Posts Tagged ‘Robert L.’s Picks’

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

June 3, 2013

Dennis Lehane has described his newest book, Live by Night as an homage to the gangster genre. Taking place mostly around Prohibition time, in Tampa with the rum trade as its vocation, the story makes heavy use of the political and ethnic backdrop that defined the place and era. The revolutionary spirit sweeping through the Hispanic world has made its way through Florida and into gangster organizations seeking to profit from Cuban rum.

Joe is a small time Boston outlaw who, after a violent prison stint, is tapped by the local mob boss to shape up the rum operation in Florida. Some of the best action takes place during Joe’s prison time, but the pace barely slackens once he heads south. He slaps arrogant grifters into shape and turns a sloppily managed illicit trade into a criminal empire. Yet, we are always on his side. Joe doesn’t shy from violence, but he has a conscience: he feels bad when he destroys the people who are worth feeling bad about, and he becomes something approaching a respectable figure for his straight-dealing. When the KKK comes after him, he puts them down for good just like any other rival gang.  Somehow, we always cheer for him and want him to succeed in his criminal enterprise.

Lehane explores the premise that the gangster code is no less ethical than the legal behavior of legitimate business — that a gangster who throws a man out of a window is no less ethical than a banker who throws his entire family out of his house. It’s an idealized principle that may not stand up to real-world scrutiny, but it is a large part of the appeal behind movies like The Godfather and Scarface. It also captures some of the current zeitgeist after the financial meltdown. As usual, Lehane spends as much time building character as he does with moving the plot forward with explosions. If you like your criminal epics delivered with a deft touch of artistry, Live by Night will satisfy.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Gendarme by Mark Mustian

November 15, 2012

Part mystery, part historical fiction and part love story, The Gendarme is a short book about many things.  The story takes place in two timelines as the 92- year- old protagonist endures the short remainder of his life following the removal of a brain tumor.  Emmet is an American Turkish immigrant who lost all prior memory of his life after a head injury sustained during WWI. When his brain tumor is removed, Emmet’s memory seems to slowly return.

In his dreams, he is transported to the past where he appears as a gendarme forcing a group of Armenians into Syria during a grueling and violent death march. Emmet relives his crime, but also his unlikely romance with a young Armenian girl. This girl, forgotten in the aftermath of his injury, obsesses him once more in his old age, and as more is successively experienced in his dreams, he is driven to find out her fate.

While Emmet is pursuing his dream life, his real life continues in the contemporary world. As his mental state deteriorates, he eventually needs to be institutionalized, and his daughters are forced to make arrangements for his day to day care and support. In this timeline, readers experience his confusion in the sense that we, too, are unable to decipher what is real and what is dream or hallucination. Emmet’s fear and paranoia increase the more his dream life develops until he can no longer distinguish one from the other.

Mustian does not always make clear distinctions for the reader either. After finishing the book, I would periodically have to call yet another part of the plot into question until it was no longer possible to depend on any part of it. Even the events in the contemporary timeline are questionable. Reality deteriorates for Emmet while we’ve been following him, so we are drawn into his illusions just as he is. We know there is something from his past that has been unlocked in his memory, but we don’t know how much of it is real and how much of it is construction. The conclusion satisfies, but by then readers will feel themselves at the mercy of the same feverish impulse controlling Emmet in his increasingly irrational push to find what he remembers as the love of his life – and perhaps a type of redemption.

We can’t call Emmet an unreliable narrator because he isn’t the one telling story. However, the narration does objectively follow his perceptions and emotions, so we experience the story as Emmet does. You’ll just have to decide what to believe and whether questioning reality is always worthwhile.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Not Love but Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy by Fumi Yoshinaga

June 13, 2012

A female gay porn artist enjoys fine food. It’s a strangely appropriate set up for a manga that, at its core, is itself porn. Already you have decided that this selection is too trashy for you and probably beneath the dignity of this otherwise respectable blog. But I happen to know it’s not beneath your dignity. I know what you do on the internet: pulling up photos of Golden Braised Artichokes with Garlic and Mint – drooling over that recipe for Blueberry Soup. Stop acting like it’s beneath you when it’s not. You love food porn. Admit it.

That’s what this is – a manga filled with graphic depictions of food. Our under achieving protagonist drags her quirky acquaintances out to various real-life Tokyo restaurants where they, and we, take part in detailed gastronomical orgies highlighting the unique delights offered by the particular ethnic style of the cuisine as seen through Japanese eyes. The fun comes from the descriptions of our guests as they sample the foods. Some are fellow “foodies” while others are pushed outside their comfort zones to try various gourmet tidbits. Relationships are sort of explored over the meals, but part of the charm of this one-shot is that the relationships center more around the food itself. Sometimes there’s almost something more, but the characters always revert back into their quirky dysfunctions which are only bridged by the food they share.

If reading about a group of gourmands not quite connecting over servings of delicious victuals sounds like a good time, then grab this book. I wouldn’t want it to be any longer than it is, but for a literary equivalent to a Food Channel soap opera, it serves quite well. And if you really enjoy it, you can visit the actual restaurants and order the same meals. The author provides a map with the nearest subway stop and even offers advice on how much money to bring. It’s the perfect dish for food voyeurs.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

October 27, 2011

I’m not from the West by any stretch, so much of the history of the West is not really my history. But perhaps no other genre feels so authentically American as the Western. Fictional gunslingers following the Code of the West are America’s version of the knights errant, and the storied conflict with the American Indian tribes of the Plains, however perverted by bias and prejudice, has reached epic status in our mythology.

The popular images of the Western and its stock characters are far better understood than the history which spawned them. We have gone from glorifying the cowboy and demonizing the Indian to vilifying the American settler and whitewashing the Native American. Each pole can be both victimizing and patronizing, but neither is all that rooted in reality. This history does a great job painting that reality as accurately as possible with all its inherent drama.

The Comanches, according to the book, were the deadliest enemy faced by Europeans and Americans in the New World. They were the world’s greatest horsemen, excellent marksmen and masters of a terrain the European descended peoples found terrifying. The Spanish were utterly defeated and the Americans were brought to a standstill. The Comanches nearly depopulated great swathes of land equal in area to most states. There was no answer to their ferocity and mobility until the Americans learned, with the essential aid of allied Indian tribes, to attack the Comanche on their own terms with superior technology.

However, it’s not the dates or battles that stand out in this history. It’s the clash of cultures and the colorful people who rose on both sides that make this history so enjoyable, if unpleasant at times. Two cultures, the Americans and Comanche, are shown at the point of their meeting and throughout their inevitable war. The humanity of both sides is shown, but humanity is not always pretty. Each side was prone to savagery as well as courage. Guilt was shared by all, and cruelty provoked cruelty. Rape, torture and the murder of children in front of their families are frequently mentioned. Readers will find their sympathies shift with each episode as the passing of the Comanche way of life is given its tragic due. The history is true, and so is the drama.

Find and request this title in our catalog.

Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast by Andrew Kersten

October 26, 2011

I was once warned to be selective of the biographies I read for some reason I no longer remember, but it’s a caution I’ve heeded for years. I don’t know for how many years because I also can’t remember when the warning was issued or by whom.  However, I continue to operate under the assumption that I was once told to be discerning in my choices of biography at some point by someone and for some reason that I would accept in its wisdom if I knew what it was.

Occasionally, I break this rule. I  saw the film version of the Scopes Monkey Trial in which Jack Lemmon plays Clarence Darrow and George C. Scott plays his rival, William Jennings Bryan, and became curious. Darrow is just a name to most people who have heard of him, but his life’s work has had a major impact on society.

This is the slimmer of two recently published Darrow biographies, which is why I chose it. My attention span for histories outside my field of expertise is rather short, and I was really looking for familiarization more than intimate exposure to details that I probably wouldn’t retain anyway. The book provides that level of scholarship, but it could stand to move a little further towards the other pole. Darrow’s impact on America is more proclaimed than demonstrated, but his personality comes across well. He was actually pretty off-putting. Prone to poor hygiene and possessed of a selfish streak, Darrow is not someone I felt like I wanted to know personally. However, he was usually on the right side of his battles, though not above getting his hands slightly dirty when it came to ethics. His career was not without controversy, and he used the courtroom as a workshop rather than a temple. I got the sense that he would have happily used some other means to achieve his ends if he were as successful with them as he was with the law. He was not an attorney with an exalted opinion of the court or his profession and so could fight for his causes on the same level as his often unscrupulous opponents.

This is a decent introduction to Darrow’s work and life. It provides a good look at the Progressive Era and certainly instills an appreciation for all the deaths and destroyed lives it took to provide us with an eight hour workday, child labor laws and the general high quality of life we take for granted.

Find and request this title in our catalog.

Wieland, and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist by Charles Brockden Brown

October 29, 2010

Did you know that the first published American novel was a tale of supernatural horror wherein a crazed husband murders his wife and children at the behest of demonic voices? It’s true. Wieland was a great success for America’s first commercial author back in 1798. It isn’t all that well-known today, but its influence on the gothic genre is very substantial. Writers from Poe to both Mary and Percy Shelly were influenced by the work.

Wieland takes it plot from the 1781 James Yates murders, which involved a seemingly delusional man clubbing his wife and four children to death in a small New York town. But this isn’t, like Truman Capote’s In cold Blood, a nonfiction novel. Brown uses this grisly bit of reality as inspiration for an entirely fictional Gothic Romance.  I won’t give away the entire plot with too many details, but I also don’t want you to run to check out a copy because I gave you the impression that he’s some sort of proto-Dean Koontz. Wieland is not a pot boiler in the modern sense. The pace is slower, and the language far more dense. Brown considered his work as something greater than a simple entertainment, so you can expect to find some attempt at “meaning” in the novel. Most critics appear to take the book as a kind of warning against religious fanaticism.

So, here it is in a nutshell. The story is told from the point of view of Clara, who survives the events. Her father immigrated to America with the goal of converting its heathen to a religion he founded himself. After failing to make a single convert, he seems to spontaneously combust while praying in his temple. Fast forward. His sons begin hearing disembodied voices. They get louder and louder. Clara does not believe her brothers, but soon even she hears faint whisperings. And who is this mysterious stranger in town? Her brother, at the behest of the voices, kills his family and attempts to kill her. There is more, but you need to read it yourself. Like many gothic novels of the time, Wieland suffers somewhat because the author felt morally obligated to rationalize any supernatural force at the end. These explanations can just be ignored if you prefer. They’re just tacked on to mollify a censorious society. At least that’s what I say.

Check it out!

October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish

October 28, 2010

I could be wrong, but Halloween doesn’t seem to be the publishing event that Christmas is in the adult world. Most bestselling writers pop out a Christmas book every other year or so, and we start getting them sometime around July. Halloween has yet to garner this sort of attention, and those books that are published in recognition of the holiday likely feature a character by the name of Clifford, Franklin, Arthur or Snoopy. If you have more grown-up tastes, your choices are limited. Yes, you can choose from any number of horror novels, but if you want to truly celebrate Halloween, you need a book that creates the proper spectral atmosphere. Here it is.

For the most part, October Dreams is a collection of short stories sharing a Halloween theme. Most of the popular and cult horror writers from the time of its 2002 publication are represented, and the stories are generally very good. However, what makes the book special are the reminiscences each writer shares about a defining Halloween experience of their own. There is some wallowing in nostalgia going on, but the memories are as interesting as the fiction. I especially liked reading Douglas Clegg who claims to have seen a witch fly across the face of the moon when he was four.

Also of interest are three essays on the history of Halloween, Halloween cinema and Halloween literature written by three respected authorities. Editors Chizmar (of Cemetery Dance) and Morrish (of The Scream Factory) have done an excellent job conceiving this ode to darkness.

Find it here!

Still Dead edited by John Skipp

October 27, 2010

We would be remiss not to feature some top quality horror this close to Halloween, so today’s selection starts us off with a title featuring creatures that are all the rage right now. Zombies have always been popular, but they’ve only recently become fashionable. Some of us have been fans since we first saw the original George Romero films, while some of you are just johnny-come-lately posers who act like zombies are all new and stuff. In fact, I’ve started liking zombies less now that they’re so trendy. But as a token of my magnanimity, I will do you the service of drawing your attention to a title that has fallen beneath most people’s radar because it was published before the current zombie craze.

Still Dead anthologizes a dozen or so zombie stories by various authors of the horror genre. Each story takes its inspiration from the Romero films, so there are no “zombie romance” or “zombie high-school” tales; these are vintage Dawn of the Dead gorefests that submit the human body to every possible form of degradation. Like the films, the stories make you question who the real monsters are. The living can seem even more subhuman than the undead, and the lines between the two factions are often blurred.

Zombies are fun. They’re gross and evil and hungry, but you can’t help but love them. If the world ended, and there was no one else alive but me, I would become a pizza zombie. I would get fat, stop washing and stumble from town to town looking for pizza parlors and just help myself. And perhaps therein lies the appeal of these stories.

Devour it here!

Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite

June 25, 2010

This is a book for fans of thrillers and the Food Channel. Two unemployed veterans of the New Orleans kitchen scene, Ricky and G-Man, strike out on their own to open a restaurant featuring liquor as the signature ingredient of each dish. There’s a mystery along the way, but it’s secondary to the drama surrounding the effort to get the restaurant opened. Your interest in the story depends on how much you enjoy being immersed in the business aspects of the food industry and the food-obsessed characters who make it their life.  And, of course, there is the food itself. Brite, who is married to a New Orleans chef, digs deep into Louisiana foodways to create an atmosphere dripping with history and local color.

Food mysteries are not new. You can find any number of “Poisoned Scone” murder plots here at the library, but few of them do as good a job bringing out the culture surrounding the food. Brite also differs from other authors in that most of the thrill comes from opening and running a high-class restaurant. It’s almost like reality television. Ricky’s recruitment of his kitchen staff is probably more exciting than the eventual showdown at gunpoint with his mysterious antagonist. I’m being vague about this conflict because I can’t really remember it. There’s some guy doing stuff. That’s all I can tell you. It’s not all that important, or even all that interesting. The bad guy didn’t hold my attention nearly as well the cast of dishwashers, barkeeps and celebrity chefs.  For me, this book was all about the food. I enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoy watching Iron Chef: A gripping combination of tension and cuisine.

I’m not saying this is the best book ever written, but I can’t think of a much better candidate to take to the beach. You’ll probably read it once and give it to a friend, but you’ll enjoy it. What’s more, it’s the first a series so there’s plenty left over for further helpings. If you like Anthony Bourdain or enjoy flipping through cookbooks and other types of food porn, here’s your pick.

Find Liquor in our catalog.

The Forgotten Realms

June 24, 2010

I’m going back to middle school for today’s subject. Back to an awkward time when my hormones had far outdistanced my brain, and everything I wanted was hopelessly out of reach. Mainly what I wanted was to be insanely capable in all things, and to earn the admiration of girls. Also, I wanted those girls to be really hot. And so I was to become well acquainted with failure during those formative years.

The closest I came to achieving my desires was when I lost myself in one of the many novels set in the world The Forgotten Realms. The Forgotten Realms began as a setting for Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game that continues to be expanded by way of a large body of novels.  The world was enormous and encompassed every sort of environment you could possible want. It had huge deserts teeming with genii and sand elementals and frozen wastes tramped upon by ice trolls and barbarian tribes. Beneath the ground, the deadly Underdark formed an underground world with cities of evil Drow elves and hideous mindflayers that could suck out your brains.  A huge pantheon of gods intervened in the affairs of mortals and granted their devout sacred magic to carry out their bidding.  Warriors, thieves and wizards went about their business of good or evil relying solely on their own strength and wit. Most important, the girls were really hot.

I was twelve. As I’d read, I would put myself in the story alongside everyone else. As the action occurred, I was there. I would rewrite the story in my head so that I was the one responsible for whatever victory took place. When there was a girl, I made her like me. Sometimes I wrote the story so she would feel sorry for me first. I still sort of like to wallow in self-pity, and the only sympathetic women remain the ones who live only in my head. There was more going on in my life than these books, and I don’t think I would have lost too much if I hadn’t discovered them, but they still hold a kind of special place for me. As an adult, I find most of them unreadable. It’s no wonder that I gravitated to them as a preteen, because it’s as if they were written by one. The sentences are simple, the characters are uncomplicated and the themes do not get more complex than good vs. evil. But these books were the bridge that took me from children’s to adult literature. They kept me reading, and, despite being based on a product, were not overtly trying to sell me something. Sure, they may not offer much to me now, but I’ll always recognize them as what kept me reading during the years many kids drop out of books for good.

Begin with the works of R.A. Salvatore.

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