Tagged: book club

Buying British Books from my couch by way of Porter Square and Google

I noticed a while back that local indie bookseller Porter Square Books sold ebooks on their website.  When I tried to buy one, I ended up with a format not readable on my Android phone, but the Porter Square crew did something I did not expect and promptly refunded me in full.  Win, except that I haven’t bought any ebooks from them since.

Now, some time later, I’ve learned that Porter Square Books now “carries” Google ebooks, which means you can buy a Google ebook on Porter Square Books’ website (not yet in their store unless you bring your own computer) and have that book appear magically in your Google books application on your phone, computer, tablet, whatever.  And just now I have done just that.  Big win, and I was rewarded with the 10-point thank you memo at right.

I’m not really sure I (5) nurtured any community since I did it at home and alone, or (6) conserved any tax dollars since I didn’t pay any sales tax so MA missed out there, or (8) used much of PSB expertise, but I am otherwise quite glad I did it.

For those keeping track, I picked up David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which is listed in PSB/Google’s catalog as “Blackswangreen” in case you want to read along with my book club.  I paid $12 for the ebook, compared to $15 for the trade paperback at PSB.  The paperback was $10.20 on Amazon so I guess localism has its price.

How does Google’s ebook reader software, Books, stack up on Android against Kindle and Nook?  The big difference in Google’s favor I see is the “original pages” function which can switch you from simple text to a scan of the original book and back.  Pretty cool with older and illustrated books but of questionable use with the latest Tom Clancy.  What Google Books lacks – and it seems really odd to me that Google would leave this out – is search.  At least on the Android app, you cannot (at least I cannot) search for text inside a book.  I figured that would be a slam-dunk for the Googles, but I’m sure it’ll be in an update soon enough.

So I urge you to support your local booksellers and your not-that-local ostentatiously-not-evil giant corporations next time you feel ebook fever coming on.

Herman Melville two ways, or, a tale of two Gutenbergs

As you may know, the first rule of my book club is, well, I can’t tell you the first rule.  One of the other rules is, when it’s your turn, you pick the book and that’s the book.  No discussion, voting or appeals are needed.  Sure, there’s sometimes some friendly wrangling, but when push comes to shove, we read what is chosen for us.  Last month, it was a lesser-known early work by Herman Melville, Mardi, and a Voyage Thither.  The relative obscurity of this work provided some challenges and opportunities, as it’s pretty much out of print, but also out of copyright.

Having exhausted the obvious first choices of public libraries and used bookstores and come up empty, I decided to see what else was out there.  Regular and online bookstores had or could order the book, but at 300+ pages each for two volumes, I thought this might finally be the time to look into electronic readers.  The idea of carrying hundreds of books around in a few ounces of electronics never appealed much to me, but the idea of carrying around one very large book in a smaller form factor was starting to make me think again.

Kindle, Nook, iPod, iPad, PC – no shortage of reading devices, each covered plenty well by pundits worthier than I.  But what about the media itself?  It turns out that there’s something called Project Guternberg, a collection of free downloadable ebooks, generally ones that have landed in the public domain after their copyrights expired.  There’s also Google Books of course, where you can read but not generally download books.  Reading books on a 5 pound laptop wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

After some poking around, I found what I thought would be a terrible solution, but the price was right.  I downloaded the free Mobipocket reader for my phone and picked up the Melville at Project Guternberg.

Mardi on my HTC

As it turned out, I read 350 pages of turgid 19th Century prose a few pages at a time on my two-train commute over the course of a month or so.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was certainly convenient.  I could read with one hand while holding on for dear life with the other.  I didn’t have to worry about losing my place and even in a very crowded train, the device was small enough that I didn’t worry about elbowing fellow passengers while using it, and it was easy to slip back into a pocket without wrangling a book or larger device into and out of a bag or case.

I wondered if there was hope for paper.  And then I met Paige.

In the back of the Harvard Bookstore is a Rube Goldberg contraption consisting of two different printers, a couple of computers and a clear plastic box containing some very sharp blades and pot of boiling hot glue.  It’s called Paige M. Gutenberg.  Get it?  It’s a book machine.  In goes paper, ink, glue and a digital file, and out comes a perfect-bound book in a couple of minutes.  It’s a wacky marriage of cyber- and steampunk. You can smell the glue when you stand near it. I had to try it.

The Book Machine

After some consultation with the staff, I learned that you first have to select (which generally means buy) the digital file from a variety of sources, and then once the machine is warmed up, the printing and binding takes just a few minutes.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the files of Mardi were as costly, perhaps more so, than the pre-printed books.  But in the spirit of investigation, I paid $30 for volume two and watched Paige crank it out.  The print quality was great and the paper stock pleasant.  The cover (also printed on the spot with a different printer on different stock) was a little on the cheap side, and the binding was not quite perfect perfect binding.

All in all, if you really need it right away or it’s out of print, this is a great thing. But I fear it’s years late and more than a few dollars short in holding back ebooks.  Sure, it makes high(ish) quality printing and binding on demand available to small-time authors or artists, but even a five minute wait at a bookstore compares poorly with near-instant delivery to a computer or handheld device.  And if you insist on paper, you can often get cheaper and higher quality books shipped in a few days – even same day in some cities – from the giants of ecommerce.

Still, I’m glad there are options, especially because those options are evidence of interest in the business of publishing which means people are still reading, and that’s good.

The fourth part of book club; holiday globe appeal

Last week, we took Book Club to a new level with a guest appearance by the author – Belmont’s own Toby Lester – of our chosen book, The Fourth Part of the World.  I had worried that such an august presence would impede the club’s traditional focus on wine, gossip and whingeing about our jobs, but we had plenty of time for all four parts.

Lester’s book is a vivd and polymathematical ramble across a few centuries of history leading up to the European “age of discovery” largely seen through the prism of mapmakers, especially a certain Waldseemüller, who in 1507 first printed “America” on a map of the hemisphere from which I am now writing.  We got a fresh look at some familiar figures like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus and some wonderfully-told new (to most of us) stories.  Have you heard of Prester John?

The Fourth Part of the World reminds us that Columbus was nowhere near the first to conceive of the world as round, and it tells the story of many approximations close and not so close of the actual size of the globe, and the gradual discovery by Europeans of the true arrangement of the continents and their contents.  Looking at the beautiful plates I was reminded that while today’s schoolchildren are pretty clear on the roundness of the earth, they might not be as clear on the arrangement or content of the lands upon it.

Perhaps you remember last Fall’s grumbling about non-educational globes for sale at Target?  Well, a quick scan of DonorsChoose shows over 100 classrooms in the US in need of globes and maps.  So, as if you haven’t been harangued enough on this blog to do some good in the world, I urge you to consider giving some of your holiday charity budget to one of these worthy projects – our children need the best understanding of the shape of the world and its different people that they can get.

Notes on used books, notes in used books

I’m a big proponent of the rights of authors to profit from the sale of their work, but I’m also a fan of the first-sale doctrine that lets me give away, lend or sell my copy of that work once I legally acquire it.  So, while I am mindful that when I buy a used book (or borrow one) I’m not contributing to author royalties, I support used bookstores for several reasons:

  • they make more books available to more people who are price-sensitive
  • they are the only way to get books that are out of print
  • sometimes, you find something interesting in a used book that you would never find in a new one: an inscription or notes, or a bookmark or some other ephemera

That last one, by the way, is something that future generations of digital book buyers will probably never know they’re missing.  See my recent posts on Kindle-related stuff for more on ebooks and intellectual property.  But it’s also worth noting that Google books, by scanning books, sometimes preserves this old stuff.  Check out page 8 of Google’s scan of a 1905 edition of Wuthering Heights for a taste.

Anyway… I popped in to my local used book emporium, Rodney’s Bookstore, this week seeking a copy of Wuthering Heights for book club. (My desire to contribute to author royalties and publisher revenues diminishes with the deadness of the author.)  I found three paperback copies in totally different editions and varying conditions, priced from $1.90 to $4.80.

One was a standard-issue trade paperback, part of some classic series.  It was in very good condition and the most expensive of the lot.

Next up, a Kaplan SAT Score-Raising Classic edition, billed on the Harlequin Romance inspired cover as “The Classic Novel with 763 SAT Vocabulary Words Identified and Defined!” The definitions were on the facing page to the text, swelling this edition to over 600 pages.  The bold SAT words might be a little distracting, but this one was well-proportioned and a relative bargain at $3.80.

Finally, the highbrow edition.  A St. Martin’s Press press trade paperback with a heavy paper cover, boasting the 1847 text and essays from “five contemporary critical perspectives” namely, psychoanalytic, feminist, deconstruction, Marxist, and cultural criticism.  Wow.  The downside, marked in pencil on the flyleaf, “$1.90 AS IS ROUGH” It was beat up, but appeared complete and had no highlighting or underlining, which are generally deal-breakers for me when buying a book.

Each edition certainly had its merits, but until I got my purchase home, I didn’t know the extent.  Here’s something you probably won’t ever see in your Kindle.

...it was all for a good reason...

PS I also bought the Kaplan edition, just for laughs, and just in case I need to look up a word.  What does “Wuthering” mean anyway?

CEOs don't matter unless they're boring; the rest of us should read more

People like to beat up on CEOs.  I figure it’s part of the job, but recently in a short span of time, I came across one article saying that CEOs don’t matter that much at all, and another suggesting that they should be boring.

The Atlantic trotted out some research about the actual impact of charismatic CEOs on the performance of their companies.  I was particularly amused that the URL names Steve Jobs without anything about CEOs in general.  Then, I saw David Brooks’ essay in the New York Times in which he opens with “Should CEOs read more novels?” and goes on to say the answer is no because they don’t actually need to have the depth of thought that novel-reading seems to engender.

I was offended on behalf of literature more than on behalf of the CEOs.  They can take it, I figure.  But I do firmly believe that everybody who can should make time in their lives for fiction.  I don’t mean it has to be novels, or even writing.  I mean people should make room for imaginative thought and storytelling, which could come from many kinds of media.

Brooks goes on to explain why he thinks that the skills and personality traits that make successful businesspeople, politicians and academics are fundamentally different.  I can’t completely disagree, but I think all of those groups could benefit from a little dabbling in the materials and traits of the others.  I’m a gourmand that way, I guess.

I’ve been on a high-fiber non-fiction diet lately, with Harvard Business Review, The Worst Hard Time, Uncharitable and now Thinking in Pictures occupying my queue.  And I don’t regret those choices at all – all good stuff that’s expanding my thinking.

But I saw the film, The Limits of Control last week and while some reviews have been mixed, I can safely say it was thought-provoking in an entirely different way.  Not just because it was a film – I’ve read books that were similarly jarring and fascinating at the same time. I can’t tell you that this movie will make me better at doing my job in any identifiable way, but I consider it a valuable mental workout to think differently on a regular basis, exercising both hemispheres equally if possible.

In business school, a place where the purely intellectual and artistic are often sidelined in favor of the practical (and I think I went to a more egg-headed b-school than most), I resolutely stuck with novel-reading and told everybody who would listen that they should do the same.

And now I’m in a book club half populated with business school classmates.  None of us are CEOs yet, and none of us are boring. Go figure.

In the queue

In book club this month: Man Booker prize winner The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  Halfway through, enjoying it.  Also see Adiga’s piece in the New Yorker and the discussion of White Tiger over at the Mutiny.

Picked up at the Central Square Theater: Alan Lightman’s latest, Ghost.  None of Lightman’s later work has spoken to me as powerfully as Einstein’s Dreams, but this one is interesting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Sitting on my desk at work because I’m too busy doing business to read books about doing business: Marty Neumeier’s The Designful Company.  Yes, I’m aware of the perilous nature of that working/reading situation.

On my headphones at work: Art Farmer Radio via Last.fm.  Serious hard bop with Art Farmer and artists that Last.fm thinks are similar or related.  So far, they do a very good job of programming with no commercials and high reliability.

In the blog reader: Apaertment Therapy’s family of blogs, but mostly the main feed.  Great for decorating inspiration, DIY ideas, IKEA hacks, color ideas, and generalized design porn.  Almost too much to keep up with now that they stopped recycling old posts in best-of bits.

On the blog radar: Adam Marcinek’s blog.  You may remember my random run-in with Adam last year. He’s got a new blog that promises an image a day from this up and comer.  So far he’s 2 for 2, and I’m looking forward to more.

Cuchi Cuchi book club

I’m a member of the best book club ever. The first rule of our book club is, don’t talk about book club, so don’t tell anybody I told you. The second rule of our book club is, bring wine. There are many other rules of book club, but the best part of it is that we are spectacularly lax about them, except perhaps #2.

This month we’re reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. It’s a good book so far, but it is long. In fact, I’d say it’s bigger and possibly heavier than my new mini notebook computer on which I’m blogging this at Caffe Luna. So as sometimes happens, book clubbers gradually fessed up to being not quite finished with it. Alert member C suggested that we just meet up for dinner and not discuss the book – after all, another rule of book club is no discussing of the book before the meeting.

After some wrangling of schedules, we met up at Cuchi Cuchi in Cambridge. Just now I got a real jolt of pleasure typing “Cuchi Cuchi Cambridge” into google, not least because it actually brought up the restaurant’s website as the first result. It was flapper night. Actually, it’s always flapper night there. Or something close to it.  Apologies for the photo quality, it was atmospheric in there to say the least, and I really really hate to use a flash in such settings.

We started off with a round of drinks selected from Cuchi Cuchi’s categories of “Cuchi cocktails” and “Vintage cocktails” — Kir Royale, Mint Julep, Thai Martini, Cosmopolitan and my pick, the Caipiroshka, subtitled “Caipirinha‘s dirty little sister”  I’m not sure what’s so dirty about it, since it just substitutes vodka for the usual cachaça among the lime and sugar, making it a bit like a sugary gimlet.  But I digress.  It should be enough to say that with that drink, I not very officially observed the autumnal switch from gin to vodka.

Cuchi Cuchi serves only small plates, recommending two or three per person.  We enjoyed the grilled eggplant napoleon, warm baby beets & sheep cheese salad, sizzling garlic shrimp, fried artichoke hearts, grilled Indian lamb with pickled beet salad, and blini with mushroom filling and salmon roe.  Two more dishes (before dessert) deserve a little more description.

First, Caspian Heaven: Roasted Fingerling potatoes, crispy oysters, creme fraiche, salmon roe & champagne sauce.  Super decadent yet accessible.  The oysters, although cooked (and some would call that a crime), retained their delicacy with the salmon roe contributing back some of the brininess.  The potatoes provided some good slavic grounding.

Next, Cuchi Cuchi’s “Signature Dish with a nod to Thomas Keller, The French Laundry,” Savory Cornets w/Tuna Tartare & Avocado Mousse. These beauties come three or five to an order, slotted into a japanese hand roll rack with fried lotus root on top. These were a big hit, and deservedly so.  And there’s nothing too shabby about getting a bit of French Laundry on the East coast.

For dessert, we had the Cornucopia (a pizzelle cone filled with fresh fruit, fruit kissel, whipped cream) and chocolate cake that I can’t find on the online menu but would describe as warm chocolate cake with sour cherries, crème anglaise and feullitine (the crunchy bits visible floating in the creme) with a big hollow chocolate ball on top.  We gave the chcolate ball to L because she was the winner of the “when will C finally show up” pool.  The cake was incredible, reminding me that I had the same thing and in fact sat in the same seat last time I was here, in the summer, with E.

