Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books

Before I take myself online for a few days, here's one last bulletin from the electronic trenches. A few weeks ago, I got a very polite and kind request from Patti Abbott, the prolific short story writer and blogger, who also happens to be the mother of Edgar Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott (Bury Me Deep).

Patti asked me if I'd be willing to contribute an entry for her popular and wide-ranging series of blog posts called "Friday's Forgotten Books." Naturally, I'd seen plenty of J. Kingston Pierce's entries at the Rap Sheet and told Patti I would be happy to contribute.

So, today at Patti's blog, you can find my entry on the two more mainstream novels by the late novelist James Robert Baker, both of which I've been raving about since I was 17 years old. Go forth, and discover the buried treasure of Boy Wonder and Fuel-Injected Dreams as well as Patti's entry on Michael Frayn's terrific boyhood drama Spies and novelist Craig Johnson's take on James Norman Hall's Doctor Dogbody's Leg.

And just for the record, my runners-up were Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers (the basis for the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket); the spellbinding chess drama Queen's Gambit by the late genius Walter Tevis (who famously wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell To Earth), and the only true mystery in competition, Roger L. Simon's launch of the Moses Wine series, The Big Fix. I can think of plenty of other contenders off the top of my head, but somehow Forgotten Books makes me nostalgic for all my old paperbacks. I just might have to do this more often.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

If I Could Just Get It On Paper

My head is about swimming this month with all the work that's piling up around me, but I thought I'd record a couple of links to some new writing that's actually in paper-and-ink publications, as well as online.

First off, there's my inauspicious debut as a reviewer for The Denver Post, who has kindly seen fit to assign me some non-fiction books, which is a category that I really enjoy, but haven't had much opportunity to review recently. First up is a book that's mostly about the only sport I really like, baseball, and arrived with a hand-written note of praise from award-winning novelist Kent Haruf (Plainsong).

It's the tough-luck story of a kid from the bitter south side of Pittsburgh who grew up with even tougher parents and managed to escape the city to become a professor of English at Southern Illinois University and a widely published writer on - you guessed it - baseball. So, in the city's last old-school newspaper, you can read my review of Growing Up With Clemente by Richard Peterson.

For even more book-related goodness, you can check out the Kirkus Reviews "Big Book Fall Preview," which weirdly turned out to be the special in which I didn't interview hardly anyone at all because they're very busy and important. Or locked in a cave by their publishers, chained to a typewriter, which I suspect was the case with Dan Brown and his new book about Robert Langdon.

In other hard-hitting journalistic accomplishments, I did not interview (despite much pleading with publicists) Nick Cave about his funky new novel The Death of Bunny Munro. "Busy rocking out" will always be a valid excuse for not submitting to my interrogations.

But here, also from Kirkus, was my take on Cave's mutant creation. And if you're really game, you'll slap on some Grinderman, which is the perfect musical accompaniment, while you read it.

After a two-decade pause, the post-punk singer-songwriter finally follows up his well-received first novel (And The Ass Saw The Angel, 1990) with a lurid fantasia about a drug-addled salesman.

This could easily be the literary companion to Cave's recent howling performances with garage band Grinderman. When we meet long-since-gone-to-seed Bunny Munro, he's shacked up with the latest prostitute, multitasking by phoning to comfort his mentally disturbed wife Libby. A sex-obsessed peddler of beauty products, Bunny numbs himself by limiting his input to the next selfish pleasure. Returning home, he finds Libby has slashed all his clothing and hung herself in a locked bathroom. Instead of comforting their nine-year-old son Bunny Junior, the once-charming lothario fills himself with poisons, packs his bonnet full of inventory and hits the road with his son for a series of misguided lessons about manhood. Bunny's melancholy worldview takes some getting used to, but he's fitfully sly and unabashedly narcissistic, which also makes him unpredictably funny. Told he should be extinct, Bunny declares, "I resent that. I take personal hygiene very seriously." As the story develops, he achieves a broken grace that belies his repellent character and faintly hints at redemption. Things get weirder when Bunny starts seeing Libby. "He realizes, in a shadowy way, for a brief moment, that the imaginings and visitations and apparitions that he encountered were the ghosts of his own grief and that he was being driven insane by them," Cave writes in characteristically lyrical and macabre prose. "He knows more than he knows anything that they very soon will kill him."

Profane and profound by turns—not for everyone, but Cave still knows how to command an audience.

Nor did I go toe-to-toe with American literary legend John Irving, who declines to grant interviews to writers who haven't read his book. That's Last Night In Twisted River, the book with which he was still tinkering, therefore eliminating any chance for said writer to read the book and prompt an interview. Circle of life. What can I say? The man wrote The Cider House Rules. I say he gets a pass.

Other writers did get to sink their teeth in, and elsewhere in the issue you can unearth great little spotlights on new books by Nick Hornby, Joshua Ferris, Joseph Kanon, Michael Chabon and my extremely funny friend Alexander McCall Smith.

Thankfully, I did interview one author, who turned out to be the most gracious and insightful of the lot, as it turned out. Said author was the acclaimed New York playwright Victor Lodato, who has composed a fantastic first novel called Mathilda Savitch, about an adolescent girl with a most unusual point-of-view, who is desperately trying to make sense of the death of her older sister. Prior to landing the interview, Lodato had already earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, with which I'll leave you with today.

A wildly precocious adolescent girl searches for the truth behind her sister's death in playwright Lodato's creative and engaging debut novel.

The author crafts a singular voice that combines the disjointed confessional tone of Holden Caulfield with the ethereal sadness of Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones. The13-year-old narrator's matter-of-fact reflections on her dysfunctional family hold the whole amazing concoction together. Mathilda Savitch is blessed with a unique point of view. "I've been told I have an 'artistic temperament,' " she confides, "which means I have thoughts all over the place and not to be concerned." A year after the mysterious death of her sister Helene, crushed under a train, Mathilda is on the trail of the killer, breaking into Helene's e-mail account to flush out a suspect among her sister's many boyfriends. Simultaneously she's deceiving her shrink; trying to hold together the remains of her parents' fractured marriage; and balancing her affections for best friend Anna McDougal with their mutual interest in a handsome young classmate. The story Lodato tells, while compulsively readable, isn't the main selling point. It's the way he occupies Mathilda so completely, giving her marvelous lines like, "Sometimes I'd think I'd like to be a person with brain damage, with nothing but the whale of joy jumping around inside of me," or, "The thing is, I don't want to end up like Ma and Da. In a house with books and dust and all the love gone out of it." His portrait of a damaged but hopeful girl stands up to classics like Walter Tevis' Queen's Gambit (1983).

Crossover potential could be limited by some PG-13 material, but both mature adolescents and adult readers will find much to love in Lodato's remarkable creation.

You may go buy books now. The literary world thanks you for your kind attention.

Monday, July 6, 2009

While I Was Away

Well, I've been away for longer than I thought again. While I was away for a month percolating on other projects, this long, weird summer doesn't seem to be moving along any faster. I'd much prefer to offer a more interesting update - "What I did on my summer vacation when I was supposed to be slaving over a hot keyboard," or something - but this little bulletin will have to do for now.

Over at Bookslut, Jessa Crispin's reign of terror has officially ended in a bloodless coup. Well, okay, it wasn't really terror, and it really only involves our supreme leader moving to Berlin to get her deutsch on. But we're left in the capable hands of new editor Caroline Eick, who seems very nice, even if she made me feel a bit like Methuselah when I saw her on the teevee.

In this month's issue, I've contributed "Enemies, Public and Private," which offers a glancing blow at the mid-summer movie season and a fairly in-depth look at what is easily my favorite non-fiction book of the past six months, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-34 by Esquire contributor Bryan Burroughs, the much more extensive source material for the new film Public Enemies. I saw the film over the holiday weekend and while it's pretty good, especially Mann's superb command of digital photography, I can still only wish it had stayed at HBO and been made into a miniseries. Maybe someone smart will realize that there's no reason it can't still be done, regardless of the film's relatively sedate $26 million opening.

In the column, I also made a short ricochet off of Loser's Town, the debut novel by Daniel Depp, the big brother to movie star Johnny. Just in case I didn't leave enough information about that particular title, here's a bit of the much-quoted review of the book I wrote for Kirkus Reviews.

After a droll introduction during which two thugs-for-hire bicker while disposing of an inconvenient corpse, we meet David Spandau, an atypical investigator decked out in Armani and Tony Llamas. Irritable, terse and late for an assignment, Spandau is on a movie set to meet with high-strung Hollywood celebutante Bobby Dye. The actor believes he's about to break into the A-list with a western called Wildfire, but he's losing his cool after receiving a series of death threats. Still suffering from rodeo injuries, a little melancholy owing to a soft spot for whiskey and ex-wife Dee, the cowboyish Spandau reluctantly takes the case. He discovers that Bobby is being blackmailed by gangster Richie Stella, who wants the hot actor to headline his mob-financed flick. Even if this L.A. noir treads ground already covered by the likes of Elmore Leonard, screenwriter Depp blends its familiar elements with enthusiasm. He demonstrates a wicked behind-the-scenes awareness of Hollywood's inherent absurdity and utilizes a wealth of old-school venues ranging from the haunted dwellings of Wonderland Avenue to the nightclubs of the Sunset Strip (including one "Voodoo Room" that strongly resembles the infamous Viper Room once owned by the author's celebrated half-brother Johnny). Depp also turns the rare trick of creating supporting characters as charismatic as his lead, among them Terry McGuinn, an eloquent, Tolkien-obsessed runt enlisted by Spandau to co-opt one of Stella's underlings, and Amos Potts, one of Stella's go-to heavies who's just trying to make ends meet. "How Dashiell Hammett," as Terry remarks in one scene. Readers will join him in adding, "Pray go on." Sharp-tongued debut that obviously knows the City of Angels well.

There are bound to be plenty of cash-in titles about Dillinger hitting shelves any second now, but for anyone who wants more than a Wikipedia entry about the elusive bank robber, you ought to take advantage of your tax dollars at work. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has an interesting historical site about Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and other criminals of the era, including .PDF versions of the original Dillinger case files, which make for an afternoon's worth of entertainment by themselves.

Meanwhile, back at Kirkus, the Graphic Spotlight 2009 has arrived online. From my own finely-tuned pen you'll find spotlights on Rick Geary's new biography of Leon Trotsky, Tim Hamilton's really fantastic full-color adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, a chat with Hideyuki Kikuchi about his truly weird novel Wicked City (the original inspiration for both the popular manga and anime adaptations of its future-noir storyline), and finally a round of hide-and-seek with R. Crumb about his new literal adapation of The Book of Genesis, part of which is being excerpted in The New Yorker as we speak.

There's plenty of good stuff throughout the issue, as other writers take on the great Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza, Ghostface Killah's Cell Block Z, David Mazzuchhelli's much lauded Asterios Pulp, and Joe Kelly's I Kill Giants. There's even a quick look at Ian Rankin's shot at Hellblazer, Dark Entries.

And if anyone from Vertigo, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image or anybody else wants to send comic books here, they'll be in good hands. I swear.

Is that all I've been up to? There seems to be a lot more scribbling going on around here these days.

Oh, yes. I also talked to a man who walked on the moon. But more on that later.