Saturday, December 19, 2009

Some guys just know how to make an exit

C.D.B. Bryan, author of Friendly Fire, about the accidental death of a solider in Vietnam, died of cancer December 15 at his home in Guilford, Conn. His wife, Mairi, said he was holding a shaken martini when he died.

He was 73.

Bryan wrote for several magazines throughout his career, but he was best known for Friendly Fire. The book, which started as an article for The New Yorker, is about the 1970 friendly-fire shrapnel death of Michael Eugene Mullen, a soldier from Iowa. It chronicled his parents' doubts about the Army's official account of the death, their quest for answers and the transformation of his mother, Peg Mullen, into an antiwar activist.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thoughts of a few '09 "best of" lists

Something to contemplate while you are waiting for my reading list and “best of” books for 2009:

Only Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs makes the ‘best of” list for Slate, The Washington Post and The New York Times. I didn’t like it much (there’s a tell) and I predict that if you decide to read this book – against my recommendation – you won’t either. It starts great, but then wanders off into the wilderness and doesn’t return.

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, which I am reading now, makes the “best of” list for Slate and The New York Times. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel also appears twice; selected by Slate and the Post.

Other books on Slate’s list include: John Updike's Endpoint, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. I have not read Endpoint, but you cannot go wrong with the books by Munro and Tower.

The Post’s top five include The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (which I will read before the year’s end), American Rust by Philipp Meyer (it will only disappoint you) and The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell (which I am not familiar with).

An enthusiastic yes to the Times for its selection of Maile Meloy’s short story collection, Both Way is the Only Way I Want It. I gave this one to my daughter who is striving to be a writer.

The Times also listed Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls and A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. Walbert is a talented writer but I didn’t like this book that much. I’ve seen Walls novel in the bookstores, but have yet to read it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2009 National Book Award nominees announced

The nominees for the 2009 National Book Awards were announced today. I knew only one of the five books in the fiction category -- Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite. The other nominees are: American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and Far North by Marcel Theroux.

Non-fiction nominees are:
  • David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook
  • Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species
  • Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
  • Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates,
  • Rome's Deadliest Enemy
  • T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Visit the National Book Foundation's website for the nominees in poetry and young people's literature.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Never Say Never: Lehane to write sixth Kenzie-Gennaro novel

File this under the category of Never Say Never.

Author Dennis Lehane has long insisted he would never write another book featuring Boston P.I.s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. But, now, Lehane has announced that the sixth entry in the series will be published sometime in 2010! And it will be a sequel to, Gone, Baby, Gone.

Read more about it here.

And, while we're on the subject of mystery writers, George Pelecanos has won the 2009 Dashiell Hammett Award (for literary excellence in the field of crime writing) for The Turnaround.

Nice to see George recognized.

Pelecanos appeared last month at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington D.C. He told me then that he doesn't have a novel in the pipeline, but is, instead, working on a new television series with the crew from The Wire.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pike's Back!

In an email to fans, Robert Crais indicates that Joe Pike will make a return appearance as the star of his own novel.

The novel, The First Rule, is tentatively set for publication in February, 2010.

Here's what Crais has to say about the novel:

Frank and Cindy Meyer had the American dream – until the day a professional robbery crew invaded their home and murdered everyone inside. The only thing out of the ordinary about Frank was that – before his family, business, and oh-so-normal life – a younger Frank Meyer worked as a professional mercenary . . . with a man named Joe Pike.

Pike learns of the crime when the police question him. The same crew has done other home invasions, and all the targets have been criminals with large stashes of cash or drugs. The police believe the same is true of Frank, but Pike does not, and with the help of Elvis Cole, he sets out to clear his friend . . . and punish the people who murdered him.

They won’t know what hit them.

The first rule: Don’t make Pike mad.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Reading Update

I've been reading rather than posting. I'll try to do better.

Here's my reading since the last time I posted a summary. On pace to read 180 books this year with 90 books completed by the end of June.

A quick explanation of the numbers: the column on the left represents the number of books read. For example, Victory Over Japan is the 78th book is read in 2009. I completed it on June 5 and it had 277 pages.

78. Victory Over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist. Stories 6-5 277

79. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin. Fiction 6-7 262

80. Road Dogs, Elmore Leonard. Thriller 6-8 262

81. Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child. Thriller 6-9 421

82. Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro. Stories 6-11 221

83. The Scarecrow, Michael Connelly. Thriller 6-13 419

84. Leadership on the Line, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty

Linsky. Leadership 6-14 236

85. The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters. Fiction 6-17 499

86. The Complete Game, Ron Darling. Baseball 6-19 255

87. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley. Mystery 6-21 370

88. The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Fiction 6-26 531

89. Lark & Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips. Fiction 6-29 254

90. Miracle Ball, Brian Biegel. Baseball 6-30 227


91. In the Kitchen, Monica Ali. Fiction 7-3 430

92. I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a

Woman, Nora Ephron. Humor 7-4 137

93. Exiles in the Garden, Ward Just. Fiction 7-5 279

94. A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert. Fiction 7-7 237

Monday, June 22, 2009

Post features Connelly, Scarecrow

The Washington Post has an interesting story this morning on Michael Connelly's new thriller The Scarecrow. The article focuses on how the decline in the newspaper business -- an element of the novel -- posed challenges for the author.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A round-up of today's reading

June 4th and 5th brought eight new books to my door. Six of those have been dispatched. Only Monica Ali's new book and Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie remain. Bradley is up next.

Today, I read a couple of chapters in The Complete Game by former Mets pitcher Ron Darling. The best of books on baseball combine something instructive about the game and a few wonderful anecdotes. Darling's book does exactly that. It is an extraordinary look into the mind of the major league pitcher.

I also read:

  • Susan Glaspell's Trifles. Written in 1917, this play about a farm wife who murders her husband holds up remarkably well.

  • Two short stories by Robert Crais. The stories, With Crooked Hands and The Dust of Evening, represent Crais' first published work. Both are works of science fictions. Crais later turned to mystery writing, where he established a name for himself with his characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.

  • An article in the June 22 The New Yorker on romance novelist Nora Roberts. I have never read Ms. Roberts, which makes me an exception among the novel-reading public today. The article reports that according to Forbes Roberts grosses $60 million a year -- that's more than Stephen King or John Grisham. She wrote three of the 10 best-selling mass-market paperbacks last year. 27 Nora Roberts books are sold every minute.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Saturday, June 06, 2009

What the Mailman Brought -- Part Two

The following books arrived today in the post:

The Little Strangers, a ghost story by Sarah Waters
Nocturnes, the newest work by Kazuo Ishiguro
In the Kitchen, Monica Ali's third novel
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

All are signed British firsts, and all were dispatched to the USA from England by Firsts in Print.

I have a signed first of the American edition of Toibin's book. I expect to finish it tomorrow. It's quite good, as was expected.

Friday, June 05, 2009

What the mailman brought

Arriving today from those marvelous people at Murder by the Book:

Gone Tomorrow, the new Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child
Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard (love the jacket design)
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (I am promised this is good)
The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

This should hold me for a week.

Summary of most recent reading

Here's a list of the books I've recently read. Some thoughts on these books will follow.

67. Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, Matt McCarthy. Baseball, 5-12

68. A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick. Fiction, 5-14

69. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. Fiction, 5-17

70. Free Fall, Robert Crais. Thriller, 5-18

71. Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell. Thriller, 5-20

72. The Way Home, George Pelecanos. Fiction, 5-25

73. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, Ted Gioia. Blues, 5-27

74. Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead. Fiction, 5-28

75. The Best American Short Stories 2008, ed. Salman Rushdie. Stories, 5-30

76. The Breaks, Richard Price. Fiction, 6-3

77. The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, Zachary Karabell. Political History, 6-4

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Munro wins International Man Booker Prize

Alice Munro is today, 27 May 2009, announced as the winner of the third Man Booker International Prize.

Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize is awarded every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Stross completes Merchants' War series

My oldest son, Brandon, met British sci-fi author Charles Stross about a week ago. Stross was a speaker at LOGIN 2009, a conference for game developers. I could be wrong about this, but I think my son was instrumental in arranging Charlie's appearance.

Brandon reports that Stross "is an awesome guy. Pretty much a geek like anyone else." Well, not anyone. I sent along about a dozen first editions of Stross' books and he signed them all. I don't read much science fiction these days, but I don't miss a new book by Charles Stross.

Brandon also furnished an update on Stross' current work: "He finished the 6th book in the Merchants' War series and says he's done with that stuff for now, but wants to write a second series down the road. He says he wants to do a sequel for Glasshouse and has one in the works for Halting State. His latest book is the 5th in the merchant's war: The Revolution Business."

While on the subject of science fiction, Robert Sawyer's book, Flash Forward, has been turned into a 13-hour long series and picked up by ABC. It's schedule to appear this fall. The trailers are airing now.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

April-May reading include new works by Robert Sawyer and Denis Johnson

Here's the list of my reading for the end of April and first of May:

55. Scat, Carl Hiaasen. Fiction

56. The First Person, Ali Smith. Stories

57. Life Sentences, Laura Lippman. Fiction

58. The Believers, Zoe Heller. Fiction

59. Wake, Robert J. Sawyer. Science Fiction

60. Taft, Ann Patchett. Fiction

61. The Northern Clemency, Philip Hensher. Fiction

62. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower. Stories

63. Nobody Move, Denis Johnson. Fiction

64. A Jury of Her Peers, American Women Writers from Anne

Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter. Non-Fiction

65. Bloodbrothers, Richard Price. Fiction

66. Alphabet Juice, Roy Blount Jr. Words

Let's start with thegood stuff.

I loved Carl Hiaasen's Scat, his third young adult novel. Many of the ingredients that make his grown-up novels so much fun appear in these books, including his wicked sense of humor. I especially appreciate Hiassen's young adult novels

because he doesn't back away from difficult issues, like father's returning from the war in the Middle East missing their right arm. Forget the young adult category and do yourself favor and pick up all three titles -- Hoot, Flush and Scat.

