Sunday, November 6, 2011

1491 and 1493 -- The World Before and After Columbus

Does anyone remember Paul Harvey?  He used to do radio pieces called "The Rest of the Story"  that revealed the hidden parts of things most of us think we know about.  If you like that kind of back story, these two books are a great find.  Together, they tell the rest of the story about the Americas before and after Columbus's trips to the Americas.

In 1491, Charles C. Mann reviews the Americas before European contact.  Whatever you may have learned in school, whatever you may have thought you knew, Mann presents a vastly different picture.  For one thing, the populations of native Americans was probably much larger.  Vast sophisticated civilizations existed.  The land we think of as pristine was carefully and systematically managed by the people who occupied it.  The Amazon apparently shows signs of terra forming.

So dramatic -- and devastating -- was the initial contact between Europeans and native people, that by the time the first Europeans encountered some native populations, they were encountering only the surviving remnants of once thriving cultures already seriously diminished by diseases introduced by the Europeans and spread ahead of their advance. 

In 1493, explores what researchers call "the Colombian Exchange" which may well be the most momentous ecological revolution since the passing of the dinosaurs.  Colonists spread around the world and with them moved hundreds of different animals and plants including earthworms, fungi, mosquitoes, dandelions, rats, pigs, and horses.

Most of the foods we eat are part of the Colombian Exchange.  The potato famine that brought thousands of Irish immigrants to the United States originated in the Colombian Exchange.  Silver mined in South America brought economic crisis to China and led to the first paper money -- and the first abuses of it.

The global links, the environmental changes, emergence of interdependent economies, immigration and political issues, and hundreds of other factors emerging from the Colombian Exchange have shaped our world in ways seldom explored.  This book begins that exploration and may well change how you look at important issues of our day forever.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Comedy at Its Best!

A Confederacy of Dunces
             by John Kennedy Toole

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this
sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

                                                                                   -- Johathan Swift

From that beginning, John Kennedy Toole takes the reader on one of the most outrageous adventures in literature.  The A Confederacy of Dunces is set in New Orleans in the early 1960s and follows the trials and tribulations of one Ignatius J. Reilly as he struggles to enter the world.

At around 30, Ignatius is still living at home.  He has a good education, but suffers from arrested development or failure to launch or whatever it is that besets young people who don't quite make the transition from child to adult in a timely fashion.

But, nature seems to push such fledglings to the edge of the nest despite their resistance.  For Ignatius, an accident at the beginning of the book sends him out into the world in search of a job.  He does, in fact, find work first in a dysfunctional clothing factory and then as a hot dog vendor in the French Quarter.

At the same time, Ignatius is involved in a long distance relationship of sorts with a New York City beatnik who begins all her letters to him with the salutation, "Sirs:" as a result of her habit of writing so many protest letters.  Myna is convinced that all the ills Ignatius suffers stem from his unexpressed sexuality.

Many of his most outrageous adventures stem from the fact that Ignatius -- and all the people around him -- view the world each from their own peculialy idiosyncratic perspectives.  The meshing and grinding of all those perspectives creates a delicious and touching comedy that culminates in a thuroughly satisfying ending.

I love this book.  I especially love listening to it.  The audio version is exceptionally well done and adds to the overall enjoyment of an excellent stroy.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Plot Thickens...and Thickens

Supreme Justice by Phillip Margolin, read by Jonathan Davis

It opens with John Finley, captain of a ship docked in a small, isolated port in Oregon.  He manages to kill a killer who has just murdered the entire crew. Finley escapes, but does not realize he is being followed.

The rest of the book evolves from that incident. It includes a police officer in Seattle who is ultimately accused of murdering Finley - in two separate incidents. It includes the Supreme Court and the political machinations of deciding which cases to hear and which to let go.

It involves a mysterious murder in Wisconsin where only parts of the body are discovered by a detective determined to identify the victim.

The plot is moved by deception, arrogance. ruthlessness, and abuse of power on one side and by courage, commitment, ethics, and the pursuit of justice on the other. Through most of the book, you really cannot tell which is which.

The genius of Phillip Margolin is his ability to link these far-flung and seemingly unrelated incidents together in a single, cohesive plot. The thing that makes his books so much fun to read is the way he parcels out clues and builds to a conclusion that is totally unexpected. 

If you are a reader who likes to follow the clues to reach the solution only a step ahead of the protagonist, the ending to Supreme Justice is, well...supremely satisfying. You gallop through the home stretch with the author and together, you cross the finish line to the ta-da resolution - where you stop to catch your breath only to discover the author is galloping on. . .

And, by the way, those little plot glitches you thought you spotted along the way? Those little details glossed over for the sake of moving the plot along? NOT! The final final resolution is just what you want from a really good mystery.

This is an enjoyable thriller/mystery and I have just one bit of advice before you run out to get a copy.  The characters in this book were introduced in the earlier book, Executive Privilege. Truthfully, though, this book does not move so much through the characters as through the plot twists.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

New Look at an Old Legend

Doc by Mary Doria Russell, read by Mark Bramhall

My dad loved the old westerns on TV.  I grew up watching Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and all the rest.  It took me forever to sort out who was real and who was fictional.

It helps that I enjoy reading American history and I especially like the fictionalized history -- stories that are true to the facts and embellish them with a bit of well congered-up fiction to give the stories a little life.

Given all that, I took up this the biography of Doc Holliday with some anticipation.

I remember Doc Holliday mostly and the older, vaguely disreputable pal of Wyatt Earp, the handsome TV marshal of Dodge City.  I think Matt Dillon also had a Doc and I probably have confused attributes of the two shows.

It hardly matters because neither character had the barest resemblance to the

John Henry Holliday was, in fact, a well-educated man from a good family in Georgia.  When he was about 21, he contracted tuberculosis and that defined the 15 years of his life.

Doc was already a fairly successful dentist by the age of 26 when he had to give up his practice and move west in the hope of finding a climate that might support his increasingly failing health.

He ended up in Dodge City where his life -- and the legend -- became forever entwined with Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Bat Masterson, and other historical figures.

This book, like other historical novels, goes beyond the task of telling us something a bit truer about lionized and largely misrepresented historical characters.  In fact, the ironic truth of the best of these stories is that much of the mundane truth is more fantastic and amazing the the fantacy.

They also give us some insight into a truly astonishing part of our history.  In this book as in others about such characters as Kit Carson (Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides) and Calamity Jane (Buffalo Gals by Larry McMurtry), you see the old west as something rougher and scarier and yet somehow kinder and more hopeful.

This book is well written and well researched and the story of Doc Holliday's struggle to survive and live a good life is compelling.  Holliday was also a man of high morals and strong ideals.  In many ways, he embodies some of the best of the American spirit.  If you are an American History buff or if you just like a strong, moving story about the human struggle, this is a good good book.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

How We Got Where We Are and What Now?

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation

by Thomas Frank and read by Oliver Wyman

Thomas Frank offers one answer to the question of where we are and how we got here. In a way, his answer reminds me of the old joke about the guy who murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.

Frank begins his discussion of the modern Conservative movement with a disclaimer.  He is not, he says, talking about the sincere citizen who lives in the heartland, works hard, invests his or her earnings, raises children, etc.  By and large, according to Frank, these good citizens are, in the end, more seriously deceived than anyone else.

That is because the Conservative leadership Frank is discussing has taken conservative ideas long held by those folks - a belief in good pay for good work, small government, and low taxes - and corrupted those core beliefs beyond recognition.

Modern American Conservatism, according to Frank, is deceptive at its core.  In fact, lying - lying big - is one of the basic strategies of the current Conservative movement. Winning is the only goal and "by any means necessary" is perfectly acceptable.

Starting with the premise that government, just by virtue of being government, is bad, Conservatives have worked diligently for the past 30 years to destroy government at all levels.

The strategy they have used is both successful and profitable.  You simply replace competent, experienced people at all levels of government service with people who have no earthly idea what they are doing.  The only real qualification for a job is that the candidate is a conservative ideologue who has some connections. If they are wealthy, so much the better.  If they are not, they will be by the time they leave their new jobs.

For the most part, these people just destroy the departments they head.  You end up with a Secretary of Education who does not believe in public education, a Labor Secretary who believes her agency exists to serve the needs of business, an a FEMA director whose very first experience with actual disaster was Hurricane Katrina.

Michael D. Brown, the infamous "Brownie," failed to manage any kind of Katrina recovery and the folks in New Orleans are still suffering the consequences.  But, for the Conservatives who put him in that position, the failure is just what was needed.  In their view, government failed once again. Because clearly, government does not work.  It is not anyone's fault, really. It's just that government does not work.

Frank says Conservatives have systematically destroyed government services by putting them in the hands of utter incompetents and then complaining bitterly that they don't work.  We end up with a situation in which "government service" at any level is contemptible and, by its nature incompetent.  This has some peculiar and perverse advantages.

It allows conservatives to turn every thing topsy turvey. For one thing, we don't expect much of elected representatives and even less of government service providers.  Modern Conservatives have positioned themselves as perpetual "outsiders" even when they have a conservative president and control of the Congress.

Modern Conservatives are never accountable for failures, for example, partly because they abdicate the problems by not attempting to deal with them. Whatever does not work is always the fault of someone else.  Any short coming is always a problem of failing to go far enough.

For example, consider the issue of the deficits.  The simple fact is that deficits serve the Conservative agenda and the bigger the deficit the better.  That is because big deficits are the main excuse for cutting programs the Conservative leadership does not like and for slashing taxes - to strengthen the economy by diverting funds and programs and services to business. 

Business and the free market running exclusively in its own best interest is always automatically working for its own good and everyone benefits.  It all works perfectly except when it doesn't and then you just go back and blame it all on the failure of government, on over-regulation, and on taxes.

It has been a winning strategy.  But the cost is high and, until fairly recently, largely hidden.

If you are interested in politics, interested in how we got into our current predicament, and interested in where we are heading, this book should be one of the tools you turn to for answers.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Video, A Memory, and A Preview

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a series of 12 books by Alexander McCall Smith

I saw the video of the HBO TV series based on these books on a shelf in my local library.  I snatched it up and took it home where I was happily introduced to the TV version of Precious Ramotswe played by Jill Scott.  It was glorious and I fell in love with Mma Ramotswe and her crew all over again.

One of the really great things is that, with only a few unobtrusive variations, the TV series keeps the faith with the characters and story lines.  Mma Ramotswe and the characters who surround her are almost exactly as I pictured them when I read the books.

That was seven or eight years ago. I saw a piece on Alexander McCall Smith on 60 Minutes and thought a novel about an African woman detective would be interesting.  I got a copy of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and was instantly enchanted.

Now, I must tell you that I got a CD copy from the library and listening to these books is dramatically enhanced by the excellent narration of Lissette Lecat.  I tore through the entire series and loved every story.

The heart and soul of the books is Mma Ramotswe, a traditionally built, down to earth woman who is strongly independent, loves her county and her people, and committed to doing good by helping people resolve their problems.

She attracts a fabulous crew of support people including Grace Makutsi, her ambitious and hard working secretary, and Mr. JLB Matekoni, the reliable mechanic who becomes her fiance.

Her cases, by and large, deal with the simple problems that beset people everywhere and she solves them with wisdom, cleverness, patience, and a bit of daring.  Every story carries enough weight to pull you in and get you invested in the outcome without all the hyperbole of gruesome murder and mayhem.

But it is the down to earth humor and good will that makes these stories special and memorable. The books are on the short side usually running between 160 and 180 pages or so.  By the time you get to the end, I guarantee you will be wishing for another few pages.

The video reminded me how much I enjoyed this series and when I went back to check on the books, I discovered three more.  I have them now loaded in my Nook and I will be reviewing them soon.  In the meantime, check out the video and enjoy!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Library Week - Why I LOVE My Library!

I am writing this today as a small way to send a big Thank You to my local public library which happens to be the Buffalo and Erie County Library.  What I want to share with you today, though, is the joy of listening to books and music.  Most of what I am going to share applies to libraries across the country so if you like what you read here, check it out locally.

I have always been an avid reader and no stranger to my local library.  About ten years ago, I bought a gym membership and thought, "Hey, this time on the treadmill would be much more tolerable with a good book."  That's when I discovered audiobooks.  Way back then, I listened on CDs and now I listen on a little MP3 player.

The player I use is the Sansa Fuze and mine has 4 GB of memory which is more than enough to store the full 20 books I am allowed to have checked out at a time.  I also have room for music and my unit has a radio that works pretty well in most places.

The books are free from the library and that is no small thing considering that the five to ten books I listen to each week would cost me between $30 to $60 each -- or more -- if I had to buy them.  Even from a service, I would pay $15 or more a month and, really, free is better.

From my very own living room, I can download audiobooks and music for free and when the material I have borrowed is due back, it goes back pretty much automatically.  All I have to do is delete it from my player.

Currently, you can download books and music to play on just about any MP3 player that supports WMA or MP3 format.  My library has 3680 WMA books and 589 MP3 books.  If you have an iPod, you are limited to the MP3 books.  My Fuze which cost me about $70 plays both formats.

 All you need to do is go to the library site and click on the Overdrive button.  You log on with your library card number.  When you get to the site for the first time, you need to download the Overdrive software which is easy to do.  That puts Overdrive on your desktop.  You also need a fairly recent version of Media Player but that operates in the background.

The steps for checking out books are clearly spelled out and easy to follow.  Mostly it's just a matter of clicking on the book and confirming the check out.  After that, you need to download the book and transfer your checkouts from Overdrive to your player.  The download time depends on how fast your Internet service is and how big the book is.

When you have your books or music, all you have to do is listen.  The best part is that you can listen while you do chores around the house or while you do your grocery shopping or while you workout.  All the little drudgery chores you have to do become considerably easier and more enjoyable with a good book.

Lately, I became the proud owner of a Nook eReader and I can use basically the same process to download ebooks.  I have about 5267 books to choose from.  You need to go to Adobe - Digital Editions and download their ePub software, but again, that is pretty easy to do.  And, when you have done it, a whole new batch of sources for free and discounted books is open to you.  (Unfortunately, ebooks from the library are not currently available for Kindles.)

If you have a smartphone, you can download a mobile version of Overdrive and read or listen to books on your phone.

This system eliminates one of the really big problems of being a book lover.  I don't need much storage for books these days.  The truth for me is that most of the books I was buying in the old days were books I really only read one time.  After that, I passed them on.  Even giving them away, I still ended up with overflowing shelves and plastic bins of books -- and not so discreet little piles of them everywhere.

And since I am no longer paying for the books, I am freer to try new authors and new genres.  I have discovered some great authors I might very well have missed if I had to plunk down ten bucks every time I wanted to experiment.

Free public libraries are a good deal for everyone.  I donate at least some of the money I save on books to my library regularly.  That seems only fair.  I also expect my state and local government to make an investment in good accessible libraries.  Libraries provide a valuable service to the entire community and they must be supported and protected.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Re-think History; Re-think Your Country; Re-think Yourself

The Imperial Cruise: The Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley (Read by Richard Poe)

Every now and then, a book grabs you and just shakes you to the core.  For me, this was such a book.

To set the stage for his revelations, James Bradley tells the strange story of Theodore Roosevelt's daughter from his first marriage.  Apparently his wife died within days of giving birth to Alice and within hours of the death of his mother in the same house.  Roosevelt never mentioned or acknowledged his first wife again.  His daughter was raised primarily by his second wife, Edith.

This story is important to an understanding of Roosevelt and some of the revelations in this book.  Without some understanding - and, indeed, some proof - of what can only be Roosevelt's astonishing ability to deny what is so obviously true, no sensible reader could possibly believe what is to come.  In effect, Roosevelt wrote his first marriage out of existence, even in the face of his very real daughter and without regard for any consequences to her.  It was a strategy he used often, as it turns out.

But that is not really the part that grabbed me. The Imperial Cruise was actually a diplomatic mission to Aisa that generally conducted a good deal of covert business. As the ship moves from one Pacific port to the next, Bradley reveals the back story of how what went on before defined the diplomacy of the cruise and led to the Pacific tragedy of World War II.

But it was not this diplomatic duplicity and it disastrous outcomes - or even the massive ego and arrogance that made it possible, that really grabbed me, although it is getting closer.  The thing that grabbed me and gave my soul a vigorous shake was the realization of the profound and powerful current of racism that is at the very heart of our nation, that has guided our expansion and growth. 

Manifest Destiny, it turns out, was not just about a bouyant and
jubilant natural expansion across this vast country.  In fact, that view, as taught in school, is profoundly dishonest. 
Roosevelt actually intended to extend the Monroe Doctrine across the Pacific.  Along the way, he intended to gain territory and markets.  He intended to enlighten or exterminate native populations wherever they got in the way. He did not care much whether those native peoples were enlightened or exterminated.  And he did not really think enlightenment was a serious possibility.

This book is simply amazing.  If you are interested in American history, it is a must read.  A New York Times reveiw said, "The Imperial Cruise is startling enough to reshape conventional wisdom about Roosevelt’s presidency."  I would go farther than that.  This book re-shaped how I look at our history and since reading it, I have been thinking about how this country should move forward with a little more integrity both domestically and internationally.

I have also been thinking about racism - and especially my own - in a very different way.   If you read this book, prepare to be challenged to the core.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Building an E-book Library

I am the recent - and very happy - owner of an e-book reader.  I love it for all the usual reasons.  It is easy to carry with me anywhere.  It holds up to 1500 books.  You can look up words as you encounter them.  I have more books than I ever imagined to choose from any time I feel the urge for something new.

Lately, it occurred to me that I might want to re-collect some of my personally important books for my e-reader.  I happen to have a Nook, but I think this is going to be the same for owners of the Kindle or Sony Reader or any of the others.  I am considering older books I have on my book shelves and for a few of those old favorites, I am wondering if I can get copies for my Nook and if they will be considerably cheaper.  Maybe free.

Then I realized that I have started already.  When I first got the Nook, I downloaded Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen for free.  A quick search of Virginia Woolf produced most of her works available for under a dollar and a few for the full price.  I can see no pattern in the prices.  Someone somewhere must still hold a copyright of some kind.

I also found a good selection of books available for Nook in some of my more esoteric interest areas - hypnosis, dreaming, feminism.  I have to think the same would be true for other highly personal interests.  It seems likely that a lot of old favorites - whether they are about football heroes, WWI flying aces, or early feminist leaders - are available as e-books.

When I go downstairs where most of my books are, I see that many (okay, most...) have yellowed pages and they are getting brittle.  Paperback covers curl if the downstairs gets a little damp.  I am thinking that for the most favorite of my favorites, at least, I should start looking for e-book versions.  I suspect that with the whole collection of books at my finger tips, say, at the beach, I might be more inclined to re-read some of favorites, to bookmark them and add highlights.

On the other hand, I am still a little puzzled about what, exactly, I buy when I buy an e-book.  Apparently, I am getting some rights and not others.  For example, Barnes and Noble seems highly excited about a new "lend-me" feature that allows you to lend e-books to friends. 

Now, trust me on this, I never had a problem lending my regular, old-fashioned books.  On the other hand, some of them never made it back to me.  So this lending thing from B&N apparently "allows" me to lend a book I have purchased to a friend one time for two weeks. 

During the two weeks, the book is unavailable to me (just like the old books) and at the end of the two weeks, I magically get it returned.  Regardless of where my friend might be or what she might be doing.  It's a miracle, plain and simple. 

On the other hand, it appears that if she did not read the book, or did not get through all of it, I may not be able to lend it to her again.  I am not even sure if I can lend it to anyone else.  When I read the instructions, it looks like this feature may be a one time thing for selected books.

Now, that seems to me kind of an odd way to be about books.  Perhaps now I will have to assess the quality of a friend's interest in a particular book before I loan it out.  I would feel kind of creepy if I used up my one loan for a book on someone who had only a casual interest in a topic and then someone really fascinated asked to borrow it.

And, oddly not all of the books I buy can be loaned.  Again, I am thinking that I am only buying certain rights.Here is another little problem.  So far, I have not seen a way to give an e-book as a gift.  I have a wish list at B&N, but as far as I know, I am the only one who has access to it.  I may be able to share a list or to set up a registry of some kind, but I have not yet found a way to do that.

Once you set up a B &N account and enter your credit card, a book you select is on your device nearly as fast as you can click on Accept.  I have not seen any options that might let you forward the book to a friend's account or otherwise notify someone that the book is there for them.

And, as nearly as I can tell, I cannot, under any circumstances, "pass along" something I read, enjoyed, and am not inclined to read again.  Ever.  Some kind of re-sell option would be good, maybe.

The truth is, I am not sure about all of this and maybe as we shift away from hard copy, some ownership rights and some social sharing will be lost.  It may be too soon to know how seriously it will be missed.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

History, Scholarship, and Majick

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe,
read by Katherine Kellgren

Connie is a harried grad student in the final push to earn her PhD.  She is beset by an oomi-goomi new age mother who wants her to take the summer to sell her grandmother's house on one side and an academic advisor on the other side who believes he deserves far more from life in general than he has yet receiveded. 
Into this plot mix, add the search for a diary left behind behind by a woman convicted as a witch in Salem.  Stir in a handsome young man in danger and bring it all to a boil with Connie's discovery that she herself may have deeper connections to the past than she ever imagined. Taken all together, it makes a pretty good story.

This book moves easily between that awful time in American history when the witch scare turned neighbor against neighbor in a nasty mix of religious fervor, fear, and greed and the world of modern academics where students sometimes have to protect their work from from advisers all too willing and eager to claim undue credit for a student's work.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Murder, Mystery, and Heat in Charleston

The Alibi, by Sandra Brown, read by Dennis Redfield

Let's just get something out of the way right at the beginning.  This book is to reality as a roller coaster ride is to a drive on the expressway.  Everything is just more.  It is faster with higher highs and lower lows and sharper turns.  The bad guys are badder than bad; the good guys are better than good.  The hero is more heroic.  You get the picture.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

About Life and Fragile Beginnings

Minding Frankie, Maeve Binchy (Read by Sile Bermingham)
I got hooked on Maeve Binchy when I listened to The Evening Class and was completely enchanted by the richness of her characters, the intricacy and surprises of her story, and the deliciously satisfying conclusions.

So, I wanted to read more and I was delighted when some of the characters from The Evening Class showed up in Quentins and then in Whitethorn Woods. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Where Your Next BIG Idea Is Lurking

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder -How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, (read by Scott Brick)

I have always secretly believed that you have to be able to tolerate a little chaos - sometimes even a lot of chaos - to get to the really good stuff - whatever that might be.  I could be making excuses for my clutter.  Or, I may simply be living my own "perfect mess" which would be the balance between a pristine desk (something I have never achieved any where) and the bedroom so full of clutter that you have no place to lay your head (something I have always managed to avoid).

