Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature

The Nobel Prize for Literature is to be awarded this week.  I generally enjoy the run up to the prize more than the awarding of it.  It is great fun to sort through the contenders but then it becomes not so fun when a strange foreigner whose work is not widely available wins.

This year, the top contenders are thought to be:


Adonis 4/1
Tomas Transtromer 6/1
Haruki Murakami 8/1
Peter Nadas 10/1
Assia Djebar 12/1
Ko Un 14/1
Les Murray 16/1
Thomas Pynchon 18/1
Philip Roth 20/1
Nuruddin Farah 20/1
Mircea Cartarescu 25/1
Cormac McCarthy 25/1
John Banville 25/1
Joyce Carol Oates 25/1
Amos Oz 25/1
Antonio Lobo Antunes 25/1
Bob Dylan 25/1
K. Satchidanandan 33/1
Colm Toibin 33/1
Don DeLillo 33/1
Claudio Magris 33/1
Adam Zagajewski 33/1
Antonio Tabucchi 33/1
Alice Munro 33/1
A.S. Byatt 33/1
Milan Kundera 33/1
Cees Nooteboom 33/1
Ismail Kadare 33/1
Ngugi wa Thiong'o 33/1
Rajendra Bhandari 40/1
Christa Wolf 40/1
Maya Angelou 40/1
E.L Doctorow 40/1
Margaret Atwood 40/1
Ernesto Cardenal 40/1
Juan Marse 40/1
Bei Dao 40/1
Patrick Modiano 40/1
Vaclav Havel 40/1
Yves Bonnefoy 50/1
Michel Tournier 50/1
Viktor Pelevin 66/1
Ian McEwan 50/1
Salman Rushdie 50/1
Javier Marias 50/1
Carlos Fuentes 50/1
Umberto Eco 50/1
Elias Khoury 50/1
Louise Gluck 50/1
Samih al-Qasim 50/1
Peter Handke 66/1
Gitta Sereny 66/1
William Trevor 50/1
Shlomo Kalo 66/1
Chinua Achebe 66/1
Anne Carson 66/1
A.B Yehoshua 66/1
Juan Goytisolo 66/1
Luis Goytisolo 80/1
David Malouf 80/1
Paul Auster 80/1
Per Petterson 80/1
Jonathan Littell 80/1
Jon Fosse 80/1
Mahasweta Devi 80/1
Peter Carey 80/1
Marge Piercy 80/1
Mary Gordon 80/1
William H. Gass 80/1
Yevgeny Yevtushenko 80/1
Vassilis Alexakis 80/1
Eeva Kilpi 100/1
Michael Ondaatje 100/1
Kjell Askildsen 100/1
Julian Barnes 100/1
Atiq Rahimi 100/1
F. Sionil Jose 100/1 

I got this list from Ladbrokes, the English oddsmakers.  Apparently, they give odds on anything.

I spend an inordinate amount of time reading about literature and I still don't recognize maybe 40 percent of these writers.  And some of the names I only know because I've seen them before on other lists of Nobel contenders.  I admit to having a western bias and only reading in English so I know a huge chunk of the world is beyond my purview.  But it is weird to have a Syrian poet and a Swedish poet top the list.  Even if they are richly deserving of it.  Which they very well may be.

Of the names on this list, my clear favorite is the Irish novelist and short story writer William Trevor.  His only serious competition should be from Philip Roth - but Roth is said to have alienated some of the Swedes who award the prize so he is unlikely to win even though he deserves to. 

I am also rooting for A.S. Byatt, Alice Munro, and Don DeLillo.  I've already ordered Haruki Murakami's new book so it would be nice if he were to win.  I like Paul Auster and Ian McEwan and have read most all of what they have written but I just don't see it happening for them.  And now that John Banville writes crime novels in addition to the serious (and difficult to read) fiction that made him famous, he would be a fun choice.  It would be great to have Benjamin Black show up in Stockholm to accept the prize.

As far as names not being mentioned by Ladbrokes but still meriting consideration?  John le Carre would be a nice choice (I've only recently started to read him but I suspect many would recognize that he is a great writer who happens to write about espionage and is not just a writer of spy novels).  Mavis Gallant, the Canadian short story writer - I think she's worthy.  My 'I know it is crazy to even suggest it' choice would be Stan Lee.  His body of work is simply amazing and I suppose there are other writers of comics who write better dialogue but the fecundity of Lee's imagination trumps all in my view.  Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, the Hulk, X-Men, Daredevil, Thor, Iron Man and so many others.  Really, just Spider-Man alone should be enough.  I know he hasn't written everything these characters have done and that Jack Kirby probably has an equal share in many of them.  Still, to be a major creator of what (in another one of my crazy, best not said aloud theories) is our modern equivalent of the mythology of Greece and Rome, I think that deserves the Nobel.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Coincidence and Weekend Entertainment

Two coincidences today, September 18.

I needed a book to take with me while walking the dog and I grabbed a nice Faber paperback copy of Paul Auster's Oracle Night.  (The UK paperback looks so much cooler than the American.)  Why do I need to take a book to walk the dog?  Because sometimes we sit by the statue of Samuel Hahnemann and he watches the traffic.  (I can't believe that we visit this statue so much because Hahnemann is the inventor of homeopathy and I hate nonsense like that.  I should boycott that statue based on principle alone.  And even worse, Hahnemann once had a theory that coffee was a major cause of disease.  Those are fighting words.  But he has a very nice statue in a nice little park so I overlook all of that.)

Coincidence is usually a major element in Auster's work.  I only had time to read 25 pages of Oracle Night so I don't know what part coincidence will play in this book, but that didn't matter because I already had my coincidence:  an important part of the book occurs on September 18.  (Okay, September 18, 1982.)  Auster uses footnotes in this novel so that's how I know the date.  I realize that this is a relatively minor coincidence.  Its only fun because its Auster.

Later on in the day I watched the first episode of the BBC television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  And to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed it.  Typically I cannot watch adaptations of books I have read but I happily made it through the first episode.  (I watched the UK version of it.  The American version was cut down to six episodes.  No way I'm going to watch a butchered version of it.)  I've read about how hard it was to follow and I know I would've been lost if I had not just read the book.  I know the movie version of the book was released this weekend but it will not open in the US until December 9.  That hardly seems fair but at least it gives me time to watch the entire tv series first.

After TTSS, I decided to watch some of a BBC documentary series called the 7 Ages of Rock.  I watched the first episode, The Birth of Rock.  It was awesome and almost entirely devoted to Jimi Hendrix.  (The version broadcast in America was, I read, substantially different because the filmmakers didn't have the American rights to much of the Hendrix music and film used in the British version and couldn't show it in the US.  What a load of crap that is.)  Hendrix's career was relatively short and he died at age 27 on September 18, 1970 - my second September 18 coincidence of the day.

I also read a volume of Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack this weekend.  And the long-awaited issue no. 12 of Optic Nerve.  The first half of Optic Nerve was so-so.  It is the story of a gardener who struggles to convince the world of the greatness of his new art form, hortisculpture.  The second story was much better - Amber Sweet is the story of a woman who is constantly mistaken for a porn star because of her likeness the pictures on the starlet's website, a terrible, Auster-like coincidence.


Monday, September 12, 2011

20th Century Boys & More

The hurricane is long gone but I am still reading The Honourable Schoolboy.   Parts of it are great but other parts are irritating - like some of the nonsense we have to read about life in Hong Kong and in Italy. Can a thriller turn into a slow read?  This one has but on the whole I still find it greatly enjoyable.

I also started one of fall's most anticipated new releases, Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers.  I finally got around to reading 2007's The Abstinence Teacher in August (there is a monstrous backlog of stuff to read here) and enjoyed it tremendously.  Over the past few years I seem to have gone overboard reading mysteries and thrillers and it was nice to read some plain fiction.

I can't wait for the new Haruki Murakami novel 1Q84 to come out in October.  The New Yorker ran an excerpt from the book last week called Town of Cats.  And the story featured an illustration from Adrian Tomine - someone whose work I have been reading lately as well.  (Tomine also did the illustration for the New York Times Book Review of The Leftovers.  He's everywhere. I'm supposed to get issue #12 of Tomine's comic Optic Nerve sometime in September - the pub date seems to keep changing.)  Apparently anticipation for 1Q84 is so great that fans have been translating bits of it into English from Japanese.  And the Guardian ran a story over the weekend claiming that bookshops in the US will open at midnight to sell copies of it on publication day just like they did for the Harry Potter books.  As much as I would love to live in a world where this could happen, I have to call bullshit on the Guardian's story.  It would have been nice to name a single store with plans to do so.  Maybe a few places in New York and San Francisco will do this but I cannot see this happening anywhere else.

Continuing with the Japan theme, I started reading Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys.  I've already finished volumes 1 and 2.  I have all of them through number 9 from the library except number 4, which I had to order online.  I had been reading Osamu Tezukas series Black Jack - which I enjoyed - but I wanted something with a long and complicated plot, so I gave 20th Century Boys a try and was knocked out.  I shouldn't over praise it based on two volumes but it is thrillingly entertaining so far.  And in a nice bit of coincidence, Marc Bolan and T Rex are on the cover of the new issue of Uncut so I've been reading about them and listening to Electric Warrior and the other stuff I have in iTunes.  (I have a BBC 4 documentary on Bolan that I've been meaning to watch, too.)

I looked at some scanlation copies of 20th Century Boys and opted to stick with the books - Viz seems to have done a very nice job.   Except Viz refuses to sell 20CBs via their app - I would love to read it on my iPad.  That's frustrating.  And I noticed they haven't finished publishing these books yet - so I will end up finished with what is in print before the final few volumes are published.  Will I have to read illegitimate online copies?  I have also taken a look at Urasawa's new series Billy Bat via scanlation copies.  It looks fantastic but as far as I can tell there is no timetable yet set for an American edition.

One other thing I recently read that was utterly fantastic was the graphic novel David Boring by Daniel Clowes.  I grabbed several of his books from the library and quite frankly, thought David Boring was going to be the worst of the lot.  (Perhaps something to do with the title?)  I'm not even sure how to describe it.  Like something David Lynch would create - but more accessible.  A great, great book.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and The Honourable Schoolboy

"Perhaps a more realistic point of departure is a certain typhoon Saturday in mid-1974, three o'clock in the afternoon, when Hong Kong lay battened down waiting for the next onslaught."

Today is a Saturday in 2011 in Washington, DC and we have a hurricane, not a typhoon.  Hurricane Irene is starting to hit us but so far, we just have moderate rain.  I am staying home with my dog and waiting for the storm to pass.  We have plenty of food and water.  We do not have much ammunition - one full clip (17 rounds and one in the chamber, plus maybe 8  or 9 extra bullets I rescued from the laundry).  We do have plenty of books and in a minor coincidence, I happened to start John le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy this week - a book that opens on a Saturday with a typhoon.


If the storm lasts a long time, I have the following books to go to:  Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane, Stormy Weather - Carl Hiassen (Note: I will reread a paperback copy, not the signed first edition or the signed pre-publication galley copy), Typhoon - Joseph Conrad, and The Perfect Storm - Sebastian Junger.  If things get really bad, I have a copy of The Tempest.  (It would serve me well to spend some time with The Tempest just to memorize some of the insults: 
A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous,
incharitable dog!
and
Hang, cur! hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!)


The book I may want to read the most (and is set at sea and in storms so I think I can count it as hurricane reading), however, is The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall.  I picked up an ugly, foxed trade paperback copy at a sidewalk sale the day after the earthquake.  One of my favorite writers is Jonathan Coe and his last book, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, introduced me to the story of Donald Crowhurst.  (BTW - the same book also introduced me to the great David Nobbs and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.) Crowhurst entered a round the world solo boat race sponsored by the Sunday Times of London in 1968.  During the course of the race, he suffered a breakdown (mental) and falsified his progress in the voyage and then died at sea, having only sailed in the Atlantic. This is supposed to be a great book from what I hear.  There is a blurb from the New Yorker on the cover which claims it is the only book that magazine has ever called "a masterpiece."


[I found the review of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst in the November 14, 1970 issue of the the magazine and it is indeed called a masterpiece.  But it is a small review.  The main book review in this issue of of Kingsley Amis's The Green Man.  It gets a good review.  Predictably, I am now kicking myself for not buying the first American edition I recently saw - it was a beautiful copy except for a tear in the dust jacket.  The book was so nice that the tear - about an inch long - was more disfiguring than a tear usually is, if you follow.  And in a bit of pointless literary gossip/coincidence: Nicholas Tomalin, author of the Crowhurst book, was married to Claire Tomalin, the great critic and biographer.  Tomalin was killed by a Syrian missile while covering the Yom Kippur war in 1973.  Claire soon became literary editor of The New Statesman and sometime thereafter had an affair with Martin Amis.  Tomalin is now married to Michael Frayn, making them, I think, the world's current greatest married pair of writers.  Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning has been the emergency back up book I carry in my bag for the past few months.]


Now I will read until the hurricane passes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Earthquake!

Now I know what an earthquake feels like.  It is very strange to feel the earth shake.  The quake in Washington, DC only lasted for 30 seconds (anything longer than that would have been terrifying - 30 seconds is just long enough to realize something strange is happening and to think about it for a bit and then it stops) and was just under 6.0 on the Richter scale -  much smaller than the quakes they get in Haiti, New Zealand, Japan and California.  But since we never have quakes like this on the east coast, it was quite remarkable.

The damage from the quake was minor.  My copy of The Little Book of Calm  (perhaps the one book I would need immediately after an earthquake) fell off the shelf it was on.  And a framed copy of a photograph of the Chicago Water Tower (one of only a few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871) fell off a bookcase and into a lampshade.  I have tons of books stacked all over the place - floor to ceiling stacks that are begging for trouble -  but for some reason, none fell.  (My desktop looked like a pile of rubble but that's kind of how it usually looks.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kim Philby, Book Glutton

There is an interesting piece in the August 6, 2011 issue of the Spectator which details the discovery of some correspondence between the spy Kim Philby and his Cambridge bookseller.  Writer Jeffrey Meyers has obtained several letters Philby wrote in the mid 1980s from Moscow to Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge.  Apparently Philby was unable to borrow books from any of the American and British lending libraries in the Soviet Union and he had to order books directly from the UK. 

It should be no surprise that Philby was an avid reader of thrillers and spy novels.  From the list of his orders published in the Spectator:


Thrillers and spy fiction: Agatha Christie (21), Francis Iles (1), Dashiell Hammett (2), Margery Allingham (4), Julian Symons (3), Michael Gilbert (3), Edmund Crispin (1), Dick Francis (1), P.D. James (1), Patricia Highsmith (12), Ed McBain (15), Nicolas Freeling (2), Anthony Price (1), John le Carré (1), Robert Parker (3).


 Twelve Patricia Highsmith novels!  And an Anthony PriceLook at all that Ed McBain, too.  Only one le Carre - I gather Philby and le Carre did not get along.  Meyers also writes that Graham Greene always sent Philby a copy of each new book he wrote.

Friday, June 17, 2011

I'll Never Learn

I am a great admirer of Kate Atkinson's last four novels: Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog.  They are tremendously entertaining and rewarding.  Moving, even.  She has made the use of coincidence an art form - maybe we were surprised that most everything tied together in the first book but by the third and fourth books, we knew what the trick was and it dazzled us anyway.  A great accomplishment.

I was excited when I learned the BBC was adapting Case Histories for TV.  Usually I can't watch a film or TV series of something I have read - it never works for me.  But I thought it would be different this time.  The first episode of Case Histories was kind of good - until I realized they were smashing the entire book into two one hour episodes.  I thought I was getting six hours to watch the myriad stories weave together.  Instead, we were treated to a quickie.  Which is a real shame because the source material was so good and the actors were good/interesting and the cinematography was great (I've never been to Edinburgh and I always imagined it a darker, dirtier, gloomier place - thanks, Ian Rankin) (and I even didn't mind they swapped Cambridge for Edinburgh - the kind of thing I would normally object to).  Why can't certain shows run longer?  Budgets?  Or do they think that people will only watch for an hour or two?  Can't they figure out that the best stuff on TV lasts longer (The Wire to name an example) and isn't hurried?  The second and third Jackson Brodie books make up the remaining four episodes but I've already given up watching.  I don't need to watched condensed versions of something I've already read and loved; I will stick with the versions of the books I have in my head I got from reading instead.

