Monday, December 31, 2007

On building The Felsenfeld Collection

On August 6, I had a post about the potential for a Felsenfeld Collection.

The post referred to a Talk of the Town article in the July 30 The New Yorker about Brooklyn classical composer Danny Felsenfeld showing up as a character in several recent novels.

I wrote:

Now here’s how I think: This is a great opportunity to assemble the Felsenfeld Collection, a small, but intriguing collection of novels featuring characters all based on the same individual. It would be an especially nice collection if all the books were signed by Felsenfeld.

A few months later that post generated this response:

Were you to assemble the Felsenfeld collection, you might be the only one--though apparently this is not a done deal: there may be more.

But if you get it together, I will happily sign it!

Thanks for your post; got a big kick.

Daniel Felsenfeld (a.k.a. "Inspector")

I can now report that I have assembled first editions of three of the four books now in print featuring Mr. Felsenfeld: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Lisa Carey’s Every Visible Thing and Katherine Min’s The Secondhand World.

Felsenfeld is also a character in At the Feet of the Divine by Benjamin Anastas. That book has not been published in English, and I have not yet determined exactly how I will let a German bookdealer know that I need an “Erste Auflage” of Anastas’ book.

BTW, here are the references to Felsenfeld in each of the three books I own:

In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union where he appears as Inspector Felsenfeld. The first reference comes on page 22:

“Speaking of rumors," he says, "what do you hear from Felsenfeld?”

Felsenfeld is Inspector Felsenfeld, the squad commander. "What do you mean, what do I hear from him? I just saw him this afternoon," Landsman says. "I didn't hear anything from him, the man hasn't uttered three words together in ten years. What kind of question is that? What rumors?"

In Katherine Min’s The Secondhand World by Katherine Min he is a high school teacher, who appears to be OK with students’ displays of public affection. Here’s the reference form page 115:

“ . . . and at least once a day a teacher tapped us on the shoulder and said, “PDA” – sometimes with a smile, like Mr. Felsenfeld, who wanted to show that he personally was cool with it but must reluctantly enforce school policy . . .”

He makes a very brief appearance in Every Visible Thing by Lisa Carey. On page 110, she writes:

“Suspecting that Dr. Felsenfeld had already had a conversation with Danny’s mother, Owen has no choice but to follow the tide of children toward the lunchroom.”

There’s no other reference I could find, although The New Yorker describes Felsenfeld’s character as a pipe-smoking, high school principal.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Close out the year with four good books

Books now read in ’07: 121
Title: The Tenth Muse
Author: Judith Jones
Genre: Food
Date Completed: 12-22
Pages: 282

Books now read in ’07: 122
Title: Every Visible Thing
Author: Lisa Carey
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-24
Pages: 306

Books now read in ’07: 123
Title: George H.W. Bush
Author: Timothy Naftali
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 12-25
Pages: 176

Books now read in ’07: 124
Title: Sacred
Author: Dennis Lehane
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 12-26
Pages: 288

Something for everyone in the final days of 2007. I recommend all four books.

Don’t expect Knopf editor Judith Jones to dish on the various cookbook authors she’s worked for through the years. She’s far too polite, too mannered, for an eat-and-tell book. Instead, this is an extended riff on the food and friends she’s enjoyed through the years.

Jones, of course, deserves credit for recognizing that Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a work of genius and that the timing was right for American cooks to embrace Child and her masterpiece.

The Tenth Muse comes complete with recipes. It’s a tasty, full-course meal.

Lisa Carey’s Every Visible Thing is a story of profound loss, and the universal desire for connection. The Furey family has been in a tailspin since the oldest son, Hugh, vanished. The parents are indifferent to their remaining children – Lena and Owen.

Lena sets out to try and find out more about Hugh’s disappearance, but, in the process, she ceases to attend school and becomes hooked up with a small-time drug dealer. Owen is wrestling with his sexual identity and his best friend’s betrayal.

Owen believes Hugh is dead, but he also believes his older brother is still part of their lives as a guardian angel.

Carey writes with great insight as she explores the rocky dynamics of this dysfunctional family.

George H.W. Bush is part of Times Books’ American President Series, which has proved uniformly superb. Naftali’s brief biography of “41” is no exception. For many of us this book reads more like current events than history. It is an even-handed and thoughtful examination of the presidency of the first George Bush.

Sacred is an early work by Dennis Lehane. It’s not on par with Mystic River, but few books are. It is an entertaining read with a couple of memorable characters. Anyone fond of the genre is certain to enjoy this.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Post features Norwegian writer

The Washington Post carries an article this morning on Norwegian writer Per Petterson and the success of his most recent novel, Out Stealing Horses. I won't make you read the entire article (although it's fascinating) to reach the good news. Graywolf Press will publish his book, To Siberia, next year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Uncommon Reader uncommonly good

Books now read in ’07: 120
Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-18
Pages: 120

Bookstores in Washington are reporting that Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is flying off the shelves. That should come as no surprise. It is an entertaining book about the British monarchy, a source of fascination to a sizeable number of Americans.

Bennett’s conceit, in this novella (the book runs 120 pages) is what would happen if, at the age of 80, the Queen suddenly became a voracious reader? Initially the Queen, who has stumbled into a library book van, resists the lure of reading.

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

Eventually, the Queen does succumb. “What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” Yes, I know that feeling.

One final quote: “Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met with in the pages of their novels, and as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books.”

The Queen’s advisors aren’t at all comfortable with the idea of the monarch as reader and there are subtle efforts to discourage her. The Queen’s passion for reading does finally wane, but with results no less unsettling to her advisors.

