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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
by James M. Cain
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
116 pages

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This is an almost archetypal example of hard-boiled fiction. You have a desperate man and an amoral woman, and when they get together they’re much worse than they could be on their own.  They commit a crime and think are free from it, but there’s no getting away from the things you’ve done, and they just sink deeper into trouble.  What looked like getting away with murder was only cosmic justice delayed for a brief moment filled with the apprehension of doom.

John Garfield and Lana Turner in 1946 film adaptation

The narrator is Frank Chambers, a drifter in his twenties who shows up penniless at a small, isolated gas station and restaurant run by a Greek immigrant who asks him to stay on as a helper.

The Greek has a younger wife, Cora, who is resentful of her marriage, where she feels she traded away too much of what else life has to offer for her current dull stability and security.  Frank and Cora begin an intense affair, and soon decide they need Cora’s husband out of the way if they want to have a future together.

The 1981 adaptation: lovely photography, but somehow less effective

This book has two notable Hollywood adaptations, in 1946 in a film-noir styled effort, which I think is the better of the two, and a production from 1981 starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, which tried to capture more of the grittiness and sexuality of the book, but I didn’t find quite as effective.  Reading this novel, I also realized what a strong influence it was on the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, especially in the death-row confessional framing story, and the theme of fate coming back around if you avoid it the first time.

This was the first I’ve read by Cain, but it was great, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his works.  Dark, nasty, and wonderful.

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The End of the Affair (1951)
by Graham Greene
Penguin Books
187 pages

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The world of Graham Greene, to me, is one where everything is bathed in a slightly sickly green shade of light. A piece of your clothing has had a bit of vomit merely brushed off with a few sweeps of the hand, and wherever you step your shoes sink into the mud until the cold water seeps in and starts to wet the bottoms of your socks.

In this, one his most famous novels, Greene used one of his own affairs as the raw material to write a novel that probes love, hate, and the presence (or lack thereof) of God in each of our lives.

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Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s (2009)
by Tim Page
Doubleday
208 pages

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This book should be called Tim Page’s Pretty Great Life.

There’s an assumption with memoirs or biographies, especially ones that refer to a difficult condition in the subtitle, that there will be a significant dosage of mess-ups, misery and misfortune. It was therefore in an odd way depressing to finish reading this autobiography and realize that the author has been quite fortunate, and carved out a decent life for himself.

Page was passionate about classical and opera music at an early age.

Page grew up in a family which was supportive financially, emotionally, and socially.  He was immersed in excellent music, literature, and other rich cultural products at an early age, and was already successful enough as a child to be covered by Time magazine (though he ended up being edited out of the published feature).  As a young man he encountered mentors that aided in his development, and he quickly found a niche in which he could make a living (and eventually earn a Pulitzer prize for his writing on classical music).  Not only has not everyone been so fortunate, but I think it can be easily said that Page’s life has been made much easier by privileges not extended to the majority of humanity.

Of course there are some darker moments here too.  Use and abuse of drugs in his teen years. Appearing to be a genius to most people, yet being so disinterested in High School that he flunked many courses and eventually dropped out. A passenger in the crash of an overloaded pickup truck of teenagers on a weekend binge that resulted in several deaths. And the endless social awkwardness and difficulty in connecting with other people that comes as a part of Asperger’s syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in his forties.

If the above sounds like a slam, this is actually one of the best books that I’ve read in quite a while, and I have a hard time imagining that there will be many other books published that can compete with this one in evoking the essential spirit of growing up in the second half of the twentieth century.  Though I’m much younger than the author, I think he captured something essential about trying to survive and find yourself in a world both so permissive and so difficult and hostile.  I like how he appreciated both classical and rock music in a similar way, on its own merits.

Some people might protest that there’s not enough personal material here, such as information on interactions with his siblings, or the women in his life, or his children, but somehow I don’t think that being exhaustive is a necessary element for an autobiography.  Bob Dylan’s autobiography similarly left unmentioned much of his personal life, but sometimes those things just aren’t what the author wants to talk about. This book doesn’t scale incredible artistic highs, or take a steely look at things from every angle, but if you take it for what it is–in the same way it’s best to take people–it’s a great and inspiring read.

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