BELLWETHERS AMONG US – WHERE THEY GO, WE FOLLOW

Connie Willis_1996_Bellwether

I read Bellwether again. Finished it the other day. Each time I read it — this is the 4th or 5th time — I learn something new.

Bellwether grabbed me from page one … from sentence one. Not merely was I highly entertained by the story, but I learned a lot about chaos theory, fads, sheep, and the meaning of “bellwether,” a term I’d heard and used — and misused — for years, but never entirely understood.

It was the bellwether and sheep connection I never got. What do I know about sheep? And why would I care? It turns out, sheep and people have an unnerving amount in common.

A bellwether is a leader of sheep, an über ewe, the sheep who the flock follows. There’s no visible reason why a bellwether leads and nor any obvious reason why the flock follows. There is just something about that ewe.

What the bellwether does, the other sheep do too. The flock will follow her — mindlessly, blindly — over a cliff if that’s where she leads. The flock doesn’t know it’s following the bellwether. They just do it.

Humans have bellwethers too. We no more recognize our bellwethers than does a flock of sheep. Still we follow them. An atavistic instinct, embedded in our DNA? Some are born to lead, others to follow. A few to walk a unique path.

The book is laugh-out-loud funny. Erudite, witty, and replete with trivia guaranteed to upgrade your anecdotal skills.

Bellwether suggests answers to previously unanswerable questions. Why do people vote against their own self-interest? Why do we do so many stupid things? The answer? We’re following a bellwether. They are loose amongst us, invisible shakers and movers. Unaware of their effect on the people around them.

You should read this book. It also explains a lot of events throughout history which have never made any kind of sense. Even after you know all the facts of what happened, most of history doesn’t make sense. But if you add in a few critical bellwethers, it all comes clear.

Human life, history and relationships are illogical. They just happen. We can explain them only in retrospect. That’s what historians are for, after all. To make sense of the past because it won’t make sense by itself. Human society is chaotic. The only predictable thing is unpredictability.

I found Bellwether original, insightful, amusing and thought-provoking. Highly entertaining and funny. I can’t imagine what more anyone could want from a book. I recommend it both in print (Kindle or paper) and audio. It is a book you will read and remember.

Then read it again. There’s more to it than you will get in a single reading.

I LOVE YOU, AUDIBLE.COM

I joined Audible.com in 2002.

I had a long commute and I’d been buying audiobooks for a few years from Books On Tape and Recorded Books.

Books On Tape had recently announced they were discontinuing non-institutional services. Bummer. Recorded Books didn’t have much of a selection and were expensive.

Audible was a relatively new concept. Downloading was slow, but the price was good. For $16.95, I could have two books a month. I would own them, but wouldn’t have to store them. They were digital files and would be stored in my library on Audible’s server.

audible home page

Twelve years later, I have close to a thousand books in my Audible library. A few have disappeared. They may be there somewhere, but the search engine can’t find them and I don’t remember what they were. It doesn’t matter. There are so many.

A few years ago, Amazon bought Audible. For once, I was unperturbed by the acquisition. Amazon and I have had a great relationship since Amazon was an online bookstore selling real books. Kindles and e-books didn’t exist. The closest thing to an e-book was a PDF file.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Audible is bigger and better. Higher quality audio files, many more books. Famous actors and brilliant narrators. Almost every book from any publisher has an audio version. You can buy twinned Kindle and Audible books that synchronize. That’s overkill for me, but I often own both versions because listening and reading are different experiences. I listen, then read, then listen again. My eyes are increasingly reluctant to focus on print, so I listen more, read less. Audible has become primary and reading is now an alternative to listening.

Times change. I’ve changed.

Late the other night, already tucked in bed, I decided to select this month’s audiobooks. I still have the original plan I subscribed to. New subscribers pay more, but I’m “grandfathered.” The only thing I don’t have that newer plans include are “rollover” credits. I have to use my credits within the month or lose them. Technically, anyhow. The only time I didn’t use them — I didn’t forget, but I was in the hospital — they gave the credits back and threw in a couple of extra because I’d been sick.

