My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran

In 2007, at 67 years of age, Haleh Esfandiari survived a nightmare experienced by so many of her fellow Iranians during the last several decades. She was arrested by the Iranian secret police on trumped up charges, interrogated endlessly, and finally placed in solitary confinement inside the infamous Evin Prison for 105 days. That she survived her ordeal, and did not suffer physical torture at the hands of her interrogators, makes her one of the lucky ones.

Esfandiari is not the typical citizen of Iran. She is, in fact, the founding director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. and she has taught at Princeton University. She lives in Maryland with her Iranian husband, a Jewish George Mason University professor, whom she married in Iran in 1964. Herself the product of a mixed marriage (her father is Iranian and her mother Austrian), Esfandiari, an avowed feminist, worked for Iranian newspapers before leaving the country in 1980 for political reasons. Esfandiari’s mother, however, decided to remain in Iran even after her husband’s death so that, when her time came, she could be buried next to him.

On December 31, 2006, Haleh Esfandiari had just completed an extended visit to her 93-year-old mother and was being driven to the airport for her return flight to the United States. Before she could make it to the airport, her car was stopped and she was robbed of her possessions, including her passport. Despite the warnings of some of her Iranian friends that this was no ordinary mugging, Esfandiari wanted to believe that she had been targeted by robbers only because of her apparent wealth rather than for political reasons. She would soon learn how wrong she was.

Esfandiari’s 105 days of imprisonment would be proceeded by four months of almost daily interrogation at the hands of investigators determined to force her to confess that she was part of a United States conspiracy to overthrow the Iranian government. Despite the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the questions (as well as that of her consistent responses) and the increasing threats of a life in prison sentence, or worse, for her refusal to cooperate, Esfandiari refused to sign a confession even after being taken to the notorious Evin Prison.

My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran is Haleh Esfandiari’s account of how she maintained her sanity and physical health during her eight-month ordeal. Early on, she sensed that a system of routine and order would be instrumental in fighting off the despair and confusion she could so easily fall into during her confinement. Because during the early weeks of her imprisonment she was allowed no reading material other than the Koran, Esfandiari used physical exercise as both an escape and a means of setting goals for herself. She knew she had to be as mentally tough as her interrogators if she was to survive what they had planned for her.

The most unexpected aspect of My Prison, My Home is the relationship that developed between Esfandiari and some of those holding her, especially the female guards in control of her daily routine. A surprising number of these women came to sympathize with Esfandiari and to develop a personal relationship with her. Esfandiari, on her part, would take such an interest in their lives that she became a grandmother-like figure to some of the young women. Even her interrogators and the prison doctor sometimes displayed what seemed to be genuine concern for her mental and physical health while they continued to pressure her for a confession.

Despite the tremendous emotional and physical ordeal Haleh Esfandiari suffered at the hands of her countrymen, her prose is, at times, flat and rather unemotional, almost as if she cannot allow herself to feel again the pain and despair of those days. Perhaps, too, her tone is such because something inside her has died and she knows that she will never again see her beloved Iran as she saw it before her imprisonment. Much more than her passport and possessions were stolen from her on December 31, 2006.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by publisher)

Best of 2010, Update 6

I’m almost half way through Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and I’m finding myself totally immersed in his 1950s Ethiopian setting. This one comes in at 534 pages and I suspect that I will be sorry to see it end. Thanks to the heads-up from Class Factotum (and because my library finally got it on the shelves) I didn’t miss out on this experience…late as I am to the party.

This lunchtime I finished up the Joyce Dyer memoir, Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood, the book in which she revisits the neighborhood in which she spent the first five years of her life. Because so little of her old neighborhood looks anything like she remembers it, Dyer takes an interesting approach to her “reconstruction” of those early years and learns and reveals many intimate details from her family history. My review of the book will come in a day or so.

So, after 10 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Homer & Langley – E.L. Doctorow – 4.0 (novel)
5. Blind Submission – Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
6. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood – Joyce Dyer (memoir)
7. Get Out of the Way – Daniel Dinges (novel)
8. Boston Noir – Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

9. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (novel)

10. William S. and the Great Escape – Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children’s book)

Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one – and once a book drops off the list, it is gone forever.

We Have a Winner

It’s time to give away the Advance Reader’s Copy of John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River that I offered last week.

