Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Say Hey Kid & Book Signings (Separate Topics)

The best thing that biographer James S. Hirsch has going for him in Willie Mays The Life, The Legend is . . . Willie Mays, the Birmingham kid who walked timidly onto the Polo Grounds only months after graduating high school and strolled boldly into the Hall of Fame more than two decades later.

Mays, the Say Hey Kid, who played baseball as we have seldom see the game played. He brought to the game an intensity and an intelligence and all encompassing skill that has earned him a place in that argument baseball fans love to have about who was the games greatest player.

Ruth? DiMaggio? Musial? Mantle? Aaron? Mays?

Maybe. If not the greatest, certainly one of the greatest. And Hirsch's biography, written with Mays' approval, makes a strong case for the long-time Giant. Hirsch emphasizes that Mays was a five-tool player -- he could hit for average, hit for power and run, catch and throw. And certainly, at times, do all those things with a flair that no one had seen before.

More importantly, Hirsch writes, "The 'five-tool' designation understates his skills by ignoring his intelligence, preparation, and guile. Mays was always better than the box score."

Mays brought a joy to the game. Hirsch captures that joy, and more. Any great biography of a baseball player must do many things. It must establish the player's "place" in the game. It must establish the game at the time the player played within the context of society. And it must be laced with lively anecdotes from this greatest of sports.

Hirsch does all those things. A bit of a "five-tool" performance from the author of Willie Mays The Life, The Legend.

I haven't had the opportunity to have many books signed in 2010, but March has been an exception.

Peter Matthiessen was the National Geographic this week. He gave an impassioned speech about the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and signed three books for me, including his prize-winning Shadow Country.

Elizabeth Strout signed her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge last night and Colum McCann signed his National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin. Both appeared at Virginia's Festival of the Book.

Chang-rae Lee was at Politics & Prose early this month. He signed The Surrendered (which I am reading now).

And let's see, Helen Simonson signed her terrific Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, William Ferris signed his first book Blues From the Delta, David Corbett's Do They Know I'm Running came in the mail as did Blackout by Connie Willis and Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler and Jim Harrison's Warlock and a signed copy of the 20th anniversary of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is on its way.

Yeah, it was a good month.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Blues Is A Deep Study

The blues, says author and scholar William Ferris, is a deep study.

Ferris brought some of that "deep study" to Charlottesville, Virginia, today in an hour-long presentation that was part of the annual Festival of the Book.

Ferris, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, spoke before a crowd of about 60 people at the Southern Cafe and Music Hall, a below-street-level venue just around the corner from Charlottesville's historic downtown. Ferris talked about his new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease, before tracing his journey through the South in a captivating talk accompanied by a powerful series of black and white photographs that he had taken.

James "Son Ford" Thomas first characterized the blues as a deep study. Ferris that Thomas, a black blues musician that he views as his guru, said, "Women is what gives me the blues." Ferris said the blues often deals with pain, especially lost love.

"The central theme of the music is solace," he said. "Not just to the musicians, but to all of us."

Ferris said his first book, Blues From the Delta, was a scholarly approach to the blues. It was a white man's approach to black music. In Give My Poor Heart Ease Ferris decided that he wanted the voices of the people he had met on his travels through the South to be heard.

People, he said, are living libraries.

The value of Ferris' work is two-fold. He has preserved the voices of the people he met in his research. Those voices can be heard, not only in his book, but literally in the DVD and CD that are included with it. Ferris noted that except for blues legend B.B. King all of the people featured in Give My Poor Heart Ease are now dead.

The second value of his work is that Ferris helps us to understand that the blues are a part of the fabric of the land and of the people from which it comes. He said the blues are a music of freedom.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Simonson's Grand Last Stand

An utterly charming comedy of manners, Helen Simonson's accomplished debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, recalls no one so much as fellow Brit Jane Austen.

The novel is a warm, wise and witty look at a beleaguered couple, courting in that staid and stately British manner, despite the disapproval of family and friends, who are smugly confident in their judgments.

The Major Pettigrew of the title is a widower living in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary. The Major doesn't realize how lonely he is until Mrs. Ali comes knocking at his door, collecting for the newspaper, as the novel opens.

The success of a comedy of manner lies in its ability to turn convention on its head. Simonson does this with the skill of an experienced novelist. And it is surprising how much material she has to work with: There's not only small-minded family members and snooty villagers, but the local aristocracy who is scheming with an American to subdivide his estate and grasping children who mistake text messages for genuine communication in affairs of the heart.

Neither the Major nor Mrs. Ali are quite what we'd expect. In his late sixties, the Major believes in his gun and golf, duty and decorum, but he's no stuffed shirt. He's a sensitive and observant man who truly wants to do what's right. Mrs. Ali is a shopkeeper of Pakistani origin and that's two strikes against her as far as Pettigrew's family and friends are concerned.

Here is a wonderful passage:

"Now, Mrs. Ali, we were wondering whether we could prevail on you to attend the dance."

"Well, I don't know," said Mrs. Ali. A sudden, shy pleasure lit her face."

"My aunt will not engage in public dancing," said Abdul Wahid. The Major could tell that his voice bubbled with rage, but Daisy only peered at him with condescension suitable for shop assistants who might unwittingly forget their manners.

"We were not expecting her to dance," she said.

"We wanted kind of a welcoming goddess, station in the niche where we keep the hat stand," said Alma. "And Mrs. Ali is so quintessentially Indian, or at least quintessentially Pakistani, in the best sense."

"Actually, I'm from Cambridge," said Mrs. Ali, in a mild voice. "The municipal hospital, ward three. Never been further abroad than the Isle of Wight."

"But no one would know that," said Alma.
If everyone in this novel doesn't live happily ever after, at least the people we care most about are off to a promising start as the book closes. Major Pettigrew does indeed make a last stand and, like all heroic Brits, he wins the day.

As does the reader of this absolutely engaging first novel.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Is The Blue Horse the future of publishing?

Do I have the future of book publishing lying near me on my dining room table?

The book is The Blue Horse by Rick Bass. Its a thin paperback book of 50 pages. The novella by the Montana writer was originally "published" on-line last year by Narrative Magazine, which exists entirely on the Internet.

Narrative later issued The Blue Horse in paperback. To my knowledge, it is only available for purchase via the Narrative website. On the back of the book, Narrative indicates that the book "is the first of a series of new Rick Bass novellas to be published by Narrative Library."

It would make sense that The Blue Horse is a model for future books. The on-line venue offers the opportunity to attract new readers, while testing a writer's strength with existing markets. Sufficient on-line interest would figure in the decision to publish a physical book and, because orders are only filled on-line, there would be no need for a huge print run, storage or distribution.

The book design is attractive and the printed product itself highly professional. The story shows Bass at his best: scenes of hunting, vivid descriptions of nature and an undercurrent of tension between the characters that leads to a surprising, yet satisfying, conclusion.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March reading

Three books read to this point in March: Rebel Yell by Alice Randall, The Possessed by Elif Batuman and The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell. And I'll confess that Cornwell's yarn is my favorite.

The Burning Land is the fifth book in Cornwell's Saxon series. Think of Robert E. Howard's Conan books only with impeccable historical research, superb pacing and unrivaled story-telling ability. Cornwell is the foremost practitioner of the historical novel, assuming the mantle from the late Patrick O'Brian.

The Saxon series features Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a fearless fighter and brilliant tactician. Uhtred straddles two worlds. He identifies closely with the Danes, brave pagan warriors, yet he is a reluctant tool of the Christian king, Alfred of Wessex.

Like Uhtred, Cornwell's novels straddle two worlds -- they are literate works that manage to be hugely entertaining.

How I wish Rebel Yell had contained even some of that entertainment value found in The Burning Land. I wanted to like this book. I didn't. At times, the writing had an annoying staccato feel to it and the book seems to have been written in code.

The book is the story of Abel Jones Jr. When we first meet Abel, he is a child, in a car with his mother and father, en route to the funeral of one of the young girls murdered in the infamous Birmingham church bombing. Pages later, in his second appearance, Abel is an adult, married to a white woman, dining and then dying in the Rebel Yell, a dinner theater reenacting Confederate battles.

Through reminiscences by Abel's first wife and a few friends, we review Abel's life as he progresses from the child of a black civil rights activist in Memphis to a spy for the CIA to minor figure in the Pentagon, where he has a hand in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Rebel Yell falls far short of its promise as a novel that will illuminate the fears and desires and hopes of black Americans growing up in the Civil Rights era.

The Possessed is subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them."

I've been in Russian twice; once for three weeks and a second time for two weeks. Each time, prior to my departure, I read works of Russian literature -- Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol. That gives me some grounding for understanding The Possessed, but only a little.

Batuman was a graduate student studying Russian literature. Her understanding of these works is profoundly deeper than mine. The result is that, at times, I am somewhat at sea when reading The Possessed. But only sometimes, because what makes this book so entertaining is Batuman's great eye for detail and her inherent sense of the comic. These qualities drive the success of The Possessed and guarantee that Batuman's writing career will be long and profitable.

And the cover illustration by Roz Chast is worth the price of admission alone.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

February Reading List

10. The Hidden Man, David Ellis
11. Gutshot Straight, Lou Berney

12. Give My Poor Heart Ease, Voices of the Mississippi Blues, William Ferris

13. The Godfather of Kathmandu, John Burdett

14. Food Rules, Michael Pollan

15. A Quiet Belief in Angels, R.J. Ellory

16. Doors Open, Ian Rankin

17. The Mexican Tree Duck, James Crumley

18. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

19. After the Sundown, Pat Jordan

20. The Price of Love and Other Stories, Peter Robinson

21. The Farmer’s Daughter, Jim Harrison

22. To Hell on a Fast Horse, Mark Lee Gardner

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Pulitzer, National Book Award winners meet in Charlottesville

There's a rare and exciting opportunity later this month in Charlottesville to see the 2009 winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award together on the same stage.

Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, and Elizabeth Strout, winner of the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, will appear together Saturday, March 20, at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

McCann and Strout will be joined by Lee Smith, author of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, and E. Ethelbert Miller, author of The Fifth Inning, to present a program on American Accents: An Evening with Four Distinguished Authors. The program is at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville.

The books by both McCann and Strout are terrific. While literary awards are not always indications of excellence, these two books are among the very best written in recent years.

Organizers of the Virginia Festival of the Book are to be commended for putting together an exceptional program. Take a look at the festival's website. If you're a reader, and you live nearby, you will find something -- perhaps many things -- of interest.