First Sentences on my Desk Top

First sentences of the books stacked on my desk waiting to be read:

“It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River.” – South of Broad by Pat Conroy

“On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed.” – Rain Gods by James Lee Burke

“The sun sits flat against the blue sky like someone pressed it there with a giant thumb.” – Wait Until Twilight by Sang Pak

“At one end of my desk sits a nearly four-hundred-year-old book cloaked in a tan linen sack and a good deal of mystery.” – The Man Who Loved Books too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

“God has failed too many on this one, thought Detective Bill Wall as he ambled, soaking wet, toward he large home with the brick facade.” – A Cold-Blooded Business by Marek Fuchs

“The shovel has to meet certain requirements.” – Bad Things Happen – Harry Dolan

“It was summer several years ago when my 88-year-old Dad announced to my husband Marty and me that he and Mom were ready to move in with us.” – In My Heart by Ursula Hanks

“Panic has a way of defining an individual.” – Doubleback by Libby Fischer Hellman

“In the Antarctic, white sea-spiders sit in shallow blue waters under a thick layer of turquoise ice.” – Selling Light by Effie Gray

“Parade coming.” – City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

“Piers the Powerful, revered by men and universally desired by women, a legend in his own Armani suit, had waited fifteen minutes outside the fifty-story office block for the chauffeur-driven limousine that was to carry him to the meeting of the shareholders in the financial heartland of he City.” – The Profit by John Karter

And, then, I’m reading these four already:

“I think I know who you are.” – Glenn Beck’s Common Sense by Glenn Beck

“Kate drove them to the station and now, as she and Clem put the bags down on the platform, Kitty looked around for someplace for them to sit.” – As Long as He Needs Me by Mary Verdick

“The Church of St. Germain des Pres, at the start of what was supposed to be spring, was a miserable place, made worse by the drabness of a city still in a state of shock, worse still by the little coffin in front of the altar which was my reason for being there, worse again by the aches and pains of my body as I kneeled.” – Stones Fall by Ian Pears

“On the wall of my rowing club at Cambridge University is a plaque on which are inscribed the names of every member of the club who perished in the mad chivalric contest that was WWI.” – The Sky Rained Heroes by Frederick E. LaCroix

These first sentences pretty much run the gamut from beautifully constructed, complicated sentences all the way down to bare-bones ones. Two of them do jump out at me and would have enticed to me read on for sure. I’ll let you guess which two to see if we agree.

Louise Brown Is the Hank Aaron of Library Patrons

One woman in Scotland has set what seems like an unbreakable record for the number of library books checked out in a lifetime – without ever having to pay a late fee.

Louise Brown is 91 years old now and she has been checking out about six books per week since 1946. That comes to somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 books and, amazingly, Louise has recently doubled her checkouts to twelve large print books every week.

From comes the details:

She said: “My parents were great readers and I’ve always loved books.

“I started reading when I was five and have never stopped. I like anything I can get my hands on. I also like Mills & Boon for light reading at night.”

Louise is now partially sighted and so mainly opts for large prints books.

But she gets through them so quickly she has almost exhausted the supply at the public library in Stranraer, south west Scotland. Janice Goldie, of Dumfries and Galloway Libraries, said: “We are amazed at Mrs Brown’s achievements.

“When she first joined the library service, she was allowed to borrow six books a week. This has now risen to 12 and she always takes her full quota. The staff at Stranraer Library think she’s a remarkable lady and look forward to her weekly visits.”

Louise’s librarians would like to know if anyone can break her record. If you know of someone who has even come close, do let the librarians at the Stranraer Library (Scotland) know about it – but I doubt that they’re holding their breaths in anticipation.

(Photo is of Louise’s library)

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Enzo, a lab-terrier mix, is tired of being a dog. He is looking forward, in fact, to the end of his life because of his certainty that, next time around, he will return to consciousness as a man. Enzo just cannot wait to have opposable thumbs and the kind of tongue that will allow him to form all the words he has rattling around in his head.

He knows how lucky he is to have been the one chosen from his litter of pups to live with Denny, a Seattle-based racecar driver and mechanic. Denny treats Enzo more as a friend than a pet and Enzo is smart enough to know the difference. He is not sure at first what to think when Denny falls in love with Eve and brings her home to live with them but, when a daughter is born to the happy couple, all is well again in Enzo’s world.

Enzo learns about life by listening to Denny talk about his car racing philosophy, a philosophy filled with observations that work just as well in real life as they work on the racetrack. He fills, what would otherwise be lonely days alone, watching television documentaries and The Weather Channel and, in the process, becomes more and more convinced that he is, indeed, prepared to take on human form in his next life. His evenings are so often spent along side Denny on the couch watching tapes of Denny’s past races that he even becomes somewhat of an racetrack expert.

