The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

View from the Cheap SeatsThis book restored my faith — not in Neil Gaiman, but in my ability to love Neil Gaiman. I was a fan of his early work — particularly NEVERWHERE, AMERICAN GODS, and CORALINE — but found myself connecting less and less with subsequent books. (I’m sure the fault was all mine because the millions of readers he picked up along the way can’t be wrong… right?) This new collection of nonfiction, however, is funny, insightful, occasionally magical, and often inspiring — in short, all the reasons I started reading Gaiman in the first place all those years back.

Gaiman writes with a sense of wonder about the world, whether it’s the world of literature, movies, performing arts, or everyday life. You won’t find any harsh judgments here, no hatchet jobs, no score settling. Instead, Gaiman presents himself like the kind of person you’d want to be friends with, whose opinions you can trust, and whose tastes you should maybe adopt.

I didn’t read all of these pieces, perhaps only about 70% of them. But still, they reaffirmed my love for art and the making of art. Which, I think, is about the biggest compliment you can give a writer.

Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker

Coldheart CanyonRereading Clive Barker for the first time since my teens, he strikes me as horror’s John Irving. His sentences are solid, though not of the variety you’d underline and revisit later. Really, what he excels at is characterization and scene-building. And like John Irving, whose later work (post-A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR) feels like a trick he used to perform better and less conspicuously, Barker, to me, lost his shine sometime in the late 90s and early 00s.

COLDHEART CANYON was the last of his books that I read, back in 2001 when it first came out. I’d been a fan of his work for years, particularly SACRAMENT, EVERVILLE, and THE BOOKS OF BLOOD, but I stopped reading him after COLDHEART CANYON because I found that book disappointing (for reasons I can no longer remember) and then he didn’t produce another adult novel until 2007. The new paperback release of THE SCARLET GOSPELS, only his second adult novel in 15 years, inspired me to revisit his work and as it happened, COLDHEART CANYON was the only book my library had available on audio.

The danger of returning to a work from your youth of course is that you might hate it now and forever after destroy the good memories it once possessed (most recently for me this happened with Douglas Coupland’s HEY NOSTRADAMUS). The opposite is true too: Steinbeck is even better now than I remember from 15 or 20 years ago. A third option is, you never liked the book to begin with and the passing time has not changed this.

Unfortunately, COLDHEART CANYON falls squarely in this third category.

The book starts off strong with a tale of a collector who finds a mysterious wall painting in an old monastery in Romania and buys it for transport to America. Barker has of course written about haunted pieces of art before, particularly in THE HELLBOUND HEART and WEAVEWORLD. In many ways, COLDHEART CANYON is an allusive novel: allusive to Barker’s own oeuvre, to old Hollywood where the book is set (it’s subtitled “A Hollywood Ghost Story”), and to horror fiction in general. The beginning section echoes horror classics like THE OMEN and THE EXORCIST with its focus on an ungodly object that is removed from protection by the church and unleashed upon a secular world.

Once the story switches to its main characters, however – first to fading movie star Todd Pickett, then to the president of his “appreciation society” Tammy – Barker’s prose loses its hypnotic tightness. What you get instead is less atmospherics and more plot. The book also takes on a sour, sarcastic tone in its denouement of Hollywood, which unfortunately extends to the main characters, both of whom never rise above caricature. Tammy in particular gets short shrift. As a professional fan she is overweight (of course), trapped in a loveless marriage (of course), with breasts like “watermelons” (sigh). This is Barker on something worse than auto-pilot. Todd is a brainless stud who, frustrated with his stagnant career, undergoes plastic surgery on his face with disastrous consequences that eventually unite him with the haunted wall painting as well as his biggest fan, Tammy. What follows is a lot of carnage and sex of the variety found in the interminable HELLRAISER movie sequels that Barker has so openly and loudly condemned.

