Circling My Mother

No one will ever fault Mary Gordon for a lack of frankness or honesty. In the past, she has mined her rather difficult upbringing and family life for short stories, novels, essays and memoirs. Now, with Circling My Mother, she shares intimate details of her often difficult relationship with her mother, a woman afflicted with polio as a young girl and who was looked down upon by most of her relatives despite the fact that she for long periods of time provided the bulk of their financial support.

Rather than using a straight chronological approach to recount her mother’s life, Gordon chose to focus on specific ways through which her mother related to the world. In separate chapters she discusses her mother and her bosses, her words and music, her sisters, her friends, her priests, her father, her world view, and her body. However, as Gordon “circles” her mother and explores a different aspect of her character in each chapter, the reader comes to know as much about Mary Gordon as about her mother, Anna. Nothing less is to be expected of an author of Mary Gordon’s honesty and, in fact, it is the revelations that Mary makes about herself and her feelings that make Circling My Mother such a powerful book.

Mary Gordon lost her father at an early age and, although her relationship with her mother was an uneasy one at times, the two were close. Mary suffered through her mother’s often public displays of alcoholic self-pity and from her sharply critical way with words but, in the end, she is loyal to her mother’s memory and defends her actions as only a family member can do it. She accepts criticism of her parents from no one, almost refusing to acknowledge that her mother and father were often as wrong as those she criticizes for causing them grief during their lives.

Circling My Mother is Gordon’s attempt to reconcile the guilt that she seems to feel for “abandoning” her mother to a nursing facility in her last years, a facility to which she dreaded to go for the horrible one hour per week that she spent with a mother who no longer recognized her or had control of her mind or body. Her approach to her mother’s story paints a human face on a woman who was very much a product of her times but who still managed to achieve more than many women of her day. Anna spent a lifetime as a treasured legal secretary, raised a daughter on her own, supported her brothers and sisters financially until they could do it for themselves, was a staunch supporter of the more traditional Catholic church of the times, and had close friendships with several intellectual priests.

But she could also be a vindictive woman and she resented the way that she was sometimes treated because of her handicap and “place” in life. Mary Gordon seems to have inherited that resentment and she does not try to hide it. Instead, she describes several key relationships in her own life, relationships which helped to make her into the woman that she is today but which she abandoned with little thought or guilt when she no longer needed them. Some of the people cut from her life, such as her truly horrible Aunt Rita, admittedly deserved that treatment but that others who at one time meant so much to Mary Gordon were treated the same way is as surprising as her willingness to expose this weakness in herself to her readers.

Circling My Mother is not a sugarcoated, feel good memoir, the kind that often reads more as fiction than as fact. It is Mary Gordon’s honest assessment of her mother’s life and how she related to that life. It is the work of a woman not afraid to expose her own weaknesses as part of her writer’s craft and, although it is the kind of book that often makes the reader uncomfortable, it should be read especially by those who find themselves caring for elderly parents of their own.

Rated at: 4.0

Last List for 2007…I Promise

I read more books this year (and gave up on more) than I have since I started keeping track in February 1970. This year’s reading included:

Novels – 116

Non-Novel Comedy – 2

Short Story Collections – 3

Non-Fiction – 38

Books by Men – 97

Books by Women – 60

Books by Mixed Gender Team – 2

Abandoned Books – 15

Pre-20th Century Books – 4

Review Copies – 31

Sports Related – 3

Unfinished Books Carried to 2008 – 3

Re-Reads – 3 (including two 19th century classics)

This is the first time that I’ve taken the time to detail my reading for a year and I’m a little bit pleased to see that I read some 61 books written by women. For some reason, I always feel that I’m slighting female authors despite the fact that so many of my favorite writers are women: Joyce Carol Oates, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mary Gordon, Jane Austen, for example.

All in all, it’s been a good reading year for me and I’m looking forward to the same for 2008, especially since my blog will officially be a year old on January 20, hard to believe as that is for me. I can’t wait to see what I manage to chase down in the next 12 months.

Joyce Carol Oates on "The Gravedigger’s Daughter"

FORA.tv provides this great little clip of author Joyce Carol Oates discussing character development and mining her recent novel, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” for examples of how she works. The full piece runs 51 minutes and is available at the FORA.tv website.

The quality of this clip is excellent so don’t let the appearance of the posted shot keep you from checking out this one. If you like this kind of thing, follow the link I’ve provided for the long version.

Some We Lost in 2007

This is a list that I compiled this evening of writers, critics and others involved in the publishing world who passed away in 2007. Sadly, it is probably far from complete so if you know of any I’ve missed pleased mention them in your comments so that I can add them to the list. Thanks.

January:

Robert Anton Wilson, 74 – co-author of “The Illuminatus Trilogy”
Art Buchwald, 81 – author and humorist
Sidney Sheldon, 89 – author
Molly Ivins, 62 – political writer and humorist
Peter Tompkins, 87 – author of “The Secret Life of Plants”
Barbara Seranella – mystery writer

February:
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., 89 – historian
Marianne Fredriksson, 79 – much-admired Swedish author
Lothar-Guenther Buchheim, 89 – German author of “Das Boot”

March:
Henri Troyat, 95 – prolific French author
Robert E. Petersen, 80 – magazine publisher
Michael Dibdin, 60 – author most famous for his “Aurelio Zen” mysteries

April:
Kurt Vonnegut, 84 – author
David Halberstam, 73 – historian and journalist famous for baseball writing

May:
Lloyd Alexander, 83 – author of children’s books
Mark Harris, 84 – most famous for his baseball books like “Bang the Drum Slowly”

June:
William Meredith, 88 – prize-winning poet
Richard Rorty – American philosopher
Nazek al-Malaika, 85 – Iraqi poet
Fred T. Saberhagen, 77 – science fiction author

July:
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, 68 – writer of historical romances
John Graham, 80 – author of children’s books

August:
Grace Paley, 84 – short story writer and poet
Edward Seidensticker, 86 – translator of Japanese literature

September:
Madeleine L’Engle, 88 – author most famous for “A Wrinkle in Time”
Robert Jordan, 58 – fantasy author

October:
Peg Bracken, 89 – author of the “I Hate to Cook Book”

November:
Norman Mailer, 84 – author and celebrity
Ira Levin, 78 – author most famous for “Rosemary’s Baby”

December:
Elizabeth Hardwick, 91 – author and critic, co-founder of The New York Review of Books

Book Reviews

I like to think that all of the work so many of us do to spread the word about the books we read is doing some good in the great scheme of things, that maybe we help sell a few copies of books that would otherwise end up being trashed or recycled into oblivion. Of course, since we are a pretty honest group of folks, we might have a negative impact on the sales of some books, too, because we are definitely not shy about sharing our thoughts on those books that just don’t work for us.

2007 seems to have turned into the year of the disappearing book section as newspapers around the world are eliminating or cutting back on the space that they allow for book reviews and book news. I don’t pretend that the average blogger writes the type of review found in most literary sections and magazines, but I do think that ours have a place in the hierarchy, especially among readers interested in the thoughts of “amateur reviewers,” the ones who still read for pleasure rather than for a paycheck.

Jay Smith over at Vue Weekly quotes Lou Morin, general manager of Edmonton’s NeWest Press, who puts it this way:

“…these days simply getting a review is a good thing, regardless of what it actually says.

Every time we see a review published, a little cheer goes up in the office. Book reviews are of utmost importance in terms of getting the word out. A good review can really increase interest in a book, and pique the curiosity of readers to go to a bookstore or library. It’s really a key marketing tool.

NeWest publishes 12 books a year and getting half a dozen reviews for a given title is doing really well.”

Though Morin doesn’t have a solution for getting more reviews published, she does think it’s vital we find a way to increase not only the number of reviews, but the critical discourse within them.

“For our whole literary community,” she says, “reviews are essential to get people thinking and talking and reading.”

I find her words to be encouraging, enough motivation to keep me talking about books and hoping that it helps, at least a little, to get the word out to people who might have otherwise never noticed some of the books I spend so much time with every day.

The God of Animals

Getting through adolescence can be difficult for those living even the most ordinary of lives. And it is especially difficult for someone like 12-year-old Alice Winston who wakes up every morning completely overwhelmed by what is expected of her that day. But Alice is no quitter, and what this young narrator of The God of Animals learns about herself and her family gives her a quiet strength that will serve her well the rest of her life.

Alice lives with her parents on a declining Colorado horse ranch that depends on her for the free labor that helps it to survive from one month to the next. She spends her summer days tending the horses and, when school starts, her schoolwork is secondary to their care. Nona, Alice’s sixteen-year-old sister has eloped with a rodeo cowboy and seldom bothers to call or write the family. Her mother, who has suffered from depression almost since the day that Alice was born, almost never comes downstairs, preferring to live in the total isolation of her bedroom. And then there’s her father, Joe, a man who pretty much ignores her as long as she manages to muck out all the horse stalls and doesn’t offend any of his paying customers.

Joe Winston is a desperate man. His ranch is creating so little income for him that he is forced to take in horse boarders and to milk the rich parents of the little girl who is only equestrian student for all he can convince them to pay for her lessons and her horse’s upkeep. He hopes that she places high enough in local shows that her rich girlfriends will come to him with their horses for the same lessons. In the meantime, he doesn’t even notice that his own daughter has outgrown her clothes and boots because she realizes that there is no money for new things and doesn’t ask for replacements.

Alice longs for the same escape that her sister made but her sense of responsibility makes it impossible for her to see any way out. She has no real friends at school and, ignored at home, she creates a fictitious family background with which to impress the only adult who will listen to her, her Advanced English teacher, a man she begins to call every night to talk about the things no one else wants to hear.

But nothing can prepare Alice for what she learns about life when her sister returns to the ranch with her new husband and when catastrophe truly does strike at the heart of her existence. Aryn Kyle’s debut novel is a remarkable coming-of-age novel, one placed in a unique setting and filled with interesting side-characters throughout. I will remember many of them for a long time, but the one that will perhaps stay with me longest is Jerry, Nona’s rodeo cowboy husband, a young man blinded by love and the volatile relationship in which he finds himself. The God of Animals may not ultimately appeal to everyone but it is definitely worth a look.

Rated at: 4.0

Books: The Refuge of the Desperate?

Still have some gift shopping to take care of as the shopping minutes rapidly dwindle down to zero-hour? If so, you might be finding yourself in the position described in an amusing New York Times article today in which the author describes books as “the refuge of the desperate.” When in doubt, and when out of time, give a book.

Such gifts carry with them a whiff of self-congratulation, as well as flattery. They say: I’m smart, and I think you are, too.


Part of this kind of book buying, of course, is good intentions. “You imagine yourself as being better read than you are, and you especially imagine that in the future you’re going to be better read than you are,” said Michael Kinsley, a columnist for Time magazine. “You think over Christmas things will slow down and I will have all this time to do the reading I didn’t have time to do during the year. There are half a dozen delusions like that that the book industry thrives on.

I really like the concept of the “G.U.B.’s” mentioned in the article: “Great Unread Books” that manage to maintain such a reputation that they stay on best seller lists forever and are mentioned in magazine and newspaper articles for months and months. The only problem with them is that no one actually bothers to read them because they are either so boring or so densely written that no one wants to make the effort required to decipher the author’s meaning.

Of course, we could all come up with the prime examples mentioned in this Times article: Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time” and Salmon Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.” Those must be near the top of the all-time G.U.B. list. I admit to owning copies of both of them, and have had them for years without finishing either of them. But they look really nice on my bookshelves and they are classic “G.U.B’s,” after all.

Bookstore managers must really love the Christmas Season since the “G.U.B.’s” really fly off the shelves this time of year.

Check the link for the rest of the article. This one is fun.

My Top 15 Disappointments of 2007

On the other end of the spectrum from the list I posted earlier this morning, these are the biggest disappointments of 2007 for me. The list does not include the 15 books I started and could not force myself to finish in 2007 because I don’t think it would be fair to include books that I didn’t actually read all the way through. But, even excluding those 15, I have a full list of 15 relative stinkers that I read in 2007. Don’t ask me why I read every word of these:

1. Fortunate Son – Walter Mosley

2. The Collectors – David Baldacci

3. The Overnight – Ramsey Campbell

4. The Rope Eater – Ben Jones

5. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country – Ken Kalfus

6. Probable Cause – Theresa Schwegal

7. The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

8. Galatea 2.2 – Richard Powers

9. The Dead Guy Interviews – Michael A. Stusser

10. Hooked – Matt Richtel

11. The Afghan – Frederick Forsyth

12. Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult

13. Until I Find You – John Irving

14. The Big Clock – Kenneth Fearing

15. Bee Season – Myla Goldberg

As in the previous list, not all of these were first published in 2007 but they were part of my reading for the year.

Final – Top 15 Reads of 2007

I listed my Top 15 Reads of 2007 back on December 5 and mentioned that the list was subject to slight modification depending on what my reading experiences were for the rest of the month. I honestly didn’t expect that the list would change much, if any, because of a book that I might encounter at the last minute. But it happened – twice – causing changes to the last three slots on the list. I can already tell that the books I’m reading right now will not rate high enough to cause any more changes, so here’s the final Top 15. Keep in mind that many of these were not first published in 2007:

1. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

2. Ava’s Man – Rick Bragg

3. The Known World – Edward P. Jones

4. The Tin Roof Blowdown – James Lee Burke

5. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines

6. Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

7. Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

8. The Rise of Silas Lapham – William Dean Howells

9. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

10. A Gathering of Old Men – Ernest J. Gaines

11. Beautiful Shadow – Andrew Wilson

12. Main Street – Sinclair Lewis

13. Rape: A Love Story – Joyce Carol Oates

14. Shalimar the Clown – Salmon Rushdie

15. Them – Nathan McCall

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Picture this scene. You find yourself with enough spare cash in your pocket to finally afford to be able to add a rare book to that little collection you’ve been nursing along for a couple of decades. Or maybe you want to give the perfect gift to that book collector in your life who has been reading auction catalogs for years without ever being able to bid on one of the books listed.

And suddenly you spot just the thing. What will it be?

Well, according to AbeBooks, these are the ten most expensive books sold from their website during the last two weeks or so, just in time for Christmas.

Now what’s wrong with this picture?

1. Two Stories by Salman Rushdie – $7,031
‘The Prophet’s Hair’ and ‘The Free Radio’ combined into one book and printed in 1991, this is No. 4 of only 12 books privately printed. Bound in full leather and signed

2. Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne – $5,500
A first edition from 1926 of this legendary children’s book

3. A Guide to Modern Cookery by Escoffier – $5,124
One of the world’s great cookbooks, a 1907 first edition signed by the author and inscribed to Sarah Morgan, who worked at the Cavendish Hotel in London

4. Thelema by Aleister Crowley – $4,655
Witchcraft for Christmas? Perhaps. A first edition of a privately printed book from around 1909 containing The Book of Law – Crowley’s essential work

5. David Thompson’s Narrative of His Explorations in Western America 1784-1812 – $4,250
One of North America’s great geographers, Thompson mapped more than 3.9 million square kilometers. Published in 1916 – one of just 550 copies.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling – $3,600
More witchcraft for Christmas? It’s only Harry. One of 1,700 copies signed at JK Rowling’s midnight launch in July

7. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – $3,500
An 1859 first edition bound in three-quarter leather of this key conceptual work on liberty by the great liberal thinker of the 19th century

8. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – $3,000
A 1981 first edition of this Booker Prize-winning novel signed by the author “They are despite everything, acts of love, Salman Rushdie, 9/12/81″

9. An Atlas of Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Jessamine and Woodford Counties, Kentucky – $2,750
A rare Kentucky atlas from 1877 – published by Beers of Philadelphia

10. Dune by Frank Herbert – $2,750
A 1965 first edition of this famous sci-fi novel where spice matters – first winner of the Nebula Award

Sorry, but I have to say it. Who in his right mind would spend that kind of money on a Harry Potter book when there are so many great rare books to be had out there for the same or even less money? What they say about a fool and his money is obviously true…

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was not well received upon its original publication in monthly segments from 1855-1857 because critics and readers of the time were unhappy with the complicated nature of the story and its dark tone. To this day, it is one of the lesser known Charles Dickens novels, a fate it most definitely does not deserve.

Much of the novel takes place in the Marshalsea prison for debtors, an environment with which Dickens was familiar due to his own family history. William Dorrit, father of “Little Dorrit,” has been confined to the prison for so long when the book opens that he has become known inside its walls as “Father of the Marshalsea.” He has lost all hope of ever being released from the prison and has learned to enjoy the respect that he receives there from prison employees and fellow-prisoners alike. In fact, he has been imprisoned for so long that Little Dorrit, born inside the prison walls, is now a young woman working as a seamstress outside the walls in order to be able to bring her father some of the luxuries not provided to prisoners. She faithfully returns to the prison every evening in order to see that her father is as comfortable as possible.

Into this mix arrives one Arthur Clennam, only recently returned to London from several years in India when he meets Little Dorrit while visiting his mother. Clennam is struck by the selflessness of Amy Dorrit and befriends the family in an attempt to make their lives somewhat easier. But in true Dickens style, Clennam and the Dorrits will find their roles reversed after Clennam is swindled of his fortune and William Dorrit is found to be heir to a large fortune of his own.

