Roy Scranton spews lyricism like a soul-shattered dragon, whether in his war-tossed or apocalyptic nonfiction or his in his fiction. “I Heart Oklahoma” is his wildest outing yet and it’s a ride straight out of the playbook of the Beat poets, or at least my memory of that reading, so long ago. Our hero Suzie is a gifted, jaded wordsmith who signs on for a road trip though America’s bizarre heartlands, hired by dipshit-cum-crazy-cum-inspired video artist Jim, accompanied by cameraman Remy. Scranton’s machine-gun poetic vision of this road trip is highly engaging, like a feverish dream, yet in a blink the road trip dissolves into a reimagining and further reimagining of some mythical Bonnie-and-Clyde butchery from America’s past, Suzie’s storytelling spooling and respooling a chronicle of violence. If Scranton failed to write this on speed, he should have, because it’s a spellbinding blur. if in the end I failed to connect to either the story or the characters, the author’s vision of modern nightmare offered a compelling read.
Nanaville by Anna Quindlen [8/10]
Anna Quindlen’s effortless, stylish prose has graced fine novels, excellent journalism, and sharp commentary, and now she has turned her attention to a topic little written about, grandparenting. “Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting” is a slim but potent volume that riffs off her own experience with a little grandson. Grandparents, in her opinion, and I feel she’s right, need to take a back seat, provide support for a grandchild’s parents, and be there for the little one. Bursting with wit and minor key insight, “Nanaville” zeroes in on the incredible joy of having one more chance to bring a new soul into the wider world. Essential reading for the grandma and grandpa but also a sparkling example of the modern memoir.
Laughing Matter by Wand [8/10]
LA band Wand’s fifth album “Laughing Matter” extends their journey into Can territory, indeed for the first few tracks I kept thinking I was immersed in 60s vinyl. Opening track “Scarecrow” begins with jittery drums and shimmering guitars anchored by pulsating bass and melodic keys, before Cory Hanson’s semi-falsetto kicks in to sing about nature: “The light inside a silver birch.” “xoxo” begins as a bouncy almost-pop song before lighting up into distortion. Over the hour-plus of fifteen songs, whenever the scratchy guitar screams into screeches, the effect is electric. Pastoral folk-rock songs, also straight from the hippy days, and woozy electronics-led tracks vary the mix. It’s a stunning, serious and immersive album that deserves recognition.
The Plaza by Julie Satow [7/10]
Reading “The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel” is an absorbing, deft passage through an aspect of America’s 20th Century, from the hotel’s glitzy unveiling in 1907 through to its most recent bizarre ownerships. An additional layer of enjoyment arises if you ever stayed there, as I did in the early 1990s, for then all the references to the Oak Room, the Palm Court, the chandelier-capped lifts, and the sumptuous location on Fifth Avenue looking into Central Park are familiar. Julie Satow chronicles the high-style owners, the famous or infamous guests, and the fate of the hotel staff. Highlights include the 1964 pandemonium of a Beatles stay, Truman Capote’s gala party a couple of years later, the turbulent Trump ownership years from the late 1980s, and the almost phantasmagoric transformation into a condominium/hotel complex in the mid-2000s. Is there another global hotel with such a century-plus reputation for luxury and status, such frenetic longing in its history? I doubt it and this excellent book certainly seals its reputation.
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer [8/10]
How-to grammar books for writers, be they novelists or university students, come in many shades. Some are preparatory, some are exhaustive, and then there are the most essential guides, the ones that walk through the entire gamut of word usage with insight and wit. “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” is one of those and it’s the best one I’ve come across. Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, knows his shit in the way powerful practitioners too, and he somehow manages to be both draconian and gracefully ambivalent, as the situation calls for. Peppered with funny but apt footnotes, DE, as I’m sure it shall be called, is a pleasure to read and a treasure trove of nuance. I can’t praise DE highly enough.
The Nuclear Spies by Vince Houghton [7/10]
Historian and curator of what sounds like a fascinating institution, the International Spy Museum, Vince Houghton dives into two topics that have been tackled many times before but perhaps never as comprehensively. He asks, essentially: how did the Allies do so well in understanding the Nazis’ atomic bomb efforts in World War II, yet blunder so badly in predicting when the Soviets might test their first nuclear weapon (in case you don’t know, the second took place in 1949 and it left the Americans dumbstruck). Both topics are close to my heart, so I devoured “The Nuclear Spies: America’s Atomic Intelligence Operation against Hitler and Stalin” with the speed of a Dan Brown romp. Houghton’s organization skills and penmanship are exemplary, and the scholarship on display is first rate. “The Nuclear Spies” is modern history as it should be written.
Therapy Island by Cheekface [8/10]
Lyrical wordplay abounds throughout the whole of Californian three-piece Cheekface’s debut album “Therapy Island“, which requires multiple listens to appreciate the dexterity of songwriting. On first listen the atonal vocals are prominent over a surf-rock/indie-slacker aesthetic, breaking out into the occasional melody, but it’s not to be written off as unformed or non-cohesive. The album kicks off with “Dry Heat/Nice Town,” a catchy slow jaunt about consumerism, other standouts are “Eternity Leave,” a minute-and-a-half fast paced attack of society and … exactly what the subject is is unclear, and “Here I Was,” with the chorus line “Ten million dollars cash tax free, if you don’t want it, would you give it to me?” and a charming backing vocal track. Overall, “Therapy Island” is much cleverer than it has a right to be and comes recommended.
The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir [6/10]
Dhanush (yes it’s just one name), a Tamil movie star, has to do a Bollywood, right? So midway through “The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir,” out of the blue, conman and romantic Aja (played with verve and affection by Dhanush) and co-star Erin Moriarty launch into an extravagant dance set on a disco floor. Completely out of tenor with the basic plot – Aja takes his mother’s ashes towards Paris but ends up on a circuitous illegal immigrants’ series of journeys that plunge him into love – the dance sequence actually jibes with the film’s playful spirit. A travel adventure? A rom-com? A paean to immigrants? A pilgrim’s passage? A Belgian production deftly directed by little-known Ken Scott, “Fakir” is all of those, and if that bothers you, you’ll have little truck with it. Me, I found it to offer a gentle, often funny, often touching interlude deepened by a few nuggets of insight.
Cribsheet by Emily Oster [7/10]
Emily Oster belongs to the modern movement of economists tackling real life issues and “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool” is her second foray into the minefield of modern parents and children. While her first book, “Expecting Better,” tackled childbirth, this one covers how to raise your newborn. Breastfeeding, sleep position, vaccination, sleep training, walking milestones, discipline, television viewing … you name it, she covers it. And her approach is different to any other such book. She does what I (a former actuary) would do: see what data is available, absorb it all, analyze what she has, and offer commonsense assessments. For example, according to her analysis, there simply isn’t compelling solid-enough evidence to prove that breastfeeding is better for the baby. That doesn’t mean breastfeeding isn’t a boon, just that your decision is yours alone to make and breastfeeding advocates cannot evoke data to sway you. If you’re after a guru to breathlessly guide you, Oster isn’t for you, and indeed sometimes her dry advice (it is leavened with quite some wit) requires close reading. But if you want to cut through the BS, to balance the pros and cons conscientiously, “Cribsheet” is a fount of sagacity.
A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley [6/10]
Dislocating ghostliness pervades the decade’s worth of seventeen previously published short stories, plus three new ones, in “A Lovely and Terrible Thing,” from talented Melbourne author Chris Womersley. Menacing tales mix with quirky fantastical ones. Children feature often, as do damaged adults, and displaced revenge recurs. The author’s style is precise yet fulsome, laced with character-defining acerbic reflections. The reader quickly becomes accustomed to bracing for shocking plot twists. I was surprised how homogenous this collection is, or perhaps a better descriptor is unified, and my unsettled reactions rarely climbed to gasps of admiration, but I devoured Womersley’s tales with enjoyment.