Beautiful Roads




I’m fortunate to work at a community college that sits high above the Columbia Gorge, easily one of the most beautiful drives in America. And as I travel through the gorge, I have ample time to listen to stories unfold. Some are good, some are exquisite.

Beautiful-ruins-jess-walterBeautiful Ruins, as the title suggests, is what happens at the end of your life, if you’re lucky. Through happenstance, bad luck, wrong turns, and meaningful misses, there might be closure, as Jess Walter adeptly pushes compelling characters into ultimately looking over the cliff of their lives. Is there redemption? Maybe. Is there closure? Possibly. It’s a satisfying story that makes you stop, pause, and wonder, as if looking at a fading colorful horizon.
I haven’t read a book like this since Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. As in The Shipping News, Beautiful Ruins ends in a hollow of hope. Mirroring Proulx’s rich sense of character, Walter also develops intricate and satisfying storylines that make you care about seemingly disparate people. And how Walter ties them together, while not seamless, ultimately makes sense. This is like life, it’s a mess, and it gets ruined at some point, then we search for the beauty and the comfort it might possible hold.

Beautiful Ruins is read by one of the best audio book performers going, Edoardo Ballerini, whose accent is pitch-perfect for this read. His read is a subtle performance for a profoundly beautiful book.

unbrLaura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is one of those mesmerizing stories that deserves the acclaim it received. The unforgettable story of a marathon runner who survives incredible trials during WWII – a life raft at open sea, Japanese POW camps, and the unrelenting  flashbacks from never-ending punishments. An inspiring story of survival that is bearly hard to grasp, let alone believe.

Top this story off with a robust reading by Edward Hermann, who captures perfectly the despair and triumph against all odds.





I’m also enjoying the New Yorker Page-Turner podcasts where authors read authors. and offer their take and observations of why the stories they choose work so well. My favorite so far, certainly because I’ve always though of it as one of the strongest stories I’ve ever read, is Dennis Johnson’s stunning, “Work” from his story collection “Jesus’ Son.” Donald Antrim gives it a great read, and draws out what makes the story such a profound study of a lost soul who just can’t get unlost. There are sentences and visions in this story that you remember years after you’ve read them. Enjoy!

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Retail Approach or Library Approach? Shaping Readers’ Advisory, by John Schoppert | Booklist Online

Retail Approach or Library Approach? Shaping Readers’ Advisory, by John Schoppert | Booklist Online.

The landscape of reading is always shifting, and libraries and bookstores are sharing practices each once thought unique. Not long ago, bookstores had customers, and libraries had patrons. Bookstores were there to sell; libraries were there to inform. But readers are readers—and while booksellers hand-sell titles, librarians practice readers’ advisory, and these approaches are not all that different.

Bookstores: Turnover and Connections

Due to space issues and the focus on inventory turnover, bookstores are skewed toward front-list titles, the fresh releases from publishers. Bookstores have beautiful displays highlighting current events, trends, and blockbuster authors. Dedicated booksellers know how to tie these together seamlessly and are adept at hand-selling the virtues of seemingly disparate titles and authors. They can jump from provocative nonfiction to graphic novels to the latest hot genre title with the nimbleness of mountain goats while filling your basket.

A true bookseller’s breadth of knowledge is astounding—and their business depends on it. They develop meaningful dialogues with their customers. They hear their customers’ wishes and stock titles and authors that reflect their customers’ needs. There is an ongoing conversation between customers, booksellers, and publishers’ reps. Booksellers inform customers about new titles and offer feedback to publishers about what’s exciting readers. It’s a Mobius strip of book buzz, with surprise sleepers and reading trends often discovered through a bookseller’s network.

Libraries: Depth and Breadth

Because library collections of front-list blockbusters are often filled with long hold queues, we can make the discovery of other authors available by offering deeper catalogs of established writers. Due to space limitations, most bookstores may not be able to offer Trollope’s complete Barchester Chronicles, but libraries are likely to have access to them. Librarians can provide reader’s-advisory connections from Trollope to Dickens to Angela Thirkell (who sometimes refers back to characters and events in Trollope’s Barsetshire novels). It’s that depth of titles that can be enriching while providing opportunities of learning for both patrons and librarians as they discuss reading preferences.

Shaping Readers’ Advisory

What libraries can learn from bookstores are the dynamics of prominent front-list displays. These can be conversation starters that lead into readers’ discoveries of read-alike authors. Another important tool of booksellers that libraries could make better use of would be regional bookseller’s trade shows. These trade shows are small enough to allow for meaningful conversations between librarians and publishers concerning regionally important publishing developments and provide context to local reading trends.

Booksellers can take cues from librarians by realizing the potential of connecting to an author’s complete catalog. By stocking and filling out an author’s catalog, more connections can be made. Libraries also do a great job of providing “passive” readers’ advisory by using bookmarks and read-alike lists.

As long as the reader is served, both retail and library approaches work in connecting with readers, either through the dynamics of front-list buzz or through a reader’s connection to the deeper depths of an author’s catalog. When a reader’s needs are met through thoughtful dialogue, then we’ve accomplished our goal of putting the right book into the right person’s hands.

John Schoppert is an Adult Services Librarian at Centralia Timberland Library, WA (and former bookstore owner).


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“More Baths, Less Talking,” All the Better.

morebaths“More Baths, Less Talking” is a another wonderful collection of Hornby articles from his “Believer” column. What is astounding is Hornby’s ability to compel you to run to your library to check out the books he’s mentioned. This isn’t book review for the erudite, but reviews for the reader of pleasure. This is not to say the books reviewed are fluff, but Hornby brings to his reviews the joy of reading and how that process is intertwined within our lives.

I would never consider reading a biography of Montaigne but after reading Hornby’s review of Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, I was impelled to look up a few essays by him. Hornby’s take on Montaigne’s invention of the personal essay: “How many other people can you think of who created an entire literary form? Indeed, how many people con you think of who created any cultural idiom? James Brown, maybe; before “Papa’s Got a Brand new Bag” there was no funk; and then, suddenly, there it was. Well, Montaigne was the James Brown of the 1580s.” Hornby points out Montaigne’s not dated, “Montaigne invented the personal essay like someone invented the wheel. Why he’s still read now is not because he was the first, but because he remains fresh, and his agonized agnosticism, his endearing fumbles in the dark” remind us that we don’t really have a clue about anything. But Shakespeare got a clue from Montaigne’s self reflective essays; to be or not to be indeed, Hamlet.

I’m amazed at how Hornby can pull out lost books, resurrecting them within reviews of other books. “Next” by James Hynes will be put on my library holds list because as Hornby says, “Hynes writes with the sort of knowing, culturally precise, motor-mouthed internal chatter that brings to mind David Gates’s two monumental novels, “Jernigan” and Preston Falls”, and I can think of no greater recommendation: Hynes and Gates populate their books with men I recognize. They’re not the intimidatingly brainy, and, to me, alienating creatures you find in Great American Novels by Great American Novelists. there’s less rage, more doubt, more regret. . . .” “Jernigan” is one of those novels that more people should have read; hopefully, now they will.

Collections like this are valuable not only for the books reviewed but for the books they tie into and revive. What excites with reading a great book should also kick in remembrances of other books and all’s the better for that.

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Horses from a Songbook

Songbook, by Nick Hornby, or, Why I Stopped Worrying and Loved the Song.

“You could, if yosongbooku were perverse, argue that you’ll never hear England by listening to English pop music. The Beatles and the Stones were, in their formative years, American cover bands that sang with American accents; the Sex Pistols were The Stooges with bad teeth and a canny manager, and Bowie was an art-school version of Jackson Browne until he saw the New York Dolls.”
So begins Nick Hornby’s chapter on why England’s national anthem should change (shouldn’t they all?) from “God Save the Queen” to Ian Dury & The Blockheads “Reasons to be Cheerful.” And he lays down astute reasoning behind his wry suggestions.
In Hornby’s personal survey on music, “Songbook,” he ponders many ideas, among them how many Dylan discs are really enough. Apparently five is all you need even though he amassed 20+ discs and collections as we all did. And he’s right; he’s right about so many songs and artists and pop movements that you can’t help but stop and cue up Youtube. You’ll even cue up “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne just to see if Hornby’s post-40s sensibilities align with your growth from The Ramones to songs with meaning.
Often they do. Hornby’s re-examined musical history is right on. “I can’t afford to be a pop snob any more, and if there is a piece of music out there that has the ability to move me, then I want to hear it, no matter who’s made it.” In the case of Hornby’s re-assessment of Browne and the “delicate Californian flowers” and his cross reference to Mojo Magazine’s top 100 Greatest Punk Singles as proof that sometimes we get some music at certain times in our lives and sometimes we’re just not attuned to other efforts is spot on. He’s right, there really isn’t 100 great punk singles, most are simply awful, but he does recognize it’s  moments in life that we hold dear. And then it’s time to move on.
Hornby’s Songbook isn’t clear-cutting nostalgia. He appreciates greatness and what moves us. “What must it have been like, to listen to “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1966, aged nineteen or twenty?” Hornby asks. “I heard “Anarchy in the UK” in 1976, aged nineteen, but the enormous power those records had then has mostly been lost now.” Songs got faster, louder, and shorter, so they lost the shock. Dylan, being Dylan, we mine it deeper, because it was meant to be mined. Or so we thought, and that may be why we get exhausted by the serious artists, Dylan, Zeppelin, Springsteen, until the fun is gone. As Hornby points out, “Like a Rolling Stone,” still sounds perfect. It just doesn’t sound fresh anymore.”
Songbook starts with an assessment of Springsteen and a mention of Dave Eggers’ theory that we play songs over and over because we have to ‘solve’ them. That may be true, but we still love the evanescence of what moves us.

