Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Year of Reading

My Year of Reading

Achievement of the Year:  I finished reading all of Donald E. Westlake's/Richard Stark's Parker (and Grofield) novels.  I started reading the series in March 2010 and I finished Breakout, Nobody Runs Forever, Ask the Parrot, and Dirty Money in September 2012.  I'm glad I read NRF, ATP, and DM one after the other as they pretty much could be one big Parker novel.  It was a great run.

Archeological Find of the Year:  Donald E. Westlake's Tucker Coe novels.  Even though I love pretty much everything Westlake does, for a long time I wanted nothing to do with Tucker Coe.  I'm struggling to find a rational reason for this.  I dislike the name Tucker Coe.  I think that has a lot to do with it.  But Existential Ennui started writing about Coe and all of a sudden I had to have these books.  So I bought crappy copies of all five books and devoured them.  Why were they so good?  I think it has something to do with the warmth Westlake handled all of his characters.  Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death was about mobsters.  Murder Among Children was about hippies.  Wax Apple about mental patients.  A Jade in Aries about gays.  And Don't Lie to Me about artists.  These subjects are all easy targets to make fun of but Westlake is largely sympathetic to all of them - and these books are from the  mid 1960s to early 1970s, when I think general attitudes were far different than they are now.  And Mitch Tobin, the former New York City cop turned reluctant private eye is so damaged by his infidelity and the death of his partner that he is reduced to building a fence in his yard or excavating his basement as coping mechanisms.  I did not expect to enjoy these books as much as I did. Wonderful stuff.

Country of the Year:  Japan.  I've read a lot of Swedish crime novels the past few years (including the early part of 2012) but I rediscovered Japan this year.  I've been reading more manga (Osamu Tezuka, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Naoki Urasawa mainly) and this sent me looking for Japanese fiction.  I read and loved The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint, and Naoko by Keigo Higashino, Pro Bono by Seicho Matsumoto, and the short stories of Haruki Murakami.  I am working on Out by Natuso Kirino right now.

Book of the Year:  I have a terrible confession to make about this one.  I own thousands of books.  We rented a storage unit in August and I've started to put most of my books in storage (but don't feel too sorry for me, I still have a few thousand at home).  But I do not own a physical copy of my book of the year, Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette.  I read it on my Kindle.  I was reading about this book in the New York Times and decided that I had to have it at that very instant.  So I got it for my Kindle and never got around to picking up a physical copy.  I saw copies but they weren't first editions.  And not only did I love reading the book, I had a lot of fun talking about the book.  My wife read it, too, and we spent weeks asking each other if we'd seen Bernadette anywhere.  Lots of silly text messages about this, too.  I know this behavior sounds silly but boy did we have fun.  (What wasn't fun was that she read the book in a day or two and it took me two weeks.  She read 90 books this year.  And whenever she asks me how many I've read, she always wants to know if they were all picture books -what she calls my comics and manga- or not.)

Other Notable Highlights:  The Twelve by Justin Cronin, Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin, Broken Harbor by Tana French, and Pocket Kings by Ted Heller.

The Books I Got for Christmas:

Message to Adolf (Vol.1) by Osamu Tezuka, New York Drawings by Adrian Tomine, The Hive by Charles Burns, a set of Peanuts Moleskine notebooks, About Love by Seth and Anton Chekhov, and A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

And a bonus photo:
My interpretation of EE's best books of the year list.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Holiday TV :(

Why isn't there anything good to watch on American television during the xmas season?  In the UK, you can watch special made for xmas specials of some of the best shows.  I wish I were a Doctor Who fan - watching the xmas special on xmas seems like it would be the perfect end to the day.  I've failed to take to Downton Abbey - but if I were a fan, I'd watch the xmas episode.  Even Call the Midwife is more interesting to me than what is on offer in the US.  Here, where we have three or four hundred tv channels, the programming primarily consists of reruns of every crappy movie with the words Christmas or Santa in the title.  (Home Alone and Elf seem to be the only two acceptable holiday movies on American tv.)  Even when a regularly aired American television series does a Christmas episode, they run it weeks before Christmas.  Castle did its xmas episode the first week of December.

Here's a brief listing of what passes for holiday programming on American television:

December 24:
Shrek the Halls
A Star for Christmas
A Christmas Wedding
Its A Wonderful Life
The Santa Clause
The Santa Clause 2
The Santa Clause 3
Home Alone
Miracle On 34th Street
Bad Santa
A Christmas Carol (with Jim Carrey)
The Family Stone
Surviving Christmas
The March Sister at Christmas (contemporary version of Little Women)
MTV - Teen Mom marathon
Firefly marathon
A Christmas Story
A Christmas Carol (with Patrick Stewart)

The Family Stone is a good movie but I've seen/heard it a dozen times.  Including yesterday.  I would like to see the episodes of Firefly that I've missed - but that's not going to happen on Christmas Eve.  I feel bad for those who end up watching a Teen Mom marathon.

