Wednesday, May 28, 2008


With apologies to Fred Chappell and Walker Percy, whose birthdays are also May 28.

Today marks the 100th birthday of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond and author of the children's class, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. My favorite brief bio comes courtesy of Garrison Keillor's staff writers:

It's the birthday of the man who created James Bond, novelist Ian Fleming, (books by this author) born in London, England (1908). He wanted to be a diplomat, but he failed the Foreign Office examination and decided to go into journalism. He worked for the Reuters News Service in London, Moscow, and Berlin, and then during World War II, he served as the assistant to the British director of naval intelligence.

After the war, he bought a house in Jamaica, where he spent his time fishing and gambling and bird watching. He started to get bored, so he decided to try writing a novel about a secret agent. He named the agent James Bond after the author of a bird-watching book. Fleming said, "James Bond is ... the feverish dreams of the author of what he might have been — bang, bang, bang, kiss, kiss, that sort of stuff. It's what you would expect of an adolescent mind — which I happen to possess."

The first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), sold about 7,000 copies, and Fleming followed it with four more that sold less and less well. Critics said he was good at writing about places, but that was about it. Fleming had a newborn son at home, and he was disappointed that these books weren't making more money to help support the family, so for his next Bond story, he wrote the book specifically for the movies. He filled it with more psychopaths and beautiful women than usual. No one in the movie industry was interested at the time, but the novel From Russia, with Love (1957) became a huge international best seller.

In celebration of this day, Doubleday is releasing Devil May Care, the latest Bond novel, written by literary novelist Sebastian Faulks. Here an exclusive online review from Publishers' Weekly:
Set not long after the action in the last Fleming Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), Faulks’s much anticipated James Bond thriller captures the spirit of the original better than any pastiche to date. America is involved in Vietnam, drug trafficking is on the rise and the cold war is as hot as ever. Bond, who’s been on a “three-month sabbatical” imposed by his superiors, is called back to London for a new assignment involving Dr. Julius Gorner, a heroin trafficker. A classic Fleming villain, Gorner wants to destroy British civilization, and he’s physically marred by “an extremely rare congenital deformity” of his left hand (his so-called “monkey’s paw,” of course, is always gloved). He even has a deadly sidekick, Chagrin. Bond travels to Paris, where he hooks up with beautiful Scarlett Papava, whose sister, Poppy, is Gorner’s drug-addicted slave. After Bond and Gorner meet for a particularly dramatic tennis match, the action accelerates into overdrive, moving to Persia, Russia and, ultimately, back to Paris. Gorner’s scheme is as far-fetched as that of any Bond villain, but Faulks (Birdsong) gives it a ring of plausibility (and he fashions a great twist for one of the characters). The author’s real accomplishment is in recreating the tone and feel of the Fleming novels: the travelogue is terrific, and Bond’s confidence in his mission is part of the character’s enduring appeal. This may not be a James Bond for fans of the movie franchise, but it’s a great new addition to the “Fleming” canon—and should encourage readers to rediscover James Bond.
I'm off to buy my own copy right now!!

Bonus: Check out CBS News' Bond-o-Rama.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

FINISHED: a bunch of books

Taxonomy of Barnacles

I first read about The Taxonomy of Barnacles in the New York Times. Not in the Book Review, as one might imagine, but I read an interview with Galt Niederhoffer in the “Fashion and Style” section, in which she reveals her eccentric family, the basis of her first novel. Her family story was deliciously odd. I finally got around the purchasing the book when it was released in trade paper. Niederhoffer wows with a confident comedy of manners, as well as a nod to Charles Darwin and Shakespeare’s King Lear. The patriarch of the Barnacle family presents his six daughters with a challenge: produce a male heir, and win the family fortune. The others get nothing. The characters are richly drawn (two of the sisters have “befriended” twin brothers who live in their building). The setting—New York City—is delightfully rendered. This is for anyone looking for something that reads like Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Or you could wait for the movie.

The View from the Seventh Layer

Last April I read Kevin Brockmeier’s brilliant, bestselling novel The Brief History of the Dead. Before I even finished the book, I promised that I would read any future book that he wrote. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon his follow-up, hot off the press, at the library. The View from the Seventh Layer is a collection of thirteen stories, all of which have previously appeared in print. The very first story—“A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets”—knocked my socks off. It had all of the playful qualities of Brief History, as well as an ending with a big payoff. Many stories have a fantastical, surreal, speculative feel to them, which appeals to me. I found myself setting the book aside after reading many of the stories so they could linger, like a long finish on a fine wine. Another story, “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device,” is a clever Choose Your Own Adventure for adults. This is for anyone who liked early Jonathan Lethem, Judy Budnitz, or Borges. Can’t wait to read more Brockmeier.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Some time ago, in anticipation of the forthcoming move, my friend Caryl kindly loaned me her beautiful copy of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The idea was that I would read the book in time to see the movie. But as fate would have it, I didn’t manage to get past the first chapter. Just bad timing with other reading engagements. We went to the movie, and I loved it. Then I read the book, and I loved that too.

Written by Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew was first published in 1938. The novel is currently in print from Persephone Books, the super-cool British publisher that specializes in reviving lost twentieth-century classics, mostly written by women. Miss Pettigrew is sent by an employment agency to the wrong house. Instead of the governess job she was expecting, Miss Pettigrew finds herself thrust into a new role as social secretary to a nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse. And hijinks ensue. I loved Watson’s wit, humor, and carefree storytelling. Lighthearted line drawings make a charming package, immediately drawing the reader into the period and spirit of the novel.

I’m pleased to say that the movie stood alone quite nicely, and I was glad not to feel fierce loyalty to the novel. Amy Adams was spectacularly dramatic in the role of the Miss LaFosse, while Frances McDormand played Miss Pettigrew with great pathos. The movie follows the novel’s plot, adding a number of embellishments—most of which work, some of which are inexplicable (such as newspaper headlines of WW2's approach and air-raid drills, which I'm sure were meant to establish the time period, as if costuming were insufficient to the task).

I urge you to see the movie and read the book. Doesn’t matter in which order. Simply enjoy each on its merits.

Monday, May 19, 2008

las vegas reading postmortem

I’m back from Las Vegas. As always, my reading intentions were overly ambitious. I had purchased a few books specifically for Las Vegas—Casino Royale, The Emperor’s Children, and On a Hoof and a Prayer. As always, when planning a trip, I lost sleep over which would be the best book(s) to bring. Practicing some restraint, of these books, I only packed the Ian Fleming, for obvious thematic reasons.

In my carry-on, I included Death in a Strange Country, by Donna Leon. I read for almost every minute of the three-hour flight and knocked off about two-thirds of the mystery. Determined to finish this book by the return flight, three days later, I schlepped it with me everywhere, mostly to the pool. My suitcase, which had ample room, carried Then We Came to the End and Casino Royale. Neither saw the light of day.

The Mirage’s pool proved to be a difficult place to read. Pictured above is a view from the Dolphin Bar—seems almost postcard perfect, doesn't it? Usually, I would suit up and head down to the pool with a friend. The process of locating two empty lounge chairs, setting up towels, and getting situated with a tropical drink (pina colada is my poolside poison of choice) was exhausting. I would turn to chit-chat. And peoplewatching. Conclusion: the pool is not such a good place to read.

Here is a brief list of books other people were reading:
~ traveling companions: Lamb (Lisa, the birthday girl) and Eat, Pray, Love (Bonnie)
~ select books, poolside: Temptations by Douglas Kennedy (doesn't seem to be available in the U.S.), Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner, and, on a heavier note, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Bonnie, the most social of the group, was on my return flight. Although I only had fifty or so pages remaining in my mystery, the only reading I managed was the InStyle magazine—the biggest waste of money, but a ritual when I fly.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Viva Las Vegas

I’m off to Vegas for the weekend to help a girlfriend celebrate a milestone birthday. It’s my first visit, and aside from neon and casinos, I don’t really know what to expect. I’m not a gambler but I am a keen observer. My flight lands at McCarran at 10:30 a.m., which gives me just enough time to get to the hotel and be poolside with a cocktail and a book by noon.

As far as my book wardrobe goes, I’m having a difficult time choosing which titles to bring. I’m a few chapters into Death in a Strange Country (Donna Leon) and stand a fair chance of finishing the book on the plane. I’ve made some good progress on the next book group title, Then We Came to the End, which could be perfect poolside fare. Since learning I have a conflict and can’t attend the next book group, there’s no need to finish it soon.

I’ve already ruled out my recent hardcover purchases (Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth or Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book) owing to bulk. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is too nutritious for vacation reading.

Here are the contenders:

~ On a Hoof and a Prayer—Polly Evans’ tour of Argentina on horseback
~ Death by Pad Thai and Other Unforgettable Meals (edited by Douglas Bauer)—short in length, essays are good bedfellows when faced with the distractions of travel
~ Sound Bites—one part foodie, one part travel, essays written by Franz Ferdinand lead singer, Alex Kapranos
~ Casino Royale—James Bond, gambling, classic Ian Fleming, no brainer
~ Emperor’s Children—Claire Messud’s critically acclaimed novel

Back Monday...

Monday, May 05, 2008

tidbits for the first monday in may

~ Last week, the NYT reported that for the first time in 10 years, Harry Potter is missing from the bestsellers list. Unreal. I've traveled in my wayback machine to recall how ten years ago, while working as a rep for Holtzbrinck, it was difficult to get a book on The List because Potter was on the adult list. Yes, there wasn't even a separate children's list then. It's hard to deny that J.K. Rowling's series has had an incredible influence over the public's reading habits, but also on the publishing industry and other venerable institutions, such as the The List (a measure of a book's success).

~ The National Book Critic Circle (NBCC) announces their Good Reads list for Spring '08. A few of these—Price, Lahiri, and Baxter, for sure—are on my TBR list. Read more here.


1. Richard Price, LUSH LIFE, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2. Jhumpa Lahiri, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, Knopf
3. Steven Millhauser, DANGEROUS LAUGHTER, Knopf
*4. Charles Baxter, THE SOUL THIEF, Pantheon
*4. Peter Carey, HIS ILLEGAL SELF, Knopf
*4. J. M. Coetzee, DIARY OF A BAD YEAR, Viking
*4. James Collins, BEGINNNER’S GREEK, Little, Brown
*4. Brian Hall, FALL OF FROST, Viking
*4. Roxana Robinson, COST, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
*4. Owen Sheers, RESISTANCE, Nan A. Talese: Doubleday


5. Susan Jacoby, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON, Pantheon


1. Grace Paley, FIDELITY, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2. Frank Bidart, WATCHING THE SPRING FESTIVAL, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
3. Eric Gansworth, A HALF-LIFE OF CARDIO-PULMONARY FUNCTION, Syracuse University Press
5. Robert Pinsky, GULF MUSIC, Farrar, Straus & Giroux