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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Brave new contenders replacing defunct Waldenbooks stores


Critic Sarah Weinman, now a big honcho at the subscription-only Web site Publishers Marketplace, offers this terrific news:

At least two bookstores will open in spaces that formerly housed mall-based chain bookstores. Wakefield Books in Wakefield, R.I., will open tomorrow in a space once occupied by Waldenbooks, which closed its doors last month. The new store is a joint venture of Wakefield Mall owner Jeff Levy, David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books, and Susan Novotny, who owns stores in Albany and Troy, N.Y., and is staffed with former Waldenbooks employees. In addition, Montpelier, VT-based new and used store Rivendell Books will open a second location in the Berlin Mall, in space that had been occupied by a Waldenbooks that closed a year ago. And Shelf Awareness also reports that Columbia Mall in Grand Forks, N.D., is seeking a new bookstore to replace a closed Walden and a closed Dalton, which had combined revenues of more than $2 million.For those of us with serious bookstore habits, this is a welcome portent.


While I had my head down working on the index for Tupaia, the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, which is being published by Random House New Zealand in May, a fascinating question came into the maritime history discussion list, from 'Pirate Lady' Cindy Vallar:

'I was watching yesterday's episode of Jeopardy!,' she began. 'One of the answers puzzled me.'

It claimed that the answer was: 'The lookout platform named for the bird that would be released to find the nearest land in bad weather.'
Obviously, as Cindy went on, the question was 'crow's nest' -- but is the answer right?  'I've not heard of ships carrying crows for this purpose before,' she confessed.

Well, neither had I -- and it electrified the discussion list, too.  Really, the mental image of a seaman clambering the rigging with a crow gripped in one hand, and then releasing the poor creature to flap off to the nearest shore, is pretty ridiculous.  So where did it come from?

Our folklorist, Morgy, also saw the program, and was equally mystified. 'Could we be dealing with another one of those wonderful widely disseminated "origin stories" that have come so popular since the inception of photocopiers and the internet?' she asks. 

'This sounds like a natural conflation of two different episodes in nautical history,' says Nicholas Blake (who gave references).  'The crow's nest in the modern sense of lookout position high in the mast was invented by Scoresby senior in 1807. Scoresby junior, who describes its invention, doesn't mention why it got its name, but it's not unreasonable to infer it was from its similarity to a crow's nest. The Vikings were said to carry crows, but they didn't have a platform to launch them from.'

'Aha,' says Marc James Small.  Wikipedia (as is often the case) could be to blame. 'The Wikipedia entry for crow's nest cites a US Navy pamphlet from a decade or so back --- and
gives a hot link to this pamphlet -- which accepts the releasing of crows as the origin of
the term.'

Alexandre Monteiro tells us even more: 'Two crows, perched at both the stern and bow of a ship symbolize the city of Lisbon since 1173. It was in that year that the body of Saint Vincent was brought here... On a ship guided by crows.'

My own two cents worth is simply that the original crow's nest designed by Scoresby had some kind of protection -- like a canvas wrapped around hoops -- to shield the lookout in Arctic regions.  (Yankee whalemen stood in the open hoops.)

But why he called it a crow's nest, I do not have a notion.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


In the letters to the editor section of today's Wellington Dominion Post

I can't resist putting this one out on the web.  Phil Mitchell reminisces about a charming Waitangi Day experience.

Waitangi Day had me pottering along the beach at Otaki with my two-year-old son, Flynn.

At the mouth of the Waitohu Stream two Maori men were dragging a flounder net through the surf.  The net became tangled.

"Need a hand?" I asked.

"Kia ora, bro," came the reply from the smiling dreadlocked one.  I helped untangle it, while Flynn played with two-year-old Hone.

The drag was completed, with a good haul of flounder.

We stood on the beach chatting while Hone proudly displayed the catch to Flynn.  Both boys inspected the fish closely, periodically squealing with delight.

Eventually it was time to go. "Take a couple with you, bro."

"You sure?" I said.  "Plenty there," was the reply.

We wandered back up the beach, Flynn carrying a flounder and grinning from ear to ear. "Bye bye Hone," he called.

The Treaty of Waitangi was never mentioned ...


From Publishers Lunch.

Powell's Lays Off 31 Staffers, Citing the "Unprecedented, Rapidly Changing Nature" of the Book Industry

On Tuesday Powell's Books laid off 31 staffers, or approximately 7 percent of its unionized work force, at its stores in Burnside and Beaverton and two industrial warehouses, a move they cite as a response to the "unprecedented, rapidly changing nature of the book industry." In a statement Powell's cited "changing consumer behavior" - namely, the rise in e-book sales - as causing a significant impact over the past three years, along with "an industry-wide decline in new book sales, rising healthcare costs, and the economy."

