Thursday, January 31, 2008

A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth

The Book: Vikram Seth, A SUITABLE BOY. HarperPerennial trade paperback reprint, 1994. Very good condition; remainder mark on bottom width of pages, spine slightly cracked, pages slightly age-browned.
First read: 1993
Owned since: 1995 (this copy)

Sorry I didn't post yesterday. I just want to say, if any of you haven't gotten a flu shot yet this year, go get one. I'm sorry I didn't. Although I'm mostly recovered -- I'm not nearly as congested, I can talk, and I'm not coughing my lungs out anymore -- I still feel like I'm getting over a beating. I went out with friends yesterday morning, and spent the rest of the day sleeping. This morning I am awake, but still not back to normal. Flu is a big deal. Now I know.

Anyway, this book is one of my favorites, and I meant to blog about it yesterday because yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Gandhi's assassination. Gandhi has nothing directly to do with the events of A Suitable Boy, but his leadership and martyrdom did lead to the independence of India and the creation of a society that provides the backdrop for the middle-class dramas (and comedies) of the book.

A Suitable Boy was compared to Dickens when it was published, because it's 1,474 pages long (in this edition), and weaves stories of multiple families and spheres. At its heart, it is the story of Mrs. Rupa Mehra's efforts to find a suitable husband for her college-educated daughter, Lata, in 1950s India. In this, as in its generosity of spirit and goodwill toward even its villains, the book resembles Jane Austen as much as it does Dickens.

But it's Seth's book, and it's a spectacular achievement. This is the second copy of the book I've owned; I gave the first one to my mother, who read it and then passed it on to one of her friends. I've read it at least three times, and as I flip through the pages I find myself wishing I had time to reread it again now.

India's on my short list of places I'd like to visit, and if I ever get there, I hope I still recognize Seth's world.

Five Random Songs (since I missed them yesterday)

"Family Life," The Blue Nile. From Peace at Last, which I got for Christmas with the iTunes gift card Chris gave me. Thanks, Chris!

"Strange Magic," ELO. Not all ELO is good -- this track probably should have been left in the 1970s.

"Target," Joe Jackson. From that ode to urban joy, hope, rage and paranoia, Night and Day.

"She's a Superstar," Buddy Guy. I have a couple of different versions of this song, but this one is from the soundtrack to Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. Which you should see, if you haven't.

"Rat Race," The Specials. From the great Two-Tone Collection: A Checkered Past, for which I am indebted to my brother-in-law Scott. Thanks, Scott!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

THE LIAR'S DIARY by Patry Francis

The Book: Patry Francis, THE LIAR'S DIARY. Plume trade paperback reprint, 2008 (as new).
First read: 2008 (still reading)
Owned since: 2008

Today's entry is part of a blogosphere-wide effort to support the paperback launch of Patry Francis's first novel, THE LIAR'S DIARY. Patry can't promote it herself because she's undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of cancer. She's blogging about that experience here, in posts so generous and lovely they make me humble.

We get dozens, maybe even hundreds of opportunities to help people every day, and we miss most of them because we're just not paying attention. When Laura Benedict, who was part of Killer Year with Patry, put out the call for bloggers to promote this book, I was glad to be asked. This morning I drove to Barnes & Noble to buy this book for Patry, because it was something I knew I could do that might help somebody else just a little, even if I never get a chance to meet her in person.

I started reading the book in the parking lot, which was a mistake. I'm 25 pages into it and I can't put it down; it reminds me a little of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, as it's about an intimate friendship between two very unlikely women. Jeanne Cross is a 30-something school secretary; Ali Mather is the glamorous and slightly scandalous new music teacher. Both have secrets, which intersect with violence.

Go buy your own copy of The Liar's Diary today, and when you finish reading it, come back and we'll discuss it. And please join me in sending best wishes to Patry for strength, comfort, and many more writing days ahead.

Monday, January 28, 2008

GRENADA: ISLE OF SPICE by Norma Sinclair

The Book: Norma Sinclair, GRENADA: Isle of Spice, Second Edition. M Caribbean trade paperback, 1992. Very good condition.
First read: 1994
Owned since: 1994

How cold is it? This cold: the clasp on Dizzy's leash was frozen shut at the end of our walk, and I had to warm it up with my hand before I could get the leash off. That's never happened before; the temperature's not even that extreme -- the thermometer says 13, and it's been colder. The clasp must have gotten some snow on it.

Time to dream of warmer climes. This book was purchased at the Borders at 18th & L in the middle of a Washington, DC winter, when I thought I knew what cold was. My friends Carla and Bill had an extra spot in a resort suite they'd booked at Twelve Degrees North, on the island of Grenada, and invited me to come along. I knew nothing about Grenada, except that it had been the site of a U.S. military intervention in December 1983, so I bought this book.

It's a compact, thorough introduction to one of the Caribbean's best-kept secrets. In 1994, Grenada was a fantastic bargain -- though I don't know whether it is now -- and it had some of everything. The beaches are small, but you can take a charter boat out to any of a dozen uninhabited islands that have lovely beaches. The diving is great, but you can see just as much with a snorkel and a face mask. Grenada is a volcanic island with a rainforest at its center, and waterfalls, and one of the Western Hemisphere's oldest rum distilleries.

The rum distillery was fascinating. The operation was much as it must have been 200 years ago, all exposed to the open air and about as dirty as any outdoor enterprise could be. Children and skinny dogs ran around the dusty courtyard, and the rafters over the giant sugar cane kettle were black with centuries of soot and burned sugar crystals. It hardly matters; the distillation process kills everything, and if it didn't, the rum produced is more than 90% ethyl alcohol, so could serve as its own antiseptic. The only way you can drink the rum is diluted with juice and water, in punches, with nutmeg syrup to cut the sweetness.

Nutmeg is the characteristic flavor of Grenada. As the book's title suggests, the island is home to major spice plantations, where they grow nutmeg and cacao, as well as other spices. I came home from Grenada with nutmeg syrup and nutmeg jam, and made them last as long as I could.

Whenever I hear that friends are going to the Caribbean, I always recommend Grenada. It's because I want to go back. NOAA says the current temperature there is 82 degrees, mostly clear, with breezes from the east.

Friday, January 25, 2008

THE TOP 500 POEMS edited by William Harmon

The Book: William Harmon, editor; THE TOP 500 POEMS. Columbia University Press, 1992 (fourth edition). Trade paperback, very good condition, some creasing of front cover.
First read: 1994
Owned since: 1994 (best guess)

It's Burns Night, a national holiday for Scots wherever they may be, and since I don't own a collection of Robert Burns's poetry, this is the next best thing. Any collection of "Top 500 Poems" must be arbitrary, but six of Burns's make the cut: "A Red, Red Rose;" "To a Mouse on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785;" "John Anderson, My Jo;" "The Banks o'Doon;" "For A' That and A' That;" and "Holy Willie's Prayer."

The national stereotype of Scots is that they're a dour, pessimistic, thrifty (not to say stingy) people, but Burns is the opposite of that, at least in his poetry. His poems shine with goodwill, humor, and tenderness for his subjects, whether they are working men or mice.

"John Anderson, My Jo" is a love poem between old friends -- maybe a wife to her husband, but maybe just lifelong friends.

John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bony brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my Jo.

John Anderson my jo, John,
We clamb the hill the gither;
And mony a canty day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we'll go;
And sleep the gither at the foot,
John Anderson my Jo.

Happy Burns night, everybody, and tak' a drop for me (since I'm still on antibiotics and can't drink). If you have haggis, feel no need to tell me about it.

What I Read This Week

Nick Stone, King of Swords. I admired Stone's first novel, Mr. Clarinet, very much, and was glad to snag this UK copy of this prequel, set in the 1980s. It's a complex tale of serial murder, a voodoo-based crime network, and deep-seated political corruption; at times it gets a little too complex for its own good, but I applaud its ambition and attention to detail, and look forward to Stone's next book.

Robert B. Parker, Now and Then. The mystery in this book -- the murder of an unfaithful wife and her husband, an FBI agent -- takes a back seat to the continuing mystery of Spenser's relationship with the incredibly annoying Susan Silverman. Many years ago, Susan left Spenser for another man, and Spenser had to kill a few people to get her back; the current case reminds them both of that time, to the point that we never even really learn why the victims in this book had to die. Annoying, and the implication at the end -- that Spenser and Susan might finally actually get married -- annoyed me even more. But we see a lot of Hawk in this book, and that's always good.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

and then again...

I am running a fever again this morning. And my legs hurt. And I'm still coughing, though not quite so much.

Since I am on a powerful and expensive antibiotic, I deduce that I have the flu.

Nothing to be done about it but drink some more tea, go back to bed, and wait to get better.

I'll post something real tomorrow, I promise.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

THE WARNER BROS. STORY by Clive Hirshhorn

The Book: Clive Hirshhorn, THE WARNER BROS. STORY: The Complete History of the Great Hollywood Studio; Every Warner Bros. Feature Film Described and Illustrated. Crown Publishers reprint, 1981. Very good book, fair dust jacket; dust jacket is chipped and torn at bottom of the spine.
First read: 1985
Owned since: 1985

This book was a gift from my then-boyfriend, but I no longer remember the occasion; it might have been Valentine's Day. In any case, it was a lovely present, and it's a book I'm still glad to have. It lists every Warner Brothers move from 1918's My Four Years in Germany to 1978's Superman: The Movie (illustrated with a full-page photograph of Christopher Reeve in costume that now seems unbearably sad).

What's fascinating about this book is the sheer volume of films the studio produced in the years before television, movies most of us have never heard of, featuring actors whose names have long been forgotten. I've talked about this before, but it's a subject that fascinates me -- the ephemeral nature of fame and success, the near-randomness of what gets remembered and what doesn't.

Twenty years from now, will we remember Heath Ledger? If we do, will we remember his performance in Brokeback Mountain, or his tragic death? Either way, he won't be making movies 20 years from now -- the way he should have been -- and that makes me angry. What a waste.

I am back in the land of the living today, after a visit to the doctor and some shockingly expensive prescriptions -- including an $87 bottle of cough syrup that was worth every penny. This stuff is miraculous; I've barely coughed in ten hours, and got the first full night of sleep I've had in weeks. Thanks, TussionEx!

Five Random Songs

"Blacklisted," Neko Case. A live recording from Mojo's in Columbia, MO. After the song, she talks about her bad day with hilarious frankness and the band tunes their instruments.

"First Time I Met the Blues," Buddy Guy. Buddy Guy puts on one of the best live shows I've ever seen. If you ever get a chance to see him, don't miss it.

"Wasting Time," The Judybats. The album's called Pain Makes You Beautiful, and most of the songs are about the virtues of doomed love affairs. (But as a friend of mine says, aren't they all? Love affairs, I mean ... doomed.)

"Revenge," Whiskeytown. It's an alt-country set this morning -- although this song is straight-ahead, pissed off guitar rock.

"The Old Main Drag," The Pogues. I would like to learn to play the mandolin. Anyone got a cheap used mandolin for sale?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

THE MAN IN THE ICE by Konrad Spindler

The Book: Konrad Spindler, THE MAN IN THE ICE: The Discovery of a 5,000-Year-Old Body Reveals the Secrets of the Stone Age. Translated from the German by Ewald Osers. Harmony Books, 1994 (first edition).
First read: 1994
Owned since: 1994

It's warmer today -- 14F is noticeably warmer than 4F -- or maybe it's just that I'm running a fever. I have the worst cold I've had in three years, and could hardly be more miserable or disgusting. If I stop posting, alert the authorities in about a week to come hose out a toxic phlegm site on the western end of Water Street.

