Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stuff I've Been Reading: April

The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss
The Guards, Ken Bruen
The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
This Is Water, David Foster Wallace
Bossypants, Tina Fey
Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher
Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
Darkness Under The Sun, Dean Koontz
The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Frank Baum

The Wise Man’s Fear Rothfuss’s second book in The Kingkiller Chronicles. As it took him about five years to write and has only chuckled merrily when pressed about when we might see the third, I can only expect the phrase frothing demand to take on new and painful meaning.

Once again it’s tough to exactly express just what made these books so damn appealing. “They’re about this guy name Kvothe. He’s kind of egotistical and is always starting shit. He goes to medival Hogwarts, learns Sexcromancy, and occasionally just completely loses his shit. Not a whole lot happens and by the time you finish the thousand page second book you’re more or less where the first book ended, which itself was not overstuffed with narrative events. It’s awesome!”

But here’s the thing. It is awesome. It is in fact really really awesome, my favorite fantasy novel since Roland and his Ka Tet found their doom, easily. It’s just tough to verbalize why. Of course the answer is in the text itself. It’s the story, it’s the telling. Rothfuss is one of those rare writers like Gaiman who truly knows the value of stories, and thus knows the value of the one he tells. Watching Rothfuss tell the story is literally magic. That he does not get very far in it is not the point.

That said if Rothfuss finishes the story in one book. I will eat it. Page by page, with my shoe as garnish.

By no stretch of the imagination could you call me a jingoist. I’m not one to go around waving the flag chanting “USA USA USA” like an extra in Rocky IV. Like the man said, I’m no fortunate son.

Yet at the risk of alienating my European Readers there is one area where I truly do believe America to be manifestly better. If it is snobbishness to be honest then so be it. I believe in the immutable superiority of American Crime. Y’all do not have crime the way we have crime. Here I’ll just pass the mike to Mr. Hicks…

I will admit that this prejudice extends to American Crime Fiction. If I want to know who stole the third Viscount’s cookies, I’ll give Father Brown a ring. If I wish to know who took Charles Withington’s necklace, intended for his lady most faire, Ms. Marple will be first on my list. If I’d like to read intermably paced meditations on the midlife crisises of Swedish Journalists, with the single laziest answer to a locked room mystery I’ve ever read I’ll be sure to get out my Oujia board and talk turkey with Stiegg Larson.

But I don’t usually want that…

What I want is Mike Hammer prowling the streets with blood on his first and a smile on his face. I want Patrick Kenzie facing the darkness within and out. I want Ellroy’s crew of sociopath doing the unmentionable to the unthinkable. I want Easy Rawlins turning over the rock of American history to reveal the worms beneath it. I want Carl Hiassen in Looney Tunes gone beserk, spreading perverse acts of ghastly mayhem across the Florida coast. I want the urban tragedies of George Pelecanos and Richard Price. I want Phillip Marlowe as Dante in the concentric circles of LA. I want The Continental Op. I want the lean, crazed shark efficency of Richard Stark. The single minded cruelty of Patricia Highsmith. In the words of Frank Miller I want Blood For Blood and by the gallons of it. USA! USA! USA!

I say this dear reader not just so I come off as an ugly American to my readers from other countries (that ship has sailed). But just so I can underline the fact that when I say that Ken Bruen’s The Guards is my favorite crime novel I’ve read in the last couple of years you’ll know I mean it.

You’ve seen dysfunctional detectives before. They’re practically their own subgenre but I can more or less guarantee that you’ve never met a character as gloriously dysfunctional as Jack Taylor. An alcholic, and not the functional kind, rarely are we faced with a detective who must constantly check to see if he has pissed himself. Taylor is given to waking up not knowing where he’s been for the past three days. Watching this character put on his pants and make a cup of tea is an ordeal. Watching him try to solve a mystery involving some very dangerous people is like watching a blind man stumble into traffic.

His story is told with a devastating combination of laugh out loud prose, a firm sense of place and character and a coal black heart. The Killing Of Tinkers sits next to me like a live grenade I can’t wait.

(Postscript one: Many thanks to the wonderful Leopard13 for recommending The Guards. I owe you one.

Postscript two: Truth in criticism, one other exception to my Eurocrime rule would be David Peace. Who frankly kind of scares the shit out of me.)

The celebrity tell all is somewhere below adaptations of The Ghost Recon videogames and the collected works of David Icke on the literary respectability meter.

So saying that Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking is a cut above the usual may not be saying much. Yet it remains that Wishful Drinking is a passably funny, breezy book. I only hated myself for reading it afterwards.

Feeling more like the script for a one woman show rather than a traditional memoir. Wishful Drinking doesn’t so much go through Fisher’s career as it does systematically drag every skeleton she has out of the closet, of which there are not a few. It’s fun for a while and then just gets a bit exhausting (even at a relatively slim length barely eighty pages depending what printing your looking at). But the fact remains that any book which contains an anecdote in which Cary Grant lectures the heroine on the dangers of LSD not once but twice, is not entirely a waste of time.

I picked up Odd Thomas when I heard it described and recognized a few parallels between it and something I was working on. Since inadvertently copying Dean Koontz is grounds of Artistic Seppuku I thought I’d better confirm the similarities myself. Thankfully they were few and very surface. Unfortunately Dean Koontz is still Dean Koontz.

I didn’t really have any animosity towards Koontz. No more than any other career airport writer. I read quite a few of his books in Jr. High and High School and have fond memories of Watchers, The Door To December, and Fear Nothing as being fairly snappy pulp fiction. I grew tired of him when I realized that he was intent on shoehorning the same plot twist (“It’s the supernatural. No it’s not.”) into as many books as humanly possible. But like I said no real malice…

Until I read from The Corner Of His Eye, which depending on the day you ask me, is the worst book I’ve ever read.

The experience of reading from The Corner Of His Eye isn’t so much like reading a book as it is being caught in the stirrup of a bolting frothing horse for the time it takes someone to read a seven hundred page novel while shouting at you about Murder and Quantum Mechanics. It soured me to Koontz rather definitely and I haven’t read one of his books since.

Odd Thomas isn’t as bad, though it is singularly loopy. Koontz’s prose swings back and forth between quirky and demented like he’s a sociopathic Diablo Cody and if he wants to stop the narrative so Thomas can go off on a long tangent about whatever bothered Koontz today when he read the morning paper, then you had better believe he is going to do it. That things get overdone go without saying. Odd Thomas was at the end of the day, decidedly not for me.

That said, Odd himself is an appealing character, and I can understand why the series has struck a cord with so many people. I’m not going to go out of my way to continue the Odd Thomas series, but if circumstances put the next book in my hand my reaction would be something less than out and out horror.

Ironically, fate ended up putting a second Koontz story in my hand this month after a pause of ten years or so. Darkness Under The Sun is actually a very effective novella about an encounter with evil and its aftermath. It’s a prequel to Koontz’s last novel, What The Night Knows, which is supposed to be a career best for Koontz and I have to admit Darkness Under The Sun made me grudgingly curious to read it. Though I think I can stand to wait for paperback.

I read Wallace’s The Pale King and reread This Is Water in preperation. You can read my reflections on both here.

After an offhand comment in Johnathan Franzen’s New Yorker Obituary, about The Screwtape Letters being Wallace’s favorite book, I revisited that volume. My admiration for The Letters has only grown. It’s so deceptively small. But then again so is an icepick in your brainstem.

The completeness of vision in the scant novella is what is truly staggering. Such a thorough view it has on sins and counter sins that at times it feels as though Lewis has been given an objective place to view earthly life from outside of eternity. The mortal plane becomes as perilous as trying to walk across soaped ballbearings. There is not a more thorough compendium of human frailty I know of.

Yet as anyone who has read it knows Screwtape, is not some solemn hectoring tract. It is at times devastatingly funny and contains in its final pages some of the most powerful transcendental writings that I know of. It’s a work of satire, in which we are the targets and the best thing to be said about it is that it is easy to believe as the product of an inhuman mind.

It may truly be Lewis’s masterpiece.

(I supplemented the reading with Andy Serkis’s reading of The Screwtape Letters. As you might expect Serkis giving voice to all of inequity is awesome (He’s basically the new Tim Curry isn’t he?) Yet there is a serious qualm as the production is sponsored by Focus On The Family, an organization which is at best deeply problematic. Frankly I’m a little bit baffled at what an actor of Serkis’s stature is doing associating himself with the organization. But I suppose if I can gain wisdom from reading a correspondence between two demons, I can accept an excellent reading from a dubious sponser.)

