Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Booklovers Rejoice!

This email was sent to me from a friend who has an amazing library. As is clear, he's a great lover of the written word. Some of the manuscripts/editions he touched reminds me of my days at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where (after being virtually frisked) we could check out early Shakespeare folios and a first printing of Paradise Lost.

My friend's email follows:
Attended the 38th SF International Antiquarian Book Fair this past Sat.
An amazing journey through the literary history of England and America.
It was so much fun and there was so much to learn from the booksellers.

In short, held and touched some of the most important works of literature:
First edition of Ulysses (value $150,000)
TS Eliot's Wasteland $65,000
TS Elitot's Prufrock (signed) $45,000
Faulkner's Sound and Fury (signed) $50,000
Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby $40,000
Salinger's Catcher in the Rye $45,000
Dickens Christmas Carol $45,000
Dickens Serial version of David Copperfield $17,000
Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea (signed) $30,000
The History of King Lear (Tate edition) $28,000
Shakespeare's Third Folio $150,000
A signed copy (by Abe Lincoln, 1864) of the Emancipation Proclamation:
value $1.5 million

I also saw first editions of just about every important work in modern
literature history. Stanford University had an incredible display of
just some of their most valuable rare books:
A second folio of Shakespeare's Works (1632)
A first edition Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) (featured in the
bestselling Rule of Four)
A first edition of King James Bible (1611)
Dryden's Virgil (1697)
Dante's Diving Comedy (1497)

Also displayed were books owned by the founding fathers, each of which
had the owner's signature.

A bibliophile's dream....

Price to enter show: $10. Experience of holding historical
documents/books you couldn't really afford.... priceless.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Blurb Bitching

In the panoply of sources that give rise to book complaint—blog entries, overheard bookstore conversations, friends’ bitching—I’ve noted a particular grievance that gets what I believe is unnecessary air time. Readers feel that the fix is in when an author who is mentioned in the acknowledgements also offers a blurb for the same book. (Complaining about blurb corruption reminds me of a popular joke among professors: “Why are academic squabbles so fierce? Because the stakes are so low.”)

This makes little sense to me (blurb complaining, not academic squabbles). I’ve always taken blurbing quite seriously, rejecting far more books than I’ve blurbed. In fact, I’ve only given a handful over the past few years: Blake Crouch’s Desert Places, Steven Sidor’s Skin River, Harley Jane Kozak’s Dating Dead Men—though neither Harley nor I can remember the blurb since it wasn’t used on the book jacket (we seem to recall this was because her editor felt her mysteries were tamer than my own, but we’re both out to lunch half the time so maybe I didn’t even actually blurb her)—Lee Goldberg for his Diagnosis Murder Series, and Gayle Lynds’s The Coil. Now. In an upcoming book which I’ve elected to blurb, I’m also mentioned favorably in the acknowledgments since I read the manuscript at a very early phase and shepherded the author along through edits, pairing with a lawyer/agent, and an eventual two book deal. My question is: If I believe that strongly in a novel, why WOULDN’T I blurb it also? It’s not some sort of blurb cronyism. It’s the last step in using whatever moderate influence I’ve acquired to endorse a book I believe should be read.

No matter how much talent you have, to make it in publishing, you always need the right help from the right people at the right time. Call it luck, call it fate, call it whatever you please, but though hard work and talent are a necessity (usually), few novelists I’ve met have gotten by on these alone. I caught some breaks early in my career, and I’m always grateful to those who read my work early and took a gamble, putting in their time and making use of their contacts for me. Though writing is fiercely independent, I do see a responsibility to give back to the community, to pass along the good karma that I’ve been fortunate enough to receive. I don’t give back to the writing community by telling author who need improvement that their books are fantastic, and I don’t give back to the reading community by endorsing crap.

I was privy to a conversation a few months ago between two talented gay writers who said they’ve had a hard time getting blurbs from straight authors for their books, because the straight authors are afraid they’ll lose readers over it, or that they’ll somehow be tainted by the association. What a shame. I blurb books strictly on the basis of what I like and what I believe merits commendation. And I do not solely blurb books that fall within the domain of what I believe my readership likes (I’m quite certain that my assumptions about my readers’ tastes are wrong anyways). Lee Goldberg’s Diagnosis Murder series, for instance, may not be the best match for Navy SEALs readers I acquired from MINUTES TO BURN, but guess what? The books say Diagnosis Murder on them. If one of my gritty tough-guy readers is dumb enough to buy Lee’s book thinking that it’ll be filled with demolition explosives and graphic violence, that’s his own problem. Lee is a talented writer who nailed the books he was writing. He accomplished what he set out to do and did a damn fine job of it. If a book’s tone or style is less clear and I have some concern that readers might buy it off my blurb not knowing what they’re getting into, I’ll make clear what the book is about in the blurb: “A touching series of lesbian vampire haiku…” Mike Connelly did this for me in DO NO HARM, making clear it was a medical thriller: “Hurwitz has put together a medical/psychological detective story that sticks in the mind long after the last page is turned.” A great endorsement, sure, but it also ensures that if one of his readers gets nauseas in hospitals, they’ll steer clear.

How each author decides to blurb is his or her own business and to be sure, a fair amount of bullshit clouds the endorsement picture, but please bear in mind: an acknowledgment in addition to a blurb may just mean that the author really liked the book and wanted to see it succeed in more ways than one.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Crumley

He’s been recommended to me in bookstores from Milwaukee to Fort Worth. Mentioned conversationally by everyone from Mike Connelly to Bob Crais. Hailed as the next great AND the last great thing.

James Crumley.

I also recall hearing as much about the man himself as his books. (“He once ripped a spine out of a bear with his bare hands!” “I seen him drink a quart of cobra blood at the end of a four-day drunk”). It seems he’s captivated the minds and stoked the overactive imagination of the mystery community for years now.

So finally, at the urging of the inimitable Shelly McArthur (The Mystery Bookstore, Westwood, California) I picked up THE LAST GOOD KISS. An obvious homage to THE LONG GOODBYE (here’s where I risk getting an email from the man himself, saying, “You stupid fuck—I’ve never even READ The Long Goodbye”), it picks up the same twisted, the-mystery-you-think-you’re-trying-to-solve-ain’t-even-the-half-of-it-buster structure. A story leading to a mystery leading to another story, that in turn leads to another mystery. At the center, a drunken writer. Maybe that explains it.

Crumley’s tone manages to be one-of-a-kind AND dead-on, which seems like an impossibility until you read him.

He’s at his best in moments like:

“I knew the men were probably terrible people who whistled at pretty girls, treated their wives like servants, and voted for Nixon every chance they got, but as far as I was concerned, they beat the hell out of a Volvo-load of liberals for hard work and good times.”
(In particular, I love the “every chance they got”).

And, when our irascible protagonist is being, well, irascible:

“Goddamn it, Sughrue, has anybody ever talked to you about your hospitality?”
“Never twice,” I said.

And later, when one of Crumley’s characters wisely remarks of another:

“He’s an artist and all artists are children.”

I’m embarking on his WHORES next and hope to find it as engaging and incisively humorous.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Why We Choose Books

I remember an article I read some years ago that tried to explain what makes you pluck one book from your shelf at a particular moment and start reading it. It’s quite odd. There are all those spines, staring at you from the bookcase like puppies at a pound—pick me, pick me!—and you walk by them, unmoved, week after week.


This week at the Hurwitz house, the chosen few were Louis Begley’s SHIPWRECK, Lynne Truss’s EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES (dry, viciously smart), Paul Bowles’s COLLECTED SHORT STORIES (so brilliant, so nasty: “The Delicate Prey” made my skin crawl, “Pages from Cold Point” left me with my jaw ajar), Doyle’s ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (a reread of an illustrated volume I had from childhood—I just finished rereading all Poe’s short stories and got hooked on the quick fix of brilliant short fiction), BLOOD WARRIORS by Michael Lee Lanning (a book devoted to America’s Military Elite units), and Steve Hodel’s BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER (which I read half of after participating in an event with him some months ago but it fell behind my bed which I only just moved this week. It is one of the most courageous books I’ve encountered—my hat’s off to him on every page).

So aside from the bizarre range that indicates my varied (perverse?) tastes, here’s what’s odd. I’ve owned all of these books for not just weeks, but months. They’ve sat along with OPERATION SHYLOCK and GLAMORAMA, and MOBY DICK (yes, I confess), patiently awaiting their moment under the reading lamp. So why now?

A variety of reasons, I’d guess. A trusted recommender will add a sense of urgency (see my last entry on Penn Jillette’s SOCK). There is the critical mass concept, but sometimes in my case that works against a book (I believe I’m the last person on the continent not to have read THE DA VINCI CODE. And out of no bias against the book; it just seems like so much less fun when everyone’s doing it). There’s the “I need to read this NOW for work” explanation (why a text on lock picking currently adorns my nightstand). Then there’s the “I just read an article that mentioned this author and recultivated (Now a word! Coming soon, to theatres everywhere!) my interest to crack their damn book.” And of course, especially for Catholics and Jews, there’s the guilt model: “I’m so ignorant, I can’t believe I’ve never read Trollope.” Oh—and mustn’t forget, the “I’m doing an event with this woman and have to read her so I don’t look like a mouth-breathing reprobate at the panel.”

And sometimes, all we’re seeking is motivation. I had the pleasure of being “in conversation” onstage with T Jeff Parker—one of my favorite authors—at the West Hollywood Book Fest a few months ago, so I used the upcoming event as an excuse to read four of his older books I hadn’t yet gotten to (all great—we sometimes hate Jeff too).

But I suppose in other, less karmic cases, it’s just a matter of moving the bed and seeing what’s fallen behind.

What makes you select the next?