A star-studded memorial, thick as cement overshoes, to an oddly shaped century.
It’s instructive to compare Ellroy and Penzler’s behemoth to Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins’s A Century of Noir (2002). Though it includes more stories (39 to 32), even fewer are by women (three to five). Only one story is duplicated—Gil Brewer’s bleak anecdote “The Gesture”—and there are only seven additional authors: Spillane, James M. Cain, Dorothy B. Hughes, David Goodis, Evan Hunter, Ed Gorman and Lawrence Block. The oddest feature of the present collection, though, is the serious overrepresentation of recent decades. There are two stories from the 1920s, one—Steve Fisher’s workmanlike, forgettable “You’ll Always Remember Me”—from the ’30s, three from the ’40s, six from the ’50s, two from the ’60s, two from the ’70s, three from the ’80s—and then ten from the ’90s and ten more from 2000-2007. Are we living through a golden age of noir? No, but a golden age of Penzler anthologies, since no fewer than 16 of the stories here, nearly all the volume’s second half, were first published or reprinted in earlier collections he edited or published. Special treats include Tod Robbins’s “Spurs” (the basis of the film Freaks), Cornell Woolrich’s final story, “For the Rest of Her Life,” F.X. Toole’s ringside saga “Midnight Emissions,” and Scott Wolven’s savage “Controlled Burn,” as well as the equally dark tales by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Thomas H. Cook and perennial Penzler favorite Joyce Carol Oates.
Most of the others are worth your time as well—unless, or maybe even if, you’ve already caught them in previous Penzlers.
A bare-knuckle, adventure-filled journey in search of the answer to a half-century–old cold case: Whatever happened to Nelson Rockefeller’s son, Michael?
Michael was 23 when he disappeared off the coast of southwestern New Guinea, having nearly made land after swimming for 18 hours when his catamaran capsized. Dutch officials (for this was still colonial territory in 1961) eventually reported that the renowned explorer and collector of so-called primitive art had drowned. National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Hoffman (The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, 2010, etc.) writes that, all this time later, the story compelled him: “I was a half-Jewish middle-class mutt with a public education, not a blue-blooded scion, but Rockefeller’s journey resonated with me.” Empathetically channeling Rockefeller as someone who wasn’t out in such remote territory merely to acquire stuff but was instead challenging himself in anything but the privileged surroundings of his youth, Hoffman set out to reconstruct that last voyage. He encountered evidence that the young man’s end was greatly different from the one depicted in the official records. Moreover, he notes, it was an open secret that Rockefeller had been killed after having been plucked from the sea. But why? In a daring ethnographic turn, Hoffman spent months among the descendants of killers, lending specific weight to the old clashing-of-worlds trope and addressing questions of why people go to war, commit cannibalism and other tangled matters. He never loses sight of his goal, but Hoffman is also sympathetic to the plight of the Asmat people, who themselves were changed by the events of 53 years ago: “The world had been one way when Michael Rockefeller came to Asmat, another by the time he was dead.”
A searching, discomfiting journey yields an elegant, memorable report.
High times on the high seas: Investigative reporter Ryan recounts the glory days of dope smuggling and their terrible denouement.
Back in the 1970s, bringing brain candy from offshore or Mexico wasn’t the deadly game it is today—at least not so deadly, though surely just as lucrative. The protagonists are, in the main, decent and hardworking guys who just happen to be engaged in something very illegal—a trade that, as Ryan notes, is an ancient one along the South Carolina coast, where contraband smuggling is a big intergenerational business, whether of cigarettes, booze or pot. The principals of the story long enjoyed a place at the top of the smuggling pyramid, landing, in one year, more than 30,000 pounds of marijuana in three moves alone; writes Ryan, “even with the lax drug patrols in South Carolina, that so many ventures could be accomplished successfully is a testament to the sophistication the gentlemen smugglers developed.” Eventually, though, the smuggling ring drew the attention of the feds, who brought it down in a showcase operation that heralded the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. Classically, it also set friend against friend, cousin against cousin. Particularly bothersome to those on the wrong side of the law, Ryan writes, was the fact that so many “cooperating witnesses spilled their guts when they had relatively little exposure to serious charges.” Ultimately, the league of gentlemen smugglers was torn apart, its members imprisoned. But, Ryan notes in closing, smuggling persists, and now it’s “less romantic and much more deadly.”
A well-told tale of true crime that provides a few good arguments for why it should not be a crime at all.
When a freak dust storm brings a manned mission to Mars to an unexpected close, an astronaut who is left behind fights to stay alive. This is the first novel from software engineer Weir.
One minute, astronaut Mark Watney was with his crew, struggling to make it out of a deadly Martian dust storm and back to the ship, currently in orbit over Mars. The next minute, he was gone, blown away, with an antenna sticking out of his side. The crew knew he'd lost pressure in his suit, and they'd seen his biosigns go flat. In grave danger themselves, they made an agonizing but logical decision: Figuring Mark was dead, they took off and headed back to Earth. As it happens, though, due to a bizarre chain of events, Mark is very much alive. He wakes up some time later to find himself stranded on Mars with a limited supply of food and no way to communicate with Earth or his fellow astronauts. Luckily, Mark is a botanist as well as an astronaut. So, armed with a few potatoes, he becomes Mars' first ever farmer. From there, Mark must overcome a series of increasingly tricky mental, physical and technical challenges just to stay alive, until finally, he realizes there is just a glimmer of hope that he may actually be rescued. Weir displays a virtuosic ability to write about highly technical situations without leaving readers far behind. The result is a story that is as plausible as it is compelling. The author imbues Mark with a sharp sense of humor, which cuts the tension, sometimes a little too much—some readers may be laughing when they should be on the edges of their seats. As for Mark’s verbal style, the modern dialogue at times undermines the futuristic setting. In fact, people in the book seem not only to talk the way we do now, they also use the same technology (cellphones, computers with keyboards). This makes the story feel like it's set in an alternate present, where the only difference is that humans are sending manned flights to Mars. Still, the author’s ingenuity in finding new scrapes to put Mark in, not to mention the ingenuity in finding ways out of said scrapes, is impressive.
Sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery.
Language becomes a virus in this terrifying vision of the print-empty, Web-reliant culture of the 22nd century.
Students of linguistics may run screaming from this dystopian nightmare by Brooklyn-based debut novelist Graedon, but diligent fans of Neal Stephenson or Max Barry will be richly rewarded by a complex thriller. In fact, the novel is as much about lexicography, communication and philosophy as it is about secret societies, conspiracies and dangerous technologies. Our heroine is Anana Johnson, who works closely with her father, Doug, at the antiquated North American Dictionary of the English Language. The dictionary is an artifact in a near future where most of the populace uses “Memes”—implantable devices that feed massive amounts of data to users in real time but also monitor their environments to suggest behaviors, purchases and ideas. The devices, marketed by technology behemoth Synchronic, have become so pervasive that the company has enough clout to create and sell language itself to linguistically bereft users in their online Word Exchange. If that sounds creepy, it is, and it gets worse. One evening, Doug gives Ana two bottles of pills and a code word, “Alice,” to use if danger should enter their loquacious lives. When Doug disappears, Ana and her comrade Bart must navigate the increasingly treacherous world behind the clean lines of Synchronic's marketing schemes, complete with chases through underground mazes and encounters with the subversive "Diachronic Society," which leads the resistance against the Meme vogue. The danger explodes when the world is engulfed by “word flu,” causing widespread, virulent aphasia. “As more and more of our interactions are mediated by machines—as all consciousness and communications are streamed through Crowns, Ear Beads, screens and whatever Synchronic has planned next, for its newest Meme—there’s no telling what will happen, not only to language but in some sense to civilization,” warns the resistance. “The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future.”
A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning.
Already recognized for her own witty romantic comedies of manners, Schine (The New Yorkers, 2008, etc.) joins the onslaught of Austen imitators.
Upper-middle-class, mostly Jewish New Yorkers take the place of British gentry in this Sense and Sensibility riff. After 48 years of marriage, 78-year-old Joseph Weissman leaves his 75-year-old wife Betty for Felicity Barrow, a younger woman with whom he works. Although Josie (as his stepdaughters call him) repeatedly swears he wants to be generous to Betty, Felicity manipulates him into closing Betty’s credit-card accounts and forcing her out of the Weissmans’ Upper West Side apartment she herself paid for decades ago. Fortunately, kindly Cousin Lou lends Betty his abandoned cottage in Westport, Conn., and Betty’s daughters, outraged on their mother’s behalf although they don’t stop loving Josie, move in with her. Romantic, never married but often in love, 49-year-old Miranda is in dire financial straits herself, as scandals concerning the memoirists she represents threaten to bankrupt her literary agency. Sensible Annie, briefly married and long divorced, has successfully raised two sons while working at a privately endowed library. Now living in stoic loneliness, she has begun to fall in love with famous author Frederick Barrow, who happens to be Felicity’s brother and whose grown offspring jealously guard his affections. In Westport, Annie is hurt when Frederick practically ignores her at a gathering at Cousin Lou’s. Meanwhile, Miranda has an affair with the handsome young actor next door and falls seriously in love with his two-year-old son. Feisty Betty begins to refer to herself as a widow. In true Austen fashion, love and money conquer all, although Schine adds some modern sorrow and a slightly off-putting disdain for her male characters, who range from narcissistically foolish to, in what passes for the romantic hero, pragmatic and unoffending.
Infectious fun, but the tweaked version never quite lives up to the original.
A dynamic, many-tendriled drama (on the Booker short list last year) by Irish writer Tóibín (The Story of the Night, 1997, etc.) shapes a complex view of intergenerational conflict at once modern and timeless, as a family assemble on the coast of Ireland to tend to one of their own, a young man losing ground in his struggle with AIDS.
Helen has just packed off the husband and kids for a few days so that she can focus on hiring a teacher, as well as on her other administrative duties, at the end of a school term, when a stranger comes to her door to say that her brother is in the hospital, wanting to see her. Declan hasn’t wanted to tell Helen that he has AIDS, but now, as the disease approaches its ravaging endgame, he needs her to know: what he needs is for Helen to tell their mother and bring her to him. Helen is more estranged from Lily than Declan is, but she does as asked and fetches her mother from work. Declan wants to leave the hospital and go to his grandmother’s house seaside, where he and Helen spent a painful period of their youth while their father was dying from cancer. But he also wants his two closest gay friends to accompany him, and as this volatile mix settles in to the damp old house on a crumbling cliff, remarkable things happen. Worlds apart as they all seem at first, old and young, gay and straight, there are ties that bind them—not least their shared love for Declan—and in this respite from the mundane routines that would otherwise consume each of them, Lily’s own long-unscalable cliffs of detachment begin to crumble, so that at last Helen and her brother can glimpse the mother they once knew and need so desperately now.
In some ways reminiscent of playwright O’Neill’s familial Sturm und Drang, this masterfully intense tale of woe and redemption has much to say about the primal forces that shape us.
The former director of education at James Madison’s Montpelier debuts with the biography of Paul Jennings, a slave who grew up with the Madisons, was with the former president when he died, gained his freedom and sired many descendants.
Because Jennings for much of his life was considered merely property, Taylor had to be satisfied with a skeleton of fact, which she fleshes out with imaginative and thorough research, careful supposition and heavy contextual description. Jennings himself contributed a slim document, included here as an appendix, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, which originally appeared in 1863. Throughout, Taylor reminds us of the moral failures of the Founding Fathers, especially their unwillingness to accept the notion that black people should enjoy the benefits of freedom so eloquently expressed in the nation’s founding documents. Although Jennings testified to the kindness of Madison, he was still willing to buy and sell human beings. Dolley Madison does not come off so well. We hear about her petulance, excessive spending (she died in near poverty) and wastrel son from her first marriage. One admirable white man does emerge: Daniel Webster, who loaned Jennings the money to purchase his freedom (after Madison died), allowing him to work off the debt. But this is Jennings’ story, and the author admirably keeps the focus on him—though there are occasional detours to explore context and speculate. Born in 1799, Jennings somehow learned to read and write and gradually assumed enormous importance in the Madisons’ lives—both in Virginia and at the White House, where he was instrumental in saving a portrait of George Washington from the 1814 British assault. In 2009 his descendants met at the White House to honor their ancestor.
An important story of human struggle, determination and triumph.
After serving time in federal minimum-security prison for stock fraud, money laundering and other financial crimes, Belfort offers another coarse, lively text as a companion to The Wolf of Wall Street (2007).
That unsavory bestseller chronicled the rise of a cocky thief who actually operated a bucket shop in Long Island, not lower Manhattan. This is about his fall. It’s also about money and sex, featuring erotic histrionics and rancid uxorious relations. The language is still nasty, the braggadocio intact. No lovable scamp, Belfort remains cunning and vainglorious, frequently mentioning the cost of his clothing and his furniture, sneering at the cheap shoes and Bic lighters of his federal captors. After all, he once had the mansions, the yacht, the money. But he confessed and became a cooperating informant. He ratted on friends and thieving comrades. He wore a wire. His new memoir is graphic, at once lowdown and over-the-top. Included is the collapse of his second marriage to “the Duchess of Bay Ridge,” a classic trophy wife he had bugged for his own reasons. He got engaged to Miss Soviet Union. He dallied with a “self-proclaimed Jewish blow-job queen” and dabbled in what he calls “model-mongering.” He jumped bail and broke his cooperation agreement by taking an ill-fated trip to Atlantic City with an underage “model.” Withal, his love for his two children remained. In reward for his cooperation he served less than two years. In the Big House he bunked with Tommy Chong, who guided him in the craft of authorship. Chong, whose sincere, flaky memoir (The I Chong, 2006) is half as long as his student’s, apparently forgot to impart the rule of Less is More.
Still a hustler, still a salesman—and also a hell of a writer.