Closing Time

Joe Queenan has forged a literary career out of caustic eviscerations of everything from baby boomers (Balsamic Dreams) to those tea-drinkers across the Atlantic pond (Queenan Country). He eats acid and vitriol for breakfast. This, after all, is the man who once called Meryl Streep a "monotonously talented humanoid." So it might come as a surprise that he has peeled away some of his tough hide to try his hand at a tender memoir about growing up in Philadelphia. Closing Time is, by turns, brutally honest, brutally funny, and, yes, filled with scathing attacks on the unworthy. This time, Queenan targets his father, an alcoholic ne'er-do-well whose inability to hold a steady job kept the family hovering near the poverty line for years. Queenan Senior -- "a miserable, deranged, booze-soaked failure" -- was also fond of whipping his four children with the buckle end of a belt. "He beat us often and he beat us savagely," Queenan writes. Not quite an American Angela's Ashes, Queenan's memoir nonetheless takes the reader on a sentimental journey through Philly housing projects, his Catholic school years, an eventual escape into the comfort of literature, and a late-in-life reckoning with his dying father. One flaw with Closing Time -- and it's a relatively minor one -- is that because sarcasm is inevitably laced with exaggeration, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between truth and hyperbole. Some of Queenan's funniest lines are balanced against the harsh realities of his circumstances: "Back in the Paleocene 1950s, when being fond of one's children had not yet come into vogue, poor people didn't seem to mind all that much if one of their offspring went flying out into traffic, as everyone had spares." When he's not tossing off punchlines, Queenan takes a sober look at what it means to grow up as a have-not: "Poverty is a tumor it takes a lifetime to excise, because poverty is lodged deep inside the brain in a dark corner where the once-poor don't want to look." Closing Time probes that shadowy nook of Queenan's past, and the result is a book that's as sad as it is funny.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.

The Promise of Hope

Killed last year in the infamous terror attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall, Kofi Awoonor was a national treasure in his native Ghana.  His career began in 1964 with Rediscovery, and this magnum opus serves as a tribute to his entire long journey charting his beloved nation's course through his accomplished poetry.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots

A pair of linked stories finds that, as translator Ann Jefferson relates, "[Pierre] Michon's great theme is the precarious balance between belief and imposture, and the way the greatest aspirations can be complicated by physical desire or the equally urgent desire for what he calls glory."