Saturday, June 30, 2012

Best Books of 2012 - at Mid-Year

Half-way through 2012 already, and I'm finding these to be the best new books that I've encountered to this point.  This year's lists are limited to books published between October 1, 2011 and December 31, 2012.  That means that other worthy books will not be on the lists this year because they do not qualify as "new" titles. 


1.     Edge of Dark Water – Joe Lansdale - East Texas redneck noir at its finest
2.     The Angel Makers – Jessica Gregson – Hungarian women react badly to the aftermath of World War I
3.     Canada Richard Ford – Some borders cannot be uncrossed
4.     The World Without You Joshua Henkin – One family’s Fourth of July fireworks
5.     The Might Have Been Joseph M. Schuster – A lifetime in the minor leagues
6.     The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes – What really happened?
7.     The Solitary House Lynn Shepherd – Period mystery using many Bleak House characters
8.     The Red House Mark Haddon – Two families get to know each other way too well
9.     The Fear Artist Timothy Hallinan – Bad things are happening in Bangkok
10.  The Detour Andromeda Romano-Lax – Hitler loots Italy before World War II


1.     The One – R.J. Smith – “the life and music of James Brown”
2.     Game Over – Bill Moushey, Bob Dvorchak – the horror of Jerry Sandusky and his enablers lives on
3.     Private Empire – Steve Coll – “ExxonMobil and American Power”
4.     Holy Ghost Girl – Donna M. Johnson – growing up while following a tent preacher from town to town
5.     Taking Flak – Dan Pastorini – frank sports autobiography from former Oiler quarterback
6.     Wild – Cheryl Strayed – one woman’s hike for her life
7.     This Mobius Strip of Ifs Mathias B. Freese – Essays and memories
8.     The End of IllnessDavid B. Agus, M.D. – alternative medicine and new technology combined
9.     Out of My League Dirk Hayhurst – He finally makes it to The Show for a little while
10.  The Voluntourist – Ken Budd – volunteering for manual labor all over the world

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Blue Nights

Despite the incredible odds against a writer needing to produce a memoir describing a second round of personal grief so soon after releasing one focused on the death of a spouse, Joan Didion has done exactly that.  In that sense, Blue Nights is almost a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking in which Didion detailed the emotional trauma associated with the unexpected death of husband John Gregory Dunn, a loss from which she barely recovered.  But, as it always does, life goes on – even when it leads to the death of one’s only child, as it did for Joan Didion less than two years after she lost her husband.

Because Quintana Roo was already dangerously ill at the time of her father’s death, the two books overlap in ways that will be illuminating to readers already familiar with The Year of Magical Thinking.  Although the first book primarily focused on the relationship between Dunn and Didion, the couple’s adoption and assimilation into their lives of the baby they named Quintana Roo is an important part of their story.  With Blue Nights, the focus shifts more, but not entirely, to the life they shared with their new daughter. 

John Gregory Dunn and Joan Didion traveled in exclusive Hollywood circles for much of their lives.  They lived the good life, a lifestyle that sometimes placed them and their daughter on the sets of major motion pictures and in the after-hours company of the Hollywood elite of the day.  The two were good at what they did and they were rewarded well for their efforts.  Little Quintana (who would, as an adult, meet her biological family) held her own in that world despite some early signs that she might not be as stable as she appeared.

Joan Didion
For instance, the little girl was obsessed with the scary “Broken Man” who threatened her in her dreams, a man she was able to describe to her mother in colorful and complete detail.  At five, she would inform her parents that, while they were out, she had called a mental institution to ask what to do if she went crazy.  But in the context of their world, this behavior only seems unusual to Didion in retrospect - as she questions whether she might have done a better job raising her daughter.  Blue Nights is actually more about Didion’s reaction to the loss of the two people closest to her than it is about her daughter’s life, a focus that leads directly to what is perhaps the most brutally honest portion of the memoir. 

Joan Didion, in her late seventies when she wrote this memoir, is also grieving the loss of one life skill after another as she approaches eighty years of age.  She is horrified by an incident that left her dazed and bleeding from a fall she cannot recall to this day. She describes the devastating onset of shingles from which she still sometimes suffers.  She rages against her increasing frailty, especially the decreasing sense of balance that makes her so vulnerable to bone-breaking falls.  She is saddened by the realization that she will never wear her favorite dresses or high heel shoes again.  She fears that her writing skill, the very talent that defines who she is to herself, is deteriorating. 

Worst of all, she understands that she is on her own – and will have to experience old age without either of the two people she loved most in the world around to help her through it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Richard Russo on the E-Book Threat

In acknowledgement of the threat that the rise in popularity of e-books is to the existence of brick and mortar bookstores,  Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo is refusing to allow his new book to be produced in e-book format.   Interventions, comprised of four distinct volumes sharing one slipcase, is what Russo calls his "tribute to the printed book."