Bennett has given us a delicious read. Not so much laugh out loud funny as designed to evoke a grin of delight or recognition. As an animated pitchman might say, The Uncommon Reader is uncommonly good.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 119
Title: Secondhand World
Author: Katherine Min
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-16
Pages: 274

I came by this book through a circuitous route; a route that had nothing to do with the book’s author or its contents.

Because of Danny Felsenfeld (more on Mr. Felsenfeld in a future post), I stumbled onto this novel replete with both great pain and wisdom. Secondhand World is the story of Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, the American-born daughter of a Korean couple. The novel begins and ends when Isa is 18, and is largely focused on her final years of high school.

Secondhand World is about alienation and acceptance; not only the alienation we experience at the hands of the larger world – especially if we are a Korean child who does not resemble anyone else around – but the alienation that can take place within the confines of our own family.

Isa feels isolated from her parents. As a toddler, her younger brother, was killed in a senseless household accident and, through the years, her parents continue to be haunted by their loss. Isa feels that she is a poor substitute for her dead brother. A feeling eloquently expressed at the novel’s close:

“It’s a secondhand world we’re born into. What is novel to us is only so because we’re newborn, and what we cannot see, that has come before – what our parents have seen and been and done – are the hand-me-downs we begin to wear as swaddling clothes, even as we ourselves are naked. The flaw runs through us, implicating us in its imperfection even as it separates us, delivers us onto opposite sides of a chasm. It is both terribly beautiful and terribly sad, but it is, finally, the fault in the universe that gives birth to us all.”

The pain Isa experiences both inside her family and out, even the loss of her brother, are only echos of other tragedies – in her father’s past and in her present (when we first meet Isa she is a patient on a pediatric burn unit). As Isa finds life so I found Secondhand World – terribly beautiful and terribly sad.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

New books by Harrison, Ellis and Chabon are not to be missed

Books now read in ’07: 116
Title: Returning to Earth
Author: Jim Harrison
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-12
Pages: 280

Books now read in ’07: 117
Title: American Creation
Author: Joseph Ellis
Genre: History
Date Completed: 12-12
Pages: 243

Books now read in ’07: 118
Title: Gentlemen of the Road
Author: Michael Chabon
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-14
Pages: 204

Three books. All highly recommended.

Returning to Earth is Jim Harrison’s newest book, and one wonders if it will not be his last. It certainly reads as if it is Harrison’s effort to come to terms with his own mortality.

It is the story of Donald, a middle-aged man of Chippewa and Finnish descent, who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Much in tune with his Indian ancestry, Donald determines to end his life.

In the four sections, Harrison tells us Donald’s story, that of his wife and other family members as they come to terms with his death. It is a powerful and insightful book – with echoes of Louise Erdrich – and certainly must rank among Harrison’s best.

American Creation examines key historical moments in the founding of America – beginning with Washington’s decision to engage the British in protracted struggle rather than a conventional clash of armies and concluding with Jefferson’s decision to set aside his opposition to an imperial presidency and purchase the Louisiana territory from Napoleon.

Ellis’ strength is two-fold. He is an engaging writer who avoids a plodding academic style sometimes adopted by historians. He is also balanced and fair-minded; crediting Jefferson, for example, with boldness in concluding the Louisiana purchase, but in being blind to the opportunities the purchase offered to abolish slavery in America.

It’s an intelligent and provocative work.

Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road is the most enjoyable of the lot. Chabon dedicates the book to British writer Michael Moorcock and, indeed, his character Zelikman owes much to Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone.

Gentlemen of the Road is a delightful adventure yarn. Chabon tosses in sword play, elephants, a bit of artful thievery and a foul-mouthed youth of royal blood trying to regain his rightful throne. It’s irresistible.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Power of Experience is Jeremy Janes' lovely legacy

Books now read in ’07: 114
Title: Varieties of Disturbance
Author: Lydia Davis
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-6
Pages: 219

Books now read in ’07: 115
Title: The Power of Experience
Author: Jeremy Janes (ed..)
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-6
Pages: 221

Varieties of Disturbance was one of five books short-listed for the 2007 National Book Award for fiction. It is described, on the back cover, as “fifty-seven rule-breaking short stories.”

The count may be correct. Rules have been broken. But these are not short stories. I am not at all certain what they are. Some are amusing in a trifling way. Some cute in an annoying way. Most are boring.

I think it’s someone’s idea of joke.

Jeremy Janes, editor of The Power of Experience, was a co-worker and friend. Jeremy lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I lived in Topeka and later in Washington, D.C. He was a Brit and had that charming accent Brit’s have. He was also a kind and gentle man and something of a bibliophile.

Jeremy died in 2006 without ever having seen The Power of Experience. I remember his excitement that the Publications team at AARP (where we worked) had agreed to publish his book, subtitled “Great Writers Over 50 on the Quest for a Lifetime of Meaning.”

Jeremy did a terrific job with this anthology, tapping a variety of sources and writers. Anne Tyler is here. As is Amy Tan. Robert Stone. Elmore Leonard. Frederick Busch and Richard Russo.

It’s a good read and a terrific legacy of a life well-lived.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Petterson's Out Stealing Horses is 2007's best book

Books now read in ’07: 113
Title: Out Stealing Horses
Author: Per Petterson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 12-2
Pages: 288

At some point during our youth we come to understand that our parents have lives beyond that which we know; that there is a complexity to their lives that we did not previously recognize and that their lives are not limited to home or to their children or their spouse.

Such a realization comes to Trond, the narrator of Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s superb Out Stealing Horses, the summer he is 15. World War II has been over only a few years, Trond has been reunited with his father and, now, in a few brief months he has the rare opportunity to spend time alone with his father and to work alongside him.

Trond discovers that his father was part of the resistance during the war – something his father has never talked about – and that he has a romantic relationship with a farm woman, who aided him in his efforts against the Germans. The woman is the mother of Trond’s closest friend.

Trond looks back on this summer from the perspective of some 50 years. He has taken himself to a remote part of Norway – where the novel is set – to heal from wounds suffered during an accident that claimed the life of his wife. His wounds are far more emotional than physical. Trond is clearly seeking to grasp life more firmly, and is determined to do so in his own way and with little assistance.

Events occur that remind Trond of that distant summer. In looking back it was clearly a summer of loss – a summer in which he was to see his father for the last time; a summer in which he was to lose his best friend and in which that friend was to lose much, much more.

Yet in looking back, Trond also comes to realize that in their brief time together his father taught him lessons about life that can offer him a source of strength and healing and consolation in his time of present need.

Petterson makes few judgments about his characters, instead he recognizes that life takes us down pathways that we would not have chosen for ourselves, but which we must now find the strength to endure.

Out Stealing Horses is wise and touching; spare, yet lyrical -- superbly written, superbly told -- it is a powerful novel of loss and self-discovery.

It is the best book of 2007.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Wahsington Post lists its best book of 2007

In today’s Book World, the Washington Post lists its top 10 books of 2007.

The top five works of fiction are:

  • Finn, Jon Clinch
  • The Last Cavalier, Alexandre Dumas
  • On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
  • The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
  • Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson

I am thoroughly pleased to see Finn on that list. It is a terrific re-imagining of a classic work of American fiction. I also can’t quarrel with On Chesil Beach as one of the year’s best novels. Author Ian McEwan is the best writer in the English language today.

The book by Dumas is exactly the kind of quirky choice the Post would make. I’m not familiar with Bolano’s book and, again, didn’t much care for Tree of Smoke.

The best non-fiction, according to the Post:

  • Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee
  • FDR, Jean Edward Smith
  • Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad
  • The Unnatural History of the Sea, Callum Roberts
  • The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, Diane Ackerman

I didn’t like Hermione Lee’s book one bit. Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison was reviewed in these pages yesterday. It is an impeccable work of scholarship, and highly readable.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 112
Title: Ralph Ellison
Author: Arnold Rampersad
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 12-1
Pages: 566

And so we enter the final month of reading in 2007. Why do I feel as if 112 books just isn’t enough?

Arnold Rampersad is a splendid biographer as he demonstrated in 1997 with his biography of baseball pioneer (and book of the same name) Jackie Robinson and again 10 years later with Ralph Ellison.

I confess that I have not read Ellison’s groundbreaking novel, Invisible Man. Rampersad’s thorough and thoroughly readable biography has not necessarily moved me to do so, but – should I read it – I will know a hell of a lot about the author.

Ellison was a complicated man. (He evokes Whitman for me: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”) He was not necessarily a likeable man. In the vernacular of the time, Ellison was excessively enamored of the Establishment. He embraced LBJ, any number of Establishment appointments, commissions and boards and jealously guarded his status as the sole “Negro” (a word he preferred) representative thereof.

Perhaps most distressingly, Ellison did little – hell, he did nothing – to advance the cause of young Black writers, who he always found lacking. His disregard, for example, of Toni Morrison is but one example.

Rampersad’s strength is in his balance. He demonstrates Ellison’s greatness as a pioneering Black novelist, but does not hesitate to display his shortcomings as a man and, especially, as an African American.

From the publication of Invisible Man until Ellison’s death, Rampersad also makes clear that the single, inescapable tragedy of Ellison’s life – and I do not think that to strong a word – is his failure to write a second novel. He worked continuously (more than 35 years) on a second novel, but was never able to complete it; in part, Rampersad suggests, because Ellison’s standards were to high.

Most instructive (and illustrative of my thinking as I read this biography) is Rampersad following observation:

Perhaps it is therefore both a touching memento and a mocking suggestion of what might have been if Ralph had managed his career differently. One or two books of autobiography, two or three collections of short stories, his two published books of essays, and his masterpiece Invisible Man, even without a second novel, might have given his career a sense of wholeness and removed his burden of failed expectations. (p. 556)

I am not a fan of lengthy biographies, preferring the shorter version (less than 200 pages) of Penguin Lives and the current Eminent Lives series, but I liked this work. It is readable, balanced and superbly researched.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

New book by Stegner generates controversy

Interesting story in today’s Washington Post about a conflict between the estate of the late Wallace Stegner and a consortium of oil companies that recently published a new book by him.

Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil was published in September by Selwa Press. Stegner’s agent, Carl Brandt, and his son, Page, both contend the book should not have been published. Representatives of the oil company say they’ve done nothing wrong.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Times announces its 10 best books

The New York Times announced today its 10 best books of 2007 -- five fiction and five non-fiction works. Among the best books, according to the Times, are National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

I admired what Johnson was attempting, but thought the book fell short. I didn't think Ferris' book was especially notable. I liked two other shortlisted books better -- Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski and Like You'd Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard.

Also, among the Times' best fiction of the year is Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian author Pers Petterson. I'm 60 pages into that book and will definitely let all 12 of you know what I think of it.

Can't comment on the non-fiction. I have not read any of the Times' selections.

Shepard short story colllection a winner

Books now read in ’07: 111
Title: Like You’d Understand Anyway
Author: Jim Shepard
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 11-27
Pages: 211

When talking books with a friend or co-worker, it isn’t unusual for someone to observe that they never read short stories. It’s an observation that I fail to comprehend.

I like short stories. A lot. Alice Munro, William Trevor, Laurie Colwin, Ray Bradbury, T.C. Boyle and just about every issue of The New Yorker are all ample reason for me to embrace the short story. I find it a delicious and rewarding literary form, to the point that I often wonder that, as a whole, if I don’t like short stories better than novels.

The writers cited about are all vastly different in style and in content. Amid such diversity, if someone can’t find something to enjoy than I must absolutely throw my hands into the air in surrender. Or, suggest the works of Jim Shepard.

Like You’d Underway Anyway, one of five books short-listed for the 2007 National Book Award for fiction, must easily rank among the more eclectic offerings to come my way in some time. Consider – Nazis in Tibet in search of the Yeti, the chief engineer of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, a fatherless Texas football player, a 12-year-old at summer camp, a French executioner and Russia’s first woman in space are among the characters that feature in these eleven delightfully strange short stories.

A few of the stories, including the tale set at Chernobyl and the one featuring those Nazis in Tibet, would be at home in any horror anthology. One is a classic horror tale about things that go bump in the night, while the other is a distinctly modern-day cautionary tale of the horrors that a combination of bureaucracy and technology can set loose in the world.

For my taste, Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak, about that fatherless Texas football player is the finest story of the bunch. Shepard artfully captures the ambivalence, doubt and confusion of this young athlete who wants to be loved, but finds his only gratification through vicious on-field play.

Don’t like short stories? Perhaps you need to give Jim Shepard a go. He just might cause you to change your mind.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lethem spot on with novel about the travails of an L.A. rock band

Books now read in ’07: 110
Title: You Don’t Love Me Yet
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 11-23
Pages: 224

An aspiring L.A. rock band goes from never-performed-in-public-but-we-sure-sound-good-in-rehearsal to a near mythic first performance to has-beens all in the span of 224 pages in Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet.

Lethem is spot on in his characterization of the band, the inevitable hangers on it attracts when fame appears imminent and the all-to-sudden demise of its fortunes. Late in the novel the band, largely unnamed throughout, lands a coveted spot on a legendary L.A. radio rock show. Their interview with the host airs, but the live performance of their hit song doesn’t.

“Are you saying it’s gone?’ the band’s bass players asked the radio host. “It’s so gone, buttermilk,” says the host. “It’s like it was never there.”

Lethem is equally skillful in capturing the band’s sexual fumblings, as when Lucinda, the bass player, has a brief and unsatisfying sexual encounter with Bedwin, the band’s near-mute lead guitarist and “secret genius.” Within hours of the event, Lucinda comes to terms with her mistake, not by acknowledging it, but by redefining it as part of the band’s biography, as a “legendary moment, rapidly receding into the past.”

At times, You Don’t Love Me Yet feels William Gibson-ish. There is, for example, the complaint line as performance art and the writer of bumper stickers and slogans whose "complaints" furnish the framework of several monster songs.

And then there’s the kangaroo in the bathtub – but that’s pure Lethem.

One of the joys of You Don’t Love Me Yet is the photograph on the books cover. Yes, that’s Jonathan Lethem looking either sullen or brooding or, better yet, moodily goofy.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Remembering David Halberstam

In the fall of 2002 David Halberstam made his only appearance at the National Book Festival, staged annually on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I had been an admirer of the author since 1972 when The Best and the Brightest appeared. It was followed shortly by The Powers That Be, a book that worked powerfully on the imagination of someone whose ambitions were to be a great journalist.

I dutifully assembled all of Halberstam’s books in my possession and toted them to the Mall to be signed. It was a rainy day, and the crowds, while still impressive, did not approach the levels of later years. I was third or fourth in line for Halberstam. When my turn came, I asked if he minded signing all my books – there were 13. In later years this would not have been possible. Diligent volunteers for the festival would have limited me to 2 or 3 books, especailly if the crowds had been large as they certainly would have been for someone of Halberstam’s stature. Washington dotes on its historians.

I don’t remember the expression on his face or his tone of voice, but Halberstam said the people behind me might mind, but he didn’t. And he signed them all. I was elated at this coup.

Later, I realized that two books I owned were not among the stack I presented to Halberstam. I was in the process of moving from my home state of Kansas to Virginia and did not have all my books with me. The two that were missing – October 1964 and Summer of ’49 – were both about baseball and were back in Topeka with other books devoted to that sport.

I now have 19 books written by Halberstam, all but five are signed. The two books on baseball; a first edition of The Powers That Be that I acquired a few years ago; The Education of a Coach, issued in 2005; and The Coldest Winter, which was issued posthumously. I could plumb the Internet for signed copies of four of those five books, yet I do not think I will. The 13 signed books represent a special day in which a much-admired author graciously honored a fan’s outrageous request.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Berlinski's Fieldwork is a wonder

Books now read in ’07: 109
Title: Fieldwork
Author: Mischa Berlinski
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 11-21
Pages: 314

, Mischa Berlinski’s first novel, a tale of murder among a remote Thai hill tribe, is a wonder. Berlinski provides the reader with a riveting narrative, justly earning the book its distinction as one of five titles short-listed for the National Book Award.

Fieldwork is told by Mischa Berlinski, an ex-pat American in Thailand who is squeaking by on unrewarding writing assignments – a description that seems to add telling detail to the author’s brief bio in the back of the book. Yes, it’s a conceit that could quickly collapse from its own cleverness, yet Fieldwork does not. That it doesn’t is a tribute to Berlinski’s skill as a storyteller and to his decision to focus on the story, not the narrator.

And the story is engrossing.

While having coffee with a friend, Berlinski learns about an American woman, Martiya van der Leun, in a Thai prison. An American anthropologist doing her field work among the primitive Dyalo hill tribe of Thailand, Martiya was imprisoned for the murder of an American missionary. Berlinski sets out to discover why.

And it is this story – the anthropologist’s immersion in Dyalo culture, the history of the extended missionary clan and their ultimate clash that makes for an absorbing and entirely satisfying novel.

The novel succeeds, in part, because of Berlinski’s treatment of the missionary clan. He resists any temptation to mock this family or to satirize them. Instead, he presents the missionaries – much as our anthropologist presents the Dyalo – from a balanced, objective viewpoint. As she attempts to understand the Dyalo, so does he try to understand them.

No one, even Martiya, is evil in this novel. What culminates in murder arises from a clash in culture. How we get there is a fascinating journey, skillfully told by this first-time novelist.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New Connelly book to feature Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller

Set your calendars for October 2008. That's when Michael Connelly's new book is expected to be released. The book will feature Mickey Haller, from The Lincoln Lawyer, who takes over the law practice of an attorney who has been murdered. Detective Harry Bosch is assigned to investigate the murder.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stay Away from Bloom's new novel

Books now read in ’07: 108
Title: Away
Author: Amy Bloom
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 11-18
Pages: 335

In Amy Bloom’s new novel, Away, Lillian Leyb flees Russia for America after her parents and husband are slaughtered and her daughter disappears. Soon after her arrival in New York, Lillian finds herself looked after by an aging theater impresario and his son. The father loves Lillian. She represents “cover” for the son, who is gay.

Lillian’s life, and the novel, take an abrupt turn when she learns that her daughter may be alive and living in Siberia. She sets out determined to be reunited. Away recounts Lillian’s adventures en route, including vivid interludes in Seattle and Alaska. Bloom also steps away from her central story to provide the reader – at times in a few paragraphs, at others in a few pages – a summary of the fates of the men and women whose lives have intersected with Lillian.

Away is well written, but Bloom never makes the reader care for Lillian or her fate and ultimately the novel feels hollow and insignificant because of this lapse.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Enright's The Gathering a superb novel; also Shakespeare by Byrson and a new Mosley

Books now read in ’07: 104
Title: The Gathering
Author: Anne Enright
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 11-6
Pages: 261

Four books. Three strong recommendations.

First, Anne Enright’s The Gathering. It’s terrific. After several egregious selections, the Mann Booker Prize Committee got one right. The Gathering is the story of an Irish women whose brother has died. As the family assembles, she recalls their childhood. It is a story of family and of memory and of the lacunae of memory. It is especially about an adult trying to make sense of events witnessed in childhood. What did she really see and what did it ultimately mean?

The Gathering is a challenging book that rewards the patient reader with a powerful story and insignificant insights into human nature.

Books now read in ’07: 105
Title: Shakespeare
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 11-10
Pages: 196

We know so little of the actual facts about the life of William Shakespeare that there isn’t sufficient material to fill a proper biography – even on as small a stage as that provided by the Eminent Lives series. Bill Bryson does a superb job of marshalling what we do know into a most readable and entertaining book in Shakespeare, The World as Stage.

Because we know so little about Shakespeare, biographers, such as Bryson, must travel others paths – telling us about the time in which Shakespeare lived, the state of the theater, the rumors that abound around Shakespeare’s life as well as the theories that the plays weren’t really written by William Shakespeare, but someone else.

Bryson was a terrific choice to write this brief life of the Bard of Avon.

Books now read in ’07: 106
Title: Blonde Faith
Author: Walter Mosley
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 11-11
Pages: 308

Easy Rawlins is back in Blonde Faith, which may be Mosley’s best book yet. Easy is attempting to solve a couple of mysteries including the disappearance of his best friend, Mouse. But as always – with this series – it is less about the story than about Easy’s musings on the state of race relations in America.

There’s a shocking moment at the conclusion of Blonde Faith that leaves the fan of Mosley’s series wondering exactly what has transpired. We can only expect the worse, but hope for the best.

Books now read in ’07: 107
Title: Then We Came to the End
Author: Joshua Ferris
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 11-14
Pages: 385

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is one of five books that was shortlisted for the National Book Award. It didn’t win and it should not have. Then We Came to the End strives not to be a literary version of TV’s The Office so much as the work world’s version of Catch 22. It’s not.

It is, ultimately, a disappointing book. Part of the problem, I think, is that Ferris writes in the first person plural. Everything is “we” did this and “we” did that. The difficulty is that, as a result, the reader has no one to identify with. The grim events that unfold in this Chicago ad agency seem remote and without emotional resonance.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Williams provides riveting account of 1928 Bunion Derby

Books now read in ’07: 103
Title: C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race
Author: Geoff Williams
Genre: Running
Date Completed: 11-4
Pages: 303

In the spring of 1928 more than 200 hundred men set out from California for New York. Not in a car or train, but by foot. They were part of C.C. Pyle’s “Bunion Derby” – a transcontinental foot race. After two and one-half months of enduring heat and cold, blisters, shin splints, dogs, inattentive motorists and an unscrupulous promoter, 55 men actually completed the race. Andy Payne, a 20-year-old man from Oklahoma, was the winner.

Geoff Williams provides an interesting and thoroughly researched account of Pyle’s great foot race, although in candor the most interesting events took place off the roadway. Pyle was a shameless promoter whose only really goal was to make money off these hardy souls. He did not succeed. Instead, Pyle was hounded throughout the race by businesses and individuals seeking to collect on previous debts. In the meantime, the race participants suffered from his poor planning and general lack of funds – sleeping in unheated tents, having to scrounge for food and to forgo the simplest amenities such as showers or clean clothes.

As a runner who has completed four marathons and several “trans-state” runs, I cannot comprehend the magnitude of the accomplishment of these 55 men. Even more mind boggling, Pyle actually pulled off a second Bunion Derby in 1929 and several of the men who completed the race in 1928 repeated their effort.

