This week: the final recollections of Charles Dickens, an eye-opening portrait of the South, and a punk rock memoir.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine (St. Martin's) - An undercurrent of low self-esteem runs through this episodic, mannered memoir by former punk rocker Albertine, guitarist for the Slits. In spare, frank prose, she recounts her early infatuation with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, her success as a guitarist in an unheard-of all-girl band in the late 1970s, and her later troubles, when her marriage failed and her career stalled out. Growing up in the 1960s in Muswell Hill, North London, as the child of an unstable marriage, Albertine found a revolutionary, exciting “new world” in music by John Lennon and the Kinks. Her Corsican-born father criticized her when she announced that she wanted to be a pop singer: “You’re not chic enough.” So she settled for being a groupie: cadging fab clothes from Kensington Market (“glam rock”), attending Hornsey Art School, and dating Mick Jones of the Clash, who helped her buy her first guitar.
The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens by Thomas Hauser (Counterpoint) - Before Charles Dickens became a famous British novelist he was a struggling London journalist, inspired by the poverty, disease, hunger, and despair of the city’s lower classes, and exposed to the arrogance and indifference of the rich. The core of this historical novel, however, focuses on the year 1836, when Dickens is introduced by his editor, George Hogarth, to a wealthy financier, Geoffrey Wingate. With Hogarth’s blessing, Wingate encourages Dickens to write about him and his investment business in the Evening Chronicle, for the dual purpose of attracting readers and advancing Wingate’s business interests. Wingate is hoping to use the young, naïve journalist to lure rich clients. Dickens’s initial inquiries reveal much about Wingate’s business, including a rumor that he once killed a man. Intrigued, Dickens investigates further, uncovering cold-blooded murder and mutilation, eventually finding an honest policeman in Inspector Ellsworth of the Metropolitan Police Force, and the two men work tirelessly to unmask a clever swindler and vicious killer. Complications arise when Dickens falls hopelessly in love with Amanda, Wingate’s wife.
Sins of Our Fathers by Shawn Lawrence Otto (Milkweed) - This stylish novel from Otto concerns J.W., a smalltown bank president whose gambling addiction causes his life to spiral out of control. One year after his son Chris’s dies in an auto crash while driving stoned, J.W. abandons his harried wife, Carol, and his teenaged daughter, Julie. When J.W.’s embezzlement of bank funds to cover his betting losses is uncovered, his boss fires him and then coerces him into spying on the local competition. J.W. relocates to live in a trailer and spies on Johnny Eagle, who is establishing a new tribal bank on the Ojibwe reservation. Otto's wonderfully vivid debut culminates in a rousing and satisfying climax.
Isabel's War by Lila Perl (Ig/Skurnick) - Published posthumously, Perl’s moving WWII novel set in the Bronx traces a Jewish girl’s growing awareness of the atrocities occurring overseas. At first, 12-year-old Isabel views the war as an inconvenience, bemoaning new rationing rules and the growing shortages of luxury items. Similarly, she resents the arrival of Helga, a beautiful German refugee with “a swanlike neck, and luminous gray-green eyes,” who ends up living with Isabel’s family when Helga’s American guardian turns ill. But as Isabel gleans bits of information about Helga’s horrific experiences in Germany and in England, where she was delivered as part of the Kindertransport, Isabel’s heart gradually softens. Now her problem is getting others to believe Helga’s tales and persuading Helga that she is not to blame for what her family suffered. This coming-of-age story offers an authentic glimpse of the 1940s American war effort and corresponding sentiments while introducing a realistically flawed heroine whose well-meaning efforts sometimes backfire.
God'll Cut You Down by John Safran (Riverhead) - This stranger-than-fiction true crime story finds Safran—a white, Jewish documentary filmmaker from Australia—relocating to Rankin County, Miss., to dig deep into the grisly stabbing murder of a 67-year-old white supremacist in April 2010. A 23-year-old African-American man named Vincent McGee pleaded guilty in the case, but this was no run-of-the-mill race crime. With allegations swirling of a money-for-sex relationship between the founder of a white nationalist organization and his black neighbor, the lure was too great for Safran (a self-proclaimed “Race Trekkie”) to resist. Armed with his Dictaphone and a thirst for the truth, Safran tracks down and interviews nearly all individuals associated with the case, resulting in wildly opposing accounts of what happened that spring evening. The result is a bizarrely unsettling, yet often witty book that paints a disturbing picture of the deep South today.