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Review Envy

I read fairly quickly, I’ll grant you, but I look around the interweb and I can’t believe how many books some people can not only read, but write full-on reviews for. I’ve read the better part of ten books through the first 2 months of 2010 – a respectable number, I think – but only written about two of them. So, as a way to keep abreast of my own readings, here’s a recap of the first 10 of ’10 – as much for my benefit as for yours.

Papa Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – I have spent a lot of time in the past few years not reading older books because I felt that part of my job – both as bookseller and blogger – was to stay current, reading things that are not yet published or are more contemporary.  Screw that.  There’s room for both, I now realize. I had been meaning to read A Moveable Feast for the longest time, so when I was browsing the stacks at Raven Used Books in Northampton, MA on an insanely cold January afternoon, I bought a copy and read the whole thing on the plane ride back to California. I’m glad I did. (By the way, F. Scott Fitzgerald? Douchebag.)

The Good Son by Russel D. McLean – debut Scottish crime novel with a Bruen blurb on the back jacket. (Why would I ever pick that one up?) It’s a fairly solid crime novel, not perfect, but I’d like to see how McLean (a well-respected short story writer) develops as a novelist over time, especially as this series progresses (there is at least one more on the way). His protagonist, J. McNee, is a private-eye with his share of personal demons – yeah, I know, blah-blah-blah – but McLean has a certain spark, for sure, especially in his dialogue (often the driving force behind these kinds of novel, ala Bruen) which crackles with authenticity and Scottish bitterness. Well worth the read, but (with sincere apologies to Mr. McLean) at 25 bucks, you could wait until the paperback, to be honest.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris – I read about half of this before I set it aside. Tim Farnsworth has an undefinable medical condition – doctors aren’t sure if it is physical or psychological – that causes him to just get up and walk, sort of like a perpetual motion machine. This is disruptive behavior, to say the least, as he tends to walk for miles and miles before stopping, completely exhausted, far from home. Tim’s episodes have begun to put a strain on his marriage (his wife is the one who gets the call in the middle of the night from his new location), his job, his relationship with his daughter – to the point where he’s caught in this miserable loop of uncontrollable behavior and the novelty of his bizarre condition begins to wear off, leaving his profoundly sad story stripped bare. I had just about reached that point of empathy when I read Janet Maslin’s NYT review (“Compelled to Wander, Nowhere to Go“) that made me lose hope that Tim would ever stop. This wasn’t leaving me with a great feeling, so I stopped instead.

Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury by Richard Ellis – still dipping into this one, but enjoying it. If you’ve read Mark Kurlansky’s Cod…. Ellis (well known for his marine-themed works of nonfiction as well as his piscine paintings) has done a phenomenal amount of research on the massive industry that tuna fishing has become. (In fact, it’s mostly refered to as “farming”, to give you an idea of the scale.) From the huge, lucrative tuna market in Japan, the circular “tuna pens” in the Mediterranean, and the rampant overfishing and subsequent rapid decline of the global stock, Ellis covers the whole broad spectrum of the history and future of this magnificent, important species.

Already Dead: A California Gothic by Denis Johnson – the best book I’ve read this year and it’s over a decade old. (See, I’m mending my ways.) 

“So…where do you come from originally?”
The man said nothing.
“Come on. Where are you from?”
“That’s a shitty state,” Thompson said.

(I’m a Nutmeger-transplant to Cali, so that scene was especially funny.) I loved Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s 2007 National Book Award-winning novel of the Vietnam War, and his collection of twisted, drug-addled short stories, Jesus’ Son (read in one sitting in October) so a friend recommended this to me. Set along in a small town on the northern California coast, amongst the redwoods, secret valleys of ganja, and vast expanses of rocky beaches, it’s populated by a wide array of odd people who do bad things to one another – much like a Coen brother’s plot. If Johnson wasn’t such an amazing wordsmith, he never would’ve been able to pull this story off. Beautifully written and absolutely hilarious.

Point Omega by Don DeLillo – still don’t get it. One of Ted Burke’s several takes on DeLillo – and while I agree that Don is neither “tedious, wordy, or pretentious”, I still had a hard time grasping the greater themes of Omega. Although, this is only the 3rd of his novels I’ve read, so perhaps Ted is right in suggesting that one needs the greater thematic scope of DeLillo’s body of work in order to fully appreciate Omega. Whatever.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann – essay pieces by the author The Lost City of Z (#3 on the 2009 Catapult Notable List). Not all perfect – and none nearly as compelling as Z – but a good collection with some decent sections. “Trial By Fire” is an exposé, of sorts, on the Texas state legal system – focusing on the possible wrongful execution of a man convicted of killing his children in a fire. “The Squid Hunter” follows a scientist tracking the elusive Giant Squid – since I’m into the fish thing lately. My favorite: the fascinating “City of Water” chronicles the lives of the men who’ve been toiling under the streets of New York for the last 30 years to complete the construction of City Tunnel #3 – the conduit for the 1.3 billion gallons of water used by the city’s residents every day.

Zulu by Caryl Férey – reviewed in my last post. Since then, I’ve had a bizarre email correspondence with someone at Férey’s publisher, Europa Editions, who is mildly upset at my calling their company “Penguin’s Europa Editions” in the review.  In the United States, Penguin distributes Europa (thankfully), so to my eye, as a reader, reviewer, and book buyer, Europa is under Penguin USA’s umbrella – calling them “Penguin’s” is pretty accurate and quite harmless. She asked me to change my wording, which I have not, since I’m waiting for her to just say, “Hey, by the way, thanks for reviewing this obscure book! Glad you liked it.”  I’m a simple man.

The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today by Ted Conover – I tend to not be able to read through nonfiction books at one go – I need to break them up with novels for some reason – so I’m chipping away at this one. Conover may very well be my favorite nonfiction author – check out his previous Newjack (when he was denied entry into Sing Sing prison for a story, he got a job as a prison guard there instead), Rolling Nowhere (he spent a season literally riding the rails with the last of America’s hobos), and Coyotes (of particular interest in my neck of the woods, about his travels crossing the Mexican border with illegal immigrants). Routes is a series of loosely linked essays about the culture of the road across the globe. So far the first is my favorite – “Forest Primeval to Park Avenue” – in which Conover travels the route taken by Peruvian mahogany as it is cut (often illegally) and taken overland through mountains and jungles to be processed and sold as furniture, crown moldings, and cabinet doors in the United States. The reviews I have read have all complained about the overall cohesiveness of this book – Conover struggles to link all the narratives into his greater theme – but even the slightly negative press has recognized Conover’s skill at writing the adventure/travelogue, so just go with that.

Truth by Peter Temple – just finished this over the past weekend. Taut, gritty, and great – my next review, I swear.


One comment on “Review Envy

  1. Naomi Johnson
    March 4, 2010

    I keep meaning to read A MOVEABLE FEAST. I think the comment about Fitzgerald has convinced me to make it a priority.

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