Friday, March 31, 2006

Recent Reads . . . More to Follow

Time has been at a premium lately. But here's the most recent books I've read:

  • 27. The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Fiction, 3-20, p. 368
  • 28. What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank. Current Events, 3-24, p. 251
  • 29. A Sudden Country, Karen Fisher. Fiction, 3-27 p. 366
  • 30. The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King, Michael Craig. Poker, 3-30, p.262

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thoughts on Sources of Books to Read

I am always astounded at people who express a desire to read, but then indicate that they have trouble identifying what to read. There’s more than 50 books in my “to be read” pile and hundreds, if not thousands, of books I’d like to read.

So, this post is dedicated to our selection-challenged, wanna be readers.

The first, and I think most obvious, source of reading material is the literary (or Western) canon. A category that’s broad enough to include everyone from Shakespeare to Thorstein Veblen to Hemingway.

Wikipedia ( provides a nice overview of the Western canon. The link to Great Books of the Western World will keep you occupied for a month or two.

I try (but don’t always succeed) to read something by Dickens, Shakespeare, Wharton and Cather every year. There’s great pleasure in reading classic works apart from the demands of a college class. Tapping canonical authors can also lead to a powerful process of rediscovery.

The shortlists of notable literary prizes provide endless possibilities. There’s the Booker, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the PEN/Faulkner and the National Book Critics Circle. The shortlists generally feature a nice combination of the established – Carey, McEwan, Doctorow – and the unfamiliar – Karen Fisher, Sebastian Barry, Rene Steinke.

The shortlists are issued annually, which means you aren’t going to run out of material any time soon. Plus, a visit to a website dedicated to any of these prizes will generate more possibilities from past selections.

My first introduction to many of the authors that I now routinely read came from the shortlists. I also find that if you like an author’s book it’s worth exploring the author’s earlier material.

Of course, friends shouldn’t be ignored as a source of recommendations. Some will insist on The Kite Runner or The Time Traveler’s Wife, but others may steer you to Frederick Busch, Anthony Bourdain or such extraordinary books as Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest.

Anyone who is, or wants to be, a great reader must develop several friends whose judgment they value, someone whose recommendation is automatically accepted.

I scan book reviews daily, notably those published in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian. Reviews account for only a small percentage of the books that I choose to read, but sometimes serendipity intervenes. The Internet provides ready access to these resources.

One source that I eschew is the best-seller list. Most of the material here has no appeal to me. Nor have I ever been part of a book club, which could be a good starting point, but might become limiting after your critical selection skills are fully engaged.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Wilentz Provides Balanced Portrait of Jackson

“Questions thus linger over Jackson’s contributions and leadership. What difference did he really make in the democratization of Americans’ political sensibilities and practices? Given the terrible conflicts that followed, does his presidency deserves admiration or condemnation? Was he truly a democratic man of the people or a vengeful backwoods autocrat?”

Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz asks these questions late in his biography of Andrew Jackson. He strives, ably, to answer them in a tidy 166 pages.

Andrew Jackson is part of The American Presidents Series from Times Books. I highly recommend the series. Generally less than 200 pages each, the books in the series provide a brief biography of each President and a skillful analysis of the successes and failures of each Administration.

Wilentz provides an exceptionally insightful and balanced portrait of Jackson, as in this passage: “More than any other American, Jackson oversaw the decline and fall of the elitist, gentry order established by the Framers, and its replacement with the ruder conventions and organization of democracy. More than any other president before him, he made the office of the presidency the center of action in national politics and government. Yet the incompleteness of Jackson’s democracy . . . contributed to the eventual disunion and terrible civil war he so deeply feared.”

Friday, March 17, 2006

Shuman's Debut Novel A Suspenseful Turn

25. 18 Seconds, George Shuman, 3-17, pp. 320

First novels are not supposed to be this good.

Despite the improbable conceit underlying this thriller, George Shuman’s 18 Seconds is a riveting read. Shuman, a former D.C. cop, delivers the requisite twists, thrills and creepiness in his suspenseful debut effort. I can’t wait until the movie.

The conceit is this: abandoned as a child, Sherry Moore is blind, not because of a physical condition, but from emotional trauma. Someone, as a result of that emotional short circuit, Sherry also has an unusual ability. By touching the hand of a dead person, Sherry can retrieve that person’s final 18 seconds of memory. Shuman trots out a computer analogy to explain Sherry’s “gift.” She is, in effect, a biological data retrieval system.

The “gift” won’t work on living people. We have some sort of biological firewall in place that keeps our thoughts and memories from trickling out at the merest touch. But with the dead, the security system goes down, allowing Sherry to tap into their memories.

It doesn’t always work. The longer someone’s been dead the less likely it is the data is intact. Plus, the memories aren’t sequential. They’re random. Someone’s thoughts might jump from the man in front of them with a gun to a childhood memory to their teen years. Sherry has to make sense of it all.

For the most part, she manages to do just that; which makes Sherry a valuable resource to the law enforcement personnel willing to work with a psychic. That's how the public understands Sherry's gifts, although the reader knows she's more Microsoft than medium.

Sherry’s also beautiful and without the customary mannerisms we associate with the blind. Recently Shuman said he didn’t have an actress in mind to play Sherry in the movie – and Hollywood should definitely option this book – but it’s a no-brainer. Ashley Judd is Sherry Moore.

Sherry’s special skill drives the book, but there’s far more too it than just a beautiful biological data retrieval system. The serial killer, Earl Sykes, is suitably creepy. Shuman’s added an especially nice touch with Earl. At the beginning of the novel, he’s in prison, not for the murders he’s committed, but for a tragic accident involving a school bus. When he’s eventually released from prison, the unpleasant Mr. Sykes isn’t on anyone’s radar.

Lt. Kelly Lynch-O'Shaughnessy, the small-town cop, is earnest, confused about the direction of her marriage and dogged in the investigation into the disappearances of several women from the beach town of Wildwood, N.J. But, predictably, she’s looking in the wrong direction. She’s also beset by wrong-headed parents, city administrators and a drunken lout of a cop.

It all works. Many of the elements of thrillers have become formulaic, but Shuman’s material rises above the banal. The pacing is brisk, the characters well drawn and the suspense, well, suspenseful. Also to his credit, Shuman pulls all the loose ends together for a satisfying conclusion. There are elements of improbability to 18 Seconds, but when it’s all said and done you won’t care. I didn’t.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Last Kingdom a terrific diversion

24. The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell, 3-12, pp. 329

Books engender a great many responses. Perhaps the greatest response any book can evoke from a reader is disappointment that it’s ended. And that’s exactly what I experienced after reaching page 329 in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom.

This is not a great book. It is not a piece of enduring literature. But, boy, is it fun. To the degree that it is a finely executed piece of historical fiction, The Last Kingdom recalls the Purity of Blood by Arturo Perez-Reverte, but only to a degree. There are differences. Some superficial – it’s longer. Some significant—Purity of Blood was set in Spain during the Inquisition, The Last Kingdom is set in ninth century Britain.

The biggest difference is this book is more fun. Purity of Blood is terrific, but Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste is a gloomy fellow. The hero of The Last Kingdom is, well, Conan. OK, that’s not his name, it’s Uhtred, and it’s all sword, no sorcery, but Robert E. Howard would feel comfortable around these pages.

It’s better written than anything by Howard, well researched and purposeful. It’s also a rollicking saga that I didn’t want to end. The good news it didn’t—the sequel, The Pale Horseman, was released earlier this year. Cool.


In a column in The Guardian, author Annie Proulx takes Oscar voters to task. Proulx is disappointed that Brokeback Mountain, the movie based on her terrific short story, didn’t win the Best Picture Award. Her disappointment is understandable. The tenor of her comments isn’t.

Proulx decries the "atmosphere of insufferable self-importance" at the Oscar ceremony. She writes that the event was "reminiscent of a small-town talent-show night." She also calls Best Picture winner Crash “Trash.”

Whoa! A little harsh Annie. I liked Crash. I didn’t think it was a perfect film and it probably wouldn’t be my choice as best picture, but it generated a great deal of conversation between my wife and I over the period of about a week, which compares favorably to most films which are forgotten by the time I've reached my car. Any film that can promote ideas, and generate conversation, has something going for it.

