Wednesday, August 31, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater

At some stage in their lives (sooner for some than for others), most people will reflect upon how differently things might have turned out if they had only made one or two early decisions differently.  It is, after all, the decisions one makes while still too young to understand their real impact that often set the tone for the rest of one’s life.  Choices of mates and career paths are as often backed into because they represent the “path of least resistance” as because they have been carefully and reasonably considered.

The “swerve” in Judith Whitman’s life did not happen until she was in her mid-forties.  Judith may not have been particularly excited about her life in California with her banker husband, teen-age daughter, and film editing job, but she had to admit to herself that it was a secure and comfortable one.  It is only when she loses the key that opens her newly rented storage garage, that her life swerves off its beaten path onto one much more dangerous – a path that runs all the way back to Nebraska and the man she jilted so many years earlier.

Judith was fifteen when she met Willy Blunt, a young carpenter already in his early twenties.  When it happened, her parents were living apart and Judith was spending the summer in Rufus Sage, Nebraska, with her father while her mother got on with her own life back in central Vermont.  Two years later, she would return to Rufus Sage to live with her father and finish high school.  From the moment they met, it seemed inevitable that Willy Blunt and Judith Whitman would be together and, by the time she left Nebraska for a prestigious California university education, the two were engaged. 

Tom McNeal
She would, however, not see Willy again for more than a quarter of a century.

Tom McNeal begins Judith’s story in the present, but uses a series of lengthy flashbacks to capture the essence of the more innocent high school girl who fell in love with a man and a lifestyle she would ultimately reject in favor of the more sophisticated one offered by southern California.  McNeal has created an interesting character in Judith Whitman, but it is the Willy Blunt character that will likely be the favorite of most readers.  Blunt is one of those all-American country boys who seem to catch the eye of every girl who sees him while, at the same time, earning the good-natured respect and envy of all of his male peers.  Their story, together and apart, is an intriguing one that will have most readers rushing toward the book’s rather surprising ending.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Book Thief

The Book Thief
It's been a while since I've done one of these library thief stories, but this one is too amazing to ignore.  It seems that a single Chicago man has practically put suburban libraries there out of business.  James Jackson has stolen thousands of items from libraries in the western suburbs of the city - and had the nerve (stupidity?) to sell them on  The guy even promised to "acquire" specific items for interested customers.

The Chicago Sun-Times has the details:
A 47-year-old west suburban man who amassed an impressive collection of reference materials — thousands of books and DVDs — was arrested Friday when police discovered the materials had been stolen from libraries to sell online.
James F. Jackson, 43, remained in the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton on Tuesday in lieu of $25,000 bail, charged with three felonies: theft of government property, library theft and theft/possession of stolen property over $300, according to Lisle police.
(So the guy is either 47 or 43 years of age - typical newspaper editing these days.)

I have to assume that these items were clearly marked as library property and that the doofus was stealing only the highest quality (and newest) items he could get his hands on - so why did no one report him when they got a look at what they had purchased from him online?

Is security that lax in Chicago's public libraries?  Come on, now.  He stole thousands of items from a limited number of libraries.  Did no one in the system even notice how often this man was coming inside to carry armloads of books and DVDs out the door?  Don't most libraries have electronic security these days that will set off an alarm when an item crosses the barrier without first having been checked out?

I don't get it.  Maybe I'm just naive, but I have to blame this kind of thing as much on the library staff as on the thief too stupid to get away with his crime.

Monday, August 29, 2011


By the time Freedom was published in August 2010, it had been nine years since Jonathan Franzen’s immensely popular (and National Book Award winning) novel, The Corrections, made its own debut.  Everyone, of course, wondered whether Freedom would compare favorably to The Corrections.  It turns out that this 576-page (or 19-CD audio book) soap opera, while it does exhibit flashes of brilliance, does not match up well to its predecessor.

Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their two children.  The Berglunds consider themselves leaders and trendsetters in their St. Paul community, a neighborhood of mostly like-minded people determined to leave the planet in better shape than they found it.  They eat right, recycle madly, take a hands-on approach to raising their children, and practice what they preach.  Walter and Patty are, in fact, particularly proud that Walter earns the family income as an environmental lawyer. 

But all is not as it seems and, when family members begin to make one bad choice after the other, the Berglunds fall apart so quickly that everything they believe about themselves suddenly seems to be a bad joke on them.   Suddenly, Walter is working for a nasty coal company in its efforts to scrape the top off a scenic West Virginia mountaintop, their son is living next door with his high school girlfriend, and Patty is waging a ludicrous war on the evil Republican right-wing redneck family sheltering him.  It is little wonder then that Patty and Walter begin to look elsewhere for what they no longer have at home.

Freedom works well when Franzen first circles back to explain who Patty and Walter Berglund are and how they became the naively idealistic couple we see at the beginning of the book.  Each is the product of a less-than-ideal upbringing in which they were the least favored child in the family.  Patty, a superb, scholarship-earning basketball player, was largely ignored by her mother and scarred by her father’s conscious failure to protect her from harm.  Walter, from a much poorer family, faced similar problems when his mother failed to protect him from an abusive father who seemed to care only for Walter’s brothers.  Patty and Walter are determined to do a better job with their own children.  Throw Walter’s best friend (the man Patty still wishes she had married), rock star wannabe Richard Katz, into the mix, and anything might happen to this seemingly perfect family.

The problem is that Franzen does not know when to quit.  He creates interesting characters and situations, but spends as many pages detailing side issues such as strip-mining, overpopulation concerns, and the procurement of war materials in South America as he does on the book’s central storyline.  And it backfires because the more he reveals about these subplots, the less believable they become.  Too, David LeDoux, reader of the audio version of the book, does not help things by failing to differentiate between the voices and cadences of the various characters.  They all speak with the same voice and tone, even down to having the same irritating laugh.  This may, of course, be more a product of the writing than the reading, but it does become annoying – although I do believe that an audio version of the book is the only format I would have finished.

I am going to split the difference on this one and rate it a three because its good and bad points tend to offset each other.

Rated at: 3.0

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Doc's Opening Paragraph

Doc Holliday
I suppose it's a product of all those Saturdays I spent in my hometown movie theater when I was a kid.  Ever since then, I have been fascinated by stories of Old West outlaws, the James brothers, the Daltons, Billy the Kid, the Earps (technically good guys, I guess), Doc Holliday, etc.  I have seen countless movies about them (most, of course, nowhere near the truth) and read countless books about them.

So, I was already predisposed to enjoy Mary Doria Russell's Doc when I started it a couple of days ago.  If I had not been, the novel's first paragraph would have surely sucked me right in.
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.  The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive.  In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
What a perfect send-off for a retelling of the story of Doc Holiday and his role in the infamous gunfight at the O.K. corral.  The reader immediately senses that this is going to be as much tragedy as western adventure story, that it is going to be about real people and what made them tick and do the things we still talk about more than a century later. (I am 175 pages into this book and thoroughly enjoying it.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reading with the Stars

I've been thumbing through a little book I picked up at the library this afternoon.  It's subtitled "A Celebration of Books and Libraries," and is a compilation of the thoughts of a handful of celebrities, politicians, and business people on the importance of reading.  The book is, in fact, called Reading with the Stars and, while it is not something I am particularly interested in reading in detail, there are some interesting items to be gleaned from it.

For instance, several of the participants gave few book recommendations. These are the first choices of some who did:

Bill Gates: The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Sallinger)
Barack Obama: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
Laura Bush: Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope (Jenna Bush) 
Ron Reagan: Lee and Grant (Gene Smith)
Jamie Lee Curtis: The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)
Julie Andrews: The Higher Power of Lucky (Susan Patron)

Some of the interviews and highlighted quotes strike me as being particularly pompous and self-serving, but I do like these:
"Getting my library card was like citizenship; it was like American citizenship." - Oprah Winfrey
"I don't think you should have to love to read books that are crappy." - Jamie Lee Curtis
"People don't realize how expensive a whole library collection is.  A basic elementary collection probably costs about $50,000, a start-up collection.  And, of course, a high school library could cost $150,000 or more." - Laura Bush
"The library is, and always has been, our national schoolhouse." - David Mamet
This is an interesting book but it tends to come across as very political at times, very cause-driven.  That is not surprising considering the number of pages given over people like Al Gore, Barack Obama, Ralph Nader, and Ron Reagan.  I know they can't help themselves, but I'm so sick of politics right now that it taints the book's effectiveness for me and is the reason I can't see spending any more time with it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Right up front, I will admit that any novel that begins with a boy’s fascination with a Dwight Yoakam song and ends, years later, with that same young man singing another Dwight Yoakam song to a crowd of a couple of thousand people, has already scored some major points with me.  Jason Skipper’s debut novel Hustle does exactly that.  But more importantly, what comes between those two scenes is one of the most gut wrenching coming-of-age stories that I have read in a long while.

Chris Saxton was born into a family of con men.  His grandfather and his father have, more often than not, made their living by moving from one scam to the next until it finally catches up with them.  Ten-year-old-Chris’s introduction to his grandfather comes on the day he and his father kidnap the old man from his Florida shack so they can drive him back to Texas to dry him out before his alcoholism can kill him.  He has already had to deal with the years his father spent in prison, but, in a way, the day Chris meets his grandfather is the day he starts to grow up. 

