleb Cutler and his crewmates is the most important thing in their world and, over the next two years, it is all the family thinks about.

But Hammond’s depiction of family life of the period, however heartwarming it may be, is just part of the story. The author is a sailing devotee of some experience, and his narrative particularly shines when describing life and battles fought on the open sea. Hammond’s description of the book’s deciding battle between the pirates and Cutler’s crew is especially well written - exciting, but so precisely written that even non-sailors will have a clear understanding of the tactics used by both sides during the chase and resulting firefight.

Readers for whom For Love of Country is their first exposure to the Cutler family now will likely want to go back and read book one, A Matter of Honor. And those who have read both books will be looking forward to the third.

Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I Blame It on the Wives and Mothers Out There

I blame it on all the wives and mothers out there.  You know how it goes, guys.  Sooner or later your wife gets tired of dealing with all your "stuff," and she starts to pressure you into getting rid of some of it.  So you dump a little of your lesser stuff, not the good stuff, but it still hurts.  And then it happens again.  And then again.  One day you realize your good stuff is gone - all those comic books and  baseball cards you accumulated as a kid are history.  If you were lucky, you picked up a few bucks in the process; if not, you gave everything to nephews and neighborhood kids that are going to destroy it all in a few months time.

Of course, none of that happened if your mother convinced you to give your stuff to your young cousins before you even had a wife to make those kind of decisions for you.  How many guys have come home from college or, as in my case, the military, to find their collectibles gone?

The Sacramento Bee has the story of one man who did manage to hang onto a comic book he paid 10 cents for in 1939.  But this was not just any comic book; it is an almost perfect copy of "Detective Comics #27," the very first comic book in which Batman appeared, and it sold at a November 18 Dallas auction for an astounding $492,937.
Irwin, who traveled to Dallas with his wife and son to attend the live auction, will make roughly $400,000, once the auction house subtracts its commission fee.

Irwin said he planned to celebrate with dinner in Dallas before returning home today.

He intends to use the bulk of the money from the auction to pay off the mortgage on his Granite Bay home.

"At my age, I'd rather be free and clear so that I don't have to owe anyone anything," said Irwin.
Seriously, folks. Think about the odds against something like this happening.  In 1939, a 13-year-old boy hands a dime to a Sacramento newsstand and takes a comic book featuring a new superhero home with him.  Some 71 years later, that same boy, now an 84-year-old man, sells that very same Batman comic book for almost half a million dollars.   His mother and wife/wives must have been slackers.  (Just kidding, ladies.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

35% of Owners Do Not Read E-Books on Their iPads

Simba Information, in its "Book Publishing Report," estimates that 35% of iPad owners do not use the device as an e-book reader.  Why is anyone surprised?  Simple common sense would say that iPads are being purchased for multiple purposes, most of them related to on-the-run, wireless access to the internet.  That the iPad also functions as one of the better e-readers out there, is an afterthought for most customers - a nice little bonus for those who still read books regularly  (and that is likely to be less than 35% of the population, I suspect).

What this finding does do is shoot down some of those statistical reports that have counted every new iPad sold as the sale of another e-book reading device, meaning that sales of the "generic reader" have been effectively overstated in recent months - and that the Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader probably have not lost as much market share as had been thought.  On the other hand, a case saying that every sale of an iPad makes the sale of a Kindle, or one of the other readers, less likely, is still correct.  Those two-thirds of iPad users who read e-books on them are not likely to spring for a separate, one-function device to do the same thing.  The other one-third do not seem to be book readers anyway (or they surely would use the iBooks reader to do so), so they were never in the market for an e-book reader in the first place.

In my own case, I've sampled a few dozen pages on the iBooks software and have enjoyed the experience well enough to loan my Sony Reader out to my 11-year-old daughter on a more or less permanent basis.  She's thrilled - and I am happy to see her excited about reading some of the Jane Austin books that are on the device.

