Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Get to know this 'Family'

"Good Family" by Terry Morrow (ISBN 9780060737948) is a glimpse into the lives of the Addison family.

They've gathered at the family homestead for their mother and aunt's last days. Old hurts are dredged up as each comes to terms with events of their past.

At the heart of Morrow's tale is Maddie, back after 11 years.

Morrow unfolds Maddie's story skillfully, revealing elements of her childhood and marriage piece by piece, building our empathy.

Why had she stayed away? What happened to her marriage? her daughter? Why is this family so disjointed?

Morrow lets us in, deftly combining events of the present with those of the past.

And at the heart of this family there is the house. Built by the family business, it almost is the Addisons.

"It strikes me again how much time is spent at Sand Isle discussing people and their plans - not only those of our family, but the arrivals and departures, the ramifications and nuances of our friends' and neighbors' lives," Maddie muses.

And we with her.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

What do Google and Dickens have in common?

What do Google and Charles Dickens have in common?

They’re both poised to make a fortune off of orphans.

Google has spent the last few years scanning the pages of millions of orphan books. Out-of-print, unclaimed by copyright holders — orphan books drift into obscurity with no one to claim ownership. (Often, the copyright holders died or went out of business.)

Google took more than 7 million of these unwanted urchins and compiled them in an enormous digital library.

Of course, Google didn’t just do this out of sense of altruism or posterity. They plan to charge for access to these orphans.

As often happens in this country (but apparently not in Sweden), somebody sued. The Author’s Guild and The Association of American Publishers filed a class-action lawsuit in 2005. Google settled to the tune of $45 million.

The settlement is pretty complex, but what bothers most of its critics is it essentially gives Google lone access to these orphan books. So if you want to hunt down an obscure piece of literature or scholarship, you’ll have to pay Google.

Consequently, the Justice Department announced earlier this month that it would be investigating the Google Book Search settlement to see if it violates antitrust law. Feds will formally present their findings on September 9, and a federal judge is scheduled to hear the case October 7.

On one hand, it would be wonderful if millions of difficult-to-find books were available on Google. On the other, theoretically nothing could stop Google from jacking up the prices for availability.

The Google Book Search plan definitely has merit, but it’s hard to view their control over orphan books as anything besides a monopoly.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Langston Hughes gets foreclosed on

Langston Hughes’s former Harlem residence has landmark status. The Cleveland home where he spent part of his teen years has been foreclosed.

If life isn’t unfair, at least it’s consistent.

Hughes lived at the house on East 86th Street from 1917 to 1919, until he graduated from high school. Now, Wells Fargo Bank has purchased it for $16,667.

The house may have slipped into anonymity were it not for Christopher Busta-Peck, a librarian at the Hough Branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

Busta-Peck discovered the house’s history while trying to find something to interest the young readers he worked with at the library. He used a two-tome Hughes biography, written by Arnold Rampersad, to locate five different houses Hughes lived in during his tenure in Cleveland. Three of the houses have been destroyed. The two remaining homes are on East 86th Street.

Busta-Peck said he did not necessarily want to see the Hughes house turned into a museum like the restored Glenville home where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman. He guessed the house probably did not have anything left from the days of Hughes’s habitation. He just wants to see the house preserved.

“It’s a good house. It’s a basic 1890s Cleveland vernacular Victorian house,” he said.

Busta-Peck said the house had some ugly siding, but it was far from a lost cause.

Wells Fargo has indicated that it wants to sell the house as quickly as possible. I realize there aren’t a lot of people with $20,000 worth of disposable income and a Langston Hughes Museum probably wouldn’t be huge money; but it would be a shame if that piece of history fell to the bulldozers.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Subplot makes me 'Happy'

I enjoyed “So Happy Together” by Maryann McFadden (ISBN 9781401301484) even though I didn’t especially like its lead character.

Claire Noble is in her mid 40s, ready to retire from her teaching position, marry a financially secure man who loves her and pursue her dreams of photography. Those plans are dashed when the daughter who left home returns to give birth, her parents’ health worsens and her fiancée makes no secret of the fact that he’s not exactly a family guy.

I might have mustered some sympathy for Noble had she not spent so much time and energy wondering when It would be “her” time. Stop being such a martyr, Claire. If you don’t want to or can’t help your family, just say that. Don’t lend a hand and then whine about how you have no time for yourself. Sheesh.

