Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D MacDonald

The Deep Blue Goodbye is cool. It’s always fun when you get introduced to a new dirty pleasure you never knew existed. Thanks to friends B & HP in Vancouver, I’m now aware of John D MacDonald the way I’m aware of masturbation, s’mores, or clove cigarettes. None of them really do you any good, but they can be a great deal of fun.

MacDonald is most comparable to either Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. This novel, starring his famous character, Travis McGee, takes place among the marinas, hotel rooms, and bars of steamy Fort Lauderdale and the Keys in the confusing, fading days of the late nineteen sixties. Hot babes, scuzzy criminals, and the wise cracking hero with a knight errant’s heart fill out it’s too short two hundred pages. This is pulp fiction at it’s best—deeply derivative noir soaked in the sunscreen and cheap gin of the Florida Keys.

For my money, MacDonald is closer to Chandler than Leonard. His dialog isn’t so cropped or trendy as the latter, and his plots and characters are more reminiscent of Chandler’s LA crowd than of the mean streets of Detroit.

There’s plenty of sex, a little bit of violence, and lots of fine quipping to enjoy here. I’ll not bother with a plot summary. If you’ve read the above, you already know the kinds of streets you’ll be winding your way along here.

Highly enjoyable, and I found this morning that MacDonald has about ten or twenty other paperbacks available at the local Half Price Books for about $1.25 each. I just bought them all.

Here’s to guilty pleasures! From MacDonald, through the mouth of McGee, a little bit that could almost be Updike:

“Bless them all, the forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is a competition for bag-boy jobs in the supermarkets. They yearn for security, but all they can have is what they make for themselves, chittering little flocks of them in the restaurants and stores, talking of style and adornment, dreaming of the terribly sincere stranger who will come along and lift them out of the gypsy life of the two-bit tip and the unemployment, cut a tall cake with them, swell them up with sassy babies, and guide them masterfully into the shoal water of the electrified house, where everybody brushes after every meal. But most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men, and keep right on working. And discover the end of the dream. They have been taught that if you are sunny, cheery, sincere, group-adjusted, popular, the world is yours, including barbecue pits, charge plates, diaper service, friends for dinner, washer-dryer combinations, color slides of the kiddies on the home projector and eternal whimsical romance with the crinkly smiles and Rock Hudson dialog. So they all come smiling and confident and unskilled into a technician’s world, and in a few years they learn that it is all going to be grinding and hateful and brutal and precarious. These are the slums of the heart. Bless the bunnies. These are the new people and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architectured. They will never live in places so fine unless they contact something incurable.”

The Keeper by Sarah Langan

Sometimes you just want pulp horror. Which makes it easy to delve into the D list section at a local grocery store or mega-bookstore’s rack. And when you come up from the stacks, raw and wriggling, holding a real stinker in your mouth, you remember that there’s a reason the Barker’s, Koontzes, and Kings of the world have sold so many copies. Because there’s a lot of really lousy horror out there. Take The Keeper, by Sarah Langan, for example.

It’s not so much that the book is poorly written, though it most certainly is. Nor is it is incoherent plot, which involves a proverbial kitchen sink’s worth of explanations for all the non-sense which unfolds that bothers one the most. Nay, nor do the shallow characters, weak dialog, or jerky pacing really distract too terribly much from the overall trainwreck. No, the real disappointment here is the PG-13 level of lurid detail in what promises to deliver “monstrous visions of violence and horror.” It’s as if Mrs. Langan wanted to give us possessed small town whores, infanticide, evil profit driven factory owners, alcoholic lead characters, and all the rest without having actually read how the masters deliver on these exact same hackneyed devices. (Respectively, loosely: Great and Secret Show, Trainspotting, Desperation, Dark Half.) Besides, instead of any genuine terror at the end, there’s hugging, crying, learning and growing. The sex scenes lack focus, as if the camera has simply drifted away from the action out of boredom. The heroine and her beau are dullards, who lack even the teen angst found in Judy Blume.

I will give props for a brief Elliot Smith reference buried somewhere in here. Also, can’t help but notice that overall, folks on Amazon give this novel fairly high praise. The collection of five star reviews for this two and a half star book makes me suspect they are mostly shills, or friends of the author, but I suppose it’s possible that I just missed some secret gem buried in all this cliché. On the cover of the novel there’s a quote from Peter Straub, hoping that The Keeper “begins what should be a very fruitful career.” This quote reminds me of Atticus Finch saying, “You look just like a picture, Mrs. Debois.” To which Scout repiles under her breath, “he don’t say a picture of what!” Perhaps Mr. Straub is right, and when Mrs. Langan’s second novel wins a Brahm Stoker award or similar, I’ll eat my words. But it will take significant improvement. Luckily, since Mrs. Langan made it into pulp press in the first place, she’ll likely get the chance.

All the above notwithstanding, I’m still not sorry I spent money on a new author; if only to support a wider circle of horror writers I hegetting published. Best of luck with your future novels, Mrs. Langan. May they be better paced, with better characters, who are better written and better received.

Wise Blood by Willa Cather

Recommended to me by an old friend, EdM, I was taken aback by the power and intensity of Cather's novel. Wise Blood is a tale of a few people searching desparately for salvation. None find it, and the search proves to be tragic. This is a fast paced, painful novel, which is beautifully written.

Hazel Motes, certainly one of the more memorable protagonists I've recently run across, is an anti-christian. Specifically, he is engaged throughout his life in a struggle against a Jesus who persues him constantly. "He saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown." When war calles Hazel to Europe, he loses what childhood faith he has, and renounces Christ and salvation. Upon his return, he becomes a street preacher, prosteletyzing the gospel of "A Church without Christ." He draws into his orbit a collection of troubled characters, all of whom move at high speed towards their own destruction among the alleys and shops of the American south in the late nineteen thirties.

This novel is powerful, disturbing, and insightful. Cather has an excellent gift with turn of phrase, and the book moves quickly. It's easy to read and reasonibly short without feeling like a snack. Good, intense stuff, particularly for anyone interested in small America's loss of faith in the decades leading up to the fifties.

Thanks, Ed! Thanks, Willa!

Velocity by Dean Koontz

So a serial killer decides to make you make some really nasty moral choices about who he should kill. For example, he says, “I’m gonna kill someone tomorrow. If you go to the police, then I’ll kill a beautiful young schoolteacher. If you don’t, I’ll kill an old woman who is active in the community.” Now, either way, you’re basically complicit in the killing – in a sense. So then, add a financee in a coma, a bunch of red herrings, and a killer that’s always one step ahead of you and you’ve got Velocity. It’s pure pulp pap, but Koonz does know how to write a page turner.

