Saturday, November 22, 2008

Deconstructing Sammy: Music, Money, Madness, and the Mob by Matt Birkbeck

Sammy was a massive talent, regarded by many as among the greatest entertainers ever. He could do it all--sing, dance, act, play several instruments and he broke down many barriers for black entertainers and the perceptions of white America. Offstage, he didn't know how to live. In a futile effort to make everyone love him, Sammy made terrible decisions, both in business and his personal life and burned most every bridge, including with Sinatra.

This disturbing look at Sam's later life, long after the spotlights had dimmed, shows how he descended into drug abuse and depression. After his death in 1990, Sammy Davis, Jr. owed the largest single tax debt to the IRS in history. His family was divided, his estate insolvent and the rights to his music, image, even his name, was owned by others.

Birkbeck's book chronicles the above-and-beyond efforts of Albert "Sonny" Murray, a former federal prosecutor, who spent years trying to untangle the train wreck that was Sammy's estate. Murray also tries to help Sammy's last wife, Altovise, a drunken golddigger who wanted her privileged life back but lacked the personal mettle to do the hard work of recovery. Altovise is both tragic and unforgivable. Sonny is the exact opposite; a Job-like man who sacrificed his personal life and earnings to try to restore Sammy's name. A page-turner but sadder than sad.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Deportees by Roddy Doyle

Sorry about the vernacular but I fookin' love Roddy Doyle, okay? I don't care what you think of him and I won't apologize--I love him. I read whatever he writes and usually enjoy every word. There have been some books that are better than others, natch, but he's got a way with dialogue and a feel for how people are and can be.

Imagine my surprise when I found out he had a collection of short stories called "The Deportees".

I was thrilled!

Imagine my further surprise when I found out it had been out since January of this year.

I. Was. Pissed.

At a man named Jason.

Jason used to work for Penguin as a sales rep and knew I loved Doyle and always hooked me up with advance copies. He even got me a signed copy of "A Star Called Henry", bless his heart. (G-d I loved that book) Then Jason took another job, a better job, and stopped repping and now I don't know anyone at Penguin and can't get my Doyle early, let alone for free so I'm like the rest of the rabble--uninformed and paying for books like a chump.

Alright, I wasn't pissed at Jason, I was pissed at myself for not keeping up on one of my very favorite authors.

As for the book, if you're a Doyle fan, you have to read it. The eight stories aren't all great but the man can write such circles around so many of his contemporaries, it scares me (I'm actually a little scare right now writing this!).

Best of all, Doyle often revisits his characters and in this collection, we get to catch up with Jimmy Rabbitte, manager and founder of Dublin's hardest working soul rebels, the Commitments! It's a few years after the band has imploded. Jimmy's a family man now and, despite his better judgment, he decides, no he NEEDS to put a new band together. The Deportees,
a multi-culti cast of musicians who form a band to perform Woody Guthrie songs, are a reflection of the wave of immigration that happened as Ireland went from being penniless, backward-ass Ireland to the Celtic Tiger, the most economically successful country in Europe in recent memory. And reading about Jimmy again (and his Da!) is like running into an old friend you forgot how much you loved.

When the White House Was Ours by Porter Shreve

If you look closely while watching old episodes of Star Trek, you’ll see the letters GNDN near various pipes and plumbing on the interior of the old Enterprise. It was an in-joke on the set. GNDN stands for ‘goes nowhere; does nothing”. That’s one of the first thoughts that came to mind after reading Porter Shreve’s latest novel, When the White House Was Ours.

The novel is described on the back cover as “loosely based on Porter Shreve's own childhood" (isn’t that what many novels are?). It was heavily reviewed in PW and Kirkus,, prior to publication and blurbed by big names like Lorrie Moore and Jim Lehrer, so I figured his publisher was really trying to break him out with this book. The rub is, I got done with this one and remembered feeling the same way I felt
a decade ago after reading his debut novel, The Obituary Writer, : GNDN.

Shreve seems a capable writer and includes all the elements that should make for a good novel: lots of characters, both likable and un-, a few plot twists, a pair of hapless parents whose marriage is quietly falling apart, and a sweet, shambling kid who’s caught in it all, along with some relatable coming-of-age yearnings and pubescent angst.

It kept me turning pages, as opposed to putting it down and invoking my “fifty page rule” but there was just NO payoff when I finished. The central theme, his weird parents attempt at starting an alternative school in bicentennial-era Washington DC while struggling to save their marriage and family, didn’t make me care about them. The characters didn’t grab me or make me love them or hate them. His sister wasn’t even developed enough as a character to warrant inclusion (maybe his mom made him put her in the book). If this ends up being his "breakout" book, someone puh-lease explain it to me.

What's nutty is I'm likely meet him this weekend at a local book festival and I doubt I'll have the balls to tell him what I really think.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

There is very little I can add to everything that's been said about this marvelous book. First the indie booksellers warmed to it, then the reviewers, then the chain stores and now Oprah (insert sound of heavenly choir here) so millions will read it and deservedly so. This debut novel will be read forever.

In many ways, this is Hamlet retold but set in 20th century Wisconsin and featuring a shitload of dogs; way more than I remember in Hamlet, at least, and I checked.

Wroblewski has created some real beauty on the pages though his gift for description does slow things down and you have to work to get through these 500+ pages but there's nothing wrong with that. To finish the story of Edgar, his dead father, his evil uncle, Almondine, who might be the greatest dog ever, and the many other Sawtelle dogs, is vastly rewarding and emotionally rich.

As for Oprah,
it only took 61 previous tries but I knew she'd eventually come around and see things my way. You go, girl.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pigeons: the fascinating saga of the world's most revered and reviled bird

Before I go to dinner this evening and return this book to the pigeon enthusiast friend who lent it to me, I'm putting in a WAY overdue post because I see I haven't posted since late August. Even I'm surprised and I was behind then! For shame Book Blog Boy (say that 3 times fast)!!

As a self-proclaimed bird nerd, I borrowed the book because I had hoped to learn enough to change how I feel about pigeons.
It isn't that I like them or dislike them--they're just here, there and everywhere, they aren't terribly pretty or engaging and they seem kind of dumb. In truth, they just don't really do much for me. I mean, wrens they ain't. (Wrens hold a particular fascination for me.)

I hoped this book would give me a new understanding and new found respect for the bird that most everyone hates; those boids we often refer to as "rats with wings".

This is what I learned:
  • Pigeons have a vast and long history with humans.
  • They can travel incredible distances at incredible speed, whether they're racing, delivering messages or just migrating.
  • The people that get into pigeons, REALLY get into pigeons, often to the point of creepy obsession.
  • They're not really dirtier nor do they carry more disease than any other animals; theysimply shit a lot, they shit big for their size and they shit near us since their habitat is our habitat and that disgusts us.
My biggest disappointment wasn't with the birds; it was with the author. Despite the blurbs from big names, the book reads like a bunch of Parade magazine pieces and not very well-written ones, if there are well-written Parade magazine pieces (Would those be People magazine pieces?). Blechman fails to make us care about the pigeons, the pigeon racers, the pigeon breeders, the pigeon hunters or the other pigeon devotees in the book; most just seem kind of nuts and a little sad. Oh, and his transitions at the chapter endings are atrocious! (People will never hire him with transitions like these.)

There may be a better book on pigeons out there. Should you care to seek it out,
do so and skip this one.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

I was enthralled by Bryson's earliest books about the English language, The Mother Tongue and Made in America. I read and re-read them and still turn to them. Then he broke through with his books about travel and he became a huge star. People were devouring Notes From a Small Island and A Walk in the Woods but they left me cold. To me, they were cranky and not much fun and I gave up on him. Fortunately for Bryson, he didn't need me and the books sold millions of copies and achieved bestseller status.

Thunderbolt Kid, his memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950's, strikes just the right balance. It is a personal memoir loaded with historical context, facts and figures and it's funny as hell. It's been years since I've enjoyed his work and it is a welcome return. A perfect vacation read or one of those books you buy because your plane has been delayed indefinitely and you don't have to be a baby boomer to "get" it.
Had I the time, I'm sure this could have been read in one sitting. Out in paperback, this is worth your time if you like memoirs or the author.

Dream City by Brendan Short

Remember Big Little Books? I had a few as a kid when they were probably on their last legs but there was something about them I loved. The heft of this small, almost square book and the stories inside appealed to me. They also appeal to Michael Halligan, who becomes obsessed with them, believing they are the key to undoing his life's unhappiness in Short's promising debut novel.

We meet Michael as a five year old and stay with him until he's reaches old age though in many respects, little changes. Michael remains obsessed with the Big Little Books and his strange desire to own every one ever made, including the elusive Trouble in the City of Dreams. The novel is peopled by some interesting characters, including Michael's brutal father and lonely mother and captures parts of the 20th century quite well. Thing is, it's sort of odd. I didn't love it, it didn't wow me; in fact, about a third of the way through the book, I thought about putting it down. It's not a knockout of a book in terms of style or craft nor is it terribly challenging but Short made me want to keep turning the pages and I'm glad I stayed with it. Now that he's gotten that painful first novel out of the way, I'll be interested to read what's next from him.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Happy Anniversary

I just realized that I started this dippy thing, I mean, this fabulous blog two years ago. My first post was August 11, 2006! If you know me at all, I'm sure you're surprised I even have had the discipline to maintain it two months, let alone two years.

It sure doesn't feel like dos anos but I'm glad I'm still at it and I appreciate those of you who have found your way here, told friends and have encouraged me.

Drink up, kids. Here's to me.

Below are my thoughts on a few of the 8 or 10 books I've read since I last posted a review. More to come. I promise.