And, in an unrelated side note, I was disappointed to learn this morning that my local library is canceling Sunday hours as of December 1, all because of the drastic cuts the county is making to its 2011budget.  That means that Saturdays, already overcrowded and noisy, are going to be unbearable in the future.  I just can't wait.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jane Eyre - Coming Soon

Here's a rather intriguing film trailer for the latest version of Jane Eyre, scheduled for release in March 2011.  I have to admit that the music and sound effects make this a whole lot spookier to me than the book was (turn your speakers up loud for the full effect).

To get all the details about the movie, visit the official website here.

Silence of the Grave

Arnaldur Indirdason’s second mystery, Silence of the Grave, is certain to please a broad range of mystery fans.   That the novel is an intricately structured police procedural focusing on a very cold case going all the way back to World War II is already enough to appeal to most readers; that its abundant backstory makes the main characters come to life, and that the novel is set in Iceland, adds icing to the cake.

Reykjavik, like large cities all over the world, seems to be always expanding, and what was remote countryside just a few decades earlier now offers suburban housing and shopping for city workers that can afford to move outside the city.  When one construction project exposes a skeleton that seems to have been buried for at least 50 years, Inspector Erlendur Sveinnson and his crew are brought in to sort things out.  Erlendur, unlike some assigned to the case, is determined to identify the murder victim despite the fact that the murderer, and anyone that might remember the victim, are themselves probably dead.

As a team of archaeologists methodically works to unearth the skeletal remains of the victim, Erlendur directs an investigation that progresses almost as slowly as the diggers.  In the tradition of the best police procedurals, it is one logical step at a time, sometimes even taking two steps forward before taking one step back.  But the luxury of time and patience eventually will pay off for both teams.

Sensitive readers should be warned that Indridason does not let his readers blink or turn their heads when it comes to detailing the horrible physical and mental abuse one man dishes out to his wife and children.  He tells it like it happens in the real world – often in enough detail to make one flinch while merely reading of the brutality.  These sections, however, are not there for shock value; they are at the heart of the mystery.

Almost as painful to read, is Erlendur’s backstory.  The man might be a good cop, but he is a flop as a father, having walked away from his marriage not long after the birth of his second child.  Now, he has to deal with his drug addict daughter, Eva Lind, who is in a coma after having lost the baby she insisted on delivering despite her inability to clean herself up.  Some of the book’s best moments come when Erlendur, having been advised to talk to his daughter despite her coma, but not knowing what to say, begins to tell her about his cold case – and about a heartrending incident from his own childhood that still haunts him.

Silence of the Grave is my second Erlendur novel, but it will most certainly not be my last.  I particularly enjoy mysteries that keep me speculating all the way to the end but still come to a logical conclusion.  I do not like trick endings or rabbits otherwise pulled from hats.  Solid police procedurals with the added depth of a revealing backstory are what I enjoy most in a mystery; this one did not disappoint.

Rated at: 4.5

Monday, November 15, 2010


Will the real Elmore Leonard please stand up?

Djibouti, Mr. Leonard’s latest offering, reads as if it has been written by two separate authors. The first 130 pages of the novel are some of the dullest I have read this year, bar none; the last 150 comprise one of the most interesting thrillers I have come across in 2010.

The premise of the book is a good one. Award-winning documentary maker Dara Barr has come to Djibouti with her trusted cameraman to film Somalian pirates in the act of hijacking western ships and holding them for ransom. Xavier, her 72-year-old cameraman, secures a boat and the two set out on the open sea in search of a few pirates they can call their own. Dara believes, rightly, as it turns out, that even Somalian pirates want to be in the movies, and she is confident that she and Xavier can talk their way out of any trouble they might find themselves in.

But here comes the problem. Rather than show all of this lead-in action in real time, Leonard chooses to have Dara and Xavier discuss it as they think about how they will edit all the raw film footage they have accumulated. The resulting pages make for some excruciatingly dull reading - surprisingly, even to the dialogue between the two main characters. I say “surprisingly” because, as he reminds the reader in the second half of the book, well written dialogue is consistently one of the best things about an Elmore Leonard novel.

