To My Wife’s Fans

20160319_weiner_0010Hello. Judging from traffic numbers, and how they spike after my wife mentions my name in public, I assume a good many readers have arrived here because of an interest in Jen. Welcome. These comments for you:

  • First, congratulations on being a fan of Jen’s. You’ve made a wise choice. Not only is she prodigiously talented—I’ve seen her write, and it’s like Mozart’s composition scenes from the movie Amadeus—but she is amazingly genuine and conscientious. She strives in every book to be herself and to give her fans their money’s worth.
  • Second, while you’re here: my choice for most underappreciated Jennifer Weiner novel: Then Came You. In addition to presenting four classic heroines, Jen’s story, without drawing attention to it, quietly outlines how economic status can influence the most personal of life choices. I would love for this book to become the foundation of a television series.
  • Third, if you’ve looked around here, you may have noticed that in addition to being a reader and writer, I am a sports guy. I worked for many years at Sports Illustrated as a staff reporter and editor, and continue to work for SI on freelance projects. I also wrote a novel in which the protagonist is a punter. Jen likes exercise but is not a fan of spectator sports. How does this play out in our marriage? Let me give you a real piece of dialogue from this past Sunday morning:

JEN (reading news on her phone): They think they’ve figured out Elsa Ferrante’s real identity.

ME: Is it Arvydas Sabonis, who Bill Walton said was one of the top five centers he’d ever seen play, when Sabonis was back in Russia, before his knee injuries?

  • Finally, Jen and I were married on March 19, 2016. The full story of our relationship is told in her new nonfiction book Hungry Heart, in a chapter titled “Men and Dogs.” The above Elsa Ferrante scene notwithstanding, if you are wondering, “How will being married to a 6’4”, 202-pound, semitic Adonis change Jen’s outlook on life?” I suggest you ask her that, using those terms, at her next reading.

Thank you.

Rollie Fingers, 1982 Topps


51COefRkv+LHow did this card happen?

As I have previously mentioned, I like to use old baseball cards as bookmarks. I reach into an old shoebox and blindly pull one out at the start of each new book. On the last fishing expedition I landed this 1982 Rollie Fingers.

The book, Stephen King’s On Writing, is as outstanding as everyone says. But a few words about this card. The back offered its share of curiousities. His hometown in recent years became famous for something awful—Steubenville, Ohio. Fingers is listed as 6’4, 195, which is not far from my current dimensions of 6’4, 205—oh, what an athletic career I could have had, if only I was athletic.

But the front of the card had me wondering, “Who chose this photo and why?”

There is nothing in-your-face atrocious about it, and there are literally thousands of cards that have been issued over the years with similarly bland fronts. But just look at it. It’s a photo of a man adjusting his hat.

In my time as an editor at Sports Illustrated and SI Books I have sat through many of what is called a “color show.” In a color show, representatives from photography, design and editorial sit in a dark room, looking at photo after photo projected on a screen, and select the best images to illustrate a story.

I am having a hard time imagining the color show that resulted in this photo of Rollie Fingers being chosen. It is not a standard portrait, of the kind that you see on many of those cards. This is an action shot, only of a static and unatheletic action. His face is in shadow, his expression unremarkable. My best guess is that pitcher’s jacket caught someone’s attention. At least the jacket gives a visual indication of his job

I wondered if Topps issued this card when it still had a monopoly on the baseball card market, as it had through the 1960s and ’70s, but no, Fleer and Donruss joined the fray in 1981. So Topps was actually facing competition, and this is what they sent into battle.

As a kid I was felt such anticipation when I tore open a pack of cards. Looking at this card, I sense that the excitement was not mutual on the part of the maker.

The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder

51cQBVzxKCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Read the The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder this past weekend. It’s good. Smart. The book is about a group of men who have been getting together for years to re-enact the gruesome play where Joe Theismann had his leg broken by Lawrence Taylor on Monday Night Football. It’s a funny idea, and the object of satire here is less football or fandom than  middle-aged men, always a ripe target for comedy. The book reads like a literary cousin to a m Gaffigan stand-up routine (I mean this as a compliment, FYI. Although if the book’s punches drew more blood, I might have compared it to a Louis CK special.)

Bachelder will have you reading his best bits out loud to the nearest person. I recommend a graffiti-ed story that one of the characters writes on the hotel’s pristine bathroom wall. Much is great here, even though many of the 22 reenactors blur into one another, and as do their disappointments. Also, the book, at a brisk 224 pages, takes care of its business a little too quickly.

But Bachelder captures well that feeling of arriving at an age where you see your letdowns more clearly than your possibilities. For these characters the break didn’t manifest as sharply as it did for Joe Theismann, but they know they’re on the other side of it all the same.

Dark Passage, by David Goodis

My novel HANGMAN’s GAME is dedicated to my parents and brother, and in that dedication I thank them for their reading recommendations. One recent recommendation from my dad: an anthology of David Goodis novels from the 1940s and ’50s.

