Books I've read lately (big-time catchup edition).
Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis
I originally became interested in reading this book after reading a New York Times article the author wrote earlier this year, dealing with the recent economic downturn. In the article, he mentioned this book, and how he'd written it at the time of the S&L-bailout-related economic dive. At the time (he said in the article), he'd thought that that stock market crash would end the era of greed and recklessness that had reigned on Wall Street during the 80s, and figured that he could come up with a good cautionary tale based on his insider's perspective, gained while working at a powerful bond trading company during that era. What he found (he continued) was that his book was seen more like a how-to manual, especially after the stock market quickly rebounded, and more people than ever desired to get into the Wall Street free-money business.
I myself am still not sure if Wall Street's reckless, no-tomorrow practices are over. After all, while I feel that the current policy of bailing out certain institutions is fundamentally a good idea, the way it's being handled seems almost guaranteed to create more recklessness in companies who can continue to think that, if they fuck up, they can just get more free money from the government. That all being said, I fully expect those companies to be headed straight downwards in the coming years. With that in mind--and believe me, throughout my reading of "Liar's Poker", it was at the forefront of my mind--this book is a revealing look that uses readable terminology and a briskly flowing, engaging, and oftentimes hilarious writing style to turn what could easily be an incomprehensible tale of complicated economic matters into an eminently understandable account that will keep anyone entertained. And, I hasten to add, horrified. There's a lot of ridiculous, stupid, reckless shit going on in this book, and the fact that all of it really happened is downright frightening. After reading "Liar's Poker", you'll find yourself thinking of Wall Street traders as billionaire gamblers with nothing to go on but hunches and superstitions. You'll probably be right, too. After all, as Lewis points out on numerous occasions throughout this book, if you have enough money, you can cover up any mistakes. And at this point in history, 20 years after the conclusion of this narrative, there's no doubt in my mind that Wall Street traders are behaving several orders of magnitude more recklessly than they were during the 80s.
If you're scared about the state of our economy going forward and gallows humor is your thing, this book is a perfect read for you right now. You can laugh yourself sick at all the ridiculous bullshit that people at places like Merrill Lynch were (and no doubt still are) doing. If, on the other hand, you've got a weak stomach, you might want to give this one a miss. It will make you lose sleep.
Six Bad Things, by Charlie Huston
I've loved every other Charlie Huston book I've read so far (those being all four of the Joe Pitt novels, as well as the first of the Hank Thompson trilogy, of which "Six Bad Things" is the second), and I enjoyed this one too. However, I'd definitely have to rank it my least favorite Huston novel thus far. I think the main reason for that is that the main character started to lose my sympathy somewhat in this novel. In "Caught Stealing", Hank Thompson took a lot of abuse and dealt out a lot more. This is true in "Six Bad Things" as well, but some of the abuse he deals out seems less deserved and more gratuitous, and some of the bad events he suffers seem a bit less plausible and, again, more gratuitous. I understand that Huston is trying to push some crime-novel envelopes here, and he's to be credited for that, but I think he might push it a bit too far in this one. I'll still read the final book in the trilogy, "A Dangerous Man", but considering the fact that I enjoyed this one less as it went along, and the fact that I'm particularly unhappy with the ending of "Six Bad Things" and the position it left the main character in, I don't really expect too much. Right now, I'm a lot more excited to read Huston's latest, "The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death". I know that the Hank Thompson trilogy are the first three books Huston had published, so I'm hoping that their relatively lower quality is more due to the fact that they were written by a novice than anything else, and that the upward trend I've now observed running from the Hank Thompson to the Joe Pitt novels only continues from here. Guess we'll see.
Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days And Party Nights of The Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, by Jeff Pearlman
OK, first of all, as a Washington Redskins fan, I fucking hate the Dallas Cowboys. It's something I was raised to do, and they've given me plenty of excuses to maintain that policy in the 25 or so years that I've spent following professional football (I started when I was 5, and I'm 33 now; the missing years in there are the late 90s, when Norv Turner coached the Redskins and hope vanished from the lives of Redskins fans for years. I just couldn't stand to watch for a few years there). The Redskins have never been a star-driven team; instead, they're generally coached by people who believe in old-school smashmouth football, as best personified by Joe Gibbs, who coached the Redskins throughout my childhood and led them to three Super Bowl wins. Back in those days, the Cowboys were coached by aging Hall Of Famer Tom Landry, who'd started out as the defensive coach of the Giants back in the 50s. I hated him too, don't get me wrong, but I could at least respect him. That all changed when I was 13; filthy rich Texas oilman Jerry Jones purchased the Cowboys, fired Landry, and brought in ethically-challenged Miami Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson. This is the point at which Dallas really began to justify my hatred for them, and, not at all coincidentally, the starting point of this book.
