Category Archives: books

Sticky Notes

According to a story in the paper, the most popular fiction book borrowed from Albany Public Library in 2015 was The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

That’s interesting, but let’s talk about number 12 on the list, Grey, by E.L. James.

Grey is part of the popular  Fifty Shades of Grey series. I haven’t personally read any of these Grey books, but they’re well known for their graphic depictions of kinky sex.

There’s no way to put this this delicately, but here goes: would you want to take book out of the library knowing that the people before you have been… well, masturbating while reading it?

I wouldn’t want to even touch that book, much less bring it home and read it.

This is one of those things that you’re better off not thinking about, but let’s anyway. Many books contain steamy scenes that will arouse the reader, and if you’re a frequent borrower at your library, you’ve most likely held a book in your hands that’s seen some action. This Grey book is a whole different animal, written to be erotic, it’s certain to inspire a lot of solo activity.

But who knows what get’s people hot and bothered?  It could be that someone’s rubbed one out while reading that copy of Doris Kern Goodwin’s Team of Rivals you got from the library. They say William H. Seward had that effect on people.

A Little Bit of Everything

Oh, boy! Wouldn’t it be cool to answer the door on Halloween dressed up like Walter White cooking meth? Yeah, the kids probably won’t get it, but the parents will think Heisenberg handing out candy is a hoot.

So off to Amazon, where they sell everything, to find a HAZMAT suit and respirator. I figure I’ll skip the bald wig — which never looks good unless done by a professional — but instead, go pre-cancer treatment Walt with a moustache. Yes, definitely.

Well, based on Amazon’s data mining, it looks like Halloween will be a big year for Breaking Bad costumes:

BB Suit

Click to enlarge.

This comes hot on the heals of hearing an interview with Brad Stone, whose new book The Everything Store, takes a look at what Amazon has done to become the one stop shop for everything you could ever want.

And it’s worked. I didn’t even consider going to another merchant to buy what I wanted; not even for a second.

There’s been a lot of noise about how bookstores, especially independent shops, are endangered by Amazon. Recent evidence suggests that this isn’t true, and that good retailers are giving shoppers things they can’t get online. Good for them — but to the others, I say too bad.

If I can get a book delivered to my home in two days — a book you probably don’t have in stock — then you’d better find another way to get me in the door.

Spacing Out

I Googled “Italian astronaut jokes” early this morning after hearing how NASA cancelled the EVA of Luca Parmitano after an EMU malfunction. Space geeks know that an EVA is a spacewalk and an EMU a spacesuit.

It seems that Parmitano, the first Italian astronaut to walk in space, was having a little trouble with his helmet: it was filling with water. Yes, that’s a little trouble.

Speaking of space, I just read two terrific books about space travel, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach and Riding Rockets  by former Space Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane.

Roach’s book, which examines the science behind putting humans in space, is laugh out loud funny as it closely examines things like zero gravity pooping and the hazards of vomitting in your helmet. The most minute detail of everything astronauts do has been studied to death — often in bizarre ways.

Mullane writes about life as one of the original Space Shuttle astronauts. It’s a frank and hilarious (and mildly profane) glimpse of what it’s like to prepare for and fly in space. It’s also pretty heavy, too. Mullane worked closely with the crew aboard the Challenger — and early in his book he discusses the worries over the disasterously ill fated o-rings on the solid rocket boosters.

Anyway, the only Italian astronaut joke I could find goes like this:

Q: What do you call an Italian astronaut?

A: A specimen.

Please accept my apologies.

Paperless

Books are supposed to be on paper — and a printed book will never have its battery die on you. That was my rallying cry against ebooks — until I actually started reading them. Now I’m hooked.

After several months with the iPad Mini, I’m reading more than before. It’s not just the convenience of downloading the books, but the device itself improves the reading experience. For example, now when I fall asleep while reading, I don’t lose my place. How great is that?

There is one down side: if you’re like me, you like to pass along a book you enjoy to another reader — but there’s no doing that with ebooks. Now I find myself buying books twice, once digitally and once on paper.

That said, allow me to recommend a few books you might like to buy twice.

I’ve read two great books, one after the other,  by Mitchell Zuckoff: Lost in Shangri-La and Frozen in Time. Both are true stories from World War II about plane crashes, survival, and daring rescues. Each book is filled with larger than life characters — and Zuckoff’s storytelling is terrific.

The third book is That’s That, a coming of age memoir by Colin Broderick about growing up in Northern Ireland. This is not the bleak stuff of Angela’s Ashes; Broderick’s book has its dark moments but it’s also very funny — and captures teenage angst better than anything I’ve ever read. It’s also really opened my eyes to The Troubles, something many Americans of Irish descent love to talk about, but really don’t understand.

So read on, and don’t be afraid to go paperless. Just be aware that you may find yourself buying more books, some of them twice.

Rich Man, Paw Man

At Friendly’s one night, I spied a nearby booth where a couple were engaged in some sort of — meditation?  Their fingertips  were touching and eyes closed and between them on the table was a lottery entry form. Every few moments they’d take up a pencil and select a number. They were praying over their Lotto entry. Praying to win.

I almost shouted out, “HEY… Monkey’s Paw!”

This goes back to reading The Monkey’s Paw in eighth grade. I already sort of knew the story, having seen the 1972 film Tales from the Crypt, and its take on how three wishes can go horribly wrong. The short story, written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902, is terrific; you can hear John Lithgow reading it awesomely on this episode of Selected Shorts.

But because of The Monkey’s Paw, I’ve been convinced it’s very bad luck to wish for money.

DSC_0694Even the most rational people cling to something that is not so rational; on the outside they scoff at luck and fate, but deep inside harbor something beyond reason that guides their actions.

So, it shouldn’t worry me when a fortune cookie promises wealth, I mean really, c’mon. A stupid fortune cookie? I set it aside without another thought… after tossing a pinch of salt over my shoulder. My left shoulder, of course.

Paging O. Henry

When you say O. Henry, most people think of the “The Gift of the Magi,” but my favorite short story by O. Henry, AKA William Sydney Porter, was always “The Cop and the Anthem.”

In that story, Soapy, a hapless hobo tramping around New York City, is desperate to be arrested so he can spend winter’s coldest days in jail. But Soapy isn’t even very good at breaking the law — and you can read the rest here.

A modern day Soapy had no such trouble in Troy this week; police arrested one Jamaine Makepeace who they say broke windows at the Rensselaer County Clerk’s office in a bid to be collared by the cops. Why? To go somewhere warm. According to a police spokesman:

“He told us he figured he would do enough damage to get a year in jail. He told us that he was tired of being on the streets and begging food from people.”

Mr. Makepeace got his wish and is currently being held in Rensselaer County Jail without bail.

Homelessness is complicated and nothing I say about it will be anything less than trite — but those who scoff at the idea of helping the most troubled among us should take note, even as you mock what President Obama had to say on Monday.

It’s a sad story, but at least this guy, like Soapy, will be safe and warm for a little while.

Bookshelf

Life’s too short to waste time with crappy books, so let me help you out. Here are a few things I’ve read lately that you might enjoy.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead  Ever since first seeing Night of the Living Dead (at wayyyyy too young an age) I’ve been obsessed with zombies. While Zone One doesn’t really bring anything new to the brain table — these zombies are a lot like those you’ve seen before — it’s much smarter than most horror fiction. It’s not just a thinking person’s zombie thriller, but the story is funny and heartbreaking in equal turn, and really communicates a deep sense of loss.

 Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides The is the terrific true story of 200 men sent on an impossible mission during WWII: rescue hundreds of starving POWs from a Japanese prison camp behind enemy lines in the Philippines. It’s rife with larger than life characters and heroic acts. You’ll love the Filipino guerrillas who helped pull off the raid. The Japanese? Not so much.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous, but this is a great book. Kurlansky has written several volumes on seemingly mundane things that have had profound geopolitical and economic influence. Cod is no different — and it’s sure to fuel your inner Cliff Clavin with some fascinating anecdotes.

Enjoy!

Printed Matter

My son, Alex, is training in Mississippi, and while the Army has plenty to keep him him busy, he asked for some reading material to help pass his free time. I sent two books, a novel, The Given Day by Dennis Lehane — and because he asked for something on investing, A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel.

Oh, yes, and a few magazines:

  • Esquire
  • Guns and Ammo Handguns Annual
  • National Review
  • Journal of Counter Terrorism & Homeland Security
  • The Economist
  • Maxim

That’s eclectic. I need to put together another package to send this week; your suggestions are most welcome.

Reading in the Land of Nod

At a party recently, somebody commented, “Sounds like you do a lot of reading.”

This made me wonder if I was spouting off too much about books and coming off as a know-it-all. The truth is I don’t know much at all, but if the topic happens to be rats, or whaling and cannibalism, Benedict Arnold, or dozens of other obscure things I’ve read books about, then I can actually contribute something to the conversation.

But reading is getting harder, or more accurately, staying awake is getting harder. Time is short, and more often than not the only opportunity to read is at bedtime. This is not very efficient, because you’ll get through a page, or a paragraph, or sometimes even a single sentence and nod off.

Hours later you wake up with the light still on and your book askew somewhere. The same way toast always lands butter side down, your book is never on the page where you left off.

Enter the Kindle.

Many people who love books are resisting e-readers, but one attractive advantage is emerging: they will remember the page you were on. This way, when you pick up the book there will be no searching for the spot where you were  overcome by slumber. Unless the cat came along and walked on the page advance button. Then you are out of luck.