Summer Reading Recap: Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man

Dorothy B. Hughes

I’m not often very good at making a to-read list and then sticking to it. More often than not, I go off course when one of my to-reads turns out to just not be what I’m in the mood for, or I run across an exciting and unexpected title and forgo things that have been gathering dust on my shelf in order to satisfy spontaneous curiosity. This is neither good or bad, as far as I’m concerned, it just tends to be how I read. But this summer, I actually made a to-read list (here), and I’ve done a decent job of  keeping up with it. Of the five books I listed, I’ve read two so far, starting with Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable ManMy brief and informal recap is below, and if you’re at all interested in Hughes’ work, you may also enjoy the following pieces on her work:

The Sultana of Subversion: Three Hardboiled Novels by Dorothy B. Hughes,” by Jenny McPhee, bookslut, June 2012.

An Unsung Heroine,” by Sarah Weinman, Bookslut, February 2004.

Fever Pitch,” by Ariel Swartley, Los Angeles Magazine, May 2004.

Dorothy B. Hughes, A Mystery Writer and Historian, 88,” New York Times Obit from 1993, written by William Grimes.

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I was primarily interested in Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man because it is a crime novel (written by a woman) set in Arizona and from the cover description, it sounded like the main character was in some way dubious or not what he seemed–I love those unreliable narrators. About 60 pages into the book, however, my expectations were completely turned on their head in one of the cleverest narrative twists I’ve read in some time.

I’m not often troubled by spoilers, but I won’t ruin this for anyone by going into the aforementioned twist in detail. Suffice to say that Hughes’ revelation is partially a revelation because it shouldn’t be one at all, and yet the dropping of one small fact changes everything you’ve read up to that point and contextualizes the rest of the novel in a far more meaningful way than your average ‘wrong-man’ scenario. She’s a gifted writer–her prose is spare but really descriptive when it needs to be, and she puts a great deal of empathy into her characterizations, which I think is pivotal in a good crime novel. Through her characters in The Expandable Man Hughes not only effectively conveys a sort of looming paranoia and tension–and the agonizing feeling that the person one most needs to escape is, perhaps, oneself–but also ably places both herself and her readers in the same frame of mind, which makes for a rather jittery reading experience. (In a good way, of course.)

I’ll also say that this is one of the best evocations I’ve read of Arizona since Betsy Thornton’s High Lonesome Road (makes sense–Hughes lived in New Mexico), and it’s particularly touching to read her descriptions of Phoenix on the verge of becoming the sprawling, overdeveloped, contentiously urban city that it is today. I loathe Phoenix as it is now–as it’s been since my childhood–and in some ways, that’s just the Tucsonan pride coming out. But in the 60s, when the book is set, Hughes describes a city which is not yet large enough that one can easily hide there, a city which is only just starting to raze the natural landscape for suburban housing developments and which still lays claim to meandering country roads winding next to canals shaded by mesquite trees.

I wasn’t totally sold on the way the plot wrapped up–there’s some last minute amateur sleuthing that is a little contrived–but this is beside the point. I will certainly be tracking down more of Hughes’ books soon–maybe next In a Lonely Place, which was turned into a movie with Humphrey Bogart.

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From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


Spontaneous Reads: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

As a rule, I am perilously bad at keeping up with periodicals, lit mags, and other regular media outlets–I can’t exactly say why, but even if the topic of a long-form essay really interests me (I’m thinking here of a recent New Yorker piece on IKEA that I still haven’t finished, some six or seven months later), I often will often start it and then let it languish in a basket on my living room floor, collecting dust until I finally give up and recycle it. This is not an aesthetic judgement on the state of journalism, or even a stringently articulated preference for fiction–I just tend to spend more of my time reading short stories and novels.

My partner, however, is an adamant and regular cover-to-cover reader of several periodicals and is generous about sharing tidbits here and there of  recently acquired, timely, and esoteric factoids from journalists whose work he reads regularly. I’m often rather impressed and entertained by his summaries of articles and essays he’s been reading, so it was nice for me to recently pick up a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink–a collection of food writing in that magazine from the 1930s to the early 2000s. I frequently enjoy food writing–I think cooking and eating make for very fertile and evocative springboards for other interesting topics (memory, history, socio-cultural analysis, etc.) and it’s just fun to read about delicious food. So this collection provided an ideal framework for me to dip into the journalism that I’m always telling myself I should read more of.

Overall, the collection is wonderful; a very interesting window into the development of The New Yorker, as well as the gastronomic topics and themes that were very of the moment in which they were written. I also very much appreciated that many of the pieces were as much about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.

Since I read the collection almost cover to cover (not counting the fiction section, which looked enjoyable, but wasn’t the point for me), I made some short observations on most of the pieces as I went through. The book was divided into several sections, which I’ve indicated in bold.

Continue reading

Trail of the Spellmans

My newest review is of Lisa Lutz’s Trail of the Spellmans. This is actually the fifth installment in Lutz’s humorous series, but the first of the Spellman novels that I’ve read. I enjoyed the good-natured family chaos in this one, though, and some of the earlier titles sound enjoyable, so I wouldn’t write off the possibility of going back and giving another of these a shot.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence here. The full text is below.

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In Trail of the Spellmans, the fifth installment (or “Document #5”) of her popular Spellman Files series, Lisa Lutz’s hard-drinking, wise-cracking P.I. Isabel (Izzy) Spellman has her hands full dealing with several compromising surveillance jobs, a house-sitting assignment for an OCD mathematics professor, and all-out chaos at home. Which is, of course, what makes it fun.

Much in the vein of a Carl Hiaasen caper, Lutz’s Spellman novels are delightfully humorous romps, more about the zany characters and their convoluted mishaps than about any serious investigation. For those new to the series, a little background: Izzy, a former rabble-rouser and incorrigible snoop, has been an investigator in her family’s San Francisco business since the age of twelve. She shares her caseload with her parents and also her college-age sister, Rae, who not only seems bored at work these days, but has inexplicably begun to fake her surveillance reports. Then there’s Izzy’s older brother David, once an “excessively fashionable,” type-A lawyer who has now given up his career to be a stay-at-home dad for his eighteen-month-old daughter.

This time around, we find Izzy juggling three or four loosely interconnected mini-mysteries (some professional, some not) which give the story a bit of structure around the ongoing family drama. Among other upheavals, the Spellman parents now have a new household member: Demetrius Merriweather, (‘D’) a former client who was wrongfully imprisoned on a murder charge for fifteen years. Rather than pursue a lucrative lawsuit against the state, however, D spends his time baking delicious treats that then must be locked away from Izzy’s dieting father. Additionally, her relationship with San Francisco cop (and live-in boyfriend) Henry Stone is threatened by the prospect of a ‘serious talk,’ that Izzy continually dodges by going on drinking bouts with her new friend, Henry’s mother. Add to that her toddler niece inexplicably referring to everything as ‘banana,’ her harried brother throwing Rae out of his guest house for reasons that neither sibling will explain, and her mother’s sudden craze for jam-packing her days with Russian lessons, book clubs, and crafts, and you get a sense of the dizzying antics that Lutz seamlessly integrates into one sitcom-esque novel.

Although the family back-story is central to the plot of Trail of the Spellmans, new readers to the series need not worry about jumping into the fray mid-series. Important family history is folded neatly into the current plot, and Izzy peppers her ‘file’ with snarky explanatory footnotes, as well as an appendix with dossiers on each of the primary characters. And while none of the discoveries that she makes throughout the novel are even remotely surprising to the reader, the overall narrative about Izzy’s relationship with her family and the family business does reach a watershed moment at the book’s conclusion. In this way, Trail of the Spellmans feels like a transitional installment in the series—a lighthearted bridge between the more fully developed plots that have preceded it, and the inevitable drama to come.

In Honor of Stan and Jan: My Top Five Berenstain Bear Books

Young Stan and Jan via pbase.com

Sad news today for those of us who grew up learning a whole lot about life from the Berenstain Bears: Jan Berenstain has died, after suffering a stroke at the age of 88. Her husband and writing/illustrating partner, Stan, died (of complications from lymphoma)  in 2005.

While this is sad news, of course, the couple certainly seemed to have a wonderful life together, doing what they loved. From the CBS News piece linked to above:

Stan and Jan Berenstain, both Philadelphia natives, were 18 when they met on their first day at art school in 1941.

They married in 1946, after Stan Berenstain returned home from serving as a medical illustrator at a stateside Army hospital during World War II. During that time, Jan Berenstain worked as a draftsman for the Army Corps of Engineers and as a riveter building Navy seaplanes.

Before their family of bear books was born, the young couple had already built a successful career in periodicals. A cartoon series they produced called “All in the Family” ran in McCall’s and Good Housekeeping magazines for 35 years, and their art appeared in magazines including Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.

Mike Berenstain said his mother worked daily at her home studio in an idyllic part of Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, which served as inspiration for the books’ setting. He said he will continue writing and illustrating future Berenstain books.

In honor of Jan and Stan, here’s a quick list of my top five favorite Berenstain Bear books, in no particular order:


Please post your own favorites! If you’re having trouble remembering the titles, Wikipedia has a comprehensive list here, along with some summaries.

Fun Reads for Friday: Dancing Books, Nancy Pearl’s Wishlist, New Libraries, and Library Phantoms

Happy Friday!

Stop-Motion Bookstore Dance-a-Thon

This stop-motion video, “The Joy of Books,” is making its way around the internet. The (unnamed?) couple who made the video staged this after-hours book dance-a-thon in Toronto’s Type bookstore, which gives me yet another reason to go back to Toronto.

Nancy Pearl Gets Her Own Book Line

The inimitable Nancy Pearl, librarian for the masses, is partnering with Amazon to kick off her own line of reissued books: Book Lust Rediscoveries. The line, which will release six of Pearl’s “favorite, presently out-of-print books” every year, has already announced its first two titles: A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller and After Life by Rhian Ellis. (The latter sounds particularly good to me.) Nancy has blogged about her “Reissues Wish List” before now–maybe we can guess what some of her future titles will be from this 2009 list. This is another example of Amazon using its new publishing power for good–I’m really looking forward to these (re)releases.

Canada Water Library — Review” (Rowan Moore, Guardian Architecture section, December 3, 2011)

Like libraries? Apparently, the Southwark neighborhood of London is the place for you. Not only have the    good people of Southwark decided to maintain all twelve of their existing libraries (it would be interesting to know what the size of the population that uses these libraries is), they upped the ante and decided to build a brand new one in the heart of a former shipping district, called Canada Water, within the old Surrey Commercial Docks area. “Ever since the 1980s, the intention has been to regenerate [the area], both to bring business and create something like a town centre.”

The article has a lot to say about this flagging process of regeneration and some of the features around the new Canada Water library, as well as about the building itself. Some highlights:

The best form for a reading room is wide and horizontal, but there was not enough space for this at ground level, squeezed between the tube exit and the waterside. So the reading room is at the top, with the building widening as it ascends to make space for it, with the added benefit that the most important part of the building is placed high up – if not in the clouds, at least sufficiently far from the ground to feel removed and a little dreamy, as a library should.

Raised, it makes occasion for the spiral staircase, which in turn makes the business of going somewhere for a book into a little event or ceremony, rather than a sideways drift such as you might make into a supermarket.

From a practical question – how to put a library on a site too small for it – comes the pleasure of the architecture. Within the ample volume of the reading room, zigzagging shelves create more intimate places in a way almost reminiscent of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

But while it doesn’t, apparently, “achieve Scandinavian levels of craftsmanship,” says Moore, “…the important thing about the Canada Water library is that a new public place has been created, where the architecture contributes to and expands the experience of using it.”

The Library Phantom Returns!” (Robert Krulwich, NPR, November 30, 2011)

In September 2011, I posted about an anonymous book-loving book artist who was leaving incredibly intricate, beautiful sculpture tributes in libraries and literary organizations all over Scotland. After a bit of a hiatus, the artist left three more amazing creations in the Scottish Poetry Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Room at the Writer’s Museum. These will apparently be the last of the mystery sculptures (there have been ten in all). Said the artist (in a short, third-person statement): “It’s important that a story is not too long………does not become tedious……….”You need to know when to end a story,” she thought.”

The statement also indicates that the artist is not a professional–“this was the first time she had dissected books and used them simply because they seemed fitting.” Which makes these creations all the more fabulous. (I also just love her sense of humor–the T-Rex bursting out of The Lost World.) She called these sculptures “a tiny gesture.”

Library Thieves and People’s Libraries

Okay, I usually save these for Friday, but why wait?

East Village Bookstore Owner Nabs NYPL Book Thief (via Galley Cat)

A nefarious library book snatcher is detained by the owner of East Village books when trying to sell some pricey graphic novels that he had peeled the library stickers off of. Says Donald Davis, the bookstore owner, “‘There’s no other situation where I would do this. I was so angry that he was stealing from the library…”

Donate to the Occupy Wall Street Library (Galley Cat, again)

This one is interesting to me if only because it’s a ‘pop-up’ library for protesters. I’m not sure how the books are being distributed/returned, but organizers are saying that donated books can be sent to a UPS store on Fulton street.

Further research on this has yielded a whole blog dedicated to “The People’s Library” which is part of the now three-weeks-and-running Occupy Wall Street protest. Recently, they issued a “Call for Librarians” in which they explain their mission and donation needs:

“We are working together to build a library for both the people of the city and for those who have joined the occupation. We are a mixed bunch of librarians and library-loving individuals who strongly support the #occupy movement and who also know that information is liberation. We liberate through knowledge. If you want to know more about #occupywallstreet and the #occupy movement please read the Principles of Solidarity and the Declaration of Occupation.

Right now need many different kinds of donations. We need books of resistance and people’s history. We need economics and finance books. We need contemporary philosophy and ecology. We need DIY books.  We especially need non-English books and materials for low literacy readers. Print outs of free stuff from the web are valuable to us– I personally handed out at least two copies of Citizens United on Saturday before the march. Also, we’re a free lending library operating on the honors system, so our materials come and go rather rapidly; multiple copies are always welcome. On that note, we need as many copies of A People’s History of the United States by Zinn as possible. We simply can’t keep a copy in stock as there are so many people who want to read it.”

Donations for this outdoor library can be sent here:

Occupy Wall Street/Library Committee
118A Fulton St. #205
New York, NY 10038