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This month, I wanted two books, both not yet released. Pre-orders. The Getaway God by Richard Kadrey, Book Six in the Sandman Slim series, to be released on August 26th. And The Witch With No Name by Kim Harrison, the 13th and final book in The Hollows series, to be released September 9th. I ordered the books using this month’s credits. Except when I completed the order, I had a credit left. I figured that meant they would charge the book to my credit card on delivery. I cancelled the order and redid it. Same thing happened.

It was 1:30 in the morning, but I knew I could call Audible and get this fixed. Unlike other customer service, I like calling Audible. Even before they become part of the Amazon family, they were friendly folks who wanted to make you happy.

A nice lady answered. I explained what happened. She said: “Let’s make this simple. I’ll just put the Kim Harrison book in your library. You keep the extra credit. Have a nice night. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

I double-checked: “You mean, I actually have an extra credit?”

“Yes, you do. I put The Witch With No Name into your library. When it’s released, you will automatically receive it. You can use your other credit for whatever you like.” Indeed, the book was already in my library. I ordered another book.

I was smiling. How often do you smile after talking to customer service?

I love you, Audible.com. 

WAYFARING STRANGER, BY JAMES LEE BURKE

James Lee Burke’s sprawling novel connects an encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to the Battle of the Bulge and the oil boom.


Here in the Lone Star State, we have a subgenre of the Great American Novel we like to call the Novel as Big as Texas. A representative N.A.B.A.T. features lots of pages crowded with multiple generations of characters fighting Comanches, driving cattle, bringing in oil wells, eating Mexican food, settling ancestral grudges and brooding about the pitiless immensity of the Land. The category arguably began with Edna Ferber’s “Giant” and has proven elastic enough to encompass not just earnest cycloramic texts like James Michener’s “Texas” but also literary benchmarks as varied as Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Philipp Meyer’s recent epic, “The Son.”

James Lee Burke’s enormous reputation centers mostly on the 20 novels in his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, which is set in Louisiana. But Burke was born in Houston and has long conducted a brisk side business west of the Sabine River with novels that chronicle the lives of the Hollands, an archetypically Texan clan. Son Holland, the patriarch, appeared in “Two for Texas,” which took place during the time of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution, and his descendants Hackberry Holland and Hack’s cousin Billy Bob Holland each anchor their own series of mystery novels.

Read the rest of the review at: www.nytimes.com


This is James Lee Burke in top form. If you like his writing, this will be a treat for you. It’s part of the Holland family of mysteries and a very good one.

See on Scoop.itBooks, Writing, and Reviews

ON MY SHELF – JAMES LEE BURKE

Off the Shelf - Take a look at your bookcase. If you had enough free time, which book would be the first one you’d like to reread? Why?


A few days ago, I finished “Wayfaring Stranger,” the latest, greatest book by James Lee Burke, one of my top five favorite authors. It was a good read. Maybe a great read. It made me hunger for more of that special JLB magic.

books james lee burke

So there I am, looking through my bookshelves and I realize I have every hardcover edition of the past 20 years of James Lee Burke, many of them signed by the hand of the Master.

I’d like to reread at least a few of them, maybe start the Dave Robicheaux series from the beginning. Read them in hardcover and paper and sniff the ink, feel the binding give just  a little. It would be a trip back to when books had heft, a feel, a scent. I sometimes miss that. I love my Kindle and my audiobooks, but sometimes … I miss the smell of printer’s ink.

RICHARD BEN SAPIR – THE FAR ARENA

The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir

FarArena

I recently bought a used copy of this long out-of-print book. I first read it when it was released in 1978. I was working at Doubleday and it fell to me to do the write-up for it in the monthly publication that was sent to book club members.

A large part of my job was reading books. Talk about great jobs, that was the best. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my Doubleday years. Not merely was I paid to read and write about books, but I received (as did all the editors and graphic artists in the department) new copies of every book we worked on. We all had huge personal libraries. We also had 2 hour lunches and wonderful co-workers. I looked forward to work the way most folks anticipate the weekend. It was that good. I realize this is a digression, but I wanted to put this in context. Maybe brag a little.

The Far Arena is classified as science fiction. It is, but not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t fall into any genre except perhaps speculative fiction, a catch-all term for odd books. Time travel? Sort of. But without the machinery.

gladiators2The story in brief: A Roman gladiator is flash frozen in the arctic ice. He is accidentally discovered by a team drilling for oil and subsequently defrosted and brought back to life. What follows is his story as a Roman married to a Hebrew slave, and his perceptions of the modern world from the point of view of a man whose world disappeared 1600 years ago. His observations on modern society are priceless.

For example, while in the hospital, he asks about the slaves who serve him. He is referring to the to nurses and other workers who attend to his needs. His new friends explain that they aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave, or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea.

“You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves without responsibility.”

“They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.

“They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves. They are slaves,” he responds. Who would argue the point? Not me.

That is paraphrasing, of course, but it’s the spirit of the dialogue. I have never looked at the world quite the same way since I read this book. Modern workers have all the freedom of slaves, but no assurance that anyone will care for them when they are no longer able to work. That’s a pretty good deal from the owners’ … I mean employers’ … point-of-view.

This is a brilliant, unique book. It stands apart from all the books I’ve read over the years. All other time travel stories are about modern people visiting the past. This is the only book I can think of where a man from the past offers a view of the modern world and it’s not pretty.

Richard Ben Sapir wrote other books that are unusual and worth reading. I especially liked The Body. But The Far Arena stands head and shoulders above the rest. He only wrote a few novels. His world was really comic books, or what are now called “graphic novels.” Finding copies of Ben Sapir’s books is challenging. If you can buy or borrow one, it’s a must-read, even if science fiction is not normally your favorite genre.

It would make a great movie. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. I recommend you read it if you can. You can find copies around occasionally and although he was not a prolific writer, he wrote a few other novels, all of which are very good and have unique stories.

Did I mention that it’s exceptionally well written? Highly literate? Well-researched? Convincing? All those things and a great, gripping story too.

Happy hunting and hopefully, happy reading!

THE WITCH PROMISES GREAT BEST-SELLERS

A BOOKISH CHOICE – A literary-minded witch offers you a choice. With a flick of her wand, you can become an obscure novelist whose work will be admired and studied by a select few for decades (phooey on that!) or a popular author whose books give pleasure to millions (definitely). Which do you choose? (Is this a serious question?)


Was I ever young enough to think money doesn’t matter? If I ever said anything that silly, I apologize. To anyone to whom I may have expressed such arrant nonsense, I must have been on drugs. They warned us about the brown acid.

75-BooksHP

You can always write some (or many) good books if you have a publisher and an audience. If your books sell well, you don’t have to write drivel. There’s nothing to prevent you from being a best-selling author and a fine writer. I can think of a bunch of authors who succeed at both.

Great writing does not exclude popularity. Exceptional books will find their audience if they get a reasonable shot at it … which means, any exposure at all.

Go with the best-selling choice. It’s a win-win.


And Mr. Huberman, you need a course in spelling and grammar. I don’t wish to insult you, but please, take the time to proofread your posts before publishing. You are writing for writers. We notice.

WALDO AND MAGIC, INC., ROBERT HEINLEIN

waldo and magic incI’m astonished how many people have read these two novellas and miss the point. Some readers apparently can’t see any connection between the two stories. They think these novellas are in a single volume by a fluke or “to fill up space.” Either they didn’t really read them or they are conceptually challenged, unable to make a logical leap between two related ideas without a flow chart.

The point is that technology is a based on our belief it will work. As long as we believe in it, it functions. If or when we stop believing, it won’t. It’s all magic.

When we lose faith in technology, magic jumps in and becomes the new technology. The difference between one and the other is functionally negligible. The stories’ plots are irrelevant. It’s the concept that counts.

I read these books about 50 years ago. I haven’t read them since, but remember them. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the plot of whatever book I read last week. These were original concepts when first introduced in the 1940s, was still original 25 years later when I read it. Probably still original today, more than 60 years after the stories were first published.

The best science fiction is concept-driven rather than character or plot-driven. These two have stuck with me for a lifetime. Both novellas are based on a unified concept: We believe in what works — and what works is what we believe.

Nothing is certain anymore. Nothing. Chaos is king and magic is loose in the world.

Available on Kindle, in paperback and from Audible.com.