Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Needing Great Fiction

The Excuse

I've taken a brief respite from Kash's Book Corner. The sheer exhaustion of trying to get a five-month old to sleep every night should be enough of an excuse for neglecting the blog. We spent a great week in Clearwater, Florida with my father and my daughter was a little angel for her grandpa. Now that we are home she's not so cooperative.

In all honesty, I can't blame my slothful ways fully on my child. I'm a baseball fanatic, perhaps even an addict, and it's hard for me to devote my spare time in April to anything besides for listening to the Phillies games, playing fantasy baseball and getting ready for softball season. In fact, we met my father in Clearwater because that is the spring training home of the Phillies.

The Sadness

I was also thrown by the tragedy of Henry Hubert's death last week. Henry was my Oxford rep for about 10 years. We were both honored by our peers with Mountain & Plains Independent Booksellers Association awards in the same year. I was humbled to share the stage with such a great book man. Henry was in the business for several years before I was even born. Books were bought and sold differently in the years that he was coming up. He was around when the imprints were the names of flesh and blood people. I could be in the business for 100 years and there are things that Henry understood that I could never learn.

I saw Henry last summer when he came to sell me the University of Chicago list. He told me it was the end of selling for him. It wasn't bringing in much money, but more importantly to Henry it wasn't fun or human any more. He didn't want to enter the digital age; he wasn't one for communicating by email. It was a business plain and simple and Henry was about books. Where was the love of books and reading he wanted to know?

He insisted that I call my wife Emily and invite her down for lunch. We went to a wonderful French restaurant in town and as usual Henry examined the menu with great care and ordered an appetizer, a glass of wine, desert and a coffee in addition to his entree. He loved good food. The slow lunches used to drive me a little crazy, but over the years Henry taught me to enjoy the small moments that come to us in the middle of our hectic days.

During that lunch, I remember smiling proudly because Henry was so effusive in his praise for Emily and he was quite gallant in telling her how pregnancy truly became her. I'm sorry that my daughter Martina will never get to meet Henry. He sent her a present upon her birth, but he did not come up to Boulder in the last few months.

In addition to my sadness about Henry, I joined the city of Philadelphia in mourning the death of Harry Kalas the Phillies great play-by-play voice. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and satellite radio, I've been listening to the Phillies home broadcasts for the last 8 years or so. It was wonderful to get reacquainted with the baritone voice that helped raise me. I was the kid hiding under the covers with a transistor radio as Kalas called the games. I didn't love Kalas like I loved Henry Hubert, but there is still a feeling of emptiness that needs to be honored.

I tuned into the Phillies game the day that Kalas died. It was an afternoon affair in Washington and I was home for lunch. It was also the day that I learned of Henry Hubert's death. I held the baby on my lap and slowly ate my sandwich as a moment of silence was held for Kalas. The game began immediately following the tribute. The Phil's color man Larry Andersen, one of the heroes of the 1993 pennant winners, was sobbing on the radio. I put my sandwich down, kissed the baby and handed her to Emily.

"I'm going back to work," I said. "I can be depressed all on my own today without having to hear the Phillies lose."

Emily hugged me, Martina clutched between us, and we both thought of Henry and what we'd lost.

The Escape

As usual in times of emotional crisis or sadness, I turn to books. It seems like a wonderful crop of fiction is about to be published. I delved into several advance reader's copies and I'm happy to report that there are three books coming out in the next six weeks that I can heartily endorse. Here are the shelf talkers I wrote up for the store's recommended section:

The Signal by Ron Carlson
No other novelist writes about the western landscape with such care and precision as Ron Carlson. The pristine lakes, glacial valleys and horse ranches of Wyoming's Wind River Mountains are the backdrop to this tenderly rendered story of love torn apart. Hidden in the beautiful wilderness, in the form of poachers and criminals, danger lurks. The threats may destroy Carlson's estranged lovers, but it just may offer them a chance for redemption.

Border Songs by Jim Lynch
The border between Washington State and Canada is crawling with drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and renegade dairy farmers in this slyly humorous satirical novel. Thrust into the spotlight of this nether world of fascinating schemers is Brandon Vanderkool, a 6-foot-9, slightly autistic, remarkably artistic, innocent border patrol agent. Vanderkool only wants to track birds and build Andy Goldsworthy type sculptures but the criminals keep getting in the way.

Woodsburner by John Pipkin
In this remarkable re-creation of the day that Henry David Thoreau burnt down 300 acres of the Concord woods, Pipkin explores Thoreau's mind, life in 1840s Massachusetts and 19th century pornography. Odd characters, including a bookseller who resorts to selling erotic drawings to save his business and a farmhand named Oddmund, populate this historic novel. Pipkin grapples with the meeting between transcendentalism and everyday life and not surprisingly Thoreau seems mighty strange compared to his contemporaries