30 April 2008

New Goodreads feature: Ranking your to-read list

I subscribe to the Goodreads blog feed but I haven't tried out a lot of their new features. I thought their "top friends" feature, launched around April 1, was a prank, and when it became clear it wasn't I still hesitated to choose my most valuable Goodreads friends. But my interest was piqued when I saw that you can now rank the books on your to-read shelf, just like a Netflix queue for books. Of course, no one can stop you from reading your #4 to-be-read book before your #1, but the list is there to remind you.

It's funny that they would do this now because I've been keeping a to-read list on paper for the past few weeks. At some point I found myself with way too many books to read (don't we all?), so I wrote down all the books, and when I wanted to read them by if they had deadlines attached. (Book club books, library returns, that kind of thing.) It was very satisfying to go back and cross items off the list, something I guess Goodreads can't replicate online. Still, well done, guys.

Here's my to-read list this week. (Note: I only reranked the first 12 or so books on the list, because no way am I going to read even half that many books this week!) In case you have an extra-long to-read list like me, you can scroll down to the bottom and choose to view more than 20 books per page. Then they can all be edited by order.

29 April 2008

New business, same people.

I remember when the boxes started arriving at our house. Overnight the area around my dad's desk became cluttered with cardboard, all bearing that smile mark with no eyes above it. Once I was even allowed to send away for one of my own, inputting the numbers and checking the mailbox each day. Amazon fever hit my family and hit it hard in the late '90s. It's pretty much never left; one of those magic boxes brought my dad a Kindle for Christmas this year, and I carry an Amazon Rewards credit card which lets me rack up points towards future purchases (most recently, of THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO and C.O. Bigelow lip gloss). But I knew hardly anything about Amazon behind the scenes before I picked up Mike Daisey's 21 DOG YEARS, a memoir of working for the dot-com in its early years; indeed, I took all that infrastructure for granted.

Daisey was an unhappy temp in Seattle when he was sent on an interview for which the company specifically requested "freaks" and candidates who wouldn't fit in anywhere else. That company was Amazon, and though the position was a typically depressing customer-service job, Daisey and his coworkers was all fired up about the company's mission and its bid for dominance in whatever business it was in. (Founder CEO Jeff Bezos made a point of never specifying what that was, only stressing that Amazon was not just the world's largest bookstore.)

The longer he worked there, though, the more Daisey realized he was quite bad at customer service, which in itself is extremely demoralizing, but the more he wanted to stay with the company. He was eventually promoted to a position where he saw the full dream and promise of the dot-com boom (including the ill-fated Pets.com) collapse, sufficient that he never wanted to reenter the business again. To ensure this, he started giving a monologue called "21 Dog Years" which became this book.

As with Ayun Halliday's JOB HOPPER, I found much of this book very easy to relate to from the customer-service jobs in my past -- the weird tricks one plays on oneself to deal with the onslaught of complaints, the small acts of sabotage he committed against the company (notably, amassing a large collection of office supplies and sending free books to Norway). The title comes from a company opinion that working for Amazon ages workers faster than they would do so in the outside world, and at a peculiar rate similar to that at which dogs grow old.

While this book isn't an economics primer, I have a better understanding now of how dot-com companies like Amazon become "worth" a certain ridiculous amount, only to later fall to earth. Still, it wasn't just a primer on Web economics; I laughed out loud several times while reading this book as well. If you like funny work memoirs with more than a little American satire, read this book.

Side note: I've had this book for a while but pulled it off my shelf because I covered Daisey's one-man show "How Theater Failed America" a few weeks ago. If you are in New York and interested or involved in the state of theatre in the U.S., you really should see this show.

28 April 2008

The old man on the ground floor

"In public life the role I play nowadays is that of distinguished figure... an appropriately comic and provincial fate for a man who half a century ago shook the dust of the provinces off his feet and sallied forth into the great world to practise la vie boheme. The truth is, I was never a bohemian, not then and not now. At heart I have always been a sobrietarian, if such a word exists, and moreover a believer in order, in orderliness."
- J.M. Coetzee

I finished DIARY OF A BAD YEAR last week and, not surprisingly, I really liked it. I thought the structure was very innovative and led to Coetzee's being able to tell the story -- which in itself was interesting -- in a new sort of way. What's going on with the three sections I mentioned is not a matter of three stories pulling your attention away from each other, although when you first start reading it's easy to feel that way. Instead, they comment on each other in unexpected ways. Here are a few examples I found:
  • In one of his essays, Señor C is talking about the parts of his body and whether they are truly "his" (hair, teeth, a tumor). Underneath that, he is commenting on how Anya won't refer to him by his name -- how she only calls him Señor, rejecting that which is truly his.
  • One of Señor C's sections comments on the crime wave in the new South Africa; under that in Anya's section, her lover Alan says, "Every word he says is bullshit." A built-in skepticism -- very cool.
  • Sometimes these instances are more wry: A discussion of how athletic victory is now determined by machines, supplanting human power,* flanks a paragraph about Anya's typing, a chose Señor C could do on his own (and a mechanical chore at that) but chooses to have performed by Anya.
It struck me as I read that the opinions or essays Señor C is writing may or may not be Coetzee's own -- it's not really important -- but, if they were published by themselves, I might not read them. Some are quite short, and others are pretty muddled in terms of the conclusions they reach. Additionally, while some are related to each other, they hold to no order within the book and have no common theme. Maybe they only make sense in context -- perhaps the point Coetzee was trying to make.

*One of my favorite passages in the book comes from this opinion:
"One can of course hear stunted and mechanical speech all over the world. But pride in the mechanical mode seems to be uniquely American. For in America the model of the self as a ghost inhabiting a machine goes almost unquestioned at a popular level. The body as conceived in America, the American body, is a complex machine comprising a vocal module, a sexual module, and several more, even a psychological module. Inside the body-machine the ghostly self checks read-outs and taps keys, giving commands which the body obeys."

27 April 2008

Books and the Stars: Julie Andrews, Minnie Driver and David Mamet

High on the hills was a lonely author: The New York Times hardcover nonfiction list is reigned over this week by none other than Julie Andrews with her memoir HOME. From what I've read, the book is a gritty and often sad exploration of Andrews' unhappy childhood, ending with her filming "Mary Poppins." This isn't Andrews' first book; she wrote a children's chapter book called MANDY I really liked when I was younger, and several others (she is usually credited as Julie Andrews Edwards). Other celebs with best-selling books right now: Valerie Bertinelli (memoir), Rosie O'Donnell (craft book for kids) and Trisha Yearwood (cookbook).

Expletive deleted: Author and playwright David Mamet's favorite authors according to Vanity Fair: Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Dawn Powell, George V. Higgins, Patrick O'Brian, and John le Carré. Hey, I like Dawn Powell too! Unfortunately, I saw the influence of none of these in his latest Broadway play "November," which I found pretty disappointing (although I can't blame him for the rabid Nathan Lane fans who also interfered with my enjoyment of the show).

Circle of Experts: Minnie Driver doesn't read -- pregnancy books, that is. According to Celebrity Baby Blog, the star of "The Riches" and "Good Will Hunting" is relying more on the advice of her mom and sister on the birth of her first child, who is due in August. Things she probably has read, based on the movies she's made? Oscar Wilde's play "An Ideal Husband", Lorenzo Carcaterra's SLEEPERS and Gail Carson Levine's ELLA ENCHANTED.

26 April 2008

Meet The Strand!

Last weekend I had a friend visiting and when I found out she had never been to the Strand, I threw caution and the Great Unbookening to the winds and agreed to accompany her to what I think is New York's largest bookstore. Trumpeting its 18 miles of books over three locations (two stores and a Central Park kiosk), the Strand is the kind of place I believe I have left once empty-handed. That's why, even though it's a short subway ride away, I don't go that often -- my will is not yet strong enough.

Temptations hit before you even enter the main location, two blocks south of Union Square. In good weather, the dollar carts roll out:

Packed with paperbacks and hardcovers and arranged in no particular order, the carts are a great place to look for hidden treasure. And there are so many of them:

Dreamy! I pulled six books right away and spent the rest of the time contemplating what needed to be purchased now and what wasn't necessarily own-worthy. Some people take advantage of the $1 stacks to collect '70s paperback series or finding the elusive first edition; the real game for me is finding new books which for whatever reason have gotten the major markdown, so I walked away with two 2007 books, Taylor Antrim's THE HEADMASTER RITUAL and Steve Geng's THICK AS THIEVES.

Now it's time to go into the basement, home of many social-science sections, but also the review copies. After New York-based publishers have sent books to critics and press people and the books have come out, they send the leftover copies here to be sold off at half their cover price. The publisher and author don't benefit as much as when you buy a new hardcover in a bookstore, but it's a really good place to buy gifts or for that new book you just have to have.

I barely scratched the surface of this section, in part because of the way the books are stacked and how narrow the aisles are (making prolonged browsing difficult) but I picked out two books for my folks in honor of my dad's birthday and Mother's Day. Sorry, guys, you're getting books again... (Just kidding, they are huge readers too.)

Okay, out of the cool basement and into the sweaty confines of the ground floor, which holds the major fiction section and the new-releases tables. If you like your books to look good, you can check out the tooled-leather collections:

They offer a books-by-the-foot service for decorators and set dressers... Or, how about dreaming of a vacation?

It's difficult to describe the size of the Strand; while it may not have more square feet than a suburban Borders, the floor is so jammed with books there's almost no room to sit down or even stand in place for that long. We went on a sunny day, but I can't imagine how much more crowded it would be in there on a rainy day:

I didn't even grab a picture of the famous Strand gear which is required uniform for independent bookstore lovers. They offer tote bags, T-shirts and -- new for 2008 -- these argyle reusable shopping bags which you can use to carry your books or your groceries. (Should have picked one of those up. Darn!) We bypassed these and stumbled towards the sunlight, books in hand. I ended up with five -- two gifts, two dollar books and the paperback edition of SACRED GAMES for summer; my partner in crime picked up Malcolm Gladwell's THE TIPPING POINT which she found in the basement.

Now go home and read!

24 April 2008

More Summer Reading: Is it the book or the season?

My memories of summer reading can be sorted into two categories: There are books I love, which I happen to have read over the summer, and there are books I enjoyed reading in the summer but wouldn't necessarily say I really liked.

The first time I read ANNA KARENINA was one hotter than normal May -- or maybe I just remember it like that. Preoccupied by upcoming exams, orchestra concerts and a crush who was all too oblivious, I escaped into 19th-century Russia, reading it almost entirely on time I should have been using to do other things. I was loath to return it to the library when I finished; I wanted to crack it open and read it all over again. A few years later, at high-school graduation, my friend Will gave me a copy which I treasure still. (And yes, I blog about the book too much.)

A few years later, I was at summer camp when my mom sent me a copy of Louis de Bernieres' CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN. (In the note she stuck in the book she admitted, "I can't get [star of the movie adaptation] Nicolas Cage's droopy eyes out of my mind." Tee hee.) If you asked me to tell you the plot of this book or the names of the characters, I wouldn't be able to do it. But just picturing the cover sends me straight back to the un-air-conditioned dorm where I read on the top bunk when my roommate was asleep, the smooth feel of the pages as I turned them and the escapades that regularly interrupted my reading. If I were to pick it up again, I would still associate it with summer, even though the book -- a World War II epic about a Greek island -- has nothing summery about it. (Or does it? Somebody help me out here.)

So what books remind you of summer?

22 April 2008

Summer Reading: No more pencils, way more books.

Is it too early to start thinking about summer reading? While I'm not sure I ever loved the concept back in high school, when I was sentenced to books like ANIMAL DREAMS and DELIVERANCE (those both in one "magical" year), the well-defined season between Memorial Day and Labor Day seems to call for further commemoration now that I'm an adult and don't have three months off to mark it otherwise.

Specifically, I'm thinking about starting a Summer Reading Club here in New York. We won't have an assigned book, but we'll meet at a park on Saturdays and read out there regularly, blankets and lawn chairs at the ready. (Unless it's bad weather, in which case we'll be in a local cafe.) I spent too many weekends inside last summer, and this would get me out of the house and enjoying the pleasures of diving into a book.

Here's my tentative, wishful-thinking reading list for '08. I don't have a 13-volume list yet like Of Books and Bicycles, but I'd love to dig into these:

  1. Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton
  2. Vikram Chandra, SACRED GAMES -- paperback edition, recently purchased. (Yup, I caved.)
  4. Nobel Prize Winner Doris Lessing's THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK
  5. Cynthia Ozick, TRUST
On Thursday I'll write a little more about the experiences of summer reading, so stay tuned.

21 April 2008

So much more than a diary

Over the weekend I started J.M. Coetzee's latest novel DIARY OF A BAD YEAR. I'm not a Coetzee scholar; the only other book I've read of his is FOE, and I don't remember a whole lot about it. But I was drawn to this book because of what I had heard about its format. There are three narratives which comprise the novel and they are stacked one on top of another on the page.

The protagonist, Señor C, an older South African writer who now lives in Australia (like Coetzee), is writing a series of short essays or opinion pieces -- that's the first layer. Under that, Señor C relates the story of his relationship with Anya, a beautiful young woman he meets in the laundry room of his apartment building and convinces to type up his essays. And, beginning a little way into the book, Anya herself recounts her impressions of Señor C as well as her relationship with Alan, the man she lives with on the top floor of the building.

Once I finish the book I'm sure I'll have more to say on the novelty of that format and how Coetzee makes it work, but here are some other books with surprising formats that I would like to read:
  • David Foster Wallace, INFINITE JEST -- I have heard that this book began the trend of footnotes in fiction. It's a trend I am in favor of, and I look forward to climbing that mountain sometime. I picked up the 10th anniversary edition (for $10!) at Auntie's Bookstore and it looms large over my shelf. The last person I saw reading it called it "the ultimate novel."
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, ONLY REVOLUTIONS -- Danielewski's first novel HOUSE OF LEAVES used footnotes and played with fonts, but his National Book Award-nominated follow-up presents two different narratives -- two characters on a road trip -- whose stories overlap and collide. Each narrative starts on a different side of the book, so it would appear to have two front covers, or two points of entry. Carol Shields' novel HAPPENSTANCE also does this in its tale of a troubled marriage; each spouse gets a narrative.
  • Julio Cortázar, HOPSCOTCH (Spanish title: RAYUELA) -- How's this for procrastination? I own this book in Spanish and English, but have made little headway in either. Cortázar's 1963 novel can be read in two ways, in the conventional order or in an intricate sequence which scrambles 154 out of the 155 chapters. Also, the author supposedly said one can read the first 56 chapters and skip the rest (which, according to Conversational Reading, have the feel of footnotes). Hey Danielle, have you read this? Got any pointers?
Coming up this week: Dot-com drudgery, the changing of the seasons and a Wormbook field trip to a great New York bookstore.

20 April 2008

Books and the Stars: Miley Cyrus, Mike White and ABC

Memoiry Miley: Tween singing sensation and Disney Channel star Miley Cyrus is writing her autobiography at the tender age of 15, and by "writing" we mean "hiring someone to write." In case you don't know any preteens or my 22-year-old sister, Cyrus, the daughter of Billy Ray "Achy Breaky Heart" Cyrus, plays a girl named Miley who has a secret double life as pop star Hannah Montana. Earlier this year, her concert film "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert" broke the record for opening on a Super Bowl weekend . Of course, she's just trying to keep up with her assonant show alter ego, who appears in many books already.

Socialite saga: I just discovered the Powell's Books blog, attached to the venerable and delightful used bookstore, and they have a book into film category with tons of good news. Something that jumped out to me: Director and actor Mike White (who helmed "Year of the Dog" but is best known as Jack Black's milquetoast roommate in "School of Rock") just signed on to adapt and produce a movie version of Sean Wilsey's memoir OH THE GLORY OF IT ALL, one of my favorite nonfiction books of 2007. I'm thinking Paul Dano as the young Sean Wilsey and Amy Poehler gets an Oscar nom for her first serious role as his mom, with... hmmm... Jude Law and Jessica Walter playing them when they're older.

Real real housewives: In further development news, author Jennifer Weiner (whose reading I went to a few weeks ago) signed an "overall deal" with ABC. A what? Weiner writes on her blog, "What the deal means is that I'll come up with ideas, and help steer the ship should any of the ideas turn into a TV show." She won't give up writing books, though. Jane Smiley has yet to comment on what she thinks of Weiner's latest career move.

19 April 2008

Quality and Quantity

I started seriously keeping a list of books I read in late 2000. I was always reading, but before then my list making was spotty and I never followed through on it. The list lurks among my Word docs, typically updated every month or so with the latest to have passed before my eyes.

I appreciate being able to search the list and see if in fact I have read that book about the girl who falls in love with the scientist, but another consequence of having such a list year after year is the temptation to judge the years against each other, specifically in the number of books read. I fully expect to read about the same number of books as last year, but even as I write that I'm thinking, "Maybe just a few more?" To show that, I don't know, I've "improved" in some way? A harder, better, faster, stronger reader?

Sometimes I think I ought to stop counting entirely, not only to rid myself of that nasty moral superiority I feel when I see other people's counts but also because of a fear I might not be able to put the number out of my head. After all, if the goal is to get to, say, 150, I should be reading the shortest things I can find to get there -- but wouldn't reading IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, or re-reading ULYSSES (which as a re-read wouldn't count towards my number), be a better use of my time than tearing through 100 Nancy Drew books and padding my total with those? I worry that unconsciously I might be avoiding those mega-novels because they just take up so much time.

So I'm just going to put out there, without either adornment or shame, that I hit 50 books read in April of last year and I will probably get there in May of this year. I review more books than I did then, but I also work more (and more regular) hours. I'd like to think it all evens out.

18 April 2008

Hangover Handmaiden

Gawker predicted Anna Godbersen's THE LUXE would be the next big young-adult series to be adapted for TV, a la GOSSIP GIRL. In the first book, which came out last fall (and which was blurbed by G.G. author Cecily von Ziegesar), the teenage daughters of Manhattan elite smoke, drink and shop, making regular appearances in the city's gossip columns and fighting over the same handful of boys. The difference between Blair Waldorf (of G.G.) and Elizabeth Holland of THE LUXE? The latter book is set in 1899.

It's a gimmick, but it works. Godbersen's prose style is hardly Whartonian but she transforms the voice of "Gossip Girl" the website into the ornate styling of a society reporter, salacious IMs into notes sent through the servants' network and loud clubs into supposedly genteel balls. (One of my favorite parts is the description of the days after balls, when the girls' parents would go to church and they would draw all the shades and ring for buckets of ice water. No Advil or restorative brunches back then.)

Of course, these girls have slightly more at stake than their contemporary counterparts. As the book opens, a funeral is being held for Elizabeth, who vanished and is presumed dead after a carriage ride with her best friend, the "new-money" heiress Penelope. Flashback to a few months earlier: Elizabeth and her very contrary sister Diana have just discovered their father's death left their family practically penniless; they have their Gramercy Park address and their name, but not much else. To secure the family, the widow Holland has arranged a match between her and Henry Schoonmaker, an unrepentant gadfly whose father is running for mayor and wants his son to appear respectable for it. Will they go through with the match even though they're both in love with other people? Will Elizabeth's maid, Lina, keep her secrets about the handsome man her mistress is seeing? Will anyone vomit in public? The answer to one of these questions is yes.

As with GOSSIP GIRL I easily tore through this book in a day; I might even read it again before the release of the second book in the series, RUMORS (coming in June, but Laura at Pinot and Prose has already read it). Sadly it won't be out in paperback till after summer-reading season, but if you enjoy Gilded Age literature and a whiff of scandal, pick it up.

Image of THE LUXE cover: HarperCollins. JacketWhys points out a trend in ball gowns on book covers.

17 April 2008

Filmbook: BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE and "21"

Due to circumstances beyond my control (ahem, MTA making a short jaunt to Brooklyn into a 2-hour ordeal) this did not appear yesterday. Sorry. If you saw the movie last night, I heartily apologize.

Even though I am still miffed about its apparent misrepresentation as nonfiction, I enjoyed the book BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE. It's a zippy read, a page-turner in which just enough character development is doled out to keep the action going. More than that, it managed to make blackjack play-by-plays actually interesting and dynamic to a non-gambler like myself, who has played blackjack but never bet or won money on it. Author Ben Mezrich mimics the brash, arrogant tone of the MIT students who believed they could beat "the system" which allows casinos to make money, and if he is to be believed, they did beat it for a while.

The movie "21" takes a really good story, full of intrigue and high rolling and danger, and turns it into a below-average film. First, and most unfairly, this movie is very, very slow. The first half hour drags as the film tries to establish a context for the studious MIT protagonist, Ben (Kevin in the book, played by Jim Sturgess), to get involved with the "poker team" begun by Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), and establishing supporting characters who will never go to Vegas or matter that much at all.

Finally, around the 45-minute mark, we get to Sin City, but the pace only gets marginally faster. I had read several reviews faulting this movie for its "MTV-style" editing (fast cuts and loud music, essentially), and I wonder if maybe I'm just inured to the style because I heard the music but I feel like the action never picked up. The casino shots looked great -- remember, I love movies about Vegas -- but aside from a nifty behind-the-scenes chase, there was nothing I hadn't seen before.

The acting was pretty good across the board for something I felt was poorly directed and edited, and to some extent poorly written. Spacey is hardly in this movie, and when he is, he only has one cringe-inducing manic-man moment (at the beginning, in the classroom). The camera does a lot of lingering on Jim Sturgess' face, and he is quite likeable here (plus, it's a nice face!), but not enough to overcome the sheer inertia of the film.

The film's other major fault besides poor pacing was in not preserving the book's original ending, but in case you still want to see this movie (DON'T), I will stow my spoilery thoughts on that away in the comments.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book. Don't see the movie.

Poster for "21": iwatchstuff

16 April 2008

Format is not destiny.

A brief follow-up to yesterday's post -- I truly believe the problem with e-book DRM which led to my frustration is not simply the library "out to get me." I have been a NY Public Library cardholder for four years and I'm sure they had the best of intentions in offering the Adobe-formatted e-books they do. In theory, it is a great idea! In the same way, Adobe had good intentions in designing Digital Editions to look more "booklike" (you can turn pages in a document as well as scroll like an ordinary doc) and in requiring what to my mind was an extraneous login for it.

And then there are the major players I didn't mention in yesterday's entry, the publishing houses. Publishers have a vested interest in maintaining the copyrights of their works, and I respect that not every house is willing to go the BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN route for every book. They have paid for those rights and they want to preserve them while still giving customers a new method through which to read those books.

At the same time, when all these well-intentioned players got together with their lists of requirements and desires, something was lost -- the voice of the end user. I consider myself at least somewhat computer savvy, having used PCs and Macs (and currently owning both), but I'm guessing I spent 45 minutes trying to e-check out my e-book, and several times I thought I might just scrap it entirely.

Digital DRM is a minefield, and certainly there have been way more egregious uses of it (I'm thinking of Sony's CD rootkits which were sneakily installed onto listeners' computers specifically). But the idea that the customer ought to be willing to jump through a bunch of hoops to prove that she is "legitimate" or not a pirate makes no sense.

To use a probably faulty simile, it's like that old 2nd-grade discipline trick where, if one kid is talking, everyone in the classroom has to put their heads down and be quiet instead of going out for recess. Has that ever actually stopped anyone from behaving badly? (If you are an elementary-school teacher reading this, please explain to me why this is thought to work.) All it does is embitter the good kids, in this case the legitimate users. I'm not willing yet to throw up my hands and say "Well, I guess that one kid did ruin it for everyone."

I think I've said my piece, but I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or by e-mail (lnvsml AT gmail.com). Stay tuned today for my review of Ben Mezrich's BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE and its filmic adaptation "21."

15 April 2008

Formatted to fail.

You're browsing books on the library Website and an unfamiliar icon pops up. Ooh! An e-book? Can I do that? Looks like all I have to do is add it to my list and it will download to my computer. Sure, I can't carry my laptop on the subway, but I look forward to nights of happy reading by the warm glow of the screen.

...HA. If only! I recently e-checked out a book from the New York Public Library, and it was such a frustrating experience I would not do so again. I'm warning you this is a rant, but there MUST be a better way to distribute electronic materials. Here's why it drove me crazy:

1. On the NYPL Website, regular books and e-books are separated on the site even though they both come up in the LEO (catalog) search. So you have your list of regular books checked out, and then somewhere else, your list of e-books checked out.

2. #1 wouldn't be so annoying if you didn't also need another login to access your e-books list. I finally learned my 14-digit library card number and PIN, and it won't work on this site of the same website?

3. Although in theory many people could check out the same e-book at the same time since they wouldn't have to physically share, there are usually only 2 to 3 "copies" of each book available. (Or so it was for my book, whose title I'm obscuring only because I'm thinking about buying it as a present for someone who occasionally reads this...) So you have to wait for your turn, just like with a regular book.

4. When your book becomes e-available, the Website sends you a notification. Unfortunately, clicking through to the site gets you to your queue, not any kind of instructions on how to download the e-book. Cut to me opening up 20 pages at once looking for instructions.

5. To e-read the e-book, you have to download a special program from Adobe called Digital Editions.
(a) Adobe Acrobat, which practically every computer has and works across many platforms, is somehow not sufficient. (Gizmodo points out Digital Editions is prettier, but shouldn't I be able to choose between Pretty/Unnecessary and Functional/Preinstalled?)
(b) The Digital Editions download page took me in circles for at least 15 minutes -- this isn't the NYPL's fault, but at some point someone must have okayed this format.
(c) Once you download and install the program, you're ready, right? WRONG. You then need to go back to the Adobe site and create a login name, and to do that Adobe needs all your information so they can sell you junk. I mean, so they can "enabl[e] portability by linking you and your books." (That link points out that logins are no longer necessary, just "strongly recommended.") I didn't even want this program in the first place; I certainly don't need Adobe looking over my shoulder offering me more things to clutter up my computer. (I have used Adobe products like InDesign and Photoshop happily for years at work.)

6. When you can finally download your e-book and open it using the program you will undoubtedly never use again, it is saved to your desktop as something ridiculously general, like checkout or ebook, guaranteeing that you will never remember what it is. If you bought it and then delete it, you may just be out of luck like this blogger.

Is it a DRM thing? A decisions by committee thing? A we don't like technology thing? In any case, I can't imagine the 8 extra steps it would take to load the book onto a PDA, or print out or mark pages. (Oh wait, apparently you can't put it on a PDA or a Kindle. Helpful?)

I quit reading after 3 chapters, the amount I was able to get through in one sitting, because I didn't want to go through the whole rigmarole of signing in and paging through again. What luck is a newer computer user going to have going through these 85 steps? This is not adapting to the 21st century. This is making innovations like e-books so useless, so eBabel as this blog charmingly puts it, that the NYPL can go back to its digital consultants and say, "Well, we tried, but no one wanted to use them!"

ETA: Read my update to this post, Format is not destiny.

ETA 2 [4/8/10]: This comic says everything I just said, but much better.

14 April 2008

Speaking of all New York...

J.K. Rowling is here! She has come to testify against the publishers of THE HARRY POTTER LEXICON, a print adaptation of this site, for biting her copyright and damaging her plans for a Harry Potter encyclopedia. I don't know enough about the case or the site to know whether she has a case, but it is a big deal because she hardly ever makes public appearances here... certainly not since Book 7, I believe.

Expert reconnaissance (er, a few minutes of Googling) suggests she is here:

The Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street. But I won't be going down there to catch a glimpse of her; I'll leave that to the Potter faithful.

Photo: kevin813

All New York in One Apartment

I finally finished Adam Langer's ELLINGTON BOULEVARD. I didn't like it as much as his first two books, but I would definitely recommend it.

As I wrote earlier, ELLINGTON BOULEVARD centers around an apartment on West 106th Street (named for the famous musician who lived at 106th and Riverside) where a musician named Ike has been living for years on the strength of a verbal agreement with the building's owner. Now that the owner has died, his son is determined to sell off the apartments, which are located in a neighborhood of New York that has been rapidly gentrifying in the last 30 years or so. (I say that in the nicest way possible; after all, I live close by!)

Ike doesn't find out he's being displaced until a broker named Josh -- a frustrated actor who became a broker after appearing in an ad where he played a real estate broker -- is showing around a pair of potential buyers. The buyers who come to the forefront are a married couple, a frustrated graduate student and a newly minted magazine editor who want to have a kid. Meanwhile, the owner's son is having HIS own midlife crisis, trying to be an observant Jew after a lifetime of debauchery and carry on his father's legacy while still cherishing his own dreams of opening a restaurant.

ELLINGTON BOULEVARD is somewhat more plot-driven than Langer's other books, which is probably why I couldn't quite get lost in it like I did in his other books -- I was virtually unable to set down CROSSING CALIFORNIA and THE WASHINGTON STORY. Still, I enjoyed tracing all these interconnected lives and the fate of this one space that is so preeminent in their lives. For the editor, Rebecca, the apartment means they can think about having kids; for her husband, it's a symbol of his stranding mid-Ph.D and his inability to decide what he wants; for Ike, the original tenant, it represents his career in music and the toehold he has in New York.

There are also many funny Langerian asides about pop culture (the made-up titles of songs from Ike's band alone are hilarious), the city, snobbery and book publishing that really colored the book and its characters for me. I respectfully disagree with Book a Week With Jen that people who want to come to New York should not read this book; it's not a horror story, unless perhaps you are buying an apartment, and I found certain things very relatable as an urban transplant. The author has not lost anything in his transfer from '80s Chicago to noughties New York, and I'm looking forward to his next book.

Photo: professorbop

13 April 2008

Books and the Stars: Snoop Dogg, Natalie Portman and Keanu Reeves

A few funny items that caught my eye recently:

The latest celebrity to step up to the children's-book plate is rapper Snoop Dogg. The artist formerly known as Calvin Broadus is working on WHERE'S THE CHEESE, a series about a mouse which is also being shopped as a Saturday morning cartoon. For your information, "cheese" is a hip-hop slang term for money (possibly welfare-related) -- for example, in Snoop's song "Life in the Projects" he declares "grass [drugs] is cheese and cheese is power."

Natalie Portman is rumored to star as tragic lover Catherine Earnshaw in a new adaptation of Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS directed by John Maybury (whose biopic "The Edge of Love" of poet Dylan Thomas is due out this year). Other famous Catherines: Juliette Binoche and Merle Oberon. The last notable adaptation was a 2003 modernization by MTV starring "Traffic" actress Erika Christensen, which will probably never be a Filmbook entry.

Author James Ellroy, who wrote real page tuner of 2006 THE BLACK DAHLIA, cowrote this weekend's new release (and probably #2 movie) "Street Kings" starring Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker. Five of his novels have now been adapted to film, with the sixth, WHITE JAZZ, coming in 2009. He also has a cameo in one of my favorite movies, "Wonder Boys," based on the Michael Chabon novel of the same name.

12 April 2008


Remember in February how I decried a bad-decision cover redesign for THEN WE CAME TO THE END's paperback edition? Finally, I have two examples of really nice-looking redesigns. One is a book I have read (and very much liked), and one isn't.

We'll start with FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES. My trusty library copy (and later-obtained paperback advance copy) bore this illustration:

The main character is a hatmaker by avocation and has a part-time job in the hat section of an upscale department store, hence the hats. Of course, you wouldn't know that, which makes this perhaps a bit of a hard sell for casual buyers. I like it, but I see where some people might be confused. The paperback cover picks up on this while emboldening the image:

I swoon. A mystery woman! And the black and red are very striking; I think giving this book the chick-lit treatment (a pair of shoes, a woman with a handbag whose head has been cropped out of the picture, eentsy-weentsy cartoon hats) would have been a mistake. There is a way to do good chick-lit covers; I'm just giving some offensive examples.

Now Vikram Chandra's SACRED GAMES, loaned to me in hardcover by my mom about eight months ago, has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I want to read this book, but I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that a 1100-page hardcover is not in my commuting powers. It sure looks nice on my shelf, though:

When I look at this cover I think Bollywood. I think exotic. But I know from reading reviews that SACRED GAMES is actually a Bombay-set thriller, with a detective chasing an organized-crime boss. The crime angle is what I believe the designer of the paperback edition was working when she or he came up with this:

I'm not in love with the string of blurbs on the front -- in general, blurbs smacked onto a cover feel like desperation and I'm sure your friendly neighborhood graphic designer loathes them -- but the mysterious woman and the street-sign design of the title? Lovely and cool.

11 April 2008

The New York Books Canon

I feel a little ashamed of going all listy on you for the second day here, but I couldn't resist commenting on New York magazine's New York Books Canon, for books judged on "all-around literary merit, and... the degree to which a book allows itself to obsess over the city." Say what you will about how New Yorkers are obsessed with themselves and this list proves it -- I still want to read all of these which I haven't read yet.

As it turns out, there are quite a lot of those. Here's the full slate, with the books I haven't read in italics:
Ron Padgett and David Shapiro (ed.), AN ANTHOLOGY OF NEW YORK POETS
Bernard Malamud, THE TENANTS
Charles Mingus, BENEATH THE UNDERDOG -- I had no idea the jazz musician ever even wrote a book!
Robert A. Caro, THE POWER BROKER: ROBERT MOSES AND THE FALL OF NEW YORK -- This is one of my dad's favorite books ever. Every year I intend to read it and never get around to it. This summer maybe I'll break down and buy a copy, along with the XXL beach bag I'll need to go with it.
E.L. Doctorow, RAGTIME
D. Keith Mano, TAKE FIVE -- I've never even heard of this book! But it sounds insane.
Mark Helprin, WINTER'S TALE
Martin Amis, MONEY
Jay McInerney, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY -- Funny, I just checked this out and joked on Goodreads that new young residents are required to read it. Not true, but perhaps a good idea; I'll find out soon.
Mary Gaitskill, BAD BEHAVIOR
Luc Sante, LOW LIFE: LURES AND SNARES OF OLD NEW YORK -- I keep seeing references to this book everywhere; I guess it's in vogue now?
Toni Morrison, JAZZ
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, RANDOM FAMILY -- one of my best books of 2006. The rare nonfiction book I want to read over and over again; New York calls it a "nightmarishly exaggerated Jane Austen novel."
Richard Price, LUSH LIFE

Two of my favorite New York books, Betty Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN and Dawn Powell's THE LOCUSTS HAVE NO KING, missed the cutoff (they had to be published within the last 40 years) but I don't have any specific quibbles about the list.

If you did better on the list than I did, the brag box is below! Otherwise, time to add all of these to Goodreads (sorry, friends on same).

10 April 2008

And America's favorite book is...

2,513 Americans were asked "What is your favorite book of all time?" Most of them named this one:

Yes, the Bible swept all demographics in this recent Harris poll. The rest of the top 10, with books I haven't read italicized:

2. Margaret Mitchell, GONE WITH THE WIND -- my sister's favorite book!
3. J.R.R. Tolkien, LORD OF THE RINGS series
4. J.K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER series (though some might say #1 and #4 in this poll are incompatible)
5. Stephen King, THE STAND

A few other stray facts: HARRY POTTER was the winner-behind-the-Bible among my age group, peculiarly titled the "Echo Boomers." Easterners love THE LORD OF THE RINGS and Westerners love THE STAND. Democrats and Republicans alike cherish GONE WITH THE WIND, because we would all buy what Rhett Butler is sellin'.

Clearly I have a lot of work to do if I want to communicate with the maximum number of American readers.

Photo of a 123-year-old Bible: wonderlane

09 April 2008

Filmbook Update: Oh, for the love of fact-checking.

Remember how I was looking forward to reading BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE and seeing the movie "21"? Guess what is the latest nonfiction book whose authenticity is being called into question:

Mezrich openly admitted that five of the six main characters from HOUSE are not real at all but amalgams of two decades worth of blackjack teams. And who knows whether to trust him even on that, given that he appears to have outright invented other book elements.

The one character in Mezrich's book who is not a composite, the team leader, is portrayed teaching at MIT, which he never did...

[William Morrow, who published my edition of the book] is marketing supposed nonfiction from Mezrich that includes, buried at the end of the author's note, a disclaimer "that warns readers about changed names, compressed time periods, and altered identities and backgrounds. Certain characters, it goes on, 'are not meant to portray particular people.'"

One MIT graduate contacted by the Boston Globe, who basically eviscerated the book's basis in fact, told the reporter "I don't even know if you want to call the things in there exaggerations, because they're so exaggerated they're basically untrue." And I was a sucker and bought it. I'm not sure if I want to see this movie any more.

So what is the more egregious way to discard your integrity: Inventing a more exciting life for yourself, or inventing a more exciting life for other people?

08 April 2008

Five Fun Facts about Jennifer Weiner

"I like blogs. They're good times."
-Jennifer Weiner, April 8 '08*

Tonight I went to a reading at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble featuring author Jennifer Weiner, in support of her new book CERTAIN GIRLS. Her last novel GOODNIGHT NOBODY was one of my real page-turners of 2006, and I'm looking forward to picking up her new book which returns to the protagonist of her first book GOOD IN BED.

I doodled a few notes during the reading, as I am wont to do, and thought I might share them with you. Anything in quotes is a direct transcription from the Q&A tonight.

She would love to write a young adult novel. She's a fan of the genre and especially loved SPEAK and LOOKING FOR ALASKA. Something she's not dreaming of writing? A children's book.

She hates being described as "earthy." Also "bawdy" -- she feels like she's pigeonholed into what she called a "Wife of Bath" archetype by reviewers. She would prefer to be described as "trenchant" and "witty." At one point in the reading, she gave a trenchant analysis of the ur-contestant on "Rock of Love II."

She had almost nothing to do with the movie version of IN HER SHOES, and she's okay with that. She said she made a conscious decision to "be zen" about the fact that the movie version would be different from hers -- although she was not so zen when she heard star Toni Collette was having trouble gaining weight to play the lead role. "She had gained about 30 pounds and her publicist called and said, 'She's stuck.' ... Stuck?!" (She liked the movie version, by the way.) Two of Weiner's other novels and one short story have also been optioned for film.

She loves horror master Stephen King and also his son, Joe Hill King (singling out the book 20th CENTURY GHOSTS). Other favorite authors: Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Peter Straub. Two recent books she loved: Ruth Ozeki's ALL OVER CREATION and Max Apple's THE JEW OF HOME DEPOT AND OTHER STORIES.

She lives in a divided house... politically, that is. "[CERTAIN GIRLS] is set in an uncertain future, and my husband keeps lobbying me to include references to President Obama's second term. I'm a Hillary girl myself. She gets so picked on."

Bonus item: She mentioned during the reading that the Philadelphia Inquirer, her hometown newspaper, panned CERTAIN GIRLS (specifically, author Jane Smiley panned it). This is especially bittersweet, one would imagine, since Weiner used to work at the Inquirer. "My father-in-law called after he read the review and he said, 'They gave you a lot of space?'"

You can read an excerpt from CERTAIN GIRLS here or, if you live in Philadelphia, she is reading there tomorrow and Sunday.

*This quote comes from Weiner's answer to this blogger's question. Hey, small world!


I hope you all had a lovely weekend. As I mentioned I was in Savannah, but I felt as if I were half in Baltimore -- specifically in the stuffy confines of police HQ while I was reading David Simon's first book HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS. This book is an incredibly dense, incredibly detailed account of Baltimore's homicide detectives at work, and beyond them the state of the neighborhoods in which these crimes take place and the role of the detectives in the criminal-justice system. Simon is as I mentioned a former reporter, but he abandons the passive voice of the incident report for passages that present the big picture -- like this one, mid-book:
Summertime and the living is easy, says Gershwin. But he never had to work murders in Baltimore, where summer steams and swelters and splits open wide like a mile of the devil's sidewalk. From Milton to Poplar Grove, visible heat wriggles up from the asphalt in waves, and by noon, the brick and Formstone is hot to the touch. No lawn chairs, no sprinklers, no pina coladas in a ten-speed Waring; summer in the city is sweat and stink and $29 box fans slapping bad air from the second-floor windows of every other rowhouse. Baltimore is a swamp of a city, too, built on a Chesapeake Bay backwater by God-fearing Catholic refugees who should have thought twice after the first Patapsco River mosquito began chewing on the first pale patch of European skin. Summer in Baltimore is its own yielding argument, its own critical mass.

The season is an endless street parade, with half the city out fanning itself on marble and stone stoops, waiting for a harbor breeze that never seems to make it across town. Summer is a four-to-twelve shift of nightsticks and Western District wagon runs, with three hundred hard cases on the Edmondson Avenue sidewalk between Payson and Pulaski, eyefucking each other and every passing radio car. Summer is a ninety-minute backup in the Hopkins emergency room, an animal chorus of curses and pleas from the denizens of every district lockup, a nightly promise of yet another pool of blood on the dirty linoleum in yet another Federal Street carryout. Summer is a barroom cutting up on Druid Hill, a ten-minute gun battle in the Terrace, a daylong domestic dispute that ends with the husband and wife both fighting the cops. Summer is the seasons of motiveless murder, of broken-blade steak knives and bent tire irons; it's the time for truly dangerous living, the season of massive and immediate retaliation, the 96-degree natural habitat of the Argument That Will Be Won. A drunk switches off the Orioles game in a Pigtown bar; a west side kid dances with an east-sider's girl at the rec center off Aisquith Street; a fourteen-year-old bumps an older kid getting on the number 2 bus -- every one of them becomes a life in the balance.
What I love, not to get all English teachery here, is the specificity of what Simon is describing. It's not "one kid dances with someone else's girl somewhere" or "the first mosquito" or "an older kid on a bus" -- he roots it in the kind of detail that suggests all the stories he didn't have room to tell, the kind of texture that creates a world. Reading HOMICIDE it's easy to forget that Simon reported the whole thing by basically living in the detectives' offices, but in an afterword he estimates that he personally witnessed 90 percent of the conversations which appear in the book. That fact alone astounds me.

I highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who likes really good nonfiction and "CSI" and similar shows (though Simon demonstrates how they have ruined juries in criminal homicide trials). It doesn't require a very strong stomach although there are, no surprise, dead bodies on almost every page and cases ranging from sad to bizarre to horrifying. One that really stuck out in my mind was the Geraldine Parrish "Black Widow" case, which began as an extortion complaint from a young woman who had had two attempts on her life. The detectives were able to find out her aunt was behind the attempts, having taken out several life insurance policies on their nurse; the aunt, Parrish, was also married to five men who she was found to have killed for their life insurance benefits. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's also much uglier.

04 April 2008

Reading on the Road: Savannah, GA

I'm off to Savannah this weekend for a wedding, and before you ask: Yes, I have read MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, and no, we probably won't have time to take the tour. It's a whirlwind visit and my boyfriend is a member of the wedding party. (By the way, after reading this post he told me his favorite book is Camus's THE STRANGER, so he will hereafter be known as Camus -- ending my constant self-dialogue over whether it would be inappropriate to call him Mr. Wormbook.) Looks like we just missed the Savannah Book Festival too -- darn! I'm still excited to go for this joyous occasion and the chance to absorb some Southern sunshine.

As usual I have been planning my haul of books instead of packing. It's a short trip, but as usual, I overpacked:
  • For the trip to the airport: Sara Paretsky's BURN MARKS, a detective novel my mom recommended to me. (Small enough so I can handle my bags and the book while I'm waiting in lines.)
  • David Simon, HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS (672pp). Simon is best known now for being the creator of the HBO show "The Wire," about the city of Baltimore, but before that he was a newspaper reporter who chronicled a year in the life of a homicide squad. Probably a gloomy book, but looks really intriguing.
  • Mark Helprin, FREDDY AND FREDERICKA (576pp). This book has been sitting on my nightstand for almost a year now, not getting anywhere closer to finished. It's going in my bag, though I probably won't have time to finish it (see below) because if I get delayed on the way back to New York I'm going to want something really long to distract me from the inevitable panic and strife. (My journey home for Christmas took 23 hours, and I was on a nonstop flight. I really don't want to talk about it.)
  • I'm also bringing along a review copy of Kelly McMasters' WELCOME TO SHIRLEY. Whoo, am I optimistic.
Happy reading this weekend! And congratulations to Scott (who is my editor here) and Marisa, the happy couple.

03 April 2008

Unbookening Month 2: Electric Giveaway Boogaloo

The Second Month of the Great Unbookening
9 books mooched
7 books checked out of the library
7 books received for review
Bought 2 books (BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE and an April book club book, Miranda July's NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU)
Was given 6 books -- remember, it was my birthday!
= 32 books in.

3 books given away on BookMooch
17 books returned to the library
Sold 2 books on Amazon
Gave one book to a friend
= 23 books out.

Total: Took in 9 more books than I gave away. Not as good as last month.

Well, birthdays only come once a year, and I refuse to feel bad for the excellent books I was given for that. My one problem is, I'm still mooching too much. I moved almost all of my books on my BookMooch wishlist (where they e-mail you whenever someone puts up a copy) to my save-for-later list (where they don't), but every so often I get that itchy trigger finger...

Anyway, I can see that I have a few books I mooched in March that I haven't received yet, so they'll go into next month's totals. Hopefully there won't be any more than that. I could put my account on vacation, but then I wouldn't be able to give any books away, and that's part of the fun! Besides, my bookshelves aren't getting any bigger.

Photo: debaird

02 April 2008

They Read It On TV

Today's post will not be about worms. I don't hate them, but I'm certainly not going to limit myself to writing about them.

But I was thinking of literary dealbreakers on Monday night when I was watching "The Hills," MTV's guilty pleasurama "reality" show about entry-level glamour workers in Los Angeles. I blog about the show, but I would watch it even if I didn't, because I really enjoy shouting at the television. On the latest episode, the bad-idea-to-begin-with couple Heidi and Spencer were separating their possessions so Spencer could move out of the apartment they shared. While they were having a discussion about who should get the 42" TV and who the 50", I was looking at the bookshelves in the corner of the screen. Here's what Heidi or Spencer have been reading recently:
  • WOODEN by John Wooden (UCLA coach)
I'm not ruling out that they were placed there by a set dresser to make it seem like their living room had more than two TVs in it, but even so, what peculiar choices! Now, Spencer may be evil or he may just be edited that way; still, those are some pretty solid titles (he struck me as the kind of guy whose favorite book would be THE GAME). On the other hand, they weren't packed away, which suggests it's Heidi who is trying to make her movie about a basketball coach turned CIA operative in Pakistan. Hopefully, that's coming up in a future episode.

ETA: The blog Songs about Buildings and Food, which covers "The Hills" like no one else, also spotted THE WORLD IS FLAT and LIPSTICK JUNGLE in the Spencer and Heidi library. The blogger writes, "I will not judge them for their choices but simply commend them for reading more than any other television characters this side of Rory Gilmore."

01 April 2008

Change of blogging plans

I think I've gotten away from the purpose of this site recently. I picked the name of this blog because it united two of my favorite things, but I always find myself writing about one and not the other. That's why I'm changing the format of this blog a little to make sure I regularly cover my favorite worm books -- like these:
  • Gary Larson, THERE'S A HAIR IN MY DIRT! This neat picture book from the "Far Side" artist actually has a fair amount of science in it, as well as the illustrations we all know and love. It's hard being a worm, but their place in the ecosystem is undeniable.
  • Thomas Rockwell, HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS. This novel about a kid trying to win a bike by taking a nasty bet didn't convince me to eat worms, but maybe when I get to next week's post, about worm cooking, I will be more inclined!
  • Carlo Ginzburg, THE CHEESE AND THE WORMS: THE COSMOS OF A SIXTEENTH-CENTURY MILLER. I was originally exposed to this book, which explores the testimony of a miller interviewed by the Inquisition about his beliefs, in a European history class In terms of gathering information about worms, this isn't your best option, but it is a fascinating look at concepts of religion as seen in the Middle Ages.
If you've read this far, I'm dreadfully sorry, you have been April Fooled. (I have read all those books, though.) The real story behind my name is on the top of the right-hand column, just like always. Later this week, there will be no more posts about worms, but come by to find out what a TV villain reads, the damage done of the second month of the Great Unbookening, and my experience "checking out" an e-book.

Photo: bibbiw