Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowksi

A novel written in an autobiographical style, beginning with the earliest memories of a young boy. It swings wildly from humor to intense suffering. Henry's natural elan is beaten out of him (literally) and he develops a deep self-hatred and despair, numbing his pain through alcohol and constant violence towards anyone he starts to develop friendship with. It's a brutal story. Graduating from high school during the Depression, he fails to find employment and spends a spell failing in college. The novel ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor and I'm left wondering whether he has the strength to find any joy or purpose in life. The process of Henry's disillusionment and alienation is lovingly spelled out in incident after incident until he ends up completely detached from society, without any ambitions, unable to visualize any valid life for himself, any connection between himself and others that's not based on fraud.

Engrossing. Valuable.

Reading Journal Entry: Sea Dragons: Predators of the Prehistoric Oceans, by Richard Ellis

This was a fun focus on ancient creatures who don't get enough press: the sea equivalent of the dinosaurs. They were huge and very, very mean sea lizards. Big teeth. Well, at least it was fun if, like me, you enjoy reading about phylogenetic debates. The illustrations are great. There was perhaps too much information on paleontological controversy. I didn't feel the need to know about the 6 different successive theories of what this one fossil dude used its limbs for, and occasionally information was repeated redundantly.

That said, it's really a very good distillation of the subject for non-professional readers who have a basic knowledge already.

Upcoming: The High-Impact Infidelity Diet, by Lou Harry and Eric Pfeffinger

This is another not-yet-released book (I love these, they make me feel so important). Three best friends strike a deal with their overweight husbands: if he can get down to 210 pounds, he can have a night with a call-girl one of them knows from college. 210 seems like an impossible goal for them to reach. But infidelity is a powerful motivator, and as the weight drops the women start to get worried about the fact that this high-class call girl doesn't exist.....

It's a funny concept and well-written, mostly from the viewpoints of the three guys, which makes me want to call this 'dick lit'. The authors do a good job of differentiating the three male characters, and dealing lightly with some of the issues that come with losing weight and a change in body image. The three women are less believable stereotype composites, acting mostly as foils to the men.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown

This is a history of the conquest of the American West from the viewpoint of the Indians displaced by white settlement, covering the period from about 1860 to 1890. Dee tells the stories of the most famous Indian tribes and their leaders - Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, etc.; and the most famous conflicts between settlers, soldiers, and the tribes. Each chapter is headed by evocative quotes from Native Americans, by a list of items chronologically situating the events within a framework of shockingly modern milestones of Western culture: the publication of Alice in Wonderland, the invention of the telephone. The narration is based on eyewitness accounts and government records and heavily uses direct quotes, to excellent effect. Brown also uses Indian names for soldiers they deal with ('Long Hair Custer') and the seasons, so that it's impossible to resist being totally drawn into the Native American point of view of the conflict.

I can understand why this book has been so enduringly popular, and why it made such a sensation when released in 1970 - it goes against all the myths we hold sacred about the honor of the United States. America was ready for that in 1970, especially with the conflict in Vietnam. Here, have a big heaping helping of white guilt.

It's heart-rending to read about culture after culture being destroyed, about so many lives lost and opportunities lost due to chance and stupidity and hatred.

It almost seemed like a crime to read story after amazing story in such a concise way. I really want to know more. There's 20 movie plots in here, at least.

Reading Journal Entry: Son of a Witch, by Gregory Maguire

I just finished the advance reading copy I picked up at the BEA of Son of a Witch, Gregory Maguire's sequel to the mega-hit Wicked. Release date September 27. Be green with envy, that would be appropriate.

Oz has not fared well since the fall of the Wicked Witch. Traveler's bodies, their faces removed, are found in the countryside. Depression followed the departure of the Wizard, and the government goes through a series of transitions.

Liir was raised by Elphaba, but neither he nor anyone else knows whether he is her son. He flings himself out into Oz after Elphaba's death and slowly finds his way back to his legacy from her.

The story is told in a flashback format. It begins with a caravan finds Liir near death in a remote canyon about ten years after Elphaba's melting. He is nursed through a mysterious illness by a mysterious girl. Interspersed is the story of his wanderings, crimes, and various unfulfilled quests.

Although he ages ten years, Liir never seems to outgrow the awkward adolescent stage. As a character portrait it may be true to life, but it's difficult to fashion a story arc out of the life of a born drifter. Maguire uses the framework to give an otherwise plodding story a brooding atmosphere of decay, but in the end much is unexplained and several story elements are not realized to their full potential. I can't help wondering not just about the fate of some characters, but what purpose they served.

The end effect is dark, meandering, and full of promise for a sequel. Maguire even tips a hat to the future of Oz as written by Baum, which most readers will not recognize.

It'll sell like hotcakes.

Reading Journal Entry: Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile

This graphic novel series is one of the more successful non-superhero lines out there, and for good reason. It's a charming revisitation of fairy-tale characters we are all familiar with from childhood. This time, they're living in New York City, and they've got problems. Marital problems, revenue problems, and an unsolved missing-persons case, among others. Willingham uses the conventions of the traditional whodunnit - confrontations with suspects, forensics, the gruff detective with a past (Bigby Wolf) and his female supervisor, between whom sparks of attraction and conflict fly - to showcase the world of fables he's created. Old King Cole is ruler of the fables, of course, but Snow White is the power behind the throne. Beauty and the Beast are on the skids. One of the three little pigs is hiding out in Wolf's apartment after a bender. Prince Charming, SW's ex, is putting the moves on random waitresses.

The big 'reveal' isn't exactly a stumper, but there is a more-or-less satisfying wrap-up. Fables is a nice conceit, and a much better treatment of the same concept than the Sisters Grimm book I reviewed earlier. There are some nice artistic flourishes (the backgrounds of Snow White's office among them) but I would have liked to see more playfulness - there was definitely unexplored potential.

I think most comic book fans who are looking for something a little different would enjoy this.

Reading Journal Entry: Couplehood, by Paul Reiser

Cute, fun, totally undemanding. A great bathroom book or wedding shower gift.

Reading Journal Entry: Thrilling Tom the Dancing Bug Stories, by Ruben Bolling

Disclaimer: I got this book free from RB at the BEA, and he was kind enough to autograph it for me. Once again, I'm a total fangirl.

'Tom the Dancing Bug' is a nationally syndicated strip carried weekly by such papers as the Village Voice, the Washington Post, or the LA Times? Well, this is them, put together in one juicy absurolicious package. Ruben Bolling has a wicked sense of humor and great eye for satirical art. This collection showcases the exploits of The Impossible Squad, God-Man (The Super-Hero With Omnipotent Powers!), vigilante Judge Scalia (roaming the land, meting out (his) special brand of tough justice!), Charley the Australopithecine, and Bob the average male. 'Tom the Dancing Bug' is a lot like life: if it wasn't so funny, it would be extremely sad. Buy it for all your friends.

Reading Journal Entry: Story, by Robert McKee

Excellent advice not just for screenwriters but for all writers. I checked this one out of the library, but I'm considering buying it to have as a reference. McKee goes into not just what makes a good story, but how you go about getting one, with a lot of practical advice.

Highly recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: The Long Road Home: One Step At A Time, By G. B. Trudeau

The latest upcoming colelction of Doonesbury comics collects those strips dealing with B.D.'s injury in Iraq and his rehabilitation in the U. S. All proceeds will be donated to Fisher House, a non-profit that hosts families of injured vets.

Trudeau's commentary on current events is always outstanding, but this is special. Highly recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy Tale Detectives, by Michael Buckley

Another advance reading copy I picked up at the BEA and tossed back over the past couple nights. The gimmick: two orphaned girls find out they are descendants of the Brothers Grimm, and that they have magical duties in a small New York town staffed with former inhabitants of fairyland. Hijinx ensue.

It's a pretty good schtick, and given the success of similar fantasy series, this should do well. However, it's not nearly as enjoyable for adults as the outstanding Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket books.

Reading Journal Entry: Adventure, Vol 1

Another gem I picked up at the BEA. This one's a real charmer, with a man on a fedora swinging from a rope and shooting a gun on the cover, which promises 'All-New TERRIFIC Tales' and claims to be THE ALL-GENRE ALL-ADVENTURE PULP ANTHOLOGY FOR THE NEW MILLENIA!!

Kage Baker's name on the cover is what caught my eye, but there are a roster of other impressive names: Michael Moorcock, Mike Resnick '& MANY MORE!' The book delivers. Although some of the stories contained herein aren't quite as chock full of adventure as I had hoped, they're all interesting, and span the range of genres from sci-fi to western and back.

