What we’re reading right now

By Scott Dickensheets

This heat screws with my reading. I want to bunker on the couch with a long book, a sweating Diet Coke and the A/C cranked to ice-cold. That’s a perfect day in my world. But it’s hard. For some reason, summer thermodynamics have the opposite effect, exacerbating my natural brain-flit to the point that even a slim book sometimes has the black-hole gravity of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

So mostly I flutter from one short read to the next. Impulsively, I grab books from my shelves at semi-random, chug a few pages, move on. Lately: Quotidiana, earnest essays on ordinary life by Patrick Madden; nice, but one or two will suffice for now. Bigfoot Dreams, an old comic novel by Francine Prose, in which the writing is so precise and so sweet you can read several pages without knowing the story, just for the music of the words. The Underground Heart, essays on Southwestern culture by Ray Gonzalez. Autumn Rhythms, Richard Meltzer’s bizarro essays on aging. Magazines, too: Scott Raab’s profile of Shaq in a recent Esquire.

Today I finished a chapter on Las Vegas in Matt Hern’s Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. Hern is a Vancouver sustainability advocate who scowls at LV’s civic acne and wonders, What can Vancouver learn from this?, so you’re safe in guessing he didn’t find an urban future worth defending here. Inspired, I’m looking up other appraisals of Vegas’ obviousness — did you know there are no clocks in casinos? — in books I already have laying around. A.A. Gill, architecture critic Michael Sorkin. I probably have something by Mike Davis in the same collapsing vein, not to mention the Waylon Jennings verse on Hoover Dam in “Highwayman,” playing now on iTunes. I’m not bothered by the existence of these hatchet jobs — I don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce. What I hate is they never tell me anything I didn’t already know.

What else? A smattering of genre fiction: A few days ago I knocked off Nothing To Lose, a fast-read noir by Lee Child that runs his protagonist through small-town culture, religious crazies and the home-front effects of the Iraq war. It’s far-fetched in every regard, of course, but you don’t read this stuff for verisimilitude. Still chewing on Moving Under Ground, Nick Mamatas’ deliriously weird mashup of Kerouac and Lovecraft (“… when you can look a dead squirrel in the eye and hear it demand a promise from you while even the mosquitos hang in the air and wait for your answer, you know you’ve got some serious headaches ahead”). And I’m only a chapter into Philip Jose Farmer’s creepy The Image of the Beast, but already a cop’s had his dick bitten off. Heed me on this: Don’t read it over breakfast.

I am inching a few more serious books along, too. I like Christopher Hitchens, but, regarding Hitch-22, his new memoir, I must say this: I frankly don’t give a fuck about English boarding school. So my progress through the book has been incremental in a way I can’t blame entirely on the weather, although once his career gets under way, the book picks up marvelously. Fleda Brown’s new essay collection, Driving With Dvorak: Essays on Memory and Identity, is a terrific sifting of her personal history to determine the long-term effects of exposure to one’s messy family, and it’s nowhere near as stiff as the second half of the title makes it sound. I hope I can sit still long enough to finish it.

And now I have Rick Moody’s Four Fingers of Death. Seven hundred pages. It may have to wait for fall.

By Geoff Schumacher

I admire Scott’s ability to nibble at his books. I can’t shake the habit of reading a book from beginning to end, and of finishing — eventually — almost every book I start. I guess I get some sense of completion and forward progress from the fact that I’ve fully digested each book I’ve cracked open. It’s a sense of measurement, I guess, of my reading accomplishments. I realize this is not necessarily wise or admirable on my part, though.

I make up for this obsession by reading more than one book at a time. In fact, I tend to read as many as six or seven books at once. Here are the ones that have bookmarks in them right now:

• Citrus County by John Brandon. This recently released novel from McSweeney’s is incredible so far, but it’s hard to explain exactly why. A glowing review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review piqued my interest in the book. McSweeney’s has incredibly good taste, so it’s not much of a risk to dive into a book published by Dave Eggers’ San Francisco outfit. Still, Brandon is far from a household name. He has one previous novel, Arkansas, also published by McSweeney’s. Citrus County is a coming-of-age/crime story set in a decidedly less glamorous part of Florida. One blurber described it as the best novel ever written about junior high, and he’s probably right about that. But more importantly, it is absorbing, funny and goes down easy. The crime around which the story revolves leaves you anxious to find out how things play out. Brandon’s characters are fascinating, from the two eighth-graders at the center of the story to their angst-ridden English teacher whose inner thoughts would, if exposed to the world, get him in deep, deep trouble. I’m not quite done with it, but I have to say I’d be shocked and disappointed if Citrus County wasn’t a finalist for a major award some months from now.

