Baltimore Readers, These Guys Deserve Your Support

I see that a couple of young brothers, aged 25 and 27, are getting set to open up new bookstore in Baltimore that will sell both new and used books. I love stories like this one because it indicates that despite all the gloom and doom we read about the future of independent bookstores, new stores are being opened around the country all the time.

Opening what the brothers say is the Baltimore area’s largest new and used book store without any retail experience was a risk, acknowledges Jack Revelle, who handles the people side of things, while his brother handles the computers and programming. “Our complementary skill sets are invaluable,” he mentions as an aside.

But they are young and don’t have families to support yet, so the risk was warranted, he said, and though he wouldn’t recommend it, they both already had quit college to advance the business — he just a semester and a half short of graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Seth just a semester short from Wheaton.

Retail experience also is not a requirement for the employees they hire, he said.

“I want people who love to be around books, who are passionate about books,” he said.

His test for applicants is asking them to rank authors in chronological order. “We pay fairly and offer fringe benefits,” he said. “We want to have great employees, so they can give customers a great experience.”

Their venture is not the typical dusty used-book place. It’s open and airy and reminiscent of a Barnes & Noble or the Borders in Timonium — not coincidentally.

The comfortable brown leather armchairs that encourage reading are new, but the display cases and the checkout counter came from a Borders that went out of business in Rockefeller Center in New York.

“We’re big on the environmental stuff and recycling,” Revelle said, noting the books they don’t use are recycled into paper towels.

What isn’t reminiscent of Borders are the paintings, photographs and prints on the walls. Done by local and regional artists, all are for sale — with the store charging a commission of just 10 percent.

They think the store, which not only sells books but buys them as well, will find a good market in Towson. “It has the right mix of people who really enjoy books, and I just think people like used-book stores,” Jack Revelle said.

Barnes & Noble, just up Dulaney Valley Road, remains philosophical about the newly arrived competition.

“The marketplace for books has changed dramatically over the last decade,” spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said, noting that both large and small booksellers are now competing with online ventures and discount operations such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Target.

“But, we believe there is room for all booksellers in the marketplace. People who shop at our stores also like shopping at smaller bookstores,” Brown said.

I love their enthusiasm and the fact that they realize it makes perfect sense for them to take this kind of risk now before they have family obligations that might limit their future risk-taking opportunities. They might be young, but they seem to know exactly what they are doing.

I also highlighted the quotes concerning the type of help with whom they are hoping to staff their new store. Too many chain bookstore managers don’t seem to take that kind of thing into account when staffing their locations. Who better to work in a bookstore than someone who is passionate about reading and books and wants to work around them because it’s fun?

But speaking from recent experience, I know that counts for little at places like Barnes & Noble and Borders. When I was not-so-gently pushed into early retirement back in March, I thought that I might finally get the chance to work in a bookstore for a few years, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. At this point, I’m not overly concerned with what the hourly wage is; I just want to work at something that I find fun to do. I applied at two different Barnes & Noble stores, one Borders store and one Half-Price Books store. I got one interview as a result and spoke briefly with one other store manager. I expressed my love of books and why, at my age, I thought I would be perfect for their stores. All I received in response was polite skepticism. In all four cases, the resulting silence has been deafening and I’ll never understand why. But that’s life.

We Have a Winner

Thanks for all the entries to my Books and Bluegrass contest. They were interesting, to say the least, and some of your responses made me smile. The winning entry scored 100% and was obviously sent in by someone who knows her bluegrass music.

Since Kentucky is the home of bluegrass music and has just made it the official music of the state I’m not surprised that the winner comes from that part of the world. Congratulations, Selena, and be looking for your book in the mail within the next few days. I just left it at the local post office so it’s officially on its way to Kentucky. You should have it before it’s available in bookstores since its publication date is July 10.

Thanks again to everyone who participated.

Books and Buses

A two-day book project that the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority is running makes me wonder if something like this would work on other large city bus routes on a regular basis. The folks in Tulsa have come up with 3,000 children’s books and they are distributing the books to bus passengers as they ride around the city of Tulsa. Riders are encouraged to read a book on the bus and, if they like, to take a book home with them.

(Karen Healey looks through some of the books made available to Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority bus passengers.)

A program to get books in the hands of children made a rainy day a little brighter for passengers on city buses Thursday.

Caring for Kids Book by Book, a Bank of Oklahoma literacy program, joined with the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority to distribute 3,000 books collected at Bank of Oklahoma branches during June.

“We’re running out of books. It’s been very popular,” said William Cartwright, Tulsa Transit’s general manager.

Donated children’s books, most of them new, were placed on fixed-route buses, which serve about 9,000 passengers each day.

A sign behind the driver’s seat instructed people to take a book and read it while they rode or to take it home and keep it.

Public transportation and books make a perfect mix. All it would take is a little effort and publicity to collect a few thousand books to be placed in boxes on buses, train cars and underground cars where people could easily get to them as they ride to their final destination. Passengers could be encouraged to add to the books in the box by placing their own book discards there for others to enjoy. Knowing book lovers the way that I know them, I can’t help but think that the book supply would start to regenerate itself to the point where “seed books” would only have to be added every so often. After all, book lovers struggle to find a place for all the books they accumulate and they can’t bear to toss them out. What better way to keep books in circulation than to place them in an environment that encourages reading to pass the time?

I’m sure that transit authorities everywhere will have a dozen reasons not to do something like this but I can’t imagine anything simpler and cheaper that would put more smiles on faces than this. It’s the little things that make this a better world for all of us.

Bang the Drum Slowly

I first read Bang the Drum Slowly as a high school student and it stayed on my mind for several days after I finished it. In fact, it had such an impact on the way that I saw life that I was more than a little reluctant to read it again, fearing that my fond memories of the book would be spoiled. That kind of thing has happened to me several times in the past, but not this time. Bang the Drum Slowly is still the great book that I experienced the first time around.

In the era before free agency rules made millionaires out of very mediocre baseball players, even all-star left-handed pitchers had to find work in the off season. Henry Wiggin, star lefthander for what was probably the best team in baseball during the early 1950s, the New York Mammoths, was no exception. Henry took to selling life insurance and annuities to his fellow ball players and he became quite good at his sales job. One of Henry’s customers was Bruce Pearson, a third-string Mammoth catcher who bought an insurance policy covering his life only to later discover that he was dying of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a disease that was incurable in the 1950s.

Bang the Drum Slowly at its base is a realistic baseball novel told in the words (and with the spelling skills) of a small town boy born during the Depression who had the physical skills to become a major league baseball pitcher. It is an honest look at what goes on off the field and in the clubhouse when athletes spend more time on the road, and with each other, than they spend with their wives and children. There are racial tensions, drinking problems, womanizing and personality clashes that have to be dealt with by management, a baseball management generally interested only in the club’s bottom line.

The heart of this story, however, is the bad break that fate has handed Bruce Pearson. He faces imminent death even in what turns out to be the best season of his career. Henry Wiggin, feeling protective of the naïve Pearson, does his best to keep Pearson’s secret from team management and their teammates. But when word of Pearson’s situation slowly begins to leak, amazing things begin to happen to the New York Mammoths and to Bruce Pearson.

Mark Harris, who passed away just a few weeks ago, will long be remembered for Bang the Drum Slowly, a book that was chosen by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 100 sports books of all time. This book has something for baseball fans and non-sports fans alike and, even after such a long absence, I enjoyed spending time again with Henry Wiggin.

Rated at 4.0

Canadian Writers and U.S. Sales

I’ve often wondered why Canadian writers don’t have more of a presence in the United States. After all, they are the closest of our neighbors who have English as the natural language of most of its citizens and the two countries have more in common than not. So why is it that only a handful of Canada’s writers ever show up on the shelves of my bookstores? Why does it seem so much easier to find British writers here than it is to find Canadian writers?

According to The Globe and Mail, things are getting worse, not better.

It may be a golden age for Canadian literature, with Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje garnering world renown, but data suggest book exports to our country’s main trading partner are dwindling.

Industry challenges are myriad, ranging from a weak U.S. dollar in relation to the Canadian currency, which is cutting into the value of book sales, to changes in the U.S. booksellers’ market, leaving Canadian publishers scrambling to keep up.

Together, these factors amount to a slow but steady drop in exports over the past five years and may help explain the growth in Canada’s “cultural goods deficit.” Book exports to the United States slid 23.6 per cent between 2002 and 2006, Statistics Canada said yesterday, as the greenback tumbled 26 per cent against the loonie.

Publishers are “finding new markets, trying to plug away at the U.S. and tightening their belts, but the deterioration of the exchange rates has happened so quickly — to the point where it’s almost impossible to keep changing the pricing on the books.”

Publishers are trying to cut costs and diversify into new markets in Australia and – once books are translated – Europe and Asia. The United States, however, still accounts for about 90 per cent of Canadian book exports, according to Export Development Canada.

I found another surprise in looking at the statistics at the end of the newspaper article: the U.K. imports a very small amount of books from Canada despite the historical relationship between the two countries. So I’m asking for some help from my Canadian friends. Which authors should I be looking for, and can you recommend any websites that specialize in Canadian books, especially those sites with relatively low postage charges? Let’s get the word out.

Amy Tan Working on New Book

Amy Tan’s first book, The Joy Luck Club, was chosen as the book to be read as part of the Harris County library system’s participation in the Big Read this summer. Tan was in fine company because the list of novels from which the county system chose her novel included works by Bradbury, Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck, McCullers and Wharton, among others.

The Big Read is an NEA project “to restore reading to the center of American culture.”

The Big Read answers a big need. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that not only is literary reading in America declining rapidly among all groups, but that the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young. The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture would study the pages of this report in vain.

The Big Read aims to address this crisis squarely and effectively. It provides citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities. The initiative includes innovative reading programs in selected cities and towns, comprehensive resources for discussing classic literature, an ambitious national publicity campaign, and an extensive Web site providing comprehensive information on authors and their works.

Each community event lasts approximately one month and includes a kick-off event to launch the program locally, ideally attended by the mayor and other local luminaries; major events devoted specifically to the book (panel discussions, author reading, and the like); events using the book as a point of departure (film screenings, theatrical readings, and so forth); and book discussions in diverse locations and aimed at a wide range of audiences.

Seeing Amy Tan’s picture in my library branch on each recent visit made me wonder if she had recovered from her terrible bout with Lyme disease, so I was happy to read in a Reuter’s India dispatch today that she is doing much better and is working hard at her writing again. The article ends with this interesting quote from Tan regarding her decision never to release information about any of her “in progress” work.

“I never talk about what a new book is about as it will leave me. There is a story in Chinese where a man goes to a magical place and is overwhelmed by the beauty and the peace. He has to leave and they tell him that if he tells anyone where this place is he will never find it again. That is the metaphor for writing. You are in a secret place and discovering it but once you tell people it is gone.”

I find this to be an extremely graceful refusal to an interview question she didn’t want to answer, a response perfectly in character for my image of the author.

Contest Prize

This is an advance copy of the book and I hope to have it in the hands of the contest winner at least a few days before its official publication date of July 10.

The winner of the Books and Bluegrass contest will win an early copy of John Twelve Hawk’s The Dark River, the second book of his Fourth Realm Trilogy. The first book of the trilogy, The Traveler, was a New York Times bestseller and it received excellent reviews from several major publications:

“Portrays a Big Brother with powers far beyond anything Orwell could imagine…Political prophecy is rarely such fun.” – Washington Post

“Seductive…Quickly hooks you into its Matrix-esque world…(Let) the butt-kicking begin.” – USA Today

“The stuff that first rate high-tech paranoid schizophrenic thrillers are made of.” – Time

“Page turningly swift with a cliffhanger ending…John Twelve Hawks has drawn upon both pop cultural and literary touchstones and modified them to create a cyber 1984.” – New York Times

John Twelve Hawks and Random House have an interesting website that provides a good feel of the atmosphere John has created in The Dark River and explains where the book fits into the overall story. Check it out.

Remember to get your answers to me by Friday morning so that I can get the book in the mail to the lucky winner early on Monday morning. Good luck to all.

Books and Bluegrass Contest Final

I arrived back in Houston a few hours ago after having driven all the way home through rain very similar in magnitude to the rain that almost shut down the whole festival on Saturday night. It’s good to be home, but the 5-hour nap I just took has left me feeling more than a bit sluggish.

Anyone wanting to officially enter the contest needs to package up their answers for me in an email and send them to: Please organize your answers in the order in which I posted the pictures so that I can more easily award you all the points you have coming. I need all entries by Friday morning and I will announce the winner this weekend at latest.

Now, for the book. I’m going to prepare a separate post to describe the book and its author, including links to the author site, etc. For the moment, let me just say that this is a hardcover copy of The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks. The Dark River is a sequel to John’s The Traveler, a book that spent some time on the New York Times bestseller list. Details to follow…

This book won’t be in bookstores until July 10, so you will be among the first in the world to have a copy.

Books and Bluegrass Contest, Part III

The music festival ended about midnight and became quite an experience when severe thunderstorms moved through the area in the late afternoon. There was so much lighting around that both the performers and the audience had to take shelter several times over the next few hours, and it eventually became too dangerous for the performers to use any microphones and lighting. Finally, around 10:30, those of us who had been stubborn enough to stick around despite being chilled and wet for several hours were shown to a small tent where we were well-rewarded with an impromptu jam session from the festival headliners.

These are the final contest pictures:

Brother acts are traditional in bluegrass music and, over the last six decades bluegrass music has been blessed with several great bands fronted by brothers. The man shown in the blue shirt was part of one of the greatest bluegrass brother acts of them all until his brother passed away a couple of years ago. His band now includes his grandson (standing next to him with the guitar). Who is this man and what what was the name of the act before the death of his brother?

This gentleman is the last surviving musician who actually was an influence on the musicians who developed the original bluegrass style of country music. He is 100 years old and has been married to his singing partner for 70 years. He performed for Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in 1941. Who is this man? I’ll award a bonus point for the name of his wife.

This woman is another one of the pioneers. Originally from the West Virginia coal mines, she now lives in Washington D.C. and she is one of the main reasons I was so willing to drive over a 1000 miles to this festival. She did a lot of work for the coal miners’ union and she sings with great love and understanding about the working people of this country. Who is she?

This picture was taken under the cover of the small tent where the two headliners on the right, and their bands, put on a once-in-a-lifetime jam session for about two hundred wet and cold fans. The man in white fronts what is, in my opinion, the best bluegrass band in the business, a band that includes his two sons. What is his name? The man in the blue jacket has been playing in bluegrass bands since he was 13 years old but is now a major recording star with his own band and style of country music; he has a museum quality collection of country music artifacts, and is a Nashville regular who is married to another country music star.

Hold your answers, everyone…keep them a secret and email your answers to me on Tuesday.

A Love Affair with Books (How to Break Up with a Book)

The New York Times has an interesting article this morning about book lovers and how difficult it is for them to part with their books. Of course, that’s not a new concept to people who bother to read books and book blogs. We all understand the pain, I think. What I find interesting in this particular article is the idea that libraries can be used to put old books “out of their misery” if their owners can’t bring themselves to do the deed.

A library is an obvious recipient for giveaway books, so I trotted off to my local library in Larchmont, N.Y., to find out about their experiences.

Nancy Donovan, who has worked at the library 18 years, says she is quite familiar with the overly attached syndrome.

They can’t throw them away, so they give them to us even if they are old and moldy and mildewed,” she said. “And then we throw them in the trash.” I have no doubt that this is exactly what happens all the time when readers have such strong sentimental attachments to their books that they can’t stand the thought of tossing even the worst ones into the trash, no matter how terrible their condition may be. Box them up, instead, and let the local library do your dirty work.

Ms. Donovan hastened to say that the library was happy to receive good books in good condition, but that a book “has to earn its keep.”

“It has to be current and in very good shape,” she said.

Larchmont is probably more a reading community than many other parts of the region, where more media, like DVDs and CDs, are checked out of libraries than books, Ms. Donovan said, but even so, the library can take only so much.

“We say we will take one container per household per week,” she said. And no cheating — you have to be able to carry the container and fit it through the door.

“We’re fairly brutal,” she said. As is the case with donations to most local libraries, some of the books are tossed, and many others are sold for 50 cents or a dollar to help finance the library.

If you’re more into adding books to your collection than into trying to reduce its size, the article also mentions a website that may be of some help. I haven’t been to the site yet but it sounds like another good one.

However, Better World Books ( offers a different option. Started by some freshly minted Notre Dame graduates in 2002, it collects used books and textbooks from about 1,000 campuses and 700 libraries nationwide.

As an individual, you can donate if you pay for shipping yourself; but you can buy anything off its Web site and shipping is free anywhere in the country.

“It’s like 1,000 sidewalk sales rolled into one,” said a co-founder, Xavier Helgesen. He estimates that his organization receives about 15,000 used books a day and sells about 5,000 daily.

Some of the unusable books are recycled, many of the textbooks are sent to universities in Africa and of all the books that are sold, a certain percentage of each sale — it varies but ranges around 15 percent — goes to nonprofit partners promoting global literacy.

Ms. Burger of Princeton Public Library says her library sends books to Better World. A neat option on the Better World Web site lets you type in your ZIP code to find out if your local library donates to the group. You can buy specifically from that collection and up to 35 percent of what you pay for those books goes back to that library.

Free postage is always a good thing.

Books and Bluegrass Contest, Part II

I don’t have many photos to add to the contest today because tomorrow’s line up has more of the better known bluegrass performers and I think that they would be easier to identify. In fact, some of the biggest names in bluegrass music will be on stage here between nine a.m. and midnight on the 23rd of June.

That said, here are a couple of photos to add to the challenge:

The fellow on the left fronts one of the best known and most respected bluegrass bands on the West Coast. Who is he?

This is exactly half of a relatively new bluegrass band that has already achieved tremendous success and is easily remembered because of its catchy name. What’s the name of the band?

Hold your answers, everyone…keep them a secret and email your answers to me on Monday.

Books and Bluegrass Contest

I’ve just completed Day One here in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I’m getting ready for another day of music with six good friends who have joined me here from all over the country. In fact, we are from seven different states: Texas, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

But speaking of books…

I received a really striking book from a publisher just before I left Houston that I would like to give to someone. When I get home I’ll do a post about the book and its author, pictures and links included. In the meantime, I’m going to post a few pictures that I will be taking here at the festival but I won’t be identifying the singers and bands yet. The person who can correctly identify the most bands and singers in my photos will win the book.

