Thursday, July 31, 2014

SAVING THE HOOKER, a lot funnier than the films it satirizes!


The Permanent Press
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Matthew Hristahalois (Hrist-a-hal-E-os) is a not so scholarly scholar. He's obsessed with the "Hooker with a Heart of Gold" character that keeps turning up in movies like Pretty Woman and The Hangover—the beautiful and kind fallen woman who can only be saved by Prince Charming. Matthew wins a post-doc to see if real fallen women can be saved by a good man. He casts himself as Prince Charming and sets out to study and rehabilitate real New York City prostitutes, at least until he meets a fiery auburn-haired prostitute who calls herself Julia Roberts.

Saving the Hooker is a fast-paced assault on male hubris and the recycled fairy tales at the core of so many of our favorite books and movies. It is also a bawdy tour of lower Manhattan's escort service prostitution scene, a poke in the eye of academic orthodoxy, and a not-so-subtle send up of cable television talk-news. Centered on the combustible relationship between Matthew and Julia, Saving the Hooker makes comic hash out of modern America's show horse institutions and sacred cow issues: academia, high and low media, political correctness, misogyny, and sexual assault.


My Review
: I don't at all enjoy the way women are portrayed in major-budget films. They're scheming scum, out to hurt every man they meet, or they're saintly supporters, human jock straps meant to keep Their Man's balls in the air no matter how hard gravity pulls on 'em. Thus there are mothers and wives, there are sex workers and assistants; there are not rivals and partners.

This sends the message that women exist for men, and have no valid existence aside from their relations with men. That being arrant nonsense, I long ago stopped enjoying any film that doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, and there are precious few of them. As the years pass, and as I grow to realize how few women actually think about men all that much, I realize that someone like Michael Adelberg is on to something. He's also almost alone in talking about it. I hope he's not as alone in thinking about it.

Sadly I suspect that he is.
I lied to my father about having a real girlfriend: I conned my old friends into thinking I was a dude with fun friends; and I pulled this off by financing sexual favors, including the loss of my own virginity, with the center’s research funds.

What makes the story of Matthew's search for the roots of the "Hooker with a Heart of Gold" tale as funny as it is, is the pace the author sustains. Humor needs speed. Slow, ponderous things aren't usually funny, or at least not intentionally. Here we're careening all around Manhattan as Matthew bounces off the pachinko bumpers of misogyny (presented humorously but not played for laughs) and its stablemate political correctness...condescending mealy-mouthed nonsense with a genuinely important impetus, to stop cruel and belittling stereotyping...thus ramming at speed into clueless men and resigned, angrily despairing women.
For four nights, I imagined introducing myself to Ms. Caliente and telling her that I was a researcher. I imagined buying her a cup of coffee and talking with her about Mexico and how she fell into hooking. I imagined her telling me that I was the first truly nice man she’d ever known.

Matthew's Pilgrim's Progress is speeded up by the connections his academic focus makes a variety of stake-holders take an interest in his purpose. The "Wolf News Channel" episode made me laugh very scornfully, I admit. But the problem, as any grown-up knows, is that this lifestyle is expensive and deep pockets aren't common in academia...or not for very long, anyway. And worst of all, when he snags a perfect research subject he discovers that he's what he always was: A means to someone else's end.

This is a funny, bitter, cynical read that has big ambitions and only just falls short of realizing them fully. While Matthew's research is on the right track, he's still just a guy without a clue when it comes to women. He doesn't see, and doesn't see that he doesn't see, the hard truth that he comes across as the kid who fell off the pickle truck as it made a hard left onto Tenth Avenue. When life makes it too obvious for him to ignore, he responds in the stereotypical man way.

I trust all my readers will remember why The Pilgrim's Progress came to be. Now apply that here. And there you have the missing stars! Not everyone will feel as I do, so by all means adventure a bit and pick one up.

I got so much of what I wanted that I'm really annoyed I didn't get it all.

Book-A-Day #31: THE DAYS OF ANNA MADRIGAL, a book reminding me of someone special

THE DAYS OF ANNA MADRIGAL (Tales of the City #9)

$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Suspenseful, comic, and touching, the ninth and final novel in Armistead Maupin's bestselling Tales of the City series follows one of modern literature's most unforgettable and enduring characters—Anna Madrigal, the legendary transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane—on a road trip that will take her deep in her past.

Now a fragile ninety-two years old and committed to the notion of "leaving like a lady," Anna Madrigal has seemingly found peace in the bosom of her "logical family" in San Francisco: her devoted young caretaker, Jake Greenleaf; her former tenant Brian Hawkins; Brian's daughter Shawna; and Michael Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton, who have known and loved Anna for nearly four decades.

Some members of Anna's family are bound for the otherworldly landscape of Burning Man, the art festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada where sixty thousand revelers build a temporary city (Michael calls it "a Fellini carnival on Mars") designed to last only one week. Anna herself has another Nevada destination in mind: a lonely stretch of road outside of Winnemucca where the sixteen-year-old boy she used to be ran away from the whorehouse he then called home. With Brian and his beat-up RV, she journeys into the dusty, troubled heart of her Depression-era childhood, where she begins to unearth a lifetime of secrets and dreams, and to attend to unfinished business she has long avoided.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt, the thirty-first and (blessedly) last, is a book that reminds you of someone special.
It took so long to find you...and now I don't want it to change. I want it all set in amber. I want us and nobody else in the most selfish way you can imagine. I can't help it--I'm old-fashioned. I believe marriage is between a man and a man.
My Gentleman Caller. My own dear love.

A series of novels spanning 40 years (give or take) is bound to cope with the facts of aging, exactly as the author himself is. The dealing is by doing, as it is in every other facet of life. At least, of a life that one would want to live.

Doing something has always been Mrs. Madrigal's way. It takes some doing to change one's body from male to female. It takes some doing to create a life that doesn't simply pass by. It takes a lot of doing to love anyone on the surface of the earth, doing and doing and doing. Anna Madrigal has never not done her part.

Endings frightened me for many years. They never, ever seem to look the way I want them to. I can't fathom why it took me so very long to learn that endings aren't real. The story never ends, it never begins either, it simply is. So this final installment in a series of novels I've never not set store by should have me shaking in my boots.

I'm so happy I've left the party. I'm content to be right here, right now. Anna Madrigal helped me see that more clearly than any actual physical person I've ever known: Here is where you are, so be here.

It helps to know, like Mrs. Madrigal, that all times are now, and all places are here, it's just perspective that causes things to look so different.

I've loved growing up with these books, seeing them in different ways at different times in my life, loving and hating and understanding the complex people that weave in and out of the tales. Forgiving them. Becoming so much like them that it scares me sometimes. And now, aspiring to be Mrs. Madrigal after years as Mary Ann, Mouse, Brian, and *shudder* feeling like Norman.

None of which will make even a little bit of sense to the uninitiated. Never mind, loves, it's all still there. If and when you want to find it, Barbary Lane will be there, a Brigadoon of deeply felt and nourishingly offered drafts from the Well of Loneliness.
It was like school spirit back in high school. He didn’t have it then, and he didn’t have it now. To him, the biggest advantage of being queer was being queer.
We're all queer in our own ways. Drink it down and savor it. Try not to piss it away.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book-A-Day #30: VILLAGE BOOKS by Craig McLay


Kindle Original
$3.99, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Village Books is a local institution…which is good, because most of the staff probably belong in one.

There’s the manager, Dante Andolini, who’s hiding more than just his hypochondria from his overbearing mother…Sebastian Donleavy, whose hedonistic lifestyle is two rails short of being on the rails…Aldous Swinghammer, whose philosophical eccentricities have not been the biggest hit with the ladies…Ebeneezer Chipping, whose crotchety exterior hides a burning passion for the Spanish émigré next door…Mina Bovary, whose crazy husband may have just gone AWOL with an arsenal of fragmentary explosive devices…and the store’s long-suffering assistant manager, who is spinning his wheels in retail while he waits for something better to come along.

That something better may be new assistant manager Leah Dashwood, an aspiring actress with an ambitious plan to transform the store and its staff in a way that will turn their carefully disordered world on its head. Will the store survive? Will it be bought over by its evil corporate competition? All questions will be answered (but not necessarily in that order) in this hilarious debut novel.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt, the thirtieth, was a "double-dip" and frankly I don't care what they picked, I was ready for this game to be over last week.

This is a first novel, and it's not too awful terrible well-constructed on a plot level. Too many things are dropped, then re-appear; too many people are shuffled from pillar to post and then needed back at pillar so whoopsie-daisy there they are. Motivations are, to put it mildly, unclear.

But you know what? I liked the characters. I liked the crazy bookstore people. I laughed out loud several times:
Trying to make her angry is like trying to find a corner on a bowling ball.
He went to India to "find himself" last year, but evidently he wasn't there, and he came back empty-handed.
Most of the humor isn't pull-quotable because it requires some familiarity with the situation. No matter, it was amusing, and several things rang very true. The Irish publican who served a drink called "the Englishman's Tits" to people he doesn't like. It's a shuddersome decoction. It involves beets.

So I meandered through the plot holes, I skipped over the male fantasy-fulfillment stuff, I sighed in mild annoyance at the pat ending. And I enjoyed a few hours of uncomplicated pleasantries exchanged among people I thought needed a swift kick. I'm not going to tell you to break your thumbs one-clicking it, but believe me it's got a little something extra to reward the tired, smile-hunting Kindle reader.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book-A-Day #29: AUTHORISMS: Words Wrought by Writers

AUTHORISMS: Words Wrought by Writers

Bloomsbury USA
$18.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.8* of five

The Publisher Says: William Shakespeare’s written vocabulary consisted of 17,245 words, including hundreds that were coined or popularized by him. Some of the words never went further than their appearance in his plays, but others—like bedazzled, hurry, critical, and anchovy—are essential parts of our standard vocabulary today.

Many other famous and lesser-known writers have contributed to the popular lexicon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Sir Walter Scott ranks second to Shakespeare in first uses of words and giving a new and distinct meaning to already existing words (Free Lances for freelancers). John Milton minted such terms as earthshaking, lovelorn, by hook or crook, and all Hell broke loose, and was responsible for introducing some 630 words.

Gifted lexicographer Paul Dickson deftly sorts through neologisms by Chaucer (a ha), Jane Austen (base ball), Louisa May Alcott (co-ed), Mark Twain (hard-boiled), Kurt Vonnegut (granfalloon), John le Carrè (mole), William Gibson (cyberspace), and many others. Presenting stories behind each word and phrase, Dickson enriches our appreciation of the English language in a book as entertaining as it is enlightening.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt, the 28th, is to identify the most endearing villain in a book.

That has me stumped. So I'm ignoring it! Haha, take THAT you silly meme!

Authorisms could, I suppose, be about a villain, if you personify the English language. It's fiendishly difficult to learn, and native speakers are almost to a being woefully (or blissfully, depending on whether you're a teacher or a speaker) ignorant of the rules of proper usage, grammar, syntax, know, the basics.

Whatevs, the book is BIG fun and, being arranged as a dictionary, is set up for easy browsing. Dickson gives a very satisfying cross-section of author-invented words, and with great care distinguishes the nonce words from the lasting contributions to the lexicon. Goalless, for example, is an Emily Dickinson-coined nonce that only appears in reference to her or her work, and hasn't been absorbed into the language...versus babbitt and its kin babbitty et alii, Sinclair Lewis's invaluable eponym for a provincial, boosterish, snobby little nobody with delusions of adequacy.

Dickson himself coined the useful and well-used demonym, personal identifier with a place such as Angeleno or Cockney. I quite enjoyed this word-book, as I do almost all word-books, and I'd recommend it to the more wordophile of my pals.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

BLACK DIAMOND by Martin Walker...excellent third mystery

BLACK DIAMOND (Bruno, Chief of Police #3)

Alfred A. Knopf
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The third installment in Martin Walker's delightful, internationally acclaimed series featuring Chief of Police Bruno.

Something dangerous is afoot in St. Denis. In the space of a few weeks, the normally sleepy village sees attacks on Vietnamese vendors, arson at a local Asian restaurant, subpar truffles from China smuggled into outgoing shipments at a nearby market—all of it threatening the Dordogne’s truffle trade, worth millions of dollars each year, and all of it spelling trouble for Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, master chef, devoted oenophile, and, most important, beloved chief of police. When one of his hunting partners, a noted truffle expert, is murdered, Bruno’s investigation into the murky events unfolding around St. Denis becomes infinitely more complicated. His friend wasn’t just a connoisseur of French delicacies, he was a former high-profile intelligence agent—and someone wanted him dead.

As the strange crimes continue, Bruno’s detective work takes him from sunlit markets to dim cafés, from luxurious feasts to tense negotiations—from all of the paradisial pleasures of the region to its shadowy underworld—and reunites him with a lost love, an ambitious policewoman also assigned to the case. Filled with an abundance of food and wine (including, bien sûr, many, many truffles) and a soupçon of romance, Black Diamond is a deliciously entertaining concoction that delivers all the complexity and delights of the Dordogne itself.

My Review: I'd like to be clear about one thing up front: No one pays me to write my reviews, and I got no free copy of this book to review it. Save your nastygrams.

What I did get from this third outing in the Bruno, Chief of Police, series was a serious jones for truffes cendrillons (or cendrées, as I knew the dish), the coal-baked tarts filled with truffled foie gras that are outstandingly rich and almost incredibly expensive. They're also the only way I actually *like* truffles.

*pause for near-lethal drooling*

So. Anyway. Truffles are obscenely expensive fungi, and the Périgord (where fictional St-Denis is located) is one of Earth's best places to find the highest quality variety of them. Naturally, this being a Bruno story, the initial push into crime and dishonesty comes from shenanigans at the truffle market. Naturally, this being a Bruno story, the malfeasance and wrong-doing stretch farther and wider than that. Naturally, this being a Bruno story, there is loving and glorious detail lavished upon the preparation and eating of meals. A very great deal less attention is paid to Bruno's rugby-playing, fire-fighting physique in action amoureuse.

I'm down with that. Sex I can get anywhere. A series of mysteries where Pomerol *drool* is fleetingly mentioned and Dom Pérignon is casually served at a public function (!!!), where the meals listen, I don't need to belabor this, it's effin' para-bloody-dise that Walker's describing. A hot rugby-playing 40-year-old cop who can cook and knows his wines. Yes please.

By the end of this entry in the series, it's clear that our lad is as always the bestest Boy Scout in all France and he's got not a single problem with doing the Right Thing even if it's political suicide, even when it costs him dearly and personally, and then refusing to dodge, bob, and weave when shady souls want him to trim his sails expediently.

For this very reason, Bruno ends this installment with a vastly better material life, and a very greatly enlarged circle of influence. Hobnobbing with royalty, even minor royalty, grants a man access to things previously not available. Very useful in a sleuth's development; and as done by Walker in this book, perfectly logical and in fact sort of inevitable.

I'll cut to the chase: For a series-mystery fan, this procedural-cum-cozy-via-thriller series is catnip and should not be resisted. For a foodie, it's madness to pass up. For one who fancies gentlemen of a certain interesting age, it's damn near mandatory reading. (My Gentleman Caller has a serious book-crush on Bruno, for example. I'm not jealous it says here because so do I.) And if wine interests you, for heavens' sake go NOW and buy them all!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

WHACK-A-MOLE, third John Ceepak Jersey Shore mystery and the best one yet

WHACK-A-MOLE (John Ceepak Mysteries #3)

Chris Grabenstein
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.6* of five

The Publisher Says: An innocent discovery on the beach in Sea Haven leads John Ceepak, the cop with an unshakeable code of honor, and his rookie partnet, the twentysomething wisecracker Danny Boyle, into the hunt for a long-dormant serial killer who might be crawling out of his hiding hole to strike again.

Like the relentless rodents in the Boardwalk arcade game, gruesome clues keep popping up all over the island as Ceepak (the former soldier who will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do) finds himself up against an adversary with an even stricter code, a code he rigidly enforces.

When the killer targets his next victim, the consequences become dire for Ceepak and Boyle. This is a game they have to win!

My Review: A solid four-star outing for that Dudley Do-Right of the Jersey Shore, John Ceepak, and his wing man young Danny Boyle. One thing's for sure, the villain of the piece gets a hellacious run-around before he's brought to justice.

The first two books in the series were good fun, with lots of wisecracking and silliness from Danny, along with some very Monk-like fun-making at Ceepak's expense. This outing has the fun, less of the fun-making; in fact, the shoe goes very much on the other foot this outing. I enjoyed that.

I also enjoyed the darker and more intense pace of this entry in the series. It serves the characters well because it's about them growing up and filling in their roles as a team. There's so much more to work with in a book-three mystery, an established sense of place and a mode of communication and a web of memories to draw on. Grabenstein does all of that, stays true to Ceepak's character in every way and manages to continue Danny Boyle's maturation and education without *whap*smack*bang*ing us to notice it. In this book, Danny's lessons are pricey and yet completely relatable. Don't get me wrong, I was still hollering at the Kindle, "DON'T YOU DO THAT! NO NO!! NOT THAT!" Danny wasn't listening. In a world with smartphones, I think I can be excused for mistaking the Kindle for an old Dick-Tracy-style two-way wrist radio.

That's my story, anyway.

By the end of the book, when the stakes were ratcheted higher than ever before, I was over-pushing the paging buttons and having to back-track. I was that wrapped up in the ending. You know how the Big Reveal is so often the Middlin' Reveal? Not this time. Nope. Big Reveal is a biiiig surprise.

The solution to the crime isn't too shabby, either. Heh.

Book-A-Day #27: WORST Parents in Fiction--WE NEED NEW NAMES


Reagan Arthur Books
$3.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 2.75* of five


The Publisher Says: A remarkable literary debut—shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize! The unflinching and powerful story of a young girl's journey out of Zimbabwe and to America.

Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo's belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America's famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo's debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her-from Junot Diaz to Zadie Smith to J.M. Coetzee-while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.

My Review: Okay.

Someone please, I implore you, please sit down in front of me, where I can see your lips and hear your words, and in short, simple, declarative sentences, please please oh please explain to me how the Booker people could NOT shortlist TransAtlantic, an amazing novel by an amazing writer, but CAN shortlist a novel with this in it:
I don't like going to church because I don't really see why I have to sit in the hot sun on that mountain and listen to boring songs and meaningless prayers and strange verses when I could be doing important things with my friends. Plus, last time I went, that crazy Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro shook me and shook me until I vomited pink things. I thought I was going to die a real death. Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro was trying to get the spirit inside me out; they say I am possessed because they say my grandfather isn't properly buried because the white people killed him during the war for feeding and hiding the terrorists who were trying to get our country back because the white people had stolen it.

Gosh, never heard that before. Never thought of telling a story about an African country's poverty from the PoV of a child before. Why no, it's just unique and unprecedented.

And it's not like it's ever been done before, even Dave Eggers (not a favorite of mine) did it in What is the What, and then there's Say You're One of Them...but what is that objection falling from your lips, those are BOYS telling their stories, not GIRLS telling theirs?

Which is it, all experience is human, or gender creates a special and different relationship to the world? Both cannot be true. Think carefully before answering that question, because one answer makes a chink in the armor protecting a very very very touchy equality argument....

But each experience of the world is unique! All should be celebrated! Uh huh. So you'll be buying a Joyce Meyer book about how she survived incestuous sexual abuse by the healing grace of gawd through Jeebus. Oh no? Too white-church-lady conservative, all because a Man helped her find resolution and a measure of peace because a girl can't do it herself?

What happened to all experiences being celebrated?

The above roughly encapsulates a call-and-response session I had with a fan of the book. She (naturally) stated I was behaving in a sexist manner and implied, with dark tones of voice, that I was probably a racist too, because I don't think this is a particularly good book, and *certainly* don't think it's Booker-worthy.

This is not a long book, and it's not, regardless of the cover, the title page, and the sales bunf, a novel. It's interlinked short stories that share a background. The author has used a rather flat, matter-of-fact tone to deliver her stories, and that's just fine for a story in a collection. It's wearing as hell when it's the ONLY tone used. It does not lend itself easily to a smooth, page-turning read. It required of me that I expend mental effort to stay engaged for the ~10-12pp the story lasted.

Now that is something, laddies and gentlewomen. In only 12pp, an author can make someone who has spent most of his life (48/54 years) reading and savoring many, many kinds of books by every conceivable terrestrial human phenotype feel the need to force his attention back to their work.

I certainly didn't hate the book, and I don't think the author should be put in the stocks thence to learn the error of her ways. I dislike the book, yes, but I commend the person who struggled to bring it forth and make it as good as she possibly could imagine it being, for doing the work, making the effort, creating an artwork that rings true in her ears.

I assume many agree with her. I am not one. I think it's a decent first book. I would pick up another book of NoViolet Bulawayo's to sample, if I happened across it. Contrast this with my response to that Purple Bruise and Yellow Sun woman Chimamanda What's-it: how fast can I run, how far can I hurl, how hard can I stomp the next and the previous books she's written.

But this isn't a particularly good book simply because it's not horrible. If you find my copy on the train, pick it up and idly leaf through. Maybe you'll like it, because goodness knows I didn't.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

THE MIDAS PLAGUE, Frederik Pohl's 60-year-old novelette of consumerism


Out of print
Various prices and sellers, starting at about $6

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Although the three part serial beginning in the June 1952 issue in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth had established Frederik Pohl as a formidable contributor, this novelette in the April 1954 issue was his first solo contribution and marked him as an important addition to the growing roster of social satirists enlisted by Horace Gold, the editor of GALAXY magazine.

The audacious and patchwork concept underlying this story (the richer you are the less you are forced to consume; the greatest poverty is involved with the aggregation of goods) was Horace Gold’s and according to Pohl he had offered it to almost all of his regular contributors, asking for a story centered on the idea. The idea lacks all credibility, everyone (including Pohl) told him and everyone refused to write something so patently unbelievable until, according to Pohl, Horace browbeat him into an attempt and Pohl decided that it was less trouble to deliver something than continue to resist.

To his utter shock, the story was received by Gold and his readership with great glee, was among the most popular GALAXY ever published (or Pohl) and one of the most anthologized. Whether this demonstrated the audacity and scope of Gold’s unreason or whether it confirmed Gold’s genius (or both) Pohl was utterly unable to decide. The sculpted consumer-obsessed society was used again by Pohl a few years later in the novelette THE MAN WHO ATE THE WORLD which was far more credible (consumption-obsession as a kind of personal tyranny) and, perhaps for that very reason, much less successful, barely remembered.

My Review: Rather entertaining, in a simple way. But as I read on, I had this chill of terror...after all, in a world where there are "old" Kindles and iPhones and Galaxy tablets made in 2012, how far are we from the dystopia of this tale?

Thanks to LibraryThing Fred, I read this antique, sixty-year-old tale of consumerism's most appalling subtext writ large. It's hard not to see how this 12,000 or so word novelette would benefit from either more or less space. It would, in hands more skilled, have been side-splittingly funny. Pohl wasn't really up to it in 1954. But honestly, it was an hour spent smiling and frowning at the same time, as I processed the implications of the fact that people saw what was happening in the wake of consumerism in 1954...and did nothing.

That chilled me.

At $6-ish and an hour or so of time, this felt like a break-even investment. I was hoping for a positive return of laughs, and got the smiles instead. But overall I'd say it's a good way to spend an afternoon. Very worthwhile for the Unlimited folks, less so for the money-spenders.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Essays, only not boring: MEATY by Samantha Irby

MEATY: Essays

Curbside Splendor
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

I first reviewed this collection of essays for The Small Press Book Review. It's by a blogger called Samantha Irby, a Person of Size whose blog is called Bitches Gotta Eat.

I wasn't sure about these essays until I hit the one on diets and dieting, when I started laughing so hard I scared the dog. Read the review, see why. I quoted the (to me) funniest one of them.

The Publisher Says: Samantha Irby explodes onto the page in her debut collection of brand-new essays about being a complete dummy trying to laugh her way through her ridiculous life of failed relationships, taco feasts, bouts with Crohn's Disease, & more, all told with the same scathing wit & poignant candor long-time readers have come to expect from her notoriously hilarious blog,

In addition to co-hosting The Sunday Night Sex Show, a sex-positive live lit show, and Guts & Glory, a reading series featuring essayists, Samantha has performed all over Chicago. She opened for Baratunde Thurston during his "How to Be Black" tour. She has been profiled in the Chicago Sun-Times as well as in Time Out Chicago, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus and Jezebel. Samantha and partner Ian Belknap write a comedy advice blog at

My Review: It's good to be young. I remember that. I'm not young anymore, and frankly wouldn't be young again for all the money there is. But that's age's privilege, to celebrate itself. Every age's privilege, in fact, and Samantha Irby celebrates being young.

In a very testy way.

Hell, if I had Crohn's disease, I'd be testy too. In fact, I am testy, no Crohn's needed. But Irby gets testy over very young problems, as in the essay "Would Dying Alone Really Be So Terrible?":
I want to watch porn by myself, because a dude just won't let you take five minutes to masturbate without his dick thinking it's an invitation, and then that five minutes becomes twenty-five minutes (if you're lucky) of heat and sweat and effed-up hair and having to remake the bed and being late for work and even then, after all that grunting and shoving and groaning, you might STILL have to get your vibrator out while this motherfucker passes out on top of the shirt you'd taken out to wear to the office.
This is the kind of problem a lot of folks of either gender and all persuasions would enjoy having, if the dating sites' usage and match-up numbers aren't complete lies.

Irby's brand of testy humor gets a laugh-out-loud funny workout in her meditation on the American obsession with weight, weight loss, effort-free weight loss, and laziness in "The Tapeworm Diet." She appears, on her teensy little blog avatar, not to be an immensely large person, but I don't know this for a fact as I've never met the lady. She claims to be sizable: "I eat bad things and go to sleep immediately afterward. There, I solved the mystery of fatness for you. You're welcome." Garshk, and here I thought it was my slow metabolism!

Irby then goes on to skewer the un-fucking-believable idiotic should-be-illegal insanities out there for an unsuspecting public to follow as diets:
The Twinkie Diet.
A typical day in the life of Kansas State University nutrition researcher Mark Haub, creator of the Junk Food Diet, which consists of 60% junk food supplemented by a protein shake, multivitamin pills, and a can of green beans or four stalks of celery every day. He avoided meats, whole grains, and fruits. September 10, 2010: A double espresso; two servings of Hostess Twinkies Golden Sponge Cake; one Centrum Advanced Formula pill; one serving of Little Debbie Star Crunch cookies (my jam!); a Diet Mountain Dew (barf); half a serving of Doritos Cool Ranch corn chips; two servings of Kellogg's Corn Pops cereal; a serving of whole milk (squirt!); half a serving of raw baby carrots; one and a half servings of Duncan Hines Family Style Chewy Fudge brownie; half a serving of Little Debbie Zebra Cake; one serving of Muscle Milk Protein Shake drink; Total: 1589 calories.
Just reading that shit makes my fucking teeth hurt. I think I also might've just caught diabetes through the computer screen. This can't be life, right? Snack cakes and baby carrots? NO IT CANNOT.
Sing it, soul-daughter. Couldn't have said it better myownself. The spoiledness of the average American is never in more breathtaking relief than in diet advice and weight-loss program information. Most people on the planet would like to have enough food to get full once a day. People here eat so much they need advice on how not to turn into land-blimps. Something is wrong with this picture. Samantha Irby makes you giggle as she pokes your social conscience, so permaybehaps people who need to hear will listen without realizing what they're hearing. It's the only way past their privileged-person defenses, the evidence shows.

The collection is far and away best taken in doses. It's like any smorgasbord. The offerings are tempting, and the urge to overindulge is strong. Resist the urge that you not grow indifferent to the charms of the groaning board! Read one or two of these tempting treats. Put the book down, pick up something grim and joyless for a contrast...are you caught up on your Bolaño reading? isn't there a new Murakami or something?...and then come back to laugh and learn.

Wait! I didn't mean learn! I meant enjoy! Enjoy, not something hard and boring like learn!

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Book-A-Day #25: THE DINOSAUR FEATHER, a guilty pleasure read

Quercus Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: How could one man inspire such hatred?

Professor Lars Helland is found at his desk with his tongue lying in his lap. A violent fit has caused him to bite through it in his death throes. A sad but simple end. Until the autopsy results come through.

The true cause of his death - the slow, systematic and terrible destruction of a man - leaves the police at a loss. And when a second member of Helland's department disappears, their attention turns to a postgraduate student named Anna. She's a single mother, angry with the world, desperate to finish her degree. Would she really jeopardise everything by killing her supervisor?

As the police investigate the most brutal and calculated case they've ever known, Anna must fight her own demons, prove her innocence and avoid becoming the killer's next victim.

The Dinosaur Feather is the most fascinating, complex and unusual Scandinavian crime novel since Smilla's Sense of Snow.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is the twenty-fifth, a book that's a guilty pleasure.

Scandicrime has, apart from Jussi Adler-Olson, eluded me. I'm not hooked, I'm not repelled, I'm simply bemused by the warbles and hoots of addicted rapture. I gave up on Arnaldur's books because grim, I disliked that Swedish guy's rape victim trilogy deeply, I can't read books starring a person named Harry Hole. I simply can't. So me and the Scandis, we're not besties.

I do, however, really really like this book. It's got a background—and ONLY a background, no sciencey stuff need slow you down—of one of the most fascinating paleontological issues around, that is the dinosaurian origins of birds. It features a detective with angst. (Hoo BOY does he have angst.) The suspect is a single mom in search of a degree to build a good life for herself and her baby. And as a bonus the victim badly needed killing, and was dispatched in a way that still fills all the nooks and crannies of my soul with schadenfreude.

So why call this almost-four-star read a guilty pleasure? Because it's relentlessly downbeat. Yes, the crime is solved, but honestly I wish it hadn't been. The dick who died? Yeah, well, pity about that, please pass the jelly. The secrets that erupt into unforgettable daylight? Better for everyone if they'd just stayed secret and life had percolated along with shiny surfaces and unpocked skin.

And I thoroughly, completely reveled in the nastiness. Shame on me! #sorrynotsorry

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book-A-Day #24: A book that reminds you of your English teacher

translator: ROBERT PINSKY

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
$21.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: This widely praised version of Dante's masterpiece, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets, is more idiomatic and approachable than its many predecessors. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Pinsky employs slant rhyme and near rhyme to preserve Dante's terza rima form without distorting the flow of English idiom. The result is a clear and vigorous translation that is also unique, student-friendly, and faithful to the original: "A brilliant success," as Bernard Knox wrote in The New York Review of Books.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is the twenty-fourth, a book that reminds you of your English teacher.

Ninth grade, or freshman high school year, was The Odyssey, and tenth was The Inferno. We used, in 1974, the then-newish Ciardi translation, made in 1954; it was quite an event, since Ciardi (a poet of some renown) translated it as poetry instead of as Italian-to-English words.

Pinsky's translation attempts the damn-near impossible feat of preserving the terza rima (aba, bcb, cdc, etc.) rhyme scheme invented by Dante for this cycle of poems. The result is a noble experiment, one marked by many successes. There are some weird things like quotes flowing over multiple stanzas, and there are some...odd...rhymes. But hell, the man tried a damned near impossible feat! Italian is a language in which it's harder *not* to rhyme than otherwise, and English resists rhyme with all its might and main.

So what is any reviewer to say about a 700-year-old poem? Nothing hasn't been said by now. I am anti-christian. The theology behind the entire Divine Comedy appalls and repulses me. I speak rudimentary Italian. Pinsky's efforts to reproduce terza rima are, to my ears, clunky and unnecessary. But in the end, rating a book like this is about what the take-away is for the reader. I take away a sense of Dante as an intelligent, desperately lonely man, attempting to make a Universe in which his existence matters and is of some moment. I stand in awed amazement at his gloriously baroque imagination. I am gobsmacked by the sheer audacity of a medieval poet writing in the vernacular. If Dante was alive today, he'd be writing raps.

Ugh. Horrible thought.

But nonetheless, I am wowed at a root level by the joyous, exuberant viciousness and the unapologetic cruelty of Dante's score-settling fates for his enemies. What a guy! Those raps he'd be writing today? They'd inspire Wes Craven to make movies and Clive Barker to write gore-fests!

Try this exercise: Imagine a beat-box under the terza rima stanzas. Read a piece aloud imagining hand-claps at the end of each stanza. This is what I think we, in this relativistic age, should strive for: to interpret the classics of literature and poetry by standards relevant to today, in addition to the standards that we know were applied at the time of the work's creation.

Many more layers to this work that way. After all, a literary classic is a work that's never finished saying what it has to say.

And here one is.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book-A-Day #22: A novel with an exotic setting, THE MERRY MISOGYNIST

THE MERRY MISOGYNIST (Dr. Siri Paiboun #6)

Soho Crime
$24.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In poverty-stricken 1978 Laos, a man with a truck from the city was "somebody," a catch for even the prettiest village virgin. The corpse of one of these bucolic beauties turns up in Dr. Siri's morgue and his curiosity is piqued. The victim was tied to a tree and strangled but she had not, as the doctor had expected, been raped, although her flesh had been torn. And though the victim had clear, pale skin over most of her body, her hands and feet were gnarled, callused, and blistered.
On a trip to the hinterlands, Siri discovers that the beautiful female corpse bound to a tree has already risen to the status of a rural myth. This has happened many times before. He sets out to investigate this unprecedented phenomenon--a serial killer in peaceful Buddhist Laos--only to discover when he has identified the murderer that not only pretty maidens are at risk. Seventy-three-year-old coroners can be victims, too.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is the twenty-third, favorite novel with an exotic background.

Laos in 1978 counts as exotic to me. I'm not sure the Laotians would agree, probably thinking of Long Island suburbia as exotic. It's all where you stand.

I love the series mystery world for its orderliness and its assurance that Right will be done. In this sixth Dr. Siri mystery, Right is indeed done and just in the nick of time. There's a secondary plot that I wasn't sure was needed, concerning Crazy Rajid the naked Indian who hangs with Dr. Siri, Comrade Civilai, and Inspector Phosy down by the Mekong. It doesn't seem necessary to me, but then why the hell not, it was fun.

The crimes and the punishment are well-handled here, and the believability of the situation created was up to snuff. But the star of the series, pace Dr. Siri, is Laos in all its tropical glory. I thoroughly enjoy my trips there, which I most emphatically would NOT if the trips were physical. As I huddle in front of the air conditioner, cursing temperatures that make me sweat and suffer but which would seem almost wintry to the Laotians, I visit the beauty of the jungle...without the bugs or the sweat.

I love that. Thanks for taking me there, Colin Cotterill!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book-A-Day #22: MONTANA 1948, the novel I most like to give to friends


Milkweed Editions
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 6* of five because it's truly a perfect read

The Publisher Says: The events of that small-town summer forever alter David Hayden's view of his family: his self-effacing father, a sheriff who never wears his badge; his clear sighted mother; his uncle, a charming war hero and respected doctor; and the Hayden's lively, statuesque Sioux housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, whose revelations are at the heart of the story. It is a tale of love and courage, of power abused, and of the terrible choice between family loyalty and justice.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is to identify the novel you most like to give to friends.

This book has a deeply personal connection to me and my life. I've mentioned elsewhere that I have given many copies of this book away, and why. I was given heart, comfort, and guidance by this work of fiction, such as no corporeal person could have given me.

But to consider this as a book, a novel written for an audience by a writer, is to appreciate anew the benefits of craftsmanship and the ungovernable lightning of talent. There are very few books I can give the accolade of "I wouldn't change a single thing" to, and this is one of them. Not one word out of place, not one simile or metaphor ill-used, unused, or overused, nothing could be added without compromising the beauty of the book, and nothing need be removed to clear aside clutter.

If brevity is the soul of wit, it is also the soul of wisdom, and this book is wise, so wise, to its child narrator's painful coming to adulthood. It's also wise to the nature of love as lived from day to day, and how it so often can curdle into acceptance of what one cannot change...but should, or should always strive to, because some things are simply, inarguably, Right.

As a meditation on one's remembered past, this is a crystal clear and unsparing récit; as a story, it's so simple as to be mindless, except that it's mindful of the role of unadorned narrative in making the world a better place.

I would like to know the characters in this novel, really know them, sit in their kitchens and listen to their stories and drink their vile percolated coffee. I loved each of them, yes even the one whose bad deeds set the story in motion, loved them for being real and nuanced and far more vulnerable than most of the real people I know.

I can't simply and blindly recommend this book to you, because it's very strong meat; I can encourage you to read it if you care for justice, the horrible cost of it and the terrifying price it exacts from those it visits; but you will come away from it changed, as I was, possibly for the better but changed. Don't ever ask questions you don't want the answers to...and this book answers some very, very nasty questions with grace and beauty and forgiveness.

My edition's cover, to me the most perfect:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Book-A-Day #21: A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, a book I loved but expected to hate


The Hogarth Press
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.

For Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is the twenty-first, discuss a book you expected to hate but ended up loving.
Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.

Now, there is always a matter of taste when it comes to appreciating or otherwise a given writer's work. Do the writer's words ring you like a bell? Do they smack you in the chops? Do they slither into your ears emitting glassy slime like a hagfish? That's the chief factor in determining your ultimate response to a work. I think some writers are equivalent of chocolatiers, making bonbon after truffle upon caramel. Lovely taken one at a time; urpsome in bulk. I think Marra is a chocolatier of a writer in this book.
There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family, then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren’t even a memory, you’re only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well.
Mmmmm. Yum. Sing it, Brother Anthony, sing it.
Invader and invaded held on to their fistfuls of earth, but in the end, the earth outlived the hands that held it.
Yes. I concur. A bit baroque, permabehaps, but yes.
For their entire lives, even before they met you, your mother and father held their love for you inside their hearts like an acorn holds an oak tree.
Oh gag me! A milk chocolate strawberry creme-filled emetic-level Whitman's Sampler spitback!

So here I was, alternately uplifted and revolted, and still...this story made me stop what I was thinking and attend to it, and that's no mean feat. The horror of stories about war is, for me, only partially touched by the battles and the soldiers and the wounds they inflict on themselves and each other. The people whose lives are utterly upended by wars fought in their name and on their land are so often simply disappeared in toponymic abstraction (eg, the Mexican-American War). This novel doesn't look so much at the war as at the warred-over place and its inhabitants.

Marra's gift is in making images of the place vivid:
The trees they passed repeated on and on into the woods. None was remarkable when compared to the next, but each was individual in some small regard: the number of limbs, the girth of trunk, the circumference of shed leaves encircling the base. No more than minor peculiarities, but minor particularities were what transformed two eyes, a nose, and a mouth into a face.
And the people who live in the violated, wounded place:
As someone whose days were defined by the ten thousand ways a human can hurt, she needed, now and then, to remember that the nervous system didn't exist exclusively to feel pain.
It's a very well-made book, it's got a helluva wallop of a message, and it's fun to read. I was expecting nothing more than a flashy MFA-from-Iowa-Writers'-Workshop meretricious bauble. Some parts of the book are, in fact, that very thing. One's own taste determines where the balance point lies. Are there more surprisingly good moments than there are expectedly Shiny-Brite ones?
Entire years had passed when he was rich enough in time to disregard the loose change of a minute, but now he obsessed over each one, this minute, the next minute, the one following, all of which were different terms for the same illusion.
And there I say yes. Yes, this is more beautiful than brummagem.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book-A-Day #20: Desert Island Read, THE GOLDFINCH


Little, Brown
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is to identify the book one would take to a desert island.

It was between this book and The Luminaries, a more artistically successful and more culturally enriching book; a book with grace and beauty and charm; a rich feast that says things to me even yet, months after reading it.

I chose this book.
I look at the blanked-out faces of the other passengers--hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark--and I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.

Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet--for me, anyway--all that's worth living for lies in that charm?

A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don't get to choose our own hearts. We can't make ourselves want what's good for us or what's good for other people. We don't get to choose the people we are.
It's not Art, but it's a good, solid, real moment. I bought into Theo, I cared about the dumbass, I found him the kind of kid I'd try to fix and straighten out so he wouldn't flounder so messily as he looked for the path through the thicket.

Then there's traife like this: "'When you feel homesick,' he said, ‘just look up. Because the moon is the same wherever you go.'” Gag me. That's so Disney-movie pseudoprofound I could unswallow all over the book.

But then...
Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time. And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.
Sadly, it goes on after that to bury the well-made point and the well-turned phrase in verbiage.

Donna Tartt won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in recognition of this novel. I am not equipped with the information the judges of that prize use to make their decision. I can only say that, from my perspective as a reader, this is a good, solid read that should've been 600pp not 771pp, with many lovely phrases and a lot of good, well-incorporated action, but not especially prize-worthy. It's a thumping good read, as my friend Suz says.

And for that reason, I'd take it to a desert island, and I'd cuss and fume and fret about its shortcomings after I finished each read wet-eyed about Theo and his travails. Sometimes Theo acts so damned clueless I wanted to give him a bloody box of chocolates and a bench and plant a Barnaby Rudgely raven called Grip on his damn shoulder. And then:
You could study the connections for years and never work it out--it was all about things coming together, things falling apart, time warp, my mother standing out in front of the museum when time flickered and the light went funny, uncertainties hovering on the edge of a vast brightness, the stray chance that might, or might not, change everything.
So, yeah, this is the one that makes the desert island trip. Sorry, Eleanor Catton, your gorgeous and so very deserving tome will wait for me safe on my shelf.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book-A-Day #19: THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, best twist EVER


William Morrow
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now


The Publisher Says: In the village of King's Abbot, a widow's sudden suicide sparks rumors that she murdered her first husband, was being blackmailed, and was carrying on a secret affair with the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. The following evening, Ackroyd is murdered in his locked study--but not before receiving a letter identifying the widow's blackmailer. King's Abbot is crawling with suspects, including a nervous butler, Ackroyd's wayward stepson, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who has taken up residence in the victim's home. It's now up to the famous detective Hercule Poirot, who has retired to King's Abbot to garden, to solve the case of who killed Roger Ackroyd--a task in which he is aided by the village doctor and narrator, James Sheppard, and by Sheppard's ingenious sister, Caroline.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the book that made Agatha Christie a household name and launched her career as a perennial bestseller. Originally published in 1926, it is a landmark in the mystery genre. It was in the vanguard of a new class of popular detective fiction that ushered in the modern era of mystery novels.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt, number 19 in the series, is to reveal the book with the best plot twist. Ummmm....

Undoubtedly the most famous novel written by Dame Agatha. It is well-known even among non-mystery readers, poor benighted sods, and has been cited by scholars as a turning point in the history of the mystery genre as a literary force. An English professor, [[Pierre Bayard]], has even delved deeply into the text to propose, from the book that Dame Agatha wrote, an alternative (and very interesting) ending!

I'm not going to spoiler the ending's Big Twist because the ten or twelve literate-in-English people who have never read it will come screaming in from the Internet to call me unpleasant names, and I'm done with that. It is indeed a Big Twist, it makes the entire experience of the book far more interesting than it otherwise would be, and it's just flat fun to come to, that first time, all unknowing.

So that said, when I first read this novel in 1973, I was all unknowing and was I gobsmacked! My oldest sister had a copy of it in her house, where I was visiting her, and she was deriving major amusement from my responses as the pages turned. It was a great way to spend a summer weekend.

Then after what, maybe 35 years, they make a Poirot TV episode out of the story. The vast bulk of you, having read the book, are now looking bemused, befuddled, or annoyed. How, you're asking yourself, can the Big Twist be preserved? How can the essential frisson-granting narrative device translate onto film, for pity's sake?!

Not all that well.

It's still a stylish and entertaining film, and I liked watching it, but it was NOT the equal of the book. For one thing, Inspector Japp appears out of nowhere and assumes his usual role as Poirot's foil-cum-sidekick. WTF? I screamed at the screen, WTF IS THIS HOOPLA?! (I used a dirtier word, but I am attempting to portray myself as a sweet and mild-mannered old man.) (Stop laughing.) Japp appeareth not in the novel! Not even close. It is but one of many shifts required to bring the story to the screen.

And for the only time in the entire history of the series Agatha Christie's Poirot, I wished they had just left the book alone and unfilmed. So why four stars? Because the book is five, and the film is three. Do the math. But don't bother with the show unless you're a completist.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Book-A-Day #18: Favorite Crime Novel, BLACK IRISH


Ballantine Books
$6.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this explosive debut thriller by the New York Times bestselling author of Empire of Blue Water, a brilliant homicide detective returns home, where she confronts a city’s dark demons and her own past while pursuing a brutal serial killer on a vengeful rampage.

Absalom “Abbie” Kearney grew up an outsider in her own hometown. Even being the adopted daughter of a revered cop couldn’t keep Abbie’s troubled past from making her a misfit in the working-class Irish American enclave of South Buffalo. And now, despite a Harvard degree and a police detective’s badge, she still struggles to earn the respect and trust of those she’s sworn to protect. But all that may change, once the killing starts.

When Jimmy Ryan’s mangled corpse is found in a local church basement, this sadistic sacrilege sends a bone-deep chill through the winter-whipped city. It also seems to send a message—one that Abbie believes only the fiercely secretive citizens of the neighborhood known as “the County” understand. But in a town ruled by an old-world code of silence and secrecy, her search for answers is stonewalled at every turn, even by fellow cops. Only when Abbie finds a lead at the Gaelic Club, where war stories, gossip, and confidences flow as freely as the drink, do tongues begin to wag—with desperate warnings and dire threats. And when the killer’s mysterious calling card appears on her own doorstep, the hunt takes a shocking twist into her own family’s past. As the grisly murders and grim revelations multiply, Abbie wages a chilling battle of wits with a maniac who sees into her soul, and she swears to expose the County’s hidden history—one bloody body at a time.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is to discuss one's favorite crime novel, in honor of some British crime-novel beano.

Despite there being naggingly annoying lapses in continuity at three or four points, I was sucked into the violent and rage-filled vortex of this book from the get-go. The story, a standard one, is told at a breathless pace in direct, unpretentious language. The setting is seared into my memory. I feel as if I could find the park, drive the streets, point to the places I'd read about. I'm sure as hell not stopping for the cops there, Absalom/Abbie excepted.

The family secrets, the community guilt, the larger and wider implications of the vicious and bloody killings, make this procedural far more than an afternoon's entertainment. It's not Art, it's excitement! It's brutal and tough and doesn't give a flying fuck if your girlie-girl feelies are all bent. It's too busy setting you up for the next bashing!

I liked the hell out of it. It's good, every now and then, to sluice the nicey-nice from one's brain with a bracing dose of mean as fuck because I wanna be. There is NO oxytocin released in the reading of this book. Adrenaline, yes; androgen, oh my yes. We won't go into the testosterone release figures. Post-menopausal women are cautioned that they might find themselves assuming male secondary characteristics.

The sensitive members of the party are STRONGLY cautioned not to so much as handle this book. Don't do it, don't even contemplate it. Not for yinz.

Fans of the 87th Precinct, we found you a new writer to follow!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Book-A-Day #17: THE FUN WE'VE HAD, a novel that surprised me


Lazy Fascist Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: Two lovers are adrift in a coffin on an endless sea. Who are they? They are him and her. They are you and me. They are rowing to salvage what remains of themselves. They are rowing to remember the fun we've had.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is to discuss a novel that surprised you.

Seidlinger is what a mating between Djuna Barnes and Samuel Beckett would've produced: Illusionless in his pessimism, joyful in his schadenfreude, and both human and humane enough to wrap his bitter pills in pretty words.
He wasn't at all sure this was excitement, but at least for now, the glimpsing of something else, something, anything, was enough to keep the momentum, the same momentum that seemed to outline his days. What might have been a lazy, relaxing Saturday became a cause for adventure, a curious matching between him and her, their search to be out, on the city, the town, so as to stave off being on the outs with each other.
That's what it is, was, and will always be.
Nothing would change. Nothing is wrong.
This is just another adventure. New thrill.
"Are we having fun?"
Of course they are. When every feeling is time-stamped and the life you lead becomes the life you led, there cannot be a whole lot more to do except admit right from wrong.
So, Michael Seidlinger. He's this guy, you know?

He wrote this book, which before we go any further down the rabbit hole let me assure you I purchased with my very own United States dollars as I am nowhere *near* hip/cool/hot/whatever enough to score an ARC, a book which by all rights he's too goddamned young to understand still less create. It's a very trenchant metaphor, He and She and the Deep Blue Sea separated, contained, bound, sustained, trapped, saved by a shared coffin. The consciousness of He and She is very much not shared, except the two are inextricable and still completely sealed off from yet bound to the experience of the other:
Touch being only touch, both of them imagining the warmth that would have been shared if their bodies had been bodies alive and still able to be repaired, they lay there like it had been a bed and not a coffin. The final end.
Not yet.
Not yet, she fought the ghosts.
They reminded her. Tell him. Tell him.
She would tell him. Later.
"Later" arrived and left and returned once more. Still, she wouldn't tell him.
We mourn and grieve for Him and Her in their shared coffin, dead, living only in separate minds that are contained within a final resting place tossed on a restless expanse of endlessness.

Ghosts in the sea, all of us, whispering ghosts, the sea's physical voice a subsonic boom of waves crashing and moving the plates of the earth's crust a micron or two, and whispering "the end" to the living, "no end" to the dead, and "Hello Kitty" to the Japanese.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book-A-Day #16: THE GAUGUIN CONNECTION, a good beach read

THE GAUGUIN CONNECTION (Genevieve Lenard Art Crimes #1)

Kindle original edition (non-affiliate Amazon link)
FREE! what are you waiting for?!

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Murdered artists. Masterful forgeries.
Art crime at its worst.

A straightforward murder investigation quickly turns into a quagmire of stolen Eurocorps weapons, a money-laundering charity, forged art and high-ranking EU officials abusing their power.

As an insurance investigator and world renowned expert in nonverbal communication, Dr Genevieve Lenard faces the daily challenge of living a successful, independent life. Particularly because she has to deal with her high functioning Autism. Nothing - not her studies, her high IQ or her astounding analytical skills - prepared her for the changes about to take place in her life.

It started as a favour to help her boss' acerbic friend look into the murder of a young artist, but soon it proves to be far more complex. Forced out of her predictable routines, safe environment and limited social interaction, Genevieve is thrown into exploring the meaning of friendship, expanding her social definitions, and for the first time in her life be part of a team in a race to stop more artists from being murdered.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is to discuss a beach read, a novel perfect for an afternoon under a beach umbrella sipping drinks with silly names brought by hotties clad in as few clothes as local law allows.

Ahem. Well. Isn't that how everyone spends a day at the beach?

The Gauguin Connection has many sterling qualities, like a wonderful main character, and a completely beguiling cast of supporting characters. (I convinced my Gentleman Caller to read this by saying he reminded me of Vinnie. To my relief, he found that touching and endearing, "worth reading a stupid mystery novel for.")

What makes this such a good beach read is simply that: The interplay of the characters. Dr Lenard isn't consistently drawn, the art-crime plot seems very slapdash to me, and so on and so on. All those quibbles aside, I loved these characters and wanted to sit quietly in the room while they did what they do. Which is mostly sit around computers in different rooms and bicker amusingly.

I mean to tell you, though, if savoring the interplay of high-level snark with pomposity, the collision of wit with literal-mindedness, doesn't sound compelling to you, horseman, pass on. I found it deeply funny at times, and snortingly amusing all the time. So download it onto your Kindle for free, put the Kindle in a quart-sized Ziploc, seal it, and head for the sand. Tip the hottie well, and in advance, for the best drinks service. Relax into bliss with the wacky crew of Strasbourg (!)-based art crime solvers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Book-A-Day #15: SCIENCE FAIR, a YA novel I'd rather drink Drano than read


Kindle Special
$1.99, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Grdankl the Strong, president of Kprshtskan, is plotting to take over the American government. His plan is to infiltrate the science fair at Hubble Middle School, located in a Maryland suburb just outside Washington. The rich kids at Hubble cheat by buying their projects every year, and Grdankl's cronies should have no problem selling them his government-corrupting software. But this year, Toby Harbinger, a regular kid with Discount Warehouse shoes, is determined to win the $5,000 prize—even if he has to go up against terrorists to do it. With the help of his best friends, Tamara and Micah, Toby takes on Assistant Principal Paul Parmit, aka "The Armpit", a laser-eyed stuffed owl, and two eBay buyers named Darth and the Wookiee who seem to think that the Harrison-Ford-signed BlasTech DL-44 blaster Toby sold them is a counterfeit. What transpires is a hilarious adventure filled with mystery, suspense, and levitating frogs.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt for the 15th is a choose-you-own day! Wheee, right?

Naw. I hadda go an' eff it all up by making this my Drano book of the month. (You know, the one I read because I'd really rather drink Drano than read this author/genre/what's-it.)

So as expected I hated it. It's a middle-school market book. I didn't like middle-schoolers when I was one, and I like them less now. Vicious little bastards. They're hateful and spiteful and brimful of stupid. Yuck.

It doesn't help that the fake country the co-authors invent, Krpshtskan, is something straight out of Borat. (Remember that movie? Ye gawds.) It also doesn't help that the entire plot is such that Spy Kids begins to resemble Strindberg.

But you're not the audience, comes the cry. No indeed I am not. I am an adult with forty-six years of obsessive reading behind me! And yet others have tutted and tsked because there are those of us who don't want to read YA novels. So this random example, a Kindle special today, got the nod as my test subject. I have a Zilpha Keatly Snyder novel cued up to see if it's just humor that doesn't play well to an older audience. I need a respite before I wade into that one. This could easily be the most wonderful thing a kid could find, so I'm not raggin' on it as itself. It's just so extremely ridiculously grotesquely overblown and overplayed and after all, that's how kids like 'em.

But really, moms and dads, read this before giving kids access to it. Every adult is malevolent or stupid or both. Every authority is deaf, every honest person is reviled by all and sundry. Serious question here: Do you want your kid absorbing this message? That s/he's alone against an uncaring-to-hostile world, with parents that won't listen, teachers that smell bad, take bribes, and collude with enemies of the state?

This isn't good. It panders to an invidious set of stereotypes that reinforce a helpless, whadda-ya-gonna-do passivity and does so with "humor" so it slides down their gullets easier.

This bothers the hell out of me.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, July 14, 2014

To my irritation, I got a nastygram yesterday

It accused me of being middle-brow at best, and an uncultured cluck at worst. It was responding to an anti-Auster review I wrote.

Now...neither of those is, to me, an insult. Kinda funny in fact. Pretentious penile implants like this person is flit in off the Internet, set up a false identity, and then criticize *me* for being uncultured.


In a completely different context, a social-media friend of mine posted this to me today:
Do you feel that The Library of America has sullied their reputation by including such Grub Street regulars as Chandler, Lovecraft, and Dick? Or do you feel their inclusion has merit?
And since I'd just been jabbed in the culture spot anyway, instead of saying "nope" and moving on as I normally would, I wrote this screed:
That gets to the heart of what constitutes a Library of America.

I am a snob.

I genuinely and sincerely believe I am entitled to look down my nose at pig-ignorant credulous right-wing GOP-voting Faux "News"-watching anti-science church-going dumbass motherfuckers.

I am not a snob about what people read. That's like who they fuck. It's not my place to say boo turkey about it. THAT they read is good enough for me, from Harlequins to sparkly vampire novels, to Rikki Ducornet and Marguerite Duras and Italo Svevo. Just sit down with a book and decode words on the page, it's all good.

I might like, or dislike, or even loathe what pleases others. That's my taste, that's my opinion, that's ME judging for me. My opinion is extremely well-informed on matters literary. I share my opinion as widely as I'm able to. People agree or disagree, but they come away informed.

So to call something the Library of America and curate it in such a way as to exclude the reading that millions of people do because it's not "good enough" or it's "just genre reading" is the same kind of pig-ignorant credulousness that I snort and hoot at in the lowest classes. A person's college degree or academic credential makes me no never-mind here because...guess what!...THIS ISN'T SCIENCE where there is a Right Answer! It's art, it's opinion. and it's personal!

Now, that taste thing? That's where we can debate. Is Chandler the pulp-noir writer I'd include in the Library of America? Yes, he's one. I'd put in Dashiell Hammett, a more uneven writer, and Jim Thompson, and Dorothy Whatsername; they all produced excellent work in the genre. Likewise PKD. In their genres, these folks were aces. IN Lit'rachure as a whole? Chandler, maybe...Lovecraft, nay nay nay! But in his genre, a monadnock.

Well. Now you know how I see it.
So my friend took about half a day to recover from the wind-burn I gave him with all that hot air, and then said:
An excellent, well-thought out, and civilized response all around. And I say this, of course, because I agree with you.
And that is why I keep on keepin' on, puttin' out the reviews and discussin' the books. Because there are some who agree, and some who are interested enough to have an opinion that isn't like mine, and who generally think this is a conversation worth having.

Real Life? Not so much. So, future sociologists, flag this post. You want to know why the "dystopian" future of people interacting in cyberspace got so much traction? Because in cyberspace we can get our needs met far more often than in "Real" Life.

Book-A-Day #14: Favorite roman de France, A FAR BETTER REST


Kindle edition
$2.99 (cheap at twice the price!), available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A Tale of Two Cities is the story of Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, but Sydney Carton is the hero who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love. Sydney disappears from the novel in London and turns up years later in Paris to bring the story to its heartbreaking end. A Far Better Rest imagines his missing personal history and makes him the center of this tragic tale. Born in England of an unloving father and a French mother, Sydney is sent to college in Paris, where he meets Charles Darnay and the other students who will have enormous influence on his life and alter the course of French history -- Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins among them. The beauty and kindness of Charles's wife, Lucie Manette, affects Sydney so deeply that he secretly devotes his life to her happiness.

Sydney becomes a major participant in the formation of the French Republic at the end of the eighteenth century and a witness to one of the most gruesome periods in history, as the significant people in his life fall to the guillotine. A Far Better Rest is a novel of passion, identity, and history that stands fully on its own.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt, in honor of Bastille Day, is to select your favorite novel set in or about France.

Okay. I know this will come as a surprise to y'all, being as how I've kept it such a closely guarded secret, but I have to say this right up front: I don't much care for the novels of Mr. Charles Dickens.

I know, I know, pick your jaws up from the floor, I'm sure you'll recover from the shock soon.

Now, with that bombshell out of the way, consider this: I am rating a book based on Mr. Dickens' dreary, interminable, turgid, jelly-bodied clunking clanking gawdawful sentimental absurdly overblown....


I am rating this novel, even factoring in its source, at four stars. And wanna know a secret? I've read all Alley's Aristide Ravel mysteries, set in Revolutionary Paris. And her novel The Executioner's Heir. And her short fiction, Masquerade. And her non-fiction Medieval UNderpants (I mean, how could one not read something titled Medieval Underpants?).

So absorb for a moment the improbability of a man with the discernment and good taste to loathe Dickens picking up this novel in the first place; reading a snatch of it and getting hooked; buying the Soho Press hardcover at retail; and becoming such a fan that he's read what there is to read by the author.

So I'd say that makes this my favorite novel set in and or about France. Why? Because I've read a lot of books, and unlike most historical fiction, this book reads like it was written by a person from that time who simply, inexplicably, happens to be alive now. The same is true of her Ravel mysteries. I don't know how she does it, exactly, but Alleyn handwaves away the 225 years between the Revolution and today. Forget you're reading a hardcover that did not cost you a month's wages. Or a Kindle whose mere existence would be a marvel to the people you're reading about. And you know what? You *will* forget those things.

I love immersive reads. I love to lose myself in a time and a place not here and not now. And Susanne Alleyn has done that for me again, and again, and never failed to make me happy I've spent time in her company.

Best of all? The Kindle edition of this book is a whopping $2.99. Please go buy it. This author deserves our support!