The business of book publishing

June 29, 2008 at 5:08 pm (books)

There’s an interesting article in today’s Washington Post about the current state of the publishing business. “Turning the Page on the Disposable Book” goes a long way towards explaining some of the more odious practices of today’s book publishers. As we bibliophiles have long thought, the bottom line orientation of these entities largely accounts for the spectacular mediocrity of much of their product. (And we won’t even get onto the subject of worthy tomes going out of print with lightning speed.) Surprisingly, though, author Jonathan Karp offers a cautiously hopeful prediction concerning the direction in which he thinks the business might be heading.

“Not My Fault,” an essay by Jacob Heilbrunn that appeared in the June 22 New York Times Book Review, makes a rather apt companion to Karp’s article. Heilbrunn quotes the following comments by historian Michael Beschloss:

“Forty years ago, publishers had a pretty high standard for who should write books…There were fewer books published. You had better possess some literary ability.”

Further comment from Yours Truly not being necessary, I’ll end here!

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Who doesn’t love “best” and “favorite” lists (especially when they’re annotated)?

June 29, 2008 at 12:23 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

An eclectic and intriguing list of favorites, appearing on Medieval Mysteries, was recently brought to my attention. (One of the things I like about this site is that it highlights works of nonfiction as well as fiction and mystery.) This particular list was compiled by M.B. Gilbride, one of the site’s three reviewers.*  It was begun as a list of “all-time favourite medieval books,” but Gilbride ranges far afield here, regarding both genres and time periods.

“M.B. Gilbride” is a heavily cloaked pseudonym. Click here for is his/her list.

Two novels included in this enumeration have also given me great pleasure: Morality Play by Barry Unsworth and The Egyptian by Mika Waltari.

This is a good place for me to plug two favorite nonfiction titles about the Middle Ages. Eric Jager’s The Last Duel is a great example of nonfiction that reads like fiction; from the halfway point to the end I couldn’t put this book down. And then, of course, there’s the book that first sparked my interest in this time period: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.

[Barbara Tuchman, 1912-1989]

Another annnotated list that I frequently consult is “Mysteries To Take to a Desert Island” by the late Grobius Shortling (aka Wyatt James). This list mixes the “usual suspects” with completely unfamiliar authors and titles – at least, they were unfamiliar to me.

The kickoff title is A Coffin for Demetrios by the great Eric Ambler. I had the good fortune to be reading this thirteen years ago in Paris, where the culminating action of the novel takes place.

[Eric Ambler, 1909-1998]

*Please see James Munro’s clarification in the Comment section.

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Yellowstone, Episode One

June 28, 2008 at 12:58 pm (Travel, Yellowstone)

Our Yellowstone excursion began with a couple of surprises. First, as we drove north through the Tetons, it began to rain. Oh, grand, thought I, it probably rains about twice a year in these parts and of course, today…But wait! Shortly before we reached the Park’s South Entrance, the rain abated, then stopped altogether. A good omen, we concluded, though at the time we didn’t know just how good!

We had been inside the Park for about twenty minutes when we encountered a traffic jam. Numerous cars and camper vans were pulled over onto the verge. Not knowing the ways of genus touristus in this extraordinary place, we feared there had been accident. As we got closer, I was able to make out a large, dark shape moving beyond a stand of trees close to the road. About a minute later, I realized what I, along with dozens of other excited shutterbugs, was seeing:

A bear! No – a bear and two cubs. Let’s see – that makes three bears…yes..THREE GRIZZLY BEARS!! IN THE WILD!!

Well, that was it for Your Faithful Blogger. All discretion and caution were flung to the winds. My heart started to pound; my eyelids stung. As he maneuvered cautiously through the welter of vehicles, Ron said, “Sweetie, now I don’t know if it’s really a good idea to -.” Too late. I was out of the car, dashing into the woods, trusty little Nikon in hand, clicking, clicking:

Surely this was a Benevolent God’s way of saying, “Welcome to Yellowstone, Roberta. I told you it would knock your socks off!”

And there was more to come, so much more…

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The bells have rung, in Wyoming’s magnificent Tetons…

June 27, 2008 at 10:08 am (Travel, wedding) (, , )

The wedding of one’s only son – one’s only CHILD, for gosh sake! – followed by one’s first visit to Yellowstone – well, one is pretty much “of sense forlorn” at the moment. I’m now catching up on some much-needed sleep, and having wonderful dreams.

It was all quite fabulous. Details to follow. Meanwhile, feast your eyes…

The Grand Tetons


The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a sight that has enthralled Ron ever since he first saw it at age 13.


Some of Yellowstone’s bizarre and wondrous geothermal features


These guys just kept turning up by the side of the road. I think they were showing off! At any rate – long may they roam…



But of course – first, came the Main Event, after which, the celebrating began:

Erica and Ben, post-ceremony, visiting with friends – and so relieved that everything went smoothly.

The festivities were greatly enriched by the presence of children. In particular, there were numerous babies. They seemed to be having as much fun as the grownups!


Finally, some more stunning views:

These last three shots were taken from the balcony of our room at the Amanagani in Jackson.

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Wedding Bells…

June 18, 2008 at 8:05 pm (Family, wedding) ()

I’ll be away from Books to the Ceiling for a while, for the best of all possible reasons: to see my son and his beautiful fiancee become husband and wife.

They are getting married in Wyoming; as they say their vows, they will have the stunning Grand Tetons as a backdrop.

I should be blogging again by the end of June. Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of the month – and keep reading!

What is so rare as a day in June? / Then, if ever, come perfect days…”

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Into the Wild – the film

June 16, 2008 at 10:38 am (books, Film and television) ()

Last month I wrote about the book Into the Wild. We finally had a chance to see the film last night, and I feel like my heart got broken all over again.

I was angry at Chris McCandless almost the entire time I was listening to the audiobook. He seemed like an out-of-control narcissist with impossibly grand notions about his personal destiny. Only as his sad, pathetic end became imminent did my ire begin to subside. In the film, though, right from the beginning he comes across as a rather appealing person, a free spirit with a generous heart.

Generous, that is, except where is parents were concerned. It was as if cutting off all contact with them (as well as with his sister Carine, whom he professed to love) gave him the power to hurt them that he seemed to crave. But – in recompense for what injury, exactly? In the film, the McCandlesses are shown to have engaged in some knock- down- drag-out battles when Chris and Carine were young children. (This is something I don’t remember from the book.) In addition, during the summer between his high school graduation and his freshman year at Emory University, Chris found out that his father Walt had not been fully disengaged from his first wife when he began a family with Chris’s mother Billie. (She ultimately became Walt’s second wife when he finally obtained a divorce.)

“That meant we were bastards!”, or words to that effect, are uttered at that point by Carine in a voice-over narration that I found to be one of the films few weak features. As for the implication that this revelation caused Chris to reject his parents, I don’t buy it. I think he was looking to justify a rejection that was already happening; the story of the early infidelity was as good a reason as any, in his young mind, to heap contempt on the heads of two people whom he already viewed as hopelessly compromised by their bourgeous suburban existence.

And there’s one other thing. Walt McCandless was a brilliant, accomplished engineer. I think that Chris was afraid that if he chose to compete in any way with Walt, he might not measure up. As a father, Walt McCandless appears to have been somewhat judgmental and rather stern, possibly remote in his aspect – in other words, not in the mold of the touchy-feely, postfeminist Dad. ( I just re-read the last sentence and realized that I could be describing my own father. Perhaps because I was a daughter, and a somewhat sickly one at that, I managed to get enough caring from him to satisfy my needs. He and my mother were cruelly ravaged by old age, and I drew close to him at the end. It was an unexpected gift. )

Into the Wild depicts Chris McCandless’s slow, agonizing death with unsparing realism. It was hard to watch – I was riveted but at the same time wanted desperately to avert my eyes until it was finished. My husband and I both felt that Emile Hirsch, in the title role, was completely convincing.

In her review in Salon, Stephanie Zacharek informs us that Jon Krakauer ceded his book’s film rights to Chris McCandless’s parents. I believe that those rights are worth a great deal of money, and I admire Krakauer for that generous, gracious concession. Likewise, Sean Penn deserves praise for waiting patiently until Walt and Billie McCandless were ready for the story of their son’s brief life to be told on film. Penn has amply rewarded their trust with this meticulously crafted, gorgeously photographed work.

[Emile Hirsch as Christopher Johnson McCandless]

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The Miracle at Speedy Motors – and the (sort of) miracle at the Central Library

June 13, 2008 at 9:59 pm (books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural) ()

I just finished listening to the latest in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective series, The Miracle at Speedy Motors. As always, with Lisette Lecat’s subtle and sensitive reading, it was pure delight. Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle humor is mixed with a sadness just as gentle. As he charts the lives of his characters, some feckless, some reserved to the point of timidity, the author’s love of Africa in general and Botswana in particular shines through.

But meanwhile, it’s business as usual for Mma Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Makutsi, Mr. Polopetsi, and the rest of the cast of characters at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors (which also houses the office of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). Mma Ramotswe receives mysterious letters containing veiled – and not so veiled – threats. A woman in search of her family comes to the agency and asks for help. Mma Makutsi and her fiance Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop, make a fateful purchase together: a spacious bed, with a spectacular headboard shaped like a large heart and upholstered in bright red velvet.

And most poignantly, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni goes in search of a cure for the paralysis of Motholeli, the foster daughter that he and Mma Ramotswe are raising in their modest home on Zebra Drive.

One of my favorite scenes in the book occurs as a heavy rain is tapering off:

“Flying ants. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the air was filling with flying ants, rising up from their secret burrows in the rain-softened ground, gaining altitude on beating wings, dipping down again. It was a familiar sight following the rains, one of those sights that took one back to childhood no matter what age one was, and brought to mind memories of chasing these ants, grabbing them from the air, and then eating them, for their peanut-butter taste and crunchiness.

Toward the end of this luminous novel, Mma Ramotswe speaks of ordinary miracles that occur every day. And I couldn’t help thinking of the fact that I was called to fill in at the last minute at my alma mater, the Central Library, Wednesday night – and who should appear but a patron I hadn’t seen a long time who just happens to share my love of British police procedurals!

Okay, maybe not a miracle – but certainly a fortuitous meeting. We fans of that crime fiction category constitute a somewhat small group. For most American readers, familiarity with this subgenre begins and ends with Elizabeth George. Ah, but there is so much more!

Doing readers’ advisory for this patron is a real challenge, as she’s well up on most of the luminaries in the field: Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, et. al. She hadn’t read John Harvey for a while, so I urged to try his latest, as well as Peter Lovesey’s. And I recommended wholeheartedly The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill.* Finally, I hope she tunes into this blog, because for some inexplicable reason, I forgot to tell her about Peter Turnbull! For me, the great challenge of readers’ advisory has always been the need to summon up titles and authors from out of thin air. I keep a running list, and Turnbull is most certainly on it – plus I just wrote a review of Once a Biker **- but still, he didn’t come to mind while the patron was standing in front of me. Only later, when I was back home, did I remember..ah, well, I believe the expression for that is “l’esprit d’escalier” – the perfect riposte you think of as you’re climbing the stairs and heading off to bed.


I find the simple goodness of Precious Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Motholeli deeply moving. And Alexander McCall Smith’s uncanny ability to depict that goodness in a way that is neither cloying nor sentimental is – well, a miracle.


* I was rather amused to read the following in a review of The Various Haunts of Men, the novel that precedes The Pure in Heart in the Simon Serraiiler series:

“I confess that I had not paid any attention to [Susan Hill] because of her seemingly plain name, which did not cause me to sit up and take notice. Now that I’ve read her, I realize that her name belies her literary complexity.

Well said! And what a refreshingly candid admission from George Easter, the reviewer and the editor/publisher of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.

