Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’ve got several book reviews I’m cooking for the site in the next few weeks, and we’ve also added Adam Balm to the AICN BOOKS rotation lately, but no one’s been doing longer or with more consistency than Frank Bascombe. And now, without further ado, here’s the man who reads it all, separating the wheat from the chaff just for you, our very own sportswriter... take it away, Frank:
So the grand Madame of books selected a title that truly knocked me off my perch!! ‘The Road’ an amazing book to be sure, as riveting a piece of writing as your likely to find anywhere and I’m very impressed that Ms. Winfrey has seen it fit enough for her mashed potato book club. I mean it’s not a Maeve Binchy title for goodness sake, and given that a small child is cooked on a spit, along with other unsavory morsels that I’ll let you discover once you’ve seen through the trees to the forest. All of which, mind you, has been carefully created by the lady from Chicago. You see, her edition is the only version of the book you can find -she forced Vintage to jump their plans to put ‘The Road’ on sale by six months in trade paper. It’s not that I’d expect anyone to buy the hardcover that’s still kicking around, (with her imprimatur emblazoned across it’s cover) and strangely enough some retailers are peeling the sticker off this new edition as some of their customers find her selections far beneath their own high brow tastes…etc. Stephen King is back to championing books again - this time it’s Mischa Berlinksi’s ‘Fieldwork’ that gets his attention, (brother of Claire Berlinksi author of ‘Loose Lips’ and ‘Lions Eyes’), which is nice to see. When he’s not telling you what horror movie he loves the most, or television show he’s watching…this seems like a nice bit of good will he’s spreading. As you know I parted paths with Mr. King years ago, and since it’s never a love letter when I mention him, I have been taken to task by you dear reader every time I do. So here’s a piece of good news for you…I like what he’s saying in his Entertainment Weekly column, not that my opinion means anything, ever. His words are an indictment of the publishing industry, i.e., bad cover art, burying the book with no press what so ever…etc., you know, basically toss the book out there and write off the loss. Poor Mischa Berlinksi, he wrote a great book that nobody can buy or read, well…that’s an exaggeration, I’m sure you can buy it at Amazon.com. And as always...
It’s Not A Secret Until I Tell Someone
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
PenguinHoly shit! That’s all I can say. I totally blew it, for real, I can’t believe I turned my nose up at this book when it came out. I suppose I’m reviewing it now as a kind of massive apology to Ms. Smith and to whoever reads this column. I can’t begin to tell you how truly amazing and insightful a piece of fiction this really is, plus it’s an affordable trade paperback. This book needs no help, it received crazy praise when it was released and I’m so sorry for all the little jealous quips I’ve tossed out there about this author over the last few months. You know, not being able to figure out why she’s more popular that Zoë Heller (and you know how I love her books), and basically being jealous about her success, I admit it was very infantile of me. Seriously, if she’s reading this now, or someone who knows her is reading this, tell her I’m an ass…and very sorry. Anytime there’s a book about academia being taken to the wood shed, especially if it’s intellectuals who are having their pants pulled down, it’s a book I want to read. See, ‘The Blue Angel’, ‘The Human Stain’, there’s something about really smart people being undone by the simplest human emotions, sex, or age old vernacular, like “spooks” in Roth’s book. Ms. Smith doesn’t miss a trick with this family saga about two upper middle class families whose patriarchs are embroiled in a battle of intellects over the inclusion of certain lectures about art, history, and racial politics in and around a small college outside Boston, circa…right now. Monty and Howard have battled before, and Howard, a Caucasian British intellectual, always seems to find himself on the losing end. Howard’s never been tenured at the college he teaches, and now must endure a visiting lecturer, one Monty Kipps (scholar, Trinidadian and wildly conservative)…who comes in from England with his family safely tucked under his wing. In the opening pages we find out that Howard’s college age son, a student at Brown University, has fallen for Monty’s daughter, a little Lolita herself, as we come to learn in later pages, she has successfully broken Howard’s offspring heart and moves onto Howard himself - making him the focal point of her seductress ways. Meanwhile, Howard is a brazenly banal example of book smart and street stupid elitist, catches himself in his zipper once again as he has an affair with a fellow professor at the college. As if that’s not enough, Howard’s wife, Kiki, (an African American hospital administrator who is of suspect intellect) is especially wounded by her husbands’ infidelities. Kiki, (who is described by her own daughter Zora in ways that will make you shout with glee), seems to be holding a grudge about everything under the sun. It is through pure chance that Kiki meets Monty’s wife and they forge an unlikely alliance which ripples across the book in ways that can’t really be described without ruining the novel. I adore good writing - really, really good writing and I have to say that when you read certain sections of this book, Ms. Smiths’ abilities shine through when describing character attributes like Howard’s teaching assistant who has this great accent – pronouncing the term “power point” as “pah-point”, or when Howard is spied on by Kiki at a party getting a little female attention from someone else (a fellow intellectual), you realize that the author might be operating on a level unlike anything you’ve ever read. I consistently told people about this book as I was reading it, all the while doling out sections to myself, and as I did, I found each chapter more riveting and revealing than the last. The process of Howard’s children being caught in the melodramas of life, growing up and becoming intellectual equals of their parents, will stun you with their brilliance and savage insights. Ms. Smith properly castrates the urban side of college life with the adroit skill of a card shark. In the end this book is a story about ideas, about art, philosophy and being alive, scattered with peoples’ profound shortcomings, which are shown as they propel themselves throughout their lives with misguided knowledge that they’re better than the rest of us. Zora, the focal point of many different issues developed throughout this book and the boldest of the Howard’s children, is so scrumptious to read about that you savor every moment she speaks. There isn’t a bad thing to say about this book, except it’s not long enough. I could read this story over and over; there are so many fine details that will wet any appetite. It makes me ashamed to say I’ve ever tried to write a novel. How can you say you’re a writer after reading this book? It’s that good.
Dead Boys by Richard Lange
Little BrownI’ve found over the years that many good writers get their careers started with a short story collection and then move into ranks of successful novelists, and I would expect nothing less of Mr. Lange, whom I suspect, may already have a novel completed, and that perhaps these stories were just kicking around, going unused. Thankfully they are being used here as these stories are better than that, different than anything I’ve read in a long time. Again, the publisher launches into hyperbole about this writer being as good as Carver and Price, but let’s be honest, no one is better than those guys at what they do. While Richard Lange may not be better, he is just as good, and in some ways, he does things Carver never did. Lange makes you look away at your own reflection – the one staring back at you on the pages you’re reading…that’s a scary talent. Now before we get going with this review, let me remind you that there is at least one story in every “collection” type book you’ve ever read that’s a clunker. Somehow it doesn’t work for some reason or appealed only to the editor, or was forced in by the agent or the writer, whatever. This collection doesn’t have one clunker in it. Each story is a glimpse at the lives on men, much like Benjamin Cavell’s ‘Rumble Young Man, Rumble’, and like Cavell’s characters, these men are set in their ways, in the circumstances they’ve created, and most of the time these stories revolve around the wounds they inflicted on themselves. Where do I start heaping the praise? Perhaps with the story ‘Telephone Bird’, a story about the people living on the fringes who don’t have a permanent place to stay, the halfway house they lived in, and a bird is keeping one of the occupants awake at night. So crazed by the bird, the occupant stalks it and kills every bird he can find. I felt hung over after I read this story, a unique feeling to be sure. In another story, ‘Long Lost’ about two half brothers. One’s a shoplifter, the other a straight arrow. These two stories share a simple spot in the grid of life in Los Angeles that Mr. Lange has laid out for us, they simply don’t fit into society, these men, and they don’t care. Like I said, these stories (and my favorite style of all short stories) are just glimpses into the lives of people doing the mundane things of life, going to a shitty job, getting paid low wages, and surviving a marriage. The collection peaks at ‘Hero Shot’ a story that is so vivid, real to life and brutal to read that you have to look away at the shame you feel for the main character. Failed actor, loser, leach to his widowed mother, who has another son she never sees who lives just down the street. Drugs become prevalent in these stories, most people are high, or drunk or using something, but in this story the son returns home only to reveal a past of regrets, teasing a retarded girl, and robbing his mothers house. Even though he says he went back and made everything right before she got home. This jumping around thing that Lange does is so right on, the non linear aspect of his story telling, as it’s how we think through out the day, we don’t move from one event to the next without being reminded of a zillion things from the past, expecting the future, whatever, he writes like people think and talk. If you can look straight into the face of this collection and not look away, wincing because you recognize yourself in these stories, than you’re a better person than me. This hits stores in August, slide over to Amazon.com and pre-order it, that way you’ll have a nice surprise come your way later this summer. These stories are like an hour at an A.A. meeting, honest, tough and brutally dazzling. Got something you want me to read?