Assisted Loving by Bob Morris

Sub-titled True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad, Bob Morris, a 40-something, style writer for the NYT, gives us the skinny on his father's love life and his own involvement in it, (which sounds creepy but isn't). Only a few months after Bob's mom passes away, his 80+ year old father, Joe, an irrepressible character of a guy, starts dating again and asks Bob for his help. Bob, gay, single, and a perpetual self-saboteur of his own relationships, grudgingly agrees and quickly finds his father is getting way more action than he is. After a long, mostly happy marriage to a women he truly loved and her long, lingering illness, Joe doesn't want to wait around to meet another woman. Bob not only has a hard time with his dad's fervor but is also rather jealous of his head-first approach to getting back into the dating pool

Joe, unforgivingly set in his ways as only an 80 year Jew can be, splits his time between a retirement community in Great Neck, where it's 3 women for every man, and Palm Beach, Florida, where the odds are even more in his favor, but has a hard time at first. He can't really describe
to Bob what he wants in a woman, but he'll "know it when he sees it", which naturally drives Bob crazy. Eventually, Bob gets in the game, too, and suddenly, father and son have way more in common than might be comfortable to some. A quick read, it is sweet as candy and, at times, funny as hell.

The only downside is Bob's inability to get a grip on his relationship with his father. A number of times, he comes across as a petulant child, embarassed as a pissy teenager at his father eating with his mouth open or his choice in clothes. I kept waiting for Bob to grow up and realize how lucky he is to have this time and opportunity with his dad. Instead, he moans. A lot. Though I do admire the fact that he was honest portraying himself this way in the book, the repeated "woe is me" stuff slows the book down and could have been cut down some.

The Official Punk Rock Book of Lists by Amy Wallace and Handsome Dick Manitoba

This has got to be the dumbest, lamest thing I've ever seen. I'm sure I've said that before about any number of things (George W. as president, techno-sushi, sitcoms starring Jim Belushi) but, geez, I think I really mean it this time.

I didn't really want the book; I wanted to meet co-author and Dictators lead singer Handsome Dick Manitoba and, like so many others before me, say out loud, "Look at that Handsome Dick!" but the guys at the publishers booth said it was a mistake. He was never really scheduled to come to LA and, in fact, co-author Amy Wallace wasn't coming either because she just had back surgery. They gave me a copy/booby prize. I figured it might be fun in a sort of bathroom book kind of way. WRONG.

Many of the lists are the authors own creation and are either common knowledge (13 punks who OD'd, 7 punks who whipped it out or got naked), or are so stupid, I couldn't even believe it. I'm way too old to try to be punker-than-thou but seriously--108 Punk sub-genres? 'spaz punk'? 'bandana thrash'? 'Swedish enema punk'? C'mon! Or this little gem--Gilby Clark's 10 best punk rock solos! The dude from GnR? Go buy some Aqua-Net, Gilby. By the way, how's the new record coming? The only slightly cool thing about this hunk o' crap are the illustrations by Cliff Mott.

Spare yourself and go spend the 17 bucks on a Dictators record.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A few blogs worth a look

Work has been busy, we're redecorating the house and there has been some travel, of late. In other words, lots of lame excuses on my part for not being more up to date but since no one actually reads this thing, I'm cool with getting to the 5 or 6 books I've read this month (most of which I've really liked) when I have more time.

However, I've come across a few interesting book blogs I thought I'd pass on to the people who don't read mine.

First up, Lou Reads. I don't know a lot about her but we seem to have similar taste in some of the books we read and blog about. She's got a nice, breezy style and I appreciate her take on what she reads. Plus, it's called Lou Reads and I'm a sucker for a play on words that leads me back to the irascible Velvet Underground guitarist and singer.

And the colored girls blog:

I haven't tried Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast yet but I LOVE the idea. When's the last time someone read to you? For the short story lovers and those who love to hear the written word, I dig it. Great mix of authors and stories--The Cask of Amontillado, Richard Brautigan, Roses for Emily, to name a few.

Start downloading at

Last is Field-Tested Books. As they say on the site, "We had this notion that somehow through experimentation we could identify how our perception of a book is affected by the place where we read it." So they've collected some well-known writers (Andrei Codrescu, James Finn Garner), some up-and-comers and some scribes that are new to me and posted their pieces on what it meant to them to read Hunter S. Thompson in Bangkok or C. S. Lewis in New Jersey and many others. Kind of cool, kind of insightful.

To start your field work, go here and then click Field-Tested Books on the right side.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

On being a hater

There are plenty of books I've never made it through despite their reputation and certain authors whom I've found to be just awful even though they've been canonized as great masters. Maybe those books were "of their times" or I'm just not smart enough but mostly, I can only guess these books and authors just didn't speak to me the way others do.

Going through my reader after being on vacation, I found this terrific piece from the Times Online:

I thought this was great to see people own up to hating D. H. Lawrence or Dostoevsky or admitting to throwing a Patricia Cornwell novel off a boat.

Take that, Henry James!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Nobody really needs me to weigh in on this one--it was a Book Sense pick and then Starbucks picked it as a title for sale throughout their zillion stores and it's become a huge bestseller so you've probably heard of it or read it or thought about doing so. I say, hell yeah, do it. It's wonderful.

Often I'm too much of a snob to even read a blockbuster bestseller but don't let this conceit stop you
. It ain't Tolstoy but I didn't set out to read Tolstoy (actually, I've never read Tolstoy, though I've nothing against him. I just haven't gotten to him yet). Still need an endorsement from ol' Reed Next? I cried in the first eight pages and devoured the book from there. 'Nuff said.

I will say I was reluctant to read a book with a dog as a narrator. A few years back, there seemed to be a mess of 'em--King by John Berger and the efforts of the protagonist of Dogs of Babel to make his dog talk, etc. It just seemed so gimmicky and every publisher was publishing their "talking dog" books. Feh! Sure, sometimes I think it'd be great if my dog could talk but that's part of her appeal, too. She can't speak and yet we can communicate in other ways and that's one of the reasons we're friends. That's probably why
I absolutely loved Enzo and wish he were my friend.

There are times when the book gets a little melodramatic but these instances are forgivable. The relationship Enzo and Denny have is so honest and Enzo's own musings--his love of television, his desire for opposable thumbs, his belief in reincarnation--are just delightful. His perspective is so genuine and funny and though we'll never know what our dogs really think and feel, I want to believe Stein gets it right.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Film Club: A Memoir by David Gilmour

First off, no. It's not that David Gilmour.

This David Gilmour is a Canayjin (say it out loud) novelist who sees his teenage son, Jesse, start to flounder in school, despite being a bright kid. It gets so bad that Jesse begs to be allowed to drop out of grade 10. (Notice that? Grade 10 not tenth grade? I've been to Canada. Twice.) Gilmour, divorced from Jesse's mother but still on good terms, struggles with the decision. Throughout much of the book, he is an out of work film critic and at loose ends himself but finally allows Jesse to drop out with the requirement that they watch three films together per week of Gilmour's choosing. No prep, no previews, no quizzes. No excuses.

Now I'm a sucker for father and son stories. My own father was quite the movie lover and I have the fondest memories of watching movies with him, movies that were sometimes well above my head, but which he patiently, but never patronizingly, explained. Some of this book took me back to that so thank you, Gilmour Boys.

What really worked well was that watching the movies together gave them something to talk about; a shared experience, which led to more talking. Gilmour struggles with his decision to let Jesse drop out and often second guesses himself and Jesse, deep in the maelstrom of teenage existence and young love, is a little melodramatic at times but he pulls it together when he needs to. Still, it leads to trust and love and dialogue and growth for them both and that's where the short, sweet story succeeds.

BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

I hadn't read Mary Roach before but had always heard good things. After reading BONK, I think I'll read both her backlist titles, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Not only did I find her work wildly informative but she is funny as hell. Many nights, as I lie in bed reading the book (or did I lay in bed? I never remember), trying to hold back the laughs so as not to wake my wife, I'd finally bust out with a proper and satifying guffaw and rouse my wife from slumber. Sorry babe.(So you know, I'm among the last people on the planet who actually guffaw anymore. Guffawing was outlawed in the early days of the Bush administration so let's just keep this entre nous or Dick Cheney might send his flying monkeys to my house and send me to Gitmo)

I also found myself, involuntarily, squeezing my thighs together in revulsion at some of Roach's scientific descriptions, including certain devices like the penis cam, which, you guessed it, was inserted INSIDE someone's hoo-ha, voluntarily and in the name of science. This usually led to a bout of wincing and brow-knitting. As well, I learned entirely too much about the plumbing with which my wife is equipped. Still, Roach makes you want to keep reading despite the often uncomfortable knowledge you gain about the science behind the sex and she keeps you laughing throughout.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey

My eye was caught by what appeared to be African-inspired artwork on the front cover and by the back cover copy of this book, a debut novel from an author I'd never heard of and whose name I don't know how to pronounce. (Can anybody help me out here? It's a marvelous name.) Without looking for them, I then stumbled across a couple of favorable reviews of Blood Kin that convinced me to move it up the pile. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The book begins as the unnamed president of an unnamed country is overthrown in a violent coup d'etat. The beginnings of this new order is narrated, in alternating chapters, by the former presidents' barber, his portraitist and his chef. (Later chapters are narrated by the women in their lives.) Much of the story takes place at the presidential residence as the junta begins their hold as the new governing body, finding the men unsure if they are to be held responsible for the crimes of the old guard or if they will continue on in their same capacities under the new regime.

An intriguing premise, which I found tense but tenuous. In the situations these characters faced, I certainly didn't expect warmth or charm but I had hoped for grace or redemption. Instead, I found
the characters flat and unlikeable, especially the wife of the portraitist (don't get me started on that broad) and the story unlikely. Despite the solid reviews, it just didn't grab me the way I had hoped.

Leif Enger comes to town

I met Leif Enger in January in Louisville at Winter Institute but I was kind of loaded and feel as though I overwhelmed the poor man a bit with my "enthusiasm" for his first novel, Peace Like A River.

Last night, I had the opportunity to see him again at a signing during a multi-city book tour to support his latest novel,
So Brave, Young, and Handsome. (Go to February 2008 for my thoughts on this marvelous book.) Since I wasn't drinking with friends before the signing, I was likely to be less of an ass this time. (I was.) Plus I figured if he didn't run away when he saw me coming, he might have forgotten the whole ordeal. (He had.)

Before a crowd of only 20 or 25 people, Leif spoke a bit, read from the book and fielded questions.

The reading was magnificent. He was able to transport us all to 1915 Minnesota where we were lucky enough to have breakfast with Glendon Hale, Monte Becket, Monte's son, Redstart and his wife, Susannah. Later, we were treated to the spectacle that was Hood Roberts debut at the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma. I always tell my authors "no one knows your book better than you" and it was obvious Leif not only knew his book but assuredly loved his characters.

Several of his comments stayed with me:

On themes of both his novels, he said "Atonement is an important thing for me. Redemption is also an important thing for me."

When asked if he is teaching in between writing novels, he said that he isn't but is intrigued by the idea. However, he felt he might not be the best writing teacher. "I don't know much about what's under the hood of this thing. I just try to write clean sentences."

Someone remarked about how spirituality was a quality in his characters and he said he preferred to think of it as faith, which he then described. "Faith is like your name or the glasses you put on in the morning--it's how you look at things."

He came off as a very genuine fellow and it was a pleasure meeting him again and hearing him read. He said his next book is starting to come together but it'll be a departure for him. It will be set in the present day, written in third person and the main character is likely to be a 15 year old boy growing up on the shores of Lake Superior.

I can't wait.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

Benjamin R. Ford--Bennie--is stuck at O'Hare trying desperately to get to the West Coast to attend the commitment ceremony of his long estranged daughter, Stella. Bennie has been many things--a drunk, a poet, an academic, a husband. He pushed his world away from him but there's a small chance it can come around to him again if he can just get out of the g-ddamn airport. With his flight canceled and time ticking away, he angrily starts writing a letter to American Airlines demanding his money back for the tremendous inconvenience, the extent of which, they'll never know. The whole book, a slight novel clocking in at only 180 pages, is his ongoing, self-revealing pissed-off missive to American.

Miles writes about alcohol as a "drinks" writer for the New York Times but if he only has one novel in him (though I hope not), he has acquitted himself most admirably. In describing his parents tortured relationship, he says "They were less parents than cellmates." When his father dies when Bennie was 15, he recalls it this way: "He was only forty-eight but his death felt like that of a nursing home patient who'd been bedridden and cancer-racked for years: an act of mercy, a gift rather than a theft." I kept re-reading these little bits and sucking on them like a hard candy I love to eat but rarely have. Dear American Airlines is rich, it is funny, it is quotable and it is heartbreaking.

Just Say Nu by Michael Wex

Simply, Michael Wex rocks. I gushed over Born to Kvetch (which was actually the first booked I blogged about when I started this mess in August of 2006) and I'll gush over this one. Now you'll say to yourself, "Reed Next? Doesn't sound Jewish." Well, it was Nechtbergowitz when we lived in Old Neighborhood but became Next when we moved the suburbs. I digress. Just Say Nu is a wonderful examination of a very rich language and not in a textbook kind of way but, in this case, a practical way. Wex is teaching you phrases that can be of use like small talk, words and terms for greetings, family, food and drink and the like even if you don't plan on speaking Yiddish. He also highlights 5 words that'll get you through any Yiddish conversation and shows the amazing range and versatility of words like "Nu".

But like the kid who starts looking up terms for sex in the dictionary and encyclopedia at that certain age (c,mon, you did it, too), Wex shares this information, as well. Nu? Need to know eleven Yiddish words for 'breasts'? See chapter 8. A variety of ways to tell people to shut up? Chapter 4 is loaded. How about a Yiddish version of "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer? See page 61 and get ready to sing along.

Even if you speak NO Yiddish, I'm going to bet you can figure this one out:

Haysn hays ikh Maurice, nor rifn rift men mikh "the space cowboy".

Useful, funny, sweet, and informative beyond expectation, this book is an absolute mekheiyeh. You should enjoy.

Monday, May 05, 2008

J. K. Rowling missing

Saw this in today's Shelf Awareness:

"Poof. For the first time since 1998, there are no Harry Potter titles on the New York Times (Times) noted. The Harry pileup on the hardcover fiction list led to several changes of the paper's bestsellers, including the creation of a separate children's list.

Amazing! For 10 years, there has been a Potter presence on the List. Say what you will about Harry but that's quite a literary and cultural achievement.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ron Currie wins Young Lions award

As mentioned a few posts ago, Ron Currie was among the finalists for the New York Public Library's Young Lions fiction prize, awarded to promising writers under thirty-five. He faced some stiff competition but prevailed for his debut collection, God Is Dead, and collected a cool 10 grand. Bravo, Ron.

I blogged about this book last June:

Undoubtedly worth buying and reading.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Resurrectionist by Jack O'Connell

Lots of hype on this one and unquestionably a page-turner, but...

A pharmacist named Sweeney, shattered by an accident that has left his son, Danny, comatose, takes a new job at an esteemed but very strange clinic where the creepy Dr. Peck has successfully revived a small number of coma patients. Danny has been admitted and Dr. Peck believes that he is an excellent candidate for "resurrection." Prior to his accident, Danny was a fanatic for a comic book called
Limbo, the adventures of a troupe of circus freaks and their travails. The chapters alternate between the tale of the freaks, led by a chicken-boy (aptly named Chick) and what unfolds with Sweeney, Danny, Dr. Peck, Peck's daughter, and a whacked-out biker gang called The Abominations.

Confusing? Sure it is but that's not the problem. Between switching back and forth from one story to the other, so much shit happens, it's like O'Connell has tried to cram the book with every damn thing he can think of only to have me wondering, with about 80 pages left, "what the hell is going on and how's he going to pull it together?" Oddly, I figured it out as I was in the half-sleep before dozing off for the night (how appropriate) and he does pull it off, I suppose, but not without leaving the reader absolutely exhausted by his kitchen sink approach.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Slackito ergo suck

Okay, it's not really Latin; more like pidgin Latin but I'm calling myself out: I slack therefore I suck.

I've got two books that I need to write about, both of which I really liked, but it's been busy and I haven't felt all that creative so I haven't written and now I'm feeling that guilt and pressure of not having done so (awww, poor blogger dork--such a burden being you). Kind of like when you DVR a bunch of stuff and you don't really feel like watching TV but you get that nagging sense that the shows are piling up so you better watch them and get them erased as if it really matters, which, of course, it doesn't but this does seem to be a more recent anxiety of mine.

Look soon for posts on the delightful
Just Say Nu?, the delightful follow-up to the delightful Born to Kvetch by the delightful Michael Wex and Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, a timelier tome, I can't imagine, what with American crapping out on more than 3000 flights last week while their planes were inspected. The book won't be out for a few weeks but it's a good one and one that you will dig.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Young Lions Fiction award

The Young Lions Fiction award nominees have been named:

Ron Currie, Jr. (God Is Dead)
Ellen Litman (The Last Chicken in America)
Peter Nathaniel Malae (Teach the Free Man)
Dinaw Mengestu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears)
Emily Mitchell (The Last Summer of the World)

I bring this up because I was impressed with Ron Currie's book that I blogged about last June: In my post, I said I believed there was some residual grad school-ness about the book and someone commented "Dude, Ron didn't go to grad school!" Loved that.

Though I haven't read any of the other books, I've heard good things about Litman's and Mengestu's books.

The award ceremony will take place on 4/28/08 and the winner gets $10,000. Oddly, actor Ethan Hawke was a co-founder of the award. While I think it's a wonderful thing and he should be commended, something about Hawke makes me ill.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Independent booksellers pick their books of the year

A bunch of great reads and a few surprises as the American Booksellers Association names the Book Sense 2008 Book of the Year winners and runners-up in four categories (Fiction, Non-fiction, Children's Lit and Children's Illustrated):

Most of these are bestsellers already but this will give them all a boost. I'm pleased to say more than a few of the winners and runners-up were written up on this very blog.

I'm hoping Hosseini will be able to attend the June awards ceremony at Book Expo America at the LA Convention Center. I'll be at the reception and would love to hear him speak.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency on HBO

Though I haven't read the last two or three books in the series, I did enjoy the adventures of Precious Ramotswe by Alexander McCall Smith so I was pleased to hear that the series is being adapted for television by HBO. If they can keep the same light touch, charm and warmth found in the books, I believe it will be a success.

This from Shelf Awareness:

HBO has reached agreement "with the Weinstein Co., the BBC and filmmakers Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis for a drama skein based on Alexander McCall Smith's popular book series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," Variety reported.

A two-hour pilot was recently completed in Botswana, and HBO hopes to launch the series early next year.

Jill Scott will play Precious Ramotswe. Other cast members include "Anika Noni Rose as Ramotswe's quirky secretary and Lucien Msamati as Ramotswe's love interest," Variety said.

"Particularly fascinating to me was working and filming in an African country where old and new are currently coexisting," said Minghella, "where traditional values have not yet been eroded by the demands and efficiencies and neuroses of the modern. It was a privilege to be working on a film which celebrates what we can learn from Africa, and not what we think we can teach it."

Here's a link to the Hollywood Reporter w/ a little more info:

The Beatles Off the Record by Keith Badman

This is one of those clip job collections, a massive gathering of interviews and interview excerpts from all over the place and put into chronological order from 1960 to 1970 and so runs the gamut from recollections of a pre-Beatles world to the unprecedented rise and subsequent stardom to the break-up. Informative and entertaining, though at times a little redundant, for the Beatles fan. At 400+ pages, you'd think there was little more to say but I've just begun the second volume, The Beatles: The Dream Is Over which clocks in at over 500 pages. Yoy!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Good Birders Don't Wear White: 50 Tips From North America's Top Birders

Edited by Pete Dunne, this is a collection of short essays from 50 of the top birding experts in the country, including David Sibley, Tim Gallagher, Kenn Kaufman and the Stokes. There are some great tips and some completely average tips but this would make a good gift for someone you know who's new to birding or for whom you aren't sure what to buy. As for good birders not wearing white, well, it all depends.

Friday, February 29, 2008

So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger

A friend who had read this before I did described the book as cinematic and I'd have to agree. While reading it, I could simultaneously see the whole story play out on a big, letterboxed screen so, if it were a film, So Brave is part buddy picture, part road movie and part Peckinpah Western, though one set in 1915, as the last vestiges of the iconic American West were dying for good.

I was a huge fan of Enger's debut novel Peace Like A River which catapulted him to some fame and acclaim. Naturally, there had to be some real pressure to write something on par with it but I think he has acquitted himself, admirably. Enger writes as beautifully as I remembered and the book is at turns exciting, funny, sad and redeeming.

