Saturday, April 29, 2006

Three Recent Reads

39. The Promise of Happiness, Justin Cartwright. 4-23, p. 306

40. Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead. 4-25, p. 212

41. Manhunt, James L. Swanson. 4-28, p. 391

Three recommendations, two enthusiastic and one qualified.

The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright and Manhunt by James L. Swanson receive the enthusiastic recommendations.

Cartwright’s novel is a superb exploration of what it means to be a member of a family. The Judd’s are delightfully dysfunctional and, admittedly, a bit exceptional – I’ve never known anyone who had a daughter in federal prison or a son who made millions via the Internet.

But set that quibble aside. This is a superbly written, superbly told book. Each character is vividly realized. And Cartwright simply, but skillfully pulls back the curtains to unveil life within a family; life, at once, both difficult, but necessary and vital.

Here’s one passage, typical of Cartwright’s insight:

“This is family. In the family you are a certain kind of person. Your mother, my mother in particular, piles one half-truth about your character on another until she has built up a whole structure, a fabricated person. It begins in small ways: you are untidy or reliable or good with figures or you each too fast; you’re frightened of frogs, you hold your pen in the wrong way, and then these threads are woven into the family tapestry, a sort of Bayeux which forever commemorates this entirely imaginary scene. Now he is becoming – the myth declares – competent.” (p. 127)

My current measures of fine fiction are Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Atonement by Ian McEwan. If The Promise of Happiness doesn’t rise to the level of these works, it only fails to do so by the narrowest of margins.

There are many books on Abraham Lincoln, but do I not recall ever reading one quite like Swanson’s Manhunt, which focuses on Lincoln’s assassination and the search for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.

It is a grim, but fascinating story; a strange and unsavory footnote in American history. The book is both well-researched and well-written and well worth reading.

The qualification is reserved for Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt. It’s a quirky book – something Whitehead specializes in. If I didn’t like it, I would have said it was odd.

Whitehead’s unnamed protagonist is a nomenclature consultant. He names things, from cars to multicultural adhesive bandages. Now, he’s hired to settle a tug-of-war between a town council who can’t agree on the new name for their town.

Whitehead’s writing, like green olives, is something you have to learn to like. I have. It’s not great prose—not by a long stretch—but it is delicious, wicked satire.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Coming up Flat on a Cross-Country Ride

38. Riding with the Blue Moth, Bill Hancock. Adventure, 4-21, pp. 246

Perhaps I was disappointed in Bill Hancock’s Riding with the Blue Moth because I expected too much.

The book was recommended by a friend and I’m certain I know why he thought I should read it. In search of solace after the unexpected death of his son in a plane crash in 2001, Hancock sets off on a 36-day, 2,746-mile bicycle ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic, California to Georgia. Riding the Blue Moth tells that story.

My friend and I have put in a few miles together on the bicycle. Although he’s a far more serious cyclist than I and just the sort to come up with a scheme to ride coast to coast. For me, it’s one of those things that 's really cool to think about, but which I will never do. My friend also knew that 2006 was a year of loss, bringing both the death of my mother, after a grueling five-year battle with cancer, and the unexpected death of a beloved Corgi.

Little wonder then that I approached Riding with the Blue Moth with the hope that I might assuage my pain by vicariously sharing in Hancock’s experiences as he rides across America.

But that didn’t happen. Hancock tries too hard. I won’t describe his observations as banal, that’s too harsh. He’s an earnest and well-intentioned man, which makes for a great husband, father and employee, but not a great writer. His observations are of the dime-store variety. There’s nothing deep or unexpected here, no hidden truths revealed.

As a primer on coping with grief, Hancock’s book cannot approach the depth—lyrically, emotionally or intellectually—of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. As an adventure tale it fails to tap into either the humor of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods or the sense of a genuine trial as expressed in Chris Duff’s On Celtic Tides or The Water in Between by Kevin Patterson.

I’ve no doubt Riding with the Blue Moth will resonate, on some level, with many readers. I just wasn’t one of them. I do, however, wish Mr. Hancock and his wife, Nicki, all the best and it is my heartfelt desire that while time may have eased the pain of their son’s death, it has done nothing to lessen their memory of him.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Crown of Columbus fails to sparkle

37. The Crown of Columbus, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 4-18, pp. 382

This book must have seemed like a good idea.

Two talented authors, Louise Erdrich and her now-deceased husband, Michael Dorris, team up to write a novel.

It seems like a good idea. Until you read the book.

I moved The Crown of Columbus, a 1994 novel, to the top of my reading list because I’m committed to reading the complete works of Erdrich. Sadly, the qualities that attract me to Erdrich’s writing are largely missing from this clunky, improbable novel.

Erdrich’s appeal lies in her ability to vividly capture the Native American voice; to peel back and expose layers of their hearts, minds and souls. She shows us, in so many of her novels, how some Native Americans still cling—proudly and stubbornly—to ancient ways, while others have been destroyed by American culture, microbes and booze.

The Crown of Columbus is unsuccessful in giving full expression to Erdrich’s unique voice. The voice is there, but it’s overwhelmed by a sort of cuteness.

The Crown of Columbus is set at Dartmouth. The principals are two professors—Vivian Twostar, a Native American anthropologist seeking tenure, and her lover, the insufferable Roger Williams, scholar and poet. Roger is writing “the” epic poem of Columbus as the quincentennial approaches. Vivian finds herself caught up in a mystery that lead to the discovery of not only Columbus’ diary, but a genuine New World treasure.

I’m curious about who wrote what. Did Erdrich write the passages of the token Native American professor or did her late husband take that on in a not-as-clever-as-it sounds bit of authorial role playing. “Hey, I have an idea, Louise. You write the passages narrated by the stuffy New England poet-professor and I’ll do the brassy, female Indian.”

I don’t know if that’s how it was done. I only know that The Crown of Columbus falls flat. As I said, it’s improbable. It’s also melodramatic and tepid – although it tries to whip the reader into an emotional frenzy on about a half-dozen fronts, ranging from European treatment of native Americans to the relationship of these academic lovers to . . .

Well, never mind. It’s not worth re-counting.

Erdrich is almost always worth reading. Almost. Always.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Much-anticipated forthcoming titles

I eagerly await the forthcoming release of:

  • Digging to America, Anne Tyler (5-1)
  • The Hard Way, Lee Child (5-6)
  • Piece of My Heart, Peter Robinson (5-30)
  • Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali (6-6)
  • The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos (8-6)
  • Echo Park, Michael Connelly (September or October)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Brooks' March wins 2006 Pulitzer

March, Geraldine Brooks' novel that imagines the life of the fictional father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction on Monday.

For the first time since 1997, the Pulitzer board declined to award a prize for drama.

Brooks depicted the life of John March, the father absent for most of Alcott's famed novel of four sisters growing up in Massachusetts during the Civil War.

She beat finalists including E.L. Doctorow, whose The March, the fictionalized account of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's brutal conquest of the South during the Civil War, had won the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Critics Circle Prizes.

David M. Oshinsky was awarded the history prize for Polio: An American Story. The prize for general non-fiction went to Caroline Elkins for Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin took the prize for biography for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The prize for poetry went to Claudia Emerson for Late Wife.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Ford's Wildfire is anything but

35. Wildlife, Richard Ford. Fiction, 4-10, pp. 177

Richard Ford gained well-deserved prominence with his novel The Sportswriter and its sequel Independence Days.

Novels like Wildfire explain why he’s drifted from the literary radar.

Wildfire is an inconsequential novel set in Great Falls, Montana. Its passive teenage narrator doesn’t demonstrate any emotional response as his father is fired from his job as a golf pro only to leave home to fight a forest fire, while his mother takes up with a local businessman. Dad returns, learns of Mom’s indiscretion and almost sets himself and the businessman’s house afire. The novel is as flat as the narrator.

It’s hard to understand exactly what Ford wanted to accomplish in Wildfire. There are a few preachy moments passed on as folk wisdom (mom and dad are both given to pontificating before junior) and one can only assume Ford’s point is to be found in these rather vapid pronouncements


I read this book in a day and still had time to dip into 20-30 pages of the non-fiction work I’m reading. Ford is an accomplished writer and this is a breezy 177 pages.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Attractions in the Queue at Borders

Standing in line at the check-out at Border’s Sunday.

Just ahead of me was a mom and three children; a toddler in arms and two boys who looked to be about 5 and 3.

The 3-year-old, a tow-head, was moving restlessly, fingering the alluring items that presented themselves where the queue forms at the registers.

“We’re not getting candy,” mom said, as he fingered the chocolate. “Put the bookmark back.” Every item he brought forward was rebuffed.

Mom was finally summoned to the register. The tot lingered behind, head down, lip out. “There are soooooo many things here I want,” he said.

“Me too, buddy,” I thought. “Me too.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cornwell, Pelecanos and Nabokov's Butterfly

31. The Pale Horseman, Bernard Cornwell. Fiction, 4-2, p. 346

Scroll down the page or use the handy links on the right and find my post about Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. What I said about that book applies here.

It’s an entertaining read. One of those books that entices you to trot out words like rollicking, which I used for The Last Kingdom, and probably shouldn’t use again, although it’s apt.

I do have one burgeoning concern about The Last Kingdom and A Pale Horseman, however. They are the first two books in a series and Cornwell is a prolific writer. I may not fully comprehend what I’ve let myself in for.

32. Nabokov’s Butterfly, Rick Gekoski. Books on Books, 4-4, p. 240

I love this book. It’s a collection of 20 vignettes on major 20th Century books, ranging from Lolita to Harry Potter. That is quite a range, come to think of it.

I don’t suppose everyone will fall as deeply in love with Nabokov’s Butterfly as I did, but if you’re a reader or a collector, I can’t understand not being smitten at some level.

Gekoski’s book is especially entertaining when he’s sharing insight into the book trade (J.K. Rowling received an advance of $2,700 for the first Harry Potter novel) or when he’s actually bought and sold the book in question as with Graham Greene’s inscribed copy of Lolita.

I have only one peeve with Nabokov’s Butterfly and that has to do with the publisher (Carroll & Graf) not Mr. Gekoski. In England, the book was published under the title of Tolkien’s Gown. What was wrong with that title, I wonder? Did they think we did not know who Tolkien was? Or that we would be not be interested in reading about his gown? As Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

Under any title, Nabokov’s Butterfly is interesting, education and entertaining and it’s all about books – can’t ask for more than that.

33. Hell to Pay, George Pelecanos. Mystery, 4-5, p. 344

I noticed the ad in USA Today asks, “Have you read Pelecanos yet?” Good question. If not, why not?

George Pelecanos is one of the finest practitioners of the thriller today. He ranks with Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Robert Crais. Nuff said.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. One interesting note, Pelecanos’ early works were very dark, noir-ish efforts in which everyone was booze-soaked and died in the end. Hell to Pay is hopeful, forward looking. I think Pelecanos is an idealist, who truly loves his hometown of Washington, D.C.

As with all his books, Washington is a major character in Hell to Pay. Not the D.C. most people know. The Mall. The Capitol. The Monuments. But the real Washington, D.C., of neighborhoods where people live, and die.

Have you read Pelecanos? You really, really should.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Disappointing Novel and a Riveting Poker Read

29. A Sudden Country, Karen Fisher. Fiction, 3-27, p. 366

Karen Fisher’s debut novel, A Sudden Country, is over-written and overwrought.

Which is a shame, because a potentially compelling narrative is betrayed by the author’s strained prose and her inexplicable decision to focus on an improbable love affair on the prairie.

A Sudden Country is the account of one family’s migration to Oregon. It made the PEN/Faulkner’s shortlist of best fiction in 2006, losing to E.L. Doctorow’s The March.

In the New York Times, critic Sally Eckhoff observed that “the real fascination of this journey lies in the details of the travel itself.” Eckhoff’s right, and had Fisher been more restrained in her story and in her prose, this might have been an exceptional book.

30. The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King, Michael Craig. Poker, 3-30, p. 262

This is a fun little book, especially if you are as fascinated with the current wave of poker mania as I am.

Author Michael Craig has done fine job of ferreting out the details of a long-running poker game between banker Andy Beal and many of the newly famous Vegas poker players, such as Howard Lederer and Jennifer Harman, and the legendary Doyle Brunson.

Craig’s portraits of the poker players, who’ve become household names with ESPN’s annual telecast of the World Series of Poker, and of Beal, a self-made multi-millionaire, and the tense poker games with millions riding on the outcome, are delightful reading—especially since it’s not my money at stake.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What's the Matter With Kansas?

28. What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank. Current Events, 3-24, pp. 251

I avoided this book for as long as I reasonably could.

There were many reasons for this avoidance, some book related (and that’s another post entirely), others having to do with the fact that I am a native Kansas. I know the people within these pages. Not just “know,” you understand, in some general sense that I “know” Kansans, but many of the people in this book are very, very specifically known to me.

Many of those who were interviewed are friends, others passing acquaintances. I worked for many years for Governor Bill Graves (and still like and admire him). Senator Sam Brownback, “God’s Senator,” frequently attended a Methodist church service led by my wife.

It’s a hell of an easier thing to read about people in a state that is removed from your life than it is your friends and acquaintances in your native state.

So what do I think . . . that what friends still living in Kansas want to know. And so here it is: Frank is largely right. At times, he rants, and that’s tiresome, but he’s taken a hard look at an important and disturbing issue, and I think that’s good. He gets most of it right, but not everything.

Frank contends that the good people of Kansas are acting against their own economic interests by abandoning the Democrat Party and electing conservative Republican state legislators and Congressmen. Not an unreasonable assertion, but what troubles me is that these people—his people, for Frank is also a native Kansan—are faceless enigmas to the author.