When the pair of filmmakers stumbles onto an al-Qaeda plot to blow up a huge liquid natural gas tanker at an LNG terminal in the U.S., and Leonard finally shifts to a real-time narrative, the book takes off and becomes the thriller I expected it would be. As he so often does, Leonard surrounds his main characters with others that are so cleverly rendered that they begin to outshine the characters on which the book is centered (Dara and Xavier). Readers will definitely be entertained by this cast of characters: Billy Wynn, a rich Texan who seems to have some unusually close ties to American intelligence agencies; Helene, high fashion model and Billy’s girlfriend who is on an around-the-world cruise with Billy to see if she can qualify as marriage-material; James Russell, a black ex-con from America, and one of al-Qaeda’s finest bombers and assassins; and two rather ineptly comical pirate leaders just trying to make a dishonest buck for themselves before they get shot by someone.

The second half of Djibouti makes its first half worth the effort. I did come very close to missing it, but I am happy that I did not give up on the book too soon to get there.

Rated at: 2.5
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

iPad vs. Kindle, Nook and Sony Reader

All my life, I have been an early adopter when it comes to new electronic gadgets or technology.  But because the iPad seemed to offer mostly redundant services already being handled by my iMac, iPod and Sony Reader, I haven’t been all that intrigued by it.  That all changed last night when I visited my local Apple store and was helped by a young man who actually knew what he was talking about.  He answered all of my questions, addressed all my doubts, and I walked out of the place with my very own iPad…didn’t see that one coming because I was there only to pick up a new USB/Dock cord for my iPod.

My first impression of the iPad, what it does and how it does it, is very positive.

My only complaint is that transferring files from the Mac to the iPad is not all that intuitive of a process – despite what it says on the back of that tiny little information card that comes with the device.  Why do computer companies so adamantly refuse to provide written documentation these days?  I, for one, really miss the old fashioned user’s manual and wonder how many hours of my life I’ve wasted trying to find answers online when a hardcopy manual would have done the trick so much better and faster..

I’m pretty much done with the file transfer now, and I’m to the point of playing with my new toy.  I’ve downloaded applications for the Nook, the Kindle and Apple’s iBooks, and they all work well.  One of the coolest things about these readers is that Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Apple allow sample chapters to be downloaded at no charge – even for new books and bestsellers. 

As a result, I’ve done a good bit of reading today without making a dent in what I had planned to finish up this weekend.  I’ve read substantial sections of George W. Bush’s Decision Points, Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, Vince Flynn’s American Assassin and Bill O’Reilly’s Pinheads and Patriots.  I am unlikely to buy any of these four books, but now I have a good feel for their content and style, and that pleases me. 

How much do I like the iPad?  Let’s put it this way: I have an almost new Sony Reader that has a few dozen books downloaded to it.  It cost me almost $400 even without the books – and I’m willing to sell it, books included, for $200 (or the most reasonable offer I get).  If y’all know anyone in the market for an e-book reader, I’m your guy. 

By the way, I got the cheapest of the current crop of iPads, the one that has a 16-gig hard drive and connects to the web only via WiFi.  I expect it to be all I need for a good while – at least until the next big thing hits the market.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 28

Wow, just seven weeks left in the current reading year and my list is still evolving.  In fact, I seem to be making changes/additions to the list at a faster pace than I did earlier in the year...a good thing, because it means I've been finding some great books.  I offer eight new books for consideration this time around (six novels, one short story collection, and one memoir): Nashville Chrome (Rick Bass), City of Tranquil Light (Bo Caldwell), Shoeless Joe (W.P. Kinsella), Moonlight Mile (Dennis Lehane), Silence of the Grave (Arnaldur Indridason), Zen and the Art of Surfing (Greg Gutierrez), Djibouti (Elmore Leonard), and In Mania's Memory (Lisa Birnie).