The most important thing is that a truly perfect "perfect mess" is that it is the ideal environment for unexpected things to happen - for discovery, creativity, invention, and even productivity.  Plus you get to save all the time and money costs of getting and staying organized.

The perfect mess creates the opportunity for unexpected connections that may be, for example, between friends or contacts who don't know each other or between articles on unrelated topics.  But the real key is that a little mess may allow a note from a friend to "touch" an interesting article and make some utterly unexpected connection.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (Read by Eric Singer)

Steven Johnson talks about " the adjacent possible."  I love that idea.  One little idea -- like Sony's idea of making a tape player small enough to carry around and listen to a few tapes -- open an "adjacent possible" that led to the iPod.

Finding those links, identifying the adjacent possibles of an idea, it turns out, involves a bit of messiness.  Johnson uses examples of everything from open source software to open office systems for product development to demonstrate the importance of unexpected connections and the value of sharing.

Johnson also values the chaotic creative space of a free-flowing journal.  He says that in the 17th and 18th century, people read books in fits and starts and could be jerking their ways through several books at a time.  Virtually all educated men (and presumably women) kept a "common place book" where they made notes and recorded insights. 
Alexander Pope even devised a rather obscure, but nonetheless popular system for creating a flexible index to keep track of his scattered notes.

From the resulting jumble and juxtaposition of notes from various books and ideas, the diarists were able to make new connections.  Johnson says they more or less re-created and re-configured the ideas they read about and studied.

A notebook is also an important way to keep track of hunches.  Sometimes, he says, a hunch evolves over years.  It is something you come back to every now and then maybe from slightly different perspectives until the hunch gels - maybe because it ended up on a page with the one thing needed to complete the thought and make it whole.

Work Like DaVinci: Gaining the Creative Advantage in Your Business and Career, by Michael J.Gelb and read by the author.

Michael Gelb uses DaVinci's notebooks to identify seven principles that he claims contributed to DaVinci's genius.  For better or worse, he names the principles in Italian. If you speak Italian, that is probably okay, but it is a little gimmicky.  On the other hand, the ideas in the book are actually useful and that puts the book ahead of the field for most of the self-help-personal-growth genre. 

One of the best ideas is simply to do the obvious thing that DaVinci did.  He kept a journal.  This is not the diary kind of journal or even the "morning pages" Julia Cameron made popular a few years ago.  This is random, disorganized, free-flowing notes of thoughts, lists (even shopping lists), reminders, sketches, and anything else you can coax out of a pen. 

It is a kind of mind map (a term coined by Tony Buzon) of just about everything.  The idea is that this kind of spontaneous, disorganized flow allows ideas and insights and plans and inventions and everything else to hook up with each other in new ways.

Taken together, these books offer some interesting ideas about creativity and productivity.  For a couple of bucks, you can get a notebook and start keeping notes -- on ideas, books, movies, something that is happening, your feelings, something you read,  your shopping list or your to do list.  It's a beginning. 

Then, go back and look it over at least once a week.  And be willing to be surprised by where you have been, what you trigger, and what you find.  You may just discover your next great idea lurking there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood by Howard Blum

WOW!  Terror, mystery and the Birth of Hollywood?  If an author could really deliver all that, this would be one terrific book.
Howard Blum does that and more.  On the East coast, you have DW Griffith reluctantly stumbling into the movies and literally creating the modern movie industry.  On the West coast, you have Harrison Otis building the Los Angeles Times and determined to squelch a fledgling union movement.

And then someone blows up the Times building killing 21 workers.  It is called "The Crime of the Century."  So, who could possibly solve the Crime of the Century?  None other than the World's Greatest Detective.  And remember, all of this is true.