They are not faceless to me. I do know them. And I know this, their faith is important to them. Vastly important. More important than their economic interests. Most of these people would say they’re OK financially. Hey, they’re not getting rich, but they pay their bills on time and can afford a few of the niceties of life. And they would also say that any sacrifice they make is OK with them if it advances God’s kingdom. These people are willing foot soldiers in the culture wars. They don’t like the direction their country is headed and it’s the Conservatives who seem willing to do something about it even if, as Frank notes, that ain’t the case.

I reserve my scorn for the politicians—state and federal—who prey on these good people. Advancing their political careers and fattening their wallets, while promising some restoration of 1950s cultural values. I think there are many Conservatives who genuinely believe in the moral crusade they are advancing, but others are merely being expedient; they’re mouthing phrases and slogans that they’ve learned resonate with voters.

It’s a sad state of affairs. I’m embarrassed—very embarrassed—by all that’s unfolded in Kansas in the past several years . . . the debate over evolution, Fred Phelps and his miserable homophobic family, the abortion protests in Wichita . . . you name it.

My home state has become a small-minded, mean-spirited place. That's what’s the matter with Kansas.

Monday, April 03, 2006

It's No Mystery, The Rule of Four

27. The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Fiction, 3-20, p. 368

The Rule of Four alternates between efforts to unravel a code buried within the text of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a very real 15th Century manuscript, and a peak into student life at Princeton. It’s the rituals and rites of Princeton that emerge as vastly more interesting than the mysteries that may lie within the Hypnerotomachi. And that’s bad.

It’s bad because The Rule of Four wants desperately to be a biblio-mystery. The biblio-mystery is a relatively obscure sub-genre, which I enjoy. Readers interested in pursuing this thread are advised to take up John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway novels or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s superb The Shadow of the Wind.

A successful biblio-mystery must involve a book (or books) and there must (naturally) be some mystery associated with the book (or books). A healthy dose of suspense is also an important ingredient.

The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, has the book, but there’s not much mystery and very little suspense.

I suspect that the book rose to prominence on the New York Times’ bestseller list in 2004 because of a clever marketing campaign that suggested “if you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll like this.” Maybe some folks did, but the book didn’t resonate with me.

It’s been suggested, by at least one reviewer, that The Rule of Four is more a coming of age novel than it is a proper biblio-mystery. I think that’s about right. The authors have given us a setting and a back story that overwhelms and distracts from their mystery story. Ultimately, The Rule of Four is two books in one and it’s no mystery that that doesn’t work.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Bookery and the Book Fair

I have not forgotten my promise, dear Reader, to entertain you with my musings on the recent additions to my reading list. Those observations will be forthcoming this first week of April, 2006.

I do want to mention a successful two days of booking; Friday in Lexington, Kentucky, and Sunday in Lansing, Michigan.

In Lexington, I visited Glover’s Bookery and the Black Swan. On the edge of downtown, Glover’s, which I have visited many times, is the archetypal used bookstore . . . the two-story former house groans under the weight of the thousands of dusty tomes. Glover’s excels in Kentuckian, books on horses and horse racing, the Civil War and military history. It’s fiction selection is like someone's maiden aunt--old, lean and best neglected.

Here are the books I purchased at Glover’s:

  • Kansas, A History of the Jayhawk State by William Frank Zornow
  • Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut

Both books were first editions. At $10, I thought the copy of Deadeye Dick was a bargain.

The Black Swan, which is near the UK campus, is the polar opposite of Glover’s. It’s tidy where Glover’s is unkempt. It bright and well lit, while Glover’s is gloomy. The books are bright and clean. There is a nice selection of modern first editions. It was my first visit there.

Here are the first editions I purchased at the Black Swan:

  • Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I like both book shops, which clearly appeal to a different clientele.

On Sunday, I flew to Lansing, Michigan. I flew here for work, but could not resist the attractions of the 43rd Michigan Antiquarian Book & Paper Show. The show boasted more than 90 dealers from the U.S. and Canada.

Here it was I purchased:

  • Jacklight by Louise Erdrich
  • Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler
  • High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

A collection of poetry, Jacklight is Erdrich’s first book. It was paperbound . . . called “wraps” by those in the book trade. It was the one book I was searching for at the show. I am close now to assembling a run of Erdrich’s published works.

I am also close to a complete run of Anne Tyler. This has taken patience. Not because her books are rare, but because they are expensive. At least for me. Tyler has long been a favorite author of mine. I do sense that she has fallen out of favor with many collectors and, perhaps, if I continue to be patient I can snag her earliest books for a reasonable sum. Not that my wife will find any sum reasonable.

The copy of High Fidelity was a British first. It was surprisingly affordable. I now have British first editions of Hornby two earliest books, High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, his memoir of life as a football (soccer) fan. These books are coveted because they are the true first editions, preceding the American firsts. They are also coveted because Hornby is a Brit and collectors are always urged to “follow the flag,” which means to collect the earliest editions from an author’s home country.