My Booklog

The booklog is a running commentary on what I'm reading. The length of my comments doesn't have anything to do with how much I liked or disliked each book; they're just off-the-top-of-my-head impressions and notes. Sometimes I have a lot to say; sometimes I don't. Also, these aren't reviews. Reviews require analysis, rewriting and rereading. These are pretty much akin to scribbled notes, except they're being scribbled online. The date after each entry is the day I finished the book.

In theory, I dislike reading more than one book at once. In actuality, I do it constantly. I'm also developing a terrible habit of changing books midway through and neglecting to return to the first book. The "currently reading" section is my way of attempting to discourage this practise, but if something lingers there for months or falls off but doesn't appear in the main list, it's a safe bet that's what's happened.

Currently reading: Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, by Paul Collins; The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-First Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois; A Splendor of Letters, by Nicholas A. Basbanes; Firebirds, edited by Sharyn November; Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas R. Hofstadter

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Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, by George Gmelch (7/29/04)

Another "research" book, though I have an entire bookcase almost filled with baseball books I've collected for fun. I wanted insight into various aspects of playing professional ball, both at the minor- and major-league levels. Ask and ye shall receive from Amazon: Gmelch, an anthropologist, spent several years studying players and researching most aspects of the profession. Arranged into chapters on such topics as life in the low minors, the changes that come with breaking through to the majors, baseball wives and groupies, scouting, and baseball superstitions, the book combines academic observation with a writer's narrative skills. Thank God -- I've slogged through enough tedious academic prose. Gmelch's work is nicely approachable.

A Cultivated Life: A Year in a California Vineyard, by Joy Sterling (7/25/04)

I love John King Books. It's far and away my favourite bookstore I've encountered. When my friend Amy and I were deciding on a destination for a weekend trip, I backed Detroit -- mainly to revisit the bookshop. No one we encountered in the city could believe we'd picked Detroit as a vacation spot. Sadly, I don't think my enthusiastic pitch about the bookstore as tourist draw converted any of the locals.

But I came out with a suitcase full of new (old) books, so pfft to everyone else. For a story I'm trying to work out, I wanted to know more about life in a vineyard. "What I really need," I thought, "is a year-long chronicle of the growing, harvesting and selling process." Amazon wasn't helping me out. It just kept tossing up James Conaway's Napa (which I'll read one of these days).

So, in John King Books, I go to the Wine & Food section -- and find A Cultivated Life, subtitled A Year in a California Vineyard.

See why it's worth flying to Detroit to go to the store?

Anyway, A Cultivated Life worked well for what I wanted, and I enjoyed reading it, but any recommendation for the book requires a lot of caveats. It's more infomercial than narrative. Sterling writes about her parents' vineyard, where she works as the marketing director. That gave me severe doubts about the book from the start, but the author blurb on the back notes that Sterling spent ten years in journalism before joining the winery staff. That gave me hope her instincts were more journalistic than PR-y.

Nope. She spent ten years in television journalism. Sterling is quite the privileged rich kid (at least she has the grace to briefly acknowledge it), and her prose reflects that. Pages are spent waxing lyrical about Father's gardening talents -- with a half-sentence nod at the end of the passage mentioning the three full-time gardeners who assist him. Getting through A Cultivated Life requires a high tolerance for lines like, "There are many feast days in February, beginning with my birthday, which is a major celebration on the order of an intergalactic holiday."

So, if you're willing to hack through the pretentiousness and have a strong interest in the subject matter, the book is worth reading.

(And, of course, the sales pitch worked and I picked up a bottle of Iron Horse Chardonnay 2000. Tasted strong of vanilla. Worth it for the $16 it cost me.)

Michael Marshall Smith: The Annotated Bibliography, edited by Lavie Tidhar (7/7/04)

I've been waiting years for this! Lavie did a fabulous job pulling together all the info, and it's got a bonus for Smith fankiddies like me: short notes from Smith about every single one of his stories and novels. I was almost more excited about that than about his last actual novel.

It was worth all the delays. It's a great bibliography, and the notes are great fun to read through. Definitely a required item for Smith collectors and obsessive readers.

Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet, by Elliott Hester (7/3/04)

A particularly bumpy flight a few months ago sent me looking online for details about turbulence. The plane had been tossing about in what was, to me, a very alarming manner -- but while bouncing around the sky, I kept reminding myself that I'd never heard of turbulence bringing down a commercial jet. Sure enough, a bit of googling confirmed that what feels to passengers like aieeee turbulence is actually quite safe and probably not registering at all with the crew.

So, before my next flight, I picked up Plane Insanity to read en route. It's a good travel book, comprising short, amusing articles about the ups and downs (mostly downs) of being a flight attendant. Hester's humor tends toward the broad, David Barry-esque. Finesse is not part of his prose style. Still, it's hard to go wrong with stories about in-flight trysts (hookers reportedly had a standing operation running on one particularly rowdy line), daring runway crimes, drunken escapades in the crew hotel, and ... well, really, it's largely about sex and drinking.

Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America, by Amy Sutherland (6/29/04)

I had a $50 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble to play with, so I took David along to help pick out books. While suffering through my perusal of the food books, he spotted this one, and demanded it be added to our pile. I'm glad he did -- it's very well-written, well-reported, and well constructed. Sutherland has an obvious affection for the cooking-contest devotees she writes about, but she doesn't pull back from covering unsparingly. Like Sutherland before she started this project, I'd thought of contests like Pillsbury's Bake-Off (on those exceedingly rare occasions I had cause to give them any thought) as anachronisms, and kind of pathetic ones. But the enthusiasm of the contestants is appealing, and after reading Cookoff I can see the fun of working the circuit. And David, who read it first, is all ready now with a stack of recipes to mail off ...

Feeding a Yen, by Calvin Trillian (6/9/04)

I'd encountered Calvin Trillian's food writing before in a Year's Best Food Writing collection, so when I went prowling in the bookstore for something to read and came across Feeding a Yen, I snagged it. I'm glad I did -- I'd read several of the essays before, but it's worth it for the new (to me) material. Trillian manages to be globe-trotting without being pretentious. This is a guy who goes to Cannes and raves about a sandwich. Much fun to read, and now I'll need to find his earlier food collections.

Master and Commander, by Patrick O'Brian (4/27/04)

This came as a recommendation and loan from Joe, though several ifmudders have long raved about the series, most notably Iain and Gunther.

It's not my usual style at all -- I rarely read historical books, or war/"adventure" stories, or naval stories ... but the novel has one significant plus that got me interested. One of the characters is a cellist! How can I resist reading about the adventures of someone with such good taste in instruments?

It took me a bit (more than 100 pages) to get used to the archaic words and unusual narrative style. It strikes me as something of an acquired taste, and I'm not sure I've picked it up. Still, the book was unusual enough (and fast-paced enough) to keep me reading -- and by the time I'd hit the end, to my surprise, I was taken with the tale enough to go buy the next in the series. I doubt I'll finish all 20 books, but I'm interested enough to keep dipping in. They're immersive stories, the type that seem best read on cold nights when you can curl up under blankets with a nice glass of hot cider (preferably spiked with rum) and disappear into the past.

The Upright Man, by Michael Marshall (Smith) (4/7/04)

A new Smith book, YAY! Albeit a sequel to his thriller, The Straw Men, which is less to my tastes than his SF novels. Still, I'll take Smith books any way I can get them. Once again, excellent prose, and a plot that's more creative than usual for the genre. Smith apparently has one more book brewing in this batch, and then it's back to the genre hopping. Finally. Apparently these serial-killer novels are bestsellers in the U.K. I'm glad Smith is reaping some financial rewards at last for his efforts. Even when he writes in genres that aren't ones I normally read, I'm happy to tag along with him -- he's still my favourite working author. Oh, and a note for overseas readers -- in the U.K., this is titled The Lonely Dead. Because just having Smith writing under two names wasn't confusing enough. Best to muck around with the titles as well.

(As with The Bookman's Promise, I reread the last book before starting this one, and this time, that was an essential move. You could read this without having read The Straw Men, but knowing what's come before helps.)

Jennifer Government, by Max Barry (3/2/04)

Storme recommended this, and I'm so glad she did. I'd seen it in bookstores and had it on my mental "to read someday, maybe" list. It appeals to my affection for wacky near-future SF, preferably with a satiric edge. I love Barry's central twist: In this future, capitalism has conquered all, and corporations literally rule. The best bit is the way frequent-flier programs have morphed into all-encompassing loyalty programs (you can see that transition already underway, actually), with a Crips vs. Bloods-like rivalry between the two dominant systems. Never mind petty distinctions like your religious or political affiliations; what really matters is which loyalty program you swear your consumer fealty to.

If there's a flaw in the book, it's that it follows the predicable path of most thriller-tinged stories: Things get more and more chaotic, then there's a big BOOM climax, and then things work out OK for Our Heros. Still, it's a fun ride. Definitely recommended.

The Bookman's Promise, by John Dunning (2/28/04)

Eight years after his last mystery featuring book dealer/sleuth Cliff Janeway, Dunning finally added a third installment. The wait was worth it -- I appreciate Dunning's reluctance to write these stories until he's sure he has a story to tell. In preparation for this one's release, I reread the second novel (The Bookman's Wake, mentioned earlier), but I needn't have bothered. In standard mystery-series fashion, each book stands alone, with very little reference to what's happened before.

The last Janeway book centered around the private-press niche of book collecting, which is a particular interest of mine. This one is about the life and work of Richard Burton (no, not that one), a 19th -century English explorer I was sure Dunning invented, but who turns out to be real. It's a fun tale. More please!

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (2/13/04)

I started reading this years ago, and set it aside halfway through -- not intentionally; I just got distracted and never made it back. David raves about it, so when I was at loose ends for reading material and asked him to pick a book for me, he picked this.

I'm glad I've finally finished it. As you'd expect from the authors, it's quite funny and well-structured. Still, it left me a bit cold, for no good reason I can pin down. It's amusing, but in a way that felt to me a bit formulaic. But worth having read.

The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte, translated by Sonia Soto (1/13/04)

I've never read The Three Musketeers, and for a long time I held off on reading this often-recommended book, since I figured I'd get more out of it if I first acquired a familiarity with Dumas's work. And sure enough, readers who know and love Dumas's stories will find parallels in The Club Dumas that I only picked up on when the narrator explicitly points them out, but it's certainly a readable tale even for those with little knowledge of Dumas's books.

The novel is a bibliomystery with two overlapping plot strands. The story is quite silly, but also compelling and properly suspense-filled. The prose tends toward the purple. I'm not knocking points off for that as I usually would, though, because the fault could lie with either the author or the translator -- or it could be a faithful translation of a prose style that works better in Spanish than it does in English. (A friend who read the German translation said the prose there is excellent.) Even though I winced at some of the more luridly adjective-laden passages, I still enjoyed the novel.

Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization, by Stuart Isacoff (12/27/03)

I know distressingly little about music theory -- and when David tried to explain to me the mathematics of temperament, I always ended up confused. This book seemed a good way to gain some understanding of the concept. On that count, it worked. I now have a basic understanding of the differences between equal temperament, mean-tone tuning, and just intonation, and how the physics and philosophy of temperament developed.

Now, my nitpicks: The book's pacing is uneven. Some sections feel padded while other events and ideas are glossed-over. Much of the book focuses on equal-temperament as it applies to piano makers and pianists, with little time spent considering other instruments. Isacoff argues that the adoption of equal temperament has drastically influenced Western music theory and composition; if that's so, I would have liked a fuller discussion of how composers and orchestras balance the combination of tempered instruments like pianos playing with those that don't require tempering, like strings.

My biggest gripe with the book is the afterword added to the paperback edition. Isacoff uses the new section to address criticisms leveled at the book after its initial printing. Instead of simply clarifying his points and supplementing them as needed, he adopts a defensive tone, using the afterword to blast away at the book's critics. It's not a gracious performance.

For all that, I did like the book, and I consider it a good starting point for those interested in learning more about temperament.

More Tomorrow & Other Stories, by Michael Marshall Smith (12/15/03)

Michael Marshall Smith's long-overdue short-story collection. He had a UK collection published several years ago, and it's great, but his stories since then were stacking up uncollected, and the UK collection never had a US release. Enter Earthling Publications, a small press which did a sensational job several years ago with a Smith chapbook, Cat Stories. More Tomorrow brings together a few stories from the UK collection, some previously uncollected stories, many new stories written in the last three years, and a half-dozen works original to this book. Horror stories are the focus, but part of what I love about Smith's writing is how freely he skips around with genres. More Tomorrow has SF and fantasy in it, but also several stories that don't lend themselves to categorization, and at least one tale that's straight standard fiction (and is also my favourite in the book). No Smith fan should be without. Plus, Earthling did a lovely job with the book's layout, printing and design.

Only nitpick: I wish the extra story included only with the super-limited, super-expensive lettered version were somehow otherwise available. Being a Smith completist, I want everything ... but can't quite afford the lettered edition's $250 price tag. Boo.

No Way to Treat a First Lady, by Christopher Buckley (11/8/03)

Another farcical tale of D.C. life from Buckley, whose plots are somewhat formulaic but whose writing is usually funny and sharp enough to keep that from mattering. Thank You For Smoking remains my favourite of his books, but this latest of his novels is an entertaining, if occasionally overly slick, diversion.

Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto, by Victoria Abbott Riccardi (10/18/03)

My friend Bonnie spent her junior year of college in Tokyo, and I flew over to spend two weeks visiting. The highlight of the trip was our detour to Kyoto. It's a beautiful city, and to Western mindsets (mine, at least), an unusual and exotic one. I understand very little of the Japanese language and culture, so I probably stereotype and romanticize Japan, but I find the country's aesthetic fascinating. And oh, the food.! That was definitely a highlight of visiting.

So this book, a young American's memoir about living in Kyoto and studying tea kaiseki, is perfectly calibrated to appeal to my taste in books. When I read the excerpt in this year's Best Food Writing anthology, it went straight onto my 'covet covet covet' list. And the book didn't disappoint. It's very nicely written, with a well-balanced blend of personal reminiscences and cultural observation, and a spectacular line-up of recipes. I regard recipes as a bonus in food-writing books, since it's the writing I'm there for, but these are particularly wonderful and accessible. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Kyoto and/or Japanese cuisine.

The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, by Michael Ruhlman (10/16/03)

I started reading this around the time Fahmi and I signed on for a short writing class. The story I'm working on is about a professional cook, and since I've never worked in the field I've been reading everything I can get hold of by or about culinary lifers. I read Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef last year, and this is a sequel of sorts. The book's first section follows a handful of chefs as they attempt the Culinary Institute of America's hellish sounding Certified Master Chef exam, while the latter ones follow two professional chefs. It's a well-balanced mix, and Ruhlman wisely varies his focus throughout; the middle section focused on more operational and day-to-day details of running a notable restaurant, while the last section takes a broader view in chronicling the career and philosophy of The French Laundry's Thomas Keller. Plus, the book has a few recipes to try out. Yum.

So Many Books, So Little Time, by Sara Nelson (10/13/03)

When was around, I thought books reporter Sara Nelson had the world's greatest job. Covering the business of book publishing seemed to me like the most fun beat out there. After went kaput, I read Nelson's occasional columns in the New York Observer. So, of course, when I saw she had a book on the way, I started counting off the days until its release. Noticing this, David bought it for me the week it came out. See why I love him?

The book is lighter and fluffier than I'd expected, but still fun. Nelson sets out to read a book a week for a year. She breaks with the usual convention of such projects, though, and doesn't focus on chronicling her thoughts on the books themselves (a la David Denby, in Great Books). Instead, she writes about whatever bookish topics cross her mind throughout her "year of passionate reading." Nelson's tone is chatty and informal; this is a very different 'musings about books' collection than something like Anne Fadiman's more cerebral Ex Libris. Reading the book feels like a one-sided chattery conversation with a fellow bookish friend, with lots of 'hey, I do that too!' kinds of ah-ha moments.

I also appreciate how personal Nelson made the book. She frequently mixes in thoughts about her family and her marriage, and some of what she writes about in that regard has stuck in my mind even more than her book thoughts. There are some definite similarities between her marriage and mine, starting with the cross-cultural aspect, and it's interesting to see someone else talk about some of the challenges and joys I've also seen in my marriage.

Best Food Writing 2003, edited by Holly Hughes (10/9/03)

I would have picked up the latest edition of the "Best Food Writing" series regardless, but since my friend mamster's essay on Storage is reprinted in the book, I picked it up the week it was released. The essay is, of course, excellent. Other favourites: Pete Wells' "Travels with Captain Bacon," Kathleen Brennan's "Cajun Pig Party," Robb Walsh's "Say Cheez," Jason Sheehan's "Life on the Line" (Jason works at the same paper as my friend Amy, the Westword, and I routinely threaten to move out to Denver and become his groupie), and several others I'm forgetting because I don't have the book in front of me at the moment. This year's collection has more pieces in it that grabbed me than last year's, and one, Victoria Abbott Riccardi's "Untangling my Chopsticks," even motivated me to go track down the book from which it was excerpted.

The Slippery Slope, by Lemony Snicket (9/28/03)

Yay new Lemony Snicket book! Boo yearlong wait for the next. So far, no sign of series-rot with these. It helps that the author has said he plans to wrap it up by book 13. The books are getting longer, and the plot more complex, but as new elements are introduced other subplots are concluded, which helps the story hold together. And I'm greatly enjoying Sunny's developing powers of speech.

Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman (9/26/03)

I agree with Storme's description of Endless Nights as a coda to the main Sandman story -- and as a coda, it works pretty nicely. Nothing momentous is added to the story, but for fans this is a nice chance to revisit the characters. I appreciate the variety in the art and tales in the collection. Some of the artistic styles I probably wouldn't want to see carried on for a whole book, but there isn't a single one in Endless Nights I didn't enjoy for the duration of a short story. My only caveat: I think this small assortment works very well for Gaiman's first extended trip back to the Sandman universe. If he keeps writing Sandman one-offs, though, this will become formulaic. He's now added two fillips to the Sandman canon since ending the story with The Wake: this and The Dream Hunters. If he does another Sandman book, I'd prefer to see a fresh story arc, rather than a third fun-but-thematically-insignificant add-on.

Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, by David Brooks (9/23/03)

Hmm. My reaction to this book kept being colored by what's not in the text. Brooks wisely frames his comments as "observations," and that's basically what the chapters are. He avoids explicitly stating any conclusions, but I know of Brooks' other writings, and of his fairly conservative political stance, and that stance indicates the conclusions he has drawn. Since any reporter knows how easy it is to skew a story through judicious selection of what you choose to cover, it was hard for me to avoid bristling at insinuations I found implicit in the text.

I suppose if I have one overarching objection, it's that Brooks treats the social, corporate, political, and spiritual motifs of the class he writes about as endpoints, rather than as dots on a continuum. Yup, urban lofts, frilled-up coffee drinks, tolerant mores, and kamikaze "recreations" like climbing mountains with your toenails are trendy at the moment among a visible segment of the educated economic elite. And yet, ten years ago, a whole different set of cultural and political tropes were dominant, and ten years from now yet another set will likely be. You can certainly comment on what the fads of the moment say about the moment, but I suspect Brooks is giving current fashion more weight than it's worth in drawing sweeping conclusions about changes in America by studying such a snapshot of the culture.

Still, it's an entertaining book to read, and it pushed me toward clarifying my thoughts on a few things.

Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, edited by Al Sarrantonio (9/17/03)

We bought this Redshift because it has a Michael Marshall Smith story, which is good but not one of his best. By now, most SF readers know of the two-year-old anthology and its grandiose aspirations to be a 21st century Dangerous Visions. I'm not the first reader to say it's a lot tamer than it thinks it is. Still, there are some very good stories, including Dan Simmons' "On K2 with Kanakaredes," which I first read in the Dozois Year's Best collection, and Paul Di Filippo's fantastically dark "Weeping Walls." I skipped around, and quite a few stories didn't interest me enough to finish them, or left me saying, 'er, what?,' but there's enough decent stories in the collection to make it worth checking out. Particularly if, like me, you have a favourite author included.

The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson (9/12/03)

It took me about 500 pages to decide I like The Years of Rice and Salt. I'd never read any previous Kim Stanley Robinson works, and I'm unlikely to start now -- I don't generally go for either sweeping epics or alternative history. (I don't usually have enough knowledge of history as it actually happened to appreciate the subtle tweaks in well-done rewrites.) So why read this one? Er, because I'm a sucker for titles. I liked the poetry of this one.

The novel is plodding, meticulous and choppy. Historical eras are covered in novella-like sections, each with a different tone and flow. Only quite late in the book does the reason for that become clear, beyond "the author wanted to keep himself entertained." (Well, I only picked up on it near the end. Perceptive readers might catch on earlier.) YRS is usually described as a reimagining of around 800 years of history, from the era of the Black Plague through the slightly distant future. The counterfactual split: Europe has been completely wiped out by the plague, allowing the Eastern cultures to become politically and geographically dominant.

And, well, yes, the book is about that, but it's not really about that. It's not even really about the frame story linking the novella-sections, of a struggle being fought in the bardo between lives by our reincarnating protagonists, who seek to nudge themselves, and humanity, forward on the spiritual evolutionary scale. Robinson's narrative subtly unwinds itself as the book progresses, transforming YRS from a straightforward tale of 'a world a twist removed from ours' into a much more interesting, unusual, and mysterious story. A number of reviewers seemed to have disliked the book's second half, when the historical rewriting slows and Robinson's characters fall into pages-long fits of philosophizing, but those passages are to me where the tale became interesting, as it gained complexity and colored in retrospect the meaning of what came earlier. As a historical what-if exploration, YRS isn't really the canonical epitome of the genre it at first appears. As a literary work, though, it's fascinating and elusive.

The Wine Avenger, by Willie Gluckstern (9/5/03)

I like wine, but know next to nothing about it, and I was getting frustrated with having not the faintest clue what wines to match with which dishes. This came recommended. So, I purchased, read, and gained more of a clue than I had when I started. Gluckstern's biases are frequent but well-noted, and he does a nice job of explaining their origins and rationales. I like his basic thesis, that we're not eating the heavy dishes more prevalent decades ago, and that it's therefore silly to favour complex wines over more straightforward, lighter ones that better match modern cuisine. I knew I liked Pinot Noir better than Cabernet Sauvignon with the things I tend to cook; now I have a better idea why. This is a great "Wine 101" course.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1, by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (8/3/03)

I'd been thinking about buying this, but then John did and I mooched his copy. When the movie came out, the reviews made the film sound abysmal but the book quite interesting. And so it is. I only sporadically read comics (graphic novels; whichever), and I didn't actually finish Moore's Watchmen (I know, I know -- I will one of these days), but League is a pretty interesting tale. I like Moore's patience, in teasing details and backstory without feeling compelled to right away do something with those loose ends. I can't wait for the second volume. I'm too impatient to follow a comic month-to-month. I want the whole story arc, all at once.

The Classic Hundred: All-Time Favorite Poems, edited by William Harmon (7/26/03)

Back in the late winter, I decided I needed a Poetry 101 class of some sort. There's a fair bit of poetry I like, but I don't really seek poetry out, and having not taken any lit classes in college, I never had any organized exposure to the form. What little I've read is the scattershot stuff tossed before me in high school, and the snippets I've stumbled over since. What was particularly annoying me was how often I miss references and allusions -- many of the writers I read are quite well-studied in the literary classics, and I've like to pick up on their subtle references.

So, off I went to scour the poetry sections of a few bookstores, with no real idea what I was seeking. I knew I wanted a book with a fair bit of breadth to it. And I knew I wanted explanatory notes. There are plenty of poems I'm not clever enough to fully grasp without some discussion.

In my poking around, I found this book, which seemed the perfect thing -- a book of the 100 most-anthologized poems. Yay! I thought. The most-published poems seem likely to also be those most frequently turning up referenced elsewhere; also, they're probably the ones I would have been most likely to encounter in the college survey courses I didn't take.

Over the next few months I poked through the book, at a pretty leisurely pace. It was a great chance to at least sample and learn something about the work of a wide variety of influential poets. Along with notes at the end of each poem (of varying depth and usefulness), Harmon includes a page-or-so of biographical information on each poet, and a pretty decent glossary/notes section to translate archaic words or elaborate on subtle phrasings. One technical quibble: The glossary is located at the back of the book, after all the poems. Since it contained not just definitions but also literary notes -- for instance, when a line in a poem went on to be used in other writers' works, Harmon often notes the reference -- I was consulting it frequently, which made for much awkward flipping back-and-forth. I finally ended up using a bookmark to make glossary access easier. It would have been simpler to have the glossary notes for each poem at the end of the poem.

I'm not under any illusion that this is a '100 greatest' collection or any such nonsense. It's, by definition, a pretty limited assortment. But it's great for what I was after, and now I'll seek out some more encompassing anthologies, as well as collections from some of the poets that I liked (Keats, Eliot -- not exactly shocking choices. But there were a few surprises for me, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I'd never before heard of but now will check out further.) Email me if you have recommendations!

The Truth, by Terry Pratchett (7/24/03)

David bought this for me, then read it first and announced I would be greatly amused by the media jokes. And so I was. Favourite bit: The scene where William turns into an editor, haltingly working out how to rearrange a limp story into a readable one. And hey, Pulp Fiction jokes as well. Quite cute.

Jumper, by Steven Gould (7/7/03)

This is one of my old favourites. I first read it probably not long after it came out, after snagging it from the Howard County Library's young adult section, where I spent large and happy chunks of my youth. Jumper is a book that holds up well for adult readers; the storytelling is lively and skilled. The terrorism plot that kicks in during the second half is a bit forced, but it also provides narrative momentum to keep the book going for an extra hundred pages or so, and since it's such an engrossing book, I'm happy for the extra material. It's a terrific first novel, and a lot of fun for those who like old-fashioned light SF.

... and it's amazing what impact cover art can have. As I went to Amazon to grab the link, I noticed Jumper has been recently republished with a more kid-lit cover -- and Amazon is filled with reviews by horrified parents saying 'this is totally inappropriate for teens!' Well, ok, the protagonist runs away from his abusive father, and the first few pages feature some realistically rough encounters. But the book is far from graphic, and its realism and ambiguity are what make it interesting. I'll never understand parents who think their kids should only read sanitized, morally simplistic stories. Jumper isn't for eight-year-olds, but there's no reason smart middle schoolers shouldn't pick it up.

Big Trouble, by Dave Barry (7/5/03)

While picking away at this year's Dozois collection and a few other bits-n-pieces books, I found myself in a reading slump. Coincidentally, Jessa tackles that topic this month in her column, but since I watch too little Law & Order (watching mindless TV is the only way I make progress on my needlework projects) and don't have many good comics around, the tips didn't work as catalysts for me. I thought I'd kick myself out of it by raiding Kim and David's shelves while petsitting Allergen ... but they have all the same books we do. (Although I do need to mooch Kim's copy of The Rose and the Beast sometime soon.)

Casting about in desperation, I landed on Big Trouble, which I picked up someplace when it was on sale for cheap, and have had lying around unread for ages. I read quite a few Dave Barry books a decade ago, but once I hit 15 or so I started finding his humour cute but repetitive. Nowadays, I'll read his column if I see it, but I don't seek it out.

Which is why the book so surprised me. Barry tones down his one-liners, makes judicious use of "mature language," comes up with some interestingly wacky characters, and pulls together a well-timed farce of a plot. I crashed on the couch with Allergen, and we read Big Trouble in a few hours. It was a perfect tonic.

I see there's a movie version of Big Trouble. Aiee. Hollywood never learns. The book's plot is totally quotidian action-adventure stuff; what makes it fun is the writing, not the story.

The Vile Village, The Hostile Hospital, The Carnivorous Carnival, and Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, by Lemony Snicket (June 03)

More addictive than crack -- and I have to wait till late September for the next installment, boo. The books are picking up steam as they go and starting to pull together loose threads, which is narratively satisfying. The Unauthorized Autobiography isn't as much fun as the books, but is still pretty clever. Now I just have to hope that Handler aka Snicket can deftly wind down the series in the last four books. Ever since I watched The X-Files dissolve in a mess of continuity problems and soggy storytelling, I've been leery of intricate serials. Neil Gaiman will forever have my admiration for so elegantly connecting the pieces of Sandman.

The Perfect Store: Inside eBay, by Adam Cohen (6/5/03)

Beyond my curiosity about the story of eBay's creation, I had a somewhat meta interest in Cohen's book. I'm a tech business journalist, and like Cohen and most other tech business journalists, I've written about scores of startups. However much all of the marketing flacks like to sell whatever company/business model/widget/etc. they're pitching as "revolutionary!," the object of the pitch is never earth-shattering.

Except when it is. And eBay was. Not only is it that rarest of almost mythical beasts, a profitable dot-com, it has a business model that at the time truly was revolutionary. Its margins are psychotic. It transformed its market. While Yahoo, Amazon, AOL and the other "blue chip" Net companies hit the economic downturn and started fading (or plummeting), eBay has kept chugging along, sucking up profits. For a journalist, that's a pretty irresistible story, and Cohen did what every reasonably ambitious journalist assigned to cover an irresistible story dreams of doing: he wrote a book. Since one of these days I too would like to report on that sort of scale, I read The Perfect Store as much to see how Cohen covered the story as for the story itself.

So, about the book. It's pretty good. Cohen started tracking eBay early enough, and enjoyed sufficient access, to capture or reconstruct most of the key moments in the company's early days, from its creation through its IPO. He also has a built-in human-interest angle -- the stories of eBay's more colourful buyers and sellers -- and he works it well, intermixing eBay's corporate story with vignettes about its users.

If I've a complaint, it's that Cohen drank the eBay kool-aid. He rarely points out any serious flaws in the executives about which he writes. This is a story without villains, which is boring but acceptable if there really aren't any (although, c'mon, any writer that can't demonize dot-com venture capitalists just isn't looking that hard), but there's a suspiciously airbrushed feel to the book. There are times when Cohen talks in detail about company fuckups, like the multi-day outage that cost eBay millions and exposed the scary haphazardness of its technical underpinnings, but there's a gauzy, 'the mistakes are past, and look how they've learned from them' tone overhanging such incidents.

This would bother me more in a book purporting to be uncomprising deconstruction of a company, but The Perfect Store isn't that. It's a fairly light mix of business and cultural journalism, and as that, it works.

Griffin & Sabine, Sabine's Notebook, and The Golden Mean, by Nick Bantock (5/25/03)

I have a vague memory of first having Griffin & Sabine recommended to me by someone backstage during a Patuxent Theatre Company show. "The Man Who Came to Dinner," I think, which would date that conversation to the end of 1992, soon after the second volume in the trilogy came out. I was reading an epistolary novel at the time (Sophie's World? Was the translation out then? I also remember reading that at the theatre, but I can't remember when), and someone noticed and said hey, I just read this really cool book told through postcards and letters ...

Anyway, soon after that recommendation, I bought and read the first book, Griffin & Sabine. I quite liked it, but for some reason never went out and chased down the other two. I did, however, buy Fahmi the boxed trilogy for the holidays last year or so. When I mentioned recently having not read the full set, she promptly loaned it to me.

Not bad. There's virtually nothing I can say about the books that's not a spoiler, so I'll just say that anyone interested in book design should definitely take a look. The trilogy will also appeal to romantics. (Which I'm usually not. I was interested more in the story construction than the actual narrative.) I think Bantock is much stronger as an artist than a writer, and there are some plot holes and cliched devices I found frustrating. Like Sabine, the author is more interested in tale's tone than its logic. Still, there's nothing else quite like this out there, and the illustrations are amazing.

Mort, by Terry Pratchett (5/22/03)

Ah, now this is more like it. I don't know if the writing was better or the story was simply more to my tastes, but this one I really enjoyed. The ifmud #books channel consensus seems to be that the Discworld books, contrary to the usual path of series, improve over the years. If that's the case, perhaps I should try one of the newer ones next time I'm in a Pratchett mood. Or maybe I'll finish Good Omens. At some point.

Salute!: Food, Wine and Travel in Southern Italy, by Gail and Kevin Donovan and Simon Griffiths (5/12/03)

In Melbourne, we stayed with longtime friends of David's family, Kerrie and Andre. Kerrie had this book sitting on the kitchen table, and strongly recommended it -- the authors run what is apparently regarded as one of Melbourne's finest restaurants. She also recommended a very cool bookshop near their place. I combined the two recommendations, and picked up my own copy of the book.

I read most of it on the plane ride (as astute readers have no doubt gathered, I got a lot of reading done during the nasty long plane legs of our Oz trip), which worked out nicely -- chatty text and lush pictures of Italy's scenery and food is an excellent distraction from the hell that is United's economy cabin. I've yet to try any of the recipes, though some barely count as that. Caprese salad gets its own page. (Slice mozzarella, pile on tomato and basil, sprinkle with sea salt. The end.)

The book is an interesting mishmash of travel writing, recipes, wine reviews, photography, and diary-like personal musings. There are no deep insights or penetrating travel tips: It's more like reading through a very slickly produced version of a friend's vacation scrapbook. If you want a deeply researched guide to Italian cuisine or travel, this isn't it, but as a light travelogue, Salute! is quite fun.

(And next time we're in Melbourne, I have to arrange a dinner at the restaurant, now.)

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, by John Birmingham (5/5/03)

David has been telling me for years about this book, an Aussie classic of housemate hell. Ten minutes before we headed for our gate for our return flight to the States, I spotted it in the airport bookstore. By the end of our flights (25 hours worth, grarrrrrh), we'd both finished the book. It's a very quick read, and a hard one to break away from. Like watching a flaming car wreck. Birmingham spent at least a decade bouncing around among dodgy cheap shares and swears all of the tales in the book are true, but I have my doubts -- fueled by the billing of Birmingham's next book, The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco , as both "a sequel" and "a novel." Still, the veracity of Birmingham's collected vignettes is almost irrelevant, because no matter what, they remain extremely funny.

"Word of mouth got me out of Bill's place and into a flat in a run-down block off Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. Real skid row. I moved in on a rainy Tuesday. Three different types of mould were vying for supremacy over the ground floor. It was like living in a huge laundry bag. Somebody had spray-painted a warning on the second-floor landing -- 'Don't come any closer Geoffrey. We have a gun.'"

It's even funnier when you're punchy from a solid day of sleeplessness, time-zone confusion, and airplane food.

Dead Famous, by Ben Elton (5/5/03)

The two artists on which David has successfully hooked me are Paul Kelly and Ben Elton. Elton's books are wonderful -- clever, fluid, highly addictive and nearly always scathing. And topical. Like "Law & Order," Elton's books could easily be advertised as "ripped from the headlines," but unlike L&O, Elton consistently has an interesting perspective on whatever nonsense society has gotten itself up to. Dead Famous is a send up/examination of the reality TV mania, specifically parodying (well, lambasting, really) "Big Brother," which may have fizzled here but remains a monster hit in Elton's native Britain. As a whodunit, it's quite skillfully constructed, and as a cultural commentary -- well, this may be fish-in-barrel territory, but Elton makes the massacre entertaining.

The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett (4/23/03)

I'm undecided about how much I'm going to enjoy the Discworld books. Pratchett's writing is certainly entertaining, but I just don't like fantasy that much. The Color of Magic basically tracks Our Hapless Heroes as they ramble from one dire situation to the next, and I found my attention wandering. But I like some parts from later books David has shown me or mentioned (Death as a short-order cook? L-space? excellent) enough to read a bit more before making up my mind.

Casanova Was a Book Lover: And Other Naked Truths and Provocative Curiosities About the Writing, Selling, and Reading of Books, by John Maxwell Hamilton (4/17/03)

Hmm. I kept waiting for this to be more fun than it was. I'm not sure why the book didn't really do much for me. Perhaps it's just that I'm really more interested in book collecting than I am in the wider publishing world. But much of the book felt, to me, like padding. 'Hmm, time for another chapter ... what can I write about?'

Still. 'The Universal Library' chapter is a nice overview of the Library of Congress's haphazard history and ever-changing guiding principles. And I appreciated some of the interesting-story bits scattered throughout, like the tale of e e cummings' first book, No Thanks. Also, the essay-like format of Hamilton's chunky "Notes on Sources" section makes it interesting reading. Possibly more interesting than the rest of the book.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (4/10/03)

I read Snow Crash years ago, but figured it was time for a rereading since David just read it for the first time. One of my friends describes the book as 'what Neuromancer ought to be,' which is apt. Stephenson groks technology -- and, more importantly, technology's possibilities and the culture around that -- in the way Gibson never has. It's impressive how well Snow Crash, written in the late '80s, anticipates the Net as it eventually developed.

But merely being prescient isn't enough to make a book worth reading (and rereading). Snow Crash is also a hell of a lot of fun, with an entertainingly scathing vision of a future in which globalization and capitalism have continued on their current path toward flatten-all-else dominance. The characters are basically ciphers (which is what you expect, with names like Hiro Protagonist and Yours Truly), but that works for the story. So does Stephenson's tendency to end all his books by simply taking a flamethrower to all the narrative balls he's tossed in the air.

Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America, by Dan Savage (3/17/03)

Skipping Towards Gomorrah has a wonderful premise: Savage devotes a chapter apiece to exploring each of the deadly sins, starting with the basic notion that hey, what adults do in the privacy of their own homes is their own business, so let's stop condemning and start celebrating (or at least tolerating) some of these "sins."

Some of the chapters stretch the sin-definitions a bit. Anger is tackled with a pro-gun control argument (though it's an interestingly offbeat one); Gluttony is more about political infighting and hypocrisy within the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance than it is about the joy of eating.

Which isn't a problem. Some sections are more powerful than others, but all are entertaining. And the book marks sex columnist Savage's arrival as the sort of pundit that's badly needed -- a liberal ideologue. Media commentators have pointed out for ages the left-wing vacuum that exists on the windbag circuit. Conservatives have Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, and on and on. Liberals have ... well, Michael Moore. And that's about it, and god knows Moore has as many detractors on the left as he does on the right.

There are lefty columnists, like Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, but they rarely make the transition to being outright advocates. Savage has: His book is a polemic, a deliberate response to the endless spate of conservative treatises on America's moral flaws that clog the bestseller lists. His battle cry throughout the book is laid out in its introduction: We should take seriously that bit in the Declaration of Independence about the pursuit of happiness, and stop trying to bar others from pursuing happiness in ways that we ourselves might not.

And, politics aide, the book is simply a lot of fun. The mere concept of the epilogue cracks me up: Having explored each of the sins in detail, Savage sets out to top off his journey with one blowout weekend in Manhattan, during which he sets out to commit all the sins in a marathon.

(As I write this, Skipping Toward Gomorrah is #8,621 on Amazon's sales rankings. Still in the top-100 list are Mona Charen's Useful Idiots, Michael Savage's Savage Nation, and Ann Coulter's Slander. Sigh. Guess them red states are still winning.)

The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt (2/16/03)

An interesting introduction to polyamory issues, both for those practicing and those merely curious. As I mentioned elsewhere, the book definitely has some floofy aging-hippie aspects, but it's also exceptionally good at breaking everything it discusses down into common-sense pieces. The advice it offers for dealing with the underlying causes of charged emotions such as jealousy is great for those in all sorts of relationships.

The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, The Ersatz Elevator, by Lemony Snicket (February 03)

The Miserable Mill, number four in the series' planned run of 13 books, began to feel formulaic. But by book five, The Austere Academy, things righted themselves: New characters are introduced, and the mystery framing the series deepens, with intriguing hints and new questions about Beatrice and the VFD. I'm trying to pace myself so I don't run thorough books seven, eight and nine too quickly and have to endure the wait till October for number 10.

For Love of the Game, by Michael Shaara (1/12/03)

Finally got around to rereading this, and I fell in love with it again. There appears to be a movie version of this, which I am not linking because from what I've read of it, the movie casts aside everything I love in the book. (Novella, really.)

When I first got hooked on baseball fiction, I quickly thought, "A story framed within a perfect game would be really interesting." It's not at all a spoiler to say that's precisely what For Love of the Game is, and the book executes amazingly well on that premise. It's an unabashed fairy tale, but in very un-cliched fashion. It's also a love story, but one of the best I've ever read: For once, the wounded, afraid-to-commit party is the woman. It's a delayed-coming-of-age story, but without the predictability and saccharine morality that plagues the genre. Really, it's simply a beautifully told tale that ends on a note as perfect as the game it describes.

The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window, by Lemony Snicket (January 03)

A friend recommended to me "Lemony Snicket"'s Series of Unfortunate Events, and I'm very glad he did. The books are sensational. I can't believe these wonderfully twisted stories were published; that they've gone on to be huge bestsellers restores any fading faith I had in the reading public. And one big advantage of bestsellerdom: Every few days, when I break down and head to the bookstore for the next installment, they're bog easy to find.

The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons (12/31/02)

I have a weird fondness for intentionally unfinished stories, when the technique is used well. It's why I liked the movies "Limbo" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" so much, flaws be damned. So while most people I've discussed Hyperion with say "you must have the sequel on hand so you can start it the minute you finish the first book!" (and the first book does certainly stop mid-story), I don't think the Hyperion story had to be continued. Sure, the first book introduced a mysterious background story to frame its collection of novellas, but the frame story was never the point. The novellas, and the larger story spun through the connections between them, stand fine on their own.

I say that because I think the first book will appeal to readers the second book won't. For an SF fan, I have an unusual distaste for sprawling future epics. Which is what the Hyperion stories are, at least the later ones. But if I gotta read such a saga, this is a good one.

It took me close to two months to finish The Fall of Hyperion, which isn't so tightly written and edited as the first and drags mightily in places. For hundreds of pages at a stretch, Simmons does little more than move his characters around like pieces on a chess game. But once the endgame is initiated, the book sails along, and its vision is pretty spectacular.

I'm undecided about reading the last two books. These two stand alone fine, and I don't know if I'm sufficiently interested in the standard SF galactic-chase story to keep going with the cycle. But I'm very glad I read these first two. Interesting stuff.

It Must've Been Something I Ate, by Jeffrey Steingarten (12/4/02)

More from Steingarten, one of the food-writing field's most erudite, relentless, and insane practitioners. I had to take breaks while reading this, flipping through the essays a few at a time. Like the foods he adores, Steingarten's writing is rich; it's easy to overindulge. But where else are you going to get a detailed examination of why MSG hysteria is overblown, or a 12-page treatise on salt?

Wry Martinis, by Christopher Buckley (11/22/02)

During our Seattle trip, we ended up staying at a B&B very close to Twice Sold Tales, an exceptionally neat and very cat-filled bookstore. It's a good thing we don't live in Seattle, or I'd never leave the place. I'm quite in love with the cow kitty (who is now much bigger than in that picture).

As I was wandering around thinking of authors to look for and chatting to the cats, I idly asked a ginger tabby, "So, any idea where Christopher Buckley's books might be?" I then leaned over to pet the tabby ... and noticed that he was stretched out right in front of a selection of Buckley's books. Score.

I've only read a few of Buckley's novels (most notably, the sensational Thank You for Smoking), and always say I'd like to read more. This is a collection of his generally entertaining essays. It was perfect for airplane reading.

Burning the Map, by Laura Caldwell (11/07/02)

The other book I was reading for my NaNoWriMo experiment. I picked up two forthcoming Red Dress Ink galleys at BookExpo last year. The first was so frustratingly badly written I couldn't finish. This one was surprisingly decent. Largely formulaic, but it detoured from the predictable in parts, was decently written, and had a nicely unexpected ending (for the genre).

Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book-Hunter in the Twenty-First Century, by Nicholas Basbanes (11/5/02)

I'd been waiting impatiently for this since September, when I went prowling on Amazon to figure out when Life Beyond Life is due out and discovered instead this curious little detour.

If Patience & Fortitude felt like Basbanes relaxing a bit on the burning curiosity and impressive journalism that went into A Gentle Madness, then Among the Gently Mad feels like him laconically scribbling out a stream-of-consciousness book. While the last felt less intensively researched than the first, this one isn't researched at all, I suspect -- several stories in it are retreads of those in earlier books, and others read like leftover notes that ended up on the office floor the first time around.

Which isn't as bad as it sounds. Among the Gently Mad isn't intended as part of series started by A Gentle Madness. That's clear right from the start, through the book's design: While A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude are chunky, ornate tomes, Among the Gently Mad is shorter, skinnier, and more inviting-looking. It's like a younger sibling tagging along with the big kids.

As a guide to modern-day book hunting goes, it's pretty decent. It even listed a few useful websites I hadn't heard of, which is quite a feat in the days of google. But Basbanes's real interest is in telling stories. Reading his books, particularly this one, is like having a chatty friend along on bookstore excursions who is eager to dish about the field's campfire stories -- dusty old shops, eccentric collectors, heated auctions and buried treasures. If you're into tales like those (and I am), then pretty much anything Basbanes writes is worth reading.

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, by Michael Ruhlman (10/21/02)

I'm participating in this year's NaNoWriMo, and this is one of two books I'm reading in preparation. But even if I didn't need it for research, I likely would have read this at some point.

It's fairly well done; Ruhlman nicely conveys the experience of studying at the CIA, and, more, the mental transformation students undergo as they learn to think like cooks. I have a few slight quibbles -- nearly half the book focuses on one six-week early class block, and while I appreciate the foundational role the Skills segment plays for all that comes after, it would have been nice to have a bit less detail there and more about some of the later classes, which occasionally feel covered in a rush. (While Ruhlman attended all of the six-week Skills bloc, he skips in and out of the later courses; I'm sure that affected the book's focus and narrative arc.) But as one of the only books out there covering this material, and a very good book at that, The Making of a Chef is invaluable.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons (10/11/02)

This is one of those books everyone I know recommends highly, and one that I knew I would have to get around to reading eventually. I'd recently read and liked Simmons's "On K2 with Kanakaredes" in Dozois's latest Year's Best Science Fiction collection, and my extended spate of reading food writing and book books put me in the mood for a nice long, engrossing novel. So, I mooched John's copy of Hyperion.

As predicted, I really like it. I've never actually read The Canterbury Tales, but I'm a sucker for stories told in that format -- Worlds' End is among my favourites of the Sandman books. The best part of Hyperion is Simmons's skill in giving each of his travellers' stories a unique narrative voice, and in arranging them to build perfectly, gradually both deepening and revealing Hyperion's mystery.

I don't generally go for space opera, but in Hyperion the space opera is very much just a backdrop for the interconnected novelettes of the stories. In its sequel, the politics and war looks to be center stage. Since Hyperion flows so directly into the sequel, I've picked it right up and started reading it. It'll be interesting to see how it compares.

The Book That Never Was: The Argument: How William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones attempted to make of The Earthly Paradise a big book with "lots of stories and pictures"; how they fared in this endeavor; and how their dream, though it evaded them, has yet outlived them, by Joseph Dunlap (9/27/02)

William Morris' Kelmscott Press is generally regarded as the greatest private press, and the Kelmscott's edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is frequently hailed as the epitome of publishing art. The Book that Never Was tells of an earlier, aborted endeavor by Morris and illustrator Burne-Jones. It reads like a dissertation, with little narrative style, but the story it relates is quite interesting, and it certainly helps illuminate Morris's working methods and goals. And, lots of pictures. Woo.

The Book on the Bookshelf, by Henry Petroski (9/15/02)

While waiting for my The Book that Never Was to arrive, I went casting about for something else bookish to read, and settled on this, which has been lying around for a year or so. It's pretty dry -- Petroski doesn't have the skill some writers do at making fairly dull topics come alive. But, hey, anything you want to know about the history of the bookshelf is in here.

The Bookman is a Hummingbird, by J. Christian Bay, and The Koh-I-Noor of Books (9/4/02)

I don't remember what started it, but I have a thing for the books of the Torch Press, a Cedar Rapids-based private press that published from (roughly) 1910 though the mid '50s. Scholars care about the press because of its work publishing important books on Western and local history, but I became enamored of the press because its founder was a bibliophile who mixed quite a few books-on-books into the publishing lineup. While the books were published in small and occasionally limited, numbered runs, most remain quite inexpensive today, making the Torch Press books a nice, affordable bunch to collect.

"The Bookman is a Hummingbird" is subtitled "Book Collecting in the Middle West and the House of Walter M. Hill," which quite succinctly describes the book's contents. Published shortly after the death of Chicago bookseller Hill, the 55-page work is a recounting of Hill's life and influence on Midwestern collecting, which then segues into short descriptions of pretty much every major collector in the region and his (or, very occasionally, her) collecting interests. It's book chatter, and very conversational, regionally-focused book chatter at that, but it's still a fun book to poke through. And a great reference work for anyone interested in Midwestern book collecting in the first half of the 20th century.

"The Koh-I-Noor of Books," subtitled "An Essay in Bibliosophical Eristics" and purportedly by "Tydor Debrenowsky, Custodian of the Codices, The Cosmopolis Scholarion," is quite a different critter. Ten pages in, I wasn't sure what the hell I was reading. Purportedly a story of "bibliacquisition" tracing the path taken by "a very expensive and most beautiful facsimile edition of a rare and magnificent codex which embodies the fundamental philosophies of all ages," the slim book has a colorful cast of bogglingly rich and outlandish collectors grappling after the codex, and equally outlandish academics (including "Professor Ogorodnikoff, Vice-Dean of the Graduate School of Chasmophogaphy") keen to spend years researching the work.

On the last of book's 26 pages, the point of the lunacy became clear: It's a shaggy dog story. I won't spoil the punchline, but it's one anyone who collects books or spends time with collectors will appreciate.

A Red Heart of Memories, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (8/24/02)

This came on a recommendation from Kim. The novel's length is a fairly standard 300-some pages, but I found it a very rapid read. I finished it in about a day, and I don't normally read particularly quickly. Hoffman is a great storyteller, and Red Heart flies by.

Though I read a lot of SF, fantasy isn't really my genre. Red Heart sits very firmly in that genre, with telepathy and magic and friendly inanimate objects and a general outlook that the world is a whole lot weirder and cooler than we perceive it to be. The book's story, characters and themes are fairly formulaic, but somehow, that isn't a flaw: It feels like a campfire story or fairy tale, a narrative that's strength comes from the way it taps into familiar arcs. (Also, I realised as I wrote that that it begs the immediate objection, 'Matt has all kinds of quirks and odd abilities! How can you say she's formulaic?' She's certainly the least standard of the bunch, but all, including her, seem to be variations on established themes. The Incredibly Kind -- but Damaged -- Stranger. The Career Gal Hiding from Herself. Etc.)

My only real objection to the book -- what keeps me from loving it -- is its simplistic handling of complicated issues. No character, no matter how evil his or her acts, is beyond redemption , but more than that, no character is really presented as all that bad, deep down. If one character were depicted that way, ok, but it happens again and again, with characters who we are told have ruined lives and done horrific things. And I don't buy that. Sometimes people do vile things not because they're hurt or misunderstood but just because they're vile people.

The book sets up a segue right into its sequel, which I'll buy and read at some point, since despite my objections to the book's moral message, I do like Hoffman's graceful writing. I'm actually more eager to go track down the two novella prequels to Red Heart than I am to race into reading the sequel.

The Greatest Slump of All Time, by David Carkeet (8/23/02)

A year or so ago, I recall asking on ifMud, 'Hey, can anyone recommended a book with a totally omniscient narrator, not centered on any one character's POV?' Nearly all the recommendations were for books a century or more old; the consensus was that the omniscient narrator is out of vogue and rarely used these days. Well, Carkeet uses the technique, and it kept throwing me. I guess as modern authors have moved away from the omniscient voice, modern readers (this one, at least) have also lost the ear for it.

Having a totally omniscient narrator is slightly problematic when the reader is also given ten main characters to keep track of, and no central narrator helpfully filtering interactions with the other characters. Three-quarters of the way through the book, I was still having to stop every so often to remind myself which character corresponded to which team position and which set of neuroses.

Greatest Slump has a great premise: What happens if every member of a champion baseball team simultaneously and for totally individual reasons sinks into depression? Parts of the book are indeed, as the earlier comment suggested, riotously funny, but most of the novel walks the seriocomic line. And I'm a bit undecided how much I liked it. It's very well-written and well-plotted, but the blurriness between the characters is a flaw. While the omniscient narration gives the book a solemn gravity that works well to underscore the comedy and pathos, it also forces the story to be told at a distance -- and that robs the emotional parts of some of their power.

It did make me quite keen to reread another, similarly expertly-written baseball story that also uses the tale of one moment in sports time for a deeper character examination, Michael Shaara's For Love of the Game. I'll have to haul that off the shelf again soon.

A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, by Anthony Bourdain (8/8/02)

I've had this on my "to buy soonish" list since it came out last year, and Barnes & Noble's 30% off summer sale finally prompted me to buy it and a few other lingering books. My friend mamster says this was his favourite book of the year. It's certainly a hell of a lot of fun. If you enjoy vicariously travelling and tasting through prose, this belongs on your bookshelf. One particularly refreshing aspect is Bourdain's frankness about things authors aren't usually so straightforward about. It's not just his extremely funny asides about the obnoxiousness of the Faustian deal he made with the Food Channel to film and fund his travels; he also seems amazed at the success of his Kitchen Confidential and his abrupt transition in the public eye from kitchen riffraff to Upstanding, Bestselling Author. You get the sense Bourdain considers the whole thing something of scam, and is amazed at how long his good fortune has lasted. So long as he continues writing so enthusiastically about such intriguing food adventures, I'm happy to contribute to the run by buying his books.

Lost Classics, edited by Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, and Linda Spalding (8/2/02)

I found this at Avenue Victor Hugo in Boston, in the store's reasonably decent books on books section. (Boston's used bookstores utterly outclass NYC's used bookstores.) I love the concept: Short essays from authors on obscure books they've loved. A quick flip through the book, though, made me nervous. The book's editors edit an eclectic, sporadic literary journal (Brick), and the book's contributors are culled from the journal's contributors. Eclectic, sporadic literary journals tend to breed pretentious writing the way soggy bread breeds technicolor mold. And sure enough, quite a few essays in this book are the sort of thing I feared: 'I read this book during one of my college summers in Paris, and feel it is best experienced while sipping vin de table at a sidewalk café on the Champs-Elysées. It is unavailable in U.S., and remains sadly untranslated from its original Wolof ...'

But there are enough straightforward and genuinely enthusiastic essays in the book to redeem it, such as George Elliott Clarke's ode to the pirate version of Play Ebony Play Ivory that introduced him to a lyrical, forgiving, authentically African and authentically American poetic voice; Isabel Huggan's frank appraisal of the utopian romance Islandia ("The book in question is one I can no longer comfortably read, the prose too rich for my palate. ... But the major reason I find Islandia worth mentioning here is that it did for me what any good book should do. It transported me."), and Sarah Sheard's appreciative tribute to a how-to book of dubious factual value but great fodder for childhood games and daydreams (Down and Out in the Woods: An Airman's Guide to Survival in the Bush).

Not all of the books are ones the authors remember as literary high-water marks and not all are truly lost, but I think that works to the collection's advantage by adding variety. And, best of all, the book did what books of this sort should: It prompted me to make a list of books I'd never before heard of that I'm now intent on tracking down.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams (7/22/02)

David says Dirk Gently is probably his favourite book, and he's been after me for years to read it; its construction, he says, is stunningly impeccable. Being a big Hitchhikker's Guide fan, you wouldn't think I'd need much encouragement to read another Adams book. But I've picked up, started, and put down Dirk Gently three or four times, beginning -- er, at least 10 years ago. This time, I was determined to plow through.

And, well, I'm still not sure what I think of it. Enh, mostly. Bits of it were quite funny, but a lot of it just felt forced, to me. Adams's stuff has a tendency that way, likely because he wrote so much of it locked in hotel rooms and all but held at gunpoint by editors desperate for long-overdue manuscripts. Anyway, I guess I shall have to read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul before I can have a proper opinion on the set.

(And David's rebuttal to this review is: "You do not appreciate English humour. It's an absolutely beautiful book. It's Adams actually doing the craft of writing, instead of just throwing together a bunch of gags like in Hitchhikker's Guide.")

((Also, why the hell is Amazon claiming this is all but out of print? I refuse to believe bookstores in the U.S. aren't currently stocking it. It's certainly readily enough available used or from the U.K.))

The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten (7/13/02)

A continuation of my food books binge. I'd read Steingarten's "Toro! Toro! Toro!" in the Best Food Writing: 2001 collection, and quite liked his gonzo, go-anywhere, eat-anything style. So I snagged this book expecting more of that, and was pleasantly surprised at Steingarten's range and depth. The book, a collection of his columns and articles, has its share of culinary adventuring, but Steingarten also tackles more mundane subjects, such as the essences of ketchup and mashed potatoes (not together, thankfully). And everything he writes about, he researches the hell out of. At times, my eyes glazed over and I skimmed some of the more exhaustive bits, but generally I appreciated the rigorous approach. It also makes the book a surprisingly fresh examination of nutrition. Steingarten blasts away at food myths, challenging such orthodoxies as the bad reps of salt and fat, even offering up an extremely entertaining chapter on all the nasty and potentially lethal things lurking in a seemingly benevolent bowl of salad. It's hard to know how accurate Steingarten's nutritional commentary is -- it's not a subject I've read much on, and "current scientific thinking" seems to flipflop daily -- but it's certainly thought-provoking. The entire book is one I expect to flip through and return to often.

Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang (7/1/02)

There are exceptionally few hardcover books I'm willing to buy at full price the moment they're published. When I saw that Chiang finally had a story collection coming out, I knew it would be one of them. I first read Chiang's work several years ago, in a Dozois "Year's Best" collection. The piece was "Tower of Babylon," Chiang's Nebula-winning debut. It's an amazing story, and one that prompted me some time later to start looking for Chiang's other work. In the Dozois collections I've accumulated I found the breathtaking "Story of Your Life," which I somehow missed reading when I first bought the Dozois book. It's easily one of my favourite SF stories. Soon after, I read "Seventy-Two Letters," which is not as much to my taste but is undeniably well executed.

I grudgingly refrained from running out and chasing down Chiang's earlier work so that I would have plenty of new material to read in this collection. Chiang's a bit of an oddity in the SF field, where prolific authors abound: The eight tales in Stories of Your Life include the entirety of his published oeuvre (plus one excellent, Egan-esque new story, "Liking What You See: A Documentary," written for the collection). This is not a problem, however, because Chiang's stories are of an astonishingly consistent high quality. While none of the other stories in the book (including the very highly regarded "Hell is the Absence of God") quite lived up to "Story of Your Life" and "Tower of Babylon," in my opinion, every single one is good enough that it would be a career highlight in the corpus of nearly any other author. The collection is very, very worth getting.

Best Food Writing: 2001, edited by Holly Hughes (6/24/02)

Outlaw Cook put me in a mood for food writing. Since I don't read the culinary glossies, every piece in this book was new to me. It's a great sampler; while I didn't care for every article included, only one struck me as not terribly well written (Debra DeSalvo's "Eat it Raw!," from the Village Voice, which chronicles the interesting raw foods meme but is more a series of quotes than an insightful examination of the trend). Standouts are many, and include Jeffrey Steingarten's bluefin-hunting tale ("Toro! Toro! Toro!"), Calvin Trillin's ceviche quest ("Desperately Seeking Ceviche"), Malcom Gladwell's carefully constructed fast-food analysis ("The Trouble With Fries") and Lisa Takeuchi Cullen's short-story-like "The Cooking Lesson."

Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn (6/20/02)

David and I saw Copenhagen during its Broadway run. It's best show I've seen in NY in years. He recently bought me the published version as a birthday present. Reading through the text is interesting, but the published volume also includes a 37-page postscript by Frayn that explains the sources and history underpinning the play. It's sometime dense reading, but extremely interesting throughout. Also noteworthy: The play text published here has no stage direction calling for the Broadway show's single special effect, which was stunningly well used. If that effect was a creation of director Michael Blakemore, kudos to him.

Outlaw Cook, by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne (5/29/02)

Mamster, proprietor of the grubshack and foodie extraordinaire, introduced me to the Thorne's newsletter and food writing. Outlaw Cook is somewhere between a collection of essays and cookbook. There's recipes, but they're beside the point. Thorne's interest is in ruminating on dishes, ingredients, spices, cooking implements and all other aspects of food, principally the sort a minimally skilled but enthusiastic cook can work with night after night in his or her own kitchen.

I started reading Outlaw Cook more than a year ago. Rather than plowing through it, I found myself picking it up, reading a few essays, then setting it down again for a few weeks. Thorne's writing invites a certain reflective distance. His essays are drawn from substantial research and his own culinary experimentation, and manage to be both weighty and casual, intellectual but never pretentious. This is also the first cookbookish book that inspired in me spontaneous experimentation -- the chapter on garlic soup had me so curious about this concoction I hauled myself off the papasan chair into the kitchen to muck about with garlic, eggs, water and bread crusts. (Verdict: Interesting, but I'd likely only use it as a sop for good, stale sourdough, not as an actual soup.)

I shall have to track down Thone's other books. Starting with Pot on the Fire, most likely.

A Passion for Books, edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan (5/24/02)

Another of these collections of book essays and such that I've taken to picking up. This one had an unadvertised but unmistakable slant toward Jewish authors, with a few of the essays assuming reader familiarity with certain customs, rituals and personages. A familiarity I lack. The book also has a strong emphasis on essays written early in the century (as do many of these collections), which makes it feel a bit dated. Still, most pieces in the book are universal and a few are quite excellent.

Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith (5/23/02)

Still my favourite book, which I reread for about the third time mainly to refresh my memory of it so I can argue more accurately with David about whether or not the ending smacks of authorial deus ex machina. Whatever your verdict on that, it's an awesome novel. A blurb and jacket text from the U.K. edition are hanging out in the bookweb

The Woody, by Peter Lefcourt (5/12/02)

Enh. I really like Lefcourt's novel The Dreyfus Affair (a blurb about which is languishing in the bookweb's original incarnation), but if The Woody is an accurate indicator, he's a one-trick writer. It's not that The Woody is bad, it's just that its set-ups and carefully manipulated outlandishness feel formulaic. Character development is minimal, which worked well in Dreyfus (in that book, the main character is a lunkhead in the midst of an identity crisis -- it makes sense for him to be something of a cipher) but here simply feels inept. We're apparently supposed to be pulling for The Woody's eponymous protagonist, Senator Woody White, but it's never clear why. Sure, he's surrounded by venial twits, but there's nothing in the novel to indicate White isn't one himself. Also, even less forgivably, The Woody is filled with errors an editor or proofreader should have caught (the First Amendment is pretty different than the Fifth) and really bad attempts at journalistic writing. (An article in the novel, supposedly from the Washington Post, starts the lead of a page-one story about a fatal accident with the time and date of the accident. An editor would boil in oil a first-day intern who tried that.)

So, basically, a missable book, and I won't be rushing out for the rest of Lefcourt's oeuvre. The Dreyfus Affair remains a favourite, however. This blurb brought to you by the ( ) punctuation mark.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (5/8/02)

I'd been meaning forever to pick this up, and yay that I finally did. It's an interesting experiment. Ehrenreich's observations and impressions are very different, I'd imagine, that would be those of someone facing decades of employment for minimal wages. Which is the point. She isn't really writing about the experience of trying to make a life on paltry pay, she's illustrating to those who make much more exactly what the trade-offs and compromises are that low-wage workers must make. What's being sacrificed aren't "luxuries," but basics, including health and privacy. That's something that should be reiterated again and again to those in a position to do something about it. This is the sort of book I'd love to see be required reading for Congressional representatives. You can certainly disagree about the value of Ehrenreich's experiment and how closely her carefully arranged set-up mirrors low-wage work's reality, but it's hard to dismiss her conclusion that a whole lot of people are working full-time and more and still struggling to afford the necessities of modern life. How to remedy that is a pretty thorny issue, but we won't get around to solving it until more lawmakers are convinced it's a problem that needs a solution.

(On a somewhat tangential note, this is indeed, as I expected, an interesting companion to Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy, which I read last fall. Cheever's is a much gentler book, more about him and his own psychological knots than the social and economic aspects of low-paying work. It's quite an interesting book, but it's not a crusading one.)

Minor Players, Major Dreams, by Brett H. Mandel (4/24/02)

A reference in The Atlantic to The Greatest Slump of All Time as 'a novel so funny audiobook manufacturers won't record it for fear of vehicular mishaps' (I'm paraphrasing) prompted me to suggest we purchase said book with all due haste. David replied that I already did buy the book, at a used book shop in Philly last fall. Hmm. This sent me scuttling through our semi-unpacked books, where I failed to unearth Greatest Slump but did find Minor Players, Major Dreams, for which I'd been hunting in our crates for several months last spring. (David already read it, and emailed back-and-forth with the author about how much he liked it.) So, I started in on that one.

Mandel spent a summer with an independent, rookie minor league baseball team, and tells the team's story in alternating chapters: Biographical sketches of the Ogden Raptors personnel interchange with the ongoing story of the team's season, including slumps, streaks, and spats between the players and managers. Mandel's prose isn't fancy, but it doesn't need to be. He very effectively narrates a tale of what minor league baseball really feels like at the lowest levels. While Mandel's reverence as a fan and awe of the players' talent and skills comes through on every page, he doesn't hesitate to write about less savory aspects of the game -- the players' tantrums, the owners' miserliness, the very long odds of ever reaching the majors or making more money in baseball than a few hundred a month ... It's very well done, and invaluable for anyone curious about life in the minors.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis (4/17/02)

Several years after borrowing this from Neil, I finally read it -- but only after buying a second copy because I'd buried his in the crates of books with which David and I cohabit. (Then I managed to return both copies to Neil after the apartment move.) More madcap excellence from Willis. Set in the same world as her Doomsday Book and featuring one of the same characters, it's written in an utterly different style. While Doomsday had a spare, dramatic tone, To Say Nothing... is a manic romp. Good as Willis is at drama, she's better at comedy. Featuring star-crossed time travelers shuttling among centuries in search of a hideously ugly object d'art that is nonetheless a linchpin of the space-time continuum, the novel tosses a dozen tangents and complications in the air and gracefully juggles them all. Another 500-plus-page book that flies by.

The Straw Men, by Michael Marshall (Smith) (4/15/02)

The background: Michael Marshall Smith is pretty much my favourite author, and I've been very impatiently anticipating his long-overdue forthcoming fourth novel. Proof copies of the UK edition began showing up on ebay in March, and I watched several go by while gnashing my teeth over prices I couldn't afford. Hoping to stumble upon improperly listed copies (a seller's poor listing skillz recently scored me a relatively cheap copy of the exceedingly scarce second volume of Gardener Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction series), I tried various search permutations and hit upon an ARC of a forthcoming US paperback of the same title ... described by the seller as the "debut novel" of "Michael Marshall." ?????

After a day of combing every online bookstore and information source I could find to figure out what was up, I received an e-mail reply from Lavie of the website, who kindly confirmed for me that this was indeed the book I've been seeking, and that the author has dropped Smith from his name for US publication (and, in a recent decision, the UK as well) of The Straw Men. The reasons are all now detailed at

Anyway, after confirming all that, I snapped up (well, David snapped up for me) a copy of the US ARC for a tenth of what the UK proof is going for, and I raced through it in a weekend. (The marketing on the ARC is a hoot. The publishers are indeed selling this as Smith's debut novel. Not just his debut in the genre -- debut novel, period. Um, no.)

The book: The first page or two was enough to remind me why I love Smith's writing so much. He makes it seem effortless, and does amazing things with language. In genre, The Straw Men is a change from his previous work. It's a (more or less) straight modern-day thriller, while his previous novels and most of his short stories are somewhere horror/science fiction/fantasy-ish. I really can't get into thrillers. I've never read a one that didn't feel formulaic in the end.

(Check that. If you consider Ben Elton's Popcorn and Stark thrillers, they are highly non-formulaic and black as a charcoal-covered crow in a tar pit.)

Which didn't deter me from liking The Straw Men. As the cliche (sort of) goes, I'd read the phone book if he were rewriting it. The Straw Men is very dark, and at least has the courage of its gritty convictions. Smith -- er, I guess I mean Marshall -- doesn't pull back (much) from following his tale through to some harsh endings. It's hard for me to look at the book objectively and figure out how much I would have liked it if it were the first MMS book I've read; it's not to my tastes as much as the spectacular Only Forward and the best of his equally sensational short stories, but it's still written in the signature style of his that I love. I imagine thriller fans will like it quite as bit. Thematically, it's probably closest to MMS's Spares, which I really should get around to rereading.

Anyway, here's hoping it sells lots of copies when it finally comes out in July.

Books and Bidders, by A.S.W. Rosenbach (4/7/02)

This is a continuation of my "books on books" kick, and the best so far. Rosenbach is a wonderful narrator, and tells a lively variety of tales of book hunting, book collecting, book selling and so on. The only thing that kept throwing me was his casual tossing about of the amount spent on various books. Rosenbach (generally considered the 20th century's greatest bookseller) thought nothing of dropping several thousand dollars on an interesting rarity ... which is still quite the hefty sum today, never mind 75 years ago.

The copy I procured of this sadly out of print title was deaccessioned from a library upstate, where it apparently got very, very little use. A half dozen pages in the book were uncut. Cutting them to keep reading was a bit wacky.

Revolt of the English Majors, by G. B. Trudeau (3/3/02)

The latest Doonesbury, yay. The title is almost as great as the Bush quotes.

Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way, by Andre Bernard (3/2/02)

I read this book, a collection of anecdotes about how other books acquired their now-famous titles, in about half an hour. It's not deep, comprehensive, or even necessarily accurate, but it's fun.

Amenities of Book Collecting, by A.E. Newton (2/25/02)

There's something that's just cool about reading a book that's nearly a century old. I picked up a 1922 edition of this (very out of print book) at Strand for $15, which seems to be about the going rate. It's dated, but still surprisingly readable given its age. I'll confess: I only read the first half, which covers Newton's book-hunting adventures in the U.S. and London. The latter half primarily consists of profiles of famous authors and literary men. Not being a particular fan of Boswell or Dr. Johnson (despite Newton's infectious enthusiasm for them), I skipped most of the later profiles. Perhaps I'll read them at some point. Newton followed the success of Amenities with several more books on book collecting. I shall check them out next time I'm Stranding.

Since Amenities is out of print, I've linked above to Alibris's page on Newton. I do not actually recommend buying books from Alibris, which significantly marks up the books it sells as a middleman. Hie thee to ABE instead.

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (2/11/02)

I first read this at least eight years ago. I pulled it off the shelf this time because I was looking (for another project) for books that dealt with time travel without getting into scientific justification. I ended up rereading the whole 578-page novel during the next two days. Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and it's easy to see why. The narrative flies, and Willis's recreation of the Middle Ages may not be scrupulously accurate, but it's certainly evocative.

(One note. If you care about cover art, consider getting either the original 1992 trade paperback or Bantam's 1993 initial mass market paperback. Both are available inexpensively at ABE and are much nicer looking than the bland edition Bantam has been reprinting since 1994. )

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman (2/10/02)

Fadiman's collection of bookish essays, first printed in Civilization, does a very nice job of making the personal universal. I loved the piece about marrying her library and her husband's (if you want to see me 'n David bicker, just get us started on how a collection should be arranged), and the one about her habit of battering books. (I share that trait. David calls me a book vandal.) This was another 'eureka' book for me: I got it at my favourite local used bookshop, and only discovered when I got home that the copy I'd bought was a signed special edition for booksellers. Yay.

Patience & Fortitude : A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture, by Nicholas Basbanes (1/31/02)

A week or so after I finished A Gentle Madness, what should I spy in the bookstore? A sequel! Yay!

Basbanes attempts to avoid revisiting the same territory by giving Patience & Fortitude a wider scope than Madness: This time, he writes not just about book collectors but sellers, librarians, researchers and so on. Still, Patience's first section reads a lot like Madness's. Its latter half doesn't have quite the spark of Basbanes's first book book -- it's rather as if, having made his mark and told the most dramatic stories he could find, he's settling into a comfortable groove writing up more easily researched bits.

While Patience & Fortitude isn't quite as exciting as Madness, it still has plenty of tales worth reading, and Basbanes at times approaches the narrative steam of the previous book. His chapter about the flap surrounding San Francisco's new public library is wonderfully researched and well-told. Basbanes has decided to make a trilogy out of these books; when the third, Life Beyond Life: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, comes out in 2003, I'll be queued up for a copy the day it's published.

Ten Years and William Shakespeare: A Survey of the Publishing Activities of the Limited Editions Club from October 1929 to October 1940 (1/13/02)

One of the best things about New York is the sidewalk vendors selling books. Generally, those books are recent bestsellers for cheap, but every so often you find something older and more interesting. This is probably my best sidewalk score. The Limited Editions Club began in 1929 and publishes (it's still going, in very different form) fancy editions of well-regarded novels, plays, histories and such. I've become a devotee in the past few months, and have picked up a few LEC books when I can find them affordably. I was pretty shocked and elated to find this for $6 at a sidewalk stand on 72nd Street. It's not worth much, but it's a pretty odd thing to find outside a specialist shop.

To celebrate its first decade, the LEC published this collection of essays. The essays are good, but what's fantastic is the bibliography. The club's founder, George Macy, has added notes to the bibliography about the books, and his comments are amazingly candid. When he thinks a book came out well, he raves; when he's disappointed with the final result, he doesn't hesitate to tear into the designer, illustrator, printer, etc. He's similarly ruthless with his self-criticism. It's great fun to read the background details about how the books came to be. I hope the complete (well, complete through 1985) LEC bibliography is this much fun to read when I'm finally able to afford a copy.

(The link above doesn't go to a bookstore, since Ten Years is very much out of print. The link is to another page with a picture of the book. If you're interested in a copy, ABE always has a bunch.)

Booked to Die and The Bookman's Wake, by John Dunning (1/1/02 and 1/6/02)

Dunning is both a writer and a book dealer, and this pair of mystery novels centers on a cop-turned-bookseller and the bodies that accumulate around him. Both are excellent. The novels are lots of fun for bibliophiles, who will get a kick out of the tidbits about rare books and the market for them, but Dunning is a strong enough writer that I imagine most mystery fans would enjoy these books . Booked to Die wanders around a bit before settling into its main plot, while the plot of The Bookman's Wake is ludicrously complex and twisty, but those flaws matter little thanks to Dunning's narrative skill. With the latter novel, I gave up entirely on making logical sense of the main mystery and still enjoyed the story immensely.

