Critic’s Picks: February

Jason Kehe reviews his four must-reads of the month—his favorite L.A. release, one pick from the wide-open West, another from our friends back East, and a recommendation for more adventurous readers

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IN OUR BACKYARD

A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar
Daniel Pyne
(Counterpoint, 283 pages, $16)
Lee Garrison’s ticket out of middle age isn’t a red sports car—it’s an ad on eBay for a long-abandoned gold mine in a tiny Colorado town. Before you can say “He’s crazy!,” Lee’s the proud new owner. If he can just find the thing, that is. Helping out are some wacky townies, a pretty shop owner, and Lee’s brother Grant, an ex-con with a big heart. Is it gold Lee’s really after, or something else? This is more dark cartoon than fully realized novel. Caricatures outnumber characters 3 to 1; most of the set pieces strain credulity. You won’t find true gold until the book’s final chapter. But the payoff is great. You finish breathless, high on the spirit of adventure. 

 

BEST OF THE WEST

Memoirs of a Porcupine
Alain Mabanckou
(Soft Skull, 150 pages, $16)
Sentences don’t begin or end in this slim, mesmerizing book. Literally: Mabanckou, a French-Congolese writer and UCLA professor, doesn’t use periods. If you think that’s weird, wait until you actually start reading. The porcupine of the title is the “animal double” of Kibandi, an innocent boy transformed by a mystical African ritual into a murderous psychopath. These memoirs are the porcupine’s confessions of his and Kibandi’s crimes. Don’t be put off by the freaky premise. Mabanckou, who won France’s equivalent of the National Book Award for the original French version, somehow manages to make a book about killers in a remote African village eerily charming. Part of the fun is figuring out what it means in the end. 

 

EAST OF THE RIVER

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America
Christopher Bram
(Twelve, 311 pages, $28)
Vidal, Capote, Ginsberg, Baldwin, Albee, Kushner: These are just some of the gay writers who animate the pages of this one-of-a-kind, much-needed literary history. Bram’s structure is ingenious, a weaving together of each of their stories into a comprehensive narrative. It helps that they all seem to have known each other, and not just professionally. Bram, a respected gay writer in his own right (Gods and Monsters) who “spent much of my life preparing to write this book,” curiously leaves himself out of the story, and his prose doesn’t catch fire in the way you’d hope. But maybe that’s intentional, a way of letting these men—so frequently marginalized in their own time—shine the brighter.

 

BEYOND YOUR HORIZONS

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Katherine Boo
(Random House, 256 pages, $27)
Is it the best book written on new India? That doesn’t seem like high enough praise. Boo works miracles on these pages. She takes a slum called Annawadi, whose dirt-poor dwellers spend their days sorting through trash, and makes it into one of the most interesting places on planet Earth. You’ll meet Abdul first, a Muslim and one of the slum’s more entrepreneurial teens. The book begins the night Abdul, his older sister, and his father are wrongly accused of setting a woman called the One Leg on fire. And that’s just the prologue. One piece of advice: Don’t start reading at the bookstore. You’ll be there all day. 

 

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