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.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Fear the dark

I am about 550 pages into my re-read of The Passage and I've noticed some things in the book that relate to the real world (as opposed to a fictional one where banks of lights are used to keep away virals - the name given to infected humans who have turned into sort of superhuman vampiric monsters - and where power outages result in death).

My wife is a police officer and in certain neighborhoods, the police deploy mobile banks of light towers at night.  These panels of high-intensity lights are put in high crime areas and theoretically prevent street crime at night.  Or scare off the bad guys.  (Given the number of robberies in broad daylight, I'm not so sure how well this theory of lights offering protection hold up.)  And a patrol car always has to park under the panel of lights while they are on.  My sweetie has to do this on occasion and we make jokes about the lights and the virals.  But still, in Washington, DC, in neighborhoods not too far from the White House or the Capitol, some streets are so dangerous, lights have to be deployed for fear of attack by marauders.  (I suppose this is an attempt at a high-tech solution but it feels so primitive.)  (And given the epidemic levels of HIV infection in this city - worst in the nation - the viral parallel and the risk of infection is also too close for comfort in another way.)

Hurricane Sandy is about to hit the Washington, DC area.  Or most of the East Coast, including us.  And most media coverage of the storm concerns the prospect of flooding and power outages.  We had an ultra-violent thunderstorm this summer that left much of the Washington area without power for up to a week afterwards and people are nervous about losing power again.  For the most part, nothing bad happened when the power was out.  There were many inconveniences and people were miserable but no one really died.  But the level of hysteria in media coverage of events might lead one to think that there was or could have been loss of life.  Not the case, unlike when a colony only defended by a wall and banks of lights against virals loses power and the lights go out.

The other bit of real world news from my re-reading of The Passage concerns Newsweek magazine.  As you may have heard, Newsweek announced the death of its print edition last week.  On page 583 of my paperback copy of The Passage, Peter Jaxon finds an ancient copy of Newsweek in an abandoned firestation in the California desert, one hundred years or so into the future.  The issue he finds has a photo of a viral on the cover with the headline "Believe It."  When I read The Passage the first time in the summer of 2010, Newsweek was alive.  But by the time of this reread in the fall of 2012, it is about to stop printing (it will live on as a digital edition) and now it won't ever be possible to create a fictional world where somebody will find an old paper copy of Newsweek in the ruins somewhere.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Justin Cronin's follow up to The Passage is about to be published.  I read The Passage when it came out in the summer of 2010 and thought it would be fun to re-read it before starting The Twelve.  And so far, I am enjoying the re-read much more than I'd imagined I would.  It is a big, big book with a lot of different characters and stories packed into it and now that I know them all I can relax and enjoy everything more.  And the book retains most of its scariness.

I'm also reading David Quammen's new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.  Popular Science magazine just ran a nice excerpt.  It is the perfect nonfiction companion to The Passage as Spillover is about how diseases in animals crossover to infect and spread among humans and that some truly horrible epidemics are probably going to occur.  Which is sort of what happens at the start of The Passage - researchers being attacked by bats in the Bolivan jungle.  And then the virus spreads and pretty soon civilization collapses.  The viruses in Spillover mainly limit themselves to killing their hosts and so far it appears none have the potential to turn us into virals.  (As far as we know.)

I am deep into my project of putting many of my books into storage (so far, 63 boxes) and because I've been thinking about diseases and epidemics from The Passage and Spillover, I noticed that I have a ton of books on infectious disease: Malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, Ebola, SARS, influenza, AIDS, anthrax, bubonic plague, BSE and more.  Even textbooks on malaria.  I've packed most of them up for storage but now that I think about it, it must have looked strange to anyone who saw them all.  And it reminds me of a funny story Nick Hornby wrote about in Vanity Fair about when he first saw his brother-in-law-to-be's London apartment - it was crammed full of books on Nazi Germany.  So many books that it looked suspicious and he was worried for his sister.  Turns out the Robert Harris was about to have a massive success with Fatherland.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Search of Lost Time

I love to read interviews with writers.  One of the standard questions asked concerns what books the writer read as a child.  The answers always fascinate me because for the life of me, I have little to no memory of what I read as a child.  I read all the time.  There were always books in the house.  I had easy access to the public library.  Every time the family went shopping I got to go to a bookstore.  I read during meals.  Even now I still hear stories about how much I read as a child.  But what was it I was reading?  Mystery and science fiction, mostly, I think.  But who or what?  This is both puzzling and embarrassing because I am the kind of person who should have good answers to this sort of question.

There are a few books I vaguely remember and I found one of them at a used bookstore today.

City of Darkness by Ben Bova.  It was published in 1976 and I am fairly certain I read a hardcover library copy. (Why can I recall those details?)  I remembered this story about a teenager visiting New York City during the short time each year when it is open to the public - most of the year it is sealed off from the rest of the country.  When closed, marauding gangs control the place and life is brutal for those trapped inside.  In the book, the kid is visiting on the last day of the season but he gets robbed of his money and ID and is trapped in the city when it closes.  And then he runs around and stuff happens as he tries to get out (I don't recall much more than that). 

I think I read this book before the movie Escape from New York came out in 1981.  Or maybe around the same time.  They are made of similar stuff and I know I enjoyed them both. 

Flash forward 30 years and I am reading the comic DMZ by Brian Wood - which is also kind of similar but perhaps the one I have enjoyed the most.

I bought my new copy for a dollar.  I hope it knocks loose other memories of what I read back then.  Something about a dune buggy.  The one about a kid who gets to be escape Earth and help colonize a new planet, some book where they smoke cigarettes called Merciful Seraphims, the one about the juvenile delinquent who gets caught with a gun because the floor of the smart building he is in can detect a change in his weight.  Real classics, I know.  But they are some of the only fragments I have of what I read when I was young.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

This is the best new novel I have read so far this year.  It is the story of what happens when Bernadette Fox's life goes off the rails at the prospect of a family cruise to Antarctica, as recounted by her daughter Bee through notes, letters, and emails.  I pretty much hate the epistolary novel but here the form works brilliantly.  Satirical, funny, relentlessly entertaining, smart, and even touching.  Maybe I've been reading too many crime novels lately and my senses are warped but I can't remember reading anything this fun in a long time (A Visit from the Goon Squad maybe?)  Even the title of the book and its cover are wonderful.  My wife also read it and while she enjoyed it, she is of the opinion that I have gone overboard in my enthusiasm for this book.  That's okay - everyone thought the same thing about Bernadette, so I am in good company.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Escape from DC

We rented a house in a small town on the shore of the Cheasapeake Bay for Labor Day weekend. I packed a box of books so I would have a good supply of reading material for our vacation but when we got here, we found a bookcase full of good books. I knew the house had a small offering of books and DVDs but was pleasantly surprised by what we found - a really good selection of Scandinavian crime fiction.  (Hakan Nesser, Maj Sjowall&Per Wahloo, Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason, Kjell Erickson, Johan Theorin, Karin Fossum, and Lars Kepler.)  If I had been under house arrest and had to stay longer I would've enjoyed reading what was on hand.  Plus, they had two by William Boyd, a Tana French, a Richard Price, and a few other good choices.

I never got around to reading anything from the house library.  Instead, I wound up immersed in entertainment about escaping from prisons.  I started out reading Richard Stark's Breakout.  Our first night we watched Chicken Run (a really great escape movie) on DVD.  After Breakout, I moved on to Donald Westlake's Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  I also polished off Richard Stark's Nobody Runs Forever and Lawrence Block's Hit Man.

Breakout was published in 2002 and Help I Am Being Held Prisoner was published in 1974 but Westlake used the same name for the prison in each book (Stoneveldt and Stonevelt).  Not a big deal, I realize, but it was strange to encounter the names in back to back books.  I found two cartoons from the Spectator in Breakout.

(Something is going haywire here and I can't format anything the right way.)

It was hard to find a copy of Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  I wound up buying an ex-library copy without a dust jacket for 17 cents from Atlanta via Canada. (Property of the U.S. Army, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Branch 1 Library)  Very ugly, but I enjoyed reading it.