Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Future of the Book

Today's Booking Through Thursday is a bit different, more discussion-oriented and less of everyone putting forth their individual ideas. And it's all about the future of the book.

I am in my early thirties. And already, I've seen a fair number of things come and go. I remember floppy disks that actually flopped, for example. I remember cassette tapes. I remember listening to my first-ever "compact disc" recording at my music teacher's house during a lesson, and how the quality of it was so remarkable that it moved my father to put his book down and come in from the parlor to hear it -- something parents weren't supposed to do during lessons. I remember not only the newness of cell phones, but the newness of cordless phones. Hell, I remember when cable and the microwave oven came to our neighborhood for the first time!

So I guess it's not surprising that technology is making its inevitable march towards the decidedly analog book. That's what today's BTT is all about:

Something a little different today–

First. Go read this great article from Time Magazine: Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature. (Well worth reading.)

Second. Stop and think about it for moment. Computers and digital media are changing everything we do these days, whether we realize it or not, and that includes our beloved books.

To be different, today, I’d love to see a discussion here, in the comments, rather than scattered amongst all our separate blogs. Because this is an issue that affects ALL of us, and I’d really like to see us hash out the merits and demerits of this evolution.

Tell us what you think. Do you have an ebook reader? Do you read ebooks on your computer? Do you hate the very thought? How do you feel about the fact that book publishing is changing and facing much the same existential dilemma as the music industry upon the creation of MP3s?

Sure, feel free to write about this on your blog, but honestly–I’d love to see an in-depth discussion, and you can’t do that by flitting about the internet reading 100 different, individual essays. You can only get that by having the back and forth of conversation.


(And, seriously, am I the only one having trouble finding the time to visit all the commenters’ blogs on Thursdays? As nice as it is to visit everyone, it’s a time-intensive commitment!)

I read the article in Time, and it was interesting (although I could have done without the constant, ADD-inducing asides: See 2008's Top Video Games! See Pictures of Students Texting! Bleh!) From Deb's description, I expected the article to focus on the consumer side of the issue. E-books have long been predicted to serve as the demise of traditional books. In the mid-nineties, though, I remembered reading an argument from someone intelligent (can't remember who, but someone's opinion I respected) that it wouldn't happen because there was no technological advantage to reading on a device. Books, in paper form, are portable and durable. They can go places electronic devices can't go, like bathtubs, beaches, and airplanes during takeoff.

I quit worrying at that point. But that argument was advanced before there were Blackberries and sophisticated cell phones. Personally, I think that librarians and English teachers who wind up in Hell will be spending most of their time trying to read and understand complex, lengthy books on cell phones. But that's just me, I don't even own one and don't really care to.

Surprisingly, though, the article focused on the production side of publishing. I'd read a New Yorker article about Japanese novels written entirely on cell phones. The self-publishing phenomenon is here, too. It's no longer the purview of writers with little talent, or with such a narrow range that no major publisher would pick them up (the Complete History of Bronze Pavement Markers in the Northern Section of East Bumfuck, 500p., no illustrations). Nowadays, all the kids are doing it. I suppose us bloggers are doing it in our own way, too.

The internet has had profound effects on most businesses. The newspaper industry is hurting. The music industry is such a shambles that they've taken to harassing small museums that play CDs for licensing fees. So I guess it's no surprise that all this self-publishing and downloading has begun to affect the publishing industry, too. Who knows how it will all shake down. I think it's neat that more people are able to get their voices heard. At the same time, I love books in their traditional form. I like the way they smell, the way they feel. I like being able to jump around easily in them, re-reading the parts I like the best, hopping back a few pages to refresh my memory about a character's backstory. I think because of this, it will be a while before we see their demise. Here's hoping, anyway.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


There is something odd about Ann Brashares' first adult novel, The Last Summer (of You & Me), and I figured out what it was about a quarter of the way through. It's not just the title, which makes you wonder which of the three main characters (sisters Alice and Riley and their beachhouse neighbor Paul) is excluded from the twosome. It's the slow, dreamy quality to the book, and it took me a while to realize where it was coming from. It's the fact that all of the "action" is internal thought.

For the first half of the book, you have nothing to judge the characters on except for their thoughts. Brashares avoided making them seem whiny and self-absorbed by having them think about each other, rather than themselves. So you learn that Riley is, at 24, still the tomboy that she always was by hearing it from her sister and her best friend. You know that Paul was Riley's partner in crime from an early age by hearing Alice tell it. And you know how smart Alice is by hearing it from Riley, who was never much at anything that required sitting still.

The book is about the ambivalence of leaving childhood and growing up. The trio has resisted it for a long time. They deliberately held themselves aloof from the spin-the-bottle games and the parties involving the liquor cabinet of someone's mom and dad. Into their teens and twenties, they continued fishing for crabs, building sandcastles, and collecting shells and stones from the beach. But adulthood beckons to all three. Alice is heading to law school and knows that she'll spend the rest of her summers working, probably until her children are the age she is now, if not longer. Paul is also heading to graduate school, but he's back for one last summer to see Alice, whom he's loved since childhood.

Riley continues walking her own, odd, straight line as a lifeguard at the beach by summer, and a leader of National Outdoor Leadership Seminar programs the rest of the year, but the world changes around her. Alice observes her on the beach at her morning lifeguard meeting, suddenly noticing that Riley's co-workers are all teenaged bikini girls. We never get Riley's perspective on her life, but Alice has noticed a shift from when they were kids and everyone looked up to Riley because she was the best at crab fishing and boogie boarding. She's slowly realizing that with her good looks and her career ambitions, she is now the sister that people will be looking up to, and it both thrills her and makes her uncomfortable, as does the changing nature of her relationship with Paul.

A series of events conspires to force all of these issues and more. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that I think it's a bit of a cop-out, and it would have been interesting to develop things differently. The book is still a good read, and was downright heavenly in upstate New York in January, when it's awfully hard to believe in things like shorts and fireflies.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Twentieth Century, through the eyes of a True Character

I've talked before about how difficult it can be to pull off a good historical novel. It's even harder when the novel has a broad scope: when you're talking an entire lifetime, for example. It's easy to contort your characters into trying to hit all the major newsworthy events. So, it's to Laurie Graham's credit that she pulls it off admirably in The Great Husband Hunt, and manages to create a particularly vivid character whose actions and attitudes have stayed with me a few days after finishing the book.

Poppy Minkel was born in the early 1900s, to an upper-middle-class-and-striving family in New York City. It was an era in which marriage prep for girls is like college prep for people of the same socioeconomic class today: it begins early, it encompasses everything, and it's what all future hopes for the child are staked on, often regardless of the child's own wishes. Poppy's husband hunt will be a challenge because she's not very attractive, but an aggressive program of neck whitening, ear bandaging and cosmetic surgery is planned -- until Poppy's father dies on the Titanic.

The night of the sinking of the Titanic is a formative one for Poppy. Poppy's mother and aunt decide that it means the end of Poppy's husband hunt, for she is now needed at home to provide companionship to her mother. Poppy, on the other hand, is distraught by the news that her father's ship has sunk and sneaks out to the White Star offices with her sister's husband. They become separated, and Poppy is stunned to find their former Irish maid among the survivors. Even more stunning is that the maid is dressed in a Worth dress and listed on the passenger registry as Mrs. Minkel. These facts make Poppy determined to chart her own course that doesn't have anything to do with men, although she's equally as resistant to the course her mother and aunt have charted for her.

Laurie Graham allows us to get to know her characters intimately, and judge them over the course of their lives, until the majority of them are in their graves. Our feelings shift back and forth. At first, we feel for Poppy, stifled by the social-climbing ambitions of her mother, aunt and sister, hemmed in to conventionality on all sides. But when Poppy liberates herself, it's not really in the most noble of directions. She leads an interesting life, but it comes at a cost to those around her. She becomes selfish, and the fact that a degree of selfishness is necessary to live a life other than the one pre-selected for her at birth doesn't soften the fact that she hurt many people. She can be callous, too, and she winds up as absorbed in a beauty regimen as her mother and aunt were. It's hard to know how to feel about Poppy.

We also gain more sympathy for Poppy's family: all three of the women, ultimately forced to re-evaluate everything they've been taught about marriage providing happiness and fulfillment. Poppy's mother remarries to a man that she loves and winds up reverting back to her Jewish roots. Poppy's sister Honey was trained carefully to be a delicate Victorian flower, but the training doesn't serve her in good stead when faced with an indifferent husband and an unruly child. Her aunt's still irritating, but over time, the reader comes to see how she means well.

I read The Future Homemakers of America several years ago, about a group of women who meet as Army wives during World War II. I liked how the title of the book gained deeper meaning. Several of the women in that book did, in fact, belong to that club in high school. They had no plans beyond getting married, having children, and cooking delicious meals and decorating their houses beautifully. The mid-to-late twentieth century had other plans for them, however. The title of The Great Husband Hunt works the same way. For all of the women in the story (for most people, I guess) the Husband Hunt greatly influenced their lives to come. Some of the trophies didn't bring the promised happiness. Others did, but not for the duration promised. Some got thrust back into the Hunt when they thought it was over. Some didn't have to hunt at all, but had the Husband come to them, unexpectedly.

At any rate, this is an excellent read. Next time I'm at the library, I will see what else Laurie Graham has written and pick it up. The two books I've read by her are fun and thought-provoking, and I'm looking forward to seeing more.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Booking Through Thursday, on an 'Inspiring' week

The question before the panel this week is:

Since “Inspiration” is (or should) the theme this week … what is your reading inspired by?

Well, this is a hard question for me. I even looked at a few other blogs to see how other people had interpreted it. I don't really know what inspires my reading. I read, in general, because it feels good, and because it's something I've always done. I don't remember learning how to read. I don't remember not being able to read. I knew how to do it by the time I started kindergarten, and it's something I've always done for fun. Furthermore, I don't get people who say things like "I don't like books." Isn't that a little like saying "I don't like movies," or "I don't like television?" All books are not the same. There's at least one out there for everyone, and probably a lot more than one.

What inspires me to read a specific book? I don't really know that either. A great title will often hook me. A writer's reputation will often inspire me to give a book a try, as will seeing the movie or TV show the book became. In the case of nonfiction, of course, it's usually the subject matter that gets me.

I guess that, in general, I read for all the usual reasons. To experience something outside of my own life. For entertainment. To learn something. Most of all, I guess I've just always found it pleasurable. It's a good way to relax, it's something you can do anywhere, and when you're not feeling well, it's something you can do from your bed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

More Tales of the West

Earlier this week, I found a few minutes to go to the library. For someone without a job, this was a ridiculously busy week for me (too bad none of the stuff I did pays anything, oh well). I was racing against the weather this week -- the schools were actually closed here today, not because of snow, but because of the cold -- and when I got to the library, I found myself racing against time itself. I had only one quarter, good for fifteen minutes of parking, and found fifty more cents in my car. I had to race in, wind smacking me against the face, run through the whole Wal-Mart sized library to the front desk, have my fifty cents turned into quarters, then race back out, wind still smacking me in the face (how is that even possible?) and deposit them in the meter.

I also forgot to bring my bags, which meant I was limited to what I could carry out. Despite all this, I remembered my New Year's book Resolution, took some deep breaths, and thought about what I was selecting, rather than just grabbing. Hopefully, they won't be so deadly dull that I lose interest in the books to the point where I forget to bring them back and wind up owing them $20.

My choice of which one to read first was easy, as I had a seven-day book in the stack. Fine Just the Way It Is is E. Annie Proulx's third book of Wyoming Stories. Her first book contained the famous "Brokeback Mountain," but there are lots of other stories in all three books that are every bit as good as that one.

I just finished this book, and have come to the conclusion that her stories can be a dangerous read for a lifelong Easterner during the winter months, when it's too cold to go outside at all. It's easy to miss the point of the story for the descriptions of mountains and cattle and country roads. Next thing you know, a story about the land killing off every character in the story has you perusing for ranger positions in Alaska and Montana.

This book is no exception. Most of the stories don't have an ending that could be remotely construed as positive. The stories span from the pioneer times to modern times. The two best stories in the book, "Tits-Up in a Ditch" and "Them Old Cowboy Songs" serve as the bookends of time (excepting the one, very short story about a hunt during primitive times, inspired by cave paintings). They're actually sort of parallel. The introduction to "Them Old Cowboy Songs" states:

There is a belief that pioneers came into the country, homesteaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.

Wiht both couples, circumstance combines with a few unfortunate choices to guarantee them a short run. Archie and Rose McLaverty marry young and homestead a property, but make the fateful decision to separate for a time so that Archie can find work, even though Rose is pregnant. In modern times, the early marriage of love-starved Dakotah and servant-seeking Sash fails to work out, but each one's independent decision to join the military winds up sealing them together anyway.

The book is worth picking up for these two stories alone, but it contains many other good ones. I loved the two main characters in "The Testimony of the Donkey," a man and woman from utterly different backgrounds bound together by their shared love of hiking. It also had a sad ending but a beautiful, immersive description of the wilderness. "Family Man" was also good, if a bit anti-climactic. I liked the idea of the rest home for elderly ranchers that actively "promoted smoking, drinking, lascivious television programs and plenty of cheap food. Neither teetotalers nor bible thumpers signed up for the Mellowhorn Retirement Home."

The two stories that I didn't get at all, "I've Always Loved this Place" and "Swamp Mischief" were written from the Devil's point of view. In the first, he and his assistant do a walk-through of Hell with a complete remodel in mind. In the second, they have some fun with a Park Service ornithologist who was caught wishing for the appearance of a deadly and dangerous bird so that management would be more inclined to listen to him. I guess they're all right, and they certainly had some clever aspects (emailing Satan at I just didn't really think that they fit in with the rest of the book very well.

Overall, I think I prefered Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 to this book, but it certainly doesn't make this book bad. It was a wonderful read, as her work usually is. I reccomend checking this one out.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Late Again...Booking Through Thursday and a look back

This week's BTT:

It’s a week or two later than you’d expect, and it may be almost a trite question, but … what were your favorite books from 2008?

(It’s an oldie but a goodie question for a reason, after all … because, who can’t use good book suggestions from time to time?)

Most of the books I read in 2008 weren't new, but of the ones that were new to me, I liked The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova a great deal. I enjoyed it for its fresh take on a topic that's been absolutely done to death, for its prominent use of primary source research, and for its journey into a part of the world that I personally never gave much thought to visiting. Parts of the book could not have made the Eastern European countries sound more appealing if they'd been written by the National Tourism Board. Kostova took classic elements of the Dracula story and gave them new life and heart. There are three scenes which involve stakes to the heart, but rather than seeming cheesy and cliche, the first two bring tears to the reader's eyes, and the third is suspenseful and ultimatley triumphant. So this was one of my stand-out favorites among the books I read in 2008.

For nonfiction, The Medici Conspiracy was a standout for me last year. Many people who saw me with the book assumed it was like The Da Vinci Code. But Giacomo Medici is an actual, modern person and the kingpin in an antiquities smuggling and forgery ring that has spread all over the world and infected some of the most respected museums. The dust from this conspiracy has yet to settle. Many of the key players are still on trial in Italy and Greece. Many of the objects have yet to be authenticated or traced. Entire areas of scholarship on Greek and Roman art have been called into question. Journalists Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini trace the history of the conspiracy and its players.

Overall, though, 2008 was a disappointing year in books for me. I was looking back over my blog for the past year -- my God, I read a lot of crap. There was the awful book about the gay figure skaters, the formulaic book about the wacky Southern females on a cross-country road trip, that Wendy Wasserstein book that I couldn't even finish, that Tony Horowitz book that actually killed my desire to read or blog for almost a month, the boring and heartless Charity Girl, the whiny Summer People... very few literary bright spots in an overall bad year. 2008was a terrible year for a lot of people, and I was one of them. And apparently, even books didn't help.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A New Feature: LD's cool stuff

Man, I wish I'd thought of this one during NaBloPoMo. It was actually inspired by tikiranch, whom you must visit if you haven't done so yet. His blog made me realize that I have some pretty cool stuff too, and that I should share it with the whole internet, rather than have it sit around the house, unappreciated by everyone but me, and occasionally a cat who needs something to knock over.

So, my first item is something I found this summer at the local flea market. It's a wonderful place, with three large buildings, two buildings consisting of bays with roll-up doors, and rows upon rows of ancient folding tables covered with equal parts goodies and crap. This item stuck out like a jewel. I've never seen anything like it before or since. The first time I saw it, no one was around and it wasn't priced. I imagined it must be rather expensive, since it was so unusual. A few weeks later, it was back. I told the man watching it that I'd seen it a few weeks ago and hadn't been able to get it out of my head. He told me that the time I'd seen it was the only other time he'd brought it. Deciding it must be fate, we struck a deal for $15 and it's graced my dining room ever since.

It's apparently an advertising/storage piece for pharmaceuticals. After I bought it, I googled the company and learned that Bauer and Black were in business in Chicago during the early twentieth century, operating under that name from about 1901-1928. The Pure Food and Drug Act, referenced on the chest, was passed in 1906, meaning that this was produced somewhere between 1906 and 1928 (I'm guessing more towards the early range, though, because it seems likely that as time went on, there'd be no need to advertise compliance with a particular law, it would just be assumed).

It's not in the best condition, but it's a very interesting piece nonetheless. In case it's not obvious from the picture, it's constructed of a very flimsy, thin sort of wood and covered in paper on all sides but the bottom. It's a minor miracle to me that the piece survived at all. But still, it's one of those things in my home that I enjoy looking it literally every time I see it, that's never quite blended in to the background. I hope you enjoyed seeing it, too.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Booking Through Thursday, a 2009 first

One of my New Year's Resolutions is to stop neglecting my poor blog. So, here I am, posting something for 2009. It's a Booking Through Thursday and it goes like this:

Happy New Year, everyone!

So … any Reading Resolutions? Say, specific books you plan to read? A plan to read more ____? Anything at all?

Name me at least ONE thing you’re looking forward to reading this year!

My main reading resolution is to stop flaking on my library books. I'm horrible. I'm surprised they don't have my picture behind the counter. I'm surprised they haven't called the cops on me like they did to one woman earlier this year that I read about. I returned four books last week that were 16 days overdue each. Yikes. Why? I just forgot. So I'm going to stop doing that.

I am also going to be braver. About a year ago, I checked an H.P Lovecraft book out of the library. I read one story and was so scared that I locked the book in my car overnight. I didn't even want it in the house. I'd like to say I returned it the next day. The truth is that it fell under the seat and I returned it six weeks late. But anyway, I watched some H.P Lovecraft movies on Halloween and liked them, so my sister got me a book of his short stories for Christmas. That's right, now they'll be in the house all the time! I've read two of them, and they were both pretty good: one was about a cannibal, and the other one was about an undead guy. I don't know if I can hack the one called "Rats in the Walls," but I'm going to read the rest of them.

I want to read some of the books that have been lurking unread on my shelves for years. I recently rearranged my bookshelves to have all of the unread ones together, and they took up their own whole shelf. I'm really missing out, either on wonderful books, or on much-needed shelf space. My goal for 2009 is to start finding out which.

Another goal is to simply find more new stuff to read. There's nothing that I'm hotly anticipating. Im not sure why. So I'm going to work on keeping up with new books better, discovering new authors, trying new things. That's not a bad new year's resolution on the whole, to try new things. We'll see!