Library, What Library?

Kindle Opening Screenshot

While e-books have their place in my world, I still try to avoid them as much as possible.  If there is another option, I stay away from the e-book version of a book.  I always have, and I don’t expect that to change until the DRM (Digital Rights Management) e-book crippler goes away.  (Having all e-books sold in a standard format that is playable on all e-book readers would also be a giant step forward.)

So, here’s reason number 88 (but who’s counting?) that e-books don’t exactly rock my world.  According to multiple sources, Amazon’s recent update to the Kindle operating system (at least as downloaded from the Apple app store) made it impossible for reading devices to register with the Amazon servers.  The result?  Would you believe that owners’ entire libraries were deleted and could not be accessed?  Well, believe it.

Amazon has found the bug causing the problem and a new update is available now – but it is up to unfortunate users to download their libraries again…one book at a time.  No harm done, according to Amazon.  Nothing happening here, please move on.

Somehow, I can’t imagine Barnes & Noble coming to my house and removing all the books on my shelves that I purchased over the years from their various brick and mortar stores – and then telling me it was all a big mistake and I can drive over to their warehouse to pick them up again.  No, e-books are destined to be number two in my life for a long, long time…as in always.

A Land More Kind Than Home

Southern fiction often reminds us that evil exists where we least expect to find it and that we let our guards down at our own risk.  Wiley Cash’s disturbing debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, set deep inside the rural North Carolina of the mid-eighties, takes this approach.  There is plenty of evilness in Cash’s story, and most of it is buried in one charismatic preacher’s heart.
Sometimes nine-year-old Jess Hall, even though he has an older brother, feels like he is the oldest child in the family.  His brother, who carries the unfortunate nickname “Stump,” is severely autistic and has never spoken.  Jess loves Stump dearly and has routinely assumed the burden of watching out for his brother when the two of them are outdoors on their own.  But one day Jess cannot protect Stump from the evil that has entered their home.  And, although Jess curses the momentary cowardice that led him to run off and abandon Stump to his fate, he will fail Stump one more time – with tragic consequences.   
Wiley Cash
A Land More Kind Than Homeexplores the power of deeply held religious faith to blind true believers to the evil within those whom they trust the most.  Pastor Chambliss, whose church the boys’ mother attends, has a criminally checkered past and is not a man to tolerate people spying on him.  Unfortunately, Jess and Stump, who greatly enjoy the thrill of spying on adults, inadvertently do spy on the preacher one day, with lasting consequences that will impact their entire community.
This is a story of good vs. evil, one that explores what can happen when evil is allowed to have its way unchallenged.  It is about a community’s responsibility to protect its children even when their mother fails to do so.  It is about secrets, the kind that can get people killed, ruin marriages, or allow one man callously to exploit for decades those who trust him most. It is Southern fiction at its best, and Wiley Cash has claimed a well-deserved spot for himself within the genre.  

World Book Night 2013 Is Fast Approaching

I was notified a couple of days ago that I will be a World Book Night giver again this year – and that I will be giving away 20 copies of Michael Perry’s Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.  I am pleased to be receiving my first-choice (I am a big fan of Perry’s writing) book but still have not decided exactly where I am going to station myself on April 23.  

Booklist described this 2007 book this way:

Being a volunteer EMT is no small challenge, even in a town as small as New Auburn, Wisconsin. Perry mixes his tales of heroic rescues with his stories of small-town life. His book opens with his team attempting to rescue a teenage girl from a disastrous car wreck on a dangerous bend of road. As part of the volunteer fire department, Perry–along with his brother and mother– pulls people from mangled cars and answers 911 calls from critically ill people.

He also relates how New Auburn got its name (after going through three others), and shares the lives of his fellow volunteers, such as Beagle, a man who can’t use the town’s only gas station because both of his ex-wives work there. He details the technicalities of being a volunteer–the many terminologies one needs to memorize, and also crucial, life-saving techniques, such as CPR and controlling a house fire by puncturing a hole in its roof. Tragic at times, funny at others, Perry’s memoir will appeal to anyone curious about small-town life.

This giveaway is meant to focus on reluctant readers, non-readers, or those who do not have easy access to new books.  Because these categories cover the vast majority of the population, one might think it would be easy to find a giveaway spot.  In reality, it’s not quite that simple.  Any suggestions?

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

If I asked for the names ten authors, I am sure that most of you could almost effortlessly give me a list from the tops of your heads.  But if I asked for the names of even two editors, unless you are a publishing insider, I would likely get a very different result.  That is part of the reason that Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction makes for such interesting reading.  The book, part writing manual, part memoir, was co-written from the points-of-view of author Tracy Kidder and his editor of more than 40-years collaboration, Richard Todd.
The pair met in 1973 when Todd was assigned by The Atlantic Monthly to work with young freelancer Tracy Kidder.  Todd was the slightly older, wiser writing practitioner who would walk Kidder through the process of getting published in one of the country’s oldest, and most prestigious, magazines for the first time.  But that would be just the beginning for these two because that Atlantic article would ultimately evolve into Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Soul of a New Machine.  The memories of those early days shared by Todd and Kidder make for some rather intriguing (and heartwarming) reading as their work relationship develops into a more enduring one of respect and true friendship. 
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
But, as the book’s subtitle, Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing, suggests, it is also filled with good advice and instruction pertaining to writing narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and essays.  The chapter on narratives, for instance, covers details like point of view, characters, and structure.  There are also whole chapters on accuracy, style, and “being edited and editing.”  The authors also offer practical business advice based upon the current state of the publishing industry (a glimpse of the art vs. commerce part of the business) and encouragement to the novice writer.  Too, there is a more “nuts and bolts” section tiled “Notes on Usage” that addresses things like the distinctions between “which and that,” “who and whom,” and “may and might.”
Bottom line: don’t expect a complete, detailed manual on writing because Good Prose is not that kind of book.  But, on the other hand, readers will enjoy, and benefit from this one, as much as any budding writer out there.  

Riggio Wants to Buy Barnes & Noble (Minus the Nook)

Leonard Riggio

Leonard Riggio (Barnes & Noble chairman of the board and 30% owner) made an interesting filing with the SEC this morning.  Mr. Riggio has announced to the B&N board that he intends to purchase all of the company’s retail assets – minus the Nook.  And, because this is probably the chain’s best chance of being around for the long haul, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the man can pull this one off.

This is the key bit from this morning’s SEC filing:

On February 25, 2013, Mr. Riggio notified the Board of Directors of the Company (the “Board”) he plans to propose to purchase all of the assets of the retail business of the Company. The retail business would include, among other things, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Inc. and barnesandnoble.com; and would exclude NOOK Media LLC (comprising the digital and College businesses). Mr. Riggio plans to make the proposal in order to facilitate the Company’s evaluation of its previously announced review of strategic options for the separation of its investment in NOOK Media LLC. 

Maybe, just maybe, common sense will prevail and brick and mortar bookstores will not go the way of record stores.  Remember those?

"If You have enough book space, I don’t want to talk to you."

Bookstores, rapidly disappearing as they are, are still some of my favorite places in the world.  Thankfully,  that is not an uncommon preference:

“A bookstore is one of the only pieces we have that people are still thinking.”  Jerry Seinfeld

“As I watched bookstores close, I began to wonder how that felt for the owners.  Owning a bookstore was their dream and now they’re struggling and seeing those dreams fall apart.”   Karen Kingsbury

“I get crazy in a bookstore.  It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy everything.”  Reese Witherspoon 

“Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and was suddenly at peace.”  Helene Hanff 

“The smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television.”  Andrew Ross

“The bookman appraises towns by the number of their bookshops: they be few, the towns are dull, monotonous, ugly; to be shunned, disliked, or, at best, endured.”  Holbrook Jackson

 Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”  Henry Ward Beecher 

Bonus Link: Browse a bookstore via Google Earth

Classic Record Albums Re-Imagined as Paperback Book Covers

I love it when a couple of my passions intersect.  This time it’s classic vinyl record albums and books…how cool are these?

Christophe Gowans is a terrific British artist who has been the art director for a number of prominent magazines.  He has also done some design work for the music industry, and I want to share his vision of handful of classic albums – redone as paperback book covers:

There are many more of these at Christophe’s website.  Take a look to see if some of your favorite albums are there…and at all the rest of the great stuff (including screen prints that I think might be for sale).

(Click on the images for a better look at the detail.)

You Can Have Your Own Little Free Library

Custom Made Library from Little Free Library

I have long been convinced that avid readers, real book lovers, are among the most generous people in the world.  They defy the stereotypical “book worm” image that many non-readers hang on them – and they do it with real style.

This is just the latest example (click on “Readers” in my Labels List on the sidebar for many more): the Pelton family of Greenville, South Carolina.  This Greenville Online link has pictures (that might tempt some of you into doing something similar in your town) and all the details.

The Peltons are one of several families in the Greenville area that are part of the Little Free Library program started in 2009 by two men in Wisconsin. It has spread to cities in every state in the country and to other countries as well.

[…]

Accumulate scrap lumber. Build a box. The official ones are 20 inches wide, 20 inches deep and 28 inches tall. Fill it with books. Watch people flock.

“It’s been a fun way to get to know our neighbors,” Pelton said.

[…]

They used material from their home renovation, including cabinet doors for the sides and tin for the roof. Pelton makes wind chimes out of silverware, so she affixed some utensils to the sides. They included a small blue spiral-bound notebook for people to write messages.

Soon, a conversation began. “I read dolphin and shark books,” one child wrote. Pelton responded: “Coming soon.” “I like books. Love, Ellie.” Neighbors have gushed about the idea.

Custom Made Library from Little Free Library

And the rest is history.  Can you imagine the fun of having one of these little free library boxes in a spot that you pass by each day as you get on with the rest of your life?  Or how the library “owner” must smile every time another book walks away with its new temporary owner?

Yes, I’m convinced: book people are very special people.

Want to know more about the Little Free Library project?  This is the official link to that program, and I think it will surprise you.  You can get plans there for building your own “box” or can even order a pre-assembled one.  

The project’s mission statement says it all, though:

  • To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide. 
  • To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity, and wisdom across generations
  • To build more than 2,510 libraries around the world – more than Andrew Carnegie–and then more.  

Come on, you know you want to.

Notes from a Coma

Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma made quite a splash in Ireland when it was published there in 2005, receiving such a good reception from readers and critics that it was shortlisted in 2006 for the Irish Book of the Year award. Now it makes its American debut as a Soho Paperback Original.
The book has a strange feel to it.  Because it was written eight years ago, it is set in the recent past – but with just enough spin on that past to give the story a bit of a surrealistic science fiction feel.  Largely character-driven, Notes from a Coma tells the story of JJ O’Malley, a young man characterized as “someone who is too smart for his own good but not smart enough to see that.”
Anthony O’Malley, a lonely Irish farmer, plucked JJ from a filthy Romanian orphanage not long after the overthrow of that country’s communist government.  It was a relatively simple cash transaction (something that would haunt JJ’s self-esteem when he figured it out), and in a matter of days the naïve Irishman was back on the farm with his months-old son.  And, with much help from a neighbor’s wife who had a young son of her own, the brilliant JJ O’Malley thrived in his new world.
JJ O’Malley is one of those students who have their teachers scrambling just to keep up with them, much less stay one step ahead.  He fits in well, the community takes pride in him, and he has long-term girlfriend and a best friend he considers to be more his brother.  Then one day JJ’s emotional security is devastated by a shocking loss that no one can help him work his way through.  But when the young man ends up on a prison ship docked in nearby Killary Harbor, part of an ambitious medical experiment he has volunteered for, the town is still proud of him.
The European Penal Commission is looking for an alternative it can offer to first-time offenders being incarcerated for what it considers to be “less serious” crimes.  Perhaps, placing these offenders into a deep coma under strict medical supervision for the duration of their sentences is the answer.  JJ and his fellow volunteers are on the prison ship to test the theory.
Mike McCormack
Notes from a Coma is a story told simultaneously at two levels.  Many, if not most, of the book’s pages include supplementary footnotes that explain everything from the evolution of the Sommos project (as the study is called) to details concerning brain activity and European Union politics.  While the notes do add greatly to an understanding of what is happening on board the Event Horizon, readers will have to decide how best to approach them.  They might want to read the notes page-by-page as they are presented, read each chapter’s narrative before reading that chapter’s footnotes, or even skip (something I do not recommend) the footnotes altogether. 
Although I would have preferred an ending with more closure, Notes from a Coma is an intriguing novel that touches on many of the moral and ethical questions of the day.  Mike McCormack is one to watch.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Born on a Mountaintop

(Ted Lehmann is a friend whose hand I am yet to shake.  We met via the internet several years ago and found that we share several passions: books, bluegrass music, and politics.  We even agree on two of the three of them – but when it comes to politics, we could not be any more different.  Ted. a retired English teacher/college professor, comes from the Blue State of New Hampshire and our conversations about national politics have seldom (never) ended with either of us changing our opinions.  But, we do have conversations – and not arguments, so I always enjoy Ted’s company.  And, with any luck, I will finally be able to shake his hand and buy him a beer this summer when we meet up at the MACC bluegrass event in Ohio.

Below my review you will find Ted’s review of the same book.  My Yankee friend knows what he’s talking about, so please do take a look.  You can find Ted’s great blog (Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms) here.


Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.
                                     Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.
Just looking at the title of Bob Thompson’s new Davy Crockett book, Born on a Mountaintop, gets me humming this old Disney song from the fifties – even to the point that I have a hard time getting it back out of my head.  Men (and probably more than a few women) of a certain age are likely to have fond memories of the five-segment Walt Disney “Disneyland” series that spawned this little tune and all the Davy Crockett gear we managed to wear out between 1955 and 1956.  I still remember the coonskin cap I wore everywhere and the little plastic frontier “rifle” I carried with me. 
Suddenly, children across America were obsessed by a fabled hero that grabbed our imaginations like nothing had before.  Davy’s (as portrayed by actor Fess Parker) face was on so many lunch boxes, magazines, comics, bubble gum cards, coloring books, games, and pajamas that Walt Disney was probably able to pay for most of Disneyland with his company’s share of the sales proceeds.  Davy Crockett was that big – and we loved him.  Little did most of us suspect, at least at the beginning, that he had been a real man.  He really hadbeen a congressman, an Indian-fighter (of a sort), and had died a hero’s death at the Alamo.  When we found this out, especially those of us growing up in Texas, we were more enchanted by the idea of Davy Crockett than ever before.  The man will be a mythical hero to us for the rest of our lives.
Fess Parker as Davy Crockett 
Only later would some of us wonder about David Crockett, the man who transformed himself into “Mythic Davy,” a national celebrity long before he died in San Antonio.  Born on a Mountaintop, explores how Crockett managed to achieve that, the key role Walt Disney played in perpetuating the Crockett legend for at least another half century, and what might have reallyhappened at the Alamo. 
For author Bob Thompson it all started when his two little girls became obsessed with the Burl Ives version of that old Davy Crockett theme song.  Soon, the girls were asking questions about Davy, his nemesis Andrew Jackson, and their shared history.  Thompson, in the process of answering their questions, grew fascinated with the “alchemization of history into myth,” and a book idea was born.  With many stops along the way, Thompson would walk in Crockett’s footsteps all the way from his east Tennessee birthplace, to where he fought Indians in Alabama with Jackson, to Washington D.C, and, finally, to the Alamo, where Crockett took his final breath.
Disney’s Davy Crockett at the Alamo
Crockett, of course, would not survive long in Texas because of his decision to join the Texas army when it was least prepared to defend itself.  But, as Thompson notes, from the moment word of his death reached the rest of the country, the real Davy Crockett was forever replaced in the minds of most by the fictional Crockett.  And the myth that grew up around Crockett so deeply captured the imagination of Americans that his story would be common knowledge for close to 100 years before finally fading from the public consciousness. 
Better timed for Crockett’s was his crossing of paths with another kind of legend, Walt Disney.  Disney’s 1955 decision to use Crocket rather than the more conventional choice of Daniel Boone to help publicize the “Frontier Land” section of his new theme park, coincided perfectly with the “arrival” of television.  Now, a cultural hero could be created from scratch in just a matter of weeks, and in Crockett’s case, there was so much good stuff to stretch that his myth would become more widely accepted than ever before – and it would endure for at least another half-century.
Washington-on-the-Brazos (Photo taken in 2010)
I am a native Texan.  I live within an hour’s drive of the spot (Washington-on-the-Brazos) Sam Houston sat when the call for help arrived from the Alamo defenders.  What is left of the Alamo itself is within easy driving range of me.  Because their story has been part of my life since I was seven (thanks to Mr. Disney), I tend to give Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie stories the benefit of the doubt more times than not.  But, when it comes to history, I am also a realist.  Born on a Mountaintop re-visits all of the weakest points of the Davy Crockett legend that I have encountered and wondered about over the years.  For lack of any real proof, Thompson’s theories about what reallyhappened all those years ago will have to remain just that – theories.  However, I feel certain that his theories are closer to the truth than the myths that have grown up around these heroic men.
But, you know what?  I think I admire Crockett and the men of the Alamo more than ever because a book like Born on a Mountaintop is a good reminder of what real human beings can accomplish when challenged to do the seemingly impossible. 
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.


(The Fess-Parker-as-Crockett cards are from my 80-card Walt Disney card set produced to promote the company’s Davy Crockett and Alamo movies.)

Ted’s Review:

History is often viewed through the eyes of the present. How we understand the stories of the past depends largely on the perspective we bring to them from the lives we lead and stories we hear in the now. So with Tom Johnson, whose interest in Davy Crockett grew from the legend of the man Walt Disney portrayed in his three part television series aired early the history of the amusement park he was building in California. Johnson’s young daughters, having seen the video of the shows, became obsessed with Crockett. Johnson, in order to help them separate the truth of the man who was “Born on a montaintop in Tennessee,” “Kilt him a bar when he was only three,” and died a hero at the Alamo in far away San Antonio, from the man who was much more interesting undertook to write the present book. Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier by Bob Thompsan will be released by Crown Publishing in March at a price of $27.00 and is available in all the usual formats.

Davy Crockett as Portrayed By Fess Parker
The Disney Vision
From a childhood of dire poverty to running away to seek his fortune at age thirteen to marriage and loss, serving with (and opposing) Andrew Jackson in his Indian removal project, elected to two non-consecutive terms in Congress and his death in the defense of the Alamo, Crockett became a legend in his own time. He was a bitter foe of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policies and an advocate of land distribution reform which would allow homesteaders to gain title to their holdings. Johnson seeks to follow the murky story of a man who left a slight paper trail and to separate it from the legend he helped create, but which was burnished into a tourist attraction by Walt Disney on television and the development of the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. The story takes on more interest to me as it spends some time in Dandridge. Tennessee and along the Dumplin Valley Creek where we go each year to attend a bluegrass festival. While Crockett himself is interesting and important, equally interesting is the search itself as Johnson tries to separate the man from the myth.

Congressman David Crockett
As the author’s journey continues, he must delve through layers of contemporary culture to seek to perceive the underlying culture that has clothed Crockett in the mists of time and myth. Thus, present day Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg hide the long lost traces and unrecorded history of the original pioneers, represented by Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, who originally settled there or in places like them. Meanwhile, he sheds new light on incidents and policies like Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Project and the machinations of land speculators in the West. He discovers that Crockett was neither the shrewd country bumpkin nor the innocent dupe he is often pictured as being. As Davy Crockett wends his restless way towards the Alamo, Bob Thompson emerges as a serious historian seeking to discover the man underneath the myth despite the need of so many Americans to keep him atop his pedestal for their own economic and psychological well being. He consults, with care, the few actual papers that attest to Crockett’s accomplishments as well as the voluminous written materials which are often outright fabrications that created his unbreakable mythic self, an image Crockett himself did his best to create and nourish.
 Fanciful Version of Crockett at the Alamo
Many questions remain about Crockett, and the more heroic they sound, the more iffy they become. Did Travis really draw a line in the sand? Was Crockett killed fighting or was he executed later by Santa Anna. Did he ever wear a coonskin hat? Did the “half man/half alligator” talk ever cross his lips? Or was he a restless, irresponsible man hungry to make a fortune yet always falling short and moving on to what seemed like greener pastures? Does it matter? And there’s the question Thompson leaves us with in this engaging and challenging biographical essay that explores both the historical and cultural elements which combine to create our imagination about who we are as Americans. Because it’s in this nexus between historial fact and cultural mythology that we become great as well as indulging ourselves in self destructive policies based on what we would like to be.

Author Bob Thompson
  
Bob Thompson, a Washington-based journalist, spent several years at the Washington Post, where as a feature writer and editor of the Sunday edition. He was best known for pieces exploring the relationship between myth and history. In this engaging popular history, he has written a thought provoking and enlightening piece in which he describes Davy Crockett as America’s first media celebrity, the subject of plays, dime novels, and ghost written autobiographies during his lifetime and a massive resurgence of his popularity when Walt Disney used his story to publicize the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim in 1955. Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road withDavy Crocket and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontieris published by Crown (368 pages, $26.00). It was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Net Galley (NetGalley.com)

Lesson Learned

After several days of thinking about it, I’ve come to a conclusion about the future of Book Chase.  

In the last ten days, I have had three separate discouraging bits of feedback regarding what I do here: one bit from a fairly well known author who took offense at something I said about her latest book, one bit from a regional author who ranted in a rather embarrassing way (I think) about something totally unrelated to her work that I said, and another bit from a publisher saying that I had “committed” to a review merely by accepting an unsolicited book of theirs in the mail (what am I supposed to do when a book whose genre I don’t read suddenly shows up at my back door?).

Well, I have now thought it all over, and I have decided that enough is enough.

I am going to finish up with the review copies already in my possession, but I am not going to accept any others for review.  

I will still, on occasion, review books here – but they will be books I buy, borrow from the library, or get through programs at Amazon, GoodReads, or LibraryThing.  

I have never been a shill for writers or publishers, and I refuse to become one now.  This is not a job; if it were, I would have starved long ago.  I will, from this moment on, read what I want, when I want.  I have let my desire to get out the word on new books and authors overwhelm my personal time because I believed I was doing just a tiny bit of good.

Lesson learned.  Life is too short for this kind of frustration.  

The Dinner

Readers who are drawn to fiction built around well-developed characters are likely to be intrigued by the premise of Herman Koch’s new novel, The Dinner.  Two couples meet for dinner in one of Amsterdam’s more pretentious restaurants to discuss what their fifteen-year-old sons have done to prompt a sophisticated police investigation into the event.  It is the first time they have spoken of what happened, or even acknowledged that all four of them are aware of their sons’ guilt.
Paul and Serge Lohman are brothers whose personal circumstances are very different.  Paul is an unemployed schoolteacher who lives with his wife Claire and their only son; Serge is expected to be the country’s next Prime Minister and lives with his wife Babette and their two sons, one of whom is adopted.  Paul, the book’s narrator, resents his brother and considers him a pretentious boor, more a hypocritical public performer than the “man of the people” he considers himself to be. 
The evening, when the two couples are finally seated at a table that offers them even a minimum of privacy, gets off to a relatively civil beginning.  But, over the course of what turns out to be a dinner of several hours, the conversation becomes more and more vicious as it begins to focus on the two boys and the life-changing choice they made together.
Dutch Author Herman Koch
The Dinner is presented entirely through the eyes of Paul Lohman, a man who feels morally superior to his superficial brother and sister-in-law in every way – but he feels that way about most people with whom he is forced to interact.  In addition to relating the actual dinner conversation, Paul is quick to guess at what each of his dinner companions is thinking but leaving unsaid.  And, in a series of flashbacks that go back several years or just a few days, details are revealed about the Silver families and their sons that begin to complicate everything the reader thinks he knows about them.
Many of the best psychological novels take place largely inside the heads of a single narrator, and The Dinner uses that approach.  As Koch reveals more and more about his chosen narrator, the reader will begin to appreciate just how finely crafted his novel is.  Bit by bit, the true nature of Paul, Claire, Serge, Babette, their sons, and what all of them are guilty of is revealed.  In the end, none are particularly admirable, but the biggest surprise is yet to come.

 (Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Book Trailer of the Week: The Whipping Boy

WARNING: Some viewers might find this book trailer hard to watch, perhaps even offensive.  

I know nothing about this debut novel, despite the fact that this trailer was posted in June 2012, or its author, but the trailer certainly makes me want to know more about both.  Following the book trailer, I have posted brief comments from Roberts and the author.

The Whipping Club (trailer starring Eric Roberts):


(20th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase)

May We Be Forgiven

Harold Silver has learned to live with the fact that his younger brother, George, lives a more glamorous and outwardly successful lifestyle than he is ever likely to attain.  But living with that knowledge, and accepting it, are two very different things. 
The two men are nothing alike.  George is a television executive at the top of his game, an aggressive man whose size allows him to be physically intimidating when he wants to be.  Harold is a “Nixon scholar” who has been working on a Nixon book for years and has just lost his small-time teaching job.  In contrast to George’s life, Harold’s future is completely up in the air at this point.  But George is a ticking time bomb, and after his violent temper finally gets the best of him, the two Silver families are changed forever.
Almost before he knows it, Harold is living in George’s house and has shouldered sole parental responsibility for his brother’s young son and daughter.  Everyone around him is suffering, and it is easy to blame George for all of that pain.  But Harold knows what really happened on the horrible night his brother destroyed their families.  And he feels guilty.
May We Be Forgivenis the blackest of comedies, a satirical look at contemporary American culture and what is happening to our families, especially to our children.  And, when it is not going completely over the top (something it does way too often), the novel is both funny and insightful.  At almost 500 pages, May We Be Forgiven is almost twice the length of the average novel, and reading it is much like reading two separate novels under one cover. 
A.M. Homes
The first 200 pages, or so, encompass an intriguing look at two very different men who have had a difficult relationship since childhood.  It is about a man willing to take responsibility for his part in something that could destroy the next generation of his family.  It is about redemption and forgiveness, and as improbable as the story is, something like it could actually happen.  The rest of the book is a farcical, slapstick comedy, so over the top that the book’s message is lost amid the absurdity of the story.  All sense of realism is gone, and the novel suffers for it because May We Be Forgiven becomes overcrowded with minor characters and subplots that do more to distract the reader than to add to the book’s central plot. 
This is a case where less would most certainly have been more.

It’s Book Saturday Around Here

I’ve enjoyed a nice, bookish Saturday to this point (interrupted only by the hour I spent working on a daughter’s 2012 tax return), and I’m hoping to extend it with a solid hour or two of reading later today.

I started an interesting book last night called Notes from a Coma, by Mike McCormack. Mike is an Irish writer and the novel is set in that country.  I see from the copyright data that Notes was first published in 2005 (perhaps in Ireland or the U.K.), but it is being published in the U.S. next month as a “Soho Paperback Original.” 

The story concerns an Irish farmer who goes to Romania and “buys” a two-year-old boy from a crowded orphanage.  I’m guessing that things do not go all that well for the young man in Ireland, however.  If that were not so, JJ O’Malley would not have volunteered for an experimental program to look at the feasibility of giving criminals the option of being placed into a deep coma rather than suffering the day-to-day boredom of incarceration.  

I am only 32 pages into the book, but it appears that the volunteers are hooked up to monitors and, via the Internet, become national celebrities.  Strange and futuristic, this one already has me hooked.

Around lunch time I finally made it out to a bookstore I discovered on the Internet last month, a place called Good Books in the Woods (and that is sort of where it really is).  This used-book bookshop is a treat for book lovers, especially those who collect.  It reminds me of a couple of Houston-area stores I used to visit regularly before they disappeared from the face of the earth.  It is filled with several thousand books (most of them in hardcover), and to my great delight, it allocates substantial shelf-space to quality modern first editions. 

Sadly, there does not seem to be much foot-traffic through the store (especially for a Saturday) because, even though it is only a quarter mile of an interstate feeder road, it is tucked completely out of sight inside what is predominately a residential area.  Good Books in the Woods offers residents of North Houston, The Woodlands, and surrounding towns a great alternative to driving into the city for books (and to the local mall’s Barnes & Noble).  

Come on, Houston, let’s support these guys before we end up losing them, too.

Speaking of Barnes & Noble, I have to say that I was happily surprised this morning to find some of the chairs back in place.  My favorite B&N has refit an upstairs corner of the store into the reading area it used to be.  There is even one little table there for anyone wanting to take advantage of the store’s WiFi without sitting in the coffee bar among all the giggling teenage girls. I have to tell you this made my day.  Can B&N management really be listening to customer feedback for a change?  Even the Nook area in this store seems to have shrunk a little.  

And, icing on the Barnes & Noble cake, I found a bargain-table book by Robert Hicks I didn’t know existed.  Hicks is the author of one of my favorite Civil War novels, The Widow of the South. This 2009 novel, A Separate Country, is set in post-war New Orleans and features Confederate general John Bell Hood, one of the more controversial officers on either side of that terrible war.

And, finally, I took a minute from my browsing to jot down a quote from Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books:

Marilynne Robinson

“Over the years I have collected so many books that, in the aggregate, they can fairly be called a library.  I don’t know what percentage of them I have read.  Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read.  This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books.  But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life.”

Exactly.

A Possible Life

Despite being clearly labeled on its cover as a “novel in five parts,” A Possible Life could just as easily have been called a short story collection or a group of short novellas. Most readers, I suspect, will consider the book to be a collection of interrelated short stories.
Each of the book’s five stories, or parts, is titled with the name and time period of its central character, and they are presented in this order: Geoffrey, 1938; Billy, 1859; Elena, 2029; Jeanne, 1822; and Anya, 1971. The first two stories are set in England, the others in Italy, France, and the United States. In each of his tales, Faulks takes his central character from relative youth to old age,  describing a lifetime during which seemingly innocuous decisions made by them and others will determine which of their “possible lives” will become reality.
Geoffrey Talbot, bored with his life after university, decides to enlist in the British Army, allowing him to cross paths with the French woman who will haunt the rest of his days. Given up by his family because they could not afford to feed all their children, Billy Webb spends his youth in an orphanage/poorhouse where he meets the two little girls with whom he will grow old. Decades after Elena’s father returns from a business trip with an orphan boy he wants to adopt, she finally learns the truth about the love of her life. Jeanne, said to be “the most ignorant person” in her rural French village, makes a difficult choice that will ultimately define who she is. And, finally, Anya, an extremely talented singer-songwriter must make painful decisions if she is to survive the 1970s American music scene.
Sebastian Faulks
Faulks presents his premise that all human beings are connected, tenuous as those links might be, by referencing the tiniest of details. Sometimes a physical object moves from one story to another, at other times the descendent of an earlier character appears in a later story, or a reference to the future made in one story comes true in a second. The psychological impact of the connections is often increased by the very subtleness of the references.
Novel, or not, A Possible Life is definitely memorable.  Sebastian Faulks fans should be pleased with it, and readers new to the author’s work will likely want to read his earlier work after reading this one. They might even begin to wonder about their own possible lives – and which one they might end up with.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Introducing Book

This YouTube video is brilliant – and well executed – so don’t let the English subtitles put you off. In fact the subtitles are part of the charm of this new product introduction.


Ladies and gentlemen, meet Book:


 If Book were an Apple product, this is how the company might introduce it in Vegas at the next big high-tech conference.

