This time a list of what I've read in the past two months. My August reading was negligible. Seems like the more I write the less I read and vice versa. Some of the publication dates are kind of approximate.
Vengeance is Mine -- Mickey Spillane (1950)
I think people underrate Mickey Spillane's writing simply because his detective Mike Hammer is brilliantly depicted as being totally politically incorrect. Spillane could sure write a great, non-stop, atmospheric noir detective story. I enjoyed the slam bang ride, even if I did see the twist at the end coming. And let's face it, however unpleasant some aspects of Hammer's personality might be, the scum he takes revenge on is far worse. Maybe Spillane was onto something -- the evil people in this world only pay attention to the Mike Hammers. I'd like to see anyone start yapping to Mike Hammer about bipartisan compromise. Hammer would grin, but it wouldn't be a nice grin.
Soft Touch -- John D. MacDonald (1953)
One of MacDonald's leanly written early crime novels. It's about a crime caper gone wrong, but it's also about a frustrated middle-class man trapped in a bad marriage and a job he detests, themes often treated in literary novels. The difference in a crime novel like this is that the frustrated protagonist tries to escape by getting involved in a doomed criminal scheme rather than sitting around brooding in purple prose, or having a pointless affair.
A Man Without a Country -- Kurt Vonnegut (2005)
The last book published during Vonnegut's life, I think, this is brief collection of scintillating essays. Actually, the writing is in a relaxed conversational style and it is easy to imagine Vonnegut talking as you read. (Like the published lectures of William James some of which I read recently) The man seemed to have figured out exactly what is going on in the world, unfortunately, but at least he can laugh about it, even though ruefully.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- Mark Twain (1884)
I finally read this because Kurt Vonnegut kept mentioning Mark Twain, maybe because Vonnegut was Twain's twentieth century counterpart. Maybe because Twain was harped on as a classic American author in school I have neglected his writing. A bad oversight. Huckleberry Finn is one of the best books I've ever read (Especially if you discount the weird last few chapters after Tom Sawyer shows up). It's a joyful book even as it catalogs every variety of human foolishness, viciousness, mendacity, greed and racism. Makes me want to go out and buy a raft and float down the river.
Practical Magic -- Alice Hoffman (1996)
I'm not sure whether this should be described as American magic realism or a cross between Ann Tyler and Bewitched. The lives of two sisters are deeply affected by growing up under the care of two witchy aunts.
The aunts really do cast spells but it is made pretty clear that the strongest and most dangerous magic is that old black magic between the sexes. Highly entertaining mixture of reality and fantasy.
Drive -- James Sallis (2008)
This very modern treatment of an old noir theme starts off with the driver for a robbery gone wrong in a hotel room with three dead bodies and pursued by the minions of a shadowy crime boss who wants him dead. The nonlinear narrative flashes back and forth between the present and several past storylines. Like Thomas Perry's Butcher's Boy, Driver -- as the protagonist is called -- turns out to be a sort of invincible killing machine. A compelling book, yet more notable for its style than any original substance. Then again, I suppose most books are variations on a theme.
Black Friday -- David Goodis (1954)
A man on the run in the snow covered streets of Philadelphia finds shelter, of a sort, with a gang of professional thieves. To stay alive, the fugitive, Hart, needs to negotiate an interpersonal minefield of three thugs, two women, and their psychopathic mastermind of a leader About as noir as it gets..
A Time to Murder and Create -- Lawrence Block (1976)
PI Matt Scudder seeks to avenge the death of a New York City blackmailer. His problem is to discover which of blackmailer's victims resorted to murder. Scudder does a lot of drinking and a lot of thinking about the morality of the situation he's in. He doesn't shoot anyone. The book might not sound as exciting as many high concept, non-stop action thrillers but it has more depth and I found it more satisfying.
Cage of Night -- Ed Gorman (1996)
On his blog Gorman explains that this book came out from a small publisher because no major publisher would touch it. They didn't like that it was unclassifiable. Is it mystery or horror/fantasy? I guess the fact that its a terrific, chilling tale counted for nothing. Is the violence plaguing a small town due to an alien in an abandoned well, or merely to the psychopaths who only seem to be possessed? The young protagonist falls for a girl who is obsessed with the well. Bad move.
The End of the Affair -- Graham Greene (1951)
After reading Graham Greene's breathtaking writing I can barely work up the courage to try and compose a sentence. This story of a doomed love affair set in London during the Second World War begins, and mostly takes place, after the affair has ended and it is largely about belief and religion and man's rather tortured relationship to God, if in fact there is a God. If you are not familiar with the book you will probably be surprised at how it unreels and where it goes.