So, with seven weeks to go and 79 fiction titles behind me, two new ones crack the list at numbers 8 and 9:
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. City of Tranquil Light - Bo Caldwell (historical fiction

9. Shoeless Joe - W.P. Kinsella (classic baseball novel)

10. Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel (novel with a kick to the gut)
The lone nonfiction book being considered this time manages to crack the very bottom of the list, a shaky perch, to be sure.  Of the 29 nonfiction titles read, these are my favorites:
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. In Mania's Memory - Lisa Birnie (memoir)

And there you have the best 20 books of the 108 I've read so far this year - with only another 15 or so likely to be read before the end of 2010.  Oddly enough, the eight books I considered this time around also included two of my biggest disappointments of the entire year: Elmore Leonard's Djibouti and Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In Mania's Memory

What are the odds?  Whatever they are, Mania Fishel Kroll seems to have beaten them more than once in her life. 

As a little girl, she barely survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp long enough to be moved to a slightly less brutal Nazi slave labor camp a few dozen miles away.  And she became the only member of her family to survive the war.  By her own account, Mania should not have made it, and she did so only because of sheer chance and the intervention of perfect strangers at precisely the moment she needed to be rescued from certain death.  One of those strangers, an SS guard by the name of Johanne, took a special liking to the little girl and risked her own life and reputation to slip her extra food and warm clothing.  Mania came to believe that the woman even wanted to adopt her at the end of the war – but in the chaos associated with those final days, the two were separated before they even had a chance to say goodbye.

But perhaps even more astounding, is what happened to Mania in 1976, decades after she relocated to Canada to start a new life for herself.  Mania, in need of someone to do housecleaning, hired a German woman who wanted to earn extra money before she moved back to Germany when her Canadian work visa expired.  Mania is stunned to recognize that the woman is none other than Johanne, the guard who saved her life when she seemed certain to die at the hands of Hitler’s exterminators.  Despite Mania’s efforts to reconnect with Johanne, the woman adamantly denied she was ever an SS guard and, when Johanne returned to Germany, the two lost touch for what turned out to be another 25 years.

When, in 2001, a Canadian documentary filmmaker became interested in Mania’s story, Lisa Birnie was invited to join the project.  The result of her involvement is In Mania’s Memory, a memoir combining the memories and stories of two women, one a Jewish woman who lost her entire family to the Nazi rampage, the other a woman who might very well be the SS guard who saved the first woman’s life.

Beginning with Mania, Birnie allows the women to tell their stories in their own words, aptly capturing the personalities of both women in their choices of words and manners of expression.  At appropriate times, as Mania and Johanne tell their stories, the author interjects her own thoughts about what she is being told and what she observes for herself while conducting the interviews.  The book reaches its climax when Mania and the author accompany a film crew to Poland so that Mania can share her thoughts and emotions while visiting the sites of the camps she survived. 

During the filming, the two women will come face-to-face for the first time since 1976.  Will the German woman finally admit that she is the former SS guard that saved Mania from certain death?  Or will Mania decide that her own wishful thinking sparked a case of mistaken identity?  And what will happen to the two women next?

In Mania’s Memory is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” stories that have to be read to be believed.  What are the odds?

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on Cancer Etiquette

I've mentioned before that I have long admired Christopher Hitchens, both as a gifted writer/debater and simply as a man. Hitchens has made me think, laugh, and question my beliefs on multiple occasions. He backs down from no man in a debate and, from my distant vantage point, he seems to be a man who practices what he preaches.

Now, having seen the way that Hitchens is handling himself since learning that he suffers from stage 4 esophagus cancer, I admire the man more than ever.  Hitchens was an avowed atheist before he had cancer, and he is an avowed atheist today.  I have always believed the classic saying that "there are no atheists in foxholes" to be a true one, and I figured it would probably be pretty much the same story with deathbeds - that those given half the chance would hedge their bets on the way out the door.  Somehow, though, I don't think God will be hearing from Christopher Hitchens.  Some will say what a terrible mistake Hitchens is making; others, like me, will say bravo, Mr. Hitchens.  You, sir, are an inspiration.

The latest from Hitchens is a December Vanity Fair piece in which he discusses the etiquette of cancer:
It’s normally agreed that the question “How are you?” doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like “A bit early to say.” (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, “I seem to have cancer today.”) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of “life” when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe...
But it’s not really possible to adopt a stance of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” either. Like its original, this is a prescription for hypocrisy and double standards. Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries. One way of trying to put them at their ease is to be as candid as possible and not to adopt any sort of euphemism or denial. So I get straight to the point and say what the odds are. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.
What some people, one motherly type in particular, say to Hitchens is hard to read without grinding one's teeth at the sheer stupidity of the human race.

That Hitchens still calls them as he sees them is obvious.  If you don't believe me, take a look at the end of the Vanity Fair article to see what he thinks of the book and video of The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch's farewell to the world.

You are still the man, Mr. Hitchens.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Moonlight Mile

I discovered Dennis Lehane, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro sometime in 1995, shortly after A Drink before the War was released in paperback. I had been a fan of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series for a while and the prospect of reading about another Boston detective was too tempting to resist. When I picked up that first Kenzie-Gennaro novel, I had no idea who Dennis Lehane was or that he was planning to write a series based on the pair.As it turned out, Lehane would write five Kenzie-Gennaro books in about six years before suddenly (in this fan’s eyes) abandoning the series in 1999. I remember thinking what a big mistake Lehane was making – which shows what I know, because Lehane then produced his two most successful books in relative short order: Mystic River in 2001 and Shutter Island in 2003. Both books went on to become big time movies. That 2008’s The Given Day did not have nearly the same impact, might have had a little to do with Lehane’s decision to return to the Kenzie-Gennaro series but, whatever the reason, longtime fans of the series are just happy to have a new entry after an eleven-year drought.

Lehane has allowed Patrick and Angie to age in real time, and Moonlight Mile sees them forced to deal with some of the same characters involved in the traumatic case that almost permanently ended their relationship a decade earlier. Back then, four-year-old Amanda McCready had gone missing and Patrick was hired to find her. Patrick’s decision to return Amanda to her dangerously neglectful mother rather than to leave her with the couple that had her illegally, but so plainly loved her, was one that Angie could not understand – or easily get over.

Amanda, now 16, is missing again and her aunt has asked Patrick’s help in finding her for a second time. Patrick and Angie, now married and with a four-year-old daughter of their own, soon find themselves reliving some of the same emotional trauma they suffered through the first time they searched for Amanda. It was not easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys when Amanda went missing the first time, and Patrick and Angie will soon find that it will be no easier this second time around.

The good news is that Amanda McCready has grown into an exceptionally bright young lady who will be able to get a free ride from just about any Ivy League college she chooses. The bad news is that she has somehow become so involved with Russian mobsters that she has gone into hiding. Soon, what Patrick and Angie learn about Amanda’s predicament will have them struggling with the same kind of right vs. wrong decisions that split them up twelve years earlier.

Moonlight Mile is quite an adventure (and a fun reunion with two old friends) but it does not have quite the seriousness or grit of earlier books in the series. Amanda’s character, particularly toward the end of the book when she starts calling the shots, does not ring quite true. Despite the upbringing she suffered, it is hard to believe that a 16-year-old would be so world-wise or speak to Patrick in the authoritative, but sarcastic, tone she uses on him. Too, the Russian mobsters in the storyline are the usual invincible lot for which U.S. law enforcement officers seem never to have an answer. They are interesting, but they serve to remind the reader how their “type” has become little more than a fictional cliché.

I particularly enjoyed the way Lehane flavored the novel with occasional flashes of observational, sarcastic humor, such as this exchange between Patrick and a newspaper buddy of his:

“…it’s directly connected to Amanda McCready. She went missing again.” (Patrick)

“…And her aunt says no one cares. Not the cops, not you guys.” (Patrick)

“Hard to believe. Twenty-four hour news cycle and all? These days we can make a story out of anything.” (Reporter)

“Explains Paris Hilton.” (Patrick)

“Nothing explains that.” (Reporter)

Or this bit from Patrick after his interview with several 16-year-old girls at Amanda’s school:

"After my daughter was born, I’d considered buying a shotgun to ward off potential suitors fourteen or so years up the road. Now, as I listened to these girls babble and imagined Gabby one day talking with the same banality and ignorance of the English language, I thought of buying the same shotgun to blow my own …head off.”

Moonlight Mile did not turn out to be my favorite Kenzie-Gennaro novel, but I am thankful that Dennis Lehane wrote it – and, more importantly, I am hoping for others to follow. Patrick and Angie are still fun to be around, so let’s do it again. (And let’s hope for more “Bubba” next time around.)

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, November 05, 2010

Big Whoop, Amazon

So now Amazon announces that purchasers of its e-books can loan them to friends - for a whole 14 days and one loan ever per book.  And that is only if the book's publisher agrees that its books can be sold that way by Amazon.  I get the impression that Amazon foolishly expects to get some good publicity for its Kindle book reader from this announcement.

Well, Amazon, here's a big Whoop from me.  All you have done is highlight yet another problem I have with the way e-books are being marketed.  That you have joined Barnes & Noble in this same stupid loan policy only makes you look as naive about your customer base as that company has looked in marketing its Nook reader from the beginning.

Thanks, Amazon, for reminding me again of one more thing I give up when I purchase an e-book instead of a hard copy.  I'm sorry, e-book retailers, but you can't have it both ways with me.  You claim that you are selling me the equivalent of a hard copy but that is not true because I don't have the same degree of ownership in an e-book that I have in a physical one.   If you want to charge me almost the same price for an e-book that you charge for a physical copy, than I want the same rights to apply to my electronic book.  It's mine, right?  I should be able to loan it to friends and family if I want to do so.  I should be able to give it away.

I was an early adopter of Sony's Reader and I even upgraded to a newer model so that I could gain access to all those free e-books available in the generic epub format.  I love the Reader for traveling and because it allows me to store copies of dozens of classic books from the past in one place.  I also download books from my public library system onto the Reader and greatly enjoy that service.  In fact, I read about one book per month on the Sony Reader but that is still only about 10% of the reading I do.  But I find myself buying very few new books for the Reader because they are, in my opinion, overpriced and their usage over-restricted.

So, Mr. Amazon, I'm not impressed by your announcement.  Way too little...let's hope it's not too late for you to come to your senses.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Shoeless Joe

Just as there is comfort food, there is comfort reading.  And for me, there is no better comfort reading than W.P. Kinsella’s classic baseball fantasy, Shoeless Joe.  I re-read this one every few years to remind myself why I fell in love with the game in the first place – and why that romance has lasted for over 50 years now.  What is not to like about a novel about baseball, family and second chances?  Keep in mind that this is not Field of Dreams, the great Kevin Costner movie based on Kinsella’s novel.  Shoeless Joe is better.

Ray Kinsella, an accidental farmer, lives with his wife and little girl on a rented Iowa farm.  Ray is still learning on the job, and things are not going well.  But despite the family’s financial problems, Ray is willing to plow up a substantial portion of his cornfield when he hears what seems to be the voice of a baseball announcer saying to him, “If you build it, he will come.”  Weird as that is, Ray instinctively knows that he is Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the disgraced Chicago White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series (and his father’s favorite baseball player).  So build it, he does. 

Building the stadium, though, is just the beginning of Ray’s quest, a quest that will lead him on a cross-country road trip to the hideaway home of reclusive author J.D. Salinger.  Ray knows that he needs to bring Salinger back to his little Iowa ballpark, but he does not know why – and Salinger is having none of it, so Ray kidnaps him.  On the way back to Iowa, Ray stops in Boston to deliver on the promise he made to Salinger to bring him to a game at Fenway Park if he would just get in the car.  Late in the game, Ray’s personal announcer makes another appearance to give Ray and Salinger a hint about what they need to do next.

Shoeless Joe is, especially for hardcore baseball fans, a thing of beauty.  It is primarily a novel about the beauty of second chances.  Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox get to play baseball again; Ray reconciles with the twin brother he lost track of years earlier; old men who barely missed out on the opportunity to play major league baseball get a chance to see their younger selves compete with and against ghost players from the past; Ray gets to see his father as a young man.  And Ray gets a second chance to save his farm from his scheming brother-in-law.

This is a book about following one’s dreams, taking chances, and joyously living the only shot at life any of us will ever be blessed to have.  When I need to remind myself of these principles, I reach for Shoeless Joe.  It has done the trick for three decades – and I hope there are still several more re-reads in my future.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How to Trash Your Professional Image on Facebook in One Easy Lesson

Some writers are much better at fiction than they are at real life.  I was reminded of that last night.
Thousands of professional writers and performers use a Facebook page to sell books and music, and most of them do an effective job in balancing what they display of their personal lives with the image they want to project to potential customers.  Others, though, manage to insult or offend so many potential buyers of their wares that their Facebook page does more harm than good.  That is particularly a problem around election day for those who get so caught up in the emotion of the moment they forget why they started a Facebook page, in the first place.
East Texas author Beth Fehlbaum fell into that trap last night, a trap she had come dangerously close to falling into several times over the last month or so.  Not long after it became obvious that Rick Perry had won another term as Texas governor, I noticed that Fehlbaum was not taking the news well, and that she found it hard to believe that so many people had voted for Perry rather than for former Houston mayor, Bill White.  I posted a brief comment on her page that my vote for Perry was actually more a vote against White than it was a vote for Perry because I was unhappy with the way that White, as mayor, had transformed Houston into a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants.
Her first response was this generic rant (not, I think, aimed specifically at me):
"What's sad is, I am related to a bunch of the people who voted this prick into office again.  I've changed the channel because I am in disbelief that JOHN F'ing BOEHNER, Captain Suntan, is going to be the *!?!@! SPEAKER OF THE #!?!@ HOUSE!!! He's an obnoxious twit. Alright, Republicans, you've done it now. Great job. Fan-f'ing-tastic. And I'm also disappointed that the Democrats couldn't pull their shit together.  Wave bye to Rick, y'all, cause he's headed off on his damned BOOK TOUR now to kick-start his presidential campaign. Maybe he and Palin will team up and all the sheep that voted him back into office will vote that team into office, then our country will truly be screwed. I will never, never, never, never, never understand how people can watch shit like Fox News and actually believe it. On that note, I am going to bed. Do me a favor, by the way. DON'T TELL ME IF YOU VOTED REPUBLICAN, because I don't think I will be able to scrape together enough self control to use symbols like *!?!@! to express my feelings."

This was almost immediately followed by one for me, personally:
"@ Sam: bullshit. That is all."
One minute later, there was this:
"Know what, Sam? Vote Green or Libertarian then. At least be able to look at yourself in the morning."

I responded something to the effect that I would be fine in the morning and would be able to shave with my eyes wide open.
Seven minutes later, Beth posted a link to an editorial in the Austin newspaper that defended Bill White from charges that he had made Houston into a sanctuary city.  The crux of the editorial was that since no city ordinance doing so had ever been considered, White was innocent of the accusation.  I responded that an official ordinance was not necessary for Houston to have been transformed into an effective sanctuary for illegals and that politicians were not suicidal when it came to protecting themselves from the voter- so, of course, no ordinance existed.  White was more subtle than that. I also indirectly quoted friends I have within the HPD who described a culture within the department during the White years that discouraged them from doing much to determine the legal status of anyone they came into contact with during the course of their duty.
Next up, was this reply from Beth:
"So your problem is with Mexicans living in the U.S., then? Is that it? I teach exclusively Mexican-American and Mexican children. My teaching partner and my compadres in the program I teach in are Mexican Americans and Mexican citizens. My brother is a police officer.  I don't have a problem with Sanctuary cities. I definitely have a problem with what Rick Perry stands for and the way he has consistently F'd over education."

