Sunday, May 31, 2009

My First Half Marathon

The Inaugural Maryland Half Marathon is history, but I don't feel like I'm history. In fact I feel pretty good. Cindy and I pretty much ran together the entire way, especially for about the first seven miles, which felt great. There was a huge downhill slope at about mile 5 which felt great, but we had to make up for it just before mile 11, just when we were (or at least I was) starting to get tired. But we made it. The race ended on the horse racetrack at the Timonium Fairgrounds (Of course we had to run by the horse stables first....). I'm a really slow runner, but when I rounded the bend I thought I saw that the time was two hours, fifty-three minutes and some seconds, but when I got closer I saw that it was 2:59! (I'd originally wanted to run the half marathon in under three hours.) So I sprinted to the finish. People were actually cheering!

All in all, a good day and a great race. The organizers did a great job, having plenty of water/Powerade, supporters, lots of food and drink at the end. (We even saw a greyhound.) Glad we did it. Thanks, Cindy, for encouraging me and helping me train! Now I think I'll have a pizza.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Books Bought May

Well here's something you don't see every month: No (That's one zero.) books purchased in the month of May. Not one. Zip. Nada. Don't ask me why. Don't ask me how. It just happened. I think Cindy is popping a champagne cork...

But I did trade for three new books at the used bookstore. So here they are:

Making Movies (NF 1995) - Sidney Lumet

I haven't seen all of Lumet's films, but the ones I have are stellar. Anytime I can read something by someone who's very successful, particularly someone who's been successful for as long as Lumet has, I'm all over it.

Hide and Seek (1990) - Ian Rankin

The second book in the Inspector Rebus series set in Scotland.

Nosferatu in Love (1998) - Jim Shepard

Hard-to-find novel by one of my favorite short story writers, Jim Shepard. A fictional account of the life of the German film-maker, F.W. Murnau, director of the silent classic Nosferatu.

Total Expenditures for May = $0

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Short-Story Collection Purge, Part 3

Collected Stories - Saul Bellow

I read the first story in this collection, "By the St. Lawrence," and am not sure at what point my mouth dropped open. It's a story of a man very near the end of his life as he reflects on his family and the things that he thought were important. Plot-wise not a lot happens, but the way Bellow paints this character as so out-of-time and out-of-place is amazing. I'm astonished at his sentence structure, his pacing, just about everything. And this was originally an unpublished story.

The Verdict = Keep It.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Great Short-Story Collection Purge, Part 2

Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories (1986) - Ann Beattie

I'm not sure if all the stories in this collection (or in Beattie's work as a whole) center around middle-class suburbanites trying to find normalcy in a world full of pain and disappointment (or maybe disillusionment), but these first two stories, "In the White Night" and "Snow" certainly do. Both stories (both well-written) originally appeared in 1983, which seems a lifetime ago, and while a bit dated, are still effective.

The Verdict = I'll keep it, but will probably pass it on when I'm finished.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Great Short-Story Collection Purge, Part 1

Sixty Stories - Donald Barthelme

I started my Great Short-Story Collection Purge (see yesterday's entry) with Barthelme, reading the first two stories, "Margins" and "A Shower of Gold." Unusual. Wacky. Funny. Twisted. I have a feeling that no two of these sixty stories are alike, but are all quirky, humorous snapshots of the culture. This from the back of the cover wrap:

With these audacious and murderously witty stories, Donald Barthelme threw the preoccupations of our time into the literary equivalent of a Cuisinart and served up a gorgeous salad of American culture, high and low. Here are urban upheavals reimagined as frontier myth; travelogues through countries that might have been created by Kafka; cryptic dialogues that bore down to the bedrock of our longings, dreams, and angsts. Like all of Donald Barthelme's work, the sixty stories collected in this volume are triumphs of language and perception, at once unsettling and irresistible.

And then some.

The Verdict = Keep it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Collection Mania

Okay, it's seriously time to do something. My short story collections are out of control. Last night I went through my books picking only the collections that I have read nothing from. I only made it from A to C. Here are the collections I own, collections I haven't read a single story from:

60 Stories - Donald Barthelme

Where You'll Find Me - Ann Beattie

Collected Stories - Saul Bellow

Virtual Unrealities - Alfred Bester

Greetings - Terry Bisson

Best Ghost Stories - Algernon Blackwood

In for a Penny - James Blaylock

From These Ashes - Fredric Brown

Patterns - Pat Cadigan

Ghosts of Yesterday - Jack Cady

Where I'm Calling From - Raymond Carver

Werewolves in Their Youth - Michael Chabon

Fancies and Goodnights - John Collier

The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories - Wilkie Collins

Now granted, I didn't spend a lot for most of these books. Most of them were thrift store finds or library discards. Still, that's a lot of unread stuff sitting on the shelves.

