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September 22nd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

One More Time—A Happy Hobbit Birthday!

I published the piece below two years ago on this date, my birthday. I’m happy to share it here again today, as I turn 60!

As this day, September 22, 2012, stretches toward midnight, it happens to have been my 58th birthday. Growing up, of course I always enjoyed this day, but as I prepared to turn 13 back in 1967, my appreciation of my own birthday had taken a new turn. For earlier that year I first read the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and discovered that all the key action in The Hobbit, and the first book of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, was triggered at the birthday parties of Bilbo Baggins,and his nephew Frodo Baggins. And for reasons unknown to me—and so far as I know, never analyzed in all the criticism on Tolkien and Middle Earth—the birthday of uncle and nephew Baggins was September 22. The sharing of my birthday with the brave and indefatigable hobbits was a source of great strength to me during my adolescence. When difficult times arose, I took comfort in the knowledge that I had some sort of kinship with the creative imaginings of such a great writer as Tolkien. His books have been with me at many junctures in my life. Seeing Tolkien’s hobbit protagonists at the center of his sagas made me believe I could be at the center of my own life narrative.

I’ve always liked the fact that the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, falls around roughly the same time as my birthday. This year it was just last week. I like that the new year is said to begin in autumn–counter-intuitively–just as life in nature is beginning to fade and die. It sobers one up a bit, reminding us all that we’re not here forever. I don’t need too much reminding of that fact, in as much as starting in my late 30s I lost my father, then in my 40s, two best friends from college—Rob Adams and Karl Petrovich—and in my 50s, my mom and then my brother, Joel. Still, it seems salutary to take note of the leaves falling just as we prepare the turn of another year, as well as the turn from summer into fall.

With Tolkien in mind, my observance of my own birthday this year got off to a good start yesterday when I saw in Shelf Awareness, the bookselling daily e-newsletter, that Tolkien’s US publisher is publishing a new edition of The Hobbit, tying in with Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” prequel, premiering December 14. When the movie opens in a few months, I’ll sort of feel as if it’s almost again, albeit out of season. Meantime, today’s been a good day, thanks to family, friends, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

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September 15th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Amazon’s Douglas Preston Problem Isn’t Going Away

It’ll be interesting to see how Amazon’s board members respond to Authors United’s outreach to them—if at all—particularly the suggestion that while these people may think they joined the board of a progressive company, that’s actually not what Amazon is any more, if they ever were.

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September 12th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

#FridayReads, Sept 12–George C. Chesbro’s “City of Whispering Stone,” w/Mongo the Magnificent

City of Whispering Stone frontContinuing my theme from last week, today’s #FridayReads is another mystery featuring Mongo the Magnificent, former circus dwarf turned criminology professor and private eye, in City of Whispering Stone, published in 1978. This plot would have been very topical and timely then, as it concerns Iranian students in NY, an Iranian strongman, a member of the circus that Mongo once performed in, and the political fate of the Shah. In real life, this was all just prior to the revolution that ended with the mullahs in power, which has seen them hold power ever since. In the novel, the strongman has gone missing and the impresario of the circus hires Mongo to locate him. The writing is great, noirish and tough, and very good at revealing the mindset of Mongo, an ultimate outsider who’s never fit in anywhere in his whole life. City of Whispering Stone back

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September 12th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Herbert Lottman, RIP, an American Man of Letters in France

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September 5th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

#FridayReads, Sept 5–George C. Chesbro’s “In the House of Enemies,” w/Mongo the Magnificent

Mongo cover#FridayReads—In the House of Secret Enemies by George C. Chesbro, ten short stories featuring one of the all-time greatest detective series characters, Mongo the Magnificent—criminology professor, ex-circus acrobat, and dwarf. I found this mass-market paperback, a 1990 Mysterious Press edition, when I browsed and shopped at Myopic Books on Milwaukee Ave in Chicago last month, a great second-hand store. The collection also includes a revealing intro by Chesbro, “The Birth of a Series Character,” explaining how he came to dream up the character of Mongo, and how he persevered despite little encouragement from editors, at least at the beginning. After the intro, Chesbro offers notes before each tale explaining the role it played in the development of the character. These stories were all written before he dared put Mongo in a full-length novel–hell, before he even if he could write a Mongo novel, or if the character could bear the weight of a full-length book—so these were all key experiments in character creation and development. The collection is full of great writing and shop-talk. I read the first few Mongo novels when I operated my bookstore, Undercover Books, but haven’t read one in many years. I love mystery series publishing, with so many great and memorable characters. Now, I gotta find more of Chesbro’s Mongo titles, which combine two of my favorite things—the circus and detective fiction!Mongo back cover

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September 3rd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Book Launch, as Oddly Reclusive as His Political Campaign

Pundits like to intone that political autobiographies, published under the name of top candidates for public office, are all but obligatory, but the thing is, they actually have to come out to have any salutary effect for the politician, otherwise they’re apt to become an embarrassment. That proviso seems to have eluded NY Governor Cuomo, whose own book, originally due out in August, has been postponed twice, and will finally, if it comes out now as (re-)scheduled, be out for only a couple weeks prior to the November canvass. That’s assuming Cuomo makes it past his Democratic primary challenger Zephyr Teachout, whom he’s energetically ignoring in advance of the Sept 9 vote for the Democratic ballot. I like Teachout, and will be voting for her and her Lt Gov running mate Timothy Wu. It’s not that I believe either will win his/her race, but it’s important there be a protest vote lodged against Cuomo, who’s often governed with more deference to Republicans than Democrats; short-circuited his own corruption commission before it had the chance to finish its job; selected a far-right Democrat, Kathy Hochul, as his Lt Gov running mate; and refused to debate Teachout. He’s insulting voters, including ones like me who voted for him in 2010.

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September 3rd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Media, Blogging, Internet; Urban Life & New York City

Hearing Harvey Araton Talk about “Cold Type”

I really enjoyed reading Cold Type after getting a copy at BEA in early summer, and it was fun meeting Araton last night at Book Court. It’s like a Tom Wolfe novel, in that it’s set against a churning social backdrop, the NYC that was emerging in 1994, just as the Internet was about to change journalism, but it has a lot more heart than Wolfe, with characters whose fates you really ponder, even the bad guys. Araton’s been writing about sports, in the NY Times and in books for years, but this is his first novel and it’s really good. I wrote about it on this blog June 14.

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August 12th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

The Unexpected Joys of Synchronous Reading

I love it when I find unexpected correlations and thematic continuities among the books I’m reading, especially when there are really no circumstantial connections among the authors and the books.

I’m traveling these twelve days (August 7-19) from NYC to St. Louis to Chicago to Cleveland and back to NY, and so have a number of good books with me. First book I finished during the trip was Emily St. John Mandel’s wistful Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future that might be not too distant from our own, when a deadly flu has driven the world’s inhabitants in to a tenuous existence, with familiar communities splintered and new ones reconstituted around survival, with safety from brigands and cults their paramount goal. Grim as that may sound, it’s really a sweet book as Mandel uses flashbacks to skillful oscillate between the pre- and post-disease worlds, devoting much of the narrative to memorializing things we’d miss from today if the world suddenly fell in to chaos. Amplified music, electric guitars, buying gas at the pump, surfing the Internet, ordering a meal in a restaurant—these are a handful of the quotidian details suddenly subtracted from the lives of her characters. She imagines that surivivors have retrofitted automobiles and trucks so that, in the absence of petrol, they can be pulled by horses. In fact, the symphony/theater troupe at the center of the story moves itself in the Lake Michigan region this way, with musicians and players in tow, and young or vulnerable members stowed in the back, in what I imagine as modified Conestoga wagons supplying cover.

Prior to Mandel’s novel, which will be published next month, I was reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a post-nuclear event novel published in 1957. I met Mandel in July, at a Fall Book preview sponsored by NAIBA, and mentioned Shute’s book, which she told me she hadn’t heard of was. It’s set in Australia, after the Cold War nations have traded atomic bomb attacks, leaving the world above the equatorial line a death zone. An Australian submarine crew is tasked with traveling, submerged beneath the ocean, to assess the radioactivity of the post-incident world and determine if there might be habitable zones elsewhere. Shute’s novel is told in a measured, even laconic style, a bit less literary than Mandel’s. Like her though, he imagined that the inhabitants of his wrecked world would need some mode of land transport, and so they’ve retrofitted their cars and farm vehicle so they can be pulled by horses.

