Last Night at the Lobster

Anyone ever having had a job suddenly yanked from under him by a questionable corporate decision will understand what Manny DeLeon is going through. Manny is one fine employee, a company man through and through who takes great pride in what he does for a living despite the low pay, the long hours, and the constant pressure from the home office to do more with less. Last Night at the Lobster may be Manny’s particular story but there are thousands and thousands of “Mannys” out there and Stewart O’Nan’s novel is a tribute to all of them.

Here it is, just five days before Christmas, and Manny is hoping for the perfect last day to close down the Red Lobster restaurant he’s managed for so long. He wants to go out with a bang: with a high customer count for the day, a heartfelt farewell to all his regulars and his crew, and a feeling of accomplishment despite the message of “failure” that the bean counters have tossed his way.

What he gets instead is a typical New England blizzard that requires him to crank up the old snow blower and hit the parking lot in an attempt to clear spaces for customers who are probably too smart to venture out into the storm for a meal anyway. But Manny, ever the optimist, never stops “managing” his restaurant and the skeleton crew that shows up more out of personal loyalty to him than from any sense of obligation to the company on this last day.

This slim novel at times reads like a Red Lobster manual on how to close down one of its stores at the end of the day as Manny continues to follow company procedures and policies right up to the second he turns the lock on the door and heads to his car (whose windshield, he already knows, has been smashed by a disgruntled employee). But along the way, we meet, and get to know, the crew that showed up to man the restaurant during its last hours, some of whom Manny was surprised to see show up at all. Among them are Eddie, the handicapped dishwasher; Ty, the chief cook; Roz, an old-timer with the company who is actually vested in the company’s pension plan; and Jacquie, another waitress and former girlfriend of Manny’s.

Last Night at the Lobster is about one man trying to make it through a painful day with his honor and self-respect in tact and O’Nan offers little in the way of drama other than Manny’s wishful thinking about his relationship with Jacquie, a yearning he still feels despite the fact that his new girlfriend is pregnant and Jacquie herself has moved on to a new relationship. Manny does manage to handle a few obliviously unreasonable customers, but one gets the feeling that they are just part of any day for him, something he can now do well with his eyes closed.

There are too few novels written about work, and almost none of them are about work in the service industry. O’Nan’s novel may be short, at only 146 pages, but he has packed enough into it that I doubt that anyone who reads it will ever be able to eat out again without a heightened awareness of those who make their meal possible.

Rated at: 3.5

British Librarians Are Getting Lonely

Is the library experience in the U.K. different from that in America and Canada? According to this Guardian Unlimited book blog, libraries in the U.K. are hurting due largely to non-participation by the general public and the disappearance of library materials that are checked out and never seen again.

Partly one can blame the outdated stereotype of bespectacled dragons demanding absolute silence for putting people off. More recently, the image of the library as the warm retreat of the homeless hasn’t helped either.

However nimbly they have adapted, modernised, lost books and gained technology, become determinedly “functional” as invaluable resource centres rather than bookstores, the libraries are always needing to boost their profile. They need more borrowers and yet, one of their biggest problems, in my experience, is that “borrowing” is not a readily understood modern concept, however well-embedded it was in Carnegie’s day.

I’m just not buying the fact that the concept of “borrowing” is no longer understood by people in the U.K. I lived in London for a few years, until the summer of 1999, and I didn’t see that as a problem during my regular visits to the Richmond library. What struck me was how empty the library always seemed, no matter what day or hour I dropped by. In comparison to the regular crowds I’ve seen in several Houston libraries since coming home, the Richmond one may as well have shut down and no one would have noticed other than the regulars who came in to play or work on the computers provided for their use.

Even having seen that, I’m surprised that things are so bad for British libraries and I wonder what the real cause is. Americans often joke about our tendency to believe the stereotype about Brits being so much more “cultured” than the “boobs” in this country. Come on, my British friends, you are going to ruin your image if you don’t start using your library cards again.

A Guitar and a Pen:Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters

As a decades-long fan of country music, I can vouch for Vince Gill when he says in his foreword to A Guitar and a Pen, “…some of the greatest songwriters around are also some of the best storytellers.” Heck, whole movies can be, and have been, made from a three-minute country song without requiring much of a rewrite. Now, finally, with A Guitar and a Pen, arrives a collection of short stories from a group of songwriters responsible for some of the biggest hits and, much more importantly, some of the best songs, to come out of Nashville in the history of country music.

The collection includes stories from Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Braddock, Hal Ketchum, Janis Ian, Mark D. Sanders, Robbie Fulks, Marshall Chapman and Charlie Daniels, among others.

