Saturday, June 30, 2007

Thumbs down on Updike's Terrorist, appreciation for Peter Robinson's Close to Home

Books now read in ’07: 61
Title: Terrorist
Author: John Updike
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 6-27
Pages: 310

Books now read in ’07: 62
Title: Close to Home
Author: Peter Robinson
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 6-30
Pages: 389

Sixty-two books completed at the mid-point of 2007.

John Updike’s Terrorist was a disappointment. It is the story of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, the son of an Irish-American woman and an Egyptian man. The 18-year-old Ahmad is a devout Muslim. He’s recruited to participate in a suicide mission – setting off a truck loaded with explosives in the Lincoln Tunnel. Naïve, but intelligent, Ahmad is easily manipulated by his imam and his employer who are part of the scheme.

Two issues with this novel: several unlikely coincidences involving Ahmad’s school counselor and the moral ambiguity at its center. Ahmad is not a villain, but a tool; that much seems clear. But Updike seems intent on assigning some responsibility to the American people, as if their actions have justified the terror visited upon them. That’s an judgment I don’t accept.

Close to Home is a 2003 mystery featuring Peter Robinson’s Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Banks and Detective Inspector Annie Cabot find themselves investigating two murders – three decades apart – of two young men in their early teens. One of the youth was a childhood friend of Banks who mysteriously disappeared; now his bones have been uncovered and the investigation into his death re-opened. The other death, which seems the result of an ill-planned kidnapping, involves a young man who is the son of a famous model and a deceased rock star.

Close to home, of course, is where you first look in any murder. Robinson’s Alan Banks series compares favorably with Ian Rankin’s series featuring Inspector Rebus. Banks and Cabot are exceptionally well-drawn and the plots intriguing. If you are not familiar with this fine British series, it’s time you were.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Marvel's Planet Hulk a masterful blend of word and art

The Hulk, Marvel Comic’s green-skinned monster, has been in existence nearly 50 years. In that time, I’ve thought of the Hulk as largely a one-note super hero. “Hulk Smash.” “Hulk Strongest One There Is.” That sort of thing. There wasn’t much gray matter behind that green façade and any super villain he inevitably defeated seemed more the result of serendipitous rage than from any sense of justice or moral outrage. He could just as likely pound the Thing or Thor into the dirt as the Leader. All that changed in a remarkable series by Greg Pak that originally appeared in issues #92-105 of The Incredible Hulk.

Pak has reinvented old Greenskin. In this series the Hulk is smarter, stronger and more capable of channeling his anger into constructive paths, although that doesn’t mean he doesn’t administer a beating or two. As the Green Scar, the Hulk takes on a dignity and depth that’s been absent for five decades. He assumes tragic dimensions and suddenly that anger that always so diffused and misdirected is focused squarely on a foursome that’s stood tall in the Marvel Universe and one can’t help but cheer for the Hulk.

The Planet Hulk mini-series has now been assembled into a handsome hard-bound graphic novel of the same name. As the series begins the Hulk has been shot into space by those relentless do-gooders Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Iron Man, Dr. Strange and Black Bolt, leader of the Inhumans. Their intent was to send the Hulkie to a lush, uninhabited world. Instead, the Hulk ends up as a gladiator on Sakaar, a savage world of pink-skinned humanoids and intelligent, mind-linked insects, which is ruled by the cruel Red King.

By the conclusion of Planet Hulk, the Green Scar, aided by his War Bound, who meet in Sakaar’s version of the gladiatorial arena, and a handful of native rebels, overthrows the Red King and is himself crowned king. He takes a queen who soon announces that she’s preggers. In the comics, like the soap operas, nothing ends on a happy note and events lead to the destruction of the entire world, including Hulk’s queen and impending child. Only the Hulk and his War Bound survive. That sets up round two, now unfolding in a comic shop near you in World War Hulk. The Green Scar is pissed and he’s returned to Earth, along with his War Bound, seeking revenge.

An entertaining aspect of the series is that among the War Bound,” largely a motley assortment of “monsters,” are several minor characters who made long-ago appearances in Marvel Comics, including Korg, part of the Kronan race, stone creatures who once fought Thor in Journey Into Mystery #83 and a member of the Brood, a race of insect-like, parasitic beings, who first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #155 That’s a nice touch by Pak. Another deft touch is Pak’s handling of Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s alter ego. Banner, the nerdy scientist who Hulk hates most, makes only a cameo appearance in the series, but that brief appearance is in a touching scene in which the Hulk demonstrates great vulnerability and trust. It’s a testament to Pak’s skill as a writer that he can evoke such emotions from this green-skinned behemoth.

Planet Hulk demonstrates the power and popularity of the comic book and, by extension, the graphic novel. I’ve been around longer than the Hulk, yet I continue to become deeply caught up in a comic’s narrative arc. Pak’s writing drives this book, but it would be incomplete without the exceptional artwork, principally that of Aaron Lopresti and Carlo Pagulayan, who offer up several full-page set pieces, sans text, that are marvelous, as is the one-panel snapshot of the Hulk – almost an aside – when he realizes he is to be a father. A superlative blend of word and picture, Planet Hulk easily ranks among the finest comic book efforts in a half century and is a testament to that special blend of storytelling that makes the comic book such a special, enduring medium.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Eig whiffs in Opening Day

Books now read in ’07: 60
Title: Opening Day
Author: Jonathan Eig
Genre: Baseball
Date Completed: 6-23
Pages: 275

In 1997 Jackie Robinson A Biography by Arnold Rampersad appeared. Five years later, in 2002, Scott Simon, of National Public Radio fame, wrote Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball. Rampersad’s fine effort is clearly the definitive biography of Robinson, the first African American to play Major League baseball in the modern day, while Simon’s tidy volume neatly put Robinson’s accomplishments into a social and cultural perspective.

Consequently, it’s difficult to understand exactly what need Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day -- subtitled The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season – fulfills. Eig does focus on that historic first season, bracketing his account of that season with a brief introduction of the pre-Major League Jackie and a quick round-up of his career following that first season and his subsequent retirement.

There’s nothing new here. Eig’s prose is serviceable, but not evocative or compelling. He’s not, for example, Roger Angell. (For that matter, who is.) Nor does he do for Robinson what Jane Leavy did for Sandy Koufax in her book of that name. I’m not suitably disciplined to resist a baseball analogy in summarizing this book – Opening Day is the literary equivalent of taking a third strike looking.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Eat the Document a disappointing effort; Everyman is Roth's meditation on mortality

I'm tardy posting. Work took me to Iowa for the entire week. That did furnish me with an opportunity to visit Prairie Lights, the Iowa City independent bookstore that clearly warrants its reputation as one of the best in the country. Three levels: children’s books in the basement, new fiction and non-fiction on the main floor, travel and graphic novels and science fiction and an array of genres on the second floor along with a very nice café.

Books now read in ’07: 58
Title: Eat the Document
Author: Dana Spiotta
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 6-20
Pages: 290

Coincidence plays too great a role in this implausible novel of sixties radicals on the run by Dana Spiotta. Eat the Document was among the books short-listed for the 2006 National Book Award.

The novel alternates between the past and the present. In the past, we follow a young woman on the lam from the law after a misconceived protest goes horribly wrong. In the present, she’s a mom living in suburban Seattle. Coincidentally, her former lover and fellow radical has also settled in Seattle. And coincidentally, her son is acquainted with her former lover and fellow radical, who now runs a bookstore that appeals to – surprise – present day radicals, malcontents and the like.

Naturally, the son discovers the truth about both their past lives effecting a brief reunion. If this unlikely narrative weren’t objectionable enough, in present day, a few characters talk in a near incomprehensible gibberish apparently reflective of a kind of self-referential, radical rap.

It’s a disappointing book on multiple levels.

Books now read in ’07: 59
Title: Everyman
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 6-21
Pages: 182

Everyman is Philip Roth’s meditation on mortality. It begins with the funeral of his narrator and ends with his death. In between, he ponders the inevitability of that long slide into oblivion. It’s an interesting read, although far from Roth’s best work. This gloomy narrative is best tackled on a sunny day when you're a very, very good mood.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Burdett shines in third Bangkok mystery

Books now read in ’07: 57
Title: Bangkok Haunts
Author: John Burdett
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 6-17
Pages: 290

There’s nothing in Western culture to prepare a reader for the premise of Bangkok Haunts, the third in John Burdett’s thoroughly engaging series featuring his Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

A Buddhist, Sonchai may be the only honest officer in the entire Royal Thai Police force. Essentially, it means that Sonchai must adopt the very Western practice of managing up and managing down – he has to keep his corrupt bosses content even as he persists in investigating a homicide they don’t want investigated.

The homicide involves a Thai prostitute, murdered in the making of a snuff film. It’s complicated – in the way all mysteries are – because the murdered girl was once Sonchai’s lover, and her ghost still visits him.

About that ghost. That’s where the dichotomies lies for the rational Western mind. There will be no spoilers here – suffice to say that the ghost of the murdered girl plays a pivotal role in Bangkok Haunts.

As with the first two books, Burdett weaves an engrossing tale as we continue to learn about the unique worldview of the Thai mind, the nation’s food, it’s sex trade and its corrupt police force. Sonchai Jitpleecheep is among the more creative mystery detectives to emerge in a long, long time and this current mystery almost taxes even his great skills of detection – almost.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Housekeeping vs. Richard M. Nixon

Books now read in ’07: 55
Title: Housekeeping
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 6-13
Pages: 219

Order and entropy are at war in the human heart in Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary first novel. Housekeeping is the story of new sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who live in Fingerbone, a remote Idaho village. The sisters, whose mother has committed suicide, are raised by a succession of relatives – their grandmother, two batty, Dickensian great-aunts and finally their mother’s youngest sister, Sylvie.

Sylvie is a transient by birth and inclination, who only returns home, after being away for years, out of loyalty to her late sister. Initially, the arrangement appears to be satisfactory, but slowly Sylvie yields to the chaotic nature that lives within her. The house begins to fill with discarded tin cans and newspapers and Sylvie blithely disregards the girls increasing truancy from school.

Ultimately, the two sisters are divided. Lucille seeks order, while Ruth yields to her own transient nature. Lucille flees home, seeking refuge with a teacher, while Ruth and Sylvie flee Fingerbone to avoid legal efforts to take Ruth away.

Actual housekeeping becomes a powerful metaphor in this novel as does the vast lake that dominates the landscape surrounding Fingerbone. The sisters’ mother drowned herself in this lake. Their grandfather drowned in the lake too, a victim of a near legendary train wreck that decades later still dominates local imagination.

“One cannot cup one’s hand and rink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, thought they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all children, too, even if their arms could have held them up.”

In his column in the Believer magazine, Nick Hornby called Housekeeping “this extraordinary, yearning mystical work about the dead and how they haunt the living.” He also says the novel is “deep an dark and rich” and he describes Robinson as “one of America’s greatest living writers . . . certainly there is no one else like her.”

I had read Hornby’s column on Housekeeping months ago. What’s bizarre is that after reading the novel, I selected the same quote Hornby selected. I do not believe I have could have remembered the quote as a result of reading Hornby so many months ago. It is in keeping, I think, with the mystical nature of this novel. Hornby in right in all that he writes -- this is an extraordinary, haunting novel and Robinson, who also wrote Gilead, is a writer of exceptional ability and insight.

Books now read in ’07: 56
Title: Richard M. Nixon
Author: Elizabeth Drew
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 6-14
Pages: 219

Elizabeth Drew’s biography of our 37th President, Richard Nixon, is the finest example of the condensed biography I have yet to come across. In a word this new offering in Times Book’s American Presidents Series is superb.

It’s exceptionally well written. Drew seems to offer just the right amount of material on each of the subject areas in which she focuses – Nixon’s early life and Congressional career, his term as vice president, his foreign policy, his domestic policy and Watergate. No single area dominates and all come together to form a most pleasing and coherent whole.

Drew pulls no punches. In her introduction she asks, “How did such a peculiar man become president, and win reelection?” She finds Nixon unprepared for the presidency and writes, “ . . . the evidence is that by the time Nixon reached the White House, he had developed symptoms of paranoid personality. . . . Politics is normally riddled with grudges and jealousies and suspicion, but Nixon’s behavior went beyond the normal range.”

This no hatchet job. It is a balanced, yet brutally candid appraisal of Nixon and the damage his Administration wreaked on this nation, and its standing in the world. Among her conclusions:

“It has often been said that 'but for' Watergate, Nixon would have been a good, even great, president. Some argue that his achievements in domestic policy, or foreign policy, overshadow the unfortunate denouement of his presidency. Yet . . . there is no 'but for.' The events that caused Nixon’s downfall commenced as soon as he become president, and came from within his soul. The traits that led to it – the paranoia, the anger, the determination to wreak revenge, the view that the opposition should be destroyed, even the excessive drinking – cannot be excised from the Nixon presidency.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Baseball novelist Mark Harris has died

Author Mark Harris died earlier this month. He was best known for his baseball novels "The Southpaw" (1953), "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956), "A Ticket for a Seamstitch" (1957) and "It Looked Like Forever" (1979). He was 84.

The Associated Press reported that Harris died a month after he broke his hip in a fall and got pneumonia. He had Alzheimer's disease, she said.

Harris wrote five nonfiction books and 13 novels.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Complete portrait of Einstein emerges in Isaacson biography

Books now read in ’07: 54
Title: Einstein
Author: Walter Isaacson
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 6-11
Pages: 551

I’m not allergic to fulsome biographies of worthy figures, but it's no secret that I greatly prefer the condensed version as exemplified by the Penguin Lives series or the Eminent Lives series from HarperCollins.

That said, if there had to be a new, massive biography of anyone Albert Einstein certainly qualifies. And, since someone had to write such a biography, we’d certainly root for Walter Isaacson, who did a notable job on his biography of Benjamin Franklin.

The difficulty with any biography of Einstein – at least for me – is the science: Quantum mechanics, the unified field theory, the general and special theories of relativity, metric tensors and spooky action at a distance. It’s all, well, a bit heady and, try as I might, indecipherable.

Wade through the physics and mathematics and you’re rewarded with a fascinating portrait of Einstein’s life – his emotional distance from his first wife and children, his progression in identifying himself as a Jew, his embrace of public adulation and publicity and his often unwelcome forays into world politics.

Isaacson makes it clear that Einstein, particularly in his youth, was something of a rebel and a non-conformist. He disliked authority and “bristled at all forms of tyranny over free minds.” Einstein, writes Isaacson, believed that freedom was the lifeblood of creativity and that creativity required a willingness to not conform.

Two nice passages from the final pages of Isaacson’s biography:

“The world has seen a lot of impudent geniuses. What made Einstein special was his mind and soul were tempered by his humility. He could be serenely self-confident in his lonely course yet also humbly awed by the beauty of nature’s handiwork.”

“For some people, miracles serve as evident of God’s existence. For Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence. The fact that the cosmos is comprehensible, that it follows laws, is worthy of awe. This is the defining quality of a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.”

It’s easy to see, even now, why Einstein was a source of adulation and awe. Isaacson’s biography is a fitting tribute to this great man.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? fails the test of time

Books now read in ’07: 53
Title: Why Bring Them Back From Heaven?
Author: Clifford Simak
Genre: Science Fiction
Date Completed: 6-10
Pages: 191

It’s been 40 years since I first, and last, read Clifford Simak’s Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? I remember Simak’s writing fondly and with respect. I think of him as one of the more provocative science fiction writers I read during my teen years. My admiration for Simak seems to have been shared by his colleagues. In 1977 he was the third writer named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Recently, I decided to re-read Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? I wanted to explore the accuracy of my memory: Was Simak really that good or is that simply how I remember his books through the haze of four decades?

Sadly, (now, there’s a clue), Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? doesn’t hold up. The book is about man’s quest for immortality. Set in 2148, the world is dominated by the Forever Center, a corporation that stores away the dead even as it seeks a solution to immortality. People live Spartan lives, practicing self-denial as they set aside pleasures in this life for the promise of great wealth in the next.

Opposing the Forever Center are the Holies, a small, but intrepid group of neo-Christians, who believe in eternal life – but the immortality they envision is spiritual rather than physical. The Holies campaign against the Forever Center includes spray-painting buildings with the slogan: Why Bring Them Back From Heaven?

It’s interesting now, from the perspective of four decades, to remember the distrust with which we regarded corporations in the 60s. They were soulless, evil monoliths, tributes to greedy, rampant capitalism. It’s hard to hang on to that image today while using Microsoft software, wearing Nike shoes and sipping a Starbucks frappuccino. We proudly pay to wear corporate brands today and generally view corporations as benign, but necessary citizens of the world.

Simak’s mistrust of corporations is evident – the Forever Center is a soulless monolith, more powerful than any national government, sucking up all the world’s wealth, while encouraging people to live in literal and psychic poverty. Worst of all, the Forever Center may be withholding a terrible secret – that immortality cannot be achieved and that all those millions who slumber, awaiting a second life, will never be revived.

Ultimately, Simak betrays some ambivalence toward corporations. Evil elements are purged from the Forever Center, the corporation’s CEO restores the protagonist to his former position from which he had been ousted in shame, rewards him handsomely and help to restore his good name.

In the 40 years since Simak wrote Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? a lot has changed, but citizens aren’t stacked up like cordwood while awaiting eternal life and this science fiction grand master missed reality TV, the cell phone, the Internet and global warming – 140 years from now, in Simak’s world, the environment appears unnaturally healthy.

It’s also dated culturally. Consider these musings by a female scientist at the Forever Center: “Rather, it was the thought of someone such as she – a middle-aged and dowdy woman who too long had been concerned with matters that were unwomanly. Mathematics—what had a woman to do with mathematics other than the basic arithmetic of fitting the family’s budget to the family’s need? And what had a woman to do with life other than the giving and rearing of new life?”

Why Bring Them Back From Heaven? points to the dangers of re-reading. It's true that some books cannot be taken out of their social and historical context. It is also true that there are times when a fondly remembered books simply falls flat when it is re-visited.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Connelly's The Overlook disappointing

Books now read in ’07: 52
Title: The Overlook
Author: Michael Connelly
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 6-7
Pages: 225

On the penultimate page of Michael Connelly’s new novel, The Overlook, detective Harry Bosch exults that, from beginning to end, he had solved his new case “in little more than twelve hours.”

Such a prompt clearance rate is good for Harry, but not Connelly’s readers. This novel is a mere 225 pages. As it applies to the book’s title overlook means a place from which one may look down on a scene below. But there’s a second meaning. Used as a verb overlook means to look past, miss or ignore; which is what Connelly seems to have done. It’s as if he has written half a book.

The investigation into the murder of a L.A. doctor proceeds much as we expect it would. The murder appears to have been an execution and terrorists seem to be involved – especially when it is learned that a quantity of cesium is missing. The missing cesium brings the FBI into the case. They’re focused on finding the cesium. Harry wants to solve the murder.

What’s missing – and we should note that Connelly’s three previous books weighed in at slightly more than 400 pages – is the personal touch; the relationships, good and bad and uncertain, that have defined Harry Bosch as one of the more intriguing modern fictional detectives.

Harry’s love interest, FBI agent Rachel Walling, is on the case and Harry has a new partner, Ignacio, who repeatedly insists that Harry call him “Iggy.” Connelly doesn’t do much with either relationship. Fans of the series will recall the bitter break up between Walling and Bosch at the conclusion of Echo Park last year. They’re getting cozy again in this novel, but the leap from acrimony in the early pages to “gee, I never deleted your number from my cell phone either” is hurried, incomplete and altogether unsatisfactory. Harry’s new partner puts in a cameo appearance at best.

Curiously, a twenty-third chapter to the book can be downloaded from Connelly’s website. The extra chapter does clear up a few loose ends – yes, Rachel has stiches; no, Harry doesn’t have radiation poisoning; and maybe Iggy, who is shot, is going to be OK – but, all in all, it doesn’t contribute much.

One wonders what dictated this abbreviated effort by Connelly. It doesn’t seem to be a case of the Crichton treatment – producing a novel and screenplay all in one. Perhaps his publishers pressured Connelly to complete the book or perhaps he’s growing weary of detective Bosch – the series is 15 years old.

Whatever the explanation, The Overlook is disappointing to those of us who are just wild about Harry.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Reacher true to form in Bad Luck and Trouble

Books now read in ’07: 51
Title: Bad Luck and Trouble
Author: Lee Child
Genre: Thriller
Date Completed: 6-6
Pages: 377

You do not mess with the special investigators.

That’s a message the bad guys don’t heed to their peril in the newest Jack Reacher novel Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child.

Reacher is summoned to Los Angeles by a former member of his special military investigative team only to learn that four former members of the team are missing and several others can’t be located. Eventually, four members of the team assemble in L.A. where they began to piece together the reasons beyond their colleagues’ disappearance.

It’s business as usual for Reacher, which is to say that readers are in store for the usual suspenseful, rollicking read Lee Child’s been serving up since he started the series – this is the 11th – in 1997 with The Killing Floor. Child’s Reacher novels are the gold standard for the mystery/thriller genre and Bad Luck and Trouble is no exception in being exceptional.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Chabon's new novel is a mystery

Books now read in ’07: 50
Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 6-5
Pages: 411

Issues of identity and alienation haunt Michael Chabon’s long-awaited new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But let’s not allow the moral force of this novel to obscure the fact that it’s one fun, fine yarn.

As a youth, Chabon dreamed of writing “genre” fiction. That dream was discouraged by college literature classes and writer’s workshops, which emphasized the importance of literature, serious writing serving a purpose greater than mere entertainment. But a few years ago, Chabon regained that early determination to write genre fiction. The result is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in which Chabon, along with his readers, basks in the popular and entertaining genre commonly known as the mystery.

All the traditional ingredients are here, including the independent sad sack cop who struggles to stay sober. Meyer Landsman is at odds with his superiors (his ex-wife among them), the crooks and the world. He’s on the trail of a murderer and, of course, Landsman’s homicide investigation uncovers an even more heinous crime.

The novel is set in recent times in the Federal District of Sitka. After the fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948, Jewish refugees found safe haven in Sitka, located in the Alaska Panhandle on the west side of Baranof Island. Now, decades of Jewish rule are coming to an end. Under the Reversion, the district will vanish and this portion of Alaska will be returned to the United States and its native Tlingit population.

Chabon’s premise is based on a historical footnote. Between 1938 and 1940 the U.S. Congress considered a proposal to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe in Alaska. It was known as the King-Havenner bill or the Alaska Development Plan.

As the Reversion approaches, Landsman is investigating the death of a heroin addict in the fleabag hotel he calls home. Naturally, Landsman vows to the addict’s mother that he will find her son’s murderer. Just as naturally, Landsman’s supervisors tell him the case is closed. No open murder cases will be transferred to the “new” administration.

Landsman isn’t the sort of noz (that’s Yiddish for cop) to be waved off a case by his ex-wife, a powerful rebbe or the U.S. government. And we’re grateful that he’s not a mamzer, because his stubborn insistence on solving one final homicide makes for one enjoyable tale.

And something more: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is funny. Chabon’s humor – wry, ironic, satirical, sardonic – permeates this novel of mystery and purpose.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is good. Nu, it’s damn good.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Blogs of Note

Blogs of interest:

If you can’t find something to read – and I can’t imagine ever having that problem – this site from Random House and Modern Library should keep you occupied for a while. It’s also a site that recommends itself as the launching pad for a debate with a literate friend. Bottle of wine optional.

The physical appearance of Forbidden Library could use some work, but this list of banned and challenged books is fascinating. Who would expect to find Jack London’s Call of the Wild, The Diary of Anne Frank or Gone With the Wind on such a list? The fact that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 shows up as a “censored” book is exquisite irony. The list of books here is incomplete, but interesting nonetheless.

There are two magazines that all book collectors must subscribe to – Firsts and Fine Books and Collections. Fine Books and Collections is the tonier of the two magazines and definitely pitches itself to the collector with money to spend. The Fine Books blog isn't indispensable, but it is always interesting.

Finally, the site I try to visit daily, the Bibliophile Bullpen. Written by the incomparable Joyce Godsey, this site manages to be both informative and provocative – sometimes in the same post.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Washington Post replete with book news

Today’s Washington Post is replete with book news.

The World News page features a lengthy story and photo on the book festival at Hay-On-Wye, Wales. Leading the Style section is a feature article, accompanied by several photographs, on BookExpo America this past weekend in New York. For the article, reporter Bob Thompson shadows Olsson’s book buyer, Alexis Akre. Olsson’s is an independent bookstore chain in the Washington area. One of its six stores is around the corner from my office and is a frequent refuge for me.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

What the Dead Know a satisfying mystery by Balitmore's Laura Lippman

Books now read in ’07: 49
Title: What the Dead Know
Author: Laura Lippman
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 5-30
Pages: 373

I’ve not been a fan of Laura Lippman’s “one offs,” preferring the continuity of her tart and taut Tess Monaghan series. That preference is being reconsidered with the debut of Lippman’s new book, What the Dead Know. Oh, I still enjoy reading about Tess and company, but I thoroughly enjoyed this new stand-alone mystery.

What the Dead Know is like a Russian nesting doll with mysteries within mysteries. The first mystery has to do with the disappearance 30 years ago of the Bethany sisters. Are they alive? Dead? How did they disappear so completely and who abducted these young sisters form a Baltimore shopping center?

The second mystery begins when a woman, who leaves the scene of an automobile accident, claims to be one of the missing sisters. Is she who she says she is? Portions of her story seem plausible – she knows information that only a few people would know – but other aspects of her story don’t ring true.

Lippman is masterly in her command of this riveting narrative – jumping from the present to the past and back again – and in developing a believable cast of characters – from the mother who is ready to move on to the father who can’t to the retired cop who can’t let go of the case he couldn’t solve. As usual in Lippman’s work, Baltimore is a character too. She's always at her best in her affectionate, but candid, portrait of Charm City.

Satisfying is a good word to describe any mystery and What the Dead Know is all that. Lippman plays out the mystery to the end, delivering a satisfying and surprising conclusion that elicits a rueful, but delighted shake of the head – So that’s it!