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Book Notes From The Underground: September 2014

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Get Carter by Ted Lewis

Originally published in 1970 as Jack’s Return Home, Lewis’s novel was the basis for the great 1971 British noir film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine. The plot of the book is a classic revenge tale – hard man Jack Carter returns to his hometown in the Midlands to find out who killed his brother. What follows is a grim, unrelenting trip through a world of prostitution, pornography, gambling and drugs. Lewis is now mostly forgotten, but he has been praised by such writers as Dennis Lehane, James Sallis and Derek Raymond.

 

Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp

A collection of 16 graphic biographies of iconic cartoonists by some of today’s most accomplished graphic artists. Chapters include Drew Friedman on R. Crumb, Marc Rosenthal on Chas Addams , Mark Alan Stamaty on Jack Kirby and Sergio Ruzzier on Charles M. Schulz (in which he is depicted as Charlie Brown). Although not every selection works, there are more hits than misses and the book will be a treat for any serious fan of graphic literature.

 

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

Looking for a quick wisp of a book that combines comic intrigue, international romance and droll satire? Coe’s novel centered on the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels will fit the bill. When Thomas Foley is tapped to oversee the construction of an “authentic British pub” as part of Britain’s exhibit, little does he realize that he is about to become involved in a Soviet plot while he tries to shake-off two meddling British agents who are getting in the way of his interest in the pretty Belgian hostesses. Coe’s writing has the classic properties of British satire: it’s understated, whip-smart and drily amusing.

 

A History of New York in 101 Objects by Sam Roberts

To represent nearly 400 years of New York City history, Roberts writes that the objects “had to have played some transformative role in New York City's history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation.” The list runs chronologically and each object is represented by a photograph and several pages of text. The entries include beads from the African Burial Ground, a mastodon tusk, a bagel, a Checker cab, a subway token and a black & white cookie. While not scholarly, the fun of browsing through the book will be finding items that you completely forgot about (“a spaldeen”! Of course!) and taking issue with the author over items that he missed (“Where’s the Cel-Ray soda?”).

 

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

When German soldier Peter Faber marries Katharina Spinell – a woman he has never met - to escape the trenches of the Eastern Front, little does he know that they both will fall passionately in love. However the increasingly dire circumstances in wartime Germany threatens their attempts to remain a family. Irish journalist Magee has written a first novel that examines a time-worn subject (families struggling through the vicissitudes of war) through an unusual lens (the protagonists are Germans who are both complicit in and abused by the dealings of the Nazi regime).

 

Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Aptowicz has written a breezy, yet substantial biography of Thomas Dent Mutter, the Philadelphia plastic surgeon who introduced or promoted many medical innovations that we know take for granted, including sterilization, anaesthesia, and recovery rooms. Although Mutter died at the young age of 48, Aptowicz’s spirited book breathes new life into her subject.

 

De Potter’s Grand Tour by Joanna Scott

Starting with his disappearance while boating off the coast Greece in 1905, Scott examines the life of dilettante Armand De Potter, who may or may not have been a member of the Belgian aristocracy. As his wife Aimée copes with the sudden loss of her husband and tries to solve the mystery of his disappearance, the things she thought she know about him may not be so. It turns out that he was both more and less than he seemed. Scott has written a suspenseful character study that is enshrouded in the romantic and elegant world of steam trains and steamer trunks.

 

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

Not all innovations are developed from “lightbulb” moments. Some occur simply by accident. Johnson refers to this as “the hummingbird effect,” when "an innovation... in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether." For instance, Gutenberg invented the printing press which necessitated the creation of spectacles (for some people), which led to the development of the microscope and then the camera. Johnson is a marvelous storyteller who can simultaneously keep five or six balls (threads) in the air without letting any of them drop.

 

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