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Category Archive for 'United States'

In Melville House Publishing’s Last Interview series, Billie Holiday’s own words define her and and reflect her difficult life through eight interviews. The first is given on November 1, 1939, published in Downbeat Magazine, and the last is twenty years later, published in October, 1959, in Confidential Magazine, an interview she granted two days before her death in a New York hospital at age forty-four. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of Clarence Holiday of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, with whom she had little contact after the age of ten. According to Khanya Mtshali, who wrote the substantial Introduction to this book, Billie was raped at around age ten and sent to a Catholic reformatory school for about two years, but was released “with the help of relatives” and later moved to New York with her mother, “where they began engaging in sex work to make ends met. Holiday was only fourteen.” In the the book’s first interview by Dave Dexter, with Downbeat Magazine on Nov. 1, 1939, she talks about those early years when she and her mother “were so hungry we could barely breathe.” Then at fifteen she got her chance singing in a “joint” in New York. Eight years later, at twenty-three, she was a giant in the music world. This book describes her ascent, and her difficulties, in her own words.

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The dramatic hit-and-run death of a respected cafe owner in the Mohave brings all the members of the man’s family to his home in the Mohave, to which he and his wife immigrated from Morocco when violence broke out in Casablanca in 1981. Each of these family members and many others in the community become first-person narrators as the action begins, the novel becoming a character-based study of people and how they respond the danger and threats. Nora Guerraoui, who becomes the main character, is a musician, composer, and grad student in California now, but on her return to the Mohave, where her parents live, she quickly re-adapts to the community where she grew up and reconnects with some friends from the past, some of them with long-standing prejudices. One of the best novels I’ve read all year, THE OTHER AMERICANS draws in the reader, provides constant interest and insights, and shows the sensitivity with which author Laila Lalami treats her subject without talking down and without lecturing. High on my Favorites list for 2019.

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Written in 1936 and out of print for thirty years, A Puzzle for Fools has now been resurrected as part of Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series – and what a classic it is, with one of best and most surprising conclusions ever. The novel – hugely successful when it was initially published – established “Patrick Quentin” as a popular writer, quite different from some of his contemporaries in that he was more interested in the psychology of his characters than many of his contemporaries, who were still following a predictable formula for their plots. For Quentin, a pseudonym for Hugh Callingham Wheeler, in collaboration with Richard Wilson Webb, this is the first of nine novels featuring main character Peter Duluth, a Broadway director whose wife died in a fire at the theatre, and who became an alcoholic as a result. Admitting himself to a sanitarium to dry out, he becomes involved in the search for a patient who has been tormenting other patients in their sleep. Eventually, he is involved in searching for a murderer. One of the best and most surprising conclusions ever.

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Erle Stanley Gardner, a man who found his metier early in life, bridged the gap between pulp and literary fiction during the 1940s and 1950s, and THE CASE OF THE CARELESS KITTEN is one of his best. A lawyer for fifteen years, he has said that while he enjoyed litigation and the development of trial strategy, that he was bored by the day-to-day work in the office. He soon began writing stories for pulp magazines, setting as his writing goal over a million words per year, and using some of his cases as inspiration. Beginning in 1933 with his first novel, he eventually developed the Perry Mason series, which, alone, consists of eighty novels. Gardner quickly developed a style which fit his legal experience and interests, and modern readers discovering him for the first time, and older readers who have not read him in years, will be intrigued by the obvious formula which governs his work. In every case, the characters are introduced briefly, and their upcoming roles in the book are quickly established. Gardner is interested in the facts and has no interest in developing personal psychologies or complex motives. He keeps the character list simple and the action moving quickly. Ultimately he creates a puzzle, rather than a plot: Something terrible happens, and the reader is supplied with every piece of information s/he needs, along with a few red herrings, leading to a grand climax in which the evil-doer is revealed as a surprise. The reader’s objective is to figure out the guilty party ahead of the author’s revelation.

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In this collection of eleven short stories, author Joseph O’Neill focuses on imperfect and often uncommitted men as they live their usually unexciting and unrewarded lives. Their stories are, from a “story” point of view, as unexciting as their lives, yet they are also fun and often even funny. O’Neill, the son of an Irish father and Turkish mother who traveled and lived with their family all over the world, writes without the clever and quirky characteristics one usually associates with stereotyped “Irish writers,” presenting his stories instead with a “straight face” as he recreates his characters’ lives and leaves it up to the reader to form judgments and draw conclusions. Throughout the collection, O’Neill varies his literary style to fit the subject, and in “The Mustache in 2010,” his overtly academic tone for a subject like mustaches, as he traces the history of facial hair, serves as an amusing introduction to “the drama of Alexandre Dubuisson’s mustache.” Ultimately, the collection feels somewhat anti-climactic, lacking real, direct conflicts resulting in final resolutions. The male characters are weak and are often afraid or too easily distracted from the real issues to make independent moves.

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