Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Freebie: "The Heroine's Bookshelf" by Erin Blakemore

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, Whitetail Nation by Pete Bodo.

This week's book giveaway is The Heroine's Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore.  The subtitle of Blakemore's handsome little book is "Life Lessons, From Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder," and lest you think this is an owner's manual on how to live a richer, fuller life, it's closer to a book-club gabfest over coffee cake and champagne with a bunch of your smartest, funniest friends who love to chat about books.  Blakemore talks as much about character development as she does empowerment.  Each chapter is devoted to a single character in a single book, which include Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett.  As Kelly O'Connor McNees (author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott) says in her dust-jacket blurb, "Reading The Heroine's Bookshelf feels like attending that dinner party you've always dreamed of, where your favorite authors and their literary creations sit around talking late into the night."

If you'd like the chance to add Blakemore's book to your own bookshelf, all you have to do is answer this question:

Who is your favorite female character in a work of fiction (contemporary or classic)?

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  The contest closes at midnight on Jan. 6, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 7.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Steven Gillis glides across the ice with "The Consequence of Skating"

In Steven Gillis’ new novel, The Consequence of Skating, fame comes with a high price tag for Mickey Greene, a down-but-not-quite-out actor who has gone from Hollywood hits to considering a role in Shrek on Ice.

I haven’t read any of Gillis’ other books (Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, and Temporary People), but this sharply-told novel from Black Lawrence Press gives me the feeling that he’s a smart, careful writer who fully invests himself in his characters.

Mick (and Gillis) asserts himself with a singular, authoritative voice right from the first sentence of The Consequence of Skating:  “Here is what I know:  The world is round, not flat, though at every turn there are crack sharp edges.”  The following three paragraphs all have sentences starting with “I know,” crescendoing with:  “I know I loved Darcie, and that she loved me, and that here is proof again the world is round, how things turn and catch the slope, gather speed, so that despite all efforts to hold on, things churn and roll away.”

At this point in his churning, accelerating life, Mick is tumbling off the rebound of an acting career nearly destroyed by his drug habit.  By his own admission, the 33-year-old actor’s “recent acts are vulgar and vaudevillian.”  His girlfriend (fellow thespian Darcie) left him while he was in rehab, his agent dropped him, and he’s become box-office poison.  He’s a victim of his own bad judgment.  When the novel opens, he’s working as a security guard, pulling the graveyard shift at an amusement park which has been shuttered for the winter.  He passes the time by ice skating, obsessing about Darcie, and dreaming of one day producing Harold Pinter’s play Moonlight.

Like a Pinter character, Mick seems to be in stasis, unable (or unwilling) to take a step forward, back, or to the side.  More than Darcie and the drugs, Pinter and his spare, brutal plays are the pivot points of Mick’s life.
My plans for Moonlight are reverential, are also I admit an attempt for resurrection, given how far I’ve fallen and still hope to come.  Having failed at love, having failed for the most part with my career, having hit a mid-level rung of comfort without risk, I’ve turned to Pinter for revivification….I want to do the play because it deserves a new showing, because it is one of Pinter’s last, and least understood works, is brilliant and difficult, completely worth the journey, and quite possibly may save my life.
Pinter is not the only one who comes along to rescue Mick.  One night while ice skating, he meets a twelve-year-old boy named Cam who seems to float through life free of parents and obligation.  Eventually, Mick learns that Cam’s father is out of the picture, his mom is in treatment for leukemia, and his brother has just been wounded in the war.  Here is a family that Mick might be able to save—just one small step on his way to redemption.

Even as he’s skating and falling hard on the ice (the “consequence” part of the title), Mick is chanting a mantra:  “Everything is recovery.  Think.  Act.  Redo.”  At this point, his life is essentially one big do-over.

Meanwhile, Mick must also contend with his friend Ted, a computer programmer famous for scripting a personalized sex software (the Virtual Fornication Creation), but who has now turned his sights on global politics.  Ted’s latest brainchild is a program “intent on resolving factional statesmanship,” called Government Objectivity Design.  Yep, G.O.D.  No one would fault Gillis for being too subtle in The Consequence of Skating.

Frankly, I found Ted’s political theorizing and treks to Third World countries the most tiresome portions of the book.  Better to stick with Mick and his volatile obsessions.  Gillis is at his best when he concentrates on the slow metamorphosis of Mick and the ad hoc family he builds with young Cam and Cam’s mother and brother, a scarred vet just back from the war, minus his legs.

Gillis also excels at detailing the nitty-gritty, as when he puts us in the experience of getting high—
(I) fired up the ack ack gun, loaded my cigarette with shit, waited for the caballo to push through the blood-brain barrier, stick to the opioid receptors and convert to morphine.  The rush was transcendent, like getting hugged by warm fleshy pearls.
—and then two sentences later, what it’s like to crash:
I bought more horse, made flamethrowers with blow and ferry dust, overdid my trip.  A rough ride, my feet in the stirrups, I was drawn into high waters, taken by the undertow, the current leading toward rapids that swelled and swept me away.
At the sentence level, Gillis’ writing is clever and evocative, nicely nailing the details of our world.  Here he is describing Sarah, an overweight singer with whom Mick eventually falls in love:  “She is as I remember, a big girl, a broad boat build with a fleshy bow….Her feet are bare, wide as roofing planks.”  Or this:  “All the lawns in the neighborhood are buried still beneath crisp Styrofoam squares of white snow.”

The novel is in danger of being dated with all the pop culture references which threaten to bog it down (“She haunts you, man.  We need to call Bill Murray and get you ghost-busted”), but it would be interesting to see how readers thirty years in the future would view Mick and his Gen X self-centered obsessions.  Would they hang with his heavy philosophical discussions of fate and freewill?  Or would they analyze it as a curious artifact of our fame-centric age?  Either way, The Consequence of Skating fits the bill.  Mick is an Everyman actor pulling himself up from the down-and-out and trying to make the best of life that he can.  Surely, we can all relate to the lovable loser who gets a second shot at success.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Loading the Kindle: The Sequel

As is the tradition around Chez Abrams, we eschewed all Christmas tradition again this year and opened our presents days before the alleged appearance of one Mr. S. Claus (who apparently slid down the chimney, was greeted by two startled and suspicious cats named Cinder and Ash and, finding no cookies and milk, retreated posthaste back up said chimney.  The cats told us all about it the next morning).

Jean ooh'ed over my gift to her: a long winter coat (as opposed to a long winter's nap); and I aah'ed over the gift she handed to me (the annual slippers and pajama set).

Then there was one more present for me to unwrap.  An M-Edge cover for my Kindle.  Just as I'd suspected.  Hugs and kisses all around.

Then there was yet another present for me to unwrap.  I tore the paper.  A brown box.  The fragment of a word: "Amaz--."  The familiar logo (a curved arrow which, to me, looks like someone licking his lips).  I widened my eyes and looked up at Jean.  "This isn't what I think it is, is it?"

"It all depends on what you think it is."

A few more tremble-hand rips of the gift wrap and it was indeed what I thought it was.


I was like the giddy version of Scrooge telling the boy in the street to go buy the turkey that was "twice the size of Tiny Tim."

My wife sure knew the way to my book-ified heart: not only did she put a new 3G Kindle in my hands, she also slipped in a $25 Kindle gift card.  I have been making good use of that money, nibbling at it slowly and carefully with a few purchases of discounted books:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Imperfectionists, and Joseph Frank's 1,000-page biography of Dostoevsky (now I need to get off my lazy butt and finally read The Brothers Karamazov).

One beauty of the Kindle is that I was able to transfer all of the content from my first device to the new one.  Remember that massive classic-book downloading binge I went on just a couple of days before I got the new Kindle?  All those Arthur Conan Doyles, Edgar Rice Burroughses, and Zane Greys neatly packed up and moved to their new residence with very little fuss.

Since then, I've gone on another vintage-book spree, like a cop returning to a donut shop (my wife would probably say "like a dog returning to its vomit").  In the process, I discovered a wonderful blog which highlights classic e-book downloads: Kindle Classics.  From there, it was only a hop, skip, and click over to the Amazon site where I started "buying" more free books:

Collins, Wilkie:  After Dark
Collins, Wilkie:  Armadale
Collins, Wilkie:  Man and Wife
Collins, Wilkie:  My Lady’s Money
Doyle, Arthur Conan:  The Captain of the Polestar
Doyle, Arthur Conan:  The Stark Munro Letters
Green, Anna Katharine:  Agatha Webb
Green, Anna Katharine:  The House of the Whispering Pines
Green, Anna Katharine:  The Mill Mystery
Hill, Grace Livingston:  The Girl From Montana
Oppenheim, E. Phillips:  The Cinema Murder
Rinehart, Mary Roberts:  K
Tarkington, Booth:  Penrod
Tarkington, Booth:  Penrod and Sam
Wharton, Edith:  The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton
Wharton, Edith:  The Valley of Decision

Since unwrapping the Kindle on Christmas Eve Eve, I've noticed that I'm spending much more time with it than Kindle #1.  I've burned quickly through two turn-of-the-century holiday stories: the abysmal The First Christmas Tree by Henry Van Dyke and the much-better-though-still-shy-of-great Christmas* by Zona Gale.  I'm now working my way into a contemporary horror novel by Brian Keene called Darkness on the Edge of Town, which seems to be a kissing cousin of Stephen King's Under the Dome and The Mist.  Just given my own behavior, an argument could be made that e-readers increase reading time and bring people to more books, rather than widen the gulf between readers and literature.  I know my book time has increased fivefold in the past week.

This does not bode well for my 2011 Reading Plan.

So that was my very merry Christmas.  What about you?  Were all your bibliophilic dreams fulfilled?


Postscript:  For those who might be wondering what happened to Kindle #1....It turned into what was probably my favorite moment of this holiday season.  I carefully nested the second-generation Kindle in its original box, wrapped it up, and presented it to my Mom on Christmas morning.  If you have never seen your grown mother bouncing and squealing like a six-year-old girl who's had too much cake at a birthday party, half-crying and half-singing a series of "Ooo-ooo-ooo"s, then, my friend, you have not experienced complete filial ecstasy.  I made my Mom's Christmas a joyful one and for that I am very happy indeed.  Best of all, she's able to read all the books I bought and downloaded before Kindle #2 came along.  She's already halfway through Freedom and, she claims, is loving it.



*Christmas (1912) is, on the surface, a cynical fable about a town that decides to forgo Christmas because the local factory has shut down and everyone is out of work.  It's as sweet and sappy as maple syrup, but I was glued to my Kindle screen nonetheless.  A typical passage:
       "It seems perfectly awful to me not to have a Christmas," Jenny could say only, "I feel like the Winter didn't have no backbone to it."
       "It's a dead time, Winter," Mary assented.  "What's the use of tricking it up with gewgaws and pretending it's a live time?  Besides, if you ain't got the money, you ain't got the money.  And nobody has, this year."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Pickwickian Christmas


      As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies did the four Pickwickians assemble on the morning of the twenty-second day of December, in the year of grace in which these, their faithfully recorded adventures, were undertaken and accomplished. Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.  Gay and merry was the time, and gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.

       And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment.  How many families whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight, and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world that the religious belief of the most civilized nations and the rude traditions of the roughest savages alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence provided for the blest and happy! How many old recollections and how many dormant sympathies does Christmas time awaken!

       --The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapter 28

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Freebie: "Whitetail Nation" by Pete Bodo

Congratulations to Tom Groneberg, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, Joyce Carol Oates' forthcoming collection of unsettling tales, Give Me Your Heart.

This week's book giveaway is Whitetail Nation by Pete Bodo.  From the publisher's website:
Every autumn, millions of men and women across the country don their camo, stock up on doe urine, and undertake a quintessential American tradition – deer hunting.  The pinnacle of a hunter’s quest is killing a buck with antlers that "score" highly enough to qualify in the Boone and Crockett record book.  But in all his seasons on the trail, Pete Bodo, an avid outdoorsman and student of the hunt, had never reached that milestone.  Sadly, he had to admit it -- he was a nimrod.  Whitetail Nation is the uproarious story of the season Pete Bodo set out to kill the big buck.  From the rolling hills of upstate New York to the vast and unforgiving land of the Big Sky to the Texas ranches that feature high fences, deer feeders, and money-back guarantees, Bodo traverses deep into the heart of a lively, growing subculture that draws powerfully on durable American values– the love of the frontier, the importance of self reliance, the camaraderie of men in adventure, the quest for sustained youth, and yes, the capitalist’s right to amass every high tech hunting gadget this industry’s exploding commerce has to offer.  Gradually, Bodo closes in on his target – that elusive monster buck -- and with each day spent perched in a deer stand or crawling stealthily in high grass (praying the rattlesnakes are gone) or shivering through the night in a drafty cabin (flannel, polar fleece and whiskey bedamned), readers are treated with a hilarious and unforgettable tour through a landscape that ranges from the exalted to the absurd.  Along the way Bodo deftly captures the spirit and passion of this rich American pursuit, tracing its history back to the days of Lewis and Clark and examining that age old question – "why do men hunt?"
On the surface, Whitetail Nation looks like it should be more at home on a blog read by flannel-shirt-wearing, scruffy-beard-sporting, Sports-Afield-subscribing beer guzzlers.  But enough about all the female readers out there.  (rimshot)

After skimming a little bit of what Bodo's book had to offer, this one looks like it has plenty to offer those who have to hold their place with a finger and stop reading until the laughter passes.  Yes, the book is about hunting, but it appears that Bodo doesn't take himself too seriously in his pursuit of the "monster buck."

One more thing: though we shouldn't judge the inside of a book by what it wears, I have to admit I am seriously in love with Whitetail Nation's cover design.  I'd even go so far as to frame it and mount it on my wall.  Instead of a deer head, of course.

If you'd like a shot (pun intended) at winning Whitetail Nation, all you have to do is answer this question:

According to the Boone and Crockett Club's website, in what year did hunter Milo N. Hanson rack up (another pun!) his trophy of a "typical whitetail"?  (answer can be found by clicking here)

Email your answer to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  In order to give everyone a fair shake in the contest, please e-mail the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  The contest closes at midnight on Dec. 30, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 31.
 
Good luck and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Loading the Kindle

For the past two days I've been going crazy with my Kindle.

It's taken me six months, but I finally discovered the wide range of public domain books which can be downloaded for free.  This is as wonderful to a classic-book lover as finding a baggie of white stuff is to a cocaine addict.

Yesterday and today, I spent half a dozen eye-blurring hours skimming through all the titles at Feedbooks, picking out novels and short story collections that sounded interesting.  Here's what I've just stuffed into the bytes of my Kindle:
Adams, Andy:  Wells Brothers
Appleton, Victor:  Tom Swift Among the Fire Fighters
Appleton, Victor:  Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship
Appleton, Victor:  Tom Swift and His Airship
Appleton, Victor:  Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight
Appleton, Victor:  Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone
Appleton, Victor:  Tom Swift and His War Tank
Appleton, Victor:  Tom Swift in the Caves of Ice
Bloch, Robert:  This Crowded Earth
Bower, B. M.:  Good Indian
Bower, B. M.:  Her Prairie Knight
Bower, B. M.:  The Happy Family
Bower, B. M.:  The Heritage of the Sioux
Brand, Max:  The Seventh Man
Brand, Max:  The Untamed
Buchan, John:  Greenmantle
Buchan, John:  The Grove of Ashtaroth
Buchan, John:  The Island of Sheep
Buchan, John:  The Thirty-Nine Steps
Buchan, John:  The Three Hostages
Burroughs, Edgar Rice:  Out of Time’s Abyss
Burroughs, Edgar Rice:  The Lad and the Lion
Burroughs, Edgar Rice:  The Mucker
Burroughs, Edgar Rice:  The Oakdale Affair
Burroughs, Edgar Rice:  The Tarzan Twins
Burroughs, Edgar Rice:  The War Chief
Chesterton, G. K.:  The Innocence of Father Brown
Chesterton, G. K.:  The Man Who Knew Too Much
Chesterton, G. K.:  The Wisdom of Father Brown
Childers, Erskine:  The Riddle of the Sands
Cleland, John:  Fanny Hill
Collins, Wilkie:  Basil
Collins, Wilkie:  The Frozen Deep
Collins, Wilkie:  The Law and the Lady
Collins, Wilkie:  The Legacy of Cain
Curwood, James Oliver:  Back to God’s Country
Curwood, James Oliver:  The Grizzly King
Curwood, James Oliver:  The Hunted Woman
Doyle, Arthur Conan:  Round the Red Lamp
Doyle, Arthur Conan:  Tales of Terror and Mystery
Doyle, Arthur Conan:  The Land of Mist
Doyle, Arthur Conan:  The Mystery of Cloomber
Doyle, Arthur Conan:  The Poison Belt
Fletcher, Joseph Smith:  Dead Men’s Money
Gale, Zona:  Christmas
Gaskell, Elizabeth:  Curious, If True: Strange Tales
Goethe, Johann:  The Sorrows of Young Werther
Green, Anna Katharine:  A Strange Disappearance
Green, Anna Katharine:  The Mystery of the Hasty Arrow
Grey, Zane:  The Light of Western Stars
Grey, Zane:  The Spirit of the Border
Grey, Zane:  The Young Forester
Grey, Zane:  To the Last Man
Haggard, H. Rider:  The People of the Mist
Hawthorne, Nathaniel:  The Hall of Fantasy
Kipling, Rudyard:  The Second Jungle Book
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan:  The House by the Church-Yard
Lewis, Sinclair:  Free Air
London, Jack:  A Daughter of the Snows
London, Jack:  Children of the Frost
London, Jack:  The Son of the Wolf
London, Jack:  When God Laughs and Other Stories
Lovecraft, H. P.:  At the Mountains of Madness
Miller, Alice Duer:  The Burglar and the Blizzard
Milne, A. A.:  The Red House Mystery
Orczy, Baroness Emma:  The Scarlet Pimpernel
Radcliffe, Ann:  The Mysteries of Udolpho
Rinehart, Mary Roberts:  The Case of Jennie Brice
Rockwood, Roy:  Through the Air to the North Pole
Rohmer, Sax:  The Hand of Fu-Manchu
Rohmer, Sax:  The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu
Rohmer, Sax:  The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu
Sabatini, Rafael:  The Tavern Knight
Scott, Sir Walter:  The Black Dwarf
Tarkington, Booth:  Alice Adams
Tarkington, Booth:  The Magnificent Ambersons
Tarkington, Booth:  The Turmoil
Tarkington, Booth:  The Two Vanrevels
Thackeray, William Makepeace:  The History of Pendennis
Van Dine, S. S.:  The Kennel Murder Case
Van Dine, S. S.:  The Kidnap Murder Case
Van Dine, S. S.:  The Scarab Murder Case
Van Dine, S. S.:  The Winter Murder Case
Van Dyke, Henry:  The Spirit of Christmas
Verne, Jules:  Five Weeks in a Balloon
Verne, Jules:  From the Earth to the Moon
Verne, Jules:  The Survivors of  the Chancellor
Verne, Jules:  The Underground City
As you can see, I gravitate toward early 20th-century popular fiction, mysteries, westerns and children's books.  Yes, an unhealthy portion of that list is trash; but, hey, we all can't read Ulysses all the time, can we?

Even after going on this downloading binge, I'm still divided on the whole book vs. ebook debate.  On the one hand, I grabbed a lot of obscure books by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs which might have taken months or years of browsing through antique stores to find.  Now I've literally got them at my fingertips.

But there's still something missing in the experience of looking at The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu on a six-inch screen bordered by plastic.  I miss the cream-colored paper, the whispery crackle of a turned page, the occasional surprise of a Rialto Theater ticket stub bookmark falling out onto my lap.  When you hold a vintage book in your hand, you hold not only the story and the text, you hold a unique vessel which tells a story of its own.  The book has traveled across time and arrived, for the most part, intact.  It carries with it the perfumes, the sweat, the paper-cut blood, the tears, the fingerprints of other readers.  Sure, that's a sentimental notion, but I can't help thinking about those readers back in 1910 opening the book for the first time.  And what about those Armed Services Editions in my library?  These were the rectangular paperbacks issued to servicemembers during World War Two.  They were designed to slip easily into the cargo pockets of uniforms.  There is an undeniable shiver that ripples through me when I hold the same book a Marine might have held while crouched in a muddy foxhole on Guadalcanal.

Then, too, it just seems like publishers took more time and care in crafting books back at the turn of the previous century.  From the frontispiece to the tissue-paper veils over the illustration pages, some of the books I own are undeniable works of art (even if their words add up to little more than crap and cliche).

Take The Romance of a Christmas Card, for instance.

(click image to enlarge)

I've owned this 1916 novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin (author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) for several years.  The plot revolves around the contrivance of a Christmas card which helps bring two prodigal sons back to their families.  It's a pretty blase novel, dripping with religious sentimentality and the kind of thinly-disguised sermons that were crammed down reader's throats around the time Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.  Still, there is something so lovely, so...perfect...about this little book that I can't imagine having it in any other form than the dim-with-age volume that sits in my library.

I'm in love with the wide margins, the clean design of the page, the sketches that grace each chapter heading.  This is the sort of beyond-text sensory experience that Kindle just can't duplicate.  For now, I'm happy to have a shelful of Tom Swifts in my library, but damn, I'll miss the smell of dust and mildew.

(click image to enlarge)


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Be It Resolved: Booking the Year Ahead

My reading habits are sporadic, flighty, and subject to change at the next FedEx delivery to my front door.  The best way to describe it is a dog chasing a butterfly through a meadow: snapping his teeth at first one butterfly then, as another crosses his field of vision, suddenly dodging after that one, and the next, and the next.

I have an unnatural perception of my books, treating them less as objects and more as creatures with feelings that can be hurt.  For instance, if I have a book in my To-Read Stack and it has, after many months of patient waiting, finally made its way to the summit, ready to be the next one to be opened and read, but then I suddenly come into possession of a book that absolutely demands my absolute attention and I put that volume at the top of Mount TRS, I'll carry around a heavy guilt for that poor book that almost got read.  I'll make some lame excuses about the importance of the newcomer, the interloper book--something like, "You don't understand, this is Philip Roth.  I can't turn him away"--and equally lame promises of "Someday soon, I'll get around to reading you.  Please don't be angry with me."

Now you understand why I've been in therapy for most of my adult life.

This past week, in a fit of typical year-end rejuvenation, I decided to completely rearrange and reconsider my To-Read Stack.  I cut out about a dozen books, but still it looms dangerously high on my desk.  (I've promised myself that if it ever reaches the point where Mount TRS looks like it will avalanche down on me and cause physical harm--perhaps even death--then I will either subtract more books and deal with the guilt or else move the stack to another location.)

So, today I've decided to give you a brief geologic analysis of the stacks.  First the long view.  I believe you've met my desk before:


Now let's zoom in for a closer look (clicking any of these photos will give you an enlarged view):


This pile is a combination of books I've been assigned to review for New West (the first four fishing-related books) and three books I've started this past year but never finished, due to any number of new books catching my attention like the aforementioned butterflies.  I suspect this stack will take me well into February to finish (he says optimistically and just a tad foolishly).




With the exception of the Library of America Lynd Ward boxed set on top, this stack mostly consists of books written by friends and internet acquaintances.  Starting at the top and working my way down: A Father and an Island by O. Alan Weltzein, 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son by Craig Lancaster, Volt by Alan Heathcock, Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus, The Ringer by Jenny Shank, Dog on the Cross by Aaron Gwyn, This is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson, In the Devil's Territory by Kyle Minor, Stranded by Jen Dutton (she and I went to grad school together), and Tim Sandlin's Gro Vont Trilogy (Social Blunders, Sorrow Floats, and Skipped Parts).  Note to any of these author-friends reading this: the order of this stack is not necessarily the order in which I'll read them, and there is a small chance I won't get around to reading them (see the Butterfly Caveat above).  In which case, feel free to heap copious amounts on guilt on my shoulders.  For me, guilt is as much a carrot as it is a stick on my hindquarters.

By the way, if any of those books look like something you might want to read, I encourage you to follow the links and add them to your shopping cart.  Having read at least a small portion of each book, I can assure you that your money will be well spent.  Who knows, maybe you'll even get around to reading them before me.




This stack starts off with a beautiful little edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which I bought sometime in the past 18 months.  It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and has all the original John Tenniel illustrations.  I've never read Alice and this edition practically demands that I do so (instead of "DRINK ME," it says "READ ME").

Traveling downward, I come to the Montana section of Mount TRS: a history of Butte (Copper Camp), The Pass by Thomas Savage (which the aforementioned Alan Weltzein has been urging me to read for more than a year now), Everything by Kevin Canty, Half in Love by Maile Meloy, another Butte history (The War of the Copper Kings by Carl B. Glasscock), Blood Knot by Pete Fromm, Red Rover by Deirdre McNamer, and The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs by Frances McCue (which I'll probably read after I finish the collection of Richard Hugo poems I've been working my way through this year).

Then comes a novel about Charles Dickens and the doomed Arctic explorer John Franklin: Wanting by Richard Flanagan.  The next book, Then Came the Evening, is by an Idaho writer, Brian Hart, I heard read at this year's Montana Festival of the Book.  I liked what I heard so much that I ran out of the room and immediately bought Hart's novel at the festival bookstore.  Next comes another short story collection I've been wanting to read, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg.  Another ambitious reading project for 2011 is the Library of America collection of Flannery O'Connor's novels and short stories, along with Brad Gooch's biography of Miss O'Connor.  Besides Charles Dickens, Flannery O'Connor has had the deepest influence on my own writing and I've been dying to read this highly-acclaimed biography.

When during my interview with Thomas McGuane I confessed that I had never read anything by Philip Roth, he insisted that I read American Pastoral.  And you know, when Captain Berserko insists, you have no choice but to obey.

And finally, three novels which are the biggest and brightest butterflies currently occupying my attention:  Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat, Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King, and The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody (apart from a couple of short stories, I've never read anything by Mr. Moody, so this looks like a good place to start).




Of all the stacks, this is the one which will likely receive the most attention; it's full of books that have either received rave reviews, are by authors I know and trust, or which practically carry the threat of death if I don't read them soon.  Not one to take such threats lightly, I'll be grabbing from this stack frequently in 2011.  At the top, we have two short story collections by Lewis Nordan, The All-Girl Football Team and Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair.  These are both books I read years ago and which deserve a second go-through this year.  I'm a huge fan of Lewis Nordan--one of the most under-read, under-appreciated contemporary American writers.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, Nordan is the only writer I know who can break your heart while herniating you with laughter.

That thick unbound brick of pages you see beneath the Nordan books is the uncorrected proof of Adam Levin's The Instructions I received from McSweeney's some months ago.  When it comes time to actually read this 1,030-page behemoth, I'll probably open up the wallet and shell out a few clams for the hardbound version.  I doubt this unbound proof could survive the three weeks it will take me to read it.

 From there, the must-reads in the stack are: Tinkers by Paul Harding, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pitard, The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman, Give Me Your Heart by Joyce Carol Oates (which is also this week's Friday Freebie--enter NOW), Gryphon by Charles Baxter, Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah, Room by Emma Donoghue, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower, the Volokhonsky-Pevear translation of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Sunnyside by Glen David Gold, and Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.

 Whew!  (pats brow with handkerchief)

 Not shown in these photos are a couple of books I have queued up on my Kindle (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos) and on order from Amazon (Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand).

First, however, is this year's Agatha Christie.  I always try to start off the New Year with a cozy whodunit from the Queen of Crime.  This year, I think it will be The Seven Dials Mystery.

 So, there you have it: my overambitious, slightly unrealistic reading plan for 2011.  Given the fact that I only read an average of 50 books a year (this year, I managed to sneak in 52), there's a good chance many of these spines won't be cracked.  And then I'll spend the rest of the time wallowing in guilt.

 What about you?  What are you looking forward to reading in the coming year?