A Dangerous Age

Ellen Gilchrist, National Book Award winner for Victory Over Japan has become known primarily as one of the premier short story writers in America. But, as she reminds us in A Dangerous Age, her first novel in over ten years, she is also a first-rate novelist.

The United States has been engaged in war since September 2001, a fact of which many Americans seem to have lost awareness. The war, of course, is very political and that, perhaps, explains why so many media outlets seem to have lost interest in it now that the American body count has dropped so significantly. As it becomes more and more difficult for big media to damage the current administration via bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan, those in charge seem more interested in changing the subject than in reporting war news.

Ellen Gilchrist is of another mind entirely. She wants us to realize how close we all are to being personally impacted by this long war and she uses the women of the fictional Hand family to illustrate her point.

The Hands appear to have everything: money, physical grace and beauty, social standing, a close family and work they love. But it has been a more than a decade since a new baby was born into the Hand family and cousins Winifred, Louise and Olivia have begun to think seriously about doing something about that situation. So when Winifred announced her engagement it was a happy time for the whole family. Little did any of them realize how suddenly their lives were about to change.

The Hands were first impacted by the war when Winifred’s young fiancé was on time for his early morning business meeting at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, making him one of the war’s first casualties. No remains were recovered but at the memorial service held in his honor, two younger cousins of the murdered man, identical twins, vowed to join the military so that they could personally avenge his death. True to their word, they did so, a decision that would directly impact the Hand cousins just a few months later.

Winifred, Louise and Olivia Hand soon learn what so many of their countrymen learned before them, that this is not some far-off war that can be ignored or studied with detachment if it involves those you love. But the Hand women are a strong bunch with a family tradition of coping well with whatever life throws their way and this war is no exception to their ability to adjust to life’s surprises. They are in full support of the men who leave them to go off to war and, just as importantly, they are always there for each other. Ellen Gilchrist beautifully describes the war as seen through the eyes of those left behind, reminding the reader that not all war heroes wear uniforms.

Rated at: 4.5

Needed: International Fiction Recommendations

I have just taken a close look at the reading I’ve done through the first three months of 2008 and it’s not quite what I hoped it would be when the year began. My three main goals were to read more books by women than I read last year, to revisit some of my favorites from the past and to read more by writers from countries other than the U.S.

Well, so far, I’m on a pace to read fewer books by women this year than last and, even worse, I’ve only reread two books and am doing almost nothing with international writers.

The problem is that I just don’t seem to hear much (maybe my mind is closed to them) about writers from other parts of the world. I used to read a few writers from South America and Canada on a regular basis, plus quite a few from the U.K. But this year, if they are not authored by a Brit of some sort, I haven’t read any international books at all. Obviously, I need some help here.

So, please give me some recommendations for international fiction and maybe even some good places to find the books. I’m not so much interested in non-fiction because, at this point in my life, I find international politics to be a particularly irritating subject. I realize there is (literally) a whole other world out there and that I’m missing out on it…a little help?

On Losing the Stamina to Finish a Book

Stephen McGinty, over at News.Scotsman.com, has written a tongue-in-cheek column in which he laments his ever-decreasing ability to finish a book of any length. It seems that over the last few years he has found himself abandoning every book that he starts long before he finishes it. At first, it was only long novels that he couldn’t finish; now he says he is having a difficult time making it all the way even through 15-page short stories.

But McGinty has found a bright spot in his decreasing level of concentration: he has something in common with today’s young people.

“Yet I take comfort in knowing that my own brand of functional illiteracy has brought me closer to the youth of today who, according to a new report, are also finding it easier to put a book down than pick a book up.”

There is new concern that all the online reading of blogs and short pieces that young people are doing nowadays has decreased their ability to concentrate on one subject long enough to finish an entire book. Sue Palmer, a literary consultant quoted in the piece, explains the concern this way:

“By reading a book, you are building up the stamina to absorb words for a longer period of time. What you are doing is gradually locking brains with the author, which you do not really do in quite the same way when you read chunks of a magazine or chunks of text on a screen. This personal interaction going on in your head is that thing that’s special about reading a book and the pleasure of that is what, in the end, turns someone into a reader.”

That’s an interesting thought. I can only speak for myself, of course, and I admit that my reading habits were firmly in place a few decades before I began to spend so much time on the internet. About the only change in my reading habits that I’ve noticed is a tendency to read anywhere from six to 10 books at the same time, reading in chunks of 25-35 pages and moving on to another partially read book. That might very well be the result of my internet usage, but it comes more from being exposed to so many great books that I would have missed out on completely in the “old days” than from any new inability to concentrate on the written word for long stretches of time. Now, I’m always excited about starting a new book and I find that I can’t be bothered to read them one-at-a-time.

Oddly enough, I think this relatively new habit of mine ensures that I get more out of most books than I would have gotten out of them by reading them singly. I don’t find myself daydreaming the way I used to and having to go back to reread four or five pages to see what in the world I had just missed. Now, if that starts to happen, I know it’s time to put one book down and pick up the next one in the stack. I probably shouldn’t admit it but I even go so far as to place the last book read from on the bottom of the stack and only pick it up again when it is back on top. I almost always get to each of the books on any given day and, more importantly, I never seem to get bored with them.

Capote in Kansas

Fans of Truman Capote and Harper Lee would have probably found Capote in Kansas to be irresistible even before the two recent movie treatments of Capote’s life and Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, the unauthorized biography published last year. But since the book and movies have raised public interest in Capote and Lee to its highest level in the last two decades Kim Powers could not have published his novel at a more perfect time.

Capote in Kansas is set in 1984, just a few weeks before Capote’s death from liver disease in the home of his longtime friend Joanne Carson, Johnny’s second wife. Through flashbacks to 1959 Kansas, when the pair did the research for Capote’s In Cold Blood, and to their childhood days in rural Alabama, Powers explains the powerful bond between the two, imagines what may have caused them to stop speaking to each other for so many years, and unfolds a devastatingly sad version of what their lives became after each was visited by relatively sudden fame and fortune.

Powers imagines a time shortly before Capote’s death during which Capote suddenly telephones Lee in the middle of the night, after years of silence between the two, with a panicked plea for her help to rid his bedroom of Nancy Clutter’s ghost. Nancy is not happy about having been turned into a celebrity by Capote’s book and her ghost eventually visits even Nelle Harper. But this book is not really a ghost story. Rather, it is an unblinking look at two people who despite the powerful bonds of a shared childhood and so many years as best friends allowed themselves to drift apart for reasons the rest of us can only speculate about.

Neither Capote nor Lee ever published a book after the successes of their two masterpieces but they handled that fact very differently. Capote became a regular on the celebrity circuit of television talk shows, for years working hard to maintain the illusion that he was on the verge of publishing his next big book. Lee quietly moved back to Alabama to live with her older sister in the family home and has maintained her privacy and silence regarding Capote and any future writing projects ever since.

Capote’s inability to complete another book was compounded, if not caused outright, by his years of alcohol and drug addiction. Many, as Powers does here, have speculated that his behavior may also be the reason that Lee has never published another book. Capote is likely to have been responsible for the rumor that he, not Harper Lee, was the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. At the least, it was a rumor he encouraged by his refusal to ever deny it. Some think that Lee was so embarrassed and tormented by the rumor that she simply decided that she had had enough of fame and retreated to small town Alabama to live out the rest of her days.

Capote in Kansas is a nice blend of fact and fiction and, although they will be somewhat saddened by its contents, fans of Capote and Lee will enjoy it.

Rated at: 4.0

Related Posts:

A Fascinating Concept: But Will It Work?

In Cold Blood (1965)

The Fruitcake Lady (Truman Capote’s Aunt)

Truman Capote – Hollywood Versions


Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee


Righting a Wrong About Harper Lee

Immortal

Traci Slatton’s debut novel is not always easy to read, especially a substantial portion of the book that covers the several years that young Luca Bastardo was forced to work as a child prostitute in his native Florence. What happened to Luca and the other children in that establishment was so vile and disgusting that many readers will find themselves ready to move on long before Slatton gets around to it. But Luca spent his 180 years of life in the very cruel and turbulent fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and those were the facts of life as he experienced them.

In another sense, though, Luca lived in glorious times because he experienced the Italian Renaissance and witnessed the creation of some of the world’s greatest works of art as close friend and confidant of those who produced them. Luca Bastardo always had the sense that he was special in ways other than just the physical perfection and beauty that made him such a target of those who were willing to pay for, and profit from, the abuse of his body and spirit. As the years went by, Bastardo found that he was an extraordinarily fast healer, was immune to disease, and aged so slowly that some of Florence’s citizens wanted to see him burned as a witch.

Immortal is one man’s extended journey through life, a 180-year lifetime spent trying to avoid revenge-minded descendents of the man who placed him in prostitution when he was a boy, searching for the parents he could not remember, and hoping to find the one true love promised to him in a dream. Luca Bastardo’s life was as exciting as it was long, almost two centuries of violence, love, and a deeply felt ache to know his family history and to find the woman he had been promised. In the meantime, Florence was reaching its peak as one of the world’s great cities and Luca was lucky enough to befriend the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, Boticello and Cosimo and Lorenzo di Medici.

But Bastardo came to realize, as those he loved left him time after time in deaths of their own, that immortality was not without its drawbacks. He struggled to remain a moral man in a world that was largely immoral and he was not always entirely successful. The guiding principle in his life was that everyone deserved respect regardless of his station in life, something he learned on the streets of Florence and which he practiced throughout his long lifetime. In his view, “Education does not make people worthy. People are born worthy, and they live their lives either to enhance that worth or not.”

Traci L. Slatton writes in a style that keeps this 513 page novel from ever reading like a burden. It is filled with the kind of action and attention to historical detail that makes it easy for its readers to lose themselves in the Florence of the 1300-1400s, years when life may have been cheap but during which was created some of the greatest beauty ever seen by the world.

Rated at: 4.0

John Lithgow and Cheerios Team Up to Donate Books

Fans of John Lithgow’s children’s books should be on the lookout for specially illustrated boxes of Cheerios on their grocery store shelves. Each of the almost five million cereal boxes will feature one of the illustrated animals from a Lithgow book. In addition a special website has been set up at which people can answer trivia questions that give them the right to help determine where 100,000 free Lithgow books will be distributed.

It’s easy to play: just go to www.FirstBook.org/lithgow, answer the trivia questions, and then vote for the state that you want to receive copies of Lithgow’s books. For every trivia question answered correctly, you can cast one vote for the state of your choice. Each of the five states receiving the most votes between now and June 15, 2008, will receive 20,000 books, to be distributed to nonprofit groups that support children in need.

There’s even a ranking of states by the number of votes received for each…Texas is number six at the moment.

The Red Leather Diary

I’ll admit right up front that I’m a sucker when it comes to certain subjects. I love stories about underdogs, social history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, extraordinary oldsters, and eyewitness accounts of famous past events. Every once in a while, several of my “weaknesses” are combined in a way that I can’t resist. I’ve been noticing some chatter about a new book, one that I will admit that I haven’t held in my own hands yet, that intrigues me because of the way that it combines several of the very elements I’ve mentioned.

The book is descriptively called The Red Leather Diary and is Lily Koppel’s account of how a long forgotten diary was discovered in a dumpster outside her New York City apartment building. Luckily, Lily is the kind of woman who could not stand to see something like that trashed. Even better, she decided to find the original owner of the diary and, amazingly enough, she found 90-year old Florence Wolfson and established a deep bond with the older woman. The diary covers the period 1929-1934, a fascinating time in New York City history, but Koppel’s book also tells of the new relationship between the two women.

The book is scheduled for release on April 8 and there is a dedicated website out there for those, like me, who have become interested in reading it. I’m in the mood for one of those “feel good” stories that come along every so often, so I’m looking forward to seeing this one for myself.

And I’m curious: Have any of you guys seen the book or, even better, had a chance to read this one yet? If so, what did you think of it?

(As several of you probably have, I have received an email from Lily regarding the book…grassroots marketing at its best…and I am more curious now than ever.)

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Simply put, I did not enjoy this book – not at all. It is pretentious, wordy and boring and is filled with enough cardboard characters to fill a book of paper dolls. But, I am certainly grateful to its author, Marisha Pessl, for reminding me that I will not live forever and that I should never again waste my time on a 514 page novel as irritating and boring as this one, two emotions that I’ve seldom experienced at the same time.

Some of you will remember that Special Topics in Calamity Physics turned into a bit of an experiment for me because I listened to the first half of the book in its audio version but read the text of the book’s second half for myself. I didn’t plan to do it that way but when I was forced to return the book CDs earlier than expected it seemed like a great opportunity to compare the two versions of the book and my reaction to each of them. Let’s just say that if Emily Janice Card, an actor and singer from North Carolina, had not done such an excellent job with the audio book, I would not have suffered through the second half of the book on my own because I would never have finished the first half.

The book’s plot is straightforward. A sixteen-year old girl and her father, a college professor who changes jobs at least once a year, have reached an agreement that he will stay put for her entire senior year of high school. Completing an entire school year without having to change schools is such a rare thing for Blue van Meer that she feels as if her father has given her an early graduation gift by agreeing to plant roots for the next nine months in Stockton, North Carolina.

Much to her surprise, Blue is almost immediately taken in by a group of students known to everyone else, including teachers, as “the Bluebloods,” a small cluster of the most popular students at St. Gallway led by the school’s film teacher, Hannah Schneider. But this is a coming-of-age novel cloaked in a murder mystery, so Blue quickly learns that she is resented by everyone in the group and is there only at the insistence of Hannah Schneider who has taken a strangely intense interest in Blue. More than half the book concerns Blue’s efforts to fit into the group, something she is at first not really sure she cares to do, and the fascination that the group has with the mysterious Hannah Schneider.