The average reader won’t take much interest in Williams’ book. The average runner will.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Run right out and buy Ann Patchett's new novel

Books now read in ’07: 100
Title: Interred With Their Bones
Author: Jennifer Lee Carrell
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 10-21
Pages: 416

Books now read in ’07: 101
Title: Cheating at Canasta
Author: William Trevor
Genre: Short Stories
Date Completed: 10-16
Pages: 232

Books now read in ’07: 102
Title: Run
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 10-31
Pages: 295

There are a lot of mysteries at the heart of Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred With Their Bones: Does Cardenio, one of Shakespeare’s lost plays truly exist? And, if it does, where is it? Who was Shakespeare? And, finally, who are the bad guys in this biblio-mystery?

With all that going for it, the reader could expect more than is delivered in Carrell’s diverting, but ultimately disappointing mystery. There are far too many cliff-hangers – virtually the end of every chapter – for my taste.

Who is the best writer of short stories? William Trevor or Alice Munro. I’d voted for Munro, but that’s splitting hairs. They are surely 1 and 1A in any ranking. Trevor’s new collection, Cheating at Canasta, is just fine. Give this to someone who says they don’t like short stories.

Ann Patchett’s newest novel is entitled Run as in run right out and buy this book. It is among the best I’ve read this year. Patchett’s a terrific storyteller and the book fairly quivers with insight and emotional resonance. Flip to page 258 and read her riff on a parent’s unconditional love. Books like this are why I read.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Russo rocks with Bridge of Sighs

Books now read in ’07: 98
Title: Bridge of Sighs
Author: Richard Russo
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 10-16
Pages: 528

Richard Russo is a superb storyteller.

His newest novel, Bridge of Sighs, is a rich and humorous and insightful as his previous works.

The novel is the story of boyhood friends; one who stays and one who goes. The friends, Lou C. Lynch – who has the unfortunate nickname, Lucy – and Bobby Marconi – now Noonan – are both 60, as is Lou’s wife, Sarah.

Lou and Sarah have lived all their lives in Thomaston, New York, where they run a series of convenience stores. Bobby has fled America for Europe, changed his name and become a well-known painter.

In Bridge of Sighs, Russo returns to his familiar theme of small-town life as he explores the relationship between Lou, Bobby and Sarah (who loves them both) as well as the boys’ relationships to their fathers. Lou is excessively devoted to his father. Bobby loathes his.

For me, this was a novel to linger over.

Books now read in ’07: 99
Title: Julie & Julia
Author: Julie Powell
Genre: Food
Date Completed: 10-19
Pages: 307

Julie Powell’s account of how she cooked her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year is entertaining enough, but ultimately disappointing. All food analogies will be strenuously avoided.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Where there's smoke . . . there isn't always fire

Books now read in ’07: 97
Title: Tree of Smoke
Author: Denis Johnson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 10-6
Pages: 614

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is an ambitious novel that ultimately stumbles on its own ambition.

Johnson strives for some combination of Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Greene (The Quiet American), but ultimately achieves the brilliance of neither. His Kurtz-like Colonel is only an ineffectual drunk, while the Colonel’s guilt-ridden nephew drifts into irrelevance and piracy uncertain whether he’s a quiet American or an ugly one.

The novel opens in the Philippines in 1963 and concludes in 1983 in multiple locations including Thailand, Malaysia and America. In between, of course, the action takes place in Vietnam. There are two principal stories; the first involving the Colonel and his unauthorized efforts to place a double agent in North Vietnam and the second featuring the two Houston brothers. The stories intersect briefly, and violently.

Tree of Smoke is a big, muscular novel. Johnson was going for the fences with this book, and there are some fine passages, but the whole is not greater than a sum of the parts. Tree of Smoke has its fans. Its reviews have been uniformly generous, it was shortlisted for the National Book Award and is the likely winner of that honor. Still, I didn’t like it much.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Richard Russo on Bridge of Sighs

Well into the writing of his new novel, Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo told his agent he thought he was writing a trilogy. The problem was that Russo had three main characters and in order tell their stories – from the past to the present – he’d written more than 600 pages “with no end in sight.”

Russo’s agent said no, the book wasn’t a trilogy. Russo simply had lots of rewriting to do, rewriting that would significantly alter the structure of the book. Russo told his agent why his suggestion wouldn’t work, then went home and began to do exactly as his agent had recommended.

The result is a complex structure (very un-Russo-like, the author admits) with a story that weaves between time – the past to the present to the past again – and space – from a small town in upstate New York to Venice.

A complex structure, but a simple story, Russo said. In its simplest terms, he said, the novel is the story of boyhood friends; one who stays and one who goes. The friends, Lou C. Lynch – who has the unfortunate nickname, Lucy – and Bobby Marconi – now Noonan – are both 60, as is Lou’s wife, Sarah. “60 is the age when you look at life,” Russo said, which is what all three characters are doing.

Lou and Sarah remained all their lives in Thomaston, New York, where they run a series of convenience stores. Bobby has fled America for Europe, changed his name and become a well-known painter. “He’s given up on marriage,” said Russo, “but not on married women.” In Bridge of Sighs, Russo returns to the theme of small-town life as he explores the relationship between Lou, Bobby and Sarah as well as the boys’ relationships to their fathers. Lou is excessively devoted to his father. Bobby loathes his.

In the present, Bobby (Noonan) is painting a picture of his father that everyone assumes is a self-portrait. The famous Venetian Bridge of Sighs is in the distance. In legend, the view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge name, given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice out the window before being taken down to their cells.

In Bridge of Sighs, Russo said he wanted to explore “that depth of feeling common to all people . . . a sense of complexity. What I’m after, if not universal, is nearly so.”

Bridge of Sighs is Russo’s six novel and seventh book. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his last novel, Empire Falls.

Russo came to writing late, only realizing in his late 20s that writing might be something he could and wanted to do. He said much of his style of writing was shaped by his reading. While would-be novelists of his acquaintance consumed contemporary literature, Russo was reading Dickens, Twain and Fitzgerald.

