Book Chase 2010 Year-End Statistics

Another year is done and I’ve managed to pull together some end-of-year numbers that reflect the kind of reading year 2010 was for me. I find that I was fairly consistent from month-to-month with my reading but that I had at least two “reading slumps” during which nothing really impressed me as being even remotely special.   I hate when that happens.  In fact, the same thing happened to me last year, further evidence, I believe, that the problem is one of my own “attitude” rather than of the quality of the books on hand.

This, according to the stats, was my year:

Number of Books Read – 125

Fiction – 90:
Novels – 84
Short Story Collections – 6

Nonfiction – 35:
Memoirs – 15
Biographies – 6
Literary Criticism – 3
Political Science – 3
Language Arts – 2
Sociology – 2
Sports – 2
Science – 1
True Crime – 1

Written by Men – 76
Written by Women – 45
Co-Authored by Both – 4

Audio Books – 13
E-Books – 10
Library Books – 41
Review Copies – 72
Started but Abandoned – 9

Author Nationality:
British – 10
Iranian – 2
Icelandic – 2
French – 1
Irish – 1
Spanish – 1
Canadian – 1
Australian – 1
American – 106

Length of Average Book Read in 2010 – 316 pages
Total Number of Pages Read (Excluding audio books) = 34,500+

Coming into the year, my rather vague goals included reading more international fiction, more nonfiction, more short story collections, more classic literature, and to read multiple books from a series or two. It appears that I failed miserably on all counts with the exception of short story collections. Next year’s goals are going to be a bit different and I’ll get into those in the next few days but I am convinced that I need to read fewer review copies in 2011. I love early-looks at books but I can see that I need to limit myself to three or four per month rather than the six or seven I have read each month during the last two years or so.

I’m excited about moving into the New Year and beginning the fifth year of Book Chase on January 20. Let’s have some fun in 2011.

Top 10 Nonfiction of 2010

These are my ten favorite nonfiction books of the 35 books read in that category during 2010:

1.  George Washington: A Life – Ron Chernow – I would guess that most Americans do not even realize how little they know about George Washington.  Oh, sure, we all know that silly cherry tree story (an event that never happened) proving that Washington “could not tell a lie.”  We know that he crossed the Delaware River on December 25, 1776, during the Revolutionary War because we are familiar with the historically inaccurate Emanuel Leutze painting from 1851 portraying that courageous decision.  We know about Washington’s wooden teeth, or we think we do since that is another slightly bent story about our first president (the real story of Washington’s dental problems is even more fascinating than the myth about his wooden teeth).

2.  My Reading Life – Pat Conroy – Pat Conroy fans, this one is for you.  Longtime readers of Conroy’s fiction have often wondered why so many years pass between new books, how much truth is really contained in his novels, how his family reacts about seeing themselves in his novels, and whether Conroy’s abuse at the hands of his father has had a long term impact on his head.  In My Reading Life, Conroy answers all of those questions – and many more.

3.  Lies My Mother Never Told Me – Kaylie Jones – Her father is James Jones, the National Book Award winner most famous for From Here to Eternity, the first book of his World War II trilogy that also includes The Thin Red Lineand Whistle. Her mother is Gloria Jones, an outrageously full of life woman so beautiful that she was once a Marilyn Monroe stand-in. Like her father, Kaylie Jones is a talented writer and she has spent a lifetime immersed in the literary world. Unfortunately, Jones also shares the alcoholism suffered by both her parents, a problem she addresses frankly in Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir. 

4.  War – Sebastian Junger – For a long time, I have been fascinated by the breed of reporter/writer so willing to put everything on the line in order to experience warfare alongside American soldiers. It is only from these brave and talented men and women that the rest of us get a decent picture of what is really happening out there and what our young soldiers are enduring for months on end. Sebastian Junger is one of the best of the breed. I am already a fan of Junger’s The Perfect Storm and A Death in Belmont, both of which are excellently written, but I do believe that War is his best effort yet.

5.  Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book – Sean Manning, ed. – All of us, I suspect, have one or two favorite books on our shelves, books that we are as much emotionally attached to as anything else we own.  But, think about that for a second.  One’s favorite books, the ones carried around during a lifetime of relocations, are not necessarily favorites because of what is between their covers.  They are just as likely to be favorites because of all the memories attached to their acquisition, or where they were first read, or what family member owned them first, or because they were a gift from a favorite teacher, relative, or long lost friend.  As the back cover of Bound to Last puts it, we love this kind of book “because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object.”

6.  Mark Twain’s Other Woman – Laura Skandera Trembley – During his lifetime, Mark Twain was arguably the most famous man in the world. As such, he was very conscious of the public image that guaranteed him a secure income stream on the lecture tour any time he needed to tap into it. And because Twain had a habit of losing money to unwise investment decisions, the money he earned from public appearances was crucial if he was to maintain the lifestyle to which he and his family had become so accustomed. Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain became increasingly concerned about how he would be remembered after his death, and he was determined that nothing would tarnish his image at that late date. He achieved that goal – until now.

7.  Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley, Eddie Dean – 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.

8.  At Home: A Short History of Private Life – Bill Bryson – Readers who enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (in which he covered the world of science), are likely to be equally taken by At Home: A Short History of Private Life in which the author turns his attention to social history. At first glance, I feared that Bryson was going to do little more than wander from room to room of his home, explaining along the way the development of the form and function of each of the old house’s rooms. This 19th century-built home, a former parsonage located in rural England, certainly lends itself to that type of discussion. Luckily, however, Bryson had much more in mind for At Home.

