By Lawrence A. Armour, contributor
FORTUNE -- In the spirit of the season, here's a selection of literary stocking stuffers for you or the bookworm in your life. They include two terrific thrillers, a definitive short story collection, and a pair of engrossing books about biking.
Cops, hoods, and spies
Ben Affleck, who knows a good book when he sees one, is reportedly set to write, direct, produce, and star in the film version of Dennis Lehane's novel Live By Night. If the reports are true, he's got himself another winner.
The book follows a bouncing ball named Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a prominent member of the Boston police department. Joe takes off in a different direction, first mastering the art of petty street crime, then moving on to serious big-time capers as the right-hand man of a local mob boss. His journey is interrupted by a stretch in the Charleston penitentiary, where he learns a few painful facts of life. It's also where he meets his next boss, a Mafia capo who sends him to Tampa to take charge of a fledgling bootlegging operation.
It's the mid-1920s. Prohibition is the law of the land, and that means distilleries in the basement of every deserted factory building, speakeasies on every block, gangsters patrolling the streets with blazing tommy guns and damaged cops directing traffic at every corner. As Lehane guides us through a fascinating history lesson bathed in noir, we meet rumrunners and cigar-makers, a string of fascinating women, evangelists, Ku Klux Klansmen, twisted lawmen and gangsters who can be loyal friends one minute, cruel enemies the next.
It's an exciting, cinematic story, similar in that sense to Lehane's Mystic River, which gave Clint Eastwood some wonderful movie material, and Shutter Island, which Martin Scorsese turned into a gem. Despite the fact that Joe Coughlin lives on the wrong side of the street, he is a full-fledged star who has what it takes to win our trust and affection. He falls in love not once but twice, gets the bootlegging operation in Tampa up and running, works out a deal with Lucky Luciano in New York, and winds up building a baseball field for kids in pre-Castro Cuba.
Chris Pavone's first novel The Expats is everything a page-turner should be. Kate Moore's husband Dexter, a low-key computer geek, has been hired to set up a security system for a bank in the grand duchy of Luxembourg. It's a high-paying position that would give Kate, Dexter and the boys an excuse to leave dull, old Washington, D.C. and travel and do all the things they've always talked about.
It also means that Kate will have to give up her job, and that's a bit of a problem. Unbeknownst to Dexter and the kids, Kate has spent the last 15 years as a CIA operative. But hold on a minute. Dexter also has a secret life he doesn't share with most people, including Kate, and it turns out that most of the expats they hang with in Luxembourg aren't exactly what they seem to be either.
A little contrived, sure, but it works. One reason: Pavone knows the territory, thanks to the fact that his wife took a job in Luxembourg a few years ago, providing the family with a real-time life as expats and giving Pavone the opportunity to travel and soak up the nuances of the Alps, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris, and other European locations that play key roles in the book. A second reason: Before he turned to a life of crime writing, Pavone edited cookbooks for a living, and he clearly learned how to blend disparate ingredients into the multilayers needed to make a suspenseful thriller.
The PR campaign for The Expats relies heavily on phrases like "non-stop action," "espionage thriller" and "layers of deceit," all of which are on target. We know at the start that Kate's a CIA operative, but it takes a while before we discover she's a trained killer who has a mind-blowing secret she's never shared with anyone. Dexter, whose job takes him all over the Continent, has his own set of mysterious secrets, and what about those FBI agents who seem to be following anything but the straight and narrow?
The Expats is a little over the top at points. It's filled with time and place changes that demand your attention and developments that require you to suspend belief every now and then, but that's the price you pay for a grabber of a spy novel that touches all the cloak-and-dagger bases and is exceptionally hard to put down. Ben Affleck may be hard at work on Live By Night, but word is that CBS Films is doing all it can to bring The Expats to the big screen ASAP. Good luck to both.
Short Stories for Everyone
The Oxford Book of American Short Stories has lots going for it, including Joyce Carol Oates, who contributed to and edited both this edition and the original, which was published in 1992. This time around, Oates says she was "pleased to discover virtually unknown yet fascinating work by certain classic American writers." That means Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," which appeared in the first edition, has been replaced by "Hills Like White Elephants," a lesser-known story, published in 1927, that consists almost entirely of a conversation between a man and a women at a train station in Spain, talking in the lean, staccato-like manner that became Hemingway's trademark and a style hundreds of others would copy.
Oates also replaced older stories by John Cheever and Pinckney Benedict with newer ones. She totally eliminated the work of 15 other writers, but made up for the deletions with 17 new faces, including Junot Diaz, who was new to me but not to the editors at The New Yorker and the Pulitzer Prize committee. In addition to a great short story called "Edison, New Jersey," Diaz leaves us with a message that some of us have learned the hard way: "A writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing he does shows signs of promise, he keeps writing anyway."
Designed as a sweeping survey that touches the appropriate literary bases, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories is all that and more. It's the kind of book you can dip into and out of at will, a fun read that includes short but meaningful background on the authors. It contains 59 stories in all, including contributions from Raymond Carver, Samuel Clemens, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Washington Irving, Bernard Malamud, Herman Melville and Edith Wharton, along with Stephen King, Annie Proulx, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
Cycle Chic contains 368 photographs of people and their bicycles. I ran across it in the bookstore at the New York Botanical Garden, and the fact that it opens with a photo of a lovely young cyclist with long hair, long legs, and a short skirt probably had something to do with its attraction, but that was just for starters.
In addition to young ladies, a large number of the photos -- they're actually snapshots -- are of men and boys, kids and toddlers, mothers with babies, couples on two-seater bikes, bikers with dogs in their baskets, and loads of other variations. Most of the photos were taken by Mikael Colville-Andersen, founder of a fashion blog called Copenhagen Cycle Chic, so the bikers tend to be well dressed. Because the pictures come from all parts of the world, the book doubles as a nice travelogue. But the fact that the photos are grouped by theme provides the real take-away: Regardless of where they live and bike, people tend to look and act pretty much alike.
Here's another bike-themed stocking stuffer: Where To Bike New York City, by J.P. Partland. It's part of a series of guidebooks designed to help bike riders find the most picturesque ways around various cities throughout the world. The author is a native New Yorker, lives to bike, and knows the best ways to get from here to there on two wheels.
"By the time I got around to writing this book," Partland says in the introduction, "I had seen both the sunrise and sunset from the saddle while cruising over the Brooklyn Bridge. I had circumnavigated Manhattan, toured the Bronx, made my way through Queens and Long Island, and discovered countless routes around northern New Jersey."
The book contains a section of basics that spell out the ground rules of safe biking. It goes into equipment, the key things you need to know about bikes and the important things to do before you take off. Most important, it contains maps and detailed instructions for 58 specific trips that uncover "the incredible diversity in architecture, food, people, old stuff, new stuff and arcane stuff that can be found in the city." The book is a great resource for bikers. It's an equally valuable tool for the less adventuresome among us who like to do our exploring by foot.
Our Weekly read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. Lawrence A. Armour is deputy editor of custom content for Fortune, Time, Money, and Sports Illustrated.
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