President Emily Powell (pictured with father Michael) stated "I feel it is critical to make some very difficult adjustments at this time, to address our current reality and to prepare the company for success in the future, a future that looks very different than our business today." Those remarks echo what her father Michael Powell said last summer when turning over executive responsibility in addressing the rise of ebooks and online book sales: "It's certainly shaking up the industry, and retailers aren't sure what their role is. It's an industry with an enormous amount of flexibility, and I hope with a little help from me, Emily is going to have to make some changes to help Powell's compete and survive."
The announcement notes that Michael Powell "has been involved in the changes" and he adds, "Emily's transition to leadership of the business happened at a precarious time, at a crossroads in our business. I'm confident her fresh ideas and her understanding of technology will steer the company successfully forward."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Every year, the great Powells internet bookstore asks readers to nominate favorite books

And the 2011 winners are in.

The winner of the fiction award is The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

This intriguing tale is about a young white woman writer in 1960s Mississippi, who aspires to compile the secret stories of black domestic workers.

Inveigled by the novel idea, two black women risk not just their jobs but their lives to collect the interviews she needs.

And the winner of the nonfiction award is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta Lacks was black, poor, a tobacco farmer, and mother of five.  In short, she lived very much as her slave ancestors did.  When she was terminally ill of a vicious form of cervical cancer, she became a test patient at John Hopkins.

During her treatment and after her death, researchers harvested her cancer cells, asking the permission of no one.  This was pretty run-of-the-mill.  What was unusual was what happened next.

Those cells became one of the most important tools of medicine ever.  Grown in laboratories, they were vital for developing polio vaccine, and led to great advances like in-vitro fertilization, and the mapping of genes.

Yet, sixty years after her death, Henrietta Lacks lies in an unmarked grave.  


Bloomsbury initiates a positive and far-reaching response to the challenge of the digital age

Publisher's Lunch reports that Bloomsbury is to reorganize into an international conglomerate, dropping country focus for global publishing divisions

The company announced a worldwide reorganization, effective March 1, that eliminates their geographically-driven structure and replaces it with four global publishing divisions.

  •  adult (run by Richard Charkin)
  • children's & educational (which will be looked after by Macmillan UK Children's managing director Emma Hopkin)
  • academic & professional (under Jonathan Glasspool)
  • information & business development (still headed by Kathy Rooney).

Their offices in the UK, USA, Germany and, most recently, Australia, will each serve the four publishing divisions.

Will their executives be spending as much time in planes as lesser beings spend in cars?  Hopefully not.  After all, it is a response to the opportunities of the internet, as well as the challenge of the digital revolution.
Chief executive Nigel Newton says in the announcement, "The global market place is changing rapidly, with a dramatic increase in digital publishing and global customers, such as Amazon, Google and Apple, who are not focused within national boundaries. For Bloomsbury to take best advantage of this, we are restructuring on a global basis to better maximixe the opportunities the future will bring. We believe this will give us a real advantage in our mission to publish books of excellence and originality."

The move is certainly revolutionary.  Charkin adds that he believes Bloomsbury is the first trade publisher of scale to reorganize itself in global fashion like this. "Digital technology is affecting everyone irrespective of where they sit" among Bloomsbury's offices, Charkin said. "Our biggest customers are now global and we need to reflect their global nature as well as our own." In the future, the company's financial reports will add data according to the four new divisions.

Let's hope it works better than the digitization of the National Archives ....

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

INCEPTION and SOCIAL NETWORK win Writers Guild awards

The BBC reports that Inception and Social Network have won big at the Writers Guild of America awards.

Inception, which was by far my favorite movie of 2010, won best original screenplay, while The Social Network was named best adaptation.

I found the film compelling for its astounding visual effects as well as its startling originality.  It most surely gave a whole new meaning to the word 'architecture,' as well as battering the viewer with mindbending new concepts.  Fine acting from all the cast did not hurt, either.  Personally, I would rate it as a ground-breaker on the level of 2001 and Blade Runner.

The other big contender, The King's Speech, was ineligible, being ruled out because union-recommended contractual methods were not followed.  Or something like that.  Legal union stuff that is beyond my ken.  I doubt the makers are all that unhappy, though, the film already being nominated for 12 Oscars.

It will be interesting to see what film wins the Oscar for best original screenplay, as Inception is another nomination.

The birth of realism in literature

The science of extrapolating from detail
New York Times Opinionator has another interesting item today, one that opens an interesting window into the development of a literary technique, though the topic is scientific.

Called "Lost and Gone Forever," and written by Richard Conniff, it describes the impact of the discovery that species could become extinct on scientific thinking in the era we now call "the Age of Enlightenment."  The trigger was a lecture given by a young French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, at the National Institute of Sciences and Arts in Paris in January 1796.  Basing his logic on the comparative anatomies of various elephants, he argued that some species that had roamed the world in the past were not around any more.  

(The bits of elephant anatomy included a massive tooth from some gigantic pachyderm that had been fossicked from somewhere along the Hudson River in 1705, called the "Incognitum" -- a favorite word in those days -- because no one had ever glimpsed the animal it had come from.)

In a word, these species were extinct.

Shock.  Horror.  The world was supposed to be exactly the way God had made it, with worms and jellyfish at the bottom and mighty man, Homo sapiens, at the top.  Nothing, ever, was wiped out, like some kind of silly mistake.  It was an argument that would reach fever pitch with Darwin's Origin of Species, and is still around today.

Intriguingly, there was another development of this theory, one that was literary, not scientific.  A French novelist, Honore de Balzac, was inspired by Cuvier's knack of building up the concept of a whole animal from a fragment.  As Conniff observes, "Balzac now set out to do the same thing in fiction, building characters on the smallest details of gesture and dress.  It was arguably the birth of literary realism."

Tennyson, on the other hand, took inspiration from the idea of extinction itself -- grim inspiration, as testified by famous lines from his elegy, In Memoriam A.H.H., written after the premature death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. 

Would Nature treat man, her greatest and last work, just as she had the mysterious Incognitum?

In memoriam A. H. H. Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair                                                  
Such splendid purpose in his eyes
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law --
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed --

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

Monday, February 7, 2011


History of sealing in the South

Friend, independent historian, and all-round amazing researcher Rhys Richards has produced yet another book, this one being a collection of essays on the topic of the history of sealing on our Australasian and Sub-Antarctic shores.


Online company AOL is buying Huffington Post in a $315 million deal.

In the opinion of this economic amateur, this is a huge bargain.  Huff Post has 25 million hits a day, one of them mine ... And that is not counting all the links.

Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington will be in charge of all AOL content (whatever that means), and incidentally help AOL turn around its advertising side, which is not doing very well at all, the company being bogged down in its image as one of the originators of dial-up internet.

In wonderful press release garble-ese, the claim is that the deal 'will create a next-generation American media company with global reach that combines content, community, and social experiences for consumers.' 

One wonders who the hell wrote that, but it was actually spoken by AOl CEO Tim Armstrong, early Monday.

Wonder of wonders, $300 million will be paid in cash.

The imagination boggles.  What will the handover actually look like?  Men in black suits holding suitcases full of folding bills?

Joking aside, one wonders very seriously how this will affect the liberal political tone of Huff Post.  Will it be tolerated, or even enhanced, or will something awful happen?

Auckland Arts Festival Looming

The Sevens Rugby in Wellington is over, but the countdown to the 2011 Auckland Arts Festival is on

The festival is Auckland’s major national and international arts event, and this year it runs from 2 March until 20 March 2011.

In its tradition of supporting books and helping to make the art scene vibrant, the New Zealand Post Group is proudly sponsoring Vietnamese Water Puppets - stories of village life featuring fishermen, farmers, and dragons, accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra and performed in a specially constructed water theatre in the Festival Garden in Aotea Square.

You can find out more details about the festival, including how to buy tickets, on the truly terrific festival website.

Mark Twain and the clairvoyant

"At the age of 25, Sam Clemens had every reason to feel pleased with himself," writes Adam Goodheart in a charming and informative contribution to today's New York Times Opinionator.

Everything was going well for the jaunty young man.  "He was already one of the 'aristocrats of the river' -- a Mississippi steamboat pilot earning the princely sum of $250 a month."  This gave him the leisure to dine sumptuously on shrimp and oysters, continue his self education by reading Suetonius and Shakespeare -- and to visit a clairvoyant.

Goodheart explores a letter written by Clemens to his brother Orion, that describes the experience in detail.  "That Feb. 6, 1861 letter is one of the few detailed ones to survive from a pivotal time in Sam Clemens's life," he says. "It casts a strange -- perhaps even unearthly -- light on the complicated young man who would soon be Mark Twain."

Well worth a thoughtful read.  Follow the link embedded in the title above. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Great Product, Poor Packaging, and Giant Mutant Ants

There is an unacknowledged writing genre that provides a great tonic when life is annoying or dull.  A host of writers, mostly anonymous, labor to produce hilarious mock Amazon product reviews.  Some are in prose, some are poetic, others are flowery and romantic, but all are tongue-in-cheek and most are rib-crackingly funny.

'Shannon of Davis, US, Canada' assembled choice specimens into a discussion list, confessing that he or she felt driven to do it after spending way too much time surfing and laughing after looking up URANIUM ORE one day.

They are graded according to popularity, and the current #1 in his or her bestseller list is devoted to that same Uranium Ore that inspired the list in the first place. 

Currently unavailable, Amazon declares, going on to confess, 'We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock'  -- but that has not deterred the happy reviewers.

'I purchased this product 4.47 Billion Years ago," Patrick J. McGovern complained, 'and when I opened it today, it was half-empty.'

'OK for cleaning teeth, not so great for killing ants,' headlined Nero Goldstein.

After accidently using Uranium Ore as tooth powder, 'my teeth have never been cleaner!' he applauded. 'They sparkle, they tingle, and for some reason they STAY clean now, no matter what.  Highly recommended!'

Using it to kill ants, however, was a blunder, as kill the ants it did not. 'Fortunately, those suckers get slower as they get bigger, so i have been able to use a shovel to take care of most of them, one at a time, though, the sneaky devils. And the darn trash man refuses to take them away.'

Nero would have given the product five stars on account of the teeth, but felt forced to deduct one star, because of the giant mutant ants.

Is Barnes and Noble copying New Zealand business practice?

Get $20 books for $10 coupon

Huge hit with B&N is this weekend's offer of $20 worth books if you buy (and presumably give) a $10 gift coupon.

Good lord.  Whitcoulls New Zealand has been doing something a lot like that for over a year.  Months and months ago I bought a silver coupon for $10, and started buying books.  And cards.  And stationery.

But there was a bonus.

Every time I spent $100, according to my silver coupon (which was run through a machine each time I spent money) I got a $5 voucher.  Plus, every time I bought at all, I got offers for cheap deals.

Recently, they changed my silver coupon for a sturdy plastic card.  It's red.  It gives me the same deals, and I have saved at least $100 in the meantime, but somehow, I really miss that coupon.

The real message, though, is 'Oh my lord, what else are they going to have to do to keep us buying books?'

Old Limericks

The august Maritime History Discussion List (marhst-l @ Queen's University, Canada) was entertained recently by an OT (off maritime topics) question.

Between the Woods and the Water: on Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland - The Middle Danube to the Iron GatesA member was reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's entertaining (and rather enigmatically titled) picaresque, Between the woods and the water, on foot from Constantinople the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, when he came across the final line of what seemed to be a limerick.

"What ho, when they lifted the lid!" it read.  "Where does it come from?" he asked.

And, as usual, he got instant information:

The first candidate was "The Careful Buyer."

There was an old man of Madrid,
Who went to an auction to bid;
He bought, if you please,
A case of old cheese-
But oh, Gosh! when they lifted the lid!

This, it seems, comes from The Limerick up to date Book, composed and collected by the whimsical Ethel Watts Mumford.  (San Francisco, Published by Paul Elder and Company, 1903.)

Candidates numbers two and three are similar rhythmical meditations:

There was an old man of Madrid
Who went to an auction to bid.
In the first lot they sold
Was an ancient commode -
And, my god, when they lifted the lid!

...or this rendition broadcast on radio 21 July 1984:

There was an old man of Madrid
Who went to an auction to bid

The first one they showed
Was an ancient commode
What ho, when they lifted the lid!

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Costs soaring for Archives' digital library, auditors say

Lisa Rein, Washington Post Staff Writer, reports that the cost of building a digital system to gather, preserve and give the public access to the records of the federal government has ballooned.

It could go as high as $1.4 billion, or as much as 41 percent over budget.

Government auditors plan to file a full report Friday.

And of course the buck is being passed.

The Government Accountability Office blames the cost overruns and schedule  delays on weak oversight and planning by the National Archives, which awarded a $317 million contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. six years ago to create a modern archive for electronic records. But is anyone going to blame Lockhead Martin for the blunders involved? 

'We are extremely pleased our team was selected by National Archives,' said Don Antonucci, president of Lockheed Martin Transportation and Security Solutions, at the time (September 2005).

There is no cause for complacency, now.  The Archives' largest and most complex capital project ever has been plagued by problems, and it is still struggling to conduct effective oversight, auditors said.

The Archives is best known for the agency responsible for preservation of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other historical documents. But it is also the repository of billions of pages of e-mails, memos and electronic files created by every branch of government.

These, along with a growing number of audiovisual holdings, must be preserved for the public, by law, which has put the Archives under growing pressure to manage the digital avalanche.

So, I wonder -- are they going to change the law that makes this operation impossible?

Or simply throw more money at it?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Great New Writers Nominated

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Awards

The finalists for the B&N Discover Great New Writers Awards have been announced -- and Scribner has done remarkably well.

The DisappearedFiction:
   Kim Echlin, The Disappeared (Black Cat)

   Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston (Scribner)

   Eric Puchner, Model Home (Scribner)


David R. Dow, The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve)

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner)

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown)

  The winners will be announced on March 2.