Five Gifts of Literary Delight for You or Anyone Lucky Enough to Be Your Friends or Family
Sentence yourself to a long stretch of reading pleasure
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:00AM, Mon. Nov. 28, 2022
You want to read books that enrich your life? That make you think, make you laugh, maybe make you cry or rage on behalf of the characters and situations therein? Here are five recent and compelling works of wordcraft to fulfill that desire, to make you glad that everything storywise is not about what’s hot on Netflix or HBO or whatever right now.
(Although, tbh, the world’s motion-picture factories, if they have any sense at all, will be optioning the rich material here for eventual dispersal to the non-reading masses of our benighted species – and, in the case of Lady Joker, that’s already happened in Japan.)
Gonna start off with three novels from Austin-based authors – one, a seasoned professional at the top of his craft; the other, a rising star in the literary firmament; the third, a first-timer with a sizzling debut – and then two from elsewhere.
Bill Cotter’s first was Fever Chart, and it was a delightfully dark, twisted, and hilarious romp of romance. We reviewed that debut, en passant and well after the fact of publication, in this years-ago perusal of bedside table books. Then came his Parallel Apartments, set in Austin, and that rollicking, overstocked smorgasbord of freakiness filtered through the multivalent lens of an Austin matriarchy definitely had its moments of crystalline clarity. McSweeney’s brought us those books, and they bring us this third – which is the most, ah, assured of the three. Thing is, The Splendid Ticket is also as robust and harrowing and funny and beautifully written as the others; we’re just reluctant to diss the previous tales by calling this one the best, you know? But the more we think about it, the more we think it is. What happens, you’ll want to know, when beleaguered Hill Country housewife Angie Grandet wins a $324 million jackpot lottery? What becomes of her and her gambling-addicted husband and her sole remaining daughter, and what – more to the point of this deep exploration of love and loathing and the treacherous vagaries of life – what patterns of fate and desire led to the intrusive grace of jackpot? And what last-ditch efforts of will and wisdom might help them survive? Fair warning: This book will break your heart before making it a little stronger.
Bonus: Meet the author at the official launch party, at Vintage Bookstore & Wine Bar, on Tue., Dec. 6.
We’re not trying to save time and effort by including this novel that we recommended so highly when it came out last year. We’re trying to do you a favor by, once again, pointing you toward the gorgeously written, Lamda Award-winning novel about “Gala, a young transwoman, who works at a hostel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. She’s obsessed with the Get Happies, the quintessential 1960s California band, led by its resident genius, B—. Gala needs to know: Why did the band stop making music? Why did they never release their rumored album, Summer Fun?” Note: The answers to those questions are contained within a story as elementally complex as the waters of a hot spring in the American Southwest’s human-scarred desert, and learning what they are is a better spa treatment for your mind than most bodies can ever hope to get.
You keep seeing, at Austin’s HalfPrice Books mainstore, if you’re the current reviewer and you go there too often, a particular employee of the store: A tidily bearded guy who’s usually decked out like some near-dandy from that Sartorialist blog. And then, months later, because this is still a weirdly small town, the man’s first novel winds up on your dayjob’s cluttered desk. The surprise is that, unlike so many similar items that appear thereon with unnerving regularity, this one is damn good. Now, as accidental-and-ill-prepared-gumshoe novels go, Dale Bridges' The Mean Reds probably won't set the world on fire. This is just as well, as our poor planet is, you may have heard, already hot enough under its unraveling anthropocene collar. But Bridges' low-fi murder mystery, a compelling yarn that follows frequently soused altweekly reporter Sam Drift's half-assed yet relentless investigation of a stripper's death in the secluded Midwest tourist mecca of Mountainview, is certainly going to singe every crusty edge of this Earth with its manic, detail-rich, cinematically vivid flamethrower of a narrative. Falling somewhere in the middle of the crime genre spectrum that shimmers between Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon and Edgar Cantero's Meddling Kids, The Mean Reds taps our hapless protagonist's silver-screen obsessions to reveal just how valiantly a drug-bedraggled schlub of a journo can rise (or, yeah, fall) when death, dames, and destiny come a-calling. You might be able to put this archly cinematic novel down for a minute—like, for a quick swig on a double-strength Old Fashioned or because you need to pass along the candy blunt you've been hitting—but, friend, I'd bet you a purloined Oscar that you'll pick it back up again ASAP.
People falling all over themselves lately, it seems like, to praise this new book from Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant fame. And it might partially be because, well, it’s a graphic novel, see, and there remains a lingering awkwardness in parts of the literary community about that. Like, there’s maybe, still, a blushing self-consciousness wrought from decades of sequential art being associated with shitty superhero or funny-animal comic books? And yet, oh! Here’s a comic that – like Maus so long before it; like Debbie Dreschler’s Daddy’s Girl; like almost anything Chris Ware or Phoebe Gloeckner or Adrian Tomine set their pens to – actually redeems the pathetic medium! Right? And the praise might partially be because, oh, that Beaton, she’s soooo funny, isn’t she? Her little comic strips, as collected and so well-presented by Drawn & Quarterly? All those arch, goofy-faced skewerings of historical figures and tropes! Wotta riot! And but now this Beaton’s taken a turn toward memoir and – *falls backward out of the panel* – it’s a serious work of personal and national history that actually redeems her previous levity! Right? We should be forgiven, any of us, for suspecting such an impetus for the flood of raves. Until we finally read Ducks: Two Years In the Oil Sands and we realize that any ulterior motive behind the praise doesn’t matter. Because Ducks itself – the powerful, revelatory work of remembrance and research, of deep introspection within a context of Canada’s exploitation of its oil-rich land and its transient and all-too-human laborers – is more than sufficient unto those hosannahs, regardless of their origins.
Soho Press, which is to the modern mystery genre as hydrogen is to water, rains on the just and the unjust alike with its incessant torrent of books – and how fortunate we readers are, potentially drenched with some of the best crime-focused yarns on the planet. But never mind the extended metaphors, here’s the second volume of Lady Joker. The second volume, yes, not as a tacky make-more-money-from-two-books gambit, but because the narrative was simply too fucking thick to release as a single tome. That, and Takamura’s nigh-on obsessive level of detail vis-a-vis every aspect of this based-on-a-true-incident corporate-kidnapping drama, is what’s prompted comparisons to Infinite Jest – and why the hell not? Well, because one wouldn’t want to confuse David Foster Wallace’s ecstatic, hyperbolic, and relentless orchestration of darkling genius with what’s going on in the pages of Lady Joker. Because Lady Joker – both the first volume and this second, final volume – is a police procedural, see? It’s just an astonishingly finely grained one. But, ah, it’s also, simultaneously, a newspaper-journalist procedural, equally as fine-grained. And a beer-industry procedural, no less revealed. And a perpetrator procedural, at the same extreme resolution. Okay, what it really is, it’s the whole of Japanese society and its historical underpinnings, pretty much, as complexly shuddered by a series of crimes with murky motivations. And if such a thorough investigation doesn’t enthrall your attention, then … I don’t know, there’s probably something less complicated and more shiny on Netflix right now, why are you even wasting your time reading?
WUXTRY! Blink Ink
If entire books are too much of a commitment at times, reader … if they’re too much like a meal that’ll leave you as stuffed as a haggis at a gathering of the Exalted Brotherhood of Culinary and Sadistic Scotsmen … why not reach for a literary wonderment that’s more like a tiny, well-catered snack tray? Blink Ink is a quarterly print journal run by Doug Mathewson and Sally Reno out of Connecticut, a journal that’s been publishing “the best in stories of approximately 50 words since 2009.” Yes: Just 50 words each. Too long to be any of those Hemingway-famous six-words-challenge sort of things, but also a bit too short to be part of what’s typically gathered as “flash fiction,” these ultrabrief works of narrative are collected in elegant multipaged, saddle-stapled volumes that are perfect for carrying in a pocket or stashing in your car somewhere and reading whenever you’ve got a spare minute or two. Of course, you could also keep them at home and nibble at the minitrove of tasty prose whenever the urge hits, reveling in well-wrought sentences that reflect whatever the quarter’s theme is: Mercy, perhaps, or Magic, or Cities, or Under the Sea, or Home Cooking, and so on. “We publish four issues of Blink Ink annually,” say the editors, “and, at least twice a year, your subscription will include a bonus publication from our sister imprint, The Mambo Academy of Kitty Wang. Sometimes we will send you other goodies and surprises.” Yes, they will. And we’ll vouch that your life will be more delightful than ever.