Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Whatever happened to Jonathan Valin?

One of the cool literary aspects I came across when I arrived in this burg many years ago was a mystery writer named Jonathan Valin, a local who set his stories in Cincy.  His recurring character, a private dick named Harry Stoner had a certain schlumpy appeal.  He was a tough guy who drank too much but he was on the right side of the moral morass. Like most of the heroes of the genre, he was conflicted and brooding, could take a punch and hand out a beating.  That and he drove a rusting Pinto (!) all the while remaining a decent fellow.  What's not to like?

Perhaps you big-city folk are used to reading suspenseful tales set in your town but I found a certain thrill in his descriptions of the Queen City and its people.  Valin saw Cincinnati for what it was--a midwestern town with a rich history that wants to be the team captain but is really the backbencher with the clipboard.  As Stoner says "I suppose you have to like Cincinnatians...They're small-minded and drab and about as hopelessly parochial as any large group of people can be but they elected Carl Klinger mayor after he was caught in a Newport (KY) brother and they tried to make Pete Rose into a city park".  The 'Nati in a nutshell.

Upon finding a copy of Missing in one of my favorite second-hand shops, I decided to re-read another Valin title, Final NoticeIt's a tale set in a local library branch where art books are found to have the faces and 'lady parts' of photos cut out alerting the library staff that perhaps a nutjob is on the loose.  Enter Harry Stoner who makes short work of the situation, not only figuring out who the perp is but linking him to a brutal murder from two years prior.  Valin works quickly and efficiently and Stoner is a likable shamus who gets in one dust-up after another while falling in love with a hot, young librarian.  The story is tense and violent though a little dated and formulaic as I expected it to be.  Still, good fun and a suitable vacation read.  

Over roughly fifteen years, Valin produced a dozen or so Harry Stoner mysteries but with only average sales and no "breakout" book, he decided to call it a day in the mid-nineties.  He now writes for a few audiophile magazines and websites, the Stoner novels out of print.  Given how the genre has changed and readers have become a bit more sophisticated, I'd love to see Valin pick up his pen and bring Harry in from the cold.  This town could use a hero.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

World Book Night 2013

It isn't often that I get to be a part of something big but I had the distinct privilege to be a Book Giver again this year for World Book Night 2013.  Now in its second year in the US, World Book Night is aimed not at book devourers like me but at people who don't read or don't read much.  The advisory board at WBN manages to come up with a list of thirty marvelous books (fiction and non-, classic and contemporary) and then, volunteers, some 25,000 of them this year, give those copies away to light readers.  Somehow, the folks at WBN have been able to get everyone--publishers, authors, printers, binders, shippers--to do it for free. The aim is to give away half a million books in the US and UK in one day. That's big, especially at a time when reading books is low on the list of priorities for most people. 

I've said it before but the thing I miss most about bookselling was when I used to finish a book, close the back cover and think to myself "Who is going to love this book? Who needs to read this? I can't wait to get to work to put this book in someone's hands".  WBN allows me to do that again, to recapture that feeling after all these years away from the bookstore floor.  

My choice was City of Thieves by David Benioff which I raved about in 2009 (http://goo.gl/OIWIr).  Whereas last year, I focused on giving books to co-workers and neighbors, this year I thought I'd go with the flow a bit more even though the first four copies I gave away were at my job. 

To start, I gave a copy to the woman who runs the day care where I take my dog and a woman my wife teaches with who was dropping off her dog at the same time.  Both were delighted.

Then it was on to the barber shop where two of the barbers were interested.  Oddly, a fellow getting his hair cut had just read the book and raved about it with me.  

From there I went shopping and as I got out of my car, I noticed an older gent reading the newspaper in his car, presumably waiting for his wife while she shopped.  I asked him if he'd like a copy of a "really terrific book" and once I told him I had no agenda, wasn't asking for money, and the book espoused no religious beliefs, political convictions or conspiracy theories, he agreed.  When I told him it was set during World War II, he thanked me and explained to me how important it was to read stories like these "even if it's fiction".  

Home for lunch, I gave away two copies to neighbors of mine, neither of whom read at all.  Both were out doing yard work and I got to revisit my handselling skills.  After telling them about the story, they were hooked.  As Ralph Malph used to say, "I still got it".

Next was my mechanic who swears he's so tired at days ends, he hasn't read in years but after my summary of the story and the fact that 25,000 people like me were giving away so many books in one day, he said he'd be honored to accept a copy.

A nearby firehouse was my next stop.  Knowing these folks have a lot of downtime between runs, it was a no-brainer. The two firemen I spoke with couldn't have been more grateful and asked for an extra copy.  My pleasure.    

Mrs. Next had plans with friends that evening so I was a swingin' bachelor and went to a favorite neighborhood dump for wings and a burger.  Sitting at the bar, I chatted with one of the regulars with whom I have a nodding relationship (we don't actually know each other but I've frequented the place long enough that the regulars nod at me when I come in).  He, too, left with a book that evening. 

The only person who turned me down was Peter who runs the gas station nearby. He said his English wasn't good enough and if he took a copy but didn't read it, he wouldn't be "respecting the book". I thanked him. 

I'm saving my last copy.  Not for me, of course. It's for a young man whom I watched grow up.  His family lives a block away, we've known them a long time and I've always been fond of him.  Bright, energetic, and with a sly smile, in his twenties he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.  Now he walks all over the area in shirt and tie, usually doing good deeds like raking lawns or shoveling snow. He refuses to take money though I'm sure he could use it. He has good days mostly and I always stop him to ask how he's doing and how he's spending his time. He was always a reader but now he turns almost exclusively to his Bible.  It is my hope he might add this to his reading list.

So, thank you, friends, colleagues and strangers for indulging an old bookseller. What a great pleasure for me to put a book in your hands.

Thank you to everyone who made this a success.
Thank you, World Book Night HQ for allowing me to be part of something big. 

Let's do this again next year. 

To learn more, visit http://www.us.worldbooknight.org/ 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Winters' Tales by Jonathan Winters

Alas, we've lost Jonathan Winters.  

If you knew his work as
an actor and comic, you know what an incredible talent he was but if you look into who he was, you'll find darkness.  An only child who felt unloved by his parents who divorced when he was quite young, he was alcoholic and he suffered breakdowns for which he was institutionalized.  There were voices in his head, for certain, but unlike most who suffer, he brought them out to play and put them onstage for the world to see and hear.  This was how he coped, I suppose, and how he found success.  

In the late '80's, Vintage published Winters' Tales: Stories and Observations for the Unusual, and unusual they are.  Since he passed last week, I've been re-reading it for the first time in years. I've no idea how well the book sold or if it's still in print but I would imagine most of his fans who bought the book were disappointed it wasn't a "laff riot" because Winters' Tales is not what you expect at all. 

A mix of memoir and fiction, most of the pieces are very short, some are dated and the gags threadbare, a few are downright creepy but throughout, they are very, very dark.  Still, there are many that are really wonderful, especially the stories in the section, Children's Voices. What Are You Frightened of, Johnny?,  I Was Behind the Couch All the Time, and How Much Money Did You Make Today, Little Man? are my favorites. They appear to be autobiographical and are surprisingly hopeful. More than anything, the book seems to lay all his demons out there for everyone to see, maybe even more than he did onstage, and that took considerable bravery.

If you ever want to see a master at work, check out this clip from the Jack Paar show where Winters does four minutes with nothing but a stick.  Astonishing.