I don't read much science fiction any longer, but I don't let a new book by Robert Sawyer or Charles Stross pass by. Wake is Sawyer's newest effort and the first in a trilogy on the Internet's emerging consciousness. Let me throw this to the American Idol judges. Yep, Randy says it's "Da Bomb." And i

t is. I won't say this is Sawyer's best work -- that covers to much ground -- but it is one of his finest. A thoroughly intriguing, thoroughly captivating read.

What is it about Ann Patchett's early novels? I love them. Taft is wonderful.

There is an underlying suggestion of menace is every short story by Wells Tower in his terrific collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I can't think of anyone writing stories quite like these. They are edgy and brilliant, and leave me wanting more.

I didn't much like Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. I can make it up to you now Denis, I thought your new work, Nobody Move, was fantastic. It's a pulp yarn, a bit of noir, that is best read in a single day.

Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency was long-listed for the Booker Prize. It took me a while to warm up to this tale of English surburbia. Hensher's prose can be dense at times, but he tells a powerful story. Ultimately, it is the narrative that secures this novel's status as a fine read.

The only non-fiction in the lot is Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers, American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. Bravo, Elaine. This long overdue survey of women writers in America is as thorough as it is engrossing.

Modest disappointments: Life Sentences by Laura Lippman (it was a Peggy Lee); The First Person, a collection of short stories by Ali Smith; The Believers by Zoe Heller (I know Heller specializes in unappetizing people, but is it too much to ask for one person -- just one -- that you could care about?); Bloodbrothers, Richard Price's second novel showed glimpses of the talent on full display in Clockers, but glimpses aren't enough; and, finally, Alphabet Juice, Roy Blount Jr.'s glossographia (I expected to like it more than I did, but . . . I just didn't).

Friday, May 01, 2009

Final post on The New Yorker cover contest

To complete my account of the Cover Contest here's yesterday's post The Book Bench with the complete covers:

April 30, 2009

Grand Prize Winner

A big day yesterday for Joba Chamberlain, Dwight Howard, J. J. Putz, and John Reinhart, of Alexandria, Virginia, though only the last of these won this week’s Covers Contest, divining correctly that the small images corresponded to books about sports. Trés sportif, Jean!

Below are the full book covers, which remind us that it’s how you play the game. The game resumes next Wednesday.



The top two books took a matter of seconds. First editions of both books -- Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike and Jim Bouton's baseball classic Ball Four -- are on my shelves.

Book three is clearly about fly fishing and that quickly led me to Norman MacLean's A River Runs Through It.

Finally, the fourth book was obviously devoted to golf. The little bit of cover available made it clear it wasn't Tiger Woods; that left Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. I checked covers for Hogan first and there it was -- Five Lessons.

From the time I saw the contest to the time to emailed in my entry was a matter of minutes. I was confident I had won and received confirmation of the same Thursday morning. It made my day. I emailed my daughter, called friends and posted the results to Facebook.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Book Bench, The New Yorker's book blog, features a weekly Covers Contest. Below, are the covers for this week. It's pertinent because I am the weekly winner. I will post the complete covers tomorrow.

April 29, 2009

Covers Contest: Sport’s Bar

We were certainly flying near the sun last week, when the leitmotif of this contest was Oprah’s Book Club. Yes, indeed, my wax wings felt a little melty when tackling that august—Augustan?—personage. Luckily for the eschatological metaphor we’re working with, the winner was Moses!

This week, we’ll concern ourselves with earthly things. It was a hot summer when I read every tell-all autobiography ever written by a New York Yankee. And while some of the more recondite aspects of Mickey Mantle’s beaver-shooting technique passed over the head of my ten-year-old self, my fondness for sports books—and their attendant vulgarity—has never waned. Below are details from the covers of four quite informative books, each about a different sport. What are they? E-mail us with your answers: the author of the first fully correct response will win a 2009 New Yorker desk diary whose utility is being measured out in fewer and fewer coffee spoons.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Erdrich, Pearl, Mosley and Patchett dominate my April reading

46. The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks. Fiction, 4-2, pp. 257
47. Child 44, Tom Rob Smith. Fiction, 4-6, pp. 436
48. The Red Convertible, Louise Erdrich. Stories, 4-7, pp. 494
49. Steer Toward Rock, Fae Myenne Ng. Fiction, 4-8, pp. 255
50. A Cool Head, Ian Rankin. Fiction, 4-9, pp. 107
51. Franklin and Winston, Jon Meacham. Biography, 4-10, pp. 370
52. The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett. Fiction, 4-12, pp. 336
53. The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl. Fiction, 4-15, pp. 383
54. The Long Fall, Walter Mosley. Mystery, 4-16, pp. 306

Here's my reading list for the first half of April. First, the books I thought exceptional: Louise Erdrich's short story collection, The Red Convertible; Ann Patchett's first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars; the newest biblio-mystery from Matthew Pearl, The Last Dickens; and The Long Fall by Walter Mosley.

Erdrich is an accomplished writer in a variety of genres, principally the novel and poetry. Her short fiction has been largely overlooked, but, I think, no longer, for in story after story in this impressive collection the reader cannot help but acknowledge her skill with the short form. The Red Convertible also provides valuable insight into Erdrich's technique as a writer for much of this material was later worked and re-worked into her novels.

The Patron Saint of Liars is Patchett's first book; many notable books, including Bel Canto, followed. It's an impressive debut and an exceptional book.

Matthew Pearl's literary career is founded on the biblio-mystery. First, Dante and then Poe and now Charles Dickens. Pearl hits his stride with The Last Dickens, which focuses on the possibility that Dickens actually completed the missing final half of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The Long Fall is a departure for Mosley. It is set in New York not L.A. and introduces a new character, private eye, Leonid McGill. It's fresh and captivating and Mosley's best work in years.

Also worth reading: A Cool Head by Ian Rankin. Part of the Quick Reads series on offer in the U.K. it is a quick, but enjoyable for all that. I also liked Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, the story of a community rocked by a devastating school bus crash. It wasn't great, but it was good.

I was greatly disappointed in Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. Much is being made of this tale of a serial killer in Stalin's Russia. I don't understand why. The killer and the motives behind his acts are preposterous and the chain of events that lead to his discovery improbable. Coincidence is the writer's best friend.

Steer Toward Rock by Fae Myenne Ng received much critical acclaim. I kept thinking I should like it more than I did. It is well written, but I found it opaque. I hate to put anyone else off this book. I do believe it will find its audience; just not me.

Only one work of non-fiction: Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham is an account of the friendship between FDR and Churchill. It's not great -- Meacham's recent biography of Andrew Jackson is better -- but it is solid work and well worth reading.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My five (5) most memorable fictional characters

My oldest son recently posted his five favorite fictional characters on Facebook. There is only one character I was familiar with: Marc Remillard, a recurring character in two extraordinary series – the Saga of Pliocene Exile and the Galactic Milieu – by Julian May. I respect my son's selections, but if I had to choose a character from May's work I would have favored Jack the Bodiless (Marc's incorporeal brother), their endearing Uncle Rogi or even Atoning Unifex, a later manifestation of the aforementioned Marc Remillard.

All that said (and it is quite a lot) no characters from May’s work make my top five favorite fictional characters. And here, I must engage in a quick internal debate: Favorite seems inappropriate. Memorable would be my choice of words. What characters do I most remember? What characters do I recall with fondness or admiration or good humor?

I list five. I will not be so willful as to suggest that I can only summon four or must put forth six. Five he lists. And I will do the same.

1. Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. The book is transformed upon Sam's appearance. The book is a tad staid, rather slow, and then Sam Weller bursts upon the reader’s sensibilities and The Pickwick Papers becomes a delight. Sam is the first of Dickens' vivid "minor" characters. He is the model for those that follow.

2. Antonia Shimerda from My Antonia by Willa Cather. My Antonia is a book that I return to year after year. Jim, the narrator, has a “crush” on Antonia, the independent Bohemian girl of the title. This willful girl who becomes the mother of 10 children is an archetype of the American immigrant.

3. Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are lots of favorites here. The first time I read the trilogy Strider (Aragorn) captured my imagination. Certainly, Frodo and Bilbo make a bid for most memorable. But Gollum with his link to the ring – both psychic and physical – is the one character who carves a vivid arc throughout all four books.

4. Chanticleer from Walter Wangerin, Jr.'s fine two book set, The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows. Yes, a chicken. More precisely, a rooster, but Chanticleer is the archetype (there’s that word again) of the literary hero -- bold, dare I say cocky, yet blind to his own pride. Chanticleer comes to understand that he must rely on others as much as his own fighting spirit. Wangerin’s work is a Christian allegory that can be read simply as two fine fantasy novels.

5. Reggie from Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? “Sweartogod.” Regina (rhymes with vagina) Chase the most vivid character in one of the most exciting reads that has come my way in a long time. I cared about Reggie, and I’d very much like to read about her again. She is an absolute original, and a pure joy.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A short short story

Here is a link to a short story written by my daughter.

I think it's pretty darn good.

(You may need to be a member of Facebook to access it.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

38. All the Colors of Darkness, Peter Robinson.
39. The New Wolves, Rick Bass.
40. The Jewel That Was Ours, Colin Dexter.
41. Run Less Run Faster, Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss.
42. As They See ‘Em, Bruce Weber. Baseball
43. American Rust, Philipp Meyer.
44. The Messenger, Jan Burke.
45. A Partisan’s Daughter, Louis De Berniéres

The list above constitutes books that I read between March 14 and March 30.
As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber's account of umpires in major league baseball -- what it takes to get there and what it means once you are there -- is the best of the bunch. It is an insightful, provocative book on a subject that's been written about many times but never with such seriousness or sensitivity. Okay, I can't resist -- Weber hits a grand slam.

Peter Robinson's new book, All the Colors of Darkness, is exactly what we've come to expect from Robinson. That means it is a terrific read . . . vivid characters, a solid plot and a riveting narrative.

I've been a fan of Jan Burke's Irene Kelly, her tough as nails reporter, who inevitably finds herself immersed in a murder mystery each book. In The Messenger, Burke abandons Kelly for a supernatural yarn that is an absolute bust. If this is the direction Burke plans to take her writing, I'm bailing.

