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“Money provided power in the world of people. But in Soviet Russia money didn’t play the same role as in the rest of the world. In a country living under the red flag with the hammer and sickle, only the state wielded absolute power. In order to achieve success in Russia, we would have to become part of the state machine, take cover under it, and wearing the uniforms of officialdom, go about achieving our goal. There was no other way. Any secret society existing outside of the totalitarian state was doomed.”

Vladimir Sorokin, Bro, in Ice Trilogy

Bro starts very comfortably: pre-Revolution Russia, patronyms, rich people unaware of the catastrophe of history about to swallow them; then grimness and privation and Reds and Whites, all very midcentury middlebrow historical novel, almost certainly excellent pastiche. Good enough to make you wonder whether in the original Russian it sounds more like Tolstoy or Michener, or whether Tolstoy in Russian sounds like Michener in English (I suspect it does not). And it shifts here and there into other familiar genres, from bildungsroman to wartime-espionage-ish here, to a main current of science fiction centered on a meteorite strike in Siberia. All very pleasant and postmodern, at least once we leave the comfort of the realist Russian novel.

New York Review Books 03.15.11



June 11, 2014, 11:16am  Comments

“Chet Atkins, a 1967 book by Red O’Donnell of the Nashville Banner, is a series of bizarrely truncated paragraphs; reading it is like watching Cheez-Whiz slowly coagulate on someone’s chin during lunch.”

Nick Tosches, Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America’s Biggest Music

For all the power of Tosches’s style—and I can go on picking sentences out, perfect little sneers—I’m glad to have gotten the revised version, with the foreword that gives background on the book. He writes that he got the contract in 1975, and by the time he was ready to deliver the book (to a different editor) Willie and Waylon and Dolly had happened, and the urban cowboy was a thing: suddenly there was a market for a book about country music, but this was not that book. And so there’s a lot of Tosches in this book doing exactly what he wants, following a thread in the carpet to its end, haphazardly; I would have liked better work on minstrelsy than the chapter of bile and barbs Country has, and I’d trade a couple of the later, time-serving chapters, like the one charting record companies’ genealogies that boils down to seven-inch titles and credits and details of business deals long-dead, for a couple more Jerry Lee stories. But still: this is the end of the Seventies, which means that Dolly’s still a floozy and Willie hasn’t been canonized, and even if a bunch of the prose reads like the end of the Seventies, in its post-Bangs wordsmithing, casual attention to logic and completeness, and even its attitudes, it’s fighting a different, stronger Nashville piety than exists anymore.

Da Capo 08.22.96 (orig. Scribner’s 1977)



June 06, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“Elvis had turned his back on the Church of the Almost-Here End, sold his soul to MOR, but Jerry Lee kept pumping—Holiness! Tongues!—and with each new clawsome, wild wife, with every new midnight violence, every extravagance of face, he slid further from grace. The King and The Killer: This was their desert.”

Nick Tosches, Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America’s Biggest Music

And the other best thing, which has more to do with the journalism than the style, are the Jerry Lee stories, although those are just as much bound up in style and delivery as anything else in this book.

Da Capo 08.22.96 (orig. Scribner’s 1977)



June 05, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“One is the president of the greatest record company in America. His skin is the color of fragile boredom, or mayonnaise.”

Nick Tosches, Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America’s Biggest Music

A couple of paragraphs later, the president plays a demo acetate for a couple of musicians, and when the tone arm of the record player skips, the rhythm guitarist hands him a coin, which he regards with “feral hesitance” before sticking it in his pocket. Another of the musicians tells him to use the coin to stop the record skipping, which he still does wrong.

I am not sure who these people are, in Tosches’s vignette, or whether they’re real; there are a couple of these two-three page things in this book. They might be real, it doesn’t matter. This is, absolutely, the best part of the book, though, and the sentence that tells you the most about Tosches’s style, which is by far his most important attribute, even more so than anything he might know or have found out about music.

Da Capo 08.22.96 (orig. Scribner’s 1977)



June 04, 2014, 1:10pm  Comments

“Nan learned not to see a nine o’clock movie, lest she lose several minutes of the film to a payphone in the lobby.”

Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

It’s jarring, a little later, to actually be hit with a date for this story: there’s a trial that takes place concerning a business deal from 2006 and 2007. Jarring because, with the exception of a little bit of window dressing—a pack ‘n’ play mentioned early on, stuff like that—the story seems to exist in a timeless quasi-Fifties. Hard Case does this: the book design, the cover art; also, though, this story’s landscape of gender roles, and more than anything else the structure and feel of the genre, noir with an edge of titillation and then submission. So the inclusion of contemporary markers pulls you out of its spell. On the other hand: a payphone in the lobby of the movie theater?

Hard Case Crime 10.08.13



June 01, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“Suddenly it was as if I could see this scene as it unfolded on a stage or screen: the vast house, lit from within but surrounded by darkness. The troubled wife treading lightly on the kitchen floorboards, whispering to her husband. And the workman beneath her feet, beneath the house, staring overhead: all knotted muscle and clenched teeth, mythical and bristling. A member of the underworld, bent on mutiny.”

Elissa Ward, The Secret Lives of Married Women

Hard Case doesn’t always deliver on its promise: their stuff tends a little toward the faults of pulp, as it should; mechanical plotting, functional characterization, thin and predictable if lurid psychology, velocity over all else. They are, after all, unrepentantly a pulp house, even if they do very nice stuff with their pulp. But every once in a while there’s something that reaches outside its class—or, in this case, so entirely captures and crystallizes it that you just have to tip your hat.

Hard Case Crime 10.08.13



May 31, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“When we got inside, I giggled. There were actual balloon arches and twisted garlands of pastel crepe paper festooning the walls.
‘This looks like a horror movie waiting to happen,’ I snickered.”

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

And of course its romantic denouement takes place AT PROM, which comes as a surprise to the heroine (and the little bit of self-consciousness gets well offset by the use of “festooning,” but what else do crepe paper garlands do to walls, I guess). The thing is, though? Even though Twilight moves slower than The Circle, the two books are much more alike than not: plot over style, empty-vessel heroines as reader stand-ins, gradual revelation of seemingly-benevolent superpowered vampirism (only barely metaphorical, in The Circle’s case: check out that ghost shark eating the seahorses), stock or single-feature characters shuffled around for convenience. And especially what struck me, reading the two in sequence, is how rushed the climactic action is in each, and really in the same way: the final crisis is introduced and overcome in no time, at least when compared to the effort the world-building and setup that came before has taken. Of course, only one of the two has a bleak, existential ending, and it’s not the one that ends at prom.

Little Brown 10.05.05



May 24, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“‘I fall down a lot when I run,’ I admitted.”

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

I don’t expect to say anything critical that hasn’t been said over and over; the book is almost ten years old, and has had more than its share of attacks and defenses. And this one is nowhere near as bad, even with Mike’s tidy golden spikes, as I had expected: there’s not (yet?) a huge Mormon abstinence agenda, there’s a totally genre-appropriate attention to plot and function rather than style, and Bella isn’t nearly as passive and conflicted in her emotions (again: yet?) as Katniss. On the other hand, her salient personality markers seem to be really really good-smelling blood and extreme clumsiness, neither of which necessarily aid a writer in the depiction of a rich inner life.

Little Brown 10.05.05



May 23, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“He came to sit by me, the tidy spikes of his hair shining golden in the light, his grin stretching across his face. He was so delighted to see me, I couldn’t help but feel gratified.”

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

Yes, it came from the take-one-leave-one shelf in the rental house (I left The Circle), but I’ve left it behind on the take-one-leave-one shelf before, and I was still curious. Also, poor Mike.

Little Brown 10.05.05



May 22, 2014, 1:49pm  Comments

“No one knows what the four of them talked about.”

Gaute Heivoll, Before I Burn

Then again, even context won’t make this fair: at the close of a novel that very comfortably reconstructs and extrapolates conversations and events outside of its narrator’s knowledge, and acknowledges that it does so, the crucial meeting of its denouement gets a coy little Thackeray-style curtain-pull.

Graywolf 01.07.14



May 21, 2014, 10:30am  Comments