Books Acquired, 1.17.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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The kind people at Picador sent me a box of books, including a memoir (Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger), a few novels (The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan; Ralph Sassone’s The Intimates; Alan Glynn’s noir thriller Bloodland; Dieter Schlesak’s The Druggist of Auschwitz, which purports to be a “documentary novel”; and Zoë Heller’s first novel, Everything You Know), and a work of political science (Ari Berman’s Herding Donkeys).

A box of books is a bit overwhelming, but I make it a point to spend some time with every book that comes into Biblioklept World Headquarters. Here’s some thoughts on these.

I actually ended up reading almost all of The Lover’s Dictionary, despite it having the word “lover” in the title, which, jeez. When my wife picked it up, she said something like, “How can they call this a novel?” — fair question, because the book is structured like a dictionary. In point of illustration:

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I’ve got a bigger post on Levithan’s book coming up, one that tries to situate it in the context of other non-novelly novels—but in short it is a novel, a very contemporary one that tells the oldest story in the proverbial book (boy meets girl) in an elliptical way that suits our post-information age. Like I said more to come, but for now: The Lover’s Dictionary is funny, occasionally cruel, too-often saccharine, awfully real, sometimes deeply flawed, but consistently engaging (sorry for all the adverbs).

I imagine Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger will capture the fascination of a large audience, but half an hour of the book was almost more than I could bear. Not because Fragoso can’t write—far from it, in fact—but her subject matter, which is to say her stolen childhood, is rendered too raw,   too real for me; there’s nothing pulpy or lurid about Fragoso’s work, nor is there the aesthetic sheen of Lolita to gloss any of the ugly, sordid details.  Kathryn Harrison ponders the question of Tiger, Tiger’s audience in her favorable review at The New York Times:

So who — other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a pedophile in action — will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterized by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion — minding our own business. Maybe a book like “Tiger, Tiger” can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.

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Ralph Sassone’s The Intimates: sex scenes (straight and gay); lots of notations about parents; lots of characters.

Dieter Schlesak’s The Druggist of Auschwitz: This “documentary novel” blends actual testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, interviews with camp guards and prisoners, and fictional narrative to tell the true story of Dr. Victor Capesius, an SS officer who worked with Mengele. The book is less gimmicky than it sounds in this description, and if its documentary elements are blunter and less ambiguous than W.G. Sebald’s historical fragments, I suppose that’s what the subject matter merits.

Alan Glynn’s new novel Bloodland (a Picador paperback original) is a noirish thriller set against the backdrop of political and corporate intrigue. Glynn writes with terse immediacy, telegraphing the plot in short punchy sentences that recall James Ellroy (without the finnicky slang). The book reads almost like a movie script, vivid and concrete. It’s a fast-paced page turner with a smart plot, just the sort of thing one wants from a thriller.

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Herding Donkeys by Ari Berman: Honestly not my thing, but if you want to read about the DNC from the time of Howard Dean to the rise of Barrack Obama, this is probably a book for you.

Zoë Heller’s Everything You Know: This is new in paperback again after over a decade. The story focuses on a cantankerous, unlikable son-of-a-bitch named Willy Muller. Things aren’t going well for him: he’s just suffered a heart attack, his daughter’s committed suicide, and the public still believes he murdered his wife. No wonder he hates humanity. Heller is probably most famous for her novel Notes on a Scandal, which was adapted into an excellent film in 2006.

Biblioklept’s picks: The Lover’s Dictionary; Tiger, Tiger; Bloodland.

Hear James Ellroy Read from His New Memoir, The Hilliker Curse

Listen to James Ellroy read from his new memoir, The Hilliker Curse (audio clip courtesy Random House Audio).

The AV Club Interviews James Ellroy

The AV Club interviews noir postmodernist James Ellroy about his forthcoming memoir, The Hilliker Curse. Here’s Ellroy, the cranky old man–

I very much enjoyed the process of interdicting the culture. I’m older; I have a great love of the English parlance. I can’t stand dipshit, tattooed, lacquered, varnished, depilatoried younger people talking their stupid shit, stage-sighing, saying “It’s like, I’m like, whatever,” and talking in horrible clichés, rolling their eyes when they disapprove of something. I saw that the culture was pandering more and more to this kid demographic. And in the course of driving from here to there, I began to see more and more billboards for vile misogynistic horror films, white-trash reality-TV shows, neck-biting fucked-up vampire flicks, and stoned-out teenage-boy pratfall comedies. Bad drama, bad comedy, that portrayed life preposterously, frivolously, and ironically, and that got to me. So I would drive here, there, and elsewhere through residential neighborhoods in order to avoid billboards. Since I wasn’t married and had no more in-law commitments, and was starting over again in a new locale, I developed strong friendships with male colleagues where we share the common goal of work and earning money, and I became fixated on women in my late 50s more than I’ve ever been fixated on women in my woman-fixated fucking life. My time in the dark felt productive rather than reductive, and the rest of the chronology, you know from the book. And I’m comfortable living in this manner, which people find hard to believe that I’m happy. It’s a gas. It’s a gas.

New(ish) Memoirs from Nathan Rabin, Sloane Crosley, and James Ellroy

Nearly a  year after earning good reviews, Nathan Rabin’s memoir The Big Rewind is now available in paperback (the cover sports the claim that the book now includes “EVEN MORE BITING WIT AND UNWISE CANDOR”). Rabin, if you don’t know, is the head writer for the AV Club, a website I am hopelessly addicted to; he’s also responsible for some of the site’s best regular columns, including “My Year of Flops,” where he revisits films that, y’know, flopped, “THEN! That’s What They Called Music!,” where he subjects himself to listening to and writing about those NOW! CDs, and “Nashville or Bust,” a year-long analysis of country music from an avowed hip-hop fan. If I sound prejudicially predisposed to liking Rabin’s memoir, I am. I can’t help it. In The Big Rewind, Rabin revisits the various pop culture touchstones through which he lived his strange, often sad life–so Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs becomes the lens through which he details his thankless years working for Blockbuster and Nirvana’s In Utero is a key to understanding Rabin’s time in a group foster home. There’s a story arc–depression, a missing mother, suicide attempts, redemption–and plenty of irony to keep it under control. At the same time, there’s too much heart in Rabin’s writing for you not to care. Recommended. The Big Rewind is new in trade paperback from Scribner.

Sloane Crosley’s new collection of memory essays, How Did You Get This Number, finds the witty, observational young lass being witty and observational in and out of New York City–but mostly in. There are trips to Portugal and Paris, and a weird wedding in Alaska. There’s a remembrance of all the childhood pets that didn’t make it. There’s a story about buying furniture of questionable origin off the back of a truck. At times Crosley’s archness can be grating, as dry observations pile one upon the other, but her gift for exacting, sharp detail and her willingness to let her guard down at just the right moment in most of the selections make for a funny and compelling read. I’m still not sure why there’s no question mark in the title, though. How Did You Get This Number is new in hardback from Riverhead Books.

I just got my advance review copy of James Ellroy’s forthcoming memoir The Hilliker Curse, so I haven’t had time to read much of it, but the story so far is morbidly fascinating (like, you know, an Ellroy novel. But this is real. Because it’s a memoir). In 1958, James’s mother Jean Hilliker had divorced her husband and begun binge drinking. When she hit him one night, the ten year old boy wished that she would die. Three months later she was found murdered on the side of the road–the case remains unsolved. The memoir details Ellroy’s extreme guilt; his sincere belief that he had literally cursed his mother pollutes his life, particularly in his complex relationships with women. Full review forthcoming. The Hilliker Curse is available September 7th, 2010 from Knopf.

Blood’s a Rover — James Ellroy

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A few things up front: this can’t really be a proper review of James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover as I’m less than a 100 pages into it and its over a 600 pages long. So far though, the book is fantastic, and has completely ameliorated my mistaken impression of what, exactly, Ellroy is doing. You see, I had long thought of Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, as a writer of potboiler genre-fiction–which is to say I never considered him a “serious” writer. But when advanced press for Blood’s a Rover came out, I couldn’t help but ask for a review copy. The idea of an alternate history of the late sixties/early seventies, set to a backdrop of black militant movements, Cuban revolution, and heroin dealing, complete with historical figures like Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover seemed pretty cool.

The opening scene of Blood’s a Rover, a breathtaking armored car robbery, quickly establishes the book’s tense, terse pacing telegraphed through Ellroy’s signature simple sentences (his style: subject-verb-object, repeat–with the occasional clause or adjective thrown in for flair). Ellroy’s rhetorical style perfectly matches his plot, as sentence after sentence hammers away depictions of lurid, unrelenting violence. In a sense, Blood’s comes across as the evil twin of Thomas Pynchon’s recent novel Inherent Vice. Both novels threaten to crush the reader under the densities of their plots, yet, where Pynchon allows his hippie detective Doc Sportello’s marijuana haze to infiltrate (and thus lighten) the novel’s discourse, Ellroy’s technique simply compounds and confounds in its ugliness. But don’t be mistaken–Blood’s is a thrilling book, with tightly-drawn characters doing really mean and interesting things. There’s even a sardonic sense of humor under the punchy grisliness of it all. If Pynchon’s universe propels on the paranoia of not knowing but sensing that the Powers That Be are conspiring against you, Ellroy makes it expressly clear that, yes, a sinister cabal of underworld agents are running the show. And not for the better. Even the novel’s hero Wayne Tedrow Jr. is pretty much a creep (or whatever word you want to pick for a heroin runner who kills his dad in a bid for his step mom’s affection)–but he’s a fascinating creep, and in Ellroy’s plotting, one you want to root for.

So, if you’ve had any passing interest in this book, you probably want to go ahead and pick it up. I’ll do a full, proper review when I finish it, but for now, I want to repent for my erstwhile (and unfounded) prejudices against Ellroy. Makes me wonder what other writers I’ve dismissed out of genre prejudice.

Blood’s a Rover is now available in hardback from Knopf.