So Brave is set in Minnesota in 1915 where Monte Becket, a novelist with one book and some fame and acclaim to his name (hmmm), lives with his wife and son. While struggling to write his next book, he sees a man come down the river on an unusual craft that he pilots standing up. The pilot, Glendon Hale, is a charming enigma. Slowly, Glendon reveals he is a former bank robber and outlaw, who has lived quietly for several years, building his signature boat and staying out of reach of the law's long arm. Despite being seemingly at peace, Hale is burdened by regret for walking out on his wife, Blue, more than 20 years before, when he was a very different person and what Glendon believes he must do is apologize to Blue, plain and simple, no expectations. A real friendship develops between Monte and Glendon and the novelist accompanies the ex-outlaw

Along the way, the pair are doggedly pursued by ex-Pinkerton Charlie Siringo (a real and fascinating historical figure in his own right), befriended by aspiring cowboy Hood Roberts, and reacquainted with sharpshooter Deep Breath Darla before reaching California, where Blue is believed to live.

I totally respect that Enger didn't rush out another novel to ride the success of Peace Like A River but I hope it won't be another six years before he regales us again with another magnificent story. The book won't be in stores until May so special order it or reserve it now so as not to forget.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

This offer only good until midnight Friday. Seriously.

Amazing book marketing here. From 12:01 am this morning until midnight on 2/29, Random House is offering the entire text of Charles Bock's Beautiful Children for download. If you have the paper, the ink and the time, you can even print out the whole thing.

A bold stroke from Random, the biggest of the big houses, in both trying to break Bock's much-hyped and well-reviewed debut novel and reach their audience in an alternate manner. Not only will this appeal to the younger, I-download-everything-to-my-Ipod crowd but by making it easy and available, it should reach the less technologically-dependent readers who will take the chance and download a book to their laptop or home PC, probably for the first time.

Check it out here:

Now let's see how many other publishers follow suit.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cuttin' Up by Craig Marberry

If you know me at all, you know better than to get me started talking about my hair. I will bore you to death but will wax eloquent endlessly (at least I think so). For the past 20+ years, my hair has been cut by a variety of black barbers starting with Kevin Foston, my next door neighbor in the dorms and who, G-d bless him, would often give me my $3 haircut on credit because I needed time to come up with $3. The thing is, he got it right, and since white barbers were hit and miss, at best, I kept seeking black barbers to "bust my wig", as we said back then.

As Marberry says in Cuttin' Up, the barber shop is "the black man's country club", a place where black men can relax and talk and counsel and crack on each other and I know I didn't realize this when I would stroll in, looking for a cut.
I was a whiteboy going into a black shop and I wasn't always welcomed by the barbers or their regular customers. However, those times when I was made to feel at ease, when they'd say, "have a seat, bro, I'll get you in", I would stay with those barbers for years. I was grateful that I was allowed to be a small part of the community that is the black barber shop and those guys became my friends.

Marberry tries to bring this to life in short interviews with barbers and customers from all over the country along with photos of shops and memorabilia. Some are funny and others try to be kind of touching but it's uneven and there seems to be a lot of repetition of the same types of stories. You might read this and ask, "It's just a barber shop. What did he expect?" Well, I think there is a book out there about the charm and allure of the black shop, about the history and sense of place that exists there and if that was Marberry's goal, the book tries but falls short. However, I do hope someone will write that book.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Right in Steve Jobs kisser!

Great piece in today's Times in response to Apple's Steve Jobs sounding the death knell for reading a few weeks back.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

He's obviously one of us

This was the lede in today's Shelf Awareness:

"Ah, the smell of pure print."--Spoken after a deep breath by a 10-year-old boy as he came into the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Mequon, Wis., on Monday. The moment "made me smile along with the customers and booksellers who saw and heard him," Pattie Cox of Schwartz wrote, adding that Monday was the boy's birthday, and his parents had brought him to the store for a treat.

I hope that kid had a great 10th birthday.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Goodbye, writer's strike. I'll miss you.

While everyone is rejoicing about the settlement of the writer's strike, I have to say I'm a little sad (like poor, doomed Dawson, at left) because I read a lot more during primetime than I would have otherwise.

I'm not one of those
high-minded, 'kill your television' types, who attributes the downfall of society to watching the tube but, like most of America, I do find myself watching too much stupid fucking television. (Getting a DVR has changed how we watch, but there is a new pressure: a feeling of getting too far behind in what we record and then feeling a perceived pressing need to watch so as to clear it out and not get even further behind. Ah, technology, you millstone around my neck.)

If anything, I'm reading more books simultaneously than I have in years--I just finished Leif Enger's new one (loved it! will blog soon!), I'm reading a birding book, Michael Wex's Nu?, a book on black barber shops, a collection of interviews w/ the Beatles and I'm anxious to start Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, not to mention being only 3 weeks behind in my New Yorker's, which is a rarity.

In any event, now that we'll have our favorite programs back (in a few months, anyway), I hope I can maintain a better balance of good books and too muck stupid fucking television. As for the writers, good for you for getting what you deserve. Now get back to work. Heroes was just getting good.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Juicy and delicious

Okay kids, perhaps all you big city publishing types have known about this for months and have vetted the story and made interns call fact-checkers and found it to be just so much chin-music but here in the Flyover States, we're just getting this info and if half of it is true, it's quite the grand conspiracy.

Now I know Warren Hinckle is kind of legendary for being on the nutty side of the sundae bar (though I loved the Argonaut when it was in printed form in the early '90's). However, if there is truth to this and if he were the one to break the story that Judith Regan isn't the planetary scourge she was portrayed as during the
whole O.J. If I Did It (and I did, too) imbroglio, and is really only as evil as we thought she was before all this, well, it's so gooey-delish, so dripping with the hot fudge of Fox News human nastiness, I can't even stand it! You can't make this up and I hope no one did.

So has this story come and gone and I missed it somehow? If not, how is it this hasn't come to light before now?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford

About 10 years ago, I came across this book and just loved it. It went out of print before I thought to buy it so it made my list of books I always look for when I go into used bookstores. During the holidays, I spent a day wandering around Yellow Springs, Ohio, and sure enough, there it was on the top shelf of the cooking section in a small book store for just $12. Sold American! Hell. I'd've bought two copies if they had had them. The joy was in re-reading it and finding it better, funnier and more informative than I remembered.

The story of cereal as a staple of the breakfast table began as a by-product of the health movement during the early part of the 20th century in Battle Creek, Michigan (as featured in The Road to Wellville by T. Coraghessan Boyle) and was helmed by John W. Kellogg, a doctor who ran a sanitarium in Battle Creek. The uncomfortable and apparently ever-present spectre of constipation was on the minds of most Americans and was one of the driving forces in creating a cereal that was good for you. After many unsuccessful attempts to create a healthy but tasty breakfast food, the invention of the flake created an uproar. Today we regard the flake as déclassé and out of style--we have puffs and o's and loops and jacks and bits--but before all of these came the flake and it revolutionized brekky and created a giant industry. From there, you run into C W Post, General Mills and Kelloggs’ own brother, W. K. Kellogg, who really took the flake and ran with it, much to his uptight brothers’ chagrin.

Fast forward a few years and you’ll find that the cereal biz was perhaps the most influential industry to utilize advertising in radio and later in television. Cereal ads created some of the most memorable characters of our youths--Cap’n Crunch (conceived by Jay Ward, creator of Bullwinkle and Rocky), Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Quisp, Quake, Lucky the Leprechaun, Sugar Bear and a zillion others--and we ate breakfast with them almost every day.

If you can find the book, buy it. Maybe read it over breakfast.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Winter Institute 08

It took me all damn week but I'm finally posting some info and photos from last weekend in Louisville. The American Booksellers Association started Winter Institute three years ago as a chance to add more educational services directly for booksellers. In attendance were 500 booksellers from all over the country, sales reps, publishing bigwigs, people who will soon open new stores, authors, both established and up-and-comers, the always amazing ABA staff and the assorted book dork like me. While this same crowd attends Book Expo America, the show is such a huge, sprawling production that the opportunity to put on meaningful classes is almost unachievable. This is an excellent alternative and I was really happy to have attended if only for a day and a half (the Institute ran from Thursday evening until Sunday morning).

The big houses were all flogging new titles and brought some name firepower like Augusten Burroughs and Mary Roach and authors they're trying to break like Garth Stein whose upcoming The Art of Racing in the Rain has Harper Collins heaving with high hopes.

A few other titles that were getting a lot of buzz:

--Hachette/Grand Central (or whatever their name is this week) is pushing Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me by Ben Karlin, the former executive producer of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report

--Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles from Houghton Mifflin

--The Resurrectionist and Mudbound from Algonquin. What they say goes so expect both of these to do well

and the one I've been eagerly awaiting and which I just started, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger's first new novel since the amazing Peace Like A River. Despite the fact that I gushed like a teenage fanboy when I met him, he still agreed to take a photo with me:

Leif Enger and Reed Next. What a nice guy despite his obvious discomfort! Sorry Leif but love the Slim-Jim tie!

Here are some more photos of the Friday evening author reception:

Book Sense maven Mark Nichols, who I hope greets me at the gates of Heaven and says "I was able to make some calls and get you in." That's just the kind of man he is and I hope I'm that lucky.

The lovely Lindsay McGuirk, the latest addition to the all-stars at Algonquin.

Speaking of Algonquin, here's Craig Popelars,
Algonquin VP of marketing, just ruining the picture! Wait'll Hellfire!

John Mutter, the big pen at Shelf Awareness, flanked by Hap Houlihan and Wyn Morris of the soon-to-be Morris Book Shop in Lexington, KY

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Audible and Kindle news

Thought you'd be interested to see the two articles about Amazon:

The acquisition of Audible is breaking news though a surprise to few. The profitability of Amazon, partly due to the Kindle, isn't either, I suppose. However, as many have wondered, does the next generation Kindle have an audio player so customers can download both electronic text AND audio?

Too, Audible has had an exclusive deal w/ I-Tunes so now it's easier to download an audiobook right to your I-phone or through Amazon's mp3 service. Technologies are merging, lines are blurring. Stay tuned.