What I've been reading
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Check out my author's "Virtual Bookshelf" at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, a collection of novels that influenced my novel City of Angles or offer similar looks at Southern California:
I'm biased. I'm a fan of Ivy Pochoda. I read all of her first three novels. The last two, Visitation Street and Wonder Valley, examined the lives of mostly down-and-out people in tough locales from Red Hook in Brooklyn to LA's Skid Row to the hard-scrabble desert east of LA. Reminds me a bit of Nelson Algren and John Fante and is the kind of writing I aspire to. She's been labeled a crime fiction writer, but I think her books transcend the genre, being more literary and character-driven -- not that those distinctions matter much anymore. With These Women, she has taken it to another level. Set in another tough urban area, LA's West Adams neighborhood, the novel on a superficial level is about a serial killer stalking women, mostly prostitutes and strippers -- not exactly a fresh premise. But she flips the script by focusing not on the killer but on the effect on the women and their invisible community. It's a powerful book, and if you're not left enraged by the callous attitude of police and society at large toward the marginalized, especially in 2020, then you're not paying attention.
On the surface, The Other Americans is a murder mystery, and a fairly mundane one at that: A cafe owner is killed by a hit-and-run driver, and a neighbor comes forward to confess he did it and it was an accident on a dark highway; eventually the truth comes out. But that seems like a mere plot device for exploring the immigrant experience in America, which is the book's real strength. Lalami draws on her own experience as a Moroccan immigrant to paint a picture of "other Americans" much different from the ones we often see. No undocumented Latinos hiding from ICE, no Asians striving to overcome racial stereotyping. The people at the center of this story are legal immigrants from Morocco who have settled in the high desert of Southern California, far from the usual urban locales. The family's fraught relations with the white rural community they have moved in with are drawn with subtlety and nuance. This book makes me want to go back and read Lalami's previous novel The Moor's Account.
Of all the dozens of novels I've read in the last few years, this one had the most profound effect on me. On one level, Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a tall tale worthy of Homer's Odysseus, and clearly owes much to The Odyssey. But on a deeper level it is a philosophical examination of humanity's need for, and search for, meaning through faith. There's a line near the beginning that gives away the game: The author/narrator meets an old man in a cafe in India and is told "I have a story that will make you believe in God." (Echoes of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.) It's not until the very end of the book that we learn what he means. Like Odysseus spinning tall tales to the Phaeacians to distract them from the truth about why none of his ships and crews survived, the protagonist named Pi unrolls one whopper after another to conceal the awful truth about his trans-Pacific odyssey. In the end, I didn't believe in God -- that ship sailed long ago -- but I came to a better understanding and appreciation for why people need to believe. It changed how I view humanity in a fundamental way. How many novels can we say that about?
I grabbed this on a whim not knowing anything about James McBride. Lucky me. It's great, of course, as evidenced by the gold sticker, but I did not expect it to be so damn funny. Young boy, escaped from slavery disguised in girl's clothes, falls in with the murderous gang of the charismatic, comically deranged, true life figure of John Brown, abolitionist. Brown is so addled by his messianic zeal that he never notices that his gang's young mascot is a boy in a dress, and decides to call "her" by the nickname "Onion." The satirical genius of this book rivals the best of Mark Twain, but with a modern sensibility. The climactic scene at the famous/infamous battle of Harpers Ferry is terrific. On my TBR list are McBride's previous book The Color of Water and his new one, Deacon King Kong.
He lives in LA now, but J. Ryan Stradal is from Minnesota and he captures the particular nuances and vibes of the Gopher State to a T. I'm not a native myself, but I lived in the Twin Cities for 14 years, and the peculiar essences of Minnesota-ness seeped into my bones before I decamped for California 22 years ago. Reading The Lager Queen of Minnesota drew out all those old vibes from deep within. A truly delightful experience. Stradal nails the unique syntax and vocabulary of Minnesota-ese, which is a variation on the upper Midwest dialect found in Wisconsin and Michigan. Better yet, he captures the Minnesota sense of humor, understated and often self-deprecating. Like his debut, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which I also read, Lager Queen is a funny and poignant multigenerational family saga. Kitchens focused on the restaurant business, while Lager Queen is set in the beer brewing business. Having done a little home brewing myself, I was all in for the detailed portrayal of the brewer's craft. The two books are quite similar and it will be interesting to see if he breaks out of the pattern with his next book. Or maybe follows up with a deep dive into, I don't know, how about Minnesota State Fair crafts and food contest entrants?
I've been a fan of Louise Erdrich since the 1980s when I read Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and Tracks. When I returned to reading fiction after a 20+ year hiatus, I was happy to see she was still turning out masterpieces. It's been said that Erdrich's oeurve does for the Native communities of Minnesota and the Dakotas what William Faulkner did for Mississippi. Having lived in Minnesota for 14 years, I can relate to her Midwestern sensibility. And like Ann Patchett in Nashville, another favorite author of mine, she runs an independent bookstore, in Minneapolis. I hope it survives. La Rose opens with the novel's pivotal event on the very first page, launching a tale of tragedy, vengeance, and reconciliation -- a familiar narrative arc in fiction but rarely done with such stark beauty. I met Erdrich at a book reading in Pasadena a few years ago and she was kind enough to give me a few moments of her time and offered some writerly advice that I never forgot.
Lethem's work was introduced to me by a friend who said The Feral Detective trod some of the same ground as my book -- the seedier, lesser-known haunts of Southern California. If only I could write like Lethem, who, like my friend, is a Brooklyn native decamped to SoCal, bringing a New Yorker's jaundiced eye to La La Land. One line that has stayed with me: Someone walks into a private investigator's office and asks him for help in finding a person who has gone missing. His reply: "Who isn't missing?" With three little words, he skewers the mystery genre cliche while observing something profound: Everyone is a missing person, to someone. We disappear from each other's lives, ghosting, pulled apart by our gadabout modern existence. I liked this book so much I immediately read some of his earlier works, Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. both terrific, especially the latter, which was so immersive I felt like I was actually living in Gowanus in the 1970s.
This is simply one of the best books I've read in the last five years. So much of America's retrospective understanding of the Vietnam War focuses on the damage it did to our nation in terms of killed, wounded, and MIA Americans as well as the social and political upheavals that are still felt today. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen flips the script in a powerful and riveting account of the war and the aftermath from the Vietnamese perspective. It's a much needed reminder of the devastation that the war visited on the people of Vietnam. From the killer opening line and through the harrowing account of the fall of Saigon and the desperate attempts of U.S. personnel and local sympathizers to escape the oncoming Viet Cong, it is literary action-scene writing at its best. The perfect three-act structure then takes the narrator/protagonist to the Vietnamese ex-pat community of Southern California, and finally back to Communist Vietnam for a brutally intense climax.
Another catch-up read, from the 1990s. I'd heard so much about this book that I finally had to read it. Donna Tartt's The Secret History has achieved the status as one of the iconic novels of Generation X. A pretty amazing debut effort. Its first person narration of a crime involving a privileged group of young people brings to mind The Great Gatsby. But in a lush, Southern-fiction style, as if written by William Styron, Pat Conroy, or Harper Lee. I was immediately hooked by the milieu: students at an elite liberal arts college studying Classical Greek and Latin, two of my favorite subjects. (I briefly attended an elite liberal arts college with a famous literary reputation. Long story, for another time.) The college in Secret History is obviously based on Bennington, which Tartt attended in the 1980s along with Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem. (In fact, her depiction of Bennington almost exactly matches that of Lethem in his great fictionalized memoir The Fortress of Solitude.) My only quibble: Do college student really talk and act like whiskey-swilling middle-aged intellectuals, even at Bennington? Tartt's massive novel The Goldfinch is on myTBR list.
Hello. Oberon here. I'm commandeering this blog to insert a note of dissent. The author of this feed makes a big deal of the diversity of his reading list. Speaking of feeds, is that ahi tuna I smell? Anyway, where, I ask you, is the representation of feline culture? Where is The Cat in the Hat? Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? The Silent Miaow? Puss in Boots? An entire genre gone missing, as if erased from the face of the earth. We will not be silenced. Here is my message to you Mr. Author: Don't even think about adding anything about that other species, the quadrupeds from hell. If I see The Art of Racing in the Rain listed here, for just one example, I will, as God is my witness, take a dump in your shoes. You've been warned. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is part of my frantic efforts to catch up on all the great books I missed during the decades of the 1990s and 2000s, a period in which I all but stopped reading fiction altogether. (Long story short, working journalist burned out on reading for pleasure after long days of reading for work.) I read probably 200 novels during my twenties, then stopped cold. When I returned to it about five years ago, my how the field had changed. So many more diverse voices. I realized my earlier readings were dominated by the white male canon, with a few exceptions like Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Louise Erdrich, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley, and Ursula Le Guin. As is apparent in this blog, my current reading focuses much more on the myriad new and exciting voices. Goon Squad blew my mind, as it obviously did for so many. A mind-blowing trip through time and place told in radically different styles in each chapter with differing POVs. Who knew that a chapter written as a PowerPoint slide deck could work? Seems awfully gimmicky on its face, but ends up surprisingly poignant,
Edan Lepucki is one of many terrific novelists in the LA literary scene. She's also been a friend to local writers and founded Writing Workshops Los Angeles, which she ran along with Chris Daley. Woman No. 17 is sneaky funny and sharply insightful into the mindset of creative artists as well as relationships among women of different generations. The premise seems familiar enough: Young woman shows up at the Hollywood Hills home of a successful older woman, answering an ad for an au pair. Classic set-up for a psychological thriller, right? Put "Girl" in the title and there it goes on the racks at Target next to Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, etc. But there is so much more going on in Lepucki's version. It has the requisite tension, as the young woman may not be what she appears to be (predictable by itself) but soon the reader is saying "Wait, this is not that kind of novel, it's even better." I also read her previous novel, California, a post-apocalyptic journey story that covered familiar ground. Well done, but not as good as Woman No. 17. Her overlooked first book, If You're Not Yet Like Me, is funny as hell, an acid trip through the mind of a pregnant woman and her views on life, men, sex, etc, as dictated to her unborn child.
I call this a "blowtorch" of a novel. Cherry, by Nico Walker. It's a vivid, nightmarish descent into the disturbing and violent underbelly of American life, capturing and uniting two of the most troubling aspects of our time: the Iraq war and its impact on those who served, and the opioid crisis. And it's another debut. (Why am I drawn so to debut novels? ... Oh, right. Of course.) Apparently written while Walker was in prison, I didn't "like" it, but I did love it. Meaning I didn't enjoy being exposed to gruesome depictions of body parts being scraped out of Hummers after being blown up by roadside IEDs. Still, the book is immersive in its direct unadorned prose and vivid descriptions. There are scenes involving women that might make sensitive readers cringe, but they seem like an accurate, if depressing, view of the misogyny that's especially overt in certain segments of society. (This is the part where women reading this roll their eyes and say "You mean all segments of society." Point taken.)
For years I've worried that America could be slouching toward a second Civil War. The rising partisan anger, the intractable divide on issues from abortion to guns to immigration, the millions of weapons in the hands of private citizens, the lingering resentment in certain states over the first Civil War, and the depressingly common mass shootings together feel like tinder waiting for a match. Omar el Akkad brings this nightmare to life in his harrowing novel American War. In his version, the old Confederacy rises in revolt again, not over slavery but over climate change after the national government imposes draconian limits on fossil fuels. Among the possible precursors to war, I wouldn't have put that one at the top. More likely, gun control or immigration. But no matter, American War is a brilliant and scary peek into a future we all hope to avoid. Even those who are spoiling for a fight. Read this first before you fire the first shot.
Here's another doorstop of a novel, by Nathan Hill, checking in at 732 pages. And it's a debut novel, like City on Fire. (How do these guys get away with such ginormous debut novels? Maybe it's because the books are incredibly good? Just a thought.) Anyway, I like this a lot, even more than Hallberg's tome. It's painted on a much broader canvas, covering many decades, from the 1940s to the present, and many locales, from Norway to a small midwestern town to Chicago to New York City. Like Hallberg, Hill takes some risks with narrative form in certain chapters, to great effect. One chapter consists of a hilarious and brutal phone conversation between a blocked writer and his impatient book editor; all dialogue, no narration. Another chapter is a stream-of-consciousness obsessive musing inside the mind of a dissipated video game addict. The high point is a riveting blow-by-blow recreation of the riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which was a seminal event for me, as I watched it on TV as a youngster and saw my country, and the whole world, in a new light.
After plowing through James Joyce's Ulysses a second time, I told myself I was done with doorstop tomes, for awhile anyway. How wrong I was. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg weighs in at 911 pages, and it really can prop a door open (I tried it). But I have to say it was worth every page, almost. (The investigative journalist and his whole subplot could have been jettisoned with minor impact, I think, entertaining though his magazine article turned out to be.) This is truly an epic read, although narrow in its geography and time span: New York City in the last months of the Bicentennial year of 1976 and the first part of the blackout year of 1977. It's epic in the worlds and subcultures it creates: the downtown anarchist/punk scene (reminiscent of the downtown avant garde art scene in Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers); ruthless real estate developers remaking the city; suburban teen angst; and more, all intersecting an unsolved shooting in Central Park. Not unlike Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. And as an added bonus, everything you'd ever want to know about the fireworks business.
Still more from today's rich LA crime fiction scene. The LA Times blurb on the cover says: "Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler would be proud." When given a place in the LA noir tradition, you can't do much better than that. What gives Dead Soon Enough a special twist, above and beyond the usual whodunnit formula, is Cha's exploration of the Armenian genocide of World War I. I lived in Glendale, California, for 12 years before moving to Pasadena, and learned a lot about the Armenian experience. Glendale has one of the largest Armenian communities in the nation, and both my kids went to Glendale public schools where Anglos like them were a distinct minority. In Cha's book, her Korean-American PI Juniper Song embarks on a journey of discovery of another culture that she knew little about. One of the things I love about Southern California is the richness of world traditions, all right here. Cha's much-celebrated new book Your House Will Pay is near the top of my TBR list.
