Slate's winter reading.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 1 2008 7:29 AM

Winter Books

What Slate is reading this winter.

(Continued from Page 1)
Slip of the Knife

Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina If you're a fan of smart, gritty female detectives but haven't heard about Paddy Meehan yet, you'll thank your lucky stars for this tip. Scottish mystery writer Denise Mina introduced Paddy in 2005 with The Dead Hour; then came Field of Blood, and now we have Slip of the Knife. Three, count 'em, three! For devotees of this genre, it's a miracle akin to stumbling across three lost novels by Liza Cody or Sara Paretsky.

But Paddy is very different from the crime-fiction heroines who preceded her. She's overweight and uncool, a working-class journalist in Glasgow, Scotland, grappling with all-but-lost causes, driven by personal demons and passionate loyalties. Her dark and compelling partner is the city itself, rendered with a depth of character equal to Paddy's own. The brisk writing in this series is addictive, and so perfectly on key that the rudest bar scenes read like arias.— Laura Shapiro

Art

John Sloan's New York
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John Sloan's New York by Joyce K. Schiller et al. and Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush With Leisure, 1895-1925by James Tottis et al. John Sloan was famous early in the 20th century for his left-wing cartoons and especially for his paintings of New York life. He and a group of other painters became known as the Ashcan School thanks to their portraits of tenements and subways and the poor. But don't let the dreary Ashcan label fool you: Sloan's work radiates joy, even when he fumes over social conditions. A series of exhibits have just now generated two fine books: Life's Pleasures, with lush prints from the entire Ashcan school; and John Sloan's New York, which, if only because of its theme, is especially moving to me. These books make me realize how much my own ardor for city life owes to Sloan's slashing red colors and his marvelous vigor. Paul Berman

Memoir

Swimming in a Sea of Death

Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff. In Swimming in a Sea of Death, journalist David Rieff remembers caring for his mother, writer Susan Sontag, during the nine months she suffered from Myelodyplastic Syndrome, or MDS, a ravaging and almost always fatal form of blood cancer. In life, Sontag had an absolute "hunger for truth"; in illness, this became incompatible with her hunger for life—what Rieff calls her "deep refusal of death itself." Sontag had beaten cancer twice before, but the bleak truth of MDS meant that this time she was almost certain to die. In such circumstances, asks Rieff, "is information, or knowing, power or is it cruelty?" He decided it was the latter, and chose to offer his mother reassurances rather than honesty. The guilt he has experienced as a result forms the pulse of the book. While the particulars of his struggle may be too narrow to interest all but true Sontag (or Rieff) aficionados, those who have cared for a terminally ill loved one may find consolation in Rieff's unsentimental admission—rare in our culture—that grief, rather than fading, often endures.Amanda Fortini

Poetry

Starsdown

Starsdown by Jasper Bernes. Cyberpunk lyric, high-speed spread-out cityscape, jaded adventure amid fashion-forward rubbish: Jasper Bernes' first book has all these dimensions and more. The West Coast poet and blogger places at the center of his volume a series of prose poems that follow the life of an outsider named Henry Halflife who makes one-of-a-kind art out of bank checks. Bernes circumnavigates Los Angeles (and the rarefied precincts of postmodernist theory) in wild, variable lines, discovering in parking lots, raves, hotels, and beaches—a panoply of SoCal foils for his restlessly associative, excitement-seeking mind. "In the sublight of weak states," he finds "A few/ Cars left over from the petroleum era but/ Mostly just slots in the form of our evacuated/ Categories/ Of understanding called Lawn Care and The Rights of Man." If you go out of your way to read William Gibson, John Ashbery, the productions of recent French cultural theory, or the details on any map of Los Angeles, you'll find work to remember here.— Stephen Burt

Nonfiction

Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web

Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web by Sarah Boxer, ed. In assembling an anthology of blogs, Boxer displays tastes so broad as to accommodate ingratiating cranks and cunning charmers alike, and she hurdles what would seem to be the chief problem of assembling such a book—the likelihood of its emerging as fresh as Best American Weather Reports 2007—by seizing upon posts with a literary bent and respectable half-life. You appreciate them as found objects or fine specimens of voice or essays that haven't grown irrelevant because they were, to their credit, irrelevant to begin with. The editor intends the 27 selections here as examples of "good bloggy writing," a prose form that would seem to borrow its techniques from diary entries, op-ed pieces, pamphlets, postcards, deep captions, barstool gripes, cocktail-napkin jottings, bathroom graffiti, and runaway footnotes. Especially runaway footnotes. Ultimate Blogs is most engaging when the authors see their blog hijacked by their topics. Twisty Faster, proprietor of I Blame the Patriarchy, gets swept up in an argument about the sexual politics of fellatio. Music critic Alex Ross, after briefly touching on the subject of intrasymphonic applause, keeps returning to the topic over the space of five weeks and several thousand words, ultimately noting that it has overrun his blog like a weed.— Troy Patterson

Texas Death Row

Texas Death Row by Bill Crawford, ed. When I cracked open Texas Death Row, I thought, oooh, I see, it's a catalog of all the folks who've been put to death there, not the kind of book you sit down and read cover-to-cover. Then, I sat down and read it cover-to-cover. Not only because I knew a few of the unfortunates who wound up "riding the needle" from my long-ago stint covering Texas prisons, but because it's impossible to turn away from this inch-by-inch indictment of a culture that would feed a man with a 7th-grade education enough food to kill him right before actually doing so, and call that justice. (And how could anyone choke down a last meal of "fifteen enchiladas, onion rings or fries, eight pieces of fried chicken, eight pieces of barbecue chicken, eight whole peppers, ten hard-shell tacos with plenty of meat, cheese, onions and sauce, four double-meat, double-cheese, double-bacon burgers, T-bone steak with A-1 sauce, and a pan of peach cobbler?" No idea, but nobody dies hungry in Huntsville.)

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