The twenty-five stories encompass a wide range of themes and writing styles. Among them are exaggerated tales of humor; stories of good love gone bad; some about growing up poor, or just growing up; one about the old West; some offering insights into the life of a songwriter; a few about early influences of musicians; even one about terrorism. I won’t claim that all of the stories worked for me, but this collection did have one of the better “hit” to “miss” ratios of any short story collection I’ve read in a while.

Among my favorites is Bob McDill’s “The Care and Treatment of Camp Cooks,” a story about a hunting club’s temperamental, but extremely talented, camp cook who goes on strike after one of the club members mistakenly offers an honest opinion on that evening’s meal when pressed to do so by the cook. Lesson learned by all but the cook. Another is “The Elk Hunters,” Tim Johnson’s story about a Nashville songwriter’s annual return to Oregon to bow-hunt elk with his brother and father and the shocking truths he learns about his father on one of the hunts.

There are also stories like the unforgettable “Gathering Together” by Robert Hicks, the story of Aunt Willie and her unique contribution to one family’s Thanksgiving meal and Monty Powell’s “The Point,” a touching account of how a man’s retirement dreams are ruined when he returns to the scene of his best childhood memories.

But the stories I found most interesting were the ones directly related to the country music business. The collection leads off with Robbie Fulks’ frank look at what life is like for those who do music “on a lower-than-celebrity level” as part of the presentation his story narrator makes at a local high school “Career Day” event, and it ends with “Will It Ever Happen Again,” a Michael Kosser story about a one-time hugely successful songwriter who hasn’t had a hit song in ten years and who might be forced to finally give up his dream. These are perfect bookend stories for a very fine short story collection.

Rated at: 4.0

Ups and Downs- or Not?

I spent a few minutes at Barnes & Noble with my 86-year-old father this weekend (he can only stand comfortably for a few minutes at a time before his knees start causing him real problems) browsing the “Literature” shelves to see if I might have missed something from any of my past favorite writers, some of whom I’ve been reading for decades.

I was forced to walk the aisles at a lot quicker pace than I like and, as the names flashed by, I started to wonder something about the ones that caught my eye: in what direction is their work trending? That is, does their later work stack up to what came before?

Here are a few of the names that jumped out at me, along with my gut feelings about the current state of their work (or at least my own reaction to that work):

Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith/Lauren Kelly – As good, if not better, than ever

John Irving – In decline and actually beginning to lose me as a fan

James Lee Burke – see Joyce Carol Oates, above

Robert B. Parker – In terminal decline – I’ve stopped keeping up with him at all

Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine – Current work strikes me as better than her earliest work but not as good as her best of her middle period work

Harry Turtledove – seems to write the same two books over and over again

Pat Conroy – has written true classics and is capable of writing another any time out

Anne Tyler – not quite achieving what she did in her earlier books but still one of the best out there

Elmer Kelton – later work is some of his best and includes a classic western or two

Larry McMurtry – his middle years produced his best work but he’s still worth a look with every new book

Stephen King – Horror bores me now but I don’t know if that’s King fault or if I finally just grew up

Elizabeth George – Getting better and better

Tom Wolfe – Last couple of books make me wonder if he was ever as good as I first believed

Jane Smiley – Early work, I loved; later work and her wacko political stance has turned me completely off her writing

Dennis Lehane – later work is excellent but I still miss his Kenzie/Gennaro series

Those are the names that jumped off the shelf at me as I sprinted through the store well aware that my time was limited. I didn’t buy a thing because the pace of the visit through me off, and I started to wonder on the way home if the writers have actually changed (declined, as often as not) or if I’m the one who has changed. Maybe my tastes are so different today from what they were years ago that I overrated authors at one point and can see them more clearly now for what they really are…or vice versa. Who knows?

Resistance

Really good alternate history does more than simply speculate about one or two of the limitless “what if” possibilities offered by the past. In the best writing of this type those “what ifs” are just starting points for stories that go well beyond the big picture to consider what the historical changes would mean to ordinary people caught up in their wake. Resistance, Owen Sheens’ debut novel, does exactly that, and does it remarkably well.

What if the allied invasion of France had been repelled by a German army fully prepared to meet the invaders on the beaches of Normandy? What if that failed invasion resulted in such a devastating defeat for the Allies that Germany was almost immediately able to land her soldiers on England’s southern coast and begin a march to London?

The women of the isolated Olchon Valley of Wales did not even have time to wonder “what if” before they woke up one morning to find that every one of their husbands and sons had vanished, leaving behind nothing to indicate where they had gone or when they might return. But Maggie, oldest of the women, knew in her heart that the men would be gone for a long time when she saw that her husband William had left their cows un-milked, something he had never done in all their years together. She was able to convince the rest of the women that their husbands had joined the resistance, something they hardly dare speak of even among themselves, and that it is their duty to work the farms on their own while their men were away.

