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What I’ve Been Reading, In Case You’re Interested…

How we select what to read fascinates me. Why do we gravitate towards the books we pick up? I know, we read authors that we’ve read before or books that friends have recommended to us, but I’m talking about the actual cosmic order that we read them in. Is there a subconscious plan that we’re unaware of? Is there a certain style of cover art that reels us in every single time? (I think yes, by the way. There are plenty of great books that I haven’t wanted to read, based solely on the cover art.) Is there a special sequence of words in the jacket copy that triggers a subconscious buying reaction? Why do we progress from author to author, sometimes realizing that they are connected in some way only after we’ve begun reading?

This philosophical question is really just an impetus for me to write about some of the books I’ve read lately, without feeling guilty for not writing more frequently. So, here’s what I’ve read since the last book I wrote about (Michael Crummey’s Galore) presented in sort of a journal format. Is there a pattern within the chaos?

After I read Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson, I couldn’t really face reading something “serious” like Moby Dick, Michael Ondaatje, or, I don’t know, any of the other countless books on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to yet. (Hello, Lorrie Moore.) So, naturally I picked up Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. A natural progression, to be sure. This is no Twilight, teen-angsty, light-horror beach read. Duncan’s edgy prose is surprisingly literary and the well-wrought story has an infinite number of twists & turns that keep you guessing and rooting for the wolf. Jake Marlowe is just a 200-year old man who happens to turn into a wolf with an amped-up libido once a month. He’s tired of running from the goons who’ve hunted down all the other werewolves on earth, but just as he’s prepared to go out in a hail of silver bullets, his life is turned on its lupine ear and he desperately wants to stay breathing. In the end, a tale of love, survival, prejudice, and the finer points of living a life well lived.

Then I went to Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy for a little gravity, I suppose. (Follow the link for that mini-review.) Then to Galore. Then I read about half of James Sallis’ The Killer Is Dying, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about at this point. A serial killer? Just never grabbed me. Then, for whatever reason, I decided to tackle John Sayles’ A Moment in the Sun – a 1000-page McSweeney’s novel about the Gold Rush and the US’s war with Spain in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Sayles is a film director by day – Lone Star, Eight Men Out – so Moment certainly has a cinematic air about it. To be honest, it’s a sprawling epic of monstrous proportions that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around. My advance reading copy was printed in two, 500-page sections & I’ve just about managed to get through Part One. I think I’ll go back to it…

As a break from the nearly-impenetrability of that, I moved to George Pelecanos’ forthcoming The Cut, which I will be reviewing (hopefully) in the coming weeks as we get closer to the release date in August. Pelecanos was a producer & writer for The Wire, as well as currently wearing the same hats for Treme, in addition to being one hell of a crime novelist. The Cut is flat-out awesomeness.

After that I was on vacation & had my family in town, so, naturally, I read Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill – a series of linked short stories that showcase the horrible shit that people in rural Indiana do to each other. (I’m just funnin’, Mom.) As a way of introducing you to his stunning debut, Frank Bill grabs your hand & leads you into the pitch-dark, flooded basement of America where he proceeds to force your head down into the dark, pungent depths. The resultant interlaced stories are gritty, mean, awful, & flat-out brilliant. The characters of Bill’s Indiana are deplorable, miserable wretches – brawlers, drunks, meth-heads, & scumbags – yet this is what lends them such a vitality that makes them all the more real. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from them – I kept thinking “Just one more story & I’ll stop this madness,” but I never did. Ah, let’s admit it: I never wanted to. (On sale August 30. Also, visit Frank Bill’s House of Grit, where he has given me an unprecedented couple of shout-outs. A thousand thanks, Frank!)

In an attempt to “lighten the mood” after that, I read A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen, which is a novelized version of the events surrounding the 1927 murder trial of Ruth Snyder. (Hansen is also the author of The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, which was made into a Brad Pitt film.) The Snyder case had the country riveted for several weeks that year and was one of the first instances of an “O.J. Trial” sort of sensationalized court case. Basically, Ruth, unhappy in her marriage, plotted with her lover to murder her husband. And they pulled it off, at least until the police showed up the next morning and saw how obvious it was that Ruth & her squeeze, Judd Gray were responsible for the murder. It’s a fascinating story of an obsessive relationship and a tremendously sloppy murder – which leads, ultimately to The Chair for Ruth & Judd (I’m not ruining anything that you can’t learn on Wikipedia) – but after reading Hansen’s novelized version, I’m not sure why he wrote it this way. He certainly did an extraordinary amount of research for the book, but a lot of it reads like a transcript of events at times, with some journalistic tendencies, combined with some hot & heavy sequences with Ruth & Judd that he made up. Other reviews have gone on about how brilliant Hansen is for being able to create such a lush backstory for Ruth & Judd, but it all read as rather pedestrian to me.