I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain. I admire the short story and I do plan to see the movie. Still, I am disappointed in Proulx and her response. Anyone who has watched the Oscar ceremonies recognizes that the best pictures don’t always win the Oscar. It a political process and it’s a subjective process too. Book awards aren't much different.

Two thumbs down, Annie.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Shooting Straight About New Journalism

A caution: The average reader isn’t going to be as thrilled with this book as I am. I’m a little over the top on the subject matter—journalism. It’s an abiding passion. So please, run that through your critical filter before rushing out to buy Marc Weingarten’s The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight.

That said, I loved this book. Plowed through it like it was a work of fiction. Speaking of works of fiction, maybe this should be the test for prospective readers, if you don’t instantly know the title is a derivation of a Jimmy Breslin novel—The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight—put the book down and back away.

Weingarten’s book is a brief, and by no means comprehensive history, of Breslin and other practitioners of the so-called “New Journalism.” Tom Wolfe. Hunter S. Thompson. Joan Didion. Michael Herr.

In the early 70s, as a journalism student, these writers were an inspiration to me. They were re-writing, literally, the norms of journalism even as they skewered societal norms and it seemed so right, so fun and so important.

I was too much the adherent of hard news to ever be a “new” journalist. My standards were shaped by juco instructor Bill Bidwell—a twitchy, chain-smoking ex-newspaperman. Bidwell taught to me get it right. Be objective. Never omit the attribution to a quote. Spell names correctly and always, always, always confirm a scoop with at least three sources.

Bidwell’s training did not stop me from being influenced by Thompson and company. In 1973, Wolfe and E.W. Johnson issued an anthology/text book on the new journalism. It’s still on my shelves.

As Weingarten notes the New Journalism wasn’t exactly new. This kind of participatory journalism has been around a while. It’s just that this particular variant involved so many writers, appeared in so many high-profile publications and came along at a time of great social upheaval and change.

“New Journalism as Wolfe envisioned it—as the great literary movement of the postwar era—died a long time ago, but its influence is everywhere. Once a rear-guard rebellion, its tenets are so accepted now that they’ve become virtually invisible. The art of narrative storytelling is alive and well; it’s just more diffuse now, spread out across books, magazines, newspapers, and the Web,” writes Weingarten in the book’s epilogue.

The book is best early as we’re introduced to Wolfe, Didion, Herr and Thompson. It’s not perfect, there are a few curious omissions. In recounting how Rolling Stone (the magazine, not the band) dispatched Thompson and Timothy Crouse to cover the 1972 election, Weingarten neglects to mention Crouse’s superb book, The Boys on the Bus. Published in 1973, it was a scathing and brilliant insiders account of the media, who covered the ’72 Presidential race.

Weingarten’s final chapter on Rupert Murdoch’s seizure of New York magazine from Clay Felker is over long and doesn’t fit comfortably within the book’s overall theme. It does serve as an unfortunate introduction to the sad state of affairs that is magazine journalism today.

Still, it’s a good read and a good work. Personally, I can’t imagine anyone not finding this stuff riveting.

Everyone: “Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia . . . “

Friday, March 10, 2006

Former D.C. Cop Makes Authorial Debut

18 Seconds is not George Shuman’s first book. It’s just his first to be published.

He’d written another book a few years ago. It attracted an agent’s interest, but found no takers when it was auctioned to the various New York publishing houses. Shuman put it away and kept writing.

He’s currently on tour to promote 18 Seconds. His publisher, Simon & Schuster, has teamed him with best-selling author Robert Crais, a clever marketing move to build early interest in Shuman’s debut novel. Shuman signed a contract with Simon & Schuster just this week for a sequel.

18 Seconds features Sherry Moore, a blind woman who has the unique ability to “see” a deceased person’s last 18 seconds by touching the corpse; a serial killer, who is serving prison time, not for the murders he’s committed, but a deadly traffic accident; and a New Jersey policewoman investigating a young woman’s disappearance that recalls similar unsolved cases from the seventies.

