Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happy 176th, Mr. Twain

Samuel Clemens in all his glory
Happy 176th birthday, Mr. Twain.  As I mentioned on Twitter earlier today, it is very difficult for me to believe that Sam Clemens has been dead for over 101 years now or that he was born so early in the nineteenth century (1835).  Even though the dates make perfect sense when I look at them (after all, Clemens was a Confederate army deserter during the Civil War), his work is still fresh and readable to modern fans of his work.  Too, the man was about my age (63) when my own grandparents were born - meaning that they shared space on this planet for about a dozen years.  Oh, and there is a video of Clemens and his daughters on YouTube, something few Civil War veterans can claim, I suspect.

Mark Twain, as he is best known, is truly one of the finest novelists ever, and most scholars still call him the "greatest American humorist" we have ever seen.  His most influential novel (whether it was his best work might be debated, I suppose), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been called one of the most influential of all time.

Twain was not the wisest of personal investors and, in fact, was more likely to lose money than make any from the inventions he backed with his fortune.  However, he was a man with a great deal of compassion.  I was reminded of this by my recent reading of Charles Flood's new book, Grant's Final Victory in which Flood details Twain's critical involvement in the publication of Grant's memoirs.  Twain's (as well as Grant's) main concern in that relationship was to make sure that Mrs. Grant was left with enough money to sustain her standard of living for the rest of her life.  Grant was dying of throat/tongue cancer and had to race the clock to get the work finished before the illness claimed his life.  Twain published the two-volumes himself, making sure to give Grant the most favorable royalty terms ever seen.  At the same time, he took all of the risk and limited his own profits from the deal by granting the Grants such a generous deal.

So, Happy Birthday, Sam...wherever you are.  Your work will live forever, as will your image.  You were a serious novelist when you wanted to be, though always a wit, and you created a personae that many after you have failed miserably in trying to copy for themselves.

For those who have never seen it, here is the video I mentioned.  This was apparently shot in 1909 by Thomas Edison.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness

I have just about sorted through all my misgivings about Brianna Karp’s memoir, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, but I am still not entirely sure how I feel about the book.  So, perhaps, it is best to start at the beginning – with the book’s title.  While it is true that the author may have met the “technical” definition of homelessness for a good portion of the book, I am not convinced that she ever met the “spirit” of that definition.

According to Karp, she lost her job and could no longer afford to lease the “tiny cottage near the beach” in which she had been living.  Consequently, on February 26, 2009, she found herself living in a travel trailer on a California Walmart parking lot (as part of a tiny community of trailers parked there with the tacit blessing of the company).  She did have to rely on retail businesses for bathroom facilities until she found a cheap gym membership that gave her access to the gym’s showers, but Karp had a private shelter all her own to sleep in each night.  Too, it appears that Karp was unsure enough about calling herself “homeless” that she decided to include a rather definitive definition of the word at the beginning of the book.  Two portions of that definition can probably be stretched far enough to qualify her (italics are mine).

            “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”

            “a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings”

Wisely, Karp held on to her laptop and her cell phone and turned the closest Starbucks into her daytime home until she found work again.  Unfortunately for her, whatever work she found was either of the distasteful variety or never paid enough for her to make much headway in saving the amount of money needed to move to permanent housing.  She was faced with some hard choices – and she did not always choose wisely.  To Karp’s credit, she did reluctantly find a new home for her large dog after realizing that leaving him cooped up in a small, hot trailer all day while she was out was both cruel and dangerous.  

That was smart.  Not so smart, was the way she handled her relationship with a British homeless advocate she met on the internet.  After the two grew close, Karp used most of her precious savings to fly him to California to make sure that they were as compatible in person as they were virtually.  She even paid for a second round trip after the man had to return to Scotland to deal with the birth of his illegitimate child there.  She bought him a netbook – and she bought herself a roundtrip ticket to Scotland to surprise him at Christmas.  But she was still “homeless.”

Much of The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness covers the dysfunctional, fourth generation Jehovah’s Witnesses family in which Karp grew up; the suicide of her abusive father; and her continuing, poor relationship with her mother and sister.  And the longest section of the book deals with her romance with her British lover and its unsurprising culmination, so, despite its title, this is hardly a book about homelessness.

Brianna Karp
I include the following quote because it makes me question the overall accuracy of Karp’s presentation of her life.  It is something she supposedly said to her British boyfriend when he complained about the quality of television news programming in the United States:

            “Baby, you can’t watch this.  This is Fox News.  It’s not real news.  No wonder.”  Duh.  I grabbed the remote from his hand before he could hurl it at Nancy Grace’s monologuing face.  “How about we try a little CNN?  That should be more to your taste.”

Since Nancy Grace has long been a mainstay of CNN’s Headline News channel, I have to wonder if Karp was as careless with the rest of the “truth” in her book as she was with this gratuitous attack on Fox.  She and her Harlequin editors, in their apparent zeal to take their shot at Fox News, twist the real picture to suit their purposes (or could they really be that clueless?) – making me wonder what else in the book may have been distorted.

I’m rating the The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness at three stars because it makes for interesting reading.  I only wish I were more confident that it all really happened this way.

Rated at: 3.0

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Marriage Plot

Considering what author Jeffrey Eugenides has accomplished (including a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) in his relatively brief career, it is sometimes difficult to remember that he has written only three novels. The Marriage Plot is, in fact, the author’s first novel in roughly ten years.  Much like both of his previous novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex (the prizewinner), this one is a rather dark look at characters struggling to find their place in life before it is too late.  And, as in those previous novels, none of the main characters in The Marriage Plot have an easy time of it.

The novel begins in the early 1980s, just as Madeleine Hanna, a Brown University student who is besotted by the works of writers like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, makes a decision that will set the course of her life for at least the rest of the decade.  It is graduation day, and Madeleine is about to meet her parents for the ceremony marking her achievement. Then she learns that her former lover, the ultra-charismatic Leonard Bankhead, is being held for treatment in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital.  Madeleine, though she does not spend much time thinking about it, stands at a crossroad.  Does she abandon Leonard, graduate with the rest of her class, and move on with the rest of her life - or does she rush to his side and rededicate herself to their strange relationship? 

Her decision to rush to the hospital will prove to be critical not only to the futures of Madeline and Leonard, but also to the third leg of their almost four-year-old “love” triangle, Mitchell Grammaticus, the religious studies major who has convinced himself that Madeleine is destined to be his wife, not Leonard’s.  Despite the fact that Leonard is largely oblivious of his existence, and that Madeleine treats him almost as an afterthought, Mitchell is impressively persistent in believing that she will eventually choose him over Leonard.

The Marriage Plot is Jeffrey Eugenides’s exploration of the plotline used in all those Victorian novels that began with “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings – but after the wedding ceremony they kept on going.  These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines…into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression” (pages 22-23).  While Eugenides does follow the form, some readers will wonder how effectively he does so.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides presents the evolving relationships between Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell by allowing each of his characters to speak, even to occasionally retelling events originally witnessed from one character’s point-of-view from the perspective of another character involved in the incident.  This technique, combined with long, alternating chapters told from the first person perspective of each of the three, allows the author to develop his protagonists fully. Surprisingly, even with all of that, the characters, especially Mitchell, do not impress as being particularly believable ones. 

The Marriage Plot, as are both of the author’s previous works, is interesting, but readers should decide for themselves whether this one measures up to the hype it has received.  The novel is worth a look, if just to be able to understand what others are saying about it – and why.

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Best of 2011 - Update 9

I hadn't planned on another Top 10 update before the final one I'll be doing next month but I decided to go with one more because four new books have managed to crack the lists.  In the four weeks since the last update, I've read and considered six fiction titles and two nonfiction ones.

Changes to the fiction list are: The Marriage Plot at number five, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb at number eight, and The Submission at number nine.  On the nonfiction list, Grant's Final Victory makes its debut at number seven.
Fiction (Top 10 of 82 considered)
1. Nemesis - Philip Roth (polio threat in '50s)
2.  Saturday - Ian McEwan (car wreck gone very bad) 
3.  Remember Ben Clayton - Stephen Harrigan (Texas father vs. son during WWI)
4.  Doc - Mary Doria Russell (western about an excellent dentist)
5.  The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides (Jane Austen brought to the '80s)
6.  Love at Absolute Zero - Christopher Meeks (science and true love )
7.  The Art of Fielding - Chad Harback (baseball and coming of age)
8.  The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb - Melanie Benjamin (big novel about little people)
9.  The Submission - Amy Waldman (a nation forced to face prejudice)
10. Lamb - Bonnie Nadzam (a sexual predator exposed) 

Nonfiction (Top 10 of 32 considered) 
1.  If Trouble Don't Kill Me - Ralph Berrier, Jr. (biography of musician brothers)
2.  Wolf: The Lives of Jack London - James L. Haley - (focusing on employment stages of Wolf's short life)
3.  Hitch 22: A Memoir - Christopher Hitchens (memoir from a brilliant mind)
4.  Bittersweet Season - Jane Gross (caring for aging parents)
5.  Tiny Terror - William Todd Schultz (psychobiography of Truman Capote)
6.  Chinaberry Sidewalks - Rodney Crowell (Crowell's tribute to his parents and Houston childhood
 7.  Grant's Final Victory - Charles Bracelen Flood (Grant's race against cancer)
8.  We Were Not Orphans - Susan Matthews (memoirs about life in a Texas home for neglected children)
9.  He Stopped Loving Her Today - Jack Isenhour (everything you ever wanted to know about greatest country music song ever written)
10. What It Is Like to Go to War - Karl Marlantes (Viet Nam vet looks at long term effects of war on young soldiers) 

I'm in the homestretch now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carrie Does the Merengue - and Wags Her Tail in Joy

This day before Thanksgiving seems like a good time for me to post something different from the usual range of topics I cover here on Book Chase.

