Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Pavement Bookworm, Part 2

I first posted about Philani Dladla (aka The Pavement Bookworm) back on August 28.  In case you didn't see that post, here's a quick link to it for your reference.

As you might recall, Dladla is a young South African who found himself homeless and addicted to drugs...nothing unusual about that story.  But what makes Dladla special is that he used his love of books as a way to pull himself back together and, more importantly, to help a whole lot of other people in the process.

It's a great story, especially if you follow the links and watch the videos associated with Dladla's journey.  And, in that first post, I mentioned that the 24-year-old was working on a book of his own, a memoir explaining just how he became the man he is today.  Well, GoodNewsNetwork tells us that Dladla's memoir is going to be released in late October by South African publisher Jacana Media.  The book, aptly titled The Pavement Bookworm, does not appear to be available for pre-order in the U.S. - at least at the moment - but it's one worth watching for.

Book details
  • The Pavement Bookworm by Philani Dladla
    EAN: 9781928337003

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Printed Books Are Still Popular

I spotted an interesting article from Shreveport Times columnist Gary Calligas this morning.  In it, Mr. Calligas, who publishes a free monthly magazine for "mature adults" and hosts a Saturday morning radio show aimed at the same audience, talks about his fear that the youngest generations are now doing pretty much all of their reading on one electronic device or another.  According to Calligas, and I agree with him here, such youngsters are completely missing out on the more tactile pleasures associated with reading a book - pleasures that they will never even know they are missing unless someone makes sure that they get a few physical books in their hands before it is too late.

He greatly encourages grandparents (many of whom personally know nothing of the advantages of electronic reading) to buy books for their grandchildren - books they can discuss with them and enjoy together, no matter the age of those grandchildren.  He goes on describes what he saw at a local library sale:
"I was so happy to learn many seniors who were grandparents or great grandparents buying printed books for their grandkids. I know their grandkids are going to be thrilled about receiving them for an upcoming special occasion. One gentleman told me his grandson needs to learn more about American and World History from other sources than what they are teaching in school. So, he added these books will give him the opportunity to talk with his grandson about those certain times in history and to comment on their importance."
In fairness, Mr. Calligas does mention that many young people are driven to reading e-books more as a matter of convenience and lower pricing than for any real pleasures to be derived from electronic reading itself.   He is quick to point out, too, that he has tried reading e-books and neither enjoys reading them or finds the process to be an easy one.
Gary Calligas

All of the author's points are well taken, but I do think that most of us these days, young people included, tend to read both e-books and tree-books.  About one-third of my own reading, for instance, is done via a Kindle or an iPad app allowing me to access my e-books.  On the other hand, my youngest grandson, a seventh-grade student, does his reading exclusively with physical books.  He loves the heft and feel of the books he's reading and especially enjoys collecting them in series.  I enjoy the convenience of having a large number of books on one device without having to worry about finding shelf-space for them all.  (When I want to add a book to my permanent collection, I buy a physical copy even if I have already read it electronically.)  I realize that this is only anecdotal evidence, but I've noticed the same reading habits in my granddaughter, a high school junior who much prefers physical books both when it comes to reading for pleasure and when it comes to reading for study - as I well know since I'm the one financially supporting most of her reading.

Personally, what I'm seeing is that the market share of e-books may have very well peaked for now.  E-books will always be around, and they certainly have their advantages, but at least for now, the very existence of the physical book is not being threatened - despite all the dire predictions otherwise that were so common just three or four years ago.  And that is a wonderful thing.  

These are wonderful times for readers.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Twain's End

I started reading Mark Twain when I was about twelve years old, and over the decades I have come to read a substantial portion of his novels, essays, and other writing, including even his very long “autobiography.”  Too, I have read collections of his letters, biographies, and books about his books, so I was already pretty much aware that Mark Twain’s personality often bore little resemblance to that of Samuel Clemens.  But still, I was unaware of the scandal involving Clemens and Isabel Lyon until I read last year’s nonfiction account of it in Laura Trombley’s Mark Twain’s Other Woman (one of the many books used in Lynn Cullen’s research for Twain’s End).  So when I heard about Cullen’s new novel about Twain’s dedicated effort to ruin the reputation of his longtime secretary, I was eager to get my hands on it.

Twain’s End can certainly be read straight through like an ordinary novel, but it might be more meaningful if one starts with the author’s presentation of her impressive research sources and techniques.  Best of all, Cullen shrewdly uses excerpts from Isabel Lyon’s actual diary as the basic, chronological structure of her novel.  Then, with the basic facts established, it is up to Cullen to speculate about the motives, hidden agendas, personalities, newspaper sensationalism, and half-truths that inevitably shadow a scandal of this nature.   And what Cullen “reveals” about Mark Twain, Clara Clemens, Jean Clemens, Olivia Clemens, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and John Macy is not often pretty.

Sam Clemens originally hired Isabel Lyon as the personal secretary of his ailing wife, but in reality, even from the beginning, she served more as secretary and manager of the day-to-day affairs of the entire Clemens family.  The Clemens family was not a happy one when Lyon entered the picture, and it was certainly not a happy family when she left it.  One daughter, Suzy, was dead; another, Jean, was in and out of asylums; and Clara had a volatile relationship with her overprotective father.  And sadly enough, Olivia Clemens strongly suspected that her husband was physically attracted to his secretary. 

Author Lynn Cullen
Twain’s End is the story of the slowly evolving relationship between Sam Clemens, Isabel Lyon, and Clara Clemens.  As presented by Lynn Cullen, the relationship may have been slow to develop, but it was an inevitable one that finally ran its course because Isabel Lyon was patient enough to bide her time.  In the end, however, Lyon’s dreams were frustrated and denied her.  And when she finally gave them up and married a younger suitor, Clemens cut her off, accused her of embezzlement of his personal funds, and made a concerted effort to ruin her reputation and life.  No one, not a single person, in this sordid story exactly covers himself with glory.

Twain’s End will be of interest to Mark Twain fans yearning to know more about what made the man tick.  I enjoyed much of the story, but found that it left me wishing that more time had been spent on the embezzlement aspect of the relationship and a good bit less on the “romance” itself.  My biggest surprise was the side plot involving Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, and Sullivan’s cad of a husband, John Macy.  That’s a story (and a side of Keller) that I want to explore more in my reading, so here’s hoping that Lynn Cullen writes a novel about that trio next.

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Banned Books Week (September 27-October 3)

How many of these do you recognize from the bits you can see?  How many have you read?  This is the kind of bookstore display that vividly portrays the utter stupidity behind the whole concept of banning a book...any book.

(You can click on the image to get a larger picture.)

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Edgar Allan Poe Open Casket Photo

I suppose that some will consider this photo to be more than a bit morbid, or even in poor taste, but I find myself fascinated by it ever since I stumbled upon it yesterday.

The photo is said to be of Edgar Allan Poe's open casket after his body was prepared for burial.  I think what fascinates me is the shocking realization of just how young this wonderful author was at the time of his death.  He died under a cloud of mysterious circumstances that I'm not sure have ever really been cleared up.  I, of course, knew he died at age 40, but he looks so young here that it really hits home on how much fine writing the world missed out on.

Now the BIG QUESTION: does anyone know if this picture is real or if it is just another internet hoax?  I am very skeptical about things I find on the internet but have been unable to find any information about this specific picture.  Thanks for any comments you want to offer.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Hot Countries

Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series hit the ground running in 2007 with A Nail Through the Heart and it has never slowed down.  And with the October 2015 release of The Hot Countries, the seventh book in the series, Poke Rafferty fans again have reason to celebrate. 

Longtime fans will already know this, but for the uninitiated, I’ll give a little basic background about Poke Rafferty and those closest to him.  Poke is a semi-successful travel writer whose travel guides are a bit offbeat in the way that they sometimes focus on the seedier sides of the cities he is exploring – and that’s exactly what he was looking to do when he came to Bangkok.  But along the way, life happened.  Poke is now married to Rose, a former bar girl, and they are living happily together with Miaow, their adopted daughter.  (Miaow, who was living on the streets when Poke spotted her, is probably my favorite character in the whole series.)

But Poke is more, much more, than just a travel guide writer.  The man is a born fixer, and he does not mind getting his hands dirty.  When he sees someone suffering at the hands of others, he wants to fix it – and with the help of some friends he usually does just that.  Poke’s most important “helper” is Arthit, a high-ranking Thai policeman, who also just happens to be Poke’s best friend.  The relationship between these two strong men has, in fact, been a beautiful thing to watch as it has developed and deepened over the seven books.

But now, in The Hot Countries, everyone closest to Poke is being threatened by a mysterious stranger who wants two things from Poke and will gladly kill any number of innocent people if it forces Poke to give him what he wants.  But there are two problems: Poke does not even have one of the things being demanded of him, and he will be damned if he will give up the other one.  And so it begins.

Author Timothy Hallinan 
But as the bodies begin to fall and he ever so slowly closes in on the man responsible, Poke will get some help from the unlikeliest group of heroes imaginable: a bunch of seedy old men who came to Bangkok decades ago strictly to enjoy the city’s wide open sex trade.  Now, what’s left of these men spend their days and nights hanging out at the Expat Bar, where they do their best to pretend that they are still the young, virile men who first sat on one of those barstools so many long years ago.  And who knows?  Maybe they do still have a little gas left in the tank after all.

Hallinan, in one paragraph, captures the sad essence of these men.  Here is part of that paragraph:

            “One night on Patpong around 3 a.m., exhausted, half drunk, and unwilling to return to the home he hand turned into a shrine to her (the Thai woman he was still in love with) he walked into a tiny place called the Expat Bar.  And he stayed for forty-three years.

Getting old.” 

The ending of The Hot Countries achieved something that rarely happens to me when I am reading: it left me with a tear in my eye.  I am a fan of series writing because of the way the good ones so fully develop not only the main character, but also several supporting characters.  I have read in and out of many crime fiction series since the eighties, and a few of them are so remarkable that they have become longtime favorite books of mine.  The Poke Rafferty series has earned its place among this select group.  I look forward (and hope) to be reading more Poke Rafferty stories for a long, long time.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Perfect Cake for Book Lovers

I have no idea about the origin of this "library cake," but I hope that the baker/decorator was well-rewarded for her effort.  This thing is amazingly detailed and had to take forever to prepare.  How much would you be willing to pay for one like it?

The photo does not "blow up" very large before it begins to lose focus, but take a look at this beauty.  It's the perfect birthday cake for the book lovers in your family...if you think they actually might be able to bear cutting into it, that is.

(Do click on the image to enlarge it.)

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Mary Karr Speaks

More on Mary Karr and her new book, The Art of Memoir.  This is her NPR interview of September 15, 2015 (with thanks to Kaye for the link).  It's a revealing look at Karr's take on the memoir genre, and is particularly revealing, I think, when she discusses what it is like to write so intimately about the people she loves.  

I am also linking to two earlier posts I wrote concerning Karr.  The first is my November 26, 2009 review of her memoir Lit, and the second is a more general reflection I posted in October 2009:

Lit: A Memoir

Mary Karr, Hometown Hero

David Foster Wallace fans will probably be most interested in the part of this interview in which Karr discusses, in great detail, her relationship with him.  I suspect (based on some of the comments posted over at NPR) that some will be offended by her characterization of Wallace because she is brutally honest in her comments and shoots down a David Foster Wallace legend or two in the process.  What does clearly come across is Karr's anger at Wallace for having chosen suicide as a way out of his troubled anger that, from the tone of her comments, she is not even close to being over.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mary Karr: The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr grew up in the same little rathole that I grew up in - at just about the same time - so I have identified with her writing ever since I discovered her via her wonderful The Liars' Club.  I was kind of a fan of memoirs before I read Mary's first book, but her's struck me as so true and so brave that I now appreciate a good memoir more than ever.  And I've always got my eye out for the next good one, especially those written by non-celebrities.  

I'm looking forward to grabbing The Art of Memoir some time this week when I finally get the chance to visit a bookstore or two.  Can't wait.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Writing America

Having recently spent a week exploring some of the literary landmarks of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, I was intrigued by Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Writing America as soon as I heard about its scheduled publication.  The book’s subtitle, Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (A Reader’s Companion), led me to believe that it would serve as a good planning tool for more trips of a similar nature to the one I had just completed.  As it turns out, I was right.

As Fishkin puts it in the introduction of Writing America, E.L. Doctorow once said that a novelist “endows places with meaning.”  But Fishkin goes further than that when she says, “And if literature endows places with meaning, places can help us better understand how works of literature came to be what they are.  Writing America examines intersections between public history and literary history”…And that makes it a perfect companion for those who enjoy extended road trips across America. 

My own trip found me visiting cities and small towns that influenced, and were influenced by, such writers as William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Richard Wright, and Tennessee Williams – all of whom are among the most well-known authors this country has produced.  Fishkin, however, does not limit herself to the better known of America’s writers.  Instead, she gives equal attention to lesser-known writers produced by several minority populations living and thriving in America: African-Americans, Americans of Asian descent, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans. 

Author Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Each chapter of Writing America includes a study of several related authors, a few seldom-seen photos of authors and landmarks, excerpts from the work of the various authors being highlighted, a detailed list of historic places relating to the authors in one way or another, and two or three pages worth of references for “further reading.”  There are chapters dedicated to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglas, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Sinclair Lewis.  But there is also a chapter highlighting a number of Native American writers who were highly influenced by what they (or their ancestors) saw and experienced at Wounded Knee, and another on Asian American writers that focuses largely on the impact of the Japanese internment camps of World War II.  There is also a full chapter dedicated to the impact that the Harlem neighborhood of New York had on multiple generations of African American writers, and a particularly eye-opening one on the wonderful Mexican-American writers produced along the border that Texas shares with Mexico.

And finally, Writing America finishes with a chapter on how Hollywood, particularly in its heyday, both influenced and used the work of so many of America’s best known writers, writers such as William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Nathanial West, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and Lillian Hellman.  Fishkin’s book can certainly be enjoyed by the more sedentary among us, but it is sure to be particularly relished by those who enjoy getting out on the road to visit America’s hidden (and not so hidden) treasures. Writing America is a little treasure chest filled to the brim with literary treasures; it is a fine traveling companion for those with a little time to wander – and to wonder about America’s literary past. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Jackie Collins Dead at 77

The world lost another of its popular writers this week in the person of Jackie Collins who succumbed to breast cancer. Now I won't pretend to have been a Jackie Collins fan and, in fact, I don't recall having read even one of her books, but I know that Ms. Collins had a whole bunch of fans who were saddened by the news of her death, so I wanted to officially mark her death here on Book Chase.

Collins was, of course, best known for her rather risquè books such as Hollywood Wives, so I think that this video (shared today by The Guardian) in which she gives her candid opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey is a fitting and appropriate way to remember her.  

Too, I had to chuckle when I read the part of The Guardian article that said that Collins's 1968 novel The World Is Full of Married Men was actually banned in the entire countries of South Africa and Australia.  My, how times have changed...

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Median Income of Authors is Pitiful

An article (and broadcast) on the National Public Radio website
will probably surprise you as much as it did me with some of the sales and earnings figures in highlights.  It will probably also make you as sad and concerned as it made me.

I knew that, with the exception of a handful of authors (many of whom write little but exploitive and derivative trash), it is not easy to make a living strictly as an author.  "Day jobs" are common among writers, even the best of them, especially if their names are not James Patterson, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Danielle Steele and the like.
So what is a good sales figure for any book?
"A sensational sale would be about 25,000 copies," says literary agent Jane Dystel. "Even 15,000 would be a strong enough sale to get the publisher's attention for the author for a second book."
But if that second book doesn't sell, says Dystel, odds are you won't get another chance. And that brings us to the Authors Guild survey. Just over 1,400 full- and part-time writers took part in the survey, the Guild's first since 2009. There has been a 30 percent decline in author income since then and more than half of the respondents earned less than $11,670 (the 2014 federal poverty level) from their writing related income.
For me, the key takeaway from this article extract is that author income has declined 30 percent just since 2009, meaning that less than half of those considering themselves to be authors are making more than $12,000 per year.  As a lifelong reader, and someone who loves books dearly, I understand the motivation that drives people to write.  And now I appreciate them more than ever.

