Recent Reads – December 2016

Time TravelTime Travel – James Gleick

If you get all tingly and happy at the wonderfully paradoxical possibilities of a history of time travel, this book is for you. It’s a mix of hard science, popular science, and retrospective of major SF novels that deal with time travel. I loved it.

The Postman Always Rings TwiceDouble Indemnity & The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

Though these books are 80+ years old, they’re still as sharp as a razor blade and as taut as a guitar string.

 

The Colorado KidThe Colorado Kid – Stephen King

I love King and wish I loved this book too, but is this Minor King with a capital M. Three people discuss a mystery that turns out not to be very mysterious at all. It’s an anecdote stretched to some 100+ pages. King writes dialogue like no other, so the book is never boring, but THE COLORADO KID is like Chinese food: it leaves you hungry for something with real substance.

Trout Fishing in AmericaTrout Fishing in America – Richard Brautigan

This book speaks my language.

Favorite Books of 2016

The best books I read this year in no particular order:

The Prestige – Christopher Priest
Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
Live by Night – Dennis Lehane
The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain
A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler
Spin – Robert Charles Wilson
Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff*
Alleen met de Goden – Alex Boogers
Limber – Angela Pelster
The Solace of Open Spaces – Gretel Ehrlich
Shoeless Joe – WP Kinsella
Ghostland – Colin Dickey*
Terug naar Oegstgeest – Jan Wolkers
Time Travel – James Gleick*
Trout Fishing in America – Richard Brautigan
Ragtime – E.L. Doctorow

* published in 2016

Drama in the Bahamas: Remembering Ali vs Berbick

Ali vs BerbickThirty-five years ago today, Muhammad Ali fought his last boxing match against Trevor Berbick. He had retired twice before and no one believed he would never enter the ring again. But Ali was 39 and his body was failing him; already his speech and balance were eroding. A year earlier, he’d suffered a technical knockout against Larry Holmes. When Holmes connected a right hand to Ali’s kidneys in round nine, the former champion roared in pain. His hands were tingling, he was slurring his words. His ring doctor called for everyone involved in that fight to be arrested. Ali, he said, was no longer “the Ali who had a heart the size of the Empire State Building.”

Trevor Berbick beat Ali in a unanimous 10-round decision. Afterwards, Ali said, “I came out all right for an old man. We all lose sometimes. We all grow old.” It was the end of an era. Ali retired with a record of 56 wins and 5 losses. He was a three-time heavyweight champion. Throughout his career, he had fought not just for points, but also for black pride, a growing awareness of the developing world, and world peace.

The Holmes fight he had dedicated “to all the people who’ve been told, You can’t do it. People who drop out of school because they’re told they’re dumb. People who go to crime because they don’t think they can find jobs. I’m dedicating this fight to all of you people who have a Larry Holmes in your life. I’m gonna whup my Holmes, and I want you to whup your Holmes.”

Waltzing with Robbie Robertson

Robbie RobertsonEarlier this week I braved rush hour traffic to go see Robbie Robertson, one of my great heroes. He was in town to celebrate the release of his memoir and the 40-year anniversary of The Last Waltz, the farewell concert of the greatest (to me at least) rock group of the 60s and 70s: The Band. I was the youngest person in the audience by several decades. When Robertson asked who wasn’t born yet when The Band last took the stage on November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, only two people raised their hand. If my kids had been in the audience, we’d have doubled that number, because in our house The Band’s songs are as much part of their daily routine as “Wheels on the Bus” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” How inspiring it was to see this guy who played with the likes of Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters, and whose music I’ve literally listened to every day since I was 14 or 15! Also managed to score an autograph.

Recent Reads – November 2016

A Whole LifeA Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

This book reminded me, in a positive way, of one of my all-time favorite short novels, Denis Johnson’s TRAIN DREAMS. Like that book, A WHOLE LIFE covers the life (duh) of a man who lives on the fringes of society at the turn of the 20th century. Both of these men make their living in the woods and mountains; both have shadowy interior lives that are never fully revealed; both have wives that die young and tragically; both never remarry; both are visited by the ghosts of their dead wives; both are perplexed by the modernization of the world; both are eventually left behind by the modern world but find contentment in their solitude. It wouldn’t surprise me if Seethaler was as moved by TRAINS DREAMS as I was. Both books are prime examples of how you don’t need a lot of words and pages to tell a grand story, and how even a modest life can be filled with luminous moments worthy of great literature.

EverymanEveryman – Philip Roth

This is the first of Roth’s four Nemeses and the last I’ve just reread (I reread them in reverse chronological order). With the exception of THE HUMBLING, I liked all of them better this time around than when I first read them upon their original publication. Maybe that’s because I now know they are (probably?) Roth’s final novels. And while I still think they are minor efforts compared to his best work (SABBATH’S THEATER, the American trilogy, the original Zuckerman books), I enjoyed taking a last run through some of his favorite themes: rebel sons and their overbearing fathers, the outrageousness of death, the temptations and trappings of sex, the moral indignity of religion.

NEMESIS, with its heartbreaking and ferocious ending, remains my favorite of the bunch. EVERYMAN is tied with INDIGNATION. Both are relentlessly bleak, but some sunlight filters through EVERYMAN’s dark mood in the form of childhood memories and a longing for lost loved ones that, especially in its final pages, truly moved me.

World Gone ByWorld Gone By – Dennis Lehane

As implied by its title, WORLD GONE BY is an elegiac book. It’s a direct follow-up to LIVE BY NIGHT and might as well have been tacked onto the end of that book to make one massive volume like its predecessor, THE GIVEN DAY.

Our hero, Joe Coughlin, this time around is concerned not with establishing his empire but tying up loose ends and securing a future for his son. He’s in his 30s, but in his line of work he might as well be an old man. Many of the characters in WGB are similarly aware of the passing of time and the brevity of human lives, which is reinforced by the war that’s devastating Europe and the violence that’s always in danger of erupting around them.

WGB is haunted by Thomas Coughlin’s — Joe’s dad — warning from the previous book that violence only begets more violence, and that Joe may not be able to live down all the evil he’s put into the world. Lacking the breakneck speed and spectacular set pieces of the last book, WBG delivers a slow buildup of dread. Joe Coughlin is going down. The question is who he’s taking with him.

Dolores ClaiborneDolores Claiborne – Stephen King

As I’m working my way through the entire King catalogue for the first time since my teens, I’m finding that the books that hold up best to a second reading are the non-horror ones. DOLORES CLAIBORNE starts off with the confession of a crime and the rejection of another, and doesn’t pull a twist ending or any other “gotcha” moments. And still King manages to keep the book moving for some 300 pages. This is largely due to Dolores Claiborne’s infectious voice, which really is King’s own voice in disguise — can an ornery, solitary housekeeper really be expected to keep up an engaging monologue for 300 pages the way King can? The result is a book that’s both horrific and hilarious.

JoylandJoyland – Stephen King

This was one King novel I hadn’t read yet. It’s short and sweet. I listened to the audio version read by Michael Kelly, whose delivery was fittingly melancholy. There were echoes here of King’s past work (the theme park setting reminded me of THE TALISMAN, plus King likes his kids with magical abilities), and a version of the televangelist that’s featured here off-stage takes center stage in his next book, REVIVAL (which, interestingly, name checks Joyland and The Territories from THE TALISMAN). In short, a minor but pleasant note in the King oeuvre.

 

Recent Reads – September 2016

 Fat CityFat City – Leonard Gardner

There’s much to love and admire about this book. The writing is exquisite, the dialogue very sharp and often very funny, plus it takes place in the Sacramento River delta, an area I know well. So why did it take me almost two years and several false starts to finish it, when it’s all of 190 pages? Because the characters — washed up boxers and small-time trainers — aren’t very likable. So I could only take this book in small, though brilliant, doses.

Bag of BonesBag of Bones – Stephen King

What a strange book this is. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Stephen King himself. He’s a great storyteller, both on and off the page (his small-town Maine accent being especially good), and his narration helped me get through the parts where otherwise I might have stopped reading. Because this book gets pretty silly…

BAG OF BONES seems to be confused about the story it’s trying to tell. It starts off strong with Mike Noonan, a writer of bestselling thrillers, who loses his wife quite tragically and mysteriously. There are some ghostly goings-on that may or may not be a manifestation of his grief. A third of the way in, the book resets and becomes a kind of legal thriller with a love story thrown into the mix, and more ghostly elements. That second storyline gets cast aside rather shockingly, and in the last third of the novel King takes the earlier fringe horror elements and turns them into a full-blown gothic melodrama. One almost wonders if King shouldn’t reconsider his famous preference for writing without an outline. He has said he wants to be surprised by the writing process — he doesn’t want to know exactly where he’s going — and BAG OF BONES certainly is full of surprises.

The thing about Uncle Steve is, he’s such a good storyteller that even the silly stuff is compelling. Forty-something Mike Noonan almost getting drowned by two senior citizens. Dreams that conveniently reveal information Noonan otherwise would never have found out. And a perfectly timed death that even Noonan himself admits would have embarrassed him if he’d used it in one of his novels. Silly, and yet, you read on.

In short, BAG OF BONES is a mess, but it’s an entertaining mess. I recommend the audio version.

GGhostlandhostland: An American History in Haunted Places – Colin Dickey

This is a fun read. I love a good ghost story, and GHOSTLAND contains plenty of them. Books of this kind have a tendency to veer into sensationalism and ridiculousness, with unsubstantiated claims, blurry pictures, and bad writing. Dickey, however, is a solid writer and humble historian. He situates each ghostly tale into its historical context, turning the book into a road trip not just through haunted America but through our haunted history. He doesn’t simply repeat ghost stories, but examines their historical veracity, without taking hearsay or questionable “scientific” findings — EVP recordings, EMF meter readings, orbs — as proof. In fact, GHOSTLAND left me with the feeling that very few, if any, famous American ghost stories contain any real supernatural elements. The scariest thing is how we’ve continually distorted the historical record to soothe our conscience or make a buck off a good story.

Looking for Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp's GraveI went looking for the grave of Wyatt Earp. Turns out, he’s buried around the corner from the Volkswagen dealership just south of San Francisco — an unexpected place for a legend to end up. Sure, plenty of California luminaries are there keeping him company. Levi Strauss, Joe DiMaggio, William Randolph Hearst. But I doubt any of them suspected they’d be rubbing elbows one day with Target, gym supply stores, and shady taco joints.

I wonder what Earp would think if he saw this place now. The freeways and high rises are new, but he might still recognize the mountains and the bay. How would he feel? How did we do with the world he left behind? Maybe he’d get a kick out of where he ended up. Earp always courted the unexpected. He was a myth maker. Most people know him as a lawman, but he was also a gambler, a pimp, a boxing referee, a miner, and a screenwriter. Despite his role in the famous OK Corral shootout, he never took a bullet in his life, and he was happily married for over forty years.

Life is whatever story you make of it.

People leave shot glasses at his gravesite. People like me, I suppose. Dreamers. We stand around his grave and raise a toast to the strange business of life and the passing of time.

The Greatest Adventure of My Life

After 15 years of living in the States, this Dutchman recently became an American — just in time to vote against a certain loudmouth presidential candidate…

But seriously, why did I adopt American citizenship? Not for the right to vote — I’m a thoroughly apolitical person — but mainly because I’m married to an American and have two American kids. My entire adult life has happened in the States. (Plus if I’m ever held hostage in a foreign country, the American government might actually try to rescue me, whereas I’m not so sure about the Dutch government.)

Do I feel different? Not really. Still, it’s something I’m proud of, to be part of this mad country of dreamers and schemers, snake charmers and witch doctors. I love the wild abundance of this place, the history, the enormous variety of landscapes: the Rockies of Colorado, the plains of Wyoming, the forests of Virginia, and California which has it all.

The last step of my citizenship application was a naturalization ceremony. On a mildly sunny Tuesday morning my wife and I took the subway to Oakland, where 1,500 applicants and their families were gathered at the historic Paramount Theater for a celebration full of cheese and patriotism. We were treated — if “treated” is the right word — to video messages from President Obama and Madeline Albright, speeches from passport and social security officials, and an a capella choir asking the room to sing along to songs whose lyrics no one knew. (“This land is your land, this land is my land… ummm… la-di-da….”)

And that’s what I mean: America is cheesy and ridiculous and it can be frustrating as hell to live here, but every day I feel a certain excitement at what might happen. The Dutch have a saying that used to drive me crazy: “Just be normal already.” Living in the States, even after fifteen years, still feels like the greatest adventure of my life.

Recent Reads – August 2016

How Great SF WorksHow Great Science Fiction Works – Gary K. Wolfe

It probably isn’t fair to say I “read” this. Some of these lectures I watched, others I listened to, but since my reading these days increasingly consists of audiobooks (try reading an actual paper book when you’ve got a toddler and a baby) it’s all the same thing. These lectures served as a nice refresher on the history and dominant themes of SF, and provided me with a list reading tips. Gary K. Wolfe writes and talks eloquently about SF, so to anyone who enjoyed these lectures I’d also recommend his reviews for Locus and the Chicago Tribube and his weekly Coode Street podcast.

 

The HumblingThe Humbling – Philip Roth

In ROTH UNBOUND, Claudia Roth Pierpont’s thoughtful study of Philip Roth’s oeuvre, the following line appears in reference to the quartet of short novels Roth produced at the end of his career, collectively known as NEMESES: “Is there a danger that a young reader coming upon these books will think that this is all there is to the work?” This question haunted my recent reading of THE HUMBLING, one of these short novels. I wish I could remember what the first Roth book was I ever read — my guess is either SABBATH’S THEATER or AMERICAN PASTORAL, still two of my all-time favorites. I’ve been reading Roth since the mid-nineties, but what if THE HUMBLING had been my first? Would I have wanted to read more of his work, and would I have developed the kind of deep admiration I currently have for the man I consider to be my favorite writer? I doubt it.

My first instinct was to deem this book lazily written and imagined. But Philip Roth can hardly be accused of laziness. Between 1990 and his retirement in 2010, he published an astonishing 13 novels — almost as many as he published during the first 31 (!) years of his career — and won pretty much every major literary award except for the Nobel Prize. So what THE HUMBLING suffers from is in fact the opposite of laziness: industriousness. Roth, for whatever reason, pressed on even when his writing engine was clearly running on fumes. So THE HUMBLING revisits a tired theme (an old man being saved and ultimately destroyed by a much younger woman) and does absolutely nothing noteworthy with it. There isn’t a memorable thought, image, or sentence in this book. In fact, this may be the nadir in Roth’s otherwise astounding career.

Luckily, he gave us one final book before retiring: NEMESIS, a worthy coda that almost reaches the heights of his best work.

In One PersonIn One Person – John Irving

Five pages into IN ONE PERSON, John Irving has already checked most of his obsession-boxes. An adolescent boy enamored with an older woman; Charles Dickens; breasts; a missing father; more breasts; premature sex; a writer protagonist. All that’s missing are a bear and a transvestite. If this were a drinking game, you’d be blitzed already.

I once heard Irving remark that a writer doesn’t choose his obsessions – they choose him. This is true. Philip Roth’s books are populated by hysterical Jewish mothers and kind, ineffectual Jewish fathers and rebellious, often artistically inclined Jewish sons. It’s what you do with these familiar ingredients that matters. Unfortunately, the opening pages of IN ONE PERSON read like an echo of his previous (better) novels. Already we can guess the protagonist will have some formative sexual experience with this older woman, and that his adult life will be beset tragedy and random circumstance that will echo the life of his missing father, and that he will end up a jaded, melancholy older writer scarred by loss. This, in brief, is the plot of his most celebrated novel, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, and many of his books since then, including LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER and AVENUE OF MIRACLES.

So my guess is that your enjoyment of IN ONE PERSON will depend on how many other Irving books you’ve read, or your capacity for encountering the same story over and over without getting bored.

The Farmer's DaughterThe Farmer’s Daughter – Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison secured his place as one of my all-time favorite authors with the novels DALVA, THE ROAD HOME, TRUE NORTH, and RETURNING TO EARTH. The fact that, after years and years of reading Harrison, I still haven’t gotten through all his books is because I keep revisiting those four novels. But every now and then I dip into the rest of his oeuvre.

Besides novels, Harrison is best known for his poetry and novellas — he has written nine collections of novellas. THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER is one such collection. Read much Jim Harrison, and you’ll find that he continually revisits the same themes and obsessions. In the novels, these have room to coalesce into profound meditations on life, lust, love, and literature. But his recent novellas, including those collected in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER, have felt kind of samey to me. Harrison’s male protagonists have never met a woman they didn’t lust after. They read Lorca and listen to Mozart while traveling and eating abundantly. And his female protagonists have never met a man whose sexual advances weren’t both ridiculous and endearing to them.

Still, Harrison stirs these familiar elements into entertaining stories that, on a sentence level, outstrip much other contemporary literature that I read, even if in Harrison’s oeuvre they are minor efforts.

SpinSpin – Robert Charles Wilson

I like my SF to crack my mind wide open, and this book did exactly that. I’m less interested in space battles than I am in exploring the potential of the human race, our survival on this planet or in space, what it might be like to encounter alien intelligence, or the strange workings of time. SPIN contains all these elements, as well as a touching story about love and friendship. This is the best SF novel I’ve read all year.

Two Nights in Galt

Galt 1On a regular San Francisco morning – gloomy, temperature in the low sixties, fog hugging the edges of the city – I drove to Galt, a town half an hour southeast of Sacramento, where I’d rented a cabin to devote two days to working on my new novel without distraction.

Instead of the 80 East to Sacramento, I took the back roads through those golden rolling hills of Northern California I love so much, until I got to someplace I possibly love even more: farmland, endless farmland. Corn. Grapevines. Almond trees. Rice paddies. Narrow metal bridges took me across rivers lined with summer homes and jetties. Houses were tucked back from the road behind giant palm trees and flowering hedges. Many were farms, and many looked pleasantly rundown. I imagined myself living in all of them.

The cabin I’d rented sat on a 90-acre ranch, which itself was part of a 1,900-acre nature preserve. It stood on poles above a babbling brook that was thick with yellow butterflies and tiny black birds. My first instinct as a city-dweller was to play music to break up the silence, but as I stood on the back deck overlooking the water, what I’d first taken for silence now revealed itself to be a riot of sound, crickets and birds mostly. Their song was not of an even pitch but crescendoed, only to suddenly drop to a whisper before rising again – a most wondrous symphony.

In the evening I became aware of a rustling at the windows. Moths, thousands of them, clamored to get in. The cabin had no curtains, which I didn’t notice until the sun went down and suddenly I was beset by terrible memories of every horror movie I’d ever seen. I was convinced that someone was out there in the darkness, watching me, but through the windows I could only see my pale reflection. I slept with the kitchen light on. The ranch owners lived a mile away, so the moths had only the moon and my kitchen light to flock to. With the moon being out of reach, they chose me. Time and again I startled awake, afraid that whoever had been watching me earlier was now trying to get in.

Shortly after sunrise I set out on a 12-mile run with the intention of getting willfully lost in my stupendous surroundings. Following the brook for a little while, shaded by trees, rabbits scattering at my feet, I decided to try each trail that looked even remotely accessible, through meadows, corn fields, and rice paddies. Ducks exploded from the water in loud protest. A heron took wing with a kind of careless grace that suggested it wasn’t startled by my presence but merely disgusted. I heard my awe at this place being addressed to me as a question: what was I doing here, why did I think I belonged?

Galt 2In my second novel I wrote, “How strange to spend your life on earth without really understanding it.” Running past trees and bushes and tiny purple flowers, with a multitude of birds wheeling overhead and cows staring stupidly at my passing, I was overwhelmed by my not knowing all I was seeing – the names of the trees, bushes, and flowers. And what bird was that, trailing me with suspicion?

I long to know these things. My life feels incomplete without them.

At one point during my run, I spotted movement on the trail ahead. A coyote, perhaps twenty feet away, staring intently into the bushes, paying no attention to me at all. It must have heard me, but why would it be scared? A boxer in the ring is said to know his opponent better than his mother, and this coyote knew me too. It knew it had nothing to fear from me. I was the intruder here. It never looked at me, not once. But as I turned on my heels and ran the other way, I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it wasn’t coming after me.

I long for this humbling feeling, this profound awareness of my surroundings, in my daily life. People tend to worry themselves silly over things that seem to matter a great deal but often mean very little. Jobs. Gossip. Current events. Somewhere in the world England is leaving the EU, and David Bowie is dead, and airports are being blown up by terrorists. And here I am, staring at a hawk circling across the sky.