Saturday, September 30, 2006

Scenes from the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. -- Part I

D.C.'s own George Pelecanos, the U.S. Capitol in the background.

Michael Connelly, creator of the Harry Bosch series.

Scenes from the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. -- Part II

Doris Kearns Goodwin (above) is the author of the unrivaled Team of Rivals.

Geraldine Brooks (below) wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning

Julia Glass, author of The Whole World Over and Three Junes.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Just, Wills, Chabon and Munro: Pick Three

81. Forgetfulness, Ward Just. Fiction , 9-9, p. 258

How to describe the novels of Ward Just? Think of LeCarre, Furst and Greene, but there is also something here of Pete Dexter and Edith Wharton. Just writes of the manners and mores of the covert world of espionage. There is a certain way things are done, a protocol, as is unveiled in the French interrogation scene in this novel – in its violence, both tangible and latent, it is almost difficult to read.

Forgetfulness is a superb novel, exploring both forgetfulness – and the ways it may come, such as death and senility – and memory's opposite, remembering, and how its persists, taking root like a pernicious weed.

Forgetfulness is the story of Thomas Railles, an expatriate American painter, who has performed a few jobs for the CIA because two of its agents are old high school friends. When Railles' French wife, Florette, dies a violent and unexpected death it appears to be a random incident, but then, one cannot be certain that it was not driven by revenge for ancient acts. Railles' old friends promise that the murderers will be found and brought to justice. Railles is haunted by Florette’s death and by his work on behalf of the agency.

Just deserves a broad and enthusiastic audience of readers. He is one of America’s finest novelists of the past four decades.

82. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon. Fiction, 9-13, p. 297

Boy meets boy. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy falls in love with boy. Boy is confused.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon’s first novel, is the story of a young man confused about his sexual identity. One assumes it is Chabon’s own effort at working out his sexual identify, although a reader must be careful about assigning such autobiographical leanings to a novelist’s work.

There are many, many books to read. In How to Read a Novel, John Sutherland says that today more novels are published in one week than Samuel Johnson had to deal with in a decade. As he calculates it, “it would take approximately 163 lifetimes to read the fiction currently available.” Given Sutherland’s sobering statistic give this book a pass and move directing to Chabon’s later works.

83. Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Short Stories, 9-19, p. 294

Alice Munro is the best writer of short stories today. Not one of the best – the best. I have read many of these stories before. I suspect I will read them again and again. Many current novelists would be well served to closely read Munro. She can capture a world in a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph that would take others pages.

84. Henry Adams and the Making of America, Garry Wills. History, 9-24, p. 404

This book is not for the casual reader of history, but it will greatly reward the diligent student of history. It is a fascinating look at the legacy of Jefferson and Madison as seen through Henry Adams’ ambitious multi-volume history of America.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah a powerful, engaging narrative

80. Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden. History, 9-6, p. 637

Mark Bowden is the author most likely to wear the crown abdicated, due to age and time, by David Halberstam. Bowden, like Halberstam, is one of the few writers today who is capable of taking multiple interviews, secondary accounts and voluminous personal research and constructing a coherent and engaging narrative.

This is the feat Bowden has accomplished in his extraordinarily readable Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that toppled the Carter Administration, launched Ted Koppel’s Nightline and permanently transformed America’s relationship with the Middle East. Bowden demonstrated in his fine Black Hawk Down that he was exceedingly capable of weaving various accounts into a riveting and readable whole. Guests of the Ayatollah is a better, thoughtful, more complex book.

Bowden’s goal, in part, is to show how the hostage’s lived and survived during their 444 days of captivity. He does so vividly in an empathetic and powerful narrative. Bowden also demonstrates the impact of the crisis on both the Carter Administration and the Irianian leaders and students as well as leading us, step-by-step, through the misadventures of the failed rescue mission.

The hostages emerge as real people. Not so much heroesalthough there is a heroic element to their suffering, strength and courageas ordinary people making the best of extraordinary circumstances. President Carter warrants our sympathy perhaps as much as the hostages. He is a hopeful man whose Christian conviction leads him to believe that a resolution is possible – where none exists. Carter strives to do his best for the hostages and their families, and for America, but events conspire to undermine his Administration and, ultimately, his political career.

The hapless Iranians – the students, the secular leaders and iron-hearted mullahs – come off for the worst, as one might expect. No one in Iran ever anticipated so much of the fall-out that resulted from the seizure of the embassy – branded an outlaw nation for flouting the laws of diplomacy, a war with Iraq and a backlash against the Islamic faith in view of the students' failure to convince the American people of the righteousness of their cause.

Guests of the Ayatollah's 600-plus pages slip by with impressive speed; the book reads like an espionage thriller by LeCarre or Furst. It is skillfully told and impeccably researched. Let us hope Bowden wears his crown for many years to come.

