Thursday, December 20, 2012

Nick's Picks, 100 Notable Books of 2012 - 61, 60...

#61:  One Last Strike, by Tony La Russa.  William Morrow and Company.  $27.99.

Little hint?  If you're an author and you want to appear on the now World Famous Nick's Picks ™ - well, if you somehow manage to secure a boat ride across San Francisco Bay (with me) on your way to a Postseason Baseball Game starring your World Champion San Francisco Giants - it's a gimme, you get on the list.

You can read about that here, or you can read Tony's book - One Last Strike (and he insisted that I call him Tony when he visited the store for a signing, and I'm not about to go against the wishes of a big league manager who's got three World Series' rings on his fingers.)

One Last Strike is mainly about the World Series of 2011 - with dashes of La Russa's illustrious baseball career thrown in for seasoning.

Their lead-up and their eventual victory in the Series (after withstanding more than one Last Strike) was one of the more remarkable in recent memory - of course, this was all before the San Francisco Giants magisterial trip to the Series this year.

But you can't count a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence (the Giants.  This year.) as diminishing the achievement of the St. Louis Cardinals last year.  I'm, you know, just pointing that out, is all.

Tony's accounts of the year are impressive, engaging, thorough - and it's funny reading about a vegetarian animal-rights-activist winning over the decidedly meat-and-potatoes population of Missouri.  One Last Strike is a wild ride, well told.

#60:  Bill Veeck:  Baseball's Greatest Maverick, by Paul Dickson.  Walker & Company.  $28.

Great men associated with baseball often have biographies written about them - rarely does a great biography happen to be about a baseball man.  Paul Dickson helps to mitigate this with his marvelous book, Bill Veeck:  Baseball's Greatest Maverick.

It's easy to only remember Mr. Veeck as a showboating owner pulling colorful stunts - like putting a midget in a game with the number 1/8 on his back; being the first owner to shoot off fireworks when one of his players hit a home run; or hiring a clown to be his first base coach - much to the delight of the crowds, not so much to the delight of the Baseball-Powers-That-Be.

What can be forgotten is that Mr. Veeck won pennants and the World Series.  More importantly, he had conspired to integrate the Major Leagues years before Jackie Robinson would break that barrier.  His plans were foiled when the team (the Philadelphia Phillies) he was planning to buy - with the intent of filling its roster with players from the Negro Leagues - was taken over by Major League Baseball to prevent its sale to him.

The guy who orchestrated this?  Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis?  Kind of a jerk, really.  And ironic that the buffoon he arranged to purchase the Phils - Billy Cox - ended up betting on his own team and was banned by baseball.  Ironic because Mr. Landis made his name decades earlier by coming down with an iron fist on those players involved in the Black Sox betting scandal.  Jerk.

Anyway.  Great book.  Great character.  Just go buy it and read a stellar biography that dissects its subject - and America - through baseball's prism.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nick's Picks, 100 Notable Books of 2012 - 64, 63, 62...

#64:  Building Stories, by Chris Ware.  Pantheon.  $50. 

Ok, I get it.  They're just comic books.  They shouldn't be Notable because this list is reserved for Literature or unrivaled Non-Fiction.  Except, of course, I already mentioned Drama, by Raina Telgemeier.  It clocked in at #85.  So, since I've already broken the ice, gotten you acquainted with the fact that, yes, comic books can be Notable, get ready for Chris Ware.  What he does in Building Stories is ingenious and glorious and comes as a welcome reminder that some experiences can't be downloaded.  And Building Stories is one of those.  To talk about Mr. Ware's latest effort, you have to start with the physical object.  The book.

Books, books.  The Book is dead!  Long live Books!

Building Stories is a box, and when you open it, you're confronted with the pieces of Mr. Ware's story - fourteen physically discrete tales concerning the people who live in the same apartment building.  So what he's done is given you the building blocks for the building he's constructed - but you're the architect.

You decide which of the books, or strips, or pamphlets you are going to read first.  What catches your eye first when you open his wonderful box?  Start with that and explore from there.

Are the stories linked?  Yes, yes - but each informs the other in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and the order in which you greet them for the first time affects how you'll perceive them.

One of the many beauties of Mr. Ware's work is the fact that it's so tactile - you have to hold it to discover it.  You don't plug it in, don't wait for it to sync - you, ya know, read it like a book.

And when you do, you'll be reminded that there's a reason books have lasted for centuries while our newfangled gadgets - records, 8-tracks, Walkmans - often disappear in a few dozen years, or less.

Think you're Kindle will be anything but a paperweight in ten years?  Please think again.  Will anyone who stumbles across this marvelous box experience the same level of excitement that you will if they find it in 10, 50, or 100 years from now?

Yes, they will.  And all they'll need to enjoy it is some light to see by.

#63:  Sailor Twain:  Or, the Mermaid in the Hudson, by Mark Siegel.  First Second.  $24.99.


I'd like to leave it at that.  At Wow.  But you'll want some details, some indication of why you should go buy this book right now.

Do you like beautiful, atmospheric art?  Mark Siegel's Sailor Twain is told through his unforgettable charcoal drawings.  Do you like a little Hemingway?  A little Poe?  A little mythology?  Maybe Melville?

How about sex?  You like sex, don't you?  Sailor Twain has all that and more.  It's got a steamship in the 19th Century on the Hudson River, carrying two men - both haunted by a mermaid.  It's got obsession, and love - did I mention sex?  I forget.  But it's got that, too.

Look, let's just leave it at Wow, ok?  Should be enough.


#62:  A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King.  Touchstone.  $26.

Sure, you thought the best story about Superheroes this year was going to be seen inside a movie theater.  Did you think it was going to be Spiderman - the remake of the movie that came out 10 years ago?  Or maybe you're an Avengers kind of person?  You were looking forward to a hunky Thor, a sexy Black Widow?

Or did you think Batman was going to be the best?  With Christian Bale doing that weird thing with his voice?  Please tell me you weren't the one person who thought Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance was going to be good?  That wasn't you, right? Right?

Because the best Superhero story this year wasn't a movie, it was a book - A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King.

Do you have to like comic books - especially the Golden Age of superheroes - to love this book?  Probably, yeah, to love it.  But if you're interested in a heroically spun yarn that just happens to have some caped-crusaders as the main characters, don't hesitate.

The world as we find it - the World according to Tom King - takes place after all the world's heroes (all but one!) have voluntarily given up their powers.  A World according to Tom King where the villain's all committed suicide.  The society of powerless superheroes (Soldier of Freedom, Devil Girl, Doctor Speed) created by King are so fully realized they could have existed alongside Superman and Captain America and Wonder Woman.

The twists and turns, the back-stories, the loves and the hates, they all propel Mr. King's story at a furious pace.  Fun?  Oh, yeah, this one's fun.  But if you can imagine a literary Superhero novel, you'll know that the fun actually runs deep.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Nick's Picks, 100 Notable Books of 2012 - 66, 65...

#66:  The Cocktail Waitress, by James Cain.  Hard Case Crime.  $23.99.
Ah!  This work is Notable because it's the lost novel of James M. Cain.   He started it a few years before his death and never saw its publication.

It begins with such promise, with so many of Cain's recognizable brushstrokes in place.  A beautiful widow, forced into taking a job as a cocktail waitress.  The son she is desperate to be reunited with.  The two customers who intrigue her for different reasons - the young man with grandiose dreams, the old man who wants to marry her . . .

Alas, while it's interesting - especially for fans of noir - The Cocktail Waitress doesn't measure up to Mr. Cain's best.  Don't get me wrong - there are moments of sizzle, of danger.  Just have an old copy of Double Indemnity by your side when you're done, that and a slug of bourbon.

#65:  Return of the Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett.  Mysterious Press.  $25.

This collection is an even more notable event - it comprises two stories (After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man) that Dashiell Hammett wrote following the unexpected success of the first Thin Man movie.  That film exceeded expectations at the box office and received four Academy Award nominations - including a nod for Best Picture (It Happened One Night was the winner, and let me tell you, I'm not so sure about that).

MGM asked Mr. Hammett for more stories, and so he penned the two collected here.  They're being billed as novellas - which isn't quite right.  The stories aren't exactly screenplays, though they're close, and they're not exactly novellas - they're more a hybrid.

One thing is for sure - Mr. Hammett's ear for dialogue is on spectacular display. 

His stories - like Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's - are a little more sinister in words than what got translated to film.  But Nick and Nora Charles (what?  He's Greek?  And named Nick?) scintillated on screen and on the page, and the duo is in fine form here (and yes, I do in fact have a crush on Myrna Loy.  Sue me.  All I have to do is close my eyes and hear her asking Nicky for another drink and I swoon.  Did I say sue me?)

So put away the bourbon and pour yourself a dry martini - and please remember to shake it in Waltz time.  Nick Charles would approve.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nick's Picks, 100 Notable Books of 2012 - 70, 69, 68, 67...

 #70:  The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian.  Doubleday.  $25.95.

Chris Bohjalian's writing is always lush, but in The Sandcastle Girls, he takes the reader on a remarkable journey drawing from his Armenian heritage.  Follow this story from Syria during the First World War to New York today - and back again.

#69:  Dead Stars, by Bruce Wagner.  Blue Rider Press.  $35.

Bruce Wagner is usually entertaining and often profane - Dead Stars delivers doses of both.  There are so many stories and so many characters who occupy the sex-filled waters that makes up Mr. Wagner's Hollywood, and since most of them show no compunction about dipping their toes repeatedly in this dirty pool, sometimes you'll be looking for the nearest shower so that you can clean up before continuing.

But if you sometimes indulge in reality TV, sometimes sneak a peak at tabloid headlines while waiting to check-out at the market, Dead Stars is for you.

The English cover is better than ours.
#68:  Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.  Henry Holt and Co.  $28.

So, if you're Hilary Mantel and you won the Man Booker Prize for your last novel - Wolf Hall - what do you do for an encore?  You pen Bring Up the Bodies, deliciously delving into Tudor history and the trial of Anne Boleyn.  Throw in a little Cromwell, a little court intrigue, package it with the scents and scenes of the times - all leavened with details that don't ever feel thrown in to show how much research you've done but rather rise up from the story and enrich it.

That's what you do.  And then you go out and win the Man Booker, again.

#67:  The People of Forever are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu.  Hogarth.  $24.

Follow three young women in Israel as they go from high school to their stark new world after they're conscripted. 

This debut from Shani Boianjiu demonizes neither side in the war taking place - forever now, forever and ever - in the Middle East.  Does it show them in times of triumph and beauty and anger and hatred?  Yes, and Ms. Boianjiu does it brilliantly.  I don't want to say that this is a coming of age novel - I mean, it is - but that cliche diminishes what has been accomplished.  Buy it.  Buy it and read it and then we'll talk.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 72, 71...

#72:  Shake Off, by Mischa Hiller.  Mulholland Books.  $24.99.

If you read a thriller this year, make it Shake Off.  Mischa Hiller has been likened to Graham Greene - and while that is a lofty comparison, his writing has Greene's eye for detail and can be sophisticated and dispassionate - but right in the head of the main character, Michel Khoury.

He's an operative who covets one thing - peace in the Middle East.  When he's forced to run, the paranoia of spies colors every turn.  If you fondly remember Adam Hall's Quiller, you'll love Khoury.  If you don't - shame on you.  Go introduce yourself to Adam Hall, then read Hiller.

#71:  Brothers:  On His Brothers and Brothers in History, by George Howe Colt.  Scribner.  $30.

Do you have brothers?  I have brothers.  I'm the middle of three - and that should tell you everything you need to know.  George Howe Colt has three brothers - and like me, he is fascinated, repulsed and invigorated by them.

Brothers?  There's so much going on with brothers.  Rivalry, admiration, jealousy, devotion, hate and affection.  Mr. Colt examines these through the prism of his own bothers, while at the same time looking at famous brothers through history - from the Booths and the Thoreaus to the most famous brothers of all time, the Marx Brothers.

If you've wondered how a man's life can be altered - for better and worse - by the complex relationship he has with his brother(s), or if you're fascinated by how your own foibles ans strengths can be the result of the push and pull of close relationships, read Brothers.

Then take me out for a drink - the stories I could tell you...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 76, 75, 74, 73...

#76:  Magic Tree House 20th Anniversary Edition: Dinosaurs Before Dark, by Mary Pope Osborne.  Random House Books for Young Readers.  $14.99.

No, it's not cheating.  This book was published just a few months ago - I can't help it if it's a commemorative edition.  Besides, for Kristina?  My five-year-old?  This was the most important literary event of the year.

I have a friend who is a Sales Representative for Random House.  Sales Reps?  For publishers?  Some of the coolest people in the world.  Dandy is no exception.  She sent some books to me for my girls - and this was Kristina's.

Kristina has discovered Mary Pope Osborne in a big way this year.  In Kindergarten, she gets to go to the library every Thursday, and every Thursday she brings another Magic Tree House home.  Sometimes she "forgets" to return last week's book, and the rules of the library clearly state that you can't check out a new book before you've returned your old one.

Somehow, this admonition doesn't count for Kristina.  Either her librarian is a softy, or Kristina is playing her.

So when I brought this new hardcover home for her?  And gave it to my daughter?  She held it in her hands, gentle-like, as she looked down at it.  As her eyes got big.  As they filled with tears (Kristina does not cry from joy, hardly ever).  And then she clutched Dinosaurs Before Dark to her chest and exclaimed, Oh Daddy!  I love it!

If that doesn't make this one of the Most Notable Books of 2012, I don't know what would.  Thank you, Mary Pope Osborne, for continuing to enchant young readers with your adventures.  And thank you, Dandy, for being one of the coolest people in the universe.

#75:  Junie B., First Grader: Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff), by Barbara Park. Random House Books for Young Readers.  $11.99.

Ok, yes, so this would be my oldest daughter's pick.  Eight-year-olds and Junie B.?  They get along famously - especially if the eight-year-old is my Elizabeth.

I think our daughter first got turned onto Junie. B. Jones because she could live vicariously through her.  Elizabeth?  Elizabeth is a good kid.  Very law-abiding.

So when she started reading about Junie B., a little girl who doesn't always follow the rules, who seemingly spends more time getting to know the principal, in his office, than she spends with her own teacher, named Mrs. (She has another name, too, but Junie B. Jones just calls her Mrs.) - well, Elizabeth decided this was someone she wanted to get to know.

It had been about five years since Junie B. had graced the page, so this was a welcome return to the exploits of the most popular first-grader in our household.

Thanks again, Dandy - you made two little girls very happy.

#74:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Third Wheel, by Jeff Kinney.  Harry N. Abrams.  $13.95.

You know how people who are really bad at introductions just say, And now, let me present to you someone who needs no introduction?  And then they just duck out?

I hate that.  If it's your job to introduce someone, then freaking introduce them.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, though?  Jeff Kinney's newest needs no introduction.  Do you know a kid, 8ish to preteenish?  Just get them this book.

#73:  This Moose Belongs to Me, by Oliver Jeffers.  Philomel.  $16.99.

Do you know Oliver Jeffers?  Why not?  Is there some little someone in your life who you read picture books to?  Are you tired of crappy picture books?  Good, me too.

Mr. Jeffers is funny.  And better yet, your little someone will think his books are funny.  But guess what?  You will, too.

In this, his latest, Wilfred is a little boy who likes things just so.  Do you remember Sally, from When Harry Met Sally?  Wilfred likes it the way he likes it, too.

The only problem is, Wilfred has a pet moose.  Have you ever had a pet moose?  Me neither.  But according to Mr. Jeffers, a Moose has a mind of its own - and Wilfred's Moose hits the road because that's what a Moose does, evidently.

This book is silly but beautifully drawn.  You'll love Wilfred.  You'll love "his" Moose.  And you won't tire of reading it again and again (which is good, because you will). 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 78, 77...

#78:  The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  $23.95.

Ever read a book that touches on one of your own experiences?  And if it's a good book, the journey is that much more rewarding?  B. A. Shapiro's The Art Forger is just such a book for me.  The pivot point of her story deals with the 1990 break-in at the Gardner Museum in Boston.

That heist resulted in the loss of thirteen pieces of art valued at more than half a billion dollars, making it the largest theft of property ever - if you discount the Elgin Marbles, but that's another story.

What makes this story for me so personally interesting is that when I was lucky enough to first visit the Gardner - during a trip to see my oldest brother while George was studying in Boston - I was dismayed to learn that Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee wasn't on display, was instead under the watchful eye of a conservator as it was being cleaned.  This painting, and Vermeer's The Concert, were the only two paintings that I knew were housed in the Gardner and I had been especially looking forward to them.