9.  Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen – Jimmy McDonough – Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen is some kind of crazy cross between biography and author memoir. I call it crazy because, in theory, it should not work – but the craziest thing about it is how well it does work once the reader clicks to the book’s obvious slant. Author Jimmy McDonough idolizes Tammy Wynette and he is none too thrilled with those who so often made her life a living hell. While he recounts Wynette’s life in detail, McDonough is quick to offer his personal opinion about those details. He never hesitates to ridicule individual songs, hair styles, clothing, or album covers, for instance. McDonough wisely does not even attempt to portray himself as the impersonal biographer. Otherwise, the four or five personal “letters” to Wynette he places throughout the book would be even stranger than they already are. 

10.  Losing My Cool – Thomas Chatterton Williams – It is always easier for an outsider to be objective about an unfamiliar culture than it is for someone totally immersed in that same culture, especially when strict conformity to the accepted norm of the culture serves as a means of survival within it. I recognize, however, that an outsider brings his own baggage and bias into any discussion about a culture foreign to his eyes. And when it comes to the hip-hop culture that so completely dominates overall black culture today, especially the lives of its younger members, I am absolutely an outsider. But, as such, I have long wondered how, and why, American blacks have allowed their culture and their image as a people to be disgraced by something as shallow and destructive as hip-hop. In Losing My Cool, Thomas Chatterton Williams explores how the hip-hop culture came to dominate Black America and what needs to be done to counter its terrible influence on young people.


I am particularly pleased with the quality of the books on this year’s Nonfiction Top 10 list.  I had hoped to read more nonfiction in 2010 than I read in 2009 but finished with only 35 nonfiction titles for the year.  Maybe I was just lucky; maybe I was more careful in my choices.  Whatever the reason, I think this is my strongest nonfiction Top 10 list in the four years I’ve been sharing here on Book Chase.  Check some of these out if you have the time – you won’t be disappointed.

Top 10 Fiction of 2010

These are the ten fiction books I most enjoyed during 2010 of a total of 90 books read in that category:

1.  Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese – Cutting for Stone is one of those novels whose size and reputation could easily intimidate its prospective readers. It comes in at almost 550 pages, after all, and most of the story takes place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, of all places. Its main characters are Ethiopian, Eritrean, Indian, British, or some mix of those nationalities and, even when the action moves to New York City, it is to a part of the city few Americans know anything about. The novel is part history lesson, part love story; it is both a modern novel and a reminder of the kind of thing Charles Dickens wrote on his best days; it is a science lesson and a travelogue. Bottom line: This is a very special novel, a reading experience everyone should at least consider having. Pick up this book; flip through it; read a few pages to see if it is something for you. If not, put it aside and try it again in a few months. Maybe you will get lucky the second time around.

2.  Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes – Matterhorn, a first novel by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, was some thirty years in the making and it was only published after Marlantes cut about 1,000 pages from his original manuscript. Despite the cuts, the book still comes in at close to 600 pages in length and it tells a story that will be stuck in the minds of its readers long after they have turned the final page. This one, too, is a reminder that the written word almost always tells a story more powerfully than the same story can be told on film.

3.  The Calligrapher’s Daughter – Eugenia Kim – The Calligrapher’s Daughter is Eugenia Kim’s debut novel and, as so many first novels do, the book tells a story very close to the author’s heart, one, in this case, inspired by her own mother’s life. Set in Korea between 1915 and 1945, it recounts the suffering inflicted upon the country by Japanese invaders that arrived there early in the 20th century. Japanese administrators, determined to wipe out any memory of an independent Korea, allowed only Japanese to be spoken in schools, taught only Japanese history to Korean children, destroyed the Korean royal family, and filled local prisons with those that dared protest. During World War II, when Japan realized its chances of prevailing were slipping away, life became particularly desperate for Koreans because Japan saw Korea as little more than a source of slave labor, food and raw materials to be exploited for the Japanese war effort.

4.  The White Garden – Stephanie Barron – Everyone knows that, one day in 1941, famed British author Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets with heavy rocks before stepping into the cold waters of the river Ouse. Perhaps because of the extra weight she carried into the water with her, Woolf’s body would not be found until three weeks later. Woolf’s family and friends, aware that she was often in a suicidal frame-of-mind, were not surprised by her end, so the official verdict of suicide was never challenged. Now, in an intriguing piece of alternate history, The White Garden, Stephanie Barron examines the possibilities of what may have happened during the three weeks between Woolf’s disappearance and the recovery of her body in the Ouse.

5.  Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier – Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, based on the true story of fossil-finders Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, is a piece of feminist historical fiction that works. Set in the early years of the 19th century, the book is a reminder of how completely women were excluded from the scientific community of the time – regardless of what they might achieve they were unlikely to receive much official credit for their work. It was a time, too, when people still believed that God had created the earth, and human beings, a mere five or six thousand years earlier and any evidence to the contrary was seen as something blasphemous.

6.  Drood – Dan Simmons – Drood is more than a book; it is an experience, a total immersion into Victorian England and the personal lives of two of the most famous authors of the day: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Either way the reader chooses to experience this Dan Simmons book, by reading it or by listening to the audio book version, requires a major commitment of time and effort. The book itself is almost 800 pages long and the audio version of 24 CDs requires just under 30 hours of listening time. The audio book, read by Simon Prebble, is the route I chose to follow.

7.  Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny – Bury Your Dead is book number six in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series but, as has so often been the case for me, I am arriving late to the party.  There are several unrelated plotlines in Bury Your Dead and Louise Penny juggles them like a champion, maintaining the reader’s keen interest in each of them as they slowly reach their separate climaxes.  In addition, and an aspect of the book that particularly appealed to me, there is a very painless history lesson at the heart of the murder with which Armand Gamache is most directly connected.  

8.  North River – Pete Hamill – For a book that includes so much actual, not to mention potential violence, Pete Hamill’s North River is at its heart a very gentle novel.  Dr. James Delaney, a WWI medic who was himself wounded in the war, is having a tough time of it in 1934 Greenwich Village. Delaney’s neighborhood patients are suffering the effects of the Depression and cash money to pay for Delaney’s services is hard to come by.  Despite the fact that his wife, Molly, who suffers from depression, has walked out of his life and has not been heard from since, Delaney keeps her room as she left it in hopes that she will walk back into his world one day.

9.  Shadow of the Swords – Kamran Pasha – Few will argue the old cliché that there are “two sides to every story,” or that truth requires consideration of both sides, especially when it comes to the study of written history. The tendency of history textbooks to present only one point-of-view brings to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote, “History is written by the victors.” But the “victors,” unfortunately, tell us only what they want us to know, and the losers generally have lost their right to argue the point.  Kamran Pasha’s Shadow of the Swords is an opportunity for Western readers to look at the bloody Third Crusade of the late twelfth century through the eyes of Saladin, commander of the Muslim forces in Palestine at the time of Richard the Lionheart’s invasion of the region. Note, however, that portions of the book are written from Richard’s point-of-view, although Saladin’s character remains the most influential one throughout the book.

10.  City of Tranquil Light – Bo Caldwell – City of Tranquil Light, Bo Caldwell’s second novel, is a beautiful story set in China just when that country was on the cusp of all the cultural shocks the rest of the 20th century would bring it. It is the story of two young Mennonites who were inspired to return to rural China with the charismatic minister who came to their communities seeking the funds and volunteers he needed to keep his mission there alive.  The saga begins in 1906 when a 21-year-old farmer from Oklahoma and a 22-year-old nurse from Cleveland decide to become foreign missionaries. For Katherine Friesen, the decision is a little easier than it is for Will Kiehn – Katherine’s sister is married to the charismatic young minister with whom she will be traveling to China. Will, on the other hand, has never known a life other than farming and he fears that he is unprepared for what is ahead. He is right about that. But no one could have been prepared for the lives he and Katherine will lead in a remote Chinese village for the better part of the next twenty-five years.


And there you have it: a Top 10 list of the best fiction books I encountered during 2010.  I am pleased with the list, having thoroughly enjoyed all ten of these and, for a change, I think I could have come up with a strong second ten books.  Interestingly (to me, anyway), four of the books are review copies provided by publishers and six came from my county library, including the two audio books that made the list.  Not a single book that I purchased myself made the list.

Territory

Territory broke new ground for me.  I have long been a fan of realistic western fiction, the grittier the better, but have never much enjoyed fantasy writing of the type filled with magicians, superheroes, or magic kingdoms.  Fortunately, this time my love for both factual and fictional accounts of the Earp brothers, and their association with Doc Holliday, overrode my reluctance to spend reading time on the fantasy genre.  That is because Emma Bull has pulled off what I would have considered impossible before reading Territory: a near perfect blending of a realistic western with a healthy dose of magic thrown into the mix. 
That Bull’s use of magic is key to the development of her novel’s plot and characters but still not overdone, makes for an enjoyably off-center look at some real-life characters already very familiar to fans of Old West novels.  The action all takes place in and around Tombstone, Arizona, just a few months before the infamous (and still mysterious) “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” as all the usual suspects gather there to feed on the hatred they feel for each other. 
On the one side are Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and the equally famous dentist who calls himself Doc Holliday.  On the other side are gunslinger Johnny Ringo and the Clanton and McClaury brothers, a bunch of part-time cowboys and rustlers. What makes this portrayal of the historical events of the day so different is that several of the key players have more than simple charisma working in their favor; they are secret magicians with the power to influence events as much with their minds as with their pistols. 
Into this mix, Bull blends several fictional characters that get caught up in the events of the day.  Jesse Fox, making his way to Mexico where he hopes to make a living breaking wild horses, stops in Tombstone to see his old friend from San Francisco, Chow Lung.  Fox knows deep-down that his Chinese friend has unusual powers but is reluctant to admit it even to himself.  Little does he know that Chow Lung has called him to Tombstone using some of that same magic so that the two can investigate the evil that has entered the town. Mildred, recently widowed, works in one of Tombstone’s daily newspapers as a typesetter but is the glue that holds the little paper together.  When Jesse Fox comes into the office one day, they inadvertently begin a partnership that will change both their lives forever.
Bull takes the time to build a realistic setting within which she develops her characters and their motivations.  Atmospherically, everything will seem so familiar to fans of the western genre that, when fantasy replaces realism, they will hardly notice the jolt.  Fantasy and magic are well used in order to explore a world on the edge, one in which physical strength and domination are key elements in local politics and in the everyday lives of all of Tombstone’s citizens.
This one is fun, and it would be a shame if those who loathe either western fiction or fantasy fiction were to miss it.  Give it a shot.
Rated at: 4.0

North River

For a book that includes so much actual, not to mention potential violence, Pete Hamill’s North River is at its heart a very gentle novel. 

 Dr. James Delaney, a WWI medic who was himself wounded in the war, is having a tough time of it in 1934 Greenwich Village.  Delaney’s neighborhood patients are suffering the effects of the Depression and cash money to pay for Delaney’s services is hard to come by.  Despite the fact that his wife, Molly, who suffers from depression, has walked out of his life and has not been heard from since, Delaney keeps her room as she left it in hopes that she will walk back into his world one day.
His day-to-day routine, bleak as it is, is rocked one day when Delaney returns home to find that his daughter Grace has abandoned her two-year-old son at his doorstep.  At first, Delaney is filled with anger that Grace would do such a thing.  Later, he will realize that little Carlito and Rose, the woman he hired to help him care for the little boy, are two of the best things that ever happened to him.
Delaney’s life grows complicated when he is called upon to save the life of Eddie Corso, a local mobster who has been gunned down by a rival gang.  Delaney and Corso have a history going back to the first time Delaney saved Corso’s life – when Delaney risked German snipers to get to the severely wounded Corso one horrible day during the war.  The bond the two men formed that day is as strong as ever.  Unfortunately for Delaney and his grandson, rival gangster Frankie Botts is convinced that Delaney knows where the recuperating Corso is hiding, and Botts is willing to do anything to get that information, even if it involves the boy.
But now comes the gentle (and best) part of the story.  North River is really a very well written love story that encompasses the love of a man for his lost wife, his estranged daughter, his grandson, and soon enough for Rose, the Italian illegal emigrant who has moved so seamlessly into his life.  Before long, little Carlito, who spent his first two years living in Mexico, is speaking Spanish, English, and even a good bit of Italian as he charms everyone in the Delaney household.  Carlito’s world is one of constant discovery, and before long the adults around him cannot but help see the world through his new eyes, too.
North River gives the reader a remarkable feel for life in one New York City neighborhood during the Depression.  Hamill’s sense of what everyday life was like for those who lived within a few blocks of the Village during the thirties is a key element of his story.  This is a combination of superb historical fiction, crime fiction and romance and, as such, it will certainly appeal to a variety of readers.  Don’t miss this one.
Rated at: 5.0

Charlie and the Book Factory

Once again, a child leads the way.  One little boy in Dalton, Georgia, decided that it would be nice to have a bookstore in his hometown – and he decided to do something about it.

According to PRWeb.com:

Charlie got the idea to write a letter to Books-A-Million, the nation’s third-largest book chain, after his parents told him one night they didn’t have time to drive to the store’s nearest location 30 miles away. His mom, Jody, told his third-grade teacher Debbie Reynolds about his plan. Reynolds moved up her persuasive writing lesson and encouraged her students to write letters to the CEO of Books-A-Million. By Thanksgiving, about 500 letters written by students in the Dalton Public School system landed on Anderson’s desk, begging him to open a Books-A-Million store at the local Walnut Square Mall.


On December 3rd, Anderson made a surprise appearance in Reynold’s classroom and announced that a Books-A-Million store would be opening, hopefully in time for the holidays. Anderson sealed his promise by giving each child a $25 gift card to the new store.

Charlie officially becomes the store’s first customer

But that was just the beginning.  Charlie and some of his classmates were part of the store’s official grand opening on December 18 when they probably took advantage of all those $25 gift cards.  Books-A-Million must have worked at record speed to get this location opened before Christmas, so here’s hats off to them for what they did for Charlie, his school, and the citizens of Dalton.  After all, how can anyone live 30 miles from the nearest bookstore?  That’s too horrible to contemplate. 

Thanks to Books-A-Million and to Charlie and his teacher for this just-in-time-for-Christmas feel-good story.

The Broken Shore

I have long believed that quality crime fiction, the kind built around a sense of place and well developed characters, can give the armchair traveler a better feel for a country and its culture than all but the best written travel books.  Books like Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore always remind me how true that is.
Big city Australian cop Joe Cashin has been exiled to the little police station responsible for the security of the small South Australian coastal town he grew up in – not that the citizens there have much crime to worry about.  He has ostensibly been sent to the area to recover from a serious physical injury, but Cashin is the kind of cop whose superiors sometimes need a break from him, and no one seems in a hurry to call him back.  Perhaps that is because he is not much into political correctness or going out of his way to make his fellow policemen look good when they do not deserve it.
When local millionaire Charles Bourgoyne is discovered in his mansion with his head bashed in, Cashin soon finds himself at odds with others in the department who are determined to pin the crime on a group of aboriginal teens caught trying to sell the man’s watch.  After the case is officially closed, Cashin, ever the introspective loner, decides to investigate the crime on his own.  His investigation, made more difficult by the town’s instinctive racism toward its aboriginal population, will lead him deep into a part of the community’s past tainted by child pornography and sexual abuse. 
Joe Cashin is not a perfect cop.  In fact, he sometimes tends to make the kind of careless or lazy mistake that can place him, his fellow cops, or the success of an investigation in danger.  The older he gets, the more Cashin questions what he has done with his life.  He is close to no one, including his mother and only brother, but despite not being happy about the situation, he does little to remedy it.  But the man has a good heart, and a very big one, at that.  He is a staunch defender of the underdog and he believes in second chances, two qualities that mark him as a misfit among his fellow policemen.
The Broken Shore is filled with memorable little moments, unforgettable characters, and complicated personal relationships.  It is about much more than the murder of one old man with a past of his own to protect.  Peter Temple uses dialogue to develop his characters much in the way that Elmore Leonard has become so celebrated for doing.  It works well for Temple, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting into the revealing conversational rhythms of his characters.  Readers will be well advised, however, to familiarize themselves with the Australian slang terms in the book’s glossary before beginning the novel (a fun, standalone read, that is) in order to keep the conversation flowing at the pace at which it is meant to be read.
This, my first Peter Temple novel, is actually the author’s ninth, and I look forward to reading the others.
Rated at: 4.0

Do E-Books Even Need Covers?

I got my Sony Reader back from my granddaughter last weekend so that I could download a review copy of Pat Conroy’s first novel, The Boo.  I was a little disappointed to learn that the review copy has a built-in ticking time-bomb that will destroy it exactly 60 days from the moment I completed its download.  I can understand the publisher’s reasoning for doing it that way (I suppose), but that got me thinking again about the difference between e-books and real books – and why I will always prefer the real thing to a stupid digital file that has no personality or eye appeal.

 I went out of my way, and spent a good deal of money, to place a whole wall of built-in bookshelves in the study of this house when we built it eleven years ago.  I still enjoy puttering around the shelves, coming up with new filing schemes and presentations as the mood strikes me.  Try doing that with a collection of e-books.  Bookshelves reveal much about their owner, sometimes more than the owner intends, I’m sure.  Are your shelves filled with James Patterson and Danielle Steele novels to the exclusion of most everything else?  Do the Twilight novels occupy a prominent position on your shelves?  Right alongside your collection of multiple copies of the Harry Potter series, perhaps?  If so, you might want to make sure that your boss doesn’t peruse your shelves during your next Christmas party if being taken seriously by her is important to you.

