The Nook: One Week In, Part One

Last week I revealed that after all of my huffing and puffing about how I’m against eBooks and eReaders and eVerything else along those lines, my mom actually bought me a Barnes & Noble Nook device. I was pretty blown away by her gesture, and I resolved to take full advantage of it. I enjoy the occasional gadget, even though I’m one of those people who doesn’t have the patience to get the most out of what any given little doohickey is capable of, which is probably why I have a pretty simple cell phone. Let’s just say I’m not a “gadgets for gadget’s sake” kind of guy. But as a writer, and an avid reader, I felt I owed it to myself — and to my mom’s generosity — to give this thing an honest effort and keep an open mind about it.

I took it home, busted it out of the box and got it charging. The device may be charged one of two ways, either via AC or via direct connection to a computer. The USB cable serves both functions; for AC charging the Nook comes with an adapter the USB connects to that then plugs into the wall. I thought that was kind of cool, as I’ve never seen it before. Nice and simple, really.

No real documentation, just a skimpy little Quick Start Guide that was sufficient to get me up and running. I’ve been irked ever since companies started directing people online for documentation, but I don’t see that changing. Makes sense, and probably keeps the cost down significantly (while also spawning an entire side industry of user friendly 3rd party user manuals), but I still feel the need to shake my fist at the sky every time I encounter it. Nonetheless, once I fired the sucker up I ran through the little tutorial that explains how everything works (the reading pane is not touch screen, only the little color icons at the bottom are, and they are for navigation), and I was off and running. I quickly configured the wireless and it had no problem connecting to my dlink router. This was so easy that I was able to help my mom over the phone to connect her Nook to the wireless router at their house, and it took all of about 2 minutes. As any child who has ever done telephone support for a parent knows, this is no mean feat!

Maybe 5 minutes in I was browsing the online store, and quickly made my first purchase: Savages by Don Winslow, a book I’ve heard nothing but raves about. I also scored a subscription to The Nation, a magazine I enjoy and read online, but have never subscribed to because it’s a weekly and I didn’t want to have that much paper added to the recycling already generated by a subscription (a yearly, and most welcome, gift from Julia’s dad) to The New Yorker (another great magazine also available for subscription on the Nook). This is one of those areas where I’ve thought eReaders would really shine, at least for me and my reading tastes — periodicals. Meanwhile, later that day, super author Reed Farrel Coleman posted that his first three Moe Prager novels are now available as eBooks, and the Nook is one of the supported formats. Timely announcement, Mr. Coleman! I quickly grabbed the first one, Walking the Perfect Square, and almost got all three. Christ, even as I write this I’m thinking of going back to get the other two. I can see right now where this Nook downloading-books-on-a-whim thing could be very dangerous in the hands of someone like me! Anyway, Reed is co-author of one of the best books from last year, Tower, which I’ve mentioned before. It’s been nominated for a bunch of awards too, and deservedly so!

Not that I needed to order any books to try it out, mind you. It came with samples of the novels A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff and The Passage by Justin Cronin, neither of which really interest me. However, it also came with Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and Dracula. I’ll eventually get to all three of those (I haven’t looked into it personally, but Mom tells me that a lot of classic novels can be picked up for free; that’s cool). Having books loaded was no reason to not order more, though. It was for research, after all!

So, new toy in hand, all that remained was for me to finish the book I’d already started before Mom gave me the thing (Body, by Harry Crews, in case you’re wondering), then I’d dig into some Savages.

Did I pull it off? Did I get through an entire book without feeding the Nook to Velcro the Eating Machine? Did I load anything directly onto it, like, say, Issue #4 of Crimefactory, which just so happens to be available in PDF, a Nook-supported format, and includes my March interview with Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai about his Gabriel Hunt books? Would I be able to change the wallpaper or screensaver? Would I even bother to try? Answers to those questions, and more, in part two!

Forgotten Books – The Education of an American Soccer Player by Shep Messing and David Hirshey

>In honor of the 2010 World Cup, which I have been following every minute for the past month, I am going to talk about a book I loved in my youth, when only two things mattered to me: soccer and KISS. Back then I was going to be a professional soccer player and a rock star. Things didn’t quite turn out that way.

