#286 In which our hero discusses what he's been reading in the past year (part 1)
Some time around the beginning of this year I started writing down everything I read. Well, not everything, just novels and collections of short stories. This is something I had been meaning to do for a couple years, mostly to figure out how many books I read a year. Because this question comes up from time to time, and I really have no idea.
Once I started on the list, I figured I might as well write a little review of what I thought about the book, too.
You’ll notice that around March I discovered audio books. It’s not like I didn’t know about them before, I just never bothered to check any out of the library. But, being that I have a 40 minute commute twice a day, five days a week, it gave me something to do other than listen to the news.
Holy crap, I wish I had started listening to audio books years ago. As you’ll see, I’ve been tearing them up.
Also, I suppose I should include SPOILER ALERT because I'm not taking any pains to conceal the plot. I'm just writing about what I thought, which may include the ending. Be ye warned.
So, here’s my ear-end wrap-up of what I’ve been reading.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
I was out with some friends, and the topic of great sci-fi literature came up. This book was mentioned and several people around the table enthusiastically agreed that it was a great one. So I picked it up.
While I enjoyed it, this book left me with the same feeling that I’ve experienced with a lot of old (circa 60-70s) sci-fi. That the story wasn’t the point, that it was only there to set up a bigger and (in the author’s mind) more important thing. In this book, the preface by the author even states that his real reason for writing the book was to introduce the idea of Ender being a “speaker for the dead.”
And that’s all well and good, but it left me feeling that the bulk of the manuscript was hurried, like Card wanted to get to what he considered the good stuff and the bulk of the story was just in the way. And when we do get to the “good stuff,” it seems like it comes out of the blue, like a tacked on ending. The entire book is about Ender being a war strategy prodigy, and the twist ending (which I saw coming a mile away) in which he successfully defeats the aliens. This battle at the end, which seems like it should have been the big climax, felt anti-climatic. Mostly because that wasn’t the author’s idea of the climax, it was the last 20 or so somewhat rambling pages about what Ender did after the war. And the whole “Ender fought against the aliens so much that he formed a kind of psychic bond with them” was a huge WTF? moment for me.
Enjoyable old-school sci-fi, but not the best I’ve ever read and not, despite what was said around that pub table, one of the greats of the genre.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
And enjoyable horror story. It read to me like it was written by a younger and more in touch with the times Stephen King. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, since Joe Hill is the pen name of Stephen King’s son.
Some of the early ghost-in-the-house stuff was really pretty unnerving (which is the point) but I was less impressed with the second half and climax. Very nice coda to the story, however.
Soon I will be Invincible by Austin Grossman
As a comic book geek I was instantly drawn to this story. I had read a favorable review and stuck it on my Amazon wish list (this is SOP for me… any book that sounds interesting goes on my wish list immediately or I tend to forget about them. This way I can review my list when I’m looking for something new to read or, even better, sometimes one or more of these books magically appear at my birthday or Christmas).
As I write, the concept (superheroes/villains in the real world) appealed to me, but I’m afraid it was better in the abstract than in the reading. It was good, don’t get me wrong, and I tore through it… but it seemed that I had read better executions of this concept before, most notably “Astro City” and “Ex Machina” (both real live comic books, not novels, so maybe the comparison isn’t really fair).
But, the ending did catch me off guard--which it shouldn’t have since the author played fair with comic book logic--and I found it very satisfying.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
I have been reluctant to pick books from the “Literature” section of the store before, since I’ve found that this label often translates to mean “inaccessible.” I enjoy reading, but I don’t want to labor to finish a book. That’s why I’ll probably never read Moby Dick… even though it’s a classic, etc., the bits and pieces I’ve read of it are dense, and it takes some doing to get through them. No thanks.
But I was pleased to find that Cormac McCarthy, despite being labeled “America’s Greatest Living Author,” writes in a clear, straightforward manner. It’s not without art, but his prose never feels like it’s in danger of collapsing under it’s own weight.
My one beef, though, is how he eschews proper punctuation, especially the “quotes” mark. This made it hard to follow some of the he said/she said dialog in the book. This complaint comes from a deep part of my brain, which says that if I have to follow proper punctuation in my writing, he should have to, too.
However, this punctuation omission is mostly forgiven because the dialog is so damn strong. There’s nothing that takes me out of the narrative faster than ham-fisted, fake-sounding dialog. McCarthy’s dialog rings true to me in every instance; it sounds like read people talking. I really love it.
That said, this was an odd book. The first hundred pages unfold at a rapid clip, and it sets all the characters on what seems to be a well-used and understood path. The resourceful everyman will defeat the overwhelming obstacle of the psychotic hitman, perhaps with the winking approval of the weary sheriff, and emerge with a few more scars, wiser for the experience.
But that’s not where the book goes. Not even close.
Instead the everyman dies, well before the end, and does so “off camera.” His death is senseless and, to me at least, unexpected. I went back to make sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped a chapter.
Then, as things are wrapping up, the psycho killer shows up at the dead man’s house to kill his wife, who’s been innocent of any wrong-doing in the entire novel. And after he kills her, he gets away. Not without injury, but still, he’s never caught. In fact, the killer is actually rewarded in the end, moving on to bigger and better clients. It is the complete opposite of what you’d expect to happen.
And finally, the grizzled old sheriff who took on the case is left with no resolution, to final fulfillment, no “it was all worth it” moment. He just fades away, his soul disquiet.
I was so surprised by the ending of this novel that I immediately went out and rented the movie. Surely, I thought, the movie doesn’t end on such a downer. They must have Hollywoodized the ending to make it more digestible to a mainstream audience.
Even the movie ends quietly, without any real revelations, no neat tied-with-a-bow conclusions. I really respect the film makers for that (but then again, it was made by the Coen brothers, and they’re phenomenal).
I think what I liked best, in both novel and movie, is that it all rings true. Unlike most novels, where the author jumps through considerable hoops to make the good guy win in the end, that doesn’t happen in real life. The good guy can do all the right things, and still lose. The bad guy can be really bad, but still get away scott-free.
Glory Lane by Alan Dean Foster
This book was in the unfortunate position of being the first one I read after No Country for Old Men, a great book. It is also in the unfortunate position of being a shitty book.
Now, I’ve read a lot of Alan Dean Foster, he was a mainstay of my early teen years. I like his stuff. But this book was just a turd, start to finish.
I probably most enjoy the dialog in the books I read. Again, this book suffered from the fact that I had just finished No Country for Old Men, which had great, realistic, telling dialog. This piece of crap had that overly-clever, look-how-cool-this-character-is dialog. For example, here’s a bit from the main protagonist (a spike-haired punk rocker) as he tries to hit on a cute girl working behind the counter at a bowling alley.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Well now, that’s a leading question, isn’t it? I mean, it presupposes that I need help and that you could be of some assistance to me without even knowing what my problem is. Fascinating concept. You aren’t by any chance telepathic, are you?”
Ugh. And here’s a bit where he’s about to be thrown out of the same bowling alley by the owner.
“We don’t want your kind in here.”
“My kind?” [He] tensed as he glanced diffidently at the big hand, but didn’t otherwise react to the touch. “What kind might that be?”
“Bums. Jerks. Punks.”
“Ah. Now there you have me, sir. I will admit to the third. As for the preceding pair I’m afraid you’re way off base, but then I can see that you didn’t quite complete your graduate degree in sociology so I suppose we need to make some allowances.”
While this is painful to read, I also found it nostalgic. Because this is the kind of stuff I loved to read when I was 14 or so. I imagined that kids older and cooler than me (which wasn’t really saying much) really did talk like this, and I wanted to grow up to be as cool as they are. Now, I see that it’s just bullshit writing, with no ring of truth to it. This nostalgia is the only thing that kept be reading… that and the fact that the book was given to me by a friend.
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (audio book)
While I wasn’t blown away by Heart-Shaped Box, I enjoyed it enough to try some more of Joe Hill’s stuff.
Am I ever glad I did.
This collection of short stories is really amazing. I found it far more enjoyable than his novel-length work (but, to be fair, I’ve only read one of his novels). I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, of course, but I don’t think there was a clunker in the lot. And a couple, most notably “Abraham’s Boys,” “In the Rundown” and “Last Breath” were really remarkable. These three in particular are creepy, emotional, moving and really got under my skin.
But the standout, in my mind, was “Pop Art.” The concept is so ludicrous it shouldn’t work, but shortly into it my skepticism was completely gone and I was wholly into the story. I’m a sucker for stories like these anyway, but I haven’t been so moved by a story since, perhaps fittingly, Stephen King’s “The Body.”
It’s worth noting that this isn’t a collection of horror stories per se, in fact, many of them are rather sweet (or, at least, bitter-sweet). I find this collection even more impressive since Hill is so often working outside his chosen genre.
Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk (audio book)
Wacky. That’s what this book was. Soaked with sex and wacky. I may have learned a little about the porn industry, but it’s difficult to determine what is factual, and what is just made-up bullshit. I suspect that a lot of what I thought was too crazy to be true probably IS true. I guess this was a fun book but, honestly, it’s so demeaning and misogynistic at it’s core that it’s difficult to get past it. Like all of Palahniuk’s stuff, not for everyone.
Twisted Little Vein by Warren Ellis
I’m a big fan of Warren Ellis. I’ve read several of his comics, and thought some of them (most notably “Transmetropolitan” and “Planetary”) were amazingly nuanced and insightful works of art. That’s why I was so disappointed in this, his first prose novel.
The over-arching theme--that America has slipped so far into depravity that many of the formally marginalized acts by the sick and twisted are now mainstream--is gleefully hammered over your head time and time again with great ham-shaped mitts.
And much of the writing simply does not work. I wouldn’t have expected there to be so much dissonance between a comic page and a novel page, but there is. In the comics you can slip in some outrageous act in the background, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. But in a novel, when that same outrageous act is described in detail, I found the entire novel coming to a crashing halt. It doesn’t help that the book is set in modern day, providing the additional hardship of limiting the amount of disbelief I was willing to suspend. So when, say, the Secretary of State mysteriously visits the protagonist and injects himself with monkey feces to get high… I’m sorta not buying it.
Probably most damning is that this book pales compared to Transmet, which is much better and was written nearly a decade earlier. Many of the same themes are explored, but being that Transmet is set in the future, Ellis’ tendency to invent outrageous drugs/sex acts/etc. (Bowel Disruptor, anyone?) adds to the setting, unlike his novel, in which they detract (e.g., Godzilla bukkake porn – ugh).
It’s sad, because Ellis is a great writer, but he seems hell-bent in this book to push the Mad Englishman persona he has so skillfully developed as a personal brand. I suspect that his secret ambition is to have Twisted Little Vein shelved at the local Borders with Naked Lunch, Still Life with Woodpecker, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas and other works that appeal to college kids and pretentious douchebags. Sadly, they’d be better off heading over to the comic book section to see his good writing.
To be continued.