Then Hornby ends Sohorsesngbook with a look at Patti Smith. “One of the things you can’t help but love about Smith is her relentless and incurable bohemianism, her assuaged thirst for everything connected to art and books and music. In this one evening she named-checked Virginia Woolf and Tom Verlaine, William Blake and Jerry Garcia, Graham Greene and William Burroughs.” While Springsteen worries about being The Boss, and as perfect as he can be, and he can be absolutely perfect, witness his song “The Rising” in response to 9/11, Smith on the other hand “seems blissfully untroubled about her status as an artist: she just is one, and it requires no further contemplation on her part.”
Hornby wrote that after seeing a transformative Patti Smith performance, and I’m convinced, as he was that night, that great artists, those that make us feel the music and art and writing channeled through them, make us all better human beings.

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Hornby’s Folly

housekeepingHousekeeping vs. The Dirt, by Nick Hornby.

I ran across this at a library. It was on display and it basically jumped into my hands. Just like that. I didn’t even know I was looking for it. Thus is the power of libraries. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt is a delightfully engaging collection of Hornby’s book reviews for the Believer magazine which is run by a gaggle of overbearing editors Hornby calls the Polysyllabic Spree.  Hornby’s angle for these reviews is unassuming and certainly not time sensitive which bodes well for me as I picked up this collection a good eight years after publication.

Hornby’s collection is “writing about reading, as opposed to writing about individual books.”  This allows Hornby to engage the reader on a level closer to firm ground. He’s done the ‘book review’ gig before, now he wants us to join him in reading adventures, and he offers up books that he “wants to read.”

Each month Hornby presents two lists: books bought; books read. It’s a lovely way to go about it because that’s usually the way we go about it. We discover books, buy them, or check them out of libraries, put them on the pile and dive in, or we get sidelined. Inevitably our bought pile grows quicker than our read pile. And just like us, Hornby isn’t buying only front list “must reads of the day” but also tossing in recommendations from friends and books that fall off the shelves.

We’re offered up choice volumes from the latest Ian McEwan (for 2005) to C. K. Chesterton. What we get is how story and the reading experience are interconnected. We can see how a play by Michael Frayn relates to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. Hornby is adept at the book reviewer waltz but he’d rather rock with the rest of us in the mosh pit for this collection. And we get a wide swath of offerings.

I like a book that cuts across from Marilynn Robinson’s sublimely powerful Housekeeping which Hornby calls “a mystical work about the dead and how they haunt the living; if books can work as music then Housekeeping served as the soundtrack to the footage from New Orleans” while at the same time skewering the volumes of Philip Larkin’s letters which reminds you “forcibly that the ability to write fiction or poetry is not necessarily indicative of a particular refined intelligence, no matter what we’d like to believe; it’s a freakish talent.”

We also get to discover books we’d usually not bump into such as Jess Walter’s earlier books Citizen Vince and Over Tumbled Graves and we see why maybe it’s not such a good idea to re-release restored classics like Warren’s All the King’s Men. And anytime you get a paragraph that ties together a great poet’s letters and insipid pop tunes is time well spent. There’s a great riff by Hornby about buying a book from an Amazon penny seller and the implications of the seller and the author about said price. As Hornby strays afield we gladly tag along because he’s as funny as he is sharp. Ostensibly we enter book review collections to discover new books or authors and Hornby doesn’t disappoint and we get so much more than expected.


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Heller at Home

Target Lancer (Nathan Heller, #16)Target Lancer by Max Allan Collins

There’s a sense half way through “Target Lancer” that Max Allen Collins has maybe found a crime that looms too large in the American psyche to cleanly tackle. The newest Nate Heller mystery (can we call the Heller series mysteries?) uncovers an assassination conspiracy against President John F. Kennedy. But instead of Dallas, November 22nd, we’re in Chicago three weeks earlier with a scenario of multiple gunmen setting up a patsy as the lone gunman fall guy. Sound Familiar?

This is a great story uncovered by Collins and his long time researcher, George Hagenauer, a Chicago plot that essentially mirrors and involves the central players surrounding the Kennedy assassination. That they bring this plot to light is a testament to research. The Chicago angle is a great addition to the Heller oeuvre which is good because you can tell that November 22nd was weighted down with too much evidence, conspiracy theories and opinions.

As usual Collins and his researcher have done their homework. Based in fact you find Jack Ruby in Chicago along with a slew of mafia circling the scene and CIA/Secret Service making their presence known as they prepare for a Kennedy visit. JFK wants to pay respects to Mayor Daley, a repayment for the Illinois vote (and a nod forward to the ’64 election.) Collins weaves in Jack Ruby, Jimmy Hoffa, the first African American Secret Service agent and even Lee Harvey Oswald. All cross paths in a not-so-practice run of a fateful day. And here’s the rub of this particular volume of a great mystery series, there’s too much name brand dropping. I get it that we’re establishing veracity, but by now I’m over that. I know Heller knows Chicago so let’s relax with the cut of the suit from particular tailors and explaining the importance of particular buildings of Chicago. But building a solid story around an overlooked and underplayed plot line that mirrors the Dallas scenario is fascinating, and it’s the only way you could write a fresh and compelling JFK story.

We can guess what’s next. After “Bye Bye, Baby” dealt with the Monroe death, this one covering JFK, there’s only one more place to go. As Robert Kennedy said at the end of his California primary victory speech before he walked into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

View all my reviews

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Oh My, Stars?

Amazon recently culled thousands of reviews from its book pages because of fears that the reviewers knew the author or somehow had “financial interest in the product.”  It’s been well documented how Amazon book reviews can be bought to increase the number of your book’s reviews. But now they say they’re pulling them because of who you know. If you can’t buy your way to the top or cajole your friends to offer a pithy paragraph towards your books then what can you do?

Timothy Ferriss received reviews of his new book “The 4-Hour Chef” by admonishing his legion of facebook and twitter followers to post reviews and he practiced the time tested method of giving out hundreds of review copies to fans. This is great for Ferriss who has the name recognition and the followers to get lots of reviews posted onto Amazon by the publication date. For the lesser known author or someone just trying to get their ebooks noticed often it’s their friends and families that are providing the reviews which are now no longer allowed to post. Which is fine, if all you can muster is your mother’s review then your marketing or social media skills might need some attention.

Suspicious online reviews are endemic. It’s the nature of the beast when the glut of self-published books making their way to the conveyer belt of Amazon has to make their mark. The only way you get noticed is by getting noticed.  Solicited reviews shouldn’t be alarming.  I’m not surprised that authors getting reviews on Amazon might know the person, I almost expect it. Which is why I look for book recommendations through established sites like Shelf Awareness, The Millions or the Times Book Review. For discoverability of new and emerging authors I look towards local booksellers and librarians (not necessarily librarians who write 28,366 reviews posted on Amazon.) And this is where authors can make their mark without the taint of bought bias.

Local booksellers are great for champion emerging writers and giving legs to unknown books. This was the path of Garth Stein’s wonderful book The Art of Racing in the Rain. Booksellers loved it and recommended it to everyone and it caught on to become a perennial favorite. This passionate hand-selling establishes a strong trust between stores and customers.  But as Amazon erodes the foundations of local bookstores libraries have to take over the reader’s advisory harness. There are several good library readers’ blogs out there such as Shelf Talk by Seattle Public Library and Multnomah County Library’s An Embarrassment of Riches blog. The art of talking about books to patrons and customers is what will bring attention to titles. More so than a full sheet of stars on Amazon and authors would do well to make connections with their local library to promote and push their books. This means of course that authors would do well by making sure their titles are available to libraries to promote.

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Are Libraries Coming Home to Roost?

Maybe it’s the crisp air or the molting chickens but some library boards and cities that contracted out to the private library operator, LSSI (“Library Systems & Services LLC – A Brighter Future for Your Library! Library Outsourcing”) have started to terminate their contracts. Library boards are coming to their senses after reviewing LSSI practices. But what happens to the library director who decides to speak out about restrictive LSSI practices?

It seems that the library outsourcer is getting some backlash to their budgeting practices. Reasons behind cities wanting to contract out library services to remove wages and benefits from municipal budgets seem clear. Fiscal times being what they are outsourcing seemed a prudent alternative to closing libraries. LSSI could cut materials budgets by providing a centralized supply hub for their contracted libraries which numbers over 70 library systems nation-wide.  But the trade-off of a community oriented library with a library that’s just a cog in a national ‘library chain’ was apparently too much even for the fiscal savings. Maybe the idea of a library for profit didn’t sit well.

A suburban Memphis library wants to end their LSSI contract stating the lack of community oriented titles.  It seems that libraries can’t purchase materials that aren’t on the approved LSSI lists, i.e. in their centralized warehouses. This means that local oriented materials or back list titles can’t be bought. It’s a lowest common denominator collection which is great for the bottom line but not so great if your library is attuned to community and regional reading interests. In addition, LSSI adds a 7.5% fee to all library book orders which they fill.  Not only do they run the library, they also buy nationwide for all their libraries a one size fits all collection and then they charge their libraries added fees to fill the orders!

That cities and boards are rethinking their contracts means the value of a library with local control and local accountability is getting a worthy reassessment.  Cities that outsourced are now seeing the value of a library more connected with their communities. This means the ability to buy materials that fit their unique customer base.  It heartening to see these reassessments and it’s amazing to see library directors of LSSI library chains stand up to LSSI and cry foul on materials acquisitions and other budget practices. But there will be fallout before the dust settles on LSSI contracts. The library director of the suburban Memphis library who testified to the library board about LSSI budgeting was fired by LSSI a few days later.

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The Power of One

Bryce Courtenay who wrote the popular novel The Power of One recently died. His New York Times obituary mentioned that when greeted on the street by someone he would write down their name and address and send them a signed copy of a book. He gave away thousands of book recognizing that people would recommend his book to others. He realized that the repeated power of one gift gave him a greater base of readers.
Recent reports show that in the ereader era people still discover books through personal recommendation. More people decide what to read through personal interactions despite rampant social media and like-buys from Amazon algorithms. A Digital Book World blog mentions a recent study by Bowker that ”amid all the change in how readers read and discover books, one thing has remained constant: in-person, personal recommendations are the No. 1 way people discover books, no matter who they are or how they read.” Bryce Courtenay was on to something which authors should heed, publishers address and libraries trumpet.
The Courtenay example of giving away books is not counter to an author’s goal of selling more books. In fact it creates a wider base of readership and adds a personal touch that strengthens the connection between story and reader. Isn’t that what every writer wants, a stronger connection to their audience that will keep readers returning for more? Author’s sometimes take issue with the first sale doctrine and the ability of library to circulate their titles. Some would like to get paid for every circulation. Maybe they don’t realize that by circulating their titles libraries are providing the same Courtenay practice of reaching a greater audience.
Publishers also have this blind spot. In the current stand-off of access to ebooks and DRM restrictions they aren’t realizing the potential exposure libraries provide to customers. Their concerns about unlimited file sharing would concern anyone, but to cut off ebook access to libraries as some publishers have done is cutting an important avenue of discovery for their customers and therefore their bottom line. It’s been proven in many studies that library patrons will buy books they discovered from libraries.
Libraries are fighting an endless battle with publishers. As long as publishers feel threatened by unlimited access to ebooks via libraries they’ll balk in providing content. Libraries might see better results by focusing on author’s concerns. The previous paradigm of independent bookstores championing overlooked or new authors creating a groundswell of interest is over. Most of those bookstores are gone. Libraries are the only viable option left for authors to get that in-person exposure across the country. Librarians and staff are in effect their new booksellers. Authors should be insisting publishers sell their ebooks to libraries. In-person options of book discovery are disappearing but libraries will remain an author’s essential advocate.

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The Tacoma Warhol

In 1982 Andy Warhol submitted a design for the 1-percent-for-the-arts competition associated with construction of the Tacoma Dome. It wasn’t to be. Exit133 has a great look at the history of the Tacoma Dome and the public art controversy. Frivolous, contentious or misplaced it created a great debate for public arts programs. Tacoma was one of the first cities to implement a 1 percent program for new public buildings. The controversy surrounding the Dome art eventually caused the city to rescind the program.  There is now a groundswell effort to place the Tacoma Warhol Flower onto the top of the Dome.

An illustration from the city of Tacoma shows what Andy Warhol’s “Flower for Tacoma Dome” would look like on the roof of the Tacoma Dome. (Courtesy of the City of Tacoma)
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