Well, I stumbled upon this YouTube video today and it made me smile.  I'm hoping it does the same for you.

(Please note that Carrie is wagging her tail throughout the performance and seems to be enjoying all the attention.  Also, she appears very physically fit and healthy - making me assume that she is being well treated by her trainer/owner, Jose Fuentes.  The pair is from Chile.)  Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

E-Book Library Wars

Photo Credit: MediaBeat
The big e-book news today is that one of the Big-Six publishers, Penguin, has decided to withhold its new titles from public libraries.  This was accomplished simply by requesting that the titles be removed and withheld from the OverDrive software that delivers e-book content to library patrons.  Even worse, Penguin is asking that OverDrive no longer deliver its older titles to library patrons wanting to borrow them from public libraries across the country by using the "Get for Kindle" option.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, none of the Big-Six publishers have made their books available through the special Kindle Lending Library, but Penguin has taken that refusal a giant step forward.  Penguin claims to have major security concerns - most likely having to do with piracy of the company's books.

The other five Big-Six publishers have had their own way of dealing with public libraries, with Simon & Schuster (publisher of that absolutely wonderful new book by our brain dead friend, Snookie) and MacMillian never having allowed any of their e-books to loaned by libraries.  HarperCollins has perhaps the most ridiculous e-book policy of them all in that it will allow copies of its e-books to be borrowed only 26 times before they have to be removed from a library's "shelf."  HarperCollins claims this is akin to the life span of a physical book, although many have disputed their math - me included.  Hatchette has a policy that disallows libraries possession of its bestselling e-books (only backlist titles appear to be available for check-out).

But Random House deserves a paragraph all its own: it does not restrict the use of its e-book titles by public libraries at all.  (Here's hoping this translates into increased sales for this publisher.)

Frankly, I don't think that pirates are working from copies of e-books borrowed from libraries because the Big-Six do not seem to have been any more successful in protecting their titles than has any other publisher.

Around and around we go...

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb completes my reading of the three P.T. Barnum/American Museum novels published between June 2010 and August 2011.  Mrs. Tom Thumb (July 2011), while being the least focused of the three on day-to-day life in Barnum’s American Museum, is, in many ways, the most intriguing of the three because of its focus on two of Barnum’s real life main attractions: Mr. and Mrs. General Tom Thumb.  For the record, the other two Barnum novels are: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson (June 2010) and Stacy Carlson’s Among the Wonderful (August 2011).

When she was born in 1841, no one expected that Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump would mature into a world famous young woman who would never reach three feet in height – nor that her younger sister was destined to be even smaller than Vinnie.  But, as much as the Bump sisters resembled each other physically, they could not have been any more temperamentally different.  Vinnie demanded to go to school with her everyone else; her sister was content to stay home with her mother.  Vinnie dreamed of seeing the world; her sister could barely imagine a world other than the one she knew within the confines of the Bump family farm.

Told in her own words, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, is a chronology of the life of one of the bravest young women of her day.  Lavinia Warren, as she came to be known under P.T. Barnum’s guidance, fought the odds associated with her size and with her gender to become one of the biggest celebrities of the century.  Hers was a life of the highest triumph and the lowest personal grief imaginable, but what a life it was.

Lavinia Warren
As portrayed in the novel, General Tom Thumb, dubbed so by Barnum, is a rather child-like man barely taller than his 32-inch wife who learns to mimic the ways of those around him.  Because Barnum put him in show business when he was only five years old, and he had to pretend to be a young adult even then, Charles Stratton never had a childhood.  He learned his ways from Barnum and others with whom he worked and toured – even to mimicking Barnum’s physical mannerisms.  Whether or not Lavinia ever learned to love the little man is open to speculation.  What is not subject to question is that she saw marriage to Stratton as the key to the bank vault – and she was right.  The wedding of Charles Stratton to Lavinia Warren has, in fact, been called the nineteenth century’s equivalent of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles.  It certainly made the pair wealthy, even by modern standards.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is quite a tale, and Melanie Benjamin tells it well.  Readers cannot help but be intrigued by the unique relationships between Lavinia Warren and the two most important men in her life, General Tom Thumb and the boldest American “humbugger” of all time, Mr. P.T. Barnum.

I highly recommend all three of the Barnum novels but, if you only have time for one of them, this is probably your best choice.

Rated at: 5.0

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is the Amazon Gorilla Heavy Enough to Win This One?

I would imagine that the Kindle Lending Library is probably already the largest "public" library in the world as measured by number of patrons.  If not, surely it will be soon.  After all, membership is open to anyone owning a Kindle and a membership in what Amazon calls its "Amazon Prime" program.  That program, as most of you know, sells for $79 per year and guarantees free postage on all qualifying items purchased from Amazon (plus access to a substantial number of streamed movies, documentaries, and television programs at no additional charge).  The kicker, for me, has been that items purchased via Amazon from third-party companies are not "qualifying items"; instead, such sales are subject to shipping charges.  Historically, third-party vendor purchases make up about 50% of my Amazon purchases, meaning that the Prime program is uneconomic for me.

Publishers, especially the big six (Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster), wanted no part of Amazon's lending library idea.  Numerous "second tier" publishers had the same reaction.  Amazon, like most 800-pound gorillas in the room, did not pay much attention to the outcry and decided, instead, to include many titles from some of the publishers that protested the entire concept.

Now, according to the Guardian, U.S. authors and their agents are becoming vocal about the situation:
Now authors themselves have also moved to criticise it, with US writers' body the Authors Guild describing it as a "mess", asking if any of the books in the programme are there legitimately and accusing Amazon of launching it to push the Kindle Fire as it fights an "unexpected ebook device battle" with Apple and Barnes & Noble.
And this is from the Association of Authors' Representatives website:
“The agent and author community have not been consulted about this new sort of use of authors’ copyrighted material, and are unaware of how publishers plan on compensating authors for this sort of use of their books, which is unprecedented. But we think free lending of authors’ work as an incentive to purchase a device and/or participation in a program is not covered nor was anticipated in most contracts between authors and publishers—nor do most contracts have any stipulation for how an author would be compensated for such a use. Without a clear contractual understanding with their authors, it is unclear to us how publishers can participate in this program. We take very seriously our role to protect the interests of our clients, and at this stage it is difficult to see how this program is in the best interests of our clients.”
Looks like this battle is just beginning.  It will be interesting to see whether Amazon can bully its way through this mess or whether it will be forced to modify its contractual terms (most likely at a big hit to its bottom line) with authors and publishers.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Warning: Do Not Watch This Video - Your Brain May Die


Do not watch this book trailer while eating.  Do not let gullible human beings watch this video.  Keep a large barf bag (or small trash can) nearby if you do dare to watch this video.   Consider that the "star" of this video is brain dead, and that the Simon and Schuster executives featured have apparently joined her in that sad condition.

Doesn't this make you want to run right out to a bookstore and see what else Simon and Schuster has on the shelves?  I know I can't wait to visit the publisher's backlist to see what other literary gems I may have missed.

SHAME ON YOU SIMON AND SCHUSTER.  Publishing this trash was not already damaging enough to your reptuation?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ann Patchett Makes a Personal Investment in Nashville's Readers

I absolutely love what Ann Patchett is doing to demonstrate her respect for books, bookstores, and readers.  Ms. Patchett is putting her own money on the line in order to open a new 2,000 square foot bookstore at a time when way more bookstores are closing than are being opened.

This Tennessean article has all the details.

From what I recall, before Patchett and her business partner, Karen Hayes, open their new Parnassus Books (and before the opening of a new Barnes & Noble store at/around Vanderbilt), Nashville was a large city without a bookstore to call its own.  The Borders Books massacre and the closing of a huge Davis-Kidd bookstore there had left book buyers pretty much out of luck if they wanted to actually hold a new book in their hands before they paid for it.

Ann Patchett
Patchett is quick to point out that her partner is doing most of the real work associated with running a bookstore, but that she considers the outlet to be her "gift to the city" of Nashville.  She has made a substantial financial investment in the bookstore and, understandably, even though she is not in it for the money, she would love to at least break even on the deal.

NPR has even more details and pictures plus a link to an All Things Considered radio piece the network did on the opening of Parnassus Books.

And, finally, here is a direct link to the new store's website.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The opening segment of Ann Patchett’s 2007 novel, Run, is so beautifully written that it made me wish for a whole novel focused on that period of Bernadette Doyle’s family history. That segment recounts the origin of an old statue that has been handed down through several generations of one family to the daughter who most closely resembles the face of the statue – only to finally land in a section of the family having only three sons whose father refuses to pass it on to a family branch that actually includes a daughter.  This little statue, so prominent in the book’s opening pages, will play a key role in its final ones, as well.

Bernadette and Bernard Doyle want to fill their Boston home with children but they are able to produce only one son, Sullivan, before they turn to adoption to add to their family.  The couple ends up adopting two black brothers, one barely a toddler, the other a newborn, whom they rename Teddy and Tip in homage to the state’s political heritage.  After Bernadette’s tragic death, Doyle will raise the boys on his on, all the while seriously hoping that at least one of them will become President of the United States someday.

