Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Recent Acquisition: Five Science Fiction Novels

Here's a book I acquired over the weekend: Five Science Fiction Novels. Edited by Martin Greenberg, it was published by Gnome Press, New York, in 1952. It contains the following stories:

  • The Chronicler, A.E. van Vogt
  • Destiny Times Three, Fritz Leiber
  • The Crucible of Power, Jack Williamson
  • But Without Horns, Norvell W. Page
  • Crisis in Utopia, Norman L. Knight

Book recommendation: The Two Minute Rule

18. The Two Minute Rule, Robert Crais, Thriller, 2-26

Robert Crais fans may experience at twinge of disappointment upon first diving into his new book, The Two Minute Rule. Disappointment because Crais’ ace detective Elvis Cole is nowhere to be found. The Two Minute Rule is a one off, featuring a new cast of characters that include a reformed ex-con and a former FBI agent.

The two-minute rule dictates that bank robbers must be in and out of a bank in two minutes or risk arrest. Or worse. In the book’s prologue, two violent amateurs, Marchenko and Parsons, violate the two-minute rule and, as a result, are killed by cops in a wild shoot-out as they leave the bank.

Years before, Max Holman also violated the two-minute rule. Holman wasn’t an amateur like Marchenko and Parsons. Instead, he stays too long because in the course of the bank robbery an elderly man has a heart attack. Holman stops to administer CPR. Holman is sent to prison for 10 years, leaving behind a bitter young son.

On the day that he is to be discharged from federal custody, Holman, is informed that his son, now a cop, has been brutally murdered. Holman is determined to learn who killed his son and three other cops. As his investigation proceeds, Holman learns that his son, and the other dead cops, may have been after $16 million in loot that Marchenko and Parsons had hidden before their death.

Suddenly, finding his son’s killer is less important than answering a larger question: Was his son a dirty cop? Holman enlists the FBI agent who arrested him to find his son’s killer and the missing money. The agent, Katherine Pollard, has left the “FEEB” and is now a struggling single mom.

The Two Minute Rule is vintage Crais. It’s a fast-paced ride with a satisfying twist to keep the reader guessing.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Death claims Busch, Butler

Authors Frederick Busch and Octavia E. Butler died this past week.

Butler, the first black woman to gain national prominence as a science fiction writer, died after falling and striking her head on the cobbled walkway outside her home in Seattle. She was 58.

Butler was found outside her home in the north Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park after the accident Friday, and died the same day. She had suffered from high blood pressure and heart trouble and could only take a few steps without stopping for breath.

Butler’s first novel, Kindred, came out in 1979. It concerned a black woman who travels back in time to the South to save a white man. She went on to write about a dozen books, plus numerous essays and short stories. Her most recent work, Fledgling, a reinterpretation of the Dracula legend, was published last fall.

She won numerous awards, and in 1995 became the first science fiction writer granted a "genius" award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which paid $295,000 over five years. She served on the board of the Science Fiction Museum.

Busch, died Thursday at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. He was 64. His son Benjamin said the cause was a heart attack he suffered in a hotel room where he and his wife, Judith, were staying during a visit to New York. Their home is in Sherburne, N.Y.

Busch wrote 27 books, with another scheduled for publication this October. Among his many prizes were the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award in 1986, and the PEN/Malamud Award in 1991.

His first novel, I Wanted a Year Without Fall, chronicled the misadventures of two young men fleeing troubled pasts. It was published it in 1971.

Among is many books, three that the author particularly liked, according to his wife, were The Night Inspector, A Memory of War and Girls: A Novel.

I especially recommend The Night Inspector, Girls and his final novel, North.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Into the Reading Process: Book Piles

The books I intend to read, or think I might read, are distributed into four piles.

The first pile is small, it consists of the books I am currently reading. It is composed of two to three books. There is always a novel and a non-fiction work, which are occasionally supplemented with a collection of short stories. It may take a month to six weeks to finish the short stories because I only read them, a couple of stories at a time, between novels.