The mystery novel is set in Wildwood, New Jersey. “I start with location. Draw characters into and see where it goes.” Shuman choose Wildwood because he has pleasant memories of visiting there with his parents as a child.

Shuman is a 20-year veteran of the D.C. police force. He career includes serving as an undercover narcotics detective and as a sergeant in Internal Affairs.

During an appearance, with Crais, at a Smithsonian-sponsored program on crime novels, Shuman was asked if he had ever used a psychic, like Sherry Moore, during his career in law enforcement. “Never,” he said. Would he? “Never.”

Shuman researched both memory and mediums before setting down to write 18 Seconds.

A binge writer, Shuman might write for days without stopping, only to come to halt because he’s suddenly caught up in the research. When he starts to write, he has no outline or plan about where the book is heading. Instead, he lets his characters take him where they want to go.

Crime novels enjoy an enduring popularity, Shuman said, because “they are the place where heroes are born.”

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Down the Rabbit's Hole with Robert Crais

Robert Crais looks every inch the best-selling author. Lean, of medium height, he’s a darkly handsome man. Hair cropped short with a few days growth of beard on his chin. He’s dressed the part . . . jeans, soft-sided, soft-soled shoes, blue and black striped socks, a dressy black T beneath a wool sports coat.

He’s alternately funny and serious. A published author since 1987 and hugely successful since L.A. Requiem in 1999, he’s right at home at books events like this one March 8 at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

A native of Baton Rouge, Crais comes from four generations of police, although he was never a cop himself. He saw the job from the family’s perspective. “I saw who cops are when they come home.” It’s that understanding he brings to his novels, which include the highly successful Elvis Cole series.

Crais’ new book, The Two Minute Rule, is a one-off, featuring an entirely new cast of characters. It began as an Elvis Cole novel, but en route a new character—Max Holman—began to assert himself. Holman is a former bank robber, just released from prison and trying to go straight. He’s an appealing character. So much so that Crais vows he will re-appear in future books, perhaps alongside Elvis.

The FBI’s Los Angeles bank squad aided Crais in his research for the new book. They also provided him with its title. Two minutes is all the time a bank robber has to get in and to get out if he’s to avoid capture.

Authenticity is important to Crais. “If it’s inaccurate I’ll get 862 emails.” Consequently, he also believes in research. “It leads me to ideas that are better than anything I could make up.”

Crais, who novels grow out of a character not plot, always researches a book before he writes it. Before writing, he also spends about a third of his time outlining the new book. “I develop an over-riding structure. I often have a clear idea of the ending before I start writing.”

He’s works closely with his editor during this preliminary phase. This practice eliminates pitfalls that might arise if the editor doesn’t see the book until it’s written.

Crais’ first exposure to the American detective novel came at age 15. He picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, attracted by the “hot chick on the cover.” Reading Chandler, he said, “was like tumbling down the rabbit hole.”

Crais honed his writing skills as a screen writer in L.A. It was exciting, fun and an education, but not an experience he cares to repeat soon. Crais did write the original screenplay for his 2001 novel Hostage. By the time the movie, which starred Bruce Willis, was made the screenplay had gone through so many changes Crais didn’t receive a writing credit.

“The check cleared,” he said of the experience. “It taught me the lesson of non-involvement.”

Elvis Cole and sidekick, Joe Pike, won’t ever appear on film. “The Elvis Cole books are special to me. They’re my life work.” Plus, Crais views his readers as collaborators. Each reader has a different vision of Elvis Cole. “I don’t want that to be lost.”

Crais avoids trends in the mystery genre, perhaps because he had trouble selling his first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat. The market was flooded with detective novels in the late 1980s. Most publishing houses already had an author turning out P.I. novels and weren’t interest in someone new. Crais persisted, The Monkey’s Raincoat was published as a paperback original by Bantam and today he’s consistently on the best-seller list.

“I tell aspiring writers to ignore trends. Write what you love to read.”

Crais describes his approach to writing as “dogged.” He writes six to seven days a week for hours at a time. “I don’t believe in the muse. I don’t wait for inspiration. I don’t believe in writer’s block.”

Mysteries remain a popular and enduring genre, Crais believes, because they are entertaining and because of their “car-wreck quality.” Mysteries are also popular, he said, “because our own lives are so fraught with every day mysteries,” such as how to pay for a child’s braces or a college education.

People are attracted to mysteries because the protagonist “divines order from chaos, ferrets out the truth from lies.”

Robert Crais On Elvis Cole, Joe Pike and His Next Novel

Best-selling author Robert Crais and fledgling novelist George Shuman presented A Hard-Boiled Look at the Crime Novel Wednesday in Washington, D.C. as part of a Smithsonian Associates’ program.

Here are the highlights from Crais, creator of the Elvis Cole novels:

  • His first exposure to the American detective novel was at age 15. Attracted by the “hot chick on the cover,” he picked up a paperback copy of Raymond Chandler’s Little Sister. “It was like falling down the rabbit hole.”

  • Crais won’t allow his best-selling Elvis Cole series to be filmed by Hollywood. “The Elvis Cole books are special to me. They’re my life’s work.” Crais views his readers as collaborators, who have an image of Cole and sidekick Joe Pike in their mind. “I don’t want that to be lost.”

  • Joe Pike will be featured prominently in Crais’ next novel. In the original draft of Crais’ first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat, Pike was supposed to have died. “But I couldn’t do it.”

  • The Louisiana-born writer is okay with selling his one-offs to Hollywood. Asked about his experience as a screen writer on the movie version of Hostage, Crais said, “The check cleared.” Crais wrote the original screen play, but didn’t receive screen writing credit as the work was taken over by others. “It taught me the lesson of non-involvement.”

  • On writers who say their characters tell them the course of a story. “The day my characters start talking to me, I’ll go on medication.”

  • Elvis Cole’s sweetheart Lucy Chenier attracts a lot of hate mail.

  • Expect Max Holman, bank robber turned good guy in Crais' new novel The Two Minute Rule to appear in a future book, perhaps alongside Elvis Cole. "I will definitely write about Max Holman again."

  • Why no hyphen in The Two Minute Rule? "We tried it. I didn't like the hyphen."
More on Crais and Shuman to follow . . .

Gordon Parks: Creative Force, American Original

Parks' took this photograph of cleaning lady Ella Watson in 1942. while working for the Farm Security Administration. It launched his career.

Gordon Parks died Tuesday at the age of 93. A native Kansan, Parks was a major creative force – a photographer, writer and movie director. Here’s what two newspapers have to say about Parks extraordinary career:

An iconoclast, Mr. Parks fashioned a career that resisted categorization. No matter what medium he chose for his self-expression, he sought to challenge stereotypes while still communicating to a large audience. In finding early acclaim as a photographer despite a lack of professional training, he became convinced that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to. To an astonishing extent, he proved himself right.

–Andy Grundberg, New York Times, 3/8/06

Parks, who died Tuesday at the age of 93 in New York, crisscrossed America and the world for decades. He was an artist, writer, movie director. He was a Life photographer when that gig gave you a powerful cachet. In America, he used his cameras like six-shooters, aiming right at the nation's broken souls, her sad-eyed children, her blacks, browns and whites, her shoeshine men and faceless women with both dishrag and dignity.

–Will Haygood, Washington Post, 3/9/06

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Parker's California Girl Proves Biblio Baggins Wrong

22. California Girl, T. Jefferson Parker. Mystery, 2-7, pp. 370

I love being wrong about a book or an author. I really do. Wrong in that I’m certain that I won’t like the book, that I have a pretty good sense of what the author’s about. I know the type of writer he is and, “Thank you, no,” it’s not for me. And I am certain about all this without being, in any way, “informed” about either; I haven’t read the book or anything by the author.

That was my attitude about California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker. I’ve seen his books around, but never deigned to pick one up. I figure his books were – I don’t know – not my type. Not all that good, perhaps. I finally picked up a book by Parker for a buck at a book sale. It was a lousy sale and I really had to stretch to find three books. Parker’s book was clean and a first edition, so I thought, “What the hell. Can’t go too wrong for a buck.”

After completing California Girl yesterday, I would have paid more. Much more.

