May 5, 2005

On Books: March & April

I don’t have many regular features around here. I’ve never been able to pull that off or have thoughts consistent enough to bring to you on any regular basis. One thing I do try and do is, at the beginning of each month, write a bit about what I’ve read the previous month. Remember March? I didn’t either. I forgot all about it. So I bring you a combined March/April review.

I like to save the best for last so I’ll start with the mainstream fiction that all ends up running together for me. There was, in no particular order, Colin Harrison’s Havana Room, John Case’s The Eighth Day, The Mark of the Assassin by Daniel Silva, Paranoia by Joseph Finder and, resting square on the grey line between cheap mass market fiction and quality, original writing, Anthony Bourdain’s Bone In The Throat.

An aside. I just reread this paragraph and realized that I could be coming off as quite the lit-snob. Not so. We are human and humans have an innate need to categorize. In my mind there are different kinds of fiction. There’s mass-market thriller/mystery/horror, then there’s still fairly mainstream but more painstaking fiction followed by “literature.” And by “literature” I’m kinda thinking of all those books you think you should read but never seem to feel like expending the energy upon. I’m talking Graham Greene, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Bellow. “Literature” has stood the test of time and, somehow, lives up to its reputation. Most of the time at least. Anyway, where was I?

Havana Room turned out to be intriguing at the start then crumbled miserably into an insipid plot with a sappy resolution. Its not worth your time. The Eighth Day, however, takes readers on a jaunt around the world and is vastly entertaining. As is The Mark of the Assassin, although based on Silva’s reputation, I was expecting a bit more. It was average. Finder’s Paranoia was entertaining as well and well worth the read. The reason I lump Bourdain’s Bone In The Throat into this category is simple – if you take all the fancy food-speak (the author is a renowned chef) out of the equation, it’s a funny yet average mob-style thriller. Granted, it is pretty funny and the food element adds a lot. Its worth reading. Just not worth going out of your way for.

George Pelecanos is local author who’s gradually become better known in crime fiction circles. Deservedly so. Pelecanos writes about the District of Columbia with a passion and knowledge few of his contemporaries display. He’s also a great story teller. Both A Firing Offense and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go follow anti-hero Nick Stefanos, an alcoholic former marketing exec turned private eye. Odd, I know. But it works. Although it is often hard to sympathize with Nick. He makes some bad choices and, in the final analysis, his good only slightly outweighs his bad.

Faithful by Davitt Sigerson is a brief novel about fidelity. Or rather, that’s what the back of the book would have you believe. Instead its about two people making crappy decisions and putting a kid in the middle of it. As I mentioned, its mercifully brief, refuses to ever make a point and I was never really able to connect with any of it. I finished the last page, closed the book and thought “oh.” I doubt that’s what the author was going for.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal might be an unfamiliar name but I first found her online several years ago. Her weekly columns were hilarious. Her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is no different. And its exactly what it sounds like. Its even interactive in a very wonderfully unusual kind of way. Its worth checking out. She’s talented, incredibly funny and very insightful. Just like you since you’re here reading this stuff.

A few years back Tony Parsons wrote a novel called Man And Boy. It was like Terms of Endearment in book form. Not for the content but because its one of the truly great funny and sappy books written. Like, if you didn’t shed a tear by the end someone should be shoving pins in your fingertips to make sure you’re still alive and kicking. Otherwise, you’re on the wrong side of the dirt. One For My Baby proved just as sappy but didn’t seem quite as heartfelt. It seemed more formulaic, like he found something that worked, switched character names and situations a bit and sent it off to his editor. Not that its bad. No, Parsons can write. Maybe its like Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti – after its brilliance even the decent follow-up, Presence, couldn’t compete. I think I just gave Parsons a little too much credit with the Zeppelin comparison, mind you. He’s more Styx or Kansas on the musical spectrum.

Alex Garland is kinda fucked up. There. How’s that for literary criticism? First he wrote The Beach, which was brilliant. Then The Tesseract, followed by the screenplay for 28 Days Later and eventually the novella/mind-fuck, The Coma. I’d read everything of his except for The Tesseract. I really can’t describe it, except to say that its strange yet very much worth reading. Sure, there’s part of it that feels more like a novelty than a well thought out novel but its still worth the $14.

I close with two books by Jonathan Tropper – The Book of Joe and Everything Changes. Both books are most excellent, and I’d even go so far as to say that you should go ahead and spend the $20 for the modestly priced hardback of Everything Changes, his latest. Sure, The Book of Joe is better but still, its worth it. Yes, Tropper writes light, Hornby-esque stuff. Yes, it seems like they’re ready-made for the big screen. In fact, they’ve both been optioned. But, they’re funny and, in a quirky way, wise. I will say no more. You have your marching orders.

So there you have it. March and April in books. And while I’m thinking of it, let me know if you do have ideas for some more regular stuff you’d like to see here. I can’t make any guarantees but I’ll do what I can.

Posted by Chris at May 5, 2005 5:56 PM

Thanks for the list. Just finished The Devil in The White City (Erik Larsen); fascinating read about the 1893 Columbina Exposition in Chicago. Highly Recommended by moi. Think I'll try The Book of Joe.

Posted by: vicki at May 5, 2005 8:51 PM

How bout Curious George? It's bout a little monkey who's very curious, like my baby sister, but her name is not George, but she is hairy.

I have not read a book in a long time, so I guess I'll go get one, maybe Spiderman.

I hope you have a nice weekend, Chris, everybody.

Posted by: Rockchild at May 6, 2005 5:38 AM

Geez I feel so out of touch... the last thing I read was "If you give a pig a pancake". Heh!

Have a good one! : )

Posted by: Ro at May 6, 2005 6:40 AM

Wow! That is some collection of books. I like that you share what you read, although I am not familiar with most. But, that is how you find a good book, with a friend's recommendation.

Posted by: Nicole at May 6, 2005 6:41 AM

i DO read i swear, but i tend to go for the more mindless girly fiction or suspense. i just finished one and am on to another, yay! alas, we have differing tastes in books, so i can't really leave any witty remarks or comments cuz i ain't done read none of them books y'all!

Posted by: lizabetty at May 6, 2005 9:37 AM

Im betting that in another few months, cactus will be reviewing "If you give a pig a pancake" and "curious george". So enjoy the grown up books while you can!

Posted by: alfredsmom at May 6, 2005 10:24 AM

I think I responded to this already but if not...I enjoy the book reviews! I read as much as I can, but obviously don't come close to hitting everything that's out there, so I appreciate the perspectives and anecdotes.

I'm in the middle of Bourdain's "A Cook's Tour" -- I think he walks the line between "cheap mass market fiction and quality, original writing" pretty well. His voice is so amusing and authentic--I think it's only gotten better as he grows as a writer. My fav line remains from his first book -- "Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride."

Have a good weekend - props on the nursery! it looks great. :)

Posted by: susannah at May 7, 2005 11:53 AM


Posted by: Merchant Accounts at May 14, 2005 8:11 PM