A pretty solid month of reading in September keeps me right on 52-book pace for the year.

Palace of Treason – Jason Matthews. I read Matthews’ excellent Red Sparrow three or four years ago. Turns out Matthews enjoyed those characters and settings so much, he’s decided to turn it into a trilogy. Volume two just hit the shelves in June.

Matthews, a retired CIA officer, does another first-rate job in building a tale of modern espionage. The main characters, again, are a Russian intelligence agent who has been recruited by the CIA, and her handler/lover. This time Matthews adds in several layers of potential double-crossing and the investigations on both sides to ferret out the traitors. It’s good stuff.

I especially like how he pulls Vladimir Putin directly into the story. And, as it is told from the American perspective, Putin is predictably evil: he is sadistic, uncaring, power-hungry, and a sexual predator. Good times! While reading I couldn’t help but wonder how President Obama, or any American president, would be portrayed in a corresponding Russian version. Obama would probably be drawn as a soft, effete, perhaps gay man who was both dangerous and easy to be pushed around because of his weakness. George W. Bush would be dangerous because of his poor grasp of history and propensity for seeing the world in strictly black and white terms. Reagan would be a threat because of his militarism. And so on. I bet these novels exist. I much prefer our American versions.

I Would Die 4 U – Touré. Just a brilliant, slim biography of Prince that focuses on a few important aspects of his life, rather than a telling of his entire history. Published just over three years before Prince’s death, it still feels fresh because it is so focused on looking back at the 1970s–1990s. Touré looks to both examine what made Prince Prince, and why he was uniquely positioned to speak to Generation X.

Touré hits three main aspects of Prince’s life: his experience with divorce, how he dealt with sexuality, and the role of religion in his life and music. Prince’s parents divorced when he was young, and their split was extremely traumatic for him. He bounced between their homes, and those of a few family members, and never forgave his mother for what he viewed as abandoning him. Although technically a Baby Boomer, Touré argues that because he was born at the end of that generation, and thus was young when Gen X was coming of age, that made Prince the perfect person to speak to the first generation of Americans that grew up with divorce being a central part of their experience.

To Touré, everything else both in Prince, and in Gen X, can be traced back to the effects of divorce. Prince/Gen X were able to experiment with sexuality more freely than earlier generations because of the freedoms that came with the Latchkey generation. The emergence of AIDS in the mid–80s was a powerful balance to these freedoms, giving Gen X deeply ambivalent feelings about sexuality. Touré writes that to Prince, sex was the most pure and genuine form of love, and no matter how lewd an act might be, if performed out of love, you were sharing God’s love with your partner. He also explored how Prince’s music style closely mirrored many of the core elements of performance with the African-American church.

It goes way deeper than that without being overwhelming. It is likely a flawed, and incomplete, view of who Prince was and how be came to be that way, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

Someone Could Get Hurt – Drew Magary. I’ve come to really love Magary’s writing for Deadspin, GQ, and other sites and magazines over the past couple years. He’s both funnier, cruder, and smarter than Bill Simmons, the writer whose path he probably follows the closest. I’m waiting for the library’s copy of Magary’s new novel, and got this collection of essays on parenthood in the interim. As expected, it’s hilarious, well-crafted, and often surprisingly touching.

Anatomy Of A Soldier – Harry Parker. It can be tough to stand out in a well-established genre. So authors will use literary devices to make their stories different from the thousands that came before them. In this novel, which is loosely autobiographical and focused on a British Army officer who serves in Afghanistan, Parker took a big chance, and has received some lukewarm reviews because of it. I liked, and enjoyed, the chances he took.

Parker’s trick is to write each of the book’s 45 chapters from the first-person perspective. However the narrator is never a person, but rather a series of inanimate objects. One chapter is told by the fertilizer used to build the IED that injures the main character. Another is told by the batteries that give the IED its charge. The bone saw that performs the amputation of his leg explains his surgery. The soldier’s boots, his mother’s purse, the motorcycle that carries the Afghani insurgents who plant the IED, a round in the soldier’s rifle magazine, and the razor the soldier’s father uses to shave him in the hospital all get their turns.

It’s a bit hard to follow at first, but once I found the rhythm, I raced through the book. I found Parker’s choice in perspective both original and well executed. He tells the stories of the soldier, his family and army companions, and the insurgents in a compelling way. The use of inanimate objects as narrators could be gimmicky, but I think he pulled it off well. That made this book stand out against the other fine novels that have been published about the War on Terror over the past decade.

Trespassing Across America – Ken Ilgunas. Piggy-backing a little on Ian Frazier’s Great Plains, that I read last month, is this travelogue of the central part of our country[1]. Ilgunas spent the fall/early winter of 2012–13 walking the length of the planned Keystone XL pipeline, beginning in the prairies of Alberta and ending on the Texas Gulf coast. This route involved trespassing across large tracts of private land, nervy encounters with herds of cattle, and poor weather. As an environmentalist, his goal was to learn more about the territory the planned pipeline would go through, what the people in those areas thought of the pipeline, and to raise awareness of what he perceived to be the dangers of building the pipeline.

He had a few dicey run-ins with unsympathetic strangers and law enforcement along the way, but in general it was a peaceful trip. And as he made his walk, he reevaluated his own views about the pipeline and environmentalism in general. He didn’t make a dramatic, 180 degree turn, but he did come to realize that there are no hard, black-and-white solutions to solving how we use fossil fuels, the ways we’re damaging our environment, and what all that means for climate change.

  1. With a touch of Canada thrown in.  ↩