The Telegraph (London) has the details and pictures of the new work:
Russo, talking to the Associated Press from his home in Maine, said that the rapid rise of e-books and online sales of printed books pose threats to bookstores, the publishing industry and the rise of new authors.
He said: "I encourage the idea of buying locally. I think this particular book is part of that groundswell of people who are beginning to understand that buying all of your books through online booksellers is like buying everything from online sellers, whether it's flat-screen TVs or flowers or whatever. I think there's a groundswell of people who are beginning to understand the implications of that. And that's the only justification I have for saying print books are unlikely to disappear."
 He doesn't want to be known solely as an Amazon or e-book basher and says that he reads books on his iPad when he's travelling. But he's keen on promoting the idea of diversity - of how books are published, how they're sold and how they're read.
"I'm fine with online booksellers," Russo added. "I just don't want them to control the world."
This might seem like a little thing, but those of us who share Mr. Russo's concerns very much appreciate his effort to make people aware of how their book-buying experience could be ruined in the not-so-distant future.  Book browsing online has to be one of the most frustrating and least rewarding experiences I have ever endured on such a regular basis.  It seems that all the books that ever made it to a publisher's reject pile are being published simultaneously - plus thousands that never even made it that far.  Not everyone should write a damn cheapens the real thing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Maurice Sendak: Wannabe Terrorist and Presidential Assassin

Wannabe Terrorist Maurice Sendak
Well, here's an excellent way for a man to ruin his literary reputation just months before he dies.  (I realize this strays into the political arena but I am so appalled by what this jackass had to say that I'm going to take a chance and post his comments here.)

In an October interview being previewed at a site called The Comics Journal right now, the formerly beloved children's author had this to say about a fantasy of his, a dream he longed to turn into reality:
SENDAK: Bush was president, I thought, “Be brave. Tie a bomb to your shirt. Insist on going to the White House. And I wanna have a big hug with the vice president, definitely. And his wife, and the president, and his wife, and anybody else that can fit into the love hug.”
GROTH: A group hug.
SENDAK: And then we’ll blow ourselves up, and I’d be a hero. [Groth laughs.] To hell with the kiddie books. He killed Bush. He killed the vice president. Oh my God.
GROTH: I would have been willing to forgo this interview. [Sendak laughs.]
SENDAK: You would have forgotten about it. It would have been a very brave and wonderful thing. But I didn’t do it; I didn’t do it.
Yes, you were a wonderful man, Mr. Sendak.  I'm sure you're family is going to be very proud to read this insanity.  The man was sick.  My copy of Where the Wild Things Are is going out with the rest of the trash tonight.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears

Already twice a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, Peter Carey now offers his readers The Chemistry of Tears, a complexly constructed study of grief and self-identity set in contemporary London.  Despite its modern-day setting (2010), however, the novel can also legitimately be called historical fiction as much of its story is lifted directly from the pages of a nineteenth century Englishman’s personal diary.

Catherine Gehrig is a conservator at the Swinburne Museum whose thirteen-year affair with a married colleague is still a mostly well-kept secret.  As far as she knows, no one at the museum suspects that she and Matthew Tindall, one of the museum’s head curators, have a relationship of that sort.  Their secret is so successfully kept, in fact, that when Matthew dies suddenly, Catherine is among the last of the museum employees to get the news.  Now, her whole world in turmoil, she must pretend that she has not been emotionally crippled by her devastating grief.

Fortunately for Catherine, her boss - the one man who now seems to have been aware of the affair – places her on immediate sick leave before transferring her to a more isolated museum annex to work on the unusual project he has chosen for her.  There Catherine finds eight boxes filled with the diagrams and mechanical parts needed to restore and assemble what appears to be a160-year-old duck automation.  It is when she discovers a series of notebooks relating to the origin of the automation that Catherine becomes obsessed with her new assignment.

Carey will, from this point, alternate accounts of Catherine’s life with pages taken from the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Englishman who originally commissioned the amazing automation she is working to reconstruct.  Brandling, a man completely devoted to his sickly young son, hopes that the boy will be so taken with the mechanical duck that he will somehow find the will to conquer the disease that is slowly killing him.  Brandling’s willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his son alive brings him to a tiny German village where he falls into the hands of a strange clockmaker who will drive him closer and closer to despair.

Peter Carey
The Chemistry of Tears tackles complex human emotions, emotions that probably have to be personally experienced for one to comprehend their full impact on the human psyche.  Catherine’s entire identity, the person she believed herself to be, was defined by her affair with Matthew Tindall.  When Matthew died, the old Catherine Gehrig died with him, and now she is working just as hard to reconstruct a self-identity for herself as she is on rebuilding the antique mechanical duck.  Whether or not she can succeed with either project is the question.

The Chemistry of Tears is a moving novel, one that will especially speak to those readers who have suffered a level of grief similar to Catherine’s.  While it is not a long novel, it does suffer a bit from an overabundance of mysterious side plots pertaining to the tribulations suffered by the automation’s original owner.  Readers, however, should not be overly discouraged by this because The Chemistry of Tears is well worth the effort required – and each of the side plots contributes to the book’s atmosphere or depth of the Henry Brandling character.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Jeremy Barker, a Catholic high school freshman, lives by a code that he calls the “Zombie Survival Code.”  As he sees it, “…rules are meant to be broken, but codes are made to be followed.”  Jeremy’s particular code is a product of his fascination with zombie movies (the guy is an expert on the genre) and he figures that if the code is good enough to ensure his survival of a zombie apocalypse, it will probably get him through high school.

Because he doesn’t readily fit in to any of the schools core groups, Jeremy has few friends.  But when he becomes the target of a group of jocks determined to destroy him, his zombie code serves him well – making it possible for him to defend himself by becoming the aggressor.  Unfortunately for Jeremy, however, not all the zombies in his world attend his high school; some are members of his immediate family.

His mother, a barely functioning pill addict, has married the man for whom she left his father.  His older brother, also a doper, lives on the other side of town and barely manages to function in the real world.  To top things off, Jeremy’s ex-Marine father is starting to scare him by disappearing night after night without explanation.  When Jeremy, snooping in his father’s office closet, turns up what appears to be a homemade video showing a naked man restrained on a bed and being prepared for some kind of ritualistic surgery, things really get strange.  Zombies, it seems, are everywhere.

Zombie is the most unusual coming-of-age novel I have read in a long, long time.  Yes, it does include all of the basic elements one has come to expect in such stories: school bullies, first loves, personal insecurities, troubles at home, kind-hearted mentors, etc.  And, too, Jeremy Barker is a bright, likeable kid with his own quirky way of looking at the world, so getting to know him is fun.  But there is also a very dark side to Zombie, particularly the book’s dramatic, over-the-top ending, that changes its entire nature.  (Note: Because of the language used and its graphic violence, Zombie is probably not appropriate reading for younger teens – even though they would probably love it.)

When he is faced with unimaginable situations and choices, the Zombie Code serves Jeremy well even though he is living through the freshman year from hell.  He knows that zombies cannot be confronted without having the right weapons, an exit strategy, a willingness to do whatever it takes to survive, and a talent for forgetting the past.  Jeremy’s big problem is that there are zombies all around him – even if they are not flesh-eaters – and they keep turning up where he least expects to find them.

Remember…never look a zombie in the eye.  (Zombie Survival Code #1)

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Where'd You Go, Bernadette" - Book Trailer of the Week

Book promotion is a whole new ballgame, and almost by definition, it has become the responsibility of authors to do the bulk of it all on their own.  Those lucky enough to get some help from a publisher willing to spend a few bucks on things like high quality book trailers should certainly count their blessings.  What I particularly enjoy in a book trailer is a display of an author's sense of humor - and a sense of irony.  That's what makes this one my Book Trailer of the Week.


7th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase

Thursday, June 21, 2012

World Book Night 2012 Recap

The organizers of World Book Night 2012 have prepared a video that recaps what was going on across America on the evening of April 23, 2012.

I thoroughly enjoyed participated in this first American Book Night and I look forward to doing it again next year.  If this is something that looks like fun to you, watch the blog early next year - I'll let everyone know when things start coming together for World Book Night 2013.


(I found the map with all the dots representing participants to be particularly interesting - but I'm disappointed in how participation seems to have dropped off the farther West one looks.  Maybe that's because the states are larger and have more space for dots to be placed within their borders.  Short of trying to count dots, I really can't tell.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Our Disappearing University Presses

University of Missouri, Columbia MO
Some of my very favorite books were published by university presses.  What other publishers produce as many books about minor historical figures, obscure Civil War battles, literary criticism, quirky memoirs, minority studies, women's studies, poetry, regional histories, and the like?  I've learned that when looking for a book about any relatively obscure subject or person, it is always most efficient to start the search by browsing a few university catalogs and websites.

But in the last few years, those catalogs have become harder and harder to come by.  Now, I understand why.  According to this June 19 article by Jeffrey R. Di Leo in Inside Higher Ed, university presses are rapidly disappearing.  That bothers me as much as what is happening to bookstores around the country. Times are changing, for sure, and not for the better - absolutely not for the better.
One of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors. 
University presses are nonprofit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host universities. This is part of the investment of higher education.

Most of the monographs produced by scholars have a limited audience — and very few make their publishers any money. However, their publication is still an important aspect of scholarly activity and knowledge dissemination.
How does one compare a football season to a publishing season? Is an 8-5 season more valuable than 30 books published? Is running a press worth losing an assistant coach or two?
The reason Mr. Di Leo throws out the question just above is because it seems to take about $400,000 per year to subsidize a good-sized university press.  The latest university to announce a looming shutdown of its press is the University of Missouri, one that was founded in 1958 and enjoys a reputation as one of the best university presses in this country.  According to Di Leo, $400,000 is just a little more than what the University of Missouri pays to the men filling the roles of assistant head coach and defensive co-ordinator.

But we know which program is a profit center for the school, a recruiting tool that keeps all that money flowing into the school coffers to pay all those so "critically needed" university administrators, don't we?  It is a sad day (and the Houston area school I'm proudest of, Rice University, is among those having made the same decision) when our best universities forget what their purpose really is and decide to place a higher value on athletics than on the prestige to be gained from running a successful university press.

Read the rest of this article for all the disheartening details.  The dumbing down of America is preceding at an ever accelerating pace, friends.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The World Without You

The best literary fiction (and Joshua Henkin’s latest is one of the best literary novels I have read in a while) has the power to insert the reader into worlds that seem every bit as real as the one they actually inhabit. By the time I finished The World without You, I felt as if I had just spent a rather tense Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires with my friends, the Frankels and their spouses. Henkin’s characters, all of them, are so well developed that I would feel quite comfortable now chatting with any of them over a cup of coffee or casual lunch. I know these people.

David and Marilyn, their three daughters, two sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren gather at the family vacation home for what they already know will be an emotional weekend. They are there to participate in a memorial service for the youngest Frankel, Leo, a journalist who had been kidnapped and murdered in Iraq almost exactly one year earlier. Despite the passage of an entire year, it soon becomes clear that all of them are still suffering from the trauma of Leo’s sudden loss. Emotions are raw, nerves are on edge, and as old resentments and outrages are openly expressed, the family’s very survival will be tested.

Joshua Henkin
A scene from the novel, in which Leo’s parents together describe an incident at a cocktail party they attended eight months after Leo’s death, is so powerful that it haunts me still. Asked by a stranger at the party how many children they have, Marilyn answers “four” at precisely the moment her husband replies with “three.” In that instant, Marilyn felt, and still feels, a surge of anger and hurt that may have forever tainted the way she looks at David and their marriage. David, for his part, still cannot understand why what he said was so terrible. This tiny moment from their lives made me understand the depth of their grief.

The beauty of The World without You and Joshua Henkin’s writing is that so many of the other characters also had moving and poignant moments in which they become utterly believable to the reader. Ultimately, this is not really a story about Leo Frankel and what happened to him in Iraq. Rather, it is a novel about the people Leo left behind to live in the world without him, and how these people have had their lives forever changed by his murder. To reconcile themselves to the grief they feel, all of them will be forced to dig deeply within themselves – a process that finally begins one Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In the Mail

I arrived home a little later than usual this evening only to find another great surprise in my mailbox.  I've mentioned before how I fell in love with the cover of a little book from the U.K. that collects a bunch of flash fiction from Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes.  Each of the stories is about an otherwise ordinary person who possesses a weird super power of some sort.  The book, as you can see from the cover, is illustrated in comic book style by artist Darren Craske.

The cover, of course, is what first catches the eye.  But now that I have a physical copy of the book in my hands, I can see how it would almost sell itself to those lucky enough to pick it up in a bookstore.  It's quirky, funny, bold...geez, you can provide as many cheesy adjectives as me.  Perhaps, "fun" is the best of them all, and I'll stop with that one.

Even the author introductions are a bit off the wall.  Nick has this to say about himself:
"If Nik could choose a super power he would rather like the ability to type a little faster.  Either that or be able to talk to cats.  He likes cats."
Carolyn explains herself this way:
"If Caroline could choose a super power she would rather like a combination of teleportation, time manipulation, and feet that are roller-skates.  The reasons why, she feels, are obvious." 
While not "officially" available in the U.S. yet, Freaks can be purchased through The Book Depository (with free worldwide shipping) or perhaps through the Amazon U.K. website.  I'm not going to be able to get to this one right away, but it is such an eye-catcher that I'm going to leave it on top my desk as a conversation starter.  My thanks go to Nik for having a copy mailed to me from London; I'm looking forward to it.

The Solitary House

This second of Lynn Shepherd’s “literary murders,” The Solitary House, makes good use of several characters readers will remember from Dickens’s Bleak House. Playing prominent roles here are the despicable lawyer, Edward Tulkinghorn, the reliable Inspector Bucket, and a character closely resembling Esther (called Hester this time around). That the novel is written in the style of classic English novels of the period is probably what first will attract most readers to it, but The Solitary House is also a very fine mystery – one with an ending reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s Sutter Island.

The novel’s central character, Charles Maddox, was a Metropolitan police officer before he was dismissed for insubordination. Now he is determined to earn his living as a self-employed detective - or as he sometimes calls himself and his famous detective uncle, a “thief taker.” Maddox, a man of great curiosity and varied interests, is a natural at the business of detecting, but he is still struggling to build a reputation of his own. For that reason, he is both surprised and flattered when Mr. Tulkinghorn, one of the most powerful lawyers in London approaches him about a job.

