Below please find another edition of In the Mail, a quick look at books that have found their way to my doorstep.
Call it a blast from the past. Pollster and spin doctor Jonah Eastman, newly resigned from his post as White House press secretary, is thrown for a loop when a beautiful woman turns up bearing a letter that can only be delivered to him. Claudine Polk, a lovely memory from his teenage years, needs Jonah’s help: the family plantation is about to be taken over by unscrupulous people, and only Jonah, with his network of connections on both sides of the law (he was raised by his mobster grandfather), can save the day. The Eastman series continues to combine a superb premise (evoking the political thrillers of the late, great Ross Thomas) with a nice comic touch and a fine sense of the absurd (suggesting both Westlake and Hiaasen). Keep your eye on this series, and if you haven’t read the earlier installments, now’s the time to catch up.
From Publishers Weekly
Michael Jacobs is an independent filmmaker in New York City whose just-released third film flopped like the first two. With no money and no prospects, he agrees to help fair-weather friend Sebby Laslo fix horse races. Unsurprisingly, the plan fails in spectacular fashion, and Michael, Sebby and Thierry, the jockey they’re in cahoots with, end up on the wrong side of some very bad dudes. Loans from Michael’s father and Beck Trier, a successful indie director Michael wishes was his girlfriend, aren’t enough to pay off mounting debts, and when the surefire score the trio cooks up to balance the books backfires, bookies and bagmen take off the kid gloves. Dixon, an editor at the New York Times, writes with convincing detail and lays on thick the bookmaking and horse-racing argot (“a clear field of three for win, place, and show, with Thierry on the sure-bet and Vato on the placer”), though Michael’s actions at the climax are more a function of plot than character.
William St Clair comes at this vast and grim subject from a new angle, through the history of a single building. Cape Coast Castle, in what is now Ghana, was the most important African base for Britain’s slave traders. From 1664 to 1807, it was the trade’s main headquarters – so far as any place could claim that title. Yet the Castle’s own records had barely been touched by historians before St Clair dug into them. What he builds from those archives, from studying the physical transformations of the buildings themselves, and from deft if sometimes too-brief investigation of wider contexts, is a powerful, poignant, often startling story. It is also one with some disconcerting gaps.
One often-forgotten aspect of twentieth-century literature is the extent to which Russian writers participated in the more extreme manifestations of the avant-garde. Futurists and constructivists abounded in pre-Stalinist Russia, and only gradually did such labels become terms warranting prison or professional oblivion. One of the last members of the Russian avant-garde was Kharms (1905-42), a Leningrader who combined a taste for the absurd with a mastery of the miniature. He wrote tiny “incidences,” which are absurdist parables in which it seems that Kafka and a circus clown collaborate in commenting on daily life in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Kharms’ habit of ironic subversion attracted official notice early. He was first arrested in 1931, years before the great purges. Released in 1932 but rearrested in 1941, he starved to death in a Leningrad prison hospital during the siege. Most of the writings collected here were written in secret during the 1930s. They reflect the hunger, hopelessness, and constant fear of arrest of their time and are always delivered with a deadpan humor impossible to quite describe. They constitute a puzzlingly beautiful monument to a minor master.