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.

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