Review of Richard Russo’s “Elsewhere.”

Longtime readers of Russo’s fiction will recognize the woman at the center of this memoir. His mother, Jean Russo, and his childhood with her have fueled most of his novels.

My review in The Seattle Times begins this way:

Richard Russo has mined his childhood with enormous energy, humor and craftsmanship. He’s populated most of his stories and novels (one, “Empire Falls,” a Pulitzer Prize winner) with wonderfully believable characters found in fading mill towns nestled in upper New York State.

These towns, once vibrant, clattering, stinking centers where animal hides were turned into famously excellent gloves and other leather goods, were dying by the 1950s when Russo was growing up just north of the Adirondacks foothills. His hometown was Gloversville, in what was later labeled the Central Leatherstocking District — two names so simultaneously sad and absurd that Russo might have made them up . (A place proudly named after an extinct industry not once, but twice, is the sort of stuff Russo appreciates.)


Read the rest here.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

Vote YES for BookTithe

I can’t be the only lover contemplating sneaking out on my beloved.

Some of you other book-lovers share my guilty fantasizing about getting a Kindle. Right?

Like you, I’m sold on the technology, which I could get either as the Kindle proper or as an iPhone ap. What could be cooler than deciding I want a book and being able to get it instantly?

I’m hesitating only because of Powell’s Books–the country’s best bookstore which has its huge mothership on the edge of downtown Portland, and is the destination for a significant chunk of my disposable income. Anything that could wound or shorten the life of this great company worries me.

Sooner or later, though, I’m going to give in. I’ll be just like my friends who so proudly declared “I don’t own a cellphone,” only to find themselves late for something important while stuck behind one of Portland’s raised bridges during its leisurely upppppp and downnnnnnn to let a ship pass under.

Technology has a way of twining itself around your legs like kudzu, no matter how determinedly you swing the scythe.

So, here’s my idea: Create a BookTithe option on each digital book purchase. It can work just like that Presidential election campaign question on the 1040 tax form. Do you want to contribute to your favorite independent bookstore? Check this box.

Now, true, this contribution is real, out-of-the-wallet dough, not the seemingly abstract money to the Presidential election fund.  And also true that the ten percent I send to Powell’s is not going to make up for the $10 or $25 I didn’t spend on a book there. But it’s better than nothing. And if I spend the usual $9.99 for the Kindle book (typically a lower price than a new actual book)  I can surely afford kicking in some of the savings to a bricks-and-mortar store of my choosing. Plus, it’s no threat to Amazon, B&N and the other giants of the electronic-book world.

No matter how many bells and whistles they put on electronic readers, we still need real stores. Browsing, buying and selling old books is vital activity. How else can I find that treasure of a new, unknown author? No amount of clicking through lists is every going to have the soothing properties of wandering Powell’s aisles. I’d love to be able to buy a book in the middle of some insomniac night…but the ability to do so shouldn’t replace the bookstore.

It can’t be too hard to set this up. The person who built the Kindle must be looking for work by now, surely.

--Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett,

Reviewing the reviewer.

Michiko Kakutani is a powerful book reviewer, whose work in The New York Times can kill book sales or torpedo an author’s career in a few column inches. I’ve been reading Kakutani’s reviews more closely these days, considering the pieces’ success as essays rather than endorsements or rejections of new books.

I now picture Kakutani sitting alone in a small office, a room that no editor ever dares enter. I imagine that the critic’s copy goes directly from keyboard to the newspaper’s website or printed page with nary a word questioned or touched. (She provides no end of speculation along these lines. See her Wikipedia entry and a good piece by Ben Yagoda for Slate.) Salman Rushdie supposedly called her “a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank,” a description that hits uncomfortably close to home for just about any critic, truth be told.

Few reviewers can match Kakutani’s heat-seeking-missile style:

“Unfortunately for the reader, “Fun With Problems” is a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse here and there of his strengths.”

And even fewer get away with so many overly chewy phrases:

“This description might suggest that Ms. Shriver has constructed a didactic or lugubrious novel, willfully topical and laboriously relevant. She hasn’t.” (From a review of “So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver.)

And probably no one else writing for a large audience wrote seven such reviews in a month, as Kakutani did in January.


David Pogue, possibly the only person on the planet who can write about using the shift key on your iMac and make it sound fun, raises provocative stuff in a recent blog post. Pogue of course is the genius behind the books, blogs, articles and podcasts on Apple products and other goods in the computer world.

In “Should e-books be copy protected?” he mulls the rising storm around Kindles, Nooks, and the like. If you have a Kindle library of books, should you be able to switch to another e-book gadget and drag all your literary luggage along with you? And, what about passing that book to a buddy who then doesn’t have to pay for it?

I’m fine with moving an e-book from one e-reader to another. It’s like moving a book to a new shelf. Should I be able to pass it on to a friend without paying again? Well, yes. How is that different from lending a printed book to a buddy?

But what about the enterprising folks who pirate and sell the book online for a fraction of the “official” price? Those people we need to send to the electronic woodshed for sure. Of course, we all learned some lessons from the music-piracy mess. Controlling media sharing is pretty much a joke. It’s like catching a greased pig–possible, but laughably difficult.

Here’s what I’m waiting for: Some big macher in this debate to jump up and yell, “Hey! A lot of book-loving, round-the-clock readers are willing to pay for titles! Let’s ask some of them how they’d like to do it!” We rabid readers will rise to the occasion.

I imagine a future in which I make regular PayPal-like payments for increments of reading material — a kind of electronic punch card. Yes, the impoverished student next door will still download pirated stuff for free, but so what? She’s been standing in the aisles at Powell’s reading the stuff without buying it anyway.

Bookworms turn and unite! Pay for your pleasure!

Watch your hat and coat. And your book.

I was just about ready to admit that maybe the Kindle wasn’t so bad. As much as I love real, honest-to-God paper pages and covers, the idea of being able to get a zillion books on a portable electronic tablet was seeming more appealing.

Now, though, as our New York relatives like to say: forgetaboutit.

Once I read the story about Amazon recalling George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindle owners who had already purchased and downloaded the novel, I came back to the fold. If it plugs in and lights up, it ain’t a book. Period.

Like everyone else who read the story, I’m loving the irony of Orwell’s famous big-brother-bashing book being the one that got taken away from the little people. Now that wireless giveth us e-books, it turns out it can also be used to taketh them away. Who knew?

Amazon took the book back when it became clear that a particular digital-publishing company selling 1984 for Kindle use did not have the legal right to do so. That seems appropriately respectful of copyright law, something that a lot of authors will appreciate. It just came a little late. You have to pay for a title search when you buy a house, but apparently the other kind of title searching got a little sloppy somewhere along the pipeline.

And, of course, the method of retrieval was unnerving. Thank God I didn’t buy my knock-off designer jeans by wireless.

I’m imagining that somewhere deep in the bowels of Amazon’s underground bunker, there’s a poor guy who had to take a deep breath, click on the RECALL icon, knowing he was about to become the online-bookseller equivalent of that perv who hangs around the laundromat and filches underwear out of the dryer.

It’s okay, buddy. You were just following orders. Mr. Orwell would understand.