Well, kids, I’ve had a ton of recommendations from you all for great reads, and what I’ve found is that there is no shortage of good books out there. First, thanks to all of you who have sent your suggestions. I haven’t been able to read them all, and some of them weren’t to my taste, but overall, I’ve found some very cool books to keep you busy until my next one is finished.
The rule is, you have to read all of my books before you start working the list. I don’t see writing as a competitive sport, so I don’t see the following authors as taking food off of my table, but let’s face it, I have to eat too. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite so exciting as finding a really good book, and one of the reasons I started writing novels in the first place was to put books out there on the shelves that I would like to find. So here we go.
The only thing better than finding a great book, is taking a chance on a book that you thought would suck, and finding out it’s great. Steve Kluger‘s The Last Days of Summer was such a book for me. It’s about a kid in the Forties who writes letters to a guy who plays for the New York Giants. The kid pretends to have various fatal diseases to get the baseball player to hit a home run for him on the radio. The entire book is told in letter form, and as the book progresses, each of the characters reveals himself through his letters. It’s utterly, amazingly funny. Probably the funniest book I’ve read in five years, and it sort of has that warm, fuzzy poignant stuff going for it too. I don’t particularly care for baseball, and I was doubtful about a book told in letter form, but Kluger pulls it all off with amazing skill, and gives you a great feeling for the period as well.
If you like Elmore Leonard, you have to read Fred Willard‘s Down on Ponce. This is not Fred Willard, the actor, but another Fred Willard, a journalist from Atlanta. Down on Ponce is a caper story, with a lot of plot to go around, but the characters and the dialog are what put it on the list. Some of the funniest dialog I’ve read in years, and one character in particular, Charlie, an ex-con hearse driver who refers to himself as Death’s Representative in Atlanta and who likes to attend anti-abortion rallies for the entertainment quality is a true gem. My favorite of Charlie’s lines, “That was one of your better fetus flings, even if I had to do it myself.” The grim underbelly of Atlanta never looked so good. Down on Ponce is published by a small publisher, so you might have to work a bit to find it, but it’s worth it.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The best writers in America are working in the crime genre. My new discoveries for those of you who enjoy detective stuff: G.M. Ford, has created a P.I., Leo Waterman who works with a crew of homeless guys in Seattle. Check out Who in the Hell is Wanda Fuca?, Bum’s Rush, Last Ditch, and Cast in Stone. There’s some funny stuff here, but mostly just well-told mysteries with a great voice.
And along those lines, if you liked the Nick and Nora series of movies made from Hammett’s Thin Man books, check out Dennis Lehane. A couple of likable, smart-asses, Patrick Kenzie and Angeie Gennaro who get themselves into all sorts of trouble in darkest Boston. There’s some gritty stuff here, but the relationship between the detectives make it all worth the ride. You sort of get the same feeling from these books that you get from listening to Bowie’s “Heroes”, a couple in love who can share a kiss while bullets fly overhead. Again, I’m not sure of the order of the books, but the titles are, Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, Gone, Baby, Gone, Prayers for Rain, and A Drink before the War.
You say you’d rather hear the voice of Philip Marlowe in your head, the tough-guy irony of a world-weary observer with an attitude? Then why haven’t you read James Crumley? Great turns of phrase, some well-placed laughs, and, of course, engaging stories, you get a private-eye’s view of Montana and other points West. My favorite is The Last Good Kiss, but Dancing Bear and The Wrong Case are definitely worth the time too.
So you say you like you are all business, and you like your humor that way . . . Check out Po Bronson. I predict Po Bronson will someday be the author most universally hated by other authors. Why? He’s athletic, good looking, successful, and the son-of-a-bitch can write. Check out Bombadiers, the inside story of bond traders in San Francisco’s Financial District, as well as The First Twenty Million is the Hardest, the story of a bunch of genius-geeks in a Silicon Valley think tank who take off to start their own company. If you ever wondered what is behind garage billionaires like Jeff Bezos, The First Twenty Million is your ticket inside. Or at least it feels like it. Po could be the Tom Wolfe of this generation if he can overcome a cruel first name.
And speaking of overachievers, who in the hell is Hugh Laurie? He’s one of those brilliant British comic actor/writers like Ben Elton and Stephen Fry who just won’t accept that they are entertainers and therefore should just be vapid and self-aggrandizing. Laurie’s The Gun Seller, is a spy novel with all the cool techie elements of a Clancy novel or a James Bond movie, but it’s also damned funny. Laurie uses wonderful comic asides and turns of phrase that Shakespeare pioneered but seemed to have dropped off the boat on the way across the pond to American authors, but thankfully we can still import them. An engaging story AND funny lines — you get two, two, two books in one.
Like a bit of the supernatural with your humor, check out Bradley Denton‘s, Lunatics — the story of a Texas man who has an ongoing, once-a-month affair with a winged woman from the moon. It’s also the story of how his bright, well-drawn, politically correct friends try to deal with his “problem” by addressing it as some sort of addiction. We’ll, maybe that’s not the best description, but the book is a good read, lower key and more realistic than my stuff, but it works. I also have Denton’s serial killer comedy, Blackburn, sitting on my “to read” stack, and it sounds like it’s going to be just swell. I’ll get back to you on it, or you can check it out yourself.
And since we’ve stepped into the supernatural, how about an instructional on what to do when God’s two-mile-long corpse is found floating in the Atlantic. Well first, if you’re the Vatican, you hire a supertanker to tow it to the Arctic so it won’t spoil. And that’s the plot of James Morrow‘s, Towing Jehovah. More irony than humor, Towing Jehovah and the sequel, Blameless in Abbadon (where God’s body is turned into a theme park) are palatable and entertaining lessons in theology and ethics. Don’t let that scare you, that’s the value of Morrow’s talent, he can make incredibly dry and scholarly material painless and fun. I understand there’s a third book coming in the God’s Body series, but I haven’t seen it yet. Also check out, Only Begotten Daughter, the story of the virgin birth of Christ’s little half-sister.
How about some propers for those who have paved the way? Thorn Smith, ever heard of him? Neither had I, until I wrote Island of the Sequined Love Nun, which attracted (strangely) an audience of WWII aviators. Every one of them I met mentioned that my work reminded them of Thorn Smith — evidently one of the most popular writers among the troops in WWII. One guy even said that when he was on a transport bound for Europe with 900 other marines, that every guy on the ship seemed to be reading a Thorn Smith book. Topper: sure you’ve heard of it — the Cary Grant movie of a pair of smart-assed ghosts who enliven the life of a Walter Mitty-like drudge. Topper Takes a Trip, I Married a Witch (the inspiration for the TV show Bewitched, still out of print) and Nightlife of the Gods are all coming back into print after many years in literary limbo. So this guy was doing what I do some sixty years before I learned how to do it, and he did it well. You’ll find that patient story telling and a great ironic narrative voice in Smith’s stories as well as some inspired dialog.
I don’t want to leave out those writer’s who have been recommended, but who I just haven’t had time to read, so here’s a few that are sitting on my “to read” stack.
Joe Keenan – (One of the producers of Frasier) Puttin’ on the Ritz, Blue Heaven. My girlfriend read these and loved them, saying that they had that high-snotty humor that can only be pulled off by Gay guys, so if you’re homophobic, stay away, but otherwise, this guy came highly recommended by several readers.
David James Duncan – The River Why and the Brothers K. Not necessarily a humor writer, although some of the passages I’ve read are gently funny. An incredible writer, line for line, though. If your tastes run more to the literary (first, what the hell are you doing here) this is your man. I’m looking forward to reading his stuff. I’ll report next time.
Also, Bill Fitzhugh, Chris Buckley, Elmore Leonard, and Don Winslow all have released new books since my last Chris’s picks. I haven’t read the new Leonard, but Fitzhugh’s Organ Grinders and Winslow’s The Life and Death of Bobby Z are definitely worth your time. Buckley does a great job sending up the X-Files crowd in Little Green Men. That’s it for now. I have a book to write. Thanks for the recommendations, and keep ’em coming. I’ll never keep up, but I’ll try.