The Reading List, No. 5: More Books I’ve Recently Completed

Here’s another blog about books that have recently made their way through my reading list. 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. If you’re a big reader, maybe you will find them useful.

Also: It’s a way to pimp my own book. So fair warning…..

Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor: There are times when I think Flannery O’Connor was the greatest American writer, that nobody could touch her when it came to boiling humans down to their core and presenting the world in the most brutal light possible. There is something simple yet mesmerizing about the way she puts you right inside the heads of her characters and drags you through the ensuing hellscape. This can be a little unsettling, considering how truly warped some of her characters are, but worth the effort. Wise Blood is O’Connor’s first novel, published in 1952. It follows the lives of various outcasts in the American South following World War II – including the protagonist, war veteran Hazel Motes – and the plot takes you through their quests to either find salvation themselves or find enough suckers willing to pay cash for it. It is a stark, unsentimental journey that still manages to make you care enough to read on.

Adios Muchachos, Daniel Chavarria: Have you ever eaten a decent enough meal that you forgot about two hours later, and never ate again? This is the book equivalent of that meal. Chavarria is a Uruguayan writer, but this novel is set in Havana. It involves a beautiful woman named Alicia who sleeps with rich men for money, gifts, and the promise of a better life, though she makes it appear that they’re just hooking up like any other horny couple. Her Mom is in on it, too. A guy who’s also kind of a hustler gets involved, and the plot moves into various scams and setups. Adios Muchacho works fine as lightweight comedy, and it’s cool to read a novel set in Havana. But most of it evaporated from my memory a day after I finished it.

Bessie Smith, Jackie Kay: This book got a lot of attention here in the UK, partly because Kay is a celebrated and much-honored writer in her home country of Scotland. In this book, she uses her experience as a mixed-race woman (half Scottish, half Nigerian) and lesbian to chronicle and analyze the life of legendary American blues artist Bessie Smith. During the 1920s, Smith was one of the biggest music stars in the United States. She was also a sharp businesswoman who earned a lot of money for the time, and took no crap from anyone – except for a cruel and abusive husband, who seemed to have a weird spell over Bessie’s mind, heart, and career. The book takes a deep dive into that relationship as well as many others (including love affairs with women), while the author uses her own experiences to expound upon the challenges Bessie Smith faced as a black woman in the American South. There’s enough to like here to make it worth reading, but too much of it starts to get repetitive, and the personal asides get in the way.

Tough Luck, Jason Starr: Here we have the culinary opposite of Adios, Muchacho – a meal that doesn’t look like much on the plate, starts off kind of nondescript, then hits you with a burst of flavor and ends up becoming one of the best things you’ve ever eaten. It’s a gritty crime novel with a lot of heart, and one of the better things in the genre I’ve read in a long time. The protagonist is Mickey Prada, a good kid from Brooklyn who delays college for a year to care for his ailing father. Soon enough Mickey finds himself in the middle of all kinds of grief with some of the local con artists and hoodlums, including a couple of wiseass nogoodniks who pose as his friends. I won’t give too much of the plot away. The writing is spare and efficient as it takes us through a bleak nightmare of one bad thing after another that can’t possibly end up good. Highly recommended.

Jagannath, Karen Tidbeck: A collection of short stories with a fantasy bent from a Swedish author who writes in English here. She is a talented wordsmith with a dark imagination, and many fans of sci-fi and fantasy swear by this book of odd tales of Scandinavian myths and weirdos. I found it fascinating at moments, indecipherable at stretches, sometimes drab, and probably not my personal en kopp te.

Voodoo Hideaway, Vance Cariaga. Here’s a splendid crime novel with a twist, in which the author brings 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.

Here’s how to order it:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Book Depository

Atmosphere Press

Indiebound

Waterstones

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