McFadden however spins a good yarn.

I was particularly drawn to Noble’s parents. Fanny and Joe have been married for 50 years, haunted by a remark overheard by chance.

The chronicling of their relationship was, for me, engrossing and insightful. What kind of love is it that sustains a couple through the inevitable disappointments of a 50-year marriage? Do Fanny and Joe have what it takes to divulge their secrets and move on to be happy together?

Much more interesting than the woe-is-me Claire.

P.S. I too was saddened to learn of the death of Frank McCourt. "Angela's Ashes" was a gripping tale of another time. The images of their life have stuck with me. Sending children as young as 3 - if my memory serves correctly - out all day with no adult supervision horrifies me! I often wondered how close my own grandparents upbringing in Ireland came to the situations he so eloquently described. I did not enjoy "Tis" as much and will have to put "Teacher Man" on my ever-growing list.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank McCourt's death and other depressing news

I can’t decide what is more depressing, Frank McCourt’s death or Lauren Conrad’s ascent to the top of the New York Times Bookseller list.

In case you don’t know, McCourt is the man who wrote Angela’s Ashes. Conrad is the latest product of our culture’s fascination with gorgeous, wealthy but generally shallow people. (Like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian without the sex tapes.) She is a former star of The Hills, MTV’s proof they can make something stupider than The Real World.

Conrad’s debut text, L.A. Candy, is the story of a girl who becomes famous via reality television. It has topped the children’s chapter book list for four weeks.

In Conrad’s defense, she’s writing what she knows.

I’m not going to use Conrad’s authorial success as an excuse to break open the seventh seal. I haven’t read L.A. Candy (though the reviews I’ve read have been unenthusiastic). It could be really good; or, at least, something that won’t insult the intelligence of her fans. For example, Mick Foley may not be Frank McCourt; but I did enjoy his autobiography.

Maybe Conrad didn’t need a ghostwriter. Maybe her book wasn’t “heavily edited” (which means almost the same thing as ghostwritten). Maybe she really does have some writing chops.

That having been said, it frustrates me that Conrad receives immediate publishing success because of her unearned celebrity. I realize I’m not expressing an original sentiment by knocking reality TV stars, but there’s a reason I’m juxtaposing Conrad and McCourt.

McCourt paid enough dues to buy the union. The man had the toughest of childhoods — a silver-tongued, alcoholic father; a mother forced to beg so she could feed her children; and three siblings who died during their infancy. His family struggled to survive, first, in Brooklyn, then in Limerick, Ireland.

He became a New York City schoolteacher and wrote Ashes. (In case you’re wondering, the titular Angela is his mother.)

I can’t praise Angela’s Ashes for the same reason I can’t condemn L.A. Candy. I’ve never read it. But it won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, so McCourt must have done something right.

It’s also my younger brother’s favorite book. I should buy him a copy of Candy and let him compare.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Jason and Tricia agree ... no, really

I’m on a wife-enforced diet but there are doughnuts in the newsroom.

The center cannot hold. It’s the melange.

Quirk Classics, the auspicious publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, has announced the release of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Even better, there’s a trailer on YouTube. (Props for splurging on the CG.)

I have no intention of reading it. While I do like Sea Monsters and Jane Austen, I discovered that two good things cannot always be combined into one great thing. (Unless these two things are key lime pie and cheesecake. Then, the result is fantastic.)

Moreover, I always thought of Sense and Sensibility as Pride and Prejudice’s ugly sister. If I didn’t like the hot sister zombified, I’m not going to like the wing-girl.

Sea Monsters is not going to be written by Zombies scribe, Seth Grahame-Smith. Apparently, he’s busy writing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Instead, Ben H. Winters (which sounds suspiciously like a pen name) will be taking the reins.

Now for something completely different:

Tricia loaned me her copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; and it’s good, great even.

I won’t reprise Tricia’s comments, but I will add this. Maggie O’Farrell writes Esme is present tense. It’s an unusual choice, but it suits the book. It gives the narrative an immediacy it might otherwise lack and makes the shifts in perspective less jarring.

That's all I got. Have a good weekend. Live long, prosper and party all the time.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Geometry doesn't add up

The theme of last weekend's library excursion seems to be sisters.

The latest tale of sisterly bonds is Luanne Rice's "The Geometry of Sisters" (ISBN 9780553805130).

"Geometry" introduces us to the Shaw family. Mom Maura has been estranged from her sister for decades and daughter Beck misses the sister who ran away the day their father died.

The perfect Shaw family was, of course, riddled with secrets. And how those secrets played out was fairly predictable.

But predictable can be entertaining if the characters fascinate.

That's where "Geometry" fell short for me.

It was all a little too pat. Where was the sisterly angst over the years of separation and past hurts? Where was the internal struggle over Maura's "perfect" life and her true love? Where was any kind of real emotion at all?

I was let down.

Was the reader meant to be engrossed in the tale of lovers separated by decades and tragedy? Or to be drawn to the teenage math prodigy and her issues?

I wasn't sure.

As I said to Jason the other day, I seldom truly dislike a novel. I often finish a book and think, well, that was OK. Nothing really bad or good to say about it.

Such was the case for me with this latest Rice work.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rating books that don't exist

I normally don’t do this, but I feel comfortable recommending Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist without having read it.

It chronicles the travails of Pete Tarslaw, a committed hack, who decides to write a sure-fire hit — artistic integrity be damned.

He studies and apes the best-seller list, hoping to create his own critically despised commercial success.

But the fun is watching Hely concoct fake names and tag lines for nonexistent best-sellers.

Some of Hely’s contrived book names sound terrifyingly plausible:

The Jane Austen Women’s Investigators Club
Indict to Unnerve
Cumin: The Spice that Changed the World
Cap’n Jay & Us
. (The titular Cap’n Jay is a “mischievous squirrel.”)

Hely has taken it a step farther and written 11 short takes on books that don’t exist for The Believer magazine.

My favorite is Hely’s review of Kimball MacAleese’s The Men who Pour Cement:

MacAleese is the great also-ran of twentieth-century American letters, behind his contemporaries Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway—whom he once challenged to “write about your own g-damn country, and let the matadors and the spaghetti-eaters write about theirs.”

In a completely unrelated note, Oxford University Press is publishing the world’s biggest thesaurus after 40 years of work.

The thesaurus was almost finished in 1980, but the production team decided to add all the words in the updated version of the Oxford English Dictionary.

That suggestion added another 30 years of work. I can only imagine how unpopular the employee who suggested that became.

-Jason Lea

P.S. Next time I write about a book I have read. Promise!


Monday, July 13, 2009

A bedside confessional

Moira Stone sits by the bedside of her comatose sister Amy in Susan Fletcher's "Oystercatchers" (ISBN 9780393060034).

It's been more than four years of waiting for the 16-year-old to wake and recover from injuries sustained during a fall, and night after night the sister she barely knew recounts her days at the boarding school she went to before her sister was born.

As she says, "I will tell you, then, about being a teenager - how it is, for you became one in this coma. All you know of your teen years is the back of your eyelids, and the smell of this room."

Can you imagine?

Yet, it is not Amy for whom I felt sympathy, it is Moira.

It is so easy to relate to her feelings of awkwardness at school, of being the outcast because of her social status (or lack thereof) and her interest in school, of her jealousy over her sister's relationship with their parents.

Oystercatchers are "red-beaked birds, with a low, straight flight, and their call is mournful." They do not migrate, instead braving the cold weather, content to stay home.

Which sister does it refer to? Amy who was all joy and life at home or the darker Moira who was never content unless she was near the sea.


- Tricia Ambrose

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amazon bows to my will

Two thoughts, and I’ll be succinct.

Amazon has lowered the price of a Kindle to $299 the same day I blogged about its bloated price.

This can mean only one of two things:

1. I took too long to write about the subject, and it was no longer relevant.

2. My words single-handedly forced Amazon to drop the price.

Those who know me need not guess which conclusion I have drawn.

That’s right. I have the power. (My second wish: a sequel to The Dark Crystal.)

My second thought is in regards to Tricia’s belated post on “Angels and Demons.”

A lot of publishers’ media departments’ like to call their new book thrillers. It’s a wastebasket taxon. Any book that has a chase scene or a gun fired must be a thriller.

Too bad so few of them thrill.

That having been said, Dan Brown’s novels are legitimate thrillers. They have an intelligence and excitement you don’t get from, say, James Patterson. I’m looking forward to September 15 and The Lost Symbol (even if The Solomon Key is a much cooler name.)

Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. Dan Brown wrote a book called 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman under the pseudonym Danielle Brown.

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You'll want to disappear with 'Vanishing Act'

I can't say enough good things about "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" by Maggie O'Farrell (ISBN 9780151014118).

After a weekend at my parents in Indiana during which I finished the Nora Roberts paperback "Tribute" I'd brought along, I needed something for the ride home. (Side note: "Tribute" is the ideal beach read.)

I came upon Esme Lennox with a note that it was to be returned to my sister. I snagged it for the ride and told her I'd return it at our next visit.

I was finished before we were out of Indiana. It's that good.

O'Farrell's understated, elegant prose tells the story of Esme Lennox who has spent much of her life in an asylum that is now closing.

According to her file, she was put away - for 60 years! - for such concerns as "Insists on keeping her hair long" and "Parents report finding her dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother's clothes."

The tale is all the more powerful for the manner in which it unfolds. Much like the horror of the silent opening sequence of "Saving Private Ryan," the events of the novel are whispered, not screamed, and so resonate with the reader.

O'Farrell is also the author of "After You'd Gone" (which sounds familiar to me), "My Lover's Lover" and "The Distance Between Us."

I'll be checking those out.

Book's all yours, Jason. Can't wait to read what you think.

P.S. Shockingly, Jason and I are in agreement on the Kindle!
I am sure there are plenty of ways the device can be useful. I see the value in being able to access a variety of newspapers from any location. I see how it could make reading easier for those who travel extensively. I see how much less expensive production costs would be.

And yet...

That is not the reading-for-pleasure experience I am looking for. I like to read books, not computers (I do that enough already.) I liken it to shopping online. Yes there are conveniences to it and yes I can access retailers not in Lake County. But I want to walk among the racks, touch the clothes, smell the shoe leather before I buy. That is all part of the shopping experience.
So, for now at least, no Kindle for me.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kindles and grumpy young men

In the last few weeks, a gaggle of people (read: seven) have asked how I feel about Kindle.

For those who don’t know, Kindle is a wireless reading device that Amazon sells. You can use it to read downloaded books, magazines and newspapers.

It’s like an iPod for reading, except you can’t upload your already existing library for free.

Sherman Alexie (National Book Award winner, author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” fantastic writer) caught some flack for calling Kindles “elitist.” Most of the negative attention focused on him saying that he saw a woman reading a Kindle on the subway and wanted “to hit her.” (He wasn’t being serious.)

Alexie later clarified that he objected to the Kindle’s price. (They cost about $359.) He also didn’t like that one company controlled the content that was available.

In defense of Kindle’s price, one savvy writer noted that it would cost the New York Times half as much to give all of its subscribers Kindles as it would to print and deliver its paper. (Granted, I think that says more about the costs of newspaper production than anything else.)

But Alexie makes an interesting point. Like most expensive electronic gear — iPhones, for example — they have become status symbols. That may or may not be intentional. Alexie and I have similar knee-jerk reactions when we see Kindles. I called a friend “bourgeois” for having one and quickly regretted it.

Do some people use Kindles as status symbols? Sure, but at least they serve a function (unlike those stupid butterfly sunglasses).

I’m an anachronism. I was the last person under the age of 25 to get an mp3 player. I refuse to get TIVO because my VCR still works. I grumble about the minibloggers on Twitter. Throw in a case of cirrhosis and I’m my grandfather.

I like the feel of a book and the sense of accomplishment as the pages accumulate underneath my left hand. I like having a study in which I can relax, surrounded by my bookshelves. (Now, that sounds bourgeois.) But if you just want the words and have a few hundred dollars to burn, there’s no reason not to use a Kindle.

We all use computers to read already. (If you don’t, then how are you reading this blog?) Kindles represent the next step, but it’s probably a step that I will take hesitantly. I don’t want to sacrifice my hardcovers and paperbacks any more than I want to get rid of my CDs.