Still got to see Vermeer - one of his only 34 known works - and so many others, got to see them in the splendid vessel that holds all the art there:  the former home of Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Love that museum - my favorite anywhere.  I went back to it during that brief Boston trip.  Spent so much time looking, and drawing, and examining - just not the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

A sketch from Paul César Helleu's Woman Threading a Needle, 17 April 1987 

When I tell the story, it was the following year, on March 18, 1990, right after the Rembrandt had been returned to its place on the wall, that a couple of crooks entered the Gardner dressed up as cops and when they walked out again, the museum was 13 pieces of art poorer.


Just gone.  Never to be seen again - except by the bastard that had them stolen.  My one chance to gawk at that extraordinary piece of art had vanished like smoke in the nighttime. 

There's only one problem with my version of the tale - George had been some years graduated from Harvard by the time 1990 rolled around, so it of course couldn't have been the very next year that the crime occurred, or even the year after that.

I haven't knowingly lied when I tell the story - the events simply conflated.  My one chance to see the Storm at the Gardner, the return of the painting to the museum, the theft - the time between one to the other to the other just shrank.  Not willfully.  Not with malice aforethought - it just did.  And to me the short time-frame has always made my experience so much more regrettable

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?

Sorry about the digression - but I'll get back to it in #77, coming up next, ok?

Because while this was supposed to be about The Art Forger, not me, Ms. Shapiro's book returns us to the scene of that crime.  Her novel is a contemporary tale set in Boston.  Our hero - Claire Roth - is a down-on-her-luck artist who is given the chance of a lifetime:  will she accept receipt of one of the most famous paintings stolen from the Gardner in order to forge it?

If she does, she'll be paid handsomely (and oh how she needs the money) and the owner of the premier Boston art gallery will host a one-woman show for her (and what artist could turn that down?)

Sound too good to be true?  Well, what if - as she studies the painting she has been hired to forge - Claire begins to have doubts about the authenticity of the stolen masterwork?  Could the forger be studying a forgery?

Ms. Shapiro's novel is layered and luminous - showing off Boston, its art-denizens, and the arcane world of forgers.  It's not a globe-trotting, Da Vinci Code imitation - The Art Forger is introspective, deftly plotted, and will have you impatiently turning its pages until the end.

#77:  Imagine:  How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  $26.

Imagine is listed here because it was notable, yes - notable and tragic.  Jonah Lehrer was a young writer with a trio of bestsellers under his belt and a new gig with the New Yorker - it couldn't get much better for a scribe.  And then - like those beautiful pieces of art in the Gardner Museum - it all disappeared.

Just two months after joining the New Yorker, Mr. Lehrer resigned when it was revealed that portions of his work had been plagiarized or made up from whole cloth.  The most damning bits were quotes that Mr. Lehrer attributed to Bob Dylan at the beginning of his most recent book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works.  So in the first chapter of this, his third book - his third enormously popular book - Mr. Lehrer quoted Bob Dylan.  Except the quotes were fake.

Lesson #1:  If you are going to make up quotes, don't make up quotes from one of the most recognizable voices of a generation. 

It's difficult to read the apology Mr. Lehrer wrote when he resigned from the New Yorker.  He sounds contrite yet erudite, ashamed and painfully young.  It's heartfelt.  It's sad.  He apologizes.  He explains how he continued his lies in a moment of panic when a reviewer asked him to provide attribution for the quotes that weren't.

What made it so difficult for me to read his confession was the fact that I understood.  Lies?  For a writer?  Lying is easy.  It's what we do every day.  Often, it's not malicious.  Often, I'm telling you a story about not ever being able to see Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee - how I visited its museum one year when it was unavailable to view, and how the next year it was stolen.

So close!  And yet so far.  And also, more importantly, not true.  The events - my visit and the theft - were separated by years, not months.  Again, there was no perfidy coloring my tale - I related it exactly how I remembered it.  And part of the reason the theft stung is because I missed my one chance to see the piece, and now my chances were gone, and the sting went deeper because Act One and Act Two were separated by hardly a handful of seasons.

And yet - and yet - this is a lie.

When I tell a story and a certain line gets a good response, I probably make sure to repeat that line the next time.  Do I improve it for effect?  Also, yes - probably.  I like telling stories and I enjoy the praise I sometimes receive and yes my tales get Taller the more I tell them.

Nature of the beast or unscrupulous alteration of the truth?

Honestly - I don't know.

It's ironic, indeed, that in a book that sought to explain the magic of creativity, it was that very trait writ large that demolished its foundation.

It's my hope that Mr. Lehrer is allowed to write again - that we don't sanctimoniously prevent him from doing the thing he did so well.  Perhaps he could use his gifts to explain how we sometimes make the slope so slippery before ever stepping out on the ice.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 81, 80, 79...

#81:  Defending Jacob, by William Landay.  Delacorte Press.  $26.

You know those cliches that booksellers use?  Gripping.  Riveting.  Page turner.  The problem is sometimes they're true - we just get lazy and instead of telling you why we liked the book, we resort to these shortcuts.

Sorry about that.

This, then, would be the wrong time to tell you that William Landay's Defending Jacob is a page-turner that is at turns riveting and gripping.  Nicholas Sparks called it amazing, and Mr. Sparks hardly ever uses cliches, so can we call it good?

If not, let's just say that Mr. Landay reinvigorates the courtroom thriller.  Andy Barber, a District Attorney investigating the brutal murder of a teenage boy, has to confront the awful fact that his son is fast becoming the prime suspect.

