This week’s reading:
F is for Fugitive, Sue Grafton
Homicide, David Simon
G is for Gumshoe, Sue Grafton
H is for Homicide, Sue Grafton
No Shame in My Game, Katherine S. Newman
Trouble, Jesse Kellerman
The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr
I is for Innocent, Sue Grafton
This was the kind of reading week that makes me want to swear off fiction forever. That’s a bit of an exaggeration - Grafton continues to deliver solid, entertaining mysteries - but I hit two serious clunkers in a row, along with two of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year. Together, it’s making me want to go rummage through my research shelves and dig into more non-fiction!
(Though watch me: I’m a fiction addict. No matter how bad the books I read, I just can’t quit!)
What’s frustrating about both the Kellerman and the Carr is that I’d expected them to be good books, or at least workmanlike ones. Carr gets all this hype for The Alienist and his other books; Kellerman’s got a solid first novel, a good reputation, and a hell of a literary pedigree. So how did they both manage to write such terrible books?
Trouble at least had the advantage of being merely dull. The main character does a series of increasingly stupid things? Yawn. Kellerman completely fails to make me care. Of course, that may have had to do with the fact that every single plot twist was insultingly obvious - up to and including the final “dramatic” scene. Poor Jonah Stem pretty much had to be a moron to give the book any interest at all.
The Italian Secretary, on the other hand, was not only dull, but also managed to hit just about every wrong note it could manage. Although I love Sherlock Holmes, I’m not a madly obsessive fan (the kind who looks for inconsistencies in the published works, for example). On the other hand, it really sits wrong with me when Watson’s able to figure out the cryptic message, and when Mycroft is running around the countryside, and so on and so forth. Mr. Carr, you just aren’t a good enough writer to depart convincingly from the original material! That’s added to the clumsy pacing, the mediocre dialogue, and the roll-your-eyes attempts at drama. This was a truly terrible book.
My non-fiction reading this week, though, was gripping! (If only it were as much fun to rave about good books as it is to eviscerate bad ones!)
Simon’s Homicide is definitely on my top-ten books of the year list. Simon spent a year living with the Baltimore homicide squad detectives. He chronicles their cases, their office politics, their language, their culture, and their personal lives. The book is blackly humorous without being disrespectful; heartbreaking without being cynical; intimate without being sentimental. The only flaw - a very minor one - is that I kept having to flip back to list at the beginning to keep track of which detectives were which. You may want to note the names and squads of the major characters on an index card, especially if you’ll be reading this over the course of more than a couple of days. I honestly can’t find anything else to critique about the book, except that I’m sad it wasn’t longer.
Of course, now I have to go watch the various television shows Simon built out of his experience; sadly, I hear that The Wire (the only one I’ve seen) is the best of them. I like having something excellent to look forward to!
No Shame in My Game is less readable than Homicide, but powerful in its own way. Newman is an anthropologist (at Columbia, actually! so I must go and meet her) who studies the working poor, and her book is an incredible indictment not only of the economic priorities of our country, but also in how we write and think about what it means to live in poverty. She tells the stories of “Burger Barn” workers who choose to work as much as they can, despite the fact that even full-time work leaves them below the poverty line. She tells how they patch together their lives in order to work and take care of themselves, and explains how we tell the wrong stories about this country’s urban poor.
Sadly, all the changes she proposes are systemic; there’s very little that I feel that I, as an individual, can do. But maybe I’ll make some calls, next year, and find out how I can mentor a girl from the inner city instead of a young woman who’s already in college. That’s a small thing, but reading her book makes me think it could really make a difference.
Until next week, folks! (Though it’s looking less and less like I’ll hit 300!)