The Sound of Broken Glass

I am a longtime fan of Elizabeth George, and I have often wished that she would produce more than one new novel per year. So, finally discovering Deborah Crombie’s Scotland Yard detective series (The Sound of Broken Glass being the fifteenth book in the series) last year was one of the highlights of my reading year.
The novels of George and Crombie have much in common. Each series is anchored by a group of Scotland Yard detectives who, over the course of the series, change and mature as they experience what ordinary life throws at them.  Major characters come and go, sometimes by choice, other times they are claimed by death. And, interestingly, despite the British settings of both series, George and Crombie are both American authors who rely on in-country and Internet research for the authenticity and detail that make their work so special.
Crombie’s two central characters are a married couple: detectives Duncan Kinkaid and Gemma James. As The Sound of Broken Glassbegins, Duncan, currently on a parental leave of absence, is spending his days caring for the couple’s children, with most of his attention necessarily being devoted to their troubled three-year-old foster daughter. Gemma has now returned to work and is leading a Murder Investigation Team in South London.
Gemma’s first investigation as team leader begins early one Saturday morning with a phone call from Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot. Staff in a disreputable Crystal Palace hotel has discovered a dead man – in a rather embarrassing position.  The naked man, bound hand and foot, is on his back and appears to have been strangled. Whether he is the victim of murder, or of some sexual game gone bad, is not immediately clear, but he certainly could not have tied himself up the way he was found. The victim, as it turns out, is a London attorney who is neither particularly well liked or respected by his colleagues. What at first appears to be a rather straightforward investigation grows complicated when, a few days later, a second attorney is found dead under very similar circumstances.
Deborah Crombie
While the murder investigation is interesting enough, what makes The Sound of Broken Glass even more fun is the way that Crombie continues to develop her central cast of characters.  Duncan is itching to get back to work, but his new daughter needs him more than Scotland Yard does; Melody succumbs to a temptation that places her police career in jeopardy; Gemma feels guilty about how little time she has for her family; and Duncan’s old partner, Doug Cullen, is suddenly acting so needy that he is annoying everyone around him – probably including himself. 
Via a series of flashbacks and real-time developments, Crombie offers a series of clues and misdirection that will keep most mystery fans guessing.  I am not very good at solving these things before all is revealed near the end, and it was no different for me with The Sound of Broken Glass. Elizabeth George fans can double their pleasure by reading Deborah Crombie’s Scotland Yard series (and vice versa). Fans of mysteries and police procedurals will not want to miss either of these ladies.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

George Saunders Discusses Tenth of December on PBS News Hour

All of a sudden, George Saunders is everywhere.  Saunders is one of those “overnight successes” who has been working hard at his craft for a very long time, so it is good to see this happen for him.

Here’s his recent appearance on PBS:

If you’re at all curious about Saunders and his short stories, be sure to read the review I posted about Tenth of December, his latest collection – the one the New York Times called “the best book you will read this year.”  Not bad for an former oil man (Saunders is a “geophysics engineer.”)

Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces

I had never heard of John Kennedy Toole the day that the cover of A Confederacy of Dunces caught my eye on the Harvard Book Store bargain table. That cover was so different from everything else there that it was the first thing I picked up, and I had the feeling the book was going to be special.  And, it turns out that I was correct.  A Confederacy of Dunces is a brilliant novel, and it started my thirty-year fascination with its author, a man who committed suicide at age 31 in 1969, eleven years before his Pulitzer Prize winning novel was even published.
But, largely because of how Toole’s mother solely controlled the documents pertaining to her son, destroying those that did not support the image she preferred, knowing what to believe about the author’s life has not been easy. Butterfly in the Typewriter, the new John Kennedy Toole biography by Cory MacLauchlin, goes a long way in separating the myth created by Thelma, Toole’s mother, from the reality of the man’s brief life. 
The cover that caught my attention

 Toole is, of course, a New Orleans native, and the city was as important to him as anything else in his life ever would be. Despite working and studying in places as varied as New York City and rural Louisiana, the city was forever in his blood. Although it provided him with real-life representations of what would become the key characters of his literary masterpiece, living there with his parents into his thirties was also a constant reminder of his failures. And, finally, after a row with Thelma, John Kennedy Toole ended the last road trip of his life on a deserted road outside Biloxi, Mississippi by inhaling the exhaust fumes from his car until he was dead. 

John Kennedy Toole

Butterfly in the Typewriter follows Toole’s brief journey from birth; through the school years that culminated in degrees from Tulane and Columbia University; to his jobs as an English teacher; and, completing the cycle, back to living with – and financially supporting – his parents in their New Orleans home. Along the way, we meet his friends and colleagues, and learn much about his family, including its history of mental illness.

Toole’s story is complicated by his mother’s unfortunate habit of editing it for her own purposes (and glory), but it would have been complicated enough even without her meddling. To Thelma’s everlasting credit, there is no doubt that, without her efforts, the world would never have heard of A Confederacy of Dunces. She even, with $100,000 of royalty money from the book, established the John Kennedy Toole scholarship at Tulane, a fund that, according to MacLauchlin, is worth more than $1 million today.
Cory MacLauchlin

Butterfly in the Typewriter is an evenhanded biography, one that tries to tell all sides of the story while minimizing speculation and rumor (or at least pointing them out as such). Sadly, though, it appears that we will never know the whole truth of John Kennedy Toole because all we have left is Thelma Toole’s edited version of who he was.  We know that she destroyed his suicide note and other documents that would have certainly offered insights into her son’s mind. And, now that all existing documents have been studied, and most of those to whom Toole was closest have taken their secrets to the grave, Butterfly in the Typewriter may just be as good as it ever gets.