Best of the Bookshelf 2010

December 26, 2010

In case you’ve just joined us: I like to read books.  Lots of books. Mostly fiction, some non-fiction.  At year’s end I go back through my notes and call out the titles that really got my blood up.  Most of these were checked out from the local library or passed to me by friends (shout-outs to the Contra Costa Main Branch and the Legendary Obliterati).  Anyway, maybe there’s something in here you might enjoy. Keep turning those pages!


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

You can argue that Mitchell’s reach exceeds his grasp, and that he tries a little too hard to lace these disparate stories together, but who cares when a book is this well-written?  The construction may be a trifle odd but the parts are all spectacular, and the whole is definitely worth more than their sum. From the South Seas of the 1850s to 20th century Europe to a post-apocalyptic future Hawaii, each tale has its own distinctive language and voice. Brilliant writing.

Preternatural (barely-not-magical) realism abounds in this entertaining novel from Peru’s best-known novelist. Alternating chapters weave two threads: an against-the-odds love story and a series of increasingly deranged radio serials. The setting, 1950s Lima, is richly drawn, and the English translation by Helen Lane is faultless. An eccentric, big-hearted love story that’s  really hard not to like.

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2009 Best Books

January 12, 2010

I go through a lot of books in a year: new and old, fiction and non, borrowed and bought. At year’s end I like to look back through the stacks and call out a few titles that really stood out. So here you go.


Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Erickson was one of my happiest discoveries of the year, a wildly imaginative writer with an enviable prose style. I’m about halfway through his back-catalog and this is my favorite so far, a dark fable of Hollywood that’s right up there with “Day of the Locust” and “Barton Fink.” This guy really knows his movies – the book is riddled with enough film references to keep even a cinemaniac running back and forth to IMDB. And he creates a truly mythic character in Vikar, a “cinema savant” who’s so in love with the movies that he has a scene from his favorite film (A Place in the Sun) tattooed on his head. Erickson is also on my super-short list of writers who really understand L.A. – in good company with novelists like Didion and Chandler. I just couldn’t put this one down.

The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses/The Crossing/Cities of the Plain) by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy, IMO one of our greatest living writers, is finally getting his due with the back-to-back successes of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road.”  This trilogy is mid-period Cormac, halfway between the Faulknerian whimsy of “Suttree” and the gaunt minimalism of “The Road.” In this mode he reads a lot like Hemingway: lots of ands and ands and very few commas. The dialog is unattributed and unpunctuated but fairly easy to follow, except when it gets into Spanish, which is pretty often. Unless you’re bilingual you’ll want to keep a Spanish dictionary close to hand. But it’s entirely worth the hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better Western saga, postmodern or otherwise. These stories are set in the 1940s but the cowboy action is timeless. Young men in love with horses, Mexican women, and an obsolete sense of personal honor, not necessarily in that order. There’s enough gunplay and knife-fighting for a whole season of “Deadwood,” and some truly unforgettable characters.

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

Epic and kaleidoscopic, full of profound weirdness and stunning, hallucinatory prose. Magical-realist, yes, but forget comparisons to Garcia-Marquez; this is more Pynchonian in its lucid irrationality, a waking dream of Spain’s conquest of Mexico that straddles multiple centuries, from Aztec creation myth to Millenial apocalypse. Alternately frustrating and mind-blowing – I came close to quitting it more than once, particularly in the first book, “The Old World” – but Fuentes kept dragging me back with his wild imagination and beautiful writing. The second book, “The New World,” stands on its own as an epic re-imagining of Mexico’s origins and conquest. And the third book, “The Next World,” is just a complete mind-bender, with side trips to ancient Rome and a savage version of modern Mexico, where human sacrifice has been reinstated and dissent is suppressed by the US military. A dark & twisted masterpiece from the lion of Mexican lit.

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100 Great Stories

May 17, 2009

Because so many Top 100 lit lists are so full of crap, I’ve decided to make my own. No Proust, no Joyce, none of those put-you-to-sleep, emperor-has-no-clothes writers that we’re supposed to like but really don’t.  Just good ripping tales well told — works of fiction that I’ve read and enjoyed and can recommend. If you want to read any of them, great. If you want to argue about what’s on or not on my list, or recommend other titles that you think I ought to like, that’s also great. Friend me on if you really want to mix it up.  Anyway, here’s my list, sorted alphabetically by author. Enjoy!

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Best of the Bookshelf 2008

December 27, 2008


None of these titles were published in 2008, because I’m too cheap to buy hardcovers and I’m not special enough to get review copies. But I read these in ’08, and I liked them, and I thought maybe you might like them too. So here’s my year-end highlight reel from the action-packed world of Stuart’s bookshelf.


oscarThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

This book won so many awards, including a Pulitzer, that I figured it had to suck. I figured wrong. The narrative voice is amazing – unlike anything you’ve ever read before – and that’s what makes it fun from Page One. But it’s also a terrific story, at once a coming-of-age story and an epic family tragedy spanning three generations in and out of the Dominican Republic. Smart, funny, and heartbreaking – a modern classic. The only caveat I can add is that you might want to keep a Spanish dictionary handy, or a slang dictionary, or better yet a Spanish slang dictionary. Even then, some of the Dominicanisms are going to slip past you, and probably some of the pop-culture references as well. But still, everything is pretty clear from the context, and that wild language-shifting is an essential part of the narrative flavor. Asombroso!


savageThe Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Worth all the hype it’s been receiving, this is a great book. Pynchonian in scope, with an incredible cast of characters and a wild range of voices, all trying to piece together the cryptic story of two Mexico City hustlers and their self-styled poetry movement of the 70’s, “visceral realism.” Were they really poets, or just drug dealers? And what exactly happened out in the Sonora desert when they took off on the lam with a borrowed car and a teenaged hooker, hotly pursued by her pimp? It’s a tale that can only be told as an epic oral history, a kaleidoscopic narrative that spans three decades and at least 100 points of view. A truly outstanding work of fiction. 

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The Very Very Long Now

September 11, 2008

When one of my favorite authors makes a public appearance, I’ll put up with a lot to be in the audience. For instance, when Hunter Thompson came to Cal  some years ago, I sat through an endless hour of Alice Donut, followed by a tape recording of jackrabbits being tortured with fire, to witness the good doctor drain a bottle of whiskey and mumble poisonous answers to stupid questions. So when I heard that Neal Stepenson would be launching his latest novel in San Francisco, under the aegis of the Long Now Foundation, I jumped at the chance to attend.

Drive an hour to get there? Not a problem. Stand in line for another hour to get in, even though I bought my ticket in advance? Sure, because I am a fan. I’ve read all this guy’s books, even the crappy ones like Zodiac and Snow Crash. Even (and especially) the 2,700+ page Baroque Cycle, which I chomped down like a Costco-sized bag of tasty, tasty popcorn. 

An hour and a quarter after the scheduled start time, and they still can’t get the sound system to work? I am filled with benefit-of-the-doubt, generously dispensing Slack. After all, I am a fan of the event organizers and their crazy clock project. If they skipped a step here or there, like the sound-check, who am I to point fingers? It’s an old, historic hall, and they’ve never done an event here before, and they are my friends.

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