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The Early Word: New Books for the Week of August 3, 2009

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It's August and if the last push for beach reads is any indication — with such weighty lifters as Thomas Pynchon and Richard Russo kicking sand — 98-pound paperback writers don't stand a chance.

Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon once said that maybe his fiction is “not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it's what the world might be." The late sixties psychedelic noir of Inherent Vice is definitely a portrayal of a life off-kilter, rambunctious if convoluted fun but tinged with trademark oppressive paranoia and kaleidoscopic pop culture allusions – from Gummo Marx to Mike Curb. Throwing off some gravitas to chase a few rainbows, subplots and whatnots abound as the affable hippie-ish P.I. Doc Sportello, resourceful throwback to the “great old PIs – Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamuses,” takes a case involving his old girlfriend Shasta, missing amidst the world of Mickey Wolfmann, a rich and married "real estate big shot” whose wife and lover want him institutionalized, though there are conspiracies galore in the course of getting to the people behind the people behind the scenes. So while Doc is wrestling with his feelings for Shasta he is lured into schemes with an ensemble of characters and entities that include his archenemy, a vindictive cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen; a surf band sax player and spy; and a mystical schooner called the Golden Fang which may also be a heroin cartel, an enterprise of "vertical integration," an international conspiracy, or a tax dodge set up by some dentists. Doc also confronts wildly entertaining dopers (“Watch your head” …”How ‘m I spoze to do that, man?”), counterfeiters, rockers, surfers, hustlers, and — in a persona ostensibly out to make Doc “overthink myself into brainfreeze” — an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a soft spot for Ethel Merman.

Meanwhile, there’s no setting like an L.A. setting, in all its modern glories and inglorious past transformed and well. It’s all over the place, virtually a second character strutting the stuffing out of its sprawl from the Beach Boys’ South Bay to Ojai of the cinematic Lost Horizon, now locale of a “high-rent laughing academy.” But the “post-Mansonoid” paranoia, the shattered dreams of Altamont, the just-say-drugs and wave the freak flags high-high-high-high! – all of it has put naiveté through the wringer, and even by 1969 peace and hope has been translated into something more circumspect. “People in this town saw only what they’d all agreed to see,” Doc muses on a smoggy day in bumper-to-bumper traffic, “they believed what was on the tube or in the morning paper half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was all their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free.” It’s a pensive bit of slow-lane philosophizing in an otherwise fast-paced and tautly written tale – no mean feat for a book so kitchen-sink-and-all full, and more escapist fare in a Tom Robbins or Carl Hiaasen variety than visionary Pynchon tome.

That Old Cape Magic
by Richard Russo

"Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming." Such introspection, pervasive throughout That Old Cape Magic, marks a work that is largely a departure for Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo’s acclaimed novels that usually take place in dying towns in the Northeast. In this new novels Russo tells the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth – all as they seem to scatter, bound away, and fall apart from Jack Griffin, a New England professor in his 50s who yearns to return to screenwriting in Los Angeles, and who lugs around, first, his father's, then both his parents' urns in the trunk of his convertible, while he juggles other family commitments – his daughter's wedding, a separation from his wife. Indeed, his parents — especially his mother, who calls her son persistently before he starts hearing her from beyond the grave – permeate the narrative like ghosts, and Griffin inherits “the worst attributes of both” confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one – and all other familial considerations Griffin can’t seem to let go of and shake off from complete mental and emotional handwringing, a little tragedy committed to page along with the comedy. 


Bad Moon Rising (Dark-Hunter Series)
by Sherrilyn Kenyon

The Traffickers (Badge of Honor Series #9)
by W.E.B. Griffin, William E. Butterworth IV 

The Winds of Dune (Heroes of Dune Series #2)
by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson

Breaking Dawn Special Edition

by Stephenie Meyer 

Rules of Vengeance
by Christopher Reich

The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners
by Luanne Rice

Sidney Sheldon's Mistress of the Game
by Sidney Sheldon, Tilly Bagshawe

Dragons of the Hourglass Mage: The Lost Chronicles, Volume Three
by Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman 

The Siege
by Stephen White


In FED We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic
by David Wessel

The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life
by Alison Gopnik 

The Slippery Year
by Melanie Gideon 

The Natural Laws of Good Luck: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage
by Ellen Graf

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch