December 28, 2010
William Maxwell won the American Book Award, now the National Book Award, in 1982 for his novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. The story is narrated by a man late in his life looking back to a brief childhood friendship in Lincoln, Illinois, in the 1920s. He and another 13-year-old boy named Cletus Smith play together on the scaffolding of a half-finished house being built by the narrator’s father and his new, second wife. Both boys — the narrator is the son of a middle-class family in town and Cletus is the son of a tenant farmer – carry burdens of family sadness not spoken of to each other. Their friendship abruptly ends when Cletus’s father shoots and kills a family friend who’s having an affair with Cletus’s mother.
“Anyway, I didn’t tell Cletus about my shipwreck, as we sat looking down on the neighborhood, and he didn’t tell me about his. When the look of the sky informed us that it was getting along toward suppertime, we climbed down and said ‘So long,’ and ‘See you tomorrow,’ and went our separate ways in the dusk. And one evening this casual parting turned out to be for the last time. We were separated by that pistol shot.”
I have no reason to write about this novel other than fondly remembering it, an old book I read in the past that’s sitting on my desk on the cusp of a new year. Signed by Maxwell in January of 1980, the inscription says, “For Ruth from Bill Maxwell with his love.” This powerful fictional story reads like a memoir, written with a personal, nostalgic voice of a man desiring to make amends with his friend for a small act of disregard deeply regretted through a lifetime. Maxwell captures perfectly the emotion involved with painful regret in a mere 135 pages.
I’ll just leave it at that. So long, see you next year.
December 22, 2010
Christmas Eve shoppers looking for that perfect last-minute gift to put under the tree might consider The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. It’s been a rampaging success in Europe, and several authors among 65 claim it as their best book of the year in The Times Literary Supplement.
Another favorite among the esteemed TLS 65 is Seamus Heaney’s recent book of poetry, Human Chain. That also would make a nice holiday gift for the poetry lover in the family, but I emphasize de Waal’s family history because, for me, it’s the book that wins the 2010 year-end stalking award. I bestow it on a new book I took note of earlier in the year that hasn’t and won’t allow me to ignore it. There’s always one as the year comes to a close. In 2009, the award went to Tears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman, an outstanding history and soldier profile about the 1942 battle between Americans and Japanese for the Philippine peninsula of Bataan.
The Hare with Amber Eyes also has a Japanese theme. The story follows a collection of 264 ornamental Japanese carvings known as netsuke through the hands of the author’s relatives. Those relatives were the fabulously wealthy Ephrussi family, once as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, powerful Jewish grain traders and bankers during the 19th century and up until the Nazis destroyed their empire in the 20th century. The netsuke collection survived the family’s demise and the Nazi’s confiscation of their art collections, thanks to a family servant. It now resides with the author.
Edmund de Waal is a successful potter in Britain whose work with porcelain is widely exhibited and resides in many museum collections. He is the fifth generation of the Ephrussi clan to inherit the netsuke collection. The Washington Post’s review places de Waal’s family history beside Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, both “depictions of how even the lofty, beautiful and fabulously wealthy can crack and shatter as easily as Fabergé glass or Meissen porcelain — or, sometimes, be as tough and enduring as netsuke, those little Japanese figurines carved out of ivory or boxwood.”
December 18, 2010
WOSU’s Allsides Books host, reader extraordinaire and classical music expert Christopher Purdy and I bantered about our 10 unforgettables in 2010, and you can listen to that conversation on the WOSU Arts Blog. Of course, the full 15 minutes is delightful, but if pressed for time, you can scoot to the end, when we both recite our lists. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes are common to both.
From there we diverge in our selections of mostly fiction and memoirs. My list is below, but this print version doesn’t include my graceful mangling of Christos Tsiolkas’ last name or the explanation of why I’d take Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions to a desert island but not Matterhorn. Also in the recording, you’ll hear me mention Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans, which entered the discussion about authors one can count on for a new book every two years (along with Philip Roth). It’s good at #12, as I said in chatting with CP, but it didn’t rank among my top 10. Speak, Memory, which you see in the photo, was the book I discussed with a book club in 2010. Nabokov’s one-of-kind memoir became part of a stack I carried to the studio for visual keys of what I could talk about.
All below except Trespass, a novel not mentioned this year on TLC, are linked to previous blog posts. Trespass was a Man Booker 2010 long-list candidate but didn’t make the final short-list, as did Emma Donoghue’s best-selling Room. Having read both, Trespass is superior.
So here you have it, in no particular order. 2010 was certainly a good year in books.
- Trespass by Rose Tremain
- Bound by Antonya Nelson
- The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart
- The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
- Mentor by Tom Grimes
- Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin
- Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
- The People Who Watched Her Pass By by Scott Bradfield
- Just Kids by Patti Smith
- Something Is Out There by Richard Bausch
December 14, 2010
Several weeks ago, a local bookseller suggested I read Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret crime novels. We were discussing fictional crime inspectors one could follow in an ongoing series, and Simenon’s Maigret came up as one inspector who does not require such following. He doesn’t have complicated relationships and personal problems that evolve through the books. Hence, a good prospect for one-offs.
During my recent trip to New York, I blithely went to the bookshelves at Three Lives & Company, thinking I’d likely find a Maigret book, which I did. Two, in fact: The Friend of Madame Maigret and Inspector Cadaver. I figured I’d also find a comprehensive list of the series’ titles in the front of the books. Why not start with the first book anyway? No such luck on that list.
