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.