Some thoughts on the last five books I read:
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère
I’m reading this biography right now. It’s about the life of Russian writer/rabble-rouser Eduard Limonov, who’s lived multiple lives as a bum, literary sensation, and political dissident in New York, Paris, and back home. The book is written like a fiction novel and is translated from French. I first heard about Limonov through the eXile, a satirical expatriate newspaper in Russia that was shutdown by the government in 2008. Limonov would file columns from prison, and they would run unedited in broken English, which was really funny. I haven’t read any of Limonov’s many novels, only a few columns by him. It’s certainly an interesting way into his life and makes me want to read more of his work, which is pretty hard to come by.
The Magazine by Michael Hastings
Rolling Stone/Buzzfeed reporter Michael Hastings died in a mysterious, single-car car accident early one morning in Los Angeles when his Mercedes sped out of control and slammed into a palm tree. Hastings was at the height of his work when he died in 2013, recently penning career-ending stories, like the one that led to the resignation of the top commander of Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. This book, unearthed from his laptop by his widow, is inspired by his time starting out at Newsweek in the early aughts, though the names have changed. It’s a great last look into the cutthroat world of big city magazines. Hastings is the hungry intern who describes many colorful characters, including an embattled and messed-up war correspondent and a hoity-toity editor-in-chief who is surely former Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria.
The Divide by Matt Taibbi
I don’t know if there is a more important journalist out there today. Taibbi has a gift for taking complex topics and using humor to make them easy to understand. He’s been throwing bombs at Wall Street for the past five years, but this book signals a focus toward another controversial power structure: the American criminal justice system. Taibbi examines how the law is not equally applied to everyone. Our police force arrests one group of people but not the other. For example, a black guy j-walking on a Tuesday is arrested but not the crooked banker who serially rips off clients. The books begins with a startling, disturbing statistic: Crime in America has been going down since the 1990s, but our prison population has been going up. Those who are used to the darkly comic, expletive filled first-person narratives of Taibbi’s earlier work get a different book. Here, he lets his reporting and simple observation do the work. An important book to read especially in light of events involving police practices and who gets prosecuted and who gets to walk.
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov
This is a short, funny book about an unpublished alcoholic who works on the estate of famous Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. It reminds me of Hunter Thompson’s “Rum Diary,” but set in rural Russia. The narrator, Boris, is a degenerate writer whose marriage is on the rocks. There’s something very Eastern European about the tone of his character, a nonchalant, wise-ass country yokel who reminds me of my own uncles who get constantly badgered by their nosy wives. The book really picks up and gets laugh-out-loud funny towards the end, when Boris goes on a wild, multi-day vodka binge that the Russians call zapoi. It doesn’t end well.
Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry
One evening a couple years ago I was working nightside for my job at the Manchester Journal Inquirer. A lanky, bald guy came in and started talking to my editor. We talked a little bit and then he was on his way. The guy’s name was Dan Barry, and he started out his journalism career working at the Journal Inquirer years ago. He now writes for the New York Times. He also published some books, one of which, “Bottom of the 33rd,” I checked out. After I was done reading it, I thought about quitting being a writer. This guy was too good. It’s a book about baseball’s longest game ever played, between the minor league affiliates of Orioles and Red Sox on Easter 1981 in Rhode Island. But the book’s not really about baseball. The book is very much about the working class and the town of Pawtucket. It’s about the lives of players who never made it to the big leagues, who had to hold down second jobs or quit their dreams all together. Barry writes about baseball in a very nostalgic way. The thoughts that go through players’ heads–all their fears and hopes–while they’re out there on the field, suspended in time.