Monday, June 27, 2016

My Half-Year in Books (January-June 2016)

In my fine tradition of intermixed sloth and manic over-reading, I am mentally stumbling into the end of June and another half-year book review. Still trying to read more than the average American, but as usual, that's not a high bar. Since I'm fairly sure reading in general will be outlawed under President Trump, I am doing my best to get in as many books as I can. My last and best hope is that the good folks over at Are There Any More Cookies and A Fiercer Delight and A Fiercer Discontent survive the conflagration to come. I expect there will be a great need for the well-read to translate weightier works into Trumpish, like this:

In the meantime, here are a few books that you, depending on your political leanings, might also want to read/burn before the coming apocalypse/glorious ascent. 

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s dense, organic writing may not completely retain all of its nuance and cultural touchpoints in its translation to English, but it is so masterful it doesn’t matter. This novel is a wonderful example of Murakami’s skill at writing human emotional interplay in all its messy and un-romanticized glory. The story meanders through years of uncertain love and tragedy between several Japanese college students, but is consistently intimate and in the moment. It is not as dryly poetic as Ishiguro or Barnes, into whose general sphere of subject this work falls, but it trumps each in the realness of the characters and interactions.  

The Golden Compass – Phillip Pullman
I had never read this “humanist’s Narnia”, and had heard flagrantly flattering and excoriating accounts (often dependant on the reviewer’s personal faiths). The general premise of the story about alternate realities revolves around a fight to free a population from the hegemony of a big-c Church allegory. The symbolism is pretty in-your-face, and the main character is often less then sympathetic, but the steampunk-before-steampunk world building is fairly admirable, with sentient armor-building polar bear societies, animalistic totems, etc. I don’t really have a dog(ma) in this fight, so I was able to get past the sometimes heavy-handed critique of religion’s impact on the individual and enjoy what was a decently written children’s adventure story (much like Narnia).

The Big Seven – Jim Harrison
I’ve long been a fan of Harrison’s work, and this story is comfortably ensconced in the themes of some of his other novels. The story is a semi-sequel to a previous novel I haven’t read, but was fine as a stand-alone. It recounts a man reconstructing himself physically and figuratively from injury and divorce, trying to feel his way through new ways of interacting with his wife and daughter after divorce. And then Harrison brings in some Justified-style backwoods crime elements and ruminations on sin. It’s a chopped salad mix of elements, which makes Harrison’s simple but deft connections all the more impressive.

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of the writers whose work I will always read, no questions asked. His writing meanders from pulpy to literary, and he’s had some works that just didn’t …work, but at the end of the day, he’s a master storyteller who dwells at the ragged edges of reality and mythology. This collection of short stories varies greatly between densely rich world building and fan fiction (no, really, he does a fan fic tribute to Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes). His ability to build completely fleshed out worlds in small pieces makes even the less powerful pieces worth a read.

The Subtle Knife – Phillip Pullman
A continuation of the Golden Compass (His Dark Materials) work. Not much differentiation from the first.

The Amber Spyglass – Phillip Pullman
The final book in the trilogy (and yes, I feel literary guilt at reading a YA trilogy given the sheer volume and poor average quality of the works on the market today.) The ending is generally satisfying, though it loses steam a bit. In reviewing the book on its merits, I can confidently say “this is a book I read.” That’s about it.

The Magician's Land – Lev Grossman
Grossman’s wry and witty stew of Narnia/Potter satire and original story once again produces something far greater than the sum of its parts. The final novel in the trilogy (oh God, another trilogy) is satisfying and feels like a more confidant and richer work than its preceding novels. Having gotten past the homage/skewering of Narnia and Potter elements, the story finally realizes its full potential and Grossman’s focus becomes more focused, subtle, and original. I really liked the first installments in this series about a realistic version of the secret wizards/secret land archetype, in which the characters are not idealized and noble, but faulty and human. The final novel feels more like an extended denouement from the climax of the previous novel, even with its large set-piece battles. Getting into the winding down of world-building seems to have given Grossman some more room to flesh out his characters and dig into the hurt. Other world-builders could take a lesson here. Cough-George RR Martin-Cough.

After Dark – Haruki Murakami
This novel was an interesting counterpoint to Norwegian Wood, taking a darker, more abstract approach. The blurring of the lines between dream and reality is handled both subtly and with jarring impact. The story of Japanese students weaving through a night world of crime and semi-supernatural elements and down-to-earth urban blight sounds like bad sci-fi, but in reality is only the vehicle for Murakami’s literary exploration of connections between people, and society, and alienation thereof. It has a weird beauty to it.

Thunderstruck – Erik Larson
Larson is sometimes a less-then-able historical storyteller, especially when it comes to pacing and consistency. His historical works (Devil in the White City) usually do well (but not always, Garden of Beasts)  in providing a sense of a place and time beyond names and dates. Thunderstruck is almost a carbon-copy of the framework of Devil in the White City’s juxtaposition of a big historic event, with a small but revealing counter-story taking place at the same time. Unfortunately for this book, neither the large saga of Marconi’s struggle to perfect wireless communication, nor the minor story of a murder really captures the imagination like Devil did. The murder subplot feels tacked on, the Marconi portion lacks much to spark the imagination, and the very tenuous connection between the two is not unifying in defining a place and time.  

Outer Dark – Cormac McCarthy
This was the one novel of McCarthy’s I had never read, though I have no idea why. I write this with the admission that I find no hyperbole in calling McCarthy the greatest novelist of the latter half of the 20th century. His gift for beautiful sparseness and dialogue is unmatched. Most of his stories deal fairly firmly in the world of the real, even given the apocalyptic fringes of his magnum opus Blood Meridian. This story blurs the lines a bit more, hinting at a more metaphorical progression. The novel recounts the parallel wanderings of a brother and sister seeking each other and their missing child (highlight again one of McCarthy’s two primary themes of 1) Don’t go to Mexico, and 2) Appalachia is $&^%ed up.) through an allegorical dreamscape of characters and slipping sense of time’s passing. It’s an interesting departure for McCarthy, and it worked well. As usual, his terse, spartan exchanges drop worlds of meaning and backstory.

Welcome to Hard Times – E.L. Doctorow
Somehow, I’ve gotten this far in life without reading Doctorow. When someone recommended I give him a shot, I picked up the first thing available at the library, which was Hard Times. It reads as a fairly straight-ahead old-western tail of a town struggling to rebuild itself after an encounter with outlaws. In restrospect, I realize it is a microcosm commentary on human resilience and failing, but fails to really bring broader themes out well. It’s well written, though not astoundingly beautiful in style. The fact that it was made into a middling Western movie speaks to its accessibility, and its general place among his works. I do have to say it set my expectations for Doctorow fairly low, so the next book came as a bit of a shock to the system.

City of God – E.L. Doctorow
City of God (no relation to the movie about Brazilian gangs) is almost the exact opposite of Hard Times. This book about a falling man of god and NYC is exceedingly dense, varying between Chabon-esque dialogue and abstract contemplations of God, astronomy, and humanity. Doctorow is brutal with readers in terms of limiting exposition, and often deliberately leaving only the slightest clues as to which character is speaking at any given time. There’s at least two books/stories-within-a-book going on, none of which are explicity delineated from the main story. It’s a challenging read, but not pretentiously so. Doctorow crams a lot of contemplation into the story, but manages to lash it all together into something that feels fulfilling, even though it bogs down a bit in the middle.. Pro tip – don’t try to read in 15 minute sections before bed.

Hunger makes me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
I have literally no idea why I picked this book up, other than it was available in my digital lending library, and I like Carrie’s work on Portlandia. To my pop culture shame, I think partly I just really wanted to stop mentally confusing Sleater-Kinney with Shonen Knife, both bands I am tangentially aware of but have never suffered through an album with. It’s an interesting, but not especially well-written, account of  her meandering from the post-punk/Riot-Grrl scene in the west coast through semi-stardom to the present. Unfortunately, despite its attempts at self-deprecating wryness, it ends up being a little self-unaware. If I was ever interested in the riot grrl movement or the music history of the region, I am less so now. The depictions of the difference between rock stardom stereotypes and the reality of a not-quite-making-it band were probably the more interesting part of the book. Brownstein does speak volumes about disillusionment with movements (whether she intends to or not), but it doesn’t add up to a really fascinating memoir.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon
This is Chabon’s earliest work, completed as a student, and…it shows. I am an ardent fan of his later work, like Kavalier and Klay and I think he’s a master of dialogue and pacing. But this early work is thin. It shows a lot of promise of what is to come, but just doesn’t flesh its characters out in the same vivid and robust way his later works do. That being said, it’s still a better novel than many other first attempts I’ve read, and worth reading. The story generally revolves around themes of identify, in its boy-boy-girl-sometimes other girl-motorcycle-mafia love pentangle. The one thing seriously missing is the inclusion of the city itself as as much of a living breathing character as NYC is in Klay. It’s there, but it’s more of an in joke than a force.

Saga, Buffy Season 8/9/10 – Various
I lumped these two series together, partly in shame for even including them on the list. I don’ regularly read comics/graphic novels, but once in a while will dip my toe back in that pool if something has a really great story. I read through enough collected volumes of each to qualify as a book to me.
Saga was hyped up to me as one of those non-comic comics with Joss Whedon-style dialogue. I like Vaughn’s other graphic novels Y; The Last Man and Ex Machina, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I did not like Saga as much. As usual, the characters are compelling, but the story just has so many elements that were too silly to gloss over (a race of TV headed creatures) and distracted from the art of the dialogue.
Buffy the Vampire, Season 8 (and 9, and 10) is a comic-form continuance of the TV show. So right there, I was ready to pay the price of admission. To its credit, Season 8 starts out well drawn, with fantastic Buffy-style humor, and great storylines. Unfortunatley it descends pretty quickly into a morass of an ending. Thankfully, Season 9 and 10 redeem it. This is solid Buffy storytelling and dialogue, in some cases better than Season 7. Buffy fans who can convince themselves to read comic form should give it a shot.

Choose your Own autobiography – Neal Patrick Harris
NPH has always felt like someone I grew up with to some extent. We are close in age, I was the same geeky kid (no! Say it isn’t so!) I saw on the screen in Doogie Howser (minus the medical degree) at the same time. Until recently, NPH had pretty much dropped off the map until some Broadway work and Harold and Kumar gave him a Travolta-level resurgence. When I saw his autobio, and that it was done in classic “Choose your own adventure” format, I took a chance. The result is…interesting. The gimmicky format is enjoyable, but he never really commits to it. There’s a few token shoutouts to the old CYOO format, but it feels a little tacked on. The writing is ok, and occasionally witty, but feels very sanitized. Either NPH has had the most absurdly blessed life, or this is a very curated autobiography. Even in its self-deprecating style, it’s an exercise in self promotion. I think part of it is the Broadway coming some extent it feels like a Broadway number. Big, boisterous, a little sappy, but with a sense of playing a character. I never felt like he was willing to really dig into the hard times, or the other parts of life that make someone a fully rounded character. It feels like this is someone who has been playing a role his entire life, and making pitches, and wasn’t able to set it aside for a more personal and real account. Even his accounts of coming out are almost wholly positive and unrealistically, overwhelmingly saccharine.  We get it, NPH, you live an charmed existence. Unfortunately, scrubbed of its darker pieces, it's not terribly enthralling. 

Isaac's storm – Erik Larson
Another Larson historical work, Isaac focuses on the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the deadliest in America’s history. Larson does a great job in portraying the human folly and experience of the storm, and gets at the horror of it that a broader view misses. I give him credit for not weighing this book down with a tacked on substory…his accounting of the hurricane is directly told through a historical figure’s account rather than a counterplay with a minor event. It’s more cohesive than Thunderstruck. However, Larson misses an opportunity to tie the event more strongly to the time and place. It feels a little out of context. He spends a lot of time on the formation and bureaucracy of the Weather Service, but it’s not time well spent. It robs the book of ample time to dig into the event itself, and especially the aftermath. A good account of the storm, regardless.

Dead Wake – Erik Larson
Yet another Larson book (not intentionally…I just happened to have two I’d been meaning to read, when this came out). This time Larson is detailing the seminal moment for US involvement in WWI surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania. As usual, Larson has problems with consistency of detail. He spends only a few pages on the context (the buildup to the war, and the weave of alliances that brought it about), and an unfortunate amount of time on minor details of passenger backstories. However, that being said, this is a well balanced alternative to his usual, somewhat hokey, gimmick of counterpoint stories (which really only worked marginally well in Devil in the White City). It feels more like Isaac than Thunderstruck. This era is a bit of a historical black hole for a lot of Americans, with much more attention focused on WWII, so I enjoyed the read.

Up Next - Annie Proulx's new novel, Barkskins, and more from Ondaatje, McKewan, et al. 

1 - I also started a few books that were either shelved temporarily, or I just gave up on. The greatest disappointment was Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me." It had such a great premise, essentially of a father's missive to his son, saturated with exploration of race and identity in America, but it was fundamentally flawed. Even given Coates' occasionally powerful (but wildly inconsistent) writing style, the overall content of the book was shallow, and a bit intellectually disingenuous.  I know it was not intended to be social history, but a more personal account. That being said, it drifted too far in to the realm of ally-shaming and parroting the unfortunate tendency toward shallow, unnuanced complaint. It lacked any self-discipline in backing up its assertions, as if saying something inherently makes it true. From the very start, Coates builds a house on sand, shored up by pillars that just don't match the reality of modern society. One does not have to discount any continuing injustice to admit that there has been progress made since slavery, or that there is hope and value in continuing the fight. Coates' work could have balanced all of that with a more powerful focus on expressing the feelings of outrage and hopelessness, and tapping into bridging the gap to share that experience. Instead, he spent too much time in what I read on equating the emotion to the reality as polemic. This is the point at which critics are usually accused of being over-reactive, or being forced to confront things they don't want to confront..that the fault is theirs, and their privilege speaking, that they can't possibly have an actual point because of their gender/ethnicity. To be honest, in this case, I think the Emperor's new clothes really aren't resplendent, and it's not my fault for failing to make them so. I stopped midway to read critiques, positive and negative, and just didn't' find anything that gave me hope it would get any better. I can fully accept that, as a white male, I cannot hope to truly empathize with Coates' message. That being said, I'm also not willing to be ally-shamed into surrendering any critical thought I have on the value of the work and its message, which ultimately is overly simplistic and bleak. It's sad to see a  potent literary voice stray into the "more outragier-than-thou" trap of mistaking hyperbole and shock for substance. Race in America remains an incredibly important and potent subject, one that demands respect of its profound nature, if not seriousness, in those who tackle it. For me, Coates fails to either capture the intense personal experience or to accurately deal with the multifacted nature of the problem. Instead he dips her toes into a halfway realm that serves neither purpose well.  Ellison's Invisible Man, this is not.