Through it all, Mr. Landay believably shows the disintegration of Andy's marriage, and the chinks in the armor of Andy's belief in the innocence of his son.  And before I use any more cliches, I'll just say that this is one courtroom drama you don't want to miss.

#80:  Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson.  Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam.  $25.95.

Do I need to say anything besides this is the funniest book I read all year?

There are so many things I love about Ms. Lawson.  First, she doesn't mind the word blog.  Me?  I hate it.  I'm uncomfortable saying, Hey, I write a blog.  Wanna read it?  Or have a cookie?

She?  She makes it her own and calls herself The Bloggess - not ironically.  I think.

I'm never sure when Ms. Lawson is joshing and when she's not.

Please, though - just trust me.  Ms. Lawson follows that old writer's saw and writes about what she knows - in this case, her family.  Her totally psychotic and disturbed family.  But you know what?  Well balanced families aren't funny!  So, ha!

Just read it, for me?  Then we'll talk.

Oh, and that mouse on the cover?  Hamlet Mouse?  I own him.  So there's that, too.

#79:  The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman.  Knopf.  $35.

Do you eat?  If you eat, you want this cookbook.

What do you want in a cookbook?  Beautiful pictures?  Check.  Delicious recipes?  Check?  A cook with a personality?  Check.  Someone who's funny and who can write and who, through her words and pictures, makes you want to immediately begin cooking her food?  Check check check.

The "her" in this scenario is Deb Perelman, creator of the Smitten Kitchen.  Ms. Perelman's food?  Well, it's not necessarily for the faint of heart - not because it's intimidating - no, it's so inviting, you'll be pulling up a chair in no time.  It's because it's easy to become obsessed with her creations - to the detriment of any relations you may have with family and friends.  Unless they eat, too, and if that's the case, you're golden.

I wonder if it's too late to make her Emmentaler on Rye with Sweet and Sour Red Onions...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 84, 83, 82...

#84:  The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver.  Penguin Press.  $27.95.

Ok, so Nate Silver is my hero.  Mr. Silver, a statistician, took his passion for numbers and combined it with his passion for baseball.  There is no other sport where stats are so often quoted, maligned and venerated - so the combination was a Natural.

He sold his system to the Baseball Prospectus, and then he played a little poker.  Another no-brainer combination of numbers and a game - except I'm pretty sure that Mr. Silver is scary smart.

Then?  Then there was politics.  In 2008, he correctly projected the Presidential winner in 49 out of 50 states.  Hard to really improve on that, but he did this past November when he correctly predicted the winner in all these United States - and for good measure, he also got right the District of Columbia.

Mr. Silver takes wishful-thinking, throws it in a blender, pushes the HIGH button, and pours himself a tall frosty cup of reality.

That's mmm-mmm good - and the Signal and the Noise is a clear-eyed look at Mr. Silver's science of prediction.

#83:  Bushman Lives!, by Daniel Pinkwater.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  $16.99.

Where was Daniel Pinkwater when I was a kid?  Or, rather, why wasn't Modesto hip to Mr. Pinkwater when I was a kid?  If I'd been given Lizard Music at ten, my world would have been a much better place.  Ah, well.

The beauty of Mr. Pinkwater's novels for Young Adults is that Old Adults can read them, too.  Like Bushman Lives!  Who is Bushman?  A fabled gorilla from the Chicago Zoo that our hero, Harold Knishke, obsessives over.  If I as a child could have read about a hall-monitor gone bad, a flautist who sells his flute in order to begin life-drawing classes, about hidden castles and hidden islands - about best-friends joining the Navy and then not - my world would have been a much better place, did I say that?

Fortunately, you can make your world a better place just by entering this, one of the amazing books that Mr. Pinkwater has created over his long and storied career.  How amazing?  Well, it goes off in so many different directions that a friend of mine described it as a literary starburst and to discover just how apt that comparison is, you'll have to read it.

Bushman Lives! indeed.

#82:  Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball--and America--Forever, by Tim Wendel.  Da Capo Press.  $25.

Yeah, yeah - if you remember 1968, they say, you weren't really there.  But maybe you don't want to remember that stupid, terrible year.  The assassinations - King and Kennedy; Vietnam - from the Tet Offensive to the photographed execution of  Nguyễn Ngọc Loan to the massacre at My Lai; the brutal end of the Prague Spring - and the awful beginning of the Troubles in Ireland.

Yet for all that - 1968 contained moments of beauty.  The Beatles created Apple Records, Apollo 7 - the first manned Apollo mission - was launched, and the Detroit Tigers won the World Series.

This last achievement is brilliantly retold in Tim Wendel's Summer of '68.  This is Denny McLain winning 31 games.  This is Bob Gibson and his 1.12 ERA, his 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the Series.  Catfish Hunter and his perfect game.

Mr. Wendel covers all this against the violent backdrop of 1968 - providing you with the mirror that baseball so often becomes of the nation where it's played. 

It's ironic, of course, that his book came out in a year that saw the Tigers return to the World Series - only this time, the Detroit Tigers would be swept by the San Francisco Giants.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 85...

#85:  Drama, by Raina Telgemeier.

In the sweet graphic-novel follow-up to Telgemeier's Smile, we follow Callie - a drama geek in middle school.  It's Spring-musical time, and Callie is in charge of set design. 

While the teen book world is dominated by vampires and goddesses, Telgemeier is a breath of fresh air.  Her stories revolve around real girls with real problems.  Not the problems of addiction, incest, or rape - but the more everyday problems surrounding school, little brothers and boys.

Everyday problems need not be unexceptional, and through Ms. Telgemeier's deft storytelling - in words and pictures - we feel the slings and arrows directed at Callie and hope that she can dodge them. 

Is there a place for vampires and for the dramatic travails of teenagers figuratively and literally under the gun?  Sure.  But there's also room for the familiar and the authentic, and that's where Drama shines.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 86...

#86:  The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 3:  Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid.

I was in high school when the first volume of the Last Lion was published.  I was stunned by its eloquence and cadence.  Mr. Manchester could write the pants off the historians I'd been forced to read in school.  Volume 2 - Alone - followed a few years later.  And then there was only the promise of Volume 3 - but Volume 3 was the good stuff!  The War! 

This was going to be:  "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

This was going to be:  "You ask, What is our policy? I will say; 'It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.' You ask, What is our aim? I can answer with one word: Victory — victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival."

Alas, it was not to be.  First, Mr. Manchester turned his talents to other books.  Then, he was quiet. And finally he admitted that he simply couldn't write the book.  Just before his death, he chose the journalist Paul Reid to do what he himself could not - finish the book.

What we have is Defender of the Realm.  Is it as astonishing as what Manchester could have done?  No.  But it's still damn good.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 88,87...

#88: Phantom, by Jo Nesbø. Knopf. $25.95.

This is book #9 in Jo Nesbø's dark and violent series featuring the unfortunately named Harry Hole. These books - thrilling and explosive, with a hero who's equal part cop, addict, and lost cause - are part of the terrific wave of fiction now coming out of Scandinavia.

Nesbø's stories are bleak - and this is the bleakest and the best of the lot. It's difficult to see how Nesbø will continue the series after saying, in Phantom, all that might have been needed to say.

#87:  Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist, by Thomas Peele.  Crown.  $26.

When Chauncey Bailey was gunned down on the morning of August 2nd, 2007, he was the first journalist in the United States to have been killed over a story since 1976, when Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic was killed by a car bomb.

Bailey's crime?  He had the audacity to try and report on the financial problems of Your Black Muslim Bakery - an Oakland, California, institution that was led, until his death, by the thug Yusuf Bey.  Your Black Muslim Bakery was then run by his son, the bigger thug Yusuf Bey IV, the man who would order the assassination of Mr. Bailey.

Killing the Messenger is chilling in its accounts of how the Oakland establishment - from the police, to Oakland's mayors, and even to Congressperson Barbara Lee - disregarded the whispers that there was something horribly wrong with Your Black Muslim Bakery.  Torture?  Check.  Rape?  Check.  Murder?  Check.

Political correctness in this case led to the shotgun killing of a reporter on his way to work.  Read Killing the Messenger for a brilliantly rendered account of a city gone deaf and blind.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 91,90,89...

#91:  Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, by William Kuhn.  Harper.  $25.99.

Do you think the Queen gets a little tired of the shenanigans of her royal brood?  The Hitler costumes?  The naked photographs?  (Billiards in the nude is seemingly quite difficult.)

Well, what if one day, Queen Elizabeth decided to don a hoodie in the rain and head out to the great unknown?  Or at least to Scotland, where a loved yacht is now moored.

Set sail with William Kuhn and discover what happens on just such a sojourn - all while the Royal attendants try to keep up the ruse that the Queen isn't missing, not at all.

#90:  Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  $40.

Clark Kerr, Ronald Reagan, Mario Savio, and J. Edgar Hoover - a University President, a future President, the icon of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, and the director of the FBI - have had their stories told before, but Rosenfeld had access to government documents (more than a quarter of a million pages that he forced the government to produce) so his portraits are fuller, darker and more expansive than ever before.

On one side are Kerr and Savio, the other Reagan and Hoover.  Hoover was a bastard, Reagan a power-hungry dupe - and both Kerr and Savio, though sympathetic, are shown in Rosenfeld's work to not have personally wielded the influence many ascribe to them today.  Subversives is monumental - both in length (more than 700 pages) and in its effort to lay bare the contempt falsely fostered and fomented, contempt that led to the explosion of the Free Speech Movement.

Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Hoover.

#89:  The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater.  Scholastic Press.  $18.99.

Haunted forests?  Tarot?  Latin-speaking trees?  All these and more you'll find inside Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys.  But what's most impressive in this book geared to the Young Adult reader in your life, is that the story always comes back to family - how families work (or not) and the peculiar ties that bind them together and often pull them apart.

The book's on this list, though, because my coworker Tracy says this is the book above all others that she is going to press into readers' hands this season.  Good enough for Tracy is good enough for me.

O Morgan Freeman, Morgan Freeman, Wherefore Art Thou Morgan Freeman?



All you need to do here is watch the video above.  If you do that- click and watch - my work is done.  Because this is all about me.
Wait.  That's a typo.
This is not all about me.  This is about Lisa Lutz - so please.  Just click on the arrow.

The video will explain everything - it's an appeal, from the terrific author I just mentioned - Lisa Lutz.  Yes, the author of the Spellman novels.  And if you haven't read them, why not?  Do you have something against funny and smart crime writing?

But the video.  This video.  In the video, Ms. Lutz speaks to Morgan Freeman.  Asks him to appear in a trailer for her upcoming book.
I mean, she doesn't speak to him, not directly.  It's more "An-Open-Letter" kind of thing.  Except it's a video, not a letter.  But same diff, right?  And there's a framed picture of Morgan Freeman overseeing the whole production, so actually Ms. Lutz is kind of speaking to him. 
To Morgan Freeman.
I saw the video for the first time today, soon after it was posted.  I took special interest in the plea because Lisa Lutz and I broke bread together before the release of her 2011 novel, Heads You Lose.  So there I was, a midlist bookseller, eating dinner with Lisa Lutz, a midlist author.  How perfect is that?

Dinner?  Dinner was at Kuleto's in San Francisco.  We ate from white tablecloths at a long table in front of a stone-fronted fireplace.
It would have been kind of romantic except, you know, I'm married and there were quite a few other booksellers there, in addition to the representatives from the publisher.  All those other people made romantic notions a little awkward.  None of that Number 1 Fan Stuff, here - no way.  Ms. Lutz talks about that kind of thing in the video.  Have you watched it yet?  Watch it.
And besides, at dinner?  Kind of difficult to share a moment with someone who is seated far away.  Did I mention that Ms. Lutz was not seated near me - I think that was probably smart.  And also besides - this isn't about me.  I already said that.
This is about Lisa Lutz.
The good news from that dinner?  I hit it off with the other author there that evening.  Kind of forgot to mention that fact, that there was another writer in residence, as it were.  See, the novel - Heads You Lose - wasn't only written by Lisa Lutz.  It was written by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward.  The novel deals with siblings who find a body - headless - on their property, so they move it.  Off their property.  But it keeps coming back.
Ms. Lutz had the idea that it would be charming to write a book with another writer, so she chose Mr. Hayward.  They ended up writing alternating chapters.  But, well, these writers have a history - they actually used to be a couple, so they squabbled a little bit during the writing of Heads You Lose.  These squabbles made it to the page where you read them duking it out.
You know, metaphorically.  They weren't actually duking it out.  There were disagreements, sure.  Mr. Hayward told me all about it.  He'd want the story to go one way, but Ms. Lutz thought perhaps the story would be stronger if they followed her lead. 
If you noticed, Lisa Lutz got top billing on the cover of the book, and, well, that can kind of feed a writer's ego, you know?
Anyway.  Mr. Hayward would say left, Ms. Lutz would counter with right.  He'd go up, she'd point down.  You read these differences in opinion in notes they included in the novel, notes to each other after the chapters - critical of the other's efforts.  These bits are funny, the novel bits are funny - but the dead bodies start proliferating.
And it's still funny!
In between Mr. Hayward describing this process, I kept him entertained with the synopsis of my own novel.  Well, novel-in-progress.  I mean, I actually haven't, you know, finished it.  Novels are, well, hard.  If you want to put a novel to bed you have to sit down and write.
Haven't done that, not totally.  Not to completion.  But oh! was Mr. Hayward enraptured with the story.  The little odds and ends that have been written - though those are, truth be told, quite few in number.  But the main idea, the plot if you will, I've got that all figured out.
I just have to actually write it.
I won't bore you - I was afraid I'd bore Mr. Hayward.  But since he was sitting in the corner, and I was next to him - well, he had to talk to someone, right?  So I dove right in.  My novel takes place on Halloween.  Oh, that holiday!  Halloween!  And--
Oh, wait.  Keep forgetting!  Not about me!  This is about Lisa Lutz.  Did you watch the video?  Watch the video!  Click click click!
I'll just wrap this up.  At the end of the Heads-You-Lose dinner, there was the requisite signing of the book for the attendees.  I handed my copy over to David - I feel I can all him David because we did spend an awful lot of time talking that night.  Did I mention he was kind of in the corner?  Not trapped by me, trapped is a little harsh.
But right there, you know?
So he took my copy of their book and spent a bit of time writing in it.  Sometimes authors just scribble their name, but David went out of his way to personalize it.  He intimated how intrigued he was by my own novel - er, Novel-In-Progress.  Then he signed Heads You Lose with a flourish before he handed it to Ms. Lutz.
She glanced down at what he had written and then looked at him.
What's this? she said.
What do you mean? he countered.
(It was like the novel, but in person!)
This!  You wrote an addendum to the novel in the novel.  You're just supposed to sign these things.  Poets!  You always get it wrong.
I was just commenting, he said, on the remarkable work that Nick described to me this evening.  Really breathtaking.  I felt the need, the urgent need, to memorialize it.
(Ok, David may not have actually said exactly that.  I may not remember precisely what he said but it was right in there.  Close, I'd say.  Very, very close.)
Ms. Lutz just shook her head.  Shook her head and dashed off a "Me too!" after David's kind words.  Just jotted down, super fast.  But actually, it was sort of sweet - if you look at it, you know, in the right way.  If you squint hard and tilt your head.
Besides, that night wasn't about me, it was about them.  Lisa Lutz and David Hayward.  And their novel Heads You Lose.
But today?  Today's all about me.
Wait, sorry.  Typo again. 
Today isn't about me.  It's about Ms. Lutz and her appeal to Morgan Freeman.
She passionately argues that she's fighting not just for free publicity, but for free publicity for the written word.  Sure, she'd benefit from Morgan Freeman's help, but what he'd really be doing is furthering our progress towards keeping books and bookstores alive.  Maybe it'd help bring about world peace.  An end to poverty?  Not so out there!
Okay, gosh, sorry.  That's all me, that stuff.  Ms. Lutz talked about books and bookstores, yes, but not the other things.
I get carried away sometimes.
Do you know Mr. Freeman?  Do you know anyone who knows Mr. Freeman?  Because if you could just get him to watch this video - it's only a few minutes (ok, actually, it's four minutes, but I'm not counting.  Nor should you), and if he spent just those few minutes watching, I'm sure he'd agree to help Ms. Lutz.
So if you do know him - could you pass these words along?  These glorious, funny, staggering words?
Oops, sorry again.  Not these words.  Not, you know, my words - but the video.  Could you pass it along?  Thanks.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 94,93,92...

#94:  Arcadia, by Lauren Groff.  Hyperion Books.  $15.99.

