Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

I have been experiencing box envy lately.  Now that Christmas has come and gone, my condition has eased considerably as I now have some box sets of my own.

The first is both simple and something very special:
I have never properly read any Sherlock Holmes.  I've read about him and sorted of skimmed him but have never owned any of Arthur Conan Doyle's books.  Its hard to be knowledgeable about crime fiction without ever having read these books.  So this is a special treat for me.  Two nice, thick paperbacks and one nice card board box for them to live in.

My second box set is a three volume edition of the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolano's book 2666.
Just as a dead Swede has been the sensation of the crime fiction world the past few years, this dead Chilean is the star of the world of literary fiction now that all of his books have finally appeared in English.  I've read a lot about him but this will be my first stab at reading one of his books (though he has had some stories published in New Yorker magazine the past few years). 

Our friend Docx made a lame attempt to get us to stop reading crap and start reading serious literary fiction several weeks ago.  His approach was all wrong.  One of my favorite critics, John Powers, gave an impassioned plea for why we should read great books like 2666 - for what they can offer - a few years ago that was much more powerful and effective than Docx's attempt to tell us that what we are reading is inherently flawed. (Instead of reading the Powers piece, click on the link to listen to it - it was written for radio.)  I've been thinking about Powers' review of 2666 since I heard it and now I can finally see for myself if he's right.
Other good Bolano links: and

My third box of the season is certainly the strangest, and, I hope, the most valuable.  A long time ago I became a lifetime subscriber to McSweeney's.  Issue number 36 just came in the mail - in the form of a head shaped like a box.
(Note: Not my photo - actually, none of these are.)
My last and greatest box is this:
A collection of 100 famous Penguin covers as post cards.  In a box.  I also got Phil Baines's Penguin By Design, too.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Great Westlake Essay

Jettisoning the Literary Straitjacket

A great essay on Donald Westlake and his recently published lost novel Memory. Saw this on Sarah Weinman's Tumblr feed and not on her blog. Must watch Tumblr and Twitter more closely in 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bruegel and Stark and Frayn and Westlake

I recently finished reading Richard Stark's eighth Parker novel, The Handle.  I enjoyed it immensely, as I have all of the other Parker novels.  The Handle is about a job to knock off and knock out a casino on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.  (Had the casino survived Parker, BP will soon finish the job.)[Note: I started this post in May 2010 when oil was still pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.]

The name of the island is Cockaigne.  Karns, the head of the Outfit and the man commissioning the job, gives us the background on the name:

‘One of my lawyers told me what it is,’ Karns said. ‘There was an old legend in the old days in England about a country called Cockaigne where everything was great. Streets made of sugar, doughnuts growing on the trees and like that. Like the song about the big rock candy mountain. Idleness and luxury, that was Cockaigne, and that was what this bird Baron called his gambling island.’

And this rang a bell with me.  Just as Stark used the story of the Missing Mourners of Dijon in The Mourner, I wondered if he got the idea for The Handle from the world of fine arts - because there's a painting of it by one of my favorite artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, called "The Land of Cockaigne."
The place that Breugel paints is a lot like the island.  For more on the background on this painting, see

In Tuesday's New York Times, I read about the discovery of a new painting by Bruegel and this reminded me that I never finished this post.   An old painting has been found to be from the master himself and not one of his sons.  Michael Kimmelmen has a nice write up about it called When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity.

Here's the painting:
It was painted shortly after the Cockaigne picture and it of a similar them - a crowd drinking wine and passing out.

Bruegel the Elder is one of my favorite artists and my interested in him originated in reading Michael Frayn's great comic novel Headlong, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.  In it a man notices a painting hanging in a decaying country house that he suspects is a lost painting by Bruegel.  He schemes to get it and things end badly.  Imagine one of Westlake's Dortmunder novels written in a way Docx would approve and you have Headlong.  This book is a real work of art and one of my favorite novels ever.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Charity Cases

Day 1
A charity book sale just opened near work.  Its a temporary thing, set up in a small, abandoned space and it doesn't seem to have much good stuff - Docx's nightmare is what it is.

I collect books connected to the New Yorker magazine.  Have a big bookcase full of  them.  Hidden in a box under a table of books on current affairs at this book sale, I found a copy of The World of John McNulty by John McNulty with an introduction by James Thurber.  McNulty wrote for the magazine from 1937 until his death in 1956.  This is a collection of most of his pieces for the magazine.  I had never heard of him before and this first edition hardcover from 1957 with its dust jacket in perfect shape (I don't think anyone read it back in '57) was only four bucks so I grabbed it.  (I can't find any photos of the book online.  Also, I can't find the cable to connect the camera to the computer.)

I want to do some research on McNulty but it will have to wait until after the holidays.  Our x-mas tree blocks access to the bookcase with all of my New Yorker books.  McNulty seems to have written pieces about life in New York city - stories about cab drivers, bar tenders, gamblers - colorful characters, mainly.  From skimming the book, it seems to me that the reason no one remembers much about him is that Joseph Mitchell covered much of the same territory and did so with much greater skill. To be fair, Mitchell used the English language better than most who have ever picked up a pen and it must have been unlucky to be on the same beat at the same time as him.

Day 2
I picked up a copy of The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher.  Apparently most of what I have been reading this year is crap genre fiction (see Mr. Docx in the Observer) so I thought I should read some nice literary fiction.  TNC definitely passes the Docx test and I think it will be quite good.  I had this book from the library when it came out but never got to it before the library insisted that I bring it back.

Day 3
I found a brand new copy of Paul Auster's latest novel, Sunset Park.  It was only published in November and its astonishing that it could end up in a bin in  charity sale so quickly.  I probably would've purchased this book new so finding it for four bucks is a bargain. 

I overpaid for a copy of Fear of Drowning by Peter Turnbull.  I've had my eye on Turnball for ages - probably back from when my Ian Rankin-mania started in the mid to late 90s.  Rankin's Insepector Rebus series is one of my all-time favorites.  Around then I started noticing short paperbacks by this Turnbull fellow but I couldn't find out much about him.  He seems to have written a series of police procedurals set in Glasgow and now maybe is writing other stuff.  My book dowsing sense was telling me to start getting his books but I never did.  I've been passing on them for years now.  When I saw an ex-library copy Fear of Drowning I decided this would be the book I would read to determine whether or not to hunt down the rest of Turnbull's books.  Unfortunately, Turnball seems to have dropped Glasgow for North Yorkshire.  Nothing against North Yorkshire (never having been there) but Scotland (never been there either - but I feel like I have) is such a great place for crime novels.  On the other hand, I do have a box of Yorkshire Gold tea in the kitchen.  Had it for breakfast.  (Had a cup of Scottish Breakfast tea earlier this evening.)  So I guess I'm ready for Mr. Turnbull.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

More Books!

Went shopping for books again today.  At a giant warehouse full of used books in Maryland.   For about five bucks each I got first edition hard covers of Richard Stark's Firebreak and Ask the Parrot.  And a trade paperback copy of Breakout.  And a first edition hard cover of Humans by some guy named Donald Westlake.  I never find good Stark stuff and this really made my day.  I have a fair number of Starks and Westlakes now but not many nice first editions.  And I had a 10% off coupon, too.  I was a little nervous about how much I'd have to pay for the hard covers because they were unpriced.  I tried not to fidget or act nervous when the guy at the register was trying to price them - I figured he would try to read me and apply whatever information he gleaned from me into the price.  He knew who Stark was but didn't know these were Parker novels.  And I explained that they were and that they are being reprinted by the University of Chicago Press.  And then he said he thought that Westlake may have just died.  And I said yes, on December 31, 2008 in Mexico City.  Then I started to get nervous that I was revealing my hand and showing how much I wanted these books.  (I'd make a terrible card player.)  I was thrilled to get them for so little. 