Things finally get interesting when the students take a camping trip to the Smoky Mountains that Ms. Schneider has insisted upon. As revealed in the book’s opening pages, Ms. Schneider does not return from that trip and Blue spends the rest of the book searching through clues that will explain what happened to her and exactly who Hannah Schneider was and what relationship she may have had with Blue’s father. And there you have it: 350 pages used to set-up the real heart of the book, its last 150 pages.

But that’s not the real problem with Special Topics in Calamity Physics. What makes this one so difficult to read is Pessl’s use of what could have been a clever gimmick if it were not so overused and abused for 514 pages. Pessl is apparently a well read individual, and in this, her debut novel, she decided to display her knowledge of world literature by citing book references, both real and made-up ones, as qualifiers for practically every point or description she makes in telling her story, something that was clever, even charming, the first two dozen or so times she did it but which became a terrible bore by the time she had done it a few hundred times, much less what must be well over a thousand times. Such an overabundance of references, be they real or fictional ones, made Blue’s first person narrative difficult to follow and distracted from what should have been the story’s sense of urgency. Pessl’s use of the countless references, and long, drawn-out parenthetical comments, may have been more than self-exhibitionism, however, since the tendency to constantly cite references was part of Blue’s character as well as that of her father. But Pessl, as author, relied so much on this technique that she failed to fully develop the other characters in her book, asking instead that her readers fill in the blanks for themselves based on the often obscure references Blue linked to those characters.

All of these frustrations would perhaps have been worth the time and effort required to get through them were it not for the fact that the “murder mystery” ends in such an open-ended way. There is no clear-cut resolution explaining Hannah Schneider’s death and any link it may have had to Blue’s father. Blue does manage to conjure up an explanation that makes sense to her, based on the limited “inside” information that she has, but it is only one possible answer. Readers expecting the mystery to be solved will have to do more pondering on their own and will wonder if the 514-page effort has really been worth it.

For me, it was not.

Rated at: 2.0

The Abundance of a Bookstore (A List)

I always enjoy reading book-related lists but this one from Italo Calvino, quoted in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, is special. Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler describes the “abundance of a bookstore” this way (I put the categories into list format):

1. Books You Haven’t Read

2. The Books You Needn’t Read

3. The Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading

4. Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written

5. The Books That if You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read but Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered

6. The Books You Mean to Read but There Are Others You Must Read First

7. The Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait Till They Are Remaindered

8. The Books Ditto When They Come Out in Paperback

9. Books You Can Borrow from Somebody

10. Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s as if You Had Read Them, Too

That should about cover it.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

Lewis Buzbee’s celebration of the bookstore springs from his observation that 90 percent of people who buy books still leave home to do their shopping in a bookstore. These are the people who know they could more easily buy the book they are searching for by clicking their mouse around Amazon’s website, but they cannot resist the lure of a real bookstore. There is just something special about being surrounded by books and other people who, to one degree or another, feel the same as we about books. As Buzbee says, even if we do not actually speak to other shoppers, they are part of the experience of shopping for books and they can often accidentally lead us to a book we would have otherwise missed.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is a combination memoir and book/bookstore history. Along the way, Buzbee explains the evolution of the book from rare hand-copied pages affordable only to the wealthy upper class to mass produced paperbacks that sometimes sell in the millions of copies. He does the same for the bookseller, a calling that for many feels like a vocation they were destined for from birth. Buzbee’s has been a life centered around his love for books, and the memories he shares of his days working in bookstores and as a publisher’s sales rep are the heart of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

Not surprisingly, Buzbee’s focus is on independent bookstores rather than on the big chains which, along with Amazon, dominate the bookselling business today and he emphasizes just how difficult a business it can be for bookstores, authors and publishers alike. Avid readers often moan about the cost of new books but Buzbee provides the numbers that explain where the money goes: bookstores can receive as much as a 45 percent markdown on the cover price, the publisher gets about 35 percent of the price, the printer about 12 percent, and the author maybe 8 percent. That means that each hardcover sold puts about $2 in the author’s pockets, an amount that he or she probably shares with an agent. Keeping in mind that most books are published in numbers of less than 10,000 copies, it is easy to see that few authors will become millionaires from the proceeds of their books. And though it might appear that the bookstore’s cut is an inappropriately high percentage of the money generated, Buzbee points out that an independent bookstore with gross sales between one and two million dollars will be lucky to net more than $100,000 for the year. Bookselling is not a high margin business for anyone involved.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is filled with stories and thoughts that will intrigue and delight book lovers, those readers who are always drawn to books about books. We are an optimistic lot when it comes to the future of books and bookstores although we do tend to get a little nervous when we read of the closings of so many independent bookstores and the supposed pending death of the publishing industry as we know it today. Buzbee has heard all the “gloom and doom” talk and he closes his book with this reminder: “It is important to remember that the death of literature, of a literary culture, is not an idea that we twenty-first centurions invented. In the nineteenth century, the invention of the bicycle was believed to mark the end of civilization; we would become leisure addicts and reading would surely cease. The same was said of radio in the 1920s and of television in the 1950s. And at later dates, rock-and-roll, premarital sex, and the jet ski would be cited as literary destroyers. Let’s not forget that critics also wailed and gnashed their teeth when parchment replaced papyrus, and when Gutenberg printed his first Bible.”

Buzbee’s writing style is a little dry at times but his little book has a lot to offer to the booklovers amongst us.

Rated at: 4.0

Will Borders Survive 2008?

Things have not gone very well for Borders Group for a while now and with today’s announcement that the corporation is considering putting part, or all, of itself up for sale one has to wonder how much longer the Borders bookstores will be open for business. Will they combine with Barnes & Noble, resulting in fewer locations and fewer choices? Will they sell off only their international operations? Will this turn out to be the bad news for readers that it appears to be?

Business Week talks about today’s developments in an article cleverly titled “Borders’ Big Markdown.”

Struggling bookstore chain Borders (BGP) may put itself up for sale, giving rival Barnes & Noble (BKS) a chance to buy its main bricks-and-mortar competitor.

Borders executives, one year into a plan to turn around the bookseller, revealed on Mar. 20 they were considering selling all or part of the company only after being hit hard by the tough retail environment and the difficult credit markets.

Running out of cash, Borders says it secured expensive financing from Pershing Square Capital Management, a major shareholder. It also suspended its dividend and reported mediocre quarterly earnings on Mar. 20, the same day Barnes & Noble also posted results.

According to the article, Borders is having extreme cash flow problems and I see that its stock is selling today for something under $5 a share. If I were more of a gambler, I would be tempted to buy a few thousand shares at that price. I wonder if Barnes & Noble sees Borders as a marked down bargain right now…or if it is afraid to spend on an acquisition when faced with so much competition and heat from Amazon. I find all of this to be interesting…but more than a little sad.

Bookmark Now

It has become fashionable in the last few months for writers and literary commentators to talk back when anyone brings up the now infamous National Endowment of the Arts study claiming that the death of “literary reading” is imminent. According to the NEA study, readers of all ages are succumbing to the lure of the Internet, video games, high-definition TVs, and ever-newer gadgets in such large numbers that the entire publishing industry is in danger of being snuffed out. Bookmark Now, a 2005 collection of twenty-four essays from young writers compiled by Kevin Smokler, makes a strong case that the NEA study is stridently misleading.

Smokler has divided this optimistic set of essays into four sections, sections that explore different aspects of the writing experience from the early days of a writing career right through to what writers can expect in the future. In the first section, labeled “Beginnings,” five young writers recall how it was that they turned into writers, something that seems almost accidental for some of them. They may have gotten there in different ways but what they all have in common is that they were avid readers long before they tried their own hand at the craft. My favorite essay from this section is Pamela Ribon’s “Look the Part” in which she discusses everything from those sometimes awful author photos that grace the backs of books to how she only became a “real” writer when she lost funding for her online blog.

The second section, “The Writing Life,” includes seven essays discussing the everyday lives of those for whom writing has become the job that puts food on the table. Dan Kennedy discusses a bad case of writer’s block, something he professes not to believe in, that he got between his first and second books in “Welcome, Grab a Broom.” There are pieces on writer collaboration, including one from Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith, a lesbian couple who trust in each other’s judgment to such an extent that sounding out each other has become an integral part of the writing process for both of them. And the section includes one of my favorites, Glen David Gold’s “Your Own Personal Satan” in which he humorously details his addiction to looking up his own name in Google over and over again.

Section three, “The Now,” is of particular interest because it covers many of the challenges that face both new and established writers today. Of all the essays in this section, it is Tom Bissell who comes down hardest on non-readers in his contribution, “Distractions,” in which he says: “Talk to people who do not read for pleasure. Really talk to them. Notice the panic in their eyes as you steer the conservation to anything related to the larger world; note the anger with which they respond to anything that requires them to step outside themselves. Most nonreaders are nothing but an agglomeration of third-hand opinion and blindly received wisdom.” This section also includes the touching Paul Collins essay, another of my favorites, in which he compares reading 121 years worth of the British “Notes and Queries” magazine to “spending a year in another country, one where I spoke the language but did not know the first thing about its culture.”

The three essays, particularly the piece by Douglas Rushkoff, in the book’s fourth section, “The Future,” should help calm the frazzled nerves of writers and publishers alike. Rushkoff points out, for instance, that “…the Internet has been nothing but great for my own writing career, and those of just about every other writer that I know. Even better the Internet serves to disseminate our ideas – which is the real reason anyone worth his or her pulp should be writing in the first place.” He points out the obvious: name recognition sells books and name recognition is a product of having people discuss an author’s ideas and writing. If it takes giving away electronic copies of his work in order to build name recognition, Rushkoff is all for it.

Not all of the essays in Bookmark Now worked for me, but those that did were filled with opinions and facts that make me feel better about the long-term future of books as we know them today. Book lovers will find this one worth their time.

Rated at: 3.5

Arthur C. Clarke Is Dead at 90

I just heard that Arthur C. Clarke has died in Sri Lanka at age 90. Mr. Clarke is said to have developed breathing problems that turned into a full blown “cardio-respiratory attack.”

Arthur C. Clarke was one of the mainstays of my teen reading years, several of which I spent reading science fiction almost exclusively. He was one of the great thinkers in his field and he will be long remembered for his contributions to the genre. For me he will always be one of the “Big Three” sci-fi writers, the guys who set my imagination on fire and had a lot to do with getting me started on a lifetime of reading: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlen, and Arthur C. Clarke.

YouTube states that it has been asked not to enable this video for direct embedding within other websites. But if you would like to hear from Mr. Clarke on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, just click the link and watch it on the YouTube site.

German WWII Pilot Regrets Shooting Down a "Literary Hero"

This is one of those war stories that could probably never happen again now that modern warfare is all about sophisticated weapons fired from long distances and unmanned drones sometimes controlled from half a world away from the action. But in World War II this kind of thing could still happen.

It seems that one WWII German pilot is still filled with remorse about shooting down one of his own favorite authors, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince and several books on the early days of aviation. The story comes from The Globe and Mail:

If only he had known. Now, in the winter of his life, an elderly German war veteran has stepped forward to say he believes he shot down his literary idol – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the beloved children’s tale, The Little Prince.

“If I had known, I wouldn’t have fired – not on him,” said the 88-year-old former Luftwaffe fighter pilot Horst Rippert.

The death of the French pilot, who disappeared while on a solo flight for the Allied forces in 1944, had been one of the great mysteries of aviation and 20th-century literature.

..

Mr. Rippert said he suspected within days that he had shot down the famous writer. But he kept quiet, keeping the secret for more than six decades.

“You can imagine what would have happened to my career if people had known what I had done during the war,” he said.

The disclosure came when Mr. Rippert was tracked down following the recovery of Saint-Exupéry’s plane off the coast of southern France by a Marseilles diver, Luc Vanrell.

Another great irony of the author’s death is that he was piloting an unarmed airplane. There were cameras on board the reconnaissance flight but no guns that could have been used even in self-defense. Even world war can become very personal in the saddest of ways.

Here We Go Again

Will library and school administrators never learn that tossing perfectly good books into dumpsters is just not a good idea? In the 14 months that I’ve been posting book related articles on this site this must be at least the fourth time that this kind of utter stupidity has caught my attention.

This time the stupidity originates in a Queens intermediate school
:

Hundreds of new or slightly used books were tossed into a Dumpster outside of a Queens middle school early Friday, outraging staff members who can’t believe the waste.

Several garbage bags filled with copies of classic literature like “Little Women,” “Sarah, Plain and Tall” and “Treasure Island” were discarded in a Dumpster alongside Intermediate School 73 in Maspeth.

“Those books, you open them up, they still crack, they’re so new,” one staffer said. “Why not give them away or hold a book drive at least?”

The hardcover books, including “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” and “Kidnapped,” appeared new or slightly used, but were nonetheless stuffed into black garbage bags and thrown into the trash.

And these people dare to call themselves “educators.” Waste of books that have been donated to a school through PTA groups or purchased with taxpayer funds is simply disgusting. There’s no nice way to say it and no way to justify the poor judgment of those involved. The only, and I stress only, slack I’m willing to cut these guys is if the books had somehow become contaminated with mold. That does not appear to be the case here.

Shame on those at Intermediate School 73 (Maspeth) who made this disgraceful decision. Even the teachers there are disgusted and speaking out. Here we go again.

