Thursday, January 31, 2008

January Books Bought

January is a great month. I've got plenty of great reading left over from Christmas presents, plus my birthday is on the 18th. Still I managed to buy a few books that somehow didn't make it into either my stocking or stacked around the birthday cake (which might be a little sticky anyway). So without further fanfare...


The Collected Stories (2006) – Amy Hempel
I checked the hardcover out from the library a few months ago, read the Reasons to Live section and knew I had to have it (now available in trade paperback). Most of Hempel's stories are quite short, but she packs a lot into them: humor, compassion, strangeness and those wonderful word choices.

Tales and Sketches (Library of America) - Nathaniel Hawthorne
I found this at a library sale for a buck. The only Hawthorne I'd read previously was The House of Seven Gables several years ago. Many of these tales are quite short (to say nothing of wonderfully unsettling), so I try to read one every day.

Poetry and Tales (Library of America) – Edgar Allan Poe
Another Library of America volume. This one replaces the clunky Barnes & Noble cheap-o edition I've had for years, which can now be used for weight-training.

Making a Good Brain Great (NF 2005) – Daniel G. Amen, M.D.
No one ever accused me of having a great brain (or even a good one), so I figure I need all the help I can get. It doesn't look like a crackpot book and it only cost a few bucks, so what the heck?

Slang: The Topical Dictionary of Americanisms (NF 2006) – Paul Dickson
I love slang. I'm fascinated by it, which is probably why I use too much of it. I saw this book at Daedalus Books, one of my favorite stores, and decided I must have it. It's organized topically, which makes browsing easy. So don't be a lookie-lookie; buy it - it's ace-high. Sorry, G2G.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

ARCs and Library Thing

Yesterday I received an advance reader's copy (ARC) of Jeffrey Ford's new novel The Shadow Year from Library Thing.

If you haven't already, at least take a look at Library Thing. If you're into books at all, you owe it to yourself to check it out. You can catalog up to 200 books for free or become a life member for $25 and catalog as many as you like.

What's the point? Seeing what other people are reading, getting recommendations, reading reviews, networking with other people who have similar interests. Geek stuff, as my wife says.

Library Thing also has an Early Reviewers program which allows you to request ARCs of forthcoming books. You don't have to review the books you're sent, but the chances of getting future books are greatly increased if you review the books you've been sent. I've been sent three books and have reviewed one. The reviews don't have to be long or even positive. But realize that most of the time Library Thing receives between 10 - 25 copies of each title with hundreds of reviewer requests for each title. Still, it's a program worth checking out.

Monday, January 28, 2008

This Could Be It...

Stephen King's new novel Duma Key very possibly could be his best ever. It's too early to tell and I probably won't be able to tell for awhile, depending on forces beyond my control. (More on that in a minute.)

Duma Key is the story of Edgar Freemantle, a Minnesota man who loses his right arm in a horrible construction accident. Not only that, Edgar loses his wife and possibly his sanity. He moves to Duma Key, Florida, where he rents a beach house and learns to sketch and paint with the use of his one remaining arm. But of course this is Stephen King, so these are, of course, not ordinary sketches and paintings.

Others may disagree, but I think King is producing some of his best writing these days. With the exception of the disappointing (yet still entertaining) Cell, King (under his own name, not Richard Bachman's) has lately given readers The Colorado Kid - a wildly misunderstood tale, Lisey's Story - a touching, yet unnerving horror story, and now Duma Key - both a great horror tale and an examination of the dark side of creativity.

My problem is I checked the book out from the library as a 7-Day Express book, which means I can't renew it. Normally I could read the 600 pages in seven days, but not these last seven days, which have been filled with work at the library, All-Night Bowling with the youth Friday night/Saturday morning and deacon duty yesterday. I've gotta turn it in tomorrow with only 175 pages read.

Of course I am going to Costco today, where I'm sure the book is on sale....

More on this story as it develops. Until then, find yourself a copy of Duma Key and lots of free time.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Three Lessons from Spirit of the Marathon

Last night Cindy and I went to see a new documentary about marathon runners called Spirit of the Marathon. It was only playing in a couple of theatres in Maryland and then only for one showing.

I think the theatre management thought no one was going to show up to a documentary about running on a Thursday night, not when they could go see The Bucket List or 27 Dresses (Both fine choices, from what I've heard...) Cindy and I got our tickets and sat in the theater with about a dozen other people who certainly looked like marathon runners: thin with chiseled facial features, sunken cheeks, lots of energy. (Are you surprised that I was the only one in the theater munching popcorn?)

