November Reading

December 8th, 2009

Nothing is nicer than reading, and loving, a book by someone I like. And this month it happened twice.

RACING THE DEVIL, E. Michael Terrell — This is a first-rate PI novel that opens with one of the best-constructed frame-ups I’ve ever read — positioning the hero, ex-cop Jared McKean, dead center for a first-degree murder charge — and just gets better as it goes along. When even his former friends on the police force doubt his innocence, McKean finds himself in a three-hundred-sixty-degree nightmare, one that (even to a second-guessing reader like me) seems to have no way out. The setting is Nashville, but it’s a real insider’s Nashville, as far from Music Row as it’s possible to get. Written in spare, note-perfect prose, with a knockout plot and characters who don’t go away when you close the cover, this is a terrific book. I hope there’s going to be a lot more of Jared McKean.

CHASING SMOKE, Bill Cameron — Another keeper, this remarkable piece of Portland (Oregon) noir tells the story of homicide detective Skin Kadash, facing his own death sentence from cancer as he finds his way into a murder case that won’t hold still, a series of murders in which all the victims were on the guest list for a dinner months before the first death — and all were patients of Kadash’s doctor.  It’s impossible to not to accept Kadash completely; I got unusually close to him, and felt deeply for him as he struggled with the case and his ailment. One of the problems with being a writer is that you keep seeing the springs and levers, but Cameron only gave me a man struggling to do the right thing, when everyone — even his own body — is trying to stop him.  Cameron, like E. Michael Terrell, is a writer I’ll seek out.

BURY ME DEEP, Megan Abbott — I’ve never met Megan Abbott, but I’d love to.  She’s the queen of female noir for me, and BURY ME DEEP, based on the infamous Winnie Ruth Judd case, is hallmark (with a small “h”) Abbot: tough, gritty, deeply personal, heartbreaking, utterly persuasive, and completely original.  Abbott never sounds like anybody else to me.  A memorable story, beautifully told.

LULLABY FOR THE NAMELESS, Sandra Ruttan — Ruttan is back with another fiercely intelligent thriller featuring her trio of Canadian cops, Constables Nolan, Hart, and Tain, caught up in a series of murders that seem to suggest that they caught the wrong perpetrator in an earlier case, a possibility that not only makes the force look like amateurs, but also has the potential to damage the frail goodwill between the force and the Native American community.  Ruttan handles the three protagonists and the complex chronological structure like she’s been writing for fifty years, when in fact, this is (I think) her fourth book.

THE PERFECT MURDER, Brenda Novak.  Did not finish.  This book is undoubtedly for some people, but I’m not one of them.

THE ZOO STATION, David Downing — Downing is one of the big boys of espionage, on the evidence of his first two books.  If you read THE SILESIAN STATION and wondered whether he had another one like that in him, this is the answer.  He does.  I’m personally delighted to see writers as good as Downing, Philip Kerr, and Charles McCarry use Hitler’s Germany as their setting.  Few landscapes were ever populated by a larger number of monsters.


THE LITTLE STRANGER, Sarah Waters — An elegantly spooky British ghost story about a genteel but fading family trapped in the enormous house that’s almost all that’s left of a once-great estate.  And now, it appears, there’s something in the house that wants to kill them.  Waters creates a tremendously subtle atmosphere — in this book, the setting is actually the house as it exists in the characters’ minds. The story is told by an outsider, a doctor whose scientific approach to life is completely at odds with his own (largely unacknowledged) desires.  A little longer than necessary, but worth the time.

SOMETHING LIKE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Akira Kurosawa — If I were told that, for the rest of my life, I could watch the films of only one director, I’d choose Kurosawa in a heartbeat.  (Among other reasons, he was a great writer, and a great appreciator of writing — he even based a film on an Ed McBain novel.)  This, his only pass at telling his own story, is fascinating and frustrating at the same time.  His early years, as he finds his way out of painting and into film (in part through his brother, who earned some fame narrating silent movies) are great stuff, as are his struggles with the Japanese wartime censors and the U.S. Army censors who replaced them.  Also engrossing are his stories of the making of some of the world’s greatest movies: “Rashomon,” “Drunken Angel,” “Stray Dog,” and some others, but he cuts the narrative short before the glories of “Ikiru,” “Throne of Blood,” :”Seven Samurai,” “High and Low,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” “The Hidden Fortress,” “Yojimbo” — on and on.  Also, perhaps because of Kurosawa’s Japanese reticence, there’s little about his writing routine.  But SOMETHING LIKE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a whole lot better than nothing, and anyone who loves film should read it.

MAKING MOVIES, Sidney Lumet — A one-of-a-kind book, a tour through every aspect of filmmaking by one of America’s most consistent and most intelligent directors.  Full of stories (and even some discreet dish), this treatise by the maker of “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Twelve Angry Men,””The Verdict,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Serpico,” “Network,” and many others, takes the reader job by job, through virtually all the contributors to a film, from the director and screenwriter to the composer and even the sound mixer.   Never dull and often revelatory.

ROBERT ALTMAN, THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY, Mitchell Zuckoff — A kaleidoscopic look at the long, contentious career of a genuine American original, a guy who only ever did things his way, and who managed to drag thousands of people, some of them with house-size egos, along with him.  Altman was the antithesis of the control freak director, instead insisting on open, fluid collaboration, especially with actors, that drove screenwriters to despair.  (He told one writer to make a list of her favorite ten scenes, and then shot none of them.)  From “Nashville” and “The Long Goodbye” to “MASH” and “Gosford Park,” Altman’s career is pieced together like a mosaic, using recollections of friends, admirers, and enemies alike.  All of Hollywood offers memories — Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Julianne Moore, Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Tim Robbins — on and on.  Conspicuously missing is the man who seems to have been the villain of the last few months of Altman’s life, Kevin Spacey.  Great book.

2 Responses to “November Reading”

  1. Larissa Says:

    I’m sensing a trend here. Murder mysteries and movies…so when are you going to make a movie? eh? huh? I think it would be a smashing idea. Poke and them are already practically jumping off the page as it is…I think they could be convinced. 😀

    I keep meaning to do a listing of books I read…I’m bad at that game though.

  2. Usman Says:

    Hi Tim,

    I’m meeting you after a long time. Great to see how well Poke is doing.
    Just wanted to say hello to you again.

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