Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nook v. Sony: Battle of the E-readers

So, what happens when a tech-savvy gentleman tries to drag his lady friend kicking and screaming into the 21st century? I call it the battle of the e-readers, or, the lost weekend. Last year Don gave me a first generation Sony e-book reader for Christmas. I was thrilled! I thought I was the coolest thing going and boasted of my prowess at work. It has taken me all this time to adjust to its quirks and I was just beginning to think I had it mastered when, you guessed it, he decided to "upgrade" me.

I am now the proud owner of a Nook, wi-fi, 3G e-reader and victim of a lost weekend. I can't tell you how often I advise my customers at the library that the Nook is the easiest e-reader to use in navigating the library's free downloadable library. I lied!

True confessions, I showed an ugly side of myself as I almost threw the Nook out the window in frustration trying to find the book I had downloaded from the library's website. Calls to the tech support line proved humorous as I was speaking with someone even newer to e-readers than I was. I could hear him turning the pages of his manual as I asked questions. Now, I could have read the manual myself but, hey, that would have been too easy, right? After all, they actually put it right on the Nook and it's also at the Barnes and Noble website.

So Sunday, Don holed up in my office while I retreated to the lanai and we both figured out our e-readers. You see he adopted my Sony. The first time he tried to download a book to it he was told in no uncertain terms that the "device" wasn't registered to him. Who says Big Brother isn't watching us? We had to call and get it out of my name and into his.

In the meantime, I tried to download a library book to my computer but it would only show up in the Sony Reader Library instead of the Adobe Digital Editions library. Sooooo - Don had to delete the Sony software from my netbook. Can you even imagine for one minute our customers handling this??? It was a comedy of errors! The good news is, we have both now mastered our e-readers and are happy. A second trip to Barnes and Noble at Coconut Point yesterday (they are the best sales folks in the world!) and I learned how to access my email and my New York Times on my Nook (which was the object of the exercise in the first place.)

Now, a word to the wise....apologies to my employer but......our e-book collection is the pits! Literary fiction? Fugedaboutit! Ten new books on how to raise chickens in e-pub format? No problem. How many farmers do you see out in the coop with their e-reader? Hmmmmm.

Your best bet is to go to Guttenberg or another free download library with classics and load up on good reading. My Nook holds about 1500 titles and I can get Henry James and Edith Wharton for a buck or two. Even those Ken Follett tomes I've been wanting to read "someday" can be purchased for 5 or 6 bucks so why be hindered with a two week checkout?

Don has now downloaded du Bois' The Souls of Black Folks while I have The Complete Works of Shakespeare. There's peace in the valley again.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Michael Cunningham

I finished Mr. Cunningham's latest novel, By Nightfall, just before bed last night and have been thinking about it since 5ish this morning. I scarcely know where to begin to describe this beautifully written novel and the plethora of themes that the author has managed to include in scarcely 200 pages.

Those of you who've read his Pulitzer Prize winning take on Virginia Woolf, The Hours, will know what to expect in the way of literary excellence, but where that book was unrelentingly melancholy, this one has a note of redemption and acceptance, a fact that may be the result of the aging of the author or, perhaps, the aging of this reader.

I recall clearly standing in line to meet Mr. Cunningham at a Book Expo in New York City. An exquisitely beautiful man in the traditional Greco/Roman ideal, he was unassuming and pleasant to this author-stalker as I handed him our reading festival packet and issued the invite. Overly intimidated by genius, I didn't even have the courage to get a signed copy of, I think it was his non-fiction book, Land's End,. like everyone else in the queue was doing! He said we'd hear from him but our festival didn't end up fitting into his schedule. Truth to tell, a writer of his caliber probably wouldn't draw the crowds he deserves here in Southwest Florida.

By Nightfall is, fittingly, about beauty and its demise. It's a novel about aging. It's a novel about sensuality and sexuality, about long-term relationships and fleeting ones. It's about family, friends, parenthood, miscalculations and betrayals. It is achingly true and astonishingly hopeful.

