Thursday, July 31, 2008

IT'S A MAGICAL WORLD by Bill Watterson

The Book: Bill Watterson, IT'S A MAGICAL WORLD: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection. Andrews and McMeel large-format paperback, 1996. Very good condition.
First read: 1996
Owned since: 1996

Endings are hard. Calvin and Hobbes ran for just over ten years -- from November 1985 to December 1995, with two breaks -- and it's hard to believe they've now been gone for longer than they lived on the comics page.

I admire Bill Watterson for many reasons, but the way he ended Calvin and Hobbes tops the list. He wrote a letter to his editors, saying he'd decided to stop the strip at the end of the year; his interests had shifted, and he wanted to work "at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises."

This book collects the last Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, ending with the one that appeared on December 31, 1995. Calvin and Hobbes venture out into a winter wonderland, with Hobbes carrying a toboggan:

Calvin: Wow, it really snowed last night! Isn't it wonderful?

Hobbes: Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand-new!
Calvin: A new year ... a fresh, clean start!

Hobbes: It's like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!
Calvin: A day full of possibilities!

Calvin: It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy ... let's go exploring!

The last panel is a big expanse of white, with Calvin and Hobbes riding the toboggan away from us, into the woods.

So I'm off exploring. No, I don't know what the next incarnation of the blog will be. I might announce it sometime during the month ahead, but I might not. August is overbooked even for me, and I'm going to have a hard time doing everything I've promised to do and being everywhere I've promised to be. I will probably post a few reading lists between now and September 1, and will post one over the weekend if I have time.

When I return on September 1, I'll be posting from Brooklyn, where I will be living until October 5. I'm going to be the Assistant Stage Manager for my friend Matt's musical, "She Can't Believe She Said That!", which will run as part of the New York Musical Festival from September 26 to October 5. Details and ticket information are here; come see us! (Important note to my clients: everyone associated with this production still has day jobs. I'm still working on your projects, and I'm still accepting new work.)

This year's blog has been deeply personal. I'm grateful to everyone who's stopped by to leave a comment, and especially to my friends who participated with guest posts. A good book is its own magical world, and thanks to everyone who's visited them with me.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The Book: Thomas Hardy, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES. Airmont paperback reprint, 1965. Poor condition; pages are badly age-browned, cover is laminated and taped and pulling away from the book. Deaccessioned library copy, stamped "Norfolk Academy Library," inside front and back covers, acquisition information written on copyright page.
First read: 1981
Owned since: 1981

It makes me angry when I hear literary novelists talk trash about crime fiction as a genre, as if plot, conflicts and violence disqualified a book from being taken seriously as literature. The essay for my Advanced Placement English exam asked us to discuss the role of an act of violence in a major work of literature, and any bright student would be spoiled for choice. You could write about anything from Macbeth to The Brothers Karamazov.

The Great Gatsby? Moby Dick? To Kill a Mockingbird? Invisible Man? Violent, violent, violent. Heart of Darkness is a thriller; The Scarlet Letter is a mystery. This was obvious to me as a girl of 16, and it's even more obvious to me now.

The book I wrote about was Tess of the D'Urbervilles. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I won't spoil it, except to say that the book ends with a shocking act of violence that in retrospect seems inevitable.

But it starts with violence, too, and a terrible emotional violence drives the plot. It must have been downright lurid in its day. Tess Durbeyfield, daughter of a peasant family, becomes her family's sacrificial lamb when she falls asleep while driving the family wagon, and the family horse is killed in a collision. Her guilt over the horse's death makes her agree to go to a wealthy squire to claim kinship, and ask for help.

In fact, the Stoke-D'Urbervilles are no relation to the Durbeyfields; they bought the name and the title, looking for respectability. But the son of the house, Alec, fixes on Tess like a snake on a rabbit. He seduces or rapes her, and she has a son who lives only a week.

Years later, Tess makes a new life for herself as a dairymaid in another county. Angel Clare, the son of a clergyman who is looking to learn the dairy business, falls in love with Tess, and the two plan to marry. But Angel thinks that Tess is a virgin, and she is tormented about whether she should tell him the truth. The night before the wedding, she writes him a letter telling him the whole story; he doesn't read it, and they marry.

That night, he confesses a youthful indiscretion to her. Tess forgives him, and tells him her own story -- but Angel can't forgive her, and ultimately leaves her to start a new life in Brazil.

What happens next is shocking, sad, and violent -- not only physically violent, but emotionally violent as well. Tess seeks nothing but refuge and love, and finds nothing but weakness, lies and destruction. Hardy's subtitle for this book was "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented;" she didn't deserve any of this, he implies, and is no more responsible for her own doom than the Durbeyfields' horse was.

If you put that plot into a modern novel, Harold Robbins or Judith Krantz would have to write it -- but it stands as one of the great classics of the English language. I'd say it transcends the genre.

Oh, and I scored a 5 (out of 5) on that AP exam.

Five Random Songs

"Desensitized," The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones can play a swinging tune, but sometimes they're just loud. This is just loud. There's a place for that, though.

"Reptile," Nine Inch Nails. Sometimes Trent Reznor's just loud, too, but it usually has a purpose. This song feels very purposeful, and the industrial beat sounds like the movement of a giant alligator.

"State Trooper," Steve Wynn. A cool electronic cover of the Bruce Springsteen song.

"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," The Talking Heads. From the Stop Making Sense soundtrack. "Home/Is where I want to be/Pick me up and turn me 'round..."

"Chant to King Selassie I," Augustus Pablo. From a mix my friend Tom made for me, instrumental reggae.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

THE PRINCESS BRIDE by William Goldman

The Book: William Goldman, THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Del Rey paperback reprint, 1992 (36th printing). Very good condition; pages are slightly browned, spine is creased and slightly cocked.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1993 (this copy)

The first copy of this book I read belonged to my then-boss, Keith Ellis, who recommended it as one of his favorites. I'm pretty sure I'd seen the movie by then, but I might not have.

Great as the movie is, it's a very different experience from the book, which is an adventure in the nature of storytelling as well as an adventure in its own right.

Goldman's conceit is that he is not the author of THE PRINCESS BRIDE. He is merely the abridger of a much longer book by S. Morgenstern, a great Florinese writer whose original book was a tedious political satire with some really good parts. In an extended foreword, Goldman explains that his father had read him THE PRINCESS BRIDE when he was a child, and it was only when he went looking for the book as an adult that he realized his father had skipped all the boring stuff and just read the good parts.

The good parts, as Morgenstern claimed, are a story of True Love and High Adventure. Buttercup, the most beautiful girl in the world, falls in love with the farm boy Westley. To earn their fortune, Westley sails for foreign lands, but is captured and killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts ("no survivors!") along the way. Heartbroken, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck -- and there the adventure begins. Buttercup is kidnapped by a trio of hapless outlaws, the Dread Pirate Roberts himself saves her, and nothing turns out exactly as planned -- but everything happens just as it should.

Goldman sums it up in his introduction: "I believed in that once. I thought my life was going to follow that path. Prayed that it would. Obviously it didn't, but I don't think there's high adventure left any more. Nobody takes out a sword nowadays and cries, 'Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die!'"

For myself, I wouldn't be so sure. Yesterday I found out that I will, in fact, be in New York for the month of September, on an adventure that feels downright reckless. I might need to practice my sword skills.

Monday, July 28, 2008

GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Book: Dorothy L. Sayers, GAUDY NIGHT. Avon paperback reprint, 1968 (15th printing). Poor condition; pages are badly age-browned, spine is very creased, front cover is badly creased and beginning to separate from spine, spine is cocked, book shows signs of exposure to water.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980

While most of Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey mysteries are simply intellectual entertainments, bordering on the precious (Peter Wimsey is a wealthy British aristocrat who would be insufferable in real life), the novels that deal with Peter's courtship of the novelist Harriet Vane are something else. GAUDY NIGHT is Sayers's most ambitious work, and the only one of her novels I've found worth keeping and rereading.

I should buy a new copy, as this one is falling apart and looks like it might carry some contagious disease; but this is the book I remember reading at poolside at my grandmother's condominium, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

As GAUDY NIGHT begins, Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey have reached a crisis point in their relationship. He saved her from being hanged for murder in STRONG POISON; they investigated a case together in HAVE HIS CARCASE. She believes that he wants her only as a trophy, because he saved her. He doesn't quite know why he wants her, but persists even though she keeps telling him to go away.

Among other things, Harriet is terrified that marrying Peter would mean sacrificing her own identity as an independent, educated woman, a successful novelist in her own right. GAUDY NIGHT begins with Harriet returning to her college (the fictional Somerville) at Oxford, in part to remind herself of her achievements and her youthful ambitions.

Something's very wrong at Somerville, though, and Harriet is drawn into it almost immediately. Someone is sending vicious hate mail to members of the academic community, not only insulting them but threatening them with exposure as murderers. Harriet agrees to spend a term on campus investigating, and discovers a great deal about herself, Peter, and the nature of love.

My grandmother -- who may have handed this book off to me -- said she didn't like this book, and thought it was boring. Certainly it is very talky, as Harriet and her academic colleagues spend pages and pages discussing the nature of academic integrity, women's rights, and personal responsibility.

At 14, though, this dazzled me. The idea of a life of the mind was new to me, as was the idea that someone should love you because of what you consider your faults, not just in spite of them.

I see now that Peter Wimsey was Dorothy L. Sayers's own fantasy of a perfect man, and that she gave Harriet and Peter the relationship she longed for. She never got that relationship, and it's possible that the fantasy ruined her for anything real -- but that is not something I'd have understood at 14, and even now part of me shrugs and says, "So what?"

Sunday, July 27, 2008


The Book: Samuel Beckett, COLLECTED POEMS IN ENGLISH AND FRENCH. Grove Press trade paperback, 1977. Fine condition.
First read: 1991
Owned since: 1991

"Words are all we have," wrote Beckett, and it was true for him, at least. I wouldn't disagree; words are the only thing that separate us from the lower primates. Monkeys, as I've observed before, fling poo only because they lack the outlet of the witty riposte. (That is also true of some political commentators, but never mind.)

Beckett was a prolific playwright and novelist, but his poems are my favorite work, and the easiest to appreciate for the casual reader. Like his plays, most really ought to be read aloud, but they are beautiful on the page as well. This collection includes his translations of poems by Eluard, Rimbaud, Apollinaire and Sebastien Chamfort, a writer I hadn't encountered before I read this book.

Beckett's own poems cover a wide range of subjects, but all come back to love:

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending

Except, that is, the few that come back to death. Love and death, Beckett's twin obsessions, and you have to laugh:
you won't cure it you won't endure it
it is you it equals you any fool has to pity you
so parcel up the whole issue and send it along
the whole misery diagnosed undiagnosed misdiagnosed...

Only a few days left of this incarnation of the blog, and we might have a couple of double posts in the week ahead. And no, I don't know what the next version will be, but will discuss it on Friday.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


The Book: Agatha Christie, PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT. Fontana paperback reprint, 1972. Good-minus condition; pages are age-browned, cover is loose, cover and pages are dogeared and book shows signs of exposure to damp.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980

I have complicated feelings about the "young adult" publishing category, because I would not have read those books as a preteen or teenager even if they were available to me. What I read, in my teens, was Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Phyllis Whitney and Stephen King. Not necessarily in that order.

I did not like being an adolescent, and still distrust anyone who says they did like it, or anyone who tells a teenager they're the best years of their lives. I wouldn't be 16 or 17 again for all the money in the world. My reading during those years was aspirational and educational -- that is, I read books about the fabulous life I hoped someday to be leading, and about adults whose character traits I wanted for my own.

PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT, which Agatha Christie wrote to celebrate her 80th birthday (it was her 70th or 71st book), did all of those things. It begins with Sir Stafford Nye alone in the Geneva airport, wearing a sweeping bandit's cloak that amuses him. A woman approaches him and makes a strange proposition: she is fleeing for her life, and he can save her by allowing her to steal his cloak and his identification papers. Sir Stafford is rather charmed by the woman and by the idea, and agrees.

Home again, Sir Stafford gets a visit from a mysterious Mr. Horsham, who tells him that his actions have saved the life of a very important person, known in certain circles as Mary Ann and in others as the Countess Renata Zerkowski. Fascinated, Sir Stafford wants to meet the woman again, so advertises in the personals -- and finds himself drawn into an international security operation that's fighting a neo-Nazi plot to take over the world.

It's all wildly implausible and wonderfully romantic. I read this book over and over again, dreaming of foreign places and international conspiracies and 45-year-old diplomats who would be impressed with smart women ... and strangely enough (or not so strangely), I still do.

Friday, July 25, 2008


The Book: Evelyn Waugh, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. Dell Laurel Edition paperback reprint (fifth printing), 1966. Good condition; cover is fragile but intact and bright, pages are age-browned, corners of front and back cover are creased and rubbed. Owner's signature on front flyleaf.
First read: 1983
Owned since: 1983

It will be some time before we get the new film version of Brideshead Revisited in my part of Maine, if it comes at all; it's a disadvantage of living where I do.

That's okay, though, because the movie can't possibly be as good as the BBC miniseries, which did justice to the book but did not exceed it in quality.

Friends of mine in college had this exchange posted on their bathroom wall, as part of a collage:
"Ought we to be drunk every night?" Sebastian asked one morning.