Then other people started coming in. In droves. We all sat watching a whole parade of kid-movie trailers, wondering what was going on when a lethargic theatre employee ambled in and announced, "Your movie's gonna be on Screen 14," as he pointed toward the exit. That's good, I thought. There's so many people showing up, they're putting us in a larger theatre.

No. They put us in a smaller theater. Not only that, they hadn't announced to those people that 27 Dresses would now be showing on Screen 9, the theatre we had just left. Plus Spirit of the Marathon had already started.

Lesson One: Avoid Bowie Regal Cinemas in the future.

The film was quite good. Cindy and I had both seen films like it before. The filmmakers usually focus on an event (in this case, the Chicago Marathon), follow six or seven runners of various levels as they train for the event, and keep up with them during the race. Interviews with famous running authorities are interspersed throughout the film.

The personal stories were quite interesting and often gripping. It's interesting to watch the husband and wife runners train for the marathon together, yet painful as you see the husband come to the realization that because of a knee injury, he won't be able to run the race. Or the woman who runs for the organization that helped her get adopted as a child. Her desire to run is unstoppable, yet she's married to a man who thinks that "Anytime you're going any distance over five miles, take public transportation. Every time you runners run, you always end up where you started anyway."

But the most moving story is that of Daniel Njenga, a Kenyan runner who works in Japan in order to send money to his relatives in Kenya. Njenga has come close to winning the marathon several times in the past, finishing as high as #2. He badly wants to win. Yet at his home in Kenya, local thugs terrorize the man's family, thinking they must have large amounts of Njenga's winnings stashed away.

The most interesting part of the film is the examination of why people run. Everyone has a different reason: some are world-class athletes in vicious competition, some just want to stay in shape and some just love it. Some may just be plain crazy.

Lesson Two: Everyone has a story.

When I got home, I couldn't help thinking about the parallels to writing. Everyone (everyone that writes, that is) has different reasons for writing: money, fame, therapy, the love of storytelling, whatever. Sometimes it takes seeing a movie like Spirit of the Marathon to ask yourself why you do what you do, sort of a re-examination of your life.

Why do I write? I've got stories to tell that no one else is telling. But like so many of the runners in the film, I feel like I'm still in training. Sometimes you have good days, sometimes bad. Sometimes you fight injuries. Sometimes you can run sprint after sprint just fine, but the long run wears you out. But...

Lesson Three: You keep going. Okay, you stumbled and fell flat on your face. Get up. Access the damage. Go again. Keep going. You'll get there. It's a long race.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Oscar Nominees

Just announced this morning. (Films I've seen marked with an *)
Let the speculation begin!




Michael Clayton

No Country for Old Men*

There Will Be Blood*


George Clooney, Michael Clayton

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood*

Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah

Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises


Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Julie Christie, Away from Her*

Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose

Laura Linney, The Savages

Ellen Page, Juno


Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Javier Barden, No Country for Old Men*

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War

Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild

Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton


Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There*

Ruby Dee, American Gangster

Saoirse Ronan, Atonement

Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone

Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton


Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Jason Reitman, Juno

Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men*

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood*

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Now What?

I read early in the morning, even on Sundays: just me, coffee, a bowl of oatmeal and at least one book. This morning I read from Joe Hill's collection 20th Century Ghosts. It's a collection I should have bought a couple of years ago at World Fantasy when the first edition cardcover was running for $50. The trade paperback(pictured above) was selling at the dealer table for $30, too much for a trade paperback, I thought. (If you want either now, the trade paperback will run you about $65; the first edition hardcover---I don't even like to guess.) I knew I was a dope to pass up either edition, but I figured someone would buy the reprint rights and sure enough, William Morrow did.

So I was sitting there this morning, reading the third story in the collection, "Pop Art," about a normal boy and his no-so-normal friend Arthur. You see, Arthur is inflatable.

No, Art's not a doll, he's real. And no, it's not a comedy, although there are some moments of humor. There are also moments of real terror. It's about friendship, loyalty, courage...I know I'm making it sound like an installment of The ABC After-School Special, but it's far beyond that. It's an incredible story.

Normally, after I read an incredible story (especially after breakfast), I have the burning desire to either read another story (usually in the collection or anthology I'm reading) or to go write something. I knew I couldn't write anything after reading "Pop Art," at least not for several hours. That would be an exercise in frustration. I also knew I couldn't read anything else in the collection, not immediately. That story is so perfect, I couldn't spoil it or the next story by continuing on ahead.

I didn't know what to do.

I still don't.

The oatmeal's gone. The coffee's gone. And I'm still sitting here.

I'll think of something....

