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My Best Reading Experiences of 2014

By Geoff Schumacher

My 2014 reading veered off in some unusual directions. In part, this was because of my new job at the Mob Museum, which requires me to dedicate a portion of my reading to organized crime history. I also made a decision to cut back substantially on modern fiction.

I’ve abandoned the practice of reading a newly released novel based on a positive review or two. More often than not, the book ends up being disappointing or at least not as worthy of my time as the hundreds of classic novels I could have read instead. I’ve made exceptions to this rule for a few authors whose work I already know I like.

Here are some of my best reading experiences of 2014:

Brown Dog: Novellas

Jim Harrison, 2014

Jim Harrison is probably my favorite living fiction writer. This book collects Harrison’s novellas about a character named Brown Dog, perhaps his greatest creation in a long and productive writing career. Brown Dog is difficult to explain. He’s a man without much formal education who does odd jobs, mostly in Upper Michigan, to make just enough money to survive. He enjoys good food, lusty women, fishing and being outdoors generally, and because of his fundamental naiveté and trusting nature, he gets himself into some strange, difficult and often hilarious situations. He is very slow to anger, and sometimes slow to comprehend what people around him are really up to. He’s not street smart, but that’s not to say he isn’t wise. He was raised by and around Native Americans in the U.P., but it’s never clear whether he is, in fact, an Indian himself. Maybe half. The novellas are a joy to read, and sprinkled with just enough Truth to make them nourishing as well as a lot of fun.

One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson, 2013

This is a fine work of popular history, capturing a fascinating summer with just the right style. Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Sacco and Vanzetti, Gutzon Borglum (Mount Rushmore), Philo Farnsworth (TV inventor), Herbert Hoover, Al Jolson, Jack Dempsey and many lesser-known characters and stories are detailed as Bryson relives what has to be one of the most interesting years in American history.

Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker

Doug J. Swanson, 2014

This is the book of the year as far as historical work dealing with Las Vegas. Swanson, a Dallas journalist and novelist, has written the most definitive Binion biography to date, and it’s loaded with warts-and-all detail. Swanson does a masterful job of capturing Binion’s persona, both through in-depth research and a novelist’s eye for the telling detail.

The Green Felt Jungle

Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, 1963

Over the years, I had dipped into this classic book many times, picking out facts and details for use in my own research. But I finally read it cover to cover, and I enjoyed the experience. Somewhat like the Bill Bryson book described above, this offers a snapshot of a gleaming era in Las Vegas, when the mob ran the casino industry and law enforcement was still trying to figure out how to go to battle. As with many of the muckraking books of that time, The Green Felt Jungle has a charmingly naive moral streak that not only abhors the mob’s skimming of the casinos but asks whether gambling should be legal in the first place.

Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars

Neil Young, 2014

I’m a longtime fan of Neil Young’s music, but he’s a very good writer as well. His first memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, was a good read, though wildly disorganized and repetitive. It badly needed the aid of a good editor. Special Deluxe is more organized and better edited, but it retains Young’s shaggy dog personality as he tells stories inspired by various cars in his extensive collection of clunkers.

Letters

Kurt Vonnegut, 2014

The great novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote some interesting letters. They tended to be fairly short and to the point, but they could be very effective and funny.

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

Janet Malcolm, 2013

Janet Malcolm is one of the all-time greats in the long-form journalism/essay world, and this collection certifies that standing. She is a tremendous observer and interviewer. If I could offer one word to describe her writing, it would be precise.

Loitering: New & Collected Essays

Charles D’Ambrosio, 2014

This was the second-hottest essay collection of the year behind Leslie Jamison’s wonderful The Empathy Exams. D’Ambrosio is a fine writer and observer of modern life. I most highly recommend his introduction and his piece on the Mary Kay Letourneau sexual assault case, which speaks volumes about the anti-intellectual, reactionary nature of political and social commentary that passes for expert analysis on TV.

