Nothing helps one grieve for the demise of one’s own sad little book than … reading other people’s books!
And knowing, as you read them, that every single one of these books may well nearly have killed its author and also knowing that somehow, someway every single one of these books is also someone’s letdown. (The author? The editor? The author’s mother? The marketing department? The accounting department? Michiko Kakutani? The Millions? The Pulitzer committee? There’s no end to the disappointment a book can bring.)
So here’s a long overdue report from my one-man book club — brief reviews of books I’ve read since mid-November or so.
Oh, the books. The books! Last month I did a huge purge of books from both my newsroom cubicle and the overflowing shelves my home office. I unloaded probably 250 books. Things are much tidier in the home office now — but still (still!) the “to read next” pile is high — about 30 books.
I just did my tax stuff for 2009 and it turns out I spent more than [exact figure tastefully deleted] on books last year. The amount would sound obscene to some of you, yes, and I am luckier than a pile of luckypants to have the means to wander through the store and buy four or five books at once. (No kids to feed. No tuition to pay.)
I buy books because I believe in them. Six centuries of printed matter can’t be wrong. I buy books because I think of the authors (and the editors, and the jacket designers, and the independent booksellers, and the big-box sellers, and everyone else), and how hard it is to get a book right.
Of course they’re not all good.
Laura Miller, the book critic par excellence at Salon, had a great resolution essay back in January, about how all of us need to try to read books outside of our usual preferred genres. She lays out her own hilarious (but valid, I say) biases:
“I will resist any book set on a ranch like a cat fighting a bath; likewise, memoirs by women obsessed with their mothers. If I happen to flip through a graphic novel and see a scene in which 20-something characters complain about their relationships in a cafe — back on the display table it goes posthaste. Historical fiction set in early 20th-century America, especially the silent movie business? No, thank you very much. …”
Ha! She also avoids novels about “stage magicians” and “rabbis in Prague” and has to force herself once a year to try to a novel from the French contemporary fiction scene.
My biases just as bad — probably worse. This New York Times story about the James Patterson empire did nothing to persuade me that I somehow need to be keeping up with the latest airport thrillers. I also can’t do addiction-recovery memoirs, and try mightily to steer away from “a year spent [blanking]” memoirs. Also, I pretty much say no to any books that started out as blogs.
And if it looks like it has anything to do with India, I’m out.
Books about sports and biographies of sporting legends are hard for me. I find so much sportswriting succeeds with sports fans (it employs the dreaded Morgan Freeman Voice when it wants you to feel emotion) and fails to connect me to what anyone involved is actually feeling. Hate’s a strong word, but while we’re on the subject: books about cards (poker, gambling) and Las Vegas and the big con and the wheel of fate and the Strip and the strippers and the criminals and the neon and the Bellagio fountains and so on and so on. Pass.
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So, having said all that, I now bring you: A book about a sports legend, followed by a book that is not only a thriller (and has been described as a combo between Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen — oh, jeez) but also has as its title something to do with poker.
The good news? They were both written by friendly acquaintances of mine so I dove in with mind wide open. (And by the way, I am not going to link these to any one bookstore. If you want them, go get them from your usual retailer, but do kindly think of the independent stores as you shop. I will link to author sites, if they’re there.)
First up, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, written (sweated over, I can attest) by the man who sits in the newsroom cubicle next to mine, Wil Haygood. (I just found out the other day that Wil is headed upstairs to the National desk. Good for him, drat for Style.)
Sweet Thunder is a dense biography of the ups and downs of the famous boxer. It’s not just about boxing, of course — it weaves together darn near the entire 20th-century Negro experience. It’s about jazz, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, nightclubs, New York, the media, transcontinental hype, discrimination, civil rights, hero worship and that eventual human frailty that claims us all.
Every sentence reads with the resolve of incantation; a prayer, part of a poem. The style of the book is likely to seem musical to the right ear, and as likely to sound too purple for some readers. I had the benefit of being able to hear the voice of the writer himself as I read along. The book is total Wil, and it is about depth. I loved Wil’s book about Sammy Davis Jr. several years ago — equally epic in scope — and if I knew or could appreciate boxing even a little bit, I might have liked this book even more. Simply from the black American history contained within, I’m glad I read it. It’s sad for me to say that I could not have been in more foreign territory with something so American (so guy) as BOXING. But there it is.
Speaking of guys, let’s talk about Gutshot Straight. Yes, that refers to a poker hand, but I gave it my trust. This was written by Lou Berney — we’ve been friends for 20-plus years and only met two months ago. (It sounds like something out of Lost, but here you’ll find a simpler explanation.) Lou is a screenwriter — one of those screenwriters who gets paid to write movie screenplays that never get filmed, which must take a certain zenlike ability to let it go. During the 2007-’08 writers’ strike, Lou banged out the manuscript that became this — and I’m not giving out free ass-smooches here — really absorbing, really fucking funny novel. It’s about a nice, kinda Lou Berney-esque (in my mind) guy who gets out of prison and immediately accepts a job from an Eastern European crime boss (who used to be his girlfriend). The orders are: deliver a car (and whatever’s in the trunk) to some undesirable, even badder bad guys at a Vegas rendezvous point. So what’s in the trunk? A pretty woman. A tough pretty woman who says she’s a nice Mormon housewife, but turns out she works as a stripper and a thief. There’s a whole scheme — schemes within schemes. There are some wonderfully rendered bad guys.
So I was reading along in Gutshot Straight and very much enjoying just watching it go pop, pow, zip, zing (I read this book in three rollicking nights) and then I stopped and wondered: Is this why people read thrillers by the same authors over and over? Because if Lou had five more of these, I’d probably read them. It made me think of the first time I saw Romancing the Stone — which was a giddy, teenage, mid-’80s Saturday afternoon at the North Park 4 with my cousin. It also made me think of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, not sure why, but weirdly enough, Smith’s book The Ruins makes a cameo quasi-appearance later on. There’s some seriously good writing going on here. My favorite character is Jasper, the major domo, the go-to thug who works for Mr. Moby, the bad guy. He’s heartbreakingly sensitive:
But Jasper felt a special kind of bad for Lucy, and not just because Mr. Moby was a special kind of evil boyfriend, which most certainly he was. Jasper had read a newspaper article once about a river in the jungle that flooded, and how the tops of the trees drooped heavy and black with tarantulas. That had made him — he didn’t know why — think of Mr. Moby.
I am still thinking about trees filled with tarantulas. Buy it, people.
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TO BE CONTINUED … TOMORROW: I’ve already read them (seriously, it’s a dull winter and I haven’t been doing much else besides escaping into books) so up next, THE MOMENT OF PSYCHO, AMERICAN ROMANCES, and ANNE FRANK: THE BOOK, THE LIFE, THE AFTERLIFE; plus JULIET, NAKED and THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT.