25 June 2011

Book Reviews: Ladies & Gentlemen AND The Wettest County in the World

Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross.  I never read Ross's first book, the highly acclaimed Mr. Peanut, but I knew enough of it to expect a few dark twists in this new collection of short stories and I was not disappointed.  The titular ladies are mostly non-existent; instead these stories are populated with so-called gentlemen who are up to their chinny-chin-chin hairs with misapplied expectations.  The stories are quite good and just varied enough to feel like you're getting something a little different each time around while still getting a sense of unification through tone and theme.  One throwaway detail that caught my eye and just might catch the eye of some of my Caribbeanophile readers is that the narrator of "In the Basement" recalls with a sense of dismay the private island where a former friend honeymooned: "every couple had an open air hut and put up a flag when they wanted a meal, how the owner of the resort bred yellow Labs that swam in the surf and ran free in honey-colored packs." Yes, that is the island of Petit St. Vincent, a private island resort in the Grenadines that has long captured my imagination. When I make my millions as a bookseller, that will be one of the first places I visit. 

Ladies & Gentlemen is published this month by Knopf and I received an advance reading copy at my request from my Random House sales reps. 

The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant is a book that straddles the line between history and fiction.  It's the book that my husband asked me to read for Christmas this past year, so it was the one book that guaranteed a coveted spot in my luggage for vacation.  (NB: every year for Christmas, my husband and I give the gift to each other of reading one book of the other's choosing.  It started out as a way for me to get him to read Harry Potter many years ago, but it has since become one of our most beloved traditions.) At any rate, this is the story of Franklin County, Virginia, during the time of prohibition and after, which according to Sherwood Anderson had more illicit liquor stills per capita than anyplace else in the US. The author tells the story of his own grandfather, Jack Bondurant, and his great uncles who were as famed in the first third of the 20th century for their brutality as they were for their liquor.  Sherwood Anderson, who did in fact cover several legal trials during the 1930s in that part of the world, shows up as a character in this self-described "novel based on a true story."  Matt Bondurant is, along with James Carlos Blake and Tom Franklin, one of the literary heirs of Cormac McCarthy, flinching neither from the violence nor the hardships that shaped these people's lives. 

This is a very good novel but it's not for those looking for a light read.  Despite my admiration for the works of Blake, Franklin and McCarthy, there were times I had to set this book aside, dipping into other books when this one became a little too intense for comfort.  There is some beauty to Bondurant's writing, but mostly it is of a prose style that serves the story: straightforward, indifferent to the reader's reaction.  One passage I would like to share is this description, near the end, of the kind of liquor the Bondurant boys cooked up in their hidden hillside stills:

"Pure corn whiskey comes at you like a knifing, Cricket Pate had told Jack once: point first and hot all the way down…A shiner's stock was made from the purest ingredients, the finest alcohol you could make, its taste and resulting effect unlike anything else in the world. A few ounces and even the hardest backwoods drinkers…felt it deep in their bones, as if something sucked the marrow out and blew in white fire. You opened your eyes again and the angles sharpened on things, the trees and sunlight comping together, the thunderheads to the north rolling with impotent fury; a man curled his hand and felt the steely power in his fingers, the dynamic strength in his legs, the hills shrinking before him, and he was filled with what can only be described as the infinitely possible."


  1. Emily, I so envy a fast reader! I am slow and plodding and therefore read so much less than you or a lot of people. If I could have one of me that could just read, life would truly be heaven. Thanks for your reviews and for stopping my A Camp Host's Meanderings when you have a few seconds!

  2. Interestingly enough, this post with the two book reviews has generated more spam than all of my other blogposts combined. My guess is that I should not have combined a book with "ladies" in the title with one that includes "wettest." I feel a little bit foolish now!

  3. Yeah, I could see how that would generate some bots!


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