Friday, October 31, 2008

Tony Hillerman

Edgar Award-winning author Tony Hillerman died this past week at the venerable age of 83. Hillerman wrote seventeen novels featuring the Navajo detectives Leaphorn & Chee, brought an awareness to modern Native American culture and society, and won every major accolade that there is for mystery writing, but I've always loved him for his fantastic author photo. Just cinch that belt around your waist - we don't use belt loops out here on the reservation.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

25th Hour

Why has it taken me this long to read The 25th Hour by David Benioff? It is flat-out brilliant - I am reading it now as if my hair is on fire. It has a breakneck pace that has me quickly alternating between needing to weep with this guy's friends and family over his impending prison term and wanting to smack his stupid face for letting them all down. Lawdy, what a book!

Also, the new Ken Bruen arrived in bookstores this week: Once Were Cops. Go get it from your neighborhood independent NOW!

Friday, October 24, 2008

National Book Awards

Last week, hot on the heels of the Man Booker Prize announcement, the National Book Foundation announced their nominees for the 2008 National Book Awards. (Since I really only read fiction, for the purposes of this rant, I will only refer to the fiction portion of these awards. Thank you.) The NBA's are given annually for literary excellence by US citizens for books published in the States within that particular calendar year. The NBA judging panel - comprised of five authors working in that genre - selects 5 finalists culled from the ranks of what has been submitted over the past year. Would this year's panel be able to bring us a list of worthy titles? Perhaps their names alone would foretell the quality of the finalists. The panel: Gail Godwin (chair) - never read her. Her books strike me somewhat as "ladies' fiction". Rebecca Goldstein - never heard of her. Elinor Lipman - more ladies' fiction. Not my thing, although moderately respectable. Reginald McKnight - never heard of him. Mr. Jess Walter - one of my all-time favorite authors and hopefully the man who will save this year's awards. Not sure if he has gotten over getting hosed in 2006, when he was a finalist for The Zero.

Here's what they came up with:
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Home by Marilynne Robinson
The End by Salvatore Scibona

I was just going to complain about the list and how there are not any books worth reading on the list and how there is nothing that really appeals to me among them, and I started think about all the books I read in 2008 that didn't make the finals - pointless thoughts, really, from a man without any influence, outside the walls of the bookstore where I toil and within the meager pages of this blog. But as I looked over the list of books I have read in the past year, there actually were very few American novels that struck me as worthy of the National Book Award. I think that David Bajo's 351 Books of Irma Arcuri, while not widely read, is certainly brilliant enough to make the list here. Is Nam Le eligible for The Boat? I don't know, but he should be. Personally, I am shocked that David Benioff's City of Thieves is not a finalist - this is far and away the finest piece of fiction, American or otherwise, that I have read in the past year. It is really a tragedy that is not on the list at all. The only "consolation" for him is his winning the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award for Best Fiction last weekend. At least I was able to vote for him on that one. Sigh.

So I think I will complain about the quality of this list after all! Robinson can't win - she already has a Pulitzer within the last five years, so that just wouldn't be fair. But I have to think she's the favorite. Peter Mathiessen seems to be stretching the rules of the award a bit with his "new book" - a re-edit of his trilogy from the 90's (Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone). He has cut a significant portion from the books for the new edition, but it still seems like a stretch. He is a 3-time nominee now, with one win (The Snow Leopard, 1980 winner for General Nonfiction paperback) and while his body of work is extremely worthy, is it really fair to give him the award for best fiction of 2008 for 3 reworked novels from 1990-1999? You can see from my list of my read books on this site that I never finished The Lazarus Project - it still intrigues me, but there's something about his style that just keeps me out. Telex From Cuba received quite a bit of positive press when it first was published and I think it may be the darkhorse in this. It does sound compelling (and I still may end up giving it a shot), but I've stayed away from it because of the soccer moms and La Jolla elderly that have come looking for it. And I have never laid eyes on The End, nor have I ever heard of Salvatore Scibona (above). He and his novel may be very fine, but I can't really get on board with nominating a book I've never heard of for the best book in all the land.

I've said before that it is unfortunate that these award panels feel the need to pat themselves on the back every year and nominate books that they feel are worthy despite their lack of consumer demand or critical acclaim. Look at the sales history for NBA nominees & winners just from the 2000's - its a who's-who of publisher returns and remainder titles. It's this snobbish, backward thinking that has lead us to abominations like the Quill Awards - a useless, embarrassing series of awards that has the opposite effect by allowing the unread masses to overload the nomination boards with Nora Roberts titles. There needs to be more of a middle ground - how can you put Salvatore Scibona on the list and leave David Benioff off it? What are you trying to tell me, the well-read consumer, about the quality of titles available? The NBA Foundation should take a cue from the mess surrounding the Booker longlist this year - see my post on that from August - there was substantial fallout from the snobbery surrounding Jamie Byng and his whining over the commercialization of some nominees, but ultimately Booker got it right with Aravind Agiga - the best book in the bunch.

