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.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

This book is a blast. Its 700+ pages intimidated me at first (I have two young kids and very littlereading time) but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I reviewed this book for NRC.

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.

Recent Reads – March 2017

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

There was a time when George Saunders was one of my favorite writers. I loved his first two books, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. But then my interest waned as his star rose — the former having nothing to do with the latter, by the way; I just gravitated toward a different kind of fiction. Anyway, I never read his most celebrated book to date, Tenth of December. I did, however, meet him right after In Persuasion Nation came out, and he read one of my short stories, and I’ll never forget the incredibly kind and generous feedback he gave me. I think it’s that kindness, which you find in his writings and in the interviews he gives, that people respond to and that have made Saunders into a critical darling — he can do no wrong. So when rapturous reviews started pouring in for Lincoln in the Bardo, I figured the only way for me to get a real sense of whether the book was any good was to read it myself. And it is good. It’s weird and wonderful like the best of his stories, and it contains some genuinely heartbreaking moments (like Lincoln’s first visit to his son’s tomb). Oh George, it’s good to be back.

Story of Your LifeStory of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang

I have conflicted feelings about this book. Two of its stories — “Tower of Babylon” and “Story of Your Life” — are brilliant, while others felt more like essays on interesting SFnal ideas rather than full-fledged stories. Admittedly, I prefer this to fiction where the SFnal elements are just window-dressing to a non-SF plot — meaning, I like science fiction that can’t exist without its science — but the lack of “story” in some of Chiang’s stories made it hard for me to emotionally connect with them. I’m sure this fault is all mine because the stories that did work for me, particularly the title one, are truly heartbreaking. So as a collection of fiction, this didn’t entirely work for me, but as a collection of mind-boggling SFnal ideas wrapped in fiction, it’s stellar.

(I also wrote about the movie Arrival recently.)

Slaughterhouse-fiveSlaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

I have now read six Vonneguts in a row, and my modest theory on why Slaughterhouse-Five is his best-known book is that it combines the zaniness of his earlier work with the more cohesive storytelling of his later career (say, Jailbird). Like his best books, this one is deceptively profound and hilarious. It’s so good, in fact, you want the Trafalmadorian theory about life to be true: that a dead person is only dead in this moment but still very much alive in other moments. I’d like to think Vonnegut is still out there somewhere, scribbling away.

TimequakeTimequake – Kurt Vonnegut

This book is hysterical. I listened to the audio version while I ran and several times had to interrupt my run because I was laughing so hard.



Dog walkerDogwalker – Arthur Bradford

I come back to this book every 2 or 3 years. It’s short, bizarre, hilarious, tender-hearted, and unlike anything else I’ve read.


Thoughts on Dr. Strange

1) I didn’t catch the bad guy’s name but it sounded like Yo Momma
2) As a bearded man, should I be offended that whenever someone’s down in the dumps in a Hollywood movie, they grow a beard?
3) It’s ironic that a movie about turning back time is a complete waste of time
4) I was told this is a different kind of Marvel movie, and that’s true to some extent: it’s painfully unfunny and relatively short (though still almost 2 hours)
5) The plot in a nutshell: a privileged white man gets hurt, travels to Asia, and is healed by some mysterious guru whose previous student went rogue — The Dark Knight Rises anyone?
6) I’d like Hollywood to cast Mads Mikkelson in a non-villain role for once, because his performance in the Danish film Jagten (The Hunt) was riveting
7) Mikkelson’s character steals a spell from the library that allows him to open up the space-time continuum and become immortal — which turns out to be another spell that Dr. Strange finds in that same library. So this entire movie could have been prevented if Mikkelson had known how to do a proper library search
8) I was told this was a “smart” Marvel movie. Sure enough: there were so many plot holes and inconsistencies, the whole thing was pretty much incomprehensible. My grandma used to tell me a fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer, meaning: Profound stupidity is its own kind of smartness
9) Where were all the women? I think I only saw Rachel McAdams zip by somewhere and Tilda Swinton, who was made to look like an oversized newborn baby
10) The visuals are so good and the script so bad, this movie would actually be improved if you watched it on mute

Thoughts on Arrival

I finally watched Arrival. I’d been looking forward to seeing it, because I love the short story it’s based on (“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) and the soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson, so my expectations were high. And they were largely met. I thought it was a remarkably tender, meditative movie whose message that communication and understanding between countries can prevent violence is especially relevant today. Plus how often do you see an SF movie with a female lead, and a linguist to boot?

But there was a key difference between the story and the movie that at first seemed random and then increasingly bothered me. (SPOILER ALERT) In the short story, Louise’s daughter dies in a climbing accident. In the movie, she dies from a rare unstoppable disease. As Louise learns the heptapods’ language and rewires her brain to see time as they do, she realizes that her daughter is going to die. In the story, she can save her with a simple warning, but doesn’t. The movie, on the other hand, makes the girl’s death inevitable, which misses the central point of the story, I think.

Humans see time as a sequence of cause and effect, and our language is a reflection of this. The heptapods, however, see time as a single entity — they see the beginning and end points of each action, but they do not have the power to change anything. The movie acknowledges this when the heptapods explain they came to Earth because in 3,000 years they’ll need humanity’s help, but rather than following through on this idea of time being a fixed entity, the movie in its final minutes turns into a fairly typical time travel story that doesn’t address the central conceit it started out with: namely, if Louise can prevent her daughter’s death, why doesn’t she?

In the story, Louise simply can’t prevent it. She knows it’s coming, but cannot deviate from the path that leads to this outcome, which makes her story profoundly tragic. In the movie, by choosing to have a daughter she knows will die, Louise becomes a martyr (or a narcissist — her husband leaves her when he finds out she knew all along that their daughter would die; in the story, he leaves her for other reasons, simply because some marriages fall apart). This outcome is still tragic in its own right — Louise chooses heartbreak simply to give her daughter the chance to live — but it’s not in line with the whole setup of the movie.

Why did the screenwriters do this? Was it an oversight? Did they not “get” the source material? Did they “dumb down” the movie to fit a particular mold?

Still, I loved the movie, but for different reasons than the story. The story is profound and poignant. The movie is too, but within the limits that Hollywood has put on it.