California Girl was a delight; a well-written, fast-paced read. Riveting. Remember, in the past I’ve said I enjoy books by John Lescroart. And I do. He’s good a writer with strong, memorable characters. But Lescroart’s plots leave something to be desired. They’re strained, a little too improbable, too convoluted. Parker’s plots aren’t like that. Here’s what Parker does – or better yet what he doesn’t do – there’s a murder and someone solves it. No complicated plot, but a simple, straight forward murder investigation.

Rather than the plot, Parker focuses on the people and their motives, their motivations. People, even good people, sometimes lie in the course of a murder investigation. Not because they committed the murder, but because they’ve got secrets. Secrets they don’t what others to know about. Sometimes people do things, extreme things, to keep those secrets from being exposed.

California Girl isn’t about the dead girl and it’s only peripherally about solving her murder. It's really about the three Becker brothers – a cop, a reporter and a pastor – whose lives are caught up with that of the dead girl. Parker's novel is about these three respond to the pressures imposed by the murder and that – far more than the crime itself or its solution – is what makes California Girl so good.

I will read other books by T. Jefferson Parker. Even if I have to pay more than a buck a book.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Miscellaneous Book Thoughts

21. The Best British Mysteries 2005, ed. Maxim Jakubowski. Mysteries, 3-4, pp. 341

Best is an arguable description for this collection of short stories. Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and a smattering of other authors are definitely worth perusing, but it's an uneven assortment at best.
Attended the annual Washington Antiquarian Book Fair yesterday. I'm not at all certain why I parted with $12 to do so. I bought two books, both from the same dealer. Generally, the books on offer are extremely over-priced. Book fairs do tend to attract dealers who are quite proud of their inventory. In fairness, book fairs are costly ventures for dealers--there's the cost of travel and subsistence as well as the registration fee. I do wonder if they serve much of a purpose. I enjoy looking (but not buying) all the rare and expensive books on offer. Such pleasure is increasingly offset by the $12 opening day fee and the difficulty of getting to the Washington Book Fair which is, strictly speaking, in Arlington, Virginia.
Borders annoys me. They persist in shelving Joan Didion's fine memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, among the fiction. I have found other memoirs there, also. This is most annoying. Why don't the powers-that-be at Borders establish a section for biographies, autobiographies and memoirs? In this, they could learn from their counterparts at Barnes & Noble.

The March Wins Second Book Award

NEW YORK (AP) -- E.L. Doctorow's The March, his acclaimed story of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's ruthless Civil War campaign, received yet another literary honor Friday night, winning the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction.

"I've wondered for many years if awards are good for literature," said Doctorow, who also won the critics' prize for his 1989 novel, Billy Bathgate. "But I find when I'm offered an award I tend to accept it."

Doctorow's novel, the rare work of American fiction last year to attract both strong sales and widespread praise, has already won the PEN/Faulkner prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It stands a strong chance of bringing the author his first Pulitzer Prize in a 45-year career that includes Ragtime, World's Fair and Loon Lake.

"The independent witness of book writers I think provides the deepest and profoundest ... form of communication in our society," said Doctorow, 75, who observed that books are written in silence and read in silence, a "soul to soul" bond unique in the modern world.

Also Friday, Svetlana Alexievich won the general nonfiction award for Voices from Chernobyl, an oral history of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Kai Bird's and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus, a work on atomic pioneer J. Robert Oppenheimer that took so long to write the book's first two editors retired, was the biography winner. Francine du Plessix Gray's Them, a memoir about her glamorous, but troubled mother and stepfather, won for autobiography.

"There was so much good in them, along with the naughty and the slightly evil," Gray said Friday of her stepfather, Conde Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman, and mother, the Russian-born designer Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix Liberman.

The poetry winner was Jack Gilbert's Refusing Heaven, and William Logan's The Undiscovered Country won for criticism. Logan, an NBCC criticism finalist in 1999, acknowledged Friday that his demanding assessments have caused hard feelings, saying that one poet threatened to run him over and another poet to threaten assault by hand.

He then joked that his wife, herself a poet, was relieved to be married to him because "I could not review her."

