The Prone Gunman
Poor kid from the wrong side of town falls in the rich, gorgeous, popular girl. Embarrassed by his humble origins and desperate to make her happy, he tells her he is leaving town to make his fortune and will be back in ten years for her. This being a novel by the great French Noir writer Jean-Patrick Manchette going off to make a fortune involves becoming an assassin for hire., of course, and when our gunman return to collect the girl of his dream, no surprise everything goes horribly wrong.
Like any Manchette novel, this is propulsive, action packed, and written in a style so stark it hurts. I absolutely love Manchette’s work, and this one may epitomize his oeuvre. Incessant action and violence and no hero to cheer for except the author himself as he implements plot twist after plot twist. Great stuff here if you have any interest in crime writing.
God I loved this little book.
In post 1968 Paris a bunch of anarchists of varying levels of commitment plot to take an American ambassador hostage. It doesn’t go well, for anyone. The violence is nearly nonstop and none of the characters is particularly likeable. Still I couldn’t put it down. This is peak noir writing set in a world of anarchists, Marxists and intelligence agencies. Basically, candy for someone with my interests.
Manchette is among the best noir crime writers the world has ever seen. After I finished this, I went out and bought all his other books that have been translated into English. His writing is extremely sparse and direct, what details are included are pitch perfect – the name of the novel a character is reading, the make of a jacket. The action is nonstop and propulsive. We learn the inner lives of the characters by their actions, not by ruminations. The grizzled revolutionary takes action, even when it is ill advised, the hopeless intellectual meanders and drinks, even when action is required. This book, like most of Manchette’s has no heroes, just broken, deeply flawed people flailing through a violent mess. I ate it up.
This little book of poems is stunning. In a straightforward voice it tells the story of a town that goes silent in the face of the atrocities of an occupying force. Illustrated with simple drawing of hand signals the towns people use to communicate, the book is both odd and deeply resonate with our times. This one made many people’s lists of best poetry book of 2019 and I can see why. The writing is beautiful and accessible and the message incredibly relevant. Next time someone tells me they don’t like or understand poetry I am going to recommend they read this.
Reginald Dwayne Butts
I work at a criminal justice non profit and day in day out I try to make the criminal justice system in New York City a little smaller, a little fairer, a little more humane. That work can often be technical, and too often, we put distance between ourselves and the human costs of mass incarceration. This slim book of poetry did a lot to erase that distance for me. This book centers the people affected by mass incarceration, yes the felon of the title, but also the felon’s mother, his lover, his children.
I like my poetry straight, keep the opacity of high modernism for the graduate seminar, give me the visceral, honest, real feelings of poetry like Betts. A must read for anyone who wants to get a bit closer to understanding what we do to people, and communities, when we lock people in cages.
I bought Motherless Brooklyn right when it came out and then immediately leant it to a friend who soon after became a hopeless junkie. I never saw the book again.
But this year, without a book at the New Haven train station, I picked it up again, and blazed through it in just a couple of days. Lethem’s noir Brooklyn crime novel with a touch of Zen Buddhism and smattering of neuro-divergent ruminations on what it might feel like to be Tourettic was exactly up my alley. I found the writing propulsive and clean, my generally preferred aesthetic, and the love letter of sorts to a mobbed up Carrol Gardens that is now long gone hit my Brooklyn nostalgia hard. Some find the book too clever by half, but I are it up.
Stillness Is The Key
Ryan Holiday is loved by tech bro culture, and largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in Stoicism by a certain type of middle age white dude (one of whom is me). His books follow a formula – take basic life advice and illustrate it with life lessons from various successful figures in history. You can hate on this formula, but you’d be missing out on some practical, enjoyable works.
His new one – Stillness Is Key, investigates the importance of not just meditation, but also quiet, downtime, full on zoning out. It supports what I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, that to be good, we need to be quiet, and time spent staring out the window is often time spent. That he back up his basic thesis with a series of anecdotes about famous figures from history doesn’t make this book science, but it does make it an enjoyable, and I think, helpful, read.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The first of Fredrick Douglass’s autobiographies and as of now, the only one I’ve read.* When this was published Douglass was still a relatively unknown escaped slave, just beginning to break through on the abolitionist speaking circuit. Two things are striking about this little book – first is the clarity and power of Douglass’s writing. He tells the stories of the horrors of his life in slavery with a powerful directness, keeping his humanity in the foreground as he recounts the violence and deprivation of his youth. It’s mind-blowing to think he learned to read and write in secret, largely self-taught, and would go on to have such incredible skill.
The second thing that struck me is how much better Douglass’s writing has held up compared to the writings of the white abolitionist who provide the preface and opening letter (by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, respectively). Garrison, especially, reads like an overwrought Victorian gasbag using four words where one would do. Perhaps he was more learned (and clearly, he was more privileged) than Douglass, but Douglass was by far the better writer.
The more I dig into Douglass the more convinced I am he is one of America’s greatest figures. His life and story are so ubiquitous that it can be easy to avoid his own writers. Trust me, he’s worth digging into and this is a good place to start.
*I plan to read the other two in the coming year and will likely revise this review with comparisons.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion
When it feels like everyone in your world is reading the same book and that book is a collection of essays by a staff writer for the New Yorker it can be easy to buck the trend and say nope. Reader, I suggest you don’t do that with this one.
Talento’s book of essays on everything from being on a reality TV show to what it’s like to try to function in a very online world are illuminating, surprising, honest and so goddamn well written it hurts. So many times while I was reading this book I found myself smiling with pleasure at how well she had framed a thought, or taken the less obvious route to her point. This one is a real joy to read.
The definitive account of what happened at Chernobyl and the book that was the source of much of what is in the HBO mini-series. A tick-tock of the most destruction nuclear meltdown in history. A story of massive corruption and incompetence in Soviet Russia. A chronicle of the destruction of thousands of people’s lives.
I’m a big fan of recent history written by journalist – the training to find the narrative, and get to the point, and get it right can, when done well lead to books that are fascinating and propulsive. This is one of those kind of books. Higginbotham is an excellent journalist and by and large he lets the deeply disturbing facts speak for themselves. The clearheaded way the tragedy is reported here makes it even more harrowing.
In Love With The World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying
Yongey Minguy Rinpoche
Mingyur Rinpoche is one of the most respected Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the world. He has taught at meditation retreats in every continent, runs a group of prominent monasteries, and is a member of a distinguished line of teachers. .
One day, some years ago he disappeared from all that and spent the next three plus years wandering as a beggar.
This is the story of his decision to walk away from everything, and risk death, in an attempt to deepen his practice. This is on one level a gripping adventure story. It’s also a mediation on ego and a clear, concise and applicable discussion of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
There is a real sense of suspense in this book, so I don’t want to give too much away, trust me when I said it blew me away. I devoured it in two days. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Buddhism or in how we cope with death and dying.