Friday, July 31, 2009


This week's sign of the impending apocalypse: this catalog copy for the upcoming Simon & Schuster title, The Christmas Cookie Club by Ann Pearlman:
"An irresistible and highly commercial debut novel about twelve women who meet on a snowy December night for a cookie exchange and the rich and complicated bonds of friendship that unite them."

I like that they admit to it's being "highly commercial", unlike all those other "indie house" cookie novels out there. Coming to a self-loathing bookstore near you on October 20th.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Change of Review Briefs

(Or, "Now Some Brief Reviews")
And now, a few words on some of the books I've read recently:

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga
I now have no doubt that Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was by no means a fluke - in fact, it just might be the tip of his talent iceberg, as this second book shows his emergence as a veritable literary force. These linked stories, set in the small Indian town of Kittur on the Arabian Sea, showcase Adiga’s considerable skill & the seemingly boundless population of fully formed characters at his fingertips. These tales read as if Kittur is the character itself, providing a broad-sweeping narrative on the intricate social caste system that is very much alive in modern India. A stunning, beautiful novel. (Really, "talent iceberg"? Sorry.)

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears
Pears, author of the brilliant, labyrinthine mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost, returns with a similarly structured novel encompassing the life of wealthy turn-of-the-century industrialist, John Stone. When Stone dies under mysterious circumstances in 1909, a young reporter begins to dig into his life, not entirely sure what he is unearthing or who is pulling his strings. When the enigmatic Henry Cort directs him to pre-WWI spygames in Paris 1890 and Venetian industrial espionage in 1867, this incredible onion of a novel begins to gradually unfold. Who was John Stone, really? A challenging book, to be sure, clocking in at 800 pages, but ultimately a fascinating, meticulously researched, multi-layered masterpiece.

The City & the City by China Mieville
In a style similar to Philip K. Dick or Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, Mieville expertly blurs genre lines in this science fiction crime novel of a bizarrely divided city. The city is one physical space, but partitioned by an otherworldly division – they merge & blend, but the residents always stay separate, avoiding eye contact, out of a collective fear of the spooky Breach, the overseers of this crazy sociological experiment. But what happens when a woman is murdered in one city, but her body is discovered in the other? There is not much negotiating with Breach, so the politics for Inspector Tyador Borlu are complicated, to say the least. A crazy cool novel.

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
A juicy, pulpy, complete departure for Johnson, the 2007 winner of the National Book Award (Tree of Smoke), that is still decidedly his style of writing, filled with his distinct brand of brilliant dialogue and skilled character development, even when none of them have any redeeming qualities. You can see that the completely asinine decisions being made by the main characters are destined to lead to worse & worse situations, but you just want to stick around to see how bad that train wreck gets. Some suggestions for the cast: Don’t shoot him! Don’t hit that guy with a shovel! For the love of god, don’t fall asleep in the car while dangerous people are looking for you! Great grit-filled summer reading.

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith - not as well-written or as memorable as Child 44. The characters seem thin and stretched - transparent even. And these are mostly characters he introduced in the previous book. I don't know, maybe the amount of energy he put into his debut just wiped him clean, creatively. I can't even remember what this was about, really, so I guess I can't really recommend it.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (seen here) - recommended by David Benioff when he was at my store for a signing in April. These are short stories about the white trash underbelly of America - funny, dark, strangely realistic. Good for dipping into, but I had to take a break after about 5 in a row. They're pretty great though - Tower writes with a grim humor that I find particularly appealing, sort of like Palahniuk before he forgot how to write: "Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants." See?

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry - Jasper Fforde-Redux, since it may be impossible to be Jasper Fforde-Lite. Described as "Borges-ian" in the jacket blurbs - ridiculous. Just because an author makes their plot deliberately convoluted, doesn't mean they've moved into Borges' realm. That said, I did like it. Berry employs wonderful, vivid imagery to set his scenes: constant rain, wet socks, alarm clocks, umbrellas everywhere, wet leaves, circus tents. And this may sound odd, but I thought that there were simply too many characters - it just got to be exhausting trying to sort everyone out in time for the resolution and it all blocked out the imagery that Berry is clearly so good at transcribing.

The Way Home by George Pelecanos - my first foray into the realm of Pelecanos. I can see why other writers like him so much. This reminded me of Richard Price's Lush Life a lot, until I realized that they both wrote for HBO's The Wire. A great character study about averting life's bad decisions and the repurcusions when you don't.

And finally, This Is How by M.J. Hyland
What the F? Honestly, has anyone else been able to finish this book? I read 168 pages and was overwhelmed with an urge to strangle, stab, and shoot the stunted, foolish, selfish idiot of a protagonist. There are just some books that no matter how much you like the writing, you just cannot relate to the characters in any way - this was one of those for me. I've got enough going on in my own life without having to pick up the pathetic fictional baggage of Patrick Oxtoby. Barf.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Frank McCourt: 1930-2009

Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela's Ashes, passed away Sunday at age 78. A lot of people are going to write about Mr. McCourt upon the event of his death, so who am I, really, to enlighten anyone further? (I'm only 1/4 Irish anyway, but it's the good 1/4.) His memoir of growing up in the slums of Limerick managed to put my own family's experiences in perspective a bit. I still know next to nothing of the lives my family left behind when they left Northern Ireland, so getting a first hand account of that life from someone as eloquent and witty as Mr. McCourt was particularly enlightening for me. I remember telling my mom and my Irish grandmother how funny I thought McCourt's book was & was greeted with mild shock, as his childhood was "awful, not funny". But damn it, he was funny! Really funny. And that's what allowed him to live through that life and come out the other side as the man he was. Humor makes the world turn, don't you know? I'm glad to have at least been on the same planet at the same time as he was.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

More Kindling

To further illustrate the creepy behavior by Jeff "Big Brother" Bezos and his Amazonian company, check these quotes from regular folks interviewed for another NYT article on the subject from Saturday:

“It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce. “As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”

Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.

In defense of Amazon's actions, Drew Herdener, spokesman for the company, said "We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances." Riiiiight. Sorry Drew, the seeds have been planted. Let the revolution begin.

It's not that I hate the ebook or the Kindle - I personally don't feel a need or a want for any of it - it's just that I don't want them to supplant the bound books that I love so much. Do we really need to print 2 million copies of every James Patterson novel, with half destined for the pulping mill? No, but I believe that they have a place in the digital world and have the right to be read by someone, somewhere. I would be an idiot to deny that there is a market for books of that caliber - not everyone reads 1984 for fun. (In fact, I recently had a full-grown man come into the store and ask for the very same book and react with disbelief & shock when I not only knew the author, but right where it was shelved.) And while there is a degree of panicky freakout going on in the book world as far as how quickly things are progressing, there is no denying that ebooks have a place, its just that we haven't figured out where that place is yet. Amazon has been force-feeding us on the virtues of their product to the point that no one has read the fine print to see what their rights of ownership really are. This recent debacle is just the first time we've been able to see behind the curtain a little bit and regardless of what the company spokesmen say towards appeasement, we should be greatly concerned over where this is all leading us as a society.

My librarian cousin Janet forsees things as this: "In the future, hardcover books will become prohibitively expensive to ordinary folk. Hence, the only place people can get access to hardcover books will be the public library. We are back to 1731, when Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia where he and his pals banded together to buy books." I don't think that's too far off if things continue on this current course. (Of course, Janet is just plugging the library.) Some of us - booksellers, mostly - have just been looking for that chink in the armor of Amazon where we can point and say, "Look! See what happens when you forsake the printed book!" None of us have figured out a way to combat or even embrace the coming ebook storm - it is pretty much a guarantee that many independent bookstores will go out of business due solely to the influx of electronic books in the world. That's the tragedy. Once they're gone and all you have left is the Kindle store....

UPDATE July 21st: Barnes and Noble announced the opening of their sexy sleek new Ebook Store this morning. Ebooks are available for download from B&N, but are of course not compatible with the Amazon Kindle, so they have provided a free ebook reader that works with Mac, PC, Blackberry, & Iphone. Of course, being in direct competition with the Amazon juggernaut, most ebooks on B&N are $9.99, (advertised as 62% off! or what-have-you), essentially pricing themselves and everyone else out of the market down the road. It will be interesting to see where this takes things - of course, indies still don't have ebook capabilities via the Indiebound chain of websites....

One more thing: check out e-bookvine for fascinating info on the Kindle & the society it has spawned, including hacks written for pdf's and other ebook formats and a telling chart of ebook price changes over time at Amazon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

My Kindle Ate My Baby!

How to handle the E-Book Problem is an issue that is constantly being debated in the dusty, tome-filled aisles of independent bookstores everywhere these days. For the moment, most indies cannot sell e-books at all - as the technology for sales hasn't caught up yet - and none of them can sell the Amazon Kindle, the world's leading e-book reader. So, out of my disdain for the looming fall of the book industry as we know it, here is a Top Ten list of the things that I think are problematic about the Kindle. (Some - marked with an * - are not proven yet, but I believe that they are true and this is my website, so...)

1. It makes you go blind and it gets so hot that it leaves you with 3rd degree burns on your hands and lap.*

2. Toni Morrison, Oprah Friend, Nobel Laureate, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, loves her Kindle. (Watch the Amazon promo video of Morrison extolling on the virtues of her little electric friend.) Is there anything sadder than this? I can understand the appeal of being able to travel with multiple books all in a slim unit that fits in your carry-on bag (the big plus for her), but she claims to love the versatility it offers, with its "underlining" ability and notetaking features. Huh? Pencil? It scares me that someone so well regarded in the world of print would sell her soul to Amazon to such a degree. James Patterson I can get (he also has a video - say "delightful" again, James), but Morrison just leaves me baffled.

3. It is not a book.

4. It is not a book.

5. Independent booksellers cannot sell you one, nor can B&N or Borders, actually - Amazon has proprietary rights over the unit and the software. And indie bookstores with Indiebound websites still cannot sell e-books via the internet yet (this is an internal problem, not an Amazon one, but it still sucks.) Even if they could sell e-books, they wouldn't work on your Kindle anyway. The potential good news though, is that Google has entered the fray and announced that they are working on a method for selling e-books to customers via their site. Presumably, the Google supplied e-books will not be of a proprietary nature and you should be able to download them to the e-reader of your choice. Will they be any different that Amazon? Where is Steve Jobs on this? As for the large chain bookstores, as much as I despise them, depending on how the next few years go, this whole thing could drive them right off the map. Which would really be a death knell for the printed book.

6. You can't jump in the ocean & leave your Kindle on your beach towel. Someone will steal it. If they are a bookseller, they will most likely throw it in the ocean. (Seriously, think about that - do you ever read books in a public place? What a drag that would be to have to worry about some d-bag stealing your ENTIRE library while you're in the men's room...)

7. Did I mention that it makes you go blind?*

8. Amazon is deliberately selling e-books for a massive loss in order to force anyone else out of the market. Publishers - who you, the consumer, cannot buy directly from - are selling e-books for similar costs to the regular printed books - somewhere in the $25-30 range. Amazon sells them for $9.99. By selling the sleek Kindle unit and their ebooks for 10 bucks, no one can compete and still stay in business. Google plans to negotiate a lower-than-MSRP-rate with the pubs, but it will most likely be higher than $9.99. As for the indies - what small business can afford to sell anything at a 70% loss?

9. The e-book library will eliminate the ability of book snobs to judge other people by their physical libraries of books. How can I know what sort of man you are if I cannot sneer at your Anne Rice collection? What about judging a book by it's cover? Will it become "You can't judge an ebook by it's file size"? Barf. (Check this from the NYT a few months back.)

10a. (Since I couldn't limit myself to 10 problems) The following is perhaps the worst thing yet to come about concerning the Kindle. This announcement was posted by Amazon this week:

The Kindle edition books Animal Farm by George Orwell, published by MobileReference (mobi) & Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) by George Orwell published by MobileReference (mobi) were removed from the Kindle store and are no longer available for purchase. When this occured, your purchases were automatically refunded. You can still locate the books in the Kindle store, but each has a status of not yet available. Although a rarity, publishers can decide to pull their content from the Kindle store.

Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap. The clocks are striking thirteen! Big Brother can sneak into your Kindle while you sleep and take back the books that they don't want you to have. Is the reference lost on them? (At least Fahrenheit 451 is not available as an e-book yet...)

10b. This is perhaps related to 10a, as the Kindle is a product of a soulless, corporate giant that is attempting to run our lives. They are cold, lifeless, and will never love you back. (This one is true.) There's nothing - and I mean nothing - better than holding a book in your hand and escaping inside.

As a bonus, I've included this official Amazon video of the "Kindle Drop Test". I find it sort of cathartic.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Arrivederci amore, ciao

I have found a character who is more deplorable, lacking more morals, and more of a complete asshole than any other I have ever read. (I'm trying to convince you to read this book - is it working yet?) He is worse than Jack Taylor or Sgt. Brant. Worse than "Citizen" Vince Camden. Worse than C.W. Sughrue or Balram Halwi or Bruce Medway or anyone else you have nightmares about. Massimo Carlotto's Giorgio Pellegrini of The Goodbye Kiss, is a convicted criminal, murderer, serial womanizer (actually, he is worse than a plain ol' womanizer - he is abusive and debasing to most of the women he meets, bilking them for cash and a place to crash, while he either ignores or sleeps with all the others he comes in contact with), and a genuine, bonafide sociopath.

We unwittingly stumble into his life story while he is in Central American exile, just as he calmly puts a bullet in the brain of his closest friend. Although this is the first time he has killed anyone, we soon discover that Giorgio has no problem with death and actually seems to relish the killing stroke. "I always liked murder", he later admits. He is on the run from Italian authorities regarding his connection to a bombing death but decides to return to Italy to "cooperate with the authorities and turn a new leaf". Of course, that "new leaf" involves becoming an informer for the corrupt police department and Giorgio becomes the man to know inside the prison walls. The rest of this vignette into the psyche of Pellegrini is all about his release from prison, his work as a bartender, the double-crosses he pulls on his employer, prostitution rings, drug running, violence, sexual abuse, a new "new leaf", a life as a restauranteur, a return to violence, drug running, sexual abuse, and more murder. I think that covers it - he's quite a guy. Actually, upon reflection, I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this - as much as I loved The Goodbye Kiss, I absolutely loathed Giorgio Pellegrini. But of course, this is Carlotto's point - Giorgio is apparently everything that is wrong with modern Italy: rife with corruption, harboring a propensity for violence, and enjoying the exploitation and abuse of women, he is the living embodiment of the seediest underbelly in all of Europe. The book is lean & mean, hitting at a frenetic pace, slamming you repeatedly with the inner workings of Giorgio's mind, which is a dark, dark place. Under the guise of normalcy, the rotten soul of the narrator slowly begins to take shape, leaving the reader uncomfortable, enraged, and amazed at Massimo Carlotto's abilities as a writer. I wondered what it must have been like to write this from such a perspective of depravity. It's not just that we are witness to atrocities by this man, but rather we see the looming specter of possible crimes and acts of violence. Giorgio becomes such a normal, friendly man about town, that we are lulled into thinking that his depravity is saved just for the darker past sections of his life - in fact, the worst is yet to come.

Interestingly enough, Massimo Carlotto has had a similarly checkered life to that of his narrator in The Goodbye Kiss, although without all the violence, depravity, and sexual abuse. Check out his website for more on his life on the run during the 1980's.