Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Proud Parents Push Daughter's Book

As I was perusing books at Powell's bookstore in Portland Sunday, a couple asked me if I had read Landfall by Ellen Urbani.  No, I hadn't.  It's very good I recall them saying.  Then they revealed it had been written by their daughter.  I asked if they were in it.  No, but they were in a previous one.  And this one is dedicated to them.  So I asked them if I could take a picture of them holding the book.  Here it is.

But, in answer to my question, they showed me the dedication:
"Along with virtually every other good thing in my life, this book is a gift from and for my mother, whom I adore.

And with her, my father, who each day gives everything he has for his family."
And clearly, Mom adores Ellen back.

The book takes place post Katrina.  As I looked for info about the book I found several sites saying it comes out August 29 this year, but it was already at Powell's - maybe because Portland is her home town.  Her first book, it turns out, was about her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala 1991-1992,  I didn't mention to her parents that I was in Portland for my Peace Corps group's reunion.

 Other Books

Powell's is an enormous bookstore with room after room of books.  Here are a few books I looked at near the entrance.   The first three reflect my always burning curiosity about what makes people tick.

The Man In The Monster is a book about a journalist who befriends a serial killer on death row as she seeks to understand the man and his actions.  This gets directly to the basic theme of this blog - how do you know what you know?  Why is a man's life summed up by something he spent, perhaps three or four weeks on in total, rather than everything else he did?  Is it accurate to forever label him a murderer when, as the parts of this I scanned suggest, it was hard for the author to imagine the man she grew to know as the man who had killed?

Mark Ruthman, Chicago in a First Read review of the book writes:
"This is a very well-written and soul-searching peek at an unexpected relationship that develops between a brutal killer and a pacifist journalist. While this seems wildly improbable, the journalist has an amazing sense of compassion and the killer is well-educated and legitimately or convincingly remorseful and highly functioning and medicated by the time she meets him, so that she only catches glimpses of the "monster" that on a handful of occasions took control of him and caused him to stalk and sometimes rape and kill women and girls. As time develops and she sticks with him through his retrials and appeals and sentencing, all the while fervently trying to keep him from being executed, her compassion wins out and she has to be reminded by him of his horrific actions. She pieces together the story of his childhood and early relationships where parents, family, and others skewed his notions of how to treat other people in relationships and general. His family history suggests both nature and nurture went awry and contributed to his desires to commit horrible crimes. .  ."
There are a number of reviews of the book at the link.

Another book that tries to bridge communication among people by getting them to share their stories with each other.  This was particularly poignant on a weekend when we were meeting up with friends we'd share Peace Corps training and teaching in Thailand with and learned more of each others' stories since the last time we'd seen each other - in some cases 45 years ago. 

What's Your Story? was put together by Brandon Domon who sat in a public space and gave people a blank page to write their stories.  The rules are spelled out in the book, which, like the stories in it, is all handwritten.

Click to enlarge

 Straight To Hell is a disturbing book, by a young banker who describes his high flying days and ways.  If you don't already question the enormous salaries in banking, then this book should at least raise a few.  Like whether the market is the best way to determine salaries. The chapters I looked at were about his life in Hong Kong.

Again, a sharp contrast to the life I led for a year in Hong Kong teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

This book reminds me of pale version of John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hitman.   But it seems to focus more on the sensational than the structural forces that allow this to happen.  But both are exposés of corporate greed behind the facade of respectability. 

And finally, this last one combines two stories by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

I was hoping you could read the staff recommendation at the bottom, but it's too small.  It basically says these two first books of Murakami have long been out of print in English, but now they are back, that they are coming of age stories for the characters, but also for Murakami.

I found this note on his beautiful website:

In 1978 Murakami was in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp when Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat. According to an oft-repeated story, in the instant that he hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized that he could write a novel. He went home and began writing that night.

