Monday, April 4, 2011

Stuff I've Been Reading: March

Stuff I've Been Reading March:

Water For Elephants
The Name Of The Wind
Tomato Red
The Brass Verdict
Pride And Prejudice And Zombies/Pride And Prejudice And Zombies Dreadfully Ever After
Love Wins
Unfamiliar Fishes
Snow Crash
Fun Home

Norwood is yet another of Charles Portis’s strange and ineffably funny odysseys through the American Vernacular.

I’ve given up trying to explain why Portis’ novel’s work so well. Just rest assured that they do. Portis remains the only person outside of the Coen’s able to derive laughter from cadence. A shifting journey through Rollerdromes, boxcars, Greenwitch Village, and genius chickens. One rich with detail and feeling.

Not bad for a piece of (strangely horny) mom lit.

I’m being facetious, but really the framing story has a nice resonance to it, and Gruen has a nice eye for telling period detail and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't invested by the end. It won’t kill ya.

Patrick Rothfuss has built a small but rabid cult following over the last five years, one that seems to have finally generated enough critical mass to start breaching the walls of the mainstream in earnest (true fact I ended up passing out three copies of The Name Of The Wind in the course of a week AND having my copy of The Wise Man’s Fear stolen borrowed). In doing so, Rothfuss has basically become The Grateful Dead of fantasy writers. His sales may not measure up to the Led Zepplins like Jordan or Martin. But those he connects with become not so much fans as carriers. You may not of heard of The Name Of The Wind yet, but trust me, if you know anyone who reads fantasy that is about to change very soon.

Not so much in the story as in the telling, Rothfuss’s world combines the masterful metatextual control and puzzle box structure of Neil Gaiman, with the warmth of Rowling, the zippy pace of Sanderson (which is truly a God send) and the level of detail of a Jordan or Tolkien. All told with a prose style as smooth as Don Draper talking someone out of their clothes. Prepare for Crack The Book.

From the exotic settings, all too recognizably human characters (not to mention some of the eeriest villains I’ve read since Randall Flagg), and genuine sense of wonder, The Name Of The Wind is for all intents and purposes ideal genre fiction. Like the best pieces of fantasy fiction, this one carries with it a very real sense of awe. The feel one only gets when a storyteller has you in his thrall.

Tomato Red

A redneck Greek tragedy that turns American White trash vernacular into poetry. I’m thinking the best thing about Winter’s Bone might simply be the fact that it introduced me to Daniel Woodrell. Like Charles Portis he is a humane and funny master of the American Language and the American underclass, unafraid of tragedy, absurdity and the ghostly evocative. Trust me I’m only scratching the surface on how good it is. Like Portis he’s luckily coming back into print after an unforgivably long time, thanks to the attention of his film adaptation (The exception being “Woe To Live On” the book Ride With The Devil is based on. Which is so out of print it’s not even funny.)

So do me a favor folks. If you’re going to buy just one of the books I recommend here today make it this one. Give the folks at Busted Flush Press their due for taking a risk on this one.

The second in the Mickey Haller series. The Brass Verdict is markedly trashier and more fun then its predecessor, dropping that novel’s delusions of grandeur, and weird hip hop fixation in favor of the tense plotting that Connelly is a master of and lurid pulp thrills. Both go a long way to smooth over Connelly’s occasional lazy shorthand and purple prose. Mickey Haller remains an engrossing character almost despite himself. A smooth operator whose just enough of a genuine bastard to be interesting.

Sadly it seems at novels end that Connelly is determined to turn Michael Haller into a “real boy.” Rather then leaving him, you know, fun to read. I enjoyed The Brass Verdict enough that I’ll probably will pick up the next in the series when it hits paperback, but without the admirably cynical bent of the first two books it’s tough to see what Connelly will do to differentiate his series from just another lawyer book.

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies/Pride And Prejudice And Zombies Dreadfully Ever After:

I read an advance copy (provided by the publisher) of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. Yeah I kind of doubt I’m on Quirk’s mailing list anymore.