So here's my project: I'll read at least the first story from each collection (probably the first two) and decide if it's something I want to keep. It seems most collections begin with the strongest story, so that seems a safe bet. I hate to see what D to Z looks like....

Sunday, May 24, 2009

How Does It Feel?

That's right, it's Bob Dylan's birthday today. Believe it or not, he's made it to age 68, which means he's been in the public eye for close to 50 years since the release of his first album Bob Dylan in 1962. Just last month, Bob released his 46th album, Together Through Life.

I've seen Dylan live six times and while I don't own every album (some of them you don't want to own), I've got quite a few, plus several books on Bob and his music. I've been a fan for, oh, about 30 years. But I really don't know that much about him. Probably few do. And I think that's the way Bob likes it. Happy Birthday, Bob!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Blame Terry Gross

I'm crazy about Terry Gross and her show Fresh Air on NPR. Yesterday I heard her talking to John Doe about his new album with The Sadies called Country Club. Previously I knew nothing about John Doe or The Sadies, but after Gross played a couple of cuts from the album, I knew I wanted to hear more. So I used part of my birthday credit on iTunes and got it.

Here's a conversation stopper: When people ask if you like Country Music, tell 'em, "Yeah, I like anything before 1970." (It's like telling anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line that you're from Mississippi. Silence reigns.) I really do like "classic" country and with Country Club, Doe and The Sadies pay homage to that era. Most of these songs are covers, but with a contemporary feel. I know that's no real description, but I've only listened to the album once thus far, so you'll either have to take my word for it or buy it yourself.

These songs, unlike most country I hear today, are brutally honest. They aren't cute, they're about bad things happening to bad people and bad things happening to good people. Many of these songs are songs you've heard before: "I Still Miss Someone," "Take These Chains from My Heart," "Detroit City," "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and others. Normally when I hear a cover, it makes me want to forget the current incarnation and pick up the original. That's not happening here. As I said, there's an obvious homage to the original, but also an exploration into something new. Definitely worth your time, especially if you're fed up with current "country" music.

So Terry Gross has done it to me again....

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sometimes Things Get Put on Hold

I had to put Adler's How to Read a Book (which I read years ago) down in favor of a book I traded for at the used bookstore yesterday, Sidney Lumet's Making Movies. Lumet is one of my favorite film directors, responsible for such classics as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict and many others. Anytime I can read something by someone successful whom I really admire, I'll drop everything to read it. Such is the case here. I brought it home from the bookstore and before I knew what was happening, 50 pages had gone by. There are plenty of other books I need to finish soon, but I'm afraid that Lumet will receive all of my attention until I've turned the last page.

So what types of books immediately get moved to the top of your reading stacks?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Problem with Audiobooks

Although I've still got Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children under "Listening To," I had to give up listening to it. Maybe I'll come back to it someday. I think this is one case in which it would be better to read the book than listen to it. The novel is widely recognized as a modern masterpiece, yet it difficult to listen to commuting to and from work. It's a complex novel that requires your full concentration and schlepping up and down I-97 just isn't going to cut it.

My current audiobook in the car, The Turn of the Screw, is much shorter and easier to focus on. (Plus I've read it before.) Although narrator Flo Gibson's voice irritates me to no end, I think I can endure it. But I'd rather just re-read the book.

I'm finding that the only audiobooks I can really listen to while commuting or running are non-fiction or fiction for kids or young adults. This morning I started reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. There's no way I could pick up all the subtleties of the novel in an audiobook. For one thing, I often go back and re-read several sentences to see just what and how Dickens crafts his story, paints his pictures. You just can't do that with an audiobook. (I guess you can, but it's not recommended while driving or running.)

So for now it seems my audiobook experiences will consist of J-Fiction, YA or non-fiction. At least until I become a more proficient listener...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Grifters (1963) - Jim Thompson

On the surface, The Grifters (1963) is a crime novel about a young con-man named Roy, his mother Lilly (also a con artist), his lover Moira (who cons in her own way) and a nurse named Carol. All of them are victims, all of them are guilty of something, all of them are caught up in relationships that have the potential of ending very, very badly.

Below the surface, Thompson (1906-1977) delves deep into twisted family relationships (with a bit of Oedipus thrown in), the hunger for redemption, the inevitability of crime begetting crime, and the consequences of actions born both of greed and survival, which often seem inseparable.