I was a ten year-old 5th grader when I fell in love with soccer, in 1977. That’s when I first started playing via the YMCA. My dad built me a goal in the field in front of the house, with a net that had had a previous life containing wood chips on the trucks that would haul loads in and out of the paper mill where he worked. I bought a subscription to a little magazine called Soccer Digest that dealt primarily with the American professional league at the time, the North American Soccer League (NASL). It had articles on players, team rosters, records, etc. In those days, the biggest news concerned international superstars who were coming to the USA in the golden years of their career, players like Pele, Eusebio, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best. Johan friggin’ Cruyff too, for crying out loud. The league was so overloaded with foreign talent that one of the rules was that, if I recall, teams had to have at least two North Americans on the field at all times (a rule that was skirted when players like Giorgio Chinaglia became naturalized citizens). One of the first and biggest American stars was a brash, afro-and-porn-mustache-sporting goalkeeper named Shep Messing.

The Education of an American Soccer Player is Shep’s autobiography, published in 1979, and I loved it when it came out. Pre-internet, there really wasn’t a means for “inside information” about the stars that were fueling my imagination, and Shep pulled the curtain back for everyone to see. He described coming up through college playing a sport which, at the time, was virtually unknown in this country. As the goalkeeper for the US National Team, he was at the Munich Olympics of 1972 when Palestinian terrorists took eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage. Turning pro in the fledgling NASL, be played with and against some of the biggest names in the history of the game. He wrote of athletes who were gods in my eyes — including my favorite athlete of all time, Brazil’s Edison Arantes do Nascimento: Pele. I was shocked, SHOCKED!, when he describes hearing Pele say “fuck” in an argument with the blowhard Giorgio Chinaglia. Shep also talked about drinking beer and playing poker with the legendary Eusebio, the “Black Pearl” of Portugal (a man, still honored above all other players in that country, whom I was happy to see in the stands with other Portuguese officials in South Africa last week). For a young fan like me, it was heady stuff. It seemed almost unreal, even more exciting than the antics of musicians I was reading about in magazines like Circus and Hit Parader.

Shep in those days was also a rebel and amusing character whose personality really shines in the words on the page. He wasn’t shy in talking about his various run-ins with league authority. He posed nude for Viva Magazine. He did more for making it seem that athletes could also be “rock stars” than just about anyone else I’d heard of. His experiences made it seem like being a professional athlete was about the most fun a person could have. He emphasized the sense that playing soccer, and being a fan, was viewed as a kind of almost subversive act in the USA, even though it was years later before I was mature enough to understand that. I just knew that Shep seemed cool, and I wanted to be like him. His only failure was that he never made me want to be a goalkeeper; I was too big of a fan of players like Pele and Gerd Müller for that.

This book can be a challenge to find, but it’s out there. People interested in the early days of professional soccer in America should seek it out — it really is a fun read. Shep is still around as an announcer and broadcaster, and hearing his New York accent always makes me smile; it seems perfect for the image I have of him in my imagination.

I would also recommend the movie Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, which is a fantastic documentary of one of the greatest teams of all time. It is a fascinating look at soccer in the 70s, and all the cultural stuff swirling around the sport at that time in America. The movie is readily available via NetFlix, and I strongly recommend it. Even if you aren’t much of a soccer fan, it is an excellent bit of storytelling that fans of documentaries in general should find entertaining, especially if you are geek for the 70s like I am.

Thanks as always to Patti Abbott for handling the Friday’s Forgotten Books project! Visit her site for the whole list of this week’s offerings.

Forgotten Books: The World Swappers by John Brunner

A couple years ago I reconnected with a friend that I had met on tour a few years prior to that in Portland, OR, via Facebook. Since then she had relocated to Maine (yeah, quite a relocate), but was still haunting dingy rock clubs seeking interesting new music. She requested some of my band’s music, which I was happy to send her. She reciprocated by sending me a slightly battered copy of this little book, which was first published in 1959. Frankly, I think I came out ahead in the deal, because this is a fun piece of work, and I love that I have it on my shelf. And here I am writing about it, and she probably hasn’t listened to any of my band’s music since (then again, neither have I, really). Nonetheless, people who share books with me would have to do something really heinous to fall off my list of Great People.

British author John Brunner was quite prolific in a career that stretched from the 50s into the 90s, plus a couple posthumous publications (he died in 1995). This book precedes his award winning novel Stand on Zanzibar by almost ten years (it won the 1968 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel), and presumably his writing improved in that span of time. I’ve not read that book, but hope to.

The World Swappers is a fun book — a science fiction yarn of powerful men engaged in a chess match for interstellar resources, the ramifications of First Contact hanging in the balance, and nothing less than the rule of the galaxy at stake. It’s a little hokey at times, but one must remember that it was written in 1959. I mean, the guy wrote it without ever having the luxury of seeing Star Wars or Starship Troopers! The ideas about how humanity has spread into other galaxies are fairly interesting — the special devices used by the “good guys” to ZAP! effortlessly from world to world ala Star Trek beaming people around are pretty fun, and really make me wish I had one — as is how a certain group of humans have managed to live longer than normal lives. The way Brunner portrays how humans would react to contact with aliens is also believable (when in doubt, send in the most beautiful and intelligent woman in the universe to negotiate). The main force for good is led by a man named Counce, who is a kind of Doc Savage character in that he is super smart, super smooth, has a cast of brilliant support people in his inner circle, always does the right thing, and is a reasonably nice guy to boot. It’s a quick read, and I went cover-to-cover with a smile on my face. Hardcore fans of science fiction who like to nitpick about whether things could happen a certain way or not may not care for this book, but people who enjoy stories of adventure set in the wider universe should be able to have a couple hours of fun with it. I certainly did.

One thing I love about these old editions — I’m guessing mine is from the 60s — is how different they are from books published today. They are less . . . slick, more raw. That makes them enjoyable to me. I love the order forms in the back of the book, and the hyperbole around the sales pitches. Okay, maybe the hyperbole hasn’t changed much over the years, but the pricing structure sure has (If your newsdealer is out of stock on any of these books, they may be purchased by sending 50 cents per copy, plus 5 cents handling fee for each book)!

The author bio is great, and makes me think John Brunner was my kind of guy. From the book:

JOHN BRUNNER writes of himself:

“Biographical data? Born, I believe. Married, 12th July 1958; dead, not yet. I’ve been reading science-fiction since I was seven and writing it since I was nine — but I didn’t actually collect my first rejection slip till I was 13. . . .

“I don’t regard myself in any sense as a quote creative writer unquote. I prefer to communicate with my audience, not make them puzzled, and consequently am not all that fond of literary obscurities such as typify modern, recognized, ‘literature.’

“My wife and I live in a three-room apartment in West Hampstead, London; we share it with a friend, three guitars, a banjo, a nine-foot grand piano, a recorder, a stack of records, couple of radios, tape recorder (the previous recorder is the kind you blow through), a dog and more books than I can be bothered to count.

“Out of sympathy with: intolerance of all kinds, the beat generation, angry young men, and angry old women. In empathy with: the human race — it’s in a hell of a mess.”

If you can find a copy of The World Swappers, it’s worth reading. I’d be curious to read more of Brunner’s work.

For a complete list of this week’s forgotten books, click HERE!

You Know You Want to Know

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned more than once that I’m not a big fan of “best of” lists. They are big every year, particularly at the end of a decade (apparently, since I can’t remember all that was going on at the end of the last one beyond building my end-of-the-world, Y2K-proof bunker). They also stress me out, because so much of the stuff I get that gets ranked every year — books, movies, music — is stuff scattered across decades. It’s hard for me to remember what came out in a given month, let alone the whole freakin’ year. I think writer Max Allan Collins pretty well nails in in this line:

I despise year’s best lists. They are completely arbitrary and invalid, as the critics cannot have read everything out there. There are exceptions to this rule, however — those exceptions are the lists that include work by me.

So what follows is one that is certified awesome. I’m not on the list, mind you, but it is my list.

Chris La Tray’s List of Favorite Books Read in 2009

2009 was a good reading year for me. I rediscovered my love for fiction, as well as dug into an entire new (to me, anyway) genre: crime fiction. I also started reading comics and graphic novels regularly again. So if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be “fun.” And anything summed up with “fun” has got to be awesome, right?

I read 64 books (24 nonfiction, 40 fiction) total, and an additional 39 graphic novels. That’s quite a contrast from ’08, when I read 15 novels to 39 nonfiction, and didn’t keep track of graphic novels (probably 10 or so). For my list, I figured I’d list 5 nonfiction, 5 graphic novels, and 10 novels. Not all of them came out in 2009, though some of them did. As always, the links are to Amazon for convenience, but if you go after any of these books, please consider getting them locally!

5 Favorite Nonfiction Books, 2009, in No Particular Order

The Best American Magazine Writing, 2008, by American Society of Magazine Editors.

Arguably the best anthology I’ve ever read. Most of the stories left me thinking, or pissed, or simply entertained. I will start picking this up every year! Stuff on politics, culture, people, you name it. I would strongly recommend everyone pick up the 2009 edition at your local indie bookstore and get in on this. I know I will. Just some outstanding writing top to bottom.

The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss

I was on the road for work listening to a program on NPR where Moss was being interviewed, talking about the book, and it sounded very interesting. His stories on cultures that have used dreams as guides for life, as well as anecdotes about Joan of Arc, Churchill, Mark Twain, Harriet Tubman, etc. were fascinating. It has made me try and keep better track of my dreams and reveries, which has been hit and miss. If you have any interest in this kind of thing, this book is well worth your time.

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 by Anthony Beevor

What a brutal book. If you find war unfathomable, this will only make it more so. It is heartbreaking how horrible people can be to each other, and the depths to which we will sink. If you ever get an urge to fuck with the Russians, particularly in winter time, make sure and check in with this book first.

Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live by Ben Thompson

I wrote a review of this book not long ago, so not much more needs said. I really had a blast with this book — I laughed aloud so many times I kept Julia up late at night more than once. It’s not particularly deep (there’s an understatement for you), but there are nice little tidbits of trivia that I appreciated. And the bibliography is awesome.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

This book is equal parts adventure book, natural history book, and book about running as an extreme sport. I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Makes me want to go run about 500 miles. McDougall, who originally wrote parts of this as articles for Men’s Health Magazine, writes in an engaging way that makes the book a real page turner. I found it very inspiring.

5 Favorite Graphic Novels, 2009, in No Particular Order

Many of the graphic novels I read this year were collections of ongoing series that I had read previously, or had heard about but never read prior to picking up the collected trades. I tried to stick with standalone graphics for my list, or collections of series that are no longer ongoing. There is an exception, or two, though.

Parker: The Hunter (Richard Stark’s Parker) by Darwyn Cooke and Richard Stark

I’ve mentioned this one many times since reading it, and have also credited it as the work most responsible for turning me onto crime fiction. I can’t possibly imagine the graphic novelization of vintage crime being done any better; Darwyn Cooke is a genius and obviously approached this classic story with unlimited love and respect. The little details in the first 30 pages or so of text-free images are beyond fantastic.

Criminal (Deluxe Edition) by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Collecting the first three Criminal trades, this is top shelf noir/crime writing that’s gritty, violent, and real. A perfect blend of characters weaving in and out of each thread of stories makes it all the more compelling. Brubaker has created a perfect little world to set his tales in, and while I’d heard of the series before I hadn’t read any until they came out in this collection. This hardcover edition is just gorgeous as well.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Perfection. Not only is the story timeless, but the use of the graphic medium could not be better. The different fonts and word balloons as part of the individual characters. The shapes and drawing techniques to indicate conflict. Just awesome. When I first heard of this, it was described as “groundbreaking.” That is correct as far as I’m concerned.

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Nimura

No, there isn’t any spandex or vampires, just a ton of emotion and fantastic storytelling. It’s basically about a little girl who may, or may not, actually be a warrior facing down mythical giants. Or she could just be trying to deal with her mom’s dying from cancer. I actually teared up a little bit reading this one.

Scalped by Jason Aaron

Scalped is the only ongoing series of the five I’ve listed. Right now there are 5 collected trades out, spanning something like 30 issues of the comic, and it hard hitting stuff. It takes place on a fictional Indian reservation in South Dakota, for all intents and purposes Pine Ridge. The main character is an undercover FBI agent sent to bring down the local Indian crime boss. Nothing that happens is pretty. It’s like The Wire meets Deadwood on The Rez. Since we’ve caught up (there were already three volumes out before I got on board), I’d be buying the monthly book but my wife would probably kill me. She picked it out to read first, and she can’t handle reading comics in monthly installments. So I’m forced to wait for the trades.

10 Favorite Novels, 2009, in No Particular Order

The Hunter: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels) by Richard Stark

After reading the Darwyn Cooke adaptation, and seeing a couple movie versions, you know I had to go back to the source and read where it all started. The book doesn’t disappoint. I read two more Parker novels afterward, with more in my “to read” pile for 2010. Even Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, The Given Day) sang the praises of this book and the relentlessness of Parker as a character during a crime fiction panel I saw last fall. If Dennis is on board, you should be too!

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos, whom I knew of from his association as one of the writers of The Wire, was on the same panel at the Montana Festival of the Book that I mentioned Lehane participated in. I picked this book up after that event and dug in shortly thereafter. Pelecanos seems a very interesting guy, and this was a great read. It read like a season of The Wire, with various plot threads winding through the story that don’t all wrap up neatly and happily. I’ll be reading more of this writer in ’10 as well!

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

This is the author, and the book in particular, that brought such crime luminaries to Missoula. Crumley lived here, and died just prior to the previous year’s (2008) festival. This year had several events set up to honor him, and a panel on this book was the highlight for me. Lehane called it the best American crime fiction book ever written. Laura Lippman named it better than Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and that Crumley’s writing holds up better than Chandler’s across the board. I’m not educated enough in the form to take sides, I just know this was a damn fine book, and will stay on my shelf for future re-reads. I can’t say that about many books these days.

The Motel Life: A Novel by Willy Vlautin

This was a novel recommended to my by my friend Hank. Populated by characters that are generally hopelessly down and out and total fuck-ups, I still found something to like in them, which often isn’t the case. I’m not a fan of drug and booze tales, but this one was definitely a different version of that trope. A sad but ultimately hopeful story. A lonely drive of a novel.

Tower by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Another book I reviewed a while back here on the blog. This is a great, fast moving crime story with a very deft switch of point-of-view mid-book. A fine read. Interesting link for those interested: Coleman writes about the collaboration, explaining the process behind part of what made the book so interesting. Pretty cool background information!

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

I read three different Jim Thompson books last year, and this one was my favorite. I visited his home town too, which was . . . interesting. This was a dark, compelling, spooky first person story from the perspective of a serial killer. A gripping read from beginning to end. Tight prose, no bullshit. Loved it.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I actually tucked into a little science fiction this year, and this classic work was the pinnacle of what I read. This book won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel of the Year back in 1974 or something. It is basically an allegory for the Viet Nam War. I really liked it. What I found most fascinating is the author’s vision of how society on Earth may change over the coming centuries. I’ve not read much sci-fi over the years beyond the first 3 Dune books, and this was a great place to dive in, especially in what was a pretty good year for science fiction movies too.

Peepshow by Leigh Redhead

Another one I reviewed. This may not be the best written book on this list, but it was sure a lot of fun. Others may scoff, who knows — it just struck a chord with me. I like my gritty and dark fiction as much as anyone, but this one kept a good tone throughout that didn’t make me feel depressed, which a string of dark fiction can do. It’s got strippers, sex, drugs, and rock n . . . er, mostly country music. And that’s one of the things I loved about it! The fact that this book, by an Australian writer, references so much of the country music from my collection (Steve Earle, Vanessa Williams, Johnny Cash, et al) made it damn fun.

These last two aren’t single books, but are subjects that made my reading in 2009 particularly enjoyable, and that I will expand on in upcoming blog posts. Between the two they make up eight of the 64 novels I read.

Christa Faust

I read five Faust novels this year: Money Shot, Hoodtown, Control Freak, Triads (with Poppy Z. Brite) and Snakes on a Plane. I loved them all for different reasons. A couple were fun, a couple were dark, and a couple were both. I fell in love with Faust’s writing, and Money Shot was the first real “crime” book I read this year, and it really made me sit back and say, “Wow, this stuff is awesome!”

The books all have a similar feel to them (even the movie novelization of Snakes on a Plane, the story of which was likely, for the most part, out of her hands), and a certain attitude that I like. Julia read at least three of these books too, and liked them. I’m looking forward to two more books from her this year, I believe. I can’t wait!

Gabriel Hunt

This is a new series of books that I love. Gabriel Hunt is an adventurer; think Indiana Jones-meets-James Bond. Each book is portrayed as an actual adventure “as told” to a particular author by Hunt, as if he is a real person. Besides coming in at #6 on my Top 13 Studly Male Characters of 2009 list, I also read all three of the books currently available; Hunt at the Well of Eternity; Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear; and Hunt at World’s End.

Some people might call these books “trash” (those same “some people” would say that about most of the stuff I like, for that matter, but they can go get bent), and that’s fine. I enjoy them as books to read between headier stuff, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. I like the exotic locations around the world where the action happens, the fisticuffs, the gunplay, and the situations Hunt and his companions get into. I’m stoked that these books are being produced; they are a new generation of the great pulp stuff from the past, and that is fantastic. It looks like three more are scheduled to come out in 2010 (including one written by Christa Faust!), and I can’t wait!

So that’s it. More than you probably cared to know about my reading habits in 2009. Here’s to an equally fun 2010!