To that end, I took the six “random numbers” chosen in the fourteen comments about Book Chase’s third birthday and slipped them into my handy-dandy Random Number Generator:

Kate – 21
Elizabeth – 3
Melanie – 5
Megan – 24
Sheila – 6
Donna – 15

I asked for a number between 3 and 24 to be generated and, on the third try, I hit on one of the six numbers chosen by the contest entrants.

…and the winner is Sheila’s number 6. So, Sheila, send me an email with your mailing instructions and I’ll get the book out to you as quickly as I can. Thanks to everyone who entered or otherwise commented last week; I appreciate your kind words.

Best of 2010, Update 5

I finished the latest E.L. Doctorow novel, Homer & Langley, during lunch today and have posted a full review directly below this post. I’ve read lots of Doctorow over the years and I always expect to be wowed by his work, something deserving a clear 5.0 rating. It never quite seems to happen that way for me, though, and this one was no exception. This, in my opinion, is another very good – but not great – E.L. Doctorow novel.

So, after 9 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Homer & Langley – E.L. Doctorow – 4.0 (novel)
5. Blind Submission – Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
6. Get Out of the Way – Daniel Dinges (novel)
7. Boston Noir – Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

8. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (novel)

9. William S. and the Great Escape – Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children’s book)

Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one – and once a book drops off the list, it is gone forever.

Homer & Langley

The Collyer brothers of E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley are loosely based on a pair of real life brothers whose eccentric lifestyle created a sensation when they were found dead in their New York City Fifth Avenue home in 1947. Like their real life counterparts, by the time of their deaths, Doctorow’s Homer and Langley Collyer had filled their once extravagant home with so many newspapers, books, magazines, and whatever else Langley decided to drag home (including the Model T that filled one room) that they could barely move around inside the home. Doctorow’s fictional brothers, however, do not meet their deaths until well into the 1970s, allowing them to witness the Korean War, the Viet Nam War and the flower children of the sixties.

Homer introduces himself in the book’s first sentence by saying, “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” and from that moment, everything is “seen” and recounted from his point-of-view. Homer is the younger brother, the one left behind with his wealthy parents when older brother Langley leaves for the battlefields of World War I France. Langley would return to the family, his health ruined by the poisonous gas he inhaled during his last fight, only to find both parents dead from the flu epidemic that had so devastated the country.

The brothers, one unable to work because of his sightlessness and the other because of the war damage to his lungs, will live together for more than 50 years as recluses in the only home they have ever known. As the years pass and the last of their domestic help leaves them, Homer and Langley venture from home less and less, Homer usually only to sit in the park across the street from the brownstone and Langley to scavenge more of the things he convinces himself might prove useful one day.

Langley, seemingly on the edge of serious mental illness, has three goals in life: pay as little to New York’s public utility companies as possible; create the ultimate newspaper, one that will tell everything its readers ever need to know in a single, one-time edition; and collect duplicates of every item that catches his fancy. Homer has his music and his brother, and he would find it difficult to survive without either. Homer and Langley may not have gotten out much but life had a way of coming to them over the years in the form of visits from gangsters, prostitutes, bill collectors, dance party customers, sixties hippies, the FBI, and even a few single women, one of whom would, for a time, become Langley’s wife.

Upon their deaths, many would see the real Homer and Langley Collyer as nothing more than obsessed junk collectors because they left little behind that would prove otherwise. Doctorow’s sympathetic characterization of the two men reminds there has to have been much more to them than that. Homer & Langley, at times, has the unfortunate feel of a Forest Gump satire but readers will find it to be an excellent character study.

Rated at: 4.0

Blind Submission

Angel Montgomery, an insatiable reader, has landed a job in what is arguably the most successful literary agency on the West Coast. She can hardly believe that she is working for the famous Lucy Fiamma Literary Agency or that she answers the phone almost every day with the chance of finding one of her favorite authors on the other end of the line. But, while she is thrilled to discover her natural ability to transform promising manuscripts into potential best sellers, she is shocked that Lucy Fiamma expects her to work around the clock to earn her pitiful salary. Her dream job has quickly become the job from hell. What does she do now?

She sticks it out – because reading has been the only constant in her life for as long as she can remember. She explains: “…reading was only part of the thrill that a book represented. I got a dizzy pleasure from the weight and feel of a new book in my hand, a sensual delight from the smell and crispness of the pages. I loved the smoothness and bright colors of their jackets. For me, a stacked, unread pyramid of books was one of the sexiest architectural designs there was. Because what I loved most about books was their promise, the anticipation of what lay between the covers, waiting to be found.” How could anyone who feels that way quit this particular job?

Despite a failing romantic relationship, deteriorating health and lack of anything resembling a personal life, Angel continues to work the agency’s blind submission stack in search of the agency’s next big thing. She learns how to survive the bizarre list of demands Lucy drops on her the first thing every morning and to tolerate the rest of the office staff. And, in the process, she is turning into a very fine literary assistant.

Crazy as the job already is, everything is kicked up a notch when Angel begins working on an anonymously written manuscript about a West Coast literary agency and the people who work there. Despite the mystery of the blind submission’s origin, Angel is impressed enough with it to bring it to Lucy’s attention and is soon working with the mysterious writer, via email, to turn the pages into a novel the agency can sell. She recognizes from the start that the manuscript describes an agency eerily similar to hers, but Angel begins to panic when later chapters begin to reveal intimate secrets about her own work life and personal relationships. The details are so personal, she realizes, that the anonymous author has to be someone close to her. But why would someone so close want to disgrace and discredit her?

Blind Submission is a satirical look at the “sausage making” part of the publishing world book lovers find fascinating but seldom see for themselves. This 2006 novel’s setting is what initially appealed to me but I also found it to be a satisfying mystery that kept me guessing until near the end of Ginsberg’s story. Blind Submission successfully crosses several genre lines, in fact, and other readers will undoubtedly enjoy its romance/chick lit aspects most. There seems to be something here for just about every kind of reader.

Best of 2010, Update 4

I finished Blind Submission yesterday morning, perhaps the strangest ride I’ve had so far this year. I changed my opinion of the book at least three times over the course of reading it and finally settled on a 4.0 rating. Blind Submission takes place inside the offices of a famous West Coast literary agent and is special fun for all the “book nuts” out there. I’ll explain my changing reaction to the book in a formal review sometime in the next day or so.

After 8 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Blind Submission – Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
5. Get Out of the Way – Daniel Dinges (novel)
6. Boston Noir – Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

7. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (novel)

8. William S. and the Great Escape – Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children’s book)

Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one.

Get Out of the Way

Every so often, if a reader is lucky, along comes a book that strikes really close to home because it centers around one of the reader’s own life experiences. Get Out of the Way, a new novel set in the late 1960s when the military draft that provided fresh soldiers for the battlefields of Viet Nam was reaching its peak, is one of those books for me. Because author Daniel Dinges uses historical events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy to mark what was happening in America during Tom Daniels’ Army basic training – two tragedies that occurred during my own 1968 training – I found myself closely identifying with young Tom Daniels and his confusion about the war in Viet Nam.

Tom Daniels does not have many options to choose from in early 1968. For almost two years he has avoided the draft by claiming a student deferment despite the fact that he drops his college classes not long after he signs up for them so that he can find fulltime work. His scam works because, by the time the draft board has processed the paperwork needed to cancel his student deferment, Tom has registered for a new semester of classes and the cycle begins again. Timing is everything – but now the board has figured out Tom Daniels and he needs a new plan. He is in good physical condition, he is not homosexual, he does not want to become a fulltime college student, and running for the Canadian border is not something he would ever consider. So what is he to do?

What Tom decides to do will shock those who know him and, at the same time, arouse the suspicions of his local draft board. He volunteers for the next list, figuring that since he is older and better educated than the average inductee, he will be able to snag a noncombat position for himself among the thousands of clerks and administrators who support the combat troops. He is so confident he can pull it off that he is willing to gamble his life in the effort.

Tom Daniels is a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of young men who experienced exactly the same thing he faced in 1968. What Daniel Dinges describes about the life-changing decision forced upon Tom Daniels, and about his experiences in the U.S. military, apply to the countless thousands who experienced the same in the real world. Get Out of the Way is a rather simplistic history lesson covering a volatile period in American history because it is told entirely through the eyes of a young man confronted by the politics that might cost him his life. He is not a sophisticated person; he is the average American male fresh out of high school and wondering what comes next. No matter how they may have resolved the issue of Viet Nam for themselves, male readers who were around in the late 1960s will recognize a little of themselves in Tom Daniels.

Get Out of the Way suffers a bit in that Tom Daniels is the only character in the book that is near to being a fully developed one. The supporting cast is defined only in terms of its interaction with Tom and, consequently, those characters do not become quite real to the reader. I found myself wanting to know more about Tom’s parents, his brother, the young women in his life and some of the soldiers he met during his two years in the Army because knowing more about those characters would have given me a better understanding of Tom himself.

Readers of a certain age, those who were there, will find themselves revisiting old memories as they read Get Out of the Way. Younger readers will come away from the book with a better understanding of the life or death situation their very young fathers and grandfathers faced when confronted by such an unpopular war. The decisions those young men made went a long way in determining whom they would become or if they would survive to old age.

Rated at: 3.5

Best of 2010, Update 3

I have finished a review copy of Get Out of the Way, a new novel by Daniel Dinges. This one will bring back lots of memories, good and bad ones, for men who had to plan their lives solely around the Viet Nam War and the military draft required to sustain that misguided effort. This is a novel based on the author’s experiences but I found that his story takes place in almost exactly the same months of 1968 during which I found myself snatched up by the system.

After 7 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Get Out of the Way – Daniel Dinges (novel)
5. Boston Noir – Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

6. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (novel)

7. William S. and the Great Escape – Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children’s book)

Just a reminder: When I reach 11 total books, one will drop off to reflect a current Top Ten. From that point onward, a book will drop from the list each time I add a new one.

Do E-Reader Owners Buy More Books Than Others?

According to at least one survey, they do. GigaOM cites this L.E.K. Consulting survey that seems to prove that owners of e-readers are reading more than they read before purchasing the readers – and that a substantial percentage of their reading is of recently published books:

Of the 10 percent of consumers who own e-readers, 48 percent told L.E.K. that they were reading more books vs. just 7 percent who said their book reading decreased. E-reader owners also said they were reading more newspapers than before (59 percent) and more magazines (44 percent). According to L.E.K., 36 percent of the books read by people with e-readers are “incremental consumption,” representing new books rather than books the owner would otherwise have read in print.


“The fact that Amazon sold more Kindle books than printed books on Christmas Day 2009 speaks volumes,” L.E.K. vice president Dan Schechter said in a news release. “We’ve dubbed the 10 percent of consumers who own an e-reader as the ‘E-reader Republic,’ and think that it is a potential goldmine for content providers and advertisers alike.”

While iPod owners consumed about nine hours per week of new media, e-reader owners consumed more than 18 hours a week. L.E.K. said the survey is considered demographically representative of the U.S. population over 18 years of age.

This kind of news has to be encouraging to publishers despite the fear that low e-book prices might make consumers more resistant to the significantly higher prices publishers charge for physical copies of the same books. Publishers need to adapt quickly, and logically, if they want to avoid the fate of the big record labels. Have you been to a record store lately? Let’s not let the same thing happen to bookstores.

Book Chase Is Three

I suddenly realized this afternoon that today marks three full years of existence for Book Chase. I made a mental note a couple of weeks ago to prepare something for the occasion but mental notes don’t seem to work very well for me anymore.

I do, though, want to express my appreciation to everyone who stops by here on a regular basis to see what might be happening. I thoroughly enjoy your comments and books suggestions – pretty much everything but what the spammers try to sneak in, in fact. That interaction and instant feedback is what blogging is all about.

My reading habits have changed greatly in the last three years and that is largely due to all the great lit blogs I’ve discovered since I started one of my own. Before Book Chase, I never imagined the existence of such a huge online community of book lovers and lit bloggers. In fact, the sheer number of lit blogs still staggers me.

So, three years are in the books (excuse the pun), resulting in almost 1200 separate posts, a few thousand comments and over 400 book reviews. It has been quite a ride and, frankly, I never expected it to last this long. It has become such a big part of my regular routine now, however, that I can’t imagine closing shop.

As part of my own tiny celebration, I am giving away an unread Advance Reader Copy of John Irving’s latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. All you have to do to enter the giveaway is to leave a comment under this post in which you pick a number from 1 to 25. I will use my random number generator to pick a winner from the entries, but this way you get to choose your own “random number.” Just be sure to check comments earlier than yours so that you don’t choose an already-taken number.

Good luck.

