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2012 Bestsellers

January 11th, 2013

Even occasional readers of this slog … er, blog … will hardly have failed to notice that I am fond of lists. And the sillier the list the better. So what could possibly be goofier than a list of what books Americans bought most often in the year 2012? I’m not sure much could, frankly, and when you see the list you might concur.

As reported by BookScan, about half of the top 20 bestselling books last year were either — drum roll, please — Fifty Shades of Gray titles or Hunger Games titles. Meaning, I think, that Americans are totally absorbed with softly sadomasochistic, post-apocalyptic worlds. And did anyone mention vampires?

This revelation undoubtedly says something about this country, but I think I’m afraid to ask exactly what that might be. But on the theory that reading something is better than reading nothing, I’ll let it drop.

While neither Suzanne Collins nor E.L. James, both of whom seem to be quite pleasant people, is going to enter the pantheon of great writers on the basis of their books so far, it is instructive and almost amusing to look at the other half of the top 20 list of bestselling books, none of whose authors would particularly seem destined for greatness either.

Bill O’Reilly, the TV commentator, is represented with two books, “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy,” of which there are a lot of jakes to be made. Feel free to make up your own. I haven’t read either since I defer to real historians when it comes to reading history, but I’m clearly in the minority. John Grisham’s “The Racketeer” is on the list, and so is J.K. Rowling’s post-Harry Potter grown-up novel, “The Casual Vacancy.”

The rest of the list that isn’t Fifty Shades of Gray or Hunger Games includes, in no particular order, “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen, “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young, “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn and Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney. I wonder if there’s someone out there who has actually read all of those books? If so, I’d be delighted to award you the gift of Bill O’Reilly’s next book, ‘Killing Fillmore.”

But we’re in a new year filled with new hope, so whatever your reading desires, may you find and devour whatever tastes good.

Making Resolutions

December 29th, 2012

The arrival of a new year invariably brings with it a desire to do something differently. It usually comes in the form of a resolution, and that is usually framed in terms of getting something right in your life. Like losing weight. Or saving money. Or spending more time with family. Or washing the cat.

I’m one of those people who occasionally used to come up with a resolution or two every January 1 but who has in recent years — make that the last four decades or so — abandoned the idea. Partly because I never seem to keep them, and partly because I keep forgetting to make them. Americans as a bunch seem to have similar issues with consistency. A study by researchers at the University of Scranton — who might consider resolving to spend their time in better ways — turned up evidence that 45% of Americans usually make new year’s resolutions. Not surprising. But they also found that 39% NEVER make resolutions. In other words, we are a divided people.

This, of course, is hardly a headline. Some Democrats and many Republicans these days seem divided by everything including logic, good sense and well being. I doubt the two major political parties could even agree on a need for resolutions much less what they ought to be. So it’s up to the rest of us — that is, those of us who don’t serve in Congress — to come up with some resolutions if we are to preserve new year’s traditions. Of course, as I mentioned, I’m on the side of no resolutions, so I’ll have to cross the aisle, so to speak, in an effort to come up with anything.

In a desire to further compromise — a word politicians can no longer even spell, apparently — I offer my own resolutions for 2013, admittedly a very short list but one I’ll actually make an effort to fulfill:

1. I will not seek election to Congress.

2. I will read more good books.

3. I will stop eating so many potato chips.

4. I will take longer vacations (seriously).

5. I will stop buying watches (seriously).

6. I will not use any of my digits to communicate with idiots behind the wheel of other cars.

7. I will continue support for the Boston Red Sox no matter what stupid things management does.

There. I must confess i do feel a little better. A little more determined. Resolved. You can check back with me later in the year so see how things are working out. Although if you cut me off in traffic you may not have to wait long.

Happy New Year. See you in ’13.

 

Finding Comfort at Christmas

December 18th, 2012

Merry Christmas, everyone. But I think we all have to admit that it’s a little harder to feel an unalloyed sense of celebration in 2012 after what has transpired in Connecticut recently. Re-reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has always been a welcome and much-anticipated holiday tradition for me, as has been a laughing perusal of the Christmas sections of that author’s wonderful “Pickwick Papers.”

This year, however, I didn’t get quite the same spirit-lifting feeling I can usually count on from them. Instead, what I really wanted to do was to hurry up and get to the kids and grandkids, to be with them and help them celebrate the season. They’re just like your kids and grandkids: wonderful, funny, loving, testing, totally amazing people. Just like those 20 little children slaughtered in Newtown. And wonderful, just like those incredible grown-ups who died in that massacre.

We’ll go ahead and celebrate, of course. We’ll open presents and laugh and be happy and caring with each other. But the adults know something will be absent; there will be a place where it hurts to think of what happened and of the unendurable pain and grief those parents and families who lost loved ones must somehow endure at this season. We will all give thanks that it wasn’t us; we will mourn for those it was. And we will all wonder why. Why?

Merry Christmas, everyone. May we all find comfort where we most need it.

Worldly Intrusiveness

December 10th, 2012

The world always intrudes, sometimes in small, meaningless ways, other times in startling and hurtful ways. As we prepare for a another wonderful holiday celebration, we pause for a very brief moment to find that familiar intrusiveness — disguised as money — a topic of concern once again.

Three recent news items grabbed my attention. One of them has to do with the publishing industry, or specifically Publishers Weekly, the so-called Bible of the industry. It’s a fairly self-satifsfied weekly magazine and online service that carries a lot of clout with folks connected to publishing. Most recently, its editors selected the British erotic writer E.L. James as the most important person in publishing for 2012.

They did this because James wrote books that sold tens of millions of copies, drew scads of readers and made a bucket of money for some  publishers. They didn’t do it because James wrote good books. Or because she wrote books well. Nope, the quality of her writing — severely strained, in fact — was not a concern. Money was. How pathetic. This is attention quite misplaced.

Next up, and in a more public vein, is the desire of the Atlanta Falcons pro football team to build a new stadium. Not sure why they need a new one — we hear things about the need to host a Super Bowl as if that mattered — and not at all sure why any public money is needed for this billion dollar-plus project. But we’re told it is and that it is a great deal for everyone. Once again, it’s all about the money, no matter how misplaced this use of it might seem to a lot of folks.

And finally, there is the case of Bobby Petrino, the severely ethics-challenged football coach who has skipped out on several jobs, lied to his employers, cheated on his spouse  and been fired from his most recent job for behavior that ought to get him banned from his profession. But because he can win football games, a so-called institution of higher education named Western Kentucky has hired him. So much for a mission of giving students an education and moral background for their lives; give ’em a coach who wins. After all, it’s all about the money. Shame.

Merry Christmas.

 

Best Books of 2012

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

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

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.

A look at reading and library habits

October 23rd, 2012

Finally, some good news about readers. It turns out there actually are some out there. Really.

In fact, a new survey released by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project claims that nearly 80% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 have read a book in the last year. I gather that’s a book they didn’t have to read, since many in that age group would be students in one institution or another who presumably have assigned reading responsibilities. And not only that, but about 60% say they have used their local public library, although I’m not sure whether they’ e used it for books or computers as opposed to a place to meet their friends.

Here’s how some of the survey results break down among various age groups, according to Publishers Weekly: Among high schoolers, just over half of the respondents say their library is either “very important” or “somewhat important” compared to roughly two-thirds of older Americans. They are also  more likely to be interested in e-books than older folks.

The college-age adults (18 to 24) had the highest overall reading rate, and overall, this group is more likely than high schoolers to purchase their books. Among adults 24 to 29, the percentage having read a book in the last year is lower. Probably not surprising since at this age they are perhaps young married or first job employed with less opportunities for books. About 75% of them, however, said that public libraries are very important to them and their families.

Interestingly, among e-book readers, those under age 30 are more likely to read on a cell phone (41%) or computer (55%) than an e-book reader or tablet. Those numbers get reversed among older respondents.

The survey is the latest in a series of efforts by Pew to figure out library and reading behavior in the digital age. It involved replies from 2,986 people ages 16 and older last November and December.

Interesting stuff. Those of us who work in libraries can find some things to cheer in the results. And librarians know from person contacts over recent years that usage is up almost everywhere: the number of people borrowing books, using computers, asking questions, seeking help of one sort or another. These are difficult times, and the services offered by free libraries have proven more popular and more necessary than ever.

That seems obvious, of course. What seems a bit less obvious is why the budgets for libraries keep getting trimmed. And trimmed. Ah well, save that survey result for another day ….

 

NBA Nominees

October 15th, 2012

The lists of National Book Award nominees are out now, and they contain some very fine books while omitting at least as many deserving ones. And that’s about par for this course; it hard to get two readers to agree much less entire panels of critics. In case you missed them, here are the nominees along with a few comments by me. (The awards will be presented on November 14).

FICTION

Juniot Diaz: “This is How You Lose Her”

Dave Eggers: “A Hologram for the King”

Louise Erdrich: “The Round House”

Ben Fountain: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

Kevin Powers: “The Yellow Birds.”

A good, strong list, but how do you leave off Jonathan Odell’s “The Healing?” Or, Ron Rash’s “The Cove,” another terrific book by probably the least critically appreciated serious writer around?

NONFICTION

Anne Applebaum: “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945-1956”

Katherine Boo: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”

Robert Caro: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4″

Domingo Martinez: “The Boy Kings of Texas”

Anthony Shadid: “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East”

The focus is clearly on books looking abroad along along with yet another Caro opus. So let’s do the ABC: Anybody But Caro. Please.

POETRY

David Ferry: “Bewilderment”

Cynthia Huntington: “Heavenly Bodies”

Tim Seibles: “Fast Animal”

Alan Shapiro: “Night of the Republic”

Susan Wheeler: Meme.

I haven’t read any of the nominees, so best of luck to all. I spent much of the year re-reading Robert Frost. I say let’s nominate him.

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE

William Alexander: “Goblin Secrets”

Carrie Arcos: “Out of Reach”

Patricia McCormick: “Never Fall Down”

Ellen Schrefer: Endangered”

Steve Sheinkin: “Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”

Again, I haven’t read any of the nominees. Wish something by Carmen Deedy has been included, but Judith Ortiz Cofer from UGA was one of the judges, and I accept her choices.

 

 

A Painful Moment

October 10th, 2012

Although this blog is almost always given over to bookish topics of one sort or another, I find it impossible to ignore the vile, obscene story that came to us from Pakistan about the shooting of a 14-year-old girl by the Taliban. You most likely read it with the same utter astonishment that I did.  A teenage Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai who defied the Taliban wicked ideology against women by declaring she wanted to be educated to grow up to be a doctor was gunned down on her school bus by a group of cowardly, face-covered Taliban thugs.

Such is the sick nature of terrorism.

According to The New York Times, a spokesman for the Taliban in Pakistan — of whom you might hope when he becomes ill will be unable to find a doctor — confirmed the hit men targeted the girl because her crusade for education rights was an “obscenity.” And if the girl does not die from her wounds, the spokesman said more killer goons will be sent after her to finish the job. It would make an absurd movie plot if it were only fiction.

You see, Malala first declared her desire for education as an 11-year-old, and for three years the Taliban killers have been carefully plotting how best to get rid of her. Just like they have murdered and attempted to murder who-knows-how-many women in Pakistan and elsewhere.

How do we or anyone else respond to acts like this? Rage is certainly hard to limit, and revenge appears on many lips. Understandably. I share those emotions, at least for a time. But I confess I don’t know what the best response is beyond calling attention to the nature of the act and the belief system responsible for it, and commending the remarkable, awesome courage and bravery of this 14-year-old girl. She lives in a world most of us can never comprehend — mercifully for us — and she has paid a terrible price for it.

My tears and my heart join so many others in her behalf. May those who brought this action against her find their ultimate punishment to be just as awesome.