Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Princes of Crime

I have written things such as "Lehane is my Boston guy" or "Burke is my New Orleans guy" without really explaining the context, so, without further ado - my princes of crime writing.
Dennis Lehane (Boston) - As I have explained multiple times (he made my Mount Rushmore of Fiction Writers) Lehane is an absolute master of the literate thriller. His books are profound, thought-provoking and meaningful. Boston is a fabulous city to write noir about, with a rich crime tradition as one of America's most important city. Lehane owns this town.
George Pelecanos (DC) - Pelecanos owns DC like Lehane owns Boston - with a shotgun pressed right into the face of his reader. His books are character driven, urban noir, semi-western and all awesome. He has written the definitive DC Quartet about the disintegration of the city into one of the crime capitals and continues to write novels that defy the usual conventions.
David Peace (Yorkshire) - Peace is in the unique position of potentially owning two cities as he has also written books about Tokyo after the war. His works about the real life Yorkshire Ripper are so startling and powerfully drawn that one wishes to look away but cannot. A warning, however, The Red Riding Quartet must be read completely before reflecting upon as his themes cross years and books.
Philip Kerr (Berlin / South America) - Kerr actually owns two places, mostly because his character travels quite a bit. However, I would ultimately call him the best novelist about the Nazi era, as his noir detective (Bernie Gunther) transverses their deeds and misdeeds before and beyond World War II.
Ken Bruen (Ireland) - Bruen's "detective" (in the loosest possible terms) "solves" (in the loosest possible terms) crimes in Galway, Ireland. He is a boorish, brutal drunk who has messed up his entire life. The books detail this and more in a prose that feels like poetry.
James Lee Burke (New Orleans) - Burke has been working for many, many years to write about New Orleans and in some cases, Montana and to find the seedy undercurrent that crisscrosses the hazy Southern states. His works are infused with the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of Louisana. You do not read a Burke book - rather, you feel every single page. Haunting, poignant and beautiful.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A TV Show You Have To Watch

Having just finished the incredible third season of AMC's Mad Men it was high time I tried to explain the brilliance of a show that is way too underrated for its own good. This is not a show for the casual viewer: there is a complexity at work that is at times, completely daunting. It took me deep into the third season before I had the sudden ephiphany about how I could tie my love of Mad Men into a blog ostensibly about books. However, it can be done.
One of the best things about the show is how it ties literature into the dense, knotty plot. The plot by the way, is inherently too complicated to explain - it is about happiness, and the illusion of happiness seen through the eyes of a man who has everything. It is about his wife, and his office and it is about the 1960's.
Each season, and there have been three so far, the show displays one book that the characters are reading. Thematically, this book comes to represent many of the themes explored in the season. Without too many spoilers, they are Exodus by Leon Uris, Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons. The first season is about a man waging an eventual conquest on all around him and carving his own place - a better place - within the world. The second season focuses on this man fighting to reconcile the two halves of his own self within the larger context of his own happiness as well as that of those around him. The third season details the slow and ultimate decline.
I cannot wait for the fourth season.
Mad Men is the kind of show that can be watched over and again and each season so far has contained a scene so utterly moving and powerful that it simply blows the viewer away. The third season in particular contains one of the single best episodes of television I have ever witnessed.
If you have not watched this show before, rent it, buy it, beg for it...but watch it, and watch it soon - the fourth season is about to start.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Book #24

Exodus by Leon Uris is an essential novel for understanding the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. Uris set out to write the definitive novel about the birth of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to their own nation and he succeeds.
This is a powerful story: dense, complex and somewhat morally ambiguous. I do not really know how to feel about the novel's conclusions. It rightly portrays the Jewish people as a nation that has been forever persecuted and attacked, and they deserved a chance to return to their homeland after the Holocaust. However, the portrayel of the Arab nations is not without serious bias - this epic of biblical proportions chooses to take an "us versus them" stance as opposed to a more multi-faceted view. Yes, the Jewish people deserved a new homeland, but perhaps they should have worked peacefully with the Arabs to establish this, rather than setting up a military state ready to give their own children's blood for their new nation.
The characters are deeply drawn and serve as vivid and compelling anti-archtypes, particularly Ari Ben Canaan and Kitty Fremont. Ari's ultimate realization of the bloody cost of what he has undertaken is one of the most hauntingly realistic moments in the story. So too is the harrowing, brutal depiction of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - time and again, the characters reveal themselves as true heroes and this is no exception.
The foundation of Israel was built on the statement "never again" and Uris does not shy away from the fact the people are more than willing to defend what they believe is rightfully - and biblically - theirs. A triumphant story that has to be read not only to understand one of the most important events of the twentieth century but also to gain a deeper understanding of why our world can never fully be at peace.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The 26 Books Everyone Must Read

A year ago Esquire Magazine came out with its list of the 75 Books Every Man Must Read. I decided to do my own list, but am not presumptious enough to believe I know 75 books, so I arbitrarily picked 27 as the number of books I will recommend, enjoy - and start reading (in no particular order).
1) Sahara by Clive Cussler - The single greatest adventure novel written, try putting it down.
2) In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick - Liked Moby Dick? This is what really happened.
3) Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane - If you can figure out the ending, let me know. A complete, mind blowing experience.
4) The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow - Finished it for the 2nd time in six months, completely enthralled both times. Epic in scope, important in ambition.
5) Generation Kill by Evan Wright - The best book on Iraq. Period.
6) Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr - Could have put any of his Bernie Gunther books on, but this way you get to read 3 books in one neat package.
7) The Stand by Stephen King - Awesome. Also, read It. (Bonus book!)
8) Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer - Quite simply the only book to make the history of religion fascinating.
9) The Winds of War / War and Rememberance by Herman Wouk - Interested in WW2? Here is a good place to start.
10) The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger - Fishing industry vs. mighty storm. Man vs. nature.
11) Monster by Sanyika Shakur - The definitive account of life inside the Crips and why young people turn towards, and ultimately away from, gang life.
12) Sphere by Michael Crichton - Great premise and just metaphorical enough to be re-read time and again.
13) Red Riding Quartet by David Peace - Dark, lyrical, brutal, savage and perfect.
14) Stalingrad by Antony Beevor - WW2 through the microcasm of a singular battle which defined a War.
15) Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson - So compelling you will read it at red lights. One of the best books of all time.
16) The Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos - Haunting urban noir with characters so real you live and breathe in their world.
17) American Tabloid by James Ellroy - Staggering ride through the Kennedy conspiracies written in a machine gun style.
18) Homocide by David Simon - Want to know what it is like to be a cop? Read this.
19) The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke - Burke is a master, this is his take on Hurricane Katrina.
20) Priest by Ken Bruen - Years of animosity towards the corrupt Catholic Church come out through Irish Noir poetry.
21) There's a Boy in the Girls Bathroom by Louis Sachar - The best "childrens" book you will ever read...again and again.
22) The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsson - America's first serial killer and the greatest World's Fair in history collide in an incredible account.
23) The Godfather by Mario Puzo - How does one man slide into a life of crime?
24) A Simple Plan by Scott Smith - See Godfather, The.
25) The Lost City of Z by David Grann - What do you know about the least explored part of our world? A lot more after reading this book.
26) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - The one book from school you will read again.
27) Exodus by Leon Uris - Why Palestine and Israel will never get along.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book #23

Island by Aldous Huxley is a true classic in every sense of the word. One could write a book on this book and I could spend the rest of the year blogging on a single quote. I will not do that obviously, but suffice it to say this qualifies as an extremely deep work of literature.
This is a book that has significant ties to, among other things: The Rise of Hitler, World War Two, Faith, Utopia, Love, and Lost(as in the show, not actually being unable to find your way somewhere).
Take this quote, for example:
"Faith is something different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalysed words much too seriously. Paul's words, Mohammed's words, Marx's words, Hitler's words - people take them too seriously and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivilence of history - sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced as organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending to the victims of their own church's inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily faith, but deliever us, dear God, from Belief."
If that does not serve as one of the most powerful, and thought provoking things you've ever read, keeping thinking about it. Trying to unpack it would take a doctoral thesis or two but the ideas are so overwhelmingly complex it is definitely worth considering.
That said, this book is a surprisingly easy read, as the prose flows from idea to idea. You will have to put this book down several times and just think about what you have read, but it is more than worth it.
And now for something completely different...

I recently discovered Breaking Bad and my first reaction was "what the hell took me so long?" This show features the best decent into evil since the Godfather and some of the finest acting performances since The Wire. The first thing that truly struck me about this show was the staggering performance of Bryan Cranston. This is a man who has completely reinvented himself at least three times that I know of. A friend reminded me he was the suave Tim Wattley on Seinfeld before I remembered him as the incomparable Hal on Malcolm in the Middle. I thought Malcolm was one of the most underrated and brilliant shows in the history of television and part of that was Cranston's peerless depiction of an overworked, underpaid father to four boys. Seriously, try watching Cranston teach his son to figure skate to the song Funky Town, and then try picturing him in any other role. That is part of what makes his role on Breaking Bad so incredible. He is Walter White, man with incurable lung cancer who just happens to cook the best meth on the planet. His slow reconciliation with the depths of the man he is rapidly becoming leaves behind one, simple question: "Why me?" Watch it, and you will not be disappointed by the best show on TV.