But this is only one of the book’s major plotlines. Dickens also spends hundreds of pages introducing a predatory Frenchman and describing how this despicable man is attempting to extort money from Clennam’s mother because he knows some dark secret of hers that she is desperate to keep hidden.

At its heart, Little Dorrit is a love story, one that seems destined for a sad ending because middle-aged Arthur Clennam feels that Little Dorrit can never see him as anything more than a friend and father-figure. She, on the other hand, living in complete poverty, does not feel worthy of Clennam’s attention. Pride proves to be a two-way street, and when Little Dorrit finally admits her love for Clennam, he is broke and refuses her because he does not want to leave the prison at her expense.

Little Dorrit is filled with side-characters who have distinct personalities and stories of their own to tell. It is through them that Dickens so successfully recreates the world of early nineteenth century London as experienced by all class levels of its inhabitants. Admittedly, this is a long book (the Wordsworth Classic edition runs 740 pages but others clock in at over 1,000 pages) but it is well worth the effort. It is always a treat to lose yourself in the world of Charles Dickens and Little Dorrit is no exception.

Rated at: 4.0

The Collectors

Although I’ve been aware of David Baldacci’s books for several years, The Collectors is my first real exposure to his writing. I first saw his name on a book, if I remember correctly, when former President Bill Clinton was walking across the White House lawn on his way to his helicopter with one of Baldacci’s books under his arm. But for some reason, it’s taken me almost the whole length of George Bush’s presidency to get around to reading Baldacci. It’s too bad that my lucky streak finally ran out because, if The Collectors is representative of Baldacci’s work, I should have waited through the presidencies of at least a couple of Bush successors before forcing myself all the way through a 500-page Baldacci book.

The Collectors is a sequel to Baldacci’s The Camel Club in which he introduced his unlikely team of crime fighters to the world. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately in this case, I did not read the first book of the series before tackling The Collectors but I am told that Baldacci toned down the silliness of his characters in this second book. If that is the case, I assume that the first book must have consistently read as a novel filled with cartoon characters because, at times, this one certainly does. We meet stereotypical computer genius Milton Farb, cowardly librarian Caleb Shaw, highly decorated Vietnam veteran Reuben Rhodes and the group’s leader, an ex-CIA Triple Six operative and conspiracy theory enthusiast who aptly calls himself Oliver Stone. Thrown into the middle of this all-boys-club is Annabelle Conroy, possessor of the ultimate in con artist skills, who joins the Camel Club for reasons of her own.

When the public assassination of the Speaker of the House (an event that does not seem to much worry the Washington D.C. of Baldacci’s creation) is followed quickly by the unexplained death of the Director of the Library of Congress’s rare books collection, Oliver Stone smells conspiracy all over the two deaths. As he and the rest of the Camel Club begin to sniff the odor of conspiracy they get some unwanted attention from the bad guys and come to realize that they really are onto something big, a plot to steal and sell the country’s closely guarded secrets regarding its methods of fighting the organized terrorism aimed at the United States.

But that is only one of the plot lines in The Collectors because only a few hundred miles away Annabelle Conroy is planning the perfect “long con” by which to avenge the murder of her mother and get her hands on millions of dollars belonging to the mobster casino owner who killed her. Using a rather contrived set of circumstances, Baldacci does manage to get Annabelle to D.C. just in time for him to combine the two plotlines into one story. Sadly for Baldacci and his readers, the book becomes considerably less interesting once the con artist plotline is shut down and the even more fantastical spy plot takes center stage on its own.

The Collectors suffers from several major weaknesses: characters who never come to feel even remotely like real people, stilted dialogue that makes it even more difficult to ignore the unlikely characters, and padded plotlines that should have been suspenseful but were not. But even worse, the book only brings one of its two plotlines to a resolution, and does so much too easily and quickly based on the previous 500 pages of build up to Baldacci’s finale. Readers who care enough about Annabelle Conroy, easily the best character in the book, will have to read book three in the Camel Club series to find out whether or not she made the right decision by remaining in the U.S. rather than running when she first had the chance. After 511 pages that just doesn’t seem fair, but I don’t plan to read the next 500 Baldacci pages to find out what happens next.

Rated at: 2.0

Rape: A Love Story (2005)

I have read enough work by Joyce Carol Oates to understand her view of a world in which women and young girls often suffer physical violence at the hands of men when they least expect it to happen to them. I know that she is not afraid to use brutal words and images to tell the stories of these women and to describe the criminals who go after them. All of that is included in Rape: A Love Story. But it is the second half of the book’s title that hints at the most intriguing part of Teena Maguire’s story.

Teena, a thirty-something widow with a 12-year-old daughter, made a fatal mistake one dark night by deciding to cut through a deserted Niagara Falls park with her daughter on the walk home from a Fourth of July party. What should have been a relaxing ten-minute walk led instead to an experience that almost killed her and changed more than a few lives forever. Her daughter’s childhood would end in an instant, a Niagara Falls policeman would define “justice” in new terms, families would be pushed to the brink of bankruptcy in order to pay for unscrupulous defense attorneys, and a few thugs would realize that things were different now even for them.

Teena and Bethie were followed into the park by a gang of young men from the neighborhood, men high on booze and drugs and with one thing on their minds. They forced the two into an old boatshed where they punched and kicked them and gang-raped Teena. Luckily for Bethie, she was able to wedge herself into a spot so hard to reach that the rapists lost interest in her. But she had to listen to everything that happened and, when it was finally over, it was up to her to find help before her mother bled to death in the shed.

The complicated love story begins when young Niagara Falls policeman John Dromoor, first on the scene, finds himself intensely drawn to Teena and her daughter. He simply cannot forget what he saw that night and promises Teena and Bethie that he will do everything in his power to make things right for them. Bethie, who is terrified to live in the same neighborhood as the men awaiting trial for her assault, looks to Dromoor as her protector and feels a special kind of love for him. The mysterious, but unspoken, love that the three share seems to offer the only chance that Teena and Bethie have to put their shattered lives at least partially back together.

Oates has packed a lot into this book of barely 150 pages. She reminds the reader that violent crime impacts more lives than just those of the victim and the attacker. Families of the victim suffer a special kind of hell, but families of the attacker are forced to confront the dirty underbelly of family loyalty in a way that few really pass when it comes down to a question of whether or not to hire lawyers to distort the truth in an attempt to save their sons from prison. Will they excuse them for a terrible crime because they share the same blood? Will they really try to destroy the reputations of the victims in order to save their criminal sons? Sadly, we all know the answer to those questions.

Rated at: 4.5

Amazon Spends $4 Million for Rowling Book

I suppose that the real question is not why Amazon.com would spend roughly $4 million on a J.K. Rowling book but whether or not the company will actually get $4 million worth of publicity and increased customer loyalty from Potter/Rowling fans as a result of having done so. As an Amazon stockholder, this certainly doesn’t give me a warm fuzzy feeling about the business sense of those in charge there. I’m hoping that I’m wrong and that Amazon management is correct, but this kind of thing always smells of money squandered to me. Seattlepi.com has some of the details:

Author J.K. Rowling created the work, “The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” after finishing the seventh and final installment of the “Potter” books, which have sold nearly 400 million copies and been translated into 64 languages.

The book bought by Amazon is one of seven handmade copies, extensively illustrated by Rowling and bound in brown Moroccan leather. It was expected to sell for about $100,000.

Amazon spokesman Craig Berman said Amazon wants to take the book on tour to libraries and schools, though the company doesn’t yet have detailed plans. Amazon representatives did not disclose where the book is being stored.


“Purchasing this book with the proceeds going to charity does, in a real tangible way, say thank you to J.K. Rowling for what she’s done for readers around the world,” Berman said.

Rowling said she’d donate the proceeds to The Children’s Voice campaign, a charity she co-founded to help improve the lives of institutionalized children across Europe.

Amazon has created a special link to show off the book and has even created editorial reviews for some of its stories, with others to follow soon. There are some spectacular pictures of the book showing what a beautiful production it is and the remarkable job that Rowling did in writing it by hand and illustrating it. But $4 million for a a book that is likely to decrease drastically in value over the years? I don’t think so.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects

Too many novels are populated by characters that the reader forgets almost as soon as the last page is turned and the book closed. Others, with any luck, offer one or two memorable ones to whom the reader is sorry to say goodbye. And then there are novels like Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects that contribute a whole family of unforgettable personalities.

