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Archive for November, 2012

Best Books of 2012

Monday, November 26th, 2012

You can’t claim to be a legitimate writer about bookish things these days if you can’t come up with a list of the year’s best books. Of course, compiling such a list is clearly meant to reflect the fact that the compiler is not merely a discerning reader but also has a vast amount of time to peruse thousands of books during the year. Frankly, that describes almost no one in our culture these days, which is perhaps why a lot of committees do the selecting (think Pulitzers, National Book Awards, New York Times editors, etc.).

Alas, I am not a committee. And so my somewhat enfeebled but nonetheless noble list you are about to encounter can’t even get to 10 books. And it features only those books I read during the year and which were published during the year, meaning a entire universe of wonderful titles slipped by my busy fingers (not to mention why my list resembles no one else’s, certainly not The New York Times).

So without further offense, here are my choices for 2012, listed in the most random fashion imaginable just because that’s how I put them together.

1. Ron Rash, “The Cove” (novel): Rash began his writing life as a short story writer and poet, and he has grown into a novelist of the first rank. “The Cove,” set in World War I Appalachia, is a lyric yet dramatic narrative about a doomed love affair that finds richly drawn characters embroiled in a storyteller’s art.

2. Charles Seabrook, “The World of the Salt Marsh” (nonfiction): Atlanta newspaper columnist Seabrook writes with deep concern and lively ecological affection for the saltwater marshes of the Southeast coast and their continuing impact on our shared culture and history.

3. Ian McEwan, “Sweet Tooth” (novel): English prize-winner McEwan writes with deductive, inventive prose about a Cold War-era romance that is part espionage thriller, part love story, and all great writing.

4. H.W. Brands, “The Man Who Saved the Union” (nonfiction): Historian Brands gives us a new, revealing look at Ulysses Grant, expertly putting the case that Grant was not only a distinguished war leader but no less a sagacious President more deserving of good memory.

5. Jonathan Odell, “The Healing” (novel): Odell gives unique voice to strong women in his plantation Mississippi story, a compelling, profoundly drawn tale of the terrible costs of slavery and the remarkable triumph of healing body, spirit and soul.

6. Bernard Bailyn, “The Barbarous Years” (nonfiction): The noted historian offers an extraordinary account of the arrival of the English to these shores in the 17th century, the mixed blessings they brought to people more civilized than we have thought. Their collision was costly and forever changed the mores of our nation-to-be.

7. Hilary Mantel, “Bring Up the Bodies” (novel): A dazzling sequel to her equally distinguished “Wolf Hall,” this novel takes up the fate of Anne Boleyn as it examines with literary grace, power and passion the complex, absorbing world of Tudor England.

8. Robert M. Craig, “The Architecture of Francis Palmer Smith, Atlanta’s Scholar-Architect” (nonfiction): Georgia Tech professor Craig delivers a comprehensive and fascinating life of Smith, who designed major buildings all over the South in the first half of the 20th century, most notably in Atlanta, including his  masterwork, the Cathedral of St. Philip.

There. That’s only eight, so feel free to plunge right in and add your anything else you wish. Or better yet, put together YOUR own list. And remember: no one can say you’re wrong. After all, it’s your list.

Cheers, and good reading to you!

The Traveling Ordeal

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

With the holidays upon us, more of us will be heading to the airports for our cattle car flights to grandma’s house. And you can count on all the airline hospitality you expect, unless you’re expecting hospitality.

I’d rather not turn this mostly bookish blog into another rant about the airlines, but facing the ordeal of flying over the holidays myself, I feel it only prudent to issue my usual caution: remember that the airlines are not your friends. And how do I know that? Ah, to count the many ways …

As a former travel writer who flew hundreds of thousands of miles — most of them in fairly luxurious circumstances — I’ve seen the good side. As one who makes occasional trips in coach these days, I see way too much of the other side. So here’s what to expect.

The airlines have cut back drastically on the number of their flights in order to boost their profits. It’s working. For them. Your opportunities to get from here to there have become more limited with fewer flights scheduled, and those remaining flights have become more crowded. During the holidays ahead, they will be over-booked, too, because that’s another way the airlines aren’t your friends. My counsel is to get to the airport early — you have to do that anyway in order to get through security on time — and check in as early as possible. It’s hard for the airline to kick you off a flight you’re already on than it is to keep you off one altogether.

Of course, if your destination isn’t one of the nation’s major airports, you may have extra trouble because the airlines have started ending service to many medium and smaller size markets since they don’t make as much money there. One travel expert told the New York Times recently, “There are no airlines left who have any interest in providing additional regional service.” From his lips to yours.

And, by the way, since the airlines have been paring back their fleets, they are much less able to cope with problems like bad weather that causes airport shutdowns. And that just multiplies the problem of getting passengers to their destinations once the weather clears. If you’ve ever been caught in a summer storm or a winter snow, you are no doubt familiar with the frustration. And given the current market situation, expect those frustration levels to grow.

There are other matters, of course. Already-uncomfortable seating that has been purposefully narrowed in order to squeeze a few more people in. Additional fees for everything from carry-on bags to aisle or window seating. I could go on, but I suspect those of you who fly coach could as easily finish this paragraph.

My final suggestion — apart from driving or taking the train if you can and have the time — is to bring along a good book. A really, really good book. And in my next blog, I’ll take a look at some of the best books of 2012; maybe something there might help you get through your upcoming travel ordeal. I hope so, for all our sakes.

Big Pub News

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

If you care about books, you probably already know about the merger of Random House and Penguin to create the world’s largest consumer publishing operation. If approved as expected, the merger means this co-joined company will control about one-quarter of global book sales. In other words, it just became that infamous 800-pound gorilla.

So what does this mean to us, people who value reading and books? Well, hard to tell for sure, but it’s likely we’ll now see other publishing mergers in the very near future. No one will want to wind up on the wrong side of the tracks when the Penguin/Random colossus comes steamrolling through. One of the things the new publisher may want to do is develop plans for selling its products direct to consumers. Don’t think the folks at Amazon haven’t been spending some sleepless nights thinking about that possibiity. There’s also the likelihood of new digital platforms for printed materials, and I have no idea where that might lead in a few years.

Officials of the new company say they won’t be getting rid of their well-known imprints (could we imagine a world without Alfred A. Knopf?), and they insist that editorial independence will not be compromised. That would be nice. I am curious as to what may happen to authors, who wouldn’t seem to be deriving a lot of benefits from this and future mergers. Publishers will always need authors, but with fewer publishers, authors may find it even trickier to get good contracts, and the results may be to squeeze out even more talented writers. If your name is Stephen King, that won’t be an issue, of course. For first-time novelist Joe Smith, it could mean no contract or a lower-paying contract since there won’t be as many publishing houses to market his manuscript.

But I grant you that’s all a bit premature. The only thing for certain is that we don’t yet know anything for certain. The merger may prove good or bad for consumers. But given the rather shaky business condition of the publishing industry as a whole, it may not be a bad thing to shore up some of its key elements.

So stay tuned. We’ll all watch and see whether this new global giant turns out to be a good guy — or an ogre.