Thursday, June 29, 2006

At Canaan's Edge an impressive feat, but . . .

60. At Canaan’s Edge, Taylor Branch. History, 6-29 , p. 771

Taylor Branch’s son, Franklin, was born only a few weeks before Branch began the research on his sweeping triptych on America in the King Years. Franklin finished college in time to help with the research on the final book in the series, At Canaan's Edge. I don’t believe Branch understood when he set out to research and write Parting the Waters, the first book in the trilogy, that he was embarking on his life’s work.

That was the ultimate outcome. Parting the Waters appeared in 1988. Pillar of Fire was issued in 1998 and, early this year, the series was completed with At Canaan’s Edge.

It’s an impressive feat and a worthy one: Three books, impeccably researched, somewhere in excess of 2,100 or 2,200 pages of text not counting the notes, index or bibliography. Parting the Waters won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Regular readers of this blog are going to sense a however, however.

My quibble—and it is only that—is the same one I had with Arthur Gelb’s City Room or Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Part of the real talent in assembling a book of this scope is know what to leave out as much as what to put in. I refer you to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as a stellar example of a work of history with no extraneous material. Goodwin is a historian who writes with the pacing of a novelist.

Branch writes with eloquence and passion, at times. And at others, the history grinds to a halt in the minutia of, say, the internal politics of SNCC or SCLC or is diverted, as was much of the country, by the escalating war in Vietnam. OK, we should know dissension existed within the Civil Rights' leadership and the impact of the Vietnam dissent on the Civil Rights movement must be considered, but it’s a question of degree.

I spent almost a month with this book—that’s a long time for me to spend with any book. And, at times, it felt like a slog. I’m glad I read it and the first two books in the series, for that matter. It is an important work and a lasting contribution to our understanding of the Civil Rights campaign and its impact on the Women’s Movement and the Gay Rights Movement that were to follow.

I know he'd probably like to move on to something new, but I'd encourage Taylor Branch to write one more book on the Civil Rights movement--a distillation of his three books into one. Something on the order of James Thomas Flexner's Washington The Indispensable Man, which represented a one-volume condensation of his four-volume biography of Washington, is what's called for here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Kennedy's Corsage a disappointing read

59. The Flaming Corsage, William Kennedy, 6-25, p. 209

Former newspaperman William Kennedy won acclaim as a novelist for his insight into the seedy underbelly of Albany, New York, from the filth-infested saloons of the Irish workingmen to the smoke-filled backrooms of the local pols.

His Albany Cycle began in 1975 with Legs and continued with Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Ironweed, The Flaming Corsage and, in 2002, the superb, but largely unappreciated Roscoe.

The Flaming Corsage (1996) is the least of these works. Some of Kennedy’s trademark strengths are here; there are passages of such realistic clarity as to take away a reader’s breath. Sadly, such passages are too few—replaced by an embarrassing metaphysical riff on death, which absorbs the thoughts and dictates the actions of one of the novel’s main characters.

Until this novel, I considered Kennedy one of those writers always worth reading, but The Flaming Corsage is disappointing. This book was best left on the remainder pile from which I rescued it.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Baltimore Noir just another day in Charm City

57. Baltimore Noir, ed. Laura Lippman. Short stories, 6-20, p. 291

Another in the City Noir Series from Akashic Books, this one featuring Charm City. Home Movies by Marcia Talley, Liminal by Joseph Wallace and Ode to the O’s by Charlie Stella join the submissions from Laura Lippman and Jim Fusili as standouts in this collection.

I think any of the books in the Akashic Noir Series are worth picking up both for the exposure they provide to a cast of largely unknown writers and for the tawdry view of notable American cities by the locals.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Foreign Correspondent another triumph by Alan Furst

58. The Foreign Correspondent, Alan Furst. Espionage, 6-23, p. 273.

Most Americans today don’t understand how truly complex the world was in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. For most of us, it lined up as the Americans and British against the Germans and Japanese. The French were occupied and the Italians were foolish.

That world's true complexity has all the impact of a major character in Alan Furst’s delicious new novel The Foreign Correspondent.

The correspondent is Carlo Weisz, an Italian émigré, living in Paris where he works for Reuters and is editor of a small, liberal anti-Fascist newspaper.

Weisz’s complicated life grows increasingly more complicated. His lover, a German aristocrat, refuses to leave Berlin, despite the growing threat to her life. Both the Italian secret police and the British are after Weisz; the Italians want to stop him, the British want the small newspaper to become a large one.

Furst is a widely successful novelist for two reasons: He is a gifted storyteller who has a master's command of tone and pacing and his easy familiarity with the period leading up to the Second World War is impressive in scope. The Foreign Correspondent is riveting; the pacing meticulous, measured, breath-taking. From his familiarity with various languages to his knowledge of the Italian equivalent of Life magazine, Furst immerses the reader in the France, Germany and Italy of the late ‘30s

The Foreign Correspondent is another triumphant foray into the troubled European past. Bravo, Signore Furst.

"What Are You Reading Now?"--A Report From The Field

So, I asked friends and family, “What are you reading now?”

My son, Brandon, is reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter. reports that “besides being a profound and entertaining meditation on human thought and creativity, this book looks at the surprising points of contact between the music of Bach, the artwork of Escher, and the mathematics of Gödel.”

"Why," I wonder, "is this of interest to my son?" and then I discover that, according to, “It also looks at the prospects for computers and artificial intelligence (AI) for mimicking human thought.”

This explains Brandon’s interest--he is a computer game designer and programmer.

Kansas buddy Jerry Lonergan is reading the following:

  • The Porteus Effect by Ann Parson (history of stem cell research pretty fascinating stories)
  • Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk (pretty bizarre/stomach turning stuff but for some reason quite good – he wrote Fight Club)
  • Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden (we have talked about this)

“Back home in Topeka,” Jerry writes, “I am re-reading a wonderful book about Josh Gibson--The Power and the Darkness by Mark Ribowsky.

Also in Kansas, Randy Osborne is reading Charles Higham’s Trading with the Enemy The Nazi - American Money Plot 1933-1949. Randy is a blue-collar worker with the book list of an intellectual. Because of his work schedule he doesn’t get to read many books, but he makes every book count.

In Sacramento, California, Mark Beach is reading Armadillo by William Boyd. On the East Coast, in New York City, Beth Finkel is reading “that Marley dog book. Totally relaxing!” Beth is referring to Marley & Me by John Grogan. I recommend Colter The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had by Rick Bass.

Back in Kansas, Rex Buchanan is reading a collection of Amy Hempel short stories. “I've also started this book A War Like No Other, a discussion of the Peloponnesian War in light of recent events. What little I've read so far is real interesting, but it's slow going.

"I read this book about obituaries, The Dead Beat, by Marilyn Johnson. It was pretty good. And the book River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt's trip in South America, which was a real page turner. I read Dylan's Chronicles on the plane on the way back from Washington, D.C., in March.”

Rex, I agree about River of Doubt. It was one of my “Best Reads” last year. Dylan’s Chronicles is on my reading list.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

12 Books About Science You Should Read Before You Die

Rex Buchanan has developed a list of “12 books about science you should read before you die.”

A personal friend, Rex is co-author of Roadside Kansas: A Guide to its Geology and Landmarks, editor of Kansas Geology: An Introduction to Landscapes, Rocks, Minerals, and Fossils and associate director for public outreach at the Kansas Geological Survey.

  • Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1985.
  • Rick Bass, Oil Notes, 1995.
  • Susan Clancy, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They were Kidnapped by Aliens, 2005.
  • Christopher Cokinos, Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, 2001.
  • Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005.
  • Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, 1990.
  • Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground, 1989.
  • Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005.
  • Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 1987.
  • David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, 1997.
  • Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and other Clinical Tales, 1970.
  • Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, 1992.
I’ve read Oil Notes, Collapse, The Song of the Dodo and Hope is the Thing with Feathers and can recommend these books. In fact, I can recommend just about anything by Bass, although I do prefer his non-fiction to his fiction.

Lopez, Matthiessen and Sacks are also authors who I’ve read and can recommend. Matthiessen is among those rare writers whose fiction is as good as his non-fiction.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Angell on the Botsford Library

In one of my favorite passages in his collection of essays, Let Me Finish, Roger Angell writes about The New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford. Angell fondly recalls Gardner’s Library “a unique selection of volumes never to be taken down and opened, never to be discussed, review, collated, or arranged?”

The library, Angell recalls, was comprised of books featuring “a sweep of unexpected subject matter and the acute seriousness of certain obscure authors—which, when combined, promised extremely low sales.”

Botsford’s collection includes The Law and Your Dog, Septic Tank Practices, Successful Fund Raising Sermons, The Handbook of Wrestling Drills and What Can I Do with My Juicer?

"'I don’t believe there’s as much of this kind of publishing anymore,' Botsford said to a visitor. 'The special special book, the book with an audience of three—I don’t know where it’s gone.'”

Botsford told Angell that two broad principles governed the selection of the books in his small collection. There were to be no joke titles and no work that didn’t bear it’s title on the spine. “'That’s because no one will ever open any of the books,' he (Botsford) said. 'They are not for reading. Some people don’t understand this.'”

The passage on the Botsford Library can be found on pages 250-252 of Angell’s fine book.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Harrison a muscular, romantic writer

56. Sundog, Jim Harrison. Fiction, 6-19, p. 241

Harrison is a muscular writer and a romantic, sort of a second-tier Hemingway (and that’s no faint praise). Sundog, a story about “a man totally free of the bondage of the appropriate,” is standard Harrison fare; peppered with references to food and sex, manly work (building bridges and dams), exotic travels, the theory and practice of rivers and man’s efforts to escape his physical limitations.

Part of his appeal is that Harrison struggles to escape the limitations of a writer. Not his limitations, but the limitations of paper and words in attempting to convey a story of the human heart and mind and spirit. Harrison writes with a boldness that keeps you reading even if the concept of the story is improbable.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Catching up--From Alentejo Blue to Clemente

  • 50. Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith. Fiction, 5-30, p. 336
  • 51. Clemente, David Maraniss. Baseball, 5-31, p. 354
  • 52. The Hard Way, Lee Child. Thriller, 6-1, p. 371
  • 53. Let Me Finish, Roger Angell. Memoir, 6-4, p. 302
  • 54. Four Souls, Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 6-8, p. 210
  • 55. Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali. Fiction, 6-14, p. 299

OK, I’m shamefully six books behind on posts. I can only offer excuses including an influx of family for 10 days and work-related travel.

Here’s a quick summary of the six:

Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith. Arkady Renko ventures into Chernobyl’s Zone of Exclusion is this entertaining mystery. Renko warrants status as a classic figure in detective fiction. He would be honored in the United States for his integrity. In Russia, he’s scorned as a fool because he won’t take a bribe. Smith accurately captures Russia’s twisted version of capitalism.

Clemente, David Maraniss. This isn’t on the level of his earlier book on Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. Maraniss doesn’t manage to penetrate Clemente’s inscrutable personality and I wanted more baseball instead of the abbreviated accounted we’re offered. Only time will tell, but I don’t think this will join Robert Creamer’s Babe as a baseball classic.

The Hard Way, Lee Child. Jack Reacher is back. That’s all I have to say. It’s terrific.

Let Me Finish, Roger Angell. I’ve read all seven of Angell’s baseball books, which are uniformly marvelous, I thought, because baseball writes. Turns out Angell writes too. Most of these pieces in this book originally appeared in The New Yorker. Whether you read them there first or are reading them for the first time – they’re superb. I especially liked the essay on his step-father, E.B. White.

Four Souls, Louise Erdrich. This is a follow-up to Erdrich’s Tracks. Tracks was fine. This book isn’t. I’ve tried and failed to identify what I don’t like about it. No matter, it doesn’t work. A rare miscue by Erdrich.

Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali. I greatly admired Ali’s first book, Brick Lane. This one, not so much. She’s trying to be something she’s not, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Nothing at all wrong with the prose, but the story is an uninspired mush.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Zadie Smith's On Beauty wins Orange Prize

John Ezard
Wednesday June 7, 2006
The Guardian

Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty last night triumphantly passed the "desert island" test of a good read by winning the £30,000 Orange prize for fiction. After a record three-hour judges' meeting, she narrowly beat exceptionally strong contenders by Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters to take the first major literary award to match her prodigious celebrity.

She had the additional joy of finally winning the prize which first gave her recognition. She broke into the limelight as a 25-year-old when her debut - the exuberantly youthful, instantly bestselling White Teeth - was shortlisted for the Orange. On Beauty is the fruit of her early maturity and of her marriage to the poet Nick Laird.

The title had been around long enough to risk looking over-familiar and slightly bedraggled to judges. It came out in September, with its publisher's eyes on last year's Man Booker prize. However, it failed to win that or the subsequent Whitbread prize. Though it took the Eurasian honour in this year's Commonwealth Writers contest, the Orange was its last hope of a mainstream award.

The result leaves at least one of the defeated contenders, The Night Watch, Sarah Waters' story of heroism and love among women on blitz duty during the second world war, to go through with a formidable chance of winning this year's Man Booker or Whitbread in months to come.

On Beauty won the Orange partly because its familiarity worked in Smith's favour; the judges found it repaid repeated re-readings better than any of the five other works on the shortlist. The chief judge, Martha Kearney, Newsnight editor and Woman's Hour presenter, said: "One judge said at our meeting, 'If you are looking for one book to take to a desert island, that has to be the one'.

"Not everyone was persuaded of its merits. But I think two judges felt that, the more you read On Beauty, the more you found in it. It was an exceptionally good shortlist and everyone had a lot to say. It got very difficult narrowing the choice."

The judges' formal accolade said: "This is a book which combines extraordinary characterisation with skilful and seemingly effortless plotting. It ranges from exposing the intimacies of family life to broader themes of aesthetics, ethics and the vagaries of academe in a literary tour de force."

Kate Mosse, Orange prize co-founder, said: "It was a quite staggeringly high standard of debate - and no arguments at all among the judges."

It was also remarkable that four on the shortlist - Zadie Smith, Mantel, Waters and Ali Smith for The Accidental - were recognised as "leading writers in English literature the world over" though they had published so few novels.

The result pleased bookshops, where the winner has already done well. Jasper Sutcliffe, senior fiction buyer at Foyles of London, called On Beauty "an immensely stylish and evocative novel which confirms Zadie Smith as one of our brightest literary stars.

"Her gift for character is remarkable and should convince anyone who has dismissed her as overhyped in the past. Zadie has one eye on contemporary life and the other on literary heritage. A lethal combination."

The story, about an African-American-English academic family at loggerheads, has been called a cross between Malcolm Bradbury and EM Forster. It is Smith's homage to Forster, on whom she has written a long critical study. Through Forster, the novel explores the Bloomsbury group's sense of the "interiority" of human beings as they intersect with the public selves of other people, and with society.

Simon Robertson, chief fiction buyer for Waterstone's, said: "To attempt to bring a novel of the scope and power of Howard's End into the 21st century is an incredibly brave thing to do, but she manages. We are thrilled to see Zadie Smith receiving this long deserved recognition. On Beauty is a wonderful novel, proving beyond doubt that the promise of White Teeth was no fluke.

"Zadie has had remarkable commercial success from day one, but I think this - long deserved - seal of approval will prove very popular with our customers."

Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black - unofficial runner-up to On Beauty - is by an author often considered to have touches of genius. It is a mordant comedy about a genuine spirit medium who is haunted by the psychic remains of those who abused or cared for her as a child.

Also shortlisted were Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, by Carrie Tiffany, and Nicole Krauss's The History of Love.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Free-Press tells us "How to sell a book"

“How to Sell a Book” was the headline on an interesting article by Marta Salij in the Sunday, June 4, Detroit Free-Press.

In an occasional series, Salij promises to give us a behind-the-scenes perspective on how someone can get a book published. To do so, she’s pitching her own novel and writing about the experience.

The initial article is about Salij’s experience at the fourth annual BookExpo America/Writer’s Digest Book Writers Conference. Held last month in Washington, D.C. , the conference is a one-day boot camp for literary hopefuls.

A few interesting tidbits from Salij’s article:

  • About 80 percent of all Americans believe they have a book in them.

  • About six million of those have manuscripts.

  • Agents say they take only about two out of every 1,000 manuscripts submitted. Fewer than that get published.

  • In 2005, 172,000 titles were published in the U.S. By comparison, an all-time high of 190,000 books were published in 2004 and 115,000 in 2001.
I know at least one person with a manuscript in his desk drawer and suspect I know many more.