Thursday, February 28, 2013

Library, What Library?

Kindle Opening Screenshot
While e-books have their place in my world, I still try to avoid them as much as possible.  If there is another option, I stay away from the e-book version of a book.  I always have, and I don't expect that to change until the DRM (Digital Rights Management) e-book crippler goes away.  (Having all e-books sold in a standard format that is playable on all e-book readers would also be a giant step forward.)

So, here's reason number 88 (but who's counting?) that e-books don't exactly rock my world.  According to multiple sources, Amazon's recent update to the Kindle operating system (at least as downloaded from the Apple app store) made it impossible for reading devices to register with the Amazon servers.  The result?  Would you believe that owners' entire libraries were deleted and could not be accessed?  Well, believe it.

Amazon has found the bug causing the problem and a new update is available now - but it is up to unfortunate users to download their libraries book at a time.  No harm done, according to Amazon.  Nothing happening here, please move on.

Somehow, I can't imagine Barnes & Noble coming to my house and removing all the books on my shelves that I purchased over the years from their various brick and mortar stores - and then telling me it was all a big mistake and I can drive over to their warehouse to pick them up again.  No, e-books are destined to be number two in my life for a long, long in always.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Land More Kind Than Home

Southern fiction often reminds us that evil exists where we least expect to find it and that we let our guards down at our own risk.  Wiley Cash’s disturbing debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, set deep inside the rural North Carolina of the mid-eighties, takes this approach.  There is plenty of evilness in Cash’s story, and most of it is buried in one charismatic preacher’s heart.

Sometimes nine-year-old Jess Hall, even though he has an older brother, feels like he is the oldest child in the family.  His brother, who carries the unfortunate nickname “Stump,” is severely autistic and has never spoken.  Jess loves Stump dearly and has routinely assumed the burden of watching out for his brother when the two of them are outdoors on their own.  But one day Jess cannot protect Stump from the evil that has entered their home.  And, although Jess curses the momentary cowardice that led him to run off and abandon Stump to his fate, he will fail Stump one more time – with tragic consequences.   

Wiley Cash
A Land More Kind Than Home explores the power of deeply held religious faith to blind true believers to the evil within those whom they trust the most.  Pastor Chambliss, whose church the boys’ mother attends, has a criminally checkered past and is not a man to tolerate people spying on him.  Unfortunately, Jess and Stump, who greatly enjoy the thrill of spying on adults, inadvertently do spy on the preacher one day, with lasting consequences that will impact their entire community.

This is a story of good vs. evil, one that explores what can happen when evil is allowed to have its way unchallenged.  It is about a community’s responsibility to protect its children even when their mother fails to do so.  It is about secrets, the kind that can get people killed, ruin marriages, or allow one man callously to exploit for decades those who trust him most. It is Southern fiction at its best, and Wiley Cash has claimed a well-deserved spot for himself within the genre.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

World Book Night 2013 Is Fast Approaching

I was notified a couple of days ago that I will be a World Book Night giver again this year - and that I will be giving away 20 copies of Michael Perry's Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.  I am pleased to be receiving my first-choice (I am a big fan of Perry's writing) book but still have not decided exactly where I am going to station myself on April 23.  

Booklist described this 2007 book this way:
Being a volunteer EMT is no small challenge, even in a town as small as New Auburn, Wisconsin. Perry mixes his tales of heroic rescues with his stories of small-town life. His book opens with his team attempting to rescue a teenage girl from a disastrous car wreck on a dangerous bend of road. As part of the volunteer fire department, Perry--along with his brother and mother-- pulls people from mangled cars and answers 911 calls from critically ill people.

He also relates how New Auburn got its name (after going through three others), and shares the lives of his fellow volunteers, such as Beagle, a man who can't use the town's only gas station because both of his ex-wives work there. He details the technicalities of being a volunteer--the many terminologies one needs to memorize, and also crucial, life-saving techniques, such as CPR and controlling a house fire by puncturing a hole in its roof. Tragic at times, funny at others, Perry's memoir will appeal to anyone curious about small-town life.

This giveaway is meant to focus on reluctant readers, non-readers, or those who do not have easy access to new books.  Because these categories cover the vast majority of the population, one might think it would be easy to find a giveaway spot.  In reality, it's not quite that simple.  Any suggestions?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

If I asked for the names ten authors, I am sure that most of you could almost effortlessly give me a list from the tops of your heads.  But if I asked for the names of even two editors, unless you are a publishing insider, I would likely get a very different result.  That is part of the reason that Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction makes for such interesting reading.  The book, part writing manual, part memoir, was co-written from the points-of-view of author Tracy Kidder and his editor of more than 40-years collaboration, Richard Todd.

The pair met in 1973 when Todd was assigned by The Atlantic Monthly to work with young freelancer Tracy Kidder.  Todd was the slightly older, wiser writing practitioner who would walk Kidder through the process of getting published in one of the country’s oldest, and most prestigious, magazines for the first time.  But that would be just the beginning for these two because that Atlantic article would ultimately evolve into Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Soul of a New Machine.  The memories of those early days shared by Todd and Kidder make for some rather intriguing (and heartwarming) reading as their work relationship develops into a more enduring one of respect and true friendship. 

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
But, as the book’s subtitle, Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing, suggests, it is also filled with good advice and instruction pertaining to writing narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and essays.  The chapter on narratives, for instance, covers details like point of view, characters, and structure.  There are also whole chapters on accuracy, style, and “being edited and editing.”  The authors also offer practical business advice based upon the current state of the publishing industry (a glimpse of the art vs. commerce part of the business) and encouragement to the novice writer.  Too, there is a more “nuts and bolts” section tiled “Notes on Usage” that addresses things like the distinctions between “which and that,” “who and whom,” and “may and might.”

Bottom line: don’t expect a complete, detailed manual on writing because Good Prose is not that kind of book.  But, on the other hand, readers will enjoy, and benefit from this one, as much as any budding writer out there.  

Riggio Wants to Buy Barnes & Noble (Minus the Nook)

Leonard Riggio
Leonard Riggio (Barnes & Noble chairman of the board and 30% owner) made an interesting filing with the SEC this morning.  Mr. Riggio has announced to the B&N board that he intends to purchase all of the company's retail assets - minus the Nook.  And, because this is probably the chain's best chance of being around for the long haul, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the man can pull this one off.

This is the key bit from this morning's SEC filing:
On February 25, 2013, Mr. Riggio notified the Board of Directors of the Company (the “Board”) he plans to propose to purchase all of the assets of the retail business of the Company. The retail business would include, among other things, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Inc. and; and would exclude NOOK Media LLC (comprising the digital and College businesses). Mr. Riggio plans to make the proposal in order to facilitate the Company’s evaluation of its previously announced review of strategic options for the separation of its investment in NOOK Media LLC. 
Maybe, just maybe, common sense will prevail and brick and mortar bookstores will not go the way of record stores.  Remember those?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"If You have enough book space, I don't want to talk to you."

Bookstores, rapidly disappearing as they are, are still some of my favorite places in the world.  Thankfully,  that is not an uncommon preference:
"A bookstore is one of the only pieces we have that people are still thinking."  Jerry Seinfeld
"As I watched bookstores close, I began to wonder how that felt for the owners.  Owning a bookstore was their dream and now they're struggling and seeing those dreams fall apart."   Karen Kingsbury
"I get crazy in a bookstore.  It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy everything."  Reese Witherspoon 
"Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and was suddenly at peace."  Helene Hanff 
"The smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television."  Andrew Ross
"The bookman appraises towns by the number of their bookshops: they be few, the towns are dull, monotonous, ugly; to be shunned, disliked, or, at best, endured."  Holbrook Jackson
 Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?"  Henry Ward Beecher 

Bonus Link: Browse a bookstore via Google Earth

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Classic Record Albums Re-Imagined as Paperback Book Covers

I love it when a couple of my passions intersect.  This time it's classic vinyl record albums and cool are these?

Christophe Gowans is a terrific British artist who has been the art director for a number of prominent magazines.  He has also done some design work for the music industry, and I want to share his vision of handful of classic albums - redone as paperback book covers:

There are many more of these at Christophe's website.  Take a look to see if some of your favorite albums are there...and at all the rest of the great stuff (including screen prints that I think might be for sale).

(Click on the images for a better look at the detail.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

You Can Have Your Own Little Free Library

Custom Made Library from Little Free Library
I have long been convinced that avid readers, real book lovers, are among the most generous people in the world.  They defy the stereotypical "book worm" image that many non-readers hang on them - and they do it with real style.

