The characters in Skip Horack’s third book, The Other Joseph, would be forgiven if they thought the universe had them in its crosshairs. Eventually it seems all their fates are in the hands of capricious and vengeful gods. Even the legal system is mercurial and ruinous in its random efforts to deliver justice.
Brothers Tommy and Roy are raised on an idyllic farm in a tiny town in Louisiana. Their parents are high school teachers and “almost-hippie types” who love their sons and their way of life. Against his parents desires, their oldest son Tommy joins the Navy SEALs and disappears during the first Gulf War. After this tragedy, the Joseph family spirals into a miasma the likes of which they can never quite recover. Young Roy makes a decision that changes the course of his life forever, and like dominoes, his parents also fall into their own tragic circumstances.
Haunted by the disappearance of his brother Tommy, and tethered to a felony conviction until he turns 30, Roy lives an insular life away from prying eyes. He works on oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana and shares his Airstream with his dog, Sam. Moving quietly among the other disenfranchised, he makes few friends, and suffers alone in a dreamless fog of existence. As Roy nears his 30th birthday though, he begins to awaken. The felony conviction that has branded him for a decade will soon be a part of the past, and a large sum of money that’s been compounding under his accountant’s watchful eyes will allow him to pursue a new life. He hopes.
After receiving a phone call from a teenage girl in California who claims to be his lost brother’s daughter, Roy sets out on a journey across America to meet her. The thought of once again having someone to call family is like a siren song to his lonely heart. Along the way, he stops in Nevada to visit a retired Navy SEAL who he thinks can tell him what really happened to his brother. Roy reaches California with the hope that what he finds there will be his redemption, but as can be expected, there are complications, to say the least.
Horack is from Louisiana, and is a lawyer turned writer who is more reminiscent of Ron Rash than John Grisham. His sense of the American landscape, and his evocation of the ordinary people who struggle to perform extraordinary tasks in order to redeem themselves, is lyrical and sweet. There is a particular theme that winds its way through the novel that is both timely and fearless. This is a writer with lovely southern sensibilities who has the chops to tell a whopping good story.
Last week Horack read at Powell’s. His buddy Adam Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Orphan Master’s Son, joined him in conversation about The Other Joseph. It was a great event, and I really like that format. The audience learned a lot about Horack’s southern roots, why he left the life of a lawyer behind, and how he did the research for this book. When asked what advice he would give a young aspiring writer, he responded, “Read wide, and read like a writer.”
I love Johnson’s blurb for the book. He says, “A brilliant, gripping novel written with uncommon skill, The Other Joseph is a poignant and unflinching account of one man’s quest to rise above his mistakes, misfortunes, and circumstances—a novel that is as concerned with the search for answers as it is with matters of the heart and soul. The scope of Horack’s imagination, knowledge, and empathy is striking, and there are innumerable things to be both learned and felt within the pages of this remarkable book. My highest recommendation.”
Skip Horack is a former Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where he was also a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His story collection The Southern Cross won the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize, and his novel The Eden Hunter was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. He is currently an assistant professor at Florida State University.
Either you adore Richard Price, or you’ve never heard of him. I don’t know anyone who’s read any of his nine novels that isn’t a big fan. His new book, The Whites, does not disappoint. It’s gritty New York City, it’s cops, it’s bad guys, it’s good guys meeting untimely deaths, it’s bad guys meeting gruesome deaths, it’s moral dilemmas, it’s broken hearts—it’s everything I love about Richard Price’s writing and more. Except that The Whites was written by Harry Brandt, the pen name Price took when he decided to write something different from his usual fare. When he ended up writing in the same vein after all, he realized the pen name was a mistake. He says he’ll never do that again.
And if you’re wondering if this book is about race because of the title, you can erase that thought from your brain immediately. Instead picture Moby Dick, the great white whale that destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg, and then Ahab’s subsequent quest to get revenge. Apparently, every cop has a white.
In his NYT book review of The Whites, Michael Connelly said he read that Price “was asked why he devoted so much of his considerable literary talent to crime fiction. He responded by saying that when you circle around a murder long enough you get to know a city.” Connelly then went on to say, “With that answer, I believed that Price had crystalized what many writers knew and attempted to practice. That is, he considered the crime novel something more than a puzzle and an entertainment; he saw it as societal reflection, documentation and investigation.” Yes to that.
Price, the master of dialogue, once again proves he is the reigning king, and once you’ve experienced a book driven by dialogue, there’s no turning back. Then there’s the multi-layering of details describing locations, characters, crimes, and motives that make the story ring so true you may begin to imagine you grew up in the Bronx, became a cop, and then died a sad little death with the lot of them. It’s not just a crime story, it’s a study of human nature. It’s also a gripping police procedural with deep, sorrowful relationships falling across its pages. Richard Price, Harry Brandt, whatever…The Whites is a fantastic read.
Henry Holt, 2015
Richard Price is the author of The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, Ladies’ Man, The Breaks, Clockers, Freedomland, Samaritan, and Lush Life. He’s written for the HBO series The Wire, and numerous screenplays including The Color of Money, which was nominated for an Oscar, Mad Dog and Glory, and Shaft. His book Clockers was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was made into a film directed by Spike Lee.
P.S. I had time to kill while waiting for Price’s reading to begin so I hit the rare book room at Powell’s. I found myself standing next to him, and so struck up a conversation. Delightful. His reading was one of the top events I’ve ever attended. His dark, irreverent humor regarding the movie and TV business had folks crying they were laughing so hard. I highly recommend catching him while he’s on tour. Oh, and never say you’re a big fan when you meet Richard Price. Apparently, his brain immediately conjures up a vision of a big fan, as in the kind that keeps you cool. That’s what he told the audience at Powell’s, with his arms waving through the air—about 30 minutes after I told him that I was a big fan.
Most days I can catch a glimpse of Mt. Hood even though it’s an hour and a half away by car. Its snow-covered peak shows up when I least expect it, and always takes my breath away with its massiveness and other-worldly aura. Over the last four decades I’ve read a lot of books about climbing mountains, and the men who risked their lives to conquer them. It’s been a major obsession in my reading life. Strangely, I’ve never gotten around to climbing to the top of a mountain. I’ve contented myself with casual hikes, though twice I’ve climbed high enough to experience altitude sickness, once in Colorado and another time in Switzerland.
This week I finished one that showed me what most of the other books I’d read had been lacking. Something it turns out I’m very interested in: mountain mythology, the beauty and science of the flora and fauna, and the psychological effect of being in the presence of a mountain. It made me realize that I never wanted to conquer a mountain by reaching its peak; I only wanted to know the mountain. This book is what I’d been looking for all along.
The book is Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime by Stephen Alter. It was written by Alter after he and his wife were the victims of a home invasion in 2008. They were brutally stabbed, beaten, and left for dead. It happened in the Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie, India where Alter was born and raised. Understandably, the event left them feeling shaken and vulnerable.
Mark Wisniewski’s Watch Me Go is a dark punch-to-the-gut story packed with heart-pounding suspense, and glimpses into the corners of humanity where the disenfranchised live. Horses, gambling, and love themes are woven through the fates of both Deesh, a black man from the Bronx, and Jan, a young white woman finding her way in life without a father. Using alternating chapters, Wisniewski tracks Deesh’s and Jan’s seemingly disparate worlds until they eventually collide. Their destinies unfold amidst a background filled with racism and sexism where regrets are plentiful, but where hope occasionally shines a light. Absolutely no one escapes misfortune, but some manage to muster the strength and resiliency to survive and begin again.
Wisniewski’s prose is uniquely powerful, and his story-telling skills are superb. Salman Rushdie described his writing as “Pure, muscular storytelling…irresistible,” and Publishers Weekly gave Watch Me Go a starred review saying, “Outstanding…Wisniewski deftly alternates perspectives and narrative threads…just what fans of literate and nuanced daylight noir will relish.”
If you’re looking for a book that you can’t put down, that is brought alive by intriguing characters you care about, plus is written in beautiful prose, and has a plot that’s obviously been scribed by a master, then look no further than The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach.
The story unfolds during a snowstorm, “The Storm of the Century,” worse than any you could imagine, unless you happen to live in Boston this winter. A homeless young woman and a small-town lawyer are the unlikely duo who occupy the pages through all kinds of weather, anger, loneliness, and love. Roorbach entertains, makes you laugh out loud, touches your heart, and maintains a level of tension that will leave you breathless until the last page. His sense of place and descriptions of the weather are so richly detailed that you can see the river and feel the cold in your bones.
“The big window over the river was barely a window anymore, frosted like a Pop-Tart and draped heavily with snow, just a whale’s eye left open in the middle to peer through, a sobering view. The snow out there was deep, very deep, a heavy drift wave like the purest sand dune mounded clear up over the windowsill, eight or nine feet deep off the ledge, maybe more, no color anywhere, only white and black and every shade of gray between.”
This is a dazzling read by a master storyteller.
Rain, rain, rain, and more rain. Last week I was so depressed I considered buying a S.A.D. light. Instead, I read Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life, and voilà, I was instantly lifted out of my black hole.
Karbo dishes up a book on Child that, despite the many volumes written about the woman already, is fresh, funny, and wildly entertaining. This is not a fan book written by a foodie, though it certainly has plenty of food anecdotes, nor is it a Child memoir in the strictest sense, but it is jammed with interesting tidbits about Child’s personal life. What Karbo set out to do was break down Child’s life to figure out how she found fame, fortune, and love despite her Amazon-esque stature, her lackluster performance in college, and her romantically-bereft teens, twenties, and half of her thirties.
The secrets of living life to the fullest and succeeding far beyond your wildest dreams can be found under chapter headings such as Live With Abandon, All You Need Is a Kitchen and a Bedroom, and Every Woman Should Have a Blowtorch. Yes, of course!, there’s lots of wine, sex, and blatant disregard for the opinions of others when it comes to doing what she wants. Wonderful stuff!
The hair on your neck will stand up as you read the stories collected and edited by Sarah Weinman for Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. It’s a tribute to 14 of the women who wrote the great mysteries of yore. Vera Caspary, Nedra Tyre, Shirley Jackson and others paved the way decades ago for the likes of Sue Grafton, Tana French, and most recently, Gillian Flynn. This wonderful collection is full of murderous wives, deranged husbands, deceitful children, and vengeful friends.
Act II (Read Act I here.)
It’s the end of August. The man is measuring the same 2X4 over and over again. The woman is lying on the chaise lounge gazing at the half-built studio. It’s hot and humid.
Him: What huh?
Her: Does the studio look tall?
Her: Weird. It’s bigger than I thought it would be. Can we go this big without a permit? You checked the building code, right?
Him: I used the info you gave me.
Her: But that was for Washington, not Oregon.
Him: Why would you give me the Washington building code? (Gesturing going on.)
Her: Because it’s all I could find. I figured it would be sorta similar. Why didn’t you check? Why would you rely on me?
Him: You’re the professional Googler. You know everything.
Her: You’re the builder.
Him: It’ll be fine. Just don’t tell anyone.
Her: Who would I tell? Read more…
Here’s what reviewers are saying about it:
“Lovely and wry, Moyes’s newest is captivating and bittersweet.” – Publishers Weekly
“Even the most hard-hearted reader will want to know what happens to these women, not just the flesh-and-blood ones but also the bewitching one on the wall. Where will the painting land, and was its subject a casualty of war? In this moving paean to daring, determination and perspicacity, Moyes keeps the reader guessing down to the last hankie.” – Los Angeles Times
Scenery: It’s May and the flowers are starting to bloom. An ugly but functional wooden shed stands in the backyard. Its roof is covered with moss. The door is warped and hanging from its hinges.
Her: There are mice in the shed and they’re shitting on my garden tools.
Him: Mice are cute.
Her: There are nests of hornets, and the neighbors complained that the shed is an eyesore.
Him: The trees will be tall enough next year to hide the shed.
Her: Your tools are getting wet and rusting.
Him: Let’s replace the shed.
Scenery: It’s June and the woman is standing where the shed used to be. The sun is shining and the trees are resplendent in their greenery.
Her: This spot has a really good view of the wetlands. Wouldn’t it be a great place for a writing studio?
Him: You already have a perfectly good writing office.
Her: It will be a selling point if we ever sell the house. AND, I’ll turn my office into the guest room so you can have another workroom.
Him: I’m going to die in this house. Read more…