Matrimony: A Novel

Julian Wainwright, the main character of Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, finds out what most of us who have been around for a few decades learned for ourselves: life is what happens to you while you are making plans and dreaming about your future. One thing leads to another and, before a person realizes it, all that dreaming and planning for the perfect life may bear very little resemblance to the life into which he has grown. Sometimes that is a good thing, sometimes not.

Matrimony is a finely told story about long term relationships, some that survive against all odds, and others that fail with little warning after years of having seemed to be strong ones. Henkin begins his story at Graymont College where four freshmen students will meet and form bonds that will shape their adult lives. They are Julian Wainwright, only son of a wealthy New York City couple who chooses Graymont exclusively because of its highly rated “Fiction Writing Workshop,” and Mia Mendelsohn, the beautiful Jewish girl from Montreal with whom he falls in love almost immediately. And they are Carter Heinz, a poor boy from California whose schooling has depended on scholarships as long as he can remember, and his girlfriend, Pilar, the daughter of attorneys who wants nothing more than to become one herself.

Joshua Henkin takes what starts as two freshmen flings and follows those complicated relationships over most of the next two decades. We watch Julian struggle to become the writer he has so long dreamed of being while following Mia from one college town to the next as she continues her studies. We find that, despite their great friendship, Carter cannot control his envy of Julian’s wealth even when it threatens to end their friendship forever.

Matrimony does not use spectacular events to make its point about the nature of marriage. Rather, the author lets time sneak up on the two couples in ways that we all have experienced. Time passes, the honeymoon ends and real married life begins. The couples experience doubts about themselves and their spouses and must decide whether or not the rewards of a long term relationship compensate for its inherent downsides. They are confronted with issues of mortality and must make difficult choices for themselves and their parents.

Henkin offers few surprises about love or marriage but he tells his story in an Everyman kind of way that makes it memorable. I found myself wondering what will happen to Julian and Mia over their next three decades and wishing that Henkin had carried on for another two or three hundred pages.

Rated at: 4.0

A Gift Box for Reluctant Readers

The president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, hopes that spending some $11 million on book gift boxes for the poor of her country will encourage them to read more. She plans to give poor families gift boxes of up to nine books pulled together from a list of 49 titles that are deemed to be appropriate. Other than the fact that some of her critics declare that she would be better off building a few more libraries for her people instead of throwing this much money down what is potentially a black hole, the biggest controversy has centered on the choice of eligible books.

Chile’s official choices include titles by Allende, Salinger, Kafka and others. Here’s what I would put into a box if I were trying to create a little enthusiasm for reading in the life of some non-reader:

1. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry

2. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving

3. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

4. Battle Cry of Freedom – James M. McPherson

5. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – Anne Tyler

6. Team of Rivals – Doris Kearns Goodwin

7. Time and Again – Jack Finney

8. Time on My Hands – Peter Delacorte

9. We Were the Mulvaneys – Joyce Carol Oates

I would hope that the combination of literary fiction, light reading and history would make my target reader yearn for a little more of each type. These are some of my favorite books, of course, but it would be easy enough for me to come up with other combinations that might serve the purpose even better. What do you think?

This Is Not Rugby

Or is it? This is the most amazing football touchdown that I have ever seen. The kids from Trinity University in San Antonio scored on this unbelievable play to pull out a 28-24 victory over Milsaps College last weekend. There were 15 different laterals during this one play and somehow or another no one dropped the ball, accidentally pitched it forward instead of backward, or got tackled. Unbelievable.

Here’s the whole story.

I Never Saw Paris

Books and movies about what happens immediately after death have been popular for a long time. The story might be about a confused soul wandering among the living while trying to figure out what happens next, about angels who guide the newly dead across the River Jordan, or about someone having one last chance to defend his life before his final destination is determined. In I Never Saw Paris, Harry Freund wonders what might happen if a several people killed in the same accident were to face that final judgment together.

When four New Yorkers waiting on the sidewalk to cross the street are crushed by a car whose driver has been struck by a fatal heart attack, all five of the newly dead find themselves face-to-face with Malakh, an angel who is there to prepare them for the court appearance that will decide their fate. Malakh requires each to practice for that court date by explaining his life in front of the others and he keeps them relatively honest by prodding them in the right direction with scenes from their past that usually show them at their worst.

But Malakh is in for a surprise when the little group bonds so tightly that his job becomes a bit of a challenge. Suddenly the Holocaust survivor, the young man who made a nice living as a gay prostitute, the elderly black woman who knows the Bible almost by heart, the rich socialite whose only purpose in life was to shop at the best stores, and the powerful businessman who cheated on his wife with a vengeance realize that they are all in this together.

Harry Freund makes the point that life is long enough for most people to slip now and then by doing things that they are ashamed of for the rest of their lives. But some slip more often, and in more serious ways, than others. I Never Saw Paris is a hopeful look about what might happen when it comes time to explain ourselves. This is one of those rare books that I enjoyed despite not really liking a single character in the story, human or angel. That is an accomplishment in itself.

Rated at: 3.5

Darkness Falls

Oil production has become a common target of terrorists who see shutting it down or holding it hostage as a means of influencing world politics. Western economies cannot survive without a steady flow of crude oil, a product that to a larger and larger degree is produced in countries not exactly friendly to Western ideas and influences. Oil companies have come to be cast as villains on the world stage and have also attracted a new breed of terrorist, environmentalist extremists, in addition to the more familiar brand of terrorism suffered at the hands of Islamist extremists. Thus is the stage set for the latest thriller from Kyle Mills, Darkness Falls.

When new bacteria surprisingly appear in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, bacteria with a voracious appetite for oil and the drilling equipment used to produce it, Erin Neal, a retired expert in the prevention and control of oil field disasters, finds himself there at the not so subtle request of Homeland Security. As one oil well after the other stops producing, it becomes apparent that the bacteria have the ability to spread from one well to the next and could permanently kill oil production from the biggest producing field in the world. Thirty percent of the world’s production is seen to be at immediate risk, something that could destabilize international politics to the point of causing open warfare and countless deaths.

Erin Neal is devastated to find that his own research into the design of oil-eating bacteria to be used in oil spill cleanup may have been adapted by his former girlfriend and fellow scientist to develop similar bacteria capable of destroying oil still in underground reservoirs. Neal, who had been driven to living in seclusion by the woman’s apparent drowning, begins to suspect not only that she may still be alive but that she could be involved with people who are willing to protect the environment at the cost of millions of lives.

Working with Homeland Security and within the highest levels of government, Neal finds himself in a desperate race to catch those responsible for spreading the bacteria before the world’s entire oil supply is destroyed. As they come to realize that losing oil means losing the power necessary to produce and transport food supplies, to generate heating and cooling for billions, and to fuel the economy and military, Neal and his team understand that only they can prevent the ultimate loss of millions of lives. If they fail, mankind will be reduced to a standard of living not seen for hundreds of years.

Kyle Mills has written a first rate thriller, a nightmarish reminder that our way of life is almost completely dependent on a natural resource that is less and less found within our own borders. Love them or hate them, it is clear that this way of life is dependent on the success that oil companies have in replacing oil reserves for at least the next several decades.

If you don’t believe me, read Darkness Falls.

Rated at: 4.0

The Choice: Books or a Life Raft

Tori Murden McClure, vice president of Spalding University, was the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In today’s Louisville Courier-Journal, McClure makes an interesting statement as the lead to her editorial piece in favor of having voters approve a new library district there. It’s so unusual that I want to share it here:

I can live without people, but I cannot live without books. As I was leaving to row across the Atlantic, I had to choose: I could pack a 40-pound life raft, or I could take along a modest library. I took the books and sent the life raft home. The books were more important to my well being, my survival, than a rubber raft.

Now that’s what I call a book lover.

Has J.K. Rowling Broken Faith with Her Readers?

No, I’ve never read a whole Harry Potter book. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my total exposure to all things Potter, including the movies, is chapter one of the first book in the series, and I read that quite a few years ago. And I don’t particularly care one way or the other if any of the characters in the book are gay. But what the heck is going on with J.K. Rowling these days? Does she miss the spotlight so much that she’s dreaming up new backgrounds for her characters while being driven to her next book signing event?

What I have found odd, and a bit irritating, these last few days is that, from everything I’ve read, there is apparently little, if anything, in the books themselves that indicate that Professor Dumbledore is gay. Rather, it seems that Rowling is able to generate all of this “buzz” simply by claiming that she always thought of him as gay. Her flippancy has forever tainted the books for many of her readers, I suspect. I know that I would not be happy to learn after reading seven books that one of the main characters in the books is not the man that the author led me to believe he is and that I may have missed some serious implications in the plot line, things that I would not have missed if the author had not hidden in print what she now claims in public speaking events.

It all started at a reading Rowling gave to 1,000 lucky fans, winners of a contest sponsored by her American publisher, Scholastic, at Carnegie Hall in New York. A youngster asked if Dumbledore, “who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fell in love himself?”

“I always thought of Dumbledore as gay,” Rowling replied.

The audience first gasped at the revelation, then gave the author a standing ovation. “If I’d known this would make you this happy,” a beaming Rowling said, “I would have announced it years ago.”

If 20 years as a literary journalist have taught me anything, it’s that once a writer sets down her pen, turns off her word processor, or settles the dustcover on her typewriter, she knows no more than the average reader — about anything, including her own books.

Readers, it is true, may now detect some faint hints in the pages of the Potter books that Dumbledore is not quite your average heteronormative grandpa figure, although this is most likely to reduce a beloved figure to stereotype. Besides, if Dumbledore had wanted the world to know he was gay, he would have come out in the text.

If Rowling had really wanted to mix the question of sexual tolerance into this equation, she might have shown Dumbledore living as a gay man in the world found within the Potter series.

There the matter would have been subject to all the tension and conflict appropriate to its setting: What would being gay mean in the wizarding society? What pressures might sexual orientation, worked out dramatically, have exerted on Dumbledore and the evolution of his character?

