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.

Recent Reads – July 2016

View from the Cheap SeatsThe View from the Cheap Seats – Neil Gaiman

This 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 – 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 – 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.