This is just the latest example (click on "Readers" in my Labels List on the sidebar for many more): the Pelton family of Greenville, South Carolina.  This Greenville Online link has pictures (that might tempt some of you into doing something similar in your town) and all the details.
The Peltons are one of several families in the Greenville area that are part of the Little Free Library program started in 2009 by two men in Wisconsin. It has spread to cities in every state in the country and to other countries as well.
...Accumulate scrap lumber. Build a box. The official ones are 20 inches wide, 20 inches deep and 28 inches tall. Fill it with books. Watch people flock.
“It’s been a fun way to get to know our neighbors,” Pelton said.
They used material from their home renovation, including cabinet doors for the sides and tin for the roof. Pelton makes wind chimes out of silverware, so she affixed some utensils to the sides. They included a small blue spiral-bound notebook for people to write messages.
Soon, a conversation began. “I read dolphin and shark books,” one child wrote. Pelton responded: “Coming soon.” “I like books. Love, Ellie.” Neighbors have gushed about the idea.

Custom Made Library from Little Free Library
And the rest is history.  Can you imagine the fun of having one of these little free library boxes in a spot that you pass by each day as you get on with the rest of your life?  Or how the library "owner" must smile every time another book walks away with its new temporary owner?

Yes, I'm convinced: book people are very special people.

Want to know more about the Little Free Library project?  This is the official link to that program, and I think it will surprise you.  You can get plans there for building your own "box" or can even order a pre-assembled one.  

The project's mission statement says it all, though:
  • To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide. 
  • To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity, and wisdom across generations
  • To build more than 2,510 libraries around the world - more than Andrew Carnegie--and then more.  
Come on, you know you want to.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Notes from a Coma

Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma made quite a splash in Ireland when it was published there in 2005, receiving such a good reception from readers and critics that it was shortlisted in 2006 for the Irish Book of the Year award. Now it makes its American debut as a Soho Paperback Original.

The book has a strange feel to it.  Because it was written eight years ago, it is set in the recent past – but with just enough spin on that past to give the story a bit of a surrealistic science fiction feel.  Largely character-driven, Notes from a Coma tells the story of JJ O’Malley, a young man characterized as “someone who is too smart for his own good but not smart enough to see that.”

Anthony O’Malley, a lonely Irish farmer, plucked JJ from a filthy Romanian orphanage not long after the overthrow of that country’s communist government.  It was a relatively simple cash transaction (something that would haunt JJ’s self-esteem when he figured it out), and in a matter of days the naïve Irishman was back on the farm with his months-old son.  And, with much help from a neighbor’s wife who had a young son of her own, the brilliant JJ O’Malley thrived in his new world.

JJ O’Malley is one of those students who have their teachers scrambling just to keep up with them, much less stay one step ahead.  He fits in well, the community takes pride in him, and he has long-term girlfriend and a best friend he considers to be more his brother.  Then one day JJ’s emotional security is devastated by a shocking loss that no one can help him work his way through.  But when the young man ends up on a prison ship docked in nearby Killary Harbor, part of an ambitious medical experiment he has volunteered for, the town is still proud of him.

The European Penal Commission is looking for an alternative it can offer to first-time offenders being incarcerated for what it considers to be “less serious” crimes.  Perhaps, placing these offenders into a deep coma under strict medical supervision for the duration of their sentences is the answer.  JJ and his fellow volunteers are on the prison ship to test the theory.

Mike McCormack
Notes from a Coma is a story told simultaneously at two levels.  Many, if not most, of the book’s pages include supplementary footnotes that explain everything from the evolution of the Sommos project (as the study is called) to details concerning brain activity and European Union politics.  While the notes do add greatly to an understanding of what is happening on board the Event Horizon, readers will have to decide how best to approach them.  They might want to read the notes page-by-page as they are presented, read each chapter’s narrative before reading that chapter’s footnotes, or even skip (something I do not recommend) the footnotes altogether. 