Hustle is told in a series of vignettes that focus on Chris’s life between the ages of 9 and 18, years during which the only constant is his love for music and his guitar.  His rural upbringing in1980s Texas is not an easy one.  Early on, Chris is expected to help earn his keep by working with his grandfather selling questionably-fresh shrimp by the side of the road – even if all his participation does is provide more hours of free time for his woman-chasing father to barhop.  As his family struggles and hustles for its very survival, Chris often finds himself feeling the brunt of the frustrations caused by the economic desperation of the adults closest to him.

Jason Skipper
In Chris Saxton, Jason Skipper has created an unforgettable character.  Here is a young man with more moral strength and courage than any of the adults in his everyday world.  He sees his father and grandfather for what they are, and does not buy the self-delusional images they try so hard to create for themselves.  Emotionally closest to his mother, Chris understands that her poor parental decisions stem from her desperation to create a secure home for herself before she loses her looks.  He understands – but her weakness hurts him deeply.  Through it all, he sees his music as the best, maybe the only, chance to escape the life into which he was born.

Hustle is a good story – and Jason Skipper tells it well.  Having myself spent a bit of time selling fresh shrimp from a pickup truck alongside an old man, I was particularly taken with the realism of the scenes in which Chris and his grandfather do the same ( scenes this vividly painted surely must come from Jason Skipper’s own life experience).  Throw in a slew of wild, but believable, secondary characters and you have a very fine debut novel here, one of the best reading surprises I have had in 2011.

Rated at: 5.0

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Crowe on the Banjo

Marty Godbey’s Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe will be a welcome addition to the library of even the most knowledgeable of bluegrass music fans.  For Marty, who sadly died before the book’s publication, and her husband Frank, the book was a labor of love.  Both were fans of J.D. Crowe’s music long before they began to think about producing the banjo player’s music biography.  The book is filled with details and memories culled from numerous interviews with the musicians who have worked with Crowe for more than half century (and from hours and hours of conversation with Crowe himself), resulting in a clear picture of J.D. Crowe, banjo picker and band leader.  As the book’s subtitle implies, much less attention is given to Crowe’s early life or to life not directly associated with his music.

Crowe, born and raised around Lexington, Kentucky, was only thirteen years old when he decided that he wanted to play the banjo.  That inspiration came in the person of Earl Scruggs, who along with Lester Flatt, often performed on the Kentucky Barn Dance.  Crowe learned by watching Scruggs as often as possible and would soon be playing with local bands and on radio shows himself.  One of those radio performances would lead to a six-year job with Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys that would end in 1962 when Crowe decided to leave the band for a solo career.

Those years with Jimmy Martin were not wasted.  Crowe modeled his own work ethic and style around what he experienced with Martin, resulting in an incredibly tight band filled with musicians capable of producing superb instrumentals and harmony vocals second to no one.  Crowe finally came to national prominence in the 1970s when he formed the New South, a band whose original members were Tony Rice on guitar, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Bobby Sloan on fiddle and bass.  Today, of course, this first version of the New South would be considered an all-star band.

J.D. Crowe, Owensboro, KY, 2009
But it was in 1975, with the release of Rounder 0044 (titled J.D. Crowe & the New South), that the real impact of J.D. Crowe upon bluegrass music was first felt.  The trendsetting album so successfully transferred country, folk, and rock songs into a bluegrass treatment that bluegrass music was changed forever.  The sound was so successful that it even led to a breakthrough into mainstream country music for rising star Keith Whitley, a member of the New South by the late seventies, who so sadly died of alcohol poisoning just as solo success was finally his.

Despite having “retired” on more than one occasion, J.D. Crowe is a fixture of the current bluegrass scene and lucky fans around the country can still enjoy his most recent New South configuration. 

Crowe on the Banjo, which includes some 25 black and white photos and a discography, is filled with the details of J.D. Crowe’s musical evolution from the moment the thirteen-year-old first discovered his love for a banjo, right on through every band that he worked with or put together from that point onward.  It is far from being a personal, or complete J.D. Crowe biography, but it is a first-rate take on the banjo picker’s “music life” that will be much appreciated by Crowe fans.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Best of 2011, Update 6

I haven't looked at my Top 10 lists in just over seven weeks, so it's time to shake them up a bit based on the reading I did during those weeks and my evolving feelings about a few of the titles that have been on the list for a while already.

I read thirteen fiction titles since I last updated the list but only two of them managed to push their way on to it (see numbers 8 and 9).