So here’s the first batch of photos:

These are three members of one of the best known bluegrass bands in the business (the fiddle player and the banjo player or not shown in this picture). The band leader is the fellow in the snazzy suit. What is the name of this band?

This man is an expert on old-time music and he plays the songs on instruments very much like the ones that the songs were first played on. He shares his surname with his very famous half-brother. Who is this?

These two gentlemen do not usually work together. However, they opened the show last night by doing one song together. The man on the left has one of the best “high lonesome” voices I’ve ever heard in my life and works hard to preserve traditional American music. The man on the right is an amazing musician and singer who has released solo albums but who has also recorded on the releases of numerous other singers. He is particularly fond of Celtic music and has recently returned from performing in Ireland.

So there you have the first three chances to pick up points. Now I realize that bluegrass fans are not a huge number when it comes to comparison with the number of fans of other types of music. I know this might be difficult but I’m hoping that it might be a fun challenge for everyone and that it might even interest some of you in sampling some of the music. Good luck!

(When I’ve posted all the pictures, entries can be emailed to me at the address shown in my profile.)

Hold your answers, everyone…keep them a secret and email your answers to me on Monday. I’m going to post two or three pictures in the morning (it’s near midnight here and I just made it back to the hotel).

The Postman

David Brin’s The Postman tells the story of Gordon Krantz, a man who finds himself still struggling for survival some sixteen years after nuclear war has almost completely destroyed the United States. Luckily for him, Krantz had been a bright student before his school days so suddenly ended forever at the age of sixteen, and he remembered enough Shakespeare and other classic literature to be able to earn his food and shelter as a traveling entertainer as he made his way westward from Minnesota.

But Krantz knew that his survival always depended on his ability to avoid bands of murdering bandits or sudden death at the hands of Mother Nature. One day his luck ran out. After an encounter with bandits left him with little more than the clothes on his back and in desperate need of shelter to avoid freezing to death, Krantz stumbled upon an old post office jeep, complete with the driver’s remains. In order not to freeze, he clothed himself in the heavier clothing of the driver for the night and continued to wear the old uniform the next day when he left the jeep’s shelter.

Much to Krantz’s surprise, the next group of people he encountered was joyful to be hosting a mail carrier, someone they never expected to see again after having lived through sixteen years of isolation and precarious survival. They insisted on sharing past-life memories and stories about the mailmen they remembered from childhood and Krantz did not have the heart to tell them that he was a fraud. But, fraud or not, Krantz realized that he could easily acquire food and shelter by pretending to be a postal inspector sent by the “Reformed United States” to set up post offices throughout the state of Oregon. He justified his lies by telling himself that he was offering hope and inspiration to people who probably needed those things for their long term survival almost as badly as they needed food and shelter.

As word spread throughout the region, Krantz was soon to learn that the hope he offered created both opportunity and risk for the people who heard his story. For sixteen years those people had managed to survive, but they feared a large group of survivalist refugees from the past who intended to take what they had and make them into little more than slaves. Suddenly, with knowledge that the “Restored United States” would one day be there to help them, people were almost anxious to confront their vicious enemy. Only Krantz knew the truth, and he dared not steal the hope that these people embraced so desperately.

The Postman offers another doomsday scenario, this one a little more hopeful than most. It illustrates how a man who believes in ideals and morality can make a critical difference if only he has the courage and near foolishness to tackle what seems like an impossible task. Krantz wanted to give up but he could not abandon the people who had embraced “the postman.”

I suspect that many people, like me, have not read David Brin’s novel because of exposure to Kevin Costner’s rather lame movie of the same name. Although the movie was based on Brin’s book, rest assured that that is where the resemblance begins and ends.

Rated at: 3.0

Rushdie Recommendation Committee Stunned at Negative Reaction

I was not surprised at the Muslim world’s negative reaction to the news that Salmon Rushdie has been recommended for a knighthood. Anyone who reads a newspaper every once in a while could have seen this coming. But according to Guardian Unlimited, neither the committee that made the recommendation, nor those who have been pushing for this honor for Rushdie, saw it coming. They are “stunned.”

It also emerged yesterday that the writers’ organisation that led the lobbying for the author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses to be knighted had originally hoped that the honour would lead to better relations between Britain and Asia.

It was chaired by Lord Rothschild, the investment banker and former chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery. The other committee members are Jenny Abramsky, the BBC’s director of radio and music; novelist and poet Ben Okri, who is vice-president of the English chapter of PEN International, which campaigns on behalf of writers who face persecution; Andreas Whittam Smith, former editor of the Independent; John Gross, the author and former theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph; and two permanent secretaries, one from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and one from the Scottish executive.