And that is exactly what they try to do until a small German patrol suddenly appears in the valley on a mission of its own. Despite the women’s efforts to disguise the absence of the valley’s men, Captain Albrecht Wolfram quickly reaches the correct conclusion that the women are alone and that their husbands are involved in fighting the German invasion. Albrecht knows that he should report the situation to his superiors but he realizes that, if he does so, everyone in the valley will be killed as an example of what will happen to the families of others who join the underground resistance. Albrecht has already seen the worst that war has to offer and he does not have the stomach to cause the deaths of these innocent women. He, in fact, realizes that his patrol has dropped through the cracks of the German command and decides to keep his men safely in the valley long after their initial mission has been completed.

When harsh winter weather sets in, making it impossible for the soldiers to leave the valley even if they want to, both the women and the soldiers come to realize that they must depend on each other for survival. The women grudgingly reach the conclusion that their resistance is no longer possible. Out of necessity the two groups learn to accommodate each other and over the long winter months personal relationships change to the point that both sides almost forget that they are at war with each other. What they have in common is more important than their differences.

But seasons change, and winter is always followed by spring. Warmer weather opens the valley to the outside world again and the realities of life under a ruthless occupying force. Are the women in more danger from German reprisal or from their neighbors who see them as collaborators? Should they have done more to resist the valley’s invaders? What will their husbands think of them? Those are just some of the questions that readers will ponder long after they turn the last page of Resistance.

This one is not to be missed.

Rated at: 5.0

Mary Badham and Harper Lee


I find it a bit sad, but not surprising considering Harper Lee’s love of privacy, that Mary Badham who played Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” has not spoken with Miss Lee since about the time the movie was released. What is surprising is that the book and movie still have a huge impact on her life as this short article from The Birmingham News describes:

Now 55 and living in rural Virginia, Badham has long since lost touch with Lee, who has staunchly and successfully maintained her privacy since “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out.

“I figure she knows how to get in touch with me if she wants to call me,” Badham says. “But I don’t want to bother her.

“I’d love to talk to her, just to say thank you for my life and that I hope I’m doing a good job with what has become my life, working with this book and the film.”

Although Badham gave up acting when she was 13, she still goes all over the country and around the world talking to schoolchildren and literacy groups about both the book and the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For what it’s worth, Wikipedia says that, “At present Badham is an art restorer and a college testing coordinator. Married to a school teacher, and the mother of two…”

The Murder Room

The Murder Room, P.D. James’ twelfth of thirteen mysteries featuring Scotland Yard’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh, is a satisfying addition to that character-driven series. For me, the main attraction to a P.D. James mystery has always been the way her excellent understanding of human psychology allows her to populate each of her novels with so many believable characters. That talent usually complicates her mysteries and keeps readers turning pages all the way to the end and, despite the fact that I listened to this one instead of reading it, The Murder Room was no exception.

In London, a city filled with world-class museums, a tiny museum like the Dupayne can easily slip through the crack and, in fact, this one has. Devoted exclusively to the “interwar years” of England, the lull between world wars with which she was blessed from 1919 to 1939, the Dupayne specializes in rare first editions and artwork of the period. But over time its main attraction has come to be a room everyone calls the “Murder Room,” a space devoted exclusively to the sensational murders of those particular days. The room is filled with exhibits detailing the murders, including pictures of victims and murderers alike, and the few visitors who find their way to the Dupayne seem to spend most of their time there.

But these are tough times for the Dupayne and the three Dupayne siblings to whom it belongs. It is time for them to decide whether or not to keep the museum open, a decision requiring the unanimous consent of the two brothers and their sister, and one that is starting to seem more and more unlikely to be reached because Dr. Neville Dupayne hates the very thought of the museum’s existence and cannot wait to see it closed forever.

When Neville Dupayne is found murdered in a manner similar to one of the more spectacular murders featured in the museum’s “Murder Room,” Dalgliesh and his team are assigned to investigate. They learn soon enough of the animosity between Neville and his brother and sister, who seem desperate to keep the museum open, but those are only two of several people they interview who might have wanted to see Neville Dupayne dead. By refusing to continue the Dupayne Museum, Neville Dupayne was in the process of throwing people out of jobs, and even out of living quarters, so it was obvious that this cold natured man had enough enemies to complicate any investigation into his death.

And things do get complicated when a second murder, which appears to be another copycat murder based on information found in the “Murder Room,” is discovered at the museum. The Murder Room is likely keep most readers guessing right up to the point the murderer is revealed – and beyond, because of the romance with which James closes this chapter of Dalgliesh’s story.

The audio version of The Murder Room is read by Charles Keating who is a master of British accents. His use of multiple accents and voice inflections makes the characters easy to distinguish from one another and was, I think, particularly effective in creating one of my favorite P.D. James characters of all-time, Tally, the lonely caretaker who lives in a small cottage behind the museum. Readers who have the time, and who enjoy audio books, would do themselves a favor to listen to this one rather than reading it. This was fun.

Rated at: 4.0

Mark Twain as Seen by Thomas Edison

I may be the last book nut on earth to finally see Thomas Edison’s short film clip featuring Mark Twain and his daughters but…if not, here it is for the other straggler or two.

Mark Twain – 1909- at Stormfield (Redding, Connecticut)

Stormfield burned down in 1923. It had remained empty for several years after Twain’s death but at the time of the fire it served as the summer home of the Margaret Givens family of New York.

Oh, Never Mind…

It looks like the L.A. Public Library has quickly backed off its proposal to charge patrons a buck a book for transfers between branches. The library apparently caught quite a bit of heat from people who strongly opposed the idea and the mayor blinked.

Turns out our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, isn’t on board, David Zahniser reports.

“I didn’t make that proposal. The library commission did,” the mayor told reporters on Monday morning. “They didn’t confer with my office when they did that. It may be that now that they see the proposals I have made, they may reconsider that.”

Just hours later came the news that the head of the library, who got 800 e-mails from truly peeved book lovers, wants the Library Commission to drop the buck-a-book proposal. Which makes it almost a done deal.

That didn’t take long. This is a good example of how the internet has changed things for politicians, both local and national ones. It’s really hard to slip something through anymore without the whole country/world becoming aware of it…no more secrets.

One for Sorrow

Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow is one of the more unusual coming-of-age novels I have ever encountered. Although it has been compared with the likes of Catcher in the Rye and The Lovely Bones, it has far more differences than it has things in common with them, sharing only a portion of the broadest themes of those two novels. This very sad YA novel, especially its ambiguously hopeful ending, is likely to strike a chord with its readers who may be struggling through many of the same emotions and problems faced by fifteen-year-old Adam McCormick – minus the ghosts.

Adam is not the most popular guy in his high school. He does run on the school’s track team but is otherwise pretty much a loner. He is close to his grandmother, who lives with the family, but his parents spend much of their time either ignoring or yelling at each and his older pothead of a brother enjoys ridiculing him at every opportunity. That’s bad enough, but then things take a turn for the worse.

First his superstitious old grandmother dies in her sleep after her count of the number of crows around the house convinces her that bad things are in store for the family. Next his mother is permanently injured in a head-on collision. Believing that bad things happen in “threes,” Adam thinks the cycle has run its course when the body of a classmate of his is found in a shallow grave. Little did he know that his real troubles were only beginning.

Jamie Marks, the computer geek who was murdered, had been even more of a loner than Adam but he is not ready to “cross over” and before long his ghost begins to appear to the girl who had accidentally discovered his grave. After Adam became intimately familiar with the former grave site himself, Jamie’s ghost becomes his regular companion, encouraging Adam run away from home and even introducing him to another permanently-teenaged ghost that has been hanging around her old home place for several decades.

Has Adam been befriended by a ghost or is the ghost selfishly using him for purposes of its own? The two grow very close, and there are even hints of a budding homosexual relationship between them, but before long Adam loses his will to live, almost completely stops eating and drinking, and is perfectly willing to allow death to bring him fully into Jamie’s world. As Jamie struggles to remain in the world he knew, Adam seems to be steadily slipping from that very world as the vampire-like Jamie, either accidentally or purposely, steals more and more of his life essence.

This gloomy book is filled with a long list of irritating and unsympathetic characters, especially the adults, but even all but one of the young people closest to Adam let him down or go out of their way to make his life miserable: his girlfriend, his brother and Jamie’s ghost. This sets the tone for an ending that might leave some readers disappointed but, though it might not be the ending expected by most, realistically, is probably the best that Adam could have hoped for and it fits well with the rest of his story.

One for Sorrow did not leave me feeling particularly optimistic about life in small town America and, in fact, left me a bit down about the whole experience. But young adult readers might take a different message from Adam’s ability to survive everything thrown at him in one dangerously tough year. I hope they do.

Rated at: 3.0

Life Class

Life Class, Pat Barker’s first novel since 2004, begins on the eve of England’s entry into World War I, a time period Barker knows well and one she covered admirably in her prize winning WWI trilogy published between 1990 and 1995 (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road). Naturally, mainstream critics have compared Life Class to the earlier books but they have unfortunately come to the conclusion that it is inferior to that trio. Though that might be the case, readers should not be put off by that opinion because Life Class still has much to offer.

Barker’s story begins at the Slade School, a prestigious London art school being attended by Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, aspiring artists hoping to eventually make their mark in the London art world. Tarrant, who can barely afford to keep himself at the school, has come to the realization that he may be in over his head and is close to quitting the school. Elinor Brooke, on the other hand, is doing quite well in her classes and is determined to reach her goal of becoming a successful artist. Tarrant is attracted to Elinor but finds that he cannot really compete for her affections with Kit Neville, an accomplished young artist who has already established a minor reputation in the city.

Barker explores the rather insulated little world of the Slade School whose students think about little other than art, and she exposes the highly competitive nature of most of its students, a competitiveness they bring even to their personal relationships. Paul Tarrant finds himself immensely attracted to Teresa Halliday, an artist’s model introduced to him by Elinor, and begins a shaky affair with her despite the ever present threat that her estranged husband may be spying on the couple. Kit Neville, in the meantime, is trying to bully Elinor into marrying him, something she bluntly tells him she has no intention of ever doing.

But even those attending the Slade School and living in the world they have created for themselves cannot ignore what is happening in the real world. World War I is upon them and every able-bodied man and, to a certain degree, every woman is expected to play a positive role in that struggle. Before long, the Slade School, emptied of its male students and many of its female ones, is just a shadow of what it was before the war. And that is when the real Life Class begins for Paul, Kit and Elinor as everything they stand for and know is challenged by the realities of the brutal warfare that would go on to claim the lives of millions.

Paul and Kit find themselves working under primitive conditions in Belgium military hospitals and, for a time, serving as ambulance drivers during the worst of the fighting there. Each is tested, and each responds in his own way. Paul feels the suffering of those he treats and carries to safety so deeply that he finds himself able to paint at a level he could only dream about before having seen combat and even being wounded himself. He matures emotionally to such an extent that he is changed forever. Kit, on the other hand, goes to Belgium with the primary purpose of painting what he sees, manages to avoid most personal danger, and comes back as much the personal fraud as he was before leaving London. Elinor, despite spending a week in Belgium with Paul and witnessing a bombing attack on the town, refuses to much think about the war, insisting instead that her “work” is as important as anything else going on in the world. She focuses on her art while the rest of her life suffers.

Interestingly, it is only Paul, the least successful of the three before the war, who passes the ultimate Life Class.

It remains to be seen whether or not Life Class is book one of a new trilogy but its main characters are interesting enough for at least one follow-up book and its ending is ambiguous enough regarding the relationship between Paul and Elinor that readers would welcome a second look at these characters.

Rated at: 3.5

L. A. Library System Wants to Charge Patrons a Buck a Book

The Los Angeles Public Library system wants to start charging one dollar per book for transfers between libraries within the system. The library has recently had its annual budget cut because the city is running a huge deficit and it is looking for ways to raise money on its own. Good or bad idea? According to this Daily News article those against the change are becoming pretty vocal.

…the proposed $1 fee has riled library users, who have watched book collections dwindle in their branches and have come to rely on the interbranch transfer system that allows users to search the book catalog, reserve a book and have it delivered to their local library in a few days.

“When I heard about the $1 fee, I just flipped,” said Kim Cooper, who started Save the L.A. Public Library with her husband, Richard Schave, to urge Villaraigosa to reject the reserve fee.


The library system has already had to slash its book-buying budget from $11.4million to $8.8million over the past year.

After the department was ordered to cut its budget by 5 percent earlier this year, the library also had to stop buying books from February through June.


Last year, users requested 1.5 million book holds. Persic said the library doesn’t know how much the $1 reserve fee would generate because people would likely cut back on the number of books they reserve.

While I can sympathize with the library’s problem, this plan seems to be a sure way to discourage reading. Does it make any sense to put yourself out of business for failing in your primary mission by, in a sense, pricing yourself right out of the market? I’ve seen children walk out of a library with two dozen short books that will last them a week or two. D0es anyone really believe that parents of small children will spend $25-$50 per month to support the reading habits of their younger children?

Personally, if my county system were to implement a similar plan, my reading habits would change. I would be less likely to take a chance on books recommended by others and would end up making fewer trips to my local branch because of the very small chance that I will ever actually find on the shelves the exact book, or books, I’m wanting to read next. Via the internet I am able to line up for exactly the books I want. They don’t always arrive at my branch in a timely manner but I know that I’ll eventually get them.

But I probably request over 100 books a year from the library…at a buck a book that starts to get expensive. I expect my county to use a portion of the exorbitant county tax bill I pay every year to keep my library functioning. So far, so good.

Double or Nothing: How Two Friends Risked It All to Buy One of Las Vegas’ Legendary Casinos

Double or Nothing is Tom Breitling’s side of an incredible story of how he and longtime friend, Tim Poster, created an internet travel business from scratch and sold it in just a few years for a $100 million profit. Even more incredibly, they used much of that money to help finance their purchase of the Golden Nugget casino and made another $100 million only one year later when they, in turn, sold that business to a Texas restaurant king who badly wanted into the gambling business.

Breitling’s account is one in which he describes himself as the conservative one in his friendship and business partnership with Tim Poster, an old school friend of his who carried an image as an extreme risk taker even in high school. Ever the gambler, it was Poster who invited Breitling to join him in the fledgling travel business that ultimately financed the pair’s entry into the Las Vegas casino scene as young owners of the legendary Golden Nugget casino. Breitling’s role in both businesses was usually to be the one to “put on the brakes” in order to slow down some of Poster’s more rash and overambitious ideas. The partners were well-matched, and the combination of their individual personalities and deep respect for each other created a highly successful business team.

Breitling tells his story in a conversational style that makes for easy reading but he focuses so much on his relationship with Tim Poster, and how much they have meant to each other over the years, that the more interesting aspects of the story are disregarded. Readers expecting to find behind-the-scenes details on the operations of a major Las Vegas gambling casino will be disappointed to find little of that in the book. There is considerable detail on the sale of the casino, including bits of gossip about the new owner and his family, but not much is revealed about the nature of the gambling industry itself.

One of the book’s most interesting characters is the unnamed “Mr. Royalty,” a big time gambler who went on a roll lasting almost a year and who caused Breitling and Poser great anxiety as they watched him take their new casino for some $8 million, finally forcing them to lower their betting limits in self-protection. Readers like me who realize that the gambling industry is based on one gigantic scam perpetrated on a gullible public will likely find themselves rooting for Mr. Royalty in what becomes his very personal competition with the Golden Nugget owners. The book begins and ends with a description of that epic battle.

Double or Nothing is an interesting book, especially if read as a business book, but the story is not as impressive as I imagined it would be. Breitling and Poser are brash risk takers but the book exposes enough of their childishness to leave the impression that they are also two of the luckiest businessmen on the planet.

Rated at: 2.5

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Americans of the present day, who are generally appalled when battlefield deaths reach even double-digit proportions, have almost no real comprehension of the tremendous loss of life suffered during the American Civil War. Because it all happened almost 150 years ago, it is easy for most to simply gloss over even a number as large as the 620,000 total deaths usually attributed to that war. That kind of number just does not have an impact on most of us because we find it difficult to put it into its proper perspective. Readers of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will never make that mistake again.

Those who lived through the bloody days of 1861-1865 were almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of their losses. In addition to the estimated 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives during that four-year span, approximately 50,000 civilians died as well. All told, the United States lost about 2 percent of its population in less than half a decade of civil war, the equivalent of a 6,000,000 person loss if today’s population were to suffer a similar rate of attrition. There was hardly a family in the country not impacted by the horrors of this war so it is little wonder that the country struggled to understand what was happening to it.

Faust details what it was like for small towns near the fighting when the townspeople could suddenly find the dead bodies scattered on adjacent fields to outnumber the townspeople themselves. She explains what it was like for the several hundred thousand families whose fathers and sons became part of the vast number of “unknowns” buried in unmarked or mass graves, lost to them forever. Equally importantly, Faust places human faces on those who struggled not only to cope personally with so much death but to create the very procedures modern Americans expect their government to use today in order to fully account for every soldier who has paid the ultimate price in service to this country. One cannot read this book without coming away with a new respect for the Civil War generation.

The best coping mechanism available to nineteenth century Americans was the concept of the Good Death. Parents and spouses were greatly comforted if able to determine that their loved ones had died a Good Death, one in which they were able to express an awareness and acceptance of their fate, a belief in God, and some message for those who were unable to be at their side when they died. Soldiers and hospital workers did their best to inform families back home that this was the case for those lost in the war but almost 50 percent of those who died were never identified, leaving families wondering for years.

Faust points out an interesting side effect of the widespread acceptance of the Good Death concept. In her estimation, although the religious concept of a Good Death offered comfort to mourners and helped prepare soldiers for the likelihood of their own deaths, the concept was also one of the things that “enabled the slaughter” in the first place. Soldiers, confident in their individual mortality, were more willing to face death both as a fulfillment of their duty and as a potential relief from the tortures they were enduring on a daily basis.

In the years following the war, the United States government, in response to the feelings of its citizens, formalized many of the procedures to handle soldiers lost at war that are still in place today. A system of national cemeteries was established and the government spent slightly over $4 million by 1871 to locate and rebury every Union soldier who had been lost in the South. Formal procedures were established in the military to account for every soldier lost on the field of battle and to notify next-of-kin in a timely manner. Military pensions and disability payments became the accepted way for the government to reward soldiers for their service. That none of this was in place before the Civil War illustrates just how unprepared the country was for a war of the magnitude of the one it faced in April 1861.

Of course, the new procedures were solely for the benefit of Union soldiers. Confederate bones were often left in the field to rot even after the bodies of Union soldiers had been recovered, ensuring that southerners would have to bury and honor their own dead through the use of private funds (most often raised by southern women), ensuring the animosity of the South for decades after the war. The contempt shown by the Federal government for the soldiers of the South reinforced the hostility still present there and contributed to the sectionalism problems that persisted into the twentieth century.

This Republic of Suffering is more than a book for historians and Civil War buffs. This is a book with lessons for a country that even today finds itself in another long and challenging war.

Rated at: 5.0

Bookstore Clerk Observations (From The Secret of Lost Things)

Over the last few years I’ve taken to marking passages from most of the books I read, even novels, so that I can more easily find the quotes again when I go back looking for them. I didn’t use any quotes in my comments of a couple of days ago on The Secret of Lost Things but a few things did seem “mark-worthy,” in particular some of the characters’ observations about the shop’s customers:

“I think what you mean is that book collecting is only meaningful if it’s personal,” Oscar clarified. If it’s just another way of accumulating wealth, instead of for the books themselves, it isn’t right. Collectors are trying to protect themselves. To separate themselves. It’s a hierarchy. That’s my complaint with Gosford. In a way I’d rather Redburn steal the books – at least I know they mean something to him. He takes a risk to get what he wants.”

I can really identify with this one because I hate the idea of anyone collecting books simply for competitive purposes or as investments. I would certainly have a great book collection if I were a multi-millionaire but I’m proud to have the simple collection I’ve put together over the years because each and every one of the books on my study shelves means something personal to me.

“Our business is to find homes for books with the hope they will be loved as we have loved them. My heart is broken every day I make a sale; then renewed again by the arrival of an unexpected replacement. I keep learning to love again…After nearly fifty years my relationship to books remains mysterious to me, but I know from my own collection that ownership is the most intimate tie we can have to objects.”

Now, I realize that this is a romantic version of bookstores and their owners, but don’t we all want to believe that this is the way it really is…or the way we would feel if we finally got to live out our fantasies of owning our own indie bookstores?

Exclusively male, these compulsive book buyers and collectors were neurotically convinced that a day missed was a volume possibly lost, or at least in someone else’s hands. What were their lives made of, apart from books? The Arcade was their first destination, a quick stop to check on fresh inventory piled at the base of Pike’s platform; an obligatory daily search for hidden treasure. Acquisitiveness drove them, and envy – the ingredients, I suppose, of any passion.

I’ve seen some really aggressive collectors on occasion, but I also see a little of myself in this description, too, so I’ll stop at that.

Oscar appeared outraged on Melville’s behalf, but of course he sold used books every day whose authors never saw a penny of what Pike pocketed. Even the new review copies that Walter Geist sold from the basement left an author out of any profits, because they had been sent, to garner publicity, to journalists and reviewers who hadn’t paid for them, but sold them nonetheless to the Arcade, collecting a quarter of retail price.

We all want to see our favorite writers do well financially so that they can afford the time to keep doing what they do so well, and this quote does kind of make a person think. I love used book bookstores as much as the next guy and I’m always willing to buy an ARC when I spot one by one of the authors I read but I do sometimes wonder what writers themselves think about the lost royalties…not all that much, I suspect (and hope).

At the least, these quotes will give you a bit of the flavor of The Secret of Lost Things. And maybe they will give you something to think about…

Anne Perry / Juliet Hulme

I’ve wondered for a long time if it’s just me or if others feel the same way about reading murder mysteries by Anne Perry. Does it bother you to contribute to the income of an author who makes her living as a murder mystery writer when she herself served five years in prison after being found guilty for her part in the brutal battering-to-death murder of her best friend’s mother?

I realize that Perry, known then as Juliet Hulme, was only fifteen years old in 1954 when she helped her friend murder her mother, a crime requiring some 45 blows with a brick to the head, blows struck by both girls. But that’s hardly a child who doesn’t know right from wrong. Am I an exception to the rule because I get a queasy feeling every time I see an Anne Perry book on the shelves of my local bookstores? I have to wonder how in the world she ever had the audacity to choose this line of work for herself, in fact.

There’s no arguing with the fact that she’s loaded with talent and has been a very successful writer over the years, but she’s not for me. Am I wrong for feeling this way and not being more forgiving of something that happened in her youth?

The Secret of Lost Things

Sheridan Hay’s debut novel weighs in at over 350 pages and gives her ample opportunity to explore several different genres. She has written a combination coming-of-age novel, literary mystery, and sexual awakening novel (which I classify here as a subgenre of the more general coming-of-age novel). It is an ambitious first novel, to say the least, one in which Hay displays keen writing skills and, at times, striking observations about the human condition. That said, the novel does suffer a bit from her use of stereotypical characters (in particular, the transsexual character and the albino character) and a failure to keep the reader entirely engaged in the literary mystery at the heart of her story. Still, The Secret of Lost Things will definitely appeal to avid readers and book lovers, especially those who enjoy novels set in a bookstore environment.

