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Three Gems 

New paperbacks on parade

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard).

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Winslow, a former arson investigator, reaped widespread critical acclaim for his 1999 novel California Fire and Life, a dense tale of arson in the land of sunshine that featured (surprise) a surfing arson investigator. In his subsequent novel, The Power of the Dog, Winslow drastically changes directions by following a cast of characters through nearly 30 years of the so-called war on drugs. Changed direction, maybe, but he didn't let go of the style that won him loyal fans. Winslow is one of the few authors who can write in present tense without seeming self-consciously edgy enough to get on your nerves; his pacing is super-fast without being hurried; and his outlook is decidedly caustic. Into that overall stylistic framework, he pours a hard-bitten, violent DEA agent, an even more violent bigshot Latin American drug dealer, a hit man (also violent, needless to say), a pricey call girl, a priest, and some extra thugs and victims. Winslow's strength is in being able to take characters that, in lesser hands, would be mere crime novel clichés and turn them into three-dimensional humans as he traces their crossing paths over a long period of time. He imparts his tale with depth, detail, and complex, twisty-turny plotting that makes for a first-rate crime thriller, while delivering a blistering indictment of the failures -- both tactical and moral -- of the American "war on drugs."

Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender (Anchor).

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In Aimee Bender's short stories, or rather, in Aimee Bender's fictional universe, a woman realizes the potatoes in her kitchen are turning into small people, a family of pumpkinheads copes with a child who is born with an iron for a head, and a bored bachelor buys a minuscule man in a cage to keep him company. Oh, and a boy is born with fingers shaped like keys. Call it surrealism, strained metaphors, or just call it weird -- Bender's writing is all of those. But it's also tender, lyrical and funny. She creates modern fables with a twist of goofiness, stories whose initial dark vision often lifts as Bender's cartoonish characters gradually become deeper and more, er, real. Bender's stories don't often read like conventional narratives, as her characters try to figure out how to connect with anything, despite the odd thoughts inside and the odd world outside. Bender can bewilder and even disturb, but I find that when she's on, her trust in her readers' imaginations -- and in imagination itself -- is a refreshing, needed reminder that there's more to fiction than linear narratives. Occasionally, one of her stories falls short, but most of the time, Bender throws the conventional, American, Iowa Writers Workshop model for fiction into the garbage, and makes you like it.

Epileptic by David B. (Pantheon).

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Epileptic, by graphic artist Pierre-Francois Beauchard (now David B.), collected enormous acclaim in Europe, where it was published during the past decade as a 6-part series. It's the story of how B., growing up in 1960s France, developed into an artist as a way of surviving his tumultuous family life. His unbalanced older brother suffered from chronic grand mal epilepsy, and his parents undertook a tortuous search for cures, careening from surgeons to mediums to an array of alternative medical practitioners, going so far as to move the family into a Zen macrobiotic commune. As his brother became more and more delusional, B. delved deeper into his drawing, turning his family's doomed medical quest, and his own growing obsession with military history, into a cultural history of the late-'60s/early-'70s, a series of riffs on the two World Wars, and a portrait of his own, and family members', psychological states. Eventually the children's fantasy life takes over, and B.'s graphic style becomes more and more elaborate and expansive. Fears and dreams take on the form of living creatures, and B.'s writing dives deeper into his inner battles, progressing to the likes of flashbacks within flashbacks that deliver wrenching insights. B. created a full-bodied literary work with strong characters, intricate graphics, and a plot you can't forget. Critics have compared Epileptic to Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking Maus, for its imaginative depth and graphic inventiveness in the service of a family tragedy, and Publisher's Weekly wrote "[Epileptic] is one of the greatest graphic novels ever published." Even though the work is a memoir, not a novel, I still have to agree.

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