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December 8, 2003

Best Books of 2003

Books of the year from the Guardian. Writers such as Beryl Bainbridge | Julian Barnes | John Bayley | Harold Bloom | William Boyd | Alfred Brendel | AS Byatt | Simon Callow | Peter Carey | Ciaran Carson | Jonathan Coe | Bernard Crick | Margaret Drabble | Atom Egoyan | Jeffrey Eugenides | James Fenton | Mark Haddon | Richard Holmes | Michael Holroyd | Elizabeth Jane Howard | Nicolas Hytner | Frank Kermode | John Lanchester | Elmore Leonard | Oliver Letwin | Valerie Martin | Ian McEwan | Claire Messud | Karl Miller | Clare Morrall | Blake Morrison | Andrew Motion | Alice Oswald | Tom Paulin | DBC Pierre | Steven Pinker | Peter Porter | Eric Schlosser | Claire Tomalin | Rose Tremain | Anne Tyler | Mitsuko Uchida | Marina Warner | Fay Weldon | Irvine Welsh share their favorite pages of pleasure and more pages of pleasure Does anyone have any favorites from this year they'd like to share. I've run out of reading material. (insert snorting sound)...

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September 22, 2003

Banned Books Week

Buy a banned book, read a banned book, or you could free a banned book, and that my friends is an outstanding idea. “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” — Benjamin Franklin...

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September 8, 2003

The Chess Artist

I have always a slight feeling of pity for the man who has no knowledge of chess. just as I would pity the man who has remained ignorant of love.—Siegbert Tarrasch The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game by J. C. Hallman is a must read if you love the game, or if you are just curious about what it is that evokes such passion. He has described what it is to be a chess player. He captures the yes I know I spend too much time at the game, and I don't give a damn. The I can't help myself. The I could stop, maybe I could, but I don't want too. It was a trip down memory lane for me, capturing many of the experiences I've had over the years. Many of the characters are the same I've encountered in my obsession with the game. Nick de Fermian who taught me about the beauty of the Queen sacrifice*, and Carol Jarecki the queen of arbiters that I had the pleasure of assisting several times at the National Open in Las Vegas to mention just two. The story of the Chess Artist is of the author J. C. Hallman and Glenn a strong master who represents both the obsessed and the artist of the title. During a visit to Kalmykia to visit Kirsan Ilylumzhinov the current president of Kalmykia and F.I.D.E. the international chess body, brought this observation from the author. A chess nation sounded strange to a western ear, but Glenn and I were coming from a culture where many children and not a few adults spent countless hours and dollars playing mindelss games on their television sets. Chess was arguably beneficial. So who was absurd. and this: We met Basaev in Galzanov's office. Galzanov and Glenn played blitz in a corner as Bambusha translated Basaev's story. Basaev call himself a folklorist. Chess problems were his hobby. The story he was telling mixed the two: a short folk tale that accompanied the chess problem he now pushed accross the table to me. I looked over the jumbled profiles scattered across a diagram four centimeters square: White to move, mate in four. "The peasant who had already lost his animals, he now has white. The other has black. We clearly cannot covet white. Black has clear advantage. The Kalmyk playing white only has his last sheep to bet. The position is very bad. He is embarrassed, and he is almost ready to resign." International intrigue, history, the obsessed, and even a bit of instruction round out a well written book. *Queen Sacrifice Norm Jenson - Nick de Fermian National Open, Las Vegas 1993 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 b6 5. Nf3 Bb7 6. a3 Bxc3+ 7. Qxc3 0-0 8. e3 d6 9. Be2 Nbd7 10. 0-0 Ne4 11. Qc2 f5 12. b4 c5 13. Rd1 Qe7 14. Bb2 Ndf6 15. dxc5 bxc5 16. Ne1 Ng4 17. Nd3 Rac8 18. Rac1 cxb4 19. axb4 Qh4 20. Bxg4 fxg4 21. Qe2 Rf5 22. g3 Nc3 23. Qc2 Qxh2+ of course on Kxh2 comes Rh5+ and Rh1 mate...

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August 17, 2003

Catching Up

The title Blood of Victory comes from a speech given by a French senator at a conference on oil in 1918:"Oil, the blood of the earth, has become, in time of war, the blood of victory." It was so then and so it is now. Alan Furst writes historical spy fiction. Using the period from the rise of Hitler in 1933 to 1945 in this the seventh in the series he's in great form. Serebin a Russian emigre journalist is recruited in Istanbul by the British. The plan to slow the flow of oil to the German war machine. From Bucharest to Paris and finally the Black Sea the plan is to sink barges in the Danube. The history and geography artfully described by Mr. Furst reflect painstaking research and an excellent writing style. If you still haven't read any of his books in spite of my recommendations now is the time to start, and once again a thank you to Jonathon Delacour who introduced me to Furst's writing only a year ago. I also recently finished Janet Evanovich's To The Nines, another fun read, but I'm starting to get the feeling that her writing is going the way of Sue Grafton. The stories are starting to merge and repeat. She needs to do something with the characters, perhaps marry Stephanie and Morelli, have her quit the job as a bail bonds enforcer and become a regular cop. The possibilities of his and her hijinks in that setting would freshen up the plots and add life to this dying series. I also read John Marquand's "The Late George Apley" and while I enjoyed both the form a memoir told through his letters, and the feel for Boston history and geography. I really didn't enjoy reading about what can only be described as the spiritual foundations of the Republican party. The conservatives that inadvertantly stumble across this site might enjoy it however. For me, reading about how the Republican fucks obtained and kept their wealth was too much. Finally before I forget let me recommend Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs. He argues that the machine man evolution is well under way and is a good thing. This is my choice as non-fiction book of the year....

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August 5, 2003

Revenge

I've never cared much for Jeffrey Archer's writing. I did enjoy a short story he wrote about chess though that is hardly a recommendation for his usual fare. I think it true that all things being equal those authors who have experienced adversity have the raw material for some great stories. Jeffrey's encounter with the legal system, his overall nastiness, and his rudimentary skills as a writer could serve him well in the future. Revenge springs from strong emotions, and it looks like Mr. Archer is ready to unleash a bit of his own. He's taking them all to court, but he could get back less expensively using a time honored method as this article from the Guardian makes clear. What do you think? Is the pen mightier than the court. Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, that is. Having paid his debt to society, his enemies will now pay theirs - to him. It's whips and scorpions time at Grantchester. According to the newspapers, Jailbird Jeff has a war chest and a war plan. He will drag his enemies expensively through the courts, as Mary did the luckless Jane Williams, beggaring them in the process. Others will be slimed. His sleuths, one gathers, are digging. From ermine to rags for Baroness Nicholson and Judge Potts. Angela Peppiatt has less far to fall, but fall she will, if the Archers have their way. Doubtless the list is much longer. There are so many enemies of Archer. He could get his own back less expensively. All novelists have a knife in their hand. Many have used it to settle old scores. In 1984 pint-sized Dustin Hoffman gave Elmore Leonard the runaround in Hollywood. Big mistake. Payback came with the depiction of Martin Weir in Leonard's novel Get Shorty. Weir, the short-ass of the title, is full of Hoffmanesque thespian crap ("I need to get to the stem of this character"). Danny DeVito (whose arse is even closer to the ground than Dustin's) camped up the joke in the film version......

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August 3, 2003

Give Me A Classic

A Reader's Manifesto An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose by B. R. Myers Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern "literary" best seller. Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read�Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it doesn't have a recent prize jury's seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back. In the bookstore I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose�"furious dabs of tulips stuttering," say, or "in the dark before the day yet was"�and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics. Does Modern Fiction suck? Is one of those fancy award stickers really a message not to bother reading it. Mr. Myers leaves few unscathed, Annie Prolux, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, all come in for some serious criticism. If you are a reader this article is a must read. I'm currently looking for something to read. I'm going through the hell I go through every time I finish one book and have to choose another. I may just take Mr. Myers advice and try something like A Dark Night's Passing by Shiga Naoya or Roy Fuller's The Second Curtain...

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July 20, 2003

Subsidence

Here is a link to a short story by Pat Barker I think you'll like. Subsidence As politicians battle to justify the war in Iraq, Ruth learns her husband has been lying. By Pat Barker This morning there was a new crack in the bedroom ceiling, another tributary of the great river that snaked away into the shadows in the corner of the room. "I hope it doesn't mean anything," Matt said when she pointed it out. "Like what?" "Subsidence." "The surveyor would have mentioned it." "We bought the house from a surveyor. They were probably best mates." He was over by the window zipping up his trousers. She lay and watched him in the grey light, as he stuffed loose change, car keys, mobile phone into his pockets... Rain darkened the bleached blond grass by the road side. She thought, It's nothing. He's started going to another golf club and not bothered to mention it. Perhaps sensing her discomfiture Luke switched on the radio and they caught the tail end of a news bulletin. Weapons of mass destruction, dodgy dossier, 45 minutes, inadvertently misleading the House of Commons . . . "Do you think they'll find any?" "I'm sorry?" "Weapons of mass destruction." A cynical laugh. "Oh yes. Once they've had time to bury them." Nobody believes anything they say now, she thought. Drops splattered on to the windscreen, were swept away by the tick-whoosh of the wipers and immediately replaced by other drops. She shivered inside her wet jacket. But people died. People also die in Pat Barker's wonderful trilogy of historical fiction on the First World War. You're missing some of the best fiction available if you haven't read these books. Regeneration, followed by Eye in the Door, and finally Ghost Road which was awarded the Booker prize....

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May 19, 2003

BBC Top 100 Books

This years list of BBC Top 100 books Read it and weep Next week, the BBC reveals the results of a poll to find the nation's top 100 novels. But one man's masterpiece can be another's claptrap. Here, leading figures choose their literary bugbears, with an introduction by John Walsh "If I had to live my life all over again," said Woody Allen, "I'd do it all exactly the same � only I wouldn't read Beowulf." You know how he feels. The relationship between the reader and the Work of Literature is sometimes a chilly, argumentative one, full of ranting pretension on one side and fuming incomprehension on the other. Three hundred pages into The Magic Mountain or The Golden Bowl, the first-time reader of Thomas Mann or Henry James can start to shout internally, "Why are you telling me all this?" Reading a book you cannot abide, but have forced yourself to read because of its author's reputation, can make you feel as though you're chained to a madman (William Burroughs) or dining with a monster of solipsistic preciousness (Virginia Woolf) or stuck in a prison cell with an interminable, academic mega-bore (JRR Tolkien). From Archer to Joyce, the nation's most beloved books There are not many favourite book lists which include both Jeffrey Archer and James Joyce. But the nation's book lovers are an eclectic lot. Nearly 140,000 book fans across the country have produced a list of 100 books in a BBC poll to find Britain's favourite read... Charles Dickens has five entries, level with Terry Pratchett, making them the most represented authors. JK Rowling is a close second with her four Harry Potter books. That other children's favourite, Roald Dahl, also has four. Politics is represented by George Orwell's 1984, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell; romantic books include Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Louis de Berniere's Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. Children's classics include Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty and The Secret Garden. Tolkien is there, of course, competing with Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel and James Joyce's Ulysses. But a few literary titans are missing, including Ernest Hemingway, HG Wells and PG Wodehouse. Also absent are contemporary authors such as Ian McEwan, Salmon Rushdie or Martin Amis....

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May 4, 2003

Speaking of News

The road to 1984 Thomas Pynchon's introduction to the new Plume (Penguin US) edition of George Orwell's 1984 George Orwell's final novel was seen as an anticommunist tract and many have claimed its grim vision of state control proved prophetic. But, argues Thomas Pynchon, Orwell - whose centenary is marked this year - had other targets in his sights and drew an unexpectedly optimistic conclusion......

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March 12, 2003

America's Biggest Readers

Which member of the Bush Administration said, "I actually read War and Peace in the Russian"? I'll give you a hint, it wasn't Dubya. I try to read a book a week, over the past 25 years I've averaged about 45, but I'm a piker compared to these folks....

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March 9, 2003

Seek My Face

John Updike, never one to worry about plot and action doesn't disappoint in his latest, Seek My Face. What he does do, is what he has always done best, paint pictures with words. His sentences are exquisite. The toilet down the hall flushes: Kathryn rising from the seat, having patted her oily dark cleft with a pad of tissue. This downstairs water closet sometimes keeps running, the stopper balancing upright on its hinge and failing to fall, so that the water runs without filling the porcelain box and making the ball cock rise and shut off the flow. Hope listens for the telltale change of pitch in the toilet's murmur that signals a fallen stopper and a seal. She imagines she hears it, through the rush of an open faucet: Kathryn washing her hands. Had hope set out a clean hand towel? The other woman emerges with the curious stalking gait of hers, as if walking in her boots on uneven stepping-stones, a praying mantis gait. Hope wonders if she should follow the younger woman's example but foresees that the seat will be warm, an uncanny undesired intimacy, and decides she can wait. The tea will want out in an hour or less.The story is one of art, aging, and memory told through the voice of Hope Chafetz a painter in her own right and the wife of several icons of American Art. Hope's character and that of her first husband are loosely based on Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasener. Andy Warhol makes an appearance as the second husband. Hope at seventy-nine grants an interview to Kathryn a New York journalist. The setting Hope's home, the place central Vermont, the time the spring of 2001. It is a story of Hope's life as a painter and her love affair with the art world. Updike's juxtaposition of the youthful interviewer and the older Hope was particularly well done. Art lovers will enjoy this fictionalized trip through American Art History, but for me it was the words. I recently read/listened to Harlen Coben's Gone for Good, a mystery. The contrast between that writing and Updikes is stark. Coben's cliches brought derision while Seek my Face delighted with fresh metaphors, new descriptions, a world brought to life. This was not my favorite Updike, but I never regret reading one of his novels, and this was no exception....

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February 27, 2003

Audio Books

If you listen to an audio book are you reading it. I mean if someone asks have you read Harlan Coben's "Gone For Good" and you listened to it read by Dylan Baker as I did do you say oh yes I've read that or do you say you've listened to it. Do you volunteer that although it took five hours to listen to it that it was an abridged version, authorized by the author. Does that make a difference. If you listen to John Grisham's latest "King of Torts" and although it almost put you to sleep not a good thing to happen driving at 75 miles per hour on I-15 do you claim to have read that boring excuse for a story. Do you assume because this too was abridged that they simply left out all the good parts and that accounts for this slow-paced entirely predictable bit of tripe, that the abridgement just went terribly wrong, or do you conclude as I did that you were indeed fortunate that it was abridged, that the added words would have more superfluous fluff that would have made it even more boring and perhaps led to your death, a sleepy driver rollover. If you keep a list of books you've read do these two make the list, or do you simply write it off as entertainment a mere notch above talk radio. I'd really like to know. You help me I'll help you. I'll give you a brief review of the books you answer my questions. Do we have a deal? I've read several books by Harlan Coben, but it's been several years. I recall that he usually writes about some overpaid sports star the protagonist an agent that has to solve some crisis or another. This book was different. The story is about brothers one of which has been gone for 11 years accused of strangling a young woman. The first half of the book was amusing, suspenseful, and was improved by some original metaphors. You'll have to read the book to get them. My memory is not up to that sort of recollection and I don't have the book and I'm not going to listen to it again. Take my word for it. The second half however was grist for a course in cliches 101. A key turned in the lock, a phrase that was intended to jack up the tension repeated five or six times in the story. It didn't. The story was good plenty of fun twists and turns and kept my interest in spite of the cliches. I give it a two on my scale of 1-5. John Grisham on the other hand gets a minus one, what a piece of crap. I read "The Firm" and "Pelican Brief" both decent reads. "The King of Torts" however was stupid and boring. The nasty pharmaceuticals did exactly the same things we read about every day. Grisham's imagination is bereft of any inspiration. The best he could do was create a drug that, oops I almost spoiled the story for someone, though I could make the case I'd be doing them a favor. I'll admit when the King gets really really rich I imagined how I'd spend all that money, but a lottery fantasy only goes so far. The protagonist was totally unsympathetic and even the love story didn't work. I couldn't believe it when they got back together. Hey babe you got a loser. I found myself wishing him ill, and knowing that when redemption came it would be just as pitiful as the rest of the story. It was....

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February 16, 2003

Passing Time

I just finished reading Dating Can Be Murder a Samantha Shaw Mystery by Jennifer Apodaca recommended by another mystery reader that knows I enjoy Evanovich. If you like the spunky gal genre of mystery you'll like this. It is not of the same quality as Janet Evanovich, or the early Sue Grafton, or even Sara Paretsky, but it was a decent read. It had its moments as they say, and those women who read romances will find it to their liking. A soccer mom who discovers her dead husband was a rat, and his past is going to threaten both her and her family creates the tension and is the catalyst for her personal transformation. Most of the characters were just fair, but a dog named Ali was dynamite. Why read a book like this. It passes the time like a mindless television program and without the ads, and besides I learned the rules to a game called Bunko. I give it a two on a 1-5 scale but that may be stretching it. Well now that is out of the way I can get back to Updikes Seek My Face. All the war talk, alerts, and nasty politics are wearing me out....

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