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The Best Class I Took In College
Looking back at my college years, it’s surprising to me that the class that has probably left the longest-lasting impact on my life wasn’t a part of my journalism major. To set the scene: I’m a freshman at the University of South Carolina Honors College majoring in, at the time, Media Arts. I was riding pretty high and feeling pretty cocky (pun only slightly not intended), having finished the first semester with a 4.0. This winning streak wasn’t to last.
In keeping with the adage that “pride goeth before the fall,” I was pretty sure that I could take on just about anything. Armed with this unearned self-assurance, I used my USC Honors College privileges to sign up for an English class intended for upperclassmen: American Detective Fiction. I figured I’d both knock out an English requirement and read a few fun crime novels.
The class was taught by Matthew Bruccoli and, being totally honest, he scared the shit out of me from day one. As you’d expect for the instructor of a college class, he had a deep sense of respect for the work he was teaching, and didn’t have a lot of patience for those who wasted his time. He was born in The Bronx and comported himself in class like a character from one of the novels we read – he would alternate between his normal, gravelly speaking voice and a boisterous outburst if something caught his attention or stoked his ire. He had an intimidating physical persona with a mustache like a New York cop and eyes that could bore through you if you rankled him.
He demanded a lot of us: we read about a novel a week and were expected to come to class thoughtful and prepared. He would get frustrated – often loudly – if we hadn’t asked ourselves the obvious questions. One lecture I’ll never forget had him yelling “Who the hell’s the Postman?” after we read James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” which, spoiler alert, has no literal postman. He was rightfully stupefied that so many careless undergrads could read a novel without even asking ourselves what the title meant.
This is, I think, the entire reading list of the course, and it’s about as good an introduction to the genre as one could ask for. It’s been almost thirty years, and each of these books has its own special place in my mind. I can always find them easily from the “Used Saves” stickers on the spines from the USC bookstore.
- The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
- Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
- The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
- The Galton Case, Ross Macdonald
- The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins
- The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
- Killer on the Road, James Ellroy
In the same vein, we spent most of a class period talking about the famous Flitcraft parable in “The Maltese Falcon.” Why did Dashiell Hammett give Sam Spade a multipage monologue in the middle of the novel about an old case regarding a family man who, after nearly being killed by a falling girder, abandons his family and eventually finds a new one. Spade asks him why he left one family to go through the trouble to recreate the same life in a different place with different people. The answer: that everything is random, and that life can both take away and give in unequal and unjust measure. Flitcraft got used to girders falling, and then he gets used to them not falling.
“It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.”
The Flitcraft parable endures even today, in music, in literary analysis, even in the George Floyd conversation. How to we respond to catastrophic change, how will is change us and what will we get used to?
Bruccoli had great stories about the authors we read, some of them from personal relationships he had with them. He loved Ross Macdonald as perhaps the best modern purveyor of the genre and thought James Ellroy had pushed a little too far with “Killer on the Road,” even though we read it anyway. He loved the flawed heroes, the femme fatales, the sweaty villains and the twisty plots; he taught me to love them as well.
Given his gruff demeanor and the material we were learning at the time, I was surprised to learn that his truest and deepest literary love appeared to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. He told a reviewer once that, after reading “The Great Gatsby” for the first time that he had been “reading it ever since.” The man had extraordinary taste in writers, and it was infectious.
The class put an end to my brief 4.0 run – I ended up with a C+ that I fought hard to earn. He wasn’t nearly as impressed with me as I was with myself, and that’s something at 18 I needed to learn: how much I had left to learn and how much richness there could be even in “throwaway” pulpy crime fiction.
The reading list for the class is a who’s who of many of my favorite authors still today. I love crime fiction, and I owe that to him.
Dr. Bruccoli died in 2008 after teaching for 40 years at the University of South Carolina. I took his class in the spring of 1992 and our paths crossing was, like the falling Flitcraft girder, purely my random good fortune.
I did email him around the turn of the millennium, somewhat at random. His class was on my mind that day, as it frequently was. I knew he wouldn’t remember me – I was a wholly unremarkable and unimpressive student in a long teaching career – but I wanted to tell him that his class had an impact on me as a formative part of my education. He responded quickly and graciously and sent me a copy of a recent book for which he had provided a foreword – James Gould Cozzens’ “By Love Possessed” – and it has a permanent place on my shelf.
