Contemporary Novels


City of a Thousand Gates

This amazing first novel is blanketed by a cloud of hopelessness that makes it impossible for its huge cast of characters—or for the reader—to take a long view of anything. And that’s as it should be, because this is a realistic novel set in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Israeli settlements in the present moment. Sacks’s ambition is to cram as many sides of the story as she can into 379 pages, and she succeeds spectacularly.

The plot centers on an explosion at the Tunnels Checkpoint outside Bethlehem. A number of our viewpoint characters are there, including: Mai, a young Palestinian woman studying at Bethlehem University; Ori, an Israeli soldier; and Vera, a German freelance photographer. Against her better judgment, Mai pulls a seriously injured Ori from the rubble, helps him to an Israeli ambulance, and then runs away. Unknown to her, Vera has photographed the iconic moment, which immediately goes viral with the caption, “This is what hope looks like.”

Of course the caption proves ironic. Mai immediately regrets her kindness and would take it back if she could (not least because most of her fellow Palestinians would happily murder her for it). Ori derides her, joking about her with his friends. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is not a problem that can be fixed by a futile gesture and a wishful slogan; even if the will to fix it existed.

Mai, Ori, and Vera are three of maybe two dozen viewpoint characters, all of whom we come to know intimately (and sometimes biblically). There’s a lot of sex in this book (most of it, interestingly, viewed in retrospect), tying into recurring themes of possession and the violation of boundaries. Who actually “owns” the West Bank? Why does one of the characters get such an erotic charge when her lover whispers “You’re mine” during sex? Time after time we see people penetrating borders and crossing lines, both cartographic and ethical.

On the first page we meet a vulnerable young Palestinian man in Israel, in the wrong place without the right papers. (Opening line: “Hamid is fucked.”) We see the naïveté of the Jewish-American woman raising her newborn daughter with her Israeli husband in Palestine. The isolation of the only Palestinian on an Israeli professional futbol team. The hopes and struggles of their mothers and fathers and siblings and friends. The texture of their daily lives, rendered in crystalline prose:

They drove down from the hospital campus, through the shuttered shops of the village, down past the Mount of Olives, past the unforgiving settlement block there, past the Israeli flag the size of a dump truck, past the silent graves like teeth in the moonlight.

If the novel is ultimately depressing, it is far from grim. Sacks is wonderful at capturing the many dialects of Jerusalem, and not above having a little fun with them:

He wrote down the antiquated Hebrew phrases he heard the [Holocaust] survivors use, the ones still struggling not to speak Yiddish. They spoke like Moses. “And I spake unto the taxi driver, saying, ‘Lo! Do you take me for a proletariat that you have tithed me thusly?’”

Other than a few instances where the tone strays from compassion into satire, like with the liberal US academic blind to her own racism, or Vera’s descent into self-loathing, the characters feel solid and real and motivated by everyday human concerns. Sacks’s love for them is palpable.

To say there are no easy answers here is an understatement. There are no answers at all, except maybe for this one: the best literature— like CITY OF A THOUSAND GATES—opens our hearts as well as our minds, lets us find our own reflections in those blanketing clouds.

Music Nonfiction

STEP IT UP AND GO by David Menconi

The sole criterion that the musicians in this book had to meet was that they were in some sense “from” North Carolina—born here, raised here, or did their most important work here. That’s a broad remit that’s bound to create some strange bedfellows: Clay Aikin and Charlie Poole, for example, or Superchunk and Nina Simone. I kept waiting for a chapter that didn’t hook me immediately, that made my restless fingers want to skip over to the next one. It never happened.

After nearly 30 years covering music for the Raleigh News and Observer, Menconi has that bone-deep knowledge of his subject that only a few music journalists can match—Richie Unterberger, say, or Ed Ward in his prime. And he’s got an amazing gift for contextualizing an artist or a song or a genre in a few words without sacrificing accuracy or nuance.

There are acknowledged legends in North Carolina music, like Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson, but Menconi’s net stretches much further, to include hip-hop, biker rock, and beach music as well. The latter was particularly interesting to me, as a relative newcomer (1996) to North Carolina—reading Menconi’s book was the first time I finally understood that phenomenon. (And if you think The Beach Boys are “beach music,” you really need this book.) Menconi treats all the performers he covers—even the teenagers from AMERICAN IDOL—with generosity and respect. He’s at his very best when covering the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill rock scene, his home turf, and his farewell to Sadlack’s Heroes—hangout for so many local musicians nursing broken dreams—is positively heartbreaking.

Even with the dozens of artists he covers, he was bound to leave out a few favorites—by choice, clearly, not by error. Still, I wish he’d been able to find room for singer/songwriter Marti Jones, and Dana Kletter’s brilliant band Dish. I suppose that just further demonstrates the richness of the North Carolina source material.

I have to add kudos to UNC press who did such a fantastic job on the design, layout, typesetting, and photo reproduction in STEP IT UP AND GO, making it a physical pleasure to simply hold this book in my hands. If there’s a heaven, there’s a special corner there for those who work at academic presses.

Music Nonfiction

WICKED GAME: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey by Michael Goldberg

The first time I heard Jimmy Wilsey was on the radio—Austin, 1987, on the cover version of “Heart Full of Soul” from Chris Isaak’s eponymous second album. I liked the singer well enough, but the guitar playing was what made me lunge to crank up the volume. Long, legato bends shimmering with echo, notes fading in from nowhere and dissolving into piercing harmonics, a lonely, mournful, desolate sound that soon moved into my CD player and stayed there.

It was four years later, on 17 April, 1991, that Isaak finally played a show in Austin. The venue was the Austin Opera House—not the fancy theater that the name implies, but a 1700-person room without seating, carpeting, or decorations—my idea of a great venue, and just the right size for most of the bands I saw there, from Crowded House to Steve Earle to the Replacements to Melissa Ethridge. But between the time Isaak had been booked into the Opera House and the night of the show, “Wicked Game” had become a huge hit on both MTV and radio and the club was mobbed.

At the time, I thought maybe that rush of success was responsible for some of the uglier things I saw that night. Isaak made vicious fun of Jimmy all night long, changing the lyrics of the songs to target Jimmy and telling insulting stories between numbers. After the encore he invited women from the audience to join him on stage, where they danced and sang with Isaak and he ogled them in return. The atmosphere was less rock show than frat party, and Jimmy seemed humiliated by the whole enterprise.

Now that I’ve read WICKED GAME, the excellent new biography of Jimmy Wilsey by his friend and fan Michael Goldberg, I know this was a regular occurrence—and far from the worst that Jimmy received at Isaak’s hands.

WICKED GAME is not a technically perfect book. There’s a lot of repetition, and some of his interviewees wander into the weeds. Goldberg tries to structure the story thematically as well as chronologically, leaving me unstuck in time in a couple of places. But at 410 pages of fine print, it feels complete. I got the gearhead stuff I that I love and the behind the scenes gossip I can’t resist. I felt like I knew all of these people, from his family to the friends from his days in the punk band The Avengers; from Isaak’s other backing musicians to Jimmy’s girlfriends, wife, and son; from the people who tried to save him to the ones who aided and abetted his addiction and death. I could see the heartbreaking arc of his life from beginning to end. I felt like I understood him. That is an astounding accomplishment for any biographer, and a gift to all of Jimmy’s fans.

The quality that people most seemed to remember about Jimmy was his sweetness. If, at the end, in the grip of a heroin addiction that he couldn’t control, he was willing to take advantage of anyone he could, this was the coda to a life where he was repeatedly generous and kind and thoughtful. Like Tim Hardin, or Janis Joplin, or Kurt Cobain, or so many others, the thing that was the core of his music, that made people respond so passionately to it, was a sensitivity that left him in deep emotional pain. His unwillingness—or inability—to confront the source of that pain—that source being life itself—cost him his life.

WICKED GAME is required reading for anyone who loved the anguished cry of Jimmy WIlsey’s guitar, and recommended to anyone who cares about the way that art is made.


[Note: As of this writing, the book is not available through You can order from the publisher at]