Monday, December 31, 2007

On building The Felsenfeld Collection

On August 6, I had a post about the potential for a Felsenfeld Collection.

The post referred to a Talk of the Town article in the July 30 The New Yorker about Brooklyn classical composer Danny Felsenfeld showing up as a character in several recent novels.

I wrote:

Now here’s how I think: This is a great opportunity to assemble the Felsenfeld Collection, a small, but intriguing collection of novels featuring characters all based on the same individual. It would be an especially nice collection if all the books were signed by Felsenfeld.

A few months later that post generated this response:

Were you to assemble the Felsenfeld collection, you might be the only one--though apparently this is not a done deal: there may be more.

But if you get it together, I will happily sign it!

Thanks for your post; got a big kick.

Daniel Felsenfeld (a.k.a. "Inspector")

I can now report that I have assembled first editions of three of the four books now in print featuring Mr. Felsenfeld: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Lisa Carey’s Every Visible Thing and Katherine Min’s The Secondhand World.

Felsenfeld is also a character in At the Feet of the Divine by Benjamin Anastas. That book has not been published in English, and I have not yet determined exactly how I will let a German bookdealer know that I need an “Erste Auflage” of Anastas’ book.

BTW, here are the references to Felsenfeld in each of the three books I own:

In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union where he appears as Inspector Felsenfeld. The first reference comes on page 22:

“Speaking of rumors," he says, "what do you hear from Felsenfeld?”

Felsenfeld is Inspector Felsenfeld, the squad commander. "What do you mean, what do I hear from him? I just saw him this afternoon," Landsman says. "I didn't hear anything from him, the man hasn't uttered three words together in ten years. What kind of question is that? What rumors?"

In Katherine Min’s The Secondhand World by Katherine Min he is a high school teacher, who appears to be OK with students’ displays of public affection. Here’s the reference form page 115:

“ . . . and at least once a day a teacher tapped us on the shoulder and said, “PDA” – sometimes with a smile, like Mr. Felsenfeld, who wanted to show that he personally was cool with it but must reluctantly enforce school policy . . .”

He makes a very brief appearance in Every Visible Thing by Lisa Carey. On page 110, she writes:

“Suspecting that Dr. Felsenfeld had already had a conversation with Danny’s mother, Owen has no choice but to follow the tide of children toward the lunchroom.”

There’s no other reference I could find, although The New Yorker describes Felsenfeld’s character as a pipe-smoking, high school principal.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Close out the year with four good books

Books now read in ’07: 121
Title: The Tenth Muse
Author: Judith Jones
Genre: Food
Date Completed: 12-22
Pages: 282

Books now read in ’07: 122
Title: Every Visible Thing
Author: Lisa Carey
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-24
Pages: 306

Books now read in ’07: 123
Title: George H.W. Bush
Author: Timothy Naftali
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 12-25
Pages: 176

Books now read in ’07: 124
Title: Sacred
Author: Dennis Lehane
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 12-26
Pages: 288

Something for everyone in the final days of 2007. I recommend all four books.

Don’t expect Knopf editor Judith Jones to dish on the various cookbook authors she’s worked for through the years. She’s far too polite, too mannered, for an eat-and-tell book. Instead, this is an extended riff on the food and friends she’s enjoyed through the years.

Jones, of course, deserves credit for recognizing that Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a work of genius and that the timing was right for American cooks to embrace Child and her masterpiece.

The Tenth Muse comes complete with recipes. It’s a tasty, full-course meal.

Lisa Carey’s Every Visible Thing is a story of profound loss, and the universal desire for connection. The Furey family has been in a tailspin since the oldest son, Hugh, vanished. The parents are indifferent to their remaining children – Lena and Owen.

Lena sets out to try and find out more about Hugh’s disappearance, but, in the process, she ceases to attend school and becomes hooked up with a small-time drug dealer. Owen is wrestling with his sexual identity and his best friend’s betrayal.

