Thursday, January 11, 2007

Starbucks Follows Albom Bestseller With War Memoir by Soldier

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- After selling more than 92,000 copies of Mitch Albom's bestseller ``For One More Day,'' Starbucks has changed course and chosen an African war memoir by an unknown, 25-year-old writer as its second venture into book sales, the company announced yesterday.

The book is ``A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier'' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22) by Ishmael Beah, a onetime child soldier in Sierra Leone. The book is scheduled to go on general sale Feb. 13 and at Starbucks cafes two days later. It chronicles Beah's journey from the drug-ravaged battlefields of West Africa, where he started fighting as a hip-hop happy 13-year-old, to his reintroduction to civilian life with the help of Unicef and his eventual expatriation to the U.S., where he graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.

It's a daring selection for a company that had little to do with the book business before last year, when Starbucks began retailing Albom's frothy novel about a suicidal, alcoholic man seeking reconciliation with the ghost of his dead mother. With some 6,000 U.S. outlets, Starbucks proved an able bookseller, helping to make ``For One More Day'' a bestseller. Of course, that book was virtually a guaranteed hit: Albom already had sold some 6 million copies of his previous novel, ``The Five People You Meet in Heaven,'' and had a well-established audience.

44 Million Customers

Will the 44 million customers who enter a Starbucks store each week want to cozy up to a story full of grim details of African poverty, deprivation and gore while sipping their $4 Grande lattes? Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz thinks so.

``This is one of the most gripping books I have ever read,'' Schultz said in a prepared statement. ``We were all inspired by this tale of determination and hope and knew it was an important book to share with our customers.''

While Beah's memoir may appear to be a departure from Albom's saccharine fare, it does share a theme of redemption and rescue. Moreover, readers are not inured to such tales; ``Beasts of No Nation,'' Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 novel about a similar child soldier, with its brutal depictions of African warfare, won the 2006 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award.

The biggest risk in this venture is being taken on by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a modest-size literary publishing house and subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC. Farrar plans a printing far in excess of the typical first run of 10,000 to 15,000 copies of a memoir by an unknown, first-time writer just to deliver adequate stock to every Starbucks outlet. If the book fails, the result may hit them hard.

Nevertheless, Starbucks appears confident. The company plans to donate $2 for every copy of ``A Long Way Gone'' sold at Starbucks to the U.S. fund for Unicef. With the announced minimum donation being $100,000, it would appear the company anticipates it will sell at least 50,000 copies of the book.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Clever Econ, Vonnegut vs. Bush, Hershey Empire: New Paperbacks

By Edward Nawotka

Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Your typical street thug can expect to be shot twice, arrested six times and have a one in four chance of being killed, in exchange for an average wage of less than $10 an hour.

An altogether better idea, writes Tim Harford in his fascinating book ``The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, Why the Poor Are Poor -- and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!'' (Random House), would be to join a crime syndicate. Organized crime tends to eschew casual violence, and by involving itself in legitimate businesses is a more sustainable and, consequently, more profitable proposition.

The ``Dear Economist'' columnist for the Financial Times, Harford applies Economics 101 concepts of supply and demand, and competition and efficiency, to explain the economics of everyday life and, among other things, how buying coffee from Starbucks increases U.S. imports, which consequently affects the trade deficit, potentially leading to long-term interest-rate increases, which may jeopardize economic growth.

Much like Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's popular ``Freakonomics,'' Harford manages to simultaneously entertain as well as edify with a string of ``who knew?'' revelations.

Other highlights this month include:

``Arthur & George'' by Julian Barnes (Vintage). The acclaimed English writer's most recent book is one of his best: The fictionalization of a true-life case in which author Arthur Conan Doyle rose to the defense of George Edalji, a half Scots, half-Indian lawyer wrongfully convicted of terrorizing his local farm community by writing obscene letters and mutilating cattle.

``A Man Without a Country'' by Kurt Vonnegut (Random House). Octogenarian Vonnegut has made no secret of his disdain for the Bush administration and puts his ire on full display in this pithy collection of essays from the past five years, which covers the war in Iraq, creative writing, socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and myriad other personal enthusiasms and irritants.

``Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams'' by Michael D'Antonio (Simon & Schuster). This page-turning biography of Hershey describes a benevolent corporate dictator who built his chocolate empire, Hershey Co., but found his business triumph tempered by personal tragedy.

``The Flight of the Creative Class'' by Richard Florida (HarperCollins). Florida, an economist and author of the bestseller ``The Rise of the Creative Class'' looks at why skilled workers such as financial managers and software programmers are leaving the U.S. for better paid jobs abroad and what this implies for the future of American business.

``Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead'' by Tamara Draut (Anchor). A bracing look at the economic challenges young professionals face when entering the job market and establishing careers, from paying back crippling student loans to becoming unwilling cannon fodder in generational war against their experienced, entrenched elders.

``At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68'' by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster). The concluding volume in Branch's magisterial trilogy documenting the civil rights movement begins with an account of the 1965 Selma marches, covers the passage of the Voting Rights Act and concludes with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

``The Diviners'' by Rick Moody (Back Bay). This half-baked satire from the author of ``The Ice Storm'' depicts a cadre of ambitious Hollywood hopefuls trying to attach themselves to a treatment for a 13-part miniseries that tracks a group of water dowsers from ancient to modern times, even after it's proven to be merely a piece of authorless, buzz-worthy nonsense.

``Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia'' by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin). Gilbert's charming, if self-indulgent, chronicle of a post- divorce, soul-searching sojourn describes how she got fat, meditated and once again fell in love.

``Apex Hides the Hurt'' by Colson Whitehead (Anchor). One of the country's most talented young novelists, Whitehead offers an engaging, albeit minor, work about a down-on-his-luck brand consultant beckoned to a rural Midwestern town in order to give it a new name: Will it be New Prospera, which reflects the town's ambition to become a hi-tech haven, or something that harks back to its origins as a utopia for freed slaves?

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)