In preparation I revisited Seth Grahame Smith’s original. And if you can manage to divorce it from the deluge of Johnny come latelies that swam in its wake, it was pretty damn funny. It’s not a bad joke even if Smith himself seemed tired of it halfway through. Smith himself has a knack for inversion and understatement that mark him as a low culture Wodehouse which makes the book fly by. I look forward to what he will do next with great anticipation.

Love Wins is an important book. Ironic for a book that seeks to be nothing but an expression of the infinite love of God has brought not peace but a much needed sword to Christianity. Ironic but fitting, as I hope and believe that Love Win’s signals the end of the brand hate mongering hypocritical mega pastors who has controlled Christianity’s dialogue and reputation for the past century by shouting the loudest. They know it too and it’s scaring the shit out of them.

Before the book came out I lamented to an agnostic friend that if as many people knew Rob Bell as assholes like Fred Phelps and Terry Jones the world would be a better place. Well if his enemies keep insisting on screaming as loud as they can that just might happen. Over the past two weeks I’ve watched this book spread, from my little vantage point. And I couldn’t be happier.

But don’t think the book is just some solemn humorless tract. For a book that’s caused this much controversy it’s remarkably light on its feet. Indeed I will say without hesitation that it’s the most singularly enjoyable book on religion I’ve read outside of Chesterton. Bell is a man of great wit as well as scholarship. In one great moment he dryly quips that an eerie fire and brimstone painting that hung in his grandmother’s house looked “As if Thomas Kinkade and Dante were at a party and one ourned to the other sometime after midnight and uttered ‘You know we really should work together sometime…’ ” this is before he refers to the same painting a few pages later as “a fusion of Dungeons And Dragon’s, Billy Graham and the barbecue pit your uncle made out of the half of a fifty gallon barrel.”

The book does have a few flaws, particularly a chapter framed by an Eminem concert that is just a little too “Youth Pastor trying to get down wit’ da kids.” And a thankfully brief digression into numerology, which isn’t as loopy as it sounds but seems out of place in the more practical, less mystical, theology Bell is writing.

This is an important valuable book, that serves as a blue print for the reclamation of Christianity from the hate mongers who have so ably served as it’s face for far to long and the hypocrites who hide behind it. I truly believe that if you are a Christian. If you believe that your religion is something good and fine that brings light into the world, then it is nothing less then your duty to read this book.

There are few writers I am as pleased to read as Sarah Vowell. Whose keen wit, dry humor, and interest in everything transmute even the most unpromising subjects into gold. Unfamiliar Fishes is another sterling history, this time about America’s troubled (I risk understatement here) history with Hawaii. As always Vowell makes history spring to life with her sharp eye for/appreciation of the never ending ironies and coincidences that make up most of history. Her writing and characterization is vivid, her scholarship sterling and her affection for the culture both Hawaiian and American obvious. Though that affection does not blind her from considering the chilling implications of both. In one of the book’s best portions she finds a letter between two of the sugar barons who plotted the coup against the Hawaiian Monarchy which states that “Consent of the governed” is a comforting fairy tale and finds herself unable to refute it.

Only two minor quibbles then. First the book promises and then fails to deliver a portrait of how Hawaii factored into America’s growing imperialism, this wouldn’t be a problem if Vowell didn’t state it as her thesis early on. Even a few parallels with the situations in The Phillipines, Guam and Cuba would have been helpful.

Secondly as much as I like this historian bent that Vowell’s career has taken, I must admit that I quite miss the Vowell who was introduced to me as David Sedaris’s sharp tongued younger sister. I would love nothing more than another book of personal essays from Vowell. Or baring that at least an anthology of some of the columns she’s been writing in the interim. She is a wonderful historian, but I miss being in Vowell’s confidence. It was one of my favorite places to be as a reader.

Why the hell did no one tell me that Neil Stephenson was funny?

Seriously seven years ago I picked up the first volume of The Baraque Cycle and after fifty dense as Osmium pages I set it down vowing to never read Stephenson again. I used to feel guilty about this, like it was my fault, but then I read Johnathon Strange and Mr. Norell, and yeah if I can make it through that with a smile on my face…

Anyway wanting to have my first book on my E-Reader be a sci fi novel (cause I’m clever like that) and having more or less come to terms with the fact that I hate William Gibson’s early work I was left with Neil Stephenson’s Cyber Punk Classic.

And it’s kind of hilarious, both in and of itself and how prescient Stephenson’s vision of nightmare privatization and decentralization looks compared to most scifi of the era.

Vividly rendered in Stephenson’s gonzo prose, Snow Crash shows a world in which the mafia runs pizza deliveries, citizenship is bought at any number of franchises, pitbulls have gone nuclear and the entire third world sits patiently off the coast of California ready to swarm in a floating nightmare city termed simply “The Raft”. And the apocalypse may have started.

Stephenson is a deft writer tossing jargon and new concepts at you as quick as he can manage, but never overwhelming the reader. While at the same time never underestimating the value of a good action sequence fully utilizing the logic and physics of his universe to break up the monotony. He only overbalances once, just before the climax in which our hero Hiro Protagonist, goes on a chapter’s long speech that comes one “ergo” away from reaching Architect levels of obtuseness.

Yet this is a relatively small slipup for a novel vividly imagined, realized, and flat out entertaining.

Oh and funny.

With it’s story of repressed/expressed homosexuality, frayed ties between parent and child and coming of age there are times that Fun Home threatens to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Indie comic clichés that it contains. Yet the emotion behind Fun Home overwhelms any problems one might have due to familiarity and keeps it a moving deeply felt piece of work. A compassionate, literate memoir of human frailty Fun Home is a delicate and heartfelt piece of work that strikes at the core.


Budd said...

Snow Crash was good, Diamond Age is better. Anathem might just be looked at as a classic by future generations.

le0pard13 said...

Quite a list, Bryce. I agree with you about Charles Portis' grand use of language. If you enjoy distinct cadence and vernacular, the Irish in you might want to give Ken Bruen a read. I'm very much into the Jack Taylor series, but I hear the Brant and standalone novels are excellent, too. Thanks.

Marcus said...

So far, Water for Elephants has been my favorite book of the year. I can't wait for the movie

AK said...

Your review of Love Wins has me really interested (hopefully on payday I'll be able to get it)! I'm SO tired of my beliefs being hijacked by loud mouths who don't even have a concept of spirituality (reading the attached interview and the comments below it--sheesh. So many people just do NOT get it!) As always, thanks for the insights!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Budd: Good to know I'm looking forward to reading more Stephenson. I picked up a copy of Anathem a while back at a garage sale. But I'll probably start with Diamond Age as I've heard it's pretty close to Crash.

@ le0pard13: Thanks for the recommend le0pard13! I just picked up The Guards because of it. I have a few books in front of it. But hopefully it'll be featured in next month's SIBR.

@ Marcus: It to you man. You may not want to admit it but it does. Waltz is perfectly cast.

@ Rob: I hope you like it Rob. Really Looking forward to reading your thoughts!

Eric Allen said...

I was a huge Neal Stephenson fan, right up until the Baroque Cycle. Snow Crash is so fucking cool that it's still my favorite, but Cryptonomicon is a close second. There's a passage in it about pouring just the right amount of milk on your cereal that changed my life.

Diamond Age is a good follow up to Snow Crash, but be wary of Anathem. It's pretty dry, kind of overwrought and a little too smart for it's own good.

Bryce Wilson said...

I'll keep it in mind. I've heard with Anathem the first and last third are amazing you just need to get through the middle third which is not.

Thomas said...

I'm looking for a quick and enjoyable read at the moment and I was thinking about the Mickey Haller series but I was wondering what you thought of the overall quality. Is Connelly better than say Grisham (who I find moderately enjoyable) and other writers of that genre?

Bryce Wilson said...

Well you can't go wrong with Connelly for a quick fun read. He's a great plotter if nothing else.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget that Norwood was made into a movie...

starring Glen Campbell.