Books »Do Everything in the Dark

by Gary Indiana (2003)

Gary Indiana‘s Do Everything in the Dark, divulges the inner turmoil of New York’s avant garde from a bygone era. They face old age and irrelevance; a justifiable fear considering I had no idea what real life figures of the city’s bohemian past most of the characters were based on – with the exception of Susan Sontag (and only that because I read so).

The often hilarious book reminds me of Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz and the awesome Answered Prayers by Truman Capote. Like those authors, Indiana makes the best kind of storyteller – he can give vivid, sharp, witty, and sometimes harsh portraits of the vain, eccentric, insane, self absorbed and nasty artists, wanna be artists and hangers on that are interesting to hear about but not so much to be friends with ourselves.

Not that Indiana is all venom. With exceptions, he genuinely loves his subjects, who are after all, his dearest friends and in turn we love them too – at least some of them. I was most taken with the letter exchanges between Arthur, stuck among society vultures on a Spanish Island and Jesse, whoring it up with busboys in Istanbul.

Other characters I found less intriguing like a couple of young good looking junkies – but if ever you find yourself bored one moment, Indiana ping pongs the story around frequently.

The novel, which was written after 9/11 but clearly and deliberately depicting a pre-9/11 New York is in turns raunchy, touching, and clever. There were so many perfectly worded lines that I wish I’d kept a highlighter on me while reading. I didn’t, but here’s on example:

“I know you’ve blown a junkie or two along the trail; if you’ve blown one you really have blown them all. I’d rather eat ice cream. You can have that engraved on my tombstone if I happen to go first”

I am surprised his work hasn’t found a larger audience among the young and hip trying to live their own Bohemia (though this time in condos).

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Posted on May 18, 2011

Books »The Looking Glass War

by John Le Carre (1965)

At this point I really shouldn’t be shocked that I share a common interest: a love of John Le Carre, with those greying men in neckties and with golf habits I always hear about but it still surprises me (Does this mean they’re right about Clive Cussler too?). Le Carre is a magnificent story teller, his world of spies and espionage is uniquely intriguing in that is doesn’t include gadgets, studly men and super villains but rather muddled intelligence, old men with often tired or unforgiving wives, and enemies that are vague at best. In The Looking Glass War, the vagueness couldn’t be more pronounced. Set during the Cold War in a department known only as “The Department”, some sketchy intelligence leads to even an even sketchier mission.

The “heroes” are men who thrived during the War and knew exactly their roles within it but who are now feeling ignored, confused and washed up against the less obvious tactics and rules of a War waged without guns and maneuvering. Out of date on the newest technology, flailing when it comes to covert operations and desperate for the honor and respect their previous positions use to garner, the Department headed by Leclerc is overly zealous to send a man into Germany to investigate some blurry photos with possibly significant implications. The recruited agent, a Polish, well dressed ladies man named Leiser also had his heyday years earlier but is completely unaware that he’s putting his life in the hands of those equally rusty and clumsy. After spending time with the men as they prepare for the mission one can see that tragedy is inevitable.

Le Carre always provides a realistic portrayal of spying, but apparently the frank banality of this one made it less popular than his other novels. I found it compelling and a great study of characters. Even our favorite, George Smiley makes several appearances.

It was adapted into a movie in 1969 starring Anthony Hopkins. In my usual habit, I cast it in my mind with James McAvoy as the young Avery, any actor that looks similar to Marco Pierre White as Leiser, Stephen Frye as Woolcroft, Michael Gambon as Haldane, since Alec Guinness has passed, Sir Ian McKellan as Smiley and for some reason I could only see Magnum PI’s John Hillerman as Leclerc.

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Posted on April 20, 2011

Books »Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe (1958)

Things Fall Apart was a milestone in African Lit. It was one of the first successful novels about Africa and written by an African. It introduced the world to tribal living in Nigeria, specifically the Igbo culture at the time of the 19th century invasion of missionaries and colonists. It’s no less interesting decades later and no less heartbreaking.

Chronicling the life of a fierce warrior named Okonkwo, author Chinua Achebe is economical in his writing which is matter of fact and without dramatic flourishes and lengthy descriptions. Events, as small as women preparing for a feast and as powerful as the murder of a son are described frankly and simply, which makes them all the more affecting. It reflects the traditional stories that are woven into the novel.

The novel is common high school reading, made clear to me in my used book that includes the scrawled inscription “I hate this book!” from some ninth grader past, but this is the first time I’ve read it. I enjoyed it much, much more than the book’s previous owner.

