Book Review: Books by Larry McMurtry

Wow. I was really, really looking forward to reading this one. After all, what could be better than a memoir about a guy who loves books so much that he dedicates his life to them: writing them, editing them, adapting them for screenplays, collecting them, dealing them. This is so right up any book-nerd's alley, and it doesn't take much to know I am just that book-nerd-type.

But despite the subject matter, Larry McMurtry's latest release, Books, will remain half-read on my shelf, and I'm debating even allowing it to keep that rare bit of open real estate.

McMurtry's writing in this book is shoddy at best, and desperately in need of an editor. Please, someone, get rid of the exclamation points all over every page. Cut the "dialog." Snip the tedious tangents. Wait, though -- if any of this happened, we'd be left with nothing to read. Books spends so much time dedicated to the opening hours of bookstores (they are open quite late in San Francisco, I've now read a dozen times) and the bizarre, seemingly unimportant romances of fellow booksellers that to remove the tangents would be to leave the text devoid of any story at all.

The already chaotic writing is only worsened by constant references to previous McMurtry titles, which, whether intentional or not, give the book the overall impression of a failed sales-pitch.

Bottom Line: Skip it. Without a cohesive subject matter and/or decent chronology of events, no memoir will survive. Worse, this one delves into details you couldn't be bothered to care about while glossing over what might have been interesting. Writing like this promises to be disappointed to any booklover, regardless of subject matter.

Medicine for the Soul (Quote of the Day)

The quote over the door of the Library at Thebes reads "Medicine for the soul." What could possibly be more true about a library?

In this vein of the importance of books and libraries, I have a spot of good news for the weekend: the Free Library of Philadelphia, which was threatened with closure due to budget cuts in Pennsylvania, will remain open. Details and a thank you from library staff can be seen here. Libraries: 1, Budget: 0. For now, at least.

Banned Books Week

Today marks the start of Banned Books Week 2009, an event created to celebrate the importance of the First Amendment. The American Library Association (ALA) offers some good insight into historical banned books on their website, and it's worth poking around if you are interested in the subject.

A quick glance over the top ten banned books lists from 2001-2008 reveals some interesting and unexpected finds. Julie of the Wolves, a childhood favorite of mine, and the His Dark Materials Trilogy. The usual titles pop up: The Adventures of Huck Finn (for racism and language) and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (for much the same reasons).

In honor of the week, I will be breaking my personal book-buying-ban to read And Tango Makes Three, which was the most challenged book for 2006, 2007 and 2008. I'd never even heard of this one until I started looking into banned book lists; I wonder what this says about the efficacy of book-banning efforts. Rather than banning the title, the book-banners have served only to bring it more and more into the public eye.

This seems to be somewhat of a continuous occurence. Recall last fall when there where vicious and unsubstantiated rumors floating around about Sarah Palin's book-banning efforts, if you will. While the rumors turned out to be false, they brought the issue of banned books back into the spotlight. People once again realized that book banning has not disappeared - rather, it is rampant across the United States (see a map of banning efforts).

In the end, maybe we should let the crazy people try to ban books. More often than not, they will fail; the First Amendment may be complicated for some issues, but the matter of censoring reading materials seems pretty black-and-white in regards to the law. In the process, though, banned books will be remembered, old favorites picked up and seen in a new light, and, hopefully, we can remember that we are almost all, on some level, passionate about books and reading. If it takes a controversy to remind us of that, I'll take it. And I'll take those banned books, too. Off to the Strand...

Writer Spotlight - Shel Silverstein

Today is Shel Silverstein's birthday - it would have been his 79th. He is the author and poet of many of the beloved child stories and poems we know and remember fondly: Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974), Light in the Attic (1981), Falling Up (1996), The Giving Tree (1964), The Missing Piece (1976)... the list goes on. To say that he work was prized is an understatement: A Light in the Attic alone won 9+ awards, and remained on the NYT bestseller list for over two years.