Booked to Die was a huge hit upon its publication in 1992, but Dunning waited another three years before turning the sequel loose, and he hasn't yet done a third in the series. Points for that. The Bookman's Wake is that rare sequel that's every bit as carefully crafted as its predecessor. I'm glad Dunning is willing to take his time with these books.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore, and Warmly Inscribed : The New England Forger and Other Book Tales, by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone (12/30/01)

My least-favourite thing about this trilogy is the authors' habit of quoting lengthy passages they clearly had no way at the time of recording verbatim. By the third book, I'm willing to believe they could have been taping interviews, but in the very first Nancy recounts -- in quotes -- conversations she had years ago with numerous book dealers, long before the pair were considering writing about their collecting adventures. It's a journalistic thing I get nitpicky about, because if you're reconstructing conversations with no indication to readers that's what's happening you're likely playing fast and loose with reality in other areas as well. Indeed, in the third book the authors tell of a book proposal they once submitted which referred to a left-wing intellectual friend of theirs quoting such ideologues as Max Beerbohm -- who was, unbeknownst to the Goldstones at the time, a humorist and a dandy. Research is clearly not their forte.

The books are lightweight and fluffy, but they're still fun. Used and Rare, the first book in the set, tells of how the Goldstones got hooked on book collecting. It's a nice introduction for those bit by the bug. The later books don't have the same narrative drive and definitely contain filler, but they're still charming and informative enough to be worth reading. I may grumble about the journalism, but I'll keep reading the Goldstones' book books.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, by Nicholas A. Basbanes (11/26/01)

I ordered Basbanes' book last summer, then left it sitting on my shelf for several months. It looked intimidatingly dry. Once I finally started reading the book, I raced through it. The first half is a bit wonky and will likely only appeal to history buffs and fanatical bibliomaniacs. David calls it "the book begats" -- Person X had this famous book, which then ended up in the library of Person Y, who once spoke with Collector Z ...

The second half of the book, which focuses on twentieth-century collecting, is much more lively. Each chapter is a self-contained story about some notable collector, institution or trend, and each is impeccably researched. Basbanes is particularly adept at chronicling crimes and cons. He devotes a chapter apiece to the strange saga of the Garden Ltd. collection and to master book thief Stephen Blumberg; in both cases, he offers new information and insightful commentary. A fantastic book for collectors and bookworms.

Selling Ben Cheever : Back to Square One in a Service Economy, by Benjamin Cheever (11/15/01)

An interesting oddity. After failing to sell his latest novel, Cheever turns to nonfiction, and works his way through an assortment of minimum-wage-ish jobs. It's hard to say what exactly he's seeking: He starts with the premise that in messy economic times like these, middle-class professionals could well be finding themselves booted back down a fair bit on the slippery career ladder. He doesn't find much evidence of that, though, and never really settles on an alternative hypothesis. Cheever also never manages the 'just an ordinary guy' façade. He's not just a well-off author, he's the son of a wildly famous writer and the spouse of a well-known movie critic. That comes with some baggage. He certainly goes unrecognized at the jobs he takes -- Cheever is far from movie-star famous -- but the distinction comes through in his writing. The book isn't written the way a "typical" journalist-off-the-street would do it; it's more intensely personal. Cheever's name isn't in the title just to be clever -- he, and his peculiar past, are very much part of the story he's telling.

Which is fine, since the book doesn't need to be a rigid work of journalism or social anthropology. It works well as a memoir-tinged tale about one man's curious midlife experiment. Worth reading. One of the blurbers is Barbara Ehrenreich. I've been meaning to read her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America ever since it came out forever ago; it seems like it would be a great companion to this book.

The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century, edited by Ben Brantley (10/28/01)

I pinched Gotham's pre-publication review copy. Brantley collected 100 memorable Times reviews of 20th century shows. The bit at the start -- abbreviated, photo-filled spreads on "twenty-five productions that changed the century" -- strikes me as filler, since the reviews of those 25 shows are reprinted in full later in the book. The collection is definitely worth having, though. It's fascinating to compare reviewers across the eras, as Brooks Atkinson's gentlemanly tone and notes about the opinions of "this column" shift to Frank Rich's scalpel-sharp and keenly intelligent treatises. I certainly don't always (or even often) agree with the Times reviewers, but the newspaper's criticism is one of the few areas in which I'm willing to concede it outdoes the competition. I'm also quite happy Brantley didn't include only rave reviews of landmark productions. The book features several pans of shows that became hits, and includes Rich's highly amusing review of Moose Murders, a flop that lasted only one performance.

Sake: Pure + Simple, by Griffith Frost and John Gauntner (10/27/01)

I've been coveting this every time I go into Union Square Wines and Spirits, so I finally bought it this weekend. It's a good, quick introductory overview, and is well-written -- the bits where the authors disagree and essentially print their argument are a hoot. Now I wanna go try some sake! Luckily, Leo knows a good spot; sounds like a group of us are going to go sampling tomorrow.

Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, by Tracy Quan (10/21/01)

Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl is based on a Salon series I occasionally looked at but never really read. The tone put me off -- it was sort of breezy and chatty but simplistic, and riddled with clichés. Not surprisingly, the book is the same way. There are far too many exclamation points for my liking; Quan tends to write her narrator with the tone of an overexcited 16-year-old. The book's blurbs enthuse about its "frothy" tone, which is a bit disingenuous: Diary doesn't quite have the intelligence behind it of top-notch guilty pleasures. As a kicker, the ending is pretty tacked on: Just as the book finally picks up some narrative steam and suspense, it comes crashing to bits with an epilogue-like closing that leaves way too many bits dangling

But. The story is interesting enough to make the book worth reading despite its many flaws. While it skimps on way too many areas and has virtually no psychological depth, it has enough insider details to be sociologically interesting. If there's a sequel (and I can't imagine there won't be), I'll likely check it out. With fingers crossed for better writing.

The Club, by David Williamson (10/23/01)

With the Grand Final over, it's a long winter before the start of Aussie football season. I'm distracting myself with footy stories. The Club is actually a play, and it apparently had a Broadway run in 1981 despite how thoroughly Melbourne-centric it is. It's a tale of the backroom politics consuming a once-successful football team (which David says is a very lightly veiled Collingwood). Williamson does a great job of avoiding the predictable, and The Club neatly pulls off the trick of being emotionally satisfying without succumbing to easy solutions. David says the movie version is quite different and goes in whole hog for the sentimental schmaltz.

The Boondocks and Fresh for '01 ... You Suckas, by Aaron McGruder (10/19/01)

I recently started reading The Boondocks because Neil kept raving about the strip's Sept. 11 commentary -- which is indeed spectacular, even before the introduction of "The Adventures of Flagee & Ribbon." So when I visited Leo and discovered that he's not only a fan, he's a fan who owns the books, I promptly mooched them. Will pick up my own copies shortly.

Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera, by Johanna Fiedler (10/11/01)

I know nothing about opera. This, however, did not stop Amy from assigning me a story for the November issue of Gotham about Molto Agitato and its author, Joanna Fiedler. (Having only a week to turn around the story played a rather large factor in my getting the assignment.) Lucky for me, the book is quite well written and aimed more at enthusiasts than fanatics. It focuses on the social history of the Met, rather than on details of its artistic highlights, which makes the tale easy to follow for opera neophytes. Anyone interested in learning about the personalities and history behind the Met should check it out.

Sundancing: Hanging Out and Listening in at America's Most Important Film Festival, by John Anderson (10/8/01)

I went downtown Saturday, on the pilgrimage most New Yorkers have been making to ground zero. I know it's macabre to go check out the wreckage, but there's something very unsettling about watching footage on CNN of a scene that's unfolding blocks away. Actually seeing the site made it a bit more real to me.

Anyway, in the process I came across a very cool bookshop located a few blocks away. Since almost everything in the shop was $4 or less, I picked up a few books I'd never heard of before that were lying around and piqued my interest. Sundancing was one of them, and it turns out to be an oral history of Sundance -- or, at least, of Sundance in 1999. Anderson did an excellent job structuring the book and choosing subjects for the running interviews he conducted. He traces three filmmakers and their projects -- Gavin O'Connor's Tumbleweeds, David Riker's La Ciudad, and Doug Block's Home Page -- throughout the festival, recording their experiences as they begin screening (and trying to sell) their creations. He intersperses those tales with short pieces about various aspects of the festival, from its politics to its perennial transportation problems. My only nitpick: It would have been useful to have a more extensive appendix about the films screened at the festival, one that not only listed the distributors for those films that landed them, but also listed non-festival awards (it's pretty significant that Janet McTeer landed an Oscar nomination for Tumbleweeds, but it's not mentioned in Sundancing) and some sort of synopses of the films.

At Home with Books : How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries, by Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm, and Christopher Simon Sykes (9/26/01)

Book porn. Wonderful, beautifully photographed, envy-inducing book porn. At Home with Books is the quintessential coffee table tome for bibliophiles. It actually inspired to me hack through the Manhattan grime and dust off my poor, neglected books. The book mixes beautifully shot, decently written profiles of collectors' libraries with short articles on an assortment of bookish topics: bookplates, book binding, collecting resources, a profile of a town that's so full of used bookshops it's become a tourist attraction, etc. Definitely worth picking up.

Lit Life, by Kurt Wenzel (9/23/01)

Why do so many novelists feel the need to add "tragic depth" to perfectly good comedic tales? Lit Life has a sensational opening, a nice cast of flawed but likeable characters, and great one-liners. The set-ups are a bit clichéd, but Wenzel subverts the expected often enough to keep the story rollicking along. Until he abandons the tone he's so carefully cultivated for an ending that I presume is supposed to give the story a profound resonance, but which instead feels out of synch with what's come before. Sigh. Still worth a read, but not what it could have been.

(Microserfs. I was trying to come up with an example, and that's a good one. It's been a few years since I read it, but if memory serves, it expertly pulls of the blend of comedy and sharp social commentary that both Lit Life and Up in the Air are aiming for.)

The House of Forgetting, by Benjamin Alire Saenz (9/6/01)

The House of Forgetting bills itself as a "psychological thriller" -- which is reasonably accurate, and it's both the book's strength and weakness. Saenz also writes poetry, and his talents are obvious: He can write rings around most thriller authors. Several passages in the novel, particularly early on, are wonderfully elegant and expressive. The set-up is intriguing, as is Saenz's heroine. It's rare to find such a believably drawn Puerto Rican character in a mainstream novel. Gloria's background adds another layer to the tale, showing the shadowy flip side of Pygmalion-like transformation tales.

Where The House of Forgetting falls down is where it's shoehorned into the formulaic thriller mold. Saenz's characters are slightly more flawed and morally ambiguous than those in similar tales, but they're still drawn from the same stock canon: the educated, elitist madman; the hard-as-nails, crusading lawyer; the honest policeman who rails against the brass. The ending, particularly, is emotionally and logistically unconvincing, and seems orchestrated for no reason other than hey, it's a thriller: ya gotta have the big violent confrontation between the psychopath and his innocent victim, right?

I would have preferred Saenz toss the thriller conventions and simply tell Gloria's story, as he does early in the novel. However, he pretty clearly set out wanting to write thriller, and on that count the book certainly stands up well against the competition.

After You'd Gone, by Maggie O'Farrell (9/3/01)

A beautiful and somewhat formless tale about a curtailed love affair. I don't generally go in for love stories -- relationships are among the hardest subjects to write about in a way that's both honest and appealing. But O'Farrell does a beautiful job sketching in just enough detail to shape her characters' stories without robbing them of their subtlety and mystery. I love the way the narrative's vignettes jigsaw together; the tale's pieces come together so gradually and seamlessly it's like watching a Polaroid develop. There are no "ah ha" moments. Instead, the story's elements unfold almost subliminally. Even better, After You'd Gone chronicles complex and painful situations without settling for cliched rationales or resolutions.

One suggestion: Think about getting the British edition (which is what I got, as it was on sale). Much better cover art.

Stephen Sondheim: A Life, by Meryle Secrest (8/28/01)

I don't remember what got me started, but I'm an utter Sondheim nut. (Favourite shows: Sunday in the Park with George and Company.) I've been reading this in conjunction with Art Isn't Easy; they're good companion pieces. Secrest's biography of Sondheim is sometimes choppy and rarely lyrical, but it has some nice anecdotes and research not recorded elsewhere. This is not an insightful analysis, however -- it's really little more than a litany of quotes and facts (some of which are reportedly quite inaccurate). "Pedestrian" and "plodding" are the adjectives that turn up most often in the reader reviews I've read, and I can't really disagree. Good reading for fanatics like me, but probably not of much interest to casual fans. For those new to Sondheim's shows, there are better introductory works.

When She Was Good, by Norma Fox Mazer (8/22/01)

Another quick read. I picked this one up because it's relevant to a project I'm working on. Mazer does an excellent job with the point of view. Very simple and spare, which works beautifully for the story she's telling.

The Hellfire Club, by Peter Straub (8/1/01)

I picked this up for a quick, fun read while stuck on jury duty. It's brain candy, but it's better-written than most disposable thrillers.

