Books, Briefly: One too many Jerry Stahls, and Ginger Strand’s veritable Niagara of trite observation

One of the very cool new applications on LinkedIn.com is the feature that encourages users to keep track of, and comment on, books they’ve recently read. Useful for the LinkedIn community, but especially useful for the gizmo’s sponsor, Amazon.com, which must be mining the data like there’s no tomorrow — which there may not be, judging from what appears to be the typical jamoke’s usual reading habits. Not that I’m any better, as the following list reveals, all too obviously. It was pointed out to me over lunch by my friend Phil Diamond, that the downside of sharing your book list with the planet at large is that everyone now knows what you’ve been reading. ”Is that bad?,” I asked Phil. He answered, inscrutable as ever, ”It’s just not the same stuff I read.” Which, I guess, must be why he says to-may-toe, while I say to-mah-toe. The following — admittedly, a little fiction-heavy, with at least one Jerry Stahl too many — is what I’ve lately racked up, between trying to get a couple of things done. They`re listed sequentially, and linked to Amazon. Feel free to comment: except Phil, who already commented.

The Getaway by Jim Thompson

Jimbo`s masterpiece
Jimbo`s masterpiece

Recommended: I return to this book every couple of years, and grow ever more impressed with each re-reading. Thompson, the sly master of 1950s-era American pulp fiction, gets everything right in this novel. And then, just when he’s got the reader convinced of the book’s many merits as escapist fiction (in at least two senses of the term), he pulls a series of gearshifts and fast left-turns that no other writer would have imagined or attempted, and connects all the spaces between Macbeth, Freud, and Dante’s Inferno. Even after repeated readings, it’s still hard to accept the depth of Thompson’s bleak vision, and impossible to figure out how he pulled off this remarkable feat.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

Recommended: Lee’s twee, a poet and he knows it, and you suffer the first chapters until he finally gets going. When he hits his stride, describing his mother’s odd life in the Cotswolds in the earliest part of the 20th Century, you’re entitled to sit up and take notice. His often reprinted passages about his sexual initiation, the cider with Rosie referenced in the title, are funny and humane, and ring beautifully true. By the time he’s explained what the motorcar did to the 1,000-year-old ways of village-life he was born into — geography measured in terms of the speed of horse-travel, eight miles an hour — your eyes should well up.

The Hunted by Elmore Leonard

Dutch being Dutch
Dutch being, you know, Dutch

Formulaic mid-’70s Leonard pot-boiler, this time set in Israel, where his rough-housing buddies and their uneasy gals exchange sharp dialogue and fire big guns at each other — including an Uzi, which makes sense, given the locale. I read this one over an evening in a hotel room in Swindon, England. Could not have been more perfect.

Love Without: Stories by Jerry Stahl

An uneven collection of short stories spanning 20 years that will add nothing to Stahl’s reputation, hard-won from his outstanding novel “I, Fatty.” The first tale seems to be an earlier, undeveloped version of his novel, “Perv: A Love Story.” Others are period pieces from late-’80s Playboy Magazine, and one is a scatological rant against Vice-President Cheney. Giving the devil his due, the references to the private lives of the Three Stooges and Stevie Nicks’ post-performance pleasures are nothing short of uproarious.

Dead Liberty by David Craig

Cold War-era thriller by the great Welsh novelist James Tucker, using his ’70s pseudonym. A rewarding, convoluted tale of one journalist’s role in the attempted escape by a middle-class family from East Berlin, that holds up well nearly 40 years after publication, and may be one of Craig’s very best books.

Downtown: My Manhattan by Pete Hamill

Gotham`s all reet with Pete
Gotham`s all reet with Pete

Recommended: A fine writer’s valentine to the Capital of the World, which underlines the big-heartedness that made and sustains the great metropolis. In contrast, lesser places such as Toronto, with their condescending cruelty toward fellow inhabitants and disinterest in the world beyond, are revealed as simply not worth thinking about. Writes Hamill: “Where I came from, the rules were relatively simple. Work. Put food on the table. Always pay your debts. Never cross a picket line. Don’t look for trouble, because in New York you can always find it. But don’t back off either. Make certain that the old and weak are never in danger. Vote the straight ticket.” Words to live by from a book that fires the spirit.

Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies by Ginger Strand

Ms. Strand has, perhaps, 200 reasonably acceptable pages in her 300-page-plus first-person account of the history of Niagara Falls and its bi-national communities. What grates is her awful tendencies to place herself in the forefront of this narrative, whether she’s annoying the librarians at the public library on the New York side, or laughing at the attendees of a Red Hat Society gathering in Ontario. A kindly, patient editor might have reined in the author’s worst instincts, but there is no such mediator in sight. Consequently Ms. Strand’s worthwhile sections on the rise and fall of the border-hopping Niagara Falls Museum are watered down by dreary self-referential remarks about her boyfriend Bob, her circle of Manhattan friends, and her father. She possesses a certain kind of naïveté not uncommon to contemporary U.S. authors, whereby she views events as either being American or Not American, and feels a pathetic obligation to delineate and explain the distinctions to an uninterested readership. This extends to her erroneous definition of the Bloody Caesar as a “Bloody Mary with Tabasco,” and Canada’s National Drink. No need to tell her about Mott’s Clamato; the information wouldn’t conform with her cookie-cutter reasoning apparatus, or her proclivity for stringing together smug, facile paragraphs. Caution to student writers everywhere: There may be an okay book buried somewhere in this sloppy, sophomoric volume, but the author is too occupied with drawing attention to herself to let her subject matter or material take center-stage.

Rock Springs by Richard Ford

Fine fiction: See the Fords going by
Fine fiction: See the Fords going by

Recommended: Ford’s rare gift is the ability to tell small truths using spare, unadorned language. These 10 short stories reveal the lives of ordinary residents of Montana and the Great Plains, where Calgary and Winnipeg are large, exotic centers heard on the radio but never seen. Men hunt, fish, and keep their anxieties unspoken. Women leave. Cars are stolen, guns used to threaten. Fists sometimes kill. This is an important collection that takes the Hemingway formula into a compelling, unsettling new direction.

Perv: a Love Story by Jerry Stahl

Published in 1999, this coming-of-age tale set in the earliest 1970s is a showcase for the developing talents of Stahl. The flaws in this book are considerable, and stem from the author’s determination to show off his Terry Southern-like tendencies. Other portions are satisfying and admirable, but Stahl’s need to be regarded as edgy ultimately sinks the story.

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky

Fascinating study of the 300-year decline of the role played by the oyster as an consumable, and an economic enterprise, in New Amsterdam and New York City. Filled with historic asides and detours, and leading toward an inevitable environmental nightmare, author Kurlansky has great material, and a well-honed storytelling sense, but is in the unhappy position of having to convey more than anyone would want to know about this subject.

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