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Posted on March 24, 2011

Books »Freedom

by Jonathan Franzen (2010)

While I can say that Jonathan Franzen probably deserves most of the accolades and praise for being the great American novelist, I also have to say, having just finished Freedom “Phew, I’m glad that’s over!” He’s a master at mucking in the dirt and grime of the worst in people and their messed up relationships, but I was happy to leave the Berglunds, whom Freedom chronicles, behind me.

Maybe it was tougher reading for me since I just had a son and one of the most damaged relationships is between the mother and her teenage son – but I definitely understand why friends struggled with the intensity of The Corrections, his previous novel that I found a bit more amusing and easy to read.

Here Franzen, or at least his characters, seem deeply angrier than he’s ever written before, a very apt and true portrait of our country today, I think. And while Corrections had some humor (at least I remember it having some – maybe not??) here the relief from human pain is filled with detailed information about corrupt businesses in the Iraq War, the threat of animal endangerment and overpopulation, and the complexities of environmental versus human salvation.

The writing is so sharp, so vivid and intelligent in it’s detail – I mean, it’s brilliant – but also so hard to escape, so difficult to release yourself from when you put the book down. Jim even asked me to finish it soon to improve on my mood!

I seem to be writing more about how the book made me feel than the book itself –  because on paper, a simple plot synopsis doesn’t suffice. Patty and Walter are married, they have two children and their lives get messy. Every time a person achieves some happiness, it’s violently torn from them, his message being, perhaps, that life is not fair and when it is, don’t expect it to last.

You have to read it to get more than that, and despite that this write up sounds more like a warning than a recommendation, I do highly recommend it. Just give yourself room to get pretty bummed out under its influence.

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Posted on March 16, 2011

Books »Ham On Rye

by Charles Bukowski (1982)

There is a great tradition in American literature of tough men telling masturbation soaked tales of youthful losers. I can’t say it’s my go-to source for reading, which is probably why Ham on Rye has sat on my book shelves for over a decade. I bought it in my high school years, exactly the right time to want to be into Bukowski. But I never was.

I wondered how his coarse, depressing stuff would read with an older me – and have a loose resolution to watch, read, and listen to artists I’ve never experienced but am curious about. I started with Tom Wolfe (big success) and Bukowski was right next to him on the shelf.

Like other rough and manly men of the written word, his writing is to the point. it’s sparse but still conveys a very vivid picture. The picture Ham and Rye shows is this: it sucked to be Charles Bukowski as a kid, or I should say, Hank Chinaski, his semi autobiographical anti-hero. If anyone asked him why he drank, he could probably just plop this book down on the table.

One almost expects this portrait of a young man, forced to the outside fringes of society to end with a mass murder perpetrated by the shunned, horny misanthrope rather than a penny arcade defeat. But true to Bukowski’s negative eye on the world – things end more poignantly with a whimper.

I was surprised to enjoy this book (well, enjoy is maybe too joyful a word). Though I do have a weird knack for reading bleak stuff when it’s at odds with my life (Miss Lonelyhearts before I got married, this one as Van sleeps peacefully next to me).

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Posted on February 2, 2011

Books »Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe (1987)

There are people who know how to tell a story and those who don’t. Tom Wolfe can tell a story. With an ear for dialogue, a sharp eye for details, and an almost tabloid journalism joy for exposing and wallowing in the character’s flaws, in his first fictional novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe is wry, smart and highly entertaining.

Little wonder that it was a national best seller that spawned a (reportedly terrible and definitely miscast) star studded movie.

The writing is Dickens by way of Richard Price. In less deft hands, lacking the dark sense of humor, this could have been a self riteous bore, but it’s crisp, witty and makes me want to read more from the well dressed icon.

Set in the mid 80’s Bonfire is the story of one Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street millionaire who ends up embroiled in scandal when he and his mistress commit hit and run while lost in the streets of the Bronx. Race, class warfare, politics, greed, and yellow journalism all play their part in this epic story.

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Posted on January 30, 2011

Books »World Made By Hand

by James Howard Kunstler (2008)

Among the many post apocalyptic novels, James Howard Kunstler‘s World Made By Hand is relatively tame in the fear department – that is if you are used to baby eating and zombies. The story centers around a former exec turned homesteader after the modern world ends as we know it.

Set in Upstate New York, he and others are learning to survive despite severe tragedy in a comparatively calm corner of a world gone wrong (major catastrophes in the major cities are hinted at). Nearby a tribe of nere do wells control commerce and a cult of religious folk come to town with a mind to take things over.

Jim, glancing over my shoulder, assumed that I would be having a hard time with the book when he saw some Bible quotes and olde timey talk. And, yes I would think this take on the end of the world wouldn’t work for me, but reading it was kind of like being at a party and getting stuck in a serious conversation while watching people get silly drunk out of the corner of your eye… ultimately becoming so engrossed in the conversation so that you don’t care.

It’s a bit pedantic, and hopeful in an almost golly-gee sort of way but it paints a very vivid picture of a possible future without modern technology (for good and bad) that will make you think and enjoy it.

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Posted on January 8, 2011

Books »Foxfire

by Joyce Carol Oates (1993)

Teenage girls are infinitely fascinating and mysterious to me (even though I was one once!). There’s such a deep emotional well and dynamic opposing elements, it’s little wonder that their world can make for excellent fiction when handled right (see Virgin Suicides and My Summer of Love).

Joyce Carol Oates makes the rebellion of teenage girls, and the intense friendships that can be formed, especially with little or no family influence, the topic of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. Told through the older, though perhaps no wiser eyes of one of the gang members years later, the story is mostly set in the early 1950’s in the run down town of Hammond, NY.

“Legs” Sadovsky is the gang leader, a bold, complex young hellion, beyond her years and an idol for admiration to lost girls. Under her watch and direction, a rag tag group of outsiders, all young girls and denouncing men, form Foxfire, a girl gang that goes beyond mere tattoos and matching outfits but delves into violence, recklessness, theft and eventually worse in an uncontrolled vent against a world with few options and many obstacles.

It’s a fast paced and quick read that I have on good authority is a million times better than the loose film adaptation which seems to take all the bite out of the plot and sets the story in the early 90’s with Angelina Jolie. It’s a shame, because in the right hands it could make a compelling movie. For now, read the book instead.

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Posted on October 15, 2010

Books »Ghostwritten

by David Mitchell (1999)

David Mitchell entered my life with one of my favorite novels ever, Cloud Atlas. I decided to visit his first novel, Ghostwritten a few weeks ago and found the beginnings of genius, but unlike Atlas, it’s a slow, sometimes confusing process to make it through this dense, story-hopping book that begins with a Tokyo subway attack and ends with the end of the world narrowly diverted. The stories in between are loosely connected, a style he has made his own and some are more compelling than others.

It’s hard to say exactly what it’s all “about” though there are clearly themes like individuals versus the masses, whether it be a corporation, a cult, or the government, human accountability, and ghosts of many kinds. Somehow though, in it’s ambition and global sweep, the novel is a bit dry and passionless. While it’s certainly worth a read with many memorable elements, he perfects the balance of mind and heart with his later works. (i.e. read Cloud Atlas if you haven’t yet).

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Posted on August 15, 2010

Books »Lunar Park

by Bret Easton Ellis (2005)

I can kind of understand why some Bret Easton Ellis fans told me not to bother with Lunar Park. It’s a love it or leave it (The Boston Globe said it may be the worst novel I’ve ever read) book that really depends on how much you’re willing to go with him on a journey, not fueled by sexy young things, drugs and privilege (well, OK there is a bit of that) but on a journey that most closely resembles Poltergeist meets faux self loathing. Yes, Ellis has pretty much created a straight up horror summer reading book with loads of meta meta meta.

The main character is Bret Easton Ellis, and while most of his life story and persona are true, the skyrocketing fame and parties of the real Ellis are well known, much of the biography of this “Bret Easton Ellis” is purely made up. (I was one of the clueless who looked up the book version of Bret Easton Ellis’ girlfriend, Jayne Dennis to see if she was real – she’s as real as Dorsia – which I also looked up). He is a world famous, controversial author now living the suburban life with his wife, her daughter, and his estranged son while reluctantly teaching at his alma mater and trying to carry on affairs with his students.

There’s cocaine, there’s alcohol, there’s clever cynicism.. even Jay McInerney shows up – but the book takes on something entirely new for Ellis when the McMansion he lives in starts to show signs of being possessed. Lights begin to flicker, footsteps burn themselves into the carpeting, a Furby like doll turns animals inside out, and a hairy creature crawls up the stairs. Patrick Bateman , the serial killer from American Psycho also makes an appearance – killing locals based on the novel and young neighborhood boys are (willfully?) disappearing. I’m not surprised that he says the book was an homage to Stephen King because it shares much more with those genre books than I think most fans were interested in.

It’s sometimes complicated, sometimes melodramatic, often cinematic (you can easily see many of the scenes played out in a movie) and definitely surreal but it’s mostly about the pain of bad father and son relationships. Well, that and violent ghosts.

Best to enter this one without expectations and a love for the horror book genre.

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Posted on July 18, 2010

Books »Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison (1992)

A young girl grows up rough in the South with plenty of abuse, drinking, family, and lessons.. it sounds like the kind of book that writes itself and may prove predictable in it’s drama, but Dorothy Allison does something quietly magical with her debut darling, The Bastard Out of Carolina. She creates a living, breathing world that feels authentic in no small part to the autobiographical elements of the story. Both author Allison, and protagonist Bone have a very tough life but one that still has some hope, love of family, and incredible personal spirit.

I can listen to people tell tales of their family gossip for hours, and Bastard Out of Carolina kind of feels like that to an extreme. It received numerous honors when it was published and his lauded not only by critics but readers. It was made into an Anjelica Houston directed showtime movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jena Malone.

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Posted on June 27, 2010

Books »Water Music

by T.C. Boyle (1982)

T.C. Boyle is one of my favorite contemporary writers and from the hippie clash of Drop City, to the speculative ruin of the planet in Friend of the Earth, I have recommended many of his works here. Water Music is his first novel and while he may not have quite acquired the brilliant character development you’ll find in his later books, there’s lots to have fun with in the adventures of Mungo Park – trudging through the dark heart of undiscovered (by Westerners that is) Africa and Ned Rise – trudging through the foul hardships of London in the late 18th century.

While Boyle freely admits to playing with the historical facts, Mungo Park was a real life explorer who chronicled his discoveries in a book called Travels in the Interior of Africa. Rogue and con man Rise on the other hand is purely a figment of Boyle’s imagination.

Adventure seems to be the theme of the week, and Water Music is a doozy with cutthroats, gallows, crocodiles, angry Moor warriors, frightening diseases, grave robbing and more. Best paired with something along the lines of this week’s movie pick or one of Herzog’s adventures like Aguirre The Wrath of God.

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Posted on March 21, 2010

Books »Home Land

home land sam lipsyte
by Sam Lipsyte (2005)

Home Land is a bitter and acidically funny book about a smart-assed failure named Lewis (also known, after an unfortunate high school incident, as “Teabag”), who, via his high school’s alumni newsletter, decides to tell his former classmates (many of whom seem to personify success and adult contentedness while Lewis spends his time doing little more than loafing around with his friend Gary, a guy who has got some issues of his own – to put it lightly), exactly what is on his mind: to broadcast the inner life of someone who “did not pan out”.

As an anti-hero, Lewis isn’t particularly likable – but then again, no one in this novel is likable. But likability was not a hindrance in my enjoyment of the book, though its cleverness almost was. Home Land nearly suffers from ultra quick witted writing (think Juno) that, while fun to read, sometimes left me wondering how it was possible that everyone in the book’s universe could be so quirky.

Author Sam Lipsyte won a Believer Book Award for Home Land and it earned a spot on the Times Notable Books of 2005.

Click here for the rest of Home Land

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Posted on December 26, 2009

Books »Petals on the Wind (Worst Book)

I got into serious trouble once back in elementary school for bringing this V.C. Andrews book, Petals on the Wind, to school and now, years later, I understand why and completely agree with the verdict. I was expecting some melodramatic YA fiction but what I got was queasy grossness by way of glamorized incestuous pedophelia. As a fairly reasonable adult I can not believe that this was marketed so successfully to pre-teen girls for decades. It's an outrage

Picking off where the teen lit (even abbreviated as 'lit' and paired with 'teen', the reference to legitimate literature is misleading) phenomenon Flowers in the Attic left off, the Dollanganger clan is out of the attic and off to follow their dreams of becoming ballerinas and doctors. They meet a seemingly kindly old man who takes them in and… Well, really I can't even tell you what ends of happening, I felt so off-put by the whole thing I actually put the book the book back in my purse and?defiantly rode the rest of the way home with nothing to occupy my time. Worst of all: my copy didn't even have the cut-out cover art!

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Posted on November 9, 2009

Books »We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Best Book)

Here's what I said back on December 28th:

Shirley Jackson
is a vivid horror writer, not vivid as in blood and gore, but like her most famous short story, The Lottery, her depictions of the horrors of human cruelty are ones that stick in your imagination forever. Since reading that short story way back in junior high, I'd never tried anything else that Jackson had written and was happy to have finally rediscovered her work with the short novel We Have Always Lived In the Castle, a chilling, twisted, smart, haunting book about a family rocked by murder, insanity, suspicion and class warfare.

Merricat Blackwood (named by Book Magazine as one of The 100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900) is your narrator, a strange child of eighteen and one of the only surviving members of a prominent family that was killed at breakfast when someone put arsenic in their sugar. Constance, her older sister was acquitted of the murders and poor Uncle Julian's body and mind were permanently warped by his non lethal dosage. Together the three of them, along with Jonas, the cat, live in an old mansion apart from the rest of the village. They are completely sheltered from the outside world except for the two days a week Merricat goes into the village for goods and must endure the stares and laughter of the villagers, and Sundays when members of other prominent families bravely take tea with the two mysterious girls.

Their beloved castle is under the protection of Merricat's sympathetic magic described by wikipedia as:

a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. Imitation involves using effigies or poppets to affect the environment of people, or occasionally people themselves. Correspondence is based on the idea that one can influence something based on its relationship to another thing.”

For example, she buries items like a box of silver coins and nails her father's books to the surrounding trees to keep out strangers; once that book falls, she knows danger is imminent.

That danger comes in the form of Cousin Charles, a thieving manipulator who can fool the frail Constance, but not so easily the equally manipulative Merricat who envisions different ways he could die (turning him into a fly and leaving him in a spiders web, or perhaps just stomping him to death in the garden…) during a rather unappreciated visit. His presence sparks a chain of events that breaks down their odd routines and concludes in an eruption of fire and violence which marks the beginning of a new and far weirder way of life for the two sisters.

It's part Grey Gardens, part Tim Burton (who would have a grand time adapting this), part old timey Gaslight thriller, and I loved it. It was interesting to find out that Jackson was an agoraphobic herself, which is probably why the extremely eccentric but happy sisters are sympathetic and oddly relatable while all the outsiders are depicted as cruel or petty.

While Jackson isn't as well known today as she deserves to be, this, her last novel did come out in a new edition in 2007 with a smart looking cover featuring an illustration by Thomas Ott (pictured) but the original cover is also pretty wonderful and both adorn an equally great read.

The Demon Princes
Random Family
Code of the Woosters
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
A Friend of the Earth
Please Don't Promise Me Forever

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Posted on November 2, 2009

Books »The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

the heart is a lonley hunterIt's hard to believe that Carson McCullers had so much understanding and empathy for the human condition at age 23 when she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Set in North Carolina in the 1930's the sweeping but quiet novel is told from the perspective of four local residents: a young imaginative girl, an agitated and educated drunk, a calm restaurant manager, and an angry and intelligent African American doctor.?All four are wandering souls who find solace in Mr Singer, a tall mute whom they can imagine to be anything and anybody they want.

The novel has had a lasting impact on readers for decades. It's so layered and needing of thoughtful attention, that I almost regret I never read this like many have, in a class. I don't feel I quite gave it the time it deserved in snippets between subway stops and late at night after working late.

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Posted on August 31, 2009

Books »Lush Life

richard price lush lifeRichard Price is known for his ear for dialog and realistic portrayals of complex people and communities. In Lush Life, his highly praised eighth novel, he turns his sharp focus on the Lower East Side of the past couple of years, a neighborhood in transition. Price says:

?here are about five worlds down there, and they're oblivious of each other. Well, every once in a while these worlds collide, and when they do it is usually on a street corner at four in the morning. The kids from the projects know that the kids inland have money – put a gun in their face, you can usually score enough cash to buy some Chinese takeout. But the kid whose face you're putting the gun in thinks he's in a movie, he's got his load on, he does the wrong thing – and BOOM, headlines for five days. Then everybody goes back to normal.”

The BOOM incident in this case is a robbery gone bad that echos the LES murder of actress Nicole DuFresne. The subsequent investigation and turmoil that follows fills the pages of this page turning novel. And while I've heard some complaints about the slower second half of the book, which are fair, it's slower parts are still more intriguing than most books out there.

Price was a huge inspiration and later a collaborator on The Wire, and for fans of that show Lush Life will be addition to the pantheon of intelligent crime sagas. For us New Yorkers, it's an intriguing look at our surroundings chock full of recognizable locations (Schiller's Liquor Bar and Milk and Honey,?for example). It's completely deserving of all the praise it's received, and with Price adapting (slowly) his own work for the big screen, this is one of the few page to screen adaptations I'm looking forward to.

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Posted on May 25, 2009