Little did I know what I was getting into: Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. Even as I type that number, I’m aware of variations, such as the New York Times Simenon obituary stating this Belgian author wrote 84 Maigret “adventures”. Also, I picked up Patrick Marnham’s biography The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon, and it says 76 Maigret novels were written between 1931 and 1972. That’s only a “selected works” list, making one wonder what’s not included.
None of this would seem to make much difference to a new Simenon reader like me, pulling one of his mysteries off a shelf to purchase and read. And yet, it does matter. Development isn’t just about the inspector but also the writer. What if the earlier books are better than the later books? Or the later ones better than the earlier ones? How did Simenon’s crafting of Inspector Maigret change as he became a more seasoned writer?
The voluminous output of Georges Simenon (1903-1989) came from his ability to write a book in 11 days (via The Guardian). He became one of the 20th century’s most significant crime/mystery writers in European literature, writing in the vicinity of 400 books, including 136 non-Maigret novels, plus 200 novellas under pseudonyms, according to his NYT obit. No wonder it’s hard to find the best starting point in his literary oeuvre.
The bookseller at Partners & Crime in New York’s Greenwich Village told me one of his favorites is Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard (1953), so that became my starting point. Hallelujahs once again for the knowledge and helpfulness of independent booksellers. I’m closing in on the last page of that recommended mystery as I write. Maigret’s intellectual means of sniffing out clues as he searches for a murderer in Paris neighborhoods has got me hooked.
December 9, 2010
I would never in a million years ask a mega-bookstore clerk for an opinion of which book to buy between a selection of two. Suffice it to say, once I wanted to purchase a recent Man Booker Prize winner but couldn’t remember the title. The Barnes & Noble clerk didn’t know what I was talking about, and by that I mean the prize. But at an independent bookseller’s shop, the language of books is understood beyond simply punching the cash register, which is why I asked a Three Lives & Company clerk during my New York City visit which of two books she would recommend I read next. I held them up before her: The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford or The Outward Room by Millen Brand. She had not read them and suggested I read page 69 to find my answer.
This sounds ridiculous now, but I thought she was referring to a literary publication called page 69 that I should recognize, some Manhattan alternative broadsheet I’d find stacked in a wire bin in local cafés or could search online. To admit my ignorance would shine the idiot light on me, so I agreed in my perplexity to follow her advice and figured I’d check it out online back at the hotel. Of course, my first indication weirdness was at hand was why someone would select that number with its sexual history for a literary publication, especially if it had an online presence. And then, a few minutes later, this delightful clerk helped me research the books of Georges Simenon, and she referred to the Internet on the store computer. So why wouldn’t she have done that for my first question and simply logged onto the website of this page 69 literary publication? And why did she ask me if it had helped?
Like the moment a kid realizes there’s a Santa Claus in every department store and the fat guy in a red suit isn’t real, I realized she meant for me to literally read page 69 in both books. I slunked over to a corner and did just that. Immediately, I knew I was in the mood to read The Mountain Lion. At the check-out counter, I admitted to my misunderstanding. The clerk said, “I’ve been working in bookstores for more than 20 years, and it was just last year that a customer told me to do that. It seems to work.”
There’s no great wisdom here. The point is to read the same interior page from top to bottom in both books, versus scanning a few sentences here and there. It works when deciding on a next book to read based on the mood you’re in, not to tell you if it’s a good book or not. And yes, one could go to any interior page, but the magic may reside in choosing the same page number and sticking with it during a lifetime of book buying. So, choose your page number. At Three Lives & Company, it’s page 69, and now it’s mine.
BTW, The Outward Room and The Mountain Lion reside within the Rediscovered American Writers Collection in the New York Review of Books Classics series. Others include After Claude by Iris Owens, Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter and A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis.
December 6, 2010
It’s been ten years since my last visit to New York City, so I jumped at the chance to go when a frequent traveler to Manhattan invited me to join her on a trip this past weekend. Being the holiday season, Times Square and department stores were overwhelmed with the predictable crush of holiday shoppers. But all of that holiday madness was a far cry from the West Village and the Flatiron/Murray Hill districts where I experienced joy and peace visiting independent bookstores, including this one, with its fabulous name:
Here are the other bookstores I visited:
Three Lives & Company, a classic bookshop with a staff that is passionate about connecting readers with good books, stacking their display tables with fiction and non-fiction rare to be stumbled upon in the mega-stores, such as 03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat, one of my purchases.
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks across the street from Three Lives, a store the size of a bedroom hallway where my traveling companion and I walked in on two women from Texas finishing up a three-hour spending spree.
The Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore on Madison at 35th, where I purchased a 1927 Blue Guide for Paris streets; how cool to see the city’s layout during a less motorized age. Afterwards, we visited the famous Morgan Library with its vast collection of rare and old books a few doors away.
The Argosy, selling antiquarian books since 1925, located in Midtown around the corner from large department stores; I hung out with the modern firsts on one of their upper floors, including a first edition of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies priced in the thousands. I walked away with much less costly items, such as a first edition of E. L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, filling a hole in my Doctorow holdings.
Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in Greenwich Village, where I shared with the shop owner my desire to read a mystery crime series, starting with the first book, so I can follow the development of the detective. I’m not well-read in crime mysteries and valued his thoughts and recommendations via discussion by a display already set up of such “here’s where to start” crime mysteries. I walked away with Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, the first Inspector Banks mystery, and Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, the first Kurt Wallander mystery. Also, a Georges Simenon Inspector Maigret mystery went into the sack.
Such wonderful experiences can be had in these atmospheric NYC literary environments. I’ll share more soon. Up next: How to decide which book to buy and the Georges Simenon runaround.