First, can we get one thing clear?  Because Lauren Groff's remarkable Arcadia comes in at #94 does not mean that the #1 book on this list is going to be 100 times better.  Do you know how many books will be published in 2012 in the United States?

Neither do I.  But it's going to be a lot.  Some point to a staggering 15 million titles.  That's probably a high figure, but conservatively, we're talking about at least 3 million.  3 million!

Do you know how many books were published in the US 100 years ago?  About 9 thousand.  The difference between the numbers is staggering.  But - to my point - I'm listing 100 here.  That's the top .003 percent.  I think.  I'm a writer who sells books, math is not my strong suit.

Still - we're talking about an infinitesimally small number.  So Lauren Groff clocks in at #94 because Arcadia was one of the most notable books of a very crowded year, ok?  In addition to being one of the most notable, it was also one of the best.

Her writing is stunning - America in the '70's is beautifully rendered.  And Ms. Groff has created a cast of characters struggling with Utopian dreams amidst the often brutal realism of this country's past.  Ok?  Ok.

#93:  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.  Crown.  $26.

Susan Cain, I'm sure, has been bemused by the attention her book has received.  In it, she eloquently describes how this world of ours - that has gotten so loud - owes much to the introverts, to those who aren't interested in tweeting pictures of the mundane cocktail they drank to thousands of disinterested souls.  Good reading for the quiet among us - better reading for the guy on MUNI screaming into his phone about the bitchin' chick he met in the Mission.  Unfortunately, that guy doesn't read and the shy girl won't tell him about Quiet.

#92:  Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead.  Knopf.  $25.95.

Seating Arrangements is brilliantly funny - which is saying a lot because I read it right after reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.  It's difficult to think anything is funny after reading Amis' novel.

And if you haven't read Lucky Jim?  I don't know what to say.  It could very well be the funniest novel written in English - so please, for me?  Just go.  Go and read it.

But if for whatever skewed reason Amis is not your cup of tea, then grab a copy of Seating Arrangements.  In it, you'll find a certain group of misanthropes, idlers and skeptics stranded on an island.  It's like Lord of the Flies - except anyone could leave this island at any time because they aren't shipwrecked, they're there on purpose to celebrate the weekend nuptials of the daughter of Old Money.  It's a novel of manners, like Jane Austen, but with randier fathers and more booze.

And some violence that would have made Jane shudder.  Did I mention it was funny, too?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 97,96,95...

#97:  No Easy Day, by Mark Owen.  Dutton.  $26.95.

"Mr. Owen" seemingly wants it both ways.  He's desirous of continuing the mystique of the Seals and all the sexy secrecy that surrounds them - while at the same time throwing open for perusal their most innermost workings.  But he does provide a fascinating look at one of the most intensive manhunts in history, so there's that.

#96:  Home, by Toni Morrison.  Knopf.  $24.

Home showcases Ms. Morrison at her most taut - but this may be its greatest fault.  She eloquently and viscerally shows the horrors of war through the traumatized eyes of a Korean War veteran - Frank Money - but I was left wanting more.  More words, more pages.  What we have is brilliant - but what you'll want are deeper explorations and resolutions to the wounds she lays bare.

#95:  Cuban Cocktails, by Jared McDaniel Brown and Anistatia Renard Miller.  Jared Brown.  $19.95.

Did Cuba have a Golden Age of the Cocktail?  Did it last through America's ridiculous and pietistic experiment with Prohibition?  It most certainly did, and these two authors not only give you the recipes, but they shed light on the politics and people of the time.  You'll want to mix the drinks, sure, but you'll also have a new appreciation for where those cocktails came from and the circumstances that led to their creation.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 100, 99, 98

Lists, lists - everyone's on a list, compiling a list, reading a list.  So I've decided to crash that party.  Here is the first annual Nick's Picks for the Most Notable Books of the Year.

And just real quick - Most Notable does not only mean Best.  I might not give a fig about some of these books; they could be here because they made waves.  Others because I deem them worthy.  I'm not bashful - I'll let you know.

If you disagree - feel free to compile your own!

And - Nicks Picks will be fiction heavy because fiction's better than non.  Fiction.

Actually, I just read more fiction than non(fiction) so that's why there'll be more.  Fiction.

If I could cue up a drum roll, I would.  Lacking that, let's begin with--

#100:  Fifty Shades of Grey, by E L James. Vintage.  $15.95

No book was bigger this year - or most years.  It's not listed because I like it.  It's terrible.  But leaving it off would've been stupid.  So here it is.

Still - if it's erotica you want, may I suggest Little Birds by Anaïs Nin?

#99:  The Patriarch:  The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw.  The Penguin Press.  $40.

Was Joseph Kennedy the most interesting, the most intriguing of the Kennedy's - as Nasaw asserts?  No.  No, he wasn't.

#98:  Jack Gilbert:  Collected Poems.  Knopf.  $35.

Yes, you should.  Not because Mr. Gilbert died a few weeks ago, not because he raged against the dying of the light - but because he writes like this:


It waits. While I am walking through the pine trees
along the river, it is waiting. It has waited a long time.
In southern France, in Belgium, and even Alabama.
Now it waits in New England while I say grace over
almost everything: for a possum dead on someone’s lawn,
the single light on a levee while Northampton sleeps,
and because the lanes between houses in Greek hamlets
are exactly the width of a donkey loaded on each side
with barley. Loneliness is the mother’s milk of America.
The heart is a foreign country whose language none
of us is good at.Winter lingers on in the woods,
but already it looks discarded as the birds return
and sing carelessly; as though there never was the power
or size of December. For nine years in me it has waited.
My life is pleasant, as usual. My body is a blessing
and my spirit clear. But the waiting does not let up.