Adventures in Dementia


Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)

View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.


Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

A Storm Is Coming

peace 1980


‘It’s a big black bloody world full of a million black and bloody hells, and when those hells collide it’s time for us to sit up and take fucking notice.’

Falling roughly halfway through David Peace’s brutal 1980, there’s perhaps no better quote to sum up the worldview on full display in his Red Riding Quartet and especially in this book, the third in that series.  I’ve never been one to need relatable – or even likable – characters.  While that’s certainly nice when it happens, I’m primarily a tourist when I read: show me something I’ve never seen before, force me to interact with people I don’t meet on a daily basis, corner me in a situation where I have to grapple with moral and ethical implications I’ve never considered.  How boring must it be to need to identify with everything you read?  In this respect – taking us on a journey we’ve never taken with people we’ve (thankfully) never met – the book undoubtedly succeeds.

Even though Peace’s series takes place in the North of England, a location with which I’m more than passingly acquainted, there’s no way not to feel out of your element as you read it.  Set primarily in Manchester, Leeds, and Wakefield, 1980 is the most focused, stripped-down of the series so far.  It focuses on Peter Hunter, a cop who’s tapped to lead a special squad investigating the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who, at the start of the book, has murdered thirteen women – mainly prostitutes – over five years.  Hunter’s brief is to catch the Ripper, but if he’s also able to uncover negligence or malfeasance in prior police investigations, so much the better.

1980 is different from the previous two books in that the Ripper case is central to the plot and more than just a backdrop, but Peace’s eye is still trained on corruption: corruption of the press, of the police, of the clergy, of the penal system, of married couples and the lies they tell one another.  No one escapes.  As in his other books, Peace is stingy with detail, preferring instead to emphasize rhythm and repetition over rich passages of description.  We’re given the bare minimum of what we need to make sense of the story, coming to the case of the Yorkshire Ripper with just as much knowledge as Hunter and his team.  Thematically and stylistically it’s a claustrophobic experience, one that won’t be to everyone’s liking.  For me, though, steeped in a love of Vonnegut, Ellroy, and McCarthy, Peace’s staccato riffing is catnip.

New Year’s Eve, 1980:

Dawn or dusk, it’s all fucked up –

The End of the World –

Fucked up and running –

Running from Dewsbury Police Station –

Dewsbury Police Station –

Modern lies amongst the black –

Crowds gathering –

Posters out:

The Ripper is a coward –


Hang him!

The homemade nooses, the studded wristbands –

The skinheads and their mums, the mohicans and their nans.

Running to the car park up the road from the police station, puddles of rain water and motor oil underfoot –

The car park already full –

Journalists, TV crews, the word spread –

Birds overhead, screaming –

Rain, pouring –

The clouds black above us, the hills darker still –

Hills of hard houses, bleak times –

Warehouse eyes, mill stares –

Unlocking the door, running –

Engine running, running scared

The North after the bomb –

Murder and lies, lies and murder –


Unlike Chuck Palahniuk, for whom this sort of thing often feels like a gimmick, Peace uses it purposefully, often to emphasize forward momentum, as in this passage near the book’s climax:

I park under the dark arches with the water and the rats –

Out of the car, coat up –

Running up through the arches, past the Scarborough –

Into the Griffin –

Ringing the bell, waiting –

Fuck it

Snatching the key from behind the desk –

Into the lift –

Pressing 7 –

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Out of the lift –

Down the corridor –

Tripping –

On the dark stair, we miss our step

Room 77 –

Key in the door –

Into the room –

Checking my watch, radio on, picking up the phone, getting a dialling tone, pulling the numbers round –

Ringing, ringing –


‘Peter? Where are you?’

The book doesn’t read this way throughout.  Peace employs it strategically, and uses it to reinforce both Hunter’s single-mindedness and the book’s hermetic worldview.

None of this is to say the book isn’t without light.  Hunter is a compelling character: a driven cop, a loyal husband, a man who nimbly walks the line between Right and Wrong.  We want him to succeed, to catch the Ripper, to end the killer’s reign of terror.  But Peace gives us just enough light to make it more powerful when he snuffs it out.  Hunter is dealt two devastating blows in the book’s final third, and it’s been a while since I felt such a discomfiting, vice-like churning in my gut.  I was physically disturbed to the point where I had to put the book down and walk away from it for a bit.  For someone as desensitized as me, that’s some serious shit.

And then there’s the ending, which I can’t give away.  Some will view it as an easy, nihilistic out.  For me, though, it’s the perfect précis for what Peace has been trying to tell us all along, and which I mentioned earlier: no one escapes.  It’s a bleak, uncompromising perspective, but in a world where we too often try to sugarcoat things, 1980 is, for me at least, a welcome reminder of just how dangerous the world can be.


Current listening:

Spiritualized pure

Spiritualized – Pure Phase (1995)