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch was a book that I admittedly first picked up for its cover art. That’s where that element of my early musings over why we choose what we choose comes true. I’m a sucker for the ocean-scene woodcut cover art, apparently. (See We, the Drowned.) Much to my surprise, the inside of the book was far, far better than the packaging. Set in Victorian England, this is the bizarre tale of Jaffy Brown, born in the darkest, dirtiest slum of Bermondsey, London. After being nearly eaten by a tiger on the street one day…he is taken in as hired help by the tiger’s owner, Charles Jamrach, “Naturalist and Importer of Animals, Birds, and Shells.” Jamrach imports and sells exotic beasts from all corners of the world, housing them in a vast menagerie at his house in London. With his best friend Tim Linver, Jaffy eventually finds himself on an ocean voyage with Jamrach’s “finder,” Dan Rymer, in search of a dragon in the Java Sea. What they find sends them all on a much different kind of journey – one laced with insanity, unreliable narration, thirst, starvation, and the dark turns in the inner workings of the souls of men. At turns a playful, whimsical story combined with a little Heart of Darkness, Carol Birch turns in a brilliant, wholly original book that I just loved every word of.

Which brings me to today, where my secret nerd comes out: in anticipation of the release of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, I went back (yes, back) and read book #4 in his Song of Ice & Fire series, A Feast For Crows. Then, a week later, began Dance, another 900+ pager, which I am currently still tearing through. I first encountered these books when #3 came out – so long ago that I had yet to work in a bookstore at that point. (There was a painful 5 year wait between #3 and #4, followed by another six year wait for the current book.) Nowadays, GRRM is the hottest author around – the HBO adaptation of the first book in this series, A Game of Thrones (written & produced by David Benioff) has been nominated for an Emmy and Dance sold 298,000 copies on its first day. So, where’ve you been? The best endorsement I can offer for Martin’s books is this: I have read all of the first four books twice, clocking in at somewhere in the neighborhood of 4000 pages. And I’ll read them all again.

So there you have it.


6 comments on “What I’ve Been Reading, In Case You’re Interested…

  1. Naomi Johnson
    July 25, 2011

    Wow, you have been busy.

  2. Seth Marko
    July 25, 2011

    Ha! Well, reading, not writing.

  3. Frank Bill
    July 26, 2011

    Very much appreciated, Seth! Thanks again.

  4. chasingbawa
    July 26, 2011

    I like the eclectic mix of titles! I'll be checking out The Last Werewolf and Crimes in Southern Indiana, both sound intriguing. I've seen lots of good reviews of Jamrach's Menagerie (which has just been longlisted for the Booker Prize) too. And I've got vols. 2 & 3 of GRRM's books to look forward to as they are sitting patiently on my shelf.

  5. Seth Marko
    July 27, 2011

    Frank, ditto, my friend. (The author of Crimes in Southern Indiana, ladies & gentlemen!)

    chasingbawa, thanks for stopping by. I just saw the Booker longlist myself (& posted a little bit about it.) Kind of a weak one, I think, although I'm definitely pulling for Ms. Birch.

    And what can I say, enjoy the GRRM. They're even better on the 2nd go-round. 🙂

  6. Anonymous
    September 3, 2011

    It was hard choosing anything to read after I finished The Last Werewolf.I didn't like it…I loved it! So I went off on a tangent to ride the “bad boy” wave. I just finished Busy Monsters by debut author William Giraldi, am currently reading Horns by Joe Hill and up next is The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock. I aldo earlier did read and recommend Galore by Michael Crummey. John Banville fits in there somewhere too with The Infinities.

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This entry was posted on July 25, 2011 by in Uncategorized.
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