The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Summer Book Report

People who've stuck around for a while know that a large percentage of my pleasure reading happens during a regular summer vacation in Canada's Algonquin Park. This year was no exception, but I left the title selection more open-ended since we were bringing up four boxes of books for the cabin library.

From my preliminary pile--displayed last post--I dropped The Etched City (liked the Leone-esque epic fantasy setting, but the dialog was unnatural and irritating), How Con Games Work (a reissue of a title from the 80s that would have been goofy and anachronistic even then), and Howard Hughes: The Untold Story (I enjoy Hughes appearances in Hollywood bios but he may be too much of a gothic loony to read his entire life story even if well-told, which here it isn't).

Here's what I did read:

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott - A history of prostitution in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th-century, structured around the rise and fall of the "Everleigh Club". Founded by two sisters from Virginia, the Everleigh was the most comfortable and ostentatious pleasure house in the country. A night at the club could set you back 20-30 times an average week's wages, but they offered gourmet meals, perfume fountains, three orchestras, fine champagne, and--of course--beautiful (and willing) women from around the world. The sisters had no trouble attracting a high grade of employee as they paid well, treated the women fairly and provided regular medical exams. Chicago's other madams didn't appreciate the competition and the resulting scandals, publicity stunts and industrial (?) espionage gave the anti-vice movement a very broad target.

Sin the Second City
uses the history of this legendary club to provide structure to a fantastic collection of characters and stories in which the Everleigh sisters--like the best party hosts--often fade into the background. I marked a number of facts and passages in the book that I wanted to highlight but handed it off before I wrote them down. One useful bit of trivia is that the phrase "to get layed" was likely a shortened version of "Everleighed" (which in itself was a play on the hot Old Testament action: "to lie with").

False Night by Algis Budrys - One of the early Lion paperback originals from a writer/editor I worked with at Tor books. I picked this one because it opens with a lone survivor waking up in a taxi on 14th street in a post-apocalyptic NYC. He works his way across town, dodging sniper fire, and eventually barricades himself--with a female survivor--in a Stuyvesant Town apartment.

The first section of the book--the pacification of Manhattan and beginnings of territorial expansion--are vivid and realistic, but the latter sections suffer from the cramming in of three generations, a didactic theory of geopolitics and a science fictional retelling of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into the typical 130 pages of a Lion paperback. The book was apparently heavily abridged by the editor and was reissued in a significantly longer form as Some Will Not Die. This expanded edition is probably the way to read it.

If He Hollers, Let Him Go by Chester Himes - Set in a shipyard in WWII-era Los Angeles, the main character, Bob Jones, is an African-American crew supervisor. He knows his job well but he also knows that he never would've been allowed in the union or promoted if most of the qualified white men weren't overseas. He's walking on a wire, but still he can't help relishing the money and respect he's receiving for the first time in his life. His steady girlfriend is the light-skinned daughter of a wealthy African-American lawyer. She wants Bob to improve himself so they can be married, but she has a second life away from him when she's able to pass as white. Aan waiting to drag Bob down is a femme fatale in the form of a hick, racist Rosie the Riveter.

Himes writes with the most well-earned hard-boiled voice I've ever read. The story hits all the noir buttons but without any unnecessary or overcomplicated mystery claptrap. My first Himes but definitely not my last.

My Wicked, Wicked Ways
by Errol Flynn - Greatest biography title ever. By the time Flynn wrote this, his on-screen persona and his--admittedly event-filled--life had bled inextricably together like the hues in a worn-out Technicolor print. The stories of his early days--sharpened and improved by infinite retellings--are told with zest and vigor, the latter years with a sad, boozy directionlessness that he's all to ready to admit. I wanted to like this more but in the recounting of his impressive list of conquests with native princesses, starlets, and coat check girls the only personality Flynn manages to put across is his own.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli - An epic and artistically ambitious graphic novel about a celebrated modernist architect who's fallen into academia without any of his designs ever actually being built. At the beginning of the story Asterios lies in a trashed apartment and appears to be reviewing a tape of a sexual conquest (dated shelves of VHS tapes line his walls). When a fire begins to engulf his building, he runs out taking only three very specific items. The rest of the work is a series of elaborate flashbacks, self-deceptions, and parallel lives explaining how Asterios hit bottom, the importance of each of the things he saved from the fire, and how he might pull himself back up.

Mazzucchelli's art and writing are accomplished and playful. In a flashback scene at a university cocktail party each character is drawn in a style/color reflecting their academic discipline and personality. This stylistic bubble surrounds everyone, is stronger for the bigger personalities, and only begins to blend when Asterios makes a connection with the woman who will become his wife (later when his marriage is breaking down the styles slowly split apart again). All of this without kicking the reader out of the narrative or feeling pretentious. This scene made me think of James Joyce and the frequently impenetrable scholarship and trickery needed to get an idea like this across in prose. Elsewhere in the book Mazzucchelli describes his main character as an "architect on paper" and a composer describes musical notation as "marks that measure out the passage of time" (? book needed for quote). Better descriptions of the cartoonist's art I have never seen.

Alright running out of steam. I think I finished one other book but I waited too long and forgot what it was. Still working on Nana and Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford.

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