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Posts filed under ‘Books’

June 1, 2012

Books Read, May 2012

Raymond Chandler

My pal Quinn gave me this paperback years ago, and I promptly stashed it in my car, where it became an undone chore. Every time I had an oil change or downtime in a doctor’s office, I thought, why aren’t I reading that book? Also, I’d heard from pals that Chandler’s plots are a shade beyond comprehension (something I’d already gathered from 1946′s The Big Sleep, with Bacall & Bogart).

What hadn’t been made clear to me was that Chandler’s dialogue (inner and outer) trumps plot. And envisioning all those dusty waiting rooms and rich men’s parlors made me deeply nostalgic for a Los Angeles I never knew, and which almost definitely never existed. Who today will make people in the 2080′s homesick for the L.A. of now?

Joan Didion

After her husband collapses and dies during dinner in late 2003, Joan Didion takes an extended detour into the netherworld of grief. From this alien terrain, she reports on a newfound “fund of superstition”, a form of sporadic dementia in which her missing spouse serves as a phantom limb. Time becomes plastic, and memory seems changeable. Her focus is less on grief than on “the power of grief to derange the mind”, the many overlaps between prolonged sorrow and traumatic physical brain injury.

This was perhaps the wrong Didion book for me to start with. More than once, I flashed back to William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a similar psychic travelogue (in his case, from the Marianas Trench of depression) by a similarly gifted writer. In both books, it’s hard to ignore the odor of self-indulgence. Didion’s phrase repetition mirrors the lyrical nature of profound cognitive dissonance, but it’s also stupendously irritating. And what’s our incentive to share her experience? If we’re all going to have to learn about hallucinatory grief at least once in our lives, why should we do so any earlier than scheduled?

Is it wrong that I found this whole thing distractingly morbid and devoid of chuckles?

Bill Buford

Buford’s only written two journalistic full lengths. His second book, Heat, actually made me enjoy reading about food. The only subject I care about less than cuisine is sports, so Among The Thugs, his early 90′s account of UK soccer hooligans, seemed a nice companion read. Both books are detailed and illuminating delights with occasional soft spots (although Heat loses steam at Buford’s trip to Italy, while Thugs regains momentum in a different, much scarier Italian trip).

Turns out this is not so much about sports than it is violence – spectacular, gripping, senseless violence. An American in Britain, Buford somehow infiltrates a subculture where crowd brutality is both addiction and social mutation, like a computer virus, or herd animal behavior (at matches, fans allow themselves to be penned into enclosures). “Everyone – including the police – is powerless,” he writes, “against a large number of people who have decided not to obey any rules.” His detailed account of his own savage beating should be required reading in every undergrad writing course. It’s a model of retaining one’s presence of mind during crises.

Two complaints. Buford does little to describe and thus differentiate his real-life characters. And his account doesn’t shed any light on its own central puzzles: when and why did England get so goddamn scary? At one point, he describes an act of disfiguring violence I literally had no idea one human could inflict on another. This passage ruined my day, so if you’re really curious, find it in a bookstore and read it for yourself (page 239).

March 29, 2012

Telephone Mitigation

THE INTERNET, March 29 – My essay on my first book, Travelers’ Tales, is now online, at The Fader. This is my first stab at detailing one of several odd chapters from my childhood. I’m grateful that such a large, respectable magazine gave me the space to tell the story in my own words. After my mild hosing at the hands of the SF Chronicle 3 years ago, I’ve had a hard time trusting mainstream media outlets. Even with my very pleasant, two-thumbs-up experience with The Fader, I still feel a slight undertone of suspicion in my press dealings. It’s very easy for other writers to project their own neuroses onto their subject (as I did myself, years ago).

I’m going to be getting more press soon, so there will be more of a risk of this happening from here on out. With the rise of aggregator news sites, the Internet’s endless game of telephone has mutated exponentially. Just in the last few days, mediabistro falsely reported that my and Jesse Pearson’s new magazine will forsake the iPad (a crucial detail for any new magazine), and The Daily Swarm transformed Travelers’ Tales into my “sorta-embarrassing first novel”. In the past, I’ve enjoyed letting rumors and distortions grow on their own. Now I have to vigilantly swat down falsehoods.

Of course, lots of people have it far worse than me. Just this week, fans of “The Hunger Games” tweeted their beefs that several of the book’s beloved characters turned out black. It was a weird convergence of racism and reading comprehension failure on a massive scale. In 3 days, the entire mess will be lost in the ether. That’s the way all this stuff works. I get that.