Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Reader's Night Out

Having written reviews of a couple of Timothy Hallinan’s books (A Nail Through the Heart, Breathing Water), and having corresponded with Tim—either by e-mail or by virtue of blog comments—on several occasions, I eagerly awaited his arrival (Wednesday night, September 30th) at Murder by the Book, in southeast Portland, as he blew through town on the last leg of his Breathing Water book tour.

Determined not to let this opportunity to meet Tim slip by, I’d begun planning for the event in early June, when I first learned that he’d be on tour in September. I diligently organized my own affairs so as to avoid conflicts with Tim’s scheduled appearance; checked the progress of his tour almost daily on his blog; reserved a Zipcar (more than three weeks in advance) to meet my transportation needs for the long-awaited evening event.

It was probably more by design than by accident that I arrived at the appointed place an hour earlier than the appointed time, but having an hour to kill gave me both opportunity and excuse to peruse a large selection of new and used mystery/thriller/suspense novels—many of which I’ve read and many more which I have not—including offerings from Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Tami Hoag, Patricia Cornwell, David Baldacci, Steve Martini, Tess Gerritsen, and quite a few others. It’s comforting to know that there will never be a shortage of reading material in the fiction genres I prefer.

Upon his arrival, Tim apologized profusely for being late (seems he was trapped for 20 minutes, on the wrong side of the river, by a bridge in the raised position), but he could have been later and still been early. I cleverly introduced myself by forgetting to introduce myself, launching instead into an immediate discussion of his long trip (then over 8,000 miles), the kind of car he drives (an Infiniti), and his on-board navigation system (named Doris, but which might have better been named—to borrow from Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast—Gay Deceiver), which led him into an anti-climactic but humorous confrontation with a pair of underzealous Kansas cops.

One of the things I most like about Timothy Hallinan is his affability, his congeniality, his willingness to engage with his readers (okay, three of the things I most like about Tim). Yes, he’s a gifted writer and storyteller, but there’s more—much more. Because he’s comfortably familiar with his subject matter, he speaks without hesitation or faltering or frequent interruptions punctuated by “uhs,” “ers,” and “umms.” When Tim talks about his Bangkok novels, or the city of Bangkok, or the people of Bangkok, or the economy, government or religion of Thailand, it’s as if he’s reading from a teleprompter; the narrative flows like a river. Of course, there was no teleprompter in evidence, nor so much as a single page of notes (although, I suppose, it’s possible that Tim had his main talking points tattooed on the inside of his eyelids).

The PowerPoint presentation, around which Tim’s talk was structured, produced some stunning visuals that captured Bangkok at its best—and at its worst. The thing that intrigues me most about Bangkok is that it’s a vibrant modern city whose entire population seems to live simultaneously in the past, present, and future. But it was Tim’s mention of the disparity between rich and poor and the corruption that runs rampant at all levels of Thai government that proved particularly insightful. It was at that point that I realized he could just as easily have been talking about social hierarchies and government in the U.S.; there really isn’t that much difference (the Golden Rule—those who have the money make the rules—applies everywhere).

A natural-born teacher, Tim managed to convey more useful information in 30 minutes than my high school social studies teacher was capable of in an entire semester. Had Mr. Hallinan been the teacher in that long-ago social studies class instead of a dumb jock (wrestling coach, assistant football coach) masquerading as an educator, I’m sure I would have stayed around long enough to graduate. As it was, I had no patience for the bullshit and wasn’t about to let school get in the way of my education. An ineffective educator not only denies students an education, but is nothing more than a thief of students’ time. Life’s too short.

After Tim’s presentation and subsequent book signing, a delightful young woman named Theresa—whom I’d met and talked with earlier in the evening—arranged an introduction to Portland novelist Bill Cameron (featured in Portland Noir, author of Lost Dog and Chasing Smoke), who also happened to attend. That introduction led me to purchase two more books—both signed by their author—and garnered an invitation to submit my contact information so Bill can put me on his ARC list before his new book comes out next year.

It may be something of an understatement to say it was a productive reader’s night out. As a first-time attendee at a book signing, my expectations had been exceeded in every possible way. As the door to Murder by the Book closed behind me and I began the long walk back to my car weighed down by a shopping bag full of books, I knew that someday soon I’d be back.

There are, after all, other books to read. And other authors to meet.

Q >>>