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The Bookshelf Diaries (an occasional series): Fountain, Sedaris, Connelly, Caillat

The Bookshelf Diaries (an occasional series): Fountain, Sedaris, Connelly, Caillat

After a recent outing to Bookshop Santa Cruz, the stack of books at my bedside grew to resemble Jack’s beanstalk. There is only one solution to this problem: read, man, read.

On our book-shopping adventure, I found myself gravitating to literary fiction, novels that have won both awards and the praise of the sort of critics who usually reserve roughly the same respect for genre fiction that they do for the crud under their fingernails. An experiment in understanding the American literary scene’s psyche? An attempt to improve myself? Maybe a bit of each, sure, but I would say it was more curiosity, as in, yes, awards harrumph harrumph and all, but can you tell a good story?

Ben Fountain surely can. My initial dive into the stack delivered into my hands his debut novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist which I’m about two-thirds of the way through at this writing. It’s a remarkable piece of work, a glimpse inside the mind of an Iraq War Army grunt whose unit is brought home for a two-week “victory tour” mid-conflict. The entire action of the book takes place during the day the unit is paraded around Texas Stadium before and during a Cowboys game, Dallas representing the emotional epicenter of George W. Bush’s Ah-mur-ika in full hyper-patriotic fever pitch. Billy, an apolitical, raw, but emotionally perceptive nineteen-year-old, takes in the entire tableau through a filter of wonder—at the pure spectacle of it all, at the torrent of well-intentioned but cringeworthy comments from folks who’ve never seen combat, and ultimately, at the questions that neither he nor any soldier could ever hope to answer, e.g. “Are we winning?” “What’s it like to shoot someone?” The magic of Fountain’s narrative is that it manages to feel naturalistic and visceral without sacrificing that literary flavor, the expansive vocabulary and frequent digressions and dreamlike moments. This isn’t the sort of story I’m either equipped or inclined to write, but it’s a damned good one.

David Sedaris is one of those authors people tell me I should love—which about half the time results in a polar opposite reaction when I actually pick up their work. (Is it just that I gravitate towards people who like writers like David Sedaris? I may need professional help to figure that one out.) ANYWAY: I read Let’s Talk About Diabetes With Owls, and while I found quite a bit of it fairly enjoyable, it wasn’t until near the end of this collection that I found much that really grabbed me. (A couple of the best were “Day In, Day Out,” a trenchant piece on obsessive diary-writing, and “The Happy Place,” a savagely funny travelogue through Sedaris’ first colonoscopy.) Up until then, it felt somewhat insular to me, like a club where everyone else knows the rules and rhythms of the place and I’m expected, without any sort of orientation, to simply adapt. That said, Sedaris is dry and charming and eccentric and self-deprecating in all the right ways, and it would probably be great fun to hang around with the guy riffing on the myriad annoyances of modern life—he is a gifted nebbish and kvetch, Woody Allen’s gay nephew.

I savor a good mystery/thriller, and no one does that genre better right now than Robert Crais. The way he has shaped the evolution of his principal characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike over many years and novels has gotten me fully invested in their lives and futures. So when Crais’ recommended reading list was published on Goodreads several months back, I paid attention, and started Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. It’s easy to see why Crais heaps praise on his fellow Angeleno; ex-crime reporter Connelly’s prose is crisp yet evocative, and his main man Harry Bosch is one of the most memorably damaged, raw, yet charismatic figures in modern detective fiction. In the really good modern mysteries—like those of Crais and his literary hero Robert B. Parker—the detective is a knight on a quest, but his armor is dented and his horse is lame and he may be titling at dragons or windmills, depending on the day and circumstances. In spite of his flaws, or perhaps because of them, his moral trajectory stubbornly inches toward both justice and redemption. I finished book four in the Bosch series, The Last Coyote, a month ago, and it won’t be long before I pick up the next one to see how Harry’s doing after losing his badge, his gun and his house while finally uncovering the truth about his mother’s murder. Because I need to know; I’m invested.

Back in the music realm, earlier this spring I breezed through producer Ken Caillat’s memoir of making one of the bestselling albums of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s immortal 1977 release. His book, imaginatively titled Making Rumours, is an often-intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the recording of this classic album, liberally sprinkled with revealing anecdotes and technical details. Having said that, as a writer, Caillat is a heck of a record producer, and his tales of romantic conquest and serial infidelity veer between self-indulgent and just plain embarrassing, as in “Dude, did you really just say that out loud? In public?” In the end, I had to approach the task of finishing Making Rumours as pure research in order to get past the ham-fisted writing and mortifying lack of self-awareness. I’m glad I did, though, because not only did I learn a lot about the making of a classic album, I re-discovered the phrase that will serve as the title of Tim Green’s next adventure. And that’s all I have to say about that—for now.

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