When things take a turn for the worse for Denny and those closest to him, Enzo is there to suffer right along side him, and even manages to keep Denny from making a bad decision or two that might have cost him everything he loves most. Enzo is what we want to believe our own dogs are like. He is patient, loving, and totally aware of his place in the world but he remains capable of protecting us from ourselves and others.

And therein lies my problem with The Art of Racing in the Rain.

I could never suspend my disbelief to the degree required to lose myself in the book and, without that suspension of disbelief, I was unable to appreciate Garth Stein’s fable the way so many others have appreciated it. Enzo is the smartest guy in the room and, since the book is told from his point-of-view, he is almost always in the room. He understands Denny, his friends, his wife, and those who mean to harm him better than Denny ever will. All those hours spent in front of a television have provided Enzo with the equivalent of a college education, it seems. He not only understands everything he sees and hears, he is generally one step ahead of the humans around him.

I understand the appeal of The Art of Racing in the Rain. Denny’s race strategy and driving techniques easily translate into a coherent philosophical approach to life itself. It is a classic tale of courage, perseverance, love, and compassion, though, ultimately, it so closely follows the classic form that it holds few surprises. As in the case of many good books, however, the fun comes from the journey itself and not from the final destination. I dare say that most people who read The Art of Racing in the Rain are likely to enjoy it more than I enjoyed it, but I am not sorry that I spent a few hours with Enzo.

Rated at: 3.0

Barnes & Noble Announces Free WiFi at All Stores

Good news for those who are not already getting free WiFi via their personal AT&T contracts at the 777 Barnes & Noble bookstores across the country:

Barnes & Noble said on Tuesday that it had signed a strategic agreement with AT&T to provide free Wi-Fi to all customers in its stores.

Steve Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, said the company promoted its stores as “community centers” with cafes, comfortable seating and on-site events like book signings.

“It’s a gathering place and Wi-Fi access is increasingly becoming something that customers expect in public places,” said Mr. Riggio, adding that many airports now offered a similar service. “We’ve always considered our stores as quasi-public settings and public gathering places and thought this was the perfect opportunity to provide our customers with free access.”

As this New York Times article goes on to say, free WiFi in retail locations is the wave of the future, a sure way to attract customers and have them hang around to spend money for hours at a time. I suspect that this will become more and more common and that retailers not providing the service are going to suffer a loss of business to those that do.

I love it.

Friends Like These: My Worldwide Quest to Find My Best Childhood Friends, Knock on Their Doors, and Ask Them to Come Out and Play

(Photo: Danny Wallace, on left, and three of the childhood friends with whom he reconnected)

Danny Wallace, U.K. television personality and writer, is best known in this country for Yes Man, the book on which a recent Jim Carey movie was based. Unlike the movie, however, Wallace’s book purports to be non-fiction. He claims to have actually said “yes” to every invitation or opportunity put to him over a six-month period and seems to have largely benefitted from the experience. I mention this to emphasize the kind of wacky personality Danny Wallace seems to have and because Friends Like These is another of Wallace’s off-center memoirs.

Fast approaching thirty years of age in 2006, the calendar-age Danny Wallace considers the start of adulthood, Wallace finds that he has no desire to become an adult. In fact, the very idea of becoming an adult terrifies him. So when an old address book he hasn’t seen in years turns up, it seems only natural to him that he should look up his twelve best childhood friends. After all, they, too, are on the verge of turning thirty years old.

Wallace’s task is made a bit more difficult than it might have otherwise been by the fact that he spent some of his childhood years in Scotland, some in Germany, and some in England. Nevertheless, blessed with what seems to be a saint of a wife who encourages him to do it, he confidently embarks on a personal quest to “update his address book” before the birthday that will magically turn him into “a man.” How, he wonders, are his friends handling their own personal traumas of becoming adults with adult responsibilities?

On the whole, it appears that they are handling their thirtieths a bit more successfully than Danny is handling his. Despite having been warned that he would find all his old friends working in IT, Danny actually finds them filling a variety of roles. Among his personal Top 12, are a research doctor, a hip-hop rapper, a restaurant manager, a newspaperman, and one old friend who actually does work in the IT department of a major bank. Danny’s search, equal amounts adventure and misadventure, will ultimately take him across the world and require stops in the United States, Australia and Japan. Best of all for Danny, is that, for the first time in his life, he will come away from a project with the sense that he has finished something he started – a goal he never achieved as a kid.

Danny Wallace is a funny man, and a clever writer, and he fills Friends Like These with numerous incidents that will make the reader wonder how such a hapless adventurer could possibly accomplish so much. After all, a man who manages to wedge himself so tightly into a tiny Japanese toilet stall (Danny is a big man and he was wearing a backpack at the time) that he has to cry for help before sheer panic sets in does little to inspire confidence, does he?

