Big Sky

I thought this was a sort of parody of detective stories by the excellent writer Kate Atkinson, but after finishing I see that Jackson Brodie is actually a recurring character for her. She milks her audience well, with a chaotic first few pages pulling you into the story of a sex trafficking ring run on the coast of England by three old pals. Coincidences pile on top of coincidences, which is why I thought this was extreme parody, but it ends up an entertaining read. Unfortunately, the wrapping up phase at the end is too tidy and monotonous. Endings are hard to get right.

Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short

Mostly I’m in awe that people have been recommending this book. How is it possible to bungle first-person reporting so much? The author, Cohan, looks around and sees that 4 guys from his years at Phillips Academy (premiere prep school for the elites) are dead from various horrendous circumstances, decides to write a tediously boring book about it thinking that just by including JFK Jr. as one of the 4 that people will be interested? Dull dull dull. I hung around to skim through the blather due to curiosity around how they died. One guy was killed in the 101 California mass shooting in 1993 (SF’s worst mass shooting still remains unmemorialized on the building), one guy was hit by a cab, one guy mysteriously found drowned with two of his daughters, and JFK Jr piloted his plane into the Atlantic. Another book that did not need to be written or published.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

There were 3 distinct sections of this book: the strange murders swirling around Reverend Miller, who seemed to take out life insurance policies on everyone in his family and they ended up dead; the subsequent trial of the man who murdered Reverend Miller at the funeral home mourning his latest victim; Harper Lee’s involvement as a last gasp effort to produce a book in the 1970s and 80s. The first and last sections were the most interesting, with delving into Lee’s life providing the most meat for the story. Lee grew up next door to Truman Capote who whisked away to NYC where she eventually migrated. She had put the finishing touches on Mockingbird (after being granted a year off to write by the largess of friends) and was wondering what to do when Capote asked for her help researching the killings that became In Cold Blood. Her help in Kansas was enormous, detailed notes that later propped up his book, plus people much more likely to speak to a pleasant polite Southern woman than flamboyant Capote who met some people at his hotel door wearing pink lingerie.

Then Mockingbird came out and was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, making Capote jealous, making Lee fearful of earning any extra money since her income bracket was already being taxed at 70%. This immediate success made it possible for her never to work again and some say that it cursed her from future writing projects. The author of this book does float the idea that it was possible that Lee “had decided to write for her own satisfaction or for posterity, not her peers, and the feelings of incompletion and failure were incongruous with her own experience.” I say, why not? If she got pleasure out of writing for herself (and her many letters seem to be delightful), then why not leave it at that?

Overall the book was strangely sewn together, stitches large and unwieldy. The editors of which Cep writes so lovingly as having positively influenced Lee’s writing were sorely lacking here. But alas, this is the current state of publishing.

Side note to myself that Melville is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a place Lee made a pilgrimage to.

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives

One of my favorite librarians pressed this into my hands today after we were discussing how teenagers today can be absolutely obliterated by their dumb mistakes unlike what we experienced growing up. This book tracks the devastating impact of a few moments on an Oakland bus in November 2013 when Richard, a 16-year-old, was showing off and goofing around with his friends and lit the skirt that Sasha, a genderqueer teen, was wearing on fire. The fire burned Sasha severely, another passenger threw them to the ground to put out the flames but they had to have skin grafts and live with the fear of infection for months after. Which seems actually tame compared to what happened to Richard, the young black male captured on bus video and later telling the police that he was homophobic (after ignoring the right to remain silent). Richard gets tried as an adult (yikes) and sentenced to 7 years, later reduced to 5 years. As Sasha heads off to MIT and the wonders of Boston, Richard shuffles behind bars. Not too much of a stretch to wonder what would have happened if Richard had not been a young black male.

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

What began as a quaint insider look at the 1969 season of the short-lived Seattle Pilots turned into a bloated windbag filled with Bouton’s ramblings. Unfortunately I recommended this one to my dear old dad before I got too far in and realized how much misogynistic shit is spackled all over the book. The ballplayers go “beaver shooting” which means they try to look up ladies’ skirts or into lit windows at night or spy on their roommates in the hotel room. Lots and lots of erection talk and about broads. If you can get past that, there is a thin layer of interesting talk about the craft of pitching, but pray to god you’re reading one of the earlier versions which doesn’t tack on an additional 100+ pages of old windbag blathering into his tape recorder about what happened next (spoiler: he divorced his wife as did many of the other ballplayers, ended up marrying some other “magical” woman). This came highly praised but the only value I see is that it was the first tell-all book that laid it all out about how much players made and negotiated and were docked for being late, etc.

Three Women

I’m stunned by some of these sentences. I had to take a break, only a handful of pages in, to float over here and capture the essence before I end up dogearing every page. This is a non-fiction book that contains bursts of perfect prose.

“It’s not as if the prosecutors have your back. They have your shadow, is more like it.”

“Hoy also asks about a site that he doesn’t even know how to spell. You go, What’s that, and he goes, I don’t know, but have you ever been on it, and you go, No, I don’t know what it is. And you are thinking, Neither do you, you prick. But his formality makes you afraid to contradict him. You bet his wife and children have learned to lie to him regularly, to escape the kind of needling criticism that can wreck a soul.”

“They get the drunk munchies and drive out to Perkins, which looks like a soup kitchen. It’s wan and the customers have red faces and the waitresses have cigarette coughs but when you’re young and buzzed it’s good for a late-night snack. When you’re young you can do almost anything and it won’t be sad.”

The book captures layers of a taboo subject—female desire—in the stories of three women. Lina, raped by 3 boys as a young girl, eventually leaves her stable husband because she wants to be carried away by the fantasy of the affair she’s having with her teenage crush, hurried sex in trucks and motels, thankful for 30 minutes she gets with him occasionally. Maggie is a twenty-something recovering from an inappropriate relationship she had with her teacher her senior year of high school. Sloane is a successful restaurant owner whose husband makes her have sex with other men while he watches.

In Big Trouble

Another of Laura Lippman’s mysteries, this one sends Tess to Austin and San Antonio to find her ex-boyfriend Crow, who’s mixed up in a double murder with more bodies ready to fall on the sidelines. A bit of a yawn but still entertaining.

Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biography

I imagine that the process of preparing for this book involved Weisman sitting down at Jaffee’s kitchen table with a tape recorder for several hours. It’s not particularly well-written, a slapdash kind of story heavily reliant on long, windbag-esque quotes from Jaffee that border on pointless at times. Goes deep into his bizarre childhood of growing up in Savannah, GA, before being emigrated to Lithuania by his homesick mother, then his father rescues them back to the Rockaways in NYC, then the mother steals them away to Lithuania again. Eventually Al’s back in NYC and studying art, but his mother is killed in her homeland. The story finally gains steam around the time when brother Harry starts mass-producing drawings of airplanes; the whole crew pitches in with tracing, coloring, then final drawing. Jaffee got his start with Stan Lee drawing Squat Cop Squad, breaking the wall by having the cartoonist spill onto the page and berate his creation. Lee came to the rescue again in the post-WW2 era letting Jaffee draw Patsy Walker. After years of Patsy, MAD magazine arose as an opportunity and he took a massive paycut to work on things that excited him. (First he worked on the 2 issues of Hefner-funded Trump, then Humbug, then to MAD). Jaffee’s creations filled MAD—the zany inventions, the fold-ins, skewering hypocrisy left and right.

The tyranny of noise

This 1970 book is the documentation of one man’s fight against the bone-jarring noise that took over a construction site near his NYC apartment for three years. Baron was somehow able to drop everything else he was doing and enter into the world of NYC bureaucracy, calling a myriad of Departments (Health, Transportation, etc.) to figure out how to get the noise down. Eventually he forms a citizens committee and becomes immersed in the global fight against noise (European car horns were quieter than US! They had to ship special horns here). There’s not much of real interest in the book except for the joy of reading his attempts to pull humanity back from the brink of noise anarchy. “If ours were a civilized society, it would not be necessary to work so hard to make a case for noise as a health problem.”

On the plus side, further research led me to this amazing NYTimes photo from the 1970s with the van for measuring noise:

Was Shakespeare a Woman?

I’m convinced. I’ve been convinced for a while that the actor/theater manager known as Shakespeare probably wasn’t the author of the plays under his name, but only dudes’ names have been puffed up as possible authors. Only… male egos would not allow their work to be shown under another’s name, right? As the often misquoted Virginia Woolf quote goes,

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

The Atlantic article proposes a few female candidates.

To Night Owl From Dogfish

Super sweet YA book told entirely through emails (and a few letters), but not in a bad way. Two 12-year-old girls get to know each other, one in NYC, one in Venice CA, because their gay dads meet and fall in love, conspiring to send them both to the same summer camp while the dads tour China on motorcycles. The girls resist getting close but it happens eventually, meanwhile the dads have a terrible trip and break up. One of the girls’ mom is a playwright with a residency near the summer camp, she shows up and re-enters her daughter’s life. The other girl’s grandma shows up from Texas and turns out to be an amazing actor who then performs in the playwright’s latest creation, which then goes to off-Broadway. It’s all very sweet and endearing.

Capital: The Eruption of Delhi

Incredible book weaving the everyday histories of people who live in Delhi into the historical thread, the violence of the Partition in 1947, the disruption of British rule, the eruption of capitalism in the 1990s. Dasgupta is a UK citizen who worked in NYC until he journeyed to Delhi around 2000 and never left. In this, he gathers stories from the incredibly wealthy elite who sip expensive drinks and chat about their Lambos and BMWs from walled-enclaves protecting their green golf courses and lush pools. He also visits the other end of the spectrum, people squatting in slums who are powerless and are blown over with every political gust that attempts to eradicate them. It’s beautiful, lyrical writing capturing the bizarre feelings of the moment, how global capitalism is ruining this particular corner of the world. Describing one pair of brothers who work hard but don’t acquire many things, “It feels as if they are living in permanent temporariness, acquiring nothing that might stand as an obstacle between them and their eventual retreat from this cultureless place.”

Interviewing an advertising executive who works hard and loves it, he explains how his wife wasn’t happy about his long hours but he undertook to educate her as if it were an advertising campaign “I took small steps to make her understand, I used analogies.” Eventually the wife has a baby to occupy her time and all is well. When coffee shops arrive in the early 2000s, Delhi “was suddenly awash in the stuff, its smell filling every shopping mall and office block, brown liquid pouring into the veins of this new sleep-deprived generation—who, as often as not, did not drink from a cup but, like their American counterparts, sucked at a sealed and odorless container, as if they nestled at capitalism’s plastic breast.”

Traffic snarls, people sleeping in their rickshaws, bribery, hospital scams, call center work, history, arranged marriages, tradition, booze, cigarettes, rape, rage, gurus, slums, water shortages, it’s all here.

“It says so much about the spirit of Delhi that this mood, this sense of living in the aftermath, has dominated the city’s literature until our own time… Delhi’s writers have consistently seen it as a city of ruins and they have directed their creativity to expressing that particular spiritual emaciation that comes from being cut off from one’s own past. This is both the reality and the fantasy of Delhi: the city is always already destroyed.”

“Now our city is about aggression, rage, inequality, corruption, and personal gain. It’s about consumerism and shopping malls… We have no beauty to leave to our children.”

A textile mill owner is self-reflective: “The system we are part of feeds on desperation. And any system that demands such levels of desperation will produce more and more disorder, and the only way to keep everything in check will be the increasing militarization of the world.”

Butchers Hill

Lippman finally gets around to having non-white characters in her third Baltimore-set Tess Monaghan mystery, which is a relief and sometimes cringe-worthy. In this, Tess has set up her own private eye office and gets two clients whose stories comingle by the end of the tale. The Butcher of Butcher Hill is an elderly man who was just released from jail for having shot and killed a kid for breaking into his car a few years prior, and suddenly all the other kids that were around that night start popping up dead. The other case is to track down the daughter of a now-successful woman who had given her up for adoption 13 years before. I’m not quite sure why I keep reading these, but maybe they get better as she goes on?

Counting by 7s

So thankful to have a sister who recommends amazing YA books! Gulped this down after a conversation yesterday. It’s an interesting take on the tired old “kid loses both parents in freak accident” genre. This kid is an adopted 12-year-old black girl who is a genius, inadvertently helping out everyone in her path. She didn’t fit in at school but when accused of cheating on her standardized test (because no mistakes and finished in minutes), she has to see a counseler named Del Duke. Through Del she meets a pair of Vietnamese kids and through them their mother Patti who runs a nail salon. Willow (the narrator) picks up Vietnamese in a snap, ends up living with the family and improving everyone’s life by getting Del’s apartment overhauled, garden planted, etc.

Charm City

Somewhat charmless 2nd book in the Tess mystery series. She makes Tess grow up a bit, gives her a dog, has her break up with a perfectly sweet boyfriend, and further consolidates her business skills as an investigator. In this one she returns to the Baltimore newspaper to figure out who inadvertently published a major news story the editors had decided to hold off on. The threads of the story fray frequently but we’re all suspending disbelief as we read these, right?