Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fiction picks of 2016

Nobody’s Fool and
Everybody’s Fool 
by Richard Russo

This was a project I was eager to undertake: read straight through Nobody’s Fool from 1996 and Everybody's Fool, the sequel published this year. Separately, Nobody’s Fool stands beautifully on its own. It is during that pitch-perfect run that began with Risk Pool and culminated with Empire Falls

It is a sparkling, hilarious tale centered around Donald Sullivan better known as Sully. Unashamedly, I will use the same quote about the character damned near every reviewer has used: "Throughout his life a case study underachiever, Sully -- people still remarked -- was nobody's fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application -- that at 60, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man's, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable -- all of which he stubbornly confused with independence." Brilliant. Picture him as Paul Newman like I do and you’ve got a fantastic novel (and a pretty decent film starring Paul Newman).

Everybody’s Fool takes us back to North Bath, NY and most of the same characters still populate the town. However, and most importantly, Sully is not our hero though he is still present. That job is filled by Douglas Raymer, a minor character from the first book, who has risen through the ranks to become police chief. Rife with intriguing characters and plentiful sub-plots, it is a Russo tale for certain but the pace is neither as breathless nor as break-neck as the first and that should be expected because it is a slightly different Russo who has written this one. We’re all a little older--Sully, Raymer, Russo and me.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Much anticipated, Moonglow pays off. It has all the hallmarks that make Chabon one of the great American authors of the last 25 years but this time he walks a fine line by making Michael Chabon one of the main characters in the book. It is his grandfather though who owns the spotlight. Like most men of his generation, he kept mum for years about himself but in the last two weeks of his life, Chabon’s grandfather reveals more about himself to young Mike than he had ever. 

Grandpa was a shtarker, a tough guy, but with a bent for science. As part of Operation Paperclip, his job was to hunt Nazis after the war and his goal was to capture Wernher Von Braun. Once he returns to the States, he marries a beautiful but troubled French Holocaust survivor with a daughter (Michael’s mom) whom he raises as his own. Typically, Chabon covers a lot of ground that would take too long to summarize and, as always, he teaches us a great deal about any number of subjects that so fascinate him but that often slow the pace. Still, Moonglow is a worthy and customarily uncommon addition to the Chabon canon.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

While a very different book than his outstanding debut, The Rules of Civility, Towles gives us another fantastic novel with sparkling prose and characters you wish you knew. Count Alexander Rostov returned to his homeland as the Revolution began, and after getting his mother to safety, took up residence in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, one of the great Old World hotels. He is a man of generous spirit and bonhomie, well-traveled and educated, and his life at the hotel is a fine one. In 1922, he is stripped of his status for a poem he wrote as a young man that is now deemed subversive. He is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol for the rest of his life. If he steps outside, he will be shot. He can travel nowhere and within the hotel, he can no longer enjoy the privilege he has known his whole life. This kicks off the next few decades of his life and the “family” he acquires while there. Some may find it twee but I thought it was absolutely charming and a worthy sophomore effort from the author.

Welcome Thieves 
by Sean Beaudoin

A relative newcomer, Beaudoin’s inventive short stories had me laughing out loud, grimacing at all the right moments, and rooting for his protagonists despite their inability to save themselves. I enjoyed All Dreams Are Night Dreams, a story of a fledgling water spectacle a la Cirque du Soleil and a troupe of Welsh travelers. The show is a slog and a dog and never quite reaches the Vegas heights it hopes for but the characters are most memorable. The long-titled You Too Can Graduate in Three Years with a Degree in Contextual Semiotics might make readers think it’s too clever by half but I thought it novel and affecting. Tiffany Marzano’s Got a Record, Hey Monkey Chow, and the title story were other faves in this very strong collection from an author that stood out this year.

We Are Still Tornadoes 
by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

Set in the 80’s, Tornadoes chronicles the relationship between childhood friends Cath, who goes off to college, and Scott, who stays behind. It is a touching take on growing up, friendship, and the impermanence of youth while managing to be kind, funny, and thoughtful and that is no small task.

Regular Reed-ers might be sick of me endlessly plugging this marvelous epistolary novel but I loved it and don’t care who knows!

Friday, December 09, 2016

And then we came to the end...

...of another year and not a moment too soon. It has been a rotten year in many respects. We lost an unusual amount of talented people whose work I admired. There was a personal loss that hit hard and has left many close to me crawling from the wreckage. Finally, there was the election which still feels like a boot to the stomach and which has left me with a sense of fear and foreboding like I've never before experienced. 

Fortunately, there is always art, especially books, to mend my heart and sooth my furrowed brow. Old friends in the book biz still look out for me and I buy books, of course. I use my library more than I have in years and it gives me a certain feeling, a familiarity about which I had forgotten but which I'm happy to feel again. The nearest branch ain't exactly Disneyland but you make do.

