Some Quick Summary Comments

I haven’t posted here in forever – something about having a baby now that limits my time.  So, here are a few things I’d like to say about what I’ve been reading.

This was on NPR’s “best books of 2011” list and it was about Florida, so I really was looking forward to it.  It had its moments, that’s for sure, but overall it wasn’t as tight of a narrative as I would have expected from a best books of 2011 entry.  There were also a few times when I wondered, without knowing the answer, just how much time the author spent in the everglades before writing this book.  I also wished she had used real place names.  I can’t decide – the book either tried to do too much or it didn’t do enough.  A better book like this is one called A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith.

I moved on from there to something that I knew I would certainly enjoy a bit more, but was for sure not on any top ten books of the year list.  Returning to my favorite sci-fi author, Alastair Reynolds, I read his Century Rain.  It was very good, though a bit of a departure for him from his normal, thematically.  It was still very much sci-fi, but not quite the hard core, vacuum of space, type story I’ve come to expect.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and also enjoyed how he incorporated little tidbits of real history into the flow of his narrative, like the bit about how Guy de Maupassant ate lunch under the Eiffel Tower because that was the only place in the city of Paris where you could eat lunch without having to see the tower.  Wanting something a bit more “spacey,” from him, I next turned to…

Pushing Ice, I had heard, was quite the fan favorite, and it was easy to see why.  I was riveted to the narrative, and genuinely felt some of the emotion behind the tough decisions the crew had to make.  One minor complaint was I felt the back and forth in terms of leadership position between the two main characters went one back and forth too much.  It felt a little bit forced then.  But that really is so minor because this is a fantastic story, a hard core space story with high stakes just like I was looking for. Reynolds has said he might like to return to this universe for another story and I for one would love that.

Then I left space and returned to a fantasy world for a bit, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about over Brandon Sanderson.  He’s currently writing a big fat huge fantasy epic “decalogy” and before I invest any time in that I wanted to get a feel for him and read the Mistborn trilogy that got him noticed.  The first book was pretty great, the second boring as grass growing, and the third just about as good as the first.  I loved the system of magic in it, though at times, when he would introduce something new about it just in time for it to impact the plot I was annoyed as that felt a little contrived.  The characters were fun, though some of the supporting characters were a bit 2D.  He tried really hard to create a dark fantasy environment, what with constant ashfalls and killer mists at night, but for some reason I just never bought it.  The danger wasn’t real for me.  I’m not sure this was his fault or not, cause he mentioned it often enough.  All in all, this was a fun, light series to read that probably could have been two, slightly larger books rather than a trilogy.  But, if you want to get noticed in fantasy you have to write a trilogy.  It’s like author hazing.

Having finished that, I wanted to read something that would be both quick and more literary, so I picked another of the books from NPR’s top ten of 2011 and went with Ben Lerner’s debut novel (he’s apparently more well known as a poet) Leaving the Atocha Station.  This is a story (maybe?) of a young American student on a prestigious poetry fellowship in Madrid, Spain that he feels he neither deserves nor particularly wants.  He is an unsympathetic character as he constantly lies and deceives everyone around him for personal gain, and by the end of the book, I just really didn’t like him.  I did, however, spend a lot of time (for a 150 page book) thinking about some of the social situations he found himself in and recognizing myself in those.  They weren’t particularly fond memories.  At times I felt like I was reading a younger Hemingway, but Hemingway would never have cared as much as this guy pretended he didn’t care.  There is some debate among readers about whether or not the character actually was a profoundly good poet, despite his protestations.  The thing that sucks is, I think he probably was.  I think what makes these kinds of books “good” is their ability to evoke that emotion in a reader, rather than a kick ass plot or edge of your seat suspense.  So, I get it.  It still wasn’t all that fun to read though, but it was probably “good” that I did read it.  I liked it.  I didn’t like it.  I read it fast.  I thought about it a lot.  I’m ready to move on.

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Malazan 3 Done and now a brief marathon

It was a struggle, it was a slog.  I haven’t wanted to talk about it until now, and I still don’t, really.  Suffice it to say I finished Memories of Ice and did not pick up Malazan, Book 4.  I may one day, but not now.