On the page, the revelation of Dumbledore’s sexual orientation would have meant something. Delivered in an auditorium? It’s just an easy applause line.

J.K. Rowling, who led us on a fantastic ride with nary a false step through seven stupendously daring and inventive books, has broken faith with the reader.


Personal Note

I’ve mentioned here a few times that the company where I worked for almost 29 years cut me lose this past March 22. It’s hard for me to believe that it has already been seven months since that happened. I’ve also shared my struggle to find employment in any of the three local bookstores around me, two Barnes & Noble ones and one of the Borders chain. I had always figured to spend some time working in a bookstore after leaving the corporate world but, for whatever reason, that dream is not going to happen if Barnes & Noble and Borders have anything to do with it. But that’s another story.

I just wanted to mention that I’m starting a temporary corporate job in the morning that will keep me busy during the day for what should be the next 6-8 weeks. That means I won’t be around much until the evenings but I’m hoping that Book Chase doesn’t suffer from any shortage of time on my part. I’m actually looking forward to getting back into an office setting for a few weeks, and the thought that I’ll be seeing a paycheck again for the next little while is kind of nice, too. I just wanted to let everyone know that I will be slower responding to email and the like than I have been in the past.

Now I have to find that old alarm clock…

Abandoned Books

I noticed a new meme this morning that asks about books that readers have abandoned so far this year. Since I’ve started but not completed eleven books during the first ten months of 2007, the question got me wondering if the eleven have anything in common. A look at the list that I keep in the left hand column of this blog also made me wonder if it was always the book that was at fault. I suspect that in some cases it was as much my timing and mood that caused me to abandon a book as it was the book itself.

Just this week I read about 40 pages of Elmer Kelton’s memoirs, Sandhills Boy, a book I had looked forward to for several weeks. Kelton has been on my list of favorite authors for years and I couldn’t imagine not liking this one. It just couldn’t happen…but it did. Kelton grew up in West Texas, in a family of real cowpunchers, and he writes some of the most realistic stories I’ve ever read about both 19th century cowboys and the more modern version. He removes the myth from westerns and shows cowboy life for the tough thing that it really was. Why then did this book of memoirs read like it was written by someone else? I didn’t sense any of the Kelton style at all and was bored with it almost from the start. I looked through the rest of the book before giving up on it because it gave me no reason to continue. This was a major disappointment for me.

Another one that just didn’t work for me is the relatively popular The World without Us, by Alan Weisman. I’ve seen nothing but good reviews for this one and I read about 125 pages into it before it started to seem so repetitious that I lost interest in it. I was fascinated by the descriptions of what would happen to major cities if man were suddenly to disappear from the face of the earth. Weisman painted a vivid picture of what the slowly crumbling infrastructure would look like and how long it would take for vegetation and animal life to reclaim the cities but other chapters didn’t hold my attention. Based on the reaction of other readers, I think that I probably just opened this one at the wrong time and there’s a chance that I’ll return to it later.

And then there’s Max Barry’s Company, a book that was supposed to make me laugh at out loud at the absurdity of office life, an environment I experienced first hand for three decades. Well, what the book describes is definitely absurd but it didn’t make me laugh even to myself. Maybe that kind of humor has passed me by. It just seemed so juvenile and silly that I soon felt that I was wasting my time with it. I’m going to give the author all the blame for my reaction to this one.

Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow is one that I really wanted to like. I’m intrigued by Poe and his books and was hoping to lose myself in his world for a while. I actually read half of this relatively long book before it occurred to me that it had become a real chore and that I was avoiding it. I found the book to be too long for so little plot and I gradually lost interest and ended up wishing I’d not read so many pages of it before giving up on it.

I’ve read a whole lot of Elmore Leonard in the last thirty years or so and have long admired the way this man writes dialog. His characters often reveal more about themselves in conversation than many writers can pack into a dozen descriptive paragraphs. But Up in Honey’s Room does not even come close to meeting the lofty standards set by Leonard in most of his previous books. The main characters never became believable to me and that kept me from even coming close to losing myself in Leonard’s plot. I was surprised at my reaction to this one because it is the very first Elmore Leonard book that I’ve ever started and failed to finish.

Those are five of the eleven incomplete reads that I’ve struggled with in 2007. I suppose that I shouldn’t feel too bad since I’m only having that happen about once a month, on average, but I look back and regret the precious reading time that I squandered.

The Welsh Girl

Peter Ho Davies’s first novel, The Welsh Girl, offers a look at a rather unique World War II home front, the Welsh countryside. The more nationalistic residents of Wales have resented their English occupiers for generations and the onset of a World War in which they struggled for their very survival was not necessarily going to lessen that resentment even though their young men fought along side English soldiers, sailors and airmen for their common good. When a German POW camp is built in the mountains of northern Wales, something that the locals take as a personal insult, even the pubs take sides, one of them welcoming English soldiers and the other refusing to serve them no matter what.