Although I would have preferred an ending with more closure, Notes from a Coma is an intriguing novel that touches on many of the moral and ethical questions of the day.  Mike McCormack is one to watch.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Born on a Mountaintop

(Ted Lehmann is a friend whose hand I am yet to shake.  We met via the internet several years ago and found that we share several passions: books, bluegrass music, and politics.  We even agree on two of the three of them - but when it comes to politics, we could not be any more different.  Ted. a retired English teacher/college professor, comes from the Blue State of New Hampshire and our conversations about national politics have seldom (never) ended with either of us changing our opinions.  But, we do have conversations - and not arguments, so I always enjoy Ted's company.  And, with any luck, I will finally be able to shake his hand and buy him a beer this summer when we meet up at the MACC bluegrass event in Ohio.

Below my review you will find Ted's review of the same book.  My Yankee friend knows what he's talking about, so please do take a look.  You can find Ted's great blog (Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms) here.

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.

                                     Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.

Just looking at the title of Bob Thompson’s new Davy Crockett book, Born on a Mountaintop, gets me humming this old Disney song from the fifties – even to the point that I have a hard time getting it back out of my head.  Men (and probably more than a few women) of a certain age are likely to have fond memories of the five-segment Walt Disney “Disneyland” series that spawned this little tune and all the Davy Crockett gear we managed to wear out between 1955 and 1956.  I still remember the coonskin cap I wore everywhere and the little plastic frontier “rifle” I carried with me. 

Suddenly, children across America were obsessed by a fabled hero that grabbed our imaginations like nothing had before.  Davy’s (as portrayed by actor Fess Parker) face was on so many lunch boxes, magazines, comics, bubble gum cards, coloring books, games, and pajamas that Walt Disney was probably able to pay for most of Disneyland with his company’s share of the sales proceeds.  Davy Crockett was that big – and we loved him.  Little did most of us suspect, at least at the beginning, that he had been a real man.  He really had been a congressman, an Indian-fighter (of a sort), and had died a hero’s death at the Alamo.  When we found this out, especially those of us growing up in Texas, we were more enchanted by the idea of Davy Crockett than ever before.  The man will be a mythical hero to us for the rest of our lives.

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett 
Only later would some of us wonder about David Crockett, the man who transformed himself into “Mythic Davy,” a national celebrity long before he died in San Antonio.  Born on a Mountaintop, explores how Crockett managed to achieve that, the key role Walt Disney played in perpetuating the Crockett legend for at least another half century, and what might have really happened at the Alamo. 

For author Bob Thompson it all started when his two little girls became obsessed with the Burl Ives version of that old Davy Crockett theme song.  Soon, the girls were asking questions about Davy, his nemesis Andrew Jackson, and their shared history.  Thompson, in the process of answering their questions, grew fascinated with the “alchemization of history into myth,” and a book idea was born.  With many stops along the way, Thompson would walk in Crockett’s footsteps all the way from his east Tennessee birthplace, to where he fought Indians in Alabama with Jackson, to Washington D.C, and, finally, to the Alamo, where Crockett took his final breath.

Disney's Davy Crockett at the Alamo
Crockett, of course, would not survive long in Texas because of his decision to join the Texas army when it was least prepared to defend itself.  But, as Thompson notes, from the moment word of his death reached the rest of the country, the real Davy Crockett was forever replaced in the minds of most by the fictional Crockett.  And the myth that grew up around Crockett so deeply captured the imagination of Americans that his story would be common knowledge for close to 100 years before finally fading from the public consciousness. 

Better timed for Crockett’s was his crossing of paths with another kind of legend, Walt Disney.  Disney’s 1955 decision to use Crocket rather than the more conventional choice of Daniel Boone to help publicize the “Frontier Land” section of his new theme park, coincided perfectly with the “arrival” of television.  Now, a cultural hero could be created from scratch in just a matter of weeks, and in Crockett’s case, there was so much good stuff to stretch that his myth would become more widely accepted than ever before – and it would endure for at least another half-century.

Washington-on-the-Brazos (Photo taken in 2010)
I am a native Texan.  I live within an hour’s drive of the spot (Washington-on-the-Brazos) Sam Houston sat when the call for help arrived from the Alamo defenders.  What is left of the Alamo itself is within easy driving range of me.  Because their story has been part of my life since I was seven (thanks to Mr. Disney), I tend to give Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie stories the benefit of the doubt more times than not.  But, when it comes to history, I am also a realist.  Born on a Mountaintop re-visits all of the weakest points of the Davy Crockett legend that I have encountered and wondered about over the years.  For lack of any real proof, Thompson’s theories about what really happened all those years ago will have to remain just that – theories.  However, I feel certain that his theories are closer to the truth than the myths that have grown up around these heroic men.

But, you know what?  I think I admire Crockett and the men of the Alamo more than ever because a book like Born on a Mountaintop is a good reminder of what real human beings can accomplish when challenged to do the seemingly impossible. 

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.

Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.

(The Fess-Parker-as-Crockett cards are from my 80-card Walt Disney card set produced to promote the company's Davy Crockett and Alamo movies.)

Ted's Review:

History is often viewed through the eyes of the present. How we understand the stories of the past depends largely on the perspective we bring to them from the lives we lead and stories we hear in the now. So with Tom Johnson, whose interest in Davy Crockett grew from the legend of the man Walt Disney portrayed in his three part television series aired early the history of the amusement park he was building in California. Johnson's young daughters, having seen the video of the shows, became obsessed with Crockett. Johnson, in order to help them separate the truth of the man who was “Born on a montaintop in Tennessee,” “Kilt him a bar when he was only three,” and died a hero at the Alamo in far away San Antonio, from the man who was much more interesting undertook to write the present book. Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier by Bob Thompsan will be released by Crown Publishing in March at a price of $27.00 and is available in all the usual formats.

Davy Crockett as Portrayed By Fess Parker
The Disney Vision
From a childhood of dire poverty to running away to seek his fortune at age thirteen to marriage and loss, serving with (and opposing) Andrew Jackson in his Indian removal project, elected to two non-consecutive terms in Congress and his death in the defense of the Alamo, Crockett became a legend in his own time. He was a bitter foe of President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal policies and an advocate of land distribution reform which would allow homesteaders to gain title to their holdings. Johnson seeks to follow the murky story of a man who left a slight paper trail and to separate it from the legend he helped create, but which was burnished into a tourist attraction by Walt Disney on television and the development of the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. The story takes on more interest to me as it spends some time in Dandridge. Tennessee and along the Dumplin Valley Creek where we go each year to attend a bluegrass festival. While Crockett himself is interesting and important, equally interesting is the search itself as Johnson tries to separate the man from the myth.

Congressman David Crockett

As the author's journey continues, he must delve through layers of contemporary culture to seek to perceive the underlying culture that has clothed Crockett in the mists of time and myth. Thus, present day Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg hide the long lost traces and unrecorded history of the original pioneers, represented by Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, who originally settled there or in places like them. Meanwhile, he sheds new light on incidents and policies like Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Project and the machinations of land speculators in the West. He discovers that Crockett was neither the shrewd country bumpkin nor the innocent dupe he is often pictured as being. As Davy Crockett wends his restless way towards the Alamo, Bob Thompson emerges as a serious historian seeking to discover the man underneath the myth despite the need of so many Americans to keep him atop his pedestal for their own economic and psychological well being. He consults, with care, the few actual papers that attest to Crockett's accomplishments as well as the voluminous written materials which are often outright fabrications that created his unbreakable mythic self, an image Crockett himself did his best to create and nourish.

 Fanciful Version of Crockett at the Alamo

Many questions remain about Crockett, and the more heroic they sound, the more iffy they become. Did Travis really draw a line in the sand? Was Crockett killed fighting or was he executed later by Santa Anna. Did he ever wear a coonskin hat? Did the “half man/half alligator” talk ever cross his lips? Or was he a restless, irresponsible man hungry to make a fortune yet always falling short and moving on to what seemed like greener pastures? Does it matter? And there's the question Thompson leaves us with in this engaging and challenging biographical essay that explores both the historical and cultural elements which combine to create our imagination about who we are as Americans. Because it's in this nexus between historial fact and cultural mythology that we become great as well as indulging ourselves in self destructive policies based on what we would like to be.

Author Bob Thompson

Bob Thompson, a Washington-based journalist, spent several years at the Washington Post, where as a feature writer and editor of the Sunday edition. He was best known for pieces exploring the relationship between myth and history. In this engaging popular history, he has written a thought provoking and enlightening piece in which he describes Davy Crockett as America's first media celebrity, the subject of plays, dime novels, and ghost written autobiographies during his lifetime and a massive resurgence of his popularity when Walt Disney used his story to publicize the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim in 1955. Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road withDavy Crocket and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontieris published by Crown (368 pages, $26.00). It was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Net Galley (