May 13, 2013
Author James Patterson asked this question recently with a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review that also asked, “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” The ad also appeared in Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly. Perhaps it should also appear in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post for more impact, given their audiences. Readers, critics, booksellers and book buyers, who read the aforementioned three, already preach this sermon.
Message aside, the NYT ad includes 37 book titles that create a great reading list — a wide variety ranging from Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Stephen King’s Different Seasons to John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Introducing the list, Patterson asks:
“If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors, what will happen to our literature? Who will discover and mentor new writers? Who will publish our important books? What will happen if there are no more books like these?”
Click on the image to get a readable view of the books and the rest of the ad. (You should see a magnifying glass, so you can click again to zoom in.) Check off the books you’ve read and whatever remains, I’d say you’ve got a great summer reading list. Note: Publisher’s Weekly produced the ad on a wrap-around cover, which included eight additional books. Those eight appear below the image.
Lush Life by Richard Price
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
What Is the What by Dave Eggers
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
May 4, 2013
I’ve been shuffling books about Flannery O’Connor among my to-be-read stacks since 2009, when Brad Gooch published his acclaimed biography of the southern writer. Then The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor edited by Sally Fitzgerald landed next to Gooch’s book, as did Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. All this after I had re-read Flannery’s novel Wise Blood because someone, in some literary publication (I can’t recall which one), said Wise Blood is the #1 novel about religion ever written. My college reading of it didn’t stick, so I took another look.
It’s no wonder, then, I snatched up Carlene Bauer’s new novel Frances and Bernard, which loosely imagines a love relationship between O’Connor and New England poet Robert Lowell. By loosely, I mean the plot stretches far beyond reality’s home base. Case in point, Flannery suffered from lupus, diagnosed when she was 25, and Bauer’s Frances is perfectly healthy. She’s also from Philadelphia, and Flannery lived in Georgia.
But Bauer never intended to mirror the lives of these two literary giants. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, she said, “I didn’t want to write historical fiction, but I want readers to know that it was the temperaments, minds, and voices of these specific people that set me off. As I was writing, though, I forgot that they were them; I used the information I’d been given, but they became my people. I want people to read it and think about Frances and Bernard.”
Written in letters and set during the 1950′s, Frances and Bernard draws in its readers with the emotional force of those “temperaments, minds and voices.” Most impressive is Bauer’s ability to capture the essence of the delicate tightrope the two walk between friendship and passion. Bernard fiercely desires Frances, while Frances resists, fearful of his large personality and determined to devote her life to writing. In their correspondence, they energetically discuss their Catholic faith and literary lives; their needs and fears about family and love; and their unique, strong-minded differences driven in Bernard by clinical madness and in Frances by self-imposed remove. The two write from Maine, Italy, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
You don’t have to be familiar with the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell to enjoy this book. That’s a good thing; however, knowing there’s a connection to these two literary giants is distracting. As the relationship unfolded between Frances and Bernard, I couldn’t stop wondering how much of it belonged to O’Connor and Lowell. But the distraction is a minor complaint compared to the magnetic story that captivates, warmly and insistently. Indeed, reading this small, exquisite novel is like discovering a packet of letters in the attic and sitting right down on the floor to read them, lost in the epistolary intimacy with the day slipping away.
April 24, 2013
Oh how I wish book-selling would forever stay in the trusted hands of the independents. This bookshop is a perfect example for the why of that. It’s a spacious room with floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with new, collectible and signed mystery and crime books. In the center are tables displaying new, old and favored books to browse, and working behind desks is that rare species, the knowledgeable bookseller.
This is The Mysterious Bookshop in New York’s Tribeca, or TriBeCa, referring to the district that’s the “Triangle Below Canal Street.” The photo to the left below was taken by my traveling companion while I browsed the shop in a state of hysterical joy. On the main display table, I discovered not only American editions of new books, but also their British counterparts in first editions.
For book collectors, that’s a big deal. If you’re collecting the works of a British author, say, Ian McEwan or Hilary Mantel, the American first edition of their novels sold here are not the real firsts, and online access to those real firsts is not always easy, or guaranteed.