Continuing my dive into LA crime fiction, a venerable tradition from Chandler and Cain all the way up to Ellroy and Connolly. Today's crop of LA crime writers includes a lot of women who are re-making the tradition while also bringing perspectives from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Pasadena's own Naomi Hirahara's works include several in a series that feature an investigator who does not fit the typical mold: he's an elderly Japanese gardener in Pasadena who also solves crimes. Sayonara Slam combines this intriguing milieu with one of my favorites: baseball. It's set during an international baseball tournament held at Dodger Stadium. It also delves into the fraught relations between Koreans and Japanese, both here and in their home countries, where baseball is quite popular.
Another mystery novel from my recent dive into crime fiction. This one is Tana French's debut from 2007. Her latest, The Witch Elm, is also on the TBR pile next to my bed. Maybe it's because I'm about 1/4 Irish, but the cadences and dialect of the auld sod in this book really resonated with me. (I also read Declan Hughes's City of Lost Girls, which I didn't like as much, but dug the Irish lilt.) I found it interesting that, as with Attica Locke's Highway 59 series including Bluebird, Bluebird, we have a female author writing a male investigator/protagonist. Nothing unique about that -- from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai -- but I noticed that both Locke's Darren Mathews and French's Rob Ryan seem to display perplexing and self-defeating behaviors toward women. I wonder if that's because perhaps women find men's behavior toward them often perplexing?
This Wonder-ful novel played a huge role in the development of my book. I had already started working on it when I came across a review of Wonder Valley in the Los Angeles Times and saw that it was set partly in LA's Skid Row, which also happened to be the setting for part of my novel. I decided I'd better read it, and was blown away by the gritty and sympathetic yet unsentimental realism of the Skid Row scenes. I soon learned why that was the case: the author teaches at a writing workshop in Skid Row and her depiction was based in real and deep experience. I am lucky to be able to call Ivy Pochoda a friend and mentor. So impressed was I by her book that I asked if she would consider reading my draft and offering suggestions on the Skid Row scenes. She did far more than that, and helped me shape my 135,000-word mess of a draft into a tight 90,000-word publishable novel. I also dug her first two novels, The Art of Disappearing and Visitation Street. Each one better than the last. I've pre-ordered her new book, These Women. What might I learn next?
I've never been a big fan of mysteries and crime fiction. I read all of Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler when I was younger. And I've sampled a few others including Sue Grafton (I got as far as letter C), Michael Connelly (gotta love Bosch) and Denise Hamilton (a newspaper reporter protagonist, a woman after my own heart). But only Carl Hiaasen has drawn me back again and again, probably because of his twisted sense of satire and willingness to turn the genre into comic farce. I know I've been missing a rich tradition with a lot of great writers, as evidenced by Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke. I am sold on the more literary end of the crime genre, and am definitely going to read more. Her protagonist Darren Mathews is a Black man in the Texas Rangers. (What could possibly go wrong?) It's a fresh twist on the usual investigator character, kind of like Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai, an elderly Japanese gardener in Pasadena who solves crimes. Locke's latest, Heaven My Home, is in my TBR pile.
I'm five years late to this, but finally got around to reading Paul Beatty's The Sellout, a scorchingly hilarious satire on race in America from an African American POV. One image that will stay with me is the gangster rapper standing naked in the bed of a Toyota pickup holding a crack pipe in one hand and firing a nickel-plated .38 into the air with the other while reciting his own adaptation of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade:" "Half a liter, half a liter/ Half a liter onward/ All in the alley of Death/ Rode the Olde English Eight Hundred..." A modern urban appropriation of the Dead White European Male canon. Brilliant. I could never get away with writing that, wish I could, but am glad somebody did. What makes this novel so astounding is that, wrapped inside Beatty's Richard Pryor-meets-Lenny Bruce stand-up shtick is an impressively broad and deep, scholarly even, understanding of our Western Civilization cultural heritage that has brought us to this point in time, for better or worse,
A strangely marvelous and epic tale by Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides. A far more ambitious book, Middlesex spans decades and continents, from Greece and Turkey in the early 20th century to Detroit in the middle of the century. The title is a double entendre of sorts, referring to a street where the protagonist/narrator lived in Detroit as well as the fact that said narrator was born a hermaphrodite, a "middle sex," with ambiguous genitalia. It's a coming-of-age story of a very different sort. Not only finding out who you are, but also what you are. As they say, it's complicated. As it should be. Along the way we learn much about the Greek immigrant experience in America and everything you'd want to know about raising silkworms. The major set piece is a riveting fictional account of the real-life Detroit riots of 1967. I also read Eugenides's novel The Marriage Plot, a clever and gentle satire of academia, literature, and the trials of young love, set at Brown University in the 1980s during the peak of the post-modernism academic fad. Not unlike Donna Tartt's The Secret History, except without the, you know, murder.