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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Any Human Heart and the little screen

Matthew MacFadyen as Logan Mountstuart and Hayley Atwella as Freya Deverell. Credit: Joss Barratt, PBS
It's not often I look forward to a televised dramatization of a novel, but I'm setting the DVR for tonight's Masterpiece Theatre rendition of William Boyd's spectacular Any Human Heart. Lord, I hope they don't screw it up.

Any Human Heart is one of my favorite books of the past decade or so, a Zelig-style novel (think Forrest Gump) that traces the evolution of art and war through 20th Century Europe, with just enough United States tossed in to give it cross-Atlantic appeal. There are plenty of flaws to it, but as a broad piece of work, it stands up well. Incidentally, I missed Any Human Heart when it first came out, and turned to it after Kinky Friedman told me it was his favorite book. When a serious book draws a clown's interest, it never hurts to give it a read.

In truth, I've never had much faith in adaptations of complicated novels. Too much of the power of the novel lies in the intricacies of plot and character, and television by its nature elides the intricacies for the grand and the obvious. But enough adaptations have worked over the years -- Timothy Hutton's televised Nero Wolfe novels leap to mind -- that I'll enter this one with an open mind. And the early reviews give hope.

I'll be curious to see what you all think about it. Read More 
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The Library of America's Greatest Hits

There's a bookshelf here in the home library* given over to the distinctive-looking spines of twenty or so editions from the Library of America, of which I am an unabashed fan. So it was warming to see the nonprofit publishing house's blog list its all-time bestsellers. And even more warming to see the titles, which I've pasted below.

Thomas JeffersonThere are three series of what I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, archival re-issues that have done stellar work over the years. The Library of America, obviously, but also Modern Library and Everyman's Library (both for profit and part of Random House).

Since much of reviewing and current coverage of books and publishing necessarily focuses on the new and the now, reissues by these houses often get overlooked. Which is a pity. All three help keep American literary culture alive and available, and relatively cheaply. The Library of America's top-seller, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, is 1,600 pages of essays, books and letters for $32.

Similarly, the Everyman's Library offers John Updike's series of four Rabbit Angstrom novels for $35

One of my favorite reading experiences was devouring that collection cover to cover, which reinforced for me what a remarkable thing Updike had achieved over the span of decades. And that's the beauty of these editions - that chance for discovery, or rediscovery, of significant writers of the past and, occasionally, the present.

The Library of America list:

Thomas Jefferson: Writings [1984] 217,518 copies
Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings [1982] 150,973
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859–1865 [1989] 120,589
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832–1858 [1989] 118,284
Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose [1982] 114,790
Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, etc. [1985] 114,367
Debate on the Constitution: Part One [1993] 112,273
Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures [1983] 108,781
Robert Frost: Poems, Plays, & Prose [1995] 106,772
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988] 105,753

* "Home library" misstates it. The only two places without bookshelves are the kitchen (cookbooks are in the dining room) and the bathrooms. Even the garage has been pressed into service with six over-stuffed bookcases of the less-consulted, but too good to donate. Read More 
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A couple of my favorite books from the past year

Well, since so many other folks are posting lists of their favorite books from the past year, I figured I might as well join in. Unfortunately, I haven't read that many new books this year since my nose has been buried deeply in Detroit history for my own book project. So this is a short list. In fact, I'm limiting it to two books, one a novel and the other an essay collection.

The novel is Jon Clinch's The Kings of the Earth, a book I found myself contemplating long after my review ran in the Los Angeles Times. An excerpt from that piece:
The power of "Kings of the Earth" lies in the intricacies of the relationships among the Proctors; neighbor and childhood friend Preston, who serves as something of a guardian angel; the drug-dealing nephew and the police. Clinch is canny enough to move his characters through their own understated lives, hinting where he needs to as he skirts the obvious, and refusing to overlay a sense of morality on their actions. The reader is the jury.

And Clinch knows his territory, both psychologically and geographically, as in this snowless winter scene:

"The drive from town was one hill after another and the view from the top was always the same. Muted shades of brown and gray. Shorn fields encroaching on wind-ravaged farmhouses, not so much as a chained dog visible. A countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation…. They climbed the last hill to the farm and saw smoke coming not just from the chimney but from a big fire in the yard. Wind yanked at the smoke, and they turned up the dirt lane and went toward the fire."

The landscape informs the story as much as the internal terrain of the characters does, giving "Kings of the Earth" a grounding that is missing from many modern novels. We know the events that lie behind Clinch's novel were real, and that the novel is not. But the realism here is no less, with writing so vibrant that you feel the bite of a northern wind, smell the rankness of dissipated lives and experience the heart-tug of watching tenuous lives play out their last inches of thread.
The other book that stood out for me was Elif Batuman's highly enjoyable The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, a look at just what the title says. But like all great essay collections, the power here lies in the voice. From my review for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that when you hear "Russian literature," you think of college classes you wish you'd cut - and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter.

But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into the lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Many of the chapters are extensions of pieces Batuman first wrote for The New Yorker and n+1 and range geographically from Palo Alto, Calif., where Batuman managed to lose one of Babel's daughters at the local airport, to Uzbekistan, where Batuman spent a few months studying Uzbek.

In a sense, the details of Batuman's essays are less significant than the tone. She cruises through minor crises with an air of detached amusement, eye focused on the little absurdities that make travel -- and people -- fun.
So there you have it, my favorites of the year, though I should also mention my friend Bryan Gruley's second mystery, The Hanging Tree, which does just what you want a mystery to do -- creates a world in which you get to rummage around for a while. So now you have some ideas for what to do with all those gift cards you got for the holidays. Read More 
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On Scott Turow, and Innocent

I had a chance a few weeks back to interview Scott Turow via Skype (great invention, that) about his new novel, Innocent, his resumption of the life of Rusty Sabich, the main character in 1987's breakthrough legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. My story is in today's Los Angeles Times, so I won't get redundant here.

But what i found most appealing about the new novel was Turow's ability to resume Sabich's life without seeming to have missed a beat. It helped, no doubt, that all of Turow's novels are set in fictional Kindle County, and that he has used Sabich as a side character in some of those works.

But it was the consistency of both style and character that really stood out for me, which I wrote about in a review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (not online yet). The book is worth picking up. Read More 
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Literary Orange, and other spring events

Spring, it seems, is the season for speaking gigs. I'm on a panel April 10 at UC Irvine - conveniently near my house - as part of the Literary Orange program. It's a limited-access event, with day-long tickets $60 ($25 for students with IDs) and capped at 500 participants. My session is "History: True Stories, True Lives," with fellow authors Catherine Irwin and Vicki L. Ruiz, moderated by Mary Menzel.

The day's other panelists include Maile Meloy, whom I profiled for the LA Times a few months back, as well as former colleagues William Lobdell and Martin J. Smith (for whom I write occassionally at Orange Coast Magazine). So it should be an interesting day of engaging with committed readers and catching up with folks.

A few weeks later, I'm moderating a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books, where we'll be discussing literary biography (details in this earlier post). And I'm talking about the Ludlow Massacre as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through UCI. I did a two-part talk this winter for the same organization, dissecting what's happened to newspapers. It was a lot of fun - a smart, caring audience. This session will be built around my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. I'm looking forward to it - love talking history with people who care about it.

Speaking of which, in May I'm on a panel in Santa Cruz at the Southwest Labor Studies Association, "The Lessons of Ludlow: Interethnic solidarity during the Great Colorado Coalfield War," built around a documentary-in-progress by Alex Johnston. The panel also will include Zeese Papanikolas, author of Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, a smart and dedicated scholar I met for the first time at another conference last year in Colorado. I'm looking forward to seeing and talking on a panel with him again.

If you make ay of these events, be sure to track me down and say hello....
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On Salinger, eco-terror and The Onion Field killer

It's been a busy week, with a couple of wrinkles. First, I posted earlier about becoming the Los Angeles correspondent for Sphere.com. Well, AOL decided to kill the page and roll it into Aol News. So now I'm the Los Angeles correspondent for Aol News, which my editor tells me means nothing n terms of what I'll be doing -- and getting paid.

Good news, that.

But the gig has kept me firing this week. First I had a piece on the parole hearing Wednesday of Gregory Powell, the main gunman in the cop-killing that formed the basis of Jopseph Wambauigh's The Onion Field, a classic in the true-crime genre (and a bit of an intentional echo of Truman Capote's In Cold Blodd). Ironically, he's the only involv ed in the crime who is still alive. And his parole was turned down.

Then I co-wrote a piece with my old friend and former Detroit News colleague Allan Lengel on domestic eco-terrorism.

And a little bit ago I posted a shortish look at the death of J.D. Salinger - and the continued life of teen-age angst.

Yes, I'm ready for a nap.
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Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill

Margaret is out of town for a few days - she and two friends took a short cruise down to Ensenada, Mexico - and the boys were both out at theater events Friday night. So it was me, the dog, a cold beer, and Bruce Chatwin's acclaimed On The Black Hill, a novel I'd tucked away long ago and never got around to cracking.

I'm very glad I finally got around to it. The novel is set in rural Great Britain, on a farm that straddles the British and Welsh border. It traces the lives of two main characters, twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin who, for a variety of reasons, make their farm their de facto Elba (there's a lovely set piece in the plot about their refusal to serve in World War One, part of an important but largely forgotten aspect of that era).

The novel, Chatwin's debut (it won the 1982 Whitbread First Novel Award), dissolves a bit at the end as Chatwin brings the characters into contemporary times, and it reads as though he just ran out of ideas of what to do with them. But it's not a fatal flaw, so rich is the rest of the book as it delves into class (and a bit of race), dreams and the reality of hard lives. Chatwin always had a keen eye for details, and for description, as in this bit about a walk up craggy Black Hill with their grandfather:

Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every no and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid.

They liked to pretend that they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms' fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. Everything was calm and damp and cool in the green shade. Toadstools reared their caps through the dross of last year's growth; and the wind whistled far above their heads.

They lay on their backs and gazed at the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky; at the zig-zagging dots which were flies; and, way above, the other black dots which were the swallows wheeling.
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Last-minute gift suggestions - books, of course

I really should keep a list of the books I read that I like, something I can refer to at times like this when I'm trying to put together a recap of recommendations.

Sadly, I don't keep such a list. So I'm going to have to wing this. And the scope of my reading this past year was unusually limited this year. Writing a book, freelancing and teaching didn't leave much time for reading on my own. So this is even more subjective than the usual kind of list - books I read that left an impression, and that would make great holiday figts for the readers on your lists (assuming, of course, you already got them Blood Passion last year).

Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession is a compelling look at book thief, and the way he plies his trade.

Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake is a great debut mystery that manages to mix small town Michigan, hockey and scandalized journalist into a fun read. Bryan is a friend and former colleague, but I’d have recommended this book even if he wasn’t.

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son doesn’t have the power of her first book, Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits, but still warrants a read as she explores life in a Moroccan ghetto and the petri dish it provides for radicalism.

Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, which I reviewed for The Washington Post. A great slice of history that turns into a survey course of cartography.

Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, a collection of stories set in the West that has you contemplating characters long after you’ve finished it. It’s made a lot of “best of “ lists this year, and for good read reason. The book is so good, in fact, it will likely send you looking for some of her earlier works. Read Liars and Saints first, then A Family Daughter – for reasons that will become apparent as you read.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town is a chilling yet compassionate look at the effects of the meth epidemic on a single town.

Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, is a deeply researched look at the life and influence of the jazz legend. As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, who knew Pops was a pothead?

Finally, Barbara’s Demick’s mesmerizing Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, isn’t out until later this month, but get it on your pre-order list. A remarkable look at life under one of the world’s most isolated regimes. Read More 
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Random House and the rights grab

I'm a member of the Authors Guild - which, in fact, hosts this web site - and received an email this morning staking out its position on the news the other day that Random House was asserting it holds the e-book rights rights to books it published before the onset of the e-generation.

Random House's argument seems to be that it asserted a claim to all rights of publication in those old contracts, which is broad enough to include e-books. Not so fast, says the Authors Guild, in a pretty cogent argument. The Guild's statement is after the jump (and no, it's not a lot of legalistic "whereases" and "therefors"). This comes down to grabbing rights from authors without paying for them. Read More 
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On Elif Batuman and lovers of Russian literature

A few weeks back an editor at Publishers Weekly emailed and asked if I'd be interested in profiling Elif Batuman, whose name I knew from The New Yorker. Beyond that I knew nothing about Batuman, but the editor's description of her book, The Possessed, intrigued me: "Unlike any other book I've ever read about literature. Think: Mary Roach meets Dostoevsky."

I took on the assignment, and the editor was right - very unusual book, mixing travelogue with personal essay with literary discourse. And all much more accessible than what you think when you hear "Stanford prof" and "Russian literature." From my PW piece:

"In a world defined by categories, Elif Batuman and Lorin Stein, her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had a problem positioning Batuman's debut book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, due out February 23.

"They couldn't figure out exactly where the book fit. Part literary criticism, part travel writing, part memoir, Batuman's collection of seven nonfiction pieces moves from the campus of Stanford University to Uzbekistan, contemplating everything from Isaac Babel to an overweight mathematician in Florence who confides in an e-mail to Batuman: “I haven't had sex with a woman.... Also I haven't done laundry in almost a month and all my underwear is dirty.” But, somehow, it all ties in with Russian literature."

The profile went live early today, and is available here. I'm also reviewing the book for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and will toss up a link when that runs. Read More 
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