As the novel opens, Roy is suffering internal bleeding, the result of a small con gone wrong when the mark discovers Roy’s game and hits him in the gut with a baseball bat. We get the sense that Roy isn’t very good at what he does, but he really is. His mother is better, however, operating a much bigger, longer-running con on her boss. If he ever finds out what she’s up to, Lilly is going to have a very unpleasant life, what little she survives to tell anyone about.

The exploration of the mother/son dynamic alone is worth the price of the book. Is Lilly a completely amoral character with no feelings for her son? Does Roy have any shot at redemption from a life of small-time cons? Their scenes together are filled with tension, electricity and depth, with the potential for destruction always lurking beneath the surface of every conversation.

Jim Thompson did not write about nice people. Thompson’s world, like ours, is a fallen one, full of con artists, greed, murder and perversity. But he knew his characters, knew their motivations and desires. I’m not sure if Thompson expects us to gain a sort of Greek tragedy type of pleasure from all this, thanking God that we’re not like these characters, but maybe that’s indeed his point.

A lot of times people ask me how I can read such things as a Christian, how I can look at the ugliness in the world and say that I am “entertained” by such works. I suppose one reason is that I’ve always been fascinated by the criminal mind (not that I plan to incorporate one). Why would anyone in their right mind (and perhaps that’s the key) live a life of crime? Environment? Upbringing? Survival?

Another reason is I think I’m always looking for what Flannery O’Connor calls “moments of grace.” In a collection of lectures and essays entitled Mystery and Manners, O’Connor states:

...I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world. (p. 112)

There are several moments of grace (or potential ones) in The Grifters, moments that lift the novel from typical genre fare to something greater, something that makes you stop and examine those moments that are important and pivotal, moments that must be confronted, moments that scream out that something important is at stake and you’d better pay attention.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Books Read April

Not a bad month of reading. A few disappointments, a few surprises. Here we go.....

Ubik (1969) - Philip K. Dick

This is the book I most want to re-read from this month's list. Trying to describe it would be an exercise in futility, but if you've read Philip K. Dick, you know what you're getting into: an examination of what is or isn't reality, confused perceptions, drugs and more. Ubik can be confusing, thus demanding (at least) a second read.

Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children (NF 2008) - Joe S. McIlhaney, Jr., MD and Freda McKissic Bush, MD

A fascinating look at new scientific evidence of what happens in the brain during and after sex. It seems that pregnancy and STDs aren't the only dangers involved in casual sex. A short book, a bit on the technical side, but fascinating.

Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008) - John Langan

Langan likes his stories long (only five stories in the entire collection) and often in the "Old School" M.R. James vein. I was captivated by the first two stories (which are somewhat in homage to James), but not as taken with the remaining ones. Still a very good collection.

The Manual of Detection (2009) - Jedediah Berry

I think this one deserves another shot. I listened to it on audio, which in this case, may be a mistake. I'll bet I listened to the first couple of chapters at least four times, trying to decide whether the novel was a hard-boiled detective story, a spoof, a pastiche, an allegory... Plenty of people I highly respect seem to really like it, so I probably should give it another shot. In print.

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (NF 2008) - Colvin Geoff

Something of a companion piece to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, but going into more depth. Geoff takes more of a business slant than Gladwell, but offers some fascinating food for thought in the study of just what makes people successful.

Castle (2009) - J. Robert Lennon

The most powerful book I read in April. Since reading it, I've seen many negative reviews. Ignore them. Eric Loesch buys a large piece of land in his upper New York state hometown. He wonders if the locals remember him, as their welcomes seem not-so-welcome. Loesch discovers one small part of his land that is actually owned by someone else, yet the owner's name is blackened out on all the legal documents. An extremely potent look at power, memory, culture and the 21st century world we live in. Highly recommended.

Feathers (J-Fic 2007) - Jacqueline Woodson

Although I really enjoyed hearing Woodson speak (and read from this book) at a recent library conference, Feathers never quite came together into a coherent whole for me.

Knots and Crosses (1987) - Ian Rankin

My first experience with Rankin and his Scottish detective John Rebus. Good, solid (if somewhat dark) detective fiction.

My Teacher is an Alien (J-Fic 1989) - Bruce Coville

I know, I said I was going to lay off J and Y fiction for awhile and here I am with two of them in one month. But I'll justify it by stating that I'm always looking for good reluctant reader books for boys and this one will probably satisfy most 8-12-year-old guys.

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland (NF 2003) - Michael Dirda

I love anything by Dirda and this autobiography with books was both highly readable and highly entertaining. Any booklover will enjoy it.