Monday, June 30, 2008

WORLD'S END by T. Coraghessan Boyle

The Book: T. Coraghessan Boyle, WORLD'S END. Viking, 1987 (first edition). Fine book in near-fine Brodarted dust jacket.
First read: 1988
Owned since: 1997 (approximately, this copy)

I own two copies of this book: this first edition, and a trade paperback reprint that the author inscribed to me at a signing on St. Patrick's Day 1989, in Washington, DC. As I think I've said before, I'm not a serious collector of books, but I do like to have good copies of my favorites. This is a book I like to lend out, so it's good to have the more durable hardcover copy in addition to my own signed one. (The first sign of addiction, they say, is rationalization...)

WORLD'S END is a sweeping epic about the inexorable power of heredity, following two New York families from the early Dutch colonial days to the late 1960s/early 1970s. Walter van Brunt, wastrel son of an old farming family, has a near-fatal motorcycle accident when confronted with a vision from his family's past. Recovering, he makes an unlikely connection with Depeyster van Wart, heir to an old fortune and scion of a family that was always the enemy of Van Brunts. Seventeenth-century conflicts between Van Brunts and Van Warts play out into the 1970s; for 300 years, they ignore the importance of the natives who lived there first, but those natives wind up offering a weird kind of redemption to both families.

It's been a few years since I reread WORLD'S END, and I'm due. It's a young man's book: ambitious, clever, angry and funny, complex in structure, cynical in outlook, but drunk on the realization that ours was not the first generation to want things desperately and hope for the best. I'm curious to see how it holds up for the midlife reader.

Friday, June 27, 2008

JOY OF COOKING by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker

The Book: JOY OF COOKING. Plume trade paperback reprint, 1973; 14th printing. Poor condition. Front cover is torn off, pages are age-browned and food-stained, spine is badly bowed and creased, book is held together by a rubber band. Owner's signature on front flyleaf.
First read: Who knows?
Owned since: 1983 (this copy)

I do have a spiffy hardcover copy of the revised edition of JOY OF COOKING, but I will not give this one up until it crumbles. For one thing, it includes recipes the revised version doesn't have; for another, it was a Christmas gift from my parents; for yet another, its markings and stains are a history of my adventures in cooking.

Weirdly, the book falls open naturally to a page in the vegetable section, on tomatoes and turnips. I don't care for turnips, and have never cooked them; the recipe I used here was one for stuffed tomatoes filled with onions, a long-ago disastrous attempt at a vegetarian dinner. What a mess that was... although in retrospect, it was so hilarious I'm tempted to try this recipe again. What I wound up with was stewed tomatoes with onions and brown sugar, and it tasted pretty good on egg noodles.

I have baking to do for tonight's show, slightly purgatorial since the temperature's hit the mid-70s and I still don't have an air conditioner. Time for the old reliable "Quick Oatmeal Cookies," p. 657, which can be made and baked in under an hour.

What I've Read These Weeks

I've been busy, I've been distracted, and I've been terribly disappointed with quite of lot of my recent reading. That might be me, or it might be the books; I can't say. Anyway, here are a few of the highlights and lowlights.

Christa Faust, MONEY SHOT. Hard Case Crime's first female author delivers classic pulp, the story of a semi-retired porn actress who's the target of a murder plot for reasons she doesn't know. Great stuff.

Ian Fleming, CASINO ROYALE. I was sure I'd read this in middle school, but recognized almost nothing of it. James Bond is a cold creature, Ian Fleming's much too fascinated with sexual torture, and the misogyny of this book made me gasp.

Sebastian Faulks, DEVIL MAY CARE. Ian Fleming's estate hired Sebastian Faulks to write another James Bond book "as Ian Fleming," and he did it: all the misogyny, lifestyle porn, tedious details of upper-class amusement, and sexual torture of the original! But it feels like homework, a James Bond paint-by-numbers kit without a shred of joy. Bleah.

Vivian French, THE ROBE OF SKULLS. Now, this was more like: a young-adult romp about the evil Lady Lamorna, who needs to pay for a new dress and devises a most nefarious plot to extort the money from the local royalty. Gracie Gillypot, escaping from her wicked stepfamily, manages to thwart the scheme. Ingenious and joyful, with perversely happy endings all around -- even for Lady Lamorna.

Joshua Kendall, THE MAN WHO MADE LISTS. A biography of Peter Mark Roget, the inventor of the thesaurus. Polymath and obsessive, Roget turned to his lists as solace for the catastrophes of his life. Unfortunately, what we get here is not much more than a list of the events of Roget's life and the people he knew. Despite novelistic narratives of conversations between Roget and his family members that seem weirdly disconnected from the rest of the book, we never get any sense of Roget's interior world, or even his objectives.

