Book review: Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald

Read Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
When a wealthy California industrialist tells apparent beach bum I. M. Fletcher that he wants to be murdered, the undercover journalist investigates the businessman's private life. Winner of the Edgar Award.
ISBN: 978-0375713545;
Kindle e-book, 208pp
Fletch (in the stories' chronological order: #4)
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book that started it all!

I’d originally read this sometime around 1988 after seeing the Warner Bros. feature film of the same name. It’s not quite as over-the-top as the comedy of the film and the humor is a little sharper and wrier.

For the most part, the plotline of the text is nearly identical to that of the film with a few exceptions mostly relating to names of characters and casting (warning: spoilers follow):

  • The Collins family has been renamed Boyd, likely so as not to run afoul of the name of author Joan Collins.
  • Fletch’s editors Clara and Frank are concatenated into the character of just Frank.
  • Fletch’s beach girlfriend Bobbi doesn’t exist in the film, likely to focus more on Joan.
  • Montgomery is a younger high-school aged student with more social ties than the Gummy of the film.
  • Stanwyk is not involved in the drug trade and his death at the hands of the Chief of Police is motivated by a different bit of plot. He also has an additional local paramour. His character and motivations are much better delineated in the book and several characters backing this up were missing from the film.
  • Much of the shennanigans of the film was added there and didn’t exist in the book, though almost all of the motivating comedy and sense of humor is surely there.
  • Large chunks of dialogue from the film are drawn almost directly from the book.
  • The film is obviously a bit more cinematic and kinetic with Fletch doing much more movement, travel, and even chase scenes to make things in the film move along, while the book is a bit more balanced and even realistic.

Certainly there are many other differences, but this covers the broadest spectrum.

In this motivating text for the remainder of the series, Fletch is drawn as a very clear-cut and incredibly interesting character with a fantastic sense of morality and humor. Of the parts of the series I’ve read thus far, this is definitely one of my favorites, second only perhaps to Confess, Fletch.

Here the cat-and-mouse-game between Fletch and Joan is better delineated and the relationship between Fletch and Stanwyk’s father is quirkier and more interesting.

If you enjoyed the movie (and even if you didn’t), you’re sure to appreciate this as fiction, particularly with Mcdonald’s ability to paint a picture with words and write story through character.

A brief note on the physical text

This is assuredly an optical character recognition scanned version of the original text. There are a dozen or so obvious typos that didn’t get fixed. There are more than several places where a temporal change in the plot occurs, but the additional line returns that were originally included to indicate the break are now missing. This can make reading portion a bit annoying. The quality control of the typesetting of the e-book text could certainly have been much better.

Reading Progress
  • 08/7/16 marked as: want to read; “The Rio Olympics reminded me that I’d gotten Carioca Fletch to read back in the 80’s and never got around to it, so I thought I’d come back and revisit the series.”
  • 09/16/16 marked as: currently reading
  • 09/19/16 27.0% “So far this is maybe even better than I remember it.”
  • 09/20/16 68.0% “This just keeps getting better. I’m enjoying some of the subtle differences between the film and the book. No surprise that the movie renamed Joan Collins to Boyd. I know I’d read this 20+ years ago and I remember it being darker than the film, but the tone seems lighter to me now somehow.”
  • 09/22/16 100.0% “A slightly different ending than one in the film, but still nicely tied together… Possibly my second favorite in the series so far.”
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
Chapter 1

“What’s your name?”
“Fletch.”
“What’s your full name?”
“Fletcher.”
“What’s your first name?”
“Irwin.”
“What?”
“Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch.”
“Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away, and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?”
“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”
“Of course.”
“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to murder me.”

—Page 1 · Location 37 This is the first exchange of the book and a really great opening

The license plate of the car was 440-001.

—Page 3 · Location 68

The paintings in the room were not particularly good, in Fletch’s opinion, but they were real.

—Page 4 · Location 92

“I’m a fairly reliable-looking drifter.”

—Page 5 · Location 106

Chapter 2

“Bye, Clara. Nice talking with you. Don’t get any crumbs in Frank’s bed.”
“Prick.”

—Page 9 · Location 180

“Wise ass. What if some ladies were around?”
“There are no ladies in California.”

—Page 10 · Location 193

“Dishonest of me, I know. “But as Pappy used to say about violating virgins, ‘Son, if you’re not the first, someone else will be.’ ”

—Page 12 · Location 231

Chapter 3

“My extension is 705. Many thanks.”
“Christ.”
“No. I.M. Fletcher.”

—Page 13 · Location 264 Like the man says: ‘I’m’ Fletcher, not Christ.

“Vicious and violent. Bullshit. One night I stepped on the cat’s tail.”
“You pitched the cat through the window of your seventh-floor apartment.”
“The whole place smelled of cat.”

—Page 15 · Location 297 

“There you are, Mr. Gillett. Thanks for stopping by. I’m sorry we’re not on the seventh floor.”

—Page 16 · Location 313 Fletch had just mentioned throwing a cat out of the window of a 7th floor apartment.

Before leaving, Gillett tried to look haughty, but only succeeded in looking as if he were in the early stages of a sneeze.

—Page 17 · Location 324

Chapter 4

Marvin and Helen Stanwyk, Nonheagan, Pennsylvania.

—Page 24 · Location 458

You just fired someone.”
“As a matter of fact, I just did.”
“Who?”
“A kid in the city room. He had been calling people up and asking them stupid questions, saying he was someone from the Associated Press.”
“Really? How awful! I always tell people I’m from the Chronicle-Gazette, myself.”

—Page 26 · Location 487

“Fletcher, we have to talk.”
“Are you up to it?”
“That’s why I thought we should have lunch. In the cafeteria. Put your shoes on.”
“You’re not taking me out?”
“I wouldn’t be seen in public with you. Even a drugstore lunch counter wouldn’t let us in, the way you dress.”

—Page 27 · Location 495

“See you upstairs. Put your shoes on.”

—Page 27 · Location 503

Chapter 5

Clara Snow had ordered an uncut bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich on toast. When she bit into it the two edges of toast nearer Fletch gaped as if about to bite him.

—Page 27 · Location 504

“I don’t resent women. I rather like women.”
“You haven’t had much luck with them.”
“My only mistake is that I keep marrying them.”

—Page 28 · Location 512

He chewed his calves’ liver open-mouthed.
“Such principle,” she said, sucking Coke from a straw.
“You can’t tell me you haven’t made every strung-out little girl on the beach.”
“That’s different. That’s for a story. I will do anything for a story. That’s why I put penicillin on my expense account.”
“You do?”
“Under Telephones’.”

—Page 28 · Location 519

“If there is no one to complain for a kid, the law don’t give a shit.”
“Fletcher’s Rule.”

—Page 30 · Location 548

Chapter 7

“A dowdy old thing. She always reminds me of an Eskimo full of baked beans. I mean, she looks as if, if she ever got unfrozen, she would evaporate in one enormous fart.”

—Page 41 · Location 748

Your style is exactly what Beau Brummel did in his time. All Brummel did, you know, was to bring the lean, simple country style into the city.”

—Page 41 · Location 754

henna

—Page 41 · Location 763 An interesting use of the word from the 70’s. I don’t think I’ve seen it again until the early 2000s otherwise, and then in reference to tattoos.

Chapter 9

His apartment was on the seventh floor of a building that had everything but design. His apartment— a living room, a bedroom, bath and kitchenette— was impeccably neat. On the wall over the divan was a blow-up of a multiple cartes-de-visite by Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi.

—Page 53 · Location 973

Chapter 10

In an ell of the room,

—Page 57 · Location 1035

Chapter 11

“I used to be a pretty good house burglar myself,” Creasey said. “I even had equipment.”
“What happened?”
“I got ripped off. Some bastard stole my burglary equipment. The bastard.”
“That’s funny.”
“A fuckin’ riot.”
“You should have had business insurance.”

—Page 63 · Location 1153

Chapter 12

Utrelamensky. John Utrelamensky.”

—Page 69 · Location 1268 One of Fletch’s pseudonyms

 
Chapter 15

hibachi.

—Page 87 · Location 1585 What a fun word, and somehow so culturally 1970s 

“John Zalumarinero,” Fletch said.

—Page 87 · Location 1587  One of Fletch’s pseudonyms

He knows less about cows than I do, and all I know is that a cow is square with legs sticking out at the corners.

—Page 92 · Location 1687

“Sorry I didn’t get to meet their daughter, Julie.”
“Little brat.”
“Little brat?”
“Jesus, I wish she had a sister so I could beat one of them to death with the other one. Have another drink?”

—Page 93 · Location 1693

Chapter 16

Some of these people had been hanging fire two or three days.

—Page 99 · Location 1808 What a great phrase for people with no drugs.

Chapter 18

Sitting on the divan under the Disderi, he ate two delicatessen sandwiches and drank a bottle of milk. On the coffee table in front of him was the big tape recorder. On the wall across from him was a copy of William James’s Cherry Beach. After he had finished his sandwiches and milk, he went into the bedroom and lay on the bed. Facing him was a copy of Fredric Weiss’s 1968 photograph of a boy apparently walking in midair beneath two roofs, Boy Jumping.

—Page 101 · Location 1832

“Jim Swarthout speaking.”
“Hi, Jim. This is Bill Carmichael.”

—Page 101 · Location 1840  Another of Fletch’s psuedonyms

Chapter 19

“I’ve got a lot of painin’ to do. To make up for what I did.”

—Page 112 · Location 2030 Painin’ is such a great word here. (Presuming it’s not a typo from OCR…)

Chapter 20

Fletch wanted to open the window, but the window jack handles had been removed. The police were probably afraid someone would try to commit suicide by bopping himself on the nose with one.

—Page 115 · Location 2085

Chapter 25

But again, she was educated and experienced without the flash that makes champions. And she was without the playful joy of the beginner.

—Page 142 · Location 2570 This description was used to describe both Joan’s tennis ability and then a few pages later her ability in bed.

“Zamanawinkeraleski.”
“God, what a moniker. Zamanawink— say it again?”
“— eraleski. Zamanawinkeraleski.”
“You mean someone actually married you with a name like that?”
“Yup. And now there are three little Zamanawinkeraleskis.”
“What was her maiden name? I mean, your wife’s?”
“Fletcher.”
“That’s a nice name. Why would she give up a nice name like that to become a Zamabangi or whatever it is?”
“Zamanawinkeraleski. It’s more distinguished than Fletcher.”
“It’s so distinguished no one can say it. What is it, Polish?”
“Rumanian.”
“I didn’t know there was a difference.”
“Only Poles and Rumanians care about the difference.”
“What is the difference?”
“Between Poles and Rumanians? They make love differently.”
“Oh?”
“Twice I’ve made love Polish style. Now I’ll show you how a Rumanian would do it.”
“Polish style was all right.”
“But you haven’t seen the Rumanian style yet.”
“Why didn’t you make love Rumanian style in the first place?”
“I didn’t think you were ready for it.”
“I’m ready for it.”
It was eight-thirty.
In forty-eight hours Fletch was scheduled to murder her husband.

—Page 144 · Location 2605 Another of Fletch’s pseudonyms sparking an interesting passage.

Chapter 26

“Charles Witherspoon.”

—Page 147 · Location 2644  Fat Sam’s original name.

Chapter 28

“Oh, I forgot: you’re a pulse-taker. When I was home for lunch, Mrs. Stanwyk was still ticking over nicely. The older models are the best, you know. Better built, and they use less fuel.”

—Page 162 · Location 2916

If I remember rightly, girls have a couple of legs under them, a hank o’ hair up top, and a couple of protuberances about grab height. That about right?”

—Page 162 · Location 2921 Marvyn Stanwyk’s definition of girls.

“What I mean is, did you mean girls, or girl?”
“I’m in the hardware business, son. I’m apt to speak in gross lots.”

—Page 162 · Location 2923

She insisted it happened only once, but as Mother Goose said, once is enough.

—Page 164 · Location 2953

Chapter 29

R. Sanders Fletcher

—Page 168 · Location 3030 The pseudonym Fletch uses at the Newspaper

All I ever won in the marines was a disease coffee doesn’t cure.”
“Do you still have it?”
“No. I lost it on a toilet seat.”
“At City Hall, I hope.”
“Probably. I thought you picked up the Bronze Star years ago.”

—Page 176 · Location 3164

Chapter 30

Prowling the room, watching her, Fletch had the sudden, irrational desire to marry Joan Collins Stanwyk.

—Page 180 · Location 3232

“How very interesting. You go to that much effort for one paragraph?”
“You should see the efforts I go to sometimes for paragraphs I don’t even wite.”

—Page 181 · Location 3246

Chapter 31

“The thing that tipped me off was something your wife said the other night when we were in bed together.”

—Page 187 · Location 3358 A great quote that made it directly into the film.

Chapter 32

“Helluva story this morning, Mr. Fletcher.”
“Thanks for reading the News-Tribune.

—Page 192 · Location 3434

fp

—Page 192 · Location 3444 A nice bit of newspaper terminology

Typos

—Page 32 · Location 601 Should be ‘I’ instead of ‘You’.

—Page 68 · Location 1244 There should be a text break above this.

“The Nonheagan Inn. Good afternoon.”

—Page 85 · Location 1566 Text break before this.

“Swarthout Nevada Realty Company.”

—Page 86 · Location 1575 Should have text break before this.

“Where’s Gummy?”

—Page 111 · Location 2009 Should be a text break before this.

—Page 141 · Location 2540 Typo: should be “Your”.

—Page 151 · Location 2728 “it” instead of I (typo)

At six o’clock

—Page 183 · Location 3289 text break before this

—Page 192 · Location 3444 typo: should be “l”

“Anytime you’re ready, Mr. Fletcher.”

—Page 195 · Location 3494 text break before

Book review: Carioca Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald

Read Carioca Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Carioca Fletch Book Cover Carioca Fletch
Fletch #7 (in the stories' chronological order: #5)
Gregory Mcdonald
Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
1984
Kindle e-book
190
Amazon.com / Overdrive

(Description from the publisher) Fletch's trip to Brazil wasn't exactly planned. But it's Carnival time in Rio and he has plenty of money. And it took him no time to hook up with the luscious Laura Soares. Fletch is beginning to relax, just a little.

But between the American widow who seems to be following Fletch and the Brazilian widow who's fingered Fletch as her long-dead husband, he suddenly doesn't have much time to enjoy the present or even get a wink of sleep.

A thirty-year-old unsolved murder, a more recent suicide, an inconvenient heart attack--somehow Fletch is connected to all of them and one of those connections might just shorten his own life. From Rio to Bahia and back again, at the height of Carnival, Fletch has to keep moving or get stopped cold.

Following a few months after the original book Fletch, Carioca Fletch begins with a jolt of plot as an old woman from one of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro identifies Fletch as the reincarnation of her long dead husband and wants to know who murdered him 47 years ago. Everyone apparently believes her wholeheartedly and there’s nothing Fletch can do but go along with what might be an elaborate joke. Nearly simultaneously Fletch runs across a widow who he says will think he killed her husband! And so the mystery begins???

Mcdonald does an excellent job of introducing the reader to a particular flavor of Brazilian culture which presages the pace of the plot. As a reader I felt nearly as frustrated with the pace of life and the style of culture (which heavily parallels the plot) as Fletch must have in his own evolving situation. This treatment makes me identify with I.M. much more closely than I might have otherwise, so kudos to Mcdonald for that.

As it turns out the woman Fletch initially dodges because he says she’ll think he killed her husband is Joan Stanwyk. She’s had him tracked down so that she can confront him about her husband’s death as well as a large amount of money that has gone missing. Seemingly only minutes later, Joan disappears just before Carnival and there isn’t much Fletch can do to find her. I had hoped for more mystery on this front, but the solution is wrapped up in a few scant pages right at the end.

Travelogue

There’s some great description and depiction of the Brazilian culture and the piece feels like a reasonable travelogue in some sense. Sadly it means it’s a bit thin on plot. Things start off with a nice bang, but then plod along for most of the book before things begin to pick up again in the last quarter of the book. There was so much more that Mcdonald could have done with the plot. Joan Stanwyk tracking down Fletch for a confrontation, Fletch and the Tap Dancers disposing of a friend’s body in a scene that presaged the entire plot of the film Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), the detective portion relating to who killed Junio all those years ago… Instead Mcdonald seemingly lets all the plot points work themselves out without any real work from our protagonist who just floats along through the culture. However, I will give him huge points from an artistic standpoint as he’s done a great job instilling a particular pace and cultural way of life into the text in such a manner that it really seems natural and satisfying that things work out the way they do.

Wrap up

Yet, in the end ultimately I’m conflicted as I’d have preferred more Fletchness, but I find it to have been enjoyable–at least it was better than Fletch, Too which still sits poorly with me.

I am left a bit adrift at the end with respect to the Tap Dancers who were so pivotal to most of the plot. What happened to the promised trip back to the brothel? Somehow they just seem to drift out of the plot.

Why wasn’t there better development of a romantic interest?

I don’t recall if this or something else set things in motion from a cultural standpoint, but as I recall the mid-80s, this would have ridden at the forefront of the zeitgeist of Brazillian culture in North America with several other books, television shows, and even movies which featured Brazil and even capoeira at the time.

Reading Progress
  • 8/7/16 marked as: want to read; “The Rio Olympics reminded me that I’d gotten Carioca Fletch to read back in the 80’s and never got around to it, so I thought I’d come back and revisit the series.”
  • 09/05/16 marked as: currently reading
  • 09/05/16 14.0% “An interesting start with a nice dash of the cultural part of what it means to be a Brazilian to set the stage of what is to come in the book. The reader is nicely made to feel the cultural clash of American and Brazilian along with the frustration Fletch surely feels.”
  • 09/09/16 34.0%
  • 09/10/16 61.0% “The plot seems to have slowed down significantly since the opening, but is just finally getting moving again.”
  • 9/13/16 71%
  • 09/16/16 100%
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

“You have not heard of queima de arquivo?”

“It means ‘burn the record'” Marilia said.
“It means ‘cover up,'” Laura said. “It is the Brazilian way of life. That is why we are so free.”

—Loc 65 & 68: One of the motivating concepts within the book and an interesting life philosophy. There are dozens of appearances of the word burn throughout the book.

“Half your diet should be carbohydrates.”
“You’re reading about diets?”

—Loc 266: I find it interesting that this discussion predates some serious anti-carb literature that appears in the culture about a decade or more hence.

“Anyone can make up a story and say it is the past.”

—Loc 234

“Have you ever been paralysed?”
Toninho’s big brow eyes swelled. “I have the wisdom to know that one day I will be.”

—Loc 462: An interesting life philosophy

“É preciso terno?”
Such was a tourist joke. In Brazil a suit was never necessary.

—Loc 808

Fletch gathered in the stern line. “Not in the S.S. Coitus Interruptus.”

—Loc 1300

Colombo, a sparkling clean tearoom noted for its great pastry

—Loc 1958: Who can resist a pastry reference?

The sound is overpowering. It is perhaps the maximum sound the earth and sky can accept without cracking, without breaking into fragments to move with it before dissipating into dust.

—Loc 2287: Mcdonald does a really good job describing the music of Brazil throughout. I particularly liked this passage.

…cheering on the biggest and most amazing human spectacle in the world except war.

—Loc 2426: a nice description of Carnival; apparently one so apt that he uses it multiple times.

Then he remembered his other ear had slipped into the personality of a tomato.

—Loc 2560: great description of an ear after a brutal fight

“Fletch, you always seem to be someplace you’re not supposed to be, doing something you’re not supposed to be doing.”
“Got any other news for me?”

—Loc 2684: Quintessential Fletch description and rejoinder

Fletch had come back to life. He was in a closed coffin.

—Loc 2939: A great pair of sentences just by themselves, but they also have a nice parallelism to where Fletch is within relation to the plot at the time.

(a waitress to Fletch) “Have an accident?”
“No, thanks. Just had one.”

—Loc 2979: Witty dialogue

“I was worried about you. I’ve been stood up for dinner before, often, but seldom for breakfast.”
“Not very nice of me.”
“It’s okay. I had breakfast anyway.”

—Loc 2986: Witty dialogue

“I mean, everyone needs a vacation from life. Don’t you agree?”
“A vacation from reality.”

—Loc 3068

“She fell out of her cradle. She’s enjoying a few moments crawling around the floor.”

—Loc 3097: great description of a grown woman

“I learned some things.”
“I’d love to know what.”
“Oh, that the past asserts itself. That the dead can walk.” Fletch thought of the small carved stone frog that had been under his bed. “That the absence of symbols can mean as much as their presence.”

—Loc 3100

Edgar Arthur Tharp, Junior

—Loc 3106: Fletch indicates that this artist will be part of his future purpose; The name reappears in Confess, Fletch as a tangential part of the plot.

Intersting words
  • scudding
  • the sails luffed
  • sibilant
  • calunga doll
  • bateria of drums
  • maté

Book Review: Confess, Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald

Read Confess, Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Confess, Fletch Book Cover Confess, Fletch
Fletch #2 (in the stories' chronological order: #6)
Gregory Mcdonald
Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
1976
Kindle e-book
192
Amazon / Overdrive

When Fletch stumbles upon the nude corpse of a beautiful young woman in his borrowed Boston apartment, he must match wits with the determined Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn as he tries to clear his name and find the real killer. Winner of the Edgar Award.

I had originally meant to read all the Fletch canon in chronological order from the perspective of the stories’ timeline. Unfortunately the immediate availability of the books threw a small curve into the process, so I’ve read this slightly out of order. Doing so has thrown me as I’ve been under the assumption that Fletch was generally a journalist working for the same Los Angeles paper the entire time.

The Order I’ve read the series in so far

Fletch Won
Fletch and the Widow Bradley #3
Fletch, Too #2
Confess Fletch #6
Carioca Fletch #5

At the opening of this he’s going by the name of Peter Fletcher which was quirky, even knowing how much I.M. dislikes his given names, and he seemed to have a far more Italian flair and a rich man’s flâneur attitude toward life compared with his previous character. Gone was the ne’er-do-well under employed hero and in his place was a well-to-do more suave man. What was I missing/forgetting from the intervening books? It wasn’t until about halfway through the book that the Fletch character I’ve come to enjoy popped out of the woodwork as himself.

In stark contrast to the almost no plot line of Fletch, Too, which I found disappointing, this one starts off like a shot. The opening scene of the story starts out with Fletch in an apartment swap and calling the police to report a body of a dead woman in the flat which he’s staying for the next few weeks.

“This is the Police Business phone.”
“Isn’t murder police business?”
“You’re supposed to call Emergency with a murder.”
“I think the emergency is over.”
“I mean, I don’t even have a tape recorder on this phone.”
“So talk to your boss. Make a recommendation.”

The following morning he’s on the hunt for the missing art collection of an Italian nobleman who’s been kidnapped and presumed dead.

What follows is a nicely developed set of A and B plot lines that rival even those of the original Fletch. (N.B. I’ve still yet to reread the original, so it’s been over 25 years that I’m making this comparison.) The characters are great and the dialogue as witty and snarky as ever. This is Fletch as it was meant to be. Reading this after Fletch, Too brings my faith back for Mcdonald’s work.

I just hope the rest are just this good.

The added benefit is that apparently Mcdonald spun off the Frances Xavier Flynn character from this work into another series, and he’s a sufficiently complex and interesting enough character that I’m glad the Fletch odyssey isn’t really over once I’m done with these eleven.

From a time period perspective, I’ll again note, as I did for Fletch and the Widow Bradley, that this book (written in 1976) had some very progressive views about gay/homosexual lifestyle that I wouldn’t have expected.

Book Review: Fletch Too by Gregory Mcdonald

Read Fletch, Too by Gregory Mcdonald (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Fletch, Too Book Cover Fletch, Too
Fletch #9 (in the stories' chronological order: #2)
Gregory Mcdonald
Fiction
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
1986
Kindle e-book
256
Overdrive

(Description from the Trade Paperback edition:) After a few delays, it looks like Fletch is finally getting hitched. It’s a small affair, just a few friends, the bride’s parents, the groom’s mother, and, just maybe, his father. Except Fletch’s father is supposed to be dead.

But somebody delivered the letter, signed Fletch (senior) and containing an invitation (and a pair of plane tickets) to visit the old man in Nairobi for the honeymoon. Never mind Fletch and his bride were planning a ski trip to Colorado. No sooner does the couple land in Africa, than the search for Fletch’s father begins. There’s a murder at the airport, reports of the old man’s incarceration, and the hospitality (and evasiveness) offered by pop’s best friend, who flies them across the continent, just a step or two behind (or maybe ahead of) the old rascal.

The plot opens up just days after we left Fletch in Fletch Won as we follow Fletch and his new bride Barbara on a honeymoon neither of them anticipated taking. It took much longer than I would have liked to get into the first few chapters, and never really got moving along even when it seemed like something interesting could happen.

I really can’t believe I had the patience to make it through to the end. There was a minor twist at the bitter end which was poorly foreshadowed and a bit too predictable. There was no real mystery at all and definitely no “detective” work or journalistic probing which usually moves the plot in Fletch books along. I would almost suspect that the long-time editor of the series died and no one else could reign the writer in to produce something more compelling.

I kept wondering where the plot was going and why I should keep carrying. So far, of the 4 I’ve read in the series, this was, by far, the least gripping book in the series. The dialogue was poorly attributed, if at all, which made reading and understanding things even more of a chore. It also wasn’t as sharp or witty as usual and characters are “off” and unsympathetic. The plot was just generally flat and didn’t pay off despite what could have been an interesting twist with Fletch witnessing a murder well before I would have anticipated as the end of the first act.

I’m hoping that though it was the second in the chronological story timeline of the Fletch canon, the fact that it was one of the last written means that Mcdonald was just getting tired of the formula and trying to close out the series in some stilted way. I still have higher hopes for the others remaining on my list.

In an odd way, the title was interesting from both a character standpoint as well as it being a follow up to Fletch Won.

Reading Progress
  • 8/7/16 marked as: want to read; “The Rio Olympics reminded me that I’d gotten Carioca Fletch to read back in the 80’s and never got around to it, so I thought I’d come back and revisit the series.”
  • 8/14/16: marked as currently reading
  • 8/14/16: 10%
  • 8/18/16: 30% “Took a bit to get into the first few chapters, but eventually gets moving along. The plot opens up just days after we left Fletch in Fletch Won.”
  • 8/29/16: 64% “I keep wondering where this is going and why I should keep caring. So far this isn’t the most gripping book in the series. Dialogue isn’t as sharp as usual and characters are off. The plot is just generally flat.”
  • 9/2/16: 100%

Book Review: Fletch and the Widow Bradley

Read Fletch and the Widow Bradley by Gregory Mcdonald (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Fletch and the Widow Bradley Book Cover Fletch and the Widow Bradley
Fletch #4 (in the stories' chronological order: #3)
Gregory Mcdonald
Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
May 5, 2010
e-book
160
Overdrive

When Fletch finds a wallet with $25,000 in cash inside, he doesn’t realize it’s the last piece of good luck he’s going to see for a while. Because when he calls in to the News-Tribune, he discovers a story he’s written is causing quite a sensation, and not the good kind. He might just be out of a job permanently.

If Tom Bradley, the chairman of Wagnall-Phipps and one of Fletch’s principal sources, and not incidentally, the source of his paper’s embarrassment, is dead, who’s been signing his name to company documents, and why doesn’t the company treasurer seem to know? If he’s alive, how come his widow, Enid, has Tom’s ashes on the mantel?

Fletch may have more questions than answers on his hands, but he knows he’s a pretty good reporter, and if he’s going to get his reputation back, not to mention his job, he’s going to have to get to the bottom of more than one mystery.

This didn’t have as much of the biting humor as others in the Fletch canon or as much interesting character development or motivation. This was a bit more more up-the-middle in terms of plot, though the twist at the end was relatively well foreshadowed yet still surprising, particularly for the time frame in which it was written.

Fletch’s romantic interest Moxie was quirky, but didn’t do very much for the plot. His quest within the story was fairly straightforward, but wasn’t very well motivated from an internal perspective given his lackadaisical viewpoint in life and his general inability to afford his situation.

The finding of the $25,000 was an interesting opening, but sadly and quickly took a back seat in the plot. Given subsequent events, it could have played a better tangential role as a more integral B-plot. The final wrap up in the closing scenes was very unsatisfying for our viewpoint of Fletch as a hero and could have had a better twist. I’m getting the feeling that Mcdonald is still coming into his own at this point in his career and that the success of the 1984 film version of Fletch had a more significant influence on subsequent character development.

Most surprising was that the major plot twist occurred in a book in 1981, making it far more prescient of American culture to come in the new millennium. Barring the differences in the current state of journalism, this plot would still easily fit into the zeitgeist today from a cultural standpoint.

Given that the series is set in Los Angeles, I was curious to see if Tom Bradley, the dead character that motivates the plot, bore any resemblance to long time Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. The real Bradley had been mayor for nearly 8 years (of an eventual 20 year reign) at the time the book was written, but I couldn’t discern any direct political satire in the naming of the character, though my knowledge of early 80’s Los Angeles politics is sketchy at best.

Book Review: Fletch Won

Read Fletch Won by Gregory Mcdonald (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Fletch Won Book Cover Fletch Won
Fletch #8 (in the stories' chronological order: )
Gregory Mcdonald
Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
April 7, 2010
e-book
272
Overdrive

As a fledgling reporter, Fletch is doing more flailing than anything else. That and floating around from department to department trying to figure where he fits in. His managing editor’s got him pegged for the society pages, but the kind of society Fletch gets involved with is anything but polite. His first big interview, a millionaire lawyer with a crooked streak and an itch to give away some of his ill-gotten gains, ends up dead in the News-Tribune’s parking lot before Fletch can ask question number one. So Fletch ends up going after the murderer instead, and ends up learning a thing or two about crime and punishment. At the same time, he’s supposed to be covering (or maybe uncovering) a health spa that caters to all its clients' needs, and gets hired as a very personal trainer. Never mind that he’s supposed to be getting married at the end of the week; Fletch has a few other engagements to take care of first.

I don’t remember the original Fletch (book) having the awesome biting, wry humor I found in this which is more reminiscent of the adapted feature film version. But it’s a hilarious little romp of entertainment. While not as tightly crafted in terms of plot as I remember the introductory book, which I read more than 25 years ago, it was terrifically enjoyable from start to finish.

The Rio Olympics reminded me that I’d gotten Carioca Fletch to read back in the late 80’s and never got around to it, so I thought I’d come back and revisit the series. This certainly didn’t disappoint, so I’ll be delving back through the rest to fill in some entertainment in the late end of the summer. Since I couldn’t get my hands on the second in the series from a publishing chronology, I thought I’d read them in the series timeline order instead. (Or as closely as I can from the perspective of obtaining them in this order.)

I read an e-book version of the text which was fair obviously an OCR’ed version of an earlier paperback version. There were a handful of egregious spelling errors and typos that should have been fixed, but fortunately the quality wasn’t too horrific. Hopefully the quality of OCR is maintained or improved throughout the remainder of the series.

My Review Copy of The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

I’m already a major chunk of the way through the book, having had an early ebook version of the text prior to publication. This is the published first edition with all the diagrams which I wanted to have prior to finishing my full review, which is forthcoming.

One thing I will mention is that it’s got quite a bit more philosophy in it than most popular science books with such a physics bent. Those who aren’t already up to speed on the math and science of modern physics can certainly benefit from the book (like most popular science books of its stripe, it doesn’t have any equations — hairy or otherwise), and it’s certain to help many toward becoming members of both of C.P. Snow’s two cultures. It might not be the best place for mathematicians and physicists to start moving toward the humanities with the included philosophy as the philosophy is very light and spotty in places and the explanations of the portions they’re already aware of may put them out a bit.

I’m most interested to see how he views complexity and thinking in the final portion of the text.

More detail to come…

Amerikan Krazy: Life Out of Balance | Exhibition at BC Space

Yesterday, along with my friend Henry James Korn, I attended the opening of the BC Space Gallery exhibition Amerikan Krazy: Life Out of Balance, and it was fantastic! If you’ve got time to see it sometime in the next few weeks until it closes on May 20th, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. I don’t think I’ve experienced so much shock and amazement at an exhibition in a long time.

Sadly, Henry won’t be there doing a live reading of his new novel Amerikan Krazy every day for the next month, but you’ll be continually astounded for the entire time you’re there emoting over all of the work on display in an exhibition that is not only aptly named but touches on many aspects of the cultural zeitgeist.

Jeff Gillete, Desert Debris Dismayland Castle
Jeff Gillete, Desert Debris Dismayland Castle

I walked through the gallery half a dozen times over four hours and was continually amazed by new things I’d run into that I somehow hadn’t seen on my first passes, or I’d experience new emotions in pieces I’d spent time studying after coming back to them after viewing others.

For those attending, I hope you’ll notice the experience begins almost as soon as you open the door, it continues even for those who visit the restrooms(!), and it doesn’t end until you’re dumbfounded even as you leave the gallery–in fact, I was so intrigued that I walked back up the stairs to leave a second time.

I was particularly enamored by many of the Glenn Brooks pieces, a fantastic video by Max Papeschi, and the haunting work of Tom Lamb, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the gallery.

Below is a small sampling of some snapshots I took (along with a few professional shots), but don’t let the poor quality of my photography detract from experiencing it more viscerally in person. (Click photos to enlarge and view slideshow.)

 

Here’s the original invitation from Mark Chamberlain and the BC Space Gallery in Laguna Beach:

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Dear Friends of BC Space

…Here we go again, as go we must.

BC Space Gallery is proud to present Amerikan Krazy: Life Out of Balance featuring the work of over twenty notable southland artists.

There will be an opening reception on Sunday, March 20, MMXVI, from 1-5 PM in celebration of the Vernal Equinox when our planet once again achieves balance between light and dark.

At the opening, from 2-4 PM, Henry James Korn will launch his new book Amerikan Krazy after which this show was named and thematically assembled. Henry’s comic masterpiece picks up where George Orwell, Jules Verne, and Edward Abbey left off, and turns political writing into art.

Henry Korn is the former director of the Art, Culture, and Heritage program at the Orange County Great Park. At the conclusion of his reading, there will be a discussion period on how the original grand dream for the transformation of the former Marine Corps air base has changed from a public serving project into a corporate theme park, sports complex, and housing development that mirrors the “Founding Father Land” depicted in Korn’s relentless satirical novel.

Amerikan Krazy: Life Out of Balance includes work by: Jorg Dubin, Joella March, Stephen Anderson, Jeff Gillette, F. Scott Hess, Tom Lamb, Douglas McCulloh, Haley Blatte, Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain, Ricardo Duffy, Jared Milar, Max Papeschi, Jessica DeStephano, Lynn Kubasek, Glenn Brooks, Ron English, Dustin Shuler, Clayton Spada, Jacques Garnier, Pat Spakuhl, and Dan Van Clapp.

This exhibition will be on display until May 20, 2016. Gallery hours are by arrangement. The opening reception is free to the public, but seating for the book launch is limited so reservations are encouraged.

For additional information please contact the gallery or Mark Chamberlain.

Source: BC Space

The gallery can be contacted at the details below:

BC Space Gallery
235 Forest Avenue
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
949.497.1880
bcspace@cox.net

Henry Korn chats with fans after reading from Amerikan Krazy
Henry Korn chats with fans after reading from Amerikan Krazy

Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologiae”

Read Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem's "Summa Technologiae" (The Los Angeles Review of Books)
A review of Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem by David Auerbach from the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Summa Technologiae

AT LAST WE have it in English. Summa Technologiae, originally published in Polish in 1964, is the cornerstone of Stanislaw Lem’s oeuvre, his consummate work of speculative nonfiction. Trained in medicine and biology, Lem synthesizes the current science of the day in ways far ahead of most science fiction of the time.

His subjects, among others, include:

  • Virtual reality
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Nanotechnology and biotechnology
  • Evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology
  • Artificial life
  • Information theory
  • Entropy and thermodynamics
  • Complexity theory, probability, and chaos
  • Population and ecological catastrophe
  • The “singularity” and “transhumanism”

Source: Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologiae” – The Los Angeles Review of Books

I came across this book review quite serendipitously today via an Auerbach article in Slate, which I’ve bookmarked. I found a copy of the book and have added it to the top of my reading pile. As I’m currently reading an advance reader edition of Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture, I can only imagine how well the two may go together despite being written nearly 60 years apart.

Eugenia Cheng, author of How to Bake Pi, on Colbert Tonight

Earlier this year, I read Eugenia Cheng’s brilliant book How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics. Tonight she’s appearing (along with Daniel Craig apparently) on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I encourage everyone to watch it and read her book when they get the chance.

How-to-bake-pi

You can also read more about her appearance from Category Theorist John Carlos Baez here: Cakes, Custard, Categories and Colbert | The n-Category Café

My brief review of her book on GoodReads.com:

How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsHow to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While most of the book is material I’ve known for a long time, it’s very well structured and presented in a clean and clear manner. Though a small portion is about category theory and gives some of the “flavor” of the subject, the majority is about how abstract mathematics works in general.

I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to have a clear picture of what mathematics really is or how it should be properly thought about and practiced (hint: it’s not the pablum you memorized in high school or even in calculus or linear algebra). Many books talk about the beauty of math, while this one actually makes steps towards actually showing the reader how to appreciate that beauty.

Like many popular books about math, this one actually has very little that goes beyond the 5th grade level, but in examples that are very helpfully illuminating given their elementary nature. The extended food metaphors and recipes throughout the book fit in wonderfully with the abstract nature of math – perhaps this is why I love cooking so much myself.

I wish I’d read this book in high school to have a better picture of the forest of mathematics.