Fiction: (Top 10 of 58 considered)

1. Nemesis - Philip Roth (novel)

2. Saturday - Ian McEwan (novel)

3. Rhino Ranch - Larry McMurtry (series novel)

4. The Glass Rainbow - James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux series)

5. Beach Music - Pat Conroy (novel)

6. Love at Absolute Zero - Christopher Meeks (novel)

7. That Old Cape Magic - Richard Russo (novel)

8. Hustle - Jason Skipper (novel)

9. Among the Wonderful - Stacy Carlson (novel)

10.Dead Man's Walk - Larry McMurtry (series novel)
Similarly, only one of the four new nonfiction titles considered for the list actually appears there (see number 7).
Non-Fiction: (Top 10 of 24 considered)

1.Wolf: The Lives of Jack London - James L. Haley (biography)

2. Hitch 22: A Memoir - Christopher Hitchens (memoir)

3. Bittersweet Season - Jane Gross (on caring for aging parents)

4.Tiny Terror - William Todd Schultz (psychobiography of Truman Capote)

5. Chinaberry Sidewalks - Rodney Crowell (memoir)

6. We Were Not Orphans - Sherry Matthews (memoirs from a Texas home for neglected children)

7. Why China Will Never Rule the World - Troy Parfitt (travel and politics)

8. What It Is Like to Go to War - Karl Marlantes (memoir)

9. Lincoln's Men - William C. Davis (Civil War History)

10. The Siege of Washington - John and Charles Lockwood (Civil War History)
Those are the lists at just about 2/3 of the way through 2011. There is still time for multiple surprises to come along; I'm counting on it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Among the Wonderful

In just over a year, there have been at least three novels featuring P.T. Barnum and his American Museum, each of them being told from the point-of-view of one of the human oddities Barnum featured there.  The first to be published, Ellen Bryson’s The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, featuring a romance between Fortuno, “the world’s thinnest man,” and the museum’s resident fat lady was published in late 2010.  This year has seen the release of both The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (Melanie Benjamin) and Among the Wonderful by Stacy Carlson, the former title’s content being obvious, and the latter being narrated by “world’s only working giantess.” 

The American Museum, operating from 1841 to 1865, was a huge success for Barnum.  It featured fascinating exhibits from all over the world, including beluga whales, mummies, preserved exotic animals, Eskimos, American Indians, Australian aborigines, and a wide assortment of human oddities such as the famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng.  In addition to providing his human exhibitions with a wage, Barnum also housed and fed them in his museum.  Over the years, an assortment of fat ladies, thin men, giants, bearded ladies, and people from the farthest corners of the world would live in close quarters on the museum’s fifth floor. 

Among the Wonderful is told through the distinct voices of two such Barnum employees: Emile Guillaudeu, the taxidermist who had been employed in the museum long before Barnum acquired it, and Ana Swift, a young woman billed by Barnum as near eight feet tall and the only “working giantess” in the world.  Each of them is more resigned than happy about living and working in the museum.

Guillaudeu, already traumatized by the loss of his wife to cholera, is further crushed when Barnum begins to throw out much of the work he has produced over the years.  A man with no experience with live animals, Guillaudeu suddenly finds himself solely responsible for keeping a wide variety of them alive.  Although Ana Swift has learned to accept the stares, finger-pointing, and looks of shock her height creates, she yearns deeply for a husband and a new life on the isolated outskirts of the American West.  Both would gladly leave the museum if a better life elsewhere were possible.

Stacy Carlson
Stacy Carlson paints a vivid picture of what life inside the American Museum must have been like for those who lived there.  Not so surprisingly, despite the excitement felt by the nearly 15,000 daily visitors who came to the museum at its peak, life for the performers is one of drudgery and boredom.  They spend long hours (even having to stroll among the crowd when not officially performing) being gawked at and jeered, and they have only each other when the last customer leaves the building.  The most affecting scenes in the novel involve evening gatherings during which all the performers, no matter where they are from or what makes them physically spectacular, forget their differences and simply enjoy each other’s company for a few hours.

The best historical fiction leaves the reader with a better understanding of its historical period while, at the same time, it provides a sense of what went on in the heads of those who actually lived in the time.  Among the Wonderful succeeds admirably in doing both.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, August 19, 2011

Stephen King & Amy Tan with the Rock Bottom Remainders

Let's have a fun Friday.

Many of you, I"m sure, know of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band in which (supposedly) you have to be an author to be a member.  The band members have come and gone at a pretty fair pace since the first group was formed back in 1992 for that year's ABA convention.  Some of the earliest Rock Bottom Remainders included: Dave  Barry, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Scott Turow, Ridley Pearson, and Barbara Kingsolver.

This video is representative of what the band does.  It features Stephen King on vocals and "others," including guest Leslie Gore providing moral support.

If that didn't scare you away, here's Amy Tan singing "It's My Party." Now I see how Leslie Gore came to be on stage in the first video. Hey, they're having some fun, and that's what it's all about.  (Please do let me know if you recognize anyone else in either video.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

James Patterson and His Crew Do It Again

Believe me, I really did try not to do it again this year.  But I'm weak, so here goes.

James Patterson has done it again.  He is the top-earning author in the world, reaping something like $84 million last year.  But that's not really true.  Really it is the brand name James Patterson that has done it again.  Patterson, the actual living, breathing human being, you see, really does not do all that much actual writing these days.  He hires people to do the grunt work for him and he just puts the icing on the cake they hand him.

I suppose seeing this story on The Guardian website is what convinced me that the only way to flush my mind of Patterson's windfall was to make note of it here.  I apologize.
Who was King to say that Patterson's co-writers, the ones who actually wrote the outlines, plotted the chapters, did the dialogue that he then ran through with his pencil, were terrible? What had Marshall Karp, Ned Rust, Richard DiLallo, Maxine Paetro, Liza Marklund or any of the others whose names appeared in smaller print on the fronts of his books ever done to cause King pain? Their names were embossed on the covers weren't they? They swung round every airport bookstall carousel, didn't they?
The 64-year-old, a former chief executive of the J Walter Thompson advertising agency, described his modus operandi with collaborators to the Observer in an interview two years ago: "My only rules are that the story has a driving force and that individual chapters are holding my attention. I will at some point sit there and write 'be there' on a lot of pages – if it's supposed to be a romantic scene and I don't feel anything, or if it is a scary scene and I don't feel frightened."
OK, I feel better now. I hope I didn't ruin your day.  This is sort of like getting a really cheesy song stuck in your head, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America

Only a few pages into Albert Brooks’s 2030:The Real Story of What Happens to America, I was struck by how plausible his version of 2030 America felt to me.  Based on what 2011 America is like, it is very easy to see how America could find herself in the middle of a generational civil war by 2030 – if not earlier.  Let us just hope that the rest of Brook’s vision is not as likely a predictor of the country’s future.

By 2030, thanks to China’s financing of America’s lifestyle, things are still looking good in America.  Cancer has been cured and people are living longer, and more comfortably, than ever before.  A score of other new drugs have even made it possible for the elderly to look and feel better than they did when they were in their forties and fifties.  The clichĂ© that “60 is the new 40” is, in fact, now an understatement of the truth about aging in America.

And then it happens: Los Angeles is leveled by “the big one,” an earthquake so damaging that the government  cannot even begin to rebuild the devastated infrastructure of one of its largest cities without a loan of trillions of dollars from China.  But this time the Chinese refuse, correctly pointing out that there is no way America could ever pay back the money.

China is not the only creditor weary of supporting a lifestyle in which it, for the most part, does not share.  America’s young have reached their own breaking point, and they see only a bleak future for themselves if they have to finance the extended lifetimes of those who came before them.  The “olds” sense the resentment directed their way but, despite the increased security measures most of them take, they are more and more often being targeted by assassins willing to die for the cause.

Albert Brooks
This is Albert Brooks’s first novel and, while it does display a little of the kind of humor the author is famous for, readers should recognize coming in that this is not a comedy.  Brooks tells his story through the eyes of several main characters from both sides of the equation: an American president faced with doing something unthinkable if it will save the country; an 80-year-old survivor of the earthquake with no place to go; a young woman burdened by the huge medical bills left behind by her deceased father; a wealthy young man determined to strike back at the elderly; and a Chinese billionaire holding the key to the future of California – and America.

2030 is more warning than farce.  This is one road we both could be headed down, America and Europe.  Let’s hope that Brooks’s vision does not become our reality.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I Was Just Thinking

...about the speculation coming from Publishers Weekly that Sony and JK Rowling have reached an agreement that gives Sony the exclusive right to sell the Harry Potter e-books for at least a two-month period starting this November.  Considering the fact that e-books cannot easily be transferred between any of the Big Three E-readers, is the deal really going to be worth the millions of dollars Sony is said to have paid Rowlings?  Are Harry Potter fans so rabid that they will spring for a Sony Reader just to get electronic copies of books they already know by heart?  Does Sony believe that this will be the deal that makes or breaks the company's ultimate survival in the e-book market?  If the deal is really only for two months, I can't see this having all that big of a positive impact for Sony.  Rowling must be laughing all the way to the bank today.`

...about the class action lawsuit against Apple for conspiring with publishers to fix the price of e-books.   This all started in 2010 when the original iPad (and iBooks) was introduced to the world.  Suddenly, all those publishers that had been forced by Amazon to sell new e-books at what had become a fairly standard $9.99 price were given the opportunity by Apple to set their own prices.  The result?  E-books prices have literally soared, moving into the $12-$15 range on average, and they don't seem likely to come down anytime soon despite some level of customer resistance.  Matthew Ingram believes it is less a case of conspiracy and more "a desperate move by a fading industry."  Personally, I'm not paying those prices because e-books don't have nearly the value to me that physical books have...not even close.

...about the guy out in Utah who is claiming to have Butch Cassidy's autobiography in manuscript form.  Brent Ashworth claims that the manuscript was written in Cassidy's later years, long after he survived the 1908 showdown with the Bolivian army everyone else in the world believes killed him.  Nice try, Brent, but I'm not buying it.  As one historian is quoted in the LA Times books section, " horse pucky."

...and about all hours I've spent with the audiobook version of Jonathan Franzen's massive novel, Freedom.  This thing is 19 CDs long, probably 22 or 23 hours worth, and I'm about to finish up disc 16. Sixteen discs and I'm still wondering what the point is.  OK, I get  it..."it's an epic of contemporary love and marriage," an intense look at three or four people (and their children) as they move from their own youth into the trials of middle age marriage.  But, geez, Mr. Franzen, I got the point about five discs back and it just goes on and on and on with these people.  If I were reading this heavyweight thing, I would have given up a few hundred pages ago.  As it is, I will finish the final three discs with another week's commuting, so there' no point in quitting now.  But what am I going to say about it later?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Dan Wilbur's Better Book Titles

Now for something guaranteed to make book lovers smile: a few examples of book jackets to be found at the Better Book Titles blog.  I don't want to overdo this because you owe it to yourself to see the dozens of titles at the website.

As comedian/blogger Dan Wilbur puts it:
This blog is for people who do not have thousands of hours to read book reviews or blurbs or first sentences. I will cut through all the cryptic crap, and give you the meat of the story in one condensed image. Now you can read the greatest literary works of all time in mere seconds!

Believe me, you have to visit this site.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I probably should have known better.  On the one hand, I despise the kind of novels that have transformed Dan Brown and James Patterson into multi-millionaires.  On the other, I love “books about books,” especially novels involving mystery and murder.   Those always start with a bonus point or two in hand when I begin them, so I had high hopes for Will Lavender’s new thriller, Dominance.  My hopes, however, were misplaced in this case.

Dominance is about little Jasper College and a special night class, “Unraveling a Literary Mystery,” being taught there to an elite group of senior American Literature majors.  The most unusual thing about the class is that it is being taught via closed-circuit television from the prison cell of a former professor who is there because he murdered two female college students at a different school.  Strangely, copies of Paul Fallows novels ornamented the bodies of both victims. 

Paul Fallows, himself, is a mystery.  Despite the stature of his work, and the notoriety connecting his books to the brutal axe-murders, no one has ever seen or spoken with him.  Now, Professor Aldiss hopes that one of the nine students in his class will finally be able to solve the Paul Fallows mystery.  With that purpose in mind, he feeds them a series of tantalizing clues that will have them competing to see which of them will finally solve the riddle that has frustrated Paul Fallows scholars for decades.

Lavender presents the novel in a series of flashbacks to the 1994 class alternated with flashes forward to the present day.  One student, it seems, did make a major discovery during the class, a discovery so important that it forever changed the life of the professor and eventually led to a professorship at Harvard for the student.  The story begins on the evening of the first class, and proceeds like an out-of-control train rushing down a mountainside to its destiny. 

One can see from this brief synopsis that the book’s plot has a lot going for it.  Booklovers (who will, of course, love the premise) will be jumping all over this one – as did I.  My quarrel is not with the plot; it is with the book’s style.

Will Lavender
At first glance, Lavender’s book seems to be more than 350 pages long.  Within those pages, the author has crammed 53 chapters – which is not necessarily unreasonable.  But it turns out that the chapters are really much shorter even than one would suppose because, almost every time there is a shift between past and present, the publisher has inserted a little three-page break with a title on the middle one (“The Class,” “Iowa,” “Alex,” etc.).  That is bad enough, but it gets worse.

As the book nears its dramatic climax, the chapters grow shorter and shorter, each of them ending with the type of cliffhanger that reminds of those old Saturday morning serials kids used to love so much.  The chapters grow shorter - but not the white space between them.  I suppose that by making the reader turn the pages more often to get to the meat of the story, the publisher is hoping to build the tension involved in the reading process.  That might work on some, but many others will react as I did: with snarling frustration at the silliness of it all.

Novels that read more like screenplays are precisely why I cannot read Dan Brown and James Patterson novels.  I reluctantly add Will Lavender to the list (and I feel sure that he will not at all mind being lumped in with that highly successful pair).  Don’t get me wrong: fans of Brown and Patterson will love this book.  If you’re one of those, don’t miss Dominance.

Rated at: 3.0

Friday, August 12, 2011

Portland's Homeless Enjoy Books-on-Wheels

Photo from Street Books website
I have to believe that it is virtually impossible for homeless people to obtain a library card from their local libraries - even though some do spend a good bit of time inside them.  But, sad as this might be, who would blame the libraries for not allowing books to walk out the door with someone just as likely to disappear forever as come back to return the borrowed book?  Permanent addresses and telephone numbers make it a whole lot easier to find the rest of us.

One woman is doing her best to place books into the hands of as many of Portland, Oregon's, homeless as she can.  The Christian Science Monitor has a nice piece on Laura Moulton's little bicycle-powered library:
Every Wednesday and Saturday, Portland, Ore., residents can spot Laura Moulton fiercely peddling her bike as she tows along a wagon full of books. When she arrives at her destination, Ms. Moulton parks, opens her wagon, and sets up for her four-hour shift.
Ms. Moulton is Portland’s mobile librarian. Since early June Moulton has been bringing books to the public with her library-on-wheels Street Books, an outdoor library for people who live outside. “The power of the book,” she says, “offer[s] a way to transport oneself out of a current reality.” Books are also “a tool to help pass time, which a lot of people living outside have a lot of.”
“Being able to give them a card and tell them, ‘I hope to see you again’ – that’s a powerful thing because these are people who cannot get a library card [at the local library] because they have no address,” Moulton says. Her patrons show a high-level of accountability in returning books, which contradicts some assumptions about homeless people. “The regular patrons are coming back and returning books very regularly,” she says. “I have patrons who come and check out two or three books a week.” The loaned books have no set due date. Patrons simply return the book when they’re finished reading.
All of us know that books are as much about escapism as they are about anything else. They offer glimpses into different worlds, places we might never see in any other way. They allow us to visit other planets, become spies, track serial murderers, ride with Old West outlaws, time-travel back to ancient times or distant futures - places and circumstances much different from our real world.  That this library-on-wheels, known as Street Books, can bring some relief and pleasure to a few of Portland's homeless is a beautiful thing.  Thank you, Laura Moulton.

(Laura has a website, complete with details and pictures - take a look.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Digital Textbooks Said to Be Less Effective Than Printed Texts

Dallas Morning News writer Nicholas Carr suggests that schools should think twice before dumping their traditional textbooks for digital texts and Kindles.  Unfortunately, as Carr points out in his piece, too many school boards are ready to jump immediately onto any new technology bandwagon that comes along.
In theory, the benefits of electronic textbooks seem clear and compelling. They can be updated quickly with new information. They promise cost savings, at least over the long haul. They reduce paper and photocopier use. And they're lightweight, freeing students from the torso-straining load of book-filled backpacks.   
But schools may want to pause before jumping on the e-book bandwagon. Recent studies suggest that printed books continue to have important advantages over digital ones. Not only do they accommodate a wider array of learning styles, but they also encourage more attentive reading and study. And if there's anything in short supply among students today, it's attentiveness. In a study last year at the University of Washington, a group of graduate students were given Kindles, and their use of the devices was monitored through diary entries and interviews. By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently.

In another recent study, 500 undergraduates at the University of California were asked to compare printed books with e-books. Most of the students said they still preferred reading from pages rather than from screens. According to a report on the study, many of the students "commented on the difficulty they have learning, retaining and concentrating" when looking at a computer screen. In a typical complaint, one of the students said, "E-books divide my attention."
Please read the article to get the full impact of Carr's argument.  I am particularly impressed by his comments comparing the flexibility of reading a physical book compared to the rigidity involved in reading a digital textbook.  I think Carr just explained to me why I am personally still uneasy about doing too much of my reading via e-books.  I have too many little reading habits that don't transfer readily to the new technology - and I'm willing to bet that most of you do, too.

None of this might be a big deal when reading for pleasure during one's leisure time, but it could make a critical difference in the education of thousands of high school and college students who have marginal reading skills or learning difficulties.  After all, we live in what seems to be an ADD world already.  Why make it tougher than it has to be?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Just after Sunset

Just after Sunset, published in November 2008, is a collection of thirteen (what more appropriate number than thirteen for a King collection) Stephen King short stories.  The stories gathered into this volume appear to have been written over a number of years (one of them over 30 years ago) with the shortest of them clocking in at ten pages and the longest ones running over fifty pages each.  In the book’s introduction, King laments about how easy it is for a novelist to lose his short story writing skills if he does not regularly practice the craft.  Obviously, from what we see here, he need not have worried too much.

Of the stories in the collection, only one of them, a story called “N.” would really be called a Stephen-King-style horror story – although there is one other about a horrifying cat, titled “The Cat from Hell,” that does come close. That one, the oldest story in the book, was originally published in Cavalier magazine but this is the first time that it has been included in a Stephen King anthology.  I should note, too, that there are several “ghost stories” in Just after Sunset, but none of these qualify as horror stories since the ghosts in them are generally among the stories’ most sympathetic characters.

Many readers, especially King fans, already will be familiar with “The Gingerbread Girl,” a longish story that was released on CD as an audio story about six months before its inclusion in Just after Sunset.  This is one of the most effective stories in the book, and it follows the theme of what I think are the best stories in this collection: wacky killers, crazed seekers of revenge, and crazy do-gooders are best avoided at all costs.

My personal favorites are “A Very Tight Place,” in which King demonstrates that he can still write a “gross-out” story with the best of them; “Stationary Bike,” a story in which one man learns what it really takes to keep his veins and arteries clear of all the goop he eats; and, “The Things They Left Behind,” an excellent story of one man’s survivor’s guilt after the murders of 9-11.

All in all, this is a nice collection of King’s work, and the icing on the cake is a seven-page section at the end entitled “Sunset Notes,” in which King explains the origins of the stories and why he felt compelled to write them.  King fans should enjoy this collection – and those less familiar with his work might be pleasantly surprised.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Is the Poe House Doomed?

The Poe House
Edgar Allan Poe's family appears to be on the brink of losing its Baltimore home for the second time in in the last 175 years.  After Poe moved from the home in 1835 to take up residence in Richmond, his aunt and cousin were forced to move out because of financial difficulties.  Now, the city of Baltimore, faced with its own financial problems, is no longer able to help support the museum located in the home and it may have to be closed down.

According to the Los Angeles Times book section, the museum is in trouble partly because the part of the city in which it is located is not one that attracts many tourists:
Edgar Allan Poe's Baltimore house is running on fumes. The historic house is a museum open to the public that lost the $85,000 in support it gets from the city of Baltimore for the second year running, and may be forced to close.
A Baltimore city official told the New York Times that budget cuts left everyone "under the gun," although the city's $55,500 support of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum continues. Babe Ruth's museum gets many more visitors than Poe's.
The New York Times offers more details:
Since the city cut off its $85,000 in annual support last year, the house has been operating on reserve funds, which are expected to run out as early as next summer. In the coming months consultants hired by the city will try to come up with a business plan to make the Edgar Allan Poe House financially self-sufficient, possibly by updating its exhibits to draw more visitors. But the museum sits amid a housing project, far off this city’s tourist beaten path, and attracts only 5,000 visitors a year.
The Poe House, which is owned by the Baltimore City Housing Authority, is designated a landmark, so it’s in no danger of being torn down, even if it closes as a museum. It is about a mile from Poe’s grave in the Westminster Burying Ground, where for decades a mysterious visitor left a half-filled bottle of cognac and three roses every year on his birthday, Jan. 19.

No one would argue that we are living in the toughest economic times most of us have seen in our lifetimes, but it would seem that funds to keep open the doors of the Poe House could be found.  $85,000 is not a huge amount of money for a city the size of Baltimore and it would be a shame to see it shut down such an interesting piece of its history for savings that would surely just be squandered elsewhere in the city budget.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Iron House

Iron House is John Hart’s fourth novel but I have to confess that I did not come onboard until his second one, Down River.  That one is still my favorite of the three I have read to this point (and, in fact, it earned Hart his first Edgar Award for best novel in May 2008), but each successive novel has been instrumental in enhancing Hart’s well deserved fame and reputation for writing superb thrillers.  In April 2010, The Lost Child turned his second and third novels into back-to-back winners of the Edgar for best novel, a truly remarkable achievement.  Now, all the buzz is about Iron House, a book that many critics and Hart fans are calling his best ever.

Iron House offers the story of two brothers who were very lucky to survive their infancy, only to be thrust into a brutal orphanage setting that emotionally crippled one of them and caused the other to run for his life when he was just ten years old.  Michael, just a little older than the brother he left behind, but physically and mentally much tougher than Julian, finds his way to New York and a life on the streets.   From there, just in the nick of time, the boy is taken under the wing of a New York mob boss who comes to think of Michael as a son.

But now Michael wants out of the family business.  The man he considers the only father he has ever had is dying, and Michael receives his blessing to leave the mob and begin a new life with the woman who is carrying his child.  He knows, however, that it will not be that simple.  Two people, the boss’s real son and the mob’s chief enforcer, are determined that Michael will not walk away cleanly and they are only waiting for the old man to die before they make their move.  Michael’s choices are these: stay in the mob, use his money and connections to start a new life in some remote corner of the world, or kill his two enemies before they can do the same to him and his lover. 

John Hart
Only when Michael is briefly reunited with his long lost brother does he realize that this is just the tip of a very dirty iceberg. 

John Hart does not write run-of-the-mill thrillers.  He explores how his characters became the people they are and why they act the way they do. He spends as much time developing their inner lives and their relationships with other characters as he does moving his thrilling plots along.  If there is such a thing as a “literary thriller,” Hart has to be considered one of the masters of the subgenre.  Make no mistake about it, however - this rather dark book is filled with graphic violence, chaotic twists and turns, and scenes that will long stick in the minds of imaginative readers.  It is not an easy book to forget, one that fans of psychological suspense most definitely should not miss.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)