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.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Here's a bookseller that gets it wrong

"Fine in Fine dust jacket. This book is in fine condition in every respect except for a slight remainder mark which supposedly detracts from this books value. It does not."

Sorry, baby, but it does. I skipped this book for one twice the price. Collectors value condition and there are two things I hate: remainder marks and price-clipped dust jackets.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shirley draws a violation in Can I Keep My Jersey?

Books now read in ’07: 89
Title: Can I Keep My Jersey?
Author: Paul Shirley
Genre: Basketball
Date Completed: 9-12
Pages: 322

I had every reason to like this book. Shirley is a Kansas kid, as am I. While he didn’t play for my alma mater, Kansas, he did earn a starting role for Big 12 rival Iowa State and I saw him play on several occasions. Too, this book was recommended by a friend with impeccable judgment in books.

So I had every reason to like Can I Keep My Jersey?, but I didn’t like it at all.

I didn’t like it for a lot of reasons. Shirley isn’t as smart or as funny as he thinks. The kid could do with a dose of self-awareness. He actually uses words like “homo” and "retard,” while blithely criticizing professional basketball players for their narcissistic ways. Shirley thinks of himself as witty, but he’s really just sarcastic – and that doesn’t make a funny book, only a sad one.

He condemns anyone with a religious faith based on the actions of a few professional basketball players – surely (no pun intended) not a sampling truly reflective of believers anywhere and which misses the point about faith in any event.

But my biggest bone of contention with Paul Shirley is on two fronts. First, he completely fails to enjoy or to appreciate adventures that most people will never have the opportunity to experience. He plays in Greece, Spain and Russia, but only offer up a litany of complaints about his foreign experiences. It’s as if none of this touches this kid in any meaningful way. It's all about Paul.

Finally, Shirley seems no different from the other professional players he is so quick to distance himself from. Shirley is an engineering major and, after graduation from college, he would certainly be well on his way to a good career and a respectable income. Instead, he shuttles about the NBA, the CBA and foreign teams in pursuit of his “dream” to play in the NBA. More accurately, Shirley doesn’t play in the NBA so much as hold down a seat on the bench and wait for a blow-out – by either team – so he can literally see a few seconds of action.

Shirley is contemptuous of the values of his fellow NBA colleagues, yet I do not see that his are so different. As for his writing, it is a lot like his play in the NBA, best in limited doses.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 88
Title: The Accidental Time Machine
Author: Joe Haldeman
Genre: Science Fiction
Date Completed: 9-3
Pages: 276

It’s been a busy week with little time for reading. I did complete Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine (more on it later) and I plowed through about four issues of The New Yorker (I’m now up to date). Work, which took me to Boston, consumed most of my time, although work was a bit book related.

Book related in that Doris Kearns Goodwin was the keynote speaker at my company’s meeting on Tuesday in Boston and I was her escort. Ms. Goodwin dazzled the audience, receiving a standing ovation for her discussion of Lincoln, LBJ and FDR. Her speaking skills mirror her skills as a writer -- she knows the power of a good story. I found Ms. Goodwin to be charming. It's no surprise that she is exceptionally intelligent and knowledgeable on current events. I did not expect her to be so funny.

(FYI, I have four or five first editions written by Ms. Goodwin. She signed all those last year at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C.)

I attended a luncheon Thursday in which Tom Brokaw was the keynote speaker. I had hoped to have two books signed by Mr. Brokaw. That did not work out. Mr. Brokaw is slightly more unapproachable than Ms. Goodwin.

I did succeed in having Bill Rodgers sign three books. Mr. Rodgers (no not that Mr. Rodgers), won the Boston Marathon in 1975, 1978, 1979 and 1980. He was, for a brief span of time, the greatest American marathon and currently, in any historical ranking of American marathon greats, would take second only to Olympic gold medal winner Frank Shorter.

The time machine in Joe Haldeman’s new book really is accidental. A push of a button and grad-school dropout Matt Fuller’s calibrator disappears only to re-appear seconds later. Another push and it disappears again.

Matt, of course, turns himself into a human guinea pig and goes along for the ride. The machine disappears for longer and longer periods of time and, since the time machine travels one way – into the future – Matt can only continue to push the button traveling farther and farther into the future in the hope of finding the technology that will allow him to return to the past.

The Accidental Time Machine is all about the journey and Matt’s is an enjoyable one.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

I read so you don't need to

Books now read in ’07: 86
Title: Death of a Writer
Author: Michael Collins
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 8-31
Pages: 307

Books now read in ’07: 87
Title: Edith Wharton
Author: Hermione Lee
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 9-1
Pages: 762

Give these two books a pass. If you absolutely must read Michael Collins, I recommend The Keepers of Truth. And, instead of delving into Hermione Lee’s tedious biography of Edith Wharton, I suggest, instead, that you read the novels of Mrs. Wharton. The average reader can easily read a half-dozen novels by Wharton in the same span of time it takes to slog through this biography.

Death of a Writer provides few answers to its many mysteries, but that is the least of its shortcomings. It begins as an exploration of and satire on the hypocrisy of the literary/academic world. It devolves into a confusing account of a rogue cop, who may have killed his first wife. Finally, it wants to be a serious meditation on morality and mortality, but the result is one of those tiresome novels in which the narrative is allowed to proceed in fits and starts, interrupted at every turn by the banal, philosophical musings of its characters.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton is overly long, largely because neither Ms. Lee nor her editors exercised any judgment in what to exclude. This biography would have benefited greatly by the excision of about 200 pages. As it stands it reads like the efforts of a doctoral student who 1) can’t decide what among her voluminous research she should exclude so, instead, decides to exclude nothing, or 2) wants to demonstrate her considerable erudition on the subject at hand by filling the book with everything.

Edith Wharton is burdened by excessive lists, especially of names, that do nothing to shed any light on Ms. Wharton. Additionally, the emphasis Ms. Lee has given to various aspects of Wharton’s life are, to put it kindly, curious. She devotes an inordinate amount of time to the topic of Edith Wharton as master gardener. I’m absolutely certain that if Edith Wharton had been only a gardener and not a writer, no one would be writing or reading her biography.

One pet peeve for this reader is the treatment of French passages within the biography. Rarely, is there a translation. Occasionally, there are end notes. More often, the reader is left to his own devices. Were it Spanish, instead of French, I might have slowly picked out a translation. As it is, I was left in the dark. Writers and editors have an obligation to offer readers clarity and consistency. This book offers neither.