William J. (Billy) Burns is hired by the Mayor of Los Angeles to track down whoever is responsible for the bombing.  While Billy and his men are searching the country for bad guys, DW Griffith is really getting into making movies.  Along the way, he discovers Mary Pickford and develops a filming technique called "close ups." 

He also came up with the brilliant idea of shooting movies in California over the winter, although it took him a while to leave New Jersey permanently.

Billy eventually breaks the case and gets the culprit, but then Clarence Darrow is hired to handle the defense.  Darrow, as it turns out, is dealing with several major life issues -- a passionate extra marital love affair, career crisis, and fears for his health among them.

I really have to stop there.  The surprises are too good to play around with.  You really have to experience this book for yourself.

I listened to this story and it was brilliantly read by John H. Mayer.  I am sure his fine reading contributed to my enjoyment of the book.  I am also sure that I would have liked it just as much if I had read it.

If you like really bad bad guys and really good good guys and don't mind too much if the good guys are sometimes rotten and the bad guys are -- well, mostly worse than you ever imagined -- you will love this story.  You will learn some history that was somehow left out of your history books. 

You may even find some interesting parallels with things going on right here right now.  Did someone say something about history repeating itself?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

About Buffalo Book Blog

I am writing a book blog because I read -- or listen to -- a lot of books.

I usually have at least three books going at a time. One of my great joys is listening to a good book while I do other things such as wander through the grocery store, drive to work, or fold laundry. I usually go through three to five audio books a week and I thank the Goddess of Good Reading for my local library that has a great collection of MP3 and WMA books.

Awhile back, I acquired an e-reader. I chose a Nook really for just one reason. I am profoundly uneasy with the idea of getting all my books and other reading material from a single source. Even if that source sells or otherwise provides everything that can be sold or provided. For reading, we must always have choices.

Unlike most of my bookish friends, I liked the concept of e-readers the moment I heard of it. For about the size and weight of a small notebook, I can have with me dozens, even hundreds of books to satisfy a momentary whim or look up a favorite quote. I can haul my entire library to the beach and never break a sweat. With that realization, it took me about three seconds to get over the book-in-my-hand-smell-of-the-paper thing.

Recently, I listened to Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. I expected the book to be what a friend calls "oomi goomi" (I think the term is self-explanatory). It was not. It was full of genuinely good, concrete ideas for generating more good ideas.

One of the things I learned is that people in the 1800s read several books at a time and often kept notes on their readings in a kind of unrestrained, disorganized way with random thoughts flung helter-skelter over the page and often with a sprinkling of personal observations, shopping lists, and drawings. The unusual juxtaposition of ideas and disjointed thoughts - basically, the clutter of the page - actually inspired some great new thoughts, ideas, and inventions.

WaHoo! I am the Queen of Clutter and I am sure I can clutter up a page as well as anything else. I have started keeping a thoroughly disjointed notebook with great expectations. With the Nook enabling my inclination to read several books at a time, I can always have whatever I want to read right at hand. Bring on the ideas!

In my blogs, I plan to make it clear if I am listening to a book or reading it. The experience is different and, I think, significant. For example, I got hooked on Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Lady Detective series about an African woman who becomes the only lady detective in Botswana. The stories are enchanting; the characters are engaging, the incidental cultural insights are enlightening. What's not to like?

I gave sets of the books to friends who, by and large, were not able to work up much enthusiasm for them.

I think the difference was just that I listened to the stories as they were read by an accomplished actress with a lovely lilting voice who pronounced the name of every person and every place exactly right. The overall charm of the stories, I think, was greatly enhanced by the listening experience.

I like listening to fiction and seldom go back to listen to a fiction book a second time. That is not always true, but often enough that I am happy to use the library for fiction.

On the other hand, I like to read or listen to non-fiction books a second time and some times, several times. They are, therefore, generally a good investment.

So, I am blogging to share my thoughts on some of my favorite books. I hope this will be a place where other readers will come to share their comments, thoughts, and favorites as well.