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Chicagoist's October Book Recommendations: An Unlikely Bunch

By Maggie Hellwig in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 17, 2012 6:00PM

The books of intrigue this October come from authors who would most likely disagree with each other on writing method. One would rather sacrifice sentimentality for fact, the other would like nothing more than to keep his reader's attention, and the last would probably find the first two laughable for their enthusiasm.

Back to Blood
Tom Wolfe

Back to Blood is Tom Wolfe's fourth novel of fiction. Wolfe is undoubtedly known best for his non-fiction (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for instance), but all of his writing shares an air of thoroughly researched journalism. In Back to Blood, his subject of investigation is the melting pot of Miami, FL. Nestor Camacho is an officer who, while patrolling the Biscayne Bay, taints his reputation by arresting a Cuban refugee. Despite the conflict he perseveres in his police work with a reporter named John Smith. Camacho and Smith uncover a fraud at the new art museum, its source tangled in the different subcultures and complexities of Miami.

Despite the seemingly impressive amount of research that went into Back to Blood, the reviewers thus far seem to think that fiction is no longer Wolfe's forte. Fans of the author's bombastic and fast-paced prose will probably not be disappointed. James Wood of The New Yorker, the gang at Publisher's Weekly, and even the description on the publisher's website admit that his larger-than-life style is still very much in-tact. Other than the praise for Wolfe's extravagant style, these reviews have been quite scathing. Wood, for instance, is distracted by Wolfe's attempt to report facts rather than convey poignancy; none of the characters seem to have original thoughts, nor does Wolfe depict racial conflicts as anything other than cliché or stereotypical. Similarly, Publisher's Weekly calls Back to Blood, "Louder than it is deep; more sensational than it is thought-provoking; less like Wolfe at his best, more like tabloid headlines recast as fiction." It will be interesting to hear more opinions on Wolfe's latest when it's released Oct. 23.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra is Robin Sloan's first novel, which budded from a 6,000-word story published in the Kindle Store in 2009. Following the 5,000 downloads of "Mr. Penumbra," the novella Annabel Scheme was also published. And so this Twitter manager, "media inventor," and author of smartphone app-manifesto called "Fish," began to expand "Mr. Penumbra" into a full-fledged novel. The premise of the book reflects Sloan's sentiments on technological and social media advancements. Sloan believes deeply that new media can compliment and inform older types of communication; vise versa--he also understands that the experience of reading a book can serve to better the function of a Kindle.

Clay Jannon, our unemployed digital designer and protagonist, takes a job at this 24-Hour Bookstore. He finds much to his confusion that the customers are always the same, and never seem to buy anything. He and his friend, a Google employee named Kat, uncover an ancient underground literary community and use their talents to help its members. NPR and The New York Times agree that there are obvious first-time blunders on Sloan's behalf. The novel reads as if the twists and turns were invented along the way, and theme is spelled out for the reader rather than permeating through the story. However, none of the reviewers seem to mind these mistakes. It seems that Sloan's fresh enthusiasm for all things—whether brand spanking new or covered in dust—makes this book worth anyone's time.

Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me: Robert Crumb Letters 1958-1977
Robert Crumb

Our next author is quite far from new to the publishing game, and indeed would not share Sloan's enthusiasm for all forms of media. The comic artist Robert Crumb, better known as R. Crumb or simply Crumb in Terry Zwigoff's documentary, served as inspiration for artists such as Daniels Clowes and Chris Ware. The creator of "Fritz the Cat," and "Mr. Natural," stirred up quite the controversy with his hyper-sexualized depictions of women and over-simplifications of minority features. Despite these hang-ups, he is often glorified for his satirical insight into American lifestyle.

Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me is as cynical and awkward as the title sounds. This newest edition of the book contains letters between Crumb and two of his close friends, spanning from his adolescence to early adulthood. Back in 2002, the A.V. Club informed readers that Life and Times provided a more informed view of Crumb's impact on underground comics. However, in Vigor the exact words of Crumb allow us to get a more personal picture, even an immature one, of the artist. More so, a technique of his that isn't often emphasized—Crumb's writing—is on display, with his sketches taking second place. The book should be an entirely different kind of perception of the man not only as an artist,but as a teenager clumsily evolving into a human being.