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Books make the best gifts

December 19, 2018

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Dan Barry’s ‘This Land’ is a “beautifully conceived, essential book on American lives and places,” says singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash.

 

By Peter McDermott

Few living American writers have brought more pleasure to readers at home and abroad than crime novelist Michael Connelly. His 32nd novel, “Dark Sacred Night,” was published at the end of October and has spent the weeks since in the hardcover fiction section of the New York Times best-sellers list.

Connelly’s work has rather more substance and style than much of the escapist literature appearing on the list, and thus is always worth a look for the discerning buyer of books as gifts.

The writer’s heroes reflect American diversity – and so, for instance, there’s been no shortage of female police officers, federal agents and lawyers in the novels. In “The Late Show” in 2017, he introduced Renée Ballard, an up-and-coming LAPD detective who is banished to the night shift when she makes a sexual-harassment complaint against a supervisor. Ballard is based upon a real-life LAPD officer Connelly met while working as executive producer and writer on “Bosch,” the Amazon series based around his most famous character, Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch. Now in “Dark Sacred Night,” which is dedicated to that real-life officer, he brings Ballard and Bosch together as lead characters.

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Unsolved cases

Very enthusiastic endorsements from both Connelly and Stephen King have likely helped sell lots of copies of Michelle McNamara’s  “I’ll Be Gone In the Dark: One Women’s Search For the Golden State Killer,” which was published in February. The Golden State Killer – who had been known as the East Area Rapist in Sacramento and the Original Night Stalker in southern California – is believed responsible for at least 13 unsolved murders, as well as scores of rapes and burglaries between 1974 and 1986.

McNamara’s obsession with the case took its toll. She died in her sleep on April 21, 2016, at age 47; the autopsy, the New York Times reported, revealed that she “had an undiagnosed heart condition, and had taken a dangerous mix of prescription drugs, including Adderall, the pain narcotic Fentanyl and the anti-anxiety medication Xanax.”

After her death her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, hired to complete her book both an investigative journalist and a researcher who’d worked closely with her on the case.

At an event for the book last April, the Times reported, “Mr. Oswalt told the crowd that he believed the killer would be caught soon, that his time was running out.

“In fact, just hours before, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, had been arrested in California on a warrant stemming from two of the murders.”

DeAngelo had served in the U.S. Navy and, during some of the time the Golden State Killer was active, worked as a police officer in two different cities. He wasn’t named in the book, and indeed wasn’t on researchers’ radars, but officials credited McNamara with keeping the case in the public eye.

In naming “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” one of the books of the year, Slate writer Laura Miller said that McNamara “excelled at both assembling and analyzing evidence. But she also knew that all crime is a microcosm of the time and place where it occurs, so she lushly evokes a 1970s California in which suburbia and the counterculture mixed uneasily, where homes designed to turn their backs on the neighbors proved the ideal hunting ground for a predator.”

 

Anna’s story

In an interview in 2010, Jennifer Egan told the Irish Echo that she had been planning to write a novel set on the home front – specifically Brooklyn, where she lives – during World War II, but set it aside to pen  “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Brooklyn book, “Manhattan Beach,” eventually did appear last year to great acclaim and was published in paperback this past summer.

It tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, who is almost 12 when her father Eddie meets with gangster Dexter Styles in 1934 and 19 when she’s working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1942.

The New York Times Book Review “Egan works a formidable kind of magic” and the paper’s reviewer said  “Manhattan Beach” “deserves to join the canon of New York stories.”

Time magazine’s reviewer said the novelist’s “prose is exquisite”  and that she gave the story “a cinematic feel, while grounding it in Anna’s realistic frustrations with society.”

 

Intelligent company

In his over 10 years doing the “This Land” column for the New York Times, Dan Barry says in the introduction of a collection with the same name that he has only been pulled over twice. Once was on a “remote road along the Mexican border, by a deputy sheriff who didn’t recognize the car and wanted reassurance that I wasn’t smuggling undocumented immigrants; and once in Kansas, because I was speeding while singing backup for the Moody Blues on ‘Nights in White Satin.’ I accepted the ticket I so richly deserved – for singing, not for speeding – and dutifully signaled as I pulled away.”

Barry had been writing the “About New York” column for three years when he changed focus, in part due to a piece he reported in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; it gave him a glimpse of the “larger American story.”

The idea for the column – its title inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land” – was “mad, farcical, quixotic, so I agreed to do it.”

Barry has collected 100 Times essays in “This Land” the book and a couple of weeks back another newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, named it as one of its 10 Best Books of 2018.

 

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash is another fan:  “Dan Barry is an American treasure, and ‘This Land’ is a beautifully conceived, essential book on American lives and places”; while novelist Alice McDermott has written: “’This Land’ reminds us that the greatest strength of the American character is America’s characters: men and women who are resilient, gracious, eccentric, world-weary, bright-eyed, funny, complex, tragic, surly and yes, even, kind. Dan Barry proves once again that in his intelligent company, attention paid is its own reward. He assures us, too, that eloquence, wit, and compassion – all the virtues we need now – have not been purged from American discourse and are alive and well in these pages.”

 

Caoilinn Hughes. PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIJEL MIHAJLOVIĆ

 

Unforgettable Gael

Ireland produces a new literary star at a rate of one a month, it seems; first among equals for 2018, however, has to be Caoilinn Hughes, whose debut “Orchid & the Wasp” was sent across the Atlantic with glowing Irish and British endorsements attached. American reviewers soon weighed in with their own.

“Hughes, a poet, touches the prose with a comic wand,” Katy Waldman said in the New Yorker. “You won’t forget Gael Foess,” the writer at NPR.org predicted about the novel’s central character. While the Los Angeles Times Review of Books said Gael “is an indomitable, highly adaptable character who can navigate through tumultuous times and wildly disparate environments with ingenuity and grit.”

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