** Since I posted the review of Once a Biker, Martin Edwards has comtributed a thoughful comment. One of the things that has really impressed me in meeting with British writers of crime fiction is their tremendous generosity toward one another.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald Revisited

June 11, 2008 at 1:54 am (books) ()

From time to time, a feature piece entitled Second Reading appears in the Style section of the Washington Post. In it, columnist and reviewer Jonathan Yardley discusses a literary work from the past that is in danger of being forgotten. In this past Saturday’s edition of the paper, he drew our attention to a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald written by Andrew Turnbull in 1962. Admittedly, says Yardley, subsequent biographers have unearthed new information about Fitzgerald. But the direct quotes that Yardley provides convinced me that I need to get my hands on this book. Turnbull’s writing is simply gorgeous.

Yardley allows that his interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald borders on obsession:

“I admit to having read, and occasionally reviewed, far more of this stuff than probably is good for me. For more than half a century I have been fascinated by Fitzgerald’s story, that of a generous, decent and sublimely gifted man brought down by fatal flaws of alcoholism and self-destructiveness, and my admiration for his masterwork, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ grows more intense year by year.

Since leading a discussion on Gatsby last January, I have come to share Yardley’s sense of loss and sadness regarding F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is a work of genius, a quintessentially American story, and so, in many ways, was the life of its author.

So by all means, read “Andrew Turnbull’s Great Fitzgerald.” Then you can set about trying to acquire the book. Naturally, it is out of print; in addition, it is not owned by our local library. It is available through interlibrary loan, though, and also from our reliable friend abebooks. com

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Once a Biker by Peter Turnbull

June 5, 2008 at 10:48 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Once a Biker is the sixteenth entry in Peter Turnbull’s series of procedurals featuring Chief Inspector George Hennessey and Detective Sergeant Somerled Yellich. This outing begins with a cold case: a disappearance from years past that turns out to have been a murder.

The novel opens with 45-year old Tony Wells unburdening himself to social worker Gillian Stoneman. Wells used to run with a motorcycle gang called the Dungeon Masters. It has been two decades since the gang’s leader ordered the murder of one of its members, Terry North, and his girlfriend. The girlfriend’s body had been found shortly after the crime was committed; not so with Terry North. Now, dying of cancer, Tony Wells feels the need to reveal a secret: where Terry North is concerned, he quite literally knows where the body is buried. A subsequent search in a place called Foxfoot Wood bears out Wells’s revelation.

Hennessey and Yellich have been led to the victim but not to the perpetrator(s). And thus begins an investigation that will take them, along with junior officers Thompson Ventnor and Reginald Webster, deep into the history and the heart of the Dungeon Masters.

Now, if you had told me that I would be fascinated to learn the mores and folkways of a motorcycle gang, I would have laughed in a suitably deprecating manner. But it is these revelations, rather than the actual homicide investigation, that kept me riveted to Once A Biker. Turnbull goes deeper than the surface bravado – and the rather shocking degradation of female members – to explore the odd combination of hubris, vulnerability, and unwritten yet binding rules that accounts for the tight cohesion of a gang like the Dungeon Masters.

Peter Turnbull’s novels have some unique features that I always enjoy. For instance, chapter headings are reminiscent of Victorian novels – or even 18th century novels like those of Henry Fielding. Here’s the heading for Chapter Three: “Tuesday ,18 June, 12.15 hours – Wednesday, 19 June, 01.35 hours in which a bedroom yields dark secrets and both Ventnor and Webster are at home to the gentle reader.” Later, in Chapter Five “…useful information is obtained from an apostate and George Hennessey is at home to the gracious reader.” In chapters such as these, we are afforded a tantalizing glimpse into the private lives of series regulars. Surprises often lurk there.

For a novel about a motorcycle gang, Once a Biker contains some curiously formal, almost antiquated dialog. The diction in these passages adds poignancy to a situation which often involves the delivery of bad news. Here, Hennessey and Yellich are talking to Garry Wells, Tony’s embittered father. Hennessey assures him that for several years prior to his death, Tony had been living as a law-abiding citizen. Garry responds:

“Well, thank you for saying that but…well…he was a very selfish person. He wanted everything and he wanted it yesterday. He was our son, he died young in life of a cruel illness, but he was no saint. But your kind words are welcome, sir. Thank you.

This series benefits greatly from its setting in the ancient northern city of York. We accompany Hennessey as he walks along the medieval walls – something I myself was thrilled to do three years ago. At one point, the Chief Inspector gazes up in wonder at York’s incredible Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. ( I can’t imagine living in such close proximity to this sublime edifice. I think I would feel blessed every minute of my life! )


Peter Turnbull treads lightly – very lightly – on the internet. From the extemely brief biography on Tangled Web UK, I learned that Turnbull was a social worker for some years in Glasgow before returning to his native Yorkshire. From the Gale Database Literature Resource Center we learn, among other things, that this author was born in 1950 and that his father was an engineer and his mother, a nurse. Turnbull earned degrees at various institutions of higher learning in England and Wales. He has worked as a steelworker and a crematorium assistant in Sheffield and in London; in addition, he has been a social worker in Brooklyn, New York. ( I must admit that last bit really made me want to know more about him!)

There’s a sad little twist at the end of Once a Biker that caught me completely by surprise. I’ll say no more about it at present…

In a quote cited in Literature Resource Center, Emily Melton of Booklist Magazine observes that “This low-key Scottish author writes refreshingly intelligent books that are an absorbing blend of gritty murder mystery, human-interest story, psychological profile, and wry social commentary.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Michio Kaku: Physics made accessible – even fun!

June 1, 2008 at 10:05 pm (books)

I was delighted to open the Style & Arts section of today’s Washington Post and see this piece on Michio Kaku. As it happens, I am currently making my way, in a relaxed, nonlinear fashion, though his Physics of the Impossible.

In Florida, in my junior year in high school, I took chemistry and fell head over heels in love with the subject. As the teacher was a young, adorable guy from Boston with that great accent, I fell for him as well. Many were the afternoons that my lovestruck friends and I spent “helping out” in thre chem lab, sighing over Mr. P. while we washed beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks.

Anyway, I got an A for the year in chemistry (no surprise there!), and full of the hubris of youth, I went on to take physics my senior year. What a humbling experience that proved to be! I was utterly bewildered, from the first day of class. Ultimately I scraped by with a D – my first ever. I was mortified!

So, I had reasons to feel hostile toward physics. But in later years, I came to realize how intimately physics was intertwined with the history of the first half of the twentieth century. And books began to appear that could be read, enjoyed, and understood by the nonscientist lay person. Two that I enjoyed in recent years were The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart and Before the Fallout by Diana Preston.

The Prologue in Before the Fallout begins as follows:

“On 6 August 1945, the Christian Feast of the Transfiguration, the Festival of Light, a young mother, Futaba Kitayama, looked up to see ‘an airplane as pretty as a silver treasure flying from East to West in the cloudless pure blue sky.” Someone standing by her said ‘A parachute is falling.’ Then the parachute exploded into ‘an indescribable light.’

Preston goes on to describe what happened next to these unsuspecting persons.The scene remains etched in my mind, probably forever. Silver treasure indeed…

We can only be thankful that physics is now the subject of lively intellectual inquiry, and that we can read about it and experience a sense of wonder instead of dread. In fact, writers like Michio Kaku make physics seem like the stuff of dreams. He refers frequently to the classics of science fiction as well as films like Star Wars and Star Trek, describing a specific scenario from a book or movie and then discussing it in terms of the laws of physics as they are currently known and understood. Fascinating stuff!

Here are some chapter titles in Physics of the Impossible: Force Fields, Invisibility, Phasers and Death Stars, Telepathy, Psychokinesis, Robots, Time Travel, Parallel Universes, Precognition, Perpetual Motion Machines. Michio Kaku considers each of these topics in the light of what is – or might in future be – feasible in accordance with the laws of physics. I read the first two chapters, Force Fields and Invisibility, and then skipped ahead to Time Travel and Parallel Universes. What a long, strange, and thoroughly exhilarating trip it’s (so far) been!

Professor Kaku has a wonderfully sly sense of humor. In explaining how messy and complicated it would be if people traveled into the past, he observes: “History would become an unending madcap Monty Python episode, as tourists from the future trampled over historic events while trying to get the best camera angle.”

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