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.