Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February's Book

The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning

I had read Dunning's first book about Denver policeman turned bookseller Cliff Janeway some time ago and enjoyed it but never thought too much about it afterward. I was surprised to find that Dunning has actually written a few more books with Janeway so I took the second book out of the library on Thursday and had finished it by Monday night.

Not that I mean to imply that the book isn't worthy of reading but rather that I was swept along with the plot and had to know what would happen next. I don't experience that sort of feeling very often in reading so it was a pleasant surprise.

This mystery begins with Janeway working away in his small book shop when he is visited by an old, and not particularly fond, acquaintance from his police days. Despite his better judgement, Janeway accepts an assignment to pick up a woman who ran off on a Breaking & Entering and Burglery charge to Seattle and bring her back for trial. When Janeway finds the girl, it becomes more than just a job when she turns out to be an excellent bookscout who may have stolen an elusive rare book done by a small press publisher which has skyrocketed in value. What happens after is a whirlwind of books, limited press publishing and murder.

Throughout the book, Dunning had me flush with excitement. His style is short and crisp and, in more than a few spots, evoked feelings of the tough, private-eye style of Spillane or Hammett. The style works for me but I can see where it might be at odds with someone who expected a gentler type of story based on rare book finding and selling. The plot revolves around the famous Grayson Press which Dunning describes with such detail and accuracy that I became half convinced that it had been a real press and I should Google it! Dunning's own personal experience in the rare book trade does him good stead here as it enables him to create not only the aura of the press but the mania of those who collect it.

If I were to find fault with this novel it would mostly be with the difficulty in keeping all of the details and relationships straight. This is compounded by the fact that many of these things happened to people who had been dead for several decades by the time the book takes place and who only appear through stories told by other characters. I found it hard remembering who one woman was as opposed to others mentioned which was not a good thing as that woman turned out to be a crucial part of the solution of the murders.

It is the disparity between the worlds of the policeman and the bookseller that makes Dunning's novels work. The seeming polar opposite lifestyles is immediately intriguing to the reader particularly as Janeway never seems able to leave his cop world behind. Book lovers will enjoy this novel for the intimate recreation of the life of a bookhound including the thrill of the sudden, amazing discovery of unknown material. Action fans will enjoy the thrills as Janeway tries to keep the young runaway from becoming another murder victim.

A solid read and one that makes me wonder why this hasn't become some sort of TV series yet?

January's Book +1

I started out this year reading a book about one of my newer passions: Bowling!

Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes by Mike Walsh.

Since starting my bowling obsession about 3.5 years ago, I began to get a wild notion of bowling in every state in America. I'm not sure where I got this idea from, it just seemed to be a great life goal; something to chase.

So I was surprised to see that Mike Walsh had written a book about doing precisely just that! When his father suddenly dies from a heart attack while playing handball, Walsh decides to quit his job and bowl across America as a tribute to him. His father had always wanted to play handball in all 50 states so Walsh adapts the dream to fit his activity albeit one that he hasn't really followed much.

The book is divided into those 50 states and follows Walsh's journey chronologically as he bowls his way across America. As he does so, he meets a number of interesting, unique individuals and finds a way of life, of community, that is rapidly vanishing in this country. Bowling was once incredibly popular in the US with league memberships in the hundreds of thousands. At one time, pro bowlers were among the highest earning sports players. Since then, participation in leagues has shrunk dramatically and pro bowling struggles to find a viewership. What Walsh discovers is that, with this decline, America has also lost one of the most successful community building organizations it has known. This mirrors the decline in membership in such groups as the Masons, Rotary, Grange and others.

But this book is more about the people Walsh meets and the history of the places he visits. It's a tender glimpse at a part of our national heritage that is slowly fading away. Walsh's writing is crisp and moves along at a good pace. Strangely, despite his making this such a personal trip, Walsh rarely lets the reader inside enough, always keeping himself separated. It's that aspect that also colors his depictions of the people and places. We see the surface of them because that's all that Walsh has time to know before he pulls up and heads to another state. The book is part personal diary and part travelogue without enough of either. In particular, photos of the people and places would have helped greatly in bringing a more intimate touch to the story. We hear about them in the same way one hears about a person or place during a 2 minute snippet on the news. They're there and gone without leaving much of a final impression.

By the time you get to the 50th state (Hawaii), you feel that Walsh is rushing both himself and the reader through the experience. It's become a marathon that he is compelled to complete despite the fact that he seems to have lost interest several states earlier.

Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes is a good and fast read, much like a literary equivalent of a fast food hamburger. And, much like that hamburger, you may forget you read it in an hour or two.

From Hell: The Scripts by Alan Moore

I consider From Hell by Alan Moore to be the masterpiece of any fiction involving Jack the Ripper. Moore took his time to do an astounding amount of research and it shows in the story he weaves. Since it's initial publication and then later collection as a graphic novel, From Hell by Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

So I was naturally thrilled to find a reprinting of Moore's scripts for the first 5 installments of the story! Moore is infamous for his tightly packed scripts that sometimes can reach near novel length. What else could I learn from this? Would Moore's thought process shine through?

Alas, no. The scripts are dense, that is sure, but lacking in anything revelatory. Much of the same information was included in the "Notes" section that followed every chapter. We don't learn anything further about what Moore thought about the case or the characters that isn't in the work itself.

What IS interesting is the amount of descriptive detail Moore gives for each panel. Moore often goes on for paragraphs describing the scene he is trying to convey. He has it all in his mind's eye and carves out on the paper how it should look... then he tells Campbell to just draw it "whichever way seems best to you". It's an astonishing amount of information to give an artist just to then turn around and tell them that they can discard it if they like. Moore shows complete confidence in Campbell's art and design by allowing him the freedom to reinterpret the directions.

This leads to the book's only real fault and that is by not including reprints from the graphic novel. I am not sure if it was for legal or space reasons but I found myself often wishing I could see how Campbell interpreted a panel or page design that Moore had detailed.

In the end, From Hell: The Scripts only awards the major fans of Moore's work or those devotees to the Ripper case. As I belong to both groups, it was a way of looking at a familiar work through Moore's eyes. For others, though, it may prove too difficult and unrewarding to slough through.