I quickly grabbed one of the books I’ve really been wanting to read but waiting on my wife to finish.  Well, after several months of her being on page 6 or so, I decided it was safe to take it for a few weeks.  The Help, by Kathryn Stockett was probably the best book I’ve read so far this year.  I’m still not much in the mood to write about books, but this one was really, really good.  It was a conversation starter at the gym when I was reading it on the bicycle.  It gave me pause for though often.  But most of all it made me remember, fondly and sadly, Bernice.  How I wish I would have been able to know her both as the child I was and now as the adult I am.  I really think we could have had some amazing conversations about life, faith, God, and raising a family.  I cried near end of this book.  The last book to actually make me cry was The Kite Runner.

Having finished that book in record time after the several months it took me to finally be done with Memories of Ice, I grabbed another book I’ve been meaning to read that I knew I could also read quickly and get again that jolt of satisfaction that comes from finishing a book.  I grabbed Stephen King’s Rose Madder.

I’ve known for a while that this is one of King’s least regarded works, but it was on my shelf and I wanted to read it anyway. The subject matter of a picture having supernatural qualities intrigued me.  It didn’t disappoint, but neither was it earth shattering.  Actually, without any of the supernatural stuff, I thought he wrote a damn compelling story about spousal abuse.  On the list of evils, that one’s up there.  The story ended in a slightly unsatisfactory way for me, but what can you do.  It was a good read.  Even if I’ve read better King, this was the best book I’ve read about spousal abuse (actually, it may be the only one, but that doesn’t matter really).

Following that, I forged ahead, borrowing on my e-reader a book from the library that I’d heard about over the summer and been wanting to read.  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Billed as a young adult book, it certainly is not.  Neither in theme nor content, at least in my opinion.  The author, Ransom Riggs, made clever use (I thought) of a bunch of old photographs to draw out and illustrate his story.  My guess is the story came after he saw the pictures and not the other way around, but who knows.  Some parts of it were bit too like Harry Potter but not most of it.  It was a neat story about difference and hatred, and about what makes a person unique and special.  A fun, quick read – I’d recommend it.

And now, I’m afraid, I’ve started another death march.  Depending, I may start another book to read along with Roberto Bolano’s magnum opus and ultimate work, 2666.  I’ve never read Bolano before, but I’ve been told to, many times by people who’s opinions I trust.  I take it that both in style and substance, it’s a challenging read.  So, far, and I’m barely into it, it’s not all that exciting.  Enough people say it is great though, truly great, to make me continue. So, until I finish it, or until I come across some inspiring quote or another, fare well.

From the Terror to the Horror

The TerrorI finally finished reading The Terror and the rumors are true: it bogs down a wee bit in the middle to the late-middle then ramps up for a surprising and rousing conclusion.  (Mr. Simmons, will you please teach Mr. Stephenson how to do that?)  Once I got the characters straight in my head, I really rather liked this book.  It wasn’t fantastic but it was very good.  I espcially enjoyed how the scary snow/ice demon wasn’t ever totally explained in a realistic way, leaving plenty to the imagination and the realms of folklore.  I also enjoyed how everything for the poor souls aboard Terror and Erebus would have been absolutely awful enough without the ice demon!  That’s what really threw it over the edge in terms of feelings of hopelessness.  I also really liked the description of the slow descent into insanity of the Hickey character and particularly the description of how he froze to death: it was so well done that Simmons never once out and out said, Hickey is freezing to death.  You just got it. After the ending, I feel like the book could have been improved by being about 100 pages (to be perfectly arbitrary) shorter.  There was a lot of character backstory that didn’t have to be told in as great of depth as it was (always my complaint with Patrick O’Brien) and could have better been accomplished with shorter anecdotes.  When reading those sections I found myself saying, “I don’t care. Can we get back to the ship part of the story please?”  Fans of horror may or may not enjoy this book, depending on what other genres they enjoy.  Fans of horror who are only fans of horror will probably find this book to be too long and not horrific enough.  Fans that enjoy reading adventure stories, historical novels, and/or horror as well will be right at home.  I look forward to reading Simmons’ latest, Drood, but will have to wait a while; it is large as well and I want to forget for a time that Simmons’ bogs down in the middle.

Victor, Griffin, and I have discovered and have been playing the board game Arkham Horror recently.

Arkham Horror - the Board Game
Arkham Horror – the Board Game

It’s a game based off the stories of Lovercraft and let me just say, it is amazing.  5 hours long sometimes, but amazing.

That has led me to pick up some Lovecraft and start reading again, some stories I’ve read before but mostly some ones I haven’t.  When I first read Lovecraft, I knew at some level that he was awesome, but didn’t fully understand him or appreciate his writing style.  Now that I am older, or at least some time has passed, I think I get Lovecraft on a whole new level.  And that is fun, cause he is incredible.  No other writer has the power to induce such terrifyingly vivid dreams as he does.  Think the Shoggoth pit is bad in the stories?  Wait til you dream about it and how your mind makes it up.  <Shudder>  Right now I’m on a great little tale called The Whisperer in Darkness: it follows the typical Lovecraftain formula of science minded fellow encountering a tale of horror that cannot possibly be true and then slowly discovering it is.  But it is fun to read how that happens each time.  And, when combined with the game, it is especially fun to see where the inspiration for the game pieces arise from.

We have an accord

Which is another way of saying, “I agree.”

I agree, after some reflection, with a Goodreads commentor who said of Marisha Pessl’s novel that at times the characters said things which were just not believable for high school students, no matter how erudite, to say.

I think they also did things at times which were less than believable, but mostly it was their speech.  The smartest kids I knew in high school, when out of school and among friends, talked more or less like high school students.  Maybe an SAT word or two crept into our sentences, but mostly, we were, like, you know, average kids.

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I’ve really gotten into Simmon’s novel, The Terror.  I’m about 160 pages into it already, which is pretty far for me in this short amount of time.  So far I find it fast paced (despite warnings from goodreads commentors that it slows down, I haven’t seen that yet) and exciting.  The dialogue and adventure part reminds me of the best parts of Patrick O’Brien’s work – though I eventually gave up on that series because I wanted to read sea-adventure, not victorian love triangles that take place while on shore leave.  Give me more cannon fire and booty, more storms and reefs, man!  Anyway, The Terror, surprisingly, does that.  Even though they’re ice-locked in the Arctic.  The descriptions are awesome and the characters, so far, are genuine and believable.  The total atmosphere altering effect the presence of the native american woman has on the men is great!  The ice demon thing, so far, is great.  Now, here’s to hoping he doesn’t reveal too much about it.  Ever.  I hate monster stories that tell you everything about the monster.  Leave some mystery in it.  Please.  My imagination will run wild, I promise.  And it’ll be scarier.  Here’s to hoping.

Calamity of an Ending

Well, Pessl’s first novel didn’t quite end the way I anticipated, and I don’t know if that disappoints me or not.  Hannah Schneider turned out to be some sort of agent for a rebel pseudo-political group called the Nightwatchmen, and so did, apparently, Blue’s father.  The second is harder for me to swallow than the first.  Actually, I think I just decided, I didn’t like the ending. The story was so sinister, so believably dark up until she brought in this Nightwatchmen thing.  Hannah, the strange teacher, hugely popular and overly interested in minors (even sleeping with one of them), who happens to have the unfortunate experience of having someone die in a drunk drowning accident at her party.  Later, she is murdered/committed suicide in the woods – I like the suicide angle better, it fits her character better.  On the surface, cool as a cucumber, but underneath, solar flare.  Depressed.  Anxious.  Unsatisfied.  Gets her jollies by contributing to the deliquency of minors, overcoming that horrid feeling of never quite being popular enough when she was in school.  I think that’s a character more people could identify with.  As far as Blue’s father goes – well he was a weird one from the beginning, but a secret agent for a revolutionary group?  I have to stretch just a bit too much on that one.

All that aside, this was a great book.  4 stars.  It was fun to read, a surprising page turner, with colorful characters in which I think a lot of us could see a part of ourselves (usually parts we don’t like, too), and so it worked as a social mirror.  I liked the way it was written – as I noted, several fantastic observations and turns of phrase.  I just wished the ending was a bit more on the believable side.  But, it won’t deter me from her next book whenever it comes out, whatever it is.

I have turned now back to the realm of speculative fiction.  This time I chose Dan Simmons’ The Terror: A Novel.  I’ve read a lot of Simmons before and I like him.  I like how he’s almost perversely allusive to other works of literature and poetry.  The man is in love with Keats, for example.  But this book seems wholly unlike anything I’ve read by him before (both Hyperions, Ilium, Olympos).  I’ve heard really good things about it too – and so far, it has lived up to the hype.  I’m reading this book in in the beginning of summer in Florida, while running on the treadmill, and it made me feel cold.  (It takes place on a frozen ship in the Arctic, exploring unexplored regions in about 1847.)  His descriptions run chill all through your body.  “To touch iron was to lose flesh.”  The power of the ice as he describes it is incredible.  I’m looking forward to the sort of retro-adventure style combined with some good ole fashioned monster horror.  And if I know Simmons, his characters will be fun and empathetic.

