At the risk of coming across as a pandering toady, on my last day of guest blogging I'd like to thank Powell's for more than just the opportunity to yap about my book on their site. I spent a good chunk of the 1990s in Portland playing music in various bands, being turned down for legit work, and hand-to-mouthing it in the typical way of the struggling band guy. These were fun times, but also stressful times, financially and otherwise, and aside from a few good friends and band mates, Powell's on Burnside was one of the things that kept me alive during the darker days. The reading room in back has changed — the magazines used to be in there, for one thing — but for me, like so many others, it was often a haven of sanity and warmth (literally).
Since Powell's generously allowed me for so many years to read their magazines for free, and has even more generously provided me with space this week to promote my new book, I'd like to repay the favor by mentioning a few recent books that I've enjoyed. The following suggestions in no way constitute a "Chuck's All-Time Greatest Books" list, because creating such a list would require weeks of work and a box or two of Pepcid AC to help take away the heartburn caused by leaving off so many worthies. So, just some mostly new or new'ish books I've enjoyed in the past year.
Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America's Class War by Joe Bageant
Actually, I just started Bageant's high readable letter to lefties explaining why so many of America's "underclass rednecks" vote Republican (seemingly against their own self-interest), so I can't really consider this a complete endorsement. But in addition to being an entertaining writer, Bageant's got the kind of insight into our political landscape that you don't find on the cable shouting matches between alleged "experts." You read Bageant and stop being disgusted (sort of) with the "idiots" on the conservative right, and start to feel empathy for the millions in this country who can't afford to buy new hardback books, even if their under-funded school systems had left them wanting to do so. I read so much anymore that I quit on books all the time, but this is one that I'm going to finish.
Rock On: An Office Power Ballad by Dan Kennedy
This doesn't come out till February 2008, but I received an advance copy from the publisher and read it in one long sitting. Kennedy's a very funny, smooth writer, and his memoir of a year working in the marketing department of a major record label is filled with quirky observations and terrific one-liners. Lots of pop music references and reflections — for work he helps cross-promote a new ladies razor with a Jewel song about not selling out, and tries to reconcile this with his love of bands like Led Zep and The Clash, bands that got him interested in music in the first place. A good one to put on your pre-order list if you're into pop music.
A music book I pre-ordered this year was Andy Summers' One Train Later. During their years of chart dominance, I was a huge Police geek, so was pretty excited when I saw this title was coming out. Couldn't wait to get it. Summers' book was OK, but I was disappointed that he spent so little time talking about the Police, which is the only reason anyone would buy a book by Andy Summers. I'm surprised his editor/publisher didn't make him do more on the Police and less on the rest of his (admittedly, pretty interesting) life.
I've always loved Kinky's catalog of mystery novels, but this thin (127 pages) non-fiction account of his failed bid for the governorship of Texas might be his most readable thing yet. It's filled with the usual gritty Kinky humor, but also with poignant sections that let you know his political campaign wasn't just a publicity stunt — the Kinkster is genuinely disgusted by politics in this country and in his state of Texas and he wants to make things better.
Kinky was nice enough to blurb my book, so including him on this list probably looks like a tit-for-tat deal, but it's not. When I was editing for American Way magazine (inflight of American Airlines, based in Dallas), I was trying to come up with a way of reeling some good writers into the magazine and since I already loved his books and knew he lived in Texas, I cold-called Kinky on the off chance he'd be willing to write for us. We spoke for a while and I managed to talk him into writing for us and we became friends of a sort. But my admiration for him has always been founded on a respect for his writing and expansive humanity.
While I'm on the subject of guys who blurbed my book, I'll mention that anything by Joe Queenan is worth buying if you're a fan of smart, biting social criticism. His True Believers is my favorite sports book ever, with Ball Four by Jim Bouton, and Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons, running a very close second and third.
Budding Prospects by T.C. Boyle
Amazingly, I'd never read anything by T.C. Boyle until a few months ago. As it's the only one I've read, I'm not sure if this is his best novel — it's about some buddies starting a marijuana farm in Northern California — but I liked it a lot, and will certainly read more of him, probably next being The Tortilla Curtain, which I've heard only great stuff about. Boyle is one of those natural writers who makes you want to quit writing because after two or three pages you just can tell you'll never be as good a writer. It's depressing, like a lawyer walking into a courtroom and seeing F. Lee Bailey or Johnnie Cochran adjusting his tie across the aisle.
Flanagan has been a columnist for The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly on "domestic issues." She's a sharp writer and clear-headed and straightforward about everything from post-feminist fire breathing to packing school lunches. I don't agree with everything she says so much as I agree with the way she says it. Didn't debate used to be like this in America — presented in such a way that you could disagree with the other person without having to assume they were a complete jerkoff?
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
I actually read this when it came out about five years ago, but I'm going to India in spring and will try to re-read this before I go. I say "try" because this is in many ways a painful and soul-crushing read — about social troubles and upheaval and the dreadfully impoverished in 1970s India — yet it's so powerful and well done. To me, this book is to India what East of Eden is to the United States. If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably call East of Eden the Great American Novel, but not before mentioning Huck Finn, Gatsby, and thirty or forty others.
Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser
I own every book in Fraser's highly impolitic series of comic historical novels centered around his infamous Victorian military officer Sir Harry Flashman, V.C. Anytime I go into Powell's I cruise his section just to see if any new, weird editions have found their ways onto the shelves. (If I really like a book, I often own two or three different editions of it.) But Fraser served in Burma with the British in World War II and his much more serious memoir Quartered Safe Out Here is, I think, the best WWII memoir ever written from a foot soldier's perspective. I believe it's out of print, but you can probably order it. I don't think Fraser has published anything new since Flashman on the March in 2005 (which was quite good), but I always like to give him a mention, because he's one of my favorite writers and because I interviewed him in London many years ago and he was so friendly and gracious and gregarious.
I'll be doing a Q&A and talking about my book, Smile When You're Lying, at Powell's City of Books on Burnside at 7:30 p.m. on January 14. In the meantime, if you care to keep up with posts or book news, my web site is www.chuckthompsonbooks.com. Thanks again to Powell's for having me.
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The very first editor-in-chief of Travelocity magazine, Chuck Thompson's work has appeared in Maxim, The Atlantic, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure, and Escape, among many others. He will appear at Powell's City of Books on Burnside on January 14th, 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Books mentioned in this post
Chuck Thompson is the author of Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer