These are sobering times. The Station fire, the largest fire in LA County history, has been deemed to be arson. It has cost the County of Los Angeles $21 million to fight, with that dollar amount still rising. Worse, it has cost us the lives of two deeply admired firefighters (I will have another story about Ted Hall, Arnie Quinones, and the Mt. Gleason Camp situation next week.) in addition to incinerating more than 60 homes, and around 250 miles of the Angeles National Forest.
Meanwhile, the California budget is still such a nightmare that we’re looking to donuts to save us.
Plus many of our nation’s lawmakers, democrats prominently included, appear to be in some form of indentured servitude to the health care industry….
…And Afghanistan is looking so disastrously quagmire-ish that even a few Republicans are now suggesting a cut-and-run policy and non-alarmist journalists and commentators are starting to use the V word.
….And the American embassy in that same benighted country is being guarded by depraved, drunken and witless American rent-a-thugs, who also happen to be heavily armed—and paid handsomely for their hideous behavior with our tax dollars..
ON THE OTHER HAND, Labor Day is upon us—which means it is our last chance for a long summer weekend that might conceivably involve recreational reading.
So, for one a brief and shining moment, let us set aside the aforementioned troubling issues—and talk about good beach books.
I’ll have other, more serious books to recommend in the coming days and weeks, but for now, here’s my personal short list of beach, pool and airplane-worthy reading.
(And after mine, I want to hear yours. Deal? okay, deal.)
In no particular order:
These first two books of the trilogy of intellectual thrillers written by Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson are monster best sellers for perfectly good reasons. (Sadly, Larrson died suddenly in 2004, so will produce no more past the three.) They’re intelligent, and the first—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo— is filled with many cool tidbits about the world of Swedish high finance, some of which serve as easy analogs for our own recent financial debacles. The second book is sequined with its another pleasing array of arcane factoids—this time about such subjects as Olympic-class computer hacking and high-flown mathematics problems. But most importantly, both books feature, along with muckraking financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, the glorious literary creation that is Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social punk-styled near-genius girl hacker who may or may not be suffering from Asperger’s. She alone is worth the price of admission.
2. The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
There are at least five reasons to read this book: First of all, it’s a Michael Connelly novel, and one has to be terribly grumpy to live in LA and not have at least a teensy weensy soft spot for Connelly novels.. Second, its sub theme is the collapse of the newspaper business and significant chunks of the novel are set at the LA Times. Third it even manages to have an ex-Times reporter/editor turned blogger character, who is a barely disguised Kevin Roderick of LA Observed fame. (The fictional blog is called “The Velvet Coffin.”) Fourth, Michael Connelly is Bill Bratton’s favorite mystery novelist and that must mean something, right? Fifth, it’s a Michael Connelly novel. (Did I already say that?) And Connelly has grown very, very good at what he does, thus it is a comfort and a pleasure to be in his company for each successive book-length ride.
French’s two books are best read in sequence as they feature many of the same characters who assume greater or lesser importance from one book to the other. Both novels are wonderfully psychologically-nuanced police procedurals written in a literary, almost Donna Tartt-ish tone—and all set in Ireland. I liked both of them a lot.
4. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for his unfathomably beautiful Viet Nam war novel, 2007′s Tree of Smoke. Before that, he was the Next Big Literary Hope with his pared-to-the-bone book of short stories, the bleak and stunning Jesus’ Son, which first made us aware of his capacity for writing those gorgeous sentences.
But going from the 800-word, image and symbol-loaded Tree of Smoke to Chandler/Hammett-type genre fiction that is so fat-free that it is barely 200 pages, evidently confused certain reviewers—even though there is a long tradition for such genre hopping among literary types. (Most recently, John Banville did it after he won the Booker prize, albeit under another name. Kate Atkinson leaped over to genre fiction after winning the Whitbread award, and never went back. And then there is Pynchon, below.).
But there are others who embraced the book with no confusion at all because they simply love the man’s writing, whatever structure or genre happens to contain it.
I fall into that latter category. Pick up one of his books, and maybe you will too.
5. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
It is California noir laced with so much in the way of happily outrageous 60′s/70′s stoner dialogue that it makes Cheech and Chong movies of the period seem positively abstemious in contrast, and it comes complete with its own surfer music sound track (minus the audio). (Actually, I take that back. Amazon and other sites have listed all the songs, with links to the audio when possible. When there are no links, it is because Pynchon made the song up out of whole cloth—complete with lyrics. My personal favorite in the latter category is “Soul Gidget” by Meatball Flag.)
This Pynchon book is over-the-top, occasionally deliberately anachronistic, sly, dark, funny and fabulous. Much in the way that Graham Greene wrote his “entertainments,” Pynchon has created something masterful in which even the deep, dark, philosophical points he has slipped into the genre plotting are made to seem light as cotton candy.
I never wanted it to be over.
Okay, now your turn.