Saturday, May 31, 2008


The Book: John Connolly, THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS. Atria, 2006 (first American edition). Inscribed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2006
Owned since: 2006

A bonus post for John today, because it's his birthday; happy birthday, John, and many more to come.

THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS is a most appropriate book to mark anyone's birthday, in fact. It is a story of the transition from childhood to adulthood, a story about how we decide what to keep and what to let go, and how to cope with the fact that we don't always get to keep what we love best.

Just as the Second World War begins, ten-year-old David loses his mother to a long illness -- despite his best efforts to save her, through what feels like magic to him but looks like obsessive-compulsive behavior to the adults around him. David's father remarries a little too quickly, and immediately presents him with a most unwelcome baby brother. David responds by retreating into the world of books, which start to talk to him -- literally, talk to him, even from the shelves of the psychiatrist's office his father takes him to.

David and his family have retreated from the Blitz to a country house, but it is not safe, either. While in his back garden, David is struck by a crashing German airplane that knocks a hole into a different world, a world where David's books are real. David finds himself in that world, and the only person who can help him get back to his own world is its mysterious king, keeper of the magical Book of Lost Things.

David's journey takes him through twisted versions of classic fairy tales, some well-known, some obscure. A dark and disturbing Red Riding Hood has helped to create this world, where half-men/half-wolves hunt in packs. David meets seven socialist dwarfs, who take him home to meet a very different (and hilarious) version of Snow White. Roland, of medieval mythology, helps David, and throughout his journey David feels the comforting presence of a Woodsman watching over him -- while the evil Crooked Man lays traps at every turn.

The eventual discovery of the king and the Book of Lost Things feels both shocking and inevitable -- and David must make the choice that all adults make about what is really important to him, and what he's willing to do to protect that.

I read an advance copy of this book on a visit to Connecticut, staying with friends who live in a 200-year-old farmhouse. My mother had died five months before, and after the first chapter I didn't know if I could finish the book at all. I did, two days later, sitting outside in the sunshine and crying so hard my friend Susan was alarmed. She got a copy of the book from me for Christmas, as did about two dozen of my closest friends and relations.

The greatest books are boxes that hold things even the authors didn't realize they were putting inside. THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS is a treasure chest, and even if John weren't my friend, I'd be grateful to him for it.

Friday, May 30, 2008


The Book: J. K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS. Scholastic, 1999 (third printing). Good condition; dust jacket shows signs of wear, spine is slightly cocked.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

This book was a gift from my friend and colleague Montrice when I left Washington, DC. It was a surprising gift but an oddly appropriate one; I was taking off on an adventure, and Montrice thought I ought to take this book with me. She gave me the second book, rather than the first, because the Harry Potter craze was just taking off, and she couldn't find a copy of the first book in hardcover.

Certain people I admire (you know who you are) are scornful of this series, but I loved it from this first book, and bought every succeeding book as soon as they came out. Harry Potter lives the childhood we all fantasized about, learning magic in a safe place with his closest friends, undistracted by the demands of family. (In the real world, we call this college.) In this book, at least, good and evil are easy to distinguish, mistakes aren't fatal, and justice triumphs if you work for it.

BookExpo starts in earnest today, and I'm already glad I invested in a pair of magic shoes for the event. I'm only half-kidding; at the recommendation of a friend, I spent a frightening amount of money on a pair of Masai Barefoot Technology sandals. They force me into better posture and take pressure off my knees, which is going to be essential this weekend.

Because the soles are curved, they also make me look like a Weeble.

"They're supposed to make me walk like an African warrior," I told Grace Lechner.

"Fast or slow?" she asked.

Sometimes I miss the point...

What I Read This Week

Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, LITERACY AND LONGING IN L.A. Anna lent this book to me ages ago, and I finally got around to it over the holiday weekend. Unapologetic chick lit about thirty-something Dora, beautiful, wealthy, separated from her husband and taking refuge from her life in books. Dora reads too much; she hooks up with a clerk from Brentwood's best independent bookstore (renamed here, which upset me because its real-life model, Dutton's, is now history); she realizes she needs to snap out of it and grow up. Easy on the eyes, easy on the mind, nothing but cotton candy -- and sometimes, that's just fine.

Denise Hamilton, THE LAST EMBRACE. A mystery set in 1949 Los Angeles, as former OSS agent Lily Kessler comes home to look for her late fiance's sister, an actress who's gone missing. The young woman's been killed, and the police seem too corrupt to investigate adequately. Period details about Los Angeles are the fun of this book, and it's interesting to compare THE LAST EMBRACE with Megan Abbott's THE SONG IS YOU, a very different novel inspired by the same real-life crime: the never-solved murder of actress Jean Spangler. I read an advance copy; the book comes out in July.

Tom Rob Smith, CHILD 44. I started to read this book in April, then set it aside because its grimness overwhelmed me. I'm glad I finished it, because it's a very impressive debut, but it is not a light-hearted read. In Stalinist Russia, state security operative Leo Demidov believes he is working to protect the state -- until, in quick succession, he is forced to bully a grieving father into calling his son's death an accident instead of murder, and he is asked to denounce his own wife as a counterrevolutionary. Exiled to a remote factory town, Demidov finds evidence that the child's death is one of dozens of similar murders, and tracks the killer down without regard to his own danger, or his family's. CHILD 44 is a book that deserves to be read and discussed at length, raising many questions about the effects of corruption and totalitarianism on the most fundamental human values.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A HELL OF A WOMAN edited by Megan Abbott

The Book: Megan Abbott, ed., A HELL OF A WOMAN: An Anthology of Female Noir. Busted Flush Press, 2007 (first edition). Signed by 9 contributors. Fine condition.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

In Los Angeles for Book Expo America, staying with my friends Linda and Tim. Therefore, all posts for the next few days will be books both Linda and I own...

My closest friends tell me, with some regularity, that I am judgmental. I am. It's taken me 42 years, but I'm not going to apologize for it anymore.

Almost nothing makes me write someone off faster than the statement, "I don't really read books -- I read magazines." Through long experience and considerable effort, I've managed to overcome that in a handful of cases -- I do have a handful of friends and close associates who don't read books -- but for the most part, I just can't figure out what I might possibly have in common with anyone who doesn't appreciate a good book.

This is a book for people who don't read books. It's a collection of fierce, scary, funny and heartbreaking short stories by and about women on the edge, followed by an equally impressive collection of short nonfiction about the Women of Noir -- authors, actresses, characters. Pieces in this collection range from half a page to about 23 pages, and if you can't find something to entertain you here, I give up.

You can start an argument among any group of crime fiction fans by 1) asking for a definition of noir or 2) asserting that women don't or can't write in the noir tradition. Here's the thing: according to my definition of noir, the protagonist of the story needs to be an outsider, and you just don't find as many women writing about the outsider experience. That's changing, but the fact remains that women tend to gather together, with friends or family, and rarely assert their desires above the needs of the group. That conviction -- that one's own needs and wants trump society's -- is the heart of noir, and that's why we don't see a lot of noir written by or about women.

But it has nothing to do with interest or ability, and the heroines of classic noir are the most memorable characters. Who remembers the name of Glenn Ford's character in Gilda, or the name of the detective in Laura? Not I.

My favorite story in this collection is Alison Gaylin's "Cherish," about an obsessed fan. It is possible, Alison points out, to want to belong so badly that this desire itself makes you an outsider. That's an insight you wouldn't get from a male author.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The Book: Helen Fielding, BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY. Penguin trade paperback reprint (11th printing), 2001. Very good condition; upper left-hand corner of front cover has faint crease.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2005 (this copy)

You could only have missed the Bridget Jones phenomenon if you were living in a cave between the years of 1997 (in England) and 2003 (in the U.S.). Helen Fielding's heroine is still the icon of what people call "chick lit," and I didn't want to read the book when I saw it under my cousin Sheila's coffee table, sometime after I'd moved to Los Angeles.

"Oh, it's darling," someone said -- it might have been my cousin Moira, it might have been our friend Maeve. "It's really fun."

So I picked it up, started reading, and couldn't put it down. In fact, years later, I needed to buy my own copy so I could reread it, just for a quick escape. I bought the sequel, too. I saw the first movie in the theater (with Moira), the week it came out. And I am not ashamed.

If you haven't read it, BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY is a riff on Pride and Prejudice, updated for the late 20th century and told in the first person as a series of journal entries. Bridget is insecure, a spendthrift, obsessed about her weight, hopeless with money, but devoted to her friends and still optimistic about the possibility of finding true love. She's neurotic about small stuff but deals with genuine crises fairly well (a conceit that works better here than in the sequel, THE EDGE OF REASON).

I'm off to Los Angeles today for BookExpo America. I'll keep posting, but can't make any promises about the schedule.

Five Random Songs

"Transmission," Joy Division. I own this song in a couple of formats, but this version is from a CD collection of producer Martin Hammett's work. (If you haven't seen 24-Hour Party People, I recommend it.)

"June," Pete Yorn. I wonder why I never bought any more of his work; I really loved this first album.

"Coughing Up Blood," Marah. From their latest CD, Angels of Destruction. I discovered this band on a Bruce Springsteen tribute album, and they're just great, working-class rock. They deserve to be huge.

"Blood and Roses," The Smithereens. Ooh, a tuberculosis-themed set...

"Chasing After Deer," Midlake. The Trials of Van Occupanther might have been my favorite album of 2006 (not that I bought many); Midlake doesn't sound like anyone else.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

THE STAND by Stephen King

The Book: Stephen King, THE STAND: The Complete and Uncut Edition. Doubleday, 1990 (third printing). Good book in good dust jacket; spine is cocked, jacket is creased, book shows signs of exposure to damp.
First read: 1990 (this version)
Owned since: 1990

You have your ideas about vacation reading, I have mine: a 1,140-page epic about a deadly virus and the end of the world. Read today, elements of THE STAND are eerily prescient; a mutating virus wipes out most of the world's population, and those who remain separate themselves into communities representing good and evil. Although most of the country is empty, it's still not big enough for the two of them. THE STAND takes its title from Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland": "And in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand..."

I bought this book specifically to take on vacation, a week I spent on an island off the southern coast of North Carolina. The man I was dating at the time was unfamiliar with the jargon of beach rentals. He nearly blew a gasket when he discovered that "ocean view" did not mean "beachfront;" but we were across the street from the beach, which as far as I was concerned, was even better. Not as damp. People who grow up by the water don't feel romantic about it; I can't stand the smell of mildew or that feeling of constant damp and salt scum.

But I digress. Many Stephen King fans consider THE STAND his finest work. I'd have agreed with them, if he'd never published this version. I keep this copy to remind me that, quite often, less is more.

King explains in the foreword to this edition that it is an expansion of the version first published in 1978. Four hundred pages of the original manuscript were cut from that version, not for editorial reasons but because King's publishers felt that readers wouldn't buy a book that cost as much as they'd have to charge for it. For this edition, King put those 400 pages back, and made a few changes to update the story, which was set (at the time) in the near future of the early 1990s.

I bought this edition, I read it and I kept it and I don't begrudge the time or the money, because I admire Stephen King, and he's given me many hours of pleasure -- but if you haven't read this book, my advice would be to visit in search of the 1978 edition. It's long enough, at 700+ pages, but feels leaner and faster, and is not missing anything major. If you love it as much as I did, you might want to read this version later, in the same way you'd watch "Deleted Scenes" on a DVD.

In any event, read either version of the book before you watch any of the TV versions. The only reliable adaptor of Stephen King's work is William Goldman; if and when he decides to tackle THE STAND, I'll watch that one.