Both American Rust, Philipp Meyer's debut novel, and Louis De Berniéres' A Partisan’s Daughter received some critical acclaim. I didn't like either book much.

Colin Dexter's The Jewel That Was Ours is less than his best.

The New Wolves by Rick Bass is terrific. I liked this so much more than Bass' most recent book, which I found whiny.

Don't bother with Run Less, Run Faster unless you are a runner. But if you are, it is a must read.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Reading can help reduce stress

The Telegraph reports that reading -- even for as little as six minutes -- can help you relax and reduce stress. But we knew that.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Booking in the great Pacific Northwest

I haven’t done much reading in almost two weeks.

On March 19 I flew to Seattle. I had two goals. Spend a little time with my oldest son who had moved to Seattle from Austin six months ago. And drive from Seattle to Virginia with a friend’s car, cat and an assortment of her possessions.

I also hoped to do some booking. Booking is a term that should not need defined for regular readers of this blog. (Both of you.) However, for someone that merely wanders onto these pages booking is serious book shopping at new – preferably independent stores as opposed to chains – and used bookstores. It is shopping with a purpose.

I didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped. Driving coast to coast in five days doesn’t allow for much extracurricular activity.

Before departing Seattle I had a wonderful visit with Claudia Skelton and her friend Ann. (Sadly, I don’t think I ever learned Ann’s last name.) Claudia, like me, is a member of the bibliophile list serve. She also works part-time in an elegant Seattle book shop and is an avid reader and collector. When she learned I was going to be in Seattle, she said let’s have coffee.

We did. I hadn’t met Claudia before, but when we sat down and started talking books it was like we were old friends. It was a wide ranging discussion about reading, collecting, bookstores and book people. (I talked about how I read so many books, but really I don’t think it’s that many. Claudia talked about her preference for non-fiction over fiction. Ann is a Jane Austin aficionado.)

Later, Claudia walked me down the street to Wessel and Lieberman, where she works part time. This is my idea of bookstore. Neat. Well lit. A knowledgeable staff. Brick walls and wood floors. It has a broad selection of books with a bit of an emphasis on book arts and fine art as well as the Pacific Northwest. The literature section is smallish, but consists of well-chosen, clean, bright books. I came away with two items; one an especially lovely piece.

From Wessel and Lieberman it’s less than a block to the Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s premiere independent bookstore. Again brick walls and wood floors and books in room after room after room. I bought two books here.

While in Seattle I also visited the Seattle Book Center and Magus Books. The Seattle Book Center’s fiction section was disappointing, but its history section – especially the Civil War titles – was impressive. Here’s what I liked. It was about closing time and I bought one $20 book (left three behind I wish I had purchased). When the owner saw I was going to pay in cash that’s all he charged me -- $20. No tax. I handed him the bill. He handed me the book. We were both happy.

Magus Books is on the edge of the University of Washington campus (and it is lovely). It’s one of those typical near-campus jumbles; a lot of tatty paperbacks and battered hard covers, esoteric titles and a small sampling of genuinely nice stuff. I bought four issues of Granta – three with material by Louise Erdrich that I had been searching for; a nice collection of short stories by Russell Banks; and a collection of non-fiction by Jim Harrison. The Harrison book was signed and, at $30, I felt it was a bargain.

That was all my booking in Seattle. I had hoped to visit Ed Smith on Bainbridge Island, but it didn’t work out. Fortunately, since my son now lives in the area – and other visits are planned – I have reasonable expectations of seeing Ed in the coming months.

On my drive East I stopped in at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane. It’s located in a lovely old building near downtown. Most of the books (and there are a lot of them) are found on the sprawling ground floor, but there are more books on a second level. One thing I especially liked about Auntie’s is that a number of titles that were issued in 2008 were still on the shelves. Borders and Barnes & Noble are inclined to remove books in short order, but in Auntie’s I found first editions of Child 44 and A Partisan’s Daughter.

I also stopped briefly in a jumbled used bookstore in Sheridan, Wyoming. I found a fine first edition of Joseph Kanon’s The Good German. Even better, I found a first edition of former Cubbie Ron Santo’s For the Love of Ivy.

That was it. I had hoped to stop in Denver, but the snow was coming in and I thought it prudent to continue down the road. I also had no opportunity to stop in my favorite used bookstore in Kansas, The Dusty Bookshelf. There are two – one in Manhattan and one in Lawrence. I frequent the one in Lawrence.

The trip lasted nine days; five of those on the road. I traveled through 13 states and logged more than 3,400 miles.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

You can read an interview with Michael Connelly on his new book, The Scarecrow, here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

British Library mislays books

Now this is a great story. The Guardian reports that the British Library has misplaced 9,000 books. The library does not believe the books are stolen, just mislaid. I understand the problem. It's difficult to keep track of everything whether you have 3,200 books (me) or more than 150 million (the British Library). However, I do know exactly where my missing copy of David Halberstam's sports writing can be found. It fell behind a bookcase months ago, and I don't know how I will ever retrieve it. It would be simpler to buy another copy.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Catching Up With My Reading List, Part II

Here's my reading so far in March:

31. Agincourt. Bernard Cornwell. Fiction

32. The Flood, Ian Rankin, Fiction

33. Dead Souls, Ian Rankin. Thriller

34. Crossing Open Ground, Barry Lopez. Essays/Nature

35. The Falls, Ian Rankin. Thriller

36. Dreaming Up America, Russell Banks. Non-Fiction

37. Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon. Fiction

Again, there are some patterns, including three books by Ian Rankin. The Flood is Rankin's first book, and reads as such. Dead Souls and The Falls feature Inspector Rebus. I do like these books. The characters are extremely well defined and the narrative is riveting.

