Friday, May 04, 2007
More on books
Thanks for all your comments on my post about books. (Sorry I couldn't publish more; we received several hundred, and there's only so much time to go through them.)

Several people observed that the issue isn't so much interest in books; it's interest in newspapers. I agree, mostly. The hard-headed practical side of me knows that newspapers are a business suffering from declining circulation. As a business, newspapers can do what they want in hopes of improving their prospects, including cutting back on books coverage. There will still be plenty of that on the Web.

But the sentimentalist in me -- the side that likes newspapers and newspaper book sections -- wishes it were otherwise.

And many people wrote that they read dozens of books every year and they can't imagine life without a book (or three) by their bedside. I'm with you all the way.

Still, I worry about books anyway -- Oprah, packed bookstores and J.K. Rowling (all praise to her!) notwithstanding.

For all the titles released, for all the Web sites devoted to covering books, my perception is that books don't matter as much in our society as they once did. I could be wrong. Maybe they still DO matter -- and maybe they never did, at least to a mass audience. After all, even years ago it was always the author who got bumped from the "Tonight" show.

And should books matter in the first place? As at least one writer noted, focusing so much on books is narrow-minded in a broad-based media age. Books aren't the be-all and end-all.

But they'll continue to fill a large place in my heart. Not to mention all over the house.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Who reads books anymore?
It's not easy getting people to care about books.

Thursday, a small contingent gathered in front of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's building in downtown Atlanta, a couple blocks from CNN Center, to host a "read-in." The paper has decided to eliminate its book editor position and the activists want to show that books -- and readers -- matter. (The episode has received national coverage.)

So a handful of people quietly read books in front of AJC headquarters while others, standing in front of a poster saying "Save the Book Review" and a display of titles (Walker Percy's "Love in the Ruins," "Romeo and Juliet," Langston Hughes) praised AJC Book Editor Teresa Weaver and talked about why the paper was making a bad decision.

"The problem is, they're not making enough money, and this is easy to give up," said Vivian Lawand, a veteran Atlanta bookseller.

The paper says it will continue to have book coverage. "We will continue to use freelancers, established news services and our staff to provide stories about books of interest to our readers and the local literary community," spokeswoman Mary Dugenske told The New York Times.

The AJC isn't alone in its rethinking. The Times recently ran a piece about newspapers cutting back on book coverage. There's not enough advertising money, the thinking goes, and readers are gravitating online anyway and getting their book information from blogs and Amazon reviews. (I won't even go into all the questions surrounding the publishing business.)

But I'm not so sure cutting newspaper book coverage is the way to go.

I'll admit I'm biased -- in many ways. I don't know Weaver personally, but we have several friends in common; I subscribe to two newspapers (and several magazines); I'm in two book groups, one online and the other face-to-face; I like to see good writers succeed; and, of course, I oversee the entertainment and media page for a large news organization and I like to keep up with the field.

But at bottom, it's for a selfish reason: I read books. Lots of books. It's not just for my job. I love reading in general, and I know when I die I'll still have shelves -- cases -- of books I never got to. ("TBR stacks," my online group calls them -- "to be read" ... eventually.) I like books and I like reading about books, and Amazon and blogs aren't enough.

I fear I'm in the minority. How many people read books anymore, anyway? I'd like to think that book readers matter -- particularly to newspapers -- but it's not like the AJC's front steps were overflowing with demonstrators Thursday morning. The paper would probably get more protesting if it canceled "Mary Worth."

Still, I hope the "read-in" makes a difference. "Readers and writers are out there," said Ginger Collins of the Atlanta Writers Club. Perhaps enough of them can make their desires known.

How about you?
'Idol' chatter: Get ready to boogie
From CNN.com Special Projects producer -- and "American Idol" fan -- Steve Almasy:

Thank you for your many respectful comments on yesterday's "American Idol" blog post. You kindly asked, so I watched and listened to Blake again, and I'll agree with you who liked it on one thing. If you DO like that kinda stuff, it was genius. Especially given the circumstances -- short window to work on the song, ability to reinvent it, flawless vocals.

BUT (cue the boos) -- it's still not my cup of tea. (Watch Steve and Rodney argue it out.) I'm much more likely to buy Melinda's first album than Blake's, but I think he'll do well as a singer/producer in his genre. I AM glad that he's still in the contest because it'll be fun to see him on "boogie night" next week and whatever the theme is the week after that. And I think we now get two songs per contestant.

We bid adieu to Chris and Phil last night, and if I may brag –- to the people who think I'm a moron –- that's five weeks in a row (not including last week's freebie) I've picked who was going home. I wish Phil was staying because his singing was improving each week and he was getting better at working the stage. I thought it especially showed in his classy exit performance.

Chris I won't miss so much. I never thought of him as a frontman, but on his bio it says he plays a few instruments so maybe he can make a career in a band.

Got any song suggestions for next week?

-- Steve Almasy
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Relive Coachella!
A wealth of photos from last weekend's Coachella festival.

Thanks to Denise Quan, Jennifer Wolfe, Mary Loynes and particularly photographers Rick Taber and Jack Hannah, who busted their butts in summer-like heat to bring you this color. Here are some of their notes on the festival:

  • RAGING AGAINST THE MACHINE AND A SCARLETT SURPRISE: It was the moment everyone had been waiting for: the reunion of the politically-charged L.A. rock band Rage Against the Machine. Sunday afternoon, extra barricades were brought in to accomodate what appeared to be the largest crowd ever for a single Coachella act. When the foursome hit the stage -- the first time since they disbanded nearly seven years ago -- they were treated to a hero's welcome. They, in turn, launched into a blistering string of their greatest hits, prompting the inconceivable -- a mosh pit in the VIP section.

    The band addressed the audience directly only once -- during an incendiary tirade against President Bush near the end of their call to arms, "Wake Up." Frontman Zack de la Rocha attempted to draw a parallel between "certain U.S. presidents" and "Nazis during World War II." "They should be tried, and hung and shot," he spat. "Just like any war criminal should be." Then the lights abruptly faded to black, and the quartet left the stage for four minutes, leaving 60,000 people stunned and turning to each other saying, "Did he just say what I thought he said?!"

    Friday night, the mood was much lighter during another reunion on the Coachella main stage. During the Jesus & Mary Chain's set, actress Scarlett Johansson popped out from the wings to sing back-up on their signature hit, "Just Like Honey." Bonus tabloid tidbit: Somewhere in the audience was Johansson's romantic rival, Cameron Diaz -- who dated Justin Timberlake just before Johansson's rumored romance with the pop idol. Both starlets were spotted later ... though definitely not together.

  • THE VIPs: At Coachella, the acronym should have stood for Very Important Pigpen. The VIP area was pristine at the start of each day. By night's end,it looked like a debris field -- with cups, plastic bottles and uneaten food scattered everywhere. Apparently, the Very Important People need to learn a very important lesson -- clean up after yourselves.

  • OVERHEARD: Retro-soul diva Amy Winehouse bragging to the audience, "I just met Danny DeVito -- and he's as tall as I am without heels!"

  • ALERT THE MEDIA: There was no red carpet, but there might as well have been. Besides Johansson, Diaz and Drew Barrymore, and perennial festivalgoer DeVito, we spotted Lindsay Lohan, Joaquin Phoenix, Jessica Alba, Danny Masterson, Kelly Osbourne, Tommy Lee, Tara Reid and Angie Everhart. Oh yeah, and Paris Hilton (who couldn't decide whether to end the night with a party at the Frank Sinatra house or a bash at Angie's).

  • HEY BUDDY, WHAT'S IN YOUR BAG?: Essential items for the Coachella-bound backpack should include the usual toiletries (sunscreen, deodorant, lip balm and Band-Aids) and protection against the sun (a hat and sunglasses, for example), but also toilet paper and seat covers (because, well, it's a music festival), glow bracelets (to find each other at the end of the night), a mini flashlight (to locate your car) and -- if you're photographer Rick Taber -- perfumed body spray.

    Why, Rick?

    "Ladies will love me."

    Obviously, Rick's a different kind of Axe-man.
  • 'Idol' chatter: Beating the risks?
    From CNN.com Special Projects producer -- and "American Idol" fan -- Steve Almasy:

    Bon Jovi night on "American Idol" gave us more two surprises and one performance that will be talked about for years. The surprises? Simon and LaKisha kissed, and Jordin was terrible -- really, really terrible in every way.

    But we should talk about Blake Lewis and his rendition of "You Give Love a Bad Name." We first met Blake back in Seattle, where he gave us a hint of his beat-boxing prowess, a rare skill indeed. So we've been expecting him –- at least I have -– to take a classic song and give it a beat-box flavor. (Watch some of Blake's performance -- and Steve and Rodney's take.)

    So Blake's version was as risky as any arrangement any "Idol" contestant has ever taken on. And I must disagree with Simon, who said 50 percent of the TV audience would love it and 50 percent would hate it. I think it's more like 70-30.

    I'm in the 30 who hated it. Actually "hate" is a strong word. I hate smoking. I hate racism. I just didn't care for Blake's performance. I much prefer the original.

    OK, I'm old enough to have seen Bon Jovi as the opening act (for 38 Special!) in concert. But it's not about being old. Heck, my friend Stephanie in Chicago told me her dad loved the Blake version, as did she.

    I didn't like the beginning, in which Blake emulated a jukebox and the record beginning to play. Maybe that's Blake being an old-school guy, but I think it's "old-school guy" in the same vein as the guy in the "Police Academy" movies who made the funny noises.

    The beat-boxing was good, but it seemed clever for the sake of being clever. It didn't fit the song. And the arrangement took all the power out "You Give Love a Bad Name."

    I readily admit I'm in the minority on this one. He should rightfully get huge credit – the kind that puts him in the top four -- for being unique and taking a risk. That doesn't mean everyone has to like it, however.

    What did you think of Blake?

    -- Steve Almasy
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