Now, having said all that, this morning, I bought on ebay a DVD of a British TV series called the Armchair Detective.  I guess this was a popular series on ITV in the late 70s.  I had never heard of it before.  One of the episodes is an adaptation of P.M. Hubbard's novel High Tide.  That was the first Hubbard I read so it holds a special place in my heart.  And since the DVD has yet to arrive in the mail, I am still full of hopes and dreams that I will love it.  It stars Ian McShane.  I know everyone loved Deadwood and says he's great but I never watched that show.  He does seem kind of cool and I don't think he will be the weakest link (if there is one).

In the mean time, I have one episode left to watch of the American remake of The Killing.  Remakes of foreign films and TV shows are almost always bad.  But I've liked the American Killing.  I plan to watch to Danish version over the summer (different killers I hear).

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Detection, and Clare DeWitt and the City of the Dead

The best book I have read this year is not, as best I can tell, a book that exists. 

"There are no innocent victims.  The victim selects his role as carefully and unconsciously as the policeman, the detective, the client, or the villain.  Each chooses his role and then forgets this, sometimes for many lifetimes, until one comes along who can remind him.  This time you may be the villain or the victim.  The next time your roles may switch.  It is only a role.  Try to remember."

In Sara Gran's new novel Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, there are dozens of excerpts from the legendary work Detection by Jacques Silette, published in 1959.  Claire finds a copy of the book as a young girl and becomes obsessed with it.  Already full of juvenile fantasies about becoming a detective, her copy of Detection and her devotion to it drive her to become one as an adult. 

 "Clues are the most misunderstood part of detection.  Novice detectives think it's about finding clues.  But detection is about recognizing clues."

Gran writes, "Detection was long out of print now and hard to find at any price.  I bought copies of it whenever I came across them in thrift shops or used bookstores that didn't know what they had....Detection was maddening.  The book is notoriously difficult - sometimes nonsensical, always contradictory, repeating the bad news and never repeating the good, never telling you what you want to hear, always just out of reach....Once you've read Silette there's no going back, people say.  Something in you has changed, and you won't be your old self ever again.  No matter how you may want to forget what you've read, you never can."

The central mystery of the novel concerns the disappearence of an assistant district attorney in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Claire is hired by a relative to find him many months after the storm.  Clare searches through the wreckage of New Orleans and her own life to find out what happened to Vic Willing (an interesting choice of name).  (I've been watching David Simon's show on the aftermath of Katrina, Treme, and from that I have all sorts of interesting visual images in my head to go along with what I'm reading.  Gran does a good enough job describing everything but it is really hard to imagine how much damage was done to the city.  I've been there only briefly since it happened and saw a little of the damage.  The show and the book go together well - especially the parts in both about Indians, Mardi Gras,  and New Orleans culture.)

Claire DeWitt is a devotee of this mysterious Jacques Silette.  And in addition to following his teachings, she also uses the five-coin I Ching Manual, Poisonous Orchids of Siberia: A Visionary Interpretation, and a book on the witchcraft practices of Northern Mexico.  Fictional private detectives usually have a sort of generic set of traits (they're cynical, loners, alcoholic, depressed, world-weary - you get the idea) but Claire is sort of a demented shaman as private eye.  And she takes a lot of drugs (bad ones - like smoking embalming fluid) while trying to apply the principles and techniques of Silette's Detection to the mysteries at hand.  Its a fantastic and fascinating new profile for a detective.


This book reminded me a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans.  That book is about a English boy born in Shanghai who is sent back to England when his parents disappear.  The boy dreams of becoming a famous detective, and does so.  As an adult, he returns to war-torn Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents disappearance.  I read this when it was published in 2000 and was unhappy with it.  I took one of my copies of it and re-read some of it after reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead to compare the two and I found that I like it better now.  Both concern an unreal world where detectives are celebrities, feature detectives returning to the scenes of past traumas (places devastated by war or natural disaster) to solve cases, and are not always reliable narrators.

After much Googling, I've learned that Detection is not a real book.  Gran created it for Claire DeWitt.  I pretty much knew that from the start but I really wanted the book to exist.  I read on a blog from her publisher that she may one day compile everything from Detection into a book.  I hope she does.  Until then, we have to wait for the next Claire DeWitt book, of which there are four already planned.  Book two is nearly completed and it is the book I am most eagerly anticipating aside from the continuation of Justin Cronin's The PassageClaire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a great first book in what should be a great series.

Today I obtained a copy of what will have to be my stand-in for Detection, Jurgen Thorwald's The Century of the Detective.  It is a great (but sadly out of print) history of the forensics, or the application of scientific techniques to the investigation of crime.  It was published in German in 1964 and in English in 1965.  I got a rather nice first edition hardcover of this difficult to find book (the few copies floating around out there go for a hundred bucks or so) at a bargain price because it had been listed as 'Century of the Dective' and attracted little notice.  (It may be easier to get this book by buying the two UK editions of it - the first part was published as The Marks of Cain and the second as Dead Men Tell Tales.)  The book is well-known in the forensic community but has fallen out of print and been largely forgotten by everyone else.   It was nominated for an Edgar Award when it was published but it lost to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Comeback!

After Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake took a long break before writing his next Richard Stark novel, the aptly titled Comeback.  Twenty-three years between books.  I started at The Hunter and read mostly straight through to Butcher's Moon.  And then I took a break from Richard Stark. 

There is no accounting in Comeback for what has gone on in Parker's life since Butcher's Moon.  I suspect Westlake did this on purpose, just as he never gives a clear indication what year we are in in each book (and that it is a fool's errand to try too much to figure this out - and that it is not all that important anyway).  Given that Parker was in the military during World War II, we have some idea how old he is - I am guessing he was born around 1925.  I can see why Westlake avoids getting into dates because if Comeback took place in 1997 - the year it was published - then Parker would be around 72 years old.  (I used to think that old Parker would be exactly like Tom Jimson from the Westlake/Dortmunder novel Drowned Hopes - he was a scary old man.  I think I prefer the ageless Parker.)

Comeback felt, for the most part,  close in time to the books from the late 60s and early 70s.  The indications that we are closer in time to the present stem from some things referenced in the book.  Late in Comeback, Ed and Brenda Mackey, two of Parker's current gang and longtime associates, are watching CNN.  CNN went on air for the first time on June 1, 1980.  No one has a cell phone, computers are not mentioned as being in any offices, but fax machines are in use.  As are VCRs.  The heist in Comeback involves robbing the money room in a football stadium during a Christian televangelist event.  It is an attractive target because all the money is in cash - something that is becoming less common.  "Even in a world of electronic cash transfers and credit cards and money floating in cyberspace, there were still heists out there, waiting to be collected."

The term cyberspace wasn't coined until 1982 in a book by William Gibson called Burning Chrome and not popularized until his 1984 novel Neuromancer.  According to the Google Labs Books Ngram Viewer, the word is barely used at all until 1987 and doesn't take off until 1992.  This takes us closer to the present for the time of Comeback but still doesn't give a us a definite date.

Perhaps the funniest time reference in the book sounds more like it was written by Donald Westlake than Richard Stark.  When discussing crowds at the stadium, it is noted that there hasn't been a crowd this big since "the last Rolling Stones farewell tour." 

Even though I spent most of my time reading this book searching for clues about where in time we were, I enjoyed it immensely.  Parker is a little chattier than he used to be.  But that's okay - he knew he needed to work on that.  I won't say much more about the action in the book - I hate spoilers.

After I finished Comeback, I immediately started Backflash. [Can I say how much I love the title sequence of the first four post-Butcher's Moon Parker novels?  Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, and Firebreak.]  I've only read 30 pages or so of Backflash but it feels more modern than Comeback, even though it was only published one year later.  As I read I will compile a list of things that make it so.  The first line of the book has Parker with a Glock - and that feels very now to me.  The Glock was first produced in 1982 and didn't take off in the US for several years.  According to the Google Ngram Viewer, usage of the word doesn't take off until the early 90s.

Mike Carlow, a driver used by Parker in Butcher's Moon (and maybe some other books), turns up in Backflash.  The book says he's in his 40s and that the events in Tyler (the city in BM) were a long time ago.  So I suppose Parker could be a lot older than the guys he works with - I don't think I ever noticed any information about their relative ages.

I got a copy of Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder, today.  I suppose, to use some ugly labels, Patchett is generally a writer of literary fiction.  This new book is, lucky me, about scientists in the Amazon jungle.  I read the first chapter tonight and it felt strange to read in that more literary style after a short course of Stark.  The past decade has been heavy on crime novels for me, but before that it was all literary fiction.  And while we speak of genres, there is one that I crave more of - lab lit.  In a nutshell, and in the words of the people who run the lab lit website, lab lit "is dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of that culture – science, scientists and labs – in fiction, the media and across popular culture."  It looks like State of Wonder will be an excellent example of lab lit.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

New Michael Crichton Novel

I heard the news today that there will be another posthumous Michael Crichton novel published this fall.  Crichton wrote one-third of a book called Micro and left extensive notes behind for it before he died.  Richard Preston, who wrote about the Ebola virus in The Hot Zone, has finished the book.  The Hot Zone was a fantastic book.  (I can still remember where I was when I first read the New Yorker article The Hot Zone was based on - in the Newark airport, waiting for a connecting flight to Chicago.  And I still have a fat folder of newspaper clippings from the first big Ebola outbreak in Zaire in the mid-90s.  Who has files of newspaper clippings about anything anymore?)  Normally, I think finishing and publishing uncompleted posthumously novels is a bad idea.  But Preston is a pretty good writer and his interests mesh nicely with Crichton's.  So this could be a good book.  (And since the book is about scientists lost in the jungle, it is so up my alley that I would make an exception for it even if some anonymous hack finished the manuscript.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle

Inexplicably, I keep getting drawn in by books about people trapped in jungles.  Or stranded on islands.  Or lost in the wild.  I have no idea why this is so but it has been going on for years now.  (I have never been lost in the jungle.  I avoid jungles.  And wilderness.  Or any place in which I may become lost and/or trapped.  I  live an almost entirely urban existence - the only real danger for me is the possibility getting trapped in a Concrete Island scenario.)  And somehow, over the past few days, I have acquired a slew of books, many of which are of the lost-in-the-jungle sort.