I've become a Bernard Cornwell fan. I am impressed at how (seemingly) effortlessly and seamlessly he weaves hard fact into an engaging narrative. His characters are lightly drawn, but entertaining. Some of the minor characters are quite vivid. It's the setting and the sense of history that are palpable and the narrative rolls along in the most entertaining fashion.

Lopez' essays on nature are finely written and insightful. Banks ruminations on America less so.

Wonder Boys is an entertaining early novel by Michael Chabon. You can almost see him mastering his craft in this wild, slapstick novel with its undertones of Richard Brautigan. I liked it.

I didn't add it to my reading list, and maybe I should have, but I also finished Book 3 of The New Avengers, a hardbound compilation from Marvel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Catching up with my reading list

Here it is 11 days in to March and I realized that I have not posted, since early February, on the books I've been reading. And I've been reading a lot, which is part of the reason I have been remiss in my duties as a blogger. I've also failed to post because my two sons have me playing games on the computer, and I have been distracted by episode two of Half Life 2.

So, I will attempt to correct my oversight today and tomorrow. Today, February's book. Tomorrow, those I have read so far in March.


16. The Outlander, Gil Adamson. Fiction

17. Frontier Medicine, David Dary. History

18. Darkness, Take My Hand, Dennis Lehane. Thriller

19. Prayers for Rain, Dennis Lehane. Thriller

20. Dark Banquet, Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, Bill Schutt. Natural Science

21. Cost, Roxana Robinson. Fiction

22. The Family Trade, Book One of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction

23. The Hidden Family, Book two of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction

24. Clapton, Eric Clapton. Biography/Blues

25. The Clan Corporate, Book three of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction

26. The Merchants’ War, Book four of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction

27. Somewhere Towards The End, Diana Athill. Memoir

28. John Tyler, Gary May. Biography

29. The Women, T.C. Boyle. Fiction

30. Herbert Hoover, William E. Leuchtenburg. Biography

As you can see, there's something of a pattern. Early in the month I pulled together a couple of early works of Dennis Lehane and toward the end I read four books by the always inventive Charles Stross. Grouping books like that seems to work well. The Stross books, for example, are all part of his Merchants Princes series and after finishing one book I can jump immediately to the next.

I enjoy Lehane's early works and am disappointed that he has ceased to write about the team of Genaro and Kenzie. Stross' Merchant Princes series isn't his best work, but it is still better than most. I find that I'm not reading much science fiction these days, but I will always make time for Charlie Stross and Robert Sawyer.

I highly recommend Gil Adamson's debut novel, The Outlander. I blogged about it in February so I won't say more now. I did not much care for Roxana Robinson's Cost, the story of a New England family coping with a son's heroin addiction. The mother is so desperately, densely hopeful that I found her unsympathetic. Her denial seems palpably unreal. (Although my wife, who worked with addicts for more than eight years says that this level of denial really exists among family members.)

Along with The Outlander, the other fictional standout was T.C. Boyle's The Women. I liked it a lot, and believe this is his finest effort since Drop City. It is eminently readable, and you can always improve your vocabulary by reading Mr. Boyle. I compiled a list of unfamiliar words while reading The Women, which I've since misplaced. If it surfaces (and it is likely to do so), I'll share it here.

Non-fiction was a mixed bag. I am normally a fan of the histories of David Dary, but not this time. Take a pass on Frontier Medicine. I'd say the same about Dark Banquet, Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures by Bill Schutt. It is mildly interesting, but not as good as I thought it could have been.

Clapton's self-titled biography is an interesting read. I don't normally go in for celebrity bios, but was interested in Clapton because of his ties to the blues.

Three works I think are not to be missed: Diana Athill's fine memoir Somewhere Towards The End, and two new offerings from Times Books' American Presidents Series, John Tyler by Gary May and Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg. Athill's memoir is tender and illuminating. The Presidential biographies insightful and informative.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Fantastic Four meet Wonder Boys

Well, three of the Fantastic Four actually.

From Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys:
" . . . we sat parked . . . and waiting for my third wife, Emily, to emerge from the lobby of the Baxter Building, where she worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency. Richards, Reed & Associate's . . . I saw Emily's secretary come through the revolving door and shake open her umbrella, and then her friends Susan and Ben . . . "
For those whose cultural references don't include Marvel Comics. Reed Richards is Mr. Fantastic, the brains of the Fantastic Four. He is married to the Invisible Girl, Susan Richards, formerly Sue Storm, and their best friend is Ben Grimm, the Thing. The only one missing from this super-powered quartet is Johnny Storm, Sue's little brother. Johnny is, of course, the Human Torch.

Oh, yeah, the Fantastic Four live in the upper floors of the Baxter Building.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Book news surfaces on Times' sports pages

Two book-related stories appear today on the sports pages of The New York Times.

The first concerns author Pat Conroy and his reconciliation with The Citadel. Times reporter Charles McGrath writes: "The Citadel’s most famous alumnus is not an athlete, or even a general, but a novelist, Pat Conroy, class of ’67, who dared to write about the place and made himself so unpopular that for 30 years he was all but barred from the campus. Last week, though, he was on hand to see his former team thump Furman, its archrival, 75-54."

The second story concerns inaccuracies in a baseball memoir written by former minor league pitcher Matt McCarthy.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

O'Neill's Netherland wins 2009 PEN/Faulkner

The following release was issued today by PEN/Faulkner:

Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland (Pantheon Books) has been selected as the winner of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The announcement is being made today by the directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, Susan Richards Shreve and Robert Stone, Co-Chairmen.

Four Finalists were also named. They are Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum for Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Harcourt); Susan Choi for A Person of Interest (Viking); Richard Price for Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Ron Rash for Serena (Ecco).

The JudgesLee K. Abbott, Randall Kenan, and Antonya Nelson—considered close to 350 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2008 calendar year. Submissions came from over 70 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. There is no fee for a publisher to submit a book.

“Our choices were of a vast and robust variety,” writes PEN/Faulkner Judge, Antonya Nelson. “The historical novel is alive and well. The short story collection is alive and well. The crossover/transcending-genre novel is alive and well. The political novel is alive and well. Men and women, writing like geniuses, all alive and well.”

About the Award
Founded in 1980, the PEN/Faulkner Award is the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States. As winner, O’Neill receives $15,000. Each of the four finalists receives $5,000.

In a ceremony that celebrates the winner as “first among equals,” all five authors will be honored during the 29th annual PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony on Saturday, May 9 at 7 pm at Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are $100, and include the award ceremony followed by a buffet dinner. They can be purchased by phoning the Folger Box Office at (202) 544-7077 or online at

About the Winner
Praised for its richly accomplished prose and articulate portraits of characters in New York, Netherland is a novel which also examines the varying moods of its protagonist’s interior life—and passion for playing cricket. Hans van der Broek, the Dutch-born narrator of O’Neill’s meditative narrative, is dislodged along with his wife Rachel and young son Jake, from their downtown Manhattan apartment in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The family who had moved to New York from London becomes temporary residents of the Chelsea Hotel, one among a series of fantastically colorful, off-kilter locales in the book. Fearing another imminent calamity and disillusioned with her marriage, Rachel returns to London with their son, leaving “a city gone mad” and a husband dazed with grief. “Life itself had become disembodied. My family, the spine of my days, had crumbled. I was lost in invertebrate time.” Hans’s life in the aftermath is lived within convention (he is an equities analyst for a large merchant bank) but also as a seemingly destinationless journey, accompanied often by his fellow cricket enthusiast and companion Chuck Ramkissoon.

A Trinidadian immigrant of boundless enthusiasm, Chuck is an enterprising businessman whose endeavors include illegal gambling/gaming. Beautifully rendered scenes describe the game of cricket and its community of players, largely West Indian and Asian. As an émigré who grew up playing cricket in the Hague, Hans is welcomed into this community devoted to the sport, its ethics, and the conviction of cricket’s rightful place as an original American sport. But in as much as this novel explores the immigrant’s possibility of grasping an American dream—Chuck’s beloved project is to transform the fallow Floyd Bennett Field airport grounds into a world-class cricket arena dubbed “Bald Eagle Field”—it also opens with the discovery of Ramkissoon’s corpse floating in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. In resonant prose, Netherland explores time, memory, separation and reunion.

“The thing that struck me so deeply about Netherland,” writes PEN/Faulkner Judge, Randall Kenan, “is how much it is about the new and continuing immigrant story, about New Americans and the making of new American traditions, which has always been New York’s function in the world. O’Neill has created a powerfully entertaining novel, but also a new emblem for our time.”

Joseph O’Neill is the author of two previous novels, This Is the Life, and The Breezes, as well as the family history, Blood-Dark Track, which was a New York Times Notable book. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and lives in New York City with his family.

About the Finalists

Ms. Hempel Chronicles is a novel-in-stories by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, whose first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was a National Book Award finalist. The eight gem-like chapters of this novel combine to illuminate the story of Beatrice Hempel, a young seventh grade teacher, engaged to be married and new both to teaching and to her school. Vivid scenes of Ms. Hempel’s students capture their passionate idiosyncrasies, while the universal dramas and foibles of early adolescence are rendered with humor and empathy. Interspersed within the storyline are chapters in flashback to Beatrice’s own childhood and family relationships. Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Heller McAlpin notes, “Bynum’s Ms Hempel Chronicles is not only…about a young 7th-grade teacher navigating the final passage to her own adulthood even as she ushers her students through the tricky narrows of adolescence; it is also a testament to how hard—and important—the work of teaching is.” Director of the writing program at the University of California, San Diego, Ms. Bynum lives in Los Angeles with her family.

In A Person of Interest, Susan Choi has created a protagonist as absorbing as he is unlikely within a plot that is pulsed with the nervy speed of a mystery, and the leisurely unfolding of interior psychological drama. Professor Lee is a cynical and reclusive math professor in a quiet Midwestern university. The novel opens as a bomb explodes in the office next door. The packaged bomb sent by mail kills Lee’s much younger, talented colleague, Dr. Hendley, a brilliant computer scientist. Choi’s earlier, second novel, American Woman, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, took as its subject the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. A Person of Interest draws loosely upon account of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, though only as a jumping off point. The tense story which develops here involves the F.B.I.’s progressive investigation of Lee as a person of interest. Yet if mystery compels readers forward, it is the story of Lee and his domestic ruins portrayed in Choi’s flawless writing that mesmerizes us. “Choi’s readers may find themselves considering the odd happiness with which they look forward to spending hundreds of pages in the company of this cranky old man. Lonely, alcoholic, slovenly,” writes Francine Prose for the New York Times. Recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Susan Choi lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.

Preoccupations with place and time feature prominently in Lush Life the eighth book by novelist and screen writer Richard Price. This is contemporary New York City as well, but the Lower East Side, a district Price delineates in the midst of cultural transition and monitored by the “quality of life squads” charged with guarding urban development while policing the poor and immigrant residents who’ve lived there for generations. Yet there is “one sort of room at the city’s very core,” writes Walter Kirn, in his March 2008 review, that “resists much gentrification of the soul, let alone beautification of the hair.” The tension between old and new, surface transformation and the inevitability of stasis undergird Price’s masterfully realized literary noir novel. Its protagonist, Eric Cash, is heir to this neighborhood and its newer, improved architecture. An aspiring writer and actor, he supports himself by day as a restaurant manager. One night, Eric, his boss, and a friend are held up at gunpoint. His boss mouths off and is shot, launching the novel’s complex story of investigation, social scrutiny, and meticulous interior examination. Kirn calls Price a “consummate stalker-realist who seems to have written the book from stoops and doorways.”

A Finalist for the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award with his collection, Chemistry and Other Stories, Ron Rash is honored for a second year in a row for Serena, his fourth novel. A scathing critique of the Depression era logging industry in North Carolina, Serena tells the story of its ruthless heroine Serena Pemberton and her husband George, timber barons who strip the land and its inhabitants with rogue ambition. A woman of near epic strength, Serena rides an Arabian stallion, trains a bald eagle, and ruins the lives of anyone who interferes with the advancement of the Pemberton timber empire. The violent conflict between Serena, the illegitimate son her husband earlier fathered, and the child’s mother serves as a focal metaphor for the novel’s larger explorations of violence, passion, and greed. Rash is the winner of numerous honors, including the Novello Literary Award, the Appalachian Book of the Year Award, and the Southern Book Award. He is currently the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University

About these five remarkable books, Judge Lee K. Abbott writes, “I am struck by the fact that these books are as much about their language as they are about their events. I am heartened by style unique to tale. With some writers—too many, I fear—you can always see them at the keyboard, their presence standing between me as a reader and story. With O’Neill, Bynum, Choi, Price, and Rash, what is foregrounded is the yarn itself and the language necessary to it. I found all these books to be rousting, suspenseful and moving.”

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation is committed to building audiences for exceptional literature and bringing writers together with their readers. This mission is accomplished through a reading series at the Folger Shakespeare Library by distinguished writers who have won the respect of readers and writers alike; the PEN/Faulkner Award, the largest peer-juried award for fiction in the United States; the PEN/Malamud Award, honoring excellence in the short story; and the Writers in Schools program, which brings nationally and internationally-acclaimed authors to public high school classrooms in Washington, DC, Atlanta, and in Kansas City.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Film verison of Life of Pi proposed; Tolkien work to be published

Film director Ang Lee is in talks to produce a film version of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, according to Variety . . . Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has acquired the rights to an unpublished work written by J.R.R. Tolkien and has plans to release it on May 5, Publisher's Weekly reports. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was written when Tolkien was a professor at Oxford in the '20s and '30s. It's an English retelling in narrative verse of some epic Norse tales . . . HarperCollins said in a release that it had acquired a biography of John Updike, to be written by Adam Begley, the books editor of The New York Observer.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Outlander a powerful and promising debut by Canadian author

16. The Outlander, Gil Adamson. Fiction, completed 2-4, p. 389

There are books that set you up for disappointment.

The writing is graceful, yet muscular, the characters are vivid and the narrative springs to life with a propulsive rhythm that makes reading joyful and as effortless as sliding across an icy pond. Yet, the ending rings hollow, as disappointing as socks for Christmas.

The Outlander, Gil Adamson's debut novel, is not one of those books. The writing, the characters and the narrative are all as described above. But the ending, the ending is a wonder. It's wholly unexpected yet fitting; delivering on the expectations promised in the novel’s opening pages.

A tale of a Canadian woman fleeing two implacable pursuers, The Outlander calls to mind Cold Mountain or Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. It is a powerful and promising debut.