2018 in Reading: Oct. – Dec. (Part 2)
Adrian Walker’s “The End of the World Running Club” is an odd one. It tells the story of an overweight schlub who, along with his small family, survives a meteor strike on the U.K. In the immediate aftermath and chaos, he falls in with a militaristic group of survivors, and is subsequently separated from his family in the ensuing evacuation. Separated by hundreds of miles, with no reliably functional modes of transportation, he and a group also left behind decide to run to catch the departing ships full of survivors, all the while avoiding marauders and bandits on the way. There are definite shades of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” but the overall effect here is lighter. The scenarios stretch plausibility, but there are some distinctive characters, and it’s a fun ride.
I’ve honestly never read anything like Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” and that’s too bad because it’s a fantastic book. It reads more like a collection of short stories than a single, cohesive narrative, spinning through different perspectives, time periods, narrative styles and tones. One memorable chapters is even presented as a series of PowerPoint slides, which isn’t as twee as it sounds. The effect leaves the head swimming. I went in knowing pretty much nothing about the plot or structure, which is the way to go, so I’d recommend you stay as uninformed as possible, except to know that it’s completely awesome. I’ll be reading more Egan in the near future for sure.
Having started the year with Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” it’s probably fitting that Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House” ended up on my Kindle toward the end of the year. Woodward obviously writes the better book, with more clear sourcing and a more cohesive through-line. It’s both less gossipy and more interesting than Wolff’s book, even as it’s rapidly becoming out-of-date. Still, it’s the best chronicle I’ve seen so far of the first two years of the Trump presidency, and I’m glad Woodward is still doing this kind of work. Honestly, most of the best parts have been excerpted already, but there’s still plenty to discover if you’re interested in modern politics or the current state of our democracy.
Jake Tapper’s “The Hellfire Club” is… fun. It’s not particularly memorable, and it has some clunky moments, but Tapper tells its story of a young congressman struggling with Washington corruption during the McCarthy era with a journalist’s eye for detail. The story veers into some Dan Brown-ish territory, with double- and triple-crosses, red herrings and movie-ready characters and dialogue. It’s creaky in places, but Tapper’s committed and keeps things from getting boring. His mixture of fictional and real-life characters works most of the time, but some of the plot twists are projected too obviously.
“The Incomplete Book of Running” is, as the title implies, a book about running by NPR “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” host Peter Sagal. I’m a big fan of Sagal’s radio work and his old Runner’s World column, and the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s a candid, honest, funny memoir about the physical and emotional healing power of running. Maybe it’s because Sagal and I are at similar times of life, or maybe it’s because we’re both decent amateur runners who have no chance of going pro, but the book really hit home with me. I came away with a deeper appreciation for why I spent the time I do running around the Atlanta sidewalks at all hours of the morning.
The late Hans Rosling recorded one of the most popular TED Talks of all-time and his Gapminder Web site has been an extraordinary teaching tool over the years. “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” boils down Rosling’s worldview – that, statistically, the citizens of the world are, on average, better off than we’ve been in recorded history – into ten data-heavy chapters. It’s a welcome book for our national moment, when our political system seems helplessly broken, and it’s worth remembering that, by almost every measurable metric, the world is moving in the right direction. It’s clearly-written, and the data is presented in a powerful and compelling way.
I finished the year with Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated,” and it is absolutely the best book I read all year. Westover was homeschooled in a deeply-religious farm family that eschewed both formal schooling and basic healthcare. Through contemporaneous journals and family interviews, she has pieced together the often-harrowing, always-fascinating story of a young woman overcoming extraordinary odds to find her place in the world. Working in higher ed, it’s heartening to see the system recognize her talents and give her the hand-up that has clearly been life-changing. The writing is crisp, the pacing is perfect and the story is mesmerizing, moreso because, once you’ve finished the book, you can read about the fallout with her family since its release. Highly, highly recommended.
2018 in Reading: Oct. – Dec. (Part 1)
In general, I dig science fiction, but I’m picky when it comes to what I read. I was intrigued enough by the trailers for “Annihilation” that I read Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name and came away pleasantly surprised. There’s a surrealistic quality to the goings-on with a plot that oscillates between straight sci-fi, horror and a psychological thriller. I still haven’t seen the movie, though I intend to, and I may end up reading further into the two books that follow up this one, but it kept me engaged and was quite a novel, er, novel. Having all the main characters be women, despite being what would typically be male archetypes, actually worked really well.
I went to see Joe Biden on his book tour and, reasonably, felt some obligation to read the book about which he was touring. “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” is his account of a year of his life in the White House, his consideration about running in 2016 and, ultimately, the last year of his son, Beau’s, life. Biden’s writing is breezy and sincere, and one gets the sense that he actually wrote most of the book himself. It’s an easy, worthwhile read and makes you wonder what could have been.
