One of these days when Hollywood needs a break from the superhero genre, they're going to make comic book movies out of Greg Rucka's fantastic Queen & Country books. Based on a small British MI6 team of agents, Queen & Country might be the most realistic spy series done in the last 20 years: The agents spend most of their time sitting around, waiting for something to happen. When missions do crop up, they spend most of their time observing. Often, whatever the situation is, it turns out to be a false alarm. And the biggest obstacles are almost always internal: fights between Her Majesty's different ministers and bureaucrats. Yet somehow Rucka makes it all grippingly awesome. Don't blame me when you wind up addicted.
One of the great perks of our business (and there are oh so many!) are the free books. They come in by the boatload—galleys, hardcovers, and paperbacks. They share the bookshelf alongside other books no longer wanted by our staff—quite understandable because if you didn’t occasionally shed books, your office would eventually resemble the hanger at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
That said, one of my colleagues has made a terrible mistake in discarding his copy of Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi—a first edition paperback no less! Without a doubt Pileggi’s finest work, Wise Guy is the book that turned into the movie Goodfellas. It chronicles the journey of Henry Hill who always wanted to be a gangster and thrived in the underworld until his arrest and fateful decision to work with the FBI. Of course his friends were probably going to kill him for selling drugs, which was forbidden. At the same time Hill could not afford to live his lavish lifestyle if not for that supplemental narcotics income. What a conundrum!
I remember devouring this book in the summer of 1992. I couldn’t get enough of it or the movie. The best thing about Wise Guy is how it clarified Goodfellas, filling in the blanks and revealing differences between the two. It’s never mentioned in Goodfellas but Hill was a member of the Luchese crime family. And Tommy’s murder was not at the hands of his own associates but rather at the hands of the Gambinos, specifically John Gotti’s crew—it was indeed revenge for the death of Billy Batts, another member of the Gambino family. And why does Jimmy the Gent hate Morrie the wig salesman so much? That’s explained, too, along with a detailed section on the Lufthansa heist.
If you find this at all intriguing, read the book. As for the discarded copy I stumbled upon, if I ever find out who left it on our shelf, I’ll take him for a ride and make sure there’s a shovel and a bag of limestone in the trunk.
I'm working on a profile of Senator Rand Paul for the magazine. For research, I've spent a lot of time with books by and about libertarians. There's none I like better than Brian Doherty's Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. Doherty's huge book is entertaining and informative in equal measure. You learn to distinguish your Ayn Rand from your Murray Rothbard in record time. And while I'm not a libertarian, I've gained a new appreciation for them while reading Radicals for Capitalism.
Easily one of the funniest books I've read in eons is Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist. It's a pitch perfect satire of the publishing industry -- at one point in the novel Hely goes so far as to reproduce an entire fake New York Times bestsellers list where his mocking of publishing trends is uncomfortably true to life. (The number four non-fiction book is Needs Improvement in All Areas, "an attack on President George W. Bush, written by his former kindergarten teacher.") The novel tells the story of a guy who deliberately sets out to manipulate the obvious formulaic conventions of the book market to make money and get back at his ex-girlfriend. He studies the market trends carefully and ends up (insincerely) writing a bestseller called The Tornado Ashes Club, while skewering everything from author readings to what happens when Hollywood purchases the publishing rights. Hely abandons his cutting satiric vision for a hollow redemptive ending, but the book's so funny you'll forgive him.