Davies tells his story through the eyes of three very different characters. Esther, a 17-year-old Welsh farm girl and part-time barmaid who lives with her father and the English city boy they’ve taken in, finds herself attracted to the English soldiers she came to know before they were banned from the pub that employs her. To her they represent the larger world she yearns to see and she finds it difficult to consider them an enemy. Karsten is a young German POW who cannot get over the shame that he feels for having surrendered rather than fighting his enemy to the death. He speaks English well enough to communicate with the group of young boys who spend hours taunting the prisoners from the other side of the fence. Finally, there is Rotheram, a British captain of German origin, and a Jew, whose father was a German World War I hero, and who is still ashamed that he and his mother fled Germany and came to England out of fear of what would happen to them if they stayed. He is an intelligence officer who speaks flawless English and German and who resents the fact that he is thought of first as a Jew, not as a British officer.

The Welsh Girl is a coming of age story for its two main characters. Esther’s world begins to come apart when she finds out the hard way that the English soldier she favors is not the honorable man she thought him to be. Ashamed to tell her anti-English father what has happened between them, she nonetheless finds herself reconsidering everything she thought she knew about the world. At the same time, Karsten believes that he has done a cowardly thing by surrendering himself and his men, and the only things that make him even momentarily forget his shame are the memory of the brief conversation he once had with Esther at the prison fence and his efforts to befriend her young boarder.

Peter Ho Davies has populated his isolated Welsh village with complex characters who find themselves fighting their own mini-version of a World War. Each of them has to define loyalty, prejudice and bravery in personal terms and in relation to the world that is tearing itself apart around them. When fate and circumstance briefly throw them together, two of those characters, Esther and Karsten, come to realize what is important and what is not.

This one is not to be missed.

Rated at: 4.0

Oh, N’Oprah, Not Again

Looks like Oprah’s book search staff may have let her down again because surely Oprah will take no blame for this…or anything else. USA Today discusses Oprah’s latest misstep in the book world.

Could Oprah Winfrey’s televised blessing become an embarrassment for recipient Jessica Seinfeld?

After the wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld appeared Oct. 8 on Winfrey’s show to discuss her cookbook, Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food, online message boards erupted with questions about the originality of the book’s premise.

Winfrey extravagantly praised Deceptively Delicious, which explains how to slip healthy food into children without their knowledge.

Deceptively zoomed up the best-seller lists. The $24.95 book is No. 2 on USA TODAY‘s Best-Selling Books list. More than 1.2 million copies are in print.

Soon after Seinfeld’s appearance on the talk show, postings at and noted that there is another cookbook that advocates these same techniques and specific ingredients: The Sneaky Chef by Missy Chase Lapine, the former publisher of Eating Well magazine. Published in April by Running Press, the book has 150,000 copies in print.

Lapine says she and her publicists pitched the Oprah show five times without success. She also points out she submitted her 139-page book proposal with 31 recipes and 11 purees twice to HarperCollins (Seinfeld’s publisher), once in February 2006 without an agent and again with an agent in May 2006.

“The one big fact is that they had access to my manuscript early on,” Lapine says. Seinfeld’s book was signed up in June 2006.

“There are at least 15 of my recipes that ended up in her book,” Lapine says. However, she says, recipes are hard to protect: “If you change one ingredient, you’re safe.” She says that after her publisher contacted HarperCollins, Deceptively‘s cover was modified from the one featured on a promotional brochure. The word “simple” was inserted in place of “sneaky.”

So the question is whether or not Seinfeld’s publisher and Oprah were interested in the book mostly because of her celebrity status and the ratings and sales that her name would bring to the project. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of Oprah’s book club, but even her fans will have to admit that this is getting ridiculous.

The Hours

As I listened to Michael Cunningham read The Hours, I found my opinion of the book changing to a more positive one as I finished each of the six discs. Because the audio version of the book does not have clearly defined chapter breaks, I at first found it difficult to keep the three stories that Cunningham alternates separated in my mind. But as I grew more and more comfortable with the three main characters and their separate storylines, I began to realize what a well-constructed piece of writing The Hours is.

Cunningham sets the tone with his prologue describing Virginia Woolf’s 1941 suicide. It is an unflinching look at the mechanics of her death and it leads directly into the three stories that he will intertwine for the rest of the book: Virginia Woolf in 1923, Clarissa Vaughan in present day Greenwich Village, and Laura Brown in 1949 Los Angeles.

None of the three women are particularly happy when we meet them. Virginia Woolf is struggling with the plotline of Mrs. Dalloway and is unhappy that she ever agreed to live in Richmond rather than in London. She feels isolated and uncomfortable and wants nothing more than to return to her old lifestyle in the city. Clarissa Vaughan is planning a celebratory party for her old friend and lover, a gay poet who is dying of AIDS and she is starting to feel the weight of her own years. Laura Brown wonders how much longer she can go on as an ordinary wife and mother of one young son and yearns for a new life of her own. At times, even death seems to be more attractive to her than the life she is living.

The three women have more in common than their discontented unhappiness, however. Clarissa Vaughan, who has always been called “Mrs. Dalloway” by her dying friend, finds herself, as she plans his party, recreating a modern version of the day that Woolf describes in the novel. Laura Brown, desperately seeking some time alone during which she can for a while shed the role of wife and mother, carries a copy of Mrs. Dalloway with her into which she hopes to escape for a few hours.

It may be the sprit of Virginia Woolf that thematically ties the three stories together so neatly, but all three are beautifully told and filled with such interesting characters that they stand well on their own. But it is the clever surprise that Cunningham saves for his last few pages that brings everything together neatly in a way that makes the reader fully appreciate what he has accomplished in The Hours.

Rated at: 4.5

How to Create a Bestseller in Ten Easy Steps

I’ve been fascinated by marketing and advertising techniques as long as I can remember, and when I can combine my passion for books with my interest in marketing it’s a match made in heaven. That’s why this lesson in book marketing from the BBC folks caught my eye. In connection with the all the talk about the Booker Prize last week, BBC News offered 10 ways to create a bestseller.

1. Word of Mouth – Who do we really trust? When the chips are down, it’s the opinions of our friends and family and colleagues that matter in all things.

But that’s not to say that word of mouth is an entirely natural, organic process. Publishers would sell their grandmothers for ways to manipulate it. From viral marketing to social networking, they’ll try many avenues of multimedia attack to get the books into the hands of the literary pioneers in any group of friends.

(I think that what we do as book bloggers fits into this category, still thought to be the single most important thing necessary to create a successful book. Publishers have come to understand that the chatter on book blogs can help sell books for them and their working relationship with book blogs continues to evolve in a positive way.)

2. The Book Group – A big part of the word of mouth network are the little reading groups of friends that have sprung up around the country in the past decade. Over cheese and nibbles the fates of novels are decided. Most people are not in a book group but many people know someone who is in one. Book groups are the crucible.

(Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t belong to any book clubs and I don’t personally know anyone who does. I do know that my local library has three active book clubs but their choices have never appealed to me enough for me to join them. But the BBC ranks being picked up as the darling of book groups as the second best thing that can happen to a new book.

3. Richard and Judy Book groups have to get their ideas from somewhere and many implant themselves into the minds of the members via the Richard and Judy Book Club. Modeled on the fearsomely influential Oprah’s Book Club, it has backed many of the titles that have come to be book group classics.

(I know that more than a few of us ridicule the likes of Oprah and Richard and Judy when it comes to their “book clubs” but what we can’t argue with is the impact that they have on book sales. I can’t help but feeling embarrassed to be seen with a book that has one of those cheesy Oprah stickers on its cover, but plenty of others look only for that sticker before heading to the cash register with the rest of the sheep already in line.)

4. Author – It’s almost too obvious to state, but the easiest people to market to are the people waiting for the next installment.

(The very names of a few authors have become brand names. That is not always an indicator that the reader is going to get his money’s worth, of course, but in the world of book bestsellers it does tend to keep the sheep heading for the cash register. What I find particularly obscene is when writers like James Patterson and Tom Clancy sublease their names to other writers who churn the books out for them. About all Clancy and Patterson have to do with some of their books appears to be their names written in bright colors and large letters on the covers. Disgusting.)

5. Art of Covers– There has always been great cover art on novels in British mass publishing, particularly on Penguins, but the production quality has now rocketed. “Penguin blazed a trail but everyone else has caught up. The cover can make or break a book. The book as ‘object’ is ever more important.”

(There’s no doubt about this one. With the huge number of books being published each week, covers have become the way for books to distinguish themselves from the pack. There is only so much time for a person to browse the shelves of a books store and when unusual and especially attractive covers grab the eye, the hand follows.)

6. In-store Marketing – With the end of agreements that controlled the price of books the key battlegrounds are the supermarket and the chain bookstore. And in these chains if you’re not on those pyramids of books in the front of the ground floor of the store, you’re dead. Does anybody find themselves flicking through a new novel where one copy has been placed in the far corner of the fourth floor?

(Bookstore placement is critical to successful sales. No doubt about it. But I still can’t help but be irked about the large payments that publishers are making in order to buy those front tables and huge displays in the major chains. I don’t see how small publishers have much of a chance of producing a bestseller since they don’t have the budgets required to get it done.)

7. Rise of Prizes – There is nothing as priceless as free publicity and this is what the literary prizes offer in spades. The trinity in the UK of the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize (for female authors) and the Costa Book Awards (formerly the Whitbread) can get the ball-rolling for a monster-selling book.

(Is there any doubt as to why the number of prizes awarded seems to increase on an almost yearly basis? It’s also the reason that so many avid readers have become so skeptical of the whole prize concept.)

8. Unusual Titles – Who isn’t tempted to at least pick and have a flick through a Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian?

(No doubt about it. Heck, it’s fun to carry around some of those unusual titles just to see if anyone notices them. Two people approached me in two different coffee shops to ask about Reading Lolita in Tehran when they spotted it on my table. They couldn’t help but notice that title above the heads of two young Muslim women who were so immersed in the same book that one was holding.)

9. Praise For – Once upon a time in the monomedia world, the reviewer was king. Powerful newspaper literary critics bestrode the world of publishing like colossi. Now not so much.

As Mr Rickett notes: “People themselves are the reviewers now on Amazon and on all kinds of sharing websites. Reader response has almost supplanted the top-down role of the critic.”

(Much to the chagrin of professional book reviewers everywhere, this does seem to be more and more the case. I know that I’m much more likely to choose my next book based on what I read in the book blogging community than on what I read in the New York Times book section.)

10. Newspaper Serialisation – One for the non-fiction work predominantly, serialisation delivers a risk-free prospect for the author at least. If the attention brings sales then great. If it persuades people they’ve had enough then the writer has still got a whacking fee from the newspaper.

(This, I think, is much less common in the U.S. than it is in Britain and I don’t think it has much impact here at all.

So there you have it…how to create a bestseller in ten not-so-easy steps. All it takes is money, influence and a lot of luck, so what’s the problem?

What does seem to be missing from the list is author book tours. I’ve read that those are generally losing propositions for the publisher since they oftenfind it difficult to sell enough books to cover the tour expenses. Book tours probably work well for big name authors and not much for the lesser known ones. That probably translates into overkill for well known authors and futility for the little guys.

The Uncommon Reader

Once upon a time the Queen of England was walking her dogs in the Buckingham Palace gardens when they took an interest in the bookmobile parked behind the palace kitchens. When the dogs refused to come back to her, Queen Elizabeth went to retrieve them and decided to borrow a book from the mobile library just to be polite. Before she knew it, one book led to another, and the good Queen became an avid reader and lived happily ever after.

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is a laugh-out-loud novella that does indeed read like a fairy tale at times but the little book packs a lot into its 120 pages. Avid readers will recognize themselves in Queen Elizabeth as she exercises her “reading muscle” and progresses from reading anything suggested to her by others to falling in love with “new” authors and more serious literature. They also will recognize the reactions of the Queen’s family and staff who are somewhat bewildered to find that she carries a book with her wherever she goes and has lost interest in many of the things that previously kept her busy. Not only do they not understand her new love of reading, they come to resent her for it, and some even suspect that she is showing the first signs of senility.

Her move along the road to a new sensibility and self-awareness allows Elizabeth to make some observations that are guaranteed to put smiles on the faces of book lovers. At a reception in Canada, for instance, she remarks to one Canadian minister, “Can there be any greater pleasure than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen.”

On another occasion, when being briefed by a befuddled member of her staff who does not understand why she suddenly prefers reading to his briefings, she tells him that “…briefing is not reading. In fact, it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”

For a while, the sheer joy of reading is enough for Elizabeth as she begins to regard the world and those around her with a new empathetic understanding. But, as her self-awareness continues to grow, she comes to believe that she is meant to be not only a reader but also a writer. That is the twist that leads to Alan Bennett’s unexpected, but perfect, ending to his charming little tale. This one will be special to book lovers everywhere.

Rated at: 4.5

OJ Soon to Pollute the UK

From the Guardian Unlimited comes word that British bookstore customers will not be spared exposure to O.J. Simpson’s demented mind after all. Gibson Square Books, having reached a publishing deal with the Goldman family, has decided to take some of the blood money for itself and will scatter copies of this garbage throughout the U.K.

UK rights have been sold to Gibson Square Books, an independent publisher which prides itself on publishing books that “provoke”, and a British edition is due for publication on November 8. Speaking for Gibson Square earlier today, Martin Rynja rejected the suggestion that the imprint had moved from provocation to profiting from a horrendous crime.

“We publish a lot of books which are controversial,” he said. “We publish books which we believe in and are important.” He pointed to the fashion for publishing criminal memoirs, suggesting that those who have raised their voices against the publication of If I Did It have been silent in the face of successful memoirs from people implicated in other acts that have left others hurt, a stance he finds “incomprehensible”.

According to Rynja, the family’s prime motivation was not financial.

“Sure there’s money involved,” he admitted, “but they didn’t think of it.” The idea that Simpson should write a memoir confessing hypothetically to the murders did not originate from the Goldman camp, he explained.

If it had been a thriller about how to get away with murder Rynja is sure they would not have published it, but faced with a book that could put “facts” that “only Simpson could have known” into the public domain, they had little choice.

I really feel bad for Rynja and Gibson Square Books. The poor babies “had little choice” about publishing this trash and accepting all of that blood money. Isn’t that sad?

McIlhenny’s Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire

Never again will I be able to pick up that little bottle of Tabasco sauce and sprinkle a few drops on whatever I am eating, something I have done several times a week for a few decades now , without thinking of the amazing set of circumstances that came together to put that distinctive little bottle on my table. Sometimes the little diamond-shaped label on the front of the bottle, the one that still mentions Avery Island as being its home, would catch my eye and make me wonder how such a unique product could have been born in such an isolated place and how it managed to survive long enough to become a product recognized around the world. Jeffrey Rothfeder’s new book, McIlhenny’s Gold, provides the answers to all of my questions.

Rothfeder tells the story of a remarkable family, one that literally rose from the ashes of the Civil War to create a hugely successful business based on the sale of a single food product, a business that is still well known some 140 years later. In his research of the McIlhenny family, Rothfeder found that much of what has come to be accepted about the family’s history and the origin of Tabasco sauce is simply untrue. So many myths surround the family and its product, in fact, that even family members have found it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

When Edmund McIlhenny, fifty years old at the end of the Civil War, and prior to the war a successful New Orleans banker, returned to Louisiana in 1865 he found that the Avery family he had married into was largely destitute. The family’s rich sugar cane plantation was no more and the only thing of value still in family hands was Petit Anse, the little island that was later to be renamed Avery Island.

Edmund McIlhenny was a businessman, not a farmer. As a pre-war banker, he learned to market himself personally to such a degree that he became the best known and most sought after financial man in New Orleans. His marketing skills, and his willingness to bend the truth when it made for a better story, have made it difficult to determine exactly when he became aware of the chili pepper from Mexico’s Tabasco region and how he decided to make hot sauce the new family business. What is clear, however, is that he made the right decision and that he created a business that has served his family well for four generations.

The McIlhenny product has been a high quality one from the beginning. The three-year chili paste aging process and the inability to use mechanized pickers to gather the delicate chili peppers requires that manufacturing costs, especially labor costs, be controlled as tightly as possible. That concern led to the near recreation of the plantation system on Avery Island, a company town so complete with free shelter, medical care, schools and churches that white employees had little reason to ever leave little Avery Island. McIlhenny Co. workers, almost guaranteed a job for life, became extremely loyal to the company that provided them with everything they needed. This system lasted until a few years ago and was key to the company’s success.

McIlhenny Co., still based on the sale of a single product, has become a $250 million per year business but it is facing difficult times because one of its previous strengths has turned into its greatest weakness. The company has always been run by a member of the McIlhenny family and for three generations the family was blessed to have a family member ready to take on the job and to do it adequately, if not always completely well. But, as almost always happens in a closely held family business, future generations do not always see things through the eyes of its founder. McIlhenny Co. is at a historical crossroads and its future will be determined by a generation of McIlhennys who may decide that it is time finally to sell the company to the highest bidder rather than make the effort to keep it the tightly controlled family business that it has been for more than 140 years.

Jeffrey Rothfeder has written a well-researched history, complete with interviews of many McIlhenny family members and key employees, a history that tells the story of a fascinating family and business. McIlhenny Co. may not serve as a blueprint for future businesses, but it is hard to argue with what the company has achieved across parts of three centuries.

Rated at: 4.0

The Quill Awards

Speaking of book awards, it’s getting close to the big show that presents the only book awards that are voted on by the reading public. The Quill Awards happen in New York on October 22 and most NBC stations will broadcast the awards show as a special presentation on October 27.

Monday evening, Oct. 22, at Manhattan’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Byrne puts on the third-annual Quill Awards with Today’s Al Roker and Ann Curry hosting, Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central opening and an A-list of celebrities presenting as a score of authors are honored–Al Gore and former Time magazine Managing Editor Walter Isaacson among them. Roker’s production company will produce the evening for an hour-long broadcast airing Oct. 27.

But aren’t there already too many book awards? Byrne’s rationale for creating the Quills: The other awards are all chosen and handed out by the industry, to the industry. “It’s inside baseball,” he says. “The Quills are the only awards on which the public does the voting.”

Most of the awards have been announced already, but it should be fun to see some of the glitz involved in the process of handing them out. I think that all but “Book of the Year” have been announced, but here’s a short list of winners from a few of the 19 different categories being awarded.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road won in General Fiction, while Diane Setterfield will be honored as Debut Author of the Year for The Thirteenth Tale. Other winners include Al Gore (History/Current Events/Political), Nora Roberts (Romance), Amy Sedaris (Humor), Walter Isaacson (Biography) and David Wiesner (Children’s Picture Book).

It should be fun if I can just remember to turn on the television that night. I’ve been out of the habit of watching TV for so long now that I tend to let this kind of thing slide right past me before I realize I’ve missed it

The Booker Prize Is Evil

British author Robert Harris, while admitting that there is no way that he would ever win the Booker Prize, decided to tell the world how little that bothers him. In an interview with Lucy Cavendish, he condemned the whole process:

“The Booker Prize is evil,” he says. “No great authors in the past, from Dickens through to Kipling, Waugh, Joyce, Orwell etc would have had anything to do with it.

“The Booker casts a long shadow over literary life. It has swollen like a monstrous boil obscuring anything that was ever good about it. It encourages and fosters the difference between supposed ‘literary’ novels and other perfectly good books. It reveres a certain type of novel yet great writers of the world may never have featured in it and lots of books that are short-listed in it disappear without a trace.”

Harris says he wants to speak out against the Booker because he feels so strongly about it. “I can see it probably looks a bit dog-in-the-manger as there is no conceivable way I would ever win it, or should win it,” he says, “but that’s not why I am saying this. The Booker ruins people’s lives. It does a disservice to the public and it is damaging to authors and the industry, especially this hateful, ghastly long list. Authors feel their book has failed even before it’s been published if it is not selected.”

He says that when the prize first started it was probably to help bring the work of not so well known authors into the public realm. “I can see for a book like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi it is a good thing, but over the past five or so years the judges have kowtowed to the worst sort of political correctness. It’s hard to think of anyone who is non-PC or doesn’t deal with the concerns of the sexual minority or colonial guilt who could possibly make it on to the list. The books are all written in the same way. They are elegant, elegiac but dull and dry. They do not connect with their readers. They are just deadening to read.”

He saves the worst of his criticism though for the actual prize ceremony itself. “I go to the dinner and there are only about 20 authors there out of about 1,000 people. The rest are all the agents and the buyers and it’s full of ghastly phoney hangers-on. In fact, I think the Booker sucks the oxygen out of the air.

It has been milked by publicists. No wonder that book Crystal is selling so well. It is probably a more enjoyable read.”

Sour grapes? You decide, but I have to think that’s largely what’s going on here since Harris writes the kind of novel that is unlikely to ever win any of the various literary prizes handed out each year. He’s a fine writer of a certain type of book, and I’ve enjoyed several of them. The whole tone of what he has to say in this interview makes me wonder if Cavendish didn’t just catch him on a particularly bad day when he was feeling resentful about the caste system that exists in the publishing world, a system in which authors seem to have been generally relegated into two classes: those who seek to top the bestseller lists and those who have literary aspirations.

Harris has sold a large number of books in the past. Sounds like he needs a little love from his peers to make him feel better about his career.

Robots Who Read and Stolen Books

I found a couple of short, but intriguing, little news items this morning. Both of the articles had me shaking my head in wonder and ending with a smile because they are so “out of the box” and not something that I expected to ever see.

The first bit comes from and talks about a German “robot” that has been given a two-year job of reading historically important books and storing them in its digital memory.

One of Germany’s greatest treasuries of books, the Bavarian State Library in Munich, said Tuesday it had set a robot to work “reading” the books and storing more than 7.5 million images of the pages in its digital memory. The device, which uses gentle suction and a breath of air to turn the pages, is to work until 2009, digitizing 37,000 German-language books dating from the period 1518 to 1600.

Library officials said the images would then be put on the internet.

The robot can scan up to 1,500 books an hour, with human staff only having to put each book into position. Library staff say they are confident it will not damage the priceless old books.

And then there’s news from PressTV about a “most stolen” index being used at the huge Frankfort Book Fair to predict which new books are going to sell best later this year.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is using the ‘most stolen book’ index to help publishers estimate public interest in their new publications.

Bild am Sonntag and Germany’s ZDF television have prepared lists of the most stolen titles from 15 leading German publishers’ stands in the Frankfurt trade fair grounds.

“The most-stolen books are usually the most-sold later on,” said Claudia Hanssen of the Goldmann Verlag publishing house.

“They’re the popular ones and are most likely to end up on the best-seller lists,” Hanssen added.

You just never know, do you?

O.J.’s Book "like staring straight into an open sewer"

Book reviewer Rod Liddle, in the first two paragraphs of his review in the Sunday Times of London, completely destroyed O.J. Simpson’s supposed book and everyone responsible for placing the thing in bookstores around the world.

It’s hard to fault anything that Liddle had to say.

Now, here’s a thing. A book that is simultaneously morally disgusting and excruciatingly dull. A filthy little project that, although extremely brief (there’s a lot of padding in those 208 pages), succeeds in both boring the reader beyond endurance and making him gag. Hurry, hurry, while stocks last, etc.

On the other hand, the stuff about the book — how it came into being and why — is quite compelling, in the same way that staring straight into an open sewer can be quite compelling for a while. What’s going to float along next? That old thing horrified fascination, I suppose.

Now, why did the Goldmans decide, in effect, to collaborate with the repulsive man who had killed their son? One answer — which you can believe, if you like — is in the lengthy foreword to the book from the Goldman family. Was it for the dosh, the greenbacks, the moolah? No, no, no — heaven forfend! “So here we sit,” they write, “having to take on this incredibly controversial book project, which many deemed abhorrent, disgusting and dirty, and turn it into something powerful and positive. Having read the manuscript in great detail, we are more determined than ever to put this product out into the world as an exposé of a murderer.”

Ah, we see. Well, I suppose they’ve turned it into something that their bank manager would undoubtedly see as “powerful and positive”; but the whole world suspects that Simpson was the murderer, particularly after he was found liable in the civil suit. So your point is? Indeed, the entire foreword is an emetic, prolonged whine of self-justification ineffectively masking self-interest and financial greed.

Incidentally, the family of Nicole Brown Simpson objected to the whole shebang. Thank the Lord, you might be thinking, for a bereaved family with a sense of dignity and decency. But then you learn that they applied, unsuccessfully, to the court for a chunk of the profits.

The “If I Did It” bit, by OJ himself (via the third-rate, bland hackery of the benighted Fenjves, employing the grammar, the turn of phrase, the recourse to cliché, and all the psychological insight of a moron), is not remotely worth reading.

Well, that about says it all. No one involved in this fiasco seems to be thinking about much but how much money they can squeeze from the brutal deaths of two people. How horrible is that?

Read the whole column here.