Wednesday, April 30, 2008

TRASHED by Alison Gaylin

The Book: Alison Gaylin, TRASHED. Obsidian, 2007 (first edition). Inscribed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

It's Alison's birthday, so she gets today's post. TRASHED is her third book, but her first to be published in hardcover.

Alison's an example of just how small my world is. I might have met her because she's a member of my friend Karen Olson's group blog, First Offenders; I might have met her because she was my cousin Kathleen's college roommate. Or I might just have met her because I really like her books.

TRASHED is the story of aspiring journalist Simone Glass, who arrives in Los Angeles with big dreams -- and winds up working for a supermarket tabloid. Digging through a starlet's garbage, she finds a blood-stained shoe that's evidence in a recent murder. Just because she's working for a trashy magazine doesn't mean she can't be a good reporter, though; Simone follows the clues to a psychopathic serial killer, and almost gets killed herself along the way.

It's damn hard to write a lighter mystery that doesn't minimize the horrors of murder or insult the reader's intelligence; Alison pulls this off by empathizing with each of her characters, and never letting anyone be just a cartoon. I finished this book with a new respect for the tabloids, or at least an excuse to buy the occasional copy of the Star.

Five Random Songs

"Love Will Tear Us Apart," Honeyroot. I keep adding covers of this song -- I'm up to six, and just found another I need to download. This one is piano-based and elegiac.

"Big House," Michael Penn. From his stellar debut, MARCH. This is great L.A. driving music.

"Now I'm Here," Queen. It's on Greatest Hits I & II, but I hadn't heard it until I picked up this collection. I still don't recognize it; I had to look at the display to see what this was.

"Win Your Love for Me," Sam Cooke. Everybody cha-cha!

"Something Funny," Lucky Stiff company. The opening number of the musical I produced last year.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


The Book: Beth Henley, CRIMES OF THE HEART. Dramatists Play Service performance script reprint, 1982. Script is intact but mangled; front cover is torn, script is heavily marked and shows water damage.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 2007

Too tired for a long post, but I wanted to wish a very happy 21st birthday to Miss Shawna Houston, who played Babe in the production of Crimes of the Heart I directed last summer.

Crimes of the Heart, for those not familiar, is the story of two very bad days in the lives of the Magrath sisters. Lenny, the oldest, is turning 30; but no one remembers, because Babe, the youngest, has just shot her lawyer husband. Meg, the troubled middle sister, returns from California to lend a hand in the crisis, but complicates things further with unresolved issues from her own past.

Yes, it's a chick thing. Crimes of the Heart is a play by, about and for women, and particularly about the strength of the bond between sisters. I first saw it performed when I was in college -- I think it was a Friday Afternoon Theater production -- and what has struck me, over the years, is how my identification with each of these sisters has changed.

I directed the show for Gaslight Theater last summer, in my first directing venture in many, many years. It was a good show, and I wish more people had seen it; but the actors had a good time, and so did I, and that's what counts.

Back from Los Angeles with an alarming cough. The rain and cold don't help.

Monday, April 28, 2008

WINTER'S BONE by Daniel Woodrell

The Book: Daniel Woodrell, WINTER'S BONE. Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (first edition). Signed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

I'm still in LA -- leaving late tonight -- and staying with my friends Linda and Tim, so today's post needed to be a book that is on both their shelves and mine. It's also one of Linda's all-time favorites, and a book I acquired at last year's LA Times Festival of Books, so the choice seemed obvious.

Daniel Woodrell is that terrible thing known as a "writer's writer," which means that his work is amazing and under-promoted. At last year's festival, I saw one author I admire almost lose her breath -- I'm not exaggerating -- when she shook Woodrell's hand, and saw other brilliant writers gibber and stumble in their efforts to tell Mr. Woodrell how much they love his work.

At last year's festival I had heard of Daniel Woodrell, of course, but hadn't read him. The combined recommendations of Reed Farrel Coleman, Jim Fusilli, Tod Goldberg, Laura Lippman and Peter Spiegelman convinced me to buy this book, and I read it on the flight home.

If you haven't read this book, you might consider going to buy it now, instead of reading further.

Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly takes care of her two younger brothers and her near-catatonic mother in a ramshackle house in the Ozarks. Her ne'er-do-well father disappears and doesn't come back -- and then a sheriff's deputy shows up to say that their house is bond for a court date her father needs to keep, or else they'll lose their home. Ree sets out to find her father, asking dangerous questions of people who'll do anything required to keep others out of their business, and hold grudges dating back generations.

In fewer than 200 pages, WINTER'S BONE gives us a whole world in Ree's hopes, dreams, sorrows, humiliations, and unlikely -- but hard-earned -- triumph. It's a quiet, powerful novel that is perfect and deadly as an ice crystal.

This weekend's Festival of Books was a good time, though much too hot, even by LA standards. I bought a few books, met a few people, and saw some old friends. Didn't have time to see everyone I wanted to see, didn't have money to buy everything I wanted to buy, but what kind of world would it be if we didn't have things to wish for?

Friday, April 25, 2008

THE TORTILLA CURTAIN by T. Coraghessan Boyle

The Book: T. Coraghessan Boyle, THE TORTILLA CURTAIN. Viking, 1995 (first edition). Inscribed by author: "To Ellen, Con amistad, T. Coraghessan Boyle." Fine condition.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995

Anyone who lives or is thinking about living in Los Angeles or its suburbs should read this book, a dark but hopeful comedy about culture clash and border wars in California.

Boyle tells the parallel stories of two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, who live in a gated community outside Los Angeles, and Candido and America Rincon, illegal immigrants who have set up camp in the canyons outside the Mossbachers' neighborhood. Terrible things happen to the Rincons, which the Mossbachers are not directly responsible for; their indirect responsibility (and by extension, ours) is what interests Boyle.