Owen believes Hugh is dead, but he also believes his older brother is still part of their lives as a guardian angel.

Carey writes with great insight as she explores the rocky dynamics of this dysfunctional family.

George H.W. Bush is part of Times Books’ American President Series, which has proved uniformly superb. Naftali’s brief biography of “41” is no exception. For many of us this book reads more like current events than history. It is an even-handed and thoughtful examination of the presidency of the first George Bush.

Sacred is an early work by Dennis Lehane. It’s not on par with Mystic River, but few books are. It is an entertaining read with a couple of memorable characters. Anyone fond of the genre is certain to enjoy this.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Post features Norwegian writer

The Washington Post carries an article this morning on Norwegian writer Per Petterson and the success of his most recent novel, Out Stealing Horses. I won't make you read the entire article (although it's fascinating) to reach the good news. Graywolf Press will publish his book, To Siberia, next year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Uncommon Reader uncommonly good

Books now read in ’07: 120
Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-18
Pages: 120

Bookstores in Washington are reporting that Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is flying off the shelves. That should come as no surprise. It is an entertaining book about the British monarchy, a source of fascination to a sizeable number of Americans.

Bennett’s conceit, in this novella (the book runs 120 pages) is what would happen if, at the age of 80, the Queen suddenly became a voracious reader? Initially the Queen, who has stumbled into a library book van, resists the lure of reading.

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

Eventually, the Queen does succumb. “What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” Yes, I know that feeling.

One final quote: “Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met with in the pages of their novels, and as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books.”

The Queen’s advisors aren’t at all comfortable with the idea of the monarch as reader and there are subtle efforts to discourage her. The Queen’s passion for reading does finally wane, but with results no less unsettling to her advisors.

Bennett has given us a delicious read. Not so much laugh out loud funny as designed to evoke a grin of delight or recognition. As an animated pitchman might say, The Uncommon Reader is uncommonly good.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 119
Title: Secondhand World
Author: Katherine Min
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-16
Pages: 274

I came by this book through a circuitous route; a route that had nothing to do with the book’s author or its contents.

Because of Danny Felsenfeld (more on Mr. Felsenfeld in a future post), I stumbled onto this novel replete with both great pain and wisdom. Secondhand World is the story of Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, the American-born daughter of a Korean couple. The novel begins and ends when Isa is 18, and is largely focused on her final years of high school.

Secondhand World is about alienation and acceptance; not only the alienation we experience at the hands of the larger world – especially if we are a Korean child who does not resemble anyone else around – but the alienation that can take place within the confines of our own family.

Isa feels isolated from her parents. As a toddler, her younger brother, was killed in a senseless household accident and, through the years, her parents continue to be haunted by their loss. Isa feels that she is a poor substitute for her dead brother. A feeling eloquently expressed at the novel’s close:

“It’s a secondhand world we’re born into. What is novel to us is only so because we’re newborn, and what we cannot see, that has come before – what our parents have seen and been and done – are the hand-me-downs we begin to wear as swaddling clothes, even as we ourselves are naked. The flaw runs through us, implicating us in its imperfection even as it separates us, delivers us onto opposite sides of a chasm. It is both terribly beautiful and terribly sad, but it is, finally, the fault in the universe that gives birth to us all.”

The pain Isa experiences both inside her family and out, even the loss of her brother, are only echos of other tragedies – in her father’s past and in her present (when we first meet Isa she is a patient on a pediatric burn unit). As Isa finds life so I found Secondhand World – terribly beautiful and terribly sad.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

New books by Harrison, Ellis and Chabon are not to be missed

Books now read in ’07: 116
Title: Returning to Earth
Author: Jim Harrison
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-12
Pages: 280

Books now read in ’07: 117
Title: American Creation
Author: Joseph Ellis
Genre: History
Date Completed: 12-12
Pages: 243

Books now read in ’07: 118
Title: Gentlemen of the Road
Author: Michael Chabon
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-14
Pages: 204

Three books. All highly recommended.

Returning to Earth is Jim Harrison’s newest book, and one wonders if it will not be his last. It certainly reads as if it is Harrison’s effort to come to terms with his own mortality.

It is the story of Donald, a middle-aged man of Chippewa and Finnish descent, who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Much in tune with his Indian ancestry, Donald determines to end his life.

In the four sections, Harrison tells us Donald’s story, that of his wife and other family members as they come to terms with his death. It is a powerful and insightful book – with echoes of Louise Erdrich – and certainly must rank among Harrison’s best.

American Creation examines key historical moments in the founding of America – beginning with Washington’s decision to engage the British in protracted struggle rather than a conventional clash of armies and concluding with Jefferson’s decision to set aside his opposition to an imperial presidency and purchase the Louisiana territory from Napoleon.

Ellis’ strength is two-fold. He is an engaging writer who avoids a plodding academic style sometimes adopted by historians. He is also balanced and fair-minded; crediting Jefferson, for example, with boldness in concluding the Louisiana purchase, but in being blind to the opportunities the purchase offered to abolish slavery in America.

It’s an intelligent and provocative work.

Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road is the most enjoyable of the lot. Chabon dedicates the book to British writer Michael Moorcock and, indeed, his character Zelikman owes much to Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.

Gentlemen of the Road is a delightful adventure yarn. Chabon tosses in sword play, elephants, a bit of artful thievery and a foul-mouthed youth of royal blood trying to regain his rightful throne. It’s irresistible.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Power of Experience is Jeremy Janes' lovely legacy

Books now read in ’07: 114
Title: Varieties of Disturbance
Author: Lydia Davis
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-6
Pages: 219

Books now read in ’07: 115
Title: The Power of Experience
Author: Jeremy Janes (ed..)
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-6
Pages: 221

Varieties of Disturbance was one of five books short-listed for the 2007 National Book Award for fiction. It is described, on the back cover, as “fifty-seven rule-breaking short stories.”

The count may be correct. Rules have been broken. But these are not short stories. I am not at all certain what they are. Some are amusing in a trifling way. Some cute in an annoying way. Most are boring.

I think it’s someone’s idea of joke.

Jeremy Janes, editor of The Power of Experience, was a co-worker and friend. Jeremy lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I lived in Topeka and later in Washington, D.C. He was a Brit and had that charming accent Brit’s have. He was also a kind and gentle man and something of a bibliophile.

Jeremy died in 2006 without ever having seen The Power of Experience. I remember his excitement that the Publications team at AARP (where we worked) had agreed to publish his book, subtitled “Great Writers Over 50 on the Quest for a Lifetime of Meaning.”

Jeremy did a terrific job with this anthology, tapping a variety of sources and writers. Anne Tyler is here. As is Amy Tan. Robert Stone. Elmore Leonard. Frederick Busch and Richard Russo.

It’s a good read and a terrific legacy of a life well-lived.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Petterson's Out Stealing Horses is 2007's best book

Books now read in ’07: 113
Title: Out Stealing Horses
Author: Per Petterson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-2
Pages: 288

At some point during our youth we come to understand that our parents have lives beyond that which we know; that there is a complexity to their lives that we did not previously recognize and that their lives are not limited to home or to their children or their spouse.

Such a realization comes to Trond, the narrator of Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s superb Out Stealing Horses, the summer he is 15. World War II has been over only a few years, Trond has been reunited with his father and, now, in a few brief months he has the rare opportunity to spend time alone with his father and to work alongside him.

Trond discovers that his father was part of the resistance during the war – something his father has never talked about – and that he has a romantic relationship with a farm woman, who aided him in his efforts against the Germans. The woman is the mother of Trond’s closest friend.

Trond looks back on this summer from the perspective of some 50 years. He has taken himself to a remote part of Norway – where the novel is set – to heal from wounds suffered during an accident that claimed the life of his wife. His wounds are far more emotional than physical. Trond is clearly seeking to grasp life more firmly, and is determined to do so in his own way and with little assistance.

Events occur that remind Trond of that distant summer. In looking back it was clearly a summer of loss – a summer in which he was to see his father for the last time; a summer in which he was to lose his best friend and in which that friend was to lose much, much more.

Yet in looking back, Trond also comes to realize that in their brief time together his father taught him lessons about life that can offer him a source of strength and healing and consolation in his time of present need.

Petterson makes few judgments about his characters, instead he recognizes that life takes us down pathways that we would not have chosen for ourselves, but which we must now find the strength to endure.

Out Stealing Horses is wise and touching; spare, yet lyrical -- superbly written, superbly told -- it is a powerful novel of loss and self-discovery.

It is the best book of 2007.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Wahsington Post lists its best book of 2007

In today’s Book World, the Washington Post lists its top 10 books of 2007.

The top five works of fiction are:

  • Finn, Jon Clinch
  • The Last Cavalier, Alexandre Dumas
  • On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
  • The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
  • Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson

I am thoroughly pleased to see Finn on that list. It is a terrific re-imagining of a classic work of American fiction. I also can’t quarrel with On Chesil Beach as one of the year’s best novels. Author Ian McEwan is the best writer in the English language today.

The book by Dumas is exactly the kind of quirky choice the Post would make. I’m not familiar with Bolano’s book and, again, didn’t much care for Tree of Smoke.

The best non-fiction, according to the Post:

  • Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee
  • FDR, Jean Edward Smith
  • Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad
  • The Unnatural History of the Sea, Callum Roberts
  • The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, Diane Ackerman

I didn’t like Hermione Lee’s book one bit. Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison was reviewed in these pages yesterday. It is an impeccable work of scholarship, and highly readable.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 112
Title: Ralph Ellison
Author: Arnold Rampersad
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 12-1
Pages: 566

And so we enter the final month of reading in 2007. Why do I feel as if 112 books just isn’t enough?

Arnold Rampersad is a splendid biographer as he demonstrated in 1997 with his biography of baseball pioneer (and book of the same name) Jackie Robinson and again 10 years later with Ralph Ellison.

I confess that I have not read Ellison’s groundbreaking novel, Invisible Man. Rampersad’s thorough and thoroughly readable biography has not necessarily moved me to do so, but – should I read it – I will know a hell of a lot about the author.

Ellison was a complicated man. (He evokes Whitman for me: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”) He was not necessarily a likeable man. In the vernacular of the time, Ellison was excessively enamored of the Establishment. He embraced LBJ, any number of Establishment appointments, commissions and boards and jealously guarded his status as the sole “Negro” (a word he preferred) representative thereof.

Perhaps most distressingly, Ellison did little – hell, he did nothing – to advance the cause of young Black writers, who he always found lacking. His disregard, for example, of Toni Morrison is but one example.

Rampersad’s strength is in his balance. He demonstrates Ellison’s greatness as a pioneering Black novelist, but does not hesitate to display his shortcomings as a man and, especially, as an African American.

From the publication of Invisible Man until Ellison’s death, Rampersad also makes clear that the single, inescapable tragedy of Ellison’s life – and I do not think that to strong a word – is his failure to write a second novel. He worked continuously (more than 35 years) on a second novel, but was never able to complete it; in part, Rampersad suggests, because Ellison’s standards were to high.

Most instructive (and illustrative of my thinking as I read this biography) is Rampersad following observation:

Perhaps it is therefore both a touching memento and a mocking suggestion of what might have been if Ralph had managed his career differently. One or two books of autobiography, two or three collections of short stories, his two published books of essays, and his masterpiece Invisible Man, even without a second novel, might have given his career a sense of wholeness and removed his burden of failed expectations. (p. 556)

I am not a fan of lengthy biographies, preferring the shorter version (less than 200 pages) of Penguin Lives and the current Eminent Lives series, but I liked this work. It is readable, balanced and superbly researched.