More thoughts to come…

Brief Review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

The Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice little thriller about an obscure text from the Renaissance (quattrocento) set in modern times. This falls into the genre of historical fiction that’s similar to Dan Brown‘s Robert Langdon series or films like the Nicolas Cage National Treasure series, though not quite as “rompish.” I have to imagine that those who liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Gentlemen and Players, and The Thirteenth Tale will enjoy this quite a lot.

Those who are fans of historical fiction, cryptography, puzzles, books about books, and history in general, are sure to enjoy it.

Spoilers follow:

The Vincent Taft character could have been a better “heavy” but was pretty functional in the story given his limited appearances in the actual plot. I saw the Savonarola portion of the plot a mile away, but to most unaware of this part of history this will be an interesting historical diversion/lesson. I thought the ending was a bit too literary given the more plot-motivated feel of the rest of the narrative, but in all, it was relatively satisfying given Tom’s full back-story. I can see this being adapted into film, but it will take some creative ideas to better linearize the plot and to make the ending a bit bigger for the screen.

View all my reviews

Book Review: A Fatal Family Secret by Samantha Marks

Read A Fatal Family Secret (The Morphosis.me Files, Book ) by Samantha Marks
A Fatal Family Secret Book Cover A Fatal Family Secret
The Morphosis.me Files, Book
Samantha Marks
Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Samantha Marks
May 10, 2015
Paperback
264

What if, with a simple thought, you could change everything about yourself? On the first day of high school, Kayleigh wishes she could be taller, curvier, and cooler. But when she discovers she’s a morph--shape-shifters who can become anyone or anything--the boundaries around personality, sexuality, and gender identity are blurred. Suddenly, everything is fair game. But there are those who want to control Kayleigh and her gifts. Overnight, she becomes a target, and surviving the school year means defending herself against cyber-bullies, learning to control her newfound powers, and hiding from the ancient secret society that kidnapped her mother. Morphing has consequences, and Kayleigh begins to realize that being able to change into anything can mean losing herself in the process. After all, in a world full of morphs, rules are meant to be broken...

This is a well-paced young adult novel that mixes a dose of interesting fantasy in an otherwise all-too-real teenage world. In the vein of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein that take adolescence and turn them into great fiction as well as well-veiled morality plays, this novel, with a much better and modernized version of the “Teen Wolf” plot or perhaps in the vein of “X-Men: The Teenage Years”, takes things up three notches by adding a dose of thriller/suspense in what portends to be an awesome four book series.

Typical teenage protagonist Kayleigh comes home one day to find her father bleeding and injured in an apparent home invasion that ultimate reveals her mother has been either kidnapped or killed. Struggling with the psychological fallout of losing her mother under more than suspicious circumstances, she faces the turmoils of puberty, relationships, and fitting in as a teenager in high school. Making things worse, she discovers, that like her mother, she’s a “Morph” with the ability to change her appearance into almost anyone she can imagine to even animals. Facing post traumatic stress disorder amidst teenagerdom, her new-found ability just compounds things and gives her some hope that her mother may not only be alive but that she may be able to find her — if she can withstand constant bullying from classmate Emma and a very mysterious and potentially threatening online stalker who seems to know her every move.

I can’t wait to see the next installment in November 2015.

Reading Progress

Henry James Korn’s Novel Amerikan Krazy is Available for Pre-Order

Happy Birthday Henry!

The more I read of Henry James Korn‘s work, the more I love both it and him.  Nothing pleases or honors me more than to be part of the process of not only re-releasing several of his prior works, but to be part of the team releasing his debut novel. Toward that end, I’m happy to announce (on what I hope to be his best birthday yet) the availability to pre-order his forthcoming novel Amerikan Krazy on Amazon.com! If anyone loves it half as much as I do, it’s guaranteed to be a best seller.

I’ve helped him to edit and shape it for several months now and somehow never tire of reading his characters, his plot, or re-experiencing his never-ending wit or his truckloads of snark. Somehow, between the two of us, I think I’m always getting the better end of the deal in working on his book.  Either way I’m proud to call him my friend.

 

Henry Korn's novel Amerikan Krazy now available on Amazon.com
Henry Korn’s novel Amerikan Krazy now available on Amazon.com

 

Happy Birthday Henry!

 

To Purchase, Rent, or Pirate? The Broken Economics of Textbooks in the Digital Age

I

t’s the beginning of yet another quarter/semester (or ovester, if you prefer) and a new crop of inquiries have come up around selling back used textbooks and purchasing new textbooks for upcoming classes. I’m not talking about the philosophical discussion about choosing your own textbooks that I’ve mentioned before. I’m considering, in the digital era,

What are the best options for purchasing, renting, or utilizing textbook products in what is a relatively quickly shifting market?

The popular press has a variety of evergreen stories that hit the wire at the beginning of each semester that scratch just the surface of the broader textbook issue or focus on one tiny upstart company that promises to drastically disrupt the market (yet somehow never does), but these articles never delve just a bit deeper into the market to give a broader array of ideas and, more importantly, solutions for the students/parents who are spending the bulk of the money to support the inequalities the market has built.

I aim to facilitate some of this digging and revealing based on years of personal book buying experience as well as having specified textbooks as an instructor in the past.

Reading Formats

Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts.

Before taking a look at the pure economics of the market for the various forms of purchase, resale, or even renting, one should first figure out one’s preference for reading format. There are obviously many different means of learning (visual, auditory, experiential, etc.) which some will prefer over others, so try to tailor your “texts” to your preferred learning style as much as possible. For those who prefer auditory learning modes, be sure to check out alternatives like Audible or the wealth of online video/audio materials that have proliferated in the MOOC revolution. For those who are visual learners or who learn best by reading, do you prefer ebook formats over physical books?  There are many studies showing the benefit of one over the other, but some of this comes down to personal preference and how comfortable one is with particular formats.  Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts.  It’s taken me (an avowed paper native) several years, but I now vastly prefer to have books in electronic format for some of the reasons indicated above in addition to the fact that I can carry a library of 2,500+ books with me almost anywhere I go. I also love being able to almost instantly download anything that I don’t currently own but may need/want.

The one caveat I’ll mention, particularly for visual learners (or those with pseudo-photographic or eidetic memory), is that they attempt to keep a two-page reading format on their e-reading devices as their long-term memory for reading will increase with the ability to place the knowledge on the part of the page(s) where they originally encountered it (that is, I remember seeing that particular item on the top left, or middle right portion of a particular page.) Sometimes this isn’t always possible due to an e-reader’s formatting capabilities or the readability of the size of the text (for example, a .pdf file on a Kindle DX would be preferable to the same file on a much smaller smartphone) , but for many it can be quite helpful. Personally, I can remember where particular words and grammatical constructs appeared in my 10th grade Latin text many years later while I would be very unlikely to be able to do this with the presentation of some modern-day e-readers or alternate technologies like rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP).

bookstore-bookshelves-1024x768

 

Purchasing Options

Purchasing to Keep

Personally, as a student and a bibliophile (read: bibliomaniac), I would typically purchase all of the physical texts for all of my classes.  I know this isn’t a realizable reality for everyone, so, for the rest, I would recommend purchasing all of the texts (physical or electronic, depending on one’s preference for personal use) in one’s main area of study, which one could then keep for the long term and not sell back. This allows one to build a library that will serve as a long term reference for one’s primary area(s) of study.

Renting vs Short-term Ownership

In general, I’m opposed to renting books or purchasing them for a semester or year and then returning them for a partial refund. It’s rarely a great solution for the end consumer who ends up losing the greater value of the textbook. Even books returned and sold later as used, often go for many multiples of their turn in price the following term, so if it’s a newer or recent edition, it’s probably better to hold on to it for a few months and then sell it for a used price, slightly lower than the college bookstore’s going rate.

Free Texts

For tangential texts in classes I know I don’t want to keep for the long term, I’d usually find online versions or borrow (for free) from the local college or public library (many books are available electronically through the library or are borrow-able through the library reserve room.)