But Shel Silverstein was in every sense of the word a Renaissance man: singer, songwriter, poet, children's author, cartoonist. He studied music and composition briefly, and his songwriting credits include the soundtrack to A Boy Named Sue, various songs for Johnny Cash, and several hits for Loretta Lynn and the Irish Rovers.

He first started drawing cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes as a GI in Japan during the Korean War. His work was later featured regularly in Playboy Magazine, and connections to a friend in children's publishing led to his first children's book, The Giving Tree. The rest, as they say, is history.

Peter & Max - a Fables Novel

Thanks to Jay Franco, I once again find myself feeding my Fables addiction; this time, it's Peter & Max, the first Fables novel by Bill Willingham.

For those of you who haven't read the Fables books (and you should, immediately), the series tracks the stories of various fabled characters - Snow White, Cinderella, the 3 Little Pigs, Pinnocchio, et al - and their flight from their homelands in face of an unknown invader. They set up a hidden community in New York City... and I can't really tell you any more than that without spoiling it.

Bill Willingham's genius for creating stories out of pre-existing plots and details rivals that of Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, et al, and his latest installment in the Fables series does not disappoint in this regard. Peter and Max tells the story of the Pipers: Peter Piper (of pickled pepper fame), and Max (of the Pied Piper legends). Willingham's character development can be a bit uneven - perhaps he should have titled the book PETER and max - but this does not detract from the plot overall. Willingham's story moves steadily through modern and magical times, drawing together several fable strings into one cohesive story that is quite hard to put down.

Bottom line: A quick read, Peter and Max will entertain both the Fables fanatics and novice reader alike, and contains enough inked illustrations throughout to satisfy the graphic-novel-nerd in all of us. Especially enjoyable for the reader with a knowledge of fables and folk tales.

Share the Link Love

Ack! Not many posts lately - I've been to Carlisle for work, a weekend dip into the 18th century (the Market at Washingtonburg event), and am still catching up.

In the meantime, here's a little non-book-related reading and a bit of a plug for a friend:

From a baby-eating sculpture in Switzerland to Mongolia’s giant statue of Genghis Khan, the world’s weirdest monuments display local quirks.

Lyndsey just had her first feature article published on the Travel and Leisure website. Of course I'm biased because she's a friend, but it's a great article on some unexpected monuments across the globe. I admire her dedication to travel writing - she's had a thing for Rick Steves since I first met her, back when she still had blue hair. I also admire the little statue of the peeing boy, appropriately titled "Mannekin Pis." I'm not sure what that says about my admirations, but there it is.

Review of Her Fearful Symmetry to come soon...

Revolutionary Road

I finished Revolutionary Road last week but it's taken me this long to actually process enough of what I read to write anything about it. Not necessarily in a bad way, but this is probably the farthest thing from uplifting you could find in the world of modern literary fiction.

The plot is relatively uncomplicated: Frank and April Wheeler get married young, have children, move to the suburbs of New York City to raise their family, and spend every spare minute they have disdainful of suburban life. The typical, normal family lifestyle is so... beneath them. You can see where this is going -- the two find themselves unhappy, trapped in a lifestyle they never chose and never truly wanted. But how does one break out of this? And perhaps more importantly, if you do break out of it, how do you maintain your identity? Do you have one to begin with, or is it all pretend?

I don't need to elaborate on these questions much more than to say that Yates does not paint a happy picture of married suburban life, at least not for the Wheelers. But despite the absolute melancholy that settles upon the reader, clinging on us like a mink stole in August, Yates' prose is sharp, clear and insightful. He captures the essence of relationships, the difference between love and mere admiration, the intricacies of motherhood and marriage - all in the minute details of every day life.

What is more, Yates has a firm grasp on the inner monologues of his characters. They are ever present, but never bulky. They lend only further insight into each character, furthering our understanding of their absolute failure to communicate their inner selves to anyone (what a happy thought). His dialogue, like his characters' thoughts, is natural and graceful.

Bottom line: Revolutionary Road offers what one can only hope is an unrealistic portrayal of the lives we choose - or do not choose - to lead, and the impacts of these choices. An excellent read, but only if you are in the mood for a downer.


As a side note, the movie is actually a decent adaptation of the book, although the many friends I've spoken to have not been fans.

Who else is sick of hearing about Dan Brown?

With the launch of Dan Brown's latest and very much anticipated novel, The Lost Symbol, on Tuesday, it seems that it is impossible to turn anywhere in the book world without being accosted with stories, links, trivia regarding the reviled and admired Dan Brown.

Did you know The Lost Symbol broke Barnes & Noble's record for highest number of sales in one day? It is also the number one ebook selling on BN's digital book sales. (Read the full story here.) It is also one of the bestselling titles on Amazon, with digital sales surpassing hard copy sales (with the exception of pre-orders).

But despite this wild success, Dan Brown is quite literally a reviled figure in the literary world. Sure, we're all snobs in our own right, loving to hate the James Pattersons and Nicholas Sparks of the world. And Nora Roberts - don't get me started. But these authors are so formulaic, publishing so many titles in one year, that it seems reasonable to despise them; they undermine everything we believe about writing and the writing process.

Dan Brown is a different story: he writes one book every few years. Sure, some of this is probably for the publicity hype that builds up around his work, but he is also a writer in a way that Patterson has long ago abandoned. It seems harsh to dismiss this effort with so little thought, and paints an image of the literary world as a bitter, jealous lover who has been spurned in favor of fame and money.

Literary world - let's get one thing straight: there is nothing wrong with being successful as an author. We are not starving artists, competing for whose loft has the least heating and who eats more vegan chicken soup out of the can. I hated the Dan Brown books as much as the next literary snob, but maybe we should lighten up on Dan Brown the author. After all, he has managed to create a living-and a solid one, at that-doing what he loves. Sure, we're all a little jealous, but let's cut the man a break and be happy for the money and sales he is pumping into the industry, despite what we may think of his ever-so-poorly crafted sentences.

Save the Words

The nerd in me totally loves this -- a website that offers readers a chance to re-adopt terms in danger of being removed from the dictionary.

It's a little-discussed fact that every time a new word such as "bootylicious" or "bagillion" is 'officially' adopted into the English lexicon, some other seemingly out-of-date or out-of-touch word rides off into what Shelf Awareness calls the "lexigraphical sunset." Sure, I'm proud of Beyonce and all that, but I really would rather use the word "advesperate" (to approach evening) than "bootylicious." Seriously, no contest.

So off to Save the Words, all of you, let's bring the English language back to its righteous past. Myself, I'm off to watch Kevin coquinate (this is the word I've just adopted).

Free Library to Close

It's a sad day for the world of libraries, and the book industry in general, when an institution as large and important as the Free Library in Philadelphia is on the brink of closure. You can see the announcement and more details on the library's website. Closure is set for October 2nd.

I recently attended a wedding in this library and was nothing less than dazed and amazed to such a great hall of books (I feel pretty much the same way when I go to the 5th Ave Humanities Library in NYC). I can only hope that Harrisburg will have the good sense to make the necessary budget changes, but I do understand that in this environment, it's not always so easy as that. But what will they do with it all: the building, the staff, the books?

"What the heck is Indiebound?"

Those of you who click the links on my blog dutifully, as blog readers should (wink, wink), will notice that I link to titles on Indiebound as often as possible. Those of you who do not click said links, or perhaps even those who do, might ask the same question as a recent customer in the Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, WI: "What the heck is Indiebound?"

Here's my best answer: it's an alternative to Amazon for book searching, recommendations and links. When I want to link to a book - and we all know that is quite often - I can link to the book on Indiebound rather than Amazon, and because Indiebound has this nifty feature that allows you to type in your zip code to local an independent bookseller near you that carries the book, I am supporting local, independent bookshops instead of the Monsterzon. Phew, that was a long-winded, one-sentence answer to that question.

But wait, there's more. Indiebound allows bookstores to register themselves, and book buyers and bookshop owners can input their book recommendations for new and exciting reads, which in turn are compiled into the Indie Next List. There is also a Children's Next List, because, as in all publishing, adult books and children's books are considered separate markets (some, such as myself, might claim that the children's book market is missing out on parents, as well as kids that like to read above their 'level' and adults that like to read below it, but that's another story, really).

Next Chapter's blog post on the question explains better than I could how the site is viewed from a bookseller's point of view - give it a glance over, at least. They also add that you can use the site to find independent bookstores just about anywhere, so we all know what I'll be doing before my next vacation.

I'm off to peruse the Next List myself, to see if there's anything on there I just have to read. Wait, damn. I promised I'd read what I already own...

Julie and Julia

I picked up a copy of Julie and Julia about a year ago because it had this subtitle: 365 days, 524 recipes and 1 tiny apartment kitchen (the subtitle changed in later editions). And it was about a woman have a bit of a life crisis. In Queens. It was like it was made for me.

Then I didn't read it. Until the movie came out, and it skyrocketed to the front of everyone's reading lists, and suddenly I was victim to that classic faux-pas I love to hate on: reading a book because it was made into a movie...

And let me tell you, Powell's memoir is well worth the read, whatever your motivations. She is quick, witty and poignant, scattering her adventures in the kitchen-and in life-with enough life lessons to keep one's mind turning. Not to worry, however: her self-deprication and humor, combined with her refusal to wallow for too long in self pity, keeps it from turning into her own personal sob story.

This is not a me-me-me memoir, as so many are wont to be. Instead, it is an honest, laugh-out-loud (dear, instant messaging has ruined that turn of phrase, hasn't it?), touching and thought-provoking account of one woman's realization that her life is in shambles -- and her (relatively successful) attempt to change that.

What Powell has created in this process is an imagination of Julia Child - and it turns out to be just that, an imagination - and a lot of buttery French food. What she learns in the process is that life is what you make of it. And what she made of it was 524 recipes, a popular blog, and a great book.

Bottom line: Prepare to laugh, cry, and suddenly find yourself craving bone marrow and lobster at odd times of the night. Powell's writing is as delicious as one would imagine her food to be.

Creativity in the Digital Age

My last post of "ebook week" (I never did come up with a better name for it, although I'm quite proud of the Ebook Apocalypse) strikes what I hope is a happier note. Because really, what we should be doing now is not bickering about ebooks, ebook pricing, DRM, author royalties, publisher's salaries, or the declining book sales in brick-and-mortars. What we should do, instead, is figure out what we can do to adapt to these changes.

Just like Radiohead when they allowed consumers to pay what they wanted for their CD released in January 2008, author Douglas Coupland has done just that, finding a way to make it more fun, or perhaps more worth your while, to buy the physical product rather than the digital one: design your own book cover! Readers can put whatever they'd like on their own personalized copy of Generation A, which, according to the website, mirrors Coupland's Generation X (yep, he can lay claim to that catchy name).

Interesting that Generation A is about the difficulties of adjusting to a digital world - maybe Coupland is just one step ahead of us and all the bickering. Hopefully, by next Labor Day, we'll all be caught up.

[End: "Ebook Week"]

Ebook Pricing - Chaos in the Marketplace

The debate over ebooks is particularly focused on their pricing. For years, consumers have whined about the "exorbitant" prices of hardcovers, which have inched their way up from the low twenties to the mid- to high- twenties. I myself have complained about the near extinction of the mass market paperback in anything but mystery, romance, horror and sci-fi. Publishers instead opt for the trade paperback, which often costs nearly twice as much as the mass market. But, c'est la vie. Nothing will ever be expensive enough for the manufacturer, and nothing ever cheap enough for the consumer. This is what keeps prices in check, either one way or the other, right?

The problem is, Amazon has come into this delicate balance and trampled everyone, especially in the world of ebooks. They have priced their ebooks (with the exceptions of highly anticipated new releases) at $9.99, in many instances without consulting the publisher of said book. (If you missed it in a previous post, see this coverage of Hachette's outrage at ebook pricing).

As ebook sales do, in some way, replace physical book sales, the cost of an ebook must take into account the cost of running a publishing company; sure, there are no printing or shipping costs, but you still have to pay a writer, illustrator, jacket designer, marketer, sales rep, editor, copy-editor, interior designer, administrator, etc, among a myriad of other business costs. These costs cannot be covered if, as Kindle-owners and other ebook readers insist, the price of an ebook cannot go above $9.99. (Did you miss the "boycott"?)

The only thing I have to add to this ongoing debate is the example of the music industry. In this case, the mega-giant that came in and trampled everyone else was Apple, with the development of the iTunes store. Here, music was no longer free as it was on Napster (wow, remember those days?). Instead, it was a mere $0.99/song, or, on average, $9.99/CD. Now, if a physical CD costs an average of $15, and the digital CD costs $9.99, why isn't there outrage about this? That's only a $5 price difference if you buy the whole CD, and if you buy a CD's worth of $0.99 songs, you're looking at about $15 - the same cost as a CD itself. In the book world, many are arguing for up to a $20 price difference for new releases in digital format.

My hope is that eventually this turmoil of ebook pricing will be settled and forgotten, much as I'm sure there were hundreds of debates over the pricing (what, we have to pay for music!?) of mp3s.

A Glimmer of Hope in the Ebook Apocalypse

First off, now that I've dubbed it the ebook apolocalypse - or should it be the Ebook Apocalypse, for emphasis? - I'm sticking with it. I like the implications.

Just a follow-up on yesterday's doomsday post: last week, following the chaos surrounding the pricing of ebooks on Amazon, Sony, etc., Robert McCrum of the Guardian stepped back and found some positives in our transitioning publishing world. Margaret Attwood, Jeanette Winterson and Alaine de Botton (what did you expect from a British journalist?) add up to proof that we haven't changed all that much, really. Read his article here.

It gives me hope that even as we change our mediums, or prices, or argue over DRM and all that jazz, someone can find ways in which the literary world is forever stagnant. Because isn't that why we read books, because they are permanent, unchanging and yet ever-adapting?

The Ebook Apocalypse, Addressed (A Round Up)

To sum up a few new twists and turns of the events in the ebook apocalypse last week:

Sony warns that ebook prices will have to drop in order to generate interest in the market (and, most importantly, to compete with Amazon's promise that all backlist ebooks in the US will be $9.99). Read more...

On the same day, Hachette book group spoke out against ebook pricing, predicting the doom of the hardcover book. Read more...

Lastly, and the one I personally enjoyed the most, The Bookseller Chick took the Sony Reader PRS 700* (seriously, Sony, you're going to need a better name than that to rival the Kindle) on a test drive. It seems to me that Sony could corner the ebook market, what with the Kindle only compatible with Amazon and Amazon-released ebooks, while the Sony can read many formats. Read more...

*I found it interesting that when I mentioned this article to my boyfriend, his reaction was "Sony makes an e-reader?" It amazes me that Amazon, with a more expensive and less compatible product, has already built a permanent home in our ebook imaginations. He's an iPod touch reader, himself, which The Bookseller Chick does discuss as a possible rival to Amazon.

Educational Ebooks

Today's Shelf Awareness featured a link to the Boston Globe's article on a prep school that did away with their library - yes, gone, nada, zip - in favor of a digital "media room" (note: the idea is so foreign that they don't even have a proper name for the concept yet).

Now, I'm all for digitizing books for students. I wrote three full-length research papers using NYU's library resources - from Paris. I understand the importance of updating our schools and our libraries to the digital age. But the school is spending $10,000 on 18 e-book readers for students' literary browsings (which, the articles note, is less than the amount being spent on a new capuccino machine to replace some of the stacks). Can these students check out the e-readers? What of the thousands upon thousands of backlist titles not yet available digitally? What about the other 96% of the student population that doesn't get one of the 18 e-readers available?

Beyond that, how many solid, printed books can $10,000 buy? Certainly more than 18. Actually, I'll do the math for you. If the average trade paperback (we'll assume that the number of hardcovers rivals the number of mass markets, for simplicity's sake) costs $15, that would be 667 books. And that's assuming that the library paid full price for the books, which libraries do not. At a standard 40%ish discount, thats nearly 1500 books. 85 times the number of e-readers. And more titles available. To more students at one time. C'mon this is too easy.

Perhaps more importantly, though, why does the digital age have to replace books? Is this just a publicity stunt? If so, it is appalling. If not, it is still pretty appalling. Any educator that claims that books are an "outdated technology" might be trying just a little too hard to update the school to the 21st century, in danger of ignoring the outlasting importance of books-printed books-and thereby depriving his students of one of our most valuable education tools.

That, and if things keep on in this way, we'll see the end of books sooner than we thought. According to the headmaster, in fact, those of us who refuse to get ahead of the digital book curve will be disposable in a decade. Disposable! Us? Readers? BOOKS!?

Doomsday. I think I'm going to be sick.

Update: It seems I wasn't the only one that balked at the concept - PW's Shelftalker composed an eloquent response to the story, and even provides the link to the headmaster's full speech defending his reasons (not particularly convincing, really, but maybe I'm biased.)

Digital vs Print in the Industry

[Begin: "Ebook Week"]

In honor of labor day, I am dubbing this "ebook week." Ok, I'll work on a better name. But Labor Day is meant to be in honor of the workers of the United States, right? Sure, the holiday was created to honor a different kind of worker than the authors, publishers, editors, etc that the issue of ebooks touches upon, but we are workers nonetheless. And as our little world of literature is rocked by the impending doom of the ebook and digital rights management (DRM), no one quite knows what end is up and what is down. So, in honor of the laborers of the publishing world, here goes my introduction to "ebook week (name to be finalized at a later date)."

Our certainty that certain books will sell in hardcover because, well, they just will (think: the 7th Harry Potter installment, or "James Patterson's" latest release, or the much-anticipated Dan Brown books) is no longer so certain. Our certainty that we can price a book within a given range without provoking public outrage is, well, not quite so certain either. Suddenly we face the same questions that the music industry struggled with (somewhat successfully, some might say) regarding the role of the computer, and, more importantly, the internet, in media.

As the doom of the ebook apocalypse draws ever nearer, publishers are faced with new questions of survival: how will we adapt? With Amazon drastically cutting ebook prices, often below cost, how will the publishing industry continue to actually turn a profit? Let's face it: the world of printed matter is struggling enough as it is; if Amazon slashes prices any lower, it will become truly unprofitable to continue to print them, rather than just risky.

Books on Books

This past weekend, I made my first trip to the relatively famous and absolutely wonderful Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass (out on Cape Cod). First off, it's worth the trip to the Cape for the shop alone. Three stories of new, used, and rare, collectable antique books will keep any casual browser or book-obsessed shopper content for hours on end. From time to time, they have author signings and book readings as well (most recently Richard Russo reading from his latest release, That Old Cape Magic).

What really caught my notice, though, was the entire shelving unit downstairs titled "Books on Books." Talk about a booklover's paradise. Antique editions of ALA listings, books on the world of publishing, and (my personal favorite and almost-purchase) the top 100 listings of the top 100 books of all time (from 1947). Kind of a neat classic, that, but overpriced for something I'd most likely never read.

When I own a bookstore (one day), I think I will continue this "Books on Books" concept -after all, it is us booklovers and fanatics and obsessive collectors that will be keeping the publishing business afloat as the world struggles to understand how ebooks will change the written word as we know it.

I will add to it, however, that fine collection of memoirs and fiction dedicated to booklovers as well - most notably Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading (the memoirs of NPR's book reviewer, Maureen Corrigan, and the perfect early birthday birthday present from my mom), Books (the life and thoughts of Larry McMurtry, bookstore owner, writer, publisher).

There's a whole host of new titles on booklovers coming out this fall, but that's probably enough for a second post. Stay tuned!