Robert B. Parker Dead at 77

I was shocked this afternoon to learn of the sudden death of Spenser creator, Robert B. Parker. Mr. Parker was only 77 years old and, these days, that doesn’t really seem to be all that old. Parker wrote books other than the ones in his Spencer series, of course, but he will be long remembered for creating that wonderful Boston detective.

In my reading experience, Spenser broke new ground. He was a man’s man and he was a woman’s man. He could take care of himself and he showed little fear; he believed that the fight of good against evil was a worthy one; he loved to help the underdog and was especially protective of women. He had a long-term relationship with a beautiful woman and he never cheated on her. His best friend was a huge African American man and their friendship was so special that their relationship became one of my favorite things about a Spenser novel. Parker allowed Spenser to age over the years but he remained the same man he always was.

Other writers took the Spenser model and modified it enough to create series characters of their own but Spenser was out there very early in the game, helping to show them the way. I didn’t discover Robert B. Parker until 1982 and I remember being thrilled to find out about all the earlier Spenser books. Within a few months, I caught up and had read all the Spenser novels written to that point – and for many years I read the new ones as quickly as I could find them.

Rest in peace, Mr. Parker. I thank you for all the books I’ve enjoyed over the years and I will really miss you.

(The second photo is from the back flap of 1983’s The Widening Gyre, the tenth Spenser novel and the first one I purchased in hardcover – when hardcovers were going for $12.95 each.)

Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times

When it comes to country music history, Ralph Stanley has pretty much seen it all. Now, at age 82, he has partnered with author Eddie Dean to share some of that with the rest of us. The book they co-authored, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, will, of course be especially appreciated by bluegrass fans, Stanley Brothers fans, and fans of the work Ralph has done since Carter’s death on December 1, 1966. Others, even those that are not fans of Stanley or of bluegrass music, will find the book to be a remarkable snapshot of a pivotal period in American music history, a time during which musicians like the Stanley Brothers earned their livings through live radio shows, relatively primitive recordings, and driving countless miles from one paying gig to the next.

Stanley was born in 1927 in the Clinch mountains of southwestern Virginia and he still lives very near the old home place where he grew up with his older brother Carter. Carter and Ralph were still teenagers when they began performing as the Stanley Brothers and, for the rest of their lives, the brothers would depend on music to provide their living, difficult as that would often prove to be (think about the impact of Elvis Presley). Carter would be gone much too soon, dead by age 42 primarily because of an inability to control his alcohol consumption, but Ralph would find new lead singers to keep the music of the Stanley Brothers alive to the present day.

First to replace Carter was18-year-old Larry Sparks, but Sparks would be followed over the years by others, including an even younger Keith Whitley who joined the Clinch Mountain Boys with his singing buddy Ricky Skaggs. As Stanley recounts, Whitley would move on to a successful stint with J.D. Crowe before himself dying of alcohol poisoning when just on the verge of a career-making mainstream breakthrough.

Man of Constant Sorrow includes stories about many of the men that have been members of the Clinch Mountain Boys for the past six decades. Stanley shares both the good and the bad about his life and he does the same for the men with whom he worked all those years, even to providing details (as he understands them) of the murder of Roy Lee Centers and the legal system that let off his killer with the lightest of sentences imaginable. Stanley speaks often of losing band members to death or illness and addresses how difficult it was for him to fire various Clinch Mountain Boys over the years.

The beauty of Man of Constant Sorrow is that it is told in Ralph Stanley’s voice, mountain dialect and spelling, included. The voice is so accurate (and, at times so rambling) that one has to believe that Dr. Ralph’s contribution to the book was largely made via a recording device into which he spoke his memories and that Eddie Dean’s job was to put everything in the proper order for a book presentation.

This stream-of-consciousness approach also contributes to an unpleasant surprise or two for those of us who know Ralph Stanley only through his onstage persona. Stanley, it seems, has a tendency to give praise to others with one hand while, with the other, explaining that he does it better than they ever did (be “it” music or some standard of behavior), and a willingness to tell degrading stories about the people he does not like or approve of, even if they are long dead. I was particularly struck by the paragraphs devoted to how delightful if was for the band to have a dim-witted picker on the road with them, someone at whom the rest of the band could always laugh to relieve the tension and fatigue of the road. This light streak of cruelty and lack of empathy in some of Stanley’s stories truly surprises me and exposes an inability to see himself through the eyes of others.

Man of Constant Sorrow suffers, too, from the glaring gaps left in its chronology. Very little is said about Carter Stanley’s children and how they survived after Carter’s death despite the fact that one of them, Jeanie, is herself an excellent bluegrass singer. There is also the matter of Ralph own first marriage, to which I can find only one quick reference where Stanley discusses his mother’s reaction to his surprise marriage to Jimmie: “My first marriage didn’t really count in her book. And not in mine, neither. I had to go through the bad marriage to be ready for a woman like Jimmie, I reckon.” To those unaware of Stanley’s first marriage, this is the equivalent of a neck-twisting double-take, and I still wonder where in his long story this failed marriage fits. Lastly, there is little mention of Ralph’s own children, despite the fact that Ralph Stanley II was a Clinch Mountain Boy for about 20 years and that one grandson is a current member of the band.

Despite the gaps in the book, and, in my personal opinion , some of what Dr. Ralph reveals about his nature, Man of Constant Sorrow is a worthy addition to country music history and it deserves a wide audience. It is, after all, Ralph Stanley’s story – and he gets to decide what he wants to share and what he wants to reveal about himself in the process.

Rated at: 4.0

Best of 2010, Update 2

I have finished the new Ralph Stanley biography, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times. The book is officially authored by Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean so I am not sure if this should be considered a biography, an autobiography, or some hybrid of the two. Perhaps there should be a new category called “celebrity biography” because of the way they are written from interviews and taped conversations. This one, for instance, is entirely in the spoken voice of Ralph Stanley.

After 6 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
2. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz (memoir)

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)

4. Boston Noir – Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

5. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (novel)

6. William S. and the Great Escape – Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children’s book)

I’m a bit surprised that I still have not found a 5.0 rated book. I have already abandoned three books, too, so maybe I’m just more impatient than I was at the end of last year.

"Mama, books and death"

What better tribute can a person whose life has been defined by a love of books receive than something like this?

Tina McElroy Ansa, who lost her mother last week, celebrates her life in this special piece:

One of the first memories I have of my mother is of her sitting in her pink reading chair in the living room with a hard book in her hand. At age 5 or so, I’d come running up to show her something I’d found out in the yard.

She would stop, look me in the face and say softly yet sternly, “Not now, baby. Mama’s reading.” Then she would go back to her book.

I would stomp off for a couple of minutes, probably seconds, and return with the same request, “Hey, Mama, look at this leaf I found. Smell it!”

She would put the book down in her lap again, her manicured finger holding her page, and patiently, slowly repeat her rule.

“Not now, baby. Mama’s reading.”

And I would storm off again, wondering what magic was there in between the pages of those books. Because of my mother, I soon discovered that magic.


My mother fed us wonderful books in just the way she fed us fried Silver Queen corn in summer and chitlins and rich vegetable soup in winter.

This sharing of books was our family practice initiated by my mother until her death. While I was on the road promoting my books, I was always on the lookout for books I know she would enjoy. My friend Blanche, a bookstore owner in the San Francisco Bay area who made friends with my mother when Mama and her childhood friend, Aunt Mary, joined me on book tour there, made sure all the really good authors who came through her stores signed copies of their books for Mama. Just weeks ago, one of Mama’s granddaughters shared the memoir of Diahann Carroll with her, and they discussed it over the phone.


My mother gave me words. My writing taught compassion. My mother died. Fifty thousand Haitians are killed. And I know how it feels to mourn for all of them and each of them.

Universally and specifically.

Avid readers already know how books can positively shape a person’s character and life in ways that non-readers will never enjoy. Nellie McElroy understood that. She dearly loved books and reading and she gifted successive generations of her family with that same love, in the process creating new readers that are likely to think of her every time they open the covers of a new book. How great is this?

Boston Noir

Boston Noir is, by my count, the thirty-fourth book in a series of darkish short story collections set in major cities around the world. Each of the featured cities has distinct enough a personality to set a unique tone for its particular volume, even, at times becoming as much a character in the stories as the chief protagonists themselves.

This particular volume is home to eleven short stories, some of which have been written by authors already well known to genre readers and others by lesser known writers. Dennis Lehane contributes both the book’s introduction and a story entitled “Animal Rescue” about a seemingly simple man with an unexpected hard edge to him. Other contributors include: Stewart O’Nan, Lynne Heitman, Jim Fusilli, Patricia Powell and John Dufresne.

The stories have a tough, sometimes depressing, tone to them but they are kept lighter than they otherwise would have been by the bits of ironic humor that sneak into them when least expected. Even readers unfamiliar with the term “noir,” will be tempted to explore the collection after reading Lehane’s definition of what it takes to be a “noir hero” –

“In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs. Tragic heroes die in a blaze of their own ill-advised conflation. Noir heroes die clutching fences or crumpled in trunks or, in the case of poor Eddie Coyle, they simply doze off drunkenly in a car and take one in the back of the head before they have a chance to wake up again. No wise words, no music swelling on the soundtrack.”

These are stories about white collar people who finally reach their breaking point; people who see an opportunity to stick it to the system and grab the chance to do so; people eager to profit from the deaths of others; hard people that suffer because of soft hearts; inept criminals who somehow manage to bluff their way through; and the worst kind of sex predator – something for everyone.

Stories collected from so many different writers will, of course, vary in quality, and those gathered in Boston Noir are no exception to that rule. What is rather unusual, unfortunately, is that the quality of these stories range all the way from very effective to almost incomprehensible, meaning that most readers are likely to consider Boston Noir to be, at best, an average collection of short stories.

Rated at: 3.0

Illegal Downloading of E-books Is a Growing Problem

As far as illegal downloads go, 9 million copies is small potatoes in comparison to how many illegal music downloads are still occurring every year. I get that. But I am still impressed with the fact that 9 million copyrighted books were “stolen” via the internet last year. (I wouldn’t feel badly if they were all titles by Dan Brown and James Patterson, but that’s another story.)

According to this Washington Post article, the bulk of the downloading pertained to some 913 titles, each of which was illegally downloaded about 10,000 times:

The study, conducted by the online monitoring and enforcement service Attributor, highlights the drain from piracy on publishers revenues and the need for more effective protections online for copy-righted material.


The study examined 14 categories to capture a representative sample of the industry, including business and investing, health, mind and body, fiction and reference. Business and investing titles suffered the highest number of illegal downloads, averaging 13,000 copies per title, with a potential loss of more than $1 million on each title, Attributor estimated. Popular fiction titles averaged about 6,000 illegal downloads each.

“Freakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, for example, was pirated 1,132 times from just one of the hosting sites. Attributor would not release total individual numbers. In fiction, “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown was pirated 8,177 times from one site.

I have also linked to the study so that you can see the details for yourselves, including a listing of the sites responsible for allowing the bulk of the 9 million illegal downloads. I’m going to visit some of those sites (if the links are real) just to see what’s going on. I suspect that the industry is watching them closely, too, and I wonder how much increased traffic the sites will receive now that they’ve been “outed.” This is one of those Catch-22 situations for publishers.

Best of 2010, Update 1

I finished a short story collection late last night so it is time for my first update to my Best of 2010 list. Boston Noir is a collection of 11 short stories set in and around Boston, stories involving assorted crimes and criminals that definitely fall in the “noir” category.

After 5 books, this is what the real time list now looks like:

1. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz (nonfiction)
2. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)

3. Boston Noir – Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

4. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (novel)

5. William S. and the Great Escape – Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children’s book)

Alert readers will note that my numeric book ratings do not fall perfectly in line on this list. I try to rate an individual book according to what I perceive to be its overall merit and quality. My Best of 2010 list, on the other hand, is based on how much I enjoyed the book and how likely I am to ever be tempted to read it again. Fuzzy enough for you?

Something a Little Different

The hardest thing for me at the end of each calendar year is putting together my “Best of the Year” post. I am starting to believe that the books I read during the first quarter of a given year just don’t get a fair shake because they are a little dimmer in my memory than those books I read later in the year.

So, this year, I’m going to keep a “real time” Top 10 list. It will be a floating ranking of the books as I read them. At least at the beginning, I will mix fiction and nonfiction titles in the same list but it might make more sense later on to split the list into two. Each time that I finish a book, I will rank it relative to the books I read before it and when I come to book number 11, one will drop off the list. That way I’ll be all set at the end of the year. My only concern is that this might take all the “suspense” from the list, but I honestly think it will be more meaningful.

This is where I am as of January 13:

1. The Opposite Field – Jesse Katz (nonfiction)
2. The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim (novel)
3. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris (novel)
4. William S. and the Great Escape – Zilpha Keattey Snyder (Children’s book)

The race is on. And it’s a marathon.