Among the runners-up Friday: Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking; Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals; and a collection of art criticism by John Updike, Still Looking.

There are no cash prizes for the NBCC awards.

Two honorary awards were presented. Bill Henderson, an author, editor and founder of the Pushcart Press, received a lifetime achievement prize, and Wyatt Mason, a critic and translator whose essays have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker and elsewhere, was cited for excellence in reviewing.

The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, has about 500 members.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Auster's Music of Chance Unsatisfying

20. The Music of Chance, Paul Auster, Fiction, 2-2, pp. 217

An unexpected inheritance arrives too late to save Jim Nashe’s marriage. Consequently, he packs his young daughter off to his sister’s, quits his job and embarks on a purposeless cross country drive. So begins Paul Auster’s equally purposeless The Music of Chance.

Just as his funds begin to dwindle, Nashe picks up a young hitchhiker, who has clearly been beaten. The hitchhiker turns out to be a foul-mouthed wannabe gambler, robbed of his funds while en route to a high stakes game with two millionaires.

Nashe risks what’s left of his inheritance by staking the gambler in his can’t miss venture. Of course, can’t miss can and the gambler, Jack Pozzi, loses all Nashe’s money and his car. Destitute and oweing the two millionaires a substantial sum, Nashe and Pozzi are virtually enslaved as they agree to work off their debt.

The book is replete with homoerotic implications. There’s enough strangeness to fill a much larger book, including a weird model “City of the World” and a mysterious wall being erected in a meadow.

Auster fails to resolve several plot points—the millionaires virtually vanish from the pages of the novel, we never do learn Pozzi’s ultimate fate or truly understand what drives Nashe to his final, inexplicable act. The Music of Chance raises more questions than it answers. The lack of resolution is as unsatisfying as is the read.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Book 19 An Even-Handed Biography of the Pirate John Paul

19. John Paul Jones, Evan Thomas, Biography. 3-2, pp. 311

A nicely rendered portrait of John Paul Jones, whose exploits on behalf of American independence are largely forgotten today. Thomas paints a balanced portrait of the corsair—Jones was thin-skinned, quick to take offense and inept at handling his subordinates. He was also a courageous man, driven by a steady determination to succeed and a visionary, who saw the need for a strong U.S. navy and who successfully terrorized the British during the American Revolution.

A few factoids about Jones that Thomas reveals:

  • He was a Scot, whose real name was John Paul.
  • While captain of a British merchant ship, Jones killed a sailor who was stirring up the crew. Jones called the incident “that great misfortune of my life.”
  • To avoid arrest by civil authorities in Tobago, where the crime took place, Jones fled to Fredericksburg, Virginia.
  • Jones served briefly and unhappily as an admiral in the Russian Navy during the reign of Catherine the Great.
  • Jones probably never said, “I have not yet begun to fight.” He may have said, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike” or something similar.
  • Jones died in France. His remains were brought to America by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. He was laid to rest at the Naval Academy in Anapolis.

Smithsonian Features "Presidents All"

Four authors and four presidents were spotlighted Wednesday, March 1, in a Smithson Associate’s program in Washington, D.C. The program, Presidents All, featured the following presidents and their biographers:

  • Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby, professor of history, UCLA
  • James Monroe by Gary Hart, former U.S. Senator from Colorado
  • Andrew Jackson by Sean Wilentz, professor of history, Princeton
  • Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun, professor of history, East Carolina State
All four books are part of Times Books American Presidents Series. Times Books is a subsidiary of Henry Holt.

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson’s reputation has gone up and down through the years, Appleby said. It’s currently at a low, just as it was prior to the Civil War and again late in the 19th Century. Jefferson’s reputation was at a high under FDR, she said, because Roosevelt and his advisors decided to make Jefferson the founder of the Democrat Party.

As the Civil Rights movement gathered strength, Jefferson’s reputation began to ebb. Appleby said inquiries into Jefferson as a slaveholder, as the father of a child by a slave and as a man who kept his progeny in slavery served to damage his reputation. Although other Founding Fathers also kept slaves, Jefferson’s reputation was especially damaged because he raised our expectations with his affirmation of human rights, Appleby said.

James Monroe
Monroe was first and foremost a solider, according to Hart. The former Senator said Monroe’s outlook on his role as a public servant was conditioned by his military service. Hart also said that Monroe had a preoccupation with what we today call national security. Monroe was aggressive in securing U.S. borders.

Hart also said Monroe had a lengthy career as a diplomat, but that it was largely unsuccessful.

Andrew Jackson
Wilentz noted that Arthur Schlesinger Jr., general editor of the series, is the author of the definitive biography on Jackson. He said that being asked to write about Jackson by Schlesinger was like being asked to write about baseball by Babe Ruth.

Jackson thought of himself as a Jeffersonian, Wilentz said, but Jefferson was horrified that a military man, like Jackson, had become president. Jackson’s reputation peaked in the 40s and has since declined largely because of his policies on the American Indian. “He became known for one thing and one thing only,” Wilentz said, “Killing lots of Indians. He is remembered for his greatest failure.”

Wilentz described Jackson as a “strange guy” and the first “perfect nobody” to become president. He said Jackson was truly a self-made man whose politics were simple: He hated the British and aristocracy and believed fervently in the U.S. Constitution.

Benjamin Harrison
Unlike Jefferson and Jackson, whose reputations have gone up and down, Harrison’s reputation has remained steady, said Calhoun. He has always been lightly regarded. “He is often regarded as a caretaker between Grover Cleveland’s two terms. The truth is more complex.”

Harrison, who came into office at a time that the presidency had been diminished because of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, made significant contributions to the office. Calhoun said those contributions included his effectiveness as a communicator and as a “legislative president.” Unlike previous presidents, who took the separation of powers seriously, Harrison promoted issues, and legislation, that he thought was important, including Civil Rights legislation. Harrison was also active in foreign affairs because of the illness of his Secretary of State James G. Blaine.

McKinley is generally regarded as the first "modern" president. Calhoun suggested that designation truly belongs to Harrison. He said both McKinley and Cleveland, in his second term, learned from Harrison.

American Presidents series
The American Presidents series comes highly recommended. It takes the Penguin Lives approach to biography – bite-sized biographies, usually no more than 200 pages in length. The emphasis in each book is on the individual’s presidency. The series is well written and impeccably researched.

    Wednesday, March 01, 2006

    Chabon Delays Release of Newest Novel

    Michael Chabon recently announced the delay of his newest novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Information below is taken from Chabon's website,

    The Yiddish Policemen's Union

    As of December 10, 2005, 07:21 AM

    Alert readers of the Schedule page on this website may notice that a number of dates (twenty-six in all) have been deleted. These dates represented the putative book publicity tour for The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

    I have decided never to do another such tour, and from now on to refuse to be photographed or interviewed. With my family I am retreating to a fire-spotting tower on a mountain outside of Trinity, California. When I am required by some extraordinary circumstance to make a public appearance I will send a lookalike, wearing my trademark voluminous alpaca topcoat and a vintage-1984 Debra Winger model Rene of Paris wig.

    Actually, with my publisher's generous assent, I pulled the plug on April publication.

    HarperCollins had been sort of rushing the thing along, over a steady but polite murmur from the author that perhaps they were moving too quickly. The manuscript was complete. It was not impossible to make the April 11 pub date. But we didn't even have a finished jacket. Many people who were selling and marketing the book hadn't had the opportunity to read it. Everything just felt too rushed and when that sense of undue haste finally caught on at the publishing house, I was able to persuade them to see reason, and wait.

    Unfortunately, their Fall list is already set, which means that the book won't come out until Winter 2007. I had hoped never to repeat the seven-year gap between The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, but now--if you don't count Summerland (for younger readers) or The Final Solution (a novella)--I will have done it again. Oh, well.

    The good news, from my point of view, is that I will now be able to take the step that I had been obliged by the accelerated schedule to sacrifice: giving the book to some trusted readers, some of them with special knowledge of the subjects involved. Based on their responses, I will have a last precious opportunity to take one more run through the manuscript.

    Anyway, if you were hoping to get to read it anytime soon, or to come hear me read from it this April, I'm sorry. I promise it is going to be worth the wait.