Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Best of Whatever—Chris La Tray

I’ve just barely gotten accustomed to writing 2010 on the stacks of checks I send out to pay the bills every other month and here 2011 is staring me in the face like a personal injury lawyer at a 48-car pileup on Highway 93 south. Hell, I think the only thing I sprouted faster than gray hairs and debt this year were books that appeared in stacks on every available flat surface where they could find purchase. I finally had to break down and build a bookshelf here next to my desk just for the TBR queue; I went old school with some cinderblocks and 2x6s (who says you can never be young again, eh?). Add a beer sign and some empty whiskey bottles and it would be just like college all over . . . except I never went to college and I don’t drink whiskey. Often.

It was a banner year for reading, and trying to settle on just ten to report on was a challenge; I ended up with eleven. Some great ones were left off the list, but that’s to be expected. I’m happy to say that I really only had to deal with a couple clunkers and disappointments, which is cool, but that doesn’t make picking favorites any easier. Hell, if reading were easy, everyone would be doing it.

01. Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. One night of stress and staying alive for a guy who used to be a hitman and is now in the Federal Witness Protection program. Peter Brown, aka Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa, has remade himself as a medical doctor passing his residency in one of the worst hospitals in the city who must go into self preservation mode when one of his new patients turns out to be a mob guy who recognizes him from his former life. This one rips right along with great action and amusing (and gross) anecdotes from the medical profession (Bazell also happens to be an MD). This was one of the first great books I read this year, and I think everyone I’ve recommended it to loved it. And it’s got footnotes!

02. Queenpin by Megan Abbott. Any one of Megan’s four brilliant books could have made this list, and I read all of them this year. This one was the first I pulled from the pile, so it gets the nod. After I read it I quickly snapped up everything else. Abbott does a phenomenal job seducing the reader into her deep, dark stories, and I wish I had another half-dozen or so to read. The best of its kind.

03. A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting by Sam Sheridan. I enjoyed this book as much as I've enjoyed just about any nonfiction book this year. Not only does Sheridan discuss various types of fighting, but addresses the personalities of people who fight, the psychology, and many of the cultural misconceptions. Sheridan is something of an Everyman, it seemed to me, despite the Harvard education. He throws himself into the action without any of they "Hey, look at me, I’m such a fish out of water!" sense that often comes across with writers who actively pursue the discipline they are writing about. A great read, with many interesting insights. It made me realize that maybe not all the guys walking around in those fashion abominations called Affliction and Tapout t-shirts are, by default, utter d-bags. I may not agree with all of Sheridan’s conclusions, but I appreciate the lack of fluff and his approach. His follow-up, The Fighter’s Mind, is in the TBR shelf.

04. The Lost City of Z by David Grann. A book of fascinating real life adventure about Percy Fawcett’s expeditions into the Amazon during the 20s in pursuit of proof of ancient civilizations, and his ultimate, mysterious disappearance. After reading this book a couple things strike me. First, it is mindblowing how much has changed in such a short time; basically over the last 100 years or so. In the late 19th/early 20th centuries, these organizations that existed to expand the borders of the "known world" were totally shooting in the dark (I picture old dudes sitting around in suits and beards, puffing pipes and speculating wildly), because so much remained unknown to them. The difficulties intrepid adventurers faced, and the number of lives lost in pursuit of knowledge, is something that I suspect few people really understand. This story in particular is one that, while it's a fair enough conclusion made as to what probably happened to the three men who disappeared during the apocryphal expedition, we still don't know for sure how it all turned out. It is a mystery for all time, really. I loved it.

05. The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski. Reading five of this mofo’s books was definitely a highlight of the spring. Few people can make utter bloodletting as fun as Swierczynski can, and I could have happily run with any of his releases. His most recent, Expiration Date, would have been the logical choice for my list, but I went with The Wheelman because it claims the breakneck hole shot on a quasi-trilogy that also includes The Blonde and Severance Package. I can’t think of a better bundle to take on a long plane ride. Blood, guts and awesome. The scene in the garage in this book is an all time classic.

06. Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth. If Rawson forced me to choose a favorite novel of the year, this would probably be it. It takes everything that got me into reading as a youth – action, monsters, heroism – and cranks it all the way up. Even as a graybeard I still love that kind of shit. I suspect Blood Oath would be classified as a thriller, but it’s really just a modern pulp masterpiece. The premise is that since 1867 the President of the United States has had a vampire bound to him by oath, the Blood Oath of the title, to guard against threats from “the other side.” If it sounds hoaky, think again – this shit works. Farnsworth does a masterful job making the concept seem entirely plausible. There are great nods to pop culture and historical events that this vampire, whose name is Nathaniel Cade, has been involved in. Cade is almost a secondary character in the book, which focuses a little more on his new government liaison, a young man named Zach Barrows. The interplay of their relationship, and the nuances of Cade’s relationship with Griffin, the man Zach is replacing, is one of the highlights of the book. The plot of this novel, which promises to be the first in a series, centers around a nefarious scheme involving the real life Dr. Frankenstein and an army made up of walking corpses bolted together from the body parts stolen from fallen soldier in Iraq. This is vampire fiction the way it’s supposed to be written. This one fucking rules.

07. The Wolverine Way by Douglas Chadwick . My #1 choice for nonfiction would be this book. I think if others read it, they may scratch their heads about that distinction, because it might not be so great to a more casual reader. Some of the other NF books on this list are certainly more noteworthy, but this one really struck a chord. Chadwick has made a career traveling the world as a biologist writing for magazines like National Geographic. The Wolverine Way is about his work as a volunteer studying wolverines in Glacier National Park. This is an animal science literally knew next to nothing about, and the information they gathered has been important in our understanding of the ecology of the critter, and how it is one of those keystone species whose success in the wake of climate change can be an important measure as to its severity. I found these revelations, and the details in how they went about their study – as well as Chadwick’s wit and insights – utterly compelling. I was happy to meet the man a couple months ago, and it was a real treat. I loved this book. I’d love to lay eyes on a wolverine in the wild, even if it then proceeded to claw those eyes out of my face and make me eat them.

08. Q Road by Bonnie Jo Campbell. I read American Salvage, Campbell’s latest collection of short stories, and it blew me away. If you haven’t read it yet, get after it. It compelled me to have the local shop order her other two books for me; her first collection called Women and Other Animals (which I’m currently reading) and Q Road, her first novel. Q Road was fantastic. No one I’ve read captures rural life like Bonnie Jo Campbell, who grew up and lives in the very places she writes about. Every character is memorable, every character has a story that will break your heart. Just like real people. This is a beautiful, gripping, fun, sad, and utterly relevant book. Hell, I’m tempted to figure out a way to be in Michigan come July when she has the release party for her next book.

09. The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow. I was originally going to list Savages for a couple reasons. First of all, it was the first book I ever read on my Nook. Second of all, it’s freakin’ awesome. Since other people have blathered all over it, though, I decided to run with this sucker. I don’t usually like to think of books in terms of movies, but goddamn – this book should be a movie. I love San Diego, I’d love to learn to surf, and I love Winslow’s tight writing style of short chapters and shorter sentences packed with crackling energy. I love a good slice of California fiction, and this is as good as any.

10. Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien. O'Brien's story/memoir of converting his South Dakota cattle ranch to a bison ranch is a fantastic read. My family switched almost exclusively to eating bison a couple years ago, so he's preaching to the choir here. I found much of it fascinating, and the prose describing the landscape put me there in the midst of the rolling hills, broken land and bonechilling cold. I've been through that part of the country several times, and bleak as it sometimes appears I can't wait to make it back. A must read for people interested in The West who love great storytelling.

11. Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. Look, I can’t gush over this book any more than every other reviewer who has praised it all up and down. It’s truly great, even if it probably isn’t for everyone. That’s part of what makes it so awesome. I’d like to hang with this dude. I figure any guy who can pull a blurb from Ward fucking Churchill has got to be a guy worth rousing rabble with.

So that’s eleven excellent offerings. And I didn’t even talk about some great movies, comics, collections . . . all of it. A whole friggin’ year’s worth, you know? And now it’s about time to tighten the belt, put on the helmet and start all over again. I can’t wait.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris La Tray is a rocker, a writer, and a wannabe adventurer. His nonfiction writing has appeared in the Missoula Independent, Vintage Guitar magazine, and World Explorer magazine. His short fiction has appeared at Beat to a Pulp and the forthcoming Crimefactory special edition, Kung Fu Factory. It may appear in other places too if he’d just get around to submitting it. He keeps a reasonably regular blog about basically nothing called Stumbling the Walk.


  1. Another Bonnie Jo fan here. And I have that Lost City sitting across the room. Dawn Patrol was great and I guess Savages, greater yet.

  2. Well, if you're ever in Denver let me know. And thanks a bunch, man.

  3. Thank you, Chris, for saying such nice things about my books! For the new book (a pre-quil to Q Road), I'll have a pre-release party of some kind in Portland, Oregon in late June before the July party in Kalamazoo, probably at Bell's Brewery. I'll buy your a Best Brown Ale and give you a space for your tent. And possibly a donkey ride, though Jack and Don Quixote have been rather cross with me lately for neglecting them. They show no interest in the literary life. Cheers!

  4. Ben, if I make it to Denver I'll definitely let you know. I'm hoping to bring the Devastating Rock Band through one day, but we never seem to make it.

    Bonnie Jo, consider me THERE for Portland. I rarely need an excuse to go there, and usually make it a couple times year. At nine hours away, by Montana geography that's just in the backyard! If I can make it to Michigan for the Bell's Brewery event, maybe we can get Patti Abbott there too; her commute will be a lot shorter than mine will!

  5. I saw Bonnie Jo read at the book's (AMERICAN SALVAGE) debut at the WSU PRESS fall party and she is worth making a drive for.