Reader’s Notebook, 11/16/17

Funny thing. After reading that Van Halen book in one day, I then didn’t read a thing for an entire week. And then took roughly a week to really get into my next book. Obviously my body was self-regulating and making sure I didn’t get too far ahead of my book-a-week pace.


The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Here we have An Important Book. So important, in fact, that Beatty became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize. That label and accolade make this a tricky book to write about. Oh, and the fact the book is a layered and outrageously original look at race in America makes it difficult to write about, too.

Do I just run through the plot? Tell you how it’s set in the mythical community of Dickens, CA, in south central LA, a predominantly black neighborhood that has been “disappeared” into larger LA – its borders erased, exit signs noting its name removed, city services all but dissolved? Do I focus on the narrator, a second-generation farmer in the community who continues to adhere to the original intent of Dickens – farmland for black folks – even as the land around him becomes increasingly urban? Do I tell you about his assistant, errrr, slave? The last surviving Our Gang actor who, after facing decades of racial abuse decides to turn himself back into a slave and demand to be worked hard, whipped, and otherwise degraded? Or do I go into detail about the narrator’s plan for saving Dickens as a distinct entity, which involves re-segregating its schools, buses, and businesses? Any one of those elements could demand 500 words or more to break down.

And then there’s Beatty’s writing style. This is an insanely funny novel, but also deeply disturbing, depending on how you approach it. I read some reviews by people who either didn’t get Beatty’s humor, or were put off by it, and thus missed the power of the book as a whole. The book is profane and direct, yet also laugh-out-loud funny on nearly every page. I guess some folks think when you’re writing about the series concept of race in America, you can’t have any fun while doing it.

This is a crazily good book. It’s one that you want to go back and read again as soon as you finish it, both because of Beatty’s writing ability and the story he’s trying to tell. And beyond all the laughs are some deeply important questions about where we are as a country and how we should try to move forward, and how in a multi-ethnic nation we find the balance between a new, common culture and keeping the traditions of our various sub-cultures alive.


Crimes in Southern Indiana – Frank Bill
After reading the collection of Daniel Woodrell short stories, I did some digging for authors with a similar style and came across Frank Bill. As the title of his own collection of short stories suggests, he is from southern Indiana, and all his stories take place down near the Ohio River.

Like Woodrell, and Donald Ray Pollack, Bill’s stories are dark, full of violence, and rarely have sympathetic characters. There are criminals and borderline criminals. Meth heads, dog fight trainers, cheating spouses. There are murders aplenty.

That this was Bill’s first published work was apparent. His stories lack the polish and subtleties of Woodrell’s and Pollack’s works. But they show promise, if you’re into the genre his work fits into.