Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a big meat-eater. And though I don’t hunt anymore, I hunted as a kid in Texas. So I was interested in Steven Rinella’s new book Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter. (And since Rinella went to graduate school in Missoula, where I’m on good relations with the local weekly, I had a venue to review it.) It’s a good read, and an effective corrective to what you probably think of when you think of hunting adventures as told by hunters.

A tangential excerpt:

Too many hunters—Montana reader-hunters excepted, of course—are assholes. I’m thinking of the hunters I grew up with on deer leases in Texas, who use electronically timed corn feeders to train trophy bucks to arrive at their predetermined opening-day doom at 7 a.m. sharp. I’m thinking of the hunters I ran into in the wild and scenic lower canyons of the Rio Grande this spring, zipping up and down the remote river in a jet boat with a sawed-off aoudad sheep’s head strapped to the bow, leaving a glittering string of discarded Coors Light cans in their wake. I’ve never seen Rinella’s shows, but anyone who’s ever flipped through the low-budget hunting programs on a slow TV day will recognize the hyperventilating kill-thrill that characterizes hunting’s lowest common denominator. Giddy bloodlust may not be hunting’s driving evolutionary force, but it’s real, and it isn’t a character trait likely to draw many converts.

To hunting’s credit, and his own, Steven Rinella is not that asshole.

You can read the rest of the review here.

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My new review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is just out in the Texas Observer‘s June 27 Books Issue.

It’s as if David Foster Wallace, a generation’s leading literary light, has reinvented himself in a parallel world. Not the feckless wastoid fiddling with fiction, but an anonymous David Wallace knuckled down to the genuinely heroic work of number-crunching. As one character tells another in one of The Pale King’s many veiled summations, “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment…” Preparing taxes, on the other hand, matters, “one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms …” America’s civic sense is “… adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony.” We want all the entitlements of citizenship, but we don’t want to pay our taxes.


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Got a new review out today in the Texas Observer‘s latest biannual books issue. It’s on John MacMillian’s Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media — a subject near and dear to my heart as a longtime fan of the former and contributor to the latter. Here’s a sample of the review:

SOME PEOPLE REMEMBER EXACTLY what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed or their whereabouts when JFK was shot. I remember reading my first alternative newspaper.

It was 1985, and it was called Public News—a gritty little shoestring tabloid, now defunct, that helped anchor and define Houston’s pre-gentrified Montrose neighborhood as a quasi-bohemian lodestar for those of us stuck in the suburbs. A high-school friend brought it back from a record-buying expedition, and inside its ink-smeared pages we gained our first gleanings of concepts like intentional community, participatory democracy and an aesthetic avant-garde.

Just kidding. We learned there was a band called the Butthole Surfers and that a porny art flick was screening that weekend at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus, an easy bike ride from our homes…



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Man, it is snowing like a mofo here, a perfectly horizontal march of particulate white blowing past outside the window on gusts that sound like they’re taking the roof off. A fine day to blog. And since my review of Thomas McGuane’s new novel Driving on the Rim just came out in the Missoula Independent (bless them for keeping me in occasional bylines during this terminal book-writing endeavor), figured I’d plaster that up here.

Here’s a sample:

It may be hard to remember now, but Tom McGuane used to be a literary rock star. His prose “pyrotechnics” (the word appears in almost every review) in early works—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwacked Piano (1971) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—put him in critical company with the likes of Thomas Pynchon (whose Gravity’s Rainbow topped Ninety-Two for the 1974 National Book Award). He courted actresses, wrote coke-fueled screenplays and crashed a Porsche in Texas on his way to earning the doubtless now embarrassing nickname Captain Berserko.

Since those early salad days, it’s become reviewer’s sport, especially in The New York Times, to chide McGuane for not living up to early expectations, wrist-slapping his over-reliance on “quirky” scenarios, quoting easy-to-find examples of McGuane’s acknowledged sentence-level mastery and sending him off with a condescending pat on the rump and instructions to try harder next time.

Part of this is surely because McGuane planted himself in Montana in the late 1960s and started training horses and setting his books in flyover country. But a larger part is that McGuane is a writer of not easily reconciled impulses. His two exceptional modes are almost-slapstick absurdity and lush depiction of landscape. He’s a comic novelist with a penchant for corseted Victorian diction and a jones for rural vistas and the creatures of field and stream. It’s not a combo critics look West for, and it can be jarring even to readers without geographical bias.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Today the Missoula Independent published my review of Ivan Doig’s new Butte-based novel Work Song. You can READ THAT HERE, or not, but the most interesting things about Work Song was that it took me back to that other novel based in Butte: Dashiell Hammett’s first book, 1929’s Red Harvest. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Butte’s literature is usually cast as nonfiction. From newspaperman Richard K. O’Malley’s memoir Mile High Mile Deep to C.B. Glasscock’s The War of the Copper Kings, Butte’s singular history as the motherlode of American copper production has placed it center stage for the true dramas of immigration, speculation, industrialization and labor relations, with all the real-life poetry that a multiethnic parade of hard-drinking, riches-seeking, hardrock miners and battling billionaires would suggest.

Butte novels have been rarer. Probably the most famous is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published in 1929, little more than a decade after Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton Agency detective in Butte (where, Hammett claimed, the Anaconda Mining Company offered him $5,000 to kill labor leader Frank Little, who soon after became the victim of an unsolved lynching). Work Song is the latest. The two make an instructive pairing.

Red Harvest is set in “Personville” (nicknamed “Poisonville,” and unmistakably modeled on Butte) circa 1920, a time of economic domination by the (here unnamed) Anaconda Company and labor unrest complicated by periodic intrusions of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. Work Song, set in an undisguised Butte of 1919, shows no compunction about vilifying the Anaconda Company by name, and its main character is suspected—wrongly, at first—of being an outside agitator.

That’s where the similarities end. Where Hammett used Butte for its atmosphere of grit and violence, Doig makes the city a character, and reduces its threat to shadows. Red Harvest is a mystery; Work Song is essentially a romance. Hammett’s story and prose are prototypically hard-boiled. You might call Doig’s poached, an early dinner at the Cracker Barrel to Red Harvest’s red-eyed breakfast at the M&M.

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3233334235_d6314960a5As promised, here’s more musing on the Great American Newspaper Meltdown, coupled with sort of a review of the sort of new (January) biography of William Randolph Hearst, at left, as published recently in The Texas Observer. 

And, also, as weirdly presaged a few days ago in a Jack Shafer Press Box column (in Slate) titled “Bring Back Yellow Journalism.” 

(And no, despite some strangely similar turns of phrase, I hadn’t read the Shafer piece before I turned in my copy.)

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img026Dude, nice cover.

I’m coming late to Nacogdoches’ Joe R. Lansdale, even though he’s been right under my nose the whole time.

I just read Sanctified and Chicken Fried, a story anthology out this month, and Savage Season, a 20-year-old series-launching Piney Woods crime novel that just got reissued.

I don’t know much about the genre — a little James Crumley, some Jim Thompson, a smat of James Lee Burke and doses of Hammett, Cain and Chandler — but I know a little something about East Texas. That’s my people. My granny’s still there.



Leather Maiden, above, is my first audio book. I was trying to cram a lot of material-absorption into a relatively short span of time and I listened to it while I drove or rode the bus. It’s definitely a second-rate way to read, but I can see myself maybe listening to a few books a year that way.

My essay on Lansdale and East Texas is out in the new issue of the Texas Observer.

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library-5187More crap news, a few days old, but worth sticking up here, I guess:

The Washington Post Book World is shuttering as a standalone review.

I guess that means they’re not hiring.

Probably means plenty of work for the Post’s Pulitzer-winning critic Michael Dirda, though.

I couldn’t keep myself from buying this when Dirda was in town a few months back — I missed him — at the Texas Book Festival. So now I have a book I haven’t read full of reviews of books I haven’t read.

That’s gotta be some sort of meta.

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I was just thinking about John Updike.

Well, the titular part is over.

I don’t recall ever reading anything by John Updike that made me just stop and admire, as pretty a writer as he was, but I have to qualify that statement by acknowledging that what I’ve read is a pretty drastic minority of everything he wrote, which is, in fairness, as much his fault as mine. Maybe I missed something.

The memoirs — love the classical plural — were his 37th book, published about 20 years ago. I read today somewhere that he wrote three pages a day. That’s what three pages a day will get you. Math.

David Foster Wallace claimed to be one of Updike’s last fans in an otherwise eviscerating review of Updike’s 1997 novel Toward the End of Time — a review snottily (but rockingly) titled “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” in Wallace’s Consider the Lobster collection.

img017And no US novelist has mapped the inner terrain of the solipsist better than John Updike, whose rise in the 1960s and ’70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.”

  • (Solipcism: 1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified. 2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality. Compare objectivism. —American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1969″)

They were different kinds of florid, Wallace and Updike, and different kinds of unlikely to be replaced on their particular pedestals.

And it seems incredibly unlikely that henceforth any American writer’s career will look anything like the cradle-to-grave sinecure Updike was born into. It’s like his job was America’s Writer, and he got the job right out of college.

I’d say it looks like he used his luck awfully well.

Our sympathies to Nicholson Baker.

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library-5180Okay, so technically this isn’t much of a traditional read at all, consisting as it does mostly of color-coded maps, but that didn’t stop me from reviewing it, along with Andrew Sansom’s field-guidey Water In Texas: An Introduction, in the current issue of the Texas Observer (go ahead and SUBSCRIBE — you know you want to).

My review is HERE.

The atlas addresses itself to everything from historical flash-flooding (central Texas being the most flood-prone part of the entire country) to artesian springs (the one in San Marcos, where the geography department spawned the atlas’ authors, marks one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America).

Daunting factoid: Rights to surface water — i.e. river and lake water — in Texas are so over-appropriated that if all the water rights already granted were actually engaged, there would be no water left in most Texas lakes and rivers.

Oh, and the state’s population is supposed to double by 2035.

Meanwhile, Texas law still imposes a false legal distinction between surface water and (under)ground water (even though it’s all the same water), meaning that while you could sooner expect to land a 200-lb. channel cat on a fly rod than acquire a new river water right in this state, any industrial yahoo with a drill 66047122_10442a8f1fbit can take as much as their pumps will suck out of the ground without paying a penny for it.

No, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. And it’s one reason that Jacob’s Well — another bit of artesian magic down the road from San Marcos in Wimberley, at right — has been recently reduced to a trickle.

Talk about sucking…

And, uh, no, that’s not me.

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