Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book #17

I could have picked any one of the dozen awesome books by George Pelecanos (literally there are a ton, check it out) to review. After a long debate, I went with the one book he has written that has stuck with me longer than any other. If you are unfamiliar with Pelecanos, he writes crime novels set in and around Washington DC. He has written a trilogy about one character, and a DC Quartet (obstensibly about the decline of Washington's urban landscape) that rivals the best of James Ellroy.
His books are not subtle in their social commentary, or themes, yet they get under your skin. Pelecanos books are in many ways the literary equivelant of a twelve round streetfight. When you come away from one of his stories it seems as if you have been dragged through it with his characters, it is a powerful experience that gets you jacked up while still feeling as if you've taken a hard right to the jaw.
The reason I chose The Sweet Forever is because it represents the best of Pelecanos (who also wrote a bunch of The Wire) writing. His characters are gritty, flawed and headed toward an unavoidable chasm of destruction - Pelecanos pretty much writes urban westerns. This book follows a bag of money stolen from a brutal crack dealer, and details the devestation the drug had on the streets of DC. It is not a pretty picture, and the conclusion is forgone the moment you open the book. However, Pelecanos is a very talented writer and his ultimate avoidance of the showdown you expect shows how far above petty re-used plots he is. Nothing is simple in one of his books and The Sweet Forever is no exception. This book however, has an added spector of death hovering over it the entire time. One of the "characters" (spoken of, but never directly in the story) is Len Bias. The hope and promise of his career is on of the minds of all the DC natives and the reader, knowing the tragic end to his short story, is left waiting for the inevitable gut punch. It is an intense and bleak world Pelecanos has created and we are all the better off for having read it.
This book, like the rest of his DC Quartet - and all his books, rightfully deserves its spot at the top of the crime fiction heap.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book #16

Open by Andre Agassi is a life changing book. Keep in mind, I am not one to throw around the phrase "life changing book" lightly and this masterpiece fits the criteria. It made me want to shave my head and rise to the top of the tennis world...kidding...or am I?
Seriously though, I was an Agassi fan back at the beginning and followed his miraculous career revival. I did not know all the facts, and I guess no one did - suffice it say, Agassi is so brutally honest he might just add Pulitzer Prize Winning Author to his already impressive shelf of accolades.
In the book Agassi is insightful about his career, marriages and opponents (including Pete Sampras) as well as his eventual fall to rock bottom. However, the real power of his book lies in his ability to look inside himself. Agassi constantly evaluates and evolves with the times and his reflections are potent and often so real the reader is truly touched. This is a long way from Chad Ochocinco's "I love me some me". The book inspires the reader to look deep inside themself in a new way in order to constantly challenge themselves to try and be better.
Let's face it, if an over the hill thirty year old tennis star can completely reinvent himself and rise to the top why can't you? Agassi pretty much throws down the gauntlet to his readers and there is no way you can step away from this book without being moved. It sticks with you long after you turn the final page. A definite - and surprising - early contender for book of the year.
The ball is back in your court Sampras, but I figure memoir writing ends with an indelible Agassi victory.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

How "The Wire" Ruined Crime Novels

HBO's brilliant The Wire has effectively ruined an entire genre for me: crime books. Unless they have the same, brilliant, deeply textured plots I came to know and love on The Wire I simply have no patience for them. That is not to say of course I have not read some great crime books already this year, because I have (but more about that in a future post).
One of the reasons David Simon's series set the bar so high was it refused to dip into an predictable plot or stock character. Now, when I pick up a book that touts reviews calling it "an urban gem" (the exact review on "Thug Life") I know I will just be disappointed. My patience for terrible books has grown thin. More and more I find myself wanting to read something that gives me more than just a couple of hours of entertainment. Stieg Larsson's brilliant Millenium Trilogy is a good antidote, as is David Peace's dark and twisty Red Riding Quartet. A couple of Don Winslow books, most notably The Power of the Dog, showed what an intelligent narco thriller could be.
A Moment of Silence:
Since I am already talking about a brilliant show, I figured I would give a shout out to another one that ended: The Shield. If you've never watched, this show follows a detective in LA who is about as corrupt as you would expect. He dispenses his own brand of justice while managing to elude various factions looking to take him down. That is the story...on the surface anyways. The first three seasons were a rollicking ride through corruption as well as a twisted morality tale. The final four were claustrophobic and intense to the point where you could barely watch - yet could not turn away. One of the central questions asked through every season, episode, day was "do the ends justify the means?" Ultimately, a show as smart as The Shield allows viewers to make up their own mind. A stunning television achievement, if you have never watched the show, you are in for seven seasons of staggering entertainment. Enjoy.