I'm not saying that the National Book Awards need to be fan-friendly or even critic friendly, but they should follow the buzz from the last year's worth of publications as a guide to how to select the best of the best. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has gotten substantial buzz over the summer - mostly from Oprah, true, but it had a solid industry following before The O caught on. Yet it is surprisingly not on the list. City of Thieves. Ethan Canin's America America maybe. The five books that made the list are not buzz-worthy and therein lies the rub - I want to want to read the books nominated as the five best novels published in America for the year. These five don't wow me and send me out to buy all five. They are unfamiliar and feel pretentious and elitist - the woman in Omaha who happened to read Edgar Sawtelle for her bookclub is going to feel ostracized by an award foundation that picks 5 books that may not even be available in her local bookstore. What message is this sending to our diminishing reading public? "You're too stupid to even understand how we select these titles, so just shut up and buy the ones with the gold stickers on the cover."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Billy Collins at D.G. Wills

Former US Poet Laureate (or "lariat", depending on who you ask) Billy Collins, was at D.G. Wills in La Jolla on Sunday the 16th for a reading from his newest collection, Ballistics. I am not much of a poetry reader, as I'm sure many have noticed, but I do read Billy Collins. Hearing him read his work aloud though, something else entirely. His performance far outpaced anything I could have expected - his perfect, dry, deadpan delivery made every line that had seemed innocent and blunt, take on a sharper, wittier edge that I had never picked up on in reading them myself. Later in the evening, I was one of a lucky, honored few who had dinner and drinks with the esteemed Mr. Collins - really one of those once in a lifetime sort of things. For those of us who remember the bulk of the evening, of course....

I will leave you with his title poem from the new collection - taken unceremoniously without permission from the pages of the book:

When I came across the high-speed photograph
of a bullet that had just pierced a book - the pages exploding with the velocity -

I forgot all about the marvels of photography
and began to wonder which book
the photographer had selected for the shot.

Many novels sprang to mind
including those of Raymond Chandler
where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed.

Nonfiction offered too many choices -
a history of Scottish lighthouses,
a biography of Joan of Arc and so forth.

Or it could be an anthology of medieval literature,
the bullet having just beheaded Sir Gawain
and scattered the band of assorted pilgrims.

But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written

by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance

at twenty-eight hundred feet per second,
through the poems about his childhood
and the ones about the dreary state of the world,

and then through the author's photograph,
through the beard, the round glasses,
and that special poet's hat he loves to wear.

-excerpted from Ballistics by Billy Collins, available at fine independent bookstores everywhere.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Eastern Europe

For those that know me and have been asking for photos from my Eastern European trip, here they are - they can be viewed in full at When you're there, I would suggest clicking on an album (they are actually in reverse order, so start with Prague. There is also an explanatory paragraph for each on the right side once you're in the album) and viewing it as a fullscreen slideshow. You might want to either extend the time for each photo or just us your arrow keys to flip through, so you can read the captions. Just some suggestions from a perfectionist. Below is a taste - in order: Prague, Czech Republic; Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina; Ston, Croatia; Split, Croatia; Hvar, Croatia; Budapest, Hungary. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Adiga Wins The Booker!

Awesome breaking news on this Tuesday: 34-year old author, Aravind Adiga has won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his masterful debut novel, The White Tiger.

Visit the venerable Man Booker Prize site for more - and you can read my humble review from back in August, right here. That's right, you heard it here first...finger on the pulse an' all that.

Friday, October 10, 2008


"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." - from The Last Good Kiss (1978).

In my previous post, I mentioned the death of author David Foster Wallace - an author I can respect, but not one whose work I have ever read - while I neglected to mention the loss of a hardboiled crime-noir icon, in Mr. James Crumley. Crumley died in Missoula, Montana at age 68 from complications from kidney & pulmonary diseases on September 17. He was the creator of one of my all-time favorite flawed, lowlife private detectives, C.W. Sughrue. These were my thoughts after finishing what may prove to be Crumley's final novel, The Right Madness:

Man, “madness” is right. This makes other “hard-boiled” detective novels look like The Secret Life of Bees. C.W. Sughrue is the lowest of the lowlifes – a violent, cynical man who drinks & fights to terrifying excess while working as a private investigator in Montana & points north. He finds himself wrapped up in a long-reaching conspiracy with his best friend at its center that threatens to tear his fragile, hard-earned sanity down around him. All the while his past hovers above & behind him like a swarm of insects on a hot day, following the stink.

Crumley wrote just three books featuring Sughrue (one of which I have been unable to get my hands on), three others with Milo Milodragovitch, and one with both characters. Of his leading men, he once said "Milo's first impulse is to help you; Sughrue's is to shoot you in the foot." - of course, a perfect summary. I stumbled upon his books when The Right Madness arrived in 2005 - I don't think I had ever even heard of him before that - maybe vaguely. He never won any substantial accolades, his books weren't raved over in the New York Times, and they were never national bestsellers. Yet, he certainly left an impression on the genre - his books inluenced modern writers just as much as Chandler or Hammett and made me think, "What kind of crap was I reading before I found these?" Perhaps the acclaim he always deserved will fall on him posthumously. Who knows. I'm just sorry that he didn't write more - although that just makes the novels he did produce all the more special.

The Crumley Reading List:
One to Count Cadence (1969)
The Wrong Case (1975) Milo Milodragovitch series
The Last Good Kiss (1978) C.W. Sughrue series
Dancing Bear (1983) Milo series
Whores (1988) short stories
Muddy Fork and Other Things (1991) short fiction and essays
The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) Sughrue
Bordersnakes (1996) Sughrue and Milo
The Putt at the End of the World (2000)
The Final Country (2001) Milo series
The Right Madness (2005) Sughrue series

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Marko Returns

Marko in Dubrovnik, CroatiaI'm back.

In the midst of economic disasters, vacations in Eastern Europe, and the prospect of participating in the most important Presidential election in history, I missed a few things in the world of words that I'd like to throw out on the table - just some topics that have arisen in the last few weeks that are worth mentioning:

- News of the worst kind: author David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 14. (I was out of the country then & didn't hear until I returned at the end of the month.) I'd be the first to admit that I have never read one of his books (Infinite Jest is incomprehensible jibberjabber) but it makes my heart glow to see these soccer moms coming out to pick up his titles. What is it about people that makes them go out and buy an author's books as soon as they die? "Hey lady, if you liked 'Pat the Bunny', you'll love 'Infinite Jest'!"

Sherry Jones- The book "Jewel of Medina" by Sherry Jones is to be published by maverick publisher, Beaufort Books. Why is this significant, you ask? "Jewel", originally slated to be published by Ballantine (a Random House imprint) in August, is a fictional rendering of the life of A’ishe, the child bride of the prophet Muhhamed. Ballantine canned the printing when they realized that the author took some creative liberties with the character that was deemed to be potentially offensive to those of the Muslim faith. Beaufort, whom you may remember from such books as "If I Did It" by O.J. Simpson, decided that the book was worth salvaging and has brokered a deal with Jones to publish this fall. At the end of September, the home of Martin Rynja, publisher of the UK edition of the book, was damaged in an apparent terrorist attack. Eric Kampmann, president of Beaufort and creepy Bible-thumper, believes that it is his civic duty to publish "Jewel", as it has become a free-speech issue for him. "We can’t have groups telling us what we can and can’t publish,” he said. Stay tuned.

- Finally, an independent bookseller in a position to have people listen to them, has taken a stand against the things that are wrong in the industry. At the fall trade show for the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, outgoing president Carol Besse made a call to arms for indies to explicitly explain to their customers why it is bad for them to purchase books from and blasted publishers and their authors for offering chain-only selections. She called for a "grassroots effort to re-educate every author" when they visit independants and laid into publisher Chelsea Green for their Amazon-only release, Obama's Challenge in August and author Jonathan Alter for signing with Borders's State Street Press for his upcoming book. If I could only get people to read this blog, we'd really be onto something.

- Rumor had it that Tina Fey said she wanted a "literary" press to carry her upcoming "memoir". Then why did she choose Little, Brown? Ah, who cares, do the Palin impression again!

- If you live in San Diego - or the greater SoCal area, for that matter - don't miss Mr. Billy Collins appearing at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla on October 19th at 5pm. Collins will be reading from and signing his new collection, Ballistics.

And, for those of you who actually know me personally, I am almost done uploading all my photos from my trip to Czech Republic, Croatia, and Hungary - I'll have the link on here just as soon as I am ready. Check back soon. (This one was taken off the coast of the Croatian island of Vis.)