Monkey Brain Books usually publishes non-fiction genre material - companion books and the like - but I hope this sells well enough that they continue the series.

Highly recommended for genre fans.

Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan

This crucial entry in Christian mythology was written in 1678 and is probably most familiar to modern readers as a book read by Alcott's Little Women. Bunyan's story is an unapologetic allegory; his main character, Christian, leaves his wordly life and goes on a pilgrimage to the Holy City, encountering plainly named obstacles and object lessons along the way. He must avoid the Giant Despair; walk through the Valley of Darkness; discourse with fellow pilgrims Ignorance, Faithful, Atheist, and Pliable, etc., etc. I can see why the book has been so enduringly popular; the style is charming and plain, and lends itself easily to being read aloud. The archaic language might give readers pause, but in audio-book format it was very easy to understand.

The Pilgrim's Progress has contributed some proverbs and turns of phrase to our language: Christian is told to stick to 'the straight and narrow'; one of his first obstacles is the Slough of Despond; and he passes through the town of Vanity Fair.

I can't really say I enjoyed it (well, I'm not Christian, am I?) but it was a fascinating look at the bedrock of Christian belief; that one must utterly abandon the world to reach salvation. Rather an unusual idea these days. And I've always wanted to read it just for the cultural significance. I count this one as time well spent.

Reading Journal Entry: Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

I picked up an advance reader's copy of this at the BEA.

Barbara applies the same method she used in Nickel and Dimed to examine the working-class life to examine the life of a middle-class job seeker. She sets herself up with a good resume, references, etc. and sets off to look for a job in PR. She meets a lot of job-seekers - and doesn't find a job.

This book will be released in September.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

A dystopian flight of fancy by Ray Bradbury, read by William Roberts. I was disappointed by Roberts' work on Bryson's The Lost Continent, but his straightforward style worked well for the unsubtle, confused Guy Montag.

Montag is a fireman in a world where firemen don't prevent fires, they start them. Firemen burn books, the houses of anyone discovered hiding books, and, occasionally, the people themselves. Bradbury uses this conceit to explore the theme of oppression and the meaning of human existence.

The oppressor is explicitly self-imposed by society in Montag's world; Bradbury doesn't assign the role of villain to faceless government agents, but to his protagonist and his friends. The rules about owning books came only after the vast majority of the population had given up reading voluntarily. Montag's wife, his co-workers, their friends; they all live for the moment, avoiding real interaction with each other or with the natural world. As a consequence their lives are empty of real meaning, and they seek oblivion either through the literal mechanism of attempted suicide, through reckless thrill-seeking behavior, or through immersion in mass-produced insight-free entertainment.

Montag is jarred free of his rut when he meets and briefly befriends an unusual teenage girl, a new neighbor. Clarisse catalyzes in Montag a process of re-evaluation; he steals a book from a home he is raiding. He reveals to his wife a secret trove of other stolen books. In desperation he seeks out a former English professor and hatches a scheme to overturn the fireman system. But he is unable to control the passionate, unfamiliar emotions he experiences. He lashes out, putting himself in more and more dangerous situations. He commits a horrible crime and is hunted out of the city, ultimately meeting up with a group of refugees from civilization whose goal is preserving the knowledge lost in books.

I was fascinated by the duality of the themes; the symbolism of fire has a duality that is reflected in Bradbury's judgements. The fires that burn books are the only outlet for normal human passions that this society allows itself; a destructive power. At the conclusion of the book, the city is destroyed by fiery bombs.The fire of the sun (entropy?) is also referred to as a destructive force that humanity must combat. Yet when Montag comes upon the group of Harvard Hobos, they are gathered around a flickering campfire that throws illumination on their group - fire is the source of the light of knowledge.

Likewise Bradbury categorizes entertainment and knowledge as a duel-edged sword. Fiction in books is good, and broadens the mind; televised entertainment is bad. Figurative art is good; abstract art is bad. Interacting with others in a relaxed, 'natural' fashion on a front porch, conversing or just sitting in silent though is good. Interacting with others while watching canned entertainment, or talking about cars or tv shows = bad

Bradbury narrowly avoids tripping over these somewhat arbitrary distinctions by anchoring true meaning in interaction with the natural world. Clarisse is special because she spends time outside, and spends time observing things and people minutely. Montag's redemption comes when he is finally expelled from the city into the countryside around it. The natural world - birds, trees, sunshine - is the wellspring of experience from which meaning is created and made one's own.

I don't know how I feel about that conclusion, but it's interesting that it reflects a book I've failed to read effectively, The Spell of the Sensuous, which claims the same thing.

It's impossible to read this book without comparing it to modern society and wondering how close we are to Bradbury's world of deliberate ignorance. Bradbury's message is ultimately hopeful, but coming as it does after a nuclear holocaust, it's a pretty ultimate hopefulness.

Reading Journal Entry: Lucky Child, by Loung Ung

Disclaimer: I work with Loung on speaking engagements.

In Loung's first memoir, First They Killer My Father, she told the story of her survival of the war in Cambodia, and how she lost half of her family. In this second work she tells the story of the second half of her life, after she emigrates to America with her older brother, interlacing chapters about life recovering in Vermont with stories written from the viewpoint of her older sister, Chou, who was left behind in Cambodia.

She does a surprisingly believable job with her sister's voice.



I arrived shortly after 8:00 AM, but the special Author's Breakfasts/Luncheons were sold out already except for Sunday, and all the autograph tickets were gone. Later I spoke to someone who was staying nearby and had arrived to stand in line at 6:30 AM. She wasn't at the front of the line. I decided I didn't need to see Gary Trudeau as much as I thought - to get into the city that early I would have had to catch a 6:10 train.

We connected with some people, and I came away with a ton of loot. I earned that loot, though - I stood in line for it, I carried it around in flimsy free booth bags for 10 hours, and dragged it back to Westchester on the subway/train (you should see what my hands look like after 3 days of that!). Through the rain. Uphill, both ways.


Orson Scott Card
Ruben Bolling (author of Tom the Dancing Bug)
The graphic novel panel
Gregory Maguire (snagged a copy of Son of a Witch)
George R. R. Martin
Terry Pratchett
Neil Gaiman

The breakfast Sunday morning, with Barbara Ehrenreich, Umberto Eco, and John Irving, hosted by Bob Herbert, was great. The food was awful, but the banter was extaordinary.

Pictures will have to wait until I can download them from my camera tomorrow.

Quote from Brad Meltzer: "Just because your fiction is serious doesn't mean it's serious fiction."

I got to meet Michael Stradther, author of A Treasure's Trove, who gave me a signed copy of the book. It's been very much in the news lately since the discovery of one of the treasures. I'm working busily to decode the clues and find me some bling-bling.


The most impressive new project I saw was a collection of photographs taken in Iraq by four photojournalists, titled Unembedded. A very different perspective. I can't wait to see the whole thing.


BEA Day 1 & 2

I feel like I've been inside a caleidoscope for the past two days. I've been having a ball. My feet are killing me. And I've been making full use of my cameraphone.

More later.


Well, I missed the whole thing tonight. No Billy Crystal for me. I'm sure it was mind-blowingly awesome.

The Book Expo of America

I am very excited about the next few days. I will be attending the Book Expo of America in NYC which starts Thursday night and runs through Sunday. I am looking forward to getting authographs or handshakes from, among others:
Terry Pratchett
Neil Gaiman
James Patterson
George R. R. Martin
Carl Hiaasen
Gregory Maguire
Gary Trudeau

And that's just the beginning. I've been going over the schedule and I am going to have to clone myself to see everything I want to see.

My biggest challenge is to avoid being completely star struck.

I'll try to update throughout the conference. The first big event is the opening ceremony with Billy Crystal, which should be a big hit.

The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns

My grandmother was born in Scotland. My family has an annual Robert Burns dinner which I have so far not managed to get to. I am familiar with bits and pieces of the poet's work, and it was a delight to recognize these favorite, oft-quoted lines in this excellent production.

Dan Cairney performs the well-known classics as well as some more obscure works. The material is challenging, and he rises to the task with glee; he gives full throat to the Scottish dialect and accent and doesn't hesitate to speed up to an occasionally galumphing pace when the material demands. Including the text with the tape would have been a nice touch, especially for the general public.

My favorite work was 'The Cotter'; my favorite line, from 'Ode to a Louse':

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!