Up in the Air, by Walter Kirn (8/1/01)

Sometimes bad books are more interesting that good ones, at least from the analysing-why-things-work (or don't) viewpoint. I was intrigued by Up in the Air after reading a "from our contributors" blurb about it in Time -- it's got a pretty nifty gimmick. And if it had just stayed comedic and played up that gimmick, things would likely have worked out fine.

Instead, Kirn tries to write a coming-of-age story (well, technically a navigating-of-midlife-crisis story, but this character never seems to have gotten a grip on himself the first time 'round) that also attacks soulless mass-corporate culture. His observations are occasionally spot-on, and those aspects of the story would have made a good essay or polemic. Here, they feel grafted onto a narrative, which robs them of much of their impact.

The big problem with the book, though, is its first- and second-person viewpoint. In my experience, a first-person narrative works best when the story's primary focus is on events surrounding the protagonist -- when the narrator is essentially a portal to a story, throwing a (hopefully) interesting voice into the mix while serving as the reader's eyes and ears amid a swirl of interesting events.

That's certainly not a hard-and-fast rule. Unreliable narrators can be lots of fun, and there are excellent stories in which the whole point is being plugged into the head of someone kooky. But Up in the Air's Ryan Bingham isn't unusually twisted or dark or brilliant or even interesting. He's just your standard burned-out middle-aged management consultant. He isn't even terribly introspective, and when you're trapped in his head for several hundred pages, that's a problem. Ultimately, he comes off as little more than a collection of quirks that probably sounded cool when the writer dreamed them up, but which fail to gel into a credible character.

The book as a whole suffers from that problem. Subplots wander into the narrative, roam around for a bit, and then disappear; the series of odd occurrences providing the tale's badly needed bit of narrative suspense are never satisfactorily resolved. The ending feels rushed and tacked-on. With another few drafts and a shift in viewpoint, Up in the Air could have been a very interesting tale. As is, it's a listless and lazy story. If Kirn weren't a name author, I doubt this would have been published.

(It's still far from the worst "character for our time" novels I've read, however. That title will almost certainly forever belong to Hugh Gallagher's Teeth. I wholeheartedly agree with the reviewer who termed that book "thinly-veiled auto-hagiography.")

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (7/14/01)

I've been a Gaiman fan for about four years now, ever since I got hooked on his Sandman series. I've read most of his other novels and short stories, and my impressions are mixed. His stories are always wonderfully original and well-written; on the flip side, none of his novels quite feel utterly perfect the way Sandman occasionally did. (Along with a few of his short stories. "The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories" and "Looking for the Girl," both in Smoke and Mirrors, are amazing.) American Gods is in line with that trend. It's a fun book, and I solidly recommend it, but it never quite gels into becomming more than the sum of its (quirky and well-crafted) scenes and characters.

Terry and the Pirates, by Julian F. Thompson (6/20/01)

Even though I'm past my "young adult" years, I still have a thing for the literature. I spent much of my adolescence propped up against the bookshelves in my school and local libraries, and few books these days capture my attention so completely as the books I read during those afternoons of hiding out in libraries. I find it ridiculous that YA literature often gets marginalized by mainstream editors and critics. If you want to write books that are likely to have a lasting impact on readers, children's and YA fiction are the way to go. They're the books that people read at a time in their lives when their minds are most open, and when they're (hopefully) learning to love reading. Yes, there's a lot of tripe clogging up the bookshelves in any YA section, but the same can be said of the adult-section bookshelves.

Besides the bibliophile argument that YA literature plays an important role in the literary landscape, there's the simple fact that there are some damned good writers authoring books for teens, and not reading YA lit means missing out on some extremely creative and entertaining stuff. So I still pick up new books by some of my favorite authors from when I was a teenager. Julian F. Thompson is on that list. He's probably best known for The Grounding of Group 6. The kooky style and utter faith in teenagers that pervades that book has continued throughout most everything else he's written. This is one of his latest. It's not a piercing as some of his earlier efforts (such as Group 6 or the inexplicably out of print A Band of Angles), and it reads rather like Thompson's earlier Philo Fortune's Awesome Journey to His Comfort Zone recast with a female protagonist, but it's still a fun and quirky tale.

Me by Me: The Sock Puppet Book, by the Sock Puppet (6/15/01)

I admit it: I love the sock puppet. Awesome ads, and the critter gave good interviews. (We did one with him when I was at Silicon Alley Reporter). Full points to his ad-agency creators. So of course, when I saw this at Barnes & Noble, I picked it up, since I figure it won't be long before such flotsam from the days when existed disappears. Verdict: Worth having for fanatics like me, but not nearly as funny as the ads and commercials. Shame they didn't get the same copywriters to do the book.

Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, by Deborah Copaken Kogan (6/15/01)

An interesting tale told by an author competent with words by not gifted. Kogan writes about being a female photojournalist covering wars in the late '80s and early '90s, and her story has enough momentum that all she has to do to make the narrative compelling is stay out of its way. But Kogan isn't just interested in writing about photojournalism, and the book's title isn't merely a clever twist on a cliché: love and sex and the power they wield are integral to the story she's telling. Which is both a strong point and a flaw in Shutterbabe. When Kogan writes bluntly about the obstacles women encounter in journalism -- particularly when practising it in countries where women remain oppressed, and in the exaggeratedly macho niche of photojournalism -- her observations have power. When she crosses into defending the choices she ultimately made (family over career), her lack of eloquence becomes a problem. Though she intends to make an argument about how women, particularly mothers, are still discriminated against in the professional sector, she leaves too many loose ends in her logic, and ignores other points of view. Still, while Shutterbabe isn't a convincing polemic, it's a fun story.

The Bundled Doonesbury: A Pre-Millennial Anthology and Duke 2000: Whatever it Takes, by G. B. Trudeau (6/06/01)

Doonesbury just rocks. I got hooked on the series after picking up a copy of In Search of Regan's Brain six years ago at a used book shop, and promptly began searching up old collection books. Luckily, David has a fairly complete set. Never mind money--the most important thing a potential partner can have is a spiffy book collection. These two were my recent birthday present. Much yay.

Belinda, by Anne Rice (5/23/01)

"Why are you reading that utter crap?" was David's mantra while I was rereading this. Answer: Because sometimes crap is fun, and as far as cheesy romance goes, Belinda is far more compelling than the disposable fluff sold in the drugstore racks. There are a handful of books that I associate indelibly with the times and places I first read them. Belinda is one of those. I first read it two years ago, while I was in North Carolina for the summer, and I remember reading the book primarily during fast-food dinner breaks on my marathon 12-hour road trips between Raleigh and New York. So rereading it is a good way to kick off summer. Now, if I can just get hold of a good beach book...

The Not So Big House, by Sarah Susanka (5/6/01)

Living in a 200-square-foot box has turned me into an avid reader of shelter mags and other purveyors of real estate fantasies. (My friend Amy and I occasionally refer to the genre as girl porn.) The Not So Big House is based on the rather intuitive but apparently architecturally revolutionary notion that people shouldn't waste space and money building formal rooms that are no longer in frequent use (the fancy foyer, the formal living room, etc.) It belabors this point a bit too much, but makes up for it with a fantastic chapter on the economics of home building that explains tips and tricks not obvious to casual observers. Overall, definitely an interesting book with more to offer than just pretty pictures of snazzy houses.

The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence, edited by David Remnick (04/20/01)

I'm generally not a big fan of The New Yorker -- the magazine's rarefied aura sets my teeth on edge. Several articles in The New Gilded Age play straight into that elitist stereotypes: A number of critics have scoffed at Meghan Daum's "My Misspent Youth," a tale of credit card debt and upper-middle-class poverty, but I think Daphne Merkin "Our Money, Ourselves" is far better illustration of where the New Yorker loses touch with reality. Merkin attempts to write about the interesting contradiction of being the child of visibly wealthy parents who hate spending money on the family, but quickly descends into an inadvertently amusing treatise on how it's impossible to live in New York without support from affluent relatives. The piece is an excellent reminder of why I don't subscribe to the New Yorker.

But, dammit, sometimes the magazine runs really great articles. I picked this book up because I got a free press copy. (The first article in it is a profile of my former boss.) I certainly don't think it's worth the $25 cover price, but a few pieces in it are standouts. Nicholas Lehman's "The Kids in the Conference Room" is a spectacular analysis and indictment of the management-consulting career fad sweeping through the nation's top colleges; Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's "Landing from the Sky" is a beautifully written profile of a Bronx-raised teenager that subtly maps out cycles of poverty and pregnancy.

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan (04/08/01)

Axiomatic was my #1 favourite book for several years. Currently, Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward is occupying that spot, but I still love Axiomatic and reread it frequently. It's already listed in the bookweb, so if you have any interest in science fiction whatsoever, check it out. And if Amazon says it's out of print, they're lying. Copies are fairly easy to find in bookstores, and it's still very much in print in England and Australia.

Gone Bamboo, by Anthony Bourdain (04/05/01)

A great quick read. I liked Bourdain's breezy style and amoral outlook in Kitchen Confidential, so when I saw this (one of his two mystery novels) in Barnes & Noble, I snatched it up. If I were doing this over again, though, I'd read Bone in the Throat first, since they share characters and Bone comes first chronologically.

Proof, by David Auburn (03/31/01)

I've been itching to see this on Broadway. In the meantime, I picked up the script, and the show does indeed seem deserving of all the rave reviews it's accumulated. Copenhagen, which David and I saw last fall, was among my favourite evenings of theatre ever; between the two, it's been a great year for idea plays. (Which I'm a sucker for. Inherit the Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Amadeus, and Two Rooms are all on the list of plays I'll eventually add to the bookweb.)

Kitchen Confidential : Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain (03/24/01)

An extremely entertaining book. Bourdain's tale isn't really an expose of life in a restaurant kitchen, as some reviewers have tagged it; rather, it's a memoir about that life. His breezy style and "throw everything up and see what sticks" storytelling make this a great, quick read. Definitely recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in food. (That means you, grubshack readers.)

House, by Tracy Kidder (03/22/01)

House took me more than a month to finish, not because it's unusually long (the copy I have is 329 pages, excluding the appendices) but because, like its subject matter, the book is plodding and meticulous. Kidder chronicles the process of building a family's first house, from the initial act of choosing a site through moving day.

I have mixed feelings about the book. The idea is fantastic, and Kidder is an astute observer of details. He had excellent material to work with: The assorted cast of characters--the builders, the architect, the family, the contractors, etc.--are interesting, textured people, and the building process has enough Sturm und Drang to keep things dramatic. However, Kidder's tale is in some ways too neat to be fully believable. One review I read mentioned that by being so aggressively absent from the story he's telling (Kidder never once refers to himself), the author inadvertently draws even more attention to his presence: He observes and relates so many emotional and candid moments that the reader inevitably wonders how having a reporter present affected those moments. Kidder also occasionally employs a journalistic device I hate, describing what so-and-so "thought to himself."

To an extent, these criticisms reflect changes in journalistic vogue within the last decade. House was published in 1985, and reporting techniques have evolved enough since then that Kidder's style feels a bit dated. For one thing, the media has become far more self-aware and self-referential. Some despise that trend; personally, I think it's a good thing.

Kidder focuses his book on a very narrow timeframe, the roughly eight months or so of the house's creation. Events after moving day are summed up in a half-page epilogue. While I understand the motivation behind that structure -- the book isn't meant to be an epic tale; it's intended to cover the design and construction of the house and little else -- I suspect that a longer-range view might have added nuance to House.

Overall, I recommend House. It's definitely an interesting story. But I can't help wondering if it wouldn't have been more interesting still in another writer's hands.

The Dreyfus Affair, by Peter Lefcourt (03/20/01)

The Dreyfus Affair is already in the bookweb--which, given that I haven't updated in, um, years, shows how long ago I first read the book. It's probably the most rereadable book I own: At least once a year I come across it on my shelves, pick it up, and end up hooked once again.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (03/15/01)

I don't think I'll have a defendable opinion on this one until I've reread it--and given the book's length, that's not happening any time soon. For the first several hundred pages I didn't much like the style of House of Leaves, but it was intriguing enough that I kept reading. I kept picking it up and putting it down for weeks. Then I hit the labyrinth section. I plowed through the last 300 or so pages in a weekend, finishing the book around 3 a.m. one night and convinced of its brilliance. The problem is, what I like best about the book are the parts Danielewski didn't write, the stories that are implied and the details the reader is left to extrapolate. Without reading the book again, knowing its twists and turns and conclusions, I can't tell if those subtleties are actually in the text or if I'm filling in bits the author never intended. (I'm not enough of a postmodernist to believe the distinction doesn't matter.) Regardless, it's an interesting and thought-provoking story.