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.