“The Last Jedi,” by Jason Fry, is the novelization of the movie and… it’s just not very good. I usually read these because they’re often based on earlier drafts of the screenplay, so sometimes there are missing scenes or details. “The Force Awakens” novel, for example, had a dark-matter-powered Starkiller Base. If that’s not interesting to you, don’t bother with this book. If it is, you can still probably skip it.
John Elder Robison’s “Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s” is one of the first book any autism parent should read, so I was interested in where “Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening” would take his story. This time he documents an experimental brain stimulation treatment he underwent that, by his description, unlocked new emotional areas of his personality. The treatment is fascinating, but the impact on his relationships with his spouse and child are even more interesting. The book could have probably worked just as well as a long magazine article – it’s not clear there’s a book’s worth of material here – but Robison’s account is detailed and honest.
I’ve previously only read one David Sedaris book, “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” but I was intrigued by the New York Times Book Review review of his newest collection of darkly comic essays entitled “Calypso.” I know Sedaris mostly through his work with NPR, so it’s odd to read him again, recreating his distinct voice and tone in my head. There’s nothing here that would disappoint fans. It’s funny; it’s melancholy; it’s insightful. Loosely, the book centers itself around his sister’s suicide and the family’s purchase of a beach house. It ends too soon, and makes me want to dig through his back catalog in the coming year.
2018 in Reading: July – Sept.
I read my first Jack Reacher book this year. I think it was called “One Shot,” but reading the descriptions I can scarcely be sure. I read it during lunch over about a week, and it was a perfect book for reading during lunch. Perhaps the best thing about it is that this Twitter thread came along at about the same time, and I felt in on the joke because I had read this book. If you like this kind of thing, this is definitely that kind of thing. Someone actually says “Get Reacher for me,” which is kind of awesome. To be honest, I liked it well enough, but I’m not in a rush to read another one.
“Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History” is Katy Tur’s behind-the-scenes memoir of covering the Trump campaign, and it’s a pretty terrific read. She comes across as consistently human, which flies in the face of what seems on its face to be a glamorous lifestyle. She even meets a boyfriend on Tinder, which I thought was the kind of thing that only regular folks have to do. There are lots of hotel drinks, nasty tweets, boring flights and fascinating insights on what it was like to cover Trump’s rise. Tur is a talented writer thrown into a historically unprecedented situation, and her story is breezy and worth a read.
Chris Hayes’ “A Colony in a Nation” is a sober – and sobering – look at the on-the-ground societal implications of race in America. Hayes asserts that US laws claim to focus on freedom, but the actual effects often manifest in aggressive policing and civil rights violations that undermine the outcomes desired by all sides. It would be easy for a book like this to come across as a left-wing polemic, but the net effect is powerful and hopeful. It’s not a long book, but it’s well-researched, dense and very, very smart.
“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” by Mark Manson, isn’t remotely scientific, but it also doesn’t really pretend to be. It’s basically a blog post expanded to a full book, so don’t feel like you really need to read the whole thing. The core message – that if you care too much about everything you can’t really focus on the things that matter – is good enough advice, but by the end of the book it’s been beaten well to death. I listened to the audiobook and the narrator seemed kind of smarmy, but that also fit the overall tone of the book. I agree with some aspects of the overall message, but it often felt like an article you’d find between pictorials in a Playboy.
Dave Eggers caught my attention years back with his fantastic, indulgent memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” Since then, he’s cranked out a novel or narrative nonfiction work about once a year. This time around, it’s “Heroes of the Frontier,” a story of a woman who takes her children to Alaska to flee a failed marriage. Eggers is a consistently fascinating writer and has a rare ability to lovingly observe the positives and negatives in people. It’s often the case that men have a difficult time writing women, but the lead in “Heroes” is a mostly convincing, deeply-written character trying to make good decisions and often making questionable ones.
Last for this quarter was Tom Rachman’s “The Italian Teacher.” I went to grad school with Tom, and following his career as an author fills me with a mixture of awe and, I’m not going to lie, a bit of jealousy. “The Italian Teacher” is a brilliantly-written novel tracking decades of a relationship between an overbearing, talented artist and his underperforming son, along with a sharply-drawn side case of friends, spouses and lovers. The book is full of awkwardly funny moments mixed with a palpable sense of melancholy over mistakes made and things left unsaid. Highly recommended.
2018 in Reading: April – June
Michael Chabon is one of the best writers working today. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay” is probably my favorite book of the last 20 years, and the guy just keeps on producing novels, magazine pieces and memoir. The uniform quality of his output is seriously intimidating, and I read two of his books this year: “Manhood for Amateurs” in audiobook format and “Moonglow.” “Manhood for Amateurs” is the more straightforward of the two works. It’s a collection of previously-published and new essays about his relationship with his parents as a young boy up through his own marriage and fatherhood. He and I were similar in many ways as children, nerdy and bookish, comic-book obsessed, and he tells his story with wisdom and humor.
“Moonglow” is an interesting beast. It’s a fictionalized memoir of the author’s grandfather’s life in World War II and in America beyond. There’s a “Big Fish” quality to the story, where it’s not always altogether clear what’s real and what’s imaginary, but that is really what makes the whole thing so fascinating. The book is billed as “Moonglow: A Novel,” which helps to free the reader, and I suspect the author, from being bound strictly to facts. Per typical Chabon, it’s beautifully written.
Hey, look, more Dan Brown. “Origin” popped up as available in Overdrive, so I downloaded it and, of course, tore through it. This time, know-it-all Robert Langdon is doing something to do with human evolution or some-such nonsense. Same deal goes with “Inferno” (which was better) – if you like this stuff, it’s more of the same. It’s not great literature, but it goes down easy enough. It’s a tube of Pringles in book form.
I read Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” for my book club, and found it just okay. Dick’s works always seem to adapt better to film or TV than the novels themselves, and this is no different. It’s an alternate history where the US lost World War II and the country is divided in half between the East Coast, governed by Germany, and the West Coast, governed by Japan. There’s a sci-fi/supernatural element to the whole affair that, honestly, comes off a little half-baked. I find it hard to recommend – Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” with Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh beating FDR for the presidency, is a much more cohesive book.
Last for this quarter was Robert Crais’ “The Monkey’s Raincoat,” a modern LA detective story featuring a lot of the tropes one would expect from the genre. Truthfully, it’s pretty terrific, with a main character, Elvis Cole, who almost certainly had some inspiration for The Dude in The Big Lebowski, and one of my favorite side characters in the straight-laced Marine Joe Pike (who has his own spinoff series). There are a whole bunch of these novels now, but this is the first and, so far, the only one I’ve read. If you like offbeat detective stories, it’s highly recommended.
2018 in Reading: January – March
The year started with a couple of winners and at least one unfortunate loser. I’m a big fan of John Hodgman’s incredible trio of fake almanacs, so I was excited about “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches.” Hodgman is a master of the kind of melancholy humor that scratches my itch, and “Vacationland” is a funny and sad little book about a vacation home in Maine, family, performing live and buying a boat. He is responsible for one of my absolute favorite TED Talks, and if you like that, you’ll like this book.
Dan Brown’s “Inferno” is Dan Brown at his Dan Browniest. It’s absolutely absurd, with a ludicrous plot and wafer-thin characters, but with Brown you know what you’re getting. It’s difficult to put down, which qualifies it as a page-turner. It’s hard to take seriously, but if you find yourself sitting next to a pool, you could do worse.
Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” is already out-of-date, but it’s impact was definitely felt throughout the year. Wolff, who clearly spent a lot of time interviewing Steve Bannon, gives an insider’s view of the Trump White House, though he has a tendency to play fast and loose with sourcing. It’s an important book, and an easy read, but it has a short shelf-life just because of the nature of the topic. If you’re looking for juicy Trump dirt, you’ve probably already read it.
What to say about Andy Weir’s “Artemis”? Truly one of the most disappointing books I think I’ve ever read. Nothing against Weir, who wrote the absolutely fantastic The Martian, but Artemis just doesn’t work. Ostensibly a murder mystery set on the moon, it’s full of characters that don’t work, a clunky plot, a main character who is intensely difficult to like and a clunkiness that makes the whole affair feel rushed and unfinished. Maybe it’s just a sophomore slump. I’ve read “The Martian” four times, so I’m totally going to read Weir’s next book on day-one, but “Artemis” just doesn’t work. At all.
Last in this timeframe was Dan Moody’s “Hotels of North America,” a peculiar, funny series of modern male adulthood told through a series of fake Yelp-style reviews of American hotels. This book was right in my wheelhouse, with a nonlinear story told through fragments of experience framed through the aforementioned reviews. It’s genuinely hilarious, sometime cringe-inducing, and completely original. Loved it.
Two Books: Vacationland and Inferno
I’ve read my first two books of the new year, both very different. John Hodgman’s (@hodgman) “Vacationland” is a funny, smart and melancholy rumination on adulthood, childhood and special places that define our lives. I envy him deeply as a writer.
Second book, which I just finished a few minutes ago, is Dan Brown’s “Inferno.” It’s absurdly goofy, but I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit to spending three hours of my Sunday burning through the second half. As guilty pleasures go, you could do worse, but if you’ve read “The Da Vinci Code,” you pretty much know what you’re getting here. It’s fine, but it’s seriously ridiculous.
Next up is finishing Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.”