"Yes, I think so."

"I think so too."

We thought that was wildly romantic, and it is -- BRIDESHEAD REVISITED is just about the most romantic novel I know, a story of people torn between the desires of their hearts and what they believe to be the duties of their souls. I've seen it described as satire, and some of it undoubtedly is -- Lord Marchmain, for example, is a great comic figure, and the Marchmain marriage is poisonously funny -- but the yearning for redemption and meaning at the center of this book is real, and so are the sorrow and the pity and the anger.

Charles Ryder, son of a miserly eccentric, is taken into the bosom of the Marchmain family -- first by their ne'er-do-well second son, Sebastian, and later by their beautiful older daughter, Julia. Charles falls in love with Sebastian, with Julia, but most of all with the Marchmains themselves, relics of the English Catholic aristocracy. They take their Catholicism seriously, as exiles must; it's new to Charles, who doesn't understand how deep it goes until it's too late.

It is interesting to compare this book with THE GREAT GATSBY, as much of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED is set in the same time period, among the same social group (on opposite sides of the ocean). Both books, I think, are about the unsustainable nature of carelessness; sooner or later, you have to care.

What I Read This Week

Lawrence Block, TANNER'S TIGER. Insomniac soldier-of-fortune Evan Tanner takes his adopted daughter Minna to the Montreal Expo and winds up an international fugitive and searching for Minna, who's been kidnapped. The plot's a little fuzzy, but Tanner's always fun, and the description of the Expo is great.

Lawrence Block, TANNER'S VIRGIN. Tanner goes to Afghanistan to find a young woman who's been sold into prostitution. It's very edgy material, and must have been even edgier when the book was originally published; Block walks a fine line, and mostly succeeds.

Lawrence Block, TANNER ON ICE. Twenty-five years after his last adventure, Tanner wakes up from a cryogenic coma to find himself in late-1990s New Jersey. It's a new world, but the same old Tanner, as he goes off to start a revolution in Burma. Good to have the old boy back.

Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL. More reading for Gaslight. A dark, dark comedy based on the Weekly World News headline. The discovery of a feral creature in a West Virginia cave sends a small town into chaos. Bigotry, passion, violence -- what more could you want from an evening's entertainment? It's not the right show for us, but I would love to see it performed.

Don Winslow, THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE. Don Winslow is one of the best crime writers working, and I'm embarrassed that I didn't read this book when it first came out. Frank Machianno runs a bait shop, a seafood supplier, a linen company, and several rental properties. It's a busy life, but a legitimate one -- so why is someone trying to kill him? It probably has something to do with Frank's 30 years as a hitman for the Mob ... and Frank needs to figure out exactly who's trying to kill him now, and why.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The Book: Louise Erdrich, THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE. Harper Perennial trade paperback reprint, 2002; signed by author. Very good condition, pages show mild signs of age.
First read: 2002
Owned since: 2002

What is the whole of our existence but the sound of an appalling love?

This book was an exceptionally thoughtful gift from my old friend Art Coulson, who bought it at a signing in Minnesota. I love Louise Erdrich's books, and although this is not my #1 favorite (that would be TALES OF BURNING LOVE), it's a close second.

Father Damian Modeste, more than 100 years old, sits down to write one last letter to the Pope, who has never answered him. Father Damian is a keeper of secrets, not least his own: he is a biological woman who has been living as a man for more than 50 years.

As pastor on the reservation of Little No Horse, Father Damian has seen more than his share of tragedy and wonder, love and hate, hope and despair. All of these are distilled into the case of Sister Leopolda, once known (in several of Erdrich's earlier books) as Pauline Puyat. Pauline Puyat was a troublemaker in the secular world, and no different in the spiritual ones; the miracles attributed to her may be signs of extraordinary grace, but may be something different altogether.

Native American ideas of good and evil differ from those of the Roman Catholic Church, but God's love is absolute and infinite in both. THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE explores the nature of miracles, and marvels at how grace turns up in the unlikeliest places in this imperfect world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

TWELVE MILE LIMIT by Randy Wayne White

The Book: Randy Wayne White, TWELVE MILE LIMIT. Putnam, 2002. Signed by the author with the inscription: "Octopi - geniuses of the phylum." Fine book, fine dust jacket.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2002

Another Florida novel, since it seemed logical. Florida's ripe territory for crime fiction of all kinds, and Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford novels have the strongest claim on the legacy of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee adventures.

Marion D. "Doc" Ford is a former covert operative who now tries to live a quiet life in a marina on Sanibel Island, off the West Coast of Florida. He is a modern knight-errant, though, and can never resist pleas for help from old friends or beautiful women.

TWELVE MILE LIMIT is the best of the books so far, I think, and I'm not saying that just because the author and I were good friends while he was writing it, I read an early draft, I'm thanked in the acknowledgments and a boat's named after me in the text. (To date, this is the only book I appear in, though I'm thanked in several acknowledgments.)

TWELVE MILE LIMIT was inspired by -- though is not based on -- a real case of four friends who went out on a boat to SCUBA dive and lost their boat. One of the divers was found naked on a light tower, far from the site of the shipwreck; the other three disappeared without a trace.

White turns the survivor into a woman and imagines a story in which her companions were stolen, not lost. Doc Ford tracks the missing friends into the deepest jungles of South America, and sacrifices much in the process. It is classic adventure, and I learned a lot about South America along the way.

Five Random Songs

"Nobody Knows Me," Lyle Lovett. A song about cheating on the one who loves you best.

"Redondo Beach," Morrissey. From the Live in Earls Court album, a cover of the Patti Smith song about lost love.

"Worlds Apart," Bruce Springsteen. From The Rising, which came out not long after this book did, so I always think of the two works together.

"Mohammed's Radio," Warren Zevon. And this song has been in my head all week, watching Barack Obama in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's probably insensitive of me. I don't care.

"The State I'm In," Belle and Sebastian. "So I gave myself to God/There was a pregnant pause before He said OK."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

KILLING MR. WATSON by Peter Matthiessen

The Book: Peter Mathiessen, KILLING MR. WATSON. Random House, 1990 (first edition). Fine book in fine dust jacket.
First read: 1991
Owned since: 1995 (approximately, this copy)

KILLING MR. WATSON begins, as its title suggests, with a death.
This dark day has been coming down forever. Even the young woman, in her pale foreboding, seems to know this. The day is late, and a life runs swiftly to its end.

Mr. E.J. Watson, a violent man, is about to die a violent death. Is it justice? Is his death vengeance for one action, or for a lifetime of them? Why does he need to die, and why does he need to die on that day, October 24, 1910?

Matthiessen takes the real-life story of Everglades pioneer E.J. Watson, a man reputed to have killed Belle Starr and believed to have murdered his field hands instead of paying them, and turns it into a hallucinatory novel about passion, greed, vision and fear at the turn of the century.

Except for its prologue, KILLING MR. WATSON is structured as an oral history, with the many people present on that fateful day filling in what they knew -- and what they imagined -- about Mr. Watson. It is dazzling as both literature and history, and provides invaluable insight into Florida's long struggle with the conflicting demands of nature and development.

The one character's voice we never hear is Mr. Watson's own, but we get such a comprehensive picture of him by the end of the book that we admire him as much as we, too, fear and detest him.

I asked for this book for Christmas 1990, and didn't get it; instead I checked it out of the library, read it, loved it, and bought a paperback that I later gave to my then-boss, a Florida native. Strangely, although I admire Matthiessen's work tremendously (and am constantly recommending AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD), I never felt any need to read the other two books in the trilogy that started with KILLING MR. WATSON. This book was perfect as it was, and I worried that inferior sequels would tarnish it.

Monday, July 21, 2008


The Book: Ben Stein, THE CROESUS CONSPIRACY. Simon & Schuster, 1978 (first edition). Inscribed by the author. Fine book in good dust jacket; dust jacket shows rubbing on corners, top and bottom of spine, front cover.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

It's true, I won Ben Stein's money. Before I did, though, he was gracious enough to sign this book for me. By happy chance, I found it on the shelves at The Mystery Bookstore a week or so before my appearance, and read it in advance.

It's been out of print for a long time, which is a shame, because it's quite entertaining. The central character is a thinly-disguised version of Henry Kissinger, here called Dr. Arthur Kosters. Dr. Kosters is Secretary of State, but even more than that, a Metternich-style eminence grise who manipulates world politics for the benefit of the United States and, presumably, himself. The protagonist, Senator Travis Bickel (named after the character in Taxi Driver) finds evidence that Kosters may have been a member of the Hitler Youth; soon afterwards, Bickel and his colleagues are the targets of a series of attacks.

Ben Stein has become a controversial figure, but he's - obviously - among the smartest people I've ever met, a true Renaissance man whose infinite curiosity and enthusiasm have dissipated any ambitions he might have had to rule the world. He was tremendously kind to me, not only on his show but also as a client on a couple of minor projects afterwards. I feel lucky to have crossed paths with him, and am grateful to have this book as a souvenir.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Go watch Dr. Horrible before it goes away!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

PINBALL by Jerzy Kosinski

The Book: Jerzy Kosinski, PINBALL. Bantam, 1982 (first edition hardcover). Very good book in good dust jacket; dust jacket has some rubbing at edges and 1/4" tear on top of front cover.
First read: 1986 (I think)
Owned since: 1996 (this copy)

I've put off writing about PINBALL because I don't know how to attack it. It's been a tremendously important book in my life, for reasons that have little to do with the book itself and much to do with my friendship with the person who first recommended it to me.

Sometime in the summer of 1986 -- it might have been 1987, but I think it was 1986 -- my friend Gary called to say, "You have to read this book."

I was not a big fan of Jerzy Kosinski, who had been the subject of a vicious expose in the Village Voice a few years earlier. Gary's enthusiasm for BEING THERE, both book and film, had sent me to the book, which I liked but was not overwhelmed by. I read THE PAINTED BIRD for a class on modern Eastern European history, and it upset me so badly I wished I hadn't read it. Kosinski's world view was one that frightened me, and one I did not wish to associate with.

Then I read PINBALL. It is a dreamlike novel written in the wake of John Lennon's assassination. I read it at a time when I was living in a sort of fog of my own, and it captured my imagination in a way that few books had before, or have since.

Patrick Domostroy is a ruined musician who, despite his better judgment, agrees to help a young woman in her quest to learn the true identity of Goddard, the world's biggest rock star. Goddard goes to elaborate lengths to hide from his public, communicating only through his music; Domostroy figures out a way to get Goddard to come to Andrea, the obsessed fan. All art, Kosinski says, is a plea for understanding and connection; Goddard can defend himself from everything except that fundamental loneliness.

As it turns out, Andrea has her own plans for Goddard, and they're not good. PINBALL degenerates into a pulp thriller in its final scenes, but until then, it's something else altogther -- a meditation on the relationship between audience and artist, and their obligations to each other.

What I Read This Week (the Lawrence Block edition)

Lawrence Block, LUCKY AT CARDS. A Hard Case Crime reprint of a book Block wrote 40 years ago. Former magician Bill Maynard finds himself in a small town between Chicago and New York, and meets a femme fatale at a poker game. Before long he's way too involved with this woman, who's married to the town's most prominent lawyer; an unbreakable prenuptial agreement means that not only can't she divorce him, she doesn't even get any money if he dies. The solution? Send the man to jail... but as Bill puts his plan into action, he finds that he might be working toward the wrong goal.

Lawrence Block, HIT PARADE. A series of linked short stories about Keller, a hit man who is not a sociopath, and his handler, Dot. The centerpiece is "Keller's Adjustment," a novella set around the attacks of September 11. Block breaks all the rules in his Keller stories, making a killer sympathetic and even -- gasp -- killing off a dog.

Lawrence Block, HIT AND RUN. Keller gets his first (and last?) full-length novel. The last job he takes before retirement goes terribly wrong, as Keller finds himself framed for a high-profile assassination. His handler, Dot, dies in a fire, and Keller's precious stamp collection is stolen. With nothing left to lose, he goes on the run and winds up in New Orleans, where a series of twists and turns surprise even him. The master at his very best.

Friday, July 18, 2008


I've just had too much to do this week to stay on top of the blog. A real post tomorrow, I promise; I'm two projects away from being caught up, before the next batch of manuscripts arrive.

In the meantime, run don't walk to watch this before it goes away on July 20. Geeeeenius...

Thursday, July 17, 2008


The Book: Glen David Gold, CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL. Hyperion, 2001 (first edition). Very good book in good dust jacket; back of dust jacket is imperfect, showing heavy creases caused by production or shipping errors.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

Magic shows in real life usually disappoint me, with the notable exception of Penn & Teller. I'm fascinated by the idea of magic, and particularly by the magician's curse: a magician spends his entire life learning to deceive his audience, only to despise them when he succeeds.

Glen David Gold obviously shares this fascination. CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL is a historical fantasia based on the real life of master magician Charles Carter, a San Francisco native known as Carter the Great who was much more famous abroad than he was in the U.S.

The book begins in 1923, with Carter dodging Secret Service agents to avoid questioning after the mysterious death of President Warren G. Harding. How Carter came to meet President Harding -- and what role he might have played in Harding's death -- is the long, involved, enchanting story that follows. Along the way, Carter crosses paths with the millionaire Borax Smith, the inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, and a lion or two.

We don't remember Charles Carter when we think of famous magicians because his style of magic was overshadowed by the physical exploits of Harry Houdini. The book CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL never got the attention and acclaim it deserved because it was published in September 2001. Both the magician and the book deserve a revival.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

THE CLEANUP by Sean Doolittle

The Book: Sean Doolittle, THE CLEANUP. Advance reading copy of a Dell paperback original, 2006. Inscribed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2006
Owned since: 2006

Although I get a lot of advance reading copies, I don't keep most of them; if it's a book I particularly like, I'll usually buy a copy once it comes out. In fact, I did buy THE CLEANUP once it came out -- a couple of copies, even -- but gave those copies away and kept this one, since it's inscribed to me.

I've blogged before about how much I admire Sean Doolittle's writing, not just the individual books but the fact that each book has been an effort to try something new. His first book, DIRT, was a cross between Carl Hiaasen and THE LOVED ONE; the second, BURN, was harder-edged, but still had that dark sense of humor. RAIN DOGS was much more serious in tone, and more of a character study.

THE CLEANUP brings all those elements together into a book that is his best to date, made several awards shortlists, and won the Barry for Best Paperback Original. Ruined policeman Matthew Worth has been demoted to working nights at an Omaha supermarket. The one bright spot in his miserable life is the checkout girl, Gwen, who sometimes shows up with bruises she doesn't want to explain.

One night, though, things go too far, and Worth decides it's his responsibility to make things okay for Gwen. What he doesn't realize is that Gwen's abusive boyfriend had some very nasty friends, who were expecting a delivery from him -- and are anxious enough about it to track it down. The plot twists and turns like a hairpin rollercoaster, bringing everyone to a finish that feels both surprising and inevitable.

Sean has a short story in a brand-new collection, but it's been too long between novels. When's the next one, man?

Five Random Songs

"Gimme Shelter," Patti Smith. A great cover from her collection Twelve, spooky and desperate.

"Have I Got a Girl for You," from the Company revival soundtrack. The 1970s origins of this show are a little too obvious in this song.

"I Missed the Point," Neko Case. If you listen to the words of this song, you realize it's actually a prayer.

"Study War No More," The Weavers. Awfully cheerful for a song that should be either angry or sad.

"Dreaming My Dreams with You," Alison Krauss. A lovely waltz, appropriate for weddings.

Monday, July 14, 2008


The Book: Caleb Carr, THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS. Random House, 1997. Good book in good dust jacket; spine is slightly cocked, both book and dust jacket show signs of exposure to damp.
First read: 1997
Owned since: 1997

Home again, after spending yesterday in New Haven with Karen Olson and her family. A great day, but train delays meant I didn't get home until 3:00 this morning, and I'm still a little groggy.

It's good to be home, but New York has its own magic. Boston is older, Washington is cleaner, Chicago is friendlier, but New York is still The City. (Yes, I know people in San Francisco call that The City. They're wrong.) Millions of people, hundreds of thousands of cars, people coming and going at every hour of day and night. I met a friend in Soho on Sunday afternoon, and "Another Hundred People" was playing on my iPod:

Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up to the ground
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus
Maybe yesterday...

Caleb Carr's first novel, THE ALIENIST, was a true publishing phenomenon: a runaway bestseller that was also a beautifully-written book and a solid historical document. This much-anticipated sequel drew a backlash that now seems inevitable; I actually think it's better than its predecessor.

THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS is narrated by Stevie Taggart, a child of the streets who now works for the reporter John Schuyler Moore (who narrated THE ALIENIST). Both of them work with the noted alienist (psychiatrist) Laszlo Kreizler and their friend Sara Howard, who is establishing herself as a private investigator.

The wife of a Spanish diplomat comes to Sara when her child is kidnapped, and Sara enlists her friends' help with the case. What they find is a woman named Libby Hatch, whose true nature is far more sinister than anything any of them could imagine. Kreizler, with personal experience of such a woman, is the only one not fooled.

It all happens in 1897 New York, and the city itself is as much a character in the novel as any of the humans. Carr gives us the details of everyday life, with descriptions of meals and carriages and buildings long gone; beyond that, his narrator gives us the world through the eyes of a street urchin at the turn of the century, and it's a much different place from ours.

I'm looking for a place to live in New York for the month of September. If you know of anything, or know anyone looking for a housesitter or month-long sublet, please let me know.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What I Read This Week

As a previous commenter mentioned, I'm in New York during Thrillerfest -- and although I'm not registered, I've been to a couple of the social events, and will be at tonight's banquet.

One excellent thing about being in New York is reading time on the subway. I'd read so much more if I didn't have to drive...

David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole. Gaslight's deep in the process of choosing next year's season, so I'm reading a lot of plays. I'd read this one back in March, but read it again to refresh my memory for a meeting next week. A husband and wife struggle to reshape their relationship after the accidental death of their four-year-old son. Beautiful and almost intolerably sad.

John Van Druten, Bell, Book and Candle. A charming play about love and witchcraft that hardly feels dated at all. They made it into an equally charming movie, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, and I could not help hearing Jimmy Stewart's voice in my head as I read it.

Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House. A play about love, humor and death; Mathilde is a Brazilian immigrant hired to clean house for Lane and Charles, two doctors. Mathilde doesn't like to clean house; Lane's sister Virginia volunteers to do it for her, in secret. A play about the ways people connect, and how love and humor kill us and save us.

John Twelve Hawks, The Traveler. I skipped this book when it first came out, put off by the absurd degree of hype and the contrived mystery about the author's identity (which has still not been revealed). But it's a great paranoid conspiracy thriller, about the last members of a race who can travel between dimensions and the Vast Machine trying to control them -- and us.

Lawrence Block, Tanner's Twelve Swingers. Evan Tanner is an Army veteran who's lost the ability to sleep, and fills that time with learning new languages and affiliating himself with bizarre revolutionary groups. This time around, his membership in the Latvian Army-in-Exile sends him to Communist Latvia, to smuggle a comrade's sweetheart across the Iron Curtain. He winds up bringing out the entire Latvian women's gymnastics team, a Yugoslav dissident, a mysterious Chinese document, and the six-year-old heir to the throne of Lithuania.

Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats. Army Sergeant Felix Gomez left Iraq as a vampire. Now he's a private detective, and an old friend asks him to investigate an outbreak of nymphomania at a top-secret nuclear research facility. Great, goofy fun.

Lawrence Block, The Scoreless Thai. I'm reading a lot of Lawrence Block this week, for an article I'm writing. This is another Tanner novel; this time, he's in Thailand to rescue a lady friend who's been kidnapped by Laotian bandits. His guide is a young Siamese man obsessed with the need for female companionship (hence the title). Written in 1968, this is unapologetic Y-chromosome fantasy fiction, and highly entertaining.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday Forgotten Books: KATE VAIDEN by Reynolds Price

The Book: Reynolds Price, KATE VAIDEN. Athaeneum, 1986 (first edition). Fine book in fine dust jacket; book has remainder mark on bottom thickness of pages.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1994 (approximately, this copy)

Today's post is part of Patti Abbott's "Friday Forgotten Books" project, in which she asks bloggers to post about books that have been or might otherwise be forgotten. I'm honored to be part of this project, and didn't hesitate in choosing a book.

Although KATE VAIDEN won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986, it's a book almost no one I know has read -- which is strange and sad, because it is a book that might have saved my life.

How or why is not a story for the blog. But KATE VAIDEN is the story, told in the first person, of a woman in her mid-50s who is trying to figure out a way to forgive herself for crimes she's been hiding from for more than 30 years.

Kate's parents loved each other not wisely but too well, and died in a murder-suicide when Kate was 11. She blames herself for that, and sees the terrible cost of passion. An aunt and uncle raise her, and she repays them by going to live with her cousin, a gay man, and having an affair with her cousin's partner. She has a child at 17, but cannot face the responsibility of raising him -- so she walks away without a word.

She doesn't go far; if her family wanted to track her down, they could. But they don't, and she spends the next 30-some years hiding in plain sight. Kate says she imagines her life is the same as any successful criminal's; she lives quietly, without calling attention to herself, and makes no deep connections with anyone.

And then she gets sick, and realizes that she needs to try to make things right -- whatever that might mean. KATE VAIDEN is her confession, but it is an explanation rather than an apology; she has spent so long atoning it's hard to tell exactly what she regrets. The book ends on a hopeful note, as Kate takes a chance on the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.

Reynolds Price is a great American writer who is shamefully under-recognized outside the South. Besides being a master prose stylist, he is also one of the nation's leading experts on the Gospels, and has written (among other things) a beautiful study of the Gospel of Mark. His great compassion shines through KATE VAIDEN, creating a truly sympathetic character from a woman who's done some pretty terrible things. If Kate is worthy of love, he seems to say -- and she is -- we all are.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

THE WINDS OF WAR by Herman Wouk

The Book: Herman Wouk, THE WINDS OF WAR. Pocket Books paperback reprint, 1983. Poor condition; covers are taped back on, pages have yellowed.
First read: 1985
Owned since: 1985

I'm guessing on all the particulars of this book, since the copy Matt owns is a spiffy trade paperback that I gave him as a birthday present a couple of years ago. My own copy is one that I borrowed from my parents and never got around to returning -- although to be fair, my mother did own two copies of WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, this book's sequel. It was my college roommate Leigh, however, who introduced me to this book; she had (and may still have) a massive crush on the character of Byron Henry.

No one writes books like Herman Wouk any more. Wouk himself is still alive, at a remarkable 93, and still writing, but on a much smaller scope.

THE WINDS OF WAR is an epic that spans the globe and the decade leading up to the United States' entry into the Second World War. It focuses on the Henrys, a Navy family headed up by Pug, who's a Lieutenant Commander with a stalled career at the beginning of the book. Pug's obsessed with the need for landing craft to fight the next war, and this obsession brings him to the attention of President Roosevelt. Roosevelt sends him to Germany as a naval attache and then, as things heat up, to Russia as part of a Lend-Lease mission. Meanwhile, Pug's three children, Warren, Byron, and Madeleine, are preparing for wars on different fronts, and his bored wife, Rhoda, is amusing herself at home.

THE WINDS OF WAR is exhaustively researched and historically accurate, as far as I can tell; it's a wonderful novel about a turning point in world history, and a titanic achievement. Rereading it, as I've done about a dozen times, is always a pleasure.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

SHOT IN THE HEART by Mikal Gilmore

The Book: Mikal Gilmore, SHOT IN THE HEART. Anchor Books trade paperback, 1994 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995

I'm in Brooklyn at my friend Matt's, so once again all posts during my stay will be books both of us own. Matt, if anything, is more compulsive about his books than I am; they are shelved according to the order in which he read them, and visitors take books off the shelves at their own peril. This one was at the end of a row, so I know just where to put it back.

This book would have fit in well between IN COLD BLOOD and MY DARK PLACES, as it is another memoir about the effects of violence on a family. Mikal Gilmore's brother, however, was the killer, not the killed; he was Gary Gilmore, the first man to be executed in the United States after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.

Mikal was younger than Gary by many years, so didn't even know his brother that well -- but such a catastrophe didn't come from nowhere, and it made ripples well beyond Gary Gilmore's immediate family. Mikal Gilmore looks fearlessly at his family's history and mythology, looking for clues about why Gary wasted his opportunities in favor of a bloody gas station robbery.

It's frightening, it's sad, and it's one of the bravest, most compassionate books I've ever read. SHOT IN THE HEART is simply an extraordinary book, and if I'll never be able to reread it, I keep it on the shelf to honor Mikal Gilmore's gift.

Five Random Songs

"Don't Ask Me to Choose," Fine Young Cannibals. Great summertime music.

"Frank Mills," from the Hair soundtrack. I love this song, which is actually kind of terrible -- a song from a girl looking for the man who took advantage of her months ago, reassuring him that she still cares for him and he doesn't need to return the $2 he borrowed.

"It Happened in Monterey," Frank Sinatra. I spent seven hours today listening to show tunes. I'm not exaggerating. Next.

"The Bunting Song," The Good, the Bad, and the Queen. Ah, better. So retro it feels new again, a gift from my friend Tom.

"There's a Touch," The Proclaimers. The world does not have enough Scottish rock bands.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

CHARMING BILLY by Alice McDermott

The Book: Alice McDermott, CHARMING BILLY. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1997 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 2008 (this copy)

A couple of weekends ago, I handed off a copy of a book I'd ordered from England to Chris because it was a third printing, not the true first I'd been hoping for. I decided I'd rather have the American first than a UK third, as I have first printings of all of this author's other books.

"I don't mind having a third printing," he said. "I'm not obsessive about it like some people."

I protested -- I am not obsessive about it, and don't consider myself a collector. Really.

But yesterday, as I was dropping off yet another large donation of books to the Gardiner Public Library, I saw that they had this book -- a true first in perfect condition -- on their sale shelf. For two dollars. So I bought it.

I may have a problem. I'm just allowing the possibility. I am not yet willing to change.

But really -- a first edition of Charming Billy, when I don't even know what happened to my original copy! For two dollars!

It won the National Book Award for 1997, and I'm posting this from Boston's South Station before I catch my train, so I'm keeping this short. CHARMING BILLY is the story of Billy Lynch, romantic and alcoholic, told by the daughter of his lifelong friend after Lynch's death from cirrhosis. The central tragedy of Lynch's life, it seems, was the loss of his one true love, an Irish girl who went home to care for her parents and never came back. As the narrator investigates, however, she finds a very different story -- and wonders about the reasons for all the stories families tell each other about the things they can't explain.

I'm pretty sure I gave my original copy of this book to my mother, who probably then passed it on to one of my sisters or one of her friends. The year I read it, I pressed it on everyone, and my mother did too. I need to read it again ... just as soon as I get back from New York.

Monday, July 07, 2008

L. A. REQUIEM by Robert Crais

The Book: Robert Crais, L. A. REQUIEM. Doubleday, 1999 (first edition). Inscribed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 2000 (this copy)

If I'd had any control over my time management last week, I'd have posted Saturday's entry on Friday and this entry on Saturday, because Robert Crais was at The Mystery Bookstore for a special event to discuss and sign his latest, CHASING DARKNESS.

By coincidence, I bought this book at the first event I ever attended at The Mystery Bookstore, an anniversary party at which I told the then-manager that I'd be glad to work for the store, and didn't need to get paid much as long as I got free books. The rest, as they say, is history...

It's not an exaggeration to say that Robert Crais is a rock star in the world of crime fiction, and this book is why (aside from the more obvious facts of his being absurdly handsome and so charming he should be illegal). Before L.A. REQUIEM, he had written seven highly entertaining, well-plotted, tongue-in-cheek mysteries featuring Elvis Cole, a.k.a. the World's Greatest Detective, and Cole's mysterious, silent partner, Joe Pike.

And then he wrote L.A. REQUIEM, which stands with the best American crime novels of all time. Joe Pike asks Elvis Cole for the first favor in the history of their friendship: help finding the missing daughter of his old friend, Frank Garcia. The daughter, Karen Garcia, is the lost love of Joe's life, and when she is found murdered, Joe cannot rest until he finds her killer.

What Joe and Elvis find, however, are old secrets, and betrayals, and hard decisions. By the end of L.A. REQUIEM, it's not a game for Elvis any more, and he understands that for Pike, it never was.

L.A. REQUIEM is also a fantastic portrait of modern Los Angeles and how it got that way; it was the book I always pressed on visitors to the store who were looking for "something about Los Angeles." I'll always keep this book to remind me of the time when it was my city, too.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Book: F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE GREAT GATSBY. Scribner Library paperback reprint (14th printing). Originally published 1925. Very good condition.
First read: 1980 (approximately)
Owned since: 1999 (this copy, approximately)

Some books work their way so deeply into our worldview that we not only can't remember first reading the book, we can't remember a time before we read the book. THE GREAT GATSBY is like that for me. I think I first read it as summer reading between my sophomore and junior years of high school, but it might have been earlier than that. I know I picked up this book cheap at a used bookstore to replace the heavily-marked trade paperback I'd owned since high school (which I still have), but I can't remember buying it.

THE GREAT GATSBY just is. I wanted to post about this yesterday, because it's always struck me as the American novel, more so than HUCK FINN or THE SCARLET LETTER or even TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Gatsby is the American dream distilled, and the last paragraph of the novel is a heartfelt cry about what it means to be American:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... And one fine morning --

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

This is the key to American culture: we want to pretend that the past does not matter, but we cannot escape it and we ignore it at our peril. The same gift for self-reinvention that makes it possible for us to go from Bull Connor's water hoses to the real possibility of President Barack Obama in one generation is the curse that allowed us to train military intelligence operatives in discredited Chinese interrogation techniques. In the United States as nowhere else in the world, we take for granted that believing makes it so.

Gatsby is the personification of this idea. He arrives on Long Island in all his glory, a wealthy and glamorous man with a mysterious past that he lets his neighbors speculate about; he drops hints of a life of privilege and danger, time at Oxford, a heritage that warrants his current lifestyle. It is an elaborate construct -- not so much a deception as a castle of dreams, built on sand -- and inevitably collapses. But wasn't it worth doing? And wasn't it beautiful while it lasted?

Fitzgerald lets us feel wistful for this while recognizing that Gatsby's goals -- the careless Daisy, the society lifestyle, the wealth that requires dealing with gangsters -- aren't really worth having. He does this by telling the story in the voice of a narrator who is not the main character, but whose attitudes shape the story we get. It is an extraordinary piece of literary virtuosity, and all the more astonishing when you think Fitzgerald was only 28 when he wrote it.

What I Read This Week

Thomas Perry, RUNNER. Jane Whitefield is one of crime fiction's greatest characters, a woman of Native American descent who helps people disappear. Perry left the series with 1999's BLOOD MONEY, saying that he wouldn't write about Jane again until she had a story to tell. In the years since, the events of September 11 made radical changes to the way Jane used to operate, which made me worry that Jane would never come back -- but this return, due out next January, is everything I could have hoped for. A young pregnant woman comes to Jane for help, running from her fiance and his family; Jane, longing for a child of her own, can't say no. The book closes with the promise of more adventures to come, to which I say hurrah.

Brad Meltzer, THE MILLIONAIRES. Brothers Oliver and Charlie Caruso work for a private bank in New York, managing millions of dollars for clients eager to hide their money from the government. When they get the chance to take $3 million in abandoned funds for themselves, they can't resist -- but somehow $3 million turns into more than $300 million, and some scary people are after them. The relationship between the brothers is the highlight of this book, which bogs down in an unnecessarily complex narrative structure: Oliver tells half the story in first-person, present tense, while an omniscient narrator fills in the rest in the past tense. Annoying, and I can't imagine why an editor didn't talk Meltzer out of that.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW by Laura Lippman

The Book: Laura Lippman, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. William Morrow, 2007 (first edition). Inscribed by the author. Fine condition.
First read: 2007
Owned since: 2007

At one point I think I owned four copies of this book, including the advance reading copy; now it's down to two, this hardcover for my collection and a paperback to lend out. It was the best book I read last year, and ranks with the best mysteries I've ever read. This copy was signed at an event at Washington's iconic Politics & Prose bookstore (long may it flourish).

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW is inspired by -- not based on -- the real-life disappearance of two sisters from a Baltimore-area mall on March 25, 1975. No trace of those girls, Shelia and Katherine Lyon, has ever been found. In an Author's Note at the end of the book, Lippman makes clear that the characters in her book have nothing to do with the Lyon family, and the events bear no resemblance to whatever might really have happened.

I got to interview Laura about this book for a Mystery Bookstore podcast, and I keep meaning to transcribe that interview -- for my own benefit, as well as the store's. What interests her as a novelist is not physical violence, but emotional damage, and particularly the terrible things that women can do to each other, sometimes with the best intentions. In Lippman's novels, good people do bad things and bad people do good ones; the line is blurry and constantly moving. The evil in Lippman's world isn't malevolence; it's carelessness, greed, lack of empathy and the desperate desire to avoid consequences. Which I agree with.

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW begins with a car accident on the Beltway. A woman leaves the scene of the accident, and when police find her, she identifies herself as "one of the Bethany girls," who had disappeared 30 years earlier. The Baltimore detectives assigned to the case sense that she is lying, or at least hiding something; they investigate her claims, and bring the Bethany girls' mother up from Mexico to settle the matter once and for all. But nothing here is that simple, and the truth of what happened then and what's happening now unfolds in ways that are by turns tragic, horrifying, and full of grace.

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW is, above all, a book about the complex bonds among sisters and mothers: love, joy, anger, envy, guilt, pride, resentment. My own mother didn't get a chance to read it, but I gave copies to my sisters, my daughter, and several friends who are as close to me as sisters.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

MY DARK PLACES by James Ellroy

The Book: James Ellroy, MY DARK PLACES. Vintage trade paperback reprint, 1997 (11th printing). Inscribed by the author: "To Clair -- She lives!" Fine condition.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2007 (this copy)

I already owned a copy of this book, but could not pass up the chance to have James Ellroy sign one for me when he came to the Mystery Bookstore's booth at the LA Times Festival of Books last year. He was so charming he could have led a parade of adoring fans through the streets of Westwood, and I wanted to remember that. James Ellroy has been through the wars and back again -- as MY DARK PLACES describes -- and it was magical to see him laughing.

In 1958, 40-year-old Geneva Hilliker Ellroy was found dead near a baseball field in El Monte, California. She left behind a 10-year-old son, Lee Earle, and her murderer was never found.

Lee Earle, who hated his name, went to live with his father, a small-time grifter who sometimes used the alias "James Brady." MY DARK PLACES tells the story of how Lee Earle Ellroy, juvenile delinquent, became the world-famous crime writer James Ellroy -- but could not escape the central, horrifying mystery of his life.

In 1994, Ellroy returned to Los Angeles to reopen the investigation into his mother's murder. With the help of L.A. homicide Sergeant Bill Stoner, he retraced the old investigation and followed up new leads, looking for connections with other, similar unsolved cases. The prime suspect was someone identified as "a swarthy man," but Ellroy and Stoner have still not been able to give him a name.

By the end of MY DARK PLACES, though, Ellroy found a different kind of success. His beautiful red-haired mother left him on a Saturday night to go out partying, and got herself killed -- and Ellroy never forgave her. At some level, he blamed her for putting herself in that situation, for making herself a victim; his rage, unrecognized and unacknowledged, shaped his life for the next 40 years.

In the course of the investigation, he learned things about his mother that surprised him, as adult children always do. MY DARK PLACES ends with Ellroy coming to terms with the woman who bore him, who was a great mother five days a week and something else on the other two. He's learned to live with the anger and the guilt; he ends the book with a promise that he will never stop looking, and an apology for exposing her secrets to the world.

MY DARK PLACES is far and away James Ellroy's best work, so powerful and intimate that it is often hard to read. I'm glad to have this copy, and so sorry he had to live it to write it.

Five Random Songs

"Don't Let Me Down," Marcia Griffiths. A reggae cover of the Beatles song; it works perfectly.

"Pinch Me," Barenaked Ladies. Ugh, I got so sick of this song. Way too cute. Next.

"Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," Warren Zevon. I own a couple different versions of this song. This one is from the soundtrack of the movie, directed by my lifelong friend, Gary Fleder. According to Crystal Zevon's oral biography, Zevon was pissy about the use of his song title for this movie, and I wish he were still alive so I could argue with him about it. Isn't it annoying when people die just so they can have the last word?

"Sign of the Times," Bryan Ferry. For some reason I hear this song and have a mental image of Bryan Ferry looking down from a pair of very tall platform shoes. Is that my imagination, or was that the video for this song?

"How Can You Live in the Northeast?" Paul Simon. Perfect -- a song about the 4th of July and the judgmental nature of Americans. "If the answer is infinite light/Why do we sleep in the dark?"

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

The Book: Truman Capote, IN COLD BLOOD: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences. Book of the Month Club facsimile first edition reprint, 1986. Fair condition; spine is badly cocked, dust jacket is scuffed and rubbed at corners.
First read: 1987
Owned since: 1987

This was one of the first "real" books I bought after I got out of school; like millions of others before me, I succumbed to the temptation of four books for a buck and joined the Book of the Month Club. They had just reprinted this facsimile first edition in honor of the Club's 60th anniversary. Unfortunately, book club editions have a deserved reputation for not being quite as well-bound as the originals.

No matter. It's a great book, and I own a second copy as well, a heavily marked-up trade paperback that I used to lead a discussion group on the book at The Mystery Bookstore in 2004. (Maybe that will be this week's theme: books I own multiple copies of. There are a few.)

IN COLD BLOOD was Capote's masterwork, and changed American journalism for good. It started as a New Yorker article; Truman Capote traveled to Kansas to attend the murder trial of two men accused of slaughtering a Kansas family for no apparent reason. Capote was fascinated with the story: who were these people? What made the Clutters victims, and what made the two men -- Dick Hickok and Perry Smith -- killers? Was this a purely random event, and if so, how did the police manage to catch the killers?

Capote spent years digging for answers, and those he could not find, he confabulated. He described this book as "a nonfiction novel," meaning that he assigned motives and causality to events that might not have been related, and he filled in details he could have no way of confirming. Most of all, Capote brought his own moral judgment to the events of November 13, 1959 and the execution that followed five years later. His sympathy for Perry, in particular, colored his disgust with the death penalty, and the book draws none-too-subtle parallels between the cold-blooded murder of the Clutters and the cold-blooded execution of Smith and Hickok.

In the years after the book's publication, several residents of Holcomb, Kansas objected to details that Capote had gotten wrong, or characterizations they felt were unfair. The power of IN COLD BLOOD is that it holds some deeper truths that seem to override the impossibility of getting every detail right.

Writing the book -- and witnessing the executions -- ruined Capote. Although he was famous for talking about a great work in progress, he never wrote anything substantive again, and the shorter pieces he did publish were treated as personal betrayals by his friends. He must have been surprised at those accusations of betrayals; after all, hadn't they all read IN COLD BLOOD?

Two very good movies about the writing of IN COLD BLOOD came out in 2006: Capote, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, and Infamous, which spends more time on the relationship between Capote and Perry Smith (and features a smoking Daniel Craig as Smith). Both are excellent, but have only half their intended impact if you haven't read IN COLD BLOOD first.