Friends Like These is more than slapstick comedy. Wallace has a way with words that allows him to pepper the reader with little one-line zingers almost at will, one-liners that always produce at least a smile, and sometimes much more. No matter the situation, he maintains his sense-of-humor and laughs at himself as much as his readers will laugh at him. At 400 pages, however, some of Wallace’s efforts and friend descriptions begin to become repetitious and hard to distinguish from one another, a flaw that will have some readers wishing that he would just get on with it.

This is a funny book but it does prove the point that sometimes “less is more.”

Rated at: 3.5

Pat Conroy Coming to My TBR List Next Week

I remember what it was like a few years ago when I struggled to keep one book on my TBR list at a time. You know, the days before the internet and the big box book stores moved into towns all across the country. I would actually start to panic if I reached the last 50 pages of a book without having another one in-house ready to grab. And that happened a lot.

Times have certainly changed for the better since then. Now, my TBR list of in-house books is usually in the dozens and I struggle to make even a dent in it. Even a “good thing,” like having too many books to read, can become a little stressful, but I’ll take today’s TBR list over yesterday’s any time.

For example, on my “short list” (books I’ve either started or promised to consider for review) right now are these books:

1. As Long as He Needs Me by Mary Verdick – novel

2. The Sky Rained Heroes by Frederick E. LaCroix – nonfiction account of his father’s WWII experiences fighting Japan

3. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – novel through the eyes of a dog

4. Wait Until Twilight by Sang Park – a horror novel, of sorts

5. The Man Who Loved Books too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett – nonfiction account of a major book thief and the book detective determined to catch him

6. Selling Light by Effie Gray – one of the novellas in the “Great Little Reads” series

7. A Cold Blooded Business by Marek Fuchs – a “true crime thriller”

8. Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan – fictional thriller

9. In My Heart by Ursula Hanks – memoir

10. Doubleback by Libby Fischer Hellmann – suspense novel

11. The Complete Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault – a new translation by Christopher Betts

12. The Profit by John Karter – another novella in the “Great Little Reads” series

13. Photographing Democracy by Joseph Sohm – a huge, 7-pound book of pictures and essays on Mr. Sohm’s project to take pictures that represent each of the 50 states – over a 30-year period

I’m also reading these two books:

14. Stone’s Fall by Ian Pears – an almost 600-page historical mystery that I finally got from the library Friday – as recommended by my friend the Class Factotum who comments here every so often

15. Glenn Beck’s Common Sense by Glenn Beck – bought this one at B&N yesterday and I’m intrigued (and bothered) by what Beck has to say

So there you have it – 15 books on the list that will be getting my attention in the next few weeks.

If things were static, the list would not be all that intimidating and could be handled in about seven weeks. But the list is alive, folks, and it is multiplying. I got some great news Thursday that I have snagged review copies of the latest novels of two of my favorite writers, James Lee Burke and (or you ready for this?) Pat Conroy. I should have both books around July 31 and I’m sure that I will be able to resist neither of them, requiring me to adjust my reading schedule again because I cannot wait to get my hands on those two, especially the Conroy novel after a 14-year wait between new ones.

And, of course, the rest of my TBR list, consisting of at least 200 books is waiting out there, too. Ah, but life is good!

(Speaking of life, I just want to mention that my 10-year-old granddaughter broke her shoulder yesterday. She’s the one whose picture I used to illustrate a post here a week or so ago (her on a lounger, pencil in hand). She decided it would be fun to “surf” down a 10-foot plastic slide while her brother and cousin sprayed water on it…not so much. Now she has six weeks of almost no activity ahead of her because the break is not in a place that a cast is easily placed. Thank goodness she’s a reader. She is in a fancy sling that requires her to keep the arm protected and immobile while it heals. Lesson learned – I hope.)

Amazon to Embed "Smart Ads" in Kindle E-Books?

Tell me it isn’t so, Jeff. Is Amazon about to take another misstep in the marketing of its Kindle e-book reader? There has been speculation for a while now that Amazon is looking into the idea of adding “smart ads” to the e-books it sells to its Kindle customers, the kind of ad that Google seems to be placing everywhere one surfs the net these days. The Google adds were a bit irritating at first but, since I don’t pay for the content on which the ads appear, I trained myself to ignore them. I wonder, in fact, just who it is that clicks on those things.

It would be a much different story, though, if I were paying for the pages on which those dozens and dozens of ads appear every day – and finding an ad embedded inside an e-book I’ve purchased would be especially irritating. Now maybe, just maybe, I could learn to tolerate the ads if Amazon were to share the ad revenue with me by cutting the high price of its e-books. Will this happen? I won’t be holding my breath.

From The Business Insider comes this:

Books are among the last bastions of ad-free content. But they won’t be so forever if Amazon has its way.

The online retail giant has been nurturing a growing e-reader market with its Kindle device; analysts estimate more than a million have been sold since its 2007 debut. And the idea of serving ads in e-books has been a subject of chatter for a while. But Amazon appears to have taken the next concrete step in that direction. Recent reports indicate the online retail giant has filed patent applications to stuff digital books with contextual advertising.