It should surprise no one that Tina Fey’s memoir is such a literate deeply funny work. But that still sells it short. Like Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Bossypants doesn’t just embody the form at its best, it actually elevates it as well.

Like Zombie Space Ship Wasteland, Bossypants is half traditional memoir half free form sketch comedy, and Fey excels at both.

As telling the jokes would be spoiling them (OK just one. I have sincere admiration and envy for the sentence in which Fey describes herself as crying “Like a three year old who just wants to bring her toy cash register into the bathtub.”)I will only note that Fey is remarkably adapt at handling each element of the book. It contains devastatingly funny passages, wistful sharply drawn sketches from her past and trenchant commentary on gender and society all without one of the elements ever overwhelming the other.

It’s a fantastic balancing act in a fantastic book. Fey remains in print as in life, deeply impressive.

Written in Baum's unmistakable prose, as declaritive and matter of fact as a Kansas prairie. The Wizard Of Oz remains a remarkably strange book.


le0pard13 said...

I have BOSSYPANTS in audiobook (with Tina herself narrating) in my audiobook stack. I can't wait.

I went three books into the ODD THOMAS series -- each time hoping for better, but with diminishing returns every time. Out of the maybe ten DK books I've read total, the only books I'd re-read were the two that came out of '96 (and they're so diametrically opposed): INTENSITY and TICKTOCK.

And thank you for the shout-out. I'm so glad you enjoyed THE GUARDS, my friend. Ken Bruen is something else. Believe it or not, the first Jack Taylor is just a warm up.

Anonymous said...

Dean Koontz drives me absolutely bonkers. Besides the "shoe-horning" of the same tired plot-twist that you mentioned, damn near every novel of his that I have picked up seems to have a hyper-intelligent dog in it...usually a golden retriever. (I have aired this gripe all over the interwebs, so I apologize if I have already aired it here before, too.) We get it, Koontzy. You like golden retrievers. I like smoking monkeys, but I wouldn't put them in every book I wrote.

Re: Odd Thomas, I picked this one up based on the number of favorable reviews that I had read. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. It was quirky and kooky and had an off-kilter sense of humor that was unlike anything else Koontz had ever written (or at least anything of his that I had ever read.) I plan on continuing reading the series, but haven't yet done so. Mostly out of fear that it's all going to go to hell in book two.

The only other Koontz books that I have actively enjoyed are his Frankenstein books. I fully admit that they aren't great books, and they are pulpy and sometimes cheesy. But there are enough interesting elements in them to keep me reading, and they are a rarity in that it doesn't seem like Koontz is trying to write "literature". He's writing the equivalent of a b-grade horror flick (albeit one that perhaps attempts to reach beyond its meager budget), and he seems fine with that.

Granted, it was a bit of a disappointment when that hyper-intelligent golden retriever cropped up in the long-awaited third installment...


Bryce Wilson said...

@ Le0: Very jealous on the Fey audiobook. Thanks for the heads up on the diminishing returns on the OT series.

And man I seriously cannot WAIT to get to the rest of the Jack Taylor series.

@ Metro: It's especially hilarious to me as more or less every Golden Retriever I've met is dumb as two posts tied together (Then again I have a Labrador bias myself so take that for what you will.)

It's funny that you should mention the whole "not worried about writing literature" thing because I've always thought that Koontz has a bit of chip on his shoulder in that regard. Even in Odd Thomas, Thomas goes on a rant about how modern literature sucks when he meets the professor.

France said...

It took me a week and a day to finished this book and I must say that it's the best Dean Koontz book I've read yet. I found myself trying to figure out who the kidnappers were from the beginning to the end.

Sverige said...

I was immediately elated to find that this 1973 version(#1) favors Susan's point of view, which is completely absent in the new version(which I'll call #2, so I don't confuse anyone.)Proteus does speak in his/it's perspective in an interview like in #2, but not nearly as much. Susan is timid, shy and reclusive and seems much finally being able to know her thoughts gives her character a much more fragile and innocent disposition, unlike the tough willed, strong character that she conveys in #2.