Category Archives: Book Reviews

Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano

After writing Gomorrah, about the Neapolitan mob, Saviano had to go into hiding. He’s been living under police protection ever since, but continued to write about crime and justice and corruption. His new book, Zero Zero Zero,  covers the global cocaine trafficking economy and its corrosive effects on the normal functioning of everything it touches.

He writes stirringly about Mexican cartel battles, about the daily struggle to survive as a noncombatant in Juarez and Sinaloa, about the rise and fall of smuggling empires. Tiny details come into focus with amazing clarity – I was bowled over by the fact that at the height of its powers, one cartel was spending thousands of dollars a month on rubber bands just to bundle all its cash.

But the writing tends to be overly poetical and polemical, and the editing and translation seem not to have done any favors to Saviano’s style. What was urgent and fierce in Gomorrah has faded to bombast. It reminds me of the mid-20th-century Latin American political/literary criticism, things like How to Read Donald Duck, which bring a distracting and counterproductive emotional freight to every word.

I mean, there’s some brilliant reporting here, but there’s also a poem about the many names of cocaine. A long poem. It isn’t very good, even by the standards of poetry about drug slang.

Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan

I don’t think of myself as being especially sympathetic to selfish or clueless young men, even though I certainly was one myself not very long ago. But when both Heather and I read William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, I realized I might be more susceptible than I thought.

Finnegan is clearly an excellent prose stylist, and his stories of growing up in Hawai’i and Southern California, learning to surf, and coming of age in the sixties are fascinating. He doesn’t shy away from describing his numerous mistakes, or try to polish away the fact that he seems to have been an exceptionally self-centered, directionless surf bro well into his mid-thirties.

But while I found it charming that he didn’t pull those punches, Heather found him incredibly irritating. She still loved it because she’s a SoCal surfer herself and because Finnegan has clearly lived an interesting life. But she found his almost comically Freudian view of what Surfing Ought to Be (hint: obsessively dedicated men risking their lives unnecessarily) to be elitist and pretentious.

The back of the ARC notes that the marketing campaign will include special outreach to surf shops, which makes perfect sense. Surfers, even if they don’t agree with all of Finnegan’s views on surfing, will love this book. Nonsurfers (I’m one) will like the honest descriptions of a young man trying to manage the literal and figurative waves of the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone who’s ever seen a favorite thing become a trend will recognize Finnegan’s reluctance to admit that the sport he took up as an outsider is now thoroughly co-opted by The Man.

But reading this book mostly makes me wish I’d read his other books first – the prize-winning nonfiction about South Africa, Mozambique, and depressed pockets of the US. I’ve got a hunch that I’ll wind up recommending those over his memoir.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Plenty of grownups like to read youth-oriented fantasy and sci-fi. Plenty of grownups like to read, ahem, <i>adult</i> fantasy and sci-fi. But The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, is a different sort of beast. It’s a novel about a young man who’s a fan of a children’s fantasy book. He’s always suspected there’s something special and different about him.

And of course, there is, and magic is real, etc. etc.

So, the first thing he does is throw over all his old non-magical-world friends, go off to special magic college, hang out with a really pretentious clique, and try to impress chicks with magic.

Grossman brings a metafictional flair and a wry humor to the treatment of how actual people would handle magic if it were real, and how the worlds we imagine to be fictional would behave if they weren’t novels, but actual worlds. Oh, you think you’re a hero? Everyone wants to be the hero in their own story. You might not be. Oh, you’ve found your one true love? You’re still an idiot twentysomething and you’re going to wreck that relationship by hooking up with a girl who’s just toying with you out of boredom.

There’s a reason George R. R. Martin blurbs this book – like Game of Thrones, it subverts the conventions of the genre, and creates something entirely different. It’s not as violent or explicit as Martin’s work, but it’s very much a novel for adults who were raised on children’s fantasies and want a grownup, more nuanced tale with deeper themes than “heroism = awesome.”

Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler

When I mentioned to a friend Reid Mitenbuler’s  Bourbon Empire is my favorite history of bourbon, I got a raised eyebrow in response. You’ve read more than one?

Well, there’s King’s County Distillery Guide to Moonshining, which is a nice guide to production processes and the contemporary landscape of the American spirits business, but doesn’t have the narrative flow that I wanted it to. Max Watman’s Chasing the White Dog is thrilling and does a great job with illegal alcohol from the Whiskey Rebellion on through the present day, but doesn’t talk all that much about the stuff that we actually drink. And of course there are David Wondrich’s books Imbibe and Punch,  which are excellent general histories of drinking culture.

Last year brought us a candidate in the form of Dane Hucklebridge’s Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit. It’s informative enough, but the writing style is somewhat annoying and the perspective too boosterish to really provide objective value.

If you want to know your American whiskey history, Mitenbuler’s book is the one to read. Anyone else would have begin the story with the Whiskey Rebellion, but he goes to the 20th century. Yes, he starts with the 1964 lobbying triumph in which Congress was persuaded to pass a law defining bourbon as distinctly American. Why does this matter? Well, it kept foreign manufacturers from elbowing their way into the category, undercutting prices. (Then he goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion. You can’t skip it entirely).

Later on, he explains that the wide availability of 12-year-old bourbon resulted from a combination of poor demand forecasting, excellent lobbying, and tax-deferment policies which allowed distillers to age their stocks longer before having to pay taxes on them. It is a testament to Mitenbuler’s talent that he can explain industrial tax policy in a way that makes it seem like a fascinating tale of liquor-soaked intrigue.

What Mitenbuler does that’s particularly good here is root his history in the conflict between Thomas Jefferson’s and Alexander Hamilton’s conceptions of the American economy – should it be centered on yeoman farmers and small producers, or an industrial powerhouse with capital and leverage? In other words, he has written a history of bourbon which gives the reader a window into the overall development of American industry and society. It’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever seen for the fact that liquor and many other American industries are dominated by a handful of large producers, all marketing themselves as small-time humble craftsmen with homespun wisdom.

End of the Year Post

Sorry for the silence around here. I started a new job in November—I’m now a Field Sales Manger for Penguin Random House, selling Penguin books to the independents here in New England. I’ve been busy setting up a home office, getting to know my accounts, and reading Summer 2015 books.

While adding a few books to my Reading List, I noticed that I’m almost at 100 books for 2014. I’m not pressuring myself to hit 100, but sere’s hoping I do it. I’m about to get on a 6 hours flight to San Francisco, so I’m sure I can get at least 1-2 read. It was interesting going my reading list. There were definitely a lot of books that I forgot that I had read and clearly didn’t stick with me. But then there were the ones that did. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite books of 2014.

  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
  • Another Great Day by Geoff Dyer
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • Nobody is Every Missing by Catherine Lacey
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
  • Neverhome by Laird Hunt
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
  • All 3 of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante

One of my resolutions for 2015 is to write more here. I’m hoping to review some books, post about cooking projects, and perhaps write some observations about the life of a sales rep. I’m pretty sure I make the same resolution every year, but now that I’m working from home, with no boss looking over my shoulder, I can post as I please! And it’s work-related, so there.

Happy holidays folks. See you in the new year.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

If you’ve read World Made By Hand, you get the feeling that James Howard Kunstler is smugly waiting for the apocalypse in his bunker just so he can say “I told you so.” Of course, this is also true in almost any other end-of-the-world fantasy, from Dawn of the Dead and its warning of rampant consumerism to Justin Cronin’s The Passage and its parable of military experiments with vampires.

In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel manages to avoid that trap entirely. Her novel is divided between post- and pre-apocalypse scenes, each populated by fully realized characters shot through with wistful desires for what it cannot have. A paparazzo wishes for more meaningful work. A successful actor realizes he has been horrible to all three of his wives, and it has in fact been his fault. A woman struggles to remember if both light and coldness came from refrigerators in the world before. A survivor picks through an abandoned library in search of celebrity gossip magazines and Justin Cronin novels.

In Mandel’s world, a particularly virulent flu comes from nowhere to wipe out most of humanity. The survivors cobble together what they can – a museum in a former airport. A newspaper published monthly and disseminated by horse-drawn cart. A traveling orchestra and theater troupe. A cult.

And the villans, if villains there be in this tale, are those who seek to put a moral on the disaster. Who leads the violent cult? A man whose mama always told him “things happen for a reason.”

No they don’t. Nature doesn’t care about you. Only humans care.

Mandel has a masterful novel here. Not just in its narrative structure, or in its language – although it is beautifully built and beautifully told. But it is also a masterpiece in the way it illuminates the flaws of the current world and the folly of our wishing for apocalypse and the simplification it might bring.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

I don’t remember when I first read William Gibson’s landmark Neuromancer, but it would have been the early 1990s, and I was entranced. That book defined, a decade before “internet” was a household word, the possibilities and dangers of an online or virtual life at least as compelling as the present flesh-and-blood one.

With The PeripheralGibson returns to the theme of operating a virtual body remotely, and the metaphysics of life being a little too close to gaming.

Flynne is a young woman scraping together a living in a dying town whose main industry is illicit drug manufacture. Sometimes she works as a supporting character in rich people’s video games. Paid to fly a security drone around a virtual London, she witnesses a murder. It looks real. It may, in fact, be real.

The linkage between the world Flynne lives in and the world where the murder occurs blurs the line between who’s a real person and who is merely an AI or a character in a game. What happens when a disabled former Marine uses a neurological interface device to operate a prosthetic body in another location, leaving his legless original body in a back room in a warehouse? What if the warehouse is in another universe? What if the software that runs that universe isn’t 100% secure?

What is life, after all, but a completely realistic, totally immersive, massively multiplayer game with very real stakes?  And what happens if some of the players are cheating to get ahead – manipulating the fabric of the universe as though the world were merely another virtual reality server?