The Adam family, mother, father and son, fled Iran for France when life became unbearable for them there but ultimately started new lives for themselves in Los Angeles. Xerxes, son of Laleh (who soon Americanized her name to Lala) and Darius Adam was so young when the family left Iran that he has only vague snatches of visual memories of his life there. He really came to consciousness only after arriving in California and, for the most part, he is a product of American culture. But still he senses that he is different and that that difference is the product of life inside the apartment of his parents who are, and always will be, Iranians at heart.

His parents are certainly a contrast of styles and messages. Lala is a naively good-hearted woman who is ready to embrace most things about American culture but her husband Darius expects her to stay inside her Los Angeles apartment and to live, as closely as possible, the same lifestyle that she left behind in Iran. Darius is a suspicious man by nature and his suspiciousness is compounded by the bitterness that he feels for having been forced to leave everything that he could not carry in a few suitcases behind when he fled Iran. He expects to rule his family with an iron fist and, as his wife and son become more and more independent of him, he resents the impossibility of making that happen. He is not a happy man.

The clash of two such very different cultures had a devastating impact on the Adam family. As Xerxes approached maturity, father and son hardly spoke to each other, and when they did, it was never pleasant for either of them. Darius and Lala grew farther and farther apart as she demanded more and more personal freedom from him. That was bad enough, but then came the events of 9-11 and all three of the Adams suddenly felt as much pressure outside the home as they did from within it.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a revealing portrayal of the struggle that immigrant families sometimes face when first-generation Americans grow up with a value set that differs greatly from the one held by their immigrant parents. Porochista Khakpour has written a remarkable first novel that still has me thinking about Darius, Lala and Xerxes and hoping that they are doing well. I won’t soon forget them.

For another viewpoint on both the book and its author see this post that I made back in October about the supposed feud between Carolyn See and Porochista Khakpour. Khakpour took great offense to the very personal review that See wrote of this first novel and responded on her on blog to the points made by See. Thus, the feud was born. I have to say that, after now having read the novel in question, I have to side with Khakpour and say that See’s criticisms are largely unfounded. It’s almost like she read a different book than the one I read.

Rated at: 4.0

Sad News from Terry Pratchett

I just saw some terribly sad news about Discworld author, Terry Pratchett. He announced on his illustrator’s website that he has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The man is only 59 years old…what a tragedy for him and his family and fans. This is part of what the Yahoo News coverage had to say:

In a brief note to fans entitled “An Embuggerance,” Pratchett, 59, said he was taking the news “fairly philosophically” and “possibly with a mild optimism.”

“I would have liked to keep this one quiet for a little while, but because of upcoming conventions and of course the need to keep my publishers informed, it seems to me unfair to withhold the news,” he wrote on the Web site of Paul Kidby, who has illustrated many of his books.


Pratchett said he would continue completing “Nation” and that he had already begun working on “Unseen Academicals” — another writing project.

“Frankly, I would prefer it if people kept things cheerful, because I think there’s time for at least a few more books yet :o)” he wrote in his message. “I know it’s a very human thing to say ‘Is there anything I can do,’ but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”

Pratchett sounds like a very brave man and I pray that some new research development comes along in time to save him from this horrible disease.

Bad News for French Book Lovers

  1. When will countries like France figure out that price controls are bad for the economy and totally unfair to the consumer? Probably not for a long time, if the ludicrous assaults on Amazon.com and eBay are any indication of the economic wisdom of those in charge there. European consumers suffer greatly from this kind of thinking, and that’s a real shame.

Amazon.com may not offer free delivery on books in France, the high court in Versailles has ruled.

Retail prices, particularly of books, are tightly regulated in France.

Using “loss-leaders,” or selling products below cost to attract customers, is illegal. Other restrictions apply to books retailers must not offer discounts of more than 5 percent on the publisher’s recommended price. Many independent booksellers choose to offer this discount in the form of a loyalty bonus based on previous purchases. Larger booksellers simply slash the sticker price of books.

But the free delivery offered by Amazon exceeded the legal limit in the case of cheaper books, the union charged.

The union said it was pleased with the court’s ruling, which would help protect vulnerable small bookshops from predatory pricing practices.

This New York Times article has the rest of the details, including the case brought against eBay.

The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die

Most of us, if we think about it for a minute, will easily identify the one or two people we have encountered in our lifetimes who had very obviously discovered the meaning of life. Some of us may even have been lucky enough to have one of these wise elders as a parent or grandparent. But these wise men and women are everywhere, and others of us have been fortunate to have had them as teachers, ministers, co-workers or simply as friends.