My Struggle, Book 1

Karl Ove Knausgaard

English translation, 2012

I can’t explain why I read this book. After all, why should I care about the inner thoughts and mundane life of a Norwegian writer? But this autobiographical novel (more nonfiction than fiction, if there’s any of the latter at all) is nothing less than mesmerizing. Knausgaard is a fine writer, and a very insightful student and critic of himself and people close to him. I’ve already purchased Book 2, with the intention of reading all six books once they are all translated and published.

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1853

I’ve read 366 of the 881 pages of this classic Dickens novel. I’m enjoying it, but over the course of the year I got distracted by other books and put it down several times. I likely will finish it in 2015, and without complaint. I can’t really add anything to what so many others have said about Dickens, but let’s just say that his work holds up while so many of his contemporaries do not.

This Living Hand and Other Essays

Edmund Morris, 2012

Edmund Morris is highly regarded for his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and not so highly regarded for his biography of Ronald Reagan, which includes re-imagined scenes and conversations. I don’t recommend everything in this eclectic collection of articles, lectures and essays, but there are some very eloquent and effective pieces, including a recounting of Morris’ passionate campaign to save a tree in Washington, D.C. Morris also writes well about classical music.

“The Secret File on Virginia Hill,” True Crime magazine article

Ray Brennan, 1951

Reading old magazines is often entertaining and informative, and this is a great example. Ray Brennan was, according to his bio in the magazine, a “Chicago newspaper crime specialist who spent a full year with the Kefauver Crime Committee.”

And, delightfully, Brennan was a good writer. When you think about True Crime magazine, you probably expect sloppy writing and wild, unsubstantiated stories. That’s not the case with this piece.

Virginia Hill, you’ll recall, was Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend before he was killed in 1947. Over the years, she was the girlfriend of some other mob guys as well. Brennan’s descriptions of her are worth quoting:

  • “Correct usage of grammar always was a mystery to her, although she was smart enough in arithmetic. She learned quickly to count money accurately and figure her percentages in later life. She had a gift for accumulating cash, too, although she couldn’t hold on to it.”
  • “New York was Virginia’s omelet, and she enjoyed every morsel of it. There were bigger chumps in Gotham than Chicago, she discovered, and more of them. The dress shops offered better selections and the pawn shops gave better prices for jewelry that came to her as gifts but wasn’t select enough for her collection.”

The scene Brennan describes at Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas is memorable:

“Bugsy wasn’t happy. Virginia had joined him at the Flamingo and she was raising hob, day and night. She was allergic to cactus and suffered from hay fever. Siegel fretted constantly about money, and she couldn’t see the stuff was that important. One night in the casino she shouted to him so loudly that the customers heard: ‘Hey, Ben, let’s get the hell out of this dump and go to L.A.’ Another evening, she had an argument with a lady guest in the lobby and knocked her cold with a right to the jaw. Siegel told her she’d have to stop drinking, and she scratched his face.”

Introduction, Best American Essays 2014

John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2014

Some people skip introductions, but I’m a fan of them. They are typically where a writer comments on his or someone else’s writing, and for me that’s good reading. There’s a fine introduction in this year’s Best American Essays. Sullivan takes an investigative, scholarly approach to the history of the essay, and in the process advances the narrow but persistent dialogue about what exactly an essay is and what it is trying to accomplish. Oh, and there are some really great essays in the book, too.

Introduction, American Sketches

Walter Isaacson, 2009

Here’s a great example of an introduction in which the writer surveys his career and makes an interesting case for this collection of his writing. Isaacson was the managing editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN, but he’s best known for his more recent work as a biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. He has a lot of great anecdotes to share and lessons learned to reveal.

More Curious

Sean Wilsey, 2014

Wilsey’s essay collection is full of intriguing narratives, with perhaps the best stuff about Marfa, Texas, a remote small town turned artist colony where Wilsey now lives some of the time. Perhaps not surprisingly, in his excellent introduction, Wilsey talks about his favorite introductions by other writers (Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Mitchell).

Honorable mentions: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Thomas Dyja; The Free, Willy Vlautin; The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison; Doctor Sleep, Stephen King; Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 RPM Records, Amanda Petrusich: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, Gideon Lewis-Kraus; Let Me Be Frank with You, Richard Ford; Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, Nick Schou.

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. He is the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue, and editor of Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State.

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