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.

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.

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.

 

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.