Lynn Shepherd
Someone is sending threatening letters to a wealthy London banker, and Tulkinghorn wants Maddox to identify and stop the culprit before any harm comes to his client. Tulkinghorn’s request seems to be so straightforward that Maddox eagerly accepts the charge despite not having completed his current case, the search for a young woman being sought by the father she has never met. Maddox decides he will work the two cases simultaneously, and he does – until things take a nasty turn that begins him wondering if the two cases are somehow connected. When some of his sources begin to suffer horrible deaths at the hands of a psychotic killer, Maddox realizes that his life - and those of everyone closest to him - are in jeopardy.

Readers of Dickens will feel right at home in the London so meticulously recreated here by Shepherd. But the real core of her story is the relationship between young Charles Maddox and his great uncle, the man to whom Charles turns for advice and insight as his investigation progresses. The old man, one of the pioneering detectives of his day, seems to be suffering from some type of senile dementia and is confined to his home. It is painful (particularly for those readers who have watched their own loved ones go through a similar process, I suspect) to watch the old man struggle with the awareness of what is happening to him. He is still capable of moments of brilliant insight, but is just as likely to lapse into periods of rage and paranoia. Through it all, and despite his own battles, Charles is by his side as they solve the mystery of The Solitary House together. This one is fun.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Happy Fathers Day Eve, Guys

I thought I would get an early start on Fathers Day 2012 by sharing this video from the Open Roads people featuring Kaylie Jones and Andres Dubus III talking about their famous writer fathers.  I am always fascinated by this kind of thing - hope you enjoy it, too.  (I seem to be running into Kaylie Jones a lot lately.)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Equal of the Sun

Equal of the Sun follows Anita Amirrezvani’s 2007 debut novel, The Blood of Flowers, a bestseller longlisted for that year’s Orange Prize. Both books focus on interesting periods in Iranian history, but the new one is set one century earlier than its predecessor. It is 1576 and the shah is dead under circumstances that indicate that he may have been poisoned. The political intrigue that results is every bit as bloody and complicated as anything portrayed in historical fiction based upon English history of similar periods.

Pari, the shah’s daughter has been his trusted advisor since she was fourteen years old and she is determined to retain her power and influence. Because one of her brothers is blind and the other was exiled by her father years earlier, choosing the shah’s successor is complicated. Pari knows that, if her family is to maintain control of the country, she must move quickly or the royal court will choose to someone from another tribe to succeed her father. The good news is that she succeeds in having one of her brothers named the new shah; the bad news is that he is not the kind, goodhearted man she remembers and loves from her childhood. Rather, he has become a bitter, bloodthirsty tyrant who distrusts Pari so much that he strips her of all influence. In the ensuing bloodbath, those unable to convince the new shah of their absolute loyalty are at risk - including Pari and her allies.

Pari, one of history’s “powers behind the throne,” is an interesting character. There were certainly other powerful women in that period, even in countries like Iran, but by aiming higher than most, she marked a special place for herself in Iranian history (the character is based upon the very real Princess Pari Khan Khanoom who was born in 1548). But there is, I think, an even more interesting character in Equal of the Sun. The book’s narrator is Javaher, a eunuch who has gotten himself attached to the royal court for reasons known only to him.

Anita Amirrezvani
Even as eunuchs go, Javaher is an unusual case, a man who volunteered to become a eunuch at age seventeen in order to express and prove his loyalty to the shah. As cringe-worthy as that decision is to contemplate, Javaher saw it as a way to honor his father’s memory. His father, a royal accountant, had been murdered by someone of power, and Javaher hoped that by placing himself inside the palace he would learn enough about the murder to identify those responsible.

Equal of the Sun is a violent and sexy novel. Javaher is in a unique position to describe what goes on inside the shah’s harem and the rest of the women’s quarters – and he does so with detailed relish, including accounts of his own rather surprising sexual exploits. He also offers intriguing insight into the daily lives of those thousands of men forced to sacrifice their manhood in service to the royal family women of the day. But, at heart, this is a political novel and, as such, its real lesson is that the battle is often won before soldiers take the field. Pari Khan Khanoom and her powerful ally, Javaher, understood this better than most.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

BEA 2012 Live Streams Are Still Available

Great news, guys.

I just discovered that the BEA Livestream channel is still available for those of us who missed the streamed sessions.  I couldn't shake free long enough to take advantage of all the streaming when it was happening, so this is pretty cool. There's some great stuff on the website and, at least for now, it's all there for you to watch at your leisure.

Among others, I see sessions covering YA books, adult fiction, one called "Inside the Mystery," a Dan Rather interview, and several covering the evolution and exploitation of e-books.  The most amazing thing about the e-book-related sessions, is their paltry attendance - one session seems to have had a grand total of two people in the audience when it started.  Maybe the average BEA attendee isn't  all that enthusiastic about e-books yet?  Several other sessions, generally those employing several authors each, appear to have been packed.

Anyway, I hope you find one or two things here that interest you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

LOA: Steinbeck Novels & Stories 1932-1937

I was happy to find a package on my desk when I got home this afternoon - particularly, because it was so obviously the book I've been waiting to receive from the Barnes & Noble people.  I know that I must sound like a cheerleader when it comes to the Library of America books, but my appreciation for them has only grown over the years, and I want to spread the word about them.

This volume marks my 44th Library of America title and I have only put a good-sized dent in the list of those I plan to own someday.  Fans of classic (and almost classic) American literature will be hard pressed to find better editions of these works at twice the price.  They are of such high quality that, short of loss to fire or flood, they can be passed on from generation to generation as far as one can imagine.

This Steinbeck edition includes all those novels and stories the author wrote about central California from 1932 to 1937.  It is one of four volumes, the second I've acquired now, in the LOA's Steinbeck series.

Among the 44 others I own now, I've managed to complete the Twains (seven titles) and have picked up five of the seven Roths, four of the fifteen Henry James volumes, two of the five Faulkners, two of the three Bellows, and both Cheevers.  As you can imagine, it will take a few years to get there, but I plan to fill in the blanks as my budget allows.  Also high on my LOA wish list, are more books from the LOA noir collection that include works of Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, and at least three volumes of novels from various noir and crime authors.

The recognized masters are all there, of course, but the LOA presentations actually become more and more interesting as the years go by.  There are now nice anthologies representing science fiction, baseball, sports writers, food writers, movie critics, boxing, humor, and true crime writers.  Poetry fans will likely find their favorites well represented in the collection, also.  If you keep a shelf or two of beautifully bound classics this is a publisher you want to check out.

I remove the book jackets before shelving them and this is what that portion of my shelves looks like (the tans, blues, greens, and maroons that are all bunched together on two of the shelves - this bookcase is actually two shelves taller than I could fit into this picture):

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Long Island Noir

Long Island Noir, by my count the fiftieth offering in the Akashic Noir Series, is a nice collection of seventeen short stories devoted to Long Island’s dark side.  Noir fiction, by definition, focuses on the darkness hidden within every human being and what happens when that dark side is allowed to express itself.  These stories, consequently, are generally about losers and their victims.  These are not “feel good” stories with happy endings and, with an exception or two, there are no nice guys to be found here unless you consider a few of the victims to fit into that category – but, even of that bunch, only a few will qualify.  You have to love this stuff.

As editor Kaylie Jones puts it in the book’s introduction, “They are all characters driven by some twisted notion of the American Dream, which they feel they must achieve at any cost.  This is real-life noir.  These people are our neighbors.”  Most would hope this to be a bit of an exaggeration, but if not our neighbors, people like these are probably nearer than most of us care to admit.

Short story collections, if they include enough stories or writers, tend to be a bit uneven, and this one is no exception.  Included in this one are both excellent stories and a couple of dry clunkers that read more as obvious, almost characterless, indictments of spousal abuse and racism.  There is even a graphic short story (my first experience with one of those) called “Boob Noir” that turns out to be one of the darkest and most disturbing tales of the bunch.

Editor Kaylie Jones
Several of the stories are particularly memorable and fun to read, including the book’s opener, a story by Matthew McGevna called “Gateway to the Stars” in which a young man is kept from rescuing his younger brother from a sexual predator by a local cop who refuses him entrance to a wealthy neighborhood to search for the boy.  “Home Invasion,” written by Kaylie Jones, is the striking story of a 16-year-old girl who unexpectedly turns the table on a friend of her father’s who has been taking advantage of her.  My favorite, though, is Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Mastermind,” a story about a petty criminal who has finally planned the perfect score, one that will net him enough to live well on for a long time, only to have it all go wrong in a way that would have made the great Alfred Hitchcock smile. 

Readers of Long Island Noir are likely to have their image of Long Island forever changed – especially those who have not seen it with their own eyes.  As these stories remind us, not everyone on Long Island lives in the Hamptons.  It’s dark out there; watch yourself.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cop to Corpse

Because Cop to Corpse is my first exposure to Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series, I am certainly no expert on the character or its development over the course of the series’s eleven previous books. But if the other eleven are as entertaining as this one, this detective series should be investigated by all police procedural fans looking for a new detective to follow. Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond is far closer to the end of his career than to the beginning, and it shows in his attitude and how he approaches an investigation. Readers will enjoy watching him play the game his way.

PC Harry Trasker is the third policeman in the Bath area, Diamond’s home turf, to be shot dead by a sniper in just a few weeks. As were the two previous victims, Trasker was killed instantly by a clean shot to the head, indicating that the shooter is a well trained, skillful marksman. More disturbing, perhaps, is the shooter’s uncanny ability to commit the murders without ever being seen or leaving behind a trace of evidence the police can use to track him. This, however, begins to change with the murder of Harry Trasker.

Peter Lovesey
This time someone calls police immediately following the shooting and they arrive on the scene within minutes, something the killer never expected to happen. When the young policeman in charge at the scene of the crime decides that capturing the killer on his own before backup arrives would be a great career move, things get interesting. That is when Peter Diamond arrives – only to learn that the investigation has already been claimed by a rather pompous rival of his from a neighboring jurisdiction, Chief Superintendent Gull.

Gull, though, will prove to be the least of Diamond’s problems because, after Diamond becomes convinced that the shooter might be a fellow cop, he will face a rebellion within the ranks that forces him to investigate that theory on his own. Despite being left on crutches after a near fatal encounter with a darkly helmeted motorcycle rider, Diamond follows the leads wherever they take him. Along the way, he suffers the abuse of grieving police widows, a loss of respect from his own investigating team, and the indignity of reporting to the fool officially in charge of the Somerset Sniper investigation.

Cop to Corpse shows that Peter Lovesey is a crime writer still very much at the top of his game despite having been awarded 2000’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for “lifetime achievement in crime writing.”

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Hemingway & Gellhorn

This is one of those free HBO weekends at our house that the uVerse people seem to offer twice or so a year and I've been exploring the channel's current movie selection.  I was happy to see that the recent movie Hemingway & Gellhorn is on offer right now, along with what turned out to be a good adaptation of Water for Elephants.  I've watched both of them now, but it is the Hemingway movie that I found most interesting.

Hemingway & Gellhorn is an HBO film that has been airing on the pay channel since late May.  It focuses on the years from 1936 to the mid-1940s primarily but, in a  flashforward to the end of his life, the movie ends with Hemingway's suicide .  The pair first met in a Key West bar that Martha, in the company of her mother and brother, dropped into during their travels around the world.  Martha Gellhorn, a pioneering female war correspondent of the day, managed to get herself to the Spanish Civil War before Hemingway arrived - but once he did get there, the real fireworks began.  If the HBO movie is to be believed, Hemingway's second marriage didn't have a chance of survival from that moment on.

Gellhorn would prove to be an inspiration to Hemingway in more ways than one, thankfully, and he would credit her with inspiring him to write his now classic For Whom the Bell Tolls.  For obvious reasons, readers will enjoy this movie a lot, so I am a bit shocked, though thankful, that this kind of film is still being produced amongst all the junk that Hollywood markets today.  If this is an indication that the  baby-boom-market is still worth catering to, there should be some great stuff yet to come as we continue to age.

Side note: One thing about the movie did bug me a little.  Gellhorn, of German extract, was born in Missouri and, for the most part, Nicole Kidman nails the accent, but when it slips, it really slips, and it is distracting to hear the character speak with a British (not Australian) accent.  But this is still a great movie.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Les Miserables & the 150-Year-Old Spoiler Alert

Time for another Book Trailer of the Week, although this one is actually a trailer for a movie - based on a play -  based on a book.  Les Miserables, the stage musical, has been transformed into a British movie set for a December 2012 release.  The first teasers are starting to appear in U.S. theaters now, so it appears that the movie will be getting a big push from Universal Pictures, the distribution company.

Here's a look at the short trailer that's been posted to YouTube - followed by an interesting take on the film trailer from that includes a "150-year-old spoiler alert."  It seems there is already a good bit of controversy about the choice of one of the lead actresses and one who was rejected earlier.  Victor Hugo would be amused, I'm sure.

150-year-old spoiler

6th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Photo Album

Because it takes so different an approach to fiction than anything I’ve read previously, I was slow to appreciate what K.B. Dixon is going for in The Photo Album.  But when that little light bulb finally clicked on for me about thirty pages into it, this unconventional little book became great fun to read. 

The Photo Album can, at first, be a bit confusing because it is a book in which fictional photography-nut Michael Quick explains the circumstances and details associated with 120 favorite photos of his selected from the thousands he has taken.  A little box (most of them horizontal, but a few set on the vertical) sits atop each new section of the book, followed by a short narrative about the picture being featured.  The catch is that there is nothing inside the borders of the box – it is up to each reader to create imaginary pictures to fit the descriptions below all those empty boxes.  This is much easier, and more rewarding, than it sounds.  After all, avid fiction readers do this kind of thing all the time, don’t they?

K.B. Dixon
The real fun, though, begins when the reader becomes familiar enough with Michael to be able to read between the lines of his descriptions about his wife, their friends and neighbors, and his search for a photography style fitting somewhere between art and the mundane.  Michael has little patience with hypocrites or poseurs and he is not a man afraid to share his personal observations about the ones he so regularly encounters.  Our photographer, however, is not a mean-spirited man and seems genuinely to enjoy the quirky behavior of the people in his life, especially that of his adult daughter, Kayla. 

Kayla is the subject of a number of the book’s 120 photos, in many of which she shares space with her new dog, Omar.  Over the course of the book, one senses that Michael is finding it more and more difficult not to smile while delivering his deadpan comments about the developing relationship between Omar and Kayla – all of it documented in pictures.  This is the entire description, for example, under one Christmas season photograph in the book:

            “Kayla is letting Omar choose is own Christmas present.  To me he looks confused.”

That is exactly the kind of understated humor that I enjoy.  Those sharing a similar taste will appreciate The Photo Album…oh, and I think my 120 pictures came out pretty well, considering my inexperience.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Keys to Blog Traffic: Virgins, Porno, Rape, and Nymphos

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining.  It's just that this kind of thing makes me shake my head sometimes - and smile.  Four posts that I made here on Book Chase between November 2007 and February 2012, based on number-of-hits received, consistently rank in the monthly top 10 of the 1,893 total posts made since I began Book Chase on January 20, 2007.

Why did that catch my eye?  Because they have a lot in common - mainly that the four books featured in those posts apparently include very popular Google search terms in their titles: Nympho Librarian, Rape: A Love Story, The Virgin Suicides, and Johnny Porno.  I think you can pick out the key word in each of those titles.  What amazes me is that, after all this time, three of the posts continue to pull in close to 200 new readers per month thanks to Google's search - and Johnny Porno adds another 50 or so.  I suppose that some of the traffic comes from image searchers, but the bulk of it comes because of the four key-words in these titles.

Reviewed in November 2007

Reviewed in May 2010

Reviewed in December 2007
Discussed in February 2012

Tip of the day, my fellow bloggers:

The trick to generating long term traffic from your posts is to choose your post titles (and subjects) very carefully.  The Virgin Suicides review has received the second most hits of any book review I've ever written (second only to Sarah's Key) and Rape: A Love Story ranks tenth all-time.  We've all heard that a huge percentage of internet traffic is driven by pornography searches.  Apparently that's true even for nerdy book review sites like this one.  

Keep searching, guys. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

Steve Coll’s massive volume (28 chapters, 684 pages, plus an extensive list of footnotes) on the history of ExxonMobil focuses primarily on the company’s last two decades.  That the decades are bookended by two the worst oil spill disasters in the history of the oil industry is no accident.  Coll is likely trying to make the point that oil companies learned little from the horror that was the 1989 Alaskan spill by the Exxon Valdez tanker.  Perhaps inadvertently, he also highlights just how complicated and dangerous is the business of exploring and transporting the energy that world economies will depend upon for several decades to come.  The odds are that we have not seen the last of such spills.   

John D. Rockerfeller’s Standard Oil Company became so dominant that dedicated “trust busters” and the U.S. Supreme Court, split it into several individual oil companies in 1911.  But as happened when AT&T broke apart several decades later, some of the pieces would decide it was smarter to recombine into mini-versions of the original parent company.  ExxonMobil, a combination of two companies split from the original Standard Oil all those years ago, is now the largest oil company in the world.

What makes Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power so intriguing is the author’s focus on the political and economic influence ExxonMobil exerts around the world.  The company’s revenues are, in fact, large enough to rank it the twenty-first largest “nation state” on the planet.  ExxonMobil’s ability to come into remote areas and create revenue streams to whatever government they find there makes it more powerful and influential in parts of the world than the U.S. government (or any other government, for that matter) can claim to be.  Lee Raymond, the man in charge for most of the period detailed in Private Empire, knew that he and his company would be around for the long haul – long after many government leaders, especially American presidents, had come and gone.  As Raymond watched the rotation of American presidents  – and spent ExxonMobil’s money to help those he favored remain in office as long as possible – he knew he could safely put the interests of ExxonMobil first, and those of the United States a distant second.  And there was little anyone could do about it even if they wanted to.

Steve Coll
Critics of Big Oil, especially those who criticize the industry because of its unwillingness to embrace fully the concept of global warming, will read much in the book that will anger them.  Lee Raymond was a nonbeliever, and he did everything in his power to delay any environmental action that would negatively impact ExxonMobil’s ability to do business as usual (as Coll points out, the company stance has changed since Raymond was succeeded by Rex Tillerson).  Raymond, on the other hand, did build, and rigidly enforce, a culture of safety that made oil spills and other environmental accidents as unlikely as they could possibly be.  The man understood the power of public opinion and he tried to keep it on his side.

It is impossible even to touch on all the issues contained in Private Empire.  There are whole chapters on ExxonMobil’s struggles with security problems around the world and how the efforts to keep employees and company assets secure often required the company’s close cooperation with some of the most brutal dictators in world history.  Other chapters look at the ultimate impact of all the cash the company poured into third world countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East – what has become known as the “resource curse.”  Strikingly, when poor countries suddenly strike it rich in natural resources they often move backward rather than ahead, something akin to what happens to so many unprepared lottery winners.  ExxonMobil has seen this happen, first hand, more than once.

Readers willing to tackle Private Empire will be rewarded for their efforts.  As a forty-year veteran of the industry (with some of those years spent in third world countries), I was skeptical that ExxonMobil would get a fair shake in a book like this one.  Having now read it, I believe Private Empire to be as evenhanded as one could hope – and worthy of the attention it is getting.