Lost in Shangri-La I bought new from Amazon - I just had to have it.  It is the story of the survivors of a US Army plane crash in the jungles of Papua New Guinea near the end of WWII.  Papua New Guinea is probably the worst place in the world to get lost and I just had to have this book right away.  [Side Note:  Though this book just came out, I didn't order it soon enough to get a first edition.  A minor disappoint but I'll live.  I don't care as much about editions for nonfiction.  What is remarkable about this book is the texture of the dust jacket - its sort of rubbery.  I think there is a new material being used in some dust jackets that give it this feel - and its quite wonderful.  My UK first edition of Ian McEwan's Solar has a similar feel - but the American edition just uses whatever generic dust jacket material all publishers use.  What is this new stuff?  Normally I will remove a dust jacket when I read a book but this one I want to leave on.]

Ghost Soldiers is the story of an American Army mission to rescues American POWs held by the Japanese in the jungles of the Philippines in WWII.
It seems to me that everyone has read Lord of the Flies.  But I haven't.  How this came to be I do not know.  But I am to rectify the situation this summer.  Children stranded on an island - what could be better?

The True Deceiver is one of those wonderful New York Review of Books trade paperbacks.  I only started paying close attention to comics a few years ago and in my research into what comics I should read, I kept coming across some Moomin thing that everyone seemed to know and love from a long time ago that I had never heard of and couldn't quite grasp.  I had no idea who or what Tove Jansson was.  But I'm learning and she seems quite remarkable.  The True Deceiver looks to be Swedish Patricia Highsmith novel concerning a woman who inveigles (what a great word - the LA Times review of the book uses it) herself into the life a famous writer.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America held their convention here in Washington last weekend and Connie Willis won the Nebula Award for best novel (for Blackout and All Clear).  I've been wanting to read good science fiction and I was persuaded that she would be a good choice - so I picked up a copy of her novel the Doomsday Book.  She seems to have this thing for time-traveling historians - I think I could go for that.

Part two of this post will include David Lodge, Peter De Vries, Richard Laymon, Charlaine Harris, and James McGrath Morris.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Template for Parker?

I just picked up a copy of something called The Professional Thief by a professional thief.   It was published in 1937 by the University of Chicago Press.  The book is a monograph by a professional thief known as Chic Conwell and was annotated and 'interpreted' for publication by Edwin Sutherland, an important sociologist.

I've only skimmed it but the book has Parker written all over it.  Donald Westlake/Richard Stark has this trick of explaining how professional thieves live and work that makes it seem as if he is letting us in on their secret rules - peering into how their guild operates.  I have no idea how thieves operate but the way Parker operates feels like it has to be real and true. It is utterly convincing.  (And really - other than what we learn from books, movies and televsion, what do most of us know about crime?) Turns out, according to this book, Westlake nailed it.  The only significant difference is how Parker is so anti-social/always puts himself first.  But that just makes him a better character.

Monday, April 25, 2011

New Books and the Discovery of the Summer

Here is my latest haul:
The London Satyr - Robert Edric (1st ed, UK)
Edric should be more popular than he is.  Satyrs, too.

Hanging Hill - Mo Hayder (1st ed, UK)
Her books are always thrilling and/or terrifying.  You see those words on jacket copy all the time - but really, when was the last time you were terrified by a book?  Rarely happens.  The one person I've come across who plays with the supernatural but explains it all nicely is Mo Hayder.  She a crime writer from the UK who writes terribly scary novels.  Pig Island, Ritual, Skin, The Devil of Nanking - all flirt with haunted/demonic/paranormal stuff but there's always real things behind whatever is going on.  (This always struck me as important but apparently its the basis for everything done in Scooby Doo - somebody always tries to make the house look haunted to cover up their misdeeds.  But I maintain that she (Mo) does it very well.  And I always was a giant Scooby Doo fan.) Tremendously good entertainment - I am looking forward to this one.

The Fetish Room: The Education of a Naturalist - Redmond O'Hanlon and Rudi Rotthier
Redmond O'Hanlon is the Hunter S. Thompson of natural history writing (minus the drugs, a hell of a lot smarter, with a better employer - the TLS, and much more charm and humility.).  He did not write this book - Rotthier did but apparently the publishers felt it would sell better with O'Hanlon's name listed first.  I don't care - I just want to hear more stories from him/about him.  (Also - one learns that 'the fetish room' has many other meanings on the internet when one searches for a book cover with safesearch off on Google Images.)

The Strangers in the House - Georges Simenon
This is a nice New York Review of Books trade paperback edition.  I have an older Penguin edition (with a movie tie-in cover) that is a different translation.  I never read my Penguin copy (I have an entire bookcase devoted to Simenon and have yet to read my way through all of them) and am interested to compare the new and old translations.  
 361 - Donald Westlake
 This needs no introduction.

Get Real - Donald Westlake
This is the last Dortmunder novel.  I am currently on the ninth one (I think), What's the Worst That Could Happen? and will be sad when I  run out of Dortmunders.

What I Tell You Three Times Is False - Samuel Holt/Donald Westlake
This is the third Samuel Holt book - I don't have the first two.  I grabbed it because I rarely find used Westlake for sale anywhere (though I just found copies of Deadly Edge and Butcher's Moon dirt cheap now that I already own and have read them).  My first impression of this Samuel Holt thing is that it doesn't look very good.  That will probably turn out to be wrong and even if not, a bad Westlake is better than the work of most others.  I don't think I would have ever considered reading this if it were by someone else.
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Clare DeWitt and the City of the Dead - Sara Gran (advance reading copy)
Now this - this is dynamite.  I've blogged about two of Sara Gran's earlier books, Come Closer and Dope before.  This is her fourth novel and is the first of a new series.  This woman is insanely talented - and really cool.  And she has a fantastic blog - http://abbottgran.wordpress.com/  (And no, I do not know her.)  This is an advance reading copy - the book is not published until June 2, 2011.  I've only just started to read it - the story concerns the search for a missing person in New Orleans 18 months after Katrina.  (Also - season two of David Simon's Treme has just started - I hope it is as wonderful as the first.)  I see that this book is already generating good word-of-mouth in its run up to publication.  I hope it continues to do so and that it becomes a hit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Started Early, Attacked by Dog

Everything had been wonderful in our first week of dog ownership.  My wife walks and plays with the dog every night before she goes to work - she works midnights and is a police office.  Our little dog always puts her in a good mood before she leaves to work some pretty mean streets.

So last night, she is on a radio run and when she gets on the scene, the complainant has a poodle.  This poodle runs up to my wife and happily jumps all over her legs/pants.  They spend a happy moment together and then everyone gets down to business.  I don't know what the call was about but everything was resolved relatively quickly.

Later that night, responding the second time to reports of a family fight at a different location from the poodle house, she rolls up with other officers and as they are approaching the house, the unleashed pit bull who lives there runs directly at her (from what I gather, the dog had his choice of targets) and attacks her.  She tried to shield her face and vital organs by facing into a corner and kick off the attacking dog but got bit in the leg and hand.  By some miracle no real damage was done (the dog's teeth didn't penetrate her gear - but left tooth-shaped  bruises).  They couldn't shoot the attacking dog because she was caught in a corner with the dog between her and the other officers.  Luckily, another officer was able to get at the dog's collar and yank it away from her and then the rest of them subdued the pit bull.  

So, now after attracting two dogs in one night (and never having encountered any problems ever before), we have to wonder if the scent of our dog makes my wife a target at work for other dogs.    Maybe the pit bull smelled the poodle on her.  Or maybe the poodle smelled our dog.  Or maybe it was just bad luck.  This town is full of pit bulls and I am kind of getting worried.  Lots of cops own dogs - can doing so make one more of a target?  Or is this just the way a person who never had a dog thinks?

(Note: that isn't a photo of the dog in question - just some random pit bull I found on the net.)

(Note:  Jackson Brodie explained some of what to to if attacked by a dog in Case Histories.  Neither of his methods would've worked here - the breaking of their legs trick or stuffing one's fist/arm down the dog's throat.  I know my wife had training on dog attacks - but in this case, the dog was almost instantly on her.  Don't know how you train someone for that.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog

Novels are influential.  I often find myself wanting something that I have just read a character in a book doing or wanting.  Or eating.  An example - recently we were trying to plan a vacation and as I had just read Richard Stark's The Green Eagle Score, I suggested we go to Puerto Rico - mainly because Parker seemed to enjoy the place.  Or when I read Sunday by Georges Simenon - a character had his morning coffee in a bowl - that, for some reason, made me long for coffee bowls.  Took me a long time to get a set, but I did.  And they are wonderful.  I realize these examples are of things of no great importance but that is probably a good thing as one would not want major life decisions unduly governed by incidental details in a novel.

I recently read Kate Atkinson's newest novel, Started Early, Took My Dog.  Early on, Jackson Brodie, the PI who anchors four of Atkinson's books, gets a dog.  He witnesses someone abusing a small dog and decides to hit the dog's abuser and take his dog.  The dog, a border terrier, is with Brodie the rest of the book.  And him having this dog really made me want a dog.  (I had a Beagle puppy for five days when I was five years old but haven't been around any since.)  I started researching dogs on the internet.  And thinking about taking dogs on walks.  Then, last week at work, I learned of a situation where someone had to give up her dog because it snapped at her granddaughter.  So I called my wife, asked her what she thought, and now we have one.  And its just a great as I thought it would be.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Steam Pig and Trouble on the Horizon

I just bought a new copy of James McClure's first novel, The Steam Pig.  First published in 1971, it is a police procedural set in South Africa and is the first in a series starring an Akfrikaner and his Zulu partner.  I bought a used paperback copy of it some 20 years ago on the advice of an old bookseller on the south side of Chicago. (Her store was stuffed to the ceiling with books, poorly lit, drafty, and always filled with cigarette smoke, but I got a lot of wonderful stuff from her over the years.)  I also acquired the rest of the books in the series.  Of course, I never got around to reading them - but I have thought about them on and off over the years.  (The gestation period for me to starting reading something after I buy it can sometimes be a decade or more.)

For whatever reason, I've become interested in reading McClure now.  The problem is all of his books are packed away in boxes and stored in the crawlspace of my dad's house in Chicago - some 700 miles away.  I recently picked up a copy of Snake, McClure's fourth in the series, as back up travel reading.  Which means I've purchased two of these books twice.

I just found out that my dad might be moving next year - and that I have a year to figure out what to do with the 20 or so boxes of books in his crawlspace.  Realistically, I have room for maybe two boxes of these books.  The rest will have to go.  Even if he weren't moving, how long are we allowed to keep boxes in our parents' houses after we've moved away?

I know I have McClures to rescue, plus several Jim Thompson pulps - actually, maybe a lot of noiry/pulpy things from a phase I went through way back then.  I have been wanting to rescue my copy of The Best of Frederic Brown with the Richard Corben cover - something I had forgotten about until I read OlmanFeelyus's review of it last summer.  I salvaged all my Philip K. Dicks several years ago but I know I still have some old SF paperbacks I want.  Boxes of old issues of The New Yorker?  I love my old copies of that magazine but I think they take up too much space.  Getting rid of them will hurt.  The rest of these books?  Obviously, I don't need them all.  I'm going to take pictures of what I discard and this record of biblio-exsanguination will be proof that I don't keep everything and that I am not some demented hoarder.  Is one even a hoarder if one only collects one kind of thing? 

Lastly - I think it is a good thing I have a new copy of The Steam Pig as I think this is the cover of the copy that is in storage.  Can't comfortably read that in pubic, can I?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Comeback Has Come Back

My brand new copy of the University of Chicago Press edition of Richard Stark's Comeback just arrived.   This book marks the return of Parker after a 23 year hiatus.  And for me it should end a four or five month break of not reading any Richard Stark novels.


Butcher's Moon and Backflash should be here soon. 

Thank you to the folks at the University of Chicago Press for reprinting these books.   Can a university press win the Nobel Prize for Literature?  I think these people should.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Killy

I just got a copy of Killy by Donald Westlake.


It is in hard cover, a first edition, and its dust jacket is unclipped. It is a little worn and has some tanning on it. Since I got it for $6.50, I am rather pleased with it. There is only one small problem with it: it is an ex-library copy, a fact the seller did not disclose. Had I paid more, I would be pissed off. But since I got it so cheaply, I can live with it. (Additionally, I won't be so worried about messing it up when I read it.) The seller gave the item a detailed listing and I am certain he purposely omitted the fact that it was an ex-library copy.  (The library sold it for 10 cents.)

My copy of Killy came from the Daycroft School Library. Now closed, this Christian Scientist school was located in the tony Connecticut town of Greenwich (now better known as the primary base for most American hedge funds). It seems odd to me that a Christian Scientist school would have early Westlake novels. Perhaps a librarian had a fondness for crime novels and ordered it. Killy does not strike me as the kind of thing that the school founders would want their students reading. From the dust jacket:

Killy is a first rate detective story about the solving of several murders, but it is even more a novel about how a young man still filled with illusions can be turned into the inevitable path of the ruthless seeking for power.

Or perhaps maybe the students were to read it as a cautionary tale.  Having had a look at the place, I would think they could have used a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go instead as it looks like the kind of place where they keep cloned kids until they are ready to donate their organs.  (But I suppose being a Christian Scientist school, such a thing would have been singularly unlikely.  Or, perhaps, that is the perfect cover?)
The dust jacket of my copy of Killy was designed by Arthur Hawkins.  I don't know much about him (I get the feeling he was an important/prominent designer or artist) but I like what I see of his work.  He's also done:



I am still reading Tana French's fantastic second novel The Likeness and don't know when I will get around to reading Killy.

Monday, February 28, 2011

LCD Soundsystem & The Muppets




My favorite record of 2010 was from LCD Soundsystem. Didn't listen to a lot of new music in the past year but was glad I found this album. (I heard James Murphy interviewed on Fresh Air and read about him in the New Yorker - not the coolest way to discover new music - but what can I do?)

This isn't the best song on the album - but the video features the Muppets doing some of their best work since Bohemian Rhapsody.

I know it is supposed to be all about books here but I really love LCD Soundsystem.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Water Rat of Wanchai

As much as I enjoying reading, I think I may enjoy reading about reading or reading to find new books to read, just as much.  I was reading the arts section of Canada's National Post newspaper last weekend and saw a story about Ian Hamilton and his new novel The Water Rat of Wanchai.  Then I did a Google search on him and the book and was soon convinced that I had just discovered the next Stieg Larsson.  Its possible that I am just responding to some good PR by the publisher and the buzz from a few bloggers but it has been fun telling people (several at work, the barista at Starbucks) that I had just discovered the next big thing in publishing and that in a year, everyone would be talking about Ava Lee (Hamilton's Lisbeth Salander). 

My copy of the book just arrived from Amazon Canada and it looks like some of my reckless enthusiasm is warranted:  "When the phone rang, Ava woke with a start."  Not quite as good as "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man." (Firebreak, Richard Stark, 2001)  But still, a good start.  I hope I actually read this book fairly soon.  I don't want it to be like the current book I am reading, The Likeness by Tana French.


I heard about her debut novel, In the Woods, fairly early on - certainly before it became a big hit.  So I started it but couldn't get past the prologue.  Really hated that part.  Seemed to drag on forever.  (Longest two pages of my life.)  So I put it aside and then all of a sudden Tana French had published two more critically acclaimed, prize-winning novels.  My wife has read all three multiple times and I had only managed two pages.   So after three or four years, I finally read In the Woods this past month.  On a Kindle. 

I find it hard to believe that In the Woods is her first novel.  French is really, really good.  Set in and around Dublin, French tells the story of two detectives from the Dublin Murder Squad (which does not exist - but wouldn't tee shirts with that name on it be really cool?) working a new child murder case on the site of an archeological dig where two children had vanished twenty years earlier.  Oh, and one of the detectives was with the two vanished kids that day 20 years ago and was the only survivor of whatever happened that day (of which he has no memory).  A long a brooding book  - without a lot of action in it - but still quite wonderful.  In a way, it is the Irish equivalent to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Swedish police procedurals (the Martin Beck series).  And so far, though I have only read a few chapters of it, The Likeness, her second book, seems to be even better than her debut.