Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Books: Three for the Road

Thanks to a Design for Dying book tour that lasted much of May, I almost broke my Showgirls oath to post at least once a month. Here I am under the wire to recommend a troika of titles that kept me company while I was on the road.

Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters. Late last year I devoured the entirety of Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy, genre-bending marvels that claimed both Edgar and Philip K. Dick awards. Even those books didn’t prepare me for Winters’ latest, due out on July 5 and destined to be a hot button topic for the rest of the summer. Airlines takes place in an alternate America where the Civil War never occurred, a twenty-first century where slavery remains legal in four states. Victor is a young black man who has made a devil’s bargain with a shadowy government agency to act as bounty hunter, tracking down fugitives from the South. Winters’ world-building is astonishing, creating a wholly believable society mere degrees from our own. But it’s Victor’s raw and potent story that carries us through this distorted and disturbing mirror image.

West of Eden: An American Place, by Jean Stein. Given the Lillian Frost/Edith Head series any book on Old Hollywood is going to command my attention, but this one-of-a-kind oral history is told from the inside. Stein recounts the sagas of five different Los Angeles families, including the Dohenys, who inspired There Will Be Blood and haunted Raymond Chandler; the Warners; and Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick. The section on Jane Garland, the troubled daughter of a fortune-hunting mother who paid assorted California dreamers to keep her company, is like a real-life Ross Macdonald tale. Stein then turns her gaze toward her own clan; her father Jules founded MCA and played a pivotal role in building modern show business. A compulsively readable book about the price of privilege under the sun.

The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. It’s a dream come true for a pair of hardcore baseball statheads: the chance to operate an actual team, albeit one in the independent leagues several rickety rungs below the minors. But in order to apply sabermetrics to the Sonoma Stompers, Lindbergh and Miller will have to win over rookies and lifers alike, plus learn some things about themselves and their beliefs. I heartily recommend this book to any baseball fan – it goes down much easier if you already know what wRC+ means – but don’t go in expecting a dry treatise heavy on objective analytics. This is powerful, moving stuff about theory and practice, dreams and reality, and the struggle to make tomorrow different from today.