Oh...and just what has happened in the publishing industry since 2009 that might explain this drastic income drop?  Can it be blamed on the proliferation of cheap (and often free) e-books that are so readily available nowadays?  Are more readers than ever making their reading choices strictly based on how cheaply they can get new books?  Is all that self-published trash out there so flooding the market that the worthy stuff is lost in the gigantic haystack of garbage self-publishing has produced?  (I'm not saying that all self-published writing is bad.  But I am saying that at least 95% of it should have never seen the light of day - and that having it out there now makes it much harder to find the good stuff than it used to be.)

Most readers don't read literary magazines or the book sections of newspapers that support and publicize quality writing.  They depend on one or two websites that offer free or almost-free books every day of the week.  And they get what they pay for - junk.  Meantime, quality writers and their work are being lost in the shuffle.  And that makes me sad.

Please do read the whole article over at NPR...and you will see that the writer of the piece does not entirely agree with me when it comes to all the free stuff being the main culprit here.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Love as Always, Kurt

Loree Rackstraw and her fellow students in the Iowa Writers' Workshop were not exactly thrilled when they learned in September 1965 that a new instructor by the name of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been hired to replace novelist Verlin Cassill, the instructor they were all expecting.  No one, including Rackstraw, had ever heard of Vonnegut, much less knew anything at all about any writing accomplishments and skills he might have.  Little did Rackstraw imagine that she and Vonnegut were about to begin a personal relationship that would last for the rest of Vonnegut's life.

Their relationship, which Rackstraw several times hints was sometimes an intimate one, was a bit bizarre at times.  As she puts it, the "friendship was sustained mostly by the U.S. Postal Service" and it was common for the pair to go more than a year at a time without actually setting eyes on each other.  But the relationship was most certainly a long and enduring one because it lasted for more than fifty years.  During that half century, Vonnegut shared his most intimate thoughts and feelings with Rackstraw and always made sure that she saw early drafts of his latest work.  He also shared much of his artwork with her and continued to encourage her with her own writing.

Love as Always, Kurt is very much Loree Rackstraw's memoir.  And, although she structures the memoir around the chronological progress of Vonnegut's literary career, this is not a Kurt Vonnegut biography that can be depended upon for completeness or objectivity.  That Rackstraw still deeply cares about Vonnegut is obvious on every page, and those readers looking for a more traditional biographical handling of the author are likely to be disappointed.  Those hoping for a more intimate and emotional glimpse of what Kurt Vonnegut, the man, was like, are going to be pleased.

The Kurt Vonnegut portrayed by Rackstraw was a naive man, one whose friends feared was easily exploited by those seeking to take advantage of his good nature.  He was a man who believed that we are put on this earth "to fart around," and he said that he was having a "perfectly wonderful time" doing just that.  Love as Always, Kurt also focuses on Vonnegut's strong anti-war sentiments and other far left political views.  That manifestation of Kurt Vonnegut cut his political opposites no slack, and he and Rackstraw (and the rest of their crowd) often took great glee in viciously ridiculing anyone who disagreed with them. 

Kurt Vonnegut and Loree Rackstraw
My most vivid takeaway from the memoir is the impression that Vonnegut was terribly insecure about his own writing.  Writing did not come easy for him, and he was often at odds with his publisher about delivering promised projects by the contracted deadlines.  I was also struck by the man's intolerance of those who did not politically line up with his own views.  Rackstraw makes it clear that she, Vonnegut, and their friends much preferred ridicule and laughter to the consideration of opposing viewpoints.

If you read Love as Always, Kurt just remember that Loree Rackstraw is very much Kurt Vonnegut's cheerleader.  To her credit, she does not pretend otherwise.  But even as one-sided as the memoir is, it deserves a look from Kurt Vonnegut fans because of the little details and insights into his personal world that Rackstraw reveals.

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