January 22, 2017

January 21, 2017
by David Levithan

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My Take: It’s a shame that one cannot drive a book as you drive a car. The good people at Ford or Kia or Volkswagen or wherever do the hard work; they design the frame, they obtain the carpet, they make sure you have an auxiliary outlet so that all you have to do is pay for it and drive it. But a book ain’t a car, which was my biggest frustration reading David Levithan’s EVERY DAY. Levithan has built a beauty of a car, but never drove it the places I as the reader wanted to go. Part of this could be the limitations of the book being a Young Adult novel, but the rest seems to be the clumsy handing of characters and situations. The book is about A, who everyday wakes up in the body of a 16-year-old in the greater Maryland area. Since A was a baby “it” has awoken in a body of a person the same age as A. Each day A has to navigate a new body, a new race, a new religion, a new home situation and more importantly a new sex. A has to do this leaving as little an imprint as they can (A’s rules; it certainly would not be mine). Apparently the person wakes the next morning with just hazy memories of the previous day. This changes when A, in the guise of sullen teen Justin, meets Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon and falls in love. Several bodies (days) later he meets her when they are Nathan, a religious straight arrow. Nathan meets Rhiannon at a party, yada yada yada and falls even deeper. However, he doesn’t get Nathan back home in time and he goes to sleep on the side of the road. When Nathan awakes he thinks he has been possessed by the devil and fortunately he has A’s email and demands to know what happened. A must keep Nathan at bay even as he tells Rhiannon who they are, meeting her each day in a different body. Levithan’s point is that love can take many forms and each day Rhiannon must learn to accept a different person physically. Some of the bodies that A inhabits are written kindly and some are just the briefest of character notes. One character, an obese 16-year-old, is written so offensively compared to other bodies. It’s the day after Rhiannon meets the overweight A that she decides this isn’t for her. Levithan’s theme is that our bodies do not make us who we are which he immediate undercuts once A is having trouble lifting his obese frame out of bed (A is surprised that this body has friends at school). From there the Nathan subplot peters out and we are left with this fascinating storyline that ran out of gas on the outskirts of town, but man, those first twenty miles or so were fun.    

January 20, 2017

January 18, 2017
by Jamie Brickhouse

* * * * 1/2

My Take: As a social worker I’ve read an unknown number of recovery stories, but Jamie Brickhouse’s 2015 memoir DANGEROUS WHEN WET sprinkles wit, fabulousness and alcoholism in equal portions, with an overriding center in Jamie’s mother, Beaumont, Texas’ Mama Jean. Brickhouse, born in Texas in 1968, realizes he’s different pretty early, and what could be a standard “how I became gay” memoir takes a slow turn into Brickhouse’s abuse of alcohol. Brickhouse leads an enviable life in NYC, with an understanding boyfriend, a nice apartment, a good job in publishing and a plethora of friends, but what seems to begin as social drinking grows into an addiction, which, paired with a sex addiction, eventually takes over Jamie’s life, effecting his relationships with his boyfriend, work peers and worst of all, Mama Jean. Brickhouse doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties of recovery and relapse. DANGEROUS WHEN WET does what a memoir is supposed to do – tell an interesting story in an interesting way with interesting characters. A top-notch addition to the recovery memoir genre.

January 3, 2017
by Wilton Barnhardt

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My Take: Wilton Barnhardt’s novel EMMA WHO SAVED MY LIFE was a surprise, a recommendation from a friend that has since became one of my favorite books and one that I am constantly recommending. Barnhardt has (as of 2017) written four novels, beginning with EMMA in 1989 through 2013’s LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY (GOSPEL, his early 90s entry, I have yet to read). The 2013 novel was terrific southern lit, but this one, 1998’s SHOW WORLD, is a different beast altogether. I am not sure who Barnhardt’s influences are, but SHOW WORLD seems to be a bid at the kind of entertaining Olivia Goldsmith novel of the 1990s. Samantha Flint, the protagonist, leaves middle class Missouri for school in New England in 1978, where she befriends New Yorker Mimi Mohr. The less said about the plot the better, but the novel follows Samantha through NY, DC and LA as she becomes less altruistic and more worldly. Barnhardt has a great time skewering DC and LA culture, but adds nothing that writers before him did better. By the third act the novel commits a cardinal sin – it’s not even entertaining. It seems the novelist never has a coherent picture of Flint or Mohr and their characterizations are all over the map. Side characters, like Samantha’s sisters and Mimi’s uncle are more interesting and when the book leaves them, I, as the reader, became discouraged. That all being said, the man who wrote the above-mentioned EMMA can write pretty much anything he wants, and his experimentations, even when they fail, are better than 90% of today’s best-sellers.

January 13, 2017

December 30, 2016
by Tucker Max

* * * 1/2

My Take: Fratire author Tucker Max’s third book is more of the same, a constant barrage from the id of a raging narcissist. But this book resembles a roller coaster on the last loop, and Max seems to be quietly telling his fan base that he has changed. The reason it seems he has is because most of the stories revolve around his friends, with Max a not-so-innocent bystander to a cavalcade of bachelor nights, wedding weekends and half-there employment. It would be great to have a full biography of Max and not just random stories tied together (would love for David Sedaris and Tucker Max to audiobook each other’s work), since Max is all over the place with cities, states and jobs. Some internet research shows me that Max is now married with a child and working on teaching self-publishing, very suburban dad. This begs the question of who is the real Tucker Max, since it seems odd that the raging id of the trilogy of books could make that change. That being said, his un-PC, filthy and disgusting anecdotes still makes me laugh.  

December 24, 2016
by Marc Spitz

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My Take: Author and Journalist MARC SPITZ has added his own Generation X memoir, one that is a roaring success until repetition gets the best of it. Born in 1970, Spitz traverses high school trips from Long Island into New York City (reminiscent of that mammoth novel CITY ON FIRE), schooling the at prestigious (and expensive) Bennington College, a summer in the Chelsea Hotel, Drugs, Drugs and a job at SPIN magazine. The author becomes a junkie, detailing the use of heroin in a realistic PERMANENT MIDNIGHT-like way. Spitz namedrops throughout, but always in fun, including some dates with post-KIDS pre-BOYS DON’T CRY Chloe Sevigny. Pre-gentrification 1980s-90s Lower East Side is romanticized and Spitz paints an impressive picture of the addicts, musicians and hanger-ons. High school, college and the junkie struggles make for memorable read. Once he gets the job at SPIN there are many references to the post 9/11 music scene, which is where the repetition comes in. Stories about the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand just don’t pack the same wallop as the previous excursions. Even an e-mail friendship with Courtney Love withers in Spitz’s prose. If Spitz had just concentrated on those earlier moments the book would have been perfect. Even COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER stops before too much fame.

December 21, 2016

December 20, 2016
by Donald E. Westlake

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My Take: THE CUTIE, originally titled THE MERCENERIES, is a 2009 release from the noirish Hard Case Crime series. Originally published in 1960, prolific crime writer Donald E. Westlake has delivered a brawling New York tale of gangsters, molls, two-but junkies and Broadway producers. Unfortunately for junkie Billy-Billy Cantell, he awoke from a trip next to Mavis St. Paul, deceased with a knife in her back. Our hero, Clay, legman for mobster Ed Ganolese, searches for “the cutie” that the syndicate thinks set Billy-Billy up, bringing the wrath of the cops to Ed’s daily grifts. THE CUTIE (which has a misleading HCC cover) weaves and bobs like a veteran prizefighter who’s been long in the game. 1960 NYC is painted with a vivid brush, from the Bronx to the Village, utilizing a unique cast of characters that fall to the left of the term “hard-boiled.”  

December 9, 2016

December 8, 2016
by Tobias Wolff

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My Take: Aren’t short stories amazing? As where a novel often times gives the reader time to lounge in another world, with different people and strange, yet sometimes familiar situations, a collection of short stories lets you peer in many windows. I think at some point most of us, at least the more curious of us, have sat on the Subway, or at Subway, and seen the various people and wonder what their story is. A collection of short stories allows you to act out that fantasy. That being said, Tobias Wolff’s 1985 collection of stories, BACK IN THE WORLD, gives glimpses of many characters and situations that play out in the Pacific Northwest. The best three, THE POOR ARE ALWAYS WITH US, DESERT BREAKDOWN 1968 and THE RICH BROTHER all involve cars to some degree, and the tentative bond that we have with each other. There are seven other, equally enjoyable stories, but it’s these three where Wolff shines. Wolff’s prose is like that of a Southern writer without the collection of grotesques, and without the Waspish sensibilities and Jewish insecurities of the Yates-Updike-Roth style. While not western, Wolff has given his own take on a unique American landscape, one populated with fog and ennui.

November 26, 2016

November 26, 2016
by Dito Montiel

* * * * 1/2

My Take: I’m sure I’ve told this story elsewhere in my blog, but I don’t really want to let down my two subscribers. In 1988 I transferred from a local junior college in Georgia to a state school in Alabama, which is in the central time zone, meaning that it gets dark pretty early there, bringing with it a crushing depression. I left my few friends back home and didn’t really take to college life, being just a dumb closet case who overcompensated by having crushes on semi-cute girls in my classes. My Walkman was filled each day by the likes of 10,000 Maniacs, Edie Brickell, Michelle Shocked, the Cure and, most potent but the least advisable for a depressed twenty year old, the Smiths. My once a week lifeline was a subscription to THE VILLAGE VOICE, NYC’s weekly covering the city and the arts. This was my nirvana, this was my weekly look into a world I would never know but was fascinated by, just as I was the reptile house at the Atlanta Zoo. This was SLAVES OF NEW YORK, Donald and Ivana, (Still) Grimy Times Square, CBGBs, Joel Steinberg, Spike Lee, SPY magazine, PARIS IS BURNING New York, one that is now only assessable by periodicals and personal accounts. Dito Montiel is one such voice in that era, albeit a minor one. Montiel, who grew up as a thug in Astoria, spent his later years as a boxer, a model, a poet and the lead singer of Gutterboy, known as “the most successful unsuccessful band in history.” His 2003 memoir, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS, is a beautifully written elegy to New York life at the close of the twentieth century. My life, in an Alabama dorm populated by people (I snobbily assumed) who had no idea what was going on in Harlem’s transvestite community, was a solitary one, and, while I’m roughly the same age as Montiel, was living a life quite different. He was talking to pimps behind Lincoln Center or selling cashews on 42nd and 8th, I was eating cheap pizza in my room to reruns of SCTV and thinking about the guy with the Morrissey bumper sticker. This amazing book took me back to those dorm daze and rekindled my feelings of “wasted time” and increased the sparks of a life do-over. Another memoir from Generation X, a generation whose voice is being smothered by the next generation. Montiel chronicles the 1970s in Astoria, a place where a Mafioso sits in every coffee shop and where nightly fights were commonplace. He has a sentimental eye for his childhood friends and aches for what happened to them. Montiel glosses over what put him on a different path, but he treats Manhattan in the 1980s as a personal playground, ending up forming Gutterboy, hanging with Allen Ginsberg and modeling for Bruce Weber, all to the tunes of Sinatra, Baker and the late 80s dying punk movement. A definite time capsule book for those wondering about opening acts for the Stray Cats.

November 21, 2016

November 21, 2016
by Tobias Wolff

* * * * * My Take:  THE BARRACKS THIEF, Tobias Wolfe’s 1984 novel, is not only an incredible example of the “dirty realism” movement of the 1980s, but a well-written, sordid story about the consequences, mentally, when men become reckless. Philip Bishop grows up in Seattle, with a single mother, younger brother and an itinerant father. Restless, he joins the army in 1967 and is stationed in North Carolina at Fort Bragg. One day he and two other new recruits are guarding an ammo dump when a confrontation with a forest fire leads to an aggressive confrontation with some locals, a day that has repercussions for the three men. Wolff, best known for the memoir THIS BOY’S LIFE, shifts tone and point of view seamlessly from Philip’s advantage to an omniscient narrator. 

November 2, 2016
by Kathryn Harrison

* * * * My Take: Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS is the emotional version of a horror film, one with wrong turns, bad kismet and beyond-questionable decisions. Harrison’s memoir, which was a best-seller in the late 1990s, is about a young woman’s affair with her father, a man she only saw a few times as a child. After the last meeting her father began expressing himself inappropriately through letters, phone calls and gifts. Harrison’s father, a minister, is a disturbing figure who seemingly sprang from banality, making Harrison’s journey all the more harrowing. Harrison’s prose, as it addresses trauma and depression, is a distressing profile of a young woman trapped by a horrendous situation.