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).