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AICN BOOKS! Frank Bascombe Reviews The New Benioff And FRACTION OF THE WHOLE!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. Can you believe Frank Bascombe interviewed Richard Freakin’ Price today? Good catch, man, and a nice interview all the way around. And then on top of that, he’s got two new reviews for us today, including the new one from David Benioff. Big day for AICN Books, so let’s get right to it...

It’s Not A Secret Unless I Tell Someone

City of Thieves David Benioff Viking You’ll probably recognize this author from his screenplays, ‘Troy’, ‘Stay’, ‘X-Men Origins; Wolverine’, and the amazing ‘25th Hour’ which he adapted from his own novel. I discovered Benioff when the grand Madame of criticism heaped praise on him for his brilliant debut, then unknown to everyone The 25th Hour which was a book that I used to stop people on the streets of Manhattan to tell them about. Then he wrote a book of short stories; ‘When The Nines Roll Over’ (great title), equally potent, and then I waited... Hollywood called, he got ‘25th Hour’ off the ground with Spike Lee, (Beginning an upward trend for Lee which changed the path of his career), and I was floored at how faithful to his own book he was. Nothing was left out of that adaptation especially the down ending, and with widow’s peak for Edward Norton, (listen to the commentary on the DVD…). I want everyone to know about David Benioff the writer. Sure, his screenplays are great, I loved ‘Stay’, but was I the only one to see that little gem? (Marc Forester is a true artist if you didn’t already know that. Everyone should know about him now with his adaptation of the ‘Kite Runner’ landing on screens everywhere.) David Benioff is a real storyteller and I like to think of him as a novelist. I don’t read historical fiction, as a rule - it just doesn’t make any sense to me. So when ‘City of Thieves’ came my way I immediately realized that I was going to read some historical fiction and this might do me some good. The Siege of Leningrad isn’t something I know much about and to be honest never really had an interest in. Yes it’s part of world history, yes it’s important and no I’m not belittling it by saying I had no interest in it. I’m a fiction guy, contemporary modern fiction, (if you have a book you want to send me, please keep that in mind). The first pages of this novel are truly brilliant; Benioff goes to Florida to talk to his retired grandparents and this tight little section really soars. He wants to know about their collective past, his grandmother isn’t interested and what his grandfather recounts is truly amazing. From here we meet two unlikely heroes’ in the form of Lev Beniov who has been caught looting a dead German soldier that has literally fallen from the sky. This is the first taste of lyrical imagery that Benioff sprinkles through out the novel and by far it is the most palatable. This writing flows between fierce and savage, as Lev begins to think that this is the end, firing squad the next morning he shares his cell with the memorable Kolya, a handsome pick pocket double talker that is common around whorehouses, pool halls and downtown Providence, RI. They’re given a chance to live if they can acquire from the barren city of Leningrad a parcel of eggs for a typically severe colonel who doesn’t want his daughters wedding to be cake-less. The boys set out on a road that is desolate and war torn and filled with extremely sickening violence. At first this task seems easy, get the eggs, and return them to the colonel and walk away. First is a pair of cannibals who cross their path and I can’t believe how vivid this section becomes. It sets the tone for a narrative pace that will gurgle forth some scenes that will leave you’re scarred for life. Lev is shy and not very skilled in the ways of the opposite sex, where Kolya is just the opposite, getting women to do what ever he wants at almost every pit stop they make. The search for eggs becomes their holy grail and the road ahead is filled with pit falls that will impress grizzled veteran of historical fiction from the battles of the past. Lev and Kolya seem to be at fundamental odds over things like literature, manners, and how to live life. It’s a funny thing to read, Benioff delivers little sermons through his characters about race and history that are as sly as they are insightful. There is a kind of wild intellectualism from that time that is running underneath the main storyline; from games of chess to a novel that may or may not have been written by a main character. Which makes me wonder how smart these guys are, and how cunningly literate Benioff makes them. What struck me as most honest and sincere was the fact that these people were hungry, whether they’re eating each other, dried candle wax or boiled bark, there is an underlying slow death that floats like a cool mist around every corner. You never knew when the enemy was going to turn his gun on you say for instance if they found out if you could read or not. I’m trying not to spoil this novel for you. There are tons of memorable moments from a house in the woods that’s filled with young girls (use your imagination) to a small hunters lodge that gets truly grizzly when it’s filled with too many people. Then there is Lev and Kolya who are both funny and charming, shy and gregarious. Kolya never really amounts to more than a foil for Lev, who himself is coming of age in a time where the most dangerous thing you could come upon was man himself. From the opening pages to the last moments ‘City of Thieves’ is a top notch story. Benioff gives us a thrilling ride that is a shocking and profound historical document and wild adventure story rivaling Jack London and Toby Wolff. Fraction of the Whole Steve Toltz Spiegel & Grau I completely overlooked the Spiegel & Grau spring catalog when it arrived a few months ago. I’d heard about Julie Grau and Celina Spiegel launching a new imprint at Random House and to be honest it didn’t strike me as something I’d be interested in. I even looked briefly at the catalog while I peeked at the Knopf catalog just a few inches away. In the book publishing world Christmas comes three times a year for me, whenever a new set of Random House catalogs arrives on my desk I stop whatever I’m doing to read each one carefully (so how did I not read this catalog?…it mystifies me). These fine young ladies have moved to the top of the pile in my estimation and I can safely say it’s because they took a huge risk (not just by starting a new publishing imprint) but by publishing one of the best books I’ve ever read. ‘Fraction of the Whole’ is better than ‘The Corrections’, and Toltz did it in one book while it took Franzen two to get ‘The Corrections’ out into the world. Granted, you have your whole life to write your first novel, but my God, ‘Fraction of the Whole’ does things in 530 pages that most writers can’t do in a lifetime. If you’ve been reading this column you know how I feel about Franzen. Initially I was put off by the small print, and the thickness of this book. But after thirty pages I was floored by what I was finding to be a wildly addictive exploration into a man’s soul, a profoundly moving experience almost religious in its execution and possibly one of the sharpest and irresistibly humorous post modern adventures I’ve had the pleasure to read. A while back the folks at Spiegel and Grau placed Toltz into a marketing luncheon along with Richard Price and another writer who has slipped my mind, it was an event run by a wholesaler called Bookstream. The attendants for the most part were independent booksellers and I would have given a couple of days of my life to be at that party. But other than that? ‘Fraction of the Whole’ has no buzz…sorry guys; it’s not on anyone’s radar. I have heard that after a book signing on the east coast someone called into the store where Toltz had been the night before and bought ten copies of the book in first edition. That’s something, and I’ll tell you this, expect this book to be on the top 10 for the New York Times year end list and a National Book Award nominee. I’ve never ever made this kind of prediction public, but this is a true stunner. Where did this guy come from? Who has the stones to publish this first novel as one of their lead titles on a maiden list in a market that repels fiction written by men, literate fiction that is. Spiegel and Grau, get used to hearing that name… Terry and Martin Dean are a pair of notorious brothers from Australia, one is hated the other loved, and Martin’s son Jasper tells their story from a prison cell. That’s where we start and it gets so sweet from this point on I can hardly contain myself. Father and son stories are usually written by the son, and hardly ever told by the father, I don’t know why, but it’s basically true. The voices here are hard to tell apart and would have been phony if they were different as children often sound and say things just like their parents. But Jasper allows his father to tell him the story of his youth growing up in a small town with his troublemaking brother Terry. You see Terry is the local bad seed and his town wants him shipped off to bad boys’ camp, Martin his sickly brother, and I won’t spoil how he gets sick, or how his parents try to keep him in his sick bed, but let’s say Dr. Phil wouldn’t be happy. Terry bands together with a couple of hooligans to make trouble, but then they decide they need a mentor. Their father coincidentally built the local prison and they figure it must have at least one teacher mixed in with all those criminals. A wild caricature named Harry gives them advice and this is where the novel goes into overdrive not really slowing down until page 300 or so. Terry and Harry momentarily disappear from the story only to resurface after some truly biblical events make their presence almost too perfect to be believed, (killing corrupt sports athletes is just one example). All the while Martin decides to help Harry write a book about becoming a top notch criminal and what a book it is. I won’t even tell you about the suggestion box that Martin concocts which sends his brother on the wrong path, to do that would be in bad form on may part. But Martin is trying to mark his territory just like his brother who can’t spell his name if he pissed it in the snow. Toltz does something dazzling at this point, while Martin is trying to discover why he’s such a mashed potato sandwich and his brother the spice of life he tells his son Jasper about his long lost mother, again, the book soars. These pages told through diary entries that the son discovers are so vivid and filled with soul crushing philosophies that a page didn’t go by where I wasn’t gob smacked by the profundity that bleed from the page. Each chapter of this book is another layer of Martin’s life, and where Jasper enters the scene, while a strange man named Eddie appears and I thought this was an odd plot twist but he turns out to be the tails up bad penny you never bend over to pick up off the ground and Toltz winds him tight as a wet knot for the rest of the story. It’s with Jasper’s birth that the book turns on a dime and we start to really understand the depth of Martin’s despair, his loneliness and his insanity that is spreading faster than crab grass on my front lawn in July. Martin has always lived in his brother’s shadow and when he finally gets out from under it he can only frown at the world while his son lives in a place that echo’s both his uncles success and his fathers continued failure. When Martin braces his son with the fear of death after he gets kicked out of school, not actual death, but the idea of death, Jasper doesn’t get it and this is where father and son split up, mentally that is. Martin says, “I wash my hand of you.” Jasper replies, “be sure to use soap.” Which is a sample of the how funny Toltz can be. I can’t tell you anymore, the revelations of Martin, Terry, and Jasper are too rich and it would be a spoiler to do so. I can safely say that Steve Toltz has written a masterpiece, a smashing debut that will long be remembered as a colossal example of just how good fiction can be. He keeps you wired to the page from the jump and he defies gravity all the way to the end. Spiegel and Grau is a force to be reckoned with, their choices are bold yet brave and with a little marketing savvy and continued smart acquisition’s they will rise to the top of the heap.
Readers Talkback
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  • April 14, 2008, 12:53 p.m. CST

    I always look forward to this column

    by JackLint

    I don't think it comes often enough. I've checked out more than one reccomendation thanks to him. Keep up the great work. By the way, I loved Stay as well.

  • April 14, 2008, 2:36 p.m. CST

    I Like the AICN Lit Coverage

    by cowboyone

    Keep up the good work.

  • April 14, 2008, 9:32 p.m. CST

    First time

    by calrabjohns

    I never bothered to create an account in all the years that AICN has been around, but when this new section appeared I thought about it. I learned about a couple of nifty anthologies here, like the Speculative Japan one. I created this account just a few minutes ago to hopefully encourage you, Mr. Frank Bascombe, to come around more often. You write great reviews, and I haven't felt led astray yet. Anyway, I'll stop before I sound like a shill. Thanks.

  • April 15, 2008, 1:33 p.m. CST

    I too like AICN BOOKS !

    by schnorbis

    I like to read (as well as watch movies & TV), and I too checked out some recommendations from this column and am glad I did. One really good book I read about here was "The Blonde", by Duane Swierczynski. Fan-freekin-tastic! Keep up the good work.