A few years ago, British author A. S. Byatt spoke at a local university. Knowing about this in advance, I purchased her new novel The Children’s Book from the London Review Bookshop, so I could get her signature on the British edition. The British edition cost double the American edition, mostly due to shipping, but I didn’t mind. Also, I knew it was a gamble as to whether or not what came in the mail would be a first edition because the novel had been out for several months in the U.K. If the LRB shop did have a first, it was likely buried under a group of later printings. In other words, if I had lived in London, I would’ve gone to the store and digged for the possibility of it, which often proves fruitful. Alas, the gamble didn’t pay off. I now have a signed fourth printing of the British edition of The Children’s Book and a signed first American edition.
So here, on the main display table of books at The Mysterious Bookshop, was the recognizable dust jacket of Kate Atkinson’s new novel that’s been getting a lot of attention. Beside it, a completely different dust jacket for the same book, which I knew was the British edition – and it was a first British edition, signed by Kate Atkinson. I flipped through and petted that book so many times the bookseller casually remarked, of all the books I was deciding to buy, obviously that was the one I really wanted. He was right.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a girl named Ursula Todd born in 1910 only to die and be born over and over again throughout the century. From Atkinson’s website: “What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”
I also bought The Beauty of Murder by British author A. K. Benedict. This is Benedict’s debut and not yet published in the U.S. (The bookseller told me it’s not confirmed whether or not it will be.) The premise of this mystery was too intriguing to pass up. From inside the dust jacket: “As [Stephen] Killigan [a senior lecturer at Cambridge] traces a path between our age and seventeenth-century Cambridge, he must work out how it is that a person’s corpse can be found before they even go missing, and whether he’s being pushed towards the edge of madness or an astonishing discovery.”
Should that description intrigue you, too, you can buy The Beauty of Murder online from The Mysterious Bookshop. Also, you can sign up for their newsletter, and if you want the booksellers to make selections for you, they have seven Crime Clubs that send you a book a month. (I love those kinds of surprises in the mail!)
April 4, 2013
Every year on Easter weekend, I travel with friends to Akron, Ohio, for the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society’s Antiquarian Book Fair, otherwise known as the NOBS fair. Booksellers from the tristate area and beyond (Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky and, one year, Montreal, Quebec) bring their rare and used books to display in booths organized in one big room. This year, there were a little more than 35 exhibitors, which is almost half of what it used to be in better economic times. Nevertheless, it was a bonanza of new discoveries for book collectors and readers, and for me a budget-busting challenge. Accessibility to so many booksellers in one room for a limited time eliminates any chance for my preferred “peruse and think about it” style that allows me to buy carefully. In Akron, in that one-room mecca, I shop like I’ve got Warren Buffett as a Sugar Daddy. Fueling the frenzy is the reality that every time I walk away from a booth to think about a book, I have to be prepared someone else, right behind me, might buy it.
That happened one year with a 1929 edition of Robert Graves Good-bye to All That. No dust jacket and nothing really collectible about it. What I liked were the black-and-white photographs. It was $40, and I don’t collect Graves, so I walked away. But as my friends and I were getting ready to leave for dinner, I rushed back to buy it, giving in to my impulse. The bookseller saw me looking for it on the shelf and said it was gone. He then casually mentioned the book was the first he’d seen in that edition in his 30 years as a bookseller. By those very words, I became afflicted with the haunting of “the one that got away.”
I began to search for the book online that same night, after I got home, at midnight. It had to have all the same parameters — no dust jacket, 1929, $40, first edition, sixth impression — and true to what the bookseller said, the book didn’t show up anywhere. But a few weeks later it did, in England, and I purchased it online, and then a day or two later the British bookseller sent me an email saying he couldn’t find it.
The one rare-books merchant I look for every year at the Akron fair is Booklegger’s Books from Chicago. His modern first editions are in beautiful condition, and his selections never fail to hook me because they are the novelists and poets whose first editions I want on my shelves. Over the years, they have included a first edition of Jean Genet’s 1954 The Thief’s Journal; a signed first edition limited to 250 copies of Diane Wakoski’s poem Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons; and a signed first of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam classic Going After Cacciato. One year, there was The Three Cornered Hat, published in 1928. I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it before, and yet I was drawn to it for the construct of the dust jacket, with the edges cut out like a paper hat.
This year, leaving NOBS, I felt the hint of anxiety that comes with the realization I’ve once again so easily, without question, ignored my budget. It keeps happening, despite my proven ability to control myself and honor limits at other book venues. Had I time to think about all the books I wanted to buy — lay them out in front of me and determine which ones I could put back for another time (or forever) — I’d have faired better. But that’s not how this works. At Booklegger’s, as I wrote my check for the beautiful Pulitzer Prize Edition of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, gorgeously illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, a man approached and asked Larry, the bookseller, if he had anything illustrated by Wyeth.
There are two books from other booksellers I did indeed walk away from to think about. I guess I felt I wouldn’t miss them, if I went back and they were gone. In fact, I didn’t go back for them. One, The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, is a common find, although this first edition was in perfect condition — “very fine,” as described by the trade. The other, a novel by R. F. Delderfield, who wrote God Is an Englishman, holds nostalgic strings over me from my youth, and that one, A Horseman Riding By, I admit, I was looking for online at midnight, after I got home.
March 8, 2013
Reviewers describe the author Tessa Hadley as being “a meticulous stylist” (National Public Radio); “clear-sighted” (The Guardian); and “a close observer of her characters’ inner worlds” (New York Times Book Review). The consistency of these descriptions (“Hadley’s craft is expertly honed…” Irish Times) told me here is an author I need to experience. In other words, she’s too important to overlook.
Naturally, when I picked up her new collection of short stories, Married Love, I expected to be stunned with the power literature can deliver, but by the third story, I was underwhelmed. What was I missing? I didn’t experience her widely praised precise style and acute perception. I didn’t find myself surprised by exceptional storytelling. But I also didn’t doubt it existed — one can’t be the expert with all types of books and writing — yet I couldn’t believe I’d be so far out of the loop. I put the book down.
Weeks later, looking for a story to read in a limited time slot, I picked it up again and began reading “The Trojan Prince,” the fourth story. I figured I’d chug through it, but then it happened. I was reading as if on a different level, caught up in Hadley’s precise illustration of how we chose adventure over the ordinary, experiencing this common desire with a kind of “aha!” discovery as a boy becomes friends with his more wealthy cousin and another distant relative. And then, her language — it had begun to sing for me — “The two girls pet James and tease him as if he were a pretty, comical doll.”
Was it just this story? I paged back to the second story, “A Mouthful of Cut Glass,” and saw Hadley’s talent again now, as not before, the unique discernment. Here it pierces how we discount our roots when we leave home as university students, but then fall back into our childhood mentality when we return home. “The past’s important,” a character says in another story, “The Godchildren,” and we come to understand Hadley is pressing this point — no matter how much we disassociate from family relations, the impact they have on us remains.
Some switch flipped and turned me on to Hadley’s fine storytelling, and it stayed on ’til the end of the collection. I marveled at how she unravels the small burdens that stamp our lives and how I could experience them with fresh understanding. Yes, the fiction of Tessa Hadley is not to be missed. Even so, not everyone will enjoy Married Love. The stories may be too uneventful in plot, too subtle in conclusion, and yet, therein is their power. If you want to see life in its pinpricks of light, I recommend the collection and suggest you start with “The Trojan Prince.”
Tessa Hadley is the author of four novels: Accidents in the Home, Everything Will Be All Right, The Master Bedroom and The London Train. Married Love is her second collection of short stories. Her previous collection is Sunstroke.
February 20, 2013
Here’s a book I bought several years ago because of its cover. Those soulful child’s eyes looking at me, how could I resist? Even the rare book cost didn’t deter me. I had to have it.
Simon & Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life in 1955. It was created by an African-American power-duo, photographer Ray DeCarava and poet/writer/playwright Langston Hughes. DeCarava (1919 – 2009) was the first African-American photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952). He used the grant money to create a portrait of Harlem via black and white photography. He drew from that collection to create this book.
Hughes (1902 – 1967) rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920′s and became one of the 20th century’s most recognized poets and interpreters of the African-American experience. He connected the book’s photos with a fictional story narrated by a grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now out of print but sells on the used and rare book market. A high collectible item, it gets expensive, especially if signed by one or both of the authors. That’s unfortunate, to be so out of reach, because the photos and story capture and relate 1950′s Harlem better than a textbook version might attempt, due to the combined, sensuous textures and tones created by these time-honored artists.
On the back cover of the book, Langston Hughes is quoted: “We’ve had so many books about how bad life is [in Harlem]. Maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is.’” In its 98 pages, the book takes us through photos of parents hugging their kids; friends and family laughing and working in their homes; people walking the streets; working mothers riding the subway and kids playing and daydreaming.
Sister Mary Bradley wonders without judgment about her grandson Rodney, who sleeps all day and goes out with the women all night, and she counsels her youngest daughter Melinda not to fret over her husband, a good family man, who some nights doesn’t come home: “Melinda got the idea she can change him. But I tells Melinda, reforming some folks is like trying to boil a pig in a coffeepot — the possibilities just ain’t there — and to leave well enough alone.”
Our narrator tells us she’s “a little sick.” There’s reference to her “going home,” but she stubbornly tells the Lord and everyone else, she’s not ready . “‘I done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life — and I’ll be dogged if I want to get loose.’” Her confident, grand-mothering voice speaks with love, reverence, joy and purpose from the center of Harlem’s hard, unrelenting everyday life, thanks to her gift of seeing that life through a lens of blessings and hope.
January 21, 2013
I purchased this May 1962 Esquire magazine for my William Faulkner collection. It includes a 6-page excerpt from this Southern author’s then-forthcoming novel The Reivers. I acquired the magazine sight-unseen. What would it matter what was on the cover or elsewhere; I simply wanted the excerpt. When the magazine arrived in the mail, though, it wasn’t Faulkner that I turned to, even though smack there on the cover it says “Preview Look at William Faulkner’s New Novel.”
Who wouldn’t get distracted with “A Bachelor’s Choice of 9 Most Eligible Girls” and that cover photo of Jennifer Billingsley, who at the time was starring in the hit Broadway musical “Carnival.” I immediately flipped to the article, retitled as “A Bachelor’s Choice of Marriageable Girls” and about choked with incomprehension when I saw Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford as the grand finale of the photo spread. 1962 was the year she starred with Bette Davis in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. “Adored by a million,” her caption says, as well as “bright-star magnitude” and “unlisted phone.” Hilarious, in a way, but more so the captions for the other less recognizable eight, including a receptionist at Time magazine who “fascinates,” and the daughter of actress/singer Lena Horne who “loves parties” and a painter who “is a swinger.”
Well, you just never know what will turn up when collecting the works of authors. I’ve found unusual photos, notes and articles tucked away in books. And for my Faulkner collection, the more unusual the better. I can’t afford first editions of his famous novels, so I gather up the more affordable off-beat. Such as the Argentine edition of The Sound and the Fury in Spanish; and Album Faulkner, 318 photos concerning the author and his life, which I purchased at Square Books in his hometown, Oxford, MS. Written in French, Album Faulkner was published in 1995 by Éditions Gallimard in France, the country that recognized Faulkner as a great writer before readers in the U.S. Indeed, his popularity in France continues.
The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and also became a movie starring Steve McQueen. The excerpt published by Esquire is “The Education of Lucius Priest.” Along with Ms. Billingsley’s portrait, the cover carries the library stamp of Wellesley, Mass., Pine Manor Junior College, which Faulkner’s daughter Jill attended. William Faulkner died two months after this edition of Esquire, on July 6, 1962. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
January 14, 2013
I took this photo in Book Thug Nation, a used bookstore in Brooklyn, New York. I don’t remember the music that played on the record player, only that it perfectly accompanied my browsing mindset, as I sorted through the chaotically ordered books. I look at this photo and see everything I love about bookstores both new and used, which the online book industry can’t touch by a long shot: the discovery and adventure of digging through shelved books; a myriad of colorful dust jackets all lined up for skimming with your head tilted just enough to read sideways; the chance to open a book in your hands and explore its personality; and, of course, personal music selections of the bookseller — that vinyl record playing in the background.
December 28, 2012
Several years ago, after Christmas Eve church services, in the car just before driving home, I surprised each of my friends with a gift-wrapped book. These friends aren’t constant readers of literature, rather occasional readers of a variety of book types, which required careful thinking on my part, guided by gut instinct, when making the selections. The gift for me was their joy, as I saw their excitement over a new book chosen just for them.
I’ve kept the tradition since that first time, and this year the books were given at a dinner held at my house before the Christmas Eve service. Place cards indicated where each person was to sit. A gift-wrapped book, selected for that person, sat on the place mat. The challenge this year included two guests visiting from Texas, the mother and sister of one of my friends.
So here’s how I went about my selections this year for each friend and the visitors, Christmas 2012.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The first year I gave this friend Water for Elephants. Last year, I gave her The Hunger Games. She’s one of those readers who reads a book obsessively, unable to put it down. Indeed, the house could be burning, and she would move her chair to the lawn and keep reading. I’ve known a few readers like this — they have to schedule when they read because once they start, they’ll ignore responsibilities, including the need to sleep, which is why I wrote on her card, “Something to keep you up all night.” Erin Morgenstern’s magical novel about Le Cirque des Rêves and the competition between magicians who fall in love seemed the perfect story for all-night reading.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
I gave this classic collection of short stories to my friend who’s in seminary school. Several months ago, she asked me about Flannery O’Connor because she’d heard references in class to this mid-20th century southern author. O’Connor is famous for her Gothic style, Catholicism and religious themes. This collection, published in 1955, came after O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood (1952) and confirmed her place in classic literature. Caroline Gordon wrote in her 1955 New York Times review: ”In these stories the rural South is, for the first time, viewed by a writer whose orthodoxy matches her talent. The results are revolutionary.” I thought my friend would want to be “in the know” for when O’Connor is mentioned again in her presence.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candace Millard
The friend who received this book is typically a non-fiction reader. I recall her once telling me she enjoyed Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for biography. This friend’s interests include politics (she’s a great conversationalist on this topic) and the health industry, particularly in regard to managing one’s good health. So this best-seller seemed like something that would captivate her and, indeed, she seemed very excited about it. The book is Candace Millard’s account of James Garfield’s rise to the American presidency, the assassination attempt he survived and the botched medical attention that followed, which he didn’t survive. Destiny of the Republic won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I gave this book to my friend’s mother visiting from Texas. Not knowing mom’s interests, let alone whether or not she read novels, I thought there’d be a good chance she’d be absorbed by Jodi Picoult’s page-turning storytelling — in particular, this story about a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. My friend’s mother interacts with kids, volunteering at a local school, so I thought the central character might win her interest. In this best-selling novel, that central character is Jacob Hunt, who struggles to interact socially and is suspected in the murder of his tutor.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I wrote in the card for this gift that I was giving something to remind my friend to follow her heart. She is one who does follow her heart, and in 2011 her heart was broken by an unexpected tragedy. It was gut instinct that told me to give this book to her, perhaps in hopes that she continues to follow her heart, no matter what. Coelho’s story is about a shepherd boy who, in his search for worldly treasure, along the way, finds wisdom and the most meaningful treasure found within oneself. When this gift was opened, one person at the dinner table said enthusiastically that she’d been meaning to read The Alchemist; another said she had tried it but couldn’t get into it. So, we’ll see how this turns out. I’ve bombed before with this friend, giving her Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which is now code for “bad choice” between us. (It’s the second time I’ve given Bellow’s Pulitzer award-winner to someone as a gift, and it wasn’t liked– let alone finished — that time, either. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift is one of my favorite books.)
One Day by David Nicholls
This is the novel I selected for my friend’s sister, visiting from Texas. I didn’t know if she read novels but figured, even if she didn’t, this one would win her attention. It’s a great beach read or a by-the-fire read for its absorbing story about a romantic relationship that spans 20 years, which we experience in snapshots on July 15 — the one day — every year. The story about Emma and Dexter is engaging, romantic, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming. It’s neither too light nor too complicated, hence a good choice, I thought, for someone I didn’t know.
December 10, 2012
Not only are we deluged with shopping opportunities during the holiday season, we’re also deluged with “best books of the year” lists. There are the long lists, labeled notables and favorites, organized by fiction and non-fiction, as well as top 10 lists, which are the summa cum laude stars of both genres. I thought about these lists being similar to the Miss America Pageant, where 53 contestants (50 states plus Washington D.C., U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) are whittled down to the top 10. But that’s where the comparison ends. There are no five finalists followed by a winner among these annual best book lists. Also, there are no uniform selection criteria. For example, not everyone produces a long list of bests, rather only their top 10. In addition, some lists mix fiction and non-fiction; some fiction lists include mysteries and poetry, while others don’t; and, continuing to mix things up, judges range from readers to authors to editors. There’s a lot of noise in this end-of-year book list mania.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to see where there was agreement among the lists, so I cross-referenced four best fiction lists of 2012. I worked with two magazines and two newspapers: Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
For those who don’t know, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine known for its rigorous standards. Publisher’s Weekly is a news magazine for the publishing industry that also publishes reviews.
A note about the calculation: I used the long lists of best/notable fiction for 2012, not the top 10, as I was going for that equivalent of the 53 Miss America contestants. But then I noticed the top 10 selections for The Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly stand apart from their long lists, while the top 10 selections for The New York Times and top 25 for Kirkus are included in their long lists. So I pulled the fiction in the top 10 lists of The Post and PW into their long lists, to keep the data even.
The number of books on the lists came to this: Publisher’s Weekly 24, Kirkus 100, The Post 55 and The Times 53. Among all four lists, five books are listed in common: two short story collections (one by Junot Diaz, the other by Alice Munro) and three novels. They are the books whose cover illustrations you see on this page.
The one book that surprised me is Beautiful Ruins, a novel I’d heard about but didn’t read in 2012. Here, end of year, it is a beauty that steps out of the crowd. Another surprise is the 2012 National Book Award winner for fiction, The Round House by Louise Erdrich – it did not get a common nod from the four publications. More specific, it didn’t make the Kirkus list.
I’m not sure this cross-referencing accomplishes anything other than to satisfy a curiosity on my part. Because there’s a million ways to spin this and no real reach toward sparkling truth, due to lack of list conformity. But I’m thinking this final five is a good bet for a successful gift for a friend or family member, or a good read for yourself. One note of caution, though: many readers have told me they liked Mantel’s historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies, but it was an endurance read, i.e. some said they slogged through it.
For me, this cross-referencing was an exercise that gave some definition to the onslaught of bests lists, with some hoorays and boos along the way – such as for Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which shows on three of the lists I cross-referenced (hooray!); and for Lawrence Osborne’s seductive novel The Forgiven, which is ignored by the four lists (boo!), although I was glad to see The Economist and Library Journal give it a shout out. Best of all, I’ve discovered two books I want to read: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden. McFadden’s novel appears on the lists of The Post and The NYT.
November 20, 2012
I recently met with a book club to discuss a novel they selected to read and discuss with me – Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. The historical novel provided a lot to talk about. Indeed, at more than 600 pages, the award-winning fictional story about the 18th century British triangle trade proved to be difficult to digest, yet it engaged everyone and drew remarks about a kind of narrative depth not often encountered these publishing days.
Events in the plot revolve around the Liverpool Merchant sailing from England to Africa, where the captain is designated to purchase slaves he must then sell in the Caribbean nations in exchange for rum, sugar, coffee and other goods. Those goods are then sold in England for profit that will enhance the worth of William Kemp, the ship’s owner. Unsworth does not hold back regarding the brutal realities of the slave trade, writing cringe-worthy scenes that take place on the ship and driving home the unsettling message of man’s cruelty to man.
Heavy stuff. One book club member was so overwhelmed by the barbaric treatment of the slaves, she began talking about it before we’d had a chance to introduce ourselves. It was as if she had to put it out on the table to get it out of herself — the humiliation, debasement and senseless punishment (whips and chains) not only rained down on the slaves but also the ship’s crew. I asked her to pause for a moment for the introductions, and then turned to her afterwards to continue. I thought she would say she hated the book, but not so. Like every one else, she found herself absorbed in the unforgettable storyline, beautiful writing and powerful characters.
Here are other highlights from the discussion.
One person said she found the size of the book daunting. Then she revealed she tried to read it in one week as an e-book. With e-books, unlike printed books, you can’t see the journey ahead all-at-once in chapters and page count. You can’t flip through an e-book and determine the scope of reading at hand. Had she seen the physical book, she would’ve started it sooner. I can’t remember if she finished it or not — I’m thinking not.
Another person was enthralled by Barry Unsworth’s writing. A few times during the two hours, she picked up the book and read passages she’d marked. Gorgeous, moving passages that showcased Unsworth’s talent. One, I remember in particular, described a painful moment for the ship’s surgeon followed by a beautiful description of light. I wondered out loud whether Unsworth intentionally wrote about the light as a halo effect on this good character, suggesting it as a narrative tactic he may have used among characters who had a conscience, or a potential for good.
One person, new to reading in her life, provided some of the most insightful comments. The one that jumps to mind is her perception that Unsworth siloed his characters. Each one, she felt, had been created with a strait-jacket of characteristics that made them predictable. I’ve returned to that comment after the event in my thoughts because I didn’t want to agree with it at the time – I was too impressed with Unsworth’s craft to allow a flaw – but now, I think, she’s right.
Another person asked how the main character Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, could be filled with so much anger and revenge. What is driving him, she asked. I still can see her expression of confused wonder about such ugly human nature. Kemp is a character who has a prosperous life yet every fiber of him radiates an angry need to control people. Her question sparked conversation about how we become who we are as adults.
The person who spoke out her distress during introductions about the brutality in the story said she felt despair at the book’s end, failing to see redemption. But it is there — hope, too – and I used the story of Jean Valjean being given the candlesticks by the bishop in Les Misérables to illustrate how Unsworth creates the possibility for Erasmus Kemp to change. She got it. I could see it in her eyes.
Finally, one person repeatedly commented in her enthusiasm about Sacred Hunger that it was the most satisfying, profound book she’d read in decades. She wanted more.
Before we said our good-byes, I asked what everyone would do with the book going forward. Almost all said they would give it to a friend, wrap it as a holiday gift or recommend it. Hear, hear, I say, as well as bravo! for the readers who delved into this exceptional book with focused, unbridled energy. It was great fun.
The meeting with this book club was a result of the 2012 WOSU Chefs in the City fundraising event. The book selection process — how they chose Sacred Hunger — was written about in a previous blog post on The Longest Chapter.
August 12, 2012
Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in NYC’s West Village is closing next month after 18 years in business. When I shopped there during one of my trips to New York, a bookseller guided me toward selections I might enjoy, and I appreciated his knowledge and advice. I so hate to hear about these closings of independent bookstores for just that reason — we’re losing shopping access to knowledgable booksellers, let alone to stores rich with discovery of all kinds of books, not just the popular ones.
At least with Partners & Crime, we have “100 of the Best We’ve Ever Read”, a list of their recommendations the store’s partners, according to their website, have updated over the years. Last updated March 2010, as of this post, the list includes classics (books by Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle) and crime series selections (books by Charles Todd, Sue Grafton, Henning Mankell, Peter Robinson), as well as best-sellers (The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, I find interesting, has been translated to a stage production).
Turning to this list certainly can’t replace the joy of turning to the booksellers for one-on-one recommendations. Nevertheless, it’s a great resource to print for future reference. But how do you make a choice, when there’s 100 books and no one to talk to? You simply have to do your own research. I selected three and threw the proverbial dart. Then I checked them out. Here’s the result.
The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter
Published in 1993 and #10 of Dexter’s 13 Inspector Morse novels set in Oxford, England, this crime story centers on a cold case of a missing student. The case returns to the police blotter due to new clues sent in the form of poetry to The Times. The novel’s title is from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Honest detection, illicit sex, puns and anagrams galore, Morse’s trademark drinking and dour byplay with colleagues and suspects, plus a plot as agile as Dexter’s best — in short, everything you could possibly want in an English detective story. Bolt the door and enjoy.”
The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland
The detectives on this crime case are Chief Inspector David Brock and his female colleague Sergeant Kathy Kolla. This is the first book in Maitland’s Brock and Kolla series set in London. In 1994, The Marx Sisters was shortlisted for the prestigious U.K. CWA (Crimes Writers Association) John Creasey Award for the best first crime novel. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Two Scotland Yard detectives investigate the murder of Karl Marx’s great-granddaughters (via an illegitimate son) and the theft of the unpublished manuscript of a fourth volume of Das Kapital, in this engrossing mystery from an Australian writer making his American debut.” Kirkus Reviews wrote: “A clever, flavorsome debut with a particularly deft knack of pulling the rug out from under you in between chapters, just when you think you’re safe.”
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
A testament to the expertise behind the list, Josephine Tey is little-known and, according to this Guardian columnist, deserves to be rediscovered. Josephine Tey is a nom de plume for Elizabeth Mackintosh,who also wrote under the pen name Gordon Daviot. Her six Tey novels were written during the 1940s and ’50s. Here’s a plot summary from the back of the book:
“Miss Lucy Pym, a popular English psychologist, is guest lecturer at a physical training college. The year’s term is nearly over, and Miss Pym — inquisitive and observant — detects a furtiveness in the behavior of one student during a final exam. She prevents the girl from cheating by destroying her crib notes. But Miss Pym’s cover-up of one crime precipitates another — a fatal ‘accident’ that only her psychological theories can prove was really murder.”
Book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote about Elizabeth Mackintosh in The Washington Post, saying this about the Tey novels: “Each of the six seems as fresh today as it must have when it first appeared: elegantly written, populated with interesting and sometimes eccentric characters, witty but also laugh-out-loud funny, engaged with far deeper themes and ideas than one is accustomed to encounter in most mystery novels.”
According to Yardley, another Tey novel, The Daughter of Time, is “by far her best known.” It seeks truth about the crimes of England’s King Richard III. Not on the 100 list, but I’m thinking it’s one to inspect for future reading.
May 18, 2012
A few years ago, in a local used/rare bookshop, I came upon the original Signet paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye, published in March 1953. I couldn’t resist owning it for the memorable illustration of Holden Caulfield entering a squalid New York City neighborhood, carrying a suitcase and wearing his red hunting hat and scarf. The paperback was the version of the classic I read in high school, and I paid $50 at the shop for what once sold for 50 cents — a worthy investment in book nostalgia.
In Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger, I learned the legendary recluse hated that Signet paperback design. He fought it but couldn’t get it changed, having acquiesced to it in 1951, the year Little Brown first published The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger blamed Little Brown, which controlled the paperback rights, for allowing such a tawdry cover to be used by Signet, “caring nothing for the presentation of art.”
Before reading this engaging biography, my frame of reference regarding Salinger conformed to popular stories about the legend’s seclusion. Like most everyone else, Salinger to me was simply an eccentric hermit who once wrote a lasting classic novel. I was aware he fiercely fought any invasion of his privacy at his home in New Hampshire, fought (and won) in court Ian Hamilton’s unauthorized biography and suppressed the sale of another author’s sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. And then there was that embarrassing tell-all by Joyce Maynard. But in J. D. Salinger: A Life, I came to understand a person who grew into his extremes from accumulating personal experiences.
That includes his soldiering in the 12th Infantry Regiment during World War II. I was surprised to learn Salinger stormed Normandy beaches on D-Day and took part in the horrific events in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. He also was among the American troops discovering Nazi concentration camps. Needless to say, the psychological and emotional impact of his war experiences were profound and enduring. Slawenski writes, “Salinger the man and the events of war are as inseparable as the author and the works that he penned.”
But it was the perceived betrayals by editors and publishers in the 1950s and 1960s that significantly contributed to Salinger’s eccentricities. Shortly after he returned to New York, after the war, he learned Lippincott Press would not publish his collection of short stories (Salinger had been told it was a “done deal”). By this time, he’d already experienced magazine editors changing his story titles and The New Yorker accepting a story and then not publishing it. Yet to happen was Harcourt Brace’s decision not to honor the verbal contract to publish The Catcher in the Rye in 1950. (That’s a famous moment in literary history – Little, Brown and Company became the publisher.) Salinger reached a point where he couldn’t trust the publishing community to value and respect his work. He became extremely difficult, refusing to let editors and publishers control the presentation and publicity of his stories and novels. He would demand, resist and fight, guarding his characters and their fictional worlds as he guarded his own privacy. “Striving as he was for perfection, the thought of allowing his work to be mangled by editors in the pursuit of profits incensed him.”
In reviewing J. D. Salinger: A Life last year, critics consistently made the point it’s impossible to write a successful biography about a writer who lived a secluded life, destroyed his letters and demanded friends say nothing about him to journalists. I agree that’s probably true; however, with what is known, and what is able to be pieced together from research, a story can still be told with significant value for readers. I believe here Slawenski triumphs, as he covers not only the WW II years but also Salinger’s privileged young years on Park Avenue with his parents, his trouble in school, his family life, his interactions with the staff at The New Yorker and his struggle between his ego and his spiritual beliefs.
Salinger’s publishing life ended in 1965 with the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker. Slawenski writes about this time and Salinger’s remaining 45 years with the same engaging detail and warmth as the more notable early years. He describes Salinger’s death on January 27, 2010, as “a kind of terrible extinction.” That description fell hard on me with its heavy truth. I especially loved this line: “J. D. Salinger was unique, and many found his noble opposition comforting.” Amen.
Random House published the hard cover edition of J. D. Salinger: A Life in 2011. I read the trade paperback edition, released this year. Kenneth Slawenski is the founder of deadcaulfields.com. In January, in Salon, he wrote this interesting article: “What was J. D. Salinger working on?”