“There’s a movement in the industry to offset book prices through various ways,” said consultant Chris Andrews, who’s writing an e-book about the advent of e-books. “There’s more revenue per book with those ads and they allow publishers to sell the book less expensively. It also gives advertisers this cool market of people who spend hours with content. The relationship is longer than any other media — and it’s deeper.”

Others view in-book advertising as just one stop along a continuum of possibilities.

“They’re just exploring all the multiple ways you can monetize content, so you can offer a customer a full-priced book at $9.99 or you can offer them a half-priced book that’s partially underwritten by advertisers,” said Mark Coker, founder of e-book seller Smashwords.

With publishers already complaining that Amazon is selling e-books too cheaply, I suspect there would be some resistance to any talk about lowering e-book prices that contained ads unless the ad revenue was also split with the publishers. It is fun to watch the marketing for a new product like electronic books evolve over the months. Where we end up is anyone’s guess, but I will say that a book containing ads is a distraction that cheapens the whole product for me. I do not like the idea at all – and I wonder why Amazon seems so determined to shoot itself in the marketing foot these last few weeks.

(There is much more to the linked article, so please take a look at it and let me know what you think is going to happen and whether or not advertising in books will bother you.)

Two Cases of Too Little, Too Late

I sat down to write a quick note about Amazon’s apology for its misguided decision to delete certain books directly from the Kindles of some of its customers without first bothering to explain why it was happening – or at least warning them. And then a television news break came on and I am suddenly looking at President Obama (yet again) and listening to him apologize for saying last night that the Cambridge Police Department acted “stupidly” in arresting Professor Gates at his home a few days ago.

My reaction to both apologies is that they are both “too little, too late.” The damage has been done. Amazon’s image took a hit and the company probably lost more than a few potential Kindle customers this week, me included. I was already concerned about the limitations on my personal usage of e-books bought for the Kindle, so being reminded just how easily those books can be stolen back from me by their seller ended my fascination with the Kindle. The price of the reader and the restricted value of the books convinces me that the Kindle is not the way to go. Bad move, Mr. Bezos.

The President’s image has also taken a hit. He played the “race card” last night on behalf of a personal friend of his. That was cheap and it is very disturbing. My personal respect for President Obama took a huge hit because of his eagerness to defame the Cambridge police on the behalf of a personal friend whose behavior helped spark a police incident about which the President apparently had heard only one side of the story. How stupid was it for him to allow a local Chicago issue to overwhelm the message he wanted to send about his healthcare legislation? Very stupid. The President acted more “stupidly” than he accused the police of acting. His apology, if that’s what this statement was supposed to be, was very necessary but it only came after he made matters worse by trying to defend his original statement earlier this morning.

I should mention, too, that my respect for Professor Gates is gone. I’ve seen the man on Book TV a couple of times and was impressed with him. Now, reading the police report (none of which Gates has denied) and seeing how Gates taunted the policeman and escalated the whole incident with his mouth and attitude, it will be difficult for me to take the man seriously again. He is obviously a hypocrite.

At least Jeff Bezos admitted that he and Amazon were 100% wrong, as can be seen from this quote from his blog entry:

“Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line with our principles,” Bezos wrote. “It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.”

He signed his missive with the comment, “With deep apology to our customers.”

See this Computer World article for reaction to the Amazon apology.

How can so many supposedly brilliant people do such stupid things? Maybe someone should write a book called When Stupid Things Happen to Smart People.

1997 Frank McCourt Interview to Be Shown on Book TV Saturday, July 25

Word comes via email from Book TV that its 1997 Booknotes interview with Frank McCourt about his Angela’s Ashes will be rerun this weekend:

Frank McCourt, Encore Booknotes: Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir
From 1997, Author Frank McCourt was a guest on Booknotes to talk about Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir. The book chronicles the author’s life growing up in an impoverished section of Limerick, Ireland, as well as his childhood spent in New York City. His father was an alcoholic who at times spent the majority of his paycheck on alcohol, leaving his family hungry. Mr. McCourt writes about this as well as seeing three siblings die prematurely because of starvation or disease. The author also talks about the gift of storytelling that his father gave him which resulted in a career spent teaching and writing. Mr. McCourt died on July 19, 2009.
(Saturday 6 PM ET)

This is “Don’t Miss TV” for fans of McCourt and his groundbreaking memoir.

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century

I just met Jimmie Rodgers, and I was duly impressed with the man. It’s not like I didn’t already know Jimmie – after all, I’ve read Nolan Porterfield’s definitive 1979 Rodgers biography twice and the sugarcoated biography written by his wife once. I’ve listened to his music for the better part of four decades and I own most of his catalog plus several tribute albums done on his behalf by other artists. But as I found out by reading Barry Mazor’s exhaustively researched Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, I just thought I knew Jimmie.

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers is the perfect companion piece to Poterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler. Where Porterfield provides the details of Jimmie’s short but influential life, Mazor emphasizes the influence that Jimmie Rodgers had on the music of the rest of the twentieth century. Porterfield focused on the man, Mazor more on the music.

Jimmie Rodgers, according to Mazor, was a “connector” and, as such, he heavily influenced each of the most popular genres of American music. Many of the kingpins of country music, jazz, western swing, rock and roll, bluegrass, folk, blues and punk either grew up on the music of Jimmie Rodgers or were enthralled by the man and his music when they discovered it years after his death. Mazor’s impressive research shows how directly and how greatly Rogers influenced the music, for instance, of Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Arlo Guthrie, Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, the Beatles, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rick Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steve Earle, Jerry Garcia and numerous others.

As impressive as the title is, Jimmie Rodgers is much more than just “the father of country music.” That title is limiting to a man of his overall influence. Yes, he was one of the very first members enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame when it opened its doors, but he is equally cherished as a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His “rough and rowdy ways” opened the door for others in several genres to openly sing songs about sex, murder, drink and drugs, and a rambling lifestyle in which almost anything goes.

Rodgers was, first and foremost, a performer, a man with several well developed personas that he could switch to and from to fit his audience. Be it hard working railroad man, Hollywood cowboy or dapper lady’s man, Jimmie was equally at home in the role. His look may have changed from town to town but his music was still the most recognizable and influential music of his day, and though he may have been most famous for his development and use of the “blue yodel,” many of those who cite his influence in their own music also praise his seemingly simple guitar licks, his voice, and his way with a lyric.

Barry Mazor has packed so many ideas and so much detail into Meeting Jimmie Rodgers that it is not a book that can be rushed through if the reader is going to gain its full benefit. It admittedly requires a considerable amount of reading time and patience, but I highly suggest that readers slow down and enjoy it. Read it with Jimmie’s music playing in the background, pen or marker in hand, and pay particular attention to the “Select Soundtracks” at the end of most of the book’s chapters. Those “soundtracks” make it possible to create a first rate Jimmie Rodgers musical library of your own.

Rated at: 5.0

Big Brother Zaps 1984 from Kindles Everywhere

This story is getting old. Amazon has zapped more paid-for books directly from the Kindles of owners who believed they actually own the e-books they purchase from Amazon. Now don’t get me wrong – in this case, Amazon had a strong case for remotely deleting the illegal copies of Orwell’s 1984 mistakenly sold by the company. But do you remember an earlier case of one Amazon customer who “returned” so many e-books that Amazon got irritated with him enough to delete all the books he had left on his Kindle and lock him out of the system – making his Kindle a useless hunk of plastic?

This whole thing makes me uneasy. If I buy an e-book from Amazon, am I only going to be allowed to keep it as long as Amazon wants me to have it? What about the censorship issue? If someone or some group with enough clout convinces Amazon that portions of a Kindle e-book should be altered, or even deleted, what is to stop them from sneaking the changes into already-sold copies of the book? Would the owner even notice?

I see this week that Barnes & Noble is downloading software that will allow B&N e-books to be read on the iPhone and Blackberry platforms – with many more phones to be enabled in the coming few weeks. I see this as excellent timing…competition for a company that can’t seem to get e-books right despite its dominance of the current market.

I do have to laugh, though, at the irony of 1984 being the book involved in this controversy. If there is a heaven, Mr. Orwell must be laughing out loud right about now.

As for me, I’m sticking with real books because I doubt that Barnes & Noble will ever ring my doorbell to confiscate a book I bought there – and I’ve lost enough music purchased in the mp3 format to know that I’m just as likely to lose whole books that I forget to backup after purchase.

Amazon is failing Marketing 101, something I never thought I would see.

Saffron Dreams

The murders of September 11, 2001 were the shock of a generation, a morning forever etched into the memories of those who watched the events unfold in person or on live television. In a world seemingly gone mad, some celebrated the deaths of 3,000 innocents while others yearned for revenge against those responsible for the senseless murders. Lines seemed to be clearly drawn.

Some few people, however, had a foot on both sides of that line and Shaila Abdullah tells the story of one such woman in her novel, Saffron Dreams. Arissa Illahi, a Pakistani Muslim pregnant with her first child and living in New York City, has her own world shattered on that tragic morning when her husband is killed as the Twin Towers collapse. Not only is her husband, Faizan, suddenly snatched from her forever, Arissa is left alone to cope with the birth of her child in an environment in which many see her obvious Muslim faith as the only proof they need that her sympathies are with those responsible for what happened that day.

Arissa is helped through her initial shock by family members who rush to her side, but noticeably absent is her mother, a woman who had abandoned Arissa’s family years earlier. Her in-laws stay behind when everyone else leaves to make certain that Arissa will be able to cope with her loss and her new life, themselves quietly grieving while they help Arissa through the worst of what she has to face.

And cope, Arissa does. Showing remarkable strength, and determined to ensure her husband’s legacy, she prepares for the birth of her son despite the multiple handicaps with which he is expected to enter the world so recently left by his father. At the urging of her mother-in-law, Arissa also eventually agrees to complete the unfinished novel left behind by Faizan as another way of marking his place in the world. Her new world is bounded by her son, her writing and her job, but especially by the unique bond she forms with the son who needs her so much.

Because Arissa Illahi is not the typical 9-11 widow, Saffron Dreams is much more than a novel about coping with the sudden loss of a loved one. The book deals effectively with racism, religious prejudice, fanaticism and hatred on both sides of the divide, the difficulties and rewards of raising a handicapped child, and the slow healing that finally allows a survivor to get on with the rest of her life. Despite the senselessness of what happened in New York City that morning eight years ago, Saffron Dreams is filled with strength and hope for the future. It is a reminder that the world is what we make it, one little piece at a time.

Rated at: 4.0

Frank McCourt Dead at 78

Comes word from the New York Times and others that author Frank McCourt, most famous for the story of his Depression-era Irish childhood, Angela’s Ashes, died this afternoon of cancer. McCourt, who was in his mid-sixties when Angela’s Ashes was published, was recently treated for melanoma, according to the Times and had, in addition, contracted a serious case of meningitis. The death was announced by McCourt’s brother, Malachy, who is also a writer.

Described in Newsweek as “the publishing industry’s Cinderella story of the decade,” “Angela’s Ashes” rose to No. 1 on bestseller lists, was translated into more than 20 languages and sold more than 4 million copies worldwide.

It also won the Pulitzer for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and was turned into a movie in 1999.

In the process, “Angela’s Ashes” propelled its author from obscurity to fame and fortune.

The white-haired publishing sensation made the rounds of the talk shows, was the subject of a “60 Minutes” profile and was in constant demand as a speaker because, as Newsweek pointed out in 1999, “he’s witty, articulate and he’s got the perfect Irish brogue: lyrical but penetrable.”

“At 66, you’re supposed to die or get hemorrhoids,” McCourt told the Hartford Courant in 2003. “I just wrote the book and was amazed and astounded that it became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize. It still hasn’t sunk in.”

I remember very well how taken I was with the book and the fact that it had been written by a man already retired from a lifetime’s work. I think I found that fact more inspirational than anything in the book itself, although I did love that book. I’ve never gone back to reread it – and I wonder if it would work so well for me today. I may just have to find out.

The Cloverleaf Development

London’s Roastbooks Ltd. was kind enough to send me three of their books last month for review consideration. At the time, I knew nothing about the company or its books but I was intrigued by the concept of a novella collection called “Great Little Reads.” According to the company’s Faye Dayan, “These are little books for the modern lifestyle, designed to be read in one or two sittings.”

That is exactly what I needed this weekend, something relatively short but so well-written that I could lose myself in it for an hour or two at a time, and I was lucky enough to throw The Cloverleaf Development into my luggage at the last second Friday afternoon before I left for a quick out-of-town trip.

The Cloverleaf Development, written by Keith Scales, is a tongue-in-cheek novella of 130 pages that kept me thoroughly entertained and intrigued for the two or so hours of reading time it requires. Mr. Scales has created a surrealistic little world in which an isolated rural area is about to have its world rocked by a new housing development, complete with major changes to the roads in the area, being built just a short distance away.

The residents of Overlook City are proud of their little community and very much against anything that might change the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. There are few secrets in Overlook (at least that’s what the locals like to believe) and everyone seems to know most everything about everyone else. But when the long abandoned Malarky Mansion is demolished to make room for the new development and human bone fragments, including most of a skull, are found, those same locals are in for a shock. Everything they thought they knew about the old mansion and its former residents just might turn out to be wrong.

Following the supremely self-important Sheriff Wilmot around as he constantly revises his theory on what happened in Malarky Mansion some two decades earlier is half the fun. Wilmot is the kind of sheriff who decides what must have happened and then works furiously to find only the facts he needs to prove his case. That no one in town agrees with any of his theories hardly slows him down as he stumbles from one colorful town character to another in his quest to prove himself correct.

The rest of the fun comes from being fooled along with everyone else in town as to what really happened in the mansion and how the bones got there. Good novellas and short stories, in my estimation, are probably more difficult to write than novels since the author has so few pages to create multiple characters and to flesh out a plot. This is one of the good ones. Keith Scales has packed more into his 130 pages than many a novelist manages with a 300-page canvas. It is filled with quirky characters, humor and observations about small town life, and it is definitely a “great little read.”

Readers will note, also, that the back cover of each of the Roast Books novellas includes a list of the book’s “ingredients.” In the case of The Cloverleaf Development, those indgredients are: Circumstantial Evidence, Cattledrive Eatery and Saloon Banter, Discovery of Body Parts, Out of Town Developers.” Just how perfect that little recipe is will become obvious to anyone who reads The Cloverleaf Development.

Rated at: 4.0

Two Shocks in Two Days

I’ve been away from the computer for the last couple of days due to completely unexpected circumstances. I left work early yesterday in order to drive to my old hometown for a funeral that took place at 9:30 this morning during which I said my goodbyes to one of the oldest friends I had. I met Bill during the summer between our seventh and eighth grades, some 48 years ago, if you can imagine.

Over the years we lost touch with each other for long periods of time as I moved out of the country and he changed addresses, but when I thought of home I always thought about my old friend and often tried to find him with no success. In March of this year, after one of those long breaks, I heard from Bill’s daughter via Facebook. She was trying to help her dad renew contact again and wondered if I was the person she was looking for -I was. As things turned out, though, I learned that Bill had been suffering from cancer for over two years and that things were getting a bit “iffy” for him. I had a sense that things were getting much worse, much more quickly than anyone expected, but I was shocked to learn that my old friend died early on Wednesday morning.

His family and great number of friends said goodbye to him this morning.

As I was preparing to leave Houston, I received another email, this one from a friend who lives in London. She told me that a mutual friend of ours, an American I’ve known and worked with for about 15 years had been caught up in the hotel bombings in Jakarta yesterday morning (Houston time). Gary, who now works in Jakarta, was attending an event in one of the bombed hotels and he has apparently suffered very severe burns and other injuries. He has been flown to Singapore for treatment and the good news is that he has survived what is likely to have been the most critical period of his injuries. I haven’t heard any news for the last 12 hours or so, but I’m taking that as a good sign.

Life is short, folks, something we tend to forget. And for some of us, it is even shorter than we expected it to be. Take a moment to appreciate what you have and those who love you. Take nothing for granted; make the most of the time God gives you and leave some good memories for those who loved you while you were on this earth. It is too easy to let everyday events get in the way of really living your precious life. Don’t let that happen to you.

OK, enough preaching. I know that’s not why you’re here and, honestly, I wrote this as much for myself as for anyone else who happens to read it.

Roastbeef’s Promise: When Your Dad’s Dying Wish Is to Have His Ashes Sprinkled in Each State, What’s a Son to Do?

As long as I can remember, road trip books have been among my favorites. Something about that kind of mini-adventure particularly appeals to me, and reading books about hitting the road has led me to several memorable road trips of my own. Up to this point, though, all of my favorite road trip books have been nonfiction, whether they involved cross-country walks, hitchhiking, driving or even boating.

Now comes Roastbeef’s Promise, David Jerome’s first novel, a classic road trip adventure that I plan to place on the shelves alongside my nonfiction road trip favorites for eventual rereading. It is that good.

Roastbeef Hume, although he knew it was coming, is somewhat shocked when the nursing home calls to tell him that his father is dead. The elder Mr. Hume, at the time of his death suffering from Alzheimer’s, believed himself to be Franklin Roosevelt and that his son was one of his presidential aides. When his father, in the guise of President Roosevelt, directed him to spread his ashes, when the time came, over the 48 states he had governed, Roastbeef played along and promised to get it done.

Thus begins the road trip of a lifetime for young Roastbeef Hume who, with some relief, drops out of college and hits the road on what will turn out to be a 15-month adventure to scatter the 3/5 of his father’s ashes the rest of the Hume family agrees to let him have. Armed with loads of good intentions, very little cash, a beat up old Hyundai automobile, and no idea of what he is getting himself into, Roastbeef begins a series of adventures that will at times see him penniless, on foot, a crime victim, a beneficiary of the kindness of strangers, and enjoying every minute of his quest to honor his father’s last wish.

Along the way he will meet some of the nicest, but quirkiest, citizens the United States has to offer. He will visit Mount Rushmore, Graceland, Indianapolis Speedway, Key West, Las Vegas, and numerous little out-of-the-way places known to very few outsiders where he will use his imagination to decide how best to leave some of his dad’s ashes behind. Among others, he will meet a van full of frat brothers and a convertible full of sorority sisters, a lesbian college softball coach, a young man who uses his wedding-crashing skills to eat better than he can afford to eat on his own, an expectant couple rushing to Las Vegas to be married, and a crop-duster pilot.

Roastbeef, as will the reader, learns a lot about human nature and the basic goodness of most people and, despite his setbacks, he comes to realize that “getting there” is the most important part of any journey. Roastbeef’s Promise had me laughing out loud more than once and I believe it to be a book that will appeal to road warriors and wanna-be road warriors of both sexes. This one is real fun.

Rated at: 5.0

"Scottsboro" Winner Announced

The drawing for my copy of Scottsboro attracted 13 entries and I’ve used the random number generator shown in my sidebar to choose a winner. (Anyone wanting a random number generator of their own, by the way, can go to the website noted on mine and get a widget for their own blog page. It does come in handy for this kind of giveaway.)

Anyway, the winner picked by that bit of software is: Megan!

Megan, please send me your mailing details and I’ll get the book out to you – hope you enjoy it.

Book Giveaway Reminder – One More Day

Just a quick note this afternoon to remind everyone that you have about 24 hours to throw your name into the hat for a chance at a free copy of Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman. You can leave a comment here or at the original thread if you want to enter. About this time tomorrow afternoon, I’ll use my handy, dandy random number generator to choose a winner. As of right now, there are only ten entries, so anyone entering will have a very good chance at winning the book.

For a quick look at the book itself, see the review posted directly below the original post I referenced above.

Photo: Ellen Feldman, author of Scottsboro

Killer Summer

Although I have been a fan of Ridley Pearson’s work for a long time, Killer Summer was my introduction to his Sheriff Walt Fleming series. Now, having read this third novel in the series, I plan to go back to the first two books to get a better understanding of how Walt Fleming came to be the man he is.

Walt is the sheriff of Sun Valley, Idaho, and although he does not have to contend with a lot of violent crime, being sheriff of an enclave of some of the wealthiest people in the country comes with its own special problems. At times, Walt feels more like a combination baby sitter/politician than he does a peace officer. So when a large group of wealthy wine connoisseurs gathers in Sun Valley for an event culminating in the auctioning of three bottles of wine believed to have been gifted to John Adams by Thomas Jefferson, it is pretty much business-as-usual for the sheriff.

True, Walt’s personal life is not what it could be. The father of twin daughters, he now has to contend with the fact that his soon-to-be-ex-wife is living with one of his own deputies. As if that embarrassment were not enough, Walt, who barely has the time to be with his daughters, knows that he also needs to find time for his seventeen-year-old nephew, Kevin. The sudden death of Kevin’s father has left the boy without a male role model in his life and Walt’s sister looks to him to fill that gap.

Things begin to get complicated when the private security agent hired to bring the three John Adams bottles of wine to Sun Valley becomes the victim of a heist-gone-bad. Walt Fleming and his small group of deputies are left with the unenviable task of solving the attempted theft of the valuable wine while simultaneously guarding that same wine until it can be delivered to the winning bidder later in the week.

Walt soon begins to suspect that not all is what it seems to be regarding the bottles of wine and their current owner. Just when things start making a bit of sense to the sheriff, however, the situation careens out-of-control and he finds himself searching frantically for a hijacked airplane that may have fallen from the sky and the two teens, one his own nephew, feared to have been taken hostage by the hijackers at take-off.

Killer Summer is a quick-paced, but rather complicated, thriller that requires a little extra attention from the reader if the crime at its heart is to be completely understood as Pearson reveals it layer-by-layer. Readers might be tempted to rush to the book’s cliffhanger ending, but that would be a mistake. They should, instead, take a deep breath and make sure not to speed past any of the story’s important details. They will be happy that they did.

Rated at: 4.0

Galveston’s Rosenberg Library Re-Opens Two Floors to Patrons

It is still painful to look around Galveston and remember what the city was like before Hurricane Ike devastated it in September 2008. Such massive destruction of property makes for a very slow recovery, but Galveston is making great progress in getting things as close to “normal” as they ever will be again.

This week comes the good news that the city’s Rosenberg Library, housed in a 105-year-old building, is ready to open two floors to patrons. Details are from the Houston Chronicle:

Almost 10 months after Hurricane Ike flooded its ground floor with more than seven feet of water and dealt a knockout punch to its electrical system, Galveston’s venerable Rosenberg Library will take a big step toward normality today when it reopens its second floor and mezzanine.

The areas house the bulk of the library’s collections and a 45-unit computer lab. For the first time since the September storm, library patrons will be able to check out books without 24-hours advance notice.

The Rosenberg, now 105 years old, was inundated by saltwater, which destroyed ground-floor air conditioning, telephone and electrical equipment. Executive Director John Augelli estimated repairs cost about $4 million.


The first floor, which previously housed the children’s collection and the Wortham Auditorium, likely will remain closed for at least a year, he said.

Augelli said the library had too much money invested in real estate to consider abandoning the historic structure. In years before the hurricane, the library installed a new roof and launched a multimillion-dollar project to reinforce tons of decorative stonework in jeopardy of crumbling from the building’s exterior.

Augelli said about $2.5 million of the repair cost will be covered by insurance; the rest by grants, donations and payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Having struggled with my own insurance company for four months after Ike over how much the company owed me for a new roof, I can imagine the hassle that must be going on with the insurers of the Rosenberg Library. That makes their progress especially nice to see.