December 5, 2006 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | December 5, 2006 |


1932416595.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V59766091_.jpgHousekeeping vs. The Dirt, Nick Hornby — Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, a freestyle look at the books Hornby is reading each month, basically picks up where last year’s The Polysyllabic Spree ended, with Hornby quibbling with the editors of The Believer, whose one rule is: “THOU SHALT NOT SLAG ANYONE OFF.” Clearly, it’s not a philosophy in which Pajiba would be interested. Hornby devotes a large chunk of his monthly column to discussing the merits of literary vs. non-literary novels, concluding that one ought to “Read anything, as long as you can’t wait to pick it up again,” a philosophy with which I largely agree, so long as that ideology doesn’t extend to mass-market paperbacks. But, mostly, Housekeeping is about the books that Hornby is reading and, aside from having the best conversational prose of any living author, he’s good for at least three or four solid book recommendations a year. And that’s mostly why I read Housekeeping and Polysyllabic Spree before it — so that I could carry it into a bookstore and explore, in more detail, many of the recommended books I’ve circled. It’s a great starting point for anyone who has exhausted their current reading lists, though I humbly suggest that this new monthly column might serve a similar purpose. — Dustin Rowles

0743284887.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V59968339_.jpg Chuck Klosterman IV, Chuck Klosterman — Klosterman, a relatively smart and funny writer, has made a career out of discussing music, sports, and all things pop culture. It’s a career many, myself included, would kill for. His latest book, like the earlier (and superior) “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” is largely a collection of previously published pieces, including interviews (with U2, Robert Plant, and Val Kilmer, among others), pieces about interesting corners of our culture (like the East L.A. devotees of Morrissey and goth day at Disneyland), and random ruminations (e.g., why everyone needs a nemesis and what a 24-hour stint of VH1 Classic does to you). Even though I’ve read many of these before (particularly the many “Esquire” pieces), they are eminently re-readable and hold up well, despite having been published as far back as 10 years ago. One, in fact, is actually all the better for its age (a pre-Federline interview with Brit-Brit is thick in irony in light of her last several years). The only portion of this book that really doesn’t work is a slim piece at the end where Klosterman attempts some sort of quasi-reality-fiction thing. As our own Dustin warned me before getting to this story, “Klosterman should stick to non-fiction.” Indeed, he should. But this one misstep aside, this is an entertaining and easy read, and it’s the perfect kind of pre-going-to-sleep book, as each piece is self-contained and relatively short. — Seth Freilich

0375724885.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_.jpgThe Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem — Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude is so endearingly honest it’s easy to gloss over the high-concept premise at the book’s core: What would happen if two Brooklyn kids really had superpowers? That’s exactly what happens to white Dylan Ebdus and his black pal, Mingus Rude, whose interracial alliance as children of the 1970s is strained by a dark, cruel world that seems bent on destroying the boys. The first half of the novel traces Dylan’s youth, and Lethem’s astonishing attention to detail evokes a realistic world, a dingy era stuck between rock and rap, when disco and punk and hip-hop were just rearing their heads to take a look around. Dylan’s journey through the hells of adolescence is charted with grace and ease. But it’s a magic ring, endowed with powers, that sets the book apart. Far from being an indulgent tool for fantasy, the ring complicates Dylan’s life in unforeseen ways, as he stumbles awkwardly through the sexual perils of being a teen.

The second half of the novel takes a leap forward in time as Lethem interweaves the lives of the characters to create a mournful portrait of life in modern America. Fusing the pop mythology of music, comic books, and the angst of growing up, The Fortress of Solitude tangentially roams through the diverse street cultures of graffiti, gangs, and the surreal oddities of youth, but the narrative always returns to Dylan, who becomes a fully grounded, empathetic character by the novel’s end. — Daniel Carlson

1400079551.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V65593527_.jpg Ghosting, Jennie Erdal — Ghosting was a recommendation I pulled from Hornby, and for the first time ever, he’s led me astray. It’s a memoir, and the central premise, I’ll admit, is intriguing as all hell: It’s about a woman (Erdal) who becomes a ghostwriter for a famous (at least in the UK), flamboyant publisher. Only this publisher, “Tiger,” doesn’t really provide much guidance for his novels. For the first book they work on together, the publisher merely says, “It has to be a love story. People associate me with love. …” And so she writes a nice romance, which is met with some success. So, based on that, the publisher has her write another novel based on another flimsy premise — something about cousins who are so close they orgasm at the same time. Erdal never gets credit for the novels — it is only the publisher’s name on the book. Intriguing, right? How does a person allow someone else to take all the glory for her work? Well, the execution doesn’t work out so well. First of all, the publisher isn’t actually an asshole — I was hoping for a Miranda Priestly kind of guy. Sadder, Erdal is not only thankful for the work, but quite fond of Tiger. Moreover, the memoir feels like one of those bad celebrity biographies, only Erdal is clearly not a celebrity, so it’s hard to find any interest in the banalities of her life or her weirdly modest self-indulgence. The writing is both generic and geriatric — it’s the kind of memoir I might recommend to a grandmother, for instance, who has an unnatural phobia toward jangly prose. I will note, however, that book translators might find a lot to like about the book; Erdal herself started out as one, and writes a good deal about the process. — DR

0375411402.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_.jpg The Good Life, Jay McInerney — Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis are kind of like U2 and R.E.M. to me — I buy their efforts out of sheer loyalty to their earlier works, knowing that I’m probably not going to care for their current output. Bret Easton Ellis’ last novel (Lunar Park), in fact, I left in a movie theater halfway through, something I’d realized as soon as I walked out the door. But I couldn’t even bring myself to make the effort to retrieve it — it was as good excuse as any to quit reading it. The Good Life, likewise, is about what I expected from McInerney, 15-20 years after he ceased to be relevant. If you’ve read Brightness Falls, then you’ve read The Good Life, the only difference being that the affluent, completely unsympathetic, self-absorbed Manhattanites here are committing adultery following the events of 9/11, which — I guess — is supposed to inject even more pathos into the philandering. It doesn’t really add much to the proceedings, however. McInerney’s novel is bland, overwritten, and dull — a third-rate approximation of Tom Wolfe’s latest works. It says a lot about my affection for Bright Lights, Big City and The Story of My Life that I even managed to finish it. I read, actually, that James Frey loved The Good Life, and cited McInerney as an influence, likening him to F. Scott Fitzgerald “as a gifted writer who has struggled to overcome ‘huge, almost overwhelming early success.’” You kind of have to wonder if Frey made that up, too. — DR

0743289412.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V37865936_.jpg Lisey’s Story, Stephen King — After exorcising his personal demons with the regrettable metafictional turn of Vols. 5-7 of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s return to form hit a few stumbling blocks. The Colorado Kid and Cell showed an author still capable of turning out a taut story but who also has a violent lack of understanding about the thoughts and personalities of anyone under 30, which is somewhat understandable; King turns 60 next fall, and is set in his ways. This is what makes Lisey’s Story his best work in years. With a story revolving around a middle-aged widow mourning the death of her husband, King deals with the secret language and private moments of a life-long relationship; in short, he’s finally writing what he knows.

Lisey’s husband has been dead two years when the story begins, but she’s not done moving on, and she’s led on an emotional and spiritual mystery by clues her author husband left behind. She also has to deal with a psychotic fan of her late husband’s who’s stalking her. The tale’s fantasy elements are firmly rooted in reality; it’s no accident that the book’s most terrifying moment is an act of human torture, not the rumblings of a mythological monster (though there’s plenty of that, too). King wears his heart on his sleeve, and his prose flows from his soul like it rarely has. Lisey’s Story is an absorbing tale of love, heartache, and the bittersweet pain of finally letting go. — DC

0385520514.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V66499601_.jpg A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon — Haddon’s first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was exactly the kind of novel I felt comfortable recommending to friends of mine who only read three of four novels a year — it was quirky, fun, and had an outstanding, accessible storyline. And it was even a bit on the literary side. A Spot of Bother, however, is mostly disappointing. The writing is still remarkable, but there’s no narrative intrigue. It’s not a bad novel by any stretch, but it’s a step backwards to go from an amusing murder-mystery told from the perspective of a 15-year-old autistic kid, to Bother, which is about yet another dysfunctional, commitment-phobic family — only its dysfunction is relative only to other affluent, whitebread English families whose biggest worries are the occasional adulterous affair and a homosexual son. The characters are largely selfish and unsympathetic; the prose is clean, but exceedingly dry; and it wasn’t until around page 100 that I even showed an inkling of curiosity about the fate of this family. If you stick around, the narrative does improve — but it never really takes off, even during the mildly amusing, farcical wedding climax. — DR