“Very properly, we were concerned only with merit in relation to the level of the award,” Mr Whittam Smith said yesterday.

He added that it would be for the main committee to assess any other aspects of the honour. The Foreign Office is represented on the main committee by the permanent secretary, whose job it would be to raise any potential international ramifications. A Foreign Office spokesman said he was not aware of any request by the honours committee to gauge likely Muslim reaction to the knighthood before the decision was taken.

The Pakistani foreign ministry summoned the British high commissioner yesterday to complain about the knighthood, but British officials said they used the occasion to protest about the remarks by Mr Ejaz ul-Haq, who has since said that his comments were a statement of fact and not intended to incite violence.

“The high commissioner, Robert Brinkley, made clear to the Pakistan ministry of foreign affairs the British government’s deep concern about what the minister of religious affairs is reported to have said,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said. “We made very clear that nothing can justify suicide bomb attacks.”

However, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Kurshid Kasuri, said on a visit to Washington that Britain could not have been surprised by the outrage.

For those who missed it, Mr. Ejaz ul-Haq, Pakistan’s Minister of Religious Affairs, made the statement that Rushdie’s proposed honor was complete justification for anyone who now decides kill innocent British citizens in protest of this supposed insult to Islam.

Look at the list of people on the recommendation committee. Is it really possible that not one of those esteemed individuals even thought for one second that something like this might happen? Can they really be that out of touch with the realities of today’s politics? I wonder if Mr. Rushdie himself, despite what he says for public consumption, really believes that an honor that puts his life in even more danger than it already is really worth it. I’m all for honoring authors, especially with honors outside the literary community, but this one seems to be asking for trouble. Am I wrong?

Waterstone’s Requires Cash from Publishers for Prime Store Placement

British bookstore chain Waterstone’s has apparently been using a system similar to that of American radio stations which have often required cash from record labels in exchange for placing their songs on staion play lists. The stations have been known to receive thousands of dollars and numerous gifts in return for helping to make a new song into a national hit. Now Waterstone’s admits that it has been requiring publishers to pay for special placement and promotion in its bookstores. …or does it? The article ends with a bit of spin that claims that Waterstone’s judgment was not influenced in any way by all that money changing hands.

Waterstone’s, the book chain, admitted yesterday that it has asked publishers for up to £45,000 to promote their books in its 300-plus stores, but the retailer strongly denied that the money influences which titles it recommends to buyers.

For £45,000 per book, Waterstone’s, the document suggested, would place six titles in windows, front-of-house displays and in a national advertising campaign.

For £25,000, the chain allegedly offered to feature a title in a front-of-store bay as a “gift book”, and at tills. For £17,000, a book, it was claimed, would be displayed as one of two titles billed as the “offer of the week” for one week in the run-up to Christmas.

A payment of £7,000 would allegedly ensure a book was promoted as a Paperback of the Year and be mentioned in newspaper advertisements, while £500 would see a book appear in Waterstone’s Christmas gift guide, complete with a bookseller review.

Though readers may believe that titles recommended or given prominence in book shops are purely down to a retailer’s judgement, similar charges to those alleged are now said to be standard across the book industry. One supermarket chain is said to be considering charging publishers just for the right to pitch a book.

Anthony Cheetham, chairman of Quercus Books, said: “It’s not a system you can opt out of. If retailers offer you one of these slots and you say no, their order doesn’t go down from 1,000 copies to 500 copies – it goes down to 20 copies.”

But Waterstone’s firmly denied selling favours yesterday. A spokesman said that its “recommended” titles were picked by its own experts and that only then were publishers of those titles approached and asked to make a contribution to the cost of promotion.

So is this another “chicken and egg” case? Should book publishers who have their product chosen as worthy of special attention be asked to help cover the promotional costs? Does this make you, the reader, feel that you are being conned by the bookstores? What about small publishers who can’t afford this kind of money to promote one of its titles? Is this an unfair advantage to the major publishing houses?

This may turn out to be a common practice in the U.K., and it may be perfectly legal. But is it right? Now I wonder if there is a similar practice in this country. My first inclination is to denounce this kind of thing because I’ve seen first hand how a similar practice has ruined American radio and resulted in only a handful of songs getting any exposure. The stations are boringingly predictable and listeners are abadononing them in droves. Is this what we want for our bookstores?

Road Trip!

Military Memorial along the river in Owensboro, Kentucky

I’m off bright and early tomorrow morning (before dawn, so it won’t actually be very bright), to start a 20-hour drive to Owensboro, KY, to attend a 4-day bluegrass music festival there with a few friends from my Real Country Music website. I haven’t mentioned it often on this site, but real country music is a second obsession of mine and I spend a lot of time at the RCM website and working on our RAM Radio internet radio station so this is a trip I’ve looked forward to making ever since I returned from last year’s Ownesboro festival.

I’m going to bring my laptop with me, and the hotel promises access to high speed wireless internet connection, so I’m hoping to stay in touch here as well. And, of course, I’m bringing three or four books with me because I find it almost impossible to get much sleep in a hotel room and will need something to get me through those long nights.

Books and bluegrass music. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Part of the Cherryholmes family from last year’s festival

What the Dead Know

When the Bethany sisters disappeared from Baltimore’s Security Mall during the Easter weekend of 1975 no one expected that their disappearance would remain a mystery for decades. Of course, when the girls were not found in the first few days, it became more and more likely that only their remains would be returned to Miriam and Dave Bethany. But even that didn’t happen.

What the Dead Know is a fine suspense novel that focuses on how this unsolved mystery impacts the lives of those left behind, especially Dave and Miriam, the parents who find that their separate grieving processes put a tremendous strain on an already shaky marriage. After a few years, Miriam reconciles herself to the fact that she is unlikely ever to see her girls again but Dave refuses to give up hope that they will be returned to him. Miriam begins to see Dave as someone too weak to get on with the rest of his life. Dave starts to believe that Miriam is just not as good a parent as he is and thinks less of her because she seems to him to have so easily moved past the family tragedy.

And then one day the impossible happens. A woman passing through Baltimore hits an oil slick on the freeway, causing her to lose control of her vehicle just long enough to force the SUV in the next lane to roll. In a panic the driver abandons her car and tries to walk away from the accident. When stopped and questioned by a Baltimore policeman, she tries to divert his attention from the accident by claiming that she is Heather Bethany, the younger of the two girls who have been missing since 1975.

But is she? If so, where has she been all this time and why is she only now coming forward to end the decades old mystery of her disappearance. “Heather” is unwilling to provide the answers to any of the questions that the Baltimore police want to ask her and Detective Kevin Infante does not believe that she is who she claims to be. What is she hiding?

Author Laura Lippman has created a suspenseful mystery that will keep the reader rapidly turning pages in anticipation of finding the answers to all of those questions. Lippman, who lives in Baltimore, has won several crime fiction awards, including the Edgar, and she is best known for her series of Tess Monaghan crime novels. But this “stand alone” novel is my first experience with her writing and it leaves me with one question about her style. I found Lippman’s habit of referring to her policeman characters as “a police” to be distracting, and eventually, a little irritating. She never calls them “a cop” or a “policeman.” It’s always “a police.” I’ve never seen that done before and I wonder if that’s the way that Baltimore cops refer to themselves or if Lippman has created this term on her own. She uses it so many times in the novel that she obviously prefers it, whatever its source.

Rated at: 3.5

Book Likers Are People Too

Part-time reader Julia Keller writes in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune that people like her are critical to the survival of the publishing industry. I agree with Julia that “book likers” are an important target audience for publishers, and at the risk of being labeled as someone she would describe as “swaddled in snobbery,” I have to say that I suspect it’s “book likers” who largely determine the makeup of the various Best Seller lists, bleak as those lists generally are.

You don’t have to love books. It’s OK just to like them. It’s OK to be a casual reader, a sometime scholar, an occasional consumer of print. It’s acceptable to read a book every once in a while, for the simple reason that you happen upon one that intrigues you — without quitting your job, selling your furniture and going back to graduate school in comparative literature.

In the midst of last weekend’s wonderful Printers Row Book Fair, I listened to author after author, moderator after moderator, panelist after panelist (including me), automatically refer to the assembled multitude as “book lovers.” Now, book lovers are wonderful. Book lovers are essential. I love book lovers. But it occurred to me that the audience surely included a good number of people — perhaps even a majority — who, if pressed, would classify themselves as “book likers.” As people who enjoy reading, as people who respect authors and seek knowledge, but for whom reading is not a consuming, world-obliterating, walls-come-tumblin’-down passion.

Book lovers remain a fairly stable unit from century to century, a crucial but relatively small segment of the population for whom words are life itself. Book lovers, that is, aren’t a growth area.

My only real quibble with Julia is her implication that that all book lovers are “those whose livelihoods depend on the publishing industry.” I don’t believe that’s even close to being a true statement. But putting that aside, I’m all for giving three cheers for “book likers” who support bookstores, authors and publishers on at least a part-time basis. That support just might be enough to make the difference.

American Pastoral

Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s alter ego is back, this time to tell us about his boyhood hero, the gifted high school athlete Seymour Levov. Levov, who because of his blond good looks became known as “The Swede,” seemed to have it all to the young Nathan Zuckerman who admired him from afar. Even as an adult, Nathan vividly recalled the time when, surrounded by a group of his young friends who were watching the high school boys at football practice, “Swede” Levov called his name and joked about the beating he was taking on the field. Nathan became the envy of his crowd simply because “Swede” Levov knew his name and treated him as an equal, a feeling he would never forget.

But, as they always do, things change. Boys grow up and become men with families, jobs and responsibilities that often taken them far from their home towns. Nathan Zuckerman assumed that “The Swede” grew into the life for which he had seemed destined, a life that would be the envy of all who knew him. And, on the surface, it appeared that Zuckerman was right about that. “Swede” Levov, one time Marine drill sergeant, married Miss New Jersey 1949 and eventually took over and successfully ran his father’s glove manufacturing business. It was only years later, when accomplished writer Nathan Zuckerman met successful businessman Seymour Levov by chance in Yankee Stadium, that Zuckerman began to understand that Levov’s life was not all it appeared to be.

In fact, “Swede” Levov, barely hanging on to the life he had made for himself, his wife and his only child, was obsessed with trying to figure out exactly where he had gone wrong. Was it his fault that his daughter’s hatred of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War turned her into more than just another war protester? Could he have done something, anything, to prevent her from evolving into the bomb planting terrorist that she became? Those were the questions that he lived with every day after Merry Levov planted a bomb in the post office of her own small hometown, a bomb that killed a local doctor who had stopped on his way to the local hospital to pick up his mail in the otherwise deserted post office.

The first part of American Pastoral, narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, captures the optimism and excitement that describes America during the years just before and after World War II, a time when anything seemed possible for those who wanted it badly enough. But the heart of the book begins when the reader is rather painfully taken into “Swede” Levov’s head and made witness to his innermost thoughts and doubts about himself. We watch Levov torture himself about all the “what ifs” and “could have beens” in his past as he lives with his constant desire to find his daughter so that she can prove her “innocence” to the world. Sadly, he only gets one part of his wish.

Philip Roth did a remarkable job of recreating a troubling period in recent American history, the decade of the sixties during which many young, naive people saw violence as the only way to protest what they perceived to be an unjust war in Viet Nam. With Seymour Levov, Roth created a character that I will remember for a long time. However, I’m starting to wonder if anyone dares to edit Philip Roth these days because American Pastoral would have been even more powerful without the repetitiveness that characterizes its last hundred or so pages.

Ron Silver does his usual superb job in the audio version of this book, a 14-disc, 16-hour experience.

Rated at: 3.5

Forgive Me

Nadine Morgan is a small town girl who could hardly wait to escape the limited life offered by the tiny Cape Cod fishing village known as Woods Hole, Massachusetts. And escape she does, transforming herself into the breed of reporter who seeks danger wherever she can find it anywhere in the world. But something she read in the journal of a young American teacher who was killed in a South African ghetto by a mob of youngsters who took the opportunity to kill a white man that day haunted her and she realized, that like him, she “was just lonely, at the end of the day.”

Beaten to within an inch of her life by Mexican drug dealers, Nadine awoke to find herself back in Woods Hole, under the care of her father and his girlfriend for the long recovery that her injuries demanded. But despite the romantic interest taken in her by the town doctor under whose care she finds herself and the slow reconciliation that she is making with her best friend, Nadine cannot wait to leave Woods Hole for another of the world’s hot spots. That feeling is nothing new for her because “the story” has always been more important to her than the people who love her and depend on her, a flaw that has contributed to most of the regrets that she has in her life.

It is upon her return to South Africa with the parents of the young American whose journal she was so touched by that Nadine is finally able to forgive herself, and to feel the forgiveness of others, for the decisions that she made during her first assignment there. One of Jason Irving’s killers has applied for amnesty and his mother is determined to make sure that the young woman remains in prison for the rest of her life. Covering the story for an American newspaper allows Nadine the opportunity to reconcile herself to her past decisions and relationships and to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

Nadine Morgan’s story is not a simple one, and the most remarkable thing about Forgive Me is the clever structure that Amanda Eyre Ward uses to tell that story. Chapters that alternate between the past, the present, and journal excerpts allow the reader to gradually flesh out the character of Nadine Morgan, a woman who sees professionalism as a willingness to make her personal life a secondary concern regardless of the consequences suffered. Ward provides numerous clues and details about the makeup of Nadine, but even the most careful reader will be delighted by what the author has in store for them at the end of the book.

(As part of Library Thing’s Early Reviewers project, I received a copy of the uncorrected proofs of Forgive Me directly from its publisher, Random House, for my review.)

Rated at: 4.0