“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”

January 31, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Okay, I know this book came out to great acclaim in 1998, and thus you’ve most likely already read it.  I just discovered it, though, so bear with me.  I wanted to make sure you knew that the audio version is absolutely delightful.  It’s definitely a case of the narration adding a layer to the experience.

Now, if you haven’t discovered The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, you need to know that the only thing better than reading the book is knowing that it’s the first of a series.  Alexander McCall Smith is a treasure.  He reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse in that it doesn’t matter which title you pick up, you just have to shut the door, snuggle up in a cozy blanket, and absorb.  In both cases, the author has the magical ability to make a person permanently happier.  Even better, they belong to the tribe of prolific authors, so there’s no need to fear running out too soon.  I’m already on the wait list for the second in the series, Tears of the Giraffe.

E-Books Can Save the Independent Bookstore

January 30, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 7 Comments

I read this post on  A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook and started to reply, but my comment got so long I decided I might as well write an entire post on the subject.

The thing about e-books is that they are a new technology.  The argument was made in classical times that reading books would destroy the memory; indeed, the availability of books altered the oral tradition forever.  (And I mean any books; this was long before the invention of the printing press).  Ah, but people do still tell stories, even thousands of years after those pesky things called books came on the scene.  Likewise, I think e-books are here to stay, that they have their good and bad points, and that things in the world of books are going to be quite different in a thousand years.  The time of transition is going to make this feel like an apocalypse, but don’t fret.  Posterity will look back on us and laugh.

I have read several e-books.  I use my tiny old-school 2001 black and white PDA.  I downloaded all these books for free because they are pre-copyright era.  What I like about e-books is that they mark your place; they will scroll for you so you can continue to read without holding the device; there’s room for another title (or several) if you happen to finish the current one; and, of course, they weigh nothing and take up no space – a big factor if you’ve ever had to move 18 35-pound boxes of books into a fourth-floor walkup.  This is only a small part of the picture.

The thing about going paperless in general is that when you keep your information in a digital format, you can search it electronically.  At our last book group meeting, one of our members was able to pull up a given passage in an 800+-page book within about two minutes.  The only reason it took so long was that we were having trouble remembering exactly how the key sentence was phrased.  If she had wanted to, the owner of this Sony Reader could have marked the passage while she read it, and pulled it up later in seconds.  Those of us who spend time in research and study should realize instantly how valuable this can be.

Not everyone is impressed with the marvels of technology.  The potential of the e-book is truly, truly enormous for students and serious readers, if they would but realize it, but it’s epoch-making for bookstores.  I hope they catch on in time.  Let me explain.

What’s killing independent bookstores is the secondary, or used, book market.  Let’s be honest here.  The ideal model for the bookseller is that every individual purchases every book she reads, and then hoards it away until her death, at which point all those beautiful books promptly disintegrate.  The reality is that books are lent, given away, checked out from libraries, or read through for free within the confines of the shop and never bought at all.  From the author’s perspective, it’s a nightmare, because the better the book, the higher the chances it will be passed from hand to hand, accruing precisely zero dollars in royalties for the artistic genius who created the work.

E-book readers are serious readers.  They are also serious readers with money.  (Remember, current e-readers cost upward of $300).  If they enjoy the convenience of the e-reader, they are going to begin to rely on it more and more.  Their friends and family will start to buy them e-book credits for gifts because it’s such a no-brainer.  They will probably escalate their reading habits because the book will be so portable and available.  (I can even read mine in the dark without disturbing anyone).  Publishers – and bookstores, I’m getting there – can make more money by selling thousands of electronic copies of a book than by printing, shipping, storing, and remaindering.

Let’s step back and make a comparison to the world of music.  One would have predicted that recorded music would kill anyone’s interest in attending live performances because of the cost.  You can get a lot more bang for your buck in terms of hours of enjoyment per dollar from an album than a concert, right?  Well, what actually seems to have happened is that performers have achieved greater fame, because the recordings reach more people.  Then the problem with illegal downloading cropped up.  Where are we now?  Not only has downloaded music not killed the music industry, but almost every person I know (including my dad) has an iPod and they’re paying 99 cents a song.  Further, downloading music has allowed more independent bands to achieve recognition, since they don’t have to rely on being “discovered” before they are heard.

Does everyone see yet how this could be paralleled in every respect for e-books?

What publishers need to do is to make sure that e-books can only be downloaded or transferred from one device to another a set number of times.  It’s far less likely that someone is going to lend his Sony Reader to someone for the length of time it would take her to read an entire novel.  At $10, she could just… buy her own copy, right?  What can you buy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore for $10?  Answer:  Remaindered books, but not much else.

Now, this is where bookstores come in, and what I would do if I owned one.  They continue to offer readings from popular authors.  They continue to offer a cozy, quiet environment that is pleasant for reading.  They continue to employ a knowledgeable staff, who continue to present Staff Picks and display special books that are hard to find elsewhere.  The only change is that they offer a way to download e-books on the premises.  Then!  Then they can take out a table or shelf or two of paper books, and make room for more cozy chairs and sofas.  The bookstore becomes the last remaining quiet place in town, and people come there to drink an expensive hot beverage and read in peace.  The hot beverages are more prevalent because they can’t “ruin” books any more.

E-books are not going to kill literature.  They’re not going to kill it because only the most prolific readers use them.  If anything were likely to kill literature, it would be – hello!television.  Lack of education.  Decline in readership.  But those things haven’t succeeded yet in killing books, because more books were published last year than at any point in all of history.  I’m sure there will be even more this year.  And if more of those books are electronic, so much the better.  Higher profits per unit spells greater success for publishers, and more books for me.  Whether bookstores can figure out how to run with this opportunity and make money off it is really only a matter of time and creativity.

“The Library at Night”

January 30, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Posted in Books About Books, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

The Library at Night is destined to be a legend among books about books.  Alberto Manguel discusses every aspect of libraries that one could possibly think of, from the perspective of the lifetime collector.  The book is packed with illustration and library trivia about everything from the library of Alexandria to the Dewey Decimal System.

Manguel describes his constant reshuffling and organizing of his own library, something that is probably quite familiar to all of us.  He had the unbelievable luxury of being able to design and build an addition to his house just for his books – and when you see where it is, you’ll positively seethe with jealousy.  Imagine having unlimited time and space to play with your book collection!

Various questions come up about what makes a library.  Manguel has opinions about the digitizing and microfilming of archival materials and eliminating unused materials, for instance, that could be subject to much debate.  Myself, I believe there truly are materials with a built-in obsolescence, and thus it seems silly to devote space and maintenance to them.  Manguel has a more traditional book-lover’s regard for the printed page.

If you love books and being surrounded by them, check out The Library at Night.  You’re guaranteed to find out things you didn’t even realize you didn’t know.  You might even start thinking of books and libraries in a new way.

“Black Flies”

January 29, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

Holy smoke, what a book!  Black Flies, by Shannon Burke, about knocked my socks off.

If you’re a CSI fan, you should run out and get this book right away.  It’s an amazing first-hand look at the seamy side of being a paramedic, complete with, well, “black flies.”  If you have a weak stomach, get over it and read through the graphic scenes, because this is one unforgettable tale of sin and redemption.  Absolute must-read.

I Broke Up with BookSwim

January 28, 2009 at 6:27 pm | Posted in Book Services | 6 Comments

In the past, I’ve reviewed BookSwim and Paperspine, two book rental services that I have used.  Every now and then I see that someone has searched these terms looking for a review.  To that end, here is the letter I wrote when I cancelled my BookSwim account.

Cancelling one’s account takes multiple steps.  At each point, you are faced with a cute little question asking for the reason you want to quit.  When you check the box, a response comes up reminding you of all their great features.  It takes a while to get to the part where your opinion is solicited.  I take these “exit polls” seriously because I think the information is really valuable for improving services.

Without further ado:

I have been using both BookSwim and Paperspine.  Due to shipping times, my Paperspine books have a total turnaround time of 6 days, while my BookSwim books take 15 or more.  I do not wish to pay extra for faster shipping.

My Paperspine books arrive in cardboard, while my BookSwim books usually come in a shipping bag that has been torn upon arrival every time.  It’s a wonder none of my books have fallen out or become wet or damaged.

My Paperspine books have always come in the order of my queue, save for two exceptions that were in the top three.  My BookSwim books are as likely to come from the bottom half of my pool as from the middle third, meaning I have waited months to read the books I was most enthusiastic about.

Paperspine has no requirement for length of queue.  BookSwim requires a minimum number of books in the pool, which means I have had to add books I was less interested in to fill it out – and then gotten those less interesting books first.

BookSwim sometimes silently removes books from my pool, which I have found tremendously frustrating.  These always seem to be hard-to-find books which then vanish from the BookSwim catalogue.  I have no interest in paying to rent books that I can get at my local library for free.  BookSwim will order books that are in the top 20,000 on Amazon.com, but most of the things I have wanted to rent do not meet that criterion.

Paperspine allows return of single books, meaning I don’t have to wait until I’ve read at least three books before exchanging them for a new set.

I have had trouble getting enough return shipping bags from BookSwim, another problem that delays turnaround time.  I have received batches of four or more books with only one return bag that will not fit all those books.  It’s easy to ask for a new shipping bag to be sent, but there is still a delay.  Paperspine will send an envelope with multiple return shipping bags of different sizes.

I have had a few problems with my account, including books that I have rented disappearing from my list [meaning they are at my house, but don’t show up in my account so I can check them back in].  Maintaining my account with BookSwim has been a bit high-maintenance.

Finally, I’ve read through the majority of the list of books that I could not find elsewhere.  I appreciate the opportunity to rent books with BookSwim, but I always planned to keep my account relatively short-term.

I hope my comments have been helpful.  Thank you for your time.

And there you have it.  I’m still with Paperspine, and I’m still wishing Paperspine carried hardcover books.

“Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World”

January 27, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Posted in History, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

Rome 1960, by David Maraniss, brings alive the Olympics of that year, which turned out to be a watershed event for several historical trends.

Maraniss’s writing makes the material accessible, even for someone like me, who knows virtually nothing about sports or athletics.

The 1960 Olympics brought performance-enhancing drugs into the spotlight for the first time, with the death of a Danish cyclist.  The 1960 games also introduced legendary boxer Cassius Clay, later to become Muhammad Ali.  Race issues were very controversial, as the US still had not eliminated segregation, subjecting us to deserved ridicule from the Soviets.  Post-WWII reconstruction was still underway, and the Cold War was a full-fledged blizzard.  African nations began to shake off the yoke of colonialism.  Women began to make names for themselves as serious world-class athletes.

Rome 1960 provides a fascinating angle on an eventful moment in history.  It also gives a fresh, lively account of some incredible athletic triumphs, including Abebe Bikila’s barefoot marathon win, which alone makes the book worth a read.

10,000 Pages

January 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 1 Comment

Well, it looks like I’m off to another deranged year of reading probably too many books.  Last night I hit 10,000 pages without even realizing it.

It would be cool to be the most prolific reader in the world, though I don’t know how one would go about tracking down one’s competition, if there is such a thing.

I do have one major competitor – this fellow Zero on LibraryThing.  We’re both in the 250 Book Challenge group, and right now I’m only one title ahead of him.  It’s early days yet.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

January 26, 2009 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Fiction | 5 Comments

No, I don’t have a copy of it yet, but I just heard about it and I thought I would share.  It’s one of those books that makes me say, “Gee, I wish that had been my idea!”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Addendum: I’ve been in contact with the publishers, Quirk Books, and they have 50 review copies to give out to book bloggers!  If you’re interested, contact Melissa.  The only drawback?  We have to wait until April.

“The Samaritan’s Dilemma”

January 26, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 7 Comments

I am more excited by this book than by anything I’ve read in ages.  I loved The Samaritan’s Dilemma so much that I had to stop more than once to pump my fists in the air.

Deborah Stone subtitles this book “Should Government Help Your Neighbor?”  She refutes the Reagan-era conservative contention that charity and public assistance teach people to rely on handouts and render them not just unwilling, but unable, to care for themselves.  She also says that the human desire to help others is so strong that people will risk their jobs to be able to do so, citing health workers who surreptitiously run errands for their disabled clients on their own time in violation of agency rules.

I found the arguments of this book terribly exciting.  My own family’s experiences have always contradicted that old “don’t feed the bears” welfare-is-bad theory.  My parents, dumb teenagers in love, found themselves with three kids at age 21 and in Oregon just in time for the recession.  My parents worked to put each other through college, and now, of the five of us, all of us earn middle-class incomes, have a cumulative four college degrees (plus one in progress), and own three houses.  We did it by relying on:  food stamps; an emergency assistance grant; the Oregon Health Plan; surplus government cheese; the reduced-price school lunch program; church food boxes; interest-free family loans; gifts from friends including food, clothing, and furniture; Goodwill Industries; two state universities; three community colleges; the GI Bill; subsidized educational loans including the Stafford Loan program; various educational grants; a VA home loan; the Earned Income Tax Credit; three separate labor unions; various anonymous samaritans who found ways to feed us and help us with car trouble; and, of course, the public library.  (Note that credit cards were not involved; my folks had no credit record in 1990 when they bought their house because they always paid cash).  You’ll be happy to hear that my family has not needed public or private assistance of any kind since the 1980s; all those family loans have been repaid, with interest; and the only student loan left is mine, on which I am currently six years ahead.

We don’t take charity any more – we give it, including the Union Gospel Mission, Redwood Gospel Mission, Sisters of the Road Cafe, the Oregon Food Bank, Oregon HEAT, JOIN, Give Back a Smile, the Giving Tree, the Cancer Ski-Out, and The Kiva (though the latter is technically not a charity).  My mom is well known for kooky stunts like baking banana bread for the homeless guy near her office.

What’s sad about the Samaritan’s Dilemma, to me, is how deeply the idea that charity is harmful has sunk in to our culture.  I talked about this book with several people, all of whom brought up the problem of scam artists, including “welfare queens” and people who stand by the side of the road holding cardboard signs and then supposedly drive off in luxury vehicles.  Personally, I don’t care whether I’m getting “ripped off” when I give to charity.  There is no way for me to know whether my charitable giving has the intended effect; for instance, when I buy a bike for a kid for the Giving Tree, will someone steal it from her before the New Year?  Will she ride out in traffic and get herself killed?  Dunno.  (Though I always make sure to include a lock and a helmet).  The important thing for me is the positive spiritual benefit I feel from the act of giving.  I have to give.  It’s a physical demand in my body.  When I hear about someone in trouble, I know precisely how that sort of thing can happen, and I know from deep personal experience that it’s possible to get out of it, but not alone.  I have to give; I have to.  I can only do my best and cast my bread upon the water, hoping a duck gets it and not a rat.

Bookshelf Meme

January 23, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 4 Comments

It’s Friday, so let’s do a meme!  I think they’re called that because they’re all about me-me-me-me.

Tell about the book that’s been on your shelves the longest.

This would have to be my copy of Eight Cousins, by Louisa May Alcott.  I must have read that book at least four times.  I can’t even remember exactly which relative gave it to me, but I do know the plot and characters back and forth!  As far as I was concerned, this book was the cornerstone of everyone’s library.

Tell about a book that reminds you of something specific in your life.

I have a signed copy of Women & Money, by Suze Orman.  I drove an hour to go see her read, then stood in line for another 45 minutes to get to meet her.  She is so glamorous!  I stood there before her in clothes that were three sizes too big for me (post-weight loss) and felt like her eyes were laser beams.  At that moment I decided I needed one heck of a makeover.  Then she signed my book, “Stay great!”

A book you acquired in some interesting way.

I have a book sitting there called Carnage and Culture.  It’s not mine.  Rocket Scientist has been trying to get me to read it since before we started dating, and for some reason I still haven’t (about four years later).  It’s quite sad that I have an entire section of bookshelf devoted to books people have lent to me.

Tell about the most recent addition to your shelves.

I bought a copy of The Recognitions by William Gaddis at Powell’s Books on my last trip to Portland.  I could have gotten it from the San Francisco library, but I figured it might take me more than three weeks to get through a thousand page book.

Tell about a book that has been with you the most places.

The book that has been with me the most places would probably be the copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs I appropriated from my mom.  (I replaced it, but I don’t think she’s read it since the ’70s).  This poor book looks like it was abandoned in a dog kennel.  The cover is completely wrinkled and held together with tape.  I’m pretty careful with books, so I don’t really have an explanation for why it’s in such bad condition.  I should probably recycle it or something.

Tell about a bonus book that doesn’t fit any of the above questions.

My copy of The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyzyn is probably the most interesting volume on my shelves.  I’ve completely annotated it.  The book is arranged chronologically, as it’s a compilation of newsletters, so there’s no real system.  This makes it fascinating to read, but difficult to use as a reference.  I have all these purple post-it tabs sticking out, with notes about particular articles.  There are Bibles out there with fewer notes, I assure you.

I avoid accumulating books.  They all need to fit in one bookshelf, and at this moment over half the books there are either library books, books that belong to other people, or paperbacks that are meant to circulate through our book group when I’ve read them.  The reason I keep so few books long term is that I don’t want to wind up like poor Patrice Moore.

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