Thursday, January 31, 2013

Barnes & Noble Should Spin Off the Nook Before It Sucks the Company Dry

The Fool Brothers, David and Tom
Now, courtesy of a couple guys in the financial world I have followed for years, here's a potential solution to the Barnes & Noble problem that makes perfect sense.  The following is a small part of an article on the Motley Fool website of January 29:
Across the company's close to 700 stores, comparable sales fell 3% last quarter. That's an indication that some, but not all, of the stores are failing to live up to their expectations. Adding to that picture, comparable sales actually increased about 2% if you strip out the underperformance of the Nook from the quarter . Once the weaker stores are closed, the company should be able to generate more income through the higher-performing locations. Now the caveat: Unless the company gets its act together, the extra income from retail is just going to get swallowed by the Nook division.

The Nook needs to be spun off, posthaste. Right now, Barnes & Noble is running two companies. One of them sells books and makes money. One of them makes e-readers and loses money. The Nook is an excellent product, and it probably has a bright future, but right now it's just sucking up resources.
I, like most casual observers, have been guilty of assuming that the Nook might actually save Barnes & Noble from extinction.  It appears that Barnes & Noble strategic planners believe (or wishfully hope) that the same thing will happen.  But maybe, as the Fools point out in this article, it's exactly the other way around and the Nook needs to be spun off as a whole separate company - possibly giving both businesses a better chance of survival.

(The Motley Fools are brothers David and Tom Gardner.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Resurrecting Lazarus, Texas

Simply put, if you are like most of us, reading Resurrecting Lazarus, Texas will make you feel good.

Coming-of-age novels, I suspect, have universal appeal because they remind us of our own struggles to reach adulthood in one piece.  We cannot help but see a bit of ourselves in well-crafted fictional characters trying to survive the emotions and temptations of adolescence long enough to successfully move on to the rest of their lives. We tend to root for those going through what we ourselves have already experienced.     

Author Nathan Barber so seamlessly combines high school basketball and the best elements of coming-of-age novels here that even non-sports fans will find themselves heavily invested in this story about a naïve coach from Houston and his new girls basketball team. But the teens are not the only ones coming of age here; their coach, as well as their town, will do some growing up.

Coach Gabe Lewis, short on varsity coaching experience, sees tiny Lazarus, Texas, as his last chance to snag a head-coaching job for the coming basketball season.  Little does he know, however, that the high school’s principal and its athletic director hire him mainly because he is a warm body they can get cheap – they could not possibly care less about the girls or their basketball season. In West Texas (as in the rest of the state), football is king, and no other sport comes all that close to it.

Nathan Barber
Coach Lewis and his girls will have to overcome numerous obstacles during the season, including the team’s own low expectations, the complete indifference of the town and fellow students, the aggressive hostility of other school athletes and coaches, and an emotional trauma that comes close to killing the whole community.  It is time for the girls and their rookie coach to show what they are made of – by coming of age in a very public and inspirational manner.  But can they pull it off?

Resurrecting Lazarus, Texas is one of those Young Adult novels that will inspire both its younger readers and their parents. As expected, the novel is filled with life-lessons, but those lessons are buried neatly inside an intriguing and inspirational plot – no heavy-handed lecturing. That approach should appeal to teen readers and parents, alike.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Barnes & Noble Likely to Close One-Third of Remaining Stores

The latest from Barnes & Noble is that the chain plans to close as many as one-third of its stores over the next ten years.  If that ensures that the company will be able to maintain a substantial physical presence across most urban areas far into the future, book lovers will ultimately applaud the decision.

According to this Los Angeles Times article:

The chain will end up with 450 to 500 stores in 10 years, down from the 689 physical stores it has now, according to Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble's retail group.
That evens out to about 20 stores shuttered yearly over the period, Klipper said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Over the last decade, Barnes & Noble has balanced an average annual closing rate of 15 stores with 30 openings each year through 2009.

I live near two Barnes & Noble stores - one is 10 miles north of me and another is 6 miles west of me - and if only one of them survives the store purge, I will be happy enough.  Having spent a good bit of money, and a whole lot of time, in both the stores, I can easily predict which is most likely to make the cut. That I am already willing to drive to the store farthest from my home rather than visiting the one closest to me, tells the tale.

I have long been outspoken about what is happening in publishing and bookselling today.  And I have come down hard on the side of brick and mortar bookstores and physical copies of books (that I cannot for very long resist calling tree-books - sorry about that).  But, bottom line, I am a realist.  I know that the publishing industry is being changed in ways that will become the new norm. And that is not a bad thing.  E-books and e-readers have their place, and as someone who has always embraced new technology, I am happy about that.  I have owned an e-reader for years and have all the e-reader apps on my phone and iPad.  I do get it.

But when someone like Kim LaCapria, who describes herself as a woman who has achieved "international fame and fortune as a writer," comes along and wants to ridicule people like me, it's game on.  We are not "luddites" or "book huggers," lady, nor do we need "to get a grip." 

Our internationally famous and wealthy writer friend (perhaps she is a legend in her own mind) does seem to struggle a bit with punctuation and recognizing sentence fragments when she writes one, but she sums up her sarcasm this way:
 For time and resource strapped readers, the death of the physical book opens up a world of possibility that even ten years ago barely existed, and we should, all of us, express gratitude that books have been once more made accessible to anyone with a smartphone and access to the Kindle Top 100 Free list.
So please perspectivize the Barnes & Noble closing news outside the feeling that “real books” are “warmer” or somehow more authentic. They are not, and this whole elitist idea that a more level playing field for publishing and the ability to wake up the morning of a new release with the title waiting on your device is somehow not the most awesome thing that has happened to books since libraries.

So, folks, if you can live with reading the garbage that generally populates the Kindle Top 100 Free list, you should be happy.  Just don't expect to get many bargains prices on those new bestsellers on the morning they are published and delivered to your e-reader.

Another of my favorite bits of Kim's piece (in which she seems not to understand the difference between "actual" and "actually") is this one:
And while book fans — a vocal bunch who seem to spend more time posting sanctimonious graphics on Facebook about bookophilia than they do reading actually books — are not too pleased with the news, it is probably actually more a positive than a negative for the publishing industry.

How dare you sanctimonious book fans do such a thing?

Kim, your argument is not necessarily a bad one.  But the tone in which you deliver it is so distracting that you are wasting your breath if you really want anyone to take that piece seriously.

Get a grip.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Tenth of December

"The best book you'll read this year."

  That is a particularly bold statement for a reviewer to make in early January, but it is exactly what the New York Times had to say about Tenth of December, the new short story collection from George Saunders. That certainly grabbed my attention - especially since, to that point, I had never even heard of George Saunders.  Saunders, the author of several previous short story collections, it seems, is hitting mainstream public awareness in a very big way.

There are ten stories in the collection, each of them memorable in its own way.  Most readers, I suspect, unless they encounter the stories in a self-contained unit like this collection, would not guess that they had been written by the same author.  The stories are that different from one other in style, tone, and theme.  Included, are darkly futuristic stories, stories written from the points-of-view of children, stories about class differences, and stories of despair and redemption.

Saunders tells ten stories in 250 pages, and the longest story in the book accounts for 60 of those pages, with the shortest being only 2 pages long.  So, on average, the stories are just over 20 pages each - but what stories, they are.  They might be short, but they tackle life's big questions, especially those pertaining to morality, life and death, and what makes each of us tick.

The book opens with a story called "Victory Lap," in which a timid teenager struggles with the real-time decision of whether or not to go to the aid of the girl next door as she struggles with an intruder. Should he get involved or not?  Will anyone ever know if he just walks away and pretends he never saw a thing? The boy's hesitance might be shocking, even a bit disgusting, but by story's end, Saunders has used his skills to, at the very least, turn the young man into an understandable – and sympathetic - character. In the process of reading "Victory Lap," one even begins to question how he might react in the same situation.

George Saunders
Some stories work better than others, of course, but I suspect that each of the ten will be the favorite of some percentage of the book's readers because the stories speak to the reader in a very personal sense. My own favorite is the book's title story about a little boy whose real and fantasy worlds almost seamlessly blend together.  Yet, against all odds, in a chance encounter with a stranger, the boy gives a terminally ill (and suicidal) man reason to carry on by calling upon the inner strength the man had long forgotten he ever had.

Eight of these ten stories strike me as being somewhere between very good and outstanding. Tenth of December may, or it may not, turn out to be the best book I will read in 2013. It is way too early for that - but I do thank the New York Times for bringing it to my attention as, otherwise, I would almost certainly have missed it (proving that sensationalistic headlines are not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Heat of the Sun

David Rain’s debut novel, The Heat of the Sun, is an unusual and ambitious one: an updating of one of the most famous fictional romances of the twentieth century, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.  As the opera begins, in 1904, an American Naval officer is marrying a young woman in Nagasaki, Japan. The officer returns to the United States soon after the wedding without knowing that his Japanese bride carries his child.  The young woman bears a son but, for complicated reasons, ends up taking her own life. 

Rain picks up the story in America a few years later – where the child, completely unaware of his personal history, is being raised by his father and upper class stepmother. Coincidentally (and the author is not at all bashful about asking his readers to suspend their sense of disbelief for the duration of this novel), Ben “Trouble” Pinkerton will soon meet another boy whose father played a role in Madame Butterfly’s sad fate.

Woodley Sharpless and Ben Pinkerton meet in the boarding school to which their parents have relegated them and form an attachment that, despite long periods during which they lose contact, will be the longest and most enduring friendship of their lives. Together, more times than not, the pair will play roles in some of the key events of the twentieth century – everything from experiencing the Roaring Twenties in New York City to involvement in the Los Alamos Project that would ultimately almost destroy Trouble Pinkerton’s city of birth.

David Rain
The Heat of the Sun is a wild ride, but readers willing to suspend judgment pertaining to the plausibility of the plot’s several chance-meetings between its main characters are going to enjoy that ride immensely. The author presents his story within an operatic framework: with sections marked, Overture, Act One, Act Two, Between the Acts, Act Three, Act Four, and Curtain. Each of these sections marks the passage of a number of years and a major of changing of circumstances for our narrator and other of the book’s main characters.

David Rain is an Australian author whose mother was English.  He now lives in London where he teaches writing at Middlesex University.  He numbers Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald among his favorite authors, and there are shades of both in his debut novel. The novel also reminds me a bit of John Irving’s work and, bottom line, The Heat of the Sun is one of the more imaginative debut novels I have encountered in a while.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

This is the British cover of The Heat of the Sun.  I think it gives the book a totally different "feel" going in and think the American cover is more representative of what's inside the book.  Which do you prefer?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Top Ten Favorite Books: Alan Gurganus

Alan Gurganus, as far as I was concerned, came out of nowhere in 1989 with his wonderful Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  Little did I know that Gurganus had previously published several chapters of the book in places like The Paris Review, Harper's, and The North American Review.  All I knew was that a novel about the "widow of the Civil War's last surviving soldier" was something that sounded perfect for me, someone who consistently enjoys Civil War fiction.  So I jumped all over it - and now have a fairly valuable first edition copy of the novel on my shelves.

In Lucy Marsden, the 99-year-old widow referred to in the novel's title, Gurganus created one of my all-time favorite characters.  The woman, as we say in the South, has a mouth on her.  Today, I consider the book to be one of the most underrated novels of the eighties, and I still recommend it to friends every so often.  And, at least to this point, everyone who has taken my advice has love Confederate Widow as much as I do.  This 718-page whopper is quite the reading experience.

Alan Gurganus
Which brings me back to Alan Gurganus.  Honestly, I don't know much about Mr. Gurganus other than that he is a North Carolinian novelist, short story writer, and professor.  I doubt that this list (taken from The Top Ten, edited by J. Peder Zane) of Mr. Guranus's Top Ten Favorite Books will tell us much about him, but you never know:  

  1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. The stories of Anton Chekhov
  3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  4. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. A Death in the Family by James Agee
  6. Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
  7. The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde
  8. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  9. Emma by Jane Austen
  10. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
And, do read Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All if you enjoy Southern humor and irreverent historical fiction - don't be put off by the Civil War focus - and let me know what you think of it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Trailer of the Week - Truth in Advertising

I received a review copy of John Kenney's Truth in Advertising just a couple days ago, and the book's trailer has me wishing that it would work its way up to the top of the stack a lot sooner than it probably will.  (Watch for the author at the end of the video.)

So, through the eyes of an all-over-the-map, fake focus group, here's a quick look at Truth in Advertising:

(19th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lincoln's Battle with God

The common perception of Abraham Lincoln is that he was a man whose lifelong, deeply held Christian faith gave him the courage to prosecute a long and bloody war to right one of mankind’s greatest wrongs: slavery.   The facts, however, tell a different story about Lincoln’s long journey, a journey that, although it ultimately may have arrived at the same destination, involved numerous sidetracks and obstacles along the way.

As Stephen Mansfield notes in Lincoln’s Battle with God (A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America):

            “He was a complicated soul, an innovative mind, and an oppressed spirit.  He was raw and earthy and poetic.  He could be ambitious and enraged and cold…  We can hope to understand.  Yet never can we confine him; never can we seek to make him conform.”

Abraham Lincoln is, after all, a man who sporadically attended church services but never officially joined a church.  During his presidency, he often spoke of God and made Biblical references in his public addresses, but almost never mentioned Jesus Christ directly.  Many of the people of New Salem, Illinois, those who knew Lincoln longest and best, remained skeptical about his supposed Christian faith right up to the moment of his death.  And because Lincoln was such a vocal anti-Christianity advocate when they knew him, who can blame them?

Lincoln simply could not keep his personal convictions private – he never missed an opportunity to ridicule a preacher or to express his religious doubts (privately or publicly) to the more pious of his acquaintances.  Citing an old Winston Churchill saying that, “a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject,” Mansfield stresses just how obsessed Lincoln was about debunking organized religion.  His resulting anti-religion reputation cost Lincoln many a vote during his political life when preachers specifically asked their congregations to vote for his political opponents.

Stephen Mansfield
But Lincoln was a tortured soul from the beginning, and his journey would be a long one.  His mother died when he was nine years old, leaving the boy in the care (if you can call it that) of a wandering, but demanding father who saw his son more as slave labor than as a member of his family.  And it did not help that Mr. Lincoln was a Christian of the most hypocritical sort, helping to nip the boy’s budding faith in the bud. 

Through the years, Lincoln would lose others close to him, including two young sons, and would suffer from regular (and sometimes near suicidal) bouts with depression.  And just when America was most severely tested, Lincoln was forced by his incompetent Generals to redefine the presidential role of Commander-in-Chief, a role for which he was not prepared.  By war’s end, Lincoln had come to believe that God was playing a direct role in what was happening on the battlefield, that the country must pay a heavy price for its past sins before God would allow the killing to stop.  Although his evolutionary religious journey, almost complete, was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, the man who died in Washington was far different from the one who lived in Illinois.

Lincoln’s Battle with God is an eye-opener, particularly as regards Lincoln’s days in New Salem - a reminder that the real Abraham Lincoln is no less amazing a man than the mythical one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)