But things could be worse. Things could always be worse. I am not alone in the dark, miles from home, trapped by snow or fog in the mountains with a few weapons and shoes stuffed with grass.

That's how hikers found the Iceman in 1991, in a remote glacier in the Oetztaler Alps. Christened "Oetzi," the man in the ice was probably between 35 and 40 years old, and most likely died of exhaustion and hypothermia sometime between 3,300 and 3,200 BCE.

The Man in the Ice is the story of his discovery, and the research that showed what he was carrying, how he lived, and how he died. The ice preserved him so well that scientists could speculate with confidence about where he lived, how far he had gone, what he was hunting. Illustrations show the Iceman's mummified body, the face eerily well-preserved despite being freeze-dried.

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to live in this climate without modern conveniences -- without my fleece and my microfiber and my central heating. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for the Iceman, alone in the dark and far from home. Maybe he had a dog with him; maybe the dog made it home. I hope so.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Thinking Bloggers -- and Me!

Yes, I know it's been a couple of days since I posted. I spent all day Friday in Boston, getting good news, and came back with a cold that has whacked me hard. I am deep in the valley of grossness, surrounded by Kleenex and Alka-Seltzer Cold formula and scummy cups of tea. Dizzy is no help at all, and insists on going out in sub-zero temperatures (okay, I'm exaggerating; the current temperature here is 4F) regardless of how lousy I feel.

So instead of a regular post, I am very pleased to say that my cousin Moira has tagged me with the Thinking Blogger Award.

It's extremely flattering, especially coming from Moira, whose own blog is one of my daily visits. She says the blog "makes me think I will never read as many books as my cousin Clair Lamb has already re-read. And it makes me think, I will never be without a good book, since Clair's recommendations are always 100% excellent!"

Aw... thanks!

Anyway, the award comes with some rules:

1. You must write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.

2. Acknowledge the post of the award giver.

3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award" with a link to the post that you wrote.

4. Tell the award winners that they won by commenting on their blogs with the news.

So here are five blogs I check every day. They're not necessarily updated every day, but they always enlighten or amuse me:

1. Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind -- Sarah Weinman's daily update on the world of crime fiction, true crime and more is the closest thing the mystery community has to an online salon.

2. Human Under Construction -- Jennifer Jordan combs the Internet for the bizarre, funny, and amazing. Every week starts with a new mullet photo.

3. Contemporary Nomad -- a group blog written by four authors (Olen Steinhauer, Kevin Wignall, John Nadler and Robin Hunt) that offers a global perspective on matters of art, publishing, and politics.

4. First Offenders -- another group blog by four authors (Lori Armstrong, Karen E. Olson, Alison Gaylin and Jeff Shelby) that feels like a group of people sitting around, talking about interesting things in a way we hardly ever get to do once we're out of college.

5. Ed's Magical Musical Journey -- my brother Ed is going through his entire music collection, remembering when and where he acquired each tape, record and CD, and holding it up to his current musical tastes. I've already discovered and rediscovered a couple of bands there.

Tomorrow the blog will be back to normal, assuming I have not died of phlegm poisoning between now and then.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

IT by Stephen King

The Book: Stephen King, IT. Viking, 1986. Book is missing dust jacket; fair condition, spine faded and slightly cocked, book shows signs of being exposed to damp.
First read: 1986
Owned since: 1986

I have never considered books a luxury. Even when I had no money at all -- as in 1986, when I lived in a basement and dined on homemade hummus because chickpeas were 65 cents a can -- I had enough to buy a book if I really wanted it. I really wanted this one, and although I don't remember buying it, I remember reading it at least a dozen times.

It's the epic story of seven friends who, as children, fight an unspeakable monster beneath the streets of their small Maine city, and grow up to fight the monster again when it returns 30 years later. It is a book about the loss and rediscovery of childhood friendship and imagination, about the power of believing in yourself and your friends and possibility itself.

One of the most memorable scenes in this book takes place in a Chinese restaurant, where six of the friends reunite as adults. At the end of the meal they each get a fortune cookie, and as they open the fortune cookies, each one finds the thing they fear most: a geyser of blood, a huge cricket, a giant eyeball, a mutant fly. It's a powerful scene not only because the characters themselves are scared, but because they see what scares their friends -- the point being that the worst fears are always and essentially personal.

People read horror novels for all sorts of reasons. I read them, I think, with the obscure idea that if I imagine something terrible, I can also imagine how I might react, and thus mentally prepare for whatever life might throw at me. You know, like evil clowns. Rabid St. Bernards. Giant prehistoric spiders living in the sewers...

Today's post is late and will have to serve for tomorrow's as well, because I'm off to Boston before the crack of dawn. Back Saturday.

What I Read This Week

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS. This thriller is an example of what I was just talking about. If I am ever on a luxury ocean liner with an ancient Tibetan demon, I will have a much better idea of what to do. Of course, I will never be as suave and debonair as Preston & Child's hero, the mysterious FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast.

P. G. Wodehouse, THANK YOU, JEEVES! I didn't even know this first Jeeves novel existed. This copy was Mom's, and Dad sent it to me a couple of months ago. Halfway into it, I discovered why it had fallen into obscurity: a major plot development finds Bertie Wooster and Sir Roderick Glossop running around a small English village in blackface, disguised as Negro minstrels. Even tolerance for other times and other customs makes that hard to laugh at, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

GIFT FROM THE SEA by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The Book: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, GIFT FROM THE SEA, Twentieth Anniversary Edition. Vintage Books paperback, 1978. Inscribed inside front cover: "For Clair on the day of her Confirmation/Love, Mommy & Daddy/4-13-80." Book is badly age-browned; pages are brittle, front cover is loose.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980

It's a noisy world we live in, crowded and complicated, which is why I chose to retreat to a small town in central Maine a few years ago -- only to discover that I bring the world with me wherever I go, and the noise is at least as much internal as external.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh understood this, and understood the need to at least try to be quiet and still, to keep something of oneself for oneself. Her situation was unique, as an international celebrity, wife of one of the most famous and controversial men who ever lived, and mother of five children. But her point in this book is that all women face the same challenges, the same difficulties in trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go.

This small collection of essays has educated and comforted me and helped me feel connected when I felt most adrift. The central problem of the modern woman, Lindbergh wrote -- in 1958! -- is that we feel so scattered.

Here is a strange paradox. Woman instinctively wants to give, yet resents giving herself in small pieces. Basically is this a conflict? Or is it an over-simplification of a many-stranded problem? I believe that what woman resents is not so much giving herself in pieces as giving herself purposelessly. What we fear is not so much that our energy may be leaking away through small outlets as that it may be going "down the drain."

My mother gave me this book, and although today is the second anniversary of her death, this week I have felt her continuing presence strongly. This book reminds me of how strong her force was when she turned it to anything, and I was glad to be able to pass on a copy of this book to Claire when she graduated from college last year.

What is the answer? There is no easy answer, no complete answer. I have only clues, shells from the sea... I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes: a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.

Five Random Songs

"A Hazy Shade of Winter," Simon & Garfunkel. A live version from the Old Friends: Live on Stage CD. I saw them on this tour as a birthday gift, with my friend Gary and his now-fiancee Lori, and it was one of the best nights of my life. Thanks, Gary.

"Bird on a Wire," Willie Nelson. A beautiful cover of the Leonard Cohen classic. "I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch/He said to me, 'You must not ask for so much.'/And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door/She cried to me, 'Hey, why not ask for more?'"

"Shakespeare's Sister," The Smiths. Can anyone explain this song's title to me? The lyrics are about the adolescent torment of being equally in love with the idea of death and the possibility of romance.

"Jamming," Bob Marley. Dad's somewhere in the Caribbean today -- maybe on Jamaica, maybe on one of the British Virgin Islands -- and I hope and trust he's having a good time. We haven't gotten any calls from international law enforcement, so all must be going well...

"Jigsaw," Love Spit Love. Love Spit Love was the successor band to The Psychedelic Furs, and their show at the 9:30 Club was one of the few rock concerts I've ever attended alone. (Going to concerts alone isn't much fun. I like to go to movies alone; going to plays alone is no big deal; going to concerts alone is kind of pathetic.) This song sounds like something Kurt Weill might have written if he'd been a British rock musician in the 1980s. Excellent kazoo and horn work, and I might even hear a melodion in the background.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The Book: Ross and Kathryn Petras, THE STUPIDEST THINGS EVER SAID BY POLITICIANS. Pocket Books paperback, 1999. Very good condition; pages are slightly brown with age.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

This book was a gift at my going-away party when I left Washington, DC for Los Angeles. I think Brian Cook gave it to me, but I could be wrong; if you remember giving it to me, Brian or anyone else, speak up. In any case, thank you, because it's still quite entertaining.

It's the sort of book you'd almost need to publish a new edition of every year, sad to say. This one is heavy on quotations from Vice President Dan Quayle -- who never, by the way, said anything about them speaking Latin in Latin America. (It's time to retire that joke. I recently saw the false quotation attributed to our current President, which is just plain lazy when the man's said plenty of stupider things that are easily accessible with a Google search.)

Anyway, although some of the politicians here have faded into memory (does anyone remember Rep. James Traficant, the man with the worst toupee in Washington? Is he still in jail?), the quotations are still funny. And it's worth remembering that Pat Buchanan, for instance, who now has a great career as everyone's favorite curmudgeonly pundit, once advocated putting homeless people in jail because "I don't think we should have to have them wandering the streets frightening women and people." (Note the distinction between "women" and "people.")

The one thing this book lacks is an index; I've just spent the last several minutes flipping through the book looking for my favorite quotation from former DC Mayor Marion Barry. After several major snowfalls in the winter of 1996, a reporter asked him what his snow removal plan was. The Mayor smiled and said, "Spring."

We got at least 11 inches here in Gardiner yesterday, but fortunately the plans up here are a little more sophisticated. And I have a shovel of my own...

Monday, January 14, 2008


The Book: SELECTED READINGS FROM THE WORKS OF MAO TSE-TUNG. Foreign Languages Press (Peking), 1971. Very good condition; owner's signature, telephone number and "Spring 1985" on front fly-leaf. Some margin notes and light underlining.
First read: 1985
Owned since: 1985

Here's the thing about Chairman Mao: the ideas sound great on paper. He was, without a doubt, one of the true evil geniuses of the human race -- a man who united a vast country under a new secular religion, who turned neighbors and families against each other in support of his cause, and a man who understood the best and worst of human nature.

I bought and read this book for a class on Marxism and the Marxist Tradition, which was one of the best courses I took in college. What surprised me most about this book is how readable Mao is, and how sharp his perceptions were.

Here he is in 1949, warning against cultural imperialism: "It has been proved that the enemy cannot conquer us by force of arms ... There may be some Communists ... who cannot withstand sugar-coated bullets."

The sugar-coated bullets are flying in modern-day China, but it would be a mistake to assume that Mao's endless revolution is over. Am I the only person wondering why none of the presidential candidates have said one word about China, which is likely to be our most important international relationship within the next five years? Sure, Middle Eastern terrorists might blow us up; China is the largest single holder of U.S. foreign debt. Not to be paranoid, but shouldn't we be paying a little more attention to that than we are?

