Well, maybe not that last one."
*** July 2011 Newsletter Pick ***
There are many reasons I could give for why you should read a book about the death penalty: cold, hard, fact-based reasons, like the chilling statistic that to date 17 people who have been executed in this country have since been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project (and that even one is too many). But really, my own opinions on the issue are irrelevant, and Dow's searing memoir can be approached equally well as a death penalty proponent, opponent, or as someone who has no real feelings on the issue at all. Dow, who defends death row inmates in Texas, occupied the first position before coming firmly around to the second, and his reasoning is much more ethically than morally based. Dow doesn't like most of his clients; he thinks even fewer of them are innocent. But the system he sees is a broken one, corrupted and corrosive -- death by a drunk executioner swinging a rusty blade. The stories that make up Autobiography of an Execution are exercises in frustration, Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, and heartbreak. And yet: Dow tempers all this with prose that is more Hemingwayesque in its simple, stark power. And yet: the overall effect is as pulse-poundingly intense as the best John Grisham thriller -- and a thousand times more emotionally resonant, as it's all true, each life and death that of a real person. Forget politics: this is a book about people, and it should be read.
*** June 2011 Newsletter Pick ***
Imagine that famed blues musician Robert Johnson -- he of the alleged crossroads deal with the Devil -- never died, but instead wandered the earth before winding up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in the '90s. There he passes on his enchanted/cursed guitar to Thomas Builds-the-Fire, launching a series of chance meetings, assorted road trips, and an amazing explosion of music. Sherman Alexie's first novel is funny and lyrical and hopeful and tragic. Alexie's subtle use of magical realism is alluring, never alienating, as even when the narrative embarks on certain flights of fancy, he keeps the story grounded in his characters the entire time. What a wonderful, exhilarating book.
*** May 2011 Newsletter Pick ***
In this memoir, Perry recounts how he moved back to his very small Wisconsin hometown and reintegrated himself into the community by becoming a volunteer firefighter and first responder. The stories he tells contain dozens of moments that are both hilarious and heart-wrenching -- often within sentences of each other. The details about firefighting and working as an EMT are fascinating, as are the portraits Perry draws of various figures in the community -- and of the community itself. Perry's writing revives in me a sort of innocent belief in American communities, although there's nothing naïve or whitewashed about his portrayal of his town and its people. Infrastructure crumbles; petty cruelties persist; bad things happen, often to good people. But Perry, it seems, has found whatever secret thing it is that makes it worth it to go on. And there's a taste of it here between these pages.
*** March 2010 Newsletter Pick ***
A trio of eerie and unnerving novellas. The first two involve women inflicting needless cruelties on people helpless and dependent on them, but Ogawa strays away from creating caricatures or relying on obvious psychology. The third story, possibly the most complex and strange, involves a lonely woman befriending the triple-amputee landlord of a maybe-cursed dormitory complex. The ambiguous ending is frustrating, but nevertheless compelling. Ogawa's use of language is both seductive and severely disquieting; I will definitely be seeking out more of her work.
*** December 2009 Newsletter Pick ***
There's an aesthetic I like to call "the good ugly." Clunky old cars, crumbling signage, mid-century architectural flourishes that once were cutting-edge but now just seem bizarre: this is where the fugly becomes fabulous, and I love it all. Chances are, you know some slightly offbeat person who does, too, and this person will go gaga over photographer Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places. Initially published in 1982, the new "Complete Works" - what Shore likens to a "director's cut" version - contains all the original landscape images gleaned from Shore's trips across the country during the 1970s, as well as newly-published interiors and portraits shot at the same time. The result resembles a road trip in a flux capacitor-powered DeLorean: a glorious tour of kitschy '70s Americana that's full of images that are at once hideous and strangely beautiful. By preserving these forgotten relics of another era, Uncommon Places creates not only delicious nostalgia for the past, but also pleasing questions about the future, and how our own everyday vistas and objects will be viewed through that faraway eye.
*** November 2009 Newsletter Pick ***
A beautiful and eerie collection of photographs of (mostly) abandoned state mental hospitals. There are two informative essays by the photographer, Christopher Payne, and one by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, but the images speak for themselves. Payne highlights the grand, imposing edifices of these decaying institutions, their grandeur making it possible to understand how a mental asylum was once considered a great coup for a community. But it's impossible not to also see the dreams hidden away behind these crumbling walls. The fact that the noble ideals with which these places were built disintegrated over time manifests itself with stunning literalness in swirls of peeling paint, moldering ceilings, and leaf-strewn breezeways. Similarly, the people society has left behind are evoked with the simple image of an abandoned rack of multicolored patient toothbrushes.
Whenever things seem dire, I like to cheer myself up by reading about the apocalypse. This is one of the funniest books ever written—and it's filled with fabulously drawn characters who will almost instantly feel like old friends. Imaginative and hilarious—read it once and you'll soon find yourself quoting it.
In a mystery that intertwines three separate storylines, Atkinson creates characters that leap off the page. Her prose is compulsively readable, capturing character voices that crackle and spark and echo in your head. You'll want to read everything she's written—which is, fortunately, quite a bit!
The true story of budding naturalist Gerald Durrell and his eccentric family—including novelist Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet—taking the Greek island of Corfu by storm. This book will make you emit embarrassingly loud snorting noises in public. At least, I hope that wasn't just me...
Taking place over a single night, this short novel follows 19-year-old Mari as she wanders the streets of Tokyo rather than go home to her troubled family. Murakami’s descriptions of the parts of the city that never sleep—all-night Denny’s and convenience stores, love hotels and not-quite-abandoned office buildings—are as hypnotic as a swirling kaleidoscope of flashing neon lights, and the wandering conversations Mari has with the people she meets are no less compelling. This is well worth losing sleep over.
Hilarious but humane--not to mention politically explosive—essays by yet another talented This American Life contributor. My favorites are "Love It or Leave It," about Rakoff deciding to become an American citizen, and "Beat Me, Daddy," about Log Cabin Republicans.
A classic worth rediscovering! Salinger's writing is just beautiful, and these stories beautifully crafted. He writes actions—not action, but actions—so well: these characters come alive in their fiddly, fidgety motions. Even if you've never read a word of Salinger before, or the many works he's inspired, you'll find you recognize these people.
My favorite space opera series! Bujold's universe is fascinating and complex, and her characters the best kind of messed up, complicated, and lovable. This omnibus serves as a good introduction to the series.