Book of the Month - June, 2005

May 20th, 2005

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran FoerWith only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man--also named Jonathan Safran Foer--sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukranian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

Buy Everything is Illuminated $11.16

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Our Star Wars Nation

May 19th, 2005

Almost all of the credit for the success of Star Wars seems to go to George Lucas, and I do not challenge that. All I want to do is thank everyone, including Lucas, for the roles they played in bringing Star Wars into our lives. And yes, I do refer to the original three movies (now episodes 4-6). My complaints with the new ones? No, not here. That is a separate issue for some other time. Today is a post to celebrate the triumph under the Star Wars emblem.

In thinking about this post last night I planned to talk about Star Wars as a sub-culture. The problem with that is the bubble is too big. This is a full blown Star Wars culture. While there is nothing wrong with it, those who are not fans of Star Wars appear to be in the minority.

What else can bring together so many people under one common interest? For nearly 30 years now Star Wars has delighted fans and it may only be picking up steam. Many people make fun of those who take Star Wars seriously enough to show up at 12:01am dressed as their favorite characters; the costumes elaborate and the wearers proud and uninhibited. We often label these people as "nerds" for their outward manifestation of a fanatic interest in some Galaxy far far away, though we share in this fascination.

The fact is that as a society we do not harbor any ill will towards these people, in fact we celebrate it with sketches on comedy shows and exclusive reports for the news. We love Star Wars too.

Is it silly that we are a population of adults who embrace each other in all of our diverse glory as we come together united behind the plight of the Jedi? I think in the world we live in where often times we focus too closely on the negative it is everything but silly that we can unite under our common bond of Star Wars.

It may be the nerd in me, but I respect and salute the diehards who were in full regalia last night for the midnight showings across the country and those others around the globe. Sure, it is a little funny, but it is not often that they have an opportunity to dust off the Vader masks and Jedi robes. No, there was not proof of Big Foot's existence yesterday, those were pictures of people dressed as Wookies to celebrate Episode III.

I saw my first Storm Trooper up close and personal yesterday and I can say that it was a religious experience. I now consider myself one of the lucky ones. I was close enough to reach out and touch him. I did not, however, opt for a photo opportunity as did many others around him.

Thank you Star Wars.

Xochimilco - Detroit, MI

May 18th, 2005

The signs say Mexicantown, though some call it "Mexican Village". Whichever way you say it, this area of Detroit is home to Xochimilco's Restaurant.

I have never been to Mexico so I cannot speak to the authenticity of their Mexican menu, but what I can tell you is that the food is delicious.

I would accept take out from Xochimilco if I absolutely had to, but eating there is part of the fun. The place is dimly lit and has nothing too exciting lining its walls, but it is still a great place to eat.

You get a bottomless basket of fresh tortilla chips with salsa (both mild and hot) to snack on before, during and after your meal. A tip I got from Nick, who is the kind soul who shared this little Shangri-La with me, is to never leave Xochimilco with any less than two large chips and two large mild salsas in my hands. Pricing is on the appetizer side of the menu to see how much that will run you out the door. The chips have a decent shelf life and the salsa is so fresh when you get it. You have a snack for a few days, assuming you don't eat it all on the ride home. And if you're thirsty, I believe all beers, domestic and imported, are $3 and you see plenty of margaritas on the tables to round out your Mexican meal.

You would be hard pressed to find a sit down restaurant that takes less time between order placement and delivery of food. It does not take long to eat at Xochimilco, so keep this in mind if you pull up and see a line for a table. Prices are also very reasonable.

I do not get down to Xochimilco nearly as often as I would like. It is hard for me to justify the trip down to Detroit on my own, but any time I find a willing companion I head south. It's pretty easy to get there from north of Detroit as you just take I-75 south to exit 47-B which is the exit for the bridge. Do not get on the bridge, mind you. After a series of left turns you end up facing Mexicantown. The address is 3409 Bagley St. (You can also take 96 east and get off at the exit for the bridge.) Parking is limited directly next to the restaurant, but there is an extended lot just beyond.

If you could pick one restaurant that excites me most when I get to go there, this is it.

When the Wind Blows - James Patterson

May 17th, 2005

When the Wind BlowsFrannie O'Neill is a talented Colorado veterinarian haunted by her husband's murder. But the course of her life is about to change again. After another bizarre killing, Kit Harrison, a troubled and unconventional FBI agent, arrives on her doorstep. And late one night Frannie stumbles upon a strange, astonishing phenomenon.

Her name is Max. Only eleven years old, she will lead Frannie and Kit to uncover one of the most diabolical and inhuman plots of modern science.

With this now being a three part series, I decided it was time for me to get my feet wet. It has to be decent to warrant a second and third installment, correct? That is what I found. It was decent. In no way would I call this Patterson's best, but it was good enough. I will read The Lake House and Maximum Ride to see how the story plays out. I will admit I am curious to see where the author is going with these characters.

The author speaks of the importance of this book in an introduction. He mentions that ideas he thought were an act of fiction may be more real than we want to believe. Then again, I am sure that helps book sales. Either way, here is another quick read from James Patterson. Pick it up if you have a free weekend.

Buy When the Wind Blows $7.99

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John Sandford

May 15th, 2005

John Sandford, author of the Lucas Davenport mysteries, is currently on tour promoting his latest novel Broken Prey. For his complete tour schedule click here. I drove to Ann Arbor the other night to see him at Nicola's Books.

This was now the second time I was seeing John Sandford on tour. I had seen him the year before as his latest (at that time) was released. It was at that signing that I had my collection signed. I had not updated it since, so I only needed the new one signed for my library.

Sandford regaled us with stories before he answered questions. When our curiosity was satisfied, he began the signing. Once the line had dissipated, as he mentioned pre-signing, he stuck around to answer any specific questions and hold a short writing workshop. The neat part here is that there were only two of us who stuck around.

I held my tongue as I felt I did not have much to contribute to the conversation. The other two, a gentleman and the author, seemed to do well on their own. I only interjected when I could as they searched for the names of other authors and books to use as examples of their points.

Through the question and answer session that precluded the signing and our talk afterwards he never once disguised what he did. He always referred to the writing as his job. He spoke of being a writer as he would if he were the head of a major corporation. They have one big thing in common: they have a product they are trying to sell.

During the first Q&A, a woman asked why the author chose for his hero to settle down with one woman as opposed to another. She was met with a shocking response that had nothing to do with the moral character of either woman. Woman A sold more books than Woman B. It was a better business decision on the part of the writer to choose one over the other, so he did.

This prompted the aspiring writer, he was a professor, to ask if Sandford was truly as cynical about writing as he came across as. The author replied that it is not cynicism. Writing is his job. He did not try to glorify the occupation. He said writing is hard work. It is what he does, what he feels he has to do, every day.

The author went on to tell many things about writing. He said that you need to be able to write about something with which you are familiar. If you have never been to a murder scene, do not write about one. You may write your mystery/thriller from the perspective of someone else whose perspective you better understand. He did, however, speak about relationships you should play on in your own life. Maybe you know someone who knows a police officer. Get that person to get you in touch so you may ask to ride along in the car. The things you learn on that ride, or a series of those rides, will be invaluable.

He does not know how his books will end when he sits down to write them. What he does know is that in the first chapter someone will die, in the second chapter the characters will be introduced and towards the end there will be a gun fight. This seems like a pretty basic approach, but it is a tried and true model for him. He does not outline the story at the beginning, but he will do so towards the end. When he is nearly finished with the book and has but 30,000-40,000 words to go he will lay out his story. He wants a galloping finish so everything must be summed up at the appropriate time. The ending is very important.

If you have never written a novel before, the last 4 chapters of the one you write will be the best writing you have done. Revision is important. You must constantly edit your writing; especially when it is complete. For your book to sell in New York to be published, the entire thing must be as good as those final four chapters. This may mean for a lot of re-writing.

The standard newspaper column will be 750 words. The author feels as though he could write that much at this point in his career in 20-30 minutes and it would be pretty good. If you can get to a point where you are comfortable writing 750 words each day, he says you can have a complete novel in about 7 months. To be safe, he suggests a 2 hour commitment each day.

You need to be married to the idea of writing and completing a novel. The hardest part, he offers, will be in the endurance. To be able to sustain one idea from page 1 until the end is very difficult. There will be times when you want to quit. There will be times when you think the idea is not very good. You must keep going; having the stamina to finish is a key success factor.

He addressed the subject of writer's block. He quoted a fellow author for this point of the conversation; I apologize for not remembering who it was. Said author was asked by the president of a college in Minnesota what he did when he gets writer's block. He responded in kind with a question asking her what she does when she gets president of the college block. This may seem silly, but with some thought you see that you find a way to get things done. To elaborate and personalize the story some, Sandford says that if he is having a hard time at any point he will go back and do some editing. Maybe he has written enough for that day and after some proofreading he will pick it back up the next day.

You need to decide what you want to do with your novel. There are two options (for the most part). Option 1 is that you write a book that allows you to show your artistic side. You are an artist and you want to share your vision with the world, well with the 20,000 people who will buy your book at least. Option 2 is that you learn the demographics of the book market. You find out that the bulk of book sales comes from women ages 35-60 who live in households with enough disposable income to buy hardcover books. If you know this and learn their wants and needs you may better cater to them. Doing this, explains the author, you may now share your vision with the 2 million people who buy your book. I do not use this as a threat. I am stating, as did Sandford, that many people choose option 1, there is nothing wrong with it. The explanation is more about option 2. If you want to sell a blockbuster, and you have never sold a novel sure to understand there are certain nuances that will help and others that will deter the performance of your book.

Nothing John Sandford said came across to us as arrogant or far-fetched. I ask that you do not read it that way if my recap felt that way. The talk we had on Thursday was extremely helpful to someone like me who hopes to write a novel someday. I thanked the author that night and I thank him again for his time and guidance. It was unbelievably kind of him to take the time like that for us. Also I would like to thank Nicola's Books for hosting and keeping the store open while we chatted and the professor for asking all the right questions. This was an atypical book signing; one that will not be forgotten. What a fantastic experience.

Cool gift.

May 14th, 2005

When I went to visit my sister in Boston she handed me a present. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, visited Boston College. She tells me she heard the guy was on campus and had nothing else to do at the time so she stopped in and heard him talk a bit. While she was there, she picked up a copy of his new book Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and got it signed for me. What a great sister!

Author Appearances.

May 13th, 2005

If you have never been to a book signing it is a very interesting experience. I will admit I find that readers have more to gain from it than those who do not read, but I would never recommend someone not attend. The only time I would say it is not as exciting is when the author does not talk.

Sometimes they will read excerpts from the book(s) they are promoting with the tour, sometimes they will sit and tell stories; most of the time they will have a question and answer session. There are times, however when the appearance is only a signing and you walk into the location and get in line and wait to have your book(s) signed and then you leave.

Some authors travel alone, some with a publisher. Some are very nice, others view the line behind you as daunting and prefer to keep things moving. Some allow for pictures to be taken with them while you get your book signed, some do not. You almost always have the option to get your book personalized (though I only get mine "flat signed", signature only).

The majority of the questions center around the following examples: When is the next book coming out? What is your next one about? Will this or any be optioned for a movie? Will you ever do a cross over novel with another writer? Where do you get your inspiration for these books? Is the main character modeled after someone you know? How did you get into writing? How long does it take for you to write a book? Do you know what how each book will end the minute you start writing it?

When you are having a book signed, the page on which the author will place the signature is the actual title page of the book. You will always know the title page from the rest as on its back there is the copyright information. A trick of the trade is to fold the inside flap of the dust jacket between the pages to mark the title page, thus making it easier for the author.

If you happen to bring copies of the author's work with you, you will typically be categorized as a collector. This flag will do nothing more than cost you a little time. I have heard the rule stating if you have more than 6 books, you are a collector; other times it goes unsaid on a "you know who you are" basis. Being a collector at a signing almost always will mean they as you wait until the end. You could be the first one to show up for the event, but they will still ask you be one of the last to leave. The justification is that somehow it is worse to be behind one person with ten books than ten people with one book each. How? I am not sure. The line will form without you in it. Many people will have their book signed while you wait. Eventually you will be greenlighted to join the queue. This can work to your advantage though as you then have the author in a more intimate environment as most of the other patrons have gone. Only one time have I encountered an author who has stated they will not sign more than one book other than their current release. They will sign as many copies of the new book as you have, but only one book besides.

You can find out about author appearances from a variety of sources. The location hosting the appearance will often have a flyer listing upcoming visits and/or details on their website. There may only be signs posted stating the author, time and date of the appearance. My personal favorite method is by simply visiting the author's personal website (if it exists); they generally have a page devoted to their tour schedule. The only downfall to using this angle exclusively is that you may miss out on authors you have never seen before.

Then of course there is the rest of the internet on which you may find people who attend these appearances regularly and they can be a great resource if you are looking for information (see also: e-mail me). I will try to begin posting my favorite authors' tour schedules in case you are interested, but if you have any questions, let me know. In turn, if you have any info you think I may find interesting either leave a comment or follow the same e-mail link above.

I will also try and recap each appearance I attend and fill you in on any details you missed. I have created a new category to the Books blog for Author Appearances where I will contain all of the information discussed on this topic.

I love seeing authors speak and have the opportunity to pick their brains. To date, the furthest I have traveled for an author appearance is 2 hours, though I imagine that personal record will be broken.

She's the One

May 12th, 2005
She's the OneWith Cameron Diaz, Edward Burns, Jennifer Aniston, John Mahoney, Mike McGlone and Maxine Bahns. Two New York brothers, one blue collar, one white collar, finally come to blows over their lives, their wives, and their mistresses.

I began my appreciation for Edward Burns with his work in Confidence, which has quickly become one of my favorite movies. In digging through his resume a bit I came across a few movies which he wrote and directed. Those titles include The Brothers McMullen, She's the One, No Looking Back, Sidewalks of New York, Ash Wednesday, Looking for Kitty and The Groomsmen. As an Ed Burns fan, you can see I have my hands full. But you have to start somewhere. I started with She's the One.

Three men, two brothers and their father, learn valuable lessons about themselves and each other thanks to a few women in their lives. The two brothers are now in their mid-20s, one is married and the other had one foot on the altar before finding his beloved sprawled on the floor of their apartment with another man. What can come between two brothers? A woman? The three men, the "Fighting Fitzpatricks", find out they do not have women figured out as they once had thought.

Once you get over how slimy Mike McGlone's character (as the younger brother) is, the movie is quite enjoyable. I think it can be described as a good natured comedy from which you may even be able to learn a thing or two. The movie was a little raw, but as this was Ed Burns' second movie, he probably did not have a huge budget. Understand also that this movie would probably have not been as good had much more money been put into it. As-is, the movie had a certain "real" edge to it that made the characters seem a little more sincere.

I did have a little trouble separating Burns as Mickey Fitzpatrick from Jake Vig (Confidence), but I got over that too.

Having an older brother, movies where there is a focus on some competition between brothers are ones to which I can relate. It is always interesting to see how those relationships compare to the one between my brother and I. I guess I just hope he doesn't seen any of Francis Fitzpatrick in me...

I liked She's the One. I think it's one you might want to check out.

Buy She's the One $9.98

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May 11th, 2005
The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don't have it.
- George Bernard Shaw

Law school update.

May 10th, 2005

In an attempt to not have to have this conversation multiple times, here is how things went in week 1.

Contracts 1:
My professor seems...fair. I am not sure I could ask for anything more than that. He thus far shows great patience and the desire to help us learn. That means that he will not berate us in front of our colleagues and will instead lead us to the answers he seeks.

He did tell us that his teaching style differs from an anecdote from his days in law school. He told us of a time where a professor he had threw a dime at a classmate and told him, "Go phone your mother to tell her you are failing out of law school."

His class is run well. It is more relaxed than I had anticipated. When it is time to discuss a case or a problem from the text he (at least in week 1) asked for volunteers. It is nice that no one in the class tried to hide behind this and keep quiet. Through various discussions I believe everyone in the room participated more than once.

Torts 1:
This professor, while fair also, appears to be more by the book. Her class will be run in accordance to a more stringent set of rules. When discussing cases and problems her method is to call on a student at random instead of taking volunteers. In either scenario we know to be prepared anyhow, but this is an added stress that seems unnecessary.

She has shown signs that she will also work with us to help us understand to the best of her ability. That is a very good thing.

Intro to Law:
This class is actually taught by two people. From my understanding neither is a professor, they are the teachers of the class. One is a representative from the Academic Resource Center provided through the school and the other is in a similar capacity though adjunct.

I was unsure what to expect from this class as it is designed to be an aid in the rest of my courses for first term. Now I know that it is actually quite helpful. It is a little extra work, and at a rather inconvenient time (7-9pm Friday), but I do see benefit in the class.

The teacher who is actually full time with the ARC seems extremely helpful and he relates very well from what I have seen to date.

In total:
Law school will not be that bad. Sure it is all relative and I am still enjoying the few page assignments of the first few weeks, but it really does not seem too bad. As many times as even I have heard this, it does hold true: you just have to do the work. If I read and brief my cases, when I go into class there are no surprises.

I am still working on ironing out my routine that will have me do roughly 1 hour of work per night per class. That is what will really be the hard part about law school. The powers that be in law school land call it a "compromise" between my time spent doing other things, I consider it a sacrifice. Call it what you want.

1 week down. 259 to go.