And how will the world respond to the Beijing Olympics? Will everyone just go there and eat the food and drink the beer and congratulate the organizers on their modernization, or will anyone insist on seeing what's behind the shiny new buildings?

The Chinese government spent more than 50 years telling its citizens to ignore the seductions of the West. Now China is opening its doors to welcome the world in, and the world will be firing its sugar-coated bullets. It'll be interesting to see which direction the revolution goes from there.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

PERSUASION by Jane Austen

The Book: Jane Austen, PERSUASION. Bantam Classic paperback, 1984.
First read: 1980 (best guess)
Owned since: 1990 (best guess, this copy)

Reason to call my cable company on Monday and get my "On Demand" feature fixed once and for all: PBS is running the first episode of "Persuasion" at the same time as the next episode of "The Wire" on HBO. Dammit, nothing to watch all week, and then the two things I want to see are on opposite each other.

Of all of Jane Austen's novels, I found Persuasion most difficult to get through, even though it might be the shortest. I remember picking it up in fourth or fifth grade, soon after I'd sped through Pride and Prejudice, and being bored and baffled by the class warfare at the heart of the story. I didn't manage to finish it until sometime in high school, but it still didn't make much sense to me until I rediscovered it years later.

Anne Elliot, an old maid at 27, must move to Bath with her spendthrift, snobbish father and sister. At Bath, she meets a former suitor, Captain Wentworth, who is now courting the young and vivacious Louisa Musgrove. Years earlier, Anne's relatives had persuaded to reject Wentworth as socially unacceptable. Now she regrets that decision, and it seems too late to do anything about it.

In Jane Austen's world, of course, it's never too late. The wise are rewarded, the foolish mostly spared, and everything works out for the best. Which, more than anything else, is why we all go back to these books, and love the movies and television shows they make.

It's been a stressful week, and I'm sorry that I didn't post yesterday. The good news is that I've been cast in Gaslight Theater's spring show, "Don't Dress for Dinner," running March 20-22 and 27-29. It's a French farce about adultery (aren't they all), and I play Jacqueline, the betrayed and faithless wife. Should be a great time; mark your calendars now.

What I Read This Week

J. D. Rhoades, SAFE AND SOUND. I had not read either of Rhoades's earlier Jack Keller novels; Keller is a former Special Forces operative-turned-private investigator, in the tradition of Lee Child's Jack Reacher but not as emotionally detached. This time out, Keller's girlfriend Marie becomes the unwitting target of an international conspiracy when she agrees to take on an apparently routine child custody case. Fast-paced, violent, bleak.

Peter Abrahams, NERVE DAMAGE. Another book I'm sorry I missed when it first came out (last March), because it certainly would have made my list of best crime novels of 2007. Sculptor Roy Valois learns he has a fatal disease, and decides to find out what his obituary will say. A minor error in the description of his late wife's death sends him on a quest that reveals a whole secret life his wife kept from him, and Valois races his own death sentence to get at the truth.

Christopher Rice, BLIND FALL. Rice takes big risks with this thriller about the death of a former Marine who turns out to have been hiding his partner and his life as a gay man. Ex-Marine John Houck discovers the mutilated body of his former comrade and must deal with his own homophobia, as well as lingering guilt over an earlier loss, before he can bring the killer to justice. Rice manages to pull together seemingly unrelated plotlines, and skates right up to the edge of preaching without ever going too far. Well done. I read an advance copy; the book's out in March.

Michael Chabon, THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION. I spent weeks on this book, literally, and still don't know what to make of it. In an alternate version of the present, most of the American Jewish population lives in the territory of Sitka, Alaska, established as a temporary homeland during the Second World War. Now Sitka is about to revert to the United States, and the Jews there face another diaspora -- the nation of Israel collapsed decades earlier, and their travel is restricted. Washed-up police detective Meyer Landsman investigates the death of an addict in his flophouse hotel, and discovers an international conspiracy linked to prophecies of the Messiah and the worst forms of American imperialism. The first two-thirds of this book is dazzling; the last third moves into more conventional thriller territory, and the ending pissed me off. I need to have a long discussion with other people who have read this book -- anybody?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

SIMPLIFY by Tod Goldberg

The Book: Tod Goldberg, SIMPLIFY. OV Books, 2005. Fine condition, inscribed by the author: "Clair -- Move back home! And get to work on your book! All best, Tod Goldberg/Oct. 29, 2005."
First read: 2005
Owned since: 2005

Today is Tod's birthday, so this book was the obvious choice. It is a collection of 12 short stories told in the first person by different characters, most written in the present tense. The main characters are all men (or boys) at turning points of their lives. "Simplify" is the story of a boy who learns to cope with his dyslexia and the horrors he has witnessed by translating everything into an alphabet only he can understand.

Several of the stories deal with acts of violence or their repercussions, but my two favorites are about the idea of a savior: "The Jesus of Cathedral City," in which Jesus returns to earth in some unexpected guises, and "Comeback Special," which I've discussed before in this blog. The point of both of these stories is that saviors and heroes don't absolve us of free will, of the responsibility to look after each other and ask what Simone Weil called the fundamental question: How are things with you? Jesus leaves the narrator of "The Jesus of Cathedral City" with these words:

"It comes down to choice. You're free to walk this earth as you always have, free to make mistakes and be kind to people and to ignore people and maybe every now and again you'll help someone who needs helping. And that will be fine. Maybe you'll see something violent and you'll think you could have prevented it, and maybe you'll be right, but maybe you would have died in the process. It's all in the choices, the details. You're both free to do whatever you want to do."

Happy birthday, Tod, and thanks for that.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

HUEY LONG by T. Harry Williams

The Book: T. Harry Williams, HUEY LONG. Vintage Books trade paperback, 1981. Good-minus condition; spine is severely creased, pages are badly age-browned.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1990

One more political book, before I switch to something else tomorrow. (I have lots of political books, and will discuss them at regular intervals between now and the end of the summer.) This is a biography that reads like a novel, the epic story of the most dangerous man in American politics.

Huey Long, the Kingfish, was our own homegrown fascist: a powerfully charismatic man who believed it was not only the state's right but the state's responsibility to redistribute wealth (some of it into his own pockets) and make people act right, whatever he considered "acting right" to be. He ran one of the most powerful political machines in American history, he might have been President of the United States, and he did a lot of good while behaving with absolute disregard for the rule of law.

And then he was shot, in the hallway of the Louisiana State Capitol. History says the assassin was Dr. Carl Weiss, son-in-law of a judge Long had forced out of office. One theory suggests that Long was shot by his own bodyguards, firing at Weiss in a small space; Williams discounts this. Weiss was killed at the scene, and Long died two days later, at the age of 42. His last words were reportedly, "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do."

Huey Long's career inspired Robert Penn Warren's great novel All the King's Men (which I'll discuss here at some point) and Randy Newman's wonderful record Good Old Boys, but the true story is just as fascinating as any fiction could be. Williams looks at Long's extraordinary rise to power, and at the social conditions that allowed it to happen.

I bought this book used at Second Story Books on Dupont Circle, sometime after a trip to Baton Rouge where I saw the plaque on the site of Governor Long's assassination. Louisiana is proud of its unique political culture, and it's still proud of Huey Long.

Five Random Songs

"Deacon Blues," Steely Dan. This song can calm me down in almost any situation. "They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/They call me Deacon Blues."

"Seasons in the Sun," Too Much Joy. A punk cover of the Terry Jacks cheesefest (actually written by Jacques Brel, translated by Rod McKuen). They used to do a great version of this in concert.

"Bronzing the Garbage," The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. To me, horns are the bacon of popular music. Almost every form of popular music is better with horns: ska, punk, rock, blues, even folk-rock. I don't even listen to the words of this song, I just listen to the horns in the background.

"The Rescue Blues," Ryan Adams. This song makes my point: it would be better with a little brass. A trumpet, a trombone, maybe even a saxophone.

"Temptation (7" Edit)," New Order. Great dance music is great music.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

THE WHITE HOUSE MESS by Christopher Buckley

The Book: Christopher Buckley, THE WHITE HOUSE MESS. Knopf, 1986 (fifth printing). Very good condition, some age-related browning to cover.
First read: 1988
Owned since: 1988

Hurray, it's the New Hampshire primary! It's true that I have my moments of cynicism and despair about American politics, but it's also true that I just love the democratic process. Humans are flawed and not always intelligent or kind, so why should our governing institutions be any different?

Walk into any Capitol Hill watering hole at 7:00 on a weeknight and you will find dozens of 20-somethings talking about the crucial roles they are playing on such important policy matters as animal rights (traditionally one of the first issues given to baby staffers) or beekeeping subsidies. Go a little further west, to the K Street corridor, and you will find 30-somethings complaining about the unreasonable demands of their clients or their associations' members, or arguing about the internal office politics driving some obscure provision of a new regulatory proposal. What distinguishes everyone in Washington is a complete lack of perspective on the size of their own role in the giant machine of self-governance, and this lack of perspective is what Buckley nails in The White House Mess.

The White House Mess, written halfway through Ronald Reagan's second term in office, is a joyful satire on Potomac fever. It's the fictional memoir of Herbert Wadlough, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff to the newly-elected President Thomas Nelson Tucker. Its tone is a deadpan imitation of countless real memoirs by minor historical figures: "It was a giddy, busy time of state dinners, weekends at Camp David, and battleship decommissionings." Wadlough is given the task of Metrification, and his career spirals down from there.

This book is a timeless reminder that even the President of the United States is a human being like anyone else you know. On his first day in office, the new President sits in the Oval Office surrounded by Presidential memoirs, and President Tucker muses on the oddness of his new status.

"I told a joke this afternoon," said the President. "There were about eight people here. They all laughed."

"So?" said Feeley.

"It wasn't funny. That's why I told it. To see if they'd laugh. They all did."

As the late-afternoon sunlight played on the bare branches of the oak trees outside, the President was philosophical.

"Who knows?" he said as his eyes scanned the curve of the Oval. I sensed it was a historical moment, a man reflecting on the immensity of power and on the implacable forces that would come to bear on him in the years ahead. "This place could turn us all into assholes."

Monday, January 07, 2008


The Book: Sara Wheeler, TERRA INCOGNITA: Travels in Antarctica. Modern Library trade paperback reprint, 1999. Very good condition; some rubbing and creasing at corners.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000.

The history of Antarctica is a history of men, mostly. Even now, the number of women who have spent any extended time on Antarctica is probably only in the dozens. Writer Sara Wheeler applied for and won a National Science Foundation Artists & Writers grant to spend three months there in 1993, and this book is the product of that trip.

Wheeler retraces the steps of most of the major Antarctic explorers, telling their stories in the process and giving us Antarctica through her eyes, with all the benefits of modern technology. Even with satellite phones and microfiber insulation, Antarctica is the end of the earth, the highest, driest, coldest, windiest place on the planet. It is more than a metaphor, but the metaphor is so powerful I am tempted once again, as I pick up this book, to put in my own application to go.

Here in northern New England, it's much warmer today. Temperatures are supposed to hit the 40s, and everything's melting fast. Later this afternoon I'll see if I can chip the last of my own personal ice sheet off the front deck.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Pictures of the Week

We got a lot of snow in central Maine while I was away. I took these pictures this morning, after a day of thaw, but I don't think they convey the volume of snow still on the ground.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

SOUTH by Ernest Shackleton

The Book: Ernest Shackleton, SOUTH: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage. Carroll & Graf trade paperback, 1998. Good condition; spine is creased, front cover is creased at spine.
First read: 1998
Owned since: 1998

Obsession fascinates me, and persistence humbles me. Few humans have been more obsessed or more persistent than Sir Ernest Shackleton, who closes this memoir with plans for his next trip south: "Though some [of the expedition] have gone there are enough left to rally round and form a nucleus for the next Expedition, when troublous times are over and scientific exploration can once more be legitimately undertaken."

Nowhere in South, Shackleton's memoir of the Endurance expedition, does he discuss the reasons for his obsession with Antarctica, or what he personally hoped to achieve. As Edmund Hillary said of Everest, Shackleton went because it was there. The reasons for his attachment must have been so obvious to him that he saw no need to discuss them. As he wrote elsewhere, "We all have our own white South."

South includes photographs of the expedition party; the most moving is one of Shackleton's favorite dog, Samson, who died with the others who were sacrificed to the men's starvation. Shackleton writes, "Owing to this shortage of food and the fact that we needed all that we could get for ourselves, I had to order all the dogs except two teams to be shot. It was the worst job that we had had throughout the Expedition, and we felt their loss keenly." Four months later, the party had to shoot the last two teams.

Shackleton died in 1922, making one last voyage to Antarctica. He was 47 years old. In the years between returning from the Endurance expedition and his last trip, he had started drinking heavily and eating too much. He supported himself by lecturing on his adventures, and all the proceeds of this book went to pay off investors in the Endurance expedition. He was in no shape to make another strenuous trip, and had a massive heart attack while his ship, the Quest, stopped at Rio de Janeiro on the way south. Undeterred, Shackleton refused to be treated. He died in the early morning hours of January 5, 1922, hours after seeing South Georgia again for the last time. He is buried there; his comrades returned his body to England, but Shackleton's wife, Emily, decided he belonged in the place he loved best.

It's an odd coincidence that I happen to be posting this today, the 86th anniversary of Shackleton's death. If you think of it, take a moment today to toast the memory of the brave, foolish, determined man who saved his people, but could not save himself.

Friday, January 04, 2008

ENDURANCE by Alfred Lansing

The Book: Alfred Lansing, ENDURANCE: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. Carroll & Graf trade paperback, 1997 (16th printing). Good condition; back cover is slightly warped from exposure to damp.
First read: 1997
Owned since: 1997

Ernest Shackleton was part of Robert Falcon Scott's first, abortive 1901 expedition to Antarctica. He led his own unsuccessful expedition to the South Pole in 1907, turning back only 97 miles from his goal, and returned in 1914 determined to cross the continent of Antarctica by foot.

Shackleton drew on his own experience to plan and equip his expedition. He brought furs, not wool, and dogs rather than mules or ponies. He also brought an expedition photographer to record it all, and the photographer brought a motion picture camera.

Although Shackleton was a sailor by training, his ship was not designed to withstand the pack ice of the Pole. The Endurance was trapped and crushed by pack ice, and the 28 members of the expedition were forced to abandon it on October 27, 1915. Shackleton led his men and dogs almost 200 miles to set up a camp at Elephant Island; then, in a desperate effort to reach help, he and five others took a 22-foot open boat, the James Caird, over 800 miles of ocean -- and by foot across South Georgia Island -- to find rescue. Even then, it took another four months to rescue the men left on Elephant Island, but every man survived. (One of the men on the James Caird, Able Seaman Timothy McCarthy, was killed in the Great War just three weeks after returning from Antarctica.)

It may well be the greatest feat of human endurance in history, and I'd never even heard of it until I was an adult -- something that still baffles me. It didn't even happen that long ago; Lansing, writing in 1959, was able to talk and correspond with survivors of the Endurance. The last survivor, First Officer Lionel Greenstreet, died in 1979 at the age of 89.

Photographer James Hurley not only managed to film much of the expedition, but also managed to hang onto his film throughout the ordeal. The movie footage became the documentary South, which is one of the most amazing films you'll ever see. It's available on DVD through Netflix, but if you ever get a chance to see it in a theater, don't miss it.

Best Books I Read in 2007, Part Two

Laura Lippman, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. The best book I read this year. Two sisters disappear from a Baltimore shopping center at Easter, 1975; 30 years later, a woman claims to be one of the missing girls. The mysteries only begin here, as this novel explores the secrets families keep from each other, the secrets we keep from ourselves, and the essential challenge of midlife: facing up to who we really are.

J.K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Why should I feel guilty about including this book on this list? I have one friend in particular who's just nasty about this series, and to him I say: Shut up, you snob and begrudger. The Harry Potter novels were an extraordinary achievement, and this book wound up the series in the most satisfying way I could have imagined.

Dan Simmons, THE TERROR. Quite a lot of polar expeditions have the adjective "doomed" attached, and this epic horror novel speculates on the fate of one of them: Sir John Franklin's voyage to find the Northwest Passage, 1846-1849. Seven hundred-plus pages, and I read it in about two days.

Tobias Wolff, OLD SCHOOL. Thanks to Scott Phillips for recommending this small gem. At a boys' boarding school in early 1960s New England, the students compete to meet with visiting famous writers -- Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and others. A visit from Ernest Hemingway leads the narrator to some choices that change his life permanently. The ending, set years later, baffled me and felt tacked on; otherwise, the book is perfect.

Daniel Woodrell, WINTER'S BONE. This made several friends' "Best of 2006" lists, but I didn't get to it until 2007. Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly's father is missing, and if he's jumped bail, they'll lose their house. Ree's determination to find the truth nearly destroys her, but ultimately saves her. She is one of the fiercest, most memorable characters I've ever met.

So that's the top ten. The next ten also deserve mention: A HELL OF A WOMAN, edited by Megan Abbott; NEW ENGLAND WHITE by Stephen L. Carter; THE UNQUIET by John Connolly; THE GHOST by Robert Harris; THE COLOR OF BLOOD by Declan Hughes; THE SPELLMAN FILES by Lisa Lutz; A FATAL GRACE by Louise Penny; RED CAT by Peter Spiegelman; THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE by Anne Tyler; and WHO IS CONRAD HIRST? by Kevin Wignall.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


The Book: Apsley Cherry-Garrard, THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD.. Carroll & Graf trade paperback, 1997 (second printing). Very good condition (spine slightly creased).
First read: 1998
Owned since: 1998

Just stumbled in the door after a 12-hour drive back from Washington, DC. Waiting until today to come back was the right call; the snowdrifts at the edge of my parking lot are as tall as I am, and Oak Street is still snowpacked and slippery.

Rather than whine, however, it's time to discuss my shelf of books about Antarctica. Whenever I feel battered by modern travel, I pull out this book, an account of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was only 24 when he went on his adventure to the Antarctic in 1912, and wrote this book nine years later, after he survived not only his polar expedition but the Great War as well. Besides his own journals, Cherry-Garrard drew on accounts written by several of his comrades, and this book is considered the definitive account of the expedition.

THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD is approximately the size of a cinder block -- this edition runs 598 pages, plus the glossary and the index -- but I read it in three days, putting it down only when I had to. Now, I admit that not everyone may share my fascination with Antarctica in general, and the Scott and Shackleton expeditions in particular -- but still, this is as compelling a story of extremes as you will ever read, a mindboggling tale of hubris and gallantry and tragedy.

In case you don't know the story, Robert Falcon Scott and his men landed in Antarctica woefully underequipped and underfed, through a combination of ignorance and arrogance. Scott thought that furs, for example, were too primitive for Englishmen; his expedition members wore wool, which got wet and heavy, and froze. He brought mules as pack animals, which were worse than useless and refused to eat what they were given.

Scott did make it to the Pole, only to discover that the Norwegian party, led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten him there. Scott and his companions turned back, but storms caught them, hunger and fatigue disoriented them, and Cherry-Garrard was part of the group that found Scott frozen to death, with a set of letters and journals written until Scott could not write any more:

We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.

It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. -- R. Scott

For God's sake, look after our people.

In comparison to that, my 575 miles in a well-heated automobile seems like child's play. Even if it is -2F outside.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


The Book: Carl Little, EDWARD HOPPER'S NEW ENGLAND. Pomegranate Books, 1993. Fine condition; inscribed from Keith and Vikki Bea to the current owner.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2007

The visual arts are a major gap in my education; I never took an art history class, never had any skill in drawing or painting, and have never been much of a photographer. But I love painting and sculpture, go to museums when I can and keep meaning to take a class, one of these days.

In the meantime, I rely on the generosity of friends who give me books like this one. It is a beautiful, oversized book that discusses the work Hopper did during more than 50 summers in New England, several of them in Maine. Hopper's 1927 watercolor "Captain Strout's House, Portland Head," is a scene I recognize from real life, and the 1951 oil "Rooms by the Sea" is a fantasy of summer living: a white hallway that opens directly onto a calm blue ocean.

Hopper, interestingly, is the artist whose works my friends give me most often (as prints and books, not originals), without my ever having said I particularly liked him. They're beautiful but not pretty, his paintings; they are austere and rather formal, grounded in a profound solitude. I'm not sure what it says that my friends see his work and think of me.

I am in Washington for one more day, delayed by reports of more snow along the I-95 corridor. Tomorrow's supposed to be clear. I'm anxious to get home, and back to some kind of routine.

Five Random Songs

"When We Ran," John Hiatt. This song was a hit (as "We Ran") for the country music singer Katy Moffatt, but I like Hiatt's version better.

"Man in Mind," Ida. This album (Will You Find Me) is several years old (released in 2000), but I just bought it with the iTunes gift card I got for Christmas. It's beautifully clean, harmony-based folk-rock, and Ida is my favorite discovery of the past year. Thanks, Chris!

"The Lost City of Refuge," ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. One of my favorite albums (Worlds Apart) of 2005, lavishly produced art-rock with an undertone of menace.

"The Only Child," Jackson Browne. From The Pretender, which may be my favorite Jackson Browne album.

"Stephanie Says," The Velvet Underground. A classic ballad of alienation -- "Stephanie says that she wants to know/Why she's given half her life to people she hates now."

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


The Book: John Kelso, TEXAS CURIOSITIES: Third Edition. Globe Pequot paperback original, 2007.
First read: still reading
Owned since: 2007

One way and another I've spent a fair amount of time in Texas over the years, but I've clearly missed all the best stuff. If and when I go back, I'll have my itinerary laid out for me. This book was a gift from my friend Diane, who lives in Amarillo -- which boasts a performance art project called The Dynamite Museum (which is not a museum and has nothing to do with dynamite); two large sculptures of partial legs in crew socks; The Big Texan Steak Ranch; and the world-famous Cadillac Ranch, immortalized on Bruce Springsteen's The River.

I like guidebooks just as much as I like cookbooks, and for much the same reason. Even if they describe places I'll probably never go, I love the possibility of them -- the idea of all those parallel lives in which I might cook up a mess of okra (which I don't eat) or make a pilgrimage to the World's Largest Peanut, in Pearsall, TX.

It's the first day of a new year, and all these things are still possible for 2008. Hope the new year brings many happy adventures to all of you.