Monday, November 30, 2009

Stuff I've Been Reading: November

So as I’ve mentioned Nick Hornby has spent the past decade royally pissing me off. But perhaps the worst example of this was when he started his wonderfully funny Column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” in The Believer, gave me time to love it, and then dropped it so he could come to my home and make a martini from my tears.

Well damn it Nick Hornby those are the last of my tears that you will ever mix with your sweet Vermouth! I’m going to bring back Stuff I’ve Been Reading myself, and I don’t give a damn what you or David Egger’s Lawyers think about! (Not actually a challenge to David Eggers who is undoubtedly much richer then me.) You know what they say, if you want something done right by Nick Hornby you have to do it yourself.

For those new to the game, each Column consists of two lists “Stuff I Bought.” And “Stuff I Read.” And I attempt to explain the reasoning behind both. A few personal notes for this particular blog. Just because I write about books at the end of the month doesn’t mean I’ll stop elsewhere. So for example, I wrote about Juliet Naked earlier this month. I’ve mentioned that I read it. I mentioned that I’ve written about it. And Now I’ve mentioned that it’s pretty good, a return to form, but still not quite top shelf Hornby. Done done onto the next one.

As I’m a pretty avid comic book reader, I’ve wondered what my approach to trades should be and have decided on having no firm rules. Basically If I’ve read a graphic novel (say Ball Peen Hammer) I’ll probably talk about it, if I’ve read a trade (say Ultimate Spiderman Vol. 6) I probably won’t, unless it was A) Particularly good, or B) I’ve never written about the title before. This isn't so much a judgement call, so much as it is a way to avoid repetitiveness, There are only so many ways one can find to write, "This Bendis fellow certainly knows how to write Spiderman!"

So with that out of the way lets get on with it. All kidding aside, I really did admire Hornby’s column and wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t sincerely miss it. So as he said the first time out, lets have some fun.

Book’s Bought:

-Ultimate Spiderman Vol. 6: Brian Michael Bendis
-Our Dumb World: The Onion Staff
-Terror: Dan Simmons
-Changing My Mind: Zadie Smith
-Naked: David Sedaris
-Where I’m Calling From: Carver
-Girl Sleuth: Melanie Rehak
-Holidays On Ice: David Sedaris
-Anthem: Neil Stephenson
-The Colorado Kid: Stephen King

Books Read:

Carrie: By Stephen King
Telegraph Days: By Larry McMurty
The Score: Richard Stark
Pygmy: Chuck Palahniuk
Girl Sleuth: Melanie Rehak
Juliet Naked: Nick Hornby

Most of my book buying, this week was limited to filling in holes in my collections. Only the new Smith, Girl Sleuth, and The Terror (Recommended on The AV Club's best of the decade list) were blind buys (Technically Anthem was as well but as I got it for free I'm not sure that it counts).

I started out the month by finishing an audio book of Carrie (And yes I will be including audiobooks in the read category). It’s been awhile, maybe even as much as a decade since I’ve read the story of Carrie White and her doomed revenge. I took Halloween as an opportunity to revisit the work and it remains an effective violent tragedy.

The books not perfect, it is in fact endearingly clumsy at times (as when the book breaks the fourth wall and solemnly informs us that Carrie is telekinetic). It’s very much a first book, filled with literary tricks that later more straightforward King would avoid, such as “secondary sources”.

Still even with the baggage from King’s career its easy to go back and look at the book with new eyes, and see the potential people saw in the unknown writer. Though much of King’s weaknesses are here, both those he’s shed and those he retains, so are all of his strengths. His knack for character, instinctive empathy, lucid prose, nimble plotting, and his preternatural ability to draw a feeling of impending doom and horror from the day to day rhythms of life, are all present and accounted for.

On a side note the audio version I listened to was narrated by Sissy Spacek, listening to her reinterpret the character thirty years after her famous performance in DePalma's film was fascinating.

From the beginnings of the career of one of my favorite authors, to the end of another, Telegraph Days is unfortunately another disappointing latter day turn from Larry McMurtry. Despite some striking moments, Telegraph Days can only be summed up as “A Bunch of shit that happened.” Playing like a n Old West Version of Forrest Gump. If ever there was an author more indeed of a plot then McMurtry he doesn’t spring to mind.

McMurtry has always been an episodic storyteller by nature, that’s part of his considerable charm. However, when you look at something like All My Friends Will Be Strangers. Despite its episodic rambling structure it builds to a fulfilling climax. It might be just as meandering as Telegraph Days, but it still feels like a novel rather then a simple series of events.

And while the novel’s lumpen shapelessness can’t obliterate all of the things that make McMurtry enjoyable. His gift for capturing character in a few strokes remains, as does his gift for voice, wry sense of humor, generousness with characters and occasionally strikingly descriptive prose (The passage involving the disasterous birth of a Calf that our heroine witnesses is among McMurtry’s best and worthy of Cormac McCarthy) and our narrator Nellie Cortwright is an appealing creation. One wishes that McMurtry was still using these talents to build towards something, rather then just using them.

I found Pygmy, the latest by Chuck Palahniuk similarly depressing. The aughts have not been a productive decade for Chuck Palihaniuk. Sure Lullaby was pretty good, and Rant showed some signs of life, at least until it revealed its endgame a of being just one big shaggy dog story. And for the first couple of (truth in criticism, very funny) chapters of Pygmy, it looks as though the old Paliniuk the one who made Fight Club and Invisible Monsters such bracing reads is back in full swing. Unfortunately, the book soon turns into nothing so much as an example of everything wrong with Paliniuk today.

The problem with Paliniuk is that he’s lost his talent for character while retaining his knack for caricature. What made his work so powerful and invigorating was how organically it pushed off our own, how effortlessly the horrific things he imagined became believable through his skill at anchoring things inside the real world. What if you could wipe of the world with a song? What if a sex addicted conman was the second coming of Christ? What if you accidentally ended society through your psychosis? What if? What if? He still can come up with the What If? Pygmy’s (What if some terrible almagation of China and North Korea sent a bunch of Exchange students into the US to destroy it?) is pretty good. He just doesn’t bother to anchor it anymore.

The problem in the last decade of his work is that EVERYONE is a cartoon. Its impossible to have a satire in which no one has the slightest resemblance of normal behavior. I’m willing to believe that the title character could get away with anally raping a bully in a Walmart bathroom, I’m unwilling to believe that a pastor could be nearly murdered in a baptismal font in front of a congregation without anyone batting an eye.

Pygmy’s not wholly without merit. Like with Rant Palahniuk at least seems to be having fun writing Pygmy's Malapropism based "Engrish", even if it doesn’t amount to much. Thus avoiding the depressing going through the motions “Aren’t I being just ever so naughty?” feelings that Haunted and Snuff produced. And a few of his chapters, particularly those regarding flashbacks had by the titular character to his training (and notably the only ones that deal with him as a character rather then a walking grotesqueries reporter) contain some really striking prose (something that even his apologists often fail to note is that on a line by line basis Palahniuk is a GOOD writer).

Palahniuk entered the decade looking as though he’d be the next Vonnegut, or at least the next Bret Eaton Ellis, he exits it looking like a new John Waters. The centeral conceit and better parts of Pygmy seem a part of something great. If any character had acted like a real person for about two seconds it could have really been something. Instead, it joins a disappointingly long line of minor work. Its time for Palahniuk to remind us just why he matters, or I might soon lose interest altogether.

The Score, is the fifth novel in Richard Stark’s Parker series of which I’m a fan. While it lacks the pitch black sense of humor that made the fourth book The Mourner my favorite of the series. It also lacks that book’s predictability as Stark attempts to shake up the formula a bit, laying off his old tricks like the double backed chronology, and putting Parker in some new situations.

The Score finds Parker and his crew robbing an entire town. While the premise at first struck me as a bit too outlandish for Stark’s down to earth armed robber, Stark makes it work by playing it completely straight, never playing up the novelty. The book changes the formula in several ways, making the lone wolf Parker work in a large crew, changing his dynamic, giving Parker someone he almost counts as a friend in Stark’s other creation the flamboyant thief Grofield and lastly by putting Parker in a situation he can’t control when the secondary motives for the robbery comes through and all hell breaks loose.

Its interesting to watch Parker out of his depth trying desperately to keep a lid on things as the town burns down around him, wondering just what the fuck happened. If there’s a flaw its that Parker regains control of the situation a little to easily. If Stark had allowed him to lose just a touch more of his trademark cool, we could have been in some truly unexplored territory.

Still Stark’s story is lean and propulsive as ever. It’s a fun engaging read all around.

On the exact opposite spectrum of the Crime fiction continuum is Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew And The Women Who Created Her.

While Girl Sleuth is a bit slow and tangential (It seems determined to fit in every anecdote about early 20th century proto feminism into its pages) It’s over halfway through before the girl detective actually makes an appearance, it remains an entertaining, occasionally fascinating etymology of an icon.

An engaging portrait of American life in the first half of the century in general, and the pulp fiction industry in particular, this is a must have anyone who loves reading the fiction of the time period. It ends up being not only a fascinated historical piece but an interesting consideration of just what it is that allows Drew to still work as a character rather then a nostalgia piece.

An interesting and enlightening read.

All together not a bad month to start out on. I’m currently neck deep in some fascinating books that’ll make up the backbone of next months column. Hope to see you then.

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