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Danny recently received an English degree from Boise State University and is working hard to become a professional writer. He hasn't quite figured out how to reconcile that career with the need to eat and afford housing but he's surprisingly okay with that. He mainly reads fiction, gravitating toward the "grit lit" genre about good people who make bad decisions, mostly because it reminds of him of his own life. He also can't pass up a good book about the art of stand-up comedy. He currently resides in Chandler and hopes to one day own a car. He blogs here.
Leonard Gardner’s Fat City is Rocky, stripped of all its romance and inspiration. Boxers in depression era Northern California, Ernie Munger, at the beginning of his career, and Billy Tully, at the end of his struggle with booze, women, money, and the misguided belief that if they keep fighting things just might change. There is no big fight, though, no moral victory and life-changing payday waiting around the corner. Their common thread is mutual trainer Ruben, who tries to hold together their lives and psyches but fails at every step in the face of their self-destructive natures and resentment of authority. An old-fashioned hardboiled novel full of desperation and pain, and teeming with life, this forgotten American masterpiece feels just as fresh and important as it did when originally published in the 60’s.
Dragging readers through a bleak and violent terrain works much better if the story has faith in its characters and belief in some kind of possible redemption. Displaying the worst humanity has to offer while maintaining that glint of hope is what author Chris Abani sets out to do in The Secret History of Las Vegas. The set up is that the bodies of homeless men are piling up and Detective Salazar is determined to solve this case before his retirement. The primary suspects are conjoined twins named Fire and Water who are brought to Dr Singh to study, though it becomes immediately clear he has his own demons hiding in the closet. Part mystery, part apartheid and cold war history lesson, part meditation on psychopathy, and even part buddy cop movie, this book is at once gripping and haunting and darkly funny.
Not to take anything away from the man and his life and deeds, but the true power of Martin Luther King Jr. seems to be in his name. Just think of what invoking his name can do for a cause. Too often, we forget that the civil rights battle in this country didn’t end with King, but still rages on to this day. And further, his battle didn’t end when he was killed either. His name and legacy have been channeled for five decades now in his absence. In the book Waking from the Dream, author David L. Chappell examines and details this unfortunately oft overlooked concept. Throughout the book, Chappell takes us through the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the black political conventions of the 1970s, battles for employment bills, the idea of a holiday in King’s honor, Jesse Jackson’s rise, and even the controversial and almost never discussed failings of King’s personal character. Waking from the Dream makes for an interesting read as it shines a light on recent history in just unique enough of a way to drive the narrative and come off fresh.
Richard Pryor remains something of an enigma. If you look up a list of the greatest stand-up comics of all time, his name will be in the top three, among George Carlin and Lenny Bruce and many times Richard will be number one. Still, a lot of people remember him as Gene Wilder’s sidekick, or for formulaic films like Brewster’s Millions, or worst of all, as the guy who lit himself on fire while freebasing, running down the street like a mad man. Little is remembered of his genius on stage and the manic energy and groundbreaking routines that completely changed what stand-up comedy can be. In brothers’ David and Joe Henry’s book Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him, they attempt to get to know the real Richard Pryor, showcase his undeniable talent, and paint him as a tragic figure–a victim of race relations in America. This is no ordinary biography except when it has to be and has little interest in simply telling his life story. This was a man who kept his true personality a secret to everyone except a small few, whose comic genius was only surpassed by his temper. The Henry brothers’ goal is to get as close to Pryor as possible, and try to remind everybody why we loved him and why he couldn’t love us back. Mostly, though, they wanted to explore just where his comedy came from.
The zombie apocalypse is a pretty bleak affair. Not just because of the walking corpses perpetually trying to eat you, but because the entire world has turned on us. The nurturing planet we look to as our home and safe house has become hostile and bent on our destruction, the wonderful concept of humanity being created in god’s own image becomes only a cruel joke. The world has changed, forever, and has removed all hope. All that’s left is survival in the immediate, just a life of going from place to place. But none of this is new, we already knew all that, it’s been done. So how do you make the zombie plague even more soul-crushingly depressing? How about populating the world with drug addicts. In Fiend, author Peter Stenson uses the walking dead as a metaphor for the nature of addiction, in this case meth. The result is a terrifying look into not just addiction, but what people are capable of when survival is the only thing left worth anything.
A Hollywood story is a tricky thing to write. Especially nowadays, when the public love affair with the movie industry is long over and we view celebrities as the over-privileged who keep butting into our social and political arenas and ought to just shut up and entertain us. How then does a writer proceed? In American Dream Machine, author Matthew Specktor doesn’t take the easy route. He uses the town and the film business as a backdrop to tell the story of a man’s rise, fall, rise to even greater heights, spectacular fall, only to rise yet again, and once more fall - and how the echoes of this man’s successes and failures affected his offspring. This book is a deeply personal tragedy, or series of tragedies really, that, while remaining cooly detached enough to stay hip and not delve into melodrama, isn’t afraid of deeply sentimental moments.
Why are the villains in stories so much more fascinating than heroes? A possible reason is because we have an easier time identifying with the villain as most of us aren’t particularly heroic ourselves, but don’t think for a second this is limited to fictional universes. Nothing makes us happier than jumping on a real-life villain, or better yet, dragging our heroes down into villainy so we can safely hate them, but the real question is why. In I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman, in a series of essays, attempts to offer some insights, though never answers because he accepts pretty quickly there are no perfect answers. Answers aren’t easy, to say the least, because villainy, or evil (if you want to take a very narrow look at it) is complicated, but luckily for us, Klosterman is willing to wear that black hat and hunt for those elusive solutions.
At the heart of any crime noir is a mystery, usually involving murder in some capacity. What sets the genre apart, though, is that the mystery doesn’t matter. We don’t care whodunit, mostly because the story exists in a world so scarred that no traditional justice or resolution will ever set things right again. Noir is all our morbid sensibilities condensed into a single narrative. What matters is the settings and the language. These are the tools a noir writer uses to engage their audience. In Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, this is done masterfully. The book is the first in The Marseilles Trilogy, and uses the city as a completely fleshed out, endearing yet frightening character and further as a metaphor for race relations in France. Full of booze, violence and frequent allusions to classical poetry and the blues, this book stands as a treasure for Noir fans.
A lot is said today about the tradition and sanctity of baseball. What people tend to forget is that traditionally, the game was played by drunks, brawlers and cheaters. In The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, Edward Achorn reminds us what a rough game it was in the 1880s. The book centers around Chris Von Der Ahe, a German immigrant who really just wanted to sell beer so he bought a baseball team in St. Louis, and co-founded the American Association to rival the pompous National League, inadvertently saving baseball. Meticulously researched and written in a mostly unromantic style, Achorn's book is just as much a history of American city life in the late 19th century as it is a love letter to the national pastime. This book reminds us that it's not just the tradition that makes us love baseball, it's the characters that have populated the fields and grandstands for the last 150 years.
Lies, deceit, grandstanding, backroom deals, backstabbing, and the creation of some of the most iconic characters and story-lines in modern history. This is the history of Marvel Comics. Author Sean Howe takes us through over a century, from the very beginning in a dingy office all the way to present day with Marvel owned by the monster corporation Disney. The strength of this book is that its interest is in the artists and the writers rather than exhausting us with the history of the characters, which any good comic fan already knows anyway, and Howe presents this refreshingly devoid of sentimentality. The artists and the writers come, they leave, and come back. They quit in grand gestures, as stances against exploitation of the creative staff, sometimes solitary and sometimes in groups, usually returning because there are just not that many paying gigs for that trade. Their professional lives parallel the comics they write. The superheroes that die and come back and are stuck in stasis are really the creators who keep telling their stories. On the surface there is no permanence in their world, but really it’s only the illusion of change.
Middle Men is my favorite short story collection in the last year. Set in and around L.A., it’s both hilarious and devastating, and at times hits just a little bit too close to home. The title refers specifically to a two-part story at the end called “The Luau” and “Costello” about middle men in the sales world, but works to encompass the entire book as well. The characters are stuck in that middle part of their lives, that frustrating and seemingly meaningless part where nothing seems to happen and personal and professional failures seem to mount endlessly. If there is a better locale for people who are stuck in purgatory than Hollywood then I don’t know of it. People tend to forget that Los Angeles is actually a real, if unforgiving, city with real people facing real struggles, and I think this is why it’s refreshing to see Gavin tackle the real city — he captures how people get stuck between the sleaze and the glamour, struggling through their daily lives. Middle Men is a read that will stay with you long after the final story is finished.
The title suggests that David Denby will provide us an answer, but Do the Movies Have a Future? is not interested in solutions. In this collection of essays and reviews, Denby breaks down the evolution of the movie industry and how the marketing departments of studios have taken over the production of films. This is a bad thing. He doesn’t just focus on the negative, though; he dedicates significant parts of the book to directors that are still doing important work and reviews recent movies that resonate for him. What separates this particular book from the many others lamenting the decline of American film is that Denby isn’t really interested in saving Independent Film but wants to save the mainstream movies. The mainstream might be bloated and shallow, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be, if we can just get it out of the hands of the marketers.
In much the same way Alan Moore used masked crime fighters in Watchmen as commentary on the Cold War, Tom King employs super heroes as an allegory for our current war on terror in A Once Crowded Sky. The super-powered beings of Arcadia, after years spent battling amongst themselves in a seemingly unending conflict, have been de-powered. As random explosions from an unknown source start to rock the city, terror grips the citizens and the former heroes. The former heroes now rely on the one super-powered being left, Penultimate, to return them to their former glory. Written in the present tense that puts you right in the middle of the action, this literary fantasy satirizes the modern mythology of super heroes and uses them to suggest that too much power for any person, or persons, is a far too dangerous thing.
Alan Heathcock’s debut is a collection of stories revolving around the fictional Midwestern town of Krafton. The writing, almost cinematic in its detail, creates a world and characters so fully realized that their tragedies become our own. Death, murder, post-traumatic stress and mourning permeate throughout the collection. From a young man returning home from Iraq and forced to do something terrible to a sheriff hunting down a child killer, Heathcock does not shy away from taking his readers to the darkest parts of humanity, but he never leaves us hopeless either. It’s as if by confronting this darkness, the citizens of Krafton have an opportunity to win, or lose, their souls. A volt is charged into their lives and sets them on a path that will change them forever. These themes, along with Heathcock’s precisely controlled prose, pitch-perfect dialogue and pacing like a freight train, will leave readers devastated, and eagerly awaiting his next book.
War has long been a subject ideally suited to storytelling. Almost all great conflicts have timeless novels to their credit, but where is the great modern war novel? Maybe we’re still too close to the events for many to emerge, but Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the first great book I’ve read about the Iraq war. Fountain finds the right note, mixing in plenty of humor with his authentic dialogue and grim subject matter. Billy Lynn, a virgin and member of the heroic Bravo squad, is paraded around like a trophy at a Dallas Cowboy’s game. Through inebriation, violence, sexual exploration and soldier camaraderie, Fountain shows us the absurdity of two Americas: The America fighting the war and the one “supporting the troops.” In the end we’re left with questions about loyalty, duty, and freedom. But make no mistake, the novel offers no answers - it’s much too smart for that.
In his newest story collection, Stay Awake, Dan Chaon isn’t interested in beginnings or endings. Instead, he stays focused on that ambiguous and terrifying middle. Most of the stories focus on people struggling to maintain their mental well-being, and consciously failing, in the face of descending insanity. From the opening story, “The Bees,” whose climax is still haunting me, all the way through to the end of the collection, these tales seem designed to make us feel uncomfortable and anxious. Chaon is remarkably successful in this. This is not a comfortable read by any means, but stories whose (lack of) resolution will stay with you a long time after reading them. Some say the short story is dead. Well, Chaon is proving them wrong with this collection, showing just how much power you can pack into a concise and succinct story, ripping the world from underneath the reader.
Dirty Work, the debut novel from this long forgotten great American writer, tells the story of two men, a black man and a white man, in a VA hospital in Mississippi. The entire story takes place over the course of one night, with each man recounting his own life. They’ve both been injured horribly, physically, mentally and spiritually, by the Vietnam War. All the elements of Larry Brown’s work are here, from alcoholism to helplessness, and the always present possibility of sudden, senseless violence from men. One of the truly amazing things in this novel is that race is almost a non-issue between the two men, despite the obvious trope of pairing a white man and black man in the south. Instead, it’s as if these men are far too scarred for something as trivial as color to matter to them anymore. Done in a simplistic, minimalist style that might remind you of a gritty Hemingway, Brown is concerned only with getting to the core of these men’s pain. The gut punching conclusion will stay with you a long time after reading this brilliant novel.
This book, I’ll admit, surprised me quite a bit. What starts out as a collection of high brow fat jokes turns out to be a surprisingly warm story about a good man in a situation he never asks for while also displaying a cutting commentary on contemporary politics. The set-up: William Howard Taft wakes up in our current world after a hundred year hibernation and becomes reluctantly immersed in the current political scene when a grassroots movement, inspired by him, springs up. Heller paints his character as a good man trying to trying to redeem the name of Taft, tarnished by an unsuccessful presidency, while trying to figure out what has and hasn't changed since his time as commander in chief.