In short, this one’s only for the fans, which I’m afraid no longer includes me.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

Green RoadMy opinion of this book was unfairly influenced, I think, by the fact that I’d just finished reading Colm Tóibín’s NORA WEBSTER and THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP, to which THE GREEN ROAD bears some striking similarities. Enright and Tóibín both are Irish writers of course, and all three of these novels involve strained relations in a matriarchal family, played out on the Irish coast. The fathers in these books are dead, but in THE GREEN ROAD and NORA WEBSTER they make a brief ghostly visit to their wives in a time of great need.
I enjoyed Tóibín’s books more though. Partly perhaps because with Enright’s book I felt like I was retreading old ground. Both writers produce sparse, lucid prose, digging deep into their characters’ personalities, while creating a strong sense of geographic place. But Tóibín’s dialogue was fresher, his characters more memorable. Even though I just finished Enright’s book yesterday, already I don’t remember much about her characters except that one was fat, another was gay, and everyone was unhappy with their lives.
In short, I liked THE GREEN ROAD enough to also want to try Enright’s THE GATHERING, but I didn’t love it.

Recent Reads – June 2016

Nora WebsterNora Webster – Colm Tóibín

This book is exquisite. The writing is pitch perfect, like a finely-tuned instrument. This is only the second book of Tóibín’s that I’ve read (after The Blackwater Lightship), but based on these two books I can safely say that he is one of the most exciting and accomplished writers working today. Next up: BROOKLYN and THE TESTAMENT OF MARY.

 

The Blackwater LightshipThe Blackwater Lightship – Colm Tóibín

I actually read this one before NORA WEBSTER. I’d been interested in Colm Tóibín for a while — his interviews and literary criticism — before finally picking up one of his books. Not sure why I started with this one, besides simply liking the title, but I wasn’t disappointed. Sparse, lucid writing; solid characterization; a memorable setting; and a heartbreaking topic.

 

The Ancient MinstrelThe Ancient Minstrel – Jim Harrison

This is very much a late-career Jim Harrison, meaning there’s nothing here that loyal readers haven’t encountered before, but it’s written with the usual gusto and brilliance. Of course, one’s reading experience is made bittersweet by the fact that this is Harrison’s last published book during his lifetime. The first two novellas are excellent — Legends of the Fall excellent, in fact. The third and final novella less so, but still enjoyable. A worthy final cheers from the “Mozart of the prairie” to life, love, lust, and literature.

 

Sleeping GiantsSleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel

Rendezvous with Rama meets Pacific Rim told Dracula-style in interviews, log entries, and newspaper clippings. Entertaining.

 

 

 

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Allow me to sound like a hipster for a moment: I read Neil Gaiman before he was famous. Or at least before he was as famous as he is today. I discovered his first adult novel, NEVERWHERE, at my local library when I was in my early teens, and it bowled me over. At the time, THE FISHER KING was my favorite movie, and I felt NEVERWHERE had a lot of connections to it, mainly how both the book and the movie played with the notion that there is another, fantastical world hidden underneath our real world. A few years later, I fell in love with AMERICAN GODS, possibly liking it even better than NEVERWHERE. Then: CORALINE, a book that, despite being aimed at younger readers, I loved then and still love today, and whose movie version is probably my favorite animated feature film. But as Gaiman’s star rose, I became less enchanted with his work. ANANSI BOYS didn’t do much for me; same thing with the InterWorld series, co-authored by Michael Reaves; and THE GRAVEYARD BOOK I was unable to finish on several attempts. I’m sure the fault is all mine. Gaiman has become as big a celebrity as a writer can be. He’s a beloved storyteller. He performs all over the world. He writes screenplays for film and TV. He narrates his own audiobooks. He dresses up as Charles Dickens.

But sometimes you just like certain books so much that, while the rest of the author’s output might be just as good or better, it can never live up to those few books. Which is a long way of saying, I like THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, but I don’t love it. I just read it a second time and was charmed, same as the first time, by Gaiman’s depiction of a dreamy childhood in the English countryside some forty years ago, and by that magnificent cover, but the whole thing just felt a little… light. The publisher calls this book a “novel” and has marketed it for adults, both of which are a stretch. The book is less than 200 pages and the writing can at times feel a bit too smooth and dainty. Gaiman produces grandiose statements about life and literature that you might expect to see printed on a Hallmark card or a T-shirt. And sure enough, there are T-shirts with Gaiman quotes, and book bags and what more. But you wouldn’t want to read a whole book of such quotes, would you?

This may sound unnecessarily harsh, and THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE truly contains some marvels, particularly its dreamy, melancholy mood. But to me, there’s a hollowness to the book. Everything is polished to perfection, ready-made for mass consumption. And I just happen to prefer some grit in my art.

On Reading Expectations

I’ve recently been reading some literary criticism – reviews mostly, on blogs and book-related websites – and cramming my TBR list with new titles. It occurred to me that when you become interested in reading a book, you expect the book to deliver a perfect reading experience — else, why bother? You expect to be engaged emotionally (by a gripping story) as well as intellectually (by solid writing and deep thinking), and you expect to read the book in undisturbed comfort. I’ve had plenty of such experiences — one that comes to mind is reading Norman Mailer’s magnificent (and magnificently long) THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG over a period of three days, lying on a couch in the sun with music playing in the room. That was ten years ago. Now I have two young children, three animals, a fulltime job, and a house, and such experiences are becoming increasingly rare, if not altogether extinct. These days, I listen to audiobooks in the car and during runs. I deliberately choose plot-driven novels where I don’t have to pay as much attention to the writing, and I play them at 1.5x or even 2x speed to get through them faster. At home, I’ve been reading the collected letters of John Steinbeck, because they are short enough to consume whenever I have a few minutes. After four months of reading, I’m on page 300, and this feels like a huge accomplishment. What point am I trying to make? One, that I’ve been supplementing my own lack of reading with literary criticism, meaning I’m living vicariously through other people’s reading experiences. And two, that no shortage of time will make me give up buying or wanting books. That expectation of what a book will be like is almost as important as my actual enjoyment of the book once I get around to reading it. There are books I’ve enjoyed having on my shelves – unread – for years, and that I’m planning to read one day, and that in the meantime have filled my head with a thousand possibilities of the worlds they may contain. In my mind, I’ve already read many versions of SOPHIE’S CHOICE or 2666 or STONER. Now all that’s left to do is see if the real books live up to my imagination.

On Keeping a Reading Journal

1.

For years, going all the way back to 2003, I’ve kept a journal of the books I read. They have to be books I actually finish, which reduces my overall numbers, but also relieves my guilt over all the books I wasn’t able (or willing) to see through to the end. Looking back now, it seems a Herculean task to have started with one book (Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS) and slowly filled up the pages of my journal.

And I truly mean “slowly.” It turns out that over the last thirteen years I’ve read an average of 35 books a year, or 455 books total. That, to me, is a sobering number for two reasons. One, last I counted, I owned a little over 400 books, many of which I either haven’t read or would like to read again. Based on my annual average, it’ll take me eleven years just to tackle those, provided I don’t buy any more books, which is highly unlikely. Two, the average expected lifespan of a male living in the U.S., according to the National Labor Relations Act poster at my work, is 78. This means I only have about 1,500 books left to read in my life, or enough to revisit my current book collection three to four times. This may suffice for AMERICAN GODS but not for, say, Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN or Jim Harrison’s DALVA.

Still, I dutifully record my reading progress in my journal because not only do I tend to forget the books I’ve read unless I buy them and see them sitting on my shelves, but I also like to leaf through the journal and reflect on my life through the books I was reading at the time. For example, I was in Paris when I read AMERICAN GODS. The weekend I was there, France was struck by a heatwave that left thousands dead throughout the country. It was too hot to sightsee, so I stayed in my hotel. Parisians at the time didn’t believe in AC (maybe they still don’t), so I lay in bed with a wet towel over me — I even opened the bathroom door and let the cold shower run in hopes that some coolness might drift into the bedroom — and devoured Neil Gaiman’s fantastical road trip through an America populated by forgotten gods of the old world.

Similarly, I remember reading John Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN in my sister’s old bedroom at our parents’ house in the days leading up to my move from the Netherlands, where I grew up, to the United States, where I’ve lived ever since. And reading Gregory Maguire’s WICKED over Christmas 2006 and Norman Mailer’s THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG the following Christmas, two occasions I should have spent with my family, but that I chose to spend with books instead. Back in 2003, when I began the journal, I was working on my masters’ thesis on Philip Roth, and the journal shows seven Roth entries in a two-month period. I first discovered Cormac McCarthy, now a favorite, in 2007, and Jim Harrison, another favorite, the year after. Since 2011, I’ve read TRAIN DREAMS by Denis Johnson five times.

2.

2010 was a bad year for me for personal reasons, and the journal ends abruptly in July with Paul Harding’s TINKERS. It picks up again in August 2011 with Susan Hill’s THE MAN IN THE PICTURE, representing the longest reading break of my life — 2 years totaling just 18 books. Something had to be done to make up for lost time. I’m not a fast reader. I like to underline things, re-read passages, etc. Somehow, I had to find more time in the day to read. But then I got married and bought a house and spent more time at Lowe’s than on the sofa reading, and then my wife and I had a baby, and by the end of 2013 I had read just 16 books.

Reading, of course, isn’t a race. But that empty feeling of not getting enough books in my system — like a body not getting enough water, vitamins, or sleep — was very real.

So I started listening to audiobooks on my daily commute to work. The main complaint I’ve heard about audiobooks is that people find it hard to stay focused. The drive to work however I knew well and I was able to get into a zone where I was keenly focused on the book (H. P. Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was my first) while still keeping my attention on the road. This added an hour’s worth of reading time to my day.

Next I began looking for more “cracks” in the day: little openings where I could sneak in a few minutes of reading. Walking the dog (45 minutes). Working out (60 minutes). Even vacuuming, though this required noise-cancelling headphones (20 minutes). All this added a total of seven to ten reading hours to my week. The books I picked were all of that length, so I could get through one per week. I subscribed to Audible, where for a monthly fee you get credits to buy audiobooks. I also learned that the San Francisco Library rents out audiobooks through the Overdrive app and Hoopla, both on the iPhone. I was in audiobook heaven.

What soon became clear was, if you’re going to spend a lot of time listening to someone read, you’d better make sure you like their voice. It’s amazing to me, now that I’ve been listening to audiobooks for two years, what a difference a voice can make — and how some publishers don’t seem to put much thought into who reads their books. Will Patton became an instant favorite of mine. His readings of Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST and Denis Johnson’s JESUS’ SON, TRAIN DREAMS, and TREE OF SMOKE are sublime — his voice being just the right blend of soothing and sinister. Richard Poe too, particularly his readings of BLOOD MERIDIAN, EAST OF EDEN, and Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD. Becket Royce doing Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING is lovely; John Malkovich doing Kurt Vonnegut’s BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS is a hoot; and so is Jeremy Irons’ version of LOLITA. Roy Dotrice talent for doing dozens of different voices is the only reason I’ve made it through all five of the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books by George R.R. Martin.

I experimented with listening to books at 1.5 speed and double speed. This worked only for some narrators and only for books I read purely for the story rather than the writing. Others I wanted to savor. But despite my best efforts, by the end of 2014 I had only read (or finished) 27 books.

3.

Last year, I set myself a goal: I was going to make it through 50 books, despite having a family and a fulltime job and writing on a book of my own.

By focusing on shorter works (like Denis Johnson’s THE LAUGHING MONSTERS and Richard Ford’s LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU) and plot-driven works (like John Harwood’s THE SÉANCE) I managed to finish 25 books by the end of May, only five months into the year. I could now tackle some bigger books. The SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books range from 35 to 50 hours each, but I was able to listen to those at double speed, spending 2 to 3 weeks with each volume. Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 are also pretty hefty, but those I listened to at regular speed (3 weeks each), cherishing every minute.

In early December I finished my 50th book, Cixin Liu’s THE DARK FOREST. The breakdown for the year was 38 audiobooks and 12 physical books. Under normal circumstances — reading only physical books — this would’ve been a terrible year. But since I got much of my reading done in the car or working out or walking the dog, I had made a conscious decision to read fewer physical books at home and instead devote that time to my family. I do miss physical books, and every night I squeeze in a few pages before bed, but audiobooks have proven an invaluable asset to my reading life.

4.

Looking back at thirteen years of reading, it’s tempting to try and pick favorites for each year. But time has undoubtedly clouded my opinion. Or perhaps it has done the opposite, clarified it. There are plenty of books I remember enjoying, but whose particulars like plot and characters have not made a lasting impression. For instance, I remember liking Salman Rushdie’s FURY in 2004, but I don’t know why anymore.

The opposite is true as well. DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE, about American paranoia and consumer society, which I first read when I was still living in Amsterdam, made a lot more sense to me when I reread it after having lived in the States for thirteen years. Dean Bakopoulos’ PLEASE DON’T COME BACK FROM THE MOON, about a town where all the fathers mysteriously disappear leaving the sons to fend for their mothers and siblings, didn’t affect me as much in 2006 as when I read it again in 2014, after becoming a father myself.

I’ve toyed with the idea of putting a checkmark in the journal beside the books I liked best each year and tracking how fresh they stay in my mind, but sometimes the process of forgetting sets in so soon, I’m afraid I’d be looking at red marks I made just a few weeks or months ago wondering what they’re doing there. Recently, for instance, I enjoyed Adam Rapp’s KNOW YOUR BEHOLDER, but I can’t for the life of me recall a single scene from the book. This is not the book’s fault, but mine.

Which of the 50 books I read last year will I remember thirteen years from now, and not just how I felt about them? Which will I want to reread?

My criterion for rereading books is layers: a book needs to be able to reveal more than plot to me upon a second or third read. By this standard, Cixin Liu’s THE DARK FOREST (and its predecessor THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM), about the survival of humanity on earth and in space in the next four centuries, is a favorite of the year, but not for life. I think that’s the key to picking favorites.

Out of all the books I read in 2015, there are five that might be favorites for life: THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro, LITTLE SISTER DEATH by William Gay, and the aforementioned WHITE NOISE, LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU, and TREE OF SMOKE. But, of course, only time will tell. So check back with me in 2028.

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

DanceWithDragons(Please note this is a review of the books, not the HBO show, which has progressed beyond the books at this point.)

There is a writing rule that says: Don’t take the reader where he wants to go. In other words, withhold instant gratification, so the reader keeps turning the pages to find out what happens next.

There is also a reading rule that says: We tend to overrate big books for the sheer effort of having finished them.

I found myself thinking about these two rules as I read the final 200-something pages of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, the fifth book in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series.

George R.R. Martin is not one for instant gratification. I don’t mean the long wait times between his books. What I mean is his plotting.

What actually is the plot of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE? Does anyone, some 5,000 pages into the series, remember? As I recall it, we started out with two main stories: the battle for the Iron Throne and the pending threat of the White Walkers. Both these story lines were succinctly introduced in A GAME OF THRONES, the first of the series. This book remains my favorite, because of its tight focus on the main plot. But starting with book two, the plot spiraled – I won’t say spiraled out of control, because I believe GRRM will eventually tie everything up nicely, or at least to the best of his abilities, but spiraled they have. By the end of A DANCE OF DRAGONS we’re following not just the Starks, the Lannisters, and Daenerys, but at least a dozen less important characters (Stannis, Theon, Euron, Ser Barristan), and at least another dozen characters whose name and significance I have already forgotten (Victarian anyone?).

GRRM’s writing has remained excellent throughout. His sentences may not be memorable, but his characters and world-building are. But after having read 5,000 pages of what promised to be a tight, fast-paced narrative, I have lost almost complete track of the original plot and have no idea what this multitude of characters is working towards anymore. Does Cersei still want the Iron Throne or does she only want her enemies dead and her last remaining child saved? What exactly does Tyrion want from Daenerys, should he ever find her? What does Jon Snow want? He certainly doesn’t want to rule the Night’s Watch, nor does he want to sit on the Iron Throne. Who all is fighting over the Iron Throne again? Stannis, yes, but he’s been relegated to the background. What are the Boltons scheming and plotting for? And the Greyjoys? Daenerys was a favorite contender for the Iron Throne in book one, but even she doesn’t seem concerned with actually trying to win the throne.

Characters’ goals and motivations can change of course. This is character growth. But remember how upsetting it was when after nine seasons of THE X-FILES we still didn’t know exactly what had happened to Mulder’s sister or who the Cigarette Man was, two tropes that were introduced all the way back in season one? Writers owe their readers answers, or at least pointers to what those answers might be. Five books into a projected seven-book series, shouldn’t there be an end game in sight? Shouldn’t we know who or what to root for?

What has kept me reading all this time, though, is the fact that GRRM knows how to write a scene. In an interview about a possible spin-off HBO show, GRRM said there are plenty of stories to tell about the world he created. I think as he was writing the books, however, he got a little too enamored with some of these stories himself. So while most of them are intriguing, fun, and exciting in their own right, they don’t actually move the original plot forward. I would have preferred him to stick to his original plan of writing a trilogy focused on the Iron Throne and the White Walkers. Everything else could have been spin-off novels.

The extraordinary length of these books – or the extraordinary amount of world-building favored over momentum – may be a joy for hardcore fantasy readers, which admittedly I’m not. Whenever the narrative switches to a Greyjoy, or to Arya’s interminable training, or to Brienne’s interminable wanderings in the previous book, I find myself growing impatient for GRRM to just get on with the main story. But whenever we do get to the main story, nothing much happens there either. After Daenerys finally leaves Meereen, do we really need several more chapters about Ser Barristan seeking revenge on her husband? Yes, this provides texture, but there were moments reading this book when I felt I was drinking a beer that was all foam and very little liquid.

Which is a long way of saying: I like the different parts of these books – the characters, the dialogue, the world-building – but they add up to something increasingly exhausting. What will the pay-off be, for me as a reader or for the characters? Should I even be rooting for Danaerys to conquer the Iron Throne and for Jon Snow to defeat the White Walkers or have we long moved past this?

And so we wait for THE WINDS OF WINTER and A PROMISE OF SPRING, hoping all the while that GRRM doesn’t add any more books to the series.

Ali

AliI watched Michael Mann’s movie ALI the other night, starring Will Smith. Knowing only the basics about Muhammad Ali, I found the movie strangely disjointed and lifeless. The movie assumes its viewers have a familiarity with Ali, his contemporaries, and the major events of the 1960s that clearly surpasses mine. For instance, I had no idea who the Nation of Islam was, or that Malcolm X was a member until he had a falling out with their leader (I haven’t researched this since then either, so this summary may be wrong, but it’s what I was able to gather from the movie), or that they were the ones who killed him (the reason still isn’t clear to me). Also, the movie only focuses on a short period of Ali’s life, during which his triumphs were either before or behind him (this also isn’t clear), because the only two fights that are shown in the movie aren’t particularly remarkable. I just watched all six ROCKY movies plus CREED, so it may be that Michael Mann doesn’t know how to stage a fight the way the Rocky series does, or maybe Will Smith just isn’t a very good pretend-boxer, but Ali’s fight with Sonny Liston looked clumsy and slow. And without Ali’s legendary boxing prowess on display, he falters as a characters. The movie portrayed him as cocky, stubborn, and enormously unpleasant. Geniuses in Hollywood movies often are, but they’re redeemed by their special abilities, which this movie didn’t show, so there was nothing to redeem Ali. I was left feeling disappointed — at the movie or the boxer I wasn’t sure. You want legends to be people you can look up to, but this Ali (or ALI) I was glad to part with.

Ilium by Dan Simmons

IliumMars, Homer, Shakespeare, Proust, dinosaurs, the Holocaust. How does one make a coherent, even compelling narrative out of these things? Leave it to Dan Simmons, a writer who, if anything, is generous. He produces roughly a book a year and generally they are big and well-researched and contain more plot than you can shake a stick at. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and in truth, Simmons’ interests are so far-ranging that I haven’t read all his books, nor do I plan to. But the ones I’ve read I’ve generally enjoyed, despite some shortcomings that this one, ILIUM, suffers from as well.

Reading Dan Simmons, for me, is like eating comfort food. His writing is solid and he knows how to set a plot in motion. Motion, though, is one of the issues that his books tend to suffer from. They start strong and, like many long books, dawdle in the middle. I’ve been trying to imagine how Simmons came up with the idea for ILIUM. There’s the obvious link between Mt. Olympus from Greek mythology and Olympos Mons on Mars. Then as Simmons was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and started researching and developing the idea of a Trojan War set on Mars, the book bloomed into something involving a little robot and a giant crab meeting some mysterious LGM (Little Green Men), and four rich, entitled, fairly obnoxious men and women meeting an ancient Jewish woman who divulges the lost history of the human race. These added plots are fascinating at first, because of their intriguing ties to the main story line – the Trojan War on Mars – but as they progress they get slower and slower in actually explaining, or even utilizing, those ties. Instead, you’re wading through pages and pages of the robot and the crab having philosophical discussions about Shakespeare and Proust, and more pages about the various ships they travel in and the apparent inconvenience of being a giant crab in space (worse, this crab soon loses his eyes, ears, and legs and becomes a burden to the little robot, as well as to the reader), and even more pages about the entitled rich folk wondering what a Jew even is.

What keeps ILIUM engaging is that main story line, which Simmons gets a lot of mileage out of. The Greek gods are seven, twelve, even twenty feet tall because – duh! – gravity on Mars is lower than on Earth. They ride chariots with holographic horses. They can “freeze” time to adjust the fates of normal human beings. They teleport. They regenerate in giant vats attended by lizard-like creatures. The plot of ILIUM goes something like this. A resurrected twentieth-century scholar, Hockenberry, who is tasked to watch how closely the proceedings on Mars follow Homer’s ILIAD, receives secret orders to kill the goddess Athena. He isn’t up to the task and instead sets of a chain of outlandish events that has him sleeping with Helen – the one the Trojans and the Greeks are fighting over – attempting to kill the goddess Aphrodite, and catalyzing a full-blast rebellion against the gods. Engaging stuff indeed. It’s unfortunate Simmons devotes so much attention – especially in the middle section of the book – to the other story lines, because by the time this rebellion gets underway, you just want the book to end. At least, I did. I actually listened to it on audio and set playback to double speed.

My favorite Simmons novels are HYPERION and DROOD. The latter is particularly long, but somehow I found all the digressions in that book compelling. It could have been the setting (Victorian London and its ghoulish underworld) spoke to me more, or the fact that DROOD had a central mystery awaiting some kind of reveal, whereas ILIUM is more event-driven, and I’ve always been less interested in what-happens-next than in why-does-it-happen.

Final rating for ILIUM: four stars for originality, three for execution.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The PrestigeMost of Christopher Priest’s American readers, I suspect, come to him through the movie version of THE PRESTIGE. The book, however, is different enough to be enjoyed on its own terms. The writing is lovely throughout, and the book is structured like a diary in the way that British novels seem to pull off so well (I’m thinking, for instance, of DRACULA).

What in the movie is presented as a big twist at the end in the book is revealed much earlier, then moved beyond in a truly spectacular way. The ending of the book does what it’s supposed to do: it casts new light on everything that went before, while lifting the whole story to new heights. If THE PRESTIGE were a magic trick, which in a lot of ways it is, I would stand up now and applaud.