The season's best new releases are coming out at a fast clip now. I'll be making more time to read and keep you up on what's arriving as best I can. Yes, it's a hardship, but one I'm willing to endure for the readers of this newsletter. Here's what we're reading:
Bleeding Edge - Thomas Pynchon.
What makes Mr. Pynchon such a polarizing author, even among fanatic readers like booksellers and librarians, is his utter unwillingness to hold the reader's hand through the narrative. You know how other novelists will offer your memory a little help if a marginal character comes back into the story from six or seven chapters ago? Or when you need a little reminder because the relationship between two or more characters is ambiguous or uncertain? Don't expect that kind of help from this author - he races the plot along, and if you keep up, it's an exhilarating ride.
Maxine Tarnow, the de-certified NYC fraud investigator at the center of the story, is one of the most compelling female characters in recent memory. Attractive, whip-smart, fearless and intuitive; she's also a Beretta-carrying single mom with conflicted feelings about her ex and her career. Her investigation of an online company at a very specific historical moment - between the bursting of the dotcom bubble and 9/11 - leads so many places and to so many (possibly) shady characters the pieces seem impossible to connect. Government agents, mobsters, nerd hackers, software developers, police, Middle East operatives, Russians - who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Who's connected to who? I'm not going to help you any more than Mr. Pynchon does, but by the end you'll know. (2013 National Book Award finalist)
Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City - Russell Shorto.
If this book was about a person, it would be the most fascinating biography of the year. Amsterdam was literally lifted from the sea, and constructed in an atmosphere of cooperation and private land ownership completely unlike the rest of then-feudal Europe. Its survival required openness to all seafaring trade customers and sophisticated financial and distribution systems. The centuries-long struggle between the multi-cultural melting pot the city became by necessity, and being too vulnerable to the near-constant parochial wars of the other European monarchies, makes for a story rich with triumph, tragedy, heroes and villains. It also includes religious and ethnic tolerance, free thought, scientific advancements and the birth of the idea of liberalism - a focus on individual rights - that couldn't have occurred anywhere else. At the end Mr. Shorto takes us to the modern city, and points out how the rest of the world's view of Amsterdam as a free-wheeling Sin City of legal prostitutes and open drug use is a misunderstanding of both the city's historical concept of liberalism and the Dutch people themselves.
Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him - David and Joe Henry.
In one of those curious footnotes that music writers use to show their readers that they actually researched their subject, it's been mentioned many times that Joe Henry is Madonna's brother-in-law. He's also a gifted composer, producer and performer and has put out a handful of my very favorite albums (Scar, Civilians, Blood from Stars - take your pick). His brother David is a successful screenwriter, and together they've shared a life-long passion for the work of Richard Pryor.
Not a traditional biography, the Henrys focus on two aspects of Mr. Pryor's life in particular. First, they place his body of work into the larger contexts of both comedy and the societal changes happening in the 60s and 70s, showing clearly how innovative, daring and brilliantly funny Mr. Pryor's work was, especially his standup comedy. He never cared about other comics stealing his material; there was nobody else who could have performed it. His dizzying array of characters, voices, facial expressions and physicality onstage was more ambitious one-man play than traditional standup. The authors also try to get at the heart of his personal issues. Many of the people closest to Mr. Pryor in his life echo what the Henrys conclude - the same demons that haunted his personal life fed the fire of his intense creativity. There was no separating the two, and his meteoric rise was followed by a spectacularly public fall. There are many emotions that this story brings to the surface, and the Henry brothers do a troubled genius a great service - a celebration of his brilliance and harrowing cautionary tale; very visceral and very human.
Seriously Bitter Sweet - Alice Medrich.
When Ms. Medrich wrote the first version of this book, Bittersweet, back in 2004, the great gourmet chocolate boom hadn't happened yet. Chocolate wasn't sold with percentage ratings (not unlike wine vintages) yet, so she's completely overhauled the earlier book to account for the wide-range of choices now in every supermarket in the land. If you're a baker, you may remember her cookie book from a couple of years ago, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy. (The cover would stop me in my tracks whenever I passed that section of the store), and I can guarantee this one is just as enticing and decadent, filled with glorious photos of one of the world's greatest temptations. If I had you at "chocolate," this is your book.
I have some questions for you this week - we're tossing around the idea of taking this newsletter live, with yours truly hosting a "Notes from Neil" book talk in each of our cities. What do you think? Would you stop by and join me? What would you like to discuss? Any ideas and comments would be appreciated.
Until next week,
NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.