Feb 24, 2010


My friend Rick's online book club is named for James Mason. It turns out he loves movies as much as books so he named his club for one of his favorite actors, and the club welcomes thoughts about movies as well as books.

Rick is the only person I know with the same kind of movie knowledge in his head as my wife Marie. Marie and I still have the boxes of Trivial Pursuit cards we collected when they were in their heyday, and the one called Silver Screen Edition will challenge even the most devoted film fan. I can just barely beat Marie at the music questions in the RPM Edition, but she stomps me flat with movies. I'd love to get Marie and Rick together at the game table to tackle that one, and watch the gears turning.

The James Mason Classic British Book Club is hosted by Goodreads.com. It's a grand place to find book recommendations and make online friends, so grand and vast, in fact, that Rick's club is warm and cozy by comparison. For example, I just learned that Goodreads has six million books in their database as of this date. I haven't pursued all the breadcrumbs just yet but at first glance it appears that Rick's club, and others like it, get the benefit of the Goodreads structure with all the advantages of a smaller group that might actually get to know each other.

Who thinks this stuff up? Did they know all these connections would be possible? Did they see it coming?

It's a Brave New World, all right. Or jump from books to music, from Aldous Huxley to the Grateful Dead, and fast-forward a few decades to say what a long, strange trip it's been. With a flash sideways from California tie-dyes to martinis with Cy Coleman in New York, and a confident guess that The Best Is Yet to Come.

James Mason Book Club

My friend Rick is a fellow traveler on the breadcrumb trail, and he's done something for us book-o-philes that I could only dream of doing...created a book club that's about books and ideas as opposed to being just another sales scheme. Check out the James Mason Classic British Book Club. I've known about it since Rick started it but only finally joined just now. I think I'm member #677, so I'm no longer exactly in on the ground floor, but I'm glad to be among friends online. Rick moderates the discussions, so it's no surprise this is a place for civilized discourse instead of flaming and trolling. But I suspect book-lovers tend toward courtesy without too much interference...or am I just being naive?

Feb 10, 2010

A dozen authors

Isaac Asimov. When I read An Anthology of Modern Science Fiction from my father's shelves, it started me on a lifelong appreciation of the genre. I gave the well-thumbed (to put it mildly, more like falling-apart) hardbound to my nephew when he came of age, so I can't even be sure if an Asimov story was in it, but let's just say he can stand for the whole principle of sci-fi giving me stuff to think about. In this case The Foundation Trilogy supposed there could be a Plan, stored on a tiny cube that would project itself onto walls. A Plan for humanity, and society, the galaxy, maybe the whole universe. Grand thinking, mind-blowing without the foreign substances.

Greg Bear. More excellent sci-fi. Darwin's Radio put the idea in my head that long-dormant strands of genetic material could awaken, with, um, interesting results.

Joanne Harris. Would it be politically incorrect to say I am drawn to female novelists for a certain quality of ideas? Maybe it's the wonderful female protagonists they can draw. Chocolat was made into a terrific movie that inspired me to read the book. Then I had to go on to every bit of her I could find. I find a common thread in many of her books, an uncommon woman and her uncommon daughter (seldom a significant male) making a life in a small and narrow-minded village. A woman of mystery, and often damn sexy to boot. Joanne Harris, you rock!

Robertson Davies. Acknowledged as the greatest Canadian writer ever, I say one of the greatest ever, period. He also tends toward trilogies, and since I love trilogies, well, he da man as far as I'm concerned. Highly recommended: The Salternon Trilogy (starts with Tempest-Tost) and The Deptford Trilogy, which in its evocation of mystery and illusion takes us to worlds far beyond the provincial Canadian origins of its protagonist.

Tim Dorsey. My favorite discovery of a small but remarkably productive sub-sub-genre, the funny Florida crime novel. Browsing a Books-a-Million to spend a gift card, I finally settled on Florida Roadkill. It was the garish cover as much as the goofy title that grabbed me, and I've been hooked ever since. Turns out Dorsey's a Florida fanatic, not the football team or the college but the state and its history. Grew up in Riviera Beach, a stone's throw from me (if you have a hell of an arm), and after a career writing for The Tampa Tribune managed to make Roadkill the first in a whole series of successful funny-florida-crime-novels. I own the complete set, about half in hardbound, an incredible extravagance for this otherwise thrifty, er, cheap reader.

Carl Hiaasen. The Godfather of funny Florida crime novelists, of course. In fact, Dorsey's press says he's "like Carl Hiaasen on PCP" which is about right. Just as Dorsey wrote for the Tampa paper, Hiaasen wrote for The Miami Herald. (I think Ruth Rendell wrote for The Miami News, although there's nothing funny about her chilling crime novels and they're not set in Florida, unlike those of Hiaasen and Dorsey). Start with Tourist Season, you could do worse.

Lawrence Shames. Bet you never heard of this funny Florida crime novelist, but you can thank me later. Try Florida Straits. Love the retired Mafioso Burt the Shirt and his little Chihuahua.

Hm...five to go, gonna make this quick so I can get to my oatmeal.

Kurt Vonnegut. Best novelist who never appears on official lists. In high school, after someone turned me on to Slaugherhouse Five and I began wading through his stuff, I could never understand why my teachers woulrn't even talk to me about him. I mean, it was like they never even heard of Vonnegut! Player Piano started it all, 1952 tale of a guy who lets them copy his movements so they can apply it to an automated process, then is fired. Sort of like Brave New World meets Roger and Me. Don't miss Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. Special mention: as a kid in Indianapolis my dad would take me to Vonnegut's Hardware. Turns out it was an uncle or something. Vonnegut was one of those Hoosiers known less for being from Indiana than more important stuff (see Cole Porter and jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery), so aside from the thought-wrenching stuff in his books, he gets an extra star for the accident of being from my own home state.

Kinky Friedman. Much better-known as the country-singing leader of a band improbably called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, and later for running for governor of Texas, he is also a wonderful mystery novelist. Don't let the punny titles fool you. Armadillos and Old Lace and Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola are wonderfully weird plot-strosities weaving the Kinkster and his real-life friends with ficitional murders in his adopted home town of New York City. The cowboy hat, the foul-smelling cigars, the noir slang straight from Mickey Spillane - great stuff.

Garrison Keiller. William Gibson. Neal Stephenson. They each deserve a lot more than I can dish out at the moment, Breakfast calls, must feed the inner blogger.


I seem to remember from music history class in college that the list song is a time-honored tradition. Probably some Mozart aria or whatever, maybe Verdi, you could look it up. Or from the new school, take We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel, pretty much a recitation of names and events from the moderan era...50 Ways to Leave Your Lover by Paul Simon...or for extra credit, Van Lingle Mungo by the eccentric and gifted songwriter Dave Frishberg, in which the title and every word of the lyric is the name of a true-life major league baseball player.

In a meta-reference I cherish, some newspaper article pointed out what should have been obvious, but what I had never noticed on my own - how writers love lists, especially when deadline looms. 19 Ways to Give Him Ridiculous Pleasure, The 14 Things Your Cat Knows, you get the idea.

So when the Palm Beach Post responded to that crazy list of 100 movies from the American Film Institute by asking readers to submit lists of their own, this was meta-reference heaven. Meta, if I understand it as it applies to the digital age means description not present in the item itself, but somehow referencing it. So the idea of a list of movies referencing another list of movies sounded, well, pretty cool.

Submissions by Post readers generated a list of novels as well as one of movies. At least, that's the way my imperfect memory renders it. Or to put it another way, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. After finding lots of books I could agree with, but never seem to find acknowledged in "official" lists (all right! one for the reg'lar folks!), I noticed Continental Divide by Russell Banks. I'd read his Affliction and seen the movie, so I crossed the divide (read the book, that is) and as usual went on to devour more of his oeuvre. I seem to remember a lot of it having to do with the Caribbean, and people of color finding their way in a world of voudun, and human trafficking, and perceptions of glory in these United States. Hey, if I'm wrong, sue me, but we're off to the races on a list and these will be snapshots only, pursuing philological progress, not bibliographic perfection.


Jane Smiley

The breadcrumb trail is elusive. Sometimes it's an echo of itself, so faint that I wonder if it's there at all. Then something happens and a part of it comes shining through (book title!) and down the trail I happily go, like Dorothy following the yellow brick road, or Alice down the rabbit hole.

Why did this particular memory come back to me? I think it was around 1990. Sitting at a favorite restaurant with the mother of a high school friend, talking about his peculair situation, when the conversation turns to reading. Seems we share the inescapable love of purusing the printed word, and for some reason she mentions the author Jane Smiley.

Always one to follow a breadcrumb, off I scamper to the library and next thing you know I'm awash in Jane Smiley books. A Thousand Acres is her most famous, a modern take on King Lear, but I must have read a dozen or more Jane Smileys before being attracted to the next shiny object, like Gollum and that damned ring.

To refresh my memory, I Googled her and came across this wonderful list of books. It seems after 9/11 she took time off from writing to pursue 100 novels, not necessarily the greatest, but a representative sampling according to her preferences. You know what? Sounds like a fellow traveler on the breadcrumb trail to me.

But what I can't remember, at least right now, is which book left its tendrils in my mind so strongly that it resonates to this day, and my cursory Googlization bore no fruit. Can you help me out here? Her protagonist is a middle-age woman who one day walks away from her life and settles in a small town maybe an hour away from home. She takes a Joe job, starts a new life, simply starts over sans husband or kids or anything else. And finds something resembling contentment. Not an evil woman, she lets her past know she's okay, but what an exhilarating and oddball journey.

Please help me find this breadcrumb, and meanwhile enjoy Jane Smiley.

Feb 1, 2010

Book of Marvels

Until I lost my job at the real estate office, I was blessed to enjoy the company of a co-worker's grandson, call him Bill, when she would bring him in for a visit. Age 6 or so, little Bill loved to work the old typewriter we still had. (Amazing to call an IBM Selectric "old," but that's how far we've come, I guess.) We would enjoy conversation and he even made me little presents, so I would say we had become friends across the generations.

One day his grandmother, call her Mary, asked me about reading material for Bill. In a flash I was transported back to my own childhood, remembering my enchantment with a book called Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels. As I remembered it, he was an independent soul who traveled and wrote about places he had been. For some reason the Blue Grotto stuck in my memory, but other specifics escaped me. His writing was the thing, more matter-of-fact than breathless, but the places he visited and wrote about were so amazing that the book was an eye-opener for a boy of 7 or 8. That's how old I suppose I was when I found it on the school library shelves, and devoured it eagerly. Oh, it was illustrated with photographs, too.

At any rate, Mary found a copy of it on eBay or Amazon and picked it up for less than $20. It was heavily used, so she repaired the binding with some heavy black tape and gave it to Bill, who loved it.

Isn't it something? A book from 1941 enters the imagination of a boy in 1959 thanks to a well-run school library. Forty years later the digital age makes it possible for a a grandmother to find the book at a reasonable cost, and spur the imagination of her grandson. Reading is a legacy we can pass on, if we only take the time to do it.

By the way, a quick visit to Amazon just now showed "four copies (used) from $89.50." Ulp.

E. L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley was a gift from my wife. Marie, the amazing woman who takes the plunge in giving me books and music I haven't even asked for, is my muse. Sure, I love getting a gift card but Marie is the one willing to look for stuff on her own, and I am forever grateful.

Homer and Langley are brothers living in Manhattan. This is a story that is both warm and chilling at the same time, wonderfully written and wonderful to read, but with an ending that left me filled with reflections on our fleeting lives.

No spoiler from me. I'll just mention that Homer's descent, if that is what it is, begins with the gradual disappearance of his hearing as a youngster, while Langley's is brought on by the traumas of World War I combat, and its subtle development as full-blown mental illness. The two are lifelong friends and companions who try to fend off isolation in their big old house.

I recommend the book and plan to re-read Doctorow's Ragtime, followed by investigation of his other work. Thanks again to my muse, my own friend and companion, my lifelong lover Marie for such an incredible gift. How does she do it?