The quest continues. For the last several months, I’ve been reading only unfamiliar authors, or authors that I haven’t read in a decade or more.
Here are some of the best books I’ve enjoyed lately. (All links Amazon US)
Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann
Book-length narrative non-fiction, when done well, is top-of-the-line reading. I picked this up at Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse in Santa Fe, NM and had a feeling that it would be an astounding story. It did not disappoint.
The Osage tribe of Oklahoma was the richest group of people in America for a few years in the 1920s. Why? They were sitting on some very profitable oil leases, and many had expensive cars and chaffeurs and mansions. This alone would’ve been interesting – but then, horrifically, they began turning up dead. Two, then four, then eight, then twenty-two. Then the nascent FBI got wind of the murders and dispatched a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to investigate. What he found was a county-wide conspiracy among the white power structure to murder natives for the headrights, and no method was too terrible–bomb, strangulation, poisoned needles, hammer, auto accident.
It’s a peculiarly American story, focusing on sudden wealth, racism, and murder. There’s an investigator trying to make sense of all of it. And it’s all true. Nearly every sentence integrates something from the historical record—a quote, a statistic, a testimony. It’s unputdownable and should be required reading in schools. Rumor has it that Martin Scorsese will be filming the movie version with Leo DiCaprio later this summer. Don’t wait—find a copy of the book now. It won a 2018 Edgar Award.
This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz
Last time my path crossed with Mr. Díaz, it was ten years ago, and I was travelling across part of South America. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had just been released, and I carried it in my hand onto buses, into restaurants, in hotel rooms, etc. That book was great. No—it wasn’t just great, but obnoxiously, incredibly, awesomely, choose-your-adverbly kind of great. His voice on the page was nothing like anybody had ever seen, and in my own reading life, voice is everything. I’ll follow a great authorial voice anywhere, even to subjects I don’t care much about. Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Kaye Gibbons, Frederick Exley—their fiction voices are/were amazing.
Díaz is right up there with those stars. He released this collection of short stories in 2012, and it’s got the same look-ma-no-hands kind of passion, the same structural artistry, as Wao did. In fact, I don’t think enough people give him credit for taking unusual story structures and making them emotionally compelling. It’s not easy.
The stories here are all based on the same point of view: a young poor Latino guy in New Jersey pursuing misadventures in sex. It’s clear that Díaz is obsessed with women—finding them, luring them, charming them, using them, getting used by them, analyzing them, dumping them, getting dumped by them, remembering them.
I’m aware that Díaz got nailed by the #MeToo movement, and has some sins to atone for. And reading this book, I can see some reason for that, because this book is drenched in the hormones of a young man’s sex-addled brain. Still, I do separate the artist from the art, and this collection is definitely worth the read. None of the stories here is heads and shoulders above any other. They’re all terrific. Whenever Díaz is ready to publish something new, I’ll be here waiting.
Sonata Mulattica, by Rita Dove
I’d been meaning to read modern narrative poetry for a while, because it seems like a genre that’s ripe for a comeback. I’d also been meaning to read Rita Dove for a while, because she was our Poet Laureate for three years back in the nineties.
Then, while I was wandering the streets of the Printers’ Row Literary Festival in Chicago last summer, this title leapt off the shelf into my hands. It’s Rita Dove’s book-length narrative poem about the real-life story of George Bridgetower, a biracial violinist of the 19th century who was friends with Ludwig von Beethoven.
Man oh man, it’s a tour de force. This series of poems is told from various different viewpoints, in various different poetic styles, even including a brief stageplay. Dove takes her sweet time telling the details of Bridgetower’s life, and uses some pretty highflown language to relate those details. But that’s the nature of a poet, choosing opacity over clarity. It reminds me of the famous saying that a scientist takes something that nobody knows and says it in a way that everybody can understand, while a poet takes something that everybody knows and says it in a way that nobody can understand. That’s not a criticism. Today, poetry is meant to obfuscate. That’s kind of the point, at least in our modern conception of it.
This book got me juiced for the possibilities of the genre. After all, narrative poetry, if written in a conversational tone, could have a potentially huge audience. To my way of thinking, a lot of readers who don’t have the patience or time or attention span to finish a novel might be surprised how much easier it can be to get through a story in poetic form. Robert Frost wrote like this. James Dickey wrote in this form back in the sixties and seventies.
Me, I’m going to explore this genre further. Ms. Dove has inspired me. Isn’t that what books are supposed to do?
“There’s No Place Like Home” by Edan Lepucki
This is new: Amazon has commissioned a series of novelettes by famous and less-famous writers. It’s called the Warmer collection, and all of them are connected by the same theme: each is set in a dystopian future in which society is suffering severe climate change. The ‘Zon swoons over the series as “a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors. Alarming, inventive, intimate, and frightening, each story can be read, or listened to, in a single breathtaking sitting.”
That’s really purple marketing copy. A single breathtaking sitting. Someone fetch the smelling salts.
Seriously, those folks over in Seattle seem to have read my mind, because I’d thought of doing a series exactly like this. In fact, I did write a similar series of shorts for a ghostwriting assignment a couple years ago. I’d love to release them to the public, but, ya know, contracts, and, ya know, lawsuits. The pain of being a ghost. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Back to Lepucki’s story. It’s sharp and well-observed. The young girl who discovers her father’s suicide in an overheated Los Angeles of the distant future felt very, very real. The descriptions were accurate but understated. You could feel the slow way that oppressive heat and malnutrition wears down a family. And the small details, like Manitoba’s new role as a northern destination, a societal escape valve, were sharp.
Mostly I enjoyed the author’s world-building. It spoke to me. As someone who used to live in Los Angeles, I’ve glimpsed the future described here. In fact, the prospect of a dystopic waterless future of the haves v have-nots grappling under the broiling desert sun was one big reason I fled Southern California a few years ago. Returning to the upper Midwest, the land of great lakes and mild summers, has sent my happiness meter skyrocketing. There will be many more following this same path in future years as the desert Southwest slowly transforms into a kiln in coming years.
Anyways, read the story; it’s free in Amazon Prime as one of their Amazon Original Stories. I’ll be gobbling up the rest of the series shortly.
In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block
Another terrific anthology idea: Persuade America’s grandest mystery novelist, Lawrence Block, to put out the bat signal. He then persuades 17 respected writers to contribute one short story to his project–each inspired by a different Edward Hopper painting. Each story is prefaced by the canvas that inspired it.
Hopper was best known for Nighthawks, but all of his uniquely alienated American scenes are crying out for some noir-inspired moodiness and madness. This delivers. It’s a sharp collection, and a lot of these stories hit the mark. They include pieces by Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Kris Nelscott, Stephen King, and many others. I didn’t care for King’s story very much—heresy!—but Craig Ferguson, the talk show host and comedian, contributed an expectedly wacky tale. My favorite was written by Joe R. Lansdale, who I’d never heard of. Michael Connolly and Lee Child round out the cast.
Fact is, we’re living in a golden era of short story writing at the moment, thanks to a digital world of publishing that has lifted almost all restrictions on story length. Oddly, I’ve been reading all these shorties on my phone, a Moto Droid. When I bought it a couple years ago, I swore I wouldn’t read on such a small screen, but that wall crumbled pretty quick, and I’ve found that it’s comfortable to use for short bursts. Also, this is probably the way more people around the world will be reading in the future, since a delivery platform for paper is downright impractical in many developing parts of the globe, such as Indonesia, which has ten thousand scattered islands. This is the best time in history to be a reader.