Monday, May 26, 2008

BAD MEN by John Connolly

The Book: John Connolly, BAD MEN. Hodder & Stoughton, 2003 (U.K. first edition). Inscribed and dated by the author (April 25, 2004). Fine condition.
First read: 2004
Owned since: 2004

An obvious choice today, since I spent yesterday on Peaks Island, which inspired the fictional setting of this book: Dutch Island, formerly known as Sanctuary.

Sanctuary's resident policeman, the giant Melancholy Joe Dupree, protects the island from external and internal threats, but the island has secret defenses of its own. Marianne Elliot and her son, Danny, have come to the island for sanctuary, running from a man whose evil even Marianne doesn't fully understand.

That man, Moloch, is Danny's father, and determined to do whatever's necessary to reclaim his own. He enlists the help of other men just as bad as himself, and forces a final, deadly confrontation on the shores of Dutch Island.

BAD MEN is a thriller and a ghost story, a tale to be spun out over nights in a dark, isolated place.

It is also a story of heroism and the obligations of family and community. This morning I took the book off the shelf and hesitated, thinking I might better choose a book appropriate for Memorial Day. But, without spoiling the book, it too is about the sacrifices that heroes are willing to make for their homes and families.

Later this morning, I'll walk over to the Common for the day's ceremony. A monument there honors Gardiner's war dead; a band will play, and a color guard will salute them. May they and all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

WHACK A MOLE by Chris Grabenstein

The Book: Chris Grabenstein, WHACK A MOLE. Carroll & Graf, 2007 (signed first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

It's a holiday weekend, the beginning of summer, and the week ahead will be "books to read on vacation." In many ways, my whole life is one long vacation; in other ways, I never get a real day off. I've been juggling a few too many things this week, and meant to spent today catching up, but instead took a long walk followed by a long nap. No holiday for me on Monday...

Anyway, this book is the most recent in one of my favorite series. Officer John Ceepak is an Iraq veteran who returns to civilian life with the police force of Sea Haven, New Jersey. As seen by his (very junior) partner, Danny Boyle, he's larger than life: an old-fashioned hero who does not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. Boyle narrates these books, in the time-honored tradition of Sherlock Holmes's Watson, Poirot's Hastings and Nero Wolfe's Archie Goodwin.

WHACK A MOLE starts with Ceepak's discovery of a ring that belonged to a young woman who had disappeared many years before -- which leads to the discovery that, unbeknownst to anyone, a serial killer has been stalking Sea Haven for decades.

The books in this series are deceptively straightforward, but brilliant on so many levels. Each one bears the title of a carnival ride, and Grabenstein's voice, as Danny the narrator, is perfect: a little naive, a little wiseass, fundamentally kind and respectful, growing older and wiser with each book. Danny stands in for us, the reader, and never allows the crimes to be trivialized.

Having grown up in Virginia Beach myself, I especially appreciate the powerful metaphor of setting these books in a fictional resort town: most people might just visit on vacation, but some of us live there -- and it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

I've always lived in places that were tourist attractions -- Virginia Beach, Washington, Los Angeles, and now an entire state that calls itself "Vacationland." People come and go, and aren't always respectful of the places they visit. Locals resent tourists for a reason, even though tourists make it possible for locals to live in these places year-round. Grabenstein captures that perfectly, too, but never takes the easy way out by pinning all unpleasantness on the people from away.

Tomorrow I'm going out to Peaks Island for the day, and will be a tourist myself. I promise to be careful and polite.

What I Read This Week

I'm in full-on Editor Mode this week, and it's hard for me to read anything because I can't turn off the blue pencil in my head. Neither of these books needed any help from me.

Robert Crais, CHASING DARKNESS. An advance copy of the next Elvis Cole novel, due out in July; put this one on your summer reading list. Elvis learns that a man he helped clear of murder charges has been discovered dead, with a photo album of half-a-dozen murder victims on his lap. The last two victims were killed after Elvis produced evidence to clear him; did Elvis make a mistake that cost two women their lives? The plot twists ingeniously, speeding toward a shocking conclusion.

Tana French, THE LIKENESS. Since I read her first novel (Edgar winner IN THE WOODS) so recently, it startled me that French's second novel should follow so soon, or be so ambitious. Cassie Maddox, the partner of the main character of IN THE WOODS, agrees to go undercover to investigate the murder of a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to her. Even stranger, the victim had stolen the identity of an undercover alias Cassie had used years before. The prime suspects are the victim's housemates, graduate students who have formed a tightly-knit surrogate family; Cassie not only convinces them of her new identity, but begins to embrace it herself. Deeply emotional, harrowing and sad, THE LIKENESS begs comparison with Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY and Kevin Wignall's AMONG THE DEAD, but establishes French firmly as a serious writer doing lasting work.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


The Book: John Kenneth Galbraith, A SHORT HISTORY OF FINANCIAL EUPHORIA. Whittle Books/Viking, 1993 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 1994
Owned since: 1994

Yesterday morning I did not buy oranges, because they cost almost a dollar apiece. Last week I did not go to the opening reception for the Maine Festival of the Book, because it's a hundred-mile round trip from here to Portland, and I had already spent more than $140 on gas that week.

Hard times are not quite here -- for me, at least -- but things are getting worse. It was inevitable, and the only consolation is that if we can all hang on, things will inevitably get better again.

I bought this book in the wake of the last major downturn, in the early 1990s. If you can remember back that far, the issues were similar: collapsing real estate values, overextended credit followed by a credit crunch, high fuel costs, general anxiety. By 1994, when this book came out, the seeds of recovery were already sprouting.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith offers this short book (110 pages) to illuminate the causes of the recession that began in 1990. In his preface, Galbraith describes the "speculative excess and collapse" of the 1980s: real estate, junk bonds, interest rate deregulation, etc. "Public confidence was shaken, corporate investment was curtailed, troubled banks were forced to restrict lending, workers were discharged and corporate executives and bureaucrats shed."

Sound familiar? It was ever thus, says Galbraith. He walks us through several earlier cycles of excess and collapse: 17th-century tulipomania, John Law's Banque Royal, the infamous South Sea Bubble, the 1920s Florida land boom, and of course the Crash of 1929.

So why don't we ever learn? Well, it's human nature. "Individuals and institutions are captured by the wondrous satisfaction from accruing wealth," writes Galbraith, and with that goes this idea that if you're making money, you must be doing something smart. In fact, most people would say that making lots of money is the only real proof of intelligence. (Donald Trump would agree.)

But making money takes as much luck as skill, and as we've seen, it's possible to be too smart for one's own good (ask Jeff Skilling).

And no one's immune to the basic principles of physics, which apply both above and below. When I was in college, a sign in a friend's bathroom summed it up: Gravity -- it's not just a good idea, it's the law.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The Book: Kenneth C. Davis, DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY: Everything You Need to Know about American History but Never Learned. Avon trade paperback, 1991 (16th printing). Very good condition; pages show some age-related browning, cover is slightly discolored.
First read: 1992
Owned since: 1991

One Sunday when I was five or six years old, I was fidgeting on a kneeler in church and looking at the date on a hymnal, which was some year before I was born. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that the world had existed before I did -- that St. Leo's and my parents and all sorts of things had been in operation before I arrived, and that there had been a time when I did not exist. The thought of it made me dizzy. I closed my eyes and saw black-and-yellow checks behind my eyelids (so vivid that I still remember what they looked like).

After church, I asked my mother where I had been before I was born. "In the mind of God," she said.

That's all very well from a theological point of view, but I've never been able to shake the feeling that I walked into the party late, and still need to catch up on everything that happened before I got here.

I like lists, I like trivia, and -- as my research clients know -- I like timelines. This book combines all three of those things, so no wonder I used a gift certificate I got for Christmas 1991 to buy this.

Kenneth C. Davis is a "serious" historian who decided to put the essential information about the United States' founding and growth into a book anyone could pick up and read -- a book you might even keep in the bathroom, as it's written in short, entertaining question-and-answer chunks. This was the first of his "Don't Know Much About" books; he went on to turn it into a franchise that covers everything from mythology to astronomy.

This book strikes a nice balance, dispelling conventional wisdom without having any particular axe to grind. Davis, for example, gives the Comte de Rochambeau the credit he deserves for coordinating the naval confrontation that forced the British surrender at Yorktown; he notes the many mutinies among George Washington's soldiers, but also salutes Washington as a survivor who inspired loyalty among his officers. He dishes gossip (always the heart of history), explaining the reasons for the Jefferson-Hamilton feud but taking no sides on the question of Jefferson's alleged affair with Sally Hemings.

Last night's pub quiz was a good time -- for me, at least -- and I was relieved that the quiz seemed to be neither too easy nor too hard. If you'd like a copy of the quiz (without answers), send me an e-mail, and I'll send it to you.

Five Random Songs

"Piano Fighter," Warren Zevon. Another song off Mutineer. I saw him perform this live at the late, lamented Bayou in Georgetown, just him on the keyboard; this version is a little over-produced, with vibraphone and harmonium.

"Come Together," The Beatles. The shuffle function is so random; it feels like months since it's given me any Beatles, and I have a lot of Beatles in my music library.

"Of Missing Persons," Jackson Browne. A song written for Lowell George's daughter, after his death. "And you can sing this song/On July the fourth/From the sunny south to the frozen north/It's a day of loss, it's a day of birth/Does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?"

"Not About Love," Fiona Apple. From Extraordinary Machine, a CD I like a lot.

"Add It Up," Violent Femmes. I love the Violent Femmes. I love Gordon Gano. I do not care that he's a foot shorter than I am. This is a live version of the song off their compilation, Add It Up (1981-1993). I own a t-shirt from this tour... I wonder where it is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


The Book: Peter N. Stearns, editor; THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD HISTORY, Sixth Edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (first edition); fine condition
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2002

I pulled out this essential reference book to answer a client's question yesterday. This edition comes with a handy searchable CD-ROM, but that feels like cheating. Besides, half the pleasure of owning this book comes from flipping through it to find random facts.

Who remembers, for example, that liberation terrorists kidnapped and murdered the Quebec Minister of Labor in 1970? The Canadian Army actually occupied Quebec for six months, under the War Measures Act. I was too young to pay attention to the news, and they never taught me this in any history class -- but this was very close to civil war, right across the Maine state line.

Now, it's too obscure a fact to include in a pub trivia quiz -- which is relevant to me, because I'm hosting tonight's quiz at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell. It starts at 8:00, and the entry fee is $10 or $15 depending on the size of your team. Come out and play.

And before I forget, a very happy birthday to Mr. Jason Hersom, who wasn't even born in 1970.

Monday, May 19, 2008

MEETING ACROSS THE RIVER edited by Jessica Kaye and Richard J. Brewer

The Book: Jessica Kaye and Richard J. Brewer, editors; MEETING ACROSS THE RIVER: Stories Inspired by the Haunting Bruce Springsteen Song. Bloomsbury USA trade paperback original, 2005; inscribed by the editors, signed by several contributing authors.
First read: 2005
Owned since: 2005

Today is Richard Brewer's birthday, so a very happy day to him -- you can help him celebrate by buying a copy of this book!

Richard and Jessica solicited stories from 18 other authors (they contributed their own, as well), based on the classic song from Born to Run. If you don't know the song, it's a soliloquy directed to "Eddie," the singer's friend, who needs to help the singer make a deal that will put money and his pocket and show his long-suffering girlfriend, Cherry, that he's not just talking. You know, listening to the song, that it can't end well -- and in these stories, it doesn't.

The stories aren't all just imaginings of how the deal goes down, though. Steve Hamilton's "One Fast Packard" is a story of Prohibition-era smuggling; Gregg Hurwitz's "The Real Thing" is a six-page techno-thriller. My favorite story in the collection is probably Peter David's "Killing Time by the River Styx," which I can only describe as a Sopranos-style take on classic mythology.