All goes to plan until the snowy evening that Tip’s life is saved by the woman who pushes him from the path of a car about to crush him.  Sadly, this woman (called Tennessee, “like the state”) takes the full impact of the vehicle and, when she is rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment, her eleven-year-old daughter, Kenya, is left behind.  What Kenya gradually reveals to the Doyles when they take her home with them that night, will change all of their lives forever.

Ann Patchett
Run covers a lot of ground.  Its major themes involve family (particularly interracial ones), class, poverty, social responsibility, religion, and politics.  It is filled with memorable characters, but I suspect that most readers will choose young Kenya as their favorite of the lot.  If the book has a real weakness, it is that several of the characters seem too good to be true – even Sullivan, the black sheep of the family, who wanders back to Boston on the very night that Kenya enters the household.  It should be noted also that, while Patchett makes a valiant effort to contrast Kenya’s home life to that of the Doyle boys, her version of Kenya’s life in the ghetto of government housing fails to give a clear sense of the very real horrors and dangers of such an environment.

That said, Run is an enjoyable novel, one that probably generated much discussion in 2007 book club meetings.  Despite its subject, it is a relatively light read that can be enjoyed by adults and YA readers alike.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

62 Ways to Read More Than 50 Books a Year

My friends tell me I’m weird, that I don’t have a life.  I’m pretty sure they would say that about anyone who averages 125 books read per year, though, so I don’t take it personally.  Consider, too, that 125 books is a relatively low count when compared to the 250, 300, or 1,000 books that are read every year by some people I’ve met on the Internet (I suppose that means some people are just exceptionally weird).  And, honestly, if you push me hard enough, I’ll tell you how weird I think people are who don’t read more than five or six books a year…or (shudder) even read none.

Now let me tell you about my other life – the one that happens when I’m not reading – the one that takes up most of my time.  I work slightly more than forty hours per week on the job that pays for the books on my shelves.  I am an avid sports fan  (Houston Texans season ticket holder) who attends professional sporting events on a regular basis.  I have three very active grandchildren whom I help cart around all over town to their own activities, activities that often have me in the viewing audience: dance classes and recitals, pee wee league football games, little league baseball games, and the like…and I’m still happily married to the woman who loves to help me decide how we are going to spend our spare time.

So how does anyone read a large number of books per year?  Well, it’s pretty easy, actually.  These tips are guaranteed to up your reading count.  Pick the ones you feel comfortable with, and let me know if they work for you or not.  If you want to add to the list, please let me know and I’ll credit you guys with numbers 55 forward.

  1. Read during your lunch hour, something especially easy to do if you eat at your desk each day
  2. Read the first thing every morning - get up 15 minutes early and begin your day by reading a few pages
  3. Turn off the television set - or, better yet, don't turn it on (See number 4, below)
  4. Use your DVR to record the television you really want to see - quit channel surfing your evenings away
  5. Don't get lost inside Facebook or Twitter for hours and hours of your precious spare time - it's easy to catch up when you log back in
  6. Read while brushing your teeth - especially easy if you use an electric toothbrush with a built in timer
  7. Read when stuck in lines at banks, government offices, etc.
  8. Read while stuck behind long lines of traffic at slow stop lights
  9. Listen to recorded books while commuting
  10. Stay excited and informed about new books being published
  11. Browse bookstores and grab whatever catches your eye - first impressions are important
  12. Find two or three authors whose work you love - and read everything they've written
  13. Change your reading pattern/rut - alternate fiction with nonfiction, biographies with travel books, etc.
  14. Have reading apps on your smart phone - use them when you are trapped in a boring place all alone
  15. Set reading goals and speak of them publicly
  16. Keep a running list of what you read
  17. Join a book club
  18. Visit your local library regularly, especially the "new books section"
  19. Read the classics from your favorite genre - books by the early masters of scifi, mystery, thriller, horror, etc.
  20. Read from a list of winners and nominees: Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Man Booker
  21. Read translated novels and painlessly learn what makes other cultures tick
  22. Specialize in authors from particular countries or geographical regions
  23. Read local authors
  24. Re-read books that excited you as a young reader
  25. Read the classics - guaranteed to be better than you remember them from high school or college
  26. Find a bookstore specializing in what you enjoy reading most
  27. Find a reading buddy or two whose taste and recommendations you can trust
  28. Be a reading mentor to a child or young adult
  29. Use your credit card points to add to your book budget - the Barnes & Noble credit card is perfect for book lovers
  30. Read lots of book blogs, both individual and corporately sponsored ones
  31. Become aware of your activities that do nothing but pointlessly kill time; pick up a book instead
  32. When watching television alone, read during those endless commercial breaks
  33. Always have more than one book in progress
  34. Always know what your next book is going to be
  35. Trade books with friends and family members
  36. Buy used books to stretch your book budget
  37. Become a book collector specializing in an author, genre, publisher, decade, etc.
  38. Attend book signings at local bookstores
  39. Attend public readings at local colleges and universities
  40. Volunteer to read to struggling readers at local elementary schools
  41. Volunteer to read to the elderly with failing eyesight
  42. Read books about books - about bookstores, collectors, fakers, mysteries, libraries
  43. Attend state book festivals - they draw large numbers of authors to one site
  44. Treasure hunt in used book bookstores
  45. Watch movies made from books and compare the two versions (books always win)
  46. Collect signed books
  47. Read debut novels from fresh voices
  48. Participate in web-based book exchanges
  49. Browse the shelves of friends and relatives; you might learn something new about them and yourself
  50. Shop at Friends of the Library book sales
  51. Always carry a spare book in your car - you never know when you're going to need it
  52. Keep an e-book reader in your coat pocket
  53. Take advantage of all the free, or very cheap, e-book offers out there
  54. Read on your monitor screen when all else fails
  55. Read while your small children are napping (courtesy of Jeanne)
  56. Read while nursing your baby (courtesy of Jeanne)
  57. Add valuable reading hours to your week by using public transportation for commuting (courtesy of Ted)
  58. Download audio books to your iPod and listen to them while working out or doing chores around the house (courtesy of Sally)
  59. Keep book of favorite quotes found while reading (courtesy of Susan Sanders)
  60. Read while fishing (courtesy of Susan Sanders)
  61. Read while monitoring kids in bath (courtesy of Susan Sanders)
  62. Read books mentioned in other books you are reading (courtesy of Santosh)

