Steve Jobs is Dead

Ok, no, he's not. For the record, I don't wish him dead either. I do wish he'd shut up. Especially in public.

While bitching about, I mean, commenting on Amazon's new e-book device, the ever subtle Mr. Jobs said:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

This is mind-numbingly stupid and offensive on so many levels I'd wear out the keyboard on the MacBook Pro I'm typing this on just trying to list half of them. I'll just hit the high points. First, why not just say, "The Kindle sucks because the minions who slave under me and affix the letter "i" to all product names did not invent it. And when I say invent I mean rip off from someone else." That would have been a bit more subtle.

Second, thanks for giving me a good name for reverse-Luddites. If Luddites oppose new technology of almost any kind, Jobbites oppose anything that isn't new. Or, in the case of the big Job himself, any technology he hasn't managed to slap his brand on. If it doesn't have a plug, it's no good. New is better. Always.

All of this is even more amusing coming from Steve Jobs. Maybe he's afraid that Amazon will include Triumph of the Nerds in their list of available books. God, I hope they do. The public needs to be reminded that Steve Jobs is not a visionary. He's an opportunist. Steve Wozniak is the one who created the personal computer. Steve Jobs is the one who marketed it. I work in an industry where the Apple brand is revered as a brand. They know how to work the brand, I'll give them that, but cutting edge and Apple don't belong in the same sentence. Jobs doesn't create, he exploits. And bully for him. But stop with the pontificating.

So people don't read anymore. Thanks for the newsflash, Steve. Never mind that those numbers about "less than one book a year" are highly questionable. Never mind that the heaviest users of libraries are Millennials. Never mind that the limiting reading to "books" is as goofy as limiting "listening to music" as "going to a concert."

I don't understand the venom directed at Amazon's Kindle or Sony's new e-book reader. Both are clearly aimed at heavy readers. The Kindle isn't even limited to books, it covers newspapers, blogs, and magazines. Comments on Amazon and elsewhere complaining about the "ugly" design and the "high price" miss the point. Isn't form supposed to follow function? Would the Kindle be a better product if it was, say, pink instead of beige? I want to be able to carry around 1000 books wherever I go. If I want it to be pink I'll get a pink cover. This MacBook Pro I'm typing on may be lovely to look at but I'd give up all it's sleek silverness in return for never seeing the spinning wheel of death again. Or just not seeing it every few hours. This thing looks good and yes people have stopped me in the airport to ask me "Is that a Mac" but so what? I still can't run a PowerPoint presentation on this thing without it crashing. If I want a cool looking paperweight, I'll buy one.

Price is subjective too. For me, an iPhone is still overpriced at $199 but I have plenty of friends who considered the $499 they spent on their iPhones a bargain. They love the device and the functionality. Wireless downloads and an easy to read screen PLUS 90,000 books to choose from at $399. Sold.

And don't even get me started on the DRM non-issue.

Of course, I'm still waiting for my Kindle to be delivered. Maybe I'll hate it. But I'll hate it on it's merits and not based on what someone thinks it should be. Especially Steve Jobs. Who really needs to shut up.

Week 2 of the Wars

I try not to read the reviews on Amazon before I've read the book itself. Once I've committed to reading a book, and it is a commitment, I want to form my own impressions. I do read the reviews when I'm trying to decide whether to buy a book. After decades of "collecting" books (that's my story and I'm sticking to it), I'm running a little short on space so even buying a book involves a commitment of ever decreasing shelf space.

One reviewers comment on The Winds of War has stuck in my mind. It said, roughly, how annoying it is that main character Captain Victor Henry is always right. No doubt about it, that is exactly the sort of thing that would piss me off. So I've been on the lookout for signs that Capt VH is just too perfect to be suffered. It's a fine and somewhat unfair line. I can be as unforgiving of a perpetual screw up as I am of the too perfect. A character can be right without being insufferable. It's just not easy to do.

A good example, especially since it's top of mind for me, is Stuart Redman from Stephen King's The Stand. Stu is one of the few survivors of the super flu. He becomes the spokesman for the "good" survivors. He could easily become unwelcome but King keeps Stu human. He doesn't preach, he's often right but never perfect. He stays rootable.

So far, Wouk is keeping Victor Henry rootable. I'm amazed at that when I tally up his credentials: he's a faithful husband, a committed Christian, he's argues with the Nazis about the alleged Jewish conspiracy, he's right about the importance of radar, he tells Goering to shove it, he's right about the ability of the British to hold out against the Nazis, he hangs with Churchill, he resists the advances of a young woman, he's FDR's pen pal, etc. And he has a nickname. Pug. He's called Pug by most of the characters in the book. And he doesn't mind.

I should hate ol' Pug by now, page 526 to be exact. Even with all his virtues and his luck at being at the very crux of history nearly every day, Victor Henry is still good company. Same with headstrong, aka always doing something monumentally stupid, Natalie Jastrow. It helps greatly that neither character is present as being "always right" or universally adored. Pug may be sipping martinis with FDR but deep down he thinks his naval career is going nowhere. Natalie may be soliciting her ex-lover's help, mere days after her wedding, but she's constantly manipulated by her Uncle Aaron.

Wouk does an amazing job of not presenting any of his characters as entirely good or wholly bad. Not even the Nazis. His narrative powers continue to impress as well. Some have accused Wouk of writing soap opera and in a way he has, if soap opera means the daily life of common people. Is Rhoda going to leave Pug for Palmer? Will Natalie cheat with Leslie Slote? These questions are sandwiched between events we know will happen: Germany will invade the USSR and Japan will bomb Pearl Harbor. In this Wouk is covering the same ground as Tolstoy in War and Peace. Everyday lives in extraordinary times. The main difference is that Wouk assumes no prior knowledge by his readers, which makes his work all the more accessible.

Meanwhile, back in 14th Century Europe, Jonathan Sumption is still leading the most detailed tour of the Hundred Years War ever. I had it wrong when I said I couldn't get passed the Truce of Calais with Tuchman, apparently I've made it passed the Battle of Poiters. I know this because Poiters is still in the future in Trial By Fire and still I'm riveted. Sumption's ruminations on what made John II of France such a lousy king belong in a MBA management course. "Like many weak men, John II found it difficult to work closely with those who were not his friends." Ain't it the truth, girls. Even better: "They pressed their opinions on him with the determination of men who had learned to despise him." This sums up every senior management team meeting at my office last year. Minus any hint of chivalry.

Bobby Fischer Goes to the Cemetary

If you grew up in the 70s and 80s as I did, the name Bobby Fischer once had a glamour impossible to describe. He was the master and popularizer of a game few could play well, he was for a brief time a media darling and cold war hero, and he walked away from all of it. He left chess undefeated and on his own terms. He was a genius.

He was also, by all appearances, batshit crazy.

Whether he was always, to put in politely, sanity-challenged but to a lesser degree or whether the pressures he placed on himself and his fame imposed on him drove him over the edge is probably something we'll never know. Aside from being a chess genius, there is no record of Bobby Fischer doing anything laudable, admirable or even halfway decent. In addition to being BSC, it seems Bobby was a jerk. Not just weird like another famous savant, Glenn Gould, but a complete jerk. Topped with the increasing paranoia that looked like mere Cold War savvy in Iceland circa 1972 and an anti-semitism that even a Nazi would think a bit much, it transformed him from national hero to national embarrassment to fugitive. It was hard even to feel sorry for this obviously troubled man.

What made him brilliant, whether he truly was a genius or just a case of Cold War hype, and what made him so important to his times was either shrouded in myth or forgotten altogether until David Edmonds and John Eidinow wrote Bobby Fischer Goes to War. Part biography, part history of chess, part journalistic account of the 1972 World Chess Championship, this book will make you think you understand chess and Bobby Fischer. Easily the best nonfiction book of 2004, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is compulsively readable whether you care about chess or the Cold War or Fischer.

My mind went back to this book when I read about his death Friday morning. I'll probably reread it in the coming months wondering all the while what really happened to Bobby Fischer.

Mr King meets Mr Goddard

When I opened up the new Entertainment Weekly and saw that a) Stephen King had a new column and b) he had discovered Robert Goddard, it was cause for celebration. After roughly 10 years of being convinced I'm the only person Stateside who knows and appreciates the perfectly plotted thrillers Robert Goddard turns out on an annual basis someone is giving the man his due. Even better that the someone in question is Stephen King.

A few words about Stephen King. He is awesome. I say this as someone who has only read two of his books (although I have seen most of the movie versions) and is not a horror genre aficionado. I loved The Stand (an amazing audiobook experience) and if I weren't a complete wimp I'd have read more of King's work by now. But his undisputed claim to awesomeness lies elsewhere: Stephen King is a very successful writer who loves books. He speaks up for readers. He isn't a literary snob. I get the feeling he'd rather that readers enjoy his books than have universal critical acclaim. I also get the feeling he'd be writing away even if he'd never made the best seller lists. Best of all, he's generous with his airtime, he writes a column in EW once a month that praises pop culture in general (and calls it on its shit when warranted) and books in particular. He respects audiobooks and, now, e-books. For all of that, he is awesomeness personified.

And now, he's telling the EW world they need to check out Robert Goddard. The Pope needs to rethink his policy on living canonization.

On to Robert Goddard. Robert Goddard is not the rocket scientist. He may be rocket scientist smart and probably is but he is not the Robert Hutchings Goddard who used to pop up first when I typed the name into Amazon's US site. Robert Goddard is the author of 19 intricately plotted often historically based thrillers, nearly all of them perfect. He is the reason started ordering from a few years ago. I found my first Goddard novel in South Africa on a business trip. My hotel outside Jo'burg was attached to a mall -no joke - and the stationery store there had a smallish book department. On three trips to the mall after work one paperback cover kept catching my eye. It was an out of focus photo of a woman in a red coat walking down what looked like the hallway of an old church. On fourth trip I bought the book, Caught in the Light.

It's one of those rare experiences where I vividly remember the act of reading the book itself. I read it in one gulp on the trip home. All that I came to recognize as Goddard hallmarks were there. The protagonist is usually a man and usually something of a screw up, at the very least he has something in his past to regret. The past is also a main character, whether actual events like the JFK assassination or the back story of the protagonist. In Goddard's world, the past is never buried. Nor is the answer ever what it seems. Every event has multiple explanations, each more Byzantine than the last. And every detail, no matter how minor, matters. It was that rare experience of not knowing exactly where the story was going and being so engrossed I didn't need to second guess the plot. Every few chapters in Caught in the Light there was an unexpected twist that made sense. The ending was shattering; I literally had to put the book away in the overhead bin to shake off the feeling.

Robert Goddard's latest is usually on prominent display in any Waterstones in the UK. Finding his books even in New York is tougher. I resort to for my annual fix if I can't finagle a business trip to London or Toronto in the fall, when his newest book is usually released. In Pale Battalions is as good a place as any to start, but my favorites are Into the Blue (featuring Goddard's one recurring character, Harry Thaw) for current day setting and Painting the Darkness for a historical setting. I've read both multiple times and they never fail to enthrall.

So, thanks, Stephen King. Thanks for being a passionate reader, thanks for being a compelling author and thanks for giving Robert Goddard some much deserved attention.

The Wrong Impression Entirely

That's what I'm leaving. If you look at what I've written so far and the books in my Library Thing one might get the idea that I spend my days reading nothing but admirably fiction and non-fiction with the occasional foray into the mystery genre. Sadly, this is not the case.

I'm way shallower than that and nothing proves that more than my seasonal attempts to clean out my book shelves. This effort reminds me every time that I'm still hoping for a revival of Gothic Romance Novels a'la Phyllis Whitney and Mary Stewart. And that if Gothic with a touch of the Supernatural came back, I'd be happy too. And that I am the reason that CourtTV (now TruTV) exists. There's nothing wrong with a little trash. Not just genre fiction. Trash. It just needs to be good trash to stay in my library. Unfortunately, I've yearned you need to read a lot of crap to find the gems in genre fiction.

