W. B. Belcher

8 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: February 2016

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune By W. B. Belcher

Daniel Ford: “I wrote this book for you!” W.B. Belcher said to me during my interview with the author. Boy, he wasn’t kidding. A reclusive folk music icon with a shadowy past, a writer/musician yearning for a second chance, a tortured love story, and small town politics are all themes that hit me right where I live.

Belcher’s hero, Jack Wyeth, has exhausted all of his best friend’s good will and is about to be kicked out on his ass when he gets an opportunity to ghostwrite folk hero Eli Page’s life story. The job takes Jack to the small town of Galesville and the banks of the Battenkill River, where he’ll confront not only Eli’s deteriorating mental health, but also his own troubled backstory. Every sentence of this novel is strummed from the heart, and Belcher tees up questions every angsty creative type has considered (without providing anything but ephemeral answers, of course). 

“We’re all here for one thing,” Eli says to Jack, “to find a live connection and hold onto it until it bucks us off.”

Damn, that’s good stuff. I look forward to buying Belcher a beer when he comes to Cambridge in March and toasting the live connection he created with his memorable, earthy characters and heartfelt prose.

Ghettoside by Jill Levoy

Daniel: For lovers of true crime and current events, Jill Levoy’s Ghettoside is a must read. In fact, it should be required reading for all American citizens. Levoy lays out the grim statistics regarding black homicide in Los Angeles, and the U.S. as a whole, toward the beginning of the book, and then, through exceptional reporting, masterfully illuminates the startling numbers through the eyes of police officers and victims’ families in Southern Los Angeles. While Levoy frames the book around the murders of Dovon Harris and Bryant Tennelle, she never fails to put their deaths in broader context—revealing how urban communities actually operate and how the limited resources detectives operate with affect the way authorities police violent crime.

I couldn’t help but think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and David Simon’s “The Wire” while reading Levoy’s narrative. All have added to my understanding of an America I don’t know or quite accurately grasp. The issues of race, proper police procedures, and poverty should (and I hope will) be debated throughout the 2016 Presidential election, which makes Ghettoside all the more relevant.   

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa

Gary Almeter: It makes sense that the alluringly bright cover of Sunil Yapa’s debut novel features a blurb from Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin (a book that takes place in the midst of Philippe Petit's Aug. 7, 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center). Yapa's book also takes place in one, similarly chaotic day, this one on Nov. 30, 1999 amidst the WTO protests of Seattle. I think it must take ambition, creativity, and a little bit of experimentation to be able to create a novel that packs all its action into a single day. Think of James Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," Anne Tyler's road trip novel Breathing Lessons, and Ian McEwan's Saturday.

I could give a hoot about the WTO and delegates and international trade. And luckily one does not need to in order to love this book (which I did). Yapa has a great time (like McCann did with 1974) recreating the fear and tumult that was the latter half of 1999. Its opening line, "The match struck and sputtered," jolts us back to a time before vaping was king. The characters confront, avoid, bypass, stumble into, and battle with one another. Their problems are somehow simultaneously huge in the way they affect one another and minute in the face of the geopolitical issues being discussed in the hotel around which they congregate.

It was a far more tumultuous, and interesting, time than we might recall and Yapa renders it beautifully.

The Exploding Detective by John Swartzwelder

Sean Tuohy: John Swartzwelder's writing was the heart and soul of the “The Simpsons.” After leaving the world of television writing behind, he turned to novels. If you like peeing yourself or snapping a bone from laughing so hard then pick up this goofy, off-the- wall novel that features a mix of noir time travel, super heroes, and humor. This short (but really, really funny) book follows Frank Burly, a dim witted private detective, who bumbles through his fight against crime with an exploding jet pack.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Daniel: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection. I know there is an equally well-regarded HBO mini-series based on the book that I also haven’t consumed. After reading Strout’s recently published novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, I’m going to have to recalibrate my reading/viewing priorities.

Lucy Barton lands in a New York City hospital for nine weeks following what should have been a routine surgery. Her harried husband is taking care of her daughters as she struggles to recover. She awakes one day to find her mother at the edge of her bed. The two have never had the best relationship, and her mother’s visit slowly reveals the depths of Barton’s complex family life.

I’m a sucker for books that play with the idea of memory and family drama, so I clung to all the foggy reminiscences the two characters had in the short time they were together. Despite being incredibly short, the novel packs an emotional punch that will linger on your cheek well after you’ve moved on to your next read.   

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti

Daniel: The last couple of years have seen really quality fiction tackle the wars in the Middle East, including Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Eliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife. Author Matthew Hefti’s sensational debut novel belongs right alongside those works.

Hefti novel employs an innovative structure that gives the story a deeply personal foundation. Levi, the book’s main character, is writing a letter to his lifelong friend Nick to say goodbye before he kills himself. Inspired by 9/11, Levi and Nick both served in the armed forces overseas, and were wounded both physically and emotionally. The two friends bond, and are drawn into conflict, over military snafus, the same woman (the deliciously broken Eris), and coming home to a world much different (for them) than the one they left.  

Hefti’s narrative (which is interrupted by Levi’s second-person insights) is incredibly well paced. There were times I had to catch my breath because I was living and dying with each sentence. Hefti beautifully captures the struggles our veterans face in coming home from the fog of war. As I said earlier, life is different for them, while it’s been the same for everyone else. It’s clear that Hefti fell in love with all of his characters because he provides them with such depth and emotion, which, of course, will make you fall in love with them just as hard.    

I also have to respect any author who inserts himself into his own novel. During our podcast interview, Hefti said, “Levi is all Levi and Nick is all Nick,” but he couldn’t resist adding himself into a tense scene in the middle of the book. As a fellow writer, I cheered out loud when I read it. The writing process (especially when dealing with a heavy topic like this) can be drudgery, so I applaud any effort to make it as fun as possible.

Massacre on the Merrimack by Jay Atkinson

Daniel: Hannah Duston…what a badass! Jay Atkinson’s nonfiction narrative follows a 39-year-old settlers’ wife who is captured by Indians—who smash her week-old child up against a tree—and ends up dealing out brutal justice to her captors in order to escape back to what’s left of her family. Atkinson, a Massachusetts native, intersperses New England’s rich history between Duston’s harrowing plight, which gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the political and sociological issues facing early North American settlers. Readers are also sure to love Goodwife Bradley, whose story is featured in the chapter named “The Fate of Other Captives.” She’s every bit as badass as Duston, and showcases the same bravery and flintiness exhibited by Atkinson’s main heroine. Danger, sacrifice, and death surrounded colonists during that era, but Duston and the other woman show the type of steely resolve necessary to hack out a living in a wild, ungoverned country. In Atkinson’s own words, “As a storyteller, what’s not to like?”

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

Daniel: I honestly can’t remember what it was like watching my favorite television shows without reading Alan Sepinwall’s reviews and recaps (which can be found on HitFix.com). I held off on buying earlier editions of The Revolution Was Televised in anticipation of the author’s additional thoughts on the "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" finales. Stephanie Schaefer smartly chose the book as my birthday present last month, and I finished it in two days. The Revolution Was Televised features interviews with a variety of showrunners—including the three Davids (Chase, Milch, and Simon), Vince Gilligan, and Matthew Weiner—analysis on some of my favorite shows (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “The Sopranos,” and “Friday Night Lights”), and Sepinwall’s breezy, charming writing style. I also gained an appreciation for shows I didn’t necessarily enjoy (“Lost” and “24”), and found new shows to explore once I’m done binge-watching “The Americans” (“The Shield” and “Oz). This book is essential reading for television junkies.