When given a chance to study the bookshelves of friends or family members, heavy-duty readers cannot resist.  And, whether they will admit it to you are not, they make personal judgments based on what they see on those shelves.  Savvy book owners know this, of course, and they use their books to tell others about themselves. All e-book collectors can do, on the other hand, is call up their little digital bookshelves and pass the e-reader or iPad around the room.  Not quite the same, is it?

Then, there are the book covers.  Simply put, I love book covers.  They are often pieces of art, much like those LP recording covers of the past (I still keep some of my favorite LPs in frames in my office and they get an amazing number of comments from visitors).  The first thing a potential buyer sees of a real book is its dust jacket and, if that cover is bad enough, it can end up being the only thing a potential buyer will see.  Some dust jackets are so bad that male readers cannot imagine being seen in public with them.  I’m sure the same, in reverse, is true for female readers.

We all love browsing in bookstores, even if we are supposedly there on a mission to buy one particular title.  If you are like me, and I suspect that most of you are, the majority of the books you buy are those that just happen to catch your eye as you wander around the store.  Some books just seem to call to you; others slap you in the head, they seem so perfect – and that’s before you even open them.  I don’t know what percentage of a book’s sales can be attributed to the eye appeal of its cover, but I am willing to bet that the positive impact of an attractive cover is substantial.  How can browsing through tiny little icon book covers on your browser compare to the experience of a real bookstore?  It can’t, of course, it can’t.

Planet of the Apes

This is the second time I have read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, but the first time since 1968.  It is so much different than I remembered it.  My memories of that first reading were tainted over the years by the awful movies that followed the original Planet of the Apes movie.  The first movie was not completely true to the novel, but it was at least an above-average movie that deserved its popularity and box office success.  The subsequent movies were just terrible in every sense of the word and, unfortunately for me, they tainted Boulle’s book beyond my recognition of its positive aspects.
For starters, author Pierre Boulle is as French as his name sounds, and the astronauts who embark on a special mission in the year 2500 are French, not the Americans of the movies.  Unfortunately for our French friends, however, they find themselves in much the same position as their American movie counterparts.  Their world has been flipped on its head in more ways than they can count.  They are fortunate to have landed on a planet hospitable to human life, but they find that it is a simian-dominated world, not one dominated the human tribe they soon encounter.
Men are hunted for sport and for scientific purposes by gorillas sent to gather more research specimens for the chimpanzee scientists who need them for study purposes.  Men, after all, are the nearest animal to the apes who dominate this world and that makes them very valuable to the chimpanzee scientists and doctors searching for the medical breakthroughs that will save simian lives in the future.  In a matter of hours, Ulysse Merou is running for his life, part of a group of humans being systematically slaughtered by a hunting group of gorillas and their wives.  Ulysse is one of the lucky ones; he escapes the hunters shotguns long enough to get himself entangled in one of their nets, meaning that he will become a lab specimen rather than a trophy.
Pierre Boulle
This sounds like sensational science fiction, and it is.  But Pierre Boulle manages to create memorable characters (some of them men, some of them apes) along the way, characters with personality, depth, and the motivation and reactions that make them real.  Planet of the Apes is a satirical novel, one that uses the simian society of this strange new world to reflect on the strangeness of our own 1970s world.  Within this amazing story, Boulle explores politics, social mores, authority figures, human vanity and, of course, scientific research.  This slim novel of just 128 pages manages to make the reader reflect a bit on his own world while entertaining him within the fantastic situation into which Ulysse Merou and his two comrades have been plunked. 
There is even a “Statue of Liberty” type ending for the book, perhaps the only aspect of the novel surpassed by its movie version (the ending of the first movie is still, by far, the highlight of that whole series of films).  But, I am pleased to say that, as is almost always the case, the book is much better than the movie  – and, in this case, deserves to be read as the standalone story it was meant to be.  I had fun revisiting the Planet of the Apes.
(Free trivia fact: Pierre Boulle is also author of the respected novel Bridge Over the River Kwai, which became another very successful movie.)
Rated at: 4.0

Happy Birthday, John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole, if he were alive, would be 73 years old today.  Sadly, Toole chose to take his own life on March 26, 1969, at age 31.

John Kennedy Toole is, of course, best known for the wonderful novel he was unable to get published during his lifetime, A Confederacy of Dunces.  I defy anyone to read Confederacy and then tell me that they will ever forget the book’s main character, Ignatius J. Reilly.  That is not to say that Ignatius is a lovable, or even a likable, character; it is simply to say that he is unforgettable because of his unique approach to life.

Several years after his death, Toole’s mother was able to get novelist Walker Percy to look at A Confederacy of Dunces, and Percy eventually saw that the novel was published.  In 1981, twelve years after his death, John Kennedy Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Note: Readers familiar with Confederacy might also want to find a copy of The Neon Bible, written by Toole at age 16.  This one is no Confederacy, of course, but it is a rather remarkable effort for a 16-year-old high school student.  Toole did not believe that the novel held up very well over the years and considered it to be an “adolescent” effort.  I wish I were capable of something so “adolescent” today.

Pat Conroy Speaks About Growing Up with Santini

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Video courtesy of Open Road Media

In Memory of Junior

For many readers, there is something particularly appealing about comic novels set in the South.  Perhaps it goes back to their exposure as young readers to the classic novels of Mark Twain.  It might even be that they see a little of themselves and their families in the plots of these novels.  Are comic Southern novels, after all, as popular elsewhere as they are in the very part of the country in which they are set?  I have to doubt it.
Clyde Edgerton’s nine novels are filled with quirky characters so busy living life according to their own rules and traditions that they seldom stop to consider what the rest of the world might think of them and their efforts.  His books are, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, but his humor is more often of the type that makes one smile at the antics of his characters as they navigate their way through Edgerton’s rather eccentric plotlines. 
In Memory of Junior is no exception.  Although I had read six other Edgerton novels, I was unfamiliar with this seventeen-year-old novel (1993) prior to discovering a pristine first edition copy of it in a local used-book bookstore.  I figured I would enjoy the story and, despite an overabundance of characters (15-20 main and secondary characters) in such a small book, I was correct. 
Brothers Faison and Tate Bales were deserted by their mother when Tate was just a toddler.  Glenn, their father, eventually remarried and gave his boys a half-sister by the name of Faye.  Now, Glenn Bates and Laura, his second wife, seem to be in a contest to see which one of them will die first, a contest that will determine the immediate futures of Faison, Tate, and Faye.  If Glenn dies first, the family farm passes to Laura and, eventually, to Faye.  If Laura dies first, the farm and the valuable land on which it sits passes to Glenn and, finally, to his sons.  The Bales find themselves involved in one of the most bizarre death watches imaginable since it seems that both the elder Bales could die at any moment.
The real fun of In Memory of Junior comes from Edgerton’s use of several first-person narrators to tell the family’s story, both past and present.  These narrators range from the old black housekeeper who has made a career of caring for old white people before they die, to Uncle Grove, a Bales family outcast because he is the brother of Glenn’s runaway, first wife.  Along the way, readers will watch as Uncle Grove tries to wrangle a spot for himself in the family cemetery, Faison and his ex-wife fight about what name should appear on her young son’s tombstone, and as Tate’s teenaged son surprisingly bonds with Grove.
If you are not offended by graveyard humor, this one is great fun.  I will warn you, too, that if you want to keep up with the story, you need to pay particular attention to the family tree Edgerton provides at the front of the book for your reference.  It is difficult enough to keep up with twenty or so characters even with the tree, impossible to do so without it.
Rated at: 3.5

Tulsa Time

I’m in a Tulsa Holiday Inn Express tonight watching The Houston Texans stink it up again this week – this time against the team that ran out on Cleveland fans a few years ago (Baltimore Ravens). It’s a good bit colder here than I’m used to but I couldn’t resist walking a quarter of a mile earlier this evening to a really nice Barnes & Noble I spotted as I was arriving at the hotel.

That turned out to be a good decision as it turns out, because I found two overstock books I had to have. Some of you know that I’ve been collecting Joyce Carol Oates books since the ’80s. Ms. Oates is so prolific that I lose track of what she is publishing sometimes. As soon as I turn my back for a month or two, she slips in another new title. And then there are titles like the one I found tonight, My Sister, My Love, a book I failed to pick up in 2008 when it was released, and then forgot all about. With the exception of the remainders mark across the bottom of the book’s pages, this is a pristine first edition copy.

The other book I found is book five in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, The Brutal Telling. I just raved here about book six in this series last week and mentioned that I wanted to read the first five, so finding this one for five bucks was a nice surprise.

I’m typing this entry on my iPad so, if it looks a little strange, that’s my excuse. This thing is great for web browsing, games, book reading, etc., but writing a blog entry on it is definitely not a treat. Editing is particularly difficult inside the Blogger software, so I’m going to call it a night.

My Lost Weekend

I’m having one of those weekends where I just cannot focus in long enough on any one activity to get it done.  That has been particularly frustrating since this was a rare three-day weekend for me because I have to use my last three vacation days before December 31 or lose them.  I really thought I would be able to do some catching up with that extra day – instead, I’ve accomplished less than I do in a normal weekend.

 I see now that my intentions were unrealistic from the start, but I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed by what seems to be an unlimited list of little tasks that have to be done by the end of today.  Throw in all of life’s little unexpected bonuses and, well, you know what happens.  My wife has been away since October 1 and she is returning for the day on Tuesday.  Of course, I will be in Tulsa on Tuesday.  And, you guys can only imagine the amount of housecleaning I need to do today in order to get anywhere near a passing grade on my housekeeping efforts since she’s been away helping out at her mother’s. 

I’ve done some editing for a family member, flitted around between three or four books, spent some real quality time with two of my grandchildren, made a run to the cleaners, the bank, the rent-a-car location, the library, etc., but still have to get to the grocery store so that I don’t have to do that when I get home on Wednesday night.

But I do want to share a couple of bookish things with everyone before I start on the dreaded housecleaning routine:

Sean Scapellato sends word that Pat Conroy signed extra copies of My Reading Life when he was at Charleston’s Blue Bicycle Books –  and that signed copies are still available if anyone wants to order one by mail.  Here’s the link Sean provided for those interested (I certainly am).  Sean also mentioned that there’s a new Pat Conroy book in the mix for the fall of 2011.  As Sean said, three Pat Conroy books in three years is a new world’s record for Mr. Conroy.  I can’t wait, as this one sounds like another very personal memoir about the fascinating Conroy family.


I know that some of you are really into short stories and I’ve been meaning to mention that Library of America sends a classic short story each week (via direct email) to those who sign up for the service.The current “Story of the Week,” number 50 in the series, is All Parrots Speak, by Paul Bowles.  Last week it was I’ll Be Waiting, by Raymond Chandler.  I think you can sign up for the free emails here. 

 That’s it for the moment.  I’m hoping that my relatively quick toilet-scrubbing skills (and general lack of attention to the details of housecleaning) will allow me to get back here before I have to leave tomorrow morning for my drive to Tulsa.  Read on, guys.

Pat Conroy and Sean Scapellato

Book Lust to Go

Nancy Pearl has outdone herself this time.  By the time I got my hands on Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, I was already familiar with the first two books in the series.  I found both Book Lust and More Book Lust to be useful additions to my personal library and I turned to them often to get some ideas about what direction to next take my reading.  I discovered many books that way, books I would have otherwise missed.  But neither of those little volumes are the kind of book I felt compelled to read from cover-to-cover.   I recognized early on that would not the case with this one, and I read the whole thing in just a couple of days.
I was particularly happy to find that Book Lust to Go was not just a listing of the most helpful travel guides, as I at first feared from its title that it would be.  It is much more than that.  Pearl focuses on travel writing, of course, and some of the books she recommends are the old fashioned travel guides most travelers have come to depend on over the years.  Also prominently featured under the general heading of travel books are those written by adventurers, explorers, solo travelers, long-long distance walkers, women who travel alone, and “star trekkers” (those who seem to spend most of their lives traveling around the world).  I have a small collection of books by distance walkers, those people who walk from one country to the next for months, or years, at a time, and I was a bit surprised that not a single one of my books is mentioned in Book Lust to Go.  At first, that perturbed me; than I wised up and saw it as a wonderful opportunity to increase my collection by adding some of the titles that Pearl recommends. 
Book Lust to Go is arranged by country, alphabetically, and presents the best fiction and nonfiction works from, or about, those countries.  Pearl, as much as possible, includes books written by the natives of each country as well as the best books written by outsiders who have fallen in love with their adopted countries.  I was particularly intrigued by all the modern crime fiction Pearl included in the lists because I have found that there is much to be learned about a country and its culture from crime fiction writers who grew up there.
I am convinced that Book Lust to Go will be a long-term desk top companion of mine, a book I will reach for each time I need someone to guide me on another stage of the armchair travel I so much enjoy.  My copy of the book is so marked up now that someone not knowing how new a book it is would believe I have been dipping into it for several years already.
Regardless of whether you do your traveling by actually leaving your home, or prefer to do it while seated in your most comfortable reading chair, this is a book you will be happy you found.  Don’t miss it.
Rated at: 5.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Bury Your Dead

Bury Your Dead is book number six in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series but, as has so often been the case for me, I am arriving late to the party.  This audio book is my first experience with Louise Penny and the Chief Inspector.  However, if Bury Your Dead is any indication as to the quality of the five earlier books, I have some great reading ahead of me because now I plan to catch myself up on the entire series.
There are several unrelated plotlines in Bury Your Dead and Louise Penny juggles them like a champion, maintaining the reader’s keen interest in each of them as they slowly reach their separate climaxes.  In addition, and an aspect of the book that particularly appealed to me, there is a very painless history lesson at the heart of the murder with which Armand Gamache is most directly connected.  
Gamache is resting in Quebec City following an investigation that went horribly wrong some six months earlier, leaving him so severely wounded that he was lucky to have survived.  He spends his time researching the old English language books in the city’s Literary and Historical Society building, particularly those referring to the fateful 1759 battle between British and French troops (Battle of the Plains of Abraham) that would ultimately result in France losing her claim on eastern North America to the British for good.  Although the battle occurred more than two centuries ago, there is still a lingering animosity between the majority French-speaking citizens of Quebec and the minority English-speaking portion of the population.  Gamache senses that this mistrust and animosity may have played a key role in the murder he is trying to solve.
Augustin Renauld, one of Quebec’s francophone citizens, is on a mission to discover the location of the missing remains of Samuel de Champlain, Quebec’s founding father.  That Renauld’s body is discovered inside the anglophone Literary and Historical Society library creates a politically sensitive atmosphere that complicates the investigation of his murder.  Gamache, a francophone himself, realizes this and investigates Renauld’s murder with current day politics always in mind.
At the same time, Gamache has asked that Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir do his own recuperating in the little town of Three Pines so that he can unofficially reopen a murder case that happened there (featured in book five of the series) because Gamache is uneasy about whether the right man has been convicted of the murder.  (This part of Bury Your Dead does make me wish I had read book five before this one.)
That Penny is able to keep the two investigations separate in her readers’ minds while reminding them of the connection between Gamache, Beauvoir, the convicted Three Pines murderer and many of the citizens of Three Pines, is a difficult enough task.  That she manages, at the same time, to intertwine the details of the case that only six months earlier almost killed both Gamache and Beauvoir is even more remarkable.
Fans of character-driven mysteries will love Bury Your Dead.  The murders are not complicated or unusual, but the amount of time spent developing the book’s main characters is.  Even the bit players in the story seem to be real people.  This one had everything I enjoy most in a mystery, not the least being an emphasis on atmosphere, backstory, characters, and a history lesson.
The audio version of Bury Your Dead, excellently read by Ralph Cosham, is ten CDs and thirteen hours long.  Despite the complicated structure of the book, the audio version is easy to follow once the numerous French names have been assimilated by the non-francophone “reader.”
Rated at: 5.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Bound to Last – Planet of the Apes

Yesterday’s review of Bound to Last got me looking around my own bookshelves to see which old favorite I would have written about had I been one of those selected to contribute to that collection.  And, just as many of the actual contributors did, I chose a book to which my strong emotional attachment has absolutely nothing to do with its actual contents.  The book is worthless now to everyone but me (and since its cover price was a whopping sixty cents when I bought it, brand spanking new, it never has had much value).  The pages are yellow and a bit brittle now, but my inscription in blue ink looks like it was written yesterday: “Basic Training, May 1968.”
In May 1968, I was a little over half way through Army Basic Training in Fort Campbell, KY, but had managed to earn a weekend pass that gave me enough time to take a bus ride of approximately fifty miles to Nashville for a much-needed two-day break.  Let’s just say that what happened in Nashville stays in Nashville.
But here’s the important part of the story.  Before I boarded the bus for the return leg to Fort Campbell, I spotted a rack of cheap paperbacks for sale.  Leisure reading material was forbidden to us in basic training, and I was well aware that I would have to lose the book before returning to the barracks area.  But I couldn’t resist the urge to read; I needed a book, any book.  That’s when I noticed the eye-catching edition of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes pictured here.  As you can see, it’s the movie-tie-in volume for the very first Planet of the Apes movie.  All I knew is that it was very short (128 pages) and that I might actually have a chance to finish it on the bus.
Of course, that didn’t happen because I fell asleep only thirty or forty pages into the book.  I decided, however, to take a chance on sneaking Planet of the Apes into the barracks so that I could sneak-read it later.  Those of you who have had military basic training know there are not many hiding places to be found in the few feet of living space allocated to trainees but, somehow, the book survived basic training and I eventually ended up bringing it home with me – where it still occupies a thin little slot on one of my bookshelves.
Looking at the cover now, I can’t help pointing out the quote from a New York newspaper saying that “This is easily Boulle’s best novel since Bridge over the River Kwai.”  That has to be one of the most bizarre comparisons I’ve ever read on a book cover.  But, as it turns out, I got way more for my sixty cents than I ever dreamed I would get.  You just never know.

Bound to Last

At the risk of offending some, let me begin by saying that a multitude of readers question whether an e-book can really be called a book at all.  In the minds of avid readers, those who simply have to read a certain number of pages every day in order to feel whole, e-books are little more than electronic files stashed somewhere on the drives of those little e-reading gadgets they carry when traveling.  And they only use those gadgets because they cannot figure out how to carry comfortably a dozen books while on the road.  They know e-books are a poor substitute for the real thing, but e-books, after all, do beat back pain.
If you recognize yourself in any of what I have said so far, you really need to get your hands on Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book.  This little volume, edited by Sean Manning, explains precisely why e-books can never compare to the real thing.  All of us, I suspect, have one or two favorite books on our shelves, books that we are as much emotionally attached to as anything else we own.  But, think about that for a second.  One’s favorite books, the ones carried around during a lifetime of relocations, are not necessarily favorites because of what is between their covers.  They are just as likely to be favorites because of all the memories attached to their acquisition, or where they were first read, or what family member owned them first, or because they were a gift from a favorite teacher, relative, or long lost friend.  As the back cover of Bound to Last puts it, we love this kind of book “because of its significance as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable object.”
Following Ray Bradbury’s foreword and Sean Manning’s introduction, thirty diverse writers share their feelings about the one book in their lives they most cherish.  The actual book choices range all the way from The Bible to The Carpetbaggers, with stops along the way to hear about emotional bonding with copies of many of the classics, favorite children’s books, anthologies, a biography, modern novels, and even one cookbook.  Remember, it is not necessarily their contents that make these books so special to their owners.
For Philipp Meyer, author of one of my favorite recent novels, American Rust, that book is For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Meyer, a high school dropout, was fortunate to grow up surrounded by books.  He was lucky, too, that the books were hardbacks and paperbacks, books he could browse at leisure as he developed his reading skills.  Reading For Whom the Bell Tolls for the first time changed him forever.  Suddenly, he recognized the difference between popular novels and what the best books have to offer.  Meyer says that he “recently donated that copy to the library at my graduate writing center.  It’s forty-five years old, and tattered, but it continues to be read.  Whereas my Kindle, forty-five years from now, will be buried in a landfill under approximately eleven million other Kindles.”
For Jim Knipfeel the book is Mason & Dixon, not so much because of its contents but because it is the last book he “was able to read in normal fashion.”  Knipfeel went blind while reading Mason & Dixon and had to finish the last 60 pages of the book via its audio version.  For him, “it will always be The Last Book, in more ways than one.”
For West African Chris Abani, that book is James Baldwin’s Another Country, the book that inspired him to become the writer he is today.  Abani discovered the book on his parents’ bookshelf when he was ten years old and he still recognizes the coffee stain he placed on page 72 back in 1992.  Abani recently read this copy of Another Country for the twentieth time and he says that it was a struggle to keep it from falling apart.  Recognizing that it was time to acquire another copy, but not wanting to replace his relic with another paper copy, Abani searched everywhere for an electronic copy for his iPad.  He reports that his search was unsuccessful and that “this makes me sad and extremely happy.”
These are my favorite pieces in Bound to Last, but they are just the beginning of what this book has to offer.  This is one that book lovers will want to read more than once – a book that deserves a place of honor on their bookshelves.  Come on, you know who you are.
Rated at: 5.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Happy Birthday, Joan Didion

Joan Didion, born on December 5, 1934, turns 76 years old today.

At the risk of showing my relative unfamiliarity with Ms. Didion’s work, I will admit to having read only three of her books, and that I read two of those something like 20 years ago (Salvador and Miami).  The third is Ms. Didion’s strange, and unexpectedly touching, memoir The Year of Magical Thinking in which she very frankly discusses her mental reaction (breakdown) to losing her 39-year-old daughter and her husband (author John Gregory Dunne) in the same year.  That one will stay with me for a long time.

 Thankfully, Didion is still writing and word is that in 2011 Knopf plans to publish Blue Nights, her memoir about aging.  That promises to be an interesting book.

Beware, Nancy Pearl Has Written a Dangerous Book

Let me warn you guys right now.  Book Lust to Go is going to cost you some money, some research time, and hours of reading.  This little book of 271 pages will likely become one of your permanent desk companions, a book you will be mining for new reading material for years to come.

I am only half-way through the book right now – which brings me to the section on Liberia – so this is not meant to be a formal review.  But as I work my way through Nancy Pearl’s hundreds of title suggestions for “travelers, vagabonds, and dreamers” (arranged, for the most part, alphabetically by country) my TBR stack or, in this case “lust list” is growing by the dozen. 

Already this morning, I placed three titles on my hold list at the county library, two of them from Pearl’s Australia section: Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Creature (Tim Flannery) and The Broken Shore (a thriller by Peter Temple) and the other from the section on Arizona, Territory (a supernatural take on the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral by Emma Bull).  And those are just two of the “A” sections.  I’m afraid to count how many others I’ve already marked for future reading – and I’m having to force myself not to mark some others that are almost equally as tempting.

I’m probably going to be doing a formal review of Book Lust to Go one day next week.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.