The Autumnal Bookshelf

We are enjoying a spectacular fall here in our little nook in the State of Jefferson. The temperature drops at night, flirting with frost, but the afternoons are still warm enough for t-shirts and shorts. The colors, albeit our limited Western versions, have been out for weeks and show no sign of abating. The riding has been sublime. Our local trail haven is hardly used and we have it mostly to ourselves on our twice-weekly mountain bike jaunts, a bunch hearty and (we hope) hardy oldsters fighting off old age. It’s shoveling sand on the beach, but it’s fun and good for us.

My mind needs the workout as well. I should say my mind-body nexus craves multiple inputs. I need to wheeze from over-exertion and reel from trippy fictions in at least equal measure. Just about everything I read is fiction and I define fiction as anything without footnotes. I love a good history tome and I expect lots of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Otherwise it is just bullshit. It might be interesting, well-written bullshit, but still bullshit. I figure if you are going to all that trouble to make bullshit then quit faking it and call it fiction.

In the mail coming any day is the second volume (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke) of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals by Per Wahlöö and Maj Söwall. That completes my collection. These are from late-60s to mid-70s Sweden and have a taut, just-the-facts-ma’am style. The laconic protagonist tosses in a bit of wry humor, but he’s mostly a grim fellow doing a grim fellow’s job, that of chasing down murderers. Equally grim, but in an entirely different vein, are John le Carré’s spy thrillers. Found one I didn’t have (Our Kind of Traitor, 2010) and polished it off. He’s getting crankier in his later years but he’s just as sharp and entertaining. The Cold War was grist for his mill for a long time, now he’s more interested in rogue financiers, Russian mobsters, and Englishmen who sell out their country while serving it.

One of my all-time favorite books was recently returned to me and so I had to re-read it. Nothing can prepare you for Jack Womack, but Elvissey (1993) is probably his most accessible creation. It is part of a six-novel series about a near-future corporate-dominated dystopian America, but that’s just the setting. Womack’s voice is unique and his characters use a peculiar argot coupled with syntactic inversions that are both funny and unsettling. It reminds you a little of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange but is its own thing. The novel can be read alone or as part of the larger work. Another writer with a great ear is Mark Twain and I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after I finished Elvissey. It had been decades since I’d opened it and it was a lot of fun. Both novels concern themselves with the American South, with ante-bellum Missouri the focus for Twain, an alternate-past post-WWII Mississippi for Womack.

Awaiting consumption is Jim Thompson’s The Alcoholics (1953). He’s always good for a brisk descent into hell, but unlike le Carré his hells are confined to small towns and lonely places. The globe-trotters in le Carré could just as easily be playing tennis in Antigua as they could be listening to wiretaps in Berlin. Thompson’s lead players are losers and psychopaths, le Carré’s are professionals and renaissance men; but both love grifters and con artists.

There aren’t many novels about the Korean War and I came across Pat Frank’s Hold Back the Night which was made into a movie with John Payne in 1956. I also picked up Frank’s Forbidden Area, also from 1956. Much of the fiction from this era is short, compact, and suspenseful, qualities I appreciate. There are many outstanding novelists working today but I find the trend toward longer and larger books less appealing. If you can’t say it in under three hundred pages you are probably trying too hard.

Speaking of contemporary stuff, I also just finished Gold Fame Citrus (2015) from Clare Vaye Watkins. It’s what they call “cli-fi” these days, short for “climate fiction” which assumes global warming catastrophe scenarios come true. In this case a perfectly plausible massive drought sweeps across the American Southwest as well as most of California and Nevada. A compelling story and good characters kept me engaged despite the overtly literary indulgences peppered throughout the narrative. This is one of the things I prefer about straight genre fiction—fewer opportunities for folderol and jibber-jabber. Editors were more slash-prone back in the day, it seems, now they are more encouraging and accepting. I like to read a lot of books and I get worn out if they take too long. Short & sweet and cut-to-the-chase is more my style.

Also on the soon-to-be-read shelf are another cli-fi, this one from Paolo Bacigalupi called The Water Knife, and Paula Hawkins‘ neo-noir The Girl on the Train which was made into a movie with Emily Blunt. Both were published in 2015.

So—what’s on your autumnal bookshelf?

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