So, Books About Women and Girls Don’t Win Literary Prizes?

I’m a fan of statistical analysis but I am very much aware that very small sample sizes can distort the results and that if the sample size is too small (or is itself otherwise biased) that the results are garbage.  I’m not saying that’s the case in this instance, but when I look at the illustrative chart shown below, my interpretation is a bit difference than the one put forth by the author of the study.


Novelist Nichola Griffen’s basic contention is that books about women do not win literary prizes.  The Fusion piece through which she strives to make her case for that contention includes this Pulitzer Prize chart breaking down, by subject gender, the winners of the last fifteen prizes (although, as it is labeled 2000-2015, there should probably be sixteen winners, not fifteen).  Also note that one of the winners is marked as “unsure,” meaning that only the last fourteen winners are actually being used in the analysis.  

So, as it turns out, eleven of the fourteen Pulitzer-winning books are about men or boys (proving, I agree, Griffen’s basic point) but dig a little deeper with me for a second.  The same chart shows that only eight of the winning books were written by men and that six of the winners were written by women – almost an equal split.  So, I wonder, is Nichola Griffen unhappy because these women wrote books about members of the opposite sex?  

I wonder because of the “VIDA count” that is mentioned in the same Fusion article:

Since 2010, a group of tenacious women manually count every byline in major book releases, book reviews, and literary journals and tally up the gender disparity. This whole process is called the VIDA count, and every year they release pages and pages of concrete data about where and how women are represented in the literary world.
What the VIDA count consistently finds is that stories and reviews written by women are far less than 50% in most reputable literary publications.

So, on the one hand, it is important that women authors are published in equal numbers to their male counterparts.  But, on the other hand, Griffen and others argue that it is equally (or more) important that prize winners be written about females as about males.  While I do believe that both contentions are solid ones, and I agree with both of them, I see the Pulitzer illustration as one with a mixed message.  There is just as much good news in the chart as there is bad news.

I admit that my own reading (about 125 books a year) seems to run in favor of male authors about 2-1, but when it comes to the sex of the main character, I really have no preference at all.  Perhaps there is a tendency for male authors to feature more male characters and for female authors to similarly favor their own sex.  If so, that somewhat limits the effectiveness of my statement that I don’t choose books based upon which gender they feature…

Statistics are funny things, aren’t they?

The Hoard

It’s not that I haven’t read a lot of British fiction.  Like many Americans (especially those of us of a certain age), I grew up on books by British writers.  I have read hundreds of them over the years, books covering just about every period of British history right up to contemporary life in the U.K.  And I lived in London for much of the nineties.  But the England Neil Grimmett describes in The Hoard is such a surrealistically haunting place that I find myself still thinking about it some two weeks after I turned the last page of Grimmett’s dark thriller.
The Hoard is based upon a real-life explosion that occurred at Bridgewater’s Royal Ordinance Factory in 1951, a horrendous, never explained, explosion that killed an entire production crew.  Starting with that incident, Grimmett builds a scenario in which the factory’s higher-ups are involved in a complicated plot through which they are hoarding unaccounted for high-explosives to be smuggled out of the factory later as they are sold to the highest bidder.  Now, almost thirty years later, it is time to cash in.  The culprits are all old men looking to feather their nests before calling it a day – time is running out.
But there is one problem, a big one, and his name is Byron.
Byron’s father, you see, was killed in the original explosion, and Byron has come to suspect that his father’s death was murder – not an accident.  More importantly, he has gotten a job inside the ordinance factory and he is determined to find out what really happened on the day his father died.  But whom can he trust?  And what will happen to him and anyone helping him if he is exposed for what he is: a man on a mission to bring down some of the most powerful and influential men in all of Bridgewater?
Neil Grimmett
The Hoard is a rather complicated, first-rate, thriller but I will remember it primarily for its distinct setting and atmosphere.  The Bridgewater of Grimmett’s novel can be described as a one-company town gone terribly bad.  Everything one can imagine to be wrong about a town completely dominated by a single employer whose every resident depends entirely upon the company for his livelihood is here in spades.  The corrupt managers of the Royal Ordinance Factory demand complete loyalty and silence from employees.  What they see and do inside the factory is never to be spoken of outside the factory gates.  Workers who dare get a little too curious are dealt with harshly – that is, if they even live long enough to regret their curiosity.

The Hoard is quite a ride even for experienced thriller fans.

Thief Accidentally Steals a Carton of Books – How Embarrassing!

Common (and I use “common” here in every sense of the word) thieves don’t have a whole lot of interest in stealing books.  Case in point from Pennsylvania’s The Patriot – News:

A thief in Lancaster County apparently lost interest in the package they had stolen once they realized what it contained – books.
The thief removed a UPS package of books from the porch of a home along the 900 block of Simmontown Road in Salisbury Township just before 11:30 a.m. on May 19, state police said. 
The package was recovered a short distance down the road from the victim’s home. All of the books were recovered and returned to the owner, police said.

All of us, by now, have probably trained ourselves (and even our children and grandchildren) to recognize that leaving some “goodie” exposed on the seats of a locked car is asking that the car’s windows be smashed and the goodie stolen.  That’s just a fact of life in the world we now live in.

But I never fear leaving a book, or a number of them, on the front seats of my car, exposed to all who may happen by, while I lock up and go about my business.  Never once has anyone stolen a book from my locked car…or, I dare say, from anyone else’s car.

“Smash and Grab” thieves are just not smart enough to read a book.  Let’s face it.  They steal for a reason: they are too stupid to do anything else with their lives.

So rest easy; your books are perfectly safe unless the whole darn car gets swiped.

Link to article on The Patriot-News

The Realities of Running a Family-Owned Bookstore

I decided to run a few errands this morning after it became more apparent that the bulk of Houston’s flooding problems are going to remain 15 or so miles south of us for at least another day.  We do expect more rain tonight and every day for the next ten days, so I tried to knock out a bunch of stops in one morning.  

My last stop was for a visit with the new owner of Copperfield’s Books (located right next door to my eye doctor’s office), a bookstore I’ve shopped in off and on for more than twenty years.  This is, in fact, the store I had at one time hoped to buy from its original owners when I finally retired and could devote my time to running something like my own bookshop.

As it turns out, the original owners of the bookstore pretty much ran it into the ground after the death of one of the owners, but when it became available for purchase I was asleep at the wheel and missed the opportunity of buying it.  Now, after a rather frank conversation with the new owners, I get the feeling that missing out on the purchase may not necessarily be a bad thing.  Real book people, and you know who you are, are relatively rare and hard to find in these times of instantaneous social media and portable movies, music, and games.  And when we recognize each other, we chat.  It’s as simple as that, and that is exactly what happened this morning at Copperfield’s.

What I intended to be just a quick look around the store I haven’t visited in two years, turned into a 45-minute conversation about the indie book business in Houston and what it is like for a family to tackle the turnaround of a once successful bookstore that had been allowed to hit rock bottom.  The new owners have done a remarkable job already, no doubt about it, but the store they bought was in such bad shape that it had nowhere but up to go if it were going to keep its doors open.  (That’s why I had not been there for two years – it was “ratty.” to say the least.)

The store was closed down for a month when the new owners took over so that they could give the place a good scrubbing down before they almost completely changed the old floor plan.  Shelves were place in a more library-like configuration and sections were organized into more customer-friendly categories.  New furniture was brought into the store so that a cozy little reading room could be located in one back corner.  Countless boxes of books were finally opened and shelved rather than being stacked behind the counter for months at a time.  Inventory was finally computerized (that project is, I’m told, about 70% complete now) and the store established an online sales presence to move its more expensive books.  Money was spent on advertising, and the store seems to be putting special effort into working with local bookclubs and in stocking all the “required reading” books that the local schools demand from students each year.  (In fact, I’m told that during the school year selling required-reading books is the lifeblood of the whole store.)

So things are looking up for Copperfield’s Books.  The store is making a little money and the advertising is paying off by making the neighborhood more aware that there is a little bookstore tucked away in the center of a strip center.  (Part of the store’s problem is that its front is only wide enough for a sign that says “BOOKS.”  There is simply not enough room to get the bookstore’s whole name on its main signage.  And, as the store butts up against businesses with much larger floorspace, it is hard to spot it even when driving around the center’s parking lot.)

But the success of the store ultimately depends on a factor that I believe has put more independent bookstores out of business than any other single factor involved: how much the landlord demands for the next year’s rent.  What has made the Copperfield’s turnaround a relatively quick one, too, is the fact that this is very much a family business, one run by parents, children, and grandchildren.  This is a business in which each generation knows its role and is willing to play it in order that the business can be grown and kept in the family for generations to come.  

But it is not easy.  Most of those working at the store have full-time jobs and can only work at the bookstore after their day jobs are done.  Even the kids working at the store are still in middle school all day long.  (I particularly love the fact that the YA section of the store is being managed by a middle school student who has read the entire Harry Potter series five times.)  So the bulk of the store’s hours, most of which occur before school and day jobs are completed, are covered by only a couple of people.  Try to manage vacation time, doctor’s appointments, etc. when a store has to be unlocked at the same time every day and you begin to get an idea of how demanding running a family bookstore really is.

But the family is making a go of it – at least for right now.  And at the rate North Houston’s indie bookstores have disappeared, I’m pulling for them to do more than survive; I’m hoping that they will thrive and grow (even to picking up the remainder of the original floorspace lost by the original owner to a neighboring business).

And…I’m thinking that maybe it’s too late for me to begin such a project on my own.  Maybe the dream really is over.

I Wore Babe Ruth’s Hat

David Zang’s I Wore Babe Ruth’s Hat is a bit hard to describe.  It is probably easier to describe what it is not rather than what it is.  Zang has not written one of the more common sports books exposing some kind of doping or recruiting scandal, or a coaching manual, or a motivational exercise, or even a memoir about a championship season from his youth (be it amateur or professional).  No, this is, instead, a book celebrating the role of sports in everyday life, a look at how amateur sports, by teaching us how to play and enjoy life, helps give meaning to ordinary lives all over the world.
David Zang tells us a bunch of stories here, stories in which he is sometimes the central character and sometimes only one of the minor ones that populate the tales.  One of my favorites is the book’s first, “Chip Hilton’s Sports Cult,” because it reminds me so much of my own early reading experiences.  Many boys, not long after they start reading independently, discover the world of sports fiction written especially for boys and girls their age.  Most often, I suspect, the books are about baseball teams and they come in long series that completely capture the imaginations of those lucky enough to discover them.  For the first time in their lives, young readers like Zang and countless others are exposed to the life lessons that sports can teach.  Very likely, kids who read these books are sports fans for the rest of their lives.  Zang, however, via his adult eyes, does point out that much of what the books have to say about sports building character, and losing and winning, is in fact more myth than reality. 
Zang shares his sports failures right along with his more successful efforts.  An early chapter, for instance, focuses on his experiences as part of his high school wrestling team, not a sport in which the author exactly covered himself in glory.  And his recall of those seasons is impressive.  Amusingly, however, while doing research for I Wore Babe Ruth’s Hat, Zang found out that a couple of his old opponents remembered the details of those old matches differently than he remembered them – if they remembered them at all.
David W. Zang
There are stories about the basketball teams Zang played on; about his decision, as a kid, to blow off the rare opportunity to shake Jackie Robinson’s hand when the man was standing all alone just a few feet from him; about the evolution of college football; about the time in the basement of a Baltimore museum he slipped the Babe’s hat (not his baseball cap) on his head when no one was looking; about cheating in sports; about marathon running; about dressing as the field mascot for the Baltimore Ravens; and about impossible dreams.  Each of the stories is filled with Zang’s astute observations and conclusions, some of which are bound to surprise most readers – and some that will directly contradict what they think they know about sports.

Part memoir, part sports book, I Wore Babe Ruth’s Hat, has a lot to offer.

How One Middle School Librarian Changed a Life

THIS is the kind of story I always look for but seldom find, one about the positive difference a good, caring teacher (in this case a retiring librarian) can make in a young life by introducing a student to the countless joys of reading.  Anyone who bothers to read a book blog (like you guys) already knows this, but for a child there can be nothing more exciting than opening up a whole new world they never suspected even existed.

From the News Star comes the story of one librarian and the 13-year-old boy whose life she so dramatically impacted:

If you fret that books are doomed, maybe Ian Golsby’s seventh-grade perspective on the joy of reading will inspire you.
And if you forget what a difference educators make, perhaps Debby Macy, retiring middle-school librarian at Herndon Magnet in Belcher, will remind you.
“She encouraged him to expand his reading horizons,” mom Julie Golsby says, “and has had such an impact.”
Ian agrees.
“I only knew one kid there, so one of the first things I did was go to the library. She helped me find some good books,” he said.
Now finishing seventh grade and with a long list of favorite books and a host of friends (”They all love reading, which is good.”), Ian gives “Miss Macy” the credit.
“Without her, I don’t know if I’d be where I am,” he says on a busy week, between a track meet and going to a movie with friends. “She’s kind of the reason I’ve been able to fit in so well. She always listens.”
And, yes, her retirement after 41 years is hard on him.

To learn more about this remarkable Louisiana librarian and the legacy she leaves behind in the heart of one little boy, please read the whole article.  

Click here to read the article from News Star.


Are Avid Readers "Suffering" from a Compulsive Behavior Disorder?

I’m just thinking out loud here, so bear with me for a minute.

Are all/most avid readers, the ones who read anywhere from something like 75 to several hundred books per year, victims of some sort of compulsive behavior disorder?  If so, I suppose that the consolation is that it is a rather healthy one compared to folks who are addicted to gambling, pornography, or washing their hands hundreds of times a day.

And if so, would anyone “suffering” the disorder actually choose to be cured of it?  I know that I would not.

I believe that book lovers are born, not made, that if the book-loving-gene is not present at birth, there is very little possibility that a person can be transformed into someone who reads every day of the year.  Now, that’s not to say that a born book lover cannot be fine tuned into a “super” book reader, one of those 200-books-a-year types.  My theory is that those lucky enough to live in a home filled with books and people who take obvious pleasure from reading them will almost alwyas dedicate more and more of their own personal time to reading.  But turning someone who has no desire to pick up a book into someone who reads even 26 of them a year?  That’s a miracle, my friend.

So.  Are you the “victim” of a compulsive behavior disorder that demands that you read every day…and more importantly, that you read as many books per year as you possibly can?

Well…

  • Are you compelled to read a certain number of pages per day?
  • Are you compelled to read at least one more book this year than you read last year?
  • Do you eat lunch alone so that you can read?
  • Do you read while brushing your teeth because no one can possibly expect you to talk then?
  • Do you carry a spare book in your car at all times?
  • Do you read in bank lines, in doctors’ offices, and anyplace that will require you to wait in a line for even five minutes at a time?
  • Have you actually started looking forward to the down-times where you are forced to wait for service so that you can sneak in a little reading time?
  • Do you keep a book on the front seat of your car that you can grab while stopped at exceptionally long traffic lights?
  • Are you always looking for the next great read?
  • Are you a daily book-blogger?
  • Do you follow twenty or thirty other book blogs and consider all twenty or thirty of the bloggers to be personal friends of yours?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself secretly competing with your friends to see who can read the most books in a given year?
And that’s just a start.

If you answered yes to more than one or two of these questions, you might be a “compulsive reader.”  And, I’m willing to bet that you have been this way for most of your life.

And I whole heartedly applaud your efforts.  Keep up the good work.







The Joy Luck Club

I began 2015 hoping to finally read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two…or three.  So far, I have read five books from the past; The Joy Luck Club is the first one reviewed here.
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The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s 1989 debut novel, got such a good critical reception that it firmly established her literary reputation.  Tan has now written six additional novels, one novella, one work of nonfiction, and some children’s books, but none has received the level of acclaim earned by The Joy Luck Club. 
The novel centers itself on the mahjong club started by four Chinese women who came to the United States after fleeing the Japanese invasion of their homeland during World War II.  After becoming friends as part of San Francisco’s Chinese community, the women started the club as a way to socialize and enjoy each other’s cooking.  (Their husbands come for the food.)  By the beginning of the novel, however, one of the women has died and been replaced in the club by her American daughter.
Tan structured the novel into four sections of four interlocking stories each in which she explores the relationships between the elderly women and their daughters.  The stories emphasize how little the daughters know (or care) about their mothers’ pasts and how manipulative and competitive their mothers are.  These are stories about mothers who often hurt their daughters and, in turn, about daughters who even more often hurt their mothers.  But in the end, it is a story of what happens when mothers and daughters finally learn to forgive each other – as difficult a chore as that usually is.
The first section, “Feathers from a Thousand Miles Away,” is introduced by Jing-Mei, whose deceased mother is credited with the founding of the Joy Luck Club.   Jing-Mei’s introduction is followed by three stories in which each of the surviving elders tells a story about her childhood in China.  Section two, “Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,” in turn, allows each of the American daughters to recall a key incident or influence from her own childhood in San Francisco.
Amy Tan
It is in the book’s third section, “American Translation,” that the reader learns just how difficult it has been for each of the older women to raise a daughter in the U.S.  It becomes apparent from the stories told in this section by the daughters that their mothers’ efforts to turn them into highly successful, competitive women have not been entirely successful.  The younger women, having now survived all the trials of first generation Americans, still resent the degree of intrusion into their lives that their mothers insist upon.

Finally, in the fourth section of the book, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” the mothers recall stories of their own young adulthood, that period during which they were most active in trying to form the personalities of their daughters.  With this section, the influences upon both generations of women are exposed for what they are, and the circle is closed.  Now it is up to them to find ways to forgive, understand, and love each other.

Book Trailer of the Week: The Shepherd’s Life

I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but this looks like a book I would enjoy a lot.   I’m a fan of memoirs/autobiographies that give me a peek into the kinds of lives or locales I’m never likely to experience for myself, and…I’m never going to be a shepherd, right?  So why not read The Shepherd’s Life instead?

This, I think, speaks once again to the degree of influence that a well produced book trailer can have.  (I still love book trailers.)  

The best thing about owning your own bookstore?

Ann Patchett

The best thing about owning your own bookstore?  According to author Ann Patchett (owner of Nashville’s Parnassus Books) its the “enormous boon it was to her lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people.”  According to this article in The Washington Post, Patchett has been “forcing books on people” since she was a little girl:

After all, I’ve been telling people what to read since I was able to recognize words on paper. I was the kid extolling the virtues of “Charlotte’s Web” in the school cafeteria. “Fern saves the runt from being killed,” I told my friends. “And so her father lets her keep him.”

And now that Patchett is beyond all the logistics of getting her bookstore up and running, she finds that her greatest pleasure comes from introducing readers to her favorite books, be they new or old ones:

They’ll walk right up to me and say, “I’m looking for a book.” I wait for a minute, thinking surely there’s going to be more to that sentence — “I’m looking for a book I heard about on the radio” or “I’m looking for a book like ‘The Goldfinch’ ” — but often there is nothing else. They just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar.

Parnassus Books, Nashville

 I’m in the planning stages for my annual road trip during which I wander randomly in an eastwardly direction exploring towns and cities I’ve never (or seldom) had the opportunity to visit before.  This year (as I did two years ago), I am going to spend four days in Columbus, Ohio, at the Musicians Against Childhood Cancer benefit concert.  But on the way there, and especially on the return trip home, I will be doing some serious wandering around.  Some years I concentrate specifically on baseball parks or Civil War battle sites, but I’ve never really done a trip focused on indie bookstores.  Maybe this is the year finally to do that bookstore tour – before anymore of them disappear forever,

So now comes the planning bit…which amounts to nothing more than a list of indie bookstores and their locations and hours.  Then as I travel (not completely) aimlessly through a dozen or so states during my return to Houston, I will be able to use the list as a heads-up to which bookstores are in the general area.  

First store on the new list will be, of course, Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books…

NW

Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, NW, makes for an unusual reading experience, one that is sometimes as frustrating as it is gratifying.   The “NW” of her title refers to northwest London, a section of the city Smith is intimately familiar with as a result of having grown up there herself.  The good news is that this familiarity allows Smith to create a core group of memorable characters for NW, some of whom have known each other well for a lifetime, and others who know each other only to the degree that they recognize everyone in the neighborhood from having seen the same old faces on the streets day after day.  The bad news is that Smith decided to use a different writing style for each section of the novel.  That makes it difficult for the reader ever to settle into a comfortable enough reading rhythm for the story to take over and flow on its own.  Getting the most from NW begins as a chore – and it ends that way – making it likely that some readers will abandon the book long before they make it through its first section.
The book revolves around the relationship between its two main characters, Leah Hanwell, a white woman of Irish descent, and Keisha Blake, a black woman.  The two have been best friends since they were little girls, and they slip into and out of that relationship with ease throughout the entire book.  Leah is married to a striking Algerian francophone with such good looks that her black co-workers are starting to resent the fact that a white woman, and not one of them, is married to him.  Keisha, in the meantime, has re-invented herself as Natalie Blake, a successful London barrister, and irritatingly to Leah, a mother. 
Zadie Smith
The other two main characters of NW are not well known to Leah or Natalie.  Nathan, now hopelessly addicted to drugs and living on the streets, is the boy both women were in love with as girls but never worked up the nerve to speak to at school.  Felix is just a face on the streets they have seen enough that they feel as if they know him.  Of the two, Felix is much the more sympathetic character and the section of the novel devoted primarily to him is perhaps the best part of NW. 

NW is a realistic novel.  It is sometimes optimistic, sometimes angry, as it offers its rather bleak look at urban life.  It is a novel long on ethnic influences and expectations and intimately explores the fine line between remaining true to one’s roots and being limited by them.  It is not a novel I will soon forget, but it is one in which the author’s experimentation with various style types hurt as much as it helped.  NW is, I think, one of those novels destined to have a whole lot of readers give up on it long before they should.  And that is a shame, because its characters and plot deserve more.    

The Myth That Retirement Always Equates to More Leisure Hours

It seems to have been one of those weeks…and there’s no relief in sight yet.  Some of you know that I went into full-time retirement about 10 days ago, and that I expected that my leisure time (make that my reading time) would expand accordingly.  Yeah, in my dreams.

In addition to being responsible for making sure that my father (who is 93) is as healthy and happy as possible, I’m also responsible for the upkeep on the house he still owns.  So I have spent a good chunk of the last two days yanking an old dishwasher out of the house and replacing it with a new, better one.  Frankly, I’m not very good at that kind of thing, so a few misfires later, it is finally done, and done correctly, I’m happy to say.

Also, came the good news that my newly 16-year-old granddaughter passed her driving test last Saturday – and that she remembered my promise to give her my five-year-old Honda when she became licensed.  So I spent a good part of yesterday finding a replacement vehicle for myself…what turned out to be a much more pleasant experience than I had expected it would be.  But it still took several hours.

Now I’m involved with getting papers notarized so that I can spend a substantial part of my Monday morning in line at the county tax office getting the title of the old car transferred to my granddaughter’s mother.  Just can’t wait for that experience.

Oh, and tomorrow?  I have tickets to the Astros vs. Toronto baseball game and will be downtown most all day with my youngest grandson taking that all in.  Hopefully, the team will continue its winning ways and it will turn out to be a great day.

Why am I sharing all of this?

Because I’m not reading nearly as much before I retired and was allocated all these extra hours of free time (sarcasm).  In fact, my reading hours have been cut down by at least 50% since if walked away from my office for the last time.  And everyone keeps telling me that since I’m retired “what else do I have to do?” besides standing in lines and the like.   Ah, yes, retirement life sure moves at a different pace than working life moves; I just never thought that retirement life would be the most hectic of the two.

What reading I’ve done this week has at least allowed me to finish up Ben MacIntyre’s thrilling account of the career of infamous British spy Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends.  Although the book seemed to drag a bit about halfway through (or maybe it was me that was dragging), I recommend this one to anyone even remotely interested in Cold War spies.  Philby was most certainly a despicable human being.  I’ve also gotten a bit over halfway through Dead Wake, Erik Larson’s nonfiction account of Germany’s  sinking of the Lusitania and how that event so suddenly changed the course of U.S. history.  

So, not at all a “lost week,” just a much less productive one than I had expected.



Being Mortal

Dr. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal tackles many of the elder care issues my wife and I have been dealing with for close to a decade.  Each of us has been the primary caretaker of our elderly parents (only our fathers survive at this point) for that long now, and just when we think we have seen it all, something new catches us by surprise.  I only wish that we had come across a book like Being Mortal ten years ago rather than having to learn the hard way much of what the Gawande has to say in it about aging and death.
Life is all about the choices we make.  And the choices we make as we approach the end of our lives – or the choices we help loved ones make as they approach the end of their lives – are every bit as important as any we have ever made.  Faced with the choice between prolonging our lives for a few months at the cost of losing the quality of our remaining time or living more comfortably and autonomously for what time we otherwise have left, what do we do?  The right choice is never as obvious as one might hope it would be.  Gawande suggests that quality over a slightly extended length of time is the wiser choice, difficult as that choice may be to make when the time comes.
Dr. Atul Gawande
So why do we face such a dilemma in the first place?  Gawande blames much of the problem on the medical profession.  Most doctors, he says, are so reluctant ever to give up on a patient that, despite the additional agony involved in further treatment, they will try one hopeless procedure or drug after another until that patient finally dies.  They effectively destroy the remaining lives of their patients by failing to disclose the inevitable result to them: they are going to die soon and it cannot be avoided.  Gawande argues that, rather than something for the doctor to decide, this ultimate choice must be placed in the hands of the patient.  Medical problems that cannot be fixed even at great physical and mental cost to the patient must be managed rather than fixed.  And it is up to the doctor to recognize when that point has been reached so that he can help his patient make the right choice.
My personal experience and observation, as verified by Dr. Gawande in Being Mortal, tells me that dying in the U.S. has become a big business.  For the most part, our elderly no longer die at home; they more often die in some hospital or nursing home with a nurse or two around to record the event.  It is all very impersonal and routine these days.  But Gawande is not ready to give up on his profession.  The growing trend toward the use of home hospice services and the efforts of some medical schools to train their students more fully gives him hope.  His greatest fear is that so few medical students are choosing to specialize in geriatric medicine that the elderly will suffer unnecessarily for a long time to come.

Being Mortal is an excellent resource for anyone faced with life’s inevitable choices – the hardest choices any of us are ever likely to have to make.

Free Previews of Future Bestsellers

Good news for fans of e-books…


Starting tomorrow, the major online booksellers (Amazon, Apple, and others) will be offering free downloads of two compilations featuring long excerpts from books that are to be published later this year.

Buzz Books 2015 Fall/Winter is said to feature new work from the likes of Geraldine Brooks, Mitch Albom, and Alice Hoffman.  In addition, YA readers will be able to download Buzz Books 2015: Young Adult Fall/Winter.  All told, the two compilations are said to include excerpts from 54 forthcoming releases of fiction and nonfiction.  

I downloaded the 2014 catalog about this time last year and really enjoyed browsing the work of a bunch of new-to-me authors.  I suspect that this kind of thing appeals largely to avid readers who are forever adding to their TBR lists.  If you’re one of those, tomorrow is the day to get your free copy.

(Tip:  Those of you with NetGalley accounts can download the compilations right now.)

Christopher Walken Reads Where the Wild Things Are

Christopher Walken is one of those actors who consistently fascinate me by their persona, those people who just seem to be so one-of-a-kind that no one quite like them will ever come along again.  I can’t remember ever not enjoying a film of his…and some of them would have been real stinkers without his presence.

Anyway, you have to hear him read Where the Wild Things Are.  Who knew it was so creepy?  Most importantly, it made me laugh…a good thing.

The Autobiography of MarkTwain, Volumes I and II

Mark Twain had a mouth on him, no doubt about it – and that is why it is still so much fun to read the man’s writing today.  But even Twain knew that the world was not quite ready for the unexpurgated version of his thoughts that comprises the first two volumes (a third volume is yet to follow) of his autobiography, so he stipulated that the complete biography was not to be published until 100 years after his death – which occurred on April 21, 1910.  For those of us lucky enough to be around for the unveiling of the uncensored version of the manuscripts, it was well worth the wait.
Close to half of the material contained in the autobiography has never been published before, and readers have the Mark Twain Project (of the University of California, Berkeley) to thank for making it available now.  The previously published material has been published several times in the past, but always in an abridged form guaranteed not to offend.  But even the unrestricted version of Twain’s manuscripts is not what readers have come to expect from an autobiography. 
Rather than tell the story of his life in chronological order, Twain decided early on that he would dictate his thoughts to a stenographer as they occurred to him – regardless of where they might fit into the story of his life.  And, because he wanted them published in the order that he dictated them, reading the two books is more like having a conversation with Twain than anything else.  It is as if the man were sitting across the room and telling random stories from his life as they cross his mind.    
And what stories they are!  They range all the way from his thoughts on rather trivial newspaper stories that may have caught his eye over breakfast to wonderful remembrances of things that happened in the first decade or two of his life.  We learn of the villains in Twain’s world, some of whom personally crippled him with huge financial losses and scams, and others who were simply the villains of their times, men like Jay Gould and Belgium’s King Leopold II.  We learn much about his brother, a man full of dreams but without the ability to make any of them come true.  And most touchingly, Twain shares his deep love for Susy, the daughter who was snatched from the family so suddenly, by quoting liberally from the biography she wrote about her father.  (My own favorite sections of the book deal with Twain’s relationship with the U.S. Grant family and publication of the former president’s memoirs.)
Twain, though, never passes up the opportunity for a little personal vengeance.  As he often reminds his readers, he is speaking from the grave now, so what does he care about offending anyone?  He just wants to set the record straight – at least as he sees that record.  So rather unfortunately, the reader will have to wade through what seems like countless pages about the copyright laws of the day and biting commentary about an Italian landlady who drove Twain nuts for several months.

Intimidating as the two books may first appear to be, the author’s charm and rascality make reading them a pleasure that Twain fans will not want to miss.

Books: Some Come In and Some Go Out

Well, it looks like I’m going to break even this week: two books completed and two to-be-read books added to the stacks for a net change of zero books.

I finished Neil Grimmett’s The Hoard, a dark thriller set in England about selling weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, and I Wore Babe Ruth’s Hat, a realistic look at the social impact of sports in America by David Zang.  Both of these were electronic review copies, and I’ll be writing the reviews in a few days.


But…I added one book from the library, Erik Larson’s bestseller Dead Wake (about the sinking of the Lusitania) and Shots on the Bridge by Ronnie Greene.  Shots on the Bridge is a nonfiction account of a police shooting that happened on a remote bridge near New Orleans a few days after Hurricane Katrina.  Considering recent current events, that one seems rather timely; it’s a review copy I acquired through LibraryThing.  I really need to get on that library book because so many people are in line to read it that I don’t want to keep it beyond the 14-day borrowing limit that’s on it until the line shortens.

Right now, I’m reading a couple of books.  The first is A Spy Among Friends, Ben Macintyre’s rather detailed and complicated story of despicable British spy Kim Philby and the impact he had during World War II and its aftermath.  The second one is Bill Crider’s hardcore western called Texas Vigilante: An Ellie Taine Thriller.  I’m tempted to say that this is a bit of light reading to offset the tediousness that can set in after every few chapters of trying to read the Kim Philby book straight through, but Texas Vigilante is not exactly light reading – very intense, indeed.

I seem to be doing everything in pairs this week.

Japanese Craftsman Restores Old English/Japanese Dictionary

Well, OK.  I didn’t understand a single word of what these people are saying, but the video is still pretty fascinating.  If you are one of those bookish folks who enjoy the art and construction of the physical book (and consider them to be true collector’s items), I think that you will be as fascinated by the craftsmanship displayed here as I was.

The ending of the video reminds me a whole lot of the American Restoration television series in which the owners are brought back at the end to have their projects unveiled to their unbelieving eyes.  

Note the before and after pictures at the end of the video in order to get the full impact of this man’s work on the tattered old book.  I wish I could tell from the video how long this took and how much he charged for his work.  Any Japanese speakers out there?

(One word of warning…don’t waste your time using the YouTube translator on the subtitle options.  Those translations are terrible…well beyond ludicrously incompetent.)

Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training

Talk about bringing back memories.  

Reading Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training made me remember (sometimes fondly, sometimes not so fondly) things I have not thought about in since they happened way back in 1968 while I was in the process of completing Army basic training at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  I am certain that anyone who completed basic or boot camp during the Viet Nam era (because most of the book’s first-person anecdotes seem to come from those years) will react the same way.  The awakening of those memories, along with a better understanding of things that made little sense to most of us while they were happening, makes Basic a fun (and worthwhile) read. 
But, first things first.  The title of the book might seem a little redundant to some because it references both “Boot Camp” and “Basic Training.”  There is, however, good reason for that: Marines complete “boot camp” and the Army’s “soldiers” complete “basic training.”  And, although I am less certain about it, I believe that the Navy puts its recruits through “boot camp,” while the Air Force prefers the “basic training” designation.  So, although the training is somewhat similar across all branches of the U.S. military, the terms really are not directly interchangeable.
Basic describes each of the segments and milestones that are part of a military recruit’s first few weeks of military training, beginning with the calm-by-comparison first week during which hair is shorn, shots are given, and uniforms are issued, and ending with the graduation ceremony.  Along the way, Colonel Jacobs describes both training whose purpose is apparent and “training” that seems to have little purpose at all.  Through a combination of stories from those who have gone through the training themselves and the colonel’s explanation of what that training entails, the reader learns about things like: close-order drill, hand-to-hand combat training, bayonet training, guard duty, barracks life, weapons qualification, mess hall protocols, and PT training and testing. 
Colonel Jack Jacobs (Ret.)

Colonel Jacobs emphasizes the two distinct types of training that occur during basic, physical and mental, because it is critical that new soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen, be as well prepared mentally as they are physically to take on the responsibilities for which they are training.  That being the case, most of the training whose purpose is not so readily apparent most often relates to the mental aspects of basic training.  Those in charge of such training believe that new recruits must first be broken down before they can be rebuilt into the military men and women they are meant to be.  And they are correct; the process works beautifully.

At the end of a recruit’s training, the Drill Instructors who were his worst enemy (and someone to fear), suddenly turn into peers who show him as much respect as they have demanded from him just a few days earlier.  And that has to be one of the best feelings in the world, something that no graduate of Basic Training or Boot Camp will ever forget.

Bottom Line: Basic: Surviving Boot Camp and Basic Training will be of interest both to those who have not undergone the training andto those who have.  I had fun with this one.