Friday, June 08, 2007

What was the first U.S. product to be sold with a bar code?

Who's asking: The trivia board at the Starbucks in Davis Square, Cambridge, MA

Of course I had to go look this up: the answer is a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum, in 1974.

Bar coding may be soulless and dehumanizing, but it's made retail so much simpler than it used to be. It took a while to catch on, though; when I first worked for The Mystery Bookstore in 2000, one of my first projects was helping to automate our sales system, which included entering the bar codes of every book that had one into a database, using a hand-held scanner.

Kate's Mystery Books still does things the old-fashioned way, with Kate writing up tickets by hand. It's time-consuming, but part of the store's charm; it feels less like a retail outlet than like a crime fiction clubhouse.

Last night's clubhouse included John Connolly, there to sign The Unquiet; William Landay; Chris Mooney; Joe Finder; and my dear friend Tom Ehrenfeld. Good to see everyone, and worth the 300-mile round trip.

I'll be glad to be home for a while, though. After this afternoon, I don't leave town again for at least six weeks, I think. Thank goodness.

On the other hand, all this travel's given me lots of time to read...

What I Read This Week

Megan Abbott, Queenpin. No one today is writing noir better than Megan Abbott. A young woman apprentices herself to Gloria, a legendary mob operative -- not a moll, but a player in her own right -- but a fast-talking gambler challenges her loyalties, with deadly results. Queenpin is like a shot of rye: short, quick and bone-shaking.

Richard Aleas, Songs of Innocence. "It's dark," said Charles Ardai (a.k.a. Richard Aleas) as he signed the advance copy of this book for me. "I should warn you." No kidding. This sequel to Little Girl Lost is as dark as it gets. Former PI John Blake investigates the apparent suicide of his friend and writing classmate Dorrie, who supported herself as a sex worker, and the investigation reveals things Blake never wanted to know. Devastating.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One big trend at BEA was the continued growth of young adult fiction as its own genre, with many established authors hopping on the bandwagon. I have misgivings about this trend, which I'll discuss in another post, and it seems to me that many authors assume anyone can write for kids, which isn't true. This book tells a pretty compelling story about a charming protagonist -- Junior, a Spokane Indian who challenges expectations by going off the reservation for high school -- but the point of view is not consistent and the voice is not believable. It's supposed to be a diary -- sort of -- but it's told at a remove, though we don't know whether it's from the adult Junior's point of view or the end-of-the-school-year Junior's point of view. A more rigorous edit could have turned this book into something really good; as it is, it's just okay.

Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Slide. This sequel to Bust is just as gleefully nasty, as the Irish-Greek-American Angela returns to the United States with a new boyfriend -- who, unbeknownst to her, has ambitions to become the world's greatest serial killer.

Mark Bowden, ed. The Best American Crime Writing 2006. This collection of magazine and newspaper pieces is perfect travel reading. It includes, among other pieces, a Texas Monthly article about a sweet middle-aged lady who was the state's most successful bank robber; a New Yorker piece about an over-aggressive prosecutor who may have put the wrong man on death row; and Deanne Stillman's Rolling Stone article about the death of a sheriff's deputy and an outlaw hermit in the Mojave Desert. Fascinating.

Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher. The problem with reading books about people like me, I told Joe Finder yesterday, is that it makes me uncomfortably aware of aspects of my life I'd rather ignore. Maybe that's a good thing, but all things considered, I'd rather read about monsters. No monsters here, in this compassionate, bitterly funny book about Ruth Ramsey, a sex education teacher being forced to teach a new abstinence curriculum, and Tim Mason, a recovering addict who's wrestling with the demands his new born-again faith makes on his daily life. The characters get a happy ending -- sort of -- but the book's message is just how hard-won and transient those happy endings are. I read an advance copy; the book will be out in October.

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