Now it’s not surprising that the authors of two post-apocalyptic novels would each employ common elements, like the retrofitted vehicles. What’s more surprising is when the author of two entirely unrelated books—one historical nonfiction, the other a thriller—share a thematic unity.

While reading Mandel’s novel I’d also been enjoying Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of American’s First Spy Ring, a history of espionage during the Revolutionary War published in 2006 that’s the basis of the current AMC TV series, “Turn,” which I had made one of my #FridayReads last month. It’s fascinating, and using the letters that General Washington’s spies sent to him, covers aspects of American’s war with Britain that are entirely new to me. One of these side stories is how the British army flooded Boston, NY, and Philadelphia with “hundreds of thousands of fake dollars,” counterfeit money they hoped would undermine confidence in Colonial currency, reduce its value, and motivate local populations to avoid using it.

According to Rose, British generals arranged for prolific counterfeiters from English prisons to be released, who were then pressed in to service printing bogus dollars, some of them with their engraving tools and printing presses aboard ships floating in New York harbor. Rose writes that disinformation efforts were undertaken with “Royalist papers like…New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury print[ing] public ‘editorials’ noting, by the by, that ‘there has lately…been a large distribution in the country of counterfeited Continental bills, so admirably executed, as not easily to be discerned from those issued by order of the Congress. This has contributed not a little to lower their value, and will be one effectual bar to their repayment or liquidation.’” Rose even discovered that classified ads were run in some papers, seeking people who would be willing to pass the currency in Colonial cities.

 

While still reading and enjoying Washington’s Spies I was ready for another novel to read, and so browsing in Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s well-known indie bookstore, last weekend, I was delighted to discover that the very first Jack Reacher suspense novel, by Lee Child had been reissued. I love the Reacher novels, an enjoyment that only grew after meeting him at a book party for Valerie Plame’s first novel in October 2013. The only reason I sometimes hesitate in picking up a Reacher novel is that I often can’t recall which ones I’ve already read. But I knew I hadn’t read Child’s inaugural entry, from 1997, so was happy to buy it that day, especially as it included a new preface by Child, explaining how he came to create the character of Jack Reacher, a former MP in the US Army who since leaving the service has lived a rootless life, rambling from town to town, and inevitably, encountering bad guys in his path, harming innocents whom he chooses to protect. It’s called Killing Floor and with lots of leisure time the past week, I’m deep in to it now. The plot centers around Margrave, Georgia, a small town that Reacher drifts in to, idly, in search of the legacy of a bluesman named Blink Blake who his brother Joe, his only living relative, once told him had spent time in Margrave. After only a few hours in town, Reacher is arrested on suspicion of murder, and even though he’s quickly cleared in the case, his sense of moral indignation is aroused when he glimpses all the corrupt things going on in the town, so he sticks around to try and straighten things out.

Imagine my surprise when in my reading I discovered that the rotten underside at the heart of the story is a counterfeiting ring that his brother, a federal agent, had been investigating. At one point, Reacher meets an elderly professor who tells him of his own countefeitiung exploits, though more of the wartime Washington’s Spies sort than the typical criminal kind, bearing more than a passing resemblance to that done by the British against the Colonies: “During the Second World War, young men like…me ended up with strange occupations….Considered more useful in an intelligence role than in combat….We were handed the job of attacking the enemy with economics. We derived a scheme for shattering the Nazi economy with an assault on the value of its paper currency. Our project manufactured hundreds of billions of counterfeit reichsmarks. Spare bombers littered Germany with them. They came down out of the sky like confetti.”

The congruities among historical events described in Alexander Rose’s history of Revolutionary War espionage and Lee Child’s contemporary thriller are pretty striking, aren’t they?

[NB: This post was written in the excellent Blogsy app on my iPad on an Amtrak train traveling from St. Louis to Chicago.]

 

 

 

 

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