It occurs to me, as I page through this book, that short story collections are a little like photo albums. While novels record an author's thoughts over an extended period of time, short stories show us the writer at a much more specific point in time, and only for a moment. Barbara Seranella, for example, is no longer with us -- but I can read her story again, and she's right here. I can hear her voice in the words on the page.

So thanks for that, Richard and Jessica, and many new challenges and triumphs ahead.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

All About Bob

A bonus Sunday post, just because I feel like it.

At yesterday's (sadly underattended) Maine Festival of the Book, I caught the last 20 minutes of Crystal Zevon's talk about her oral history of Warren Zevon, I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD. (I own this book, though it's currently lent out; I'll post about it separately.)

Someone asked her whether anyone had turned down her request for an interview, or whether she thought anyone's voices were missing. She mentioned her disappointment at not getting interviews with the Everly Brothers or David Letterman, as they simply don't give interviews. Then she said, "The person I really wanted to talk to was Bob Dylan, but I was afraid to ask him."

It's too bad. By coincidence, Bob Dylan played last night at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, and Jen and I went to see him.

It's true, he doesn't seem to be the most approachable of men. He played one set -- about 75 minutes -- with no opening act and no intermission, and did not speak to the audience until the beginning of the encore, when he introduced the band.

But he seemed to be having a great time, and as I watched him, I felt overwhelming gratitude and admiration.

A character in Michael Chabon's book THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION (which I reread this week) says something like, "All messiahs fail when they try to save themselves." But Bob Dylan never asked to be anyone's Messiah, never wanted to be. Instead, he's managed to save himself whole out of the chaos of the late 20th century.

He doesn't want to be a role model, but he can't help being one, just by being who he is. He turns 67 this week, and he still has new music to play, new songs to sing, new takes on old tunes. Last night he played versions of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Shelter from the Storm," "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," and "Blowin' in the Wind" that sounded nothing like the originals -- but sounded GREAT. And he pulled out all the stops on a version of "Highway 61" that all but set the stage on fire.

Dylan neither ignores his past nor fetishizes it; he's brought it all with him into the present day. He is now everything he ever was, and then some. It's as much as anyone can aspire to.

Friday, May 16, 2008


The Book: George Kennan, RUSSIA AND THE WEST UNDER LENIN AND STALIN. Atlantic-Little Brown Books, 1961 (first edition). Missing dust jacket; spine is faded, boards show signs of wear. Previous owner's stamp ("James J. Lamb, 1808 Meredith Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23455) inside front cover; current owner's signature on front flyleaf.
First read: 1981
Owned since: 1984 (approximately)

This book was my father's textbook at the Naval Academy before it was my textbook (can't remember which class, but I think it was Professor Douglas's Marxism and the Marxist Tradition). I swiped it off my parents' bookshelves, rather than buying my own copy.

It remains essential reading for anyone interested in world politics, and current developments in the former Soviet Union show how relevant Kennan's observations still are. The book studies the evolution of the West's relations with the Soviet Union, beginning with the fundamental truth that the two countries have never been interested in exactly the same things. Much of the difficulty the United States and Russia have had with each other is rooted in the assumption that the two countries are pursuing the same or similar objectives, and Kennan's point is that this has never been the case, from 1917 on.

The Presidential candidates have all done a little saber-rattling in remarks about Putin's plans for Russia, but no one has discussed the issue at any length. It's hard to do that in the primary environment, but I am looking forward to hearing how Senator McCain and Senator Obama plan to deal with the Russian government.

The conservative website Human Events reported a year ago about the violent suppression of opposition rallies, writing: "Violent suppression of any democratic protest is the latest example of the deterioration of human rights under Putin, who has also re-centralized power, restricted free speech, and used increasingly repressive measures -- and not just in Chechnya." Things have only gotten worse since. Putin's ceding of the Presidency to his protegee, Dmitri Medvedev, means nothing, since Putin remains Prime Minister and Medvedev is an obvious puppet (Medvedev's the same age as I am, which alarms me. I'm not old enough to be a world leader; how could he be?).

I did wonder, when I heard President Bush's remarks on appeasement yesterday, how he reconciles those opinions with his close friendship with Mr. Putin.

What I Read (and Listened to) These Weeks

Julia Spencer-Fleming, I SHALL NOT WANT. Julia was nice enough to send me an advance copy of this book, which comes out next month; to say that it is eagerly anticipated would be an understatement. Millers Kill police chief Russ Van Alstyne is single at last, but the circumstances of his single-ness are almost more than he and the Reverend Clare Fergusson can bear. Once so close, they avoid each other, except when their paths are forced to cross -- as happens when the body of a migrant worker is found on Russ's sister's farm. Julia's kept these two apart for five books, and in this, the sixth, they finally find their way to each other -- sort of. It's beautifully done, completely plausible, and the crimes at the center of the book are believable. I SHALL NOT WANT ends with a turn that offers a world of new possibilities for the series -- which means I'm already waiting for the next book again.

Thornton Wilder, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY. Not sure how I never read this book, which was on reading lists all through my high school years. The Peruvian monk Brother Juniper examines the lives of five who were killed in a bridge collapse, looking for evidence of God's plan. As the five stories come together into one, God's plan emerges as an inscrutable offering of the opportunity to love one's neighbor.

Christina Schwarz, DROWNING RUTH. Amanda Starkey, a wartime nurse, returns home to her family farm in upstate Wisconsin in the winter of 1919. Within a year her sister Mattie has died, leaving behind the three-year-old Ruth. Amanda raises Ruth as her own, and tells Mattie's husband, a wounded soldier, a story with far too many holes in it. The secrets Amanda keeps emerge over the next 20 years, as several characters tell the story. An impressive first novel that telegraphs many of its secrets early on, but still packs a punch at the end.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, NO ORDINARY TIME: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. A portrait of a unique and rather tragic marriage, and how its dynamic -- Franklin at home in the White House, Eleanor everywhere but there -- shaped American domestic policy for decades, mainly for the better.

Michael Beschloss, THE CONQUERORS: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945. Fifty years ago, no one could have imagined the peaceful, prosperous, progressive Germany of today. Its emergence owes a great deal to the plans for a post-war Germany hammered out in Quebec, Yalta and Berlin during and after the Second World War. While Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau envisioned a Germany reduced to nothing but farms, and Stalin wanted to commandeer all of Germany's industry as war reparations, the eventual compromise allowed Germany to repair itself and return to the international community.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


The Book: Hans J. Morgenthau, POLITICS AMONG NATIONS: The Struggle for Power and Peace. Fifth edition, revised. Borzoi, 1978. Owner's signature and old telephone number written on front flyleaf; book is heavily highlighted and marked. Dust jacket is missing, but book is tight; spine is faded.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1984

We're going back to politics and history for a while, because that's what I was listening to on this last trip, and it's what's on my mind. This was the main textbook for the International Relations class I took with Professor Coll; he was very young then, and my roommate and I had a crush on him. (Note to universities everywhere: class attendance improves when students have crushes on professors. Hire accordingly.)

Anyway, this edition was written at the height of the Cold War, and while much of it is now out-of-date, I've kept it because the insights are still clear and sound. Looking through it this morning, for example, I am particularly struck by Chapter 6, "The Struggle for Power: Policy of Prestige." "In the struggle for existence and power," Morgenthau writes, "what others think about us is as important as what we actually are."

Our current President has forgotten this, or maybe he doesn't care. Or maybe he wants the rest of the world to see us exactly as they do.

In any case, I'm happy to lend this book to any current or aspiring political candidate who wants to borrow it.

Five Random Songs (since I didn't post yesterday)

"Mutineer," Warren Zevon. In the summer of 1994, I took a weekend off and went to Bethany Beach, DE, all by myself -- except for a handful of CDs, and this was one of them.

"Falling For the First Time," Barenaked Ladies. This song is about someone jumping out of an airplane, I think. It's not something I feel any great need to do, although I hear it's fun. Claire's done it. It's good to have children braver than oneself.

"Conduct," The Durutti Column. A song and a band I was unfamiliar with until I got this CD, a collection of songs produced by the legendary Martin Hannett, for Christmas last year.

"Trouble in Mind," Big Walter Horton. This version of the song doesn't sound much like the version you probably know; it's off the great Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection.

"Baby It's You," The Shirelles. A great John Sayles movie, featuring Rosanna Arquette and a seriously hot Vincent Spano.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Miles to go...

Hitting the road again, headed for Kate's Mystery Books, which is celebrating its 25th Anniversary tonight. I'll be home very, very late tonight, and probably won't post again until late tomorrow morning.

Monday, May 12, 2008

YOU SUCK by Christopher Moore

The Book: Christopher Moore, YOU SUCK: A Love Story. William Morrow, 2007 (first edition). Inscribed to the owner. Fine condition.
First read: 2006
Owned since: 2007

Back at Megan's, and my first impression was correct: we really don't have much overlap in our book ownership, although she has several books I gave her, and vice versa. This is a book that I own because I would be Chris Moore's disciple if it were a paying job, and Megan owns because she likes vampire novels. So you see, YOU SUCK has something for everyone.

YOU SUCK is the long-awaited sequel to BLOODSUCKING FIENDS, and you really ought to read BLOODSUCKING FIENDS first -- not only because Mr. Moore should be encouraged and supported in all his efforts, but because I'm not sure how much sense parts of YOU SUCK make to people who don't already know the set-up. BLOODSUCKING FIENDS is the story of how Tommy, a goofball from the Midwest, moves to San Francisco and falls in love with the woman of his dreams, who happens to be a vampire. YOU SUCK begins on the morning after Jody, the woman, has turned Tommy into a vampire, and the two have to figure out the mechanics of vampire life together.

It is hilariously funny, gleefully violent, aggressively silly, and features one of Moore's best characters yet -- the teenaged Goth girl Abby Normal, who just can't believe Tommy isn't as cool as vampires are supposed to be in the books.

I read this book as an advance copy, but went to Boston to see Chris talk and get a first edition signed when he toured. I hear we might get to see some of the new book -- or maybe even advance copies? -- at BookExpo America, which is reason enough for me to return to Los Angeles at the end of the month.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Off Topic (except to the extent that it's all about me)

Greetings from Virginia Beach. My cousin Beth got married down here yesterday, and three generations of Lambs turned out to celebrate. For future reference, dancing all night is not the best thing for a twisted knee, but thanks to my brother James's heavy-duty Motrin stash, I'm fine today.

Anyway, the only books I have with me are the ones I'm reading and/or editing now, and most of this week's pleasure reading has been in the form of audiobooks. I'll post a double edition of What I Read This Week next Friday, but in the meantime I'm co-opting the blog to do a little networking.

I have an opportunity to take on a unique project late this summer in New York City, but it doesn't pay anything and it doesn't come with housing. Does anyone know of -- or have -- space for me (and maybe even Dizzy) from approximately August 1 through October 5? I could pay some rent, but probably not market rates. A furnished room in a pet-friendly house or apartment would be ideal, but anything without an active rat infestation is a possibility.

If you know of anything, leave me a comment or send an e-mail to

Sorry to be cryptic about the project, but I'm not sure how public it is yet. Believe me, I'll be much more forthcoming in the months ahead, especially if I do wind up spending August and September in New York.

Dizzy and I head back to DC tomorrow, back to New England on Tuesday. Happy Mothers' Day to everyone, especially to Vikki Bea and my sisters Kathy and Peggy.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


The Book: James Finn Garner, POLITICALLY CORRECT BEDTIME STORIES: Modern Tales for Our Life & Times. Macmillan, 1994. Fine condition.
First read: 1994
Owned since: 1994

Greetings from Washington, DC, where I'm staying in the house I used to share with my friend Megan (who still lives here). Megan too is a big reader, but our collections don't overlap much. This is one of the few books we both own, and I would guess we both still have it for the same reason: it's very small.

It's a one-joke book, and a dated one at that -- "Rapunzel," for example, begins "There once lived an economically disadvantaged tinker and his wife. His lack of material accomplishment is not meant to imply that all tinkers are economically marginalized, or that if they are, they deserve to be so." It is clever, and some of it is still very funny, but political correctness as a subject for humor is -- gosh -- about 15 years old.

The funniest story in the book is "The Three Codependent Goats Gruff," in which the biggest goat begs the troll to eat him because they tempted him, while the troll sobs and asks forgiveness: "No, no, it's all my fault. I threatened and bullied you all, just for the sake of my own survival. How selfish I was!" The battle of who is guiltiest ends badly, but with some measure of satisfaction for all involved, as they feel they are finally getting what they deserve.

It shouldn't surprise me -- but does -- to find that it is already early summer here in Washington, and everything is green. Dizzy, who came with me, is thrilled but a little overstimulated.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

ALL THE KING'S MEN by Robert Penn Warren

The Book: Robert Penn Warren, ALL THE KING'S MEN. Bantam Classic paperback reprint, 1966 (18th printing). Fair condition; book is intact but fragile, pages are brown and brittle, spine is heavily creased. Previous owner's markings on front cover, including an old phone number for VEPCO (now Virginia Power).
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982

If you -- like me -- stayed up much too late last night waiting for returns from Indiana, you might have wondered: Why do people run for office, and what makes people hang onto it at all costs?

If you stayed up for last night's returns, you've probably already read this book -- but if you haven't, it explains it all for you. It is the great American political novel, beginning with a loving description of a highway built with public funds and ending with the narrator musing on the nature of history, honor, and public service. In between are passion, betrayal, love, anger, corruption, lies and terrible, costly hope.

Reporter Jack Burden becomes, almost accidentally, the advance man and press secretary for grassroots politician Willie Stark, who might be a buffoon except for his uncanny charisma and political vision. Willie gets into politics to do good, and never doubts that he has the people's benefit at heart. As his career rises, however, the other compensations of politics distract him, and he becomes more and more willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals.

Willie Stark gains the world and loses his soul, and Jack Burden is his henchman until his last illusion is betrayed. Willie says, "Man is born in sin and conceived in corruption and passeth from the stench of the didie to the stink of the shroud. There is always something" to be dug up on his opponents, something to be used as leverage. Jack doesn't want to believe him, but Willie turns out to be right. Maybe.

The power of ALL THE KING'S MEN comes from the fact that Willie is good as well as evil, and sets himself against things he perceives as greater evil. When this was the Questions blog, my brother James asked whether politicians realize how slimy they are. I said that no, they mostly don't, and this book was the beginning of that understanding.

On the road again today, and posting between now and Tuesday may be erratic -- which shouldn't matter much, since I'll be seeing most of my regular readers.

Five Random Songs

"Wild World," Jimmy Cliff. From his In Concert (Live) recording. Once you hear this song with a reggae beat, you'll never hear it any other way.

"The Sharpest Thorn," Elvis Costello & Alvin Toussaint. I had a last minute invitation to go to JazzFest in New Orleans last week, and turned it down because I was too tired and had too much work to do. I am now officially middle-aged.

"Ever Fallen in Love," The Buzzcocks. And then I hear this song and think, well, maybe not...

"The Best," ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. I think this song was a single, off their album Worlds Apart.

"Punky Reggae Party," Bob Marley. It must be summertime. The weather report says it'll get above 80 in Washington, DC today. What the hell do I have to wear?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


The Book: Josephine Tey, THE DAUGHTER OF TIME. Washington Square Press paperback reprint, 1977. Very good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, but spine is tight.
First read: 1979
Owned since: 1987 (this copy, best guess)

After so many moves and so many cullings of the collection, it surprises me to find so many books on my shelf that I've kept not because I loved them but because I thought I ought to have them. I pretend to be a student of the mystery genre; therefore, I must own this book, because everyone says it's one of the greatest ever written.

I can hear the sputtering start now, and I can even predict where it's coming from. Several of my friends love this book so much they can't talk about it coherently. Don't misunderstand me, it is wonderful; it's a great premise, it's beautifully written, it's ingeniously constructed, and I recommend it to anyone who hasn't read it.

The Daughter of Time finds Tey's series character, Inspector Alan Grant, confined to a hospital bed after falling through a trap door while chasing a suspect. His friend Marta, an actress, distracts him with a collection of portraits -- Grant has always prided himself on being able to read character in a face, so Marta brings him a set of historical murderers. He fixates on the portrait of Richard III, who does not look like a murderer to him, and decides to investigate the fate of Richard's young nephews, who died in the Tower of London.

And now, as I leaf through this book, I see why I kept it. I first read it grudgingly, as a book report assignment from a teacher I disliked. I now realize that she disliked me just as much -- teachers are human, too -- but that didn't keep her from trying to engage me, and this book would have been a smart choice, if I'd been open to it at all. It's been years since I reread The Daughter of Time, but it might be time to do that again. I might finally be ready for it. Thanks, Mrs. Hume.

Monday, May 05, 2008

BANKER by Dick Francis

The Book: Dick Francis, BANKER. Fawcett paperback reprint, 1984. Good condition; book is intact, spine is cocked and heavily creased, pages are age-browned.
First read: 1985
Owned since: 1985

I haven't hung on to many paperbacks, but this is my favorite Dick Francis novel. Besides being an excellent mystery, it also provides clear, succinct explanations of basic investment banking, the finances and mechanics of horse breeding, and pharmacology.

Investment banker Tim Ekaterin agrees to help finance the purchase of a great stallion who is being put out to stud. Disaster strikes when a disproportionate percentage of the stallion's foals are born with terrible birth defects. To recover his bank's investment, Ekaterin must find out whether the horse is at fault, or something more sinister is going on. Along the way he falls hopelessly in love with a married woman, makes a lot of new friends, and learns to love the world of horses.

I didn't watch the Kentucky Derby on Saturday; while set-building, I got knocked sideways by a moving platform (my own fault) and went down hard, twisting my knee in the process. No serious damage, but the knee's still swollen (yes, I'm still icing and elevating).

Good thing I'm not a racehorse. The best commentary I've seen on Saturday's sad events is Sally Jenkins's column in yesterday's Washington Post, which you can read here (registration required). Dick Francis's BANKER is based on the observation that breeding stallions are money-making machines; Jenkins's column is based on the observation that this has gone too far.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

TWICE SHY by Dick Francis

The Book: Dick Francis, TWICE SHY. Putnam, 1982 (third printing). Signed by the author on half-title page. Very good book in good dust jacket.
First read: 1983
Owned since: 1987 (best guess)

For Kentucky Derby day, a horse mystery. I was surprised to find that this is the only Dick Francis novel I own in hardcover; over the years, I bought a lot, but must have given most of them away.

This one was signed at an event at the late, lamented MysteryBooks, which used to be right above Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue. I didn't spend as much time in that store as I should have, although I remember standing in line for signatures from Dick Francis, PD James, and Patricia Cornwell (in the early years). The staff at MysteryBooks introduced me to Minette Walters's books and to the works of the Poisoned Pen Press, among others.

Dick Francis's novels all have something to do with horses, but each one also explores a new subject, and I always learned something from them. The main character in this one is a physicist, Jonathan Derry, who gets an apparently innocent cassette from someone who's then murdered. The cassette is a computer program that handicaps horses with uncanny precision -- such uncanny precision that people are willing to kill for it.

Maine has OTB parlors, but I probably won't bother to drive to Brunswick to lose my money. Instead, I'm spending the day at Hallowell City Hall, where we're starting construction on the set for Bye Bye Birdie. If you're in the area, come out and join us. You can borrow my hammer.

Friday, May 02, 2008


The Book: P. J. O'Rourke, MODERN MANNERS: An Etiquette Book for Rude People. Atlantic Monthly trade paperback (first printing), 1990. Very good condition; spine is slightly sun-faded.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

I'm not sure why I hung on to this book, except that it reminds me of a time and place I would not otherwise think of very often. Manners and humor are two things that change a lot over time and culture, and this satire is a time capsule of a specific American socio-economic class during the 1980s.

Once upon a time, such things as Yuppies roamed the earth. God help me, I aspired to be one of them -- though I was a little too young and a little too poor to do it properly. I am so far from the New York-Washington rat race now that I no longer know what people who used to be Yuppies now aspire to be -- helicopter parents, maybe, or even Dennis Hopper-style retirees.

I leaf through it now and find much of it downright quaint, although some of it is still pretty insightful: "We must be as obsequious as possible to famous people and do everything in our power to make them like us. Fame is a communicable disease."

What I Read This Week

Tana French, IN THE WOODS. This book won the Edgar for Best First Novel last night, and it's well-deserved. Twelve-year-old Adam Ryan goes out to the woods with his two best friends, Jamie and Peter, and only Adam comes back -- two days later, with his shirt torn and his shoes filled with blood. Twenty years later, a young girl is killed in the same area, and Adam is now a murder investigator who calls himself Robert. Robert is our narrator, still counting the cost of an ordeal he can't remember, and offering no easy answers for himself or for us. Moody, gripping, sad, and I've already got an advance copy of the sequel.

Chris Grabenstein, HELL HOLE. Yes, the title had me humming that Spinal Tap song off and on for a whole day. But this fourth John Ceepak mystery takes a much darker turn, as Ceepak and his partner/narrator, Danny Boyle, investigate the apparent suicide of an Iraq war veteran. We learn several surprising things about Ceepak, and the book ends with the promise of more troubling events to come. But Ceepak's rock-solid integrity remains a comfort to both Danny and us, and makes this series one of the most rewarding in crime fiction.

Nina Revoyr, THE AGE OF DREAMING. Jun Nakayama, a major star of silent films, left the screen abruptly in 1922. Forty years later, an eager journalist/aspiring screenwriter finds him and offers him the chance to return to filmmaking. As Nakayama considers the possibility, he remembers his rise to stardom and the terrible circumstances that ended his career. Revoyr gives us a unique perspective on the early days of Hollywood, retelling the story of the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor (thinly disguised) in a way that makes us consider the nature of responsibility and guilt. This is a beautiful, elegant book that deserves a great deal of attention.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


The Book: BETTY CROCKER'S NEW DINNER FOR TWO COOKBOOK. General Mills spiralbound, 1964 (first edition). Good condition; book is slightly age-browned, shows signs of use.
First read: 1970 (best guess)
Owned since: 2007

This book was a wedding present to my mother. I didn't want much, when Dad broke up the house last year, but I did take a few of her cookbooks. Most of the wet fingerprints on the pages must be from us kids, because Mom never had much opportunity to cook for two; Kathy and I were born nine months after my parents' wedding.

Old cookbooks feel like travel guides to the past, and this one is no exception. Recipes are heavy on prepared ingredients -- one for "Southern Burgers" calls for the addition of a can of chicken gumbo soup to ground beef, diced onion and ketchup (spelled "catsup"). A hostess tip suggests heating potato chips before serving: "Spread on baking sheet. Slide into hot oven a few minutes (watch carefully -- they burn)." A two-page spread offers suggestions for "planned-overs" (because, with recipes for two, you shouldn't have leftovers!).

The last chapter of this book, and the most heavily used, is the "Cook's Primer." My Grandmother McLaughlin was a serious cook, but Mom never took much interest in it. She'd taken home economics in high school, but was never someone who cooked for pleasure. Pies defeated her; the page on pie crusts is heavily marked with drips and fingerprints, and possibly even tearstains.

It's pretty amazing, given the fact that she didn't like to do it, that Mom made dinner for a family of eight -- or some subset of it -- every night. She'd get creative sometimes, and when she tried something new, she'd put it on the table and announce "Another culinary triumph."

Today's her 67th birthday. Maybe I'll make something out of this cookbook tonight -- one more culinary triumph.