I have a few complaints, mostly that Koonz is a terrible stylist, that the novel is really contrived, that there’s way too little real horror, etc. But hey, for $5.99 at an airport bookstore, what can you expect? This is bad, trashy horror. Real students of the genre would be much better suited to explore elsewhere. But if you’re a student of mass market success and formulaic novelism, then this might be worth looking at.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

This non-fiction account of a contractor for the World Bank could best be filed under Rants Against US Imperialism in the Third World. Perkins worked from 1962 until 1982 as an economic analyst, whose job it was to create projections which provide rationale for Worldbank and IMF to give huge loans to third world countries.
According to Perkins, there’s a shell game going on, by which these giant loans are made to countries like Ecuador, for giant infrastructure projects (dams, refineries, etc.) Apparently, giving these projects to US companies like Bechtel or Haliburton is a condition of the loan. Now, everyone knows that these countries will never be able to pay back the loans, and will have to default. And that’s great, because the US can then magnanimously agree to ‘forgive’ a small amount of the interest in exchange for, say, permission to build a military base (Saudi Arabia), or votes in a UN Security Council.

Perkins claims to have been involved in this insidious system for three decades, in Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Panama, and Pakistan. He claims that when world leaders, like Torrijos in Coloumbia, refuse to agree, they are assassinated by the CIA. (He has some pretty convincing examples of this in South America in the years leading up to the Contra affair.)

Taken as a whole, Perkins book is persuasive, in that it certainly convinced me that the basic nature of the system he describes is pretty much the way things work. Do I believe this is all part of some giant conspiracy? No. But do the mechanics of world back loans tend to work this way and are US international agendas at play in the use of sanctions or granting of loans? Sure.

Perkins’ ultimate conclusion is what makes him come across as a bit of a new age whack-job, unfortunately. Because according to Perkins, the nature of loans, infrastructure improvements, globalization and modernization as a whole are just plain bad for the hardworking local peoples of wherever. Now, while this MIGHT be true on many occasions, I’m not sure that I can agree with the basic nature of the anti-progress argument. Electricity, schools, flood control, hospitals, and modernization of water treatment plants are GOOD things. Or at least, they can have good effects. Add Perkins status as a leader of something called the Dream Change group, which mostly takes rich white people to go live green among the natives of South America, and what you’ve got is a guy who sounds right, but then reveals a bit of his inner flake. Include still more pointless wailing and gnashing of teeth from Perkins about the moral implications of his job, throw in a dash of self-aggrandizement, (“hit-man”? Really?), and an overemphasis on Perkins’ extra-marital sexcapades throughout the years, and what you get is a fascinating autobiography of a very bright, once influential man, who now comes across as pretty self-absorbed and overly idealistic.

Confessions of an Economic Hitman is fascinating. It provides some valuable insight into the nature of global economies. But it’s not gospel, and its conclusions sound a bit naive.


Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

It would seem hard to take a book about deep water divers exploring the wreckage of German submarines and make it dull, but somehow, Kurson managed.

A bunch of divers, all men, mostly blue collar folks from the east coast fill the pages of this novel. Each of them is driven to perform suicidal deep water feats of salvage. They gather in two groups once a drunken captain discovers a mysterious wreck.

A few hundred pages, a few deaths, and a good bit of sleuthing later, they’ve basically pillaged the wreck, and those who survived feel like they’ve conquered assorted inner demons.

It’s been a few months now, and I didn’t enjoy this one enough to really elaborate here, sorry.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I first came across Carter’s good name in a eulogy written by Salmon Rushdie in a fairly recent book of his essays entitled Borders. I’ve not finished reading Borders yet, but I was sufficiently captivated by his descriptions of Mrs. Carter’s prose, language, and storytelling, that I ordered up a copy of The Bloody Chamber.

Angela Carter tackles a small collection of fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber. She twists them each to her own ends, usually to play with notions of gender roles, but not in an obvious or dull way. Consider, for example, two different retellings of Beauty and the Beast; one in which Beauty herself transforms into a beast, and another in which she is figuratively beastly towards him. Snow White here involves a fantasy girl, birthed from lust, snow, and a couple’s disenchantment with one another. There are vampire queens, gambling cobblers, rapacious Arabian princes, and so on. The subject matter is a delightful flight of fancy.

But it’s Carter’s language which really glows. There are no dull sentences here, no moribund clichés, no plodding paragraphs. Carter’s words pair off into couples and waltz about beneath the glittering crystal chandeliers of her descriptions; her verbage is active and interesting, her adjectives uncommon. And while, yes, Mr. Rushdie, she does only slightly too often pair off words like “eldritch” or “coloratura”, and while, yes, Henry Holt, she does overwrite many passages into a poetic bouillabaisse rather than more straightforward prose, the language itself is still delightful to read. The Professor would say here that part of the fun is just letting all these fun phrases dissolve on your tongue like acid or a snowflake. And I’d be forced to agree.

Carter is (as Holt complains) a bit prurient on occasion. If phrases like “her cunt split open like a fig” upset you, then some of these stories likely will too. But with a name as obviously provocative as The Bloody Chamber, what would you expect?

Good stuff, Mrs. Carter. I can tell you had fun writing these stories, and I’m eager to read more of those offerings you left with us before you left for some version of Valhalla, where golden eldritch Valkeries punish Loki and sodomize Eric the Red with bountiful cornucopias of amberwine and icemead… Or wherever it was you went… :)

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men borrows a Yates line for its title. It’s another CMC novel in which evil wins, or at least gets away. It’s also basically a pulp thriller, fundamentally in the same vein as Jack Crow or Travis McGee. Lots of bullets fly, there’s a little sex, and some Mexican drug lords.

Of course, the esteemed Mr. McCarthy’s language renders all of this in a tone that imparts neobiblical weight to each action, though with nowhere near the beauty or complexity of some of his other novels. And in any case, you don't ponder too deeply the wordsmithing here. Fundamentally this is still mostly action.

What happens is: a young man stumbles across the aftermath of a drug war killing in rural Texas. He takes the money. Worse, he decides to bring water to a dying man. This dooms him, and everyone else. The resulting tale is a man-on-the-run type chase thriller. It’s exciting, but really not in the same league as the rest of his novels.

And in the end, aside from, “darkness always prevails”, I’m not sure what kinda take home lesson I’m really left with… And best of all, since McCarthy seems to be on a bit of a roll, there’s a new novel already out, which might well shed further light into this darkness!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Contact by Carl Sagan

Hmm… We discover that we’re receiving signals from another solar system. We finally translate the signals, and they’re giving us instructions for how to build a machine. A very complex machine, which will take us to first master any number of new schools of technology and basic sciences. We finally build the machine, overruling the concerns of all of the usual anti-progress types (Republicans and organized religions for the most part.) We send an odd international assortment into the machine, which teleports them to a galaxy far, far away. They have a weird encounter, return, and the machine is put out to pasture in a sea of red tape.

So what do we learn from this 400 page journey? Well, a lot about radio astronomy. And a lot about the types of hassles radio astronomers must have faced in trying to establish a real scientific community during the Cold War. And, to be fair, an excellent amount of primer information on some of the basic physics, distances, and forces that shape and describe our current understanding of the universe.

Carl Segan is a superb teacher. His science fiction is a bit on the dry side (okay, it makes beef jerky look succulent), but his science is nicely explained for the layperson, and his tale moves along at a decent clip. He is, in this regard, better than say, Neil Stephenson, who feels like he’s lecturing whenever his characters are lecturing. Segan on the other hand, manages to make his characters feel like they’re simply rehashing a few basic truths to that they’re certain you must have already known, but just forgotten because you’ve been too busy with your workaday life. The amount of tutorial Segan works into this primer, and the plausibility with which he describes one likely scenario in which we could make contact with another civilization are both compelling. Once the science fiction starts in earnest (once the message is decoded and the machine construction gets underway) he loses a bit of focus, and tries to start wrestling with some Bigger Themes ™ that really distract from the interesting questions: What if we received a signal from distant space? What might it say? How would we go about interpreting it? What sorts of effects might this have on human society?

I’ve never seen the film w/ the esteemed Mrs. Foster, but I suspect that making a movie of this novel misses much of the point. The goal of Segan’s life and his works seems clearly to have been to educate the public about the basic nature of space science.

Considering many of my countrymen now claim to believe that the planet we’re currently spinning through space aboard only came into existence about six thousand years ago, it’s probably just as well that Dr. Segan is no longer around to see the low esteem into which science has fallen in the first part of our brave new millennium.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A quick personal update before we return to the books:

I read all of these back in Vancouver over the early summertime. I'm now back in Texas, living in scenic Hyde Park near the UT campus. It's nice to be home. I'm still nine or ten books behind in posting, but trying to devote a little time to playing catch up.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy’s wrote The Orchard Keeper long before All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men had catapulted him to near the top of the short list of those the NYT Book Review considers to be the best living American authors.

The Orchard Keeper lacks the ferocity and might of Blood Meridian, or the attention to cultural beauty of his Cities of the Plains novels, but does keep a nice focus on natural beauty. There are many loving stares at ice forming on the edge of streams, the behaviors of animals and trees, and so on. If this sounds a little sleepy, well, it is. But the novel isn’t dull exactly.

From a plotting standpoint, we’ve got a couple of characters whose fates are intertwined and bound in purpose to one another by a long cold killing committed in self defense. The glacial, but steady invasion of modernity and progress into the Tennessee Valley provides the other impetus for change here, as an old man and a boy run afoul of the law.

This is a beautifully written novel; McCarthy has a skilled ear for regional dialog, a trained mind for precision in language usage, and a sincere love of rural spaces. It’s not his best, but it’s still light beyond what most ever accomplish.

I'm also very excited to note that McCarthy has just released a new novel called The Road, which deals with my favorite topic: APOCALYPSE! I'm off to the bookstore to buy it!

Books of Blood Volume Three by Clive Barker

I enjoyed the final of Barker’s Books of Blood. But there’s no genius here. Just a solid ability to tell a sordid tale. Few of these stories really make it hard to stay awake night; these aren’t run of the mill boogeymen coming to a house like yours. They’re exotic, highly supernatural events which wholly transform (usually by ending) the lives of anyone who has the misfortune of getting too near them. This slight focus shift makes the Books of Blood original at the least, and downright interesting at its best, most depraved moments.

From the gay male prostitute Pygmalion story, to the tale of a Girl & friends washed up on a literal island of the seadead, there’s little here that’s mundane.

This is good stuff, and I’d enjoy trying my hand at writing this kind of thing sometime. I want to go pick up whatever Barker’s latest novel is now, to see if his mastery has increased along with his readership and fame.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Krakauer had written a few journalistic pieces on those who push to the extreme ends of human adventure before he became so hugely successful for publishing Under the Banner of Heaven. One of these previous works, Into the Wild, was a pretty interesting account of a young man found dead in the Alaskan outback, and how he ended up there. But Into the Wild in no way prepared me for this fascinating, often chilling (no exaggeration) expose in extremist Mormonism.

A few things you probably don’t know unless you read this book:

1) Mormonism is the fastest growing religion on the planet; currently there are something like twenty million of them worldwide.

2) Mormonism asks a believer to swallow some notions which are pretty hard to believe, mostly because their founder, Joseph Smith, seems to have been both eccentric, and widely regarded as fraudulent by a number of people. (Of course, this doesn’t necessarily separate the Latter Day Saints from most other mainstream religions. Good ole mainstream Christianity has some stuff that’s pretty hard to take literally…)

3) Mormonism is a very new religion, so there’s a lot of actual data on it’s founders; the kind of data that typically gets shrouded in myth for older prophets.

4)There seems to be some history of violence in the Mormon faith, leveled at non-believers. (Again, as with most..)

5)There are a significant number of North American Mormon extremists (about forty thousand), for whom polygamy, “bleeding the beast”, very different notions of gender relations, and some other unusual practices are commonplace. You’ve probably heard of Warren Jeffs, recently captured by the FBI – he’s the charismatic leader of a bunch of these folks in the US Southwest.

Krakauer’s painstakingly researched book is not an anti-religious screed; at least not in my opinion. It is, instead, a fascinating look at what makes certain people push well beyond those social limits which normally inhibit certain types of behavior. In the case of a number of Mormon Extremist communities and families described in these pages, this extreme behavior extends to murder, infanticide, kidnapping, rape, and so on.

This is an account of prophets, madmen, murderers, scandals, lots of lurid sex, quite a bit of thinly veiled lust and misogyny. It is an important book for anyone who is interested in comparative theology, for anyone who is consumed by topics in constitutional law, for those who better want to understand the American southwest, or for those who just want to come point and laugh at the freaks, of whom there are many in this work.

A fascinating, lurid, and scary true crime expose in the vein of In Cold Blood, but significantly more topical and interesting.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Books of Blood Volume Two by Clive Barker

More delicious horror! I’m really intrigued by the work Clive Barker has done in this genre. He has a certain grotesque cruelty in his work which seems to have been sanitized out of much of the mainstream pulp horror I’ve read. I’d really love to hear about any other books of horror shorts which pick up the conversation where Barker left off with Books of Blood. If anyone has any recommendations for horror that is… let’s use the phrase “hard core” in this fashion, I’d love to hear them. I think it would be a fun exercise, after I finish the historical epic I so foolishly threw myself into last year, to write a quick book of brutal horror shorts. An homage to Mr. Barker, and his fine work here.

This volume of Books of Blood is roughly equivalent to Volume One. It contains five horror shorts, dealing with various elements of the macabre, the violent, and the cruel. From “Dread”, which deals with the deranged experiments of a young philosopher is pushing his classmates beyond their psychological breaking points, to “New Murders in the Rue Morgue”, a twisted tip of the hat to Edgar Allen Poe’s tale of violent ape carnage, none of these stories are incredible, but each is entertaining.

I’ll note again here, as I did with the first volume, that some of this feels a little dated. It’s been twenty-six years since Barker penned Books of Blood. Time, language, culture, and some of our mores have moved on.

But these tales are still a great late night treat if you like vicious horror in short, mainlined doses.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett chose a difficult subject for Bel Canto. Her interest was on recreating the complex relationships between captives and their captors. I understand that the situation which evolves in these cases, by which the captives begin to have strong feelings for those who hold them prisoner, is referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome. (The word “worship” is usually included in any shorthand explanation of the syndrome.) Patchett weaves a beautiful story around variations on such themes. It is a testament to her gentle finesse that what seems implausible when you read it is summary on the book jacket, plays out beautifully. This is a first class love story about several doomed and tragic loves between a group of hostages in a Central American coup, and the wide eyed revolutionaries who guard them.

The revolutationaries come in, tough and carrying guns. They make demands which are ill considered and which the reader knows will never be accepted. Government forces surround the building. Negotiations begin, but unfold slowly. Months pass. Several relationships are formed, between a Japanese translator and a young Indian revolutionary, and a Japanese zaibatsu head and the eponymous Beautiful Singer. The reader knows how this will end. We are told exactly what will happen more than once. But, like the guests of this tragic operetta, we forget. We are lulled into the slow rhythm of south American days, the charms of budding romance, and the spell of Patchett’s seductive characterizations and languorous verbiage. When the inevitable conclusion explodes in upon the reader, the results are powerful.

Good work, Ms. Patchett. I resisted reading this novel for quite a while, but I’m impressed with your deft touch, your compassionate eye, and your ability to tell effectively the kind of implausible tale which seems to so often occur. It is difficult to take that truth which is ‘stranger than fiction’ and wrest from it a believable story. You have do so, and I’m impressed.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Six Years with the Texas Rangers by James B. Gillett

Larry McMurtry mentioned Gillett's excellent account in Sacagawea's Nickname, so I picked up a copy to at least pretend that I was doing legitimate research for Hunted.

Gillett served in the Texas Rangers, mostly E Company, from 1877 through 1883 and was involved in several famous encounters, from the capture of the outlaw Sam Bass to the resolution of the Salt Lake War in West Texas. Along the way, he chronicles the chases and arrests of a dozen or so badmen and Mexican bandits, the characteristics of two or three different Ranger commanders, the foibles of five or ten companions, and the discharge of a few thousand rounds of ammunition.

Gillett strikes a good balance between high adventure and a dusty chronicle of the day-to-day mundanities of camp life. Written in 1921, some forty years after the events recounted, one suspects that Mr. Gillett must engage in some of the old man's penchant for manufacturing details, else he missed his calling in life, since his recounting of names, locations and minutiae is impressively detailed. While the account occasionally delves into the realm of self-aggrandizing hyperbole, Gillett generally comes across as a reasonably humble fellow, and doesn't irritate. The account would not feel particularly dated at all were it not for the occasional remark which would provoke outrage from the modern NAACP. Political correctness was not in vogue in Texas in the 1920's.

This book is a fun piece of the historical record, with enough high action recounting to likely fall well short of actual scholarship. But it's a fun jaunt through late nineteenth century rangerdom in South Texas. Entertaining if you are interested in Texas history, priceless if you are looking for details of the doings of the Rangers in this particular time period.


Monday, May 08, 2006

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves had skimmed its way across my radar a half dozen times in about two months, and someone kindly gave me a copy for Christmas. I’m thrilled that they did.

Danielewski’s novel is a sprawling, post-post-modern epic horror story. Sort of. There are several narratives rolled into one, which, in sum, deal with a collection of footage by a documentarian named Will Navidson. Two of our narrators, a dead man named Zampano, and another named Johnny Truant compile a collection of scraps of analysis on the footage, footnotes on the analysis of the footage, and notes and letters about the events described in the footnotes. There’s some further interesting content in the Appendixes which deal with Truant’s history, all of which suggest that one or both or our narrators are not being entirely honest with us about their identities, and may, in fact, be the same person.

There’s a horror story in this, I promise. But it’s one you only get brief, oblique glimpses into.

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention that some of the book’s more interesting features deal with it’s typesetting and page layout. First, the word “house” appears in blue ink every time it is used. Second, the text layout on pages is labyrinthine, frequently appearing sideways, in mirror-writing, and so one. Thirdly, the footnotes, the narrative, the appendixes, and the letters are a maze as well, frequently pointing back in upon themselves, leading to narrative dead ends, referring to exhibits which are not present, filled with sections damaged by fire, ink, blood, and so on.

I don’t want to say much more, because, honestly, I don’t want to give too much away. This book is a treat if you are the type of person who appreciates subtle disquiet as opposed to the Dean Koontz style of horror. If you are, or have ever been a grad student, or felt lost in footnotes; if you’ve ever enjoyed DFW’s linguistic high-jink re footnotes, or if the idea of getting lost in a sinister labyrinth of words, textual analysis, and theory sounds like fun.

Else, you might not care for this one. But I loved it.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Love Medicine is a hard book to approach. Its focus is on two families of reservation Chippewa, and the ways in which they intermingle over the course of a century.

There are some heartbreaking stories here, some funny stories here, some dull stories here, and some confusing stories here. I like Erdrich’s language, which is spry without being particularly masterful. More interesting are the Indian words she peppers the narrative with, always being careful to let the reader know that she, like us, is outside the circle; that these are not her words, but the words of a people she views with love and disappointment.

If I were to reread this book, which would likely be a fruitful enterprise, since there’s too much good stuff here to get on the first time through, I would keep a family tree. See, the chapters ramble through time and relationships in such a way that it’s pretty hard to keep track of how each of these folks is related to one another. Couple this with the marriages and the multiple names several characters have, and a few unreliable narrators, and you’ve got a fun blend which can be a little hard to follow on occasion. I don’t doubt that Erdrich’s spiderweb is carefully designed to remind us how tangled, intertwined, and convoluted family relationships can get, especially on a reservation where few people leave and fewer still escape.