I also found Changes and Chances by Stanley Middleton.  An unread first edition (American) hard cover of his novel.  Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday.  Actually, he had to share the Booker with Nadine Gordimer that year - her co-winning entry was The Conservationist.  Middleton was a teacher in Nottingham who didn't start to publish until he was 38 and went on to publish 45 books.  On the whole, copies of all these books are scarce.  This is only the second Middleton I've been able to find.  (I got Entry to Jerusalem for free from the Book Thing in Baltimore.  It is a great place - and everything really is free.  When I do a spring cleaning around here that is where I want to send my discarded books.  If I able to let any go.)  I only knew of Middleton because the crime writer John Harvey (who also started out a teacher in Nottingham I believe) wrote about him after his death.  I love Harvey's Charlie Resnick books - police proccedurals set in Nottingham - and everything he's written since he retired Resnick.  There's a lot of yapping about the rivalry between literary and genre fiction (like in today's Observer) but reading almost anything Harvey has written proves genre fiction can be as well written as literary fiction.  I like Harvey so much I always buy his books from Amazon UK the day they are published.  Of all crime writers working today, Harvey may very well be the best.
(My secret shame - two of these books are BCEs.)

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't

So I went to pick up four weeks of comics on Friday night (Hellboy, Elephantmen, The Astounding Wolf-Man, DMZ, The Invincible Iron Man, The Walking Dead, B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth, Baltimore:The Plague Ships, Fables, and Sweet Tooth) and as I was paying, the guy on the other side of the counter said I was the third person today he saw reading Lee Child's 61 Hours.  He asked me what I thought of it and I gave him my standard Lee Child answer (the books are tremendously entertaining, expertly crafted popular fiction, and even though the books may sound like a horrific cliche that they are quite wonderful). 

I went to a used bookstore today and picked up three more of the Inspector Montalbano mysteries by Andrea Cammileri, Hotbed by Bill James, the latest William Trevor novel, Love and Summer, a reading copy of Doors Open by Ian Rankin, and A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny.  There were a lot more books I could have left with but something I just read ( made me put them back.  

Olman just read The Corpse on the Dike by Janwillem van der Wetering and only sort of liked it.  And he's going to read another book in the series before he decides if he's going to read more.  This is a very sensible, level-headed approach.  Very much unlike me.  I have most of van de Weterings books and I've been wanting to read them for a while.  I'd heard good things about them and I love police procedurals.   And I enjoying tracking down all the books I'll need to be able to read a series in the proper order so to me, buying up a bunch of books that I do not know if I will like does not seem irrational.  But maybe it is.  It hadn't occurred to me that I would not like these books.

I put back a few books by Alan Furst.  I have five or six of his books already and hear nothing but great things about him.  Really, I should drop everything on go on a Furst-binge, he's supposed to be that good.
But I have known this since I first read about Furst in New York magazine some seven or eight years ago.  And I haven't gotten around to reading a single one.  So I put them back. 

The Bill James book I got, Hotbed, is something like the 26th or 27th installment in series about Harper and Iles, English cops.  I've accumulated maybe 11 or 12 of the books - but haven't actually read one yet.  And the three Inspector Montalbano books - police procedurals set in Sicily - same story.  Two massive violations of the Olman Rule.  I'm thinking that maybe this will be how I treat new things I come across.  Bill James and Andrea Cammileri are grandfathered in but everyone else in 2011, maybe I'll apply that test to. 

When I was paying for my books, the guy on the other side of the counter asked me what I thought about William Trevor as he had never read him.  I gave him my standard William Trevor answer - that he is the greatest short story writer alive today and that he should pick up his Collected Stories and read some of them. 

These two encounters have had me thinking about where I find out about what I want to read.  Lately its been all Donald Westlake and Richard Stark.  Which means Existential Ennui and the Violent World of Parker have a big impact on what I'm going to read.  My favorite book critic - Maureen Corrigan - just came out with her list of the best books of the year.  The Rap Sheet is a continually great source of crime and mystery novels.  Other websites of note are Detectives Beyond Borders and  The best sources in the offline world continue to be the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker, the TLS, the Guardian, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books.  National Public Radio has amazing book coverage.  So does BBC Radio 4 - or what I have access to, mainly Front Row.  I miss the Times of London - they've disappeared behind a paywall and it is almost impossible to obtain a copy of the paper in the US anymore.