This is the perfect time of year for nestling up to the fireside with a good book.
Kate Dowden, owner of Well Read Books in Martell, offered a recommendation on what tome to crack open while curled up in a comforter. She tells locals to check out Lisa Wingate’s “Before We Were Yours.” Dowden calls it a gripping journey.
“It is a great historical fiction story that takes place in both the late 1930s and the present,” she observed. “I had never read about the shanty boat culture along the Mississippi River, nor the infamous Tennessee Children’s Home Society for supposedly orphaned children. I was fascinated! I also loved that Wingate spun such a great tale, one that meant I was never sure which child was which adult later in the story.”
Dr. Bill Colliflower also has a recommendation. Colliflower, a well-known obstetrician and author of the nonfiction book “Monsters of Medicine,” is one of Jackson’s true avid readers. As 2017 winds down, Colliflower said his favorite book of the year has been “The Cuban Affair” by Nelson DeMille.
“It incorporates DeMille’s usual fast-paced suspense, dry humor and historical authenticity,” Colliflower notes. “But he also introduces a colorful new character. It’s a fun adventure read.”
Another Amador writer who’s always happy to share her love of literature is Kathy Boyd-Fellure. Her pick for winter reading comes from Swedish author Jon Stenhugg, whose Nordic crime piece “The Magdalena File” is a pure page-turner.
“It’s about how the MS Sally sunk off the coast of Sweden in September, 1994, leaving smuggled Russian weapons in the wreckage,” Boyd-Fellure explained. “I loved this book!”
While I could certainly recommend books released in the past year – Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow” and Timothy Egan’s “The Immortal Irishman” among them – I’ve mainly spent 2017 following paper pages back into the 1940s. That’s because I decided to learn about the genre of noir. I wanted to know how its stories were crafted before the decades of endless emulation, reinterpretation and pop culture saturation turned the style into a parody of itself.
Until a few months ago, I’d never read anything by the first titans of the genre, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. I decided to immerse myself in a book by each of them. In researching which titles to pick, I discovered many die-hard fans of noir are beginning to add a fourth name to that pantheon of pathfinders, David Goodis, a Depression-era scribe of hardboiled pulp fiction for Dime Mystery and the Saturday Evening Post. Goodis never achieved fame when he wrote in the 1940s and ’50s. He eventually died, his books went out of print and his name fell further into obscurity. Yet in a strange twist of fate – one similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock and William Faulkner – Goodis’ work was resurrected by rabid audiences in France. Since the mid-2000s, his books have slowly reappeared on American shelves, with noir fans ready to hail him a master of the genre. I decided to add Goodis to my list.
And so, my first winter read is Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” More nuanced, funny and cynical than the film it inspired, Hammett’s novel is a fast-moving meditation on the ethos of solitude. Private detective Sam Spade is a minor player in San Francisco’s foggy theater of intrigue, but when his job walks him into a human viper den – a case in which master manipulators are trying to eat each other over a fortune – Spade’s life as a cautious gumshoe proves the value of a loner’s survival instincts. What surprised me most about this book is how well-written it is. In his day job, Hammett was a private investigator for the controversial and sometimes brutal Pinkerton Detective Agency, and yet the words that flowed through his typewriter at night were, as “The Maltese Falcon” proves, crisp, imaginative and sharply cinematic.
My next book for whiskey by the fireside is Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which was banned from some libraries in 1934 for perceived moral bankruptcy. Cain was a former newspaper reporter who covered court trials, and while his prose never shimmered, his gift for creating addictive plots and invoking sympathy for the subversive did. In “The Postman Always Ring Twice,” a train-hopping ne’er-do-well crosses paths with a bored, downcast housewife. Set in the blistered California badlands between San Gabriel and the edge of Tijuana, Mexico, the novel follows these brazen underdogs as they attempt to change their fates – and confront the meaning of dusty, desert-infused nihilism in the process.
My third read from the silvery shadows of noir is Goodis’ “The Wounded and the Slain.” Never a celebrated book in his day, this tale of an American couple running from the past in Jamaica has become a favorite of current crime writers like George Pelecanos. Of all the novels I’ve read this year, “The Wounded and the Slain” is probably the most vividly and disturbingly psychological. Its characters are all too believable, their personal demons and nightmares all too contemporary, and the writing around them lucid enough to send chills up someone’s spine. Few stories in noir – films, books or otherwise – have turned the subject of marriage into such a shadowy labyrinth of mirrors.
My final recommendation is Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.” Audiences often confuse the book’s iconic private eye Philip Marlow with that of Hammett’s Sam Spade, without a doubt because Humphry Bogart portrayed both on the big screen and played them in much the same fashion. But in the world of books, there are huge differences between Spade and Marlow. Spade is a man who’s mainly out for himself. Marlow is a tough-edged interloper almost helplessly drawn to damaged people. Spade’s personal code is simple; Marlow’s is deeply complex. And where Hammett only used Spade in one novel, Chandler stayed with Marlow through six books.
The last of those stories is “The Long Goodbye.” In it, Marlow, now in his mid-40s, is more broke, aimless and lonely than ever. When a murder draws him into the orbit of the wealthy elite of Los Angeles, Marlow wades through an illusion-laden landscape of wrecked veterans, dirty cops, craven politicians and self-deluded millionaires who view money as the ultimate accessory. Despite the setting’s Rolls-Royce wraiths and cocked fedoras, there’s a certain sad spirit pervading “The Long Goodbye” that makes it feel like it was written yesterday.
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