Ghost Moon by Karen Robards isn't exactly crap, but it's in the donation bag.

The back cover promises the ingredients reminiscent of a Phyllis Whitney novel. The returning disgraced heroine, the long ago mystery, the sexy yet seemingly taken man from her best, the beautiful, bitchy rival and the buried secret. On the plus side, the writing is ok, the grammar shows signs of either an editor on the job or a high school diploma in action, the heroine, Olivia, isn't a complete wimp and opening scenes where the heroine returns home are nearly kick-ass good. The negative side, you ask. The first chapter is a flash back - rarely handled well in any circumstances - that involves a pedophile murdering child after hiding in her closet. The first line is: "Mom, I wet the bed." How's that for a grabber? It ends with the father of said child being falsely convicted of her murder. This is what is commonly known as a "downer". Better yet, it isn't tied to the main story for hundreds of pages. I found myself trying to figure out who among the characters, main and ancillary, could be the pedophile. There were only two candidates and one of them died early on. So either it was a lame mystery or the author was going to pull a villain out of ... nowhere.
Then we had the bratty over privileged child who is contrasted with the well-behaved yet Kmart clad little angel that Olivia dragged home with her. Of course, said brat is just acting out. Then we have the way that Olivia is related to the wealthy yet troubled Archer clan - I really wanted to draw up a little family tree so I could keep track of why it was that it was ok that Olivia is attracted to her step cousin, Seth, the aforementioned sexy yet taken one. Nearly everyone in this book is one thing YET another. It's that kind of book. Olivia's long beautiful brown hair gets described a lot and the menfolk of the town are all very happy Olivia is back. But this is a Romantic Thriller so you need to just go with that kind of thing. The little issue of whether Seth is taken is resolved well before the end as is the somewhat lame attempt to have Seth be hostile and disapproving toward Olivia. It's because her hair is just so damn beautiful, you see.

A good mystery could have save this. Now, whether a mystery involving a pedophile can be a good one when I'm the critic is probably a lost cause. I hate two things in fiction: serial killers and pedophiles. This was a serial killer pedophile at work. It was bound to suck. Then the villain was "unmasked" for anyone reading the book who couldn't do the math this character was the only one still standing who was old enough to commit the crime in the first chapter and the suckage went over the edge dragging the entire book with it.

Robards gets points for giving her characters relatively normal names, the good grammar and using Kmart as a plot point. Not a keeper, but not one I felt the need to hurl away either.

Because Plagiarism is SO Romantic

What is it with romance writers and plagarism? Ok, I know I'm guilty of using a very broad brush here. Hundreds of romance writers ply their craft on a daily basis without resorting to plagiarism. Still, when I saw this headline in today's New York Times, A Romance Novelist is Accused of Copying, I got that old feeling.

Romance novelist Cassie Edwards is accused of plagiarizing a number of sources including a novel by Nora Roberts. Poor Nora Roberts, she's apparently the plagiarizers preferred source. Is this her punishment for being so damn productive? Or was Cassie Edwards hoping that she could join Janet Dailey in committing "mind rape" on Nora? I remember the Dailey case vividly, as much for the sheer lameness of her excuse - a psychological disorder made her do it - as for her dedication to her source. A kind of monogamy, really. It was only Nora Roberts for her. Lucky Nora.

But my original question remains: what's up with this? Cassie Edwards, Janet Dailey, Kaavya Viswanathan. (And I won't even mention writers who, literally, plagiarize themselves.) Is it the economics of this genre? The expectation that a romance novelist will churn out a minimum of two books per year. Is it a wacky coincidence? Do publishers put too much pressure on the semi-talented? Do the writers themselves lack respect for the readers of the genre? Do publishers lack respect for this genre and fail to do their due diligence?

Clearly there's no one answer but the lack of respect issue is ringing bells for me. Most genres don't get the respect they deserve. There are good and bad writers, good and bad books in all genre yet romance novels seem to be treated little better than porn. I think I read one book last year that would qualify as a romantic thriller. I'm not a major consumer of the genre. That said, I have fond memories of reading through every Phyllis Whitney one summer, all the Victoria Holt's another. I'm still planning on tackling a goodly batch of Georgette Heyer's one day. I respect the greats of this genre the same way I respect Agatha Christie or Arthur C. Clarke, and I respect their readers too. It's a shame a few authors seem to think that romance readers have zero recall.