(Picture credited to Nicastro for News – please see link to the Daily News (Queens) website for the whole article.)

A Fascinating Concept: But Will It Work?

I suppose this has happened to all of us, especially as children, but even as adults. We find ourselves getting excited about something, either an object we want to acquire, a vacation, or just some event that we so strongly look forward to that we are bound to be disappointed with the reality. I hope I’m not setting myself up for one of those times with the new book that I finally got my hands on today.

It’s a book called Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story and the funny thing is that I had missed the second part of the title before today. As a few of my recent posts indicate, I’ve become intrigued by the lifelong relationship between Nell Harper Lee and Truman Capote, their two masterpieces, and what went on in Kansas when In Cold Blood was being researched. So when I first spotted a book called “Capote in Kansas” I assumed it was a non-fiction book that would add more details to the facts that I had already picked up from Harper’s recent biography and Capote, the film I finally watched a few weeks ago.

When the library finally let me know that my copy was ready to be picked up this weekend I was excited. And now I find that it is a novel that explores the “last days” of both authors as researched and detailed by novelist Kim Powers. This could really be fun…or a terrible bust. I immediately read the first two chapters and I can’t tell yet how I am going to react to the book. The first two chapters didn’t tell me anything about the two that I didn’t already know, but I have to admit that it was eerie to find Capote calling Harper in terror in the middle of the night begging her to help him get rid of Nancy Clutter’s ghost, a ghost that was angry with him for making her into a celebrity.

I do wonder what Nell Harper Lee, a very private person, must think of this book, one of the strangest, but most fascinating, concepts for a novel I’ve run into in a while. I’m reading so many books at the moment, something like 11 or 12 (I’ve lost count) that it may be a while before I finish Capote in Kansas unless it works its way to the top of the stack and refuses to move back down until its finished. If it manages that trick, it will probably end up as one of my favorite books of 2008.

Keeper and Kid

Jimmy Keeper has a good life going for himself. In his mid-thirties, Keeper, veteran of an amiable divorce, has just purchased a little house with his live-in girlfriend Leah and is making ends meet pretty successfully in a no-pressure job helping his best friend run an antiques salvage business. He loves Leah, he loves his job, and he loves the circle of friends he plays poker with every week. But things change.

All it took to change Keeper’s life forever was one phone call telling him that his ex-wife Cynthia wanted to see him from her hospital bed. The call may have been unexpected, but what really blew Keeper’s mind was the news he received a few days later that Cynthia had unexpectedly died in the hospital. But even then his biggest surprise was yet to come: news that Keeper was the father of Cynthia’s three-year old son, product of the one last fling they had before Keeper met Leah, and a little boy he had not known even existed.

What happens when Jimmy Keeper is immediately given full legal custody of his son Leo is both funny and touching. Keeper and Kid is the tale about what a man who can barely take care of himself, a man who in many ways does not seem ready even at his age for adult responsibilities, goes through when he is given sole responsibility for a little guy who both needs and demands his attention twenty-four hours a day. Keeper suddenly realizes that there is no time off for good behavior and that his day now centers on the needs of his son. And he is almost as unhappy about his new situation as Leah was when she took one brief look at Leo and decided to end her relationship with Keeper.

Any man, and I suspect more than a few women, who has suddenly found himself the sole caretaker of a small child will understand why Jimmy Keeper felt so totally helpless within hours of having taken custody of his son, a little boy who will eat only round food, has a great vocabulary, is terrified of cats, loves to stay up late, gets up at the crack of dawn, wets and soils his pants because of the trauma of losing his mother and who hides things to punish people. Keeper is just not ready for Leo.

Edward Hardy has created an interesting mix of characters and it is difficult not to root for Keeper in his quest to get Leah back while learning to cope with the demands of fatherhood. In the process, Keeper learns a lot about himself, his family, his friends and especially his former sister-in-law. Let’s just say that the three-year old is not the only one who starts to grow up in Keeper and Kid. This one is fun.

Rated at: 4.0

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award winning 1962 novel, is credited by many with the creation of the alternate history genre. It may not have been the first alternate history novel published but it does seem to be the one that jump-started the genre. And what an alternate history is tells.

Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in the early years of the Great Depression and America’s contribution to the Allied efforts during World War II were limited by its delayed recovery from those disastrous years. In fact, Germany and Japan have won the war and have pretty much divided the globe between them, with Japan in control of Asia and Germany of Europe and Africa. Even the United States has been divided between the two: Japan has the western part of the country, Germany the eastern part and there is a buffer of “free states” between the two sections. Almost twenty years later, Germany, still determined to finish its extermination of the Jews, has decided to do the same to dark-skinned peoples and has turned Africa into a massive killing ground.

Japan, on the other hand, rules its territories under the rule of law and those living in the San Francisco area, where much of the novel takes place, are the lucky ones. Americans, especially white-skinned ones, are definitely second class citizens in the Pacific States of America, but they do not live in fear the way that residents of the German territory do. However, Germany is the more powerful of the two superpowers and is able to demand the handover of all Jews identified in the PSA.

The Man in the High Castle focuses on ordinary Americans, many of whom were children during the war and who do not remember much of pre-war life, as they try to make their way from day-to-day. Dick cleverly included one character, Hawthorn Abendsen, who has written an alternate history of his own, a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in which Germany and Japan lost the war (an alternate history within an alternate history). The world described in Abendsen’s book is very different from the real world and is an irritant to both the Germans and the Japanese. But, as usual, it is the Germans who want to take things to the extreme by exacting their revenge on the author and German authorities have sent someone to infiltrate Abendsen’s supposed fortress of a hideout.

Dick chose to end The Man in the High Castle in such an abrupt and ambiguous manner that most readers will be left scratching their heads and trying to reconcile 99% of the book’s content to what is disclosed on its last three pages. Readers usually enjoy surprise endings but this is not a very satisfying one and they are likely to find it more annoying than surprising, something that will ruin their overall perception of the novel. I found the core of Dick’s plot to be well crafted and enjoyable but the book’s ending is the reason I cannot rate it higher than I have.

Rated at: 3.0

My Hero

I don’t know if this man is married. If he is, he has the most understanding wife in the world. I am fascinated by the sheer size of his book collection (35,000 volumes) and the way that he keeps it all organized and relatively neatly housed. One thing I recognize when I see it is a kindred spirit. I think all of us have more in common with this fellow than we might want to admit.

http://media.barnesandnoble.com/linking/index.jsp?skin=oneclip&fr_story=ff8f05bdcd1e22403ed5b9f07f4cc4cb6795e695&rf=ev&hl=true

The video is posted over at the Barnes & Noble website, a site that has seen some major changes in recent weeks and has become one of my favorite stops on the web. The site has several other videos you might enjoy, including one with author Anne Rice that I liked.

(I spotted the video when Stefanie posted a link to it over on her great site, So Many Books, and it made my night…now it’s time to get in a little reading before lights out.

Will Less Prove to Be More for Borders Bookstores?

Today’s Wall Street Journal (in the “MARKETPLACE” section) has an interesting article (link is to article introduction) from Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg that highlights the changes that Borders Group will be making soon to its bookstores and why it is all happening. At first glance, it all sounds more than a bit risky but this is a company that really doesn’t have much to lose at this point. Just take a look at the 52-Week Share Performance numbers noted in the article:

Barnes & Noble – down 27%

Books-A-Million – down 28%

Borders – down 58%

My initial opinion of the new Borders strategy was negative but, as I read more of the article, it started to make sense. Borders Group might as well try it because it might even work.

The big change is that Borders bookstores will soon be displaying three times more titles face-forward than they do now. The new displays will mostly impact sections like cookbooks, photography books, travel books, art books and, to a lesser degree, the fiction section. Interestingly, Borders plans to use the new display strategy on classics as well as new fiction. The tricky part of this strategy is that it will require the average Borders store to reduce the number of books that it carries by between 4700 and 9400 titles. Will shoppers notice the smaller number of choices? Not necessarily, because where this change has already become the new norm, customers seem to get the impression that the store is carrying more titles, not fewer. And, as the Borders spokesman remarked, every major bookstore has hundreds of books of which it sells only one copy per year, making the inventory reduction a relatively painless process.

It might just work. Personally, I’ve wandered around bookstores for an hour or so without anything new catching my eye and have left wondering if I had missed something that I would soon read about on one of the dozens of book blogs I visit every week. It often happens just that way, so having more titles directly facing me might actually impact my buying choices (and numbers). But will Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million use the new Borders strategy in ads of their own emphasizing how many more titles they carry than Borders? If so, will they gain business from the most rabid book readers who are impressed with that kind of choice? Or could it be that all of the big box stores will gain from this change and that more books will be sold in total than before? In a perfect world, that would be the case but it is more likely that they chains will continue to steal sales from each other with total sales remaining largely flat.

I have to applaud Borders management for having the courage to try something new…although Wal-Mart already does this with pretty much its whole inventory of books, tiny selection that it is. This is the kind of business decision that has a lot of upside and very little downside. Best of luck to you, Borders Group.