Author Jeff Pearlman knows that he's latched onto a hell of a narrative here, and he tells the story in high style, detailing the heights of insanity and depths of debauchery that were the hallmark of the 90s Cowboys, even as they took over from the Redskins as the NFC East team most likely to win the Super Bowl in any given year (grumble grumble). Pearlman tells stories you've never heard before, about Troy Aikman battling with the Dallas media, Michael Irvin indulging in drugs and sex for hire, and most notoriously, about monstrous defensive lineman Charles Haley's propensity for indecent exposure, which is one of those truth is stranger than fiction things that's hard to believe for me even after reading so many corroborating quotes, both in this book and in articles about it. Pearlman's narrative is often humorous and ribald, and keeps this book far more entertaining than the most recent football-related book I read, "War As They Knew It". Where that book maintained a studied impartiality and a factual delivery of the history, Pearlman's narrative moves with the emotional tenor of each scene he describes, and keeps the reader emotionally invested in all of them. And I WAS emotionally invested. Even though I was horrified whenever I found myself sympathizing with the Cowboys as a team, I often felt compelled by the stories of individual players. Growing up, I felt a rival fan's instinctive rage and repulsion at the mention of players like Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith, but at various points while reading this book, I found myself concerned about them, and how their stories would turn out. All of them came off, in the end, as standup guys, even if some (Irvin) had quite a few personal demons to struggle with.
On the other hand, a couple of the biggest players in this story did not come off as standup guys. Jerry Jones has always seemed to me like a guy with more money than sense, at least where football is concerned, and "Boys Will Be Boys" makes it abundantly clear that Jones indeed values his ego above the success of his team as a whole. He doesn't know when to delegate, and has made a career out of drafting players that go bust in a hurry. Of course, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has problems of his own in this area--while he's not his own general manager, he does employ his best friend, Vinny Cerrato, in this position, which has largely the same results--but that being said, the Redskins still aren't nearly as likely to reach for high maintenance prima donna veterans that have been run off from other ball clubs due to behavioral problems as Jerry Jones is. There were stories in the book of him behaving this way with Deion Sanders and others that very closely parallel his more recent escapades with Terrell Owens and Adam "Pacman" Jones. Some things never change, I suppose. All of that having been said, Jerry Jones, to his credit, at least seems like a nice enough guy on a personal level. Jimmy Johnson comes off like a flaming asshole throughout this book. He may have been a good coach, and the record shows that he indeed was, especially considering the shape of the Dallas club that he took over in 1989, after a few years of Tom Landry's obvious decline. That said, he was such a poisonous figure in the team's makeup that he eventually got fired after winning the Super Bowl for the second straight year. That's how little he was liked by the end.
If I go on, this entry will become (even more of) a rant against the Dallas Cowboys, though, so I should probably just stop here. This is a great book. If you like football, you should read it. This is especially true because, regardless of what team you root for, you probably have a very strong opinion about the Cowboys. They're the New York Yankees of football, and for very good reason. Thankfully, they're also an incredibly entertaining team to read about, and it seems like no one could have told the story of their 90s-era rise and fall than Jeff Pearlman has done here. Don't miss this one.
The Last Quarry, by Max Allan Collins
After tremendously enjoying Collins's other Hard Case Crime contribution featuring his hitman character, Quarry, I just had to go back and check out this one as well. Weirdly enough, despite this being "The Last Quarry" and the other Quarry novel I read being "The First Quarry", this one was actually written first. It tells the story of a much older Quarry, who stumbles upon an old mob associate while living as a retired resort-keeper on the shores of a lake in Minnesota. This book is an expansion of two different short stories Collins wrote that starred Quarry, and this is reasonably easy to tell due to the somewhat episodic structure of the novel. It all hangs together well, though, and it's such a quick and engaging read that I finished the whole thing in a mere few hours. The way the plot will finally all come together at the end is tough to guess in advance, and I only even understood it as well as I did because I read Collins's afterword first. There are mild spoilers in said afterword, so don't do what I did if you don't want to give yourself a couple of crucial clues that will let you know what to look for. I'm kind of sorry I did so, myself. It didn't hurt my enjoyment of this book any, though, so in the end all was well.
And yet again, a Max Allan Collins novel turns out to be gold. Who knew that the first crime writer I ever discovered in my life (first with his Batman comics writing in the late 80s, when I was 11 years old, then with his novel "True Detective", which I found in the library when I was 13) would end up being one of my all-time favorites? But over a dozen novels later, Collins continues to deliver time and time again. His consistency is admirable and, from a reader's perspective, rewarding.
Halting State, by Charles Stross
This book is set up in a daunting manner. The narrative switches between three different points of view, and each of them is told in the second person, present tense. For example: "You check out your shoulder in the bathroom mirror. That's quite some bruise Mike landed on you at the club." Between the somewhat disorienting second-person approach and the constantly shifting viewpoints, "Halting State" can be a challenging book to engage with. This is leaving aside the rather technical nature of much of its narrative; the book tells the story of a software company that's had a bank robbery occur inside one of its most popular video games, which threatens to disrupt its imminent IPO and lose it assloads of money. One of the characters is the local cop inexplicably summoned to the scene of this virtual robbery, while the other two are working for the parent company of the robbed software company. Or something like that. There's a lot of technical jargon, about stocks, international relations, banking, video games, and hypothetical technologies that Stross is creating as he relates the narrative. Did I mention that this book takes place a decade from now, in a future that is, technologically speaking, borderline unrecognizable to a citizen of our current time? Well, it does. Having only read Stross's "Merchant Princes" series before now, I was unprepared for what he gets up to when he really lets his science-fictional side run wild.
That said, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Sure, there are technical elements that were discussed at points in the narrative that I didn't understand as I read them, but they were never central enough to the plot to confuse my understanding of the story as a whole. I do wish Stross was a bit better at explaining points like this, as, for example, Neal Stephenson is, but that's a minor quibble. Really, if you strip away the technological bells and whistles, as well as the scientific grounding of the novel's central conceit, what you have here is a fast-moving espionage novel. You've probably got to have at least somewhat of a geeky, sci-fi oriented mindset to enjoy this, so I don't exactly recommend passing it along to your great uncle who loves John Le Carre, but it's really not that different from his Le Carre novels for all that. What's more, I think it would make a great movie. It's fast-moving, features a complicated and engaging plot, and throws around plenty of big ideas to engage the geek in all of us. It's well worth checking out, and it only further cements my impression that pretty much any book by Charles Stross is worth picking up... even the ones that are slightly confusing at points.
Heartsick, by Chelsea Cain
This was an intense, brutal crime novel that also featured quite a bit of emotional depth. I was pretty impressed with the author's ability to explore the wounded psyches of the two main characters, detective Archie Sheridan and newspaper reporter Susan Ward, without making either of them seem insane or even hard to empathize with. The book focuses around the first case Archie Sheridan has taken on since spending four years heading the Beauty Killer task force, attempting to catch a serial killer in the Portland, Oregon area. Archie caught her, all right, but maybe it'd be truer to say that she caught him. Gretchen Lowell, The Beauty Killer, spent days torturing Archie, at one point killing him and then rescuscitating him, before finally calling 911 and surrendering him and herself to the authorities. [None of this is a spoiler--it is revealed in the first ten pages of the book.:] Now, after Archie has spent two years on disability leave, he's returned to the police force to attempt to track down another serial killer. He still has a pretty massive painkiller addiction, which seems less than healthy, but he is able to function, although he must get rides from his partner or call a cab whenever he needs to go somewhere. Susan Ward, a writer for the most prominent daily paper in Portland, has been assigned to write an ongoing series of feature stories on Archie. Her father died when she was still quite young, and now, she seems to have some self-esteem issues, which show up in her less than healthy love life. Very soon after the book begins, we know that both of our main characters have serious problems. From there, though, the plot mainly focuses on the serial killer that Archie is trying to catch, although it seems pretty likely that both Archie and Susan's issues will factor into the story by its end. Gretchen Lowell has a role to play as well, and while it wasn't very different from the Hannibal Lecter-ish role I expected her to play when the book began, Chelsea Cain's use of the character managed to differentiate itself enough from Thomas Harris's use of Hannibal Lecter to avoid seeming too derivative.
One thing that's been noted quite a bit in discussions of this book is the graphic nature of the violence within it. The violence that we see occurring, as well as its bloody aftermath, is often described in near-clinical detail. That's not to say that it reads like a medical textbook--oh, not at all. Instead, the descriptions of violent acts, and of beaten, mutilated corpses, which occur on multiple occasions throughout the book, are shocking in a visceral sense. The effects of the violence, the physical damage that is inflicted on some of these characters, is intense enough that I would go so far as to warn those with weak stomachs away from this book. I'm not usually that bothered by the gross parts of even the most brutal crime and horror novels, but I've encountered some exceptions in my time, and this is definitely one of them. Proceed with caution.
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Now that I've finally read this book, I can see why it's considered a classic. Margaret Atwood's tale of a (somewhat) post-apocalyptic future in which religious conservatives have overtaken the United States of America and established a dictatorship based around a rigid caste system for women not only presents a potential future that is as terrifying as it is fascinating, it does so in beautiful language, with strong storytelling and stunningly well-defined, multi-dimensional characters. This book would probably be a classic simply because of its subject matter, and could have been elevated to its current regard even if written with much sparer, more workmanlike prose. However, the thing that makes it truly great is what a great writer Margaret Atwood is. I was reading this book for a book club, and finished it before the discussion with only hours to spare, but nonetheless, I sometimes could not help but linger over a particular sentence or paragraph that stood out to me. And make no mistake, many of them did.
This book has a lot to offer, on multiple levels, and none of that should be neglected. But if you come for the social commentary, you will most likely stay for the excellent writing on display. Don't miss this one.
Money For Nothing, by Donald E. Westlake
The recent death of crime fiction pioneer Donald Westlake has been a clear reminder to me that I haven't read nearly enough of his stuff. This is a lot of why I picked up "Money For Nothing," just to begin familiarizing myself more thoroughly with his work. It was such an awesome book, though, that I ended up having more fun doing so than I ever could have foreseen.
"Money For Nothing" begins with a young man named Josh Redmont, who begins receiving $1000 checks in the mail every month apropos of nothing. He's not destitute, but he's definitely still making a small enough amount of money to be strongly tempted by the not-insignificant monthly sum. When he deposits the first one and it clears, he's sort of nervous, unsure of whether someone will eventually correct what he assumes is an error, and demand their money back. But after seven years of getting the checks, he's long since grown used to them, and now deposits and spends them without a second thought. In the interim, he's acquired a young wife, Eve, and the two of them have a two-year old son, Jeremy. Therefore, Josh is totally unprepared when a man from a former Soviet country shows up and informs him that he, a sleeper agent, has now been activated, and needs to start performing certain small tasks for his employers as payback for all the money he's been getting over the years. Josh plays it cool while in the presence of this man, Levrin, but immediately sets out to locate the man who Levrin names as having initially recruited him, Mr. Nimrin. When Josh locates Mr. Nimrin, he learns that his checks were originally part of a moneymaking scheme on Mr. Nimrin's part, that the scheme was disrupted 7 years ago by Nimrin's arrest, and that if Josh gives Levrin any clue that he's not actually a sleeper agent, he and his family, along with Nimrin himself, will surely be killed.
This all happens in the first 20 to 30 pages, and this book is a nonstop wild ride from this point on. Josh is in over his head, and realizes this from the first, but nonetheless decides that he's going to get himself and his family out of this situation, which he sees as leading to certain doom sooner or later. Plus, he doesn't like that he's acting against the interests of his own country. But it quickly becomes apparent that getting out of the situation is going to be even harder than it initially seems, and Josh is off on a frantic, nonstop effort that is considerably complicated by the appearance of other sleeper agents, both faked ones "recruited" by Mr. Nimrin and real ones connected with Levrin and his crew. There are points in this novel at which the madcap action starts seeming quite humorous, which was no doubt intentional on Westlake's part, and is a nice counterpoint to the work of his with which I'm much more familiar, his dark crime novels written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. For a long time, I considered the Stark writings the more interesting and important part of Westlake's work, but I think that idea might be due for a reevaluation. If "Money For Nothing" is any indication, the books under his own name, while quite different in tone, are every bit as entertaining.