Ron Hansen, EXILES. Ron Hansen is such a beautiful writer that it almost hurts to read him, knowing I will never come close to that level. EXILES is the story of Gerard Manley Hopkins's great poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus," moving back and forth between Hopkins's own story, those of the five German nuns who died in the wreck, and the nightmare of the shipwreck itself. I am always astonished by how much Hansen manages to cram into such compact tales; this book is less than 200 pages, and gives us Hopkins's world better than a 700-page biography could.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

PACK OF TWO by Caroline Knapp

The Book: Caroline Knapp, PACK OF TWO: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. The Dial Press trade paperback, 1998 (first printing thus). Good condition; book shows signs of exposure to damp, covers are rubbed at corners.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

No theme to this week's books; I just realized that this incarnation of the blog has only about a month left to run, and I'd better get to the books I want to write about before the calendar runs out. (I know, it's an artificial deadline; if I wanted to extend it, I could. Allow me my small compulsions.)

This book was a gift from Sy, a man who used to bring his dog to an informal Saturday morning dog park in my old neighborhood, a underused playing field behind Fairfax High School. Every so often, LAUSD police would come and roust us out, and they weren't always polite about it; a few careless dog owners wrecked it for everyone.

I see Sy clearly in my mind's eye, but cannot remember his dog's name, or even what his dog looked like. It was an odd community of people -- we were all kind of odd separately, and feuds arose among owners for weird, almost random reasons. One morning, two owners came to blows after a scuffle between their dogs, and everyone took sides. I stopped going after that; Dizzy and I did not need that craziness.

Almost all of us, though, were packs of two. This book is Caroline Knapp's memoir of her own intense bond with her dog, Lucille, as well as a broader study of how people find things in their relationships with dogs that they can't get from their relationships with people. Healthy or unhealthy, it is what it is; dogs become our surrogate partners, siblings, parents, children.

I live alone and work at home, and if not for Dizzy, I'd pass some days without saying anything at all. As it is, I wonder whether Dizzy makes it possible for me to be more of a hermit than I would be without him -- if I didn't have Dizzy, maybe I'd have to be more social. Or maybe I'd never leave my apartment at all, at least in winter.

Knapp's book looks at this phenomenon without flinching or judging. Here is Marjorie, 48:
When she's with a group of people, particularly people she doesn't know well, she has a hard time turning off the voices of self-criticism, the harsh judgments: is she smart enough, is she adequate? Oh, you jerk; you sound like such a jerk: that's the kind of thing she hears in her head, a burden that's blessedly absent when she's at home with a dog.

Caroline Knapp died of lung cancer in 2002, at the age of 42. Obituaries listed her survivors as her husband, Mark Morelli, and her dog, Lucille.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

HANNIBAL by Thomas Harris

The Book: Thomas Harris, HANNIBAL. Delacorte, 1999 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

Few books have been as hotly anticipated or as widely reviled as this one. In any gathering of crime fiction writers or fans, the one thing almost everyone will agree on is that HANNIBAL rates as one of the worst sequels ever.

I respectfully disagree, and was glad this week to see that no less an authority than Stephen King agrees with me -- in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, he mentions HANNIBAL as one of the great pleasures of his favorite year, 1999.

First off, HANNIBAL is not a sequel; it's the third in a sequence of novels that begins with RED DRAGON and continues with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. That hardly matters, though, because SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is the book that caught everyone's attention, and rightly so. It is a nearly perfect thriller, featuring two of the most memorable characters ever written: FBI agent Clarice Starling and psychopathic killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Beyond that, of course, it was adapted into a pitch-perfect movie that won several Oscars and established Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins as icons. If memory serves, HANNIBAL was sold to the movies even before the book was written -- and that may have been part of the problem.

It is an interesting case study of the dangers of allowing characters to be moved from book to screen while the author's still inventing them. Characters on a page form through an alchemy between author and reader; reader and author can and do have wildly different mental pictures of what characters look like, and how they might behave off the page. Once you assign the character to an actor, though, and put that actor on the screen, the alchemy vanishes. The actor is the character. Rhett Butler looks like Clark Gable; Rosemary Woodhouse looks like Mia Farrow; Regan McNeil looks like Linda Blair. Those associations are permanent.

So Clarice Starling became Jodie Foster, and Hannibal Lecter became Anthony Hopkins -- which seems to have chafed Mr. Harris, if HANNIBAL is anything to go by.

HANNIBAL begins with an FBI operation that goes catastrophically wrong, for which Clarice Starling gets blamed. It's a one-two punch: Clarice's fallibility, which she can't stand to admit, causes the death of innocents; then her surrogate family, the FBI, betrays and exiles her.

In that context, she is vulnerable to admiration and comfort and the seductions of evil, in the person of Hannibal Lecter. Anyone would be. I have been. Haven't you?

Readers didn't want this. Readers wanted to believe in a Clarice Starling who embodied the forces of good, and was proof against temptation. Readers wanted to identify with that, not with a woman who finally just gave up because it got too hard to be righteous on her own. And if Hannibal Lecter really did turn out to be evil, well -- what did anyone expect? The character's a psychopath, not a Robin Hood figure.

HANNIBAL is a reassertion of Harris's right to his own characters, and if readers didn't like it, too bad. I admired it, and still do.

Five Random Songs

"Only a Dream," Mary Chapin Carpenter. A song about a sibling's leaving home. "A bed and a desk and a couple of tacks/No sign of someone who expects to be back/Must have been one hell of a suitcase you packed."

"I've Committed Murder," Macy Gray. I do love a good tune about romantic obsession.

"Girl on a String," John Hiatt. From Riding with the King, when Hiatt's sound was heavier on the country side than the rock side.

"Kingdom of Doom," The Good, the Bad, and the Queen. This CD was a gift from my friend Tom; thanks, Tom!

"Stereotype," The Specials. The Specials are good skating music, and I was thinking this morning that it had been too long since I'd been to the ice rink. Maybe at lunch today...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The Book: Dan Jenkins, YOU GOTTA PLAY HURT. Simon & Schuster, 1991 (first edition). Very good book in good-minus dust jacket; remainder mark on bottom edge.
First read: 1992
Owned since: 2005 (this copy)

The bad news is that my friends the Lechners are moving to North Carolina. The good news is that I'd lent them this book, and got it back last week because they didn't want to have to pack it. In the grand scheme of things I would prefer that they stay in Maine and hang on to this book indefinitely, but I take what consolations the universe offers me.

This is at least the third copy of the book I've owned -- purchased, if memory serves, at the Yarmouth Clam Festival in 2005 -- but the first copy I read was borrowed from my colleague Roger. The senior staff of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors passed the book around with a sort of furtive glee, mainly because of this passage (excerpted):

One of my entertainment sheets from two years ago was framed and adorned the wall of Marge Frack's office.


Date: 9/15
Person/Purpose/Place: Breakfast for Barry Switzer, ex-Oklahoma football coach; discuss role of black athlete in investment banking industry; Beverly Hills Hotel
Amount: $215.14

Date: 9/15
Person/Purpose/Place: Lunch for Barry Switzer, ex-Oklahoma football coach; discuss influence of Al Capone on college football; Beverly Hills Hotel
Amount: $394.50

Date: 9/15
Person/Purpose/Place: Dinner & drinks for Barry Switzer, ex-Oklahoma football coach; discuss NCAA's relationship to mass murders in USA; Beverly Hills Hotel
Amount: $394.35

It goes on and gets even sillier, but you get the idea. In no way do I mean to imply that any of my colleagues might have abused their own expense accounts -- and I was, if anything, over-scrupulous about mine -- but we admired the shamelessness.

YOU GOTTA PLAY HURT is the fictional memoir of sportswriter Jim Tom Pinch, who writes for a magazine that bears what is surely a coincidental resemblance to Sports Illustrated. Jim Tom is an old-school, typewriter-using journalist in a world increasingly dominated by corporate sponsorship, technological advances and political correctness, and the conflicts are hilarious.

I've given several copies of this book away, but looking at it now, I realize it hasn't aged well. The humor is specific to a time and place that feel very far away now, although it's fewer than 20 years ago. It's not as funny to me now as it used to be, and I can't figure out what percentage of that is the world changing, me changing, or possibly - God forbid - the fact that it wasn't originally as funny as I remember it being.

Humor is fragile and circumstantial. This week we're mourning George Carlin, but all the tribute clips just remind me that people ten years older than I found him a lot funnier than I ever did. By the time I started paying attention to him, he was less a comedian than a social critic -- or maybe that's a false distinction. Either way, the loss is the same.

Monday, June 23, 2008

SUMMER by Edith Wharton

The Book: Edith Wharton, SUMMER. Barnes & Noble trade paperback reprint, 2006 (originally published 1917). Good condition; shows some signs of exposure to damp, front and back flyleafs liberally decorated by Master Wyatt Bragdon.
First read: 1981 (best guess)
Owned since: 2008 (this copy)

The calendar says it is summer, but you couldn't tell from my living room window. Dizzy and I are just back from a walk under cloudy skies, and the weather widget on my computer says 64 degrees.

Anna gave me her copy of this book last week, because I love it and had not read it in many years.

Although I first read it in high school, my most vivid memory of this book is of reading it in a basement apartment in Georgetown during my freshman year of college. I don't know what happened to that copy.

At 167 pages, "Summer" is a novella rather than a novel. It's a simple story of first love, lost love. Charity Royall, born to a poor family in the Berkshires, lives with her guardian, a middle-aged lawyer, in the small town of North Dormer, MA. Lucius Harney, a young architect, comes to town for the summer. He is handsome and glamorous, and Charity falls in love not only with him but with the world he represents.

It's interesting to compare this book to Marjorie Morningstar, a similar coming-of-age story; in both books, the world opens, but the main character winds up with the life she might have been expected to live in any case. While Marjorie Morningstar's ending is happy, Summer's is almost unbearably sad -- or at least it was to my 17-year-old self.

Now I read it with different eyes and see the hope in it, though it's still terribly sad. At 42, I see that Wharton was writing about the power of ordinary kindness, and comparing the reliability of one kind of love with the glamorous danger of another. Summer becomes autumn, youth becomes middle age, passion becomes comfort. Why does that feel so sad?

In other news, Bye Bye Birdie sold out all last weekend, and promises to do the same this weekend. If you plan to attend, make those reservations now.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Busy Producing, Back Soon

Gaslight Theater's production of BYE BYE BIRDIE opens tonight at 7:30, at Hallowell City Hall Auditorium. All tickets $10; make your reservations at 207-626-3698.

I am busy doing producerish things today. If you live in the Augusta area, you might have heard me on 92 Moose this morning, along with actors Jason Hersom and Abby Crocker.

Back tomorrow -- but in the meantime, go check out my cousin Moira's fabulous short film "Dogs in Art," here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


The Book: Ayn Rand, ATLAS SHRUGGED. Signet paperback reprint, 1992 (originally published 1957). 55th printing. Inscribed to the owner: "To Ellen -- I give you this book -- is it altruism? You be the judge -- Ashton 8/25/96." Good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, spine is creased, lower corner of front cover is creased.
First read: Still reading (theoretically)
Owned since: 1996

I rarely reprint the inscriptions in my books -- too personal and/or too boring -- but this one still cracks me up. My then-housemate, Ashton, decided in the summer of 1996 that all of us living at 1800 15th Street NW should read this book, and then we could discuss it. It was a great idea, but as far as I know, none of us managed to finish it -- although I lugged this with me on several business trips, and got to page 587 (it's marked) the last time I tried. I did skip to the end, and read bits and pieces of John Galt's final, endless speech.

Enough, anyway, to get the idea: altruism destroys initiative, only the strong deserve to survive, charity is a crime against the economy, our only and paramount responsibility is to increase our own personal productivity and prosperity.

Pfft. What alarmed me most was the day I had this with me at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, taking the afternoon off on a business trip to Cleveland. The ticket-taker noticed me carrying the book and said, "Oh my God, are you reading that? I loved that book. That book changed my life."

People sometimes accuse me of over-sharpness, but I still want to give myself credit for not asking how Ayn Rand's principles of Objectivism had helped this person achieve the lofty position of ticket-taker at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. See, that was altruism on my part. Sometimes it's necessary for a peaceful life.

I keep this book because I cherish the memory of that house, those housemates and that time in my life, not because of anything about the book itself. It's quoted often enough, in enough random places, that I might need it for reference once of these days. Otherwise, I don't ever plan to finish it.

Five Random Songs

"They Never Got You," Spoon. Spoon is one of my favorite bands of the 21st century (even though they've been together since the mid-'90s).

"The Old Apartment," Barenaked Ladies. Weirdly appropriate for today's post. Sometimes I wonder who's living at 1800 15th Street now, and whether they're as happy there as we were. I bet not.

"Na Na Na," The Knife. Cool European electronica, a gift from a friend; I told him I felt like I needed a whole new lifestyle just in order to listen to it.

"Back in the High Life Again," Warren Zevon. A cover of the Steve Winwood song, recorded before Zevon knew he was dying of cancer. In context, almost crucifyingly sad.

"Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle," Electric Light Orchestra. Thank goodness, let's lighten up a little...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The Book: Umberto Eco, FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988 (first trade edition). Inscribed to the owner: "Good subway reading, or so everyone in D.C. seems to believe. Read it in good health -- Love, Carmen -- X-mas 1989." Fine condition.
First read: Still reading (theoretically)
Owned since: 1989

On the subject of unwieldy books that take years to read, here's one. I've been moving this book since 1989 -- it has accompanied me to eight separate residences -- and I haven't finished it yet. In fact, it's been a while since I last made the effort, and it's probably time for me to try again.

It is possible, if I've known you for a while, that you have the impression I've read this book. I may have implied that I'd read it, at some point -- as the inscription above suggests, everyone in Washington was reading it, or pretending to, 20 years ago. Because its subject matter is similar to that of the (inferior but easier-to-read) Da Vinci Code, I may have dropped this book's title into a few conversations during the Da Vinci Code mania -- again, perhaps, conveying the impression that I had, in fact, finished this book.

Sigh. I am such a damn fraud. I've written about this before, though, and it's one of my pal Tod Goldberg's favorite topics: the inevitable tendency of bookish people to pretend they've read things they haven't. It's rooted in shame, and a terrible snobbery; people I despise got through this book, why can't I?

So maybe, when the current whirl of activity settles a little, I'll tackle this book again. If you've read it, if you like it, leave me a comment to say why I should make the effort one more time.

Monday, June 16, 2008

ULYSSES by James Joyce

The Book: James Joyce, ULYSSES. Vintage trade paperback reprint, 1990. Good condition; pages are age-browned, spine is bowed and heavily creased. Owner's signature on front flyleaf.
First read: 1987-1994
Owned since: 1990

Today is Bloomsday, the day on which all the events of ULYSSES take place. On opposite sides of town, medical student Stephen Dedalus and newspaper adman Leopold Bloom wake up, eat breakfast, and start their separate journeys across Dublin. They meet up, spend some time together, go home.

Nothing much happens in ULYSSES, but it is considered one of the greatest works in the English language. No detail, internal or external, is too small to miss Joyce's notice. His blunt honesty about the things people do and think got ULYSSES banned for obscenity in the United States from its publication date in 1922 to 1933.

My first exposure to ULYSSES was at a live reading in 1987; the director and filmmaker Herbert S. Guggenheim used to stage an annual marathon reading at the Irish Times bar on Capitol Hill. Jammed into this book are programs for the 1990, '92 and '94 readings. ULYSSES is notoriously difficult to read on the page, but rollicking and mesmerizing when read aloud; it's full of puns and internal monologues and snarky asides. I struggled through this book for seven years before I finally got through it, though in that time I would often go back to passages I particularly liked.

Right now I'm listening to it again on audiobook, downloaded in three separate volumes. It takes about 37 hours to read the entire book; Guggenheim's marathons would start on the morning of the 16th and end late in the evening of the following day. At the rate I've been listening, I figure I'll get through this version sometime late in the month. I listen in the morning and the evening, when I walk Dizzy from one side of Gardiner to another, and can't imagine how foolish my face must sometimes look.

James Joyce put everything he had into ULYSSES. Bloomsday itself -- June 16, 1904 -- was the date of his first encounter with Nora Barnacle, who became his lifelong partner. Joyce left Dublin later that year, and never lived there again, but Bloom's and Dedalus's wanderings in ULYSSES are so geographically precise that agencies give walking tours based on the book. (At one point, Bloom wonders whether it would be possible to plot a route across Dublin that would avoid all pubs. I have never been to Dublin, but I assume the answer is no.)

ULYSSES is funny and angry and sad and deeply paranoid, but ends with one of the greatest celebrations of female power and optimism ever written. Bloom, a Jew, is an outsider wherever he goes, and knows that his wife is about to launch an affair. Dedalus, a scholarship student among those wealthier than he, suffers paralyzing guilt over his refusal on principle to pray with his dying mother. Both men are obsessed with what other people think of them, or (as is more often the case) don't.

Joyce gives the final section of the novel to Bloom's wife, Molly, in an extended pre-sleep reverie. Molly, a professional singer, wastes no time worrying about what anyone thinks of her; she reviews and revels in her own experience, her own wants and desires, and her own greed for life: "yes I said yes I will Yes."

While I was reading ULYSSES I also read Richard Ellmann's fine biography of Joyce, and Brenda Maddox's equally good NORA: The Real Life of Molly Bloom. It's fun to see how much of ULYSSES is autobiographical, but not necessary to enjoy the vast pageant that unfolds here. If you're reading it on your own, however, a study guide is essential; I am not ashamed to say that right next to ULYSSES on my bookshelf is the Cliff's Notes guide. It's the only Cliff's Notes I've ever purchased.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


The Book: Robert A. Heinlein, HAVE SPACE SUIT -- WILL TRAVEL. Pocket Books trade paperback reprint, first printing thus, 2005; originally published 1958. Fine condition.
First read: 1975 (approximately)
Owned since: 2005 (this copy)

Dad gave me my first copy of this book when I was in fourth grade, and I read it to tatters. It was the first science fiction I'd ever read, and was probably the first book I ever read that was written for adults, rather than kids. (I've seen Heinlein's work in the "young adult" sections of bookstores, and that's where this book probably belongs, but he didn't write it that way.)

HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL is the story of Kip Russell, a hard-working young man whose eccentric father can't (or won't) afford to send him to college. Kip's got big ambitions, though, and when Skyway Soap runs a contest to give someone a trip to the Moon, he puts all his effort into it. He enters 5,782 slogans into Skyway's contest, and his efforts pay off -- not with the grand prize, but with the 11th prize, a used space suit.

Kip could sell it for $500, but decides instead to put it into working order. He cleans it up, repairs it, gets it space-ready -- and then realizes that he needs the money, so gets ready to sell it. First, though, he takes it out for a walk in his family's back field.

While he's standing there in his space suit, a message comes in on his helmet radio: a desperate voice looking for landing instructions. Kip guides the pilot to his backyard, and is stunned to see a small spaceship land, and a bug-eyed monster walk out with a little girl. Within minutes, another, larger ship arrives to snatch up the bug-eyed monster, the little girl -- and Kip.

What follows is classic space adventure, as Kip discovers that the bug-eyed monster is actually an intergalactic political leader, whom the little girl, PeeWee, calls Mother Thing. PeeWee and Mother Thing are trying to escape from kidnappers, and the chase leads all the way to Pluto and back.

HAVE SPACE SUIT was written in 1958, and much of the science is silly -- a crucial scene finds Kip outside on Pluto, dragging himself and the Mother Thing back to a space station there.

At nine, though, I didn't care about that. What this book told me was that I could go as far as I wanted to; crazy luck would reward my hard work, even if that hard work seemed pointless to outsiders. It was a powerful message to give a nine-year-old girl. If I could, I'd make this book required reading in every fifth-grade class.

The universe is just as big as you want it to be, and all you need to explore it is some decent equipment and a couple of friends. That's what my dad taught me when he gave me this book, and he's always been Exhibit A.

Safe journeys, Dad, and thanks -- fair winds and following seas. Send us postcards once in a while. Happy Fathers' Day.

P.S. Dog lovers should check out my cousin Moira's short film about her father's magical performing dog, Minnie, here. Happy Fathers' Day, Uncle Mac!

Friday, June 13, 2008

A cheating entry: AT WEDDINGS AND WAKES by Alice McDermott

The Book: Alice McDermott, AT WEDDINGS AND WAKES. Quality Paperback Book Club edition, 1992. Very good condition (theoretically)
First read: 1992
Owned since: 1992

I can't find my copy of this book, and have a bad feeling that it's gone -- but this is the book I want to write about, dammit, because Tim Russert died today, and he was one of us.

Alice McDermott writes beautiful books about the Irish-American experience, filled with details so intrinsic to my family's life that it would never occur to me to notice them. I never fully understood or appreciated that experience until I started reading her books: the pride, the clannishness, the secrecy and gallantry and fatalism.

Most of all, more than anything, we take care of our own. AT WEDDINGS AND WAKES is the story of three children growing up in New York, learning about life through the gatherings of their family -- as the title suggests, at weddings and wakes. In this book, as in life, great sorrow follows great joy; the joy is surprising, the sorrow is not.

My sorrow over Tim Russert's death has surprised me. I didn't realize how much I admired him, how much I trusted him, how much I counted on him to serve as intermediary between me and the howling maelstrom of American politics.

When I lived in Washington, he was my neighbor, kind of; NBC News was half a mile from my last D.C. house, and it wasn't uncommon to see him and his wife out for dinner. TV personalities are often markedly better or worse looking in person; Tim Russert looked exactly the same on TV and in real life, a big man who would have fit right in on The Muppet Show. His head was enormous, and when he was out in private he walked with a slight ducking motion, trying not to be too conspicuous. But he was always cordial to people who greeted him, and would smile almost sheepishly when people recognized him.

It feels wrong and unfair that this election should happen without him, and I'm almost angry that he won't be here to explain it to us.

Tim Russert was a true Irish-American hero. He worked hard, he made good, he did it right. He earned it. He made us proud.

God, I'll miss him.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


The Book: Herman Wouk, MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR. Doubleday, 1955 (first edition). Missing dust jacket. Book is in very good condition; spine is slightly cocked, resale price (80 cents) written in wax pencil on front flyleaf.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1984

In honor of my friend Matt's birthday today, his favorite book. It's one of my favorites, too; in fact, if you've read this book and it isn't one of your favorites, we will never be true kindred spirits.

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR is such a perfectly-drawn portrait of a young Jewish woman in 1930s New York that it's hard to believe a man wrote it. It begins with Marjorie Morgenstern, 17, coming home from a college dance and realizing that her destiny is to be a great actress, with a new name: Marjorie Morningstar.

Marjorie is beautiful, talented, kind, and ready to be chewed up and spit out by life. Life does its best, and Marjorie makes some bad choices. She forms an intense friendship with the grasping Marsha, whose parents live on the edge of New York's theatrical society; Marsha sees star quality in Marjorie, and Marjorie is flattered despite her misgivings.

More dangerously, Marjorie falls in love with the brilliant and mercurial Noel Airman, a songwriter, playwright and would-be philosopher who turns out to be the estranged son of a prominent New York Jewish family. Marjorie and Noel battle each other over years, both believing (consciously or unconsciously) that she can save him, whatever that means.

Of course, what Marjorie ultimately realizes is that she can only save herself -- and she does, becoming what she was always meant to be, only better.

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR is a small story that becomes a big one through the power of literature. I've read it at least 20 times, and still can't figure out the magic that made this Irish Catholic scholarship student, reared in the South, identify so strongly with the New York Jewish girl whose parents nearly beggar themselves to give her everything she wants.

The connection, I think, is that overwhelming desire all bright adolescent girls have to be something more -- to lead a big life rather than a small one, to break free of expectations and dazzle the world with all of that power they suddenly discover in themselves.

In the end, if we're lucky, we become who we're supposed to be, even if it means letting go some of the bigger dreams. That's Marjorie's happy ending, and on Matt's birthday, I wish it for him, and for all of us.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

THE SOONER SPY by Jim Lehrer

The Book: Jim Lehrer, THE SOONER SPY. Putnam, 1990 (second printing). Inscribed by the author. Fine book in very good dust jacket.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 1994

Newscaster and Renaissance man Jim Lehrer writes mysteries and spy novels, too. This book was an indirect gift from Mr. Lehrer himself, who sent it to me when my friend Lesley, who worked for the NewsHour, told him I was a fan. It's still one of my coolest celebrity semi-encounters. THE SOONER SPY is the third in his series featuring the One-Eyed Mack, a would-be bus driver who somehow winds up being the Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma.

The plot of THE SOONER SPY -- a search for a Soviet spy rumored to be operating in Oklahoma, for obscure reasons -- is much less important than the book's characters, and the dead-on skewering of small-state politics. I appreciate it even more now, living on the edge of Maine's state capital; in Lehrer's Oklahoma as here, everyone knows everybody else, and the strangest connections wind up being the key to the mystery.

Today's travels will take me around a good bit of northern New England, and I won't be home until very late tonight. And that reminds me, I forgot to charge my iPod. Dang it.

Five Random Songs

"Cumberland Blues," the Grateful Dead. I originally bought this CD only to get "Uncle John's Band," but it's held up very well over time.

"Wooden Ships," Crosby, Stills & Nash. Another theme morning on the shuffle...

"Abie Baby," from the Hair soundtrack. Weirdly, I have had the Hair soundtrack running through my head all week. No idea why.

"We Belong," Lowen & Navarro. The original version of the song Pat Benatar made famous...

"Him Them It Her," from the Lucky Stiff soundtrack, last summer's musical. Did I mention that Bye Bye Birdie opens a week from tomorrow? Make your reservations now.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


The Book: Julia Spencer-Fleming, A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD. Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003 (first edition). Signed and dated (11 April 2003). Fine condition.
First read: 2003
Owned since: 2003

It's another one of those weeks in which real life will interfere considerably with maintaining this blog, as I'm not likely to be online much in the next 48 hours. Today's the Maine state primary; tomorrow I'm headed to Portland and then to Boston, to see this fine author and Craig Johnson, respectively, signing their latest books.

This is the second novel in Julia Spencer-Fleming's Millers Kill series; the first is IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, but I own it only in paperback, and I keep giving my copies away. The sixth book in the series, I SHALL NOT WANT, is out today -- and because you really should read the earlier books in the series before you pick up that one, Julia's publishers are giving away free e-book editions of the first two books between now and June 13. Click here for details -- and when you've read those books, go buy the later ones from your favorite independent bookstore.

Millers Kill is a small Adirondack town with a female Episcopalian priest, Clare Fergusson, and a strong, upstanding police chief, Russ Van Alystne. Clare is a former Army helicopter pilot who is used to making decisions and taking the consequences; Russ is an Army veteran who would rather not force confrontations. The two are instant soul mates -- a problem, since Russ is married and genuinely loves his wife.

The books do a masterful job of looking at the real issues small towns face, especially small towns in New England. A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD addresses violent prejudice against homosexuality and willful environmental contamination, among other issues.

I'd write more, but I'm late already. I predict that I will be 15 minutes late to everything today. Sigh...

Sunday, June 08, 2008


The Book: Anya Seton, GREEN DARKNESS. Houghton Mifflin, 1972 (first edition). Missing dust jacket, book is in fair condition; spine is cocked and loose, binding is broken at p. 22. Resale price (80 cents) written in wax pencil on front flyleaf.
First read: 1977 (approximately)
Owned since: 1980 (best guess)

Yes, I'm alive. Sorry to be missing; I've just been overwhelmed with deadlines, and juggling way too many priorities. I've turned in three cleaned-up manuscripts this week, along with the usual newsletters and quick edit jobs; I had friends visit from out of town; and in case I haven't mentioned it, Gaslight Theater's summer musical, Bye Bye Birdie, opens in less than two weeks.

Oh, and I forgot that middle part, where I actually started the week in Los Angeles.

Sorry, am I sounding defensive? Chalk it up to extreme sleep deprivation, which will continue for at least another day or two -- and the arrival of summer's first heat wave. While the rest of the Eastern seaboard's been frying this week, Maine was unseasonably cool; not today. Our current temperature is 84, which feels hotter when Friday's thermometer didn't break 60. Dizzy will need to go swimming in an hour or two, and I'll be spending most of the afternoon in an air-conditioned auditorium.

Anyway, by the end of this week, things should be back to normal. I hope. I'm looking forward to taking a couple of days off to do some pleasure reading, which I've had no time for. I have three books in progress right now, but finished only one last week, so we'll hold off on the reading list until next Friday.

And now, GREEN DARKNESS. I said the other day, on someone else's blog, that I love a good Gothic, and this is a corker. American heiress (Gothics always need an heir or an heiress) Celia Taylor marries moody Englishman Richard Marsdon, heir to a crumbling Tudor-era manor. Their marital bliss becomes rocky once they return to his home, and things get even worse after Celia has some kind of fit during a visit to a nearby castle, Ightham Mote.

It turns out that Richard and Celia, in this life, are reliving the traumas of their previous incarnations: Brother Stephen Marsdon and his pupil, the beautiful peasant Celia Bohun, whose forbidden love brought violent death to both.

GREEN DARKNESS spends most of its 627 pages in Elizabethan England, telling the story of Stephen and Celia; Richard and Celia's framing device is much less interesting.

I often say that I don't believe in individual reincarnation, but I wish I did. It's easy for me to imagine past lives, and I've dreamt of living in earlier times -- but when it comes down to it, I just can't buy it. The idea that we get endless do-overs through an indefinite number of lives is just too easy an out; it's better for everyone if I assume this turn is my only chance to get it right.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde

The Book: Jasper Fforde, THE EYRE AFFAIR. Viking, 2001 (first U.S. edition). Signed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

In a world just a little different from our own, the United Kingdom takes literature very, very seriously. Time travel is routine, and it's even possible to visit the worlds of classic novels -- as long as you don't touch anything.

Special Operative Thursday Next of the Literary Detective Division spends most of her time tracking down forgeries and plagiarisms, until a true crisis happens: someone kidnaps Jane Eyre. Thursday Next must chase down the evil genius Acheron Hades before he can wreak permanent havoc on the literary universe; along the way she meets up with the love of her life, who is not as dead as she'd thought.

It's complicated, silly, and very, very funny, the first in a series of novels that have gotten progressively more complicated, even sillier, and even funnier. As with all time-travel novels, it doesn't pay to try to follow them too closely; just strap in and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley

The Book: James Crumley, THE LAST GOOD KISS. Pocket Books paperback, 1981 (originally published 1978). Fair condition; book is intact but spine and covers are badly creased, spine is cocked, pages are age-browned.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1987 (best guess)

A very happy birthday to Tom Ehrenfeld, who first recommended this book to me.

And apologies for the lateness of this post, and the absence of yesterday's post. I have no excuse, except to say that redeye flights are a special form of torture, United Airlines is a sad and sorry shadow of what it used to be, and LAX is the ninth circle of hell.

Plus, dammit, it's the future. Where the hell is my jetpack?

I have said before in this space that THE LAST GOOD KISS is one of the best mystery novels of all time. It owes a great deal to Raymond Chandler's THE LONG GOODBYE, though to say more than that would give too much away.

It also has one of the best opening lines of all time: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Traherne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." Abraham Traherne is a famous author and a drunk, and C.W. Sughrue finds him - of course - in a bar. The bar's owner, Rosie, then hires Sughrue to search for her own daughter, Betty Sue Flowers, who disappeared ten years earlier.

Sughrue's search takes him all over the West, from San Francisco to Oregon to Montana, and through the death of the dream of the 1960s. The search overturns a few rocks that might have been best left alone, and Sughrue learns that some questions are best left unanswered. In a lesser author's hands, the twists of THE LAST GOOD KISS might make a reader say, "Aw, no way" -- but Crumley makes it all feel as inexorable as gravity.

Five Random Songs

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," Bob Dylan. Uncannily appropriate theme music for this book. I close my eyes and see a scummy bar, with a jangly piano in the corner.

"Turn Out the Lights and Go to Bed," Lowen & Navarro. A jamming song about insomnia -- I think.

"In This House That I Call Home," The Knitters. The Knitters are a country-and-western incarnation of the punk rock band X, and they rock just as hard. Exene Cervenka rules, and John Doe is still the coolest.

"It's Only Natural," Crowded House. A lot of the happiest songs in my iTunes are about the fun of the first days of a crush. I like having crushes. They're so much easier than trying to keep a real relationship going...

"Like a Vague Memory," Marshall Crenshaw. A wistful song about how relationships end. "A vague memory won't go away/But it won't bring you down/Day after day." What did I just say?

Monday, June 02, 2008

THE EIGHT by Katherine Neville

The Book: Katherine Neville, THE EIGHT. Ballantine Books trade paperback reprint, 2008 (originally published 1988), 32nd printing. As new, inscribed by the author.
First read: 1990
Owned since: 2008 (this copy)

If this blog were "Books I Couldn't Hang On To" instead of "Books I Kept," THE EIGHT would have been my very first post. This is at least the sixth copy of this book I've owned; the others I either gave away or lent out and never got back.

It's okay. It's that kind of book. THE EIGHT is a swashbuckling adventure novel written by a woman for women, though plenty of men love it too. It has everything: history, science, romance, murder. One of the most exciting events at Book Expo America was the release of advance copies of its sequel, THE FIRE, which comes out this fall. Of course I snagged a copy, and am already deep into it; for the rest of you, this new paperback edition of THE EIGHT includes an excerpt.

THE EIGHT is the story of a mystical chess set created for Charlemagne, which carries a formula for eternal life. The set is magical, but also cursed; it is divided up and buried, launching a centuries-long quest to find it.

Catherine Velis, a mathematician and computer expert working for OPEC in the early 1970s, is drawn into the quest before she even realizes what's happening. Her worst enemy, Lily Rad, becomes her best friend as the two women make their way across the Sahara, the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic Ocean in a desperate chase to retrieve the chess pieces before the forces of evil can. The story shifts back and forth in time between Cat and Lily's adventure and the story of the last dispersal of the pieces, during the French Revolution.

My friend and roommate Leigh first read this book, and thrust her copy on me. "You have to read this," she said. I protested; the thing was 600 pages long. "Trust me," she said. "It's like a movie. You won't be able to put it down." She was right, and I've done the same to several friends in the 18 years (18 years!) since.

Twenty years is a long time to wait for a sequel. THE FIRE has much to live up to, but I'm taking it on the plane with me tonight, and it's the first time I've ever looked forward to a red-eye. Five hours of uninterrupted reading time...