(Bowden appeared at Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose this summer as part of the book tour to promote Guests of the Ayatollah. Also in attendance were former hostages Bruce Laingen, acting U.S. ambassador to Iran, and John Limbert, second secretary in the political section. Each testified to the accuracy of Bowden’s account. That, it seems to me, is the best and most powerful endorsement an author can receive.)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Perhaps he doth protest to much: but I'm a collector not a book dealer, really

Richard Ford was at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. Friday evening. He was part of a trio of authors participating in a William Faulkner Birthday Reading: New Orleans Night.

There was no question I would attend. The PEN/Faulkner Reading Series is a great event—readings by notable authors, followed by a book signing, wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Besides, six of the seven books that I have by Ford are unsigned, including a first edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day. I purchased a half-price ticket (more money for books), packed up the books and headed to the Folger.

Ford read from Percy Walker’s The Moviegoer. The reading, in Ford’s honeyed southern drawl, was the most entertaining and engaging of the evening.

At the reading’s conclusion, I darted into the reception room, heading for the author’s tables and a place at the front of the line. Ford grabbed a drink and visited with admirers before making his way to the table, where an impressive line of fans had formed.

“Are you ready to sign some books?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “You’re just going to sell these on eBay.”

I protested. I’m a collector. 2,500 books. My wife wishes I’d them on eBay, but no, these are destined for my shelves.

“You probably haven’t read any of these.” I protested once more. I had read them. All of them. Well, not Rock Springs, but it’s on the pile of books to be read some day.

Ford did sign the books. We chatted about his new book, sequel to Independence Day and The Sportswriter, and the tour that will bring him to back to Washington next month.

I was pleased he signed the books, but I fixated on the idea that he thought I was a book dealer. This has been happening a lot lately.

This summer Ivan Doig, one of my favorite authors, appeared at Politics & Prose, the premiere independent bookstore in Washington, if not the nation. I had a lot of books for Doig to sign. I waited, through the reading, the questions, the line of admirers waiting to have their books signed.

“I just made that fellow a lot of money,” he growled as I approached. He looked at me and my stack of books with an accusatory glare. “I’m not a dealer,” I assured him. “I’m a collector. These aren’t going to be sold.”

Doig signed, as Ford had, but I thought he eyed me doubtfully from time to time as he made his way through the stack of books I’d placed before him.

I’m not entirely certain why an author cares if a dealer waits in line, gets a book signed and then sells it on eBay or some other Internet site. Perhaps it’s just the idea that someone – not the author – is making a great deal of money on a single copy of a book. But that’s been going on long before eBay came onto the scene. As for me, some of the books were purchased used, from dealers, but others were bought at full retail.

No matter, I don’t want authors thinking I’m a book dealer, selling the fruits of their labor on eBay. What can I do?

I know – I’ll start dressing better.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Burke's Irene Kelly series makes nice light reading

79. Remember Me, Irene, Jan Burke. Mystery, 9-2, p. 303

I’ve been a fan of Jan Burke’s Irene Kelly series since reading Bones in 2000. Kelly is a reporter, married to a cop. She has a sister, two dogs and a cat. Invariably her work as a reporter leads her into mystery and intrigue. In the dozen years I was a reporter and editor I never solved a single murder and I’ve never known a colleague to do so either. Nor was I ever stalked by mad man (or woman for that matter), kidnapped or held hostage.

So Irene’s fictional career is far most interesting than the work-a-day world of most journalists. That’s OK because Burke’s novels are wonderfully entertaining. Kelly is a vibrant, spunky character and Burke does a fine job in bringing her and her cast of supporting characters to life.

The mysteries are not extraordinarily complex. Most often it’s not about whodunit or why (that’s usually clear early on), but how Irene will extricate herself from danger. This reader is grateful that Irene’s been successful through nine novels.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

10 Essential Michigan Books

In its August 30 edition, City Pulse, which is printed in Lansing, Michigan, published an article on the “Ten Essential Michigan Books.” Here they are:

  1. The Hiawatha Legends by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
  1. The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
  1. The Dollmaker by Hariette Arnow
  1. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
  1. Dopefiend by Donald Goines
  1. Farmer by Jim Harrison
  1. Braided Lives by Marge Piercy
  1. Letters from the Leelanau by Kathleen Stocking
  1. Rivethead by Ben Hamper
  1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

A Michigan friend, who sent me the article, asked why Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates were missing. Good question. The list was compiled by Chicago writer and Lansing native Theodore McClellan. There was no criteria given for the selections. It appears all the books on McClellan’s list are set in Michigan.

A second list, by City Pulse contributor Bill Castanier, included Ford’s The Sportswriter and Oates’ Them. It also included The Sporting Club by Tom McGuane and Waiting for the Morning Train by Bruce Catton.