The second pile—books to be read immediately—is made up of two stacks of about five books each. One stack is fiction. The other non-fiction. When all the fiction has been read I start a new stack. I do the same with non-fiction. These short stacks are made up of both current releases and older books. For example, the current stack of fiction was comprised of George Pelecanos’ The Big Blowdown, The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais, The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell, T. Jefferson Parker’s California Girl, The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, Louise Erdrich’s Tracks and The Music of Chance written by Paul Auster in 1990.

Actually, The Two Minute Rule was not part of the original stack, but when it arrived, late this week, it went to the top of the pile. That’s what I’m reading now. The Big Blowdown and Tracks were finished this past week.

The third pile is books I’ve recently purchased. Most of these books will find their way into the second pile, those books I plan to read immediately. Some, through neglect or lack of interest, will slip into the fourth pile—books I plan to get around to reading some day.

Books in this fourth pile can be promoted immediately into pile two. Some sit on the shelf for months. Three works by Patrick O’Brian are there. Two by Amy Tan. Gordon Parks is represented. Rick Bass. T.C. Boyle, John Lawton and Richard Ford.

There’s rarely uncertainty about what I will read next. A current release will grab my attention. Certain authors always go directly to the short list—Michael Connelly, Richard Russo, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Ian Rankin. Non-fiction is usually a current release like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals or At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch. Non-fiction selections tend to be histories or biographies with the occasional memoir tossed in.

Friends will make suggestions. I almost always try to read a book if a friend asks. Such concessions always have mixed results, but for every The Time Traveler’s Wife, there is a The Zanzibar Chest.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Erdrich's Tracks Powerful Poetry In A Novel

17. Tracks, Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 2-22, pp. 226

The voice of the American Indian, written with all the power and richness that poetry can convey, inhabits this book. Tracks is Louise Erdrich’s fourth book; of the books preceding it, two were novels, the first, Jacklight, was a collection of poetry. And it is as a poet that Erdrich establishes herself as a novelist.

Both her previous novels, Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, hinted at Erdrich’s talent as a writer. In Tracks her talent—to breathe life into characters, to establish a sense of place and to create a narrative filled with subtlety and tension—emerges fully formed.

By focusing on the lives of a handful of Chippewa’s early in the 20th Century, Erdrich deftly charts the slow, but certain erosion of Indian culture. The old beliefs cannot stand before the greed and the machinery, or even the good intentions, of the white man.

Erdrich’s strength is the subtlety with which she traces the Chippewa’s loss of land, pride and sense of self. She does not preach or hector the reader. Instead, she traces the slowly disintegrating lives of people we have come to care about. Ultimately, sadly, the Chippewa betray one another, completing the work the white man started.

Tracks is a lyrical book of great pain, sadness and regret. It is a novel written by a poet who understands the old ways of the Chippewa.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Thoughts From A Friend On His Current Reading

You were quite right about Never Let Me Go -- a brilliant, haunting book, indeed. As you say, when K.I. is on, he's on.

I do recommend The Sea -- Banville's a talented writer and the book is a quick read but weighty and moving nonetheless.

I quite enjoyed A Slight Trick of The Mind despite Cullin's occasionally clunky dialogue, which perhaps owes something to the fact that he's American. Still, if you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, I recommend it.

I also recently finished The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. I find Sebald's writing (in translation) to be beautiful and moving like nothing else I've read. But he is definitely an aquired taste, and I seem to recall that Austerlitz didn't do much for you, so you'll probably want to skip this one.

Just started The Accidental, which I am enjoying very much.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Official PEN/Faulkner Press Release

Washington, DC—E.L. Doctorow’s novel The March (Random House) has been selected as the winner of the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The announcement was made today by the directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, Patricia Griffith and Robert Stone, Co-Chairmen.

The judges—George Garrett, Ana Menéndez, and Melissa Pritchard—considered more than 359 novels and short story collections by an American author published in the U.S. during the 2005 calendar year from over 90 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. There is no fee for a publisher to submit a book.

Founded in 1980, the PEN/Faulkner Award is the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States. As winner, Doctorow receives $15,000. Each of the four finalists—Karen Fisher for A Sudden Country (Random House); William Henry Lewis for I Got Somebody in Staunton (Amistad/Harper Collins); James Salter for Last Night (Knopf); and Bruce Wagner for The Chrysanthemum Palace (Simon & Schuster) —receives $5,000.

All five authors will be honored during the 26th annual PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony on Saturday, May 6, at 7 p.m.at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol Street, S.E., Washington, DC. Tickets are $100, and include the award ceremony followed by dinner and dancing. They can be purchased by phoning the Folger Box Office at (202) 544-7077 or online at www.folger.edu.

About the Winner

Praised for its elegant prose, visionary historical sweep and remarkable characterization, the honored book, E.L. Doctorow’s The March, begins after the burning of Atlanta and recounts General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march of sixty thousand Union soldiers, in 1864-65, through Georgia and the Carolinas. Doctorow recounts devastations done to the Deep South—a 60-mile-wide trail of transformed lives, landscapes, and history—as the march drives forward, accumulating freed blacks and dislocated whites. Long admired for his masterfully drawn characters, Doctorow portrays General Sherman alongside a cast of dozens of memorable men and women, black and white, caught up in what The New Yorker called “a revolution in motion.”

Winner of the 1990 PEN/Faulkner Award for Billy Bathgate, Edgar Laurence Doctorow was named after Edgar Allan Poe and credits his family’s love of music and literature to his own artistic beginnings. His other novels include City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World’s Fair, and The Waterworks. In addition to the PEN/Faulkner Award, Doctorow has also been honored with the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. Doctorow lives in New York and teaches at New York University.

About the Finalists

Hailed as a “great novel of the American West” by Publishers Weekly, Karen Fisher’s debut novel, A Sudden Country, is based on a journal written by the author’s ancestor Emma Ruth Ross Slavin, who was 11 when her family joined the 1847 Oregon migration. Exploring the intersection of two characters—James MacLaren, who has lost his children to small pox and his Nez Perce wife to another man; and Lucy Mitchell, a remarried widow and mother—the novel follows their deeply affecting encounter, as MacLaren agrees to Guide the Mitchell family from the Iowa banks of the Missouri to the Columbia River in Oregon. Fisher lives with her husband and their three children on an island in the Puget Sound.

I Got Somebody in Staunton is a collection of 10 dazzling stories set variously in Bedford-Stuyvesant; Denver; and Staunton, Virginia, all deeply concerned with the pride and pain of African-American heritage. In William Henry Lewis’s title story, a black college professor, haunted by his dying uncle Izell's memories of lynchings and the ways of the old South, flirts with danger by giving a ride to a flirtatious young white woman. A winner of The 2006 Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) Literary Awards for this collection, which was also named one of the “25 best books of 2005” by Kirkus Review, Lewis is also the author of In The Arms of Our Elders, an earlier collection.

James Salter won The PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989 for his collection Dusk and Other Stories. Admired as one of the most compelling voices in contemporary fiction, Salter’s stunning Last Night is a collection of ten provocative stories that explore situations of love, disappointment, desire, and deception, rendered in luminous prose. Salter, who lives in Colorado and on Long Island, is also the author of the novels Solo Faces, Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime, The Arm of Flesh (revised as Cassada), and The Hunters; as well as the memoirs Gods of Tin and Burning the Days.

The Chrysanthemum Palace, the newest biting satire by Los Angeles novelist Bruce Wagner, introduces three self-absorbed friends—all descendents of Hollywood stardom, Bertie Krohn, only child of Perry Krohn, creator of TV’s longest running space opera, recounts the last months in his relationship with Thad Michelet, a 50-something author, actor, and son of a revered author; and Clea Freemantle, daughter of a legendary movie star. Admired as “a millennial heir to Nathaniel West” by the New York Times, Wagner is also the author of Force Majeure; and the Cellular Trilogy: I’m Losing You; I’ll Let You Go, which was nominated for the PEN USA fiction award; and Still Holding.

About all five of these remarkable books, judge Melissa Pritchard says, “Whether writing of the civil war, the American West, Hollywood, or the subtle, plaguing wounds of eros, ignorance, fear, and desire, each of this year’s authors gives us stories quintessentially American in their mythical scope and critical to our current need to stand on more compassionate ground.”

About PEN/Faulkner

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation is committed to building audiences for exceptional literature and bringing writers together with their readers. This mission is accomplished through readings at the Folger 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, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City.


Press release issued on February 21, 2006.

Doctorow's The March wins Pen/Faulkner

The Washington Post reports today that the PEN/Faulkner Foundation will announce later today that E.L. Doctorow has won its 2006 fiction award for his novel "The March." It is the second PEN/Faulkner award for Doctorow, who won in 1990 for "Billy Bathgate."

The other finalists were:

  • William Henry Lewis for "I Got Somebody in Staunton," a story collection examining African American lives.
  • Karen Fisher for her first book, "A Sudden Country," a tale of America's 19th-century western migration.
  • Bruce Wagner for his novel "The Chrysanthemum Palace."
  • James Salter for his story collection "Last Night."

Monday, February 20, 2006

AP Story Features Lincoln Book Shop

The life of Lincoln, by the books

February 20, 2006 12:50 am


CHICAGO--About a decade ago, as she was starting to research Abraham Lincoln, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin stepped into a small bookshop she'd heard about here devoted to the nation's 16th president.

She expected a dusty little store, but what she found was practically a museum, filled with books, documents, photographs and other historical gems that for decades have been making collectors, history buffs and the nation's leading historians fans of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop.

Goodwin made several pilgrimages to the bookstore--during which she bought several dozen books that helped her write her best-selling "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

"It really stands by itself," said Goodwin, who thanks the store's owner, Daniel Weinberg, in her book and returned there in November for a book signing. "I certainly don't know of any other like it."

The store, founded in 1938, stands as a monument to a man who more than 140 years after his death continues to make headlines as scholars and others put forth theories about everything from his physical and mental health to his sexuality.

Poet Carl Sandburg, whose six-volume book on Lincoln is considered by many one of the greatest biographies ever written, was a regular visitor and even designed the store's hat and umbrella logo. "The Civil War" filmmaker Ken Burns and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas visited. Historians Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote were customers, and their work is sprinkled around the store.

"I've dropped a bundle there," said Frank Williams, sounding more like a gambler talking about a trip to Las Vegas than the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. He has been a collector of what is called "Lincolniana" since he was 11.

Along with 8,000 books (more are in storage) there are all sorts of framed documents and photographs and other memorabilia lining the walls and in display cases.

"I try to make this a museum in a way," said Weinberg, who became the business partner of shop founder Ralph Newman in 1971 and has owned the store outright since 1984.

Sharing space are the signatures of Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. There's Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. There are signatures of presidents from George Washington to Gerald Ford. There are the John Hancocks of Mark Twain, Napoleon, Patrick Henry and, of course, John Hancock.

There is what Weinberg said is the second-earliest photograph of Lincoln, taken in 1854 when he was 45 years old--a photograph that is interesting not just because it shows a clean-shaven Lincoln, but also because he is holding an anti-slavery newspaper.

"If anyone would have noticed, that would have sunk him," said Weinberg, explaining that any connection with abolitionism would have been political suicide.

The significance of some items is self-evident, like the $9,500 first edition of "Gone With The Wind," open to the page autographed by its author, Margaret Mitchell.

But across the room, a military commission signed by Lincoln promoting a Union soldier named Francis Brownell requires a little explanation.

"Lincoln signed 25,000 of these," Weinberg said, but Brownell was in the regiment of Elmer Ellsworth, whom Lincoln came to view almost as a son.

In 1861, Ellsworth led the regiment to Alexandria, where he spotted a secessionist flag flying from an inn. After Ellsworth ordered the flag cut down, he was fatally shot by the innkeeper, thus becoming the first officer killed in the Civil War, Weinberg said. Brownell then shot and killed the innkeeper, earning the nickname "Ellsworth's Avenger."

"Think of Lincoln's emotional state when he signed this," Weinberg said.

Weinberg won't come closer than "hundreds of thousands of dollars" when asked the price of the most expensive items he's sold, like a desk in the room at Appomattox Court House when Lee surrendered to Grant at the end of the Civil War.

Hanging in Weinberg's office is the one thing he said is not for sale: A letter dated Sept. 14, 1863, in which the author of the Gettysburg Address commits a memorable error.

"There was not much going on that day [and] he signed it 'A. Linclon,'" said Weinberg, pointing to a signature that's been crossed out above one in which the name is spelled correctly. "His mind got lost."

Abraham Lincoln Book Shop: alincolnbookshop.com

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Michael Connelly at 2006 National Book Festival

On his website, Michael Connelly announces he will attend the National Book Festival on September 30, 2006, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Connelly has attended the festival in the past.

Pelecanos and The Big Blowdown

16. The Big Blowdown, George Pelecanos. Thriller, 2-19, pp. 313

April, 2003. That’s when I was introduced to the novels of D.C. writer George Pelecanos. The book, his sixth, was The Sweet Forever. I read one more Pelcanos book that year, three more the next. His work has been an enduring passion since.

At the end of 2005, and into the first two months of this year, I set out to acquaint myself with Pelecanos’ early books. His first three books were entertaining, but imperfect. Many of the elements that would become his trademark were there, but those elements had not yet coalesced into a seamless whole.

That happened in his fourth book, Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go. Before that book, “I was learning to be a writer,” Pelecanos told me at a recent book signing. In Down By The River everything falls into place. His dream of becoming a writer is realized.

In his fifth book, The Big Blowdown, Pelecanos emerges as a master of his craft. The characters are vivid and fully realized, the pace is breathtaking and the atmosphere palpable—the pages reek of cigarettes, cheap booze, cheaper perfume and illicit sex. Automobiles, music and the City of Washington, D.C., always graphically drawn in Pelecanos’ writing, manifest themselves as elements vital to Pelecanos’ work.

Pelecanos ranks with Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Robert Crais as one of the leading practitioners of the thriller today.

Purity of Blood a wild, rollicking read

13. The Body Artist, Don DeLillo. Fiction, 2-14, pp. 124

14. Purity of Blood, Arturo Perez-Reverte. Fiction, 2-15, pp. 267

15. Christopher Marlowe, Poet & Spy, Park Honan. Biography, 2-19, pp. 367

I started Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe Poet & Spy on January 29 and finished it February 19. That’s an average of 16 pages a day, which is about all I could read in a single sitting. Honan’s prose is serviceable, but dense. In fairness, this biography of the 16th Century poet and playwright isn’t mean for the general public. Like his earlier work, Shakespeare A Life, it’s an academic work with a healthy helping of literary analysis. Personally, I would have preferred a Penguin Lives treatment of Kit Marlowe – a concise 120 pages; he was born only to die a quick, brutal and mysterious death, leaving behind a few extraordinary works.

Purity of Blood is the second in Perez-Reverte’s series set in Spain during the Inquisition's reign of terror and featuring Captain Alatriste, a gloomy, principled sword-for-hire. The series, which appeared in Spain years earlier, is just now appearing in America based on Perez-Reverte’s success with such books as The Club Dumas and Queen of the South. In the Alatriste series, Perez-Reverte emerges as a modern day Dumas. The books are a wild, rollicking ride. The series seems to have found an audience--the publisher, Putnam, is promising three additional books starring Alatriste in the next three years.

Don DeLillo’s Underworld was a lyrical, sometimes difficult book. The Body Artist is simply difficult. DeLillo, like Ishiguro, is extremely talented, but wildly uneven.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tom Wolfe at the National Book Festival

Here's a photograph I took of Tom Wolfe at the National Book Festival in 2005. I was second in line to have books signed by Wolfe. Signed books by Wolfe in my collection now include a first edition of The Right Stuff and a textbook on The New Journalism (also a first). I got in line about 90 minutes early. It was a good thing. The line for Wolfe was long and before the signing ended the rules changed from "He'll sign everything." to "One book per person."

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Miscellaneous book thoughts

  • Peter Benchley died this week. He was 65. Why did I sell that first edition of Jaws? Who did I sell it to and for how much?

  • Remembering that first edition of Jaws starts me thinking about other books that have passed through my hands. Notably, a first edition of John Steinbeck’s first book, Cup of Gold. I passed it up during a silent auction. Everyone else did too. I don’t think any one realized it was a first. I went back the next day and bought it for $5. Sold it for much more, but would sure like it back.

  • I’m ready for a really good book sale. Recently went to a library book sale in Madison, Wisconsin, and it was horrible. I’m guessing 80 percent of the books were library cast-offs. I bought three books. It was all I could find and I was pushing to buy the three.

  • Can’t wait for Robert Crais’ new book, The Two-Minute Rule. It will move immediately to the top of my reading pile.

  • Hit a reading alpha state this week. Finished a book on Monday. Finished another on Tuesday and a third on Wednesday. All were fiction. Tuesday’s book was only about 120 pages. I read half the book on my commute to work; the other half on the return trip. Wednesday’s book was more than 250 pages, but I was traveling. Six hours on an airplane allowed me to read the book from start to finish (Purity of Blood by Perez-Reverte), knock off two short stories and several pages in a biography.

Guardian announces Batman's return

Holy comic book! Batman returns to wage war on al-Qaida

Dan Glaister in Los Angeles
Thursday February 16, 2006
The Guardian

Holy terror, Batman! Gotham's under attack, and the caped crusader is the only one who can kick al-Qaida's butt.

That, in essence, is the plot of the latest Batman comic book by leading graphic novelist Frank Miller.

Speaking at a comic book convention in San Francisco at the weekend, Miller, the author of The Dark Knight Returns and the Sin City series, said Batman could ill afford to chase fantasy villains when the real thing was on his doorstep.

"Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a piece of propaganda," he said.

"Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That's one of the things they're there for.

"These are our folk heroes. I just think it's silly to have Batman out chasing the Riddler when you've got al-Qaida out there."

Comparing Batman to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character - a lone urban hero fighting a crime wave - Miller said: "Batman kicks al-Qaida's ass ... I wish the entertainers of our time had the spine and the focus of the ones who faced down Hitler."

In the book, Holy Terror, Batman is "a reminder to people who seem to have forgotten who we're up against", the author said.

Miller, 49, is credited with rejuvenating the Batman series when he returned the character to his dark roots in the Dark Knight Returns in the 1980s. He is one of the most successful graphic novelists, and last year turned to film, co-directing the adaptation of his graphic novel series Sin City.

Miller has drawn 120 pages of the 200-page graphic novel. There is no completion date.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Widow of the South a powerful, evocative read

12. The Widow of the South, Robert Hicks. Fiction, 2-13, pp. 404

Sometimes a book catches you completely off guard. Not merely the quality of its writing, although that is part of it, but the emotions that it touches; touches more deeply, more genuinely, more ineffably than hundreds of other books.

My youngest son asked me recently why I read. This is the answer. I read in the hope of just such a book. A book that illuminates the human spirit, that instructs and edifies, and that connects me to my fellow man – in mind and body and spirit – in ways we seldom experience in our daily lives.

Cold Mountain was such a book. As was Atonement and Gilead. The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks now joins that select list. In this, his first book, Hicks weaves a tender, at times horrific, story of one of the final battles of the Civil War and how that battle changed the life of one woman forever. In telling the story of Carrie McGavock, Hicks lays bares the horror of war, evokes the powerful hold life has on each of us and reminds us, once again, how one persons’ sacrifice can touch the lives of thousands.

The Widow of the South is a powerful, evocative story and a superior read.

"I had resolved to be the designated mourner, to be the woman who would remember so others could forget. In the forgetting, I prayed, would be some relief, some respite from the violence and bitterness and vengeance. Did I have hope? It did not really matter, but I had little. Still, there are things we are called to do that we cannot refuse, as futile as they seem, because to refuse them would mean to lose faith. Not just faith in God so much as faith in man, which I supposed amounted to the same thing."

--from The Widow of the South

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Pete Dexter's God's Pocket

11. God’s Pocket, Pete Dexter. Fiction, 2-8, p. 274

My 11th book of 2006 was Pete Dexter’s first, God’s Pocket. Dexter is a terrific writer; one of my favorites. Think Elmore Leonard with an edge.

God’s Pocket was better than I had anticipated. It is one of those books that doesn’t go where you think it will. The narrative begins focused on a couple of characters and only later do you realize they’ve dropped from the story, only to re-appear near the conclusion.

Humor is an unexpected bonus in God’s Pocket. In that sense this novel reminds me of something by Carl Hiaasen.

Dexter has written six novels. I especially recommend God’s Pocket, Deadwood, Paris Trout and Train, his most recent effort.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Avol's shines in Madison, Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin, boasts a variety of new and antiquarian bookstores, which also have the advantage of being located close to one another.

Avol’s Bookstores draws my top recommendation. I’ve been to Avol’s twice and twice come away with some very nice books. Avol’s is actually a combination of two stores; the first featuring more recent books, the second a small but nice selection of antiquarian books. Notable among the antiquarian books is the selection of science fiction offerings and the works of August Derleth, a local boy made good. The books in Avol’s are notable for their condition. I especially like bookstores that offer a broad selection of used books that are bright and clean.

That’s not a claim that can be made by Shakespeare’s books, just a few yards from the State Capitol. I thinks there are books to be found here, but there’s a lot of shabby later printings too. This is the sort of store that awards a patient shopper. It’s notable for its non-fiction selection. I thought its fiction offerings were poor. The books in all the glass cases are probably worth some attention, but I didn’t have the time. I understand dealers need to protect their books from shoplifters, but it is off-putting to have to disturb the lone sleepy clerk to open every case. I feel as if I should buy something after I’ve disturbed the clerk. In this instance, feelings did not translate into action.

Both shops are located just off State Street, which runs from the Capitol to the University of Wisconsin. It's a pleasant street for a stroll, even in February, with lots of restaurants and non-book shops to compete for your attention.

There are more shops in Madison beyond the two I've mentioned. These are the only shops I’ve visited, but I expect to return to Madison later this year. I plan to stop (and buy) in Avol’s again. And I hope to visit a few new (as in I haven’t been there before) stores as well.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Book signings

2006 has been a great year for book signings. Earlier in this blog I mentioned that I had the opportunity to hear Taylor Branch and that he signed all three books in his history of the Civil Rights Movement during the King years.

Since then I have heard Nicholas Basbanes and George Pelecanos. I missed most of Basbanes talk at the Library of Congress, but was fortunate enough to be first in line for the signing. He signed all four of his past books as well as his new book, Every Book Its Reader. Basbanes was very attentive and took a lot of time personalizing the inscription on his new book.

Pelecanos was at Politics & Prose -- the best independent bookstore in the country -- promoting D.C. Noir, a noir anthology that he edited for Akashic Books. Pelecanos, who also has a short story in the anthology, was joined by 10 of the authors whose works appear in D.C. Noir, including Laura Lippman. In addition to having my copy signed by the 11 authors, it was also signed by cover photographer Jim Saah and Akashic publisher Johnny Temple.

Kudos to Temple for his fine Noir series (it includes Dublin Noir, Chicago Noir and Lone Star Noir). In addition to featuring established writers, like Pelecanos, Lippman and Jim Fusili, the series has attracted many authors who are being published for the first time.

Reading Update

Here's the most recent books that I have read:

9. Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, George Pelecanos. Thriller, 1-29, pp. 234

10. The Crazed, Ha Jin. Fiction, 2-3, pp. 323

Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go is Pelecanos' fourth book. It's the book where everything falls into place for Pelecanos as a writer. Everything that I enjoy about his current works--the atmosphere, the masterful pacing and the vivid characters--can be found in Down by the River.

The Crazed is interesting, but only mildly so. It is not as skillfully rendered as The Bridegroom or War Trash.