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 BerniĆ©res

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 BerniĆ©res' 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.