Recent Reads – December 2017

The Plot against America – Philip Roth

This is the last Great Philip Roth novel. Some good, even very good, books followed but none with the scope or ferocity of The Plot Against America. I read it when it first came out in 2004 and just read it again. And what used to be a powerful book about persecution and how easily our political system, and our ideals of peace and freedom, can be turned upside down, has now taken on a whole new dimension. In light of the 2017 election, this “alternate history” has proven to be a modern dystopia. Roth showed us that America is powerless to the cult of celebrity and the empty promises of a dangerous demagogue. He showed us that it can happen here. In an interview with The New Yorker he said this book wasn’t written as a warning, but it’s impossible not to see it as a mirror image of what’s happening in America today. Characters like Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Aunt Evelyn who greedily betray their own people to join the fascist government, only to flee like rats from a sinking ship once the tide turns—I found myself getting as furious reading about them as though I were reading the news. Add the fact that Roth’s writing here is top-notch, and his description of 1930s and ’40s Newark is soulful and evocative. Classic Roth.

On Bowie – Rob Sheffield

I stumbled on this book by accident, after finishing a biography of the Rolling Stones. It was short and I was in the mood to keep reading about rock ‘n’ roll heroes, so I gave it a shot—and was pleasantly surprised. Mind you: this book is written by a fan, so it’s not a nuanced look at Bowie’s career. Sheffield considers pretty much every Bowie album a masterpiece, including his late-career work such as Hours and Reality which fill the clearance bins of every record store. (Strangely enough, he dismisses Outside, which I think is an overlooked masterpiece.) But his enthusiasm is infectious. I love Bowie, and this book made me love and miss him more.

The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones – Rich Cohen

I only like a handful of Stones songs, but this rich, rollicking biography gave me plenty of satisfaction (har-har). Seriously though, it’s an engaging look at the Stones and at 50 years of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Northline – Willy Vlautin

This is a brutal book. Allison Jones suffers all kinds of abuse at the hands of her boyfriend and various other men she encounters. And Vlautin being such a smooth, compassionate writer, you can’t help but read on despite the bleakness. And he really piles it on. Rape. Unwanted pregnancy. Domestic violence. Racism. Neo-Nazis. You name it. So this was a tough, uncomfortable read, but I mean that as a compliment. Vlautin is one of my favorite novelists and I’ve now read all his books.

Recent Reads – November 2017

Smile – Roddy Doyle

This was my first Roddy Doyle and I liked it so much I finished it in two days. Now, this might not sound like much of an accomplishment for a 200-page book, but I have two young kids (ages 1 and 3) who wake up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 8 p.m. So the fact that I get anything done is an accomplishment to me. I listened to the audiobook which is narrated by Doyle himself, whose wonderful Dublin accent really added to my enjoyment of this story that is both darkly comic and deeply disturbing.

The Woman in Black – Susan Hill

I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, especially one as deliciously British as this one. An old village full of secrets and resentments, a ruined mansion cut off from the world by treacherous tides, fog and rain and the wind howling across the marshes. Wonderful stuff.

Caesar’s Last Breath – Sam Kean

Who knew a history of air could be this good, even for someone who failed high school chemistry? Starting with the formation of our atmosphere, Kean takes the reader on a wide-ranging, fascinating, often very funny tour of how gases have shaped human civilization and may shape our future on Earth and among the stars. It’s a gas (har-har)!

Full Dark, No Stars – Stephen King

“1922,” the first of the four novellas collected here, is one of the best things King has written. It’s smooth, macabre, and suspenseful, and contains a nice nod to one of my favorite books of his, Dolores Claiborne. “A Good Marriage,” the last of these novellas (recently made into “A Bad Movie”) is another winner. What surprised me about this one was the pacing: what I suspected to be the big reveal was actually dealt with pretty quickly, and then the story took two more steps past that.

Unfortunately, the other two novellas, “Big Driver” and “Fair Extension,” are the kind of vapid drivel that King can probably write (and maybe actually does write) in his sleep. Like The Colorado Kid or Gwendy’s Button Box, these novellas are little more than ideas that fail to develop into full-blown concepts. A woman takes revenge on the truck driver who raped her. A man dying of cancer makes a deal with the devil. There you have it. Nothing else happens that you can’t already imagine from those two descriptions.

So for me this was an uneven collection, that opens and closes on a high note.

M Train – Patti Smith

Patti Smith existed on the periphery of my consciousness for years. She sang backup on one of my favorite R.E.M. songs (“E-Bow the Letter”), she did some things with Bob Dylan, and recently she had a cameo in Terrence Malick’s new movie Song to Song. I also knew her last book, Just Kids, had won the National Book Award. But as always, no amount of praise or positive exposure motivated me to pick up one of her books until one day, for reasons entirely mysterious to me, it became absolutely vital that I read M Train. And I’m glad I did. The book is gorgeously written: poetic, dreamy, melancholy. Smith makes you care about the art she cares about (Jean Genet, cop shows) by showing how art can both comfort and inspire. Both are sorely needed, because this is also a very sad book about lost things: lost loved ones, lost books, lost cameras, lost places. And it’s a book about coffee: searching for the best cup of coffee in the world, while often settling for a cheap cup of coffee in a hotel room. In short, this book spoke my language, it spoke to my soul, and I loved it wholeheartedly.

Thoughts on Ernest Hemingway

To Have and Have Not – Ernest Hemingway

This turned out to be one of my favorites of Hemingway. I loved the crisp dialogue and fast pacing. They reminded me of some of Denis Johnson’s best work. To Have and Have Not was famously cut down from a much longer manuscript, which accounts for its disjointed nature. It’s an imperfect book, but to me this adds to its charm. Henry Morgan isn’t a particularly likable main character; the book switches from first to third person throughout; there are flashes of interiority that don’t seem to fit with the rest of the rather cool, hard-boiled narrative; the female characters are laughably one-dimensional; and what was the point exactly of Richard Gordon’s storyline? In short, this book is a mess, a sharply written, beautiful mess.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

I’m conflicted about this book. I recently enjoyed Mary Dearborn’s new biography of Hemingway, which inspired me to (re)read some of his work. That enthusiasm, I think, carried over into the first pages of The Sun Also Rises. The writing was crisp and evocative, and the short chapters just flew by. But halfway through, my interest began to wane. The characters were kind of bland; I didn’t understand their constant animosity toward the Robert Cohn character; and their drunken ramblings seemed more important to them than they were to me. Also, the chapters suddenly got longer, which made the whole book slow to a crawl. But! Hemingway’s descriptions of Spain and France also grew longer and more detailed, putting me in mind of my favorite book of his, A Moveable Feast. At times, I was right there with him, sitting at this cafe or that, getting tight (an old term for “drunk”) on Martinis and rioja alta.

Recent Reads – July 2017

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir – Joyce Johnson

There’s an odd paradox inherent to this book. Its purpose is to give voice to the women of the Beat Generation, minor characters who “fell very quickly, believing they would take us along on their journeys and adventures,” and who were then callously, sometimes tragically discarded. (The death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs early in the book is heartbreaking.) But I’d guess most people who pick up this book are mainly interested in the author’s recollections of Jack Kerouac, whose picture is on the cover (partially obscuring the author), and not in Johnson’s own life. I certainly had never heard of her. But wow, she can write! Her prose is so beguiling, before you know it she’s told you the story of her childhood, growing up as a member of the Silent Generation who wanted to have their voice heard, to speak up and step out. Yes, the ghost of Jack Kerouac haunts this book, as does a close friend who committed suicide. It was published fourteen years after Kerouac died, and over a quarter decade after he and Johnson briefly dated. Johnson elegantly jumps back and forth in time, showing them alive in one moment and dead the next. The effect is strangely elegiac, folding the tragic future into the tumultuous past, and making it seems as if these characters were both dead and alive all along. Which in a way they were. Johnson writes: “I remember Jack once saying he wrote his books so that he’d have something to read in his old age — although of course he never had any and maybe never believed he would.” That’s heady stuff. Highly recommended.

The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson

It hurts me to rate this book so low because I love Wilson’s Spin and generally love the kind of science fiction he writes: his books mostly take place on Earth and feature believable characters swept up in world-changing events. But while The Chronoliths presents a fascinating idea, the book failed to excite or connect with me in any way. Halfway through I actually took an extended reading break; not consciously, but simply because I was lured away by more enticing reading. The characters have the usual depth I’ve come to expect from Wilson, but they’re… boring and not very likable. After the Chronoliths start appearing, the world collapses in a kind of halfhearted way. Food shortages. Roving bandits. Rape. Pillaging. Yawn. What happens to the characters is just as trite. Mostly they just have dinner or phone conversations and more dinner and more phone conversations. And finally the story just fizzles out… There is no big reveal, no surprising twist, no deeper meaning; in short, no point.