Passed

I really liked this line. For me it carried a tremendous amount of emotion, but I’m not sure it was entirely meant to. Two years ago a dear friend of mine died and the paper had all of seven words to say about it. I wondered back then how a man’s life could be boiled down to seven words.

In the story, Hannah Schneider has just been found dead (either murdered or suicide, but in either case traumatic – by hanging with electrical cord) and the main character, Blue, is reading the obit. Pessl writes,

“Instead, according to the Pack, Hannah had simply “passed”; she’d been playing poker and decided not to take another card.”
~p. 356

We don’t deal with death well, as a culture, and I think this line says that beautifully.

Belonging

“If you were young and mystified in America you were supposed to find something to be a part of.  That something had to be either shocking or rowdy, for within the brouhaha you’d find yourself, be able to locate your Self…”

~Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, p. 282

This reminds me so much of one of our (my group of friends and I) favorite anthems from high school.  Rancid’s punk-ska song, “Journey to the End.”  Both were true for me.

“There wasn’t always a place to go, but there was always a need and an urge to belong.”

~Rancid, “Journey to the End”

Sinister

The story has taken on a slightly sinister air and I like it.  There was a death, an accidental drowning at a party of a drunken middle aged man.  But there is the question, how accidental was it.  Pessl hints around the edges of this question rather than asking it directly, and when she finally does, it comes from an emotive, hormonal, and unstable teen, the Blue-blood Jade.  And she herself is drunk when she raises it.

The group of blue bloods is strange, and yet it puts me in mind of similar people I knew when I was in high school.  There were always tales of drunkenness at things like Prom, and keggers held in the woods off Treeline Ave.  But for some reason, the kids in the book just seem a little bit darker, a little bit more sinister or tragic and I really like the way this is weaved into the narrative.

Finally, the character of Hannah Schneider is taking on a sinister air as well.  We know she dies, it says so in the dust jacket and in the first few pages of the book.  But so far, no indication that this will happen in the chronological narrative.  Hints of dark pieces of her past surface.  Her choice of reading material raises a few eyebrows – the biography of the Manson family.  The fact that she has no pictures, apparently, in her home.  No photos of family or friends.  Then, when a few old faded snapshots are found of young children, there is doubt that they are of her.  Oh yeah, and then there’s the fact that the bluebloods catch her prostituting herself one friday a month.  How odd is that?!  Obviously not hurting for money, she must be motivated to do this by some other reason.  And her choice of beaus – unsavory.  Wrinkled.  Malodorous.  In other words, the complete opposite of her.  It’s just weird, but all told in a very convincing way.

Blue’s (that’s the main character’s name) pseudo-adoption into the popular group the Bluebloods is also slightly sinister.  I get the feeling, along with Blue, that she hasn’t totally be accepted and that the rest somewhat resent her presence.  But Hannah likes her, they adore Hannah, and so they try to like her.  That to me is very dark too, because it all comes back to Hannah’s manipulations.

Somewhere in the book, she quotes a text that says something like an adult who meets their social needs more often than not with children, and shows extraordinary interest in children and their worlds, is not entirely sane or safe.  Now see, it’s lines like that that just make me shudder a bit…and keep turning the pages.  Despite what I may have initially thought, this story is a page-turner.

The Smart Girl

I’ve begun reading Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a book that makes me look WAY smart if I’m caught reading it in public, but which in actuality is a novel.  What’s the connection between this book and Oscar Wao?  Both novels are their respective authors’ first novels and both main characters are kids who don’t function in society the same way everyone around them seems to.  (I love finding this stuff, even if it means nothing.)

This book is kinda neat in its structure – each chapter is titled after famous novel or erudite tome of knowledge.  For example, the chapter I’m on right now is called “Madame Bovary;” I was tempted to skip this chapter because I hate that book.  Ever since I had to read it in high school (I never got much past the first fifty pages) I hated it.  Apparently it’s an important piece of literature, and I’ll give it that, just as long as I don’t have to read it.  Ok, I’m getting off on a tangent here.  Anyway, the title of the chapter cleverly gives some indication as to the events that will unfold therein.  I enjoy that little game Pessl provides for me.  (I’d say I’ve either read or am familiar with about 80% of the book titles she names her chapters after.)

So, what’s the story about?  So far it’s about a teenage girl who is the daughter of a traveling professor of some import (though you get the vague notion that he’s less important than he thinks he is).  This guy is always getting the designation of “Visiting Professor of Internation Politics” or the like wherever he goes, and boy does he go.  They’re at a different college every semester it seems and our poor protagonist is drug along for the ride.  Blue, that’s her name, takes after her father in that she is brilliantly book-smart, but she lacks his apparent social skills as of right now. She’s awkward and she knows it.  She doesn’t make friends.  What’s the point right?  You’ll just be moving in five months anyway.  It’s all a bit sad.

She show’s off her incredible education by referencing books and characters when talking about people.  For example, she might say something like: “Mr. X was tall and thin, with a pointy nose that directed the rest of his body in the way it ought to go.”  This will immediately be followed up with a parenthetical reference like: (See Audabon’s Field Guide to Birds, “The Blue Heron,”, p.134, fifteenth edition, 1993.)  I find that mildly amusing and somewhat annoying at the same time.  I found myself thinking last night, “How much time did Pessl have to spend researching all those damn references?!  I would get tired of that after about five or six of them and try and figure out some other way to show that my protagonist was well read in myriad fields.”

In the opening chapters, an apparent suicide occurs of a character we haven’t met yet, but then that is ignored as Blue goes back to tell about her life and how it got to the point where she started writing it down.  The character who apparently committed suicide has just recently been introduced and so the tension mounts.

So far it’s a pretty fun read.  It’s written with clever diction and syntax, and I like that.  But I wonder, if like her main character, does Pesss try too hard to convince us she’s smart? We’ll see, the jury’s still out.  But so far I am enjoying it.

(This is a rare string of three books in a row that I’ve really enjoyed – usually I don’t get that many in a row!)

I Can See Why

After finishing Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize.  At the end I felt like I wanted to or should cry, but I could not.  The story was tragic – crying point numero uno.  And I was terribly sad it was over, both the book and the life of Oscar Wao – crying point numero dos.  It was a fascinating read – I appreciated how Diaz just went ahead and assumed I knew very little about DR politics and explained the necessary parts in sometimes lengthy footnotes, making use of all kinds of other references some of which I got, some of which I didn’t.  And although it was frustrating at times, I am somewhat glad I didn’t get all the Spanish either – it served as another layer of separation between me and a life I’m so thankful I never led.  I don’t know if that was the intention or not.

I was surprised that Oscar Wao figured very little into the story actually.  It was more about his family as a whole, he just being the focal point for a lot of bad shit.  Well, come to think of it, that isn’t even true.  They all experienced plenty of bad shit.  Plenty.  It was almost like the paths laid out for some of these characters, Oscar’s Mother chief among them, were unavoidable.  Their pathologies, perfect at guiding them towards those dark areas they knew full well they should have avoided, but dammit, they weren’t going to listen to sense.  Because sense came from the adult voices, and these teens were just like any others.  The problem is, their mistakes weren’t as forgiving as say mine were.

I really liked Oscar’s dialogue, again, of which there was surprisingly little.  Diaz managed to really communicate a personality through it that was unique and perfect for the character.  Lines like (this one coming in Oscar’s college days, as he’s lying in bed at night trying not to think about the fact that he’s still a virgin, he ruminates out loud to his playboy roommate): “Do you think that if we were orcs, at least at a racial level, we’d imagine ourselves to look like elves?”  I didn’t know whether to laugh out loud, scoff, or weep.  At least in part because I’ve said stuff like that plenty of times, but at least I considered my audience.  Trouble with Oscar was, he roommate, Yunior, was his only audience.  And despite Yunior’s flaws, I found him to be somewhat heroic.  How he agreed to room with Oscar and try and teach him.  He saw something in Oscar that no else but his sister saw, and maybe not even her.  He saw the capactity to be somebody – and that’s something we all need.

This is a real gem of (semi?)American literature.  The kind of book that’ll be studied one day I think.  And any author that can pull that off with their first novel is worth following.  I really can’t stop thinking about this story.  It’s so good.