21 September 2006

Arthur Flowers, Another Good Loving Blues. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

“The blues is about a lot of things…. The blues about accepting life for what it is, good and bad. Its about making folks feel what you feel. And its mostly about people and life and stories. You know any stories?”

Arthur Flowers knows some stories; he knows some magic, too. In Another Good Loving Blues he gives us “a fine old delta tale about a mad blues piano player and a Arkansas conjure woman on a hoodoo mission.” Set in the years when Southern blacks began the great migration north, it follows Lucas Bodeen and Melvira Dupree from the moment he first sees her in the spring of 1918 until the moment, nearly six years later, when he says “I don’t ever want to lose you again.” In between are a lot of pain, a lot of music, and enough magic to make it all work out, told in a rich, muddy voice that brings the South roiling up out of the pages as viscerally as the mighty Mississippi in full flood.


19 September 2006

John Burdett, Bangkok 8. New York: Vintage, 2004.

Some concepts are universal. For instance, when a policeman’s partner is killed, he must be avenged, whether it is in New York City or Thailand. As the title suggests, this time it happens in Thailand. The location complicates things a bit.

First complication: the murder, well, wasn’t murder. The officer was killed by a poisonous snake. The snake was inside a locked car, where it had, presumably, been instrumental in killing the dead man inside; that it killed the cop who opened dthe car to investigate is incidental.

Second complication: the dead cop’s partner is a Buddhist, which means he is as conflicted as Hamlet by the thought of seeking revenge.

Third complication: the intended victim is a U.S. Marine—so the U.S. government gets involved. That always causes problems. In this case, one of these problems is an attractive FBI agent to further distract our Buddhist cop.

Burdett mixes these ingredients with a healthy dose of local Thai flavor—weather, corruption, gridlock, jade, drugs, prostitution, and bureaucracy—to stir up a spicy little thriller.


14 September 2006

Roger Schonfeld, JSTOR: A History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Elizabeth Yakel, Starting an Archives. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Press, 1994.

Disclaimer: I have a personal connection to each of these books. I worked at JSTOR for a time, doing quality control, and Dr. Yakel was one of my instructors at the School of Information. Being so close to them, I forget that JSTOR requires an introduction to explain this pairing.

JSTOR is an online archive of scholarly journals. Now, in the age of Google Books and Google Scholar, this seems pretty passé. Everything is supposed to be online, right? But it isn’t, and what is certainly wasn’t always there; JSTOR was one of the pioneers, with work on these collections beginning in 1994.

Schonfeld makes use of complete access to papers and people in this authorized biography of a new-born business. We see everything from the Mellon Foundation board meeting at which it is conceived to an initial, successful release and subsequent growth, through the actors’ eyes. It is a fascinating look at how a group dedicated to saving shelf space in academic libraries crafted a clientele, a collection, and a new kind of company—the profitable non-profit.

Profit, however, is the wrong word. JSTOR is building an archives; the plan is to insure the survival of knowledge, as well as speed its dissemination. Great care is taken to acquire and safely store multiple physical copies of all digitized titles, protecting them in perpetuity. This takes money, which JSTOR raises. No one gets rich (trust me, no one is getting rich on this), the journals are cared for even if JSTOR goes under or the electronic world goes kaplouie, and we get a wonderful access tool for some of our most important periodic literature: titles like Science, Philosophical Transactions, English Journal, or Child Development. This electronic access, available to many libraries which could never otherwise afford subscriptions to all of the titles or acquire complete backruns, is worth much more than JSTOR charges.

Yakel’s book, then, is an obvious companion. Published for the Society of American Archivists, it is an introduction to the process for those “thinking about beginning a historical records program in their organization[s]”. Using case studies to illustrate each step and providing a bibliographic essay, list of archival associations, and sample documents, it presents enough background for an administrator to understand both what should be happening and why an expert is needed. Watching JSTOR develop against this view of the idealized process makes clear what a remarkable job they have done in balancing a responsibility to their archival mission with the competing interest of the publishers, librarians, and end users who are their constituents.

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Chuck Palahniuk, Choke. New York: Doubleday, 2001

You can’t say he doesn’t warn you. The very first sentence goes, “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.” Why not? “What you’re getting here is a stupid story about a stupid little boy,” and “There has to be something better on television.”

Well, that last part probably isn’t true; otherwise, it’s a fair warning. Palahniuk, best known as the author of what became the movie Fight Club, gives us a disturbing look at that stupid little boy’s later life: he is a sexaholic who makes money by pretending to choke on his dinner in a new restaurant each night.

Yet Palahniuk’s work, while full of the disgusting and seemingly senseless distruction, is ultimately about redemption—he’s a cynic, he sees the grotesque, and he finds a way for his characters to overcome it. This isn’t a pretty story, but underneath it all, this is a beautiful story.


Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers. New York: Random House, 2004

Art Spiegelman is one of my favorite cartoonists because he never flinches. The man developed a comic book about the Holocaust, and Maus became a cultural icon by helping children understand the horror we can inflict upon one another. So who better to commemorate our generation’s defining act of terror, the attacks of September 11, 2001?

No Towers is a tortured book, reflecting Spiegelman’s own struggle to accept and understand these events. It is a personal essay in pictures, recounting his thoughts and actions on and after 9/11. This means the story is about Spiegelman, as much as 9/11, and to help us understand him, Spiegelman includes a short history of the funny papers as an appendix. Still, the levity this provides does not completely counter the crushing weight of loss No Towers conveys. As we reach the fifth anniversary of these horrible events, In the Shadow of No Towers is a powerful memorial and reminder of what we have lost.

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07 September 2006

Stephen King, The Colorado Kid. NY: Hard Case Crime, 2005

Hard Case Crime is a new publisher working in an old field: their books are designed to revive the dark detective stories of 1940s pulp fiction, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. So far—and The Colorado Kid is only the thirteenth title—they have done this well. The books are cheap, with flashy cover art, and include new novels from original masters, a choice republication or two, and work from new artists in the old style.

Stephen King doesn’t fit any of these categories, but the world’s best selling fiction writer is no stranger to the mass market format—or to murder. What makes his contribution special, however, is that The Colorado Kid is a brand-new piece, first published here in a niche paperback: King usually gets the royal hardcover treatment for new books. Otherwise, this is pretty much what you expect from him: a compelling story told very well. It is a frame story, told to an intern at a small-town newspaper on a slow summer afternoon, and describes events long past but as yet unexplained. This detachment keeps it from being scary, but still manages to provide plenty of suspense: it’s a mystery, not horror, and it is a quick, fun read.