At this point, I stated this was certainly not “my problem” and that she should not so loosely play the race card.  I suggested she stop while she was ahead because she was starting to embarrass herself.
Within seconds, I was blocked as one of the woman’s “friends.”  That’s no big loss since I have only communicated with her two or three times in the last two years, but I do believe that she did, in fact, embarrass herself.
Beth Fehlbaum wrote a novel two years ago that moved me, a novel I reviewed here on Book Chase as one that could help ease the pain of young victims of sexual abuse.  It is a sensitive novel that has now turned into a series, and it was being promoted on the author’s Facebook page in a very positive way.  Now, for me, and probably for more than a few others who have read the recent political rants on that same page, it has all been tainted by a display of foul language and hypocritical self-righteousness on the author’s part.  And I doubt that I will ever be tempted to read anything she writes in the future.
An aside: (Why do people who curse on forums like Facebook do it with a few real letters and a bunch of cute little comic strip symbols, anyway?  That reminds me of a 7-year-old trying to impress his teenage brother.  Either have the guts to spell the actual curse words or refrain from using them at all because you are only kidding yourself that this kind of self-censorship makes you less guilty of stooping to that immature level.)
I didn’t see this one coming and wish it had not happened but I do find it a bit humorous – in a sad kind of way, if that makes any sense.
It is not true that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  Facebook is dangerous in many ways and for many reasons.  This is just one example.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Zen and the Art of Surfing

I really did not know much about surfing when I picked up the Greg Gutierrez short story collection, Zen and the Art of Surfing. Frankly, I was not sure that I could much get into a series of stories focusing on “the art of surfing.” It turns out that I need not have worried because Zen and the Art of Surfing is as much about surfers as it is about surfing. Gutierrez, a California high school English teacher and lifetime surfer, knows the surfing culture well and his short stories make it easy, even for non-surfers like me, to understand the allure and addictiveness of the lifestyle.

There are over 40 short stories in the collection and, based upon what Gutierrez reveals about himself in the book’s dedication and author description, one has to believe that the stories are a subtle mixture of truth and fiction. Among my favorites is “The Paddle,” a neat little story about a domesticated young surfer who paddles deep into the ocean to do some fishing on his own – only to find that he will be lucky to make it out of the ocean alive. His first words to his wife, when he has finally made it home and both are in tears, say it all: “Tell the kids I caught a white sea bass.”

Another of my favorites, “Sunset Cliffs,” is the story of a surfer/schoolteacher who decides to do a little preventive maintenance to the benefit of one of his students who is being threatened by the pervert just released from prison for what he did to the girl several years earlier. The teacher’s solution is one many would like to see happen more often than it does.

And then there is “The Eyes of Night,” a story less than two pages in length that I could not help wishing had ended in exactly the opposite way it did. Even now, several days later, when I think about this story I imagine my alternate ending rather than the one I read. That probably says more about the mood I was in when I first read the story than anything else, but I cannot remember feeling that way about a story before.

Hardcore surfers are a breed apart. This paragraph from “Aldo’s Bus” explains why that is:
“Somehow surfing brings friends together in a way that is solid. My closest friends are the friends I have surfed with all my life. Perhaps it’s the fact that we know we may have to count on one another for our lives. Being air breathing creatures, the ocean is not our natural element. Every time a surfer enters the water he is automatically entered into the food chain, and if for some reason he is unable to keep his head above water, the outcome isn’t pleasant.”
Zen and the Art of Surfing gave me something new to think about - and that is what reading is all about for me. Surfers will almost definitely love this book; but it is not just for them.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)