#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, aka Robert Frederickson, Ph.D.—former headlining acrobat performer for the Statler Bros Circus; black belt in karate; criminology professor at a New York City university; 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 with a really extensive inventory. 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 that the story played in his ongoing development of the character. These stories were all written before he dared put Mongo in a full-length novel—hell, before he even knew if he could write a Mongo novel, and whether the emerging character could bear the weight of a full-length book, leave alone find it accepted by a publisher—so each of these stories was a key experiment 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, such as Michael Connelly’s LAPD detective Harry Bosch, Archer Mayor’s Vermont police detective Joe Gunther, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. Now, I gotta find more of Chesbro’s Mongo titles, which combine two of my favorite enthusiasms—the circus and detective fiction! For more info on Mongo and Chesbro—who died, sadly, in 2008, but was around long enough to republish many of the fifteen Mongo titles in POD editions under his own Apache Beach imprint—I suggest you visit the author’s Wikipedia page and this site, Dangerous Dwarf.
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.
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.
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.]
Had a great time last night at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho, where a preview of two important Fall titles was put on by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA). As soon as I arrived I saw Eileen Dengler, Executive Director of NAIBA, whom I’ve known since my days with Undercover Books in Cleveland. Among many booksellers on hand, I met Heidi Shira Tannenbaum, manager of the Housing Works store; Margot Sage-El, Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ*; two female staff members from Word Bookstore‘s Jersey City location; Todd Dickinson, of Aaron’s Books in Lititz, PA; Ezra Goldstein of Community Bookstore in Brooklyn; Roy Solomon of Village Bookstore in Pleasantville, NY; and Bill Reilly of River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, NY, site of the US Army camp where during WWII nearly 1,000 refugees were brought for sanctuary by Ruth Gruber, then a member of the FDR administration. She chronicled this in her book HAVEN: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 WWII Refugees and How They Came to America (out first in 1985), which I republished in trade paper in 1999, when I was with Crown Publishing. Bill told me that HAVEN—which along with four other books by Gruber is now available from Open Road Media—is his store’s top-selling book of local history; indeed I found the Open Road edition featured on the left-hand rail of the store’s website. Though Bill’s store is in upstate NY, near Lake Ontario, he hadn’t even traveled the farthest to be at this gathering: that recognition went to a bookseller from Buffalo. I was also delighted to see longtime Random House sales rep Ruth Liebmann in the audience. A nicely stocked bar with appetizers was generously provided by book distributor Baker & Taylor.
The first writer to speak was Robert W. Snyder, Director of the American Studies Program at Rutgers. His forthcoming book is CROSSING BROADWAY: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City, to be published in December by Cornell University Press. My first five years in NYC I lived in Washington Heights, on Bennett Avenue at 186th Street, on the west side of Broadway—still the defining artery of the neighborhood—so I very much enjoyed meeting Snyder, then hearing his presentation on the book. It chronicles the evolution of this northern Manhattan neighborhood over the past century, and how it stands todayas quite a stellar example of diverse urban populations living successfully side-by-side, even while it more and more faces the price of its own success, with gentrification, rising home prices, and distortions to the social weave that may already be diminishing its richness. I recall that when I lived up there my NY State Assemblyman was J. Brian Murtagh, a voluble Irish pol who was proud of saying that his constituents spoke some astonishing number of languages among themselves—more than fifty, I recall. The dominant groups had long been Irish, German-Jewish, and Dominican, but with many other nationalities, too. Separately, we spoke about upper Manhattan, which has been important in NY history since the Revolutionary War. I told him I cover it often here writing about the Little Red Lighthouse, underneath the eastern arch of the George Washington Bridge, aka the Great Gray Bridge, and High Bridge, where an original foot-bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx is being restored.
I appreciated that in introducing Snyder my longtime book biz friend, Christopher Kerr, who reps Cornell University Press, voiced a brief shout-out to me, evoking the years I lived in Washington Heights, when amid the ravages of the crack epidemic, the nabe was too often known most for its high crime rate. Actually, my part of the Heights had little crime, and I was able to pay less than $600 per month rent, in 1985, for a comfortable 2nd floor apartment in a 6-story building. I also had the good fortune to buy furniture and bookcases from the daughter of the German-Jewish woman who’d brought them from Germany decades earlier. I still have the bookcases today, though I moved to the upper west side of Manhattan in 1990.
The second author last night was Emily St. John Mandel, a novelist with Canadian roots, having grown up in western BC, who then lived in Montreal. I met her briefly during BEA in 2013, at a Greenwich Village reception sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC). I recalled last night that she said then she was finishing a manuscript, now completed, titled Station Eleven. Each of her three previous novels has received great reviews, like this comment about her debut book, from an erudite bookseller/reader at Rainy Day Books, a top indie bookstore in Kansas City, KS.
“Last Night in Montreal took me by surprise in the most wonderful ways….From the very first chapter, I was drawn in to her provocative, delicately grim world full of wanderlust, betrayal, and the quest for answers. Each of [Mandel’s] deliciously real characters are searching for answers to the questions of their lives, compelled to hunt them out no matter how shocking or painful those answers may be. Mandel’s novel, though relatively short, amazed me with its intricacies and complexities. As days go by, I find myself thinking of more and more reasons I so loved [it].”—Elizabeth Lewis, Rainy Day Books
St. John Mandel’s new novel will be published September 9 by Knopf in the US, then separately in North America by Harper Canada, and Picador in the UK. I’d expect there will also be foreign language editions. It’s a very impressive book, and she spoke about it beautifully. St. John Mandel began by explaining that she’s always loved reading post-apocalyptic fiction, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and she wrote her new novel as a kind of love letter to the present, a meditation on what we would miss most if all that we’re used to went away, and what we would long for most keenly. In literature, she imagined that the sudden subtraction from our midst of the works of Shakespeare would be one of our greatest losses, so she conceived a traveling theater troupe who continue performing Shakespeare’s plays, even while the world around them is withering away. She had me at theatre troupe, as I quickly remembered novels I’ve enjoyed, like Robertson Davies’ early book Tempest-Tost, about a community group putting on “The Tempest,” and the funny, ribald, and wrenching Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows, which features recurring characters in a theater company staging “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “King Lear” over three seasons. For the apocalyptic part, on the subway downtown, I’d been reading a battered copy of Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear classic, On the Beach, so you can imagine I was immediately eager to begin Emily’s book, leaving Shute’s book in my knapsack on the ride home. Station Eleven was a Buzz Book at BEA in May but I had missed the presentation given about it then by her Knopf editor, Jennifer Jackson, who introduced her author last night and has written an eloquent ode to the book for booksellers that’s printed in the ARC. On the subway I found myself immediately captured by the wistful voice and St. John Mandel’s exquisite sentence-making, where prop snowflakes stand in for the creeping coldness falling all around us.
Here are pictures from last night’s enjoyable reception, with thanks to all the booksellers, publishers, reps, sponsors, hosts, and authors.
* I was excited to discover on the Wachtung Booksellers’ website that NY Times reporter Harvey Araton—whose novel Cold Type I picked up at BEA, and which I loved reading, making it my #FridayReads on June 14—will be at the store in Montclair for a signing on July 23. I hear Montclair is a great town for books and reading.
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) July 12, 2014
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) July 12, 2014
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) July 12, 2014
Wonderful NY Times obit of the pitcher-writer whose first book, The Long Season, a diary of a major league season, ushered in the modern genre of realistic baseball literature, preceding Jim Bouton’s more celebrated Ball Four by more than a decade. Delighted to find a line quoted in it from sportswriter at the time, later publisher, and a book biz friend, Al Silverman*. In a Saturday Evening Post profile at the time, Silverman wrote: “Brosnan is quite possibly the most intellectual creature ever to put on a major league uniform.”
In 1990, after Brosnan’s book, and Bouton’s, were established as classics of contemporary sports literature, I had the privilege of publishing the 20th anniversary edition of Ball Four, shown below. In 2002, I got to publish another gem of sports lit, a posthumous short story collection called The Heavenly World Series, by Frank O’Rourke, whose example was opposite to that later established by the two pitcher-authors. O’Rourke was professionally a sports reporter, and a pretty good ballplayer; he got invited to a spring-training tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies before the 1948 major league season. Though he didn’t make the team, he later used the experience to write brilliant short fiction from the viewpoints of ballplayers themselves. From the flap copy: “A writer who belongs alongside Ring Lardner and Mark Harris [O’Rourke] captures the essence of baseball in elegiac, unsentimentalized fiction that blends dazzling description of on-the-field action with compassionate off-the-field portraits. Pennant races, old veterans passing down their wisdom to rookies, and an unforgettable dash around the bases by a player modeled on the young Jackie Robinson highlight these unforgettable tales.”
*Silverman is also an author, of the marvelous oral history, The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors, and Authors.
I’ve noticed we live now in an age of reunions, with various landmarks in our lives regularly memorialized. There are invitations to school reunions, throw-back Thursdays in our social networks (aka #tbt), and much (re)greeting and (re-)meeting at occasions related to our professions. Most recent among these for me was Book Expo America (BEA), held in NYC May 28-31 at the Javits Center.
I’ve been attending the annual book convention most years since 1978, when I got started in the book business with Undercover Books, the bookstore chain I ran with my siblings and our parents until 1985, when I came to NY and began working in publishing. Over the past ten years BEA has almost always been held in NY, though in earlier decades the book industry held its trade show in Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. For a long time the event was called ABA, until the American Booksellers Association, the trade group of indie booksellers that ran it, sold the show to Reed Exhibitions, a corporation that runs such conventions. The regular meetings with many of the same people over many years accounts in part for the warmth and chumminess that makes the book business such a special field to work in.
A hunger for human connections, for friends new and old, in business and in our lives, has long been part of human nature, and I believe it’s increasing. Our society is in the third decade of the Internet, with more and more virtuality in our lives all the time, so true human contact is welcomed, especially with the economic stresses so many live with, leading us to crave actually seeing old friends and establish new relationships, giving us a chance to speak of our latest enterprises and tell our personal stories, while listening to those of our friends and counterparts. I think this appetite for the actual is also responsible for the growth I’ve noticed in the field of educational conferences—public events that have thematic programming, and often quite interesting public speakers, who may speak on their own, often with projected slides, or as part of panels with multiple speakers in conversation.
I think this also helps explain why a company for which I consult, ExpertFile.com has made a good business for itself the past few years. I began working with them after I met CEO Peter Evans at Digital Book World in 2011, when they were known as SpeakerFile. One of the areas in which they’d established themselves was to help meeting planners connect with the right speakers for each event, sort of like an eHarmony for the conference industry. In their name change ExpertFile identifies the gaining of expertise as a great need of modern professionals. They still work in the conference area, but now concentrate on helping organizations amplify and promote their in-house talent through online expert centers created with ExpertFile’s unique software, enabling members of the media, businesspeople, and conference organizers to discover these uniquely talented people. During BEA, I was tweeting tech stories from the floor that I found compelling, like this one.
— ExpertFile (@expertfile) May 29, 2014
Another intriguing company, new to me, if not entirely new in the market, was Mediander, which describes itself as creating “a knowledge engine, and power[ing] contextual discovery.” I was reminded in what they’re doing of Small Demons, the now-shuttered company that emphasized keyword indexing and mapping of publishers’ titles. I look forward to seeing what Mediander does in months to come.
I note that during the recession, while so many industries floundered or sunk, conferences (like Aspen Institute, TED, TEDx, and Digital Book World flourished). Though O’Reilly and F&W Media shuttered Tools of Change after 2013, they still run a bunch of other conferences. By contrast, it must be said that the convention business—with events like BEA, where attendees still stroll aisles of booths set up by exhibitors—is relatively weak. BEA is trying to affiliate itself with more programmed events, but at its core it’s still been a trade show with floor exhibits mounted mostly by, in our case, publishers. Significantly, in 2013, and again this year, BEA has on its last day opened the show to the reading and bookbuying public—fans of authors—an inevitable evolution that I endorse. This latter part of BEA is now called BookCon, and Shelf Awareness reports that next year Reed will extend the the convention by a day, into Sunday with a second day of BookCon. This move, mixing an industry show with a consumer show, echoes ComicCon, a very successful show in Reed’s line-up. This year BookCon seemed to go very well, with more than 10,000 members of the reading public buying tickets and attending, as you’ll see from some photos below.
I’m going to reserve my book and publisher commentary for the captions accompanying the pictures below, most of them taken by Kyle Gallup, my wife, a painter, and Managing Editor of Philip Turner Book Productions.
Before that, I’ll say I’ve already read and enjoyed one book I got at Book Expo, Harvey Araton’s newspaper novel, Cold Type, which I made my #FridayReads this past weekend. I also want to add an observation that despite the continuing struggles of book publishing, it was actually quite an upbeat convention. Business has stabilized since the depths of the recession, and people are tired of feeling lousy, and talking as if the earth’s going to swallow us all. And, business has definitely gotten better in some areas. Also, many bookpeople I know were heartened this year by the fact that Amazon is taking it on the chin in many quarters of the press and in public opinion for their quarrel with Hachette over wholesale discount policies that the Seattle company is reportedly trying to dictate to the publisher. I don’t know when or how the standoff will end, but it makes many bookpeople, including me, feel good, or a bit better, to see the shine on Amazon’s reputation get tarnished a bit. With that, I’ll say I enjoyed I seeing many old friends, and making new ones at this year’s BEA. If you there were, dear reader, and we somehow didn’t bump in to each other, I hope you had a good convention, and I hope to see you next year. Here are many of the pictures Kyle and I took: