I can’t count how many times people out there in the blogosphere have asked me what I’ve been reading lately, but it falls somewhere between “not once” and “never.”
Even so….some of you might be interested in books others have been reading. So I’ll do this blog occasionally to chat about books that have recently made their way through my long reading list (hint: I go through at least a couple books a month, and currently have about 10 queuing up to be read).
These aren’t really reviews. Just short snapshots of what the books are about, and maybe a nugget or two about my reaction to them. Also: It’s a way to pimp my own book. So fair warning…..
Anyway, hope you enjoy.
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Every so often a debut novel takes the literary world by storm, and this is one of those novels. “The Sympathizer” snagged the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and you can understand why. It’s a sprawling epic set during the Vietnam War – sorry, “sprawling epic” is the best cliché I could come up with – whose French-Vietnamese narrator works undercover for communist North Vietnam but pretends to side with U.S.-backed South Vietnam. The action shifts between Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States.
The book is equal parts hilarity and brutality, sometimes in a single paragraph, and has a lot to say about how war can divide loyalties and fracture relationships. It would have been easy to turn this story into another generic morality tale, but Nguyen manages to avoid all the obvious tricks while still delivering a powerful message.
Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers. Hard to believe, but this is the first Dave Eggers book I’ve ever read. I’ve read some of his essays, and am an occasional reader of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which Eggers co-founded as part of McSweeney’s Publishing. He is well known among the literary intelligentsia, the kind of prolific writer who gets published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. He is, of course, very good with words, and this 2016 novel is a likeable enough take on the allure of escaping into the wilds while fleeing the maddening complexities of the civilized world.
In this case, the wilds are Alaska, and the protagonist doing the escaping is Josie, a dentist from Ohio who is running from a failed marriage and legal problems – and dragging her two school-age kids along with her in an RV. This is essentially a character sketch in which the protagonist is either headed for redemption or doom. On that level, it works well enough. But sometimes the story drags, and I found myself just wanting to get to the end.
Tales of Ordinary Madness, Charles Bukowski. Readers seem to either love or hate Bukowski. Some swear by his sparse, edgy, profane, gutter-diving, often misogynistic prose, while many merely swear at it. I’m one of those who lands in between. I like some of his work, and dislike some of it. I pick his books up occasionally because I’m a sucker for dark tales about the seedy side of Los Angeles – a Bukowski specialty.
I mostly enjoyed this collection of short stories about life among La-La Land’s hustlers, junkies, drunks, cynics, dreamers, wretches, and gamblers. The writing grates sometimes, and you sometimes suffocate beneath the weight of Bukowski’s ginormous ego. But every now and then he finds his inner poet, making it worth the effort and cover price.
Art of Travel, Gail Brodholt. I should read more art books. So should you. So should your neighbors. Brodholt is a talented London-based artist who specializes in oil paintings and linocut prints. This book focuses on her work in linocut, which is a variant of woodcut in which designs are cut into linoleum surfaces with a sharp knife. Her work was on display in a gallery in Bermondsey that we visited a couple of years ago, and I guess I raved about it enough to convince Susan to buy me this book as a birthday present.
“Art of Travel” provides a very interesting look at the history of London transport, from the earliest tube lines to modern motorways. Brodholt made hundreds of prints depicting life in and around the tube stops, at various points along the historical timeline. The prints perfectly capture the impermanence of buildings devoted to impermanence. Plus, her art is really pleasing to the eye. The text was written by Alan Marshall, who does a good job explaining the history and the artistic process.
Voodoo Hideaway, Vance Cariaga. Through some of my publishing contacts, I was able to snag an advance copy of this sublime debut novel, which is due for release on June 20 from Atmosphere Press. For those new to his work, Monsieur Cariaga is a woefully underappreciated giant of the literary arts whose otherworldly gifts cannot be contained by this mortal coil.
In this novel, he reinvents the crime fiction genre, bringing an extra dimension to a noirish tale of a homeless man who stumbles through a mysterious door one night and finds himself caught up in a deadly money scheme between a brilliant scientist, a wicked nightclub manager, a beautiful jazz singer, and a mobster on the lam. The reader is taken on a mad journey through a world of greed, deception, revenge and vanity, with plenty of blind alleys, sudden twists and dark humor along the way. Just when you think you’ve got the story figured out, it tosses you a curveball. The writing is sharp and witty, and the characters are memorable to the point of physically visiting your brain and setting up residence there.
You will love this book. You will praise this book. But first, you must order this book. Like, right now. If you want to pre-order a copy, here’s where to go. Just click on the links: