Holiday down time is a time to read. We asked our writers to tell us what they're reading these days, with no particular criteria except that the books were published in 2008. We received an eclectic lineup, ranging from this season's prestige fiction titles to offbeat graphic novels to revived pulp authors to a priceless, and perhaps sacrilegious, satire of a beloved children's book. Happy reading! —David Fellerath
The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit
By Richard Stark
University of Chicago Press
Few writers have pulled off the Jekyll-and-Hyde act that Donald Westlake has with his pseudonym, Richard Stark. Westlake is best known for comic, twisty thrillers, while Stark is the hardest of the hard-boiled, crafting crime novels so cold-blooded it's almost impossible to believe they're written by the same person. Stark's work has fallen in and out of print over the decades and is highly coveted by collectors. Thankfully, the University of Chicago Press is now rereleasing his "Parker" series three at a time, beginning with The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit.
Parker is Stark's favorite protagonist, a professional thief for whom crime is a job, and a job to be done well. We never learn his first name, nor have any access to his thoughts; we simply observe him as he goes about his dirty work. The Hunter, which was memorably filmed in 1967 by John Boorman as the Lee Marvin vehicle Point Blank and as 1999's Payback with Mel Gibson (check out the recent DVD that hews closer to the novel), is a simple tale of vengeance, as Parker seemingly rises from the dead after a post-job betrayal. The first three novels tell a loose trilogy as Parker takes on the criminal organization known as "The Outfit," and there are more novels to come, including a graphic novel adaptation next year from award-winning comic artist Darwyn Cooke. Welcome back, Parker. The literary world's a brighter place with your stories. —Zack Smith
The White Tiger
By Aravind Adiga
Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger is an account of the fictional life of a man named Balram, born into poverty in an India of tuberculosis and rickshaw-pullers, a part of India referred to as "the Darkness" (the region of the country not touched by ocean). The narrator, the adult Balram, is part of an emerging India of entrepreneurship, IBMs and SUVs, narrating the story of his life in the form of a letter to the Premier of China. We learn from the outset that Balram is a murderer, and a bit quirky, occasionally called away from his narration to answer the phone or go to sleep for the night. The story unfolds as a kind of murder mystery; we know whodunit but over the course of the book come to discover the how and the what.
The book is dotted with quirks, often depicting instances of the absurd—the school teacher selling off school uniforms to make some actual money, or Balram having to wash twin Pomeranians, Cuddles and Puddles, for his master—but all the while Adiga portrays a very real situation of poverty, corruption and class struggle, as well as what Balram calls "the Rooster Coop," a servitude of the mind. "A rich man's body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different ... The story of a poor man's life is written on his body, in a sharp pen." —Jaimee Hills
By Roberto Bolaño
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
For the fan of serious literature, this year's Christmas wish list almost begins and ends with Roberto Bolaño's 2666, the impossibly sprawling 912-page novel the Chilean author left finished but unedited at his death in 2003. In an effort to provide for his heirs, Bolaño had asked that 2666 be published in five parts over five years; instead, the entire work was published in Spanish in 2004 as a single volume with five parts, with this year's English translation from Natasha Wimmer ubiquitous on book-of-the-year lists.
2666 rests on a spiraling series of enigmas and absences, beginning with the title itself, which has no apparent referent anywhere in the novel. (The best anyone has been able to do is a line from a different Bolaño story concerning the silent testimony of a graveyard in the year 2666.) The first section, "The Part about the Critics," suggests that the novel will be the story of a reclusive German author, but this plotline is largely abandoned before returning in the novel's final fifth. Most important seems to be a long series of murders in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, catalogued in viscerally exhaustive detail over 200 epic pages in part four—but in no sense can the novel be read as a murder mystery, as we come to know almost nothing definitive about the killings beyond the terrible, unrelenting fact of the violence itself.
In the end, Bolaño's novel seems nothing less than a catalog of modernity itself, a handbook for a world that is constantly threatening to spiral off into science fiction on the one hand and madness on the other. It is a novel as clever and funny as it is brutal and unforgiving. Half ars poetica and half memento mori, 2666 is the final, remarkable masterwork of a writer who clearly knows he is about to die, who has resolved to go through the barrier with his fists clenched and his eyes wide open, a mad grin on his face. —Gerry Canavan
Ex Machina Vol. 7: Ex Cathedra
By Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris
The creators of comic books once comprised a Morlock society: weird men dreaming of cosmically gifted champions in brightly colored pajamas. The industry faltered in the '90s, with powerhouse publishers like Marvel teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. So it was especially surprising when comics exploded into the mainstream in the next decade. Maybe the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 renewed the nation's desire for simple good vs. evil stories. At any rate, a series of blockbuster films adapted from comics sealed the deal.
Now comics attract mainstream talents like director Kevin Smith, television writer Joss Whedon, suspense novelist Brad Meltzer and author Michael Chabon. Meanwhile, longtime comics creators are breaking into other media: Frank Miller directs movies, Jeph Loeb produces the NBC hit Heroes. But no one embodies the mainstreaming of comics like Brian K. Vaughn. A writer for Lost, Vaughn made his name in comics with his Eisner-award-winning series Y: The Last Man, which established him as a gifted writer of suspenseful plots, smart sociological observations, and dialogue brimming with wit and veracity.
Like Y, Vaughn's Ex Machina is comics' answer to high-concept, HBO-style television. The series focuses on Mitchell Hundred, the only super-powered being in an otherwise ordinary world—he can talk to machines. Hundred is elected mayor of New York City after doing something too shocking to give away here; the action cuts between his travails as an idealistic mayor in a troubled city and his former life as The Great Machine.
Equal parts intrigue, humor and social realism, each volume of Ex Machina explores a different sociopolitical quandary. This seventh volume, Ex Cathedra, focuses on church politics while exploring a broader question: What is the nature of God in a suddenly superhuman world? Artist Tony Harris' stylized photorealism makes Vaughn's characters even more lifelike, via deeply human gestures and facial expressions. This is a great gift for established Ex Machina fans, but newcomers are advised to start at the beginning. —Brian Howe
Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis
Introduction by Christopher Hitchens
Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue
By John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, with William McKinney
Reading Everyday Drinking makes it hard to imagine that the late novelist Kingsley Amis ever found time to write in between benders, booze-soaked dinner parties and, especially, hangovers. (His debut novel, Lucky Jim, contains one of literature's most famous morning-after scenes.) But write he did, sometimes about the bibulous life itself: hence Everyday Drinking.
Amis decocted his 80-proof opinions from thoughtful, dedicated, lifelong experiments in getting tanked. He seems to have tried almost every sauce under the sun, and offers his own versions of the Dry Martini (gin:vermouth ≈ 15:1; stir, don't shake) and the Bloody Mary (includes ketchup!), as well as tipples of his own devising: Try the "Antiquato" (Scotch, Amaretto and Bitters), or his "Normandy," a Champagne Cocktail modified with Calvados and hard cider. Everyday Drinking also contains an appendix of fiendishly hard quizzes to entertain your guests with when your holiday party fizzles.
But for all his drinking erudition, Amis was no snob, and the fun of Everyday Drinking is its reactionary candor. "A German wine label is one of the things life's too short for," he scoffs, while generally dismissing wine (his advice thereon is thus unreliable, and also outdated); and he calls Cognac "an area on the left-hand side of France about halfway down." He gives pragmatic, niggardly suggestions for stinting on alcohol costs when entertaining, and recipes for drinks that may persuade women to leap (or collapse) into your bed. A delightful chap he was perhaps not.
So don't take him straight. (The mixer, of course, is grains of salt.) And you'll want to sip Everyday Drinking rather than gulp it down: Much of it is reprinted from newspaper columns, so Amis warns of "the occasional recurrence of favorite themes" (not to mention recipes and even whole sentences). "Take it a bit at a time," he counsels. With drink in hand, I'd add.
After you've had too many, you're ready for Amis' exegesis on the hangover, plus "all that vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realization." Perhaps, but here's the kicker: He knows no sure-fire cure, unless you "go up for an hour in an open aeroplane." (No, thanks. Instead, go for a hard, fast run. The first 10 minutes are sheer torture, and you swear you'll never touch alcohol again. But by the third mile you'll feel sanguine and cleansed, and when you get home you should be ready for another drink.)
Speaking of books not to take straight or straight through—and of controversial uses of ketchup—Holy Smoke offers more than you ever imagined knowing about the official Tar Heel dish. Smoked, vinegar-doused swine is now haute cuisine that, like fine wine, inspires purple prose, micro-regional feuds and, well, coffee-table books like Holy Smoke (which was featured in last week's Indy).
Avowedly factitious, folksy-cutesy and chauvinistic (Texans and South Carolinians beware), this well-researched book is piled high with pictures, recipes and anecdotes. There's ample history, though the awkward asides about barbecue's role in race relations are mostly non-nutritive, and some are unintentionally tasteless, like the mention of the big KKK pig picking in 1869 that celebrated the murder of a Republican sheriff. The chapter called "Cooking Barbecue at Home" is probably definitive, but only adepts will fully digest its 23 exhaustive, step-by-step pages (especially given that a serviceable facsimile can apparently be done with—sorry—Liquid Smoke and a crock pot)—plus 10 different sauces, seven things made of cornmeal, five banana puddings and a cheer for Cheerwine.
The book's final chapter is its simplest and best: a series of horse's-mouth accounts of the barbecue life from the folks who live it. Most of these rôtisseurs got into the business by accident, it turns out, many because they were hungry, and there's no romance in it: The work is hard, long and dirty. These plainspoken monologues fluently accomplish what the big, busy book they appear in can't quite pull off: They simultaneously authenticate barbecue's hype while debunking its overblown mystique. —Adam Sobsey
Sounding Salsa: Performing Latin Music in New York City
By Christopher Washburne
Temple University Press
They say that once you know how sausage is made, you'll never want to eat it again. Yet just the opposite may be true of a new book by trombonist and Columbia University ethnomusicologist Chris Washburne that offers a no-holds-barred, insider glimpse at "how salsa was made" in New York City in the 1990s. By challenging conventional narratives about salsa's development and taking on contentious issues in its history, including drugs, violence and illegitimate business practices, Sounding Salsa should make a lot of folks look twice at a critical yet neglected moment in the industry's development. Washburne's ethnography of behind-the-scenes backstories, documented from his own vantage point on the bandstand, is the best quick read I've found on the industry's history and inner workings, supplemented by deep industry knowledge that fills in many ellipses in histories written mainly from the point of view of the consumer/ critic. While it offers musicological explanations on salsa's nuts and bolts technical aspects, such as clave, it's also an accessible guide to newcomers who may have wondered: What are those instruments? And why are all those guys wearing the same suits?
Engaging "salsa discourse" from the scholarly to the "street," Washburne challenges cherished views like the one held by many fans and critics, that the '70s golden age met its downfall through commercialization in the late '80s and '90s. But the eras had much in common: both were dominated by a single label (Fania and RMM, respectively), and both represented the two major "explosions" in salsa's commercial output that created challenges but also opportunities for artists. Washburne discusses the major players, and explains how and why salsa's sound evolved as it did, influenced by the flow of Colombian drug money and the U.S. "war on drugs," the emergence of a new generation of vocalists such as Marc Anthony and La India bred in the English-language R&B and house scenes, as well as the waxing influence of Puerto Rican studios and bands.
At a moment when New York salsa venues are quickly disappearing, reframing the historical conversation sheds light on where salsa (and the musicians who play it) might be headed (toward concert halls, jazz clubs and conservatories, in Washburne's case). Salsa is still happening, wherever people care enough to argue over what it means. —Sylvia Pfeiffenberger
All Known Metal Bands
By Dan Nelson
If you say you've never bemoaned at least one moment of one family holiday, you're either lying to us or lying to yourself and us by proxy. Look, liar: Everyone's gotten tired of fruitcake and bon-bons, candles and latkes, stories about nieces and questions from nephews. It's OK to be frustrated. And so, All Known Metal Bands—Dan Nelson's brilliantly non-illustrated list of nearly 51,000 metal band names stamped in alphabetical order on black pages with dull silver ink—is the solution to all of our year-end social anxiety disorders. Prescriptions? Psychologists? Psychotropics? Nope. For the $22 this McSweeney's social study costs, the printed power of metal will set you free year-round.
Just imagine: Before heading home for the holidays, you pick up this black-bound gem but take care not to investigate it until the relatives arrive in droves—Uncle Sam, Sister June, Cousin Brad, good ol' Aunt Martha, the whole gaggle. Just as the questions about your love life, career choices, housing arrangements and pet selections inevitably and predictably commence, crack open the book. Split your interest between the possessed pages and the inquisitive relatives, and—just when it becomes slightly past bearable—zing 10 random selections from the book ol' Martha's way—"Hey, have you ever heard Venereal Disease, Infant Sacrifice, Massmurder, Fetus Christ, Fetus Eater, PC Death Squad, Necro Holocaust, Godflesh, Fucksaw or Vaginal Molestation, Martha? They're great!" She'll summarily leave you alone.
Sure, next year you'll receive only lumps of coal from Martha. But that's cool, too: Put some soot on your fingers. Draw a vertical line from your hairline to your nose tip and a horizontal line above your eyes. Start a band called The Upsidedown Crosses, which, according to Nelson's fascinating if problematic glimpse into the idiom of necro-nomenclature, has never been used. "Read it—and weep," he ends his tome. Nope. Read it to them—and let them worry. —Grayson Currin
Brighter Leaves: Celebrating the Arts in Durham, North Carolina
Historic Preservation Society of Durham
Durham Tales: The Morris Street Maple, the Plastic Cow, the Durham Day That Was & More
By Jim Wise
The History Press
Earlier this year, the Historic Preservation Society of Durham published Brighter Leaves, a lovingly crafted, coffee-table style history of Durham's arts heritage, going back to the first publicly minded leading citizens who sought to elevate a rude cigarette town into something like the respectability that seems to come more easily to Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
As the title suggests, the book's tone reflects the traditional American impulse to civilize the wilderness and improve the culture of the communities that thus arise. Often, in this paradigm, women busy themselves with the arts while the men build their fortunes. Indeed, as Jim Wise reports in one of his two contributions, a chapter tracing the history of the Durham Arts Council, the St. Joseph's and the Carolina Theatre, in 1940 a writer for the Atlantic Monthly jeered that in Durham, "'propagation of the arts' was 'left to the ladies.'"
While the narrative is generally upbeat, it's abundantly clear that such vital figures as Ella Fountain Pratt, Connie Moses, Maggie Dent and E'Vonne Coleman have had to fight against serious inertia, if not outright resistance, in their respective efforts to build Durham's cultural capital. In later chapters, we learn of the extraordinary community effort to save the Carolina Theatre—once one of five downtown movie theaters—from the wrecking ball. Among chapters devoted to architecture, music and visual arts, Linda Belans recounts the city's unlikely march to prominence in the world of dance, including the first inkling of the notion that the American Dance Festival would find a home in the Bible Belt. (Among the contributors is Indy writer Kate Dobbs Ariail, who narrates the city's visual arts history.)
The book's final section contains a 66-page biographical index of notables in the history of Durham arts. Curiously, there's no explanation for the section's purpose or criteria for inclusion. If it was intended to serve as a who's who of the city's talent, the section is so riddled with omissions that it's far from a reliable survey. (In fact, the holes are so obvious that those left out can't feel properly slighted.) While the likes of Ariel Dorfman, Reynolds Price, Irwin Kremen and Nnenna Freelon are here, there are no entries for Clyde Edgerton, Haven Kimmel, Beverly McIver, Nancy Buirski, Steven Channing, Mac McCaughan, Alex Rivera and many others.
Nonetheless, Brighter Leaves is an impressive accomplishment by a small but expert team of writers. For old-timers and newcomers alike, it's a valuable primer that makes abundantly clear, too, just how much today's optimistic, striving Durhamites owe to the cultural pioneers who tilled this rocky soil before us.
For a far more idiosyncratic—and less upbeat—take on the Bull City, Jim Wise's recently published Durham Tales is a rattling bag of loosely arranged anecdotes and character sketches that go way back to the short, happy life of one Bartlett Leonidas Durham, a physician prone to drinking and brawling who died at the age of about 35, purportedly in a fleshpot called Pandora's Box. He also happened to own the land in the vicinity of today's American Tobacco Campus, which became a railroad depot called Durham's Station.
From this agreeably uncouth start, Wise revels in Durham's disreputable origins—few traces of which are to be found in the onward-and-upward progress of Brighter Leaves. Wise's Durham comes off nearly as a rowdy no-man's-land, originally little more than an undesired bog that wagon and rail commerce needed to cross between Raleigh and Hillsborough (on what is now U.S. 70, more or less). We learn, too, that the proprietors of downtown Durham's new Pinhook bar did their research well—the word is local slang associated with the bottom feeders in the tobacco trade, and the disreputable district of grog shops—in the vicinity of the present-day intersection of Erwin Road and Main Street—where such operators spent their money.
The book's anecdotal, haphazard structure is perhaps due to Wise's vocation as a newspaper columnist for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer, and like a columnist's work, there's an inevitable hit or miss ratio. Fortunately, Wise's short chapters fall more frequently in the former category. His account of "Durham Day," on Nov. 3, 1977, is a marvelously jaundiced look at local boosters celebrating the city's ascension to the National Register of Historic Places, with its leaders evidently oblivious to a remarkable level of chaos, decay and dysfunction all around. Elsewhere, relative newcomers to the area will be fascinated to learn of the factory village that lies at the bottom of the Little River Reservoir, and of the amusement park—complete with roller rink and roller coaster—that flourished in Lakewood Park for three decades.
Wise's evocations of the scent of cured tobacco, of unpretentious bars and citizens, of a hardy old sugar maple on Morris Street, are deeply felt and remembered without lapsing into sentimentality. Wise is also skeptical of the aspirations of those who would improve the city, whether it's the "urban renewal" of the 1960s or today's earnestly gentrifying professionals. His dyspepsia runs deep, but at times it goes beyond the tonic to the chronic, as when he grouses in passing that his apparently preferred term of "subdivisions" has been supplanted by the dreadful neologisms of "'neighborhoods' or worse, 'communities.'"
Nonetheless, in a city that has only recently begun to think about recovering its history—instead of seeing it as a malign state from which we must improve—Wise's collection of tales and sketches is an excellent addition to the civic bookshelf, one that transmits 150 years of lore to a new generation. And to new bars. —David Fellerath
Children and young adults
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party and Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves
By M.T. Anderson
The election of Barack Obama represents a milestone in the history of America, but it does not change the centuries of racism and inequality that many textbooks reduce to chapters on the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. In his two-part Young Adult novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, M.T. Anderson illustrates how the "land of liberty" was born out of a struggle against the British that ignored those with black skin.
The title character is an African-American raised in an isolated, intellectual environment similar to the Tuskegee experiments—and like those experiments, Octavian's ordeal comes to a tragic and horrifying end. Thrust out into the world, he finds himself in the midst of the Revolutionary War, hunting for his own freedom amid the battles. Written in a style that combines poetic prose with action and suspense, Nothing is one of the best pieces of historical fiction in recent years, Young Adult or otherwise (the first volume won the National Book Award). As Anderson points out in his afterward, in a fantasy series, Octavian and friends would probably team up to overthrow the corrupt empires of America and Britain to ensure freedom for all. In real life, we still have many lessons to learn—and part of this is by understanding where we've been, and where we still need to go. —Zack Smith
Brava, Strega Nona!: A Heartwarming Pop-Up Book
By Tomie dePaola, Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart
The wonder of a good picture book cannot be overrated. Sure, they provide an excellent link between words and pictures for young children, but often they work beautifully as works of art on their own terms. And once in a while, they achieve something truly amazing.
Tomie dePaola has been telling tells of the magical Italian witch Strega Nona for years, but his latest volume takes his storytelling to another level. As a pop-up book, this is not simply a case of having a building or a couple of grassy hills jump off the page. No, this is a pop-up book where entire family trees and village squares emerge into three-dimension existence. There are whole worlds in these illustrations: a pot of noodles spills out into the reader's face, a swing dangles from the family tree, and Strega Nona and friends dine under a grape arbor. For a young child, this might well be the greatest book ever. Brava indeed. —Zack Smith
By Erich Origen and Gan Golan
Little, Brown & Company
Many a child may be fooled by the cover of this "unauthorized parody" of the classic children's story Goodnight Moon; upon closer inspection, however, the cover of Goodnight Bush, by Erich Origen and Gan Golan, portrays a nightmare world of factory smokestacks, oil drilling and Florida 2000 ballots roasting on an open fire.
Accompanied by a simple text in a rhyming series of good nights ("Goodnight Constitution, goodnight evolution"), it is with a careful eye one must read the pictures full of visual puns. We are led into a child's room, Little Georgie about to go to bed in his flight-cadet jammies. Lines of cocaine are on one nightstand, My Pet Goat on the other, surrounded by the dollhouse White House, little soldier men, the fox, the rocking chair, the blocks, the ballots and "a quiet Dick Cheney whispering hush." Is that yellow cake that sits on the bedside table or is that a slice of the American dream in the form of apple pie? As the story progresses, the toys move and change to document another facet of the Bush years: another grievance, another mistake, another disaster.
If this book has a moment in time, it is now. George Bush's legacy is bandied about on political talk shows and is soon to be stamped into history books, and here is a tiny sardonic snapshot that captures all that went wrong; it is only here, in a child's world, where we can laugh at the worst that has happened in a kind of catharsis. The book ends with both good and bad goodbyes: "Goodnight Earth? Goodnight heir? Goodnight failures everywhere." As a large percentage of the country looks forward to a New Year and a new administration, this clever little book is worth a look. —Jaimee Hills
- Photo from Brighter Leaves
- Longtime Durham arts figure Ella Fountain Pratt, who died earlier this year at the age of 94, as seen in Brighter Leaves with Steve Feldman.