Kudos to the women at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books for living up to their smarts and bringing this wretched behavior to light.

Hundred Years War: Part Two

The Hundred Years War seems like one of those historic events that always gets mentioned in passing. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, either you mention it in passing or you suggest your listeners get very comfortable and pack a lunch because it's going to be a long, long talk. Still, you'd think a few French or English historian would have summoned up the interest and courage to tackle this subject for the popular reading public in the last 60 years since the last major book on the subject. The only two I know of are Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and the projected 3 volume study by Jonathan Sumption.

I freely admit to trying and failing on three separate occasions to read A Distant Mirror. I always start out strong, utterly determined and, at least the first time, looking forward to another journey with Ms. Tuchman. Her The Proud Tower is one of my favorite books of popular history with The Guns of August easily in the top 20. So why can't I get much past the Truce of Calais with her? Maybe it's Enguerrand de Coucy's fault. (He is the real life vehicle she chose to tell her story.) Maybe it's her devotion to recreating battles. Maybe it's the fact that ol' Enguerrand hightails it to the Middle East midway through the book. Maybe I'm just not up to what is essentially a pretty depressing tale - Enguerrand is called the "last of the de Coucys" from the start. Whatever the problem, I haven't been able to finish it yet.

Sumption's first book on the war, Trial By Battle, is a larger commitment than Tuchman's single volume by about 150 pages and he's just getting cranked. Volume 2, Trial By Fire, is another 700 pages and Volume 3 is still to come. He is also committed to recreating battles in fine detail yet I found Trial By Battle far more readable. Odd when you consider that his books are not exactly popular history. Not that this is a quick read. It is simply well worth the effort.

Today I started Trial By Fire and already Sumption is proving this too will be worth the effort. Consider this quote: "War is without symmetry, while France was defeated, England was not victorious." Few lines have summed up the sheer futility of a war, and perhaps war in general. I'm eager to see how Sumption will handle whatever recapping of the previous volume's are necessary, that will be a test of whether this volume can stand alone. I'm also eager to just dive in and let Sumption take me back to this turbulent time.

Meanwhile I haven't given up on The Winds of War. I'm not sure what's possessed me to tackle two books about war at the same time. I'm really not that bloodthirsty, nor do I have a great tolerance for battle scenes. After this I'm going to need a few mystery novels.

The First Post

Is always the hardest. After all, in one post one has to justify the very existence of the blog. Too much pressure? No. I'll just pretend this is a draft.

The book of the moment is The Winds of War by Herman Wouk; 896 paperback pages of an American family during the Second World War. This is one of those books that's gone from being a hot book, to a classic, to a miniseries/"Television Event", to a strange obscurity. I can't remember what possessed me to tackle this, especially knowing that it's followed by a Part Two of Sorts, War and Remembrance, that's 1,056 pages long. (War and Peace, which took me an entire summer to read, is only about 1,400 pages long.)

I think it started when I read The Fall of Berlin by Antony Beevor and realized how woefully uniformed I am about World War II. I know the basics: Nazis, Pearl Harbor, Bunkers, Atomic Bombs, etc. But the fact is I've started more non-fiction books on World War II than I've finished. Maybe I thought that fiction would be an easy entry into the subject.

Still, 896 pages isn't usually associated with easy.

That's why I'm amazed that I'm 350 pages in after only a week. Using simple, straightforward prose Wouk has built a narrative drive that rivals the best, slickest genre fiction. He doesn't skimp on ideas or characters or atmosphere. Yet what in the hands of, say, James Michener would equal the most painful of boredoms becomes in Wouks hands a book that's hard to put down. I'm actually looking forward to propping myself up in bed at night for my ritual hour long reading session.

I'll get into the text in another post. Now I simply want to revel in the sheer readability of a modern classic.