Spring books look at poverty, snoops, poker

  • By David L. Ulin Los Angeles Times
  • Thursday, March 27, 2014 4:38pm
  • Life

Spring is a great season for literature; the days get longer, which makes it seem as if there’s more time to read. So here are five new titles, which will be released soon.

“The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” by Matt Taibbi ($27): In his fifth book, Matt Taibbi uncovers what he calls “a bizarre statistical mystery” — the disparity between the rise of poverty in this country and the drop in rates of violent crime.

The reason? A new way of thinking about society, in which poverty has effectively been criminalized. Taibbi is a superior reporter who covered politics and finance for Rolling Stone before leaving earlier this year for First Look Media.

“This is a story,” he said, “that doesn’t need to be argued. You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself.”

“Can’t and Won’t: Stories” by Lydia Davis ($26): Drop everything and pick up Lydia Davis’ fifth collection of short stories — although to call these pieces stories is an approximation because her writing can’t be categorized.

From a single sentence (“Bloomington”) to nearly 30 pages (“The Letter to the Foundation”), the work here is elliptical, epigrammatic and yet always rooted in the world.

“Into how small a space the word judgment can be compressed,” she writes: “it must fit inside the brain of a ladybug as she, before my eyes, makes a decision.” Observation, drama, and (yes) compression — it’s all there, giving the most minor moments a kind of epic weight.

“Casebook: A Novel” by Mona Simpson ($25.95): Mona Simpson has always written movingly about young characters, from the protagonists of her early stories “Lawns” and “Approximations” to Ann in her debut novel “Anywhere But Here.”

That makes “Casebook” a return of sorts: narrated by a boy who begins spying on his parents, only to discover more about them, and the family, than he ever thought he would.

And yet, “Casebook” is a departure also, looser, edgier, with a vivid conditionality.

“I was a snoop,” her narrator, Miles Adler-Rich, tells us, “but a peculiar kind. I only discovered what I most didn’t want to know.”

“The Essential Ellen Willis,” edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz ($24.95): Ellen Willis is my role model: a music critic turned essayist and academic, who consistently challenged herself and her readers, framing engagement as both aesthetic and political stance.

Although she only published three books before her death in 2006 at 64, her influence lingers, as evidenced by the success of “Out of the Vinyl Deeps,” a posthumous selection of her rock criticism, released in 2011.

Now, there’s “The Essential Ellen Willis,” edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz. Gathering 53 career-spanning pieces, this is an act of reclamation, a reminder of what a piercing and brilliant writer Willis was.

“The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death” by Colson Whitehead ($24.95): Colson Whitehead’s “A Noble Hustle” brings to mind James McManus’ “Positively Fifth Street” — both writers, after all, entered the World Series of Poker as part of a reporting gig.

But whereas McManus ended up going deep in the tournament (he ultimately came away with close to a quarter-million dollars), Whitehead takes a more anthropological approach.

Growing out of an assignment for the website Grantland, “A Noble Hustle” is part memoir, part satire, part meditation on the fractured state of contemporary culture.

“I grabbed my hoodie,” Whitehead writes, “jabbed the pink flip-flop in the pocket, and staggered out of the Pavilion. Absent of dignity, full of shame.”

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