Love Medicine is a well written, beautiful book on the rich, damaged lives of Erdrich’s subjects. With this book, (published in 1984), Tracks, and, I’m told, The Beet Queen, Erdrich establishes herself in the tradition and company of other native writers like Leslie Marmon Silko. Would she be offended to be put in the company of “great American Indian writers” as opposed to the less bigoted category of “great writers?” Maybe. But alas, the bar to enter the great writers club is set far, far higher; it’s a height to which Love Medicine just can’t hope to aspire, despite the quality of its craftsmanship and the poignancy of it’s stories.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
I finally couldn’t resist any longer. I really wanted something fluffy for our weekend getaway to Tofino recently, so I grabbed a copy of Dan Brown’s treasure mine and headed for the beach.

This book was a fun, silly romp through tourist destinations of Paris and London. The constant double-crossing got a little tiresome, but Brown managed to make an improbably strung together sequence of pedantic lectures on art history fairly interesting. The Jason Bourne style plot was a silly collection of contrivances, and there’s little to speak of in the way of style, but the book is never dull, and you can read it in about four hours, so I didn’t feel like it was a very big waste of time. And it was certainly pleasant. A ‘page-turner’ as they say.

No more probably needs be said about this novel, since I believe every human on planet earth has purchased three copies at least, and Tom Hanks will be starring in a film version for the illiterates out there.

Oh yes, I should mention that the core mystery (the vilification of Jesus’ girlfriend, Mary Magdaline by the wicked, mean catholic church here is supposedly dealt with in much better capacity by Holy Blood, Holy Grail.) If I actually cared about this topic, or wanted to tilt the windmills of religious dogma further, I might read it, but since I don’t…

Esctasy by Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh wrote Trainspotting, as well as a half dozen other books dealing with Scottish lowlifes. Esctasy caught my eye at Half Price Books in Austin about five years ago, back when E was in. I guess maybe it’s still in with some, but the rave scene Welsh describes in this work is firmly anchored in the year 2000 or so.

This novel is really a collection of three novellas, connected through their geographic location (all in Edinburgh, I believe), and the presence of MDMA in the lives of their main characters.

The first tale is the worst, in my opinion; really more of a far-fetched, rambling fantasy in which a young nurse befriends an aging, obese author of romance novels. The two conspire to humiliate and dump the romance author’s husband, an insincere pervert who has treated the poor romance novelist badly. This story is filled with sexual deviance (not a term I apply lightly), and runs the gambit from zoophilla, to fisting, to some really unpleasant necrophilia. If the previous sentence makes you squirm even a little, this book is definitely NOT for you. The smut serves only to shock, the story fails to retain focus on its characters, and the transformation of the romance novelist, presumably through the discovery of a newfound self-confidence and joy de vivre brought on by taking ecstasy all happens off screen. This story is a failure, in my opinion.

The second tale deals with a hardcase and his amputee girlfriend, who go to great lengths to exact revenge on the marketing manager at a wicked pharmaceutical company which sold the product responsible for her deformity. Right.

The third story is actually pretty good. It’s a classic love story, with a dash of Kate Chopin, filtered through the eyes of a bright young woman who is fed up with her boring husband, and the Trainspotting type good-hearted down and out drug addict with whom she discovers true love (or at least sexual release.) It is in this third story, where Welsh keeps a relentless focus on the drugged out residents of Scotland’s garrets, that he succeeds most admirably. His descriptions of the sorts of mental and emotional alterations one undergoes when taking various drugs (Esctasy, general methamphetamines, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana) all seem to be right on. These will only be of interest to those who are steeped in the drug culture, but then, I can’t imagine anyone else would have even bought this novel. Where Welsh really shines though is in his unflinching ear for, and faithful reproduction of Scottish slang and dialect. Welsh is likely the premiere (only) person to have made so noteable an entry on the speech patters of this particular time subgroup in the linguistic annals. It’s a feat of dialog and voice which is every bit as compelling as Richard Wright or Elmore Leonard. Listen:

“Ah was sick with a dentist-drill headache and my lip was bust and swollen and ah had like a nasty smudged bit of purple black mascara under my right eye. This reminded me why ah took Class As instead of alcohol. Ah mind ay Nukes and me paggering. Fuck knows whether it was wi each other or some other fucker. Given the slightness of my wounds it was probably some other fucker cause Nukes is a hard cunt and would have done me a lot more damage.”

And that’s the narrative. The dialog is even less decipherable in many cases:

“-it’s no that, Lloyd, Vaugh mumps, -Aw ah’m tryin tae say is that you’re no a member here. Yir a guest. Yir the responsibility aye what cunts bring ye. That’s aw ah’m tryin tae say.”

The King’s English this ain’t. But it’s delightful to hear in your mind, or to try to wrap your tongue around when no one is listening.

Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
Needed a little light reading, so…
This book is one of the Microsoft Press series of books dedicated to improving the professionalism of software development by helping educate leaders in the space on how to achieve higher quality more predictably. The first one of these I read was Debugging the Development Process, many, many years ago. I think that the level of consistency and quality put out by this press is fairly high. While I've been managing software development teams and projects for almost ten years now (gulp!), my formal methodology talking points were beyond rusty, so I decided to bone up on 'em a little.

This book is boring; mind numbingly boring unless you happen to be into ways to organize dev teams. Since I am, at least professionally, I found it pretty interesting. There are nine chapters and a few appendices, each dealing with a different element of Scrum development. For those who don't already know, Scrum is a subcategory of agile development, whose tenants involve bottom up scheduling, short development sprints, and empowering teams to make decisions on the fly.
I'm not gonna write much more about this one, except to point out that I did find it quite helpful in helping me get a lot of jargon straight. These are things you know if you work in the biz, but the different terms for them which are in vogue change every few months and differ widely at each organization, so it's always good when a book like this can help us settle on a common vocabulary.

Books of Blood Volume 1 by Clive Barker

After the joys of Scrum, and a grueling 8 hour discussion on game development practices last week in Austin, I was ready for some good ole fashion pulp horror. Barker's Books of Blood is (I believe) the collection of short stories which first brought him some attention, back in 1983. Books of Blood is a short collection, only about five stories here. But three of them are excellent horror, which I much enjoyed. (Pig Blood Blues, The Yattering and Jack, and The Midnight Meat Train.) One was a bit dated (collectivism as an ideology hardly needs to be railed against anymore), and one was pretty unoriginal, (Sex, Death & Starshine,) but overall, this was a fine and nasty little piece of work. Makes me wanna go read some more Barker, which I think I'll go ahead and add to the stack. Anyone got recommendations for his best book? I've read the Great and Secret Show, and Everville. Anything else stand out from his body of work?

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Martel was given a Booker Prize for his charming little tale of a boy and a Tiger lost at sea. Anyone who reads this blog knows what a whore I am for Booker Prize winners, so you can imagine my excitement over this one. I waited for months, the way you’d save the tastiest bite of a meal until the end. And I don’t want to admit to being disappointed, but I was.

Martel’s novel is cute. It’s got a sufficiently parable (parabolic? ;) quality that one is inclined to give more credence to it than I suspect it really deserves.

Piscine Molitor Patel is a young Indian boy from the small backwater of Pondicherry. His father is a zookeeper. The most interesting thing about Pi is that he is simultaneously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu. The novel’s most amusing moment details a meeting between his minister, his imam, and his umm… hindu spiritual leader (the term escapes me.) The tale starts out strong and beautiful, with a multi-layered framework story, the kind superlative writing one expects from the winner of so prestigious an award, and interesting characters.

Then all the interesting characters and the framework story all but disappear, and a series of (Lemony Snicket’s?) improbable events unfold. Then the novel is over, the framework story lost at sea, like most of the interesting characters, and any sense of closure or message. At 350 pages, the book is far, far too short to deliver on any of the interesting questions it poses. (What about this fascinating religious quandary?) But I do know a lot about how to tame a tiger, gut a sea turtle, and generally survive at sea now.

I enjoyed this book. A particularly nice passage early on about the degenerate behaviors of zoo animals tickled me (though it may have come across as too cutesy for some.) The writing was excellent, definitely A+ caliber work, but the structure of the novel, and those few occasions where the language stops soaring long enough to splash into the tedium of adventure tale like one of the flying fish on the cover of the paperback version, all ended up feeling like a bit of a disappointment from a Booker Prize winner.

Finally, I take a bit of issue with the novel’s conclusion. We are led to believe that Pi, our trusty narrator, is not entirely reliable. Fair enough, unreliable narrators are nearly a trope of the new literary masterpiece these days, but the clumsy reveal on the matter feels like the trick of an amateur illusionist.

Ultimately, I look very forward to Martel’s next work for this reason. He has in him the stuff to become among our best. But as delightful a treat as this work is, The Life of Pi lacks the finesse, the wordplay, and the delicacy of structure that would turn its cheap conjuring trick into a truly magical creation.

Shall I apologize for taking so long to post again? What would be the point? I'm the only one that ever looks at the site, except for the occasional student looking to plagarize thoughts on some book or another, I suppose. Did Google send you here? Drop me a line if you end up using anything I said here in your book report. That's about the quality of analysis and writing you'll be getting here, so hopefully it'll fit right in.

While I'm erratic on posting, I promise that I'm not erratic on consuming the books, nor have I forgotten any. Here are the ones which are getting posted tonight, on this cool evening in early May in Burnaby, BC:

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Yeah, yeah, I know...)
Esctasy by Irvine Welsh
Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
Books of Blood Volume 1 by Clive Barker
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I've got another two or three that I've finished, or almost finished, just haven't had time to jot down any thoughts on yet.

I'm off for the Great State of Texas next week, where I'll be celebrating the brilliance of my beloved Professor, as well as her inevitable aging, and the existance of my mother, and mothers everywhere, I suppose. Since plane rides are good for this sorta thing, expect more in the week or two after I return!


Monday, March 06, 2006

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I just finished Never Let Me Go in the car on the way back from lunch. The grey Burnaby day outside was blustery, blowing trash around just like in the dreary closing scene of the novel, supposedly somewhere in the fields outside of Norfolk.I was moved by this book, never quite to real tears, though the sentiment was there; but part of that might just have been my hangover.

Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, and I'd heard a few good things about it, so last weekend while I was stranded at the Brentwood mall I picked up a copy. The novel is an elegaic look at the lives of three students of a special boarding school in England. It focuses on their adolescence and young adulthood. There's a subtle love triangle, and a lot of attention to the nuances of gestures, intonation, and other minute details of conversations. By honing in on this emotional minutae, Ishiguro keeps the real emotional punch of the novel always at a discreet arm's length. Because these children are not ordinary. They are clones, though the word is never specifically used, created to act as organ donors later in life. Eventually, they will each 'donate' enough organs that they 'complete' having sacrificed themselves to better the lives of a world that cloisters them away so it can pretend they don't exist.

The novel seldom directly spells out all of the above, choosing instead to perform a patient, carefully controlled reveal on the lives of Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, the novel's protagonist. In practice this plays out like a cross between The Remains of the Day and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Ishiguro's novel is almost Victorian in it's sublimation of emotion and big picture details. It frequently reads like a drama of manners. It's no accident, in fact, that Kathy's school project is on "Victorian literature" - Ishiguro is likely the master of the modern form of this genre.

I thought several times about Lynn while reading this book, never quite sure why. It wasn’t until I finally asked her about it that she reminded me she'd read and posted a review of it on her fine site: On the Nightstand here - in rereading her comments on the book, I find that I didn't necessarily agree with her rather cold assesment: "But it didn't grab me the way I thought it would. I wanted someone in this book to get angry at the situation, or at the hand that life had dealt them, and no one did. Which kinda implies that if you can't get excited about it, why should I?" I guess I was moved by the story, and impressed by it's use of subtlety and lack of emotional outburst. In some ways, it was these character's lack of awareness of the tragedy of their situation that made it all the sadder.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out that behind the stage prop of clones and organ harvesting, this was basically a tale of love deferred. It could apply to any of us. Though the end of our lives aren't scheduled for termination in accordance with the needs of a public hungry for our innards, we are all on the same clock that Ruth, Tommy and Kathy are. Your life will tick away, you will watch the people you care about get sick and die before you can ever say to them everything you wanted to say, and eventually, you too will die either alone or leaving someone else alone. Don't ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you.


Chris Crawford on Game Design by Chris Crawford

Chris Crawford's book isn't very good.

I try to balance out my appetites for fiction with the occasional how-to book on something dealing with my profession. Software design and Project Management books tend to be okay. Game Design books tend to suck. This one is an example of the latter camp.

Weighing in at around 500 pages and published by the king of this type of book, New Riders Press, this is another book designed to be sold to wannabe game designers, and people like myself who are always wondering if the old timers really have some secret knowledge the rest of us don’t. Crawford is a self-proclaimed Old Fart, having gotten his start in the late seventies, then spending time at Atari thereafter. He claims to have started the modern GDC (though I've heard the same claim from a few other old timers.) He has not shipped a product in almost fifteen years, and has very few commercial successes. This may not discount his ideas on Game Design, but as the industry has changed, it's no longer clear that the same rules or pattern apply; at least if they do, it's not in so direct a fashion. To be more explicit, just because Eastern Front 1941, published in 1981 may have been a "breakthrough", does not mean that there are many lessons to be learned from it now, twenty-five years later.

Crawford comes across as an arrogant grand-dame of computer gaming, tossing around broad generalities and flavoring them with inaccuricies. For example, "Wizardry, a straight copy of Moria was… since it's impossible to play Moria you'll now have to play Wizardry." Now, I realize this is a fine point of geekish nitpicking, but Crawford is just plain wrong on several points here. First, Wizardry is not a copy of Moria, the two are quite different. Second, Wizardry was quite noteable for other reasons, and thirdly, it's quite possible to play Moria now. I have a copy on my laptop.

There are plenty of these types of ridiculous generalities thrown about in the book: "There's no mystery why social reasoning is so weak in computer games: most game designers are socially incompetent geeks." Hmmm… Well, aside from playing to a silly stereotype, Crawford is sidestepping the more interesting problem here (how to I take something that is at heart an isolating experience due to the nature of the hardware and turn it into a social experience?), and ignoring mountains of great work done in this area by everyone from academic MUD designers to the superb work being done by the thousands of people now building MMORPGs.

Finally, the mechanics of writing are just plain weak here. The style is lecturing and cantankerous, sentences periodically lack a subject, and so on. The basic writer's toolkit that one expects people to bring to the table is missing here, or was ignored in favor of pithy "truths" and weak analysis. (For example, the extended mediation on "drugs" and video games, concluding with the advice to not own stock in a video game company once people realize how similarly to "drugs" they affect brain activity. WTF?) Also irritating is the "Random Sour Observations" chapter, just because Crawford uses it as another chance for self-aggrandizing put-downs of the work of various projects and designs. While he may be correct to skewer some of these old, dead mistakes, an analysis of some of the more interesting experimental successes of the recent past might have been more useful.

Anyway, I'm sorry that I spent time on this book, and I hope that would be game designers out there pass on this one in favor of something more useful.


Count Zero by William Gibson

They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in Delhi… begins CZ. From there the tale is off and it’s just the sort of dark dystopian futurism that I admire in William Gibson. No, it doesn’t have the linguistic sizzle of Neuromancer, and by the time it was published, only a few years later, there were already a huge crowd of fast-follower cyberpunk writers.

I’ve read this one before, but it seemed to fit perfectly in the world of dark corporate zaibatsu and elite machine-gun samaurai that I’m thinking about these days. So I read it again.

Still cool. If this kind of action sci-fi is your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. But, if weird Haitian Voodoo AI turns you off you should probably stay away.

Ah-ha! Catching up!

It occurs to me that since this blog is really only updated when there's nothing else going on that it's sort of a chronicle of the lulls in my life. But, since it's focus is solely on my one sided little ramblings on the books I read, I guess that's okay.

It's a rainy spring night in Burnaby. I'm in the basement thinking about the government with Dylan and Mouse.

Golden Days by Carolyn See

Golden Days was recommended (and loaned) to me by someone whose taste in most things I admire quite a bit. Typically, her appreciation for books is no exception. Throughout my life there’s no doubt that this person has given me more influential books than has almost anyone else. So I approached Golden Days with a lot of excitement.

A hundred pages in, a little puzzled, I was still excited, hoping that the goodness would start anytime soon. But, alas, no. This book didn’t deliver what I expected it to ever, and, in fact, never delivered anything I even thought was very good.

Golden Days is the story of a young to middle-aged mother of two living in the California Hills. In the tumultuous months before nuclear annihilation she goes about her life, getting involved in romances, self-help cults, investment groups, and all the other hallmarks of late seventies era Californian upper-class WASP entertainment.

Then again. I wasn’t ever there. So I might have it all wrong. I give her credit for being true to time and place. I believe this is what it was like there and then. But for whatever reason, it didn’t work for me as sci-fi and didn’t work for me as social drama. The feminism [am I still allowed to use the word?] seems archaic in our post post post everything world. (For example, the nuclear missiles as male dominated cock fantasty thing has already been beaten to death by 2006. Already even a rock & roll cliché by 1985.)

And maybe that’s my biggest complaint. It’s an apocalypse where everything pretty much just continues as normal. I think. Hints of distant war, then a vague description of it’s aftermath through the same consumerist, middle-aged sunglasses. I understand Updike does the same thing in Towards the End of Time? Anyone?

A few months ago I might have had some details more clearly. And again, maybe it’s just a chronicle of a city I’ve never much liked in a time period too flaky to be retro, with no real payoff at the end.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin

This one should be easy. If you're already hooked on Martin's depraved and long winded fantasy epic then you've already bought and read this book, despite only being able to purchase it in hardback for a staggering $35 Canadian. If you aren't already into the adventures of this troubled kingdom, then you're probably not interested in this one.

A Feast for Crows is half of a book according to Martin's website. Apparently, there's a point at which it's simply too unprofitable to publish too big a tome. Cost of goods and services gets out of control, and even pulp fantasy readers won't tackle a book that's bigger than Tolkien's (non)trilogy by itself.

Given this, that the story is only half tols by the time you reach the end, I suppose A Feast for Crows isn't too terribly unsatisfying. Does it feature the characters you've come to love (and hate) in the past? Yes, but only peripherally. Is it filled with the cool mystic action sequences that tantalized you in his previous three books? No, not really. Is it filled with despicable people, sadistic misogyny, and lots of dull court intrigue? Yep.

So did I like this book? No. Not really. I thought it was weak; trading on the same currency Martin had already established with readers, without any of the freshness of his previous works. Will I buy the next one when it comes out? Yes. Of course. I'm a sucker like that. Hell, at least I finally threw in the towel on Robert Jordan's dairy farm.

Ooh. I'm embarassed that this one will be at the top of the index in the right frame. Oh well. Guess I'll have to find something better that starts with A. Perhaps there's Aardvark Adventure out there somewhere...


Sacagawea's Nickname by Larry McMurtry

Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West is the most recent book of essays published by McMurtry, released in 2001 by the New York Review of books. In it, LMM reminds the reader that he is absolutely still keen in his wit, still thirsty to delve, discuss and debate, and still focused on the high plains, swollen rivers, and the deep canyons of the American West.

Indeed, much of the spirit of Sacagawea's Nickname is derived from a sort of metatextual discussion in which McMurtry engages with the reader to determine where the real American West is. He concludes as have scholars before him, that the real West is that of the imagination, existing somewhere between the dusty frontier towns of Oklahoma, the problem of erosion, and the mythic high-adventure West of John Wayne, Tombstone, and Louis L'amour.

McMurtry starts this short and lively discussion by examining a recent version of The New Encyclopedia of the American West, which he finds to be a pandering, lacking attempt at broad coverage of the west. In addition to an entry for "chili" about which McMurtry quips: "In this increasingly secular age, what to put in chili-- or what to exclude-- provokes the nearest thing to religious argument to be heard in the modern West, while the great chili cookout held annually in Terlingua, Texas, is a loose equivalent of the Council of Nicea, in which many heresies are defined and many schismatics cast out." McMurtry believes that good writers and historians of the American West are given short shrift in the Encyclopedia. This belief gives the book its central purpose, as LMM sets out to discuss, berate, and honor a staggering number of historians who have treated his native land as their subjects.

Across these twelve essays, largely unrelated, save for their shared concern with the theme described above, LMM displays a breadth and depth of knowledge on the topic that would do any emeritus professor proud. He is, as already described in my coverage of Roads, a fearsome collector of anecdotes, names, places, and book titles. At least in these works, LMM comes across as the kind of self-taught scholar that should give us all cause to despair. How on earth can we work for a living, lead lives filled with romance, friends, children, and all the rest, and still master such a body of knowledge as he has demonstrated? I do not know the way, but will keep trying to get there.

Despite tipping the scales at only one hundred and seventy two pages, Sacagawea's Nickname is loaded with information, sly commentary, and LMM's usual dry humor for both comedy of situations and for wordplay.

I'd love to write more, but Mouse the Impatient is threatening to unplug me, and in any case, I've got a few thousand more books to read before I'll be a worthy judge of a book like this. Back to the stacks.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

In the interest of full disclosure:

Yes, Mike & I did make a replica of the sign in Lonesome Dove which was so convincing a forgery that Vic was worried we'd stolen it from the museum at SWT.

Yes, I do know what Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit means. I think about it often.


Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

In my war-torn paperback copy of Lonesome Dove there is a purple flower crushed flat. The flower is a Bauhinia, a species of orchid, which is the official flower of Hong Kong. It was on the flag there until the British gave the place up officially in, I wanna say, 1999. I brought the flower back with me crushed in the book and didn’t find it again until the 2005 Thanksgiving holidays when I reread this one. I remember the young woman I was travelling with there complaining to me one twilight as I sat outside reading. She had just taken a picture and was laughing at me. She said, “Tim this whole amazing city is just waking up for the night, and you’re missing all of it cause you’re too busy reading about Texas.” I put the book away that night and explored the streets of that strange place with a friend I’ll always remember kindly.

I don’t know where she is now, but I’ve got my copy of Larry McMurtry’s epic right here, along with my smuggled crushed orchid bookmarker.

To say that the made for television adaptation of this book is my father’s favorite film would be an understatement. He loves the movie, as do my brother and I. It is, amazingly, almost as good as the book.

And that’s really saying something, because I love this novel. Gus, Coll, Laurie-darling, Dish Boggett, and all the rest are friends who, like that young woman of a decade ago, I’ll never forget.

LMM tells the story of a cattle drive from the Texas-Mexico border, near present day Piedras Negras, to Montana, north of the Milk River. This is an epic in every sense of the word. It weighs in at a little over 900 pages, contains approximately sixty characters, and spans the length of the American West, both geographical and fictional.

McMurtry is not a stylist. Let’s get that out of the way here, and it won’t need to concern us further.

What he is good at is creating memorable characters, who’ve become almost archtypes inside his own work at this point. Are Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Coll not the same young men we met in Leaving Cheyenne so long ago? Doesn’t Newt resemble in some way that young man we came to love in Horseman, Pass By? No matter. If McMurtry tends to repeat himself, that’s fine. The lonesome winds of Archer City must weigh on a man, as we learn in The Last Picture Show.

I’m proud that McMurtry is from Texas. I’m proud that Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize. I’m proud of all the scholarship he’s accomplished in his four books of essays, even if they all feel a little too much like he’s trying to make up for the Ivory Tower education he never completed. It’s a feeling I can certainly understand. I’m proud that he won a—what’s the award—Oscar—for his work on Brokeback Mountain, though I’ve not seen the film.

I read last summer that he’s giving up the bookstore in West Texas and moving to Florence, just the way Duane does when it’s time to die at the end of the Thalia trilogy. I’m sad that he’s giving up on Texas, if he is. I’m sad that it’s time for him to go, if it is. Texas needs people like McMurty to counter the terrible reputation we have for illiteracy in the rest of the world.

Solomon David said, “The old masters are dying. Or giving up, which will amount to the same thing. It’s left to us to carry on their work, however ill-suited to the task we may feel.”

To which Robert Cogburn responded, “That’s a pretty big burden to place on yourself. How do you know you won’t fail?”

Solomon replied, “Oh, I’m certain to fail ultimately. But I hope to succeed, in those things I try at, for a little while at least. I believe that may be the best any of us can hope for.”

I offer these lines only as poor tribute in this review to a work I admire, from a man I admire. When Larry McMurtry is dead and gone to Florence it’ll be up to those Texas writers and would-be writers who remain to carry on his legacy as best we are able with those poor gifts we have.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Beautiful if dull epic tale of immigrant pioneer life in Nebraska around the 1870s. Upon this re-reading of Cather’s book I was struck by how much less touching the story was for me this time. I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the romantic elements in my personality being so much more subdued than they once were. Specifically, I remember the narrator’s return to meet Antonia as a matron to be a heartbreaking commentary on the passage of time and it’s effect on unrequieted romance. I believe I’d mentally filed it alongside Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men. Cather’s story does not really concern itself with any interaction between Antonia and the narrator which is not platonic. Still quite moving though is the chapter dealing with the death of Antonia’s father and his burial at the crossroads. Also, great embedded story about the marriage in Russia gone horribly awry, in which the wolves eat everyone.

Good book, useful if you are looking for some good details on the period, or want to muse on the fate of immigrant customs and beliefs in the face of progress and Americanization. Also, if you are looking for an ode to the strength of will and character of those hearty women who helped bring domesticity to the American West, this is the book for you.

I’d like to spend a little time reading a few of Cather’s other novels. I know that Sherry really enjoyed Death Comes for the Archbishop. But for now, other stories and other voices are of greater interest.

Read this one back before '05 turned into '06. Still a few more to get through-- each of which deserves more time than I'm likely to put in.

Since when do you have to feel guilty about neglecting a hobby for Christsakes?


Sunday, January 15, 2006

One step forward, two back, as the saying goes...

My Antonia by Willa Cather
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Sakajawea's Nickname by Larry McMurtry
A Feast For Crows by George RR Martin
Golden Days by Carolyn See
Count Zero by William Gibson

Have a little discipline, will ya?