Most public libraries use systems like Overdrive, Axis 360 (Baker & Taylor), Adobe Digital Editions, 3M Cloud Library, etc. to allow students to check out a broad array of fiction and non-fiction for free for loan terms from as short as a week up to a month or more. Additionally well-known websites like the Project Gutenberg and Archive.org have lots of commonly used texts available for free download in a broad variety of formats.  This includes a lot of classic fiction, philosophy, and other texts used in the humanities. Essentially most works published in the United States prior to 1923 and many additional texts published after this as well can be found in the public domain. Additional information on what is in the public domain can be found here: Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States.

Why pay $10-20 for a classic book like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan when you can find copies for free online, unless of course you’re getting a huge amount of additional scholarship and additional notes along with it.

Often college students forget that they’re not just stuck with their local institutional library, so I’ll remind everyone to check out their local public library(s) as well as other nearby institutional libraries and inter-library loan options which may give them longer term loan terms.

General Economics in the Textbook Market

One of the most important changes in the textbook market that every buyer should be aware of: last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. the US Supreme Court upheld the ability for US-based students to buy copies of textbooks printed in foreign countries (often at huge cut-rate prices) [see also Ars Technica]. This means that searching online bookstores in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. will often find the EXACT same textbooks (usually with slightly different ISBNs, and slightly cheaper paper) for HUGE discounts in the 60-95% range.

Example: I recently bought an international edition of Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis (Amazon $121) for $5 (and it even happened to ship from within the US for $3). Not only was this 96% off of the cover price, but it was 78% off of Amazon’s rental price!  How amazing is it to spend almost as much to purchase a book as it is to ship it to yourself!? I’ll also note here that the first edition of this book appeared in 1964 and this very popular third edition is from 1976, so it isn’t an example of “edition creep”, but it’s still got a tremendous mark up in relation to other common analysis texts which list on Amazon for $35-50.

HintAbe Books (a subsidiary of Amazon) is better than most at finding/sourcing international editions of textbooks.

For some of the most expensive math/science/engineering texts one can buy an edition one or two earlier than the current one. In these cases, the main text changes very little, if any, and the primary difference is usually additional problems in the homework sections (which causes small discrepancies in page number counts). If necessary, the problem sets can be easily obtained via the reserve room in the library or by briefly borrowing/photocopying problems from classmates who have the current edition. The constant “edition-churning” by publishers is mean to help prop up high textbook prices.

Definition: “Edition Churning” or “Edition Creep“: a common practice of textbook publishers of adding scant new material, if any, to textbooks on a yearly or every-other-yearly basis thereby making older editions seem prematurely obsolete and thereby propping up the prices of their textbooks. Professors who blithely utilize the newest edition of a texbook are often unknowingly complicit in propping up prices in these situations.

Book Outlets

Bookstores

One may find some usefulness or convenience in traditional bookstores, particularly Barnes & Noble, the last of the freestanding big box retailers. If you’re a member of their affinity program and get an additional discount for ordering books directly through them, then it may not be a horrible idea to do so. Still, they’re paying for a relatively large overhead and it’s likely that you’ll find cheaper prices elsewhere.

Campus bookstores

These are becoming increasingly lean and many may begin disappearing over the next decade or so, much the way many traditional bookstores have disappeared in the last decade with the increasing competition online.  Because many students aren’t the best at price comparison, however, and because of their position in the economic chain, many are managing to hang on quite well.  Keep in mind that many campus bookstores have fine print deals in which they’ll match or beat pricing you find online, so be sure to take advantage of this fact, particularly when shipping from many services will make an equivalent online purchase a few dollars more expensive.

Used bookstores

There are fewer and fewer of these around these days and even fewer textbook-specific stores that traditionally sprouted up next to major campuses.  This last type may not be a horrible place to shop, but they’re likely to specialize in used texts of only official texts. Otherwise, general used bookstores are more likely to specialize in paperbacks and popular used fiction and have very lean textbook selection, if any.

Online Retailers

Naturally when shopping for textbooks there are a veritable wealth of websites to shop around online including: Amazon, Alibris, Barnes & Noble, AbeBooks, Google Play, Half/EBay. Chegg, Valore, CampusBookRentals, TextBooks.com, and ECampus. But in the Web2.0 world, we can now uses websites with even larger volumes of data and meta-data as a clearing-house for our shopping. So instead of shopping and doing price comparison at the dozens of competing sites, why not use a meta-site to do the comparison for us algorithmically and much more quickly.

Meta-Retailers

There are a variety of meta-retailer shopping methods including several browser plugins and comparison sites (Chrome, Firefox, InvisibleHand, PriceBlink, PriceGong, etc.) that one can install to provide pricing comparisons, so that, for example, while shopping on Amazon, one will see lower priced offerings from their competitors. However, possibly the best website I’ve come across for cross-site book comparisons is GetTextbooks.com. One can easily search for textbooks (by author, title, ISBN, etc.) and get back a list of retailers with copies that is sortable by price (including shipping) as well as by new/used and even by rental availability. They even highlight one entry algorithmicly to indicate their recommended “best value”.

A screencapture of GetTextbook.com's search and sort functionality and layout
Example of GetTextbooks.com‘s search/sort functionality

Similar to GetTextbooks is the webservice SlugBooks, though it doesn’t appear to search as many sites or present as much data.

When searching for potential textbooks, don’t forget that one can “showroom” the book in one’s local bookstore or even at one’s local library(s). This is particularly useful if one is debating whether or not to take a particular class, or if one is kicking tires to see if it’s really the best book for them, or if they should be looking at other textbooks.

From an economic standpoint, keep in mind there is usually more availability and selection on editions bought a month or so before the start of classes, as often-used texts are used by thousands of students over the world, thus creating a spot market for used texts at semester and quarter starts. Professors often list their textbooks when class listings for future semesters are released, so students surfing for the best deals for used textbooks can very often find them in mid-semester (or mid-quarter) well before the purchasing rush begins for any/most titles.

Black Market

And finally, there is also the black market (also known as outright theft), which is usually spoken of in back-channels either online or in person. Most mainstream articles which reference this portion of the market usually refer tangentially to a grey market in which one student passes along a .pdf or other pirated file to fellow students rather than individual students being enterprising enough to go out hunting for their own files.

Most will know of or have heard about websites like PirateBay, but there are a variety of lesser-known torrent sites which are typically hosted in foreign countries which extend beyond the reach of the United States Copyright law enforcement.  Increasingly, mega-pirate websites in the vein of the now-defunct Library.nu (or previously Gigapedia) or the slowly dying empire of Library Genesis are hiding all over the web and become quick and easy clearing houses for pirated copies of ebooks, typically in .pdf or .djvu formats, though many are in .epub, .mobi, .azw, or alternate e-book formats. The typical set up for these sites is one or more illegal file repositories for allowing downloads with one (or more) primary hubs that don’t necessarily store the pirated materials, but instead serve as a searchable hub which points to the files.

Creative advanced searches for book authors, titles, ISBNs along with the words .pdf, .djvu, torrent, etc. can often reveal portions of this dark web.  Naturally, caveat emptor applies heavily to these types of sites as often files can be corrupted or contain viruses to unwary or unwitting thieves.  Many of these sites may attempt to extract a small token monthly fee as a subscription or will rely heavily on serving banner advertising to help to offset large web hosting and traffic fees associated with their maintenance, though it is posited that many of them make in the millions of dollars in profit annually due to advertising arrangements, though this is incredibly hard to validate given the nature of these types of markets and how they operate.

Rather than stoop as low as finding textbooks on the black market this way, students should place pressure on their professors, the faculty of their departments, and their colleges or universities to help assist in smoothing out some of the pricing inequities in the system (see below). In the long run, this will not only tend to help them, but many future generations of students who will be left adrift in the market otherwise.

Long Term Solution(s) to Improving the Textbook Market

The biggest primary issue facing the overpriced textbook market is that the end consumers of the textbooks aren’t really firmly in charge of the decision of which textbook to purchase. This is why I advocate that students research and decide by themselves which textbook they’re going to use and whether or not they really need to make that purchase.  Instead, individual professors or the departments for which they work are dictating the textbooks that will be purchased.  The game theory dynamics behind this small decision are the massive fulcrum which allows the publishing industry to dictate their own terms.  Students (and parents) should, in a sense, unionize and make their voices heard not only to the professors, but to the departments and even the colleges/universities which they’re attending.  If universities took a strong stance on how the markets worked, either for or against them and their students, they could create strong market-moving forces to drastically decrease the cost of textbooks.

The other larger issue is that market forces aren’t allowed to play out naturally in the college textbook market. Publishers lean on professors and departments to “adopt” overpriced textbooks. These departments in turn “require” these texts and students aren’t questioning enough to use other texts for fear of not succeeding in courses. If the system were questioned, they’d realize that instead of their $200-300 textbook, they could easily purchase alternate, equivalent, and often even better textbooks for $20-50. To put things into perspective, the time, effort, energy, and production cost for the typical book isn’t drastically different than the average textbook, yet we’re not paying $250 for a copy of the average new hardcover on the best seller list. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that universities, departments, and professors are colluding with publishers, but they’re certainly not helping to make the system better.

I’ve always taken the view that the ‘required’ textbook was really just a ‘suggestion’. (Have you ever known a professor to fail a student for not purchasing the ‘required’ textbook?!)

In past generations, one of the first jobs of a student was to select their own textbook. Reverting back to this paradigm may help to drastically change the economics of the situation. For the interested students, I’ve written a bit about the philosophy and mechanics here: On Choosing Your Own Textbooks.

Basic economics 101 theory of supply and demand would typically indicate to us that basic textbooks for subjects like calculus, intro physics, or chemistry that are used by very large numbers of students should be not only numerous, but also very cheap, while more specialized books like Lie Groups and Lie Algebras or Electromagnetic Theory should be less numerous and also more expensive.  Unfortunately and remarkably, the most popular calculus textbooks are 2-5 times more expensive than their advanced abstract mathematical brethren and similarly for introductory physics texts versus EM theory books.

To drastically cut down on these market inequities, when possible, Colleges and Universities should:

  • Heavily discourage “edition creep” or “edition churning” when there really aren’t major changes to textbooks. In an online and connected society, it’s easy enough to add supplemental errata or small amounts of supplemental material by means of the web.
  • Quit making institution-specific readers and sub-editions of books for a specific department
  • If they’re going to make departmental level textbook choices, they should shoulder the burden of purchasing all the textbooks in quantity (and taking quantity discounts).  I’ll note here, that students shouldn’t encourage institutions to bundle the price of textbooks into their tuition as then there is a “dark curtain,” which allows institutions to take the drastic mark-ups for themselves instead of allowing the publishers to take it or passing it along to their students. Cross-reference Benjamin Ginsberg’s article Administrators Ate My Tuition or his much longer text The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Discourage the use of unpopularly used textbooks written by their own faculty. Perhaps a market share of 5-10% or more should be required for a common textbook to be usable by a department, and, until that point, the professor should compete aggressively to build market share? This may help encourage professors to write new original texts instead of producing yet-another-introductory-calculus-textbook that no one needs.
  • Discourage packaged electronic supplemental materials, which
    • are rarely used by students,
    • could be supplied online for free as a supplement,
    • and often double or triple the price of a textbook package.
  • Strongly encourage professors to supply larger lists of relatively equivalent books and encourage their students to make their purchase choices individually.
  • Consider barring textbook sales on campus and relying on the larger competitive market to supply textbooks to students.

Calibre: E-book and Document Management Made Simple

As an added bonus, for those with rather large (or rapidly growing) e-book collections, I highly recommend downloading and using the free Calibre Library software. For my 2000+ e-books and documents, this is an indispensable program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality. It works on all major OSes and is compatible with almost every e-reader on the planet.  Additionally, plug-ins and a myriad of settings allow for additional extensibility for integration with other e-book software and web services (for example: integration with GoodReads or the ability to add additional data and meta-data to one’s books.)

 Further Reading

Be sure to read through the commentary on some of these posts for some additional great information.

What other textbook purchasing services and advice can you offer the market?

I invite everyone to include their comments and advice below as I’m sure I haven’t covered the topic completely or there are bound to be new players in the space increasing competition as time goes by.

Breaking the code | The Economist

Bookmarked Breaking the code (The Economist)
Brief book overview of Matthew Cobb's "Life’s Greatest Secret" from The Economist.
For those interested in some of the history behind genetics, evolution, biology and information theory, the following book, which I just saw the attached review in The Economist, is likely to be of interest:

Life’s Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code. By Matthew Cobb. Basic Books; 434 pages; $29.99. Profile Books; £25.

In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick, with the help of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, described the structure of the molecule at the heart of life. Deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA, was, they said, a double helix, two spirals joined across the middle by pairs of four chemical bases, like a twisted ladder. That work earned Messrs Crick, Watson and Wilkins a Nobel prize and a place in the history books. The image of the double helix now often stands for biology, or even science, itself.

But this was merely the most visible breakthrough in a long struggle to understand the engine of life—how traits are inherited, mutated and weeded out by natural selection, and how the whole mysterious process works at the biochemical level. It is that lesser-known history that Matthew Cobb, a professor of animal behaviour at the University of Manchester, aims to sketch in his book, which has been shortlisted for the Royal Society’s Winton prize for science writing.

The result is a fascinating reminder of just how hard-won are the seemingly obvious facts of modern biology. The development of genetics was a tale of confusion, accident, frustration and the occasional flash of insight. It was, says Dr Cobb, as important as the Manhattan or Apollo projects, but with no government support and little money, carried out by scientists interested in the question for its own sake.

The researchers started from almost total ignorance. William Harvey, better known for describing the circulation of the blood, wondered in the 17th century what could explain why children’s skin colour was often a blend of their parents’, whereas they share a sex with only one, and can have an eye colour different from either.

In the late 19th century a monk, Gregor Mendel, established, through experiments on pea plants, the basic rules of inherited traits. A Danish biologist, Wilhelm Johannsen, coined the term “gene” in 1909 to describe whatever it was that Mendel had found. But as late as 1933 scientists were still debating whether genes were physical things or just useful abstractions, and how they could transmit traits. Scientists knew that DNA existed, but many considered it a boring bit of scaffolding in the cell. Proteins, which come in zillions of different varieties, were seen by many as the only things exciting enough to account for all the diversity seen in life.

After the second world war, ideas from information theory, arising out of wartime work on computers and automation, percolated into biology. Once the structure of DNA had been established, those ideas helped crack the problem of how the four chemical bases do their job. Proteins are built by stringing together 20 different sorts of amino acid. Strings of three bases within a DNA molecule represent these amino acids, but with 64 such triplets, there is much redundancy which information theory alone could not fully explain. Years of painstaking lab-work were needed to reconcile theory with reality.

Dr Cobb is good on the human side of the story, showing science as fuelled by rivalry, jealousy, competitiveness and wonder. The only downside is that he must marshal hundreds of scientists across several disciplines into around 300 pages of narrative. The results can sometimes be dense, and readers without a command of biological jargon will frequently find themselves consulting the glossary for guidance. But the cracking of the code of life is a great story, of which this is an accomplished telling.

Source: Breaking the code | The Economist, 

 

Life’s Greatest Secret