December 25:
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Home Alone
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Anything But Christmas
A Christmas Kiss
Hitched for the Holidays
Joyful Noise
Merry In-Laws
The Big Bang Theory - marathon
Santa Santa Santa
CSI-North Pole
Law & Order-The Naughty List
The Santa Christmas
A Holiday Called Christmas

Nothing good here.  I've been working my way through The Big Bang Theory and while I would watch a marathon of it on Christmas, I would end up by my lonesome if I did.

I do plan on watching the Outnumbered xmas special.  And the made for TV movies of the Ian Rankin novel Doors Open and the William Boyd novel Restless.  Boyd was on Front Row recently and the interview was so good that in a major about-face I am looking forward to reading his James Bond novel in 2013. I have already watched a BBC Four rock doc on Slade which I think was considered special holiday programming.  Slade are relatively unknown in the US.  I saw a video they did when I was a kid in a hotel in Luxembourg and I thought they were cool.  And then I stumbled across a BBC Three sitcom called The Visit in 2007 that used a Slade song for its theme music.  (That was a great, but short-lived show.  It was a sitcom set in a prison in Manchester and most of the action was set around visiting hours when the inmates would sit in a large room and be visited by their families.  It felt more like a play than a tv show.  I liked the northern accents, too, even if it was a bit of work to understand everything.) So I have had this heretofore unfulfilled yearning to know more about Slade and in general, I love watching these BBC music docs whenever I can catch them.  Its a shame we can't have something similar here.  (Even the series Rock of Ages from a few years ago that was rebroadcast here had to be massively edited because of rights issues to the music covered.)

I shouldn't complain too much about not having good tv to watch on the holidays.  We have a ton of good dvds to watch and the ability to stream tv and movies via the internet.  We do have the complete dvd box set of The Shield and that is something I know from past experience makes for perfect holdiay viewing.  And I know we will watch a Christmas episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm - the one where Larry David mistakes the Christmas cookies made for a nativity scene to be animal cookies and gets into trouble for eating the baby jesus.  Best joke ever.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rebus, the A9, and Dangerous Scotland

I just finished reading Ian Rankin's new Rebus novel, Standing in Another Man's Grave, last night and I loved it. I love Rankin so much that I had to order a copy from the UK - I couldn't wait for the American edition.  Rebus has come out of retirement to work on a cold case squad and is soon digging into a series of abductions along the A9 road out of Edinburgh.

I was in the mood for more Scotland so I grabbed Under the Skin by Michel Faber.  I loved The Crimson Petal and the White and have been meaning to read Under the Skin for the past ten years and recently even more so before the movie comes out, so now seemed like a good time.  Plus, because of some remodeling around here, a bunch of my Scottish fiction is in the kitchen (don't ask) and it was easy to grab. (Side Note: I also grabbed a Denise Mina I've been struggling with - Still Midnight.  I've loved all of her books but am having a hard time getting started on this one.)  So I started reading it at lunch today and -coincidence-  discovered that it, too, seems to focus on the A9.  More abductions along the A9.

I've never been to Scotland.  As much as I love reading Scottish crime fiction, the place terrifies me.  I imagine myself stepping off the plane and promptly getting mugged just like in the American tourist scene in Trainspotting.  [Everyone from that movie has done well for themselves since it came out and I see them all the time. No need to list what Ewen McGregor and Danny Boyle have done.  Johnny Lee Miller is now on American television playing Sherlock Holmes in modern day New York.  Kevin McKidd plays a doctor on Grey's Anatomy. Robert Carlyle is now playing Rumplestiltskin under a lot of make up on Once Upon a Time.  Kelly Macdonald is on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.  Keith Allen has a daughter.  Peter Mullan is a director.  Spud is the only one I haven't come across anywhere.]

While we don't have Boxing Day here I am looking forward to watching ITV's version of Ian Rankin's 2008 art heist novel Doors Open.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

James Crumley

When I think about books, I often find myself thinking about books I read and collected before the internet became a daily part of life and then the modern era, where the internet seems to guide what I read and collect.  I guess this means the mid 90s is the time when things changed.