Tallying it all up, I finished 30 books this year and picked up and put down another dozen, I suppose. Since I remain consistently terrible at writing about all the books I read despite having this here blog which is allegedly about all the books I read, there may be a few I've even forgotten. Looking over the list, I'm still reading more fiction than non-fiction. 

Uncharacteristically, I read a book of poetry this year, Jeff Sirkin's Travelers Aid Society  (full disclosure, Jeff is an old pal o' mine from an unaccredited Hebrew school we attended in Kuala Lumpur). I must say I enjoyed it but I'm still unsure if I "get" poetry and so there is always a feeling as though I'm doing it wrong. When I laugh at what I think is a funny line, I then look around, guiltily, wondering if that's where I was supposed to laugh or if I completely missed the point of it all and only uneducated cretins laugh at that line and I've actually no business laughing at that line and the poet would be crushed to learn I laughed at their pain. Maybe I can just come to terms with the idea that poetry makes me nervous and uncertain and, perhaps, I'm undoubtedly overthinking this. And why do I look around, guiltily, when it's only Mrs. Next asleep next to me and the dog awaiting the "you-can-get-on-the-bed-now" signal? 

All neurotic, incomprehensible blather aside, here are my top 5 non-fiction reads for 2016:

Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World by Tim Sultan

Ever hear of this book? Or the author? I hadn’t either but you should because I think it’s terrific.  Sunny’s Nights is a thing of beauty. A writer, both physically and professionally lost, happens on this tiny, non-descript, only-open-on-Fridays bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The owner, Sunny, is an estimable raconteur who holds court and can code-switch from Shakespeare and the Bhagwan Rajneesh to the poetry and patois of Red Hook in an eye blink (in one instance, he suggests Sultan drink a “berlermaker”). He is a gorgeous soul, all too aware of his limitations as a human, but full of a passion and a spirit to be admired. The stories he tells, the life he lives, all chronicled with loving detail by Sultan, make you wonder if he’s putting us on but Sunny’s the real, though unlikely, deal. Fans of J. R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar will love Sunny.

Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin Circuit and The Road to Rock 'n' Roll was an eye-opener for me. It made clear the link between the big band era and rock ‘n’ roll, how the bands pared down in size, how black entrepreneurs made their own successful world despite being confined by Jim Crow, and how huge a debt is owed to the Roy Browns, Big Joe Turners, and Louis Jordans. They led the way for Little Richard and James Brown and all those subsequent musicians who felt their influence. Hot stuff.

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

These pieces were all written in the seven years between the birth of Keret’s first son and the death of his father. Though non-fiction, they have all the elements that make Keret’s writing so outstanding: black humor, empathy, a deep humanity as well as witty self-effacement. Where there is immense sadness, there is also great hope.

97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman

A remarkable work that traces the history of one Lower East Side address and the five immigrant families that all made their way through the doors from the 1870’s through the 1930’s. Only after reading the book did I learn that this is the address of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which I then visited in late March (the day we went was the anniversary of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire). To read this marvelous book and then see the actual rooms themselves was unlike most of my reading experiences.

Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L. A. Punk by John Doe and Tom Desavia

Told by the musicians and artists who peopled the scene, these are recollections of an era that would influence music in ways that are all too often overlooked. X, the Blasters, and The Flesh Eaters may not be as well-known or remembered as their east coast punk rock counterparts but their influence along with others in the book cannot be overlooked. There was power and passion and lots of weirdos. Bless ‘em for it.

Stay tuned. Working on my top 5 fiction picks now. At my current rate, I should be done by early February.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

Click the link below to learn more about the book
Regular Reed-ers will remember that I wrote about this book before it was a book. Michael Kun generously asked me to be an early reader of this novel he co-wrote with Susan Mullen when it was still in manuscript form. I loved it and was so happy to spread the early word. To help with that, I plugged it and posted an interview with them ( Not long afterward, the book was shopped and I was delighted when it was snatched up by St. Martin's/Griffin. 

Early this month, it was published and the reviews have been excellent as has the media attention it has received including an extensive blog tour and public appearances on both coasts. I can only guess sales are strong. 

I just want to say I enjoyed it even more than when I first read it almost two years ago. It's a marvelous story that rings true, the characters are people you know and grow to love, the '80's references are plentiful and germane to the book, and it deserves to be read and re-read. It made me laugh out loud throughout and it made me cry. As I start to assemble my picks for the year, We Are Still Tornadoes has already found a place on my list. 

Now go get yourself a copy.  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Running Into An Old Friend at Halloween

Like so many, reading gripped me at a young age and I was also lucky enough to have a few champions who encouraged me and turned me on to books and authors. In a small town with only one bookstore, my family took great advantage of the public library. I would visit on Saturday mornings after breakfast out with my Father. I knew most of the librarians and took a shine to a few, in particular Rosemary D., on whom I had a tremendous boyhood crush, and Pat M. who was among the most generous people I've ever known. 

Pat was probably the first polyglot I ever met and his knowledge astounded me. Most of all, he was a sci-fi nut and turned me on to Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury. I remember being especially taken with Bradbury and I read a lot of his work. What's strange is how little I seem to remember. My memory hasn't failed me completely and I still know far more than my fair share of trivial nonsense (the problem, of course, is that I'll share it with you) but with only a few exceptions, I can't remember much about The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451 and many others.

So it was with great pleasure that I re-read some Bradbury just recently. In truth, it was my turn to make a selection for my short story club and I thought it would be great since, in the dozen years we've been doing this, we've never read anything by him. Utilizing my public library, I ordered up A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories. I also ordered up The Halloween Tree, a favorite of mine. What I found was how great Bradbury's work remains. 

The Halloween Tree was written for what we would now call YA lit. One of things I liked about his writing for the younger reader was that he NEVER condescended. In fact, it was like he was letting you in on something, like he knew you belonged there and he took your hand with a welcoming wink and a squeeze of your shoulder. The story, a group of boys must travel the world one Halloween night with the mysterious (and perfectly-named) Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud to save the life of their friend, Joe Pipkin. 

Pipkin is the heart and soul of these boys. He's their leader, their biggest supporter, and their best friend. Without Pipkin, it's not Halloween. Without Pipkin, it wouldn't be Christmas or any other special occasion. Without Pipkin? Unthinkable! He is the what holds them together and enables them to fly. In one of my favorite lines ever, Bradbury describes him this way: 
"Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived...The day Joe Pipkin was born all the Orange Crush and Nehi soda bottles in the world fizzed over". 

Would that anyone were to describe me that way!

Needless to say, The Halloween Tree was as I remembered it--Jack O' Lanterns in the trees, candy skulls, the perfect accompanying illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini, still a little slow in the middle, and a moving conclusion. 

In searching for short stories, of which Bradbury produced hundreds, I wanted something that was less science fiction-y and went back early in his career. A Sound of Thunder & Other Stories is better known as Golden Apples of the Sun (In reprinting it, Harper Perrenial decided to change the name. I've no idea why.) and contains works spanning a decade beginning in 1947. It was remarkable to me how prescient Bradbury was and none moreso than The Murderer from 1953. So as not to give it away or take away the power of the story, I encourage you to read it yourself:

Needless to say, I'm so happy to have read Bradbury again and will continue to reacquaint myself with his work. 

Happy Halloween. 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Labor day weekend lazy

I have been duly chastised by a few of the more faithful Reed-ers this weekend and while I don't have anything original to contribute, I did want to pass on this list from the Wall Street Journal. It's going to be a big fall for books and there are many I'm looking forward to reading.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Fever At Dawn and Spill Simmer Falter Wither

Lot and lots of reading of late. Publishing pals are keeping me well-stocked with a wide array of books and I'm trying hard just to keep up. 

Peter Gardos is a Hungarian filmmaker who has done things in reverse. He has already made a movie, Fever At Dawn, and then went back and wrote the novel of the same name. I haven't seen the film but I finished the novel recently

The book starts with Miklos, a Hungarian Jew, hospitalized 
in 1945 Sweden as the Holocaust winds down. Because of fluid in his lungs, he has been given six months to live. In his boredom and defiance of his imminent death, he manages to secure the names and addresses of 117 girls from his hometown, also hospitalized in Sweden. He writes each the same letter in the fervent belief a correspondence will develop and through that correspondence, he will find a wife. In this manner, he meets Lili.

It's a hell of a set-up, don't you think? Better still, Fever At Dawn is based on the true story of Gardos' parents. He only learned of this tale after his father passed and his mother showed him the correspondence and revealed their story. 

Fever At Dawn is fast-paced and entertaining especially in light of the truth behind it but I wonder if it worked better as a film. To me, most of the characters were uneven and underdeveloped, especially Lili, whose illness is never made known and whose constant fainting becomes laughable (Like Lou Reed said, "...women never really faint..."). There is also a "frenemy" sub-plot that seems unnecessary. I did love Harry, Miklos' randy boon companion, and his never-ending quest to test his potency.

Despite what I find deficient, the book was a bestseller in Europe, the book rights went to auction here in the States, and it will be published in thirty countries. Please decide for yourself. 

More to my liking was Spill Simmer Falter Wither, the debut novel by Sara Baume.  Some might shy away from the man-and-his-dog saga but this is done so well, you'd be foolish to do so. Be warned however, this is no warm and fuzzy read. 

Ray is a puzzle and the solution doesn't come until well into the book. What we do learn is that Ray lives in "his father's house" in a small, seaside, Irish village. The village has been Ray's only home but has always been regarded as an oddball and at 57, that won't change. His father has passed and one day, in a move that is out of character, Ray adopts a troubled shelter dog after seeing a flyer taped to the window of the local jumble shop. The dog has been injured which leads Ray to name him One Eye and they become utterly devoted to each other. The story is told to One Eye but you will often think he is addressing you, the reader. 

At first, I thought the unconditional love going both ways would allow Ray to develop into his own man but One Eye has a mean streak which creates trouble for them both. There is a hovering danger author Baume creates that is unnerving. At one point, Ray is so afraid, he packs up his car, gets his savings, and they spend months driving nowhere and anywhere to avoid consequences that may or may not actually exist should they return to the village. It is a impetuous, paranoid, but poignant trip that leaves Ray broke and afraid but with nowhere else to go but "home". 

Throughout, Baume had me by the cojones and the heart strings. She imbues Ray with surprising insight while avoiding sentimentality. Her prose can sparkle as when Ray remarks about how One Eye's senses overtake him during their walks: 

"...I call you but you don't seem to hear, you're hypnotised by smell. Now you zig-zag the concrete, hop on the wall and shout at the gulls, bust into a frenzied run...How can you be so unremittingly interested? How can every stone be worth of tenderly sniffing, every clump of grass a source of fascination?...I wish I'd been born with your capacity for wonder. I wouldn't mind living a shorter life if my short life could be as vivid as yours." 

If you've ever owned a dog, you know how well she captures the rapture but it is counterbalanced by Ray's own wonder, his deep love, and his history of heartbreak. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Trouble Boys: the True Story of The Replacements

Like books, music is a thing I try never to deny myself. There was always music in my house growing up. I started plunking a guitar at 12, got my first bass and amp as a bar mitzvah gift from my family, and I still play today.

In the 80's, I began to absolutely devour music. The punk explosion and the post-punk and new wave that came after truly spoke to me. The difference today is you can hear practically anything, anytime. Scarcity is a thing of the past but back then, I couldn't afford all the music I wanted and so we all borrowed cassettes from friends and "dubbed" them on the ubiquitous dual tape decks of the decade. That was a time when the major labels lamented that "home taping is killing the music industry". Actually, those dinosaurs went extinct more recently.
The Replacements were a band I had heard of but never heard much. My freshman year, a kid down the dorm hall lent me his cassette with Tim on one side and Let It Be on the other. While there were elements I liked, their music just didn't reach me and I moved on.

A few years later, The 'Mats played a sizable venue on a Saturday night and then stumbled across the street to the much smaller joint where my band was playing. As we took a break between sets, I walked up and told them they were welcome to take the stage if they wanted. Wasting no time, they immediately got shirty with me, telling me they'd blow us off the stage. In the parlance of times I could only think, "Well duh"! We were a bar band playing for small change and sandwiches. They were pros with records and tours and a legendary reputation for being drunk and pugnacious. I was merely extending my hand to a fellow, albeit much bigger, band and in their customary fashion, they bit it. I wrote them off for good.

Years later, for reasons unknown, it clicked and The Replacements finally spoke to me. I had never known much about them, just their music and that infamous reputation. Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr gives it to us straight and exhaustively, clocking in at 435 pages and a tiny font size that vexes a man my age.  Mehr, a veteran music journalist, writes nimbly and with authority. He was able to secure the surviving 'Mats, including the famously aloof Paul Westerberg, along with friends, family, fellow scenesters, and those behind the scenes, to tell all the stories that make up this much larger tale.

The trouble with Trouble Boys is that I don't think I can finish it. Not because of the length nor am I squeamish or prudish but because it's so achingly sad and I'm only as far as the band recording their breakthrough album. We already know how it ends--they never really "make it", they grow resentful of each other which leads to a terribly acrimonious break-up (is there any other kind?), Bob dies, and none of them rebound. While they re-grouped a few years back for a few festivals, it's not the same nor can fans expect it to be but to read another 200+ pages about their prolonged downward spiral is just too much for me. The tales of staggering drug abuse and boozing, the self-sabotage and self-destruction, the bitterness and pain they cause themselves and each other will only get worse and I just can't stomach it.

Please don't read this as a book I didn't like. I did indeed. ‘Mat’s fans will love it. Mehr is a writer good enough to make me put down his book because the story he writes so well causes me to flinch and cringe at the seemingly endless pain that shrouded The Replacements and their inevitable demise.