0143037218.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V57240840_.jpg The Wonder Spot, Melissa Bank — The Wonder Spot was the first recommendation I took away from Hornby’s Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, and I admit that I wouldn’t have read it otherwise. You might remember that Melissa Bank wrote a novel titled The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing several years back, or you would if you had entered a bookstore between the years 1999 and 2003. I ignored it largely because I am not a girl and because I don’t care for hunting or fishing. Also, because it felt like even the independent and mainstream bookstores were trying to cram it down my throat. I’ll admit now, however, that if The Girls’ Guide is half as good as The Wonder Spot, it probably warranted its near perpetual existence on display shelves. The Wonder Spot is a largely plotless, coming-of-age novel about adulthood and dating, spanning 25 years in the life of Sophie Applebaum. It’s (mostly) sentiment free, slightly whimsical, brilliantly written, clever, and occasionally poignant — it’s sort of the female equivalent of Nick Hornby’s work. I suspect that Bank and The Girls’ Guide had some part in the explosion of “chick-lit,” but — at least in the case of The Wonder Spot — that label is counterintuitive. It’s lightweight and infinitely readable, for sure, but to call it chick-lit is to slap an unfairly derisive label on a novel that clearly doesn’t deserve it. — DR


1401210104.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V33708030_.jpg Y: The Last Man — Safeword (Vol. 4), Ring of Truth (Vol. 5), Brian K. Vaughan — For the past year or so, I’ve been having myself a little comic book renaissance, and I’ve come to a pretty important conclusion: I’m a bigger fan of the medium itself than of its most popular products, namely the endless superhero titles, which are far too clogged with backstories and in-jokes and obscure references to enjoy. But there are many alternative titles out there that are restoring my faith, and it’s in that spirit that I heartily sing the praises of Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man.

The series starts with an intriguing, high-concept premise — a plague sweeps the planet and kills every living male creature except for twentysomething Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand — but it’s the ingenious ways Vaughan carries out that idea that give the series such brilliant life. “Safeword” collects issues 18-23 of the series, while “Ring of Truth” packages issues 24-31, and I couldn’t imagine having to read this in monthly installments. By this point, Yorick has been traveling for 18 months with a doctor who hopes to discover the key to Yorick’s immunity and a government agent whose motives for protecting the Last Man are more complex than she’s willing to reveal. Each story arc goes down fast and hot as a shot of whiskey, as Vaughan mixes rapid action, taut suspense, quirky humor, and devastating heartbreak to create an engrossing and completely feasible postapocalyptic vision. Y: The Last Man elevates the medium to a true art form. — DC

030726419X.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_V65791194_.jpg The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud (abandoned) — I generally give a book 100 pages to impress me. If it fails to pique my interest by then, I give it up. Reading a novel shouldn’t be a miserable experience, and there are very few endings that are worth 350 pages of tedium. I picked up Messud’s novel because she hails from my favorite place in the entire world, Somerville, Massachusetts, and because it was ostensibly about struggling urbanites in their late 20s/early 30s. I tend to gravitate toward novels about people at similar stations in similar situations in their lives, but I often find that they make me dislike myself a little bit (Douglas Coupland’s earlier novels aside). Tessud’s novel felt a little too much like it was striving to win a Book’s Circle Guggenheim Faulkner Pen Award of some sort. She fleshes out characters incredibly well, but she doesn’t seem to do anything with them. At a certain point — when I saw a shiny penny on the floor, for instance — I lost interest. These people really aren’t anything like me, I thought. They’re like characters that people who aren’t like me try to create to seem like me, if that makes any sense. At any rate, it wasn’t worth the effort. — DR

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Books | December 5, 2006 | Comments ()



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