In a post about collecting John D. MacDonald, the comments thread mushroomed to cover Kingsley Amis, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and James Crumley.  The discussion reminded of what I was reading back in pre-internet time.  I came late to early Philip Roth but I was right on time to be reading him when he wrote remarkable string of great books sort of late into his career.  Roth was such a giant you could read about him anywhere.  James Crumley, on the other hand, was more of a well-kept secret.

A friend suggested I read Crumley and it didn't take much before I was hooked.  I dimly recall spending time in libraries trying to find out more about him.  Crumley was a bad ass.  He was a Texan, a big drinker and a tough guy, but also a graduate of University of Iowa Writers Workshop.  Such a cool combination it seemed back then.  And he wrote mystery novels set in Montana and the American West.  He was a legend by the time I started reading him and it seemed like all mystery writers thought he was the greatest even though he wasn't a household name.  I fell for it all, hook, line, and sinker.

One other great thing about James Crumley is that his books were republished in the 1980s as part of a series called Vintage Contemporaries.  Aside from orange and green Penguins, these were the first series of books I noticed and like for their design.  And to be published in this series indicated the author was in the cool club and should be read.  (Maybe a dumb way to think about it but its probably not too dissimilar to how and why people follow certain bands.)  This recent post about Vintage Contemporaries sums it up perfectly.

Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Jay McInernery, Richard Russo, Richard Ford, Frederick Exley - these were some of the others published by Vintage back then.  (Russo and Ford are better than ever these days.) I loved these guys the most but I still have dozens of the others books published in the series.  I think Crumley was the only crime writer to be published in this series.  

 These are the four books published by Vintage.  One to Count Cadence is his first novel and its about the Vietnam War.  After that, Crumley wrote crime novels featuring one or the other of his two fictional private eyes (C.W. Shugrue and Milo Milodragovitch) or sometimes had them both together in later books.

 John D. MacDonald approves.

 I bought a fancy limited edition of The Final Country.  Still in its wrapper.

 Some collected fiction and nonfiction.

 Whores has some of the same content as The Muddy Fork.  Both Whores and my special edition of The Final Country were published by Dennis McMillan.

I used to re-read Crumley all the time, The Last Good Kiss, especially.  The Wrong Case and The Dancing Bear are also excellent.  The rest of the work is good but I think a clear notch below these three.  One would read them because they were more of the same by the guy who wrote these other three amazing books.  

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Pithy and Pulpy

A few years ago, a used bookstore I frequent hired a new manager.  I guess he's the manager - I never asked.  The place is a one-man operation but owned but somebody else, that I do know.  I always liked the store but after several months with this new guy in charge, I realized all the changes and improvements he had made.  And more importantly, his excellent taste in choosing the stock.  So I told him so - that the place had always been good but that he had done great work refining everything.  It was the perfect compliment and it was perfectly delivered.  I don't think I had ever spoken to him at any length before (other customers are constantly talking to him and I figured he shouldn't have to entertain me, too) and I could tell by his reaction that he was floored by the compliment.  And then I left (I had this idea in my head - from an episode of Seinfeld - that it is best to leave on a high note).

Recently I went in to the store to browse and this fellow called me over to the counter and showed me two big boxes of pulps he had just picked up.  He told me to have a look at them before he priced them and put them out.  So I did.  This would be a great story if I had uncovered a cache of Westlakes and Starks (which are the primary things that I am interested in acquiring these days), but no such luck.  A lot of it was SF.  All in very good condition.  But none of it was very exciting to me.  For all I know I could've been passing up some real gems but, to use a phrase I can only write and not speak, I couldn't be arsed to keep going through all of it.  But I didn't want to appear ungrateful by not buying any of them.

And that's when I found these:

I don't think I have every read anything by Richard Matheson before.  And I don't know much about him - I just know he has this semi-mythic cult status for writing so much great stuff in many forms.  Like I Am Legend.  It would have been nice if there had been a copy of that because I am interesting in reading that now after 1500 pages of Justin Cronin in The Passage and The Twelve, and because of this.  But it looks as if two of these books have stories about vampires.

I also found a copy of George R.R. Martin's first (I think) book, a collection of stories called A Song for Lya.  After I read about GRRM in the New Yorker I thought I would give A Game of Thrones a try but I didn't make it five pages.  And I've seen about five minutes of it on HBO.  I want to like it but the subject matter triggers cringe-inducing flashbacks to endless hours playing Dungeons & Dragons in junior high school.  Can't even do Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.  But this Lya book seems different.

Rounding things out, I also got two by Fredric Brown:  Honeymoon in Hell and The Lights in the Sky Are Stars.