DarkPassage_Messner_1946_tnMy dad actually gave me the book last year, but I only cracked it recently, in part because I don’t like the anthology format, specifically the way it condenses distinct works into a homogenous run. Also, I don’t like to read books by the same author one after the other, because in my mind they tend to blur together. Currently I am slow-reading my way through the works of Patricia Highsmith, and also John McPhee’s five geology books, but I am limiting myself to one a year of each.

I will now also be slow-reading Goodis as well, because I read Dark Passage, the first novel in the anthology, and I loved it. The book has the misanthropic energy of the best noir novels, and a hammering, repetitive prose style that presages David Mamet.

Also, this book has to have been read by Stephen King, as the closing grafs are clearly echoed by certain lines in The Shawshank Redemption. Except King has given the lines a cheerier spin.

Which should tell you all you need to know about how dark Dark Passage is.

And the reading list grows…

Came back from this weekend’s Annapolis Book Fair (so well run, Liz Klein Glass!) with a complimentary tote bag and plenty of books to add to the reading list. Including:

51-lAVO3v2L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_One Man Against the World, by Tim Weiner. I mention Tim not just because, like my wife, he has the last name Weiner and once worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer. There’s more! In college I read (and loved) Jonathan Schell’s book about the Nixon presidency, The Time of Illusion. Tim’s new history has received great reviews and is supposed to go even deeper into some of the strangest days ever in White House.

Also, after the festival Tim and I ended up on the same train home and he told me stories that had me spellbound from Amtrak’s BWI stop all the way to Philadelphia. That ride will be my most vivid memory of the weekend.

51HoWdUtuUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Bourbon Empire, by Reid Mitenbuler. A history of the bourbon industry, which contains enough drama that the book has been optioned for a television series. Reid and I were lodged at the same hotel and shared many rides together in Annapolis. He came across as thoughtful, decent, diligent, and best of all he assured me that, because the process of creating bourbon is relatively simple, there isn’t great difference between the high-end gourmet bourbons and more reasonably priced brands such as Wild Turkey and Jim Beam. I don’t drink a ton of bourbon, but I am a cheapskate, which means I welcome any information which reveals luxury to be a myth.

Run, Don’t Walk, by Adele Levine. Ms. Levine is a physical therapist who spent nine years working with amputee soldier at Walter Reed. The stories she told at her panel were eye-opening, and I have a selfish motive in reading her book, which would be: I hope that stories of people coping with genuine hardship can maybe help me deal with my own melodramas.

9781632862167Thirst, by Benjamin Warner. A literary thriller in which all the non-bottled water vanishes from the Earth. Benjamin was on my panel. He was clear-eyed and calm and just seemed like a guy who would write a good book. This may seem like an inane way to judge literary possibilities—according to the histories, a great many masterpieces were penned by asswipes. But I would like for my theory to be true, and so I am going to act as if it is.

I’ll be talking page-turners at the Annapolis Book Festival


gong-show-inlineOn Saturday April 16 at 2:30 p.m. I will be appearing at the Annapolis Book Festival, on a panel titled “Page Turners” with authors Benjamin Warner and Allison Leotta.

Or, to put it another way, is literature like The Gong Show? I think it is, and that’s why I write with a bag over my head and two holes cut out for eyes. The Unknown Comic is a major influence for me.

As a reader I always have a gong at the ready, especially in those opening pages. I’ve dropped more mysteries than I would care to admit after the first chapter, because when the “whodunit” question was presented, my brain answered, “I don’t care.”

the-unknown-comic-2But with a mystery or thriller, if I make it past those early pages I’m usually in until the end, whereas in literary fiction, there’s a greater chance I will drop out midway through. More than once I’ve begun books dazzled by a writer’s talents, only to bang the gong because I felt like I was unlikely to get anything at page 456 that I hadn’t experienced by page 118. These books felt more like a flavor than a story. And I need a story.

My favorite books—from canon classic Don Quixote to Patricia Highsmith’s thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley—had me invested in their characters’ fate even as they presented narratives of great depth. It’s the standard to which every book should be held.

If you’re near Annapolis, please come out on the 16th. The festival’s entire slate looks great. It should be a fun day.



Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

LonesomeDoveI am not the speediest of readers, so it is with some trepidation that will I pick up a 900-plus page book. Especially a book that was the basis for a 1980s TV miniseries. But a friend who is an outstanding writer (of restaurant reviews) told me that Lonesome Dove was his favorite book ever, and that sort of enthusiasm always draws my interest. We had a copy sitting of Lonesome Dove in the house, but even so, it took me a couple years to actually pick up the book.

The reward was my most enjoyable reading in years.  Lonesome Dove is engrossing, surprising, funny, and an unsparing dissection of the masculine mythology of the Old West. I am not a fan of Westerns—this is the first one I’ve read since I was assigned Shane in middle school—and as I began the book I had some leeriness as McMurtry introduced the cast of cowboys, a kindly prostitute who is the most notable female character in the first sections, and a vicious Cherokee outlaw named Blue Duck. Even though the prose was masterful and I was enjoying myself, I also felt the story tended toward an adolescent fantasy early on. I found myself thinking of Charlie Brown—all the characters in the same generation, with no parents above or children below.

But as the book continues and the cattle drive heads north, McMurty turns the fantasy inside out. The central romance bends in an unexpected direction, and characters’ limitations are hammered fiercely, as a story of parenthood moves to the fore.

The book is not without its limitations. But it is also, undoubtedly, time well-spent.

Left Coast Crime: the report

A couple weeks ago I attended Left Coast Crime and enjoyed it very much. If you’re a mystery fan or author I recommend going. One of the many people I met there was Janet Rudolph, who runs a mystery blog. She asked me to contribute a guest post, and I wrote about the convention, concentrating on what I learned from attended the author panels that run throughout the day.

I also participated in my own panel. They say you never learn anything from listening to yourself speak, but after my panel, in which I told stories about cornerback D’Angelo Hall, an NFL/college coach who shall remain nameless on the record, and a couple other sports figures from my out-in-the-field years with Sports Illustrated, I discovered that under stress I will name-drop quite shamelessly.


My schedule for Left Coast Crime

leftcoastcrime-2016-blog-headerGetting excited about the upcoming Left Coast Crime gathering in Phoenix. I will be in attendance. Here’s my schedule thus far:

Thursday, 2/25: Author’s Speed Dating  from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. In which mystery fans move from table to table to hear what authors have to say for themselves. I’ll be talking about HANGMAN’S GAME, and I may also be looking for people to go to the Nets-Suns game that evening.

Friday, 2/26: New Author’s Breakfast, 7:30 a.m. For fans who want to hear from the new kids on the block. (Even if the kids are, say, 47 years old). With the early start time, I am hoping that my body being on East Coast time will provide a crucial advantage.

Saturday, 2/27  The Game of Murder: Sports in Mysteries, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m..  A panel discussion on sports mysteries. I’ll be letting it rip with moderator Robert Rosenwald and authors John Billheimer, Tammy Kaehler, and W. L. Ripley.

When I’m not at these events I’ll be in the audience at as many panels as I can get to, hoping to learn from my fellow authors. Such a great opportunity. Hope to see you there!

Bruce Springsteen, The River Tour


bruce-springsteen-albany-performance-2016-billboard-650In the late 2000s I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert, at the Meadowlands, and one of the guys I was with remarked “I’ve seen Springsteen 34 times and that was by far the worst show I’ve ever seen him do.” Even without that basis for comparison, I knew what he meant. The show started late and was strangely flat, with a set list that was uninspiring across its wide middle. Bad Springsteen shows were not supposed to exist, and yet here I had found one—in New Jersey, no less. (Sports aside: For a while I had a similar problem with Steph Curry, I would go out of my way to watch him and somehow always catch him on an off night). I had been a big Springsteen fan in the 80s without ever making it to a concert. By the 2000s he was fading out of my musical rotation already, and after that show he dropped out completely.
A couple months ago, as a surprise, my fiance bought us tickets to see Springsteen on his current tour, featuring songs of The River. It turned out to be a perfect gift. The performance at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday was the Springsteen show I’d always hoped to see. It was big and fun, and featuring an all-world performer at the controls.
My observations from the show:
—Both Springsteen and his fans have aged a bunch since he first sang, “I had a wife and kids and Baltimore, jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back.” Which didn’t stop a room full of couples in their 40s, 50s, and 60s from belting those lines with Bruce, who was on stage with a band that includes the wife. That moment was the night in a nutshell: the meaning of the songs is what they used to mean. Also, it’s fun to sing along to the oldies.
—I had been a Springsteen fan long enough to have counted many different songs as my “favorite” over the years. The last “favorite,” before I stopped tracking, was Drive All Night. The song is on The River, so I knew I would hear it, but he went big on it, and that was good.
—After Springsteen had played all the songs on The River he went, without intermission, into a general concert, and the second song in that section was Prove it All Night, and Nils Lofgren ripped off a massive guitar solo, the only one of the night. It was great, and I found myself imagining an alternate universe in which the various keyboard and saxophone solos in Springsteen compositions were replaced by guitar solos like this one. I have to say, that alternate universe felt pretty good.
—Random aside: our seats were in the  upper level at Wells Fargo, to the side of the stage, and during those I could look across the arena and see silhouetted figures standing the entry halls to the seating. In one of those halls a larger man stood alone. I became fixated on the idea that it was, or should be, Chris Christie.
—The show ended with a ridiculous barrage of hits, each of which could have closed the show on their own. The sequence went Jungleland-The Rising—Thunder Road—Born to Run—Dancing in the Dark—Rosalita. And then, for good measure, Springsteen covered Shout, introduced the band, and goofed around some. If you didn’t enjoy yourself, it wasn’t because he didn’t try. The show was the longest of this tour, at three hours and twenty-seven minutes.  I appreciated the effort.