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Flatbush Flashback

My Pandemic Reading List

My Pandemic Reading List

In the midst of this never-ending pandemic, despite overdosing on news, I've found time to read for pleasure—usually books that have been sitting on my shelves for years that suddenly catch my eye, or more recent books that somehow have landed on my coffee table. It's all pretty random. In any case, here are capsule critiques of the last three books I enjoyed.


Miami Noir: The Classics, edited by Les Standiford, Akashic Books

I'm not a big fan of detective stories or pulp fiction, but this volume, the latest in Akashic's series of "noir" stories set in cities, from Addis Ababa to Zagreb, caught my interest. I've always found Miami—from the Art Deco and beautiful-body trendiness of South Beach to the funky Cuban vibe of Little Havana's Calle Ocho—to be an intriguing place. It was also the last city I visited before the onset of the pandemic confined me to New York.


Aside from Damon Runyon and Elmore Leonard, I was unfamiliar with the contributors, though their stories, covering 1925 to 2006, are generally entertaining and many do convey Miami's distinct atmosphere. Like most anthologies, the book varies in quality, ranging from literary, like Preston L. Allen's "Superheroes" (2006), about a boy taking well-deserved revenge on his stepfather, to genre pulp, like Carolina Garcia-Aguilera's "Washington Avenue" (2001), about a serial killer who's murdering gay men, which kept me turning the pages but was ultimately dissatisfying.


Two of the stories that stayed with me for reasons good and bad are Brett Halliday's "A Taste for Cognac" (1944), a genuine hard-boiled detective classic, and Charles Willeford's "Saturday Night Special" (1988). The latter starts out as a realistic tale about four gainfully employed, middle-class guys in their early 30s, living in a swinging singles apartment complex in Dade County. Then the story goes off the rails as they react in a way that makes no sense given the situation they find themselves in. SPOILER ALERT: An underage girl one of the men picked up at a drive-in movie dies from an apparent drug overdose in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. Instead of calling an ambulance, they take the body back to their apartment complex. Then they kidnap the guy who gave her the drugs, murder him by accident, and dump both bodies in a canal. There are no repercussions, either psychological or legal. The implication is they live happily ever after. Even by the standards of "Florida Man," this is insane.



Why Do Birds, by Rob Hoerburger, 71 Songs

I paid no attention to Karen Carpenter when she was alive. Her songs, especially "Close to You," I thought were sappy, the antithesis of cool, the exact kind of thing I did not want to listen to. Why Do Birds, a book that found its way into my hands because my wife knows the author, is about Karen Carpenter (though she's never named) and the effect she and her music have on the lives of the other characters. Set in Manhattan and Queens in the early 1980s, Hoerburger's novel made me care about a young music-loving woman, her gay brother, an undercover cop, and, of course, Carpenter. In addition to giving me a deeper understanding of anorexia, the disease that killed Carpenter at the age of 32, the book motivated me to give her songs another listen. I still think "Close to You" is sappy, but "Superstar," written by Leon Russell, is beautiful. The girl had a voice.



Lives of the Poets, by E.L. Doctorow, Avon

E.L. Doctorow, who died in 2015, does not need my criticism to secure his reputation. But having not read any of his books since Ragtime, when it came out in 1975, I found myself plucking off the shelf an old paperback edition of Lives of the Poets. Suffice it to say this collection of six short stories and the title novella is excellent. The mordantly funny "Lives of the Poets," presumably autobiographical, is set in my Soho neighborhood and can be taken as a cautionary tale about the dark side of literary success.


My latest book, Bobby in Naziland, is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.


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Last Event Before the Apocalypse


A hard rain was falling in Miami the night I read from Bobby in Naziland at Books & Books in Coral Gables. It was Saturday, February 1, and the town, overrun with fans of the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, was in the mood for football, not literature. The Super Bowl was the next day, up the road in Hard Rock Stadium, and a couple of hours before I showed up at Miami's greatest bookstore, Jerry Rice, the 49ers' Hall of Fame wide receiver, had presented his book, America's Game. Such was the competition.


Compared to events I'd done in New York, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, the turnout for my event was modest. But many in the crowd were originally from New York, including two people I hadn't seen since high school, one of whom, Lee Klein, now a Miami chef and food writer, was in the midst of finishing his own novel. So the enthusiasm level for my tale of Flatbush was running high.


To set the moment in a historical perspective, the disastrous Iowa caucus would take place in two days. And yes, I was aware that something called the coronavirus had infected tens of thousands of people in China and that New York City had just reported its first case. But these things were not foremost in my mind.


After the reading, I was looking forward to a good dinner and then enjoying a couple of vacation days in Miami Beach with my wife before returning to New York to begin planning the European leg of my book tour. London, Paris, and Madrid awaited.


Well, forget about that. Along with my public and social life, any thoughts of a European tour have been cancelled. And as I look back at the Books & Books event from my perch here, above the deserted streets of downtown Manhattan, it now seems like that night in Coral Gables was the final moment of what passed for normalcy in Trump America, a time of ignorant bliss before the onset of the Apocalypse and the Season of the Plague.


Still, there is a certain nostalgic pleasure in looking back at pre-plague life. So, in the above video clip from the Q&A portion of that last presentation, which I can now file under ancient history, I answer two questions about Bobby in Naziland:


How did your father end up with a candy store instead of a butcher shop?


Were there counters and stools and teenagers hanging out in the candy store after school?


Someday in the not-too-distant future, perhaps I'll again be able to go out in public and read from my books and answer more questions about them. In the meantime, like the rest of humanity, I'll just keep sheltering in place. 'Cause there's not much else to do here except work on another book and maybe some laundry.


Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.


I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Part About Miami

According to The New York Times, Books & Books, in Coral Gables, Florida, is "the indie bookseller who put literary Miami on the map." Over the decades, the store, which opened in 1982, has hosted readings by such luminaries as Isaac Bashevis Singer, James Baldwin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Toni Morrison.


At 7 P.M. Saturday, February 1, it will be my great pleasure to appear at Books & Books. I'll be reading from my new memoir, Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush, which is set in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s—a place where World War II and the ghost of the Dodgers hovered like a mass hallucination.


The above video, The Part About Miami, is a preview of one of the three (or, time permitting, four) sections of Bobby in Naziland that I'll be reading.


I hope you can join me in Coral Gables for my last U.S. event before moving on to European horizons in the coming months.


Click here for six more videos of actors reading from Bobby in Naziland.


Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.


I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my still-embryonic Instagram.

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