Thursday, November 18, 2010

Public Displays of Affectation

Whenever I can, I like to look at what other people are reading.  I flew to New Orleans last week on a sold out flight and got the last seat on the plane.  Everyone knew the flight was sold out - there were several announcements to this effect and the departure area was mobbed.  Finding the last empty seat was a tremendous ordeal because everybody tries to bring all their luggage onto planes and it takes forever for people to store it in the overhead bins.  As I was walking to the back of the plane,  I passed the two guys on the flight who I knew I did not want to sit next to.  Of course, they are the ones I ended up sandwiched between.

The fat one, he was dressed in a full religious costume and his buddy, the smooth one, had only limited religious accessories.  Even though it had been announced that every seat was taken, these two had taken out all of their religious texts and made a big show of how devout they were by studying them as everyone else tried to board and settle in.  Of course, they filled the empty middle seat with their crap.  Naturally, this is where I was directed to sit by the stewardess. 

The smooth one was nice enough and got out of the way to let me in but the fat one, inexplicably sitting at the window seat, had nowhere to put his holy books and other crap and took forever to move all of his shit out of my way.  I had a bottle of water in my carry-on bag and as I tried to jam it under my seat, water squirted out of it like a fountain onto the smooth one's seat and all over his pseudo-holy book.  (I can say it was a a pseudo-holy book because these two were part of some fringe or small sect of their religion - which I will not name because I don't want to be called ant-* or a *-ist - and this book was all about predicting the future based on hidden numerical codes found in their holy texts.  Nonsense on top of nonsense, in other words.)  I felt bad about getting his book wet because I love books and am not a total jerk - but if this clown didn't need to have it open (it was a big book, not the kind of thing you casually read anywhere but at a table, much less in the few minutes before takeoff or in a throng of people scrambling to find seating in a cramped space). 

I had my book in my hands before I sat down - which was fortunate because I would not have been able to get into my bag to get it for the rest of the three hour flight.  I sat quietly and read my Scottish mystery novel once we took off. 

I was annoyed that I had to endure their unnecessary pre-flight display of piety.  And I would have been okay the rest of the flight if they kept studying or whatever it was they were doing.  But no.  After we were allowed to turn on our electronic devices, the fat one takes out a netbook from somewhere and starts to watch a movie and eat snacks.  And what does this religious scholar, someone so devout and with such an urgent need to study that he will do so even under the chaotic conditions of the boarding of an overbooked flight, watch during the flight?  The Pelican Brief.  When its calm and quiet, he likes to focus on an 18 year old movie with Denzel Washington and Julie Roberts.  (Side Note:  I have a signed first edition of the book.)  I wanted to tell him how it ended.

The smooth one slept most of the flight except for when he played video games on his iPhone.  He must have been having nightmares because he kept twitching and jerking.  Whatever he was dreaming of was not worse then the waking horror I had to endure.

As we waited to get our luggage after the flight I saw my seatmates had set up on a bench in the baggage claim area and got out their holy books and recommenced their study of spiritual matters while the rest of us fought to get our luggage.

On the return flight, I could only spot one book.  Something called Young Monsters, a slim, dust jacket-less, beige hardcover.  Its edited by Isaac Asimov and is a collection of short stories, mainly fantasy and sci-fi, about children who are in some sense monsters.  I liked the guy who was reading it - he looked like he would read interesting stuff - and want to find this book.

Forgotten Copy of The Memory Book

Oliver Sacks had a piece in the New Yorker this summer about the Canadian novelist Howard Engel.  (Only the abstract is available online for non-sunscribers - ) Engel lost the ability to read and to recognize words and letters after suffering a stroke.  He could still write - but he could not read what he wrote. 

After I read the article, I dug out my stack of Howard Engel novels.  I have all of his Benny Cooperman novels - about a wise-cracking small town PI in Canada.  Long ago I started but never finished his first book, The Suicide Murders.  It was okay - light entertainment, nothing great.  Something I need to be in the mood for.  I'll get back to it someday.

Tonight while doing laundry I found another Howard Engel novel (I have green Penguin editions of his books except for this one, which mean it doesn't live with the Penguins in the bookcase devoted to Penguins).  Its the first one he wrote after his brain injury.  Its called The Memory Book and instead of sorting socks I started reading it.  Benny Cooperman suffers a traumatic brain injury - much like Paul Cole in Donald Westlake's Memory - the book I am currently reading - and wakes up weeks later in the hospital.  With a shattered memory and with the same inability to read or recognize letters as Howard Engel himself experienced.  Though I only read a few chapters of it, The Memory Book is on much sounder ground with the science and medicine of memory loss and brain injury.  Of course, it was written 40 years after Memory.  While I am enjoying Memory, I cringe at the fact that I'm deriving entertainment from a character suffering from traumatic brain injury from a period before much was known about these things. 
Also lurking with my green Penguins I found this:
Supposedly its a classic in field on amnesia-noir lit.  I bought it after reading about it in reviews of the Vintage Book of Amnesia edited by Jonathan Lethem.  I thought it would be cool but could never get into.  Maybe I'll  have another look at it since I seem to be temporarily interested in this kind of thing. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back to Nature

I spent last week in southern Mississippi, just off the Gulf Coast.  It was quite a bit warmer down there than it is up here and I was able to spend some time by the pool, reading in the sun. 
I started Louise Welsh's Naming the Bones shortly after it was released in March 2010.  Somewhere around page 90 I picked up a copy of The Hunter by Richard Stark and was detained by Parker for the next several months.  Which was a shame because Naming the Bones is fantastic.  It has all the things I like in a book:  dead writers, biographers, academics, murder, archives, lost manuscripts, hidden secrets, and a Scottish setting.  And some illicit sex.  I started over and this time gave it my full attention.  For which I was richly rewarded - its an excellent novel.

Somehow I bought a paperback copy of this book.  I meant to get a hard cover first edition but I guess I put the wrong version in my cart.  I wonder if there was a hard cover edition?  This makes me unhappy.

A few months ago, Existential Ennui wrote about Rogue Male, Ordinary Thunderstorms, and Concrete Island in a post called Going Underground.  I've been thinking about it ever since - in particular, I've been hoping for an an updated version which incorporates Richard Stark's Slayground - a book he was close to reading back then and that fits in perfectly with those three books.  The second half of Naming the Bones is set on a remote Scottish island and much of the writing concerns nature and landscape and they play similarly important roles as they do in RM, OT and CI.  All of which leads me to a gross generalization - nature and landscape don't seem to play much a role in modern American fiction.  There's plenty of it in English fiction but not so much in American.  In the Stark example here, the landscape is almost entirely artificial.  And nearly everything else on the American side is almost entirely urban.  In the UK it is perfectly normal to have thrillers and mysteries in rural settings and for them to work perfectly. 

I'm now reading Donald Westlake's newly published lost novel Memory.  I don't know what to make of it.  I like it because its Westlake - but I have the feeling it would never have been published or would have been long forgotten if it were by someone other than Westlake.  And some 50 years later, one can't help but feeling that what once was a noir staple - amnesia - is now better thought of as badly misdiagnosed traumatic brain injury.  But still I read on.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Eight Is Enough

I bought eight books on Saturday.  I haven't been out shopping for books in a while and I was really feeling the urge to go out and buy stuff.  So I did.  And it was much more satisfying than buying books online (which is what I am reduced to most of the time, given the collapse of bricks and mortar book selling and a lack of time).

Existential Ennui got a copy of something called X v. Rex by Philip Macdonald a few weeks ago and after reading about his copy, I wanted one, too.  (A lot of what he, EE, writes about has this effect.)  I found one but published under a different title.  Nothing special, just a paperback from 1983.  Bought it just to read, not to collect.

And I got a paperback copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for 50 cents.  I have never read a John Le Carre novel.  I've listened to and read interviews with him and always read about him but never got around to reading any of his books.  Can you be a fan of someone if you only read about him/her and never actually read their work?

I already have multiple copies of Joseph Mitchell's The Bottom of the Harbor but I couldn't pass up this one for only three dollars.  This copy is a first edition of the 1994 Modern Library edition of the book.  Not rare but it is a pleasure to hold, embodying all that mumbo-jumbo about how good a book can feel in your hands and how an electronic book can't provide a similar experience.  These nonfiction stories from the New Yorker about the New York City waterfront are some of my favorite things to read.  And re-read.  (I think his collection Up in the Old Hotel would be the book I would choose to have if I were to be stranded on a desert island.)
Okay, I already have a copy of Memory.  But I am taking a little trip soon and thought that this is something I would like to read while I am away.  So I bought a reading copy of it.  After paying through the nose for some old Richard Stark paperbacks I thought it would be wise to keep a pristine copy of Memory for my collection (though I must admit my Stark/Westlake books are for the most part a motley assembly of reading copies with only a few nice first editions).
This, Stuart Neville's The Ghosts of Belfast, I really dropped the ball on.  I should have bought this in hard cover when it was published.  But I was distracted by other things and never got around to it.  To make matters worse, I had a shot at a nice first edition of his new, second book but I was so down about not having the first in hard cover that I passed on it. 
 This was my only collectible purchase of the day - a first edition of this collection of Frank O'Connor short stories.  I have these stories in paperback - this copy is just to look at.
I knew very little about La Perdida by Jessica Abel.  A long time ago she did some work with the public radio program This American Life (perhaps the greatest thing on American radio) and that was enough for me to take a chance on it.  I almost always know a lot about a book before I buy it or read it so it was kind of fun to take a chance on something new.  This is about as wild as I get.
X'ed Out by Charles Burns was my final purchase of the day - and I bought it new and paid full price for it, unlike all my other items.  I think the egg on the cover has some sort of hypnotic attraction thing going because I did not plan to buy this.  I was going to wait and read it at the library or wait until all three volumes were published.  But once I had it in my hands, I had to have it.  I am not a fan of Charles Burns (I never even finished Black Hole) and don't know much about Tintin so I think that egg must be the reason I bought it.  Quite frankly, the book is strange and I don't know what to make of it.  But I can't stop looking at that egg.