Wednesday, August 24, 2011

President Obama likes a bit of crime fiction - good or bad?

The media is all atwitter today with news of United States President Barack Obama's summer reading list - with plenty of comment about both the books on the list, and those that aren't. For those who like crime fiction, the most notable inclusion is of course THE BAYOU TRILOGY by Daniel Woodrell, who also wrote WINTER'S BONE (which was turned into a very good film, from what I've heard). Personally, I think it's great that the President is enjoying some high quality crime fiction. Others, of course, have their opinions too - and many aren't so impressed. As reported by CNN, the books on the President's fiction-heavy summer reading list while he and his family are vacationing at Martha's Vineyard are:
  • "The Bayou Trilogy," by Daniel Woodrell -- A collection of crime stories set in Louisiana
  • "Rodin's Debutante," by Ward Just -- A coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of Chicago
  • "Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese -- A book about the lives of twin boys born in Ethiopia
  • "To the End of the Land," by David Grossman -- A novel, set in Israel, about a mother's grief during war
  • "The Warmth of Other Suns," by Isabel Wilkerson -- A nonfiction book that outlines the migration of African-Americans out of the South
I actually saw THE BAYOU TRILOGY in a bookstore in New Zealand the other day, and was intrigued by it. It's an omnibus reprinting of three of Woodrell's novels from the 1980s and 1990s (similar to what New Zealand's Paul Thomas did last year with the omnibus re-release of his THE IHAKA TRILOGY) - UNDER THE BRIGHT LIGHTS, MUSCLE FOR THE WING, and THE ONES YOU DO. Described by some as "rural noir", it certainly sounds interesting. Woodrell himself has been described as a "backcountry Shakespeare".

I really enjoy John Hart and James Lee Burke's multi-faceted tales set in the rural areas of the American South, so I think I will have to accelerate Woodrell up towards the top of my TBR pile. Here's a blurb about THE BAYOU TRILOGY:

A hard-hitting, critically acclaimed trilogy of crime novels from an author about whom New York magazine has written, “What people say about Cormac McCarthy … goes double for Woodrell. Possibly more.”

In the parish of St. Bruno, sex is easy, corruption festers, and double-dealing is a way of life. Rene Shade is an uncompromising detective swimming in a sea of filth.

As Shade takes on hit men, porn kings, a gang of ex-cons, and the ghosts of his own checkered past, Woodrell’s three seminal novels pit long-entrenched criminals against the hard line of the law, brother against brother, and two vastly different sons against a long-absent father.

The Bayou Trilogy highlights the origins of a one-of-a-kind author, a writer who for over two decades has created an indelible representation of the shadows of the rural American experience and has steadily built a devoted following among crime fiction aficionados and esteemed literary critics alike.

It will be interesting to see if sales of THE BAYOU TRILOGY jump after today's news about the President's summer reading list. I understand other crime novels or crime writers highlighted by previous Presidents (such as Clinton, who was also a keen reader) certainly got a 'jump' in notoriety and sales.

Of course, not everyone is happy about the President reading fiction on his vacation, or crime fiction in particular - regardless of the widespread literary acclaim for Woodrell as an author. The Conservative-leaning (being euphemistic) National Review certainly impled that genre fiction was too trashy for Presidents to read, or at least for them to admit they read. Great - now we have literary pretentiousness meeting political bias; what fantastic bedfellows!

Said conservative commentator Tevi Troy, "Beyond the issue of fiction vs. nonfiction, there is also the question of genre. The Bayou Trilogy has received excellent reviews, but it is a mystery series. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, not every presidential reading selection is worth revealing to the public. Bill Clinton, for example, used to love mysteries, but he did not advertise the titles of what he once called 'my little cheap thrills outlet'." So there is nothing wrong with reading mysteries, as long as you don't tell people about it. Hmmm....

What do you think of the President's reading choices? Is it good or bad that he's open to a bit of highly-acclaimed crime fiction? Have you read any of Woodrell's 'rural noir'? Comments welcome.


  1. Woodrell is an awesomely talented writer. Good choice made by (or for) Obama. Bill Clinton also loves crime fiction and often made similar summer news. I'm sure the National Review disapproved of that, too. G.W. Bush was generally seen with books that sounded weighty and presidential, but of course no one knows if they were ever read (or if, indeed, Clinton or Obama will read the books they've been seen with). It has become an annual past time - though I don't recall any president pre-Clinton having his summer reading written up in the paper.

  2. Craig - I think it's a good thing when leaders model reading, especially if they model the reading of high quality books like Woodrall's. It's good for the genre when high-profile people enjoy well-written examples of it.

  3. Woodrell's particular brand of "Ozark noir" caused quite a stir in the UK in the early 1990s, when he was tipped as the next big thing and up there with Charles Willeford, James Crumley and even Elmore Leonard. Sadly, he seems to have slipped off the radar here recently, but his Civil War novel WOE TO LIVE ON (filmed by Ang Lee as Ride With The Devil) is a minor classic and I think far superior to James Lee Burke's Civil War homage White Doves At Morning.
    As to Presidents: Kennedy was an Ian Fleming fan and Clinton always said Walter Mosley was his favourite writer.
    In England the Crime Writers Association used to send all the books on the annual "Daggers" short list to the Queen, for the enjoyment of the Royal Family on their Christmas holiday at Sandringham. Who knows how many ever got read?

  4. I think it's great that Pres. Obama picked the books that he did, crime fiction and other fiction and non-fiction on topics in which he's interested.

    The right wing will find everything to pick on Obama about, including his vacation time and location. G.W. Bush took many more vacations and since he has a ranch in Texas, he had a location.

    He also didn't read. That was kind of known.

    Pres. Clinton helped popularize Walter Mosley's books, I believe.

    And I think Obama has a lot more problems to deal with than what his choice of books are. Glad he's reading good books of all types. But unemployment and lack of health care are huge problems the right wing doesn't want to deal with, and, of course, the economy in general. So they'll pick on whatever they can find -- a choice of summer reading indeed!