I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
I came to read this book because last summer I was given, unexpectedly, a review copy of Dexter’s latest book, Train; (my review). I had never heard of Dexter at the time, but I loved the book, and when Dexter came to the book store to do a reading, I made sure I was in attendance (he turned out to be a very engaging guy) and had him sign a copy of Paris Trout for me. And now I’ve gotten around to reading that very same book. Paris Trout centers around a character of the same name. Though he is clearly a psychopath, he has money and is a business man, so his violent nature is ignored by the citizens of his small town, Cotton Point, Georgia. The book opens with an attack by Trout on a local black family. The town’s white population does not want to be seen siding with a black family against a white man, so, from then on they turn a blind eye towards Trout and allow him to bully the legal system. Also involved in this hard boiled drama are Trout’s wife Hanna and Harry Seagraves, Trout’s good-guy lawyer. The book is framed as the story of a very bad man terrorizing a sleepy town, but the amazing thing about it is the way Dexter slowly turns the tables until it becomes clear that the complacency of the townspeople is a far greater sin than the murderousness of someone who lives among them. Though it reads like genre fiction with gripping suspense and at times remarkable violence, the subtle play on the psychology of a small town elevates the book to a remarkable literary novel. Although, I should say, if this book were not as deep and were merely a legal thriller, I would still have found it to be fantastic based on the strength of Dexter’s writing. A great book. (Another Dexter post).Next UpI am now embarking upon Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel De Cervantes’ classic, Don Quixote. After that I’ll be reading Walker Percy’s underappreciated classic The Moviegoer
Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem’s back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I’ve never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I’m really glad she did that because I’m always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I’ve already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter’s book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I’ll be reading Dexter’s National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett’s foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman’s pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman… Like him or not, I’m afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here’s what I had to say about this book after I read it: “The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip.”Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you’ve been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I’ll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the “transaction” at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don’t want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.
In case you haven’t been to your local drugstore and noticed that they removed all of the useful items to make way for Christmas decorations, the holidays are here. Here at The Millions headquarters we’ve got our turkey pan ready for a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, I see a lot of good food in my future… and of course the cruel flipside to all that eating is the horror of holiday shopping. There are articles coming out everywhere saying that this year’s holiday season will be big, which must make retailers happy, but there probably won’t be any rejoicing until they have the cash in hand. From my own limited observations, people already seem to be shopping for books this year, and with no clear “hot book gift” out there folks seem to be spreading the joy around, at least so far. So here’s what I’ve spotted lately in the hands of eager book buyers:In fiction Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code continues to sell at an ever-increasing rate. This sort of thing happens every couple of years, and it is pretty interesting to watch a new super-seller burst onto the scene backed by savvy marketing and a steamroller of word of mouth. Brown has now assuredly joined the ranks of John Grisham, Tom Clancy and the rest, and true to form his once forgotten backlist (Angels & Demons, for example, originally released in 2000 to no acclaim) has now hit bestseller lists. Almost like hitting the lottery. People also continue to buy some of the more bookish titles out there. I’ve already mentioned DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little which continues to sell well on the strength of its Booker Prize win, and Train an LA noir novel by Pete Dexter (which I really dug) is doing quite well also. The big newcomer, to my eyes, is Tobias Wolff whose first novel Old School (no relation) has hit shelves. There was an excerpt of this in the New Yorker way back a few months ago which I enjoyed, and people who have read a lot of his other work (the memoir and short stories) seem excited to read this new book. What is astonishing to me, though, is how big a literary name Wolff has become without, until now, having written a novel (in a day and age when readers supposedly only care about novels). I suppose this is a testament to the quality of his PEN/Faulkner Award-winning memoir This Boy’s Life and his various short story collections (Back in the World for example).Fiction is all well and good, but when people buy books as gifts, four times out of five they buy non-fiction. The reason: you don’t have to have read the book to know what you’re getting; Madeleine Albright’s memoir is Madeleine Albright’s memoir, but who knows what sordid scenes lurk in the middle of The World According to Garp. Of course one of the current big sellers, The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980, is full of sordid middle parts, but I think the folks giving and receiving that one know what they’re getting into. Meanwhile, in less sordid waters, the ranting Left continues to redouble its efforts against the ranting Right with Michael Moore’s sure-fire bestseller Dude, Where’s My Country?. Another big seller right now is a book that I can’t wait to read, Living to Tell the Tale the first volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ memoirs. Once I get to it, I’m sure I’ll talk about it a lot here. Artist David Hockney’s new book Hockney’s People is also selling well. It’s a collection of his portraits, both of himself and of his various friends and lovers. I’m not a huge fan of Hockney, but I like his portraits; they tend to be warm and interesting.Paperbacks, meanwhile, are not big sellers during the holidays, which is why I don’t have much to report on this front. The only serious paperback that has been selling really well of late is Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, which is probably piggy-backing the success of her recent memoir/family history Where I Was From. The other big selling paperbacks are destined for stocking stuffer status, which I’m sure is just what their authors hoped for. Try Russ Kick’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know for your paranoid relatives and Michael Flocker’s The Metrosexual Guide to Style for the trendy, sexually ambiguous ones.Extravagant Gift Alert: Have you seen this!?!?! How can something so silly be so expensive and…. huge (it weighs 20 lbs.!). Now if that isn’t nearly expensive or heavy enough, try this one… Still not enough? Try the “Champion’s Edition”. These heavyweights weigh in at 75lbs, by the way.
I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.
So, What’s new this week? Studs Turkel might be the originator of the “oral history” genre that seems to be reaching market saturation of late. After a while, it just seems like a lazy way to write a history book, even if it is the undeniably rockin’ history of punk. Turkel strays from these glorified interviewers in a couple of ways. First, he is adept at picking broad but compelling subjects and at finding the common and divergent threads that run through these subjects. His huge seller from 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, is an incredibly readable chronicle of the most common of American experiences. Second, as I have already implied, Turkel is able to paint history in the words of everyday people, not famous folks who practically make a living giving interviews, sketch comedy actors, for example. His new book, Hope Dies Last is the study of his most esoteric subject yet, America’s collective loss of hope and the decline in social activism that has accompanied it. Once again, he solicits the views of people from different generations and walks of life. Speaking of different walks of life, lots of folks out there seem to be excited by the general who is ready trade in his stars for a chance to become the President. Those curious to know more about Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark can see him showing off his military chops in his new book Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire.Those in a fictional frame of mind should look out for David Guterson’s long-awaited followup to Snow Falling on Cedars, a book called Our Lady of the Forest. To paraphrase what Guterson was saying this afternoon on a local public radio show, Our Lady of the Forest is about the occurrence of a mystical, Catholic phenomenon in a destitute Pacific Northwest logging town and the effect it has on four characters. 16-year-old runaway, Anne Holmes, believes that she is having visions of the Virgin Mary. This produces in the young town priest, Father Don Collins, a crisis of conscience. For sometime drifter and mushroom-picker, Carolyn Greer, the apparitions mean money and opportunity, and for guilt-ridden former logger Tom Cross, they signal a chance for redemption. It was especially interesting to hear Guterson talk about how he tried to infuse the book with both the beauty of the rainforests of the Northwest and the squalor of the once-prospering logging towns nearby. Also new in fiction: Shipwreck, another spare and haunting novel by Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt. Also just out is Train, a must-read LA noir novel by Pete Dexter. I read it and loved it. Here is my review. In paperback people are buying Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’ powerful indictment of Stalin and his Western sympathizers, The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene’s almost-creepy investigation of the ways in which people manipulate one another, and Songbook, Nick Hornby’s paean to his own considered and considerable music collection.AwardwinningThis year’s Booker Prize has been awarded to Australian author D.B.C. Pierre for his debut novel, Vernon God Little.
Pete Dexter’s new book Train comes out October 7th. Here is my review:In the grand tradition of Los Angeles noir, Pete Dexter’s new novel Train, is framed in black and white by the minds eye. Yet Dexter has applied his considerable skill to softening the edges; it is delicately written noir.Train is the nickname of Lionel Walk, a black caddy at a posh Brentwood country club, whose world seems populated only by malevolent forces: the crass racism of the country club members, the criminal element among his fellow caddies, and the undisguised malice of his mother’s lover. In the same city, and yet, of course, in another world entirely, a woman named Norah is brutally attacked and her husband is murdered while they are on their yacht, anchored off the coast. Norah manages to escape into the arms of Miller Packard, whom Train will later dub “Mile Away Man,” which sets the book careening towards its inevitable conclusion. Packard is brilliantly written as both heroic rescuer and herald of malevolent chaos.The mystery inherent in this book is not of the whodunit variety – we know from the start who commits the murder on the yacht – rather it is to see which of the forces that seem to inhabit Packard will win out in the end. In fact, one of the strengths of the book is Dexter’s ability to embody his characters with such ethereal qualities. Packard seems as though he has been touched by some unmentioned force that torments him. Train, meanwhile, has been similarly touched, and though this force is of pure benevolence, one cannot be sure if it will be strong enough to lift him from his circumstances. Train turns out to be, of all things, a golf prodigy, which would be a lucrative gift for almost anyone except someone in Train’s circumstances. Instead, his unaccountable proficiency serves only to further enmesh his life with that of Packard and Norah and a blind former boxer named Plural.Train is bleak but captivating. The book unfolds in front of you, and you find yourself not wanting to look away.