The Scarlet Ruse by John D. MacDonald. Whenever I need a breather from the “hard” books — histories, biographies, literary novels and such — I often turn to the next installment in MacDonald’s classic Travis McGee crime/suspense series. As a result, I figure I read about one Travis McGee novel per year, which means I’ll finish the 21-book series in about 2020. MacDonald died in 1986, having written a huge number of pulpy novels. The most famous of them is The Executioners, which became the twice-made movie Cape Fear. Among his peers, MacDonald was widely considered one of the best in the genre. What’s great about the McGee series, in particular, is that MacDonald often veers from straight storytelling to offer his opinions and insights about various aspects of the human condition and current events. It’s good reading, and of course the stories roll along with all the suspense and mayhem you could want. The Scarlet Ruse is, oddly enough, about stamp collecting. Only MacDonald could successfully weave stamp collecting into an exciting crime adventure.

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power by James McGrath Morris. This is a very readable biography of the great newspaper publisher. I’m about a third of the way into the book, so I haven’t gotten to the juiciest part of his newspaper career, when he battled with William Randolph Heart for supremacy in New York and beyond, but so far I’m learning a lot about Pulitzer’s early life and his almost coincidental entry into the newspaper business through his interest in politics. My theory behind reading this book, as well as a new bio of Hearst in the near future, is to take a deep look at how these titans did things and perhaps learn a few things that could be useful today as newspapers struggle to maintain their relevance and influence in the fast-evolving media-sphere.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens. This is Hitchens’ memoir, a big, all-over-the-place kind of book looking back at his life and journalism career. Hitchens is such a good writer that, unlike Scott, I found myself very interested in Hitchens’ boarding school years in England. My interest could be enhanced by the fact that I’ve recently read pieces by Cyril Connolly and George Orwell about their experiences in similar schools. Boarding school was quite a wretched tradition across the pond, it seems, and Hitchens got in on the tail end of it (before girls and modernity forced their way in the door). Things get more interesting, however, as Hitchens grows up and becomes one of the Young Turks of writing in England during the 1970s, a group that also included Martin Amis, James Fenton and Ian McEwan. I’ve read about half the book, so I haven’t yet gotten to the more contemporary period when Hitchens parted ways with his long-standing constituency on the left and supported the Iraq war.

Two other books I’m working through very slowly: Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote and Reporter at Wit’s End by St. Clair McKelway. Each of these nonfiction collections contains some of the 20th century’s best literary journalism.

A final note of praise for the cover story of the July 26 issue of ESPN magazine. Written by Tim Keown, the profile of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is very well done. Rodgers is a big-time pro now, but for much of his young life he was ignored and underrated, and he had to prove doubters wrong at every turn. Here is Keown’s brilliant nut graph:

“You know what Rodgers will tell you is an underrated virtue? The ability to tolerate disappointment. We’ve tried to eliminate disappointment, run it off like a deadly virus. The world’s most potent economy collapsed when too many people decided they couldn’t bear to be disappointed. They bought houses they couldn’t afford and cars they didn’t need. They believed that a parent’s most appalling failure is a disappointed child. Oh no, we can’t disappoint the children. Lord forbid we allow our kids to be deprived. The dirtiest word in the English language: no.”

Leave it to a sports magazine to sum up the global recession.


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One response to “What we’re reading right now

  1. Just a quick update. I completed John D. MacDonald’s “The Scarlet Ruse.” Very good, as usual. But I guess I’m further along in the series than I’d thought. I’ve now read the first 14 of the 21 novels. Only seven to go, and I’ve been led to understand that some of the later books are, in fact, the best ones.

    Also finished John Brandon’s “Citrus County.” Holds up to the end, I think. McSweeney’s scores again.

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