Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt is a close friend of Brett Easton Ellis, he of Less Than Zero, American Psycho, and so on. One suspects that this friendship powerfully influenced both her writing and her relationship with the book publishing industry.

The Secret History reads a bit like Less Than Zero meets Dead Poets Society. Set primarily on the wooded grounds of an upper-crust Vermont liberal arts university, this epic novel is the tale of a middle-class California teen who goes off to college, is seduced into a world of wealth, elitism, and intellectualism. Under the tutelage of their classics professor, a small group of students descend into a lifestyle which shrugs off currently accepted social mores. There are consequences.

On one level, this novel reads like a “going off to college” bildungsroman. On another level it’s a great social satire filled with cokeheads, cheap sex, buffoonish administrators, ignorant townies, and so one. Hanging in the dark skies above all of this, is a fairly tightly written psychological thriller.

The novel is long and loses it’s focus periodically, but it is (given the potentially dry nature of a story about a classics club) quite engaging. I was pulled forward through the entire thing in about four late night sessions by a burning desire to know how things would work out for Bunny, Henry, Camilla, Francis and the rest.

And on some level, this is the book’s greatest success: Like the protagonist, you can’t help yourself being impressed and enchanted by these awful characters and feeling like you want to keep on knowing them. By the bloody final reckoning the reader has become as much a part of the Secret History of our ill-fated group of outcasts as the narrator.

Good stuff. Well written, if far from perfect.

Thanks for the loan, Senator.

A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

Travis McGee, wanderer, knight, poet and solver of problems is back! In this installment, written in about 1965, he witnesses the murder of a beautiful stranger and is drawn into the complicated web of connections that makes up small town life. Along the way he kills a few people, solves some crimes, wisecracks, and saves a damsel in distress by teaching her about love. Standard MacDonald fare, but lots of fun.

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk

Rant Casey is a redneck who spreads rabies through really prolific amounts of cunnilingus. Also, a group of misfits crash cars into one another in an interesting game called “Party Crashing.”

This “oral history” is told through a sequence of interviews after Casey’s death. (?)

What Palahniuk’s novel lacks in meaningful content it makes up for with a dearth of style, a delight in gross out shocks, and a few now work out tricks.

I’m irritated to have bought this in hardback. Given how low my opinion of Haunted, I should have known better, but I somehow hoped Chuck might have gotten some of his skills back. He hasn’t. I’ll not make the mistake of purchasing another of his books.

At least it was mercifully short.

The Farm by Scott Nicholson

Lets see… Scarecrows returning to life and seeking human victims? Check. Isolated farmhouse, teenage daughter estranged from her mother? Check. Weird rednecks? Check. Ghosts, murdered wives, asshole religious scholars, corrupted soil, even goat orgies? Check, check, check and check.

The Farm was bad horror at it’s baddest. Bought in a Vancouver grocery store checkout line, it delivered the exact grade of horror novel retreads, plotting clichés, and stylistic pap one would expect.

Nothing wrong here. Nicholson clearly knows where his bread is buttered.

In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders

“Slap it up your wack!”
Saunders has written a collection of hyperactive, highly post modern short stories which fall somewhere between Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, and Chuck Palahniuk. They shout, sing and dance their way across the pages, and are, frankly, delightful, funny, sad and cynical. Characters include ghosts, Jesus freaks, puppets, a Slap-O-Wack bar, market research subjects, monkeys, salesmen, television show characters, and even a talking orange.

Some of the tales are a bit tedious, or make their points with all the subtlety of a meat cleaver, but others are complex and beautifully written. The one about a bad Christmas among Chicago’s working class and the tale of the two old women both come to mind.

Generally, the social commentary rails against consumerism and advertising, but there are a host of other modern dilemmas that crop up here in various guises, some deep and involved, some quickly sketched from the notebook of a 10th grader infatuated with Ad-Busters.

Lots to like here, and I’m eager to read more of what Saunders has written.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red is a fascinating, erudite and incredibly long novel which is obsessed with the relationship between painters and their subjects in Istanbul in the year 1590. It’s a murder mystery, a story of unrequieted love, a history lesson, and a great introduction to the history of Turkish painters. If this subject seems a bit beyond arcane, rest assured: it is.

It took me a number of months to finish My Name is Red, in part because it is exceedingly long, and in part because it is the antithesis of the thriller. The novel is filled with long winded first person speculation about the nature of perspective, the morality of representation, and the lives and times of master illustrators, called miniaturists by the Turks of the time.

The novel is told from dozens of different perspectives, about six of whom are main characters, and the rest of whom are walk ons, or fictional constructs of main characters. (“I am a Gold Coin”, “I am a dog”, “I will be called a murderer”, etc.) Through each of their tales, the truth about a complicated conspiracy among the sultan’s illustrators, and the murders which stem from it unfold. There’s murder, sex, disease, betrayl, drugs, homosexuality, and lots and lots of philosophizing about artistry.

The book is highly topical, as East / West tensions, and the nature of what it means to be a devout muslim are at the heart of the tale, and resonate throughout every back alley and coffeeshop of Istanbul. For those Norm Americans, like myself, who have been so bombarded with post 9/11 imagery decrying the negativity of Islam, this novel is an important tour of the rich cultural history and structure of deeply held beliefs which are a mystery to most of us. One of my goals over the last year has been to develop a deeper understanding of the Middle East, because it’s clear that my countrymen have too long remained willfully ignorant of this region of the world, and are currently suffering for it. Pamuk has helped in this goal in ways the Economist simply never could.

Fascinating and challenging book. I know of absolutely no one to whom I could recommend this one. Also, no more Pamuk for me for a while. Good stuff, but there’s a lot out there which is less dense, less tangled, and less arcane.

Camoflage by Joe Haldeman

Haldeman’s fast sci-fi novel is a quick, fun summer novel which you’d not be disappointed to take to a beach with you. It’s neither bad nor great, and though it does devolve into silliness by the end, there’s enough good science fiction, sex, violence, and historical popcorn to keep you occupied for it’s rather short duration.

What if two aliens came to earth? Both of them could look like anyone or anything they wanted. And they needed to kill one another. Because one is fundamentally nice and the other is fundamentally mean. So when a deep sea salvage team with government ties pulls up a spaceship from the Marianas trench, these aliens get interested and come check it out. Somewhere along the way, a scientist falls in love with an alien. (Thus upping the sheer geek factor on this novel by a full letter grade.) A showdown (yawn) ensues, and love wins the day. The end.

I’d read another Haldeman novel; some of his others get higher praise. It’s always fun to read pulp sci-fi, but this is no Hyperion, just a fun, lighthearted and derivative romp.

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

I really wanted to love this novel. Pamuk is regarded as the most interesting writer to come out of Turkey in the last century; he even won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 for his novel My Name is Red.

I’ve been reading My Name is Red, and it is a fascinating piece of worldcrafting, on par with (though more subdued than) Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Unfortunately, The White Castle, an earlier effort by Pamuk is not up to the same standards.

In brief: In a found manuscript, we read the tale of a young scholar of Venice who is captured by the Turks in the seventeenth century. He is enslaved and moved to Istanbul. But because of his keen intellect and his knowledge of medicine and science, he becomes the personal property of a Turk named Hoja, with whom he shares a remarkable physical resemblance. The two work together on problems of pseudo-science and philosophy which obsess Hoja. Eventually, they switch places and one “becomes” the other. The end.

We get a lot of byplay about the nature of self and the relationship between the east and the west during the time period. But the doppelganger story seems to have been so thoroughly mined already by everyone from Hesse to Wilde, that it’s hard to see what’s new here. (Besides, does anyone in the modern world really think about the doppelganger theme anymore?) The details of life in sultanic Istanbul at this time period are interesting, but they are so secondary to the story that we only barely get the flavor. And the end of the piece simply fizzles out in a confusing welter of events which leave me at least with no real take-home-lesson.

I feel embarrassed to suggest that I was bored by the world of a Nobel Prize Winner, but I was. This is a book which is not particularly interesting, and in which you keep waiting for some fine philosophical point to be raised. When no pearl of wisdom ever materializes, I felt let down.

However, My Name is Red is much, much finer (also much, much longer) so I intend to continue exploring to find out more about Mr. Pamuk, his culture, and his philosophy.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“Will you come home to me on the Smile?”

Didion, sixties counterculture chronicler and maven chronicles the year after the death of her husband with heartbreaking detail and a vivid ability to recollect the hardest parts of life.

This is likely as essential a book for the now withering Baby Boomer generation as was Slouching Towards Bethlehem fifty years ago. It’s a heartbreaking mediation on marriage, aging, and the lonliness of widowdom. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had tears in my eyes and had to stop reading several times.

My good friend KM tells me that the tragic footnote to this tale is that Didion’s daughter, QR, did not actually make it through her illness after all, and died some months after the publication of the book. This makes even the small ray of hope offered at the memior’s conclusion fade out and disappear.

Read this book if you are a Baby Boomer with a spouse. Eventually, one of you will lose the other. The Year of Magical Thinking may help in some small way prepare you.

Read this book if you have parents who are Boomers. You will lose them eventually too.

Read this book if you’re human and care about other people in your life. As another sixties counterculture icon warned us long ago, “No one here gets out alive.” Plan accordingly.

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

It’s lucky that the Devil’s Highway deals with such a topical subject since the writing is atrocious. Somehow, it won a few journalism awards, which is a bit shocking to me. I’d expected that the overall standards for journalistic excellent might have been higher.

The Devil’s Highway deals with the ill-fated voyage of a dozen Mexican illegal immigrants, and the “coyotes” who led them to ruin in the desert of Arizona, a few hundred miles west of Tuscon. It chronicles the poor choices and lack of economic prosperity that led these men to decide to go on this trip, and the equally poor skills in navigation that wound up killing many of them.

There’s a level of (wholly justified) outrage here on behalf of the writer which makes this feel much more like an Op-Ed piece than a work of journalistic objectivity.

The book humanizes the often abstract border debates in the US, and it does tell an interesting if sad tale. But the author’s use of the English language is so without regard for the traditional rules of grammer as to make it difficult on occasion to discern his meaning. I’m not trying to pick a stylistic quibble here, but the common misuse of clichés, poor punctuation, and strange narrative intrusion into otherwise factual paragraphs makes this read more like a high school report on events than those of an award winning journalist.

The familiarity with local flavor (music, clothing, foods, lingo, etc.) goes a long way towards counteracting these shortcomings and make the book worth spending time on for anyone interested in the border culture of the southwest.

Likewise, the avalanche of speculation, seemingly unsupported assertions, and the fantastic statistics tossed around without any citations weaken this book’s messages: the immigration debate cannot lose sight of the humanity of its subject. Illegal immigrants are people and deserve a more humane policy to deal with cases in which they decide to break the law and cross illegally into the United States. I don’t think that Mr. Alberto Urrea proposes any workable solution to the problem, but he’s certainly good at bringing it to everyone’s attention.

Perhaps I missed some secret genius here? Others have seemed to be mightily impressed by this work…

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

As may be clear, I was sufficiently enchanted Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything that I immediately went out a bought a few of his other books and moved them to the top of the queue.

A Walk in the Woods had been recommended to me by my old friend Kitty in Iowa, so I read it next.

It’s a delightfully good humored walk along the Appalachian Trail with Bryon and an old highschool friend of his. Along the way, you get a lot of history of Appalachia, a lot of light forestology, and a lot of Bryson’s cheer and self-deprecating sense of humor.

This book is delightful, though nowhere near as impressive in scope or depth as A Short History. This one is exactly what the title indicates: A Walk in the Woods with Bill Bryson. But it definitely leaves one with a profound respect for the trails of North America, and a strong desire to go backpacking.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bryson has created a primer for the physical sciences which should be a part of every ninth grade curriculum. This book is funny, fascinating, and extraordinarily informative. The title is remarkably apt; by the time you’ve reached the end of the book’s five hundred plus pages, you will know a great deal more about almost everything, from whales, to magnetism, to mathematics, to microbiology and cosmology. Bryon begins with the remarkable fact of your existence, and carries you through to several possible end of days scenario, stopping to have tea with nearly every major scientist and thinker of the last five hundred years along the way. And did I mention that it’s a delightfully funny book? Seems impossible, but it’s true. If A Short History of Nearly Everything were required reading in highschool or middle school in North America, within ten years, we would see our global math and science disadvantage shrinking. It really is that kind of inspiring. At least it was to me. By the end of each chapter, I found myself thinking, “Yes! That’s what I’m going to devote my life to studying! I never knew there was so much we still don’t understand about that topic!”

I will briefly address some critics who have (correctly) pointed out that Bryson shies away from delving too deeply into any particular topic, instead seeming to reach a certain point of complexity and then pull his focus away with a sort of “and gee isn’t this all just fascinating!” attitude. This is an accurate criticism of this book. As a primer on nearly everything, it doesn’t give you textbook depth of detail on any of the topics it covers, preferring instead to give you a rudimentary knowledge of the topic, the challenges, the current state of the art, and the major players in the field. For my money, that’s more than enough. If you want more on a particular topic, go buy books on that topic. As a primer and an onramp, ASHONE does what it intends to do.

I finished this one somewhere around three am over the pacific ocean in February. Upon arrival at home, I immediately bought copies for Mike, Vic & LAF, hoping that they would be as inspired by it as I was.

Run, don’t walk to get this book and read it. Thanks, Mr. Bryson.

In the Flesh by Clive Barker

Misfit Teens beat up a homeless guy and steal something from him that they shouldn’t. A rich misogynist descends into an urban labyrinth of monstrous femininity. And so on… These are more great Barker short stories from the eighties. I only wish he’d written more.

The Inhuman Condition by Clive Barker
A delightful collection of horror shorts from the eighties by Clive Barker. Start with Books of Blood, but wander through these dark halls when it’s time for more.

Bangkok City Guide by Lonely Planet
Bangkok, crown of Thailand, tropical jewel of southeast asia is a world unto itself. It sprawls for miles on either side of the peaceful Chao Phayra river and rises up to touch the polluted skies in the form of hundreds of modern glass and steel skyscrapers.

My well traveled friend Dave L. loaned me this handy pocket size city guide to the city before our departure, and it proved a welcome companion to the more robust but diffused knowledge in the general book on Thailand. More than once, I was able to get where we wanted to be by unfolding the front cover map and pointing out our desired destination to the patient, but sometimes English-lacking tuk-tuk drivers.

I will definitely buy a city guide to any mega-city I intend on visiting in addition to the general country guides. The two in tandem provide an excellent introduction to a place.

The Talisman by Stephen King

This is one of the more beloved books by many King fans, I believe. So I decided to take it with me on our trip to Thailand and read through it again. Last time for me had been in High School, where I believe my old friend S.G. had really enjoyed this one.

Talisman has never been one of my favorites, and now I remember why. It’s a young man’s journey across the 80’s US and a parallel dimension called the territories. Evil chases him because he’s a sort of chosen one who can rescue the talisman and stop a wicked plan to make the territories as bad as the US. His dying mother is caught up in things as well…

A few of the characters are interesting. A few are wholly unbelievable. (“All boys are baaaaad! Axiomatic!”) All of the usual King writing style characteristics are here, and as a frowning look at mid eighties America, I suppose there’s a little substance. But overall, it’s a fun idea whose execution is a bit forced, and which goes on both way too long, and not long enough to be epic.
Been quite a long time since I've posted anything. About to fix that.

I'm here in Houston, TX for the last week. The Professor has been doing a nine week rotation through the white wizard's tower of a prominent downtown firm. So we've been living in a small place in Midtown, among the ferraris, crackheads, and high end resturants of central Houston.

Sixteen new book posts coming up, ranging as far back as January of this year.

In our lives: A formal tonight, tuxedos, gowns, and partying until dawn. Then one more week here with the Senator, the esteemed KM, and other fine new friends. Then we're back to Austin for a few weeks, with a brief detour through LA, followed by two weeks in Vancouver and the Gulf Islands.