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.

Recent Reads – February 2017

The Drawing of the ThreeThe Drawing of the Three – Stephen King

I’ve lost count of all the times I tried reading the Dark Tower series and got stuck in this book. If I wasn’t on a journey now to (re)read every Stephen King book — a journey perhaps as daunting as Roland’s trek to the Dark Tower — I might have given up again. But this time I made it to the end. Hallelujah.

Why did I struggle? I liked the book okay. Didn’t love it. King is always an entertaining storyteller, and a lot happens so the book is never boring. But every scene felt like it was stretched to the breaking point — they just went on and on and on. I suspect that with this book King decided to turn the Dark Tower into his magnum opus come hell or high water, and he started throwing everything at the wall hoping it would stick. (Apparently, he suffered from George RR Martin syndrome long before Martin himself did.)

I’ve heard this book described as a “bridge book,” and supposedly The Waste Lands is better, so onward and upward I go… to the Dark Tower.

Mother NightMother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

I have to be in a certain mood to read Kurt Vonnegut: the mood for silly profundity. So whenever that mood strikes, I read him in big gulps before it goes away again. Luckily, his books are never long or needlessly complex. This is a compliment. I’m always amazed, when I’m reading Vonnegut, at how effortless his books go down and how smoothly they seem put together. His narrators jump back and forth in time, they interrupt their stories with seemingly random asides and drawings, minor characters pop up, disappear, and reappear again; in short, Vonnegut does what any writing teacher would tell you NOT to do and somehow makes it work. Gloriously so.

Vonnegut’s books have a logic all their own, an infectious kind of madness. They’re all the same in this regard. Read one Vonnegut and you’ve read them all. This, too, is a compliment. Book after book, he offers a sustained vision of life as being both beautiful and absurd. So what can I say about Mother Night that I haven’t already said about, say, Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse Five? Just read it. For a Vonnegut newbie, this is as good a place to start as any. For a Vonnegut convert, this one ranks among his best and shouldn’t be missed.

Waiting for ContactWaiting for Contact – Lawrence Squeri

This book started off with a big bang (wink wink): it talked about the history of man’s fascination with extraterrestrial life, moving from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the more wonky area of ufology. But once SETI comes into play, things start to drag. A history of man’s search for ET isn’t complete without a close look at SETI of course, but the entire middle section of this book is taken up with recapping conferences, funding problems, and internal strife that left me with the feeling that SETI is too small, too conflicted, too underfunded, and has been too unsuccessful to really offer much hope of ever finding alien intelligence. Things pick up again in the last few pages, when the author widens his scope by theorizing about the future and new technologies for making contact. To anyone who finds this interesting, I’d recommend reading Paul Davies’ excellent THE EERIE SILENCE instead. Unless you want to find out how much government funding SETI received in, say, 1979. In that case, read Squeri’s book.

Recent Reads – December 2016

Time TravelTime Travel – James Gleick

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

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

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

 
 

The Colorado KidThe Colorado Kid – Stephen King

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

Trout Fishing in AmericaTrout Fishing in America – Richard Brautigan

This book speaks my language.

Favorite Books of 2016

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

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

* published in 2016

Drama in the Bahamas: Remembering Ali vs Berbick

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

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

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

Waltzing with Robbie Robertson

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

Recent Reads – November 2016

A Whole LifeA Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

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

EverymanEveryman – Philip Roth

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

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

World Gone ByWorld Gone By – Dennis Lehane

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

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

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

Dolores ClaiborneDolores Claiborne – Stephen King

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

JoylandJoyland – Stephen King

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

 

Recent Reads – September 2016

 Fat CityFat City – Leonard Gardner

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

Bag of BonesBag of Bones – Stephen King

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

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

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

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

GGhostlandhostland: An American History in Haunted Places – Colin Dickey

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