John Izzo recognized that what all of these extraordinary people have in common is contentment with life and how they live it. Izzo, hoping to learn what the secret to such a successful life is, asked over 15,000 people in the U.S. and Canada to identify the wise elders in their own lives whom they believed had something to teach the rest of us. From the responses received, he and his colleagues identified 235 candidates between the ages of 60 and more than 100 and interviewed each of them in order to identify the secrets of life that had taken the 235 a lifetime to discover.

The result of those hundreds of interview-hours is The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, a deceptively simple book that allows its readers to take advantage of the experiences of a lifetime now rather than having to work through them over the next decades on their own. The interviewers learned that the secrets to happiness are common and Izzo made the five that came up most often in the 235 interviews the basis for his book.

But knowing the five secrets to a happy life is only part of the equation and, for that reason, Izzo spends most of his time explaining how to actually put the secrets into practice so that their benefits may be felt and shared with others. And as I said earlier, this is a deceptively simple book. It has the potential to change the lives of those who read it, but no book has that power if it is simply read one time and put back on the shelf to be forgotten. The five secrets have to be worked at until they become habit enough to replace the less successful habits that need to be rejected if true happiness is to be found.

So what are the five secrets? Izzo devotes an entire chapter to each of the five and I do not want to oversimplify them, so I will mention only the one that I have decided to work on for now. It is the fourth secret: to “live the moment” by always being fully aware that the present moment is the only one we have and that there is little to be gained from regretting the past or worrying about the future. The present is the only moment a person can control or enjoy, so wasting it is a terrible mistake. Too many people plan to be happy someday, perhaps when they retire, but that day never seems to arrive for them because they are unable to live in the present even when it becomes the future for which they planned.

John Izzo wants you to have the wisdom of a wise elder right now. He wants you to be able to face death with the feeling that your life has been well lived and that you have made a difference, left your mark on the world. If you are ready for it, it is all here in The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die. The rest is up to you.

Rated at: 3.5

A Match Made in Heaven


Barbara Polk Riley and part of the collection she donated
(Photo taken by Andrew Miller, staff photographer for the Courier News)

I love this story because it came along on a day when I could really use a “feel good” story with which to end my day.

Have you, as a book collector and amateur librarian, ever wondered what will happen to your collection when it comes time for you to let it go either as a result of your death or because you can’t keep the books with you any longer? I wonder about that from time to time and my hope is that my granddaughter, who is only 8 years old right now, will be able to give them a loving home someday. At this point, she seems to have the closest thing to my own love for books in my immediate family and I look forward to “educating” her about what’s own the shelves of my study so that she will not do something foolish with them when they become hers.

One woman, Barbara Polk Riley, of Plainfield, New Jersey, has come up with a beautiful answer as regards the collection started by her father and which she has nursed over the years. The Courier News tells her story:

One librarian had a lifetime collection of books reflecting African-American life and culture. Another librarian was in charge of a secure, temperature-controlled archive room in a city that values diversity highly.

Once the two met and began talking, the outcome was clear.

“I’m just happy they found a home,” Barbara Polk Riley said as she formally signed over the 1,881 volumes Wednesday to the Plainfield Public Library.

“People are already coming in to do research,” said Jessica Myers, head of the library’s Local History and Special Collections Department.


Myers and Polk Riley began talking at a February 2005 exhibit at the library featuring photos from Plainfield resident Ethel Washington’s book, “Union County Black Americans.” A childhood photo of Polk Riley with her three sisters and her mother appears on the cover.

“Barbara walked in and started talking my language about collecting,” Myers said.

But when Polk Riley mentioned a collection of 200, Myers said, “She meant 200 boxes, not 200 books.”

Still, Myers found the collection easy to examine, because, she said, as a good librarian, Polk Riley had everything “immaculately in order.” Even so, it took three days to go over every one before an appraiser came in to advise the library on the collection. It originally was more than 2,000 items, but Polk Riley took some back, and others, such as the emancipation documents — “freedom papers” — of family ancestors from Virginia, went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

Please see the rest of the article to learn how all of these wonderful books were acquired and housed over the years. It really puts a smile on my face to know that someone’s passion for books, and a collection that was started in the 1920s, will live on in a formal setting to keep alive the spirit of both the man who started the collection and the daughter who carried it on in his tradition.