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.

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┬ácome 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.