If that makes me the world’s youngest grumpy old man, so be it.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Flying through 'Angels & Demons'

I know I'm a little late to the party on this one, but I couldn't put down Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons." (ISBN 9787416578741).

I needed something to read on a long flight and it was the longest book in my price range at Walmart.

Turns out, planes these days have little TVs in the seatback and you can watch pretty much whatever you want. A slew of movies was far more distracting than a book on my recent overnight flight, so A&D remained in my carry-on.

As luck would have it on the return trip we had a midnight to 8 a.m. layover. (You can't even find food in an airport in that timeframe!) So while my kids slept sprawled out on the chairs and my husband tried to watch a movie on a portable DVD player, I whipped out "Angels & Demons."

About 6 a.m, I put it down.

I had been transported.

Perhaps because I love a good mystery.

Perhaps because the idea of an academic thrust into the world of intrigue is so appealing.

Perhaps because we were returning from Rome and had just stood on Castle St. Angelo and looked to Saint Peter's Basilica.

Much faster paced than Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," "A&D" whips the reader up into a frenzied race against time. Will the cardinals be saved? Will St. Peter's be destroyed? Will Langdon get the girl?

How fast can I turn the pages to find out?

Only remaining question is, will the movie be as entertaining?

- Tricia Ambrose

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Finding a good man

So the last book list Jason and I debated was from the College Board. (I can't wait to debate the Newsweek one, though I suspect we will agree more often than not on that list.)

I noted on the College Board list that I had never read Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." As fate would have it, it's one of Mrs. Jason's favorites and she kindly loaned me a cherished copy. Thanks, Mrs. Jason!

It certainly is an interesting tale. The understated prose. The language of the '50s. The deliberate way situations are ignored.

These are the elements that stuck with me.

From the family in the title tale to Ruby in "A Stroke of Good Fortune" to the women in "A Circle of Fire," O'Connor's characters embody the lengths we humans go to to see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

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How does the best book of all time not have 'Zombies' in the title

Two things, and I’ll make them quick so you can get to your holiday weekend. (I grieve for you if you are on of the unfortunates who have to work Friday.)

First, United States District Court Judge Deborah A. Batts ruled on the Salinger case. Fredrik Colting, otherwise known as John David California, cannot release “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye.”

I am not shocked, nor am I disappointed. I wanted a sequel to “Catcher in the Rye” like Amy Winehouse wanted rehab. (That is, to say, even if it was good for me, I still wouldn’t want it.)

But if you want to read Rye II: Holden’s Golden Years, you can probably find a copy online. It’s already been published in Britain.

You’ll notice Colting played the naive Swede again in the linked story. He previously said, “We don’t sue people in Sweden.” This time, he writes in an e-mail, “Call me an ignorant Swede, but the last thing I thought possible in the U.S. was that you banned books.”

Once again, I wonder how Colting didn’t see this coming. Has he never read anything about Salinger the last 40 years? The man refused movie rights to Steven Spielberg. He stopped a college theater troupe from performing a stage version of “Catcher.” Did he really think Salinger was going to let the sequel or parody or whatever-you-want-to-call-it pass unmolested?

Second, Newsweek has compiled a list of Top 100 books. I know, I know. These things got old a decade ago, but Newsweek took an interesting tact. Instead of gathering a group of experts, they used previous existing lists to compile their own.

The Modern Library list, St. John’s College reading list and Oprah all factor into the final ranking.

And the list itself? These things are subjective and should be treated as such. My favorite author, Thomas Hardy, didn’t write any of the top 100. He was trumped by everyone from Herodotus to A. A. Milne.

I couldn’t find the mathematical formula that Newsweek used to compile the list. I suspect there was still some decision-making done. How else do all four of the Shakespeare selections wind up contiguous?

A couple of other interesting patterns appear. The late 20s and early 30s are littered with social manifestos. “Democracy in America,” “The Social Contract,” “Das Kapital,” “Leviathan,” and “The Prince” are all within eight books of each other. (All of them outrank “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Hamlet.”)

Do I agree with the list? Of course not. These things are designed to start arguments, not finish them. So my suggestion is find someone who likes to read, show them the list and listen to them rant for an hour or so about how “Crime and Punishment” was slighted.

If you’re smart, you’ll start the argument around 3:30 p.m. so you can quietly segue into a long weekend.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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