Monday, January 31, 2011

Borders Takes Another Giant Step toward Bankruptcy

Does this U.K. Borders represent the future for U.S. stores?
According to the Wall Street Journal, Borders confirmed Sunday that last month's decision not to pay the publishers who supply the chain with inventory (on credit) was no fluke.  Now it appears that the publishers will not be paid for January either.
The No. 2 U.S. bookstore chain said the move was intended to preserve liquidity as it works to restructure its finances. The company said it "understands the impact of its decision on the affected parties," but wants to work with creditors and others to bolster its prospects.

Borders is negotiating with financial institutions for so-called debtor-in-possession financing that would keep it operating in bankruptcy court, said people familiar with the matter. Companies often hold such talks as a precaution, but they represent the surest sign yet that Borders is seriously weighing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

To avoid bankruptcy, Borders needs to get concessions from publishers, renegotiate with landlords, and persuade other lenders to take on $175 million of the proposed $550 million credit line from GE Capital. One person familiar with the matter said it was a "long shot" for Borders to get all those pieces in place.

"It seems very likely, if not inevitable, that Borders will have to file bankruptcy," said Donald Workman, who heads the bankruptcy practice at law firm Baker & Hostetler, and isn't involved with the negotiations.
At this point, most publishers have seen nothing that makes them believe that Borders will survive the company's cash flow crunch. The question for them is now more likely to be how much of their own product and bottom line they are willing to risk that Borders management will ever get things right again.

It is starting to look like Barnes & Noble will soon be the only major bookstore chain operating in the U.S. What are the odds?  Do you feel lucky, book publishers

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Breach of Trust

I don’t know about you guys (and I don’t want to offend any attorneys that might read these comments), but when it comes to legal thrillers, I sometimes find myself having to search hard for the “good guys” in the story.  There is just so much grey area and cliquish favoritism in the legal world that every attorney seems to get splattered with mud at some point in these stories.  Even the hero of this new David Ellis novel, Breach of Trust, strong an advocate for doing the right thing as he is, does not come across as being lily white clean.  But he might be as close as it comes.

Jason Kolarich (pronounced Cola Rich, as he so often points out to those he dislikes) is beating himself up because of the accident that claimed the lives of his wife and new daughter.  He blames himself for not being with them the night they died in a winter automobile accident.  Jason, after hitting rock bottom emotionally, knows that he can do nothing to bring his wife and daughter back – but, when he gets an unexpected opportunity to learn what really happened on the night they died, he is willing to do whatever it takes to get those answers.

Jason Kolarich is a man with nothing left to lose.  As such, he errs on the side of impetuousness to such a degree that soon the only way he can keep himself out of prison is by becoming an FBI informer.  Even then, unless things break exactly right for him, Kolarich could easily find himself sharing a jail cell with one of the same people whose conversations he has agreed to record for the government.

Author David Ellis
Breach of Trust is very much a legal thriller, with heavy emphasis on the word thriller.  Jason Kolarich infiltrates the organization of a corrupt state Governor, an organization populated by powerful, and paranoid, individuals that worry about Jason’s loyalty to the governor.  He is a newcomer and that alone makes him a potential threat to some people who would gladly have him killed if he is once caught wearing a recording device. 

Interestingly, author David Ellis is somewhat of an expert on “breach of trust” in state government; he was, after all, the Impeachment Prosecutor in the trial of the disgraced Rod Blagojevich.   So Ellis knows of what he writes in Breach of Trust, and here he shares much of that hard-gained knowledge with the rest of us. 

Fans of the genre are sure to enjoy this one.

Rated at: 4.0

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mary Karr Interviews Rodney Crowell: Chinaberry Sidewalks

  Sorry.  I love the video but not the fact that it opens automatically, driving everyone crazy.

I removed the embed code on 1-29-11

My review of Chinaberry Sidewalks


Does it seem a long time ago that Presumed Innocent (the hit novel and smash movie) transformed author Scott Turow into a household name?  If so, there is a good reason for that; it was a long time ago.  The novel was first published in December 1987 and the movie version starring Harrison Ford was released in 1990.  Now, let’s call it 22 years later, Turow is back with a sequel that tells what Rusty Sabich has been up to since he was acquitted on murder charges all those years ago.

When last seen, Rusty Sabich had just been acquitted of the murder of his mistress, a fellow attorney, and had made the decision, for the sake of his young son, to try to keep his marriage intact.  The evidence against Sabich was strong, almost overwhelming, but he was acquitted, in part because Prosecutor Tommy Molto was humiliated into admitting that his office had mishandled some of the physical evidence against Sabich. 

It has happened again.  Another woman close to Rusty Sabich is dead, and he is suspected by Tommy Molto of having caused her death.  Barbara, Sabich’s wife of 36 years, is found dead in her bed but Sabich does not bother to report her death to anyone, including her son, for some 24 hours.  Barbara’s death is at first attributed to natural causes, odd though Sabich’s behavior may have been.  Molto’s chief deputy, however, is not so sure about the cause of death, and piece by little piece, he methodically builds a case against Sabich that will end with Sabich and his old adversary, Tommy Molto, locked in a rematch.

 On the surface, it does not look good for Rusty Sabich – and that is his own fault.  There is evidence of a recent affair that he refuses to discuss, his marriage has been shaky for years, and it becomes obvious that he has been seeking a way out of it.  Turow uses alternating first-person narratives to tell the story with some chapters told through the eyes of Rusty, some through the eyes of Tommy, and others through the eyes of Nat (Rusty’s son) or Anna (Rusty’s recent lover).  As in the first novel, Turow shows the good and bad sides of all the main characters, allowing the reader to judge the rightness or wrongness of what each of them does.  The trial itself is a cliffhanger that offers the reader several opportunities to change his mind about Sabich’s guilt or innocence, and who committed the crime (if there was one) if Sabich is innocent.

The audio version of the book is read by Edward Herrmann and Orlagh Casssidy (who handles mostly the chapters narrated by the Anna Vostic character).  Herrmann does a particularly fine job with all the male characters but I had a difficult time matching Cassidy’s voice to my mental image of the youngish mistress, Anna Vostic.  That distraction was a minor issue, however, and I found that using separate readers based on the sex of the character narrating each chapter was a great help in keeping all the details straight.

Innocent will likely appeal most to those who have fond memories of Presumed Innocent, but potential readers should not be concerned if they are unfamiliar with that book.  Turow brings enough information from the first book into this one, by having the prosecutors rehash the first case in preparation of the new one, that Innocent works very well as a standalone novel.

That one or two of the novel’s plot elements do not seem quite logical to me, causes me to rate this one at a 4.5 rather than at 5.0, but I did thoroughly enjoy it over the number of days I listened to it on my daily commute.

Rated at: 4.5

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tank Girl Starts Third Grade

One Florida third-grader got more than he bargained for when he checked out Tank Girl One from his school library.  According to television station WSVN, the graphic novel is filled with scantily clad women, drinking, smoking, and sexual situations that include women with women.  The young man only read the book six times before telling his mother what he had in his backpack (that's a joke I just could not resist).

It seems that the school ordered a book called Tank Talbot, a Guide to Girls.  The book they received from the publisher did have two of the same words in its title, but that's where the similarity ends.

WSVN-TV has video of how the station reported the story and a written piece for those who prefer reading their news over having someone do it for them.

What concerns me about this story is the number of incompetent people who had their hands on this book before it made it into the little hands of one lucky/unlucky third grade student.  Do you mean to tell me that no one noticed that this book had a different title, or a different cover...or that it was inappropriate for an elementary school library?  Really, Hebron Heights Elementary School?  Really?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

You Can't Shut Down My Library - I've Checked Out All the Books

(Photo Is Not from Isle of Wight - representative only)
Are you one of those unfortunate book lovers whose library might soon be closed due to county or state budget cuts?  Well, you might try to wake your neighbors to the threat by doing what these folks on the Isle of Wight did last weekend.

According to the BBC's Peter Henley: 
...The latest idea on the Isle of Wight was a mass borrowing - users taking out their maximum number of books.

On the island this is a rather generous 30 titles per person, and by emptying the shelves they seem to have hit a nerve.
Now the Library service is keen to re-assure people that the libraries are still open, though it seems there are some shortages:

"While some sections, particularly adult fiction and children's picture books have been particularly popular among protestors, there remain plenty of other titles available." (library spokesperson)

I suspect some of those opposing closure will want to hang on to the paperbacks that they've liberated, just in case. On the Island they're planning to move from eleven libraries to just two - with improvements at Ryde and Newport, an on-line and mobile service and helping volunteers to run extra services.
I'm still trying to figure out exactly how this helps the cause of library patrons, though. Is the sight of all those near-empty bookshelves supposed to shock library users into becoming more vocal in their protest of library cuts? Is it maybe supposed to remind library employees that they will be out of jobs if the shelves stay bare? Or is it more like a run on a failing bank when everybody rushes in to get some "stuff" before it is all gone?  Is it all of the above?

I suspect that the protestors have already succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. People are talking about them all over the world - and, most importantly, about the potential cuts to their library system. A little pressure on public officials to do the right thing never hurts, especially when it comes from public exposure like this.

I do love the fact that these people are doing something to bring attention to the probable library closings facing the Isle of Wight.  Of course, even those wanting to do the right thing for the island can only do so much.  If the funds to keep the libraries open are not there, they are just not there.  It might be time for the island's citizens to dig a little deeper, a case of putting their money where their library books are.

Good luck, guys.  We're pulling for you.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim have written a book for sports fans that, as its subtitle says, explores “the hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won.”  Scorecasting does pretty much deliver the goods, but some of what is revealed is at times a bit underwhelming since common sense and careful observation tell much the same story without all the stats.

There is something in the book for fans of both professional and amateur sports - and everything in between, such as our semi-professional college sports programs.  The authors take a hard look at football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, and soccer and use statistics, personal observation, interviews, and speculation to make surprising points concerning what is really happening out there. 

I suspect that most fans will be least surprised by the book when it comes to whatever sport they spend the most time following.  In my case, that sport is baseball.  While the authors spend a substantial number of pages explaining what goes on in the head of a major league umpire when the game is being played in a loud and hostile ballpark, little about “makeup calls” and special treatment for star players, especially in late innings or in crucial situations, will surprise baseball nuts.
The chapter on the use of steroids in baseball did, however, give me something new to think about.  Ever wonder why most of the players caught using steroids are minority players from poor countries?  Moskowitz and Wertheim will fill you in.

There are chapters on home field advantage, the relative value of blocked shots in basketball, the situational pressure of putting, the “myth” of the hot hand and momentum, icing the field goal kicker in game situations, why early draft choices are so overvalued and, among a few others, whether or not defense really wins championships. 

There really is something here for everyone, regardless of how rabid a sports fan one might be, and there are some surprises and observational gems to be found.  If you enjoyed Freakonomics or SuperFreakonomics, the odds are pretty high that you will love this one.  If you hated those two books and dislike sports, run away from Scorecasting.

Just remember, sports fans, as one of the book’s chapter titles puts it, “There’s no I in team, but there is an “m” and an “e.”  Or as Michael Jordon once said when a team owner chastised him by using the “there’s no I in team,” thing, “There’s an I in win.  So which way do you want it?” 

This one will make you chuckle a bit while it presents you with a new way to look at something you’ve been watching your entire life.  It might even make you feel a little smarter because you already knew some of this stuff.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

It's All Over

Thanks for all the nice comments regarding Book Chase reaching its fourth anniversary last week.  Nine of the comments included requests to be entered into the drawing for the Bury Your Dead audio book:

Rachel - 13
Andy - 12
Karen - 18
Kathy  - 9
Maxine - 20
Amy - 7
Tayrn - 23
Dawn - 3
PagebyChapterbyBook - 4

Good jobs, guys, on avoiding duplicate numbers...first time that's happened.

And the winner, according to the Random Number selector found on my sidebar is: number 23, Tayrn.

Number 23 was actually the third number between 1 and 25 selected by the generator.  Two unchosen numbers, 2 and 10, came up first.

Congratulations, Tayrn.  Please send me an email with your mailing instructions and I will get the audio book out to you ASAP.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest, and thanks for the kind words you shared.  That kind of encouragement and feeling of community is what makes a lit-blog so much fun.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Free Audio Book - Last Chance to Enter

Rather than holding the audio book giveaway open for an entire week, I've decided to close it to entries at five p.m. (Houston time) tomorrow, January 24.

As of this moment, there are only five actual entries to the contest, so individual odds are very good even if another few people decide to enter in the next 24 hours or so.  Now's your chance to get a free (once-used) copy of what is an excellent mystery, and and equally excellent reading of the book, on CD.

Times a wasting...enter now.  Just be sure to pick a number between 1 and 25 (but be sure not to pick one of the five numbers already chosen here).  My random number selector will do the trick tomorrow evening and I'll announce the winner then.

Good luck.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Playing for Pizza

Rick Dockery has done very little in his life other than play football – and for most of his life, he has excelled at the sport.  But Rick would learn soon enough that, although he is good enough to land a quarterbacking job in the NFL, his role will almost certainly always be that of backup-to-the-backup-quarterback. 

Rick, though, is satisfied with that; the money is good and the women are plentiful even for a third-string NFL quarterback.  Time runs out quickly, however,  for third-team players, and for Rick that point is reached with his unexpected appearance at quarterback for Cleveland in a critical playoff game.  The kindest thing to be said about Rick’s performance in that game is that, in only fifteen minutes on the field, he single-handedly ended his team’s season.

When Rick finally comes back to his senses (from the blows he took to the head during that game), he agrees to be next season’s starting quarterback for the Parma Panthers.  That’s Parma, as in Parma, Italy.

That is the set-up for John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, a novel that, while it has its stronger moments, still defies the reader to take it all that seriously.  Grisham explores the culture shock Dockery experiences upon his arrival, and he does a good job filling his readers in on American football as it is played in Italy today.  He even creates several memorable Italian Panthers who are willing to play the game for free -as do all players in the league except for each team’s allotted three American players – only for the chance to one day boast that they played in the “Super Bowl.”  

Playing for Pizza is fun when it focuses on the actual games and the seriousness with which the players take them.  Despite their games being akin to low Division III level American football, the Italian players live for their wins and despair at their losses.   Too, the slow bonding of Dockery with the rest of the team, and vice versa, is a nice feel-good aspect of the story to witness. 

Grisham even throws in a love interest for Dockery to show that his NFL downfall has matured him.  One does, however, get the impression that, were his new love not so physically stunning, the relationship would never have had a chance of happening.  For him, it is more a lust affair than a love affair.  The problem is that Dockery, for all the emotional “progress” he makes during the season, is still more a shallow narcissist than not.  That means that Grisham’s attempts to make him a sympathetic character do not quite hit the mark.

This is not at all a bad book but it would have been a much more interesting one if its characters were better developed and it had a more serious tone.  As it is written, the novel is little more than an unrealistic comedy populated by caricatures rather than real people – and, for all I know, that may have been exactly what Grisham was going for.  I am rating the book as I do not because it is bad as it is written, but rather because it was so close to being a much better book - and failed to get there.

Rated at: 3.0

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Chase Turns Four Today

Book Chase is officially four years old today and I'm still thoroughly enjoying the experience.  I started the site as an electronic book journal of my own, a way to help me keep track of what I read over the years and what my thoughts are on the books.  Thankfully, it has turned into a lot more than just my personal book journal.

A blog like this one is mostly about "community."  It is a way for like-minded people to chat about one of their greatest lifelong passions: books, authors, and the reading experience, in general.  Most of us don't have many of those conversations in "real life" (especially, the guys here will vouch for that), unless we happen to work around books in some capacity.  Really passionate readers are harder to find than most people imagine.  We are probably outnumbered at better than 100 to 1 by nonreaders.  So something like this, and the dozens and dozens of other book blogs out there, can be great fun - but only because so many are willing to jump in with their own contributions to the overall conversation.  I've been blessed here by regular visits from a whole bunch of people who make Book Chase a place that feels like home to me.  I never know what I'm going to find when I start reading the comments; some of them have been classic, good and bad, but always fun to read.

During the past four years, I have posted just under 1500 individual posts here and have received several thousand comments in response.  I have read 558 books during those years and have reviewed all but three of them right here - and those three are coming soon.  Astoundingly (to me), I can look at the list of all those books and recall a pretty fair amount of detail about each and every one of them.  There's just something about taking the time to reflect on what I read, and organizing my thoughts into a few hundred semi-coherent words, that burns the books deeper into my brain than ever happened before the advent of Book Chase.

As a way to thank everyone for hanging with me here (and through this post, especially), I want to give my copy of Louise Penny's audio book, Bury Your Dead to some lucky commenter.  Click here for my December 8 review of the book.    

To enter the contest, just make sure to comment below, including your choice of any number between 1 and 25.  Be sure to read the comments that precede yours so that you don't choose an already-taken number.  In a week or so, I'll use my random number generator to choose the winner.  It's that simple.

This is a really good mystery/police procedural.  Take a shot at it if you like that kind of thing, or audio books, in general.  This one is a 10-disc set and runs about 12 hours.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Widow's Story: A Memoir

One year and six weeks before her husband’s death, Joyce and Raymond were lucky to walk away from an automobile accident that could just as easily have killed both of them.  Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, publisher and editor Raymond Smith, would look upon each day after that accident as a gift, bonus time granted them on their time together.  That would all change on February 18, 2008, when Oates would so suddenly be thrust into widowhood that she would be left reeling from the shock for months to come.

Joyce and Raymond Smith had been married for forty-seven years, and they expected to be together for a good many more, on the morning Joyce awoke to find her husband feeling poorly.  Because she could see that his illness was more severe than he believed it to be, Oates convinced Smith to let her drive him to Princeton Medical Center.  There he was admitted with pneumonia, but the couple expected that he would be treated and released in only a few days.  Up until the early hours of February 18, when Oates received an urgent phone call from the hospital, that seemed to be exactly what would happen.

Technically, Raymond Smith did not die of pneumonia or its complications.  He died, instead, from a secondary infection he picked up inside Princeton Medical Center, and his was a death for which Oates was completely unprepared.  One minute she was feeling optimistic about her husband’s homecoming; the next, she found herself trying to make it back to the hospital before he died.

Suddenly, her life seemed to lose all meaning.  Gone was the man around whom she centered her world and, staggered by her grief, Oates lost all desire to go on alone.  She could not sleep, had no desire to eat, and felt even her spirit fading away as the thought of suicide more and more appealed to her.  What kept Oates going in those early months was her ability to lose herself in her “JCO” personae; she became a Joyce Carol Oates impersonator, an author with commitments that allowed her to travel from reading-to-reading across the country.  She did not have to be Joyce Smith, widow, until she returned to her lonely New Jersey home.

John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Smith (1986)
A Widow’s Story will remind many readers of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), in which Didion explored her own reaction to sudden widowhood.  Like that memoir, A Widow’s Story can, at times, be disturbing in its frankness about the effects of the despair and grief that follow the loss of a longtime spouse and companion.  Most disturbing to me, personally, was the realization that even someone like Oates, with her vast network of friends, colleagues and well-wishers, essentially had to weather the storm on her own.  Good intentions and simple kindnesses did little to relieve her of the pain that crushed both her spirit and her will to live. 

Oates is a survivor now, as is Didion.  What she tells us about her experience is not pretty, and it is not particularly inspirational.  But it is real, and that, after all, is what Joyce Carol Oates is all about.  This woman pulls no punches in her fiction, and she pulls no punches here.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Teasers

I decided to do one of those "Teaser Tuesday" things today because I'm running further and further behind on my formal reviews.  Toward the end of 2010, I got four or five reviews behind and I've never really caught up again.  Right now, for instance, I need to do two reviews on books I've already completed, and I'm 80% of the way through reading two others - and about 15% of the way through a really slow-going chunkster.

I finished the new Joyce Carol Oates memoir, A Widow's Story, last week but I'm letting it settle a bit before I tackle a review.  Oates is one of the people I've been reading forever (since the mid-eighties, if I had to make a guess) and I have almost 90 of her titles on my shelves.  She, in fact, represents more than 10% of the books I display on my "keeper shelves."  I am fascinated by her work, but I don't know how to react to this one.  Many of you know that Ms. Oates lost her husband of 47 years, a while back.  A Widow's Story is her very frank, emotional, hold-nothing-back reaction to being so suddenly thrust into the world of widowhood - all because the hospital treating her husband's pneumonia allowed him to die from a secondary infection he picked up there.  I think what bothers me so much about the book comes from realizing how close Ms. Oates came to killing herself...and how long she considered doing the deed.  I'll probably review this one in the next day or so.

Also finished is John Grisham's Playing for Pizza, the story of a third-string NFL quarterback who has been run out of the league and is desperate enough to sign a contract with a team in Parma, Italy, that plays in the Italian version of the NFL.  This one is surprisingly lightweight in tone, plot and characters (even in number of pages) and I'm surprised that so many people seem to love it.  It's the kind of story that had a lot of potential, but Grisham just does not seem to make the most of what he had to work with here.  It's almost like he knocked this one off in between books he really wanted to take his time with.

I'm also reading Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won.  This one is chock full of stats and graphs that disprove many of the myths sports fans have come to believe over the years.  It explores the real meaning and effect of winning streaks, hot hands, icing the kicker, home field advantage, and the like, and is guaranteed to make the hardcore sports fan (no matter the sport) second guess even his most deeply held sports assumptions.  It's fun, but a little dry.

I'm also listening to Scott Turow's Innocent, a sequel to his smash hit of a long time ago, Presumed Innocent.  It revisits Rusty Savitch, now a judge, who finds himself facing the same prosecutor who failed to convict him all those years ago for the murder of Rusty's mistress.  This time, Rusty's wife rather mysteriously (and conveniently) dies and it looks like Rusty did it.  This is a 12-disc book, and I started the last disc on the way home this evening still unsure as to how Turow is going to wrap up everything he has going to this late point in the book.  Edward Hermann does a wonderful job handling about 90% of the book's narration but, unfortunately, Orlagh Cassidy handles the voice of the main female character and her voice is too "old" for the character.  I find her "sound" to be a bit distracting, but her role is limited, thankfully.

I'm also slogging my way through To the End of the Land by David Grossman.  I don't have the book with me in this room, but it must be at least 600 densely-packed pages and, at least for me, it reads very slowly.  I was intrigued by the plot: a mother in Israel refuses to sit at home after she sends her youngest son off to fight in Israel's latest flash-war.  She believes that if authorities can't find her to announce the death of her son, he will survive the war.  I'm not sure where this one is really heading - or if I will even finish it.  I just cannot get into its rhythm.

Now - I'm off to do my first real reading of the day.  It's been another day of office drudgery and meeting with lawyers and VA clerks on behalf of my father for much of the evening.  I need a break...see you tomorrow.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dead Man's Walk

I decided to get a quick start on my 2011 goal of re-reading Larry McMurtry’s four-book “Lonesome Dove series” in the correct chronological order in which the books occur– rather than in the order in which they were published.  That meant starting with Dead Man’s Walk, a book that surprised me by being better this second time around than it was on the first.  As I recall, I rated the book a four back in 1995, but I am giving this re-reading a solid five-star rating.

Written in 1995, ten years after McMurtry’s huge success with Lonesome Dove, Dead Man’s Walk was billed as a prequel to that masterpiece.  The timing was good.  Hardcore fans of Lonesome Dove were already intimately familiar with the 1989 television movie of the same name, and they were probably watching episodes of the new miniseries by that name that ran in 1994 and 1995.  So, most fans would find it hard to resist a new book that featured teenaged versions of Augustus McCrae and W.F. Call, two of the most beloved characters in the Western genre.

Gus and Call are literally two “young pups” when it comes to the ways of the world, although Gus is already showing his delight in keeping company with the nighttime ladies who so willingly offer him a good time – as long as he has the cash to pay for it.  When the two young men, trying to survive Texas on their own, randomly meet, they quickly form a bond that will last them for the remainder of their lives. 

At loose ends, and hoping for a little adventure, the two join up with a raggedy bunch of Texas Rangers on two different missions, both of which the boys will be lucky to survive.  It is the second trek into the Texas desert, during which the Rangers must cross the “Dead Man’s Walk” from west Texas to New Mexico that gives the book its title.  But, before the boys and their fellow survivors begin what seems like a certain death march, they must first survive the attentions of the Comanche, Buffalo Hump, and the Apache, Gomez, two men who will haunt Gus and Call for rest of their lives. 

Dead Man’s Walk pulls no punches when it comes to the raunchy lifestyle of the nineteenth century Texas Rangers or the torture-focused warfare the Apache and Comanche tribes waged against the white settlers encroaching upon their hunting grounds.  To say that the book is not for the fainthearted reader is an understatement.  What makes Dead Man’s Walk so intriguing, and atypical of the popular western genre, is that McMurtry does not take sides in the conflict between the settlers and the Indians.  He presents the good and bad elements of both groups and leaves it up to the reader to decide the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the conflict. 

In addition to meeting Gus, Call, Buffalo Hump and Gomez, the reader will delight in spotting the young Clara, as well.  That she was “love at first sight for Gus” is certain; what was on flirtatious Clara’s mind remains to be determined. 

Dead Man’s Walk is a great western adventure but, as usual with a McMurtry novel, character development does not take a back seat to plot.  The book is filled with memorable secondary characters, good guys and villains alike, and its ending (although it might seem farfetched to some) works perfectly for those that grew up on old-fashioned television and movie Westerns.

This is good stuff.

(This is my favorite piece of Lonesome Dove trivia, although it will not surprise dedicated fans of the book.  Lonesome Dove originally was a 1970 screenplay meant to star John Wayne as Call, Jimmy Stewart as McCrae, and Henry Fonda as Jake Spoon.  Wayne pulled out of the movie, followed by Jimmy Stewart, and the whole thing fell apart.  McMurtry decided to turn the screenplay into a novel, and the rest is history.  Even stranger, James Garner was originally offered the Gus McCrae part in the television movie, but he had to turn it down due to his ill health...and along came Robert Duval to forever claim that character for himself.  And then, Garner got to play the roll of Call in the miniseries for another of the books in the Lonesome Dove saga.  How cool is that?)

Rated at: 5.0 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Abandoned: The 8:55 to Baghdad

I've decided this year that, when it comes to "abandoned" books, I want to do more than just keep track of the number of them I encounter.  After all, abandoned books are, in their own way, just as remarkable as books that I absolutely love -  they are just at the other extreme end of the rating scale.  These are books that even fail to allow me to turn their pages without almost groaning out loud from the effort.

That does not mean, of course, that they are necessarily "bad" books.  It simply means that after giving them a fair shot, I see going on with them as being a colossal waste of my time.  It reflects my personal reaction to these books.  Others may very well love them; see the next paragraph for proof of that.

This brings me to my experience this weekend with The 8:55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames.  This is another book I discovered through Nancy Pearl's Book Lust to Go and is the first of hers to which I've reacted negatively.

The premise of The 8:55 to Baghdad is that its author will recreate Agatha Christie's 1928 train trip from London to Baghdad, the trip that spawned her famous Murder on the Orient Express.  The book's subtitle, From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie, tells readers what to expect.  As Eames remarks early in the book, making this trip in 2002 is much more difficult, and potentially much more dangerous, than the trip that Christie took.  World War II and other recent conflicts in Europe have redrawn some borders and made them more difficult to cross, and the political unrest and actual fighting in the Middle East was, in 2002, getting worse by the month.

I have read and enjoyed several train-trip books in the past and expected that this one would be a treat, filled with interesting fellow passengers of the author's and lots of colorful stories about the stops he made along the way.  That might very well prove to be the case - eventually - but after slogging through 60 pages of some of the more tedious prose I've read in a while, I will never know.  I simply cannot take another page of lifeless characters and writing so dry that I can barely concentrate on two consecutive sentences long enough to get their meaning.

The 8:55 to Baghdad is definitely not for me and I am stamping it as officially abandoned.

Friday, January 14, 2011

This Is a First for Me

I've been carrying around John Grisham's little football-in-Italy novel from one office to the next for the last two days.  Like most of you, I always have a book with me for use during those otherwise-wasted minutes waiting for someone to actually see you for the appointment you've booked with them.

For the first time I can remember, three different people took a look at the front dust jacket and commented about how much they had enjoyed reading the book: an estate attorney and officers at two different banks.  Two things are kind of cool about that: first, that people actually noticed what I was reading and felt moved to comment, and, second, that the comments came from male readers (what seems to be an endangered species in this country - but, of course, the book is about football).

What were the odds, I wonder?

Evil Can Be Bought

I've been out-of-pocket most of the last two days, involved in the culmination of a legal battle that started more than six months ago.  On the one hand, that it is finally over, is a relief.  On the other, what I learned about someone I've been close to for more than a decade, and about some in the legal profession, has been disheartening.

I learned that someone truly evil is difficult to defeat in life or in a court of law.  Such a person does not worry about playing fair, doing the right thing, or looking bad in the eyes of those who know the truth.  A truly evil person, especially one that is also a sociopath, will do things that astound normal, decent human beings.  We have been dealing with a person like this, and yesterday we decided that we would accept a less-than-equitable settlement in our case against him.  Evil can be bought, and we decided to pay the price in order to rid ourselves of this man's impact on our daily lives.

First lessen learned: make people hate you so strongly that they recoil at the sight of your face or the sound of your voice and they will pay you to go away if that's the only way they can find relief.

Second lesson learned: some attorneys cannot be trusted to do the job for which they charge a tidy sum.  In the aftermath of ridding ourselves of Mr. Evil, we now have to file an official grievance with the State Board against an attorney we were forced to fire.

OK, I have that off my chest and promise not to bring it up again...just felt like venting for the record.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I Want My Book Saver ASAP, Please

Photo courtesy of Ion Audio
Now, this is a new gadget I can't wait to get my hands on.

According to, a company called Ion Audio plans to get something on the market this summer that will change the e-book marketplace in ways that are likely to push book publishers into panic-mode.  That is exactly what makes me doubt that the "Book Saver" will make it to market as quickly as Ion hopes to have it there.
Ion said the Book Saver is capable of digitizing a 200-page book in 15 minutes. An owner of a Book Saver, which will likely sell for $150, places a book into the scanning cradle and the device makes color copies in seconds, thanks to two cameras hanging above the book.

"Once converted, the books can quickly be transferred to a computer or e-reader," Ion said on its Web site. "Book Saver is the only device needed to quickly make all your books, comics, magazines, or other documents e-reader compatible."
And that, of course, will make it as easy to share electronic books with friends and family as it is today to rip ten copies of the latest CD to trade with friends.

Of course, as the article does point out, ripping a book this way is much more labor intensive than ripping a CD on a home computer:
The scanning process on the device, while not as time consuming as the old way, is still nowhere as easy to use as a CD ripper. According to Engadget, there's no automated way to turn pages and an owner needs to lift the device to turn every page.

Book publishers should know that eventually someone or some company, maybe even Ion, will streamline the process.
I am a notorious "early adopter" and I would happily pay $150 for a device that allows me to turn my entire personal library into a portable one - even a device requiring as much time and patience as this one is likely to require in its initial form.

 I'll be anxiously watching for Book Saver.

 It is completely legal to market this device today, but I do suspect that publishing company lawyers will find a way to slow down its introduction. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, though, that I have new toy some time this summer.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chinaberry Sidewalks

In Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir, Rodney Crowell uses his remarkable storytelling skills to pay tribute to his parents, J.W. and Cauzette. Along the way, the book provides a good bit of insight into what shaped Rodney Crowell into the man he is today, but make no mistake about it, Chinaberry Sidewalks is primarily J.W. and Cauzette’s story. Rodney just happens to share much of it with them.

J.W. (from Kentucky) and Cauzette (from Buchanan, Tennessee) were married in Evansville, Indiana on September 6, 1942 because of the quickness and ease with which a marriage could be accomplished in that state. Eventually the couple would move to Houston, Texas, where in August 1950 Rodney would be born, as he puts it, between his mother’s “seventh and eighth miscarriages.” Cauzette had managed one earlier full-term pregnancy but Rodney’s brother survived for only 37 hours, and Rodney would prove to be an only child.

To hear Rodney tell it, there was seldom a dull moment at his house on Jacinto City’s (a Houston suburb) Norvic Street. Considering the volatile mix that is a hard-drinking, country-singer-wannabe father and a church-attending Pentecostal mother, along with the strong personalities both parents brought to the marriage, this is likely to have been the case. Rodney’s upbringing may have been loud, and it might have been a bit on the edge, but it was the perfect incubator for one of country music’s future stars.

J.W., who went so far as to make eleven-year-old Rodney his drummer in J.W. Crowell and the Rhythmaires, passed his love for country music (and its legends) on to his son. Cauzette, on the other hand, made sure that Rodney was exposed to another side of show business, including at least one preacher who gave one “the impression that he might burst into flames at any moment.” He was exposed to moving, emotional music in both cases, and Rodney learned from it all.

Chinaberry Sidewalks is filled with stories of growing up in 1950s Houston during those more innocent days when little boys still had the run of their neighborhood streets. Rodney and his friends, as did all boys in those days, formed their own little world, one in which they entertained themselves and of which their parents were only marginally aware. There are tales of near-misses involving bows and arrows, surviving hurricane parties hosted by drunken neighbors, rock-throwing brawls, fishing trips, powerful thunderstorms, and catching the big-name country stars when they came to town.

J.W. Crowell wanted to be Hank Williams, and he did live the life “ol’ Hank” sang about. He even took a barely two-year-old Rodney to see one of Hank’s shows just weeks before Hank would die at age 29. That the show made such an impact on Rodney is probably due more to J.W.’s retelling of the story than it is on Rodney’s actual memory of it, but there is no doubt that Rodney felt as if he were in the presence of a young god that fateful night. That Rodney would go on to have almost exactly the career J.W. wished so hard for himself is a bit sad, but that career still serves as a fitting tribute to the man he loved so much.

Rodney Crowell has done himself, his parents, and his old friends proud with Chinaberry Sidewalks, but potential readers should be aware that this is not a book about his musical career or his life with Rosanne Cash, daughter of John. Those aspects are barely touched upon; here’s hoping that Rodney is saving all of that for volume two.

Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Penguin Offers an iPad App for Your Three-Month-Old

If nothing else, this proves that there is an "app" for everyone.

Penguin (in the U.K.) has just released a book app aimed at babies as young as three-months that can be used to "bring to life the popular Ladybird series of books on the touch screen."  Babies, I suppose will learn a little about cause and effect as they touch the screen to make new characters appear.  I doubt that I would trust a $600 iPad in the hands of a six-month-old baby, however.

According to The Telegraph:
The app has been specifically designed for and tested on babies as young as three months so they are able to easily interact with the story on a touch screen device. 
Simple taps of the screen make different characters appear, in lots of bold colours with sound effects.
... the target age was from three to 12 months old and that babies as young as six months old would be able to operate the app without their parent’s help. The app also features an auto play tool – which allows parent to play the entire content of the app as a movie.
While this application is being sold based upon its positive effects on babies, I do have to wonder about the wisdom of getting children this young addicted to the same gadgets that already seem permanently attached to their older brothers and sisters.  With all of this electronic instant gratification being peddled, I'm starting to wonder if future generations will even be able to sit still long enough to read a long magazine or newspaper article, much less a whole book that is not embedded with pictures and sound effects.

What do you think?  Is this Penguin application cool, clever, or just disturbing as all get out?

Sunday, January 09, 2011


One of my earliest memories is of watching the few toys I owned being destroyed in a barnyard fire set especially for that purpose.  From what I have been told, the toys were burned in hope that I would not fall victim to polio, as had the little boy who had played with those toys and me only a few days earlier.  My parents, I am sure, were terrified, and they felt that they had to do something.  It was only a year or so later that I understood the whole story, but the experience is something that still crosses my mind every year or so.

Philip Roth’s latest novel, Nemesis, revisits those terrible days during which the general public had no idea how polio was spread and had to watch helplessly as countless children and young people were stricken.  Set in a Jewish, Newark neighborhood in 1944, the book captures the feeling of panic and overwhelming despair that accompanied the regular arrival of that dreaded killer-disease. 

 Bucky Cantor, who was quite the high school athlete, is disappointed to find himself one of the very few able-bodied young men still walking the streets of his neighborhood.  Even now, at the peak of World War II, Bucky’s eyesight is so bad that no branch of the United States military will accept him.  As a way of serving his community, Bucky has taken on the responsibility of running the park where the neighborhood youngsters spend their summer days playing baseball or enduring rope-jumping marathons.

All goes well until one of those children is stricken by polio.  That case is just the first of many and, before long, panic and finger pointing will begin.  Bucky Cantor, a young man with high expectations of himself, will find himself torn between staying with the young teens who so much admire him or joining his girlfriend in employment at a prestigious children’s camp in the Poconos.  His decision will change lives in a way he never imagined.

A chief strength of Nemesis is the vividness with which Roth recreates the impact of polio on the psyche of the country before Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine began to eradicate the disease in 1955.  The book is, however, also an excellent character study of a young man who could never live up to his own expectations of personal behavior.  Bucky Cantor’s high ideals, combined with the personal guilt he feels when he fails to match those ideals, make for a highly destructive combination of beliefs.  Personal failure, always likely when the bar is set so high, would mean that, soon enough, Bucky would no longer have “a conscious he could live with.”

The inherent tragedy of Nemesis and a young man like Bucky Cantor is best summed up by another of the book’s characters who said about Bucky: “The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, is unavoidable.  Such a person is condemned.  Nothing he does matches the ideal in him.  He never knows where his responsibility ends.  He never trusts his limits because, saddled with a natural goodness that will not permit him to resign himself to the suffering of others, he will never guiltlessly acknowledge that he has any limits.”

Bucky Cantor could not protect the park children from polio; even worse, he could not protect himself from failing to reach his own personal ideals.

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Another 131 Free Kindle Books at Amazon - But Hurry

I downloaded my review copy of the soon-to-be-pulished Joyce Carol Oates memoir this morning and soon found myself totally engrossed by what Ms. Oates has to say about finding herself experiencing widowhood so suddenly.  It seems that more and more publishers are sending review copies this way, so I am happy to have my Sony Reader around even when I'm not traveling as much as I did in the past.  My only regret with this new process is that publishers are submitting files that expire within 60 days of the date they are downloaded.  For the most part, that doesn't bother me because I am unlikely to want to read any of the books again anyway - but in the case of Ms. Oates, that is never the case.  I have about 80 of her books on my shelves now and will very likely want to revisit this one.  I'll almost certainly be putting a hardcover version of A Widow's Story on the shelf not long after its release date of February 15.

On a related topic, I stumbled across the fact that Amazon has just released another 131 free e-books for download to the Kindle - or any other gadget running the Kindle software.  Go to Ereader News Today where you will find the link (inside the article titled "Dozens of Free Books Today") and a way to sign up there for regular announcements about free e-books for the Kindle.  Most of the newly-free books seem to be test preparation guidelines, medical-related nonfiction, and legal nonfiction.  This list should be particularly helpful to money-strapped high school and college students, but hurry up and get there if you are interested because free Kindle books do not always remain free for very long.  Be very careful not to download anything that does not show a price of $0.00 if you want it for free.  I made that mistake a while back by not noticing that one of Amazon's freebies had reverted back to a purchase-book.

I hope you find something useful there.  Good luck.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Sentry

The Sentry is not only my first exposure to the Joe Pike/Elvis Cole books; it also represents my first time to read anything at all by Robert Crais.  At first glance, that would seem to be a big handicap going into a reading of The Sentry (and perhaps it is more of a handicap than I realize) but I found that The Sentry works well as a standalone thriller.  This is largely because this kind of book does not require a great deal of backstory or in-depth character development in order for it to be effective – although I do enjoy getting into the “heads” of characters like Pike and Cole a little more than Crais allows his readers to do here.  This one is all about the action, and that is not a bad thing.

Joe Pike just can’t help himself.  Pike is an ex-cop and a part-time mercenary who depends on his observational skills to help keep him alive.  Even while enduring life’s mundane little chores, like filling his Jeep tires with air, Pike is aware of what is going on around him.  So, when he spots a couple of obvious gang bangers entering a sandwich shop across the street, Pike easily gets there in time to keep the shop’s owner from taking too bad a beating at their hands.  And that is where his next life-threatening adventure begins.

The shop is run by a Katrina refugee from New Orleans and his niece, Dru Rayne.  Pike is immediately smitten by Dru and, in short order, has promised her that she and her uncle will have nothing more to worry about from those responsible for his beating.  He is on the case, and he guarantees the results.  Dru is just happy to have Pike around and seems convinced that he can deliver everything he promises. Pike at first believes that he is dealing with just another protection racket/shakedown directed by one of the city’s inner-city gangs.  He will soon learn, however, just how wrongly he judged both the situation he walked into and the people he is trying to protect. 

The Sentry is a wild ride of ever-escalating violence that will find Pike desperately searching for the whereabouts of Dru Rayne long after he realizes that she is not the woman she presented herself to be when they first met.  It is a fun ride that thriller fans will find themselves rushing through in order to find out what happens when Pike and Dru are finally face-to-face again.  They will not be disappointed.

This is a first rate thriller but I cannot help but be nagged by one aspect of Joe Pike’s character.  I admire the friendship he and Elvis Cole have and the way that they function as perfect offsets to each other’s potential weaknesses: Cole more levelheaded and deliberate in comparison to Pike’s compulsion to jump into every situation with both feet.  But why would Pike work so hard to save the life of a woman who has so obviously played him for a fool the way Dru has?  Is “loyalty” that big a deal to Joe Pike…or, perhaps, his giving his word?

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Censoring Mark Twain

In another in a long string of absurd decisions based on political correctness and modern sensibilities, one publisher has decided that Mark Twain must be censored if it is to make any money placing copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in public schools.  Yes, the dreaded "N" word is sprinkled throughout the book and, yes, it is offensive to modern ears.  But taken in its context the use of that word in Huckleberry Finn adds depth and impact to what Twain was trying to portray about the people and the times.

NewSouth Books, an Alabama publisher explains itself this way:
NewSouth has been bombarded with emails and phone calls questioning the value of sanitising a classic work of 19th century literature for the sake of modern sensibilities.

But spokeswoman Suzanne La Rosa says the censorship allows the book to be read in schools, where it was becoming shunned.
Ms La Rosa says she understands the argument that the novel is social history as well as literature, but says censored text is not meant to replace the original.

"There are literally scores of editions of these Twain books out there on the marketplace for people who really place adherence to Twain's original text on the top of their priority lists," she said.

"We simply felt that there was room in the marketplace for a book that was a gentler read.

"This is hardly going to make a difference, really a ripple, even, in terms of what is available
A "gentler read" or a dumbed-down, neutered read? You decide.

Before you do decide, take a look what literary historian, and fellow blogger, D.G. Myers has to say on the subject over at A Commonplace Blog. Here is a taste of what Mr. Myers adds to the conversation:
So much for Twain’s irony. “I’m hoping that people will welcome this new option,” Gribben says, “but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified.”

Not only textual purists. What is far more horrifying to contemplate is how anyone who studies the novel in “the new classroom,” where Gribben says the author’s intended version is “really not acceptable,” can possibly hope to understand Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s point in the novel is that human “sivilization” (including the institution of slavery) is little more than legalized violence. The only true freedom lies outside “sivilization” altogether, which is why, in the last sentences of the book, Huck decides to “light out for the [Indian] Territory ahead of the rest”—that is, decides to flee human contact altogether.
Go here for the whole article I quote from and to a second, related one:

Hemingway Is Next

More Books to Gribbenize    - in which Myers has fun sanitizing a paragraph from Moby Dick

As for me, I smell a rat - and that rat is money.  This new simpleton's version of Huck Finn is going to be sold to schools at $25 a pop when the real version can be found at bookstores in quality paperback format for about $7 - and downloaded free of charge at more than a dozen websites.

Just when I think I've seen it all...(famous last words).

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Boo

Pat Conroy’s recent decision to release all of his books in e-book format included one little bonus for his longtime readers.  The Boo, Conroy’s first, and sometimes hardest-to-find, book was included in the package deal.  This might not sound like a big deal to casual readers of Conroy’s better known novels and memoirs, but for many Conroy collectors it offers a great opportunity to finally complete their Pat Conroy collections.

The Boo is said to be a novel and, despite its rather awkward construction, it is probably best classified that way.  But there can be little doubt that it is also a very personal piece of writing in which Conroy reveals much about himself and the man who became a father-figure to him during his years at the Citadel.  This is Conroy’s tribute to the school’s chief disciplinarian, Lt. Colonel (and Assistant Commandant) T.N. Courvoisie, a man who took on a larger-than-life persona for the cadets of his era.  That Courvoisie was so poorly treated by The Citadel at the end of his career only makes the book that much more poignant. 

The book itself is a collection of letters, formal disciplinary incident reports and student responses to the reports, primitively drawn cartoons, poems, photographs, memorabilia, excerpts from the school press, and character studies involving student run-ins with Lt. Colonel Courvoisie (affectionately known to his “lambs” as The Boo).  For those less familiar with military terminology, Conroy also includes a lengthy glossary of military slang used at the Citadel by students and faculty alike.  Further blurring the truth vs. fiction aspects of The Boo, Conroy chose to include a lengthy list of the colonel’s favorite students.  If these are not the names of actual students, the lists serve little purpose; if they are real names, they must have been aimed directly at what Conroy perceived would be his likeliest audience for the book.

The Boo does not work particularly well as a traditional novel because of its jarring structure, but it does work very well as a tribute to a man who seems to have been truly loved by the majority of students that knew him.  While the book does not represent Pat Conroy’s finest work, it will be of great interest to those who have read the rest of his output.  Pat Conroy, the author whose work so many have grown to love over the past several decades, is in there somewhere.  The fun is trying to find him amidst the clutter of The Boo.

Rated at: 3.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)