Assassination Vacation

Author: Sarah Vowell
Year: 2005
Genre: History

This was a quick, entertaining read about presidential assassinations. I haven't had this much fun since I saw Assassins (and I've had the soundtrack stuck in my head the whole time I've been reading this book). There are a lot of interesting historical details about Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, but mostly it's the story of the author's compulsion to visit morbid presidential history sites while forcing her friends to tag along.

Since it's a book full of trivia about one woman's obsession with historical minutiae, Vowell's attempt to conclude the book with a hint of grander significance (weird coincidences in history give us a sense that life might not be random and meaningless) falls flat. It doesn't matter, though - that's not the point of the book. Vowell is more like the high school history teacher who can make you like her class, even if you don't like history, because she evidently loves it so much. Since the McKinley chapter, I've been feeling strange urges to check out the new biography of T.R., and if I do, it's to her credit.

The Best American Mystery Stories 2000

Editor: Donald Westlake, Otto Penzler
Year: 2000
Genre: Mystery

It seems they don't make mystery stories like they used to.

In the introduction to this collection, Otto Penzler defines mysteries as "any story in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the theme or plot," which traditionally (to me, at least) always meant detective fiction. Out of the twenty stories in this book, though, only two or three could be described that way (and then only loosely; for example, "Annie's Dream" by Bentley Dadmun follows a senior citizen as he tries to answer some old questions for the owner of his retirement community). There are two private eyes for hire, two legal dramas, one quasi-police procedural, and zero Miss Marples assembling all the suspects in the drawing room for a decisive confrontation.

Instead, the collection features disturbing, morally ambiguous stories that offer a view inside the mind of a killer. Favorite formulas include the good person who is forced by circumstance to do evil deeds ("Running Out of Dog" by Dennis Lehane), the point of view of a murderer who may or may not seem sympathetic at the beginning ("Sheep" by Thomas H. McNeely), and the criminal who takes things a step too far and finally gets what's coming to him ("The Island in the River" by Chad Holley). The stories are included in alphabetical order by the author's last name, but coincidentally, seven of the last eight are really creepy, leaving you with an aftertaste of what Buffy Summers would call "the wig."

I'm sure there's a lot of sociological analysis that could be done here. For instance, compare The Best American Mystery Stories with CSI:. Both feature a preponderance of morally depraved characters whose crimes sometimes approach mystery-horror, but CSI: situates these nasty individuals within a morally upright world where the inexorable trail of evidence (and David Caruso's righteous indignation) leads to their inevitable apprehension by the authorities. In the book, though, some of the nastiest characters get away, or fall into the hands of someone even nastier. Even more tragic are the good people, upright characters in a depraved world, who must sacrifice their closest friends and family, and then pay the consequences. Both TV and literature give recognition to the darkness within us; perhaps mass culture seeks to reassure its audience with happy endings, while individual writers of thrillers (at least the thrillers that Otto Penzler likes) see the world's unredeemed brutality.

One could also consider the role of women in these stories. Most are dissatisfied (which usually means unfaithful) wives, many are murder victims, but there are notable exceptions. In David Edgerley Gates's "Compass Rose," the daughter of a prostitute is forced to commit murder in order to make herself a better life in the man's world of turn-of-the-century Texas. In the decisive moment of "Grit" by Tom Franklin, the moll turns on the gangster. But in the end, for every serial killer driven by unexplained evil, there is another who kills because he has reached the extremes of sexual frustration; misunderstandings between men and women are the seeds that grow into violent crimes.

The collection is also notable because it reprints one of Shel Silverstein's last stories, a courtroom comedy called "The Guilty Party" where a rapist pleads innocent because his "Sam Johnson" did it.

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Author: Bill Willingham
Year: 2006
Genre: Fantasy

I was always skeptical of Bill Willingham because I first heard of him as someone who took over Sandman characters when Neil Gaiman was done with them (for example, Thessaly and Merv Pumpkinhead). In fact, his adaptation of folktales to tell his own stories is very similar to Gaiman, and his multiple stories - multiple artists format is familiar from Sandman collections like World's End, but the stories themselves are imaginative and draw on different influences (mostly from fairy tales, while Gaiman prefers mythology).

Although I had never read Fables before, I found this book to be mostly accessible. It tells a lot of backstory of what I assume are familiar characters; when prior knowledge of the series was not required, the stories were quite enjoyable, and when it was required, I just said "Huh."

The Harp of the Grey Rose

Author: Charles de Lint
Year: 1984?
Genre: Fantasy

I picked up this predictable, derivative Pringle of a book because the other two books I'm reading are too brainy for me to read without a break (and one of them is too heavy for the subway). Just in time for Valentine's day, it's a romantic fantasy, the story of one young hero's love for an otherworldly princess ... or perhaps it's really the story of Charles de Lint's love for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Some of the more obvious recycled plot points include:

  • The hero is an orphan whose parents turn out to be magical.
  • He falls in love with a girl whom everyone mistakenly thinks is evil.
  • He kills a big baddy with a magical sword.
  • When he gets to the big city, the high court is under the influence of an evil power (i.e. Wormtongue).
  • Elves and dwarves.
  • The dwarf rediscovers the long-lost underground dwarven kingdom (i.e. Mines of Moria).
  • In the end it turns out the big baddy wasn't who the hero thought it was; it was someone else equally obvious.
The book held my interest enough for me to finish it -- after all, it's a formula I know and love -- but when I was finished I moved on to another piece of relative mind candy. Maybe it's just time for February school vacation.

Underneath the Lintel

Author: Glen Berger
Year: 2003
Genre: Theater

Martin Amis's The Information uses big truths to symbolize little stories: he makes his tale of midlife crisis seem larger and more significant by comparing it to the eventual explosion of the sun and heat death of the universe. (As a result, reading the book practically made me want to kill myself.) Underneath the Lintel takes just the opposite tack. As Berger explains in the afterword, what inspires his work is the necessity of remembering "three incontrovertible Facts ... the immensity of the universe, the incomprehensibly vast history of the Earth, and our inescapable mortality." To illustrate these truths, though, he takes a microcosmic view: a librarian checks in a book 113 years overdue, and follows its history until it takes on intimate personal significance for him.

The story becomes a meditation on how one small but important mistake can doom a person to eternal misery, and how a spirit of contrariness can animate an otherwise mearningless existence. Realizing that his search will likely remain inconclusive, the Librarian finds meaning in the search itself. He leaves the audience with two morals that are totally opposite, yet both true on a deeper level: "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here," and yet, "there is joy, too, in that."