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January 23, 2009

Book Notes - Josh Bazell ("Beat the Reaper")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Josh Bazell's debut novel, Beat the Reaper, has been on my radar for years. I first heard of the book when Littlle, Brown bought the North American rights in 2007, then the wonderful trailer for the novel popped up online, and I recently read that the forthcoming film adaptation will star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Beat the Reaper lives up to its considerable hype. Fast-moving, violent and surprisingly thoughtful, Bazell's debut novel is even charming at times, especially the protagonist, a hitman turned intern. Peter Brown has done many bad things, but his introspective nature shares his surprising moral compass clearly and often endears compassion from the reader. The book's humor combined with its quick pace made Beat the Reaper one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Beat the Reaper is a hypochondriac’s nightmare but a reader’s dream. After I gulped down the doctor’s story, my pulse was racing so fast I didn’t know whether to recommend his outrageous first novel or sue for malpractice. Bazell has sutured together Alan Alda's Capt. Hawkeye and James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, and so long as he keeps everything operating fast enough, it's too much fun and too much gore to take your eyes off the page. Beware the risk of dependency."

In his own words, here is Josh Bazell's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, Beat the Reaper:

I just came out with something of mafia epic, Beat the Reaper, so the use of music to evoke particular time periods has been on my mind.

When I was growing up in the 80s, a few people listened to good new music. like the Smiths or the Cure, a lot of people listened to top-40 putrescence, like Marillion or Phil Collins, and everybody listened to classic rock – which back then was 50s to 70s. Yet a movie made about the 80s today will almost always feature only “80s music” – which somehow means music like the Smiths or the Cure.

Part of this is practical. It’s hard to say “1985” by showing a kid in a 50s button-down short-sleeved shirt listening to Led Zeppelin on LP, even though that’s what you would have seen in, say, my room in 1985. And part of it is aesthetic, in that it’s a lot to ask of a song that it be top-40 now and also a classic later on. As the Bible says, the fashionable now will be the unfashionable soon, which may refer specifically to Mike and the Mechanics.

But as rare as it is to see someone attempt to portray an era’s true smear of music, it can be beautiful when it happens. I just read Ethan Coen (of Coen Brothers fame)’s short story “Destiny,” about a boxer caught between two feuding mobsters. It’s an awesome story, but the high point is when the protagonist has to watch a video of one of the mobsters’ wives at an orgy, and realizes the music in the background is “Fire and Rain,” by James Taylor. The story is from 1998, and “Fire and Rain” is from 1970, but somehow a song like “All My Life,” by K-Ci and JoJo – number 7 for 1998 – just wouldn’t seem as real.

Josh Bazell and Beat the Reaper links:

the book's website
the book's video trailer
excerpt from the book
Goodreads page for the book
LibraryThing page for the book

Bibliophile By the Sea review
Booking Mama review
BookLoons Reviews review
Bookmarks Magazine review
BookPage review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Curled Up With a Good Book review
The Drowning Machine review
Entertainment Weekly review
Fantasy Book Critic review
Fantasy Debut review
Flavorwire review
Fredericksburg Fee Lance-Star review
The Mystery Site review
New York Observer review
New York Times review
The Oregonian review
Powell's Books review
Reading With Monie review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Seattle Times review
USA Today review
Washington Post review

GalleyCat interview with the author
The Millions' Year in Reading essay by the author
Newsvine interview with the author
Today show interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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