A bookstore is a little like an airport - each gate offering you a different destination.  Except a bookstore offers an overwhelming number of options.  I bought two books.  Americanah,  a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian-American.  The other is The Larouse Book of Bread, by Éric Kayser.  It's time to take my bread making to another level.  Can I bake 50 different kinds of bread in the next year?  That would be nearly one a week.  Maybe I should aim for 25.  After all, I may want to repeat some of the best ones. 


  1. Hello, Steve!

    You made my parents' day when you took their picture and told them you'd post it on your blog -- they called me from the store to say they'd earned their keep on the promotional bandwagon! I am uncommonly blessed to have parents who cheerlead for me as loudly in my 40s as they did when I took my first steps or said my first word, and in a long list of people I have to thank for the sort of love and support necessary to birth a book, my parents are right up there at the top of that queue.

    But it seems you and I have much more in common than just books. So you were in Thailand, in the early years of the Peace Corps, I suspect (given that you mention it's been 45 years since you've seen some of your friends)? The part of Guatemala I lived in was likely not all that different from the sites many of you initial volunteers encountered: no water, no electricity, a one-room mud hut with a thatch roof. To those who ask what the Peace Corps experience was like (and as you know, everyone asks), I always say that it was magnificent and terrible, heartwarming and heartbreaking, thrilling and terrifying -- a stew of opposites that, in sum total, was the best thing I ever did. I hope your experience was similar.

    Again, my thanks to you for the kindness you extended to my parents and, by proxy, me. If you get a chance, run over to Facebook and befriend me there so we can keep track of each others' adventures.

    All the best to you-

    1. Ellen, it was a pleasure to see their enthusiasm and love. We're in a clearing out rather than taking in period of our lives, so I'm going to check on your book in the Anchorage library. I've read Zeitoun and watched Treme, so I'm curious about your story.

      In Thailand back in the late 60s, I actually had electricity. Running water was available from a spigot outside that I could get into my rooms via a hose, even though I lived in a backwater provincial capital. Thailand probably was one of the easiest countries to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Food was only one reason, the warmth, friendliness, and inclusiveness of Thai people was another important factor. But people had good and bad experiences everywhere. And it's clear in hindsight, that life was easier, in general, for male volunteers than females, just like it is everywhere.

      And I do appreciate how much work it is to get a book published - especially one that is good. Congratulations. Can you answer the question about dates I raised in the post? Did the publication date just get moved up or did Powell's score early copies?


  2. Steve,
    Thank you for opting for a library loaner for my book, LANDFALL. While I don't discourage sales -- for I like income as much as the next person -- I also spent much of my youth in libraries and think they are one of our greatest national resources, so I appreciate you for frequenting and supporting them!

    As for the pub date .... well ..... that HAS caused some confusion (for us all).

    When my publisher acquired LANDFALL almost exactly a year ago, we picked Aug 29 as the pub date to work toward -- as that is the exact day that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans ten years ago. However, the publisher's national distributor (Legato, a division of PGW/Perseus) has a single pub date each month for all titles releasing nationwide. For August 2015 titles, that was August 11. Because we liked the synchronicity of the book LANDFALL releasing on the say the storm made landfall, however, we continued to advertise it as such.

    But then it got even trickier when Amazon received their stockpile of books on July 23, in advance of the release date, and immediately started shipping them to all the customers who'd preordered. We then had a real-time experiment in the influence of Amazon and social media on our hands. When customers started excitedly posting their glee at getting their books early, none of the other booksellers in the country wanted to get left behind, and so they started putting books on the shelves as well. The downfall? There wasn't any specific, celebrate-all-at-once release. The benefit? LANDFALL went into reprint even before it was supposed to have been available! So I'm not complaining.

    That's the long answer for your short question. Thanks for tolerating my long-windedness!


  3. Ellen, no, no, I like all the detail. It offers insight into publishing and raises a question about the business ethics of Amazon. Like, are the agreements that list release date contracts or just requests? And is Amazon so large it can ignore them with impunity?
    In any case, congratulations on the sales. Our local library doesn't have it - understandable if the pub date is Aug 29. But they don't have your earlier book either. So I'll have to put in a request.


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