Monday, November 29, 2010

The end-of-year booklists

Every year I am somewhat surprised and dismayed to find that I have read barely any books on the "best of the year" booklists. One reason is that I don't restrict my reading at all to the current year's releases. I also may have different standards than the book reviewers.

Check out some of the lists for 2010:
Kirkus Reviews Top 25 Fiction
Kirkus Reviews Top 25 Nonfiction
Library Journal Top Ten
The New York Times Ten Best Books
The New York Times 100 Notable Books
Publishers Weekly Best Books

What do you think of the selections? Have you read any? I haven't--except for Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell (a PW pick for best nonfiction).

Notable novels that I want to get around to reading:
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Notable works of nonfiction that I'm interested in reading:
Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, by Mark Twain
Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent

Graphic by Sarah Illenberger for The New York Times

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Devil in the White City movie in the works!

Leonardo DiCaprio and partners have acquired the screen rights to one of my favorite books, Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. DiCaprio will play serial killer H.H. Holmes, who murdered between 27 and 200 people during the time of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

I am interested in seeing a film adaptation, but have a hard time believing I could like it as much as I like the book. The book is such an intriguing blend of true crime and architectural history. Larson juxtaposes (mostly in alternating chapters) the construction of the World's Fair, a magical success despite many obstacles, with Holmes' sinister construction of the World's Fair Hotel, complete with a gas chamber and crematorium, to which he lured victims. I wonder if World's Fair architect Daniel Burnham, as integral to the book as the notorious serial killer Holmes, will feature as much in the film.

DiCaprio is a good actor, though he looks nothing like the real Holmes, and are audiences interested in seeing him play such a despicable character? If you have read the book, what do you think about it being turned into a movie and about DiCaprio's role in it?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book to film: Never Let Me Go

In my blog entry for April 30, I briefly reviewed Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, comparing it to another dystopian novel, The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist. I recently went to see the movie version of Never Let Me Go (directed by Mark Romanek from a screenplay by Alex Garland). The film adaptation is well done. If you happen to be like me in actually preferring solemn movies that make you think, I recommend this one.

The story centers around the lives of three friends--Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth--played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley, respectively. All three display good acting. Mulligan is required to convey a lot nonverbally and succeeds. Knightley impresses in completely inhabiting an unsympathetic character. When I read the book, I pictured the character of Tommy as a blond, perpetually youthful pretty boy--not resembling Andrew Garfield--but it is a testament to his acting chops that I was able to accept him in the role.

This is a story of a complicated friendship/love triangle, at first oddly insulated from the cruel reality of the society and then thrust out into it, with the chips falling where they may. Some hope is kept alive, but there is a (perhaps strange) resignation in the attitudes of the friends. Tommy is arguably the most likeable character because he has an innocent, appealing quality and may have the least sense of resignation of the three friends.

The film is largely faithful to the book. In the film version, the shocking premise of the plot is revealed early on by a new teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins, in a small but memorable role). In the book, this character does not reveal as much, so the three friends, as well as the reader, are kept in the dark for longer. The book is therefore more subtle. Both the book and the film explore haunting questions about mortality, love, and duty. This is a deeply affecting movie, with an elusive message that is difficult to put into words.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

October is Vegetarian Awareness Month!

I can't resist plugging Vegetarian Awareness Month, an initiative of the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS). Non-vegetarians who pledge to go veg for a short duration can enter a random drawing for cash prizes. Vegetarian and vegan diets save animals' lives (over 50 animals a year per person on average), have proven health benefits, and help to preserve the earth. So while to me the #1 reason to adopt a meat-free diet is to not harm animals, these other important reasons also compel people to go vegetarian or vegan. You may have heard former President Bill Clinton talking about his adopting an almost vegan diet (still sometimes eating fish) in a successful effort to lose weight for his daughter Chelsea's recent wedding.

Indeed, vegetarianism continues to permeate our culture. Popular author and food activist Michael Pollan advises, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollan and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser narrated the recent documentary Food, Inc., examining factory farming and its harmful effects on both animals and the environment. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer's first foray into nonfiction, Eating Animals, inspired Natalie Portman to go from "a twenty-year vegetarian to a vegan activist."

Here are a few books I recommend on veganism and animal rights:
-Farm Sanctuary / Gene Baur
-The kind diet / Alicia Silverstone
-The pig who sang to the moon / Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
-Veganomicon : the ultimate vegan cookbook / Isa Chandra Moskowitz

How I Became a Famous Novelist wins Thurber Prize for Humor

One of the funniest books I've ever read, by a writer for the NBC series The Office, has just been awarded the 2010 Thurber Prize for American Humor. Great choice! I wrote a review of this book that was posted elsewhere; with the news of the award I am reposting it below:

Pete Tarslaw, the protagonist of How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely, wants to ditch his job fabricating college entry essays for rich applicants. He also wants to upstage his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. In his endeavor to become a novelist, “my ambitions were simple: to learn the con, make money, impress women, and get out.” In writing his completely over-the-top novel, The Tornado Ashes Club, Pete splices together various elements common to literature that appeals to the masses.

The book skewers prototypes of popular authors and the formulas they follow. A fictional New York Times bestseller list is even contained in the book, which ridiculously amplifies popular taste.

How I Became a Famous Novelist is hilarious in a bitingly sarcastic way. In fact, despite quickly laughing my way through it, I sometimes required a break from the constant snarky humor (not a criticism). You need to appreciate the tone to like this book. In its last pages, the book gets earnest all of a sudden. It has, however, provided more than enough entertainment by that point to render it a worthwhile read.

Friday, September 17, 2010

And Then There Were None: four ways

A few weeks ago, I saw a theatrical production of And Then There Were None, adapted from the Agatha Christie novel of the same name (some editions were entitled Ten Little Indians). Did you know that it's the seventh bestselling book ever? And that Christie is the third bestselling author of all time, after the Bible and Shakespeare?

The story involves ten people invited to an island under different pretenses. Once there, each guest is accused by a mysterious voice on a gramophone record of committing a particular murder. Then the guests themselves begin falling prey to a murderer. After each killing, a soldier (or Indian) figurine from the dining room table is broken. In each of their rooms is hung a copy of the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" (or "Ten Little Indians") and the murders eerily echo the verses of the rhyme. If they are alone on the island, then the murderer must be among the ten of them, but who?

Christie herself adapted the novel for the stage, changing the ending significantly (basically, injecting a form of a "happy" ending). I was interested in reading the book to compare the two, and my curiosity extended to my viewing two film versions, Rene Clair's And Then There Were None (1945) and George Pollock's Ten Little Indians (1965). In terms of the story, I thought the book was the best, followed by the 1945 film version, the 1965 version, and finally the play. The problem with the play was that it did not spell out certain things that the movie versions did fill in. Ten Little Indians is inferior to the 1945 film for several reasons: the setting is changed to an Austrian mountaintop; some of the characters, their alleged crimes, and how they are killed off are changed (and not for the better); there are too many gratuitous shots of Vera undressing; and it seems too dated to the 60s.

Overall, though, the book cannot be beat. What I most appreciate about it is the "note found in a bottle" postscript. It explains everything from the murderer's point of view. And Then There Were None is an extremely clever mystery!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Paste magazine bites the dust

Last year, amidst financial difficulties, Paste magazine appealed to its readers for donations so that it would not have to cease publication. The readers came through, and the magazine remained in print. Last week, however, Paste announced that its print publication has been suspended: "the prolonged downturn of the ad market has forced a hiatus . . . Paste, while considering strategic alternatives, is focusing on its digital assets, including" That a number of generous readers were able to keep the magazine afloat before makes this news more of a bitter pill.

I had been reading the magazine for a couple of years because I enjoyed its music coverage. I just read a reader comment saying that Paste had gone downhill since it broadened its scope beyond music to include movies and pop culture. I had not been reading it long enough to attest to that, but I wonder how many readers it lost with that change. Paste's announcement is disappointing given the lack of quality and coverage of music magazines currently in print.

Friday, September 3, 2010

At first listen: I'm Having Fun Now

I just received my copy of Jenny and Johnny's album I'm Having Fun Now. This is their debut as Jenny and Johnny, but you might know them for their previous accomplishments as singer-songwriters Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. They have previously collaborated (they are also a real-life couple), but not to the extent that they do here. Johnathan joined Jenny as part of her touring band and they appeared on each other's solo albums. I liked them each separately and collaboratively from what I'd heard so far, so naturally I was eager for this project.

The album has Jenny's trademark deceptively upbeat sound mixed with more downbeat lyrical content written all over it! As in, "I'm having fun now, but I got some cynical banter for you." Johnathan is a talented musician and writer, but Jenny ups him on intrigue and charisma, and he's always been more willing to take a backseat anyway. Still, he rocks out on two of the best tracks: "Animal" and "Committed."

I was hoping for a "that's what I'm talking about" reaction like the one I had to Jenny's "The Next Messiah" on Acid Tongue, which featured Johnathan. They were going for a different sound and idea with this album, and it leaves something to be desired. Though not as complex as I was hoping for, it is called I'm Having Fun Now.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review of Let's Take the Long Way Home

Gail Caldwell, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for her work as book critic for the Boston Globe, documents her friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp (Boston Phoenix columnist and author of Drinking: a Love Story) in a beautifully written and insightful memoir. Their bond began over their love of dogs and was cemented over additional shared experiences such as the writing life, athleticism, and past struggles with alcoholism. They both lived alone in the Cambridge area. Although this memoir focuses specifically on a friendship, it also contains mini-biographies of the two women.

Caldwell writes: "That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation."

Knapp died in 2002 at 42 of lung cancer, less than two months after her diagnosis. Most of the book is dedicated to their friendship before she fell ill. But inevitably, Caldwell must deal with the end of her friend's life. Caldwell has insightful things to say about grief, such as, "Maybe this is the point: to embrace the core sadness of life without toppling headlong into it, or assuming it will define your days. The real trick is to let life, with all its ordinary missteps and regrets, be consistently more mysterious and alluring than its end." The book contains excellent writing about the strong bond between individuals as well as reflections on life and loss.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review of Imperfect Birds

Anne Lamott is a talented writer of fiction and nonfiction. I had not read a book by her in awhile, so I was looking forward to her newly published novel, Imperfect Birds. She explained the title in an interview in the May/June issue of Writer's Digest: "It's a line from a poem by Rumi. The line is, 'Each must enter the nest made by the other imperfect birds,' and it's really about how these kind of scraggly, raggedy nests that are our lives are the sanctuary for other people to step into . . ."

She returns to characters from her previous books Rosie and Crooked Little Heart. Seventeen-year-old Rosie has lost control. Defiant of her mother Elizabeth and stepfather James, she takes a variety of drugs and gets caught up with a guy who encourages the drug use. Elizabeth is reluctant to alienate her daughter through disciplinary actions and thereby her relationship with James suffers as she keeps secrets from him. James is the only character I consistently cared about in this book, despite him not having center stage like Rosie and Elizabeth.

One thing that bothered me about Elizabeth: why doesn't she have a job? Because she is depressed and is a recovering alcoholic? The author's point of view about this issue is unclear. Since Elizabeth and James do not have enough money at hand to send Rosie to rehab, they have to dip into money from her college fund. At one point, Rosie thinks how annoying it is that all her mother does is lounge around the house and putter in the garden when everyone else has to work.

Lamott's sensual descriptions (particularly of food) in the book remind me of one of my favorite authors, Francesca Lia Block, who does that well and also sets her novels in California. There were quite a few lines and passages that were so insightful or well-written that I wrote them down in my journal. This is an uneven novel with some beautiful writing.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Female & Male Brains

I recently came across this quote from actress Kim Cattrall: "I'm dating again, but I know nothing about men. They remain a mystery to me, other than that they are predictable."

The differences between the female and male brains make for fascinating stuff. Louann Brizendine, M.D. wrote books on each one. She notes: "Much of the conflict that exists between men and women is fueled by unrealistic expectations that stem from failing to grasp each other's innate differences."

We know the stereotypes: women are emotional and men are not; women are more empathetic; men always have sex on the brain; women can't read maps; women are more verbal and men are more visual. But what kind of biological basis is there for these widespread perceptions?

The books follow an identical format, first laying out the parts of the brain that are different between women and men and then the hormones that affect each. Taking readers through the successive stages of life, the books also include chapters on emotions, sex, and love.

Here are just a few juicy bits of information from the books:
  • "Sexual thoughts float through a man's brain every 52 seconds on average, and through a woman's only once a day." It's even worse than we thought!
  • "Men use about 7,000 words per day. Women use about 20,000." More verbal indeed.
  • "An innate skill in observation . . . comes with a brain that is more mature at birth than a boy's brain and develops faster, by 1-2 years."
  • Men often do not register that a woman is upset until she bursts into tears: ". . . tears nearly always come as a complete surprise--and extreme discomfort--to a man . . . Tears in a woman may evoke brain pain in men. The male brain registers helplessness in the face of pain, and such a moment can be extremely difficult for them to tolerate."
  • "Men are used to avoiding contact with others when they themselves are going through an emotionally rough time. They process their troubles alone and think women would want to do the same."

I thought I would learn more from The Male Brain, but I learned a lot from The Female Brain. The books have extensive notes and references, yet are fully accessible to the average person. Some of the author's cited research findings in The Female Brain have come under fire, but not being in that field, I couldn't say. I recently read a review of an upcoming book, the author of which is critical of Brizendine's findings on the female brain. That could lead to an interesting ongoing dialogue.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Farm Sanctuary

Animal rights is an important cause to me. I went vegetarian over a decade ago and never looked back. Ideally, I would be vegan and we'll see if I take the plunge in the future. In Farm Sanctuary, animal rights lobbyist and cofounder and president of Farm Sanctuary Gene Baur covers the significant legal victories he has achieved, stories of animal rescues, and the ugly truths of factory farming in the U.S. Even if you think you know all of the cruel practices involved in factory farming, Baur brings more of them to light. Each chapter ends with a profile of a rescued animal and that animal's unique story.

Baur is doing great work, and has achieved so much, yet laments repeatedly in the book that he can only save a small percentage of the nation's farm animals, which are adopted out or housed at one of the organization's two farms in Watkins Glen, New York and Orland, California. Obviously not being able to save more animals both dismays him and fuels his motivation to continue his advocacy. The rescues, combined with what he has done in changing hearts and minds about animals and food (as the subtitle says) make for an impressive list of accomplishments.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Unit vs. Never Let Me Go

I recently read The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) and Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The dystopian genre to which these books belong has fascinated me since I was introduced to 1984 back when I was a high school sophomore.

I recommend both these titles to book groups. Although there are similarities between them, my favorite is definitely Holmqvist's debut novel, The Unit. A lot more seems to happen in that book than in Never Let Me Go, which is a quieter read and zeroes in more closely on a tight-knit trio of friends.

Both stories are set in societies (in Sweden in the near future and Great Britain in the late-1990s, respectively) where certain members are considered dispensable and are sacrificed for the good of others. Dorrit, the protagonist of The Unit, is wiser to what is going on than the friends of Never Let Me Go, who try to figure out the full scope of their situation for the entirety of the book.

Both Dorrit and Kathy, who narrates Never Let Me Go, become involved in bittersweet love affairs that greatly complicate matters. How does one reconcile love while on a fast track to the end of life? Does society trump the individual?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thoughts on This Book is Overdue!

I hope people besides librarians are interested in reading Marilyn Johnson's This Book is Overdue! because she says how librarians are adapting to a changing world and why their services are still valuable. Libraries need this kind of support! I read her book not because I wanted to congratulate myself on my chosen career but rather to see how she might influence public views of the profession. I was aware of many of the specific library trends and librarians that Johnson discusses (the Connecticut Four--love the title of that chapter: "Big Brother and the Holdout Company;" librarian bloggers; the strong librarian presence on Second Life; among others) but the public at large likely is not.

This is a fun book on librarianship, for the most part, with anecdotes about a colorful array of librarians. Johnson got the idea for the book when she was researching obituaries for her first book, The Dead Beat, and found that--according to her--librarians were some of the most interesting people out there.

A whole book praising librarians may be a bit much, as Johnson does not tie the book together as well as she could have. I remain a mix of worried and hopeful about whether American culture is going to embrace librarians well into the future. We certainly have a significant advocate and ally in Marilyn Johnson.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

South Park takes on book banning

Tonight's episode of South Park trod on literary territory! I think the only other time they've done that was when they skewered the A Million Little Pieces Oprah fiasco (which was great--Towelie and A Million Little Fibers!). So in this episode, after speed reading Catcher in the Rye because of its mystique as a banned book, the boys are disappointed and immediately pen their own story which they make as offensive as they can dream up. Cartman's reaction to Catcher in the Rye: "It's not obscene, dude. I'll show them [expletive] obscene!"

The boys' "book" ends up getting discovered and although people are utterly repulsed by it, they praise it as a great contribution to literature (i.e., worthy of the Pulitzer Prize) and read all sorts of interpretations into it that, of course, the boys had no intention of conveying. South Park's creators love making fun of pretension throughout our culture!

Of course, many of us are bewildered with the continued banning of books from school and public libraries. This South Park episode helps highlight the absurdity of book banning--how dated and hopelessly subjective it is. The boys inevitably get fed up. Books, they conclude, invite their own meaning: "That's why we should forget books and stick to television!"

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Didn't want to wait for the DVD of this one

I had a great time seeing Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. I often like Burton's films, and he puts Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, two of my favorite actors, in a bunch of them. And again, they don't disappoint. The buzz from critics has been that Bonham Carter upstages Depp, but I disagree. They're both excellent in their roles. Bonham Carter probably gets more laughs, though, because of her Red Queen's gigantic head and "Off with his head!" spasms.

As my mom (moviegoing companion) said, it's great to hear Johnny Depp recite "The Jabberwocky," and with ferocity! Speaking of the dialogue, I like how Alice utters one of the best lines from the books: "I've often believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

I like the tenderness between Alice and Depp's Mad Hatter. They have each other's backs. Alice also values the advice of the caterpillar, despite her frustration with the "Who are you?" shtick.

This isn't another version of Alice in Wonderland so much as it is a continuation in which Alice, now a young woman, travels back to Wonderland. There are many familiar characters from Disney's classic cartoon version, and some different ones. I love the books and seeing the film makes me want to revisit them (I hope those who see the movie and haven't experienced the books will be inspired to do so!).

I like this film a lot better than Burton's reworking of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I don't think that film needed another version. I welcomed more Wonderland, however!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Philosophy Lite

Marietta McCarty's How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas that Matter Most is all right, but not what I was hoping to read. I only took one philosophy class in college and have done a little reading on my own, so I wanted to read something not overly scholarly but not too poppy and self-helpy, either. Turns out I wanted something more scholarly than this book.

Her ten ideas that matter most are broad: simplicity, communication, perspective, flexibility, empathy, individuality, belonging, serenity, possibility, and joy. She attaches two philosophers to each idea and briefly explains their views relating to it.

Both Library Journal and Publishers Weekly gave the book decent reviews. It is structured best for a "philosophy club," at the author's suggestion, and LJ notes: "Her concept of philosophy clubs is particularly appealing and practical for public libraries and neighborhood groups." But I didn't find it to be enough for the individual who doesn't need a bunch of discussion questions and suggested music and literature to accompany the ideas. I wanted the ideas to be more fleshed out in place of that supplementary material. McCarty merely skims the surface.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Will Manley thinks libraries will die

Will Manley recently addressed the topic of whether libraries will die in his Booklist column. He quotes the dean of Syracuse University who proclaimed the death of the library "as a place." Then of course Manley makes obligatory mention of Cushing Academy and its library without books.

Initially, he's taken aback by the idea that libraries could die, but reconsiders upon noticing how people around him on the train overwhelmingly prefer their electronic devices to print materials. He is further persuaded by the success of online programs for graduate students in library science. He expects more programs to go completely online and that as a result "the new generation of librarians will fully understand the conveniences and economies of providing informational and educational resources solely online."

And so he concludes: "The Cushing Academy headmaster is right. Young people prefer electronic formats. The Syracuse University librarian is also right. The library will no longer be a place."

Good thing for him he's retired. He doesn't have to worry about how his career will evolve or even reach extinction! For now, I still believe not only that people will continue to enlist the help of librarians for reliable sources of information in the foreseeable future but also that the library as a place--at least the public library--will not lose its relevance. Although reference librarianship could move primarily to virtual territory and many of the materials loaned out could be downloadable, I believe people will still depend on the library as a place to use computers, get in-person instruction, attend events, and be part of a real-world community.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Comic sacrilege?

Being the big fan of Pride and Prejudice that I am, I couldn't pass up the Marvel Comics version, adapted by Nancy Butler and illustrated by Hugo Petrus. The five-part comic is collected in one volume. Nancy Butler's introduction explains her interest in making comic books that appeal specifically to girls. In tackling Jane Austen's beloved novel, she ultimately decided to use much of the language from the book, rather than adapting it. Once that was settled, I imagine her biggest task was to decide how to trim the story to fit this project. I think she succeeded in abridging it.

The cover is charming in its artwork and how it is made to look like a women's magazine with its catchy tag lines. The cover art is not done by the same person as the comic inside. I prefer the cover art to the rest of the artwork, but that is not much of a complaint.

Comic sacrilege? No, this is comfortingly faithful to the original overall. I was pleased to find that Butler included the best lines that I remember from Austen's text. Fans of the original will probably like this adaptation, and more importantly it should attract younger readers of graphic novels to Austen's book.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Review of K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain

Ed Viesturs reteams with David Roberts, coauthors of '06's No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks, for this study of the perilous climbing history of K2. Located in the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan, it is the second-highest mountain in the world and a harder climb than Everest. K2's death rate is nearly four times that of Everest. Most recently, in a single expedition in 2008, eleven people died.

Viesturs himself summited K2 in 1992, but he does not write about that experience at much length here. The 2008 tragedy is covered in the first part of the book, and then the author goes on to discuss the earliest attempts on the mountain; the 1938, 1939, 1953, and 1954 expeditions; and the deadly summer of 1986 during which a record thirteen people died on K2.

The dangers of K2 include a huge serac (overhanging ice ridge), crevasses hidden by the snow, whiteouts, and avalanches. Says Viesturs: "Everything depends on the weather, the snow conditions, and the relative strengths of different climbers, so up high you always have to be flexible and ready to improvise to meet the challenge thrown at you" (241). And while he would always sooner save someone's life than try to forge ahead in a summit attempt, he cautions: "It's an eternal and inevitable fact in mountaineering, as in most dangerous pursuits, that you can get sucked into exceeding the boundaries of your own best judgment of acceptable risk when you go to the rescue of someone else in trouble" (60). It must be an agonizing decision, but individuals have to look after themselves in that environment because it is all too easy to be claimed by the mountain.

Viesturs has never fallen into a crevasse in any of his climbs. He has fallen through to his waist before, but that is the extent. He notes: "The absence of crevasse falls on my mountaineering résumé is partly just sheer luck, but I like to think it's mainly the result of my healthy respect for those hidden death traps" (288). He admits that luck is a factor in his being alive today, gravely citing situations in which some of the best mountaineers met their deaths and saying that it could have been him had he been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is well worthwhile to read the perceptions of one of the greatest mountaineers. Viesturs does not shy away from expressing his admiration of some of his fellow climbers and his unfavorable opinions of others. This is a fascinating, spellbinding book and well-written as well. It is one of the best mountaineering books that I have read.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thoughts on How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

French scholar Pierre Bayard wrote this provocative book (translated by Jeffrey Mehlman; 2007). It does not have a readers' advisory standpoint nor is it light instruction for social situations in which people are discussing books. Don't let its slim size fool you: this isn't a breeze to get through. The book is divided into three parts: the different modes of "non-reading," a few scenarios of discussing unread books, and ways to get out of doing so. Works of literature are referenced throughout, most of which Bayard says he has either skimmed or not read.

It is easy to get annoyed with the author at times. There were parts, however, I found quite interesting, the first being the outlandish notion of not reading any individual books and instead developing one's cultural literacy through placing all books in context. Bayard argues that culture is really "a theater charged with concealing individual ignorance and the fragmentation of knowledge" (126). He says: "The trick is to define the book's place in [the collective] library, which gives it meaning" (117). Another intriguing idea Bayard explores is literary criticism being an art form in itself. He argues that reviewing a work is most importantly an act of creativity and self-discovery.

He prefaces his book with the following quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so." Bayard is a psychoanalyst as well as a professor of literature, and he veers into that sort of territory in the book. Take, for instance, his notion of "phantom books that surface where the unrealized possibilities of each book meet our unconscious. These phantom books fuel our daydreams and conversations far more than the real objects that are theoretically their source" (160). There are parts of the book well worth reading for the enlightening tidbits, so I would recommend skipping over some sections to get to the good parts.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The e-book revolution

E-books were surprisingly slow to catch on initially, but now with a range of e-readers out there, they are relatively widespread. Various libraries circulate the devices. MA prep school Cushing Academy got rid of its print collection in favor of e-sources.

I wonder about public vs. academic libraries regarding this issue. It does make more sense for an academic library to go that route than it does a public library.

Public libraries serve children and the elderly, both groups less likely to use e-readers. I believe that public libraries will adapt, albeit a bit slower than consumer culture. But that's because public libraries have a number of considerations: what is the purpose of circulating a Kindle or like product? Is it for people to try it out or to read a couple of publications? What content should be loaded onto it? What should be the loaning period? What quantity should be purchased? Seems like a guessing game at this point.

Of course there is also the option of offering e-books to library members without the e-readers. The books can then be read either on the computer or on the person's own e-reader, similar to a downloadable audiobook service which many people use with ease. And the Publishers Weekly "Outlook 2010" (Jan. 4, 2010) points out the uncertainty of "whether consumers will continue to go for dedicated reading devices. Already, more and more consumers are choosing to read using apps designed for smart phones, like the iPhone/iPod Touch and the new Android OS phones."