THE TORTILLA CURTAIN is an angry book that sometimes makes its points a little too strongly for the story Boyle's trying to tell, and the satire sometimes crosses the line into bitterness and sarcasm. But the book's spectacular, unlikely ending offers hope, and the book is probably Boyle's most compassionate work.

What I Read This Week

Sean Chercover, BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD. This debut just won the Gumshoe Award for best first novel of 2007, and it's well-deserved. Chicago PI Ray Dudgeon agrees to serve as bodyguard for a Hollywood location scout who is the key witness in a fraud case against a mid-level figure in Chicago organized crime. Dudgeon's client doesn't understand the danger he's in, even when other witnesses are killed -- and Dudgeon discovers that these deaths are just part of much bigger doings in the Outfit (Chicago's version of the Mafia). A terrific sense of place and a believable protagonist promise great things for this series.

Daniel Mark Epstein, SISTER AIMEE: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. Most people, if they know the name at all, remember Aimee Semple McPherson for her mysterious 1926 disappearance, when she went into the Pacific Ocean one afternoon and reappeared more than a month later in Mexico, claiming that she'd been kidnapped. Epstein is willing to believe McPherson, and doesn't prove or disprove the story; in fact, it's not even the most important event in the career of America's first nationally-known female evangelist. Epstein describes dozens, even hundreds, of documented healings, and the charity effort that saved thousands in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Whatever our current idea of mass-market evangelists, Epstein says, Aimee Semple McPherson was sincere. Fascinating.

Janice Kaplan, A JOB TO KILL FOR. Janice Kaplan is the editor of Parade magazine. What a surprise, then, to find a blurb from Parade praising the first book in this series on the back of the advance readers' copy of this one. I'm not the audience for this book; I, for example, did not need her to translate the book's dedication ("Amor vincit omnia," which she helpfully explains means "Love conquers all"). I can only describe this book as lifestyle porn, and the worst the mystery genre offers. Interior decorator Lacy Fields, married to a plastic surgeon who adores her, investigates the death of her trophy-wife client -- with breaks to shop along the way. Brand names abound; the book will no doubt prove useful to those who want to know the latest chic brand of 1,000-thread count sheets. Had I not been trapped on a plane, I'd have quit reading by page 40; as it was, I finished the book wanting to poison everyone in it myself.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING by Christopher Buckley

The Book: Christopher Buckley, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. Random House, 1994 (first edition). Very good condition; dust jacket is slightly creased at top of spine, pages are riffled.
First read: 1994
Owned since: 1994

The movie version of this book was pretty good, though I still don't understand why they cast Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor instead of Rob Lowe.

Maybe we're too used to seeing Rob Lowe as a villain; the point of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is that Nick Naylor isn't a villain, he's just a guy whose conscience is for sale. After all, he's got a mortgage to pay.

Nick Naylor is the senior vice president for communications (i.e., head lobbyist) at the Academy for Tobacco Studies, a policy organization funded by the nation's largest tobacco firms. It's his job to defend his members on talk shows where the other guests are teenagers dying of tobacco-related cancer.

Nick's strategy for defending his employers is to defend the consumers of tobacco as a persecuted minority. It's almost uncanny to read this book now and see how closely the real life tobacco industry has followed Nick Naylor's fictional plan, which was supposed to be a satire.

But it's a fine line in Washington, and that's Buckley's point. You succeed by embracing the absurdity with a straight face, and saying -- for example -- that you are winning a race even when the numbers show it to be a mathematical impossibility.

I'm off to Los Angeles today, for the LA Times Festival of Books. Posting will be irregular between now and Tuesday. If you're in LA, come by and see me at the store's Friday night party or at our Festival signing booth (#411) on Saturday and Sunday.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


The Book: John Welter, NIGHT OF THE AVENGING BLOWFISH: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat. Algonquin Books trade paperback first edition, 1994. Fine condition.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 2000

John Welter gives himself away as a non-Washingtonian on the very first page, when his protagonist, Secret Service Agent Doyle Coldiron, sees a notice for a proposed covert baseball game between the Secret Service and the CIA.

First Annual Baseball Game
the CIA and the Secret Service
Date: July 14
Time: Classified
Location: Classified

...The game will be played at night, without lights, to avoid letting the opposing team know where the game is.

Clues will be provided, to allow team members to locate the playing field and the game time. If only one team shows up, it wins. The winning team will be given a spookball trophy.

Sign up now, if you can find the sign-up sheet.

Okay, you ask, so what's implausible about that? Nothing, except that Washington offices don't play baseball. They play softball. Summer softball is a grand D.C. tradition, one of several things that make the city feel like one giant college campus. (Group beach houses are another.)

That minor error aside, NIGHT OF THE AVENGING BLOWFISH is a hilarious, joyful story of the miseries of bureaucracy and the difficulty of looking for love once you've started to overthink it. Doyle Coldiron is 41 and having a midlife crisis of massive proportions. He's in love with a divorced co-worker who won't consider remarriage, and his heart really isn't in protecting the President any more, although he stumbles onto a plot that requires his attention.

I originally picked this up at the Alexandria Public Library, because I loved the title; I read the book, loved it, and bought this copy when I happened to find it on the shelf at the Mystery Bookstore, years later.

I'm taking the afternoon off to see the Portland Sea Dogs play a day game, which is better than playing for an office softball team any day.

Five Random Songs

"Dial-a-Cliche," Morrissey. One of the weaker tracks off his first solo album, Viva Hate.

"Late Last Night," Split Enz. The Split Enz's version of a 1930s love song, with tight harmonies and a ukelele, morphing into a late 1970s-style electronic pop song. Too cute by half, but totally irresistible.

"Blue Angel," Roy Orbison. Birds wish they could fly like Roy Orbison's voice.

"It's Too Late," Carole King. I remember hearing this song on the radio on some family trip when I was little, no more than six or seven. Kathy and I knew almost all the words.

"Come, Let Us Go Back to God," the Soul Stirrers. From the awesome Ladykillers soundtrack.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


The Book: David Brinkley, WASHINGTON GOES TO WAR: The Extraordinary Transformation of a City and a Nation. Knopf (Book of the Month Club edition), 1988. Good condition; dust jacket and pages are slightly age-browned, spine is slightly cocked.
First read: 1991
Owned since: 1998 (best guess)

I'm pretty sure I originally gave this book to my grandmother, who passed it on to my parents. How it came into my possession, I don't remember; I'd like to believe that I took it when my parents were getting rid of things for their big move from my childhood home to their smaller house, but it's possible that I "borrowed" it at some earlier date and forgot to give it back.

Anyway, it's a nonfiction book that reads like a great novel, and it feels horribly poignant in today's world. David Brinkley was a young man during the Second World War, serving in the army; he came home and became a titan of American journalism.

Now, people go to journalism school, and no one gets a job with a national news organization without a graduate degree. Only one percent of the country serves in the American military, and we're in the fifth year of a war that has had almost no effect on any of us until now -- when the combination of guns and butter is collapsing our economy, driving up food prices, and making us pay $3.50/gallon for gas. (My local gas station is now charging $3.499/gallon. I literally gasped when I drove by it this afternoon.)

It didn't have to be this way. If we'd had a different kind of President and a different kind of Congress in the days and months after 9/11, the entire nation could have mobilized around a new energy policy, a new system of public service, a new internationalism and a new vision for the role of the United States in the world. Historians will look back on the administrations of George W. Bush as one of the most horribly squandered opportunities in the history of human politics.

Brinkley describes how, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Washington transformed itself from a sleepy Southern town to the capital of the free world. Every American went to war, every American felt responsible for helping to defeat the evils of Nazism. Boys enlisted; girls got factory jobs; young people converged on Washington and lived four to an apartment in order to be part of the war effort.

In the wake of September 11, we all wanted to come together for something purposeful. We'd have taken EMT courses, we'd have signed up to learn Arabic, we'd have traded in our gas-guzzling cars for more fuel-efficient vehicles. We waited, we wanted to be asked.

What did our President do? He told us to spend money and take vacations.

Thank God it's an election year.

Monday, April 21, 2008


The Books: Woodrow Wilson, A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE in Five Volumes. Originally published in 1901; reprint c. 1915. Fine condition.
First read: still reading
Owned since: 2000

I thought these books were first editions when I bought them, but realized my error as soon as I started to read them; the author is credited as "Woodrow Wilson, Ph.D., Litt.D., LL.D., President of the United States," although the copyright dates are given as 1901 and 1902. But Wilson did not take office as President until 1913, so these books are reprints; and the pages had to be cut, which puts the reprinting date at the earlier side.

An expert could tell me, but I don't really care. I just like having these books, which are a historiographer's dream: antique copies of a history written by a man who based world-changing decisions on his understanding of this history. It's dizzying.

The five volumes cover the period before European colonization through the 1800's. With five volumes to cover 200 years, Wilson has the luxury of space to cover minute details of our nation's political history, which is sometimes tedious but mostly fascinating. These books were invaluable to me when I was doing some research for a historical novelist last year; for example, Wilson gives a blow-by-blow account of the Democratic presidential convention of 1856, which set the nation on an inexorable course to civil war.

Wilson left office a broken man -- crippled by a stroke and detested by his countrymen, who blamed him for leading them into a pointless European war and then insisting on continuing to meddle in the world's business. For better or worse, Wilson bears more personal responsibility than anyone else for the United States' self-appointed role as the world's policeman. He was also, arguably, the most intelligent man ever to hold the office; he was certainly the best-educated.

Anyone interested in American politics would do well to spend some time studying Woodrow Wilson and his Presidency. His fatal mistake was clinging to the belief that it was enough to be right; surely, he thought, people could just see that, and follow? Having written this history of the American people, he should have known better.

I bought these books on a perfect day in San Juan Capistrano, with my friends Allison and Ann Marie. If for no other reason, I'd keep these books as a souvenir of that day.

Friday, April 18, 2008

SONGS by Bruce Springsteen

The Book: Bruce Springsteen, SONGS. Avon Books, 1998 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 1998
Owned since: 1998

No particular springtime resonance to this book -- except that Bruce always makes me feel hopeful, and I woke up this morning to the news that Danny Federici, the E Street Band's organist and accordionist, had died at the age of 58. This book was a Christmas gift from my friend and then-housemate, Megan, who shares my admiration for Bruce and his works.

Bruce (I don't know him, but I call him Bruce -- we all call him Bruce) was in the news this week himself, for his endorsement of Barack Obama. It's hardly surprising to anyone who's a serious admirer of either man. Both have built careers on visions of what America can and should be, while understanding how hard it sometimes is to be who we are.

One of the reasons I was so glad to get this book was to have the definitive lyrics to The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which didn't originally come with printed lyrics -- and which, not coincidentally for today's post, features Danny Federici prominently, especially on accordion.

And you know that tilt-a-whirl down on the south beach drag
I got on it last night and my shirt got caught
And they kept me spinnin'
I didn't think I'd ever get off...

What I Read This Week

Meg Gardiner, THE DIRTY SECRETS CLUB. Publishers are so eager to get a buzz going on this book that the advance readers' copy is an uncopyedited manuscript -- which makes me reluctant to say anything about the book, since I don't know how much it will change. It's the first in a planned new series featuring Jo Beckett, a forensic psychiatrist, and that's a great premise. Beckett, a medical doctor, specializes in the "psychiatric autopsy," determining whether deaths are suicide, accidents, or something else. When a high-profile prosecutor becomes the latest in a series of celebrity murder-suicides, Beckett realizes something more sinister is going on. She unravels a plot that gets too complicated for its own good, and includes at least one element that's either insufficiently explained or just beyond belief. Maybe they'll fix that before the book comes out in July.

