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 – August 2016

How Great SF WorksHow Great Science Fiction Works – Gary K. Wolfe

It probably isn’t fair to say I “read” this. Some of these lectures I watched, others I listened to, but since my reading these days increasingly consists of audiobooks (try reading an actual paper book when you’ve got a toddler and a baby) it’s all the same thing. These lectures served as a nice refresher on the history and dominant themes of SF, and provided me with a list reading tips. Gary K. Wolfe writes and talks eloquently about SF, so to anyone who enjoyed these lectures I’d also recommend his reviews for Locus and the Chicago Tribube and his weekly Coode Street podcast.


The HumblingThe Humbling – Philip Roth

In ROTH UNBOUND, Claudia Roth Pierpont’s thoughtful study of Philip Roth’s oeuvre, the following line appears in reference to the quartet of short novels Roth produced at the end of his career, collectively known as NEMESES: “Is there a danger that a young reader coming upon these books will think that this is all there is to the work?” This question haunted my recent reading of THE HUMBLING, one of these short novels. I wish I could remember what the first Roth book was I ever read — my guess is either SABBATH’S THEATER or AMERICAN PASTORAL, still two of my all-time favorites. I’ve been reading Roth since the mid-nineties, but what if THE HUMBLING had been my first? Would I have wanted to read more of his work, and would I have developed the kind of deep admiration I currently have for the man I consider to be my favorite writer? I doubt it.

My first instinct was to deem this book lazily written and imagined. But Philip Roth can hardly be accused of laziness. Between 1990 and his retirement in 2010, he published an astonishing 13 novels — almost as many as he published during the first 31 (!) years of his career — and won pretty much every major literary award except for the Nobel Prize. So what THE HUMBLING suffers from is in fact the opposite of laziness: industriousness. Roth, for whatever reason, pressed on even when his writing engine was clearly running on fumes. So THE HUMBLING revisits a tired theme (an old man being saved and ultimately destroyed by a much younger woman) and does absolutely nothing noteworthy with it. There isn’t a memorable thought, image, or sentence in this book. In fact, this may be the nadir in Roth’s otherwise astounding career.

Luckily, he gave us one final book before retiring: NEMESIS, a worthy coda that almost reaches the heights of his best work.

In One PersonIn One Person – John Irving

Five pages into IN ONE PERSON, John Irving has already checked most of his obsession-boxes. An adolescent boy enamored with an older woman; Charles Dickens; breasts; a missing father; more breasts; premature sex; a writer protagonist. All that’s missing are a bear and a transvestite. If this were a drinking game, you’d be blitzed already.

I once heard Irving remark that a writer doesn’t choose his obsessions – they choose him. This is true. Philip Roth’s books are populated by hysterical Jewish mothers and kind, ineffectual Jewish fathers and rebellious, often artistically inclined Jewish sons. It’s what you do with these familiar ingredients that matters. Unfortunately, the opening pages of IN ONE PERSON read like an echo of his previous (better) novels. Already we can guess the protagonist will have some formative sexual experience with this older woman, and that his adult life will be beset tragedy and random circumstance that will echo the life of his missing father, and that he will end up a jaded, melancholy older writer scarred by loss. This, in brief, is the plot of his most celebrated novel, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, and many of his books since then, including LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER and AVENUE OF MIRACLES.

So my guess is that your enjoyment of IN ONE PERSON will depend on how many other Irving books you’ve read, or your capacity for encountering the same story over and over without getting bored.

The Farmer's DaughterThe Farmer’s Daughter – Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison secured his place as one of my all-time favorite authors with the novels DALVA, THE ROAD HOME, TRUE NORTH, and RETURNING TO EARTH. The fact that, after years and years of reading Harrison, I still haven’t gotten through all his books is because I keep revisiting those four novels. But every now and then I dip into the rest of his oeuvre.

Besides novels, Harrison is best known for his poetry and novellas — he has written nine collections of novellas. THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER is one such collection. Read much Jim Harrison, and you’ll find that he continually revisits the same themes and obsessions. In the novels, these have room to coalesce into profound meditations on life, lust, love, and literature. But his recent novellas, including those collected in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER, have felt kind of samey to me. Harrison’s male protagonists have never met a woman they didn’t lust after. They read Lorca and listen to Mozart while traveling and eating abundantly. And his female protagonists have never met a man whose sexual advances weren’t both ridiculous and endearing to them.

Still, Harrison stirs these familiar elements into entertaining stories that, on a sentence level, outstrip much other contemporary literature that I read, even if in Harrison’s oeuvre they are minor efforts.

SpinSpin – Robert Charles Wilson

I like my SF to crack my mind wide open, and this book did exactly that. I’m less interested in space battles than I am in exploring the potential of the human race, our survival on this planet or in space, what it might be like to encounter alien intelligence, or the strange workings of time. SPIN contains all these elements, as well as a touching story about love and friendship. This is the best SF novel I’ve read all year.