Rosemary Savage’s life in remote Tasmania did little to prepare her for life in New York City but that is exactly where she found herself not too many weeks after her mother died. Rosemary, who never met her father, had practically been raised in the small hat shop from which her mother eked out a living for the two of them. When her mother’s closest friend, a bookshop owner who felt that Rosemary needed a fresh start and some adventure in her life, gifted her with a ticket to New York, Rosemary left Tasmania for good and almost by accident found herself working at the Arcade, a huge bookstore that specialized in used and rare books and just happened to be near her first home in the city.

Rosemary’s previous life left her unprepared for the eccentric crew populating the Arcade, among them, Pearl, a transsexual preparing for the operation that will physically transform her into the woman she knows herself to be; Oscar, the good-looking, but emotionally-stunted, clerk with whom Rosemary falls in love; Mr. Pike, the strange owner of the store who stands on his little platform in the center of the store all day pricing used volumes for the shelves and his rare book room; Lillian, a refugee from Argentina whose only son has become one of that country’s “disappeared”; and Mr. Geist, an albino who is going blind and who searches for a way to win Rosemary for himself. That kind of crew was certain to provide Rosemary with an education, one in which she learned as much about life as she did the book business.

In addition to what she learned from her co-workers, Rosemary found herself fascinated by the book collectors who visited the shop on an almost daily basis and, as she watched them in action, she realized how much they, too, were teaching her about the good and the bad of human nature. But everything suddenly changed when Mr. Geist received a letter offering to sell him the original manuscript of a Herman Melville novel, one long thought to have been lost in a fire, and he managed to involve Rosemary in his scheme to acquire and sell the book for his own profit.

The rather dramatic ending of The Secret of Lost Things, is not completely satisfying because of its somewhat predictable nature but this is impressive enough a first novel that good things can be expected from Sheridan Hay in the future.

Rated at: 3.5

Now Even the U.N. Destroys Books

Sadly enough, I have reached the point where stories about libraries and bookstores needlessly destroying books do not surprise me anymore. Those making such foolish decisions are generally idiots who should never have reached the level of authority required to make that kind of decision in the first place. Somehow they managed to get promoted above their level of competency and reached positions that allowed them to destroy the books under their care. Case closed: stupid people do stupid things.

But this Washington Post article detailing UNESCO’s destruction of almost 100,000 books over a two-year period, books that were written and published using UNESCO funds (think for a minute where this money comes from, my fellow taxpayers), managed to stop me in my tracks this morning. How do these incompetents continue to get away with this? Apparently, the person responsible this time has already retired from UNESCO and there is little that can be done to punish him for his horrible decision to destroy the books rather than have them moved to new warehouse space.

PARIS — For more than two decades, 250 historians and specialists labored to produce the first six volumes of the General History of Latin America, an exhaustive work financed by UNESCO, the United Nations organization created to preserve global culture and heritage.

Then, over the course of two years, UNESCO paid to destroy many of those books and nearly 100,000 others by turning them to pulp, according to an external audit.


South African Ambassador Nomasonto Maria Sibanda-Thusi told the executive board: “We believe that some decisive disciplinary action is needed. The main player may have retired, but what about those that knew but chose to remain silent?”

According to the report, the destruction occurred in 2004 and 2005, when UNESCO’s overflowing book storage warehouses in Paris were relocated to Brussels. Rather than pay to move 94,500 books, auditors reported, UNESCO officials ordered them destroyed. The books were turned to pulp for recycling, the audit says.


Auditors made the discovery during a wide-ranging investigation of abuses and waste in UNESCO’s book publication and distribution operations.

Because too many books often were ordered and others were never distributed properly, tens of thousands piled up in UNESCO’s storage facilities at a cost of about $100,000 a year, until the agency decided to shift distribution functions to a Brussels company and move its stocks there.

Please read the entire article, especially the second page, because the whole story is much worse than these few quotes indicate. This smells of cover up and I’m sure that everyone involved will escape any kind of punishment. It would be very interesting to follow the money trail of this whole process, a process that went wrong from the beginning with more books than necessary being printed in the first place and then allowed to sit in warehouses rather than being properly distributed. Publishers made money, warehouses made money and, ultimately, the company that pulped the books made money. Who else made money? And those around the world who could have used the books are still empty-handed.

The U.N. and UNESCO continue to cover themselves in glory. Why am I not surprised by yet another scandal involving those organizations?