#298 In which our hero discusses what he's been reading in the past year (2010 edition, part 1)
Here's what I "read" in 2010. I put read in quotes since I listened to many more audiobooks than I did read physical books. You'll notice that this list isn't as long as the 2009 list, and that's because my car CD player stopped working in the last third of the year, greatly curtailing my consumption of books.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (audio book)
I actually started this book in 2009 and finished it off in the beginning of the year. I picked this up at the library on a lark. I liked the sound of the universe the author created, even if I was a little hesitant about the references to Charlotte Brontë. I’ve never read any of her work, and have never been motivated to do so.
And while I continue to be indifferent about Brontë, I loved this book. I find the parallel universe genre attractive, especially when it’s done well. I thought this book was especially well written, and the setting was familiar enough to seem real, and the “alternative” elements woven in skillfully. I enjoyed the protagonist, Thursday Next, as she pursued evil mastermind Acheron Hades through the novel Jane Eyre. I suspect that there’s a lot in this book that I didn’t pick up on, not being well read in the classics, but I liked it nevertheless. So much so, that I’ll be looking for additional books in the series, of which there are several.
The Domostroi: Rules for Russian households in the time of Ivan the Terrible by Carolyn Johnston Pouncy (editor, translator)
I have sort of vested interest in Russian history, as it plays a part in the medieval reenactment group I play with. That said, it often feels like studying and not reading for pleasure when I pick up a book like this—which explains why I haven’t done much reading about Russian history. But, I had hoped this book would be different, more entertaining and less like a written lecture. It mostly was (entertaining, that is). That said, it was still a tough slough in parts, and I felt a great deal of relief when it was done. I’m better off for having read it, though.
The Library Policeman by Stephen King (audio book)
This is from King’s “Four Past Midnight” collection, which I read years ago. I don’t remember much of the story, other than there’s a horrible child rape scene in it performed by a weird old guy with a speech impediment. The audio book is read by Ken Howard and, I must admit, I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing the White Shadow perform an old, lisping pedophile.
As it turns out, Ken Howard can read the hell out of a book! Since I started aggressively listening to audio books, I’ve heard a lot of performers who are good, and a few who were great. I’d put Howard into the great category. He managed to give each character a unique, believable voice of their own; no mean feat with a Stephen King book full of characters who lisp, sputter and scream. And children… it’s hard for an adult to sound like a believable child, but Howard pulls it off pretty well.
The story itself with pretty much typical King: an ancient evil returns to torment a colorful cast of characters in small-town Maine. But I have a soft spot in my heard for his writing, even when it gets strange.
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (audio book)
Maybe it’s because I worked in a restaurant for years (not a Red Lobster, though) and I could relate to a lot of what was discussed, but I really enjoyed this book. Many of the Amazon reviews scored it harshly, criticizing it for being too brief and lacking a real plot. I don’t disagree with that—the book’s about what happens to the crew of a Red Lobster on the last snowy night before they close forever—there is no big plot developments nor any really exciting action, really. But that’s part of the reason I liked it, it was a wonderful character sketch. The characters talked and acted like real, breathing people. And the action, what there was of it, was realistic, too. Because that’s what happens most nights at a restaurant… people come in, food is made and served, minor disasters are cleaned up… that’s it.
I also enjoyed this book because the author gives wonderful descriptions. When he described removing the heavy, damp snow from the parking lot, he wrote that it was like “shoveling wet cake.” I thought that was an amazing choice of words, and it really struck me. I’d read this book again just for the language.
Haunted: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk (audio book)
Palahniuk’s writing can be an acquired taste, but I’ve always enjoyed his work. However, this novel can be taxing, even for a fan, like me.
This is essentially a collection of short stories, strung together with a rather contrived plot device. I enjoyed the short stories on their own merits. But the framing device was sometimes a labor to get through. I mean, Palahniuk’s narratives are often divorced from reality, but this one took the notion of suspension of disbelief and cut it into pieces. At times, I wished I could just enjoy the short stories without having to slough through the rest of it.
That being said, I do admire Palahniuk’s skill as a writer. Many of the concepts he brought up were paid off much later in the work. This really is much more than a collection of unrelated stories; it’s a narrative woven together from more than a dozen different vantage points and voices.
Checking reviews on Amazon, I was amused to see that it’s almost a dead heat between each rating, with 5- and 4-star ratings just barely nudging out 3-, 2- and 1-star ratings.
The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard (audio book)
I had it in my head that Elmore Leonard wrote westerns. I’ve since realized that I had him confused with Louis L’Amour. Not that westerns are bad, just not my preferred genre. Anyway, the back of this audio book reminded me that Leonard wrote Get Shorty, which I really enjoyed as a movie, and wasn’t a western at all, so I picked it up.