As an observer of life, Michael Cunningham is breathtakingly spot on. The first scene between long-married Peter and Rebecca fills with tension as a discussion ensues in the back seat of a N.Y. City cab. On their way to a party neither one wants to attend, they contemplate the upcoming visit of Rebecca's much younger brother, a reformed drug addict, aimless genius, and the bane of Rebecca's existence. Each makes a conscious decision not to annoy the other, at least until later. It's such a telling, realistic examination of the dance of marriage.

Relieved empty nesters, their relationship with their only daughter is fraught with tension, not to mention the very real false memory syndrome, Peter and Rebecca live the settled-in lives of two career households. Peter's work is to recognize and evaluate beauty, a subjective responsibility is ever there was one. He owns a gallery with friend and partner, Uta. The hope is that Peter will take Rebecca's baby brother under his wing, introducing him to the joys of the art world, maybe even putting him to work.

Rebecca's brother Mizzy has an agenda. The beautiful young man, gay or bi-sexual, we're not sure, is too smart by half. Sensing the malaise in his sister's marriage and Peter's lingering sorrow over the death of his revered older brother of AIDS, Mizzy parades, pouts and charms his way into Peter's psyche, acting as a catalyst for an explosion of emotions that Peter has long held in check.

The language, the insight, the amazing way Michael Cunningham has of handling extremely complicated feelings with spare and perfect prose must cause other writer's to writhe with envy. I, on the other hand, just want to tell everyone "read this book."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Grace of Silence and more

Right now it just so happens that I'm in a biography phase. It likely began when I chose The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for my January book discussion and then it just took off from there. Condi Rice's book is sitting here on my desk - not sure who'll get to it first, Don or me - and Pat Conroy's My Reading Life is on my wait list. Oh, and let's please not forget the new Nora Ephron book I Remember Nothing which will please me tremendously if it's half as funny as I Feel Bad About my Neck!

The Grace of Silence is a beautiful, enticing title. I'd have picked up the book even if Don and I weren't followers of Michelle Norris on NPR. Her voice is calm, seductive, yet authoritative on the radio and I hoped for the same from her reading of her own book since I'm listening in my car. When Ms. Norris is narrating the story of her youth and her family she does a beautiful job, but when she tries to differentiate her voice from those of the folks she's interviewed or remembers, she lapses into a disconcertingly shrill, almost angry dialect, that I find a tad distracting.
Of course, there's no question that she has a right to be angry, as anyone would who tells the story of race relations in the United States in the twentieth century. And really, that's what this book is about. Ostensibly a story of her forebears, in particular her dad, Belvin Norris Jr., with whom she was especially close, The Grace of Silence, to me, is more a history of the civil rights movement as seen through the prism of family.

The irony is that Ms. Norris, who spearheaded "a conversation about race" for All Things Considered, her NPR show, found that her own family had maintained deliberate silence about racial hurts and secrets from their past. One thing that she examines closely is the fact that her grandmother, her mom's mother, had spent a good deal of her life earning money, raising her family, by working as a traveling Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats.
The Aunt Jemima image has undergone many interations over the past 70 or 80 years, but Norris delves deeply into the negative feelings that blacks today have for this painful image and the embarassment that her mother felt when admitting what HER mother had done, while still admiring that her mom, Ione, had such pride in her work at that time. It's a very complicated set of emotions that Ms. Norris is dealing with, thus the history lesson is a necessary addition for most readers.

Many chapters deal with World War II and the effect that it had on black veterans returning from the war expecting to be treated with the respect they deserved and realizing that, though they were fighting for freedom overseas, they still were not going to enjoy freedom at home. This tied in with what I had already discovered at the Tuskeegee Airman's Memorial and which I wrote about in an earlier post about my latest trip from Baltimore to Ft. Myers.

Norris's dad Belvin joined the U.S. Navy as one of the brightest graduates of his high school class in Birmingham, yet the highest rung he could aspire to in the service was that of a cook. Yet shortly after he was honorably discharged from the Navy, full of pride at having served his country, he and his brothers were involved in an altercation on their way to a dance in which he was shot in the leg by a white policeman.

This discovery shocked Ms. Norris to her core. She explains in interviews that she not only had no idea that this had happened to her dad as a young man, but that she really had no idea what young black men had to live through in the '40's and '50's. This seems almost impossible to believe to somone my age. It seems that I've always been aware of the unfair and unlawful disparity between blacks and whites in America. However, I was blessed - didn't think I'd ever say this - with a family that was rarely silent!

   Delving into her family's history resulted in an education into the dark past of our country's history of American apartheid. Better able to understand her dad's obsessive insistence on appearances; the house and yard always perfect, the kids dressed to the nines when they went off to church, the report cards that had to be perfect, Norris comes to a new appreciation of the grace of her father's silence, his reluctance to color his children's thoughts about white/black relations because of his own frighful experience. She describes a man of honor, pride, responsibility, and love. In short, he could have been my dad or many others I know. The $64,000 question is, why did it have to be so hard for him and so much easier for us?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Europa Editions - A Novel Bookstore

A Novel BookstoreI've mentioned here in the past how often a book cover catches my eye and this one was no exception. I've read several books translated and printed for publication in the U.S. through Europa Editions and they are the loveliest books to look at, to hold, and to read. If you've read their edition of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog then you'll know what I mean.

If you'll admit to being a book snob then this is the perfect novel for you! Author Laurence Cosse has accomplished something that isn't easy nowadays - she's come up with an imaginative plot and then slowly, lovingly, laid it out for readers to savor, admire and chuckle at. You've heard of the Slow Food Movement? Well I would call this a slow novel in the very best sense of the words.

Contemplate, if you can, a bookstore with nary a copy of Dan Brown or Danielle Steel. Put it in a big old brownstone with curved front windows and window seats, set on a quiet side street in any cosmopolitan city - in this case it's Paris. Ahhhh - now choose eight authors whose works you've admired for years, who never let you down, whose novels stand the test of time and your own high standards. Invite each of them to anonymously contribute a list of the best 600 books they've ever read, collate the results and begin ordering only the world's best novels for your exclusive bookstore.

Van and Francesca have lived this dream - she owns and he operates this Novel Bookstore. The eight authors continue to write novels as well as critique others' novels for inclusion. We learn all of this as they share their history with a police detective. Why? Because someone is trying to KILL the book snobs! How have their names been discovered? Their every move monitored? I've read some pretty nasty book reviews and have even alluded to them in this blog, but I wouldn't secretly wish for the reviewer to meet an untimely end. Who knows, one day it could be me!

A Novel Bookstore is a deep reader's delight. A hodgepodge of literature, character study, humor and mystery. Keep an open mind though, the ending may surprise you.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Apologies for having committed the cardinal sin of blogging. One mustn't go more than a week without a post or folks lose interest! We are an immediate gratification society after all. The problem is that I had nothing to say - believe it or not! I've been working and planting, walking and thinking, and, I'm in the middle of four books.

Almost finished with Christopher Hitchens' memoir and am marveling at the fact that it was much like a historical timeline of my life. The old adage, "may you live in  interesting times," certainly applies to those of us born in 1949. Think of the history involved in the last half of the 20th century!

Hitchens was in the middle of every major movement in Great Britain, from anti-apartheid, to anti-Vietnam, to the Northern Ireland terrorism. As a proud Socialist he wrote and debated all over the world, making a name for himself as an outspoken contrarian, all of which makes it difficult to follow his thinking that defended the invasion of Iraq. Toward the end of his book he does tell a poignant story that speaks to taking responsibility for our writings when he discovered that a young soldier killed in Iraq had many of Hitchens' writings in his possession and had expressed great admiration for, and a certain influence by, Hitchens' writings.

He talks at length about his correspondence with the young man's family, his trepidation at meeting them for the first time, his attendance at the funeral service. It's a very moving and responsible piece of writing and confirms once again for me that one need not be a person of faith to be a good person.

Speaking of contrarians, I was reading a review in this week's New York Times Book Review of V. S. Naipaul's latest The Masque of Africa. This is an author who has interested me for years and the fact that I haven't "gotten" to him yet makes me feel - well - not very well-read. This may be the book that I will get to. The Trinidadian Nobel Prize winner Naipaul has a reputation, particularly when it comes to his travel writing, of being less than sympathetic to the third world countries he tours, writing of Christianity vs. Islam and the plethora of tribal religions and customs.

The reviewer of this particular book, Eliza Griswold, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/books/review/Griswold-t.html
 notes that Naipaul may be relenting with age and softening his stance. At one point during a trip through Gabon, his legs give way and he has to concede to being propelled in a wheel barrow into a nearby town. There he meets and talks with an older woman in the community who, noting the chagrin with which Naipaul has had to cave in to the perceived indignity of his infirm body, confides that "in Gabon, when an old person dies, we say that a library has burned down."

This is my new favorite saying. I'm sharing it with you readers in hopes that you will pass it along. Andrea, thinking of you and the Storycorps project and how each person who shares their story is a treasure trove, a library if you will, of history and information. What a shame we don't honor our elders more.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day in Southwest Florida

I'd love to write about books but the election is all I can think of. Naturally I'm not surprised at the outcomes so far, though I am surprised at how soon the major networks feel they can call the winners - an hour after the polls closed, at my own library as we are a polling place, they are already calling Rubio the new senator from Florida. How can this be? Have they counted the absentee ballots? How come, three days after I voted, I received a robo-call admonishing me for not having done so? Oh, this is so depressing. And right after I watched clips from Stewart/Colbert's rally for sanity had brought me a little hope - yes, it does spring eternal!

Well, I may not fit in here in Southwest Florida but I have to tell you I got a huge, marvelous surprise on Saturday when Don and I attended a showing at the Bonita Springs Art Center. Women Call for Peace was the name of the exhibit and it was astounding. http://www.naplesnews.com/events/2010/oct/01/35575/
One rarely finds this kind of quality exhibit here in the Naples/Ft. Myers area. I've seen very little advertising so I'll tell you about it here. If it hadn't been for one of my more informed, wonderful volunteers and book group attendees extraordinaire, I wouldn't have known about it either.

One of the featured artists was Faith Ringgold whose name I only knew because of being a librarian and having seen her gorgeous work in the children's room. She writes and illustrates and has a beautiful book about Rosa Parks that I was happy to see we had three copies of in our branch. http://faithringgold.blogspot.com/

Another artist whose work was simply extraordinary was Emma Amos http://www.flomenhaftgallery.com/flomenhaft_gallery_artists_biographies/emma_amos_artist_bio.php

The depth of the emotion and heart that goes into the work of these artists just fills the heart. Never having had a talented bone in my body when it comes to anything remotely artistic or creative, I feel such envy at the way these women express themselves. Much of the work involved quilts, a form of expression that goes back centuries when women used messages sewn into quilts in order to communicate, often a cry for help. Much of the work is, of course, against war - the idea being that women are less likely to wage it if they have to send their babies off to die in it - but then some involves calls for peace closer to home. Works express strong feminist trends, indicating the pain and agony of abuse in all of its forms.

Tiny DVD players scattered throughout the exhibit can be employed to view video interviews with the artists in which they express their views of the world and how they've attempted to come to terms with it. One especially interesting video involved a mother/daughter sculpting duo who employ chain saws to begin the process of pulling a work of art out of nothing but a dead stump.

OK, this exhibit runs through the end of November so, if you get a chance to check it out, you'll be very pleased. Meanwhile, it's back to the tv to see if I can bear the rest of today's story. If Scott beats out Sink, I'll know that there's truly something wrong with me fellow Floridians that common sense can't cure.

As to books: I'm only a few chapters away from finishing Freedom. Well worth the investment in time. I've begun the debut novel Juliet by Anne Fortier and am about halfway through my favorite atheist's autobiography Hitch-22. Christopher Hitchens reads his own book and naturally that gives it an effete air but heck, it's the Queen's English after all and I love his honesty. He also mentions that he was at Oxford when Clinton and all his cohorts were attending (including Robert Reich) and agrees with me that Clinton actually did NOT inhale. Some of us just can't swallow smoke into our lungs. He imbibed his cannabis through brownies! Book I absolutely couldn't spend time on? Stiltsville.