Phil Rickman, THE FABRIC OF SIN. Anglican priest Merrily Watkins is the Deliverance Consultant -- aka exorcist -- for the Diocese of Hereford, on the Welsh border. The restoration of an ancient manor house stops because one of the workers refuses to go back inside, and the Bishop sends Merrily to find out what's going on. What she finds is evil that goes back decades, possibly centuries, and may or may not be supernatural. I love this series; Rickman is fascinated with connections, and the books always teach me things. This one covers, among other topics, the Knights Templar, the stories of M.R. James, and the Prince of Wales's role as landlord and conservationist.

Ross Macdonald, THE CHILL. I reread this book because it's the inaugural selection for the book club on John Connolly's discussion forum. I'm glad for the excuse, because it's a book that demands to be read more than once; the twist at the end is so shocking that you need to read the book again to see how everything that happens is rooted in this one terrible secret. Lew Archer agrees to help a young husband find his wife, who ran away on her honeymoon. What he finds is a family history of murder and lies, with roots in crimes that go back 30 years.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

THE CANTERBURY TALES by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Book: Geoffrey Chaucer, THE CANTERBURY TALES. Translated by Nevill Coghill. Penguin Classics paperback, good condition; book is age-browned but intact. Owner's signature on front flyleaf, along with a long out-of-date phone number.
First read: Still reading (since 1980)
Owned since: 1984

Continuing the April theme, here's the original: "When in April the sweet showers fall/And pierce the drought of March to the root..."

Yeah, today's post is late. How much are you paying me? I have no excuse, except spring fever. Dizzy and I went for a long walk this morning, I had some things to do, I went to lunch with Anna, I took a nap. I'm restless and ready to travel again, and wish I had a bunch of friends to travel with.

It's a shame that people don't seem to go on pilgrimages any more, or at least not the way they did in Chaucer's time. I can't think of any better adventure than going off on a trip with a bunch of friends, and I am serious about this: anybody up for a road trip? I have several trips planned between now and mid-July, but they're all solo ventures. I'm so used to traveling by myself that the idea of a journey in the company of friends seems like a romantic fantasy.

This book was an inheritance from the previously-mentioned Tom Ehrenfeld, who was getting rid of books when he left Washington after graduation. The phone number scribbled on the front flyleaf belonged to a group house of mutual friends that called itself "Boytech." Seeing it just now brought up names and faces I have not thought of in 20 years or more.

I first read excerpts of this book in Mr. MacConochie's tenth-grade English class; the tales we read were just racy enough to keep us interested. I still probably haven't read the whole thing. It feels like a project to be tackled sometime before I die, or maybe a class I should take -- its own literary pilgrimage.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


The Book: T.S. Eliot, THE WASTE LAND AND OTHER POEMS. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperback reprint, 1962. Poor condition; pages 1-9 have come away from cover, text is marked up. Owner's signature on front flyleaf.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1987

I can still hear Mrs. Masterson reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to my senior-year English class. The meter charmed me and it struck me as very romantic, but I didn't get it until years later. My friend Tom knew most of it by heart when we were in college -- he probably still does -- and that was when the imagery really caught my imagination, the idea of the yellow cat fog and the ragged claws scuttling across the silent seas.

"Prufrock" is a young man's idea of middle age -- Eliot was only 26 or 27 when he wrote it -- but it is uncanny in its prescience.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous,
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --
Almost, at times, the Fool.

No one believes that about himself at 27, but it is the essence of midlife, that realization that the play really isn't about you. Those lines just kill me, not least because of their perfect punctuation.

But "Prufrock" is not why I took this book off my nightstand (where it lives). No, April is National Poetry Month, and "The Waste Land" is at least part of the reason why:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

"The Waste Land" remains the high point of Eliot's career, and possibly the high point of 20th-century English poetry. It was the product and/or the cause of a nervous breakdown in Eliot's early 30s, and academics still argue about its allusions and imagery. Like most great poetry, it is best read aloud.

I bought this book the year after I got out of college, and have read it literally to pieces. At different times of year I go back to different poems; the collection also includes "The Gift of the Magi," "Ash Wednesday," "Gerontion," and "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," among others.

Five Random Songs

"God Give Me Strength," Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. The theme song for a terrific, underseen movie starring Illeana Douglas, and one of the all-time great breakup songs.

"Late for the Sky," Jackson Browne. Wow, more breakup music. "You never knew what I loved in you/I dont know what you loved in me/Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be."

"Blues is King," Marshall Crenshaw. Cool and wistful.

"Thirsty," The National. I have my brother-in-law Scott to thank for introducing me to The National -- heirs apparent to Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen -- but this song is from a collection John Connolly put together for the UK edition of The Unquiet.

"Love Me Do," The Beatles. Yay, something cheerful! I love the harmonica on this.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


The Book: Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor; THE SHORT STORIES OF F. SCOTT FITZGERALD: A New Collection. Scribners, 1989. Fine book in good dust jacket; jacket is creased and cracked at edges and spine.
First read: 1989
Owned since: 1989

This book is an expanded version of an earlier collection, which I'd read in high school. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote short stories to pay the bills, considering himself primarily a novelist. I think time has proven that he was primarily a short story writer who wrote one very good novel, and a few other interesting experiments.

I'm not sure why this book always makes me think of springtime, except that it's probably when I first read these stories; I remember checking the earlier collection out from my high school library, and falling in love with Fitzgerald's characters the way he must have.

The book falls open naturally to the last page of my favorite story, "The Sensible Thing." It is apparently autobiographical, the story of George O'Kelly's return to Jonquil, the Southern belle who had jilted him. It's a story about bad timing, romance vs. pragmatism, and the tragedy of getting what you longed for.

Fitzgerald's stories are romantic, in that characters feel that their emotions require action, but also clear-eyed about what that romance costs. While most of his stories deal with romance between a rich girl and a poor boy, "A Freeze-Out" is the story of a young man of good family determined to marry the daughter of a shady businessman.

Together, these 43 stories are a panoramic view of a particular, peculiar time in American history: the transition to the modern. "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" is Fitzgerald's most famous, most specific commentary on this transition, but almost all of the stories grasp at moments that the author knows are already gone, or about to be.

At the end of "Last of the Belles," another strongly autobiographical story, the narrator asks his old love, Ailie, to drive out to him to the place where his Army training camp had been. The camp is gone, of course, and the narrator can only guess at where it might have been.
No. Upon consideration they didn't look like the right trees. All I could be sure of was this place that had once been so full of life and effort was gone, as if it had never existed, and that in another month Ailie would be gone, and the South would be empty for me forever.

Monday, April 14, 2008

WALL STREET NOIR edited by Peter Spiegelman

The Book: Peter Spiegelman, ed.; WALL STREET NOIR. Akashic Books trade paperback, 2007 (first edition); signed by Spiegelman, Reed Farrel Coleman, Jim Fusilli, Twist Phelan, and two illegible signatures I think are Megan Abbott and Jason Starr. Fine condition.
First read: Still reading
Owned since: 2007

I did some background research for one of the stories in this book -- I won't say whose, since I'm not sure whether or not I agreed to keep the work confidential. Anyway, the book was a gift from the editor at last year's LA Times Festival of Books, and I've been grazing on it ever since. I'm think I've left a couple of stories unread, which is why I list this as "still reading."

Now that our economy has cycled once again from boom to bust, we're hearing a lot about Wall Street greed and irresponsibility. One of the points made in this collection is that "Wall Street" as a monolithic Other no longer exists. It's not just them vs. us anymore; we're all part of it. The stories in this collection go as far afield as Bangkok, Tel Aviv, and Tegucigalpa, Honduras. It's a global economy, and we're all part of it.

The next time you hear someone railing about greedy capitalists, ask whether they have a retirement account -- even a government pension. If they do, they're part of the system, too. Do they have a mortgage? Do they have a home equity line of credit? Are they proud of the low interest rate they locked in, or of how much their house appreciated during the 1990s? If so, they're as much a part of the bubble as the CEO with the billion-dollar severance package.

No one's ever managed to get around the fundamental economic truth that high rewards carry high risk, or that you always have to choose between paying now and paying later. Some gambled high, some gambled low, and almost all of us are paying now for the economic risks we took -- individually and collectively -- five years ago.

Five years from now, we'll be in clover again, and the lessons we think we're learning now will be fuzzy again. In the meantime, I'll hang on to this book.

Friday, April 11, 2008

DAILIES & RUSHES by Susan Kinsolving

The Book: Susan Kinsolving, DAILIES & RUSHES. Grove Press trade paperback (second printing), 1999, very good condition. Inscribed by the author to the owner.
First read: 2002
Owned since: 2002

The old saw about poetry is that everyone writes it, but no one reads it. I read it, but don't write it, and picked up this book because I liked the cover, which the author describes as "a woman in a corset striving toward free verse."

Susan was the friend of someone who was a close friend of mine, so I read the poems with extra curiosity -- and was delighted, when our mutual friend introduced us, to find the woman as lovely as her poems. Since then Susan and I have become very good friends, and it's been my privilege to help her with research for work that hasn't yet been published. The person who introduced us, ironically, is no longer part of my life. It happens that way sometimes.

Anyway, this small collection explores the many stages of a woman's life: childhood, the end of treasured relationships, motherhood, partnership, middle age. The very first poem in the book, "The Gift," tackles the essential difficulty of naming what we really want:

In red foil paper was my present, just
as I had asked: a magnifying glass. I
was five, but my dismay was huge
intensified by feigned gratitude. What
to say? Where was the word of my mis-
take? In silence, I enlarged snow-
flakes, pine needles, carpet threads, six
crumbs of cake, and the dark pupils
of my dog's eyes. But the word hid
elsewhere, almost disguised, as glass
might be the illusion of clarity. And so
it's been in all my words and hopes:
poems, the elusive gift, the microscope.

What I Read This Week

Max Brooks, WORLD WAR Z: A Oral History of the Zombie War. Chris left me this book when he visited at Easter, and called a few days later to ask whether I'd read it yet. When I did, I understood his enthusiasm; this book is brilliant. Written as non-fiction, it's a narrative of how the world responded to an unprecedented, unimaginable, overwhelming threat. The fact that the threat is zombies is almost tangential to the horrors and ingenuity and resilience Brooks describes. If I taught a public policy class, I'd make this book required reading.

John Connolly, THE REAPERS. Although you can read them separately, the six books (and one novella) Connolly has written about detective Charlie Parker form one long narrative about the battle for Parker's soul. THE REAPERS is a sort of lagniappe to that epic story -- not truly a standalone, but a book featuring Angel and Louis, Parker's friends and sometime colleagues. Angel is a professional thief, Louis a semi-retired hit man. They provide comic relief to the Parker novels, but have their own complex and terrible history, which Connolly explores here. A man from Louis's past has returned to seek vengeance on everything Louis holds dear, and Louis and Angel must marshal all their resources -- including Parker, here called The Detective -- to defend themselves. THE REAPERS is a special treat for fans of the Parker series, but also holds its own as an updated version of the classic Western, a story of hard men facing each other on the frontier. I read an advance copy; the book comes out in May.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

KILLER INSTINCT by Joseph Finder

The Book: Joseph Finder, KILLER INSTINCT. St. Martin's, 2006 (first edition). Inscribed by the author: "For Clair -- my web genius -- with eternal gratitude, Joe -- 5/16/06."
First read: 2005
Owned since: 2006

Hasty disclaimer: I had nothing to do with the writing or the editing of this book, although I did proofread galleys for the British edition (I think -- or it might have been the paperback, I lose track). I manage the content on Joe's website, and edit his newsletters. We're always looking for new photographs of readers and their pets with Joe's books. If you have one, send it to me at

KILLER INSTINCT won both the Barry Award and the ITW's Thriller Award for Best Novel, and I dare you to put the book down once you start it. It's the story of sales executive Jason Steadman, who gets along but not ahead. He's addicted to business self-help books and audio CDs, but those have no effect on his work until he meets Kurt Semko, a former Special Forces operative who brings his own unique perspective to the idea that "business is war." KILLER INSTINCT is not only a thriller but a sharp and funny satire of the corporate sales culture, and we ran a game on Joe's website asking readers to distinguish between quotations from real business books and quotations from Joe's fictional guru, "Mark Simkins."

Anyway, this book was an easy choice because I saw Joe and his wife, Michele, last night in Boston. It was one of those nice confluences of my various networks; Joe, Michele and I were all guests at a special screening of The Express for Boston University film students. My friend Gary, a BU alumnus and the director of the film, sat for questions afterwards, and it was a great evening. Among other things, it was the first time I've ever gotten a screen credit -- you have to wait to the very end, but it's there -- so that was an extra thrill.

Now I'm home again, exhausted and suffering from something that might be allergies, might be a cold, or might be some exotic alien flesh-eating disease that is filling my head cavities with mucus and making it impossible for me to talk.

But I couldn't let today go without posting, if only to wish the happiest of birthdays to Claire Bea, more fabulous today than she was yesterday. (But less fabulous than she will be tomorrow...) Many happy returns, lovely girl.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

OFFICER DOWN by Theresa Schwegel

The Book: Theresa Schwegel, OFFICER DOWN. St. Martin's Minotaur, 2005 (first edition). Inscribed by the author: "Clair -- if it wasn't for you... Thanks. Theresa M. Schwegel." Fine condition.
First read: 2003
Owned since: 2005

The open-ended inscription on this is another mark of Theresa's genius, because it could (and probably does) mean all kinds of things. If not for me, the book wouldn't exist? Nonsense. If not for me the book would be even better, and would have won the Anthony for Best First Novel as well as the Edgar? Quite possibly.

I've blogged about this book before, but I don't want to discount my role in its creation, either, because I'm proud of it. Theresa and I met through the good offices of yesterday's author, Scott Phillips, who thought I might be able to advise her on an early draft of this book. It had originally been a screenplay, and the draft I read showed its origins: it was well-paced and action-driven, but the main character, in particular, needed some rounding out.

Through multiple drafts, with me and other editors, Theresa created one of the most memorable protagonists in crime fiction. Samantha Mack ("Smack" to friends and colleagues) is a Chicago cop bent on self-destruction. She drinks too much, she has issues with authority, and she's having an affair with a married homicide cop.

Smack and her partner, Fred, corner a child molester in an apartment building; Fred is shot, Smack is hit on the head and knocked unconscious. When she recovers, Fred is dead -- and Samantha herself is the prime suspect in the shooting.

Desperate to clear her name -- and also to get the child molester, who's still on the loose -- Smack turns to her married lover, Mason Imes, while ducking an Internal Affairs detective who's trying to tell her things she doesn't want to hear.

Officer Down is told in the first-person, present tense, so the reader learns what happens as Smack does. It's another measure of Theresa's talent that this works; it's something I regularly advise writers not to do, but Theresa pulls it off. That's why (or at least one reason why) she won the Edgar.

Off to Boston for an overnight trip, so tomorrow's post will be late.

Five Random Songs

"Smarter," Maria McKee. My theme song. "I need somebody smarter than me/Need to exercise my vocabulary..."

"Size of Sorrow," Tears for Fears. I am not ashamed to love Tears for Fears, but this song verges on self-parody.

"My Old Man," Joni Mitchell. When I was in college, Blue and Carole King's Tapestry were essentials in the record collection of anyone who wanted to be taken seriously as a Woman. Is that still true? Do girls still buy this record? I hope so.

"History Song," The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Tom Ehrenfeld turned me on to these guys, who make a unique combination of rock, world music, and electronica -- it's hard to describe, but this song is a sort of dreamy-pop rendition of a Gypsy Kings piece, with some weird avant-garde stuff at the end.

"Having a Blast," Green Day. It scares me that they play Green Day on the classic rock stations now. How old am I?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

COTTONWOOD by Scott Phillips

The Book: Scott Phillips, COTTONWOOD. Dennis McMillan Publications, 2004; limited first edition in slipcase, inscribed by the author under a doodle of a half-skull: "2/28/04 -- To Clair, without whom this book would be a much lesser work -- Love, Scott P." Fine condition.
First read: 2003
Owned since: 2004

All of this week's posts will be books I worked on, or books written by authors I've done work for. I did a late line edit on COTTONWOOD, checking for continuity and time lines; COTTONWOOD's events span more than 60 years, and the book has more than 80 named characters.

Cottonwood is a Kansas frontier town that booms and (inevitably) busts as the railroad moves through. The book's narrator is Bill Ogden, cuckold, failed farmer, mediocre saloon-keeper, and would-be photographer. Bill makes friends with the railroad developer, Marc Leval, and his wife, Maggie; then he falls in love with Maggie. COTTONWOOD blends that love triangle with the true story of the Bloody Benders, a family that preyed on travelers and might have killed hundreds during the great Western migration.

It's a modern twist on the classic Western. Bill Ogden is great company, and the book is as entertaining as a day at the movies. Loyal readers will recognize links to his earlier books, THE ICE HARVEST (set in Wichita in 1979) and THE WALKAWAY (set in the same area, between 1952 and 1980).

This was a limited first edition -- a gift to me from the author -- but the book was published in trade hardcover and trade paperback by Ballantine, and is still in print.

Although Scott's published a few short stories since COTTONWOOD, I'm impatient for the next novel. Scott, if you check in, leave a comment and do a little self-promotion. Sorry I missed you at NoirCon.

Monday, April 07, 2008

RED JUNGLE by Kent Harrington

The Book: Kent Harrington, RED JUNGLE. Dennis McMillan Publications, 2004. First edition inscribed to the owner: "For Clair - a dear friend - and who made it not a jungle but a book - xxhug - Kent." Fine condition.
First read: 2003
Owned since: 2005

In addition to this copy, I own a signed limited edition (in a lovely slipcase) and a marked-up bound galley, which I proofread. One of my earliest memories of my current apartment is pacing in my empty bedroom, before any furniture arrived, reading off corrections to Dennis McMillan late one weekend night.

If that sounds a little extreme, a little above-and-beyond, it's appropriate for this book, which was a labor of love for all concerned. To this day, this is the best novel I've ever worked on. I edited Kent's drafts as he wrote them, something I don't do for any other client. We went through at least three -- maybe four -- I lost count. It is the most personal of his books, inspired by his own mother's story, and it's a book that should have found a much wider audience. Dennis McMillan printed 2,000 copies, plus a tiny limited run (the slipcased edition). If you are lucky enough to come across one, hang onto it.

Kent described Red Jungle as Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets The Quiet American, and I can't improve on that. Russell Cruz-Price was born to an American father and a Guatemalan mother. His mother, a member of Guatemala's ruling elite, was killed in the nation's civil war when Russell was a student at a military boarding school in the U.S. Twenty years later, he returns to Guatemala as a journalist, disguising his family background. Almost immediately, he is pulled into two unlikely quests: the search for a mythical red jade jaguar, on property that used to belong to Russell's family, and the effort to depose Guatemala's dictator.

And of course he falls in love -- with the worst possible choice, an unstable Englishwoman who is married to the head of the secret police. Russell, in the tradition of all classic noir heroes, refuses to compromise one obsession for another, choosing instead to risk all in hopes of winning it all. Along the way, he even learns the terrible truth about what happened to his mother.

Kent's latest book, THE GOOD PHYSICIAN, was launched this weekend at NoirCon. I edited that one, too, and it too has been published in only a very short run. It's hard to find, but The Mystery Bookstore will have copies; order one from them.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


The Book: Dean LaTourrette and Kristine Enea, TIME OFF! THE UNEMPLOYED GUIDE TO SAN FRANCISCO. Leisure Team Productions trade paperback, 2004, fine condition. Inscribed by the authors to the owner.
First read: 2002
Owned since: 2004

I edited this book while the authors were writing it, over a period of approximately a year. It's a terrific guide for getting the most out of San Francisco without spending a lot of money, and offers tips for planning a sabbatical similar to Six Months Off.

This book is an example of how self-publishing can work, in specific circumstances. I am not a fan of self-published fiction; with rare exception, it is lazy, greedy and ego-driven, and self-published novelists are a misery to themselves and others. (If you leave a comment defending self-published novels, chances are good that I'll be rude to you. Don't start with me.)

Self-publishing can work for non-fiction, specialty publications, when 1) the authors are committed to turning out a high-quality product and 2) the authors know who their target audience is and how to reach them.

Many people found themselves unemployed in San Francisco after the dot-com bust. Some of those people had money on their hands, but most didn't. They didn't want to leave San Francisco, but it was going to be a while before the jobs came back -- and in the meantime, they had to admit, their lives had probably gotten a little out of balance.

This book was a perfect guide for that transition period. San Franciscans love their city with a passion that borders on obsession. It's a small town, and everyone knows each other. The blurbs for this book reflect that: Mayor Willie Brown, Ben Marcus, the man (Hank "Mr. SF" Donat) who writes the "Heart of the City" column.

In addition to tips on shopping, eating and working out on the cheap, the book also includes practical financial advice about how to manage periods of unemployment -- and suggestions on options when things get really bad. Funky illustrations, charts and other graphics help the reader find topics easily, and the book looks better than most trade paperbacks published by mainstream presses.

The authors had talked about writing similar books for other cities, and I hope they do; unfortunately, guides for unemployment are more timely than ever now.

Friday, April 04, 2008

PERMANENT LONDONERS by Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall

The Book: Judi Culbertson & Tom Randall, PERMANENT LONDONERS: An Illustrated, Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London. Walker and Co. trade paperback, 1991. Near fine condition.
First read: 1996
Owned since: 1996

Oh, come on, this book was a gift -- along with its companion, PERMANENT PARISIANS. I think I got these books from my friend SueLin, but they might have come from Anna -- Anna, do you remember giving them to me?

Anyway, they were gifts before a two-week trip I took in November 1996. I'd planned to spend a week in London with (again!) the Schulzes, then take the Chunnel train to Paris. But a fire in the Chunnel shut down the train, and anyway I was having such a great time in London, I wound up just spending two weeks there. I still haven't been to Paris.

We took this book on an outing to Highgate Cemetery, whose most famous resident may be Karl Marx. What was more interesting, though, were the ethnic groupings in that cemetery, and the headstones of people we'd never heard of, inscribed in alphabets we couldn't read.

Cemeteries are for the living, not the dead, and I've always thought that any ghosts in cemeteries belong to the people who grieved there, not the people laid to rest. A cemetery on a sunny day can be almost a joyful place, commemorating not the people buried but all the people who loved them enough to want to remember them.

What I Read This Week

Lauren Groff, THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON. In the words of William Faulkner, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." THE MONSTERS OF TEMPLETON is a dazzling first novel about Willie Upton, not quite 30, who returns to her hometown in upstate New York to figure out her life. That requires figuring out who she is, literally, when her mother tells her that her never-identified father is actually a man living in the town -- who is also descended from Willie's illustrious ancestor, the founder of Templeton. Willie's research takes her (and us) back through the town's history, with a mixture of found documents and stories told by the long-dead. It would be a tour de force for any author, and the fact that this is a first novel is just mind-boggling.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


The Book: Pam Hait, DAY TRIPS FROM PHOENIX, TUCSON & FLAGSTAFF: Getaways less than 2 Hours Away, 4th Edition. Globe Pequot trade paperback, 1996. Very good condition; spine is rubbed, front left corner has a small chip missing.
First read: 1996
First owned: 1996

I've moved three times since I bought this book, and can't figure out why this one survived all the culling when so many didn't.

Even boosters of Phoenix will admit that it is not the most aesthetically pleasing city in the United States. Scottsdale is lovely; Sedona is magical; Tucson is one of my favorite places in the country to visit. Phoenix is flat and monochromatic, and even the good meals I've had there haven't been in the city itself.

But the elected chairman of the organization I worked for was from Phoenix, so we needed to have meetings there, and it was cheaper to fly across the country if I stayed over a Saturday. I bought this book with the idea of driving to Sedona one weekend, although I never got there on a work-related trip. Maybe that's why I kept the book, with the idea that I'd go back.

The area's grown so much that this book is probably quite out of date, and that -- paradoxically -- is one more reason to hang onto it. If I had room to collect books seriously, I might well collect old travel guides. They're time machines; like old museums, they show us what people thought was important at the time.

It's been much too long since I visited the Sonora Desert, and I hope I get a chance to go back sometime soon.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


The Book: LET'S GO USA including coverage of CANADA, completely revised for 1999. St. Martin's trade paperback, 1999. Good condition; cover is scuffed, spine is badly creased.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

Although I read Six Months Off in 1996, I didn't get around to taking any substantial time off until 1999 -- when I decided to get in my car and drive west.

My brother Ed agreed to come along and share the driving. We had driven around the country together once before, so we knew we shared a general outlook about the ratio of driving time to tourist time, our minimum standards for overnight lodging, and the kind of places we wanted to eat. Friends and relatives along the route were also extremely generous about offering us places to stay and meals, so that was a bonus.

This book was our guide for the trip. We agreed that we would stop once a day to see some cheesy tourist attraction. Theoretically, we would take turns choosing, but I don't remember ever disagreeing on a choice. Because this book jams two whole countries into just under 1,000 pages, if an attraction made it in, it was usually worth a visit.

Stops included Ronald Reagan's boyhood home (questionable, as he only lived there for three years); the George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park in Ogden, UT; and, coolest of all, The Sod House in Gothenburg, Nebraska. We stayed at the Frontier Motel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and saw The Matrix in an old movie palace downtown there, which was surreal.

All of this week's posts will be travel-related, if you haven't figured it out yet. I was talking to a friend last night who said something about my traveling a lot, and I felt a little indignant. I haven't been anywhere since the first of the year, except for a day trip to Boston which was not for fun. I had hoped to be in Philadelphia this weekend for NoirCon, but can't make it.

My feet are seriously itchy. The good news is that my next round of travel starts in just a couple of weeks.

Five Random Songs

"There Was a Few," Material Issue. These guys were a great power-pop band. Dumb lyrics don't interfere much with this song's hooks.

"Sweet and Tender Hooligan," The Smiths. More racing guitars, more questionable lyrics -- but the Smiths managed to make even the silliest lyrics sound profound. "In the midst of life we are in death, et cetera."

"The Rebel Jesus," Jackson Browne. Every time this song comes up on the shuffle, I think, "I need to delete this." It annoys me to death; it's a Christmas carol about how Jesus was a socialist. He was, of course, but to see him as political is to reduce him for human purposes. I object.

"This Loneliness," El Perro del Mar. El Perro del Mar is the musical persona of Swedish singer Sarah Assbring; she sounds a little like Kate Bush, but the tunes are much lighter. Even this song is bouncy in its wistfulness. This CD was one of those rare psychic gifts, a present from a friend who didn't even know I wanted it. She's performing in Boston next month, I might try to see her.

"If," 13 & God. 13 & God is a supergroup comprising members of themselves and The Notwist; they make music that combines electronica, hip-hop, rap, and something that's all their own. They put on an amazing live show.


Sue Schulz and I in front of the Hundertwasserhaus, Vienna, February 1995. The matching haircuts were just a coincidence. Photo credit: Thomas Schulz

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

VIENNAWALKS by J. Sydney Jones

The Book: J. Sydney Jones, VIENNAWALKS (revised edition). Henry Holt trade paperback, 1994. Good condition; front cover is loose, spine is creased.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995

No April Fool's post today -- I toyed with the idea of inventing a fictional book, but I'm too busy this week. And while I love the silly, I can't stand practical jokes. Most April Fool's jokes cross the line.

Anyway, when people talk about their favorite places to visit, or where they'd most like to return, Vienna tops my list. That is partly because Vienna is a magical and haunted place; partly because I saw it with Sue and Thomas Schulz, two of my favorite traveling companions; and partly because of this book. (And maybe partly because of some genetic memory; Celts were among the first settlers of prehistoric Vienna, and moved north later.)

The subtitle of this book explains it all: "Four intimate walking tours of Vienna's most historic quarters, with maps, photos, and a select list of restaurants, hotels, and more." It's part of a fantastic series that covers dozens of cities around the world; a year or so later, Sue and I walked around Chelsea, Kensington and the City with LondonWalks, because ViennaWalks was so good.

ViennaWalks lays out four walking tours of the city, in chronological order. The first, "The Stones of Vienna," starts at the Stephansdom, takes you back in time to the Vienna of Marcus Aurelius, and then forward through the Second World War. Late in the tour, Jones takes the reader by a building that now serves as yeshiva and synagogue in the old Judenplatz -- "it has a police guard day and night," the guidebook says, and we saw them, two men with guns and a large dog. T.S. Garp's beloved Franz Grillparzer was on the Judenplatz too, at least in spirit -- he lived and wrote in an apartment at Judenplatz 1.

A weekend was not enough time to spend in Vienna; the opera wasn't performing, the weather was marginal, we never even got to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. We did see the KunstHaus Wien, aka the Hundertwasser Museum, which is cool not only for its contents but for its design. Hundertwasser objected to straight lines, right angles and flat surfaces, and the museum has none.

Someday I'll go back in good weather, and see the Prater and the opera and the trees in leaf. I'm hanging on to this book until then.