Now I wish I had read his stuff years before.
This particular book is set in the 1920s which, I’ve since read, isn’t his usual time frame. But the setting doesn’t matter, because what hooked me was the action and great dialog. I’ve written before that I love dialog that rings true in the books I read. And all the tough guy talking in this book was fantastic. Halfway into the thing I found myself wanting to talk in the short, sharp cadence of these characters, and maybe pick up a tommy gun and direct a hundred rounds toward the nearest bank robber and/or lawman.
I’ll definitely be reading more of his stuff in the future.
“The Fat Stamp” from The Scent of Spiced Oranges and Other Stories by Les Roberts
This short story was available for download from the author’s website. Les Roberts writes tough guy mysteries, which aren’t really my thing, but I downloaded and read this story because I have a history with Roberts, in a way.
Years ago I took a creative writing class through a local continuing education program. Actually, I took this program every quarter it was offered for a couple of years, until they stopped offering it. The teacher knew Les and had him in a couple of times over the years to give a short lecture about the art and business of writing.
What he had to say was interesting, if not exactly fascinating. But he was (and is) a working author, so there was real value in what he had to say. But one anecdote he related left me cold.
He related how he was at a signing at a local bookstore when a man presented Roberts with a book to sign. As he was doing that, the man asked, “Can I give you some constructive criticism?” To which Roberts replied, “Have you ever won a prestigious award for your writing?” The man had not, so Roberts continued, “Then no, you cannot give me your criticism.”
This stuck me as incredibly rude. Here was this guy, clearly a fan as he was standing in line to have his book signed, and Roberts insults him. I mean, I understand his rationale, that guy probably didn’t really have any amazingly illuminating insight to offer. But what if he had? What if he told Roberts something he had never thought of before? What if he gave him some tiny nugget of information that he could expand into a best-selling novel?
But my real question is, what harm would it have done to just let the guy talk? Maybe Roberts would have had to suffer through some nonsense for a couple of minutes… so what? Roberts is out five minutes, and this guy continues to be an admiring fan.
By insulting the guy, I think he risked losing a fan. I suppose if you’re Stephen King or John Grisham it doesn’t matter if you lose a fan or a hundred. But mid-list authors should be more careful about their fan base, I think.
Moreover, he told the story with glee, and clearly felt like he got one over this dumb rube who would dare critique the work of The Great Les Roberts.
So, I’ve been cold on Roberts ever since. That, coupled the fact that he doesn’t write a genre that appears to me, is the reason I’ve never read any of his stuff. Until this short story.
I found it unimpressive.
It was never meant to be a crowning achievement (and that’s probably why it is available for free on the Internet) but it’s just flat. There are some nice observational details in it, but they aren’t enough to save the story from its predictable progression, and implausible conclusion.
Guess I wasn’t really missing anything.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (audio book)
I remember hearing about this book on NPR. It caught my attention as the protagonist was described as a “Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien.” However, I had forgotten about it until I stumbled upon it at the library (the source of all the off-beat books I consume).
The book started with a quote from Galactus, so you know I was hooked from the beginning. In fact, the entire narrative was sprinkled with fanboy references, some of which I’m sure flew over my head.
The book is really three books in one… detailing the life stories of the titular Oscar Wao, his mother and his grandfather. I enjoyed Oscar’s story very much. It was uncomfortably familiar in some parts, funny in some parts, and ultimately heartbreaking. The other two stories… not so much. They seemed to drag in parts, and I felt myself wishing that the author would get back to Oscar. That said, they’re very well written, and just as my attention would start to drift, the strong writing would pull me back in.
This is one of the times that the format (audio book) made the experience less enjoyable for me. The disks themselves were in back shape, and skipped terribly, forcing me to fast forward over big chunks of the story. But the structure of the novel itself—numerous footnotes, untranslated Spanish dialog—would have been more enjoyable to read, rather than listen to. I should mention, however, that the voice actor who read the book was fantastic.
Also, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. I’m going out on a limb and say that this is probably the only Pulitzer-winning novel in which The Watcher plays a significant role.
Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard (audio book)
As stated above, I was excited to get into another Elmore Leonard book. Sadly, this book didn’t live up to my expectations. It was a little slow, and didn’t build to any big moment that really excited me. Reading Amazon.com reviews, a lot of people agree with me and found this to be one of Leonard’s lesser works. That’s too bad. I’ll probably give him another chance at some point in the future, but I’ll be sure to pick a highly-rated book, not just what happens to be available at the library.
To be continued.