Monday, November 14, 2011

One Blood

There’s a lot to like about Graeme Kent’s upcoming novel, One Blood, and I did enjoy it right up to the book’s final section.  Unfortunately (and, admittedly, this might not bother other readers nearly the way it bothers me), that is the point at which the novel commits one of the cardinal sins of mystery writing on my personal list of such sins: a dry discussion between characters that recaps everything that has happened offstage while I was reading the rest of the book.  The information revealed is key to a full understanding of the action previously witnessed, especially as to what has motivated all the criminal activity, but learning of it in this fashion is always a downer for me as a reader, and makes me wish the author had written a longer book in the style of the 95% of it I had already enjoyed.  In other words: Show me; don’t tell me.

But, as I want to emphasize, there’s still a whole lot going for One Blood

It is the second book in Kent’s Sgt. Ben Kella/ Sister Conchita series involving two of the more interesting new detectives I have encountered in a long time.  Ben Kella, in addition to being an aofia (a highly respected hereditary title that places him in the role of “spiritual peacekeeper” of the Lau people), is a key member of the island police department.  It would seem that his two roles would clash, but Kella is quite adept at using one role to compliment the other as circumstances around him change.  Sister Conchita is a young nun who has been sent to the Western District of the Solomon Islands to rejuvenate a church mission that is slowly wasting away because the resident nuns have become so withdrawn and insular. 

One of the book’s most appealing aspects is its physical setting in the beautiful Solomon Islands, an area that is likely still to be relatively unfamiliar to most people.  Even more intriguing, these are the Solomon Islands of 1960, a period during which World War II junk still litters the jungles and beaches of that part of the world.  As Sgt. Kella and Sister Conchita make their way, separately and together, from island to island, reminders of the fighting are still everywhere. 

Graeme Kent
The book’s core mystery is an intriguing one that will appeal to history buffs as well as to mystery fans because of its connections to American political icon, John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy, after his famous PT-109 boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in 1943, spent several days hiding out on two islands in the Solomon chain.  More than sixteen years later, strange American “tourists” are asking questions about the rescue of Kennedy and his crew, and they want to visit the islands that sheltered the men from Japanese capture.  When one of the Americans is killed at the mission during its open house day, things begin to get ugly and Sister Conchita, feeling somewhat responsible for the man’s death, refuses to rest until she finds out what is really happening on her island.

One Blood will not be published until early 2012, so there is still time to check out the first book featuring Kella and Sister Conchita, 2011’s Devil-Devil.  The pairing `combines individual talents and backgrounds to form a unique and effective crime-fighting team – one that is a lot of fun to watch.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Library Haul

My weekly run to the local branch of my county library yielded another fine batch of books that I can't wait to jump into - but first I have to finish The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and at least one ARC that I have waiting on top of my never-shrinking TBR stack.  I'm enjoying the Mrs. Tom Thumb book to this point, but at just a bit over half way through it, I'm finding myself losing interest in it.  I think that's because I'm in the section about the wedding and its immediate aftermath - a portion of the book that leaves our heroine looking a whole lot less heroic and personally appealing.  I have the sense that the book is headed toward a rather tragic ending - or a series of lesser tragedies - and I'm looking forward to a change in tone.

Anyway...yesterday I picked up copies of the new Jeffrey Eugenides book, The Marriage Plot; an interesting memoir titled The Girl's Guide to Homelesness; a novel by respected author Dana Spiotta called Stone Arabia. and one other with a title I couldn't resist, The Use and Abuse of Literature.  I was able to get all but the Eugenides book for 4-weeks but that one has a long waiting list so I can ethically keep it only two weeks, meaning it will have to be the first one I read from this haul.

Oh, and I picked up another audio book for my commute to the office (it's less than 20 minutes each way, so audio books tend to last a while).  Many, many years ago I read a lot of Rex Stout mysteries but I can barely remember why or the plots of any of the books.  So when I saw a "Complete and Unabridged" audio version of Might as Well Be Dead, I decided to revisit that one.  From what I can tell, this one was written in 1956, so it will be interesting to see if it seems dated or not.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Touched" - In Jerry Sandusky's Own Words

In one of those instances where "truth is stranger than fiction," it turns out that accused sex predator Jerry Sandusky co-authored a book in late 2000 that is billed as "the story of Jerry Sandusky's life in his own words."  But wait - that's not the strange part of this story.  The weirdness comes from the fact just disclosed by Sandusky's co-author that Sandusky insisted that the book be titled Touched.  Kip Richeal, that co-author, apparently did not like that title but gave in to Sandusky's desire to slap it on his life story.

Was this Jerry Sandusky's little inside joke, a laugh at the suckers who would purchase his book?  Was it a Freudian Slip kind of thing, a cry for help - one of those "stop me before I do it again" kind of things?  Or does the man just have such a gigantic ego that he never thought he would be stopped, even if caught (exactly what almost happened thanks to Joe Paterno and the other football-crazed enablers employed by the now forever disgraced university known as Penn State)?

Kip Richeal is interviewed on the ESPN website here for those interested in more detail.

Also, for the even more curious, this can still be found at

Book Description

January 1, 2001
Touched is the story of Jerry Sandusky’s life in his own words. From his childhood to his professional career, this book goes behind the scenes to explore the successes and challenges that Jerry Sandusky has faced in life, both on and off the football field. After graduating from Penn State in 1966, Sandusky went on to coach collegiate football for 34 years. Thirty-two of those years were with Penn State, as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach under Joe Paterno, until his retirement in 1999. The book also explores Sandusky’s involvement in children’s charities, including the founding of his charity, "Second Mile."  (Bold print added by Book Chase)

(Correction: Only the information about it - not the actual book is available at Amazon)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Submission

The Submission, Amy Waldman’s debut novel, is a straight forward look at the raw emotion and political scheming generated by the mass murder that rocked this country on September 11, 2001.  The novel, set two years after that event, begins just as a jury is to vote on the design of a national memorial for the victims of the terrorist attack that claimed their lives.  Each of the designs has its backers, and the vote is a close one, but the jury unites behind its choice until the winner of their “blind vote” turns out to be an architect by the name of Mohammed Kahn.

Outrage, skepticism, and confusion quickly surface even within this jury composed of artists, prominent business people, a relative of one of the victims, and several politically influential citizens.  It helps little that Mohammed Kahn prefers to be called “Mo” or that he drifted away from his religion years earlier – his motivation for entering the contest and the influences on his winning design are going to be questioned.  Members of the jury hope to find a solution before the winner’s identity becomes public, but when Kahn’s name is leaked to the press, public outrage at the jury’s choice is immediate and loud.

The plot of The Submission is more concerned with how individuals respond to, and are impacted by, a situation like this one than with what the jury will ultimately decide to do about their Muslim winner.  Waldman tells the story primarily through the eyes of two main characters: Mohammed Kahn and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow with two small children to raise.  Burwell, who was the chief advocate for Kahn’s winning design before the jury members knew his identity, is initially his strongest and most vocal defender.  But when Kahn stubbornly refuses to answer the frank questions asked by the jury, she begins to doubt his avowed reason for having entered the competition.

Amy Waldman at Texas Book Festival 2011
Readers who have kept up with recent controversies such as the building of a “World Trade Center mosque” will not be much surprised by what Waldman has to say in The Submission.  They will have already heard from people in the real world like Kahn, Burwell, and Waldman’s cast of less developed characters that includes a ruthless newspaper reporter, wild-eyed talk show hosts, apologists who hold America responsible for the 9/11 slaughter of its citizens, and politicians milking America’s new found patriotism for personal gain.  Importantly, however, the book tells a good story that makes it easy for its readers to consider points of view they may otherwise have never taken into account.

My one disappointment with The Submission involves its rather contrived (and convenient) ending.  Because I do not want to spoil that ending for others, I will only say that, for me, the story’s resolution detracts from its realistic tone and lessens its emotional impact.  That said, I do recommend The Submission – particularly for discussion by book clubs- because it requires its readers to examine their own prejudices and thinking a little.

Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Household Words as "Conducted" by Charles Dickens

Click on Either Image for Enlargement

A very kind friend, knowing of my love for everything Charles Dickens, sent me a nice little surprise package in the mail this week.  Inside the padded envelope, I found an original copy of Household Words, the “weekly journal” edited by Dickens from March 1850 through May 1859.  This copy of journal number 257 (dated February 24, 1855) was taken from a bound set (Volume 11) of the individual weeklies and is further numbered pages 73-96.  It is in remarkable shape considering the age of the paper and ink and would, I think, frame up very nicely – something I am going to have look at getting done.

Dickens, being the shrewd businessman that he was, was not content to be only the editor/conductor of the journal; he also owned the controlling interest in it.  He arranged things so that he directly owned 50 percent of the venture and his agents owned another 25 percent, leaving only a 25 percent interest for publisher Bradbury & Evans.  The journal, a mix of fiction and nonfiction pieces, proved to be quite popular, averaging sales of almost 40,000 copies per week.  The Christmas season issues, moreover, are said to have sold more like 100,000 copies each. 

Interestingly, most of the essays and fiction pieces were published without credit to the author, the exception being the several novels that were serialized in the little 24-page (approximately 22,000 word) magazines.  Serialized novels included Dickens’s own Hard Times; The Dead Secret and A Rogue’s Life by Wilkie Collins, and Cranford, North and South, and My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell. 

Note Ad for Bound Volumes 1-10
Overall, some 390 writers are known to have contributed to the magazine during its nine-year existence.  Some are better known than others, of course, and most have been long forgotten.  Approximately 200 of the writers contributed only a single piece during the nine years; others were much more prolific.  Some 30 writers produced from 20-140 pieces each, and a full quarter of all the pieces were the work of only five men: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, W.H. Wills, R.H. Howe, and Henry Morley.  These five contributors were well rewarded for their work at the sum of a full five pounds per week.

Dickens was no slouch when it came to his work as editor/writer of Household Words.  He is said to have vetted every piece that was published, often doing extensive rewriting before he was satisfied that a piece was worthy of publication.  In addition to his work as the journal’s official “conductor,” he also wrote 108 essays and co-wrote 45 others, in addition to contributing the serialization of his novel Hard Times.  The serialization of Hard Times is, in fact, most responsible for ensuring the longevity of Household Words.

Reference Used: The Victorian Web

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate

In a moment of candor during a 2010 appearance on Fox News, political commentator and columnist Juan Williams revealed the nervousness he feels when flying commercially alongside passengers dressed in what he calls “traditional Muslim garb.”  NPR executives recognized that his words, if they were cleanly sliced from the context in which they were spoken, could be used to portray him as a bigot – a firing offense in the eyes of those who already wanted to rid the liberal-dominated network of an employee who did not automatically follow the company line there.  So, in one of the most poorly handled dismissals of a public figure in recent memory, they fired him.

This is the jumping off point for Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, in which Williams challenges the tendency of both those on the right and on the left to stifle an honest exchange of ideas with those on the other side of any given issue.  He contends that this “you’re either with us or against us” attitude makes it near impossible for anyone to solve the problems America faces today.  Williams gets his side of the NPR story out of the way in the book’s first chapter, “I Said What I Meant,” before broadening his argument against the political correctness and partisan politics that now so completely dominate the American political system.

There are also chapters in Muzzled on the aftermath of 9/11, tax cuts vs. entitlements, immigration, abortion, political provocateurs, and free speech, in which Williams tackles in detail each of these hot button issues.  The broad message of the book is that Americans are being very poorly served by news outlets that are as partisan and biased as the politicians they cover on our behalf – that there is no place for “the honest middle” to turn for honest discussion. 

Juan Williams at Texas Book Festival, October 2011
There is little doubt that all the shouting and slanted news presentations available to the viewing public on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week, do little but reinforce already existing biases on both sides while increasing the overall anxiety and gloom felt by the average American – including the shrinking “honest middle.”  As Williams puts it:

            To my mind, the only way to confront these fears is to face them head-on.  That means talking to one another.  It means telling one another how we feel, including those we don’t see eye to eye with.  We have to acknowledge that none of us knows everything.  We have to accommodate ourselves to new circumstances and facts and seek peace, compromise, and progress.  I am not saying that any of us should throw principle out the window.  But my career as a professional reporter, columnist, and commentator has taught me that no one has a monopoly on the answers.

Let’s hope it happens before it is too late.  Or, as Williams contends, do we already have the media and political class we “deserve” because of how we continue to reward the media with high viewer ratings, and insist on returning the same failed politicians to office election after election?

Rated at: 4.0