Full and happy, we adjourned without a word about Wroblewski.  Exiting into the cool autumn air on Main street we were greeted by the most peculiar smell.  What is that?  It’s chocolately.  It’s not coming from Cuchi Cuchi.  Certainly not from the Indian or Italian restaurants flanking it.  A block later, a sign on a small parking lot explained it all.  Across the street is Cambridge Brands.  Don’t recognize that name?  Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tootsie Roll or the  Junior Mint? (scroll to the very bottom of this page for the payoff)  That’s right, there’s at least one still-functioning candy factory right in Cambridge, filling the night air with the sweet smell of chocolate like a Chicago bridge.

Now, back to my reading…

In the Queue

Eagerly awaited: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – A little disappointing after all the buildup, but a wild ride and great airplane read.  Wish I had a dictionary of Dominican Spanish slang.  My personal takeaway quote:

Every snake always thinks it’s biting into a rat until the day it bites into a mongoose.

Last month’s book club: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida – Weird and potentially wonderful.  Mainly made us all want to visit the ice hotel and drink vodka, which I suppose is enough to qualify it as a summer read.

Passed on from book swap, months later: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – Despite the nearly irresistible  urge to call this book “Like Water for Elephants” it stands on its own with great humor and historical depth.

This month’s book club: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – Sorry, it’s against the Rules of Book Club to discuss the book before the meeting.

Most played after seeing her in concert: The Great Beyond by Aimee Mann (the special acoustic version if you can get it – I got it on iTunes) love the keyboard line, hammond organ maybe?

Recently picked up on remainder at Brookline Booksmith: The New Kings of Nonfiction, edited by Ira Glass; Total Immersion by Allegra Goodman; Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra – we shall see…

Cooks upstage books

It’s been quite a literary and culinary weekend. Friday night was Book Club, featuring Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, backed up by poached salmon with couscous and red and gold beets, spinach salad, garlic bean soup and a purchased dessert assortment of blackberry-lime sorbet, molasses-clove cookies, dark chocolate covered edamame and Mozartkugeln. As usual, what happens at book club stays at book club.

Tonight’s Book Swap party, now in its third or fourth year hosted by my good friend J took things to another level. The scheme is simple – bring some books, check out the books others have brought, take some different books home – and it’s backed up by (for many, fronted by) J’s always-impressive cooking. And this time, a couple of guests brought even more great food. I’m disappointed to report that only my freshly-read copy of Never Let Me Go and my extra copy of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (“Lyrical Eggdog! Logical Assnog!”) were snapped up in the first round of swappage. But I picked up John Hodgman’s Areas of My Expertise (filed, oddly, at the swap table as “non-fiction”) and some other trade paperbacks good for upcoming train and plane travel.

But I’m not here to write a book report. Let’s dish dishes. I don’t have all the details on everything, but there was definitely some great cheese, an impressive spinach focaccia, creamy mushroom dip, spring rolls, fried eggplant with miso sauce (nasu dengaku), shrimps and asparagus, Thai beef salad, Thai chicken (my favorite), and a fantastic posole contributed by guest chef P. For dessert, rice krispy treats in both regular and cocoa krispy varieties, chocolate cupcakes with cream and fresh mint icing, and some kind of chocolate sandwich cookie so far removed from the common o**o that I won’t even mention its name here. The latter desserts came from guest pastry chef D.

None of the following should reflect badly on any of the foregoing courses, every one of which was impressive and delicious, but these cookies were amazing and transcendent. One guest took a bite and deadpanned, “I need a cigarette.” We knew what she meant. With apologies to the professionals who make superior food photos, here is a humble snapshot.


Some of you may remember that in the past I’ve kvelled about the mascarporeos available at Via Matta. Also here (with J) and here, too. That’s how strongly I feel about them. Well, let me tell you, these cookies are right up there. The cookie is harder and thicker, and the filling is also thicker and toothier compared to the mascarporeo, but none of those attributes detracts. These are a variation on a theme, and a damn fine one, too. I also really like the slightly squared-off circle shape of them.