What I've been reading recently.
The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death, by Charlie Huston
A couple of months ago, I was really excited to get this book, but since it took longer than I expected for the copy I ordered to arrive, I ended up feeding my jones for Charlie Huston books by reading "Six Bad Things" instead. As I mentioned in my review of that book, it was the first Charlie Huston book I'd read that didn't live up to my expectations. As a result, I ended up getting spooked away from this book, and once it arrived, I let it sit on my to-be-read shelf (yes, I don't just have a pile for this, but an entire bookshelf) for close to a month before finally picking it up. I just didn't want a book that I'd been so excited for to let me down the way "Six Bad Things" had. As long as I didn't actually start reading it, it was Schrodinger's crime novel, if you know what I mean.
But, well, last week I needed something to read while I waited for the signifcantly lengthier UK edition of Simon Reynolds' "Rip It Up And Start Again" to arrive (more about that will doubtless be hitting the feed in a week or so), and in spite of my misgivings, I quickly realized that "The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death" was the best thing I had in the queue. So I picked it up, I started reading it, and within 20 pages or so, all of my doubts had been laid to rest. In fact, I can now report that this book stands at an equal level with Huston's previous high water marks, "Caught Stealing," "Already Dead," and "No Dominion." It might even be better than those books, in fact.
"Mystic Arts" introduces us to a new ongoing character in the Hustonverse, Webster Fillmore Goodhue, known to his friends (what few he has left) as Web. He's freeloading off his oldest friend, Chev, a tattoo artist, behaving like a complete asshole to close family members and complete strangers alike, and spending something like 14 hours a day asleep. Web's background is opaque to us at first, but one thing is clear: something is wrong in his mind.
As soon as the book starts, Web pulls a totally lame move on his friend Chev, one which requires him to get a job and pay Chev back with the quickness. He hooks up with Chev's biohazard disposal man, a large Chinese man named Po Sin, who has an opening in his business for a trauma cleaner. Maybe you're not the sort of person who has ever wondered who cleans up the mess left after a deadly car crash, or after someone has committed suicide by means of a gun in the mouth, but if you have, rest assured that there are businesses out there who earn a living doing exactly that. That's what Web is doing in order to earn the money he needs to pay Chev back, and that's what he's doing when he meets Soledad, a young woman whose father has just blown his brains out. Web is attracted to her, which is why he comes running when she needs someone to do some late-night, hush-hush trauma cleanup. That's how Web and his smart mouth get both himself and Po Sin into a really problematic situation, one that involves stupid redneck smugglers, a spoiled young man with more money than sense who fancies himself a movie producer, and large amounts of almonds. Complicating all of this is Web's own precarious mental stability, Chev's budding relationship with a cute 18-year old that Web despises, and vicious rival trauma cleaners who will stop at nothing to win their current turf war with Po Sin and his crew. Huston keeps the reader guessing, constantly adding layers to the plot and jumping back and forth from one plot thread to another, finally weaving them all together for a surprising and hard-hitting climax. In fact, I ended up missing my chance to get lunch before work last Tuesday because I just couldn't make myself put this book down without finishing it. I may have had some misgivings coming into this book after "Six Bad Things," but it turns out that I needn't have worried. Charlie Huston is not only at the top of his game, he seems to be getting better as he goes. I'll be waiting eagerly for whatever he decides to grace us with next.
Grave Sight, by Charlaine Harris
I read through this book quickly, in two settings, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I read it for a book club that I am sort of a member of (only "sort of" because I only ever started reading the books they were reading because they meet at the store where I work, while I'm working), and wasn't sure if I'd get much of anything out of it. It is a book that walks the tightrope between two currently-popular genres, "cozy romance-themed mystery" and "chick-lit paranormal mystery." Not being the target demographic for either of these categories, I wasn't sure what this book would have to offer me. While it was hardly deathless classic literature, though, I did find myself enjoying it.
For one thing, I wasn't expecting it to have as dark of a tone as it had. The main character, Harper Connelly, was struck by lightning as a teenager. In addition to the recurring health problems that she's had ever since, she also gained the ability to detect corpses, and to see how they died. Working with her (step)brother, Tolliver, she parlayed this ability into a career, doing freelance work finding bodies and naming causes of death for curious relatives and others with an interest in such things. This is a rather dodgy and unreliable line of work, as the plot of "Grave Sight" shows us.
Harper and Tolliver arrive in a small Arkansas town to attempt to find a local teenaged girl who disappeared months before. She had been dating a local boy who'd been found shot and killed in some woods outside of town months before. A lot of the townsfolk think that the boy, Dell, must have shot the girl, Teenie, and then killed himself. Dell's mother hires Harper to locate Teenie's body and determine how she died, with the hopes of proving that Dell didn't kill her. Harper locates the body quickly, and determines that Dell indeed did not kill Teenie, but instead of calming the situation, this only sets the town into a more pronounced uproar, which drags both Harper and Tolliver right into the middle of it and ends up involving everyone from high school football players to the town drunk to high-powered lawyers and the local sheriff. All of these people are related, you see, in one way or another, and the nature of the town, which has everyone in everyone else's business, makes the whole thing an emotional powderkeg waiting for a spark just like the one Harper has unwittingly struck to send the whole thing sky-high.
Some of the plot points of this book seemed a bit obvious, while others seemed a little tossed-off and not explained all that well in terms of character motivation, but on the whole, I did find the story to be well-told. The characters mostly worked most of the time, and while most of the secondary ones were one-dimensional and not fleshed-out much at all, Harper and Tolliver were at least multi-dimensional, compelling, and sympathetic. In terms of quick, engaging mystery that requires little deep thought, this book did a good job of filling its role. I typically look for more profound reading material than this, and probably won't return to the series anytime soon, but all in all, it really wasn't too bad.
Sunken Treasure, by Wil Wheaton
I've been aware of Wil Wheaton as an actor since I was a kid, having seen "Stand By Me" and various episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when I was as young as 12 years old. However, I've only known of him as a writer for a very short time, since I discovered his blog about 6 months ago. Apparently this is the main focus of his creative endeavors these days, as he has several books out and has been maintaining his blog for close to a decade. I'm glad I finally figured all of this out; I've really enjoyed his blog since starting to read it recently. That's why, when he announced that he was self-publishing a short collection of writing that would make a good introduction for new fans, I went ahead and ordered myself a copy.
"Sunken Treasure" is a quick and enjoyable read that you can get through in a couple of hours before getting out of bed on a lazy Sunday morning, which is exactly how I read it this morning. And actually, I'd say that "Sunken Treasure" is probably worth it for even the long-running Wheaton fans. While it's rather short at 84 pages, only about 30 of those pages have been published in previous books of his, making 2/3 of this material new even to those who've bought all of his books. And that material is some of the most worthwhile stuff here; I particularly enjoyed the volume's longest piece, a production diary from his recent guest-star turn on the TV show Criminal Minds. This diary takes up about the last third of the book, and does a great job of giving random readers like myself who've never done any sort of acting an idea of what it's like to work on a TV show. I think it helped that I prepared for reading the book by making sure to catch the episode when it aired, so that I could compare Wil's behind-the-scenes descriptions to my memories of the finished episode (which, for the record, was quite good).
That wasn't the only thing I enjoyed here, though. The stories of Star Wars toys and arcade games that he loved as a child could have come from my own memories, while his stories about happy moments with his wife and teenaged sons made me think that maybe the domestic, family-man lifestyle isn't quite as bad as I've always imagined it to be. I even enjoyed his recap of a Star Trek: TNG episode that I've never seen, especially in the moments when he stepped back from his rather snarky recap (which, don't get me wrong, was itself fun and amusing) to share some of his personal feelings about working on the show. His heartfelt frustration at playing a character that ended up being hated by a great many Star Trek fans, and further at feeling like it wasn't his fault, that his hands were tied by writing failures and flawed character decisions, was something I found myself empathizing with. It sucks to carry the blame for something that, for the most part, is not your fault.
Ultimately, what I get from this book is that Wil Wheaton is a really nice guy with a pretty happy life. He's gifted with the ability to communicate the joys and, occasionally, the sorrows of his life to his readers in clear language that's easy to relate to. He knows how to tell an entertaining story. And ultimately, he's an incredibly likeable person, whose writing I want to read more of, as soon as I get the chance. If Wil's goal with this short sampler was to inspire more sales of his other books, well, he sure has succeeded where I'm concerned. I plan to pick up some more of his stuff as soon as I get the chance.
Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84, by Simon Reynolds
This is what happened: I bought the US edition of this book back when it was released, read it, loved it. Six months or so later, I learned that the original UK edition had been cut all to hell for its US release. Something like 200 pages had been removed in order to pare the US edition down to its 400 page final length. I was shocked and appalled, but never knew quite how to get myself a copy of the UK edition, short of doing an international order through Amazon UK, which I told myself would be prohibitively expensive. So that was all there was to it, for a long time.
Then, a couple of months ago, I came into a large sum of money (four figures) with which I was free to purchase whatever I wanted. Well, in addition to paying off all of my past due utility bills and purchasing the laptop I'm currently typing this review on (a steal at $450), I went ahead and did the Amazon UK order to obtain the original, director's-cut edition of "Rip It Up And Start Again." Boy, am I glad I did. The 400 page edition that I originally read was thoroughly enjoyable, but it still couldn't compare to the author's original intention. With smaller print, the UK edition still came out to be 125 more pages than the US edition, and where the US edition included no pictures at all, the UK edition presented at least one image every half-dozen pages or so. I finally got to see the Scritti Politti EP cover depicting the squalor in which they lived, as well as photos from Throbbing Gristle and James Chance performances, amongst many other things. And the text was greatly expanded, not just in additional coverage for bands that had been unmentioned in the US text but also in additional sections, sometimes great portions of one chapter or another that were completely removed, which I was now reading for the first time. It was a revelation to me, especially since the sections that were removed often dealt with bands that I'd been far less likely to already know about than the bands that were left in the truncated manuscript.
All of this is just a comparison between two editions, though. What's really important here is the work itself, and in reading this book, the first work I ever encountered by Simon Reynolds, I found myself going from barely aware of him to being a huge fan. That experience is only amplified by reading this new, expanded edition. Reynolds is one of the best music writers I've ever read, able to integrate literate, intensely rational analysis of the ideas behind particular groups and their recorded works, with far more emotionally-centered reactions to the feel and sound that those works ultimately emanated. Reynolds is more of a Greil Marcus than a Lester Bangs, but he's able to incorporate the strengths of both of these writers as well as those of many others, including British rock critics that I'm, again, less familiar with than I should be, into an ecumenical overall approach that leaves no stone unturned in its in-depth analysis of bands, scenes, movements, and overall periods in punk/rock history. I say "periods" because this book, despite its subtitular reference to postpunk, covers a great deal more than just that few years after the dissolution of the Sex Pistols in which Joy Division and Public Image Ltd. represented the cream of the creative crop. The book delves deeply into the New Wave/"New Pop" movements of the early 80s, probing the depths of synthpop and fey British "haircut bands" to find the serious ideas and important creative moments that were at the root of a great deal of the era. In so doing, Reynolds makes a persuasive case for the likes of the "Don't You Want Me" era Human League, Duran Duran, and even Culture Club. I almost find myself wanting to give certain era-defining synthpop albums another listen. Almost.
Ultimately, that's the biggest tribute to the power of Reynolds's writing here. He not only makes me want to dig out records by groups I like that I haven't heard in quite a while, but also records by groups I've always hated. If his writing unearths a valuable truth or a worthwhile musical moment on the second Culture Club album or in Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax," I feel like I should hear it again, even though I'd ordinarily tell you that I'd be happy if I never heard any of that garbage again. That's enough to tell me that this is a writer worth paying attention to. "Rip It Up And Start Again" may be the first Simon Reynolds book I've ever read, but it won't be the last.
Appaloosa, by Robert B. Parker
I read this book for a book club that normally tackles literary classics and works that we feel have some sort of resonance in the wider world. This time, though, a new member of the group picked something out, and we ended up reading this Western novel, which I personally blew through in a day. I'm not sure what motivated him to pick it, as there were really no wider cultural resonances here that seemed to me to have any significance. This is pure pulp Western, narrated by a hard-working lawman who is quick on the draw and always able to do what he needs to do to keep the peace. Of course, sometimes that means killing people. In fact, in this book, it often means killing people. Our lawman narrator, Everett Hitch, is second fiddle, though, to Virgil Cole, an even tougher, even faster, even more successful lawman who is depicted as somewhat of a sociopath. Hitch backs up Cole rather than taking the lead on any particular operations, but sometimes it also seems that he's there to keep Cole in line, to check his more violent impulses.
In this book, Cole and Hitch hire on as marshals in a town called Appaloosa, where a local rancher has killed the previous marshal and basically taken over the town. He and his men take whatever they want for free and rape and murder at will. The town is tired of the situation and expect Cole and Hitch to fix it. Which they do, at first. It's what happens after that that causes the problem.
And don't get me wrong, I enjoyed reading about all of it. It was a fun, pulpy novel about crime and violence in the old West. I like crime novels anyway, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this one. But it wasn't quite what I expected, and certainly isn't some sort of deathless work of literature. So hey, this book is pretty fun, but I can't say it's amazing or anything. Good, not great.
When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir Of A Political Childhood, by Said Sayrafiezadeh
This memoir of a childhood in the Socialist Workers Party interested me mainly because of my own interactions in the past with radical political groups, and also because the author is a Gen-Xer like me (typing that makes me gag... I mean it somewhat jokingly) and I think all of us had at least somewhat alienated childhoods. So I was interested in reading about his, and although his experience was quite different from mine--absentee father; withdrawn, moodswinging mother; childhood spent mostly alone--I could really understand where he was coming from. His own inability to connect with other children sometimes had more to do with his being Iranian during a time of widespread hostility towards Iran in the United States than anything else, but still, it's something I've lived through myself. His stunted relationships with his parents were also something I could understand, even if, again, the circumstances couldn't be more different than my own.
The real reason I enjoyed this book as much as I did, though, is because of Sayrafiezadeh's writing style, which is evocative of emotion without being overwritten. He's good at staying subtle, at showing instead of telling, of giving us his perspective of a particular situation in a way that makes clear what reaction he'd have to it and why. Another interesting factor in the telling is the stuff he inserts in which he talks about his adult life, living on his own in New York, trying to make it as an actor, having uncomfortable and infrequent interactions with his parents, trying to date. And through it all, there's the thread of his indoctrination into Socialist Workers Party ideology at a very young age, forever affecting his thought patterns and making him feel set apart from everyone else he meets. This was the most interesting part, for me; I've always felt like the radical political movements that I encounter encourage the sort of blind faith that is just as often part and parcel with evangelical Christianity, and this book made it clear that this is true, or at least that it was for both Said Sayrafiezadeh and both of his parents. The way Said writes the book makes it clear that he has started to question a lot of these beliefs now, but that back when these stories occurred, his own dim understanding of them was often a source of discomfort. I feel like this book, if nothing else, once again proves that it's not a good idea to adhere too closely to one particular school of thought where politics is concerned, to make up your own mind on specific issues and not let a pre-designed ideology box in your own thought patterns. By the end of the book, you can tell that Said has learned this lesson, even if, again, he never says so. In a book that is more often depressing than uplifting, it's nice to at least come away with this one positive conclusion.
Broken Summers, by Henry Rollins
This was my second time reading this book, which collects Rollins' journal entries from 2002 and 2003, which mostly focus on the album of Black Flag covers he and his band did as a benefit for the West Memphis 3, as well as the tour they did in support of that album. This book intrigued me the first time I read it, as Rollins seemed to be moving away from the dark, misanthropic tone that often pervades in his books of journal entries. Granted, he still seemed closed off from the human race to an extent I find uncomfortable to even contemplate, but I could see some hope for him. Since that first reading, though, I've read "A Dull Roar," a more recent collection of journal entries, in which it seemed that his perspective had returned to previous high levels of misanthropy. Now, with a second reading of "Broken Summers," I see far less of the hope that I saw in my original reading. Looking back now, I'm not even sure where I was getting that. For the most part, Rollins continues to have a pretty antisocial attitude towards humanity. If anything, I can see hints in this book that he's sometimes disappointed in the bad behavior of other people rather than angered by it, but those moments of sadness are mitigated by other moments of absolute anger.
In sum, it adds up to a pretty entertaining book that delivers on what I look for in a book by Henry Rollins. His perspective on the world is always unique and interesting, and he often says things that I can relate to on a deep level. I'm not sure if this is a good thing, since the things he's saying that I relate to tend to be pretty bleak, but at least I can feel like someone understands. I admit that, in reading these books, I often find myself wishing for happiness for Rollins, but I can see that, due to his unique lifestyle, worldview, and experiences, that it will be hard for him to ever attain such a thing, or even to describe what it would look like for him. I guess this is one of the things I relate most closely to him in--I don't really know what a happy life for me would look like, either. I hope that both of us find it someday. Until then, though, I'm sure I will continue to enjoy these books of journal entries that Rollins releases onto the world every few years or so.