Saturday, January 19, 2008

There Will Be Blood

One of my birthday traditions involves seeing a movie in a theatre. Since Cindy had to work, I went to one I figured she wouldn't like, but I would. I thought Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood would fit the bill.

You'd think a nearly three-hour movie would drag on into your next birthday, especially a movie about an oil tycoon in the late 19th century. In fact the first 15 minutes (containing almost no dialogue) reminded me (and other reviewers) of the opening of 2001. Without the apes, of course. Yet those opening minutes are essential in establishing and developing the character of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Roger Ebert said in his review that "Watching the movie is like viewing a natural disaster that you cannot turn away from." I'd agree with that statement. We get a piece-by-piece look at Plainview and slowly begin to see what he's really about and it's not pretty.

The film encompasses three decades but most of it takes place as Plainview strikes a deal with the humble Sunday family, offering them a pittance for their oil-rich property. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who sees Plainview's arrival as an opportunity to finance the building of his Church of the Third Revelation, becomes a central figure in Plainview's life, someone who just won't go away.

Plainview carries on two other relationships in the film, one with his young son and another which I'll let you discover for himself. I keep dwelling on how Plainview reacts to each of these people. He's only honest with one of them and that scene is the turning point of the film. After that moment, the ending (which is perfect) comes as both a shock and inevitable. How can such a thing be? You'll just have to see the film.

There's not a false note in There Will Be Blood. The entire film is an incredible achievement, but the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, an extraordinary actor who delivers what may be the best performance of the year.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Birthday 2008

Hard to believe I've been absent from the blog for nearly two weeks, but with the new library job, Cindy's trip out west, and lots of other stuff, I've been pretty busy.

I'm at a place I never thought I'd be. When I started teaching band in 1985, 20 years into the future seemed like galaxies away. I taught for 15 years, which was plenty. I don't felt like I taught band for too long or not long enough - that's just the way things worked out.

Since we moved to Maryland in 2000, so much has changed. I no longer (formally) teach and now work for libraries. I honestly can't think of a better setting for me. I'm in better physical shape at 46 than I was at 26. I'm blessed to have a great wife, great family and wonderful friends.

And then there's the writing.

I've been writing now for nearly seven years. During that time I've learned a tremendous amount and am still learning every day. One of the things that I've learned is that (1) my writing isn't that good and (2) it's getting better. That's not self-pity talking, but the realization that my craft hasn't developed as much as it's going to develop. I've got a lot of learning to do. And that's not a bad thing.

And I'm not in such a hurry. I was, for a long time, in quite a hurry. My stories (and the revision of my YA novel) are slow-moving projects, but I'm all right with that. The important thing is to write better today than I did yesterday. I think I'm doing that. I can see progress, but on a day-to-day scale, it's very small progress. But it's progress. I can live with that.

So on my 46th birthday, I really marvel at how God has directed me through this life thing. I'm really glad to be where I am. And that is a huge blessing.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Kragen by Jack Vance

Jack Vance's novella The Kragen was originally published in 1969, but I believe the story first appeared in a different form several years earlier. The novella was eventually expanded into the novel The Blue World. I haven't read that much Jack Vance (only The Dying Earth and a few of his short stories), but when Subterranean Press announced a signed hardcover edition of The Kragen a few months back, I thought, why not? How many opportunities do you get to acquire a signed Jack Vance?

The Kragen takes place on a water world where a large number of humans have been marooned. The humans have adapted, creating "floats" as well as communities, commerce, and even castes. But you can smell trouble from the first sentence:

Among the people of the Floats caste distinctions were fast losing their old-time importance.

So we have a pretty good idea where things are headed. The people of the Floats have come to fear and practically worship a sea creature they call King Kragen, which comes by from time to time for his "tribute" of sustenance in return for protection from the lesser Kragens swimming around out there. But one man, Sklar Hast, is fed up with the whole thing and wants to revolt against King Kragen. The problem is they have no weapons.

The Kragen is not terribly original, nor are its characters very well developed. Vance's imagination, however, is always at work. Although it's never explained how the economy of the Floats was structured (How can you operate a bar on this world?), you have to respect the man's sense of wonder, which to me is the driving force of the book. The social and political nature of the book is interesting, but takes a backseat to the power of imagination.

Yet the whole time I was reading, I couldn't escape the social and political aspects. I kept thinking, "This was published in the 60s....this was published in the 60s...." It's true that probably explains a lot of what was behind The Kragen, but there has to be more, otherwise why would anyone be reading the book nearly 40 years later?

Imagination. Storytelling. Wonder.

Who can argue with such things? Not me.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The iPod and Reading

Those of you who know me know that I'm usually a few steps (okay, miles) behind the current technology, but I'm catching up: I got an iPod for Christmas and I'm loving it.

So far I've used it mostly for music, but I've also downloaded a few short stories (from Escape Pod) and other podcasts. I've downloaded a few episodes from TV shows (the first episode of 24 Season Six and the refurbished "City on the Edge of Forever" from Star Trek TOS, but no movies. I just can't see spending ten bucks a pop for a movie when you can usually get the DVD for the same price or cheaper, as long as you don't have to have it the minute it comes out. Anyway, I haven't yet spent a lot of time looking for other sources for short stories compatible with the iPod, but anyone who knows of any, please let me know.

As for downloaded audiobooks, I just don't think I'd ever pay $24.95 (or more) for an audiobook unless I knew I'd listen to it more than once. If I'm gonna pay that much, I'll just buy the book. Maybe those prices will come down. I mean, the available music is pretty reasonable; it would be nice if the audiobooks were a little easier on the wallet.

Plus (at least on iTunes) the book selection is extremely limited. I don't even see that much that's tempting, so audiobooks haven't really been much of a financial factor. But if I see Lucius Shepard, Jeffrey Ford and a few others popping up on audiobooks, I might be in trouble.

But all in all, a great experience. Go ahead and plug in.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

Not long ago I read in Samuel R. Delany's book About Writing that writers should use first person POV only if the narrator is unusually interesting. I think it's pretty safe to say that Elizabeth Hand understands that: Cass Neary is one of the most unforgettable narrators I've come across recently.

She's also one of the most self-destructive personalities I've ever encountered in fiction. Cass was part of the 70's punk scene in New York, a photographer who liked to take pictures of people who were either dead or rapidly on the way to being dead. She even landed a book deal, but thirty years of drugs, booze, unchallenging jobs and self-destructive habits have left her with very little.

An old friend sends Cass on a "mercy gig" to Paswegas Island, off the coast of Maine to interview a reclusive photographer. Having no better options, Cass takes the job.

What Cass finds is a completely different culture (and subculture) from the one she's known, filled with strange locals, unexplained disappearances, the remnants of a 60's commune, and open hostility towards people "from away."

Generation Loss is not just a very good mystery, it's more importantly an examination of what frustrates Cass (and all artists): the sense of loss encountered in realizing that for years, even decades, that your life has failed to produce anything even approaching greatness. The pain of that realization is tremendous and it's something Cass knows well before she sets foot on Paswegas Island. Her time there only intensifies it as she comes to learn about the local disappearances, the reclusive photographer and herself.

This is one of those rare books that, when forced to stop reading for whatever reason, I'm constantly thinking about. When you have a reading experience like that, you wish it could go on forever. Those experiences are few and far between, but it's a great way to start off the new year.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Reading in 2007 - The Complete List

Here it is, everything I read in 2007:

1. Chasing the Dime (2002) - Michael Connelly

2. Stardust (1999) - Neil Gaiman

3. The Chocolate War (YA 1974) - Robert Cormier

4. The Cement Garden (1978) – Ian McEwan

5. The Gambler (1866) – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

6. The Ocean and All Its Devices (2006) – William Browning Spencer

7. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt: Fourteen Months of Massively Witty Adventures in Reading (NF 2006) – Nick Hornby

8. The Complete Stories (1971) – Flannery O'Connor

9. Understanding Flannery O'Connor (NF 1995) – Margaret Earley Whitt

10. Everyman (2006) – Philip Roth

11. The Terror (2007) – Dan Simmons

12. A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998) – Ruth Rendell

13. Dearly Devoted Dexter (2005) – Jeff Lindsay

14. Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (NF 2005) – Maureen Corrigan

15. Bald As I Wanna Be (NF 1997) – Tony Kornheiser

16. The Keyhole Opera (2005) – Bruce Holland Rogers

17. A Short History of Nearly Everything (NF 2003) – Bill Bryson

18. Otis! The Otis Redding Story (NF 2001) – Scott Freeman

19. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy (NF 2002) – Jane Leavy

20. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party (YA 2006) – M.T. Anderson

21. Plug Your Book (NF) – Steve Weber

22. Seven Money Mantras for a Richer Life (NF 2004) – Michelle Singletary

23. The Door Within (J 2005) – Wayne Thomas Batson

24. Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture (NF 2006) – Walt Mueller

25. Fledgling (2005) – Octavia E. Butler

26. Art & Fear (NF 1993) – David Bayles and Ted Orland

27. Heart-Shaped Box (2007) – Joe Hill

28. Marley & Me (NF 2005) – John Grogan

29. Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories (2007) – Elizabeth Hand

30. School Days (2005) – Robert B. Parker

31. The Ragamuffin Gospel (NF 1990) – Brennan Manning

32. The Silent Speaker (1946) – Rex Stout

33. Baltimore Blues (1997) – Laura Lippman

34. Lisey's Story (2006) – Stephen King

35. The Speed of Dark (2002) – Elizabeth Moon

36. What the Dead Know (2007) – Laura Lippman

37. Lolita (1954) – Vladimir Nabokov

38. How to Think Like a Millionaire (NF 1997) – Mark Fisher with Marc Allen

39. Mississippi Sissy (NF 2007) – Kevin Sessums

40. Velvet Elvis (NF 2005) – Rob Bell

41. You Don't Love Me Yet (2007) – Jonathan Lethem

42. The Green Glass Sea (YA 2006) – Ellen Klages

43. Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road (NF 2000/2005) – Donald Miller

44. The Book of Three (YA 1964) – Lloyd Alexander

45. The Black Echo (1992) – Michael Connelly

46. Countdown: The Race for Beautiful Solutions at the International Mathematical Olympiad (NF 2004) – Steve Olson

47. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) – Ernest Hemingway

48. Over Sea, Under Stone (YA 1966?) – Susan Cooper

49. Softspoken (2007) – Lucius Shepard

50. The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (NF 2007) – Robert I. Sutton

51. Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science (NF 2001) – Colin Beavan

52. Zodiac (NF 1986) – Robert Graysmith

53. Reasons to Live (1985) – Amy Hempel

54. The Dark is Rising (YA 1973) – Susan Cooper

55. A Passage to India (1924) – E.M. Forster

56. In the Palace of Repose (2005) – Holly Phillips

57. The Overlook (2007) – Michael Connelly

58. The Keeper (2006) – Sarah Langan

59. Einstein: His Life and Universe (NF 2007) – Walter Isaacson

60. How to Want What You Have (NF 1995) – Timothy Miller, PhD.

61. Whales on Stilts! (YA 2005) – M.T. Anderson

62. A Good and Happy Child (2007) – Justin Evans

63. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – Ray Bradbury

64. Three Days to Never (2006) – Tim Powers

65. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm (YA 1994) – Nancy Farmer

66. Don't Waste Your Life (NF 2003) – John Piper

67. The Looming Tower (NF 2006) – Lawrence Wright

68. The Truth is Out There: The Christian Faith in Classic Science Fiction TV (NF 2006) – Thomas Bertonneau and Kim Paffenroth

69. The Privilege of the Sword (2006) – Ellen Kushner

70. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (Novella 2007) – Ted Chiang

71. Leadership (NF 2003) – Rudolph Giuliani

72. The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2007) – Laird Barron

73. The Sun Also Rises (1926) – Ernest Hemingway

74. Parable of the Sower (1993) – Octavia E. Butler

75. Aegypt (1987) – John Crowley

76. Speak (1999) – Laurie Halse Anderson

77. Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality (NF 2007) – Rob Bell

78. Reassuring Tales (2006) – T.E.D. Klein

79. Butchers Hill (1998) – Laura Lippman

80. The Servants (2007) – Michael Marshall Smith

81. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens

82. One for Sorrow (2007) – Christopher Barzak

83. Step Across This Line (NF 2002) – Salman Rushdie

84. The Museum of Dr. Moses and Other Stories (2007) – Joyce Carol Oates

85. The Resurrection Man's Legacy and Other Stories (2003) – Dale Bailey

86. Best American Fantasy (2007) – Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, eds.

87. The Other Side of Dark (YA 1986) – Joan Lowrey Nixon

88. Altmann's Tongue: Stories and a Novella (2002) – Brian Evenson

89. Sanctuary (1931) – William Faulkner

90. I Am Legend (1954) – Richard Matheson

91. Catalyst (2006) – Nina Kiriki Hoffman

92. Greenwitch (YA 1974) – Susan Cooper

93. All the President's Men (NF 1974) – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

94. Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (NF 2007) – William D. Romanowski

95. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – Junot Diaz

96. Territory (2007) – Emma Bull

97. A Poetry Handbook (NF 1994) – Mary Oliver

98. Zeroville (2007) – Steve Erickson

99. The Grey King (YA 1973) – Susan Cooper

100. Treasure Island (YA 1883) – Robert Louis Stevenson

101. Till We Have Faces (1956) – C.S. Lewis

102. The Best American Short Stories (2007) – Stephen King, ed.

103. Treasure Island (YA 1883) - Robert Louis Stevenson

104. The Golden Compass (YA 1995) - Philip Pullman


The Arrival (2007) – Shaun Tan

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) – Brian Selznick