The Monster of Florence – Douglas Preston & Mario Spezi

Douglas Preston, being a thriller writer, admits that books need a bad guy with clear motives and a neat ending. The Monster of Florence has none of these. Still, it’s thrilling reading. I spent a year in Florence in the early 2000s, and Preston’s rich descriptions of the place made me long to go back — despite the lurid subject matter of the book.


Recent Reads – June 2017

The Dead Zone – Stephen King

This was a strange one for me to reread. I remembered it being about a man who, following a car crash, develops second sight and plots to assassinate a presidential hopeful intent on setting off a nuclear war. But this doesn’t happen until the very end of the book. Most of The Dead Zone is concerned with Johnny Smith (either King was having a bad character-naming day or this guy is supposed to be an everyman) trying to cope with his new gift. Special gifts, in King’s universe, are rarely to be envied — think Carrie, Firestarter, Dr Sleep, or Duma Key for instance — and the same goes for Johnny. “The Bible says God loves all his creatures,” he remarks at some point before being told, “Got a funny way of showing it, doesn’t he?” He loses his girl, his friends, his job, he’s ridiculed in the media and shunned in the town where he lives. What’s remarkable is how readable all this is. Or maybe it’s not remarkable at all, since King is a hell of a writer, and this is one of his earlier books that doesn’t yet suffer from the bloat that became his signature later. It does contain some other classic King elements: a doomed love affair, religious maniacs, a sexual deviant with a sexually repressive childhood, references to his own work (Carrie is name-checked), and of course many of the characters speak in clever, down-homey colloquialisms. All in all, a fine read. I listened to the audio version narrated by James Franco, who did a great job, especially with the Polish (?) doctor.

Gone Baby Gone – Dennis Lehane

This is classic Lehane. A breakneck plot, believable characters, razor-sharp writing. But as a parent, I found this a wrenching read. First I was tortured with the question of what I’d do if one of my kids went missing, and then by the reality of what happens to missing kids. Be prepared to have your heart pierced and your stomach turned. Still, this is probably my favorite Lehane at this point, after Live by Nightand World Gone By.

A Long Weekend in Truckee

We were in Truckee for a long weekend and oh, how I love the mountains. I feel a sense of peace there. Though traveling with kids (ages 1 and 3) doesn’t exactly make for a restful experience. We were there with another couple who have two young kids, so they know the beauty and terror of parenthood. We survived on coffee and catnaps and great plans for what we’d do at night when the kids were asleep, though really what we ended up doing was pass out on the couch.

On Sunday we went to Donner Lake. It’s remarkable how the tragic story of the Donner family has lent its name to a lake, a mountain pass (where they famously were snowed in during the winter of 1846-1847 and resorted to cannibalism), and even a state park. Is there any other country that celebrates its own atrocities, that names its streets and cities after wildlife it has long hunted to extinction and native populations (in this case the Native Americans) it has killed and displaced?

Donner Lake is freezing cold, by the way. It consists of melt water, and this year the mountains finally got a good amount of snow after several years of drought. Our friends told us they knew someone who drowned in the lake a couple years back. He fell off his boat and died of hypothermia within minutes. The Coast Guard could not, or would not, recover his body, so the man’s family brought in a guy from the East Coast who specializes in recovering drowning victims. He suffered some tragedy of his own and now helps other families for a pay-what-you-can fee.

The water was too cold for the kids to go in very deep, which I didn’t mind. Afterwards, we came home and showered and the day slowed to a pleasant crawl. The setup of the house we rented was a little strange. Upstairs was a large playroom, which was great for my daughter (3), and downstairs was a sunken living room, which was a nightmare for my son (1). So my wife and I were constantly chasing after one or the other. But after a day at the beach everyone was tired, and we had a nice dinner, and then I dozed on the couch while watching Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

Last night, home again, there were 4th of July fireworks all over San Francisco. We watched from our sunroom. I got my daughter out of bed so she could see too. I knew she’d be cranky the next day for missing sleep, but they were her first fireworks, and as I stood in the dark, listening to her cries of excitement, I felt at peace again. For a few brief minutes, I had no place else to be.

