This installment: the latest Sedaris (nf); an unlikely criminal mastermind (nf); a look at Russia, 3 decades apart (nf); subtle, brilliant short stories (f), and a knockout book of poems (nf).
Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
All lives are interesting, to quote Mavis Gallant. Especially if you keep your ears open and write down what crosses your path, as does Sedaris in these diary entries from 1977 to 2002. He gets pure gold from panhandlers, ornery neighbors, his own self-doubt, and more. For me, a long-time fan, it’s like those special features on DVDs—behind the scenes of books of his I’ve loved, from the early collections to his time in France, his relationship with Hugh, in NYC doing theater with sister Amy, and a series of humiliating jobs before his writing took off. I actually guffawed often, out loud—a rare occurrence while reading. It’s gotten me (a compulsive diary writer) to pay more attention to those random events and snippets of conversation that cross my path. What good company on the page!
American Kingpin by Nick Bilton
Subtitled The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road. Not one I would have picked up on my own but a trusted friend recommended this highly and I found it mesmerizing. Ross didn’t start out with criminal intent. He was brilliant but lost, had been brought up Libertarian and devised a scheme to sell drugs and eventually other contraband on a hidden internet site paid for by bit coins. He believed he was going to change the world. It took five years to nail him and we also track those on the case who worked for different agencies and used varying strategies, each gripped with obsessive-compulsive zeal and often stymied by bureaucracy. An amazing story, very well told.
Bears in the Streets by Lisa Dickey
Subtitled Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia. This setup is an ingenious way of focusing in on the huge historical, cultural and economic shifts this nation has gone through. Lisa revisits the people and places she connected with three decades apart. In ’95 she was trying to make a life for herself as a writer in St. Petersburg. It wasn’t working out so she decided to travel across the country and annotate the trip. A combination of anecdotes and commentary delineate the changes, informed yet chatty. One tricky aspect: she’s gay and never sure how forthcoming to be about her status (married but…). I’m always glad for a chance to learn more while being, entertained, and Dickey delivers.
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
A discerning friend raved about these and her praise is well deserved. They’re so subtly crafted that you become totally immersed in each little world via carefully curated details of décor, clothing and food. There’s not much obvious drama but the deep shifts and moments of choice that “ordinary life” delivers is much more compelling, in my book. Like the housekeeper who tends an eccentric old gentleman with patient fondness but then discovers his culpable past. Or a piece of fabric that turns up in different incarnations to illuminate the lives of those who encounter it. Brilliant and very satisfying.
Hothouse by Karyna McGlynn
These are amazing poems, totally accessible (no mean feat), often profane and profound simultaneously. Lots about sex in all its imperfections. Like the less than satisfying bonk from a dense fellow: “he looked like a man building his house/ on the slope of some dormant volcano.” And writing: “You try to write the truth but it makes you miserable/like throwing a book into a bubble bath.” Her furious 14 year old self appears, as well as friends. She lets us deeply into her life, with all its misfires and exultations in turn. One more delicious excerpt: “The best words always lie and are more expensive than the rest: vermillion, dearth, crepuscular, droll, flush, nonplussed, crepuscular, scurrilous, chartreuse, yardarm, hoi polloi.” She’s a virtuoso.
Back next week.