“I was trained as an old-school writer,” he said. Dickens taught him the importance of a large canvas and the value of minor characters. Twain showed him that if you go to dark places – racism, ignorance, brutality – that you had best go armed with humor. Twain also showed him the importance of irreverence toward authority.

From Fitzgerald, Russo learned to write about the quintessential American story, that our lives need not be determined by who our parents are or where we are from, but that we have the right to reinvent ourselves.

The lessons of those authors are all on display in Russo’s Bridge of Sighs.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

National Book Award Finalists Announced


  • Fieldwork, Mischa Berlinski
  • Varieties of Disturbance, Lydia Davis
  • Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
  • Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
  • Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard


  • Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat
  • God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens
  • Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Woody Holton
  • Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad
  • Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner

Friday, October 05, 2007

McMurtry examines six Western massacres

Books now read in ’07: 96
Title: Oh What A Slaughter
Author: Larry McMurtry
Genre: History
Date Completed: 10-4
Pages: 161

All six of my regular readers are aware of my penchant for the brief biography as best represented by Penguin Lives. This book, by novelist Larry McMurtry, fits squarely into that mold. With the pictures and white space, it is generous to describe it as 161 pages of narrative. (There is also an index and bibliography. Bibliographies are always welcome.)

McMurtry isn’t trying to provide a comprehensive account of six western massacres, from 1846 to 1890, which are the subject of his brief inquiry. Oh What A Slaughter is more of an essay than history, an extended rumination on the violence that man can do (and did) to fellow man in the settling of the West.

The massacres that McMurtry examines are the Sacramento River Massacre, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Sand Creek Massacre, the Marias River Massacre, the Camp Grant Massacre and the Wounded Knee Massacre. Three – Mountains Meadows, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee – are well known. The others less so.

For my taste, McMurtry strikes exactly the right balance between too much and too little. Those who want to know more (and I don’t) can turn to the helpful bibliography at the end of the book.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

New York has a great article on The Best Book You've Never Read. I've read three of the books and throughly agree these are books to add to your reading pile.

They are:

  • The Accidental by Ali Smith. Compelling and creepy.
  • Drama City by George Pelecanos. George is the best.
  • Unless by Carol Shields. I agree with the observation that it is important the late Shields continue to be read.
Three books on the list I have not read, but about which I have something to say are:

  • Mortals by Norman Rush. After reading Mating I can't bring myself to read Rush again.
  • The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. No one is funnier than Wolitzer. I will seek this book out.
  • The Road Home by Jim Harrison. Love Harrison. This book is in my reading pile.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On Dogs and Ann Patchett

In society, fiction lays the groundwork for a compassionate life, said author Ann Patchett, who appeared at a Borders in Northern Virginia last night to promote her new book, Run.

“The importance of fiction in society is that we need to imagine the lives of others,” Patchett said. “That is the essence of a compassionate life.”

The 43-year-old Patchett quickly engaged the audience with her disarming candor, delightful sense of humor and bold, animated reading style.

Although she is on tour to promote Run, Patchett said she has actually embarked on the “book tour of failing eyesight,” as she donned a pair of reading glasses. She attributed the need for reading glasses to William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Midway through the novel, she said, her eyesight began to fail. She’s currently reading the large-print version of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.

The book tour is also about Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty, her two previous books. “People come for your last book,” she said. Bel Canto propelled Patchett into the upper ranks of American authors – it was short-listed for the National Book Critics 2001 award for fiction and won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner prize for fiction. In Truth & Beauty, Patchett turned to non-fiction – her first such effort – with a powerful memoir about her decades-long friendship with the late author, Lucy Grealy.

“I love that book,” Patchett said. “It’s where I put my memories.”

In response to audience questions, Patchett said she is never surprised by the direction her writing takes because she spends a great deal of time in preparation before she begins writing. She expressed skepticism of authors who talk airily about their characters seizing control of the narrative, suggesting it was unprofessional on their part.

When asked about writing outside her realm of personal experience – Bel Canto was about an opera singer held hostage at a Japanese embassy in South America – Patchett said, “Writing about what you know is OK if what you know is interesting . . . but there’s nothing going on with me.”

She said her work style is haphazard and that she does not write every day. “I don’t have something to say every day,” Patchett said.

Patchett received an unusual introduction. The Borders employee read a brief essay she had written for Outside magazine about the importance of making a loving commitment to a dog. Her essay concludes:

Dogs know something about love writ large. The rotten part is that their life span is so much shorter than ours. Barring some seriously bad luck, I will outlive Rose by a large margin. She is 11 now. She has cataracts, and her back legs are weak. When we take long hikes, I always wind up carrying her home on my shoulders. Rose has taught me how to be a better person. I'm not sure I've taught her anything, except how to tell me when she wants another biscuit. Rose could not be a better dog. When she dies, I imagine I will howl like her ancestors, but the inevitable end of a relationship is no reason not to go there in the first place.

During her talk, Patchett said she was glad she wrote Truth & Beauty because the writing helped her deal with the loss of her friend and that now the book gave people a reason to ask her about her feelings around the loss of Lucy. She said people want to talk about those feelings, but seldom have the opportunity.

I never do this sort of thing with an author. I never assume we’re making some sort of connection, but this must have felt like an invitation.

After the reading, as Patchett prepared to sign my copies of Run and Bel Canto, I said, I’d love talk with you about dogs. Do you have dogs? she asked. Two, I said. Black-top corgis. Gracie and Dolly. She paused between books and fished something from her purse. It was photographs of her dog, Rose.

Somehow I found myself telling Patchett about last year when I lost my mother and my beloved seven-year-old corgi, Regis, in a matter of months. I’d had five years to prepare for mom’s death from cancer, but Regis’ death came quickly and unexpectedly. I was away on business when he was put down and had no time to prepare for the loss. When my wife called with the news I was on a shuttle bus at the airport and, at 52, I sobbed. I sobbed all through a sleepless night and was morose for weeks. It’s still hard to think about him. It’s hard to explain, I said, and I feel bad, but it was harder to lose him than my mom. It was the expected vs. the unexpected.

Later, after returning home, I opened Bel Canto to the title page to see what Patchett had written. She said, “To John, From my good dog to your good dogs. I understand. Ann Patchett.”

I think she does understand, and in that understanding she derives her power as a novelist.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lethem's comic debut this week

An interesting article on Jonathan Lethem's debut for Marvel Comics can be found at Comic Book Resources. Lethem is the author of Marvel's revival of Omega the Unknown. The book is on the stands and in the comic shops Wednesday.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Scenes from the 2007 National Book Festival

It's hard to beat the location of the National Book Festival, held annually on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Above, that, of course, is the Washington Monument. Author Terry Pratchett, was very, very popular.

Two historians -- Michael Beschloss on top and James Swanson on bottom. Swanson wrote the fine Manhunt.

Joyce Carol Oates and Mercer Mayer were also big attractions. Mayer was the illustrator for the 2007 Book Festival poster.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Offutt's short story collection, Seiffert's new novel are both superb works

Books now read in ’07: 93
Title: Kentucky Straight
Author: Chris Offutt
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 9-23
Pages: 167

Books now read in ’07: 94
Title: Afterwards
Author: Rachel Seiffert
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 9-25
Pages: 321

Books now read in ’07: 95
Title: Machiavelli, Philosopher of Power
Author: Ross King
Genre: Biograph
Date Completed: 9-26
Pages: 238

In 1992, Chris Offutt made his debut as a writer with Kentucky Straight, a collection of nine short stories set in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky. These stories are a powerful, sobering reflection of a section of American where superstition and ignorance hold sway and where life can be short and brutal and is as limited as the view of a patch sky overshadowed by thick stands of trees and endless hills. Offutt never matched the power and beauty of these stories in his later works. We can only hope that a new collection of stories is waiting to emerge.

Rachel Seiffert first came to my attention when her novel, The Dark Room, was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Her new novel, Afterwards, has yet to garner any prize nominations, but is a superior work and one that forces me to consider Seiffert with new respect and regard.

Afterwards is the story of Alice, a young British woman raised by her mother and grandparents. Her Gran has recently died, leaving Alice to spend more time alone with her grandfather. Alice loves her grandfather, but finds him emotionally remote and socially awkward. His emotional distance both frustrates and angers her.

Alice becomes even more disconcerted when her grandfather establishes a shaky emotional bond with her boyfriend, Joseph. Alice is slowly falling in love with Joseph, but finds that, like her grandfather, he withholds something of himself from her. He can become silent, distant and is inclined to vanish for days without explanation.

Their behavior, that of Joseph and Alice's grandfather, is shaped by their experiences in war – her grandfather in Kenya in the 1950s during the Mau Mau uprising and Joseph more recently in Northern Ireland.

Part of Seiffert’s skill as a novelist is her ability to balance the dichotomies that exist among the characters and to which she is drawn as a writer. Afterwards is a tender love story and a frank anti-war novel. Seiffert is, at once, both gentle in her treatment of her characters – there are no villains here – yet unsparingly, brutal in exposing the damage that war has wreaked upon them.

Afterwards is a profoundly sweet book. It also profoundly wise in the author’s understanding of people and how past events shape their present.

Ross King’s Machiavelli Philosopher of Power is rather humdrum. After almost eight years with Dick Cheney as Vice President, Machiavelli appears neither exceptionally evil nor preternaturally clever. King fails to make the claim for Machiavelli’s relevance today. This is a disappointing entry in HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series of short biographies.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Finn and Glasshouse both superb books

Books now read in ’07: 90
Title: Finn
Author: Jon Clinch
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 9-16
Pages: 283

Books now read in ’07: 91
Title: Glasshouse
Author: Charles Stross
Genre: Science Fiction
Date Completed: 9-21
Pages: 335

Books now read in ’07: 92
Title: This Shape We’re In
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 9-21
Pages: 55

Two books could not be more different than Finn and GlasshouseFinn is set on the banks of the Mississippi in the mid-19th Century, while Glasshouse is set several centuries in the future – yet I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

Finn is a bold re-imagining of a classic work of American literature. The Finn of the title is Huck Finn’s “Pap,” a violent, willful, doomed man. Author Jon Clinch provides the reader with both a father and a mother for Huckleberry Finn, surely one of the most iconic figures in American literature. Huck’s parentage, as envisioned by Clinch, is extraordinary, yet probable.

But this book does belong to Huck. Just as Pap had a only a cameo role in Huckleberry Finn, so Huck has only a brief appearance in Finn. This is his father’s book, and his story is given to us in a powerful, lyrical, original voice.

I hope the National Book Award judges are paying attention. This book deserves further notice.

Glasshouse is by Charles Stross, the premiere science fiction writer today. It begins – as this genre often does – on a far, distance world in a far, distant time where humans routinely back themselves up (like we do our computers) and can take virtually any shape they desire from that of a centaur to a sexy woman with four arms (and she knows how to use them).

The genius of Glasshouse is that an assortment of humans who have recently undergone memory wipes volunteer (sort of) for an experiment that results in them living under conditions similar to life in the mid-20th Century. There’s something going on below the surface, of course, and discovering exactly what the great experiment is really about is among the joys of this entertaining book.

Ultimately, Glasshouse is not so much a space opera as an old-fashioned prison break. It is another superb effort by Charlie Stross.

As for Jonathan Lethem’s This Shape We’re In I dunno. I have no clue what it’s about.