Recent Reads – May 2017

Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is such a smooth, supple writer. He gives his characters real depth without ever slowing down his stories, and he’s a master plotter. But this new book didn’t do it for me. It starts off as one thing, then becomes something else entirely, and this “something else” was where Lehane lost me. Both the plot and the characters became increasingly ridiculous, and what seemed like an unsolvable situation turned out to be, well…

Gwendy’s Button Box – Stephen King and Richard Chimer

Stephen King has been in top form in recent years. 11/22/63 and Duma Key are two of his best novels in my opinion. But he’s also cranking out books at a rate he last managed in the 70s and 80s, when he was half a century younger and out of his mind on coke and booze. Consider this: he spent fifteen years on the first four parts of The Dark Tower only to finish the last three in a year. He’s been clearing out his drawers (Under the Dome, Blaze) and writing sequels (Doctor Sleep, the forthcoming Talisman book) and filling gaps in his oeuvre (The Wind through the Keyhole). Add to that the many comic books and film adaptations and TV shows (Haven, Under the Dome, The Mist) of his work, and you might feel King is everywhere.

No wonder, then, that not everything he does is a success. With Gwendy’s Button Box, he’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Apparently, he’d written 7,000 words and didn’t know how to go on, so he enlisted the help of fellow horror writer Richard Chizmar. You’d think that 7,000 words is no big loss for King, who reportedly produces 2,000 words a day, and he’d been better off just discarding this story altogether. It’s a vapid piece of writing. Neither the characters or the plot are remarkable in any sort of way. A big deal is made of the fact that this is a Castle Rock story — Castle Rock being the site of some of King’s best works — but really, the place is only mentioned a few times without serving an actual purpose. Reference is made to “The Monkey’s Paw,” one of King’s favorite stories, but in actuality Gwendy is more akin to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” also a favorite of King’s. But whereas that story was only one or two pages long, Gwendy stretches to well over a hundred. There is lots of setup and very little payoff. In the end, the story just kind of… fades out.

But King is a money-making machine, and Gwendy will sell and get positive reviews and do nothing to stop the world, myself included, from awaiting King’s next book, Sleeping Beauties, written with his son Owen and to be published later this year.

The Door into Summer – Robert Heinlein

This was a quick, fun read: a time-travel revenge story with a clever plot, breakneck pacing, and a likable grump for a main character. Oh, and an awesome cat.

Recent Reads – April 2017

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

Phew! What a long, strange trip it’s been. I read this book simultaneously on audio (read by the amazing Will Patton) and paper. I finished the audiobook first and then kept going with the actual book, underlining favorite passages etc. By the time I was done, I was exhausted. Exhausted of traveling back and forth across the American continent with Sal Paradise and his helpless, hopeless friend Dean Moriarty. And I think this was the point. Hidden beneath their euphoric, madcap adventures there is a great sadness, as there was to the whole Beat generation. These “boys and girls in America” lived hard and burned out fast. Something about their wild search for spiritual and sexual liberation, and their rejection of materialism, simply didn’t hold. Both Neal Cassady (the real-life Dean Moriarty) and Jack Kerouac (Sal Paradise) drowned themselves in drugs and alcohol, dying young. But for the short time they were here, they burned “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'” And there you have it: Kerouac wrote some truly transcendent prose, and I’m looking forward to reading The Dharma Bums and Big Sur next.

Big Fish – Daniel Wallace

This book reminded me of W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe in several ways. Both are big-hearted books about family; both are set in a down-homey, rosy-eyed version of the South where life is one big peach cobbler and no one’s ever heard of racism or poverty; and both books were turned into movies I loved long before I read the source material.

Of the two, Shoeless Joe is my favorite. It’s just a heartwarming book. It’s a nice warm blanket, a big warm hug of a book. Kinsella writes somewhere: “Moonlight butters the whole Iowa night.” Butters! It’s that kind of book.

Big Fish, in contrast, feels sterile. It’s barely a book, but more a collection of vignettes, lacking the warmth and catharsis of the movie, and only hinting at the complicated and ultimately heartbreaking father-and-son relationship that made me fall in love with the movie. The stories themselves are still funny, clever, enchanting, and very much worth reading. But this is one of those rare examples where a movie managed to take a central idea from the source material and expand on it and thereby make it better and more cohesive.

Jailbird – Kurt Vonnegut

This is the most straightforward Vonnegut book I’ve read so far and also the longest, but it was still very good, very funny, and very bizarre in that unique Vonnegut way.

Thoughts on Paul Auster’s 4321

“Auster’s first novel in seven years,” the cover of 4321 proudly states, though for me this is the first Paul Auster I’ve read since 2003’s Oracle Night. I tried but could not finish The Brooklyn Follies, Man in the Dark, or Invisible, and didn’t even pick up the other two books he published in the last 14 years. They did not contain that “Auster magic,” had nothing new to tell me; in fact, they felt stale and contrived and I decided that either Auster had lost his touch or I had lost my taste for his work, which meant I was afraid to reread my earlier favorites of his – The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, The Book of Illusions – because I didn’t want to spoil my memory of them if it turned out the fault was really mine, not Auster’s.

Then along came 4321, a book so big and ambitious I had to give it a shot. And lo and behold, I finished the darn thing, and I loved it. Almost without reserve. An 800-page behemoth telling four overlapping versions of the same life? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Auster makes it work. During the two months it took me to read this book, I kept worrying I’d stop caring or get bored or simply become overwhelmed and give up, but my attention never waned. (Part of that may be the fact that once I get past a certain point with big books, I become determined to finish them; the progress I make becomes as pleasing to me as the story itself; whereas I have no problem casting aside shorter books.)

Could this book have been shorter? Sure. Could there have been a little less Vietnam and other political talk in the last 200 pages? Sure, but politics tend to bore me anyway, so again this is my fault, not Auster’s.

Why did I like this book so much? The main character is not a particularly exciting individual, and what happens to him, retold in four different versions, also isn’t ground-shaking. Archie Ferguson grows up in New York; falls in and out of love; falls in and out of touch with his parents depending on which version of his life you’re reading; has lots of sex; and grows up to be a writer/poet/journalist. The reasons I stuck with the book were:

  1. Auster can be a great storyteller and here he’s in top form, spinning yarns that are funny, heartbreaking, or downright bizarre
  2. The book consists of long sinuous sentences that, strung together into long paragraphs and long pages, have a hypnotic effect
  3. I listened to part of the book on audio, read by Auster himself in his pleasant baritone
  4. I’m a writer myself, so the book was an interesting experiment in style and structure that I wanted to see if Auster could sustain till the end (he did). This is a book about how stories are told and how lives essentially are the stories we make of them. As such, it should be particularly appealing to people who are interested in the way stories are told

It might seem as if 4321 argues against the central conceit in Auster’s oeuvre, namely that our lives are ruled by chance. After all, how likely is it that many of the same things can happen to four different versions of Ferguson if the universe is pure chaos? But instead, Auster posits that all four versions of Ferguson would have lived the exact same life if chance had not intervened, tragically in some cases (people who live in some versions die in others). So in a way, this is The Music of Chance times four.

My one quibble with this book, despite its extraordinary length, is that it ends when Ferguson is in his late twenties. After some 800 pages, he’s still only at the beginning of his life, which means the book lacks that satisfyingly emotional gut-punch you get at the end of, say, The World According to Garp, where you feel you’ve really gone on a journey with a character and you’ve seen him rise and ultimately fade into darkness. Like Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, 4321 ends when our hero is at the beginning of his literary career, and you want there to be a sequel. I hope Auster gets around to writing one.

Living Your Best Life

Sheets of rain are running down the hill where I live. It’s an amazing sight. When I look out my dining room window, where I have a 180-degree view of the city and the bay, all I see is orange streetlights peeking through a gray haze. We need the rain after several years of drought, but we’ve been getting so much of it since the start of the year that it’s causing all kinds of problems, big and small, up and down the state. That’s climate change for ya, the weather turning extreme.

All this rain has caused the roof of the sunroom to leak. I climbed up there two summers back to fix the flash siding, which got us through the previous winter, when it barely rained, but now there’s no stopping the water from coming in. It’s getting into the walls, the floor. Which is a reminder that, yes, we may build houses to separate ourselves from Mother Nature, but Mother Nature will always find a way inside. My wife and I bought this house four years ago, and it’s been a constant struggle to keep out mold and ants and skunks and raccoons and tree roots. Which is also a reminder that by damaging the environment, we’re really damaging ourselves, because we’re the ones who have to live with the consequences. This planet will survive us, whether we exchange it for Mars or go extinct. In the end, Mother Nature will have the last laugh. This should demand respect.

Tuesday mornings are always hectic anyway. Besides the usual routine of feeding the kids, the dogs, and the cats, my wife and I have to get our son ready for a playdate. Twice a week we take him to friends who live in the neighborhood for a nanny share. This way I’m home with just my daughter, who is more self-sufficient, giving me time to work and, during her nap, run. I’ve gotten good, in the years since my kids were born, at squeezing some time for myself into the nooks and crannies and empty spaces of the day. During my runs, for instance, I listen to audiobooks, and there are books lying all over the house, so when I make coffee or food I can get some quick reading done. I write by hand a lot for that same reason. Last year, I completed an entire book that way.

Like the rain, like Mother Nature, like the raccoons and other nighttime visitors from nearby McLaren Park, I squeeze myself into the cracks of the day. We’re all just trying to live our best lives.